The Stockholm Syndrome
"Blair? How do I look?"
He turned around on the balcony, having been gazing at the waves breaking on the shore as she'd been changing her clothes. Stepping through the open door, she joined him. "Think this will be distraction enough?" She spun slowly, modeling the open-backed, flowered sundress.
"Hmm, what?" he said, dragging his eyes back to her face.
She laughed, a delighted smile spreading across her face. "Never mind, you just gave me my answer." Impulsively, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
That innocent touch sent a rush of adrenaline flooding through him. "What was that for?"
Suddenly nervous, Alex moved past him to lean on the railing, watching a boat tying up at the pier. "I…Just my way of saying thank you, I guess. For everything, Blair." She turned to face him, and he could see a myriad of emotions flashing in her eyes. "You didn't have to help me. I, mean, I was just some wacko stranger in the police station, and yet you took an interest in me, wanted to help me. And after all the things I've done to you, to your friends…"
She shook her head. "I tried to kill him, you know. Plotted it all out and everything."
He knew this was going to be bad, but like a car accident on the freeway, he couldn't stop himself from gaping. "Kill who, Alex?"
Staring down at her hands resting on the railing, she replied softly, "Jim."
Blair's heart stopped. No, no, Jim wasn't dead; Jim couldn't be dead. But it made a sick sort of sense, kill the rival sentinel and steal his guide. It was territoriality at its most basic, powerful warrior magic. "Alex, tell me you didn't. Tell me Jim's okay!"
"He's fine, he's fine. That cop who arrested me when I wrecked my car saved him. I don't know what I was thinking. It was stupid, wasting a cop is stupid, they fry you for that. But I couldn't help myself, I just…" Her hands fluttered in the air for a moment, then she wrapped them around her stomach. "Blair, just go, get out of here. Go back to Jim, go back to where it's safe."
He could hear the fear, the pain in her voice. Things were happening to her, things she didn't understand. Blair didn't have a handle on it either, but the feelings, the instincts he'd had on the way to Sierra Verde had only become stronger the minute they'd arrived. Yes, she'd tried to hurt Jim, yes, she'd hurt him, but she wasn't that person anymore. He could see her changing before his eyes. Reaching out his hand to her, he rubbed her arm gently. "I'm not going to leave you, Alex. I promise you, we're in this together." He wiped away a tear that was sneaking its way down her cheek.
Taking a deep breath, she shrugged off his hands. "I'm okay, I'm okay." She tossed her head and swiped at her eyes. "I think I've cried more in the last three days than I have the last 20 years."
Blair smiled at her. "Well, tears are the spirit's way of cleansing itself, of getting through the past, so you can get on with the future." She looked toward him then, her eyes curious, and full of wonder, as if she was just seeing him for the first time. This must be what it's like to zone, he thought, as he found himself lost in those clear blue depths, sensing her lean toward him, anticipating her mouth on his…
A loud knock on the door startled them both. "Damn, that must be Carl. Quick, get in the closet!" Alex darted back into the room, checking her hair and makeup in the mirror rapidly, as Blair ducked into the small closet, closing the louvered door behind him. He heard her open the door and greet Hettinger, then there was silence for a long moment. When they spoke again, it was obvious they'd moved across the room to the balcony. Blair peered through the slats in the door, able to make out Alex leaning against the door jam, and Carl standing close to her--too close.
Alex slid her hands up his chest, and tilted her head back to receive his kiss. Blair shoved a fist in his mouth to keep his sudden anger from being verbalized. God, what was happening to him? Where was this jealousy coming from? Shaking his head to clear it, he turned his concentration back to their conversation.
"I should still go with you," Alex was saying.
Carl took a step back. "Arguillo will only work with me."
"I'm your partner."
Turning his back on her, Carl began to head for the door. "You're the thief, I'm the fence. I'll be back in a couple hours." He passed out of Blair's line of sight, but he could clearly hear his next words. "We can go out and celebrate."
The sentinel fairly purred, "Why don't we stay in and celebrate?"
Carl's response made Blair want to gag. "Even better." The hotel room door opened and shut, and Blair let out the breath he'd been holding.
Alex yanked the door to his hiding place open. "You okay?"
He stalked out and sat down on the bed with a thump. "What in the hell was that all about? 'Why don't we stay in and celebrate'?"
She stared at him for a moment, then began to chuckle until she was almost doubled over laughing. "Oh…god…Blair, you are too funny!" She took another look at his irritated expression, and collapsed next to him on the bed with the giggles. "Oh, you should see yourself! Jealousy is not a good look on you!"
"I am not jealous…"
Grabbing his arm, she pulled him down beside her, so his face was inches from hers. "Yes, you are. And it's…oh, damn you , Blair, you're gonna make me cry again." She got to her feet, walking to the balcony and peering out toward the dock.
Blair rose and followed her. "Alex, I'm sorry."
She made a shushing motion at him. "Carl went out to the boat, Arguillo's there." Her brow furrowed slightly in concentration and Blair's hand automatically went to her back, anchoring her. "That bastard! He's raising the price!" she growled.
"Easy, Alex, it doesn't matter. He's not going to see any of that money, remember?" They remained in that position for several more minutes, then he felt her relax under his hand.
"Do you know the location of the drop-off?"
She nodded. "It's out in the jungle. I'll write down the directions for you."
Blair grinned at her. "And I'll make that phone call."
They were toasting with champagne, a bit prematurely, perhaps, and Blair felt kind of odd celebrating with a fancy wine instead of a cold beer, but Carl had taken the nerve gas, headed to the meeting three hours ago, and hadn't returned. Alex touched the lip of her glass to his. "Here's to--and this is a first for me, the loss of 2 million dollars."
Blair returned her smile. "And to new beginnings." They were just about to drink when someone pounded on the door.
Giving Blair a curious glance, Alex went to open it. Carl Hettinger stood there, a large backpack in his hand, breathing hard, his normally immaculate appearance ruffled. "Alex, pack your things. We have to get out of here! It was a setup!" Brushing past her into the room, he tossed the pack on the bed, pulling up short at the sight of Blair. "Who in the hell is he? Alex, what's going on?"
"Um, he's ah…the man I told you about, the one helping me with my senses."
Carl stared at her. "The college professor?" His eyes narrowed as he spied the bottle of champagne and glasses. His hand slid inside his jacket. "You set me up! You bitch!" He drew his gun as she took a step toward him. "Jesus, Alex, I don't believe you. You'd throw away your share just to get me out of your hair?" He waved the gun in Blair's direction. "I sure hope he was worth it, because he's gonna be pretty useless to you full of holes."
Blair didn't even have time to react. Suddenly Alex was in front of him, her body jerking as she took the bullet meant for him. Something snapped inside the Guide, rage fueling a mad rush. He slammed into Hettinger, his momentum carrying them through the still open door and into the hallway. They bounced off the railing to the stairs, Blair's hands wrapped in the other man's lapels. He smashed his forehead into Carl's face, feeling him stagger back, dragging Blair with him. And then the earth dropped out from under his feet. Still tangled up with Hettinger, he tumbled down the stairs, fire lancing through his side an instant before they hit bottom and everything went black.
He came to in a few seconds, his hand going automatically to the pain that streaked across his ribcage. His fingers came away warm and sticky. Shit. Blair hauled himself to his feet using the handrail of the staircase, turning to look back at his fallen opponent. Double shit. He'd seen enough dead bodies to know that Carl wasn't getting up again. Bending down, he picked up the discarded gun, then headed back up the stairs, afraid of what he'd find.
When he arrived at the room, the Sentinel was nowhere in sight. "Alex?"
"In here." The voice calling from the bathroom was hoarse with pain. Blair entered the small room to find Alex seated on the toilet, trying to hold a towel to her right shoulder with a shaking hand.
"Oh, damn," he whispered, going to help her. Steeling himself, Blair examined the wound. It wasn't too bad, painful as hell he knew from experience, but the shot had gone clean through. He returned to the bedroom and came back with the bottle of champagne and the sheet from the bed.
Her eyes widened as she caught onto his intention. Clasping her hand over her mouth, she squeezed her eyes shut as he swabbed the alcohol over both the entrance and exit wounds, then tore the sheet into strips and bound the injury tightly.
"Carl?" she asked, suddenly remembering that threat.
Blair shook his head. "He won't be causing us any more problems."
She could see that whatever he'd done troubled him, but now was not the time to get into it. "Blair, oh, fuck, babe, you're bleeding." Her hands went to the bottom of his shirt, raising it gently, hearing his hiss of pain. She got to her feet, pushing him back against the counter as she efficiently cleaned and bandaged the 6-inch graze along his right side. A sound in the hallway caught her attention. "Come on, we have to get out of here."
Moving swiftly through the other room, they grabbed their still packed duffels, and the backpack Carl had left on the bed. Blair unzipped it quickly, checking its contents. The increase in his heartrate made Alex turn toward him. "What is it?"
"It's the money." He dug a bit deeper. "And the freaking nerve gas! God damn it! It's like a fucking bad penny!"
The Sentinel shook her head. "Never mind. Come on, I know where we can go." She threw her bag over her good shoulder, and headed out the balcony door, Blair right behind her with the backpack and his own stuff. He had one leg over the balcony railing when he remembered the map. Sensing her Guide's thoughts, Alex called up from where she had landed on the soft beach sand, "Forget it, Blair, we don't need it."
Tossing his bundles down to her, Blair hung by both hands from the railing, then dropped to the ground, realizing she was right. He knew with every fiber of his being that the temple would be their sanctuary, and that they would have no trouble finding it.
Shifting her backpack higher on her shoulders, Megan Connor puffed at a sweat-soaked strand of hair that had fallen into her eyes. Her feet hurt, her back hurt, she had bug bites on her bug bites, and she still didn't understand how Ellison knew where Sandy and the Barnes woman were headed. She glared at the back of the tall, well-muscled man walking a few meters in front of her. He'd said hardly a word since they'd left the hotel, the expression on his face only growing grimmer as Captain Ortega had filled them in on what had happened earlier that day.
Seems Hettinger had planned a meet with Arguillo to turn over the nerve gas, but someone had tipped not the police, but the local militia off to the time and location. Ellison had been sure that person had been Sandy, but she wasn't so certain. Sandy working against Alex she could see, but according to Ortega, out of the three, only Hettinger had been at the drop, and he had gotten away with both the money and the gas, which hadn't been recovered. Arguillo had not been happy about that fact, and was hunting for Carl and his partners.
Now Hettinger was dead, and if one could believe Ellison's visions, Blair Sandburg had been responsible. Megan shook her head at the thought. Sandy wasn't a killer; the very idea he could take someone else's life was ludicrous, even if it was to save his own. Jim had sworn that Hettinger had shot both Blair and Alex, but no gun, or bullets had been found, just two spent cartridges, one in the hotel room, and one underneath Hettinger's body. The whole thing made about as much sense as traipsing through the jungle in search of some mythical temple.
She watched as the big detective paused again, cocking his head to the side like he was listening. All she could hear was the normal chatter of birds and small animals. She flashed back to searching Sandy's office at the university after Alex had taken him. There'd been a book lying on the desk, old, judging by the condition of the binding. "Sentinels of Paraguay" had been embossed in faded gold leaf on the cover. She'd glanced through it, reading a few brief paragraphs, enough to know that Sentinels were members of primitive tribes who had heightened senses. As Sandy was an anthropologist, she could see it fascinating him. But what did it… Bloody hell! That's why he'd been so interested in Alex when he'd first met her at the station. She had been describing having heightened senses, the bright lights, the loud noises, her clothes irritating her skin.
Ellison moved forward again, and she and Simon followed. Megan began to observe the detective more closely, noticing again how he seemed to be listening to the wilderness around them, how he was actually sniffing the air like a bloodhound on the scent. He'd exhibited much of the same behavior at the crime scene at the hotel, at Blair's hotel room in Cascade, and at the University, hell, at every single crime scene she'd ever worked with him. "It's a long story," Sandy had said when she'd asked him how he'd come to be hooked up with Jim. A long story about ancient tribes and a cop with heightened senses, she suspected.
There was no way in hell she was going to let this lie. As Jim moved forward through the underbrush, she grabbed hold of Simon 's elbow and held back a few paces. "Captain, if I may ask you a question?"
Simon gazed down at the Aussie, taking advantage of the respite to remove his glasses and wipe the sweat from them with a bandana. "Go right ahead, Connor."
How to put this…Banks had to know; it was the only thing that made sense, the only reason the no nonsense captain would tolerate Sandburg's presence for four years. She decided not to beat around the bush. "Jim's a Sentinel, isn't he?"
She could see the surprise in his eyes, and for a brief moment, she knew he considered lying to her. With a sigh, he put his glasses back on. "Yes, Ellison's a Sentinel. But how did you know about that?"
Megan's laugh was a short, sharp bark. "I'm a detective, remember?" She shot a glance in Jim's direction; he didn't seem to be paying any attention to them. "Alex Barnes is a Sentinel too, isn't she? That's what this is all about, that's what it's been about from the beginning." She shook her head. "One thing I don't understand. Sandy, what's he got to do with it? Why did she take him? What use is he to her?"
Simon began walking again, and she followed. "Guess you didn't find out about guides when you found out about sentinels." She shot him a confused look. "According to Sandburg, all Sentinels had a guide, someone to help them with their senses, to keep them from zoning, which is when they focus on one sense to the exclusion of all others."
Zoning…that explained a lot. Megan realized she'd actually seen Jim zone a time or two, and watched Sandy pull him out of it. "So Sandy's a guide, and Alex took him because she needed his help? But that doesn't explain why Ellison thinks he's working with her willingly. I mean, we will find them, we will get Sandy back, but Jim's acting like he's lost his best friend for good."
Captain Banks let out a heavy sigh. "I try not to get too deeply involved in the stuff that goes on between them. There's a mystical element there I'm not really comfortable with, and I try to avoid learning about. But there's a bond between Ellison and Sandburg that's deeper than the bond between brothers. Only Jim had a fight with Blair the night Alex took him. Blair wanted to repair the damage he'd done to their friendship, only Jim wasn't ready for that. He said some things that must have hurt Sandburg very much, told him he didn't trust him, didn't need him. This Sentinel thing is Blair's whole life, more so than it's Jim's, even. Who's to say if Alex offered Blair a chance to be her guide, he wouldn't take it?"
Megan shook her head in disgust. "That's, that's crazy, sir! Sandy has more sense than that! Alex is a violent criminal; she's been that way her whole life. Blair is a peace-loving intellectual; her way of life would be abhorrent to him!"
Shrugging, Simon replied, "Jim Ellison was one cold, hard-hearted bastard before Sandburg blew into his life. Maybe Blair thinks if he could help Jim change, he can do the same thing for Alex." The tall man lengthened his stride to catch up with the sentinel, not wanting to get too far behind.
Megan followed, turning Simon's words over in her mind.
Blair leaned against a tree trunk, his hand going to his side. "Alex," he called softly. Even though her wound was the more serious of the two, she seemed able to shrug it off and cover ground at an amazing rate. Not for the first time, he wished he had a pain dial he could turn down.
Reversing her course, she came back to his side, her hand automatically going to his forehead. "Shit, Blair, why didn't you say something before? You're burning up."
"We had to put some distance between us and Arguillo's men." They'd run into them on their way to the jungle, and had spent several tense moments trying to lose them. Succeeding somewhat, they'd headed for the temple, but Blair knew they were being followed by the way Alex kept pausing to look and listen behind them. "How much further?"
Alex frowned, and tried to peer through the dense foliage. "Another half day's walking, I think. The sensation is pretty strong. But we're not going any further tonight. It'll be dark soon, and we both need the rest. Now we just need to find some shelter." She wandered ahead a little ways, gazing up at the tall trees surrounding them. Coming to a halt underneath one, she looked back at him. "I know heights bother you, babe, but we won't be safe on the ground in our condition. Think you can make it up there?" She pointed to a section of the tree about 20 feet up, where the branches spread out and curved upward, forming kind of a nest.
He didn't like it, but he knew any predators would see them as wounded prey if they stayed on the ground. Ten intense minutes later, they were safe in their hideaway. Resting his back against the smooth wood, he closed his eyes, trying to will the throbbing in his side away. He felt Alex's gentle hands pulling his shirt up, and loosening the bandage enough to check his wound. Wincing as she rebound it, he gasped at the flare of pain. "Sorry," she murmured, and then he felt the mouth of a canteen being pressed against his lips. "Drink." Blair did as he was told, managing a few swallows of the tepid, stale water.
Alex sat back on her calves, taking a drink herself, then screwing the cap back on the container. "How's your shoulder doing?" he asked.
"Yeah." She turned around to sit beside him, her hand reaching for his. He took it, entwining their fingers, suddenly very glad he wasn't alone. They sat there for several minutes in silence, then she said quietly, "Jim's here."
"What?" Blair could feel his heart beginning to race.
"He's here in Sierra Verde. I can feel his presence. They're a ways behind us, but they're looking for you." Alex turned her head to gaze at him, needing to see the expression on his face.
Blair bit his lip. Jim was here; he hadn't given up on him. Maybe there was still a chance, maybe… He felt Alex's hand withdrawing from his grasp. No! He hadn't meant to hurt her. "Alex…"
She shook her head. "It's okay, Blair, really it is. I understand. In the morning, I'll…I'll just go on, and you stay here. He'll find you pretty quickly."
No, damn it, he'd made a promise; he wasn't going to break it now; he couldn't break it now. "No, Alex, you need me, and I made my decision a while ago." His own words surprised him. When had he crossed that bridge? The night he'd stayed to help her instead of escaping? That bumpy airplane flight to Sierra Verde? Or had it been that afternoon, when he had killed a man to protect her? He felt himself starting to shake. He'd killed…
"Blair?" Her arms went around him, pulling him into a careful embrace. "What is it?"
"Carl," he whispered, pressing his face into her shoulder, waves of guilt, of horror at what he'd become, washing over him, drowning him.
"Oh, babe," she breathed, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I never should have involved you in this at all. I should have left you in Cascade. I should have never brought you with me. This is all my fault, all of it." She rubbed his back, trying to calm the shudders she felt rocking him. "It was an accident, babe, an accident. It could have just as easily been you."
"It should have been me!" His voice was raw pain.
Alex pushed him back enough to look him in the eye. "No," she hissed. "Your life for his would have been a travesty. Mine for his would have been fair."
He looked at her through tear-blurred eyes, remembering her lunging in front of him, sacrificing herself for him. He knew in that instant that if she could have taken Carl's place to spare him the pain he was feeling now, she would have. Blair leaned into her embrace again, laying his head on her uninjured shoulder. "We're two of a kind, Alex. We're both seriously fucked up here."
She made herself comfortable against the tree trunk, cradling him carefully in her arms. "Yeah, but at least we're fucked up together." She brought her hand up to stroke his hair. "Try and get some sleep. We've got a long hike tomorrow."
Blair took a couple of deep breaths, feeling the tension slowly leave him as her presence, her commitment to this thing growing between them, comforted him. It wasn't long before he slept.
Jim dropped down behind the fallen log, ejecting the empty clip from his gun and jamming a fresh one in. Popping up, he squeezed off a couple shots in the general direction of the enemy and ducked again. Shit! He couldn't believe their bad luck. Somehow they must have passed Barnes and Sandburg last night, and now they were in a stand off with Arguillo's men outside the temple of the Sentinel.
He glanced at his two companions. Connor was reloading her clip, the tip of her tongue stuck out in concentration. Simon sat with his back to the huge log, his gun clasped loosely in his hand as he caught his breath. They'd be lucky to get out of this alive. Arguillo and his goons had far more firepower, and no conscience. They didn't give a damn who they killed, as long as they got their nerve gas. Jim fought down the urge to laugh hysterically. God only knew where the stupid gas was. All he really wanted now was to find his friend, his partner, his guide and get the hell out of the jungle.
The sound of a single shot, followed by a distressed cry from Arguillo's side of the clearing got his complete attention. That shot hadn't come from the three of them. That meant…. Ellison peered over the top of the log, his sentinel sight tracking to where he'd heard the shot originate. There! To the west of their position, behind Arguillo's men, he could see the barrel of a semi-automatic through the bushes. The pistol cracked again, and another of the drug lord's minions slumped to the ground. Renewed by the apparent reinforcements, the three Cascade police officers resumed their battle with Arguillo's group.
A flash of white caught Jim's peripheral vision. Alex was snaking through the underbrush, Blair behind her. They broke into the clearing, moving at a dead run toward the temple. Automatically, he drew a bead on the other sentinel, and pulled the trigger. She staggered and fell headlong, his hearing picking up her sharp gasp of pain.
The next few seconds played out in slow motion, and would forever be branded into his memory. Blair bent down, grabbing her under the arm, pulling her to her feet. As she rose, the guide half-turned toward Ellison, the gun in his hand suddenly visible. Jim saw his friend's finger tighten on the trigger. Once, twice, three times the automatic spoke, and the sentinel dove for cover, the bullets burying themselves in the log, splinters of wood flying.
"Jim, what in the hell's going on!" Connor exclaimed from beneath him, having been shoved to the ground as he dodged the shots.
Ellison rolled off of her, breathing hard. Blair had shot at him. His best friend had just tried to kill him. Getting to his knees, he took a careful look over the fallen tree.
Blair and Alex had reached the top of the temple's stairs. In a scene right out of Jim's vision, they joined hands, then pressed their palms against the carving of the eye. An opening appeared in the stone wall, its inky blackness impenetrable by even his enhanced sight. The Sentinel and Guide slipped through the narrow slit and it closed seamlessly behind them.
Ellison felt as though his heart had been ripped from his chest. His guide, his brother was gone, and in his place was a stranger. With that thought, his senses spiraled out of control, the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the rainforest overwhelming him. Hands clutching his pounding head, Jim slumped to the ground, embracing the blessed darkness.
Blair came to a stop just inside the temple entrance, taking a quick look around before the door shut behind them and they were plunged into darkness. With a low moan, Alex slid down his body to rest on the floor. The guide knelt beside her, one hand on her shoulder to reassure her as he dug into his backpack with the other, coming up with a flashlight. "Hold on, Alex." Switching on the light, he turned it on her, finding her curled up on the stone floor, her face ashen. "Where does it hurt?"
"Left leg…" she gasped. "My control's shot to hell; I can't turn it down…and I think I ripped my shoulder open again."
Damn it. Blair pointed the flashlight up, locating the torch he'd caught a glimpse of when they'd entered. Praying it was still good, he lifted it down from the wall sconce, and lit it. It smoldered for a moment, then burst into flame. Attaching it to the wall again, he flipped off the flashlight, and bent over the shivering sentinel, examining her leg. Using his pocketknife, he cut her pants away from the wound, then dug the remains of the torn sheet he'd stuffed in his pack the day before out. Pouring water on a scrap of cloth, he cleaned the short but deep graze on the back of her thigh, then bound it carefully.
He helped her sit up, talking her through turning down the pain dial. Only when she nodded she had the level down as far as it would go did he turn his attention to her shoulder. Removing the bandage there, Blair discovered she had, indeed, reopened the injury. He cleaned it, then using a fresh length of sheet bandaged it again.
Leaning his back against the wall, Blair settled her against his chest, holding the canteen for her as she took a drink. After taking a few swallows himself, he set the water aside, and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to sort things through. He couldn't believe he'd shot at Jim. It hadn't been a conscious choice to fire the gun but an instinctual reaction, the Guide protecting the Sentinel. Even though he'd aimed to intimidate and not to injure, Jim didn't know that. He probably thought Blair had been trying to kill him. God…if Jim didn't hate him before, he probably did now.
Aw, damn it. What in the hell was going on with him? His whole life was gone, just gone. There was no way in the world he was ever getting it back. He'd broken state, federal and international law, aided a fugitive from justice, killed a man, and now he'd fired on his friends, friends who were cops. The only way he wouldn't be spending the rest of his life in prison was if he turned himself in, gave up the nerve gas, and testified against Alex. That thought nearly made him physically ill. He looked down at the sentinel. Her eyes were closed, and her head leaned against his shoulder, her hand clutching a fistful of his shirt. He couldn't do that to her; she wasn't that person anymore; she deserved a second chance.
But what about me, a tiny voice in the back of his mind cried. Don't I deserve a second chance too? A small whimper of pain escaped Alex's lips, and Blair rubbed her back gently, guiding her through adjusting the dials once again. When he felt her relax, he knew. Alex was his second chance, his chance to get the Guide thing right.
Closing his eyes, he rested his head against the rough stone behind him. Blair could feel the power, the energy in the ancient walls. It was calling to him, urging him to get up and follow it. He felt a smile spread across his face. He would answer the challenge, Alex and he would answer it together, but not now. What they needed most of all now was rest, and maybe some food, if he could get a trail bar down Alex. Her soft, even breaths puffed against his neck, and he pressed his cheek against her hair. Rest it was, then.
"Jim, come on, Jim, wake up." Simon leaned over his friend, shaking him gently.
"Are you sure he wasn't hit?" Megan asked, glancing at the two men before turning her attention back to where Arguillo's men had been dug in. Had been, being the operative phrase. After Alex's surprise attack on them, the drug lord and his men had apparently decided they'd had enough and disappeared into the jungle, presumably heading back to civilization.
"I can't find any injuries, and I don't think he hit his head when he collapsed." He shook the sentinel again, lightly slapping his face.
With a low moan, Jim opened his eyes. "Simon? What happened?" He sat up slowly, his head pounding. "Sandburg! Where's Blair?"
Banks leaned back against the tree trunk. "Inside the temple with Alex. They've been in there about 30 minutes. And you passed out after the door shut behind them."
Damn. Jim wiped his hand over his face, trying to will his headache away. "Arguillo?"
"Gone," Connor answered, sitting down next to Simon. "What's our next move, Captain?"
Shaking his head, Simon looked at Jim. "It's your call, Ellison. I'm way out of my league here."
"Don't look at me for the answers; this is more Sandburg's area than mine." The sentinel got to his feet, tentatively extending his senses. What he got back was not encouraging. Hearing seemed to be on line, but vision was not. Smell was out too, and touch was, he ran his hand over the rough bark of the tree, kind of iffy. Well, if Sandburg and Alex were in the temple, then they would just have to go in and get them.
Gesturing for them to follow him, Ellison headed for the temple, climbing the crumbling stairs slowly, his gun drawn. Connor and Banks covered him, then moved forward themselves once he'd given the all clear. Reaching the top step, Jim stared at the carving of the eye, knowing it was the key to opening the door. Hesitantly he reached out his hand, letting his fingertips lightly brush over the raised stone. Words in a strange tongue filled his mind, as did visions of primitive warriors. Yanking his hand away as if he'd been burned, he took a step back, staring up at the immense stone structure.
"Jim, you okay?" asked Simon's worried voice.
The sentinel tried to shake off the strange sensation. "No, Simon, I'm not. But I think I understand this place's purpose."
"Enlighten us," Connor said, when Jim didn't elaborate.
Crossing to the stairs, Jim sat down, resting his head in his hands. "This is the ultimate test of Sentinel and Guide. When a pair was determined to be ready to…" he searched for the words to translate what he'd seen in his mind. "To be joined…they would come here. If they successfully passed the trials within, they would be allowed to see the eye of God."
Simon sighed, wishing desperately for a cigar. "In English, Jim."
Ellison shrugged. "That was the closest I could come to what I saw in my mind."
"But what does it mean?" Megan asked. "Alex is a Sentinel, and Blair is a Guide, does that mean they came here to be 'joined'?"
Jim's jaw muscles clenched. "It's what the temple wants; it's why it called them."
"Then we have to stop them, Jim!" Banks said urgently.
The sentinel shook his head. "We can't."
Blair came awake with a groan. Sleeping on a cold stone floor had done nothing to ease his aches and pains. He hadn't slept too long; the torch was still burning. "Alex?"
"I'm here," she said, her voice drifting back from the shadows. "Just taking a look around." She entered the pool of light cast by the torch. "This place is…talking to me. There's some carvings over there, and I can read them!" Her eyes sparkled with excitement.
Getting to his feet, Blair took the torch and followed her to the other side of the space, glancing around with interest. The room they'd entered when the temple door opened seemed to be some kind of foyer, or waiting room. He could make out the deeper shadows of several openings in the other walls, and wondered where they led. He came to a stop in front of the wall with the engravings. The stonework was incredible; he couldn't believe the amount of detail there was in the pictograms.
"Can you read it?" she asked him. He shook his head. Taking his hand, Alex pressed it against the wall. Blair gasped as images flooded his mind. Hundreds of Sentinels and Guides had come here through the millennia, though he knew immediately that they were the first to enter the temple in a long time. It was a maze, he realized, one that could only be navigated by a sentinel/guide pair using their talents together to survive the obstacles the temple would place in their path. At the end of the maze, he could see the goal, a small room with a grotto, two pools holding the sacred water, heated by the energy of mother earth. He had to go there, they had to go there. Pulling his hand way from the warm rock, he looked at her.
Alex's expression was guarded. "Are you sure?" she said hesitantly. "Once we step through that door, there's no going back."
Taking a deep breath, Blair thought back over his life, all the years he'd spent searching for a Sentinel, his elation at finding Jim, his disappointment as that relationship had never matched his expectations, had never become what he'd imagined a Sentinel/Guide pair was capable of. He stared at the carvings again. Now he knew why. Part of it had been him; he hadn't understood what he was. And part of it had been Jim, who wouldn't admit he needed anyone else if his life depended on it. The memory of Jim's harsh words in the bullpen still stung. "…I don't need you, or anyone else…"
He felt Alex's hand rest gently on his shoulder. She needed him; that was vibrantly clear to him. He turned his head so their eyes met, bringing his hand up to cover hers. "I'm sure." The smile that lit up her face matched his own.
"What do you mean, we can't?" Connor's tone was stunned. This wasn't the Jim Ellison she knew, the one who would move heaven and earth for one Blair Sandburg.
Jim rubbed his temples; the pressure behind his eyes wasn't going away. "Only Sentinels and Guides can enter."
"That's never stopped you before," Simon responded, confused by the sudden change in the ex-army ranger.
Letting out a long sigh, Jim tried to explain what he'd absorbed when he had touched the stone eye. "The door won't open for me, because I don't…" He hesitated before voicing his worst fear. "Because I don't have a Guide. And even if I did, we still wouldn't be able to stop them. Once a Sentinel/Guide pair enters the temple, they have to pass the tests to get out. If they don't, this temple will be their grave, as it has been for so many others." He got to his feet abruptly. "We may have a long wait. I'm going to see about setting up camp." Descending the stairs, he disappeared into the jungle.
Megan stared at the stone carvings, reaching out her hand to trace the images. To her, they were just rough worn rock, and she pushed at them half-heartedly, a little disappointed when they didn't move. She turned around to face Simon. "Do you think they'll make it, sir?"
The tall man shrugged. "I don't know, Connor. Sandburg's been in worse scrapes than this, but he's always had Jim at his side. Alex is the unknown variable here." He stared out across the clearing. "And I really don't know which will be worse for Jim. To have them make it through, or to have them perish."
Megan had no answer for him.
Alex took a torch from the wall, and lit it from the one Blair carried. "So, which way do we go?" She turned around slowly, examining the five openings in the walls. She pointed out a line of carving. "This says the Guide will follow the path of power, and the Sentinel shall keep them safe."
Blair chewed his lip for a moment, contemplating the ancient riddle. "I think it means I'm supposed to know the way to go. But the 'path of power'…" He shrugged. "I don't know."
The Sentinel touched the symbol for Guide in the phrase she had read, then turned back to him. "Didn't you tell me that Chopec guy had called you a Shaman?"
Nodding, he remembered the story he had told during the interminable hours spent driving down the coast. "Yes, Incacha called me the Shaman of the great city." A twinge of regret washed over him. He was leaving everything behind. Which, he guessed, was the whole point of this place, where Sentinel and Guide ceased to be two individuals and became a single entity.
She pointed at the carving. "That can be translated as 'Shaman' as well as 'Guide'."
Shaman…shaman…they were in contact with the spirit world, weren't they? As well as the natural world…and path of power…what did they call those points in the earth? Something to do with magnetism…ley! That was it, ley lines! Lines of power in the earth itself, which shaman and other spiritualists could draw on to help them. Maybe that was what the carvings meant; maybe he was to follow the ley lines through the maze. Okay, that was as good a theory as any, except Blair had no idea what a ley line should look like. He closed his eyes for a moment, letting himself sink into a light meditative state, trying to attune himself to the earth around him. When he finally opened his eyes, he saw a faintly glowing vine leading from where he stood to one of the entrances.
"Oh, wow," he breathed.
"Blair, what is it?"
"I can see the path of power. It's this way." He started toward the door.
Alex stepped in front of him. "Let me check it out. I'm supposed to keep us safe, remember?" Blair nodded and followed as she approached the opening in the wall. Placing a hand on her back, he anchored her as she extended her senses then indicated it was all clear. Taking her hand in his, they stepped into the darkness.
They spent the better part of the next twenty minutes simply walking, changing directions a number of times, always following the ley lines Blair was becoming quite proficient at reading. They paused at another intersection of two corridors to catch their breath. "How's the leg?" Blair asked.
"Stings like a son of a bitch, but I've got it dialed down." She peered intently down both hallways. "I thought there were supposed to be tests. If the gods or whoever are testing to see how easily we get bored, then I'm already there."
Blair giggled. "This kind of reminds me of a really bad game of D&D, where all we did was wander through the dungeon and never found any monsters. Come on, it's this way." He took a step out into the cross hall.
The faintest of scrapes sent Alex barreling after him, shoving him to the ground. "Shit, Alex! What the hell?" Blair had dropped the torch, but it still blazed. Glancing back over his shoulder, Blair could see a nasty array of sharp spikes occupying the space he'd been forced to vacate. "Oh…damn," he whispered. "Alex, you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. Just crawl out from under these things okay?"
Blair did as he was told, getting to his feet shakily once he was beyond the trap, giving her a hand up. Picking up the torch, he said, "Guess that was a reminder, huh?"
She nodded. "Let me go first from now on, okay?"
"You won't get any arguments from me," he replied, and they headed down the stone passageway, much more carefully than before.
Once again they wandered the small cramped corridors, a multitude of chambers and side halls beckoning, but Blair wasn't fooled. The ley line clearly marked the only safe passage, and neither he nor Alex had any desire to stray from the path, despite the interesting carvings and artifacts they glimpsed tucked away in the little rooms. It didn't hurt that along with the treasures were the bones of Sentinels and Guides who had been unable to resist the temptations.
After the third such warning, Blair leaned against the wall just past the doorway, his face pale. "Blair?" Alex took the torch from him, and set it in one of the wall notches that were conveniently scattered throughout the temple. "You okay?" Her hand went to his forehead. "You're not running a fever anymore."
He looked into her concerned eyes. "What if we die here? I mean, what have we got that these other pairs didn't? We've only been working together for…" he counted on his fingers, "six days." He jerked his head in the direction of the room. "They probably had years together before they came here, and yet they failed. I mean, I really don't have anything to go back to, but I'm not ready to die yet."
Brushing his tangled curls out of his face, Alex moved closer to him. "I'm not ready to die yet, either. And I trust you to lead us out of here." The grim expression on Blair's face changed to shocked surprise. "Ever since that night in the motel room, since the moment you discovered what you are, what we are together, I've put my trust in you. I've given up everything I am, the life I used to lead, the things I used to want, to follow you. And if that means wandering through an old temple dodging danger and looking for the eye of god, well, then, that's what I'm going to do."
Blair had trouble swallowing past the lump in his throat. She thought that much of him? She was putting her life in his hands, his shaking hands. "I…I don't know what to say, Alex. I…no one's ever really believed in me before."
Tilting her head down, she leaned her forehead against his. "I believe in you. Now you gonna lead us out of here, or are we just gonna stand here the rest of our lives?" Taking a step back, she held out her hand to him. Grasping it with his own, he lifted the torch down, centered himself, and started down the hallway, the ley line clearly visible in his mind's eye.
A few minutes later, they came to the end of the line. The hallway they were following deadended at a chasm so wide Blair couldn't see the other side. He peered carefully over the edge. He couldn't see the bottom either. His heart pounding, he backed up rapidly.
"What's the matter?" Alex followed him.
"What do you mean 'what's the matter'? Didn't you see the great big hole there?" He tried to keep from hyperventilating. "Heights, why did it have to be heights?"
She glanced behind her, then turned back to him, her expression puzzled. "What hole?"
Blair looked past her. The pit was still there. "There's a great big hole in the floor; it's so wide I can't see across."
Frowning in confusion, Alex said, "Blair, there's no hole there. The hallway just goes on a little ways, and then there's a door at the end." His expression told her he wasn't convinced. "Look, I'll walk down there and show you it's okay."
"No! Alex!" He lunged after her, but was too late. She walked past the edge of the chasm and…nothing happened.
Turning around to face him, she said, "See? There's nothing to be afraid of. It's perfectly safe."
Blair shuddered. She was standing on thin air. "Huh uh. I'm not going out there."
She held out her hand to him. "Blair, which way does the path lead? Toward me?" He checked, then nodded slowly. "Then you have to trust me. Give me your hand."
He took a small step forward. If you believe you'll be okay, you'll be okay. Don't look down. He reached out toward her, feeling her strong fingers wrap around his. Closing his eyes, he stepped off into space…and didn't fall. Keeping his eyes squeezed tightly shut, he followed her, a death-grip on her hand.
Finally he felt her come to a stop. "You can open your eyes now."
Blair did as he was told, gasping as he realized where they were. They'd made it, they were in the grotto. Turning around slowly, he took in the two pools of water, the markings on the wall, and several shelves carved into the stone, each one holding a number of sealed jars and urns. Taking the torch from him, Alex lit the other ones scattered around the room. When she came to the wall with the inscription, she stopped to read it, then turned back to him. "This is the ritual, the rite of joining."
He moved to stand beside her. "I know." And he did. It was as if walking into the room had awakened memories he didn't know he had. Walking over to the jars, he began selecting certain ones, along with some empty clay bowls. Alex followed him, choosing containers from a different shelf. There was silence between them for nearly half an hour as each of them bent to their tasks, Alex opening bottle after bottle, sniffing and tasting the contents carefully before she measured them out, mixing the ingredients with water she drew from the pool.
Blair, too, mixed the powders he found in the urns with water, filling several bowls with brightly colored paint. When he finished, he leaned over one of the pools, using the reflection in the water to draw the markings of a shaman on his face. Stripping out of his dirty, sweaty clothes, he continued to paint the mystical symbols on his skin, until he was covered in the twisting, curling runes.
Moving to Alex's side, Blair began to work on her, words from a forgotten language falling from his tongue. Using his fingers as a paintbrush, he drew the stripes of a warrior on her face, and the symbol of her spirit animal, the jaguar, on her back. She returned the favor, outlining a wolf in blue paint over his spine. Together they finished the job, covering her body with the markings of the Sentinels.
Raising the bowl containing the drink she had created, they chanted, asking the ancient ones for strength, for wisdom, for belief and trust. Blair held the bowl as she drank, and she did the same for him. They moved apart then, sliding into the warm embrace of the water, the two pools symbolizing the separate paths they had to travel before becoming one.
Blair relaxed in the water, feeling his spirit float free of his body, and with a rush, he was traveling back through his life. Moments from his childhood flashed before him, turning rapidly into his college years. The images didn't slow until he came to Jim. He saw the big detective slamming him against the wall, then just as quickly, he was shoving the sentinel to the ground as a garbage truck roared by overhead. On and on the memories raced, the good equaling the bad, but never overcoming it, the scales forever remaining static. And then there was Alex…his excitement at finding another Sentinel, his despair at discovering she was a criminal. The night he'd discovered his own calling was followed by her declaration of earlier that day, of giving up everything she was for the promise of a new life with him. He knew without a doubt the next vision was of the future. He was walking on a beach with Alex, his arm around her waist, and they were laughing together. She pressed his hand to her stomach, and he felt the flutters of another life growing within. The scene shifted to a hospital, and he held their daughter in his arms, handing her carefully to an exhausted, but smiling Alex.
His spirit re-entered his body then, and he gulped in air, flailing for one panicked moment in the pool. Awareness of where and when he was returned to him, and he clung to the stone ledge, turning his anxious gaze on Alex. She, too, started as she came back to herself, and splashed water out of the pool.
Her blue eyes met his, and she crawled out of the pool, kneeling on the stone path between them, waiting as he did the same. She held her hands out to him and he grasped them with his own, palms touching, fingers interlocking.
Wolf running through the jungle, toward a spotted jaguar. Both animals leaping into the air, colliding, combining in a burst of brilliant light, the eye of god.
When the light faded, Blair was back in the temple, in front of his Sentinel, knowing that their joining went far deeper than their clasped hands. "Alex…"
"Drea," she corrected automatically.
Blair smiled at her. A new name for a new beginning. Cradling her face in his hands, he leaned forward, his lips on hers sealing their commitment with a promise of the future.
Blair awoke slowly, silently cataloging the sensations he was feeling before he opened his eyes. He was comfortably warm, and the rush-covered ground beneath his body, though not as soft as he would have liked, was tolerable. He stretched, slightly surprised when his injured side didn't protest, then he remembered one of the unexpected side effects of the joining had been healing. Both his and Alex's wounds had vanished the instant they had joined hands. Alex…no, Drea, he thought, and his arm tightened instinctively around the body curled up next to him.
She made a contented little noise, and moved closer to him, her cheek rubbing against his shoulder. Blair opened his eyes, taking in the still burning torches, the twin pools of water, and the remains of their paint and drink mixtures. They would have to clean up before they left, he thought. He gazed at her, a mixture of emotions flowing through him at the sight of her vulnerable, naked body, the lines of paint smeared and blurred by their time in the water, and their exertions of the night, if it had been night, before.
He would have been content to lie there a while longer, but his stomach growled, and he realized he couldn't remember the last time they'd eaten. Rolling onto his side, he leaned over her, nuzzling her cheek before whispering in her ear. "Drea, wake up. We need to get going."
"Mmmm…" She turned onto her back, opening her eyes to find her mouth inches from his. A hand in his tangled mass of hair tugged him down toward her, and she brushed her lips lightly against his, nibbling, tasting, teasing her Guide, feeling him respond to her touch. His hand traced lightly down her side, over her hip, and up the back of her thigh. With a long sigh, she moved away from him, to the pile of clothes she'd discarded the night before, and began getting dressed.
He followed her, pulling his own things on, then rinsing out the bowls they'd used and placing them, and the jars of ingredients, back on the shelves. Snuffing all but one of the torches, he joined her at the room's only door. "I wonder if it will take as long to get to the exit as it did to get here."
Drea shrugged, then stepped through the opening, with Blair right behind her. She came to a stop so suddenly he ran into her back. "This is too weird," he finally managed, gazing around the room. It was the foyer, the place they'd started on their journey. Everything was just as they'd left it, their backpacks leaning against the far wall.
"This whole trip has been strange," she said, shouldering her pack, and handing his to him. "I really wanna get out of here."
Blair stuck the torch in the holder he'd taken it from when they had first entered the temple, then, joining hands with her, they pressed their palms against the small eye symbol scratched into the wall. The door slid open silently, and they walked into the gray shadows of a predawn morning.
Simon Banks shivered slightly, and pulled the lightweight blanket closer around him. Whoever said the jungle was hot obviously had never spent the night there. Yawning, he stared at the remains of the fire, wondering how long it was until dawn. He must have dozed off, because when he opened his eyes again, he knew he was dreaming.
Two warriors stood in the center of the camp, both of them nearly the same height, but there the resemblance ended. One had light hair, pulled back tightly in a braid, his…no, her, face tiger striped. She appeared to be standing lookout, as the other one set something down close to where Jim still slept. The second warrior was dark where the other was light, his long hair hanging loose, framing a face painted in a vaguely lupine design.
Their images were blurry without his glasses, and Simon blinked, trying to focus more clearly. When he opened his eyes again, the warriors were gone, but he glimpsed a patch of gold and black fur, and a streak of silver disappearing into the trees. Again he blinked, and this time his eyes remained closed, as he dropped back into a heavy sleep.
Jim Ellison was dreaming. He was running through the jungle, chasing after something, some animal that stayed just a few steps ahead of him. Breaking out of the underbrush, he entered a clearing, the temple of the Sentinels rising ominously from the center of the glade. Notching an arrow to his bow, he proceeded cautiously, the hair on the back of his neck raising.
The figure of a wolf appeared at the top of the temple steps. Jim expected it to run at the sight of the Sentinel, but the wolf simply sat on his haunches and waited as Jim climbed the stairs.
A few steps away from the animal, Ellison stopped, laying down his weapon, and holding out his hand in supplication. The wolf whined sharply in its throat, then rose to its feet, shaking its head slowly. Turning its back on Jim, it walked away, vanishing into the forest. A few seconds later, the wolf's keening howl split the air, followed by the coughing scream of a jaguar. And for the first time in nearly four years, James Ellison was truly alone.
He awoke with a gasp, his heart racing. Automatically, he reached out with his senses, searching for the stimulus that had disturbed his rest. Within seconds he knew what had changed; his Sentinel abilities were gone.
Ellison sat up slowly, his movements knocking over a backpack sitting on the ground next to him. Reaching for it, he pulled it into his lap, unzipping the bag. Inside was the container of nerve gas. Leaping to his feet, he scanned the area, but found no trace of his friend, his partner, his…No, Blair was no longer his guide. He belonged to Alex now.
Stumbling to a fallen log, he sat down heavily, leaning his head in his hands. Blair was gone, truly gone. Nothing Jim could do, nothing he could say, no apology was going to bring him back. And with his disappearance, Jim had gotten what he'd always said he'd wanted. He was just like everyone else now, he was normal.
Somehow, that hardly seemed like a fair trade. He sat there for a long time, watching the sun rise over the forest through tear-blurred eyes.