fluterbev_fic: (Immersion)
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Navigation: This story is posted in two parts. The first part is on the this page, and the concluding part is here.

Summary: The worst possible news brings Jim and Naomi to Peru. Primal forces come into play, sending Jim on a perilous journey, and taking Blair on a trip of a different kind.

Notes: This is a post-TSbyBS story, which moves on from canon events into areas of bonding and shamanism. It was previously posted as a work-in-progress in my personal journal. The version presented here has been substantially edited and revised.

The main bulk of this story is identical to the gen version, which was deliberately written to be ambiguous as regards pre-slash or smarm-laden gen. The difference, in this slash version, lies in the addition of a bonus scene, which ultimately negates the ambiguity altogether.

Warnings: Angst, borderline non-con, smarm/pre-slash (most of the way through), shamanism, bonding.

Rating: NC-17

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my very patient LJ friends list, for their enthusiasm and encouragement during the three-and-a-half years it took me to complete this story. Thanks also to [livejournal.com profile] caarianna, who convinced me to expand the original snippet (which was posted to [livejournal.com profile] sentinel_thurs and the Sentinel Angst list in early 2004). Extra special thanks to [livejournal.com profile] fingers, who came up with the very appropriate title, as well as to [livejournal.com profile] rhianne, who brainstormed and plotted with me throughout and supplied me with research materials. Enormous gratitude to my excellent beta, [livejournal.com profile] lamardeuse, who skillfully knocked the final product into shape. And my grateful thanks to [livejournal.com profile] peter_neverland, whose uncannily appropriate and beautiful artwork accompanies this story (and is depicted in the icon).





Immersion
By Fluterbev

October 2007



"I'm truly sorry for your loss, Señora Sandburg."

Jim couldn't bring himself to look at the studious sympathy on the face of the police official. The tone, dripping in affected, impersonal commiseration, was enough.

It made him want to hit something. Hard.

But Naomi wasn't a sentinel and, perhaps, less able than Jim to pick up on the subtle verbal cues which confirmed the triteness of the platitudes she was being offered. "Thank you," she was saying, "for all you've done. I just want to take Blair home. And," her voice broke a little, "please, I'd like to see him now."

Grinding molars as flat as the Peruvian plateau from which Blair's body had been recovered, Jim watched as Captain Cardenas led the way towards the morgue, his deceased friend's grieving mother following in the policeman's wake. Jim felt oddly detached and unreal, as though he was an observer on the fringes of this tragedy, rather than an integral part of it. As if he, too, was as dead as Sandburg, and somehow viewing this sad tableau from the afterlife.

He could only watch, ghost-like, as Cardenas paused at a desk and addressed Naomi. "I almost forgot. Before you view the body - and as I already warned you, Señora, there was little left of your son after the wild animals had their way - we found this at the scene, concealed beneath a rock." Cardenas unlocked a drawer, bringing out a plastic-wrapped bundle, which he proffered to Naomi. She took it from him, reverently.

Naomi glanced down at what she held in her hands. Then her liquid eyes lifted, to focus on Jim. He rocketed back into the here and now, as the validation in her gaze confirmed the reality of his existence. "His journal," she confided brokenly. "It's his journal."

In two strides, Jim was there, his arm around her shoulders. Gazing down into Naomi's brimming eyes, he nodded his understanding, wanting so much to gift her - as all that was left alive of his beloved friend - with his strength.

As usual, Sandburg strength was turned back on him tenfold. "I'm so sorry, Jim," she whispered, the sincere compassion in her voice breaking through his iron composure, as nothing else had. "You loved him too. And he loved you."

Not trusting himself to speak, in dread that all he had confined within would escape in a primal roar a jaguar would envy, he simply pulled her close. They clung together, the bittersweet pain of love and loss binding them in perfect understanding.

The Captain's voice, infused with barely concealed impatience, jarred them out of their mutual giving and taking of comfort. "Señora, Señor, if you please? We will view the body now."

Naomi pulled away and, wiping her eyes, she nodded her agreement. “Of course. Forgive me. It's just... you see, Blair took his journal everywhere with him - he kept one for many years, since he was a child. It was a shock to see it." She looked up again at Jim, sadly. "Now I know this is real. It all just seemed like a terrible nightmare before."

Jim despondently looked away, hearing an echo of his own turbulent emotions in Naomi's words. He was unable to make any sound past the grief lodged in his throat. She seemed to understand, though, and patted him gently on the arm. Quietly, just for his ears, she said, "We can do this, Jim. Together. We must, so we can have closure. He would want that for us."

Nodding his assent, Jim reluctantly turned towards their destination. As he moved away, a slender fingered hand caught his own, and hand in hand, they followed Cardenas into the morgue. It felt as if they were walking to their doom, on the verge of confirming that the worst dread of their hearts really had come to pass. The plastic-wrapped bundle, Blair's secret thoughts and desires translated to a slim, leather-bound volume, remained cradled in Naomi's other arm.

The stark, white interior of the morgue seemed an incongruous setting for the mortal remains of someone who had been so vibrant, so alive. The stainless steel drawer was unlatched and slid open without any ceremony. And if this cold, sterile room was the antithesis of Blair's life, the skeletal contents within the drawer seemed to hold nothing at all of Blair.

Naomi had taken one look and, with a gasp, turned her face into Jim's shirt. But Jim's gaze was riveted on the cadaver. Eyes that could see clearer than a microscope took in the shape of bone, the angle of eye socket, the alignment of femur. A nose more sensitive than a bloodhound's scented the air, searching for a beloved, familiar scent over the reek of decaying flesh and formaldehyde.

Faced with the amazing, incontrovertible evidence before him, he finally found his voice. "It isn't him."

In his arms, Naomi froze. "It isn't him," Jim repeated a little louder, his voice carrying, this time, beyond the woman in his arms to their audience. "It's not Sandburg."

Naomi raised her head to look at him.

"Señor," Cardenas was saying, "you must be mistaken. The forensic evidence shows-"

Jim was saved from having to interject, when Naomi whirled to face Cardenas. "If Jim says it's not Blair," she interrupted angrily, "then it's not Blair! What have you done with my son?"

Cardenas held up both hands, placatingly. "Señora Sandburg, this is, I assure you, the body that was found. It is the only body here."

"Then it wasn't Blair that you found," Jim stated with certainty, silencing the pointless diatribe. "Sandburg was shot in the leg a while back. His right thighbone was nicked. This body has no sign of any injury." He locked gazes with Naomi, who was looking at him trustingly, triumphantly. "It's not him."

"I know," she said simply.

***

A while later, back at the seedy hotel, Jim looked down at the well-worn journal as he turned it over and over in his hands. Naomi had stated a desire to spend some time alone after the emotional roller coaster of the past few days, but Ellison needed to get straight down to business.

He needed to start looking for Sandburg.

Feeling, incongruously, a little guilty for intruding on Blair's precious privacy - even in the current circumstances - Ellison finally opened the journal. Skimming through it, he found exactly what he expected. It contained a personal account of Blair's journey to Peru, to which he had traveled to conduct a study of local jaguar legends. It detailed incidents that had happened, and described people he had met along the way, and was written in his characteristic verbose, often witty style.

But, oddly, the final entry was unfinished, as though Blair had been interrupted mid-sentence. And there was nothing to indicate what might have happened to halt him, or why he had disappeared, or how his clothing and other personal items had come to be found on a John Doe, high on a plateau in the back of beyond.

But as Jim was about to close the diary, his fingertip encountered something odd as it ran over the last page. An invisible irregularity, which only his own particular sense of touch could detect. Running fingertips over the faint, jagged indentations in the paper, made perhaps by someone digging a fingernail into the page, Jim's heart suddenly pounded with a surge of adrenaline.

alex b... escaped... here... not trust cardenas...

But it was the three final words, a plea clearly etched for his eyes only, which made his heart turn over in dread and fear.

jim... help... me...


***

If only he could see where he was, it would be better, he told himself for the thousandth time.

His desire for sight had elevated to the status of obsession during the days they had been on the move. He had long since resigned himself to the restraints, which prevented any voluntary movement of his arms and legs. Even the gag was not the torment it had been at the start, since his jaw had long ago gone numb.

But oh, how he missed the light, in this darkness he was being forced to endure without end. It was the lack of vision that forced him to relive, over and over, the final thing he had seen before the blindfold was tightened around his head: the look on Manco's face as the Peruvian guide was executed in cold blood, long-fingered hands breaking the terrified man's neck with a sickening crunch.

And another vision, just as potent, just as terrible, vied with that one for precedence. The same elegant, powerful fingers, as they descended on his own throat. A pale, pitiless face, distorted through water's lens, regarding him dispassionately while his lungs burned and the world shimmered into jungle.

That second, awful memory was with him now, reigniting his fear. He shuddered, then froze as a hand, unanticipated in the darkness, touched his arm and stroked. "Shh," a sibilant voice murmured in his ear. "We'll be there soon. Not far now." Lips, as warm and as deadly as snake venom, touched his cheek and withdrew, leaving him once more alone in the blackness.

Hardly breathing, as still as a statue in his inky cocoon, a desperate inner voice pleaded for help over and over, unheard. "Jim... Jim... Jim...."

***

Jim had just finished loading his gun with a new clip when a soft knock sounded on the door of his hotel room. Opening his sense of smell as he tucked the gun into the holster at the small of his back, he recognized Naomi's fragrance. As he moved to let her in, her rapid heartbeat pounded an urgent tattoo in his ears.

Eyes bright with eagerness greeted him as Naomi strode inside. Then her forward momentum was aborted, and she frowned, taking in the gun in its holster and the duffle on the bed. "You're leaving," she accused. "Were you even going to tell me?"

"Naomi-" he began.

But, like the other Sandburg he knew, Naomi when roused was difficult to interrupt. "You know something," she stated. "You know where he is. Was it in his journal? I'm coming with you."

He sighed, recognizing that his plan for a quick exit had been foiled. "I don't know where he is, Naomi. But I'm sure he's alive, and I do have a lead. And the less you know about it the safer you'll be."

"Bullshit!" Naomi's violent expletive made Jim blink. Angrily, she carried on. "I'm Blair's mother, Jim! I came all the way out here to bring him home. And I am not leaving without him. So you can just quit the 'I have to do this alone' crap. You may need me. What if you, what did Blair call it? 'Freeze', or whatever it is?"

Jim sighed again. "It's 'zone'," he clarified reluctantly, "and I haven't done that in a long while." Not for the first time, he deeply regretted that Naomi - along with what had seemed at the time to be the rest of the world - had discovered his secret. For the most part, since Blair had publicly denied the truth and fled Cascade, the 'myth' of Jim's senses had become old news. But Naomi had inevitably become part of their conspiracy since they had been forced to tell her the truth, after her disastrous error of judgment in sending Blair's thesis to her publisher friend.

Naomi waved a dismissive hand. "Well, you might still need help. I worked with you on that car theft case, remember? I'm not a novice at this." Jim groaned inwardly as she carried on. “And we’ve got to talk to the local police. I'm sure that Capitan Cardenas can help-"

"No," he stated flatly, silencing her.

"No?" she echoed indignantly. "What do you mean no? You might need me."

"I mean," he stated flatly, "Cardenas can't know about this."

Something in Jim's tone seemed to warn her. "You think he's involved. I knew there was something hinky about him!"

Jim shook his head impatiently. "I can't talk about this, Naomi. Not here."

She glared at him in reply. "So, what, you're just going to head off out of here on your own?" Her eyes blazed with anger. "What do you think I'm going to do while you're off looking for my son? Take up knitting?" Her indignance turned to stark, staring demand. "Jim, take me with you!"

"No." Jim looked intently back, attempting to stare her down. Cold, uncompromising.

But Blair wasn't the only Sandburg who appeared to be immune to Jim's most frigid rebuttals. "Well if Cardenas is involved in whatever happened to Blair," Naomi countered, almost gloatingly, "I may be in danger. Did you even think about that, huh?"

Reluctantly, Jim had to concede that she had a point, and it certainly wasn't something that he hadn't considered. The idea of leaving Naomi unprotected, when the local police chief was apparently corrupt and involved in her son's abduction, was something that had been troubling him, despite his desire to rush off and get started immediately on the hunt for Sandburg. But he did have an ace up his sleeve. While Naomi pouted, stubbornness apparently a trait that ran in the family, Jim came to a decision. "All right," he said. "Get your stuff."

She visibly relaxed at his apparent capitulation, a blinding smile lighting up her face. "Great. I'll go pack. It'll just take a few minutes."

As good as her word, Naomi was ready to go in record time. Jim did a double take when he saw her, dressed now from head to toe in black, her tight-fitting pants and figure-hugging top giving the appearance she was wearing a jump-suit, a brightly colored scarf completing the bizarre ensemble. She was nothing, he thought wryly, if not an individual. He raised an eyebrow, and she stared back challengingly. "C'mon, Mrs. Peel," he beckoned, as he picked up her case and hoisted his own bag on his shoulder. Shaking her head in amused exasperation, she followed him down to the lobby.

***

C'mon, Sandburg, Blair thought angrily to himself. Get a grip.

Enveloped in the endless blackness, Blair couldn't help berating himself. The paralyzing dread, which Alex's unseen proximity instilled in him, made no logical sense.

Sure, she was holding him captive. A certain amount of freaking-out under these circumstances would be normal for anyone. But this was something else. Primal, visceral fear, at the mere sound of her voice. Gut deep, instinctual terror whenever she came close, whenever she touched him.

It wasn't even that he was afraid she would kill him, although he had absolutely no doubt she was capable of doing so. He might be a guy, and a tough-enough one at that, but there was more tensile strength in the female sentinel's deceptively fragile fingers than seemed humanly possible. He knew that intimately, having once been on the receiving end of it in a completely devastating way. He gasped involuntarily, as the tidal wave of that particular memory washed over him once again.

After a moment, he relentlessly dragged his quivering mind back to the shore of the present. No, he rationalized miserably, forcing himself to continue his inner discourse. If she'd wanted to kill him this time, she definitely wouldn't have gone to all this elaborate trouble to abduct and then flee with him.

Blair thought back over the period he had been Alex's prisoner. He had no idea exactly how much time had elapsed, sensory deprived as he was, although he knew it must be, at the very least, several days. Alex had kept them on the move ever since she had murdered Manco, with Blair obliged to travel trussed like a turkey, unseen hands transferring him now and again from vehicle to vehicle. Sometimes her hands; sometimes, mercifully, the hands of others, belonging to those whom she had seemingly drawn into her employ.

Those other, anonymous hands might occasionally manhandle him, but it was Alex's hands alone which tended him. Her hands fed him, morsel by laborious morsel, while he shrank in dread from her touch. Her hands kept him - relatively - clean, kept him shaven. Her hands touched him in intimate places, when he could no longer avoid the pressing need to void waste from his body.

It was as if he was just a thing, to be kept in working order, for some undisclosed purpose. And something inexplicable in the woman's dispassionate touch forced Sandburg's humiliated compliance, to a degree he never would have believed himself capable of. Flexing his muscles in their bonds, he lambasted himself yet again for going along so passively with everything that she did.

C'mon, man, he sternly told himself. Why the hell are you letting her get away with this so easily? What happened to the smart-assed kid you used to be? You've been in tough spots before. You've survived them all. You've stood up to mad bombers and serial killers. For god’s sake, the last few months you worked with Jim, you were a cop in all but name. Nothing fazed you. Why the hell does she scare you so much?

Despite his self-disgust, an inner, rational part of Sandburg - the part that had studied the workings of the human mind with the eye of a psychologist - theorized about post-traumatic stress, and the potentially catastrophic impact on victims who had been re-abducted by their attempted murderers. Cold comfort, but at least an understandable, quantifiable explanation for his crippling terror and uncharacteristic lack of resistance.

But another inner voice argued vociferously against that scientific one. A voice accompanied by the rattle of medicine sticks and beads of bone.

The fear he felt, that second voice assured him, was due to something else entirely. It was something to do with the menacing, sub-vocal growling he had begun to hear in the dead of night, coming from somewhere close by. Something to do with the distant howling of a wolf calling out to its pack - which he could sense, but Alex, with her exceptional ears, apparently could not. Something to do with the fact that he constantly, desperately, listened in vain for the far-off, approaching roar of a black jaguar.

Quite likely, Sandburg's innate psych minor argued (for once substituting layman's language for psychobabble), he was simply losing his mind.

In the darkness, Blair's inner shaman just smiled smugly in reply.

***

Jim was not one tiny bit surprised to bump into Captain Cardenas on the way out of the hotel. The police chief was lounging against his car outside in the street, smoking an acrid cigarette.

Cardenas flicked the butt away, as Jim and Naomi emerged from the building, and straightened up. As the man moved towards them, Jim muttered urgently to Naomi, "Don't say anything. Be careful." Not waiting to find out her reaction, he addressed Cardenas. “Captain. Were you looking for us?"

Cardenas ran narrowed eyes over the bags Jim was carrying. "You are leaving, Señor?" he asked.

Jim nodded. "Since your John Doe isn't Sandburg, there's no reason for us to stay."

Cardenas raised an eyebrow questioningly. “Aren't you concerned for your friend? You are not planning to go and look for him?"

Jim forced a grin. "He's probably out in the wilds somewhere, communing with nature. If he needs any help, he'll ask for it."

Cardenas was sweating, Jim noted, and his heart was pounding triple-time. Jim would have no trouble beating him at a game of poker, but someone without sentinel senses might be fooled by his bare-faced bluff. The policeman now addressed Naomi with oily sincerity. "I came to tell you that we have positively identified the body. It is not, as you rightly guessed, your son, Señora. I apologize for making you come all this way on a wild goose chase. I understand how terrible it must have been to believe your son to be dead."

Naomi was, apparently, a considerable poker player herself. "Thank you, Captain. I appreciate that." She sounded genuine, but Jim could sense her immense tension as she struggled to play along. "Perhaps you could tell us who the poor man was," she continued, "and why he had Blair's belongings?"

Cardenas, all obsequious earnestness, said, "It is the body of a local man, Manco Alvarez. I have spoken to several witnesses, who attest that Señor Sandburg employed Alvarez as a guide, and traded some of his clothes and other items with him as payment. I believe Señor Ellison to be correct in his assumption that your son has left the area. It was apparently his intention to visit a remote village across the mountains. We believe that he reached his destination safely, and Alvarez was returning home when a tragic accident befell him."

Lying bastard, Jim thought angrily. If he assumed they would buy that load of bull, then Cardenas was even more stupid than he appeared. Giving no clue as to his real feelings, Jim said, "There's nothing for us to remain here for, then."

"No." The policeman looked back at Jim measuringly and, apparently seeing what he wanted to see, relaxed even more. He put out a hand, which Jim shook. "It has been a pleasure to meet an American colleague. Perhaps we will meet again one day?"

"I'm sure we will." The hand clasped in Jim's was clammy with sweat, and something ominous in Jim's words seemed to communicate itself to Cardenas, because the Peruvian stiffened for a moment, his heart pounding.

Then he grinned as he let go of Jim's hand. "Señor," he nodded. "Señora. Have a pleasant trip home." He made no move to leave and, instead, watched as Jim put the bags in the trunk of the hire car. Cardenas was still watching when they both got into the car, and his eyes bored into them as Jim started the engine and pulled out into the road.

As the figure of the policeman shrank in the rear view mirror, Naomi's hands formed into fists. "I am calm, I am calm, I am calm," she muttered, then hit the dashboard hard. “Goddamn it!" she spat. "That creep! I am so not calm!" She hit it again, the glove box flying open with the force of her anger. "Does he think we're completely stupid?" She turned enraged eyes on Jim.

"Whoa, easy there, Buffy," he said, holding up a placating hand, amused despite his own simmering anger at Naomi's so-Sandburgian reaction. "Don't take it out on the car - it's an innocent bystander."

"Don't patronize me!" Naomi was certainly not mollified by Jim's attempt at humor. "That… that man, he knows something about my baby! He was lying through his teeth!"

"Yep." Jim calmly made a left turn.

"I mean," Naomi continued to vent, "Why the hell would Blair give that guide his journal? Or his Swiss army knife? Jeans and sneakers I can understand, but his personal things? He'd never give them up!"

"Yep." Jim kept his eyes on the road.

"We were meant to think it was Blair all along," Naomi went on, "but we foiled his plan, so he came up with that load of garbage. What the hell does he think we are? Imbeciles?"

Jim nodded. "Yep."

Indignant, Naomi exclaimed, "Are you even listening to me?"

"Yep." Impassively, Jim made another turn.

"And where the hell are we going?" Naomi demanded, turning her head around to try and read a road sign. Jim waited for the explosion. It didn't take long. "The airport? What the hell... James Ellison, you turn this car around, right now! We are not going to the airport! Do you hear me?"

"Yes, we are," Jim said calmly.

Naomi grabbed the door handle. "Stop the car. Stop, damn it! I am not getting on a plane, while my Blair is god knows where! Let me out right now!"

Unfazed, Jim carried on driving. "If I let you out," he said calmly, "That idiot of a police captain will know we're onto him. He's back there, following us in his car. If we don't look like we're getting the next flight out, he'll never leave us alone."

Naomi deflated visibly. "Oh," she said. Then, after a pause, declared, "I'm still not getting on a plane. If you think you can send me off, while you stay here and look for Blair, you're as stupid as that creep is."

"I wouldn't dream of it," Jim said, a wry grin flickering across his features.

"Humph." Naomi didn't seem totally convinced he meant it. But she subsided, nevertheless.

After a while, Jim smelled the saline of Naomi's silent tears. "Blair's alive, Naomi," he said firmly, reaching his hand out to take hers in his own. "We'll find him. He'll be all right." Keeping his eyes on the road, his mind on track, he refused to contemplate any other scenario.

Wordlessly, Naomi squeezed his hand back.

A little while later, when her tears had dried, Naomi muttered, "Buffy, huh?" She snorted. "I prefer Mrs. Peel. That lady had class."

***

Once Jim and Naomi got to the tiny, provincial airport, it was ridiculously easy to lose Cardenas. Jim had envisaged the two of them having to put into practice some of the misdirection tricks he had learned while in covert ops but in the end, his plans were totally unnecessary.

Cardenas tailed them at a distance while they turned in the keys to the rental car, the reek of his high-tar cigarettes burning in the back of Jim’s throat as the sentinel kept his awareness trained on the man. But as soon as they got in line to check in for their flight, Cardenas headed off back to his vehicle, and Jim heard with satisfaction the distinctive knocking of the badly tuned engine as it faded away back in the direction they had come from. Apparently the odious Capitan really was satisfied that they were leaving.

They waited a while longer in the airport cafeteria just to be sure, Jim absently downing strong black coffee as he swept with his senses for any other surveillance the Capitan might have left in place, and Naomi sipping tea with an air of false calm. But it was unnecessary. Cardenas had gone, and as far as Jim could tell, he hadn’t left anyone else to watch them in his stead. So as soon as Ellison felt safe enough, they made arrangements to rent another car, and set off once again down the road.

This time, Naomi was paying attention. “Where are we going, Jim? The town is back that way.”

Jim glanced at her set face. “Somewhere safe.”

“Jim-” she warned.

But Ellison carried on, cutting her off. “We need a base, Naomi. Somewhere Cardenas has no reach. Then I… then we” he amended at her disapproving snort, “can start to look for Blair.”

She was silent for a long moment. Then, quietly, she demanded, “What do you know? What was in his journal, Jim?”

A face from memory, fine-boned and infused with a primal, deadly beauty, appeared like a vision, bringing dread with it. “He’s… with someone. Someone we’ve encountered before,” he hedged.

“Where?” Naomi asked.

“Blair’s left the country. He’s not in Peru any longer.” As Jim said the words, he inwardly marveled at how sure he was, wondering uncomfortably if it was Blair’s presence he emphatically failed to sense nearby, or the other sentinel’s.

“Oh.” Naomi chewed nervously at a hangnail, then said, “So, are we going to follow him?”

I am, Jim thought. But he answered, “Yes”.

“Good.” Naomi sounded immensely satisfied. And Jim concentrated on driving, postponing until later the inevitable fight he was going to have on his hands.

***

“Please, Alex,” Blair’s voice was hoarse after an eternity of wearing the gag. Half afraid she would put it back on him if he spoke, he nevertheless mustered his failing courage. “Please, stop this. Let me go, all right? I promise… I promise I won’t tell anyone…”

“Shh,” her sibilant voice admonished. The rhythmic stroking of his arm continued, and his stomach clenched in revulsion at her touch.

In a small voice, he begged, “Okay. But please, at least tell me why? Why are you doing this?”

The hand paused in its rhythm, then started again. “So curious,” she mused. “But then, you always were. That’s what makes you perfect. Why he wants you.”

In a flash of insight, Blair made the connection, his worst suspicions confirmed. “Oh god. Jim. It’s Jim you want. I’m bait, right? Look, you’ve got it all wrong! He and I, we’re finished, okay? It’s over. He’s not gonna come after me, Alex. No way.”

The hand moved to cup his cheek and he flinched. But he had learned better than to pull away. “Silly,” she admonished, tenderness and steel in her tone. “It’s both of you that I want.”

“Why?” The whispered plea betrayed his terror, his hopelessness. “At least tell me why.”

A hand tangled in his hair, and he sensed rather than felt it when she buried her face in the strands and breathed in deeply. The warm tickle of her exhalation stirred the hairs on his cheek. Her lips moving a fraction on an inch from his skin paralyzed him as she murmured, “You’re mine. I’m making you mine. When I’m done, he won’t want you anymore. All he will see, all he will know, is me.”

A memory rose up in Blair’s mind then, of Jim and Alex on a beach, of the two sentinels kissing passionately, and of Jim’s gun swinging around in Alex’s hand to point straight towards him. “Oh god,” he said faintly. “God help me.”

“God can’t help you.” The lips were now at the entrance to his ear, the whispered words obliterating any other reality. “Jim can’t help you. There is only me, only me now and forever. You know that, Blair. Deep inside, you know that.” Blair could only shudder when the tip of her tongue touched him, its wet softness an unimaginably ghastly assault on his ear lobe.

He didn’t realize he was crying until long fingers brushed away the moisture from his cheek, which was trickling down from under his blindfold. “Hush,” she soothed. “It will all be over soon. Soon. He’s coming, Blair. Can’t you hear him?”

Blair listened. But all he could hear was the wolf, howling in despair.

***

Jim stopped in the next small town they came to. Leaving Naomi (under protest) in the car, he made his way to a seedy internet café that graced the main street. The indifferent teenager behind the desk didn’t give him a second glance, not pausing in his telephone conversation as he accepted Jim’s payment for half an hour at a terminal. The kid’s lack of attention was a boon, but Jim’s Spanish was good enough that, hopefully, he would not be remembered as anyone out of the ordinary.

Getting straight into his web-based e-mail account, Ellison penned a hasty note to Simon, briefing him on what had gone down with Blair, asking him to look into Alex Barnes’s whereabouts, and preparing the Captain to set up the practical support Jim knew he would need down the line. He did what was necessary to cover his virtual tracks, then headed back out to rejoin Naomi.

She was pacing up and down beside the car, her face like thunder. “Where have you been?” she hissed. “I’ve been worried out of my mind!”

Jim didn’t answer, his face expressionless. He got into the car, beckoning her to do the same. When she got in and slammed the door, he turned on her. “Look,” he said icily, “I’m trying to do a job here, all right? We need to get in and out of this place without drawing attention to ourselves. And a pretty American woman, throwing a hissy fit in public, draws attention in a place like this.”

Naomi pouted. Then said coyly, “You think I’m pretty, Jim?”

Jim ignored her attempt at levity. “Just can it, Naomi. All I care about right now is finding Blair. If you can’t do as you’re told, I’ll take you straight back to the airport and put you on the next plane out of here.”

Not waiting to see what effect his words had on her, Jim started up the engine and pulled out. They had left the town limits behind before Naomi spoke. “It would help,” she said coldly, “if you told me where the hell we were going, what you plan to do, and what is going on with Blair. But I guess you don’t trust me with your secrets. Even though,” she said bitterly, “I’m Blair’s mother.”

Jim ground his teeth in frustration. He knew that Naomi felt enormously guilty about what she had done with Blair’s dissertation, and the fallout her misguided attempts at helping her son had caused. But this was not the time to be going over old regrets or soothing her insecurities. “Look,” he said, forcing himself to patience, “I’ll be honest with you. Blair is in trouble. A lot of trouble. And you are just going to have to trust me, trust that I know what I’m doing. Okay? And if that means doing something I ask, that you don’t like, then you’re going to have to do it. Because this isn’t a game, Naomi. This is deadly serious.”

This time her voice shook. “Just… just tell me what you know. Please, Jim. It’s not knowing that makes this hard.”

Jim glanced at Naomi, noting that all traces of bravado had gone from her demeanor. Making a decision, he confided, “Blair left me a note in his journal.”

She frowned. “I didn’t see anything. Was it… was it in code, or something?”

“Kind of,” he confirmed. “I could see it, but you couldn’t. It wasn’t visible to your eyes.”

“Oh.” She was nodding. “Your gift. You saw it because of your gift. I see.” She swallowed. “What did it say?”

What to tell her? Blair had kept so much from Naomi, hoping to spare her from excessive worry over his work with Jim. Jim had no idea if she knew about the whole fountain thing. On balance, it was highly likely she did not. “Someone I arrested, someone Blair helped me take down, has escaped and kidnapped him. He managed to write the note, somehow, and told me who has him and that Cardenas is in on it. He asked for my help. ”

“Oh.” Jim heard her swallow. Then, in a voice incongruously steady, Naomi asked, “And this… kidnapper. Is he dangerous?”

Jim’s stomach clenched. Not bothering to correct Naomi’s assumption about Alex’s gender, he answered shortly, “Yes.”

Naomi was still trying to work it out. “So, he’s been kidnapped for, what, for ransom? For revenge? What?”

What, indeed? For Alex to finish what she started at the fountain? Blair could be already dead, but something in Jim, something inexplicable, assured him that Sandburg was still alive. Hedging, Jim said, “That isn’t clear right now.” Then, wanting Naomi to process his decision before they reached their destination, he said firmly, “What is clear, is that I need to get to him quickly. And it’s something I have to do alone, Naomi. You can’t come with me. And that is not negotiable. Blair’s survival depends on me doing this right.”

Naomi deflated like a balloon, her obstinacy evaporating. “I’ll just slow you down, right?” She smiled sadly. “So much for Mrs. Peel, Steed. Guess I won’t get to kick any ass.”

“Tell you what,” Jim said. “I’ll let you kick mine if I don’t bring Blair back alive, okay?”

“Don’t,” she paused, gathering herself. “Don’t,” she tried again, “even joke about that, all right? Positive thoughts. Just positive thoughts, from now on. You’ll do it. You’ll bring him back. I know you will.”

A few miles rolled by in silence, and the deteriorating road surface seemed to snap Naomi back out of whatever calming meditation she had drifted into. “Jim?” she asked. “Where are we going?”

He smiled grimly. “We’re going to visit some old friends of mine.”

***

It was as if something had cracked deep inside Blair after that. Whatever dreams of rebellion he had previously nursed during the times Alex had left him alone had fled, leaving him utterly compliant. It was as though his subconscious had finally recognized the futility of hope.

Alex, sensitive as she had become to his every flinch, of course recognized his capitulation, and he was rewarded by being restrained in ways that were less uncomfortable, for all that they continued to be confining. “I don’t want you tempted,” she had crooned to him, “to take off your blindfold. It’s there for a reason, Blair. You’ll thank me when you find out why.”

So now he had freedom of movement in his hands and arms, which Alex had thoroughly and painfully massaged back into feeling and mobility after their long confinement. But because his wrists were secured by cuffs and chains to a belt at his waist, he couldn’t lift them much above his navel. He was no longer kept gagged, and his legs were not bound at all, as Alex clearly had no fears that he would try to run.

And to his enormous self-disgust, he had to acknowledge that she was right. After all, where could he go that she wouldn’t find him?

The obscene petting, which she inflicted on him at every opportunity, continued and, other than shuddering helplessly at her touch, Blair made no effort to fend her off. He had wondered, in the beginning, if the intrusive stroking was a sexual act, but he had come to the realization that she had absolutely no interest in him as a man. His deepest instincts - the same instincts that had been able to help Jim with his senses more effectively than anyone else - now recognized it for what it was. This was possession, pure and simple. A primal imprinting of sentinel on companion, guide, shaman, or whatever the appropriate term for a sentinel’s partner was.

No matter that he no longer believed himself qualified to ‘guide’ a sentinel. Instead, he wondered if the fact he found Alex’s touch so abhorrent was an indication of his total unsuitability for the role, despite the bequest that the Chopec shaman, Incacha, had once bestowed upon him. A real guide, Blair suspected, would be drawn to a sentinel, not repulsed by her. Instead, he had run from one sentinel when the shit hit the fan, and could hardly abide the proximity of the other.

His protestations of unworthiness made no impact on Alex, who continued to touch him in maddeningly tender ways for hours at a time. And now, during this latest session, he had once again objected that she’d got it all wrong, “I’m not a real guide, Alex. You’re wasting your time with me.”

She silenced him by a finger on his lips. “Open yourself,” she told him. “It’s there, like my senses are there.” A hand had touched his covered eyes. “See where these cannot. Listen. You’ll hear it; hear my jaguar.”

And at last, Blair thought he understood. He had once told Alex, back on the Rainier campus, that dormant sentinel senses could be brought out by a period of prolonged isolation. “Alex,” he asked cautiously, “this… this sensory deprivation, It’s because you think I’m another sentinel, right?”

She laughed. “Oh, clever, clever Blair. You’re close, but you’re wrong.”

“Then what?” he whispered, as a hand trickled down his back.

“I saw you,” she answered, “and I saw this, in a vision. You are a shaman, my shaman. But you need to find your own visions, find your skill, so that you and I can work together. I’m helping you do that. It isn’t only sentinels who need isolation to develop their gifts.”

The tactile onslaught continued and, shivering at the sensation, Blair finally got it. “It’s madness,” he protested weakly. “I’m no shaman. This isn’t going to work.” She ignored him, and continued to imprint her scent upon him, hands and mouth raising goosebumps on his flesh. And to Blair’s great reluctance, as he listened to the howl of the wolf and the snarl of the jaguar behind him, he had to accept that he might really be a shaman after all. But a pretty poor one at that, he thought ruefully, given that Alex knew what she was doing, and up until now he had been, quite literally, in the dark.

***

Incredibly, considering that it had only been a matter of hours since Jim had sent the e-mail, Simon had gotten on the phone and managed to make arrangements for Jim to charter a helicopter. Ellison still had some dependable contacts in Peru, and it was one of these that he had instructed Simon to speak to on his behalf.

Enrique Corazao Diaz was waiting for them as they drew into the residential property with its attached private landing strip. They had been on the road for hours, and the sun was beginning to set, lending a ruddy glow to the jovial, mustachioed face of their host as he pounded Jim on the back. “Hey, Ellison, what trouble you got yourself into now, huh?” Letting Jim go, he greeted Naomi just as enthusiastically, pumping her hand in his firm grip.

Jim resisted his acquaintance’s attempts to draw them inside the house. “I need to fly out straight away, ‘Rique. My business can’t wait.”

Corazao Diaz frowned, shaking his head. “That is not possible, my friend. My pilot has gone into Lima in the helicopter. He will not be back for several hours. I can get you out there at dawn, but not before. You may as well eat with me, and stay the night. I’m sure,” he turned a toothy grin on Naomi, who preened slightly, “the pretty lady is tired, no? Come, share my hospitality.”

Reluctantly, Jim concurred, but inwardly bristled with impatience as he and Naomi followed. His sense of urgency had inexplicably increased during the latter part of the drive, and he was anxious to get Blair’s mother to their destination immediately, so he could get on with what he had to do. A nagging inner voice was telling him to hurry.

Corazao Diaz proved, to Naomi’s eyes certainly, to be the perfect host. She appeared to soak up his attentions, responding almost girlishly to the charisma he exuded towards her. The man seemed unaffected by the warning glances Ellison sent his way, going out of his way to charm her, as he plied her and Jim with food and drink.

The evening passed in an orgy of frustration for Jim. His sense of urgency was growing, and it prompted him to extend his hearing often beyond the bounds of the property, vainly seeking the anticipated sound of the helicopter returning. He couldn’t hear the chopper’s engine, but he did hear a wolf howling in the distance; an incongruous sound in Peru, the eerie cry standing his hair on end. Deep in his gut he knew that the animal was not of the corporeal kind.

During a moment when Naomi had gone to visit the bathroom, Corazao Diaz remarked to Jim, “She is lovely, my friend.”

“She’s off limits.” The words left no room for compromise.

Speculatively, the Peruvian asked, “Hmm. Yours?”

The lack of expression on Jim’s face communicated his seriousness. “Under my protection.”

The matter rested there, as Naomi chose that moment to return. But Corazao Diaz seemed to take Jim’s implicit warning to heart, and cooled off his attempts to woo her, much to Naomi’s obvious frustration.

Later, when they had been shown to their luxurious bedrooms, Jim was standing at the window, still trying to sense the return of the missing pilot, when Naomi let herself in without bothering to knock.

“What the hell did you say to Enrique?” she demanded to Jim‘s back. “We were getting on so well. But now he won’t even look at me!”

Without turning, Jim said, “Believe me, Naomi, I’m doing you a favor.”

He could almost hear her pout. “It’s really none of your business who I’m interested in, Jim. It’s been a long while since anyone has made me feel as, well as noticed as he did. I was having a nice time!”

“This is the wrong time, Naomi.” Jim’s voice was even, without censure. “And the wrong place. And definitely the wrong person.”

“Don’t you tell me that! I know where we are, all right? And why we’re here.” Hurt and embarrassment overshadowed the annoyance. “My son is missing. Kidnapped. All of this is so we can get him back. But who’s to say I can’t find some companionship along the way, huh? It’s just comfort, Jim! Surely you can understand that. Enrique was very sweet until you warned him off.”

Jim turned, and fixed his forthright gaze on Blair‘s mother. “You have no idea what he’s capable of, Naomi. He’s not your type.”

“Huh, that’s rich, coming from you.”

Jim raised an eyebrow.

“Well,” she clarified, “I mean, look at what you do for a living! And have I ever been prejudiced against you for it?” At Jim’s skeptical look, she conceded, “Okay, okay, maybe in the beginning. But that was before I got to know you. What makes Enrique any different? I think he’s charming.” She frowned at him, obviously putting two and two together and coming up with five. “James Ellison, are you jealous?”

Jim refused to dignify that accusation with the reply she wanted. Instead, he said levelly, “Enrique is a powerful man, Naomi. And a dangerous one. He owes me, which is why I trust him to help us with this. But I wouldn’t trust him around you. Or around any woman.”

Finally, Naomi seemed to sense something of the seriousness behind Jim’s words. “Oh. I see.” She looked down at the floor, then met his gaze again. And abruptly changed the subject. “You know, I always wondered if you and Blair were … well, you know.”

Jim raised an eyebrow sardonically.

Naomi ignored him. “I mean, you lived together all those years. And anyone with half an eye could see that you were….” Glancing up at Jim’s face, she paused, choosing her words carefully. “Really close. That you really cared about each other. I asked Blair once, you know. If you were a couple.”

Jim couldn’t resist it. “A couple of what?”

“Don’t be dense, Jim. It doesn’t suit you. You know exactly what I mean.”

Jim rubbed the bridge of his nose, his ears still partially tuned to the distance, wishing they were not having this conversation right now. “So,” he prompted reluctantly, hoping to get this out of Naomi’s system so they could both get some sleep before morning, “what did he say?”

She threw up her hands. “Oh, you know what he’s like. He started going on about some obscure tribe, comparing it to police departments, and how warriors in both societies bonded with each other on a spiritual level. In the end I completely forgot what the question was.”

Jim let out a snort, picturing the situation in his head. It was so very Blair.

Naomi looked wistful, and stepped closer. “I always wondered if that was why… oh. Never mind.”

“That was why what?”

“Why you and I never…” she nudged him, her voice turning conspiratorial, “you know. I mean, I’ve seen you looking at me, and I’ve sure looked at you. Is it? Is that why?”

“I don’t know what you want me to tell you, Naomi.”

“Jim!” Exasperated, she thumped him lightly on the arm. “I’m asking if the reason we never got together is because you and Blair were a couple!”

“Naomi,” Jim sighed, “you and I never got together for a number of reasons, the main one being that Blair would have kicked my ass into next week if I so much as looked twice at you. I don’t think he thought I was appropriate stepfather material.”

“Oh.” she seemed disappointed. “So are you saying you weren’t, um… with each other, then?”

This was encroaching on some very personal territory for Jim, although not in the way that Naomi obviously suspected. Uncomfortable about discussing with Naomi the more esoteric aspects of his relationship with Blair, Jim hedged, “Blair and me, we… we’re a lot of things to each other. I don’t think there is even a name for what we are. It’s complicated. Let’s just leave it at that, huh?”

She regarded him speculatively, obviously unsatisfied. “You still haven’t really answered my question.”

Jim just grinned, perversely enjoying teasing her. But instead of getting irritated, Naomi sidled closer and slid an arm around Jim’s waist. “So, you did think about us, then? You and me?” Her hand caressed his hip sensuously. “If Blair hadn’t warned you off, do you think we might… I mean, he’s not here right now…”

Jim shrugged her off, although not unkindly; guiding her decisively towards the door. “Goodnight, Naomi.”

***

Jim and Blair had not parted well, once Blair had decided to turn down the offer of a job with the PD and leave Cascade. And looking back now, Jim profoundly regretted what had happened months ago, on the last occasion they had seen each other.

“So what, you screw up, and then you run off?” he had taunted his former partner nastily, looming over him as Blair duct-taped his last few boxes. “Typical Sandburg maneuver. Like mother, like son, huh?” Every instinct in Jim had screamed, despite his turbulent emotions at the end of their partnership, that this was wrong. That this was kicking Sandburg while he was down. But a perverse part of him got satisfaction out of it, out of letting go of the rage and pain that he had held inside for far too long.

Jim knew Blair well. He’d known exactly how to hit him where it hurt, and he had been right on the mark. Tight lipped, Blair had declined to answer, grimly hoarding his own anger and grief. He had apparently already said all he was going to say in justification of his decision. But Jim could sense Blair’s misery like a miasma, a brooding, claustrophobic presence in every part of the loft. And at last, Ellison had stormed off to escape from it, leaving his partner to finish packing; needing to walk in the open air, to be alone.

When he had returned, Sandburg and all his belongings had been gone. In a fit of spite, Jim had stayed up all night and cleaned the loft from top to bottom, scrubbing until his hands were raw, eliminating Blair from his home and his senses forever.

A few days later, once he had recovered sufficiently from the gunshot wound he had sustained during the Bartley case, Ellison had gone back to work at the PD and, finally, it was as though the years that Sandburg had been at his side had been obliterated. And that, he had convinced himself, was exactly how he wanted it to be.

Sure, the detective still utilized his special skills on occasion - his hyperactive senses never went away as he had often hoped they might - but he didn’t push it, using them covertly and only in rare circumstances. Zoning out had long ago ceased to be a problem, but he couldn’t afford to be conspicuous; he was still under scrutiny by the powers that be, despite the worst of the heat having been deflected by Sandburg’s statement to the press. Even worse, he was aware of his closest co-workers constantly observing him, as though looking for evidence of his ‘superpowers’. Everyone who had known Sandburg well, it seemed, had taken Blair’s confession of fraud with a very large pinch of salt.

Jim went to work, did his job, straining each day to be unremarkable. And at night, he rebuffed the company of friends and colleagues, and went home to an empty loft, where he spent hours looking out over his city, skirting the edges of a barely acknowledged depression. It had taken weeks of self-indulgent misery before the reason for his malaise became clear. And when it had, it had been with the clarity of epiphany.

Revelation came in the form of a garish postcard, postmarked in Lima. A few terse lines; clipped notification that Sandburg was in Peru, was still alive, would not be returning to Cascade. There was no return address. The brusque tone hinted, to Jim’s eyes, at bitter emotions held in check behind a shield as carefully constructed as Jim’s own.

Holding the postcard in his hand, Jim had sat down heavily, his emotional response to the contact astonishing him with its intensity. On an impulse, he had raised the card to his nose and, to his surprise, the essence of Blair still lingered on it, as though Sandburg had carried the card close to his body for some time before it was put in the mail. Filtering through the residue of smells it had held, and dismissing those which obviously had nothing to do with his friend, he had gotten a vague impression of sun-kissed skin and sweat, as familiar to him as his own body odors. He had not realized, until then, how profoundly he had missed that unique sensory signature.

Now, lying sleepless on the bed Corazao Diaz had allotted him, Jim reached into his pocket and pulled out the sealed evidence bag he kept there. He turned it over in his fingers, focusing through the plastic on Blair’s neat handwriting. The letters had been placed precisely, the nib pushing in hard, as though the writer had been angry or upset at the time of writing, laying on the pen strokes like lashes.

Since the postcard had arrived several weeks ago, Jim had carried it with him, keeping it close like a guilty secret. Sealed in the bag, it still retained just enough of Blair’s scent. He unsealed it and lifted it up to his nose, snorting it as though it were a drug. Not for the first time, as the faint aroma of Blair’s perspiration engulfed him, he considered what a bizarre act this was.

Not just bizarre. Compulsive. Addictive. An obsession.

Once again, he was filled with a deep, desperate longing to see Blair again, to hear his voice. To experience more of this essential scent, which was as necessary to him as oxygen. And the knowledge that had come to him weeks ago, when he had first emerged from Blair-less cold turkey, struck him once again.

He needed Sandburg. He needed his presence at a gut-deep, instinctual level that terrified the rational man in him. And that need had little to do with their friendship, partnership, or whatever other motives Naomi might try and ascribe to it.

The sentinel needed him.

As the scent of the man whom Incacha had once named shaman filled his senses, the fringes of the visual world blurred vaguely into jungle, as they had every time he had performed this weird ritual. And in the distance, the wolf howled out its fear and loneliness. “I’m coming, Chief,” Jim thought back at it. But he couldn’t reach it, no matter how hard he tried. It was as if it wasn’t listening.

He carefully re-sealed the bag and lay back, maintaining his vigil until the noise of the approaching chopper at dawn heralded the new day. And then the sentinel smiled, knowing that the search for his shaman could, at long last, begin in earnest.

***

The blindfold didn’t matter anymore.

For some time now, Blair had been able to see with his eyes closed, into a world that shimmered blue like sunlight underwater. Strange creatures populated this place - luminous beings, pale, wraith-like, doing Her bidding.

But oh the Sentinel - she shone like the sun, glowing with power, languorous and deadly like a cat. The pale figures deferred to her orders. “No, put that over there. And that. When you’re done, get out.”

One wraith came nearer to Blair, and he flinched in anticipation of a touch. But the sharp reprimand of the Sentinel - “Leave him! Only I touch him!” - made the other back off rapidly.

Finally, the ghostly figures departed, and Blair’s covered eyes tracked them as they left. He felt a quizzical gaze upon him, following the movement of his head as he watched them go. Then the burning shape of the Sentinel came nearer, silently, coming to a stop in front of him, and his inner eye took in the look of smug satisfaction on her face.

Glowing hands reached out, but at the prospect of this touch, he didn’t flinch, although inside he cringed with revulsion. The hands moved to his head and, for the first time in an eternity, the blindfold covering his eyes was unknotted deftly and removed. Blair’s vision did not change, his eyes still closed. But he could see her clearly, nevertheless.

She smiled, a predatory, self-satisfied smile. “My shaman,” she gloated. “I made you.” A hand reached out again, and a touch, gossamer light, slid down Blair’s throat to press over his heart.

He had no answer. He had no idea anymore where he belonged. But inside he was screaming that it was not with her.

It didn’t matter to Alex. “Soon,” she whispered, the voice a sibilant hiss in the echoing chamber. “Soon, he will come. Then this will all be over.”

A tear slid out from under his closed eyelid, a glistening track down his cheek. And, leaning towards him, Alex’s tongue lapped it possessively away.

***

As soon as they landed in the clearing and disembarked, the chopper pilot lifted off again with instructions to return at dawn the next day. Jim took Naomi by the hand and led her into the jungle, following paths only he could see.

Naomi remained mostly silent, accepting this unexpected trek with a startling equanimity, picking her way through the obstacles in their path competently and without drama. Jim studied her surreptitiously as they went, impressed by her attitude.

Naomi, it seemed, wasn’t oblivious to his regard. “What is it, Jim?” she asked, still apparently a little prickly after what had happened the night before. “Surprised that a bimbo like me can handle this?”

“I never called you that, Naomi.” Jim assured her.

She raised her eyebrows, obviously unimpressed. “You might as well have done so last night,” she told him belligerently, but Jim could see embarrassment in her eyes too. “I know what you were thinking.”

Jim had been a little surprised – and maybe a bit shocked - by her flirtatiousness in the midst of such a serious situation. But part of him had also understood – he’d known people in the army, both men and women, who’d tended to seek solace and release from their fears through sexual intimacy. “I know that you’re scared for Blair,” he told her. “And everyone reacts in different ways to stress. I don’t hold anything against you, Naomi. And it doesn’t make me think any less of you.”

Naomi didn’t answer for a long moment. Then in a quiet voice, she murmured, “Thank you, Jim. That means a lot.”

A short while afterward, observing Naomi’s capable progress through this difficult terrain, Jim couldn’t help but ask, “This isn’t the first time you’ve been off the beaten track, huh?”

Naomi shrugged. “I’ve spent most of my life on the move. When Blair was three months old, I carried him for five days through the Congo in a sling. After that, anything is easy.”

Thrust together in this situation as they were, Jim couldn’t retain his curiosity. “Why is that? What compels you to travel so much?”

“What compels you?” Naomi retorted. “You’ve been all over the world. Blair said you joined the army straight out of high school. What were you running from?”

Ignoring her attempt to turn the question back on him, Jim couldn’t help but pick up on Naomi’s choice of word. “Seems like I’m not the only one running.”

Jim had walked on several feet before he realized that she was no longer following. Turning, he saw Naomi watching him, hands on hips and a familiar condescending expression on her face. Mother and son, he couldn’t help acknowledging, were more alike than he’d realized. “Contrary to what you’ve been taught, Tarzan,” she stated, “the world isn’t a battleground. Moving from place to place does not always equate to escape – it can be a conscious, positive choice. If you just open yourself to new experiences, embrace diversity with an open heart, there’s so much joy to be found. I wish you could see that.”

Jim shook his head indulgently, not really convinced by Naomi’s argument that she didn’t, after all, travel to run from her demons. “I hear that, Jane,” he tossed back. And turning, he got moving again. After a heartbeat, he heard Naomi snort derisively and follow after him.

After a couple of hours hard walking, during which Jim’s estimation of Naomi’s determination and endurance grew, a familiar sound caught Jim’s attention. Putting up a hand to halt Naomi in her tracks, he whistled a series of notes, which were returned, after a moment, from some distance away. Jim smiled. “We’re here,” he announced.

After a moment, during which both Jim and Naomi remained, as though by unspoken arrangement, motionless, figures which had approached too silently for Naomi to hear, but whom Jim had been tracking effortlessly, seeped out of the shadows as though they had formed themselves out of foliage.

Naomi gasped in surprise, but again, Jim held up a hand for quiet. Consciously relaxing his body language, he waited until the leader of the scouting party came forward to eye him speculatively.

Neither man spoke for a tense moment. Then a broad grin split the face of the Chopec warrior. “Enqueri!” he greeted. “Pasaykamuy wasi ayllu sumak!

Welcome home, he’d said.

Jim smiled in return. “Huch’uy,” he said, acknowledging the warrior by name. “N kashani kususqa kaypi kai.

Jim meant every word: I’m happy to be here.

***

The Chopec village looked exactly as Jim remembered it. The only real difference was that the man who emerged from the shaman’s hut as they approached it was not Incacha.

Jim bowed his head, unconsciously making the gesture of respect he had learned when living among these people. “Wuynas tardis,” he greeted and, in answer, the shaman beckoned him forward.

A noise behind Jim caused him to turn. Naomi was being led away toward a group of Chopec women, and she looked at him questioningly as she went. “Don’t worry,” Jim called. “You’re safe here.” He gestured toward the women. “They’ll take care of you, see to your needs.”

The next moment saw Naomi engulfed by the group, and Jim turned back to the shaman - Incacha’s successor. The man was unfamiliar to Jim from his time with the Chopec, no doubt having traveled from a further branch of the tribe to take Incacha’s place.

Huch’uy - the scout who had guided Jim and Naomi to the Chopec village – made the introductions. “Wan riqsinakuychis Ninapakcha.”

Ninapakcha grasped Jim by the hand. “Anchatan kusikuni riqsispayki, Enqueri,” he said, welcoming Jim warmly. And smiling broadly, he motioned the sentinel into his hut, leaving Huch’uy to stand guard outside.

***

Time had long ceased to have meaning. Blair kept his eyes closed, afraid of what he would see if he opened them after so long in the dark. Instead, he relied on the uncanny vision he now seemed to possess, which imbued the scene playing out on the inner surface of his eyelids with a preternatural glow.

Alex, her face radiant as a goddess, was making preparations. She had permitted him water to drink - given to him mouth to mouth in small sips, like a mother bird feeding her chick. “No food, Blair. It is time to fast,” she had told him when his stomach rumbled meaningfully. “We must be ready.”

Ready for what? his mind silently begged.

But his inner shaman, disappointingly, failed to provide the answer. And he no longer dared to ask the sentinel.

***

Ninapakcha - like Incacha before him - had vision, it seemed, way beyond the physical. “Another has taken your guide,” he said as soon as they were alone, before Jim even opened his mouth to tell the shaman why he was there. “When you denied your bond, you left him vulnerable.”

Jim’s heart sank as guilt, his old friend, took up residence. “I didn’t know,” he whispered. “I never meant for this to happen to him.”

Ninapakcha’s gaze was direct and uncompromising. “Why do you punish your guide, Enqueri? Why have you cast him off?”

Jim sighed. “I thought he was better off without me. I wanted him to find his own path.” Prodded to admit the truth by the shaman’s sharp-eyed stare, he added, “And I thought that being alone, and choosing not to be a sentinel any longer, was what I wanted.” He glanced away miserably. “I was wrong,” he whispered.

“He will die without you.” The shaman’s words rang with stark truth. “So will you. Your connection cannot be broken, except by death. You must accept this.”

Jim opened his arms in entreaty. “What can I do?”

Ninapakcha’s face, half shrouded in the shadow within the hut, was grim. “The other has set a trap for you. The guide is bait – it is you she wants. You must go to her – but you cannot go unprotected. She is strong, Enqueri. She embraced her gifts long ago, while you have persisted in denying yours.”

Remembering all too vividly the last time he’d been in Alex’s presence, Jim shuddered. It had taken all he’d had to stop Alex from shooting Blair in cold blood on the beach in Sierra Verde - he couldn’t risk coming under her thrall again. Desperately, he appealed, “Can you help me?”

Ninapakcha smiled, the sudden transition from gravitas making him look years younger, and reminding Jim achingly of Blair. “Yes,” he said simply.

Jim bowed to the shaman’s superior wisdom with intense relief. And he vowed to do whatever was demanded of him.

And he wished with fervent desperation for Blair to be whole, and once again at his side.

***

Several hours after sunrise the next day, Corazao Diaz’s chopper dropped Jim off three miles outside Rioja – the small town where Jim and Naomi had viewed the gruesome remains of Blair’s local guide.

Through his shirt, Jim fingered the reassuring shape of the talisman he was wearing as he set out on foot from the landing site toward town. Ninapakcha had placed it around his neck during the long, sleepless night they’d spent together in the shaman’s hut, when they’d conducted a ritual that had both reassured and terrified the sentinel. Once again, it seemed, he was walking in two worlds. Only this time, he didn’t have the leisure to put the spiritual aspect of his role to one side – not if he wanted to get Blair, Naomi and himself out of this in one piece. He could no longer deny what he was. To win the game Alex was making him play, he had been forced to embrace his calling with all his heart.

Naomi had, to his intense surprise, not made a fuss at being left behind with the Chopec. Jim had no doubt that the audience she’d eventually been granted with the shaman had helped resign her to that fact. Ninapakcha had treated her reverently, calling her Ňanta Riqsichiq Mahmah-pa, meaning ‘Mother of the Guide’.

Jim had translated for her: “He says you are welcome here. The tribe will protect you, and help prepare you to…” he trailed off.

Ninapakcha carried on speaking, but stopped, watching them expectantly when Naomi broke in, “What, Jim? Prepare me to do what?”

Jim rubbed a hand over his face despairingly, then looked back at Ninapakcha. “I can’t tell her that,” he protested in Quechua.

Ninapakcha had simply looked back at him impassively, clearly waiting for Jim to acquiesce.

It had been Naomi who broke the stalemate. “Jim,” she said. “What can’t you tell me?”

Jim looked back at her sharply. “You speak Quechua?”

She shrugged. “I can pick up a word here and there – but I’m nowhere near fluent. What can’t you tell me, Jim? What do I need to prepare to do?”

Jim shook his head despairingly. “To heal your son,” he admitted reluctantly. As he spoke, his fear for Blair rose up in him, strangling any further words before they could be born. Exhausted, heartsick and drained, his armor cracked for the first time since they had arrived in Peru.

He felt Naomi’s hand close around his fingers. “Then that,” Naomi said, her voice matter of fact, despite the underlying fear and grief in her words, “is exactly what I’ll do.”

Back once again in the shaman’s hut, Jim had slept deeply and without dreams for the few remaining hours of the night. He rose before dawn to find Naomi and her attendant womenfolk already awake. And, true to her word, she remained behind without protest, watching with sad but resigned eyes, as Jim left the village to rendezvous with the helicopter pilot.

So now here he was, back on the road to where this nightmare had all started. Sure at last of what he had to do, and fortified by Chopec ritual.

Now it was time to get some answers out of Captain Cardenas.

***

The sentinel’s voice, raised in anger, woke Blair from a disturbed dream filled with the howls of wild animals.

“Where is it?” She was pacing the chamber, her eyes wild to his eerie, luminous sight. “It was coming. He was coming, and now he’s gone! I can’t hear him any more!”

Hoping desperately that Alex wouldn’t notice him, huddled in the corner as he was, Blair delved deep inside himself, seeking whatever it was that was missing.

Only to find a presence where – for him - there had, up to now, been none.

“Jim,” he whispered helplessly in recognition. Then bowed his head under the sentinel’s fists as she vented her inability to share his perception and her rage at his involuntary utterance of her rival’s name.

***

Captain Cardenas was not at the town’s small police station. Instead, he still lay in bed at midday, reeking of last night’s beer and cigars with every snoring exhale. Dial it down, Jim told himself firmly, as his nose protested even from outside the police chief’s unkempt house.

As he listened, concealed outside the house, the phone beside Cardenas’s bed startled the man awake. Cardenas awoke with a snort. Jim heard him fumble the receiver off the hook as he answered it, his voice hoarse with sleep. “Hola.” Cardenas immediately switched to English. “Ah, it’s my pretty lady! Ah, baby, I was just dreaming about you-”

Shut up.” The all-too familiar voice on the other end raised Jim’s hackles instantly. “You told me,” Alex went on accusingly, “that you gave Ellison the journal. But you lied to me – he’s gone back to Cascade, hasn’t he?

“Yes, he’s gone.” Cardenas sounded confused. “But that’s what we wanted, no? Him to stop sniffing around? He and the boy’s mother went home days ago.”

Where’s the journal?” Alex’s voice was hard, uncompromising.

“He took it with him. I swear, baby, I gave it to him like you told me.”

Maybe he missed it.

“Missed what? The flight? I was at the airport, Alexa. I saw him-“

No, not that, you idiot! The message! He missed the message!

“I don’t understand. What message?”

Never mind. Just know this.” Alex’s voice was hard as steel. “If you’re lying to me, I’ll cut out your heart.” The phone went dead.

Jim decided to allow Cardenas five minutes grace, so he could, hopefully, freshen up a little. He was waiting, therefore, as the man exited the bathroom, scratching his belly through the thin undershirt he was wearing.

“Don’t move.” Ellison’s tone – as much as the knife at his throat – appeared to shock Cardenas to stupefied immobility.

Terrified, Cardenas blurted out, “What do you want? You want money, huh? I have money. I’ll give you whatever you wa-“

“Information.” The word cut off the police chief’s babble instantly. Ellison came round into Cardenas’s line of sight. “And just so we understand each other, I’m not half as patient as Alex. If you don’t tell me what I want to know, I won’t just cut out your heart.” He grinned nastily. “I’ll cut your balls off first.”

***

Alex had been careful. Despite her rage, she hadn’t broken Blair’s skin at all. “I don’t want to have to wash off your blood,” she told him, as she caressed his bruises with an appallingly feather-light touch. “I need you unmarred, smelling only of me.”

In case speaking out would inspire her to further violence, Blair swallowed a million questions; although in some ways he was less afraid of the pain she doled out on occasion than the awful fondling that she constantly subjected him to.

Her mouth touched his ear, and he shuddered. “Can you hear him?” she breathed. “Is he coming?”

There was no point in lying – she’d know. She knew everything. “Yes,” he whispered.

“Good.” Her tongue made a circuit of his earlobe, then moved around to lap up the fresh tears, as he wept in shame at his betrayal. “You will be my ears, then,” she told him between licks. “You will tell me when he gets close. Won’t you, pet?”

There was no point in resistance. No point any more in anything – he was lost. “Yes,” he agreed, his voice barely audible.

“Good boy,” she praised. “Good, good boy.”

***

By five o-clock that afternoon, Jim was on a flight to Mexico.

I’m coming, Chief, he thought, as he sat in the uncomfortable airplane seat, willing the hours to move faster. I’m coming. He tried desperately to reach his partner on the spirit plane; to give him some hope. Hold on, Blair. Just a little while longer. I’ll be there soon.

In his mind, the wolf howled in anguish.

***

Alex had bathed in the pools and groomed herself assiduously, preparing for Jim’s arrival. She was ecstatic and radiant, like a bride on the eve of her wedding.

Blair longed to bathe, too, but he knew she wouldn’t allow it. Since yesterday, she had ceased to attend to his toilette, and had stepped up her intrusive touches. There was no longer any part of him that had not had her hands and mouth upon it. He was hers now, carrying her scent not only on his skin but, due to being permitted to consume only water from her lips, also in the sweat that issued from his pores.

Jim, so Alex told him, would dismiss Blair. “The moment he gets here, you will vanish from his senses - only I will exist for him. You carry my scent now,” she said as, once again, he shrank, shuddering, from her fingers. “You are an extension of me. You should be grateful that I’m here - my presence will save your life. If he came upon you as you are, in this place and without me here to distract him, he would kill you for your betrayal.”

“What do you want from him?” Blair found the courage to ask, emboldened by Alex’s oddly festive mood, although he suspected he already knew the answer. He still didn’t dare to open his eyes to look at her, however; relying instead on the dream-like vision the eternity of sensory deprivation had awakened in him.

He was, it seemed, correct in his assumption that this was all some elaborate, primal mating ritual. Or, at the very least, half-correct. The shining face of the sentinel, in the prime of her life and blooming with feminine power, regarded him with pale, merciless eyes. “He will father my child.” She stroked a long-fingered hand down Blair’s cheek, which was rough with new beard growth. “And then,” she added softly, “I will kill him.”

Horrified by the threat to Jim’s life, Blair tried desperately, silently, to will the approaching sentinel away, despite his contradictory, intense longing. For he had no doubt, despite his faith in Jim, that Alex was more than capable of carrying out her threat. Don’t come here – I don’t need you! Stay away, Jim. Please – stay away! I don’t want you!

He was already lost - Alex had made sure of that, and Blair had no hope of rescue. But if Jim would only heed Blair's entreaty not to come here, to steer clear of Alex's web, at least he would be safe.

But the roar of the approaching jaguar got inexorably and progressively louder, no matter how much Blair tried desperately to warn it off.

***

As soon as he arrived in Sierra Verde, Jim could sense the other sentinel’s presence. She shone like a beacon in his mind's eye, two days' walk off to the south. But it wasn’t her lure that inspired him to him set off an hour before sunset, striding sure-footed into the darkening jungle.

It was the frantic howls of the wolf, as it cried out in terror and despair.

***

Now that Alex’s long laid plans were close to fruition, she was unusually loquacious. “I’m so glad, Blair, that the visions finally showed me the way,” she told him. “They used to be so vague, so difficult to interpret.”

An elegantly manicured fingernail scratched lightly across Blair’s bearded cheek. “When I saw you under the water in my dream, back in Cascade, I thought it meant I was supposed to kill you that way. But I got it wrong. It was really about baptism; a symbolic representation of your rebirth as my shaman. I plan to do it right this time.”

Blair’s heart stuttered in terror. “This time?” he whispered.

She ignored the question. Instead, she asked, “Is he close, Blair?”

Still shocked by the terrifying threat that Alex’s words represented, Blair obediently listened with that strange, preternatural inner ear that, like his spirit vision, was more vivid than the mundane world. The pad of heavy, feline paws, loping over the earth with a determined gait, blocked out all other sound.

The touch of her hand on his cheek drew him back, the nail scoring a line in his flesh. “Is he close?” Alex demanded again.

“Yes,” Blair gasped, the betrayal he committed by telling her of Jim’s approach more painful than the line of fire which opened beneath his eye.

The touch gentled again, and soft lips kissed away the pain. “Don’t be afraid of him,” Alex murmured. “You’re mine now. As long as I am alive to protect you, he won’t get near you.”

“Jim wouldn’t hurt me.” Despite his fear and anguish, Blair found that he had a reserve of spirit left after all.

But Alex laughed. “Oh, Blair,” she told him, her hand enfolding his throat, his pulse throbbing hard against her fingers. “If you could sense yourself as I sense you; as he will sense you. There is no part of you that isn’t mine. He threw you out of the home you shared because we worked together on my senses for just a couple of hours a day. He couldn’t bear to be around you. He hated you because he could sense I’d been with you, yet we spent very little time together, and we hardly ever touched. Imagine what he’ll think of you now.”

Desperate, and unwilling to follow Alex’s reasoning, Blair objected, “But this wasn’t my choice.”

She smiled, her face cruel and beautiful to Blair’s inner vision. She leaned in again, and caught his lower lip between her teeth, nipping hard before letting go. “You chose to leave him,” she said simply. “How do you think it looks to him?”

Blair shuddered, overwhelmed with self-condemnation and despair, knowing finally the truth in what she said.

Alex tongued his ear, then drew him into an embrace. “Don’t worry,” she whispered, her hands stroking over his flesh as he shook in her arms. “I’ll kill him before he kills you. As soon as I have my child.” She pulled back and splayed her hand over her flat stomach. “And I’m ready. I will conceive today; I’ve seen it, Blair. And after that?” She laid the same hand over Blair’s heart, stirring the hairs there. “I will kill him as he sleeps, and baptize you as my Shaman. And you will help me raise the child.”

***

The wolf was in pain.

His awareness oddly half-in and half-out of that blue place where the animal screamed, Jim moved faster.

Not long now. Almost there.

I’m coming, Chief.

***

Alex’s head shot up, her sentinel hearing kicking in, at the very same moment that the footfalls Blair had been listening to changed in timbre, leaving the floor of the forest to echo across solid stone. “He’s here,” she announced.

Blair held his breath, the moment stretching out to eternity as the sound of someone approaching became audible even to his all-too human ears. And then, finally, a dark figure appeared in the entrance. A massive feline shadow.

For the first time since he was captured, Blair opened his eyes, needing desperately to know what was happening in reality, rather than his visions. Blinking furiously as his sight slowly cleared, all hope fled at what he saw.

The two Sentinels had come together in the middle of the chamber; their kisses fervent with desire, and their clothes torn asunder in their haste to rut.

***

Jim had arrived at the Temple of the Sentinels to find that all was just as Ninapakcha, the Chopec shaman, had told him it was going to be.

Alex was irresistible. A shining goddess he was profoundly called to worship, exuding pheromones which tugged inexorably at a primal part of his soul. And Jim didn’t even try to avoid her lure.

He knew they were not alone. He was dimly aware, as he took Alex in his arms, of the presence of a dark, pitiful creature crouching by one of the flotation tanks. But there was no threat to his union with her from that quarter – there was nothing in this room that did not belong to her, nothing that did not resonate of this woman, this sentinel. Alex.

Her touch and her kisses were heady and intoxicating; her lust for him, in turn, vibrantly apparent. With hungry, assertive hands, they explored each other’s faces, each other’s bodies, as clothes tore in their haste to get down to bare flesh. Jim was so incredibly turned on, infinitely more aroused than he’d ever been in his life, his body throbbing with need as every sense filled with her essence.

If this carried on for much longer, he knew, he would be irretrievably lost.

“We will be one,” Alex murmured into the cavern of his mouth, her words the richest and sweetest sound he’d ever heard. “At last, as we were meant to be.” Then she leaned in to kiss him deeply once more, her delicious taste nectar to a starving man. He welcomed her enthusiastically, sucking her tongue into his own mouth, feasting on her bounty.

But a part of him retained control, nevertheless, even as his body strained reflexively to get closer to her. A part of him which was every bit as cold and calculating as his body was hot and needy. Under cover of lustful embrace, kissing her all the while, he gave that part its head, secretly sliding his hands with deadly purpose across her body.

At the very last second, her stuttering heartbeat betrayed her comprehension of the killing hold. She jerked her mouth away from his, and her eyes widened in horror and betrayal.

Subterfuge was, clearly, no longer necessary. Jim met her gaze, and pronounced judgment. “You took something of mine.”

One second later, sentence was carried out.

As he lowered her body gently to the ground, the light already fading from her eyes, Jim felt only satisfaction. He’d enacted sentinel justice in a place that had been used to that end for millennia.

Cringing in the shadows by the flotation tank, Alex’s minion whimpered in horror.

***

It had happened so suddenly that it took a few seconds for Blair to comprehend what he’d just witnessed. One minute, the two sentinels had been going at it hot and heavy, and the next…

Blair didn’t think that the diabolical sound of Alex’s neck snapping would be something he’d be likely to forget in this lifetime.

Conditioned as he now was to perfect obedience at the hands of the female sentinel, it was harder than Blair might have imagined to find his voice during the dreadful silence following Alex’s death. So, instead, he mutely drank in the sight of his friend – who was still standing over Alex’s body. And he luxuriated in the knowledge that the ordeal was over, and that he was finally safe. His friend was here – his ‘blessed protector’, as he’d once jokingly called him. Jim to the rescue, yet again.

After a few more minutes, however, Blair was growing concerned. Jim hadn’t moved or spoken since he’d killed Alex, or acknowledged Blair’s presence in any way. Dredging up a reserve of strength, Blair shifted uncomfortably on the cold stone floor, his voice a harsh croak. “Jim?”

***

Satisfied at last that his rival was no further threat, Jim breathed deeply as he stood over her body, pulling himself ruthlessly back from the unsettling edge of blind passion that his murderous act had not completely dispelled. As he fought painstakingly for control, his libido gradually cooled down - in awful synchronicity with the cooling corpse at his feet.

Then, irritatingly, a voice intruded on Jim’s vigil, speaking his name. His concentration broken, Jim turned to look, and what he found displeased him greatly.

Alex’s creature, reeking of her from every pore.

***

Eyes the color and hardness of flint fixed on Blair. There was no welcome in Jim’s face, no tenderness in his gaze.

And finally, Blair remembered what Alex had told him: “If he came upon you as you are, in this place and without me here to distract him, he would kill you for your betrayal.”

“Oh god.” Despair took hold then, and with it the last of Blair’s will. “Oh, man.”

Jim was moving toward him, his face an expressionless mask. As he neared, he scented the air, scented him, Blair realized.

Scented Alex.

Bereft of his last hope, Blair could only struggle weakly as Jim reached out, his depleted strength after two days of fasting and weeks of close confinement no match for Jim. Blair’s boxers - the last remaining scrap of clothing Alex had allowed him to wear in this place – were stripped unceremoniously from him and flung away across the room. The belt which still confined his wrists in place was ignored.

Jim leaned in and sniffed, a look of extreme distaste on his face. Bewildered and horrified at Jim’s actions, Blair could only gasp as he was lifted bodily, the sentinel’s muscles straining under his weight.

“No! Please… No! Jim!” Blair couldn’t help the ragged, terrified cries which escaped his throat as he was lowered into one of the flotation tanks. His hands, secured at his waist, grappled helplessly in thin air, but couldn’t reach anything to grasp onto as he sank, crying out with fear, into the shallow water.

Jim dispassionately watched Blair struggle, holding him there with his face barely above the water, uncompromising and seemingly unmoved by his pleas.

Suddenly, another face superimposed itself over Jim’s in Blair’s mind. A cold, beautiful face seen through water; merciless, murderous, utterly without pity. The same waking nightmare that had haunted him in flashbacks, ever since the last time a sentinel drowned him.

Blair’s vision flashed back and forth between the past and the present. He hadn’t begged then – he’d been too angry. Now, however, having lived through it once, he was simply terrified out of his wits. “Don’t do this to me, Jim,” he pleaded, helpless tears leaking from his eyes and rolling down his cheeks. “Please, man! Not like this.”

But the sentinel’s expression might as well have been carved from stone, as well as his heart. Strong hands moved up to grasp Blair’s head. Gasping in huge gulps of air desperately, Blair couldn’t look away from the pitiless face of his friend, his rescuer, his sentinel.

His murderer.

Then Jim pushed him under. And the ripples of Blair’s immersion obliterated the world and everything he loved in shimmering, watery light.

No matter how often that Blair had longed for death during the depths of his despair the past few terrible weeks, he found, now it had come to the crux, that he very much wanted to live, after all. He certainly didn’t want to die like this – trapped in his very worst nightmare, at the hands of the best friend he’d ever known.

As he fought to hold his breath and thereby stave off the inevitable - his frantic struggles doing no more than stir the water into ripples - one of the hands which was holding him under the water moved to stroke over his head, the fingers combing through his hair gently. It was an incongruously comforting gesture, Blair couldn’t help but think, to bestow upon a man you were in the process of drowning.

Just as Blair’s endurance reached its limit, the pressure was released, and he rose to the surface, coughing and gasping. Strong hands maneuvered him until he was sitting in the water, head bent over raised knees as he tried desperately to draw in enough air.

As Blair coughed and panted, shivering violently in shocked reaction to not being dead yet after all, Jim’s hands continued to move over him, pouring water from cupped fingers over every part of him, interspersed with long, soothing strokes across his flesh.

And finally, Blair got it.

He was being bathed.

As soon as his coughing fit subsided, Blair risked a glance at the sentinel. Jim’s face was intent with purpose, totally focused on his task. The hands running over Blair’s shaking body were impersonal, methodical, and very, very thorough. Jim also appeared, by his blank expression, to be completely off in sentinel-la-la-land, which, given his recent experiences with Alex, should have freaked Blair totally the hell out.

Blair suppressed a giggle. It seemed he’d gone way through hysteria already, and was now somewhere out the other side.

Every few seconds, Blair saw Jim’s nostrils flare, as though he was testing to see if Alex’s scent was still there. Finally, Jim seemed satisfied, except for when he came close to Blair’s head. After a few grimaces at whatever he smelled there, his insistent hands began to move Blair back down to a reclining position.

Blair’s stomach fluttered with nerves, but he nodded. “I get it. Under the water again, huh?” He complied with being tipped back without struggling, Jim’s hands supporting and guiding him gently but firmly. Looking up into the sentinel’s impassive face, hoping desperately – and in vain - to see a glimpse of the man he knew there, Blair took a couple of deep breaths, then filled his lungs. And this time, he didn’t resist when Jim submerged him completely.

All that existed here under the tepid water was absolute silence, punctuated only by the muffled thumps and echoing bangs of movement as Jim continued to wash Blair thoroughly. It was like looking up through thick, reinforced glass, through a window between one world and the next. Blair, here below in this strange, womb-like underworld, and Jim up above, in the lair of the sentinels.

As Jim’s hands continued to move through Blair’s hair and over his face, Blair’s chest increasingly ached with the effort not to inhale. But the very second the urge to breathe became imperative and panic threatened, he was manhandled upwards, to be reborn in an explosive shower of droplets, filling his lungs gratefully with the elixir of life.

Exhausted by the whole experience and finally certain that he was safe in Jim’s hands (no matter how terrifying this ordeal had been), Blair relaxed for the first time in weeks. He remained passive while Jim sniffed him again, the sentinel’s resulting expression - this time - one of satisfaction. Blair was only dimly aware, after that, of being hauled bodily out of the water and thoroughly dried off before being wrapped in something warm. And finally, as he felt himself hoisted aloft and carried, cradled against a powerfully muscled chest, Blair finally succumbed to the beckoning haven of oblivion.

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***

Alex’s stench, laden with potent, psychotropic chemicals – all the better to increase the allure of her natural pheromones and snare her chosen mate - was finally dissipating. Her corpse, lying untended back in the temple, still held a residual odor, but its potency was greatly reduced now that her heart had ceased to beat.

Feeding twigs to the fire he’d built, Jim glanced over at the sleeping figure, wrapped snugly in a sleeping bag beside him. Now that the worst of Alex’s stench had been washed off him, Blair’s own, familiar aroma was beginning to surface. Jim breathed it in deeply, luxuriating in the smell he had longed to indulge in for so very long – here in abundance, instead of a minute, unsatisfying trace on a postcard inside a sealed evidence bag.

But to Jim’s dismay, other, less pleasant smells still disrupted Blair’s purity. Long-held fear was the most strident, combined with the sour stink of recent starvation. And, pervading it all, Alex’s lingering chemical-laden scent, issuing from inside Blair’s own body. Clearly, Alex had been feeding minute quantities of the same drug to Blair that she’d imbibed herself, and Jim knew that it would take several days for that lingering, bitter essence to dissipate.

Ninapakcha had warned Jim of the likelihood that Alex would use a potion to ensure that Jim went along with her plan. The chemicals were gleaned from plants occurring naturally in this region, and Jim already knew from their last visit here that Alex had been overly fond of experimenting with the ancient concoctions detailed in the murals within the temple. It was such an experiment, after all, which had ultimately caused her psychotic episode in the wake of those previous events.

She’d clearly recovered from that experience and had returned here to finish what she started. Jim had no idea how it had come about that she’d been on the loose, but one thing was clear. She had marked Jim out as her chosen mate, and used the drug she had concocted to enhance her own incredibly powerful pheromonal scent so that he would be sure to fall into her snare. She had been determined to leave nothing to chance. And it was no accident that she had chosen this place to do it – sentinel mating rituals had been enacted, so Jim had been told, for millennia in this place. The existence of those very drugs in the surrounding foliage – whether by chance or horticultural design of the ancients – made it the perfect place to spring her trap.

She hadn’t envisaged, however, that Jim would have some help of his own. He fingered the talisman that Ninapakcha had given him, which he still wore around his neck. The mixture of herbs and potions it contained were a topical antidote to Alex’s pheromonal poison. The small cloth bag slowly released chemicals which seeped constantly through his skin – kind of like a nicotine patch. The cumulative effect had been to increase his resistance to Alex’s lure.

It had been close, though, Jim acknowledged with a shudder. Too damned close.

Glancing again at Blair, who slept peacefully beside him – the kid was, clearly, profoundly exhausted – Jim’s mind shied away time and time again from his memory of what had happened in the temple. He’d done things in there, things he’d been unable to control, that now left him with a deep, overwhelming sense of shame. But he was too much of a coward to face the implications of those actions right now, even in the privacy of his thoughts.

So instead, as night advanced, he kept the fire alight and schooled his cringing mind to vigilance. And he maintained silent, protective watch over his sleeping friend.

***

There was a repetitive sound, like something being hit with an axe. It intruded into Blair’s dream-haven, and dragged him reluctantly toward the light.

Back to reality. Back to her.

As he came awake he played possum, and pondered, for a moment, the fact that something was different. He was warm, for a start – wrapped up in something soft. There was something cushioning his head, a makeshift pillow of some kind. In fact, he realized wonderingly, he was comfortable, despite the hardness of the ground beneath him. Flexing muscles surreptitiously, he found that he was no longer restrained – although he was still nude, beneath whatever it was that was wrapped around him. And the weird, glowing inner-vision he’d had for so long had been replaced with the mundanity of darkness behind his eyelids.

For a moment, Blair was alarmed at that latter realization, thinking that somehow he had been blinded – he was so used to seeing with his eyes closed now. But after a second or two, he remembered to open them. He blinked furiously, and the green haze he encountered gradually formulated into a jungle canopy, far above his head, with sunlight glinting through the leaves.

He was outside, then. He took a deep breath, luxuriating in it. It was the first time he’d seen sunlight in what felt like forever.

As he lay there blinking in the unaccustomed light, Blair could hear noises - the chopping sound that had awoken him, somewhere off through the trees to the right - but to his relief, there was no sign of Alex. Which was odd, because she’d never left him alone and unrestrained like this before, let alone ensured his comfort to this degree…

Oh, god.

Memory rushed back. The two sentinels, in a mating frenzy. The awful sound of Alex’s neck snapping. And Jim’s face – merciless, cold, unreachable - seen through water as he pushed Blair under.

For a few seconds, Blair felt on the edge of panic as he tried to make sense of it all. The noise he could hear – that had to be Jim, right? Chopping wood, perhaps – there was a fire burning close by. But was it Jim? Was it his friend, or was it the pitiless, primal incarnation of the sentinel who had ignored his pleas for mercy and forced him to re-live his most terrifying nightmare?

Blair licked his lips, trying to muster up one ounce of spit from a mouth gone suddenly dry. He longed to call out, to draw Jim over, to be reassured that it was all over now, and that he was safe. But at the same time, he dreaded it, fearing that Jim might still be acting weird. That the sentinel might sniff him, only to find more of his rival’s scent, and ultimately force Blair to go through it all again.

The thought of that actually made him shake. Blair didn’t think he could take any more - if he’d had a limit, he was pretty sure that he’d gone way past it already.

So, instead, he took the coward’s way out, lying quiet and tense, terrified that Jim would come back, yet paradoxically also longing for it. His bladder needled at him, begging for release, but despite the fact that he was unrestrained, Blair ignored the urge, afraid of moving without the sentinel’s sanction – he’d been punished too often by Alex for similar infringements already. And he didn’t want to take the chance that Jim – if he was still operating at an instinctual level – might come upon him naked and vulnerable as he relieved himself, and react in a similar way.

It wasn’t long, however, before the noise stopped. Blair held his breath at the unmistakable sound of someone approaching, and closed his eyes to feign sleep.

He might have known it wouldn’t work on a sentinel. Alex had always sensed when he was awake – why should Jim be any different? The sound of several heavy somethings – pieces of wood, he guessed – being dropped to the ground, was followed by footsteps approaching close. “Chief?” Jim’s voice queried, his tone soft.

Blair swallowed. Get a grip, Blair, he told himself firmly. And he opened his eyes.

Jim was crouched beside him, looking at him in concern. And, to Blair’s immense relief, he seemed to be himself. “Jim. Oh god, Jim…” Overwhelmed – because it was a rescue, after all – Blair couldn’t help it when his relief burst free.

“Hey, easy.” Jim put out a reassuring hand to him, and Blair couldn’t restrain a flinch as it made contact with his shoulder. The last few weeks, during which his almost every waking moment had been characterized by being constantly mauled by Alex, had taken its toll, and made him wary of being casually touched.

Jim, though, seemed shocked by his reaction. He pulled his hand back, as if stung. “God, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Blair,” he said, his eyes shadowed and pain-filled.

Blair wanted to reassure him that it was okay, but he seemed to be having trouble articulating, unused to conversation as he’d become during his captivity. And something urgent – critical, even - was vying for his attention. “Jim,” he managed in a small voice. “I gotta pee, man.”

He’d expected perhaps a good-natured joke, maybe even a little help getting untangled from the sleeping bag, which he could now see he was in - especially since he didn’t feel exactly one hundred per cent in the coordination stakes right now.

What he didn’t expect was for Jim to back off - his eyes averted and hands held high as if in surrender - and to turn and hightail off through the trees, leaving Blair to deal with it himself.

***

A clenched fist of guilt and pain gripped Jim’s gut, squeezing mercilessly. But Jim didn’t consider that he deserved any mercy - as he strode off through the trees, he wished fervently for retribution to strike him down here and now.

He remembered all too clearly, now he was back in his right mind, what had happened back in the temple. He’d killed Alex with his bare hands – murdering the woman without a second’s pause, acting on some bizarre, alien instinct, as though he was a wild animal rather than a rational man. And then he’d turned, and…

A creature, wild-eyed with terror, cowering in the corner.

Blair. It had been Blair. Alone, terrified, brutalized during his captivity if the marks on his flesh were any indication. And Jim had ignored all of that, ignored the fact that Blair was obviously traumatized by what he’d gone through, as well as what he’d just witnessed. Without so much as a reassuring word, he’d stripped Blair, lifted him, and placed him in the tank. And Blair had begged him…

“Don’t do this to me, Jim!”

Blair had cried, had pleaded…

“Please, man! Not like this!”

And Jim had not given a shit about any of that. Because all he could smell was the stench of his enemy…

Blair shaking, resisting as Jim forced him under…

All he could feel was an overwhelming compulsion to wash the stench away…

Blair’s eyes wide with horror and hopelessness under the water, his hair fanning out like river-weed, hands bound at his waist and flailing impotently…

And an overriding satisfaction as the odor dissipated…

The awful, desperate gasp of air as Blair emerged…

Jim’s utter disgust at the persistence of the stink…

Blair shaking, falling apart under Jim’s hands as he was pushed under a second time…

A sense of increasing rightness as the scent was finally diluted to tolerable levels…

The limpness of Blair’s body as he was finally hauled, dripping, from the water.

Afterward, Blair had slept for hours. And when he’d woken?

Jim had touched him, and Blair had flinched away.

He was afraid of Jim. And Jim had given him every reason for that, and then some.

“Goddamn it!” Jim’s fist flew, connecting with the solid bark of a tree. It hurt like a motherfucker.

Pain. It was no more than he deserved. It was his due.

He did it again, the agony creating bright streaks in his mind. And again.

He didn’t stop, even when blood stained the trunk.

***

Blair managed to clumsily unzip the sleeping bag and stand up, although it was a huge effort, shaky and weak as he was. As he leaned against a tree, using it for support while he relieved himself, he acknowledged that at least part of his problem was that he hadn’t eaten anything for days.

The rest of his problem? Blair’s shoulders twitched in constant apprehension, dreading that at any moment Jim would emerge from the trees to find him standing here bare-assed.

That peculiar dread was something he tried to rationalize and banish as he limped barefoot around the makeshift campsite looking for water to drink, food to satisfy his ravenous hunger and something to cover himself with.

He was happier than he could say to see Jim. The last few weeks had been a nightmare of epic proportions and, for most of it, Blair had been without hope of salvation. But rescue, no matter how improbable it had seemed, had happened. It was over. Jim was here, Blair was safe, and Alex was dead…

Don’t go there, Blair told himself firmly, shuddering. There would be time to deal with what he’d seen Jim do to her later. Not now.

Blair understood that Jim had obviously gone through a major sentinel freak-out, just like he had the last time they’d crossed paths with Alex. But hey, they’d been here before, right? They’d gotten through it the last time, and had managed to make sense of the mystical stuff – they could do it again. And at least on this occasion, Blair had emerged from the water still breathing.

To Blair’s relief, Jim had clearly seemed more himself a few minutes ago, than the relentless, emotionless sentinel he’d been in the temple. In fact he’d looked… kind of upset. Which was perfectly natural, given the fact that Jim’s baser sentinel instincts had just driven a basically law-abiding, compassionate man to commit cold-blooded murder.

Don’t go there, Blair, he told himself again. Just breathe.

It took a moment of conscious relaxation before Blair could pluck up the courage to open Jim’s pack, which he found lying by the fire. He wouldn’t have dared to touch anything of Alex’s like this, but this was Jim’s. The guy who had come all the way out here to save him. Jim would expect Blair to do this, especially since he’d left him alone. It was okay to do this – he would not be punished for it.

Jim was not, in any sense, Alex.

Resolute – despite casting nervous looks over his shoulder as he did so – Blair opened the bag and rummaged around.

Wasn’t it odd, Blair couldn’t help but muse - as he pulled on one of Jim’s tee-shirts and a pair of shorts he found rolled up in the bottom of the bag - that Jim had left him on his own like this, the minute he’d woken up? It had been as if he couldn’t get far enough away.

Worried suddenly for a different reason - and remembering the odd expression that had passed over Jim’s face when Blair had first opened his eyes - Blair looked toward the direction Jim had headed. But this time instead of dreading it, he hoped fervently that his friend would actually reappear - because deep down, a suspicion was forming, and it horrified Blair.

Jim had tried to wash Alex’s scent off of him. What if it hadn’t worked? What if it was already too late, and Jim couldn’t bear to be near him any more?

They’d parted on bad terms, months ago. What if this was the final rejection?

“Oh god.” Blair dropped the packet of trail mix he’d fished out of the bag, covering his eyes with shaking hands as despair bloomed once again.

Was that it? Now that he’d gotten Blair safely away from Alex, had Jim left him alone here?

***

Wrapping his bloody fist in strips torn from his tee-shirt, Jim wryly considered the beneficial effects of self-inflicted pain. Because, at long last, the remains of the drug-induced fog - which had been affecting him ever since he set foot in Sierra Verde - had been vanquished, consumed in a fiery haze of agony.

Glancing at his watch, Jim realized guiltily that far too much time had passed during the orgy of self-recrimination he had immersed himself in. And, meanwhile, the very man he’d been literally beating himself up about had been left alone to fend for himself.

As he moved back through the trees toward camp, Jim listened ahead. He could hear Blair’s unsteady breathing – the legacy of someone who had been through far too much. The memory of Blair’s reaction toward him earlier came back to Jim vividly, and not wanting to spook Blair by appearing without warning, Jim took care to announce his approach, abandoning stealth so that his progress would be audible. As he got nearer, he called out, “Chief, it’s me.”

To his dismay, Blair’s respirations increased, and Jim cursed himself yet again for causing Blair to be afraid of him.

Then he determinedly thrust his self-disgust to one side. All that mattered was getting Blair to a safe place where he could recover from his ordeal. And to do that, Jim needed to get a grip.

Nothing he saw as he entered the clearing disabused him in any way of the certainty that he had destroyed forever whatever trust might have once existed between him and Blair. Blair was sitting with his back to a tree, the sleeping bag wrapped around him like a blanket and clutched shut by white-knuckled fingers. Blair was watching Jim’s approach warily, his eyes wide with apprehension in a tense, still face.

Jim walked closer carefully, trying hard to appear unthreatening and in his right mind. The last thing he wanted was for Blair to think himself in any further danger – what Jim had had already put him through was bad enough. So Jim smiled as he approached, hunkering down before he got too close so as not to tower over the other man. “Hey, Chief,” he said gently.

The relief which all too clearly infused Blair’s face spoke volumes. “Jim,” he whispered hoarsely, sounding as though his mouth was dry with thirst or nervousness.

Encouraged, Jim shuffled closer, then froze when Blair flinched back almost imperceptibly.

Goddamn it.

Jim retreated a little and watched despairingly as Sandburg visibly relaxed when the distance between them widened. It seemed that Blair was far more comfortable when Jim was beyond reach. And who could blame him? Jim had submerged him, had held him forcefully under water; had terrified him, making Blair believe he was going to drown him…

Jim cut off that line of thought rapidly. Now was not the time. Now, he had to take care of Blair. Nothing else mattered.

Further self-recrimination would have to wait.

***

Blair’s relief was profound. Jim had not, in fact, left him here to fend for himself. Oh, man. Thank god.

Blair had no idea what he’d have done if Jim had not returned. He supposed he would have waited until morning and, if Jim had not come back then, Blair would have set out alone on foot towards Sierra Verde. But he was so shaky right now, still suffering considerable muscle weakness from the after effects of the interminable period he’d spent in close confinement, as well as a prolonged lack of food, water and sleep, and an over-abundance of constant stress. He had no idea how he’d have managed the journey by himself, in his present debilitated condition.

Plus, he had to admit, he didn’t have the first clue which way Sierra Verde even was from here.

But the best thing – the very best thing - was that Jim seemed to have regained control of his primal impulses. The man who had emerged out of the forest just now was definitely not the same man who had gone into it – and emphatically not the man who had so mercilessly washed the scent of his rival off Blair’s body. Instead of the almost feral glint that had been in his eye, this now looked totally like the Jim Ellison that Blair knew – human and familiar, if unutterably weary, and…

Hurt. He was clearly hurting. Badly.

Blair’s gaze drifted down to Jim’s hand. It was bound in strips of cloth – so that was where Jim’s tee-shirt had disappeared to – and there was blood, soaking through the cloth.

Blair tried to catch Jim’s eye, but the other man seemed to be avoiding his gaze. “What happened to your hand?” he asked, his voice rough with disuse.

Jim shrugged. “It’s nothing,” he said shortly.

“Doesn’t look like nothing, man. I could take a look at it, if you like-”

“Chief.” Jim’s emphatic interruption cut him off; but at least he made eye contact. “It’s not me who needs to be taken care of, all right? I want to get us out of this jungle, and somewhere safe. You’re as weak as a kitten right now, so our priority is getting you fit to travel. I’m gonna go hunt for fresh meat, and while I do that, I want you to keep the fire going. Think you can handle that, partner?”

There was something in Jim’s tone, some odd reserve that Blair couldn’t put his finger on. But there was gentleness too, and concern for him, and the promise of safety. And hearing that, Blair felt like weeping with relief.

But he wouldn’t let himself do that. Not now. Jim was right – they had to get out of here, and back to some semblance of normality. Swallowing the lump in his throat determinedly, and trusting that if Jim said he wasn’t badly hurt, then he probably wasn’t, Blair nodded. “Yeah, I can do that,” he agreed huskily.

“Good.” For a moment, a look passed between them; something that seemed to say partner, and friend, and I’m glad to see you. Then Jim rose and, and headed back off into the trees.

Freed at last from the fear that he would be left alone, Blair sat for a moment, breathing deeply, consciously seeking equilibrium.

Then, rising on shaky legs, he hobbled over to do his part, and build up the fire.

***

One thing that had always impressed Jim about Blair was his ability to pull it together, even in the aftermath of trauma. And Jim was relieved to find that Blair hadn’t lost the ability on this occasion, despite everything he’d been through.

As darkness fell, they ate a meal of wild duck, killed unerringly by a single shot from Jim’s pistol, then stripped from the bone and cooked on skewers of wood over the fire, which Blair had done a good job of maintaining while Jim hunted. Not long afterward, Sandburg fell asleep where he lay, still wrapped in the sleeping bag and exhausted from his ordeal. He hardly moved all night, his sleep apparently dreamless and deep.

Unsleeping nearby, standing motionless in the dim light from the embers, Jim instinctively adopted sentry duty. And as he watched over Sandburg, alert for any threat from the forest, he forced his mind firmly away from continued self-recrimination to carefully consider their next move.

Their first step was to get out of this jungle and back to civilization. Sierra Verde was a two-day trek north, although it would be likely to take longer than that, considering Sandburg’s current debilitated state. Once there, Jim would be able to contact Simon via their local police contacts and arrange a flight back to the States for Blair. As for himself – he needed to return to Peru and the Chopec immediately, to retrieve Naomi.

Any feelings of wrongness he felt when he thought about sending Blair away, he put down to the lingering effect of the drugs he’d taken, and dismissed them. His more primitive instincts had gotten them in nothing but trouble so far. Time to reassert the rational cop, and banish the sentinel.

The next morning Blair seemed much stronger, and Jim judged him fit to begin the journey to Sierra Verde. Getting more food inside Blair at daybreak definitely seemed to help. He had begun to lose the white, transparent frailty that had plagued him, his shakiness dissipating.

Jim had found Blair’s clothes in the temple, mixed up with Alex’s belongings. But apart from retrieving his hiking boots – a necessity, considering the long walk ahead of them - Jim had been unable to bring himself to touch the other things. They stank of her, and no way did he want them anywhere near his friend. The lingering smell on the shoes was bad enough, but at least it would dissipate as they moved. The shorts and tee-shirt Blair was wearing would be sufficient for now, until they could get him something better when they reached Sierra Verde. At least the jungle was humid enough by day, and they could light fires for warmth at night.

The fact that the shorts and tee-shirt smelled of Jim was something he didn’t want to look at too closely. Make that, at all.

Despite his returning vigor, as they set out on their journey, the legacy of what had happened to Blair – what Jim had done to Blair – lingered in the form of an uncharacteristic silence between them, and a tendency for Blair to flinch in apprehension every time Jim reflexively put out a hand to steady his friend’s unsteady footing on the uneven jungle floor.

And every time Blair shuddered away from him, radiating helpless distrust and remembered fear, Jim’s grief and guilt almost overwhelmed him.

***

By the afternoon, and despite frequent breaks to rest, Blair’s muscles ached with exertion. But it was a good ache, the kind you got running a few laps or going one-on-one on the basketball court. It was the most incredible relief to be able to use muscles long-confined to enforced immobility when, for what felt like an eternity, Blair had wondered if he’d ever be allowed autonomy over his own body again.

It was going to take him a while, he understood as they progressed in silence, for him to get back to normal. Alex – and the very thought of her made him cringe in revulsion – had not left him alone for a moment for what he now knew had been weeks. Her constant touching, mauling and invasion of his body in almost every way had become a living nightmare.

Sometimes, when the clumsiness of his underused limbs caused him to stumble in tiredness, he got a jolt of clear memory: Alex’s hands on him, Alex’s mouth, as seductive and terrible as stagnant river slime oozing over his flesh. Usually, the flashback resolved itself after a few, breathless moments, making him aware with dizzy relief that it was not Alex’s hands which caught him and steadied him, but Jim’s.

But that realization led to another. Every time Jim touched him, he pulled his hands away from Blair as if stung, his eyes averted, and an expression on his face that could have been…

Disgust.

And when Blair thought about it, he realized that, other than to offer aid when Blair obviously needed it, Jim hadn’t touched him at all since the temple. And Jim was a tactile guy, physically demonstrative in a gruff, masculine way, as well as tender and gentle with those he cared about - especially, up until the rift which had driven them apart, Blair.

His partner. His friend. His guide.

Yet there had been nothing. No comforting pats, no hand casually laid on his back to subtly convey support. No stray brushing of arms as he invaded Blair’s personal space, no heavy arm laid over his shoulder. And nothing even approaching a hug.

They’d parted on bad terms, yet Blair had assumed, since Jim had come all this way to rescue him, that there were no hard feelings after all. That words spoken in anger had been just that – fleeting, indicative of the difficult situation they’d found themselves in at the time, but largely not indicative of any deeper or more lasting problems between them. That there was a really good chance they could get past it, now that they’d found each other again.

But now, as they progressed in what had become an intensely uncomfortable silence, Blair was forced to question that assumption. And he had to wonder if Jim had really meant it after all, back in Cascade, when he’d accused Blair of being nothing more than a screw-up and a quitter.

Worse than that, maybe Alex had been correct in her assertion - that the reek of her scent on Blair’s body meant that Jim would forever view Blair as a betrayer; no matter how involuntary that olfactory imprinting had been.

A screw-up, a quitter and a betrayer. No wonder Jim no longer wanted to touch him, or even look at him. Jeez, after the way he’d caved at Alex’s hands – and there he went again with the shuddering and the gut clenching revulsion - Blair hardly wanted to look at himself. He felt dirty, soiled, unclean.

It was therefore likely, Blair concluded despairingly, watching the angry, silent set of Jim’s shoulders as he beat a path through the trees, that Jim had found he could only wash away the impurities Blair had on the outside - and that, he knew, would never be good enough for either of them.

***

Jim made an effort to bring them to a halt often, allowing Blair time to rest, taking cues from his body language. The latter was necessary, because Blair progressed in stoic silence, uncomplaining despite clearly finding the sudden exertion after his long captivity onerous His determination to keep going - no matter how bad he felt – was clear.

But despite his returning vigor, Blair stumbled now and then, and Jim couldn’t help putting out a hand to steady him. But the flinches and expression of panic on Blair’s face which resulted from Jim’s touch caused him to back off rapidly, the cumulative effect eroding something precious inside him bit by agonizing bit.

They had to talk, Jim knew. He desperately needed to find a way to reassure Blair that he was no longer under any threat; that nothing was further from Jim’s mind than putting Blair through any more trauma.

That, goddamn it, he was sorry.

Today, however, was not the day. All of Blair’s concentration seemed to be taken up by walking while they were on the move. And by the time they finally halted for good, late in the afternoon, Blair was so exhausted he fell asleep while Jim built up the fire and organized their camp. Later, he roused long enough to eat a little, his eyes averted from Jim. And he crashed again soon after, wrapped once more in the sleeping bag, leaving Jim to stare into the embers of their fire and face the ashes of their friendship alone.

***

Blair felt sore and achy the next day, the exertion having taken its toll. But he was stronger, nevertheless, fortified by the food they ate at intervals and – somewhat contradictorily - almost as invigorated by the physical activity of walking as he was exhausted by it. Consequently, they made good time, setting off in the cooler air of early morning, but not stopping quite so frequently during the heat of the day to rest.

The rift between the two of them, which had been evident the previous day, was all the more apparent now. Jim walked ahead, blazing a trail through the jungle, and Blair followed, limping in his wake. They didn’t converse beyond the bare minimum and, unlike the previous day, Jim made no attempt to approach or help Blair on the odd occasions that he found the terrain hard going.

In fact, Jim barely even looked at Blair, as even if the sight of him in itself was hideously offensive.

As the day went on, Blair sank deeper into despair. He became convinced that Jim had judged him and found him wanting. That he was sullied by Alex’s touch - indelibly marked by the other sentinel as forever hers, despite her death - so that from now on, Jim would never be able to tolerate his presence again.

They made camp at the end of the day in what had become a characteristic silence between them, Blair doggedly doing his part by wordlessly taking responsibility for making a fire. Jim disappeared to hunt for fresh game and was back in short order, the skill his senses lent him allowing for a quick kill.

Blair endured the next couple of hours in a haze of misery. The food was prepared, cooked, eaten and cleared away, the whole operation mechanical and efficient, and their interaction non-existent.

Finally, wrapped once more in the sleeping bag against the encroaching chill of the evening, Blair felt that he had to say something. In a voice tense with unhappiness, certain that this would be where it all ended, he asked, “When we get to Sierra Verde, man, what happens then?”

“I’ll get you on a flight back to Cascade,” Jim said, the words clipped and matter-of-fact. “I’ll contact Simon, make sure he’s available to meet you at the other end. He’ll arrange somewhere for you to stay, make sure you get what you need.”

Somewhere to stay, the unspoken words emphatically told him, that was most definitely not the loft.

It was all too much, suddenly.

“Jim,” Blair blurted out, his voice thick with grief, “I’m just… I’m so sorry, man! I didn’t want her. I never wanted her.” The words tumbled out now, their long confinement causing them to emerge in a rush. “I know I’ve let you down, Jim, and… and I understand that you need me to go away, but please, man, please believe me. This wasn’t my choice.” His voice broke. “Oh god, I’m so sorry.”

Blair’s head dropped forward into his hands, which he used to try and smother the embarrassing tears which trickled out.

Jim’s voice, when it came, was shocked. “What the hell do you think you’ve got to be sorry for?”

That wasn’t, really, exactly how Blair had expected Jim to respond. He risked a glance at the other man through shaking fingers, and what he saw pulled him up short. Jim looked as though he’d been sucker punched. Feeling suddenly as though he was treading on quicksand, Blair clarified, “I was with Alex! And I let her… I couldn’t stop her from scent-marking me.”

“How is that your fault, Sandburg?” Jim demanded. “She kidnapped you!”

Blair had to admit she had, at that. And as if to confirm it, a memory hit suddenly – a vivid recollection of the terror he’d felt when, after she’d murdered Manco right in front of him, he’d been deprived of sight and liberty, confined, touched, endlessly touched…

The sudden sensation of another’s hand on his arm made him jump back with a yelp. Goddamn it! For a moment, it was as if he’d been back there, with her. Again.

His sight cleared after a moment, the past resolving itself once more into the present. And the first thing he saw was Jim backing away, hands raised in surrender. “Sorry, Chief,” his friend was saying. “I’ll stay back, okay? I won’t touch you again.”

“What?” Blair felt like he’d missed something, and he felt muddled, shaky. Flashbacks, his inner psych minor informed him. PTSD. It’s normal to feel like this, to feel weird after a trauma-induced flashback.

Jim had retreated around the other side of the fire. He seemed to be avoiding looking at Blair. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “What I did to you… Chief, I know it was… unforgivable. All I can do is try to reassure you.” He looked over at Blair, finally. “It won’t,” he said earnestly, “happen again. You have my word.”

Blair shook his head in puzzlement. “What won’t?” Still a little disoriented, Blair strove to make sense of what was going on. “Jim, if you don’t blame me for what I – for what she - did, why are you sending me back to Cascade without you? Is it because we argued before I left?” The fact that Jim had now turned this around and was apologizing to him was totally baffling.

Patiently, speaking softly, Jim said, “No. It’s got nothing to do with that. I’m sending you home, Chief, because I want you to feel safe. So that you can be sure that you’re far away from me.”

That made no sense. “I don’t understand! I trust you, Jim! Why would I want to get away from you?”

Jim didn’t answer, his jaw muscles bunching as he looked away from Blair.

And suddenly, Blair understood. This was about his immersion in the pool. Jim pushing him under, washing off Alex’s scent, cleansing him of the impurities which marked him as an enemy.

“Oh, Jim,” Blair said softly, aching with understanding for his oh-so-rational friend, who’d been compelled to commit what he fervently believed were irrational acts.

Blair had to admit that that the dunking he’d been subjected to had been terrifying at the time – until he had realized what was happening. And once he’d understood that Jim had simply wanted to cleanse him of Alex’s scent, the worst of his fear had fled, vanquished by the belief that he was safe in Jim’s hands.

And not only that - part of him had intrinsically felt that the strange baptism had been a necessary ritual, not just for Jim, but for him as well. Blair probably still had some way to go before he’d be able to completely exorcise Alex’s taint from his body and mind. But that cleansing had been a vital first step, rife with powerful symbolism. In its aftermath, no matter how bizarre and frightening it had been at the time, it felt right.

“You got it now?” Jim challenged, unaware of the convoluted path Blair’s thoughts had taken. “I mean, it’s not as if you don’t get it every fucking time I come near you, Chief. Not,” he added hastily, “that I blame you for that. My fault, Blair. You’ve done nothing wrong. But me?” He laughed hollowly. “I have. I scared you half to death. You thought I was going to drown you. I pushed you under the water and held you there, just like she did. It’s no wonder that every time I move in your direction, you’re terrified of me.”

Blair blinked. “I’m not scared of you,” he objected. “You were acting on instinct, man. You’re not responsible.”

Jim didn’t answer, his misery and guilt palpable.

And then, Blair had his next epiphany. He’d spent the time since they’d been reunited in an intermittent haze of remembered terror. And now that he thought about it, many of those moments - when he’d found himself locked in a vivid memory of Alex’s hands touching him, stroking him, mauling him – had coincided with Jim’s hands reaching out to steady him. And every time Jim had touched him without warning, he’d flinched away, spooked by the unexpected touches – because it cast him back into a flashback of her.

But Jim had simply assumed Blair was afraid of him, every single time it had happened, viewing it as nothing more than confirmation of his guilt.

Needing Jim to understand that it truly wasn’t him that had been causing his fear reactions, Blair said, “Sometimes, I don’t know it’s you.”

“What?” Jim looked at him, perplexed.

“I don’t always know it’s you touching me,” Blair clarified. “I’m having flashbacks. To her. So when you touch me, especially when I don’t expect it, I… I get confused, sometimes.” He looked at Jim earnestly. “It’s not you I’m scared of, man. You’ve gotta believe me!”

“Blair,” Jim asked carefully. “What did she do to you?”

Blair shuddered. “She touched me. Like, all the time. She kept me blindfolded and man, she could move totally silently. So I never knew she was there until I felt it.”

“Jesus.” Jim looked horrified.

It hurt Blair to talk about it – his embarrassment and shame that he’d been so helpless at her hands had shaken him profoundly. “She never left me alone, not for a second,” he went on, forcing out the words, desperate to make Jim understand, no matter how difficult it was to admit any of it. “She fed me only with her hands, gave me water from her mouth. She held my dick when I pissed, cleaned me up when I took a shit. The rest of the time, she just… mauled me. Over and over. Every bit of my body, man. Absolutely everywhere. And not just with her hands - with her mouth as well. Sometimes, she hurt me, especially if I pissed her off. But mostly, it was just soft. Too soft.”

“God, Blair.”

“I, uh, know what you’re thinking,” Blair said, unable to meet Jim’s eyes. “Sandburg got himself tied up and groped by a woman, right? But it wasn’t sexual, man, even when it got… intimate. I wasn’t a man, to her – just a thing. She did it to destroy my scent and replace it with hers, so that when you came, you’d mate with her and forget about me.”

There was stunned silence for a moment. Then Jim said sincerely, “Oh god. Blair, I’m so sorry.”

The sympathy in Jim’s voice brought a rush of fresh tears. “Hey, it’s just touching, right? I’ll get over it.” Blair nodded, swallowing heavily. “I’ll be fine.”

There was silence for a moment, broken only by the crackle of the fire. Then Jim said softly, “I won’t touch you again, Blair. Not unless you say it’s okay.”

Something about that assurance filled Blair with an odd sorrow, as well as a contradictory longing for Jim to do exactly that. “It’s not touching per se that’s the problem,” he hedged, trying to make sense of his conflicted reaction. “At least, I don’t think it is. It’s just… I need to know it’s you first, okay? So I can get it straight in my head. That’s all. I’m not saying don’t touch. I’m saying, just warn me first. That way, I won’t think it’s her.”

It seemed that his underlying conflicting feelings had somehow conveyed themselves to Jim, because across the other side of their fire, the other man stirred. “Blair, look at me,” he said.

Startled, Blair did what he asked – to find Jim regarding him with such an expression of tenderness that it took his breath away.

“This is me,” Jim said softly. “Keep watching, Chief.” He rose gracefully, the panther in his soul never more evident.

Blair froze in anticipation as Jim prowled around the fire, coming closer. “Keep watching, Blair,” Jim said. “This is me. You got that?”

“Yeah,” Blair breathed, nervous despite himself.

Jim sat down beside him, close enough to touch, but not touching. “Say my name,” he said.

Blair’s tears were falling again, but he was hardly aware of it. All of his attention was on the man at his side. “You’re Jim,” he croaked out.

“Yeah. I’m Jim.” Jim put his arms out toward Blair. “It’s still me, Chief,” he said, as his hands made contact, drawing Blair in. “It’s me.” Blair was pulled closer, hands – big, comforting hands, not too-soft female hands - cradling him firmly against a hard, male torso. “It’s me,” Jim said again, and Blair felt himself rocked. “Just me.”

“Jim.” Blair choked out the word, his own hands grappling for purchase. “Oh god, Jim.”

“Yeah,” Jim breathed. “It’s Jim. I’ve got you, Chief. It’s over.”

Being here in Jim’s arms was a haven out of Blair’s dreams. It felt right, like he belonged.

It felt nothing like being with Alex.

At long last, feeling safer than he had for an eternity, Blair was finally able to let go of endless weeks of pain, humiliation and fear, in the sanctuary of his own sentinel’s arms.

***

Even in sleep, Blair clutched at Jim’s hand, holding tight as if he’d never let it go. That subconscious evidence of the unbroken connection between them, despite everything that they’d gone through, touched Jim deeply.

Until Blair had divulged what Alex had done to him, Jim had wallowed in guilt.

He still felt guilty – god, the horrific image of Blair’s panicked face, submerged beneath the water, was indelibly burned on his retinas. But the guilt no longer crippled him, or forced him into a blind cycle of despair in which he couldn’t see the wood for the trees – or the reality of his partner’s pain.

Blair had forgiven him. Blair thought that what he’d done was necessary and right. Jim shook his head, a wry smile on his lips as he gazed fondly at Blair’s sleeping features. Jeez, Sandburg was incorrigible when it came to Jim’s sentinel instincts. Even after everything that had happened.

Even Alex’s violent death at Jim’s hands had been explained away, once Blair had gotten himself together earlier. As the two of them had sat together in the firelight, Blair pressed close in the crook of Jim’s arm, his friend had told him, “You were protecting your territory, Jim – protecting me. Sentinel justice has been meted out in that temple for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. You were acting on pure instinct, driven by forces you couldn't control. And anyway, man,” Blair had added, a shiver going through him and causing Jim to hold him tighter, “She would have killed you if you hadn’t killed her first. It’s what she intended all along - after she got what she wanted, you’d have been dead. You wouldn’t have stood a chance. What you did was pre-emptive self defense.”

Soon afterward, exhausted by the release of emotion held inside for far too long, Blair had fallen asleep, wrapped once more in the solitary sleeping bag Jim had brought along. But he hadn’t relinquished Jim’s hand, and Jim had been in no hurry to insist that he do so.

And so, here they were.

Jim should be exhausted, he knew. Apart from an occasional watchful doze, he hadn't slept for days. But instead, he felt invigorated and renewed. He’d been granted Blair’s unflinching support, and was in his rightful place at Blair’s side – exactly where Ninapakcha had told him he needed to be. Jim fingered the pouch which still hung around his neck, and finally admitted to himself that the Chopec shaman had been right about everything else – no doubt he was on the ball about this too.

Tomorrow, they would reach Sierra Verde, and they’d be able to decide what to do from there. One thing was certain, though. They were not going to be separated again.

***

Arriving in the midday hustle and bustle of Sierra Verde the next day, their first priority was to buy clothes so that they would have a chance of getting a room in a halfway-decent hotel. As he handed over an inflated amount of money to a busy street trader for jeans and tee shirts, Jim cast an eye over their currently disreputable state of dress – both of them unwashed, sweaty and sporting several days' growth of beard, with Blair wearing Jim’s too-big shorts and oversized tee-shirt, and Jim bare-chested. It was no wonder they had been attracting odd glances from passers-by ever since they entered the town.

They retired to a back alley to dress, then progressed wearily onward, heading toward the area they had stayed in before when they’d last visited Sierra Verde.

As they moved through the streets, Blair’s wide-eyed expression and nervous demeanor resembled nothing so much as a deer caught in the headlights. Jim understood what he was going through. As they’d walked through the forest that morning, Blair had told Jim a little more of what he’d endured at Alex’s hands. He’d been kept in sensory deprivation for weeks, it seemed, deprived of sight for almost the whole time, and allowed physical contact only with her. It had been nothing less than torture.

And not only that. Blair still protested that her touch had not been sexual, but it had been molestation all the same, Jim understood. The intent did not matter – the intimate nature of the constant mauling Blair had been unwillingly subjected to, in a situation where he had been totally powerless to resist, absolutely made it a form of sexual assault, with all the associated repercussions that went along with that.

Not surprisingly, given all that he’d gone through, the return to civilization was proving to be somewhat of a culture shock for Blair. Jim could sense, as they hit the busy streets, that he was on the verge of panic, his respiration fast, and his flinches at the proximity of strangers passing by on the street almost constant.

Jim took it upon himself to act as a buffer. When people got too close he moved in between, his expression clearly warning away anyone who approached. He was aware of nervous looks that were cast their way by others, no doubt intimidated by his attitude and disturbed by Blair’s obvious nervousness. But he didn’t care about that – all that concerned him right now was getting Blair to a place of safety, where they could rest and begin to plan their next move.

But then the inevitable happened. A woman hurrying past them – young, beautiful and exactly the kind of female who would have turned Sandburg’s head in normal circumstances - stepped out of the path of a gaggle of children. Her arm brushed Blair’s accidentally; no more than a whisper of a touch. Muttering an absent minded apology, the woman then continued on her way.

But the damage was done.

Blair stood frozen in her wake, his expression one of deep horror, lost in some remembered place of powerlessness and unceasing, repulsive sensation.

Jim didn’t think that touching Blair right now himself was a good idea, but they were drawing unwanted attention on the busy street, and he had no other option, since Blair’s mind was emphatically elsewhere. So Jim manhandled his unresisting partner into an alleyway, where he pushed Blair up against a wall and let go of him, relying on the brickwork to support his partner’s unresponsive body. Then he placed a hand flat against the wall on either side of him, bracketing him in the circle of his arms without touching, protecting him from the curious gaze of anyone who might glance down the alley.

Finally, Blair’s eyes focused on Jim’s face. “Jim?” he queried plaintively

“It’s me.” Jim’s words – firm, assertive – matched the hard hug he pulled Blair into. “That was a doozy, huh?”

In his arms, Blair shuddered.

Not caring how it might look, Jim kept an arm about Blair’s shoulders after that, shielding his friend with his body from accidental touches as they went on their way through the town. Thankfully, it wasn’t much further to their destination – the hotel that they’d stayed in the last time they’d been in Sierra Verde, when they’d been here chasing Alex and the nerve gas.

***

Blair’s relief at getting out of the bright sunlight and away from the midday crowds outside was profound.

He lay on his bed in the half-light of the room’s drawn blinds, listening to the comforting sounds of Jim in the shower and anticipating his own turn in there next. It would be a relief to wash off the grime he’d accumulated since his immersion in the pool. It would be even more of a relief, he considered, stroking his hairy chin, to get rid of the impressive beard he’d grown during the past few days.

Blair still felt a little shaky. He’d been cut off from the outside world for so long that being thrust back into it in the form of hot, noisy, crowded Mexican streets had been more traumatic than he could have imagined. A part of him, perversely, had almost longed to be isolated again, because no matter how awful his ordeal had been, he had achieved, at the end, an odd kind of peace with the sensory-deprived condition he’d been forced into.

Blair shuddered - he knew that was a crazy way of thinking. But he guessed that crazy thinking was an inevitable consequence of what he’d endured.

The thing that confused him the most, now that it was over, was the weird visual hallucination he’d continually experienced toward the end of his captivity. Alex had told him at the time that being deprived of sight had been necessary to enable him to develop shamanic sight; but he now knew, from talking to Jim, that he’d been drugged. That the water Alex had given him mouth-to-mouth had contained the same narcotic plants she had used to make herself irresistible to her desired mate.

It was logical to assume that the drug had created that effect. That both the sight and the auditory hallucinations of the howling jaguar which had dogged him throughout had been a combined result of stress, fasting and chemicals, as well as his near-constant longing that Jim would somehow find him and save him. It was not the first time in his life, after all, that he’d been deceived into believing that something his drugged mind had conjured up was real.

But it really had been so damned real. And Blair was beginning to wonder exactly how much of a place logic had in helping him understand what he’d experienced, when something deep within him was screaming out that this time, it had all been true.

There was one way to find out. If the drug had been responsible for his strange ability to see with his eyes closed, as well as to perceive the strange other world occupied by the cries of jaguars and wolves, then it should no longer be possible for him to do it. Closing his eyes, Blair focused inward, reaching once again for that nebulous place in his mind where some inner eye cast light into the darkness.

And there it was.

The room, which had been dim in his normal vision, was suddenly bathed in golden light, its detail clear and fresh. And he knew that if he pushed just a little harder, the animals which prowled the periphery of his awareness would reveal themselves.

Breathing hard, Blair opened his eyes, extinguishing the golden glow and returning his vision to the mundanity of the shadowy hotel room.

***

It was good, now that they’d reached a place of safety, to see Sandburg getting back a little of his equilibrium. Showered, shaved and fed, Blair was beginning to look more like his regular self, despite the dark circles under his eyes and the total lack of his normal chatter.

That said, there was a sense of familiar easiness between the two them as they relaxed in the security of their hotel room. And the return of that easiness, despite the bitter circumstances under which they had parted and all that had taken place since, reassured Jim enormously.

By mutual, unspoken consent, they napped for most of the afternoon, exhausted by the whole ordeal and the long trek through the jungle. The cooler air of early evening found them both awake, still tired but considerably rested. Jim ordered room service, determined – despite Blair’s protestation that he was not hungry – that his partner needed sustenance.

After eating they lay side by side, sipping beer and watching – but not watching – the surreal soap opera which droned away in muted Spanish on the TV.

Finally, Blair broke their silence. “So what happens now, man?”

“I can’t come back to Cascade with you.” Jim took a swig of beer, then glanced aside at Blair. “Hey,” he clarified, when he saw the dismayed expression on his partner’s face. “It’s not because I don’t want to, all right? I left your mom behind in Peru, like I told you, and I need to go get her first. That’s all.” As he spoke, he firmly ignored the nagging inner voice, which insisted that sending Sandburg off alone was a really bad idea.

“I want to come with you.” Regular Sandburg stubbornness asserted itself.

“No. No way,” Jim deflected. “Chief, you’re not in any shape to hike through yet another jungle. I’ll book you on a flight first thing in the morning – hell, I’ll pay for first class, if the extra space makes you feel more comfortable. And I’ll make sure Simon is there at the other end to meet you. You’ll be fine, I promise. Whatever help you need, you’ll get it.”

Blair levered himself up off the bed, turning his back to Jim, his arms crossed over his stomach in a self-protective gesture. “I don’t think I can get the help I need in Cascade, man.”

“What are you talking about?”

Sandburg turned to look at Jim, his expression haunted. “The Chopec shaman, he gave you a medicine pouch, right? To mitigate the affects of the drug that… that Alex used?”

Jim nodded. “Yeah, but I don’t see-”

“I want him to give me one too.”

“Why?”

Blair ran a hand through his hair, his bone-deep exhaustion still apparent despite the much-needed down time. “There’s something weird happening with me. It’s been like this for days now. I’m… I’m seeing things. Hearing things.”

“Blair,” Jim explained patiently, “You were drugged too, remember?”

“Yeah, but that was days ago. It’s gotta be out of my system by now. But this… thing, it keeps happening. If I close my eyes, I can still see. Things look different – glowing, strange, but I can see them. I can hear… animals.” He adopted a listening pose, his eyes closing. “They’re quiet now, like they’re listening to us. But I can sense them. They never leave me, man. Not for a second.”

“Blair,” Jim said softly. “You’ve been through a lot. Once you’re home-“

“You’re not listening to me!” Blair’s eyes were still closed, but oddly Jim still felt the burning heat of his furious gaze. “I know all about isolation-induced PTSD, all right? And yeah, this could be it. But I’m pretty sure that it’s not.”

Treading softly, Jim prodded, “What do you think it is, then, Blair?”

Blair ignored the question. “Hold up your hand,” he demanded. “Ask me how many fingers.”

“Sandburg,” Jim protested. But he obliged anyway. “Okay, how many?”

Blair’s eyes were still closed tight, not a hint of blue showing beneath the lids. “Three,” he said confidently.

“Lucky guess.”

“Do it again.”

Jim held up a second hand. “Seven,” Blair asserted. Then, “Do it again.”

There was something ludicrous about this guessing game, but for some reason Jim wasn’t amused. “What am I doing now?” he asked.

“You’re lacing your fingers together. Now they’re apart, and you’ve put one hand over your mouth. Oh man,” Blair opened his eyes. “Are you okay?”

Jim felt sick. “What did she do to you, Chief?” he asked.

“She told me she was making me into a shaman,” Blair admitted.

Memory hit – Incacha’s gift of ‘sight’, his successor Ninapakcha leading Jim through a ritual which would protect him from Alex, his eyes shut all the while.

Incacha had passed the way of the shaman onto Blair with his dying breath - it seemed that Alex had opened the door that had been stubbornly closed ever since.

Jim stood, taking his partner by the shoulders. Right now, Blair couldn’t look less like a shaman – he looked scared, exhausted and fragile. Gazing sincerely into his partner’s eyes, Jim nodded. “We’ll both go to the Chopec,” he promised. “We’ll get you the help you need.”

Blair’s tense expression melted into one of profound relief. “Thanks, man,” he said hoarsely.

Wanting nothing more than to give comfort and understanding - as only one who had lived with the Chopec could understand - that Blair would have a hard road ahead, Jim pulled him into a tight embrace.

***

Two days later, footsore and sweating with exertion and the moist heat of the rainforest, Blair and Jim neared the Chopec village. They had traveled non-stop to get there, first by plane to Lima, then in the helicopter provided by Corazao Diaz out into the rainforest, and finally for hours on foot through terrain that could not be traversed any other way.

Despite the aches and pains of muscles that had not yet reclaimed their full strength, Blair felt better than he had for ages: alive and vital, and utterly free of the constant terror and revulsion he’d felt at Alex’s hands. Jim’s easy, solid presence at his side could not be more different from the cloying oppressiveness of Alex, or more reassuring.

The constant weirdness Blair was struggling to come to terms with still scared him. But he found that when he was in Jim’s company, it bothered him far less. Jim’s easy acceptance of it, and his clear belief that Blair wasn’t going nuts, was hugely reassuring, as was Jim’s assertion that the Chopec shaman would be able to help him.

Most of the time, Blair just wanted it to go away. He hadn’t asked for this – he was a scientist, an anthropologist. He was supposed to study this kind of thing, not live it.

Blair strove, therefore, to keep it under control, hoping that, once they reached the Chopec, the shaman would cure him of this strange and unsettling affliction. He avoided consciously reaching into that place deep within, where animals circled restlessly and the world shimmered with blue light. Sometimes, though, his control slipped, and he watched as the world glowed ethereally through closed eyelids, the howls of a wolf echoing in his ears. But Jim’s constant, solid presence always drew him back, a dependable anchor to the corporeal world.

Blair didn’t want to imagine what might happen if they ever got separated.

They had been shadowed by Chopec scouts for the last couple of hours as they neared the village, Jim calling out to them in fluent Quechua at intervals, their voices fluttering back toward Jim from the trees. Blair didn’t understand much of it – he knew a smattering of the language, no more. But it seemed that their arrival had been anticipated, and the comments of the warriors sometimes inspired Jim to laugh out loud, his eyes shining.

Blair studied Jim surreptitiously as they traveled, marveling at how easily his friend slipped in and out of this culture. Back in Cascade, Jim usually projected this regular-guy image - well, as much as an amazing cop like him could be a regular guy, anyway. He did his job, paid his taxes, drank beer and went to basketball games.

But underneath was a different side altogether. This was the man who had lived for eighteen months as the sentinel of a tribe in a remote rainforest, leading their warriors in a furious battle to guard the Chopec Pass. The man who, after Incacha’s death, had vented his grief wildly, before going on to observe traditional ritual to mark the shaman’s passing.

The same man who had accepted so easily that Blair’s visions were the product of mysticism, rather than insanity.

Jim was nothing if not a man of contradictions. And, watching him in this place, Blair was struck by a realization.

Back in Cascade, Jim struggled constantly with who he was, agonizing over senses which often proved more of a hindrance that a help, and constantly juggling the two aspects of his life – the regular guy and the sentinel - in a hard-fought battle to keep it all in balance.

But here, among these people, he simply looked comfortable, and at peace.

As if to confirm the track of Blair’s thoughts, Jim looked over at him and smiled. “Almost there now, Chief,” he said.

He’d said there. But what Blair absolutely heard was home.

***

Jim felt nothing but relief at having finally reached the sanctuary of the Chopec village.

Blair was holding up well, digging into the reserve of strength that Jim had always known was there in his partner. Physically he was recovering quickly, the reasonable level of fitness he’d enjoyed before Alex had abducted him standing him in good stead now in the aftermath.

But there were other effects of his ordeal and as they entered the village, those reared their head. Village children crowded close, reaching out toward the visitors in their midst, and Blair cringed close to Jim to avoid their touch. Without any hesitation, Jim put his arm around Blair and pulled him tight to his side. “Sayay!” he barked at the children, warning them away. “Lluqsiy kaymanta!” And they scattered, unafraid of the sentinel but respectful of his wishes nevertheless.

After that, the scouts who had accompanied them moved in, forming what amounted to an honor guard around the two of them. And thus protected, Jim’s arm remaining around Blair’s shoulders, they reached the center of the village without further incident, Blair recovering his composure as they went.

Naomi awaited them there, and Ninapakcha. The shaman had placed a restraining hand on Naomi’s arm, preventing her from approaching, but her gaze swept over her son. “Blair,” she murmured, her eyes filled with love and longing. “Oh, sweetie, I’ve been so worried. Are you all right?”

Blair, it seemed, was pleased to see her, but he pressed closer to Jim, as if afraid of what her touch might invoke. “Mom,” he said, his voice cracking. “Yeah, yeah I’m fine.”

“Naomi,” Jim put in. “We’re both pretty tired, and Blair hasn’t had an easy time of it. How about we rest for a while first, huh? And then later we can talk. Okay?” After she nodded her assent, still looking at Blair longingly, he focused on Ninapakcha, intending to ask if they could go somewhere private. But it seemed the shaman had already anticipated their needs. In short order they were ushered into a vacant hut, provided with fruit and water, and left alone.

They sat down to eat and drink a little. Then, exhaustion finally catching up with him, Blair all-but keeled over onto the sleeping mat which lay along the far wall. As his eyes closed, one hand flailed out and Jim caught it, cradling it between his own. And as Sandburg’s breathing gradually assumed the rhythm of sleep, Jim stayed by his side, adopting sentry duty for his guide without a second thought.

***

There was something bizarrely right, Jim decided, sitting motionless beside his sleeping friend, in being here together, like this, despite everything. He felt it deep in his bones, in spite of the nagging misgivings he had about some of the weirder aspects of their friendship.

For months before he’d come to Peru, he’d indulged in his guilty secret. He’d carried Blair’s scent with him, a minute trace amount on a postcard in a sealed evidence bag. And that scent had sustained him and kept him sane, even during the nightmare interval when he and Naomi had believed Blair to be dead.

Not that there was anything conventionally sane about a man who needed to obsessively sniff his friend, like a drug addict needing his fix.

Taking in a deep breath of Sandburg-scented air, casting his discomfort at doing so to one side for the time being, Jim luxuriated in the abundance of that aroma, made even more pungent by the sweat drying on Blair’s flesh. As he filled his lungs, exhaustion fell away and his senses sharpened, filling him with a sense of profound well-being.

Jesus, he was one sick puppy.

Movement intruded at the doorway. Levels of threat were assessed in a millisecond, and then Jim relaxed and nodded in welcome to the shaman who entered.

“He sleeps,” Ninapakcha noted unnecessarily, squatting down beside Jim and looking at Blair.

Jim nodded. “He’s exhausted.”

Ninapakcha looked at where their hands were entwined. “Does this mean,” he asked, “that you will now embrace your bond?”

The word Ninapakcha used for ‘bond’ - wataywawke - was a word with deep significance to the Chopec, Jim remembered from his time living here. It had connotations that went way beyond friendship. It indicated a formal, lifelong commitment, never entered into lightly, between paired warriors of the tribe who possessed a profound connection to each other.

It was also, Jim knew, a word which denoted an even deeper level of meaning, bordering on the mystical, when applied to sentinels and shamans.

Jim sighed, recognizing the inevitable. “I don’t think I have much of a choice.” He looked at the shaman. “When we were separated, I hungered for him,” he admitted. “Without him, I was not whole. I don’t want to us to become estranged again.”

Ninapakcha face was stern. “You suffered, Enqueri, yes, but your shaman suffered more. You cast him off and left him vulnerable to the other, alone and struggling with his gifts. You should have embraced your bond long ago.”

“I’m ready for it now, if he is,” Jim acceded. “If he agrees, then I am prepared to enter into a bond with him.”

Jim started when Ninapakcha thumped him hard on the arm. “Fool,” the shaman snapped. “You bonded long ago. Can you not sense it?”

“I don’t understand.” Jim rubbed his arm, not understanding Ninapakcha’s annoyance. “There has been no ceremony between us.”

Ninapakcha was looking at him witheringly. “You confuse the ritual with the act of bonding itself.” Ninapakcha indicated Blair, who still slept, oblivious to their discussion. “Incacha marked him as a shaman. Did he not walk with the spirits? And did your two spirits not merge? That was when you bonded, Enqueri. That was when you became one. The ceremony you must perform, and the promises you must make to each other in the ritual, are simply the final step.”

Jim’s breath caught in his throat, as understanding hit.

Blair’s limp body, cold, dripping, his spirit driven violently out. Jim following without a second thought: pursuing, four-footed, relentless. The wolf and the jaguar merging in a flash of light. Blair’s essence filling his every cell, his every pore - the two of them becoming, for that ecstatic moment, one being; filling each other, completing each other.

Emerging reborn, as two halves of a whole.


Every moment since, Jim had been hyperaware of Blair’s presence – as well as hyperaware of his absence.

As for Blair, his vitality had gradually fled, stunted and all-but extinguished as Jim had consistently pushed him away - too afraid of the thing that had grown between them to face it, or even to look Blair in the eye. Eventually, heart-sore and hurt, Blair had fled after one blow, one rejection too many, cast adrift and bereft.

Only to have his shamanic abilities – recognized by Incacha and brought forcibly to life by his involuntary spirit walk at the Rainier fountain – wrenched to wakefulness at the hands of the same sadistic sentinel who had drowned him, far from the protection of his own bond-mate.

Jim turned his head to look down at Blair, taking in his sleeping form and acknowledging the truth. His own fear, his inability to accept what he was or understand what they had become, had done this to his friend. When their spirits merged, they had forged an unbreakable bond. After that, they should have grown closer, becoming a paired force to be reckoned with. And Blair should have had the opportunity, safely cushioned by the protection of their bond, to grow into his gifts naturally.

Instead they had each been alone, wounded and vulnerable, ripe for exploitation by the deranged sentinel who had twisted their connection to each other for her own ends.

It ended here. Jim made a vow – it was time to cast away his fears, once and for all, and do the right thing. It was time to choose.

Jim met the measuring gaze of the Chopec shaman, to see Ninapakcha nod at him in approval. And Blair’s living pulse beat vibrantly through the hand that Jim held, his scent filling Jim’s every inhalation.

***

Waking was a chore, aching muscles and the itch and stink of his own dried sweat an unwanted torment.

The hut glowed with muted luminosity, blue-tinted and alluring. Panicked, Blair opened his eyes to dim, natural light, resonant of early evening, the firm grasp on his hand summoning him back to reality with a gasp.

Blair turned his head to find Jim sitting sleepless beside him, his hand in Blair’s blessedly real and solid. “Hey,” Jim said gently. “How’re you feeling?”

Blair ran his free hand over his face, and scratched at his chin. “I stink, man. I don’t suppose there’s a bathtub anywhere, huh?”

Blair was joking, but Jim actually nodded. “There’s a series of pools a little way off.” He cocked his head, listening. “There’s no one up there at the moment. We should go clean up, then join Naomi and Ninapakcha for the evening meal.”

“Oh man, my mom.” Blair felt incredibly guilty, now the worst of his exhaustion had been dealt with. “I need to see her.”

“You will,” Jim assured him. “She’s with Ninapakcha right now, waiting for you to wake up. He asked her to leave us alone until you were ready.”

“Is she okay?” Blair didn’t think she would be too happy at being kept away from him, considering the fact that she’d come to Peru thinking he was dead, then gotten left behind with the Chopec while Jim went off to his rescue.

But Jim just smiled. “She’s fine, Chief. I can hear her talking to ‘Pakcha. She’s getting pretty good at Quechua, except that she keeps mixing up the word which means ‘swim’ with the word for ‘love’. He’s wondering what it is about the bathing pools she finds so alluring.”

“Oh, man.” Trusting Jim that she could wait a little longer, amused and relieved at her characteristic ability to take conversation with a tribal shaman in her stride, Blair grinned. “Let’s go find out, then, huh?”

Jim grinned in return. Then, standing, he hauled Blair to his feet.

***

The bathing pools were not far away, just a five-minute walk west of the village. There were two pools in all, one higher and one lower down, formed in the crook of a stream flowing down from the rocky higher ground, and separated by a small waterfall.

Blair kept mostly to the shallow edge of the lower, slightly bigger pool as he bathed, wanting very much to remain on firm footing. He watched as, unselfconsciously naked, Jim swam back from the far side with powerful strokes, expecting at any moment as his friend approached that he’d be teased for his own reticence to completely strip off and immerse himself in the water.

Jim was proving to be a man of surprises right now, however. Instead he walked past with nothing more than a glance in Blair’s direction before lying full-length on a rock to dry himself in the last rays of the setting sun.

Blair finished bathing soon afterwards, his hair dripping cool trails down his back. He used the towel out of the pack that Jim had hauled along to the pool with them, and got dressed in clean shorts and a tee-shirt – supplies, like the towel, that they’d purchased before leaving Sierra Verde.

Moving over toward Jim, who was still sunning himself, stretched out in the heat like a big, powerful cat, Blair threw a rolled-up bundle of clean clothes at him. His friend caught them in one deft hand and began to dress as Blair sat down in the sun beside him, likewise enjoying the warm rays of the sun on clean skin, comfortable in the cooler, less clammy air of early evening.

As he sat there, with Jim dressing in easy silence beside him, Blair felt at peace for the first time in an eternity. He recognized that they had reached a place of sanctuary at last. The threat had been eliminated and he was safe, along with the two people he cared for most in the world. And whatever it was that was going on with him – well, the Chopec shaman had to know what to do. He’d helped Jim, after all.

Meanwhile, on the edge of his awareness, wild animals prowled, their growling muted and the air around them tense with anticipation.

***

Right now was a time for reunion, not for getting straight down to addressing the issues of their bond and Blair’s newly awakened shaman abilities. Naomi, Jim understood, had waited to see her son for more than long enough.

“Oh, sweetie!” she exclaimed as they approached the shaman’s hut, her arms outstretched as she moved to meet them. She’d obviously been waiting outside for a while, watching for them.

Beside him, Jim heard Blair take a deep breath, his heart pounding double-time, before he shifted minutely closer to Jim’s side. “It’s your mom, Chief,” Jim murmured. “Just keep that thought front and center, all right?”

Blair was breathing deeply, striving for control. “Yeah, man. I know. I’m trying,” he said. Then, resolutely, he stepped forward, holding out his arms to her. “Naomi!” he said in welcome. And Jim watched him anxiously as they came together, ready to intervene if he had to.

But it seemed that either Jim’s advice had worked, or that Naomi’s touch was too familiar and beloved to be feared. Blair relaxed into her embrace, moving in turn to give her comfort when tears made an appearance. “Hey, Mom! Hey, don’t cry! It’s okay. It’s okay!”

“I’ve been so worried,” Naomi sobbed. “I thought you were dead, Blair. We both did.”

Blair glanced at Jim over Naomi’s shoulder, dismay for Naomi’s – and Jim’s - pain clear. “Hey,” he reassured her. “I’m fine, Mom. I’m here, in one piece. Everything’s going to be fine now.”

Naomi held onto him for a long moment. Then, keeping one arm around her son, she turned to look at Jim. She held out a hand to him, which he took in his own as he stepped closer. “Thank you, Jim,” she told him, her eyes shining with tears and gratitude. “Thank you for bringing him back safe.”

“Well, you know,” Jim deflected wryly. “I figured I’d better, Mrs. Peel. I didn’t want you kicking my ass.”

Blair looked between them quizzically, his own eyes suspiciously bright. “Mrs. Peel?” he queried.

Jim shrugged. “If the shoe fits, Chief.” Then he allowed himself to be drawn into Naomi’s insistent embrace, his other arm going around Blair.

Standing within an enveloping circle of Sandburgs, Jim decided that he really liked reunions.

***

Naomi explained the ‘Mrs. Peel’ crack to an amused Blair over food in Ninapakcha’s hut a little while later. The shaman watched their interaction with interest, keeping to the sidelines and conversing only sporadically to offer hospitality, relying on Jim to translate when necessary.

Jim could tell, however, that he was studying Blair closely, observing him with measuring eyes.

Secluded with the Chopec as she’d been, Naomi was anxious to find out what progress had been made on other matters. “That slimy toad, Captain Cardenas, Jim. What’s going to happen to him?”

“I paid him a visit just after I left you here,” Jim told her. “I found clear evidence that he was complicit in Blair’s abduction. The woman he was working with – Alex Barnes – was a fugitive from the States, so my Captain back home, Simon Banks – you remember him, of course?” he asked, and Naomi nodded. “Well, Simon got onto the authorities here right away, to make sure Cardenas was arrested. I guess, as soon as he gets out of the hospital, he’ll be questioned by the Peruvians as well as us, and do some serious jail time.”

Naomi’s eyes narrowed. “Hospital?” she queried.

Jim shrugged. “The guy was violent, so I was forced to act in self-defense.” His conscience on that matter was clear.

Well, mostly.

Other things Jim had alluded to hadn’t escaped Naomi’s notice. “You said it was a woman who abducted Blair, Jim. Alex Barnes, is that right? And you said ‘was’.” She looked at Blair who had paled, his eyes averted. “She’s dead, then?” she queried softly.

“Naomi,” Jim warned. “Let’s leave that for another time, huh?”

Watching Blair worriedly, Naomi nodded. “Of course,” she agreed.

They took their leave a little while after that, Jim citing their exhaustion after the long journey as cause for them to turn in early. Blair was subdued as they said their goodbyes, flinching a little when Naomi hugged him.

Back in their hut they curled up together on the mattress, Blair’s hand holding Jim’s like a lifeline.

***

Waking in the early morning heat, which had already turned their cozy hut into a stifling, claustrophobic oven, Blair found the tribe’s shaman sitting beside the bed where he lay.

Jim was nowhere to be seen.

Ninapakcha smiled at him in greeting. “Rimaykullayki,” he said warmly. “Imayallan kashanki?

Well, that was clear enough: Hello, how are you?

“Uh, rimaykullayki,” Blair echoed, hoping he’d pronounced it right. Dredging up the tiny amount of basic Quechua that he knew, he added, “Allinlan kashani.” – I am well.

Ninapakcha grinned widely, his incongruously youthful expression warm, slightly mischievous and not at all frightening – in total antithesis to Blair’s enduring memory of the last Chopec shaman he’d met and the bloody handprint on his arm that he’d never seemed entirely able to wash off.

Blair found himself smiling back, put at ease despite himself.

***

Jim had been awakened at dawn by Ninapakcha and told in no uncertain terms to make himself scarce. Relinquishing his place beside Blair reluctantly - but ever obedient to the wishes of the Chopec shaman nevertheless - Jim had done as he was told, leaving his still-sleeping friend in Ninapakcha’s care.

The village was already bustling with activity, many chores being performed, as was customary, before the worst heat of the day hit. The majority of the tribe’s able-bodied men were already out in the forest, scouting the perimeter, hunting for meat and scavenging for edible vegetation. Those left behind – mostly women and children - were busy preparing food, making and mending, and tending the small herd of pigs that the tribe maintained. Younger children were everywhere underfoot, shrieking wildly in packs or clinging to their mothers’ skirts, while elders sat in groups outside their huts, watching the hustle and bustle and gossiping. Those latter looked for all the world just like senior citizens anywhere, their eyes measuring, serene, mirthful and, in some cases, very, very wise.

Jim stood on the sidelines, taking huge comfort in the familiarity of it all. For so long, these people had been his family. He recognized many of them still, although some of the younger adults were hard to identify as the children they’d been when Jim had lived among them. At intervals, as he stood there watching, someone would greet him with a word or a smile, every bit as warmly as if he’d never been away.

Back when he’d lived here before, things had been rather less serene. The tribe had been under constant threat from the strangers encroaching on their territory. Jim and the warriors under his command had spent weeks on end camped out at the Chopec Pass, preventing entry to anyone who went there and mercilessly eliminating those who persisted.

In the midst of that, this village had been a haven, a place to rest and recuperate for short periods before heading back out to the Pass. Jim still felt the innate peace of it even now.

A little at a loose end – in the old days, he’d have been out in the rainforest with the men by now – Jim wandered around aimlessly until he came upon another familiar sight. Naomi was sitting with a group of six or seven women, at least half of them at various stages of pregnancy, two of their number wizened and old. The younger women appeared to be showing Naomi words and phrases in Quechua, while the elders looked on in amusement.

Jim grinned at Naomi as he approached, and her attention shifted towards him. “I thought you’d improved,” he said, squatting down beside her. “These are your teachers, huh?”

Naomi smiled at him. “Let me tell you, Jim, these are wonderful teachers.” She indicated each member of the group in turn, telling Jim their names. “This is Chimpu, and her sister Quispe – oh my, Quispe’s baby is coming very soon, isn’t it, sweetie? Over here is their grandmother Curicuillor …”

As Naomi went through all their names, Jim was amused by the whispered conversation two of the younger girls were having behind their hands. It hadn’t escaped Naomi’s notice, either. She made a questioning gesture, and one of them, blushing, responded in rapid Quechua. She kept darting flickering glances at Jim as she spoke.

Naomi looked at Jim questioningly.

“She wants to know if you’re my mother,” he said.

Naomi looked appalled. Then, when she realized Jim was joking, slapped him hard on the chest, much to the amusement of the others. “Jim!” she exclaimed.

He decided to have mercy. “She actually asked if you thought I’d make a good husband,” he admitted smugly. “I believe a more colloquial translation would be, do you think I’m hot?”

Naomi gave him a withering look, then turned back to the girl who had asked. “Mana,” she denied fervently, shaking her head. “Mana!”

Jim just grinned as the whole group of them, elders and youngsters alike, dissolved into giggles.

***

A little while later, as soon as they’d managed to find space to be alone, Jim told Naomi what she so desperately wanted to know.

He shaded the facts just a little. He saw no point in telling her about how he’d forcibly immersed Blair in a vat of water, for instance, or how he and Blair had apparently forged some mystical bond. But the rest of it – Blair’s ordeal at Alex’s hands, and the aftereffects her son still suffered – he related more or less in full.

“Oh, my poor baby.” Naomi was, understandably, upset. “That explains a lot, Jim. He’s always been so touchy-feely, especially with me, but last night I could tell that he didn’t want me near him.”

“He’s all right if you don’t take him by surprise,” Jim explained. “It’s when he’s touched without warning that he tends to flash on what she did to him.”

Naomi was nodding. “That makes sense. Oh my, it reminds me,” she confided, “of someone I used to know, a good friend who’d been horribly abused. She hated to be touched too. She managed to come to terms with it by a mixture of meditation, visualization therapy and holistic massage – we used to go to the same groups, and I ended up learning some of the therapeutic techniques that worked for her.” She looked earnestly at Jim. “Maybe that would benefit Blair, too? You know, if I led him through some visualizations?”

There would have been a time, back in Cascade, where Jim might have been inclined to pour scorn on such a suggestion – but now was not the time. Ninapakcha’s words to Naomi at their parting came back to him: “The tribe will protect you, and help prepare you to heal your son.”

Jim nodded approvingly at Naomi. “You know what?” he said. “I think that’s exactly the right thing to do.”

The smile of gratitude that came over Naomi’s face at that validation, and the look of determination that followed, left him in no doubt that he’d made the right decision.

***

Blair was managing to understand about five words in every hundred, but one thing was becoming perfectly clear despite the language barrier. This weirdness, whatever it was, was not going to go away - not if the Chopec shaman had anything to do with it.

Blair had tried to convey what he wanted – for Ninapakcha to make him a medicine pouch, like the one he’d made for Jim, which would combat the lingering aftereffects of the psychotropic drugs he’d been force-fed. Assuming he’d suffered some kind of alteration in brain chemistry, there was a chance that the antidote would still work, even after the fact.

If his hallucinations were psychological as opposed to physiological in origin, then there were still benefits to him having the pouch, weren’t there? Okay, the medicine pouch might end up being little more than a placebo - he understood that. But that still might just be the psychological prop that he needed to get himself back on track.

But Ninapakcha wasn’t having it. Not at all. Assuming, that was, that he understood anything at all of what Blair had been saying.

They’d walked out into the jungle together, seeking shade and privacy. Ninapakcha seemed intent on chattering away at Blair in fluid but mostly incomprehensible Quechua, pointing out the natural features of the land – foliage, birds, the physical landscape – and having Blair repeat the words back to him. It was, in one sense, interesting and fun, the kind of cross-cultural interaction an anthropologist like Blair got a huge kick out of.

Frustratingly for Blair, however, the communication seemed to be going one way only, and something in the shaman’s amused expression led him to suspect that Ninapakcha might even be failing to understand him on purpose. Shaking his head resignedly, Blair gave up and simply went with the flow. Maybe later, with Jim translating, he’d get his point across better.

The time passed quickly after that. Eventually, his head stuffed full of the names of things, Blair found that he’d been led back to the village. The midday meal – the main meal of the day – was ready to be served, food from the massive pachamanka - the communal cooking pit - already being distributed to the people who sat in an untidy circle around it, the babble of conversation filling the air. Homing in on him as though he was a beacon, Blair made his way towards Jim, the shaman unobtrusively drifting away in a different direction.

Jim was sitting with Naomi, a sizeable portion of meat, grains and vegetables laid out on a plate-like leaf in front of him. He motioned Blair to the space at his side. “I got you some food, Chief,” he said. “Take a load off.”

Blair did as he was asked, greeting his mother with a warm smile as he sank down onto the ground. She greeted him cheerfully back, looking relaxed and happy, which loosened a deep thread of tension within him he had not even realized was there.

As he scooped up a handful of food, he noted thankfully the place Jim had chosen for them to sit and eat. One wall of a hut formed a barrier at Blair’s back, the angle at which Jim was sitting on his other side making it impossible for anyone to brush past and touch him accidentally. Naomi was sitting on Jim’s far side, far enough away that to touch him would mean reaching past Jim, who would easily be able to prevent it.

Breathing easier, Blair relaxed and got on with his food.

Conversation was light as they ate, Naomi apparently enjoying every moment of her time among these people. She talked animatedly about some of the women she’d met, her enthusiasm wonderful to see considering the stress she’d been under of late.

Blair couldn’t help but notice something else: Naomi and Jim seemed to have developed an overly flirtatious level of teasing banter with each other. Blair shook his head in disapproval, one eyebrow raised, as his friend and his mom laughed together at something Naomi had said, Naomi’s hand resting casually on Jim’s arm.

Nuh huh, no way. Over his cold, dead body.

***

After the meal and the cleanup that followed, the pace of life in the village slowed almost to a standstill. This was the hottest part of the day, and many of the Chopec retreated to the shade to conserve their energy until the cooler air of evening arrived.

Naomi headed away, expressing a desire to spend some time with the women she had befriended. Grateful that she was allowing him some space – and suspecting that Jim had told her a little of why he needed it, since she didn’t offer him a hug as she usually did – he and Jim hauled a couple of woven rugs out of their hut, to rest on them in the shade of the trees.

As Blair lay there, gazing up at the green canopy overhead, he allowed his awareness to drift, hoping beyond hope that normality had resumed.

But in the distance, the animals still prowled to and fro, their presence like a constant itch he could not scratch. And as easily as that, Blair’s peace was shattered once more.

***

Jim could tell, as they lay there side by side, that Blair was working himself up all over again, so he decided to head him off at the pass before stress levels reached a crisis point. “How did it go with you and Ninapakcha this morning, Chief?”

“It didn’t.” Blair sounded pissed off. “I tried to make him understand, man, that I needed his help. But I just didn’t get anywhere with him. It was like he was totally ignoring everything I said.” He propped himself up on one elbow to look at Jim, his expression pleading. “I need to talk to him again, and I need you to translate for me. Okay?”

“Sure.” Jim shrugged. “What is it you want him to do?”

Blair sat up, crossing his legs in a lotus. “I need him to make this stop, man - I can’t take it anymore. I just need him to do something – something like he did for you – to make it go away. It’s either that,” he huffed a mirthless laugh, “or I check myself into a psych ward as soon as we get home.”

Time to throw down the gauntlet, Jim decided. “Have you considered,” he asked, “that what Incacha said was right about you? And that maybe Ninapakcha feels the same?” Alex had believed it too, but no way would Jim invoke her name to support his argument.

“What, that I’m a shaman?” Blair shook his head incredulously. “Me? Man, I have the greatest respect for traditional beliefs – you know that. That’s why I became an anthropologist in the first place, and that’s why I thought Ninapakcha might be able to help me. But Jim, I don’t think there’s anything more to this than… than me simply going a bit nuts after everything that’s happened. I’m nothing special, man.”

“You’re contradicting yourself there, Chief.” Jim sat up to face him. “If you really believed you were suffering from some kind of PTSD, you would have gone back to Cascade when you had the chance and gotten yourself checked into a psych ward, like you said. Instead, you came here to see the shaman. Why is that?”

Blair lowered his eyes. “Because I didn’t want to take the chance that I might be wrong,” he admitted. “I thought I’d try coming here first, in case it really is something that modern medicine can’t cure, then go the conventional psychiatric route as a backup option.” He looked back at Jim despairingly. “And this isn’t working, Jim. I’m finally beginning to recognize that I might just be nuts.”

Jim shook his head. “Blair, you’ve been here for exactly one day. You’ve spent, at most, a couple of hours with Ninapakcha. I don’t hear no fat lady singing, here.”

“He wouldn’t listen to me, Jim!” Blair was belligerent now, desperation at its core. “I know I am not the world’s greatest speaker of Quechua, man, but I tried really hard to get my point across. But he totally ignored me! All he did was point at fucking trees all morning, and make me learn what they were called!”

Jim couldn’t help it – he laughed. “Welcome to the Chopec school of languages, Sandburg. The ‘in at the deep end’ method. Man, that is so familiar.”

“I’m glad you think it’s funny.” Blair was definitely not amused.

“Look,” Jim sobered, holding up his hands placatingly. “I know this is hard for you, Chief. I’m not belittling what you’re going through - not at all. All I’m saying is, maybe Ninapakcha doesn’t believe that ‘curing’ you is what you need. Maybe you should suspend your disbelief just a little and try to keep an open mind about this. What if this thing is nothing to do with you being traumatized at all? What other explanation can there be?”

“That I’m a shaman.” Blair shook his head. “Man, that’s wild.” He looked pointedly at Jim. “I can’t believe you’re even taking that seriously!”

Jim shrugged. “It took me a while, Chief, to accept a lot of things about myself, but I got there in the end. You being a shaman is no more bizarre or strange than me being a sentinel. And the thing is, Incacha said you were a shaman, remember? He would never have said something like that unless he meant it. And Blair, I trusted him implicitly. If he said it, then I believe it to be true.”

As Sandburg sat beside him, lost in thought, Jim lay back down and closed his eyes. After a while, he sensed Blair doing the same, the warm air stirring with the movement as his friend stretched out on the rug beside him.

There was silence between them for a while, broken only by the sounds of nature.

Then Blair murmured miserably, “I didn’t ask for this, Jim.”

In answer Jim reached out, his hand grasping Blair’s and holding on tight, the sentiment one he could wholeheartedly empathize with.


Concluded in Part 2




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