The Blair Witch Project
Author's disclaimer: Don't own 'em, haven't won the lottery either. Life is unfair.
Ivy checked her watch as she hurried up the steps of the imposing but architecturally-challenged building. As she pulled open the heavy glass door, she decided there should be plenty of time to find the auditorium and center herself before the presentation. The last thing she wanted to do was come across as flighty or undependable-not with this crowd. Getting them to take her seriously was going to be an uphill battle as it was. She put on her best professional face as she strode confidently through the large lobby, feeling like a sturdy little kayak in a vast blue ocean that moved and murmured around her. Spotting the elevators, she headed toward them, only to slow and then stop at the sound of a familiar voice. It couldn't be, not here...
All around her were men and women dressed in uniform, standing upright as obelisks, pressed and polished to a shine. Scattered among them were a few people in street clothes, but they had the same upright stance and radiated alertness. Here and there, like inclusions in rock, were others like herself-clearly not of this fraternity--or sorority, these days--but here on some purpose related to it. Ivy had almost decided she'd imagined the voice after all (an interesting possibility in itself) when it came again.
"Jim, Fred's just about the best mechanic on earth; I know he can do something with the Volvo. It'll be out of the shop any day now."
"And if it isn't? I've been able to give you a ride the last couple of days, but you can't depend on that indefinitely. If I get called out on a big case, my time's not my own, you know that. For Pete's sake, Blair--if you don't want to take on the obligation of paying for a new car, we can rent one, at least until you graduate."
"OK, I admit even a Cadet's salary is more than I've ever made before, but I'm still not sure I can afford--"
"But we can. And don't tell me that--"
"Blair? Blair Sandburg?"
Ivy watched in amazement as the unfamiliar man with the familiar voice turned around to face her. Those eyes and lips could belong to no one else; nor could the voice, but the short hair and the blue uniform were certainly no part of her memories. It hadn't been that long, not really, but obviously much had changed. She looked more carefully at the new depths in the blue eyes, and the fine lines around them. Much more than the outer trappings had changed.
"Ivy! I can't believe it! It's great to see you again!"
Blair opened his arms to the young woman, inviting her to be a party to one of his energetic and uninhibited hugs. Ivy's arms opened too, almost without volition, and she moved toward Blair. Suddenly a sharp voice stopped her like a wall.
"Watch it, Chief! Wrinkles!" Blair stopped too, and dropped his arms.
The voice was surprisingly compelling, especially considering how well she was armored against such things. She stopped and stared at the tall, spare man standing next to Blair. On the outside, he looked like many of the police officers she encountered in her work, if more attractive than most. But those eyes...something else, something more, lived inside there too. What had she missed? What had been going on since she'd last seen Blair Sandburg? And what the hell did wrinkles have to do with anything?
"Sorry, Ivy." Blair laughed sheepishly, correctly interpreting the look on her face. "Jim's talking about the uniform. Inspection's in about fifteen minutes, and I've got to look all spit-and-polish. Oh, and this is my friend, Detective Jim Ellison. Jim, this is Ivy Davies, an old friend back to my undergrad days."
Ivy extended her hand to the muscled obelisk. "Old enough to be concerned at that 'wrinkles' warning, but I get it now. Part of it anyway. Wanting to avoid a mussed-up uniform at inspection time, I can understand. Finding the Blair Sandburg I knew as a cadet in the Police Academy will need a lot more explaining."
She'd said it lightly, but could feel both men tense as soon as the words left her mouth. The sculpted column of granite named Jim got even more rigid, if that were possible. Blair touched the small of his friend's back lightly, and the older man relaxed fractionally. Then Blair turned to her.
"Ivy, have you been out of touch for a while? Out of the country or something?"
"How did you know that? Have you turned psychic since I saw you last? Your mother must be really pleased." She'd meant it as a joke, but Blair wasn't laughing. He wasn't even smiling. "I was in the British equivalent of the boondocks from April to the beginning of September. I just went back to work this month."
"How did you talk them into letting you miss the first few weeks of school? And where are you teaching now, in Cascade?"
"I did move back to Cascade recently, but...actually, I gave up teaching a few years ago."
Blair looked distressed. "Not because of--"
Ivy shook her head. "No, at least not directly. I decided to go to grad school for my MSW. I'm a therapist now." She looked at her watch. "And I'm due to meet some colleagues in about ten minutes to review a presentation we're doing at eight. I wish we could catch up but I've really got to go. I hope room 276 isn't too hard to find."
"Piece of cake. Turn right when you get off the elevator, it's the second door on the left. Are you part of the presentation on minority religions? I'll be in the audience. Jim, have you got a card?"
Ivy watched as Jim handed Blair a business card and a pen. "If that was supposed to make me relax, it's not working. You probably know more about the topic than most of the presenters. You should be teaching the thing."
The sudden emotional wave was so palpable she almost flinched. Blair was writing on the card, eyes downcast. His hand stilled for a fraction of a second, then continued writing. Jim's face had lost its polite mask. He looked at his smaller friend with a complex mixture of guilt and pain and...tenderness? Then his gaze rose to meet hers with a split-second of blazing anger, quickly banked...but that split-second was enough to make her heart rate and breathing speed up in what she recognized as a classic fight-or-flight reaction. What had she said, or done, to anger a man she'd just met? A simple greeting to an old friend had somehow turned into a stroll through a war zone. She didn't know who was fighting, or which side she was supposed to be on, or who were the good guys or the bad. The only thing that was clear was the fact that the battlefield had been mined.
"That's our address and home phone number on the back. We really need to get together and catch up. This week is a little hairy; I've got a whole bunch of practicals coming up. Maybe the week after?"
"Sure-I'll call you. Nice meeting you, Jim." Ivy gave a little farewell wave and turned toward the elevators, remembering how her grandmother had always said it was a sin to tell a lie. Halfway to her destination, she turned back for another look at Blair, almost afraid she'd dreamed that odd meeting. She was just in time to see the two men part, Jim straightening Blair's tie a millimeter or two, Blair giving a Jim a little mock salute as he turned away. Ivy's eyes widened as they caught a shimmer in the air, which grew fainter but never disappeared. Soon Blair was lost to her sight, just another wave in the sea of cadets moving toward the assembly room. Jim continued to watch, almost as if he could still see him.
Date: October 13, 1999
Subject: What's Up with Blair Sandburg?
I only went to Scotland and Ireland and Wales for a few months and I feel like I've been on the moon with the communications link fried. I ran into an old friend today who I hadn't seen in a few years, Blair Sandburg. Somehow he'd morphed from what I assumed would be a Ph.D. or at least an ABD in anthro by now, to a cadet in the Police Academy. If you don't know Blair you won't know how odd that seems. There was this cop with him named Ellison who makes Clint Eastwood look effusive. I seemed to keep putting my foot in something, and Ellison glared at me like I was a child molester or puppy-killer or worse. I know you're not in anthro, but at least you're in the same college...if you know anything, take pity. Blair said he wants to get together next week, but I can't wait that long to find out what's going on. Besides, I'm not going near him or that Jim again without being armed. Help!
Date: October 13, 1999
Subject: Re: What's Up with Blair Sandburg
I hadn't realized you knew Blair...what a small world. Don't tell me he was one of the "expert witnesses" you dug up for your hearing? That explains a lot about the outcome. He may cultivate that 60s-meets-Generation-X look, but I've always suspected that was mostly protective coloration, like Peter Wimsey's "upper-class twit of the year" routine. He's tougher than he looks, sharp as a tack and can talk the hind leg off a donkey in several languages when he has to. BTW, I know you read mysteries, although I can't remember if you read the older classics. If not, that brilliant Peter Wimsey simile will be totally lost on you.
You certainly picked an interesting time to be absent from Cascade, kiddo. And I mean "interesting" in the Chinese-curse sense. There is a lot more to this than I can tell you by email, even if I were a much faster typist. There are also some videos you need to see. I got copies of them originally to use in my Journalism Ethics class, but I don't think I will after all. I didn't know Blair well, but well enough to feel uncomfortable with the idea of displaying his pain to the masses, even for educational purposes.
Look, I'm attaching some HTML files I downloaded from Lexis/Nexis-some of the more comprehensive articles from the Cascade and Seattle papers. There were a lot more, from all over, but I don't want to overwhelm you-and frankly, a lot of them aren't fit for fish wrap. I'm glad you asked me about this, because I've suspected from the beginning there was a lot more to this story than ever got told. For anyone who knows Blair, even slightly, there's enough of what you psych types call "cognitive dissonance" attached to this whole situation to sink a battleship.
Why don't you come over for dinner tonight, assuming you don't mind Chinese out of cartons? Lou is out of town on a consulting job, so it'll be just us gals. How does 6:30 sound?
Department of Journalism & Mass Communications
Cascade, WA 98195
Date: October 13, 1999
Subject: Dinner It Is!
6:30 is fine with me. I'll be there with bells on, and maybe a bottle of wine. I have this feeling I may need it...after looking at those articles I'm not sure I can bear to see the tapes.
Date: October 13, 1999
Subject: Re: Dinner & Alcohol
Bring two bottles. Bring a change of clothes, too and you can stay here overnight. That way we can get as blotto as we want and I won't need to worry about someone in your condition taking public transportation. You know, I didn't realize until your email how much this whole Sandburg situation has continued to bother me. Maybe tonight will be therapeutic. I hope so.
Jim parked the truck across the street from the front door of the Cascade Police Academy. That's what he should have done this morning. He really wasn't doing Blair any favors by letting them be seen together, not after the whole Sentinel fiasco. No sense in reminding people, even if the Academy was turning out to be less problematic for Blair than Jim had feared. Thank God Cascade was as big as it was, with such an impressive range and variety of crime. He never thought he'd hear himself say that, but it was largely Cascade's dubious reputation for an untoward amount of experience with the criminal element that made its Police Academy the regional one for the whole Cascade-Seattle-Tacoma area. Which meant its classes were huge, and one disgraced but disguised ex-academic could lose himself in the crowd.
He wasn't even the only Sandburg in the class, although the other two were an athletic young woman from Tacoma who was a Sandburg by marriage, and a tall skinny guy with a yarmulke who was destined for forensics. Blair had managed to meet both of them the first day, find out their life histories and ambitions, and claim them, jokingly, as long-lost relatives. If they weren't happy about sharing a surname with a notorious fraud, they sure weren't saying so.
Of course, that could be due to the other phenomenon Jim had noticed. The Sandburg fraud story had undergone an interesting metamorphosis from the hell of those first days. The frighteningly efficient grapevine of the Cascade PD began circulating a more Sandburg-friendly version of the story even before the kid had come in to clear out his stuff and been offered a shield instead. Somehow the media and Rainier had become the villains, and Blair the plucky Observer who had sided with the cops instead of the intellectual establishment and suffered for it, sacrificing his career for the good of Major Crime and in service to their need to stop a serial murderer. Zeller's attempted massacre of the whole damn Division had been the clincher. The media had backpedaled furiously, as the families and friends of those injured and killed reminded them loudly that if it hadn't been for their interference, the PD would've caught Zeller before he caused that last orgy of damage. It became Princess Di and the paparazzi all over again. Jim often wondered how much Simon and others from major Crime had had to do with it all-even though some had been confined to hospital beds at the time.
Blair had gotten uncomfortable about the anti-intellectual and bash-the-media overtones of the whole thing, but the revised story fit so neatly with the prejudices of the average cop it soon became the official underground version at the PD, and from there it migrated to the Academy. Jim didn't give a rat's ass for the reputation of the University or the press; he was happy for anything that made Blair's new life easier. Sure, there were those who griped about the punk kid with tarnished integrity jumping the queue to Detective and skipping the usual three years walking a beat. In Jim's opinion, the gripers were mostly the ones who couldn't have made it to Detective themselves with divine intervention. Blair'd been a better detective within a month or two than most of that dead wood could ever be. Jim wished now he'd actually said that to his partner at the time. But then, he wished he'd done a lot of things differently in the last few years.
Police departments all over the country were hurting for recruits. One of the side effects of a healthy economy--fewer people willing to risk getting their asses shot off for less money than they could make sitting in front of a computer in some nice clean industrial park. Big surprise. So the brass was willing to grasp at anything that would get them an educated cop with actual (if unpaid) experience and an impressive (if unacknowledged, for insurance purposes) record of courage and quick thinking under fire. With his astonishing gift for making lemonade when life inundated him with lemons, Blair was throwing himself wholeheartedly into his Academy training. It was so familiar to see him hunched over books night after night, but so weird that they were books on criminal law and police procedure and gun care, instead of ethnographies and anthropology journals.
So the kid was doing all right, better than anyone expected. The last thing he needed was mother-hen Ellison walking him to school and straightening his tie, for Chrissake. What had possessed him to do that? The kid didn't need any excuses for some asshole to hassle him, no matter how good he was at deflecting the few jerks who'd tried. Jim's eyes zeroed in on the Academy doors as a well-known stride, and voice, and heartbeat combined to tell him Blair was close. And the poor guy didn't need smartass Ellison thinking of him as a kid, Jim admitted to himself as he watched the familiar/unfamiliar man that walked down the Academy steps, exchanging opinions with his fellow cadets about the day's events. He was older by a decade or more than a lot of them, but with the short curly hair and that face-at first glance he almost looked too young to have sex legally. To anyone who'd known the bouncy, hyperactive grad student he'd been years ago, though, there was a noticeable change. How could there not be? Nearly four years of blood and death and sacrifice--too much of it his own--had to leave a mark. The surprising thing was not that he'd changed, but that he hadn't changed more.
There remained a brightness deep inside, like a jewel in the core of a geode, that nothing seemed able to extinguish. Without realizing it, Jim stopped breathing for a moment as Blair spotted the truck, and smiled, and all that brightness was suddenly focused on him. Then the light changed, and a wave of cadets flooded the intersection, momentarily eclipsing his friend's face. Jim started to breathe again. He leaned over to unlock the door and push it open just as Blair arrived with his usual pile of books and notes. Not too different from any number of similar scenes at Rainier over the last few years, except the notes were now tucked neatly into folders instead of stuck every which way into books and backpack and pockets. Was this a permanent change, Jim wondered, or temporary adaptation to the customs of the country? When Blair was his partner again, would his desk maintain this strange habit of neatness, or would the new Detective revert to more typically Sandburgian chaos?
When Blair was his partner again...he wanted that so bad it almost scared him. It had been Purgatory in Major Crime the last few months. A funeral, hospital visits, no one even trying to pretend it was business as usual. He and Joel had endured weeks of working with substitutes they didn't know very well, as their friends recovered one by one. Rafe had been approved for regular duty within days; with Megan and Simon it had taken weeks, months. He'd prayed he wouldn't zone out until Megan was approved for field duty--although even if he'd done it with Joel or Rafe or H around, they would have covered. They weren't stupid, any of them, and they were damn loyal. Still, working without Blair was like working with his hands tied.
"So, Beaver, what did you learn today?"
"Gee, Wally, I learned that 'beaver' means something besides a small semi-aquatic mammal, and its other meaning is kind of dirty. Why do you think Mom and Dad named me after pubic hair?"
An unidentifiable sound issued from Jim, something between choking and laughing. Recovering eventually, he turned briefly to smile at his partner, then moved his eyes back to the road. "Sounds like the Academy's changed quite a bit since my day."
Blair leaned back and stretched. "Actually, I learned lots about the use of the police decoy in Vice. Thank God for a heavy beard. It's probably the only thing that kept somebody at the PD from finding an excuse to put me in a dress."
"Yeah, the department wouldn't even have had to spring for a wig. Do you miss it?"
"I did at first--the back of my neck felt cold all the time, even in the summer. And I kept passing a mirror and wondering who that other guy was who'd moved in with us. I'm kinda used to it now, and it's sure a lot less trouble to take care of, for a poor cadet who has to drag himself out of bed at an ungodly hour five days a week." Blair combed the short curls with his fingers. "I haven't had long hair all my life, you know. I often cut it short, or at least shorter, for any major field expeditions. Hard to get decent conditioner in the jungle."
"So you think you'll keep it that way?"
Blair didn't answer for a minute, his eyes fixed on Jim's profile. Since the press conference, the Great Stone Face had a much harder time maintaining its unreadable faade around a certain ex-anthropologist. "I dunno, Jim," Blair said softly. "Do you miss it?"
The stone softened, and shifted, and took on a slightly rosy hue. Sound came out of it, rough as if ground between rocks. "Yeah."
Blair looked away. "I figure I'll let it grow back, if only to make a statement." He began fiddling with his shoulder belt, twisting the strap. "I'm past the halfway point now. I've been in the Academy long enough to know I can do this. I know I can be a cop, a good one."
Blair looked toward Jim again and smiled, his hands stilled. "But not a typical one. And I can hardly wait to be your partner again. I miss it like you wouldn't believe."
Jim put on the brakes as the traffic light ahead of them blinked yellow, then red. He turned to the man beside him, feeling an almost physical force tying them together as their eyes met. "Oh, I'd believe, Chief. I'd believe."
An angry honk behind them made Jim wince, both from the assault to his senses and the realization that he and Blair had been sitting there staring at each other long enough for the light to turn green. He wasn't sure whether he should be angry with the impatient motorist or grateful to him. He had the definite sense of having been snatched from a precipice, one he'd been standing on the edge of for a long time. Whether the plunge would lead to his death or sent him flying, he didn't know...and couldn't quite screw up the courage to find out.
He tried to shatter the pulsing silence that filled the truck, but his throat was too dry. He grabbed for the water bottle wedged beside the seat and took a long drink, driving one-handed through the thickening traffic. "So," he finally got out, "who was that woman that came up to you this morning?"
"Someone who lied through her teeth when she said she was glad to meet you," Blair replied. "You can't jump down the throat of everyone who makes some innocent remark that reminds me of something painful. When Ivy travels, she sticks to the back roads. I don't think the story got much past major cities abroad; I'm sure she had no idea what happened."
"Sounds like you know her pretty well," Jim remarked, both hands tight on the wheel now. Were you two--"
"Jim," Blair interrupted, "the number of my ex-lovers has been greatly exaggerated, and not by me. I blame H and Rafe, mostly." Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the man beside him as the muscles in his hands and arms softened, and his death grip on the steering wheel loosened. "Ivy's a friend, a good one. She's two years older than me. She majored in psych, and we took some classes together when I was getting my minor. She was a true woman of courage, to befriend the sixteen-year-old Blair Sandburg. I was geeky beyond belief."
"So how did her presentation go? Something about minority religions--is she Jewish? Somehow Ivy Davies doesn't sound like it. Or is she a Baha'i or something like that?"
"No, Jim. She's a witch."
"Ivy! Thank the goddess you weren't here any earlier. I just beat you by five minutes."
"Let's see--students complaining about grades?"
Jan took her friend's bag and motioned her to follow down the hall. "I wish. Interminable faculty meeting, with that windbag Engleman blathering on about how all this focus on the Internet was undermining our great traditions of journalism education. Translation, nobody is signing up for his classes because he's such a boring old fossil."
"Makes me glad I decided not to go the academic route. Although there are fossils in every line of work."
"True enough. Forget about work. Did you bring something to schlep around in? Let's get out of our professional clothes and then we can nuke the dinner."
Cartons of mu shu pork, broccoli with bean curd, and kung pao chicken were polished off over desultory conversation about mutual friends. Both seemed intent on avoiding serious discussion for the moment. Finally the last grain of rice was gone and the dishes loaded in the dishwasher. Jan poured the remains of the first bottle of wine into two glasses, then rose to rummage around in a large video storage cabinet. When she returned, she handed her friend a tape with a hand-lettered label: "Sentinel Coverage May/June 1999."
Ivy took it with obvious reluctance. "I hope I can stand this. Reading about what happened to someone you care about was bad enough, but seeing it..."
Jan sank into the sofa. "Before you do, maybe you can tell me more about meeting Blair at the Academy, and about your take on the whole thing. I didn't know him well, just by reputation and to say hello to. How does this strike someone who was actually a friend?"
Sipping wine gave the other woman an excuse not to speak at first. When she put the wineglass down, she stared at it for some time. "I would have bet my athame that Blair Sandburg would have been the last person on earth to falsify research."
"Well, technically, he never presented it as true to Rainier, except for his first chapter. My spies in anthro tell me that was like most first chapters, largely a literature review. But what a literature review--it was huge, and included some of the most esoteric references you could imagine. It would have been easy to believe he made a lot of it up...but one of my more anal colleagues got his hands on a copy and started spot-checking. It's been the research challenge of a lifetime, but so far every one he's managed to track down has checked out."
Ivy shook her head. "Blair's always had a great imagination. It's one of the things that made him a brilliant student, and a great teacher. He could see patterns in things no one else noticed, or could carry through a line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, no matter how far-fetched. But he always tempered that with a lot of scientific rigor." Ivy smiled. "If you'd ever met his mother, you'd know why that kind of discipline is so important to him. Even if he could have found the time to write a fictionalized version of his dissertation, he'd have clearly identified it as such. So clearly that Naomi wouldn't have sent it to her publisher friend as anything but fiction."
"You make him sound like George Washington."
Ivy laughed. "Only where his research is concerned. I used to be on his case all the time about his tendency to assure each of his romantic conquests that he or she was the only one."
Jan's eyes narrowed. "He or she?"
"Well, mostly she. But Blair always did have eclectic tastes, whether in music or food or people. And he never had any relationship--at least when I knew him--that you could call really serious. So the little 'obfuscations' as he called them, didn't really hurt anyone. He only played with people who knew the rules of the game." Ivy sighed. "He's the master of the little white lie for social purposes, or in the service of a good cause. He once told me I looked good as a blonde."
Wincing, Jan filled her friend's glass again. "Well, that was a kindness on his part--that was by far one of the worst decisions you ever made. Was he convincing?"
"Almost made me believe it myself." Ivy leaned forward, elbows on knees, suddenly serious. "Do you know anything about this Jim Ellison? This supposed 'Sentinel?' How long has Blair known him?"
"What makes you think I know?"
"Oh, give me a break. You have contacts that would make the CIA jealous. If you gave up teaching and went back to reporting full-time, you'd have the Pulitzer in your hand before the rest of us could say 'Watergate.' So give."
Jan raised her hands in surrender. "OK, so I do have a contact or two in the Cascade PD. The background stuff in the articles is essentially true--Army Ranger, MIA for eighteen months, divorced. Cop of the Year because of an exceptional arrest-and-conviction rate, including some high-profile cases that the political types were paying attention to. He's had a great record ever since transferring to the Major Crime division--but the interesting thing is, after one Blair Sandburg began riding along as his observer, it got noticeably better."
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't three years as a ride-along unusual?"
"Unusual, hell. It's unprecedented, and against regs. They were supposedly doing a special favor for a grad student studying the Cascade PD as a closed society."
"Not Sentinels. And said grad student was not only riding along with Ellison but living with him since his own place was totaled by the explosion of a drug lab next door. That was well over three years ago. Almost four."
"Blair wrote to me about moving. Didn't mention that part. What do the other cops think about this arrangement? There must be talk..."
"Sure, but Ellison has a reputation as someone you don't mess with. In fact, he was more feared and respected than liked, before Blair came along. A lot of people are too happy at the civilizing effect Blair seems to have on the guy to want to rock the boat. Besides, your friend has cut quite a swath through the younger female employees of the PD, and Ellison was married. So there's less of that talk than you'd think. Besides, Cascade is a pretty liberal place, like Seattle. Public employees even have a domestic partner registry. Even if it were true, it wouldn't be that big a deal--except to some of those fossils that the PD surely has."
Ivy sat back in the depths of the well-upholstered chair, turning the tape in her hands. Then her hands suddenly stilled and she thrust it at Jan. "Play it. Please."
The two women sat without speaking, eyes fixed on the flickering images of Blair and Jim walking out of their home and getting into a blue-and-white truck. The shock on both faces was clearly caught by the camera, followed by fear and pain on Blair's, and anger on Ellison's. Shorter scenes followed--William Ellison slamming a door in the face of a film crew, Stephen Ellison running the gauntlet on his way into an office building, his only response a series of curt "no comments." A series of well-made-up talking heads quickly succeeded each other, building huge towers of speculation on the flimsiest of foundations. A longer section after this battle of the anchors showed a union rally, the mob of reporters suddenly pursuing Ellison like some exotic variety of wild animal. The scene degenerated into further chaos as shots rang out. Then the tape stopped.
"What gives, Jan? I know there's more...although I can understand if you're embarrassed at the behavior of your fellow journalists."
"Thank the gods none were ever students of mine." She looked at the carpet, as if searching for useful words that might be lying there. "The next part is the press conference. I didn't send you any articles that covered it because I wanted you to see it for yourself, not filtered through some reporter's interpretation. I just wanted to warn you, because if you're a friend of Blair's this might be hard to take."
Ivy nodded sharply. "Play it."
Jan had seen it before, and it had gotten only marginally easier with time. Unless you were a sadist, it was a hard thing to watch. She stole a glance sideways at her friend, who sat rigidly, staring at the television screen as if afraid to blink. When the press conference ended, Jan pressed the "stop" button for the last time.
"There's plenty of coverage on this tape of the aftermath, but frankly, it's not much more than character assassination. The media hate being fooled, or made to look like idiots. It was their own damn fault for being so credulous, but of course they weren't about to admit that. Easier to blame it on poor Sandburg."
Ivy rose and walked across the room to stand at an oak table against the north wall. It held a bowl of autumn flowers and wheat stalks, flanked by a white candle on the left and a deep golden one on the right. A beautiful ceramic dish held what looked like salt, and a small incense burner scented the air with sandalwood. She breathed deeply, taking in the scent of flowers and incense, willing herself to calm. Then she returned to her chair. "Do you have any spring water? I need something pure after that."
Jan nodded, and disappeared into the kitchen, returning with two chilled bottles. "Now you see why I don't want to use the thing in my classes. I'm sorry you to had to see that, but it's necessary if you want to avoid saying something that might cause Blair further pain."
Ivy took a long drink of the water. "Jan, I'm going to speak to you now not just as a friend, but a sister in the Craft, and a fellow coven member...bound by a vow of secrecy."
Her friend looked startled, but nodded slowly. "So bound."
"Before today, I would have said I'd never seen Blair lie about anything important. Well, I just did. At that press conference."
"Great Goddess-you realize what you're saying?"
"That the press conference was the lie, not the dissertation--which makes Sentinels real, and Jim Ellison a living example."
Jan stood up abruptly and began to pace around the room. "The enhanced senses are hard enough to swallow, but there's a whole mystical side to this. If the Blair you knew was such a stickler for scientific method, how can that be part of his story? Surely that would have to be fiction."
Ivy reached into the pocket of her sweater and pulled out a small silk packet. "For the Blair I knew, I'd have to agree with you. But the Blair I saw today--something's changed in him. Something profound. There's power in him. Familiar, but different."
"Well, you've always been better at picking up that sort of thing than anyone I know. What about Ellison?"
"Oh, there's definitely something there too. Strong, and complementary to the other. Look..." Ivy began unwrapping the silk. "You're better at psychometry than anyone in the group. This is Ellison's card, and Blair touched it and wrote on it. It's not the greatest substance to work on, I know. It's not all that personal, and metal would be better...but maybe you can pick up something. She held out her hand to the other woman, the card resting on her silk-covered palm.
Jan shrugged, and picked it up. Suddenly she gasped and went rigid. Astonished, Ivy could only stare at her friend, not noticing as the square of silk slipped from her hand to pool on the table. "Jan?" she whispered, more than a little frightened.
The older woman seemed to come to with a jerk of her body. She dropped the card at once, watching it flutter to the surface of the table to land on the pool of silk.
"Holy shit. And I mean that in the most reverent way."
"My Gods, what did you get? I've never seen you go...absent like that before."
"I never felt anything like that before. And I've never had a vision like that before either. I usually just sense things."
"A vision? An honest-to-Goddess vision?"
"Has to be. I didn't drink that much wine."
"What did you see?"
"A wolf running toward a black panther. The two of them merged, and there was this flash of light-Gods, it was beautiful, and powerful. I was afraid I was going to have the psychic equivalent of a short-circuit. Ivy, you're right...something is going on here."
"What kind of something? Did you get anything about that?"
"What you said about it being familiar--I felt that too."
Ivy took a deep breath. "Have you ever met a shaman? A real one?"
"Not that I know of."
"Well, I did. An old medicine man that Blair met on one of his local field studies...local meaning Pacific Northwest. Blair thought he was a great old guy, and he was. A walking repository of the lore of his people." Ivy smiled at the memory. "An anthropologist's dream, according to Blair."
"So you felt the old man's power--but how could it be familiar if you'd never met a shaman before then?"
"Well, some people think Wicca owes a lot to shamanism...that primitive shamanism is the precursor of all magical religions. So that kind of power would logically feel familiar to us. A family resemblance. I know it's a big step from studying shamans to becoming one, and maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree altogether, but--" Ivy broke off, surprised, as she felt Jan grip her arms.
"Ivy--did you know that Blair died?"
"It was a nine-day wonder on campus. Some woman involved with a PD case. The details aren't important, the point is, she tried to murder Blair. Succeeded, actually. The cops--Ellison included--found him face down in the fountain in front of Hargrove Hall. No heartbeat, no respiration. He was dead."
"But the paramedics brought him back, right?"
Jan decided to go back to wine, and downed a healthy mouthful. "Now that's the interesting part. The official story is just that. No big deal, right? Everybody's seen it lots of times on Rescue 911. Except there was this rumor on campus..."
Ivy reached for her own wineglass. "Rumor? You don't usually pay that much attention to rumors."
"That's all I thought it was at the time, but now...I heard it from Shelly, one of our TAs, who heard it from her brother, who heard it from his roommate, who was dating one of the paramedics. Shelly said the paramedics had given up on Blair, and that it was Ellison who brought him back. He refused to accept that Blair was dead. 'Freaked out' at the prospect, according to the paramedic in question."
"Well, that doesn't surprise me either, given what I've seen. And Ellison is a cop, after all; surely he knows CPR."
"Yes, and that's what he used at first. But...this is where it got so strange I dismissed it. Supposedly Ellison stopped that, and got all quiet, like he was listening to something that nobody else could hear. Then he put his hands on each side of Blair's face, and just stared at him. And then Blair came back to life."
Ivy stared. "Holy shit, indeed," she whispered. "A classic shamanic initiation--to be killed and magically reborn."
"Besides that, Blair recovered remarkably quickly for someone who'd been clinically dead with two lungfuls of water. No infection, no pneumonia--a medical miracle. And that I know is true, because he got in trouble with anthro again for an unscheduled trip to Peru right after. The man is dead, and then he pops up out of a hospital bed and travels five thousand miles."
Jan shook her head.
"You're not kidding."
"I know about the trip, because it came up twice last semester, and got Blair in trouble both times. He'd been skating on thin ice around here for a long time, because his University career seemed to be taking second place to his work on the PD. The dissertation fiasco wasn't so much an isolated incident as the last straw."
"That doesn't sound like the Blair I knew either. He was always conscientious about his work, especially his teaching."
"Well, he almost always managed to get a substitute, and a lot of his students were very supportive, especially the good ones, and the ones he'd helped with their problems. Everything I ever heard suggests he was a very caring teacher. Now, why would somebody like that blow off his teaching so often?"
"Because there was something else even more important, or..."
"Never mind. I want to see Blair again before I say any more." Ivy's head sunk onto her chest in contemplation. Silence reigned for a moment, broken only by the sound of the wind whipping the tips of tree branches against the windows.
"The spirits of the air are restless tonight," Jan said softly, staring out the window at the dark. "Ivy...that wasn't all I felt when I touched that card."
The other woman raised her head. "What? What else?"
Jan ran her hands through her long hair, letting it flow back onto her shoulders like a raven waterfall. "It's hard to describe. Something...something...wrong, somehow."
"You mean something evil? No way, Blair would never--"
Jan shook her head. "No, that's not what I meant at all. Not evil, just wrong somehow. Out of kilter, needing to be fixed...or finished. Incomplete in some way; not working right..." She threw up her hands. "I told you it was hard to put into words. I'm not doing very well."
"No, I think you're doing just fine. Actually, it fits in with a notion of mine."
"One you're going to share?"
"No. Not yet, anyway. Not until I've had my visit to Blair's. Which I can tell you right now is going to be sooner instead of later." Ivy rose and began collecting glasses. "I think I'm going to turn in early, if you don't mind. I have a lot to think about."
"Not at all. You've had quite a bit to absorb in a short time. And speaking of a lot to absorb, I have a large stack of papers waiting for me that will tell me how well my students are doing just that. Go ahead, I'll finish cleaning up."
"You sure? Well, OK. Thanks." With a little wave, Ivy turned and walked down the hall to the guest room.
Jan stood there for a long time, holding empty glasses and watching the space where her friend had been, while the wind whispered its secrets to the leaves of the trees.
Four days later, Ivy knocked on the door of 852 Prospect, #307. A much nicer neighborhood than Blair had ever lived in before, in her experience. The door was opened before the echoes of her knock faded, but not by Blair. Oh, great.
"Hello, Detective Ellison. Blair's expecting me..."
The door opened wide and Granite Man ushered her in, looking a little less monumental in soft jeans and a bulky green sweater. Like he needed bulk. He'd need a floor polisher to get any more buffed.
"Blair's been held up at the Academy, Ms. Davies. He tried to reach you but your office said you were out all afternoon."
He was being perfectly polite and reasonable, so why did she suddenly feel guilty? "I was on the road or with clients all afternoon, doing groups. I work a lot with young teenagers in our community clinics. I could come back later..."
"Blair asked me to entertain you until he got here. He'll be pissed off at me if you're gone. He'll never believe I didn't chase you away."
Well, well. The obelisk could smile a little after all. Made him look almost human. "Speaking of being pissed off, Detective, I think you and I got off on the wrong foot the other day--"
"Look, that was strictly my fault. Blair explained that you hadn't been around to hear about what happened to him at Rainier. I jumped to some unwarranted conclusions. Some of his so-called friends were pretty shitty to him after he became an inconvenient person to know, but I had no reason to assume you were one of those."
"No, you didn't. But I can see now how I put my foot into it without meaning to. I heard afterwards what happened, and I'm glad Blair has someone you like you to watch out for him. It says a lot for you that you're still his friend."
Ellison looked intensely uncomfortable, and suddenly seemed unable to look at her. "Um...would you like coffee or tea or something? Blair promised to bring dessert with him, but if I can get you something now..."
Ivy took pity. "Tea would be great. Does Blair still drink that Rainforest blend?"
"Yeah, he downs it by the quart. We always have plenty." Ellison escaped to the kitchen.
"Can I help?"
"No, thanks, I can handle it. Why don't you have a look around the place? If you haven't actually seen Blair in a while, he's probably acquired an artifact or two that's new to you."
Ivy laughed. "And he's probably given away a few to make up for it. He has the least attachment to stuff for stuff's sake of anyone I've ever known, with the possible exception of a Buddhist priest or two. He's always valued people more than things. Is he still that way?"
She looked toward the kitchen, where Ellison was studiously ignoring the warning that a watched pot never boils. She'd just about decided that the artifact that walked like a man had decided to treat it as a rhetorical question, when he answered, almost too quietly for her to hear.
"Yeah. He's still like that."
The water must have finally boiled after all, because Ellison was letting it cool a bit while he took three mugs out of the cupboard. That had to be Blair's influence. Maybe she was the one jumping to conclusions now, but it seemed unlikely that an ex-Ranger cop had managed, in the normal course of things, to learn that herb tea was too delicate to be properly brewed with boiling water. In fact, it was surprising that he was apparently planning to drink the stuff himself. Most of the cops she knew were donut-and-coffee men. He could just be a health nut--a reasonable conclusion, given that body--but somehow she doubted that explanation.
She continued her circuit of the room, looking at the art work on the walls, the artifacts on the shelves, and the books in the bookcase. Ethnographies up the wazoo, books on Latin America, Lord of the Rings in German, French, and what looked like several Slavic languages. Definitely Blair. Kerouac's On the Road...hmm. Could go either way. Sun-tsu, and The Art of the Warrior: Leadership and Strategy from the Chinese Military Classics: With Selections from the Seven Military Classics of Ancient Chin. That sure didn't sound like Blair. His interest tended toward the kind of warriors who used spears and blowpipes at best. She looked toward the kitchen. Apparently there was more to Detective Ellison than met the eye, more than the bulging muscles and the aura of power, power that had nothing to do with the muscles. It looked like he had a mind as well. If only she knew what kind of heart...
As the object of her speculation walked back into the living room and lowered a tray with the teapot and mugs onto the coffee table, Ivy reached a closed set of French doors. "Is this part of the tour?"
Ellison looked up, and quickly down again. "It's Blair's room." He seemed uncertain, fiddling with the cups unnecessarily. "I don't suppose he'd mind--"
"No, that's OK. I'll wait until he comes. If it's anything like his digs anywhere else, I'll need a tour guide anyway." She sat down in an upholstered chair and accepted a steaming mug.
"It's neater than it used to be, since--" He stopped, staring into his cup.
"Since he's been in the Academy?"
"Since he left Rainier. Since he got thrown out of Rainier. Most of his anthropology books and notes are still packed in boxes in the basement. He only kept what--" Ellison stopped suddenly to drink his tea. "He only kept a few things up here."
"Don't assume he'll never unpack the other, Detective. He's still an anthropologist, just not a Ph.D. There are a lot of people with a Master's in anthro working out there in the real world. I run into quite a few in social service agencies or advocacy groups. Being one in the Cascade PD isn't that much of a stretch."
"Most anthropologists don't work where they can get shot at."
"You haven't been in the average big-city social service agency in a while, have you?" Another smile-like twitch of the lips. A smileoid.
"You have a point. Especially in Cascade. But he'll be a Detective, not an anthropologist."
Ivy leaned back in the chair and crossed her legs. "Still, in a multicultural city like Cascade, a background studying human cultures can't help but be an advantage. Surely a detective comes across a lot of subcultures, and Blair was always interested in studying subcultures, especially marginalized ones...urban Native Americans, South American tribes being exploited by so-called civilization. He did a fascinating study as an undergrad on gay men living in rural areas." Oh, yes. Look at that jaw muscle twitch. "Minority religions are another interest of his."
"Ah, so he told you." Ivy tilted her head and looked into the blue eyes that regarded her calmly. "He must trust you not to get freaked out."
"After living with Sandburg as long as I have, it takes quite a bit to freak me out now."
Ivy laughed out loud. "Yeah, he has that effect on a person. So, it doesn't bother you to be sitting here serving tea to a witch?"
"I had the standard Sandburgian lecture on the history, antecedents and contemporary practitioners of Wicca before I could open my mouth to tell him I knew the difference between Wicca and Satanism. Does that surprise you?"
"Not every cop is a donut-chomping, nightstick swinging bigot; I do know that. I actually work with a lot of law enforcement agencies in my practice, and I've done presentations for a lot of them similar to the one I just did at the Academy. I haven't always been so lucky, though. I'll bet Blair never told you about testifying for me, did he?"
"Testifying? At a trial?"
"No, a hearing. I decided about halfway to my B.A. that I wanted to be an elementary school teacher, so I got my credential as well as my psych degree. After I graduated, I got a job in a smallish city in the western part of the state. I didn't see Blair much--I was busy with my new job and he was throwing himself into grad school, popping off on field expeditions whenever he had a chance. But we always kept in touch."
Ivy took a long drink of the cooling tea. "I had enough sense not to announce my religion to anyone I didn't know I could trust. I didn't run around on Sabbats with a 'Kiss Me, I'm Wiccan' button. But somehow one of the fundamentalist conservatives on the School Board found out, and made firing me his top priority. Rumors of Satanic rituals and suggestions of child abuse were flying. It was horrible."
The prickly detective was staring at her, fascinated, mouth slightly open. "How did Blair get involved in this?"
"He was the closest thing I could get to an expert witness. I was making peanuts--I wouldn't have been able to afford a lawyer without help from my union. I certainly couldn't afford anybody I actually had to pay real money."
"But he was only a student himself, right? I've seen how expert witnesses are grilled at trials. Lawyers attack your credibility in a way that's...well, vicious.""
"Blair already had his Master's by then, and was a Teaching Fellow in the Ph.D. program. He showed up looking all tweedy and professorial, even though he had to borrow the clothes. He quoted academic papers up one side and down the other, and explained Wicca better than most Wiccans can. Sure, they tried to rattle him, but he just sat there looking interested, like the ones doing the ranting were conducting some fascinating native ritual he hadn't seen before, and drove them nuts. He was unflappable, and convincing enough to swing the Board members who were vacillating to my side. I kept my job."
Ellison was staring into the depths of his cup, that almost-smile on his lips. "That sounds like Blair, all right."
"I'll always be grateful to him for that...even if I did leave the job a few years later, it was on my terms. And an important precedent was set."
"Why did you leave your job, if you won?" Ellison asked over his shoulder as he returned to the kitchen and turned on the flame under the teakettle.
"It was never the same. Some of my fellow teachers behaved pretty badly. It's hard to work with people who've said the kind of things some of them had, and believed what they did about me. I decided I could do more good helping out people who'd been messed up by the same kind of prejudice. I work a lot with those marginalized groups now myself. Ethnic and religious minorities...gay teenagers."
There was the twitch again. "Are you...uh..."
"No, Detective. Straight as an arrow. As a matter of fact, soon to be engaged, I hope. One of the many bits of news I need to tell Blair."
Ivy had planned to say more, but she was too fascinated by the abrupt change in Ellison to remember what she'd intended to say. His whole body relaxed; his face softened, marginally, and...opened somehow. There was something in his eyes that hadn't been there before, something warmer. She felt like Pygmalion watching his marble statue turn into flesh and blood. It didn't surprise her to hear a key in the door.
Blair Sandburg bounced in, juggling a backpack, a plastic-covered cadet uniform on a hanger, and a pink pastry box. Ivy could practically see Ellison's nostrils flare, and wondered if it was the contents of the pink box that interested him, or something else. Blair hung the uniform on a hook by the door and dumped the backpack on the floor underneath. The pink pastry box went on the small table, almost dislodging the basket where he'd just tossed his keys. He was wearing aged jeans and a Cascade PD sweatshirt over a Henley, and he threw open his arms.
"Ivy, I'm now unwrinkable. Hug time!"
Laughing, Ivy threw herself into the hug, letting Blair swing her around. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ellison standing there looking like a Victorian urchin outside a candy-store window. She was very glad she'd come back to Cascade--obviously she'd been led here.
"Gods, I just realized how much I missed you. We're going to bore poor Detective Ellison crazy tonight catching up on the last few years."
"If you call me 'Jim' instead of 'Detective Ellison' it won't take quite so long." The Cop of the Year was getting down a plate for the contents of the pink box, which had migrated to the kitchen counter.
"I'd be honored. And 'Miss Davies' is my maiden aunt in Wales, so 'Ivy' will confuse me less."
Blair was now in the kitchen too, cutting the string on the box with a Swiss Army knife. "Besides, I told Jim if he got really bored listening to us talk about people he doesn't know, I'd give him a buck for a movie."
"Oh, very funny, Chief."
Absorbed in watching the byplay, it took some time for the sense of that to sink in. "A buck? Where can you see a movie for a buck any more?"
Blair was grinning like an idiot. "Where indeed?"
Ellison--no, Jim--took pity on Ivy. "Private joke." Then he smiled...really smiled. Wow. Where had he been hiding that? Jim Ellison smiling wasn't granite at all. More like Play-doh...one of those colors you need sunglasses to look at.
Blair was opening the box and slapping Jim's hand as he tried to explore the contents. "Hey, wait until I get them on the plate, at least. And yes, I got some jian dui for you."
"Those are the little sesame seed greaseballs with the red bean paste inside, right?"
Cadet Sandburg rolled his eyes. "Don't let Mrs. Ling hear you call 'em that or she'll cut me off. I had to phone her during lunch today and cajole her into putting these aside. This stuff usually sells out by mid-afternoon, especially the greaseballs."
"Ah, Chief, she thinks you're cute. You can cajole her out of anything."
"Not anything. I still haven't convinced to reveal her recipe for that cha sui bao filling. It's the best I've ever tasted."
Jim and Blair were taking one delicious morsel after another out of the box...little custard tarts, almond cookies, other kinds of sweet dim sum, mochi squares. It was like watching an intricate dance, where each partner knew the movements of the other so well there was no chance of a misstep or smashed toes. As if in response to some unspoken agreement, Blair retrieved the teapot from the living room while Jim got out napkins, and lifted the kettle of hot water just as his partner put the teapot on the counter and opened the lid. Then Jim picked up the plate and Blair the tea, and they brought the feast to lay before a fascinated Ivy.
The next hour or two were spent putting a substantial dent into the plate of pastries, while Jim and Blair took turns giving Ivy what she was sure was a highly expurgated account of the last few years. Ivy almost choked on her almond cookie when Jim described Naomi Sandburg's interpretation of Ma Barker, and almost spilled her tea at Blair's description of parachuting into the Peruvian jungle and getting a lizard in his pants for his pains. She was touched by the story of the young woman wakened from an eight-year coma, and intrigued at their encounter with a well-known psychic. Story after story was reeled off, each more fantastic than the last. Interestingly, there was no mention of Blair's drowning in the fountain, or his near-death at the hands of a serial killer, or any number of other dangerous cases she'd read about in a bleary-eyed weekend spent mostly in the microfilm room of the Cascade Public Library.
As the conversation segued into reminiscences of earlier times, Blair reached out to Jim where he sat at the other end of the sofa, touching his shoulder lightly. "This part really is going to bore you, man. Ivy and I could take it somewhere else. A coffee shop or something..."
Jim rose, shaking his head. "No, I'll go upstairs. I've got some reading to do. I'll put on the headphones," he added, as if answering a question no one had asked. "He reached out a hand to Ivy. "Good night. It was nice to get to know you. I hope we'll see more of you."
"'Night, Jim. It was nice talking to you too." She grinned. "And this time I really mean it."
Jim smiled that devastating smile and turned to Blair, mussing up his hair. "Don't stay up all night, guppie. Early call tomorrow morning."
"Ivy's a morning person, she'll keep me in line. Let us know if we disturb you, OK?"
"You bet I will. 'Night."
Ivy watched Blair watch Jim as the older man went up the stairs. Her dear old friend was relaxed now, unguarded, and the look on his face...something would have to be done.
A strong wind tossed colorful leaves around the Rainier campus like extra-large confetti thrown at the parade of students, while Ivy made her chilly way toward the Faculty Club. Head down against flying grit, she suddenly felt drops of water on her face and cursed the weather report that had assured her there'd be no rain until tomorrow at the earliest. After a few more steps she raised her head, confused. What kind of rain came at you only sideways, leaving your hair dry? She stopped dead in the sudden realization that it wasn't rain at all, but wind-blown spray from the fountain in front of Hargrove Hall. Her rational mind knew the fountain must have been cleaned since Blair died there, but she still couldn't escape the feeling that little bits of his soul were being dissipated by the wind, not just water droplets.
She walked slowly over to stand staring into the water. How horrible it must have been, to face the certainty of your own death that way, alone in the dark with your murderer. Surely that horrible woman must have knocked Blair out at least before she drowned him...mustn't she? Was it just that Ivy couldn't bear to think of the alternative, of her good friend dying fully aware of his life slipping away? Of him realizing that it would only be a matter of time before starved lungs gasped for breath one last time-knowing it would be water, not air that would fill them at the last? Or was it the inability to believe Blair could have been overpowered otherwise, even by a strong woman? Blair had always been a fighter; he'd had to be.
The newspaper accounts of the drowning--or attempted drowning, as most of them chose to call it--had been remarkably short on details. Was it spin control on the part of the Cascade PD; a cover-up of something self-respecting police officers couldn't admit they'd witnessed? Or was it that Blair simply didn't remember? It wasn't uncommon for people who'd been through major physical trauma to be unable to remember the actual event. Or if he did remember, had he simply kept it to himself, unwilling to burden his friends with something that could only cause them pain?
The papers hadn't said much, but people who knew people at the PD repeated rumors about some big fight between Jim and Blair. Some of them even claimed that Jim had thrown his friend out of the loft just before it all happened. That Jim Ellison was capable of blazing anger, Ivy had already seen, but that had been anger at her in Blair's behalf, not anger at Blair. Not that it was impossible. What had one of their old psych professors once said...that it wasn't hate that was the opposite of love, it was indifference. Ivy couldn't see Jim as indifferent to Blair, ever. She couldn't see him hating Blair exactly either, but angry? Pissed off? All too easy. Afraid? Even easier. Of Blair or for him, hard to say.
Ivy tore herself away from the fountain and hurried to her destination. The last thing she wanted was to be late and for Jan to be irritated with her. After all, she was planning to ask her support in something that was going to be a bit of a hard sell. A complex dance of sun and shadow moved over the campus as the Faculty Club came into view. It was a magnificent building, one of the most elegant at the University. It had been designed by a famous architect and erected as a symbol of the prestige and rewards that the academic life bestowed upon those who accepted its rules and played by them. Somehow, Ivy had always had trouble envisioning Blair in a building like this. A hut in the jungle, a drafty warehouse, an office with stacks of papers piled high, a boat on the Amazon...no problem. A certain loft on Prospect Avenue--it was hard to envision him not there now. Even the idea of a police squad room was beginning to seem appropriate. But the Rainier Faculty Club looked too much like an elegant mausoleum to house the bright spirit that was Blair Sandburg.
"Jan," Ivy gasped out, "Sorry--"
Jan turned from her perusal of the clock. "You're trembling on the cusp of unfashionably late. What happened? Has it been so long you couldn't find your way around?" Jan flashed her faculty ID at the termagant who guarded the door of the inner sanctum. Ivy followed as the wound their way around elegantly set tables, looking for one away from the others.
"No, it was all too easy to slip back into student mode. I...I got a little distracted when I saw the fountain."
Jan stopped in her tracks, looking over her shoulder. "Oh, hell. I didn't even think of that. You should have come the back way."
"I didn't think of it either, until it was too late. I almost walked right past it, actually. If the spray hadn't blown at me I would have. I'm glad I saw it, though. It was something I needed to face."
After seating themselves, they sat in silence for a moment, looking at the menu. Soon an impossibly young-looking waiter approached and took their orders with almost comical earnestness. Ivy dawdled with her silverware, anxious for uninterrupted privacy. "So, are they taking high school students into the Hospitality Management program these days?"
"I wish," Jan laughed. "It's amazing the way those freshmen look younger every year. I can hardly wait until the time I realize I'm old enough to be their mother. It's hard enough to get used to the gently-reared few who call me M'am. The first time that happened I ate a whole package of Ding-Dongs at lunch, I was so depressed."
They continued with desultory conversation about the shocks inherent to being thirty-somethings, until their food arrived. Arranging plates and glasses and bread basket for optimum efficiency took a few minutes. They concentrated on eating for a little while, then Jan broke the silence.
"All right, give. You wanted to meet here, which is definitely not your kind of place, so we could have privacy and relative quiet. I usually avoid this place myself unless I have to kiss up, or impress some potential donor who's easily impressed. So what gives? Have you seen Blair?"
"I saw him on Monday. I went to visit him and Jim at home."
"And lived to tell the tale, I see. How did you get along with the charming Detective Ellison?"
"Actually, he was rather charming, and apologetic. Blair had obviously read him the riot act since the week before. I couldn't stay mad at him, since it was clear he'd only acted the way he did because he's protective of Blair. And because he's so in love with the guy he can hardly see straight. You'll excuse the expression."
Jan's fork stilled in mid-air, its cargo of chicken Caesar salad only halfway to her mouth. "He's what?"
"He's crazy in love with Blair. And vice versa."
"Are you sure about that? I know you said Blair was eclectic in his tastes, but Ellison? Most people I've talked to think he's the poster boy for the straight, God-fearing, iron-pumping, gun-toting, manly man. Not that appearances mean that much, but--"
"What do you mean--most people?"
"Well," Jan admitted, "there were rumors about him while he was in Vice...that he threw himself into his work a little too enthusiastically. That some of his undercover work was so convincing, it was hard to believe he could be that good an actor."
"That fits. I think both of them are closer to the middle of the Kinsey scale than the ends."
"So why aren't you happy? Blair's in love with someone who loves him, who's supportive, protective, a good guy--he is a good guy, isn't he?"
Ivy pushed pasta around her plate distractedly. "Yeah, from all I've seen and heard, he is. A little prickly, but a man of courage and integrity."
"So I still don't see the problem."
Ivy growled, viciously spearing a ravioli. "The problem is that they're hopelessly in love with each other and the idiots don't know it!"
"You're kidding me."
Abandoning the hapless pasta, Ivy leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms over her chest. "At best, they may have admitted it to themselves, but not, unfortunately, to each other. Watching them together Monday night was beautiful in some ways, but torture in others. The last time I saw two people who so obviously belonged together it was you and Lou."
"Wow," was Jan's only response as she stared at her wedding ring. "This is serious."
"That's why I want to help things along."
"Help? How are you...oh, oh. You're not suggesting..."
"Samhain is only ten days away, one of the few times the whole coven is sure to be together. We've raised power for a purpose before."
Jan fidgeted in her chair. "Yes, but love magic? It's so...trite. Besides, I believe it verges on the unethical at best. I thought you did too."
"I do, if you mean 'put the whammy on Fred so he falls in love with Ginger' kind of thing. I don't think love ought to be forced, or even nudged too much. Free consent is the only way."
"So how do you reconcile that with wanting to use a whole coven's worth of power to get them together? I realize you've known Blair a long time, but you haven't seen much of him recently, and you hardly know Jim at all." Jan was silent a moment, struggling with herself. "Look, don't take this the wrong way, but thinking you know what's best in a situation that you've observed for only a few hours seems almost arrogant. You're usually the one who's advising caution."
Ivy leaned across the table to touch her friend's hand. "I know. But this is something different, something unique. I know this is right in a way that goes beyond the rational. We're Wiccans; we believe in the reality of both the Seen and Unseen, in the power of the Goddess and God. I swear to you, never in my life have I been so sure that Power is working through me."
Jan took her hand from under Ivy's to run it through her hair. "If you're wrong, though-if we screw up their lives, it'll come back to us threefold."
"Look, I'm not talking about the 'whammy' here. I just want to remove whatever barriers are keeping them apart. I want to open their eyes to each other. Put this piece of the Universe back on track."
"Isn't dragging the Universe into it just a bit grandiose?"
"Jan, do you remember what you said when you touched Jim's card? About something being unfinished, not quite right?"
The other woman was very still, the memory of that vision clear on her face. She nodded.
"This is more than just two people's chance for happiness. If we're right, we're talking not just about Jim and Blair here. Do remember, among all that lurid media coverage about super-powered Sentinels, there was something about a Guide?"
"No, I don't--wait, there was something about that. Someone to watch his back..."
"More than that, I think. I've spent every spare moment of the last three days looking for every reference to Blair's research I could find, even in those nauseating tabloids. I also talked to as many people as I could, discreetly. I think a Guide is a lot more. I think he's a teacher, a touchstone, a place of refuge. I think a Guide and a Sentinel are two parts of the same thing. Did you know, among tribal Sentinels the Guide was often the Shaman?"
"You think Blair is Jim's Guide, don't you? But does that mean he has to be his lover?"
"No. There's so little information out there--that isn't locked up in the parts of Blair's diss that didn't get splattered all over the media, anyway--it's hard to tell. I get the vague impression that it wasn't inevitable, or required...but it happened with some frequency. And there's something else."
Jan leaned her head against the high back of her chair with a groan. "Are you going to make me wish I had wine with lunch?"
"Maybe." Ivy took a deep breath. "After I talked to them at the Academy that first time, I watched as they said goodbye and walked away from each other. I saw a silver cord between them. It got fainter the farther away they went, but it was there. I saw it again when I was with them Monday night. It was even stronger there."
"Are you sure? No, never mind, of course you are. You're the best of all of us at that sort of thing. I believe it's there, but what does it mean? The only silver cord I've ever heard of connects the astral body to the physical in a single individual. I can't begin to imagine what it means when one connects two people--two people just walking around in the waking world."
"I've never heard of anything like it, either. But it sure suggests to me that these two people have a special connection, one that's spiritual as well as physical. It can't be a good thing--for them or for the Universe--for them not to be together in every way possible."
Jan stared over Ivy's shoulder, seemingly lost in thought, until she suddenly came to with a start. "Damn, look at that clock. I've got a class at one-thirty." She looked her friend right in the eye. "Goddess help me if I'm wrong about this, but I'll support you. I trust you to compose the ritual in a way that's not coercive. Put a rough draft on the listserv and make sure everyone's OK with it."
"Oh, Jan, I'm so glad you're willing to support me on this."
"Have Jim and Blair invite me to the wedding. Now where's that baby waiter?"
Bill paid, they emerged from the Faculty Club to a brilliant autumn day, windy and cool but sunny. They were about to part and return to their separate offices when Jan asked one more question. "Are you sure you want to do this at Samhain? Beltane or Midsummer is usually better for love magic."
"True. One reason is I simply don't want to wait that long. I can't stand seeing two people this close to joy and afraid to grasp it. Watching it for half a year more would be unendurable."
"You said one reason. What's the other."
"Well, like I said before, this is about more than making two people happy. There's a spiritual element in this as well, and Samhain is when the physical and spiritual realms are closest to each other."
"The walls between the worlds are thin..." Jan whispered.
"Besides, I can't help but think this is going to be an important new beginning for both of them. And what better time to start that than the New Year?"
"Wait a minute, Sandburg, you're telling me that Halloween is New Year?" Jim shot an incredulous glance at his partner as he dodged a pint-sized vampire and a preteen Xena/Gabrielle set on the way to the front door of their building. They had managed to arrive within a minute of each other, but maintaining a conversation despite the seasonal distractions was proving a challenge.
"No, I'm telling you Samhain is an ancient Celtic festival that was the beginning of their New Year. Just like Jewish ones, Celtic holidays began at sunset. So Samhain begins on the night of October 31 and lasts until sunset of November 1. A lot of the old folk traditions persisted in the Celtic parts of the British Isles, and the immigrants from there brought them to this country."
Door achieved. The route from parking space to building, short as it was, had turned into an obstacle course. "Seems like a funny time to have a New Year, at the end of summer."
"Hey, that's exactly what Samhain, means, 'Summer's End.' The pagan Celts were a very spiritual people, Jim. Beginning their year after the harvest was over and the fields were lying fallow meant they could devote the darkest, quietest months of the year to reflection, to looking inward. It makes a lot of sense from that point of view."
"If you say so, Darwin. I'll be happy if we don't have our door spray-painted because we're not there yet to hand out bribes to the kiddies."
"All taken care of. Raoul and his pals are kinda having a party in the hallways, and he promised to watch our door. I asked him to put a big bowl of candy outside it until we got home."
"Raoul? That weird artist guy on the second floor? The one who projects slides of road kill on his naked body in public and calls it art?"
"Quiet, he'll hear you." Blair's was voice was now a whisper only a Sentinel could hear. "It's called performance art, and he does a lot of other things besides."
"But all naked."
"Well, yeah, that's part of his statement. Why not, he's got a great body."
"How the hell do you--" An elbow in the side interrupted Jim's question.
"Hi, Raoul! Hey, you look great! Everything OK up here?"
A vision in blue body paint with swirls of red, orange and gold came rollerblading down the hall, feathered headdress streaming behind him. Jim was disappointed to see he wasn't quite naked, so he couldn't be arrested for indecent exposure. "What are you supposed to be?"
"Hey, Jim, my man, glad you asked. This year's costume is in your honor, since my good buddy Blair said you were gonna be home for a change."
Jim's mouth dropped open. "My honor?"
"Yours and now Blair's, too. I am..." He twirled around in a circle, feathers flying. "The spirit of the Cascade PD!"
Jim was speechless.
Blair leaped quickly into the breach. "I get it--that's why all the blue, right?"
"Got it in one, my man. And the gold, for those shiny little shields you guys get."
"Uh...what about the red and orange? The blood of the fallen?"
"Hey, that would work too, good idea. I was thinkin' more of shootings and fires and buildings and cars blowin' up and the other cool stuff that goes on around here. I know you guys work really hard, but didja ever notice you're not makin' much headway?"
Jim was starting to resemble a faulty pressure cooker. Blair grabbed his jacket just in case he tried to lunge. "Why," Jim hissed, "the feather hat? What the hell is that supposed to symbolize?"
"Oh, nothin', man--I just like feathers, y'know?"
By this time Blair had managed to get the door of 307 open and began nudging Jim inside. A group of sequined and beribboned creatures of indeterminate sex poured into the hallway from the stairs. Fairy princesses on acid? Psychotic Barbies? Too close to call. "Hey Raoul, we're almost outta beer!"
"So whaddya want me to do? I go outside in this, I freeze my ass off! Send whatisname, in the gorilla suit. He'll be warm, and nobody gonna mess with him!"
Blair was through the door, grabbing the half-empty bowl of candy from the faux-marble pedestal it rested on. "Thanks for watching the place, man, and thanks for the loan. You could've just put the bowl on the floor."
"Too boring, my man. Give life a little pizzazz, that's my motto. Well, gotta go." He began rolling down the hall to the elevator, carrying the pedestal over his head. "Happy Halloween!"
Blair waved cheerily and shut the door.
"Sandburg, is it always like this around here on Halloween?"
"Well, it's gotten a lot livelier since Raoul moved in, but we've always had quite a few kids from the neighborhood. Prospect's pretty well lighted, and there's enough people living over the stores to make it worth their while. Most of the really little kids come before dark with their parents or older siblings, so you've missed them. But there should be a lot more of the older ones in the next few hours."
"Remind me why I decided to stay home this year instead of working."
"I haven't a clue, man, why did you? Usually I get trick-or-treat duty while you go out scaring people."
"I'm usually working."
"Yeah, working at scaring the shit out of people with the Ellison Glare, so they don't have too good a time." Blair shoved the candy bowl at a startled Jim. "Here, you answer the door if we get anybody. I need to light the jack-o-lanterns."
Plural? "How many do you have? And where did you put them?"
Blair rummaged for some long fireplace matches. "On the balcony. Good thing the wind died down, the tea candles will last longer."
"Good thing the wind died down. It makes me nervous to have a fire in the open when it's windy, but I hate having to do the rituals under a roof." The tall, slender man looked over the deck railing at the group of people gathering in the clearing below, lit only by the flames of a fire burning in a stone pit near the center.
His wife came to stand beside him and slipped an arm around his waist. "Lou, this is outer Cascade. How often does anything around here have the chance to get dry enough to burn?"
He laughed, looking down fondly at his wife. "You have a point, honey."
Both turned as they heard the doors to the house open behind them, and Ivy emerged, pink and slightly damp, her pale face devoid of makeup. She wore a long, plain robe, its dark green color almost the same as that of the surrounding forest. "Am I the last one?"
Jan nodded. "Everyone else either took their baths at home or got here pretty early to do it. I was beginning to wonder if you were having second thoughts."
Ivy hugged herself tightly, eyes drawn to the men and women wandering about the clearing below, talking, laughing, catching up. "No. I believe more than ever that this is something that needs to be done. Everybody was OK with my draft of the ritual. It's still a big deal, though."
Lou spoke up in his deep, clear voice. "You shouldn't worry. Your language wasn't the least coercive, just allowing something to be, if it was meant to be."
"That's the point...because I feel it my bones that what is meant to be is something momentous. Something good, no question, but with layers none of us is aware of, at least not yet. I've never done anything quite like this. It's daunting."
"I think you should cast the circle tonight," Jan said quietly.
"Me? You're the High Priestess."
"And you know that in this group that means as much as being a Department Chair in most disciplines at Rainier. I'm just the 'first among equals' the one who keeps things organized, and I know that someone else will take over every few years. I don't always cast the circle, you know that."
"You have the most emotional investment in this," Lou added. "Any sacred space you create tonight will be all the stronger for it."
Ivy closed her eyes and was quiet for a few seconds. Then she unwrapped her arms from around her body and stood up straight. "When you're right, you're right."
The three friends walked down the wooden steps toward the open space amid a circle of towering redwoods. The other ten people fell silent, moving out to stand in a rough circle, about nine feet in diameter, at the edge of the clearing. Jan turned to a large, motherly woman who stood closest to the house. "Rose, will you cleanse the circle?"
The woman held a primitive broom, like one might see for sale along the back roads of Appalachia, or overpriced in some trendy 'country home' catalog. This one was large, though, with a long, stout handle of ash. A generous number of birch twigs were strongly bound with willow. Rose moved into the clearing and began to walk a slow clockwise circle, sweeping in a series of wide arcs from center to edges, although the birch twigs never quite touched the ground.
Ivy watched the almost-hypnotic movements, visualizing the area being cleansed of negative energy, of the psychic residue of human anger and sorrow and jealousy. Here, far from the city limits of Cascade, in an isolated house only lived in for weekends and summers, this ritual was hardly necessary. Still, it marked the beginning of the transition from the mundane to the sacred, from material to spiritual. Ivy felt her heartbeat slowing, her breathing ease, as if all her nervousness about what she was about to set in motion were being swept away with each stroke of the broom.
By the time Rose had reached the point where she began, Ivy was ready. From a pouch at her waist she took a black-handled knife, its bright blade picking up glints of firelight as she unsheathed it. She approached a rough altar shaped from the stump of a huge, fire-scarred redwood, one that had died long ago, leaving its children to grow around its body like the walls of a great circular temple. In reverent silence she raised her athame to the sky and then pointed it down towards the earth. Then she turned and walked to the east, stopping between the circle of men and women and that formed by the trees. She was followed by Jan carrying a chalice of salt water, and Lou with a censer from which the heady scent of incense rose. She raised her knife and called out in a strong voice:
"Hail, Guardians of the Watchtowers of the East!
Powers of Air, breath of life,
Rising wind that bears the rain within its hands,
Herald of the dawn,
Place of beginnings...
By the Air that is the breath
Of the Goddess and the God,
Send us your light,
Be with us now!"
Ivy traced a pentagram in the air, and to her eyes a line of pale blue flame lingered where the blade of her athame pierced the night. Though the trees were still, it seemed that she felt a wind blow around and through her, blowing away the last of her doubts, filling her with power. She pointed her athame to the ground, grounding it like a lightning rod.
Jan sprinkled water from the chalice three times, then cried, "With salt and water, I purify the East!"
Lou raised the censer, moving it in the complicated pattern of a five-pointed star. The fragrant smoke spiraled almost straight up in the still air. "With fire and air, I charge the East!"
Ivy held her knife outward, tracing the shape of a circle above the ground as she moved southward, her friends following.
Jim followed Blair onto the balcony, knowing he'd be able to hear the approach of any sugar-hyped little bandits well before they rang the doorbell. A makeshift (and thankfully fireproof) table had been cobbled together out of sawhorses and an old metal shelf from the basement, one he'd been meaning to take to the dump when he had the time. Not one, not two, but five jack-o-lanterns sat there, of various shapes, sizes and expressions. Blair was carefully opening the tops and inserting candles--tea lights for the smallest; thicker candles like the ones he used for meditation went into the two largest. Jim watched as his friend lit each one with the long fireplace match and carefully replaced the lids.
"OK, I'll bite. Where on earth did you get five of these? Have they added a pumpkin-carving class to the Academy since my day? Otherwise, I can't figure out how you had time to do this."
"Not me, man. The Academy isn't exactly intellectually demanding compared to grad school, but there's still a lot to learn, especially about law and criminal procedure. I did the little one last night when you were on stakeout."
"I didn't smell anything like fresh pumpkin when I got home..."
"Nah, I did it at Mrs. Murphy's downstairs. She can't imagine not having one on Halloween, but her arthritis has gotten so bad she has a lot of trouble doing it herself. So I did most of hers and one for us too. And I think I've finally talked her into taking those glucosamine and chondroitin supplements."
"What about the other four?"
"I bought those, from Marvin Jackson's younger sister. Doesn't she do great work?"
"And Marvin Jackson would be..."
"Oh, one of the other cadets, fresh out of high school. His father bailed last year, and it's been kinda rough for his family, even with him getting paid as a cadet...he's got five brothers and sisters, all younger. LaDonna--she's the next one down, still in high school--is really good at craft stuff, and she sells what she can to help out."
Jim contemplated the man next to him as he told the story, using his expressive hands almost as much as his mouth. Sometimes Blair seemed like a different species, Homo sandburgius, generosity so integral a part of his nature he didn't even see it. The Ellison boys had been raised to be suspicious of such behavior, to look for the cloud around every silver lining. Tossing a career you'd spent half your life building, just so your best friend's life wouldn't be a nightmare, was incomprehensible in that worldview. It was like that old science fiction book he'd read as a kid...Flatland, that was it. It was like one of those Flatlanders imagining a third dimension; close to impossible. Of course, William Ellison and both his sons had now seen it happen with their own eyes, and they were all still reeling a little.
The doorbell shattered Jim's concentration, and a lusty yell of "trick or treat!" made him wince a little. He hadn't heard them coming after all. He stopped Blair's automatic beeline for the candy bowl with a hand on his arm. "I'll get this one, it's about time I learned how. Why don't you start a fire?" He touched his friend's cheek lightly. "It was pretty cold out there. The wind was starting to come up a bit."
"Well, yeah. OK."
"I promise I won't scare the little kiddies. Much."
Jim could see Blair watching dubiously as he opened the door. There were no shrieks of fear on either side as he handed out candy, so presumably that would provide reassurance that none of the parties to the transaction were traumatized by the experience. Jim shut the door and wandered into the kitchen as Blair blew on the kindling, watching the flame build and spread as his breath coaxed it to life.
Ivy faced south, thinking of the city of Cascade that lay many miles in that direction, and in particular of the two men she had seen less than two weeks ago. They had been through so much together, so many horrors that would have destroyed lesser men. The scars were there, and the marks of pain on their souls like the physical ones that must be visible on their bodies. But they had survived and were stronger for it, like tempered steel. She believed, no, she knew with all her heart and soul that those two needed to be together, together in all ways. Together, they could survive anything.
"Hail, Guardians of the Watchtowers of the South!
Powers of Fire, warmth of life,
Beaming sun that draws the bounty from the earth,
Comfort of the hearth,
Place of forging,
By the Fire that is the spirit
Of the Goddess and the God,
Send us your flame,
Be with us now!"
"So, Chief, what kind of dinner do you usually get when you have to pop up and answer the door every few minutes? Or do you abandon your principles and survive on candy and beer?"
Blair joined Jim in the kitchen and began pulling things out of the refrigerator. "I usually have stuff that's OK cold or at room temperature. We've got chicken left over, and a little bit of the roast beef we had Saturday. The bread's pretty fresh, and there's cheese. I also picked up some salad at the deli on the way home, that kind you like, with the green beans."
Jim began poking around, opening the lids of the Tupperware containers. "That doesn't sound too bad. Wish we had dessert, though."
"Ah, but we do." Blair sprinted to his room and came back with a self-satisfied grin and yet another Tupperware container. This one didn't look like Ellison Tupperware, though; it was scratched and battered. It looked old. Antique Tupperware. Ur-Tupperware. There was an unmistakable odor of chocolate leaking from it--unmistakable to a Sentinel at least.
"What's in there, and how did I miss it?"
"Mrs. Murphy's reward for my help with carving pumpkins. Homemade chocolate chocolate chip cookies. And she always uses lots of chips. With all the candy around here, you probably didn't notice, especially since you were pretty tired last night when you came home."
"Yeah, well, I get too wired when I'm on a stakeout with anybody but Megan. I have to be so damn careful not to do anything a normal cop couldn't do. Not when the S-word is still a bit too fresh in people's minds."
Blair opened his mouth to reply but a raucous chorus of "trick-or-treat" rang out in a ragged duet with the doorbell. "My turn," he announced instead. While he handed out miniature Hershey bars to a gaggle of giggling teenagers who looked like they'd stepped right out of Japanese anime, Jim occupied himself slicing meat and getting plates and silverware. After the latest beggars left they helped themselves to the food, bringing the plates into the living room. After they deposited the plates on the coffee table, Blair turned back to the kitchen.
"If you're getting a beer, get me one too."
"Actually, I was planning to drink wine," the younger man explained as he pulled a bottle of Washington State's finest out of the refrigerator and dug the corkscrew out of a drawer.
"So is it a special occasion or something? Oh, right. it's New Year's."
"Yeah, it is." Blair took wineglasses out of the cupboard and set them on the counter. Three of them.
Jim frowned as Blair picked up two, with the opened bottle, and returned to the living room. "Expecting company, Sandburg?"
"Not exactly. That's for later. For something else."
Before Jim could demand an explanation, the doorbell and the irritatingly familiar phrase dragged Jim off the couch. This was the largest group yet. Half of them looked like extras in a low-budget horror movie; the other half, both male and female, looked like they should be run in for solicitation. They were probably aping some kind of pop-culture celebrities, but any of those younger than Angie Ferris had started looking all alike to Jim, and none of them wore enough clothes. A child pornographer's delight.
By the time he was through distributing enough candy to keep Cascade's dentists in business for another year at least, the mystery of the third glass had receded to the back of his mind. He was hungry, and the aroma of the food as it warmed up to room temperature was starting to get to him. Blair had poured wine for both of them, and was amusing himself with the remote while apparently waiting for Jim to return. Some ancient Christopher Lee vampire movie was just starting.
"Just the ticket," Blair exclaimed. "Seasonal, but predictable. If we miss a chunk here and there it won't matter."
They started eating in companionable silence, half their attention on the movie and the other half distributed between enjoying the food and listening for the sounds of packs of children roaming the halls. Jim was watching a fanged Lee hovering over a pneumatic young woman who wore an astonishing amount of makeup to sleep in, while he absently sipped his wine. The explosion of complex flavors in his mouth pulled his attention away from the film. "Hey, this is really good. Local?"
"Washington State, anyway. I remember how amazed my mother was when we first moved here from California. She thought the local product would be swill, and was pleasantly surprised at how good it could be."
Jim looked at the label. "This is exceptional. I don't think I've had anything from this vineyard before. We'll have to get more sometime...maybe even visit the winery."
Blair beamed. "Yeah, that sounds great."
Jim couldn't help but smile, basking in that glow. He raised his glass in a toast. "Here's to the agricultural glories of Washington State."
Blair lifted his glass to clink it against the other man's. "Hey--I may get cold and moldy, but all that rain must make the grapes happy. And the salmon."
Ivy had traced out half of the circle and now faced outward once more. Despite the forest between them, she could almost feel the massive pull of the sea that stretched out for thousands of miles.
"Hail, Guardians of the Watchtowers of the West!
Powers of Water, blood of life,
Living stream that lets the oceans flow within our tears,
Rain upon the earth,
Place of cleansing,
By the flow that is the life
Of the Goddess and the God,
Send us your hope,
Be with us now!"
Maybe it was the wine--although at some point Blair had insisted on adding bottles of chilled water to their meal. The rational part of Jim's mind, which was gradually retreating to a corner, knew that alcohol undiluted by lots of water was a recipe for dehydration and its sibling, hangover. That other part, the part that was usually chained to the wall in solitary confinement behind a steel door, was just a little disappointed that Blair apparently wasn't trying to get him drunk.
"So how did you know Raoul has a great body?" Blair's eyes opened wide, startled, though whether at the sudden interruption in the somnolent silence, or at the nature of the question, Jim couldn't tell.
"Jim, the guy's a performance artist. Lots of people have seen him naked. Including hundreds of people who attended the Arts Festival at Rainier five years ago, when he was one of the artists on the program. How did you think?"
Jim squirmed. Was it his imagination, or was Blair sitting a little closer every time he got up to hand out candy and then sat down again? Or was he doing it himself? Just where had each of them started out on this damn couch anyway? And was there some reason he should care? Keeping his distance, keeping from falling off that precipice, was so tiring...and getting harder all the time. Would falling be such a bad thing? Would he float, or would he plunge downward and smack into the ground? And if he did, so what? Earth was good. Blair said lots of people believed that power came from the earth, spiritual power. Even though the Army had taken him all over the world, including a lot of beautiful places, as soon as he got out he'd headed back to this little piece of earth called Cascade. Despite his estrangement from his family, it was still home, and it called to him.
Was it because he was born to be the Sentinel of this great City, or simply because he was a man who liked stability in his life, hard as that was to achieve sometimes? He liked putting down roots, liked having a place that was his own. That's why he'd bought the loft in the first place, instead of continuing to rent. Maybe that's why he'd never gotten around to putting Carolyn's name on it, even after they were married. That had been another attempt at putting down roots, now that he thought of it. At least on his part--he'd never quite figured out what Carolyn got out of it. Had they ever really loved each other, or just convinced themselves they did? He'd really wanted to be married; he loved the idea of coming home to the same person every night, of waking up beside the same person every morning. Carolyn just hadn't been the right person.
At least she was a woman who stuck to her feminist principles. No alimony nonsense, no haggling over every little thing. The loft had been his before, and it stayed his, she'd never expected anything else. They'd bought furniture together, but it had been more her choice than his--nothing he was crazy about, but nothing he couldn't live with. He was happy to let her take it. Funny, how little of their stuff was really theirs, rather than his and hers. The divorce settlement had been amicable, not just because they both felt guilty about the failure of the marriage, but because it was so easy to remember what had been his before, and what had been Carolyn's. Too easy. Easier, than it would be now, with his stuff and Blair's...
"Hail, Guardians of the Watchtowers of the North!
Powers of earth, womb of life,
Fertile field, bountiful Mother, giver of gifts,
Cradle of the dead,
Place of rebirth,
By the Earth that is the body
Of the Goddess and the tomb of the God,
Send us your strength,
Be with us now!"
As Ivy turned eastward to complete the circle, the first phrase of the ritual words suddenly struck her like a blow, as if she had never heard them before..."Guardians of the Watchtowers...." Sentinels. She reached the easternmost point where she had started, closing the circle. Once more she raised her athame to the sky and lowered it to the earth. Then she turned to the center and touched its point to the cauldron resting upon the altar.
"The circle is cast.
We are between worlds, beyond time.
Night and day, joy and sorrow,
Birth and death, seen and unseen,
Meet as one.
All things are possible."
Jan approached the altar, a lighted taper shielded behind her hand. She lit the candles on the altar and within the cauldron. "The fire is lit. The ritual has begun."
All three moved back to take their places within the circle. Jan turned to Ivy, who stood at her left side, and kissed her. "In perfect love and perfect trust," she intoned. Ivy kissed the man on her left, repeating the ritual greeting. Perfect love and perfect trust. Blair deserved no less...could Jim give it to him? Somehow, Ivy doubted that reserved man, so quick to anger, had experienced much of either in his life. Would he recognize it if Blair offered it? The kiss moved slowly around the circle, until Lou kissed his wife, completing it with a twinkle in his eye.
Then Jan took the work candle, giving thanks for all the good things that had come into her life since the last Sabbat, then asking for help in seeing the way clear to best deal with a difficult but gifted student. Ivy forced herself to focus on her friend's words, joining her energies to the rest of those around her, supporting Jan, willing a favorable outcome. When her own term came, she had little to say, except to give thanks for old friendships renewed and new ones, perhaps, begun. She asked for patience, eliciting smiles from the rest of the coven. Everyone knew how important the final ritual would be to her, and how hard it was for her to wait. But things must happen in their own time.
It was well past ten, and there'd been no costumed children at the door for at least half an hour. Christopher Lee had long since been dispatched with a stake through the heart, and they had turned off the TV and put on music instead. Jim wondered if he should add wood to the dying fire, or let it go out. It was getting late, but he wasn't really tired--just lethargic. Blair would probably like to keep the fire going, for some obscure ritual reason. What the hell. He got up to put more wood onto the dying flames, watching as it caught. To keep from zoning--although he almost never did that anymore when Blair was close--he kept his hearing tuned to the younger man as he rose from the couch and moved toward the kitchen. A clinking sound told Jim he was carrying their glasses and the unfinished bottle with him.
He heard the sound of glasses being rinsed, and then set down carefully inside the sink. They were too delicate to go into the dishwasher, and had to be done by hand. They could wait until tomorrow, though. Blair was always arguing that it was a mortal sin against the environment to wash dishes if you had less than a sink-full. It did have something to be said for it, although Jim strongly suspected his friend's motive had less to do with his active ecological consciousness and more to do with getting his obsessive-compulsive roommate to loosen up about cleaning. Must be working, because the last thing he felt like doing tonight was washing dishes.
He turned his head, surprised at the sound of wine being poured into a glass. He'd forgotten the third glass, and just enough wine had been left in the bottle to fill it. Blair was getting another plate from the cupboard, and retrieving a small white bag from somewhere in its depths. He began laying the contents onto the plate. Jim dialed up his sight a bit, and saw they were some kind of crescent-shaped cookies or small cakes. Not more dessert? Mrs. Murphy's cookies were addictive, and both men had already eaten a lot more of them than was wise. Surely Blair wasn't still hungry? Sure, he was more active than usual because of all the physical training at the Academy, but that hadn't increased his appetite appreciably in the last three months.
Jim approached the kitchen counter and raised an eyebrow. "I hope that's not for us. I'm ready to burst."
Blair looked up at Jim, a strange, almost defiant little smile on his face. "No, it's not for us." He took a deep breath and looked right at his friend. "Samhain is supposed to be the time when the wall between the world of the dead and the world of the living is thinnest. You're supposed to leave an offering outside for the spirits of friends and loved ones who've died, and a candle burning so they can find their way. You're supposed to think about those you've lost."
Jim stood as still as death himself, feeling a shivering in his soul as the words struck some deep place inside him. He realized now, with an almost physical pain, what the odd little smile meant. Blair expected to be stomped on, or mocked, or dismissed for his ritual, or at best endured with martyred patience. As usual.
"Are you sure there's enough?" Jim asked softly. "Between the two of us, that's a lot of souls. Especially on my end."
The quickly-veiled astonishment on the younger man's face would have been almost comical if it hadn't been so gratifying. The happiness that replaced it made Jim wonder why he didn't do something to put it there more often, since it was so easy. Just pay attention to him. Take him seriously. Don't just care, tell him you care. Show him. So much reward, for so little...
"Uh, it's symbolic, Jim. I don't think it has to be one cake per soul or anything. It's just one glass of wine, after all."
Jim took the wine, and followed Blair as he carried the plate onto the balcony and set it down on the shelf, next to the jack-o-lanterns, now transformed into beacons for the spirits of the dead. Jim set the wine beside it. A lot of souls, indeed. Bud. Seven men buried in the jungles of Peru. Sam. Molly, whom he'd known only in spirit, never in flesh. Alan. Lila. Even Veronica. Jack. Danny. Incacha.
Blair moved to stand close beside him, one arm resting on his back. "I think about Sweet Roy, and Emily Watson, and Hal. And about Janet...her most of all. I'll never forgive myself for getting her involved in what killed her."
Jim slipped an arm around the smaller man's shoulders, pulling him close. Blair was shivering, but Jim wasn't sure it was from the cold. "It wasn't your fault. She was an activist, someone who really cared about the environment, and she died in the service of that cause. You gave her the chance to have her death mean something. Few people get that chance."
"You really think so?"
"I really do." He felt Blair's arm slip around his waist, and relax, heard him sigh. The trust inherent in that small gesture almost overwhelmed Jim. He was at the edge of that precipice again, and it was starting to crumble. Step back, or step off?
It was time. All the men and women in the circle joined hands, then Ivy spoke. "Goddess and God, aid us in this working. Lend your power to ours, and guide the power we raise to its destination." She pictured the loft clearly in her mind, and the two men within it. She held that image firmly in her mind, and her knowledge of them in her heart.
"May their eyes be opened, to see the right path.
May their hearts be freed, to seek their proper home.
May the balance be found,
The still point at the center of the turning world,
Where flesh and spirit meet.
If this is meant to be, let it be.
By the love of the Goddess our mother,
By the power of the Horned God,
Light their way home."
They began to move, hands still linked, in a slow circular dance. The forest was hushed; even the leaves of the trees were still. Nothing moved but the circle, and the smoke of the fire as it spiraled toward the stars that glittered in the small patch of night above the trees. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the speed increased. Faster and faster they danced, in a complex, twisting undulation, ever clockwise. At some point one of the men began a wordless chant in a minor key, and the others picked it up at once. As the dance moved faster, Ivy could feel the power building, rising from the earth through their bodies, into the air above and around them. When the chant was added she could suddenly see it, rising up in a great spiral, ever higher and denser. Faster and faster they danced, louder and louder they chanted, the sound building on itself, bouncing off the great wall of trees. The power built until Ivy thought she couldn't bear it, and then she let it build again, and again. Finally, as if all knew it had reached its peak, the dance stopped in the blink of an eye, robes still swirling around the dancers after their feet had stilled. Power throbbed around them like a live thing and hung, a golden, shimmering cone around them.
Ivy threw her arms up and out, facing south. "Now! Go!" All her hope, all her love for Blair, all her growing affection for the wounded, brave man who loved him lent her voice power, and it rang through the forest. In a second, the golden cone was gone, speeding southward like an arrow. Like a puppet whose strings had suddenly been cut, Ivy sank to the ground, her hands spread flat upon the soft earth.
"So mote it be."
Jim stood on the balcony, his arm around Blair, frozen with cold and fear and indecision. He stared at the moon-shaped cakes, at the flickering reflections of the candle flames in the wine as its surface trembled slightly in the wind. Suddenly he saw another road yawning before him, a road that led to this night in some different reality, a reality in which Blair's name was added to the litany of all those he had lost. All the courage and beauty and love and generosity that was Blair, all gone, ripped away. Only his spirit left, wandering in the dark, and no light on the balcony to guide it home. No offering to feed a hungry ghost. Just the shell of a man, lying in the dark, a man who had held in his hands the gift of perfect love, perfect trust, and let it slip through his fingers. The road not taken, but so terrifyingly real for just a moment that he groaned at the pain that knotted his gut.
"Jim--what's the matter?" Blair turned toward him, one arm still resting on his back, the other hand spreading over his chest as anxious eyes sought his face in the dark.
"You died. You died."
The horror of it must have been all too apparent in his voice, because Blair threw both arms around him, pulling him close, reminding the Sentinel unmistakably of his physical presence. "It's OK, I didn't stay that way. It's OK..."
Jim hugged him back, the solidity of that familiar body the only thing that could still the sudden trembling. Yes it was OK, it was OK...but it should be so much more. The hair suddenly stood up on his arms. There was no sign of a storm for miles, but all at once there was a charge in the air, like static electricity. He pulled back to look at Blair. His hair was a nimbus around his face; Jim could almost see the sparks flashing at its edges. It seemed lighter outside than it should for this late at night; Blair's face was bathed in a faint golden glow. Some tiny rational part of Jim's brain recognized that all this was very strange, but it just didn't seem important right now. What was important was the realization that the precipice wasn't a precipice after all, it was just a step...and a small step at that, no larger than the distance between Blair's lips and his. He leaned forward at the same moment that Blair's hand slipped up to the back of his head, pulling it gently down. Their lips met.
It was like drowning in honey, warm wet honey--no, not drowning in it, breathing it. Breathing in sweetness like a fish breathing in water, a fish that had been suffocating, dying on the shore, and finally found its way home just in time. While his lips and tongue continued their plunge into sweetness, he clung to Blair like he was still drowning, unable to get close enough to that precious body; he wanted to surround him, dissolve, seep into every pore and live there. He had no idea how long they stood there, clinging to each other. The strange tingling in the air was gone, unless it had somehow gotten inside him. It could have, because he felt charged with energy.
He pulled away reluctantly from that delicious mouth, only because he was starved suddenly for the sight of the face it belonged to. It was as familiar as ever, but transformed, not the smallest feeling hidden from him any more; every emotion lay naked on Blair's face; naked and vulnerable, trusting him not to hurt them. Jim had never seen anything more beautiful in his life. He slid a hand down the side of that mesmerizing face, cupping the jaw, stroking his thumb along the swollen lips, going weak in the knees when his thumb was kissed, and drawn into wet warmth of Blair's mouth.
He whispered, not sure his voice would obey him otherwise. "Come out of the cold, love. Come inside." He took Blair's hand, and they went back to the warmth and light of the fire, leaving the balcony to the ghosts and the dark. They had been too many minutes apart, so they kissed again as soon as they locked the balcony door against the night. This time Jim could feel the movement of strong hands stroking his back, caressing the back of his neck, sliding down his spine, one vertebra at a time, then lower, cupping him, pressing their bodies together.
Desire stronger than any he'd ever known swept over him, just as he'd known it would...just as he'd once been afraid it would. There once had been a reason to fear this overwhelming need, or he thought there had--but now he couldn't imagine what that reason could be. Denying himself this was crazy, suicidal; denying it to the man in his arms the cruelest thing he could imagine. His own hands were roaming now, pulling apart layers of clothing, hungry for the touch, the warmth of Blair's skin. Shoes went flying, kicked off every which way into the corners of the room. Pants were easy, aided by gravity, then kicked away to follow the trajectory of the shoes. Shirts and sweaters were more complicated, requiring a momentary break in contact. Buttons that didn't yield quickly to shaking, eager fingers were simply ripped off, skittering away into shadows.
At last all the barriers were gone. Flesh pressed against flesh, hands stroked skin, squeezed muscle. Lips sought each other, then wandered off to explore cheeks, chins, sensitive necks, shoulders, palms, the soft skin of eyelids. Jim was almost dizzy, lost in an erotic haze. The intensity of this pleasure was starting to overwhelm him, but he didn't want it to crest here, not standing in the middle of the living room, with their clothes strewn around them like the path of an explosion. He stopped kissing Blair's face just long enough to whisper in his ear. "Come upstairs? Please?"
Blair drew back, searching Jim's face. He closed his eyes briefly, and opened them again, the look of total...joy on his face so absolute, so profound, that it brought a lump to Jim's throat.
"Yes. Oh, yes. Like I'd say no to a dream about to come true?"
Hands entwined, they walked slowly to stairs, then up. "Yours and mine both."
Jim pulled back the covers, Blair's hand stroking his back all the while. He stared at the inviting expanse of sheets, thinking that the man who was about to lie down in this bed was a much happier one than the grumpy, tired one who'd risen from it in the morning. One who'd never have to wake alone again... he turned around, capturing the hand touching his back, kissing its fingers.
"Blair...you know, don't you, that I don't just want you, or need you. I love you. And I want this to be..."
"Forever." Blair finished. He looked at Jim, and for just a moment, the shaman looked out of his eyes. "Maybe longer."
Jim couldn't breathe for a moment, as goosebumps rose over his skin, despite the warmth of the loft. Then the Blair he had always known was back, the man he loved, had loved longer than he ever dared admit even to himself. The man who was smiling at him now.
"So, love of my life, which side of the bed is yours? Blessed Protector between me and the stairs, I'd guess."
"You'd guess right."
Blair sat down, caressing the yellow sheets wonderingly for a moment, then slid over to the right. Jim lay down beside him, propped up on his right arm, just looking at first. The lamp on the dresser gave enough light for even non-Sentinels to see, and Blair looked back. Seeing each other naked in the shower, a brief sidelong glance, not lingering--that was one thing. This was something else; it was caressing without touching, making love with eyes alone.
Finally Blair reached out and touched Jim's chest with just the tips of his fingers, trailing them down the rippling slope of his torso, swirling clockwise around the navel, blazing a trail through the dark patch of hair below, sliding along the hard length of the cock, coming to rest at last at the very tip. "Is this really all mine?"
"Oh, God," Jim moaned. "All yours. No one else's, ever." He rolled on top of the smaller man, as Blair's hand slid around to cup his balls, stroking the soft sac with the lightest of touches. Before Jim had a chance to wonder if his weight was too much, Blair was pulling him down closer; at the same time he thrust up and around with a delicious friction that banished thinking and wondering altogether from Jim's mind. Their lips met again, devouring each other hungrily this time, their lower bodies finding a rhythm that set electricity running along every nerve, building in that warm, tight space where their cocks were trapped, sliding against the hardness of belly muscles and each other.
Blair was moaning. Jim's name came again and again, mixed with strange syllables that could be some arcane language or could be nothing, rising and falling like a chant, a tuneless song, a prayer. There were strange animal noises as counterpoint, grunts and groans and small wordless sounds of need that Jim was long past recognizing as his own. The universe had narrowed to the space between his legs, and it was only seconds from expanding in a great space-filling explosion. Then Jim heard his own name cried out as a rising ululation, and felt wet slippery heat fill the space between them as Blair thrust frantically. Then everything was white light as a new universe was born.
The ritual was over, the circle was broken, the simple feast consumed, the fire doused. Those who had to be at work early had already left; those who planned to stay over had retreated to guest rooms or futons on the floor. A few still sat out on the deck, wrapped in blankets against the cold autumn night. Ivy was planning to stay, but, exhausted as she was, she couldn't sleep. "Do you think it worked?"
Jan tried to collect her thoughts as she drifted, half-asleep, head on her husband's shoulder. "You'll find out soon enough. You should manage to accidentally run into Blair as soon as you can. One look at him and you'll know right away."
Ivy sighed. "I hate this. It's like waiting for the other shoe to drop. No, it's worse. It's knowing that it could have already dropped, but you weren't there to hear it."
"I'll bet if that particular shoe did drop, all the neighbors heard it." Jan yawned mightily.
Lou slid out from under his wife and tugged on her hand. "Come on you two, it's time that all good little witches were in bed. That was about the strongest cone of power we've ever raised. If that didn't do the trick, it wasn't meant to be."
Ivy stumbled off to bed. "I'm still keeping my fingers crossed. Blessed be."
Jim emerged from the bathroom, naked, carrying a washcloth and towels. He surveyed the wreck of the living room, thought for a split-second about cleaning up, then heard a soft chuckle from the balcony. He knows me way too well. It could wait until morning. Tomorrow, and in the days ahead, they could worry about mundane details like the safe sex talk, and sexual histories (now that should be interesting), and whom to tell, and what to do with Blair's room that wouldn't make it too obvious he wasn't sleeping there any more. Tonight--well, tonight was magic.
He cleaned Blair up, feeling pretty ritualistic himself as he slid the warm washcloth over that beautiful body, the one he planned to make a lifetime's study. The love of his life almost purred like a cat as he was dried off with a soft towel, then looked questioningly at the others in the pile. "Aren't you overdoing it? We didn't make that much of a mess."
Jim turned off the light, got into bed beside Blair, and pulled up the covers. He leaned over to kiss that irresistible nose. "Those are for tomorrow morning."
"Oh, yeah," Blair breathed. He slid next to Jim, fitting himself perfectly against the larger man as if he'd been doing it all his life.
Jim lay there, drifting into sleep, hoping desperately he wouldn't find out when he woke up that this had been all a dream. Well damn it, even if it was, he'd just set out to make it come true as soon as possible. He listened to Blair's breathing change, become slower and regular. He was almost ready to drift off when he thought of one last thing.
"Hm? The voice was thick with sleep and contentment.
"Happy New Year."
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The Wiccan rituals in this story were adapted from ones in Starhawk's classic book, The Spiral Dance (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979). Although I changed them quite a lot, the "Guardians of the Watchtowers..." lines were left untouched--they were beautifully appropriate as is. Happy New Year, all.