Rated PG-13. My most sincere thanks and accolades to Shay for beta-reading while Hephaistos worked her little tail off to meet deadlines. Thank you, Hephaistos for your valuable input and support. Please note, however, that only the beginning of this story has been beta read. All errors are mine alone. Warnings: Spoilers for "Sentinel Too" Part 1 and "The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg." This is a sequel to When the Mirror Looks Back but it does stand alone and you should be able to understand this story fairly well without having read the prequel.
The Other Side of Reality
"What the hell's going on? Where's Blair?" Jim barked, storming up to his captain in the waiting area of the psychiatric ward.
Simon rose to his feet, raising his hands in a calming gesture. "Take it easy, Jim. We don't know what's --"
"Why's he here? What happened?" Jim interrupted, his jaw hard and his eyes narrow. He cocked his head, listening for signs of his partner. He encountered Blair's voice immediately and an icy fist gripped his heart as he listened to the high-pitched, violent screams.
"He was found at 1 a.m. near the Canadian border walking in the middle of the road. Witnesses said he was screaming at passing cars," Simon informed him.
Jim shook his head, pulling his hearing back. "I don't understand. Who found him? What happened to him? Have they done a tox screen? Where --"
"One at a time, Jim," Simon instructed firmly but gently.
"This is ridiculous." Impatience was eating at Jim and he stormed past the Captain to approach the young nurse at the desk. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he slammed his badge on the counter, causing the woman to look up from her computer screen. "Blair Sandburg," he barked. "I'm here to see him."
She rose from her chair, glanced at his badge, then nodded. "Yes, sir." Her gaze shifted to a point behind Jim and she raised her hand, gesturing to someone. Jim turned around to see a graying man in a white lab coat approach. "Dr. Steelshot," she said. "This officer is here about Blair Sandburg."
The doctor glanced at Simon as he passed the Captain and walked up to Jim, extending a hand. Jim shook the man's hand absently, getting straight to the point. "How is he? What's wrong with him?"
"As I told the Captain here," he said, glancing quickly at Banks, "Mr. Sandburg is hysterical, delusional, and violent. We've run a tox screen on him. We found Lysergic acid amide and mescaline in his system. Lysergic acid amide is the predominant active ingredient in morning glory seeds and is chemically related to LSD, but is approximately one-tenth as potent. Mescaline is derived from the peyote cactus and is also an hallucinogen."
Jim felt a headache creeping up behind his eyes, and he raised a hand to squeeze the bridge of his nose. Peyote. Lysergic acid. My God, Chief... He knew the kid had used Peyote before, albeit rarely, when "observing" various cultural rituals. But lysergic acid? Had Blair ingested the substances willingly, or had someone forced them into his system?
"How much?" Jim asked, finally opening his eyes.
The doctor took a deep breath, his brow furrowing. "Not a lot. That's what's puzzling. He's got trace amounts of lysergic acid and only slightly higher levels of mescaline in his system. His reaction is highly abnormal, but his medical records show he was dosed with a large amount of Golden a little over two years ago. Right?"
"I'm assuming that's the cause of his extreme reaction. Because of his Golden overdose, his neural chemistry is now more sensitive to hallucinogens. Normally, mescaline and lysergic acid, when used in moderate amounts, produce hallucinations, heightened sensory experiences, chills, hyperventilation, nausea, and mood swings. However, the levels he has in his system shouldn't cause anywhere near this strong of a reaction. I've resisted giving him a sedative for fear of complicating the drug interactions."
Jim's hands were clenched into fists at his side. Something the doctor said stuck with him, echoing in his head -- heightened sensory experiences... Anger blossomed in his chest. Damn it, Chief, what were you messing with? What were you trying to do?
He took a deep breath, pushing the anger back down. "Can I see him?"
The doctor nodded. "I can let you see him on the monitors, but you can't have any contact with him. He's extremely violent. It was almost impossible for us to even get a blood sample from him."
Jim nodded. "Lead the way."
He followed the physician down the corridor. Simon walked quietly at his side, and Jim could hear his Captain's heart pounding a bit too fast. He's worried about Blair, too, Jim realized. That knowledge didn't surprise him. He knew the Captain cared about Blair, but sometimes he forgot just how much.
The doctor led them into a small room and closed the door. Jim's gaze immediately scanned the row of monitors against the wall, each one tuned to various rooms and corridors. His eyes quickly found the one focused on Blair, and his heart nearly leapt into his throat.
Blair paced the confines of a padded, white room, dressed only in a dirty, worn pair of loose jeans and, oh God, a straight jacket that bound his arms securely around his torso. He screamed hoarsely at the walls, his tone fluctuating between rage and terror. One moment he was cursing and stomping in fury, and the next moment he was shaking his head, screaming in fear and backing away from some imagined attacker.
"He's been like this since you got him?" Jim asked, glancing at the doctor.
"Yes. His voice seems to be giving out, though -- finally."
Jim sighed, closing his eyes briefly. When he opened them again, he saw Blair hurling himself at the padded door.
"Let me out! You can't keep me here! Help! Help me! Jim! Damn you! Jim! Please. Please. Please. Help me! Please, Jim! I know you can hear me! You can hear me! Why aren't you answering, damn it?"
Jim's stomach twisted as he listened to Blair's pleas, and he looked at the doctor. He wasn't worried about Blair mentioning the Sentinel stuff. In the kid's hysterical condition, no one would give the ramblings a second thought. "There's no way he knows I'm here. Did you tell him I was coming?"
The doctor shook his head.
"He's not coherent, Jim," Simon offered, placing a hand on Jim's shoulder. "I think he's just reacting. He expects you to be here."
Jim nodded turning back to the monitors. Blair's screams had died to sobs, and he now hung against the door, hunched over as much as the straight jacket allowed. Oh, Chief...
"Why?" Blair cried. "Why, Jim? Why are you doing this to me? Why won't you come? What did I do wrong? Please, man. Please help me, Jim. Please."
Jim couldn't take it anymore. "I have to see him. Let me in there," he ordered, jerking his chin toward the monitor.
The doctor shook his head. "Absolutely not. He's too dangerous."
"He's in a straight jacket, for chrissakes," Jim snapped angrily, "and he's not going to hurt me, anyway. Listen to him, damn it. He's asking for me."
The doctor looked back at the sobbing man on the screen. After a brief contemplation, he caved in. "Okay, but we'll have to wait until he moves away from the door."
It didn't take long for Blair to retreat. His sobs suddenly turned to screams and his head whipped around frantically. Scampering desperately into the corner, he pushed himself against the wall and kicked at the air with his legs.
"Help! Help me! It's on fire! Please, oh God, oh God. Help! I'm burning! It's burning me!"
"Jesus Christ." Jim spun away from the monitors, flinging the door open. "Let's go, Doc," he barked, then ducked into the hallway, spurring the physician into action.
"Be careful, Detective. I'll be outside listening in case you get into trouble," Doctor Steelshot told him.
Jim nodded curtly. He could handle Sandburg on his own, whatever imaginary demons ailed the young man. Inside the room, he could hear Blair crying softly and, when the doctor opened the door, Jim stepped inside to see Blair huddled in a corner with his legs pulled up. The door closed quickly behind him, the lock clicking into place.
The young man raised his head off the floor, red-rimmed eyes blinking at Jim. He sniffled, his cheeks wet, and used his legs to push himself harder against the wall.
"It's okay, Blair. It's me. It's Jim. You were calling for me. Remember?"
Jim took a cautious step toward Blair and the young man bolted into action, pushing himself up the wall and then hunching forward. A low, primal scream erupted from his throat, and he launched himself toward Jim like an angry bull.
Jim twisted out of the way at the last minute, prepared for the assault. His arms whipped out and snagged Blair as the young man barreled past and, in one swift move, Jim had the smaller man in a bear hold from behind.
"NO!" Blair tilted his head back, using his legs to push against the floor in an attempt to throw Jim off balance.
"Easy, Chief. Take it easy!" Jim allowed himself to stagger backward to the wall so that he could use it as a brace.
"Let me go! Let me goooo!"
"Blair. Come on, buddy. Take it easy. It's just me. It's Jim." He spoke soothingly into Blair's ear so the younger man would hear him over his own screams. "Just relax. I'm not gonna hurt you, Blair. Take it easy."
"NO!" Blair yelled hoarsely, kicking his legs wildly.
"SCREW YOU --"
"YOU HEAD CASE!
"It's okay, Chief."
"Relax, Blair. Just take it easy."
Jim felt some of the tension leave the young man's body, and he slid down the wall, bringing Blair down to the floor with him, his arms wrapped tight around the smaller man's chest. Blair's anger melted to tears, and he hunched forward, his shoulders shaking.
"Please help me. Please," Blair whimpered, his words blurred through a haze of emotion.
"Shhh." Jim began to rock back and forth gently, murmuring low reassurances into Blair's ear. "It's okay. I'm right here, Chief. I'll help you."
Blair sagged, the tension leaving his body. "Jim?"
A sigh. "Yeah."
"Do you see them?" he asked softly, timidly.
"See who, Chief?"
"The fire people. Do you see them?"
Jim closed his eyes, resting his chin on top of Blair's head. "No, I don't see them."
"They're not really here, are they?" came the trembling reply.
"No, Blair, they're not."
A pause, and Jim listened to the slight hitch in Blair's breathing. After a few moments, Blair released a shuddering sigh and leaned his head back against Jim's chest. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Chief."
"Don't be mad, Jim."
"I'm not mad."
"You won't let him get me, will you? Please don't let him get me, Jim."
"L-Lash." Another shuddering breath. "He's with the fire people. You don't see them?"
Jim clenched his jaw. "No, Blair, I don't see them. They're not real."
"I know, Chief."
"Don't leave, Jim." A faint request.
"I'm not leaving."
"Don't leave." Fainter.
"I'm right here."
The hitch in Blair's breathing evened out and Jim relaxed when he realized that Blair had fallen asleep. The lock clicked, and Jim's eyes snapped to the door as it opened. Doctor Steelshot stepped inside quickly, closing the door behind him, his gaze immediately settling on Blair.
"You've got him calm. I'm impressed," he commented, his voice whisper-soft.
Jim simply nodded.
"Are you planning on staying in here with him?"
Another nod. "He needs me."
The doctor seemed to contemplate that statement for several seconds. Finally, he said, "Okay. We will have to transfer him to a bed soon. He's going to need nutrients and other ministrations. I'm hoping the effects of the drugs diminish within the next couple of hours, but I want you to be prepared for the fact that we'll most likely have to keep him restrained until we're sure he's no longer a danger to himself or anybody else."
A large muscle at the edge of Jim's jaw twitched. "We'll see," he said, clipped.
The doctor pursed his lips together, then nodded. "I'll leave you two alone. An orderly will be assigned to keep an eye on you and someone will be watching the monitors at all times. If you need help, we'll know about it. Okay?"
"Thank you," Jim acknowledged.
The doctor opened the door and ducked out of the room, clicking the lock engaged. Jim closed his eyes briefly, focusing on Blair's shallow breathing and steady heartbeat. Slowly, gently, he slid to the left and shifted the young man onto his side, resting Blair's head on his lap. A low, incoherent murmur drifted from Blair's lips and Jim silenced his partner by placing a hand on the younger man's head.
"Shhhh. It's okay," he whispered, absently stroking the sweat-dampened curls that clung to Blair's head.
Simon looked away from the monitor as Doctor Steelshot entered.
"Will he be okay?" he asked quickly, his stomach twisted into a knot. He glanced back at the screen, watching in silent awe at the tenderness with which Jim attended to the younger man, gently stroking Blair's hair, lips moving in soft reassurance.
"I think so," the doctor replied, "but I can't say for sure. We'll have to wait and see how he progresses. I'm fairly confident, though, that we'll see some improvement within a few hours."
Simon looked back at the man. "How few?"
Dr. Steelshot shrugged. "Anywhere from three to twelve hours. It's hard to say. He's having quite a powerful reaction to minuscule amounts of the drugs, so it would be impossible for me to make predictions and expect them to be accurate. Like I said, we'll just have to wait and see."
Jim jerked to awareness. What? Huh? Where? It took a moment for the fog to clear from his mind, his eyes scanning the white padded walls. The soft murmurs took a second to register, sparking full realization, and he dropped his gaze to the figure curled partially on his lap.
He honed his hearing, trying to decipher the mumbled words drifting from Blair's lips. A ball of ice formed in his stomach when he recognized the strange chant that Blair had muttered in his sleep a month ago. Twice. The first time had been at the loft just before Blair had taken off to "find himself" at the monastery. The second time had been at the hospital after the young man's ordeal in the wilderness.
Jim listened carefully to the softly chanted song, shivers snaking down his spine at how eerie it sounded listening to the obviously primal, ritualistic song coming from his partner. The chant sounded vaguely Chopec, but the dialect wasn't quite right. Another shiver trembled through him when he realized just how much like Incacha Blair sounded at the moment. Jim remembered bits and pieces from his time in Peru, and some of those fleeting images were of himself sitting around a fire with Incacha while the Shaman threw various powders and herbs into the flames, chanting a strange song, his hands flying in semi-rhythmic patterns over the fire.
He came back from the memory, flinching involuntarily when he saw that Blair's eyes were now open and staring blankly into space while his lips continued the low chant. Jim swallowed, a knot of panic forming in his gut. Lights are on, but nobody's home. It scared him, looking at Blair's empty gaze -- so very different from the vibrant intellect that normally shone in those blue eyes.
"Blair?" he inquired softly. "You with me?"
No answer. He didn't expect one. Shifting his arm, he glanced at his watch. 7 a.m. It was light outside by now, but he had no concept of night or day inside the padded cell where fluorescent lights buzzed at a constant volume regardless of the time. Had Simon left by now? Probably not. Jim doubted the Captain would leave without informing him.
He debated what to do next. He couldn't stay in the cell with Blair indefinitely. For one thing, he had to go to the bathroom. He'd hoped that the drugs would wear off and he'd be able to leave the room with Blair, but it seemed that his friend was still in the grip of the hallucinogens.
Maybe he could get through to the kid. Slowly, Jim, slid out from under Blair, using his hands to lower the younger man's head to the floor. Then he shifted around so that he sat in front of Blair. The kid didn't seem to notice -- just kept staring into space chanting that damn song in a language he'd never learned.
"Blair?" He crouched over Sandburg, placing a firm hand on Blair's cheek. "Look at me, Chief. You in there?"
Blair looked right through him, and the chant continued. Jim took a deep breath in frustration. He was going to have a talk with the doctor. There was obviously more wrong with Blair than just a drug interaction. Even in the grips of the Golden the kid had responded to him.
"Come on, Sandburg," he urged, placing his hands on either side of Blair's face and lifting the younger man's head. "Look at me. Come on." A gentle shake. "Snap out of it."
No response. Just that eerie chanting. Jim frowned, leaning back and removing his hands from Blair's face to rub his own. Footsteps tapped against the floor in the hall, and Jim's head snapped up as he listened to the sounds. Moments later, the lock clicked and the door swung slowly open. Doctor Steelshot entered first, followed by a hesitant Simon.
The Captain's gaze immediately fell to Blair, and his brow creased with worry. "He hasn't come out of it at all?" Simon whispered.
Jim shook his head. "Not really. There was a moment when he recognized me, but that's it."
"We're going to need to move him to a bed now," the doctor said. "We need to hook him up to an IV, among other things, until he's coherent enough to take at least marginal care of himself."
The doctor peeked his head into the hall and waved at someone, then stepped back to allow two orderlies to wheel in a stretcher with restraints.
"We'll need to get him out of the straight jacket," Doctor Steelshot continued. "The orderlies can handle that."
Jim set his jaw and shook his head. "I'll do it." His tone left no room for argument.
The doctor hesitated for only a moment. "Uh... Okay. You seem to be able to keep him relatively calm. The orderlies will have to place him on the stretcher and secure the restraints -- insurance reasons."
Jim nodded tersely as he worked at the buckle on the straight jacket. "Just be easy with him," he ordered.
"What's he saying?" Simon asked.
Jim unfastened the buckle and worked Blair's arms out of the sleeves. The young man remained limp, his eyes glassy, as Jim tugged off the straight jacket. "I'm not sure," he replied. "It sounds like Chopec, but it's different. Like a different dialect, or something."
The two orderlies knelt next to Jim and Blair, and Jim moved back a foot to give them room. He tossed the straight jacket into the corner as though throwing away someone else's soiled underwear.
"You grab his feet, Bob, and I'll take this end," one of the orderlies said, and the two men worked in sync to lift Blair gently off the floor.
Blair's chanting stopped abruptly, and his eyes moved over the face of the man hovering over his chest. Blair blinked a few times as he was set onto the stretcher. The orderlies grabbed the restraints, slinging them over Blair's chest and legs, but before either could be fastened, Blair reacted. He practically convulsed off the stretcher, flopping onto the floor like a dying fish, a half-choked sob bursting from his throat.
Jim shot to his feet, but the orderlies intercepted him, converging on Blair with agility born of experience.
"NO!" Blair screamed, his legs lashing out angrily and his arms swinging randomly at the men. "No don't! Jim! Jim, please!"
Jim's body reacted before his mind made a conscious decision, and he grabbed the back of the orderly's jacket, yanking the man away. Blair lunged away from the remaining orderly, and Jim found himself with an armful as the sobbing, shaking young man plowed into him, sending them both crashing to the floor.
"Jim! Please, please, please..." Blair had two fists full of Jim's shirt, holding on for dear life and doing his damnedest to become one with the Jim. "Don't let them take me, Jim. Please, please, Jim, please," Blair begged, rambling, his words running together.
The two orderlies recovered, both reaching for Blair, one grabbing Sandburg's legs and the other trying to pry the kid's arms away from Jim.
"NO!" Blair screamed, refusing to relinquish his grip even as the orderlies pulled at him. "Please, Jim! Don't let them take me! I'll do better, I promise! I promise, please, please, Jim, please, don't let them take me. It burns there. Don't let them get me. Please, please..."
Jim closed his eyes. God, Chief, what's going through that head of yours? He wrapped his arms around the trembling body pressed against his chest and lifted his eyelids to glare at the orderly trying to pry Blair's hands away.
"Back off!" Jim growled, his eyes hard.
Wisely, the two orderlies obeyed, looking uncertainly at the doctor for direction as they released Blair and backed up a few steps. Blair calmed down immediately, collapsing against Jim, his body relaxed except for the hands that still gripped Jim's shirt. His protests had died to soft murmurs that were muffled against Jim's chest.
"Shhhh. It's okay," Jim soothed, one hand rubbing circles on his partner's back. "No one's going to hurt you. I promise."
Blair curled into himself. "Enqueri, take us home," he whispered.
A coldness snaked down Jim's spine. The plea had come from Blair's mouth, but the voice had been Incacha's.
The Peruvian night hung heavy with heat, the moisture in the air oppressive. Emprado took a deep breath, letting the smoke from the campfire fill his lungs. Despite the heaviness of the air, his head felt light, as though it would float into the sky at any moment.
Golden eyes peered out at him from the darkness. Eyes of the wolf. He had not seen the creature before, but he knew it was not of this world. The creature gazed at him, its eyes steady, almost glowing. It's grey fur seemed to shine almost white in the darkness. The creature tilted its head back and released a hollow, aching howl that charged the air with foreboding. Emprado shivered, a cold creeping over him from inside despite the heat of jungle.
Emprado's back went rigid. "Incacha?"
The Shaman's voice spoke to him. Told him what he needed to do. Finish that which had been left undone. Guide the animal spirit. Heal a soul. Find the Sentinel.
Hurry. The Young One suffers.
"Jim, I don't think this is a good idea," Simon protested, even as he helped transport Blair down the hall. "He should be back at the hospital!"
The kid remained relatively calm as long as Jim remained close, talking to him and touching him, but he was far from coherent. He wore the jeans and blue flannel shirt he'd been found in, but the subtle, unpleasant odor of perspiration hung off the clothes, and Simon was sure that Jim's first order of business would be to get the kid into loose-fitting, clean clothes. Blair's head hung forward, his chin resting against his chest, but he kept mumbling something low and unintelligible. The strange chanting was really beginning to wear on Simon's control. He found the sounds damn eerie. The voice hardly even sounded like Blair's, but it was so low and distorted that Simon couldn't tell for sure. During the ride over, Jim had, after much prodding and, finally, a direct command, told him the reason why he thought Blair needed to be home.
Damn this Sentinel stuff! Why did he even ask? Ignorance is bliss. Why the hell don't I remember that? Just leave it alone. But, nooo, I have to push and find out that my best detective thinks his partner is channeling a dead Shaman.
"Drop it, Simon." Jim snapped, coming to a halt in front of the loft's door and fishing his keys out of his pocket. Blair hung between the two men, one arm draped over each of their shoulders. "We've already been through this. I've seen too much to ignore it. You've seen too much, as well, Simon. How can you keep questioning it?"
"Because I'm the one with my head screwed on straight," he snapped back. Damn, he really wanted a cigar. "Blair is suffering from a drug reaction. He's not possessed, damn it. He needs a hospital. What the hell are you going to do for him here?"
"Whatever I can," the Sentinel answered flatly, his jaw tight. He unlocked the door and pushed it inward. Between him and Simon, they shifted into a line formation and moved the young man through the doorway. "They can't do anything for him there. They admitted that. All they can do is wait for the drugs to wear off, and then maybe pump some more drugs into his system. He'll do better here, in familiar surroundings -- not restrained in a white room with strangers poking and prodding him."
"So you're gonna act as nursemaid twenty-four seven?" Simon asked, exhaustion making his words hard. "You're gonna feed him and get him to the bathroom, and stay by his side all the time to make sure he doesn't hurt himself?"
"Yes. This won't last forever. The Doc said only a few hours."
"A few hours came and went a long time ago!" Simon shouted, his temper flaring.
Neither man was prepared for the subhuman growl that came from Blair, nor the sudden eruption that accompanied it as he pushed away from Jim and slammed into Simon.
What the hell....? Simon blinked, laying flat on his back and staring up into Blair's angry face. Sandburg straddled him, his eyes blazing fire. He roared, flinging his arms wide like an animal trying to scare off an intruder. With his wild eyes, long hair, and unshaven stubble, Blair looked like he could have belonged to some primitive jungle tribe.
"Whoa!" Strong arms wrapped around Blair, pulling him off of Simon. "Easy, Blair. It's okay."
Blair remained tense, but allowed Jim to manhandle him. His eyes never left Simon's face, though, and the implicit threat in that gaze made the hairs stand up on Simon's arms. Jim sat Blair on the floor, propping him against the couch, then grabbed the young man's chin and forced his head to the side, stepping in front of Blair to block his gaze.
"Look at me, Chief," Jim ordered gently. "It's okay. That's Simon. You remember Simon? He's a friend."
Simon pushed himself into a sitting position and glared at the back of Jim's head. No, he doesn't need a hospital, Jim. He just pulled a Tarzan impersonation on me, but you can handle him. Sure. He kept his thoughts to himself, however, because he knew that arguing with Jim would prove futile. Still, he'd be damned if he'd let the detective deal with Blair on his own.
"Are you okay?" Jim asked, looking over his shoulder at Simon.
"Yeah." He managed a small smile, slightly embarrassed at having been flattened by the kid. "Just a bruised ego."
Jim returned the smile with a fleeting one of his own, then looked back at Blair, who now rested limply against the couch, having resumed his incoherent murmurings.
Simon rose to his feet and brushed himself off, which was more of a psychological gesture since his clothes were a bit crumpled but not dirty. "You need help getting him to his bed?" he asked.
"No, sir. It's probably better if I handle him alone for the time being."
Simon wasn't about to argue with that. "Okay. I'm gonna stop home and grab a few things, but I'll be back."
Jim looked up at him, his brow furrowed. "There's no need for that, sir. You go home and get some sleep. I've got things under control here."
Sure you do, Ellison. "That may be so, Jim, but all I'll do is stay up all night wondering what's happening here, so I might as well just stay here and save myself an ulcer. Okay?"
A smile crinkled the edges of Jim's eyes. "Thanks, Simon."
The bright blue sky hung eternal overhead, consuming Blair's vision. Spattered wisps of green interrupted the blue expanse. He felt a touch on his shoulder, but when he turned his head to look down, he saw nothing but a blur of green grass and a splash of grey that he figured was his shoulder. He blinked, but the world remained fuzzy.
Another touch pressed against his forehead. He blinked again, and the blue sky overhead turned dark, laced with yellow pipes and metal beams. A pair of blue eyes hung overhead, oddly clear against the indistinct backdrop.
"You with me, Chief?"
As if a switch had been thrown, the world clicked into focus and Blair saw Jim's face peering down at him, a tiny, concerned smile tugging at the older man's mouth. The dull pounding of a headache throbbed behind Blair's eyes, and his shoulders ached. The touch on his forehead vanished, so sudden that the abrupt lack of it stole his breath. A golden veil descended over his vision, and he blinked again. The metal beams and yellow pipes disappeared, replaced by the expanse of sky that was now tinged with a yellow glow. The green-gold tree leaves swung overhead, dancing with an invisible partner to the rhythm of chirping birds and the low howl of the wind.
Oddly, his various pains no longer registered. Instead, he felt rather disconnected from his body, as though every one of his muscles had been injected with Novocain. He saw movement to his left, and turned his head toward the motion, but once again saw nothing but the green grass and blue horizon. A dark streak caught the right edge of his vision, and, again, he turned his head toward the source, but, again, there was nothing out of the ordinary.
Frustration gnawed at him. Jim? Where was Jim? He'd just been here, hadn't he? No, that wasn't quite right. Jim had been somewhere else. Someplace that wasn't blue and green.
The black thing caught the left side of his vision, and he snapped his head sharply, hoping to catch sight of the thing. Damn. Again, he saw only green grass and blue sky and a few trees spattered around the landscape.
The frustration gave way to fear. Jim? Jim, man, where are you?
The black thing touched the outskirts of his vision again and panic blossomed in his chest. "JIM! JIM, WHERE ARE YOU!"
An invisible warmth pressed against his forehead. "Right here, Chief. Shhhh. I'm right here."
The blue sky shrank, then snapped back to the image of the metal beams and yellow pipes. Jim's face drifted into view, his blue eyes pinched with concern, and Blair released a shuddering breath of relief. He shivered, suddenly cold, and became more aware of his surroundings. His head rested on something soft, and a blanket covered him up to his chest. His looked around briefly. Diffuse light filtered into the room through the curtain and fell in soft rays on the bureau and desk.
My room. I'm in my room, Blair realized, looking back at Jim. The older man sat hunched forward in a chair beside the bed and he studied Blair as though he were a piece of abstract art.
Something's not right here. That was an understatement. He felt weird, for one thing. His head seemed about three sizes too big, and lighter than a balloon. There was a high-pitched ringing in his left ear, but the right ear felt like it had cotton stuffed in the canal. A bitter taste filled his mouth, a thin residue perceptible on his tongue. His throat hurt, scratchy and raw. His eyes itched, and he thought he could smell the faint odor of smoke.
Then there was the matter of the world changing channels like a television, each as real as the other -- one blue and bright, the other dim and cramped. So which one was real? Probably this one. It was more likely that he was in his room with Jim than out in some nowhere place with a black thing that he couldn't really see.
Jim's voice helped focus Blair's attention, and he realized the man had been speaking to him. Now that he really looked at Jim, he could see the fatigue in his friend's face -- it was etched in his forehead and obvious in the spidery redness of his eyes. Thick stubble darkened Jim's jaw, making it obvious that the man hadn't shaven -- or slept, probably -- for a couple of days.
The crease in Jim's forehead deepened. "Do you understand me, Blair? You with me?"
Huh? Oh. He hadn't answered the question. "What?" he asked, surprised at how hoarse his voice sounded. He swallowed and tried again. "What was the question?"
The crease smoothed, and Jim smiled, some of the fatigue lifting from his face. "How are you feeling?"
"Um... Don't know." That was the truth. He didn't hurt -- exactly. His headache was back, and his shoulders ached, but other than that he couldn't feel any real pain. He just felt strange. Tired but shaky inside, like he hadn't slept for days and had ingested five cups of black coffee.
"Do you know what happened?"
Blair closed his eyes and searched his memory. Jim's warm palm lingered on his forehead. The last thing he remembered was talking to Dr. Onrubia in the man's office about shamanistic practices of indigenous Peruvian tribes. Then... wait... Dr. Onrubia had offered him some tea. He'd said it contained some natural elements like Peyote that were commonly used in shamanistic rituals, and he'd agreed to guide Blair through a few exercises.
Peyote? Blair had taken peyote before, in small doses. No big deal there, though he could count the number of times he'd ingested it on one hand. So what happened?
Jim would tell him, no doubt, so Blair shook his head. "No. I don't remember."
"Do you know what you were doing near Canada?"
"Visiting a colleague."
Blair frowned at the sharp edge in Jim's voice. "What happened?" he asked, avoiding the question for now. He didn't want to bring Dr. Onrubia's name into this until he found out what had happened.
"You were found wondering the streets near the border. You weren't coherent. Now, who were you visiting?"
Blair swallowed again, trying to wet the back of his throat. Jim's story didn't make any sense. Dr. Onrubia was an old friend and he wouldn't have done anything unethical or let Blair wander off in a confused state.
"Could I have some water?" he asked, dodging the question again.
Jim's expression softened, and he nodded. "Yeah." He stood up and removed his hand from Blair's forehead.
Oh damn. The world shifted again, turning bright and blue. The black thing returned, scurrying in his peripheral vision. Blair turned his head left, but still couldn't catch sight of the thing. It swept across his right periphery view, and he snapped his head back, but just missed the figure.
The black figure was now on his left side, vaguely larger than before. This time Blair didn't turn his head. He just closed his eyes and willed the thing away. Hot breath blew against his face, pushing up his nostrils with a foul stench. Blair's eyes jerked open, and he saw a black wolf standing over him, golden eyes glowing menacingly against the creature's dark fur. The canine's lips drew back, revealing an impressive row of sharp teeth. A low growl rumbled from its chest and the wolf lowered its head, drawing closer to Blair.
This one's not real. This is the fake world. I'm really in my bed. Blair clamped his eyes shut, trying to ignore the warm breath on his face. His heart thundered, blood roaring in his ears. Hurry up with that water, Jim. Please, please, hurry.
His silent prayer was answered when he felt the warm pressure return, this time on his shoulder, accompanied by Jim's steady voice. "Take it easy, Blair. Breathe. You're heart's going a mile a minute and you're about to hyperventilate."
Blair stifled a cry of relief and opened his eyes, insanely grateful that he was back in his room, although he knew he'd never really left.
"What is it?" Jim asked.
Blair shook his head, not trusting his voice. He had to find out more precisely what had happened to him, but right now he just really wanted some water. His eyes darted away from Jim, sweeping around the room until he spotted the cup of water on the bureau next to the bed.
Jim moved the hand he held on Blair's shoulder to reach for the cup, but a surge of panic caused Blair to grasp the Sentinel's hand in his own and hold it in place.
"No please, Jim," he pleaded, his voice low and his cheeks hot with embarrassment. "Things get bad when you take your hand away."
A shadow crossed Jim's face, but it was quickly replaced with a gentle, reassuring smile. "Sure thing, Chief," he said, pressing his hand a bit more firmly against Blair's shoulder as he reached with his free hand for the cup. "This is orange juice. Get some nutrients in you along with the liquid."
Blair lifted his head and took the cup with shaking hands, raising it slowly to his lips and letting the cool liquid slide over his tongue and down his throat. He drained half the cup, then handed it back to Jim and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Thanks," he said, as Jim set the cup back at the bureau. Blair met the detective's expectant gaze. "What exactly happened to me?" He still felt shaky, but was pleased that his voice sounded marginally steady.
Jim sighed. "You were found walking on the street near the Canadian border. You were screaming at passing cars and acting violent, so the authorities took you to the hospital where you were placed in the psychiatric ward. You had your wallet and observer ID on you, so they contacted Major Crime, then Simon called me. Rafe and Brown took over my shift for the stakeout and I drove to the hospital near the border. The doctor found trace amounts of lysergic acid and mescaline in your system." He paused, and Blair made an effort to keep his expression neutral as Jim studied him. "Do you have any idea how those compounds got in your system?"
Blair swallowed, suddenly more aware of the fatigue tugging at him. "Yeah," he whispered, lowering his eyes away from Jim's gaze. "I went to visit a colleague at a Canadian university. He was helping me with some shaman practices, and he told me to try a tea that contained natural ingredients commonly used by peruvian shamans. I knew peyote was one of those, but I didn't know what else was in it. He said it wasn't very much, though. It shouldn't have affected me like that."
Jim frowned disapprovingly, but, thankfully, didn't jump into a reproachful speech. Instead, he asked, "Who is this colleague?"
Blair shook his head. "I'm not going to tell you, Jim. You said there were trace amounts in my system, which means Doctor... " He caught himself before he said the name. Damn. What was wrong with him? He couldn't think, and his head still hurt. The ringing in his ears hadn't abated, either. "Anyway," he continued, "he didn't do anything wrong, and he's out of your jurisdiction, so I don't want you to hassle him."
Blair watched in detached fascination as a little vein pulsed at Jim's left temple. The Sentinel took a deep breath, his hand tensing on Blair's shoulder. "I just want to talk to him, Sandburg," he said at last. "Just to get some information."
Blair shook his head, a mistake, he realized instantly, as the room spun. Oh man. He stomach churned unhappily, and he knew he was about to throw up the orange juice. He pushed himself off the bed, grabbing onto Jim.
"Sandburg!" Jim exclaimed in surprise. "What are you --?"
"Bathroom, now, Jim," he said, grateful when Jim wrapped a strong arm around his waist and practically dragged him down the hall.
He barely made it in time, collapsing over the porcelain bowl just as the orange juice made its reappearance. Fortunately, there wasn't much in his stomach, so it all came out rather quickly. He grabbed some toilet paper and wiped his mouth, leaning back against the tub with a tired sigh. His head now throbbed, and the ringing in his ears threatened to drive him insane.
"You need any help, Jim?" a deep voice intruded from down the hall, and Blair stiffened. Simon? Is that Simon? He groaned and dropped his head back against the fiberglass, closing his eyes. Great. Just great.
"No, I'm fine, sir," Jim yelled back, then he crouched in front of Blair and extended his hand. "You okay?"
I don't know, Blair answered silently, but took Jim's hand and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. Fortunately, the room seemed content to remain stationary. "While I'm here, I'd better use the bathroom," he said, offering a sheepish smile, "and I don't need an audience."
Jim released Blair and glanced uncertainly at the door. "You sure?" he asked, studying Blair. "You said earlier that things get bad when I'm not around. You sure you'll be okay if I leave?"
Shit. Blair had forgotten about that. Still, he seemed to be doing better at the moment. Jim wasn't touching him, and there was no weird vision. -- just the bathroom. There was no blue sky and, more importantly, no black wolf. What was that anyway? An hallucination or a vision? Jim had said that only trace amounts of peyote and something else -- what had he said? -- had been found in his blood. That wouldn't be enough to cause such powerful hallucinations.
At any rate, Jim couldn't stay at his side twenty-four hours a day. He forced a small smile and gave Jim the thumbs up. "I'll be fine. I feel better now, anyway. Thanks."
That was a lie. He didn't exactly feel better. He felt a bit more lucid, he supposed, since he couldn't remember anything that happened between his drinking the tea and waking up in his room, but he didn't feel well. His head still throbbed and the ringing in his ears hadn't abated. At least his stomach felt better.
"Okay," Jim said, backing into the hall. "I'll be right outside." He closed the door, leaving it unlocked, and Blair hesitated a moment, his back rigid, waiting to see if there would be another hallucination. Seconds passed, and the room around him remained solid, giving no sign that it intended to shift to some jungle scene.
He released a breath and reached out one hand to steady himself against the sink as he went about his business.
"How is he?" Simon whispered, turning around on the couch as Jim approached.
"He's doing better," Jim replied, relieved that Blair seemed to be over the worst of the hallucinations. "He's coherent now. He knows where he is, but he doesn't seem to remember anything that happened to him in the hospital."
Simon grunted. "That's probably a blessing. Being placed in a padded room in a straight jacket isn't exactly a pleasant memory."
"I'll say," Jim agreed, sinking onto the couch and keeping one ear tuned to his partner in the bathroom. He heard the light tinkle of water and moved past that to listen to Blair's breathing, finding it somewhat shallow but otherwise steady.
"It would help if he could remember what happened to him, though -- how he ended up walking in the middle of the road near the border," Simon added.
Jim heard the sudden gasp from the bathroom, and honed into Blair's pounding heartbeat. Damn. No doubt the kid was having another episode. He rose from the couch just as a knock sounded. Jabbing his thumb at the door, he rushed to the bathroom and glanced back at Simon. "Could you see who that is, please?"
"Sure, Jim." Simon propelled himself off the couch just as Jim approached the bathroom.
"Blair?" Jim opened the bathroom door to see Blair standing frozen in front of the sink, his eyes wide as they gazed at the mirror. "Blair?" he repeated, but the young man gave no sign of having heard him. Hoping his touch would be enough to pull Sandburg from his hallucination, Jim placed a gentle hand on Blair's shoulder. "You're okay, Chief. Whatever you're seeing isn't real."
Blair jerked as though he'd been slapped, taking a sharp gulp of air. Jim caught him just as he sagged and lowered him slowly to the floor. Tremors rippled through the young man, and Blair felt suddenly hot with fever.
"Right here," he responded, tightening his arms reassuringly around his friend. "It's okay. You're okay."
Blair went limp against him, his head tilted back against Jim's chest. "Oh man, I am really getting tired of this."
"Do you remember what you were seeing?"
Jim felt a shudder rattle through Blair's chest. "Yeah," he breathed. "I remember. I looked into the mirror and I saw a black wolf staring back at me. It had these big yellow eyes and it was snarling at me."
Simon stuck his head in the doorway. "Jim --"
His voice startled Blair, and the young man flinched, then ducked his head in embarrassment when he realized it was Simon. A flash of irritation washed through Jim, but it was quickly squelched by the urgency in Simon's voice.
"You'd better get out here," the captain finished.
Blair felt himself drifting. He heard Simon tell Jim to "get out here" and he heard Jim mutter a response, but the a fog was clouding his thoughts, and he felt tired -- a heavy fatigue, almost like the kind that had taken him over when Lash had forced the chloral hydrate down his throat.
He felt himself being lifted off the floor and made a half-hearted attempt to move his legs, but just ended up being dragged toward the bedroom. As he came out of the hall, he saw a half-naked figure with a red face and long black hair staring at him. Oh man. First black wolves and now Chopec warriors. No way was he going to acknowledge the hallucination. Not with Simon there... and where was Simon? Oh yeah, there he was, right by the couch. He only caught a glimpse of the captain before Jim pulled him into the room.
Jim said something to him as he lowered him onto the bed, then the blanket came up to cover his chest.
Blair made an heroic effort to keep his eyelids open as he poured every remaining ounce of strength into focusing on Jim's face.
"One more time, Chief. It would really help if you could tell us who you were visiting in Canada. Doctor --?" Jim prompted
Canada? Oh yeah, he had visited "Doctor Onrubia." Had he actually spoken? He hoped he hadn't gotten Doctor Onrubia in trouble. Doctor Onrubia was a nice man. Doctor Onrubia was his friend. Sorry, Doctor Onrubia. Doctor Onrubia... Onrubia... What a funny name. He giggled. "Doctor Onrubia and Peruvia. Onrubia Peruvia." That was funny.
Jim smiled and gave him a pat on the cheek. "Funny, Chief. Onrubia. Thanks."
Blair grinned. Jim looked happy, so he must have really helped him. Maybe Doctor Onrubia could help him, too.
Jim closed the door and turned to face the Chopec shaman standing expectantly next to the kitchen table, his dark eyes wide with curiosity. Jim recognized the Peruvian native from his time in Peru, but the shaman had been barely a man back then.
"Why are you here, Emprado? How did you get here?" he asked in the man's native tongue.
The shaman bowed his head slightly and answered.
"What did he say?" Simon asked, leaning against the back of the couch as he gazed in awe at the primitive man.
Jim glanced briefly at the captain. "He said Incacha's spirit guided him hear to help the young shaman. He means Blair."
"He's saying a ghost told him to come here? And how did he get here?"
Jim relayed Simon's question to Emprado and listened to the man's hasty response.
"He got here the same way Incacha and the others did -- by becoming a stow-away," Jim told the Captain.
"How did he know where to find you?"
Jim turned the the shaman and asked the question. When Emprado answered, Jim turned to the Captain and relayed the information.
"The other members of the tribe who came here last time told him. The animal spirit also guided him."
Simon groaned. "Great. Just great."
Emprado broke into the conversation, his tone low and clipped.
"What did he say, Jim?"
"He said he needs to prepare for the ceremony while Blair sleeps. He told us not to wake Blair because he's going to need to be rested for the ritual."
"What ritual?" Simon asked apprehensively. "The kid doesn't need a witch doctor. He needs a hospital."
Jim sighed and rubbed his forehead. "Right now, I don't know what he needs, Simon."
Oh God. His head was killing him, throbbing so violently that it felt like little grenades were going off inside his skull. Ripples of nausea washed over him, threatening to turn his stomach inside out. The pain in his head pulsed in sync to the beating of his heart, and he wanted nothing more than for someone to put a bullet in his head and end the misery.
Aspirin. Need aspirin. There were some pills in the bathroom, weren't there? He'd take half the bottle if it meant getting rid of this pain. Slowly, he opened his eyes. Dots of colored lights danced in his vision, obscuring the metal beams jutting along the ceiling.
He rolled onto his side and made a brief attempt to stand, but the room tilted precariously and the floor slammed into him. Pain exploded at the base of his skull and he cried out, curling into a ball and holding his head in his hands as he rocked slowly back and forth.
Footsteps pounded against the floor and Blair felt the vibrations of those footsteps in the wood beneath him. Suddenly, the vibrations ceased, and hands grabbed his shoulders, urging him onto his back. He wasn't inclined to uncurl from his protected position, however. His head throbbed too much. Movement would just be a bad idea all around.
"Blair?" a soft voice inquired, the tone edged with concern.
A deeper voice intruded, speaking in a vaguely familiar language, but the words sounded too garbled for Blair to focus on. All he wanted was for the pain to stop. God! He'd never experienced anything like this before. How could his head hurt so badly unless a blood vessel was about to explode. Aneurysm? Embolism? God oh God...
He choked, his throat constricting, and he registered a sharp, pungent odor. Smoke? He coughed, then rolled onto his back seeking fresh air, but the oppressive smoke continued to smother him, filling his nostrils and snaking into his lungs. Fire?! Am I on fire? Golden flames danced beneath his eyelids. Oh no, not again. This time he recognized the flashback, knew it wasn't real. It couldn't be real, but damn it looked real and he could even feel the heat from the flames on the skin of his arms and legs.
"Take it easy, Chief. You're okay."
Jim? Blair reached out blindly, refusing to open his eyes, pressing his eyelids tighter in an attempt to block out the fiery images. His hand found an arm, and he grabbed onto that solid warmth.
It was then that he realized his head no longer hurt. Immediately, his muscles relaxed and he expelled a lungful of air. Thank you, God. Thank you. The Golden flames died down, leaving him in peace but feeling like a rag that had been wrung and hung out to dry.
A hand slid beneath his head and lifted him up a few inches. Then something was placed on his lips, and he opened his mouth automatically. Bitter-warm liquid washed over his tongue and he nearly choked as it slid down his throat. A shiver snaked down his spine and he felt the warm liquid pool in his stomach.
What was that stuff? Jim? Slowly, he lifted his eyelids and saw the dark eyes of a red-faced Chopec shaman staring down at him. Blair almost laughed. Whoa. What a trip. First black wolves and dancing flames, now this. Next I'll see Incacha and twelve dancing leprechauns. How 'bout some belly dancers instead? That'd be cool.
His eyelids started to feel heavy and drifted closed. Twelve dancing belly dancer leprechauns like in Star Trek. That green chick wasn't so bad. His stomach settled, the nausea that had afflicted him evaporating like a light fog in the face of the late-morning sun.
"What did you give him?" Jim asked the Shaman in Chopec.
"Cunta byana bally ghan." Something to ease his pain and cleanse his soul.
Jim bit back a retort, turning his gaze down to his sleeping partner. He didn't like the idea of Emprado putting more chemicals into Blair's system, but, on the other hand, the concoction seemed to have worked. For the time being, he was prepared to let Emprado work with Blair.
"Kyeean y tuma." We have to leave here.
Jim's eyes snapped back up to the Shaman. "What do you mean?" he asked in Chopec.
Emprado spread his hands out to indicate the surroundings and told Jim that they needed to go to a more isolated area where they could be alone. In other words, Jim translated mentally, a place where the neighbors won't be disturbed. Just what was the shaman planning?
Jim parked the Ford truck in front of the cabin. He'd called Stephen and asked if he could use the place for the next few days, and his little brother had agreed. Fortunately, Stephen hadn't inquired into the reason. Probably figures I'm either using it for vacation or spending the weekend with a woman.
With a glance at his sleeping partner wedged between him and the Chopec Shaman, Jim turned off the engine and opened his door. Blair stirred, his eyelids fluttering open, and he blinked several times as he checked out the surroundings.
"Huh? Where're we?" Blair asked, his voice heavy with sleep.
"Stephen's cabin," Jim explained, glancing at Emprado. The Chopec Shaman was fiddling with the door handle and, after a few fumbles, managed to open his door.
"Vegada Ayi," Emprado said, wrapping a hand around Blair's arm and coaxing the young man out of the truck. Blair looked at the shaman as though he were an alien, then glanced uncertainly back at Jim.
"Man, Jim," he said, "these hallucinations are getting more and more real."
Jim's jaw almost dropped open and he stared at Blair for several seconds before the impact of the young man's statement fully hit him. When it did, he had to stifle a chuckle.
"Uh, Chief," he began, clearing his throat. "That's Emprado. He's not an hallucination. He's real. He's the new shaman of Incacha's tribe."
Blair's brow furrowed and it was obvious he didn't fully believe Jim, but he seemed to accept the statement for the moment as he followed the shaman out of the truck. He slid to his feet and almost collapsed to the ground before Emprado caught him. The Peruvian shaman muttered something in Chopec and slipped Blair's arm across his shoulders as he helped the younger man up the small steps leading to the cabin's front door.
Jim grabbed the bags from the back and locked up the truck. He'd gotten the key from Stephen on his way up and rifled one-handed through the key chain until he found the right one. Hurrying past Emprado and Blair, he unlocked the door and stepped inside.
The cabin was large and quite cozy. A fireplace lay set into one wall and a moderately-sized TV sat against another wall. The living room opened into the kitchen, which was compact but functional.
Wow. Not bad. Jim set the bags down just inside the doorway and then helped Emprado with Blair. He draped the younger man's free arm over his shoulders and steered the two men over to one of the doors on the right, hoping that was a bedroom.
"Wow. Nice," Blair mumbled, swiveling his head to look up at Jim. "Hey, man, I can walk. What's up, anyway?"
Jim smiled reassuringly. "Uh-huh. Sure you can, buddy. Let's just get you into the room."
Jim glanced at Emprado again. The shaman still hadn't told him what he'd given Blair. Some kind of smoke concoction followed by a liquid. Whatever the substances had been, they seemed to be keeping Blair pleasantly relaxed. In fact, Jim didn't think there'd been anymore hallucinations or headaches since Emprado had used his potions on Blair.
Reaching the door, Jim turned the knob and pushed inward. A moderately-sized room was revealed, with a twin bed, a dresser, and a closet. Jim helped maneuver Blair to the bed and quickly pulled back the covers as Emprado lowered the young man onto the mattress. Blair seemed vaguely aware of his surroundings, but his eyes still held a distant, glassy look. The young man gave the room a quick, cursory scan then laid down on the bed and curled on side, his eyes drifting closed.
Why is he still like this? Jim worried again. It had been two days since he'd taken Blair out of the hospital and still the kid seemed out of touch with reality. That was part of the reason he didn't like the idea of Emprado giving Blair anymore drugs.
"I must prepare," Emprado said in Chopec. "More needs to be done. He will rest a bit longer. You show me around, then stay with him. He feels safe with you."
Jim nodded. "How long are we going to be here?"
"However long it takes," Emprado said, then turned and walked quickly out of the room.
A soft, deep rumble pulled Blair from sleep and he opened heavy eyelids to see a brown ceiling. Huh? He blinked. Not the loft. Not a hospital. Where...? He turned his head toward the source of the rumble and saw Jim slouched in a small armchair, snoring peacefully.
Confused, his eyes swept the room, but he didn't recognize the place. Pushing himself into a sitting position, he inhaled several deep breaths and took stock. He felt pretty good. His memory was a bit fuzzy, but he knew he had visited Dr. Onrubia in Canada and something had happened. He also remembered being back at the loft and seeing a black wolf.
He shivered involuntarily. That had been one hell of a realistic hallucination.
He looked back at Jim to see the Sentinel gazing at him quizzically.
"How are you feeling?" the detective asked.
Blair managed a smile as he suppressed a yawn. "Okay. Good, actually. A bit tired, and there's kind of a weird buzz in my head, but I feel good." He looked around one more time. "Uh... Where are we?"
"Stephen's cabin. It was Emprado's idea."
"The Chopec shaman," Jim explained. "You remember him?"
Blair pursed his lips. Now that Jim mentioned it, he did vaguely remember something about a red-faced shaman, but it seemed like just another hallucination. "You mean, there's a Chopec shaman here?" Blair inquired.
Jim nodded. "He's fixing some potion in the kitchen."
Blair just stared at the Sentinel. Am I still asleep? There's a Chopec shaman in the kitchen fixing a potion. "Why?" he asked finally.
Jim shrugged. "He said he had a vision that told him he needed to come here and help you."
"Me?" Blair blinked again. "I don't understand."
"Me either... exactly. It has something to do with all this shaman stuff."
Blair swallowed, running his fingers through his hair. "What's going on, Jim?" he asked plaintively. "I mean, I know kind of what happened. I know I drank some tea and it sent me to la-la land for awhile. How long ago was that?"
"We found you three days ago walking barefoot near the Canadian border. You were visiting a --"
Blair grimaced. "Just a colleague." Glimpses of the previous conversation he'd had with Jim about the Canadian professor came back to him, and he narrowed his eyes at the Sentinel. "I told you I wasn't going to tell you his name until I spoke with him myself. Quite trying to interrogate me, Jim. I'm --"
"I'm not interrogating you, Sandburg, I'm trying to figure out what the hell happened to you!" Jim snapped.
Blair clamped his mouth shut, surprised by the harshness of Jim's tone. Okay, so he's pissed. Can't say that I blame him. Nothing like having your partner flipped out on drugs. He looked away quickly, his cheeks flushed. He couldn't really think of anything to say, so he opted for playing with the fuzz on the blanket.
"Look, Chief," Jim said more gently, "I'm sorry for barking at you, it's just --" He sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. "I'm just a bit tired, that's all."
Blair looked back up at the Sentinel, offering a small shrug. "It's okay." He jerked his chin toward the door. "Why don't you go get some sleep? I'll be okay in here by myself. I think I'm pretty much over the worst of it." Whatever "it" was, he added silently.
Jim looked at Blair skeptically. "You sure?"
"Yeah?" He smiled, nodding. "I'm a big boy, Jim. Been sleeping on my own for quite some time now."
Jim returned the smile, then rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, I guess I could use a few hours in a nice bed." He pushed himself out of the armchair. "You want anything before I head off? Something to drink or eat?"
Blair shook his head. "Not at the moment, thanks." His stomach still felt a tad queasy and he didn't want to risk anything.
"Okay, then," Jim said, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at the door. "I'll be in the next room, so if you need anything..."
Blair waved him away. "Go, go. I'll be fine, Jim."
"Whatever you say, Chief." Jim nodded and backed out of the room, leaving Blair alone.
Blair watched him leave, unconsciously holding his breath. When the door closed, he released a sigh and sagged against the mattress. Oh man. What's going on here? He still wasn't entirely sure what had happened and he had no idea why a Chopec shaman had come all the way to Cascade to help him. How did he even know I needed help?
And what was with that black wolf? Welcome to my subconscious, folks. Fire demons and black wolves with fangs. Why can't I just see little pink elephants or leprechauns or golden bridges leading to a fairy tale land? No, lucky me, I get monsters and demons and every dark nightmare the human mind is capable of dredging up. I think I'm seriously overdue for some therapy.
He closed his eyes and inhaled a deep breath... and his lungs froze when he smelled the faint odor of smoke.
Emprado gave the mixture one last stir and turned off the stove. A slight smile touched his lips as he turned on the flame again... then off... then on... then off. The little fire-making box was quite useful. He liked it. There were many things here he liked. The large white cold box that held food and drink was also quite useful. And water whenever he wanted it, flowing hot or cold. The Sentinel had quickly shown him how to work all the contraptions and where things were. Most interesting. He would have many stories to tell the others.
Grabbing the pot by the handle, he carried it over to the sink and was about to pour the liquid into the large bowl when the air in the room suddenly changed. The hairs on his arms stood straight and a chill puckered the skin on his arms. He shivered and set the pot back on the stove, then turned around to look at the closed room where the young shaman lay. The Sentinel had left his Guide moments ago to retire to his own room. A cold sense of foreboding settled in his stomach and he lurched into a run at the same moment that a loud crash sounded from inside the young Shaman's room.
The Sentinel emerged from his room and nearly collided with Emprado, but he sidestepped Ellison and pushed the door open. Emprado was not prepared for the mass that plowed into him, sending him sprawling backward to hit the floor hard. The wind flew out of him, leaving him breathless and gasping for air as he lay flat on his back.
"Blair! Blair! Easy, buddy! Easy. What is it?" the Sentinel inquired hastily.
Emprado pushed himself to his knees to see Blair scampering toward the far wall. The young shaman pressed his back into the corner and stared wild-eyed at his open bedroom door, fear etched in the deep lines of his face.
"Wolf," Blair gasped. "There's a black wolf in my room, Jim. I swear it's real. I'm not imaging it. It tried to kill me. It --"
"Blair." The Sentinel's voice, now soft, tried to soothe the frightened young man. Emprado could not understand the words, only the tone, and he asked the Sentinel what the young shaman had said. In a clipped voice, Ellison answered him, and the answer only served to fuel Emprado's fear.
"Sandburg, there's no wolf in your room," Jim said gently, shaking his head as he crouched in front of the young man.
"As there is no animal spirit guiding you, Sentinel?" Emprado asked. He hadn't understood the Sentinel's words, but interpreted the tone of his voice and the shaking of his head to indicate disbelief. "Is the jaguar simply a thing of your mind?"
The Sentinel turned his head, fixing Emprado with a cold glare. There was too much anger in that gaze... and fear. If the young shaman was to find his way, the Sentinel would need to find his own calm first.
"What are you talking about, Emprado? Blair's spirit guide?" the Sentinel asked in Emprado's native tongue.
Emprado shook his head. "Not like you think."
"What do you mean?" Ellison asked, impatient.
"Everything in our world and beyond exists in whole. It has more than just one side, more than just what we see. Just as there is life, there is also death. Light has Darkness. Summer has Winter. Good has Evil. Every man has within him Light and Dark, Good and Evil. That is no secret. It is something we all know, even if we don't always admit it."
"The point..." Jim prodded.
Emprado sighed. The Sentinel would be difficult to work with. "The animal spirit that guides the young shaman reflects the good in him. But with Good there is Evil. Light has Darkness."
"Are you saying this black wolf is the evil inside Blair?" Jim clenched his jaw. "No such thing."
Emprado smiled, glancing at Blair. The young man seemed calmer now, looking back and forth between Jim and Emprado as though trying to understand the conversation.
"Everyone has Darkness within him, Sentinel," Emprado explained. "Fear. Anger. Selfishness. Doubt. Overconfidence. Weakness." He glanced again at Blair. "The Darkness inside the young shaman seeks escape. It has been tapped, released. It is something that every shaman must face -- though not alone. I was sent to help him face his anger and fear."
"Anger and fear," Blair said in a shaky voice, surprising the two men. "I got that. What about anger and fear?" He looked to Jim.
Jim looked back to Blair. "He, uh, said that the black wolf represents your inner darkness."
There was no immediate response from Blair. Rather, the young man just stared at Jim with his mouth slightly open. Then the edges of his lips twitched upward and he expelled a half-chuckle. "My inner darkness?" he huffed sarcastically. "The guy came all the way from Peru to feed me some cliché psycho babble? Next he'll be telling me to 'resist the Dark Side.'"
Jim frowned and Emprado mirrored the gesture. Blair's sudden disdain and tone struck a wrong cord with both men.
"It is his fear talking," Emprado said, again responding to the tone of Blair's voice and the expression on his face rather than the actual words.
"Didn't I already go through all this back at the monastery?" Blair asked accusingly, his gaze focused on Emprado even though the older shaman couldn't understand the words. "What was all that about the wolf feasting on my organs? Was that all just for fun or was it supposed to mean something?" His voice rose angrily on that last part and he turned his eyes back to Jim.
Concern flickered over the Sentinel's features and he looked at Emprado as he relayed the question.
"That was the first step. A shaman is not made overnight. There are many tests and much to learn before one can walk the path with confidence," Emprado explained.
"Jim, man," Blair said, a note of urgency in his voice, "I'm telling you that there was a wolf in my room. I know you think I hallucinated it and I thought I was hallucinating it before, but it was just way to real. It was on my chest, breathing in my face, hell even slobbering on chin." He rubbed his jaw absently at the memory.
Emprado observed in silence as the Sentinel conducted an obvious sensory scan of the young Guide, apparently trying to determine whether Sandburg was still being affected by the contaminates in his system. Blair realized immediately what Jim was doing and a look of irritation crossed his face.
"Jim, I am not out of my mind here. I know what I saw," Sandburg insisted.
Jim nodded, the skepticism fading from his eyes. "Okay, Chief. Taking into consideration the fact that I've been visited by a black jaguar that no one else has ever seen, I suppose your black wolf isn't all that far-fetched." He looked back at Emprado and spoke to the man in Chopec. "So what do we do?"
Emprado smiled, relieved that the Sentinel seemed more receptive now. "We must help your Guide face his fears?"
"He's already faced his fears many times. Overcome them," Jim protested.
Emprado shook his head. "No one truly overcomes his fears. Rather, a wise man recognizes and accepts them, refusing to let them control him."
"Blair's fears have never controlled him. He's jumped out of plane after me, faced danger countless times..."
"It is not those fears that I speak of," Emprado said, "but his facing those fears will help him to face the ones that he must."
"Speak straight, Emprado. I'm in no mood for games."
Emprado sighed. "Your Guide fears the Calling. He fears that he will be changed by accepting the path of The Shaman. He fears that he may fail you. He must learn that choosing the path of a shaman does not change one's soul. There is no one path for a shaman. All are different, as is each shaman. Blair is not Chopec. He is of the city. His path as a shaman will be influence by his surroundings and his own character. To be a shaman means to be able to touch the spirit world. It does not mean to surrender oneself to the Other Side."
Jim's eyes narrowed skeptically. "Okay," he said hesitantly. "I think I understand." He glanced at Blair, "but it's ultimately his decision."
Emprado nodded. "It always will be. The path is not permanent. It can be rejected at any time, though such rejection often proves difficult."
"Absolutely not," Jim growled.
"No way, man. No way," Blair chimed in protest.
The two men stood next to each other, both gazing apprehensively up at the towering tree.
"This is how it has been done. Perhaps there are other ways, but this is the way that I know," Emprado said.
"Forget it." Blair began pacing, running his fingers through his hair. "This is ridiculous. I've already done worse than that. I've jumped out of a plane for chrissakes! Doesn't that count?"
Jim quickly translated Blair's tirade for the Chopec shaman. Emprado shook his head. "You do not have to do this, but by facing your fears and tasting success, it will help to build the strength you need to accept the fear that troubles you now. It will help you to defeat the black wolf and walk the path of the shaman."
Jim translated again and Blair shook his head. "This is stupid. If I fall and break my neck I'm not going to be conquering anything."
Emprado sighed, looking from Blair to Jim. "He cannot be forced to do it. It is his choice. If he chooses not to, I will try to help him find other ways of confronting the dark spirit."
Jim turned to Blair and translated the Chopec's words.
"Great," Sandburg sighed, his shoulders hunching as he peered anxiously up at the intimidating tree. "I still feel woozy, you know, Jim. I'm telling you right now that I'm going to fall."
Jim swallowed hard. It sounded like Blair had already made up his mind to do it, but with that negative attitude the kid was sure to get himself killed. "Think positive, Chief. If you're convinced you're going to fall, you will."
Blair grimaced, but turned his gaze back to Jim. He seemed on the verge of making a retort, but settled for looking back up at the tree. "Give me a boost to the lowest branch?"
Jim managed a smile. "Sure." The lowest branch was about three feet over Blair's head, a testament to just how damn high the monstrous tree rose. Jim laced his fingers together and crouched low.
"Thanks," Blair mumbled, setting one foot in Jim's cupped hands. With a grunt, Jim hefted his partner up and Blair grabbed the low branch easily. "These branches aren't very thick, Jim. Does he really think these will hold me?"
Jim studied the branched, gauging their strength. "The lower ones should. I'm not so sure about the ones toward the top."
"He wants me to go to the top, Jim!"
"Just go as far as the branches will take you," Jim replied.
With a sigh, Blair pulled himself up and swung his legs over the branch. "Oh man, I can't believe I'm doing this," he muttered, then rose shakily to grab the next branch.
From the ground, Jim monitored his partner's progress like a cat tracking a mouse, his eyes focused on the ascending figure and his ears tuned to the younger man's pounding heart.
I must still be dreaming, 'cause no way does this make any kind of sense, Blair bemoaned silently as his hands wrapped around the tree branch directly above. Grunting, he pulled himself up and straddled the branch. Don't look down. Just don't look down. He wasn't quite sure just how high he'd climbed, but if he had to guess, he'd say forty or fifty feet. High enough for a fall to kill him... or paralyze him... or leave him permanently brain damaged. Lovely. I must already be brain damaged to be up here. His stomach churned, reminding him that he wasn't fully recovered and that he hadn't eaten for quite some time. Good thing there's nothing in my stomach to throw up or else Jim and Emprado would be in for an unpleasant surprise.
He glanced up, estimating the remaining distance to be about another 10 or 15 feet. The tree branches were getting awfully thin, and he didn't think the higher ones would hold his weight. He could probably make it another five feet before having to stop. And then go back down? He swallowed. Going back down would mean looking down and he didn't think that would be such a good idea.
Why do I have to do this again? He shifted, grabbing onto the tree trunk and moving to his knees. Something about facing my fears... as if I haven't been doing that this whole time. Four years with Jim. Many fears faced during that time... and new ones gained. Falling elevators. Psychos and serial killers. Lash. Alex. Drowning. He shivered. Just cut it out, Sandburg, and focus. Reaching up, he grabbed the next tree branch, quickly hoisting himself up.
A low growl froze him in place, his legs hanging and his arms wrapped in a vice grip around the tree branch in a panicked embrace. No. No. No. Not now. I was supposed to do this so you would go away. The snarl sounded as though it were coming from above him, but he eyes refused to move from the point fixed right in front of him. He couldn't look up. Couldn't move.
The beast came to him. The branch shook with the weight of the animal as it dropped into his view. Flaming golden eyes peered at him, as angry and menacing as the snarl that tugged at the creature's lips.
Oh God. Blair closed his eyes tight. Not real. Not real. Not real. He repeated the mantra silently even as he felt the wolf's warm breath on his face. Not real. Not real. Not real. He felt a tug on his shoulder as though the wolf had grabbed hold of his shirt and was now trying to pry him off of the branch. Quickly, he tightened his grip. Not real. Not real. Not real. Not real things didn't touch you, though, did they?
Oh God, Jim, please get me down from here.
A stomach-twisting crackle sounded and Blair stopped breathing, but the wolf kept pulling at him. Oh no... The branch snapped and his eyes shot open as he went into free fall. The scream in his throat barely escaped before he slammed into a lower branch. His arms flailed wildly, trying to grab hold of something, but he slipped off and continued to plummet.
Oh God, no. No, Goddamnit. Jim tensed as the branch gave way and his partner fell. All he could do was watch from the ground. Blair hit a lower branch, his scream abruptly cut off with the impact. He bounced off and continued to fall. Please... Jim prayed silently. Blair impacted another branch, and this time he managed to grab hold of the thing to stop his fall. One leg was wrapped around the branch while the other hung limply below. His arms were wrapped around the extension, but his body hung half-off and he looked in danger of losing his grip.
"Blair!" Jim yelled. "Just hold on, buddy. I'm coming up." He gestured for Emprado to give him a boost, but the shaman never got a chance. Blair released a surprised scream and lost his grip again, continuing his fall. He hit a few more branches on his way down, each slowing his descent.
Jim acted without thinking, positioning himself just under Blair. The impact slammed him into the ground, rattling his jaw and sending a spike of pain through his head.
Ouch. The dull pounding in his head pulled him to consciousness. He opened his eyes, squinting against the light, and a fuzzy red face came into view.
"How do you feel, Sentinel?" Emprado asked in Chopec.
Jim closed his eyes. Like shit, he answered silently. What happ...? It came back to him suddenly and his eyes shot open as he jack-knifed into a sitting position. "Blair!"
The world spun and he groaned, raising a hand to his head against the nausea. He felt a warm slickness on his forehead and, when he pulled his hand back, it was red with blood.
"Your Guide is hurt, but not badly," Emprado said.
Jim blinked, trying to clear the painful buzzing from his head, and looked around. He spotted Blair immediately to his right. The young man lay unconscious on the ground, a nasty gash in his forehead and a collection of cuts on his face. His right arm lay straight between two pieces of wood, and his shirt was unbuttoned to reveal the swell of several approaching bruises.
Jim moved closer to Blair, brushing his fingertips over the younger man's head, chest, and torso. Feeling nothing broken, he turned his attention to the kid's arm next. "Is it broken?" he asked Emprado. It was hard for him to tell with the bindings.
Emprado shrugged. "Not completely through, but I do not know if the bone cracked. It is pretty badly bruised and cut, though."
Jim clenched his jaw and slowly began to unwrap the vine that held the splint on Blair's arm. Then he eased the pieces of wood away and inspected the damage. True to Emprado's word, the arm looked pretty beat up. A long gash lay along the length of Blair's arm, stopping just above his wrist. The palm was scraped, no doubt from when Blair had tried to grab onto various branches to stop his fall. Gently, his fingers brushed over the hand, wrist, and arm. He didn't think anything was broken or fractured, but he was pretty sure Blair wouldn't be using the arm for awhile.
Jim looked back up at Emprado. "Stay here with him. I'm going to run back to the cabin and get the first-aid kit and something to transport him with." His voice was a bit harsher than he intended. He was angry at the shaman for suggesting the foolhardy stunt and even angrier at himself for going along with the idea.
Emprado nodded, calm in the face of Ellison's wrath.
Brilliant, Ellison. Just brilliant. Jim placed his palm on Blair's forehead, gauging the young man's temperature and, finding it only slightly elevated, pulled the covers up to the kid's neck. Spring him from the hospital and push him into climbing a tree so that he can fall and crack his head open. Brilliant. He glanced resentfully at the door, knowing Emprado was somewhere on the other side.
A moan from the bed pulled his attention back to Sandburg.
Another moan, then Blair's eyelids lifted to reveal dazed blue eyes. "Oh man. What happened?" Blair's voice was weak, his words slurred.
"You had a pretty bad fall, but managed not to break anything other than a few branches. You're gonna be okay, just try not to move too much."
Blair blinked, focusing on Jim's face. "You okay?"
Jim pulled back slightly in surprise. "Me? Yeah, I'm fine."
Blair's eyelids fluttered closed. "Head..."
"Oh." Jim raised one hand absently to the bandage that covered his forehead. "It's nothing. Just a scratch. My hard skull did a number on the ground, though."
Blair's eyes cracked open a fraction and flicker of something touching his face, but Jim couldn't pin down the emotion.
"Wolf..." Blair whispered before succumbing to sleep.
Jim watched his sleeping partner a moment longer before spinning on his heels and flying out of the room. He spotted Emprado in the center of the small living room, positioned on the floor right in front of the couch. His legs were crossed in front of him, hands on his knees, in a meditative position. His eyes were closed, but his lips moved to give voice to a soft, musical chant.
Anger hurtled Jim forward and he grabbed Emprado's arms, hauling the younger man to his feet and slamming him against the wall. "What were you trying to do? Kill him?" Jim bellowed.
Emprado stared at Jim calmly, his eyes flat. The lack of reaction only fueled Jim's anger and he gave the man a brief shake, pushing him harder against the wall. "Answer me! Your stupid idea nearly got him killed. What have you been smoking that you thought sending an ill man up a tree was such a bright idea?"
Emprado took a deep breath, then raised his arms and pushed Ellison away from him, exhibiting surprising strength for his lithe frame. "That worth attaining does not come without risk," the shaman said. "I am sorry that your Guide was hurt, but he will heal. His soul, however, needs tending to."
With a disgusted sigh, Jim released the man. "No more. You've had your chance and it didn't work."
Emprado raised his eyebrows. "That is not your decision to make, Sentinel."
Jim clenched his jaw, taking a step away from the man because what he really wanted to do was wrap his hands around Emprado's neck. "It is my decision, and it's final. End of discussion."
"'For you maybe," Emprado retorted.
Jim took a deep breath. The shaman just didn't know when to quite. Didn't Emprado have any sense of self-preservation?
"Drop it, Emprado," Jim growled.
The shaman's mask finally cracked and anger flashed in his dark eyes. "Do you know everything, Sentinel?" he snapped. "Do you hold the keys to this world and the next? When the black wolf comes for him, will you be able to fight that which you cannot see? Are you all powerful?"
He waited for Jim's answer, but the Sentinel merely glared at him.
"You are not his master," Emprado said. "He is a shaman. Your Guide. Your friend. He has given his life for you as you have for him. I did not travel here to turn back so soon. If you respect your Guide and the legacy of Incacha, you will stop fighting me and acknowledge that which you know to be true."
Against his will, Jim found his anger dissipating. Pulling in the big guns, aren't you, Emprado? Of course I respect Blair... and Incacha... He swallowed, glancing away from the shaman's piercing gaze. "What am I supposed to know to be true?"
"That the spirit world exists, woven through the reality that we see but hidden to most eyes. As a Sentinel, you have glimpsed it. As a shaman, Blair is being pulled between both. He can make a choice. He can turn his back on Incacha's legacy and reject the spirit world or he can embrace it and walk the path of a Shaman. Either way, he remains who he is. We must help him understand that."
"Are you saying that part of Blair's fear is that he's going to be changed by all this?" Jim asked.
"We are all changed everyday. Knowledge and experience change us, but we remain who we are."
Jim rubbed his temples. "So Blair will be changed?" he inquired.
Emprado sighed, a small smile touching his lips. "When you read a book, Sentinel, do you become a different person afterwards?"
"But are you changed by the book?"
"Well... I guess. In a way, depending on the book."
"Blair is a student, his life is learning new things. Have his studies changed who he is?"
"No," Jim answered, flinching only slightly at Emprado's reference to Blair's former life in academia. Emprado spoke in the present tense, which somehow gave the words greater impact, reminding Jim of just what Blair had sacrificed.
"There you have your answer, Sentinel," Emprado said. "To be a shaman is simply to acquire new knowledge, but it is knowledge that must be put to use. It does not change the person's heart, but it does change him -- as experience changes us all."
Jim pursed his lips, studying Emprado. "Okay, I think I understand."
Emprado smiled. "Good. Now we must help Blair understand as well... and we must help him fight his demons."
Jim pressed the END button on his cell phone, a satisfied smile playing at his lips. He'd made a few calls and managed to get Dr. Onrubia's number. It wasn't too hard. He'd started with the one Canadian University close to the border where Blair had been found.
He dialed the professor's number and, on the second ring, a tired voice answered. "Doctor Onrubia, Department of Social Sciences."
"Doctor Onrubia," Jim began tersely, "my name is Detective James Ellison with the Cascade PD in Washington. I'm investigating an incident --"
"How is Blair?" the man inquired quickly.
Jim's hand tightened around the phone. "He's recovering. Can you tell me what happened?" He kept his voice carefully neutral.
"Yes. Yes, of course. I'm sorry, Detective. Blair has spoken very highly of you and I know that you and he are close friends. He, uh, came to my office inquiring about certain shaman practices. I didn't know that he was studying to be a shaman. I was a bit surprised because anthropologists are supposed to maintain a certain level of detachment. At any rate, he sought my help with certain rituals. He wanted to get details and listen to some of my experiences with various tribes. He's had his own field experiences, mind you, but between the two of us we filled in the other's gaps. Anyway, at first I refused, telling him I'd be glad to share my knowledge but that I didn't feel comfortable helping him through the exercises. He persisted and, well, he can be damn persuasive. Besides, he'd done me a favor a while back and I owed him. I guided him through some of the rituals that I had observed. We went over some of the "recipes" and I made a tea that was mixed with various herbs and other elements used in shamanistic rituals. There were traces of peyote and an extract of Morning Glory Seeds. Mild hallucinogens. Some of the things that are illegal in your country are legal here, Detective. I won't say much more about that. Anyway, the mixture should have had only a very mild affect on Blair, but he had a very bad reaction. He became violent. I tried to subdue him, but he knocked me down and ran out. I hit my head on the edge of my desk, knocked myself out good and, when I came to, he was long gone."
"And why didn't you call and report this?" Jim asked tightly.
"I did. I reported it to the Canadian authorities," Dr. Onrubia said.
"You didn't bother to call his home number? Didn't you think someone might be worried about him? Or what about --?"
"I didn't know his home number, only his office number. I didn't know very much about what he was working on because he wouldn't tell me. He only referred to you as Jim, so I didn't even know that his roommate was a police officer at the time. When you identified yourself a few minutes ago as 'James Ellison' I figured you had to be 'Jim.' I'm so sorry --"
"Sorry? You're sorry? Your concoction nearly got him killed?! Did you tell the Canadian authorities that?"
"I didn't mean --"
"I'll be in touch with you later, Dr. Onrubia, and the Canadian authorities. You can count on it." He snapped the phone closed, ending the call because he knew that if he said anything more his mouth would get away from him.
Pain. It was the very first sensation of which he became aware. His head hurt, his arm hurt, his right shoulder hurt, and his back hurt. Basically, he hurt. The pain gave rise to a small groan, and that self-made sound pulled him further toward consciousness.
"Hey there, sleeping beauty," a familiar voice intruded a bit too loudly, sending spikes of pain into his skull. "Can you open your eyes for me?"
Can you go away and let me die? Blair retorted silently. Dying sounded good. Living wasn't going so well thus far.
"Come on, Chief, open."
Reluctantly, Blair complied. Fortunately, the room was lit dimly, comfortable for his eyes. He saw Jim's smiling face leaning over him and managed a small smile of his own, even though he felt like a piece of crap that had been stomped into the ground.
"Soup," Jim announced, raising a mug to Blair's field of view. "You need to get some nutritious liquid inside you."
I need to not be falling out of trees, Blair replied mentally. He was in a shitty mood. He would be in a shitty mood for quite some time if the pounding in his head was any indication.
"Aspirin," he croaked. The whole damn bottle, please.
"Coming right up, Chief."
Jim disappeared from view. The sound of retreating footsteps drummed toward the door, then the hinges creaked and Jim was gone. The moment the door clicked closed, Blair's nightmare returned. A low growl to his left sent a cold chill running through his body.
Oh man, won't this ever stop? Go away. Just go away. The growl turned into a snarl and Blair stopped breathing. Mustering all his courage, he turned his head slowly toward the source, his heart beating wildly in his chest. The black beast stood a few feet away, its lips pulled back to reveal large teeth.
Come back. Oh God, Jim, please come back.
Footsteps hurried toward the room, and the door swung inward.
"What's wrong, Chief? Your heart's going like crazy. You okay?" Jim scanned the room even as he spoke, then, when satisfied there was no threat, settled his gaze on Sandburg.
Blair gasped, remembering to breathe. The wolf was gone. Jim was there. "Please, don't leave, man. The wolf..."
A shadow of anger darkened the Sentinel's face. "It's back? You saw it again?"
Blair swallowed. "Yeah, I --"
"Damnit, Sandburg, can't I leave for five minutes without you throwing a hissy fit?" Jim barked.
Blair was stunned into silence. He clamped his jaw shut and looked away. Sorry...
"You okay, buddy?" Jim inquired, his tone suddenly gentle.
Huh? Blair looked back at Jim, noting the genuine concern in his eyes. The anger that had touched his face earlier was now gone.
"I --" Blair furrowed his brow. "Yeah, I'm fine."
"What was all that about?" Jim sat on the edge of the mattress and placed a reassuring hand on Blair's arm.
"I don't know, Jim," he said, genuinely confused. Was he hearing and seeing things, or had Jim not just jumped down his throat two seconds before. "The wolf. Didn't you hear what I said? It came back. Right when you left."
Jim gave Blair's arm a gentle squeeze. "Then I won't leave, Chief. Okay? I'll have Emprado bring you some soup and aspirin."
Blair relaxed against the mattress, soothed by the sincerity in his friend's voice. "Thanks, Jim." He offered a weak smile.
"No problem," Jim grinned. "It's not like I haven't held your hand and wiped your nose before."
Blair tensed, his smile fading. He looked at Jim -- really looked at him. The eyes that stared back at held a subtle quality of disgust.
Am I losing my mind? What's going on here? Fear turned him cold, and he shifted away from Jim, slinking off the mattress and ignoring the various pains in his body that protested the movement.
"What? Where are you going, Blair?"
Blair swallowed. "What's going on with you, man?"
Jim's brow creased and he rose to his feet. "What are you talking about, Chief? Nothing. I'm fine." He smiled, his eyes suddenly kind. "Are you okay? Your heart's started running another marathon, partner. Why don't you come lay back down and I'll have that soup for you in no time?"
Blair shook his head. "One minute you're being nice and the next minute you turn into Mr. Hyde."
Jim looked genuinely surprised. "I... Blair, look, you had a pretty bad fall." He gestured to Blair's arm, now bandaged. "You banged up your arm pretty bad and hit your head more than once on your way down."
"I didn't just imagine it." Did I?
Jim took a step back. "What do you think I said, Chief?"
"You said you were tired of me throwing a hissy fit every time you left and that you'd wiped my nose and held my hand too many times before."
Jim raised his eyebrows, his jaw slack. "I never said those things."
"You did," Blair replied, squaring his shoulders, his gaze steady. "I heard you." I thought I heard you. Am I really going crazy?
Jim clenched his jaw. "Blair, you imagined it. Just like you imagined the wolf. Just like you imagined the Golden Fire People. Come on, Sandburg, think about it and you'll see that it's the truth."
Blair studied Jim for several seconds, letting the words sink in. Finally, his shoulders sagged. He's right. This is all in my head. All he's trying to do is help me and I keep lashing out at him.
"Come on, Chief. Back to bed. Once you get some food in your stomach, I'm sure you'll feel a lot better."
Blair managed a small smile. "You're right, Jim. I'm sorry. It's just --"
Jim raised his hand to stop Blair. "No apologies needed, Sandburg. I understand."
Jim smiled sweetly. "No problem. I'm used to your sniveling by now."
Blair's smile dropped and he looked away quickly. Stop it! Just stop it! He told himself as though he could will the hallucinations away.
"Okay, Jim." Without raising his gaze, he walked back to the bed and slid obediently under the covers. He felt about five years old, and his cheeks stung with embarrassment. I really am a burden... A sniveling, whining, KID who's always getting into trouble. Jim's always pulling my ass out of the fire when I do stupid things. Just like now. So I'll just shut up and stop making things worse.
"Good boy. Now maybe I can housebreak you and teach you not to jump every table leg you see," Jim said.
Blair's face grew hot and he kept his eyes focused on a piece of lint on the blanket.
Jim patted Blair on the knee and moved to the door. "I'm not leaving, Chief," he said "I'm just going to call out into the living room and have Emprado bring you some soup and aspirin. Okay?"
Blair nodded, never raising his eyes. He heard Jim yell something in Chopec, and Emprado replied, his voice distant in the kitchen. Jim closed the door and moved back to the bed.
"You'll tell me if it happens again. Right?" Jim asked. "If you hear me say something odd, let me know."
Yeah, right. "Sure," Blair replied mechanically. Not on your life. It's just way too humiliating.
"Hey, Chief." Jim took Blair's chin in his hand and forced his head up. "I mean it. I'm here for you, buddy, and I'd like to know what's going on with you."
Blair pulled his head back, but softened the gesture with a tiny smile. "I wish I knew what was going on with me, Jim." He heard the ding of the microwave and glanced at the closed door, his smile turning into a grin. "He knows how to use the microwave?"
Jim nodded, his eyes lighting up with amusement. "He's turning into a regular Martha Stewart."
The door opened and Emprado stepped in carrying a bowl of steaming soup and a bottle of aspirin. "Aquil densade."
"Grashian," Jim answered, rising from the bed and taking the items from the Shaman.
With a nod, Emprado turned around and left the two men alone. Jim closed the door with his foot and carried the soup and aspirin to the table near Blair's bed, setting them down gently. "Two or three aspirin?"
"Three," Blair answered quickly. The headache was more like a five-aspirin event, but Blair knew that was out of the question.
Jim unsnapped the bottle and shook three pills into the palm of his hand. Then he lifted the bowl and gave the pills to Blair, who quickly popped them in his mouth. The detective gave the soup a brief stir with the spoon then raised the spoonful to Blair's mouth.
"I've been capable of feeding myself for quite some time, Jim," Blair quipped, reaching for the spoon.
"Yeah, but you haven't seemed too capable of much else," Jim muttered.
Blair almost choked on the dry pills. They turned chalky and bitter in his mouth, and he swallowed them quickly, wincing at the taste.
"What?" Blair croaked.
"What did you just say, Jim?"
"Nothing." The Sentinel shook his head, eyeing Blair skeptically. "What do you think I just said?"
Blair looked back down at the spoon held in Jim's hand. "Nothing... Uh, I can feed myself, Jim," he hazarded a second time.
"Oh? You mean you're not gonna let me make airplane noises?"
Blair smiled, actually chuckling, even though he was still shaking inside from the apparent Jekyll-and-Hyde act that seemed to be going on right in front of him.
"Knock yourself out, Jim, but you can do it without the spoon." He mustered a wider grin and carefully extricated the utensil out of the Sentinel's grasp.
The spoon was suddenly ripped from Blair's hands, spilling scalding soup onto his shirt. The liquid soaked quickly through his thin shirt and he let out a yelp of surprise, grabbing the material in one fist and holding the hot cotton away from his skin.
"Don't tell me what I can and can't do you spineless, pissant, reject!" Jim barked, waving the spoon angrily in front of Sandburg's face.
Blair flinched away, but found his own anger and frustration rising. He knocked the spoon out of Jim's hand, but self-preservation kicked in and he found himself scrambling off the mattress to put some distance between himself and the angry Sentinel. Then a wave of dizziness threatened to send him to the floor and he realized he probably shouldn't have gotten up that fast, especially since the motion seemed to have angered the throbbing in his head. He made a largely unsuccessful effort at pushing the pain back and met Jim's gaze.
"What's your problem?" Blair asked. "Why are you suddenly such a bastard?"
Jim's eyes blazed and he walked over the bed, crumpling the covers. Stepping down off the mattress, he backed Blair into the wall. "I'm not the bastard here, Sandburg. I wasn't the one spawned from some whore and her drugged-out, hippie boyfriend."
Blair felt like a fist had just rammed right into his gut. His chest tightened and he found it hard to breathe. Jim's hateful words had him reeling. Was this really happening? Was he dreaming or hallucinating?
"Jim..." The soft plea escaped from his throat before he gave conscious thought to it and he found himself pinned by Jim's steal gaze.
"What?" Ellison spat.
Blair placed his good palm flat on the Sentinel's chest. "You don't mean --" His words were cut off by a yell when Jim grabbed his hand, twisting the wrist painfully.
"I always mean what I say, Sandburg," Jim growled, his faces inches from Blair's.
"Jim, please..." Blair tried to extricate himself from the detective's hold, but Jim had his wrist firmly immobilized at an agonizing angle. The pain sent him to his knees and brought tears to his eyes.
"Choya!" came the deep command.
Jim released his hold and Blair fell backward against the wall, his wrist cradled protectively against his chest. Emprado stood in the center of the room, his spear held firmly in front of him and his dark eyes hard. He raised both arms and the tip of the spear touched the ceiling.
"Choya koon ta de cruz!" the shaman roared.
Blair watched in horror as Jim's body went rigid, his eyes wide and glassy. He heard a roar in the distance, echoed by another. Then the Sentinel's body spasmed and he fell to the ground. A black mass emerged from the fallen man, taking shape as the wolf, its yellow eyes glowing maliciously. It trapped Blair with its gaze, snarling a threat.
"Parah!" Emprado commanded, slamming the end of his spear into the floor.
The wolf cast an annoyed glance at the Chopec shaman, then vanished -- literally into "thin air."
Emprado hurried forward and crouched next to Jim, his eyes flickering back and forth between Blair and the Sentinel.
"Entu bengada?" Emprado asked.
Blair knew only a little Chopec, but he thought he understood the question.
"I'm okay," he answered, still cradling his throbbing wrist. He didn't think the bone had broken, but it hurt like hell.
Jim groaned and Blair forgot about the pain in his wrist as he leaned forward. "Jim?" He scooted over to his friend, concerned by the pallor of the Sentinel's face and the beads of sweat dotting his forehead.
What just happened? Blair wondered silently. If his eyes hadn't betrayed him, he'd actually seen the black wolf leave Jim's body. Was this a case of possession?
Jim released another moan and his eyelids fluttered open. He blinked, his eyes lined with pain, and made an attempt to focus on Blair, but it was obvious that his pupils were dilated and, from the way he squinted, apparent that the light was causing him pain.
Blair placed his bandaged hand on Jim's arm, still cradling the wrist that Jim had twisted. "Easy, Jim, close your eyes." He was pleased when Jim immediately complied. "That's it. Now, focus on the dial for your eyes. There's a light dial. Picture it in your head. Now, turn in down. As you lower it, your pupil's constrict... You got it? Is it low?"
"Yeah," Jim gasped.
Blair studied the Sentinel, hoping he was back to normal and praying that nothing Jim had said had come from within his psyche. What if Jim had actually meant some of the things he'd said... even if only deep down inside?
Jim still looked pale and shaky, even laying on the ground with his eyes closed. Hesitantly, he lifted his eyelids and looked at Sandburg. His expression changed from momentary relief to shame and then guilt all in the span of a few seconds. His gaze dropped to the wrist Blair held against his chest.
"I'm sorry, Chief."
Blair ducked his head a fraction, glancing at the floor. "It's okay, Jim... Are you okay?"
Jim struggled to sit up, and Emprado placed a helping arm under his shoulders. Jim flashed a brief, tiny smile at the Chopec shaman for his help, then looked back at Sandburg. Blair swallowed hard, knowing from Jim's apology and the misery in his eyes that the Sentinel remembered most, if not all, of what had happened just a few minutes earlier.
Gently, Jim reached out and wrapped his fingers around Blair's wrist. "Can I see?"
Blair relaxed his arm, allowing Jim to pull it straight so he could feel the wrist with his fingers. Most of the pain had subsided, but there was a tender point on the inside of the wrist and Blair winced when Jim's fingers probed the sensitive area.
"Sorry," Jim mumbled, his tone as pained as Blair had ever heard. Jim looked back up at Blair, his eyes bloodshot and his cheeks still way too pale. "I'm sorry," he said again, more firmly this time, and Blair knew Jim was talking about more than just hitting the sore spot on the wrist.
Blair's throat tightened and he couldn't seem to find his voice, so he nodded instead.
Emprado said something in Chopec and Blair raised his gaze to the shaman. The older man looked concern, his eyes dark with an emotion that chilled Blair to the bone: fear. If Emprado was afraid, that couldn't be a good sign.
"What did he say, Jim?"
It was a moment before the Sentinel answered. "He said... uh.... oh man," Jim closed his eyes and raised one hand to massage his temple.
"Easy, Jim," Blair soothed, pulling his injured wrist back to his chest and using his bandaged hand to feel Jim's temperature, pressing his fingers against the detective's forehead. "Let's get you to bed."
"No." Jim shook his head and opened his eyes. "No, I'll be okay. Just feel like I got the wind knocked out of me, that's all. And, well, my head feels like there's a guy with a jackhammer inside my skull." He flashed a quick, lopsided grin. "I'll be okay, though." He glanced at Emprado, then back at Blair. "He said that the dark wolf is growing stronger. It threatens both Sentinel and Guide."
Blair suddenly felt light-headed and the room threatened to spin. He sat back on his haunches, an icy knot forming in his stomach. Oh God, this is bad. He still wasn't really sure what was going on, but before he'd thought his failure would bare directly on him. If he couldn't cut it, then he wouldn't be a shaman. Or worse, he supposed. Maybe he'd lose himself to the dark wolf. His soul? His identity? He really didn't know, but he'd never imagined that Jim could be in danger if he failed. That scared the hell out of him because he was pretty damn sure that he wasn't strong enough to fight this thing -- whatever it was.
Blair blinked, flinching a fraction. Jim was somehow right there in front of him, sitting up, his face inches from his own and his blue eyes lined with concern.
"We'll figure this out, Chief. You gonna be okay?"
I don't think so, Jim, he wanted to say. Instead, he just shrugged one shoulder, still not trusting his voice.
Hesitantly, as though he were unsure how the gesture would be received, Jim placed his hand on Blair's shoulder. "I won't let it happen again, Chief," he whispered.
This time Blair did find his voice and he tried to force a measure of calm into it. "You didn't let it happen, Jim. It wasn't your fault... How, uh... How much do you remember?"
"All of it. It was like I was watching myself from outside my body. My mouth was going all on its own... I... You gotta know I didn't mean any of it, Sandburg."
Blair managed a weak smile. "I know, Jim."
Looking into the Sentinel's eyes, he began to feel the self-doubt that had plagued him earlier dissipate. In its place rose determination. Jim depended on him and Blair would be damned if he'd let the Sentinel down. He'd taken on a duty willingly years ago to help, guide, and protect Jim, even giving his own life in the process. Time to get with the program, Sandburg, he admonished himself. Jim's depending on you to get your act straight and deal with this thing. So do it.
Blair looked up into Emprado's dark gaze. It was odd, he realized, just how similar to Incacha's those eyes looked. He suddenly felt guilty for giving the Chopec shaman such a hard time. Kinda like the way Jim grumbles about the stuff I ask him to do. Now I know how he feels. Uncertain. Afraid of failing. Afraid...
But not anymore. He'd pushed Jim under a garbage truck the first day he'd met the detective. A garbage truck, for crying out loud. Nearly became one with the pavement. He'd faced psychos and drug dealers and flying bullets all for this one man sitting half-dazed on the floor, so one little spirit-wolf-whatever from the astral plane wasn't going to do him in. And he'd throw himself off a cliff before he let his own inadequacies do his friend harm. Jim had always been there for him. Okay, except for that time at the fountain but even then he'd shown up in time. Saved my life... again. Though Blair would never forget the feeling of hitting the water and believing that Jim wasn't coming this time. Instead of his life flashing before his eyes, the last three years flashed before him, with the final words spoken between him and the Sentinel playing through his head. Those had not been good words. Naomi had always told him to "detach with love" and now, God help him, he knew why. It wasn't the kind of knowledge most people carried with them -- that academic knowledge that the future was uncertain and death could meet them tomorrow. Sure, most people were aware of the specter of death, but they didn't really believe it would catch up with them in the next moment. Blair hadn't believed it either until Alex had pointed the gun at him. Talk about an epiphany. Life and friendship are really too precious to waste in anger.
And if Alex couldn't do him in, neither would his own pathetic psyche. The wolf was not going to win. No way.
He held Emprado's gaze a moment longer, then asked, "What do I have to do?"
Fortunately, the Chopec seemed to understand the question, or at least the tone in Blair's voice and the resolve in his eyes, because a smile graced his lips and he nodded approvingly.
Me and my big mouth, Sandburg lamented silently, scrunched up against the window of the Ford truck. When he'd asked what he needed to do, he never anticipated where that question would lead. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Cut it out, Sandburg. Whatever it takes. This is nothing. You got off easy. No cliffs to stand on or coals to walk over. Really, this'll be easy.
"You okay, Chief?"
Blair opened his eyes and looked over the shaman seated next to him to see Jim glancing at him, shifting his attention between Blair and the road.
"Yeah, fine," he lied.
"You're heart's --"
"Going a mile a minute, I know. How 'bout a little privacy here?" His tone was harsher than he intended, so he clamped his jaw shut before his mouth got any further away from him.
"Sorry," Jim muttered, sparing Blair another glance. "I just want you to know that you can talk to me, you know."
Blair forced a tiny smile. "Thanks."
"You didn't have to go to Doctor Onrubia, Sandburg. I would have --"
"What?" Blair's question was deadly-soft.
Jim swallowed. Damn. Nice slip-up, Detective, he admonished himself. If he wasn't so damn tired, he never would have messed up like that. Now he had some explaining to do if Blair's tone was any indication.
"Uh, well, I just meant that --"
"How did you find out about Doctor Onrubia?" Blair asked flatly. "I vaguely remember telling you to leave it alone -- that I didn't want to give you his name because he did nothing wrong."
"You, uh, mentioned it in your sleep."
There was a moment of silence, then Blair said, "You're lying."
The shear calmness of the statement startled Jim and he looked over quickly at Blair, seeing a pair of blazing blue eyes staring at him.
"Chief, I --"
Damn you, Jim! "You pried it out of me when I wasn't quite myself. Didn't you?" You fucking interrogated me when I was vulnerable.
Jim looked at the road quickly, his knuckles white as he tightened his grip on the steering wheel. "I just wanted to know what really happened to you."
Blair took a deep breath, trying to calm the anger that churned in his chest. "You interrogated me when I was out of it. I was vulnerable and you jumped on that, didn't you? I trusted you, depended on you, and you took advantage of an opportunity to gain information you wanted."
"No, Sandburg, I didn't do it like that. I mean, you started talking about going to Canada and I just asked who you were visiting."
"Fuck you, Jim," Blair whispered, venom in his voice. He turned his gaze back to the window, crossing his arms over his chest and pressing his shoulder a bit harder into the door -- moving just a fraction farther away from Jim. "I swear, Jim, if you ever do that again..." His voice trailed off. He knew he was speaking out of anger and didn't want to end up saying something he'd regret later.
"Chief, I --"
"Don't do it again," Blair stated finally, his tone final.
After a brief pause, Jim sighed. "I won't. I'm sorry, Sandburg."
Blair nodded tersely. "Did you talk to him?"
"On the phone?"
"Yes. I just asked him what happened."
"Were you civil?"
"Uh... For the most part. I might have lost my tempter toward the end of the conversation."
Blair threw an angry glance back at Jim. "Perfect."
"Blair, listen --"
"Drop it, Jim," he retorted quickly. He knew he couldn't discuss it any further with the Sentinel. He was way too angry to speak rationally... and hurt. So damn hurt that Jim would take advantage of his weakness. I'm supposed to be your friend, Jim, not a suspect you feel compelled to pry information out of.
"If that's what you want," Jim said, turning his attention fully back to the road. "I just wanted to know if you were okay, here. That's all. I mean now, Chief. Do you want to do this? The fountain --"
"I'm fine," Blair snapped.
"Okay." Jim clamped his jaw shut, focusing on the road ahead.
Damn. Blair looked out the window, his vision blurring against the smeared backdrop of the scenery as the truck sped down the highway. I'm sorry, Jim. I'm still mad at you, but I'm sorry. This just isn't something I really want to talk about anymore. At one time I did, but you weren't ready. Now, all I want to do is forget it. Only I can't and I don't think I ever will. So maybe this is why I need to do this. Get past it.
And how the hell did Emprado find out about it, anyway? The only way Sandburg could figure was that Jim had told the shaman, which begged the question of what else the Sentinel had told Emprado.
An hour later, they arrived at their destination. The day was faint, the sun barely over the horizon. Early morning... just like it had been that day. Only this time it was spring break and the campus was even more deserted. Even if it hadn't been summer, it was Sunday and very few people would be on the campus.
The campus. That was a place he didn't belong anymore. Wasn't welcome. So maybe he was facing two things instead of just the One.
The Big One. His eyes went immediately to the fountain. No big deal. He'd passed it several times on his way to the office after the "incident." It looked no different now than it had any other day.
"I cleared this with the chief of security," Jim said. "We won't be disturbed."
"What did you tell her?" Blair asked, his gaze still focused on the fountain.
"Just that I needed a favor. She got the drift. No questions."
"This is gonna look really strange if anyone sees us."
"No one's around."
"If you say so."
"You know what all we're supposed to do?"
"Emprado gave me the full low-down, Chief. I got it."
"Okay." He took another deep breath. "I'm ready."
"You don't have to do this."
"Yes I do, Jim."
With no further comment, the two men opened their doors and stepped out of the truck. Emprado slid out of Blair's side and closed the door, following the two men to the fountain.
"We can't get into the building, so we'll start from the steps, Sandburg." Jim's voice shook ever-so slightly, but he continued on as though it were steady as a rock. "I'll be Alex."
"Okay." Blair swallowed. He was beginning to feel sick to his stomach. His insides were shaking and his knees threatened to buckle. And we haven't even really started yet.
He followed Jim up the stairs and, when they reached the doors, Jim turned around to face him. "Walk me through this, Chief. I wasn't there." His voice wavered slightly with that remark, but he continued. "What happened?"
I am calm. I am relaxed. This is nothing. I can do this. Blair indulged in one more deep breath before answering. "Okay, um, well... Alex had the gun pointed at my back." He turned around, his back to Jim, and began to walk slowly down the stairs. Jim followed.
"Was the barrel touching you?"
"What happened? Step-by-step. What did she say? What did you say? How were you feeling?"
Blair almost laughed. How was I feeling? Good one, Jim. How the hell do you think --
No. He pushed the anger back. Focus. Just focus. This is not happening. It's just a memory. It can't hurt you.
When he answered, he was pleased to find his voice relatively steady. "She thanked me again for helping her. Said she was sorry it had to end this way. I told her she wouldn't be able to control her senses alone. She said she wasn't alone. Then she told me to shut up. I think I said something like, 'Or, what? You'll shoot me?' I --"
Emprado interrupted, giving instructions to Jim but otherwise keeping his distance near the fountain.
"He wants you to say how you were feeling. What you were thinking," Jim translated.
"What was I thinking? Feeling?" This time his voice did tremble. These were things he'd never told Jim. Things he wasn't exactly comfortable telling Jim because he didn't know how the Sentinel would handle them. "Uh, I was afraid," he said, bitter and sarcastic. "I didn't want to die. You know, all that kind of stuff, Jim. Standard freaking out protocol."
"Beyond that," Jim prodded smoothly.
Blair suppressed a sigh, stopping just in front of the fountain. "Okay. Sorry." No anger. Be calm. Just be calm. "I... Well, I was thinking about you. Us. Our three years together. Our partnership. I was wishing I could tell you that I was sorry for helping Alex. That I didn't mean to betray your trust and I wish you'd forgive me and..." tears sprung in his eyes and he blinked, spilling them onto his cheeks, "... and I wished I had said something more to you in the bullpen because I hated thinking that our last words to one another had been those words. I also wondered if you were okay. If maybe Alex had visited you before me and, if she did, and she were now here with me, that meant that you were probably dead." His voice quivered, the tears flowing more freely now. "I didn't... God, I thought maybe I had screwed up so badly and gotten you killed. I had to know, so I asked her. I asked her 'What about Jim? He'll come after you and he'll win.' I wanted to hear her say 'I'll be long gone' or 'We'll see.' God, I was so scared she'd say something like 'I already took care of him.' I almost wished I hadn't asked the question after all. That knowing would be worse than not knowing."
"And what did she say?" Jim prodded, but his voice sounded odd. Blair resisted the temptation to look back at the Sentinel, to verify that Jim really was still behind him because the voice sounded so different, almost completely unlike Jim.
"She, uh, said she'd be long gone and that she would destroy you by killing me.... I... I was so relieved, Jim, I forgot for a moment that I was about to die."
"And then what happened? What were your very next feelings?"
Feelings? Blair closed his eyes, picturing that day. He had been standing right here by the fountain just like he was now, Alex right behind him. What he'd felt next was...
"Pain. She hit me over the head and pushed me forward into the w --"
His explanation was cut short by a sharp push from behind and his face hit the water first, so hard it actually hurt. In his surprise, he screamed, sucking in a mouthful of water. Half of it went down the wrong pipe and he choked, flailing his arms as he hit the hard bottom. He flashed back to that moment when Alex had pushed him under. The fear rose again in his gut just like it had that day, sending his heart into overdrive. Quickly, he got his arms beneath him and pushed himself up, pain shooting through both of his injured wrists. He emerged from the water gasping, the tears masked by the fountain water drenching him.
"What...?" He coughed, unable to complete the question. What the hell, Jim?
Jim stood stoically in front of him, his face a mask. "Were you conscious when you hit the water?"
Blair coughed up half a mouthful of water, still gasping. The taste of chlorine made him sick, reminding him again of that day.
"Were you?" Jim prodded.
"I was conscious," Blair gasped, "but dazed. I couldn't get myself out of the fountain. I... I think she was holding me down."
"What were you thinking? Feeling?"
Blair was shivering, the cold of the fountain water beginning to register and making his teeth chatter. He tried to get to his feet, but Jim's hand shot out, pressing down on Blair's shoulder and holding him in place.
"Jim --" Blair looked at Emprado, unsure what exactly was going on.
"What were you thinking and feeling?" Jim asked again.
This time Blair couldn't control the anger as it rose, and he pushed Jim backward, shooting to his feet. "Back off, man. Just get the hell away from me!"
"What were you feeling?" Jim asked, calm, his voice softer this time.
"What the hell do you think I was feeling?! I was dying, Jim. It wasn't exactly pleasant," Blair yelled, his voice disrupting the morning serenity of the campus.
"What were you feeling?" Jim asked again in that maddeningly calm voice.
"Fuck you! You want to know what I was feeling? Fine. I'll tell you." He stepped out of the fountain, his eyes hard and focused on the Sentinel. The anger rose hot in his chest, overriding the terror he had experienced moments before and pushing his heart faster. "I was wondering where the hell you were?! Where were you?! She hadn't killed you, so why weren't you there?" He pushed the Sentinel back again, hitting the larger man on the chest, no longer feeling any pain in his wrists. Jim stumbled back, but otherwise remained solid. "After all I did for you all you can do is kick me out of the loft and tell me to get the hell out of your life! You think I committed this great big sin. How dare I help anybody but the Great James Ellison! Well, fuck you, Jim! You arrogant, ego-centric, bastard! You betrayed me! All I did was try to help her. I didn't know she was a criminal. You think you own me, or something? That you can just boss me around and push me around and then when you think I've screwed up just dump me like a piece of garbage and leave me to die. Fuck you!"
His anger spun him around, his feet carrying him quickly away, no particular destination in mind -- just away. As far away from everything and everybody as he could possibly get. Psycho Shamans and Psycho Sentinels included. Emprado barked something in Chopec, but Blair didn't even try to understand the words. He didn't care. This had obviously been a colossally bad idea.
A hand wrapped hard around his arm and spun him back around. "Where do you get off?" Jim glared down at him, his voice rough. "Since you've been with me it's been one screw-up after another. First the Church and tipping of Lash. Jesus Christ, why didn't you just shine a spotlight on him and sound the alarm? Stupidity like that is real impressive. Then getting caught by him. What kind of a moron dials a beeper number in an emergency? Your brain goes out the window when it counts, Sandburg. And --"
Blair's eyes were wide with horror and he jerked away from Jim. "Go to hell," he whispered, his throat too tight to give rise to the scream that bubbled in his chest.
Jim grabbed Blair's jacket, the material bunched firm in his fists. "And what about your other string of screw-up? The Golden. An entire police station and you were the one to fall for the Trojan Horse. You could have killed someone!"
"I didn't know!" Blair finally found his voice and screamed at the Sentinel. "I didn't know!"
"No shit," Jim continued. "Shall I go on? Iris? Great judgment there, Romeo. And Janet --"
Blair gasped, trying desperately to pry Jim's hands off his jacket, but the man held him firm. He shook his head, trying to block out the words, his mind screaming at him at the same time. Telling him over and over again that this couldn't be Jim. The wolf was back. It had taken over his friend. He doesn't mean it. He doesn't mean it. He --
" -- Getting a civilian involved like that. You got her killed, Sandburg. You. And then with Chapel in the loft. Jesus, Sandburg! Look up, why don't you?! You gave me away and it nearly got me killed!"
"I didn't mean --"
"--it," Jim finished, mimicking Blair's whine. "I know. You never mean any of your screw-ups. And then you have the gall to whine about it. Alex was just the icing on the cake. You want to know what it comes down to?" He gave Sandburg a hard shake. "You deserved that fountain! You screwed up. You got Janet killed. You nearly got me killed. You're a liability!"
Blair just shook his head, trying to block out the words. "No --" Why was Jim doing this to him? "No. No. No." He pushed at Jim, but the man remained firm. "I gave my life for you, man! I threw away my career! I --"
"Another screw up! You published that thesis and Megan and Simon got shot because of it! You --"
"Get away from me!"
"It's the truth!"
"Go to hell!"
Jim shook him again. "Say it!"
"No!" Blair's vision was blurred now, his cheeks wet, and he was shaking so badly that he knew he'd crumble to the ground if Jim let go of him. "I tried! I'm not perfect, Jim! I've given all I have, man. What more do you want from me? I can't do any better," he sobbed, his voice disintegrating. "This is all I have. All I have, Jim. Please..."
The hands released him and he fell to the ground, sobbing. He tried to find the anger that had sustained him moments ago, but it was gone, leaving him drained and wasted. He had nothing left. Nothing. He'd given his best and it just hadn't been enough. This is why he was here -- to fail. So Jim could find another Guide. Someone worthy. Someone who knew what the hell he was doing. Someone...
"Blair." A soft voice. A hand on his shoulder. Jim knelt down beside him, but Blair didn't look up. Couldn't look up.
"You saved my life," Jim whispered, the harshness that had plagued his tone earlier now gone.
Blair shook his head. "No..."
"The first day we met," Jim continued. "You pushed me under a garbage truck. The truth is, you've always been there for me. You've tried your best, but you're not perfect. Yes, you made mistakes. We all do, but none of them are anywhere near the mistakes I made. I got you killed, Blair. You're right. I kicked you out of the loft and pushed you away. I got you killed. Then when your thesis was leaked, I blamed you again. Truth is, you've never wavered in your trust and loyalty to me, but I'm the one who's let you down over and over again. And you keep coming back. I couldn't ask for better than that. I don't deserve it."
Blair swallowed, shaking his head. What was this? Why the sudden one-eighty in attitude? First Jim was screaming that it was all Blair's fault and now he seemed intent on taking the blame himself. Was this some kind of sick reverse psychology. A game?
"Forgive me, Blair," came the whisper-soft plea, "and forgive yourself."
That did it, breaking what little control Blair had left, and he fell forward into Jim's arms, crying like a child against the Sentinel's chest. But there was no shame in the display. Only release. Blessed release.
Then there was cold. Bone-numbing, finger-hot cold. Blair sat hunched against the truck's door, huddled in Jim's jacket as they traveled back to the loft. His wet shirt had been discarded, tossed in the back of the truck, but his soaked jeans were cold against his skin, turning him to ice. The heater was going full-blast, but it seemed to do nothing against the cold.
And he was so tired. He felt like a rag that had been twisted, rung, and flung into a heap. Used and discarded. He was so tired his muscles shook, weak. He doubted he'd be able to stand once they reached the loft.
God, it was so damn cold. All he wanted to do was sleep in a nice warm bed. In his bed. Buried under the covers. Dry. Dry, warm, and asleep. That's all he wanted. It wasn't so very much to ask, was it? His eyelids drifted shut, but the cold followed him all the way into his sleep.
Jim pulled the truck in front of the loft and turned off the engine. He hesitated a moment, not moving to get out. He just needed a moment. He was still shaking inside from the confrontation at the fountain. God. He dropped his head forward against the steering wheel. That had been hard. Pushing Blair into the fountain, ignoring all his instincts that screamed at him to grab the young man and pull him up, take him away from that horrible place and make him feel safe. God knows he's had so little of feeling safe during his time with me.
But Emprado had told him what had to be done. He wouldn't have trusted the man if he hadn't known him... and known that Incacha had thought highly of the young man.
But saying those things to Sandburg had been the hardest thing he'd ever had to do. Listening to the words Blair had thrown at him: blame, hurt, anger. It had all been painfully clear in the young man's eyes, etched in the lines of his face, thick in his trembling voice.
And it had made Jim feel like a monster. Sick inside. He looked over at Emprado, surprised to see the shaman's black eyes staring at him.
"You showed great courage," the Chopec whispered. "You feel better." It was a statement, not a question.
Jim opened his mouth to protest, but suddenly realized that, yeah, he did feel better. Something had happened back there at the fountain. A cleansing. Forgiveness. Healing. The darkness that had hovered between him and Sandburg for the past four years had been replaced with something else. Light. Peace. Friendship. The friendship that had always been there, but this time it was allowed to exist unencumbered by fear, anger, and self-doubt.
He hoped Sandburg would feel it, too -- once he woke up. He shifted his gaze to the sleeping figure pressed into the corner of the cab. The kid's shivers were visible even to normal eyes and Jim suspected that Blair was on the verge of hypothermia.
"He'll sleep a while," Emprado commented in Chopec, "but when he wakes, he'll feel better than he has in a long time."
Jim smiled, warmed by Emprado's reassurance. "Thank you," he said.
The shaman returned the smile, nodding. "You can repay me by sending me home on one of those flying things. I have always wanted to fly."
Jim laughed -- a warm, bubbling laugh that tingled in his chest. "You got it."
He opened his door and slid out, hurrying over to the passenger side. Carefully, he eased Blair's door open slowly so the young man wouldn't topple out of his seat. He saw that Emprado had a hand pressed against Blair's chest, holding him in place as Jim opened the door.
"Thanks," he told the shaman, flashing an appreciative smile.
Blair seemed oblivious, his breathing and heartbeat slow and steady. He was in as deep a natural sleep as Jim had ever seen him.
"I will help you carry him," Emprado said, sliding after Blair as Jim pulled the young man out of the truck. They each took one of Blair's arms over their shoulders and dragged the young man into the building.
They got him up to the loft with little difficulty and carried him into the lower room. Emprado pulled down the covers while Jim eased Blair onto the mattress. The young man's arms flopped to his side, limp, and he gave no signs of waking. A tinge of concern pulled at Jim's chest, and he looked up at Emprado.
"I don't think he's just asleep," he said. "Are you --"
Emprado raised a hand to silence Jim. "He is in a deep, healing sleep. His body and soul are weary. He needs to get his strength back and --" he gestured to the limp figure, "-- he needs to get in dry clothes."
Damn. Jim turned his attention quickly back to Blair. Of course the kid was still wearing wet jeans and he was still shivering. Jim berated himself for forgetting that and quickly worked the wet jeans and jacket off the younger man. That accomplished, he hung the jeans over the top of the hamper and then pulled the blankets up to Blair's chin.
"Now the Sentinel must rest."
Jim nodded. He was tired. With a final glance at his partner, he headed for the door -- only to find himself stopped by a palm on his chest. Emprado gestured toward Blair and gave Jim a firm push backward.
"You will stay with him until he wakes."
"Why?" Jim furrowed his brow, suddenly concerned. "Is he still in danger from the wolf? I thought --"
"You will not sleep unless you are close to him and, when he wakes, he will need to know that you are close -- especially after the words you exchanged with him. If Sentinel and Shaman are to heal completely, they must do it together."
Jim pursed his lips. Blair's bed was a bit small to sleep two comfortably and, at the moment, Jim was just too tired to contemplate carrying Blair up the stairs to his own room.
"Okay," he sighed. "But --"
"In the tribe Sentinel and Shaman often sleep with their backs touching, each guarding the other and resting only by knowing the other lays safe at his back."
A tiny smile pulled at Jim's lips. He had to admit he liked that image. It spoke of trust and friendship -- the things he felt with Blair now stronger than he ever had before.
Besides, it would be worth a kink in his back to see the look on Blair's face when he woke up in bed with Jim. In fact, just thinking about it brought a smirk to his face.
"Well, if that's how it's done back at the tribe," Jim said dutifully, pulling the covers down and pushing Blair toward the wall. He released a few grunts as he tried to move the dead weight that looked like his friend.
Once he'd gotten Blair as far toward the wall as the kid would go, Jim removed his shoes and pants and slid onto the mattress next to him, frowning slightly as he felt a damp spot on the sheets where Blair's wet jeans had touched. He closed his eyes. He was too tired to deal with it at the moment and it wasn't that uncomfortable, anyway.
He closed his eyes and rolled onto his right side, his back to Blair. He's right. This is nice, Jim thought drowsily as he felt the rhythm of Blair's heartbeat through the mattress and even in the cold arm that touched his back.
Blair was still cold. Jim reached down and pulled the covers up, offering Emprado a tired smile and a wave of dismissal. The shaman smiled in return and retreated from the room. With a contented sigh, Jim buried himself a little deeper under the blankets and gave into the welcome arms of sleep.
~~~~~~~~~~ The End ~~~~~~~~~
Comments? I'd appreciate hearing from you! I really, really would *grin*