After three years living in the Peruvian jungle it was easy, Blair had found, to get lost in the fantasy. To squint at the sunlight shining through the leaves of the jungle canopy and convince himself that the rainforests of La Montaña were actually, in some sense, home.
On the outside, blue eyes notwithstanding, Blair was every inch a Chopec Shaman. In the beginning he had reveled in the assimilation of indigenous culture, as well as his subsequent adoption of a role of high authority in the tribe. It was, in a way, the ultimate fieldwork experience for an anthropologist like him; participant observation to the nth degree. Heavy on the participant part, though, and far, far less on the observation front.
And man, that had never been clearer than today.
“Look, Chief,” Jim was saying. “This is not some game we’re playing here! This is the hand we were dealt, and we have got to do it right!”
Sighing the sigh of the long-suffering, Blair looked pointedly at his partner. His lover. His sentinel. “You think I don’t know that, Jim?”
Jim was pissed. Even without the anger, frustration and sheer sense of helplessness that flowed through their emotional link, Blair could see it clearly in Jim’s clenched jaw and bunched fists, just as he could see the fear. Fear for him. And Blair had no choice but to understand the root of that fear. “Look,” he tried, attempting to banish it by explaining himself better, hating to see the man he loved beyond life showing his greatest vulnerability. “What Llallawa did, it was just stupid, not criminal. This… penalty, it’s… given his psychological issues, it’s out of proportion, okay? Don’t tell me there are no shades of grey in this.”
“Blair.” Jim’s voice was quiet suddenly, his whole bearing gravid with meaning. “Stop it. Stop projecting yourself onto him. This is not the same as what happened to you, and you know it.”
The present shimmered out of existence, transformed for a millionth of a second into a bitter memory of pain, fear, humiliation and hopelessness: a memory that was transformed in Blair’s next breath to utter fury. “Fuck you, man!” Blair yelled. And without a second thought he turned and fled, needing more than anything to get away from Jim’s goddamn all-knowing assessment of him before he gave in to an urge to let his anger have its head.
Especially because, when all was said and done, Jim was absolutely right.
Despite his rage, which morphed almost immediately into a blend of embarrassment and shame, Blair didn’t go far. To do so would be to hurt Jim still further, since his sentinel had never completely gotten over his conviction that bad shit happened to Blair when they were apart. And in his heart, no matter how fucked up Blair felt over this situation, he knew that Jim hated this whole deal as much as him.
The difference, of course, was that Jim had the guts to witness it, and he didn’t.
Blair consequently stayed close to the village, trying to put out of his mind what was going to happen. As an attempt at meditation - his habitual refuge from stress and fear - he catalogued in his mind the plants which grew there, attributing to them the Quechua names and uses he’d learned painstakingly under Incacha’s tuition.
Incacha, he absolutely knew, would be disgusted with him right now.
Firmly dismissing the additional rush of shame at that thought, Blair gave up on meditation and instead lost himself in a conscious search for quinua, with its importance as a curative for fever, and the plentiful chonta, a staple of the Chopec diet. And not far away was uña huasca, also called ‘cat’s claw’ or ‘sentinel leaf’, the most precious medicinal plant of all in this region, with its myriad of vital uses. Deciding to make at least some practical use of his time out he took out his knife and began to harvest handfuls of the latter to replenish his own stock, which was running low.
Then he paused - mid cut - when it began, his self-appointed task forgotten, the sounds he had hoped to avoid hearing drifting over clearly from the direction of the village.
Dropping his knife Blair crouched into a ball, hands over his ears in a desperate attempt to block out the screams, not certain if they were Llalawa’s or the ones in his head.
It was late when Blair crept back into the hut he shared with Jim. The Sentinel had, of course, heard him coming and was on his feet facing the door when Blair came in, his face expressionless. Blair doubted that Jim had been unaware of his location and physical state for even the briefest of intervals during his absence.
There was no defense for what Blair had done, he knew. He had absolutely shirked his duty as Shaman in neglecting to witness tribal justice and deal with its aftermath.
Llallawa had stolen from his neighbor; not for the first time. Jim, in his capacity as the tribe’s Sentinel, had judged him guilty, easily reading the lie in Llallawa’s body. The penalty decreed by the tribal elders for the repeated offense – since the previous traditional methods of censure had not deterred him - had been a public whipping.
The sentence had been carried out hours earlier, while Blair had skulked in the jungle. And now, as Blair stood pondering his own cowardice in the doorway of their hut, it was Jim who broke the tense silence between them. “Llallawa’s okay, Chief. He’s pretty sore, but he bore it well.”
The words caused a hard ball of rage and revulsion to coil in Blair’s gut: he knew all about bearing such things well. Moving past Jim without looking at him, he began to gather his medical supplies. “Is he in his hut?” he asked tersely.
Blair felt Jim move up close behind him. “Yeah, but leave him be, huh? He’s fine. I tended him afterwards.” Because you weren’t here, Blair heard clearly, whether Jim intended it or not.
Disregarding Jim’s plea, Blair just carried on gathering what he needed. Behind him he heard Jim sigh and move away. And when Blair exited a short while later, he didn’t even glance the Sentinel’s way.
But even though he’d erected a solid wall impeding any linkage through their Bond, he could sense Jim’s inner turmoil as well as he could feel his own.
It was late when Blair crawled into bed beside Jim, the grasses that stuffed their thin mattress rustling as he lay back onto it.
Knowing that his partner was awake Blair whispered into the darkness, “You really think that what they did to Llallawa is going to cure him? He has an impulse control disorder, Jim. He’s not a criminal.”
“Not my call, Chief.” Jim’s voice was patient, despite everything. “This is the tribe’s way, you know that.”
“Yeah.” Blair should know. He was the damned Shaman, however unworthy he was of that title. “But it sucks, man.”
They lay in silence for a couple of minutes, the link they shared through their Bond strengthening with physical proximity and their returning ease with each other. After a moment, Jim asked, “Is he okay?”
Blair shrugged, the movement making the mattress crinkle under his shoulders, the bitterness he felt creeping into his answer. “He’s no worse off than I ever was. And,” he added, allowing this one thing, “I didn’t need to touch him. You did a good job.”
Jim didn’t answer out loud but, to Blair’s intense shame, a rush of profound love and sorrow emanated from Jim, directed at him.
God, Blair berated himself silently. He was so fucking inadequate. No way was this easy for Jim, considering what he’d seen Blair get put through, and Blair had left him to deal with it alone. Leaning up on one elbow, Blair moved closer, his shame close to the surface. “I’m sorry,” he said.
A hand – tender, caressing, endlessly healing – touched his cheek. “For what?” Jim whispered.
Blair caught the hand, and kissed it. “Being a flake,” he said. “Not doing my job. I should have been here, with you.”
“I figure you’re allowed to be a flake once in a while. You have good reason.” Strong arms came out of the dark, pulling Blair close to the warm, silky bulk of Jim’s chest. “I love you,” Jim murmured, tangible emotion behind the words emphasizing their truth.
Blair relaxed into the embrace with a sigh, shamelessly soaking up the comfort. “I love you too, man. But you deserve better.”
Jim’s soft lips touched Blair’s forehead in a kiss and, once again, Blair marveled at how gentle Jim always was with him. That knowledge, that certainty, awed him afresh now, despite his self-doubt. “I already have the best,” Jim said softly, his lips moving against Blair’s skin. “You’re the strongest man I know.”
“Not always.” Blair wished it wasn’t so dark, so he could see Jim’s face, and the look of devotion he knew would be there, even if he didn’t feel he deserved it right now.
In answer, a wash of love - soothing, calming, affirming – drifted over and into him, the Bond they shared allowing Blair no room to doubt Jim’s admiration of him. And, relaxing into it gratefully, surrounded by his sentinel’s strong arms and secure in the knowledge that, no matter what, they had each other, Blair at last allowed himself to pass into the haven of sleep.
As usual, Sentinel and Shaman were up before dawn, trekking out to patrol the boundaries of the village. They ate as they went - flatbread and foraged fruit - operating in silence as Jim opened his senses wide to the elements.
Blair loved to watch his sentinel like this. Jim was so intense and yet so vulnerable. Entirely dependent upon his guide to keep him focused and his senses keen, as well as for the protection Blair’s sharp-tipped spear provided at his back while his attention far-traveled deep into the rainforest.
Blair hefted his spear easily, reveling in its secure weight and the certainty that he was more than prepared to use it in the defense of both of them should he have need to. Guides in Chopec culture were warriors too: one of the many differences between here and the world they had left behind. Back there guides were effectively emasculated, their claws clipped. It made sentinels unnecessarily vulnerable to deny them a strong partner who could protect them, Blair knew. That knowledge never ceased to make him angry.
Jim made a distressed sound, deep in his throat, picking up Blair’s momentary bitterness through their emotional link. “Easy,” Blair murmured, putting out a soothing hand to Jim and hastily schooling his thoughts and feelings to tranquility. “It’s nothing. All is well.”
Jim subsided, his concentration maintained thanks to Blair’s sure touch and effortless guidance. And they continued on, moving deeper into the trees.
They did this every day, this patrol; sometimes more than once, and for several hours at a stretch. It was what they were, their primary vocation for being here: to protect the tribe from approaching enemies, and track the movement of game. They could be out here for hours, following a scent or a sound, operating as a flawless team and totally in synch with each other.
Blair loved it with a passion. Just the two of them together, doing what they were both born to do. Two halves of a whole, inextricably bonded into a single entity. Just like every time that they did this, a tranquil mood descended upon Blair that was almost meditative; the two of them silently flowing together, Jim lost in sensory input, placing himself entirely in Blair’s hands, and Blair hyper-aware of Jim’s every need.
Gradually, though, Blair began to feel restless, their usually flawless rapport marred as unease gradually began to infuse their link. Jim paused, scenting the air, his brows drawn in concentration. “What is it? Blair asked quietly. Under his hand, he felt the muscles in Jim’s shoulder bunch with tension.
“Something’s wrong.” Jim’s eyes were distant, his focus far off in a place Blair could not perceive.
“Which sense? Filter it down, man,” Blair directed.
Obediently, Jim went still as he narrowed his focus. “I smell… oil, exhaust fumes. Sweat. I hear…” Blair held his breath as Jim fought to extend his senses. “I hear machinery, men. Noise, like… like trees being felled.” Jim swallowed, his eyes going wide. He looked at Blair with horror. “Oh god, Chief,” he said. “They’re speaking English. They’re American.”
“What?” Blair’s heart pounded in shock. “Who are they?”
But Jim was already moving. “Come on. We’ve got to get closer.”
“Are you nuts?” Blair’s protest was token, as he was already following at Jim’s heels. “What if they see us?”
“We can’t let them,” Jim said flatly. “But the tribe has to know what they’re up against. This is why we’re here, Chief.”
In all conscience, Blair could not argue with that. After all, he’d already shirked his duty once in the past twenty-four hours, so he was not about to do it again right now, no matter the risk. But he knew as well as Jim did that if they were seen, and if word found its way back to the wrong ears that a non-native sentinel and guide team had been spotted in this particular remote area of Peruvian jungle (the very area where James Ellison had once gone missing in action for eighteen months), then it wouldn’t take long for the authorities to put the pieces together and come after them.
Jim led the way toward the disturbance only he could sense, Blair staying close behind his sentinel. After about twenty minutes of stealthy approach, Blair could hear the cacophonous sounds too and, while part of him marveled at the acuity of Jim’s senses to have detected and identified these sounds from so far away, a larger part of him was filled with dread that they would be spotted.
He needn’t have worried. Jim gestured him to halt while they were still some way off, and Blair instinctively moved in to provide guidance while Jim extended his senses through the trees, his sentinel vision enabling him to utilize gaps in the foliage to watch what was going on from deep cover. As Jim crouched motionless, monitoring and processing what was going on in the distance, Blair couldn’t help but listen to the noises which were audible to him. He could hear the clamor of shouting voices over the screech of machinery and the throb of engines, but he couldn’t make out anything that was being said.
After a few minutes Jim silently motioned for him to back off, and Blair now took point, expertly retracing their path while Jim brought up the rear. During their three years in the jungle, Blair had become a more than adept guide in every sense of the word. And, since the principle danger right now was behind them, it made perfect sense for Jim, with his enhanced senses, to watch their backs.
It wouldn’t have been allowed back home, though. There, guides always walked three feet behind their sentinels. No exceptions.
As they got further away from the forest’s interlopers, heading back toward the village, Blair turned, meaning to ask Jim what he’d sensed. But the closed look on the Sentinel’s face halted him; as well as the fact that Jim’s emotions were locked up behind an impenetrable barrier which Blair could not access even peripherally, despite their link.
Not good news, then, Blair deduced with a sinking heart.
The moment they reached the village, adrenaline raced through Blair as Jim let out a shout. “Nishu prisisaqmi!” Activity paused for one second while the cry of emergency registered, then all hell broke loose.
The Chopec were well practiced at responding to threats and danger at a moment’s notice. Within very short order, the whole village was mobilized. Women gathered together the children, the old and infirm to get them under shelter, while the tribe’s warriors relinquished tools to take up weapons, moving to defensive positions around the perimeter. And, in the center of the village, the Elders gathered to hear what their Sentinel and Shaman had to say.
Jim wasted no time. In flawless Quechua – which both Sentinel and Shaman spoke as fluently as if it was their native tongue after all this time - he told them, “Invaders are tearing down the forest a few miles south of here. They’re moving this way. We must move the tribe to a place of safety immediately.”
“No!” Nina protested, full of belligerence and fire, as he often was. “We must fight them! Why should we run?”
A ripple of agreement went through the gathering, their faces hard. But Jim shook his head. “Not this time. These men are too strong, too well armed. We can’t hope to win.”
“Explain, Enqueri,” Tamaya demanded, silencing the angry murmurs of the others, the air of authority he carried defining his high standing in this gathering.
Jim glanced aside at Blair, his expression grave, before looking back at the Elders. “These men are from our homeland – mine and Blair’s. They’re cutting down trees, making a road, and they’re heading straight for us. They have a powerful chief; a rich chief. They have armed men, with guns, guarding them; many guards. They have the power to wipe out every man, woman and child of the Chopec if we make a stand. We can’t possibly win.”
“How far away?”
Jim shrugged. “Five days at most, before their machines get here. Much sooner than that before their scouts find us. We have to leave right away.”
In the ensuing silence, Blair had to ask. “Jim, who the hell are they?”
Jim’s eyes, when he met Blair’s, were bleak. “It’s an oil company. I recognize the logo.”
Their link remained impenetrable, but something desperate in Jim’s bearing registered deep within Blair, nevertheless. “What are you not telling me?” he demanded, determined not to be treated with kid gloves, no matter what. He had to know, damn it!
Jim took a deep breath. “The company is called Cyclops Oil.”
It took a second, but then Blair recognized the name. “Oh my god.” This was about as bad as it could get. “They’re from Cascade!” It was their hometown; the place they’d fled from three years ago.
Jim could spare him no more than a nod before Tamaya spoke again. “Then we will do as you advise, Enqueri. We will move out of their path. But,” his eyes blazed with fury, “it will not end there. We will talk again, once the tribe is safe.”
Jim and Blair nodded their assent and, as the general order was given, joined in the mobilization effort. And Blair tried hard to still the pessimistic terror, deep in his gut, that this heralded the beginning of the end for them both.
The Chopec were a peaceful people. Most of the various branches of the tribe which inhabited the La Montaña area were related by ties of blood and tradition, and other than occasional disputes of a personal nature, intra-tribal warfare was practically unheard of.
The remoteness and inaccessibility of this particular region meant that danger from the outside was usually minimal. But the guerrilla war that had been waged in Peru the past few years had occasionally encroached, particularly during the time several years ago that Jim Ellison had initially lived with the tribe. The Chopec had proven back then to be fierce and deadly adversaries when their way of life was threatened, showing no mercy to enemy outsiders.
The Chopec were a rainforest tribe. They lived and breathed their environment, utilizing its natural bounty to their advantage, as well as nurturing it reverently in a symbiotic give and take between man and earth. They could move through it at will, blending into its foliage as if they were one with it. They were its true sons and daughters.
The outsiders who now threatened that natural equilibrium could not be more different.
As the part of the tribe they lived with now moved through the forest, seeking shelter, Blair listened as Jim told him in an undertone what he’d learned about the activities of Cyclops Oil. “They’ve already killed. Their weapons had been fired repeatedly; I could smell cordite. I could smell blood in the trees behind them; a lot of blood. Corpses starting to decompose. Some of their clothes reeked of it, as if they’d touched the bodies. There was what sounded like a backhoe at work a mile or so further back, I think they were digging a mass grave.”
“Who died?” Blair demanded, his usual admiration at just how acute Jim’s senses were subsumed by horror at what he had sensed.
Blair waited a moment until Jim dragged his awareness back from where he had fixed it on their perimeter, which he was intermittently scanning to monitor the safety of the tribe as they moved. After a few moments the Sentinel turned to meet Blair’s eyes, his grim expression confirmation of Blair’s horrified suspicion. “They’re coming from Araypallpa,” Jim said softly. “By the direction they’re traveling, I’d say their road passed right through the village.”
“Oh, man.” It was the village they’d lived in when they first arrived in La Montaña; the same village which had taken Jim in years before. The village where Blair had come into his own as Shaman, tutored by Incacha.
There was nothing left to say. As Jim pushed his awareness back out, doing everything he could to get the tribe to safety without incident, Blair remained by his side, subsuming his own grief and anger to support his sentinel in doing the job they were both born to do.
Several hours later the tribe made camp. They chose a plateau bounded on one side by a steep cliff, and the other by dense foliage and a sheer drop down to the river.
Blair watched, steadfast by his side, as Ellison prowled the perimeter of the camp, before giving the location his approval. This was a good place, Blair could see. Defensible, and with a natural acoustic - thanks to the cliff at their backs - which would magnify the sound of approaching intruders to Jim’s hyper-sensitive ears, while the dense foliage would muffle the sounds of occupation to anyone passing by.
All hands were put to work creating sleeping spaces, cooking areas and latrines. Sentinel and Shaman stayed apart to maintain their vigil, even after guards were set around the perimeter. The threat - although less acute now they had moved - was still very real.
It was as twilight neared that approaching movement was detected. But, after Jim had raised a brief, initial alarm, it became clear from the way their visitors moved through the landscape that whoever approached was Chopec.
Both Jim and Blair stood shoulder to shoulder with their adopted Chopec brethren to watch out for the new arrivals. In the vanguard were warriors – many of them wounded - followed by a pitiful band of refugees. And the Sentinel and Shaman of Araypallpa - Quauhtli and Incacha – were at the rear, guarding the backs of the survivors.
Once again, all hands were mobilized, this time to lend aid to the exhausted and injured travelers. And as he rushed forward to tend to some of the wounded, Blair watched as Ellison and Quauhtli exchanged a look of grim understanding over the heads of the crowd.
Darkness had long since fallen before the Elders – including those few who had survived the rout of the other village - met.
Incacha related what had happened. “The water was poisoned, and many people got sick before Quauhtli smelled that it was contaminated. We did not realize outsiders had done it, or we would have stayed to fight. Instead, we went to find a clean source.” He looked devastated at the admission; a Sentinel and Shaman’s first duty was to protect the tribe, and they hadn’t been there when it was attacked.
“You couldn’t have known.” Jim’s voice was quiet; compassionate.
“I should have known! I am Shaman!” Incacha, it seemed, was unwilling to accept comfort, although his own Sentinel placed a steadying hand on his knee. But Quauhtli, looked every bit as devastated as Incacha himself.
Incacha carried on. “The two of us had to travel many miles to find what we sought. Those men,” he indicated some of the warriors who had survived, “came with us. Together, we were to carry back enough clean water to replenish our emergency supplies, then move the tribe to the new location we found.” He shook his head miserably. “We were too late. By the time we returned the village had been destroyed. Those who survived had fled into the trees.”
Quauhtli took up the tale. “We tried to fight,” he said bitterly, “but it was no use. Their weapons are powerful, and they have no honor. We are lucky that any of our people escaped with their lives.”
Incacha’s face was filled with angry satisfaction. “We took one of them. And we learned from him what we needed to know before we killed him.” He pulled out a piece of paper, and held it out to Ellison. “This is the Chief of the Great Eye.”
Ellison took it, then showed it to Blair. It was a newspaper clipping, showing a photograph of Gerard Spalding, the president of Cyclops Oil. Wordlessly, Blair passed it on.
The Elders handed around the clipping, their faces hard. Once they had all seen it, Nina spoke. “If we cannot stop these men from poisoning the land and killing our people, then their Chief must be captured. He must be brought before us and forced to atone for his crimes.” Murmurs of agreement went around the fire-lit circle.
“That’s not possible.” Blair had been quiet up until now, still reeling from the upheaval they had all suffered. “This man – this Gerard Spalding – he is far away from here. There is no way we can capture him.”
“He is in your homeland, yes?” Incacha pointed out.
Blair glanced at Jim warily before he answered, his eyes wide. “Yes.”
“Then you and Enqueri will go there and capture him,” Incacha declared. “Meanwhile our two villages will merge, and Quauhtli and I will guard the tribe until you return.”
Incacha’s suggestion sent a ripple of mutual shock through their link. “Impossible,” Jim said flatly. “We’re exiled from our homeland. If we return, we will both be captured. Blair will be taken from me, and our Bond will be broken. We can’t go home.” He turned angry eyes on Incacha, who looked back impassively. “You know this!” he hissed.
“Many of our people have been killed, in defense of what is ours!” Tamaya, usually the voice of moderation in this gathering, spoke up harshly. “All of us – every last one of us – will do what we must to defend – and avenge - our land and our people. If you are truly of the Chopec, then you and Quosi will do the same – otherwise, you are no longer of the tribe.” He looked around at the assembled. “I say Enqueri and Quosi should return to their homeland. They should capture this Gerard Spalding, and bring him here to face justice, or die trying. Who agrees with me?”
Jim and Blair could only watch in stunned silence as every last man present – including Incacha and Quauhtli – voted in the affirmative. And in the flickering firelight, Blair turned his head to meet the equally shocked eyes of his Sentinel.
The commotion soon died down into an expectant hush. It was odd, mused Blair, as peace descended, that he felt a strange sense of relief. He’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop for so long that, now it had happened, he found himself able to breathe again. And he had to wonder just how much his pulling away from the observance of ritual yesterday had been an omen, as well as the actions of a man who needed to stop running from the past.
Jim, he could sense, through the roiling emotions which permeated their link, was devastated. Full of despair and rage and fear, most of it on Blair’s behalf.
God, Blair thought, with a swell of awe. He loved Jim so much.
Blair reached out a hand to lay it on Jim’s forearm, feeling the bunch of muscle and the tremor of strong emotion beneath his palm. And then he turned to face the gathering of elders. “We’ll do it,” he asserted, his voice strong and sure.
Beside him, Jim made a choked noise, his muscles flexing even tighter as though he wanted to punch out the world. Which, Blair supposed, he probably did.
Blair turned his head again to look his Sentinel in the eye. “Hey,” he said gently, lapsing into English. “We have to do this, man. We have no choice.”
Jim’s face was as hard as granite; an unscaleable cliff of stone. His eyes drifted aside to focus momentarily on Blair’s neck, where the tracking tattoo remained as a permanent, livid reminder of why going back was impossible. “We can’t,” he said flatly.
Stubborn Sentinel, Blair thought to himself.
Into Jim's intractability, Blair carried on, implacable. “How can we not?” The gathering had gone still around them, collectively holding its breath while their Sentinel and Shaman conversed in their own, alien tongue. “You said it yourself, Jim. This is the hand we were dealt.”
“If I take you back, they’ll take you from me and you’ll die.” Jim’s grief pushed its way through the glacier, condensing in the humid jungle air. “How can you ask that of me?”
Blair found himself grinning wryly, despite the gravity of the situation. “It’s not all about me, man,” he pointed out. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve been put on America’s Most Wanted list yourself, you know? But,” he became serious again, “we need to find a way to do this. These people,” he indicated the elders of the tribe, sitting silently watching, “they need us. They’re being decimated. How many have already been lost, huh? How many more will be killed? What about the land, their way of life?” He shook the arm he held slightly. “They’re being slaughtered, wiped out, by our people, Jim. They’re not equipped to fight it. If we don’t help them, then who will?”
“They’re not our people!” Jim was emphatically not referring to the Chopec. “They brutalized you, Sandburg. Tried to take away everything that you are; tried to make me treat you like a slave. Their way of life is not ours!”
“Jim.” Blair kept his voice soft, striving for understanding. “We are the only ones who can do this. Otherwise the Chopec, their land and everything that makes them unique will be lost forever.”
“So, what are you saying, Chief?” Jim was scathing. “You expect us to just head back to Cascade, huh? Just walk in there, evade the sniffers, and capture Spalding? Then wander out again, like it's just a walk in the park, to bring the guy back here? Piece of cake, huh.”
“Get real, man!” Jim was being blind and dense now, and suddenly Blair was pissed. “Of course not! What do you take me for, huh? An idiot?”
Jim looked away, his face thunderous.
Into his angry silence, Blair carried on relentlessly. “That’s what the Chopec would do, if we weren’t here to help them, and they’d fail, man. Because Chopec ways, and Chopec laws, and Chopec vengeance have no place in Cascade. But you and me?” He gripped Jim’s arm tight, forcing his attention, giving no quarter. “We have ways we can fight this thing, ways the tribe,” he indicated their rapt audience, “don’t understand. We have access to information, ways of spreading news, contacts, the whole shebang. Chances are, we can do it – and we can win - without ever setting foot back in the U.S. We’re almost in the twenty-first century, man. Technology is our friend.”
At last Jim got it, and his angry expression started to morph into thoughtfulness. “We use the internet and make some calls, and drop the dime to environmental groups and the media about what Cyclops Oil are doing here.”
Blair smiled. “Exactly!”
Jim, though, still didn’t look happy. “And what happens after, huh? When journalists come here to cover the destruction, and the Chopec come to the attention of every news channel in the world, what then?”
Blair shook his head. “It’ll be a nine-day wonder. They’ll be left alone, eventually. But they will be protected. Cyclops Oil are clearly violating numerous international laws, here. Environmental, human rights and otherwise. Once they’re stopped? The publicity will ensure that they never get away with it again, and the Chopec will be left in peace.”
Jim still didn’t look convinced. And he had another objection to lay on the table. “And how long do you think you and I will be able to stay out of the spotlight, huh? Because even if we manage to do all this without revealing our identities, where are we gonna go afterward? Because if you’re right, and the Chopec manage to fade back into obscurity, then there’s no problem and we can come back here. But what if you’re wrong? What if they don’t get left alone? What then? Because I’m telling you, Chief, this is the end of the line. You and I have nowhere else to go.”
There were no guarantees to his plan, Blair fully understood. Hell, as a former anthropologist Blair well understood the lure a tribe like the Chopec could have in certain quarters, especially the academic community, even if the press eventually tired of the topic.
But the fact was, this plan was all that he’d got. “What can I say?” He opened his arms in surrender. “You got any better ideas, man, I’m all ears.”
Jim glanced at the surrounding Elders, their faces reflecting the trust they had in their non-native Sentinel and Shaman. After a moment, he nodded sadly at Blair. “We don’t have a choice.” he acknowledged. “We’ll do it your way.”
Blair reached out and clasped Jim on the shoulder, a wealth of emotion in the gesture. Then turning to the assembly, he switched back into Quechua. “We will stop this destruction,” he said. “Enquiri and I will travel to the heart of the Great Eye, and destroy its power.” And as the Elders nodded their approval he hoped fervently that Jim and he would be able to salvage some peace for themselves when this mess was resolved.
How feasible that could ever be, he had no idea.
Adaptable and semi-nomadic as the Chopec were, routine established itself in short order despite the all-pervading grief over the loss of so many kinfolk from the neighboring village. By the time the meeting of Elders concluded, therefore, the camp was well on its way to settling down for the night.
The two Sentinels had confirmed that the danger posed by the intruders was currently minimal, as the road construction crew was moving in a direction which did not intercept this new camp. A mere skeleton crew of warriors, therefore, was assigned to patrol during the dark hours. Quauhtli and Jim took up positions of watchfulness, their territorial imperative as Sentinels making it impossible for them to relax their vigilance in the wake of such an atrocity.
Blair sighed as he watched Jim, who had moved away swiftly when the meeting had ended. The Sentinel was standing tall and still at the periphery of their makeshift camp; a shadowy, motionless guardian, his inner disquiet evident only by the thrumming angry emotions which permeated their link. At least, mused Blair ruefully, he was able feel it. He’d fully expected Jim to completely shut him out.
Blair joined Incacha for a while, attending to those who were distressed or injured and bringing comfort and treating hurts, doing his duty as Shaman. That done he finally went over to join Jim, moving silently so as not to disturb those who were sleeping nearby, confident that Jim would not be startled by his stealthy approach. “Hey,” he whispered.
“Go get some sleep,” Jim ordered, his voice tightly controlled. “We leave at first light.”
Blair bit down on an impulse to insist that Jim do the same, because for a sentinel in this situation there was no point in even suggesting such a thing. But he didn’t do what Jim ordered, either. Instead, Blair hunkered down at Jim’s feet, following the Sentinel’s gaze blindly into the blackness of the forest.
After a moment, Jim sighed, the sound long-suffering, and Blair couldn’t help but grin when he heard the other man move. Leaves rustled as he sat down, and Blair fell back from his haunches as arms came around him. Stretching out his legs comfortably, Blair leaned back and relaxed, sheltered, now, in the warm curve of Jim’s body. Neither of them spoke, there was no need.
Jim’s vigilance reasserted itself, grounded in his guide as he was. And, together, they settled in to guard the tribe throughout the night.
When morning came there were no elaborate farewells. Nodding shortly to Quauhtli, tacitly handing the other Sentinel the watch and entrusting him with the tribe’s safety in that understated gesture, Jim led the way off into the forest, Blair following in his wake.
Blair was tired, his movements clumsier than at any time since he’d become accustomed to forest living, his over-wound body betraying his anger and grief at the massacre the tribe had suffered even as, out of necessity, he buried it deep. He’d stayed up with Jim all night, refusing to sleep even when Jim had offered to act as a living pillow, determined not to leave his sentinel alone in the eye of the storm.
“So,” Blair ventured breathlessly, when they’d been on the move for a couple of hours. “Are we going where I think we’re going?”
Jim spared him a glance. “Leguia’s place,” he confirmed shortly.
“Right, right.” Blair stumbled and, automatically, Jim reached out a hand to steady him. “That’s perfect,” Blair carried on. “He has everything: internet access, contacts we could use, the works, right?”
“He also has good security,” Jim pointed out, letting Blair go as soon as he had righted himself. “We don’t want any of our communications traced.”
“Right.” There was silence a moment, then in a voice that attempted to be casual, trying to mask his sudden, desperate longing, Blair said, “And you know, if security is that tight, I have contacts back home too who could be useful. I mean, my mom is an environmental activist, as well as the other stuff she does, and she knows people-”
“Blair.” The word pulled them both up short. “You know that’s impossible.”
Blair blinked. “Look,” he said earnestly. “If it comes down to it, we have to use everything we’ve got. This is for the tribe, man! Their survival depends on us. We have got to put them first! And that means using all the resources we have at our disposal, no matter the risk to us.”
“I’m sorry, Blair,” Jim said, his voice suddenly gentle. “We can do anything but that. Contacting your mom is not an option. It’s too risky, for us and for her.”
A variety of emotions cascaded through Blair – anger, stubbornness, and resentment being chief among them, settling rapidly into hurt resignation and despair. “Whatever,” Blair said peevishly, knowing Jim was right, knowing that he was being irrational, hating himself for being just that selfish and weak that he’d let his own desires surface at a time like this. Pushing past Jim’s solid, dependable bulk, he declared firmly, “My turn to take point.”
Anger had become pretty much a way of life for Blair, ever since he’d been entrusted to the tender mercies of Guide World. Back then he’d learned the hard way to suppress it, to bury it deep inside where no one could perceive it. To do otherwise was to invite even greater suffering, and Blair was far too stubborn to give the sadistic bastards that much satisfaction.
But, no matter what pains he’d taken to hide it, it was clear right from the start that it wasn’t ever hidden from Jim. Jim had said as much: it was the presence of that anger, the defiance in his eyes, that had made the sentinel choose Blair right at the start.
Since they’d gone to live with the Chopec, Blair had found it harder and harder to keep the anger buried. Sometimes he even reveled in it, taking it out into the light to turn it this way and that and examine every shining, diamond-hard facet. In some ways, his ready acknowledgment and acceptance of the inner rage he carried made exile easier to bear. It reminded him daily why he was here, cut off forever from a life denied to him because of an accident of birth and his own stupidity.
So many layers of pain, loss, injustice and betrayal. Such intense pessimism, knowing that, despite all the good work done by the guide network, nothing had changed and likely would never change in Blair’s lifetime.
Blair had never wanted to be a bonded guide. To be reduced to the legal and social status of sub-human and made a slave to a sentinel had been his worst nightmare. A fate worse than death, the faceless monster which endlessly stalked the unlucky few, like him, who had the misfortune to be born with the guide gland in their head.
He’d taken it seriously, that threat. All of those like him, who lived their entire lives hiding in plain sight, absolutely had to. But he’d been reckless as well, his resentment at the unfairness of the world tempting him almost to flaunt it. He’d gotten arrogant and complacent, and had taken risks he never should have taken. No rogue guide older than an infant had ever been detected, and Blair had had absolutely no reason to believe it would ever happen to him. He’d been careful, for the most part, just as he’d always been taught, and just as he taught the guide kids at Rainier (similarly hiding their true nature) who he mentored. But he’d always been a bit of a risk taker, someone who got a kick out of taking perverse chances. And ultimately he’d taken, so it seemed, one chance too many.
Blair well remembered the single occasion he was certain had been his downfall. Guides could sometimes sense other guides, and so it had been stupid in the extreme for Blair to go to the party in the full knowledge that a bonded pair would be there. The sentinel, returning from a tour in the army, was brother to Emily, the girl Blair was dating at the time. And Blair, as Emily’s boyfriend, had been invited to the homecoming of the triumphant warrior.
The most stupid part was not that Blair had gone to the party, but that he’d done so without taking a dose of Antidux, a mild (and illegal) dux suppressant taken by guides-in-hiding to prevent the risk of detectable pre-Bond secretions. He’d been a little complacent around that time about taking it, resentful about the need to continue to put an unnatural substance in his body day after day. He’d thought that missing a couple of doses wouldn’t do him any harm.
How wrong he’d been.
Blair had recklessly brazened the whole thing out, even sharing a beer and a laugh with good old Pete, Emily’s sentinel brother, certain of his own invulnerability. Until the moment, that was, that Pete’s guide (no name, they never had a name) had raised his eyes – lowered obediently right up until that moment – to look straight at Blair, the challenge and recognition in their depths clear as day. And Blair had instantly known, with the clarity of epiphany, that he’d been made.
He’d tried to flee after that, of course. His cousin Robbie, in whom he’d confided, had helped speed Blair’s passage, giving him money and making arrangements for him to hire a car under an assumed name. In the end it had all been for naught. Blair had been apprehended by the Detectors at the Canadian border, his former life snuffed out as effectively as a candle in the path of a hurricane.
What had happened after that had been nothing more than a living death, until Jim had breathed life back into Blair’s battered body and soul. Closer to breaking point when he’d been hired out as a rental than he’d ever allowed Jim to suspect, Blair had gravitated toward the sentinel as though he was the sun, basking in the glow of Jim’s incredible tenderness after so many months without succor or hope. Suddenly, the Bond was all Blair wanted, and the one thing he could not, under any circumstances, have. But they’d both hurtled toward it anyway, inexorably merging their lives forever in the aftermath of yet one more episode of humiliation, pain and despair.
Blair felt ultimately responsible for what had happened, and for all that came after. He’d possessed such a terrible, aching need for Jim by then. His vulnerability had called to Jim in turn, so that in the end he hadn’t given the man any kind of choice at all.
“I don’t regret it, Blair.” Jim’s voice startled Blair from his reverie, Blair’s turmoil easily transmitting to him through their link, and Blair stopped in his tracks, closing his eyes as Jim’s arms came around him from behind. “I don’t regret any of it, and I don’t blame you for any of it,” Jim went on, the sentinel’s breath on his ear making Blair shiver in response. “You’re everything to me. I can’t imagine my life without you in it. I don’t want to.”
And Blair could feel the truth of it: through their link, there was no room for doubt.
Bolstered once again by Jim’s belief in him Blair nodded, his unquiet emotions receding as once more he unearthed the core of strength he carried deep inside. “I’m sorry,” he said, needing to make it clear, needing Jim to understand that he wasn’t always going to be like this. “I get crazy sometimes. I’m not angry with you, just... everyone else, I guess.” He sighed, the echoes of his own pain subsumed in bitterness and grief for a different reason, reminding him why they were here. “They killed the fucking tribe, man. They’re killing the land. How could they do that?”
“I don’t know,” Jim breathed, validating Blair’s feelings with the strength of his own. “But they’ll pay for it. I promise you that.” Then, letting go, Jim moved away, getting right back to business. “My turn to take point,” he said, as he moved ahead through the trees. And, instinctually falling back on the comforting, well-established patterns of their partnership, Blair fell in behind, capably watching for threats from the rear as they progressed.
Travelling largely by nightfall in the more populated areas, keeping by long-standing habit away from outsiders, they reached the locality where Leguia lived a handful of days later. They got as close as they dared to Leguia’s residence, then hunkered down for a couple of hours to bide their time until it got dark. Leguia’s estate was private enough, but not so deserted that two white men approaching in daylight, dressed as Chopec warriors and carrying spears, would fail to attract notice.
As they crouched there Blair rested one hand on Jim’s back to keep him focused as the sentinel extended his senses toward the house, whispering instructions to him all the while.
“Is Leguia there?” he asked eventually.
After a moment, Jim shook his head. “I can’t tell. There’s something....” he sighed in frustration. “It’s like there’s some kind of block. I can’t hear anything clearly.” He shook himself in apparent discomfort. “Something is interfering with my senses.”
“Identify it and filter it out,” Blair instructed, leading Jim through the steps necessary to do so, his voice a quiet murmur, the two of them in perfect synch. Not for the first time, Blair considered that if everyone in the world could be a bonded sentinel or guide then there would be no more need for drugs, tobacco, alcohol or even sex, because all those things paled in comparison next to the intense sense of almost orgasmic well-being that a deep, working rapport with your bonded partner engendered.
They worked together for a while, and finally Jim got it. Mouth set in a frown, he revealed, “There’s a white noise generator. More than one, in fact. They’re interfering with each other, out of synch, filling in all the spaces in-between. That’s why I couldn’t tell what they were, at first.”
“Shit.” That could mean only one thing: white noise was commonly used to block sentinels from engaging in surveillance. “Do you think he knew we were coming?”
“It looks as though someone did.” Jim shook his head. “I don’t like this.”
“Maybe he’s worried about being watched by, you know, someone with an axe to grind? Someone who has a sentinel on staff? It might not be you he’s guarding against.” Blair shrugged, trying to explore a less sinister interpretation. “You said it yourself before, man. Leguia has made plenty of enemies over the years. It doesn’t have to be about us.”
Jim shook his head, his mouth set in a hard line. “Too many coincidences, Chief. Cyclops Oil are from Cascade, for god’s sake. They travel to a remote area of Peruvian rainforest, to butcher the tribe you and I live with. Now Leguia’s using white noise so we can’t hear what’s going on in his house.”
“So what are you saying? That it’s a trap?” Blair’s latent fury, always simmering under the surface these days, broke free. “That Cyclops Oil murdered the tribe and tore down the forest, just to flush us out?” To his dismay, Blair found he was shaking.
Jim didn’t offer comfort, which Blair was grateful for because there was no way he wanted to be comforted right at this moment, full of suspicious grief and rage and fear as he was. “I’m saying,” Jim said quietly, his voice deadly earnest, “if that was the case, then they probably knew we’d come here.”
Blair berated himself silently. He’d known, goddamn it. He’d known that their days of living free had been numbered; he’d just found it all too easy to deceive himself into thinking it could go on forever. “We need to get the hell out of here.” he said.
But Jim shook his head. “It’s already too late,” he murmured, his voice breaking a little. “I’m sorry, Chief.”
Blair heard it, then. The unmistakable noises of movement closing in on them from behind, and a simultaneous commotion from the direction of Leguia’s house. Blair closed his eyes briefly in despair, then looked at Jim, meeting his gaze unflinchingly. Reaching out, he palmed his sentinel’s cheek gently, pouring all the love he felt for this man through their deep link, gladly accepting the love and strength Jim sent back in return.
Then, without another word, they rose together and moved to stand back-to-back, spears held ready for battle.
There was no way either of them were being taken without a fight.
Armed men swiftly surrounded them, rapid-fire chatter in Spanish coming from several directions at once such that, in his adrenaline-fueled focus on impeding battle, Blair failed to discern meaning other than ‘intruder’ and ‘security’ and ‘armed’. Back to back with Jim, his heart beating triple-time, all Blair knew was that this was it, the end.
Fuck them all. Blair would make sure he took at least two or three of them with him before he died.
A man stepped forward, a familiar face; Blair couldn’t remember his name, but knew him as one of Leguia’s retinue. “Put down your weapons,” the man demanded in fluent, accented English.
“You first,” Jim retorted, eyeing the guns which were levelled at them from all directions.
The man’s eyes narrowed. “You are Ellison, yes? Carlos’ old buddy. Carlos will be pleased to see you. He will not be pleased, however, if you continue to threaten us.”
“Yeah, I bet,” Jim said. “Tell Carlos to ask nicely. In person.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. But then he raised a hand to his mouth and as his lips moved Blair realized that he was speaking into a device. Blair glanced quizzically at Jim, whose stance of alert threat had relaxed infinitesimally. Jim nodded, confirming Blair’s assumption, before murmuring, “It’s Leguia. He’s coming out.”
The stand-off continued for a few moments longer, until movement at the front of the house caught Blair’s eye. A figure approached, white suited, tall; the uneven scars Leguia bore on his tanned cheeks a reminder of the past he shared with Jim, and of his obligation to the man who had saved his life. “Ellison,” Leguia greeted as he neared. He motioned at the armed men surrounding them, who immediately lowered their weapons, then looked back at the two of them. “There is no need for those,” he said, gesturing toward their spears. “My men will not harm you.” He smiled. “Welcome back, gentlemen.”
“Carlos,” Jim greeted. He lowered his spear, resting the butt of it on the ground, and Blair followed his lead although he continued to eyeball the men surrounding them suspiciously as Jim addressed Leguia. “What the hell is going on?”
Leguia shrugged. “I think you have been away far too long, if you are surprised that my property is well defended. But of course as soon as Emiliano recognized you he called me, and of course here I am. It is good to see you, my friend.”
“Likewise,” Jim said, but he remained aloof, the tension thrumming through him easily transferring itself to Blair and adding to his own. “But you didn’t answer my question.” Jim nodded pointedly at the men who were stood around in hostile silence. “You expecting company? Besides us?”
But Leguia’s smile did not abate, nor did he answer the question. “Come,” he beckoned. “We will talk inside.” And turning his back on them, he strode away towards the house. The men surrounding them parted to let them through and, after a moment during which they exchanged a long look, Jim and Blair followed.
Blair was thrumming with anxiety by the time they stepped over the threshold, which was guarded by more unsmiling men who watched them closely as they entered. Leguia paused to speak briefly to one of his domestic staff (eavesdropping shamelessly Blair heard something about food and a room), after which they followed Leguia into his study. Blair glanced around as the door closed behind them, leaving the three of them alone. Leguia’s inner sanctum seemed to Blair to be like the man himself: richly furnished without being ostentatious, and with the likelihood of dire secrets concealed within its depths.
Jim easily sensed Blair’s mood. “Easy, Chief,” he murmured. “Take a breath.” Nodding shortly Blair attempted to do what Jim advised, steadying his breathing and trying consciously to let go of physical tension born of imminent fight or flight. He wanted to believe they were safe but he had never liked Leguia and trusted him even less, despite Jim’s inexplicable friendship with the man.
Leguia, Blair was well aware, didn’t think much of him in return. After one dismissive glance he had fixed his gaze on Jim, something in his expression (Blair uncharitably considered to himself) not very far from hero-worship.
“What’s going on, Carlos?” Jim asked, once the door was closed and the three of them were alone.
Leguia smiled. “Not everything is about you, Ellison,” he said. “I have my own concerns right now. These have resulted, as you have seen, in a need for increased security here in my home and in my various holdings.”
“And the white noise?” Blair demanded. “What about that, huh?”
Leguia glanced at him. “It is a private matter,” he said. He looked back at Jim. “You are not the only sentinel in the world, Ellison.”
“He’s the only sentinel in this room,” Blair retorted. “So how about this, huh? If we’re safe here, and you’re not trying to hide something from us, how about you switch it off?”
Leguia barely spared Blair a glance. “Do you trust me, Ellison?” he asked, his eyes fixed on Jim.
There was silence for a moment, then Jim nodded. “Yes.”
Blair had to stifle an urge to punch something. “Jim, what the hell?”
But Jim held up a hand in a pacifying gesture. “Carlos is my friend, Chief,” he said. “It’s okay.”
“I thought,” Leguia noted, watching their exchange, “that when you left here you were going to find a cure for your guide’s great trauma. But I see he is just as unwell.”
Blair gawped at him; Leguia’s words were not coming from any place of concern, that was for sure. But before he could respond, Jim huffed a laugh. “Carlos, I love you. But if you don’t stop baiting Blair, I’ll throw you through the fucking window.”
Leguia’s face broke into a grin, and he threw his head back in laughter. “Oh man, Ellison. That is rich.”
“I’ll do it. You know I will.” Jim was smiling too; but Blair could easily discern the edge to Jim’s humor. He wasn’t playing; not completely. Blair straightened up a little, reassured that despite Jim’s bizarre attachment to this asshole, he was still in Blair’s corner. “And stop changing the subject,” Jim went on. “I’ve been here before, more than once. I know you take security seriously. But I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Leguia’s laughter had died away, although a grin still played on his lips. “My business interests, as no doubt you are aware, are extensive and occasionally involve risk.” He shrugged. “Times change, and I must adapt. I have a new business partner, whose need for privacy is acute. I am happy to facilitate.”
“Anything I can do to help?” Jim asked.
“I appreciate the offer, my friend. But no, this is something I have under control. All will be well.” He smiled again: a shark’s grin, to Blair’s less-than-sympathetic eyes. “And now, a question from me. What brings you back here? You have not travelled many days for a trivial reason, I assume.”
“No,” Jim said, all humor fled. “Not trivial at all.” And Blair listened, feeling his grief and anger rise once again as Jim gave him a brief precis of the desecration of the forest and the massacre of the Chopec.
“And now,” Leguia surmised, as Jim concluded, “You have come to ask for help, yes?”
“Yes,” Jim confirmed. He glanced at Blair, then back at Leguia. “We thought, if there was a way to publicize what is happening, make it a big news story, then maybe we could put a stop to it.”
Leguia pursed his lips, nodding. After a moment’s thoughtful silence he said, “I see the sense in that. I will think on it, Ellison. We shall discuss this further. But right now, I am sure you are tired after your long journey. My people are preparing a room for you; it is the same one you were in before. Go there, rest, bathe. I will have food sent in. Sleep as long as you wish. Tomorrow morning I will supply you with clothes,” he pointedly eyed their tribal attire and the spears they still held as he spoke, “and put my barber at your disposal. My physician too. After that, we will talk about what can be done to put right this terrible wrong.” As he spoke he rose and opened the door, indicating for them to pass through it.
“Just tell me one thing first,” Jim said, pausing on the threshold. “The oil company. Of all the places in the world they could be from, they’re based in Cascade. It can’t be coincidence that they’re here.”
“Like I said, my friend,” Leguia answered. “Not everything is about you.” But for the first time since they’d arrived he looked troubled. “Rest assured I will look into it. I am not pleased that my country is being ravaged in such a way by a foreign corporation.” He indicated with his arm that they should progress through the door. “Take this night to rest and recover from your long trek. Tomorrow I will answer all your questions and tell you what has occurred in your absence. Have trust in me, you are safe here.”
Jim nodded and took Blair by the arm, steering him toward the big staircase in the hall. But before they set foot on the first step he turned around and stopped. After casting his eyes around the expanse of the hallway, he looked pointedly at Leguia. “We need privacy,” he said simply.
Leguia nodded shortly. “You shall have it.”
Jim regarded Leguia silently for a long moment. As the seconds ticked-by Blair stirred a little in his grasp, his heart beginning to pound faster and faster as he wondered worriedly whether Jim had zoned. Zones had been such a rare occurrence during Jim’s time in the jungle that Blair had hardly ever had to guide him out of one. But Jim interrupted Blair’s increasingly frantic train of thought by once again addressing Leguia. “Thank you, Carlos,” he said, seemingly satisfied with whatever he had sensed. “See you tomorrow.” Then he steered Blair to walk beside him up the stairs.
“What was that all about?” Blair asked in a murmur.
“Not here,” Jim answered shortly, and Blair subsided.
Once in the room that had been provided to them Jim held up a hand for quiet, and methodically scanned it with his senses. He found two cameras - one in the bathroom, one in the bedroom - and three listening devices. He ripped them all out and showed them to Blair before putting them in the sink in the bathroom and covering them in water from the faucet.
“Privacy, huh?” Blair said scornfully.
Jim shrugged. “I don’t know if those things were actually operational. I trust Carlos to keep his word; mostly. But I’m not taking the chance that one of his staff might go against orders and get curious about what sentinels and guides get up to in their private time.”
“Did that happen when we were here before?” Blair hated the thought. “Were they watching us like that, with hidden cameras?”
Jim shook his head. “Not in this room, no. But from what I sensed in the rest of this place just now, every room and hallway we passed through has been fitted with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment. Carlos always had some, but he’s gone way overboard since we were last here. Most of the stuff, like those things,” he waved toward the bathroom where the disabled devices were submerged, “is brand new. With that and the white noise, there’s something going on here, something that’s gotten him spooked enough to monitor every square inch of space.”
“Oh, man.” Blair looked at Jim worriedly. “Can you hear anything from downstairs?”
Jim frowned, trying, but shook his head. “The white noise generators are still on. It’s really dense, I can’t get through it.”
Blair had a bad feeling about this whole situation. “Are you sure we’re safe here? Maybe we should leave.”
“We’re as safe here as anywhere, Chief,” Jim said pragmatically. “And we need Carlos’ help to protect the tribe. We might as well do as he says and make ourselves comfortable in the meantime. What other choice do we have?”
None at all, Blair understood. Their single other sanctuary was under threat from an oil company, and they had nowhere else to go.
As they relaxed together in the huge bathtub a short while later, Jim’s eyes closed and an expression of sensuous bliss on his face as the hot water lapped around him, Blair found it hard to entirely let go of his watchfulness. Which was how it should be, of course: while the sentinel rested, the guide kept watch. But it was a long time since they had been able to take advantage of such luxury, and despite his need to stand sentry Blair felt much of his tension ebb away along with Jim’s as the minutes passed.
They toweled each other dry and, wrapped in soft bathrobes, made their way to the bed. A knock at the door heralded, as Jim’s sensory sweep confirmed before he opened it, the arrival of food. Thus it was, clean and sated and reclining on a bed softer than anything Blair could remember for a very long time, so accustomed was he to sleeping in the jungle, that one thing led to another, and soon he and Jim were making out lazily.
They’d never had anything like this in their time together; not really. A soft bed, and the leisure to explore and arouse each other in relative safety, such as it was. A pang of grief hit Blair at the thought, even in the midst of their passion, a sense of loss at what could never be, and Jim instantly responded, soothing him wordlessly in shared understanding. They were so in-tune with each other, it took Blair’s breath away.
Blair had never foreseen that a Bond could be like this, back in the days when he’d worked so hard to keep his nature hidden while striving to do the same for others. He’d never imagined that it could be such an intense, affirming merging of souls. Momentary grief forgotten, Blair immersed himself in the ecstasy of their mutual bliss, embracing Jim through their deep link with everything that he was.
Afterward, sated in more ways than one, they lay together in peace, resting and sleeping turn and turnabout as was their habit in times of danger.