DISCLAIMER: The Sentinel and its characters are the property of Paramount Studios and Pet Fly Productions. These stories are offered for the enjoyment of the fans. No money has exchanged hands.

Following the Wolf
Susan L. Williams


Act I

The click of the alarm clock snapped him awake. Before the buzzer could sound, Jim slapped the button down, his blind aim unerring. He tugged the sleep mask off and lay back down, listening, taking inventory. He did it most mornings; he wasn't sure why, but he knew he did it more often in winter, when he woke in darkness. He supposed it was left over from his days as a Ranger, or some kind of sentinel thing. Or maybe just that he hated getting up in the dark. Sandburg would probably have some explanation full of two-dollar words, but he didn't really want to hear it. It was a habit. He did it. So what?

The bathroom faucet was dripping. Wind whistled through Blair's closed bedroom window, which still didn't sit right in its frame. They'd have to fix it, or Sandburg would be whining all winter about the cold. He and Blair were alone in the apartment: that was right. But Blair wasn't in his room and wasn't asleep, and it was only -- Jim lifted his head to look at the clock -- 6:05 AM: that was wrong. Blair's heart rate and breathing were normal. He wasn't sick or scared or upset. He was just awake.

Jim sighed and rolled out of bed, automatically dialing down before the chill did more than touch his skin. No need for a robe; Sandburg hadn't brought home any stray felons or runaway teenagers during the night. His knee ached, and he dialed that down, too. Not too far, or Sandburg would lecture him on how pain was the body's way of telling him to take it easy before he did any more damage. Moving carefully, Jim padded barefoot down the stairs to the living room.

Blair sat on the couch. Just sat, his feet flat on the floor, shoes still on along with yesterday's clothes, hands in his lap, worrying a corner of his flannel shirt. It wasn't completely dark. Streetlight filtering through the balcony doors limned his silhouette with silver and cast deeper shadows than the night. Blair should be able to make out familiar shapes, but Jim doubted that he actually saw anything. He stared at a point somewhere between the couch and the door, pupils so dilated that his irises were narrow rings of blue fire. His usually mobile features were still and somber. No, not somber: sad.

Damn. He couldn't deal with this now, not until he'd had a shower and some coffee. Jim moved into the kitchen. Blair started as he went by, but didn't move otherwise, though his fingers stopped playing with his shirt.

"Jim. What are you doing up?"

"Getting ready for work."

Sandburg looked out the window as though he expected to see the sun. "Oh."

Jim put coffee on and went into the bathroom to shower and shave. When he emerged, Blair was still sitting there. He got dressed, came back downstairs again, turned on a light, and poured mugs of coffee for himself and Blair. He took a sip, and sighed. Better get it over with.

Blair took the mug when Jim held it out to him, cradled it between his hands, but didn't drink. Jim sat at the other end of the couch, and Blair automatically turned to face him.

"What's up, Jim?"

"You, Chief. All night, it looks like."

Blair studied his coffee. "I was thinking."

"What about?"

"Oh, you know," he said lightly. "The meaning of life, whether there'll be peace in our time, what the hell I'm going to do now. Stuff like that."

Jim frowned. "I thought we settled that."

"I know you did, Jim. But I'm not sure."

"Not sure about what? You've got an opportunity here, Chief."

"I know." One thumb ran back and forth over the handle of the mug. "I'm just not sure I should take it."

"You got something else lined up, Sandburg?"

"No, man. I just -- I don't know if this is right."

"How could it not be right? You've been a cop for the past three years. All this would do is make it official. And get you a steady paycheck."

"Jim, you don't get it. This isn't about me becoming a cop. Well, that's part of it, but right now, I'm too busy trying to keep my head above water. Figuratively speaking."

A sickly grin ghosted across Blair's face. He raised the mug to his lips, and lowered it again, still without drinking.

"The other day, you said you didn't know who you were. That was wrong. You know. You've always known, somewhere inside. It's just that sometimes you forget, or you don't want to know what you know. Me, I don't have that. I thought I did, but the more stuff that happens, the more confused I get."

"You're not making any sense here, Chief."

Blair put the coffee down and jumped up, starting to pace. He ran one hand through his hair, his body practically vibrating.

"Okay. Okay, you remember when Incacha passed the way of the shaman on to me? When he did that, I was scared. Terrified. I thought it meant something, that things would change. That I would change. I thought I'd know more. I thought I'd be more. Shaman of the Great City, you know? But nothing happened. Things went on exactly the same as they always had.

"When Alex killed me, and you brought me back, I figured, hey, this is it, it's shaman time. Symbolic or near-death experiences are a big part of shamanism in almost every culture. When I found out we shared a vision, I was sure. Then you said you weren't ready to go there with me, and it woke me up. I realized that whatever I thought I had wasn't really there. I just wanted it to be. You went to the Temple of Light on your own; you didn't need me for that. You didn't need me for any of it. I wasn't a shaman then and I'm not one now."

"Sandburg, you're doing your job."

Blair faced him, his gaze intense, almost pleading. "Am I, Jim? How do you know that? Do you know what my job's supposed to be?"

"Watching my back. Helping me with this sentinel thing."

"Okay, I watch your back. But I haven't helped you with your senses for months. Most of the time, you don't need my help. When you did, when Alex was around, I couldn't help you. I didn't know what to do. If that's my job, I'm not doing it. And what if there's more? What if I'm supposed to be doing something else, something I don't know about?"

"Like what?"

Blair threw his hands in the air. "I don't know, man! That's just it: I don't know. I don't know anything."

Jim stared at his partner. It was way too early for this. "Chief, you've lost me here. Nothing's changed. You're still the expert on sentinels."

"No, I'm not, Jim. I may know more than anyone else in Cascade, maybe anyone in the country, but I'm not an expert. I only know what I've learned from my research."

"You know enough." Say it, Ellison. "You've helped me from day one."

"Helped. Past tense, Jim. What about now? Where do I go from here?"

"You go to the academy and become a cop."

"And what? Just forget about everything else?"

"No. Not forget about it. Just -- put it on the back burner for a while."

"For how long? A year? Five? Ten? What will I be then?"

"A cop."

"What if a cop's not what I want to be?"

What was he supposed to say? Did Blair honestly think he had all the answers? Or was this something else? Something Sandburg didn't have the guts to come out and admit?

"So, what are you saying, Chief? You don't want to go to the academy?"

"No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying I don't know what I want."

Jim carefully placed his mug on the coffee table. He stood slowly, clamping down on the harsh words that threatened to erupt. "Well, you'd better decide. People stuck their necks out to get you an appointment to the academy and a gold shield when you get out. Do you have any idea how unusual that is?"

"I know, Jim. I'm grateful for what you and Simon did, I really am."

"Doesn't sound like it to me."

"That's because you're not listening."

"I'm listening. You don't want to be a cop; you want to wear feathers and paint and talk to the animal spirits. You want to do magic tricks."

"A shaman's not a magician, Jim."

"I know that. But I don't think you do."

"I know what a shaman is, Jim. I've read the books, I've done the studies."

"It's not the same as being one."

"I know that. Dammit, Jim, Incacha passed the way of the shaman on to me. It has to mean something."

"It does. Incacha guided me in Peru; you guide me here. He handed me off to you."

"And that's it? That's all there is to it?"

"What else do you want?"

"I don't know. It just seems like there should be something more."

Jim turned away. Keep a lid on it, Ellison. Don't explode in his face. "So what do you want to do, Chief? You want to go off and sit in a hut somewhere and wait for a revelation?"

"I don't know, Jim."

"You'll waste your life that way."

"So anything that doesn't involve being a cop is a waste? Is that it, Jim?"

Was the kid trying to provoke him? Jim shook his head. "Don't twist my words around."

"I'm not. You obviously think that me trying to get a spiritual handle on my life is worthless. What about you, Jim? What about the Temple of Light?"

"I didn't have a choice there. And I was in pursuit of Alex Barnes."

Bitterly. "You were in pursuit of her all right, man."

Jim faced him then, saw the rare anger lining Blair's features, but he was past treading carefully, his own anger had too hard a hold.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You know what it means. She killed me, and all you could think about was having sex with her. I know you had no control over it, I know it was some kind of sentinel mating instinct, but it still sucked, Jim."

"So, what, you holding a grudge, Sandburg?"

"No! I'm just saying it hurt."

"Well, I'm sorry. But what does this have to do with you wanting to be Super Shaman?"

He could see Blair struggle for control, see him pushing the hurt and anger back, fighting to be, and sound, reasonable.

"You were drawn to Alex, and to the Temple, by sentinel instinct. Maybe my conflicting feelings about this are some kind of shaman's instinct. Or maybe my instinct's screwed up and that's why I'm confused."

"Or maybe you just don't want to face reality."

The instant he said it, his conscience screamed at him to apologize, but he couldn't do it, the words wouldn't come out of his mouth. For a moment, Blair just stared, his face pale. When he spoke, his voice was cold, colder than Jim had ever heard it.

"That's it. That's exactly it, Jim. I can't face the reality of not publishing, or getting my PhD, or being an anthropologist anymore, so I'm obsessing about unimportant things, like just who the hell I am now, and whether there might be some purpose to my life. Why didn't I think of that? Problem solved. Thanks, Jim. Thanks a lot."

"Look, Sandburg --"

"No, you look, Jim. It may not seem like much to you, but this is my life we're talking about. What I decide now could change who I am and how I live. I need to retain some kind of control here. I need to know that, whatever decision I make, I didn't just rush into it. I don't want to have regrets because I couldn't take the time to think."

"Fine, Chief. Take all the time you want." Jim stalked away, grabbed his coat and cane from the rack, and opened the door. "Let me know when you decide whether becoming a cop is good enough for you."

"Jim --"

Jim shut the door, and his ears, refusing to hear the rest of whatever Blair said.

"God damn it, Jim!" Blair shouted at the closed door. "Why don't you ever listen to me? You're as bad as Naomi. Worse! Damn it!"

Blair paced the living room, gesturing at the air in time to his thoughts. He wanted to hit something. He wanted to break something. Something that would shatter into a million pieces so Jim could spend a couple of hours picking every last one of them up to appease his anal-retentive need for order. His life was shattered, why not a window or a coffee mug, too?

"Okay, Blair," he said aloud, "calm down. And stop the melodrama. Anger isn't getting you anywhere. Anger is counter-productive. Jim isn't the problem here. He's not the solution, either, but he's not the problem. Just calm down and think."

Coffee. He needed coffee. No he didn't. Caffeine was the last thing he needed right now. Tea. Pau d'arco. That was what he needed. Not coffee.

Blair snatched up his untouched mug of coffee and dumped it in the sink. Tea kettle on the stove, gas on, clean mug, tea measured into the pot. There, that was one decision made. That wasn't so hard. Maybe if he took this in small increments, he could make the rest of his decisions just as easily. Maybe not. Maybe he was being hopelessly optimistic. If he was, he got it from his mother. Good old Naomi. A boy's best friend was his mom.

Damn. He was losing it. He should be okay with this. Why wasn't he okay with this? He'd made his decision. He'd chosen friendship over his career. He'd do it again. So why the panic now? What was the problem?

He needed to talk to somebody. He needed to do it now. Jim was out, in more ways than one. Naomi. Blair reached for the phone, and stopped, staring at it. No. Bad idea. Naomi had checked into a hotel to give him space to think, and that was exactly what he should do. He needed to work this out on his own, not go running to his mother. Or to Jim. His life: his decision.

The tea kettle shrieked at him. Blair filled the pot and waited for the pau d'arco to steep. He wanted it strong. Strong enough to keep his brain from running in circles, if that was possible.

Five minutes. Ten minutes. That should do it. Blair poured himself a cup, and took it and the pot back to the living room. Maybe he should eat something. No. His stomach was already full of knots and worry, there was no room for food. Later. He could eat later. And sleep. Right now, he needed to think. He sipped the tea, and gazed through the liquid to the bottom of the cup. He could almost see the gold shield lying there, the one Jim had tossed him in the bullpen yesterday, the one Simon had taken right back. Maybe that should've been a clue.

God. A cop. A cop. They wanted him to be a cop. All of them. Jim, Naomi, Simon. Blair Sandburg, cop. Officer Blair Sandburg. Detective Blair Sandburg. Detective Blair Sandburg? With a gold shield and a gun?

Couldn't be. No way. Blair Sandburg only played at being a cop, he was really an anthropologist. He'd always been an anthropologist, always wanted to be one, ever since he was an eight year old kid who read encyclopedias for fun and spent every afternoon either trying to talk the local bully out of beating the crap out of him on the way home from school, or just trying to outrun him. Could that kid be a cop? The thought was -- was -- Well, it was very cool. But was it right? Was it him? Could it be?

Blair ran a hand through his hair, pushing it back, noticing the texture of the long strands as though for the first time. If he did this, they'd try to make him cut it. Could he do that? Of course, he could do it, but could he do it? Could he cut off his hair and put on a uniform? He fingered his left ear; the holes were still open, but he hadn't worn his earrings for months. Not since -- since he'd died. The hospital had removed the silver hoops when he was brought in, and he'd never restored them, hadn't even considered it. Why hadn't he? He'd worn them since he was sixteen, on and off, almost half his life. They were a part of his identity, yet he'd discarded them without thought. Could he do that with his hair? Did he want to? What did it matter, anyway? It was only hair. It was only a book. It was only his life. Not important. Not important at all. Just ask Jim.

No, that wasn't fair. Jim hadn't asked him to declare himself a fraud on live television, to give up everything he'd worked for, everything he'd dreamed. Jim had made it clear that if something wasn't done, they'd no longer be partners, or friends. He'd said in no uncertain terms that he considered the whole mess to be Blair's fault, that he didn't trust him, not even after three years, not even after he'd died. But Jim hadn't actually asked Blair to do anything. No, he'd decided that on his own, and he'd done the right thing, he knew that. It was for the best, he knew that, too. He knew it. Jim had to be able to do his job. The sentinel had to be able to function. That was more important than a best seller, or an academic career, or even a Nobel Prize. He knew that.

So he'd done the right thing. And Jim hadn't seemed surprised by it. Though he was the same Jim who'd accused Blair of exposing him on purpose. But that little bit of conflict wasn't his problem, it was Jim's, and Jim would have to work it out for himself. If he'd even noticed.

So he and Jim were friends again, and he was openly in Simon's good graces, and he still had a place to live -- Jim hadn't kicked him out this time, there was an improvement -- and he had a potential new career as an actual cop with an actual paycheck instead of as an anthropologist/observer with a couple of grants and a lot of time donated to the City of Cascade, and even Naomi was happy about it, and man, that was weird.

Naomi. His mother. His mother. The woman who'd said, "The next thing I know you're going to be parading around in a blue uniform and jackboots" was happy that her son was going to be a cop. If anyone had told him that before the whole Sid Graham fiasco, he would have said no way, no possible way, so he wondered -- he did wonder -- why Naomi was so happy about it, and if it maybe gave her an out from her guilt over what she'd done, but that might be an unfair thought, so he tried not to wonder that and just to accept that his mother was happy for him and for the facts that he and Jim were still friends and that there was an institution that wanted him, even if it wasn't an academic one.

He didn't blame Naomi. Not really. Well, okay, he did really, but he had to let it go, he knew that, she'd only been trying to help him, in her own interfering, do what she wants no matter what anyone says and God forbid she should actually listen to the words coming out of his mouth way. Okay, okay, that wasn't fair either, she did try to listen, she just wasn't very good at it, and shouldn't he be used to that by now? Didn't he go through the same thing with Jim on an almost daily basis and hadn't he learned to deal, so that Jim actually ended up following his suggestions more times than not, whether Jim realized it or not? Naomi had done what she thought was a favor for him by having Sid read his diss. She hadn't meant to cause trouble. He knew that, and he forgave her. Mostly.

So, okay, he'd thrown away his career as an anthropologist. All of academia -- hell, the entire world -- now believed he was the fraud he'd declared himself to be. He wasn't going to get a Nobel Prize, or a three million dollar book contract. He'd deal with it. He'd deal.

What had he really lost? Money? He'd never had that; it had only ever been a pipe dream, not an objective. Fame? Ditto. The honor of his peers? Well, they weren't his peers anymore. And besides, it was his own honor that counted, not what someone else accorded him. He knew the truth, and that was all that should matter. His diss? Okay, that sucked. But who was he kidding? In three years, he hadn't figured out how to publish without exposing Jim to the media frenzy that had happened. What had made him think he ever would? Chances were good that he'd have had to give up the diss anyway. His PhD? Yeah, that was gone. But they were only letters, a public affirmation of something he already had: knowledge. Did he really need to be Dr. Sandburg? It wouldn't prove anything, except to other people, people he didn't know or care about. Teaching? Teaching. That one hurt. He loved teaching. He loved seeing the proverbial light come on in a young face when the student finally got it; loved sliding the knowledge into their brains without them even being aware that they were actually learning something; loved the enthusiasm of a student who had just discovered that anthropology was a completely and utterly fascinating field of study, worthy of a lifetime's devotion.

But teaching was gone, along with everything else. No reputable school would hire him now. How could they? How could anyone allow a man so obviously unethical to teach? He couldn't be trusted with impressionable students, because no one knew what corruption he might expose them to. He was a fraud and a liar. He'd said so himself.

Blair swiped angrily at the wetness around his eyes. Damn. This wasn't getting him anywhere, this was just a pity party. A self-pity party, and that was the last thing he needed. Okay, so he couldn't teach anymore. So what? Teaching wasn't exactly exciting. Field expeditions could be, but most of the time was spent on tedious transcribing or translating or organizing, not actually interacting with the people he studied. It was kind of like stakeouts: lots of waiting and prepping for a possible few minutes of action. He could live without that. And there was nothing that said he couldn't study on his own, anyway. Field expeditions to anywhere exotic were certainly out -- cops didn't make that much and they sure as hell didn't get funding -- but he could still do independent local studies of anything he wanted. When he had the time. Which, okay, wouldn't be often if he was a cop. Jim worked long hours and a lot of weekends. He should know that, he'd been working the hours with him long enough. So that wouldn't be any different. Hell, he might have more time, now that he didn't have obligations at Rainier. And he'd get paid for all those hours. Overtime. Overtime could add up. Not to three million dollars. But it would still be more than he'd made in -- well, ever.

Not that money mattered, because it didn't. All he needed was enough to get by, to pay his own way. That was all he'd ever needed. Sure, three million would have been nice, but what would he have done with it? Bought a big house? Fancy cars? Designer clothes? Not his style. That wasn't what he'd planned in the five minutes he'd actually thought about it anyway. No, he'd had visions of expanding his sentinel studies, finding other sentinels -- there must be some, Jim and Alex couldn't possibly be it -- and helping them to live with their abilities. Training other people to guide them, so there'd be other pairs -- sentinel and partner -- to protect the tribe wherever they happened to be.

Of course, that was just a fantasy. It could never really have happened, even if he'd taken the money. The public finding out about one sentinel had caused enough excitement; a bunch of them would probably cause a panic. Anyway, what did he know about training other people to guide? He operated on a few theories, some research, and a lot of guesswork. He had no idea what he was really supposed to be doing. Hell, maybe he wasn't supposed to be doing anything. Maybe Jim was supposed to be on his own. Jim wanted him as his partner, but what if that was wrong? What if, by hanging around, hanging on, he was somehow holding back Jim's development as a sentinel? What if this whole mess was some kind of cosmic message telling him to get out of Dodge?

Maybe it wasn't about Jim at all. Maybe it was about him. Maybe there was something he was supposed to do and staying on at Rainier and the PD was keeping him from it. Maybe becoming a cop was the absolute last thing he should do. Maybe he was supposed to do something else, something that would make him a better partner for Jim than he could ever be as a cop. Maybe he even had some kind of destiny of his own, that had nothing to do with Jim. Maybe he'd really given up his diss because it was what he needed. Maybe he was a Jedi, and Darth Vader was really his father. Maybe Obi-Wan Kenobi would come along and tell him what to do now.

He did not regret what he'd done. He wouldn't. He'd done it for Jim, and for their friendship, and he would do it again, if he had to. Jim would -- Well, Jim wouldn't ever be in a situation like that. But Jim had brought him back from the dead, and that was pretty damn big. Bigger than giving up money, fame, and honor. Because of Jim, he was breathing. Everything else looked kind of small in comparison.

So why didn't it feel small? Why did it feel like he'd died again? Why did it feel like his spirit was back in that jungle, waiting for the jaguar to come looking for him, or for some disembodied voice to say, "Okay, Sandburg, you've passed the test, you can come back now."? Because this was a test, right? It had to be, even though no one had told him about it, so he hadn't had time to prepare, and no spirit guide in whatever form had asked him an obscure question or shown him a cliff to jump off of. He'd made the sacrifice without any kind of otherworldly instructions. Shouldn't he get bonus points for that? Shouldn't he get something? A pat on the back? A gold star on his forehead? Something?

Oh, good. We're expecting rewards for doing the right thing now? That's not the way the cosmos works, Sandburg, and you should know that, even if you aren't the Shaman of the Great City. What reward did Jim get for choosing to be a sentinel? Nothing, unless you count a lot of aggravation, physical pain, and having to spend his life hiding the abilities he didn't want in the first place. It may seem to you that the sentinel abilities are an incredible gift, but you're not the one who has to live with them. Jim never asked to be a sentinel, but he keeps having to reaffirm his commitment to being one, and every time -- after some prodding from you and the mysterious -- he does it. Every time, he chooses the welfare of the tribe over his own comfort. And you? You whine because you had to give up your PhD and your diss and because, so far, you haven't been given any special powers of your own. Well, hey, Blair, maybe you're not supposed to have any. Maybe that's not what this is about. Maybe you're just supposed to do your job guiding Jim, backing him up, and shut up about the rest of it. Maybe that's all the universe requires of you.

But what if it isn't? What if I'm supposed to do more? What if Incacha was trying to pass some actual thing on to me when he died, and not just the words? What if I just haven't gotten it? What if I've screwed up, and I'm screwing up more with each passing minute? Incacha was Chopec; he grew up with people who know what a shaman is and what he does and what it takes to be one. What if he figured I'd just know what the way of the shaman was, that I'd just say, "Oh, okay, right, I'm a shaman now," and go off and do it and there'd be no problem? What if everything that's gone wrong since then -- the whole mess with Alex, the diss, everything -- happened because I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do? What if I'm right and the vision I shared with Jim was supposed to be some kind of wake-up call? Jim doesn't think so, but this isn't Jim's area; it's mine. It's supposed to be mine. But I don't know enough.

Blair leaned his head back on the couch, staring at the ceiling. He didn't know enough. He knew a lot about shamanism; he could quote any number of sources, and he'd observed in a variety of different cultures. He'd even written papers on the subject. But observing wasn't doing. He didn't know how to be a shaman. Or even if he was supposed to be one. Maybe Jim was right, and passing the way of the shaman hadn't meant anything more than passing the sentinel. But how was he supposed to know? And if he didn't know what his role was, how could he make a decision about what to do with the rest of his life? How could he continue to work with Jim, if he didn't know what to do for him?

Blair closed his eyes. This was getting him exactly nowhere. If Jim were having this problem, he knew what he'd tell him: follow your instincts. And that would work, because Jim was best operating on an instinctual level, he just needed a little prodding sometimes. Naomi would say, "Follow your heart," and that would work for her, because it always did, with a couple of spectacular exceptions. And okay, he did that a lot, too, because he was, after all, Naomi Sandburg's son and he'd been brought up on the philosophy and, for the most part, he liked it. But right now, his heart wasn't leading him anywhere and whatever instincts he might have were making themselves scarce. So the emotional track wasn't providing any answers, and logic had thrown up its figurative hands and walked away in disgust, and that left him nowhere. And he really would like to figure this one out before he went crazy or Jim came home tonight, whichever came first. At the moment, crazy was ahead of Jim by a nose.

So, fine, the tea didn't work. What now? He had to get focused. He had to -- Meditate. That might do the trick.

Blair pushed himself off the couch and cleared the coffee table, dumping everything in the kitchen. He fetched a dozen or so candles from his room, all shapes and sizes, all white; debated a moment, and brought a small, hand-thrown smudge pot striped in soothing shades of blue, and a bundle of sage. He'd air the loft out when he was done so Jim wouldn't react to the sage, but he needed it right now. There was too much negative energy, in him and in the apartment.

He lit the candles and the sage, let the soft leaves get a good burn before he blew out the flame and waved the bundle around to spread the smoke. His Aboriginal CD was still in the player. Blair took it out and replaced it with a Carlos Nakai CD, setting it to repeat. Drumbeats filled the loft, and the song of a single flute. Blair knelt before the coffee table and breathed in the scent of sage, beckoning the smoke toward him, around him. He sat back, brought his legs around to a half-lotus, positioned his hands on his knees, and closed his eyes.

He'd thought it would be hard, that his mind was racing too much, but he slipped into the meditative state easily, between one breath and the next. Breathing became all-encompassing. Positive energy entered him with each inhalation, and negative energy was expelled each time he exhaled. His body relaxed, and thought was first of breath, then of nothing. He drifted, buoyed by the music, feeling the heat of the candles, the denim beneath his hands, the cotton and flannel covering his torso, the soft weight of hair against his jaw and the back of his neck. Aware, yet unaware, he floated.

The flutes and drums faded from his consciousness, became his heartbeat and the song of his blood. The blue of his eyes seeped into his mind, the blue of smoke and water, pooling, swirling, drowning the darkness, filling him with blue. He opened his eyes to azure leaves and indigo earth, midnight trunks and branches tapering to slender twigs of cobalt. He couldn't see the sky, but the air itself was visible, cornflower mist surrounding him. He put out his hand to touch it, and saw his skin tinged pale cyan, like someone who was frozen, or drowned.

Blair felt eyes on him. He got to his feet and turned, peering into the trees and bushes, trying to see who it was. A patch of darkness caught his eye, and he stared at a weaving of branches and a camouflage of leaves. As he stared, a spark of sapphire resolved itself into an eye; shadows coalesced to form a long muzzle and one pointed ear. Deeper darkness split, and ice-blue teeth grinned.

The wolf turned and trotted away. Blair followed, shoving branches aside, pushing through undergrowth, the wolf always just visible, a glimpse of pale fur or a back-glancing eye. The wolf increased its pace, loping through the trees, and he ran after it, arms raised to shield his face from branches. His feet made no sound, nor his breathing, and the drumming of his heart was a thrum he could not hear. He crashed through the forest in the silence of deep water, following.

The wolf vanished. He ran on, determined to find it, to know where it had gone and why. He burst out of the trees, and stopped.

Stone steps rose before him, ancient and cracked, festooned with jungle growth. High on the stairs, the wolf sat, tongue lolling, grinning down at him. He knew the stairs, and the structure at the top: the Temple of Light, spiritual home of the sentinels.

The wolf bounded up the last few steps and disappeared inside the temple. Blair set his foot on the bottom step and began to climb. The temple loomed closer, its open doorway dark, too dark for him to see the wolf or any of the temple's interior. He reached the top, but the darkness remained impenetrable, defying his attempts to see within the sacred place. The wolf had gone in; it must want him to follow, or why lead him here? Blair took a deep breath, and stepped into the darkness.

Falling. He was falling! Fear rushed up, and he flailed wildly, trying to find some surface to cling to, to stop his fall, but there was nothing, only darkness and terror and thick air shrieking past without sound, and he knew that he would die.

Blair slammed into the floor, or his body, or the world. His eyes shot open, saw candles and a blue-striped pot, and the air he held in his lungs rushed out. He leaned forward, put his head in his hands, and concentrated on breathing. In, out, simple, easy, he did it every day, all day, and he could do it now, he just had to remember. He wasn't falling. That hadn't been real, it was a vision, or a dream, or -- something. Jim had them all the time. Well, not all the time, but he'd had a few, and now Blair had had two, but this one wasn't quite as cool as the last one had been, though he'd thought it was, right up until the end. Watch that last step, Sandburg, it's a doozy.

Blair raised his head, gazing at the curl of smoke rising from the sage. It was supposed to be a doozy, right? Visions didn't happen just for the hell of it, they were supposed to tell you something, if you paid enough attention, and he had, he just had to calm down enough to realize what the wolf had been trying to say. No. No, he didn't. He knew. He knew what the wolf had meant, and what he had to do now. It was simple. It was obvious.

One by one, Blair pinched the candle flames out, a thread of smoke following his fingers. No sense in waiting. He had to do it now. Jim would understand. Or not.

Jim opened the door to the loft and sneezed violently. What the hell? Sage? Naomi couldn't be here, she'd gone to a hotel, and there were no lights on.


No answer. He scanned the dark apartment, saw candles and one of Blair's pots on the coffee table, but no Sandburg, mother or son. He extended his hearing, but found no heartbeat other than his own. Naomi must have been here earlier; she and Blair probably went out somewhere.

Jim shucked his coat and moved into the apartment, trying not to breathe. Turning on lights as he went, he made his way to the balcony doors and opened them. Cold air blasted in, but he didn't care. Anything to get rid of the sage.

It was after midnight; Naomi was keeping her little boy out late. Jim grinned briefly at the image that popped into his head of Blair as a kid: skinny, gap-toothed, all dirty knees and elbows, a tangle of curls tumbling into one eye. He'd seen the pictures. He shook his head, banishing the image from his mind. Blair wasn't a kid anymore, no matter how tempting it was to think of him as one. He probably had a lot to talk to Naomi about. Maybe she could make sense of whatever he'd been babbling about this morning.

Jim frowned at himself. Blair hadn't really been babbling, he knew that. But damn, what was he supposed to say when the k-- when his partner started going on about being a shaman instead of concentrating on his chance to become a cop? Blair was just trading one career for another, one he'd be just as good at as he was at anthropology. Sure, there were big differences between the two, but it wasn't like he was quitting the priesthood to be a hitman or something. So why was Blair obsessing over this shaman stuff? What was he so worked up about? He'd still be working with Jim, still be guiding him, still be doing everything he'd been doing for the last three years, except for the school stuff, and he'd always done more complaining about that than anything else. Okay, the complaints had mostly been about time, but now he wouldn't have to worry about that. Not having to juggle police work and school should make things easier for him.

But Blair had never asked for things to be easier. He'd seemed to thrive on the impossible fullness of his days and the three or four hours of sleep he got at night. He'd loved staying up until all hours to write a paper, or correct one, or rearrange his notes on the sentinel thing in some obscure Sandburgian order that made sense only to him. Even when he complained about how lazy or dense the students were, his love of teaching had been clear in the tangle of words tumbling out of his mouth. He'd hated the politicking, but that went on everywhere, even at the PD, and when he triumphed over it the righteous pride just shone out of him. The rest had been cake to him. No, that was wrong. To Blair, the police work had been cake. The academic stuff was his bread. And now it was gone.

Jim rubbed his temples, trying to banish the headache he could feel starting, courtesy of the sage. All right, maybe he could have been a little more -- What? Sensitive? -- this morning when Blair was talking. Maybe he shouldn't have gotten mad. Blair had a right to be uncertain about this, to wonder if he was moving in the right direction. Kid never had been any good at following a map. Or rules. Or doing what he was told. The academy would be tough for him, in that respect. Hell, it was tough for everyone. It wasn't supposed to be easy. But Blair could handle the physical stuff, and he'd sail through the written tests. He'd make it. If he wanted to.

Maybe he'd have to have a little talk with him, to convince him that he wanted to. Or, knowing him, just sit back and listen while Sandburg talked himself into it. Blair should be a cop, he deserved to be a cop, he'd be a great cop, and a great partner. It was the best thing for him. He had to see that.

Jim expanded the temple rubbing to cover his forehead. He should probably talk to Blair the minute his partner got home, but he was too tired. All he wanted right now was something to eat and his bed. He'd talk to Blair in the morning. The kid wasn't going anywhere.

Holding his breath, Jim grabbed the smudge pot and brought it out onto the balcony. He left it there and came back inside, shutting the doors against the January night. The smell was gone, for the most part. At least he could breathe without sneezing. He looked at the coffee table, decided Blair could clean up his own candles, and headed for the kitchen.

Jim opened the refrigerator door and reached for a Tupperware container that should hold leftover pesto pasta with shrimp and peas. He could eat it cold. His hand encountered paper. Lined paper, torn out of a notebook and folded, with his name scrawled across it in Sandburg's distinctive handwriting. Not that anyone else would be apt to leave a note for him in the refrigerator. Great. Sandburg had probably eaten all but a spoonful of the pasta and left him an apology. He would. Jim sighed and unfolded the paper, reading in the light of the refrigerator.

Following the wolf.

That was it. That was it? What in hell was that supposed to mean? God damn it, Sandburg! Jim crushed the note in his fist, images of blue wolf morphing into dead Blair filling his mind. God damn it.

Continue on to Act II...

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This page last updated 1/10/01.