Past Life by PB

Past Life - PB

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Warning: This story has a recollection of child molestation which, while tragic, is not graphic. It is mentioned, but not described in detail. However, it did happen to a major character.

~~~

The old man sat looking at the shaky image on the screen in front of him – a picture of a broken man -- a press conference. He fingered but didn’t push the ‘play’ button that would release Blair Sandburg from his state of video suspended animation, and a tear made its way down his time worn features. “So that’s what Blaine would have looked like now,” the man sighed, suddenly looking all of his seventy-two years, and more. “Why did you do it, Blair?” he asked, through the flowing waterway his countenance had become. “Why?”

Malcolm Halliburton had been a wealthy financier with a nose for lucrative propositions. He had also been one of Naomi Sandburg’s many lovers. Now, as he sat looking at the paused video tape image on the screen before him, he harkened back to a time before everything in his life had gone to hell.

~~o)0O0(o~~

Blair and Blaine Sandburg, identical eight year old boys, were celebrating their shared birthday on the sprawling lawn of their ‘uncle’ Malcolm’s estate. All of their school friends were present, enjoying the myriad of activities available to them at the party. Halliburton adored the boys and their mother, and had gone all out to make this a fine celebration, indeed. There were the obligatory clown and magicians running around, but the well-heeled gentleman had also arranged for a petting zoo, a pretty good sized water slide, and a large merry-go-round, among other attractions sure to wow all of the popular boys’ many little friends. However, Blair’s focus was the most surprising.

Malcolm had contacted a small circus troupe and asked if he could rent them out for the event. The owner had balked at first – a simple birthday party for two little boys – they were professional performers! Then Halliburton had pulled out his checkbook and written a check for an obscene amount of money, and that’s how the circus ended up at the Sandburg sons’ birthday bash. That’s also how the black jaguar came into the picture. The big cat, named Shadow, wasn’t a major attraction; that was Leonardo, the lion’s, job. Shadow was just a cantankerous feline who was pretty to look at, but who couldn’t be controlled. Mostly, she stayed in her cage and looked ominous for the kiddies; she was decidedly not a performer. However, when the intrepid Blair walked up to her cage, everyone from the cat handler on down was shocked.

The normally cranky feline walked to the bars and poked her head out to nuzzle Blair’s hand before the stunned adults could even react. In their defense, the cat had never done anything remotely like that before. Her usual m. o. was to turn her back and offer the annoying humans trying to get her attention a dismissive swish of her tail. Those who persisted to try and get her attention were treated to a resounding growl and baring of teeth, still from the opposite end of the cage. Shadow had never made a move toward any human visitor before now. However, this startlingly lovely child was a significant exception to the aloof jaguar’s rule, and Blair was as fascinated by the cat as Shadow was with the boy. All the circus personnel were stunned, as was Malcolm Halliburton.

Malcolm had stayed close by, keeping watch on the antics of cat and boy, as had several members of the cat handler team. They all watched in awe and trepidation as Blair scratched the jungle cat’s ears and fed her bits of hot dog with relish. They gasped and almost yanked the tyke away when Shadow stretched her neck out and lapped at the boy’s face with her rough, pink tongue. However, it was patently obvious to anyone with a brain that the jaguar meant this little one no harm. The animal was clearly taken with Blair, and vice versa. Malcolm almost asked about buying the feline, but then thought better of it. It was fine as a birthday treat, but a permanent pet, it was not. He could just see the huge thing lounging at poolside when his employees came to the estate for the annual picnic, or having to be shooed out of his home office when board members came by for Malcolm’s famous informal briefings. No, this was not a house cat, but the strange rapport the thing had with Blair was just … he didn’t know what to think.

Too soon the party ended and the world came crashing down. Malcolm didn’t know what he had done so wrong in his parenting that caused the ultimate collapse, but he knew deep and abiding sorrow for it. If only his son felt such remorse, he wouldn’t have to worry now about the fate of the young man whose pained expression now graced his video screen. He pressed the ‘stop’ button and sighed deeply, knowing somehow that this tape signaled the beginning of the end either for his biological son or the young man who, at age eight, had almost become his adopted child.

~~o)0O0(o~~

Blair couldn’t believe it. Just as he was saying his last farewell to the station that had been his home away from home for the last few years, Jim and Simon stepped in and do this. Knowing he’d have some fast explaining to do when he got home if he didn’t do it now. The future official partner to Detective Ellison decided to come clean. This was going to be hard, but he had to do it, guessing that Jim would forgive him much more easily if he explained now, rather than when confronted with the evidence at the loft.

“Jim, I gotta tell you, man, that was a serious surprise you pulled back there,” Blair began, sitting next to his friend in the old Ford pick-up.

“Really gotcha, huh?” Jim replied, chuckling easily.

“Yeah, you could say that,” the former grad student answered amiably, dreading the next few minutes. “Jim, I have to tell you something, and I need you to let me finish before you wig out, okay?” Jim’s jaw tightened, but aware of his companion’s scrutiny, he only nodded his acquiescence.

“Okay,” Sandburg continued with a nervously exhaled breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “I really thought my time with you at the station was over,” he paused, forming his words before speaking. “I already cleaned out my office and came to the PD to do the same.” Another pause followed, and Jim really wished his partner would just let whatever axe he was going to drop fall. Blair ran a trembling hand through his hair and resumed speaking, continually flicking concerned glances at his partner.

“Well, I was feeling like you and I were still on shaky ground, even after what you said at the hospital. Anyway, I was thinking, for the sake of our friendship, it might be good to kind of get lost for a while – you know, until things settled down a little and all.” Jim felt the world falling out from under him and was seriously wondering if it was safe to drive while listening to this. “I wasn’t sure how okay you were with my sticking around until today, so I kind of …” Blair stalled for a moment, still unsure how to finish what he had to say, and feeling no small amount of worry at the fact that Jim had gone very pale and rigid in his seat. Finally, he took a deep, cleansing breath and forged ahead.

“I actually packed up my stuff to move out today, and it’s all sitting in the living room waiting to go,” Blair began, hoping to get to the good news, but not getting the chance as Jim swerved the truck into a convenience store parking lot suddenly. The larger man barely gave himself a chance to put the truck in ‘park’ before opening the door and getting out. Blair stared in shock for just a moment while he watched his best friend step out of the vehicle without bothering to shut the door. Then Jim bent over, placing his hands on his knees and looking like he was going to collapse at any moment. Blair wrenched his own door open and climbed out to reassure his roommate.

“Easy, easy, Jim, just relax,” Blair placated, but Jim just kept standing there, all hunched over, looking like he was studying the pavement for the best place to vomit. “I just told you all that so you wouldn’t freak out when we walked in the loft and you saw all the boxes.” He took Jim’s face in his hands and lifted it up so the sentinel could make eye contact. Blair’s breath caught in his throat at what he saw reflected in his friend’s face – an even mixture of longing, need, pain, and abject terror. The younger man used the hands already touching the cop’s face to caress the ashen skin.

“I just didn’t want the sight to shock you unnecessarily, see?” he crooned softly. “I plan to unpack just as soon as we get home.” The look of silent hope in Jim’s eyes almost undid the smaller man. “I’m not leaving, Jim.” Blair shook his head to illustrate his point. “I know now that’s not what’s best for either of us. It’s never what I wanted, but I thought it would be better for you that way.” Jim was standing straight now, and Blair had removed his hands to let them compliment his speech with animated gestures. “I didn’t think you’d want to go on living with someone who was looked upon as a fraud and a cheat.” The guide bowed his head and dropped his animated hands to his sides. “I figured if I left, everything would just die down faster, and you could go back to what passes for a normal life for you,” Blair finished with a wan smile and a small shrug.

Jim Ellison closed his eyes, took in a deep breath, let it out, and then re-opened them to look at his partner. “May I speak, now?” he asked solicitously. It was Blair’s turn to nod. Jim put his hands on his friend’s shoulders and stared deep into those Mediterranean blue depths. “Don’t ever,” he emphasized, giving a little shake to Blair’s shoulders, “Do anything like that to me again.” Jim’s hesitation signaled he was awaiting a response, but Blair couldn’t speak for the depth of emotion he saw in his sentinel’s expression, so he solemnly shook his head. That seemed to satisfy.

“I thought you were about to tell me you weren’t going to take the job offer and were heading for parts unknown.” At that, Blair’s body jerked and his mouth opened as if to speak, but a finger on his lips and Jim’s quiet, “Shush,” stopped him. The body relaxed, and the sentinel removed his finger with an almost caress of his guide’s soft mouth. “That’s my worst fear, you know,” he continued, not quite able to meet the younger man’s eyes now. “That you’ll leave me – even when I was mad as hell about the dissertation being public, I still didn’t want that, never that.”

Ellison didn’t know where this dangerous shot of honesty was coming from; maybe the momentary headiness of touching those incredible lips had made him reckless, or perhaps just stupid. At any rate, in for a penny, in for a pound was the only way to go here. He looked back at the eyes of the man he knew he loved more than anyone he’d ever known and saw them brimming with unshed tears. He let his expression give tacit permission to speak because he could no longer trust his own voice.

Blair understood the facial directive, as he always did. As a lone drop of salty moisture escaped and began to make its way down a previously dry cheek, the guide reassured quietly, “I’ll never leave you unless you tell me to, Jim.” As much as the younger man feared giving away too much of a hint about his true feelings for his sentinel, he had to give the man before him the promise Jim needed to hear. Blair knew what the cop’s forthright admission had cost him; Jim Ellison didn’t like to admit to needing anything, let alone anyone, but he’d said he feared losing Blair. That was the same thing as needing someone, right? Well, if Jim could be honest about his fears and needs, Blair could at least brave his own to give his sentinel the assurance that those fears were no longer grounded and the needs would be met.

With that, Jim released his partner’s shoulders and quipped, “Let’s get back in the truck and go home, Chief, before we start attracting media attention again.” He gave a wicked grin which Blair returned wholeheartedly.

Neither sentinel nor guide took much notice of the non-descript dark blue sedan parked in front of their home. However, when four men in equally non-descript suits stepped out of it upon Jim and Blair’s exit from the truck, Ellison’s senses and protective instincts kicked into over-drive. The sentinel’s concerns were not alleviated when Blair saw and seemed to recognize the man in the lead, who walked purposefully toward the former teacher. Jim heard the rapid staccato of his guide’s heart and immediately ensconced himself between Blair and this unsettling possible enemy. The cop’s dark countenance caused the unknown man to halt in his tracks and reach inside his coat. It wasn’t the wisest of moves.

The sentinel, sensing danger to his guide and fearing the man was reaching for a weapon, produced his own gun with lightening fast dexterity. He had a bead on his target before any of the four men realized what was happening. Once they did, all were powerless to do anything, noting the feral gleam in Ellison’s eyes and fearing that any move for their own firearms would result in loss of life. It was at that moment that Blair’s voice cut through the tension and penetrated the sentinel’s primitive brain to activate the cop’s higher functioning synapses.

“Jim, this is Agent Crenshaw, with the US Marshal’s service, and I’m fairly certain he’s just reaching for ID.” Blair’s soft intonations permeated the fog that had overtaken Jim’s thinking processes. Coming to stand beside his partner and reaching out to lay a hand on Jim’s arms, extended in firing position, Sandburg initiated a gentle downward pressure with his hand. “Lower your weapon, Jim,” the guide voice commanded quietly, but firmly. The sentinel obeyed, and the cop came to the fore, giving his head an almost imperceptible shake and blinking owlishly. “Welcome back,” Blair whispered for Jim’s ears alone.

“Thanks, Chief,” Ellison replied warmly, not much louder than his friend’s previous comment, but loud enough for Blair to catch. Jim holstered his weapon and turned his attention to the clearly relieved men in front of him.

“Well, that was …,” Agent Crenshaw began, searching for an appropriate word.

“Invigorating,” supplied the man behind and to his left, helpfully. Crenshaw glanced over his left shoulder and threw the man a withering look. Then he refocused his attention on the two men in front of him.

“Not really what I had in mind, but since I just used up all my brain power on convincing my bladder not to empty into my shorts, I guess it’ll have to do,” Crenshaw shot back, a wry smile appearing in place of the shocked expression that had now abated. When Jim’s gun had been drawn, the agent had immediately yanked his empty hand from inside the suit coat, failing to grasp his credentials. “Detective Ellison, would you like to see my ID now?” he inquired hesitantly, not daring to reach back in that pocket without asking first.

“I guess not, if Sandburg knows you,” Jim replied, not at all surprised the man knew his name and title.

“Derrick, why don’t you and the three stooges there,” Blair began, indicating the men behind Crenshaw, “Come on up to the loft and tell me what you’re doing here?” The invitation was not cheerful, but then the agents hadn’t expected it to be. Jim was perplexed, to say the least, but figured he’d be getting to the bottom of things soon enough. The four agents nodded in unison, and Blair turned and led the merry band inside.

Once inside, the introductions began. “Well, Detective,” Crenshaw began. “As Blair already said, I am Agent Derrick Crenshaw. Blair, do you remember Alan Doherty?” He pointed to the 6’2” linebacker of a man in his fifties standing to his right. The last time Blair had seen Doherty, the man hadn’t been quite so bald, and the young observer couldn’t seem to recall his previous hair color, but he did remember having met him before.

“Vaguely,” Blair replied truthfully.

“Well, these other two you don’t know,” Derrick continued. “This is Agent Mason Truerow.” He indicated the agent standing between the sofa and television. This man was in his mid-twenties, with red hair and fair, freckled skin. Blair’s first thought was that this guy probably got called kid as often as he did. He was all of 5’9” tall and about 160 pounds, but all of it was muscle and sinew, not unlike Blair’s own 5’7”, 145 pound frame.

“And the comedian, here,” Crenshaw wrapped up, indicating the man to his left and the only one besides Derrick to make a comment while the group was outside, “is John Clayton, who’s on loan to us from the esteemed FBI,” he finished sarcastically. Actually, he was grateful to have Clayton along, having worked with the thirty-two year old, 6’ tall, 185 pound man on other such cases. With curly black hair, coffee colored skin and warm brown eyes, he really was the class clown of the group, ever able to lighten the mood with his own unique brand of humor.

Crenshaw, himself, was fast approaching fifty, still in excellent shape at 6’1”, while maintaining a ‘fighting weight’ of 195 pounds of bench-pressing muscle. His sandy blond hair was just beginning to gray at the temples, a pretty hefty achievement, considering what he did for a living. Keeping sometimes stupid people alive despite the odds against them was a harrowing job, which brought him to the matter at hand. He walked over to Blair, who was standing at the kitchen counter near the refrigerator, making a full pot of coffee certain to be offered to the visiting agents. Ever mindful of Ellison’s wary gaze and posture that all but screamed, “One wrong move toward Sandburg and you’ll be in hell before you realize you’re dead,” Derrick placed his hands on Blair’s shoulders and turned the younger man around to face him.

“A press conference, Blair?” Derrick asked, sighing dramatically. “CNN, all the major networks?” Blair hung his head and Crenshaw continued, clearly chastising. “You couldn’t just issue a little statement to the print media with no picture?” At that, Blair’s head rose defiantly, and the agent dropped his hands from the younger man’s shoulders.

“Derrick, the original story wasn’t just covered in print. Besides, my face had already been all over the news because reporters were following me and Jim everywhere we went. The only way to get them to stop was to tell them,” Blair glanced pointedly at Jim with his next words. “The truth about my research, that I … lied.”

“Blair, lie to the press if you want,” Derrick began, holding up a hand to forestall the inevitable argument. “I’ve known you for twenty-two years.” Blair’s mouth opened again as if to speak, but reminiscent of Jim’s earlier action, Derrick placed a finger against those mobile lips, effectively shutting them. He didn’t move the digit, though, a fact that didn’t escape the sentinel’s notice. “I recall when you first became interested in sentinels, remember?” Blair nodded. “Who pulled all those strings and got you that rare edition of Burton’s monograph for your sixteenth birthday?”

“You,” Blair croaked around the finger still lingering on his mouth, his voice heavy with emotion borne of memories.

“That’s right,” Derrick breathed. “And while you may be able to tell some whoppers when you want to,” he smiled to take the sting out of the words. “You would never dishonor the study of sentinels by faking your data.” Blair winced, and Derrick knew he was on the right track. “That subject has too many detractors as it is; you’d never deliberately give them more ammunition unless you had to in order to … oh, say … save a sentinel from having his life torn apart?” Crenshaw removed his finger and Jim thought he might collapse from relief. Then he saw Blair looking at this man with such affection and devotion that it unhinged him. Or so he thought, but the real unhinging was going to happen in a few moments.

“So what now?” Blair queried, knowing he’d never admit anything, but not willing to waste any more time with denials, not to this man. Jim, who still didn’t understand squat about what was happening, listened intently, only a couple of feet away from the two men.

“Now,” the agent took one step back and braced for the onslaught. “We change your name and your history, and move you out to parts unknown. From the looks of things, you’re already packed.” Blair and Jim gasped as one at the end of the first sentence. It escaped neither man’s notice that Crenshaw had used the exact same phrase Jim had in their parking lot discussion on the way home. Both also clearly remembered the conclusion of that discussion. The guide gazed at his sentinel, whose stricken expression told him all he needed to know.

“I was packed to go, but things have changed since I did that,” Blair replied stoically. Crenshaw knew the tone didn’t bode well for his plans; he’d just known this wouldn’t go off without a hitch. For the smartest man Derrick knew, Blair Sandburg could be truly stupid when it came to his own well-being. “I’m not leaving, Derrick,” the young shaman said with finality.

Crenshaw had planned for this eventuality, but all his plans went up in smoke when he saw these two men together. He realized very rapidly that Jim Ellison was in love with Blair Sandburg, and that was how he was going to win his argument. All he had to do was convince the big cop, and it would be a done deal. Derrick was feeling mighty smug as he made his pitch.

“Detective Ellison,” Derrick began, turning away from a flummoxed Blair to his equally befuddled roommate. “I’d like to tell you a little story.” Jim’s eyebrow raised, but he said nothing. Blair fumed at the obvious tactic, but knew why Crenshaw was destined to fail, so he let it go. “It’s about a young man who witnessed a crime and testified. Several years later, when the perpetrator was released from confinement, he tried to kill the person who had testified.” Derrick could see the wheels turning in the detective’s mind, so he continued his recitation of the facts. “We knew who had attempted the murder, but couldn’t prove it, so we led everyone to believe the young man and his mother were killed in a car accident a few weeks after the attempt failed.” The slight gasp was the only outward sign that Ellison was even listening to him.

“After their ‘deaths,’ we changed their names and pasts, and relocated them to the city of their choice. There, they lived happily ever after, until the young man got it into his idiotic head to plaster his face all over the international news. We know, per some discreet and unauthorized,” Derrick coughed, a bit embarrassed at his necessary admission of not following protocol, “surveillance, that the man who tried to kill our young witness, indeed, now knows that he is alive and well, and residing in Cascade. He has some very definite plans about what to do with this knowledge, which is why we need to re-locate Blair as soon as possible. Maybe you can convince him that this is for the best, Detective Ellison.” The agent concluded his ploy with a pointed look at Jim and a smug grin at Blair, who just smiled back knowingly.

“I don’t think so, Agent Crenshaw,” Jim retorted. The agent’s smugness faltered. Okay, this was unexpected. He’d seen the obvious tenderness in the cop’s attitude toward the young anthropologist, and he’d assumed that meant the detective would be on board with any plan to protect him. What he didn’t count on, and Blair did, was the sentinel’s belief that no one could guard his guide better than he could. It was a primitive instinct, but one that had served the duo well over the years, with a few minor exceptions, usually related to a failure to communicate effectively. Crenshaw cast a glance at Sandburg, who just looked triumphant.

“What do you mean, you don’t think so?” Derrick squeaked, and then cleared his throat. Blair stepped past the agent and over to the big detective. He put a hand on Jim’s arm and answered for him.

“What Jim means is that he can protect me from anyone who might come after me. Isn’t that right, Jim?” Blair asked, knowing what the answer would be, but needing the verbal reassurance for Crenshaw’s sake as well as his own.

“That’s right, Chief,” he replied with a smile and a light in his eyes prompted by Blair’s obvious trust in his ability to do just that. “No one’s gonna get anywhere near you with me around, and maybe we can catch this guy and put him away once and for all.” Derrick was stunned; he expected this kind of moronic response from the people he protected, but not a cop with the reputation of Jim Ellison. Then again, if Blair’s dissertation was correct, and Crenshaw truly believed it was, maybe this man was their only hope at ever giving Blair his life back. He realized that either way, Sandburg was not going to go with him, so he might as well at least try to formulate a way to capture Cal Halliburton. Meanwhile, during Derrick’s reverie, Blair was having a flashback to an earlier time and place.

~~o)0O0(o~~

The birthday party was a resounding success, and all his friends were having a good time, as was the other ‘birthday boy,’ his brother, Blaine. While the twins were extremely close and had wanted to spend all their time together during the festivities, Blair just couldn’t tear himself away from the big cat. The circus people said her name was Shadow, but they were wrong. The big feline had informed him, with a voice Blair clearly heard in his head, but which none of the other adults or children present seemed aware of, that her real name was Deva. She was named for an Egyptian goddess, and rightly so; she knew a great many things about Blair and his life, both present and, she maintained, future.

Deva informed the boy that there was no need to speak aloud to her; it would only amuse or concern the adults present, and it might cause them to take the child away before the jaguar was finished with their conversation. So Blair kept silent and thought his words to her. She was pleased with his acceptance of the situation and told him he was a very special boy, indeed. The cat enthralled him with her knowledge of his life and family situation; she knew about all the problems he and Blaine were currently having with their adult almost-step-brother, Cal.

Calhoun Halliburton, ‘Cal,’ for short, was a twenty year old college junior who was just barely scraping by in school. The fact that he was even passing his classes was due mostly to his father, Malcolm’s, consistently large donations to the university’s building fund account. Cal wasn’t an unintelligent man; he just knew what his father’s money could buy, and he figured why bother to study when his family could pay for the degree. So he was lazy and bored. Unfortunately, he was also a malicious pedophile who found out he had a taste for little boys with brown curls, full lips, and impossibly big blue eyes. He had been terrorizing the boys for the entire month he’d been home on summer vacation, hurting them badly and threatening to do horrific things to their mother if they breathed a word. The boys had kept their terrible secret and had clung to each other and the knowledge that the young man’s school break wouldn’t last forever. They had been the object of men’s desires before, but Momma had always been on watch and nipped things in the bud before anything bad had happened. This time, she was too much in love with her soon-to-be husband to realize anything was wrong. That was an oversight which would bring her emotional torment for the rest of her life.

Deva was a lot like Momma, in that she desperately wanted to protect Blair. She said there would come a time far too soon where the little boy would need all the magic she could summon, so she was biding her time and gathering her strength for the coming battle. Blair was very interested in this notion of magical powers, but she silenced his mental questions by telling him he would see what she meant before the night had ended. He was very happy about that; he shouldn’t have been, and she knew it, but what could she do? She was only a cat with a mystical connection to a former goddess. If those who had tried to steal her godhood could only see her now, guardian in spirit and truth to a great sentinel and his future shaman and mate. Woo-hoo, you’ve come a long way, Kitty! She snickered to herself as only a large jungle cat can.

Deva entertained and enlightened Blair with stories of his future and all the adventures it would hold, but she was also clear that he must never let those adventures take precedence over his studies; he would need those for his most important task. The cat informed the boy that he was to be the faithful companion of someone called a sentinel. Blair had never heard the term before, so Deva did her best to explain while the child fed her a hot dog with a delightful concoction called relish on it. Delicious, it was. Perhaps she should let other human children get close to her from now on; she’d noticed them munching hungrily on these tubular creations before, but had no idea they were so yummy. Yes, she might start letting a few of them carrying hot dogs get close enough to her to share their goodies. With that decided, she lectured Blair more on what he needed to do. Deva knew the trauma that would follow throughout the course of the evening would soon drown out all her teachings, but she also realized it was her job to plant the seed; others would take care of the reminding at a later date.

In a few years another reference to sentinels would catch Blair’s eye, and he would recall hearing about them from somewhere, but wouldn’t be able to place exactly where. However, it would intrigue him, and he would read on, having a vague impression that he needed to learn more, that he needed to be well-versed in this subject. Eventually, the boy, who by then would be a man, would feel an irresistible pull to find one of these individuals, these sentinels, for himself. All of this would come to pass, and Deva knew she’d be there to see it, invisible to the naked eye, even Blair’s eyes, but be there she would. As she talked to her student, Deva was aware that, even now, the unseen wolf was by her side, watching the boy that would be his charge with keen interest and no small amount of pride.

The wolf, Deva’s unlikely mate, was named Remus. He was a proud warrior, and was raised to be the leader of his pack. However, he was also possessed of a great mystical spirit, as was Deva, and could not take his position as leader due to his responsibilities to the child sitting outside his mate’s cage. As a future shaman, Blair Sandburg would need a very strong and wise spirit guide, and Remus was determined to do the job well. He knew he wouldn’t enter the boy’s conscious life for many years to come, and would actually be seen by Jim Ellison, Blair’s sentinel, before becoming visible to the shaman, himself.

Remus knew this should be the way of things, but he also knew that humans had a way of interfering with predestination by exercising their ever-present free will. The powers that be in nature had things fated to go a certain way, but all it took was one person making the wrong decision, and everything would have to be reworked. With all Jim Ellison’s fears about not being in control of his own life because of unseen mystical forces, the man had no idea how much influence he really had in his own affairs.

The wolf’s concentration was effectively broken by Blair’s mother’s new boyfriend taking the child away with an admonishment that they still had a cake to cut and presents to be opened. It spoke a great deal of Blair’s devotion to the cat that the child would rather stay and play with Deva than receive his gifts, but he hated to disappoint everyone at the party. Personally, Remus and Deva thought the idea of birthday cake sounded wonderful. The cat said as much to Blair, and he silently promised to bring her a slice before she had to leave. She thanked the boy profusely; all that sugar would give her strength for what she knew would be a tiring night. She soon lay down to rest next to her mate, licking his muzzle and allowing him to share the taste of the hot dog still clinging to her tongue. The two beasts napped, curled around each other, only one of them seen by the passing humans.

The rest of the celebration passed without incident, Blair and Blaine receiving many and varied gifts. Photos were taken and cake devoured. Malcolm didn’t object when Blair requested an extra piece for his new feline friend, and the boy ran it over to the tent with her cage. The animal ate greedily and even licked Blair’s fingers, to his giggling delight and the astonished stares of the circus personnel. Malcolm and Naomi, who had accompanied Halliburton and her son when Malcolm said she just had to see Blair’s interaction with the cat, were also present. She was worried when she first saw the big jaws open so close to her child’s little hand, but the tableau of the enormous cat bathing her laughing son’s fingers was so charming, she never moved a muscle.

~~o)0O0(o~~

Blair was wrenched from his musings about the past by the hand on his shoulder and the familiar voice calling his name. “Blair!” Jim nearly yelled, having tried three times to get his guide’s attention already. He idly wondered if this was what a zone looked like to others.

“Yeah, Jim, sorry,” a subdued Blair replied. He had just remembered something amazing. The shaman couldn’t for the life of him figure out how he had repressed something that important in his life. He supposed the chaos and tragedy that followed the party had something to do with it, but still. There was so much information the cat had imparted to him, and he suddenly recalled that there had been a wolf in the cage as well – one that he had certainly not seen at the time, but that he could picture just as plain as day now.

His own spirit animal had been there with Deva, watching over him, but invisible to his childhood perception. What did it mean that he could detect the animal’s presence in his memory? Why was he only now dredging up the memory of the jaguar that had changed his life? Did it mean that there was danger ahead, or that everything was going to work out for the best? He needed to have a private conversation with his partner, and he needed it now .

Jim saw the signs that his guide was retreating into that place of deep thought again, and he sought to bring him back before Blair went any further. “Hey, Chief, stay with me here.” At Blair’s confused look, he explained. “You looked like you were heading off into the unknown again, and we need you to stay present to help with the game plan.”

“Right, game plan,” Blair said with a decisive nod. He then turned to Crenshaw, an act that hurt Jim for some reason he couldn’t face just now. “Okay, Derrick,” the young man began with a trusting smile that only deepened Jim’s pain. “What do you suggest?” Crenshaw noted the agony suffused throughout every pore of Ellison’s countenance. How could Blair not see how much this man adored him? Of course! The kid was an incredibly strong, resilient, and intelligent person, but he had some serious self-esteem issues. Blair never thought he was quite good enough for anyone, and if the level of devotion Derrick sensed the young man had for Jim was as great as it appeared, Sandburg definitely wouldn’t feel worthy of this man. He felt the need to have a discussion with the two partners about this, but not just yet.

It hadn’t even occurred to Blair that Jim might be unhappy about his turning to Derrick for guidance. The anthropologist figured it was the least he could do to smooth things over since he wasn’t going to leave with the agent. However, immediately after asking his question, he slid a ‘see how well I’m doing making nice with the feds’ glance at his partner and frowned at what he saw there. Jim looked like someone had shot his dog, and as soon as he noticed Blair’s attention on him, the detective pulled into himself and sent up the walls. Iceberg Ellison now stood in front of his perplexed friend. Somehow Blair knew he was the one who had fired the proverbial bullet at the equally proverbial canine, but couldn’t understand how in the world he had done it. He determined to get to the bottom of this when the two men sat down for that private talk he was planning. For now, though, Derrick was beginning to speak.

“Alright you two,” Crenshaw sighed, clearly defeated but ready to go with Ellison’s ‘Plan B,’ catching Cal Halliburton in the act of conspiring to kill Blair. He just hoped the sentinel was as good as both he and Blair thought he was. “If I can’t convince Blair to leave, then the least I can do is figure out a way to put Detective Ellison’s suggestion to good use. Agents Doherty and Truerow will set up outside your apartment door tonight, while Clayton and I go back to our hotel and set up some kind of mission plan.” Doherty groaned from the living room, but said nothing. “Mind if they take two of these dining table chairs out into the hallway, Detective?”

“Fine by me,” Jim replied. “Although they’re not gonna be too comfortable sitting out there in those all night.”

“That’s the idea,” Crenshaw responded with a smile. Doherty huffed from the next room. “Can’t have ‘em falling asleep out there, now can we?” Derrick grinned and winked at Jim conspiratorially. Jim only responded with a tight smile. He was not ready to like this man. Blair seemed to like him enough for both of them. “Well,” the agent continued, noting the lack of camaraderie from the cop. “I guess Clayton and I had better head back and get to formulating. We’ll also call our superiors and let them in on the situation.” He sighed heavily. “They’re not going to like it, but there’s not a whole hell of a lot we can do with the stubborn little mule over here.” Without thinking, Derrick reached out and ruffled Blair’s curls, earning him a chuckle from the ruffle-ee.

To the surprise of everyone in the room, including Jim, the sentinel let out a little growl when Crenshaw touched his guide’s hair. The agent had realized at the last second that it was a stupid thing to do, given what he had noticed earlier about the relationship between the cop and his partner, but he had known Blair since the young shaman was an eight year old boy. The gesture was an old, familiar one, borne of a decidedly paternal instinct, but apparently Ellison didn’t see it that way. That growl, though, had been unexpected. While everyone had heard and been shocked by it, absolutely no one made mention of it. However, Crenshaw and Clayton did move a little faster than planned getting the hell out of the loft. Ellison had sounded suspiciously like a jungle cat, and neither man wanted to see how his bite compared to his … um, growl. Jim just prayed to every godlike entity Blair had ever lectured him on that Sandburg didn’t ask for an explanation. Apparently one of the deities was in a prayer answering frame of mind. Blair did mention it, but had attributed the auditory warning to over-protectiveness. That worked for Jim.

~~o)0O0(o~~

“You didn’t have to make that sound when he reached for me, Jim,” Blair began as soon as the door to the loft closed behind their guardian agents. “He wasn’t gonna hurt me.” Ellison nodded, but kept silent, still praying. “I guess your animal spirit is a little hyper-vigilant this evening, huh?” Jim’s relief knew no bounds; that looked like the perfect way to get out of explaining that it was pure jealousy, and not a need to protect, that had prompted the sound.

“Guess so, Chief,” he answered a little too cheerfully, but Blair’s mind was already somewhere else.

“Jim, I need to tell you about something I remembered tonight, and you’re probably gonna need a beer or ten in order to handle it,” Blair started, looking gravely at his partner. Jim nodded and retrieved two bottles of amber liquid for them. He could always go back for more if the discussion really did warrant it. He was afraid it might; Blair’s tone was too serious. So for the next hour and two additional beers each, Sandburg paced around the living room and wove a tale about a mystically inclined black jaguar and how she had taught a young child about his destiny. Jim sat on the couch and listened, going back for beers as necessary.

At the end of the story, Jim was stunned to say the least. To his credit, he didn’t doubt one word of Blair’s story, and he told the young man so. The young guide’s smile could have lit up a small country. Even with all the mysticism they had witnessed, Blair thought for sure that Jim would dismiss the whole incident as a child’s imaginative fantasy. Jim believed him!

Meanwhile, Ellison made a mental note always to try and give Blair the benefit of the doubt from now on when the younger man explained any of his theories, no matter how strange. His partner obviously hadn’t expected Jim’s belief and support in this, and that said something very unpleasant to the sentinel about how dismissive he could be toward his guide. That wasn’t going to happen any more if Jim Ellison could help it, and he’d see what he could do about talking to Simon and the others at work about that, too. Blair obviously needed to have his ideas given credit more often than they were; after all, they were almost always proved right.

With his story told, or at least the part he wanted to deal with right now, Blair decided to ask the other question that had been plaguing him since their discussion with Crenshaw in the kitchen. “Jim, earlier when I was asking Derrick what he thought our next move should be, you got this really odd look on your face,” the shaman began. Jim knew what was coming and wished he didn’t. “Did I do something wrong?” Blair asked worriedly. “I mean, I had already chosen you over him to protect me, and I thought he could use the ego boost if I let him take the lead in planning our strategy,” he hastened to add. “Do you think I should have handled it differently?” Jim’s heart jumped for joy when Blair said he had chosen the sentinel as his protector, but plummeted when he realized that his guide thought he’d done something bad. He had to set this straight, but how could he do that without explaining why he’d been so hurt about not being asked to plan things? He’d have to wing it and hope for the best.

“Chief,” Jim said, moving off the couch and over to stand in front of his friend, placing his hands on slim, but muscular shoulders. “You did everything just right. Trust me on that.” This next part would be a little tricky. Sandburg was like a dog with a bone when it came to his partner’s hidden emotions. “That look you saw doesn’t mean anything except that I’m worried about you. Please, just let it go, okay? I need you to let this one go.” He hoped it would be enough.

Blair heard something in the tone and saw something in the eyes that told him his partner was lying, but that even he wouldn’t be able to pry the truth out this time. If he tried, the Ellison brick wall would go up, and Jim would be angry, but Blair still wouldn’t have his answer. If he ‘let it go’ as requested, he’d get no answer, but he’d have a measure of gratitude from his friend, and brownie points for use later on.

“Okay, Jim,” he answered the plea. “I know you’re not telling me the truth, man, but you seem to need to keep your secret, so I won’t pry on this one.” Jim’s whole body showed his relief. “But don’t make a habit out of it,” Blair shot back, but smiled to take the sting out of the command.

“Yes, sir,” Jim said, grinning like a fool – an incredibly good-looking fool, but a fool nonetheless. Then his expression turned serious; it was time for the hard stuff. “Isn’t it about time you filled me in on the whole story about you and this murder you witnessed? By the way, what is your real name?”

Stunned, Blair could only stare for a moment. When he got his voice back, he hung his head and began to speak. “Jim, my name is Blair Sandburg, and that’s what it will remain even after this is over. It’s the name I chose for myself, and I’ll keep it. However, you’re right; it’s not the name I was given at birth. That name was Samuel Blair Sharett, and if you want to hear his story, I think we both need to sit for it. I don’t think I’m gonna be doing much pacing around the room for this. It’s a story I haven’t had to tell since I was a kid, and I hoped I’d never have to tell it again. So, if I curl up into a little ball, just throw a blanket over me and ignore me.”

“Don’t think I can do that, Chief,” Jim replied softly. “Ignoring you when you’re in pain is something I’ve done too often in the past and promised myself I’d never do again.”

“Um, uh, okay,” Blair stuttered, shocked nearly beyond speech by the raw emotion in Jim’s voice and face. Then he began to weave his tale – a very sad story that began with one of the best birthdays of Blair’s young life.

The young anthropologist sat on the sofa, cross-legged and practicing his deep breathing, then began talking about his twin brother, Blaine, and their eighth birthday, the last they would ever celebrate together. He told about his mother’s fiancé, Malcolm, whom he loved and wanted as his father, and about Malcolm’s son, Cal, whom the children hated to see come home for vacation.

Blair explained that Cal had molested both Blaine and himself, and the boys couldn’t tell Uncle Malcolm or their mother because the abuser had threatened to kill Naomi if they let anyone know what he was doing to them. Since they adored their mother, and she was the only family they had besides each other, the thought of this threat coming to fruition was a fate worse than death to the boys. They kept silent and endured, knowing their tormentor would soon return to school, and they would be free again. Perhaps they would even say something after he was gone; they hadn’t decided.

Then the story fast forwarded to the eighth birthday party, and Jim found out about his guide’s first meeting with his spirit animal, whose name was apparently Deva, of all things. Leave it to Blair to know his totem cat’s name when he, the animal’s human, did not. Blair also continued the story by telling how the animal saved his life later that same night.

The boys had found a note when they returned to their bedroom after the party. It was supposedly from Malcolm, and said that there was one final present located in the hay barn, a barn located at the rear of the property. It was quite a long walk from the house, and used for storing hay and supplies for the horses in the stables. They were so excited that Uncle Malcolm had one last present that they didn’t stop to think he might not be the one who left the note. That was a fatal mistake.

When Blair and Blaine arrived at the hay barn, they found Cal waiting for them. He grabbed Blaine and began shaking him, then threw the child down and told him to undress. Glaring at Blair, Cal told him to go sit in the corner of the barn until his turn came. Both children complied. Blaine began to remove his clothes, and Blair sat down and placed his hands over his eyes, not wanting to see what would happen to his brother. As Blaine was setting his shirt on the hay covered floor, the boy noticed a sharp knife, like the kind the stable hands used to cut leather straps. When he arose, the child had the weapon in his hand as if to ward off the attack. Unfortunately, Cal saw this and lunged for the boy’s neck, breaking it with his large hands.

Blair uncovered his eyes at the sound of the crack of bone and gasped. His brother’s head was at an odd angle, and he wasn’t moving. Somehow, Blair knew instinctively that Blaine was dead. Suddenly, he saw a flash of black before his eyes, and the jaguar, Deva, appeared before him.

Cal dropped the child’s dead body from his hands to the floor, and stumbled back in utter shock at the appearance of the big cat from seemingly out of nowhere. He glanced around to see if there was a human trainer somewhere around the cat that was supposed to have left with the circus people after the party ended.

Meanwhile, Deva was telepathically telling Blair to climb on her back and hold on tight to her massive collar. She also admonished him not to look at the body of his brother. Blair did as he was told while wondering how the jaguar had freed herself to save him. As she ran past Cal’s gawking frame with Blair astride, she filled him in that it had taken a great deal of magic, but that she had known he would need her and had saved her energy to rescue him. The pair had flown past a cursing Cal and were running at top jaguar speed toward the main house and the safety of Naomi and Malcolm.

Needless to say, the arrival of the pair caused quite a stir. Naomi had stepped in to say a final goodnight and kiss her birthday boys, but they were not in their room. Alarmed by their absence, she asked Malcolm to gather the staff and begin a search of house and grounds. They had been looking for about fifteen minutes when Blair, riding a large jungle cat, entered Malcolm’s office through the French doors that led to the patio and gardens. Everyone in the room gasped, collectively, except for the downstairs maid, who screamed and fled the room. Deva chuckled at that, and Blair flicked her ear with his hand in chastisement.

After quickly and impatiently assuring everyone that he didn’t know how the cat got there and that she wasn’t a danger to anyone, Blair solemnly recounted the vicious attack that had taken place in the hay barn. The police, who had been called immediately after Blair and Blaine were discovered missing, arrived within minutes after Blair finished speaking. Malcolm, deeply saddened and enraged at his son for his actions toward both boys, told the police where to look for the young molester and murderer. They found Cal, pacing and talking to himself about animals that materialize out of nowhere and a brat who brought about his own death by trying to stab Cal, who only wanted to have a little fun with him. He didn’t fight the officers who tried to arrest him, thinking for sure that his father would provide a first rate attorney, and he would get off with a slap on the wrist. After all, it was Cal’s first offense – they had no way of knowing about all the little boys he had known intimately while he was away at school. None of those tykes had lived long enough to talk about him and the pain he had inflicted.

Unfortunately for Cal, he was mistaken. His father was not inclined to assist him, so he had to dip into the trust established by his grandparents to pay for his representation. It cost almost his entire fortune, and it didn’t result in a slap on the wrist. However, he did manage to avoid a life term or the death penalty. He was convicted of sexual assault on both boys, and manslaughter for Blaine. He insisted that he hadn’t wanted to kill the boy, but had only reacted to the knife, and accidentally caused the child’s death. He was sentenced to seven years, but obviously didn’t learn from his incarceration.

As soon as he was released from prison, Cal had come after Blair again, wanting to finish the job he had started, and nursing an intense hatred for the child who had won his father’s heart. Even though Naomi had left Malcolm shortly after the trial was over, the older man had still looked on the boy as his son, and had disowned Cal before the trial was even over. So Cal had come looking for the teenaged Blair, and had nearly gotten him. The FBI, including agent Crenshaw, had not been able to prove Cal’s involvement, but had taken steps to safeguard the Sandburgs for the future.

Shortly after the attempt on Blair’s life, Crenshaw’s team staged an accident that supposedly killed the boy and his mother. They were given new identities and a home. They got on with their lives and embraced their new selves without fear of Cal’s retribution. Then Blair went public with international press coverage that he was a fraud. Cal had seen the broadcast, just as his aging father had. The elder Halliburton had reacted with worry, but Cal had only seen blood. He had set out for Cascade immediately, ready to settle the score.

~~o)0O0(o~~

Blair finished his tale to find Jim firmly ensconced beside him on the sofa. He didn’t remember the cop coming over to sit with him, yet here they were, side by side, knees touching, Jim’s arm around Blair’s shoulders. It was nice, comfortable, very safe. Blair turned his head and looked into Jim’s eyes, and got lost there.

Throughout Blair’s story, Jim had found himself growing more angry and impotent by the moment. He found himself fervently wishing he could turn back the clock and give Cal Halliburton a taste of Army Ranger/Sentinel vengeance. Good ole Cal would not last long – perhaps just long enough to lose his voice from the screaming.

Then Jim had realized that focusing on his anger on the past was of no use to Blair. So he had focused his love on the present and moved to sit next to the man he adored. He didn’t think Blair even registered his presence, but that didn’t matter. Blair was unconsciously aware of the strength his friend offered. The anthropologist seemed to melt into the sturdy, strong physique of the man next to him. Then he finished his story and turned to look at Jim. Their eyes locked. Blair looked as though he were about to happily drown in the blue depths of those eyes.

Suddenly, Jim had an epiphany that affected all of his senses. He saw the desire in Blair’s eyes, heard the heartbeat and breathing increase, smelled the heady scent of arousal, felt the tremble of Blair’s muscles where his fingertips touched the younger man’s arm in comfort, and even tasted a tang of arousal on the air that accompanied the scent emanating from his guide. Now he knew what he had failed to see in all the time they’d lived together. How had he, a sentinel, missed this? Blair was in love with him. That he was in love with Blair was something he had known for years, but now he finally had the rest of the puzzle pieces. Blair loved him, too. Well, he needed to do something about that right now!

Blair saw the knowing smile right before Jim’s mouth descended upon his own. He had been about to ask what that smile was about, but no way was he going to stop his sentinel now. The kiss was an answer to prayer – soft and warm, welcoming and healing – exactly what he needed after reliving the hell of the past. It ended far too soon.

“Mmm, Jim is there something you’d like to tell me?” Blair contentedly purred in inquiry after their lips parted.

“I love you,” the cop replied solemnly. Blair was stunned. He’d expected a witty comeback that would lead to more kissing and fooling around. He never guessed Jim would give such a heartfelt answer. Obviously this was more than just sexual attraction. It meant that Jim had the same depth of feeling as Blair.

“I love you, too,” Blair volunteered after absorbing Jim’s admission. “Why didn’t you ever say anything?”

“Probably the same reason you didn’t.” Jim smiled, and continued. “I didn’t know how you felt, and let’s face it, even big, macho, fearless sentinels fear rejection.”

Blair smirked at that. “Well, Mr. Macho, I guess we have that fear in common. So what do we do now?”

“Would you lose all respect for me if I suggested we go to bed?” he asked with a smirk and a gesture toward the bed upstairs. Blair responded with a chuckle.

“Wow, somebody’s in a hurry to get a little,” Blair quipped, with a raised eyebrow. Jim looked chagrinned.

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it!” the cop exclaimed. Blair giggled, and Jim continued. “Look, it’s late, and we’ve both had a hell of a day.” Blair nodded in agreement. “Also, we have a meeting with Crenshaw and his team in the morning to form a plan of attack about that bastard who’s after you.” Blair nodded, and his eyes lost some of their joy at the mention of Cal.

Jim reached out and took Blair’s hand in his own and finished his summation. “Anyway, I thought we could just go to bed and get some shut-eye tonight.” He let his fingertips caress Blair’s hand. “We can talk more about relationship changes tomorrow, and we’ll talk more about the past if you want.” He felt Blair tense up. “Or we can let the past stay where it is and just focus on the relationship stuff.” Blair smiled.

“Thanks, Jim,” Blair replied quietly. “I appreciate the understanding.” Jim nodded. “So I get to sleep upstairs tonight?”

“Not to get all mushy or anything, but I’d like to hold you tonight and wake up with you in the morning,” Jim answered tenderly.

“Sometimes a little mush goes a long way,” Blair said as he rose from the sofa and started toward the stairs.

“Mush it is, then,” the sentinel replied, and followed his partner after turning off the lights.

~~o)0O0(o~~

Jim awoke to a sound in the downstairs bedroom and grabbed the weapon on his bedside table. Next, he woke his partner who, thankfully was sleeping beside him for the night. There was someone in that room, and Jim had an idea he knew who it was. He rose quietly, and with Blair behind him, stealthily made it down the steps and crept up to the open doors to Blair’s old room.

There was a figure moving in the room, so Jim positioned himself where he could see in, but the man inside couldn’t see him. “Cascade police!” Jim yelled. “Freeze!” The man spun toward Jim’s voice and fired blindly. He missed both Jim and Blair, whom Jim had told to get behind the counter in the kitchen. Jim gave one more warning. “Drop the gun, or I’ll fire!” By this time the two agents keeping watch outside the loft were pounding on the door. The gunman fired again, and Jim decided the time for warnings was gone. He pulled the trigger, and the gunman fell.

Jim moved to the front door and turned on the light before allowing the agents to enter. All the law enforcement personnel moved to the bedroom under the stairs and switched on the light to see the man on the floor. Once the room was illuminated, Blair gasped from the doorway. Jim and the agents looked back at him.

“It’s Cal,” he choked, then walked to the balcony and opened the doors to go outside. As the agents phoned Crenshaw to tell him Halliburton was dead, Jim followed Blair outside and embraced him tightly.

“I never thought I’d be happy to see another human being dead, but . . . ,” Blair began, then faltered.

“I think you can cut yourself a little slack on this one, Chief.” He bent his head down and kissed Blair lightly on the lips. It was a benediction – soft and tender.

“I love you, Jim,” he said quietly, then he noticed a large black cat sitting on the balcony with them. Jim turned his head in the direction Blair was looking and gave a start. Blair felt him tense. “You see her, too, don’t you?” he whispered to Jim incredulously.

“Yep.” He swallowed hard.

“It’s okay, Jim, she won’t hurt us.”

“Right,” he drew the word out, never taking his eyes off the animal. In the apartment, the agents, on their cell phones, were oblivious.

Suddenly, the cat stood, and both men heard her voice as she addressed them telepathically. “I’m proud of you Sentinel and Guide. You have come through a very difficult time and have found your bond. There is much danger ahead of you, but you will face it stronger now that you are together than you would have apart. Now that you have decided to take your relationship to the next level, your bond will increase your power. You will see me again, and I will help you when times are trying. Until then, find strength in each other, and be true to your bond.” With that, she vanished, and two astonished men looked at each other in awe.

“Well, Chief, are you ready to face the future?” Jim asked half sarcastically and half seriously.

With complete trust and love, Blair answered, “As long as you’re with me, I can face anything.”

Jim smiled warmly and took Blair in his arms. “From now on, I’m always with you.”

The End

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Acknowledgments: Many thanks go to my betas, Mary and Alyjude. They are saints, and any remaining mistakes are probably because I stupidly ignored one of their suggestions.

I would also like to thank Aly for allowing me to use a character she invented. Although the jaguar is not an original character, the name Deva, and the personality are from an earlier work by Alyjude. I liked the character so much that I requested permission to use her in my story, and, gracious as ever, Aly said yes. [PB bows to Aly]