Sequel to: Ad Libitum
He felt the damp wall of the cave wit blind hands, craving nothing more than what he couldn't remember. The memory was there, tugging at him, but every time he tried to reach out for it, the wisps of his thoughts vanished into the darkness where he found himself. The humid air stole his thoughts so that he couldn't even remember his name, but he knew that he had to find someone. That pulled him forward into the darkness.
He had stumbled forward several steps before he realized that the stone under his palm was too smooth for a cave. Fingertips found the seam between two giant stone blocks, where drops of moisture were trapped. He pulled his hand back and wiped it on his shirt. He was wearing a shirt, so didn't that mean he had come from somewhere? That he was someone? He had the vague impression that he must have had a name when he first put on the shirt.
The sound of water splashing echoed, and he froze, a sudden sense of danger swirling around him in the humid air. There was danger here. He knew that even if he didn't know his name. Power rose from the ground like a fog, and it soaked into him, making his knees tremble. He should run. He wanted to. If he ran, he wouldn't have to fear the power that soaked into him. But something kept him.
A laugh captured his attention, and he turned toward the sound. Power frightened him. He didn't want to be here, but the voice called to him. Laughter turned into a string of crystals that hung in the air and glowed dimly. While his skin crawled, he suddenly understood that if he didn't finish this journey, the darkness would swallow him. The only light was in the center of this dark world, down where the power gathered like a storm cloud.
He could see the giant blocks now, some carved with stylized animals that chased each other though their stone world. One of the tiny glowing crystals flickered and died, and he knew he had to make a choice. Yes, the power frightened him, but if he ran from the power, he was going to lose something that was so vital to him that he couldn't live without it. He knew that. Now if he could only figure out what he was in danger of losing, then he might be on his way to figuring out who he was and why he was in this place.
Inching his way down the sloping corridor, he could hear two voices intertwining. More splashing sounds made the crystals suspended in the air glow brighter. As much as he feared the power, he wanted it now. He wanted the power, but he couldn't have it. Not yet. He didn't know how he knew that, but he did. Something was missing, and the world was off-balance. It was like he had hung a painting, but the painting was really a jigsaw puzzle, and he had hung it on the wall when he still had one piece missing.
The closer he walked toward the center of this odd stone world, the more convinced he was that something was missing. But the sounds pulled him forward into a large chamber. A red stripe of ancient stain still remained along the top of the wall and the pillars still had Mayan gods carved into the blocks of stone. Steam rose from two pools, and a wet trail led from one shallow basin to the other.
Now he could see limbs, two bodies coiling around each other in a tangle of lust and need and love. The emotion was so strong that he stumbled back until the stone wall stopped him. The entrance he had just used seemed to have vanished. A hand stroked over a curved hip, the skin pink from heat and lust. Then fingers pressed as one lover pulled the other closer. Each finger became the center of a white island in the other's flesh as one lover held tightly to the other. A loud gasp broke the silence as the twining bodies slowly shifted. The smaller one lowered a mouth to the other's collar, tasting and nipping while the taller writhed in need.
He couldn't see beyond their bodies, straining toward one another, two women struggling to become one. The smaller woman was on top now, and her knees straddled her blonde lover, pinning the taller woman down into the water, but the tall woman laughed. Her laughter was deeper than the voice that had summoned him here. The blonde reached up and caught her lover with a hand behind her head and pulled her close for a long kiss.
The heat from that kiss made steam rise like smoke. Mist drifted across the floor so the Mayan gods seemed to wink in and out of existence. Clove and peppermint tickled his nose, the soft scent barely noticeable. It was the smell of safety and magic and home and danger. He couldn't sort his emotions, but some little part of him told him that scent was closest to memory, most able to trigger long lost thoughts and feelings.
He looked at the woman on top. She was older than her lover, a smiling face and small breasts still fighting age and gravity although her body was softer than her young lover. The blonde's body was all muscle and power and hard curves that promised danger, and yet her body was pliant under her lover's hands, moving and writhing and turning in time with the other's gestures. The older woman slid back, the water slopping over the sides of the stone basin, and the younger one reached out with a raw desperation that made the watcher suck in his breath. Part of him wanted to go to her, to soothe her and gather her in his arms, but the sense of danger intensified.
The older woman looked at him, a sharp warning in her expression. He was suddenly aware that she was just as dangerous as her younger, stronger lover. For all the muscle in that well-built body, the younger woman was grasping, clinging to her lover for security. But the older woman knew exactly what she was doing. She would kill him. Maybe.
He was suddenly swamped with confusion. Why was he here? The older woman rose from the water to sit on the edge, and her lover wrapped long arms around the woman's waist, laying her head in the other woman's lap. The water slid over their curves, making their bodies glisten.
"Sweetie?" the older woman asked. But it wasn't her lover she looked at. Her hand stroked her lover's head and down over a curved shoulder, but her gaze remained on him. The blonde nuzzled in toward her lovers nest of pubic hair. The reddish curls caught the light that seemed to bounce around the room without any source or any ending, and the blonde squirmed to get a better angle. The older woman gasped, her head falling back and her spine arching in pleasure.
Something in him reacted. Lust and jealousy and fear all twisted through him.
"Alex, wait," the woman gasped, her fingers finding her lover's shoulder.
"Naomi," the young woman whispered.
"Fuck!" Blair sat up in bed, his heart pounded so hard that the pain of it radiated down into his arms. He flew out of bed and was half way across the room when a hand caught his arm.
"Chief, Blair... SANDBURG!" The voice finally reached him, and Blair looked around, his heart still beating painfully fast and his brain still half-convinced that it was in some sort of temple. "Blair, calm down." Jim pulled him carefully close, like a man reeling in a fish. "It's okay, Chief. It was just a dream." Jim's arms wrapped around Blair, and Blair let himself be captured in that embrace. Hiding his face in Jim's chest, he tried to separate himself from his dream.
"Oh man," he said slowly, still caught in the dream-feelings.
"It's okay," Jim crooned, pulling him back toward the bed. "You have to calm down, Chief. Come on, you're going to break that heart of yours if you aren't careful."
"Oh fuck," Blair gasped out.
"I think that'd be a bad idea right now. You're already worked up enough, Chief," Jim teased. Blair aimed a punch at Jim's stomach, and then he immediately sagged into his lover's arms. Jim tightened his embrace and Blair let himself be slowly rocked. "Hey, come on, Chief, talk to me," Jim asked after a long silence.
"I need therapy."
"Hey, I could have told you that," Jim said. Beneath the teasing tone, Blair could hear the worry.
Blair had been ripping himself apart lately. He'd finished and defended the dissertation, but the army now officially had sixteen reported cases of Sentinels, two in comas, and a half dozen others whose senses had gone dormant and seven active Sentinels who were heading for either a coma or losing their senses. And everyone seemed to be pushing for him to go and work with those men and women, probably because everyone didn't know that Jim was his Sentinel. Blair was starting to really regret those little biographical details he'd buried in his dissertation—the ones that suggested the late, beloved Officer Clyde Olio had been his Sentinel. But none of those real-life fears were causing this.
"This is way more therapy inducing than stress. Man, I dreamed about my mom."
"That's pretty normal, Chief." Jim sounded confused.
"Naked," Blair said in a very unhappy voice.
"Naked?" Jim's voice rose a half-octave.
"Oh." Jim fell silent.
Pushing back, Blair wiggled free so he was sitting next to Jim instead of huddling in the man's lap. "Exactly. ‘Oh.’ Man, that was..." Blair shivered in horror. That was therapy-inducing. That was disturbing to levels that he had never before been disturbed.
"Oedipal?" Jim finished his sentence for him. Blair glared at him.
"I didn't know who I was. Any feelings I might have had were totally not my fault because I had no idea who I was. I was some guy who didn't exist outside the temple where I found myself."
"Temple?" Jim's tone of voice immediately put Blair on guard. He turned and really studied his lover. Jim's body had gone stiff and his hands fisted the sheets.
Jim just shook his head. "You've just been working too much."
"Oh man, do not make me use the guide voice," Blair warned. Of course, by warning Jim, he also gave Jim the option of tackling him and putting a hand over his mouth. Jim wasn't beyond doing that. About half the time, Jim did that during foreplay. He'd use his physical strength to hold Blair down and make Blair come so hard that Blair would be seeing stars behind his eyelids. The other half of the time, Blair would get his guide voice going, that sultry tone that turned Jim into a pile of happy mush that let Blair lay him out and feast on him. But right now, Blair wasn't kidding. The look of utter and total panic on Jim's face made it pretty clear his idiot Sentinel was hiding something. If he had to use guide voice to get Jim to confess, he so would.
"It's nothing," Jim said dismissively, but he certainly didn't do anything to try and stop Blair from using his guide voice.
"Come on, Jim," Blair said, working to keep his voice silky and calm even though his guts were still tied in knots. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, his dream had been entirely too Oedipal. "Why the reaction to the idea of me being in a temple?" Blair ran a hand up Jim's arm.
Jim gave him an amused look; that and the long pause were clearly Jim's way of saying that he was choosing to share and not just the puppet getting pulled around by the guide voice.
"I've been dreaming about a temple," Jim admitted.
"And?" Blair asked when Jim seemed to fall silent again.
Sighing, Jim stood up and looked over the railing into the living room. At first Blair thought Jim was ignoring him, but then he realized that Jim's eyes were tracking something invisible in the dim light. "What is it?" Blair asked.
"Our spirit animals." Jim whispered the words, but then he never liked talking about the spiritual aspects.
"Oh man. We're both dreaming about a temple, and now you're seeing spirit animals. Something is seriously up."
Jim might have answered, but the phone rang. The sound was so loud and alien that it startled Blair. It was almost as though he expected bird calls and the sound of wind through jungle trees, which was odd considering they were in the middle of the city.
"You'd better get it, Chief," Jim said as he kept his gaze on whatever invisible scene he was watching.
"They can wait."
"No." Jim finally turned and looked at Blair with dark eyes. "They can't."
Blair's skin turned to goose pimples as a cool breeze seemed to sweep through the loft. The phone stopped ringing and the answering machine went off with a click. Blair listened to his own voice greet the caller.
"Sweetie?" Naomi's voice called. "I know you're upset, but sometimes we just have to forgive the universe for not catering to our own personal views. I'm down in Mexico, and I really think you and Jim should come down here. The weather is beautiful, and Alex and I were thinking of having a lesbian wedding on the beach. It would be the absolute scandal of town, and you do know how Alex loves a scandal." Naomi's voice was carefree and almost childlike in its joy, but Jim cocked his head to the side and frowned. "Anyway, Sweetie, I'm about out of battery. My cell phone does not like the humid weather down here, but I'll be waiting for you. I'm just sure Jim can find us. See you soon." The phone clicked off, and the silence was thick.
"Jim?" Blair asked softly.
Jim sighed. "Get your bag, Chief. We're heading to Mexico."
"Fuck." Blair sat down heavily on the bed.
"Chief?" Jim finally turned away from the railing. Reaching over, he turned on the lamp and Blair blinked against the sudden light. "I thought you were the one who wanted us to embrace the more mystical elements of our connection. I'd think chasing after some dream image would make you happy."
Blair fell back onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. "If that was some sort of mystical dream, do you know what that means?"
Jim sat on the bed, his hand warm against Blair's knee. "It means our lives are about to get strange again. It also means that Alex and Naomi have beaten us to whatever it is that's going on, and that does not put me in a particularly good mood."
"Man, that means I saw my mother having sex," Blair complained loudly. "This goes beyond therapy-inducing. This is up there at voluntary lobotomy land."
Jim chuckled. Jim actually had the nerve to chuckle. Blair sat up and glared murder at his lover. Holding his hands up in surrender, Jim still couldn't stop smiling. "Look at it this way, Chief. In another universe, I would have followed up on my initial attraction to your mother instead of holding out to seduce you. That could have been me you saw having sex with your mother."
"Oh man, okay, that would be way worse." Blair stomach churned unhappily at the thought.
"Exactly. That would be worse, so now you have something to be thankful for. Alex doesn't ever get to touch you, I never have to touch your mother, and now we need to get down there because if Alex thinks for one second that she's some sort of queen of the Sentinels because she found that temple first, I'm about to knock the queen on her ass and take the throne. Get dressed, Chief." Jim suddenly sounded all business as he headed for the closet and started pulling out clothes.
"Throne. Wait, there's a throne?" Blair leaned forward. "I remember two pools. I remember a pillar with Mayan gods, but I don't remember a throne."
"Two pools in the room with the red stripe?" Jim asked.
Blair's mouth fell open. Shit. His idiot Sentinel had been having prophetic dreams and not sharing them. Again. One of these days Blair was going to murder Jim... right after he recovered from the trauma of seeing Naomi naked.
"You just haven't gone far enough in the dream, Chief," Jim said. "There's a throne. And right now, from the way I'm feeling an almost instinctive urge to find and protect Alex, she's sitting on it. So, move your ass because she's about to get dethroned, and I need my guide for this little coup to work." Jim's face was set. That was the expression he normally used when he was in the last stages of an investigation, tracking down some suspect.
"Well this is going to be a fun family reunion," Blair sighed as he got up and headed for the luggage.
"If I get my way it is," Jim said, entirely too cheerfully.
"Man, you are going to tell me all of these dreams on the flight down, every single one. And then you are going to apologize for not telling me about them earlier. Profusely. Profuse apologizing is in your future Ellison because maybe, just maybe, if you had told me that you were dreaming of some temple, we could have done something before I got the Technicolor image of Naomi and Alex naked." Blair dropped the suitcase on the bed, but before he could open it, Jim had caught him around the waist.
"Blair, I am sorry." Jim's words were a warm breath against the back of Blair's neck. "I didn't want the power that I could feel in that place. I didn't want to take the risk that you might be in danger there."
Blair turned to look at Jim. "And now?"
Jim sighed. "And now we have to deal with Alex and Naomi opening Pandora's box." After a quick kiss, Jim reached over, opened the suitcase and started dumping their clothes into it. Clearly, it was time for a little trip.
Blair shifted, his back aching. It was only once he reached around and pulled a branch out from behind him that he realized that he had fallen asleep in the forest. The last thing he remembered was being on the plane. Jim had been calling Simon from the airport, and the loudspeaker had called their flight.
Standing up, Blair groaned as every muscle complained about the movement.
The sounds of the jungle surrounded Blair, and he scratched at a bug bite just under his left ear. It'd been years since he'd been on expedition, and honestly, he'd gotten used to Jim's big bed and lazy mornings. Arching his back, he tried to stretch out the sore muscles and recover some scrap of memory that would tell him where he was.
While he picked twigs out of hair, he studied the land around him. The trees were so thick that he couldn't see past the small clearing. But mountains rose to his south. Blair had the nagging feeling that he was supposed to be searching for something or someone. He might be searching for someone. Or maybe he was supposed to go somewhere. Blair yanked a particularly tangled twig out, taking a good chunk of hair with it.
"Damn it. Oh well. When the going gets tough, the tough go..." Blair scratched the sore spot on his scalp where he'd pulled his own hair out. The tough go somewhere. Dammit, he couldn't remember where, and he was suddenly sure that he was supposed to be going somewhere. But where? Blair turned a circle and looked around, but other than the mountains in the south, every direction looked the same. Where was he supposed to be going?
"The Shaman searches inside himself." Incacha stepped out of the shadows of the trees.
"Well, yeah. Only, I’m not a Shaman," Blair pointed out.
"I passed the way of the Shaman on to you." Incacha looked down, and Blair watched as a red stain appeared on Inchacha's chest exactly where the bullet had killed him two years earlier.
Blair took a step back. "Okay, you may have passed the way over to me, but you definitely skipped the parts where you explained any of this."
"Does a Shaman need to have his heart explained to him?"
"If he's supposed to understand it, yes. Yes, he does. Okay, I am obviously dreaming here. Wake up Sandburg." Blair slapped himself across the face. The only thing he managed to do was give himself a sore cheek. "Ow," he complained softly. Incacha cocked his head to the side and stared at Blair. "Yeah, yeah, that didn't work that well." Blair rubbed his face.
"You deny the reality of this world?" Incacha sounded honestly confused now.
"Since it's a dream, yeah. Man, I haven’t had a dream like this since this time when I was 17 and I tried peyote when I was visiting this tribe. Whoa. That was a seriously bad trip."
"A Shaman must take that trip," Incacha said firmly.
"Just say 'no.' That is my motto, especially considering I live with a seriously anal-retentive Sentinel. I'm just imagining his face if I came home stoned. He'd handcuff me to the bed until I took the sobriety pledge." Blair started walking toward the jungle to the south. It was entirely too weird to look at Incacha with his blood streaked down his body. Blair pulled a vine from a tree. The dream was so real that the dew slipped down the side of his hand and soaked into the cuff of his shirt.
"If you wish to guide your Sentinel along his path, you must scout the way. Otherwise he will never claim the throne you seek."
Blair turned around. "That is where you are totally off base. Jim does not want whatever mystical throne is up for grabs."
"Then another will claim it." Incacha's wound had vanished, and now he carried a spear in one hand. "If she had walked into the chamber alone, the power would have taken her, consumed her. But she has what Enqueri lacks, a guide who walks the shamanic path." Incacha slammed the butt of his spear into the ground, and Blair gasped. He felt like Incacha had slammed him in the chest with the spear.
"What do you see?" Incacha demanded. He slammed his spear into the ground again, and Blair clutched his chest and fell back against the tree. The dew soaked into his clothing, and his whole body started shaking.
"A jungle," Blair answered, more confused than ever.
"Where are you?"
"In a dream."
"Where are you?"
"In a dream!" Blair shouted. Fuck. His whole body ached.
"If that is what you think, that you cannot walk this path."
"I'm kinda okay with that. In fact, I'm okay with waking up any time now." Blair gasped and clutched his chest as the pain radiated up and down the side of his body.
"Then you cede power to Salka and Chaska?"
"Who?" Blair grunted. Seriously, he needed this dream to be over.
"Chaska—the star. The one who is bright enough to be seen even through the mist that rises from the jungle." Incacha closed the distance between them and knelt down next to Blair in the tall grass. "Salka—energy which is uncontrolled and unharnessed."
"Whoa, you want to give power to Alex and Naomi? Man, that is seriously not a good idea. I mean, Naomi's amazon period was only slightly less terrifying the first time around, but you're talking about giving her actual power."
"Do you now hear? Are you finally listening young one?"
Blair blinked as he tried to get his brain to focus on the details. The jungle was blurring into indistinct forms and, illogically enough, a wolf was standing in the middle of the clearing.
"Stop trying to understand and simply embrace what you cannot measure or control." Incacha reached out and slapped Blair hard enough that the sting brought the world back into focus.
"They have woken the power. You may cede the battlefield or fight. But if your Sentinel chooses to fight, you must show him the way. He can battle for the power only if you have cleared the path. Otherwise Salka will embrace what Enqueri would keep from her."
"Oh man, this is so not a dream, is it?" Blair rolled to his side, the entire left half of his body radiating pain.
"A Shaman must die that he may live again and walk the paths to which most are blind."
Incacha stepped back and his body sank into the ground and turned into the mist that rose up in curls and wisps. A black jaguar stood at the edge of the clearing now, and the wolf stood up to meet him, moving to stand between Blair and this new visitor. "Okay, I know I always said I wanted to see spirit guides, but I could have lived without this," Blair grunted, and then his whole body arched up off the ground as he screamed in pain. The two animals ran toward each other, leaping at each other so that they met mid-air in a brilliant explosion of light.
"Blair, just keep breathing. The paramedics are right here. Just breathe for me, Chief."
Blair blinked. The top of an airplane. He was looking at the top of an airplane. His shirt was open and Jim knelt next to him, both hands on his chest. Jim gave five hard thrusts before he stopped and really looked at Blair.
"Chief, can you hear me?"
Blair looked over and realized that Jim's cheeks were stained with tears. Airplane passengers were hanging over their seats, staring at him, and a stewardess was clutching her hands to her throat like some sort of B-movie damsel in distress about to get stabbed by the killer in the basement.
"Ow," Blair said softly.
Jim laughed. It was a ragged sound that burst out of him. "That's right, Chief. You're fine. The paramedics are coming up the tarmac, so you just focus on breathing."
Blair nodded and let his eyes fall closed again. In the dark behind his lids, he could see a temple with a stone archway leading up the stairs into the sacred chamber. Shit. Next time he was leaving the mystical stuff to Jim. No wonder the man lived in the land of denial. Blair was just suddenly certain they couldn't afford to live there anymore.
"Hey, how you feeling, Chief?" Jim asked the second Blair opened his eyes. The machine that monitored his heart sounded like a metronome, for which Blair was very grateful. Words like 'heart attack' had been floating into his awareness for some time now, but he just couldn't get himself to focus.
"Like a bus hit me," Blair admitted. His whole body ached.
"You had a heart attack mid-flight. The pilots got us down as fast as they could, but you really had me worried, Blair."
"Worried with good cause or just doing your mother hen impression?" Blair asked. His voice sounded weak, but he couldn't seem to get enough air in his chest.
"You weren't breathing for almost ten minutes. You should be brain damaged by now, so I think we can say this is more than my mother hen instincts," Jim said dryly.
"Man, that was..." Blair whistled. "I saw the craziest stuff. The whole out-of-body experience. It wasn't like that classic light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel thing. There was just a jungle. And Incacha was there, and a wolf that ran right at a black jaguar. Then they collided, and there was this big burst of light. Whoa."
"Yeah, I saw, Chief."
"You... what?" Blair blinked to try and bring Jim into focus.
"I saw the same image. I think we shared a vision, somehow. I'm sorry, Blair. I never wanted to drag you into this supernatural crap with me."
"Drag me? No way. You were not dragging." Blair tried to push himself up on one elbow, but his body failed him and he fell back against his pillows.
"Slow down there, Speed Racer. You're still hooked to about a thousand machines and full of meds." Jim reached over and raised the head of the bed, rearranging Blair's pillows for him. Smiling, Blair waited until Jim had finished fussing before he continued.
"Einstein said the greatest experiences we can have are the ones with the mysterious. We are definitely there. Come on in, man. The water's nice."
"I was already in the water before you showed up, and it has a hell of an undertow," Jim warned.
"Whatever," Blair said. Yeah, it was probably a little rude to totally dismiss Jim's worries, but for years, Blair had been left on the sidelines while Jim had the visions and the powers and that was actually sounding really petty, even in Blair's head. "Did you see Incacha?" Blair asked.
Jim nodded, but he didn't make any other comment.
"Did you hear what he said about..."
"Naomi and Alex?" Jim's expression grew dark. "Yeah. I heard. Blair, you do not have to fight for anything."
"Actually, I think he was saying that you had to do the fighting," Blair pointed out. "I was supposed to be the scout."
"Who cleared the way," Jim said darkly, and from his tone of voice, he was not a happy camper about that. "No, we are waiting until the doctor clears you, and then we're catching the first flight back to the States."
"No." Jim clenched his teeth so tightly that his jaw bulged.
"Are we going to talk about this?" Blair asked.
Jim's only answer was a glare.
"Hey, no way do you get to arbitrarily make my decisions for me." Blair could feel his own temper flare up, and the heart monitor started beeping faster.
"You almost died, Blair. Whatever this shit is, I don't care about it." Jim leaned in close, and Blair could feel the heat of his body and smell the musk from too many days of sitting in a chair without bathing. Jim's beard had a few days' growth, and Blair frowned as he really noticed how exhausted Jim looked. "I don't give a shit about Naomi or Alex or some fucking temple. You almost died."
"Hey, I’m here," Blair reached up and rested his palm against Jim's forearm. "I'm here."
Jim rubbed a hand over his face and sank back down in the chair next to Blair's bed.
"Tell me the truth, Jim," Blair carefully kept his voice soft and inviting. "Do you feel the pull? Can you feel a protective urge toward Alex? Has she claimed some power?"
Jim's eyes darted away to the corner of the room, and that was the only answer Blair needed. He respected that Alex had moderated her illegal activities since taking up with Naomi. He even respected that Naomi's version of ethical and the world's version of legal did not always meet in the middle. She was an adult who could make her own decisions. However, he was not going to turn over some Sentinel throne to them.
"We're going to the temple," Blair said firmly.
"No, Sandburg, we're not." Jim fisted Blair's sheets.
"Yes, Ellison, we are."
"You are not leaving this hospital bed," Jim said. Sitting back, he crossed his arms over his chest and gave Blair a look that he normally saved for suspects. Blair glared right back.
"Not right now, no. But the minute I can stand on my own two feet, we're going."
"Over my dead body."
"That can be arranged, Ellison," Blair threatened. His heart monitor beeped out a merry rhythm.
"¿Qué hay? ¿Cuál es el problema?" A nurse rushed into the room and to Blair's side.
"We were just talking," Jim defended himself. Clearly he was less charming in Mexico than in Cascade because the same smile that made the nurses at Cascade General break all the rules for him totally failed.
"Out," the nurse said, pointing to the door. Jim opened his mouth to argue, and she raised her hand higher. "You, out or I call the guard. You will not upset him." Jim's jaw looked about ready to pop, but he headed for the door. "Estúpido," she added under her breath as she checked all the tubes and machines that monitored Blair.
With a sigh, Blair considered his rescuer. "He really is okay to be in here." Blair gave her a friendly smile. Either she was immune to charm or Blair was seriously off his game because she didn't even look at him twice.
"He makes your heart go too fast. No healthy," she offered curtly. "You sleep. Need much sleep."
Blair really couldn't argue with that because his eyes were already trying to close on him even as she lowered the bed back down and unarranged all the pillows Jim had carefully braced under him.
"El pollo sabe mas que ese idiota."
"Yeah, but he's my idiot," Blair muttered. A warm hand patted him, and then Blair slipped into sleep.
Blair walked into the loft. Night stars dimly shone through the Cascade clouds in one window while sunlight poured in through the other, so that was pretty much a dead giveaway that he was dreaming. Again.
"Man, I am all in favor of lucid dreaming, but this is getting silly." Throwing his keys into their basket, Blair tried to just let go and let the dream carry him where it would. His laptop was sitting open on the table, and Blair blinked as he saw the mess. How on Earth had it all gotten to this? He'd only left for half an hour. He had a clear dream memory of walking downstairs and back up, but the table. Oh God. Vegemite was smeared into the keyboard... and someone had thoughtfully dusted sugar all through the carpet. Oh shit. Jim was going to have a fit.
Blair took one look at the kitchen and flinched. It looked like about a dozen eggs had gone flying and landed all over the island and a bag of flour lay on its side, spilling out into the broken egg mess. He was so not cleaning that.
Blair walked around the living room to see how bad the damage was. If this was a spirit walk and their loft really looked like this, Jim was going to have a heart attack. He was going to have a heart attack and then kill someone. Oh god. Was that paint? Blair moved toward the far wall and looked at the red splatters. Real blood would have darkened and turned brown, but maybe this was dream blood, forever red.
Kneeling down on one knee, Blair could see how thick bubbles of the liquid rose from the floor. He hoped it was paint. It looked like paint. And the furniture was moved. Blair went over to pull the couch back into position.
"Oh, sweetie, is the mess all you notice?" Naomi stepped out from the bedroom under the stairs, the one that had been Blair's before he'd moved upstairs.
"No offense, mom, but this place is a disaster. Jim is going to have a heart attack." He stopped. Okay, the heart attack metaphor was probably not appropriate given the circumstances.
"Jim, Jim, Jim." Naomi rocked slightly as she said his name in a pretty insulting tone of voice.
"Do not start, Naomi." Blair stood up and crossed his arms.
"I'm letting this go. I'm letting this go," she whispered to herself as she stared at the ceiling. "I am letting this go."
"Mom," Blair said wearily.
"I raised you better than this. I raised you to be open to the universe, and a few years with that man, and all you see is the mess." Naomi looked at him, and her expressive face was twisted with worry. "Blair, look at the wall."
Blair turned, and above the red paint splatters, the wall had a stunning mural of a sunset that seemed to catch the ocean on fire. For a second, he was lost in the colors. "Open your eyes, sweetie. I know that not all police are jack-booted pigs. I even suspect Jim is a good man, even if he is anal retentive and annoying; however, he chose you. He had a whole society telling him that he should find a nice girl, and he had the strength to choose you. I respect him for that." Naomi wrapped her arms around Blair's waist and hugged him. But you need to find your inner eye. A mess is just a byproduct of beauty, so if you want to create, you have to accept the mess."
Blair blinked, and the sunset was gone. In its place was a tunnel of rough-hewn stone that opened onto the ruins of a temple rising from the jungle. "What?" Blair took a step back, pushing his mom back with him. "Whoa. Okay, this is some seriously freaky dream imagery."
Naomi sighed and looked around. "No offense, but this is remarkably mundane dream imagery. Is this really your spiritual landscape?"
Blair turned to look at her. "This is home."
"The world used to be your home." Stepping backwards into the living room, Naomi spread her arms and twirled. Her skirts swirled around her legs and made ripples in the air. As each ripple intersected a wall, cracks appeared—cracks through which Blair could see Chicago and New York and the commune they'd stayed at when he was six that had fields of horses and bright pink and fluorescent green horse barns.
"The world still is my home. I just happen to like having one spot in that world that's mine." Blair fought an urge to shout at his mother because she could just never understand his point of view. Oh, she could spout all about how she heard him, but she didn't listen. "I want to have a home. I want to be here," Blair argued.
Naomi frowned. It was the sort of worried expression she'd given him before he'd tried jumping off the barn loft into a hay bale during his superhero stage when he was six. But she'd let him jump, and he hadn't ended up with anything worse than hay in very uncomfortable places. "And I don't want my home to look like this." Blair grabbed a pillow off the floor and threw it back up onto the couch before pulling the couch back toward the wall.
"It has better feng shui where it is now," Naomi pointed out.
"That's what you value, Naomi. Jim and I actually want to be able to see the television." Blair grunted as the couch slipped back into place. Better. A little part of Blair appreciated the irony that he was the one trying to enforce the house rules and clean the place. Jim would laugh his ass off if he could see this.
"Oh man... what were you trying to make?" Blair asked in dismay as he abandoned the living room and headed for the kitchen.
"I wasn't trying anything, it just so happens that I accomplished making your favorite cake," Naomi pointed out. Blair blinked, and a two layer banana walnut cake with buttercream frosting appeared in the middle of the mess.
"Nice symbolism, mom, but I don't think you need to make this much of a mess just to get the cake made." Blair carefully lifted up the cake plate, long strings of yoke clinging to it. That was just gross. Gross and unsanitary.
"Jim is not a good influence on you," Naomi leaned against the square pillar and got a sour look on her face.
"Jim just offered another way of life, one that I happen to like more." Blair just stopped. If this was his dreamscape and his dream, he should not have to clean up his mother's mess. "Naomi, I appreciate that you see the world a little differently," he started slowly.
"And I raised you to see the wonders in the world," she interrupted him.
"I do, mom." Blair put the cake plate right back down in the middle of the mess. "Lots of people would walk in here and only see the mess. I do see the good that's come from it. Although, really? Vegemite on my computer?"
"I have a very nice poem for you on there," Naomi said softly.
Blair sighed. When it came to stubborn, Naomi had the rest of the world beat hands down. Sometimes the guys at the station teased Blair about putting up with Jim and his stubborn streak, but none of them had ever seen stubborn. Now Naomi, she did stubborn. Stubborn and about as unsubtle in her metaphors as a human could get. He just wished her metaphors hadn't made such a mess out of his dreamscape. "Does this have to do with whatever Sentinel power is up for grabs?" Blair just came right out and asked.
"The world destroyed Sentinels. Did you know that daVinci was a Sentinel? He could track the path of a bird's wing in flight and trace the muscles under the skin as a naked man ran. Ibn al-Haytham created the entire field of optics because he could literally see the particles of light. But society decided that if people were different, that had to mean they were bad and evil. They burned Sentinels alive. They called them witches and drowned them. They called them crazy and locked them up in asylums for their own good." Her words were soaked in sarcasm. "It's time to change the world, baby."
Blair closed his eyes and tried to center himself. Naomi could push his buttons faster than anyone else on the planet, including Jim, and he just had to get this conversation right. He just hoped this was a real conversation because if this was just his psyche practicing this little confrontation, he was going to find and strangle whoever was in charge of the spirit plane.
"Mom, change is good."
"Exactly. And Alex and I are in a better position to really create that change."
Blair put his hands on her shoulders. "But change that comes too fast is too destructive." Naomi opened her mouth to argue, but Blair shook his head. "You could have made the cake and then cleaned up that mess before you moved on to the poem. Change is good, but this much change without at least some planning? Whoa. Seriously not good."
"Without change, Sentinels will continue to be lost."
"Man, I get that. I know that. Naomi, I'm the one who's working with the Army to try and help the men and women who have senses suddenly coming online. I know things are changing, but if you go walking in and rip away at everything, you're going to drive these men and women away."
"Sweetie, you don't know that."
"Yes, I do. I saw Jim when his senses came on. I've read the records of those soldiers on base."
"And you couldn't help Alex." Naomi's voice was gentle, but those words were a knife through his guts.
"Okay, you're right on that front," Blair said slowly.
Naomi cocked her head and looked at him with such sympathy that Blair, for just a second, wanted nothing more than to bury his face in her shoulder and let her comfort him. "Alex was already farther on the spirit plane that you were. She could feel the power there, but the power threatened to consume her because she needed help."
"That I wasn't providing," Blair said grimly. The first time he'd met Alex, he could feel the pull toward her, the itch that refused to go away until he tried to help her. Jim had been ready to jump out of his skin from day one, but Blair's sexual relationship with Jim had destroyed any chance Blair could use him for his dissertation. Alex had been not only a chance to save his dissertation but also someone who Blair felt a bone-deep need to help. Of course, that had ended with Jim going a little mad and kidnapping Blair to get him as far away from Alex as he could.
"Oh, honey. It isn't your fault. I sometimes wonder if society doesn't handicap men. You're rewarded with power and status if you just follow society's rules. Of course, you are bisexual, so that gives you some incentive to challenge the status quo."
Blair shook his head, it was like her words were cobwebs clinging to him, and he suddenly realized how heavy he felt. "You're trying to keep me from clearing the way for Jim," Blair stepped back. Moving was like trying to walk underwater, every molecule of air seemed to push against him.
"Alex is the stronger Sentinel. She embraced her senses so much faster than Jim." Naomi's voice was not only convincing, but she was right. In two weeks, Alex mastered the skills it had taken Jim a year to finally control. A little part of Blair wanted to just sit down in the middle of the kitchen. "She'll be a beacon for any Sentinel strong enough to gravitate towards," Naomi took a step toward Blair, but Blair shook his head at the thought of Alex leading anyone anywhere.
"She's a terrorist," Blair pointed out. He stepped forward, swimming against the thick air as he headed for the mural of the tunnel on the living room wall.
"She was lost. Blair, this is dangerous."
"Like having a heart attack on a plane?" Blair asked, still pushing his way forward. Naomi walked beside him, only she didn't seem to be having the trouble he was. A light wind tickled her hair and made her skirt billow as she paced him, but Blair was leaning all the way forward, struggling through the ever-thickening air.
"A heart attack? Oh Blair, are you okay? Where are you? I'll come right over." Naomi rested a hand on Blair's arm, and for a second, Blair couldn't move forward at all. He felt a sweat break out as he pushed against some invisible barrier.
"I'm just fine. More than fine actually. Most cultures believe that it takes a journal beyond death to start a shamanic journey, so I guess that means I'm on my way. Freaked Jim out, though," he admitted. Naomi pulled her hand back, and Blair stumbled forward. He might have fallen except the air was so thick that it held his weight for that fraction of a second it took Blair to get his feet under him.
"You're not as far along your journey as I am. I would be the better Shaman."
That made Blair stop. "You are pretty good at this. What gives?"
"I was studying shamanic rites of the Hopi when you were still in diapers. Face it, Sweetie, I have better control of the spirit plane."
"I can't argue with that," Blair admitted. He started moving forward again. His back felt damp and clammy with sweat as he struggled toward the threshold where the living room met the temple.
"You don't have to fight for this power. Sweetie, Alex and I—"
"No, Naomi. No and more no. You might be better at this stuff, but your idea of helping is going to drive people away. I won't let you do that to Sentinels."
"And what if your version of helping turns those same Sentinels over to the government? You're working with those people, Blair. You're talking about helping soldiers develop their senses. Do you really think that the government is just going to pat them on the head and let them take those senses wherever they want? Will they let those Sentinels retire from the military?" As Naomi's words grew sharper, a wind picked up and started shoving at Blair, pushing him to the side, away from the temple.
"I'll do my best to make sure that never happens, mom. I am your son, remember." Blair's toe touched the threshold and all the pressure and the wind ended so suddenly that Blair fell forward, his hands slapping the cold stone of the floor a half second before his body did. "Ow."
Naomi knelt next to him. "Are you okay?"
"Great." Blair rolled to his side and catalogued the bumps and bruises. "Just great."
Standing up, Naomi offered him her hand, and Blair took it, grateful for the help as he climbed back up onto his feet. "Whoa. So this is the temple."
"Hi, Blair." Alex nodded at him from the step where she was sitting. She had a stack of small wooden darts next to her and she was mixing something in a stone mortar. Blair swallowed his fear as he thought about all the deadly concoctions one could make with jungle plants.
"Alex would never hurt Jim," Naomi chided. Slipping her arm around his waist, she pulled him farther into the ruins. "This isn't about killing each other. However, if Jim really thinks he's the better Sentinel, he'd better be prepared to prove it."
"And that is not going to happen," Alex promised fiercely.
Naomi left Blair's side and went over to sit on the step next to Alex. Letting the mortar rest in her lap, Alex reached an arm around Naomi's waist and pulled her close before leaning in for a kiss. Without any hesitation, Naomi tangled her fingers in Alex's hair, holding her head captive as she kissed Alex with such intense passion that Blair could feel his face heat from his blush.
"Okay, that is my cue to wake up. Seriously. I do not need to see that." Strangely, Blair couldn't look away either. Eventually Naomi pulled back, her lips parted as she panted almost silently. Alex's eyes remained closed, her neck arched so that the muscle rose in a graceful line under her skin.
Naomi looked over at him. "Oh Blair. I do love you, but you'll see. It's just better to let us take on this battle, honey.”
"How about we let Jim and Alex decide that one," Blair suggested.
Alex's eyes slowly opened, and for a second, they were the eyes of a cat. In that second, Blair knew that she was the stronger Sentinel. Her instincts lived in her in a way that Jim had never experienced. For him, his spirit guide was always a pace ahead of him, warning him. But her spirit animal crouched within her heart, making her into something far more feral and far more powerful. Fear made him shiver, even in the jungle heat.
"I will win," Alex said with confidence.
"You'll try," Blair admitted. The rest of the conversation was lost as a nurse dropped a pan and the crash brought him back to his hospital room and the sound of his heart monitor pounding out a rhythm fast enough for a good mambo.
“I can't believe you talked me into this.” Jim hacked at a vine with a little more enthusiasm than strictly necessary.
Blair shoved a curtain of cut vines and leaves out of his way as he stumbled behind Jim. The jungle was not kind to a man with short legs. “Hey, you know full well what the alternative is. Are you really willing to turn phenomenal cosmic power over to the Amazon twins?” Blair might love his mother, but he wasn’t going to trust her with any sort of power. Of course, he was also smart enough to not say that to her face. She would give him some lecture about male assumptions and dominance that he really didn't need to hear. He had no problem with a woman having power. But his mother… she worried him. He'd been there through her Amazon phase, and it scared the shit out of him. If she had too much power, the entire world was going to collapse around her ears, and she was going to dance through the ruins. Naturally they would be very pretty ruins. Knowing Naomi, they would be rainbow colored.
Jim snorted. “I dare you to say that your mother.”
“I thought you loved me.” Blair gave Jim a reproachful look when Jim glanced over his shoulder.
“I do. I just don't love you enough to get between you and Naomi.” Turning back to the path, he hacked through another draping vine.
“Around Naomi? Hell yes. Simon runs for the bathroom when that woman shows up,” Jim pointed out. “Besides, my job is to take care of Alex. You get to take care of Naomi.” Jim stopped, his hair was stuck to the back of his neck, and the pack rose and fell. It made Blair feel a little better that Jim was out of breath too. “Unless of course, you would like to go home,” Jim said without turning around. “We could catch an airline out of Mexico City and be there tomorrow. And that we could forget that any of this shit ever happened.”
“Yeah and then we could spend the rest of our lives having dreams on the astral plane where Incacha gave us shit because we gave up the throne.” Blair would rather deal with Naomi than Incacha. The last time he’d been on the astral plain, the man had been downright cranky. Without a word, Jim hacked through the last vine to clear the way to a long, narrow clearing. Fire must have raged through at some point, but all signs of it had vanished and the jungle was sending up new trees with their pencil-thin trunks to reclaim the opening. For now, though, it meant that Jim got to break into a long-limbed stride that made Blair trot to keep up.
Jim stopped so suddenly that Blair ran into his back and nearly fell on his ass. At the last second, Jim's hand darted out and caught him by the arm to keep them from going down. “Do you have any idea what exactly were fighting over?” Jim asked. He guided Blair off the path and through a tangle of bushes before taking them back to the path. Either Jim was getting paranoid or they were close enough that Alex was leaving little surprises on the path.
“Not a clue,” Blair admitted. He pulled the hair tie out of his hair and ran his fingers through the soggy curls. Between the humidity in his sweat, he felt like a limp rag. “You've been having these dreams longer than I have. Don't you have any clue? I mean, I haven't even seen the throne in my dreams. I just keep getting the technicolor of my mom having sex.” Blair pulled his hair back into a ponytail and wrapped the band around it. “That is enough to make me question my own sanity. It's also enough to make me not want to ever look her in the eye again. Some things? Some things a son should simply not see.” Blair grimaced as he thought about how Naomi and Alex touched each other.
“Have you considered that she's showing you those images intentionally to embarrass you into staying away?”
“Oh hell yes,” Blair blurted. “She's my mother, Jim. Trust me, I know exactly how manipulative she can be. Manipulative and terrifying and way too intelligent. If she had been born in a day in an age when women had equal opportunities, she would've been ruling the world before she was thirty.” Blair shook his head as he readjusted his pack.
Jim made a low noise in the back of his throat. “I'm not sure I want to live in a world ruled by Naomi Sandburg. I happen to like things being neat. I'm fond of boring.”
Blair snorted. Jim might make noises about how much he liked his boring life, but he spent a lot of time doing interesting things. A man who like to boring life did not join the Army. Okay, he might join the Army, but he didn't join the Rangers. He sure didn't run off and become a national folk hero on the front of some magazine. A man who liked boring didn’t work his ass off to get into Major Crimes, and he didn't decide halfway through his midlife crisis to turn gay. For a man who claimed to love boring, Jim spent a lot of his time chasing interesting. And from the glare Jim was giving him right now, he knew exactly what Blair was thinking.
“How's your heart holding up?” Jim asked in a complete change of subject.
“You can monitor it better than I can. How is it doing?” Blair scratched his chest over his heart. Considering that he'd had a heart attack just two days ago, he was feeling weirdly fit. The doctor called it a miracle; Blair was calling it mystical. If he had known that merging spirit animals were so good for the body, he would've been advocating it a long time ago.
Jim cocked his head in an expression that suggested he was listening closely. Long seconds passed and Blair watched the light filter in through the tree branches. The sun was nearing noon now, and the heat pounded down on them. As much as Blair complained about the cold in Cascade, he wouldn't mind a little cold right now. The heat weighed on him, making every step harder. At least, he hoped it was the heat. He had no illusions about what his mother would do to stop them from claiming the throne.
“Your heart sounds good,” Jim said. “I still think we should have stayed at the hospital.”
“Man, medical testing is not going to be able to explain why my heart recovered so fast, and you know it.” All medical testing was going to do was bring entirely too much interest to them. Blair didn't feel even a little bit guilty about using his guide voice on Jim to get Jim to spring him from that place. The doctors were getting too interested, and Blair didn't feel like ending up a test subject for some Mexican doctor to poke and prod. “So how close do you think we are?”
Jim turned back toward the old path and studied the jungle. It all looked like trees to Blair. That might be why when he was studying the Kombai Tree People he got so lost. Navigating wasn't his best skill. That's why was so amusing that as the shaman, his job was supposedly to help them navigate the spiritual world. Naomi had told him that he didn't have the skills she did, and she was right. But that didn't mean he was going to give up.
“I think we’ll be there and another hour, maybe two,” Jim said. Again, he tilted his head to the side of his body tense as he listened for something. Blair moved closer and rested his hand on the small of Jim's back, waiting for some sign that Jim had identified the threat. Instead, Jim shook his head like a dog coming up out of water, his jaw clenched tightly.
“Just relax,” Blair coached. “You know she's out there. You know she's trying to mess with your senses.”
Jim nodded, quick sharp movement. Maybe it was Alex out there playing games with Jim's senses or maybe it was something to do with the fact that this jungle was home to primitive sentinels. This was where the Temple of Sentinels waited. And unless the dream plain was lying, this is where Alex and Jim would have to fight for leadership of sentinels. Blair had always seen himself as a rational man. Naomi went from the counterculture to the New Age, she danced between Chinese beliefs and Indian gods, she was open to the whole world, and Blair's rebellion had led him to science. In rebelling against Naomi, he had sought to measure and count and explain the world. And now, the world wasn't so easy to explain.
Jim's hand rested on his shoulder. “Are you okay, Chief?”
“Just freaking out.”
“Isn't that my job?” Jim gave Blair a grim smile.
“Yeah, well, you weren’t doing it all that well. I thought I'd take over for a while.” Blair smiled back, and Jim’s body seemed to loosen. With a crooked smile that came a little close to honest amusement, he reached up to tug Blair’s pony tail.
“I'll make sure I do a better job just as soon as I take care of Alex.”
Blair nodded. Considering that Jim usually did either repress or freak when the weirdness came, he was handling this better than Blair had expected. “Are you still feeling protective toward her?”
Jim didn't answer, but from the way his jaw muscle bulged, Blair was guessing that was a yes. Whatever power was down here, Alex had tapped into it. Alex and Naomi. When those two had gotten together, Blair knew there was going to be trouble. He just never guessed how much. He'd thought that a huge exposé in the newspaper about the lack of security on biological weapons and a number of ecoterrorist attacks that sounded eerily familiar were the worst of it. However, the idea of Alex and Naomi in charge of sentinels scared him a hell of a lot more.
“I'm going to knock her right off the throne, Sandburg. And I don't care if I have to go through your mother to do it.” Jim gave Blair one of his patented glares as he guided Blair to the edge of the clearing to a point where the faint trail led back into the deep jungle.
Blair held both hands up in surrender. “Oh man, I am not even going to argue with you. I'm the one who's been getting attacked in the dreamscape.”
“I hate this shit,” Jim muttered as he turned and started hacking his way through the jungle again. Either Naomi and Alex had chosen another path to the jungle, or there were spots where they’d had to crawl to get through the thick foliage. This part of Mexico was a popular tourist destination, but no one had been using these trails – not tourists or natives or even the drug runners that were starting to move into the territory. Blair wondered if that had anything to do with the Temple.
He might've run that theory past Jim, but for the next hour or so he was busy just trying to keep up. Vines clung at his legs, sweat slid down his spine, and his legs felt like lead. Jim, however, silently powered through the jungle. Except for the faint grunts as he swung the machete, he was silent.
A little part of Blair wondered why he'd insisted they come in all. In another universe, maybe he would've let his mother have the power. However, he'd worked with sentinels. He'd seen the men and women suffering and struggling to get control of their senses, and he couldn't imagine any of them working well with his mother. The soldiers were angry. They resented their bodies and fought every attempt to try and get them to use nontraditional medicine to ease the symptoms. Blair had watched some slip into comas right in front of his eyes. If Naomi breezed in and started talking about feng shui, blood was going to get spilled.
Blair was very close to begging for rest period when Jim stopped. Letting out a huge sigh of relief, Blair sagged to the ground and then promptly regretted it when his knees sank into the muck. Mud and rotting leaf litter soaked into his pants. “Eww.”
“Shhh.” Jim's voice was barely above a whisper as he held up his hand and did some weird covert ops signal like Blair would understand it. Not even. However, he did know how to be quiet. Blair shrugged his pack off and pushed it to the side.
Jim’s head tilted and his back arched as though straining against some invisible bonds. Blair could feel his heart beating faster. Considering he was just getting over a heart attack, that probably wasn't the best thing in the world for him, but this fight had to happen. Something in his soul told him that. And if his soul lost track of that, then Incacha was waiting on the spirit plane to kick Blair’s ass. For someone who would always tried to value science above the mystical, Blair was failing badly. Clearly his mother was right, and 500 years of science was wrong: Not everything in this world could be measured.
“She's north of us.” Jim's whole body was tight, his muscles bulging. He’d look sexy as hell if this weren't such a serious situation. Actually even with the serious situation, he was sexy as hell, Blair didn't think this was the time to let himself get distracted.
“Alex or Naomi?” Blair whispered.
Jim turned to look at him, his eyes dark, the pupils dilated until the blue was nothing more than a thin ring.
“Okay, either you've been dipping into the really good drugs, or we're entering the land of weird.” Blair barely breathed the words, but Jim scowled at him anyway. Holding up a hand in the placating gesture, Blair mimicked taking a key to his mouth unlocking it.
Jim leaned closer. Reaching up, he caught Blair by the back of the neck and pulled him so close that Jim's lips brushed against Blair's ear. “I'm not leaving you here alone.”
“I'm not in danger, Jim. Neither of them are going to hurt me, they're just going to try and keep you off the throne. So go to your Sentinel thing.” Blair pushed at Jim’s shoulder.
Jim frowned. Somewhere in Jim's overprotective little brain that made sense, but he still didn't want to leave. “Go,” Blair hissed as quietly as he could.
Jim shook his head, clearly not happy with that plan. But it was the best plan. Blair had no doubt that he was safe with Naomi and Alex. Well, almost no doubt. With his mother, he only had to worry about emotional damage. And with Alex – well, hopefully Naomi had softened her rough edges a bit. Either Way, Jim would move faster without Blair tagging along.
Blair gave Jim his most vicious smile and patted him on the knee. “I'm going to go find mom.” And when he found her, he was going to show her that he could hold his own. She’d trashed his spirit home, and he was not feeling all that forgiving about that.
Jim's eyes went wide with shock, and for a half a second, Blair thought Jim was going to stay. However, something Blair couldn't hear demanded all of Jim's attention. His body went stiff, his hands reaching out to the ground with fingertips resting against the damp earth. He looked like a runner about to take off from the blocks or a cat about to spring.
“Remember the darts,” Blair whispered. A few years ago he would've said that dreaming of darts was some Freudian image, but now, he was fairly sure there were literal darts involved. Jim didn't move. It was as if he hadn't heard Blair, but Blair suspected he had. Now it was time for the sentinels to do battle, and Blair couldn't be of any help to Jim out here. He could however make sure that his mother didn't do anything that might be considered cheating. His mother had a unique view on fairness. In her view, anything that bettered the universe at large was fair, and since she had the best view of the universe at large, anything that benefited her was fair. Blair planned to challenge that theory.
Jim gave Blair one last look and then nodded. “Good luck,” he whispered, and then he was gone, his pack still lying on the ground where he’d abandoned it. With a sigh, Blair gathered up both packs and looked around. Just when he thought he was going to have to yell for help, he spotted the stone pillar rising from the undergrowth.
“Temple of the Sentinels, this way,” Blair muttered as he started trudging down the path.
Blair dropped the packs inside the courtyard. Weeds had grown through the cracks of the giant stone blocks, but this place was still in pristine condition. He knew archeologists who would sacrifice their first born for a chance at this place. Watching his footing, Blair headed up into the temple proper.
“You made it.” From the tone, Naomi wasn’t all that happy about that.
“Nice to see you, too, Mom,” Blair said.
“Sarcasm doesn’t fit with your aura.”
“My aura is hot and sweaty. That matches just fine,” Blair said as he watched his mother. She stepped out of the square stone doorway, stooping to fit through. Just because he trusted his mother to not hurt him didn’t mean he trusted her to not knock him out and tie him up. She smiled at him as she stepped out into the tropic sun, her hair shining brightly.
“My little man is all grown up,” she said with a sort of fondness that made Blair roll his eyes.
“I’ve been essentially grown up since I was sixteen,” he pointed out. He might argue that he was grown even younger since he’d been the one to keep track of mundane details like budgets, but he really didn’t want to get into that now.
Naomi only shook her head and sat on the crumbled edge of a stone step. “You were self-sufficient at sixteen. It’s not the same. Some days I despaired that I was losing you to the world, but I should have had more faith that you would see through all the materialistic illusions that blind most people.”
She came down the stairs and settled on the bottom step and smoothed her skirt over her knees. She might not look particularly dangerous, but Blair still kept his distance. “You really should call Jim in, Honey. He can’t win this.”
“You’d be surprised what Jim can do.”
“Of course you believe that, but Alex is the stronger Sentinel.”
“It doesn’t make her the better one,” Blair countered. “Man, I do not even want to think about how many illegal activities you've been involved in.”
“So you think that your Sentinel is better because he hasn't broken laws?” From the look on Naomi's face, she was just daring him to agree with that statement.
“I think he's better because he cares more about other people.”
Naomi gave a little sniff, a gesture that Blair recognized from his younger years. She clearly didn't believe that argument. “Alex had a rough spot.”
“Alex was going to sell sarin gas to a terrorist.”
“You can't really believe that.” This time Naomi rolled her eyes at him.
“I was kinda there, Mom, so yeah, I do believe that.”
“She was making a point.”
“No, she was trying to make a profit. You came in and you wanted to make a point. Luckily she listens to you a lot better than Jim listens to me.”
From a sharp look Naomi gave him, Blair was guessing that she had a problem with that too. What that problem was, he couldn't guess. “So, who do you think is winning?” Blair asked.
“You can't tell?” Naomi's body language was writing volumes, and Blair didn't like any of them.
“No, Mom, I can't. But I'm guessing you can.”
“Open yourself to the universe, dear.”
“I'm about as open as I want to be. There's a point at which you're so open your brain falls out.”
She rolled her eyes. “As a shaman, you should be able to open your mind to the wonders of the universe without that happening. Sweetie, you should be able to feel your Sentinel. You know I love you. You're my beautiful little baby boy.” She probably meant that as a compliment, but no grown man liked to be called a baby. “But consider the facts. Alex and I simply have more training.”
“Okay, I’ll admit that you have more training at this shaman stuff, but if this is going to be a battle of Sentinels, Jim has a lot more battle training than Alex.”
“Battle training, not Sentinel training.” Naomi looked at him and sighed. “Okay, just close your eyes and breathe deeply until you find your center. Go on. Breathe in and seek the source of your life.”
Blair gave her a cold look. “Mom, I love you, but I'm not closing my eyes with you around.”
“Such suspicion. I didn't raise you to be so suspicious,” she said with a huff. “I'm trying to teach you to find your connection with Jim.”
“So you want to help Jim and me improve our Sentinel skills at the exact same time that Jim is in battle with Alex? I don't think so. I also think you raised me to be smarter than that.”
From the knowing smile Naomi gave him, Blair had guessed right. Either she wasn’t as connected with Alex as she claimed, or learning to make that connection would somehow distract Jim. No way was he helping her to defeat his Sentinel. “I guess we'll just have to sit here and wait to find out.”
“It won't be long. Alex has prepared a number of surprises.”
“And if any of them are fatal, you're going to be short one Sentinel, Mom.”
“There is no need to resort to violence.”
“Says the woman who sent her Sentinel out to beat Jim,” Blair muttered unhappily. Considering his mother claimed to be nonviolent, she seemed to be rather skilled in the use of violence. “I saw a report on the ecoterrorist attack in Argentina. It sounded a lot like an attack on this fertilizer factory back in 1976.”
“I don't know what you mean.” Naomi flashed him a brilliant grin.
“You just better make sure that no one gets hurt doing this. Jim's patience has a limit.”
“Jim has no authority in Argentina.”
“Oh, he'll find a way to get assigned to the case if he has to.”
She shifted on the step and studied him, her eyes boring into him. Blair leaned against one of the pillars and tried hard to ignore the increasing discomfort. “Would you really turn this into an issue?”
“If people got hurt, yes.”
“Neither Alex nor I would ever intentionally cause the death of a human being. Good heavens, Blair, I carry bugs outside rather than step on them. When did you start getting so concerned about my ethics?”
“Since you took up your Naomi Amazon warrior phase again.”
“The Amazon mythology is a stereotype used to make women feel bad about their own power. I expected better from my son. Some days I despair at how conventional you are.”
Blair could feel the heat rise to his face. An angry retort perched on the edge of his tongue, and he was just about ready to sail into verbal battle with his mother, when he noticed her expression. She was pleased. Blair frowned as he thought about the implication of that. She wanted him upset.
“Jim can feel my emotions, can't he?”
“How would I know, Sweetie?” The words were innocent, but the tone in Naomi's voice made the trap entirely to clear. She was trying to get him upset so that Jim would be distracted. Blair might love his mother, but there were days she was one dangerous woman.
“Forget it, Mom. Nothing you say will upset me, because I know Jim is going to win.”
“You're awfully confident in yourself.”
“No, I'm confident in Jim.”
Naomi pursed her lips and made a small half shrugging gesture. “We'll see.” Blair stuffed his hands in his pockets and leaned back against the pillar. He was hot, and he suspected they'd both be a lot cooler and more comfortable inside the temple, but he wasn't going to risk walking that close to Naomi.
It was strange being on the opposite side of Naomi's warrior cause. Most of the time, Blair agreed with her in theory even of her practice went a little too far. In Argentina, she'd attacked a chemical weapons facility that was disguised as a corporate farm. The government had come in and shut the whole facility down, even as they denied that the facility was furnishing them with counter-agents for some of the nastiest weapons out there. She and Alex had done good work, but they'd done it by disabling a dozen guards. One man had nearly died from his injuries, and that was where Blair drew the line. At one point in time, he thought Naomi had drawn the line there too. Maybe he didn't know his mother as well as he thought, or maybe she didn't have as much control over Alex as they thought.
Naomi stood up and clapped her hands like a little girl at Christmas. “They’re coming!”
Blair turned to face the entrance, his heart sinking before he even saw them. No way would Naomi be excited if Jim had won. Blair’s guts twisted as he spotted them through the trees. Alex walked next to Jim, her head high. However, Blair focused on Jim. His hands were tied in front and he walked in short jerky steps, stumbling when Alex pulled him along too fast. Jim fell to his knees, his bound hands reaching out to keep himself from hitting the ground face-first, and Blair cried out.
He would have gone running to Jim, only Naomi caught his arm. “They have to finish it,” she whispered, her arm coming around him in an imitation of a hug. “Alex won’t hurt him. I promise,” she said a little louder. Her fingers tightened into his arm, and Blair knew she was right. He knew it, but every instinct still urged him to run to Jim.
Blair watched as Alex got a hand under Jim’s arm and pulled him back to his feet. Jim hung his head and shuffled forward again when urged. When they reached the path, Blair could see that Jim was hobbled. A rope trailed from the bindings around Jim’s hands, and Alex held that in her right hand and kept her left arm hooked through Jim’s right one.
“I won,” Alex said with a smile for Naomi. Her smile looked odd, and it took Blair a second to realize that the side of her mouth was starting to swell. She had a slight case of sunburn on her fair skin, so it took him another second to spot the red mark where Jim had punched her. She was also limping and her pony tail tie had slid to about half way down her pony tail and hair hung loose around her face. She’d won, but Jim had given her a fight.
“I knew you would. I told you that you were the stronger Sentinel. Now we just need to claim the throne,” Naomi said with a bright smile.
“I can’t believe you’re going along with this,” Blair said. He tried to jerk away from his mother, but Alex pulled her knife and gave him a cold look that made Blair freeze. Jim’s body stiffened, and he fisted his bound hands helplessly. No matter what Naomi said, Blair had read her police record, so he knew she was dangerous. And he couldn’t put Jim in danger. Blair quieted and let Naomi pulled him toward the side of the path.
Alex had dropped the rope to Jim’s hands when she pulled the knife, but now she slid it back into the sheath strapped to her leg and picked up the rope to control Jim’s hands again. “Let’s do this,” she said as she nudged Jim forward. Blair took comfort in the fact that she wasn’t intentionally pushing Jim too fast. She walked beside him as he shuffled up the stone path, and Blair searched for some injury that would explain his pained movement.
He stopped at the steps. “I can’t lift my foot that high,” Jim said, his voice almost apologetic. Blair clenched his teeth and his eyes got warm as he watched his friend and partner forced to endure this. Alex looked over toward Naomi.
“Don’t trust him,” Naomi advised. Jim lifted his head long enough to give her a withering glare.
“Turn around,” Alex ordered.
Dropping his head back down, Jim did an awkward turn. Alex bent down to get her shoulder into Jim’s stomach and then lifted him into a fireman’s carry and hauled him up the steps. Blair felt a dark sort of satisfaction as she grunted on each step, clearly struggling to get Jim’s weight up the short set of stairs. He only wished that Jim weighed about 300 more pounds. That would serve her right.
She got to the top, and carefully put Jim back on his feet. “Now inside,” she ordered. Jim spared Blair one glance over his shoulder before he turned and bent down to get into the temple.
“We should be in there for this,” Naomi said, resting a hand against the small of Blair’s back. She probably meant it as a comfort, but Blair really did not need comforting right now. He just about threw himself at the stair as he rushed after Jim. Alex might be claiming the throne, but Blair had no interest in being one of his mother’s subjects. He was almost to the door when he heard Alex cry out and a scuffle inside the dark. Blair’s eyes went large when he saw Jim with his elbow around Alex’s neck. With his hands tied, his arms were even more effective at trapping her, and she clawed at him. Throwing herself backwards, she slammed Jim into the rock wall.
“Alex!?” Naomi screamed. Blair put his hands out and braced himself on the sides of the doorway.
“Oh no. You’re staying out there. After all, you said they had to decide this for themselves,” Blair said. His mother threw herself at him with so much force that he almost went to his knees. However, no way was he letting her through. If Alex wanted to win this fight, she was going to have to win it on her own. Naomi was not helping.
“Alex, the throne,” Naomi yelled.
Feeling guilty even before he did it, Blair raised one foot and kicked her right in the stomach. Naomi fell back with a gasp and landed on her ass. “Shaman to shaman, stay out of it, Mom.”
Naomi sat on the ground with big eyes as the fighting grew quiet inside the temple. Blair looked inside, and Jim was dragging Alex across the floor. His hands were still tied, and his legs hobbled, but he was making pretty good time as he headed for an archway that led deeper into the darkness. “Jim? You okay?”
“Fine, Chief. Just keep your mother occupied,” Jim asked. He looked up and gave Blair a wicked grin. Oh yeah. That was his lover.
Blair turned on his mother. “Oh man, you were just so sure of yourself, weren't you? Man, you underestimated Jim. You totally underestimated Jim. You have your mother Earth Amazon queen routine down so well that you didn't even think we were a threat, did you?”
Naomi pushed herself up and angrily brushed the dirt from her skirt. “I never said that.”
“You thought it loud and clear.”
“Sweetie,” Naomi said with this sort of exaggerated patience that made it very clear she wanted to blow up. She probably would yell, except that didn't fit with her image. “You didn't even want to be a shaman. And can you honestly tell me that Jim wants to be in charge of anything? Jim wants to have a nice quiet little life in his nice quiet little loft. And according to you, that's the life you want to.”
“Yeah, well at the risk of quoting song lyrics, we don't always get what we want,” Blair pointed out. The air seemed to grow thick clouds slid across the sky and naturally fast.
“It’s happening,” Naomi whispered, her voice soft and reverent.
Blair looked up at the sky, and his skin turned to gooseflesh. Something was happening. Something big. For one brief shining moment, Blair wondered if they shouldn't have let Alex and Naomi win. He wasn't sure he wanted whatever prize was coming, but if Jim had won it, they deal with that.
“We need to be inside,” Naomi said. Blair looked at her suspiciously. He wouldn't put it past her to cheat, even now. “It’s coming. They both need us, Blair.” She glanced up at the sky. “Now!”
Blair could hear the desperation in her voice, and there was an answering panic in his own chest. He needed to be with Jim. He needed to be with Jim right now. Turning around, he dashed into the temple, forgetting Naomi. Behind him Naomi's shoes clicked across the stones. The archway led to a new room, and in the center was in fact a throne. Alex was slumped on the floor near the foot of it, and Jim sat on the throne with the sun streaming in through a hole in the ceiling. His hands and feet were still tied, and he slumped against one of the arms of the throne, but he had claimed his prize.
Naomi gave a little gasp and rant Alex's side. Ignoring them, Blair ran to his own Sentinel.
“Oh man, are you okay?” Reaching out, he started untying Jim’s bonds.
“I’m fine, Chief.”
Blair snorted rather than point out the obvious. Jim wasn’t fine. Jim had clearly had the snot beat out of him, and it was essentially Blair’s step-mother that had done the beating. The next time Jim tried complaining about William and Stephen Ellison, Blair was going to point out that Blair's family was a whole lot more screwed in the head than Jim's.
Lightening flashed from one cloud to another despite the fact that the sun still shone down on them. “My bruises are bruised,” Jim confessed as he pushed himself off the arm of the throne and tried to sit up. Ignoring Jim’s tied feet for a moment, Blair slipped into the oversized throne next to Jim and helped support Jim’s weight.
“Do you feel like you're back in basic training?”
Jim gave him the stink eye. “Basic training never hit this hard. I’m going to be hearing a ringing in my ears for at least a week.”
“Probably,” Jim admitted. “It could be worse.”
“I thought you had lost,” Blair admitted.
“I just figured out that I couldn't keep fighting her in the jungle. She had too many advantages, and she had too much time to prepare ahead of time. So, I had to find a way to bring the fight to the temple. I figured in here, my covert ops training would be more helpful than out there.”
“She’s the stronger Sentinel,” Naomi said sadly. She had Alex head in her lap and she stroked the hair back out of her face. “She’s just not the winning one.” Naomi looked up and gave them both a half-hearted smile. “And that’s okay too.”
Blair figured it wasn't all that okay, but Naomi would just have to process and accept. Overhead, lightning flashed again. Blair tried to slip off the throne so that he could untie Jim's feet; however, Jim slipped an arm around his shoulders and pulled Blair close. Grateful that Jim was in one piece, Blair settled back and slipped his arms around Jim. It was over. They’d won, and it was over.
“Well, I guess he won. He is a good man, but I still think that Alex is the better Sentinel.” Naomi sat on the edge of the pool and stroked her fingers through Alex's long hair. Alex looked exhausted; however, considering that Jim looked like he'd been through twelve rounds with Mohammed Ali at his peak, Blair wasn't feeling much sympathy.
“How is Jim?” she asked.
Blair glared at his mother for a moment to let her know just how unhappy he was. “He’ll live. He said he wanted a little quiet.”
“Jim?” Naomi didn’t even bother to hide her disbelief.
“You’re the one who taught me that silence was the great healer,” Blair pointed out as he sat on the stone edge of the pool and looked into the water. It made him uncomfortable to even look at it.
“No, silence is the great teacher, Sweetie.” Her fingers continued to stroke through Alex’s hair. “And you two will have to learn a lot in the next few days.”
Blair cocked his head. “Meaning?” he asked. His mother glanced at the dark waters of the square pool, her expression soft as though looking at a child. That definitely wasn’t how Blair felt when he looked at it. He felt a shifting sort of discomfort—a low-level fear that gnawed at the edges of his awareness.
“We should have taken the prize before they came,” Alex said softly. A frown flickered across Naomi’s face.
“Alex, that’s not how the universe works. We should respect the universe.”
Alex looked about as happy with that as Blair had been when he was five and he wanted a dog. His mother had told him that the universe didn’t approve of enslaving animals. The universe wanted dogs to be free to follow their natures. Blair was almost 100 percent sure his mother had spewed that BS just to avoid having a dog in the car when they hit the road again.
“I'm sorry it had come down to this. Them fighting, I mean,” Blair said, and he actually meant it.
Naomi hand-waved at the whole mess. “This was always in the cards. The universe was ready to wake up, and it just needed someone to prod things into movement. I have no doubt that things will work out.”
“I would've been good,” Alex whispered, her voice rough, but Blair wasn't sure whether it was from emotion or exhaustion or the choke hold Jim had used on her.
“You would have been very good,” Naomi agreed. “We would have truly stirred things up. The world would never have forgotten us.”
Blair frowned. “The world?”
Naomi turned and gave Blair a smile that made his blood turn cold. “Of course, Honey. What did you think we were fighting over? One more mystical center of power?” She gave another hand-wave, and a somewhere out there, someone walked over Blair’s grave because his whole body shuddered. “I spent a month in Tibet. I don’t need to fight over a ceremonial site. Besides, power is everywhere on Mother Earth. However, this place is where Sentinels will find rebirth. Five hundred years of persecution, and the power had gone dormant, but that fight woke up the universe.” She got a thoughtful look on her face. “Actually, the universe was already walking up.” With a shrug, she dismissed the whole issue. “Either way, you two won, and you’d better be prepared for what comes.”
“Which is?” Jim’s voice made Blair jump. He looked over, and Jim was in the doorway to the throne room with a thunderous expression. Alex sat up, flinching in a way that suggested her head was not happy about the sudden movement.
“You have your own shaman. Ask him,” Naomi answered with a sweet smile.
“The Sentinels… the ones that have been showing up at Bethesda… it’s the start of something,” Blair accused his mother. True, she wasn’t the one causing the problem—probably—but she knew more than he did, and she wasn’t talking.
“Maybe,” she agreed.
“They can hear the call,” Alex offered, but Naomi reached over and rested a hand on Alex’s knee.
“Now, Alex. Let the boys figure things out for themselves. After all, if we tell them what’s coming, we’re only telling them reality as we see it. They have to decide what they think the universe looks like, and then they’ll have to make their own choices.” Naomi stood up, and Alex stood with her. They were beautiful together, and Blair mentally added on another year of therapy to his existing need for just thinking that. If winning meant that his mother would keep her lovers out of his Technicolor dreams, Blair would deal with whatever came.
“What reality, Naomi?” Jim demanded, his voice suddenly dangerous.
“Use that voice on Sentinels who don’t have a shaman, Jim.” The words sounded like a challenge, but then Naomi hurried toward Jim, her hands held up toward his face, and in the blink of an eye, she caught his head in her hands and pulled him down for a kiss on the cheek. “Be good, Jim. Remember, you were strong enough to choose Blair when society frowned on that choice, so you just keep making those good choices.” With a smile and a pat on the cheek, Naomi turned her back on Jim and reached for Alex. “Come on, love. I think we need to make ourselves scarce.”
“Look after him,” Naomi told Blair, and before Blair could even ask what she meant by that, the two women were gone.
“Should we….” Blair gestured toward the doorway, wondering if they should chase them down and torture his mother with Lawrence Welk until she talked.
“Let it go, Chief.” Jim sounded exhausted. When Blair scooted over, Jim took the invitation to sit on the stone ledge next to him. Their shoulders pressed together, and Blair leaned into that warmth. “The water—” Jim stopped and cocked his head to the side as if listening to something.
Jim shook his head, but he still had that same alert posture.
“Man, that water gives me the willies, too.” Blair scooted around so he could look at it.
“Willies?” Jim sounded confused. He was also reaching out for the dark water, his head tilted to the side, and his mouth open enough to make Blair suspect he was deeply scenting.
“Huh?” Jim didn’t sound like he was really listening. When his fingers touched the water, a shiver went through him, and his eyes drifted closed. Okay this was getting a little too weird.
“Jim? Man, you are freaking me out. What's going on?”
“Nothing, Sandburg.” Jim might've said the words, but his body was still on high alert. In fact, he cocked his head even farther to one side. Blair reached out and punched Jim in the arm.
“What?” Jim looked cranky.
“Do not shut me out here. My issues are having issues right now, and I do not need you poking my issues. So tell me what's going on.”
For a second, Jim kept that same cranky expression. Then he shook his head like a dog coming up out of the water. “I don't know. I can just feel something.”
“Something like a freight train about to hit you or something like the winning lottery numbers popping into your head?”
Blair looked at Jim skeptically. He was pretty sure those two feelings didn't have much in common. Following the line of Jim's gaze, Blair looked at the dark water. He had to admit there was something there. Chasing his mother down and tortured her with Lawrence Welk was sounding better and better all the time. Because the only other experiment he could think of included something Jim would never do.
“Maybe we should get in the water,” Jim suggested.
Blair's mouth fell open. Clearly he’d been wrong about Jim never doing it. Hell, Jim suggested it, which was freaky in ways Blair was just not ready for.
“No?” Jim asked, looking to Blair for some sort of answer.
“I mean, sure, I have that thought. But Jim, we have no idea what would happen. You're supposed to be the one to put on the brakes. Rushing into something without knowing where it's going? Man, that is not your thing. That is as far from your thing as a thing can get.”
“My thing?” Jim sounded amused now. Blair supposed that was an improvement over cranky.
“You know what I mean.”
“You're the one who's always telling me to trust my instincts and go with the flow.”
“Yeah, but you're always the one who ignores me.”
“Not this time, Chief. So, should we go in the water?”
Blair looked at the dark pools. He had to admit that he could feel something drawing him toward the warm waters. They shimmered softly and reflected the roof of the temple. He wanted to touch them, but he was afraid that he wanted to touch the same way that a three-year-old wanted to touch fire. Turning, Blair looked at the exit. If they walked out, would he be able to forget this yearning to touch the water? Blair chewed on his lip. “What do you think?” he asked Jim.
“I think the water’s fine,” Jim said as he dangled his fingers into the pool. “I also think that you wouldn’t hesitate unless you had good cause.”
Blair took a deep breath and tried to figure out why he was hesitating. “It’s dangerous,” Blair finally said. He couldn’t be more specific than that. Jim frowned, and Blair could feel something in the air shift. Jim was ready to walk out. “But it’s important,” Blair finished.
“Hey, if you want more than that, you're going to have to track my mother down. I don't actually know what I'm doing here.”
“No thanks. I've had about enough of Naomi and Alex to last a lifetime.”
Blair snorted his own agreement, and then he pulled his shirt off. “So, let’s go for a dip in the pool,” Blair said. He actually wished that the pools were deeper, because he'd enjoy a relief from the hot muggy air. Jim might not be complaining, but Blair knew he stank. It was funny. He'd spent years on expeditions and had, in some ways, enjoyed the freedom to not bathe and not shave and not follow all the little social niceties. Maybe he was getting old; right now, social niceties were sounding pretty good.
“If you’re sure,” Jim said. For someone who had been supportive of this idea two seconds ago, he was oddly reluctant now. He started unbuttoning his while Blair toed off his shoes.
“Totally,” Blair agreed. He was even partially telling the truth. Jim’s slowness in getting undressed suggested that he knew just how unsure Blair was, but Blair put on his best smile and stripped off his pants and underwear before going to the second square pool. The water sang to him, and putting aside his fears, Blair slipped his bare feet into the water. In for a penny, in for a pound, Blair thought to himself as he settled back into the murky water.
Blair felt his whole body relax into the water, and he seriously questioned why he’d ever hesitated getting in. Muscles relaxed and the gentle lapping of water against the stone ledge lulled him into a half sleep. Blair considered asking Jim if he was okay, but he was too relaxed to bother. A distant part of Blair's brain wondered if there was something more interesting than water in these pools. If there was, he really should check on Jim.
“He will be fine. Enquiri is strong, and he knows where his heart is.” Incacha walked out from the mist. Blair frowned, because he didn't remember there being mist. But then he didn't remember the forest either.
“In his chest,” Blair said. He reached up to put his hand over his own heart. He quickly put his hand back so he could cover himself. Flashing the dead guy felt wrong.
“No, that is not where you find your heart.” Incacha vanished into the mist.
“Ooookay.” Blair looked around. “Man, there are some seriously good drugs in here. Jim, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this,” Blair suggested. The mist started moving at him, the swirls and soft curves turning to straight lines as a wind sent it hurling at him. Okay, this is not good. “Jim, seriously, we need to get out of here.” Blair waited for the pull on his arm, for some sign that Jim was going to get them out of this trouble. Instead, the wind blew harder.
Images started appearing in the mist. Simon fell, the sound of a gunshot cracked through the air. A formation of jets streaked through the sky. A man covered his ears with his hands, crouched in the corner. Blair's gut told him this was a Sentinel, but not one that Blair knew. Jim stood with his hands raised, his eyes wide with panic. A hospital with dirty windows in a dirty city, and a man’s hand pressed against the pane as though trying to get out. The images spun past him so fast that Blair flinched from one to another, unable to really focus enough to get any details.
“Jim!” Blair bellowed out. An image of Jim approached him, Jim with mountain pines behind him.
“Sandburg, this could go incredibly bad,” Jim said as he looked around, his arms crossed. The mountain was chilly enough that every breath caused a puff of white air so that Jim looked a little like a dragon who couldn’t get his fire going. Blair wanted to chuckle at the thought. Jim turned toward him, and Blair thought maybe he had chuckled. Jim was not a fan of getting laughed at.
“Always the optimist, Chief.” Jim sounded like he was answering, but Blair definitely hadn’t said anything. He looked around in confusion. A stone jaguar from the temple stood in the middle of a clearing that was definitely part of the Cascade Mountains.
“We’ll see,” Jim said. He reached out to ruffle Blair’s hair, and Blair seemed to come unmoored from reality. The mist spun around him, and then the wind started again. The mist grew thicker and thicker until Blair struggled to breathe. His lungs burned.
“Sweetie, remember what I told you?” Naomi asked. “Silence is the great teacher. Listen to the silence.”
Blair opened his mouth to tell Naomi exactly what he thought of her advice. Or maybe he was going to call for help again. He didn't have a chance to do either. His chest seemed constrict and his heart pounded dangerously fast. Panting for breath, he waved his hands through the mist, struggling to find Jim. He groped like a blind man, his heart the drumbeat that drove him on. However, Jim was nowhere to be found.
And then, silence. Perfect silence.
Slowly, Blair opened his eyes. The Cascade Mountains and forest were gone, and he was back in Mexico. Birds flew through the air silently. Not even their wing beats made a sound in this perfectly still jungle. A wolf sat at the base of one of the jaguar pillars.
“You're a long way from home, boy.” Blair could feel his mouth work and his tongue form the words, but he couldn't hear anything. This trip was getting a little out there, even for him. A movement caught his eye, and he looked left to see a black jaguar pad silently through the trees. The wolf looked over at it, his tongue hanging out. Blair thought he was about to see the Technicolor version of Wild Kingdom. He really didn't want to see that, especially since the wolf was no match for a jaguar. He might eat meat, but he was man enough to admit that he was a hypocrite when it came to seeing animals die. He didn't want to. He could eat hamburger and avoid thinking about slaughterhouses without ever having the cognitive dissonance Naomi liked to warn about.
The jaguar stopped at the edge of the clearing, his blue eyes settling on Blair.
“Freaky,” Blair said, his voice still silent.
The cat lay down, and even with the sound turned off, Blair could see that the animal was distressed. He went to move closer, but a pain in his chest made him fall to his knees. He clutched his chest and cursed and funny enough, cursing didn’t feel as good when the silence absorbed all the fury and sound. Desperate to end the pain, Blair looked around. Who knows what he expected to find, but the way his dreams had been going, he was hoping for an emergency room tucked between two cypress trees.
Instead, he saw Naomi sitting on a bench, her back to him. It was a small church with a cross hung over the pulpit and stained glass windows with roses. He remembered this church. Even as the memory returned, the fog parted to show the couple at the altar with the baby. In about thirty minutes, his mother was about to give an eight-year-old Blair a lecture on water symbolism that turned into an explanation of birth waters, which became a discussion of how babies got into a woman. He’d been traumatized. Why was he remembering this now?
Blair looked over, and the wolf was panting hard, its tongue hanging out. Birthwaters. Life and death. Beginnings and endings. Blair pressed a hand against his chest and held his breath. Nothing. His heart wasn’t beating. When people died in their dreams, it was never a good sign. Never. But death often meant rebirth. In the tarot, the death card brought change, and water symbolized both death and life.
So, was he dreaming of death or life?
The jaguar stood and roared into the sky, all his white teeth showing even though silence muted his voice.
“Unhappy kitty,” Blair said. Unhappy kitty with blue eyes. Okay, so that was Jim. Blair looked over at the wolf. Wolves symbolized evil in the middle ages, but those people had so many hang-ups, Blair seriously hoped his subconscious wasn’t going to take that as any sort of source reference. Wolves in mythology suckled abandoned children and were associated with Lupa, goddess of midwifery. They were pack animals, loyal to a home pack until biology drove them out to become lone wolves until they found a mating pack. Blair could see the symbolism there. Maybe his dream wanted to tell him to let go of his ties with Naomi and stay loyal to Jim. He’d already pretty much decided that on his own. In some Native Peoples, the wolf was the teacher of new ideas, but in others, he was the trickster.
Incacha rose from the mist beside Blair. “Choose, young shaman, or forfeit your Sentinel.”
“Choose what?” While Incacha had found his voice, Blair was still silent.
“Life or death. The waters offer both, but if you remain here too much longer, lost in your own thoughts, you will forfeit your choice.”
“What?” Blair felt panic roll through him. With no evidence to support his assumption, he assumed Incacha knew exactly what he was talking about. “I choose life. I choose Jim. Man, the mysteries of a dream are totally unimportant compared to him,” Blair shouted as loud as he could. Silence still filled the air, pressing down on him. Blair was still on his knees, and his chest still hurt, and he still couldn’t feel his heart beating. What was he supposed to do? He’d chosen, so what else was he supposed to do?
Incacha looked down at him, no help there. The jaguar screamed silently into the air, and Blair looked over at the wolf. It was still panting, still in pain. “Go,” Blair yelled at it. When his word actually made a sound, he startled himself so badly that he fell onto his back. However, that got the wolf moving. It started to run toward the jaguar. The cat bounded forward, and the two animals met mid-leap, joining in and enormous flash that pressed Blair flat onto his back.
“Breath, Chief. Don’t you fucking die on me. Do you hear me? I will fucking follow you and strangle you with your own fucking pony tail.” Jim’s voice was rough, the sort of tone he used when his tightly controlled emotions slipped out of his control.
Coughing, Blair tried to lift his hands only to find them too weak. His heart still ached painfully. “Blair?”
Blair opened his eyes, and even the dim light inside the temple made them water. However, unless he was seeing things, Jim was crying. He was full-on crying. He was tears-flowing-down-his-face-and-he-doesn’t-even-care crying. Blair frowned as he tried to put the pieces of reality back together.
“Just keep breathing,” Jim practically begged him. Reaching over, Jim grabbed something soft and shoved it under Blair’s head. “Just breathe, Chief. We can figure the rest out if you just breathe, okay? Don’t stop breathing.”
“Good plan,” Blair said. He tried to say it, anyway. He was pretty sure the ‘G’ and the ‘P’ came out, but the rest sort of slurred together.
“Shhhh. Just focus on breathing. Keep that heart of yours beating for me, Chief. And when I find your mother, I’m going to strangle her and dump her body where no one can find her.”
Blair could feel his heart start to pound a little faster.
“Hey, calm down. I’m not serious,” Jim said, and he almost sounded like he meant it. However, Jim had that clenched jaw expression that meant he really wanted to hurt someone. “I’m just frustrated that she didn’t warn us. No way could she have been down here for all this time without knowing. I’m so sorry, Chief. I lived with the Chopec. I should have recognized the wall art.”
Blair’s eyes darted to the wall, but he couldn’t see anything, and Jim was not making much sense.
“Just keep calm. We’ll get you out of here. Somehow. It’s just important for you to recover.”
Blair didn’t know exactly what he was recovering from, but the desperation in Jim voice was definitely freaking him out. Forcing his body to respond, Blair lifted his hand the two inches it took to grab at Jim. “You need something?” Jim asked, his blue eyes immediately focusing on Blair as Jim leaned close.
“Wha… ha…ned.” Even that much drained every ounce of energy. Luckily, Jim was skilled at translating mumble.
“It was a ceremony, Blair. The water, it was more dangerous for you because you’re the shaman, and it sucked you in. Shit. It’s my fault, Blair. I should have been sitting next to you, guarding you, not off looking at the crazy pictures in my head. I’m so sorry.”
Blair rolled his eyes at Jim’s ability to blame himself for anything. No way could he have known. Now his mother…. Blair thought about how she’d looked at the water. She’d known something. Blair’s eyes slid closed and he could feel sleep pull at him.
Blair woke to the obnoxious sound of beeping.
“Hey, Chief. Are you with us?” A scruffy version of Jim leaned over him. Blair blinked and tried to bring Jim into focus, but before he could, Jim vanished.
“Follow the light,” a crisp voice with a Hispanic accent ordered him. Funny, doctors always sounded like doctors, no matter what country you landed in. A bright pen light made him cringe away. “I need to check the eyes.” The doctor did not sound happy. Blair opened his eyes and tried to follow the light the next time the doctor waved it in front of him. Despite his watering eyes, but he could follow it.
“We need more testing,” the doctor announced. Blair supposed that was the doctor's way of saying he couldn't find anything immediately wrong.
Jim patted his leg. “You'll be fine, Chief. We’re in a hospital in San Juan del Rio. You're getting good care.”
“What happened?” Blair's memories were indistinct, and he was pretty sure that some of them were physically impossible. Unless they had found a teleporter inside the temple, he couldn't have gone back to Cascade. And Simon had been shot. “Is Simon okay?” Blair asked.
That made Jim frown. “As far as I know, yes. Why do you ask?”
The doctor answered for Blair. “The lack of oxygen during a near-drowning can lead to hallucinations and confusion.”
“Near-drowning?” Blair could feel his heart start to pound a little faster. The machines beat in time with it.
“You're fine, Blair. I promise you're fine.” Jim’s hand patted his leg.
Blair wasn't sure if that was the truth, or just Jim's wishful thinking. His chest hurt, and his body felt heavy and unresponsive.
“I will arrange for testing.” Without a word of farewell, the doctor turned and left the room. Yep, doctors everywhere in the world were all the same.
“Oh man, tell me what really happened,” Blair demanded. The look on Jim's face just told him that his idiot partner with lying about something.
“We can talk later.”
“No, we can talk now. What the hell happened? You said something about a ceremony, what ceremony?”
Jim's face turned grim. Oh yeah, his partner was lying. Or at the very least, he was hiding something big.
“Do not make me torture you, Ellison.”
Jim got a wry sort of grin on his face that that threat. “Torture, huh?”
“Man, I will slip tofu into every single dish I cook for the next month if you don't fess up.”
Jim's lips twitched. “At least I know you're getting back to normal.” The grin quickly faded. “It was some sort of ceremony, Blair. A ceremony for sentinels who have a shaman.”
Blair thought about that. There was definitely something hallucinogenic in the water, and a lot of ceremonies included in element of sensory deprivation. The dark temple of the warm water would simulate that. “Okay, that makes sense. So it's like an accelerated meditation. If they bottled whatever was in that water, stoners would be ecstatic.”
“Or dead.” Jim didn't sound like he was joking even a little bit.
“Your heart was still weak and you couldn’t take the ceremony. You slipped under the water and breathed it in.” Jim's voice trembled, and the hand on Blair's leg tightened painfully. “Twice in week, Chief. Twice in one fucking week, and this time I’m not letting you out of his hospital bed until every doctor in this place agrees you’re fit.”
Blair shook his head. “Okay, I’m sure it was scary for you—”
“Scary? Scary?” Jim flew away from the bedside, every cell in his body on high-alert. “Scary doesn’t cover it. I aged about ten years out there. And I'm still plenty pissed at your mother. She knew something, Chief.” Jim was getting a good head of righteous indignation going, and Blair could only hope Naomi kept her distance until he could cool down. Blair reached out for Jim, and he came immediately back to Blair’s side.
Blair thought back to the dream images that had plagued him in that pool. “New birth.”
Blair looked up at Jim. “Water. It symbolizes death, but also new birth. I mean, maybe doing the ceremony in the same week as a major heart attack wasn’t good, I’ll give you that.” Jim still had a hard expression on his face, so there was not much forgiving of Naomi going on yet. “Naomi didn't tell me because she knew I had to become the shaman.”
“That’s bullshit,” Jim quickly snapped.
“Really?” Blair studied Jim. Sure, Jim was quick to reject what he considered hare-brained ideas, but he’d also stop and consider them once he’d gotten past his knee jerk reaction. “So, you don’t feel that something big’s coming?” Now that Blair articulated his nebulous thoughts, he could feel the pressure against his soul like a storm front.
Jim’s jaw tightened until the muscle was a hard knot under the skin. Yeah, that was answer enough.
“Mom wanted me to do the ceremony so we’d be ready for something. I saw Simon get shot and we were in the mountains, getting this field ready, only you kept talking about how things could go wrong.” Blair’s words made Jim’s jaw muscle do a jig. “What the hell is going on, Jim?”
Jim couldn’t even look him in the eye. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted. “I had a vision, but none of it made sense.”
“None of any of this makes sense, but if there’s some clue to help us save Simon, this is all worth it.”
Jim crossed his arms. “At this point, I’m less worried about Simon than I am about you. You used to joke about my overprotective side, but you haven’t seen anything yet, Sandburg. You watch. You’re about to get a full dose of Ellison.” The tone of voice would have sent anyone else screaming in fear, but Blair had been threatened with the full Ellison too many times.
“Promises, promises,” he sing-songed.
“Is there a problem?” A man in a suit stood in the doorway. Blair's first hint that something was wrong was the fact that Jim went absolutely stiff.
“Nah, just old friends giving each other shit, you know?” Blair put on his most charming smile.
The man smiled back. “Ah, of course. My brother and I, we do much the same. I am Señor Padilla Rivera from the Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública.”
“National Public Health? Oh man, please tell me I don't have something contagious and scabby.” Blair didn’t add a request that the man cough up information before the vein on the side of Jim’s head blew. It was getting close.
“Oh no, you misunderstand,” he said holding his hands up. “I understand that you have worked with men who have senses that are not…” Señor Padilla Rivera made a face as he struggled to come up with a word in English. “They are not as the senses of other men,” he finally finished.
“Sentinels?” Blair asked softly. When the FBI had given his information on Sentinels to the Bethesda doctors, Blair had kind of assumed that data would stay inside the country. Obviously, not so much. The logical side of his brain said that he’d had an ethical obligation to warn the FBI about Alex’s powers back when she served the dark side, especially since the agents were, in part, trying to protect him and Jim. The emotional part of his brain wished he could go back in time and bury all the evidence.
“Yes, yes. The captain who picked you up, he said you were seeking historical information on your sentinels. I find it very exciting that your research would lead here. Many reporters have asked to see this new find… this temple of yours.”
“Reporters?” Blair's voice squeaked. “And what captain?” he looked over, but Jim had gone stone-faced.
“The captain who flew his helicopter in to retrieve you,” Señor Padilla Rivera said with a confused look toward Jim. “Your friend, the code he used was very old, but he knew military codes and military radio channels. It is why the government sent a helicopter.”
“Oh man. You pulled out the covert cloak and dagger?” Blair asked, not sure if he should be complemented or just terrified. If Jim used codes, military codes, that meant these people knew…. Actually Blair wasn't sure what they knew. Jim didn't share his military background even with him.
“You were hurt.” Jim clipped each word short. Blair might've demanded more information about exactly what Jim had done, but Señor Padilla Rivera seemed eager to move the conversation on.
“Yes, Señor Ellison has a most interesting past. But I am more interested that you have been speaking to doctors at Bethesda about the sentinels. Yes?” Señor Padilla Rivera looked at Blair with such hope that Blair didn't feel right lying. Of course he didn't feel much better about telling the truth, because sentinels were a topic he just tried to avoid. Yes, the FBI and the Bethesda doctors thought the late Detective Olio and Alex Barnes were Blair’s two dissertation subjects; however, anyone who scratched the surface of that story was going to find Jim.
“I've done some talking, but so far it's only talk. I haven't even gotten to work with the guys enough to know whether they are sentinels. I can't even scientifically say sentinels exist,” Blair pointed out.
“But your temple exists,” Señor Padilla Rivera said, and he was clearly very happy about that. Blair was starting to feel like Alice down the rabbit hole.
“A temple exists,” he said, still hedging his bets.
“A temple dedicated to those whose senses are not as other men. And now, now you are here. I believe very strongly that God and the universe make things happen. You have found the temple, and now you are here, and doctors tell me that you will be here for a while.”
That was Jim's cue. “Is there something you need?” The ice in his voice didn't match Señor Padilla Rivera's wide smile.
“Me? No. I am not the one in need.” After giving Jim a smile, Señor Padilla Rivera turned back to Blair. “I have asked three men be transferred here. The attaché in Washington, he says many people speak of your work. I was hoping you could talk to these three men about your work.”
“People? Talk about my work?” The idea of anyone in the government talking about him made a cold shiver go down Blair's spine. He was so far down the rabbit hole he couldn't even see the top.
“Yes. Of course some think you're crazy. I have found that many wise men look crazy from the outside. I am also hoping that the man of whom they speak, a man who would come back to Bethesda even though he was not shown much respect, a man who would work long hours preparing reports that could make tongues wag. I am hoping this is a man who is willing to help three patients who have senses that are threatening their lives.”
Blair opened his mouth and then closed it again. Sentinels. Señor Padilla Rivera was talking about having sentinels in the hospital. Blair's brain spun so fast that he couldn't even figure out what he was supposed to think about this. He'd spent years looking for his first Sentinel. Three years later he found a second Sentinel. And now, now, this man was dropping three more sentinels in his lap. Blair looked over at Jim to see how he was handling the news. The last time there was a Sentinel in the area, Jim had kidnapped him and dragged him into the middle of nowhere.
Jim took a step forward. “Blair’s sick.” Oh yeah, Jim was one unhappy puppy. However, he wasn't a primal, nonverbal, kidnapping puppy. That was actually an improvement over the Alex debacle.
Señor Padilla Rivera held up his hand. “Yes. I do not push for him to do anything now. I understand that he is been very ill. The doctors in Mexico City, they are very adamant that they did not wish for him to leave so quickly. But I can understand scientific curiosity. The temple, it is a great find. You will get credit for it, Dr. Sandburg.” Señor Padilla Rivera got a very serious expression on his face he said that.
Blair was a big enough man to admit that he was selfish enough to want credit for the find. But even better would be keeping the whole temple a secret. Unfortunately, it didn't look like that was going to happen. It also looked like Señor Padilla Rivera was a little confused about Blair’s credentials. “It’s just Mr. Sandburg… or actually, just call me Blair, but my dissertation hasn’t gone through the committee yet.”
“No doubt it will,” Señor Padilla Rivera said without pause. “Blair. It is a good name. So, Blair, I will be back to talk to you when you are feeling better, but if you could keep these men in your thoughts, it would make me feel much better. I worry. When there are such a good men suffering such ailments, I worry. You have brought hope with you, Dr. Sandburg.” Señor Padilla Rivera pointed his finger. “Blair,” he corrected himself after a moment. With a smile, he turned toward Jim. “Señor Ellison, it is my pleasure to meet you. There are many in our military who still speak highly of your mission in Peru. Most impressive. Should you need anything, please, let me know.” With that, he offered a card.
For a second, Jim didn't react. Blair had visions of an international incident as the famous Ellison temper finally blew. “Thank you,” Jim said. It was a little stiff and a little formal, but he shook hands and accepted the card.
“I hope to see both of you soon.” With that, Señor Padilla Rivera turned and headed out of the room. Blair had said he felt something coming; he just didn't expect this something to include an overly friendly member of the Mexican government. Oh Blair might’ve had one or two nightmares concerning the American government and what they might do if they ever knew about Jim, but generally his paranoia tended to focus on the United States. He had no idea whether it was better or worse to have this whole thing blow up in his face in Mexico.
“Jim?” Blair turned to his partner.
“Not now, Chief. You just focus on feeling better.” Jim patted Blair's leg and then took the hospital chair that had been sitting next to Blair and dragged it to the foot of the bed. Jim sat down and settled in. His position meant that anyone who came into the room had to get past it Jim first. The symbolism was not lost on Blair. However, if Jim thought he could stop an entire government, any government, Blair wasn't sure he was being 100% rational.
Blair stared at the ceiling of the hospital room. “Well, shit,” he whispered. He had no idea how he was supposed to feel better with this hanging over them.
“I can walk,” Blair tried saying for the hundredth time. And for the hundredth and first, Jim just glared. If they didn't get back to the States soon, Jim was going to use up his whole quota of pissiness for the year. The only answer Jim gave was to walk faster. Blair's wheelchair click-clacked across the tiles.
“It means so much that you are willing to do this.” Señor Padilla Rivera walked beside them, and despite the fact that Jim was still putting out a cold front, the man smiled at Jim as though they were all best friends.
“Man, just don't get your hopes up too high,” Blair warned. “The Bethesda patients haven't improved.” Blair figured it might have something to do with the fact that a Sentinel just needed a guide, but whatever the reason, the men weren't getting any better. Oh the doctors were excited because they had new theories, and a couple of the doctors were even polite about listening to Blair's theories. However, they wanted medical solutions, and Blair didn't have any. But he was getting good dissertation data. He felt a flash of guilt about the fact that he was benefiting from their misery; however, he really was trying to help.
“I understand. Perhaps you have no way to help these men. But if you can put a name on it, if you can help our scientists to look in the right direction, that is all we ask.”
“And if he can’t do that?” Jim asked stiffly.
Señor Padilla Rivera shrugged. “Then he cannot. He will still have our gratitude for trying. And of course, he will still be much in demand from our archeologists. They are most eager to explore the Temple of the Sentinels and to discuss the mythology with Dr. Sandburg.”
Blair really hoped it was going to be that simple. They passed to soldiers in the hallway. If Blair thought Jim was tense before that, he was wound tighter than a Slinky after.
“Two of the men are in here. The third, he is most gravely ill and doctors have placed him in isolation.” Señor Padilla Rivera reached for the knob of one of the doors and pushed it open. If Jim hadn't been pushing the chair, if Blair had been on his own two feet, he would've stopped at the threshold. The moment he got close, he could feel something pushing against his skin, as if the air had gotten thicker. One of the men was sitting up in bed, his sandy hair sticking up in awkward clumps of spikes. The second man lay flat staring up at the ceiling. His eyes were closed tightly, the skin wrinkling at the corners. Blair had the impression that even now, just lying in bed, he was in a lot of pain. Both men were hooked up to IVs.
“Señors Sandburg and Ellison, this is Lieutenant Alejandro Vega and Sub-lieutenant Izador Jimenez-Ramirro. These are the two Americans, and this is Blair Sandburg, the man who has worked with the doctors in America,” Padilla Rivera introduced them. He added something in Spanish, and as far as Blair could tell he was repeating the introduction. The one with the sandy brown hair lighter complexion struggled to reach the edge of his bed, and Blair got the impression he wanted to stand. “No, no,” Señor Padilla Rivera said hurrying to the man's bedside, “Subteniente Jimenez-Ramirro, you must rest.” Padilla Rivera rested his hand against the soldier’s shoulder, urging him back into bed. The other man, the lieutenant with dark skin and black hair, didn’t even twitch.
Using the arms of the wheelchair, Blair pushed himself up. The pressure he could feel against his skin grew thicker and more viscous as he stepped closer to the lieutenant. “Chief,” Jim whispered, his hand slipping under Blair's elbow. As much as he hated to admit it, Blair needed support. He let himself lean into Jim as he moved closer to Alejandro Vega. The man's hands were twisted into the white sheets, and his lips were pressed into a thin line.
“He is been in great pain today,” Jimenez-Ramiro offered. Blair was guessing Jimenez-Ramiro wasn't doing so well himself. He had the gaunt look of a muscular man who is lost too much weight too quickly.
“I don’t know that I can do anything,” Blair said quite honestly. He had his Sentinel. Trying to work with Alex had shown him the danger in trying to guide to sentinels at once. But maybe he could do something to ease their pain. Maybe the sheets were too rough or something was aggravating Vega's senses.
Blair moved closer, Jim at his elbow the whole way. When he got close enough, Blair reached out and fingered the sheets that Vega was clinging to so desperately. They were stiff, the way hospital sheets always were. If they'd been alone, Blair would've asked Jim what the sheets felt like to a Sentinel, but they weren't. He had to fake it. “Have you noticed your senses giving you problems?” Blair asked Jimenez-Ramiro. “Are the lights too bright or smells bothering you? Do the sheets feel too rough or too stiff?”
The sub-lieutenant frowned and looked to Padilla Rivera who rattled off several long questions in Spanish. The sub-lieutenant nodded and answered.
“He says all of that has been happening,” Padilla Rivera translated for Blair. “He did not want to make unmanly complaints.” Padilla Rivera looked a little disgusted as he added the last part. “I will have hospital staff attend to those details. Will that help Teniente Vega?”
Blair looked at the suffering man lying on sweat-stained white sheets. “It’s a start,” Blair said. He swallowed as a whole load of fears and guilt pressed up into his throat. He was the fucking expert, and he had no idea what to do. His first instinct was to reach out for the man, to make some ridiculous promise that it would all get better.
“Blair?” Jim asked. Blair looked up at Jim, his guts tangled in his own helplessness, and Jim’s expression softened. “You can’t fix everything, Chief,” Jim whispered.
“This is my fucking dissertation. I should be able to do something.” Hell, the way Chancellor Edwards fluttered around him talking about Blair’s groundbreaking work and partnership with Bethesda, she made it seem like Blair was some sort of genius, but he had no idea what to do for these men. He’d been Jim’s guide, and with the Bethesda patients, he just consulted with the doctors and then accepted their data on the relative strengths of the Sentinels’ senses. He’d never felt like such a fraud in his life as he did being faced with Vega and Jimenez-Ramiro. And there was a third man who was even worse, and Blair was fucking helpless.
Blair took another step closer and studied the lines of pain etched into Vega’s face. Maybe he could figure out which sense had overloaded him. Blair would guess touch from the way he was clutching the sheets, but maybe he’d been trying to use sense to distract himself from another sense. Blair leaned in closer, Jim’s hand still resting against his arm. Vega’s eyes came open so fast that Blair sucked in a startled breath and then a strong hand caught his wrist.
“Jim!” Blair yelped and Jim tried to jerk him back, but Vega had Blair’s wrist. Blair hissed in pain as he became the rope in a tug of war between Vega and Jim.
Padilla Rivera rattled on in Spanish, and Jimenez-Ramiro pushed himself to the side of his bed, his feet over the side, but he stopped there. The door swung open, and a soldier appeared in the threshold with a very confused expression.
“Sentinel!” Jim bellowed. He dropped Blair’s arm and moved in on Vega, grabbing the man’s wrist. Vega had been staring at Blair with dark, hungry eyes, but now he blinked and confusion replaced the hunger.
“Sentinel?” he echoed, sounding out the unfamiliar word. He looked around the room, his eyes settling on Señor Padilla Rivera from the health department. Padilla Rivera hurried to offer an explanation, his words rattling past so fast that Blair could only catch his name and Jim’s name and a reference to the United States. Señor Padilla Rivera finished, and Vega slowly let go of Blair’s wrist, but Jim continued to pin Vega’s arm to the bed.
“Lo siento, Sentinel Ellison. Lo siento,” he offered in a weary voice before his apology dove into Spanish that Blair couldn’t follow. Blair held his breath, terrified as he realized that Vega had recognized Jim as a Sentinel. He stared at Padilla Rivera and prayed that the man dismissed it as the ramblings of a confused man in pain.
Jim slowly let go of Vega’s arm and spoke to the man in a halting and accented Spanish of his own. Blair caught the words for “pain” and something that sounded like “pardon.” Jim kept his eyes on Vega, but he tilted his head toward Señor Padilla Rivera. “The sheets are painful. You should probably get someone in here with something softer.”
“Get him out of bed,” Blair blurted out. Jim turned and frowned at him, clearly confused.
“Man, he has all that skin pressing into the hard sheets. Get him out of the bed and you reduce his contact with the irritant,” Blair pointed out. Jim blinked for a second and then nodded.
“That makes sense. Um… Señor Padilla Rivera?” Jim looked over.
“I can help,” Blair said as he tried to move closer, but Jim hip checked him, forcing Blair to stumble away from the bed. “Hey!”
“You aren’t getting too close, Chief. He needs a guide, and I’m going to feel really guilty if I have to break his neck for assaulting you again.” Jim didn’t even sound like he was joking. Señor Padilla Rivera hurried around Blair, his body forcing Blair to take another step back from Vega.
“Of course, I can help, Señor Ellison,” he offered. He got on Vega’s other side and offered his arm. “Soldado, go and find a nurse, a hospital employee,” he said to the soldier who was still standing at the doorway looking lost. He added something in Spanish, and the soldier nodded and vanished back out the door. Jim and Padilla Rivera got on either side of Lieutenant Vega and got him up onto his feet. His hospital gown gaped at back, and Blair sucked in a breath when he saw the angry rash all down his backside. The white sheets were covered in sweat with little dots of blood.
“Dios mío,” Padilla Rivera said, his voice little more than a whisper. “This is a good hospital. Doctors would not have allowed this.”
“With Sentinels, skin irritations can happen fast,” Blair said. “We need something natural without more chemicals to irritate the skin, something like aloe. But first, we have to get his skin washed down with simple water, get the irritant off it.”
“The nurses can see to that,” Padilla Rivera assured them. Vega seemed a little more focused once they had him on his feet. He shuffled between Jim and Padilla Rivera, his eyes following Blair until the muscle on Jim’s jaw bulged dangerously.
“Knock it off, Vega,” Jim snapped. Even if Vega didn’t know English, he obviously got the tone of that because he tore his gaze away from Blair and frowned at Jim, saying something Blair couldn’t follow, and Blair was starting to regret not learning Spanish because he desperately wanted to know what they were saying. Clearly, he and Jim had been together long enough to get a sort of pseudo-mindreading power going because the second Blair thought that, Jim provided the translation.
“He’s apologizing for staring, but he thinks you smell good.”
Blair snorted. “Nice to know.”
Jimenez-Ramiro pushed himself up, but he had a hand still braced against his bed. “You do, Señor Sandburg.”
Jim transferred his glare to the second Sentinel.
He held his hand up in a placating gesture. “I no will ever attempt to… pursue your attentions.”
“Good,” Jim snapped. “Señor Padilla Rivera, my Spanish is rudimentary at best.”
“You do very well,” Padilla Rivera disagreed, but then he was a government official, and they had training classes in how to lie. Blair couldn’t speak a word of it, and he could still tell Jim’s Spanish seriously sucked.
“Can you ask Lieutenant Vega if there is anyone who we could call for him? Maybe this is a person who smells as good as Blair or someone who he would spend time with when his senses were starting to get out of control, someone he knew before he came here.” Jim made eye contact with Blair, and in that moment, Blair realized that Jim was going to put helping these men ahead of trying to keep his secret. The knot in Blair’s stomach grew twice as large, but he followed Jim’s lead.
“A Sentinel has a companion, a guide who can help them when the senses overwhelm them. This is someone who can talk them back from a zone or talk them into admitting they’re in pain instead of letting them dismiss medical problems as unmanly complaining.” Blair looked over at Jimenez-Ramiro when he said that last part. The Sentinel had the grace to drop his gaze to the floor and blush a bit.
“Of course, I will ask.” Padilla Rivera and Vega had a long conversation in Spanish, and the confusion slowly vanished from Vega’s face to be replaced with a tentative sort of hope.
“Cabo Feo Morales,” he blurted out loudly. When he went back to long Spanish sentences, Blair couldn’t follow Vega, but the name Morales came up several more times. Vega was still talking about Morales when three nurses hurried into the room. Two more staff in green followed, one clutching a new set of sheets.
“Gentlemen,” Señor Padilla Rivera said as he let a nurse take his place at Vega’s side, “the room is soon to be very much crowded. The doctors will need to check both men and they will use water and aloe to try and ease the pain. However, there is little more we can do here.” He headed for the door. “After you,” he offered, gesturing toward the door. Blair traded a concerned look with Jim, but the die was cast, and now they were going to have to just see where this led.
Blair stood at the window and looked out of the gray sky and at the rain. It was as if the clouds couldn't decide whether they really had their hearts in it. It would pour one second, and the next the rain would taper down to a mere drizzle. Sentinels. They had sentinels.
Blair had been shocked when the FBI agents he talked to about Alex had gotten the Bethesda doctors to call him. For some reason, he grown to think of Jim is someone unique. Even after Alex appeared, Blair hadn't expected to find more sentinels. Realistically, it made sense that sentinels had joined the military. Sentinels did have protective instincts. At least, Blair assumed they did. At this point he was working off of one historical document, and two confirmed live case studies. At least fifty percent of his case studies were a little light on the protective instincts part of being a Sentinel. Or maybe it just took Naomi to make Alex want to protect anything. At this point, Blair figured he was too close to the problem to untangle that one.
However, now he had three more sentinels. These weren't numbers and medical data on a piece of paper the Bethesda doctors faxed over to him. These weren't theoretical case studies that he consulted on. These weren't data for his dissertation, men who he wasn't even sure whether they qualified as sentinels or not. These three were real sentinels. Jim recognized them as sentinels, and even more problematically, they recognized Jim.
They recognized him too well.
Blair shook his head. Watching Jim interact with these new men could inspire a whole new dissertation. Blair just didn't have the energy to write it.
“The rain is beautiful.” Señor Padilla Rivera walked in the room.
“Totally. Is Jim…?” Blair looked to see whether Jim was following Señor Padilla Rivera. Jim had promised to stay with the third Sentinel, but this whole situation was getting so surreal that Blair wouldn't blame Jim if his protective instincts drove him back to Blair’s side.
“He still speaks to the one who cannot wake.”
Blair nodded. It killed him to see a Sentinel so lost in a zone that he slipped farther and farther into a coma. He'd tried everything. He'd sat at the man's bedside and called to him. He'd had the man's family come in. He'd had the staff change the clothing and the bed sheets and the soap that was used in the laundry.
After a long pause, Padilla Rivera continued. “Señor Ellison was concerned that you would not sleep without encouragement.”
Blair snorted. “I promised him that I would come back to the room, I never promised that I would sleep.”
“Did you not agree to rest?”
“Define rest.” Blair gave Señor Padilla Rivera sharp smile. The man gave a little laugh.
“You are not one I would verbally spar with. But then, I do not plan to verbally spar with either you or Señor Ellison. I am very grateful for everything you have done for these men.”
“We haven't done that much.” Blair wished he could wave some magic wand and claimed have all the answers, but failing one out of your three patients wasn't exactly an impressive statistic, and all Blair's theories were failing the third Sentinel.
“You have. We had three dying men. Now we have two men who stand and walk and speak of feeling human again. And one of them has even managed to stop looking lovesick when he mentions your name.” Padilla Rivera got a twinkle in his eye when he said that. Jim had been a little less amused when both Jimenez-Ramiro and Vega showed a tendency to want to trail after Blair. Oh, Jim had laid down the law and both men kept their distance physically, but only the arrival of Cabo Feo Morales had stopped Vega from overtly and rather obnoxiously coveting Blair. “This business of having a guide, it is more significant than I thought. The doctors at Bethesda, they did not mention this part of your research.”
“Yeah, well I'm not entirely sure how much of my research their listening to or even believing.”
“Then they are more fools.” Señor Padilla Rivera was firm on that. “Will you and Señor Ellison stay long?”
“Man, I hope not. No offense, because you have a beautiful country, but I really am sick of the hospital. And if Jim rags on me about my heart condition one more time, I'm going to…” Blair stopped, not even able to come up with a consequence serious enough to show how frustrated he was. Getting lectured about health from a man who considered Wonderburger the sixth food group was testing his patience.
Señor Padilla Rivera laughed. “You will forgive him,” he predicted.
Blair probably would. He looked back out the window at the gray world in the falling rain. Señor Padilla Rivera moved closer so that he flanked the other side of the window.
“My wife is afraid of the rain,” he commented in what seemed like a non sequitur. “Whenever it rains, she speaks of all of the weeds that are sure to follow.”
Blair frowned. “Yeah, but you're going to get a lot more grass and flowers tree growth, too.”
“You see, I knew you would understand. I love my wife, but she is one who sees what is wrong. The rain brings great weeds, but it brings greater beauty.” Padilla Rivera's face was too serious for the subject. Actually, the subject was too ridiculous for the man to even bring up, much less take so seriously.
“We aren't talking about rain, are we?”
Padilla Rivera drew in a large breath. He seemed to think about that answer for a long time. “I am very late turning in certain reports to my superiors. I am afraid that I am well known for my dilatory habits when it comes to paperwork.”
Blair raised his eyebrow and looked at Señor Padilla Rivera. From the man's expression, he was trying to say something pretty important, but Blair was not putting the pieces together. “Maybe it’s the lack of sleep or the recent heart attack or the near drowning experience, but I need a few more dots in this connect the dots game,” he admitted.
“Rain brings change, new growth. It is very exciting.”
“Ah.” Change. That's what he was talking about. Señor Padilla Rivera was talking about the metaphorical rain of sentinels who’d recently come into Blair's life. “You worry that there will be some weeds.”
“With rain, there are always weeds. It is the way of life. Americans, sometimes I think you must have very happy lives because so often you look for flowers to grow when there are no weeds. But flowers cannot grow without rain, and rain cannot fall without weeds.”
So Señor Padilla Rivera was warning them about weeds. And he was also warning Blair that he was particularly late in his reports. Two and two were adding up to something rather unpleasant. “I am really missing home,” Blair said cautiously, still not 100 percent sure he was tracking this conversation. “I think I might ask Jim about getting us a couple of plane tickets up North.” Blair watched Señor Padilla Rivera's face, and the sudden look of relief told Blair everything he needed to know. The man was avoiding filing paperwork, because he wanted to make sure one of his bosses didn't find out about Jim until after they were safely back in the States. Blair got a cold shiver down his back.
“I understand how you would miss home. When one misses home, it is best to return as quickly as possible,” he said with a nod.
“No joke.” Blair was starting to think they should be on the plane now.
Señor Padilla Rivera leaned in and patted Blair on the shoulder and the way the two men who'd grown familiar with each other might. “I am most honored to have known you Señor Sandburg.”
“The honor’s mine”, Blair said honestly. “There aren't enough men in this world who are willing to risk everything just to help someone else.”
“Enough? Perhaps not. But I like to believe that there are many of us.” Señor Padilla Rivera gave him a warm smile before turning and walking out of the room. Blair was still staring at the doorway, wondering just how deep the shit was going to get, when Jim walked in the room.
“Oh man,” Blair blurted, “am I glad to see you. Señor Padilla Rivera…”
“I know, Chief. I heard what he said. I followed him back to the room.”
“But you were going to stay with…” Blair stopped. The sympathy, the horrific sympathy on Jim's face said everything Blair needed to know. The world had one fewer Sentinel, and Blair had been absolutely helpless to do anything.
“It wasn't your fault,” Jim quickly offered. “You did everything you could.” Jim rushed forward and caught Blair in a bear hug; he held Blair so close that Blair could hear their twin heartbeats, almost as if he were the Sentinel. Tears prickled as his eyes, which was stupid because he had never known the man. Hell, he couldn't even remember his name. That man had a mother and a father or maybe a wife somewhere. They had a right to cry over him. Blair didn't. Still, he could feel his breath catching his lungs.
“It's okay,” Jim crooned. “It's okay, Chief.”
It wasn't, though.
“We'll grieve for him later,” Jim promised. “We'll both grieve for him. But I need you to hold it together, Chief. Señor Padilla Rivera is right; it's time for us to head home.”
Blair nodded, agreeing even if he couldn't get the words past the lump in his throat. Once more, he failed to help a Sentinel. Why was it that the profound gratitude of the two men who had recovered didn't fill the hole in his soul created by the death of one man?
Jim continued to croon, his arms strong around Blair, and Blair leaned into that strength and cried.
“Oh man. Jim, trouble at three o'clock.” Blair cringed as he watched by half a dozen reporters converge on them. The airport Jim had chosen was a small one, and instead of standing in an air-conditioned hangar waiting for one of those retractable walkways, they stood in the muggy Mexican afternoon waiting for the airport guard to let down the chain that would let them walk to the plane. So far the guard wasn't letting anything down.
“Reporters,” Jim commented calmly. He sounded almost apathetic, which was surprising considering this was Jim and reporters-- two things that generally didn't go well together.
“Shit. Do you think Señor Padilla Rivera ratted on us?” Blared liked the man, but he couldn't figure out how else the reporters could have found them. Ever since they left the hospital, Jim had been doing his supersecret switching cars and watching behind them routine. He'd even booked the plane tickets under two names that Blair didn't recognize. And still, there were the reporters.
“If Padilla Rivera were going to turn on us, it wouldn’t be the reporters we’d have to worry about.” Jim gave the airport guard a quick look that Blair had no trouble interpreting. The guard was a government employee, and if Padilla Rivera had betrayed them, it was the Mexican government that was going to be coming after them. Guards and police sent by the nastier parts of it, anyway. At this point though, Blair's main concern was the nastier parts of the American government. He didn't have a lot of illusions about secret information staying secret, and he really didn't have any illusions about how far the American government would go if it thought Jim was a significant threat to security. He'd grown up protesting shitty government actions, so he knew the government could be one giant piece of shit.
Despite the fact that Blair kept his head down, one of the reporters spotted them. Blair could see them turn and start trotting across the concrete walk that led up to the runway. “Jim,” Blair hissed in desperation.
“Just be honest. Charm them,” Jim suggested. The tone was all off. Jim had been Blair's lover and his friend and his Sentinel for far too long for that carefully controlled voice to work. Unfortunately, Blair didn't have time to torture information out of Jim because the miniature mob of reporters was upon them.
“Señor Sandburg is it true you have found a temple?”
“Have you a comment on reports that you have found sentinels?” The first reporters peppered him with questions, and Blair pressed back toward Jim. Right now, he wouldn’t mind a little Mother Hen Ellison coming out, but Jim was just watching as more reporters closed in on them, trotting so their recorders bounced against their chests or hips—depending on where they had them strapped.
“Will you be involved in the archaeological expedition?”
One particularly bold reporter—a woman with short hair and a long face—stuck a microphone at Jim. “Señor Ellison, is it true that you are Sentinel? Have you come to visit Mexican sentinels?” The woman had a hopeful expression on her face, like she was getting the big scoop of the century. However Blair's heart rose up into his throat so that he couldn't even speak. Panic raced through him, and he might've started flailing except that Jim's hand settled on the shoulder, anchoring him to the earth even at the moment when Blair was ready to fly off.
“I came with Blair,” Jim answered calmly. At least it was an answer. The reporters thronged around Jim now, moving their microphones to catch his words instead of recording Blair's panicky breathing.
“Will you two be staying for the temple?”
“Is this the Temple of Huahuantli, Aztec god of warriors?”
“How many sentinels have you spoken to here in Mexico?”
The questions came so fast that Blair couldn't track them. He blinked at the reporters, his eyes going from one to another. He knew he had to look like an idiot, but his brain couldn't come up with excuses fast enough. How the hell had they gotten so much information? Either that, or how the hell were they jumping to such good conclusions. Usually when Blair jumped to conclusions he jumped in all the wrong directions. These guys had jumping down to an art.
“We’ve met with two sentinels,” Jim said calmly, and if Blair was panicking before, he was really really panicking now. His brain had turned into an over caffeinated crack monkey's creaming and running in circles.
“Were they at the temple?” One of the women asked, thrusting her microphone at Jim.
“I may be a sentinel, but Blair is the expert on them. You should ask him,” Jim said in a tone of voice that bordered between chastisement and apathy.
Blair was starting to get that feeling like this was all a dream. It was too surreal. It was too fucking weird. He'd had acid trips that made more sense than this. Okay so he'd only had one acid trip, but his one acid trip had definitely made more sense than this day. All the microphones turned toward him, and Blair took a second to glare murder at Jim.
“Señor Sandburg, where the sentinels at the temple?”
Giving Jim one last confused look, Blair turned to the reporters and tried to find his voice. Okay, Jim would not have pushed the reporters at him without some plan. True, Jim hadn’t shared his plan. And Blair was going to kill Jim for that. But there had to be a plan. Somewhere. Hopefully.
“The sentinels were at the hospital,” Blair said slowly, still not sure how to back Jim’s play here.
“Are they ill?” one of the reporters asked, the others fell silent. They were all listening, all looking at Blair. Blair could practically feel the metaphorical storm gathering around them. They were standing in the eye of it, but the winds threatened to crash into them the second the storm front moved.
“Sentinels sometimes have difficulties. The senses can grow too sharp, and something as simple as a car horn blaring can leave them in pain.” Blair stopped, still not sure how much he should say. He looked over his shoulder at Jim.
“Blinding pain,” Jim agreed calmly. “That’s why sentinels need a partner, someone to watch their backs when the modern world is too loud or too bright.”
The reporters’ microphones were back on Jim. “Is Señor Sandburg your partner?” “Are you confirming that you’re a sentinel?” “How painful would it be to hear a car horn?” “Are the senses always so difficult?” The questions flew so fast that Blair couldn't keep track of who was asking what.
“Whoa, hey,” Blair held his hands out toward the reporters. “It’s not like we have set in stone answers. This all kind of theoretical,” he said apologetically.
“Is not Señor Ellison a sentinel?” the woman with the short hair asked.
“Yes, I am,” Jim answered before Blair could come up with a good cover story. “But I have more control that most. I’ve had Blair to help me with them, and as far as I know, Blair is the only academic working on sentinels right now. He’s finishing a dissertation. I’m sure that if you were to contact Rainier university, you could get some background information on his studies,” Jim offered. It was like throwing chum in the water with sharks. Blair could feel the reporters building up to a feeding frenzy.
“Do the sentinels here not have control? Is that why you're in Mexico?”
“Was finding the temple an accident, or were you expecting to find it?”
“Has the Mexican government asked for your assistance?”
“How many sentinels are there?”
Blair could feel his heart pounding as they threw question after question at him. He looked over, but the plane was still on the far side of the runway and the guard hadn’t lowered the chain. He was, however, looking very interested. Too interested. Blair’s mouth was so dry that his tongue stuck to the top of it.
“Blair recently suffered a heart attack, and he’s not really up to questions. The medication probably isn’t helping,” Jim said with a fond smile as he slipped a hand around Blair’s waist.
“Are you feeling well?” One of the older men asked.
“Not really,” Blair said weakly. He wasn't sure if he could blame the heart attack, but he certainly wasn't feeling all that well. The reporters made sympathetic noises as the energy level seemed to drop a few notches.
“How many sentinels have you met with?” one of the reporters asked, but this time the others quieted to let Blair answer.
“Two so far. Well, three, actually, but only two of them were here in Mexico.” That wasn't technically true, but Blair was having trouble enough sorting out his own thoughts without trying to get into explaining Naomi and Alex to these reporters. He didn't understand Naomi and Alex himself, so he definitely was not up to explaining anything.
“Will they be okay?”
Blair's throat tightened as he thought of the one man who would not be okay. That man had died never understanding why his body turned against him. Even though Blair knew it wasn't his fault, he still couldn't control the guilt that rose.
“One of the sentinels died,” Jim said, his voice soft, “but Blair managed to help the other two understand the senses.”
“So, do sentinels have all five senses enhanced as the mythology suggests?” That question came from the short-haired woman.
“Yes,” Jim answered.
“How enhanced?” She studied Jim in a way that made Blair twitch.
“You had coffee for breakfast,” Jim said. “Coffee with cinnamon. You wear J’Adore perfume but you didn’t have time to put any on this morning, and from the way your car looks, you were nowhere near here when you got the call about the story,” Jim said as he nodded toward the distant parking lot. “That is one very dirty car, Señora….”
“Bolaños.” She didn’t even try to hide her shock, and from the silence that fell across the small group of reporters, the others were equally shocked. Honestly, Blair was shocked too, but in his case the shock came from the fact that Jim was saying any of this. “My grandfather, he had a friend who could see things, taste them and smell them.”
Jim nodded. “Maybe your grandfather knew a sentinel.”
“Are there many?” one of the other reporters blurted out.
Jim looked down at Blair, clearly expecting him to answer. “Oh man, I have no idea. I mean, in the Middle Ages, having a power like that would lead to getting burned at the stake. Sir Richard Burton claimed that he met a Sentinel in Peru, so the New World might've had any number of sentinels at one time, but I have no idea how many are left. I spent a long time looking, and so far I’ve found a grand total of four.”
“And half are here?” The man who asked sounded shocked. “Does that mean you will come back to Mexico to continue to study sentinels?”
Again, Blair was shocked into silence. He wasn’t planning on it, but telling reporters that you were running in fear from their country seemed a little rude. Jim saved him from creating some international incident.
“There are potential sentinels at a hospital in the United States. Blair wants to visit them,” Jim said. He didn’t say that the Bethesda doctors had invited Blair to not come out for a visit. The engines on the plane grew louder as it started to taxi toward them. Rescue was in sight. Blair blew out a huge relieved breath.
“Totally. I really need to see them and check on their condition,” Blair said, echoing Jim’s words. “After that, we’ll just have to see what happens.” He gave the reporters his best smile. It was a weak and somewhat lopsided effort, but it was the best he could come up with under the circumstances.
“We’ve enjoyed our visit to Mexico, and we hope to come back again, both to visit the two sentinels we met and to visit the Temple of the Sentinels again. The temple is an amazing site. I hope that you all have a chance to see its beauty. The people of Mexico should be very proud of their history.”
That speech probably should've come from Blair, but he was glad Jim and made it. Blair could gather enough brain cells to put a coherent sentence together, much less give the reporters the soundbite they wanted for their news coverage.
“Now, we have a plane to catch,” Jim said apologetically. “Again, if you have questions, Blair is very available through Rainier, but I’m afraid that with his recent heart attack, he isn’t really up to an interview today.”
“No joke,” Blair said softly. Blair turned to the reporters and tried to find something gracious to say. “I really do feel like shit,” he offered. Yeah, he was failing on the gracious front. But hopefully the whole having a heart attack part of their trip would earn him a few sympathy points and maybe some forgiveness for the poor manners.
The reporters all made sympathetic noises, but Blair could already see their eyes shifting away as they mentally composed their stories. The airport guard dropped the chain, and Jim urged him toward the plane along with all the other passengers. They were heading back to the States. Jim had just managed to completely undo three years of secrecy in hiding, but they were headed back to the States.
They held back, waiting as the other passengers climbed up the portable stairs to the open hatch and disappeared inside the airplane. Blair stood at the foot of the stairs, his hand wrapped around the railing as though he was struggling the thought of climbing seventy steps. He was actually struggling to understand what the hell was it Jim's head.
“What was that?” he hissed.
“Think Jack Kelso,” Jim answered cryptically. Blair just stared at Jim, not understanding. After a second, Jim sighed and shook his head. “If you can’t convince people to keep a secret, tell everyone so it’s not a secret anymore. No one kills over secrets that a million people have bought in hardcover,” Jim said. Blair thought about Jack’s book, the book that uncovered all the CIA’s nasty little secrets.
“Oh shit.” Blair tightened his hand on the rail, and he still might have slid to the ground except Jim’s arm held him around the waist. “No one kills or kidnaps over a secret that’s in the national papers.”
Jim shrugged. “They might, but it’ll be messy.”
"Why the hell didn't you warn me?" he demanded, even if he was trying to keep his voice to a whisper.
"No offense, Chief, but you aren't exactly a good actor. I didn't want the reporters to think we were playing them, and that meant I needed you to actually be shocked when they asked about sentinels," Jim apologized.
Blair wanted to be angry, but he couldn't find the energy. Fear and uncertainty had sapped what little energy he still had. He stared out at the blue sky, the long, flat clouds and the distant mountains. What the hell were they doing? What happened to his nice, safe little world?
“Come on, Chief. We’re holding up the plane.” Jim urged him toward the steps, and Blair started climbing with leaden feet. They were going to do this. They were really going to do this.
“They’ll know,” Blair whispered. It was an obvious thing to say. Of course they would know. Having Jim confess to all the Mexican newspapers wouldn't keep the American government from figuring out that Jim was a Sentinel. It wasn't like Spanish was some mysterious language that no one could understand. And he even understood Jim’s logic. Too many people knew their secret to keep it strictly a secret, but not enough people knew about it to prevent the information from being valuable. If Jim was right, millions of people were about to discover the existence of sentinels as they read their morning paper, and that made it a lot less valuable as information. Still, Blair felt like he had to say it out loud. It was as though he had to say it in order to wrap his head around the truth of it.
“We’ll get through it together,” Jim promised, but his tone of voice had just a touch of worry, enough to let Blair know Jim was terrified.
Blair wrapped his arm around Jim so that they were awkwardly climbing the stairs with their arms entangled. “Yep, we’ll get through,” Blair agreed even though he could feel the wind from that metaphorical storm starting to brush against him. He just hoped they came through without any side trips to secret military bases or prison cells. At this point, he just didn’t know.
Getting off the plane at John F. Kennedy airport, Blair was caught off guard by the overly air-conditioned air, the scent of plastics, and the odor from a half dozen restaurants. Despite the fact that it was all normal, there was something about the place that felt wrong. Blair could feel it in the pit of his stomach. When he’d first started college, he'd walk into a classroom and everyone looked at him like he didn't belong there. Blair had not been an early bloomer, so he'd looked about thirteen. He’d spent his first year at college feeling this constant unease—like the kind he felt now. Even though no one in the airport was looking at him and judging him, he had that same queasy feeling that he’d had back in college. He was in the wrong place. He didn't know the rules, and he was going to make an ass of himself. He couldn't shake that feeling.
“Chief, are you okay?” Jim frowned at him.
“Peachy.” Blair didn’t even try and sound convincing.
Jim raised an eyebrow, but Blair could only shrug in response. He had no idea what was wrong. Jim slipped an arm around Blair, resting his hand against the small of Blair’s back. Usually they tried to be a little more discrete in public, but Blair needed the point of contact. As they joined the throngs of travelers, Blair moved even closer to Jim. They had lost their luggage along the way, so everything they owned was in one carry-on bag Jim had over his shoulder. Blair still kept looking around, sure he had left something behind.
“I've heard some good reviews on the steak place they have in here,” Jim commented as the river of people spilled out into the part of the airport with the shops and restaurants.
“I have a heart attack, and you offer me steak,” Blair said with a dramatic roll of his eyes. “Is there some hidden aggression that I should know about?”
“I figured I'd have the steak. I figured you'd find whatever rabbit food or algae they offered at the steak place.” Jim guided them toward the west. “Besides, Chief, I suspect that your heart attack had less to do with cholesterol than it did with….” Jim waved his hand in the air, toward the universe in general.
Blair glanced around, nervous about sounding crazy to anyone who might be listening. “Yeah, I got that feeling. I also get the feeling that the universe just hates me in general.” Blair made a face. Considering he’d had a heart attack, a shamanic battle, and a near-drowning experience all in the space of a few days, it wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion.
“The universe? No.” Jim sounded sure of that—more sure than Blair was. “Now Alex, she hates you,” he added.
“Man, that's like my stepmother. Actually, that's like your mother-in-law, or your stepmother in law. Whatever. Anyway, how about you not poke the feud?” he suggested. Blair expected Jim to go off about Alex attacking him or grabbing for power or maybe even Alex’s long, criminal past. He didn’t.
“No problem, Chief,” Jim said a little too easily. “Besides, I suspect we aren’t going to see them again for a while.” Moving ahead of Blair, Jim strode through the crowd, forcing people to yield way. Blair trotted behind. The steak place must be really good because Jim was really booking it. Blair glanced over his shoulder. Maybe they were running from someone rather than to somewhere; however, Blair couldn’t see anyone following. Mostly he saw harried businesspeople and cranky families all jostling for a better position in the crowd.
“Here we go.” Jim stopped outside a restaurant, and Blair had to admit that it smelled good. The scent of hot bread and cooking meat drifted out, only to be swept up by the airport’s ventilation system. “Smell that?” Jim asked with a happy smile before he headed in.
“You mean the smell of your arteries hardening?” Blair asked under his breath. Jim didn’t even bother answering.
Inside, the restaurant felt like a regular place—one you would find outside an airport. The only difference was that Blair had to thread his way through the aisle, careful not to trip over the suitcases and bags strewn at the side of every chair. Several of the diners looked worn down to nothing. Blair wondered if he looked as bad as the woman in the corner with deep-set eyes whose head was propped up on her elbow. She looked like one good push would send her face-first into her soup.
Jim found a table, and Blair happily collapsed into the bench. “Ah, the smell of real food. That hospital food will kill you.” Jim opened a menu and lost himself in the choices. “They have fish,” Jim offered.
With a sigh, Blair grabbed the menu. Food wasn’t his top priority right now. If his stomach didn’t stop doing a jig, the food wouldn’t stay down no matter what he ate. Looking around, he studied his fellow passengers. If these people knew Jim was a Sentinel, a man who could hear their secrets, how would they react? Blair knew too much history to be as sanguine as Jim about this whole thing. The McCarthy era, the witch trials, the demonization of Jews… history was full of society hunting down minorities because they felt threatened.
“Chief, it will work out,” Jim said, a touch of the cranky in his voice as he put down his menu.
“You don’t know that,” Blair countered even as he wondered when he’d turned into the pessimist.
Jim put both his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “No, I don’t. But I know I wasn’t going to let those men die just to keep a secret. I also happen to think you and I can handle this better than Naomi and Alex.”
Blair snorted. Right now he’d love to shove this mess off on Naomi, even if her idea of handling things might include causing therapy-inducing levels of trauma on government officials. They deserved to meet Naomi in full warrior-queen mode. “So, what do we do now?” Blair asked.
“You're asking like I'm setting the agenda.”
“Up until now, you have.”
Jim looked absolutely shocked. “What?”
“Jim, come on man. You outed yourself to the press,” Blair hissed in a low whisper. He could hear his anger coloring his voice, but he was at the end of his metaphorical rope. “You took charge with the sentinels in Mexico. You decided to go all covert action on Alex, surrendering just so that you could get her into a better position. You made all those choices without even asking me. Trust me, I have not been driving this trip.” Blair poked his finger at Jim.
Jim caught his hand, and for a second, Blair struggled to pull back, but Jim held his hand, his face full of sympathy. “I didn't want to go to Mexico at all. If you recall, you're the one who said we had to challenge for power,” Jim said, his voice gentle.
“I may have started the engine, but I lost control the steering wheel back around Spokane.” Blair might've kept going, but the flinch of guilt on Jim's face made him stop. Yeah, Jim had made choices, but most of them were just him trying to not get buried by events that were spinning out of control. “Okay, maybe that wasn't entirely fair.”
“Actually, it was.”
Blair’s mouth fell open. “What?”
Shaking his head slowly, Jim let Blair’s hand go. “You're right. I've been charging ahead without really stopping to talk to you about how you feel, but you're the shaman. So what do we do from here?” Jim leaned back and looked at Blair. He wasn't fidgeting or tapping his fingers or doing that weird thing with his jaw that made it clear that he wanted to make the decisions and he was playing nice with Blair. And this wasn’t about Blair’s guide voice, and his ability to override Jim in the heat of the moment. No, this was Jim sitting back with more patience than Blair had ever seen.
“Right now?” Blair tried to think, but right now the only thing he really wanted was a bathtub. A big bathtub. A big bathtub and some place where he didn't have this nagging feeling of wrongness that clung to him.
“You're always telling me to follow my instincts, Chief.”
“Yeah, but that’s you. In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t listen to my own advice,” Blair pointed out. Jim gave him a dirty look, and he probably would have said something sharp, but the waitress saved Blair when she showed up to take their orders. Jim ordered the biggest steak on the menu along with a baked potato with a double order of sour cream, all the while looking at Blair. However, Blair was not even caring about Jim’s eating habits, not when he had way bigger fish to fry. The waitress gave them a smile and vanished, taking their menus with her.
“So tell me what your instincts are saying,” Jim said the moment the woman left the table.
“You're assuming I have them,” Blair said dryly.
“Sandburg!” Jim snapped. The couple at the next table looked over.
Blair ran his hands over his face as though he could scrub off the weariness. He totally recognized the irony here because he was the one always telling Jim to open up about the mystical side of being a sentinel, but Blair couldn’t describe his instincts. Right now, hiding in the nearest really deep hole sounded pretty good, but Blair didn’t know if that was instinct or paranoia. Or maybe it was both. “I don't know,” Blair admitted. “I just know that I feel….”
Sighing, Blair leaned back in his chair. “I feel wrong. There's something wrong, and I can't put my finger on it. It's driving me nuts.”
Blair expected Jim to completely dismiss his nebulous complaints, but instead Jim was nodding thoughtfully. “Welcome to the annoying side of this shit,” he said with a grim smile. Jim should not be thoughtful with this; it was actually freaking Blair out a little bit. Jim was supposed to be the one that talked about logic and being reasonable and evidence. Then again, Jim was the one who saw magical invisible animals. So maybe Jim wasn't entirely on the logic side of the fence.
Jim pursed his lips and rocked back in his chair. “If we were to go home to Cascade, would that feel more or less wrong?”
“Who knows?” Blair shrugged.
Leaning forward so that the front chair legs hit the floor, Jim announced, “Well then, let's head home.”
Blair frowned. Now that Jim said that, he was definitely feeling more wrong. He wanted to go home, but he couldn't.
“Do you think I could track down Naomi so that she could give me a crash course on this whole shaman thing? I suck at it,” Blair said. “I seriously suck at it. And we are not talking the fun kind of sucking.”
The corner of Jim's lips twitched. “How about we keep your mother and sucking out of the same sentence?” Jim asked in a sarcastic voice.
Blair groaned as his memories supplied a visual to go with that joke. His mother's idea of playing dirty was way more dirty than Blair could really handle. He was going to be in therapy for a year after what he'd seen. He might respect his mother's lesbian choices, or heterosexual choices for that matter, but he sure as hell didn't want to see them. Ever. Not even if the world was ending and that was the only way to save it. “Mom’s got a mean streak,” Blair muttered.
A chuckle slipped out of Jim, and Blair glared at his lover. Jim held both hands up as though surrendering. “Stand down. I come in peace,” Jim joked, and Blair glared harder. Jim cleared his throat; the bastard was trying not to laugh harder. “So, we're clearly not going home,” Jim said. “We could head back to the Temple or we could go to Peru. I know there was a young shaman and training with the Chopek, so you might be able to get some help there. We could track down your mother, and hope that she stays dressed as we ask her for help. We could make contact with Jack Kelso and have him watch our backs before we head back to Mexico to help two sentinels there, or we could go to Bethesda and see their sentinels. We could call Simon and see if we could get some back up here as we tried to find the US press and get them interested in the story. We could call my father and see if he could give us permission to hide out at his place for a while—not really going to ground as much as staying out of the way for a while. For that matter, we could go to ground. You know I have the skills to take us off the grid if you really want to disappear. There are a lot of options here, Blair. Which one feels right?” Jim ticked off each option like each was equally possible. Disappearing into the underground or going to the press—he offered them all up like it was as easy as making a simple call. However, one of those options sounded even more stupid than the others.
“Man, walking into Bethesda feels like walking into the lion's den,” Blair said with a snort. “That might've worked out for Daniel, but face it, most of the time people walk in the lion's den, they end up dead. I'm not fond of dead. I've been there, and it wasn't that much fun.”
Jim's expression turned sympathetic. He reached across the table and rested his hand on Blair's. “I don't know, Chief. We've walked into a lot of lions’ dens in the past few years, and we've done pretty good.”
Frowning, Blair studied Jim, searching for some sign that he was joking, but Jim looked pretty damn serious. “You want to go to Bethesda?”
“Want?” Jim paused. “No.” Jim was emphatic about that. “However, that's the first option you mentioned. If your gut says we should go to Bethesda, we should.”
“When did you start trusting my gut?”
“I always trusted you. The whole reason I never had partners at work was because I didn’t trust them, but I pretty much trusted you from day one.”
“You thought I was a naïve kid,” Blair pointed out.
Jim didn’t bother denying that. He made a little half-shrug and grinned at Blair. “Yeah, that crossed my mind once or twice. However, it could just be that I’m a cranky, disillusioned old soldier. But things have changed. When you went to your shamanic rites, you were on the spirit plane, Blair. I could feel you.”
“Really? Cool.” Blair nodded, and Jim rolled his eyes.
“The first time we went to South America, back when Simon disappeared, you spent all this time explaining how mystical experiences were really just stories. They were myths to explain human experience.”
Blair cringed as he remembered that. “Man, I was full of shit.”
“Yeah,” Jim agreed. “You were. I didn't know how to talk to you, because you didn't….”
“I didn't understand how important it was to you,” Blair guessed. Jim made a lot of noises about being logical, but in the end, he trusted his gut more than most men. He trusted his guts and his magical invisible animal. “You probably should've told me that I was full of shit.”
Jim shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe I was trying hard to hold on to a friend, and telling him that he was so full of shit but his eyes were turning brown from it… it probably wouldn't have helped.”
Blair laughed. “Oh man, you have me there. I would not have appreciated the attitude.” Blair sighed and for a time, they both sat in silence. The rumble of the airport was muffled here, but Blair could imagine that Jim could hear thousands of voices, of heartbeats, of mechanical motors and conversations and footsteps. They lived in different worlds, and part of Blair felt a responsibility to those men at Bethesda, and another part wanted to hide Jim and his world from prying eyes. He couldn’t do both. “So, you think it's some sort of Freudian slips that I focused on Bethesda, huh?” he finally asked.
Blair thought about all the problems they'd walk right into it they went to Bethesda. If the military read the Mexican articles when Jim and Blair were on a military facility, that wasn't just walking into the lion's den. That was walking into the lion’s den with ten pounds of T-bone steaks strapped to their bodies. Logically, they should both be running screaming the other way at the very suggestion, but that's not how Blair felt.
“This is all kinds of stupid,” Blair warned.
“So you want to go to Bethesda.” Jim's voice wasn't accusatory or angry, even though it should be.
“Want? Totally not. Man what I want to do is run the opposite way. What I want is to go home and take a two hour hot shower.”
“In that case, we'll have to stop at Home Depot on the way home so I can buy a new hot water heater.”
“Make it a really big one.” Blair spread his hands out indicate just how big of a hot water heater he wanted. But the humor faded quickly. “Maybe we can do that next week. Going home right now just doesn't feel like the right thing to do. Now that I've seen the Mexican sentinels, I'm feeling boatloads of guilt about the American ones. The data I was using to show they are Sentinels show they are Sentinels in trouble. And I've been trying to help from the other side of the country. In Mexico, I was right there. I could see the rash. I could see the way his eyes didn't focus right.” Blair rubbed both hands over his face. His eyes felt like they had sand in them, and the stubble scratched over his palms. “What the hell am I thinking? I'm trying to help those men when I'm sitting in Cascade.”
Blair sucked in a startled breath when Jim caught his hand and pulled it close to his heart. “Hey, you can't fix everything. If you try, you're going to rip yourself pieces, Chief.”
“I know.” Blair tried pulling his hand back away from Jim.
Jim tightened his grip and pulled Blair's arm across the table so that he could sandwich it between his hands. “I'm serious, Blair. You can't save everyone.” Jim spoke each word slowly and distinctly. “You know that in your head, Chief. But if you forget it, if you don’t believe that in your heart, I swear I will drag you away to have a nice hot shower and a lot of therapy.”
Blair snorted his disbelief. Jim wasn’t the biggest fan of therapy.
Jim still held Blair’s hand tenderly, but he glared hotly. It was an odd combination. “If you want go give the government a good hard jerk on the reins and make them change course with these Sentinels, I will back you up, Blair,” Jim promised. “But if you start having unrealistic expectations about yourself, you will be the one getting jerked back in line.”
“Okay, that’s sounding vaguely threatening.”
“Good,” Jim said firmly. “I may not be your commanding officer, but you’re my shaman, and you’re about to go to war, so if I have to pull you out of the line of fire and drag you to a shrink, I will.”
“Try me,” Jim said darkly. His fingers traced gentle, lazy circles against Blair’s wrist, but Jim’s voice didn’t have an ounce of compromise in it. Blair was getting emotional whiplash from the mixed signals. “I’m going to go see about getting us transportation to Bethesda. If there are any friendly doctors up there that don’t think you’re a fruitcake, you might want to give them a heads up,” Jim suggested, his tone slipping into an easy banter as he stood up. He smiled down at Blair and then tousled Blair’s hair.
“Hey!” Blair protested, knocking Jim’s hand away. His hair was a big enough mess already. Jim smiled warmly.
“I’ll be back before the food shows up,” he promised before he strode across the restaurant floor. Sighing, Blair watched Jim’s very fine ass heading out the door. Obviously Blair had screwed up somewhere because he had the feeling he’d decided to go to Bethesda despite the fact that his brain was still clearly saying that was a bad idea. Worse, Jim had listened to him.
Blair fidgeted as they sat in the back of the cab. Reaching over, Jim rested his hand on Blair’s knee. “You want to go find a hotel first?” Jim asked. He gave Blair a bit of an eyebrow wiggle.
“Are you propositioning me?” The cab driver’s gaze flicked toward the rearview mirror.
“Yep,” Jim agreed cheerfully. Blair had no idea how the man could feel cheerful when they had an appointment with Doctor Colonel Jamison at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
“Man, I just want to get this over. No way can I think of anything else until we know whether….” Blair blew out a big breath and Jim tightened his fingers around Blair’s hand. No way did Blair want to give voice to all his fears. No fucking way. He might not be superstitious, but using the devil’s name just might tempt the devil to show up.
“No problem, Chief. I’ll try to not take that as you turning me down.” A heartbeat’s worth of time passed. “I scheduled an interview with the New York Times, one of the reporters in Mexico recommended a colleague, so we have a 3 o’clock with him. We can save any ravaging for after that.”
Blair gave Jim a sharp look. Sure, he’d picked Bethesda for their next destination, but Jim was definitely still not sharing well. “You called a reporter?” Blair demanded incredulously.
“Yes, I called a reporter.”
“You? I mean, you’ve gone out fourth story windows to avoid reporters in Cascade.”
“Once. I did that once,” Jim said in his best cranky voice.
“Fourth story. Fourth. I mean, that is—” Blair whistled to express just how crazy that had been. Jim’s jaw was starting to twitch a little and his eyes were narrowed, but the expression wasn’t truly angry… that was more Jim’s mock-angry face. That was the face he used when he was enjoying being annoyed. “Man, I so wished I could have seen you shimmy down that pipe.”
“It was a tree.”
“Classic. Totally classic.” Blair nodded with enthusiasm. Jim’s eyes narrowed more. Right when Blair opened his mouth to make another smart-ass remark, he realized something. “Oh shit. Simon.”
“What about him?” Now Jim looked honestly concerned.
“The stories. Oh shit. The stories are going to come out and people in the CPD will see them. The commissioner…” Blair’s heart nearly skipped a beat. Jim’s bosses were going to give birth to kittens… radioactive, technicolored kittens.
“Breathe, Sandburg. They already know.”
That was enough to make Blair stop breathing for a time. “They… what?”
Jim shrugged. “When you had to tell the FBI about Sentinels and Alex and all her skills, Simon and I decided that it was a good time to come out to the brass.”
“You… you told them, and you didn’t tell me?” Okay, now Blair was hurt.
With a sigh, Jim draped his arm over Blair’s shoulders. Blair pushed it away, but Jim just put it right back, and the taxi was too small for Blair to really get away. “Chief, you are a passionate advocate for any cause you believe in, and you have always believed in me. It’s one of the reasons I love you.”
“Do not butter me up.” Blair put an elbow in Jim’s side.
“I’m explaining why I didn’t tell you,” Jim defended himself. At least, Blair thought he was trying to defend himself. He wasn’t making all that much sense. “I didn’t talk to them at all. I sent them a memo saying I had the same Sentinel skills Alex had. I wasn’t even sure they read the damn thing until they sent a lawyer down to review case files with me a month later. If I had told you, you would have been in my corner fighting, and I didn’t want a fight at all.” Jim tightened his arm around Blair.
“So you just lied to me?” Blair demanded. Shit.
“I didn’t mention it because it didn’t affect our lives. If it was an issue, I would have told you. I told you the second you asked. I was not lying.”
Blair twisted out of Jim’s one-armed embrace and faced off against him, at least as much as the taxi allowed. “Bullshit!” Blair punched Jim in the stomach just hard enough for him to feel it. Jim caught Blair’s wrist, and Blair didn’t even try and escape. He did, however, keep right on calling a spade a spade. “No fucking way are you going to pull that patronizing shit on my James Ellison. If you want to play things quiet, fine. I can do fucking quiet. I think I’ve proved that since most of the fucking station still thinks I’m chasing skirts. But you do not hide something this fucking big and tell me it’s for my own good. You are not a fucking government, and you do not get to decide what information is on a fucking ‘need to know’ basis. You got that Ellison?”
Jim’s eyes were large, and he still held Blair’s wrist in a firm grip, but he wasn’t coming up with any words.
“Mom tried pulling that shit. ‘Oh, honey, it’s for your own good. Alex and I can take care of this,’” Blair mimicked. “I did not take it from my mother, and I’m not taking it from you, Ellison. Just because I love the hell out of you does not mean you get to manipulate me. Got it?”
“Oh, Chief. I never meant for….” Jim stopped. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even think about how it would look to you. I honestly thought it wouldn’t matter, and that you’d be more comfortable at those damn stupid black-tie things we get dragged to if you didn’t know.” Jim slowly released Blair’s wrist, but from the tense set of his shoulders, he was ready for another attack.
Blair huffed and threw himself back onto the seat. “I would be more comfortable not knowing. That is no reason to not tell me. Either we’re in this together or I’m going to have to figure out a way to kick your scary Army-Ranger ass.” Blair gave Jim a shit look to make the point that he wasn’t kidding. He half-expected Jim to laugh at the thought of Blair trying.
Instead, Jim nodded. “Fair enough.”
Blair watched the trees on the side of the highway. A flock of butterflies turned one small grove of trees into a riot of orange and red. It was hard to remember they were near Washington DC and all the congestion of the city, but they were definitely going to be close enough for Bethesda to summon any help the colonel might need if he decided to take Blair and Jim into custody. “Wait. The reporter. You want someone looking for us if we, you know.” Blair glanced at the back of the taxi-driver’s head. This was not really a conversation he wanted in front of a stranger.
“I thought that was better than pulling Simon into this mess,” Jim agreed. “I know I should have told you, but we were moving fast.”
“I get that,” Blair said nodding. “It wasn’t like we’ve had tons of time here, and you have the background to make these plans. I don’t.” Blair cringed. “I don’t even want to. If I understood these people, I’d feel like I had to give my soul a hot shower. So when it comes to dealing with these sorts, just tell me where to stand, and I’m good,” Blair said. “I was just pissed about you hiding something from our lives. This…” Blair waved out the window where the taxi was just pulling off the Beltway. “This is not our lives.” Blair glanced over, and Jim still looked a little tense. “Oh man, I totally took out all my frustration about my mother on you, didn’t I?”
Jim pursed his lips. “A little.”
“Next time you want to vent about Alex, remind me that my karma needs a little balancing,” Blair said sadly. For someone who claimed to pursue enlightenment, Blair was painfully aware of how short he fell.
“Blair.” Jim stopped. Normally, Blair would push, but this was not the time for pushing. He’d done enough of that. Maybe having the guide voice, having that ability to pull out a silky tone that derailed Jim’s ability to argue, had given him an unhealthy taste of power. Jim sighed and gave Blair a frustrated look. Considering that Blair was trying hard to be not pushy, he had no idea what Jim was frustrated about now. Jim leaned in so that his forehead rested against Blair’s head. “They need to see me as the threat, Chief. They understand me. They think they know how far I can be pushed and how well I can keep a secret. These people… they don’t react well to unknowns, they’re scared of the unknown, and for them, you are one giant unknown.”
Blair ducked his head to make sure the cab driver couldn’t see anything. “They’d be scared of me?” Blair whispered, his voice barely audible to his own ears. “They’d be scared of ME?” Jim nodded.
“Terrified. They don’t know how to control you. And if they had any idea that you had a guide voice….” Jim stopped. For a second, he just rested, his body head leeching into Blair. “They’d misunderstand it, Blair. They’d jump to some dangerous conclusions.”
After taking a deep breath and thinking about that for a second, Blair nodded. He could understand that from an anthropological standpoint, at least. Naomi had raised him to chase after the unknown, but that kind of xenophilia was pretty damn rare in most cultures. Hell, he knew entire countries that endured terrible dictators because the known was always preferable to the unknown, and the government knew Jim—at least they thought they knew Jim. They understood his background as a soldier and respected his ability to keep information confidential. Jim was right. He needed to be the one to take the lead.
“Deal,” Blair said, understanding that he was promising to not advocate for Jim or use the guide voice. Jim pulled back so he could look in Blair’s face. “Honest,” Blair added, holding up three fingers in a Scout’s honor salute. “You can run the war just as long as we run the homefront together.”
Reaching up, Jim caught Blair’s hand and pulled it close enough to kiss the three fingers. “Always,” he promised.
Blair nodded again as the taxi pulled into the visitor’s lot of Bethesda. Unless Blair missed his guess, this guy was going to be happy to get rid of them. “Let’s go storm the castle,” Blair suggested with an uneasy grin.
For a second, Jim just sat in the cab. Then, after a quick stroke of his fingers down Blair’s cheek, he turned and got out, already digging in his pocket for his wallet. Blair got out on his side, his hair stuck to the back of his neck, but Blair didn’t know if it was the muggy heat or fear that made him sweat. Bethesda was huge—an entire complex of building. For a second, he felt like the huge white buildings were about to fall on them, swallow them whole and leave nothing behind.
“Let’s go, Chief,” Jim said, his best poker face in place as he gestured toward the entrance.
“Into the valley of death rode the six hundred,” Blair muttered, but he stiffened his backbone and followed Jim. If Jim said he could win this war, Blair would put his faith in Jim.
“I’m sure you can understand that this is not a convenient time, Mr. Sandburg. Our first concern is the welfare of our patients, and any data gathering is a distant second.” Colonel Jamison was a tall man, standing shoulder to shoulder with Jim, and it was Jim who now stepped forward. Jamison’s sharp features and high cheekbones contrasted against Jim’s classic good looks.
“Colonel, this visit is to see to the welfare of your patients. You have Sentinels in there, and after reading some of Blair’s correspondence, I am concerned about what you’re doing to ease their sensory overload.” Jim’s voice was patient and calm, just the sort he used right before he sprang some trap in the middle of an interrogation. The man could play one serious game of “good cop” when he wanted.
“Ellison,” Jim supplied.
“Detective Ellison, I have no idea what your interest here is, but you don’t have standing to demand to see anyone.”
“No, but I do have a 3 o’clock appointment with a reporter from the Times,” Jim said. His smile grew a little sharper, and Blair could see the colonel’s full attention shift to Jim. Oh yeah, Blair did not want to be in the middle of this pissing match.
“That does not concern me.”
“It should,” Jim said firmly. “Blair’s work is not classified, so he can choose to share it with anyone. If a former Army Ranger with his own medical history of sensory overload chooses to offer a few insights, that would make a better story. If that Ranger in question was a retired soldier who had been on the front of magazines for single-handedly holding off drug runners in Peru…. That might be a very interesting story.” Jim crossed his arms, and the colonel was frowning now. Blair could practically see the man rummage through his memories.
“It’s detective now, but yes. You can see why I would be more concerned about the welfare of soldiers than Blair’s dissertation.”
“You had the senses?” The colonel looked confused for a half-second, but then he nodded, “which is how you met Mr. Sandburg,” he added. “Detective Ellison, I can understand your concern, and trust me, all our doctors are concerned about the lack of improvement, but we are doing our best.”
“Then show me,” Jim said firmly. “If you want me to believe that you’re helping these men, if you want me to tell the reporter that you’re doing your best, then prove it. We both know that good intentions and reality are not always the same.” Jim had on his implacable expression, but Blair still thought they were about to get tossed out on their asses. A guard stood discretely to the side, and the conversations in the lobby had largely quieted. In all the years Blair and Jim had been together, Jim had never tried to trade on his fame. Hell, the man hadn’t even saved the magazine covers that had labeled him a hero. However, Blair could understand why he’d pull out his ace in the hole. This castle didn’t want them storming it, and that was Jim’s big gun. “I’m just looking for evidence to back up what you’re claiming.” Jim softened his pose, dropping his hands to his side and easing back an inch. As much as Jim might play caveman sometimes, he had a lot more in his interpersonal arsenal than just intimidation.
Colonel Jamison hesitated before he nodded once. “A quick visit, Detective. The days when patients went untended are gone. I run a tight hospital, so I expect you to be in and out.”
“Agreed, sir. If the Sentinels are being cared for, then I know I don’t have to worry about them.” Jim followed as Colonel Jamison led the way to an elevator, the guard following at a discrete distance. He used his radio, and Jim’s back tightened a bit. Blair moved closer even though he didn’t risk resting his hand on Jim’s back in the middle of soldier central. He figured they had enough battles to fight without randomly poking people’s homophobia.
When Jim accidentally backed Blair into a corner, Blair didn’t even elbow Jim. The man’s mother hen instincts were turned up to full blast, but then Jim had to be sensing the other Sentinels by now. Blair suspected that Sentinels had a window of compatibility with any particular guide. Vega had been more attracted to Blair than Jimenez-Ramiro. Alex had wanted Blair, but his presence had aggravated her more and more. Despite Blair’s lies, Jim had been attracted to him immediately, even though Jim had an issue with people lying to him. A huge issue. An enormous fucking issue. So Blair was guessing that there was a segment of the Sentinel population that would be drawn to him, and there would be some uninterested in him, and there would be some who found themselves irrationally aggravated and homicidal the more time they spent with him. This wasn’t exactly designed to make Jim warm and cuddly toward other Sentinels. Blair wondered if that was the reason why the literature on Sentinels suggested there was generally only one per tribe.
The elevator dinged as they reached the fourth floor, and the colonel got off, Jim close behind. Blair tried to move to Jim’s side where Jim’s mother henning was a little less conspicuous, but a quick side-step from Jim had Blair neatly trapped behind him. To get around him, Blair would have to run and try to dart by on the other side like a child trying to slip past a parent. Blair’s ego wasn’t big enough to take that kind of abuse, and he had promised to let Jim take the lead, so Blair settled down and followed.
They passed harried nurses and a couple of ambulatory patients pulling IV stands. It was a hospital, full of hospital smells, but it did seem like one of the better ones. Antiseptic smell made Blair’s nose itch, and he was sure that Jim was feeling that even worse, but a hospital that didn’t use antiseptic was even more frightening. The colonel pushed open a door to a room and went inside, but for a moment, Blair was trapped in the hallway by Jim’s solid body blocking the entrance.
“Captain Daniel Griffin and Lieutenant Tate Sims, this is Detective Ellison.” The colonel sounded calm enough, but Jim’s back had gone stiff, and he was only now starting to inch into the room. Blair rested his hand against the small of Jim’s back for a second, and that was the jumpstart needed to get Jim moving. Then Jim strode into the room, doing a neat half turn so that Blair could see the way his jaw muscle twitched. Sticking close to the door, Blair waited to see what he was going to do.
Jim glanced at the two men. Blair recognized them from his research data, even though he’d never had faces to go with the demographic information before. Captain Daniel Griffin was 43, but looking at him right now, Blair would put the man in his early fifties. He looked haggard with gray hair at the temples and deepset eyes with bruises under them. He also looked a good twenty pounds shy of the 181 pounds listed in the notes doctors had faxed Blair. Lieutenant Tate Sims looked worse. He was 22, only three years into a five year contract, and he lay on the bed. Lines at the corners of his tightly closed eyes and mouth suggested he was struggling with a lot of pain despite the IV that steadily dripped. Where Captain Griffin looked gaunt, Sims looked like an escapee from the Shoah.
“These men have to be moved out of here.” Jim’s voice was taut with anger.
“Excuse me?” Colonel Jamison took a step forward, his shoulders squaring.
“The smell.” Jim looked around the room. “I can smell pus and rot and death in every corner.” Jim wrinkled his nose in disgust, and Captain Griffin struggled to sit up in his bed, his eyes locked on Jim.
Colonel Jamison looked ready to stroke out. “We are a clean facility.”
Jim turned and eyed the doctor coldly. “No. You aren’t. And every Sentinel in this place can smell that.” Jim looked over toward Blair. “Chief, see if Sims will let you talk him down. He looks like he hasn’t eaten in a month.”
“We’re providing IV nourishment.” Colonel Jamison tried to block Blair, but Blair had learned to dodge and weave when he was twelve years old, ninety pounds and going to high school as the new kid. No fucking way could Jamison counter that. Blair did a quick turn and got to Sims’ bed and caught the hand that didn’t have the IV in it. Stroking the back of the hand gently, Blair turned on his best guide voice.
“Hey, I bet you’re really tired. I mean, these guys… clueless, huh? But I really need you to focus on me, here. Come on, focus on my voice. I know things are driving you fucking nuts, aren’t they? The smell, the sounds? But ignore all that and just focus on me.” Blair knew he was risking sending Sims into a zone, but at this point, a zone would be kinder than the pain Sims was suffering.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Blair ignored the colonel, letting Jim handle that part of it.
“A Sentinel needs a focus, something to keep other senses from overwhelming him. The only thing to focus on in here is the stench. The smell is going to be too much for anyone newly online. It’s turning my stomach, and I’ve had control of my senses for years. I’ve smelled crime scenes that didn’t nauseate me this much.” From Jim’s tone of voice, he wasn’t exaggerating. It was stuffy and musky in the room, Blair’s normal nose told him that much. And the sharp sting of antiseptic still made his nose itch, although it was beyond Blair how the room managed to smell antiseptic and musty at the same time. Of course, Blair wouldn’t do more than blow his nose and he’d be fine. Colonel Jamison clearly had no idea just how different the world was for Sentinels.
“Detective?” The colonel was looking at Jim sharply, and Blair could feel his heart contract in fear. If Jim was wrong… if he had miscalculated, they were all about to fall into a very dark, very deep hole and never show up again.
“So unless you want more of your men to slip into comas and die, you’ll get them out of this place,” Jim interrupted. “He responding?” Jim asked, turning toward Blair. Oh man, if Blair thought Jim’s anger were directed at him, he’d be headed for the hills. Mount Saint Ellison was on the verge of blowing and taking out entire towns along the way.
“I think so,” Blair said. The lines at the edges of Sims’ eyes and mouth had eased.
“Sentinel, time to move. We’re getting you away from the stink, but you need to focus on Blair and not your pain,” Jim said. The words were harsh, but Jim’s tone stayed soft and sympathetic as he laid a hand on Sims knee. “Captain Griffin, are you good to go?” Jim asked.
“You hold on,” Colonel Jamison snapped. “We have the facilities to monitor…”
Jim whirled on Jamison. “They don’t need monitoring. They need to get away from the stench. And they need to get out from under these artificial lights. The flickering is a distraction they can’t handle right now. Fresh air will do them a lot more good than your hospital.”
“So you’re recommending they be removed from this facility?” The colonel asked. “On what authority?”
Jim tilted his head for a second before turning to Griffin. “Captain, I know full well what you are, and you can feel me. Are you ready to sign medical power of attorney over to me so that I have the authority to remove you?”
Griffin didn’t even hesitate. “Yes, sir.”
Colonel Jamison’s mouth fell open.
“Lieutenant Sims, I need you awake now. Lean on Blair as much as you need, but I need you awake and aware,” Jim said firmly. Blair could feel Sims’ body twitch. “Blair, wake him up,” Jim ordered.
“Whoa, okay, that would be his cranky voice,” Blair whispered in his best guide voice. “You do not want to piss him off. Besides, you don’t want to miss seeing these doctors get told off. I bet they ignored you when you complained about pain—they told you it was all in your head. No way. The pain is real, but if you focus on me, my voice, you can block it out. So you do that. Focus on me and wake up, Sentinel. No more time for resting. You have to move or you’re going to die.” Blair modulated his voice, altering his tone until he could feel Sims react to it. Blue eyes opened and searched out Blair. “There you are,” Blair said with a smile. “That over there is Sentinel Ellison. He’s a little pissed at the doctors for not taking care of you, but my guess is that he’s probably pissed at you for not speaking up and forcing them to listen to your complaints. So, if you want to avoid pissing him off more, we should probably get moving.”
Sims hand darted out and caught Blair’s arm right above the elbow. Blair hissed in pain, and immediately, Jim was there. “Stand down, Sentinel,” Jim ordered. “You do not hurt a guide. In particular, you do not hurt my guide unless you feel like challenging me, understand?”
Sims frowned in confusion, but his grip loosened on Blair’s arm.
“No problem. It’s all moving a little too fast, isn’t it,” Blair said soothingly as he let his hand rest against Sims’ shoulder where his hospital gown had fallen open. The man opened his mouth and gasped for air as though drowning.
“Detective Ellison, even if you have these senses the way you’re suggesting….”
“That does not make you an expert. At best, that makes you a potential patient if your senses get out of control.” Jamison’s voice had the soothing tones of someone talking to a madman. It was not the right tact to take with Jim.
“Blair,” Jim said, handing the conversation over, which was good because Blair was pretty sure Jamison was about to go out a fourth story window.
“I know Sentinels,” Blair said firmly. He stood up without taking his hand off Sims, and he noticed that Griffin was watching him. He was the only guide in a room with three Sentinels, and at some point he was going to have to address that. However, right now he focused on the colonel. “I know that the wrong stimulus can push their senses too far and the brain won’t be able to keep up with the input. If Jim says there’s the wrong kind of stimulus and too much of it, then yes, the Sentinels have to be removed. I’m one hundred percent behind that. I also have the research data to back that up. So, if I have to give every bit of my data to a reporter or if we have to go hire a lawyer to get you to honor a medical proxy so we can get these men out of here, I will be right there at Jim’s side.”
“This hospital is one of the best in the area. The rooms are cleaned every day.” The colonel looked confused and alarmed now. Blair was guessing his training had not covered this particular situation.
“And cleaning with the wrong solution is worse than letting the dirt gather. Dirt is natural; their senses know what to do with it.”
“So, you want them in a dirty hospital?” Colonel Jamison demanded, sarcasm seeping through the professional demeanor he was clearly attempting to project.
Jim answered that. “My father has land in the foothills of the Cascade mountains—240 acres. They’re soldiers. They can camp out this time of year.”
“Camp out?” The doctor sounded like he might be having a heart attack. “They’re patients.”
“They’re soldiers,” Jim returned dryly. Captain Griffin looked a little amused at the exchange. Sims even managed to roll onto one elbow.
“So, you expect coma patients to camp out?” The doctor crossed his arms and glared at Jim, but the man was a rank amateur when it came to intimidation, and he was up against a pro.
“Yes.” Jim crossed his arms.
“I can manage it, sir,” Sims said. His voice was rough and uneven, like he’d either been silent for too long or screamed himself raw—both options horrified Blair.
Jamison shook his head. “You’d kill them if you—”
“Talk to this idiot before I kill him and hide the body,” Jim told Blair. Jamison really was going to stroke out—Jim had claimed that he was the best one to handle the situation because they’d understand him, recognize him even, but Blair was pretty sure no one had ever talked to this doctor the way Jim was.
“If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, they’re all going to be in comas or off-line,” Blair pointed out. “Man, I told you to get fresh air in the rooms. I told you to minimize artificial lighting and open windows and get familiar smells and sights into their rooms, and you still have them shoved in impersonal hospital rooms with the windows painted over. I mean, why ask for my advice if you’re going to ignore me?”
“They are getting the best of care—”
“No way. Do not even go there!” Blair cut him off. “I have the brain scans showing that they’re overwhelmed with sensory stimulus. Overwhelmed. What have you done to reduce that?”
For a second, the doctor only glared at him. “We have changed the cleaners used in the rooms.” His words were tight and clipped, and from the tone, it was perfectly clear that the doctor thought that had been more than enough of a concession to any senses. It was also pretty clear that he felt bad about that now. Blair could see the way guilt clung to the man. He wanted to help his patients, and here Blair came suggesting that the man was just screwing up.
“Enough,” Jim said. He walked over to the window and grunted as he put all his strength into trying to lift it. Nothing moved. With his jaw bulging, Jim turned to the doctor. “What do you value more, your patients or your window?”
“Patients or windows… which are worth more to you?” Jim demanded.
“My patients!” Colonel Jamison might have continued with some diatribe about caring for his patients, but Jim picked up a chair and Jamison stumbled back as Jim sent it flying. Glass tinkled to the floor when the chair slipped out of Jim’s grip and fell out the window. Jim stepped back, his shirt moving in the sluggish wind that came in.
“Get the lights, Blair,” Jim said. Blair gave Sims a quick pat before he headed over to turn out the lights. Florescent bulbs flickered and then went dark so that the room was only dimly lit by the window, since the sun was on the wrong side.
“Better?” Jim asked, turning to Sims and Griffin.
“Yes, sir,” Griffin answered. Sims managed a nod, and Blair headed back to the man’s side. His hands were fisting the blanket, and Blair was guessing he still hurt.
“Just dial down the senses. You don’t need them here,” Blair muttered, not surprised when a security guard pushed the door open. His hand rested on his gun, but Jim continued to stand by the now-open window.
“This is what they need, Colonel,” Jim said firmly. “If you aren’t a Sentinel, then you don’t live in the same world we do. You don’t know how overwhelming the senses can be, and only another Sentinel can tell you that.” Jim finally turned to look at Colonel Jamison. “How many more Sentinels do you have here?”
The security guard looked from one person to another, clearly confused about who to blame for the window. Blair could feel the universe turning on this one point. If Jamison had them arrested, things would get nasty. Oh, Blair trusted that Jim had contingency plans, but no plan would smooth over the ruffled feathers if Jamison set the military against Jim and the Sentinels. Holding his breath, Blair watched Jamison struggle with his own thoughts.
“Please, we want to help,” Blair said softly. “I know you’re doing your best, but you need Jim to show you how to help.” Blair could feel his chest tighten as Jamison looked at Blair. Then the moment passed. Jamison nodded.
“Four more are awake, and one is in a coma. It’s more than we’ve seen in the last decade, and they’re all showing signs of heading for a coma rather than losing their senses, which was the norm up until this latest epidemic.” Jamison turned haunted eyes toward Blair. “We are providing unprocessed, fresh food and we’ve increased the cleaning regimen, switching to low-odor cleaners.”
“You’ve done your best,” Blair said in a gentle voice. Colonel Jamison had clearly been trying.
“Soldier, can you eat now?” Jim asked Sims.
“Yes, sir.” Sims struggled, but he got himself up so he was sitting in bed. When the bedsheet fell away, Blair could see the bright red rash on the arm with the IV hooked to it. Jim was right; he needed to eat on his own.
“Good,” Jim said with a tight smile. Colonel Jamison, if you could get nurses up here with fresh water and some fresh food, that would help these men.” Jim turned and headed for the door. For a second, the security guard continued to block the way, still confused.
“Where are you going?” Jamison asked.
Jim looked over his shoulder. “To get the other Sentinels and get them in here where they can have some fresh air and company.”
“I’ll have to show you…”
“No,” Jim cut him off. “You don’t. I know exactly where they are. Two are on the floor above us, two are down the hall, and the coma patient isn’t in this wing at all. If you take care of the facilities and find these men their clothes so we can move them out, I’ll take care of the Sentinels. Come on, Chief.” Jim held out his hand for Blair and Blair hurried to his side. This time when Jim headed for the door, the security guard backed away and let them through. Blair could feel change pressing against him like a low-pressure front. He only hoped the change would be for the good for everyone. At the very least, he hoped the change wouldn’t prove fatal.
Blair followed Jim into the last room. Ensign Diamond and Petty Officer First Class Bechtel both were in better condition, in part because their room had a window that opened a few inches. Jim sent them to Griffin’s room with brief directions, and Blair watched as they followed without question. They didn’t ask for Jim’s credentials or rank; they assumed that Jim had the authority to tell them that they’d be better off in another room. Blair’s head spun with the potential meaning behind that. The throne Jim had fought for might be a little less metaphorical than Blair had assumed. And if Alex had won… Blair shivered as he considered that possibility. Alex’s morality was non-existent, and Naomi’s had one or two moral quirks. Either that or Naomi was right and the world had one or two moral quirks. Blair wasn’t actually sure which was true.
Jim strode down the hall toward the elevator, Blair feeling a little like the yappy puppy from the cartoon that chased the big, bad bulldog around. Jim was certainly doing his bulldog impression. They almost reached the elevator when Colonel Jamison came out of what looked like some sort of nurses’ station.
“I’ve asked that the nurses get some water and fresh food up here,” he said, his body about as stiff as his voice. If they weren’t already dangerously close to pissing this guy off, Blair would recommend some yoga and a good relaxation meditation for the guy.
Jim just grunted and poked the elevator button with uncalled for enthusiasm.
Colonel Jamison got even stiffer, but he didn’t back off. “How long have you controlled your senses?” The question sounded so mild, but Blair knew it wasn’t. They’d suggested this doctor knew less than nothing about the senses so either he was trying to prove them wrong or he was trying to get more accurate information. Blair really hoped it was the last because his gut said the doctor wasn’t intentionally torturing the Sentinels.
For a second, Blair thought Jim was going to totally ignore the guy. But then he sighed and seemed to relent some. “Five years. I’ve been cop of the year three times in Cascade, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used my senses on scene with DBs, and nothing smelled as bad as this place.”
“We’ve had soldiers develop heightened senses before,” Jamison said, and his tone made it pretty clear he considered this a good excuse, but Jim’s jaw muscle started bulging. “Granted, we never had this many,” Jamison went on without even noticing that Jim’s temper had started to fray. “The senses always went away after a time, and it has never created this many problems. The patient in a coma, he’s the second one to have his senses actually continue to heighten until he had seizures.”
Blair flinched at the tone of voice. “Man, academic curiosity is so not the right tact here,” he interjected before his common sense could tell him to stay out of it. Jamison’s face pinked. Blair felt weirdly proud that he’d managed to shame a colonel. Naomi would never believe it; then again, Naomi didn’t think soldiers still had souls or consciences left to get embarrassed.
Before Jamison could explain what he’d never done, the elevator appeared. Jim ushered Blair inside with a hand on his back while giving Jamison a nasty glare. “Blair fixed this so that it worked for me, and he would have helped your Sentinels if you idiot doctors weren’t ignoring every piece of advice he gave you.”
“We did our best based on precedent.” Colonel Jamison followed them onto the elevator, and Blair really hated that genetics had denied him another six inches. He was feeling a little small to be in the same space with these two.
“Your best stank. Literally,” Jim offered dryly, that nasty Ellison humor showing up right on schedule.
“That might be true,” Jamison said, and from his expression, that was the hardest thing he’d ever had to say, “but this is still the best facility. If you can offer some advice for how to make the hospital more hospitable.”
“Short of burning it down, this place will never work. The walls have mold, the wood smells of rot in places, I can smell pus and vomit and urine. And this isn’t nearly the worst I’ve smelled. Hospitals are terrible places for Sentinels who can’t control the senses yet.”
“Totally,” Blair agreed. Jamison spared him a quick look of frustration before turning his attention back to Jim just as the elevator opened.
“So we find a government facility that meets your specifications,” the colonel said, following as Jim herded Blair off the elevator. Blair swallowed nervously because that was sounding a whole lot like getting drafted.
Jim gave Jamison an amused look. “You think you can control this.”
“I think these are military men and women, soldiers under the authority of the U.S. military.” The colonel didn’t even bother to contradict Jim. Jim stopped right in the middle of the hallway and slowly pivoted to face off against Colonel Jamison. Blair held his breath. He really was going to have another heart attack or maybe a huge bleeding ulcer before all this was over.
With a nod and a pursing of the lips, Jim seemed to consider that. “True enough,” Jim finally said. “They are all soldiers under your command. However, I will tell you that Blair has been reluctant to share certain information out of some misguided sense of loyalty to me.”
Sucking in a quick breath, Blair waited for Jim to push the big gay button. For once in his life, he was hoping someone would be homophobic. It was one way to get out of this situation. If they suspected that Sentinels were pre-programmed to get all gay with their guides, that would definitely send the old-guard military running the other way.
“The senses are linked to psychological well-being.” Jim’s words just confused Blair, but Jamison was looking alarmed. “I understand that in the field a soldier does certain things. I did certain things.” Jim crossed his arms. “If a civilian gets in the way of a firefight, you regret the collateral damage and move on with your mission objective. If you’re ordered to take out a target and you find it guarded by fourteen year olds who are only fighting because someone has offered them enough food to feed their families, you pull the trigger and you pray for them and for your own soul. However, either of those situations would cause the Sentinel senses to turn off immediately. Right there in the middle of the field, the senses would be gone, and a soldier who was used to relying on them, would be more helpless than ever.”
“It happened to you,” Jamison said softly.
“More than once,” Jim agreed. “Blair had to talk me through them, and there was a period of time where I was not fully functional. In the field, these senses can make life a little more interesting than most commanders would prefer.”
The colonel blew out a breath. “That could be a problem.”
“Oh, I have a bigger one for you,” Jim said calmly. The colonel’s gaze snapped to him. “I can’t tell you what makes a guide. I suspect it’s something genetic since both Blair and his mother are guides. I can tell you that from the first time I met both Blair and Naomi, I knew they were special. And once I learned to trust Blair—once he became not just a guide but my guide—he became the most important thing in my life. Oh, I’ll put him in danger because I have a big enough ego to believe I can always get him out. However, when I used my senses to break into a top secret facility and then stop Bracket from stealing a stealth bomber that didn’t legally exist, I knew one thing: I would defend Blair over that bomber. If it came right down to it, I would forget any mission objectives, I would walk away from a protection detail, I would do whatever I needed to in order to protect Blair first.”
“Even if you were under orders?”
Jim nodded. “Hell yes. The only time I ever picked my mission over Blair was when there was a school bus accident. I might have driven away and left those kids to the next unit on scene only I knew Blair would kick my ass if I did.”
“I would have,” Blair whispered. That had been the worst day of his life—getting kidnapped four or five times in one day on top of getting arrested—not a lot of fun. However, he would have killed Jim if Jim ignored kids in danger.
Jim looked over and smiled. “I know, Chief. Even so, it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I just can’t imagine what would have happened if I’d been five seconds later. If that woman had shot you, I would have ripped her apart with my bare hands.”
“Way to make yourself look mentally stable, man,” Blair muttered with a look over toward Jamison.
“Oh, I think he’s made his point,” the colonel commented. “You think Sentinels aren’t stable enough for military service.”
Jim sucked air through his teeth and seemed to think about that. Maybe Blair was being cynical, but it looked like he was putting on a show. “If they want to stay in the military, there will be plenty of jobs that they can perform better than any non-Sentinel. Medical service, search and rescue, covert surveillance—they’re all fields that match a Sentinel’s skills. But being a Sentinel is not some superpower. There are plenty of jobs they won’t be able to do. Frontline and executive action are not options.”
“Executive action?” Blair asked.
Jim gave Blair a look so flat and devoid of emotion that Blair could pretty much guess what that euphemism meant. Jim turned back to the colonel. “And if someone wants to test that theory, there’s going to be a high body count on that experiment.”
“I can certainly take that into account. However, that doesn’t change the fact that these are soldiers, and sending them out onto your father’s land in the mountains is far outside regulations.”
“And I won’t have you investing money in these men. You invest money in some facility, and someone somewhere is going to want to see a return on that investment. Quid pro quo. Sentinels are not resources. They aren’t like linguists or medical personnel that you can train and then require a certain number of years of service in return. They’re instinct-driven warriors and unless those instincts match up with the terms of their service, it will get ugly. I walked away from my commission half way to my retirement.”
“Because of the senses?” Jamison took a step back, and maybe he was finally understanding how much he didn’t understand. A door squeaked open, and Blair looked over to see a painfully thin woman standing in a short hospital gown. She had scratch marks all down one arm and two deep wrinkles just above the bridge of her nose.
Jim glanced over and gave her a small smile and nod before turning to look at Jamison again. “Yes, because the minute the senses came online, I knew myself well enough to know that I was going to disobey a direct order. Worst case scenario, I was going to shoot my own officers for getting my unit killed.”
The elevator dinged and a short man with a dress uniform on came off the elevator, his eyes finding them entirely too quickly. Blair’s guts tangled, but Jamison kept on talking. “For a man who’s spent years hiding his abilities, you’re being remarkably open.”
Jim’s gaze flicked to the newcomer, but he seemed to be giving his attention to Jamison. “First, I never hid my abilities. You never asked me if I was a Sentinel. Besides, parts of the government have always known. Brackett’s debriefing after Peru is floating around somewhere, and I have no doubt he spilled his guts about me after getting arrested. Besides, the cat’s already out of the bag. We just came back from Mexico, and they had a couple of their own Sentinels show up. So the Mexican government knows who I am and what I am. The genii is out of the bottle, colonel.” Jim moved his gaze to the newcomer. “General,” Jim said calmly, but the knots in Blair’s stomach turned into huge tangles of fear. General. Fucking general. Generals were power, and a tiny part of Blair’s brain wanted to run around in fear. However, the Sentinels needed him.
A strange calm settled over Blair. It was like a fog drifted in, cooling his emotions and clouding his vision so that reality seemed to fade in and out like figures appearing and disappearing as clumps of mist rolled through.
“Trying to put the genii back in the bottle is not going to happen,” Blair said. The fog thickened, and Blair could feel pressure against his skin, various forces pushing against him. For a second, he almost lost his balance, but then Jim’s hand rested against his arm, and Blair found his center. He found it and pushed back against those forces. Overconfidence. Arrogance. Blair blinked and focused on the general. “And I am not leaving Sentinels in these conditions. No fucking way. If I had any idea that the doctors were completely fucking ignoring me, I would have been going to the press and making the biggest stink you’ve ever seen. Your name would have been dragged through the mud as some asshole who didn’t care about his men.” Overconfidence faded. Aggression. Fear. Protect position. Blair could feel the air shifting.
“Blair, cool it,” Jim said, but somehow, Blair knew Jim didn’t mean it. Encouragement. Prompting for more. Blair struggled against this misty new reality that formed around him. Shapes gathered and then scattered with a breath.
“Man, I mean it,” Blair said. “I can’t believe this shit. No fucking way do they care about these soldiers. These are Sentinels. I mean, if they weren’t getting totally screwed over, these people could make the fucking difference all over the world. They could be walking forensics laboratories, mobile tracking stations. They could identify dangers without having to lug around equipment or worry about things breaking. They could overhear terrorists talking from a mile away, and instead they’re shoved into some hospital.” The mist shifted again. Ambition. Desire.
A soft clapping caught his attention, and Blair glanced down the hall where the fog gathered into the form of Naomi. She clapped her hands delightedly. “That’s my baby. You tell him. Twist him around in his own ignorance until he can’t figure out how to get out of your trap. I knew you could do it.” She smiled at him. Blair opened his mouth to point out that she obviously hadn’t had all that much faith since she’d tried so hard to keep him away from the temple, but Jim’s fingers tightened against his arm.
“Blair, enough,” Jim said, his voice sharp even though the fog that drifted between them was warm, soft with contentment and pride. “I told you that I handle military issues. You handle medical ones.” The mist shifted as the aggression faded, leaving ambition and desire swirling around the general. Blair stepped back so that he leaned into Jim’s warmth. The doctor swirled with fear, with guilt, but also with indignation and professional excitement. Blair could understand the doctor more than the general. Jamison planned to write a paper. He expected to gain professionally, even if the guilt still clung to him like cobwebs.
“Going to the press would be a breach of Mr. Sandburg’s confidentiality agreement,” the general warned, his voice slow. “I don’t know if you realize it, but he signed one before we would send him any data on current patients. Confidence. Over-confidence.
“General,” Jim said calmly. Blair blinked, watching the world distort out of shape. Naomi drifted in and out of walls and Jim’s jaguar crouched in the corner looking cranky. If Blair didn’t know better, he’d think he’d gotten into the really good stash of PCP. “I’m Detective Ellison.”
“Sentinel Ellison,” the woman in the hospital gown said softly, but her voice was so soft that Blair couldn’t hear it. He could see the words drifting out into the fog. Pain. Fear. Self-loathing, but those were fading. Hope. Loyalty. Those drifted from her like steam rising from a vent.
“Detective Ellison,” the general said. He might have said more, but the woman standing in the doorway suddenly dropped, her legs going out from under her and her head hitting the floor with a sickening thump.
“Shit!” The fog fled, vanishing into the cracks of the universe as Blair darted forward. “Jim, what did she hear?” He had no idea how he knew she’d zoned on hearing, but she did.
“Um,” Jim paused. “Feedback. There’s a news crew down there, and one of their systems had a feedback loop. Worse than fingernails on a chalkboard if you have hearing turned up.”
“She did,” Blair said. Carefully lifting her head, he checked for blood or lumps, but he didn’t find any. Jim came over and scooped her up into his arms.
“She’s not staying here. There’s a bedpan in here,” Jim said with a wrinkle of his nose.
“Fucking wonderful.” Blair darted to get ahead of Jim in the hall. “No offense, General, but get the fuck out of the way. This is medical, and this is my thing.” Blair took a malicious joy in shoving the general to one side in his rush to hit the elevator button. Yep, they were moving faster than the military, and as long as the military couldn’t figure out what to do, Jim’s dumb plan actually had a chance of working. Blair smiled until he caught sight of the unconscious body in Jim’s arms. It better work. Too much was riding on the outcome of this fight.
Blair watched the back of the driver’s head. His brain was spinning too fast for any sort of coherent thought. It really was.
“So, this is normal?” Bechtel demanded. Clark Bechtel. Sentinel number four. Actually, if Blair counted Jim and Alex, that would make him Sentinel number six. And he was as cranky as Jim had ever been. The only advantage so far was that Jim had glowered at Bechtel and Sims until both had given up any thoughts of slamming Blair into a wall. Blair was almost certain the others weren’t having any wall-slamming thoughts, but then again, he might be wrong on that. And in a bus this large, there was technically room for it.
“If this is normal, I’m eating my gun now,” Sims said in some sort of anti-Sentinel solidarity with Bechtel.
“It gets better,” Jim promised. He was turned around awkwardly in the seat so he could face the others. It was going to be a long and uncomfortable ride if he didn’t chill. “Blair would give you his speech about how great it can be, but he’s a little out of it right now. Chief, you okay?” Jim’s hand rested against Blair’s leg, and Blair tried to blink himself back to reality. They were leaving the hospital behind. They were heading upstate. Hell, they were catching a military bus up to one of Naomi’s old stomping grounds, a commune that preached love for all. The cognitive dissonance was making his head hurt.
“Fine. Reality is just…” Blair blew out a breath and shifted around to face the other Sentinels… “moving way too fast. But Jim’s right,” Blair said more firmly as he focused on the hope and the fear and the pain in the Sentinels going with them. “It’s bad now because you’ve been doing all the wrong things. But when you get control of it,” Blair whistled, “man, you can do amazing things. These senses are advantages.”
“They don’t feel like it,” Sims said.
“So far, no, they haven’t been. I’m guessing you haven’t been able to even eat comfortably,” Blair guessed from the fact that Sims looked like a refugee from a concentration camp. He looked worse than the one Sentinel in a coma. “But look at Jim. I have to put up with him shoving Wonderburger down his throat three times a week. I keep telling him that lifting weights does not take the cholesterol out of the blood, but does he listen? No. But he can do that because he has control of the senses. You can too. You can do incredibly things with the senses.”
“I can see how it would help,” Auden said. He was a heavy man, thick with huge hands. He looked like a mechanic, which made sense since he was one before his senses had dumped him in a hospital bed. “I could always feel and hear more than others. It’s what makes me such a damn good mechanic. I used to joke that engines whispered their secrets. But if we can’t get control of it—” His eyes drifted back to Hannah Morley.
The hospital stretcher fit into specialized fittings against the side of the bed, an IV dripping down into her arm. Doctors couldn’t understand her coma, but they didn’t hold much hope for her waking up. Even though her records said she was eighteen, she looked about fourteen laying there, her short brown hair matted and her skin papery thin. She’d passed out during basic training, and her long record of “recalcitrant” behavior such as staring into space and irrational complaining suggested she’d been having a lot of trouble before her final collapse.
“Yeah, that’s in all our futures,” Sims said, his fists opening and closing.
“No way,” Blair said firmly. “The hospital might have been pushing you toward that, but no fucking way is that going to happen. No way.”
Griffin smiled. He was the oldest of the hospital Sentinels, forty-three and a little less dramatic. “If believing makes it true, you seem to have enough belief for all of us.”
“He does,” Jim said fondly. “If I hadn’t been in the middle of a case with people’s lives on the line, I would have walked out into the woods or committed myself to a mental hospital when the senses first came on. Trust me, I know how it feels.”
“Do you?” Sims asked in a confrontational voice.
Blair blinked his eyes and leaned into Jim, letting his mind drift as he tried to reach that point of disconnect where he could see feelings and fear as clearly as he could see red or sky. Nothing happened except that a couple of Sentinels looked at him oddly and Lauren gave him a small smile.
Jim slung an arm around Blair, pulling him close. “I do. I was at dinner with an ex, and I thought someone had tried to kill me because the same spices I normally love burned my mouth. I lost a suspect because a glint of sun blinded me. I can’t even count the number of times I dropped my fucking weapon because I lost feeling in my hands and I was scared I would accidentally pull the trigger and I loosened up too much.”
“That doesn’t sound like an advertisement for the wonders of Sentinel senses,” Bechtel said. He was in the next seat, the only one who’d chosen to sit anywhere near Jim. The words came out so softly that Blair barely heard them, but they were sitting in a bus full of Sentinels, so even Lauren who was sitting near Hannah in the back of the bus turned to look at him.
“The problems aren’t worth any advantage,” Sims agreed.
“I disagree,” Captain Griffin said firmly. “Detective, you wouldn’t be telling us to embrace these senses unless they worked. Do you have a few success stories?”
Jim wasn’t quick to answer, but then Jim never did brag about his own successes. That was Blair’s job.
“In Peru, his unit died, and he was left to hold a Chopec pass on his own. He could hear the enemy units, spot traps, and lead the local warriors so that he kept the drug dealers out of the area.” Blair noticed that as he talked, quite a few of them sat up a little straighter. Griffin and Lauren Hazlitt both had their mouths fall open a bit.
“Shit.” Satchel Lincoln breathed the word. He was quieter than the others, but Blair wasn’t sure if that was because he was the lowest ranking member of the service or because of some Sentinel pecking order Blair didn’t understand.
“Totally,” Blair agreed. “And in Cascade, Jim’s done amazing things. I got kidnapped by a serial killer, and he tasted water from a victim’s drain, identified trace elements, and found me about two minutes before I ended up dead. He can hear conversations two city blocks away, allowing us to track gun runners and bust drug dealers. He’s Cop of the Year because these senses make him a walking crime lab. He can see fingerprints and identify a suspect by traces of perfume or hear an unstable building long before anything happens. He’s amazing.”
“Enough, Sandburg,” Jim said.
“You may not want to brag on yourself, but you’re amazing,” Blair said firmly. Jim was looking incredibly uncomfortable, but maybe Blair had made his point with the others.
“You see fingerprints?” Lauren asked. “Can you see long distance as well?”
“Yeah,” Jim agreed. “I can see details at several miles out.”
“How much resolution?” she asked.
Jim looked at Blair, but Blair could only shrug. “Getting Jim to do scientific testing has not always been fun, and his ability varies depending on his mood.” Blair twisted around a bit. He hadn’t tried sitting backwards in a bus seat since he was ten. It had been more comfortable back then. Jim’s hand slipped around his waist, pulling him closer so that Blair leaned some of his weight against Jim. If they were trying for subtle on the gay front, Blair was giving Jim a D-minus.
“So, if he had a shitty day, he misses things?” Major Lauren Hazlitt seemed almost offended by that.
Jim was even more offended by her tone. “When I know that there’s nothing out there but some dumb test, I’m not likely to perform as well. I don’t miss things in the field.” His tone of voice made it pretty clear that another word and Jim was throwing her right off the bus. She dropped her gaze back down to Hannah.
“So, how do we get control?” Auden asked. Oliver Auden was twenty-six, and Blair just had a feeling that most people missed really seeing the man. He looked every inch the military mechanic, but something whispered under the surface. Blair met the man’s green eyes and tried to put a finger on it, but all he knew was that Auden would be the first to leave them. He’d be going back into the world, his head held high as he told everyone he was a Sentinel.
“You need a guide,” Jim said. Blair hadn’t wanted to go into that, not until they got everyone settled. Guide talk led to talk about the relationship, and Blair still didn’t know if Sentinels and guides had a sexual connection. He had a sample size of two to work with, and that didn’t lead to valid conclusions. Hell, he still didn’t know if they were looking for small-g guides, people to watch Sentinels’ backs or big-G Guides, people with some genetic or inherent power that matched a Sentinel’s own.
“What’s that?” Auden asked.
“A companion,” Blair said, picking up the spiel. Jim might be playing nice, but Blair could feel the tension from him. He wasn’t actually happy being around this many Sentinels even if no one set his instincts off the way Alex had. “Someone to watch your back. Someone you absolutely trust so that when you lose yourself in your senses, this person can call you back, distract your or help you refocus.”
“So, she’s going to die without a guide?” Griffin asked with a concerned look toward Hannah.
“Does that make you my guide?” Sims asked Blair at the same time. Jim’s fingers dug painfully into Blair’s arm for a half second as Jim pulled Blair painfully close.
“Whoa,” Blair said, both to Sims and to Jim. Jim’s hands loosened, but Sims still had this disturbing expression of hope. “We know way less about guides than Sentinels. We don’t even know what makes a guide, but while a guide you trust can pull you back from the edge, you need to find your own unique guide to work with day to day. I mean, maybe two Sentinels who really knew each other well or who were in the same unit could share a guide…” Blair glanced at Jim. “Maybe. Maybe not. We really don’t know. However, as much as I can temporarily help, I am Jim’s guide. He is the only one I work with other than on an emergency basis.”
Sims’ expression was caught between anger and hurt, but Griffin cleared his throat to get Blair’s attention. “So, can you help Private Morley?”
Blair looked toward the back of the bus. “I hope so. If she’s not so far under that she can’t hear me, but no way do I want to wake her up here.”
“Why?” Lauren demanded. Yep, as ranking officer, she wanted to step up and take control. Fat chance of that happening with Jim around, though. Military ranks versus Sentinel pecking order were going to be a problem.
Blair sighed and looked around. “How many of you are uncomfortable with the vibrations in here?”
Sims and Bechtel raised their hands immediately. Auden was nearly as fast with Griffin, Al Diamond, and Satchel Lincoln following a second later. Lauren’s was the last hand up, but she raised her hand too. Jim was the only one to not raise his hand, other than Hannah, and the coma explained that.
“Exactly,” Blair said. “No way do I want to call her back just to put her in hell when she can’t control the touch well enough to ignore the vibrations.”
“Oh, I could ignore them,” Auden said, “but I’d rather just get someone to rotate the damn tires and check the bolts on the right side of the front axle.” He shrugged.
“Problem?” Blair asked. He noticed Jim already had his head tilted to the side.
“Not in the next few thousand miles or so,” Auden said, but I know machines, and having one not work right is a very annoying thing.”
“You must be a great mechanic,” Griffin said with undisguised admiration.
“Yes, sir,” Auden agreed. “So, how do I recognize one of these guides?”
Jim shook his head and seemed to refocus back on the Sentinels. “It’s someone you’re just drawn to, even if common sense tells you that you shouldn’t be. Once you start trusting that person, things change between you.” Jim let his voice trail off, not getting into the sexual relationship that might or might not be normal for all pairs or the guide voice that was definitely normal.
“Leading Seaman West,” Auden said. “He’s my guide.”
“You’re sure?” Blair felt a little out of breath. That should not be so easy. He’d been expecting… okay, he had no idea what he’d been expecting, but that wasn’t it.
“Yes, sir,” Auden said. “When West joined me, the man fucked up every engine he touched. I would have put anyone else on report and booted them off the unit, but I taught him every night, I checked every bit of work he did until I could trust him to get it right, and he’s turned into my best mechanic. I always pull a miracle off when he’s on shift with me. Right before I lost control of my senses, he was transferred to the USS John C. Stennis.”
“It sounds like you have your guide,” Jim agreed. “We’ll contact the USS John C. Stennis and see if we can make some arrangements for him to come out here. We may have to jump through a few hoops,” Jim warned.
“A few?” Griffin asked. “Detective, you’re going to have to prove to them that it’s worth changing regs to have Sentinels in the service, and the Service does love its regs.”
“It does, Captain,” Major Lauren Hazlitt said in a tone of voice that was clearly her enforcing her own authority, “However, I work in satellites, and I can promise you this: the military moves and they move fast when the situation changes. If we have the abilities that Detective Ellison has shown, we’re going to have to worry about making sure those regulations are fair. We don’t have to worry about the military refusing to make any new regs.”
Griffin nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I work field SIGINT, so I know what these senses could mean, but we can’t work unless we’re reliable.”
“Field SIGINT?” Blair whispered to Jim while Griffen and Bechtel and Hazlitt went off on a conversation that Blair couldn’t hope to follow. There was technical jargon and then there was the insanity of military people talking in words that weren’t really words.
Jim leaned close. “He works in the field, going close to enemy positions and recording enemy signals so they can be decrypted or translated. Dangerous work. You have to be pretty close to eavesdrop and your radio equipment makes you stand out like a sore thumb.”
“Not if you’re a Sentinel,” Blair pointed out.
Jim nodded. “That’s why Griffin is going to want to go back. He’s going to be better at his job.”
“Not before Auden goes back,” Blair whispered. Auden looked over and gave Blair a small smile before focusing on the three officers again. “What the hell did we get into?” Blair asked, resting his head against Jim’s shoulder as he watched the debate.
“More than we probably wanted,” Jim admitted quietly. It was more of a concession to Blair’s sudden panic than Blair expected. He’d half expected Jim to point out that Blair had been the one to insist they challenge Naomi for that damn throne. He’d expected Jim to put some of the blame on Blair and his insane competition with Naomi. Hell, Blair had gone undercover with armed car thieves after refusing both Jim and Simon only because his mother had told him he couldn’t. Yeah, he had mother issues. And his mother issues were tangled in his shaman issues.
After a brisk debate on possible regulations that Blair tuned out on, the Sentinels seemed to fall silent. Sims slept with a pillow between him and the window. Blair wasn’t sure if that was improved control or just pure exhaustion. He’d been on the verge of a coma when Blair found him. Al Diamond, an ensign, and Petty Officer Auden were doing the best. They played a quiet game of gin across the back of Auden’s seat. Lauren had pulled a book out of a bag, and Blair was pretty sure she was mentally rewriting regulations. Jim would have final say on that, though. Daniel Griffin watched the landscape with an intensity that made Blair worry about zones and Bechtel continued to watch Blair until Jim had made Blair move another seat forward. The only one who Blair couldn’t pin down was Satchel Lincoln.
He was in logistics for the Navy, and as close as Blair could tell from the file, it seemed like that meant he cooked a lot. Cooked and cleaned dished. It wasn’t where Blair had expected to find a Sentinel, but then it wasn’t like he’d go back to a kitchen with his senses turned on. He stared off into space oddly.
“Lincoln?” Blair called softly. Jim looked up from his novel and watched as Blair moved out of the seat and into the aisle. Bechtel watched too, but Blair was trying to ignore that. Note to self, Sentinels in distress could get a little stalkerish around a guide. They were definitely going to have to have a rule or two about that.
“Sir?” Lincoln turned toward Blair, but Blair got the impression that Lincoln wasn’t actually looking at him.
“Just Blair, okay? I was raised by a hippy, so too much ‘sirring’ around me and my head might fall off.” Some of the others smiled, but Lincoln didn’t. He just gave a short nod. “Are you okay?”
“Fine.” The unspoken ‘sir’ almost hung in there air, right there next to the fact that Lincoln was lying. Blair moved closer, and Lincoln’s eyes tracked him. Because the eyes were so dark, it took Blair a second to realize that Lincoln’s pupils were blown.
“Your pupils…” Blair started to say.
“I’m not on drugs, sir,” Lincoln cut him off. “Sometimes they just get a little out of wack, but I’m not high.”
Blair reared back. Well, shit. “No way. I mean, you’ve gone from a hospital to a bus full of military officers. Even if I were stupid and made some idiot assumption, which I’m not making, you didn’t have a chance to get high.”
“Right.” Lincoln sounded defensive now.
Clearly he’d been accused unfairly in the past. It made senses once Blair stopped to think about it. African Americans got slammed for drug use way more than whites, and blown pupils were a pretty classic sign. How many people had assumed Lincoln was on drugs? How many had given him grief? Blair felt a flash of pure panic as he realized the sheer range of problems Sentinels were going to carry with them into this awkward transition. Everyone was watching now, everyone except Hannah in her coma and Sims who was still out cold.
“Sometimes one of the senses goes a little out of wack,” Blair said, mimicking Lincoln’s word choice. “What are you seeing right now?”
Blair waited, watching as Lincoln fought with himself.
“Hey, I have seen shit that you would call me crazy for. Do not even ask me about Mexico, because I am not admitting to the crazy down there unless you use torture, and if you try torture, I’m hiding behind Jim,” Blair said. Lincoln almost stopped frowning. Blair wondered if emotional hang-ups were a Sentinel thing or a soldier thing or just a human thing.
“The hair on your eyebrow,” Lincoln finally said. “I can see the shaft of the hair and where it vanishes into the pucker of the follicle and the texture of the skin with petals of dry skin flakes littered between the hair follicles.
Blair’s eyebrows went up, and Lincoln’s gaze followed with a minute adjustment. “The… what? Oh man. Okay, you definitely have the vision turned up a little high.”
Lincoln snorted. “It feels like I don’t have my vision turned on at all. I’m as good as blind when it goes like this.”
“How often does it go like this?” Blair asked. He so needed to start taking notes. He was never finishing his Sentinel dissertation because every new piece of information threw all his theories out the window. Jim’s vision never did this.
“Often enough that I had trouble getting through school,” Lincoln finally admitted, and from the bitterness in his voice, that was an old pain.
“Okay, let’s talk through how to fix this,” Blair said gently. He moved slowly forward until his hand hovered right over Satchel Lincoln’s arm and then he started talking him through an exercise to turn down vision. Life was changing, but considering that Naomi’s solution to this problem would have included mass meditation and a lecture on respecting your senses and getting in touch with why they were fascinated with eyebrows, Blair was glad he and Jim had won. Lincoln deserved better. True, Blair was starting to panic about winning, but he was glad they had.
Blair looked back at the camp. The pillar in the center had a circle of bare ground around it since the grass never had a chance to grow. It had been a gift from Mexico, a jaguar pillar from the original Temple of the Sentinels. The scientist in Blair had been horrified at the idea of ripping a part of history away from its home, but the pillar fit here. The stone was happy to be home with Sentinels. And Blair was clearly a little too far onto the spirit plane if stones had feelings.
They should probably put stone pavers down or just haul in concrete. Stone pavers would last longer with the weather up here. About half the tents were on wooden platforms to keep them out of the mud when it rained, and some industrious group had started a log building back near the treeline.
“A new temple rises,” a voice said in an approving tone.
“It looks less like a temple than a survivalist camp,” Blair said as he looked over at Incacha. The ghost shaman crouched down near the base of a tree and used his teeth to strip bark from a white sliver of wood.
“It’s not the way I would have done it.” Naomi came out from behind a tree and looked down at the camp. There were about four dozen Sentinels now despite the bad weather. The road had become a parking lot, and the local grocery store was ecstatic about the sudden influx of large numbers of soldiers, all of whom ate like horses. When Hannah had come out of her coma, she’d pretty much eaten her own body weight in food every other day. Blair was starting to think the obsession with high-fat food was a survival trait for Sentinels, but the sheer volume made it easy to get the local store to stock the Sentinel friendly products. And locals were really good about randomly changing street signs and confusing reporters so that Sentinels got a break from being the center of the public’s attention.
“Yeah, mom, I know.”
Naomi smiled down at him and then dropped to the ground and crossed her legs. “But you’ve done a good job.”
“Good enough that you’re going to stop trying to lure Sentinels away?” Blair asked.
“Who? Me?” Naomi blinked at him with exaggerated innocence, and Blair rolled his eyes. There were Sentinels who wandered away – men and women whose voices called to him in dreams and then vanished.
“I heard that some Sentinels are feeling compelled to avoid us. I mean, really, Mom. It’s not like we’re out there looking for people. I have all the Sentinels I can handle, so making me out to be the boogey man is so not cool.”
“I never said you were the boogey man,” Naomi said with a huff.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, Mom.”
“Or smoke bombs,” Naomi countered. “I always tell Sentinels that I’m proud of my little boy. You and Jim are quite good at making the military bend.”
“But you think we should keep Sentinels out of the military altogether,” Blair guessed. Sometimes Blair wondered if Naomi was as free-spirited as she liked to believe because she clearly wanted to pull them all out. Hell, he’d be thrilled to keep Sentinels away, only Sentinels were people with these weird little beliefs. Like they believed they should be able to choose their own work.
Auden had lasted three weeks in the first camp before Seaman Adam “do not make a Batman joke” West showed up to guide him. They were back on a ship and happy to be at work within a month. Oh, they were good about sticking around for a while. Then Danny Griffin took a liking to a military attaché named Peter Lotherman sent out by the Army and Hannah and Sims stabilized enough to take a serious hating to each other and Clark Bechtel started seeing invisible animals. Life just started going on whether they were ready or not and somewhere along the line, it started seeming normal to have so many Sentinels around. However, Auden and West didn’t want to be part of the new Sentinel reality. They were happy to announce to the Navy they were Sentinel and Guide, and then head back to their ship. Of course, a few weeks after that, they were sharing a bed. That had caused a few more ripples, but Jim’s bluntness had managed to finally just embarrass certain officers into silence, and regulations changed again.
“The military is their choice,” Blair said. Naomi didn’t want to hear the rest of the argument, and Blair was too tired to make it.
“I’m just offering an alternative, Sweetie. Alternatives are always good.”
Blair smiled. “Yes, mom, they are.” Certain Sentinels were too suspicious of any organization to deal with the military regulations that seemed to seep into the Cascade camp no matter how many times Blair told them they weren’t military here. Rank didn’t matter here. Rules included respecting others and respecting yourself enough to get help if you were in danger of zoning. That’s it. Looking at the structure of the camp going up in the Cascade Mountains, Blair was pretty sure they’d made their own rules despite him.
Flashing him one of her brightest smiles, Naomi turned her attention back to the camp. “Besides, it’s not like the Sentinels are all here. You’re pinned down to this place and Alex and I can search the rest of the world.” She gave him a knowing smile that suggested she thought she’d won. Before Blair could figure out how to answer that, she changed the subject. “How’s Jim?”
“Cranky as a bear. He says that if they can’t stop asking his advice on every little thing he’s kicking them all off his land.”
Naomi laughed. “Well, at least he’s not encouraging dependence.”
The very thought made Blair laugh. “No, not so much.”
Incacha came to sit at Blair’s other side. “The temple rises. It is as it should be.”
“Men.” Naomi rolled her eyes. “Yes, you have your temple, but you don’t actually need a visual representation of power. Power is like sand… it runs through your fingers and vanishes on the breeze. However, some people become so focused on their penises that they can’t see that.” She stared at the camp, and Blair knew she was looking at the large center pillar. “Of course, that’s not you, Honey.” She patted his arm and managed to make it perfectly clear that she did consider it him even as she said she didn’t.
“I hear you, mom.”
Naomi turned and smiled so widely that her eyes crinkled up. “I’ll give Alex your love.” With that, she blinked and vanished. She really was better with the spirit plain than he was. He had to wait for something to startle him out of a vision.
“It is as it has always been,” Incacha said. “When I saw Enqueri, I saw the stone that stood in the storm. I did not know if the storm would appear to awaken the power.”
“That would be my mother,” Blair said dryly.
Incacha nodded. “The storm awakens the sleepers, the stone protects them from the wrath of the winds. The universe is balance.”
“So, Jim only won because the universe wanted him to?”
Incacha stared down at the camp. Looking at it with an anthropologist’s eye, Blair could see why Incacha had called it a temple. The stone pillar stood in what a Greek archeologist would call a cella—the central room. A pronaos or front greeting area was forming near the informal parking lot and newly arrived Sentinels put up their temporary tents there. The opisthodomos had the more permanent tents—huge things with wood platforms. A rough column structure was even appearing. Several trees had been stripped of lower branches and their bare trunks used for anchors for laundry lines and privacy screens. It was a sort of ragged, pathetic temple, but it was getting there.
“The stone and the storm must exist together, but whether the storm or the stone prevails, that is what humans must decide.” Incacha rested his hand against Blair’s shoulder for a moment, and then he too was gone. Blair looked down at the camp, and as much as he loved his mother, he was voting for the stone every time. Some days this felt too chaotic, so Naomi’s storm would have been like standing in the middle of a hurricane.
Jim’s jaguar came and sat next to him, the heavy, hot weight comfortable against Blair’s leg. “Did you catch that?” Blair asked.
“Most of it,” Jim said, but his voice was a distant shout. He was climbing the path, but it would be some time before he got up here and could wake Blair from the vision. Meanwhile, Blair ran his fingers down the jaguar’s back, feeling the strong muscles under his hand. The peace lulled him deeper into the vision and mist rose until Blair could see a temple, a strange combination of steel and hand smoothed stones in hundreds of various colors and textures that rose above the treeline with the forest growing right up to it. Lower buildings in irregular shapes tucked into slopes all around the central building.
Men and women wandered through the trees and standing on terraces that led into the center of the temple—no glass to keep the outside air from drifting through. An odd bus with a CPD logo stood in the parking lot of hand-cut stones. Sentinels practiced on the stones. They’d stand a hundred or two hundred feet away and try to cut a stone that fit so perfectly, down to the millimeter, that it locked into place without mortar. That’s how the temple was built, too. One stone at a time. Every Sentinel who came through put at least one stone in place. The construction tickled something at the back of Blair’s memory. Kids spilled off the bus, but as they ran, they vanished into the mist. The temple faded and Blair was surprised to see the camp reappear, the CPD bus gone, the children gone.
“The Commissioner wants to come up and make a case for Sentinels to join the police department. He said that since prosecutors have been running your cases for years, Cascade could offer them a chance to work in the civilian world without having to be the center of their own little publicity storm because they’re the only Sentinel in town. I guess he figures staying in town with the Sentinel Supreme Commander would shield them from that,” Blair told Jim.
Blair couldn’t hear an answer, but he imagined Jim was somewhere below him cursing him out brilliantly. The press might not have landed on that particular title, but they did tend to call him the Chief Sentinel or the Sentinel Prime, which Jim complained made him sound like a Transformer. One reporter insisted on calling him the Sentinel Champion while another had settled on the term Praefectus. Jim cringed every time someone even used the word, even in jest. Most reporters used phrases like most prominent or original Sentinel, although Jim wasn’t exactly original. There were others before him, and Blair was starting to believe thousands would follow. However, he could feel the world struggle to find a comfortable groove and settle into it. They just had to make sure they found the right groove. This was work that would outlast all of them.
A hand fell on Blair’s shoulder, and Blair blinked as the world shimmered and colors shifted slightly, the warmth of Jim’s jaguar vanishing as the cat dissolved into the air. Blair smiled up at Jim. “Thanks man. I am so not good with pulling out of trances.”
“Call me Supreme Commander again, and I’m shoving your head in the toilet and giving you a swirly,” Jim threatened with a glare.
“Oooo. Now that sounds like a threat. I should report you to a cop friend of mine,” Blair said. Jim’s eyes narrowed into an expression that might have looked aggravated on someone else.
“You should consider the circumstances before mouthing off, Chief. Isolated in the woods, far enough for newer Sentinels to not hear you… you’re rather vulnerable out here.” Jim stalked forward, and Blair could imagine his spirit guide him that strong body guiding it. Blair started to get up, but before he could, Jim leapt.
Catching Blair by the stomach, Jim shoved him back down to the ground so fast that Blair squeaked. It was a manly sort of squeak, sort of, but sometimes he just forgot how strong Jim was and how much he liked to be crowded.
Opening his mouth to make a token protest, Blair was cut off when Jim kissed him, his hot body pinning Blair to the ground while Jim’s mouth did nasty, nasty things that short circuited all of Blair’s higher order thinking. Jim pressed his tongue in deeper and then groaned, the vibrations travelling right through to Blair.
Instinctively, Blair reached out, grabbing a handful of pine needles before he changed tactics and reached up to grab Jim’s shirt. One of Jim’s hands stroked down over Blair’s neck and to his arm where Jim’s fingers pressed so deep that Blair was pretty sure he’d have four matching bruises with a thumbprint on the opposite side, but he couldn’t care less. He was hungry. Starving. The new Sentinels took so much time, and Blair wanted more. He needed more.
Jim pulled back, and Blair gulped at the air, his head spinning and his cock so hard that Blair was afraid it might break.
“You’re cute when you’re speechless, Chief,” Jim teased.
“Fuck you,” Blair shot back without any particular heat. He was too horny to care about an insult that was probably true. Emasculating because no man liked to be cute, but true nonetheless.
Jim leaned in closer and licked the sensitive skin behind Blair’s left ear, making Blair cry out and shiver. Fuck. One lick had left him ready to come in his pants. “How about I fuck you?” Jim whispered before nipping at Blair’s ear.
Arching his back, Blair moaned and grabbed at Jim’s shoulders. “Fuck, yes,” Blair agreed. Top, bottom, sideways, upside-down… he didn’t care how he got laid as long as he got to have some intense and private sex with his lover.
With a chuckle, Jim leaned in and pressed a kiss to the spot behind Blair’s right ear. “Sometimes I have this fantasy.”
“Hmmm?” Blair squirmed, his cock uncomfortably tight in his pants, but it was the best kind of hurt.
“You’re spreading yourself thin trying to help everyone, and I come in and grab you. I slip by hand around your mouth to cover your screams and I pull you to my car.” Jim covered Blair’s mouth and then pressed small kisses to each of Blair’s eyelids, forcing him to close his eyes. Oh yeah, Blair was so going to come in his pants. “I tie you up and throw you in the car and run away with you. I take you back to that lake where we went when Alex was after you, and I spend all week ravishing you.”
Blair snorted behind Jim’s palm.
Jim’s lip quirked. “Okay, ravish might be a little over the top,” he admitted with a shrug. “But I keep you tied up. I feed you and at night I put you on your stomach and I fuck you until you’re begging to come.” Jim’s voice got softer and softer until Blair had to strain to hear him. Then Jim nipped Blair’s right ear, and Blair bucked up, gasping through his nose.
“Someone likes that plan,” Jim said, his hand slipping down over Blair’s cheek and shoulder.
“Someone likes that plan a lot,” Blair agreed. He did. “Only maybe—” Blair was going to suggest that maybe they shouldn’t do it with so many new Sentinel in camp or maybe they shouldn’t do it with the commissioner demanding to come up. He couldn’t think of a dozen things to say, but he couldn’t say any of them with Jim kissing the life out of him. Jim’s tongue swept through his mouth, pressing deeper.
When Blair was kissed to the point of language-incompetence, Jim pulled back and kissed a trail down over Blair’s neck before nipping at the front. Blair yelped, and Jim sucked the offended skin, taking the sting out but leaving a mark that would be visible for days.
“Caveman,” Blair complained, but then Jim was unbuttoning his shirt and Blair didn’t care if his lover was a primitive throwback who liked to mark his territory. Actually, it was sort of hot. Hot like Jim’s hands which were roaming over Blair’s chest. A thumb rubbed Blair’s nipple hard enough to make it hot, and Blair thrashed under Jim’s touch.
Leaning in, Jim pressed a chaste kiss to the abused nipple before humming so the vibrations traveled through Blair’s skin, making him feel like he was the Sentinel with nerve-endings turned up too high. Jim braced his hand against Blair’s chest and pushed himself up, his second hand pulling at his own buttons. When Blair reached up to help, Jim gave little more than an inarticulate growl before sacrificing the last two buttons and ripping the shirt off.
Okay, that was hot. Blair never had a lover that stuck around long term, and here they were years into their relationship, and Jim still lost control and sacrificed buttons. Now that was love.
“Where was I?” Jim asked, looking down at Blair with an expression that looked like the wolf about to pounce on its prey. He gave a lazy smile. “Oh yeah.” Jim shifted forward so his weight pressed into Blair’s cock.
“Fuck. I mean… fuck.” Blair gave a keening cry as Jim rubbed Blair’s other nipple until it was hot and sore before leaning down to lick at it. Blair’s fingers dug into Jim’s arms and he arched up, silently begging for more, but Jim continued his slow torture.
Jim began silently rocking forward and back, his body mimicking a sexual act they couldn’t do with clothes on, and Blair started making little pained moans of pleasure and pain. That reached Jim. Shifting off Blair’s cock, he quickly stripped them both of their pants, laying the jeans on the ground under Blair. Blair would complain about getting treated like a fucking doll, but 1) he was too horny to care and 2) the damn pine needles stuck him in some very uncomfortable places. So Jim could Mother Hen all he wanted.
“Shit I’ve missed you, Chief. I thought it was bad when you were writing your dissertation, but Dr. Sandburg has even less time.” Jim settled himself between Blair’s legs, his knees on the jeans he’d spread on the ground.
Blair pushed himself up so that he could run his fingers down Jim’s cheek. “Feel free to chain me to the nearest piece of furniture any time I’m not taking care of myself or my Sentinel or my lover,” Blair said, his voice solemn, edging on the guide voice that compelled Jim to obey.
Jim’s eyebrow quirked. “Out here it’s going to be rope and the nearest tree,” he warned.
“Which also works, but next time, bring a quilt,” Blair said with a smile. The seriousness of the moment passed, and with another wolfish grin, Jim looked down at Blair’s hard cock. The tip was already damp with a bit of precum and Blair’s balls felt too damn full to be healthy. “One touch and I’m coming like a fucking firehose,” Blair warned.
“No you aren’t,” Jim disagreed. Before Blair could ask what that meant, Jim caught the base of Blair’s cock and squeezed just hard enough to make Blair shout, his whole body stiffening in a need to come even though the pressure against his cock prevented it. The pleasure and the pain both sat on a knife’s edge of need, and then Jim leaned down and took Blair in his mouth, his cheeks puffing out as he slid down on Blair’s hard cock.
Blair screamed, his arms going wide and his finger digging deep into the ground as he tried to find some handhold. Jim hummed, and Blair’s cries settled into a keening mewl, a helpless whine of need and pleasure. A slick finger slipped inside Blair, and even with Jim’s hand at the base of his cock, Blair came with a shriek and a wave of white pleasure that melted every bone in his body. Blair lay against the earth, his arms spread wide and his lungs gasping for breath.
Jim collapsed next to him, and in some distant corner of Blair’s brain, he noted Jim’s softening cock pressing against Blair’s leg. Even with the nip of the coming winter in the air, Blair felt hot, like he had to shed heat before spontaneously catching on fire.
Beside him, Jim breathed heavily, each breath a puff of hot air against Blair’s neck. They lay in the cool air for a long time before Jim cleared his throat. “You okay?”
“I didn’t get fucked,” Blair complained softly, but he did it with a grin.
“Smartass,” Jim said. “You watch it. I’m going to kidnap you and tie you to a tree for a good fucking the first chance I get.”
“Promises, promises.” Blair smiled wider. When he’d been a kid and caught his first glimpse of the Burton Sentinel manuscript, he’d had no idea what the future held. None. He’d been a stupid kid standing at the edge of a cliff going, ‘hey, let’s jump off this.’
Jim pressed a kiss to Blair’s neck. “I’m glad you did jump, Chief.”
Blair lay there, wallowing in the silence for a moment before his eyes popped open. “Did I say that out loud?”
Jim slowly opened his own eyes. He tilted his head and studied Blair for a few seconds. “Nope,” he finally offered.
“But. How?” Blair’s mouth fell open.
“Well, if we’re going to let the Commissioner up here, which we really should since he’s given me the leave time, you know we’re going to have a dozen more requests by the end of the week. Let’s go set up procedures for recruiters.” Jim said, his voice all business. Reaching out for his jeans, he pulled them out from under Blair and started shoving his long legs into them.
“But. I didn’t… You heard me!” Blair finally spit out.
“Yep,” Jim agreed.
Before Blair could gather any more missing brain cells, Jim had pulled his shirt on and was heading down the trail with a whistle. Well hell. Telepathy. New, weird-ass agenda item number 217. Blair was going to run out of years long before he ran out of weird-ass. A chuckle echoed through the forest. It sounded suspiciously like Incacha even though it must have been Jim. It must have been. Blair pulled his pants on and headed back down the trail toward the new Temple of the Sentinels, Cascade Mountains, Washington.
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