Jim sighed and leaned back in his chair, wiping his mouth with a napkin and pushing the plate away from him. Only faint traces of salad dressing and a few crumbs still decorated the colorful stoneware.
"That really hit the spot, Chief. Thanks for fixing dinner tonight."
"No problem. You practically inhaled it, man. No lunch today?"
"Unless you count half a stale donut, a Bronco Bar, and three cups of break-room coffee lunch -- no, no lunch today. Things were breaking on the LaSalle case and we didn't want to miss a chance to catch that bastard."
"We finally dug up his mistress and she showed us his dark side, so to speak. I'm sure we'll find enough evidence to put a case together now."
Blair nodded emphatically as he cleared the debris from dinner.
"That's great. It had to be him, nothing else made sense." He scraped off the plates and stacked them in the sink, then wiped his hands and turned back to Jim. "So, how about dessert?"
Jim eyed him suspiciously. "It's not that Tofutti stuff, is it? I'll take a pass on that again, thank you very much."
"Jim, it's not that bad, as long as you don't expect it to taste just like ice cream. Anyway, I didn't have time to fix something for dessert, so I stopped by Benetto's on the way home."
"Sandburg, if there's a piece of Benetto's tiramisu in that refrigerator with my name on it, I may have to kiss you."
Blair snorted. "Very funny. I thought that, if you could eat something as disgustingly healthy as grilled chicken and spinach salad for supper, I'd treat you to something special for dessert. I have tiramisu and chocolate mocha cheesecake. Take your choice."
"I have to make a choice? You know their chocolate mocha is my favorite. You didn't get two of each?"
"Jim...whining is so unattractive on a grown man."
"All right! I'll take the tiramisu, please."
"You got it." Blair chuckled to himself as he pulled the bakery box out of the refrigerator. Jim was so predictable. Placing each dessert on a small plate, he started a fresh pot of coffee before laying the plates on the table and sitting down beside Jim to enjoy his own little piece of heaven.
"Mmmm..." Jim moaned as he slowly ate the first bite of his dessert. "Excellent, as always. And is that Kona I smell?"
"On the money. The nose, as always, knows."
They enjoyed their dessert in companionable silence, only an occasional sigh or groan of appreciation in evidence. Finishing first, Jim took his plate to the sink and then pulled a couple of mugs out of the cabinet and poured the coffee, setting a cup in front of Blair, who was still savoring his cheesecake.
Just as Blair nodded his thanks and took his first sip of coffee, Jim's cell phone rang. He frowned as he walked over to the coat rack and pulled the intrusive device from his jacket pocket.
"Ellison...hey, Stan, how's it going?"
Blair cringed slightly as he heard Jim taking the call from his mechanic. Despite comments from practically everyone who saw it, and believed that it was totaled, Jim insisted obstinately that his truck could be repaired. Blair still felt bad that he had been driving when the tire blew and the truck went off the road, down an embankment, and into a tree, but there was nothing he could have done about the explosive charge that caused the accident.
Seeing Jim engrossed in the discussion on the phone, Blair took another sip of his coffee, then walked over to his washer-dryer combo and began to unload clean laundry from the dryer into a basket. He looked up as Jim answered loudly, irritation in his voice. The relaxed mood of dinner had dissipated all too quickly.
"I'm not gonna say this again, Stan. I want the truck fixed by the time I get back. I'm tired of your lame excuses.... Yeah, you heard me, whatever it costs.... Just do it, okay?" Jim punctuated his last statement by punching the off button and smacking the cell phone shut. Blair rolled his eyes at his partner as he picked up the basket and headed toward his bedroom. "Don't you think you were kind of hard on the guy? Come on, Jim, even you've got to admit the truck was a write off."
"You never told me you had a B.A. in auto shop, Sandburg," Jim stated flatly, heading towards the stairs.
"Very funny. So, are you mostly packed?"
Waving his hand in dismissal, Jim started up the spiral staircase linking their apartments. "I'm getting to it. Some of us had to work today, you know."
"I'm about done here, except for the offerings that we talked about. Have you picked yours yet?"
"No! I haven't chosen anything," Jim yelled, stopping midway up the stairs to turn and glare at him. "I told you before, I'm getting to it."
Blair fell silent, hearing the emotion behind Jim's words. Ever since he had suggested a trip back to Sierra Verde, Jim had been on edge. Even though he had described his vision to Jim, that Incacha had again passed the Way of the Shaman to him, this time with the instruction that the two temple pools were to be used by a sentinel and his shaman guide, Jim had still been reluctant to talk about it and even more reluctant to plan the journey with him. Blair knew that Jim had more than his fair share of bad memories from the temple, but he'd hoped that the vision from the spirit world, from Incacha himself, would make him more receptive. Obviously, he had been wrong.
Blair had spent many painstaking hours, researching and documenting all available information regarding the ceremonial pools that Alex and Jim had used during their brief encounter at the temple. Guiding Jim, however reluctantly, through some relaxation and mindfulness exercises, Blair had been able to help him to recall and draw some of the symbols on the inner walls of the temple. Through his own meditation, Blair had been able to remember a few as well.
Even more fascinating to the anthropologist, Jim was able to describe the meanings of some of the symbols, although he could not say where that knowledge had come from. Blair had immediately wanted to probe Jim's memories further, excited at the prospect that he may have found a new sentinel skill. Could Jim access a genetic memory, common to all sentinels? But Jim had rejected Blair's efforts to continue in that vein, walking away curtly and mumbling comments about lab rats under his breath.
Every piece of data that he had found, every educated guess that he had strung together from tantalizing clues and incomplete evidence, led him to the conclusion that his vision was correct, the temple pools had only one proper function. To complete the bond between a sentinel and his guide.
Blair watched as Jim retreated to the loft, but instead of continuing up the stairs to his bedroom to pack, Blair could hear the familiar thump of Jim's body dropping onto the sofa. Tension seeped into Blair's shoulders as he peered up through the stairwell into the dimly lit room above. Years of experience told him that Jim, sitting alone and quiet in the dark, was trying to avoid dealing with Blair's plans and the issue between them.
An imaginary door seemed to take shape between the two apartments, and Blair suddenly felt an emotional distance forming between them. This wasn't the first time that he had felt this space in their friendship, but past experience had shown him that honesty and trust eventually bridged any gaps between them. Whatever demons Jim was fighting needed to be exposed to the light of day and exorcized, not internalized.
Taking a seat on the bottom step, Blair began to speak in a calm, clear voice.
"Talk to me, Jim. I need you to tell me what's going on. Look man, if you really don't want to go, just say so. "
A swish of denim against upholstery registered in Blair's ears. "We both have to want this, Jim. I can't do this by myself. Remember when I told you that the water was nice, and you said that you weren't ready to take that trip with me? Do you still feel the same way? Do you really want this, or are you just doing this for me? I think I've seen more of your back this week than I care to. You've been avoiding me, and I want to know why. I think we both know where we're headed if we don't try to work this out."
Jim lay in the dim light of the loft, gently fingering the links of a chain necklace. His hands played lightly over the rectangular slip of metal attached there, his thumb brushing carefully along the engraved numbers and letters. His life as a soldier seemed so foreign to him now, and yet small pinpricks of memory still stabbed their way into his life when he least expected it. Like now....
Blair's research had led him to believe that in order to become a true shaman, and for them to fully realize their connection as sentinel and guide, they would each have to bring an offering of some sort to leave behind at the temple. The item was to represent a time, one before their meeting, that had dramatically changed their lives. At the very moment when Blair had relayed this information, and asked Jim to think about what he would take, a switch seemed to have been thrown in Jim's mind. Images of the helicopter crash, and of his time in Peru, had suddenly burst, unbidden, into his mind.
Ever since that moment, almost a week ago now, intense memories and nightmares had been ambushing him on a daily basis. At times he felt like he was drowning, that there just wasn't enough air in the room to fill his lungs. Other times, he felt small, insignificant, lost in a vacuum of uncertainty and dread.
What do you fear?
Jim had answered that question honestly at the time, but now as the horrors of his past seemed to rear their ugly heads yet again, he was faced with a renewed sense of fear. The visions in the pool had terrified him, but to some degree he had been prepared for them. These memories, the ones that had only recently begun to surface were new, unpredictable.
So much of his childhood, as well as the time just after the crash, had been repressed that it was like some horrible nightmare that he knew one day he would never wake up from. Was this some kind of test? Was he to be brought back to face yet another trip into his own personal darkness? The very thought of having to re-live the darkest episodes of his life, which he himself could not recall with any clarity, seemed even more horrifying than the memories that he had been faced with in the pool with Alex.
Jim blinked at the sound of his name, his head turning slightly towards the source of the sound. Blair stood beside him, his eyes barely visible in the shadowed room.
"I'm gonna cancel the flight."
The matter of fact tone in Blair's voice quickly dragged Jim's mind back to the present. Rising to a sitting position, Jim quickly tucked his dog tags back into his pants pocket.
"Don't say it, Jim, it's okay, really. It was a bad idea. I never even gave you a chance to tell me what you thought of this whole thing. I got carried away, and I'm sorry."
"I'm remembering some things."
Taking advantage of the now empty space on the couch, Blair plopped down beside his partner, his voice rising in excitement. "What things? What are you remembering? When did this happen?"
"It started just after the ritual murder case ended. It's all just so damn confusing. I've been getting, I don't know, I guess you'd call them flashbacks. Flashes of memory of the helicopter crash, my time in Peru.... It's not like I really remember what I'm seeing, but it seems familiar, like I should remember it. Then there's the other."
"Dreams, visions, or whatever the hell you want to call them. They're nothing like anything I've ever experienced before."
Turning his gaze away from Blair, Jim continued, "I'm alone."
"Alone? What do you mean, alone?"
Pushing himself off the couch, Jim began to pace. He could almost feel Blair's eyes on him, following his movements, and hear his unspoken questions. Working to organize his swirling thoughts, he struggled to keep his voice even and his emotions under control. At the memory of finding himself entirely alone in that dark, blue-tinged expanse, he could feel the same tendrils of fear reaching out for him.
"I told you, weren't you listening to me? I was alone. No panther, no Incacha, no jungle...nothing, just me."
"You've never had a vision like that before."
"No kidding. You told me that you were alone in part of your vision after the accident with the truck; it's probably some kind of subconscious thing in response to that. I'll get over it."
He could see disbelief flash across Blair's face, followed by a familiar look of concentration. If there was one thing that they could count on in this Sentinel / Guide connection, it was that visions, no matter how obtuse, always held a deep significance for the pair.
"Maybe it has something to do with what Incacha said," Blair mused.
"What do you mean?"
"This is my journey, Jim. Maybe we have to be separate before we can be together."
At the light pressure of Blair's hand on his arm the Sentinel stopped his pacing, but found it difficult to remain in one spot. Shifting his weight from foot to foot, Jim found himself itching to pull away from Blair's grasp.
"We've been working together for years. Why would I want to go back to the way things were before?"
"Maybe we have to accept who we were, before we can accept who we are, and where we go from here."
Shrugging off the hand that held him, Jim sat back down beside his partner. "You really believe this, don't you?"
"Yeah, Jim, I do."
Jim hesitated for a moment, letting the certainty in Blair's voice wash over him. A sense of urgency filled his heart, as if there were some sort of preparations that still needed to be made.
"Okay, Chief, you win. I've still got some paperwork left to do at the station in the morning, but after that, we can head out as planned."
"You mean it?"
Jim watched as Blair quickly bounded off the couch and headed towards the stairs. He couldn't help but smile as he saw the grin blossoming across the retreating face. "You won't be sorry, man, I promise."
"Famous last words," Jim muttered under his breath.
Moments after Blair disappeared down the stairwell, Jim headed to his room and seated himself at his desk. Pulling a thick legal envelope from his file drawer, he removed the document within and scrutinized it carefully. Pen in hand, he found a piece of stationery and began to compose one of the most important letters of his life.
Blair sat on his bed, picking through the contents of his suitcase one more time. He'd been packing and unpacking it for days, torn between his desire to return to the Temple of the Sentinels, and his fear of returning to the Temple of the Sentinels. As much as he tried to appear confident and determined in front of Jim, he'd had a few hundred second thoughts himself.
The idea of following Incacha's guidance, of cementing the bond between sentinel and shaman in the ancient way, both thrilled and terrified him. He recalled worrying that he could never become a shaman, never truly be worthy of his place by the sentinel's side. Despite all of his efforts and desires, he had been unable to engage the spirit world, had been unable to experience the visions that Jim had. As much as his roommate had downplayed Blair's failures, insisting that he didn't need a shaman, Blair had felt the bite of disappointment more than once.
Now that Incacha had visited him on the spirit plane, passing the Way of the Shaman to him in the spiritual world as he already had in the material world, Blair felt that he was finally on his way. Ever since his vision, it had been all that he could do to eat and sleep and carry on the activities of the mundane world. His mind was filled with the possibilities of fulfilling Incacha's shamanic legacy, of deepening his relationship with Jim, of expanding his world.
He reached over to the desk and picked up the worn notebook that contained all of his research and speculations on the Temple of the Sentinels and the bonding between sentinel and shaman. Flipping through a few pages, the dog-eared and occasionally coffee-stained pages were practically engraved on his brain, yet he still felt as if he should know more, do more, to prepare. Sighing, he tossed it onto the pile of clothing. Trying to read through all of it one more time would do him no good; it wasn't like cramming for an exam. He was as prepared as he would ever be.
Standing and walking over to his dresser, he opened the bottom drawer and rummaged around in it until he located a small wooden box in the back. Removing the box and closing the drawer, he returned to the bed and sat next to his open suitcase. He smiled slightly as he looked at the childish lettering burned into the top, then pried the tight-fitting lid open.
Inside the box was the item that he had selected as his offering to the Temple of the Sentinels, symbol of a turning point in his life. He removed a small handmade leather and stone bracelet, stiff with disuse, and weighed it thoughtfully in the palm of his hand. Memories flooded back, memories of fear and excitement, loneliness and accomplishment.
He'd received the bracelet years ago when he went on his first out-of-the-country anthropological trip. The youngest in the party, just a junior high school student, he had only been permitted to go because Naomi was a friend of the scientist in charge. He was so thrilled that he and Naomi were actually going to get to go to a foreign country for a vacation that he couldn't sleep for two days beforehand. The trip to meet the expedition party at the airport passed in a daze as he chattered on about the flora and fauna of the area they would be visiting, having poured through many a book and encyclopedia in preparation.
At the airport, they joined the party eagerly waiting near the gate. After setting his luggage down and making sure that he had his ticket and everything, Naomi had taken him aside and sat down beside him.
Blair was sure that he could still picture the look on her face, feel the rush of astonishment and disappointment as she told him that she wasn't going along. Naomi had met the most wonderful man, a "truly spiritual being," and she absolutely had to go to Sedona with him for the Solstice celebration. She wouldn't be able to take Blair along, but she was sure that he would have a wonderful time in South America and she couldn't wait to hear all about it when he got back.
With just a hug and a kiss, Naomi swept away down the airport terminal, a faint scent of jasmine wafting behind her. Blair stood, stunned, fighting back tears as she walked away. Dr. Adams kindly brought him back to the group and made sure that he got on the flight, and generally took him under his wing. Blair grew up that summer, coming to an understanding about Naomi as a woman and a mother -- once he got past his sadness and anger. But he also discovered independence and the ability to detach with love, as well as anthropology and the love of learning which had motivated his life ever since. When next he saw Naomi, she presented him with the bracelet from Arizona. He'd accepted it with a smile and a hug, and a promise to himself that he'd never tell Naomi the dark side of his experiences that summer, and he'd buried those memories deep. He could never wear the bracelet without bittersweet memories and feelings surfacing, so he had rarely worn it. Now it was too small, so it just sat in the little handmade box in his dresser drawer.
Tossing it into the open suitcase, he reached for the worn notebook again, unable to resist the urge to go through it just one more time.
Jim finished scribbling on the blue post-it note and stuck it on the cover of the file folder in front of him. Dropping the file onto the growing pile on his right, he pulled the top file from the shrinking pile on the left side of his desk and opened it with a sigh.
Today was their last day in the office before they left for Mexico, and all of his open files had to be reviewed and updated, so that they could be temporarily reassigned by Simon. He looked up with a grimace as Blair came over and removed the right-hand pile, raising an eyebrow at the still substantial stack on Jim's left, then carrying Jim's reviewed files to his own desk.
Jim grinned as he watched Blair read the scribbled notes on the cover of the top file, then open the file and scan through it quickly. His partner also had notes and comments to contribute to the case files, but used a totally different method. Rather than adding his notes to the file, he turned to his computer and typed his notes into an email for Simon. Jim knew how to use email, but he was sure that it took him twice as long to type and check his spelling than to just scribble it out. Besides, it was a well-known police tradition to add bits and pieces that made each case file individual. It was just a tradition that Sandburg hadn't learned yet.
Attending to post-it notes and police traditions, along with working on the case files, allowed him to get through most of the day without thinking too much about their upcoming journey. But eventually all of the files had been updated, and he grabbed the pile from Blair's desk and headed toward Simon's office, knocking on the door before opening it.
Jim walked in and placed the stack of paperwork in front of Simon with a thump.
"Here you go, Simon. We've been through all of them, lock, stock and barrel. I don't think there's much else we could add."
Simon nodded, then stood and walked around to the front of his desk, resting one hip on the corner and crossing his arms over his chest.
"So, are you two ready to go?"
Jim leaned back to sit against the edge of the conference table.
"Are we packed and all? Yes. Am I ready? I'm not sure I'll ever be ready, Simon." He rubbed a hand over his face tiredly. "As ready as I'll ever be, I guess."
"Does Sandburg know you feel this way?"
"Yeah, he does. I haven't exactly kept it under my hat. But this is something that he needs to do, that we need to do, so I'm going. Ever since Incacha's death, he's been struggling with Incacha's legacy and feeling that he's come up short. Considering all that we've been through...I'm going."
"All right. I'm sure that I don't understand, but I don't think that asking you or Sandburg to explain it will help. Just take care of business between you two, and I'll see you in two weeks."
Jim nodded and turned toward the door, but stopped before grasping the doorknob.
"Simon, just in case something happens, there's a sealed envelope in my locker with your name on it. Sandburg has a similar envelope in his locker."
"What do you mean, in case something happens? What are you two planning to do down there? Are you planning something dangerous?" Simon blurted out as he stood stiffly and glared in concern.
"No, no, Simon. Nothing dangerous. You just never know what might happen, you know? I'm sure everything will go just fine."
He stood and walked over to the door and opened it as he talked, subconsciously listening to the bullpen banter as he said his goodbyes, missing it already even though they hadn't left yet.
"...pink shirt. I've never worn a pink shirt in my life!"
"...can't get that exact color anymore?"
"It's not pink, it's mauve..."
"...trying to have a conversation here, guys! Sorry, Stan. What did you say?"
"...sure Jim will like it..."
"...wife buying all your clothes now?"
"...by the time we get back. Thanks, Stan."
"I think it's sweet..."
He walked back through the bullpen to Blair's desk, Simon almost at his side.
Blair looked up at him as he hung up the phone.
"Hey, Simon. Ready to go, Jim?"
"Yup, we're out of here, I guess."
"Cool. See you, Simon. We'll try to bring something back for you."
"Why does that sound like a threat, Sandburg? Go on, get out of here. Have a good time."
"Yes, sir. Let's go, Chief."
As they made their way through the bullpen, tossing off brief farewells to their colleagues in the room, Jim couldn't help but turn as they reached the elevator to look around slowly, a slight shiver tickling his spine in foreboding. Somehow he wondered, if they were successful in their quest, whether anything would be quite the same again.
"How does this look, Chief? Why don't we unload and set up here?"
"Sounds like a plan, Jim. How far is the temple from here?"
"Not far, on the other side of that little ridge. I can see the top of it through the trees. But I think this is a good spot, close to the stream, and the downed trees over there will give us some protection from both weather and animals."
"I'm down with that. Man, I think my pack gained twenty pounds on the way here, and that stream looks like heaven to me."
Both men dropped their packs with loud sighs of relief, and Blair stretched and twisted as he looked around them. They had been hiking for more than a day since they left their Jeep behind near the end of the road, hopefully camouflaged well enough that it would still be there when they returned.
Jim looked around as well, scanning each detail of the surrounding jungle. Since they had decided to travel light and not bring a tent, Jim had been carefully examining their surroundings for the last hour or so as they approached the temple. The downed and rotting logs resting up against the massive trunks of two ancient trees would be the backdrop to their camp site; if needed, a roof of branches, ferns and bark could easily be constructed to extend out over their sleeping area and packs. The area was mostly level and the nearby stream was a bonus; rocks found along the stream would make a safe fire circle. He could feel the tension in his body drop minutely; at least one aspect of their journey was going well.
"Hey, Jim. Earth to Jim. Anything wrong?" Blair called across the small clearing, concern evident in his voice.
"No, not at all, just looking around."
"Okay, as long as you're not zoning out on me. You know, that stream's calling my name. Mind if I take a break and clean up a bit before we start making camp?"
"Good idea. I think I'll join you."
Blair headed for the enticing trickle of the stream and plopped down on a wide, flat rock at one edge. He tied his hair back, then began removing his hiking boots and socks. Leaning over the water, he filled his hands and buried his sweaty and dirtied face in them.
"Mmmmm..." he moaned as Jim joined him, kneeling down at the water's edge. He lowered his head and splashed water repeatedly over his own head and neck, scrubbing his short hair briefly.
Raising his head and wiping the water from his eyes, Jim took a moment to examine his partner. Blair was still panting heavily and his t-shirt was dark with sweat where it was visible under his ever-present flannel shirt. Blair was in reasonably good shape, but he often struggled to keep up as they hiked over long distances, although Jim had tried to measure his stride in consideration of his shorter friend. He smiled watching Blair submerge his feet in the cool water, his eyes closing and a grin spreading across his face in pleasure.
As Blair slowly lay back across the large rock, Jim noticed the red mark that disappeared into his hairline and was reminded that it hadn't been that long since Blair was almost killed in an accident in Jim's truck. Blair had been through the wringer over the past few months, helping Jim with several brutal cases, losing his girlfriend to a serial killer, receiving the head injury in the accident. Jim had been through a rough patch as well, having only recovered from an unexplained bout of severe migraines in the past few weeks. Neither of them was at his best coming into this journey.
"Hey, Chief, how's the head?"
Blair carefully touched the healing scar on his forehead. "Not too bad. Got a little headache, but nothing like it was. I'm sure it's just because I'm a little tired, but I'll be fine. We get set up, get something to eat, and I'll be good to go."
"Sorry, Blair, I know that I've been really pushing the last few hours, but I wanted us to get here well before nightfall. I wanted us to be able to pitch camp, take a look around, and get a good night's rest. We've both been through a lot recently, and it's been a long hike in. Whatever is going to happen, having a little rest can only help."
"No problem." Blair glanced around, an odd look growing on his face. "You wanna hear something weird?"
"Weirder than us being here at all?"
"Well, almost that weird," Blair grinned, his grin slowly fading as he met Jim's gaze. "This place looks familiar. As a matter of fact, it reminds me of the jungle in my vision, you know, the one after the accident when Incacha spoke to me."
"I'm sure it's just coincidence. You know, you've seen one jungle, you've seen them all." Jim busied himself wiping his face with the tail of his t-shirt, suddenly feeling a pressing need to check out the area and set up their meager camp. He stood and left the stream behind, scanning the area and picking up sticks and branches that would become their evening campfire. Moments later he could hear the shuffling steps of Blair behind him, joining him in the task and heading for the small clearing.
"Yeah, right," Blair replied under his breath. Dropping his bundle of wood, he knelt and dug around in his backpack, pulled out a candle and the foldable candle lantern. Stuffing them into a pocket of his jacket, he grabbed the familiar worn notebook and stood, staring toward the ridge. "I'd like to take a look at the temple before it gets dark, see if we can get more information from the pictures and symbols there. Join me?"
Jim's immediate reaction was to think "no," but he forced himself to swallow that response before it reached his lips. Despite the spark of fear that touched him at even thinking about the ancient pools, and his previous experience there, he couldn't deny Blair's need to do this.
"Sure. Lead on, Chief."
A few hours later, he rubbed a tired and dusty hand across his forehead. They had gone over almost every inch of the main room in the temple, the room with the two pools. Blair had been eagerly sketching the symbols and writings that they found there, and Jim interpreted the meanings when he could. They had also looked briefly into two other chambers, but Blair had wanted to focus on the characters surrounding the pools first. Jim had rarely seen his partner more focused, fully engrossed in his work.
Standing and stretching stiff limbs from sitting on the cold floor, Jim extended his senses around him. He could feel the temperature dropping and hear the subtle change in the murmur from the jungle that told him that twilight would arrive soon.
"Hey, Blair, it's getting late. Why don't we take a break, fix up camp and get some dinner. We can always come back to it in the morning. We've got two weeks, you know; you don't have to do it all in one night. "
Blair looked up from his notebook, his hand stopping in the middle of drawing yet another symbol from the temple wall.
"Oh, right. You know me, if I don't have an alarm clock to tell me when to stop studying and go to bed, I'll keep going all night. I guess it'll all still be here in the morning." With one final look around, eyes practically glowing in excitement, he stood and followed his partner out into the dusk.
Blair shifted the fiery embers, concentrating their heat under the simmering coffeepot. A faint trail of smoke rose from the spout, levitating above the pot, then disappearing gradually into the air. He watched the vapor, rising and dissipating, allowing his mind and eyes to follow its path into the unknown.
This journey, as Incacha had so aptly put it, held the same type of mystery, a rise to greater knowledge, and a quest into a world not yet charted. Settling himself cross-legged on the ground, he poked idly at the flames, watching the play of color and light against the backdrop of the forest. Jim had left him alone, obviously feeling the need to be alone himself, quietly making his way into the underbrush in search of the plants needed for the cleansing ritual and for the ceremonial drinks they would ingest before entering the temple pools.
After a restless night's sleep, they had spent most of the morning in the temple, continuing to work on documenting and interpreting the ancient language there. Jim had been incredible, pulling meaning and answers seemingly out of the air, and between the two of them they had interpreted much of the writing in the chamber of the pools. The ritual ceremony was described there, as well as the steps to prepare themselves and the drinks that each of them would take. Finally Blair had called a halt, believing that they had discovered all that they were going to about the ritual of sentinel and shaman, at least all that they would be able to interpret until after they had completed the ceremony.
Blair leaned forward, inhaling the bitter aroma of the tea that steeped over the flames. Reaching into his pocket, Blair fingered the tiny bag of herbs, hoping that his research had led him in the right direction. Up until now, so much of his ability as a guide had been based purely on instinct. The smattering of historical knowledge regarding the bond between sentinel and guide was only secondary to what seemed to him to be a primitive type of educated hunch.
These feelings, previously based entirely in theory, had led him on a search for an herb that would aid Jim in his own path to discovery. Although the writings in the temple were not precise, or they hadn't been able to translate them all precisely, they seemed to describe just the kind of herb he had chosen. Blair wondered if it had just been a good educated guess on his part, or had he subconsciously responded to a kind of shaman's instinct that had guided his choice.
The air stirred around him as the snap of a twig sounded in his ear. Turning in the direction of the sound, Blair met Jim's eyes.
"Hey Jim, you back already?"
Jim stood, one hand clutching an armful of plants wrapped up in the tail of his shirt, the other pointing in the direction of the fire. "What is that?"
Blair scrambled to his feet, unnerved by the shocked expression in the other man's face. "It's an herb, Uncaria Tomentosa, I brought it with me. We read this on the wall of the temple, remember? That drink that Alex gave you, in its true form it was probably meant for me, for a shaman. You were never supposed to have it."
Brushing past Blair, Jim moved slowly towards the fire. The smell of the tea seemed to call him, beckoning him to draw nearer. Dropping to one knee, Jim closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply. "It's Cat's Claw."
Blair nodded, amazed that Jim had been able to identify the herb purely by its smell. "That's another name for it. How did you know that, Jim?"
"I-I don't know. I've had it before. In Peru."
"Its medicinal purposes are endless, the Chopec probably gave you some after the crash. It supports the immune system, prevents viruses from attacking the body, regulates blood pressure, and any number of other things. This is incredible!"
"I remember it used to grow in the trees, like a woody kind of vine. It could be huge, almost a hundred feet long. Incacha taught me how to cut it so that it would grow back. He'd boil the root, and some of the bark, and we'd drink it. It was bitter, horrible really."
Blair smiled, happy to hear some of the initial shock leaving Jim's voice. Moving towards his friend, Blair laid a hand on his shoulder. "Well then, I guess we'll have to hold our noses when we drink it."
"The other stuff wasn't exactly champagne, Chief," Jim smiled, placing the plants on the ground beside the fire and kneeling beside him.
"Nothing could be worse than Rhonda's day old coffee," Blair said, watching as Jim sorted the leaves, roots and berries into two separate piles.
"You got that right," Jim chuckled as he finished and brushed his hands off on his jeans. He pointed to the larger pile on the left. "Okay, this should be enough for the cleansing. When it's mashed up and heated slowly with a little water, it could almost pass for one of those all-natural soaps that you like to use. And this other pile is to brew the shaman's drink - the plants and herbs that are described in the temple, not whatever it was that Alex used."
Blair shivered unconsciously at the mention of the evil sentinel's name, and quickly felt Jim's hand drop lightly on his shoulder. He reached for a couple of rocks that he had found by the stream, ones that could be used as a mortar and pestle.
"Looks good, Jim. Why don't you start in on the soap, and I'll work on the shaman's concoction. The cat's claw tea that we'll drink for the cleansing ceremony is almost done, and I'll make a concentrated batch for you to use in the temple. We should be able to have everything ready today, and start the ceremonies just before sundown as the writings prescribe." He felt Jim's hand slide quickly off his shoulder and turned, their eyes meeting. "Are you ready for this, Jim? You've gotta tell me if you're not. Both of us have to be ready and committed, or it's not going to work."
Jim broke the gaze and looked down, gathering some of the plants and tearing them into small pieces.
"I'll be ready when you are, Chief. As long as we do it together."
Stopping at a bend in the stream, both men stopped and looked at the small waterfall and inviting pool in front of them.
"I think this is the spot, Chief. What do you think?"
"Looks good to me. I think it will fit the bill."
Blair set his two containers down on a nearby rock and took a deep breath as he nervously recalled the details of the cleansing ceremony.
"Okay, first we drink the tea, both from the same cup." He lifted one of the containers from the rock and sipped half of the bitter liquid, his hand shaking slightly, then handed it to Jim. Jim met his eyes as he took the cup and sipped the other half, handing the cup back after finishing with just a trace of a grimace.
"Okay, good," Blair took the cup and set it down. He looked up nervously as he could feel the faint warmth of a blush on his cheeks. "Now comes the fun part. We strip down to skin and enter the pool together, then each of us has to wash the other with the soapy mixture, to wash away the influences of the outside world..."
"And to see each other as nakedly and honestly as our souls will see each other in the pools," Jim finished for him, not a trace of embarrassment in his voice. He grinned slightly. "I was paying attention, you know."
"Right." Blair shivered in anticipation of the chill water of the pool. "Well, then, let's do it."
"Let's do it," Jim concurred.
Both men began to undress quietly. Blair turned slightly away in modesty, even as he knew it was foolish under the circumstances, for once folding his clothing as he made a pile of it on the shore. His mind was spinning at the implications of what they were about to undertake. His musings were interrupted by the soft voice of his partner.
"The water isn't getting any warmer, Chief."
Blair swallowed quickly before answering. "I'm sure it's not." He picked up the bowl of soapy mixture and a couple of large, soft leaves and set them right at the edge of the water. "Ready when you are."
Their eyes met briefly, then they stepped, side by side, into the cool water. The shock of the change in temperature startled him momentarily and he began to slip on the mossy bottom, but was pulled up short by Jim's strong grip on his arm.
"Slow and easy, there."
Regaining his footing, Blair slowly made his way deeper into the water, stopping when the water reached his waist. He was about to reach back for the soap when he discovered that Jim had beaten him to it.
"The shaman is bathed first, remember? Dunk yourself and get all of that hair wet." Taking a deep breath, Blair lowered himself under the water. His skin tingled all over, and he realized that he was feeling slightly lightheaded as well. Maybe the strong tea had something to do with that, he mused. Standing up, he took a couple of breaths before leaning forward to wet his hair and run his fingers through the kinks a few times.
Looking at Jim, meeting his eyes hesitantly, Blair nodded.
Jim wet one of the leaves, then scooped some of the mixture from the bowl and spread it over the soft, green surface. He stepped up to and behind Blair and softly applied the soapy leaf to his back, slowly and carefully wiping across the shoulders, lifting Blair's hair to stroke across his neck. Blair was amazed at the gentle touch and closed his eyes, trusting completely in his friend, allowing Jim to raise his arms one by one to wash beneath them, and walking when gently prodded into the shallows so Jim could bathe the rest of his trunk and his legs. Although he had expected to feel embarrassed at the intimacy of the act, he felt only the warmth of trust and regard for the sentinel.
His skin felt alive, tingling, as if he was literally aglow from inside. He barely cracked open an eye when Jim pulled him back into deeper water. A gentle massage of his hair and scalp led him almost into a trance before Jim finished and stepped back.
"Okay, I think that's got it. Why don't you drop down and rinse off."
Blair did so, submerging himself completely and rinsing his hair thoroughly with both hands. The native soap rinsed off easily, although the tingling remained. He stood and wiped the water out of his eyes.
"All right, your turn."
Jim submerged himself briefly as Blair picked up the other leaf and a small handful of the soap, then turned his back so that Blair could begin as he had done. Blair rewet the leaf and then began smoothing it across Jim's broad shoulders, focusing on the task at hand and thinking only of his great good luck in finding not only a sentinel but a friend, a good friend that would go to the ends of the earth to help him meet his personal destiny as a shaman. He bathed his partner as gently as he would a baby, then tapped on his shoulders to encourage him to submerge and rinse off. The peaceful, contented look on Jim's face as he rose out of the water probably matched the expression on his own.
"How do you feel, Jim?"
"Clean, tingly.... Really alive. How about you?"
"Me, too. Almost like my own senses have been turned up a notch."
"So, are we done here?"
"Yes, I guess so. We need to wash out the rest of the soap into the water and the leaves go in too. Then we dress in the clean clothes we brought and meditate until we are ready to go to the temple and begin the ceremony."
They slowly left the stream, brushing water droplets from their bodies, grateful for the warm sun and slight breeze that helped dry newly sensitive skin. Dressing quickly, they headed back downstream toward the campsite. As he dropped down near the fire, Blair felt as if he could extend his senses and become part of the living jungle around him. He smiled at Jim as he found a spot to sit across from him, then closed his eyes and began slowing his breathing in relaxation.
Jim watched Blair open his eyes slowly, a look of calm and contentment on his tanned face. He stood and stretched, then brought a couple of handfuls of small logs and branches to the fire circle.
"Why don't you finish up here, bank the fire for later, I've got some other stuff I need to do."
"Meet me inside when you're ready, and oh yeah, lose the extra shirts."
Staring at the layers of flannel and cotton shirts that hung loosely from his upper body, Blair called after him, "Which shirts?"
"All but one t-shirt, " Jim called over his shoulder as he ascended the stairs into the temple.
Blair's voice followed him in complaint. "It's freezing out here."
"It's your journey, remember?" Jim teased, yelling from just outside the temple entrance.
"I hope the water's warm," Blair muttered, probably under his breath, but loud enough for sentinel hearing to detect easily.
Leaving Blair to complete his preparations, Jim moved into the shadowed area of the temple. Waiting for his vision to adjust to the dim light, Jim listened to the gentle flow of water from underground springs into the chamber. Slowly he approached the two magical pools. At the base of one of the pools, he eyed his reflection in the calm water. The image stretched before him, rippling slightly as his breath danced along the surface.
Breathing deeply, he focused on banishing his haunting memories of Alex, wild-eyed and out of control as she lost her mind, her cries of agony echoing off the stone walls. He fought to replace those images with the familiar image of his friend and guide, seeking a calm within before Blair would join him to begin the ceremony. Desire filled his being as unforeseen hands guided him toward the age-old ritual that was to fulfill their destinies.
The pulsing beat of distant drums filled his ears, pounding in time with his heart. The intensity of the sound increased, until it seemed to come from within his own body. Moments later, he could feel Blair's presence beside him. Without a word, Jim stripped off his outer shirt, and tossed it onto the ground.
As Blair reached Jim's side, the loud throbbing of his heart filled his ears, then was replaced with the sound of distant drums, somehow echoing within the temple walls. The beat surrounded him, pulsing along his spine, pounding against the walls of his heart. He watched, dumbfounded, as Jim examined them briefly, then moved to take the sentinel's drink from Blair's left hand.
The single word sent shivers through Blair's body as he watched Jim drain the contents of his bowl. Obediently, Blair drained the shaman's drink from his own cup and set it down on the side of the pool.
The liquid warmed him instantly, both inside and out. For a fleeting moment, he understood how the consumption of this drink had affected Jim and Alex. In small quantities, like Alex had forced on Jim, one's mind may have been affected, but in mass doses and with other unknown additives, like those Alex had consumed, the impact on a person's mind and body would be shattering. It was clear to him now, that Alex's catatonic state was partly due to the mixture she had ingested.
Signaling with his hand for Blair to remain where he was, Jim moved to a shadowed area of the room, and returned with two small woven bags. Handing one to Blair, Jim returned to stand beside his pool.
"Place your offering in the bag."
Blair hesitated for a moment, unnerved by the fact that Jim knew that his offering was nearby. Nodding, Blair retrieved the worn bracelet from his hiding spot, placed it in the bag, and pulled the drawstring closed. Following Jim's lead, Blair carefully eased the bag into the water, watching as it disappeared below the surface. Small bubbles rose to the top of the water, sending identical ripples though both of the pools.
Blair did as instructed, moving to stand in front of Jim. Dipping his index finger in the water, Jim gently traced a line across Blair's forehead, whispering a single word to the man before him. "Curanderos."
Blair inhaled sharply as the cool water bathed his forehead, a slight inner tingling joining the warmth growing within him. Again, Jim drew an identical line across Blair's lips and uttered a one-word blessing. "Brujos."
His legs felt weak as the tingling spread, and one of Jim's hands reached out to steady him. The final line of liquid was drawn across Blair's chest, just above his heart. The final word "Shaman," was spoken barely above a whisper.
Jim repeated the words as Blair took a half step toward him before his legs gave way. Strong arms caught him and swept him up, and he was vaguely surprised at his lack of fear as he was cradled briefly against a muscular chest before being lowered into caressing waters. "Healer, sorcerer, Shaman." Heavy eyelids drifted closed and his breathing slowed and evened out, floating easily in the warm water of the shaman's pool.
The transition had begun....
Jim moved unsteadily towards the opposite pool, barely able to force his body into action. He tried to ready himself mentally for what he knew was to come, but he knew that he could never be fully prepared for the visions that awaited him. Easing himself over the edge, he felt the all too familiar floating sensation work its way through his body. Staring at the ceiling of the cavern, he allowed the numbness to overtake him. His heart raced as his legs weakened and became useless extremities. He fought the urge to scream, fought his natural desire to maintain control. He had chosen to take this journey, chosen of his own free will, and now was the moment of truth. His breathing quickened, as his hands became unresponsive, and limp. The world ceased to exist, the blackness engulfing him.
"Hang on, we're going down!"
Jim's eyes darted around the confines of the helicopter, his mind quickly cataloguing the men's names and faces. Seven men, born to serve, but destined to die in the service of their country. The whirring of the helicopter blades above his head slowed as the engine sputtered, the chopper occasionally lurching downward even as it spun horizontally out of control. Jim reached out, snagging the arm of one of the younger members of the unit, fighting against centrifugal force to keep the man upright.
"Grab on! The rest of you, grab on!"
Gloved hands fumbled, fingers entwining in a makeshift lifeline, a chain of humanity. Sight, sound, taste, smell and touch collided as he watched the links of the chain snap apart before his eyes. He heard the men's screams as metal dueled with flesh, smelled their blood as arteries and veins exploded, spilling life onto the floor of the cabin. Bile rose bitterly in his throat as he felt pieces of his own flesh being torn from his body. The cooling, lifeless hand of the young man beside him slipped from his grasp. His eyes raked over the scene, refusing to believe, and yet incapable of disbelief as well.
Endless minutes passed, and the world grew silent and dark. He floated somewhere between life and death, wishing for one, and dreading the other. There were no words to describe the eerie emptiness of it all, the complete and utter feeling of total desolation. To be alone in death was worse than death itself.
Slowly the images swirling in his mind began to take shape. The first thing that Blair became aware of was a loud whirring sound directly overhead. The ground beneath his feet seemed to sway slightly, and he sensed that he was not alone. Blinking furiously to clear his sight, Blair darted a curious glance around what appeared to be a helicopter. Men in army fatigues, each shouldering a weapon, exchanged whispered conversation. Blair studied the faces, not recognizing any of the men around him. One man's face remained hidden behind a wall of others, and Blair found himself drawn to reach the stranger.
"Hey, guys, you want to tell me what's going on here? Where am I?" Blair moved through the cabin, seemingly unnoticed by its inhabitants. "Come on guys, what gives?"
"They cannot hear you, " a voice behind him stated calmly.
Blair spun around to face the source of the voice, shocked to see Incacha's spirit standing directly behind him.
"Incacha, where am I? Why have you brought me here?"
"You have traveled to this time and place to close the circle. You have accepted your own death, but you have not accepted the death of the other. Only through acceptance can you fully understand your role as Shaman. Mistakes will be made, and you must face the consequences of your actions."
"What consequences? Accept whose death?"
The words had barely left Blair's mouth, when the helicopter lurched forward violently, tossing the occupants of the cabin into a heap on the floor. Blair's eyes flashed over the scene, coming to rest on the face of the man that had remained obscured from his sight.
"Jim? Oh, my God. Incacha, no. Please! Please don't do this. You can't do this. Jim!"
He saw the terror in Jim's eyes as he lunged forward, grasping the hand of a young soldier. Jim's shouted orders to his men rang in Blair's ears. Blair staggered towards Jim's side, intent on helping his friend any way that he could.
"I'm here, Jim, grab on." Blair extended his hand in invitation, frustrated by Jim's lack of response. "Come on, Jim!"
Reaching out to grasp Jim's shirt, Blair watched in horror as his hand passed right through Jim's body. He stared at his hand in disbelief, shaking his head to clear his thoughts. "No, this isn't happening." Determined not to give up, Blair repeated the action with the same result.
Fear gripped his soul as he watched the young soldiers being tossed about like rag dolls. "Stop! Make it stop!" Blair pleaded, overwhelmed by the screams for help and the sickening thud of flesh against metal.
Blood spewed from open wounds, spattering Blair's chest in red splotches. His stomach churned as he watched, helplessly, the scene play out before him. Jim's body became airborne, hitting the roof of the chopper with a loud bang, then crashing back to the floor with an agonizing groan. It was more than Blair could take. "No more! That's enough!"
"You cannot change what has been."
He closed his eyes, allowing himself to sink deeper into the void. He welcomed death now, courted it in his mind. For a fleeting moment, he pictured his father, standing at the entrance to his childhood home, listening to the officer that had been sent to inform him of his son's fate.
"I'm Colonel Patterson. I'm sorry to disturb you at your home, sir, but there's been a situation. Captain Ellison's helicopter has gone down somewhere in Peru, and we've lost contact with the unit. Unfortunately, given the unstable situation in the country at the moment, we're unable to dispatch a rescue team. I'm sorry, sir."
Jim wondered how his father would take the news of his disappearance. Their relationship had been shaky at best, not exactly the typical father and son bond. Sally would cry, that much he knew. Steven? Steven was another matter. He pictured the two men at his memorial service, accepting condolences from strangers, all the while checking their watches and hoping to make it home in time for dinner.
Only vague shimmers of memory remained of his mother, and with them came the cutting edge of bitterness. He closed his mind to her face, hoping to blot it from his memory entirely.
There seemed no real reason to continue to fight for what little life he still had within him. There was no special woman waiting for him back home, no child to weep for the loss of his father, no family to mourn the untimely death of their son. His life had been filled with acquaintances, with no real friends that he could call his own. His true self had died years ago at the hands of his father, and the shell of a man that remained was a hard, unfeeling entity.
Dropping to his knees beside the crumpled form, Blair probed Jim's neck for a heartbeat. Again, his hand passed through Jim's body without making contact, but he could see no movement of his chest. "He's not breathing."
"You hear, but you do not listen. Others have said that they listen with their hearts, you must listen with your soul."
"I don't care! I don't care about this anymore. Help me, dammit, do something!" Blair could barely contain the panic in his voice as he stood to face Incacha's spirit. "Please!"
"Why is he here?"
The words caught Blair off guard, and he took a moment to compose himself. "To complete the bond."
"He is here because of you. Did he not ask to delay this journey?"
"What do you mean? You told me that we had to do this. You told me that he was ready, that he had to make some sort of preparations."
"There are many voices, but only one true voice."
Blair glanced down at Jim's still form, shaking his head in disbelief. "Are you saying that I made a mistake? He knew about this, didn't he? That's why he insisted on writing those letters. He knew he could die! What have I done?"
Laying a hand on Blair's shoulder, Incacha smiled. "Be with him now, listen to his soul."
Blair nodded, slowly returning to his place beside Jim. "I'm sorry, Jim. I made a horrible mistake. I'll stay with you, no matter what happens. I'll be right here. Always. Just rest."
As the shadow of death loomed closer, he unleashed his caged self, allowing it to break free, and savor the nectar of the last drops of life. His senses flared, swimming out of control in his mind. For so many years he had suppressed this part of his being, muting the voice that beckoned him. Now, faced with imminent death, he listened intently to the voice, allowing it to surround and then move within him. A presence of sorts touched his eyes, tracing circles around his tightly clamped eyelids. The spirit moved along his ears, touching his mouth and nose, and finally coming to rest in the palms of his hands. The feeling of loneliness lifted, giving way to a sense of fulfillment and energy. He fought his way back from the eye of death.
"You have come. Today you are to be reborn."
The presence drifted away from him, the image fading into a sea of haze.
Brushing his hands over Jim's eyelids, Blair sighed as Jim's skin now played gently along his fingertips, now able to feel the body and spirit of his friend. "Rest, Jim..."
Carefully, he moved his hands over Jim's face, wiping blood and debris gently away from eyes and ears, nose and mouth. One hand brushed lightly across a bloodied brow as the other trailed along the scraped cheek and jaw. Finally, Blair ghosted his fingertips along Jim's hands, grasping them and bringing them up to rest on the battered chest.
Suddenly, Jim's chest heaved, a choked gasp escaping his mouth. Blue eyes flickered open momentarily, coming to rest on Blair's face. A small smile touched Jim's lips as he struggled to speak.
Nodding, Blair blinked the swelling dampness from his eyes and tightened his grip on Jim's hands. "Right here, Jim, I'm right here," he smiled as their surroundings faded into the darkening blue of the spirit plane.
A voice of familiar cadence called to him, asking him if he was all right. Jim felt the soft caress of the water against his skin as he raised heavy eyelids. His vision slowly focused, settling on a familiar and concerned face hovering over him.
"You with me, Jim? Man, you trying to give me a heart attack, or something? Are you okay? I thought your heart stopped."
With Blair's help, Jim slowly propped himself up into a sitting position in the pool.
"I'm okay," Jim murmured, his voice almost as shaky as his muscles felt. "Just give me a minute." He eased out of the pool, Blair aiding him with an arm around his back. Sitting on the edge, he tried to even his breath as his heart slowed to a more normal rhythm. "What just happened?"
Blair sat dripping beside him, curling wet hair behind each ear as he stared searchingly into his eyes.
"I was there! I saw it, all of it. The helicopter crash, your men...."
"You saw it?"
"Yes! God, Jim, no wonder you repressed memories of the crash and your time in Peru. How did you ever survive? It didn't look like anyone could have," Blair stammered, wrapping his arms around his body as shivering began to take over.
"You saw it?" Jim repeated, astonished.
"I saw it! I was there. I could see it happen, but I couldn't do anything to stop it." Blair jumped up and began pacing, arms waving. "I tried to help, but I couldn't touch you, I couldn't help you. Incacha was there..."
"He said that I needed to listen with my soul." Blair suddenly stopped right in front of him, his voice rising angrily. "He said that you knew that this was dangerous, that you could die. That I had to accept your death. Did you? Did you know that this could kill you, and you didn't tell me?"
Jim shook his head. "No, Blair, it wasn't like that. I had lots of dreams, nightmares really, before we left. You know how nightmares are, your worst fears go into overdrive. I probably dreamed that I died, that we both died, doing this. But that's all it was, Chief, just a dream. It was just fear talking." He stood and placed both hands on Blair's shoulders. "And you did help, I just remembered. When I felt the most hopeless, something helped me to hang on. It was you, wasn't it? Somehow you were there, with me, in my vision - and we both survived."
Blair pulled away and returned to his pacing, one hand dragging rapidly through his hair.
"Jim, maybe we should stop here. I didn't know that this could be dangerous when I asked you to do it. I figured that either we'd have some kind of spiritual experience together, or nothing at all would happen and we'd go back to Cascade with a good tan and some gifts for our friends. It's not worth it, man...."
Stepping into Blair's path, Jim placed one hand over his thundering heart.
"It is worth it, Blair. We both agreed to it, we both want it. We're still alive, and it seems that Incacha is with us, guiding us in some way. I don't think he's gonna lead us astray. We need to trust Incacha, and each other. Okay?"
Taking a deep breath, Blair looked searchingly into Jim's face, then finally nodded.
Jim sighed deeply. "Okay. Now what."
"How are you feeling?"
"I'm okay. You?"
"I'm all right. Well, next, we do this again, except you go first into the pool, and I'd guess that I'm going to have some kind of vision that you will see."
"I'm gonna be spending time in your head? Maybe you'd better give me some of that other drink."
"Cute, very cute. Ready?"
"Yep. Let's do it."
Blair picked up the wooden cup from the edge of the pool and handed it to Jim, and he took another drink of the bitter contents. Taking it from his hand and setting it back on the edge, Blair began mirroring Jim's earlier actions.
"Watchman...Protector...Sentinel," Blair murmured, blessing each word with water from the pool on Jim's forehead, lips and chest, copying Jim's earlier actions that he could still feel as a feather light tingling on his own skin.
Warmth and tingling spread from each spot that Blair touched, and the words seemed to echo through Jim's head. An almost liquid relaxation took over his body. Eyes drooping, he felt Blair gentle him into a sitting position on the edge of the pool, help swing his legs over, then lower him down into the warm waters. Hands carefully stretched out his arms and legs, resting lightly for a moment on his shoulders, then disappeared, leaving his body and consciousness to float away.
Naomi knelt in front of him to look him straight in the eye.
"I'm sure you're going to have just a wonderful time, sweetie, and I don't want you to miss out just because I can't go right now."
Blair still couldn't believe his ears. Naomi wasn't coming along? She was just going to send her ten-year-old son by himself, to South America, with a bunch of strangers? Okay, he knew that Dr. Adams was Naomi's cousin the anthropologist, but he didn't really know him.
"Why can't I come with you, mom?"
"Now, honey, it's a trip for grown-ups only. I can't take you with me. You know I would if I could."
He watched, still stunned, as Naomi whirled and walked off down the airport terminal, turning once to blow him a hurried kiss before he lost sight of her in the crowd. Moisture clouded his vision as the ache grew in his chest, but he sniffed loudly and took a deep breath. He was not going to cry in front of her friends. He stiffened briefly at the weight of an unfamiliar hand dropping onto his shoulder, and he looked up into Dr. Adams' concerned face.
"I'm sure you'll have a great time, Blair. Just think of all the stories you'll have to tell your mom and your friends when you get back."
Blair nodded and sniffed again, staring down the hallway for one last glimpse of his mother, but she was nowhere to be seen. He swiped at his nose with his sleeve before slowly walking over and joining Dr. Adams and the rest of the group.
Jim found himself standing in what looked like an airport terminal. He glanced around to discover where he was and why he was there, when he spotted two somewhat familiar faces over to his right. Without conscious effort, he moved closer.
A young woman in a wildly colored poncho, bright auburn hair in a long braid trailing down her back, led a small curly-haired boy by the hand over to an empty group of seats. As he approached, she sat the boy down in one of the seats and knelt in front of him, brushing riotous curls off the boy's forehead with one hand.
Naomi and Blair, it had to be. A much younger Naomi and Blair, Naomi appeared to be in her late twenties or early thirties, and Blair maybe nine or ten years old. He couldn't help but grin at the sight of his roommate and friend, hair sticking out all over, short legs kicking back and forth in the almost perpetual motion that he had come to expect from Blair. He listened in as Naomi began to talk, his grin fading as he heard her plans to abandon her son with her friends.
Blair's face, as always, revealed his rapidly changing emotions as Naomi's words sunk in. Jim could hear the increasing pounding of the small heart as he watched shock and disbelief flit across that open and trusting face. He angrily strode up behind Naomi and reached down to grab and shake her.
"How dare you..."
He pulled up short as his hand passed right through her shoulder. Staring at his hand, he spun around at the sound of a familiar voice.
"She cannot hear you."
Incacha stood beside him, his calm gaze focused on the pair in front of them.
"Incacha, what the hell's going on?"
"You are here to see the shaman's heart, his soul. To close the circle and complete the bond with him."
Jim clenched his fists as he watched Blair's face cloud over, his lower lip begin to quiver, his eyes fill with moisture as he listened to his mother's plans to leave him so she could go on some spur-of-the-moment jaunt with a new friend.
"How can she do this to him? He's just a child. Doesn't being a parent mean anything to her?"
"You cannot change the past, Enqueri."
His heart ached for the sad little boy that gave a brief wave as his mother left him, looking so small and alone, arms crossing over his chest as if to hug himself. He longed to take that little person into his arms and console him, to tell him that it would all be okay. Just as he moved up to Blair's side, the scene wavered and faded into gray.
He laughed nervously, trying to act grown up and fit in with the rest of the group that was seated around the campfire, even though he was only half their ages. As upset as he'd been that Naomi wasn't with him, he'd discovered that he loved working on the excavation and learning about a long-dead people. He'd proved that he could work hard, carefully cleaning and labeling the group's finds and helping out all around the site and the camp. Most of the others had started treating him like a little brother, and he felt more and more comfortable as the days went by.
Even though it was late, Blair loved sitting around the fire with the others, listening to their stories and adventures. The first night one of the women, Lindy, tried to get him to go to bed early, but he'd pretty much ignored her, politely telling her that if his mother thought he was grown-up enough to come on the expedition by himself that he was grown-up enough to stay up late. That had made everyone laugh, but they'd let him stay up as late as he wanted, although Dr. Adams had warned him that Naomi would "have his hide" if Blair didn't get enough rest and came home looking worn out.
Tonight had been different. A few of their native guides had decided to stay at their camp overnight instead of going off on their own as usual. They had brought some food and drinks with them, and after Dr. Adams and his assistant went to bed, apparently while Blair had been in his tent grabbing a sweatshirt, the native men got out their treats and shared them with the few that were still up. They passed around some smelly cigarettes that reminded Blair of the pot that Naomi and her friends smoked, as well as some containers of a native drink. As the evening grew later, their laughter was louder and their stories funnier, although Blair didn't really understand them all.
He had passed on the offer of a smoke, but agreed to join the others in taking a few sips of drink from one of the containers. After all, Naomi's friends occasionally let him have a sip of their drinks, when her back was turned. Although he'd tried to take just a sip, Steve had tipped up the container and Blair ended up getting quite a mouthful. Steve just laughed and patted him on the back as he choked on the bitter taste, calling him "quite the little man."
Now he began to feel warm, and he wiped at the sweat building on his forehead. The fire was hotter than he'd thought, and he took off his jacket and tossed it toward his tent. He could swear that the ground was moving beneath him, and he began to feel a little dizzy. Maybe drinking that stuff hadn't been such a good idea, after all. Deciding that going to bed sounded good, he tried to get to his feet, but instead wavered on unsteady legs and sat back down suddenly. Whoa!
Steve's face seemed to magically appear beside him, wavering like a mirage as he felt an arm drape across his shoulders.
"What's wrong, little guy?"
The voice sounded strange in Blair's ears, and his mouth felt full of cotton as he replied.
"I feel funny. I think I'll go to bed now."
"Come on, pal, we're just starting to have fun. Here, have some more. Great stuff, isn't it?"
Blair's muscles didn't seem to want to work as Steve tilted his head back and poured more of the bitter liquid into his mouth before Blair could raise a hand to stop him. Even as he sputtered he could feel it tracing a hot path down to his stomach. Feeling heavy and limp, he tilted to one side and felt the ground rush up to hit him.
A point of light began to emerge from the swirling gray fog, and Jim began to make out a number of figures sitting around a campfire. He glanced around him, recognizing the sights and sounds of the jungle at night. Examining the people in front of him, he spotted the same curly-headed boy from the airport and moved closer.
Blair was seated with a group of five or six men, including a couple of natives. They were laughing and joking, passing around homemade cigarettes and gourds of a pungent-smelling liquid. As he watched Blair took a drink, helped by a young man that tipped the bowl up, almost choking Blair with the rush of liquid. He began to rush to Blair's aid, remembering at the last minute that he could do nothing to interfere.
"You can not help him."
Jim turned to see Incacha at his side again.
"Why? Why make me watch this?"
"Has he not seen into your heart, your soul? Are you not here to bond with your guide, to share his heart and soul as well?"
Jim shook his head, fists clenching in frustration as he watched one of the men give Blair another drink as Blair became limp and eventually tilted over.
Everything seemed to be moving incredibly slowly as he looked up at the sky, his view of the stars interrupted by the smiling faces of Steve and one of the native men. Their eyes seemed to have an odd gleam in them, or maybe it was just the drink.
"You look like you're awfully warm, Blair. Why don't we get some of these clothes off?"
His own muscles felt like water as hands reached down towards him, and he flailed weakly to bat them away.
"No!" Jim shouted as he shook in helpless rage. "You bastards, leave him alone!"
"You can not change his past," Incacha repeated.
"Why are you showing me this?"
"As he has seen your path to the man that you have become, so you see his path to the man that he has become. You must see, to decide if your path is to become one."
"I don't need to see this."
"He has hidden it deeply, but you must see his soul."
Jim watched, jaw clenched tightly as the men leaned over the drugged young Blair, still conscious and feebly protesting but unable to coordinate his muscles enough to have much effect. Fortunately, the drink was affecting the men as well, as they wavered on their feet and one fell over, laughing.
Before anything else could happen, a young woman came out of one of the tents, stretching and yawning. Heading for the fire, it took her a few moments to notice the two men and the boy on the far side of the fire. Staring in disbelief at first, she quickly recovered and ran to Blair's side, shoving and kicking at the two intoxicated men and helping Blair to his feet and into his tent.
Jim followed them into the tent. The young woman asked Blair repeatedly if he was all right as she eased him down onto his sleeping bag, and his mumbled "yes" appeared to reassure her. Despite her best efforts, he did not say more. Assuring him that she would watch out for him, she woke his tentmate Jeff and explained what she thought had happened. She left the tent and Jim could hear her loudly berating the others outside. Jeff remained awake only long enough to pat Blair on the shoulder before falling back into slumber.
Rolling over onto his side toward the wall of the tent, slowly regaining some muscle control as the drug's effects faded, Blair hid his face in the sleeping bag. His shoulders began to shake, then his whole body rocked as barely muffled sobs tore out of him.
Jim dropped to his side, heart aching at the forlorn sound, determined to try to comfort his friend as his younger self. This time his hand didn't pass through the figure in front of him, but rested on a thin, shuddering arm. He settled down on his side behind Blair, curling up behind him and wrapping an arm over him, hoping to share warmth not only of the body but of the soul. The sobs eventually slowed as the boy dropped into a restless sleep, and Jim slipped into darkness as well.
"Blair? Come on back, buddy. Come on, Chief, you're worrying me here."
The voice seemed to come from a great distance, but Blair could not resist the tone of concern and forced his eyes open.
"There you go. Up and at 'em."
Before he knew it he was sitting on the edge of the pool, one strong arm around his back as Jim rubbed warmth into a still-trembling arm. He brushed his hair back off his face and tried to squeeze some of the moisture out as he sat up straighter.
"I'm okay, Jim, I'm okay." He patted Jim on his arm as he stood on wobbly legs and headed for the pile of dry clothing in a corner of the room. Pulling his t-shirt off, he wrung the water out of it, then used it to wipe most of the wetness from his chest and back before pulling on a dry sweatshirt. He found his dry shorts and jeans and changed quickly, avoiding looking at Jim while he tried to slow his pounding heart. Finally changed, he took a deep breath and turned around.
Jim was still sitting on the edge of the pool, rubbing his own arms briskly to warm them, and looked up as Blair approached.
"Are you really all right, Chief?"
Blair looked down and studied his feet as he replied.
"Yeah, fine. Uh, Jim, did you..."
"Yeah, I did. I saw it all."
"Oh." Blair quickly turned and walked across the chamber to the stack of firewood that they had brought in earlier and began to set up a fire on the stone floor. He busied himself with the fire as he heard Jim changing clothes behind him, then soft footfalls as he approached and sat on a blanket beside him.
"Looks good, Chief. Let's get some water heated up, I could use something warm to take the chill off."
He slid a blanket over and Blair unfolded it, sitting on one edge of it and wrapping the rest around himself.
The fire grew and crackled, gradually filling that corner of the chamber with warmth. Blair stared into the fire, his thoughts swirling.
"You never told Naomi, did you?" Jim asked softly.
"No, I didn't. I couldn't. It wasn't her fault that the guy was a pervert. Dr. Adams was a pretty cool guy, I learned a lot about anthropology that summer. And I didn't get hurt, except for a killer hangover the next morning." He stirred the fire with a stick. "Anyway, where did you put the food? I'm starving."
"I put everything I thought we'd need over in that corner. Since we're not supposed to leave the temple until we've finished the ceremony, I brought most everything I could carry."
"Good. Let's eat, then I think I'll rest for a bit."
"Sounds like a plan."
He moved about the temple, lighting candles and sorting through their supplies. Blair sat quietly, apparently deep in thought as Jim began to prepare the meal. Before long, a pot of stew simmered on the fire between them, the pleasing aroma helping to alleviate some of the tension that remained from their emotional experiences. Jim stared across the glowing embers, watching as Blair's eyelids dipped, then smiled to himself as Blair gave in and stretched out on his side. Settling himself more comfortably on the ground, Jim gave the pot a final stir and then carefully filled his bowl with the steaming broth.
Jim spooned up some of the soup, allowing the soothing liquid to play across his senses. For a moment, he thought of home, and how the loft had changed from being just a place to park his Jags cap, to a place that he had come to love. He watched as Blair shifted restlessly in his sleep, and immediately found himself focusing his senses on his partner. The sound of Blair's even, deep breaths reassured him, blanketing him with a sense of serenity that both calmed and refreshed him at the same time.
A pleasing weariness filled him, stilling the thoughts and questions that tugged on his mind. Discarding the uneaten portion of his dinner, Jim stretched out on his back, intending only to rest his eyes for a moment...
Blair awoke, refreshed from his nap, feeling a renewed sense of peace. Jim lay across from him, one arm pillowed under his head, the other tucked in at his side. Blair couldn't help the grin that spread across his face as he noted the small spark of a smile on Jim's face. Jim stirred momentarily, and Blair automatically soothed the slumbering man with his words.
"It's okay, Jim."
The softly spoken words hit their mark, quickly comforting the sleeping man. Jim relaxed into a deeper sleep, the small smile once again lighting his face.
Blair dug into the still warm soup, surprised at how hungry he was after their trips into the unknown. His fear, that Jim would think less of him because of his vision, seemed to fade with every passing moment. Naomi'd had no way of knowing the danger that he had been in on the expedition, just as in the same way, Jim had no idea of what type of dangers he would put Blair in on a daily basis.
The sound of Jim's sleep-tinged voice roused him from his thoughts.
"Sorry, Chief, I guess I dozed off. I guess I was more tired than I thought."
Blair nodded, busying himself by folding the blanket, "Yeah, me too."
"I guess we should tidy up. We still have another trip into the twilight zone ahead of us."
Blair laughed, happy to hear the friendly playfulness in Jim's voice, but sobering quickly. "Are you sure that you want to go ahead, to complete the ritual?"
Jim met his eyes. "Yeah, I am actually. As sure as I've ever been."
Blair stopped his work, studying Jim's expression for any hint of untruth. The certainty in Jim's eyes touched his heart and removed the last of his own misgivings. "I'm glad. I'm really glad."
"Let's get to it. The copy of your dissertation is over there in the corner."
Blair followed Jim's line of sight, quickly retrieving the bound copy and returning to Jim's side.
"That soup should do as our ritual meal, I used all of the "holy" herbs that we gathered. Kind of a spiritual cleanser so to speak, to help us to free our minds and spirits to meet in the final vision."
"Jim, how did you know? I don't remember that from the writings..."
"I don't know, Chief, I don't know. It just felt right."
Blair followed Jim towards the pools, the book tucked securely in his hand. "What do we do with it?" "Put it on the ground between us, and set it on fire."
"Oh, right. Then we drop some of the ashes in each of the pools."
Both watched solemnly as the book that had almost brought the end of their partnership and friendship came to its own fiery end. As soon as the flames were out, Jim used a stick to push some ashes into a bowl, then each dropped some ashes in one of the pools.
Blair moved towards the pool that he had occupied earlier.
"Wait, Chief. We have to switch sides."
Switching position with Jim, Blair stood with his back towards the pool.
"Close your eyes, Blair, and trust...."
"Trust? In what?"
"In you, and in me."
They simply faced each other, eyes meeting, breathing gradually slowing and matching in cadence. Closing his eyes, Blair felt himself beginning to drift, unseen hands lifting him to levitate above the water. Strong and familiar hands gently lowered him, the warm water cradling his body.
Jim felt tears in his eyes, a sudden rush of fear and sadness overtaking him. The angry face of his father loomed over him, stealing his breath away.
"I warned you about your fantasies, didn't I?"
No! Oh God, this can't be happening. Listen to me Dad. Please listen to me...I'm telling the truth!
"Now you've got to stop pretending or people are going to think you're a freak. You understand? Huh? Is that what you want? For people to think there's something wrong with you?"
Jim shivered as the weight of his father's gaze tore at his heart. A single word escaped his lips, sealing his destiny
Blair stood at the top of the stairway, his eyes locked on the scene playing out before him.
The voice of Incacha sounded behind him. "You cannot change his past."
Anger rose to the surface as Blair watched the effect of William's heated words on his eldest son. He could see the hurt in Jim's eyes, the pleading uncertainty of a lost soul, searching for its destiny.
"...freak... wise up..."
He closed his eyes as he listened to Jim's softly spoken words, denouncing who he was, and who he had a right to be.
Colors swirled behind his tightly closed lids, the vision disappearing as quickly as it had come.
He fought to open leaden eyelids, struggling to regain awareness. A tapping on his cheek helped urge his eyes open, and a face swam into view.
"It's okay, it's okay..."
Lash. Dear God, Lash had him. It wasn't just a nightmare. The terrifying face continued to drift in and out of focus as Blair slowly regained some feeling, some movement, enough to discover that he was chained where he was. He pulled weakly against the chains and shackles that gripped his arms. The voice of the serial killer came and went as Blair fought the effects of the drug, heaviness and weakness gradually replaced by mind-blowing terror.
He faded back in.
"You just relax. We're going to see the ducks and then you're going to have a nice-- you're going to have... have a nice bath. Are you ready to die? 'Cause...I'm ready."
Then Jim was there, and he and Lash crashed through the floor. Blair strained against his bonds as he struggled to fight off the small mouthful of the drug that Lash had forced into him just before Jim arrived. Five gunshots rang out, and silence reigned for a moment before he could make out the distant sounds of footsteps.
Jim or Lash?
Drug-induced lethargy spread again through his body, even as the terrified pounding of his heart filled his ears. Numbed lips barely moved as he begged heaven and earth.
"Jim, please, Jim, please, Jim, please, Jim..."
Blackness gradually faded, and Jim found himself in a semi-darkened room. Flickering candlelight glowed all around, and just as he began to recognize the old warehouse, footsteps approached and he turned toward the stairs at the other side of the room.
One man, talking to himself, was coming carefully down the stairs, with a limp but familiar form draped over one shoulder.
Lash. And he had Blair.
He rushed over to the stairs, even knowing by now that he couldn't intervene, but reached out to grab Lash's arm anyway. His hand passed through without making contact, and he tried again, this time trying to pull Blair off Lash's shoulder. He had no more impact than a gentle breeze.
"You know that they cannot hear you," a familiar voice called out, and Jim turned to see Incacha standing beside him. "Now you must watch and decide."
"You have both traveled here to close the circle. You must both accept death, and the consequences of your actions to each other. Otherwise you can never truly bond as sentinel and guide."
"What consequences?" Jim begged, then turned to discover that Incacha was no longer present.
Unable to interfere, Jim could but watch as Lash tortured his partner, teasing him, taunting him, and eventually drugging him again despite Blair's efforts to spit out most of the liquid. The expression of sheer terror on Blair's face chilled him to the core, even as Blair's bravado in talking back to the psychopath gave him a surge of pride. He could feel the blood where his fingernails dug into his palms in helplessness, and his Sentinel hearing could just make out Blair's mumbled plea as he waited to see who would return to the room, his savior or his killer.
The image faded and darkness filled the room, before the scene changed.
Jim clamped his eyes shut against the pain, his eyes burning as if they were on fire. Loud voices boomed in his ear, the smell of sweat and blood assaulting his senses.
"How do you like me now, baby?"
The crowd roared in his ears, shouting and cursing, spitting and cheering.
The prison? Vinson? I can't see... Blair, get me out of here! Pull me out! Pull me out!
Hauling himself up unsteadily, Jim shook his head to clear it. The wash of air currents swept against his skin and he instinctively ducked, avoiding the vicious kick that missed its mark. Surging up from his crouched position, Jim punched into Vinson's face, the loud thud of fist hitting face registering in his ears.
The haze in the smoke filled room slowly lifted, and Blair found himself amidst a large crowd. His eyes swept the area, coming to rest on a makeshift fighting ring in the center of the room. A wave of terror washed over him as he recognized one of the fighters engaged in the bloody battle.
"You know that he cannot hear you."
Blair jerked his head around to face Incacha, dividing his attention between the fight and the spirit before him.
"You have to stop this. They'll kill him! Incacha, do something."
"See what he has learned."
Ignoring Incacha's words, Blair pushed past the onlookers, moving to stand beside the ring. He watched Jim falter, staggering in pain as an entire can of pepper spray was sprayed into his eyes.
"Come on, Jim. Use your hearing. Ignore the crowd. Dial it down. You can do this."
Jim struggled for control, taking a moment to compose himself before delivering the final blow that brought Vinson down.
The smoke grew thicker as the image blurred before his eyes.
He leaned back against a tree, head throbbing with every movement, every breath. He was cold, wet, tired, and probably brain-damaged after the collision between his head and a large boulder.
"My head is killing me, man."
"...probably think of you as some self-serving, spineless goober..."
Running and stumbling, he raced madly through the forest, an angry survivalist chasing him, to kill him.
Gunfire rang out, a shaft of red-hot pain stabbing through his thigh and driving him to the ground.
"...just got to get the bleeding under control..."
A blanket of smoke settled down around them, stealing the air in the mine shaft.
"...coming out, Quinn!"
Barely able to remain standing on his injured leg, Simon at his side, he watched Quinn approach with gun drawn. The look on his face left no doubt as to his intentions. He raised his arms in surrender, but Quinn only grinned and pointed the weapon.
"What do you see?"
Jim spun away from the vision, from his view of the bruised and bloodied figure of his partner, and found Incacha again standing at his side.
"Another madman, ready to kill Blair. I should never have let him get into those situations. How many times has he almost died because of me?"
Incacha's voice became stern. "You should not have let him be there? You choose his path for him?"
Jim choked back an angry retort. "No, of course not. But if he were to be killed because of working with me...."
"Both Shaman and Sentinel must accept death. Listen to his soul."
Jim opened up his hearing, trying to locate the fleeing killer by following the sounds of his footsteps on the metal walkway. A sudden loud, piercing noise deafened him, causing him to cover his ears and clench his eyes closed in pain. Unseen hands shoved him forward and flipped him over the railing.
He was falling, then landed headfirst in thick, bitter liquid. Struggling to swim upward through the heavy, slimy substance, his head finally broke the surface.
Oil... No air... Can't breathe... Help me...
Blair glanced around the large area, unsure of exactly where he was. Moments later Jim ran past him on the metal walkway, radio in hand, calling his name. All at once, memory filtered back to him, crashing down on him like a ton of bricks.
The spirit hovered before him, gesturing to the vat of oil. "Your place is by his side."
Blair gripped the railing tightly as Jim plunged headfirst into the vat of oil.
"Why are you doing this? He almost drowned. I don't need to see this."
Jim surfaced briefly, flailing to try to stay afloat, hands slapping and grasping at the impossibly slippery sides of the vat before his body disappeared into the murky depths again as he called out.
Sitting at his desk, Blair looked up as Alex came in with a gun.
She pointed the gun at Blair. He held up his hands in surrender, fear filling him as he realized that she wouldn't let him live to guide Jim.
"If it hadn't been for you, I never would have understood what I really am -- I owe you that. You want to know how I really got the sentinel senses? Solitary confinement in prison. I thought I was going crazy. It wasn't until I met you that I realized what I'd become."
"And look how you used this gift. What a waste."
"This is the one thing I really didn't want to do, but I can't leave you alive." Alex walked closer to Blair, cocking the gun. Blair closed his eyes.
Jim followed them down the hallway, his heart in his throat as Alex forced Blair in front of her, gun drawn. Watched as they walked in the early morning light toward the fountain, as Alex struck Blair sharply across the back of his head with the gun, then pushed his body forward into the water. She strode away, never looking back.
Standing there, staring at the limp body of his friend, his partner, his guide floating face-down in the murky water, other flashes of memory sparked as he waited helplessly for aid to arrive.
"It's about friendship. I just didn't get it before."
"...remake the connection by an act of will..."
Returning to the vision, he was suddenly experiencing it all over again. He touched Blair's face as he lay on the grass, willing life to return to Blair's waterlogged body, unwilling to give up hope. He saw Incacha, the wolf and the panther. Blue lightning flashed between them, then Blair coughed violently as water burst from his lungs. He stood as the paramedics took over and placed an oxygen mask on Blair's face, letting himself lean against Simon and Henri in weak relief.
Moments later, Blair's eyes fluttered open and searched, finally finding Jim and meeting his gaze. Something sparked again between them, and Jim rushed to his side to help the paramedics get Blair onto the gurney and into the ambulance, never releasing the now-warming hand within his own.
The vision faded, although the sensation of the energy connecting them did not.
Jim opened his eyes. Instead of the Temple of the Sentinels, he was lying in a pool in a dark, blue-shaded universe. He sat up and struggled to climb and sit on the edge, noting an ethereal pale glow dancing over the water's surface.
A few feet away, another pool and another glow that echoed the one around him.
Standing, legs trembling as if he'd just run a marathon, he staggered over to the other pool. Blair floated, eyes closed, the bluish glow on his pale face making him appear almost otherworldly. Jim reached down to grasp his shoulder, to assure himself that Blair was still alive and with him.
He was, and Jim gently shook him.
Blue eyes opened and wandered a bit before meeting his own.
Moments later, they sat on the edges of the pools, facing each other. Out of the corners of their eyes, vague forms of a wolf and a panther hovered nearby.
Blair spoke up first.
"I think we made it, Jim. Together. Here's where we make our choice."
"I think you're right, Chief." He looked deeply into Blair's eyes. "Do you really want this, Blair? Are you sure this is your true path? After all you've been through, and all that it's cost?"
"All that it's cost?" Blair laughed softly. "All it's cost was giving up my ticket on the merry-go-round, for a lifetime pass on a roller coaster. And I've gained..." he stepped up and placed a hand on Jim's chest, over his heart, "a friend, a partner, a companion, a sentinel to guide for a lifetime. A life I'd never have dreamed of. With you."
Jim stood and placed one hand on Blair's chest, over his heart, and a hand cupping his face.
"And I've gained more than I could ever have dreamed. Becoming a sentinel, with all of the skills and responsibilities that it entails, with a guide and shaman that I'd trust and follow to the ends of the earth. With you."
Blair raised his hand to cup Jim's face and they stood for a moment, eyes locked, something more than words passing between them before Blair broke the silence.
"I commit myself to you, Sentinel, to guide you, with my heart and soul. Your path is my path."
Jim listened to the solemnity of Blair's vow, then followed with his own.
"I commit myself to you, Guide and Shaman, to watch and protect you, with my heart and my soul. Your path is my path."
The blue glow brightened and surrounded them, and the spirit of Incacha appeared beside them, a hand raised over each of their heads in blessing. An energy vibrated and grew between them.
"The decision has been made, the path has been found and joined. The sentinel and the guide, the protector and the shaman, the commitment is made. The Sentinel of the Great City and the Shaman of the Great City, together may your path be true."
To the howl of a wolf and the cry of a great cat, the blue glow faded into black.
Jim opened his eyes, this time to find himself still floating in the ceremonial pool in the Temple of the Sentinels, flickering candlelight illuminating the room. He roused himself and climbed out, stumbling over to the other pool and awakening Blair.
Blair roused easily and pushed himself upward, joining Jim on the pool's edge.
"Oh, yeah. So, now, oh Shaman of the Great City?"
Blair practically glowed as he straightened. "Now we return to the Great City, oh great Sentinel. We go home."
"Home. Has a nice ring to it."
"Yes it does."
With a last look around them, they gathered up their belongings and left the temple, returning to their campsite.
With much effort, Jim unfolded his body from the passenger's seat of the Volvo. Blair rolled his eyes as Jim slammed the door closed and walked stiffly towards the front of the vehicle.
"Give it up, Jim, it's not that bad."
"Says who?" Jim countered, rubbing at the abused muscles in his neck. "All I want right now is my truck back. Stan said he dropped it off at the station. It's weird; he's never done that before. I always pick it up at the shop."
The two men wandered toward the elevator, Jim in the lead.
"Maybe he's just doing you a favor," Blair suggested, following Jim into the open elevator.
"Yeah, maybe, I guess it's a possibility."
"You know, Jim, you really ought to lighten up. I don't know what you're worried about. Before you know it, you'll be blowing tires and shattering windshields, just like old times."
Blair dodged the playful punch on the arm that came from Jim's direction. "Funny, Chief, very funny."
The elevator doors opened at the seventh floor, and both men exited the small space. Strolling into the bullpen, Jim became aware of an immediate hush that spread through the room. A number of eyes looked in his direction, and whispered voices filtered into his ears. Pieces of broken conversation reached him, but none of it made a great deal of sense.
"I hope he has a will..."
Seconds before Jim was about to address the crowd of onlookers, Brown appeared, carrying a rather loud shirt in his hand. He grinned as he held it out in Jim's direction.
"Hey, Jim, I thought maybe you could use this. I wouldn't want you to clash or anything."
The comment was met with a burst of laughter by the occupants of Major Crimes. The sudden outburst was met with the disapproval of one stern Captain, standing in the doorway to his office.
"Don't you people have something to do? Ellison, Sandburg, my office, now!"
Jim brushed past the still snickering group, Sandburg close at his heels. The two men entered the office and closed the door.
"What the hell was that all about?" Jim asked in puzzlement.
"First things first, Jim, sit down."
Simon waited for the two men to be comfortably seated before continuing. He moved around to the front of his desk and then leaned against it, his arms folded across his chest.
"I take it your little trip was successful?"
"You should have been there, Simon! The writings in the temple told us all about the rituals, and the ceremonial drinks, and man, the visions, they were incredible..."
Raising a hand to hopefully deflect any further comments, Simon nodded. "All I want to know is if you're okay. We can skip the lecture, Sandburg."
"Fine, Simon, one hundred per cent," Jim replied.
His eyes wandering from one man to the other, Simon smiled. "Good. Now, we have another matter to discuss. It seems as though there may have been a miscommunication of sorts."
Visibly confused, Jim stole a glance at Blair. "Regarding what, sir?"
"It seems as though our favorite consultant may have made a small mistake."
Blair shifted uneasily under the weight of both Jim's and Simon's gazes. "Hey guys, I don't know what you're talking about."
"Let me refresh your memory," Simon added, a smug expression crossing his face. "The day you and Jim left for Mexico, a call came through while Jim and I were talking in my office."
"From Stan, yeah, I remember."
Obviously enjoying this little game of cat and mouse, Simon nodded in response to Blair's answer.
"That's right, and do you remember what you were doing at the time of the call?"
Chuckling nervously, Blair continued. "The guys and I were talking about a shirt that Brown's wife gave him as a gift."
"Correct, and what color was that shirt?"
"That's what we were talking about, arguing about, I guess."
Taking a few steps towards the window, Simon turned his back on the men in order to hide his grin. "And what color did you tell Stan to paint the truck when he couldn't match the original color."
"I... I told him... Oh, God... he didn't."
Blair jumped in surprise as Jim quickly strode past him to look out the window. Gesturing to Jim, then pointing to the street below, Simon added, "Pink, a beautiful shade of..."
"Pink." Jim echoed, his mouth gaping at the sight of his beloved Sweetheart. "It looks like.... like..."
"A Barbie car?"
Jim nodded, speechless. Joining them at the window and looking down, Blair laughed nervously. "I guess that makes you Ken, hey Jim?"
Turning accusing eyes on his partner, Jim took a step towards Blair as he backed away in retreat.
"Run, Sandburg, run."
Simon chuckled to himself as he watched the blur that was once Blair Sandburg race from his office towards the exit from Major Crimes. Settling himself behind his desk, he slipped a cigar from his pocket and lit it.
"Yep, back to normal. I think Sandburg had better leave that letter in his locker for a few more days, just in case."
He reached for the top file on the corner of his desk, his smile broadening as he could hear his best team leaving the bullpen much quicker than they'd come in.
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