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The World Between

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Blair glanced from Incacha, to Jim, to Incacha, to Jim, as Jim interpreted the dying Chopek's words in the short pauses while he gasped for breath.

"He - he wants me to become a sentinel once again, to help save the tribe." Jim's voice was close to breaking.

"Good," Blair said. "It's about time!"

Incacha drew a long, shuddering breath, seemed to gather the last of his strength and caught Blair's arm as he spoke again.

"He passes over the way of the shaman to you. He wants you to guide me to my animal spirit," Jim said.

Blair looked up from his almost mesmerized stare at the blood-covered hand. "Jim... ask him how I do that. I don't know how to do that."

"Incacha?" Jim said. "Incacha!"

But it was too late. One last, gasping breath and Incacha's hand dropped from Blair's arm.

The Chopek shaman was dead.

Somehow - he was never quite sure how - Blair talked, coerced, indeed bullied Jim into listening to the monotonous thrum of didgeridoo music, which - as Blair knew from personal experience would happen - induced a semi-hypnotic state even as Blair told Jim to picture Incacha's spirit and then go to where the animal spirits lived. Jim never told Blair what he saw during that journey, but it was enough to reboot Jim's senses - and that, for Blair, was all that mattered. He had managed to do what Incacha had asked of him.

Subsequently he joked about being 'the shaman of the Great City', but because he knew that young shamans spent many years as apprentices to older ones, he couldn't believe that the death grip of a shaman - even one as powerful as Incacha seemed to be - was enough to confer on him any shamanic abilities. He simply assumed that Incacha - Jim's first guide - had given his blessing to his successor. And even if Incacha had meant him to be a shaman, there was nobody in Cascade who could give him the necessary training.

It was easy for Blair to get his hands on two or three books about shamanism, but he found that even the best of them was not very useful as a manual for learning how to be a shaman. And so he let the matter drop. He was a guide, one who was, he felt, moderately successful, but he also felt that much of that success was probably due to the training Jim had already been given by Incacha, the man - the shaman - who had been properly trained.

***

When Alex Barnes showed up at his office door, gun in hand, Blair automatically raised his hands, with no real expectation that she would take the gesture as a surrender. She probably wouldn't shoot him here - she had to be aware that there were others in the building, working late, and a shot would attract their attention. But if he was careful to look defeated she might underestimate him - he was sure that she would never consider a student to be any threat to her. And if she underestimated him, he might just get a chance to jump her. Or - the idea appealed - somehow manage to put her into a zone-out.

"If it hadn't been for you, I never would have understood what I really am," she said. "I owe you that. You want to know how I really got the sentinel senses? Solitary confinement in prison. I thought I was going crazy. It wasn't until I met you that I realized what I'd become."

"And look how you used this gift," Blair murmured, keeping his voice very low in the hope that if she had to strain to hear what he said it might just be enough... "What a waste."

But it didn't work. "This is the one thing I really didn't want to do," she admitted, and she did indeed sound reluctant, "but I can't leave you alive. For several reasons, I can't leave you alive."

She gestured with the gun, directing him towards the door and being careful to stay some feet behind him as he left his small office and went along the corridor, finally leaving the building. The light over the doorway let him see to walk down the stairs. At the bottom, he paused.

"Just walk straight on," Alex murmured.

He obeyed, moving as slowly as he dared, still hoping that he might get a chance...

About to turn to go around the fountain some yards from the building, Blair felt a hand against his back, pushing hard. Unexpected as it was, he stumbled forward, his foot caught the raised edge of the ornamental molding around the edge, and he fell forward. As he fell, the realization that this design of fountain was actually incredibly dangerous flashed through his mind.

The shock of the fall and of hitting the cold water was enough to make him take an involuntary gasping breath, and water entered his lungs; the instinctive, uncontrollable cough to try to expel the water simply made him breathe in more. The water in the fountain wasn't deep - he knew it wasn't deep - and he tried to push himself up, but a weight on his back prevented him from lifting himself enough to get his head above the surface, and darkness claimed him.

***

Slowly, slowly, Blair realized that he was lying on his back. The ground beneath him was hard... but it was dry. And he could breathe...

Had someone found him, pulled him out of the water?

Had Alex had second thoughts and relented, pulling him out of the water and leaving him lying beside the fountain?

No. He was breathing too easily. He could distinctly remember inhaling water. Water-filled lungs meant that even if the water had been expelled he still wouldn't be breathing all that easily.

Had he dreamed Alex's attack? Was he just lying on the floor of his office, having finally succumbed to the exhaustion that had been pressing on him since... yes, since his discovery that Jim didn't trust him...

All he really wanted to do was sleep, but he forced his eyes open.

He was alone, and lying on grass.

He pushed himself into a sitting position and looked around.

The light was quite dim. Alex had attacked him late at night, so this was probably early morning? The low-lying mist intertwined with the trees that surrounded the clearing he was in certainly had a 'morning' look. He could just see a building not too far away, only the roof showing clear above the mist, but it didn't look like any building he could remember from Rainier... Of course the trees were added confirmation. Wherever he was, he was not on the Rainier campus!

Well, whoever lived there would surely help him... he hoped. He scrambled to his feet.

Whoa! He closed his eyes against the sudden dizziness, and took a deep, steadying breath before he opened them again.

A huge butterfly flew out of the mist, heading straight for him. He gasped - it was much bigger than the models of the Carboniferous era dragonflies he'd seen, and they were enormous - and its wings were a beautiful iridescent light turquoise. He balanced, ready to duck aside as it reached him; even a butterfly, at that size, could easily knock him over.

Much to his surprise, however, it landed two or three feet from him, flicked its wings up and down several times, then began to grow even bigger. Its wings grew bigger even as its body swelled; four of its legs developed while the other two seemed to dwindle, and a long neck topped by a surprisingly small, dainty head stretched forwards towards Blair.

Not a butterfly - a dragon!

So, he thought, he was in some kind of spirit plane, because in real life butterflies just didn't metamorphize into dragons!

"Welcome, young shaman."

The voice was familiar, although the last time he had heard it he couldn't understand what it was saying.

"Incacha?"

"Yes."

"How can I understand you? I don't speak Quechua, and you didn't speak English... "

"Here, there is no such thing as Quechua or English. Communication is communication, and everyone who comes here understands everyone else."

"Where are we?"

"This is the world of the spirits. Enqueri sees this place as a jungle, for his spirit animal normally lives in the jungle." The dragon looked at Blair. "You see it as the kind of forest that grows near the Great City, for that is where your spirit animal usually lives."

"And you, Incacha? How do you see it?"

The dragon looked around. "I see trees of a kind that Earth has not known for many thousands of years," he said, and there was sadness and a terrible weariness in his voice. "That was when I - my dragon avatar - was first born. But I am the last of my kind. Even spirit animals can grow tired, and seek only sleep.

"Soon, I too will join the other dragons in sleep - but first I have a duty to you, young shaman."

"You do?"

"You have not used the gift I gave you to its full extent."

"I've tried," Blair said - not completely truthfully, for although he had never lost his enthusiasm for helping Jim, he had become discouraged with regard to taking matters any further, because the books he had tried had been so unhelpful. "But I need a teacher."

"I know," the dragon replied.

"And... " He hesitated for a moment, remembering falling into the fountain. "In any case, I think I'm dead."

"That can be corrected."

Blair noticed that the dragon hadn't denied it, had just... "It can?"

"Your sentinel can save you. Even now, he looks for you."

Blair shook his head sadly. "He doesn't want me. He doesn't trust me."

"How do you know that?"

"He told me he needed a partner he could trust."

"That was his fear talking, and only his fear."

"Fear-based responses... " Blair murmured. "I understand that. He's terrified of failing the people who depend on him. But I've always helped him! Or at least I've tried to."

"The person he most fears failing is you. So he pushes you away, not understanding that only by keeping you close can he fully protect you." The dragon sounded sympathetic.

"I've told myself that... but there's only so often you can make yourself believe it." To his own surprise, Blair managed to sound matter-of-fact rather than disillusioned or bitter. Nor had he allowed the deep hurt he felt about it to escape.

His tone didn't fool the dragon. "Every time he injures you emotionally, Enqueri injures himself as well."

"So why does he keep on doing it?"

The dragon was silent for a moment. Then - "He has spoken to you of his family."

"Enough to let me know his childhood was... difficult."

"A child depends on his parents, trusts them to protect him, support him, defend him. If he loses that trust, he is crippled."

"But when he was in the army, he trusted his fellow soldiers. From what he's said, he trusted the Chopek - you - when he lived with you. He trusts his fellow cops. So why doesn't he trust me?"

"There are many levels of trust," the dragon said. "Some are relatively superficial; you trust that the men who have built the bridge you are crossing have done a competent job, and that it will not collapse under your weight."

Blair could think of a few possibilities more applicable to urban life, but recognized the example as one that would make sense to a jungle tribesman, and nodded.

"Enqueri trusted his fellow warriors to defend him, as he defended them," the dragon continued, and Blair nodded again. "That, although not superficial, is also quite easy, for it is reciprocal.

"But to trust someone with your heart? Especially when those you love have, in the past, failed you? Left you? It takes great courage. Yes, to face an enemy who would kill you without a second thought takes courage, but it is a different kind of courage, one that Enqueri has in abundance. And even although that trust was betrayed by the leader who sent Enqueri and his men to die in Chopek land, it did not damage his trust in the men who stood beside him, facing an enemy. It did not damage his willingness to trust the men who now work with him to guard the streets of the Great City.

"But his family failed him. His mother died when he was of an age to see it as abandonment. His father tried to teach him strength, but in a way that indicated to him that the only person he could trust emotionally was himself. A man he considered a surrogate father, who was trying to undo the harm his father was doing to him, died - another abandonment, even though the man was murdered."

Blair looked searchingly at the dragon. "How do you know that?"

"The spirits are aware of what has happened in the lives of those they seek to help." The dragon stared into some far distance as if looking at something only he could see. He sounded a little distracted as he said, "I know that although you never saw it as such, because she always left you with someone you knew and loved and she always came back, your mother often abandoned you, resenting the tie even though she loved you." He turned his head to look directly at Blair.

Blair met the compassionate gaze briefly, then lowered his head to look at the ground. "Sometimes I wondered," he whispered. "It was partly why I went to Rainier when I was only sixteen. I suppose... I suppose I was doing the same as Jim - leaving her before she left me permanently."

"It gives you a new understanding of Enqueri, does it not?"

"Yes."

"Consider this; despite everything, despite his fear of entrusting his happiness to another person, he does love you. It is not something he will easily admit, not in words - but it shows in his actions.

"It is time now for you to return to the mortal world. But now that you have found your way here, you will be able to return any time you wish, either through meditation or in your dreams... and I will be waiting. There is still much you need to understand and some things that I need to teach you."

"But - "

"This is your spirit animal - "

A wolf padded forward and looked up at Blair. "Follow me," it said, and began to run.

"Go!" the dragon ordered.

Blair turned and chased after the wolf. He could see a black jaguar racing towards them. It and the wolf jumped towards each other, met in mid-air and disappeared in a flash of light... and Blair became aware of lying on the ground with hands touching his face, a terrible irritation in his chest... He coughed, retched, and choked up some foul-tasting water...

***

It was the memory of the absolute gentleness and affection in the touch of Jim's hands that sustained him during the next two or three days while he recovered and antibiotics battled the infection trying to take over his body. Jim - while friendly enough the two or three times he visited - was acting as if nothing much had happened.

'Another fear-based response,' he told himself, resolutely dismissing the wish that Jim would, for just a couple of minutes, sit down, hold his hand, and actually tell him, "Glad you're alive, Chief."

And then on the fourth day Megan arrived instead of Jim, to tell him that Jim and Simon had a lead, had followed Alex Barnes to Sierra Verde... and inside his head he heard Incacha's voice.

*You must follow...*

So, enlisting Megan's help, he did.

***
On their return from Sierra Verde, things returned pretty much to the way they had been. On landing, Jim hustled Blair back to the loft, where he found all his things back more or less where they had been before Jim packed them up, the furniture back in place... Blair took the action as the apology that it was, but decided that it was more than time he finished writing his dissertation, especially since he now had the input from a second sentinel - a sentinel gone bad. Once the dissertation was out of the way, he could concentrate on working with Jim.

He finished the first draft at absolutely the worst possible moment.

Afterwards, he wondered how he could have been naive enough to trust that Naomi wouldn't interfere. It was a given that she would... especially if she thought it would mean his faster departure from the world of the pigs.

Oh, she put a good face on it when Simon offered him the badge - but he knew how hypocritical her reaction was. She saw - she had always seen - the police as lackeys of the privileged rich, lackeys whose main job was to maintain the status quo, prevent necessary change, keep the silent majority silent. She was still the teenager rebelling against her rich parents and their way of life. The fact that they were now dead, leaving her with enough money that she didn't have to work, enough money to let her travel wherever and whenever she wanted, didn't seem to have registered in her mind. From what she had told him about her parents, she had had good reason to rebel, to protest against the things they valued, but sometimes he wondered how accurate her assessment was. Not that he would ever know for sure, because he had never met them - but according to Naomi, they had disowned her when she became pregnant; yet not only had they left her plenty of money, they had left a reasonable amount of money to Blair as well; enough for him to have a comfortable, though not lavish, lifestyle.

Certainly she had finally realized the mistake she had made in sending the dissertation to Sid Graham; but Blair knew well that she was less than happy with his proposed new career as a detective. She had never understood why he wanted to work, since he had enough money that he didn't need to. She had accepted his work as a TA with apparent equanimity, certainly, but he knew she had never really considered teaching as work.

Before the accident that had killed her parents Naomi had been forced to work - at least from time to time - even though she mostly stayed at communes or with a short-term boyfriend; and she had hated every moment of it, claiming always that she was being exploited. Possibly she had been; the unskilled labor she had done was always underpaid for the work involved. But that had been totally her own fault; if she had buckled down and stayed put anywhere she could have got a steady, and at least semi-skilled, job.

But although, as he had once told Jim, it 'Seemed like every man Naomi met would fall in love with her', and it seemed that she easily fell in love with them, when she fell out of love she moved on, not wanting to risk meeting the man again. She had never given herself time to learn anything even semi-skilled.

But her capacity for appearing cheerful when she wasn't was quite limited, and within twenty-four hours of Simon's offer Blair found himself waving her off as she left Cascade on a plane bound for Australia.

Jim was restricted to desk duty for several more days and wouldn't need him at the PD, so he returned to the loft, reaching it about an hour before Jim was due home.

So much had happened so quickly... He took out his candles, lit them, and settled down to meditate.

***
He opened his eyes to the misty dawn he had visited three or four times in his dreams since his first trip there, but this was the first time he had deliberately tried to visit his version of the spirit world.

There was no sign of the dragon - of Incacha. Instead, a small herd of horses wandered towards him, individuals pausing briefly as they walked to take a mouthful of grass before walking on. They had to be spirit animals, he decided, their charges possibly asleep... or maybe in the limbo between death and rebirth?

"Hello?" he said tentatively.

One of the horses nodded surprisingly solemnly, acknowledging him, but any further exchange was halted as the dragon appeared out of the mist and joined him.

"Well done, young shaman," he said. "You have found your way here of your own choice."

"I need your advice, Incacha," Blair said.

"You have died twice, now," the dragon murmured, ignoring Blair's comment. He began to walk away from the horses. "Physically, when the false sentinel drowned you; and now you have voluntarily killed the career you chose when you were young."

"Don't - Incacha, please don't tell me that everything goes in threes," Blair pleaded as he followed.

"No," the dragon said. "Not necessarily."

"Because I really don't want to 'die' again... not until I'm old and tired of living."

"You will never be tired of living... although the time will come when your present life will end because your body fails.

"A true shaman faces death and revives to take up his new life. One who dies twice, as you did, is truly strong. Now you are ready to take up your new life working with Enqueri."

"But is it the right life for me?" Blair asked.

"Only you can answer that. Do you think it is the right life?"

"It's the only one that will let me continue to guide my sentinel. It has to be the right life."

"There is no 'has to be'. Is it what you truly want?" The dragon's voice was stern.

Blair came to an abrupt halt. The dragon took one more step, then he, too, stopped and turned his head to look at Blair, waiting patiently for his answer. Blair knew that Incacha would wait for ever, if that was how long it took him to give it.

He thought about it.

Jim could be really awkward sometimes, pushing Blair away, apparently resenting that he still needed help. Blair had finally come to suspect that much of that apparent resentment was actually frustration. Children didn't necessarily accept all of their parents' values - teenage rebellion saw to that - but some things always stuck. William Ellison's method of child-rearing, stressing that depending on others was a sign of weakness, had apparently been one of the things that had stuck with Jim - his need to be totally self-sufficient was strong.

And yet he was generous with the help he offered to others; when Blair needed help of any kind, Jim had been there for him every single time.

He did want to work with Jim. He had no doubts about that. But... did he truly want to be a detective? He had enjoyed helping Jim, working cases with Jim, but as a detective himself he would have responsibilities he had not had as an observer or even as the 'consultant' they had started to call him.

He wasn't sure he was ready for those responsibilities.

Yet what choice did he have?

And then he realized - to accept the responsibility was also to accept his role as 'shaman of the Great City'. There was no single definition of a shaman; although most people thought of shamans as mystics, he didn't have to be a mystic to heal - or help to heal - the ills of a city. To help enforce the law was a form of healing for society - and he remembered that punishing wrongdoers was one of the many duties of tribal shamans.

"Yes," he said.

The dragon nodded.

"I still need to learn," Blair went on, "but it doesn't matter how often I come here, how often I see you, you will make me consider the situation and force me to reach my own decision - won't you?"

"Most of the time," the dragon agreed. "In the jungle, there are things that a shaman must learn, things that you do not need to know - nobody will come to you in the Great City seeking a cure for some ailment or asking for defense against a curse.

"What you will need is wisdom, and wisdom is not something that can be taught. You have already proved that you can find your own answers much of the time - how often have you found a way to help Enqueri manage his senses, how often has your insight helped him to find an answer to something that was puzzling him, even when you gave him the credit for discovering that answer? All you have to do is believe in yourself.

"That is the true secret of a shaman's success; belief in himself."

Blair nodded. "I'll try," he said. "But... I can come back sometimes and speak to you, can't I? If only for you to kick start my confidence again when it fails."

"Yes," the dragon said.

The word was still ringing in his ears when he opened his eyes and saw Jim sitting quietly watching him.

"Oh, hi," he said.

"Did you find your answers, Chief?"

"Yes," Blair said. He stretched, rose easily to his feet and sat beside Jim. "I don't actually need firearms training - I know how to handle a gun - but I know I'll have to qualify to carry, and I guess I'll have to test out of the rest of the subjects cadets at the Academy have to learn. Yes, that includes unarmed combat - I know more about martial arts than you think I do. We will have to come up with a good reason for the press conference, though, or defense lawyers will have a field day any time I have to testify."

Jim grinned. "A good piece of fiction, you said, right, Chief? I had a word with Dad and he got one of his legal sharks on the case. Dad phoned me just before I left the station - Brewster's already got a written statement from Berkshire Publishing saying that you did not submit the document and had told Graham it wasn't for publication. There'll be a financial settlement too, not a fraction of what it might be, but - well - I authorized Brewster to tell Berkshire that you'd settle for a nominal sum if you got an immediate apology and admission that the thing had not been submitted for publication. I was right about that, wasn't I?" He sounded a little uncertain.

"Yes," Blair replied without a moment's hesitation. "I don't need Berkshire's money, though paying fairly hefty damages is probably the only thing that would really make an impact on its board of management."

"Also, Simon and I have discussed things with Chief Warren - well, we had to - as well as Captain Sharp at the Academy. We sort of admitted the sentinel thing, and they both fully understood why it's better to keep it secret. You're right about testing out - Sharp is willing to speed that up for you - and Warren is giving a press release on the day you officially start work as a detective. I don't know exactly what he plans to say, but with luck it should kill any potential problems with the courts."

"I'm surprised that Berkshire settled so quickly," Blair said.

"An apology costs nothing," Jim said, "and the money involved - a few thousand - is petty cash for a firm Berkshire's size. Brewster made it clear that if they delayed you'd up your claim for compensation quite considerably, and of course there would be lawyers' fees on top... They saw sense.

"Now - how about Chinese for dinner?"

And his smile told Blair that distrust had finally been banished, and that finally they were truly partners.