Disclaimer: The Characters of The Sentinel belong to Pet Fly, The SciFi channel and others. No copyright infringement is intended.
Many, many thanks to Danae, my loyal beta reader, for all she does to make these stories of mine the best they can be. She certainly had her work cut out for her with this one! Also, thanks so much to Mega for reading "Second Strike" over for me and giving her valuable suggestions, especially about the final chapters! You've helped make this story much more exciting than it would have been without your insights and ideas. Lory, thanks for reading and giving your thoughtful input. Wolfshy, as always, my gratitude is greater than words can express.
Chapter One: Echoes of the Past
The letter arrived on a Thursday. Blair glanced at the return label, briefly noting the Washington, D.C. address, before laying it on the kitchen table for Jim to open when he returned home. It looked official, but what did he know? Could be one of those junk mail schemes. Make an envelope look official, and anyone would be sure to open it.
Grabbing a bottle of water from the refrigerator, Sandburg retreated to the living room and his laptop computer. He had an article due the next morning for consideration for publication in a major journal, and his standing in the kitchen, puzzling over Jim's mail wasn't getting it written. His roommate, partner, and best friend would be home in a couple of hours, and he wanted to make some real progress before dinner. It was Jim's turn in the kitchen, although odds were that he'd bring home take out rather than face the stove.
"What'll it be this time, Ellison?" Blair muttered, settling down on the couch's comfortable cushions with his laptop. "Mexican? No, had that last week. Thai? Too spicy, right? What's left in the Jim Ellison file of epicurean delights? Chinese. That's it. Ten to one, tonight's entree will feature moo goo gai pan, sweet and sour something, and egg rolls." He grinned at the image playing in his mind. Then, turning his attention to the screen in front of him, Blair got down to work.********************
By the time he looked up again, darkness had fallen outside, and Jim's key was turning in the lock. "Hey, Chief," Jim called out, shoving the door closed with his elbow while balancing a brimming white take out sack with both hands. "I brought Chinese."
Blair grinned, shaking his head in fond amusement. Jim's night to cook often added up to a meal of take out from one of the numerous neighborhood restaurants on or around Prospect Place. But, to give credit where credit was due, the man deserved to take the easy way out on occasion. This night was definitely no exception. After the week Jim had put in at the station, with three nights of stake outs on top of two court appearances, Blair could hardly blame him for not wanting to cook.
"Letter for you on the table. Give me just a couple of minutes here, Jim, and I'll be done." Blair turned his attention back to finishing the paragraph he was writing. In the back of his mind, he was aware of the refrigerator door opening and closing, then the oven being switched on and food being placed inside to keep warm. At last, Jim joined him, a cold beer in his hand.
Sitting beside his friend on the couch, Jim ripped opened the envelope and began to read the letter. After a few minutes of silence from his partner's end of the couch, Blair glanced up from the screen and over at his friend. Jim was staring straight ahead, his face an emotional black hole. It wasn't a zone, but it was damn close.
Immediately, Blair refocused his complete attention on Jim. "Hey, buddy, anything wrong? I saw the letter was from Washington. They're not expecting you to reenlist or anything, are they?" He half chuckled at the image of Jim back in uniform and reporting for duty. "I mean, you've put on a couple of pounds since you last wore the old army green, man. I'm not sure..." He stopped as the total lack of response to his gentle ribbing sank in. Whatever was in that letter, it was serious. Dead serious.
When Jim finally tore his eyes from the letter still clutched tightly in his hands to look at his guide, his voice was hard. "Actually, Sandburg, they are."
"Let me get this straight, Jim. The Army wants you to lead a survivalist training mission back into the Peruvian jungle? The place where all your men died, and you yourself were almost killed? With all those highly trained, not to mention active duty, officers to choose from, they have to reach back into the inactive archives and select you?" The stunned disbelief in Blair's voice was shaded by a deeper emotion lying hidden just below the surface.
When his partner merely nodded, Blair plunged on, his incredulous voice rising in volume as he spoke. "I mean, I know you're highly qualified, but c'mon, man! They can't really expect you to just drop everything, put your life on hold, and go running back to the Army! You've got a life here, right? A job. Responsibilities." Blair stood up and paced across the polished wood floor, his socked feet drumming a quiet, nervous staccato. He stopped at the glass door leading outside to the balcony and glared back at Jim. "Besides, you know what they're really interested in, right? They've heard about your sentinel abilities. That's what this is all about, Jim. The Army just wants to see what you can do. Some general somewhere got wind of your abilities, and he wants to see you perform. Hell, they probably consider you their next 'best line of defense'!" The more Blair thought about that prospect, the angrier he became. "You'll just call and say no. Tell them you can't do it. You can say no, right, Jim?"
Although the final question was asked in the same angry tone, there was something different lying concealed just below. That was when the sentinel identified the hidden emotion buried beneath the blustery disbelief and indignation on the surface of Blair's demeanor. That emotion was fear.
Blair was afraid. The rapid thrumming of his heart and his increased respiration confirmed that. But of what? Jim hesitated, his mind furiously working to analyze the situation. What was worrying his friend? Even as he thought about the possibilities, he grasped the simple answer. The same concern that always received top billing on Sandburg's List of Top Ten Fears. Losing his sentinel.
Jim sighed deeply, wishing he didn't have to say the words, then he met Blair's worried blue eyes. "No, Sandburg, I can't say no."
At the first sign of protest from the younger man, Ellison held up a silencing hand, cutting off the objection before it could be verbalized. "For a couple of reasons. First, when I took my discharge, I promised my commander, General Greene, that I'd always be ready and willing to report back to active duty if needed. At least, temporarily. My word's important to me, Chief. You of all people know that." Pausing for a moment, Jim stared deeply into his friend's eyes. "It's my duty. First and foremost, I'm a soldier." He waved away the look of disapproval written all over his friend's face. "Yeah, I know, but even after all these years, that's still how I see myself. That was my first career, Sandburg. When you get right down to it, that was the thing I did best." He leaned forward, staring into the empty fireplace. "Anyway, General Greene wants me on this mission because I'm the most highly qualified man for the job. I've actually done what this unit needs to learn to do. Survive in the jungle. They're the best, Sandburg, the elite, and they deserve the best training this country can provide. And, for this situation, in that place... I'm it. Maybe my sentinel abilities do have something to do with it. Hell, maybe that is what they're really interested in. Even if it is, it really doesn't matter. Can you understand that, Chief?" Lifting his head, he met Sandburg's gaze.
Jim fell silent, his pale blue eyes steadily holding Blair's. There was no question in those eyes, no uncertainty to cloud their depths. Just determination, mixed with the hope that his closest friend could understand his feelings at that moment, could comprehend his deeply felt obligation to respond to this unexpected call into service.
A slow, soft smile etched its way across Blair's features. In his entire life, he had felt genuine awe only rarely. Then, it was usually reserved for some rare academic find. Few people in his life had elicited that strong emotion from him. That handful of rare individuals was headed by James Ellison. The man was amazing. Duty. Honor. Courage. Mere words. Simple syllables, yet with connotations signifying the highest ideals of mankind, and they were all personified before him in the man who was James Ellison. His partner. His friend. His brother. Sometimes the realization of who and what this man truly was defied expression in mere words. This was one of those times.
"So," Blair softly asked. "When do we leave?"
A shadow darkened Jim's eyes. "There is no 'we' this time, Chief. You can't go with me." His voice was firm; there was no room for negotiation.
For a long moment, their eyes remained locked. Neither gaze wavered until the younger man briefly shut his lids, struggling for acceptance and fighting the pain that acceptance would bring. Then, without a word, Blair turned and stepped outside on the balcony, gently closing the door behind him.
Jim Ellison stared at the lonely figure of his guide. Only a thin layer of clear glass separated them, yet somehow at that moment, it seemed as impermeable as solid stone. He wasn't sure how to reach Blair, how to help him understand, but he knew it was necessary to try. He opened the door.
"Sandburg?" When there was no response, he moved to stand directly behind his friend, close enough to feel the warmth from his body, yet maintaining a distance between them. The pain radiating from Sandburg was almost palatable. Ellison kept his voice quiet. He lifted his hands for a moment, as if to clasp the shoulders in front of him, then lowered his arms back to his side. "Blair, please. Don't do this. Don't shut me out. There's just no choice here. This is a military operation, and you're not..."
Bitterly, Sandburg cut him off. "I know, I know. I'm not a soldier. Just like I'm not a cop. Seems I'm always coming up short, aren't I? Never what you need me to be. Maybe I should have taken Simon's offer to go to the Academy. Even after you told the truth about your abilities, I still could have..." His voice faded out, as a shiver shook Blair's frame.
Jim couldn't take his self recrimination any longer. "Blair Sandburg, you listen to me," he growled as his strong hands grasped Blair's shoulders, pulling him around to face him. "Look at me," he demanded. "I said look at me!" With gentle fingers, Jim eased Sandburg's chin upward until their eyes met. "You are exactly what I need you to be. Not a cop. Not a soldier. You. My guide. My Shaman. My partner and my brother and my best friend. Nothing more and nothing less." His blue eyes lost their hint of anger as a look of tenderness took over, and his voice grew husky. "Damn it, Chief. If you don't know what you mean to me by now, then what the hell have the past few years been about, huh? Haven't we learned that much at least?"
Blair's blue eyes filled with frustration, even as his heart filled with gratitude. His voice rose dramatically. "That's just my point, man! I should be there, Jim. My place is with you. I'm your guide, right? What if your senses go out of whack? What if you need me?"
Jim shook his head, then ran his fingers through his short hair as he searched for the words to make his friend understand. How did the kid always seem to know exactly which buttons to push? But, Jim realized, he couldn't afford to give Blair an inch in this discussion. He made an effort to keep his voice reasonable. "I know, Junior, I know. This time, though, it's impossible. I'll be okay. It's just a simple training mission. Two weeks, that's all." He forced a grin and reached out and gripped Blair's neck under the thick curls. "Don't worry, Chief. The worst that will happen might be finding a lizard in my pants."
They both grinned at the memory those words conjured up. Jim was relieved to see the brief, half smile which broke the mask of worry on Blair's face. "I'll be careful with my senses, and I'll remember everything we've worked on. I promise you." He studied the upturned face carefully, waiting for a reaction.
Blair took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. "Two weeks, man." He smiled again, this time a full fledged, heart warming, patented Blair Sandburg smile. "Two weeks, and nothing more dangerous than a lizard." He pointed his finger at Jim in a command which was only partly in jest, "I'm holding you to that. You've got two weeks to get your butt back here, or I'm coming after you - Army or no Army."
Jim laughed as relief flooded his soul. "Blair Sandburg versus the United States Army. I know where I'd put my money in that contest, Chief."
His eyes shining, Blair challenged, "And just where would that be?"
Jim tousled the soft curls affectionately. "On you, of course. They wouldn't stand a chance, Conan. Never know what hit 'em." He wrapped an arm around Blair's shoulders, pulling him against his side in a one armed hug. "Listen, I gotta get packed. My plane leaves early in the morning. What would you say about eating that Chinese before it gets any older, then, after I throw my things in a bag, we'll go rent a movie? Your choice."
As they headed inside, Blair looked up at Jim, a devilish gleam in his eyes. "My choice? Oh, man, I've got just the thing."
"Hey, Sandburg, none of those foreign things you like so much. No subtitles. No way."
Blair laughed. "You said my choice, Jim. You going back on your word?"
Ellison turned what he hoped was an intimidating glare on his partner, still tucked up against him. "Of course not. Those things you like aren't called 'movies', Sandburg; they're 'films.' I clearly said 'a movie.' So, no foreign 'films,' no subtitles allowed." He grinned in victory.
"S'okay, Jim. Actually, what I had in mind was 'Braveheart'. That's one we can both agree on, right?"
The warmth of the approval in Jim's eyes thawed the ice that had formed around his heart in the moments after discovering that his sentinel was leaving. "I'll get the table set; you bring out the moo goo gai pan," he suggested.
"It's a deal, Chief," Jim said with a smile. "It's a deal."
Life seemed almost normal. For the moment, at least.
Four in the morning. On the streets of Cascade, there were few signs of life. Only those whose jobs required their presence in the world at such an early hour were about; everyone else remained in their beds, blissfully unaware of the lives led outside at that predawn hour. A few lone cops, sleepy newspaper delivery people, a handful of solitary watchmen. Those who were left carrying on the business of living while the rest of the world slumbered.
In the loft, while one dreamed, the other stirred.
Jim Ellison had been awake for hours. If the truth be told, he wasn't sure he had ever slept. He had almost forgotten how an imminent mission affected his sleep cycle. It was a wonder he'd slept at all in the Rangers.
He was ready to go. A mission such as this necessitated traveling light. His duffel easily held all he'd need for two weeks of survival training in the jungle. His transportation to the airport would be pulling up outside in a matter of minutes. A predawn departure suited Jim fine. It left little time for good-byes.
He hated long good-byes.
Like a mirror reflecting upon itself, Jim was aware of the changes already taking place within him. He was too focused not to notice.
The hard edge was back in his voice. He could hear it slipping in even as he talked to Sandburg during the movie. Short, clipped sentences. To the point. No extraneous words, no unnecessary emotion.
A glint of steel flashed from his eyes, a light long absent from those blue depths. It was a glint not found even in the eyes of Detective Jim Ellison. That dangerous gleam only shone from the hard eyes of Captain James Ellison, Army Ranger.
Without a single wasted motion, he checked his equipment one last time. The blade of his knife flashed briefly, its sharpness glistening in the light for only a moment before disappearing back into its protective sheath. Automatic weapon and ammunition. Dog tags hanging once more around his neck. Fatigues and bandana and boots. Camouflage paint. Canteen. Rations would be added once he reported for duty. As if he had never left military life, his hands and mind functioned together perfectly as he carried out the mental checklist he had performed countless times in the past.
Captain James Ellison was ready.
Quietly placing his bag by the door, Jim moved stealthily across the floor. He stopped outside the French doors which provided the occupant of the room beyond with whatever privacy could be expected while living with a sentinel and listened.
His guide slept. Soft, steady breathing. Restful, calm heartbeat. All was well within.
He briefly considered turning around and leaving the loft right then. He even took several steps away from the room, the newly reemerged, old James Ellison determined not to give in to his weakness. He struggled with himself.
Silently, he entered the bedroom, his eyes seeing easily in the dimness, perceiving clearly what other men would not.
Blair Sandburg lay huddled under a pile of blankets, like a small, lost child hiding from the world. Although the night was not cold, at least two blankets and the quilt kept him warm. It seemed he was incessantly cold, no matter what the weather. One hand, uncharacteristically small and fragile as it relaxed in sleep, lay outside the pile of covers. The hand was clinched in a loose fist, as if Blair was trying to hold on to all that threatened to escape his grasp on this late, long night.
Jim moved without breaking the silence to his side. Blair's face, half concealed beneath a veil of umber curls, lay open and vulnerable before him. The sight stole his breath away. Long, dark lashes lay matted against pale cheeks with the long dried tracks of silent tears trailing from beneath the shuttered lids. Parted slightly in sleep, Blair's lips were pressed lightly against the back of his open hand which lay partially tucked beneath his face.
The passage of time was marked only by the measured movement of the stars overhead and the shifting of the night shadows. For now, the commitments which were tearing him away, the honor and the duty which called him back to the jungle, were forgotten. As though the minutes lay frozen in the vast timelessness of space, he stood still. Gone was Jim Ellison, detective of the Cascade Police Department. Vanished was Captain James Ellison, United States Army. Forgotten, even, was Enquiri, the sentinel of the Great City.
There was only Jim, saying his silent good byes to Blair in the only way he could bear to do so.
In his heart.
In his mind.
In his soul.
At last, Jim blinked rapidly, breaking the hypnotic spell. He took a deep, shuddering breath and released it slowly. Reaching out with his right hand, he touched sensitive fingers lightly to the soft skin in the hollows beneath the younger man's eyes. His feather light touch barely skimming Blair's skin, he felt the coarse, salty remains of dried tears. Shaking his head in sadness, he reached to tenderly brush his fingers across each full eyebrow, then smoothed back a wayward strand of hair from his forehead.
His voice so low that none but a sentinel could hear, he spoke to his sleeping guide. "I'm so sorry to have to do this, Chief. Sorry to leave you behind without really saying goodbye. I just can't. I hope you can understand that." The sentinel hesitated, tracing the line of his guide's jaw. "Take care of yourself. I'm leaving the best part of myself here with you. But you know that, don't you?" He bent low and rested his face against the array of wild curls falling across the soft pillow. Jim left his face buried in the mass of hair for long moments, drinking in the sensory memories. Memories which might very well have to last him a lifetime. However long that might be. As a military officer and police detective, it was ingrained in him to realize that even the simplest mission could prove life threatening, even the most straight forward arrest might go bad. Life is never to be taken for granted.
With a soft sigh of regret, Jim Ellison straightened to his full military bearing. Picking up his duffel, he quietly shut the door after him, leaving Blair's small bedroom, the loft, and Prospect Street behind.
His disciplined mind already on the mission before him, the sentinel never heard the quiet voice whisper as the car drove away. "Be careful, Jim. You're taking the best part of me with you, too."
Chapter Two: Sensory Overload
He had forgotten the heat of the jungle. Even in Mexico, when they had tracked Alex there, the saturated heaviness of the air hadn't compared to this, to the stifling Peruvian humidity.
He had arrived at the small outpost, about two miles from the perimeter of the jungle, early that morning. After a lengthy flight on board an Army supply plane, the comforts of which left much to be desired, followed by an endless ride on a muddy road peppered with potholes, Jim was exhausted. He wanted nothing more than to fall into a cot somewhere and sleep until nightfall. This, however, he knew was not to be.
The base camp was alive with activity. The Peruvian government had only granted the U.S. military limited access to the area for their training mission, and the powers that be were anxious to move on with the planned exercise. As Jim unloaded his duffel from the Jeep, he looked up to see a tall figure approaching with a determined stride. The insignia on his uniform identified him as a general, but an officer unfamiliar to Jim. Employing his sentinel sight, Jim checked out his name tag, then gave a stiff salute as the taller man stopped before him.
After returning the salute, the older man smiled and stuck out his hand for Jim. Returning the greeting warmly, Jim greeted his superior officer. "General Kershaw, it's an honor to meet you, sir."
The booming voice was strident and to the point. "Same here, Ellison. I'm familiar with your record and your accomplishments since leaving the service, and I couldn't be more pleased that you have joined us here for our little endeavor." With an air of one long used to being obey, the general motioned to a nearby soldier to bring Ellison's duffel. "Take that to the Captain's tent," he commanded the man standing slightly behind him, then nodded vaguely to his right. "I'm sure you're tired from your trip, Captain Ellison, but our briefing is beginning at 0900. You'll have time to grab a fast breakfast and join us. We will bring you up to speed on the details of the exercise, and you'll meet your men. The mess tent's set up there. Tell my aide de camp, Captain Michaels, if you require anything else. I'll see you at 0900." With that, General Kershaw turned on his heel and departed.
Jim sighed. Not only had he forgotten Peru's humidity, he had fully erased from his mind the remarkably varied paces of military life. It was either "hurry up and wait" or "full steam ahead." This was definitely going to be a steam powered morning. He took a brief look around the camp, then Jim set out for his tent.
By the time the briefing was over, Jim Ellison felt more at home in his long neglected Army boots. The details of the training mission were straight forward, and he found himself almost looking forward to the time in the jungle with the dedicated, enthusiastic young men assigned to his command.
There were four in all. The most highly qualified, most motivated young officers the military had to offer. All had heard the legend of Captain James Ellison, though none had dared entertain the possibility of serving under him. They were deferential, overly polite, and in absolute awe of their new commanding officer. Their enthusiasm and admiration were boundless.
It made James Ellison feel old.
None of the men were past their late twenties. Young enough to make even Sandburg appear mature and wise, Jim thought more than once during that first day with a wry grin. And if their youth made his friend appear old in comparison, where the hell did that leave Jim? He tried not to think about it.
Young or not, he had to admit, they were top notch soldiers. Disciplined, intelligent, and courageous. Everything a leader could hope for in the men under his command.
That night, as Jim waited for the sleep which eluded him even in his exhaustion from his journey to Peru, he considered each of the four young men.
Simmons - top in his class at the Point in military tactics. Twenty-six years old. Ruggedly handsome, with a quick wit and a way of making everyone around him feel immediately at ease.
Chung - Third generation American, twenty-seven years old, born in Hawaii. Earned a major in chemical engineering before enlisting. Hobbies including mountain climbing and spelunking. Had a wife and small child back home.
Robinson - The youngest of the group at twenty-four. Full of energy and excitement over being included in this mission. Distinguished himself early by rescuing two men in his unit during basic training when a Jeep overturned in a rain swollen river during a training exercise. His superiors felt he had strong officer potential.
Garner - The oldest at twenty-nine. Quiet and intelligent, with an underlying strength which was impressive. Soft spoken, but he'd definitely earned the respect of his fellow men. His lively blue eyes and short brown curls reminded Jim of Blair. Although Sandburg would talk rings around the quiet, reserved Garner.
Jim smiled as he felt his body relax into the early stages of sleep. He rolled over on his side on the narrow cot as he turned down his temperature dial in an effort to beat the heat and sweltering humidity. They were good men. It would be a good mission. And, in only two weeks, he would be home. With the thought of home lighting his dreams, he drifted off to sleep.
The deafening roar of the chopper blades reverberated from the huge trees surrounding the base camp's clearing. His hearing dialed down, Jim stood beside General Kershaw as his small team of trainees loaded their minimal gear aboard.
"We're indebted to you for this, Captain Ellison," Kershaw shouted above the din. "I'm pleased General Greene was able to convince you to come on board."
Jim nodded sharply, his attention already focused on the mission at hand. "By the time we get back, those boys will be able to handle themselves in the toughest jungles anywhere in the world, General. They're in for the hardest two weeks of their lives, but you'll have four damn good men when we get back."
The general shook Jim's hand and smiled tightly. "I know that, Captain. It's why I requested you for this mission. See you back here in two weeks."
"Two weeks, General. They'll hike back out of that jungle as true survivors, I promise you that." With a last salute, Jim jogged toward the waiting helicopter and joined his men.
The flight was to carry them into the heart of the rainforest, near the territory of the Chopec. The first ten days would be spent in pure survival mode, learning to use the land and resources around them to meet their needs. Little was carried in. They would rely on the jungle. The last half of the second week was to be devoted to getting out of the wild. They were parachuting in, but they would hike out. Nearly forty miles in all. When they emerged, the four young men would be highly qualified to train others in the techniques of jungle survival.
They would learn from a true expert.
Jim sat away from his squad as the copter flew across a green, verdant landscape which grew more isolated, more dense with every mile. He stared down at the familiar scenery below, remembering the last time he had led a group of men into these very jungles. He remembered even as he tried to drive the haunting memories away. What would rehashing the painful past accomplish? It was over. They were all dead, long dead, and that mission was history. He had a new mission to consider and new men under his command.
Jim glanced over at his companions. They were talking, at least they were attempting to talk, over the loud drone of the chopper's blades. With his hearing down, Jim could only make out snatches of the conversation, but he didn't put forth much effort. They would have two weeks together in the dense, sweltering jungle. More than enough time to get acquainted.
Gazing down at the vast expanse of trees, his thoughts turned to all he had left behind. When he had made the necessary phone calls the evening before his departure, Simon had been understanding about the situation, even though it had been obvious he was less than pleased about losing his best detective for over two weeks. The other members of Major Crimes had almost treated it as a vacation for Jim, as though he was heading to the depths of the Peruvian rainforest for a little R & R. Jim smiled. Obviously, none of them had ever experienced military life in the jungle. He'd need rest and relaxation all right.
After the mission.
And Sandburg... While his partner had outwardly accepted Jim's involvement in the mission, he knew his friend had been hurting that night. All through the movie that last night at home, he'd been aware of Sandburg's eyes flickering over to him. Deep blue eyes filled with worry and hurt and fear. Even now, a world away from Cascade, Jim could still see the pain in Sandburg's eyes. He'd make it up to him when he was home, Jim resolved. Maybe a long camping trip in the mountains, just the two of them. Or a vacation at the beach... Hell, he'd let Blair pick the destination this time. Wherever the kid chose, it would be all right with Jim. He owed his partner that much.
His musings were roughly interrupted by a sudden jolt and strident shouts from the front of the helicopter. Rushing forward, Jim tried to make sense of the confused voices of the four men under his command. The violent gyrations of the aircraft threatened to throw him off balance, making every step a struggle to remain on his feet.
"What the hell's going on here?" Jim shouted at Chung, now standing at the doorway separating the cockpit from the rest of the chopper.
"Don't know! The pilot's out. A heart attack, maybe!"
Jim elbowed his way into the small compartment. Lt. Davis was slumped over, his stiff hands clutching the controls in a death grip. Jim immediately took stock of his vitals, and to his horror, no heartbeat registered. Garner was struggling with the safety belt strapping him to the seat. Jim glanced out the window. They were plummeting in a tight spiral, then leveled off slightly, almost grazing the tall treetops of the rainforest's emergent layer.
Frantically, Jim grappled for the controls. Suddenly, a piercing, grating sound drowned out their shouts and the helicopter shook violently. The noise from the rotors ceased entirely, and the absence of their sound was startling. Enveloped in sudden silence, the copter dropped like a stone. As the leafy branches engulfed them, Captain Jim Ellison shouted to his men, "Hold on! We're going down!"
A few seconds later, his world exploded in a mass of pain and fire.
Dr. Blair Sandburg removed his glasses and closed his notebook, glancing around the lecture hall at the students in his Anthropology 601 class. They were intent, waiting to hear their assignment for the week. Teaching classes for grad students was a definite step up from the introductory level courses he'd had to conduct while a graduate student himself. He grinned at the memory of those rows and rows of young, bored faces. He'd worked hard to make his lectures stimulating, but even the most interesting of teachers found it impossible to compete with the offerings of the university social calendar. "Remember, the test will be next Wednesday. You all have the outline of pertinent material included with your syllabus. Essays are due the following week. Good luck, and I'll see you next week." Like floodwaters released from their dam, the students rose and departed en masse. As Blair gathered his notes and books, he noticed a familiar form standing in the doorway.
"Simon?" Sandburg crammed the remaining papers into his worn backpack. "You come by to sit in on my next class or did you just miss my smiling face and effervescent personality?" He grinned at the tall police captain and jogged down the three steps of the elevated lecture platform. "Hey, man, I know I haven't been around the station since Jim left, but I didn't think you'd get lonely this fast." The teasing smile faded when he recognized the pain in the dark brown eyes.
"Sandburg. We need to talk. Is there someplace private?" Banks' voice was low and controlled, totally devoid of emotion.
Blair took an automatic step forward, shaking his head in denial. "No. Tell me now. What is it, Simon? What's happened to Jim?"
Simon's sigh spoke volumes. "Please, Blair. This isn't the place. Let's go to your office." He reached out to take the younger man's arm.
Blair jerked away. "No, damn it!" Fear shook Sandburg's voice. "Now! I want to know now. What's wrong with Jim? Why won't you tell me, Simon?"
Realizing the moment he had dreaded for years had finally arrived, Simon Banks softly began to speak. The words became a loud buzzing, the syllables no longer recognizable, as Blair's world came crashing down around him. The pain buried him under its unbearable weight and consumed his heart in an inferno of fiery agony. The sounds of his grief stricken cries of denial echoed through Hargrove Hall. "NO! Jim! Noooo..."
They gathered at the station in shock. All the members of Major Crimes had been drawn together as though by an invisible magnet. Every eye carefully avoided looking at the vacant desk by the door, the desk which served as a sad, tangible reminder of what, of whom, had been lost. The bullpen was too quiet, the silence broken only by an occasional sniffle or choked sob. The air was heavy with grief. If the Major Crimes unit functioned together as a family, they also mourned as one. This was a time of mourning. They had lost one of their own.
Those who had been together longest gathered in their captain's office. Joel Taggart stood by the window, staring outside, seeing nothing, yet feeling far too much. Occasionally, his broad shoulders shook with silent sobs of grief.
Henri and Rafe sat together at the conference table, cups of untouched coffee cooling in front of them. Rafe glanced at H., tears flooding his eyes. His partner's trembling attempt at a smile did little to comfort him.
"Do you think the captain's found him by now?" Rafe's question was asked so softly, it was almost lost.
Henri shrugged. "Probably. Sandburg had classes today, right? He'd be at Rainier, right where he was supposed to be."
Rafe choked back his tears. "Then..." His voice broke, and for a moment, he could not continue. "Then, he knows. Blair knows that Jim is..."
He never finished the sentence. The tall figure of Simon Banks filled up the doorway. One supportive arm was wrapped around the shoulders of Blair Sandburg.
All eyes focused on the young anthropologist and part time observer. Once the outsider, in a few short years Blair had earned their admiration and their respect, and in the earning, had become one of them. Eyes trained in observation took immediately stock of his appearance, evaluating both what they could and could not see. Every muscle in Sandburg's body was strained tighter than wire. His eyes were red rimmed and swollen. Even with his arms wrapped around himself, as if to give the comfort he so desperately needed, his hands trembled visibly.
Then he spoke, in a voice etched with grief. "Yeah, Rafe. I know. Jim's...dead." His bitter laugh seemed incongruous with the pain in his blue eyes. "And they claim lightening never strikes twice..." A sob obscured the final words.
The young man's grief was almost too much for those who knew him so well to bear. Needing to take some action to relieve the tension and pain in the room, Joel Taggart turned from the window. "Blair, you shouldn't be here right now. Don't you want to go home and try to rest? I'll..."
Blair cut him off. "No! I don't..." He pulled away from Simon's comforting arm and slumped down in a chair. "I can't be there right now, Joel. Thanks. I just can't go there. Not yet, okay?" He slumped over, his face buried in his hands. "Jim... Please, I just want to be with Jim..." The small gathering stood in helpless silence, their hearts breaking in sympathy for the inconsolable young man sobbing before them and with their own personal pain at the loss of their friend. Uncertain how else to help Blair but give him some privacy, their captain motioned for the others to leave. Once they were alone, Simon walked slowly to the window and stared blankly down to the street. How could life be going on out there as though nothing had happened, while in this room, a heart was shattered, a young life destroyed? Blair's ragged breathing as he struggled for control was the only sound in the room.
Jim, my friend, how I wish you could help me right now. Help me to help him. Sandburg's devastated, and I'm not sure what words to give him that will help him hold on. You always seemed to know exactly how to reach the kid. If only you could say something...
Then, he remembered. Glancing at the huddled figure as he passed, Banks returned to his desk and unlocked a drawer. He withdrew a plain, white envelope. He held it clutched tightly in his hands, staring at the single word written in the familiar handwriting. How he wished this day had never come. With a long sigh, he rose, carrying the envelope to the grieving man who had been Ellison's closest friend. Simon touched Sandburg's shoulder. "Blair?" No response. The trembling hands remained over his face, and a dry sob shook his shoulders. "Sandburg, I have something for you. Something from Jim." The final words reached him in the depths of his despair. Swollen eyes slowly gazed up, catching on the white envelope in his captain's hands. Blair looked at Simon questioningly. "Jim gave this to me not long after we came back from the shooting here in the office, Blair. I think getting shot got him thinking, and he asked me to give this to you if..." Simon paused, reining in his emotions. Staring at the wall to avoid those anguished eyes, he added, "If anything happened to him. I think he would want you to have it now. I'll leave you alone for a while, Sandburg. I'll be right outside, if you need me." He handed the envelope to Sandburg. When he first saw Jim's bold script, Blair let out a small whimper of pain. Simon rested a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"Would you rather have me stay?" Blair shook his head, and with a last worried glance back, Simon left, closing the door softly behind him.
Sandburg stared at the beloved nickname printed on the front of the envelope in Jim's familiar handwriting. Oh, God... His heart writhed, and for a moment, he couldn't breathe past the tightness in his chest. Jim's final words to him. How could he bear to open the envelope and read this last message from the man who had become the focal point of his life? Yet, how could he bear not to? At last, swiping the tears away roughly with his sleeve, he carefully tore open the envelope and withdrew the single sheet of plain white paper. Drawing a ragged breath, Blair unfolded it and began to read, although the words swam through his tears.
If you're reading this, then something has happened, and I'm gone. I only hope you're okay. I realized after the shooting at the station that there were so many things I needed to say to you, and for a while that day, I didn't think I'd ever have the chance again. There are words which should be said, Chief. This time, I don't want to take the chance that I won't be around to say them, so I'm asking Simon to give you this letter. First, the loft is yours, as are my assets. Don't deny your right to them. The loft hasn't belonged only to me in a long time now. It's your home as much as mine, and should belong to you when I am no longer there to share it. All the papers are in my safe deposit box at the bank; you're on the signature card. All your rent money has been invested in your name through my broker. It's turned into a sizable amount. I hope you'll add to it over the years to come. I know what you're thinking, so stop. Yes, the money was supposed to be mine, but I didn't really need it. I wanted you to have some security. The rent was never important to me, Chief. It was your being there, with me in the loft, that mattered. Anyway, my attorney has the other papers you'll need. He's a good man; you can trust his advice. You know Simon's there for you. Lean on him. He understands better than anyone how you're feeling right now. You made the years we spent together the best ones of my life. You saved my sanity with the control you gave me, but you already know that. What you may not know is that you made that life worth saving. You taught me the meaning of friendship, Chief, the meaning of devotion and unconditional love. Those are three things no one had given me before. Thank you. I want you to go on with your life. Whatever you choose to do, I'll still be with you. Have I ever told you that I'm so damned proud of you? Don't waste your life and talents grieving. Do great things, Chief. You've got the potential within you. I guess that's about it. No regrets, okay? What we had was rare. It was special. Don't expect it to come again. Just remember the good times and mark up the bad to our being all too human. Most of all, Blair, remember I loved you.
A single tear dropped onto the white paper, followed by another, then another. Finally, the sobs broke free, and all Sandburg's grief flooded out at once, uncontrolled. His tortured cries brought the others running from the bullpen. They formed a protective semi-circle around the grieving young man, unsure of what to do except lend him their collective presence and strength. They hoped it might help, but they knew it could never begin to replace what he had lost. The letter was clutched in Sandburg's shaking fingers. Simon glanced at the familiar bold writing and felt a stab of pain in his heart. If they were all hurting this badly, what kind of hell must Sandburg be enduring? The phone rang, its clang a brutal intrusion into the sorrowful scene. Banks covered the distance to his desk in two long strides, his eyes blazing through his tears. Simon snapped up the receiver and barked in annoyance, "Banks!" Sinking down into his desk chair, he listened without speaking for several minutes. "I see. Yes, stay in touch. Please. Thank you for letting us know." Once he had hung up, he sat in silence, staring at the phone.
Taggart, Rafe, and Brown exchanged confused glances. "Captain?" ventured Joel cautiously.
Blair's head remained hidden beneath his mass of hair, the letter still clutched in his hands.
Simon rose slowly and knelt beside Blair. "Sandburg," he said softly. "Blair. Look at me." When there was no response, he reached out and gently rubbed the young man's knees. "Sandburg, look at me, please. I have news about Jim."
At last, the bowed head lifted, and blue eyes drowning in tears and grief met Simon's. The captain's heart broke at the pain in those eyes, at the lost soul gazing mournfully back at him.
"That was the liaison for the Army. There's been some news. They located the wreckage, about thirty miles into the jungle." Simon's voice was soft. "Blair, they found the bodies..."
A sob broke free, then caught in Blair's throat. He lowered his head again, his shoulders heaving. "Oh, God, Jim... I'm so sorry! I should have been with you. I wish I had been with you! No...please...no..." He clutched the letter tightly to his chest with both hands.
Immediately, Simon grasped Blair's arms and held tight, shaking him gently. "Listen, Sandburg. There should have been six bodies in that wreckage. There were only five."
When his head slowly lifted, the swollen blue eyes begged the question his voice could not ask.
"They checked the dog tags. None of them belonged to Jim."
Blair drew in a quick breath as he quickly swiped his eyes with the back of his hand. A wide smile broke across the tear stained face. "Then, he's alive! My God, Simon, he's alive!" He jumped to his feet, nearly knocking over the chair in his excitement. "I gotta get down there. I have to find Jim!" Whirling around, he headed to the door as the members of Major Crimes watched in stunned silence.
"Hold it!" The authoritative voice stopped him in his tracks, and Blair turned to face Simon Banks. "Blair," the deep voice softened. "Just because they didn't find his body doesn't mean he survived. There could be lots of reasons Jim's body wasn't found with the others. I mean," Simon hesitated, "It's the jungle, after all, and..."
Blair waved off his words impatiently. "I know, I know... But, he is alive, Simon. I know it. Jim's alive, and if he hasn't found his way to the searchers yet, there's gotta be a reason. You know as well as I do what that reason probably is." Blair stared at their captain, daring him to deny the truth of his statement.
"His senses," Simon stated flatly. "You think something's gone wrong with his senses."
Blair nodded, and his eyes glowed with renewed hope. "It makes sense, doesn't it? I mean, think about it! That's how his senses came on line the first time, right? A helicopter crash, in Peru, his entire unit killed. If it brought his senses out then, who knows what it might do to him now, with his senses fully activated. If he didn't have time to dial them down before the crash, then there's no telling what condition he might be in." Sandburg started toward the door, waving them off with an impatient hand. "That means he's gonna need me, Simon. I've waited too long already. I've gotta get to Jim!"
"Not alone, you don't."
Blair stopped in his tracks at the commanding tone. All eyes focused on their tall captain.
Simon picked up his coat and joined Blair at the door. "Ellison's my responsibility, too, Sandburg. You're going to be dealing with the United States military down there, and, face it, kid, you're not exactly the type to negotiate with the brass." He opened the door and followed Sandburg from the office. "I can talk their language. You talk Jim's. Together, just maybe, we can pull Ellison's rear out of the fire one more time. If he's alive, Sandburg, and don't forget, that's still a very big if." As he stalked out the door, he called back, "Taggart! Hold down the fort!" And they were gone.
Chapter Three: Recovery Mission
Blair had not remembered exactly how difficult it was to get to the heart of the Peruvian jungle from Cascade. Funny how the mind tended to bury the memories of seemingly endless plane flights and uncomfortable Jeep rides along barely recognizable roads. By the time they arrived at the makeshift military base along the edges of the rainforest, the memories were once again all too clear. At least this time, he didn't have to parachute in.
Thank heaven for small blessings.
Sandburg stretched his aching back after he hopped down from the Jeep. The military liaison who met their flight from the U.S. hadn't appeared thrilled that they had made the long flight in hopes of finding their friend. It had been only Simon's connections with some important military brass that had allowed them this access to the crash site at all. The father of an old friend from college, he had explained with a secretive smile. The college friend owed him one...several actually. Something to do with a few late nights, too many beers, and an indiscretion with an attractive coed who happened to be the underage daughter of the dean. Somehow, Blair sensed that pushing for further details could prove dangerous, so he decided not to look this particular gift horse in the mouth. They were here; they had been granted access to the crash, and that was all that mattered.
He could find out the details another time.
If the liaison hadn't been happy to see them, the tall, broad shouldered, older man now approaching looked downright furious. Simon muttered under his breath, "Here comes trouble. Try to keep your mouth shut, Sandburg. Let me handle this." He forced a smile and stepped forward with his hand out.
"Simon Banks, Cascade PD. This is Blair Sandburg, Captain Ellison's partner." Simon stood for a moment, his hand outstretched, before letting drop to his side when he realized that no welcoming handshake was forthcoming.
"I know who you are," General Samuel Kershaw growled. "I have my orders to have you escorted to the wreckage, but I'll be damned if I have to like it! Civilians have no place in a situation like this. We have an on-going investigation here into the cause of the crash, and you..."
Simon interrupted. "We have no intention of interfering in your investigation, General. We're here only to try to find out what happened to our friend. That's the extent of our interest."
"And the extent of your privileges, Captain Banks. I assure you, if you interfere in any way with our work here, you will be back on a jet to Cascade so fast, you won't know how you even got to the airport!" With those angry words, the general stalked away.
Blair turned to Simon. "What a welcoming committee! Was it something I said?"
Banks studied Sandburg with his long hair flowing to his shoulders, his faded jeans and worn T-shirt. He shook his head and grinned. "Somehow, I don't think so, Sandburg. Somehow, I just don't think so."
Simon had seen plenty of disasters in his lifetime, but the sight of the burned out shell of the helicopter turned his stomach. To think that human beings had to die like that, in what must have been a fireball of flame and heat. To realize that one of them had probably been a friend... He turned away from the charred and twisted metal remains and struggled to control his ragged breathing.
Blair stood staring, mesmerized by the scene. At the edge of the clearing, a row of black body bags lay side by side. It had taken this long just to extract them from the wreckage. Slowly, as if pulled by an invisible thread, Blair approached the grim line of death.
A strong hand gripping his shoulder stopped him. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"I have to see for myself, Simon. I have to see that he's..." The younger man summoned his courage and stared directly into the captain's brown eyes. "I have to know that Jim's not here."
"Sandburg, those bodies aren't even recognizable. It's only the dog tags that allowed them to make an ID at all. You shouldn't have to see..."
Blair's voice grew firm, and his gaze never wavered. "I've seen as bad or worse, you know that. Somehow, I have to know for sure. I need to see the proof for myself, Simon. I need to do this. I'm gonna do this." He shook his shoulder free from Banks' grasp and strode with determination toward the row of body bags, never looking back.
Methodically, as if looking at the charred remains of mannequins rather than the blackened flesh of human beings, Blair Sandburg unzipped each of the five bags and studied the silver tags still attached to each body. After reading the name, he carefully zipped up each bag and moved to the next. Through sheer will alone, he forced himself to swallow the bitter bile which rose in his throat and ignore the nauseating stench of charred flesh. For Jim, he had to do this. For Jim, he would do this. Jim...Jim...Jim..., he chanted silently, his sentinel's name becoming a protective mantra against the horrible sights which lay open before him. Jim...Jim...Jim... When his grisly task was complete, Blair turned away with a relieved sigh and walked back to join Simon Banks.
"He isn't here," he stated calmly.
"You didn't believe them, did you?" Simon asked curiously.
Blair shook his head. "Trusting in bureaucracy doesn't come easily for me, Simon. I needed to see for myself. Now, I know. I'm sure. Jim did not die in this crash."
Simon glanced back at the wreckage. "So, what do you want to do?"
Regarding the tall captain as if he had asked the most obvious question in the world, the younger man shrugged and replied, "Find him. Bring him home."
The general's voice carried far beyond the canvas walls of his tent. "I cannot grant you permission to join in this operation, gentlemen. I will not grant that permission. This is a military matter, and, I shouldn't have to remind you both, you are not military."
"Forgive me, General Kershaw," Simon began reasonably. "We're not trying to cause..."
Blair Sandburg stepped forward, moving to stand slightly in front of Banks, ignoring the look of warning from his captain. "Damn it! We don't have time for this crap, Simon!" He glared at the general. "Frankly, sir, we don't need your permission. Jim Ellison may have been temporarily under your command, but he is my best friend and partner. Permanently! Right now, he's out there somewhere in the jungle, and unless I missed something, that jungle is not under the control of the United States Army!"
Blair took another step toward General Kershaw, almost dwarfed next to the huge man. He stopped only inches from the bigger man, staring defiantly into the blazing eyes. It was obvious that the career military officer was livid, his face growing redder by the second, a large vein on his neck pulsing with his fury.
"Listen to me, you young..."
Like a smoldering volcano, Sandburg erupted at last. "No, you listen! Jim is my responsibility, General, not yours. Tomorrow morning I am going out into that jungle, and I am going to find my partner. I warn you..." He paused, pointing an accusing finger under the older man's prominent nose. "I warn you that if you or any of your men try to stop me, I will take this matter public. Let it be known to the press that the U.S. Army interfered with my efforts to find my best friend - a true American hero - in a place where it had absolutely no jurisdiction to do so!" He stared up into the general's blazing eyes for a moment, holding them with the determination in his own.
Jabbing once more with the finger still pointed at the general's face, Blair left the tent without another word. Simon followed close behind.
As they walked toward their own accommodations for the night, Simon whistled softly in admiration and shook his head in wonderment. "Damn, Sandburg! Damn!"
Three days in the jungle had done nothing for their appearance or their patience. It was oppressively hot, and the attacks of the various, and very abundant, stinging and biting insects were relentless. Blair Sandburg and Simon Banks had not returned to the military base camp since their departure long before dawn on the morning after the confrontation with General Kershaw. While they had heard the movements of the army rescue teams combing the jungle for Ellison, they had not made contact with any of the search parties.
There had been no sign of Jim.
They had set up their own camp deep within the rainforest, near a small stream of fresh water. It was late in the afternoon, and both men were exhausted from their search. They had spent three days with little sleep, out in the jungle from before sunrise until after dark, taking only the minimal time needed to rest and eat the sparse rations they had packed.
The efforts had taken their toll.
Secretively, Simon had given up hope of finding Jim alive upon seeing the charred remnants of the helicopter. Back in Cascade, when he had first received word that one body was missing from the crash and that Jim's ID wasn't among the dead, hope had risen within him. But, upon viewing the complete devastation that had once been the aircraft carrying his friend, his hopes had been dashed. He did not see how it was possible that even Jim Ellison, tough as he was, could have survived. One of the enlisted men helping with the search had even confided that they considered it more a search for remains than a rescue effort.
So far, he had kept his feelings hidden from Blair, believing that the search might allow the young man some sense of closure, if nothing else. Now, after days of fruitless searching, he felt they had done all they could.
It was time to go home.
Dreading the conversation, but knowing it was necessary, Simon moved to sit beside Sandburg, who was resting against a tree, sipping water from his water bottle. "Blair," he began cautiously. "It's been three days now, five since the crash. There's been no sign of Jim. Maybe..." Simon's voice was kind. "Blair, don't you think we should consider going home?"
Disbelieving blue eyes turned slowly to meet his. "What are you saying, Simon?" As Blair studied the final acceptance etched on Simon's face, his anger grew. "Jim's out here, man! We can't give up now!"
Simon's anger rose hot within him, suddenly, and without warning. Damn it all! It was hard enough for him to deal with Jim's death. He had counted Ellison among his closest friends for years. Among, hell. Jim was his closest friend. Nothing to compare with the extraordinary closeness Ellison shared with Sandburg, but a strong friendship just the same. Now, not only did he have to deal with his own grief, but he had Sandburg's denial to contend with as well.
Simon got up from the ground, with Blair right behind him. The two men stood face to face, confronting each other in the heat of the jungle and their grief. "Jim's dead! Damn it, Sandburg! You saw that chopper! Nobody could have walked away from that crash, not even Jim. I know how you idolized him, but he wasn't a superman! He was human, Blair, and now, he's dead!"
Sandburg's eyes blazed, and his hands gestured wildly. "What about his body, huh? There were six men on that copter, and we only found five bodies. If he's dead, where's his body? Where's Jim's body, Simon?" Hot tears of frustration and grief were streaming down Sandburg's face, threading their small paths through the layers of dirt and grime.
Seeing the pain in the miserable blue eyes, Simon forced himself to regain control. He rested a moment, breathing hard and staring up into the thick canopy above them. Finally, he looked back at the younger man and answered softly, "Animals, Blair. This is the jungle, after all. You saw the condition the other bodies were in. If Jim died near the opening, or if he was thrown clear, then the animals could have..."
"NO! Stop it!" Blair screamed, pacing away from Banks. "I won't listen to any more! Jim's not dead, Simon! He's not, damn you! If he was, I'd know it! Don't you understand? I'd feel it. I'd have to feel it." His breath catching in a sob, Blair dropped to the ground, hunched over, rocking himself slowly in misery. "Part of me would have died with him, and I'd know it, Simon." He looked up at the captain, his blue eyes filled with anguish. "Don't you think you'd know it if half your soul had died?"
Forcing himself to remain calm, Banks knelt beside the distraught young man. "Blair, you're grieving. Deep down, you know the truth. You're already grieving, and that grief is keeping you from recognizing the truth already in your heart. Jim's dead."
Sandburg shot up and quickly moved away from Simon, then whirled to face him again. "No! He's not! You can go back, Simon. I don't need you. I don't need you to find Jim. I'm not leaving until I find him. He wouldn't leave me when everyone else thought I was dead, even you, Simon, and I'll be damned if I'll leave him now!" Stricken blue eyes glared, the power of his absolute determination shining from deep in his soul.
Simon grabbed Blair's shoulders and shook him hard, making the younger man's head snap back violently. "Damn it, Sandburg! You can't stay out here alone! That's not what Jim would want, and you know it. What if...?"
His words were cut off by a sudden blur of movement and a loud, angry roar which echoed through the jungle. Simon hit the ground with a grunt, holding his abdomen and rolling in pain.
Blair took a step back, his eyes wide in disbelief.
The sentinel stood over Simon, staring down at the captain and breathing hard. His eyes were wild with hatred, the pupils contracted to mere pinpricks. A low growl emanated from deep in his throat. His hands outstretched, the sentinel bent over, reaching for Banks' throat.
"Jim! No! Stop it!"
At the sound of Blair's voice, Jim Ellison slowly straightened, his hands falling to his sides. He stood very still, looking at Sandburg. His face was cut and bruised. His army fatigues were nearly in rags, barely hanging from his body. What remained of the fabric was charred and blackened. Jim's battered face and hands bore angry, red burn marks, and cuts covered the bare skin beneath the rags. His rage having subsided, Jim's blue eyes were confused, almost frightened, as he stared at his guide.
"Jim...? What's happened to you, man?" Blair spoke softly, soothingly. He could feel his own heart pounding in his chest and was sure its heavy rhythm was upsetting Jim. He forced himself to breathe slowly and deeply in an effort to calm himself, and as a result, calm his friend as well. "It's okay, buddy. It's all right." He took a tentative step toward Ellison, holding outstretched hands toward the older man. "Jim...?"
Like a frightened stallion, the sentinel hesitantly walked toward Blair, one slow step at a time, before stopping right in front of him. The clouded blue eyes studied his face, as though seeking some distant memory. His nostrils flared as he breathed in Blair's scent, and his jaw muscle twitched. Slowly, he reached out a dirty, burned hand to touch one of the soft curls that hung over Blair's shoulder. His fingers gently caressed the hair, as a small smile flickered across his face.
Sandburg felt his heart tighten in gratitude at the small gesture of recognition. "You like my hair, don't you, big guy?" Blair smiled up at him, tears of relief flooding his eyes. "It's okay, Jim. I'm here now, and I'm not going anywhere. I promise. You're going to be all right."
Simon was sitting up on the ground now, carefully holding his stomach. His eyes were wide in disbelief at the scene before him. "Sandburg," he asked quietly. "You want to tell me what the hell is going on?"
At the sound of Simon's voice, Ellison whirled around, placing himself protectively between Blair and Banks. The fury returned to his eyes, and another low growl rose from his throat.
"Jim? It's all right, man. Calm down, okay? Simon's not going to hurt me. Easy, Jim, just relax." Blair took a step forward, laying his hand on the sentinel's arm and stroking the dirty, sweaty skin. Without looking at Banks, he said quietly, "Simon, I want you to get up, but move very slowly. Then, back away from us. Go back to our camp. Wait there for me. I'll bring him in when I can. It may be awhile, tomorrow or maybe even longer, before he's able to come there with me. Just wait. Whatever you do, don't come after us."
"Sandburg, I don't know about..." Simon's voice rose to challenge Blair's directions.
Jim Ellison took two steps toward him, the low, menacing growl becoming louder.
Blair became impatient. "Simon! Just do it, okay? I'm not totally sure what's happening here, but Jim's trying to protect me. It's pretty obvious that he will hurt you, if he perceives you to be a threat. Until I can reason with him, you need to get out of here. Now."
Slowly, Simon got to his feet, holding his hands outstretched. "Will you be okay?"
Blair nodded and smiled up at Ellison. The taller man's eyes never left Simon's face. "I'll be fine. Don't worry; Jim would never hurt me. You know that. Just go."
As Simon Banks backed away into the forest, he said quietly, "The camp's not that far away, Sandburg." He nodded toward the radio clipped to Blair's belt. "Call if you need me."
Blair smiled, his eyes back on his sentinel. "I don't know what hearing a voice on the radio would do to him right now. Probably best not to spring that on him. Don't worry, Jim won't hurt me. We'll be all right."
Jim's steely gaze followed Simon until he disappeared into the forest, and Blair was certain he was monitoring his progress for several minutes afterward. He stood in what his guide now recognized as his 'listening stance,' head slightly cocked to one side, a look of intent concentration on his face. The infamous jaw muscles worked almost constantly, a certain sign of his inner turmoil.
Sandburg took advantage of the minutes while Jim was absorbed in tracking Simon to study his friend. Beyond the burns and cuts, none of which seemed too serious, Jim was apparently unharmed. How had he survived a crash which had virtually disintegrated the helicopter and had burned its other occupants beyond recognition? His knife, still encased in its sheath, hung at his belt. His holster was empty, its leather ripped and torn to shreds. He must have lost his gun somewhere, either in the crash or during his days in the jungle. Jim's hair was slightly singed, and his eyelashes appeared to have suffered the same fate, as they were shorter than normal. His face was red, as though he had a slight sunburn. Overall, Blair thought in relief, he seemed in good shape. Better than he had any right to be, after all he'd been through. No, Jim appeared to be fine.
At least physically.
Mentally and emotionally - now that might be another matter.
Slowly, Jim's light blue eyes focused back on Blair. Still confused, perhaps even frightened, they looked to him for answers to the questions he didn't even understand. Blair reached out his hand, gently rubbing Jim's broad back in soothing, long strokes. He could feel the powerful muscles tremble beneath his touch, as though the sentinel was afraid, yet at the same time, he instinctively knew that here was his guide.
"It's all right, buddy. Simon's gone. It's just us, now, Jim. Try to take it easy, okay?" Blair continued his comforting rubbing as he talked, and gradually felt the tense muscles relax beneath his familiar touch.
Night was falling fast. Already it was becoming difficult to see past the closest line of dense growth edging the small clearing where they stood. It was too soon to expect Jim to accompany him to the camp where Simon waited. They would have to pass the night here.
"Hey, buddy," Blair said quietly. "It's getting dark now. We need to make some plans for the night. I know you're pretty comfortable with this jungle life, but me, I'd at least like a fire to ward off the creatures of the night, y'know?"
Jim watched him closely, but there was no sign he understood the meaning of Blair's words. Sandburg cocked his head. "You getting any of this, Jim? I mean, I know you can hear me, that much is obvious from how you tracked Simon, but do you understand me?"
When there was no reply, he sighed. "Guess I can try to figure this all out later, right? First things first. And right now, I think our first order of business is building a fire for the night."
While Blair built a fire circle of rocks, then gathered a supply of wood which might prove dry enough to burn, Jim watched him intently, as if afraid Blair might suddenly disappear from sight. The act of building a fire seemed to trigger no recognition in him; Jim never once tried to assist.
Before long, a comforting blaze filled the darkness. Sinking to the earth in gratitude, Blair took a deep breath, leaning his head back and stretching the tired muscles in his neck. He was exhausted. But, he had found Jim. They had a fire to guard them in the night, and tomorrow was another day. For now, all he wanted to do was rest.
He looked up at his friend. Jim stood still, right where he had remained as Blair laid their fire. His eyes had not strayed from the younger man since Simon had left them alone. Blair patted the ground beside him. "C'mon, man, sit down. It's okay, Jim. We're staying right here for the night. You can relax, okay?" Once again, he indicated the spot beside him.
Warily, the sentinel's eyes circled the area around their crude campsite, peering deep into the foliage, his head cocked once more in the familiar listening pose. Every few minutes, his head would jerk in a different direction as some sound caught his attention.
He's checking the perimeter. Making sure we're safe, that nothing is out there that could harm us. Blair waited quietly, allowing his sentinel time to finish his sensory sweep. Gradually, the tense body relaxed a little, and his gaze returned to Blair.
"It's okay, Jim. Come over here, now. Please?" Blair smiled encouragingly.
Slowly, Jim Ellison approached his friend and eased gracefully to the ground beside him. His light blue eyes searched Blair's, still seeking illusive answers to unasked questions. Then, he smiled slightly and reached out to take Blair's smaller hand in his own, squeezing it gently.
Sandburg closed his eyes briefly, offering up a brief prayer of thanks. He covered Jim's hand with his free palm, then met his friend's eyes and gazed into them deeply. "It's okay, Jim. It's all gonna be okay."
They sat for a long time in silence. Blair debated trying to continue to communicate with Jim. Somehow, his friend didn't seem to realize anything was lacking, that he should be speaking, as Blair was doing. Sandburg yawned. He was so tired. Until he'd found Jim, he had been operating on pure, desperate adrenaline. Now that they were reunited, the physical and emotional strain of the past few days came down on him all at once. His mind felt foggy, and he knew he would find no answers that night. Maybe with a little sleep, the solutions would be clearer. He studied Jim. The sentinel remained alert, still focused on the jungle beyond their campfire. He needed rest as well. But how could Blair convince him to leave his constant vigil long enough to sleep?
Blair smiled as an idea occurred to him. Easing his hand from within Jim's, he stretched both arms over his head with a mighty yawn. Puzzled blue eyes watched every move. Blair smiled at Jim, then eased over on his side, facing the warmth of the fire. He couldn't see Jim now, but he listened carefully. His friend never stirred.
After several minutes had passed, Blair shivered slightly, drawing his arms around himself and trying to curl into a small ball for warmth. He shivered again.
The sentinel's face crinkled with concern. The guide was uncomfortable. He searched the environment with his senses. The night air was a little chilly, and a strong breeze stirred the uppermost leaves of the canopy above. His guide was cold.
Blair waited, shivering once more. Then he felt it - the quiet movement as Jim lay down behind him. A strong arm wrapped over his shoulder, pulling him back against a broad chest. Jim's other arm worked its way beneath him until he was wrapped securely in his warm, protective embrace. Blair's hands crept up and held on to Jim's forearms, squeezing gently. "Thanks, buddy," he whispered.
The only answer was a tightening of the embrace into a firm hug. Snuggling his head against Jim's bicep, Blair closed his eyes. Soon, he felt Jim's body relax into his and heard his breathing become slow and steady.
The sentinel slept.
Smiling tenderly, Blair closed his eyes and drifted to sleep.
Chapter Four: Discoveries
He awakened alone. Opening his bleary eyes to the golden glow of rainforest dawn filtering down through the trees, Blair immediately searched the small clearing for Jim. He wasn't difficult to locate.
The sentinel was back on duty. Sandburg wondered if Jim had slept at all after he had drifted off to sleep with his friend resting at long last behind him. From the redness of his eyes, and the small, tired lines etched on his face, it was doubtful that Jim had been blessed with over a couple of hours rest. For a moment, Blair felt guilty for not realizing when his partner had left his side to resume his faithful vigilance. Out of necessity, he pushed the guilt aside. There were more important matters on his mind. In their partnership, more often than not, the burden of saving their lives or, at the very least, getting them out of hazardous situations fell to Jim. This time, Blair was all too aware that he carried that heavy burden of responsibility on his own shoulders. This time, it was all up to him. Ignoring the protests of his aching limbs, stiff from sleeping on the hard earth, Blair pushed himself to a sitting position.
"Hey, Jim," he called softly.
Immediately, concerned blue eyes sought his, searching for any sign that his guide was in trouble.
"Shhhhh... It's okay, man," Blair soothed him, knowing that his tone carried more weight at the moment than his words. "Everything's all right. Relax. Did you get much sleep last night?" Stiffly, he forced himself to stand up and stretched, raising his arms high over his head and slowly bending from side to side. Shoulda been more dedicated to my yoga exercises. Then, maybe I wouldn't feel like a walking advertisement for Ben Gay and the local chiropractor. Blair bent over from the waist, allowing his arms to fall loosely toward the ground as he stretched out his back. His long hair cascaded over his face, obscuring his view of Jim.
The sentinel watched curiously, then took a couple of steps closer to his guide. He cocked his head slightly to one side as he observed the strange behavior.
Blair straightened up, grinning at the confused look on Jim's face. "Just working out the kinks, man. Hey, I hear water running close by, so there must be a stream. I could go for something to drink. This morning mouth gets old really fast." Blair glanced about the clearing, completely bare except for the smoldering embers of the fire. "Wish I'd thought to bring my pack instead of leaving it back at the camp with Simon," he muttered. "Sometimes roughing it really sucks." Turning his attention back to Jim, he motioned toward the sound of the water. "I'm going to get a drink, buddy. Wanna come along?"
He need not have asked. As soon as he moved from the clearing, he heard Jim trailing closely behind. Kinda like having a puppy. A really big, overprotective puppy.
It wasn't far to the small stream. Only a few feet across, the clear water tumbled over rocks, worn smooth by the stream's endless liquid caress. Blair sighed contentedly as he sipped cool water from his cupped hands. When he'd quenched his thirst, he splashed his face and arms in a futile attempt to freshen up. Then, he sat down on a fallen log and observed his partner.
His friend had knelt beside the stream. He bent over, cupping his hands to drink. Jim had only taken a few swallows, when suddenly, his head jerked upward, and his alert eyes stared intently into the canopy above. Except for the motion of his probing eyes, the sentinel was absolutely still. Not a single muscle moved; there was not the slightest sound to alert an intruder that they were being observed.
Blair followed his gaze, seeing nothing but the movement of the leaves in the breeze. He remained silent, waiting. Moments later, a small troop of monkeys went swinging by overhead, their happy cackling ringing through the forest. With an almost unnoticeable nod of acceptance, Jim turned his sight back to the interior of the forest.
With sweat running in rivulets down his nearly bare back, the scratches and cuts covering his body, and the intent, focused look on his face, he was the epitome of Burton's sentinel. Magnificent. Feral. He was a spirit born of the earth, of fire and of water. A spirit conceived in the heart of the jungle, one with the forces of nature which surrounded him.
Blair shivered in awe at the scene. Ever since he had met Jim Ellison, he had worked, studied, even fought, to guide Jim to become the complete sentinel. To help him focus, to lead him to the discovery of how to control his powerful gifts. But never, even in his wildest dreams, had he envisioned Jim this way. Totally engulfed within his own senses, cut off from the reality of the modern world, a pure Watchman, unaware of the powerful aura he exuded.
"What's happened to you, buddy?" Blair whispered, no longer expecting an answer from Jim, but falling into his habit of reasoning aloud.
The young anthropologist frowned in concentration as he analyzed what could have happened to his friend. "Let's see if we can figure out the scenario here. The chopper went down, right? Must've been overwhelming - all the noise and smells...the heat and the fear. Just like the last time." He closed his eyes for a moment, imagining the terrifying scene in his mind. It must have been horrible. The stench of burning flesh...the crackling flames...the spiraling out of control...the grinding and wrenching of the helicopter as it was torn apart...the impact as they slammed into the hard earth... Blair shook his head to drive away the images. How had Jim managed to survive it all a second time?
"If it caught you off guard, if you didn't have time to dial down your senses... All that coming down on you at once..." Blair's clear blue eyes opened again, and he looked right at Jim. "It overloaded your senses, didn't it?" He stood up, pacing back and forth beside the stream.
The sentinel watched every step Blair took as he paced, until, without warning, he moved quickly to the side of the stream, crouched down, and stared into the water.
Quietly, Sandburg came to his side, peering into the tumbling stream. Jim's arm shot out, preventing him from moving closer to the water. Blair peered over the restraining arm. There, swimming slowly upstream, was a long, black snake with tan markings. He glanced over at Jim. As the snake moved away, the sentinel went back to his constant vigil.
Blair processed the new information he'd just gained for a few moments. "Okay...so you're hearing everything right now, aren't you? Every small noise, every creature in the jungle. Why?" He paused, staring at Jim's broad back. "You survive the crash, right? When you wake up, you find yourself back here - back where your senses first came on-line. You're probably overwhelmed with all the input. So many sounds. So many smells. It's like..." He stopped, struggling to express in words what his gut was telling him.
"You've reverted back to your basic instincts as a sentinel. You can't handle anything right now except dealing with all the messages you're getting from your environment. Not to mention the fact that being back here, in the jungle, probably sent you deeper into the ultimate sentinel mode. When I showed up, one more instinct kicked in, didn't it?" He paused as he pondered the direction his thoughts were leading him, then nodded as the pieces continued falling into place. "Yeah... You recognized me - recognized your guide - and your inner drives are screaming at you that that's your main focus. To protect your guide. Got no tribe right now, so I'm it."
Sandburg stopped his monologue abruptly, as he took in his partner's expression. Jim appeared to be listening, but Blair couldn't tell if his words were making sense to the man or not. The sentinel wore a small, half smile, as if the sound of his guide's voice was pleasing to him, even if the words bore absolutely no meaning.
Blair went over and stood in front of Jim, studying the still features carefully. "That's why you attacked Simon. You thought I was in danger. Man, Jim... I only thought I was working with a sentinel all these years." He gestured broadly, gazing around at the lush forest surrounding them. "But, here and now, in this place..." He looked back at Jim. "This is what being a sentinel is all about, isn't it? Pure, unadulterated instinct. Question is, what the hell am I going to do to get you back?"
Blair found no answers in his sentinel's lost eyes.
Several hours later, Blair approached their campsite carefully, with Jim following close on his heels. When they were less than fifty yards away, he called softly, "Simon? You there? If you hear me, do not come toward us. Find a place to sit down, facing the sound of my voice. I'll give you a minute. When we come into sight, remain very still. I need to see how Jim reacts to your presence. We'll have to play it by ear."
Blair glanced over at Jim. The sentinel was totally motionless, his nostrils flaring, and the muscles in his strong jaw twitching constantly. Blair felt a surge of near panic. He's caught Simon's scent. He knows he's nearby, and he's nervous. Oh, man! I don't know how to handle this. This is way beyond my research. Way beyond.
He fought back the wave of fear. He could handle this. He had to handle this. There was no choice. Taking a deep breath for courage, Blair turned his attention back to the clearing ahead of them. "Okay, Simon. Hope you're ready in there. We're coming in."
Jim moved beside him, as if joined to his guide with an invisible cord. His alert, blue eyes never ceased moving, as he scanned the area for any sign of danger. Then, he spotted Simon. The sentinel growled once, from the depths of his throat, as he stared ambivalently at his captain and friend. Then, his eyes flitted back again to his guide, the one he had followed to this place. Indecisiveness burned in his eyes.
Banks sat with his arms wrapped around his knees on the ground beside the fire circle. He kept his head bowed, watching their approach from beneath hooded eyes. He nodded slightly at Blair, acknowledging that his message had been received.
"That's good, Simon," the young man encouraged. "Don't make any sudden moves. I'm gonna come sit across from you. Hopefully, Jim will follow and settle down." Slowly, he moved closer to Banks. He could feel the nervous energy exuding from Jim's body, like heat from a glowing fire. He heard another soft growl and saw Jim's hands clinch into tight fists.
Forcing his voice to remain calm, Sandburg murmured, "Jim, buddy, it's okay. Easy, now. Trust me, here, partner. Just trust me." Gracefully, Blair slipped to the ground across the fire circle from Simon. "I'm all right. We're all right. Just relax. Take it easy, Jim. I know you can do this. C'mon, man; it's okay." Blair kept his eyes locked with Jim's, his quiet voice coaxing him, gradually soaking out the fear like a human sponge. He patted the ground beside him. "Come sit with us, okay? It's all right, Jim. Trust me. C'mon..."
At last, the sentinel eased down beside his guide, his wary eyes focused intently on Simon Banks, sitting so still across the fire circle. Blair could hear his fast paced breathing, a tell tale sign that Jim was fighting every protective instinct he possessed. He reached over and rested his hand lightly on Jim's knee. "That's great, man. You're doing so good here, Jim. Everything's cool, right?"
Slowly, Simon lifted his eyes to look at the pair. He made a conscious effort to keep his voice soft, his body still. "What the hell is wrong with him, Sandburg? It's like he's turned into your own personal guard dog. Maybe attack dog is more like it. I can tell the sentinel part of him is still there. Hell, it's taken over! But, what's happened to the part of him that's Jim Ellison?"
Blair grinned at the analogy Simon had drawn, so similar to his own. Then, he smiled reassuringly at Jim, who had tensed once more at the sound of Simon's voice. "It's okay, buddy. It's okay." He moved his hand from Jim's knee to his arm, squeezing it lightly before turning his attention back to Simon. Beneath his fingers, he felt Jim relax a little. As he spoke, he kept up the gentle, comforting massage.
"You hit the nail on the head, Simon. The sentinel part is more than just still there; it's taken over completely. That's why he attacked yesterday when he saw you shaking me. Right now, Jim's world consists of pure sensory input and his inborn mandate to protect me."
Banks nodded. "Guess that makes sense. At least, as much sense as any of this sentinel business makes to me. So the million dollar question is...what do you do now, Sandburg?"
The younger man shrugged, his frustration obvious. "None of this is in any books, Simon. This is completely new ground we're exploring here. I'm just guessing on most of this stuff anyway; you know that. The normal, day-to-day problems Jim faces back home are tough enough, but this..." Blair shook his head, staring at the ground in front of him. "I don't know if I can do this, man. What if I can't figure out how to get him back?" Slowly, his troubled blue eyes rose to meet the empathetic brown ones of their captain and friend.
"You can do it, Sandburg. Hell, I've seen you come up with stuff to help him that nobody else ever would have considered." Simon's voice resonated with his deep confidence in the younger man. Briefly, he wondered to himself when he had become so damned confident in the abilities of one Blair Sandburg - off-beat anthropologist and guide. Probably not too long after Jim found that very confidence within himself. Enough confidence to trust this man with his very life. He kept his eyes locked with Blair's. "Yeah, this is a tough one, Sandburg, but you can do this. I know you can. Jim knows you can. More importantly, deep down in your heart, you know you can." Simon paused for a beat. "Don't you?"
For a long minute, there was only the sound of the wind in the canopy, the rustling of leaves, and the quiet sounds of the abundant life around them. Then, softly, came the firm response. "Yeah. I do."
Simon chuckled. "So, Dr. Sandburg, where do we begin?"
Blair's blinding grin reassured him, even as his words contradicted his expression. "Damned if I know, Simon. Damned if I know."
After long, slow hours of coaxing combined with constant reassurances, Jim finally accepted Simon's movements about the clearing, at least as long as he didn't come too close to Sandburg. Remembering the violent attack of the previous afternoon, avoiding physical proximity with Jim's young guide was tops on the captain's list of priorities. At last, they were able to settle around the newly rekindled fire for a long awaited meal.
Blair leaned back against a tree stump with a tired sigh. He was exhausted, both mentally and physically. Not to mention the fact that his emotions felt as if they had been run over by a Mack truck.
At least, Jim was eating something. Earlier, the sentinel had disappeared for a few minutes, to Blair's worried chagrin. Slipping away silently into the depths of the rainforest, Jim had vanished from sight almost instantly. Fretting constantly and pacing the confines of their camp, his guide had threatened to go after him. It had only been Simon's not so gentle orders to stay put that had kept Blair from running after Jim.
The sentinel was back soon, his hands filled with fruits and nuts gleaned from the rainforest's bountiful table. At Blair's grin of pleasure, Jim had actually smiled, his first real smile since returning to them. The sight brought unexpected tears to Blair's eyes, at the same time the small reminder of the old Jim brought him a surge of hope. Jim was still in there somewhere, locked inside the sentinel's tough coat of armor. Somehow, some way, there had to be a way to bring him out.
To bring Jim back.
Blair took another bite of mango, chewing it slowly and relishing the flavor. The sweet taste was refreshing, and he was grateful for a friend who could locate such a feast so far from the modern conveniences of home.
Simon sat quietly nearby, also enjoying the fresh fruit. It seemed that Jim had accepted the fact that this strange man presented no threat to his guide. While the sentinel cut his sharp blue eyes frequently toward his captain, his main focus now seemed to be on the surrounding jungle.
"Feeling better?" Simon asked Sandburg, as he watched the younger man savoring his fruit.
Blair nodded, his mouth full of juicy mango. He swallowed and took a drink of water from the plastic bottle beside him. "Yeah. Amazing what nourishment can do."
Simon took a long drink from his bottle. "I hate to bring this up," he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "But while you were gone, I went out and about, just checking to see if anyone else was nearby. The Army search teams are on the move, heading this way. They're progressing slowly, and they seem to be taking their time. Making sure they don't miss a thing."
Blair's voice was worried. "They know he's out here, and they're looking for him, aren't they?"
"Of course, Sandburg. He's one of their own. If there's a chance of rescue..."
"That's not it, Simon!" At the urgency in his tone, Jim looked at him in concern. Reaching out to squeeze his friend's hand, Blair murmured softly, "It's okay, Jim. I'm okay. Take it easy, big guy." He spoke more softly, determined not to upset the sentinel, as he rubbed Jim's hand reassuringly with his thumb. "It's because he's special, Simon, and you know it. I tried to tell Jim that his abilities were the real reason behind this whole fiasco, but he refused to see it. Now, all they want is to get their hands on him again." Blair's soft blue eyes grew hard. "Well, I'm not about to let that happen."
"Would that be so bad, Sandburg? Maybe..."
Blair could no longer sit still. He jumped up, a living bundle of nervous energy, gesturing dramatically as he spoke. "My God, Simon! Can't you see what would happen? They'd come charging in here, guns drawn, noisy and taking over... What do you think Jim would do then, huh?" When Simon didn't respond, he pushed on. "I'll tell you what would happen. He'd go ballistic! He'd try to protect me from the U.S. Army, Simon, and then they'd..." Blair's voice broke with emotion, but he forced himself to continue. Somehow, he had to make Simon understand what he saw so clearly. "They'd kill him. He wouldn't quit, and they'd just open fire and blow him away. It's the truth, and don't you dare try to deny it." His energy spent, Sandburg sank back down beside Ellison and stared down at the ground.
At the echo of fear in his friend's voice, Jim reached out, laying his hand over Blair's. The worry in his eyes tore at the younger man's heart. Blair turned his hand, lacing his fingers in Jim's. He whispered, "It's okay, Jim. It's okay. I won't let them near you, I promise."
Simon cleared his throat. "Exactly how do you plan to avoid it? I mean, face it, Sandburg, we're outnumbered here. Outnumbered and surrounded. There's no way out without going right through them. And, for the record, I know you're right. If they get their hands on Jim in this condition, he's a sitting duck for whatever tests or experiments they might have in mind. On the other hand, that's assuming he survived the initial encounter. If he thought they were threatening you for one second... You're got it right. Jim would take on the entire U.S. Army to protect you, and they'd kill him. So, what...?" Simon's voice faded away, his eyes fixed on a point directly behind Jim and Blair.
Jim had already turned to face the forest depths. His muscles quivered in expectation.
Blair was almost afraid to move. "Simon," he whispered. "What...?"
Simon Banks touched his forefinger to his lips. "Shhhh... We've got company."
Chapter Five: Revelations
Although it seemed time stood still, only a few, brief moments actually passed. It was only when he heard his heart pounding in his ears that Blair realized he had forgotten to breathe.
Breaking the frozen tableau, Jim silently rose to his feet, graceful as a cat, placing himself between the unknown danger and his guide. His fear forgotten, Blair Sandburg prepared himself to intervene. If they had been found by the military searchers, he had to try to head off the conflict before it began. That might be Jim's only hope.
There was a slight rustling in the leaves, accompanied by a barely discernible shifting of shadows. Blair strained to see through the complicated web of forest branches and leaves, to find the figures he knew must be there, but remained invisible.
"Can you see anything?" Simon's stage whisper cut the thickness of the humid air like a blade.
At the unexpected sound, Blair started, then he felt Jim's shoulder press reassuringly against his. "I'm okay," he breathed. "Jim? Who's out there?"
He didn't really expect an answer.
From the dimness of the jungle, three men emerged, staring at them with eyes of coal. They were dressed only in loincloths, their hands clutched spears and blowguns, and their long, straight, dark hair hung over their bare shoulders. Black paint obscured parts of their facial features, but it failed to disguise the blatant curiosity in their eyes. One of the men, younger than the others, stepped forward, his head cocked as he regarded the face of Jim Ellison. He slowly approached the sentinel, stopping only a few feet in front of him.
Blair moved to step forward and intercede, but he was stopped by Simon's hand, tight on his arm. Glancing at the captain's eyes, he read the look of clear warning.
"Enquiri?" The young man's voice was uncertain.
Blair watched Jim carefully. In a matter of seconds, it registered a palette of feelings - uncertainty, distrust, curiosity, recognition, relief - emotions all clearly painted across the expressive canvas of the sentinel's face. He spoke not a word, but his head inclined slightly in acceptance of his old Chopec name.
Blair's mouth dropped opened in amazement. Jim had failed to respond that much to him in the hours since they had been reunited. Yet, in a matter of seconds, he had silently acknowledged the young warrior's single word question.
The young Chopec turned his attention to Banks and Sandburg. "What is wrong with Enquiri?"
Blair's eyes widened. "You speak English?"
The whiteness of the young warrior's teeth contrasted vividly with his bronze skin. He nodded, his black eyes shining proudly. "Yes. Last year I learned to speak your English. It is good, my speaking?"
Blair grinned, and he was rewarded by an answering smile from the Chopec warrior. "Very good. How did you learn? Living here in the jungle, I mean."
The other man nodded. "A missionary. She lived for a year with a nearby tribe. The elders let me visit. To learn the language of Enquiri."
Blair's look turned curious. "Why? You're Chopec." He gestured at the surrounding forest. "This is your home and your life. Why would you want to learn to speak English?"
A cloud of sadness darkened the smiling eyes. "Bad men came here once from your land so far away. They came to destroy the trees...the animals...our home. It was hard for us to stop them because..." He hesitated, searching for the right words. "We did not understand them. They did not understand us. If ever such men come here again, maybe my speaking their words will make it easier to stop them." For a moment, he looked worried. "Did I say this right?"
"Exactly right." Blair smiled approvingly. "What's your name? I'm Blair Sandburg, and this is Simon Banks. We're..."
The young Chopec interrupted. "You are the anamari for Enquiri. You are Ankaree."
Taken by surprise, Blair gasped and took a step backward, away from the Chopec warrior. Jim stepped between them instinctively, his blue eyes worried, and a dangerous growl rumbling up from his throat.
Simon watched intently, his eyes darting from Blair's suddenly pale face to the proud warrior standing before them. "Sandburg? What's the hell's wrong with you? What did he say?"
Blair was more concerned with Jim's reaction than Simon's. He squeezed the powerful forearm reassuringly. "It's okay, man. It's all right. Easy, Jim." As he saw the concern fade from Jim's eyes and felt the tense muscles relax, he turned back to the Chopec. "What did you call me? Anamari? What does that mean? And how did you know that I am also called Ankaree? Nobody knows that name; nobody but Jim."
Simon's dark eyes were pools of concern and curiosity. Just when it seemed that he was getting a handle on understanding all this sentinel/guide spiritual mumbo jumbo, another mystery popped up to confound him. "Ankaree? What the hell...?"
Blair dismissed him with a wave of his hand. "I'll explain later. Go on. What does it mean, this anamari?"
The young warrior smiled. "Your spirit name is Ankaree. The one who interprets." He nodded approvingly. "It is a strong name. With a powerful spirit. You must be a great shaman, Ankaree, to be the interpreter for a sentinel such as Enquiri."
The corners of Blair's mouth twitched, and his voice held an ironic edge. "Yeah, right. Blair Sandburg, all knowing, most powerful shaman. That's me. Tell me about anamari." Simon shot him a curious glance, then turned his attention back to the Chopec as the warrior once more began to speak.
"Anamari means..." He paused as he sought the right words. "It is the sentinel's other half, the one who guides him. The one born to protect him and show him the way." His expression grew quizzical. "You know that a sentinel is only half? For there to be balance, he needs his anamari to become whole?"
"You got that right," Simon muttered.
His throat suddenly tight, Blair only nodded.
The younger man continued. "The others, those Chopec who went to the Great City and returned, said that you wear the pendants. Those given to you by Incacha. Is this true?"
Silently, Blair reached beneath his sweat stained, blue T-shirt. As Simon and the cluster of Chopec watched, he withdrew a small, round, stone pendant. In perfect synchronicity, Jim repeated his movements, bringing out a pendant of his own from beneath the remnants of his charred and tattered shirt. The small group of Chopec nodded knowingly and smiled at each other in approval.
"It is good," the young man said. "Incacha saw wisely. You are anamari to Enquiri. Truly, it is so."
Simon looked at the pendants around his friends' necks. How long had they worn them? Would he ever discover all the secrets harbored within this unique relationship? He searched Blair's eyes, silently asking the question.
"Later," Sandburg whispered. "Later."
"Seems like I've been getting that answer a lot lately, Sandburg," Simon retorted quietly.
Grinning, Blair turned back to the Chopec. "You seem to know all about me," he said with a friendly smile. "But you still haven't told me your name."
The young warrior nodded, then replied, "Acana. My name is Acana."
"Acana," Blair repeated. "Did you know Jim - Enquiri - when he was here before?"
He nodded. "I was little more than a child, but I knew him. All Chopec knew Enquiri." Acana took a step closer to the sentinel, studying the too-bright alertness of his eyes and the tenseness of his entire body. "He hears too much now. Sees too much. Is this right?"
Blair looked up at Jim's face, his eyes reflecting his concern. "You're right, Acana. He was in a helicopter crash, like the last time. But, last time, his senses weren't online yet. This time they were. I think his senses were overloaded." At the confused look on Acana's face, he searched for simpler words. "There was too much noise, too much smoke, too much heat for his senses to handle."
This explanation seemed to satisfy Acana. "He needs to come with us. Imaru awaits you."
"Imaru?" Now, it was Blair's turn to be caught off guard. "He is...?"
Acana smiled. "You are shaman of the Great City, Ankaree. Anamari to Enquiri. Once, Incacha was shaman to the Chopec. Now, it is Imaru. He is shaman to the Chopec now."
Blair's tone was suddenly hopeful. "And you think that Imaru can help Jim? He can help Enquiri?"
Acana nodded. "Imaru is very wise, very powerful. He can help the sentinel. Bring your friend," he said, nodding toward Simon and smiling. "Come with us."
With those words, Acana and the other Chopec vanished into the undergrowth. Blair quickly moved off with Jim close behind.
Simon hesitated for a moment, considering whether to gather a few supplies from their makeshift camp. Hearing the footsteps of his friends gradually growing fainter, he turned his back on their small hoard of belongings and hurried to catch up.
The Chopec were a nomadic people, living among several loosely connected tribes. Their territory ranged over nearly three hundred square miles of lush, tropical Peruvian rainforest. While small, mostly temporary, settlements existed, for the most part, they wandered the forest, gathering the bounty around them for nourishment, sleeping on the softness of leaves, and drinking the pure, fresh waters which flowed through the jungle or fell like liquid melodies from the skies high above the canopy. This had been their lives for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. This was the Chopec way.
Blair didn't have any delusions that he could find the way back to their camp on his own. He was lost before they had traveled five minutes through the jungle. Although the forest floor was relatively open, not the thick jungle growth usually portrayed in movies or on television, there were few distinct landmarks. After only minutes in the rainforest, all trees look alike.
He could only follow the Chopec, blindly trusting these men to lead them to the rest of their tribe. To lead them to help for Jim.
That was Blair's overwhelming desire - to find a way to bring Jim Ellison back. And it was a matter of bringing him back. For his sentinel was lost. Lost in an abyss of sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch. Only a short time before, Sandburg hadn't had the slightest clue how to help his friend. He was used to bringing Jim back from a zone out, that coma-like state he slipped into when he focused too deeply on one of his senses. This was something else entirely.
Now, however, there was hope. Hope in the form of a young, nearly naked Chopec warrior who promised to take them to a powerful shaman.
A shaman who knows what he's doing, Blair thought with more than a touch of bitterness. I was right. I never seem to be what Jim needs. Always coming up short. Doesn't matter if you call me guide or shaman or anamari. It's never enough. I'm never enough. He spat angrily on the ground, spitting out some of the dirt which had trickled into his mouth in the sweat which dripped down his face. Never enough.
They stopped abruptly. Without warning, they had arrived at the Chopec settlement. Small groups of people went about their daily tasks. Several women sat on the ground, working with scrapers to remove the hair from a large animal pelt. Children ran through the clearing and among the bordering trees, chasing each other with peals of laughter. Other women prepared sweet smelling fruits for the evening meal. Only a few men were visible. Blair guessed the others were out in the forest, hunting meat for their families.
As they entered the clearing, the activity and noise ceased immediately as curious brown eyes studied the strangers. From the edge of the settlement, a small, elderly man approached slowly. The rest of the Chopec stepped aside as he passed, their heads bowed in respect. "That is Imaru," Acana whispered to Blair.
The wizened face belied the youthfulness and energy in the twinkling black eyes. Smiling at them, Imaru spoke to Acana. The younger Chopec listened carefully, then turned to Sandburg and Banks.
"Imaru says welcome to our home. You are honored guests among the Chopec. We are pleased to have Enquiri back among us."
Blair glanced at Simon, waiting to see if the captain would take command of this situation as he had during their encounters with the military.
But, Simon Banks was experienced enough to know when to take charge and when to relinquish his command. He knew when he was out of his element. Simon nodded at Blair. "This is your area, Sandburg. Tell them I'm honored to be here. Then, you take it from there."
Sandburg flashed the older man a smile of gratitude, then turned his attention back to the ancient shaman. "We are honored to be here among the Chopec, Imaru. My name is Blair Sandburg, and this is Simon Banks."
He was interrupted by the old man's laughter, as he pointed at Blair. "Ankaree! Ankaree!"
Blair stared at Acana in disbelief. "He knows, too? How?"
The young Chopec grinned. "It was Imaru who told me of your spirit name. He knew you would be coming. He saw it in a vision."
Blair didn't have time to question this revelation before the shaman began to speak again. When he'd finished, Blair looked to Acana for the translation.
"He says that it is late. You need to rest. He knows what is wrong with Enquiri, and he can help."
Blair interrupted. "What do we need to do? How can he...?"
Imaru laid a gnarled hand on Blair's arm and spoke softly.
"Patience," translated Acana. "He says you must rest first. Then, you and he will talk."
Without another word, the elderly Chopec shaman turned and walked away.
Blair stared after him in frustration. He wanted to help Jim now, not later. But, this was not his world, and it was not his place to set the timetable. Like it or not, he would have to wait.
"Come," Acana said, leading them to the center of the settlement. "You must eat. Then, I will show you where you can sleep for the night. Tomorrow, Imaru will teach you how to help Enquiri."
At Blair's look of impatience, Acana shook his head. "Tomorrow. Tonight, food and rest." He grinned and nodded toward Jim. "Enquiri needs it, too. How do you say it? He looks...dead on his feet."
Blair looked closely at Jim. It was true. Although there was no slouch to the proud shoulders, the tiredness was obvious. Jim's eyes were red rimmed, as if he had been sleep deprived for days. Which he probably had been, considering the circumstances. Lines of fatigue etched tiny paths around his eyes. When Jim felt Blair's gaze, he turned, meeting his guide's eyes. He smiled a small, tired smile, and Blair felt his heart break. Even confused, overwhelmed, and exhausted, Jim never failed to try to support him, to encourage him.
Blair's voice cracked with his deeply felt emotion. "You're right, Acana. Tonight, we need to rest."
Nodding his approval, the young Chopec led the three friends to a quiet spot near the edge of the camp. A blazing fire was already crackling, and three woven mats were placed around it.
Before either of the three tired men had time to lower themselves to the mats, two Chopec approached, their faces set in looks of angry determination. Blair did not recognize either man as they strode up to Acana.
With animated gestures, the three young Chopec conversed for several minutes, their voices rising steadily. The two strangers motioned often toward the visitors, and it was obvious from the looks on their faces that they were not at all pleased with something about the three men from Cascade. At last, Acana shouted at the them one final time, and they departed as quickly as they had come, their eyes flashing angrily for all to see.
Blair touched Acana's elbow. "What was that all about?"
Their new friend shook his head sadly. "The older man is my brother, Asama. He and some of his friends do not like seeing strangers in our tribe. They are afraid that only evil will come of knowing outsiders. I tried to tell them that Enquiri is one of us, that his friends are our friends." Acana's eyes grew sad. "They do not believe my words. Asama and his friends think you should leave the Chopec now and go back to your own kind. They are afraid that others will follow you here, that we will lose more of our lands, that more of our people will die. I am sorry, Ankaree. This is not the way most Chopec feel. You are welcome here."
Blair glanced at Simon, who shrugged his shoulders with a look that said what can we do? The young anthropologist nodded in agreement.
"It's okay, Acana. Don't sweat it, man. If everything goes according to plan, we'll be out of here soon anyway, right?"
Relieved, the young Chopec smiled. "You are right. I do not believe that evil will follow you here. All will be well." With that he turned away and gestured toward some of the women waiting nearby. "Rest now, please. There will be food for you soon." Acana left the three friends alone.
Within minutes, three smiling young women brought a selection of fruits and freshly cooked meats, along with pottery bowls of fresh drinking water. Blair tried to thank them in his faltering Chopec, and they skittered away, giggling behind their hands.
Simon chuckled. "Guess your Chopec needs work, Sandburg." He settled down on a straw mat and stretched his long legs out gratefully. Nabbing a ripe banana, he peeled it, then smiled at the delicious, sweet flavor. Chiquita doesn't know what fresh really is.
Blair cut his eyes over to their captain and friend. "It's the thought that counts, Simon. Didn't your mother ever tell you that?" Blair followed Simon's example, settling down with a relieved sigh to rest and eat.
After taking a couple of bites of the tender meat served hot from the communal cooking fire, Blair turned his attention to Jim. The sentinel stood nearby, his attention focused on the jungle beyond the clearing where the Chopec lived. His entire body was still, the only movement coming from his head which slowly pivoted as he scanned the area for motion, sound, and smell. Jim had removed his torn and charred shirt, and now, the long gashes and angry burns on his broad chest and back were clearly visible.
Blair shook his head. "Look at him, Simon. You can see the pain he must be in from the crash and what he experienced, especially with his senses operating in high gear. But, he hasn't stopped that constant vigilance for a minute, except for what little sleep he got last night, and that wasn't much."
Banks studied the solitary form standing guard nearby. "Do you think you can get him to come over here and eat something? Maybe here, with all the Chopec around, he'll relax enough to eat and sleep."
Blair shrugged. "I can try. I don't know how much luck I'll have, though. So far, not much I've said has managed to get through to him. It's like he knows me, understands who I am, but not what I'm trying to tell him."
"Do you think he has amnesia?" Simon stared at the lonely sentinel gazing into the dusky evening light.
"No," Blair answered after a long pause. "Not amnesia. I've had that, and I just don't think that's it. Remember when you and Jim found me out in Colorado? I didn't have a clue. Didn't remember a thing. But, Jim knows me. He's willing to do anything to protect me. That doesn't fit amnesia. It's more like...he's forgotten everything except how to be a sentinel. He's operating on pure instinct." Blair sighed and stood up. "I'll try to get him over here with us, Simon. Just wait quietly and enjoy your dinner."
Jim turned at Blair's approach. "Hey, there," Sandburg said softly. "You doing okay here, big guy?" He reached out and ran his fingers along Jim's bare arm, carefully avoiding the cuts and burns. Jim stood still, yet Blair could feel the minute trembles of the powerful muscles as he stroked his friend's arm. His heart ached at the moving combination of strength and vulnerability that was Jim Ellison. "You're a bundle of nerves, aren't you? God, I wish I knew how to help you here, man." Realizing that it was the only gift he could give his friend at that moment, Blair kept his tone soft and reassuring. "But Acana thinks Imaru will be able to bring you back. I'm so sorry I don't know enough, that I don't know what to do here." He felt the tears of frustration gathering in his tired eyes. "I'm so sorry..." His head bowed, and he tried to fight the tears.
Internal alarms went off within him, and the sentinel took a step closer. His guide was upset and crying. Confused, he looked around, searching for whatever had disturbed the young man, but found nothing amiss. His nostrils flared as he smelled the sharp salt scent of Blair's tears; he felt the soft sobs echo deep within his own heart, saw the tiny quivers as his tired guide struggled to regain his composure, and heard the nearly silent hitches in his breathing. Every instinct within the sentinel commanded him to comfort, to protect his guide, and so, without conscious thought, he reached out, drawing Blair into his arms.
Gratefully, Sandburg melted into Jim's embrace, wrapping his arms around his waist and burying his head into the powerful, bare chest. Somehow, though, the familiar comfort of Jim's arms only intensified Blair's heartache, and the pain broke free. He felt his tears running hot and steady down through the dirt and dust and sweat accumulated on Jim's skin. His shoulders heaved, and his fingers clinched and released against Jim's back as though trying to latch on and never let go. "I thought you were dead, man," he murmured. "Oh, God, Jim, I didn't think I'd ever see you again, and now, it's like you're here, but you're not here, and..." Realizing that he was rambling, Sandburg fell silent, just holding onto his friend while the tears flowed.
He felt Jim's hand stroke his hair, while the other hand anchored him against the sentinel. But no loving words were whispered in his ear, no meaningless sounds designed only to comfort. That realization broke Blair's heart, and he fought against his tears. Jim was trying so hard to help him, in the only way he could. It wasn't fair for Blair to need him so much right now, to need Jim's comfort, when Jim was the one who needed him. Jim had always been there for him, strong and steady. Now, it was his turn to be the strong one, to be there for his friend. He couldn't let Jim down. He would not let him down. It simply was not an option.
With a final, shuddering sob, Blair pulled back, just enough to gaze up into Jim's warm, questioning eyes. Sandburg wiped the tears away with the backs of his hands, then reached up to cup Jim's face. "It's okay, man," he whispered. "I'm all right. I guess I was just stressed, and I needed some release. But I'm all right, really. Thanks, Jim." And he smiled.
The sentinel studied his guide's face. The tears were gone, and a trembling smile curved the corners of his full mouth. His breathing was calm, and his heartbeat strong and steady. Jim leaned forward until his forehead rested on his guide's shoulder, then felt Blair's hand come up to stroke his own short cropped hair. He heard the soft, reassuring sounds, and though the words were incomprehensible, he felt the comfort they were designed to convey. When his guide turned back toward the fire, he followed willingly.
Chapter Six: Traditions
The sentinel slept. The exhaustion and pain of the past few days had caught up with him and last, and he could fight sleep no longer. So, now he rested, stretched out beside the fire with his guide sitting less than an arm's length away. In some unconscious part of his mind, he monitored the familiar heartbeat, its constant, beloved rhythm reassuring him as he slept.
Simon glanced from the sleeping sentinel to his guide. Blair hadn't spoken for a long time. He sat perfectly still, staring into the dancing tongues of flame. "Blair?"
Sandburg glanced at him. "Yeah, Simon?"
"You said you'd explain this name thing. Ankaree. What the hell is that all about anyway?"
Blair picked up a stick and drew aimless patterns in the soil. "A while back, I went on a vision quest. I can't tell you much about what happened. That weakens the power of the what I saw. But, I guess it's okay to tell you about my name."
"Your name is Ankaree? What the hell happened to 'Sandburg'?" Simon wasn't so sure he really wanted to hear the story. Visions, spirit guides, and the like weren't exactly subjects dear to his practical, disciplined heart. Yet, he had witnessed too much in the years since Blair and Jim had met to discount anything he heard now.
Blair laughed at that, the first real laugh Simon had heard from the kid since before Jim departed for Peru. "Funny, Simon. Yeah, Ankaree is my name. My spirit name. It was revealed to me in the mountains. It means the "one who interprets." That's what I do for Jim, y'know. I interpret. His senses, his dreams..." Sandburg's voice drifted away as he stared back into the fire.
Finally, Simon asked the question he'd been holding back the entire long day. "What happens if he doesn't get any better?" He nodded toward Jim. "What if this is the way he's going to stay? Permanently?"
There was no hesitation. "Then, he can't return to Cascade. He'd never survive there, not with the influx of sensory stimulation. It would drive him mad. He'd explode, and it's possible he'd hurt someone, if not himself. His best bet would be here with the Chopec. At least here, he understands all the things he senses. The Chopec understand him, and they respect him for his abilities."
For a long minute, there was only the crackling of the fire and the sounds of the night deep in the jungle. When he spoke at last, Simon's voice was quiet. "And you?"
The response was instantaneous. "My place is with him."
Banks stared at Sandburg. "You mean you'd stay here? In this jungle? Give up your career and your life? For what, Sandburg? A man who may never speak to you again? Is that what Jim would want for you? Do you really think he'd ask for that kind of sacrifice from you?"
Blair's tone was soft, yet the determination, the certainty, was unmistakable. "He doesn't have to ask, Simon, and it's no sacrifice. I wouldn't be giving up my life, can't you see that?" He quietly slid closer to his partner, reaching out to lay his hand atop Jim's. "He is my life," he whispered. "He has been for a long time now, Simon. I won't leave him. I can't."
"Because he needs you." The words were a statement, not a question.
"Yes, and because I need him. Just as much." Blair yawned and carefully stretched out beside Jim, facing the fire. "Get some sleep. Tomorrow's likely to be a long day."
As Simon watched, the sentinel's arm came around Blair's chest to pull him closer to him in his sleep. Blair's eyes caught the firelight as he smiled at Simon. "My place is here, Simon," he whispered.
"He will teach you now," Acana told Blair. It was still early morning, and they had gathered beside a small stream near the Chopec settlement to talk with Imaru. Jim, Blair, and Simon sat on a fallen tree across from the old Shaman and his young interpreter. The morning mist still hugged the ground, and the sounds of morning bird calls filled the air.
Imaru spoke for long minutes, as Acana listened intently. Jim cocked his head, as if taking in every word, and Blair wondered how much of the conversation he understood. Maybe he could comprehend Chopec, even if English seemed beyond his grasp at the moment.
At last, Acana nodded. "Imaru says that Incacha has taught Enquiri well. He is a strong watchman. As you are a powerful anamari and shaman. You have much yet to learn, much growing to do, but the power is a seed within you. Together, you will both grow in your powers."
"You wear the pendants of watchman and anamari. Sentinel and guide."
Blair unconsciously fingered the stone pendant around his neck, and as though one, Jim reached for his own as well.
"Incacha was right to give them to you. Yet, not being Chopec, you have not undergone all the training and ceremonies required. Even so, you seem to have learned much and have grown together as one as you should. But, one important step must be taken if Enquiri is to regain control of his gifts."
Acana paused, listening again to Imaru. Blair leaned forward, anxious to hear the next words.
"You must take the shared vision journey which binds the watchman and his anamari as one."
Blair interrupted, "If you mean that we must be bonded, I think, with all respect, Imaru, that we've already done that. We're close. We've accepted our roles in each other's lives."
Acana translated, and Blair was surprised to hear Imaru chuckle as he responded.
"He knows the depths of your love for each other, Ankaree. That is not the purpose of the shared vision." He held out his hands, palms facing, before him. "Once, you were here." He moved his palms closer, until they touched. "As you have grown closer, you are now here. The shared vision will bring you here." He entwined his fingers and curled them down, joining his hands together.
Blair stared at Imaru, his eyes intent. "And how is this done?"
The old man spoke. Acana nodded, then translated. "Imaru will take you to the Temple of the Watchmen and Anamari. There, you will enter the sacred pools."
Blair's eyes widened in amazement. "Pools? A temple?" He turned to his captain in excitement. "He's talking about a temple and pools like we found in Mexico! My God, Simon..." His voice trailed off as words failed him.
Acana watched him curiously. "You know of the temple, Ankaree?"
"Not your temple, Acana; one in another place. I didn't go into the pools. That was a temple only for sentinels. Jim did, though, and had visions. He..." Blair hesitated, remembering how shaken his friend had been after the visions he had seen. "Some of them were disturbing to him."
Acana nodded as if there was nothing at all surprising in Blair's words. "I do not know the purpose of that temple. Nothing here should be frightening to him or to you. It is right for you to go there. Perhaps he had to face those fearful visions to prepare him for the union of your spirits in this place."
Simon laid a reassuring hand on Sandburg's arm. "That makes a lot of sense, Sandburg. From what Jim told me of his visions in Mexico, they helped him face his greatest fear." He did not have to say more. They both knew what that fear was.
"Losing me," Blair whispered. He leaned closer to Jim. "Even though he saw death and pain and suffering in those visions, in the end, his greatest fear was facing all the ways he might lose me. He told me that I was his light. That without me, he could not face the darkness."
Acana had been translating for Imaru. Now, the old shaman spoke again. After a moment, Acana spoke his words in English.
"Enquiri was correct. You are the one who lights his path, and his fear of losing you would be great. Soon, there will be no more need for fear. Those who are one, cannot be separated."
Simon murmured, "Those whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder."
Blair cut his eyes over at his captain and friend. "We're not getting married here, man. Just... I don't know, bonded, I guess."
"Same basic principle, isn't it, Sandburg? Maybe even more binding than marriage vows. I mean, Jim and Carolyn divorced, but I can't visualize him ever letting you go, willingly or not. Bonded, joined, whatever words you use, the bottom line is, you're agreeing to spend the rest of your life with Jim in a relationship that defies explanation."
Blair stared at the ground, his eyes worried. "I have no qualms about making that choice for myself, Simon. Hell, I made it a long time ago. But do I have the right to make the decision for Jim? I mean, he won't understand what he's facing when he enters that pool. Oh, he'll do it, because I ask it of him. But... Can I allow him to make such a commitment when he doesn't really know what he's doing?"
Simon smiled softly. "Blair, he's already made the decision, too. Take it from one who has witnessed the proof. Jim Ellison has no intention of living his life without you." His mind recalled all too vividly the heart wrenching scene in the early morning hours on the Rainier campus, the grief and soul deep denial in Ellison's voice as he cried out for his partner.
Shaking his head slightly to clear away the painful memories, Simon whispered, "You may be leading him into that pool, Blair, but it won't be anything that Jim wouldn't choose willingly for himself, if he was capable of making that choice right now. Don't worry about that."
As he considered Simon's words, the doubt slowly faded from Blair's eyes. "All right, Acana, what's the first step?"
Although he wasn't sure exactly what had transpired during the conversation between Banks and Sandburg, Acana understood that the decision was made. A sentinel and guide were to undergo the joining ceremony. He grinned. "First, you fast until tonight. This will purify your bodies to prepare them for the pools. You will bathe in the river. Then, your bodies will be painted with symbols that speak to the gods. After this is done, you will be taken to the temple where you be given the ceremonial drink."
Blair looked worried. "I don't know, man. Jim sometimes reacts strangely to things he eats and drinks. Are you sure...?"
Acana reassured him. "This drink has been prepared for watchmen since time began. It will not harm Enquiri. The mixture enables you to relax and lets the visions come to you more easily. It will be all right. Later, you will go with Imaru to the river to be cleansed." He stood up, and the others followed his lead. "After purification, you should rest until time for the painting and going to the temple. It will be a long night for you."
Pushing aside the memories of Jim's strident lectures against the use of any concoction designed to lead to an altered state, Blair nodded. "Just one thing. There are men who are looking for Enquiri. They know of his powers, and while he is unable to speak for himself, they may mean him harm."
Acana chuckled as he translated for Imaru. The old man grinned, showing his strong white teeth and spoke rapidly.
"He says not to concern yourself with the men in green who carry the big guns. They will never find the Chopec or the temple. We have lived forever in these jungles. They are only guests here. They see only what we allow them to see."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Blair laughed. "Anyone who can outmaneuver old General Kershaw is okay in my book. Man, that dude is so not cool."
Acana looked at Simon, his expression totally confused. "What does he say? My English is sometimes not very good."
Simon laughed a deep belly laugh. "Acana, sometimes understanding Sandburg is a task too big even for those who speak English every day. Don't worry about it. He trusts you to keep the Army away from Jim. That's all. Thank you."
Relieved, the young Chopec grinned. "How you say it? Cool!"
Through the dense vegetation, two sets of angry eyes watched carefully and listened to every word of the conversation. Then, without a sound, they disappeared into the forest.
General Kershaw turned on the captain, his eyes flashing. "What do you mean, you haven't located Ellison? The man must have been injured in that crash. He's one man, hurt and alone in the jungle. How damn hard can he be to find?"
Captain Michaels tried to reason with his superior. "He's not a normal man, General. That's why you brought him out here in the first place, right? It's just not that simple to find a man like Ellison."
"Of course that's why he was brought here! Do you really think I'd put a man like Ellison in charge of some simple training mission? A man with his abilities could be invaluable to this country, to this army. It is imperative that we study his unique gifts to assess what capabilities he possesses and how they might best be harnessed for the good of the military. I don't care what it costs, or what kind of manpower it takes! You will locate Captain James Ellison and bring him back here! Do I make myself clear, Captain?" The General's voice shook with rage.
Michaels took a step away from the older man's wrath. "Yes, Sir, General. But..."
"What else is there, damnit?" Kershaw barked.
"Well, Sir," Captain Michaels almost stammered over the words. "Ellison, Sir; he has those friends of his looking for him. What if they... Sir, what if they find him first?"
General Kershaw's dark brown eyes turned black with anger. "I don't give a damn who finds him, Captain! Your orders are to bring Ellison back here, regardless of who or what gets in your way. You are to eliminate any resistance to that directive. I repeat -- eliminate any and all resistance." The general began to pace across the tent. "I've waited my entire life for an opportunity like this! I've been granted complete autonomy and total secrecy for this mission, and I do not intend to have any pipsqueak flower child and a know-it-all police captain from the backwaters of Washington state interfere! You and I are the only ones who know the true purpose and the vital importance of this mission. Any and all resistance to bringing in James Ellison will be eliminated, even if I have to come out there and do it myself! That's an order! Do you understand me, soldier?"
With a smart salute, Captain Michaels snapped around and left the General's tent, located in their temporary camp deep within the Peruvian rainforest. He shook his head in frustration. General Kershaw's reputation as a tyrant was well known throughout the military. If he had made up his mind to use Ellison as his personal guinea pig, then the poor man was to be pitied. Kershaw always got exactly what he wanted.
As Michaels headed to his tent, he never saw, never heard, the small, silent figure which crept away into the night.
Chapter Seven: Obfuscation
Blair Sandburg was livid. Acana had disappeared shortly after their meeting, only to return just before Blair and Jim were led to the river for the cleansing ceremony. Worried about Blair's earlier comment about the men in green searching for Enquiri, he had gone to check out the situation for himself. After hearing the General's conversation with Captain Michaels, Acana had repeated all he could understand of the words to Blair, watching as the guide's eyes had grown hard and angry. Now, he watched as the gentle young man with the strange hair paced and raged before him.
"Damn it all to hell, Simon! I told you they would be after Jim! That was their plan all along, wasn't it? Lure him out here in the middle of nowhere with some bullshit story about serving his country, training those poor dead young men, then run who knows what kind of tests on him to assess his powers. And he bought it - hook, line, and sinker. All in the name of his all important duty! Of course, so did I. I never should have let him come alone!" Blair swiped hard at the huge frond of a fern growing beside him at the edge of the clearing.
The sentinel watched his guide with concern and confusion. He didn't comprehend the words, but his great heart ached for his friend's obvious pain. A soft moan emerged unbidden from his tight throat.
Immediately, Blair was at his side, laying his hands on Jim's shoulders and massaging gently. His voice soft now, he murmured, "It's okay, Jim. I didn't mean to worry you, man. It's all right, I promise. They won't get anywhere near you; I'll see to that. I may have dropped the ball once, but I won't do it again."
Simon moved to stand beside them. "This is the United States Army we're talking about here, Sandburg. How the hell do you plan to stop them?"
Blair shook his head in frustration. "I don't know, Simon! Hell, I've had enough to handle worrying about Jim! But, I've got to think of something. I can't... I won't allow them to get their hands on him."
A small voice interrupted their discussion, speaking in Chopec. The men turned to see a young boy standing beside Acana. The Chopec warrior was listening intently to the child's words. Blair glanced at Simon, his eyes filled with curiosity.
At last, Acana nodded seriously, then spoke to Blair and Simon. "He says that the only reason the men in green search for Enquiri is because they believe him to live. If they believed him dead..."
Blair grinned up at Simon. "Of course! It's simple really." His words picked up speed as he explained. "Simon! You'll go back to the camp and find the General. Tell him... I don't care what you tell him, as long as he believes Jim and me to be dead. Make up some story -- anything. That'll buy us enough time."
Simon stared at Sandburg. Jim Ellison stood behind him, hands gripping Blair's shoulders protectively. "Time for what, Sandburg?"
Blair looked up into the intent blue eyes above him. "Time to get Jim back. And, if he doesn't make it back, then at least they won't come looking for us."
Simon stared at the young anthropologist as the meaning of his words became clear. Sandburg had been serious the night before. If Jim Ellison did not return, if he never made it back from the world in which he now found himself, then Blair had no intention of returning to Cascade. If Jim could never go home again, then neither would Sandburg. It wasn't the first time Simon Banks had been stunned by the intensity of the devotion between the two men, yet somehow, it never ceased to astonish him. Simon cleared his throat as he studied the determination in Sandburg's eyes. One lesson he'd learned long ago; there was no use arguing with Blair Sandburg where his sentinel's safety was concerned. "All right, Sandburg," Simon conceded. "I'll head General Kershaw off at the pass." He glanced at his watch. "It's twelve o'clock now. I should be able to make it to his camp by 3:00."
"What are you going to say?" Sandburg glanced over at Jim, who was now staring intently at the young boy waiting beside Acana.
Simon followed his eyes and realized that Blair's concern lay more with Jim Ellison than with whatever story Simon chose to concoct. He reached out to lay a reassuring hand on Sandburg's shoulder. "Leave that one to me, Sandburg. I think you've got enough to worry about right here." He looked over at the child. "Who do you think he is, anyway? Kinda strange, isn't it, a kid walking in here and grabbing everyone's attention like that?"
Blair nodded. "Definitely. There's more to that boy than meets the eye. I intend to find out exactly who, or what, he is." He grinned at Simon. "You know I just can't stand a mystery, especially where indigenous tribes are concerned. Goes against all my anthropological instincts."
Simon checked his watch again. I'll leave that one to you, Dr. Sandburg. If I'm going to try to waylay the entire United States military, I'd better get going." He hesitated, watching Jim as the sentinel stared up into the canopy at a flock of scarlet macaws. "You're sure you'll be all right? Jim's not exactly his old self right now."
A warm feeling of gratitude flowed through Sandburg. Simon Banks might work hard at maintaining his tough, professional facade, but at moments like this, it was nice to know he cared. Plus, it was definitely reassuring to know that such a man was on their side. "We'll be fine, Simon. It'll help just knowing the troops aren't going to be charging in here after Jim at any moment. If you can take care of that situation for us, it would be the best thing you could do for me right now."
Suddenly, it occurred to Simon that if whatever ceremony the Chopecs had planned for Ellison failed, this might be the last time he'd see his friends, at least for a long time. He would have to keep up the illusion of their deaths, at least long enough for the military to give up its interest in the sentinel, and that might take a very long time.
In a flash of insight, Blair realized exactly what was going through Banks' mind. He reached out to squeeze Simon's arm. "Hey, man, don't worry. This thing's gonna work. I mean, the Chopec have been dealing with sentinels a hell of a lot longer than I have, right? They're the real experts here, so we've just gotta trust them. As soon as Jim's back to normal, we'll come in, and then we can head home to Cascade. I gotta tell you, man, home never sounded quite so cool."
Blair flashed a brilliant smile and took a long drink of water from his bottle. "Get going, Simon. The Chopec will take you to the military camp. Give them whatever bullshit story you want. Frankly, I don't care. Just keep them the hell away from Jim and me until tomorrow. Then, they can try whatever they want. Jim will be back to normal, and there's no way they're gonna mess with him then. Right?" He wiped his mouth, his eyes filled with trust both in Simon and the ability of his sentinel to handle whatever the U.S. Army threw at them.
One of the Chopec warriors appeared at Simon's side. "I guess we're ready, then." Banks glanced at Jim, once again standing behind his guide. "Take care of him, Sandburg."
Once more, the brilliant smile beamed at him. "Always, Simon. Always."
"General Kershaw! General!"
Looking up from his paperwork spread across the table in his temporary headquarters, General Samuel Kershaw grimaced at this latest interruption. What the hell was happening now? With a long-suffering sigh, the general left his reports and stepped out of his tent.
Stumbling into the clearing from the jungle was the Cascade police captain, Simon Banks. His clothes were torn and filthy, and the man looked as if he hadn't slept in days. His brown eyes were dazed, and he stared at the general as if looking at an absolute stranger.
"Banks?" General Kershaw glanced curiously at the corporal who had escorted the tall civilian into camp. "What's going on here? Did you find Ellison? Where's that hippie kid you had with you? Sandburg?"
Simon Banks swayed on his feet and was quickly escorted into the General's tent. A glass of cool water was placed in his hands, and he drank deeply and gratefully. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then raised his eyes to Kershaw's.
He rasped, "They're dead. Jim and Blair are dead."
For a moment, Kershaw was stunned. "How? You found Ellison alive?"
Banks shook his head. "No, not alive. At least, I wouldn't call it alive. He..." Simon's voice broke, and he quickly gulped more water. At last, he was able to continue. "We found him yesterday, late in the day. But we didn't find him first. He was...completely entwined in the coils of an anaconda." Simon choked back a sob. "It was horrible." Banks stood up and paced to the tent entrance, staring out into the depths of the rainforest as he spoke in a low, disbelieving tone. "Only his face was still visible above the coils. His eyes were blank, empty. Oh, God, I'll never forget those eyes."
A visible shudder shook Banks' frame. "Jim must have been disoriented and weakened after the crash. His head was covered with dried blood. There was no way that snake would have gotten hold of him otherwise. Anyway, Blair rushed up to him. He screamed that Jim was still breathing, that he was still alive. I'm not really sure if he heard signs of life or not. I don't see how he could have. Jim's face was distorted and gray, and his lips were..." Unable to continue for a moment, Simon shook his head at the memory. "His lips were already blue. His skin was cold. He was already dead. Long dead. That monster had choked the life out of him, inch by inch, breath by breath." There was not a sound in the tent. Simon moved slowly back to the chair and sat down, his shoulders hunched forward. "Blair just lost control. He totally freaked out. He couldn't accept that Jim was gone. He started hacking at the snake with his knife, trying to free Jim. He was like a madman. Possessed." Banks stopped, obviously shaken. "I've never seen anything like it. When I tried to reason with him, he turned on me. Lunged at me with the knife. The look in his eyes was pure hatred and desperation. There was nothing of Blair Sandburg left in those eyes. The man we knew died with Jim Ellison. We struggled, rolling on the ground, for what seemed like forever. I'm bigger than Sandburg, but he was out of his head. You're all military men; you've seen what strength desperation can give." Simon fell silent, his eyes closed, his head tilted back.
Kershaw glanced at the other officers standing around the exhausted man in the chair. "Banks? What happened to Sandburg?"
Simon's breath hitched in his chest. "He rolled over on his knife as we fought. Caught him right in the heart. The blade must have hit the aorta, because by the time I got him turned to check him out, Blair was already dead." Simon's breath caught in a choked gasp. "My God, they're both dead..." He buried his face in his hands, and his shoulders began to shake.
Impatiently, the general asked one last question. "The bodies, Banks. Where are the bodies?"
Simon's answer was nearly lost against his palms. "I couldn't carry them both. Jim loved this place, this jungle, and Blair wanted nothing more in his life than to be with Jim. So, I left them here. I put their bodies into the river and watched as they went over the falls. That was the last I saw of them." He reached into his pocket and withdrew a shiny object, holding it out to the General. "Here's Ellison's gold shield. He's never been without it. I took it from his body before I rolled him into the water."
"Damn it!" A large, beefy hand slapped the gold badge to the ground. His eyes filled with fury, General Kershaw wheeled around and stalked from the tent, followed quickly by his underlings.
When the last footsteps had faded, Simon slowly lifted his head and stared after him. "Bastard," he muttered. He bent and picked up the gold badge, dusting it off reverently before slipping it carefully into his pocket. He had done all he could. Now, all that was left was to wait.
Chapter Eight: Purification
Imaru, followed by Acana, led sentinel and guide to the swiftly flowing waters of the river. Jim stayed close to Blair as they hiked along the barely discernable path leading to the banks of the river. Full Blessed Protector mode, Blair thought wryly, as they approached the sound of the rushing water. If I thought Jim was overprotective back in the normal days in Cascade, then this Jim Ellison is my Blessed Protector Extreme.
A small surge of homesickness pinched his heart as he thought of the life they had left behind. The loft, with its bright morning sunshine, was the first real home the son of nomadic Naomi Sandburg had ever know. His office at Rainier University, so long in coming and so dear in its attainment seemed a universe away. Major Crimes, with their friends and coworkers waiting flashed across his memory. How long before he would see it all again? Glancing at the stoic, silent man beside him, he shivered in spite of the intense heat. Would he ever see it all again?
Jim glanced down, worried, and moved closer to his friend. Blair smiled up reassuringly. "It's okay, Jim," he murmured. "Just a trace of doubt there for a sec. Everything's gonna be fine, right?" Not expecting a response, he continued. "Man, am I looking forward to getting home! Even one of your Wonder Burgers would taste good to me right now. I know, I know... I'm the one who's supposed to get off on the fruit and nuts routine, but I gotta admit, my taste buds are ready for something a little less, shall we say, natural? Maybe some Chinese or even some of your favorite super stuffed crust pizza. My treat. After all..."
Acana's voice interrupted Sandburg's stream of words. "We are here."
Before them, the river rushed over rocks worn smooth by an eternity of liquid polishing. They stood at a small bend in its course where the waters lay calm and tranquil. The brush was thicker here where sunlight was more available, and the trees lined the banks like silent watchmen standing tall and straight.
Imaru spoke, gesturing to the water. Acana listened, then turned to Jim and Blair. "Take these," he said, holding out two garments of tanned, soft leather. "After your purification, you cannot wear your own clothes." He regarded their dirty, ragged attire, then grinned. "Even if you would want to. These are already blessed for tonight's ceremony."
Blair took the clothes and laid them to the side on a large boulder at the edge of the river. "What do we do now?"
Acana gestured to the water. "Remove your clothes. Imaru will instruct you."
For a moment, Sandburg was uncertain. Then he looked to Imaru. The old man winked at him and smiled. "Okay," Blair conceded. "Let's get to it." With no more hesitation, he proceeded to remove every stitch of clothing from his body.
It wasn't difficult to coax Jim to follow his lead. The sentinel seemed willing to obey his guide's every wish, as long as he was able to understand what was expected of him. In mere minutes, they were standing waist deep in water with the old shaman, Imaru, beside them.
Imaru was clothed in a ceremonial robe of painted leather. With only a brief look at all the symbols adorning the garment, Sandburg was unable to decipher all their meanings, but he was able to make out the signs for watchman and guide, or anamari, which looked just as they did on the pendants Incacha had given them so long ago. As he stood beside them in the cool, rushing water, the old man began to speak. The words continued for several minutes, but at last, Acana began to translate.
"Tonight, you will complete your joining as watchman and anamari. It is a ceremony few will ever undergo, because few have been granted the gifts required of those it joins. You have traveled far to be in this place. We do not know what lies beyond the trees and the rivers of this, our home. You have seen more than any Chopec can dream of seeing, yet we are the ones who can bring you peace this night. Enquiri must be joined at last to his anamari. To Ankaree. For it is only through this joining that he will find peace. Ankaree must complete his joining to Enquiri. For it is only through this joining that he will find completion."
Imaru stepped forward, a cloth in his hand. As he held it out, Acana continued speaking in his soft, gentle voice. "This is the time of cleansing, of purification. To enter the temple and its sacred pools, watchman and anamari must be spotless, inside and out. This cloth bears the cleansing powder of the Shaman. You will each wash the body of the other. In this way, you will take the dirt of the world away from each other, so that, when the time comes, you will be cleansed for your joining."
The old Shaman handed the cloth to Sandburg, nodding toward Jim in indication that he should begin. Then, both Chopec waded to the river bank and into the jungle where they disappeared into the foliage.
Slowly, Blair approached his friend. He looked down at the cloth in his hand. It was drenched in a soft, pale powder. He sniffed it and found the scent pleasing, reminiscent of toasted nuts. "Okay, big guy," he said quietly. "Imaru says this is the first step in getting you back. So, as uncomfortable as I feel right now, and let me tell you, I am majorly uncomfortable here, we're gonna do this."
He dipped the cloth into the cool, clear water and brought it up, dripping wet. "Trust me here, Jim, okay?" Carefully, gently, he began stroking the cloth over Jim's arms. When he came to a burn or cut, his hands became even more tender, cleansing the injuries as a parent would tend the wounds of a child. Soon, Blair forgot his discomfort, and he lost himself in caring for his battered partner.
"You're going to be fine, Jim," he murmured. "Believe that. I know it feels good to get this dirt and grime off, doesn't it? How long's it been since the crash anyway? Eight days? Ten? Man, my mind's a blank here. Guess it's really not important, is it? All that matters is bringing you back." His soft voice flowed on, like the cleansing waters of the river which swirled around them.
Slowly and tenderly, the guide washed his sentinel, moving from his arms to his broad chest, then to his powerful back. Once, and only once, Blair glanced upward. Jim's face was relaxed. Gone were the tiny lines of worry and confusion. His pale blue eyes were closed, and a small smile curved his lips. Sandburg's heart constricted. There, in Jim Ellison's face, was a portrait of absolute trust. Naked, hurt, and confused, he still trusted Blair enough to surrender completely to his tender ministrations. The mighty sentinel stood so trustingly, so completely vulnerable, as his guide cleansed his body in a river in the midst of the Peruvian jungle.
Touched beyond words, Blair moved the cloth to wash his partner's face. Jim's eyes remained closed as he gently moved the cloth over his cheeks, his forehead, and, finally, across the delicate lids and brows. Jim breathed a small contented sigh, as soft as the touch of the breeze on their wet bodies. Suddenly needing more contact with his friend, Blair leaned forward and rested his forehead against Jim's strong chest. Strong hands moved to cup his shoulders, and for a few moments, time stood still.
Hating to break the spell, Blair pulled away at last. He dipped the cloth once again into the river, squeezing it to produce more suds, then handed it to Jim. The sentinel stared at the cloth in his hands, as if he had no idea what he was expected to do
Blair started to speak, then stopped himself and waited. Slowly, Jim's eyes met his, their unspoken question clearly understood across the few inches separating them. Blair nodded in encouragement.
Jim began with his face. With hands more gentle than those of a lover, he caressed Blair's brow with the soft cloth. Slowly, he drew the soapy fabric across the planes of his cheeks, down to his chin, then across the other side.
Sandburg closed his eyes with a soft sigh, letting his mind drift as he relaxed into his friend's tender touch. He felt the suds flow down his face, collecting for a moment on his chin and jaw before dropping soundlessly into the river, only to be carried away by the flowing currents.
Jim moved the soft cloth to Sandburg's forehead, stroking it carefully across the sunburned skin. Each delicate eyelid was touched ever so gently, then Jim lightly brushed the suds across the bridge of his nose.
Blair's lips twitched involuntarily as Jim's fingers danced feather light across them, cleansing away the traces of dirt imbedded in the minute lines of his lips, lines and dirt only a sentinel could see. Blair could taste the nutty flavor as his tongue flicked out to wipe away the suds from his mouth.
His eyes still closed, Blair felt Jim's gentle hands guided him around to face the opposite river bank. The soft cloth stroked across his shoulders, then down his back to where the water covered him from the waist down. For a moment, the cloth disappeared, and only the sentinel's strong hands remained, firmly rubbing the last of the tenseness from sore, tired muscles in his neck and back. Then, with utmost care, as if he were handling delicate jewel of infinite value, Jim turned Blair back around to face him.
The cloth trailed down his neck, reaching around back to clean the sweaty grime from beneath his hair. Then, Blair felt Jim's hands reach around his upper back and there was a gentle, yet firm, push against his chest. For a moment, he feared he was falling backwards into the water, then he realized that Jim's strong arms were supporting his entire weight. With absolute trust, he kept his eyes closed and relaxed into his partner's arms.
Jim lowered Blair back into the water until the rushing current covered the back of his head, past his ears, up to the corners of his shuttered eyes. Sandburg sighed in contentment as he felt the dirt and sweat wash away in the refreshing coolness of the river. Still supporting him with one powerful arm, Jim reached out with his free hand to stroke through the soft, wet curls, freeing the trapped dust to be washed away. He gently massaged Blair's scalp, working the roots to cleanse his hair completely.
With no apparent effort, the sentinel brought his guide upright once more. At last, Blair opened his eyes to gaze directly into those of Jim Ellison. His heart constricted in awe at the tenderness reflected there, at the absolute trust mirrored in Jim's eyes.
Imaru and Acana had appeared once more beside them. With a voice barely more than a whisper, the old man spoke a few words, handed the fresh clothing to Blair, then turned and left the river to disappear again into the understory of the forest.
"It is done," Acana spoke softly. "Now, we wait for the nightfall."
Chapter Nine: Hidden Truths
Apparently Jim's exhaustion had overcome his reluctance to sleep once more. By the time the small party returned from the river and settled back into the Chopec camp, the sentinel's eyelids had grown too heavy for him to fight the inevitable any longer. Curled up on his sleeping mat and seemingly convinced that his guide was safely surrounded by their Chopec friends, he slept.
Blair was glad to see sleep wrap his friend in its restful arms. It was obvious that Jim had been running on pure adrenalin since they had located him, injured and confused, in the depths of the rainforest. The calm and relaxing bath in the river must have done the trick, allowing the sentinel to let down his guard and rest. Afraid to wander too far away in the event that Jim might be monitoring his heartbeat somehow even in sleep, Blair settled down nearby to watch the comings and goings in the small Chopec community. He felt his old anthropological training kick in, and soon he was making mental notes on the interactions and customs he saw all around him. It wasn't long before Acana came to sit beside him.
"Is there anything you need?" the friendly young man inquired.
Blair shook his head, as he had an unexpected revelation that all he really needed slept peacefully at his side . He grinned, suddenly inexplicably happy. "Nothing, Acana, but thank you. I do have a question though."
Acana smiled back in response. He wasn't sure of the source of the young American's happiness, but it pleased him to see Blair smile. "You may ask, Ankaree."
As his smile faded, Blair's eyes wandered to a small group of children playing what appeared to be a Chopec version of the African game, Mancala. Among them was the young boy who had appeared earlier in the day. Blair gestured toward the child. "That boy. The one who suggested that the Army would stop looking for Enquiri if they believed he was dead. There's something special about him, isn't there?"
Acana didn't seem surprised at Blair's interest, only nodding sagely. "I wondered when you would ask this. What do your eyes tell you? Does your heart reveal the truth?" Acana waited patiently.
Sandburg studied the youth carefully. The boy was slightly taller than the other children of his age. His body already held traces of the musculature he would certainly develop after puberty, and he moved with the unstudied grace of someone older than his years. For a split second, as if he somehow knew he was being watched, and by whom, the child turned and stared directly at Blair with eyes lighter than those he had seen on any other Chopec. Eyes which were tinged with a hint of the sky.
And in that instant, his heart revealed the truth.
The epiphany shook him to his core. He sat still for several minutes, staring as the young boy resumed his play, and pondering the revelation, along with its innumerable implications. Was there a chance he was wrong? The grace...the strength...the almost palatable aura of intensity which surrounded him. There could be no doubt. Blair spoke to Acana at last. "He's Jim's son, isn't he?"
The Chopec warrior nodded without looking at Blair Sandburg. Both their eyes remained fixed on the boy playing so carefree with his friends.
Blair spoke in hushed tones. "Is he a sentinel, too? Or is it too soon to tell?"
"No, Ankaree, it is not too soon. The boy, Irami, is also a watchman. His path has been clear almost since his birth." He smiled as the boy ran after a small group of younger children, his laughter ringing across the settlement.
The Chopec gave Sandburg time to digest the new information, remaining silent while the guide thought.
"Acana? Did Jim...? I mean, before he left the Chopec to return to the U.S., did Enquiri know? About Irami?" Blair turned to stare at the younger man, his eyes wide with uncertainty. The possibilities were frightening to consider. If Jim had known he had left a son behind in Peru, why hadn't he said anything to Blair? Wouldn't he have realized how important this would have been to his research? To a deeper understanding of Jim's own abilities? If Jim had known, but he had kept this a secret between them, what did it say about the trust Jim had in him?
Seeing the worry in Blair's eyes, Acana smiled softly and shook his head. "Irami was born many months after Enquiri left us, Ankaree. He would not have known the child was coming. You have nothing to fear. Enquiri trusts you with his life; he would have trusted you with this truth, if he had known."
The veil of concern immediately lifted from the clear, blue eyes. Sandburg nodded. "Thanks, Acana." He turned to study the child once more. "Who was she? The mother? She must have been really special. I mean, Jim's taste in women is..." Blair chuckled at images popping into his mind of some of the women, both good and bad, who had attracted his friend over the years. "Well, let's just say it's unique."
Blair thought for a moment before he continued. "And what about the fact that he was on duty? I know Jim felt strongly that he carry on with the job he was sent here to do, even though the rest of his unit was killed in the crash. Why would he have become involved with anyone at such a time?"
Acana nodded. "The woman was very special, a worthy partner to the sentinel. Enquiri did his duty to your army, Ankaree, never forget that. He is a man of honor. He also became part of our tribe. Remember, Enquiri was our sentinel, as well as part of your country's army. He lived as a Chopec lived, and he fell in love with a Chopec woman. She was the granddaughter of Imaru. Her name was Emarani."
Blair stared at the boy as his mind whirled around the incredible possibilities. "Then, this child...Irami...is the son of a sentinel and the grandson of a shaman." The excitement bubbled in his voice. "Man! This is just so unbelievable! Do you know what this could mean?"
"He may possess great powers one day," Acana agreed. "We know he has visions already, and his senses are becoming stronger as he grows older."
Anthropological curiosity born of years of study overwhelmed Blair, and the questions rolled forth in a torrent. "What kind of training is he receiving? Is he already protecting the tribe? I mean, he's young, but if his senses are activated to this extent already, his protective imperative might be as well." As he spoke, the young man's pace increased, his eyes sparkling in anticipation. "Has he found his guide yet? How does that happen anyway, Acana? Is it a selection process or more of an instinctual thing? What about...?" Suddenly the tide of questions ceased as Blair became aware of Acana's amused smile. "Guess I'm going too fast, huh? Please," he gestured toward Irami. "Tell me what you can."
Acana stretched back, propping on his hands. "He is protective of members of his tribe already. But that is not yet his job. He is too young. Imaru teaches him. Every day they meet, and Irami learns the ways of the Chopec sentinel. The sentinel that he will one day become."
Acana glanced from the face of the sleeping father to that of the son, still playing happily with his friends, and Blair's eyes followed. Then the young Chopec looked steadily at Blair. "He has not yet found his guide. But there is time. When the time is right, we will know who his guide is to be. Perhaps the guide will be revealed to Imaru. Perhaps to Irami himself." Wise brown eyes studied Sandburg. "Perhaps it is you who will determine Irami's guide, Ankaree."
"Me?" Blair was genuinely taken aback. "How would I...?"
"You are a shaman, Ankaree. Enquiri's other half. Tonight that joining will be complete, and you will know your sentinel as you have never known him before. As he will know you. There will be no more secrets, no more shadows. It is your strength which will heal Enquiri. Your own power which will bring your Jim back to you just as you know him to be."
Acana looked toward the playing children. "Irami is his son. We believe there will be a connection there for you also. One so close to the father must be close to the son as well. You are not destined to be his guide, however. That role will belong to another, yet unknown. You belong only to Enquiri, but perhaps you will be given some insight into who is destined to guide his son."
A small shiver ran down Blair's spine, and he turned back to stare at the boy. If he felt inadequate to be everything he felt he should be for Jim, how the hell could he even think he might have something to offer this boy? This very special boy? Blair's eyes were pulled back to Jim, and he asked, "Does Irami know that Jim...that Enquiri...is his father? What kind of relationship will he expect them to have?"
A cloud of concern passed over Acana's eyes. "Ankaree... I don't think you understand. In the Chopec tribe, a watchman...or a shaman...does not belong to his parents. Such chosen ones are part of the entire tribe. Before they even walk or talk, they are raised by the tribe's shaman, not by their own parents. In this way, they learn that they are not like others. Their gifts are to be shared among the tribe. Many times, they are never told who their parents are. It is not important."
"Not important? Of course, it's important. It's their family, man!" Blair's voice grew agitated, but remained soft, so as not to disturb his sleeping sentinel. "Jim has to know. He has a right to know!"
Acana soothed, "He may know. But, you must understand that it will not change anything. Not for Irami. He is young, Ankaree, but he knows what is expected of him. He understands who...and what...he is. He may find it interesting that Enquiri is his father, but it will not change his life. There can be no change. Irami is to be the Chopec sentinel. This is our way. And, it is his."
Within Blair, the anthropologist waged war with the devoted friend. The academic within him understood clearly everything Acana had been trying to explain. After all, it made perfect sense. To be raised as a part of the entire tribe rather than as a member of a nuclear family was to be made aware of future responsibilities almost from birth. It would certainly result in a sentinel with more highly developed tribal protective instincts. From the viewpoint of tribal continuation, it was a very rational tradition.
The intellectual rationalization failed to thwart the internal struggle, for the part of Blair that belonged only to Jim Ellison was enraged. How could they dare keep Jim's son away from him? Didn't these people understand how often the man they called Enquiri had been abandoned by those he loved and how that fear of being left alone haunted him? That Blair was the only constant in his life? Didn't it matter at all how much Jim might need this child?
Yet, how could that ever be? Would Jim Ellison be willing to return to this place, permanently, to remain with Irami? Probably not. Jim's allegiance to the people of Cascade was strong. Blair honestly didn't think that his sentinel imperative could be dismissed so easily. Certainly, the youngster couldn't be taken to Cascade. Not with his highly ingrained sense of obligation to his people. Not with his already heightened senses and no guide to help him. Even if that guide was found today, it still wouldn't be right. This was a child of the Chopec, of the rainforest. He belonged here, among his people, in this beautiful, peaceful place. Not on the bustling, crowded streets of the Great City. Not with his father.
Blair sighed sadly as resignation set in. "You're right, Acana. I'm sorry. It's just that... Jim hasn't had an easy life. Having a son would mean so much to him. I only wish he could know."
"He can know, Ankaree. You may tell him, if you choose."
Sandburg stared at the sleeping face of his friend. Asleep, Jim looked so much younger, so much more vulnerable. Blair's own protective instincts rose within him, urging him to spare his sentinel this pain. Did he have the right to tell Jim this news, when there was no chance of a father/son relationship developing? Irami didn't need a father. Didn't want one. Hell, he probably wouldn't understand the importance at all, not when he'd been raised by a strong shaman like Imaru to be the child of the tribe. What would it accomplish to tell Jim?
Yet, even as his heart begged him not to inflict such pain on Jim, he knew that he had no right to keep this secret from his friend. Even if it meant breaking that great heart once more. Jim would have to know the truth. Blair could feel the depths of his friend's pain already. What hurt most was the knowledge that this time, when Jim Ellison felt the pain of rejection once more, Blair Sandburg would be the one inflicting it. For it would have to be Blair who explained to Jim why his own son could never be part of his life.
Chapter Ten: Preparations
Simon Banks watched as the military officers and enlisted men quickly and efficiently packed their gear to pull out of Peru. The training mission was over. A complete, utter failure, and finished, thank God. All the men directly involved in the mission itself, including Jim Ellison, were dead. The living were going home.
Where did that leave him? Somewhere between the two, he thought bitterly. Simon stalked over to the jeep containing his personal belongings, along with those of Blair Sandburg, recovered from their campsite after his report to Kershaw. He took out his canteen, filled now with fresh water, and drank angrily. It left him on a flight back to Cascade, of course. He couldn't remain here. There was no reason for him to stay behind. Jim and Blair were dead, at least as far as the U.S. Army was concerned, and it was vital to keep it that way. He had to keep up the charade. It was the only way for Simon to protect his men long enough for them to undergo whatever crazy ceremony the Chopec believed would bring Jim back and, in the process, salvage Blair's life as well. For all the young man's love of indigenous cultures, it was clear he didn't belong here, in the forests of Peru, for the duration of his life, just to remain with his out-of-touch sentinel.
Simon hated to leave them. What if the old shaman was wrong? What if this ceremony failed? With a frustrated groan, he capped the canteen and slammed it into his duffel. He knew the answer all too well. If this ritual did not succeed, he would never see Jim and Blair again. He couldn't return to Peru without tipping off the military, which, from the suspicion in Kershaw's eyes, would be watching his movements closely, and Blair would never take Jim from the safety of this environment.
No, two lives literally hinged on the powers of an old shaman and whatever magic might lie within the waters of that pool in the temple. Simon shook his head in frank incredulity. Since when did he, Simon Banks --sensible, level headed, logical Captain Simon Banks--start believing in such hocus pocus? Hell, not merely believing in it, but trusting it to save the very lives of his best team?
Since Sandburg. No, that wasn't right either. It wasn't fair to blame the kid for getting him mixed up in all this craziness.
Since Ellison. That was the true epicenter of the incessant earthquake which had become his life. When he had brought in Jim Ellison, the would be detective and former Special Ops officer, to join his Major Crimes team, it had begun. For not too long after that momentous decision, the man's senses had kicked in, and life had never been the same.
Nor did it look like it ever would again.
Simon watched as the last of the equipment was stowed into well-traveled Jeeps in preparation for their departure. Would he have preferred that the events of the past few years had never happened? That Jim Ellison, and with him, Blair Sandburg, had never walked through the doors of his command? Simon considered the question as he climbed into the Jeep which would carry him to his plane.
He settled Blair's backpack on his lap and fingered the familiar, worn fabric thoughtfully as he stared out into the jungle. Memories of the energetic young Ph.D. came clearly into focus, most of them accompanied by pictures of Jim beside him. They were quite a pair, those two. Different as daylight and dark, yet their souls were bound together by something so deep and so powerful that Simon sometimes had to take a step back in awe, to distance himself from the vital force which surrounded them. It was almost too much to comprehend. And, if their friendship had been powerful and incomprehensible before, what the hell would they be like after this, if the ceremony to bond them even more deeply, was successful?
Simon shook his head, unable to visualize what the results might prove to be. He focused instead on the more ordinary images. Camping trips together...basketball games at the Jags' arena...spontaneous two-on-two matches between the partners, himself, and Daryl... Blair's infectious laughter and his unwavering, deep devotion to his partner...Jim's quiet, glowing pride and obvious love for Blair...the teasing and the banter...
All the good times.
No, he was glad to be a part of that. A part of them. Honored to be included in their golden circle of light and friendship and love. Simon refused to believe he would never see the miracle that was their partnership again.
It couldn't be over. Not yet.
His hands clasped tightly behind his back, General Kershaw stalked over to the Jeep where Simon waited, and the Cascade police captain quickly stowed Blair's backpack under his feet. For a brief, unreasonable moment, he didn't want that man to even lay his eyes on the cherished pack. Somehow, it seemed a violation of Sandburg's privacy.
"Banks, you're ready to pull out?" The General's rough voice held more command than question.
Simon Banks could match gruffness with the best of them, and he knew how to work it to his advantage. "Ready, Kershaw," he replied brusquely, purposefully omitting the title of respect.
The omission did not go unnoticed. The older man nodded. "No reason for you to stay behind, now is there? I saw you staring out into the jungle a minute ago." His eyes bored deliberately into Simon's, seeking some sign of weakness and deceit.
Banks held his gaze steadily, returning the General's cold stare without flinching. "Just thinking about my friends and how they died, Kershaw. Now, tell my driver to get on board, and let's get the hell out of here." Simon's attitude spoke of a man accustomed to issuing orders and having them obeyed.
For a long moment, their eyes held, two strong men in positions of authority, each challenging the other in unspoken defiance. At last, Kershaw's eyes broke the impasse, and he turned abruptly to order his men, "Let's go! Move it out!" He whirled away from Simon and stalked toward his Jeep.
Simon's half smile was bitter as he muttered under his breath, "Go to hell, you bastard."
As his Jeep roared out of the compound, kicking up a spray of mud behind, Simon never looked back.
It was time to begin the remainder of the preparations for the ceremony.
Sentinel and guide were still dressed in the same traditional Chopec ceremonial garb they had donned at the river. Softly tanned leather, shaped into the briefest of breechcloths, and painted with symbols Blair had already identified as being similar to those adorning their sentinel/guide pendants. He thought back to the meanings of the symbols, the meanings Jim had explained to him the night of his thirtieth birthday as they stood on their balcony overlooking Cascade, and the vows they had taken on that magical, starry night.
The sentinel/guide bond is forever, Chief. No matter where we go, what we do, we will always be linked...joined. You could no more live without your sentinel than I could survive without my guide... There's nothing left for me in a life without you in it... You will never be alone again. I will always be your Blessed Protector and keep you safe... I love you, Blair. More than I've ever loved anyone in my life. More than I ever thought possible... Jim... There is nowhere in this universe I'd rather be than at your side... I promise I'll never leave you...I'll always be there when you need me... I love you, too, more than anything...
Somehow, it seemed that everything they had been through, all they had survived, had been a guiding light leading them toward this night. Somehow, it gave Blair hope that maybe, just maybe, all the pain had been for some veiled purpose which was to be revealed tonight. The horrific night shift...Alex...his dissertation's release...that heart wrenching press conference...Jim's painful revelation of his sentinel abilities... Perhaps there had been a reason for everything after all.
As they waited for Imaru and Acana to finish mixing the bright pigments with which their bodies were to be painted, Blair moved closer to Jim and whispered, just loud enough for his sentinel ears to hear, "Jim? Man, I am so far out of my element here, it isn't even funny. I don't have a clue what's gonna happen tonight, much less how it's gonna affect us for the rest of our lives. But, I remember what we said to each other that night, and I know somewhere down inside that you remember, too." He reached up and grasped the familiar weight of the stone pendant which hung against his bare chest. "No matter what happens, I am not leaving you. I promised you that, and I meant it. Peru or Cascade or Antarctica, it really doesn't matter, 'cause it's you that I'm with, and it's you I'm gonna stay with. We're in this together, Jim. It's forever, man. I promise." His heart tightened at the thought of Irami and the relationship that could not be. "You've got me, man," he said with a trace of quiet laughter. "Okay, so maybe I'm not all that much, but I'm yours."
As if in answer, Jim lightly touched his own pendant, then reached out to run a sensitive fingerpad across the one which hung around Blair's neck. His eyes grew curious as he traced the carved figures of sentinel and guide, of jaguar and wolf. Then, his blue eyes caught Blair's and held, asking a silent question he could not voice.
A friendship such as theirs needed no words. Blair smiled encouragingly. "That's right, man. It's us. You and me, Jim. Forever." He moved his hand over Jim's, and Blair tightened his hand over his friend's fingers. "I promise you."
Imaru and Acana approached holding simply carved wooden bowls filled with pigments obtained from the bark, berries, and fruits of the rainforest. Blair lowered his hand, releasing his grip on Jim, and turned to face them. "We're ready," he declared, his voice ringing with determination. "We're ready."
The two Chopec led them deeper into the forest, away from the settlement. The ceremonial painting, Acana explained, was a sacred process and not for the eyes of the tribe. Blair wondered briefly if the young sentinel-in-training would join them, but Irami never appeared.
When they halted at last, it was beside a small waterfall and a swiftly flowing, bubbling stream. Both Chopec immediately set to work laying out their pigments in what appeared to be a carefully orchestrated ritual. Blair kept Jim to the side, leaving the other two men room to work. The sentinel watched them carefully, seemingly curious about everything going on, but not overly concerned about their safety in the company of these familiar men. His head turned almost constantly as he monitored their environment, sometimes pausing to listen intently to some inaudible sound from far away in the depths of the jungle. Jim was never still; he never ceased his now too familiar scanning. Blair watched, and his heart filled with pain for his friend.
Ah, Jim. Come back to me, man. This overprotectiveness gets old way too fast, y'know? I admit it. I miss you. I miss the old Jim Ellison. Whatever these guys have planned for us tonight, I just hope it brings you back. I need you with me. You, the real Jim, not this super sentinel.
He was struck by the irony of the situation. Practically all his life, Blair had dreamed of finding his sentinel. Now, he had the ultimate sentinel, and all he wanted was to get his all too human partner back.
Blair's reverie was interrupted when Imaru spoke rapidly in Chopec. When he finished, Acana translated.
"You will be painted with the traditional symbols of watchman and anamari. These colors come from the earth. They reflect our oneness with this world, and our need to protect it, just as a sentinel protects the guide and the tribe."
Imaru dipped one finger into the deep blue pigment and took a step toward Sandburg, but he was stopped when Blair grasped his wrist. His eyes never left those of the old shaman as he spoke. "Imaru, you are a powerful shaman. I know that I do not have your wisdom, your power, even though Incacha gave me the title of Jim's shaman. Please tell me now. Am I truly the one destined to be Enquiri's guide? Am I the one he needs beside him? He believes that it is so, but... Sometimes, I'm just not so sure. I can't go through with this if... If I'm the one who will end up failing and getting him killed. I'd rather leave him now than face that." Half afraid of the answer, he waited, staring at Imaru with eyes begging for truth.
Slowly, the old shaman's eyes crinkled in restrained laughter, even though his face remained a mask of seriousness. He spoke only a few words before Anaca began his translation.
"Imaru says that Incacha was sure you are the one who is to be the sentinel's shaman and guide. Enquiri has no doubt that you are his guide. Imaru is sure that it is Ankaree who is destined to guide Enquiri. Why do you doubt your own destiny?" Frankly curious, Acana cocked his head and watched Blair carefully.
Blair's heart lurched into his throat. Whydid he have his doubts? He had never been an especially insecure person, except about this. Perhaps it was because the stakes were so damned high. "I...I'm not sure. I guess it's because Jim's the special one. I'm just...me. I know I had my vision about how I'm his interpreter, but I wonder if that's gonna be enough, y'know?" Blair's voice grew serious as he tried to help them understand his fear. "His work is so dangerous, Imaru. Will I be enough to keep him from getting killed? Will I ever be all that Jim needs me to be?"
A wizened hand reached up to softly stroke the young guide's cheek as a stream of Chopec flowed. "Imaru says that you have been all Enquiri needs from the instant you were born. You were destined to be together from the moment you each drew first breath. Do not doubt your role, Ankaree. It is simple. Without you, the sentinel would not survive. Without him, you would die. This is the way of sentinels and guides. Accept your place in his life, and his in yours. You are all he needs, all he will ever need. Is he not all that you require as well?"
Blue eyes and black held for long moments before Blair nodded his understanding. "Yes. He is. Thank you, Imaru. I believe you are telling the truth." His heart suddenly soared within him. He was Jim's guide and his shaman. He would be enough to keep Jim safe. He had to be.
There was one final answer he required. "One more thing... What happened to Emarani? I know she was Imaru's granddaughter, and she was Irami's mother, but where is she?"
The old shaman did not speak, but Blair had the feeling he understood the question, even though Acana did not translate Blair's words into Chopec for him. The younger Chopec answered, speaking softly. "She died giving birth to Irami. She never saw her son born, but she knew he was destined to be a great watchman. She knew this for she knew the strength of the father."
Blair gazed at Imaru, sadness clouding his eyes. "I am sorry, Imaru." The old man merely nodded his thanks.
"Now," Acana instructed. "It is time to begin."
The jet disappeared into the cloudless sky, leaving only a trail of vapor to mark its path. The tall, broad shouldered man tracked it until the streak of silver was no longer visible to the unaided eye. With a smile, he turned to his companion. "He's gone. Now we return to the jungle and find what we've been searching for."
Captain Michaels stared at the general in confusion. "But, Sir," he stammered. "There's nothing to find. You heard what Banks said. Captain Ellison's dead."
The general strode purposefully toward his waiting Jeep, waving away the comments with a disdainful hand. "Ellison's a survivor, Captain. There's no way in hell he died the way Banks described."
The two men climbed into the vehicle. "No, James Ellison's alive and out there in that jungle somewhere. My guess is, he's found the tribe that took him in last time, and they're giving him protection. Simon Banks was covering their trail. Keeping us off their backs." Nodding back up the same road which had brought them to the airport, he settled back as Michaels pulled the Jeep away from the parking lot.
The younger man glanced over at his superior. "How do we find them, Sir?"
Kershaw's laugh was hollow. "Even in these jungles, money talks, son. Money talks."
The Jeep disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Darkness fell upon the rainforest early, the thick carpet of the canopy quickly obliterating all remaining sunlight. Sentinel and guide waited quietly at the edge of the village. Throughout the late afternoon, they had been left alone, and they had seen nothing of either Acana or Imaru. Jim had slept some, but Blair had been unable to relax enough for sleep to claim him. He was all too aware of the importance of the coming evening. By morning, he would either have Jim back, completely and wholly himself, or he would have to adjust to spending the rest of his life here in the Peruvian jungle among the Chopec. It was not a comforting scenario to contemplate.
The Chopec themselves were subdued, as if the importance of the coming ceremony had dimmed their usual exuberance. They spoke in low voices, glancing frequently at the two men resting at their camp's edge. The only sustained eye contact came from Asama and his cohorts. They had returned to the camp only a few hours before from what Sandburg assumed had been a hunting mission. Now, their steady glares were all too obvious, and Blair had to force himself to ignore their evident antagonism.
Sandburg traced some of the paintings which now decorated his chest, arms, and face. Imaru had a steady hand for someone of his advanced years. The intricate swirls, circles, and figures were meticulously formed in varying hues of green, blue, red, and orange. Studying his guide's pendant, Blair immediately found many obvious similarities.
For a moment, his heart froze. His entire adult life had been spent studying the belief systems of indigenous people around the world. He had even been accepted as an 'honorary member' of several tribes. Never had he dared dream of a day such as this. Tonight, he would be the main participant in an ancient, hallowed ritual of the Chopec, Jim's adopted tribe. Sandburg shook his head and chuckled softly. To think of all the debates he'd participated in as a young undergrad on the necessity of maintaining one's objectivity when studying a culture such as this. Objectivity, hell. He'd lost his objectivity where Jim was concerned within hours of finding his sentinel, and now... How could he keep any shred of objectivity with the high stakes involved tonight?
Would he write a paper on this experience when, and if, he returned to Cascade and Rainier? As a part-time assistant professor, he was expected to publish regularly in the respected journals of his field. This would be the mother of all research studies! Sandburg chuckled softly at the thought of facing a panel of his peers and explaining exactly how he had found himself in Peru, half naked, painted with traditional spiritual symbols from head to toe, waiting to be led to a Chopec temple to consume a concoction of who-knows-what and to enter a mystical pool. All in an desperate effort to complete the bond which already joined him to a former Army Ranger police detective who, in the past five years, had become his brother.
Man, would Chancellor Edwards love this one!
Blair leaned back, propping on his hands, and stared up into the canopy. The flickering flames of their fire illuminated the winding branches and vines, painting a virtual pen and ink spider web above his head. A scarlet macaw sailed effortless through the maze of branches. He grinned broadly, knowing that the decision had been made before the question was ever asked. There would be no paper from this experience. The Chopec were entrusting him with their most sacred secrets in order to help Enquiri. He would not, could not, betray that trust. Whatever happened tonight would remain between them, not to be shared with outsiders, regardless of the accolades it might bring to him personally. That was of no importance anyway. All that mattered was getting Jim back. With that accomplished, he could leave Peru and return to Cascade with no regrets about what keeping the Chopec's secrets would cost him professionally.
His musings were interrupted by the sound of softly padding footsteps. Blair looked over to see the young boy, Irami, standing above the sleeping sentinel. The child stared at the face of his father for several minutes, his expression never changing, never revealing whatever emotions he might be experiencing. Only the muscle in his square jaw twitched almost imperceptibly as he regarded his father. Blair smiled in wonder as he watched.
Irami knelt and studied the sentinel pendant hanging from Jim's neck, then crept silently over to Blair. The child reached out and took the guide's pendant in his hand, tracing the carved images with his sensitive fingertip. He turned it over and smiled at the image of the wolf, carved there by Incacha so long ago.
The boy whispered something in Chopec.
"He says that you have found your sentinel." Acana was standing behind Irami, as if he had appeared on the wind blowing gently through the trees.
Blair's eyes never left the boy's face. "Yes. I found Enquiri. I am his guide. Please, ask him if he knows yet who is to be his guide."
Acana's look was puzzled. "I have already told you, Imaru has not yet named Irami's guide. If Irami knew this, surely he would have told his shaman and teacher."
"I know," Blair whispered. "But, as you said, it may not be Imaru's role to discover who it is to be. I think Irami may already know his guide. Just as Jim knew me."
Doubtfully, Acana repeated Blair's question in Chopec. The boy's serious blue eyes darted quickly to Blair, and a half smile caressed his lips. He murmured softly.
Acana's eyes widened. "It is true, Ankaree! He does know his guide. But, he says it is not yet time to tell Imaru. He believes the shaman will also come to know in time, that it is better to allow Imaru to discover this for himself." The Chopec warrior laughed quietly, glancing from the boy to Ellison. "Irami says it is not for the young student to instruct the teacher. At least, not yet, anyway."
Blair grinned at Jim's son, reaching out to ruffle his light brown hair affectionately. "You've inherited your father's sense of humor, all right, along with that jaw and those eyes." His worried face sought Acana. "Does he know...that Jim is his father?"
"He knows. Imaru told him this afternoon. Irami is curious, as any child would be. But he does not miss his father or mother. His role is not that of other children, and Irami knows this. He only wants to see this man, the one who gave him life. He expects little more."
"How do you know?" Blair erupted, still keeping his voice low to avoid waking Jim. Even with its soft tone, the frustration resonated clearly. "How can you be sure he doesn't want to be a part of Jim's life, to know his father, not just see some stranger who's a curiosity to him?"
Acana quickly translated the words to the boy. Irami smiled - a small, secretive smile - then spoke rapidly in Chopec. As he spoke, Blair realized with striking clarity that his eyes were not those of a child, but shone with the wisdom of the ages.
I am Chopec. One day, I will become the sentinel of the Chopec tribe. Enquiri gave me life, but he is not my father. My father is the tribe, the Chopec people, just as my mother is the forest and all the animals that live within her. They care for me now; I will care for them when I am grown. I know this is not your way. But it is ours. Enquiri will understand, for he is Chopec.
Tears filled Blair's eyes, and his throat tightened in a mixture of sadness for both Jim and Irami's loss in not knowing each other and in admiration for the young boy's courage. This child would miss so much by never really knowing his father. But, to understand and accept one's given role in life so young, and to be so proud of a future still so far in the distance was a wonderful thing.
Blair spoke once more to the child as Acana translated. He kept his eyes firmly anchored to Irami's, trying to reinforce the truthfulness of his words. "Your father, Enquiri, is also an important and strong sentinel, Irami. He protects his tribe and his guide well. He is a courageous and good man. Please remember that. You are to honor him and be proud of him, as he will be of you."
The boy nodded gravely, his eyes speaking his understanding and gratitude. With one last look at the sleeping Enquiri, he disappeared into the darkened forest.
Imaru appeared beside Acana. The younger Chopec nodded at the old shaman's words. "Awaken Enquiri now, Ankaree. It is time to go to the temple."
It was a long hike through the rainforest to the temple. The two Chopec apparently knew the route well, never stumbling or hesitating on their trek through the jungle. Blair, on the other hand, found himself tripping over stones and roots almost immediately. Still not speaking a word, Jim reached out and took his guide's arm in a firm grip, leading him safely through the night, his sentinel sight seeing obstacles long before they were close enough to endanger Sandburg.
One moment, the rainforest seemed untouched by human hands, a never ending montage of towering trees and sinuous vines and abundant ferns. Then, without warning, it appeared, rising majestically out of the evening mists. A stone structure, not quite as large as the temple in Mexico, but impressive in its own right, shaped like a pyramid with long, mossy stone steps leading to the open central doorway.
The moonlight cast a silvery, mystical glow on the gray stonework, illuminating the intricate carvings etched centuries before into the rock.
"The temple," Acana said simply.
Blair approached in hushed reverence as the Chopec led the way up the stairs. The awed anthropologist felt as if he were in a waking dream. Then, they were inside.
Here, as outside, the walls were brimming with carvings. Immediately, Blair recognized some as similar to those decorating their stone pendants. This truly was a place dedicated to sentinels and their guides. One particular scene caught his eye, and he moved to stand before it, Jim right at his side.
There, carved high into a stone wall, was the identical portrait of the ancient sentinel and guide which appeared on both their pendants. The sentinel stood tall and dignified behind his guide, his hands protectively gripping the smaller man's shoulders. Both stared into the distance toward an illusive vision they alone could see. Blair stared down at the identical carving on his pendant, then back up at the wall. "Oh, man," he breathed in wonder. "It's us!"
Imaru laughed quietly, then spoke rapidly in Chopec.
"It is all sentinels and guides, Ankaree, throughout time," Acana translated. "You and Enquiri. Irami and his guide. This ancient watchman and his anamari. It does not matter what the faces look like, nor the names. The bond, the responsibility, the commitment, remains the same, throughout the ages."
Blair turned to gaze into Jim's face. The puzzled blue eyes looking down into his nearly broke his heart. How he longed to see some sign of recognition there, some hint of Jim's humor and affection looking back at him! In a voice choked with emotion, he asked quietly, "Is it time? I want my partner back."
Imaru nodded and led them toward the single, rectangular pool set into the stone floor of the temple.
In the inky night, four men met beneath the forest canopy.
"You can take us there?" The loud, gruff voice broke the peacefulness of the forest, as out of place in its tranquility as a factory smokestack would have been towering above the trees.
In halting English, one of the Chopec replied, "We must go now. Soon, it may be too late."
Slipping the money into eager, waiting hands, the harsh, commanding voice ordered, "Then let's move. I won't lose this chance again." As one who is accustomed to having his orders immediately obeyed does, he turned and moved away without waiting to see if the others followed.
The forest enveloped them, and they were gone.
The liquid was bitter as it slid down Sandburg's throat. This better work, man, because this stuff majorly sucks. He glanced over at Jim obediently finishing the last of his drink. "With your senses in overdrive, I bet that tastes horrible, Jim," he whispered. "Just hang in there, man. Hang in there for me a little longer."
The walls were beginning to swirl and writhe. Cool... He rubbed his eyes with clenched fists and looked again. Still doing their snake impression.
Acana gently supported his shoulders, lowering him carefully into the lukewarm water of the pool, while Imaru assisted Ellison in the same way. Then, without Blair realizing what had happened, they were floating side by side. Blair glanced over to the sentinel in concern. "Jim...?"
"He will be all right, Ankaree. Rest. Allow the visions to appear to you."
"What...? What will the vision be?" His own words rang hollow and distant in his ears, like an echo from the past drifting in with the fog across the ocean.
Acana's voice seemed to come from very far away. "They will be whatever you and Enquiri need them to be. When you awaken, you will be as one."
He could resist no longer. The silence and darkness enfolded him in their beckoning arms.
Chapter Eleven: Metamorphosis
The guide became the sentinel...
Strange, seeing the world through another's eyes.
Even stranger...feeling the ache of another's heart.
For that was where he found himself, living inside Jim's heart, dwelling within his very soul. Flashes of brilliant memories, some recent, others distant, flooded his mind and overwhelmed his emotions. Each one enveloped him with a completeness which placed him directly inside the memory rather than as an observer merely watching events unfold. He was living Jim's life, just as the sentinel had lived it, with all the accompanying emotion and fear and pain.
The consequences of the living were heartbreakingly vivid.
"Mama! Please! Don't go!" Why is she leaving? Doesn't she love us anymore? She loves Steven; she's always loved Steven. It's me. I'm the freak, the one nobody wants. I'm a freak, 'cause Daddy said so, and she just doesn't love me anymore. My mama's leaving, and I'll never see her again. "Please! Mama, come back! Mama? Mama? Please?
"Hey, let Jimmy hide this time! He always finds us, so this time, he's not gonna be 'it'! Run, Jimmy! Hide! Bet we can find you!" Where are they? It's been too long. I haven't even heard them looking yet. Haven't heard them talking at all. Why aren't they looking for me? It's getting dark, and Daddy will be mad, and I'm getting scared. Where is everyone? Why didn't they come look for me? Why did they leave me?"
"Damn it, Jimmy! Do you have to say crazy things like that in front of people? You know everyone thinks you're strange enough as it is. They don't need any more ammunition to use against this family. Why can't you just stop lying about what you see and hear and be normal like Steven? Can't you just be more like your brother?"
His voice on the phone. I'll just tiptoe by and get my ball from the closet. Maybe he won't hear me... Listen... "No, Mac, she didn't say why she was leaving. Not really. Had to be the kid, though. I mean, I know I work long hours, but she knew that going in. Who wants to deal with a child like him, though? Always lying, making up crazy stories... She never was a patient woman, you know. Anyway, what's done is done. I'll just have to make the best of it. Thank God, I've got Sally. And that Steven's normal. One of my sons is bound to make me proud at least. Live up to the family name."
"Sometimes, I wonder why I ever thought you could love me! You don't need anyone, do you, Jim? Have you ever really needed anyone? Ever really loved anyone? I don't think you even know the meaning of the word! Maybe you never will. Face it, Jim. This marriage isn't working. For either of us. I'll stay in a hotel tonight. We can work out the details later, okay? I'll call you."
Fire...smoke...flames...searing heat and agonized screams...then, nothing...time floats by on an endless wave...sight... sound...taste...touch...scent...all too intense, too extreme...more screaming, my own voice this time...seems to go on for an eternity before soothing hands and a quiet voice speaking unfamiliar words eases the agony...Incacha...
Rainier University...crudely lettered sign bearing the name of 'Blair Sandburg'...desperation clutches my heart...the fear of lurking madness fights me for control...suddenly, the anger explodes...slamming him hard against the wall while hateful words spew forth...storming from the office into the too bright sun, the too hot heat of day...there, in bright contrast, red against blue...spinning...whirling...graceful arc beneath the perfect azure sky...hypnotic...mesmerizing...a shove from behind...hitting the ground hard while noise and smells and darkness surround me...confusion...shock...embarrassment...realization of what almost was as those compassionate deep blue eyes lock onto mine...could lose myself in those eyes...please, help me...
Warmth...the familiar sights and sounds and smells of home...soft lighting...peaceful music...another presence, comforting familiarity...laughter...contentment...happiness...
Splashing water...morning dew sparkling on the grass...a body laid out on the ground...the haunting absence of that beloved heartbeat...waves of indescribable agony...pure desperation...breathing again and again and again and again...trying to force life into a empty shell which breathes no more..."Come on, Chief! Breathe, damn it!...This can't be happening...this can't be happening...this can't be happening...What do you mean, 'sorry'? This isn't over...No! No! He's alive! No! Don't you go! Oh, God, no..." denial...overwhelming grief...a pain so deep it defies description...then, faintly, a glimmer of bright hope at the edge of the darkness... a wolf and an ebony jaguar race toward each other, then collide in a flash of blinding light... "I can hear a heartbeat! Come on, Chief...come on...come on...come on, buddy..." followed by relief, an emotionally exhausting, soul soaring relief...lives will go on...
Floating in the pool of tepid water beside his guide, the sentinel dreamed.
He had become the guide. Entering into his friend's soul, and with his entrance, experiencing every feeling, every nuance of emotion, every surge of happiness and sadness Blair Sandburg had ever known. It was physically painful, knowing the power of his agony, the heights of his joy, the infinite breadth of his devotion, and the astounding depths of his love. The sentinel's heart pounded viciously in his chest as visions of the past exploded before him and around him and inside him, and with the visions, the passions which accompanied them.
Innocence...playing with a young, long haired Naomi on a bright summer's day...chasing butterflies in a grassy field, running on churning, chubby, toddler legs and shouting with joy...listening to crickets chirping while lying in my mother's arms in a cabin deep in the mountains...a sense of never ending safety and happiness which envelopes me in its warm embrace...the world is a wonderful place...
"Hey, it's that hippie woman's kid! Look at that hair, would you? Haven't seen anything like that since I took my dog to the vets last month. Hey, kid! What's your name? Some fairy name, right? Look! He's running away! Let's get him! C'mon, run!" Pounding feet, matched only by my pounding heart...desperately trying to escape, only to realize that the pursuers are getting closer and closer...the first fist connects with the soft flesh of my belly...flying fists and pain and cries and pounding fists and pain and more sobs...Why do they hate me? What did I do? I don't even know them...
Alone...My mother's gone again...she hates to leave me...why does she always leave me...she'll be back soon...soon must mean a long, long time..what if she never comes back...who will love me then...what if nobody ever loves me enough to stay?
He's coming in my room again...so silent...so secretive...wish he wouldn't touch me there...where's my mama?...must be quiet...mustn't make noise...mustn't tell...mustn't cry...mustn't ever tell...
New town, new school...eyes staring...the teacher has that same look as she reads my records...why do we move so much?... don't we have a home?...Naomi says we'll stay here for a while, so maybe I can make friends...real friends don't hurt you, and they don't leave...do they?...I think I'd like to have a friend...maybe...some day...
...by Richard Burton...protect their tribe...highly developed senses...watchman...need someone to watch their back...protect the sentinel...men of honor, courage, and loyalty...I have to learn more...have to find out so much...wonder if there are sentinels today...I will find one...some day...
"...you're my thesis!" ...adrenaline pumping...found my sentinel...found him...found him...found him...my dream come true...can't let him leave...have to make him listen...please, please, please, hear me...don't turn me away...you need me...I need you...please, let me in...please, Jim...
Joy..."Chief"...hearing the words "my partner" for the very first time...feeling the warmth of a strong, protective arm wrap around my shoulders...affectionate cuffs..."my little guppy"...the light of approval glowing in warm, blue eyes...coming home to stay for the first time...some day is here...
Fear...Golden...Lash...Brackett...heights...spiders..."I can be you...." fear of rejection...of failure...of never being 'enough'...of no longer being needed...of once more becoming the outcast...fear of losing the most enduring, most precious relationship of all...fear of losing my grip on the treasured 'brass ring'...desperate fear gripping my heart as I hear those cold, cutting words, "I need you gone"...looking down the barrel of Alex's gun and feeling only regrets...regret that I'll never see the ocean again...never feel rain on my face...never see Naomi's smile...most of all, the heart wrenching regret that I will die alone and never get the chance to make things right with Jim...Jim...Jim...I'm sorry, man...so sorry...sorry I couldn't be enough...
Love...for a sometimes exasperating, but always devoted, mother...for a grandparent long departed...for girls and women who had come into my life, then vanished...for my surrogate family, Simon and Daryl...and above all else, for my sentinel, my friend, my partner and brother...most deeply felt of all, was my abiding love for my sentinel, for Jim..."It' all about friendship. I just didn't get it before."
The sentinel's great heart broke over and over as he experienced completely the life of his guide. How had the young man endured so much, yet managed to retain his kindness, his generosity, his sensitivity? He longed to cry out, to escape from the painful images playing over and over in his mind, in his heart, in his soul, yet he could not, even if he had been given the choice to do so. If Blair had possessed the courage to live his life, then surely, Jim could draw upon the courage to experience it as he had.
Hot tears flowed down Ellison's cheeks from his closed eyes, dropping steadily into the tepid waters of the temple pool, only to merge with those of Blair, blend, and float silently away. Neither man uttered a sound, yet, within both their minds, the drama played on.
While the visions continued throughout the night in the minds of sentinel and guide, Acana and Imaru slept some distance away. It was important that the presence of their spirits not disturb the dreams of those resting in the pool. At morning's light, they would return and wait for the emergence of Enquiri and Ankaree. For now, they could rest.
They never saw the two shadowy figures slip into the temple. No sound disturbed their slumber as one of the dreamers was spirited away, still deep within his visions. Even after the intruders had departed, the jungle and the Chopec slept on.
The sentinel revived slowly. At first, his newly awakened awareness consisted only of a vague feeling that he was floating. Then, he gradually realized that he was not Blair Sandburg after all, but James Ellison. His blue eyes shot open as the memories came flooding back. His own memories now, too long buried.
The crash in the jungle... Leaping out of the doomed helicopter at the last possible second... Branches and leaves rushing by in a blur of green and brown...Screams and smoke and flames and noise... Tumbling over the ground, his clothing on fire... An intense pain as his head struck the trunk of a tree... Nothing...
Jim bolted upright in the pool, shaking his head violently to clear away the lingering cobwebs. Impressions nagged at him from the darkest corners of his mind. Blair? Had Sandburg actually been here, or had he merely dreamed his guide's presence? No, the visions were far to real to have been merely a figment of his own imagination. Blair must have been here. There was no other explanation for the vividness of what he had experienced.
Standing slowly, he gazed around the temple. Similar to the one in Mexico, but the carvings on these walls were different. Not the same, but eerily familiar. Jim stared down at the pendant hanging on his chest from its leather cord, then at the painted shapes adorning his body. The symbols for sentinel and guide. They were repeated on the walls which surrounded him.
He tested his senses. Perhaps a little over stimulated, but he could dial them down with no problem. Playing out his sense of smell cautiously, he immediately honed in on the familiar, comforting scent of his guide. Blair Sandburg had been here, and not so long ago.
So, where was he now?
There were no sounds from outside the temple beyond the continuous cacophony of the jungle symphony. Jim carefully made his way from the pool, looking with renewed curiosity at the designs painted over his body and the leather breechcloth which covered him rather skimpily. The answers obviously couldn't be found within the temple.
He stepped out into the world.
Chapter Twelve: Poetic Justice
Dawn was breaking in the jungle. Listening intently, Jim cocked his head, searching for some sound which would tell him where Sandburg had gone.
There... The quiet, padding sound of footsteps approaching from deep in the jungle. He waited.
Imaru and Acana emerged from the trees to see Enquiri standing alone on the top step of the temple. Upon recognizing them as Chopec, he jogged down to greet them.
Acana spoke first. "Welcome back, Enquiri."
Jim smiled at the old name and the memories it evoked. Vaguely, as if trying to recall events from another lifetime, he remembered that these people had taken care of him, giving him food and bringing him here to the temple. Were there also memories of Sandburg and Simon mixed in there somewhere? It was all too cloudy to be certain. "Thank you. Maybe you can give me some answers. What am I doing here? Was there another with me? A younger man..."
Acana smiled and nodded. "Yes. Ankaree. He is in the temple."
Confused, Jim glanced back over his shoulder at the stone edifice, as if expecting to see his partner waiting for him there. "No, that can't be. I woke up alone. Was he in the pool? Why? I don't understand..."
Imaru spoke rapidly in Chopec as Acana translated. By the time the old shaman was done, Jim had heard the entire story. Blair and Simon had come to Peru, believing he might have survived the crash. His senses had revolted again, more powerfully than ever before, leaving him completely unable to deal with the sensory overload. General Kershaw had lied about the true goal of their mission. He had no intentions of training those young officers. They had merely been pawns in the general's scheme to lure Jim into the jungle and evaluate his sentinel senses.
Ellison listened to the rest of the story with growing dread. Simon had returned to Cascade after giving Kershaw what he hoped would be a convincing story detailing the deaths of Jim and Blair. His guide had entered the pool with Jim, but he was now nowhere to be found. The Chopec had no idea where he might be. They were sure, however, that he could not emerge from his trance unless he was in the temple pool. It was the power of the waters and the walls of stone, combined with the spirits of sentinels and guides long departed which brought one forth from the deep sleep. Unless he was returned, he would sleep forever.
As Jim listened to the end of Acana's story, his eye wandered to the loosely packed soil in front of the temple. Moving away from the two Chopec, he knelt beside several boot imprints. "What was Blair wearing? Did he have on shoes?"
"Like you, Ankaree was dressed for the ritual. He wore no shoes."
Jim swore under his breath, cursing the general who had been given his trust without ever having earned it, only to betray him in the worst imaginable way. The sentinel's eyes grew hard, and his voice took on a dangerous undercurrent. "They were here. Kershaw has Sandburg."
Captain Michaels had grown increasingly concerned about his commanding officer. General Samuel Kershaw was career military, bred from a military family. He was the fourth generation to graduate from the Point, and most of his men were firmly convinced that the general slept in his stars and boots. Completely devoted to duty with a disciplined mind and body, Kershaw was the epitome of a military officer. Never would Jonathan Michaels have suspected him of something like this.
It was kidnapping, pure and simple. The general had been right. Ellison and Sandburg were very much alive. At first, Michaels had thought they would wait for whatever had put the men into their deep trance to wear off. Then, he figured, they would escort them back to their Peruvian headquarters, now located in the closest town to the jungle.
It was not to be.
Under the general's orders, he had removed Sandburg from the pool, slinging the smaller man over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. His burden never awakened, never so much as stirred, and neither did Captain Ellison, left sleeping alone in the temple's pool. It must be one hell of a trance.
Once outside and well away from the temple, Michaels had dared question Kershaw about taking the civilian from his companion. The general turned on him immediately, his angry eyes flashing in the dim light of dawn.
"Of course we took Sandburg! He's the key, Michaels, don't you see?" Kershaw stopped, visibly collecting himself and getting his temper under control. His voice grew more patient, as if explaining the obvious to a rather dense child. "When Ellison awakens, he may not choose to cooperate, once he understands the true purpose of this expedition. His cooperation is vital. I've done more research in the days since that helicopter went down. I had Dr. Sandburg's original dissertation on sentinels faxed here, and the information is truly fascinating. Up to now, I had only been able to look at a couple of summaries which I managed to collect. It seems that Blair Sandburg is Ellison's guide. Apparently, the bond which joins a sentinel to his guide is extremely powerful. Doesn't it make sense that Captain Ellison's cooperation will be ensured when he realizes that Dr. Sandburg is, shall we say, 'involved' in our little venture?"
Jonathan Michaels felt a chill creep down his spine. His commanding officer, a respected general in the U.S. Army, was planning to hold Blair Sandburg hostage to gain his partner's cooperation. His mind flashed back to the profile of James Ellison he had read during the planning stages for this mission. Cover Ops. Special Forces. Disciplined. Determined. Trained to kill. A visible shiver shook his body, even in the warmth of the humid jungle air.
He believed that General Kershaw had taken on more than even he could handle. Michaels had the distinct impression that Jim Ellison, be he detective, military officer, or true sentinel, was not a man to be underestimated, not if you wanted to stay alive.
And they had just kidnapped his guide. His gut tightened at the thought of the consequences of that action. There would definitely be hell to pay.
At last, they reached the small encampment he and Kershaw had set up late on the previous afternoon. Michaels carried Sandburg to the smallest of the four tents and carefully laid his motionless body on a cot. Stretching his tired back, he studied the tranquil face of their captive. There was absolutely no sign of life other than the gentle rise and fall of Sandburg's chest. Whatever kind of trance he was in, their journey through the jungle had not disturbed him in the least.
Kershaw entered the tent. "Does it look like he's waking up yet?"
"No, Sir. No sign of it."
"Whatever those natives gave them must have packed one hell of a punch. I don't want to take any chances, though." He tossed several lengths of cord to Captain Michaels. "Tie him up. If he awakens, he mustn't be able to leave this tent." He stared down at the length of cloth in his hand. "I considered gagging him as well, but we do want Ellison to find him, after all. So there's very little point in that, I suppose." He tossed the potential gag to the ground. "Get on with it." Kershaw turned to leave.
"Sir?" Michaels questioned. "He's a civilian, General. I don't think..."
The general jerked around and roared, "You're not here to think, Captain! You're here to obey orders! Right now, your orders are to tie this man down. Are you going to follow those orders?" The general's eyes gleamed with a dangerous light.
At the moment, Michaels could see no alternatives. "Sir, yes, Sir."
He began to secure Blair's wrists and ankles to the wooden cot.
The sentinel was stalking his prey. The noxious scent of the men who had taken his guide was fresh in his nostrils, and he followed it without difficulty, jogging easily through the jungle. He was alone. The Chopec had offered their assistance, but this was not their fight. Jim had no desire to bring any attention to the peaceful Chopec, especially the attention of the U.S. Army. He had been one of these men. He had trusted them, and they had betrayed him. Now, they would pay the price.
The journey, which had nearly exhausted Kershaw and Michaels, caused the sentinel no discomfort at all. Jim covered the distance in half the time, and, as he reached their camp, he wasn't even breathing hard. He stopped nearby, listening...smelling the air...staring...
It wasn't difficult to locate Sandburg. Jim heard his heartbeat long before he drew close. His friend was still deep in his trance, just as Acana had predicted. Ellison given up trying to understand the mysticism surrounding who he was. Sandburg had finally convinced him that it was simpler just to accept the strange occurrences which seemed to come along with the role of a sentinel.
For a moment, he smiled as he wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his bare arm. After all, it had been the jaguar and wolf who brought Blair back to him at the fountain. For that, he would be eternally grateful. Never again would he regret seeing spirit guides no one else could see. Not if they had allowed Sandburg to remain at his side.
Jim focused his attention back on the camp. Kershaw and Captain Michaels were sitting down outside the entrance to Blair's tent, having a meal. He debated his options. They would probably take turns guarding the camp once night fell. He could go in and hopefully take at least one of them by surprise. However, it would be hours before darkness fell. Hours that Blair would have to spend in that tent, deep in a trance.
Not an appealing alternative.
On the other hand, he could walk into their camp right now, in broad daylight, and take his guide back.
There was no time like the present.
Kershaw's head jerked up to stare directly into the steel blue eyes of James Ellison, his fury barely contained. Kershaw reached for his gun, but a swift kick sent it sailing into the undergrowth. The general took an involuntary step backward.
Michaels reached for his weapon as well, lifting it to capture Jim's head in his sights. "Hold it!" His hand never wavered.
A satisfied smile spread across Kershaw's face. "Good work, Captain. Now, Captain Ellison, I think we need to have a talk. Sit down. Please."
Jim eyed the gun, still trained directly on him. He caught Michaels' eye, and for the briefest of moments, thought he saw a flash of indecision there. He filed the information away for future reference. He sank down on the ground, facing the door of Sandburg's tent.
"What do you want from me, General, and what does my partner have to do with any of this?" Jim monitored the deep breathing from inside the tent. Blair was still sleeping soundly.
"Don't treat me like a fool, Ellison. You know what I want. If your pilot hadn't had his unfortunate heart attack, you would, at this very moment, be assisting us in assessing the extent of your sentinel senses. Don't you agree that abilities such as yours should be harnessed for the good of your country?"
Jim felt his blood boil, but forced his voice to remain calm. His opportunity would come. He only had to wait for fate to provide it. Or twist fate itself to fit his purposes. Whatever it took.
Jim's eyes never flinched as he stared at Kershaw. "No, General, I do not agree. I have never denied my nation anything. I gave my best during my service to my country, but I will not become a guinea pig. My senses are a gift. It's my decision how to best utilize them. I don't have to justify that decision to you." He watched carefully for a reaction.
It was not long in coming. Kershaw's eyes narrowed and grew even harder. "I had hoped you would choose to cooperate with me, Captain Ellison. I didn't want to hurt Dr. Sandburg, but, if that is your choice..."
Jim's voice was cold, and his steely gaze never left Kershaw. "You lay a hand on him, General, and you will not leave this jungle alive."
Kershaw smiled, but his eyes held no warmth. "Cover him," he ordered, then stepped inside the tent where Sandburg lay.
Jim stared at the tent for a moment, then turned back to Michaels. "You can't let him do this," he said quietly. "The general's lost it, Michaels, and you know it. Sandburg's a civilian; I'm a civilian now. Help me."
He could see the indecision in the other man's face and almost felt sorry for him. Michaels was trained to obey orders, and this was his commanding officer. On the other hand, it was Blair in that tent, and Jim would not allow him to be harmed. He wouldn't wait much longer for the other man's decision.
He prepared to lunge for the gun.
Then, Michaels nodded. "You're right. He's crazy. What do you want me to do?"
Kershaw stepped out of the tent, his right arm encircling Sandburg's neck, a knife held at his throat. He held the limp man upright with his other arm. Sandburg was at least six inches shorter, and his toes dangled loosely above the earth. His head drooped, his long hair hanging limply over his face.
"Put him down, Kershaw," Jim commanded in a low, dangerous tone. "Let him go. Now."
Michaels swung the gun from Jim toward the general. "Please, Sir. Release him. We can't do this. It isn't right."
The general's laugh was tinged with bitterness. "Right? It isn't right? This is my chance, Michaels. My chance to make a real name for myself after being passed over again and again for a proper command. The command I deserved. He," Kershaw nodded toward Jim. "He is important. With him, I will get the respect I deserve. If I have to hurt this one to do that, then it is a small price to pay. He is expendable." He carefully nicked Blair's skin with the knife, and a trickle of blood oozed down his neck.
Anger rose within Jim, as red hot as the desert sun. He lunged toward Kershaw, reaching for the knife which remained poised at Blair's throat. At the same instant, Michaels fired a warning shot at the general's feet.
Seeing the danger he was in, Kershaw darted into the jungle, dragging Sandburg along with him, his arm still tight around the younger man's throat. Jim rushed after him with Michaels right behind. Suddenly, the general reached into his shirt and drew out a pistol. Whirling to face his pursuers, he fired three shots in rapid succession. Jim staggered backwards, grasping his upper thigh. Bright red blood seeped from between his fingers.
For a few moments, the pain was almost unbearable. Ellison dropped to the forest floor, clutching his injured leg and writhing in pain. Michaels fell to his knees beside him.
"Captain! Let me look at your leg."
Jim shook his head violently. "No! I'll be okay. Follow Kershaw..."
The younger man looked uncertain. "At least, let me make a tourniquet. Taking off his shirt, he ripped the sleeve, creating a long strip of cloth. Expertly wrapping it around the injured leg, he tied it off tightly. "That should help control the bleeding. You need to get to the doctor, though, and fast."
Jim waved him off with an impatient gesture. "No time... Go after them. I'll...be along in a minute."
"Are you sure? I can..."
Ellison interrupted. "Go! You're wasting time! I'll be fine."
With a final glance back at Jim, Michaels ran after the general and disappeared into the trees.
Ellison rolled onto his back and shut his eyes tightly. He concentrated on his breathing. In and out. Slowly...slowly... In his mind, it was Blair's voice he heard, his guide's reassuring tones coaxing him out of the pain filled void and into the light of control. Dial it back, man. Find the pain dial and turn it back a little at a time. That's it. Easy, Jim. You can do this...
Finally, his breathing evened out, and the stabbing pain in his leg lessened to a dull throb. Jim ventured slowly to his feet, trying out the injured leg cautiously. It would hurt like hell, but he could walk on it. Taking a deep breath, he started out in pursuit of Kershaw, focusing on the heartbeats ahead of him.
The heat was oppressive, making Jim's breathing difficult. While he had run easily through the jungle earlier, this time his pace was much slower. The closer he came to the river, the thicker the undergrowth became. The tallest trees did not grow so close to the banks, and the additional sunlight provided by the lack of sheltering branches enabled the smaller shrubs and plants to thrive.
The effects of the crash and his subsequent gunshot were quickly catching up to him. Only the thought of Sandburg in the hands of that madman kept him moving on through the dense jungle growth. His breath came in short pants now, and his lungs burned with the effort. Even with his pain dials turned down, his injured leg still throbbed with every beat of his heart, and each step was agony.
As Ellison listened, he realized that the heartbeats ahead of him had grown closer and closer. Michaels had found Kershaw. Now only one heart beat too quickly in terror. A shot rang out. Then another. He began to run again, bulldozing his way through the thick jungle growth with a staggering gate, ignoring the pain in his heart and lungs and leg.
He stopped suddenly, bracing himself against a tree, stunned by the sight before him.
Michaels crouched on his knees beside the flowing river. His gun was in his hand, his arm limp at his side. His eyes were wide and staring.
Staring at what he could see of Samuel Kershaw.
Most of the general's body was wound in the ever tightening coils of a huge snake. Jim immediately recognized the patterns of an anaconda. With his eyes bulging and his lips tinged with blue, it was obvious that the general was already dead.
"The general was... I think he was trying to hide in the undergrowth and... He was still gasping when I got here. Trying to breathe...," Michaels stammered, his eyes wide in shock. "I tried to shoot the damn thing, but it wouldn't let go. Then...he just...stopped gasping...stopped breathing."
Jim listened for any sign of a heartbeat. Nothing. Suddenly, he glanced around, the fear building quickly within him. "Where's Sandburg?"
Michaels seemed to emerge from his stunned trance. "I don't know," he replied, looking puzzled. "There was no sign of him when I got here."
Jim fought down the wave of panic washing up from deep in his gut. He couldn't locate Sandburg's heartbeat, couldn't 'feel' his partner's presence anywhere. "Sandburg!" he cried out, then waited, listening. Only the familiar jungle sounds greeted his anxious ears.
No! Damn it! No! He wouldn't lose Blair now, not after all they had gone through. They hadn't come this far, passed through hell and back, just to be separated now forever. Jim's mind shrieked denial, and the blood pounded in his ears, echoing the frantic beating of his heart. It couldn't turn out that way. He would not allow it.
A voice tickled the back of his mind. The river... He whirled around, ignoring the painful protest from his leg, and stared into the muddy, swirling water. The river!
Michaels was at his side. He laid a hand on Jim's forearm. "Captain Ellison? Are you all right?" Jim brushed him off with an impatient jerk of his arm, then without a moment's hesitation, plunged into the cloudy depths.
He knew he was swimming against the clock. If Kershaw had thrown Blair into the river when he first reached its banks, then several precious minutes had already been lost. Breaking the surface, Jim began to swim downstream, his powerful arms thrusting him forward with long, confident, easy strokes. Every kick sent a fiery stabbing pain up his leg, but Jim stubbornly ignored it. He sent out his acute hearing, trolling the waters for the only sound he cared about hearing at that moment - the rhythm of his guide's heartbeat.
He swam harder...faster...relegating the pain in his leg to the darkest corner of his mind. The murky, muddy waters swept by his face, leaving their debris in their wake. Small pieces of bark, twigs, and fragments of leaves caught in Jim's short hair and scratched his face. He paid no attention, focused only on keeping his strokes even and strong, thinking only of finding that heartbeat, of finding Sandburg.
Jim wasn't sure how far down river he had progressed when something struck his hand. Something soft, yielding, rather than hard and immobile like the limbs and branches he had encountered thus far. Instead of rough bark, soft skin touched his groping fingers. Jim's head jerked up as he latched onto the body floating before him and pulled it to him. His heart knotted as he stared down into the lifeless face of Blair Sandburg.
"NO!" Jim's cry of denial echoed through the jungle. He wrapped his right arm around Sandburg's neck, then began stroking desperately toward the river bank with his left. When his feet touched bottom at last, Jim scooped his limp partner into his arms and staggered awkwardly through the sucking mud for shore.
Falling to his knees beside the river, Jim carefully settled the younger man on the ground. His anxious hands roamed over the cold body, frantically searching for a pulse, a touch of warmth, a hint of movement...any sign of life at all.
There was nothing. Blair's eyes were shut, his face was lax, and the edges of his eyelids were touched with blue. Jim's trembling fingers brushed his lips, and his heart skipped a beat at the iciness and dreadful blue tinge. Unbidden, another picture flashed into his mind; a memory of seeing this face before...so lifeless and still.
He shook his head to drive away the memory. "No! Not again!"
Desperately, Jim tilted Blair's head back and cleared his airway. "C'mon, Chief! C'mon! You hang in there for me, you hear? I can't do this without you. I don't want to do this without you! Don't you quit on me now. Don't you dare quit on me!"
In some isolated part of his mind, he was aware of Michaels kneeling on the other side of Sandburg. "I'll do the compressions! You breathe for him!"
Blindly, Jim nodded, then bent down over his guide's face. He sealed his lips over Blair's and blew. For a moment, the sensations and memories threatened to overwhelm him. He couldn't tell if the wetness trickling down his face was water from the river or his own tears.
The waters of the Rainier fountain danced behind them. His skin was so cold, and his lips so blue. He was so still, so unnaturally still. A myriad of tastes and smells and feelings flooded Jim's senses...cold, blue skin...the bitter, stale taste of the coffee and bagel Blair had eaten for breakfast mixed with the chemical foulness of the fountain water...the pounding of his own heart and the utter stillness of Blair's...the overwhelming grief and pain gripping his soul... The voices murmuring to him to let go, that it was over...trying to tell him that his partner - his friend - the other half of his very soul - was gone. That Blair was dead.
Now, in the steamy jungle, he tasted Blair once more. This time, instead of the harshness of chlorine, there was the dusky taste of dirt and jungle life. He pushed his mind past those surface, insignificant tastes and plunged deeper as he blew yet again. Jim ignored the tears flowing down his cheeks - they were definitely tears now - and reached yet again. If his partner was to die here, in this place... If this was the finale to all they had ever been to each other, all they had ever meant to each other's lives and hearts, then Jim Ellison knew with absolute certainty that he could not bear to let go without touching the unique essence of Blair Sandburg one last time.
As he breathed again for his friend, he found that illusive something for which he had been searching from the moment his lips first sealed Sandburg's. His mind flooded once more with memories, but this time, they brought no sorrow. As the sentinel tasted the spirit of his guide, his heart remembered, and it soared. Jim remembered the joy, the happiness, the friendship they had shared, and as he remembered, he tasted Blair's friendship, his devotion to him, his absolute commitment to that magical, mystical thing that they were becoming together, and his love.
"You can't go," Jim whispered between breaths, bending low to whisper into the cold ear hidden beneath lank, wet curls. "I wouldn't let you go then, and damn it, Sandburg, I won't let you go now! Come on, Chief. Come on..." He moaned softly in despair when there was no answering heartbeat.
Michaels' sad eyes met his across the still body between them. "Maybe we should just let him go..."
"No!" Jim cried in denial. "He's not dead! He's alive! Keep trying!"
And he bent to give Sandburg his own life's breath yet again.
This time, an answering puff of warm, moist breath blew back into his own mouth. Jim's eyes opened in wonder, and slowly, hesitantly, he pulled his lips from Blair's. Cupping the cold face between his palms, Jim listened, almost afraid to hope.;
There it was. Once more, the beloved heartbeat echoed in the sentinel's ears. "Thank you, Chief," he whispered, slumping limply over Blair's body in complete exhaustion. "Thank you..."
Michaels stopped the compressions, moving one hand to search for a pulse on Sandburg's neck. "I've got a pulse!"
Jim nodded, unable to speak. He brushed back the matted, wet hair from his friend's forehead, thankful for the beginnings of warmth he felt there. Still, Sandburg's eyes remained closed. Jim smiled weakly at the sight of his own tears mixing with the droplets of water still clinging to Blair's face, but made no effort to quell the tears. He threaded his fingers between Sandburg's and squeezed, longing to feel the pressure returned, but feeling nothing but the dampness of his skin.
Michaels turned away and stared at the river. "I... I have to do something about... The general's body. My God, I can't believe he died like that. I know he was wrong, but once, he was a great leader, a good man. Maybe if I'd gone with him..." Michaels' voice faded out in grief for the commander he had once so admired.
Jim shifted closer to the kneeling man, gripping his shoulder in support while keeping his other hand firmly wrapped around Blair's. "There was nothing you could do. He was as good as dead before you even got here."
Michaels broke for the undergrowth where he doubled over with nausea. With a heavy sigh, the sentinel gathered his guide in his arms, then limped silently away into the jungle without glancing back. Behind him, he could hear the sound of Michaels' retching, but he could find no pity in his heart for the man.
In the jungle, only the strongest survive.
Jim carefully carried Blair's still body into the waters of the pool, immersing them both in what he hoped would be its healing liquid.
You have touched your guide's heart, Enquiri. Now, you must bring him back. You must enter the pool again, this time with him. You must go alone, for he is yours and yours alone. Go. Take your guide to the temple.
Imaru's voice still rang in Jim's ears as he lowered himself and Blair into the water. Settling the limp form into the shallow pool, he knelt beside his friend's head. "Chief?" he whispered. "Are you with me here?"
He reached out and gently brushed several strands of hair from Sandburg's face. " Blair... I never realized before... Are you still experiencing my life the way I lived yours? If you are, buddy, I'm so sorry. I never wanted you to know some of the things I've done." He stopped for a moment, staring intently at the still features of his guide. "I'm so sorry I ever hurt you, Chief. You've been hurt enough without my adding to it. Things I never dreamed of... I felt the pain I caused you, but I've also felt the feelings you have for me. Why, I'll never understand. My God, Blair..."
Jim humbly whispered into the curl covered ear, "I'm ready to take that trip with you now, my brother. If you'll still have me..." His voice broke as all the emotions he'd experienced earlier in the pool flooded back. Blair's pain, his fear, his devotion to his sentinel... They all crashed down on Ellison at once. His knees felt weak, and his injured leg quivered in pain. He sank further into the water. Tears gathered in his eyes, and he shut his lids hard, fighting to quell the powerful feelings building inside.
Deep in the jungle, the jaguar and wolf raced toward each other once more, muscles straining, hearts nearly bursting. Still, they ran without slowing toward their goal, until it seemed their bodies could withstand no more. In a final, desperate surge of strength, they leapt simultaneously into empty air, only to collide and merge in a blinding explosion of power and light.
Outside, Imaru smiled as he felt the violent surge of energy. The joining was complete.
Jim's scream echoed off the temple's stone walls, but to his ears, it was little more than a whisper. Stunned, Jim's eyes refused to open, and he wondered briefly if he had gone back into his trance, too deep to awaken on his own. He wasn't sure if he had really screamed Blair's name or only imagined that he had. The lines between reality and the dream world were too blurred now for him to make that distinction. He only knew that he understood his partner as never before and needed him so desperately.
Then, he felt movement in the body under his hands.
Through sheer force of will, he opened his eyes to gaze down into the confused face of Blair Sandburg.
The first thing Sandburg saw was Jim's face, contorted with emotion. For an instant, all Jim's emotions were Blair's once more, and Sandburg gathered them unto himself willingly. They had become his most cherished possession.
Love beareth all things...love endureth all things...
As he looked up into Jim's tear filled eyes through the blinding tears in his own, he knew. Deep in his soul, without a shadow of a doubt, he knew.
Knew that all their fears...their lonely uncertainties...their shared joys...their love for each other...their grief over the hurts of the past... Those feelings were exactly what bound them together. All those emotions they each possessed were suddenly within him simultaneously, intermingled and woven together into one infinite thread, running through both their souls, knitting them together in a fabric which could never be torn asunder.
For one moment in time, they were one. Two bodies, with but one heart...one soul...one spirit.
Blue eyes held blue for an eternity, or for a mere instant, as Sandburg realized that his friend understood as well. That he, too, felt the endless thread of their connection. Then, without a word, Jim drew Blair upward, tenderly wrapping him in his arms. Blair reached around Jim's waist, holding on with a desperation he had never before known. Hearts beating as one, each basked in the depth of his understanding of the other, in the hard won knowledge of his brother's soul.
When, at last, they emerged from their liquid cocoon, neither was in a hurry to leave the temple. As they walked slowly around the stone walls, Jim stood behind his guide, his hands resting on the younger man's shoulders, as if he could not yet bear to break their physical contact. Jim shifted part of his weight to Sandburg, in an effort to relieve the pressure on his injured leg, and Blair bore the weight gratefully. The anthropologist and teacher in Sandburg surfaced as he patiently explained all the mysterious symbols which Imaru had interpreted for him prior to their emergence in the pools.
Jim listened intently to his friend's excited explanations, but a part of him remained separate. That part of Jim Ellison was totally focused on the nearness of his guide, on the warmth of the bare skin beneath his palms, the tone of the muscles as his hands gently rubbed Blair's shoulders. His injury became little more than a minor annoyance, compared with the joy of being reunited with his partner.
Jim Ellison had never felt so connected to another living being. If he had thought they were close before, this feeling defied description. Then, his attention shifted from his internal thoughts back to the temple once more, and he tuned in to something Sandburg had said.
"What was that, Chief?"
Blair tilted his head back to grin up at Jim, his eyes sparkling even in the dim light of the temple. "Are you listening, man? This is the panel that explains the pool."
Ellison affectionately ruffled Blair's damp curls. "I was listening, Darwin. I just got sidetracked for a minute. Tell me again."
Jim felt Blair's shoulders rise as he breathed deeply. "It says, 'This is the pool of watchman and anamari - sentinel and guide. It is their destinies to be one. As the sun is tied to the earth, as the moon is tied to the stars, so they must be bonded to one another. Until they have entered the temple pool, they shall remain apart. It is by their joining here, that they truly become one. United for all seasons to come.' "
Sandburg turned to face his friend, being careful to allow Jim to continue to lean on him for support. "When you were...not yourself...Imaru explained that when we came here, we were like this." He held his palms flat together. "After we emerged from the pool, we would be like this." He curled his fingers together, lacing them tightly. His blue eyes glowed with deep emotion as he stared up into Jim's eyes. "That's how I feel, Jim. Entwined. One. I feel I understand you better now than I probably understand myself."
Jim cupped Blair's face in his large hand, smiling as his friend leaned into his palm. His thumb stroked gently across Sandburg's jaw. "We lived each other's lives, Chief. How could we not come out of it closer? We've both made a lot of mistakes. One of my biggest was ever letting you doubt your worth to me."
He stopped Blair's protest with a soft finger against his lips. "Shhh... Let me finish. I felt your doubt, Chief. I lived it. Your worries that you won't always be enough, that you won't be what I need to survive as a sentinel. I know you felt badly that it was Imaru who brought me here, who knew how to bring me back. But, it wasn't Imaru, Blair. It was you. He may have brought us here, but it was being inside your heart that helped me come back. I had to find you again."
Sandburg leaned forward until his forehead rested against Jim's bare shoulder. "Thanks, Jim," he whispered.
Ellison cupped the curly head with one hand while gently massaging his friend's back with the other. "Are you ready to go home, buddy?"
His heart skipped a beat at the brilliance of Blair's smile. "Yeah, Jim. There are a lot of people back there who are going to be very glad to see you again, especially Simon. He's had to let everyone go on thinking we're both dead, you know, just to keep Kershaw off our backs."
Jim wrapped one arm around Sandburg, pulling him close against his side as they walked toward the sunlight. "Then, let's not keep them waiting, Chief."
For a moment, they stood on the top step of the temple, looking down at the gathering of Chopec below, all come to see the first glimpse of the sentinel and guide. Jim stepped behind Blair, his hands resting lightly on his friend's shoulders once more. The sentinel surveyed the tribe gathered below, the temple rising up high behind them. Then, he gazed off into the distance, as if staring at a vision only he could see.
The ancient shaman, Imaru, smiled at the vignette. It might have been a thousand years earlier or a hundred years in the future. The image was unchanging, and the message was eternal.
Every sentinel needs a partner to watch his back, a guide to keep him focused and safe.
Every guide needs his sentinel to survive, to protect him from the dangers they are bound to encounter as a result of who and what they are.
Apart, they will surely perish. Together, they will endure. They will triumph.
It was time to go home.
Blair Sandburg was dressed in his own clothes once more, his hair freshly washed and tied back with a leather thong Irami had solemnly presented to him shortly after their return from the temple. He was glad to have comfortable shoes and soft jeans again, even if they did look awfully ratty after the long days in the jungle searching for Jim. Although only a few days had passed, those desperate times already seemed a lifetime ago. All was well. He had his sentinel back, and now, they were going home. Blair had his life back on track once more.
He stood with Jim at the edge of the Chopec settlement. After having his leg treated by the Army medics, Ellison had borrowed clothes from Captain Michaels. Now, he looked more like the Detective Jim Ellison of old in the jeans and a white T-shirt than Enquiri in his tribal dress. He still limped slightly, but the pain pills he'd been given had taken the edge off the worst of his discomfort.
Blair welcomed the changes in his partner's appearance. They were reassuring signs that things were well on the way to being normal once more.
Yet, there was one more task left to accomplish, a painful task and it was one Blair Sandburg dreaded with his whole heart.
Since returning to the village, he had not had the opportunity to talk to Jim about Irami, his son. As tempting as it was to spare Jim that pain, he knew it must be done. Jim had the right to know.
They would have to leave soon, if they were to rendez-vous with Michaels and his Jeep for the trip to the airport. While Jim was saying his good-byes to Acana and Imaru, Blair waited quietly at his side, searching his heart for the right words, the words which might make Jim's heartache a little more bearable.
Eventually, the Chopec moved away, giving them some privacy before their departure. Now was the time.
The taller man turned toward his friend and waited, a small smile playing about his lips.
"There's something..." Blair hesitated, still unsure of the words he needed. His eyes wandered to the figure of a boy playing with his friends at the center of the village. He tried again. "There's something I need to tell you."
Jim followed his gaze to the brown haired child then spoke gently, "He's my son, Blair."
For once in his life, Sandburg was speechless. How the hell...?
Jim laughed quietly. "Now this is a change. Blair Sandburg at a loss for words." He cuffed his partner softly on the cheek. "It doesn't take a genius, Darwin. Brown eyes with a touch of blue...light hair...taller than your average Chopec? Ring a bell? Plus, I do remember some of what happened after you found me. I couldn't communicate with you in words; my senses were so out of control, it was all I could do just to keep some semblance of control. But, I do remember bits and pieces of what I heard..." He rested one hand lightly on his friend's shoulder. "You didn't want to tell me."
Blair stared up at the blue eyes of his friend, trying to get a reading on how Jim was handling all this. He didn't seem upset, but he'd known for a long time that with Jim Ellison, appearances could be deceiving, especially where his emotions were concerned. Hiding feelings was an Ellison specialty. That was one lesson Blair had learned the hard way. "I just didn't want to see you hurt, Jim. That's all."
The worn ball, constructed of layer upon layer of animal skins, which the Chopec children had been chasing, rolled to a stop at Jim's feet. He knelt to retrieve it, then raised his head to stare directly into the eyes of Irami.
Ellison held out the ball, and the boy reached to take it, his eyes still linked with Jim's. For a long moment, both kept their hands on the ball, nearly touching, then, Jim slowly let go.
Tucking the ball under his arm, Irami lifted his hand to Jim's chest, laying it flat over his heart, as if to feel the pounding of the blood which flowed through both their veins. Blair watched with wide eyes as Jim smiled and nodded at the boy. Irami's face broke into a grin. Then, with a quick wave, he ran to rejoin his friends. He never looked back.
Slowly, Jim stood up, and Blair took his place close at his side. "You okay, man?"
Jim's voice was a near whisper. "Thanks, Chief."
Blair looked at him, puzzled. "For what?"
"Not wanting to be the one to have to hurt me. But, I understand that he'll never be my son. Not in the way we think of that relationship in our culture." Ellison paused for a long moment. "He's a sentinel, Chief. I sensed that right away. In the Chopec tribe, that means he belongs to the village, not to any one family. It must be that way. It's the only way the tribe can endure. When I knew his mother, she told me that although we might love, I could never be hers. I was the sentinel of the Chopec. Nothing could interfere with that role."
The ice blue eyes misted over as the memories came flooding back. "It was so confusing, Chief. I mean, part of me knew it was wrong, that I was still on duty and had a job to do. But my senses were on fire; everything was brighter and stronger, and... She was so beautiful, so intelligent and full of life. Before I knew what had happened, I fell in love."
Blair laid a comforting hand on his arm. "You're human, Jim. No one could blame you."
Jim's eyes flashed for a split second, and his voice took on a hard edge. "I didn't need anyone else's blame, Chief. I blamed myself. I had no right to come into this tribe and become that involved. It wasn't my job. It wasn't my place." He shrugged. "It's ancient history now. Over. I'm just so sorry that Emarani had to die that way, giving birth to my child without my even being here..."
Sandburg didn't know what to say. Finally, he smiled softly. "Think of it this way, Jim. If you hadn't been here, if you hadn't fallen in love with Emarani, then the Chopec might not have a sentinel today. Well, a sentinel-to-be, I guess you'd say. Anyway, I think she would have been proud to know that she gave her people their next sentinel, their new protector. Don't you?"
When Ellison turned at last to face his friend, his warm eyes were smiling down at Blair. "Yeah, Chief. I think that would have made her very proud." Then, he added simply, "Thank you."
They watched Irami running across the clearing with the other children. Suddenly, the young sentinel stumbled and fell. Immediately, another child knelt at his side. The young girl reached out to caress Irami's cheek gently, her huge, brown eyes filled with concern. Irami gazed up at her, and a look of understanding passed between them. He nodded and smiled. Their eyes held a moment longer, and then, they both jumped up and resumed their play.
"That's his guide," Blair whispered with a flash of sudden insight. "She's Irami's guide."
Turning slowly toward his own guide, Jim stared down at Sandburg. "How do you know, Chief? She just could have been concerned about him."
Blair shook his head emphatically. Every instinct he possessed screamed that he was right about this. He held Jim's eyes, willing him to believe what he felt so certain of at that moment. "No. She's the one. I... I can't explain it, Jim. I just know."
A voice spoke from behind them. "It may well be true, Ankaree. You are bonded to Irami's father. It is right that you should be able to sense the son's one true guide." Acana nodded as Imaru smiled.
Blair looked at the old shaman. "I believe it is true. By the way, Imaru, I've been meaning to ask you...how did Kershaw know we were in the temple, anyway? I thought you said that nobody would find us there?"
The two Chopec exchanged glances, then, Imaru nodded, giving Acana permission to answer. "It was my own brother," he quietly said, his eyes downcast in shame. "Asama and some of his friends never thought outsiders belonged with the Chopec. They took money. Money to tell where you would be. Money they would use to buy guns. Your weapons, not those of the Chopec. My family is ashamed of them We ask your forgiveness." He waited, staring down at the ground, refusing to make eye contact with either Jim or Blair.
Jim glanced at his partner, then smiled. "It's not your fault, Acana, nor your family's. The Chopec haven't had much luck with outsiders. Maybe Asama's attitude is understandable, when you consider the tribe's past history."
"What will happen to them?" Sandburg asked.
"They have been banished from the Chopec until the next moon. They must live on their own in their shame. They cannot see their families at all. When they return, they will be welcomed back into the tribe. But, if they ever betray the good of the tribe again, they will be banished forever." Acana looked hopeful. "Banishment brings disgrace on those who are punished. I hope my brother will learn his lesson." He held out his hand. "This is the money they took. It should be yours. You were the ones who suffered for my brother's greed."
Jim shook his head in disagreement. "Tell you what, Acana. Take the money over to the missionary who taught you to speak such good English. Without your help, we wouldn't have made it through this. Tell her 'thanks' from us both."
Imaru and Acana smiled their approval. Imaru drew Blair to the side, while Jim walked across the camp to speak with some of the other Chopec. Acana translated the old shaman's words. "You have been concerned that you will be unable to be everything your sentinel needs. Have your fears lessened after your experiences in the temple?"
Blair's head dropped, and for a moment, he closed his eyes. "I didn't help bring Enquiri back, Imaru. I mean, we shared each other's memories, and he's convinced that I brought him back, but, in the end, it was Jim who rescued me. Again. I honestly don't see where anything's changed. I feel closer to Jim, yeah, but will that be enough?"
The old Chopec smiled, his face crinkling into a thousand wrinkles. He spoke rapidly in his own language, and Blair waited for Acana's translation.
"You and Enquiri have been joined, Ankaree. You are now one. Sometimes, you will need his strength to survive. Sometimes, he will need yours. But that strength is now there between you. It leaves no room for doubt or fear. You are Enquiri's shaman, his anamari, and his brother. Trust yourself. Trust your bond with him. That is all you need do to be everything that Enquiri needs. To be everything which you need to be, both for yourself and for him. It is enough."
Blair stared into the watery black eyes of the old man. The power and wisdom radiated from their depths, boring into Blair with a strength and truth which could not be denied. At last, the younger shaman nodded, but his face remained serious. "It is enough, Irami," he repeated. "I am enough, aren't I?"
The old man nodded, and his eyes sparkled with approval. "Now, you understand, Ankaree. At last, you understand."
Jim wandered back to stand behind Sandburg, draping one long arm over his guide's shoulders. "It's almost time to go, Chief. We've got to get going if we're going to meet Michaels on time."
Acana and Imaru said their good-byes, leaving the two friends alone. Sentinel and guide turned for a final look at the Chopec settlement, Jim still anchoring Blair close with his arm around his shoulders.
Watching Irami as he played, Jim said quietly, "He was born to a role I'm still learning to play, Chief. Luckily, he found his guide early. Maybe he'll be spared the living hell I went through." Hearing the pain in Jim's voice, Blair tilted his head and gazed up at his sentinel.
At the look of guilt which shadowed his guide's face, Jim added softly, squeezing the younger man's shoulders reassuringly, "Before you found me, buddy, before you found me."
After looking back for a moment at the playing children, Jim reached out to tug on a strand of Blair's long hair. "It's okay, Chief. This is Irami's home. He could never survive in Cascade. I'm all right with this." A brief shadow of regret shaded his eyes, then was gone. "Who knows? Maybe we'll come back here one day."
Blair squeezed Jim's arm. "And you can see your son."
The sentinel nodded. "And your 'nephew.' " Suddenly, the lure of home seemed irresistible. "Let's go home, Sandburg." He turned and walked away into the jungle.
Chapter Thirteen: Reunions and Remembrances
Through the glass of his office, Captain Simon Banks glanced at the two empty desks waiting side by side in the bullpen. As painful as it was to admit, he had given up hope of ever seeing them occupied again. It had been a week since the greenness of Peru had faded into the distance from the window of the 747. More than enough time for whatever jungle voodoo the Chopec shaman had planned to have succeeded. Long enough for Jim to have returned, normal and fully recovered.
He had not.
Slamming the unfinished report shut with a frustrated sigh, Banks stalked into the bullpen. It was quiet. Too quiet. Just as it had been ever since he had returned with that crazy story about Jim and that damned snake, and Blair's death in the clutches of insanity, and...
Damn it all to hell! They weren't dead, but apparently, he would have to take that secret with him to his grave. They weren't dead, but they weren't coming back either, and it was time to stop pretending.
Simon grabbed the two nameplates from the desks. Detective James Ellison...Dr. Blair Sandburg... Then, without warning, the captain found himself surrounded.
"What are you doing, Sir?" Rafe stared at the nameplates as if Simon had dared to violate sacred ground by touching them. Henri and Joel stood beside him, their eyes glued as well to the poignant names etched onto the brass plates.
Simon's eyes blazed through his tears. "It's time to move on!" He stared at the accusing eyes of his officers. "It's over, damn it! I told you what happened! They're not coming back! Jim and Blair are..."
"Right here, Sir."
Every eye in the bullpen turned toward the familiar voice coming from the doorway. As their eyes widened in amazement, and huge smiles broke out amidst the tears, Jim Ellison stepped through the door. One arm rested lightly across the shoulders of Blair Sandburg, and both men were grinning broadly as they found themselves surrounded by their cheering coworkers.
Simon stood a little apart, his arms crossed, and a small, relieved smile on his lips. The prodigal sons had returned, and already life seemed so much brighter.
At last, they were home. Hot showers and hot food had never been more welcome. Simon had stayed, savoring the normalcy of visiting with his two friends back in the comfort of the loft.
Typically, Sandburg had been running on pure adrenaline, but after slowing down when dinner was over, he had crashed into an exhausted sleep. He lay sprawled on his back on the couch, his head pillowed on Jim's thigh, his face pressed against the larger man's belly. His long, dark lashes fluttered on his brown cheeks as he dreamed; his face was tanned to a rich gold by long days in the Peruvian sun.
The injuries Jim received in the crash were still evident. His burns and cuts had been treated at last at the hospital in Peru, but some of the deepest cuts were sure to leave scars. His thigh wound had received appropriate treatment at last, and the white bandage gleamed from beneath his shorts. Unlike his partner, Jim was too wired to sleep. He stared at the flickering flames and absently carded his fingers through Sandburg's thick curls.
Like he's stroking a cat, Banks thought, suppressing a smile.
"How was he, Simon?"
At first, the captain wasn't sure he'd understood the question, Jim's voice was so soft and so distant. "Sandburg?"
Ellison nodded. "Yeah. How'd he hold up through it all?"
"He had a rough time at first, Jim. Hell, we all did. I mean, he thought you were dead. It tore him apart." Simon hesitated a moment, remembering the heartache of that day. "I gave him your letter."
Jim's eyes fell to the sleeping face nestled in his lap, sympathy for what his friend had endured clouding their blue depths. "I figured as much. You did the right thing, Simon. That's what I asked you to do. There was no reason for you to think I had survived. Not from what the military told you. The letter was meant for just such a day. Nothing in there Blair didn't already know, except the financial stuff, and those really weren't the important parts anyway."
Silence descended for several minutes as both men's thoughts wandered over the events of the past days.
"Later...? How'd he do later, Simon?" Jim was clearly consumed with the need to understand what his partner had been through while he had been unable to be there for him.
He needs details,thought Simon, suddenly understanding what drove the persistent questions. He needs to know that the kid can make it without him. That's always scared Ellison, wondering how Sandburg would survive if something happened to him. That's what that letter was really all about.
Simon looked at Blair, then back at Jim. "He was amazing. From the moment he heard that one body was missing from the crash, he knew it was you, that you were alive. Didn't just hope, I mean he knew. He never gave up on you. He stood up to General Kershaw. Hell," Simon chuckled, remembering. "He even stood up to me. Now that takes courage."
Then, Simon's voice grew husky with emotion. "I have to admit, after three days of searching that jungle, I figured you were dead. Not Sandburg. He told me that you hadn't given up on him that day at the fountain, and he wasn't giving up on you. The kid's a real piece of work, Jim. I think you've had a lot to do with that. He's taken on a lot of your courage, your strength. Added to what he already had, it makes for quite a man."
Ellison brushed his fingertips across Sandburg's cheek, feeling the soft skin, fresh from his shower. He didn't speak, just continued lightly stroking his sleeping partner's face and hair, his expression contemplative.
At last, Simon called softly, "Jim? You with us here?"
"Yeah... Just thinking how strange life can be. Sandburg claims there's an order to the universe, that there are no coincidences in life." His eyes grew luminescent as wonder warmed their depths. "While we were down there, I realized something. My whole life has been preparation for him, Simon, for this. For our friendship, our partnership. Like some kind of long prelude before the real music begins."
Simon waited patiently, feeling that his friend had more to say. Ellison was normally a man of few words, but when he got emotional, the few friends he allowed to view that side of him knew to stand back and let the words flow.
"Not so long ago, I could never have imagined being this close to another human being, especially a kid like Sandburg. Now..." Jim closed his eyes briefly, shaking his head. "I can't imagine ever being without him again. I can't be without him again. Even when he's not beside me, he's with me, you know?" Jim's hand touched his own chest, over his heart. "In here. I hear his voice, feel his presence with me...in me...even when he's miles away. And what's strange is, ever since the Chopec temple, it's all grown stronger."
Simon considered Jim's words carefully. "That's not so surprising, is it? Wasn't that the whole idea of that ceremony? To join the sentinel and guide?"
"Yeah, it was. I guess it's just that I didn't know that going in. I mean, I was kind of out of it at the time, remember?"
His captain chuckled. "Sandburg had some real doubts about taking you there, Jim. He wondered if he had the right to commit you to the bonding without your consent. I told him you'd made that commitment a long time ago, not to worry." He took a drink of his beer. "It's true, isn't it? You would have chosen the joining, if you'd been able to make the choice?."
Ellison tenderly smoothed a lock of unruly dark hair back from Blair's forehead. "Of course I would have."
Slow minutes passed before Jim glanced over at his captain again. What he saw there on his friend's face caught his attention immediately. "Simon? Anything wrong?" Jim watched his superior officer with concern. The older man was still, watching him holding Sandburg, a sad mist veiling his eyes.
His captain smiled a tight, ironic smile and shook his head. "It's just hit me, Jim. We've kinda got opposite situations here. Daryl's pulling away from me, spreading his wings, becoming a totally separate and independent young man. I can see the years of loneliness ahead so clearly. It's...painful. we were so close when he was younger." Simon leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I guess I'm a little jealous, Jim," he admitted. "I've watched you and Blair, starting with that initial turbulent chemistry between you two, growing closer and closer, becoming more and more...one...while I'm losing so much of Daryl."
He stared at Blair lying so contentedly, so trustingly, with Jim. His voice was thoughtful. "You'll never lose him, you know. Forty years from now, when you're both old and gray, he'll still be right there." He nodded at the sleeping figure. "Beside you. He's found where he belongs; you both have, and it's together. Whatever happened down in Peru only strengthened what you already had. I guess I wish that somehow I could count on having Daryl with me like you have Blair." Simon fell silent.
Jim gazed down at Blair's peaceful face and skimmed his sensitive fingers lightly across the closed lids, then over his cheeks and down his neck to rest against the hollow of his throat, feeling the life affirming thrumming beneath his fingertips. Was the devotion between them so evident? He'd never really tried to conceal the depth of his love for Blair from Simon as he had with others he trusted less, but still, to such a private man, it was a bit disconcerting.
His right hand found its way back into the warmth of the heavy mass of curls. He slipped his left palm over his partner's hand, gently weaving his fingers in between Blair's. He smiled as the sleeping man's hand instinctively curled around his own, and his heart tightened with emotion.
"Does everyone see it, Simon? Is it that obvious that I...?" His voice faded away.
"That the two of you are closer than most partners? Yes, to all. No way to miss that. That he is absolutely devoted to you? Definitely. Sandburg's eyes truly are the mirror of his soul, Jim, and they reflect it all when he looks at you. All the admiration, all the love he feels for you; they're all written right there in Sandburg's eyes. That you love him just as deeply?" Simon's voice wavered slightly, and he swallowed hard. "Not to everyone, no. You hide it better. To those that day at Rainier...yes. We witnessed a miracle, Jim. A miracle brought to reality by a depth of love that is seldom seen. I think it was the same thing - a miracle - that brought you back this time from Peru."
A comfortable silence fell. Finally, Simon asked, "Jim? I've always wondered something. You don't have to tell me, but..."
His voice relaxed at last, his face content, Jim smiled. "What, Simon?"
"I've always wondered... What exactly happened the first time you met Sandburg? I know he saved your life, pushing you flat under that garbage truck, but... Did you feel a - I don't know - a connection with him right away?"
Jim's quiet chuckle caught Simon off guard. "It wasn't exactly instantaneous friendship." He glanced down affectionately at his sleeping guide. "He inferred that I was some kind of Neanderthal throwback, and I... Well, I sort of threw him against the wall."
Simon's eyes widened as he waited for the rest of the story.
"And called him a witch doctor punk."
Unable to hold back his laughter, Simon chuckled and shook his head. "And look at you now," he commented after the laughter had faded.
"Yeah," Jim whispered, gripping the smaller hand tucked inside his more tightly. "Look at me now." Ellison looked up and met Simon's eyes with a slightly embarrassed smile. "Funny thing, though. I knew almost from the moment I saw him, that he was my answer, that he was the one I needed to bring me peace. The one I had been waiting for my entire life. I was just too frightened to admit it. Not to myself, much less to him. But he was. He is my peace."
For several minutes, a comfortable silence filled the loft, a silence earned through enduring friendship. "You'll never lose Daryl, Simon," Jim said quietly at last. "He's gotta try out those new, strong wings of his, those wings you gave him, but, in time, he'll come back to you. You're his father. That's a bond that will always be there."
Simon smiled warmly, his gratitude shining in his brown eyes. "Thanks, Jim. I hope you're right."
"A neo-hippie witch doctor punk..." A soft, drowsy voice whispered.
Jim stared down at the sleepy eyes gazing up at him from beneath half-closed lids. "What did you say, Chief?" His hand gently stroked the soft hair spread across his lap.
Blair smiled a sleepy smile. "You called me a neo-hippie witch doctor punk. You left out the neo-hippie part."
Simon laughed warmly. "How long you been awake, Sandburg?"
Blair shifted to his side, nestling his face more snugly against Jim's warm belly. He snaked one arm up to grab a fistful of his T-shirt. "Long enough."
Jim smiled down at him, covering the hand grasping his shirt with his own and squeezing gently. "Long enough for what, Chief?"
The drowsy, muffled voice drifted up contentedly. "To hear how much you love me."
Jim shook his head in affectionate exasperation. "But, of course, you already knew that?"
"Of course. Hey, Jim?"
"I love you, too." He was silent so long, Jim thought he'd drifted off to sleep again. Then, the sleep laden voice added, "But, of course..."
Smiling tenderly, Jim bent low to whisper, "...I already knew that."
Clearing his throat against the tightness which had gripped it, Simon stood slowly, stretching protesting muscles. "Time for the old man to call it a night. Jim, one more thing. With Kershaw dead, who else knew about his plan to conduct tests on your sentinel abilities?"
Jim looked up at his captain. "Only Michaels, sir, and he's not reporting a thing. After all, he was a party in the general's plans for me and in Blair's kidnapping. He wants nothing more than to forget the whole thing."
"And that's all right with you?"
Ellison nodded. "The crash was an accident. The pilot died of heart failure; that's been proven. Except for Kershaw, no one else in the military was involved, and he's dead. As for Michaels, I can understand his predicament. He was given an order. A sick order, a wrong order, but an order all the same. He did what he was trained to do; he followed that order. Luckily, he made the right decision in the end. I can't hold that against him." Jim took a deep breath and released it slowly. "It's over, Simon, and I just want to put it behind us. Except for the parts in the temple, of course."
Jim felt Blair's nod against his shirt. "Those are the good parts, Jim. We can't put them behind us. Wouldn't want to..." His voice faded off drowsily.
The sentinel smiled warmly. "You got that right, Chief." He saw that Banks was at the door. "Simon, we'll see you on Monday."
"You two get some rest this weekend. You've earned it. Welcome home, Jim." He closed the door softly behind him.
After they were alone, Jim swept the hair away from Blair's face. "Hey, Chief? You still with me here?"
He grinned at the muffled protest as Sandburg snuggled closer to the warmth of his partner. Gently shaking one shoulder, Jim called softly, "Blair? Don't you think your bed might be more comfortable? We haven't slept in our own beds in way too long." Not to mention my bones are getting a little too much age on them for sleeping out under the jungle stars,he thought ruefully as a twinge of pain shot through his hip.
This time, there was no response at all. "Out like a light, aren't you, kid?" Jim whispered, tenderly brushing the soft skin of Blair's temple with his thumb. Sighing deeply, he worked his arms beneath his partner, gathering the limp form securely against his chest.
The blue eyes parted slightly. "Jim?" One arm crept around his neck, and the curly head nestled in place against his shoulder.
"Shhhh... Relax... It's okay, buddy. Sleep now. I've got you." Jim's whisper barely stirred the hair over Blair's ear.
Once more, blue eyes disappeared behind sleep heavy lids. "Oh, okay... Night, Jim."
As he carried his sleeping partner to his small room beneath Jim's own, the voice of Acana rang clearly in his mind, a surfacing memory that he did not realize he possessed. He smiled at the truth of the words.
Jim gently settled Sandburg beneath the covers, pulling them up to provide warmth through the night. Bending low he whispered, "A wise Chopec told you this, Chief, and through you, told us both." He laid his hand on Sandburg's forehead, almost in benediction, and quoted the words Imaru had spoken to Blair with the help of Acana's translation. "...nothing can come between us. We are one. In spirit, in heart, in mind. When one is hurt, the other can heal. When one is lost, the other can find. One mind, one heart, one soul sharing two bodies. This is as it should be. This is the way of anamari and sentinel..."
Pressing a soft kiss to Blair's cheek, Jim whispered, "This is our way. Sleep well, Chief." He turned off the light and left his guide to his dreams.
Return to the Perception Series
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