Diandra flung some bills at the cab driver and leapt onto the sidewalk, her anxiety turning to full-blown panic at the number of fire trucks and ambulances parked in front of the police station. Goddess no! She couldn't be too late.
She would know, she would feel it if something had happened to him, wouldn't she?
Unable to wait for the elevator, she darted through the stairway door and sprinted up the steps. The worst her imagination was able to conjure up did not prepare her for the sight that met her eyes as she exited onto the sixth floor.
Broken glass and splintered wood were everywhere. The acrid smell of cordite and the metallic tang of blood assaulted her nose, and she dialed back her senses hastily. She entered the Major Crimes bullpen, her eyes taking in the bullet riddled room, the emergency personnel working on injured people, and Ellison, sitting on a desk as an EMT bandaged his leg.
She was asking questions before she even reached his side. "Ellison! Where's Blair? What in the hell happened here?"
Wincing as the medic poked at his leg, the sentinel replied, "Zeller happened. He's dead. Blair's fine." The EMT murmured something about being right back with a gurney. Jim lowered his voice as the man left. "He's with MacLeod. They took Rafe to get cleaned up. He 'died'."
Diandra swore softly in Gaelic, then switched to English. "Damn it. Now is not a good time for that to happen." Ellison appraised her quickly. She was as close to unnerved as he'd ever seen her. She shook herself, the warrior's mask falling into place. "Where are they?"
He shrugged. "Locker room, maybe? When you find them, tell Sandburg if I'm not here when he gets back, I'm at the hospital."
She looked down at his knee, as if seeing it for the first time. "Oh, I'm sorry. Do you want me to…." She wiggled her fingers.
"I'll pass, thanks. Too many people have seen me."
"Right." Turning on her heel, Dee went in search of Blair, her gut instinct telling her this day was going to get worse before it got better. Entering the hallway, she saw the trio getting off the elevator.
As Blair caught sight of her, his eyes widened in surprise, then he found himself swept up in a crushing hug. "Oh, Lobo, you're okay, you're okay!"
He squeezed back a little uncertainly, unsure if this meant she was still mad at him but was letting it slide for the moment. "Dee! What are you doing back here? I thought you were in DC; I thought--"
She captured his face in her hands, her touch infinitely gentle. "I saw you on the news. I had to be here, Lobo. I love you."
She loved him. In spite of everything, she loved him. He pulled her closer, burying his face in her neck as he felt her fingers tangle in his hair. Someone cleared his throat loudly behind him.
"This is all very touching, but right now we have a little problem that could use your attention, Diandra."
Letting go of Blair, she ran her gaze over MacLeod, who had his hand wrapped securely around Rafe's bicep. Somehow she didn't think that was the only reason for the uptight look on the detective's face. She glanced at Blair. "Is there somewhere around here we can talk?"
The door of the interrogation room slammed shut as Rafe stormed out. It took some begging, but Dee convinced Duncan to go after him, since the new immortal blamed her for his situation.
Once again the door opened and closed. Diandra turned to Blair, who was perched on the edge of the table, his eyes on his feet as they swung back and forth. "We screwed up."
She slid her arms loosely around his neck. "Yeah, we did. But it'll be okay, Duncan will talk some sense into him." She pressed a kiss to the top of his head.
He leaned forward, and she stepped between his legs, feeling his arms go around her. They remained like that for several minutes, until Blair finally said, "I'm so sorry, angel. I was wrong. I may not need you to hold my hand, but I sure as hell wanted you here this afternoon. Can you forgive me?"
"Of course, if you can forgive me for losing my temper, and running away instead of trying to work things out."
He raised his head so his eyes met hers. "I forgive you." Sliding his hand behind her neck, he tilted her head down, his mouth meeting hers in a tender kiss.
When they parted, she moved back to let him hop off the table. "Come on, let's get out of here. Jim's probably wondering what happened to us, and I need to see Megan."
"What about Rafe?"
She gave him a smile as they exited the interrogation room, her arm going around his waist. "Duncan will let us know what happens. Hopefully Rafe will realize we're only trying to help him."
"I hope so. Do you know what hospital they were taking Jim to?" Diandra's answer was cut off as the elevator doors closed.
Dee leaned against the doorjamb of her companion's room, tired eyes taking in the IV line and the bandage peeking above the collar of her hospital gown. The invisible weight on her shoulders increased a fraction, then the champion shook herself. This was not her fault, she knew in her head, but her heart had a different opinion. Pushing its annoying little voice into the background, she turned her full attention on Megan. Her eyes were closed and her breathing relaxed, but her heart beat a little too rapidly for deep sleep. "Pajara, you awake?" Dee entered the room as her friend started out of her half sleep.
"Dee! What are you doing here?" She took a closer look at her roommate. "You look like you went a couple rounds with a mad kangaroo. That fugitive give you that much trouble?"
Shaking her head, the immortal dropped into the chair next to the bed. "Far as I know, she's still on the loose. I caught Lobo's press conference on TV. I hopped the first plane back." She ran a hand through her dark hair, pushing it out of her face wearily. "If you haven't heard, Zeller's dead. I sent Joe home."
Megan blinked. "Zeller's dead?"
"Yeah. Jim got shot in the leg, and Rafe 'died'."
"Rafe died!" The Aussie's dark eyes began to fill with tears.
Realizing her mistake, Dee hastily said, "No, no, not 'dead' died. First death died. Come back and find your whole perception of your life turned upside down, died. He's immortal, Pajara, though right now he thinks of it as more of a curse than a gift, and that's my fault. I thought I would have more time to prepare him. Like just about everything else I've done lately, I screwed that up too." She sighed. "I should never have gone to DC, not with everything as chaotic as it was." Her hand reached for Megan's, being careful of the IV. "I've fucked up left and right. I let you down, and Blair, and Jim, and Rafe, and by extension Captain Banks, and--"
"Dee, you don't know that. You being here might not have changed anything." She squeezed the older woman's hand. "You can't blame yourself."
"But I do. I knew Blair was hurting and Jim was being an ass. If I'd stayed, maybe we could have all sat down and talked it out, found a better solution than Blair giving up the past 14 years of his life."
"That wasn't your decision to make. It was Sandy's, and he made it of his own free will. He thinks he's the one who buggered everything up. And if you ask Jim, I'm sure he'd say it was all his fault. So quit beating yourself up about it. It's done, it's in the past, and it can't do any more damage."
Diandra chewed her lip. If only you knew, Pajara. The past never really goes away, it just hibernates, waiting for the worst possible time to awaken and destroy everything you hold dear. Artemis' words came back to her. "The time has come for you to atone for your error in judgement." Was this what she meant? Was it starting now? She shook herself. Sleep, she just needed sleep.
"Dee, you look exhausted. Go home, go to bed. Do you have to go back to DC?"
Shrugging, Dee replied, "I don't know. Maybe I'll get lucky and they'll catch her while I'm gone. But I gave my word I would help, so…." She didn't finish the sentence.
Megan gave her a smile. "Well, with any luck, things will be pretty quiet around here for a while, what with Jim, Simon and me all here in hospital."
"Maybe so, or at least we can hope." Getting to her feet, she leaned over and planted a kiss on top of her companion's head. "If you need me, I'll be at my place here in Cascade."
"Goodnight, Dee. I don't want to see you before at least 10 AM."
Giving Megan a little smile and a wave, Dee went in search of Blair.
"Chief, come on in," Jim called to his partner, who stood uncertainly in the doorway of the detective's hospital room. Crossing the space between them, Blair eased into the chair next to the bed. "This is a switch, huh?" Jim continued with a smile. "For once a dangerous case has wrapped up, and you're the only one without a scratch."
You're wrong, Jim. It's just that my wounds are on the inside. But he didn't voice his thoughts out loud. Instead he asked about the doctor's diagnosis.
Jim gave him another loopy grin. They must have him on some pretty good stuff, Blair realized. "The inside of my knee is pretty well shredded, but nothing a round of arthroscopic surgery and rest won't cure, or at least that's what he says." He changed the subject. "Did you patch things up with Dee?"
"Yeah, I think so." Jim had read his mind. Blair would much rather discuss his love life than rehash the press conference thing, at least until he had a better idea of what he was going to do with the rest of his life. I'll think about that tomorrow, or maybe a week from now.
"She going back to Washington?"
Blair shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. We haven't gotten that far. First we had a disastrous talk with Rafe, then came straight here."
Jim frowned. "Rafe not taking his new life well?"
He laughed, a sharp mirthless bark. "You could say that. Mac's going to try to talk some sense into him, but…."
"I know what you mean. Rafe can be quite stubborn. Kind of like someone else I know." Once again Jim switched gears, as if he was deliberately leading up to something. "You know, since I'm going to be in here a while, it's going to be kind of hard for me to get into trouble. Maybe you should go with Dee to Washington."
It was all Blair could do to keep his mouth from dropping open. Man, those were some good drugs! "Okay, who are you, and what have you done with Jim Ellison?"
Chuckling, Jim shook his head. "No, no, hear me out. I think a change of scenery would do you good, and get whatever media's left off your back. Besides, I think she could use your help, what with Megan stuck here, she's without a guide. And if you haven't noticed, there's something going on with her. I don't know if it's a Sentinel thing, or an Immortal thing, or a woman thing, but when she came rushing into the station earlier, I got the feeling she was barely holding it together."
Blair shook his head. "She's just exhausted, man. And everything that's been going on has upset her. I…." He paused in mid-sentence, realization overtaking him. Their bond, the one between the four of them, she was the glue that held it all together. She had been bombarded with all of it, the hell he had been going through, and everything Jim had been feeling, along with Megan's and her own tangled emotions. No wonder she was on the edge. He quickly made up his mind. "You know, you're right, Jim. Dee does need someone to watch her back. Besides, with me along, we should catch that fugitive right away, seeing as I'm a psycho magnet." Going with her would also mean he could put off making any decisions about his future.
"Okay, then, it's settled. I expect you to keep me updated, though. I want to hear from you at least once a day." Jim gave him a grin.
All those happy faces were a little unsettling, but Jim seemed pretty lucid. "Okay, 'Mom'. I'll keep you posted. Now shouldn't you be getting some rest?"
Jim yawned and nodded. "I am getting kind of tired. Hey, Chief, find out what they've got me on. I want to request it next time I'm in here." Leaning back against the pillows, he closed his eyes.
Taking that as his cue, Blair left quietly, turning his friend's sudden change of heart toward his lover over in his mind. Maybe it was his way of trying to make up for what had happened. Since his involvement with the Sentinel had cost Blair one thing he had held dear, Jim was making sure it wouldn't cause him to lose anything else important to him. He shook his head. If he had had any doubts before, they were gone now. He had made the right decision.
Blair met up with Dee at the intersection of the hallways. She looked about dead on her feet. "Take me home, Lobo," she said huskily.
He wound an arm around her waist. "Sure, angel. Home it is."
The Phoenix sat patiently in her SUV outside Cascade General. She'd parked on the opposite side of the building from where Sandburg had left his car, so the chance of Pallas catching wind of her was slight. While she waited, she'd been planning, jotting down notes, trying to keep track of the present and future movements of the players. So far, on her sheet of paper, she had Ellison and Connor listed under the heading "Hospital", and Sandburg and Pallas under "Cascade", with an arrow going from their names to the word "Washington". MacLeod seemed to be out of the picture, which was just as well.
All this waiting and running around after them was increasing her taste for blood. Patience, she told herself, patience. The waiting would only make the end that much sweeter. She had come to the conclusion that taking them out one by one would not be as satisfying as having them all in her grasp, helpless to escape, unable to stop each other's suffering, knowing that their torture was punishment for all the pain they had inflicted on her. She ran her tongue slowly over her lips. That would be worth all the waiting and hard work a plan of this magnitude would require.
She turned to a clean page in her notebook. Still, it wouldn't hurt to keep them off balance while she set things in motion. She knew just the person to call to stir things up. Putting pen to paper once again, she scrawled Diandra's name. She knew the Immortal wouldn't kill her, but beating the shit out of her was another story. So, first of all, the Phoenix needed a way to contain those warrior tendencies. And what better way to cripple an Immortal than to hold them the one place it was forbidden for them to fight? She smiled to herself, baring her teeth in an almost snarl. The library might still be open, time for a little research. Turning the car on, she pulled away from the hospital. She hadn't really wanted to listen to Sandburg and Pallas' version of domestic bliss again anyway.
Hooves pounded on the grassy plain, the black mare running flat out, nostrils flaring, lungs heaving, straining to keep ahead of the wall of flame that raced behind her. She could hear the jaguar screaming, but there was nothing she could do, nothing but run.
Without warning, the Shaman appeared in front of her, his staff held firmly in both hands, his face impassive. //RUN!// She mentally screamed at him, not slowing her pace. Instead, he thrust his staff low and to the side as she passed him, catching her forelegs, making her stumble. He was shifting into wolf form before she even hit the ground, his strong jaws fastening on her throat, crushing her windpipe. The mare staggered drunkenly, but the wolf hung on. Unable to shake him loose, she crashed to the earth, her blue eyes meeting those of the silver wolf, silently asking //Why?// She hadn't received an answer by the time darkness swallowed her.
A sudden blow to the stomach woke Blair. He sat up rapidly, disoriented, then the moon shining through the skylight over the bed illuminated the room, and he realized he was in Dee's loft. A strangled cry from his lover focused his attention on her. She was writhing on the mattress, clutching her throat, her breathing labored.
Nightmare, his mind automatically supplied. "Dee, angel, it's just a bad dream. It's time to wake up now." Leaning over her, he grasped her hands, pulling them forcibly down. "You're okay, take a deep breath. Come back to me."
After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably no more than a couple seconds, Dee inhaled and her eyes snapped open. "Hey, baby, it's okay, it's okay." Her gaze focused on him, and in her eyes he could see raw terror, terror of him. Jerking out of his grasp, she backed against the headboard, wrapping her arms around herself, breathing heavily. She continued to stare, not at him, Blair realized, but at whatever images still played across her mind's eye.
Raising up on his knees on the mattress, he began to speak to her gently. "Dee, sweetheart, it's okay, it was just a dream, you're safe." When she showed no improvement after a few minutes of steady talking, he cautiously ran his fingers lightly up and down her arm. Gasping, she blinked several times, then turned her face toward him.
"Right here, angel. It's okay, you're safe." He held out his hand to her, unsure if she would take it. She looked at it for a moment, and he had the feeling he was undergoing some kind of test. He must have passed, because she launched herself at him, wrapping her arms around him and holding on tightly. He hugged her back, stroking her hair, murmuring softly to her, feeling her trembling slow and finally fade away. Pressing a kiss to her temple, he said, "Must have been some dream."
Dee groaned against his neck. "Oh, goddess, Lobo, it was awful. I felt so helpless, so out of control. Things were happening to me and I didn't know why, and I couldn't stop it."
She slumped against him, and he tucked her head under his chin, adjusting his hold on her, rocking her gently. "Sounds pretty much like what you've been going through the past few days, what we've all been going through. It's all over now, though."
He felt her shake her head against his chest. "You don't understand. It's not over, not for me."
Tightening his arms around her, Blair asked, "What do you mean?" He felt a shudder run through her.
"Something's coming. Artemis…Artemis told me. I can feel it, like a prickle on the back of my neck. Something's going to happen, people are going to get hurt unless I can stop it." Her fingers twisted in the fabric of his T-shirt.
A cold chill passed over the guide, making him shiver. He'd never seen her this upset, this frightened. "Dee, it's going to be okay. Whatever it is, we'll handle it. You won't go through it alone."
He rubbed her back. "I promise. Come on now, let's try and get some more sleep. We both need it." Blair lay down on the mattress and she curled up next to him, her head on his shoulder, her arm across his chest. It took them a long time to go back to sleep.
Yawning, the Phoenix stretched, then seated herself in the chair in front of the window that faced 852 Prospect. Her decision to push back her plans until Connor and Ellison were out of the hospital had allowed her the luxury of sleeping in. Picking up a mug from the small table next to the chair, she inhaled the rich aroma, then sipped the strong coffee. Pulling her notebook into her lap, she glanced through the addresses she had jotted down. They would all have to be checked out, of course, but she was beginning to think a site outside the city limits would work the best. Still, she had plenty of time to make sure everything was perfect.
Setting her cup down, she steepled her fingers in front of her chest and took several deep, centering breaths, then stretched out her hearing, filtering through the noise until she heard the click of a lock and two familiar voices.
"Do you have any plans for this afternoon, Dee?" Blair asked.
"No, not really. Megan said she doesn't want to see me back at the hospital again today. I thought I would spend some quality time with you. I'd like to get in a workout, too. I've gone too long without one."
"I'll join you. Just give me a couple of minutes to get changed." The sound of a phone ringing interrupted them. "I think that's mine."
One door closed and another opened. "Hello. Oh, hi, Mom. You're leaving so soon? You don't have to. Jim and I don't blame you for any of this." There was silence on his end for a few moments. "Dinner, yeah, I can do dinner. Oh, hey, Dee is back from Washington. Can I invite her to come along? I really want the two of you to meet." Another pause, then he said, "Okay, the Cascade Hilton restaurant at 7 PM. We'll be there. Bye, Mom. I love you."
The Phoenix smiled to herself and picked up the phone. Time to stir things up a little. She punched in a number and the call was quickly answered. "How soon can you get to Cascade? Good, good, I have a job for you…."
Blair flopped down on the workout mat next to his lover, breathing heavily. His bare chest was covered in sweat and his muscles ached, but he felt good, cleansed, like the physical exertion had driven away the demons that haunted him. He gazed at Dee lying flat on her back, her arms crossed over her bare midriff, a line of perspiration soaking through the front of her sports bra. She seemed truly relaxed for the first time in several days, and he hoped the exercise had gotten rid of whatever had been bothering her.
As he watched, one blue eye opened and came to rest on him. Giving him a smile, she said, "Have I ever told you how beautiful you are, Lobo?"
Blair felt his cheeks grow hot. "No, not lately."
She sat up, one hand reaching out to stroke lightly over his chest. "Well, you are." He shivered at her touch, the air surrounding them suddenly charged with electricity. She leaned in, her lips brushing against his in a nibbling kiss that swiftly turned deep and powerful. When she pulled away, Blair gasped for breath, every nerve ending in his body singing. Her mouth moved on to his neck, and he tilted his head back, exposing his throat. An image of a wolf rolling on his back, baring his neck to his mate in the ultimate display of trust flashed through his mind. Her teeth gently closed over his Adam's apple, and he growled low in his throat in response, then gasped as she sucked on his shoulder, marking him as hers.
Dee undid the tie holding his hair back, then buried her face in it, moaning quietly. Blair ran his hands down her back, feeling her rise up onto her knees and straddle him. She pushed him back so he rested on his elbows, then bent over him, her hands and mouth working their way teasingly down his body. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on the pleasurable sensations, the world narrowing to the two of them and the bond they shared.
When he came back to himself, Blair found they were still lying on the mat in the studio, limbs tangled together, Dee's head resting on his chest. He trailed a hand through her hair, wondering if a chapter on the mating rituals between Sentinels and Guides might make a good addition to his dissertation, or perhaps a whole dissertation in itself. When he was with her, it was like nothing he'd ever experienced before. At first he'd thought it was just love, that it hadn't been this way with anyone else because he'd never really been in love before. But he was slowly beginning to realize it had more to do with their spiritual bond than anything else. The sex thing was great in and of itself, but he was coming to believe that it was a physical way of strengthening an emotional connection, which didn't make it sound so different than two ordinary people in love after all. And yet it was…he frowned, puzzling over his idea, wondering if perhaps he wasn't too close to the subject matter…and then he remembered there was no more dissertation, no more academic life, no more anthropology.
Sensing the change in his mood, Dee raised up enough to look him in the face. "Lobo, what's wrong?"
Blair shook his head. "Nothing really. Just forgot for a second that the research is over. That it's all over."
Leaning down, she kissed him softly, then said, "It's not over, Blair, it's just changed. It's been changing from the start, you've just now noticed. You were born to be a Guide, just as Jim was born to be a Sentinel. Anthropology was just the road you took to get you here." She ran the back of her fingers over his cheek. "When I saw you for the first time, I was…in awe. I knew right away what you were, and that you were new to your calling, untrained and uncertain. But you never let that stop you. You did what you had to do to be Jim's partner, to be his guide, his shaman. You weren't afraid to ask for help, and what you've learned has made you more focused, and helped you understand how the Sentinel/Guide thing works. But you've always had the talent, Blair, this has always been your destiny."
He gazed up at her, feeling the niggling disappointment over the loss of his academic future leave him. Anyone could be an anthropologist, only he could be Jim's Guide. "Damn, I love you," he said, a grin spreading across his face, then he frowned. "But I'm still unemployed."
Her eyes sparkled. "I have an idea that will solve that problem. How would you like to go into business with me?"
"You already have a job, at Rainier."
She met his confused gaze. "You think I'm going to stick around after what Edwards did to you? Any professor that gives a damn about the confidentiality of their research and their research subjects will be hitting the road, myself included. Chances are she's going to take some serious heat from the academic community, in the long run, probably more than you will. I see her actions as a clear violation of my teaching contract. I may stay until the end of the school year, depending on a number of variables, how Megan and Jim's recoveries go, this thing in DC, by the way, I have to go back tomorrow, and you."
He chewed his lip, toying with a strand of her hair. "What kind of business?"
She shrugged. "I don't know, one with flexible hours. I've been thinking of opening up a dojo, kind of like Duncan's, only here in Cascade. Or may an antique shop specializing in Pre-Columbian art. I've done security work in the past, too, that's an option."
"But what about my work with Jim? Without the dissertation thing, there's no way I can still be an observer at the PD."
"That's something you'll have to take up with Captain Banks, once he's out of the hospital. But I would think that if they can't find a way for you to stay with Jim, that he would make the choice to be with you."
Blair shook his head. "I don't know. Jim was born to be a cop, I think."
"He was born to be a Sentinel; being a cop is just one way to utilize his abilities for the good of the tribe. It isn't the only way. But enough of this. We'll have to all sit down together and discuss our options. Right now, I need a shower, and so do you." Getting gracefully to her feet, Dee gave him a hand up from the floor.
"All of us? Our options? Jim and I are the ones with the problem, not you and Megan. Since when does that include you?"
Giving him a gentle push toward the stairs, Dee replied, "Since that moment in the spirit world where you and Jim supported my bonding with Megan. Our lives are irrevocably interwoven; what affects you, affects us."
Blair considered that for a moment, then shrugged. Who was he to argue with her? He would leave that up to Jim. As she entered the bathroom, he remembered what he had forgotten to tell her. "Oh, Dee, we're having dinner with my mom tonight…" He wasn't quick enough to dodge the towel she threw at him.
"Knock, knock. You awake?"
Jim opened his eyes to find Megan standing in the doorway of his hospital room in pajamas and a robe, her right arm in a sling. "Yeah, I'm awake. Come on in. Are you sure you should be up and about?"
The companion gave him a grin. "Probably not, but I wanted to see how you were doing. I checked on Simon before I came down here. He's on a lot of drugs, and is pretty out of it." She took a seat in the chair beside the bed. "How's your leg?"
"Hurts," he replied with a slight smile, "I'm scheduled for surgery tomorrow, then it'll be a few more days to a week before they'll let me go home. How's your injury?"
Megan adjusted the lay of the sling across her chest. "Same as yours, hurts. Doctor says he might let me out by the weekend, but Dee's going back to Washington tomorrow. I'm not sure I'll be able to manage on my own. I may have to impose on Sandy."
Jim shook his head sheepishly. "Sorry, I asked Blair to go to DC with Diandra. Don't look at me that way; it seemed like a good idea at the time."
"No, no, I'm not saying it was wrong, just a tad inconvenient. And…a little out of character." She quirked an eyebrow at him.
The sentinel looked down at his hands for a long moment. "Look, Megan, I know I haven't been the nicest person to be around the past few days…" He winced a little at her snort of disbelief. "I just thought it would be better for Blair to get away for a while. And Dee's good for him; if anyone can--"
"Help him get over the hell you've put him through, it's her?" The expression that crossed Jim's face made Megan regret her harsh words.
There was an awkward silence between them for a moment, then Jim said, "Yeah, I guess that's about it."
Megan sighed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that the way it sounded. It's just that…I still don't understand why you did what you did. I mean, after all this time, I thought you trusted him, I thought you trusted us. For god's sake, Jim, the four of us are bound, our souls intertwined. And yet the moment something threatens you, threatens all of us, you turn on us. Hell, Dee didn't know that anything was wrong until Blair showed up on our doorstep. Jim, I'm your friend, Dee's your friend, Sandy's your soulmate. Together we might have fixed this, found some other resolution. Instead you shut us out, made Sandy feel that he had to sacrifice himself to save you. I just have a hard time reconciling that with the Jim Ellison I thought I knew."
Jim didn't say anything, but she could see the muscles in his jaw twitching, and he avoided meeting her gaze.
"Come on, Jim. You had to have a reason, a good reason, to turn against Sandy, to believe that money and fame could ever mean more to him than his friendship, his bond with you. For that matter, you knew he was writing about you all along. You agreed to it. So his dissertation found a much wider audience than his review board, so what? You know how the media is these days; you would have been the flavor of the day until the next Hollywood starlet got a boob job, or a rapper got arrested. You could have just rode it out, let it blow over. Instead you acted like Sandy had planned things this way, like he would actually take that publisher up on his offer." The more she talked about it, the more frustrated she became. Getting to her feet, she walked over to the window, peering out into the gloomy, drizzly afternoon. When Jim still hadn't responded, she prodded further. "What is it you're so afraid of? What has the macho soldier turned cop shaking in his boots? What is it you can't handle?"
Jim could hold his tongue no longer. "Okay, so I was afraid! I saw my worst fears coming true! I wasn't a person anymore, I was some kind of superhero, some kind of freak!"
Megan whirled back toward him, moving to the end of the bed, staring him in the face. "Being called a freak? That's what you were afraid of? In case you hadn't noticed, Jimbo, we're all bloody freaks! Look at me, I'm a woman doing a man's job, I'm companion to a champion. Look at Dee, she's nearly 3,000 years old along with being a sentinel. Look at Blair, he's an egghead, a throwback to the 60's, a Jew, his girlfriend spends her spare time killing others of her kind, and his soulmate is a stubborn, jackass sentinel freak! Never mind the fact that by John Q Public's standards we're all heathens, what with the spirit guides and visions, and mystical mumbo-jumbo. What in the hell do you think normal is? There is no such thing!"
She watched Jim close his eyes and run a shaking hand over his face, his jaw clenched so tightly she was surprised she hadn't heard his molars crack. When he finally spoke, she had to strain to hear him. "That's enough, Connor. I know I fucked up."
Megan tried, but the anger, the hurt wouldn't let go of her, and it exploded again in her next words. "Then why in the hell couldn't you say that to Sandy, to me, to Dee? Do you know what she told me this morning? That she was going to offer herself up in your place, give Chancellor Edwards the Sentinel she wanted so that Blair wouldn't be ostracized by the academic community, then she planned to conveniently 'die' to hide her immortality. She was willing to give up her life here for Blair, for you. She was willing to leave the man she loves behind to save you from your 'fear.' She was willing to leave me behind if it came to that. Do you know what that would have done to her? Without a Companion, it would have been only a matter of time before she lost control of her senses and went insane. You know what would have happened then, she would have been an easy target for any other Immortal. But Blair wouldn't let her do it, just as he couldn't let you be hurt by something that was nobody's fault, just a combination of good intentions on Naomi's part and greed on Sid's. He laid his life down for you, Ellison, just as I would offer up my neck to spare Dee's. But that's where the similarities end, because I know with all my heart that Dee wouldn't let me go through with it. She would either suck it up and take it, or if there were no other option, she would go down with me. She wouldn't leave me stranded!"
She swiped at the tears that had begun falling mid-tirade, feeling her anger finally fading. She looked up at Jim to find his eyes glistening with tears as well. "I'm sorry, Megan, I'm sorry. I don't know how I managed to screw things up so badly. I just…I just felt blindsided, and couldn't ever get my feet under me, catch my breath, regroup. I fell right back to blaming my senses, and by extension Blair, for everything that was happening to me. I'm sorry. I know that doesn't make it right, I know that, but I didn't know what else to do."
Moving to the side of the bed, Megan reached out and grasped his hand. "Do you know what you have to do now?"
He blinked slowly, then shook his head. "I apologized to Blair. Well, it wasn't the best apology in the world; it wasn't nearly enough, but--"
She squeezed his hand to get his attention. "You need to accept who you are, Jim, what you are. You're a Sentinel, a person blessed with heightened senses, a protector of the people, a good guy, a white hat. Yes, that comes with a great deal of responsibility, but as Dee says, the Fates don't hit us with more than we can bear. You have these senses because you're the only person who could handle them, who could do what needs to be done. But every time you fight them, every time you wish you were 'normal', you and everyone around you suffers."
He closed his eyes, not wanting her to see the fear he felt rising up within him. It was too much, the responsibility was too much. What if he failed, what if he accepted his senses, and someone died? It had happened before. He remembered the girl at the dam, strung out on Golden; his senses hadn't helped her, had they? And Blair, god, this was just the latest in a long line of injuries, emotional and physical, he had suffered as a result of this Sentinel thing.
Disentangling his hand, Jim looked up at her. "Megan, I can't, I can't. My senses have only caused Blair harm. It would be better if I didn't have them at all."
She took a step back, frustration evident in her expression. "Augh! Why do you have to be so damned stubborn? Until you accept your role in this world of course he's going to be hurt, you're going to be hurt. You're working at cross-purposes. Blair's embraced his role as a Guide, he knows who he is and where he belongs. Until you accept that he is part of you and you are part of him, you are going to be stuck in this limbo, going around in circles, hurting each other, getting in each other's way."
The sentinel shook his head vehemently. "No, I can't handle this right now, I can't deal with this on my own…"
Suddenly Megan understood his fear, understood where he was coming from. "Jim, look at me, damn it!" Grasping his chin, she turned his face toward her. "You are not alone in this; you haven't been alone since the day you met Blair Sandburg. Why in the hell do you think a sentinel has a guide, a champion a companion? Because no one can do it on their own. This sentinel thing, this gift, this responsibility can only be harnessed by two people, a sentinel and a guide. That's the only way it works; anything else is a disaster." She watched his expression change from fear to puzzlement, to comprehension.
"I feel so stupid," he finally said quietly. "That's what Sandburg's been telling me all along, only I guess I wasn't listening, because I never got it. I never understood until this moment."
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Megan gave him a one-armed hug, feeling his arms go around her in a careful embrace. "That's okay, Jim. You were working at a disadvantage. You didn't grow up in a Sentinel culture, you had to figure it out on your own, and Blair had to do pretty much the same thing, though he figured it out quite a while before you did. The important thing is you get it now, you understand."
"Yeah, I finally do. I would have saved myself and Blair a lot of heartache if I'd only listened before."
"Hindsight is always 20-20, Jim. You can't look back, you have to look ahead, you have to find some way to keep Blair with you now." She straightened up, and Jim let go, his hand finding hers again.
"Yeah, that's something we're going to have to work on, but with Simon's help, I'm sure we can figure something out."
Megan gave him a smile. "I'm sure 'we' will."
Walking around to the passenger side of the Volvo, Blair opened the door and extended his hand. Diandra grasped it, allowing him to help her out of the car; she teetered slightly on the uneven asphalt in her high-heeled pumps. Tucking his arm through hers, he smiled up at her, still getting used to the increased difference in height. She'd always been taller than he was, he knew that, but never had he noticed the extra inches so profoundly. It had to be the whole outfit, he decided, thinking back to the moment she had descended the stairs of her loft.
She was gorgeous, as always, but normally she didn't play it up unless they were going to the Latin dance club they frequented. Then she would wear a dress, low heels, and a smidgen more makeup than usual. But tonight's outfit telegraphed her nervousness about meeting his mother. Her hair was pinned up in an elegant twist, and her eyes, cheeks, and lips were carefully made up, highlighting the exotic side of her beauty. But it was the dress that took his breath away. Any fashion consultant would call it "the little black dress", the staple of the tailored woman's wardrobe. But it was so much more than that. On the surface, it was demure, conservative even, high neckline, long sleeves and the hem came to mid-thigh, not an inch of skin showing. But it clung, god how it clung, form-fitted to every curve, outlining every muscle, every….He paused in mid mental ramble, realizing that she had to be wearing nothing underneath.
"Cat got your tongue?" she asked playfully.
He shook his head. "No, you, do. My tongue, my heart, my soul, my…" He gestured at his crotch.
"Your attention?" Laughing, Dee moved toward him, bending to kiss him hungrily. "We could just stay home," she tempted. At his headshake, she sighed. "It was worth a try. At least I know I'll still have your interest if I'm a flop with your mom."
"Changed your mind about staying home?"
"Hmm, no, just admiring the view."
She made a noise in her throat suspiciously like a purr. "You are no slouch yourself, Lobo."
He felt her blue eyes running over him, taking in the black leather suit jacket over a royal blue shirt. A wolf's head bolo tie at the neck matched the silver clasp holding his hair back. God, they were pathetic in their desire, but it felt so good for everything to be right between them instead of the fear and uncertainty that had plagued them the past few days.
He held the door of the hotel open for her, then took her arm again as they strolled through the lobby, feeling like a rock star on the arm of a supermodel. Everything was perfect--until he felt her stiffen beside him as they approached the entrance to the restaurant. He glanced over to find her brow furrowed in concentration. Damn it!
She swore softly under her breath. "Whoever it is, they're in the bar." She peered into the dimly lit room, her heightened vision swiftly locating the other Immortal. A strawberry blonde sat at the bar, a drink glass in front of her. Diandra's buzz drew her gaze upwards and their eyes locked, blue meeting brown, the blonde's eyebrow raising in challenge. Diandra felt the hair on the back of her neck raise, and she had the uneasy feeling the woman had been waiting for her.
"Dee?" Blair's tone was worried.
She gave his arm a reassuring squeeze. "Don't worry, I'll take care of this." She headed into the lounge, leaving Blair standing in the hallway, fear wrapping him in its icy grip.
The blonde met her halfway. "I know a nice, secluded little place close by. We can get this over quickly and I can get back to my drink." Her smile reminded Diandra of a snake baring its fangs.
Diandra straightened, exuding a warrior's confidence. "I don't think so. You want to test your sword against mine it will have to be some other time. I'm here to have dinner, not to fight."
The woman's expression hardened. "You can't refuse a challenge." She peered around Dee, spotting Blair waiting nervously in the entrance to the bar. She licked her lips deliberately. "He yours? Such a tasty little morsel." Dee refused to dignify her question with an answer. "To the victor go the spoils. I think he will be first on my list when I take your head. I hope he likes it rough; I like discovering how much pain mortals can endure before they become unable to perform." She smiled again.
Diandra inhaled slowly, fighting the urge to knock the bitch through the wall. "Fine," she finally spit out between clenched teeth, "I'll answer your challenge. Now." She exited the bar, pulling Blair aside.
"Dee? What's going on?" Blair clutched at her arm, his heart racing. When she turned to face him, he was shocked by the intense fury in her eyes. "Dee, no…"
She shook her head. "I can't refuse a challenge, Lobo, and in this case, I don't want to. Tell your mom I was held up. This shouldn't take long." Taking his face in her hands, she kissed him fiercely, then in a swirl of coattails, she was gone.
Blair stood in front of the restaurant, his hand pressed to his mouth. Oh, god, what was happening to Dee, what was happening to them? He'd never seen her like this before a battle. Normally she was resigned, regretting what was about to happen, but knowing it was a part of her life. This time she had seemed almost...eager. Eager to kill someone she'd just met. He was just about to go after her when a familiar voice stopped him in his tracks.
"Blair, sweetie? You okay? I thought you were bringing your girlfriend?"
Turning around, Blair found Naomi approaching. "Uh, hi, Mom. Dee's going to be a little…uh, late. There was something she had to take care of first." He gave her a hug.
Naomi squeezed her son back, planting a kiss on his cheek. "I hope it's nothing serious. I'm really looking forward to meeting this woman. You know, it's been a long time since I've met one of your girlfriends." She linked her arm through Blair's. "Do you think she'd mind if we went ahead and got seated?"
"Um, no, Mom, that's fine." He followed her into the restaurant, but couldn't help looking back at the door Dee had disappeared through. Please, God, please let her be okay, please let her win.
Diandra followed the other Immortal out of the hotel and down an alley to a construction site a block away. She couldn't shake the feeling that the blonde had known she was going to be at the hotel, that she was waiting for her. Still, she didn't hear anyone else or see any kind of trap. She opened her coat, making her sword easily accessible.
The other woman entered the construction site, dodging piles of building material until she came to the concrete foundation of the skeletal structure. "This satisfactory?" she asked, producing a light broadsword, which she shifted from her right hand to her left.
The Amazon drew her katana. "It'll do." She took a step back into a fighting stance, the tip of her sword coming up.
"I'll make this short and sweet then." A gun appeared in the blonde's right hand. Dee heard the silenced shot a fraction of a second before fire lanced through her chest.
"Honey, did you hear what I said?"
"Huh?" Blair tore his eyes away from the restaurant's entrance. Dee would come back; she had to come back. "I'm sorry, what was that again?"
"I said, I'm going down to Big Sur for a while to meditate, clear my head, try to karmatically atone for all the problems I've caused."
Reaching over the table, Blair squeezed her hand. "Really, Mom, it's okay. I forgive you, Jim forgives you, we're cool."
"Look, sweetie, why don't you come with me? I'm sure a couple weeks of fasting and meditation will help you get things back in order."
He felt like banging his head on the table. Much like Jim, she still didn't get it. "Mom, please, I know you mean well but my place is here, with Jim, with Dee, with Megan."
Naomi frowned. "What's Megan got to do with anything? Is she like Jim?"
"No! Naomi! She's my friend. She's in the hospital, along with Jim and Simon. They need me."
"Blair, they are not your responsibility. That man didn't shoot them because of you, he shot them because he was a criminal. And now he's dead, and you ended your life here yesterday with your press conference. I don't see why you can't come with me, why we can't be together like we used to be. We used to be so close, Blair." Naomi tightened her grip on his hand. "It would be the perfect way to start over, just you and me, like we were before."
He couldn't breathe. He couldn't believe she was doing this to him again. Ever since he had hooked up with Jim, she had been after him to leave. Even now, even after he had sacrificed everything for Jim, she still thought he could just walk away. "They are my friends, Mom. They've taken care of me over the years. I owe them."
She leaned over toward him, her eyes flashing dangerously. "If it hadn't been for them, you wouldn't have been hurt, wouldn't have needed taking care of. If it hadn't been for them, you would have your doctorate now, and a nice, safe teaching position at some prestigious college. Ever since you met Jim, you've let them take advantage of you. Jim got a partner and someone to help him with his…you know. Hell, Blair, you were doing him a favor, and he made you pay rent! Captain Banks got an extra body to put on the front line, one he didn't have to pay. And what do you have to show for it? Nothing but a big stack of hospital bills! You didn't even get a dissertation out of it, which was the whole reason you got involved with Jim in the first place. I don't know where you're coming from, Blair, I didn't raise my son to be a doormat."
Blinking back tears, Blair snatched his hand from her grip and stood up. He didn't need this, he didn't want to hear this, especially from her. But looking at it from her point of view, everything she said was true. Hell, to anyone on the outside, every word was true. Jim had taken advantage of him, had used him, and not followed through with his end of the bargain. It just hadn't felt that way to him, still didn't feel that way, or did it? Being Jim's guide was important, wasn't it? When he'd stood at that podium yesterday, that had been all that mattered, being the guide, protecting the sentinel. It had been the most important thing in the world…but now….
It still was. He opened his mouth to explain that to his mother before he walked out. The pain came out of nowhere, blossoming inside him, every nerve ending, every cell on fire. His knees buckled, and he clutched at the chair, but only succeeded in pulling it down to the floor with him. He could hear Naomi screaming his name, screaming for an ambulance, but it didn't matter, nothing mattered but what the pain meant. She won. It was his last thought before he succumbed to the darkness.
Diandra did the only thing she could do under the circumstances, she reacted. She threw her sword in a hard, underhand thrust across the space between them, impaling her opponent. The gun and sword dropped from the blonde's hands as she instinctively clutched at the metal jutting from her stomach. Unable to get enough leverage to remove it, she sank to her knees, her head coming up as Dee approached, her expression frightened.
The Amazon kicked the gun out of reach and picked up the blonde's sword, then stood breathing heavily, feeling her body forcing the bullet back out as it healed.
"I hit you…I know I hit you…" The blonde's words were whispered, but Dee heard them clearly.
"A small caliber bullet and bad aim are not going to do much damage to someone my age. Certainly not going to slow me down enough for you to take my head." She laid the edge of the broadsword against the other immortal's throat. "Whoever sent you didn't tell you everything, did they?" The woman's heartrate increased and Dee knew she'd hit upon the truth, even though the other woman didn't answer her. "Who sent you?"
"Go to hell, bitch! But you'd better make sure I'm dead first. You leave me alive, and your little pet is liable to turn up missing!" She threw her head back, presenting a perfect target.
Her rage boiling over, Diandra brought the sword around in a short arc, removing the blonde's head. Throwing the broadsword to the side, she grasped the hilt of her katana and pulled it free of the other's corpse. Taking a step back, she braced herself, but it still wasn't enough. The first Quickening strike drove her to her knees, the second strike to all fours, where she remained until the storm passed.
When it was over, Dee got slowly to her feet, every muscle aching, but singing with power at the same time. She swallowed with difficulty, her throat raw from screaming, and glanced around. Now how to dispose of the body?
As the last bolt of lightning flickered away into nothingness, the Phoenix slumped to the roof of the building she'd watched the battle from. Christ, she hadn't expected that to happen. Poor, stupid, Denise. She had at least thought her former student could hold her own, especially with Diandra being wounded.
That had been her idea. She'd expected Dee to win, of course, but she wanted to see if her fighting style had changed at all over the years, wanted to see how she compensated for an injury, wanted to shake Dee up a bit, rattle her. But that…that was a bloody execution. Her stomach suddenly rebelled, and she vomited onto the tar and gravel roof, then sat back, shaken, running the back of her hand over her mouth.
Pull it together, she told herself. Pull it together, get out of here, and regroup. It was more obvious than ever that Diandra was the biggest threat out of the four. She was the foundation. Remove her, and like a house of cards, they would tumble down after her.
Getting to her feet, the Phoenix headed for the stairway. She had a hell of a lot of work ahead of her.
Blair felt as if someone had taken an ax to his skull. His head was pounding, and his mother's hysterical ramblings were doing nothing to ease the pain. He forced his eyelids open, blinking once to bring her features into focus. "Mom, I'm okay. I'm fine." To prove his point, he sat up with a minimum of wincing.
A bald man with a beard was kneeling next to him. "I'm a doctor, son. How are you feeling?"
Blair ground his teeth in frustration. Wasn't he listening? "I said I'm fine. I just got up too fast and passed out. Sorry to have troubled you."
"No, no trouble at all. If you continue to have these dizzy spells, I suggest you see your own physician." The man got to his feet and helped Blair up.
Blair swayed for a moment then the room stopped spinning. "Thanks, but I'm fine." The man went back to his table, and, righting his chair, Blair sat down.
Naomi hovered anxiously for a moment, then resumed her seat. "Are you sure you're all right, sweetie? You gave me a real scare. One moment you were fine and the next you were on the floor. Is it from all the stress? Of course it is. I'm so sorry, I thought I was doing a good thing. I never dreamed all the problems having Sid look at your paper would cause. I'll bet you haven't slept or eaten properly in days. All the more reason you should come on retreat with me."
Blair rested his elbows on the table and leaned his head in his hands, his forefingers massaging his temples, trying to block out her nervous cajoling. Finally he'd had enough. "Mom, stop it, okay? I'm not going anywhere with you."
His mother's eyes glistened with tears. "But, Blair, it's obvious you haven't been taking care of yourself. What if this wasn't just a little dizziness? What if something more serious is wrong? You have to let me help you."
Blair shook his head and bit back a scream at the pain. "Mom, please. I'm okay. If you're worried about me needing someone to look after me, I have Dee. We'll be spending plenty of time together with Jim and Megan in the hospital." He didn't bother to mention that time would be spent on the opposite side of the country, away from her interference.
Naomi snorted softly. "Some girlfriend she is, can't even show up for dinner with her boyfriend's mother."
"She'll be here, Naomi." The rest of what he was going to say was interrupted by the soft trilling of his cell phone. Digging it out of his pocket, he flipped it open. "Hello."
Dee's voice sounded wearily in his ear. "Meet me in the lobby by the restrooms. I need the keys to the Volvo." There was a sharp click as she hung up.
Closing the phone, Blair put it away. "I'll be right back; I'm going to the restroom." Getting to his feet, he walked out of the restaurant, feeling his mother's suspicious gaze on his back the whole way.
Once out of her line of vision, he ducked into the hallway to the lavatories. As he passed the women's room, the door opened and a hand shot out, latching onto his arm and dragging him inside. He turned around to see Dee locking the door behind him.
"God, Dee, what happened?" She looked awful, her mascara had run in dark rivulets down her cheeks, and her hair was a windblown disaster. Her coat was open, and he could see a small hole in the front of her black dress surrounded by a darker area that looked wet or… "You're hurt."
She shook her head. "Damn bitch shot me. I'm fine now. I just need the keys to the car." She held out her hand, her expression hard and businesslike.
For a moment he was hurt, then shaking it off, Blair moved into her space, his hand going to her cheek, his touch incredibly gentle. For a moment, she didn't move, then he heard a shuddering hitch in her breathing and felt her arms go around him, hugging him tightly. "I'm sorry," she whispered, "I'm sorry, Lobo. I didn't mean to spoil things. I wanted everything to be perfect, to make a good impression, and now I'm a mess and I can't stay because I have to get rid of her body…"
He stroked her back, her hair, feeling the tension start to leave her. "It's okay, baby, it's okay. I kind of ruined everything anyway. I passed out in front of my mom during the Quickening."
Stepping back, she caught his face in her hands, her eyes meeting his. "What!"
"I'm okay, I'm fine. You were just…too close, that's all."
Leaning her forehead against his, Dee swore. "Damn it, damn it. I didn't even stop to think about that; we only went a block over. Shit! I'm sorry, Blair. Are you sure you're all right?" She peered at him intently again.
"I fine, I'm fine, just a killer headache. And my mom's being a…pain."
Dee frowned. "How so?"
Blair shook his head carefully. "Not now. You have things to do." Reaching into his pocket, he handed her the keys to his car. "Just…make sure it's clean when you're done. I'll tell my mom you're not feeling well, and get a ride home with her. I'll meet you at the loft later, okay?"
She rubbed his cheek. "You sure?"
"I'm sure. I can handle my mom." Raising up on his toes, he kissed her gently. "I love you."
She gave him a weary smile. "I love you, too, Lobo." Then unlocking the door, she was gone. Blair followed her out of the restroom, getting some very strange looks from the people in the hallway.
Jim was awakened from a drug-aided sleep by a bone deep ache that encompassed his entire body. What in the hell? He shifted in the hospital bed, and the pain didn't get any worse or any better. It was just--there, though it seemed to be fading now. He ran a hand over his face.
"Jim? You awake? Something's happened, and I can't raise Dee on the phone." Megan entered the room, her expression worried.
"You felt it too?"
Megan shook her head. "I haven't really felt anything, at least not physically. I just know there's something not right."
Reaching for the phone next to the bed, Ellison punched in the number to Blair's cell phone. At Blair's hesitant "Hello," Jim said, "Sandburg, is everything all right?"
"Yeah, Jim, everything's fine. I'm having dinner with my mom. Why do you ask?"
"Both Megan and I have…I'm not sure how to explain it, Chief, but we both have a gut feeling that something happened to you and to Dee."
"Oh, wow. The hospital is like ten miles from here, and Dee wasn't touching me this time. Man, I wish I could do some tests on this! This is like so cool…" His voice trailed off and he was silent for a moment, then said, "Sorry, I forgot for a second. But everything's okay, well, as okay as it can be. Dee got challenged. She won, but was only a block from me. What the two of you probably picked up on was the Quickening energy."
Jim accepted that explanation, but he couldn't help but feel there was something else bothering his partner. "So you're okay?" he asked again.
"Yeah, I'm okay. It's just been a long day, and my mom's…I know she means well, she just wants me to be safe, but she doesn't understand the connection between us, and I'm not sure I know how to explain it to her. I'm not even sure I want to. Look, she's going to be wondering what happened to me, so I've got to get back to the table with a good excuse for why Dee isn't going to be showing up. I'll call you in the morning, okay?"
"Okay, Chief." Jim hung up the phone slowly, then met the Australian's eyes. He quickly explained what had happened, and Megan sank into the chair next to the bed.
She rubbed her temple with her good hand. "I don't know, Jim. I know I volunteered for this Companion thing, but the Immortal stuff? I'm having a really hard time dealing with it. That's a part of Dee I just don't understand. How can she wake up every morning prepared to kill someone?"
"You do the same thing as cop, Connor."
She shook her head. "No, I wake up every morning hoping today isn't the day I have to kill someone. I don't think I'm ever prepared for the possibility, in fact, I've never killed anyone in the line of duty. I just hope that if I'm ever in that kind of situation, that I'll do the right thing, that if I have to shoot someone, I'll be able to do it."
Jim shrugged. "I think we all do that. But you have to remember, Diandra's been at this a couple thousand years, she was a warrior at a time where if you didn't know how to use a sword, you were taking your life in your hands. I wouldn't say she's become inured to it, but she knows how to deal with it. And I expect after so many years of having people trying to kill you, you quit feeling any remorse at fighting back."
"I don't know." The expression on her face was serious. "But I made a commitment, and I'll honor that, I just don't know how I'll react the first time I'm faced with the Game, with knowing she's going off to kill or be killed. There's no way to prepare for that, it could happen anytime, anywhere, just like tonight." Her words were interrupted by a large yawn. "I guess I should be heading back to my room. Night, Jim."
Getting to her feet, she left the room, leaving Jim to wonder if sending Blair to Washington DC with Diandra was such a good idea after all.
Diandra unlocked the door to her loft, slipping inside and closing the door behind her. Goddess, what a mess. She'd loaded her opponent's body into the trunk of Blair's car and driven to the docks, where she dumped it in the bay. Hopefully she hadn't been spotted. A quick trip to the carwash to vacuum it out, and she drove back to Prospect Street. By now it was too late to even make an attempt to meet Blair and his mother, even if she had been in the mood.
Tossing her long coat at the couch, she headed up the stairs, stripping as she went, mentally cursing the bitch who'd put a hole through her designer dress. She didn't own many of the things, and the ones she had she was quite fond of. She washed up quickly in the bathroom, and pulled her disorderly hair back in a ponytail, then threw on track pants and a tank top. Time to burn off the excess energy.
Flying down the stairs, she proceeded to beat on the heavy bag until her knuckles were split and bleeding. Still she felt the rage, the anger, the frustration churning inside her. What in the hell was going on with her? Her reaction to the female immortal's threats against Blair had been way over the top. She'd let herself be goaded into a challenge she could have avoided. And she'd forgotten one of the basic rules of war, if you can't chose the time, chose the place. If the woman had been a better shot, she would have lost her head.
Tears filled her eyes, and she leaned against the punching bag. Blair, gods, it would damn near kill him to lose her. All the energy drained out of her at that thought. He could have been killed anyway, if she'd been any closer when she'd absorbed the Quickening. What had she been thinking?
That was the problem, she hadn't been. She'd simply reacted to a perceived threat to him. She hadn't given a damn about herself, as evidenced by her blindly following the woman into her trap. She hadn't even thought to use all of her senses. Hell, if she had, she would have smelled the gun on her. But no, all her common sense, all her years of experience had gone out the window. If Dee didn't know better, she would have sworn she was reacting to the presence of a rogue Champion. Shaking her head, she slid down the wall to sit on the floor. That was impossible. She hadn't reacted that way to Ellison when they'd first met, though his hostility toward her had been a classic reaction. But he hadn't gone this overboard.
Frustrated, she ran both hands through her hair, pulling strands out of her ponytail. Stress, that had to be it. They were all under incredible stress, after the dissertation crap, and Zeller, and everyone being shot. Sure that was it. She was picking up on everyone else's angst on top of her own. Wiping the tears away, she got unsteadily to her feet. Tea. She could really use some tea.
A quick check of her cupboards revealed the fact that she didn't really live in that apartment any more. Not one bag of tea. She slammed her palm down on the counter. Dee, get a grip on yourself. Not having tea is not the end of the world. Besides, she knew where Blair kept his stash. Grabbing his keys out of her coat pocket, she headed across the hall.
Fitting the key into the lock, Dee opened the door and stepped inside. The lights were on, and she turned toward the kitchen just as Blair came out of the bedroom, dressed only in sweatpants. "Hey, angel, everything go okay?"
Whirling in surprise, she dropped the keys on the floor. "Oh, Goddess, it's you. You scared me for a second."
Blair frowned. He came toward her, pulling a t-shirt over his head. Lowering his voice, he said, "You didn't hear me come home?"
She shook her head. "I've got everything turned down. I'm just a little…on edge right now."
He looked up at her, puzzlement written on his face. "You okay?" he asked, his hands sliding up her arms, coming to rest on her shoulders.
"Yeah, yeah, I'll be fine, I just thought a little tea would help."
"Ah, tea, that I can do." Turning to the cupboard he took down a mug and handed it to her, then went looking for the tea.
The sound of the toilet flushing echoed in the quiet loft. "Oh, Dee, I forgot to tell you--"
"Sweetie, who are you talking to?" Naomi came around the corner of the hallway and stopped, her expression confused.
Diandra's gaze met the other woman's, and the mug slid from her suddenly numb fingers to smash on the floor. No, it couldn't be…fate wouldn't be that cruel, would it?
Blair jumped at the sound of the glass breaking and turned around to find his mother and Diandra staring at each other. For a long moment, no one said anything, then Dee seemed to break out of her trance. "Hello," she said calmly, extending her hand, "I'm Diandra Pallas." The slight trace of an accent that was always in her speech was gone. "Sorry I couldn't make it to dinner; I haven't been feeling too well today."
"I'm--I'm Naomi Sandburg, Blair's mother," the other woman replied, taking Dee's hand briefly in her own, then letting go. "And that's all right about dinner, it was not the best evening anyway."
Blair squirmed at his mother's veiled accusation. "Uh, look, I should get this mess cleaned up. Didn't you say something about wanting to get an early start in the morning, Mom?"
"That's okay, Blair," Dee said hastily. "I've kind of lost my desire for tea right now. I'm going to go turn in. Nice meeting you, Ms. Sandburg." With a little wave to him, she left the apartment.
What in the world was going on? He'd gotten the unmistakable feeling from her that she knew his mother from somewhere, and her hiding her accent only added to his suspicions. Great, now what was he supposed to do if Naomi started asking questions?
"Are you sure we haven't met her before, Blair?" Naomi said.
Great, just great.
"She looks familiar, and yet, not. Hmm, I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe if I meditate for a while, it will come to me."
"That sounds like a really good idea, Mom." Blair grabbed her coat from the hook by the door and helped her into it. "Go on your retreat and think about it. Sorry tonight was a bust. Maybe next time you're in town we can all have dinner to make up for this time." Opening the door, he fairly shoved Naomi into the hallway. "Call me when you get back from your retreat."
"Honey, about what I said at the restaurant--"
"Yeah, yeah, I'll think about it, Mom. I just want to wait until things have calmed down here somewhat, before making any big decisions about my future." He gave her a hug and a kiss. "Bye, Mom."
"Bye, baby." She walked down the hallway to the elevator. Blair closed the door only partially, listening carefully until he heard the ding that signaled the car's arrival, and the swish of the doors closing behind her, then he raced across the hall into Dee's loft.
"Dee?" he called softly. "She's gone." He walked through the living area into the studio. His lover was sitting on the floor, her back to the wall, knees drawn up to her chest, her head bowed. "Angel? You okay?" Squatting next to her, Blair laid his hand on her shoulder. She nearly jumped out of her skin, sidling away from his touch and curling up even tighter if that were possible. Now he was scared. "Dee, you're really freaking me out here. How in the hell could meeting my mom do this to you?"
She raised her head then, and he could plainly see the tears running down her cheeks. "This wasn't the first time we've met."
"What?! You and Naomi know each other? How come you never mentioned it to me? How come she never mentioned it?"
Dee scrubbed at her face with the palms of her hands, sniffling. "Because she was going by the name Naomi Starchild, and I wasn't using Diandra Pallas. My name was Andrea Price."
Blair felt his heart stop, and he fell back on his ass with a soft thump. He opened his mouth to comment, but no words came out, and he could feel tears welling up in his own eyes. "Andy?" he finally whispered, his voice shaky.
"Yeah, ain't life a bitch. Nothing like finding out the man you're in love with was almost your surrogate son twenty five years ago." She laughed bitterly, and ran a trembling hand through her hair. "My life is one big cosmic joke."
"Oh, god, Andy," was all he could manage. Childhood memories rose to the surface, a small, neat ranch in the outback of Australia, and the tall, lean, tanned woman with the short-cropped, sun-streaked hair who ran it. He remembered her large hand closing around his small one as she showed him her horses on his first day there, her patience with him as his four year-old tongue struggled with the animals' long Arabic names. He remembered the long days and nights as she cared for a pneumonia stricken Naomi, yet still found time to reassure him his beloved mother would be just fine. He remembered crying for days when his mother told him they were going back to America. He couldn't understand why they had to leave the only real home he'd ever known, when everything that was important in the world to him was there, his dog, his horse, his best friend, Andy.
"Oh, Lobo, baby, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you cry." He felt her fingertips wiping away his tears. "I'm so sorry." She hugged him tightly, fiercely, for a long moment, then let go and leaned back against the wall again.
He swallowed past the huge lump in his throat. "Sorry? Why are you sorry?"
She shrugged. "I…those memories are really painful. I'm sure your mom is a really wonderful mother, I mean look at you." She gave him a tender smile. "But she hurt me very deeply, and I'm not sure I could ever forgive her, and goddess knows I'm not going to ask for an apology now."
Blair ran a hand over his face. "Tell me. How did she hurt you that you're still affected by it twenty-five years later?"
Dee shook her head. "I'm not sure you really want to know."
"Tell me," he replied firmly.
She took a deep breath, and Blair suddenly had the feeling that whatever she was about to say could change everything between them, forever. When she finally spoke her tone was weary, as if she were reliving the long ago emotions.
"After World War II, I settled in Australia, lived for a time in Sydney, then moved to the Outback, to be away from everyone. I was hurting, and disillusioned, and I just couldn't take dealing with the everyday cruelty of people, mortal and immortal alike. So I bought some land, and built a ranch where I could enjoy the quiet and the company of my dogs and my Arabians. I lived there, undisturbed, for nearly twenty years.
"Then one cold, rainy winter day, I drove into the nearest town for supplies, and as I was leaving, I saw a woman standing under an awning outside a bar, a child in her arms, holding out her thumb for a lift. They both were wet, and probably damn near frozen, and that coupled with the fact that after 20 years by myself I was getting bored, made me stop and pick them up. The woman's boyfriend had stranded them there with no money, and before I knew it, I was offering your mother, Naomi Starchild, a job and room and board."
Blair chewed his thumb, nodding at the memory. "And then Naomi got sick."
"Yes. She came down with pneumonia, and nearly died." She held up her hands, gazing at them sadly. "For all my healing talent, I can't do a damn thing with disease, or poison for that matter."
Patting her leg reassuringly, he said, "You took good care of her, Dee. She survived."
She laughed lightly. "Survived to come back to haunt me. Where was I? Ah, I can see in your eyes you remember what she made me promise when she thought she was going to die."
"She made you promise to take care of me if she didn't make it, to raise me as your son." Feeling tears stinging his eyes again, Blair blinked them back.
"Fortunately for all of us, that didn't happen, though I took her request very seriously. I would have done as she asked, though I can't guarantee you would have turned out as well as you did. Most of my tries at parenting have ended in failure."
Blair nodded, remembering her surrogate daughter Eolia, who he had met in December. She certainly had her share of problems, though he didn't think any of those could be blamed on Diandra's treatment of the other Immortal. "So Mom lived, and we stayed with you almost another year. That still doesn't answer my earlier question, how did she hurt you?"
Dee took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "It's my own fault, really. I moved to the Outback to get away from people, to protect myself from being hurt. The trouble is, when I let you and Naomi into my home, into my life, I started to care again. And when you start to care, that gives the other person the advantage. You give them the power to hurt you.
"I've always been honest with you, Lobo, so I'm not going to try to find a way to soften what I'm going to say to you. I don't know if I could. I was so closed up, so shuttered, and Naomi was a riot of color and laughter and spirit. I fell in love with her, more of a crush really, but I never told her. She considered me her friend, and that was enough, or so I thought."
Blair closed his eyes and dug his fingers into his loose hair. He didn't think he wanted to hear this. In spite of his misgivings, he said, "Go on."
"When your grandmother became ill, and Naomi wanted to go back to the States, I was heartbroken. You and she were my family, and I hadn't had a family in such a long time. I pleaded with her not to leave, I even told her it would be bad for you to be uprooted again, when you were so happy there. But in the end, I gave in. Your grandmother was blood, and she was dying and had never seen her grandson. And I could tell Naomi needed to make things right with her mother. So I let you go. I pasted a smile on my face and drove you to the airport, and believed her promises of letters and phone calls and that she would come back. I had this stupid little fantasy of the two of you coming back, and that I would tell her how I felt, and she would say she felt the same way too, and we could be happy, we could be the way we were, only better."
Swiping irritatedly at the tears running down her face, she continued. "That moment I put you on the plane…I can see it so clearly. I picked you up and you hugged me so tight around the neck I thought you were going to strangle me. And I pressed my face in your wild blond curls and kissed you and told you I loved you. And you made me promise to look after Bo and Nej, and that you would write me lots and lots of letters. Then I hugged Naomi, made her promise to write, to telegram, anything, to let me know you arrived safely, and when the two of you were coming back. Then she carried you out to the plane, and you waved to me over her shoulder the whole way. That was the last I ever heard or saw of Naomi and Bear Starchild.
"I was nearly 2,800 years old, Blair and I was so incredibly stupid and naïve. I fucking believed her." She clasped her hand over her mouth then, trying to hold back the sobs.
Blair didn't know what to do. God, her pain was radiating off her in waves, drowning him. He finally scooted over next to her, wrapping his arms around her. She buried her face in his neck, and he could feel her hot tears burning his skin. At that moment, for one of the few times in his life, Blair genuinely hated his mother.
Sighing again, Blair kicked at the linoleum floor of the hospital as he waited for Jim to return to his room from his knee surgery. God, I can't believe I was so stupid! After Dee had poured out the story of her twenty-five year old heartbreak, he had sat with her, holding her, comforting her, letting her cry. And when she was finished, she'd sent him away.
"Blair, I'm sorry. I know this whole thing is as big a shock to you as it is to me. I just think we need some space to think this through, to deal with this on our own before coming back together." She pushed her hair out of her face, and gave him a reassuring smile.
It didn't work. He was suddenly very scared that it was over, that she was trying to politely say that a relationship with a man she had once known as a child, a boy she had bathed, and rocked, and read to, and tucked into bed, freaked her out. "That was twenty-five years ago, Dee. I'm not a little boy any more. You know that."
She nodded, then looked away. "Yeah, my head knows that. My heart's kind of stuck in the past right now. I'm sorry, Blair, really, I…I love you, you know that, I really do, it's just, right now that feels wrong for some reason."
Wrong. It couldn't be wrong. Nothing in his life had ever felt so right, so beautiful, so special. "Dee, no, I love you. I don't have a problem with this. A problem with Naomi at the moment, but never with you, never with us. Please…" He reached out to her, needing to touch her, to reassure her, and himself. She moved slightly, just enough that his hand fell short of her shoulder.
"Please, Blair, don't make this any harder than it has to be. I know I'm hurting you, and goddess, I wish I wasn't. But I need some time, time to think, time to remember, to put all these memories behind me again. I know you want to be with me tonight, but I need to be alone. Can you understand that?"
No, he couldn't. It would never be right, not if they were apart. But he nodded his head, and said, "Yeah, I can understand that Dee. I'll give you all the time you need." What else could he do? He got to his feet slowly, his heart breaking, his soul screaming that walking away was the worst thing he could do. But he forced himself to do it, to walk across the floor, out the door, and into 307, where he flung himself across his bed and spent the night staring at the ceiling, trying to come up with a plan, any kind of plan, to let her know it wasn't over, that he wasn't going to let a love like theirs end.
He'd woke up that morning determined. He'd gone across the hall, bearing croissants and fresh-brewed coffee, and found her gone. At least she'd left a note. Blair closed his fingers around the crumpled piece of paper in his pocket and withdrew it, rereading the words he'd already memorized.
I'm sorry. I know this is the cowardly way to do this, but right now that's what I am. I just feel like everything is closing in on me here. I've felt really unsettled for the last week, I don't know why. It's nothing to do with you, I promise, but meeting Naomi again last night was my breaking point. I'm going to Washington DC to help out Dana and Mulder. Maybe if I bury myself in something so completely removed from our problems, I can get my focus back. I promise I'll be back, I'm just not sure when.
I do love you, even though it must not feel like it to you right now. I'm so sorry.
Blair swallowed with difficulty, and looked up at the tiles in the ceiling, blinking back the tears that had wanted to fall all morning.
"Hey, Chief, what are you doing here? I thought you were supposed to be on your way to DC this morning," Jim asked as he was pushed back into his room by the orderly, his knee heavily bandaged and braced.
"So did I. Hey, Megan," Blair said as the companion followed Jim into the room. He waited until Jim was settled in the bed and Megan had taken a seat in the other chair before continuing. "Dee went without me."
"What? Sandy, why? What happened?"
Blair shook his head. This was harder than he thought it would be. He didn't like the thought of talking about his and Dee's personal problems in front of Jim and Megan, even though they were friends, but he didn't know what else to do. He was out of ideas. "Jim, do you remember me telling you about Andrea Price a couple years ago?"
Jim looked puzzled for a moment then said, "Wasn't she that Australian woman who took you and Naomi in when you were four or five and Naomi's boyfriend had left you stranded in the Outback? I remember you were really upset when you learned she died."
"Australian? Wait a minute, you never told me you'd been to Australia!" Megan said.
"It's a long story, and I was really little at the time. What's important is not where, but who."
"Okay, Chief, you lost me. What does Andrea Price have to do with Diandra going to DC without you?"
He stared at his hands for a long moment before replying. "After the…incident last night, Dee took my car and went back to the loft. I got a ride home with my mom. Naomi was still there when Dee came over looking for some tea. There was a really awkward moment, and then Mom left. I asked Dee what that was all about, and she told me that she knew Naomi twenty-five years ago, when she had been going by the name of Andrea Price."
"Oh, Sandy, that must have been a shock!"
Blair pushed his hair behind his ears nervously. "You have no idea. Anyway, to make a long story short, Dee told me she needed some time by herself, to think things over, you know? Only this morning, when I went over to see her, she was gone. She left me a note saying she was going to DC, that she felt like everything was closing in on her, me included." He got to his feet and crossed the room to stare out the window.
There was a moment of silence, then he felt Megan's arm going around him in a reassuring hug. "I'm so sorry. This really has not been your week, has it?" He shook his head, and felt her embrace tighten. "You have to go after her, Sandy. She shouldn't be alone right now, not if she's as upset as you say she is."
"She made it really clear she didn't want me along. She said it doesn't have anything to do with me, but I think she was just trying not to hurt me any more than she already had. I mean, all of a sudden there's all this baggage attached to me, and then there's Naomi. She didn't really recognize Dee, but she'll probably remember, and when she does…Let's just say what she did to Dee back then wasn't very nice. And I don't know if I can deal with the fallout from that." He brushed his hands angrily over his eyes. "You know, when the shit with my diss happened, when I thought I was gonna lose your friendship, Jim, as well as what I'd worked for all my life, I thought that was the end of the world. But we made it through that, I think, just fine. I just didn't expect the end of the world to come up again so soon." He turned back around to face his friends, his expression incredibly sad and lost.
"Look, Blair, forget about Naomi, forget about what's in the past. Do you love Dee?"
The guide stared at his sentinel. "Of course I do, Jim. You know that better than anyone."
"Then Connor's right. You have to go after her. You have to fix this, and you can't do it while she's there and you're here." Reaching for the phone, Jim began to dial.
"Jim, what are you doing? Who are you calling?"
"The airline. You're going to be on the first flight to Washington I can get you on." Ellison gave Blair a grin. "Don't you worry about a thing. I'll make sure you get there, you just concentrate on what you're going to say to her. Go home and pack. I'll call you on your cell and let you know what flight you're on."
"Thanks, Jim," Blair managed to get out as Megan shoved him into the hallway.
She re-entered the room, waiting until Jim was off the phone before she spoke. "That was a very generous thing to do, Jimbo, feeling the way you do about Diandra."
Ellison shrugged. "I'll admit we will never see eye to eye, especially about Blair, but I do know she loves him, and vice versa. And after what I've put him through these past few days, he deserves all the happiness in the world, not the heartbreak I saw in his eyes."
Walking over to the side of the bed, Megan leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "You may have the rest of the world fooled, Jim Ellison, but I've got you pegged now. Underneath that crusty exterior is a big old teddy bear who still believes in true love."
He squirmed uncomfortably. "Yeah, well, don't go spreading that around the station."
Megan laughed. "Who would ever believe me?"
Blair paused at the bottom of the steps, gazing up at the brownstone, feeling his stomach twist and knot. It was 2 AM in the morning, and he was freezing cold and soaking wet. He'd spent most of the cash he'd had on him at the florist shop at the airport, and taken the Metro to Georgetown, figuring he could hoof it the rest of the way to Dee's place. Of course, it hadn't been raining at the airport, and he hadn't realized the Metro stop was five blocks from her street. Hadn't helped that he'd gotten turned around when he got off the train and walked three blocks in the wrong direction before he realized what had happened.
A soft sigh escaped his lips, and he watched the condensation from his breath hang in the cold air. Hitching his backpack higher on his shoulder, he headed up the steps then hesitated in front of the door. He glanced down at the soggy flowers still clutched in his left hand. Man, he was pitiful. And this was a stupid idea. What if she wasn't there? What if he'd come all this way, and she turned him away? He didn't think he could bear that...Come on, Sandburg, she loves you. You know that. Still, he was scared. The only thing that had ever terrified him more had been his press conference three days ago, and the realization that he might have been sacrificing it all for nothing if Jim hadn't chosen to forgive him.
He took a deep breath. Okay, this was it, he was going to ring the bell. Raising his hand, he poised it over the button, giving himself one last chance to chicken out. His finger hesitated for only a millisecond before depressing the buzzer. That done, he took a step back, gazing up at the windows, feeling a jolt of anticipation as he saw a light go on on the second floor. The horrifying thought suddenly struck him that he might have the wrong house. He was struggling with his urge to dive into the bushes and hide when the door opened.
She was a goddess, an angel fallen to earth in a "Save the Whales" t-shirt and a pair of his plaid boxers, her long dark hair loose over her shoulders, her blue eyes shining in the dim glow from the street lamp. For a moment he could see nothing but her, hear nothing but the rasp of his own breathing and the steady drip of rain from the ends of his wet hair onto his leather jacket. Then her hand was grasping his, incredibly warm against his frozen fingers, pulling him inside the house, into the safety of her arms. The flowers and his backpack dropped to the floor unnoticed as he returned her embrace, feeling the warm moisture of her tears on his cheek.
She finally pulled back to arm's length and looked at him. "Oh, shit, Lobo, you're wet to the skin." At her words, he felt himself begin to shiver uncontrollably. She pulled his jacket off of him, hanging it on a coat rack a little further into the foyer. Taking his hand, she led him up the stairs and he caught a glimpse over the banister of living room furniture and a kitchen beyond that, then she was pulling him after her onto the second floor landing. A short walk down the hallway, and she entered a bedroom, crossing it swiftly to the bathroom. Flicking on the light, she began to undress him.
"Dee, I can do that myself," he mumbled between shivers. She stepped back, watching for a moment as his numb fingers fumbled with the buttons, then turned away to start the shower running. When she glanced at him again, Blair's hands had fallen to his sides, and he was gazing at her with a look of abject misery on his face. His shirt was still buttoned. "Help me," he whispered.
Giving him a tender smile, she set to work on his shirt again. "All you have to do is ask, baby." He stood there quietly as she took his clothes off, unable to move for fear of collapsing to the floor, feeling the fire on his skin everywhere her hands touched him. Now naked, he was guided under the running water, the shower door closing behind him after her promise to return quickly.
Closing his eyes, Blair leaned into the hot spray, slowly feeling warmth returning to his body. The realization that tears were running down his cheeks startled him then he went with it. He braced his hand against the tiled wall, turning his face so that the water sluiced down over it, washing away the pain, the stress, the despair of the past week. With it went the past 15 years of his career, the life he had thought he wanted swirling around his feet and down the drain. His new life, the one that really mattered, started now.
Shutting off the tap, he stepped out of the shower into the huge fluffy towel Dee held out to him. Their hands touched, and in that moment Blair felt her love wrap around him, through him, encompassing all that he was, all that he would be. For a moment he saw himself through her eyes, and the vision was so blindingly beautiful it took his breath away. Nothing he could ever say would adequately express how he felt at that moment, so he simply hugged her, whispering a soft "I love you," in her ear.
Dee smiled at him, draping the second towel in her hands over his head, beginning to dry his hair.
"So we're okay, right?" Blair asked her. "All that stuff from the past, it's processed and locked away somewhere it can't ever get out again?"
She nodded. "I don't think I realized how much I needed you to come after me, until I opened the door and saw you standing there." She rested her hands on his shoulders. "All of a sudden, nothing else mattered, except that you loved me enough to follow me. Not Naomi, not the pain she caused, not the havoc she could play with our lives now. All that matters is you." Leaning forward, Dee's lips met his in a gentle kiss.
And all Blair could think was "I'm gonna really like this new life."
Part 3Immortal Seriesimmortal series/A>