Sentinel Fan Fiction Page || Fanfic -- In Time and Destiny Series

Summary: In the conclusion of the core series, Jim and Blair enter into the mystical realm to battle the dark shaman; Simon stands guard in the real world watching and waiting for the conflict to end; and in the final battle between good and evil, the price for good winning may be too high. Spoilers: Inspiration from Flight and Warriors, plus one element from Sentinel Too.

Eighth - and final (!) - installment of the In Time and Destiny series. You need to have read the previous seven stories in the series to really understand what's going on here. And again, any books, tablets, talks of shamans, rituals, and the like are all from my own imagination and not meant to be factual. Also, the "fantasy" element in this story gets much more intense than the previous stories. Just so you know.

In Time and Destiny
by Becky
December 1998

The morning after the events in 'On the Threshold'....

Hand on the doorknob of the spare room, Simon opened the door quietly, slowly, hoping to not disturb the sleep of the two men inside. A futile effort, he supposed, because of a certain sentinel, but he could always try. If you'd remembered to get your keys last night, this wouldn't have been necessary, Banks. Making a face, the police captain ignored that rather annoying little voice and continued opening the door, getting it just wide enough for him to slip inside.

In the early morning light filtering through the closed blinds, plus the glow from the small lamp on the dresser, Simon could easily see the figures of the two men, still asleep on the bed. I wonder if they even moved at all last night. He certainly hadn't heard anything, sleeping deeply and heavily until his watch alarm had gone off just a half-hour ago. Blair lay on his stomach, still mostly curled up, wrapped in the heavy comforter, only the top of his head visible from underneath the bedcovers. Jim rested on his side, face turned inward toward his partner, one hand on the smaller man's back. I guess if they didn't move, they slept. They definitely both needed it.

He took a step forward, padding softly across the carpeting toward the dresser to get his keys. He could see the glitter of the metal as it reflected the low lamplight. Glancing back at the bed again just as he reached for his keys, he saw Jim's eyes slit open, his hand shifting slightly on Blair's back, muscles tensing. Preparing to defend himself and Sandburg. Probably has his gun under his pillow.

Simon whispered into the silence, "Just me, Jim. Go back to sleep." He held up the keys briefly, giving reason for the intrusion.

Without saying anything, Jim relaxed and closed his eyes again. Simon waited another moment just to be sure, then tiptoed out of the room, pulling the door quietly shut behind him. Taking a deep breath, he strode down the hallway toward the front door of his apartment.

Time to run a few errands.

***************************

Dark blue eyes flitted over Jim's war-painted face, watching, waiting for his eyes to open again, to return from ... wherever he'd gone just a few moments before. Tucked under Jim's arm, legs curled up underneath him, Blair knew that he would be safe, no matter what Jim saw back in the real world.

The real world. Sometimes it seems like this is more real than what I know to be real. He snorted softly, shaking his head a little, eyes drifting away from his sentinel to observe their surroundings lit by the early morning sun. The by-now familiar trees hung over them, tall and shading and majestic. Lush green growth carpeted the forest floor, cushioning the ground where they sat against one of the massive tree trunks. He could hear a brook somewhere off to his right.

And occasionally he thought he could hear the echo of a wolf's growl or a panther's roar. Jim told him they were both there, watching just out of sight, hidden deeply in the shadows. A crossbow rested on the sentinel's other side, Jim's hand lying on it, fingers slightly curled around the strong wood. Blair knew his safety didn't truly rely on Jim's prowess with that weapon; it was more of a representation, a symbol of his continual presence, of his promise to always protect him, to always come for him, no matter the danger.

Blair shifted a little closer to Jim, placing his hand on Jim's chest over his heart, feeling the reassuring thumping under his palm. As he'd drifted in and out of sleep, he'd always found himself back in this jungle landscape, curled next to Jim. Sometimes the older man was asleep and Blair took the opportunity just to watch him. Other times, Jim was awake, his eyes scanning the area around them before looking down to meet Blair's eyes. Words hadn't been exchanged -- neither had felt them necessary. Whereas this whole experience could've forced them apart, probably what the enemy had hoped for, instead it had drawn them closer together, each growing and learning to rely and depend on the strengths of the other. No matter how much this whole thing had changed his perspective about life, about who he was now, about who he was meant to be, about ... about his destiny, one truth had remained unshaken.

He won't ever fail me. I know that. I think I always have.

A hand covered his and he looked up to meet Jim's light blue eyes, once again watching him. Jim rubbed his thumb on Blair's hand and smiled gently at him. "You okay, Chief?"

Blair nodded, returning the smile. "Yeah. Everything okay out there?"

"Just Simon." A pause, then in a softer voice, "Do you think you're ready to go back yet?"

The younger man looked away, withdrawing his hand to fold it with the other in his lap. He stared at his hands and beyond them to the loose pants and tunic he wore. Abruptly he become aware of the swatches of red paint decorating his face, indicating his status as a shaman, now ... what did Jim say? anointed? yeah, now anointed by his sentinel for war. I still don't know what I'm doing or how I'm doing the things I can. What if I mess up? What if I can't do it? What if--?

"Blair!"

A hand grasped his chin and turned his head toward Jim. With wide eyes, Blair stared at Jim, knowing his face gave away all his worries and doubts.

Jim sighed softly, releasing Blair's chin and drawing his other arm from his shoulders to hold Blair's face in both hands. "We will get through this, Chief." He tugged Blair toward him a little and leaned up to press his lips to his forehead, then added in a fierce whisper, "That's a promise."

Eyes closing, a hand reaching up to wrap fingers around Jim's wrist, Blair let the tenderness and strength of Jim's words and action wash over him. Trust and faith followed in close measure, chasing away his doubts and fears.

They could do this.

***************************

Simon found Brown and Rafe waiting for him -- as requested by phone just before he'd left his place -- by the loft's front door when he arrived at Jim's third-floor apartment. The yellow police tape stood out in the dimly-lit hallway of browns and greys.

Simon stopped next to them. "So, how much damage is there?"

Rafe waggled a hand in the air. "Not too much, actually. It's a huge mess and there's a few things broken, but nothing major." He paused, then went on. "Well, not that we can tell, at least. I think a few of Sandburg's things are broken, but we don't know how much they're worth, so it's a little hard to know for sure."

Simon nodded once. "Understandable. Let's get inside before the neighbors wake up and wonder what's going on."

Brown broke the tape and opened the door. "I'm surprised the door still works. Doesn't Jim get this thing repaired or replaced on a yearly basis or something?"

Chuckling a little, Simon agreed. "Something like that." He stepped through the doorway and let police senses take over as he looked the place over. Overturned tables and chairs, a busted lamp, books scattered all over the floor, opened kitchen cabinets, a few broken dishes. Blair's bedroom doors stood wide open and he could see the disastrous mess from even across the room, and he winced at what the young man would say when he saw his room. That isn't gonna be fun.

All-in-all, however, he had to agree with Rafe. Not too bad. He'd seen what the loft had looked like after David Lash had broken in two years before. It'd been much worse then. There'd been less stuff in the loft to destroy at that point, but still...

Brown's voice broke into his thoughts. "So, how are Ellison and Hairboy anyway?"

"Hmm? Oh, they're fine. Sandburg was a little shaken up, understandably enough, but other than that, nothing's wrong. They crashed at my place last night. Still asleep when I left."

Rafe shook his head, eyes drifting around the front room of the loft. "Just what does Sandburg have that is so important?"

Simon hesitated, not sure how much he should say, or how much the two men would believe. Finally, he decided on a partial truth. "You know that book you two found on the smuggling case a few months back during a raid?" They both nodded after a moment of thought. "Sandburg has it."

Two sets of eyes went wide, then Brown asked, "Isn't that slightly, uh, non-police procedure for evidence, Captain?"

Lifting a hand in acknowledgment, Simon nodded. "Yes, it is. But I didn't know why the book was important and Sandburg told me he could figure it out for me. Obviously we now know the book is definitely important." He looked around the loft again. "It almost got him killed and he didn't even have it at the time."

Rafe commented, "Where's the book now, anyway?"

Again, Simon paused, then answered quietly, "In good hands." He headed toward the stairs that would take him upstairs to Jim's room. "You two head back to the station. Tell everyone Sandburg's okay. I'm planning to throw some clothes for the two of them into a bag and head back to my place for the morning. I should be in this afternoon at some point." He stopped halfway up the stairs. "And one more thing."

Brown paused at the door, one hand reaching out to stop his partner from disappearing down the hallway. "Yes, Captain?"

Gesturing around the destroyed loft with one hand, Simon said, "I'm a little concerned about our dead perp. I think he was only the hired muscle. I want to set up more regular patrols here, at my place, and at the University until further notice. I've got a bad feeling that whoever is really behind all this is coming back. And he's coming back angry. I want everyone on their guard. No way am I losing any of my men to this guy. Got it?"

Brown nodded sharply. "Got it, sir. We already have someone stationed outside your apartment. The rest will be in place before we get back to the precinct."

"Good man." Simon smiled approvingly, then waited for the two men to leave before continuing up the stairs. Jim's room was in the same state as the room below. Drawers emptied, shelves overturned, the top mattress of the bed half-yanked off the lower one, the thick down comforter torn from the bed to lay on the wood floor. He shook his head. Ellison's probably gonna want to sterilize everything before he even thinks about sleeping in here. What would Sandburg call it? Bad vibes or something? Setting aside those thoughts, he headed to the small open closet at one side of the bedroom and found an empty duffle bag lying on the floor. This'll do.

Turning back to the mess, he got to work.

***************************

The rich scent of freshly-brewed coffee drifting past his nose woke Jim a second time that morning. As his mind -- and body -- struggled toward full wakefulness, he began to register other things as well. The quiet noises that Simon made while puttering around in the kitchen. The smell of breakfast being cooked. The barely-heard undertones of soft jazz music that floated down the hallway, accompanying the ever-more-tempting aroma of coffee. Closer to home, he sensed his partner still deeply asleep next to him.

Forcing open his eyes, Jim stared down at Blair's face, smiling slightly at the sight of his late-twenty-something friend looking so much younger, even with the shadowed beard growth on his face. Probably because he's sleeping and not up to anything. And because he's still feeling a little vulnerable. He shifted his hand from Blair's back up to his head, lightly stroking back loose hair, letting his hand rest on his forehead for a few moments. Then, leaving the younger man to sleep a little longer, knowing he needed the extra time and not just for the rest, Jim pulled away and slowly rolled into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. Shoving the blankets away, he removed his gun from under the pillow with the other and laid it on the small table next to the bed. He pushed himself up to standing position, withholding a groan as various muscles and joints protested the movement, wobbling for a moment.

That's what you get for not moving an entire night, Ellison.

He stretched his arms over his head, concentrating inwardly to release the tension dwelling in his body, using the techniques Blair had taught him, with painstaking care, over the past few years. Slowly, the tension evaporated, leaving only a residual weariness he knew would be banished just as soon as he could get some coffee, some food, and a hot shower. He looked down at himself and wrinkled his nose. And clean clothes. Definitely clean clothes. I wonder if Simon's got anything around. Or maybe I could run over to the loft real quick. Nothing of Simon's would fit Sandburg.

He grinned fondly at the thought of his smaller friend literally swimming in anything meant for a man Simon's size. Shaking his head, he padded in sock-covered feet around the bed, heading toward the door of the bedroom. Pausing on Blair's side of the bed, he touched his partner's shoulder lightly, monitoring him for a moment. Still heavily asleep and not likely to awaken in the next little bit. Nodding, he continued, stopping near the dresser to grab the ancient book. With Blair asleep and totally defenseless, there wasn't any way he was leaving the book, which he still considered a threat, in the room. Then he opened the door with barely a sound and slipped into the hallway, pulling the door closed behind him.

***************************

Simon looked up from the stove when Jim, that book in one hand, shuffled around the corner into the kitchen. He suppressed a smile at the mussed hair and refocused his attention on cooking breakfast - Omelets a la Banks. "Morning, Jim."

The still sleepy-looking detective leaned against the narrow kitchen island, plunking the book down heavily before rubbing one hand over his face. "Morning, Simon." He yawned, then squinted his eyes. "Do I smell coffee?"

Chuckling, Simon nodded toward the other end of the counter, where the coffee machine sat. "Yep. All ready to go. Help yourself. Mugs are in the cupboard right above it."

Jim shoved himself up and walked over to the machine, pulling open a cupboard to select a mug. "Thanks. Man, I haven't felt this worn out in ... I don't know, it's been a long time." He poured himself a steaming cup, inhaling the rich fragrance as it drifted up toward his face.

Simon eyed him a moment, spatula hanging in the air. "You sleep okay, Jim?"

Deciding to forego anything to sweeten the coffee, Jim sipped cautiously at the hot, black liquid. "Yeah, I slept fine, Simon. I don't think Sandburg or I moved at all last night. These things get harder and take more out of us each time." He took another swallow, then paused, glancing over the mug at Simon. "Did you come in this morning?"

The captain nodded as he turned off the stove, breakfast ready to be served. "Needed to get my car keys. I went to your place to check it out and pick up some things for you."

"You did? Thanks. I was wondering if I'd have to make a quick run over there myself." Jim sighed as he moved over to the kitchen table to sit down. "So, how'd the loft look? Was there a lot of damage?"

"Actually, no, there wasn't." Simon dished up the two omelets into the plates waiting on the countertop - he'd known the smell of food would bring the sentinel out from his slumber - and set them on the table. "A few broken lamps, knocked over shelves, that kind of stuff. Mostly it's just a mess. Sandburg's room, however," he shook his head as he stepped back over to gather his own coffee mug before taking a seat at the table, "well, it was hard to tell. All those artifacts of his and all, you know."

Jim nodded, regret coloring his features. "Yeah. Hopefully nothing too valuable was destroyed."

Silence fell for a bit, both men absorbed in eating. Finally, Simon asked quietly, "So, how is Sandburg, anyway?"

Around a bite of eggs, Jim said, "Still asleep. Pretty deeply too. No nightmares. I was half-expecting them after yesterday, but..." He shrugged, picking up his mug for another swallow of coffee.

Simon snorted softly. "Considering the last few days, I'd be more than half-expecting them. But if neither of you had them, well, more's the better." He added after a moment, "I figured that was maybe why you left the lamp on last night - to keep those nightmares away." Taking another bite of his omelet, he watched Jim carefully.

Jim nodded easily. "Yeah. That and I figured it'd be better all around in case he woke up here and forgot where he was."

"Good thinking."

Mutually deciding to put that topic aside, they went on to discuss the latest Jags game as they finished breakfast. Afterwards, Jim gathered up the duffle Simon had brought with him and disappeared into the bathroom to shower and change into clean clothes. He brought the book with him, reminding Simon just how serious Jim was about not letting the book out of his sight, especially now.

After cleaning up the dishes, Simon poured himself another cup of coffee and stood in the kitchen, sipping at it slowly, enjoying the quiet, absently listening to the shower run. Hearing another noise from down the short hallway, he frowned. Is the kid up? Placing his mug on the counter, he padded quickly toward the spare bedroom, pausing at the closed door for a moment, listening. The small sound came again and he quietly pushed the door open, looking inside.

The same scene met his eyes as last night and that morning. A lump of comforter wrapped and snuggled warmly around a somnolent person, topped by a curly head of hair, a few locks peeking out and spilling over the edges onto the pillow. The lump shifted a little and Simon walked to the side of the bed, whispering, using barely enough volume to be heard, "Sandburg? You awake?"

Blair murmured in his sleep, as if aware of the scrutiny, eyes moving under his eyelids. Simon held his breath, one hand stretching out to touch the nearest shoulder, ready to reassure the young man if need be. He really should wake up when Jim's here, not me. He didn't have any doubts that he could find the words necessary to reassure the young man - the young shaman - that everything was okay, but he somehow knew the words would ring truer and sink deeper if they came from Jim. However, Blair only shifted again a little in his sleep, then finally settled back down again with a soft sigh.

Withdrawing his hand, he watched Blair sleep a moment longer, really only able to see the top part of his face, mostly just his hair and eyes; the rest was tucked down into the comforter, his body curled up under the warmth.

He sure doesn't look like some kind of shaman right now. Looks like some misplaced teenager that got left at my door by accident. He paused, considering that thought. Or maybe by design.

"Everything okay in here, sir?"

The quiet, semi-amused, softly grateful voice startled him and he pivoted toward the door to see Jim, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, gray socks covering bare feet, watching him. A towel rested in one hand, which with he rubbed at still damp hair leaving it standing in half-dried tufts. A lazy smile lit his face, rising to meet his eyes.

"I thought I heard something and wanted to check on him, make sure he was okay, still asleep. I didn't want him to worry if he did wake and you weren't here." He snapped his mouth shut, realizing he was babbling. Straightening, he walked out of the room, edging past Jim. "I'll go see about fixing Sandburg something to eat. I think he's starting to wake up."

With a soft chuckle, Jim moved aside to let the gruff man past. Turning back to look at his partner, he said softly, more to himself than anyone else, "Thanks, Simon."

***************************

<<It is time for you to return to the waking world now, young shaman.>>

Sitting cross-legged on the ground, back against a tree, soft grasses tickling his bare feet and ankles, Blair took a deep breath at the familiar low voice and opened his eyes. One hand rested in his lap; the other on top of his sentinel's crossbow at his side, left with him as a safeguard and a reminder of his promise to protect him. Jim had finally left, returning to the real, waking world. Blair had wanted a little more time, mostly to prepare himself for the upcoming battle.

It appeared that his time in this quiet place was over. The older shaman had appeared from behind a tree, as if he'd been there the whole time, just watching. And who knows? He could have been.

He moved to stand in front of Blair, then squatted down, long staff held firm in one hand, the end planted on the forest floor. "You must go."

Fragments of doubt still flickering in his eyes, Blair stared at him for a long moment, then spoke quietly, holding the shaman's gaze. "I know what I'm supposed to do, but I still don't know if I can. I'm not sure about ... anything anymore. I'm--" He faltered, biting his lip and dropping his voice. "I'm scared that I'll fail Jim."

The shaman shook his head, "Your place is with your sentinel. It has always been so. Be of courage, young shaman. Your faith has not been misplaced."

"It's not my faith in Jim that I'm worried about." Blair smiled, touching his other hand to his cheek, feeling the red paint adorning his face. "I know he won't ever fail me."

The shaman stood, a hint of amusement crossing his features. "You have much to learn, young one." He lifted his staff, then slammed it back into the ground, shaking the forest floor.

Blair gasped as the light flared then faded. Images shifted and blurred, and darkness fell around him. Before he had time to worry or even be more than just startled, the shaman's familiar voice echoed in his ears.

<<I was not speaking of your faith in your sentinel, but in yourself.>>

And then the darkness receded, chased away by the soft glow of warmth and light as he...

***************************

...opened his eyes, blinking a few times to clear them, recognizing the room as Simon's spare bedroom. The bed creaked and he turned his head to see Jim sitting on his other side, behind him, on the edge of the bed The towel draped over one shoulder and damp hair evidence of the man having taken a shower; the calm welcoming light in his blue eyes evidence of the peace the sentinel felt. Rolling himself over onto his back, Blair licked his lips, then said, "Hey."

Jim smiled at him, shifting a little on the bed, then touched his shoulder. "Hey, yourself. I was beginning to wonder when you planned on joining us again. I thought maybe you'd decided to commune with nature the rest of the day." His light words didn't completely hide the residual worry in his voice.

Hearing that worry, Blair smiled in return, touching Jim's arm briefly, squeezing it in reassurance. I'm right here, Jim. I came back. Jim's frame relaxed a little and his smile broadened. Satisfied, Blair turned his attention to the bed, shoving the top of the comforter away and struggling to untangle himself from its grip. "I was told it was time to return. What did you do last night, Jim? Roll me up in this thing like a mummy or something?"

Jim chuckled and pulled the folds away. "Didn't want you getting cold or something like that."

Blair rolled his eyes and finally succeeded in sitting up, resting against the headboard. He rubbed a hand over his eyes and shoved back his hair, making a face. "Man, I need a shower. And clean clothes. You don't suppose Simon..."

The captain's voice entered the conversation. "No, Simon doesn't have anything you can wear, Sandburg."

Blair's eyes widened and he looked past Jim toward the door, seeing the man leaning against the doorjamb, arms crossed over his chest, dark eyes amused. He waved a hand in the air. "Uh, hi, Simon. Are you sure? I mean, I really don't want to hang out in these clothes the rest of the day. I guess I could borrow the truck and go to the loft ... or something."

Jim shook his head, grasping Blair's wrist and holding his arm still. "Not with those shaky hands of yours. You'd never make it. Don't worry, Chief. We've got clothes." He gestured down at himself. "Simon took a quick run over to the loft and got some clothes for each of us."

Blair blinked, then grinned over at Simon. "Hey, thanks, Simon. That was--"

Simon grunted, raising a hand to stop Blair's effusive words. "You're welcome, Sandburg. You go take a shower and you can eat breakfast afterwards."

"Which is?" He lifted an eyebrow, curious.

"Speciality of the house -- Omelet a la Banks." The captain winked at him, then shoved away from the doorjamb to disappear down the short hall.

Blair laughed softly, shaking his head. "Guess this means I should get up and get going before Simon changes his mind." He pulled his jeans-clad legs from the comforter and slowly shuffled them to the side of the bed. Jim stood and moved back, a hand on Blair's arm as the younger man rose to his feet. Blair wavered a little, his eyes shuttering closed for a moment or two.

Jim stepped closer. "You okay, Chief?"

"Yeah, yeah. Just a little dizzy there." He opened his eyes again, smiling, his eyes sparkling. "Now, then, point me in the direction of that shower.

***************************

Sometime later, after Blair had showered, changed clothes, and had breakfast, the three men adjourned to the living room. Blair immediately made himself comfortable on the couch, setting the book next to him and keeping the tablet in his lap. Jim waited until Blair was settled, then handed him a mug of coffee. The younger man, his legs crossed underneath him, took it gratefully, throwing Jim a quick smile. Jim returned the smile and settled down next to him, shoving the book away as he did so, putting himself between it and Blair. Who, me, paranoid? Never. He smothered a wry chuckle by clearing his throat.

"So, are you gonna tell us," he gestured toward himself, then Simon, who was sitting across from them in his chair, hands folded in his lap, "just what is so important about that tablet?"

Blair shifted once, pushing back his still semi-damp hair, then took a deep breath, blowing it out slowly. Both hands wrapped around the mug, he sipped at his coffee, eyes fixed on the tablet. "It's kinda ... complicated."

Jim and Simon looked at each other, then back at Blair. Jim laid a hand on Blair's leg. "Chief, how much more complicated can this thing get?" And do I really want to know?

"I told you that this," Blair ran a few fingers of the tablet's surface and along the edges, "talks about ancient sentinels. It also talks about shamans."

Jim shifted forward and plunked his mug on the coffee table loudly. "Damnit, Sandburg!"

The younger man raised his hand. "I know, I know. I should've told you the whole truth. But I didn't want to worry you or make you think you had to be with me when I got this. Besides, it's not what got me in trouble anyway. He saw it and didn't even blink." He paused and waggled his hand in the air. "Well, that's not exactly true. He laughed at it actually. I was surprised he didn't decide to break it or something."

"That's not the point, Sandburg, and you know it."

"Maybe I should leave the two of you alone." Simon's voice was quiet but strong, interrupting the argument before it really got going.

Dragging his eyes away from his upset partner, Blair shook his head sharply. "No. You need to stay, Simon."

"And why is that?" Simon raised an eyebrow, his voice wary.

Setting his mug on the end table, Blair took a breath and said softly, "Because you're important in this." Lowering his eyes, he ran his thumb over the glyphs and symbols along the edges of the tablet. A moment passed, then he raised his head to look directly at Simon. His voice dropped a notch as he said, "Because you're the focus we'll need to come back."

The captain's dark eyes narrowed, and he looked back and forth between the two men. "Come back? Come back from where? Where are you going?"

Swallowing several curses, Jim answered the question for Blair, whose gaze had returned to the tablet. "It's time for that final showdown. It's us ... or him."

The captain blinked, then grunted. "And why doesn't that answer make me feel better?" He waved a hand in the air. "Never mind. Just tell me what I need to know. And nothing else. I know too much as it is."

Jim chuckled softly. "Yes, sir. Oh, by the way, Simon, my spirit guide approves of my choice of an ally in this, namely, you."

Simon shook his head, choking out, "Didn't I just tell you I already knew too much? It's bad enough that I 'see' things when I touch Sandburg and 'hear' things when I touch you. All I need now is some spirit guide 'approving' me."

Blair looked up, hands stilling on the tablet's rough surface, eyes alight with awe and wonder. He leaned forward, not remembering his legs were crossed underneath him, and promptly began to topple forward toward the ground. Jim quickly grabbed onto one arm and the back of his shirt, hauling him upright. "Hey, watch it there, Chief. I don't think we need a trip to the emergency room right now."

"Uh, yeah, thanks, Jim..." The young man nodded absently, eyes still wide and fastened on Simon, hardly aware of what had just happened, though he didn't try to get up again. "You can 'hear' through Jim? Cool! Why didn't you tell me? That has got to be important. I mean..."

The two other men exchanged a quick look and both shook their heads as Blair more or less bounced in place on the couch, vibrating with new energy. Blair never noticed, just kept on talking, thinking out loud.

"...I wonder what would happen if you were in contact with both of us at the same time. It could be like living inside a television program without interacting with the characters. Or maybe..."

"Sandburg!" Simon held up his hands, secretly glad to see the young man excited about something instead of just staring at the tablet. "Just calm down. One thing at a time. First, I didn't know about this thing with Jim until yesterday. And second, I don't think I want to be 'living inside' this thing. Watching it from the outside is quite enough, thank you very much." He gestured toward the tablet. "Now, are you gonna tell us about this tablet of yours or what?"

"What? Oh, the tablet, yeah." Blair took a deep breath, calming himself. He touched a finger to the middle of the tablet, tracing the central figures. "Simply put, this is a description of a 'sending-away' ritual."

Frowning, Jim asked, "You mean like an exorcism or something?"

Blair laughed a little, shaking his head. "Well, not exactly, but I guess you could compare it with that. An exorcism is more for someone who's been possessed. This," he stroked down the tablet surface, "This is different."

Jim commented dryly, "Because no one's possessed."

The young man nodded. "Right." Glancing up, he caught Jim and Simon watching him expectantly. They motioned for him to continue.

"Okay, um, this is where it gets complicated. As I said, this is a description of a 'sending-away' ritual -- aimed specifically and directly at our not-so-friendly warrior shaman. And it is written with Jim and me in mind."

This time Simon had to interrupt. "You mean because Jim is a sentinel and you're his ... shaman."

Blair shook his head. "No. I mean, it was written to Jim and me. To Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg and no one else." Getting more excited, he went on, ignoring the startled glances passing between the other two men. "I thought I was reading it wrong at first. And then I thought I was reading it right and it was all a hoax. But it's been tested and studied for years. This tablet is real. Someone hundreds of years ago wrote this -- for Jim and me. It's just so..."

Jim broke in, gripping Blair's shoulder. "Chief, how do you know this? What exactly is written on there that makes you think it's talking about us?"

Pulling his glasses from his shirt pocket and slipping them on, Blair shifted the tablet toward Jim, hand moving rapidly on the surface as he explained. "The main panels here, they're the ritual, telling what needs to be done and so forth. But the glyphs along the edges, the ones that are so small I almost ignored them -- they tell who the tablet goes to." He looked up, eyes wide behind his lenses. "I think there were several of these things made and somehow they've showed up over time at the places and with the people that needed them. I don't know how or why or ... anything like that, but it's gotta be the answer."

"Just tell us what it says, Sandburg." Jim hoped the tiny bit of impatient annoyance covered the sudden increased worry in his voice from Blair. He caught Simon watching the both of them, the captain's dark eyes becoming more concerned as well. Just how long has this battle been going on? And why have we been chosen to fight it now? He would have loved an answer to both questions but knew he would most likely never receive one. Or at least not an answer I like.

Blair was nodding, his eyes drifting back down to the tablet. "Since I don't have my magnifying glass to read these and my notes are somewhere back in my office, I'm gonna have to go by memory." He closed his eyes for a moment, took a breath, and began.

"And when that darkness rises again, it shall fall upon the great city of waters, where the guardians stand ready to protect those both within and without the walls. The two and the one shall battle as sentinel and shaman and as ally in this time of need. And when the walls fall and the evil crosses the threshold, then shall time and destiny meet." Shifting his unfocused gaze, Blair lifted his eyes to look meaningfully at Jim. "And Enqueri and his companions will wage war against the darkness."

Jim's mouth dropped open and he blinked, staring at Blair incredulously. He swallowed and whispered, "Are you sure?"

Blair nodded solemnly, his own eyes still wide.

Simon looked back and forth between them. "Obviously I'm missing something. Who or what is Enqueri?"

Jim pulled his eyes away from Blair, a half-embarrassed smile on his face. "Uh, that would be me, Simon. It was the name the Chopec gave me."

The captain nodded. "I ... see."

Blair re-entered the conversation. "That's how I know. That and it talks about 'two' and 'one'. Two being me and Jim. One being you, Simon."

Simon sighed. "That's what I was afraid you'd tell me." He removed his glasses for a moment, squeezing the bridge of his nose. "So, now what?"

<<Now it is time for the sentinel and his shaman to end this.>>

Blair gasped, startled by the booming voice. Jim jerked to his feet, spinning around to scan the room, but not seeing anyone anywhere. Simon remained motionless in his seat, puzzled by their actions. "What? What is it?"

Jim muttered, "You know, there are times when I just wish he'd use the phone instead of going for the dramatic role."

Blair chuckled weakly while Simon's face lit with comprehension. "I assume this means you, uh, got a message."

"Yeah, more or less." Blair waggled a hand in the air, then sighed. "I don't think I'm quite ready yet, however, and I want to do this on our own terms, not anyone else's, not even Jim's spirit guide's." He reached up, stretching forward a bit to touch Jim's back. "Sit down, Jim. I need to tell you a few things."

Jim obliged quietly after giving the room one last sensory scan. He laid one hand on the book as he turned back to Blair. "Okay. What else? What exactly are we supposed to do anyway?"

"Actually, most of it will come quite naturally once this gets started. Nothing we haven't done before, just a little more ... intense. That's not what I'm worried about." Blair hesitated, shooting a quick look at Simon, then returning his attention to Jim. "This is very dangerous. Something typically only a fully trained shaman would do. I'm running on instinct and whatever 'feels' right at the time. There's a chance -- a good chance -- that I'm not....that I won't....that I might not make it back here."

The detective's face closed up and he pushed himself to his feet, body stiff and tense. "No."

"Jim..."

Jim turned away, walking across the room, heading for the windows that looked out over the street. "No. I refuse to accept that."

Blair glanced again at Simon and saw worry, concern, and care shining behind his dark eyes, directed at both of them. The captain stood up, saying softly, "I think I'll head down, see if the mail's here yet. Be right back."

Several moments later, the front door closed quietly, leaving them alone in silence. Blair set the tablet aside and uncurled his legs from beneath him, standing and walking over to Jim. He stopped behind the taller man, again touching his back with one hand.

"I won't do this if I have to lose you, Blair," said Jim quietly.

Leaning forward, Blair rested his forehead against Jim's back. "We have to do this, Jim. If we don't, he will win eventually. You can't keep protecting me. The longer we wait, the stronger he gets. And sooner or later, he'll get the book. And once that happens, it won't matter what any of us does. I don't want to die, but I don't want anyone else to die because I didn't try to stop him."

The older man turned and laid his hands on Blair's shoulders. "I know that, Chief. But I can't do this without you. Not anymore. And I'm not just talking about the sentinel stuff."

Blair smiled briefly. "I know. But I need -- I need to know that if my life is the price of our victory -- I need to know that you'll find a way to keep going. Please? I won't ask you to try to find someone to replace me -- I know what you'd say to that."

"Damn straight you better not ask that." Jim's voice broke a little.

He went on softly. "I just need to know you won't stop living, that you won't go back to what you were before -- to what I hear you were before we met. Okay?"

Jim remained silent for several moments, just staring at Blair, fingers reflexively tightening and loosening on his shoulders. Finally, he nodded. "Okay. I won't say it would be easy, but...okay." He swallowed hard, then shook his head. "What makes you so sure it would be you anyway? I'm not just gonna stand aside and let him kill you, not in this world or any other."

Blair squirmed a little under that penetrating blue gaze. "I, uh, had a vision a while back about what would happen if I didn't accept who I was meant to be."

"And you didn't tell me? Chief, aren't you the one who chastised me just a few weeks ago about not sharing everything?"

"I know, I know. I'm sorry. I just ... couldn't." He shuddered, eyes closing again at the memories. "I died. Or rather I had been killed because I wasn't prepared to accept being a shaman. And you...you just gave up. You let yourself be killed because you couldn't protect me, couldn't save me." He opened his eyes again, lifting his hands to grasp Jim's forearms. "I don't want that to happen, Jim. To either of us." He paused, waiting to see the agreement and understanding flood into Jim's eyes. Then he smiled a little. "And not to belittle your own worth, Ellison, but I think in this instance, I may be the greater threat."

Jim chuckled softly, shifting up one hand to tousle Blair's hair affectionately. "Are you trying to tell me, very unsubtly, by the way, that you're the boss in this, Junior?"

Blair, grinning, swatted away Jim's hand, ducking his head. "What is it with you and my hair, man? You just cannot leave it alone."

Laughing, Jim pulled Blair into a tight hug, ignoring the "whumph" of surprise as the younger man's lungs emptied. "Just promise me you'll try to stay with me."

Returning the embrace in full measure, Blair replied in a strong voice, "I promise."

***************************

Simon paused at the door to his apartment, hesitating a moment, trying to listen beyond the solid barrier. I hope they're ready for me to come back. I hope I'm ready for me to come back. I don't know if I want to hear about Sandburg not... Shaking those unwelcome thoughts from his mind, he took a breath and opened the door slowly, entering the apartment. Quiet voices drifted around the corner. So far, so good.

Jim's voice rang out in soft laughter, followed swiftly by Blair's. Further relaxing, Simon stepped around the corner into the front room. I guess the crisis has passed -- for the moment at least. Two heads swivelled toward him as he walked into the room. Sentinel and Guide again sat on the couch, facing each other, only a small space between them. Idly he noted that Blair had pulled his hair back into a ponytail. Getting it out of the way perhaps in preparation for whatever is happening next?

Blair waved one hand in the air. "Hey, Simon. Any mail?"

He shook his head as he approached. "Not yet. Too early. So," he stopped at the back of the couch, glancing downward to see both the book, open to the picture Blair had shown them weeks earlier, and the tablet resting on the cushions between the two men, "what's our next move?"

After a quick look at Jim, Blair answered, "Glad you asked. I think Jim and I are ready to show the bad guy just who the real boss is."

Simon raised an eyebrow. "And that would be...?"

Jim chuckled. "Are you sure you want to know that, Simon?"

"If the look on Sandburg's face is any indication of the answer, then, no, I don't." Blair laughed but didn't say anything. Simon shook his head, unsuccessfully trying to hide a smile. "What do I need to do?"

"Just be here." Blair's voice had turned serious and Simon shifted his eyes to meet the young man's. "I said you'd be our focus to come back. Basically that's all you need to worry about. And really you'll just be Jim's focus. I connect to Jim and he connects to you. And you connect us both to the real world when everything's over and we're too tired to remember what the real world is."

Simon pondered that thought as he walked around the couch to sit gingerly on the coffee table in front of the couch. "And just how am I supposed to do that, Sandburg? This isn't something I'm totally comfortable with or even understand." He looked away, toward the windows, then back, watching Blair's face as the young man struggled with his words.

"To be honest, Simon, I don't know." He rubbed a hand on his pant leg. "I don't have a manual for this. I wish I did. I don't know how long this will take or even what exactly is gonna happen. I wish I could tell you, but I can't. The only thing I know for sure is you can't touch us -- not until it's all over. I don't know exactly what will happen if you do, but I do know it won't be good."

Well, then how in hell...? Simon could feel his blood pressure rising. He closed his eyes and rubbed a hand over his forehead, over the furrows he could feel developing there -- along with that hint of a headache. This is not what I needed today.

"Simon?" Jim's voice was quiet, concerned.

Concern for me when he's on the edge of possibly losing his partner. Shaking his head once, Simon opened his eyes again, meeting Jim's eyes.

Jim said quietly, "We're asking a lot of you, Simon. And I know you don't understand most of it. I don't understand most of it. I leave that to Blair -- we all know he's got more brains than me anyway."

Simon rolled his eyes, finding himself smiling in spite of himself and the situation. "Don't encourage him." Blair grinned, his eyes sparkling. The captain folded his hands together, forcing his voice to a calmness he didn't feel. "It doesn't matter that I don't understand. We made a vow to do this together, remember? Strong and steadfast. I'm not backing out now. I just wish I knew you both would be coming back -- and I have to wonder whether the price we might pay is too high." He turned his eyes toward Blair.

Jim followed his gaze. "I know."

Blair looked first at Simon, then at Jim, not saying anything, just letting his dark blue eyes speak for him. Simon shivered inwardly at the "oldness" he saw in Blair's eyes. The willingness to give everything, including his life if need be, to save everyone. It wasn't something he was used to seeing in those eyes, usually so filled with youthful exuberance and a kind of blessed, although always temporary, ignorance of his own mortality.

He knows exactly what he's going into, Banks. He may look young, but he's always been more than he appears. More now than ever. You need to trust that he has the ability to do this. Jim believes him; so should you. The rationalization rang hollow when weighed against the potential loss of a friend. However, it was Blair's choice and one Simon knew he had to support, even if they never met again in this world.

Finally, Blair took a shuddering breath, breaking the moment. He turned back to Simon, gesturing with one hand. "I'm hoping that Jim, whenever it's over, will be able to give you some kind of sign or something since I'm sure I won't be able to. Then you can touch him, like I would to bring him out of a zone. He'll probably wake up on his own, but he might need a little help catching his breath."

Simon nodded in understanding, trying to absorb all he could from Blair's few words of instruction. Blair paused, staring down at his hands which rested in his lap. Quietly, he continued. "Simon, I just want you to know that if I don't...well, if this is it, I want you to know how much I've always appreciated your friendship." He looked up, meeting Simon's eyes. "Your support of Jim's partnership with me has always meant a lot to me."

Shifting forward from his seat on the coffee table, Simon placed a hand on Blair's nearest shoulder, squeezing it warmly. He just looked at the younger man for a moment, well, younger in age but older sometimes in experience and responsibility, especially now. "My support is for both of you, Blair, and not just for Jim's sake. I admit that hasn't always been true, but over time, it's become that way." He swallowed, clearing his throat a little. "I couldn't ask for two closer or better friends." Simon looked at Jim briefly to include him in the statement, then returned his gaze to Blair, taking a deep breath to say the rest of it.

"And as much as I'm sure you've already gone over this with Jim, I want you to know that I want you to come back." Rocking Blair back a little on the couch, he tried to emphasize without letting go of his emotions just how much the young man had come to mean to him. "I expect you to do your damnedest to get back here in one piece -- got that, Blair?" If it weren't so awkward a position, Simon had a feeling he would be hugging the young man. Instead, he just gripped Blair's shoulder a little tighter and tried to communicate the best he could through his words.

The young shaman nodded, his eyes clouding a little in response to Simon's ordered entreaty. When he responded, his voice carried the same roughness as Simon's. "I'll do my best, sir."

"Good." The captain pulled his hand back after another moment, clearing his throat of all suspiciously tender emotion. "Now, are we ready?"

Jim nodded sharply, prompting Blair's echoing response. Simon leaned back a little, watching with interest as Blair carefully lifted the tablet and placed it on top of the book, then laid his hands flat onto the surface, hiding the glyphs from sight. Jim covered Blair's hands with his own, curling his thumbs slightly underneath Blair's fingers.

Then, as their eyes closed in unison, Blair whispered, "Now."

Simon blinked and just like it had been in the car with Jim the day before, he knew with some inner knowledge he didn't yet understand that neither man truly remained in the room. He watched them a moment, an unhappy scowl on his face. As much as he didn't understand everything that was happening between Jim and Blair and the whole mystical angle, he really hated being left on the sidelines.

And now that he was basically alone in the room again, the fears and worries he had shoved away boiled back up to the top, all crying out for notice.

A focus. I'm supposed to be a focus. Just how in hell am I supposed to know what to do? And when to do it? And what if Jim doesn't signal me somehow?

He yanked off his glasses again, rubbing the other hand over his forehead. Just one more day in the life of Captain Simon Banks, friend of Cascade's resident Sentinel and his budding shaman. A half-hysterical laugh bubbled up from within and he shoved it away. The lives of his two closest friends were on the line. And even if Jim survived, if Blair didn't.... He shook his head, refusing to accept the picture that appeared in his mind. Sandburg will survive this.

Resettling his glasses back on his nose, he shifted forward to stand, then stopped, frowning and eyeing Blair a moment. He watched, eyes narrowing, trying to pinpoint just what felt so wrong about the young man. Then it hit him.

Blair wasn't breathing. Not even shallowly. He just ... wasn't.

Heart rate suddenly accelerating to double time, Simon reached out a hand, discarding Blair's final warning about not touching them. He's not breathing! Surely he didn't mean...

<<Stop! Do not touch them!>>

That voice, at once so familiar and so unexpected, made Simon jerk to his feet and reach for his gun -- conveniently holstered at his side under his lightweight jacket he'd forgotten to remove when he'd re-entered the apartment. Turning swiftly to the side, he gaped at the sight that met his eyes.

An Indian. And a shaman by the looks of it. Tall. Imposing. Red paint on his face and arms. A long staff, feathered at the top, held firmly in one hand, the end planted in the carpet. And he was standing in Simon's living room, looking for all the world as if he belonged.

Simon was simply glad he remained cool enough not to fall over from shock. As it was, he had to force his hand to release its grip on the gun handle, still lodged in the holster. No matter who this was -- good or bad -- he knew a gun wouldn't help him. Swallowing, he stood up straight, stepping slightly in front of Jim and Blair, protecting his friends from ... whoever this intruder was.

"Who are you? And what are you doing in my home?"

The shaman simply smiled. "You do well in protecting them. They chose wisely when you became their ally in their battle against the darkness." Then, without pause, the shaman went on, returning to the cause of Simon's concern. "You cannot touch them."

Simon protested, gesturing toward Blair. "But he isn't breathing!"

Shaking his head once, the shaman continued, "While they remain in contact, the sentinel sustains the shaman with his own breath. There is no cause for concern. You must have faith in their abilities. For them to succeed in this battle, that faith, both theirs and yours, cannot be lost."

The captain stared at the shaman for a moment, then returned his gaze to the still forms -- too still in the case of Blair -- of his friends. Sentinel and Guide. Shaman. He had a feeling once this was over and all was again settled, he would never look at the two of them quite the same again. Especially Sandburg. Not now that I've seen what he can do. At least part of it.

"Faith. If faith is required, then faith is what they'll get." Simon felt a quiet reassurance settle somewhere deep inside himself.

<<Remain in that faith and continue to be their focus. The battle is now beginning.>>

Simon glanced to the side, just in time to see the air fuzz and shimmer around the shaman as he disappeared from view, leaving only the small, round indentation from his staff in the carpet to mark his passing.

Left alone in the silence of his apartment, he stepped away from Jim and Blair to sit across from them in his chair. He watched them, eyes drifting back to Blair most often, unnerved by the lack of breathing from the young man. I bet he knew this was gonna happen. I wonder if he told Jim. Remembering the "helping Jim to catch his breath" comment, he had a feeling he did. And they didn't tell me because they knew it would be too much.

Sighing once, he sat back in the chair, resting his head against the cushions. He could feel them standing on yet another precipice, this one the tallest and most dangerous of them all. If they lost, it wouldn't matter what happened here -- he'd known without asking that neither man would come back. But if they won, they could still lose.

He shook his head. Faith and focus. I have to remember that. I promised last night to be strong when they couldn't. Surely this is no different. Leaning forward again, he focused his eyes on the sentinel and his shaman. Outside of the room, no one knew the fate of their world depended on just two men. Inside that room, Simon felt the weight of that same world resting on his shoulders.

Simon whispered into the silence, repeating the vow they had exchanged weeks earlier, reaffirming its trueness and strength, holding onto it as a man would his last hope. "Strong and steadfast. And we shall prevail."

***************************

Standing in the midst of a small clearing, Blair waited as Jim shoved aside the last bit of debris from the edges of the circle. Then, straightening back up, the sentinel glanced around once more, nodding in approval before striding over to rejoin his shaman. Blair held out the crossbow and quiver of arrows. "I think that just about does it."

Jim slipped the strap of the quiver over his head, settling it comfortably across his back. "You think you're ready then?" He placed his free hand on Blair's shoulder, fingers rubbing the muscles under the loose tunic.

"As I'll ever be." He threw Jim a nervous smile, reaching up to touch Jim's hand, once again so grateful that this man was his friend. Jim returned the smile, his blue eyes set in a black war-painted face, calm and trusting.

"We can do this, Chief. Just remember that." His hand slid up to the side of Blair's neck, then shifted to the back of his neck and top of his shoulders as he drew him close for a brief, one-armed hug. He whispered, "I have faith in you, Shaman."

Blair took a deep breath, leaning one last second against Jim's frame, then he stood straight again, settling into his role as a shaman. He looked up at Jim, letting him know that it was time to begin. Jim inclined his head, shifting back a step as Blair turned, facing the opposite edge of the circle.

Surrounded by lush forest greenery on all sides and lit by the afternoon sun streaming through the topmost branches of the tall trees hanging overhead, his sentinel's hand firm on his shoulder, Blair stood for a moment, absorbing the peace, using that bare moment to find his center before he began the ritual described on the tablet.

Re-opening his eyes, he lifted both hands and clapped them together once. The sound echoed among the trees. He paused, then clapped again -- twice that time. A wind blew through the trees, quickly picking up speed and force, whirling leaves into the air, ruffling their hair and clothes. And again he clapped -- three times. A rush of noise filled their ears and dark clouds rushed across the sky, partially hiding the sun.

Blair stretched forth one hand, palm flattened and pressed outward, fingers spread. He spoke loudly, letting the wind carry his words away. "We call our enemy to this place of our own choosing. We call him to face that which he has wrought. We, Sentinel and Shaman, call him to appear now to finish what has begun."

Taking a deep breath, he curled his fingers inward, clenching them into a fist ... and pulled. Jim's solid form behind him, connected by a hand clasp, lent him additional strength and supported him. He felt the man's hand tighten on his shoulder and he gave one last yank, reeling backward into Jim as ... someone ... tumbled into existence in the circle.

Gasping, the young shaman grasped Jim's arms, nodding vaguely in response to the quiet query asking if he was okay. His eyes never left the dark shape just on the edges of the cleared circle as the warrior shaman gathered himself and stood, power and anger radiating from him.

"How dare you! How dare you and how foolish." The words hissed as the dark one rose and threw back the hood of his cloak to stare at them.

Blair ignored the threats behind the words, saying only, "I dare because it is my right. It is our right, our destiny."

"Destiny. Faugh! So be it. Fools, both of you. You cannot hope to succeed against me. The act of bringing me here will have emptied you." He waved one hand in the air dismissively.

Jim's quiet voice broke in, strong and clear amidst the winds. "You are wrong. The very destiny you dismiss as unimportant is on our side." He edged forward to stand at Blair's side, one hand still on his shoulder, the other holding the bow of the crossbow where it hung off his own shoulder, prepared to use it at a moment's notice. "We cannot fail."

Blair lifted his hand and gestured outward, sweeping broadly across the landscape. Shadowy figures, all glowing in the darkened forest, emerged from behind trees, arraying themselves to stand just outside the circle. All in pairs, all accompanied by at least one smaller shadowy shape that either paced a little restlessly at their feet or flew in the air above their heads. All were unaffected the growing and buffeting winds.

Jim called out, "Every guardian of the past, those who won and those who lost, have gathered here for the final battle. Defeat -- your defeat -- is inevitable."

The warrior shaman sneered. "Foolish children. They cannot help. Time and again I have escaped the bonds that they have set for me in this place -- and now they have no power left to hold me. This battle is between us and us alone." He waved a hand and the glowing forms wavered noticeably, but didn't disappear. "They are but reflections of the past, trapped here in this place for eternity because of that destiny of which you speak. Nothing of them can harm me. Nor can they do anything to save you."

A small, tight smile on his face, Blair inclined his head. "True words. They are here as witnesses to what will be. And from them, we have knowledge of every battle, every strength, every weakness. There is no escape."

The dark one stared at them, face still, hands half-raised at his sides. His cloak blew in the wind, snapping around him. Then, with a roar of anger, he threw up his hands, striking forth a great bolt of blinding light, knocking them both to the ground.

Jim struggled to his feet first, rubbing a hand over his eyes, stunned by the viciousness of the blow. Blair joined him a few moments later, grabbing onto Jim's nearest arm to regain his balance. Both men scanned the area quickly, noting the dark shaman had vanished.

"He broke the circle somehow." Blair pointed across from them, where a wisp of smoke curled up from smoldering dry leaves and grasses, marking where the shaman had stood.

"I noticed. He also did something to them." Jim gestured toward the shadowy images that had reduced in number greatly, condensing down to smaller shapes, all animal spirit guides of one form or another.

Blair shook his head. "No, they did that deliberately. They've merged. See? They're all brighter. Easier to be freed later after we're done here."

Jim paused in the act of stepping forward, looking down at Blair. "You intend to go through with that? Freeing them, that is."

He nodded. "If I can. They've been here long enough. Once we're through, he won't need prison guards any longer." Blair looked beyond Jim to the trees that temporarily hid the dark shaman's escape path. "His tomb will be sealed forever."

***************************

Idly flipping through the morning's newspaper as he waited, Simon stopped when the lights flickered around him. His eyes went immediately to Jim and Blair. Neither had moved, though Simon almost swore he saw dark swatches of black paint across Jim's face. Shifting his glance to Blair, he blinked when for a moment, he did see red paint highlighting Blair's forehead and cheeks, standing out in the darkness of the room.

Darkness?!? What? He shoved himself to his feet and stepped to the windows, looking out. Clouds had rolled in out of nowhere, shutting away the sun, leaving the day looking murky and gray. While this wouldn't normally bother me, the way storms seem to associate with these two...I don't know. He shook his head and turned to walk back to his chair --

<<Danger is near.>>

-- only to jerk to halt as the lights flickered once more before settling back to a steady glow. He let out the sharp breath he'd inhaled when, in those last few flickers, he'd caught the shadowy image of a panther draped along the back of the couch behind Jim and Blair. The black jungle cat had been mirrored by the image of a gray wolf stretched out on the floor just in front of that same couch. Both animals had been looking straight at him, uncannily intelligent eyes communicating to him both their approval and need for alertness.

Heading for the kitchen and the cellphone resting on the counter, Simon felt a sudden need to check up on his teams stationed both there and at the loft.

***************************

Branches tearing at their clothes and faces, Jim and Blair ran through the forest, ducking under low lying limbs and skipping across dips and fallen logs in the barely-there path. To either side of the men ran a swift-footed animal -- a panther and a wolf -- leaping in tandem, lean muscles and shiny coats reflecting the dim light that snuck into the thick growth.

Stopping, Jim held up a hand and Blair halted next to him, staying silent as the sentinel cocked his head, turning slowly to listen to his surroundings. Blair laid one hand on Jim's back, remaining still. His other hand dropped to his side, where he absently petted the head of the wolf who leaned against his leg, tongue hanging out of his mouth. Finally, Jim pointed on ahead of them. "I hear water -- probably a river. I think he's stopped there. Come on."

Again letting Jim take the lead, Blair took another breath of the thick muggy forest air and pelted after him. Several minutes later, they burst out from the foliage and stumbled to a stop just on the edge of a wide, shallow river, a heavy growth of trees lining the both shores as far as the eye could see. In the midst of the river, on a large flat rock, stood the warrior shaman, arms raised to the stormy sky.

Blair stepped in front of Jim, calling out over the wind. "You cannot run from us. And you cannot escape. This is our world."

The dark shaman's barking laughter echoed as he shot back. "This is my world." His arms dropped to his sides, then swooped back up again. With his rising arms came a rush of water, followed by small rocks from the riverbed than flew through the air at the two men on the shore.

Jim yanked Blair away from the river's edge and turned them both away just moments before the rocks landed. Ducking his head down on Blair's shoulder, he took the pummeling for both of them on his back, grunting with each impact. The wave of water flooded over them, drenching them entirely. Hidden in the shelter of Jim's arms, Blair flinched with Jim, the strike of each rock on his friend's back vibrating into him. When both the rocks and the water stopped, he pulled away to look up into Jim's face, cataloging the pain he saw there along with the constant determination to finish this.

A distantly cold feeling of anger rumbled inside Blair's chest in response to the hurt bestowed on his sentinel. Stepping around Jim, the young shaman fixed his eyes on his enemy who stood proud and disdaining on the flat rock, arms crossed over his chest, a smug smile on his face. Hurt my friend, my sentinel, will you...

Thrusting out a hand, Blair let the instinct that had carried him so far take over. The winds roared around him, whipping and teasing at his clothes. He pulled his hand in, then threw it out again. The wind followed the path of his arm, flowing from the tips of his fingers out to the dark shaman, whirling madly around him, unbalancing him, shoving him from the rock into the water to land with an ignominious splash.

"This is MY world, dark one!" Blair's words snapped out, crackling in the air. The young shaman whirled to one side, snatching an arrow from the quiver on his sentinel's back, then turned to face his enemy once more, eyes blazing. "And you are not wanted here!"

Turning his head quickly to face the river, Jim could only stare, startled and amazed at the change that had come over his guide. Pulling himself together, knowing Blair would need him, he straightened slowly, ignoring the residual aches and forming bruises on his back. It was time to end this.

In Blair's hand, the arrow lengthened, stretching and growing to become a shaman's staff, complete with feathers and other things Jim couldn't identify adorning the top. Blair stabbed the staff into the ground, making it rock beneath their feet. Jim stepped closer to his friend, not touching him yet, remembering vaguely from Blair's explanation of the tablet that his shaman needed all his attention focused only on their enemy at this point. No distractions.

While Blair, fully accepting and being a shaman at that point, could hold his own for a little while, Jim knew that as a sentinel without shamanistic abilities he would hold no chance against the warrior shaman. Not when that shaman had full access to all his dark powers. Protecting them from flying rocks was one thing, but fighting off weapons he couldn't see coming and had no way to guard against -- that he knew only Blair could handle. And he is definitely doing an excellent job of it too, Jim noted with a small sense of "partner" pride.

For once he'd found himself in a supporting position and didn't mind. Well, not terribly at least. His fingers itched to do something and he knew he would if he had to, but for the moment, he was content to wait -- and watch his shaman at work.

In the river, that enemy tried to stand, but fell again in the shallow water at the movement of the riverbed beneath him as Blair thudded the earth again. He spluttered in indignation and shoved himself upward, lifting a hand outward toward them.

Dark light flared and Jim felt the air thicken around them, pressing at them like a concussive shock wave. Blair stumbled slightly, shaking his head in obvious bewilderment and hesitation. Jim watched in shocked horror as the red paint on his shaman's face started to fade. Angered -- and admittedly a little scared -- Jim snapped his head back in time to see the dark one stand to his feet and casually gesture into the air. A moment later, a large rock rose from the riverbed and hurtled toward them.

So much for waiting.

Before he really registered what his hands were doing, Jim swung the crossbow from his shoulder and notched an arrow in one smooth movement, following the prompting of some hidden voice. He took aim and let fly -- at the rock. Part of him protested hotly and vehemently that the arrow wouldn't stop that solid object from striking them.

Another part of him -- the part that spoke of faith -- said it would.

The arrow struck and the rock shattered, spraying fine pebbles and dust every which way. The shaman screamed and started to gesture again, not so casually this time. Jim quickly grabbed another arrow from his quiver, notching and aiming it. He took a moment, only a moment, to glance at his own shaman. To his immense relief, the red paint had restored itself and Blair's eyes blazed with inner power -- and a renewal of faith. Their eyes met and Blair nodded sharply, lifting his staff a third time.

Jim let his arrow fly. Blair's staff slammed into the ground at the same moment that Jim's arrow struck the water just in front of the dark shaman. The earth rocked beneath them. Behind them, Jim could hear small rocks and pebbles rolling down hills. In front of them, the dark one fell back again into the water, knocked off his feet as the riverbed shook to its foundations.

Then, stretching forth the staff like a pointer, Blair, voice carrying strong and firm across the river, echoing up to the sky, called out, "Return to that darkness from which you came, to remain, stripped of power, chained by your own misdeeds, hindered by evil, barred forever from returning. BE GONE!"

The shallow river began to churn, slowly forming a large whirlpool which began to enclose around the warrior shaman. Jim blinked at that, a little surprised, but he quickly shoved aside his doubts -- anything at all seemed possible and probable in this world. The dark shaman struggled to stand, but flailed in the water as it grew rougher with each passing moment. Glowing forms flitted into existence around the river, watching, waiting, witnessing the moment of triumph and defeat.

Blair's arm shook with the strain of holding his position and Jim quickly re-shouldered the crossbow and stepped into place next to his shaman, laying his hand on the young man's shoulder, willing him some of his strength. The staff firmed and Blair's frame stilled. If Jim focused his attention inward, he could feel ... something ... of himself being pulled from him into Blair. He tried to ignore the unfamiliar sensation, concentrating instead on simpler things, like breathing, something that grew more difficult the longer they stayed in this unreal reality.

***************************

Halfway through fixing another cup of coffee, Simon kept one eye on Jim and Blair on the couch. Jim's breathing pattern changed, becoming a little ragged, just as he added in a dollop of cream and began to stir, spoon clinking against the inside. Leaving the mug on the counter, Simon padded around the kitchen island and stepped into the front room, sitting down again on the coffee table, watching the two men intently.

Blair hadn't moved the entire time. Jim, however, had jerked every now and then, his breath catching in his throat. Up till then, it had always resettled again quickly.

But this time...

Simon wished desperately that he could do something more to help other than just watching and waiting. The sentinel seemed to struggle for each breath, the muscles along his jaw twitching at first, then his mouth falling open slightly, almost panting. His eyes moved rapidly under his eyelids.

The hair on the back of Simon's neck rose as the lights again began to flicker. The air grew electrified around him and static appeared out of nowhere, crackling. He swallowed and scanned the room slowly, almost expecting to see something unnatural shimmer into existence.

Spirit guides -- both human and animal. War paint I know isn't there. Strange books and tablets. Jungle winds and rain. Sudden thunderstorms. What else is left? He shook his head. No, forget I said that. I don't want to know if there's anything else.

Then, as quickly as it had begun, everything faded away. Well, almost all of it. Jim still took uneven breaths, but he no longer seemed to be fighting for them.

<<The end draws near.>>

Simon flinched at the deep voice, sounding so near to his ear. Resisting the urge to look, he kept his eyes on the two men on the couch. He whispered, more to himself than anyone else, "And what happens then?"

***************************

The whirlpool tightened and swirled harder, faster, stronger. With each spin, the dark shaman grew angrier, seemed to fight harder. Jim could see him standing in the midst of the whirlpool, dark light radiating from him, struggling against the pull, fighting in a battle of wills and strength against Blair. And with each spin, Jim felt a part of him pulled away.

They hadn't told Simon quite everything about the tablet and what it said. Actually they hadn't told him much about the ritual at all, other than they had to do it. The word "sacrifice" had made a few appearances. Sacrifices of strength, of power, of a life, of a soul -- all possible, none guaranteed to remain only possibilities, or even guaranteed to become eventualities. The ritual itself was the only thing that remained certain.

The rest depended on the players -- how well they had prepared, how strong they were, how determined, how well they could depend and trust in each other. The shaman, Blair, had power and the ability to use it against the enemy. The sentinel, Jim, contributed in other ways; by "lending" his inner strength (sentinel strength, Blair had called it) to their advantage, it gave Blair that extra edge that they would need. Both knew that alone Blair would never have lasted -- and definitely would not have won.

Which they were in the process of doing.

Seeing how Simon had reacted to the news of Blair's possible sacrifice, they hadn't told him of any further possibilities. Jim, however, knew Simon well enough to know the captain was aware of exactly what could happen in this battle.

Blair flinched, gasping sharply, dragging Jim back to the present with a jerk. The dark shaman had risen, one hand extended toward them, mouth contorted in a growl of rage. Jim stepped closer still to Blair, pressing his leg to Blair's, giving him more physical support. Again, Blair's arm steadied. The staff glowed with new light, brightening the air about them, its glimmer rivaling that of the forms still hovering around the river.

And then whirlpool ... swallowed, sucking the water -- and the shaman -- downward past the riverbed. The ground bucked beneath them and Jim tightened his grip on Blair's shoulder, holding him up against the earth tremor.

The dark shaman's voice rose above the noise one last time, roaring in denial and anger at his defeat. Jim couldn't understand the particular words he used, but he had the distinct feeling he and Blair just might have been cursed -- or at least cursed at rather vilely.

Jim felt something brush his legs. Glancing down, he saw the panther, black coat gleaming in the dim light. It opened its mouth and growled, letting out a long, low roar that echoed above the water. That was joined a moment later by the by-now-familiar howl of the wolf which stood to the side and just to the front of Blair. Front two legs planted firmly on a large rock, wagging tail thwacking against Blair's legs, the gray wolf lifted its great head to the dark skies, howling again and again.

Then ... all fell silent and still, deafening compared to the previous moments of cacophony. The river flowed quietly, only a few ripples hitting the shore. The shimmering forms remained scattered around the river, just .. hovering ... waiting ... watching. A gentle wind blew, pushing the clouds away from the skies, releasing the sun to again bathe the forest in its warm healing rays.

Sentinel and Shaman, bracketed by the spirit guides, stood unmoving in the aftermath, one shaft of sunlight pooled around them in that sudden quietude. The water lapped at the shore, gurgling softly as it streamed past the smaller pebbles and rocks that lay just beneath the surface. To Jim, the soft gurgles sounded oddly like the happy laughter of children.

To Blair, they sounded like pleased approval of guardians and generations past.

They also sounded like a blessing -- and a cry of victory.

***************************

Sunshine beaming through the windows dragged Simon's attention away from Jim and Blair for a moment. He stared a moment, seeing the clear blue sky beyond the glass panes and Venetian blinds.

Returning his gaze to his friends, he had only one thought.

Is it over? Other thoughts followed it, tumbling to the forefront, each vying for the most important spot.

Does the sun coming out mean they won? Are they both okay? Will Sandburg...? He bit off that thought, tightening his jaw. Faith, he told himself. I must have faith that he'll do the best he can to come back. I know he wants to come back. The question is whether or not he'll have the strength to do so.

Leaning forward just a bit, he watched Jim, waiting for the moment his help would be needed.

***************************

Slowly, arm muscles trembling with strain, Blair lowered the staff to the ground, placing the end in the packed dirt at the water's edge. He paused a moment, taking a half-breath, then lifted it just barely off the ground once more, waving it in the air in a sweeping gesture. He summoned enough strength to give his voice a little volume, knowing he really didn't need to, but wanted to nonetheless.

"Be freed to go to your rest. Your work is now done here."

The shimmering shapes flickered, then slowly faded out of sight until Jim and Blair -- and their animal guides -- were alone at the river. Blair stood for a moment longer, staring out over the river. The wolf padded to him, nudging at his leg with his head, whining softly in his throat. Blair looked downward into the dark pools of color that were the wolf's eyes, smiled, then slumped backwards, falling into Jim, catching him unawares. Both men crumpled to the ground, Jim instinctively cushioning Blair's fall with his body. The staff fell to Blair's other side, unnoticed.

Neither man, slumped against each other, moved for a moment, then Blair managed a hoarse whisper, voice muffled against Jim's shoulder. "I am so tired. I think I could sleep for a week -- no, a month at least."

Weakly, Jim patted Blair's shoulder, too weary to even chuckle. He didn't know what Blair had done exactly, but his guide had pulled every last bit of energy from him. Not bothering to really put a lot of effort behind his words, he said, "I was gonna say after we wake up, we can sleep, but that doesn't make much sense."

<<The dark one has been banished -- never to return.>>

Jim cracked one eye open, spotting the shaman standing several feet in front of them. He grunted. "Good." Because I don't think I have the strength to do this again -- not in this lifetime at least.

The shaman only smiled -- enigmatically as always. "Time for you to return to the lives you left behind."

Jim groaned, pushing himself up to a full sitting position, somehow managing not to dislodge Blair in the process. "Which way is that again?" He curled his legs slowly underneath him, then carefully grasped Blair's shoulders. "Come on, Chief, time to get back to the real world."

Blair raised his head, staring at Jim with weary eyes. He lifted one hand, the one he'd held the staff with, and touched Jim's face. "Return, Sentinel." Then, before Jim could voice his protest, Blair lurched away from him, breaking physical contact. The forest spun around him, blurring into a melange of colors and lights and sounds and sensations....

***************************

"NO!"

The hoarse, loud shout from the sentinel startled Simon, making him jump slightly. He leaned in toward Jim, one hand raised, hovering just above his shoulder.

"Jim?" He kept his voice quiet.

Blue eyes flew open along with his mouth as he gasped, inhaling great draughts of air. "Simon. <pant> He sent me <pant> he sent me back." He blinked several times, his eyes mostly fixed on Blair's still, unbreathing form. "He promised <pant> he would try to stay with me. <pant> He promised!" Unconsciously, he started to lift his hands from Blair's.

Working solely on an instinct that cried "no!", Simon clapped both his hands on Jim's, holding them on Blair's. "No, Jim, you can't..."

And then it was his turn to gasp.

***************************

"Sandburg!"

Blair's eyes flew open -- amazingly slow -- to see Simon standing just in front of him, looking totally incongruent with the forest surroundings. Something do with the normal "captainly" clothes, he supposed.

"Simon?" The cracking of his voice startled him. Surely he couldn't be that weary. He wheezed out a breath, ending in a weak cough. Well, then again, maybe I am. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Simon? What are you doing here?"

"Do I look like I know? Now I know why I didn't want to touch both of you at the same time." He shook his head, striding over to Blair. "The better question would be why are you still here? Jim's rather upset at the moment. Seems you made a promise to stay with him."

"I know." He stopped to breathe, weariness closing his eyes for a moment. "I don't have anything left. I sent him back. That was all I could do."

Crouched next to Blair's slumped form, Simon narrowed his eyes. "And didn't you even stop to think that maybe he'd want to stay with you here rather than be by himself out there?" He sighed. "I thought you knew Jim better than that."

<<Would you take your place next to them, Chosen Ally?>>

Leaping to his feet, Simon whirled to see the shaman standing behind him, calm as ever. "I think I'm beginning to agree with Jim. The phone would be much nicer."

"What is your answer? Time runs short."

Simon answered, unflinching at the gaze directed at him from the shaman's eyes. "They are my friends. I am theirs. My place is already next to them. Nothing has changed."

The shaman smiled, nodding. "Very well. Take the young one's hand."

Frowning only for a moment, Simon pushed away any questions and concerns -- time enough for them later. Time enough later to think just what he'd done here. He turned around, crouching down back at Blair's side, stretching out his hand. "Blair? Give me your hand and let's go home."

Eyes fixed on Simon's face, Blair laid his pale hand, shaky and small, into Simon's large dark palm. Simon's fingers closed around it....

***************************

....throwing him back into his body with a jerk. Simon gasped again, but didn't loosen his grip on the two sets of hands underneath his. Feeling slightly off-balance, Simon fumbled for his footing as he looked at Blair.

Breathing. On his own. Sleepy blue eyes opening slowly.

He shifted his eyes to Jim. Still breathing. His blue eyes lighting up with joy.

Warily, he lifted his hands, pulling them slowly back into his lap. When nothing untoward happened, he breathed out, this time in relief. It's over. Everything's finally over.

In the next moment, he found himself holding both the book and the tablet when Jim thrust them at him before pulling Blair into a tight embrace on the couch, ignoring creaking joints and sore muscles. Simon stared at the two artifacts in his hands a moment before dropping them on the table and shoving them aside.

No, I don't even want to think about them or what I just did with Sandburg in that ... other reality or shamans or even sentinels or anything else even vaguely mystical right now.

Firmly shoving away all those unsettling thoughts to be examined on a later day, he returned his gaze to the two men on the couch. He smiled tolerantly, quite understanding Jim's effusive display of emotion. He sorta felt like displaying a few of his own emotions right then.

Instead, he stood and tottered on curiously wobbling legs back to the kitchen. He seemed to recall being in the middle of making a cup of coffee a bit earlier. Normality. That's what we all need a good dose of right now.

********************

~The next day~

Placing the stack of books on the loft's coffee table, Jim collapsed on the couch next to Blair. "I think that's enough for now."

Blair laughed a little, eyeing the half-still-messed-up loft. "You mean you're gonna leave it all a mess like this? That's a new one."

Jim snorted in amusement. "Leave it? Not likely. I'm gonna wait until I can make you clean it up while I watch instead." He patted Blair's leg underneath the red afghan. "Can't let you get too lazy or you'll take advantage of me."

"Hate to tell you this, Jim, but it's way too late to think about that."

"Hmm. So Simon keeps telling me."

After sleeping the rest of the day at Simon's -- on his couch nonetheless -- and then spending one more night at his apartment as well, Jim and Blair had returned to the loft that morning. Blair had gone into his room, dismayed at the mess, but happy that nothing important had been destroyed. Jim had walked through the entire loft, all his senses on alert, but hadn't picked up anything that struck him as unusual and so had started cleaning things up a bit. Blair hadn't picked up more than three things in his room before he had to sit down, too winded to do anything more, still recovering from the battle.

Not wanting to take any chances that Blair would fall down or hurt himself or something else equally damaging, Jim had settled him on the couch, tucking the afghan over his legs, ordering him to stay there. Partially amused but too tired to argue, Blair did as he was told, giving Jim "helpful" hints every now and then as the older man cleaned up the downstairs room.

Neither had really spoken of what happened the day before -- not that they were avoiding it; it just hadn't seemed like the right time. And Simon hadn't wanted to hear anything more about it anyway. Blair hid a smile. Poor Simon -- just way too much for his rational mind to take. I think he's still in shock. We'll have to take him out to eat or do something pedestrian that he can process. Maybe then I can properly thank him for getting me back here. Jim can too. And maybe I can get Simon to talk about what happened with the shaman. Jim knows something happened, even if the good captain refuses to speak of it. When he finds out exactly what...

As for the two remnants left over from their otherworldly journeys, the book, its usefulness to Blair ended, had been returned to the evidence lock-up at the station. He knew all he needed from it. Most of the knowledge he needed was, as Jim's spirit guide had told him, internal, not book-learned. And the tablet, well, Jim himself had boxed that up late last night, dropping it off at the post office that morning, sending it back to the museum Blair had borrowed it from. Blair hadn't protested -- he'd seen all he wanted of ancient books and tablets for awhile.

Blair yawned, raising one hand from beneath the blanket to cover his mouth, then rub his eyes.

"Still tired?" Jim asked softly.

"Yeah. You would think I wouldn't be considering how much I slept yesterday, but..." He shrugged, yawning again, slouching sideways to rest against Jim.

Jim shifted his arm to lay along the back of the couch, his hand pulling Blair closer to him. "Well, weren't you the one who said he could sleep for a month?"

Resting his head on Jim's shoulder, Blair batted one hand on Jim's chest. "I was joking. I didn't expect it to be true!" Rumbling laughter echoed under his ear.

"Go to sleep, Chief. I'll probably be joining you in a bit anyway. I think we're due for some rest."

"Hmm..." He shifted a bit closer, turning to get more comfortable. Jim's other arm reached across him, anchoring him firmly so he wouldn't slide away as he slept.

In minutes, the only sound in the apartment was the soft, deep breathing of the two sleepers. Neither moved or reacted when the shaman stepped out of the shadows and moved to stand in front of the couch, watching them.

He waved a hand above their heads, just barely touching them, blessing them.

"And so, balance is restored."

Time blinked and the shaman vanished, shimmering out of view.

Jim stirred, blinking sleepily around the room, then shook his head. "Must be imagining things." Closing his eyes again, the sentinel drifted back to sleep, his shaman safe at his side.

Any other plans destiny had in mind for them could wait until another day.

- The End -