This is post The Sentinel By Blair Sandburg and contains spoilers. It also is unique in that it takes place during the timeline of the story Immortal Phoenix.
Blair Sandburg was wet, and cold, and tired. Clapping his hand to his face, he was too late to completely muffle the sneeze that shook his lean frame. "Sorry," he whispered, wiping his nose on his already soaked sleeve.
"Damn it, Sandburg, you'll give us away," his partner growled back, parting the foliage enough to clearly see the narrow game trail winding through the mist-blanketed forest.
Blair sneezed again, and the third member of their party, Daryl Banks, handed him a somewhat dry bandana. "Thanks," he whispered to the young man, then turned his attention back to his sentinel. "Technically, I'm only giving you away, Jim, since I'm dead," he commented with a glance down at the bright orange paint spattered across his mottled camouflage shirt, "and Daryl is only here to referee."
Jim Ellison made a shushing motion at his guide, and dropped to the rain-soaked ground, his gun gripped firmly in one hand as he crawled through the underbrush toward his prey. A tight-lipped smile flickered across his face fleetingly as Megan Connor came into view.
Glancing around nervously, she clutched a small flag in one hand, and a weapon in the other. She also was soaked to the skin, and her racing heart and labored breathing gave away the fact that she'd been running for some time. A second heartbeat caught Jim's attention, and his keen eyesight picked out the tall form of his captain struggling to keep up. That left one person unaccounted for, but it really didn't matter. Connor had the prize; all he had to do was take it from her. Aiming carefully, the sentinel squeezed the trigger.
The splat sounded incredibly loud in the still forest, and the quiet was further shattered by Megan's exclamation. "Bugger it!" she yelled, staggering back a little under the impact of the paintball against her chest. Following the rules, she dropped to the ground, and lay still.
"Yes!" Jim hissed, breaking cover and crossing the short distance to the fallen guide. He plucked the pennant from her limp fingers, and sketched a little bow. "Guys win!" he chortled.
Megan's closed eyes snapped open, and a broad grin crossed her face. "That's what you think... "
Ellison was suddenly aware of a tall, lithe form dropping from the sky. He dove to the side, having to let go of the flag in order to bring his weapon to bear as he rolled. He squeezed off a shot in the direction of the threat, belatedly realizing the other sentinel was no longer there.
Her husky voice called to him from behind a tall pine. "Better start running, Jim. The game only ends when the target is returned to base." She waved said target once, then disappeared into the forest.
"Goddamn it, Dee," he cursed, getting to his feet. "Why can't you just admit you won and quit?"
Her laughter floated back toward him. "What, and not give you a chance to take it away from me?"
Growling, Jim headed after her.
Blair and Daryl rose from their hiding place and entered the clearing, as did Simon, who gave Megan a hand up from the ground.
Removing his glasses, the tall black man futilely wiped at the condensation on them. "Figures they'd be the only two left in the game. Tell me you didn't plan it this way, Sandburg."
Blair shook his head, grinning ruefully. "No, I didn't. I thought this would just be a good test of us as teams, to see how well we worked together in a battle situation. But it does support a theory of mine."
"And that would be, Sandy?" Megan asked, brushing leaves off her jacket.
"That I certainly want both of them fighting on the same side."
"Definitely," Daryl seconded, gazing in the direction the two sentinels had gone. "Man, Blair, where in the hell did she come from?" He ignored the look his father shot him at his language.
"The trees," Megan supplied helpfully. "I was the bait, and Jim took it."
Daryl stared at her, mouth open. "The trees! You mean the whole time you were walking up the trail, she was making like Tarzan?"
"Yep." Megan started to walk back toward the base, which was Simon's cabin. The three men followed her, Blair quickly drawing alongside.
"Okay, Megan, spill it. I want to know how you and Dee communicated. According to Jim, neither of you spoke a word from the moment we started this morning until now. Have you developed telepathy or something?"
She giggled. "Or something. We had two weeks to work on our plans. I took a crash course in an abbreviated form of sign language, something Dee calls battle speech." She moved her fingers rapidly through the air. "That means split up and flank them."
"Like you did to us when you 'killed' me." Blair shook his head in amazement. His lover was something else, and now that Dee had found a Companion in Megan, the two of them were a dangerous combination. He'd keep that in mind the next time he decided to pit Sentinel and Guide against Champion and Companion.
The trail they were following turned and ran along the edge of a steep ravine, and the chatter among the three men and one woman ceased as they shifted their attention to keeping their footing on the wet ground in the deepening gloom. The sound of fighting reached them as they approached the top of the path.
"What in the hell?" Simon exclaimed as they entered a small clearing. Jim's weapon lay on the ground next to the coveted flag, and he and Diandra were engaged in hand to hand combat.
Blair started to move toward them, intending to come between them, when he realized both of them were grinning from ear to ear, and they really weren't doing any serious damage to each other. Shaking his head at his companions to indicate not to interfere, Blair and the others watched the two warriors fight.
The Champion and Sentinel were evenly matched. What advantage Jim had over her in height and weight, Dee made up in speed and experience. But they were both tired, and their hearts really were no longer in it. She let his punch slide by her face, and gave a light tap to his stomach with her knee. He slipped in the mud, and Dee caught him, both of them laughing as they tried to stay upright.
Blair knew something was wrong when the expression on both their faces changed to fear. Jim shoved the Champion away from him as the earth crumbled underneath their feet. She grabbed for his arm, but his rain slick hand eluded her strong fingers, and he disappeared over the side of the ravine in a shower of dirt and debris.
Both guides raced to the edge, Megan pulling her partner out of harm's way, Blair flopping to his stomach to peer over the side. The sight of his soulmate's crumpled body lying thirty feet below sent an arrow through his heart. From somewhere down the mountain, a wolf's howl gave voice to Blair's agony.
The war had started out innocently enough, with the normal everyday occurrence of an argument between Sentinel and Guide. No, not between Blair and Jim, but between temporary partners Jim and Megan. That teaming had been Simon's brainchild; a way to keep his best detective in the field while his partner sat on his ass waiting for the startup of the next session at the Police Academy. Until Blair had completed police training, he was not allowed on the streets with Jim, as his partner, as a consultant, or as an observer. It was driving the anthropologist crazy.
Blair tapped his pencil against his teeth and squinted at the report on the screen. When Simon had proposed his little deal to him, Blair had protested, and this was the compromise. Since he was so good at paperwork, he was allowed to hang around the station and help Jim fill out his reports. That had worked okay, until both Megan and Jim had come off their mandatory desk duty after recovering from the injuries they'd received from Zeller. They had been out in the field together for the first time today, and the not knowing was making Blair nuts.
Warm hands descended on his shoulders, and strong fingers began to massage away the tension there. He jumped a little in his seat, then relaxed as a familiar voice said, "It's just me, Lobo. Goddess, you're tight. What's going on?"
He felt Diandra take a seat in Jim's chair, her hands never pausing their soothing motion. "Jim and Megan are out at a crime scene... "
"Annnnd?" Her voice was a seductive purr, and he could hear his lover inhale deeply, drinking in his scent.
"And I'm just worried, that's all." He swiveled his seat around to face her, finding her electric blue eyes twinkling in gentle humor at him.
The Immortal brushed her fingertips across his cheek, and Blair leaned into the touch. Since the whole fiasco with his dissertation, he'd come to rely on her more and more, her quiet strength and support the glue that had held him together as he'd faced the dissolution of his career and his relationship with Jim. Fortunately things on the Jim front were looking up, even if the same couldn't be said for his life's work. But he had options now, which was more than could be said a few weeks ago.
He brought his hand up to cover hers and she smiled as she caught a glimpse of the tattoo on his wrist. "I spoke to Joe today. You know he wants you to work for him full time... " The older man had been one of the first people to support Blair's decision to label his work a fraud. As Joe had told her, Blair's courage and selflessness had only endeared him to the Watchers. After all, if he would lie to prevent the world from discovering Sentinels, what would he do to protect Immortals? Blair had, as Joe so quaintly put it, "balls".
Blair's small headshake interrupted her reminiscing. "I know, I know, not without Jim. Are you sure Ellison won't reconsider Joe's proposal?"
The guide nodded. "I'm sure. He respects what you are, respects your way of life, but he wants no part of it and certainly no part of the tangled organization that is the Watchers. He says they remind him too much of covert ops, with the politicking and constant danger."
She slid their joined hands into her lap and gave his fingers a squeeze. "And being a cop isn't dangerous?"
He shrugged. "At least you don't have to worry about your colleagues coming after you if you screw up." He let out a sigh, and she realized talking about the Watchers was only increasing his bad mood.
"Okay, enough about that. Today's Jim and Megan's first day out in the field again. What are they investigating?"
Blair turned back to the computer screen, pushing his glasses up on his nose. "Break in, I think, nothing major."
Leaning her chin on his shoulder, Dee said, "So why are you so worried?"
"Because it's my place, not Megan's. I'm Jim's partner, his guide, not her!" His voice was low, but vehement.
Her laughter startled him, and he turned to find her sitting back in her chair, waggling a finger at him. "What's so funny?" he asked with a scowl.
"You. I can't believe you're not cool with this, after all the times you've worked with me and Megan hasn't uttered a peep. It's okay, Lobo. Pajara is just doing her job, being a guide, watching her partner's back. It doesn't matter that today she's paired with Jim instead of me. It's what she does; it's what you do. She is not going to take your place. She couldn't, just as you can't take hers. Comprende?"
The corners of his lips twitched upwards in a small smile. "Si, quierida. Comprende." Leaning forward, he impulsively kissed her, then glanced around the bullpen to see if anyone was watching.
Henri gave him a wink from across the room. "Go, Hairboy!" he said gleefully.
Blair blushed crimson, and Dee shot the big detective a look, one eyebrow raised. "Watch it, H," she told him, "or Megan won't be bringing any of my baklava on potluck Friday." Brown quickly buried his nose in a file folder.
Satisfied her honor had been defended, Diandra gazed around the police station that was beginning to feel like a second home to her. She had become a familiar presence to the detectives of Major Crimes, stopping by a couple times a week to visit Blair. Her visits had become more frequent after the Zeller case, when she had dropped off and picked up a sling-wearing Megan each day. If any of the men had wondered at the sudden appearance of a history professor in their midst, they simply chalked it up to the Sandburg mystique. When word had gotten around the first of the year that the Inspector from Down Under was moving in with the professor, there had been a few raised eyebrows, but any rumors had been abruptly quashed by Diandra's open and ongoing relationship with Blair.
Joel Taggert entered the bullpen, and she waved at him, getting a genuine smile in return. She suspected he had guessed the truth about her and Megan, just as he had about Jim and Blair, but the subject had never come up in conversation, and she wasn't about to bring it up. He would guard their secrets with his life, as would most of the other men and women of Major Crimes, who had witnessed firsthand the destruction the leak of Blair's dissertation had almost wrought upon the two men. Thank the goddess that hadn't happened. She shuddered involuntarily, not even wanting to consider the consequences if it had.
She watched Blair work at the computer for a while, her hand lightly rubbing his back, keeping him grounded as they waited their partners' return. Her sensitive ears picked up the slightly raised voices before they were even off the elevator, and she smiled at the typical conversation they were having.
"All I'm saying, Connor, is you don't know what it's like. Military operations is a whole different mindset than police work. There are similarities, yes, but a military operation places more emphasis on... "
"Testosterone?" Dee mentally licked a finger and tallied up a point for her companion. "That's been my experience with the armed forces. All brawn, no brain. No finesse, no strategy, not in today's army. Whoever has the biggest booms wins."
Ellison entered the bullpen in front of her, chivalry be damned. "So you think you could outsmart me on the battlefield, then, hmm?" Taking off his jacket, he hung it on the coat rack and crossed his arms over his chest, glaring at the two people who had taken over his desk space. The grin on Diandra's face irritated him, as he suspected it was at his expense, and his guide, well... "Wipe that smile off your face, Chief, this is a serious discussion." Blair looked away, his muffled snickers still audible behind his hand.
Megan drew herself up to her full 5'9" and jabbed a finger at the sentinel's muscular chest. "Yeah, we'd beat the bloody pants off of you."
"We? When did this suddenly become we?"
The Aussie nodded, her auburn curls bouncing. "Yes, we." Her voice lowered, "Champion and Companion versus Sentinel and Guide." She raised it again for the benefit of Simon, who was walking in the door. "Women versus the men. Cop and academic versus cop and academic. That's fair, don't you think, Captain?"
Too late Simon Banks realized he'd been made part of a situation he knew nothing about. "All's fair in love and war," he managed, hoping to escape unscathed. No such luck.
"That's just what I'm talking about, sir, war. Diandra and myself against Ellison and Sandy in some kind of war games. You're just the person we need to referee." Megan attached herself to his elbow, blocking his escape route.
"Well, Connor, I really don't think I have the expertise... and Sandburg and Pallas might not agree to being drafted... " he stammered.
Blair blinked innocently. "I don't mind being drafted, do you Dee?" She shook her head. "In fact, it might prove a very interesting test of our skills."
"I'm all for it," Dee said. "It's been quite a while since I last kicked Ellison around." She gave him a feral smile.
Jim threw up his hands in a defensive gesture. "Wait a minute, wait a minute! I haven't agreed to this! What if I don't want to play?"
"How about we let Jim chose the game, and the weapons?" Blair glanced quickly from Dee to Megan, who both nodded. "We agree to that. Jim?"
The Sentinel's grin was decidedly wicked. "Capture the flag, and paintball. And just so we have an impartial judge, losers have to finish the repairs to Simon's cabin," he said, making reference to the damage it had sustained at the end of the Cristo case in November.
The tall man rubbed his hands together. "That, I can agree on. Now when is the next weekend everyone's free?"
For one long moment, time stood still, the two women and three men frozen in position, like pawns on a chessboard. Blair's tortured whisper was barely audible over the sound of water steadily dripping from new leaves. "Jim! Oh, god, Jim!"
The sentinel never moved, but his guide's words sent the others into a whirlwind of motion. Diandra's clear voice rang through the forest. "Simon, get out from under this tree line and use your cell phone to call for help; you should be able to get a signal closer to the cabin." She didn't even spare a glance in his direction, trusting him to follow her orders. She peered intently into her companion's pale face, a quick squeeze of Megan's shoulder bringing her out of her shock. "Pajara, Daryl has some rope and first aid supplies in his backpack. I need the two of you to fashion a harness, and find a way to secure it, so we can send Blair down." A quick look at Daryl found him already sliding the pack off his shoulders and digging into it.
Blair tore his eyes from his partner for a second, his terrified gaze meeting the Immortal's. "What are you going to do?"
Diandra moved to the side of the cliff, looking for a stable area. Finding it, she said, "I'm going down." Easing herself over the edge, she descended rapidly, ignoring the rocks that tore at her hands and arms in her controlled slide, mentally cursing the sentinel. She knew he had reacted instinctively, shoving her to safety, but it had been a stupid, stupid move. The fall might have killed her, but she had the ability to come right back; he didn't. Reaching the bottom of the ravine, she scrambled over the broken ground, all her senses trained on the motionless sentinel.
Jim's heart still beat, but its rhythm was rapid and fluttery, his breathing strained and shallow. Before she even touched him, she'd catalogued a broken left femur, and judging by the heat she could feel radiating from him, severe internal injuries. She ran her fingertips lightly over him, her touch finding broken ribs, collarbone, and... goddess, no...
He moaned then, and his eyelids flickered. "Jim, don't try to move. Just lie still." She raised her eyes to the top of the cliff, and called out. "How long on that harness?"
"Almost done!" Megan yelled back.
"I need Blair down here ASAP!" she answered, then turned her attention back to the injured man in front of her. "Jim, can you hear me?"
His eyes opened slowly, their gaze unfocused. "Dee? What happened?"
"You took a nasty fall, Ellison. Can you tell me where it hurts?"
He blinked a couple times, his brow furrowing. "I don't... I can't feel anything... ." She heard his heartbeat begin to race, and knew he'd come to the same conclusion she had. "My neck's broken, isn't it?" he stated quietly.
Letting out the breath she'd been holding, she said softly, "Yes. Will you let me help you?" The part of her tuned in to the people up top noted Blair was beginning his descent.
Jim closed his eyes, and for a moment she thought he'd slipped into unconsciousness again. She had moved her hands into position, preparing to go to work, when his eyes opened again, their vision no longer clouded. "Dee, you know how I feel about your... magic... "
Her fingers curled into fists of frustration. "Damn it, Ellison. If you don't let me help you, you are going to die out here."
The muscles of his throat spasmed as he tried to swallow. "Maybe that would be for the best... "
Anger and horror fought for dominance. Anger won. "Fuck you, James Ellison! I won't let you do that to Lobo, and I won't let you make me the instrument of your death!"
A shadow fell over the sentinel and champion, and they both looked up into the frightened, confused face of Blair Sandburg. Two words escaped his lips, "Why, Jim?"
Two weeks from the time the gauntlet had been thrown down in the bullpen of Major Crimes, the players gathered at Simon Banks' cabin north of Seacouver. Enthusiasm had quickly overcome the police captain's misgivings, and he had spent the time devising the rules and the setup for the game. His son, Daryl, had that weekend off as part of his spring break, and once his father had filled him in on the premise, Daryl had demanded to be allowed to participate. Simon had quickly adapted the game to allow for two judges, one for each team. The two had taken the Friday before the paintball weekend off, and had spent the day hiding the target, as well as constructing a tangled web of false trails for the two teams to unravel.
As Simon glanced about his partially rebuilt kitchen at Megan washing dishes, and Diandra and Jim drying, he remembered a time eight months ago when he'd been sure one of the two sentinels would end up dead at the hands of the other. And Connor... who would have ever thought she would end up as a guide, partnering the unique woman who had captured Sandburg's heart. Dee's ability to take the Cascade PD's resident Romeo off the market was mystery enough in itself, but the fact that Jim Ellison seemed okay with their relationship was nothing short of a miracle.
He gazed out the open doors to the deck, feeling a smile cross his face as he watched his son conversing with Blair. Simon had wondered if their friendship would survive Blair declaring his thesis, his academic life's work, a fraud, since Daryl had looked up to the former grad student from the moment they'd met. His son had surprised him, though. He'd come straight to his father as soon as Simon had been well enough to discuss the subject, and told him he knew that every word Blair had spoken at the press conference had been a lie. The circle of people dedicated to protecting the sentinel and guide had just grown by one more.
"So, Simon," Dee said, interrupting the tall man's retrospection, "has Daryl made up his mind about college yet?"
He nodded, taking a plate from her and placing it in the cupboard. "He still wants to be a cop, but he's agreed to attend college first."
"Has he decided where he's going to go?" Jim asked.
"He's been accepted at Seacouver College, and he's seriously considering it since they have a very good criminal justice program."
Megan pulled the drain on the sink and turned on the tap to rinse the last of the suds away. "Is he going to live in the dorm or commute?"
"Dorm. His mother thinks it will be good for him, help him mature." Simon's snort was his opinion of his ex-wife's view.
Diandra had been drying the same fork for some time, her expression thoughtful. "Is he going to work along with going to school?"
Banks nodded. "He's been offered a partial scholarship, and I'm footing the bill for the rest, but he knows he'll have to find a job if he wants any spending money."
"You know, Duncan can always use someone to help out a couple days a week at the dojo... and I think they would have a lot in common." Jim's head shot up at Dee's cryptic comment, but she only shrugged, giving him an innocent smile.
"That might not be such a bad idea, Captain," Megan seconded. "Dee and I can keep kind of an unofficial eye on him."
Simon straightened up, placing his hands on his hips and glaring at the two women. "Do you think my son is going to get into that much trouble?"
The three dishwashers looked at each other and chorused, "Yes!"
"So, Blair, what do you think?" Daryl asked, his enthusiasm plainly visible on his face even in the fading spring twilight. "Do you think if I take classes during the summer, and take the maximum credits each semester, that I can graduate in three years?"
Blair stared at the beer bottle dangling in his hands, then lifted it to his lips and took a drink. He leaned against the deck railing and finally, realizing he'd been silent a bit too long, said, "Yeah, man, it can be done. But it's real easy to burn out that way. Better to take the full four years and go to the academy the second year you're eligible, instead of the first. Besides, you might find something that interests you more than becoming a cop." He took another sip of his beer, finding the taste suddenly bitter.
Daryl shook his head. "Huh uh, no way. I wanna be like my dad. I wanna help people the way you and Jim and Megan do."
Turning away from the teenager, Blair stared out into the woods, feeling his stomach hitch and roil at Daryl's words. His fingers tightened around the smooth glass of the bottle. "There's plenty of ways to help people without becoming a cop, Daryl."
The young man frowned, confused by his friend's change of attitude. "What's with you? A couple months ago you were championing my decision to my dad, and now you're acting like my going to the police academy is a bad idea. You're going there yourself in a little over a month, what gives?"
Blair ran a hand through his hair, pushing the long strands behind his ear. Sighing, he said, "I just don't want you to get so focused on being a cop that you don't explore anything else. Life goes by fast enough as it is; slow down enough that you enjoy college. It's not just about books, and studying, and getting that degree."
Daryl rolled his eyes. "I know that, man."
Glancing back over his shoulder at him, Blair said, "And it's not about partying and women, either."
"Okay, okay, I'll shut up now. Just think long and hard before you make any decision that's going to affect the rest of your life." Been nice if you could've taken your own advice, Sandburg, he thought.
Simon chose that moment to stick his head out the door. "Daryl, can you come in a sec?"
"Sure, Dad. Later, Blair." Daryl went inside, and Blair was left alone with his thoughts, which were not particularly good company.
The deck squeaked behind him as someone else came outside, but the guide didn't turn around. "Chief? Something bothering you?"
He felt Jim join him in leaning on the railing, but he didn't look at him. "Just talking with Daryl about college. Nothing big."
Jim rested his back against the wood rail, folding his arms over his chest and crossing one ankle over the other. "Big enough my guts are tied in knots."
Damn connection. "Sorry." Blair took one last drink from his beer, and poured the rest into the grass.
The sentinel tried again. "You wanna talk about it?"
The younger man began to unwind the label from the beer bottle, intent on removing it in one long strand. "Not really, Jim. Just brought back memories, that's all." He heard the older man's sharp intake of breath, but didn't elaborate.
"Look, Blair, I know this must be hard on you, seeing Daryl so eager about something you were forced to give up... "
Blair cut him off. "I wasn't 'forced' into anything; it was my decision to make, and I made it. I'd do it again. But now it's over and done with, and I really don't want to talk about something I wouldn't change if I could." He stuffed the paper he'd torn off the bottle down its neck, and set it on the railing hard enough that Jim had to reach out a hand to steady it to keep it from crashing to the ground.
The two men stood in silence for few minutes, Blair staring out at the trees, and Jim staring at him, trying to figure out where his partner's head was at that moment in time. Finally, he said, "Chief... "
Again, the younger man interrupted him. "I know we need to talk, Jim, about a lot of things, but not now. I need to figure it out for myself, first, before I can talk to you."
His partner's abrupt words grated on the detective and he straightened, then headed for the cabin door, taking the empty beer bottle with him. Passing the sofa where Dee and Megan were sitting looking over some of the companion's sketches, he caught the Immortal's eye. Hooking a thumb in the direction of the deck, he growled, "Your turn."
Rising, Dee crossed the room and slipped outside, closing the door behind her. Blair hadn't moved, still leaning on his arms, which rested on the railing. Coming up behind him, she placed her hand lightly on his back, gently rubbing in a circular motion, but not saying a word.
Blair closed his eyes at her comforting touch, the part of him that was bitter and angry slowly fading as the incredible love he felt flowing down their bond wrapped itself around him like a warm blanket. He straightened up, feeling her arms slide around his waist, and he leaned back against her solid support, resting his hands on her forearms where they wound around his stomach.
He wasn't sure exactly how long they stood like that, but the stars had come out by the time he finally spoke, his voice a hoarse whisper. "I'm so confused, Dee." Her embrace tightened, and he felt her cheek come to rest against his hair. He swallowed nervously, trying to settle the butterflies that had taken up residence in his stomach. "I thought I did the right thing; I know I did the right thing. But why am I having so many doubts now?" She didn't answer, and Blair continued, trying to sort out his jumbled feelings aloud. "Jim's my other half, my partner, and I would do anything to protect him, to keep my place at his side. So why does the idea of going to the academy, of becoming a cop, of being his partner for 'real', unnerve me so much?" His tone dropped to a level only she could hear. "Why does it feel so wrong?"
Blair turned around in her arms, looking for the answer in her eyes. When she remained silent, he said with a little smile, "That wasn't a rhetorical question, angel. Don't you have an opinion, or some advice, or something else to say to me?"
After pressing a kiss to his forehead, Dee answered him. "Yeah, I have an opinion, but it's mine, so I feel no need to share it with you." She gave him a grin. "And, yes, I do have some advice. Listen to your heart, because it holds the answers you seek. Figuring out what language it's speaking is another thing altogether." Blair laughed, as she'd hoped he would, and she continued. "And my something else is: no matter what you decide, no matter which path you take, or what you do with the rest of your life, I will always love you." She felt the sudden hiccup in his breathing at her words. "I am so proud of you, Lobo. I don't think I tell you that often enough."
Blair hugged her tighter, burying his face in her neck for a long couple of moments before saying, "How come you always know what to say to make me feel better?"
As he looked back up at her, she ran her fingers through his chestnut curls. Her blue eyes met his as she told him, "I've been around a long time... " She smiled at his soft laugh at her understatement. "And one thing I've learned is that life is much too short not to say what's in your heart."
His hand came up to gently cup her cheek, and his words were quietly reverent. "I love you."
Blair dropped slowly to his knees beside his sentinel. Jim didn't want to live? He couldn't accept that, he wouldn't accept that. Jim was injured severely, he wasn't thinking straight, he didn't know what he was saying... Later, they would deal with this later, when Jim was better, after Dee had helped him. Tearing his gaze from his partner's unmoving form, he caught the champion's eyes. "How bad?" he whispered.
Dee ran a hand over her face, wiping the still falling rain from her eyes. "Concussion, internal injuries, broken leg, broken ribs, broken collarbone, broken neck... ." The young man's sudden gasp stopped her in mid-sentence.
"You can help him right?" he asked anxiously.
"Yes, but... "
Jim's voice interrupted her this time. "Hey, I'm still here, don't I get a say in this?"
Blair's expression was harsh as he looked down at his friend. "No. This time what I say goes. You are going to let Dee help you. I don't care if that's not what you want. Your life is not yours alone anymore, or have you forgotten that?"
Jim closed his eyes for a moment, then said tightly, "Fine. Do what you have to do."
Blair could tell he still wasn't convinced this was for the best, but he would go along with it. The guide looked once more to Dee for help. "What do you need me to do?"
The Immortal sat back on her heels, considering the best way to approach the problem. "This is going to take a while, and hurt like hell. Can you help Jim into a trance state, maybe send him into a zone out on purpose?"
Blair nodded, even though he wasn't sure if he could. He'd theorized about something similar, but Jim had never been willing to undergo the tests necessary to prove Blair's hypothesis. "Can I touch him?"
"Yes, just don't move him. In fact," she took his hands and placed them gently on either side of Jim's head, his fingertips pressing lightly against his temples, "that way gives extra support to his neck."
Taking a deep breath, Blair centered himself, shoving his fears down, feeling his heartrate slow to a steady rhythm as he grounded his spirit, firmly anchoring it to the earth beneath his knees. When he was ready, he began to speak, his voice low and hypnotic. "Okay, Jim, I want you to turn all the dials down, turn everything down but your hearing. Then concentrate on my heartbeat, and filter out everything else." The lines of tension disappeared from Jim's face, his breathing slowed and his gaze focused on something deep inside himself.
At Blair's nod, Dee leaned over him, her hands poised a scant inch above Jim's neck. Closing her eyes, she pushed her Quickening energy out through her fingertips, surprised at the ease with which it flowed between the two of them. Concentrating, she began to manipulate his body's healing ability, mending damaged nerves, restoring severed connections.
Snapping his cell phone shut, Simon raced back to where he'd left the others, praying the rescue team he'd contacted would arrive in time. He entered the clearing to find only Megan and Daryl gazing nervously over the side of the ravine, careful not to get too close to the edge. "Connor," he barked, "what's the situation?"
The Aussie turned toward him, her expression surprisingly calm. "Dee and Sandy are down there with Jim, sir."
Simon moved to the top of the cliff and peered over. The rain was coming down hard now, cutting visibility considerably. He could barely make out the still form of his friend and the two people bending over him in the deepening shadow. Something seemed strange though, and he wiped at his glasses. The faint blue glow surrounding Jim didn't disappear.
He took a step back from the edge in shock, then glanced at the two faces in front of him. Daryl's frightened countenance probably mirrored his own, but Connor, Connor seemed almost complacent, as if she knew exactly what was happening down there.
Strong fingers closed around her upper arm as Simon hissed, "What in the hell is going on?"
The cold, damp forest of the Pacific Northwest faded around Jim as he followed the sound of his guide's heart. That too, disappeared, and the sentinel found himself in the familiar jungle setting of his spirit visions. A low-pitched snarl caught his attention, and he glimpsed the dark, powerful form of his spirit guide disappearing into the trees. Without hesitation, he followed, the cat leading him to a place he never wanted to see again, the temple of the Sentinel in Sierra Verde.
The black jaguar leapt effortlessly up the stone steps, looking back over its shoulder at Jim before disappearing into the ancient ruins. The sentinel stood at the foot of the steps, a growing sense of unease settling over him. He did not want to go back in there. Images flashed through his mind, memories of Alex drugging him, of being helpless, paralyzed in the pool of water. He shook his head to clear it. No, he was not going in there.
Turning to go back the way he had come, Jim found himself face to face with Incacha. The Chopec Shaman didn't say a word, didn't appear to move a muscle, yet each time the sentinel tried to walk away from the temple, he was simply there. After several futile attempts to escape his destiny, Ellison sighed and turned back toward the ruins, climbing the steps to the entrance. Breathing deeply to calm himself, he noticed the unusual odor of burned feathers. He looked back at the forest, seeing nothing but vegetation and lazily drifting tendrils of mist.
Shrugging, he entered the temple slowly, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. A rumbling growl alerted him to his spirit guide's presence, and he followed the animal as it wound its way through the maze of corridors. The cat disappeared around a corner, and, rounding it, Jim discovered he had been led right to the sensory deprivation chamber, or whatever the ancient ones had called the small room with the two geo-thermal pools.
His guide was no longer in sight. "I don't care what you want, cat, but I'm not getting in the water," he muttered.
At the sound of the snarl, the sentinel turned back toward the pools, watching in horror as a golden, black-spotted jaguar emerged from the water, the droplets of moisture rolling off of it effortlessly, leaving the fur dry and unruffled. It growled again, the feline features appearing to be laughing at him.
"No," Jim whispered, "you can't be here. You're dead, killed four months ago in a fire at the sanitarium in Mexico... ."
The spotted jag roared at him, its coat beginning to shift and change, golden fur becoming golden flame. The fire consumed the cat, growing and growing until it filled the room, forcing Jim to back toward the door to avoid getting burned. The swirling, dancing colors mesmerized him, red, yellow, orange, white, all running together, twisting and turning until a new image was formed... a huge, burning bird of flame. Its piercing shriek deafened him as its brightness blinded him. Squeezing his eyes shut and clapping his hands over his ears, the sentinel dropped to his knees, overwhelmed.
Dee straightened, shaking the cramps out of her hands and drawing in a deep breath. She felt Blair's hopeful eyes upon her. Giving him a tired smile, she said, "I'm not finished by a long shot, but the neck injury is healed." Stretching, she glanced up toward the top of the ravine, catching a glimpse of her partner's face as she spoke with Simon. //I may need your strength, Pajara.// She gazed at Blair a moment before she turned her attention back to Jim. //And yours, Lobo.//
Concentrating once again, she spread her hands over the sentinel's torso, preparing to work on his internal injuries.
Megan pulled her arm out of her captain's grasp. "I don't know what you're talking about, sir," she replied calmly. The look on her face dared him to question her further.
Simon leaned over the side of the ravine again, calling down to the trio. "Sandburg! Search and rescue should be here in 30 minutes!"
He started to move away, but something about their positions was familiar. He flashed back eight months to the grainy black and white images from a convenience store security camera. Only the body on the ground hadn't been Ellison, it had been Sandburg, bleeding from a point-blank gunshot to the chest. Diandra had been in the same position then as now, bent over the injured man, her hands outstretched.
Simon took a startled step backwards, lost his footing in the mud, and fell on his ass. Daryl was beside him in an instant, his hand on his father's shoulder to steady him. "Dad? What's the matter? Are you okay?"
"She's healing him... " he whispered, "like she healed Sandburg... "
The Aussie squatted next to him. "Like she healed me." Both Banks' heads swiveled in her direction, and Megan found herself being interrogated by two pairs of dark eyes.
As quickly as the sensory assault had begun, it ended. Ellison opened his eyes slowly, his hands dropping to his sides. He was no longer in the temple, but outside of it, in the jungle. His throat felt raw, scratchy, and he coughed, then took a deep breath, breathing in the heavy scent of smoke and--gagging, he scrambled to turn down his sense of smell--burned flesh.
Once again Incacha appeared, this time gesturing for the sentinel to follow him. Jim did silently, knowing that the Shaman would speak when he was ready. The trail they walked wound through the trees, and the further they traveled, the worse the devastation became. Vegetation was charred; trees were scorched.
No sound reached the sentinel's ears. The voices of the rainforest's denizens had all been silenced. Finally Incacha came to a stop at the top of a rise, lifting one arm and pointing out over a small valley. Forcing himself to look, Jim quickly tore his eyes away from the sight. There was literally almost nothing left. The blackened skeletons of trees rose from the charred, smoldering ground, reaching their bare limbs to a smoke darkened sky.
A high, keening cry pierced the air, and Ellison looked up to see a red falcon soaring slowly over the valley, riding the warm, rising air in a giant spiral. He turned back to Incacha, his insides clenching with dread.
"Follow the Falcon," the Shaman intoned, then faded from sight.
Ellison faced the valley again, every muscle in his body screaming at him to run in the other direction. Clamping a tight lid on his senses, and his emotions, he began to descend the hillside.
she was tired. Closing her eyes, Diandra straightened, swaying dizzily. She wondered if it was possible to give too much energy, to so completely drain herself that she "died". Guess we'll find out, won't we? Shaking her head to clear the fuzziness trying to overwhelm her, she forced her eyes open again, focusing on the last of her self-appointed tasks, Ellison's broken leg. Centering herself, she pushed... and nothing happened.
That answers that question, she thought. Let's try something different. She concentrated on the connection between herself and her companion, thinking she might be able to use it to draw the energy she needed from the other woman. Again, nothing. Megan was either too far away, or physical contact really was necessary for that trick to work.
Damn it. It was a compound fracture, one end of it breaking through the skin, and much too close to his femoral artery for her comfort. One tiny slip by the rescue team she could sense on the edge of her hearing, and he would bleed to death in seconds.
Blair's hand settled on her shoulder. "You okay, Dee?"
She glanced over at him. "Yeah, just really tired. Hang on to me for a minute, would you? I need your help." Opening herself up to him, she felt his brilliant power, and once again was reminded of how unique the Guide/Shaman was. Not for the first time she wondered if she could teach him to heal. Then, setting all other thoughts aside, she took hold of that power, letting it flow through her, as hers had once flowed through him, sending it out through her hands, repositioning the two halves of the bone and knitting them together. She heard Blair's startled gasp as he felt what she was doing, but he held fast, his fingers gripping her shoulder, daring her to make him let go.
Feeling the last of the wound close, Dee shut the connection down, the guide's hold on her the only thing keeping her upright. "'Tis done," she managed to breathe before darkness claimed her.
"Dee? Oh, shit, Dee!" Blair caught her as she toppled over, his hand going automatically to her throat for a pulse. There was none. It'll be okay, he told himself. She's just taking a little rest, she'll be right back... and Jim was still out of it, too, damn it... "Jim, man, follow my voice back. It's okay, everything's going to be fine. It's safe to come back... " His sentinel took a deep breath, blinked once, then his eyes closed, and didn't reopen. Blair hoped that was a sign he was just unconscious.
The sound of boots scrabbling for purchase on stone caught his attention, and Blair looked up to see a paramedic descending the side of the ravine on a line. He reached the bottom a few seconds later, and unclipped the line from his belt. "Hi," he said, "my name's Bill. Can you tell me what happened?"
Blair briefly explained about the fall that Jim had taken, as Bill went to work on him, checking his vitals, being careful not to move him. Satisfied that Jim was okay for the moment, the EMT turned his attention to Diandra, still being cradled in Blair's arms. "She fall too?" he asked.
Blair shook his head, not sure how to explain her condition. Come on, Dee, you can come back any time now, he mentally pleaded. Bill took her from Blair, laying her out on the ground, searching for a pulse, his expression changing fractionally when he didn't find one. He spoke rapidly into his radio, and within seconds two more technicians were coming down the cliff face.
The guide was pushed aside as the team went to work, starting CPR on Dee, one of them monitoring Jim while waiting for the rest of the rescue workers to finish setting up the apparatus needed to send a stretcher down.
Megan's calm veneer had vanished when the news had come over the rescue team's radio about a female in full cardiac arrest. It was all Simon and Daryl could do to hold her back as the stretcher cleared the top of the cliff. She struggled in their arms as the EMTs continued to work on Dee, her pleas for her champion to come back heartbreaking. The tech shocked her twice, and was leaning in for a third attempt, when a rush of air filled the Immortal's lungs and her eyes snapped open. Her hand shot up, her fingers closing on the throat of the hapless paramedic.
Reaching the bottom of the hill, Jim paused to get his bearings. The falcon still circled, pinpointing an area that the sentinel estimated to be the center of the valley. He began to walk in that direction, his feet stirring the ash that covered the ground, sending it up in tiny clouds that irritated his throat and sinuses. He had everything turned down; the smell, the sense of death was everywhere, and yet he had seen no sign of anything other than the scored ground, and the blasted trees.
His attention fixed on the red raptor, his foot snagged on something, and he stumbled. Curious, he dropped to one knee to examine the object that had tripped him. Brushing away the soot, he quickly uncovered a sword, but to his surprise, it was not Diandra's familiar katana. It had a long, flat, double-edged blade topped with a straight, metal cross-piece, the handle wrapped in well-worn leather. It took him a second, but he recognized it as a claymore, the primary weapon of the Scottish clans. That bit of trivia triggered the connection for him, and Jim remembered where he'd seen it before: on a previous trip to the spirit realm, strapped to the back of a kilt-wearing Megan Connor.
Dread kicked him in the gut, and he rose unsteadily, the sword dropping from suddenly lax fingers, the smell of burnt feathers overwhelming. He staggered forward, half-running, wanting to escape whatever was waiting for him. Instead he ran right into it.
The broken, tortured body of a large bird lay in a twisted heap on the ground, black and white feathers still faintly smoking. "No... no... " the sentinel whispered, then ran on, unable to stand the sight any longer.
"Dee! Dee! Let go!" Her companion's voice swept away the cobwebs in her mind, and Diandra released her grip, vaguely aware of a form falling away from her, the sound of choking quickly relegated to background noise.
Her partner's touch grounded her, and she tried to sit up. Bad idea, she realized, as someone was trying to rip her scalp off from the inside.
"Take it easy, lady," Megan said quietly. "You were out for quite a while."
Out? What? She looked up into the Aussie's concerned eyes. Dead? She'd been dead? Guess that answered her question from earlier. It was possible to cross the line, to give too much. "Jim, how's Jim?"
Megan knelt next to her, glaring at the EMT who looked like he was considering checking Dee's vital signs. "She's fine!" she snapped, and the man scurried away. "I don't know how Jim is. They're bringing him up now. How are you doing?"
Dee brought a hand up to her head, trying to stop the pounding. "Not good. Having my head taken sounds really wonderful right now... "
"That bad, hmm?" Megan's fingers moved to lightly massage her temples. "Take a deep breath, slowly, that's it. And let it out, letting all the tension and the pain go with it. And again... "
The Immortal tried to follow her partner's instructions, but she was distracted by the sound of Blair being hauled to the top of the ravine, followed more slowly by Jim. She watched as Jim was carried up the trail, strapped to a backboard. Blair crossed to where the champion and companion sat, bending down to brush his hand over her shoulder.
"You okay, angel?"
"Been better," she replied with a grimace. "You going with Ellison?"
"Um hmm, there's room for me in the chopper for a change." He pressed a kiss to her forehead. "Thank you, Dee."
She leaned her cheek against his for a moment. "Anything for you, Lobo," she whispered.
Blair kissed her again softly, then turned to Megan. "Get Simon and Daryl to help you get her up to the cabin and into some dry clothes. Try and get some soup in her if she can keep it down. The best thing for her is rest."
Dee shook her head at his words, and almost screamed at the agony the motion caused. He slid his arms around her, holding her until the pain lessened. "Can't stay here," she mumbled against his chest. "Need to be at the hospital, in case Jim needs me, needs us." She squeezed Megan's hand.
"Okay, I don't like it, but you may have a point. I brought Jim out of the zone, but he didn't regain consciousness." Blair released her and stood up. "I'll see you when you get there, okay?" Caressing her face one last time, he turned and headed toward the waiting helicopter.
Megan saw Simon standing a few feet away, talking with one of the rescue squad. "Simon! Can you give me a hand?"
He ran until he couldn't run any more, until the powdery white ash filled his lungs, until charcoal was all he could taste. Coughing and gagging, he fell to his hands and knees, his heart pounding, his chest burning. He remained in that position for several long minutes, drawing on his guide's relaxation techniques to calm him, to restore his balance.
When Jim could finally breathe again, he sat back on his calves, and took a long look around. The landscape was the same as before, ash covered ground, and black scored trees. Only... something was out of place. Light glinted off one of the trees. He focused in with his sight, then rose to investigate. No, not light reflecting off the tree, but off a shiny piece of metal imbedded in the tree. Part of a sword... a katana.
The sentinel looked down at his feet, finding the hilt and the other half of the blade partially buried in the soot. Diandra... no... not her too... He walked on, steeling himself for what he knew was to come.
He kept his eyes glued to the ground, picking out the imprint of hooves under the soft coating of ash. The terrain changed slightly, the earth churned and torn as if a great battle had taken place. In the center of the upheaval lay the body of the black mare, her flanks torn and bloody, her hide burned and blistered. The equine's head had been severed from its neck, and lay a few feet away, her blue eyes, once full of power and intelligence, now dull and lifeless.
Rage filled the sentinel, and he opened up his senses, searching for a clue, for anything that would tell him who had done this. The smell of charred flesh filled his sinuses, and he gagged, dropping once again to his knees, this time to retch at the barbarity before him, fearing what he would find next.
twenty-five, turn. One, two, three... Blair paced the hallway outside the emergency room, wondering what was taking the doctor so long. Jim would be okay; he held firm to that belief. It was just the damn waiting... .
His disjointed thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the doors to the parking lot opening. Looking up, he felt a grin threatening to break through his worry at the sight of Simon striding into the emergency room, his take-charge face firmly in place. His keen eyes found the guide immediately, and he crossed to his side.
Blair shook his head. "No, they won't tell me a thing. I was useful for filling out Jim's insurance info and that was it."
"All right, I'll see what I can find out." The tall captain went in search of someone in charge, badge already in hand.
The entrance to the ER opened again, and Megan entered, Dee moving slowly beside her, one arm thrown over her partner's shoulders. Daryl brought up the rear, a small gym bag in one hand, the other reaching out to support the unsteady Immortal. Blair hurried toward them, the pain in his lover's eyes tearing at his heart. "God, Dee... "
Daryl thrust the bag at him before he reached her. "Here, man, dry clothes."
"Thanks," Blair replied, then turned toward the two women. Megan had dropped into a chair, Dee next to her, her head leaning against her companion's shoulder. The guide bent over her, his fingers lightly tracing the furrow of pain creasing her brow. "Hey babe, how're you doing?"
The Immortal inhaled carefully, even that small motion setting off a chorus of hammers inside her skull. "I'll live. You holding up okay?"
He nodded. "Look, I'm gonna go change, and then I'll be back." Turning to Megan, he said, "See if you can help her turn the pain down, and sometimes it helps if you massage the back of her neck."
As he rose, he felt Dee's fingers trail along his arm. Glancing down, he saw the faint trace of a smile on her lips as she whispered, "Love you, Lobo... " Blair walked off to find the restroom, his heart a little lighter.
When he returned, the emergency room was empty with the exception of Simon. "What's going on?"
"Jim's been moved upstairs. The doctor is going to meet us up there. I sent the others on ahead," he replied, leading the way to the elevator.
When they got there, Jim had just been settled in the room. Blair slipped inside, crossing to the bed and gazing down at the still unconscious sentinel. The nurse who was making sure all the equipment was working properly glanced at him. "You must be the young man that was with Mr. Ellison when he was brought in." At Blair's nod, she continued, "He's a very lucky man. From what the paramedics said, that fall could have killed him."
Blair laid his fingers lightly on Jim's wrist. "I'm the lucky one," he whispered.
The nurse gave him a smile. "I can see you're good friends, but rules are rules. You can only stay a couple more minutes. Visiting hours are almost up." She left the room as a middle-aged man in surgical scrubs and a white lab coat entered.
"Mr. Sandburg? I'm Dr. Samuels."
Blair shook the proffered hand. "How's Jim doing?"
Glancing at his chart, the doctor said, "Much better than I expected after hearing the circumstances of his accident. He was very fortunate to get away with nothing more than some broken ribs and nasty bruises. His injuries should have been much more severe, given the height he fell from."
Running a hand through his hair, Blair fibbed, "Well, it was more like a slide... " He shook his head. "Should he still be unconscious?"
"Actually, he's sedated right now. What he needs most is rest, and we gave him a shot down in the ER that'll keep him out most of the night." Dr. Samuels referred to his clipboard again. "We were a little afraid of a head injury, given what he said when he regained consciousness in the ER, but his CAT scan came out clean. Still, we're keeping a close eye on him."
The relief Blair had been feeling turned to anxiety. "Oh, really," he said with studied nonchalance. "What did he say?"
The doctor turned his back to Blair, adjusting one of the monitors. "Hmm, nothing that made much sense, something about a fire, and a dead horse... " He turned back around to find the long-haired man gone, the door swinging closed behind him.
words had set Blair's heart to pounding. A dead horse... Jim had spoken of a dead horse... He had to find Dee. Racing through the hospital's hallways, he finally found them in an out of the way waiting room, sitting quietly as if nothing was wrong. Simon and his son were reclining in two of the chairs, their legs sprawled out in front of them. Megan and Dee took up most of a couch, the companion bent anxiously over the Immortal, whose huddled position and tightly closed eyes telegraphed her pain.
Simon rose to his feet at Blair's sudden appearance. "Everything okay, Sandburg?"
Blair crossed the small room, his eyes never straying from his lover's form. "Yeah, yeah, Jim's asleep." Leaning over Dee, he laid a hand on her back. "Angel?"
"Hurts... " she hissed between clenched teeth.
"I don't know what else to do, Sandy. I've tried everything I know." Megan looked at him helplessly.
"It's okay, Megan," he said as he gestured for her to get up. Taking her place on the sofa, he pulled Dee into his lap, leaning her head against his shoulder, one arm holding her close, the other gently massaging her scalp. "It's okay, baby," he murmured, his voice sentinel soft. "Just breathe, let everything go, all the pain, all the tension... that's it, you're gonna be fine... " He felt hot tears against his neck, but didn't stop his ministrations or his reassuring whispers. Finally the Immortal's breathing relaxed into the calm rhythm of sleep, and Blair looked up to find three pairs of eyes intently watching him.
"How did you do that?" Megan asked softly.
Shrugging slightly, the guide replied, "I don't really know. This just worked before. I'm not sure if it's the physical contact, or the voice, or both."
Sighing in frustration at her lack of experience with the companion thing, Megan turned to Simon. "I'm heading for the cafeteria, since it looks like we'll be here all night. Want to join me, sir?" At his nod, they walked off, leaving Daryl alone with Blair and the sleeping Dee.
Daryl pulled his chair a little closer to the couch, and simply watched the couple for awhile, seeing in the unguarded moment the depth of Blair's love for her, as the guide leaned his cheek against her hair, and hummed softly in his throat to her. Finally, his curiosity got the better of him. "Blair, can I ask you a question, man?"
"Sure, Daryl, fire away." His blue eyes met the younger man's intently.
"She's not... " he hesitated, not sure how to phrase the question so as not to offend. "Diandra's like Jim, but she's not." Blair raised an eyebrow at him. Daryl tried again. "She's more than just a sentinel, isn't she? Megan said she'd healed her and you the way she did Jim tonight. And I saw the paramedics working on her. She was dead, man!"
Closing his eyes, Blair sighed. This really wasn't his call, not his decision to make, and yet... He looked down at her beautiful face, knowing she trusted him enough to decide how much Daryl and Simon needed to know. Planting a kiss on her forehead, he lifted his eyes to meet his friend's. "You're right. She's more than a sentinel; she's immortal."
The young man stared hard at the guide for a few seconds then blinked. "Come on, man, you expect me to believe that?"
"Is that so much harder to believe than the fact that she has heightened senses? You just said yourself she was dead earlier. How do you explain the fact that she's not now? How do you explain the fact that we both watched her slide down the side of that ravine with no rope, no gloves, no nothing, and yet there's not a scratch on her? I'm not lying to you, Daryl. She can't be hurt the way we can, and if she's killed, depending on the type of injury, she'll recover in a few minutes to a few hours."
Daryl slumped in the chair, absorbing the guide's words. Finally, he said, "Cool."
Shaking his head, Blair replied, "No, it's not cool. Imagine trying to hide this kind of a secret from your friends. You can't stay in one place for too long, or people start to notice you don't get any older, and god, forbid you should die in front of witnesses. Imagine watching everyone you ever knew, you ever loved, die, while you keep on living." Unconsciously his arms tightened around her, as if he could shield her from that kind of pain.
"Oh. That is not cool." Daryl was silent for awhile, a million questions running through his mind. A few minutes later, he said, "So, like, you love her, but you know you can't be with her forever, no matter how much you want to."
Blair blinked back tears, the teenager's words touching on a future he normally tried to avoid thinking about. "Yeah," he finally said, "no happily ever after for us."
Sensing he'd hit a nerve, Daryl apologized. "Sorry, Blair."
Pressing his face against her hair, Blair whispered too softly for the other man to hear, "So am I."
Carrying her salad and a cup of coffee, Megan made her way to one of the cafeteria tables and sat down, joining her captain. They ate in silence for a few minutes, Simon giving her quizzical looks every time he glanced up from his food. Unable to stand it any more, she blurted out, "What?" a little more loudly than she'd intended. Fortunately the room was fairly deserted, and no one looked their way.
Shrugging, Simon sat back in the hard plastic chair, folding his hands on the table. "I'm just waiting for you to tell me whatever it is you couldn't say in front of Daryl or Blair."
"I... " Megan ran her hands through her tangled hair. "Just how do you do it, sir?"
Her question caught him off-guard. "Do what, Connor?"
"Deal with all this sentinel... stuff. Every time I think I'm getting a handle on it, something happens like today, and I realize how little I actually know." She poked at the remains of her salad with her fork. "Don't get me wrong, Captain, I wouldn't change a thing; I would never abandon Dee, but... unlike Sandy, this was never in my in wildest dreams the direction I pictured my life going."
Simon patted down his pockets, looking for a cigar, then realized he couldn't smoke in the hospital. "I'm not sure I can really help you. I try to stay as far out of this 'sentinel stuff' as I can get. I have a hard time believing half the theories Sandburg comes up with."
"That's just my point, sir. I have a hard time believing it, and I'm in the midst of it. It doesn't help that Dee is still mostly a mystery to me. I know she tries, but sometimes I get the feeling she wishes Sandy, or anyone else were her guide instead of me."
Seeing the genuine distress in his subordinate's eyes, Simon's next words were gentle. "Are you talking about the fact that Sandburg was able to help her earlier, and you weren't?" At her nod, he continued. "I don't think that had anything to do with being a guide. I think that had to do with the fact that when you're down, when you're hurting the way she was, all you want is for someone you love to hold you, and make you feel secure enough that you can finally sleep, despite the pain. Sandburg just happens to be that someone."
The Aussie finished her coffee, considering his words. "Thanks," she finally said, "I feel better looking at it that way." They sat in companionable silence for a few more minutes then Megan realized that Simon had never pressed her any further for answers about what had happened out in the woods. "Sir, about what happened today... "
He cut her off with a wave of his hand. "I don't want to know, Connor. I'm perfectly happy in my ignorance. I have no burning need to know how Diandra helped Jim, or how she recovered so suddenly. I'm just going to file today away in that big box I have labeled the Sandburg zone." He gave her a grin. "Are you ready to go back upstairs?" Nodding, she rose and followed him from the room.
Jim rose to his feet, looking automatically to the sky, finding the form of the falcon immediately. It flew in ever-tighter spirals, and the sentinel had the unsettling feeling his journey was nearing its end. He began walking again, trying to put the images of the dead mare and osprey out of his mind and failing. Who, or what, could have done this? The mare had not gone down without a fight, that had been evident. He'd seen her in combat, and for someone to have vanquished her, well, he wasn't too sure of his own chances if he had to face them.
The silence that had surrounded Jim since he'd left the temple was shattered by an agonized howl. He broke into a run, knowing that sound could only have come from his soulmate's spirit guide. Breaking through a grove of still smoking trees, he slid to a halt, his eyes focused on the scene before him.
One half of a fire-blackened staff stood upright, the broken end planted in the ground. The other half was driven through the flank of a silver wolf, pinning it to the earth. Dropping to his knees beside the injured animal, Jim reached out a trembling hand to touch its scorched and bloodstained ruff. The wolf's blue eyes opened at the contact, and its head turned, its tongue licking the back of the sentinel's hand before it exhaled a long, shuddering breath, and lay still.
Raising his face to the leaden sky, Jim let forth a howl himself, giving voice to his confusion and grief before gathering the dead wolf in his arms, burying his face in the smoky fur.
The sound of wings behind him finally pulled the sentinel from his grieving. Laying the wolf down tenderly, he turned around, not surprised to find the red-haired Amazon Queen standing there, her gauntleted arms folded across her chest, the expression on her face one of sympathy mixed with exasperation. Closing his eyes, Jim attempted to calm himself, knowing that going with his first inclination to throttle her would get him nowhere.
When he felt in control of himself, he asked, "What happened here? What does this mean?"
The Companion waved her arm to encompass the entire landscape. "This? This is 'for the best.' You said so yourself."
The sentinel gazed at her in horror, his rash words ringing in his ears. "This is my doing?"
"You chose yourself over your Guide. You decided you could no longer live with yourself, with what you had 'done to him'. Did you not consider that the greater punishment might be the opposite choice, the choice to live with what you had done?"
Jim dropped his eyes to the wolf's body. "I... I just didn't want to hurt him anymore... "
"And ripping out half his soul was being kind?" Her hand caught his chin, and she tilted his face up so that his eyes met hers. "Have you not learned anything in your journey together? The Guide cannot survive without the Sentinel, as the Champion cannot live without the Companion. By choosing this road, you have condemned your bondmates to this fate."
Jim felt a headache forming behind his eyes. Why did she have to talk in riddles? "My bondmates... I don't understand... "
The Companion ran a hand lightly over his shoulder. "Sentinel, your Guide is your soulmate. He is bound to the Champion, and through her, to her soulmate, the Companion. You accepted your role when the Champion chose her Companion." He remembered kneeling in a field of grass, Megan and Blair with their arms around Diandra, the Champion reaching out to him. He had grasped her hand, and... .
"So you do remember."
Jim nodded hesitantly, things beginning to make a twisted sort of sense. "I broke the bond, and left the three of them open to whoever, to whatever did this." He gestured at the destruction around them.
"The creature that did all this, the being that tortured the Companion, that the Champion could not slay. The one who desired the Guide above all else, yet destroyed him because he was no longer whole."
The sentinel got to his feet. "How do I stop this 'firebird'? How do I keep this from happening?"
The Companion graced him with a smile. "You know the answer, Sentinel." Her form shimmered, morphing into her alter ego, the red falcon, and taking to the air.
He nodded, embracing his fate. "I choose to live." Jim spun around in a circle, yelling at the sky, "I choose to live!"
After a careful look in both directions, Blair slipped across the hallway and into Jim's room. Pulling a chair up next to the bed, he settled into it, glad he had finally convinced Megan to take Dee back to their loft over the dojo. Simon and Daryl had gone with them, intending to crash there for a few hours before heading back to Cascade. Rubbing his hands vigorously through his hair, he yawned, and wiggled in the chair, trying to get comfortable. When he glanced at Jim again, he found his partner's blue eyes regarding him fondly.
Straightening with a jerk, Blair leaned forward, resting his arm on the side of the bed. "Hey, you're awake. How are you feeling, man?"
"Like I got run over by a truck named Diandra." He moved his hand to rest on top of Blair's, rejoicing in the strong pulse he felt under his fingers. He gazed around the room. "Where is she, by the way? I want to thank her for saving my life."
Blair knew he was grinning like an idiot, but he couldn't help it. "I sent her and Megan home. Healing you took a lot out of her." He yawned again. "And a lot out of me too. Don't do that to me again, okay?"
"I'm not planning on it, Chief. I plan on staying around for a long time. You're stuck with me." Giving him a smile, Jim ruffled his friend's curls. There was time enough to tell him about his vision, and the Companion's warning, later. Right now, he was just going to enjoy the sunshine that was Blair Sandburg.