[personal profile] starwatcher_fic

Title: Need to Know
Summary: Blair's dreams after Incacha's death will lead him on a quest.
Style: Gen
Size: 22,950 words, about 44 pages
Warnings: None
Notes: Written September, 2009
Feedback: Not necessary, but I certainly do like to get it!
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org

Need to Know

by StarWatcher

The darkness was all-encompassing. Just the faintest hint of ambient light assured him he hadn't gone blind, but it wasn't enough to allow him to navigate, or even show him where he was. The place felt 'big' but, at the same time, 'enclosed'. He listened, but there was no sound; the silence was so complete that he could literally hear the air molecules impacting his eardrums.

He had no idea how he'd gotten here. At least he wasn't restrained in any way, and his head wasn't throbbing, so it was unlikely he'd been drugged or knocked unconscious. But whatever or whoever had dumped him here probably meant him no good; it would be stupid to sit here waiting on someone else's whims.

He swept his hands around him. Finding no walls -- and, more importantly, no holes in the rocky ground -- he carefully stood. Cautiously, one step at a time, he moved forward, hand outstretched to avoid running into something, and one foot leading, tapping the ground firmly before he shifted his weight to it. An arthritic turtle would probably move faster, but he'd seen too many movies that depicted hidden traps in seemingly innocuous locations. Hell, he'd experienced a few himself. No sense rushing headlong to knock himself out against an obstacle, or fall over the edge of a cliff.

Eventually, his reaching hand encountered a wall -- uneven rock, cool and slightly damp. Was he in a cave? It seemed likely. That meant there would be a way out... but which way? He strained his eyes, looking left, then right, but could discern no difference in the levels of barely-light. He held his breath with his eyes closed as he faced each direction, straining to feel. Was there a smidgen of air current hitting his cheeks as he faced left? Maybe. It was as good a reason as any to choose that direction.

He resumed his progress, right hand on the wall, left hand forward to avoid hitting another wall, and foot still tapping the ground before each step. At this rate, it would take him a year to find his way out -- if he ever did. He tried not to remember the fate of 'Indian Joe', trapped in Tom Sawyer's cave. Surely it wouldn't come to that; his friends would be looking for him, wouldn't they?

He hoped they'd find him sooner rather than later.

Jim lay in bed, listening to the racing heart and labored breathing in the bedroom below. He'd been awakened the past five nights by Sandburg's reactions to whatever dreams were bothering him. The kid had seemed quieter than usual, a bit reserved, in the month since Incacha's death. It was only natural; not only had Incacha died right in front of him, Blair also had the guilt of his friend Janet's death because he had asked for her help. It took time to work through these things, and Jim had been prepared to let Sandburg handle it himself. But if the recent bad dreams were any indication, the kid was feeling worse instead of better.

When Blair started whimpering, Jim threw back the covers; enough was enough. He padded down the stairs and slipped quietly into Sandburg's room. The kid looked rough, sweating profusely, with the blankets twisted around him, and his heart rate continued to increase. But an abrupt awakening might compound the problem.

Hoping he was doing the right thing, Jim laid a firm but gentle hand on Blair's cheek. "You're okay, Chief," he murmured. "It's only a dream. You're safe; nothing can hurt you." Slowly, he stroked a thumb across the clammy skin, deliberately catching the roughness of the nighttime beard, hoping the sensation would penetrate the sleeping psyche. "Wherever you are, it's not real; you're home, you're safe."

It seemed to be working; the heartrate was slowing, and his breathing was easier. Blair stirred, barely on the edge of wakefulness. "Jim?"

"Yeah, buddy, I'm here; I've got your back while you..." Inspiration struck. "...while you're sitting in the living room, candles all around you, meditating all the 'bad vibes' away."

Jim reflected ruefully that Sandburg's world-view was rubbing off on him. But he couldn't argue with the results; Blair had finally slipped into what seemed to be a peaceful, dreamless sleep. Moving carefully, Jim supported Blair's head while he flipped the pillow so that his friend would be resting on a cooler surface, then untangled the blankets from his legs so that he'd sleep more comfortably.

As he headed back up the stairs, Jim considered whether he should suggest Sandburg talk to someone. Probably not a psychiatrist; for all his easy rhetoric about being in touch with one's inner self, Blair seemed reluctant to open up about his feelings. But maybe he'd confide in one of Naomi's friends, someone he'd known for many years. When Blair talked about the people he'd known from his younger days, most of them seemed to have a real flaky, new-age attitude. But he seemed comfortable with that mindset, and it might help him deal with whatever was bothering him. At worst, it probably wouldn't hurt. Of course, the hard part would be convincing him that he had a problem, and needed help.

Pot, kettle. Jim grinned ruefully to himself. How many times had he resisted when Sandburg pushed him to open up about his feelings? But Jim had undergone training to resist and fight off attacks, both internal and external. He couldn't count the number of times Sandburg had complained about his tendency to 'leave his emotions at the door'. But it was necessary in his line of work, and helped him maintain his balance in what could be an ugly world. Blair, on the other hand, was a civilian; he hadn't had that kind of training, and probably wouldn't accept it if it were offered to him. But he had to find some way to expend the feelings that were eating at him; otherwise, the explosive repercussions would be ugly at best, and possibly life-shattering at worst.

Jim wouldn't let that happen. First as a big brother, then as a leader of men, he'd learned to help and protect those under him whenever and however possible; the instinct was bone-deep. But Sandburg was more than one of 'his men'; he was a good friend, and his guide in this sentinel stuff. If Blair left because he couldn't handle the stress of being Jim's friend, or the sentinel's guide, Jim's life would be immeasurably poorer.

Fortunately, tomorrow was Saturday. As Jim pulled the covers up to his shoulders, he decided it would be the perfect time to institute 'Operation Fix Sandburg'.

Sentinel perceptions could be useful. Jim recognized Blair's pre-waking pattern and used it as an early-warning system. When Blair stumbled out of the bedroom, a mug of strong, hot coffee was waiting by his plate, and Jim was putting the finishing touches on fresh blueberry waffles and a cheese-and-mushroom omelet. Other than a muttered, "Thanks, Jim," Blair didn't say anything, but he finished everything on his plate with evident satisfaction and gratifying speed. Afterward, Jim refilled their coffee mugs as he broached the subject.

"I hate to tell you this, Chief, but you're looking a little ragged around the edges." Actually, he looked like shit; he had dark shadows under his eyes, his hair was kind of limp and lanky and -- worst of all -- the essential spark of life-enjoyment was absent from his eyes. "You been sleeping okay?"

Blair hesitated, then admitted, "Not so great, actually. I'm thinking maybe I should drop a class; between teaching and studying and working with you, I'm feeling kind of stretched thin." He grinned, trying to make a joke. "I may not be pushing forty, like some old geezers around here, but I have to admit I'm not sixteen anymore. Dropping a class, and the studying that goes with it, would give me five or six hours more a week to spread out between the other stuff."

"Sounds like a plan," Jim agreed easily. Privately, he was appalled; six hours was a drop in the bucket compared to all 'the other stuff' Sandburg had going on all the time. Unless that extra six hours was spent in quality sleep -- no nightmares -- Jim wasn't sure it would have a significant effect. "But what does that have to do with not sleeping so great?"

"Oh, you know, free-floating anxieties about getting bogged down, and nothing gets done." Blair's attempt at a casual brush-off seemed somewhat flat. "One of the hazards of being a grad student and teaching fellow; it'll pass."

Well, Jim had known it wouldn't be easy. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, take the bull by the horns, and all that shit. "The thing is, buddy, I think it's more than that. I know you're having bad dreams; your heartbeat pounds so hard I think it's trying to jump right out of your chest. It's even woken me up a couple of times."

Blair looked stricken. "Ah, hell, Jim; I'm sorry! I'll sleep with the white-noise generator turned on until things settle down; it should only be a week or so."

"That's not the point, Chief. You're the one who told Joel he had to face his fears, and that you'd been in and out of therapy since you got out of your pampers. If something's bothering you, you've got to talk it out."

"This from a man who's so good about opening up about his own feelings and insecurities?"

Jim sighed. "Blair, we're different people -- different life experiences, different responses to things that happen, different ways of dealing with those things. I bury, you talk. You've already showed me that burying shit isn't the best way of handling things, so take your own advice." He held Sandburg's eyes with intense honesty. "I'm worried, Chief. If you try to bury whatever's bothering you, I'm afraid you'll explode. It'll be messy and painful, and I don't want to see it happen to you. So, talk. If not to me, to a therapist or an old friend. 'Burdens shared are burdens halved', and all that."

Blair ran his fingers through his hair as he sighed in turn. "I know you're right -- in theory. In practice, there's really nothing to talk about. At least nothing that makes any sense."

"Haven't you said that talking things through helps them make sense?" Jim encouraged. He really couldn't believe he was pushing Sandburg like this, and he was sure the kid would hold it over him for years; it was bound to bite him in the ass the next time he didn't want to talk about feelings. But this was too important to let slide.

"The thing is, it's nothing traumatic; I mean, not really. I'm in a dark cave, feeling my way forward, trying to find the way out. I don't know how I got there, and I haven't been hurt. Mostly I'm hoping you guys are looking for me, and that you'll find me before anything bad happens. You would, wouldn't you?" His voice seemed smaller, more hesitant on that last question.

"Damn right we would, Chief," Jim assured him. "But that's it? No lurking henchmen, no ticking bomb to make things more interesting?"

"That's it. Gotta admit, I don't see how it matches up with school anxiety... but neither does it match up with any of your cases. All I can figure is, it's existential angst, and all I can do is get my shit together and hope it goes away."

"What shit?" Jim asked gently. "School has never bothered you before, and you've handled the stresses at the PD pretty damn well, especially since you're a civilian. So what's changed?"

Blair shrugged, unable or unwilling to delve further.

"You think it might be Incacha's death, and Janet's? You weren't responsible for either of them, you know."

"Maybe not Incacha's," Blair objected, "but Janet wouldn't have been involved if I hadn't asked her to look for information. That sure as hell feels like I was responsible."

"Didn't you say Janet was an environmentalist from way back?" Blair still refused to meet Jim's eyes, but nodded agreement. "In effect, she was a warrior for the planet, fighting for a cause she believed in. Unfortunately, warriors are sometimes killed, no matter how righteous their cause. It was Janet's bad luck that she was unknowingly involved with enemy forces who lied and subverted her work. But she managed to discover and pass on the information that led to their defeat before they killed her. They killed her, not you." Jim hesitated, then continued. "If she could have chosen, don't you think she might have decided to go down fighting for the planet -- and succeeding in that one aspect? I know it's not much comfort, Chief, but her death was not meaningless. That may be the best legacy that any person can leave."

Blair's gaze was unseeing as he turned his coffee mug around and around. "I know you're right," he almost whispered, "but it doesn't make it any easier to accept."

"Not now," Jim acknowledged. "But later, when the pain isn't so sharp, it'll help."

Blair threw Jim a challenging look. "Has it helped you?"

"Not always; I've seen too many men die uselessly, from back-stabbing deceit. But sometimes, when I knew and they knew their deaths moved the world one step closer to justice... yeah, it helps."

"I hear you, man, and maybe it'll help later; thanks for trying." Blair held Jim's gaze for a moment, then pushed back from the table. "But right now, not so much. I think I'll go for a walk." He grabbed his jacket from the hook and slipped out the door.

Jim sighed as he rose to clear the table and wash the dishes. At least Blair had listened, so the conversation hadn't been a complete bust. Only time would tell if he had actually helped.

Finally! He seemed to be getting somewhere. He didn't know where, yet, and wasn't even sure he could count it as 'progress'. But the ambient light was a little stronger, and there was a definite current of air blowing in his face. He just hoped, when he found the source, it wouldn't be a little rabbit-sized hole that he'd have to dig his way out.

But Jim had said he'd find him, so if he needed to dig, at least he'd have help. He just wished the big guy would hurry up; he'd been walking for hours, and he sure was getting tired. But he'd be damned if he'd let his friends find him sitting on his ass, pathetically waiting for rescue like some Victorian damsel in distress. He could walk for a while longer before he had to rest.

But the human body can only be pushed so far. Eventually, his weary legs insisted that he stop walking, or they'd simply refuse to carry him. Well, even the Lord, in every creation story that he knew of, had rested after his labors. So, okay; just for a little while. He stopped where he was -- one piece of rocky ground was no more or less comfortable than the next -- and eased down, leaning his back against the wall.

Now that he wasn't moving, the breeze seemed to be strengthening, which made no sense; if he wasn't moving into it, he shouldn't feel it as strongly. But there it was, taunting him for stopping. Stupid breeze; if it wanted him so badly, it could make itself solid and float him out of here.

If it wasn't going to help, he wished it'd shut up so he could maybe take a little nap. But no, it just kept talking. "You cannot stay there; come to us, young shaman." Well, duh! He was
trying to get out; it wasn't like he needed any encouragement. "There is much you need to know, to protect your sentinel and keep him safe." Oh, like that was a newsflash! Why else was he studying every obscure source he could get his hands on? But it wasn't like he could learn this stuff overnight. The universe -- and Jim -- would just have to be patient.

"Your books do not tell the whole story; such secrets were not shared with those who could not understand, or who would put them in books to be mocked by those with limited imagination. You must come to speak to us in person, and come soon; to wait too long is to risk your full development as a shaman. Incacha gave you a great gift, but it cannot be used effectively if the user lacks full knowledge. Come to us, young shaman. Come soon."

Great. When your hallucinations started talking to you, it was time to get moving again. He forced himself to his feet and once again headed into the breeze, still keeping one hand on the wall, and testing every step before he transferred his weight to the forward foot. Hell of a way to travel, but at least the need for concentration kept the hallucinations quiet.

A few days later, Jim turned off the evening news, stood and stretched. "Time for all hardworking cops and anthropologists to be in bed," he announced. "You planning on closing up shop any time soon?"

"Yeah, in a little while," Blair muttered. "I just want to finish this section first." He was hunched over the kitchen table with a thick book open in front of him, reading intently. Occasionally he scribbled notes on the pad by his elbow, or reached for one of the many other books piled around him to make a comparison.

As far as Jim could tell, dropping a class hadn't made any difference in Blair's study-load; if anything, it seemed to have increased. Case in point: he'd been working on this project, whatever it was, for the past four evenings, and every spare minute in the day -- and Jim didn't even know what it was.

But the PD gave him a paycheck on the assumption that he was a detective; might as well put those skills to use. Jim casually passed by the table, glancing at the covers of some of the books.

The common theme was immediately evident, with titles such as, The Way of the Shaman, Principles of Shamanism, Secrets of Shamanism: Tapping the Spirit Power Within You, Shaman in a 9 to 5 World... and there were eight more books scattered across the table. Jim shook his head; couldn't the kid find anything real to study? "Geeze, Sandburg, wouldn't it be easier to read the Cliff notes, or find something like Shamanism for Dummies? Seems like you're losing a lot of sleep for something that's not even in your course curriculum."

Blair snorted, without looking up from the page. "The library actually has a copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shamanism. It shouldn't surprise you that it doesn't have the depth needed for an honest study of the subject. This is serious stuff; I'm not just playing around because I have nothing better to do."

Oh, shit. Jim had been worried about something like this; Blair tackled everything with a hundred and ten percent effort, often ignoring food and sleep until he'd completed the project to his satisfaction, or until he collapsed from exhaustion. The question was, would he be able to knock some sense into the kid's head?

Jim sat across the table. "Sandburg," he said firmly, "look at me." It took a moment, but the command finally penetrated his concentration, and Blair raised his head.

"Look," Jim said, "I know Incacha's death hit you hard, and I really appreciate that. He was a good man, and I think I'd be pissed if you just brushed it off. But when he passed the way of the shaman to you, I think he just wanted you to watch out for me; he didn't expect you to change your whole way of life. And you're already doing a great job of looking out for me, and helping me with this sentinel stuff. All this..." he gestured to the stacks of books, "...just isn't necessary."

Blair took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "I think it is necessary, Jim; even vital." He shook his head when Jim started to protest. "No, see, you're looking at it through Western eyes; you see it as just words that may or may not make a person feel better, but don't mean anything. But when you were with the Chopec, didn't you see Incacha do things that seemed inexplicable if he wasn't tapping into some kind of power?"

Jim shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "You know I don't remember much from that time, Chief. But what I do remember..." He paused. "Well, suggestion and community belief can go a long way toward swaying people's minds. And since I was part of the community, I wasn't immune."

"And that's why the Western mind has such a hard time dealing with shamanism, or alternate spiritualities of any type; our whole culture has taught us that if something isn't solid and tangible, it's not 'real'. We're very good at explaining away anything that falls outside our expectations. But, what -- maybe one-quarter of the world? -- can't all be wrong, or hallucinating, or subscribing to 'primitive superstition'. There's a truth and a reality there, but it's hidden unless someone specifically seeks it out. I'm sure of it; I've caught glimpses of it once or twice. But I need to be able to access it more easily, more completely."

"But why, Chief? Like I said, you're doing a good job of helping me with this sentinel thing. I know I don't often say it, but I can't imagine doing it without you; you've helped me get a real handle on my senses, and you always come up with an answer when we need it. I don't see how knowing some extra mumbo-jumbo will make any difference."

Blair shook his head with a soft snort. "Jim, we're like a mismatched pair in a three-legged race, and one of us is using a crutch, besides. We're limping along at half-speed, when we should be winning the hundred-yard dash. My last-minute half-assed suggestions have worked out so far... but what happens when they don't? My job is to make things so easy for you that your senses function as naturally as breathing, and with as little thought or stress. We're not even close to that, and I don't know how to get us there. So that's what these are for." He slapped the open book in front of him. "It'll take a lot of searching, and study, but the answers are in here. Or if not, I'll find other books that will show me the way. Besides..." Blair was rubbing his hand over the spot where Incacha had once clasped his arm with a bloody hand; Jim suspected he wasn't even aware of the gesture, or what it signified. "...however he meant it, it was Incacha's wish that I learn the way of the shaman. His dying wish. If I don't at least try, it's like throwing it back in his face. I can't do that."

Jim released a gust of air; what the hell could he say to that? Even though he thought nothing would come of it, he suspected that it would break something in Sandburg if he insisted that he abandon his research. And, really, studying was second nature to Blair; the worst that could happen was that he'd lose a little sleep.

"Okay, buddy," he acknowledged. "It obviously means a lot, and I don't want to put barriers in the way of anything that's important to you. Just remember -- you can't learn it all overnight, and we are managing pretty good. So give yourself some time, and don't forget to eat and sleep, or your sentinel is going to come down 'blessed protector' all over your ass!" The scowl was feigned, but the threat was serious; he hoped Sandburg recognized that.

Apparently, he did. "Thanks, Jim," he said with a smile. "I promise. Look --" he flipped the pages to the end of the chapter, "only four more pages to go. Then I'll hit the sack. Maybe you should hurry to fall asleep first; then my snoring won't keep you awake."

"Sandburg, I slept in Army barracks; no way your puny snores will disturb my sleep." He aimed a head-swat, which Blair easily ducked. "But if I don't hear them inside of thirty minutes, I'll come down and march you into bed myself."

"Sir! Yes, sir!"

Blair had the words right, although the intonation and twinkle in his eye was all wrong. But, good enough; Jim headed up the stairs. He had just reached the top when sentinel hearing easily picked up the softly-spoken, "Good night, Jim. And, thanks."

Thank every God, Goddess, or Deity he'd ever heard named; there was now enough light for him to actually see where he was going. As he'd suspected, he was in a kind of cave-tunnel, though it wasn't nearly as large as he'd first thought. The opposite wall was just a little over an arm's-length away, though he was sure he'd crawled farther that before he'd found his 'guiding' wall. Maybe the passage had narrowed as he'd traveled, or maybe his perceptions had been way out of whack. And the ceiling was only a few inches above his head; if he was as tall as Jim, he'd have given himself a few good knocks during his journey.

He paused for a few moments as he contemplated this unexpected and unexplained trip. As tedious as the journey had been, it had been remarkably easy. The floor had been free of abrupt changes in level or stray boulders that might have tripped him, and his guiding hand on the wall had not encountered any spaces marking side-tunnels. He wasn't sure how he'd have handled that; a side tunnel might have led to an easier way out, or farther from eventual rescue. Frankly, he was glad he hadn't had to make the choice.

Although, come to think of it... this whole setup was rather like a cattle chute, urging him to move in only one direction. If he'd initially chosen the other, would he have met some kind of obstacle that would have forced him to turn around? Or would the venue he was heading toward simply have been moved to the other end of this long, boring tunnel?

He'd suspected some kind of foul play when he'd first awakened -- seemed like half the bad guys in Cascade expected to attack Jim through his partner -- but it was now obvious that this was some kind of shamanic dream-walk. He wouldn't be getting any help from Jim or their friends from the PD. No, someOne or someThing had set him on this journey through an otherworldly plane, and he'd have to complete the requirements -- whatever they were -- before he'd find out what was going on.

No help for it; he started walking forward again, one foot in front of the other, over and over again. At least the increased light let him give his abused fingertips a rest from feeling along the wall, and he could walk more normally, instead of using his earlier feel-and-step method. He wished he'd get there soon -- wherever 'there' would be -- so he could get this over. On the other hand, this incessant walking was probably part of the test, to see if he had the intestinal fortitude to keep going.
'Like the damn Energizer bunny,' he thought, wryly. But all the books insisted that shamanic tests could be quite strenuous; he'd be lucky indeed if this was all he had to do. Whatever; he was determined not to let down Incacha... or Jim.

So, he kept walking.

Jim glanced across the truck at his sleeping partner. Blair had brought one of his shaman books to study while they were on stakeout, but had drifted off barely thirty minutes into the watch. Based on his rapid eye movements and elevated heartbeat, the kid was dreaming again, but at least it didn't seem as stressful as the first few nights; he wasn't whimpering, or tossing and turning.

But he was going to wake up with a hell of a crick in his neck, with his head leaning against the window like it was. Besides, a sleeping head against a window would scream 'cop stakeout' to any suspicious watchers. Jim reached across and pulled Blair sideways, until his torso was stretched out across the seat and his head was pillowed on Jim's thigh. Much better; Sandburg would be more comfortable, the feeling of his guide's body resting against his would help him keep his senses grounded, and any observers would simply see a man waiting impatiently for a delayed co-rider.

Almost unconsciously, Jim stroked Sandburg's head as he watched the house halfway down the block. This shamanism study thing was riding the kid hard. Although he was getting a decent amount of sleep -- Jim made sure of it, pointing out that Blair couldn't function effectively as his guide if he was too tired -- it didn't seem to be doing a lot of good. The kid had developed permanent bags under his eyes, and his enthusiastic bounce was maybe ten percent of normal. So far, no one else seemed to have noticed it. Sandburg had demonstrated that he was quite a talented actor -- or maybe it was just another method of 'obfuscation' -- and he managed to present something close to his normal demeanor at the PD and, presumably, at the university.

But once they were safe in the loft, Sandburg seemed like a completely different person -- withdrawn and depressed, and almost desperate. Apparently, he wasn't finding what he hoped / wanted / needed in his shaman books and, increasingly, he seemed to blame himself. Jim had talked with every reasoned argument he could think of, pointing out that, if Blair couldn't find what he was searching for, it either didn't exist or it wasn't very important. Every time, Sandburg listened politely, nodded, then drove himself to further efforts.

As the days and weeks passed, Jim was growing increasingly uneasy. Sandburg seemed to be... not drifting away, exactly, but developing a kind of -- space, like a no-man's-land -- between him and the rest of the world. Especially between him and his sentinel. This quest for shamanic understanding seemed so all-encompassing; what would Sandburg do if he couldn't find the answers here in Cascade? Surely he wouldn't leave; he had obligations to the university and to his sentinel, and Blair took his obligations seriously.

But if he couldn't find what he needed here, and he couldn't go... then what? Would some inner part of Sandburg just... shrivel away? If that happened, would Jim still have his best friend -- or just a walking, breathing shadow of the essence of the man he once was?

Jim hoped like hell it wouldn't come to that, but he felt basically helpless. All he could offer in support was to ply his friend with regular, nourishing meals and insist on at least seven hours of sleep per night, which was two more than Sandburg often allowed himself. Maybe it would be enough; Blair would find what he needed, and everything would go back to normal.


Jim stepped through the door to find Sandburg snuffing his candles, and moving the furniture back into its normal positions. He said nothing; Blair had been leaving the PD early two or three times a week to work in an hour or two of meditation. Jim couldn't tell if it was helping, and Blair was being unusually reticent. Still, it was unlikely to hurt anything -- Sandburg was so familiar with meditation that he could probably do it standing on his head, with his hands tied behind his back. Jim just crossed his fingers that his buddy would get some benefit from it, and carefully avoided rocking the boat.

"The Jags are playing tonight, Chief. What d'ya say we order in a pizza, watch the game, and make an easy night of it? No studying for you, no case-files for me; just two friends kicking back and relaxing. I could sure use a break, and I think you could, too."

Blair considered the proposition, then gave a half-shrug and a nod. "Sure, man. You're right; one evening won't make a difference, and I could use a bit of downtime." He headed toward the phone. "Half meat-lover's, half vegetarian?"

Jim shook his head with a grin. "Y'know, Chief, Tony tells me you're the only customer that ever orders that combination, and they always have to explain it to the new workers. I don't know how you get away with it."

"I keep telling you, man; pleasant conversation works better than caveman grunting every time. One of these days, maybe you'll give it a try; you'll be amazed at the results."

"Why bother, when I have you to run interference? You cajole, I growl, and together we cover all the bases. Works for me."

"Just wait; one of these days you'll wish you knew the other half of the equation." Blair turned his attention to the phone. "Tony? It's Blair. We'll have the usual, please, with an extra order of garlic breadsticks?" Jim nodded to his raised eyebrow. "Yeah, that'll do it; thanks, Tony."

Blair headed into the kitchen. "Thirty minutes. You want to shower while I make the salad?"

"Nice to know all that studying hasn't addled your brain, Chief. I'll be out in twenty." Jim headed up the stairs, looking forward to spending some actual 'quality' time with his friend once again.

The change in light was so gradual that, when he finally noticed it, he realized he'd been seeing it for some time. There was a flickering ahead, like a fire of some kind. And, now that he was paying attention, the breeze blowing into his face carried the scent of woodsmoke.

He hesitated. From ancient times, fire had been one of humanity's greatest friends -- and one of its deadliest enemies. Fire provided warmth, a way to cook food, and protection from wild animals. But fire was also a great destroyer of forests, homes -- and people. Was the firelight ahead a welcoming beacon, or a warning to stay away?

The idea of retracing his steps -- repeating hours of walking on the slim possibility of finding a different way out -- made him cringe, but maybe it would be safer. But when he turned to face the other direction, he saw only an impenetrable darkness. It made no sense; he'd just traveled that area; the ambient light had been dim, but enough to see where he was walking. Now, it was as if a heavy curtain of blackness had been drawn across the tunnel.

It had to be an illusion... not that everything he was doing wasn't also an illusion. At least, that was his current working hypothesis; illusion or shaman-dream, there seemed to be little difference. But would the darkness-illusion hold up under a test, or dissipate into whatever was 'normal' for this realm?

Only one way to find out. He turned and headed away from the flickering light, back the way he had come. Within ten steps, he was traveling through a darkness so intense he might as well have been struck blind. But maybe it was a relatively narrow phenomenon, and he could pass through into the lighted area again. With fingertips once more brushing the wall, he continued along his backward path for another twenty-five steps.

No change; obviously, he was meant to keep heading toward the firelight. Even if he wanted to ignore that implicit command, he couldn't imagine hours of walking through this stygian darkness; at least he had
some light when he traveled in the approved direction, even though it compared unfavorably to your average sixty-watt bulb. And, if he did force the issue and tried to continue along the backward path, might he encounter some more physical obstacle to prevent it? Somehow, he suspected Whoever was running this show might provide just such a definite 'disincentive'.

With a shrug, he reminded himself that shamanic dreams weren't supposed to particularly easy, or even make much sense, and turned back toward his original direction. Only five steps later, he could once again see; the ambient light allowed him to walk freely, with the flickering firelight his presumed goal. He just hoped he wouldn't be required to walk
through the fire, or something equally painful, to prove his worthiness.

Jim watched Blair pick listlessly at his perfectly good dinner -- Swedish meatballs over whole-grain noodles, and the meat a Sandburg-approved blend of 40% beef and 60% turkey -- and decided it was time to broach the subject again. The kid had acquired ever-more esoteric books on shamanism, searching the online used booksellers, and obtaining others through inter-library loan. He was, apparently, still not finding the answers to his questions, and the strain was becoming ever more obvious. He had developed an unhealthy pallor, as if he'd been too long away from the sun, and the reduction in his general enthusiasm was being noticed even at the PD. Just yesterday, Joel had pulled Jim aside to ask if Blair was sick, and to suggest a couple of 'surefire home remedies' and 'maybe some concoctions from the health-food store'.

As soon as dinner was finished and the dishes washed, Jim stopped Blair as he started to pull out his stack of shamanism books. "Chief, let that go for a few minutes; we need to talk."

Blair looked puzzled, but had no energy to question or protest. "Sure, Jim." He waited docilely while Jim grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge, followed his friend into the living room, then stood in the middle of the room, seemingly at a loss of what to do next.

"Sit, Sandburg," Jim ordered, and handed him a beer as he did so. Blair took the beer, but held it as if he didn't know what to do with it.

Jim sighed. "Chief, I don't know how to say this, except to just dump it out there. I'm worried about you -- hell, even Joel and Simon have noticed it; you're falling apart in front of our eyes.

"Excuse me?" The direct challenge stirred a response. "I back you up when you need it, I teach, I carry my own classes, and I study. A certain overprotective sentinel is making sure I eat well -- thanks for that, by the way -- and I'm getting more sleep than I have since I was twelve. How the hell do you get 'falling apart' out of that?"

"Have you actually seen yourself in a mirror lately? Your skin tones look like you've spent a month in a dungeon, the bags under your eyes have their own bags, and you've lost at least ten pounds. This shamanism thing is doing something to you, Chief, and it isn't good. I know it's important to you, but not at the expense of your health. I was thinking, maybe you could put it off until next summer; maybe having no classes at the same time would... I don't know, make it easier for you to concentrate, or make connections, or something."

Blair ran his fingers through his hair as he struggled to find a way to explain it to Jim. "I appreciate your concern, man, I really do. But... I don't think they'll let me wait."

Oh, crap. Somewhere deep down, he'd been afraid that this was turning into some spirit-world shit. He'd hoped that his previous exposure to a spirit animal -- and a spirit shaman that wore his face and gave inscrutable advice -- would be enough for one lifetime. "Who won't let you wait, Chief?"

"I don't know?" The uncertainty was clearly evident in Blair's voice and his eyes, as he gazed at Jim, displayed... sheer misery.

That look stopped Jim's automatic retort. He carefully evaluated Sandburg's demeanor -- pretty damn shaky, in his estimation -- and spoke carefully, gently.

"Then what's giving you that impression, Chief? I'm sure you have some reason for what you're feeling."

Blair shrugged a shoulder and lowered his gaze to his hands, worrying at a hangnail.

"I know you're still not sleeping well; is it the dreams?"

Blair's head dipped lower, as he found another ragged nail to focus on.

"Com'on, Sandburg. I promise I won't laugh; it can't be any stranger than what I faced when we were in Peru to rescue Simon."

In a voice barely above a whisper, Blair said, "I don't know 'cause I haven't got there yet."

"Still not getting the picture, buddy."

Blair rose from the couch and crossed to stare unseeingly out the balcony doors. "You're right; it's the dreams. I'm in a kind of cave-tunnel, and I've been walking for... days, I guess. Now I'm seeing firelight flickering ahead of me, but it's a still a long way away. I figure I'll learn something when I get there... but I really don't know. But I do know it's important, that I'm supposed to do this."

"And you know this because...?"

"Because I wasn't sure about the fire. But when I turned back, I walked into blackness I couldn't get out of. Then when I went toward the fire, it was light again."

Jim hesitated. "Blair, I swear I'm not... well, maybe I am. What makes you think this dream is anything more than the hodgepodge our brains usually toss at us? Especially since you've been reading all those shamanism books, it would probably affect your dreams. It doesn't necessarily mean anything."

Blair finally turned to face Jim, as if in challenge, though he maintained the distance between them. "It has to mean something! I've been having the same dream too many nights, and it's progressive. And there's a... a feeling; I'm being guided. And there's the whole shamanic idea of overcoming obstacles before you're allowed to know a purpose, or an answer." Blair turned and faced Jim, eyes haunted. "I mean, it's not like I can stop; the dreams come whether I want them or not. All I can do is see them through to the end, and hope I learn something."

"And I suppose your meditation has been showing you the same thing?"

"Yep; I pick up from wherever I was the last time I slept. I've been walking a long time, man, and still no indication when I'll get to the end. But I'm sure I'll get there eventually; it's all part of the process."

Jim controlled the urge to heave his beer bottle against the wall. It wouldn't do a bit of good, and he'd be the one cleaning it up. "Then what can we do, Sandburg? I can't believe Incacha would expect the road to shamanism to destroy your health."

"Jim, I'm not sleeping great and I've lost a few pounds; big deal! It's not like I'm going to keel over tomorrow. I mean, be realistic; they can't induct a new shaman into the fold -- assuming that's their intention -- if they let me die. Hell, I've had worse every year at finals time, just not so... linear."

"And if it is a delusion?" Jim challenged. "How do I know if or when I should get you some psychiatric help?"

"Fair question," Blair acknowledged. He pondered for a few moments. "How about this? As long as I can function normally -- taking care of my classes at the university and backing you up in the field -- we let this play out and see what happens. If I become... withdrawn, or unable to meet my ordinary commitments... then you can get me into some quiet funny-ward, and let the doctors try to fix me. But I honestly don't think it'll come to that."

Jim considered the proposal. Sandburg was right; it wasn't like he could turn off the dreams like shutting off a hose. And -- he'd trusted Incacha in life. Surely he could trust Incacha in death, as well. His former shaman wouldn't let his new, budding shaman, come to any harm.

"Okay," he agreed. "But I want a new schedule. After your schoolwork, no more than two hours a night studying the shamanism; it may take a little longer to finish, but it'll ease some of the stress you're putting on yourself. And I expect you to eat when I feed you, not push the food around on your plate. I know fasting is sometimes a component of certain ceremonies, but long-term starvation isn't. If you're going to do this, you need to stay at the top of your game, not barely staggering through."

Blair's shoulders dropped with the sudden release of tension. Jim had listened and, more importantly, believed. Or was at least willing to believe that Blair believed. He crossed to sit back down on the couch and took a hefty swallow of his abandoned beer. A bit warm, now, but it really hit the spot. He turned his head to catch and hold Jim's eyes.

"You got it, big guy. I'll be a little less obsessive about the shamanism, and a little more rational about the daily routine." He raised his bottle toward Jim. "Deal?"

It wasn't all he'd hoped for, but more than he'd expected. Jim raised his bottle to meet Blair's with an audible ~clink~. "Deal."

The firelight now filled the tunnel as he walked forward, bright enough to throw a shadow behind him; he was getting very close. Finally, the passage narrowed even further, ending in an arched opening to a separate cave that seemed the source of the firelight. As he passed through the archway, he found himself in a circular area, large enough that shifting shadows formed beyond the reach of the available light. A gathering of people sat around a well-built fire in the middle of the room.

He paused, evaluating the group that had turned his way as he'd entered the chamber. Truthfully, he was a little unnerved by the number of people that faced him. He'd expected... well, probably Incacha, and maybe one or two of his fellow shamans from other tribes near his. Sitting down with two or three people for a chat -- even a chat that was likely to turn 'mystical' and take him into areas he didn't fully understand -- seemed reasonable. He'd long since concluded that the purpose of this dream-journey was for someone to pass on knowledge that he needed.

But he hadn't expected to be facing over a dozen shamans who, judging by their attire and decorations, represented a variety of cultures across the world. Five of them were women, which made sense; shamans had to be in touch with their inner selves to be able to connect easily to the spirit world, and women were generally very good at that. However, he was surprised by the lack of 'age' in the group. There were a few whose weathered faces and wrinkles showed the passage of many years, but most appeared to be no older than mid 30's to late 40's, and a couple seemed to have reached adulthood only recently. Of course, Incacha hadn't been old when they'd met, so he should have known better. And he knew that many shamans were called to their gift as children or teens so that, although they studied for many years, they were still young when they formally embraced their responsibilities. But, somehow, he'd always pictured a shaman as an elderly man, who'd already lived a long life.

You're an idiot! he told himself sternly. Toss your stupid expectations in the trash, and don't let out even a hint that you thought they'd all be doddering ancients. But this was a spirit-plane. They might already know his thoughts. He just hoped they'd forgive him, if he proved himself willing to listen and learn.

They seemed to be waiting for him to step forward; perhaps it was another test, to forge onward against uncertainty. But he felt frozen. You could tell these men and women were beyond 'ordinary' just by looking at them. Several had colorful feathered headdresses, and others wore decorations of beads, shells, and animal teeth. Many had face and body paint or tattoos, although some dressed in colorful, flowing robes dyed with intricate designs. When he looked down at himself -- gray T-shirt covered with red-and-black plaid overshirt, and faded jeans -- he hardly felt like he could fit in the group. Maybe his earrings and the ankh necklace would indicate a spiritual inclination but, somehow, he doubted they'd carry much weight.

The biggest hangup, though, was that each and every one of them was accompanied by a spirit animal, and some of those were decidedly intimidating. Jim had told him about his black panther, which was hardly a pussycat, but he himself had never seen the animal. Somehow, he'd sort of assumed that was a sentinel thing. Since he'd never seen a sign of a spirit animal for himself, he'd kind of thought that maybe a spirit animal took care of a sentinel and guide together. Now, it seemed that shamans were also attached to spirit animals, and he uneasily regarded a virtual zoo. The eagle, the snake, the dingo, and the alligator were dangerous species; although he hesitated to be near them, a sentinel or shaman might well require the strength of such powerful spirits. But some seemed far less suited to protection; how much help could be gained from a rabbit, a squirrel, or a skunk? A skunk? Obviously, he had to do some serious research about the strengths of spirit animals.

Still more surprising were some of the pairings. Incacha carried the eagle on his shoulder, which seemed appropriate, but the huge cougar rested his head on the lap of the young Asian woman, while a very large, muscular, tattooed man had a lizard resting on his arm. The buffalo seemed well-matched to the Native American, but the dragonfly looked odd sitting on the head of a man he thought was indigenous to the Brazilian rain forest. He supposed when he learned more, it would all make sense.

But, he noticed uneasily, every shaman seemed to have an spirit-animal match. He didn't see any unattached animals, so it was unlikely that one was his and, though he tried to ignore the stab of jealously, he couldn't help feeling left out. But maybe he'd get a spirit animal when he finished his shaman lessons. He hoped so; it kind of rankled that Jim had one and he didn't.

Well, standing here wouldn't get anything accomplished. He took a deep breath and stepped forward, moving into the open space that seemed to have been left for him in the circle. Gracefully, he lowered himself to sit cross-legged on the ground, matching their positions. Then, he waited. As the most junior person present -- any way you wanted to look at it -- it was not his place to begin the proceedings.

The silence continued so long that Blair had to resist the urge to suggest a round of 'Kumbayah'. He also squashed the unlikely notion that the Native American would start to pass around a peace pipe. Patient waiting was often part of a test; he settled himself more comfortably, and tried to blank his mind of anything other than the moment.

Finally one of the women -- elderly, Hawaiian, he thought -- opened the conversation. "We have met to judge if this young haoli is a suitable guide for Incacha's brother Enqueri."

"I judged him suitable," Incacha asserted. "I read his heart; I would not have passed the way of the shaman to him had I found him unable to meet the responsibility."

"You were dying," rumbled a large man from one of the African nations, though he wasn't sure which. "Perhaps the urgency of the situation caused your examination to be less thorough than it might otherwise have been."

Shit, this was his greatest fear playing out in front of him. What would he do if they decreed he wasn't a suitable guide, and insisted he leave Jim? What would
Jim do? Somehow, he thought, 'Sorry, buddy, the spirit shamans said I'm no good for you,' wouldn't go over very well.

"The situation was urgent," agreed the young Asian woman. "But the question must be asked -- is there any other person connected to Enqueri who has the personal qualities that might induce him or her to become a guide? Furthermore, Incacha has told us that Enqueri does not extend friendship or trust easily. Since he considers this young one to be his guide, would he be likely to accept another candidate, even if that one has better qualifications?"

"He would not," Incacha insisted. "Enqueri is a stubborn man; if this turiku left him, he would refuse any other guide."

Little brother? Wow, Incacha thought more of him that he'd suspected. But thank goodness Jim's former shaman agreed with his own assessment; splitting up him and Jim would be disastrous for his sentinel. If these guys would just tell him what he needed to do, they could finish this meeting and he'd get on with the program.

"An open heart and an honorable mind are the most important aspects of becoming a worthy shaman and guide." That shaman looked Scandinavian, with a polar bear sitting behind him. "The other qualifications can be learned -- if the student is willing to do so." The man was looking directly at him, with a severe expression on his face.

He nodded his agreement, and started to speak, but Incacha interrupted him. "Your dreams spoke truth, turiku; your books cannot teach you what you need to know. We recognized that you had to try, to allow you to discover the futility of trying to learn the ways of a shaman from cold books. Now that you understand, you will believe us when we tell that you must undertake a journey of learning. You must seek out and study directly at the feet of shamans who can teach and guide you."

"Shamans?" he asked, keeping his tone deferential. "Is there not one who can give me all the instruction I need?" If he could work with just one person, he wouldn't have to leave Jim alone too long.

"Enqueri is the strongest sentinel in many generations. Through him, when the time is right, you will draw other sentinels and guides to you, so that they may also learn and go forth. You will need all the knowledge you can gain, from as many sources as you can find. This will not be possible over a few days or a few weeks, turiku; you must commit to it fully, for as long as it takes, or face failure."

His mouth was dry, and his heart pounded. "I can't leave Jim alone for such a length of time; he still needs me to help manage his senses. How can I make a journey that will help me, if I know it's going to hurt Jim?"

"The sentinel must travel with the guide." The young Asian woman sounded eminently practical, though her cougar growled softly. "The sentinel must understand what the guide is learning, and will also have some lessons of his own to learn. Together, you will gain a connection and strength that you could not achieve separately."

"But Jim's a policeman -- a warrior for the city," he objected. "He can't just walk away from his responsibilities of protection. I don't think I could even talk him into it. And... I also have obligations I must meet in the outside world. The kind of journey you're talking about -- it's just not possible at this time."

"You must find a way; otherwise the final connection will not be made, and sentinels and guides who cannot find their way to you will suffer, and never reach their potential. This is important, turiku. If you must discharge your outside obligations, do so quickly; the journey must begin before the start of the new year, or it will not be successful. Speak to Enqueri; as stubborn as he is, he does not wish you harm. Working together to accomplish your commitments will be beneficial to both of you, and the first step on your journey of learning."

Incacha sounded so certain. Personally, he wasn't convinced that Jim would be -- considering his job, that he
could be -- so accommodating. But it looked like he'd have to try, or face being drummed out of the brotherhood before he even got started.

He bowed his head, then straightened and faced the gathered shamans directly. "I hear your words, and I will do all that I can to follow your instructions. I thank you for your guidance; I wouldn't want Jim to suffer because of my inadequacies."

"Well said, young shaman." The Hawaiian shaman, as well as the others, seemed to approve. "But words must be followed by actions; we will be watching." Then, one by one, the assembled shamans just... weren't there, and only Incacha remained seated by the fire.

"I chose correctly, turiku; you have a good heart and good instincts. Do not doubt yourself; you will do well."

"I'm gratified that you think so; I hope I don't disappoint you or Jim. But before you go, or I wake up, or whatever... I've been wondering."

Incacha gave permission for the question with an inclination of his head.

"When I finish this journey of learning -- will I get a spirit animal, too? I mean, is it, like, part of the graduation ceremony, or something?"

Incacha's smile was broad, and almost mischievous. "You have a spirit animal, turiku, one who is strong and wise. He will be watching, and guarding you on your journey. But it is not yet time for him to show himself to you. When he does, you will know him; he will be a source of strength to you, and a true companion to Enqueri's spirit animal."

Well, that was encouraging. He closed his eyes for a moment, cataloging animals in his mind. 'Strong and wise'; which one might it be?

When he opened his eyes, Incacha was gone. On the other side of the chamber was a large opening in the cave wall. Through it, he saw trees and grass, and the bright sunlight of the outside world. Apparently, this phase of his journey had finally ended. He wasn't certain that he could manage the next phase, but he'd promised to try. He stood, crossed the cave, and walked out into the sunlight.

Blair lay awake, staring upward into the darkness, thinking furiously. There had to be a way to learn 'all the knowledge he could gain', and still remain in Cascade. 'As many sources'... there were several Native American tribes in Washington and Oregon. If he could rearrange his schedule...

He was just spinning his wheels. Blair threw back the covers and turned on his desk-lamp, then pulled out the 'master TA class schedule' -- the one they all used to know who they could call on to cover a class -- and turned on his computer. He need research, hard facts to make realistic plans.

Fortunately, his Fridays were light -- one class at nine, followed by a two-hour block for office hours. Tom Casellas had been bitching about his Tuesday night class; his girlfriend had extra time on Tuesday afternoon and evening, but they couldn't take advantage of it. He could probably talk Tom into taking his Friday class in exchange for him taking the Tuesday evening class. Office hours were easy; he could put them anywhere in his schedule. Maybe early Tuesday; it would make for a long day, and he'd only be able to swing by the PD from about two to five in the afternoon. But if he saw Jim daily from Monday to Thursday, he could take off Thursday evening to visit the shaman of a nearby tribe, and be able to spend a solid three days with him or her, Friday to Sunday. Maybe every-other weekend. The schedule wouldn't be so grueling, and he might be able to talk Jim into coming with him sometimes. If 'the sentinel traveled with the guide' once a month, that should count for something.

Now, tribes in the area... Blair shook his head in self-disgust as he called up Google. He really should know this, but he'd always focused his attention further a-field. Well, he'd always told his students they needed to acquire a broad-based knowledge; he just hadn't opened his boundaries far enough, or opened them in the wrong direction, or something.

All right; without even leaving the state, he could visit six tribes -- Skokomish, Yakima, Tulalip, Shoalwater Bay, Upper Skaggit, and Puyallup. If he headed down to Oregon, there were the Paiute, Coquille, and Shoshone. And if he headed over the border into Canada, he could meet the Nlaka Pamux, Okanagan, Ktunaxa, Coast Salish, and Nuu-chah-nulth without having to spend too much time in traveling.

Of course, not every tribe's shaman would be willing to speak to an outsider. And some might be ready to speak in generalities, but too careful to discuss the secrets of sentinels and guides. Too bad Incacha hadn't given him some sort of code-word or secret signal he could use to convince the shamans that he was a legitimate seeker, rather than an amateur dabbler. But if one or two gave him their seal of approval, he supposed word would spread. If that were the case, later meetings might go more smoothly, with the shamans more inclined to speak freely.

Blair frowned at his notes as he tapped his pencil on the notepad. Somehow, he was pretty sure that working with shamans in this limited area of the Pacific northwest would not actually fulfill the spirit of the 'orders' he'd been given. Even if every shaman from a tribe on the list spoke freely and at length to teach him about sentinels and guides -- highly unlikely -- he was pretty sure it wouldn't meet the 'many sources' criterion; patterns of beliefs would probably be fairly similar in this relatively restricted area. And staying around here sure as hell wouldn't meet the 'journey' criterion. Could the weekend visits fulfill the 'before the new year' part of his instructions, and allow him to delay the actual 'journey' part till next summer? Maybe Jim would be willing to take three weeks off and travel with him.

He chewed a ragged cuticle as he considered and discarded more plans. He could hardly write letters to tribal shamans in the southwest and Mexico. No one would have any respect for one who asked intrusive questions on paper, without even the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting. And how could he even ask such questions on paper? If he got too specific about sentinels and guides, and the letter went astray and someone else read it... well, they might shrug and throw it in the trash, but it might also stir up a real hornet's nest.

Too bad he couldn't send a proxy... Blair's eyes widened, and he sat up straighter. That might work! Every anthro grad student in the country probably knew fifty percent of the others, from meeting and working on the same expeditions. Juanita Gonzales was at the University of Texas in El Paso, and she spent long holidays and the summers in Mexico with her grandparents; she'd be in a great position to visit some of the Mexican tribes. Pete Dalton was at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, where he could easily visit the Teseque and Pojoaque tribes. He was pretty sure Chris Rosenberg was still at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, easily within reach of the Apache tribes in the area, and the Cherokee, Comanche, and Wichita tribes in Texas.

He could probably convince them to talk to the shamans available in their respective areas; they'd be able to come up with some idea that could use as a research paper and, if they mixed in some of Blair's questions with their own, Blair would know which shamans would be most open to teaching him what he needed to know. It wasn't like his friends didn't already know he was doing his dissertation on sentinels; hell, he'd been talking about it for ten years. Having definite destinations, rather than just wandering, would make a summertime 'journey' more efficient.

Of course, that still left out huge numbers of the tribes available in the United States, not to mention Central America and middle or eastern Canada. But he couldn't do it all in one summer. He could tackle the northwest until May, then make plans to travel in the southwest during the summer, and tackle other regions -- the midwest, northeast, southeast, Canada, Central Mexico -- during successive summers. Offhand, he didn't know anyone who could act as an 'advance proxy' for him in those areas, but he was sure there were people he knew; he'd just have to do a little asking around to find out who was where.

Blair heaved a sigh as he felt a weight drop from his shoulders. This would work; he was sure of it. He might not be keeping to the letter of his instructions, but he was definitely upholding the spirit of 'many sources of teaching', all while allowing him and Jim to still be able to meet their respective obligations without too much disruption of their normal routines.

Okay, the letters to his fellow TAs -- and the questions he wanted them to pass on to any shamans they interviewed -- had to be perfectly clear and persuasive. Blair pulled his laptop forward and opened a new document. He'd work on it over several sessions, polishing it till it was just right, then copy and paste into an email. Now that he had a plan, there was no huge rush, but he wanted to get some of this stuff down while it was still fresh in his mind.

Hi, xxxx! How are you? Yeah, I know, it's been a while, but I have a huge favor to ask. I was hoping you could help me out with a bit of research, then pass it back my way. You know I'm still working on my sentinel dissertation, and I need --

Blair jumped, startled almost out of his skin as his door burst open with a sort of controlled violence and Jim's voice thundered, "Sandburg, for god's sake, it's three in the morning! I thought we agreed you'd keep this shaman stuff to regular hours, and get some decent sleep. I don't want to sound like your mother, but dammit, you've got to keep some perspective, and this doesn't qualify! Do I have to put that thing under my pillow for you to keep it turned off and sleep through the night?"

Jim lay awake, listening to Sandburg as his brain revved into high gear. He couldn't hear it directly, but he recognized the distinctive evidence -- the squeak of the chair as Sandburg sat at his desk, the scratch of pen across notepaper, the tapping of the laptop keys as he searched for something on the 'net. He wondered why; the kid had been conscientious about following their agreement from a couple of weeks ago; he'd been eating better, sleeping better, and seemed more like his former self. Even though the dreams had continued, they'd seemed less stressful, as though Sandburg had reached a kind of equilibrium, integrating them into his mental landscape. This sudden awakening and burst of activity was a new wrinkle and, therefore, suspicious by definition.

On the other hand... Sandburg really had been doing better. Maybe this was just a minor burp, and he'd get it out of his system and go back to bed. Unlikely; Sandburg on the trail of information was as single-minded as a bloodhound on the trail of an escaped con. But as often as he and the others in MC called him 'kid', Sandburg was a man, and responsible for regulating his own behavior. So... Jim would give him half an hour; if he wasn't back in bed by that time, he'd go down and read him the riot act. Accordingly, Jim set his internal time-sense to awaken him in thirty minutes, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

He awakened smoothly, and glared at the bedside clock. As expected, Sandburg was still working, and likely to keep it up until breakfast unless someone stopped him. Grunting in resignation, he pulled on a robe -- the nights were chilly, this time of the year -- and moved quietly down the steps. Surprise would go a long way toward breaking Blair's focus, which would make him more receptive to saving his work till morning. At least, it was a working theory; with Sandburg, you never really knew.

Accordingly, he threw open the bedroom door with a strongly audible 'snap'. "Sandburg, for god's sake, it's three in the morning!" Jim used his best drill-sergeant's bark to make his point. "I thought we agreed you'd keep this shaman stuff to regular hours, and get some decent sleep. I don't want to sound like your mother, but dammit, you've got to keep some perspective, and this doesn't qualify! Do I have to put that thing under my pillow for you to keep it turned off and sleep through the night?"

Sandburg jumped, and turned to blink hazily at him, as if coming back from another world -- which he probably was. "Actually, I don't think Naomi ever once told me when to go to bed," he said thoughtfully. "She would have considered it an intrusion into my personal autonomy."

Jim tried to rein in his temper; at times like this, Blair was as much under the influence as any addict -- and just as likely to wander into conversational tangents unless someone else took control. He sat on the edge of the bed, to avoid the appearance of looming, and tried to keep his voice reasonable.

"Look, buddy, remember our deal? You'd back off a bit on the shamanism stuff, and be a little more realistic about the daily routine. Do you really think that working half the night fulfills that agreement?"

"But that's changed, Jim! I reached the end of my dream-walk or vision-walk, or whatever it was, and I talked to Incacha and a bunch of other shamans, and now I know what I have to do." Eagerly, he poured it all out -- the stated requirements for a 'journey of learning', and his plans to break it up into weekend segments so as not to disrupt Jim's work at the PD, or his own work at the university, with the possibility of a longer journey during the summer. "I was hoping you could join me for part of it -- one of the shamans said the sentinel should accompany the guide. I thought maybe you could make one of the weekend trips with me every month, and maybe three weeks during the summer?" He turned hopeful eyes toward his sentinel, practically vibrating with the need for approval and affirmation... or at least acceptance.

Jim was torn between common-sense skepticism and the uneasy suspicion that, if Blair didn't follow his instructions the way they were meant, this whole sentinel-guide thing might fall down around their ears. He'd respected Incacha and -- despite his assertion that the shaman's powers had most likely been a combination of suggestion and community belief -- in his deepest heart, he was less certain of that conclusion.

"Y'know..." he started slowly, "I can see you've put a lot of thought into working around the restrictions of our jobs. But you're always telling us that we should think outside the box. You've got a little over two months till the end of the semester; couldn't you make arrangements to take the spring semester off for 'research purposes'? I mean, if you'd gone to Borneo, you'd have been out for a year. You could probably learn a lot from January to September, then take up school again for next fall's semester. And I have a lot of leave saved up; I could take a couple of weeks here and there to meet up with you."

Blair's eyes lit up for a moment, but then that brightness faded. "It would work for me, but what about you? I'd feel like I was falling down on the job, leaving you alone for eight months; a couple of weeks 'here and there' won't be enough to help you maintain stability with your senses. I'm afraid even three-day weekends might be pushing it, but I thought we could make it work if it was only twice a month." He gave a half-hearted shrug. "I figure it's worth trying, anyway; see how it goes down."

Unfortunately, Blair was probably right, Jim acknowledged to himself. Long-term separation from his guide -- say, six or eight weeks between meetings -- would undoubtedly play havoc with his senses. But surely, between the two of them, they could figure out some kind of viable answer. However, it didn't have to be done this instant. Now, if only he could convince Blair.

"Look, Chief, I respect what you're trying to do. I think it might be better if you modified your plans a little... but we've got time to work it out. You've still got better than two months to 'start your journey before the new year'. Right now, it's time to give your brain a rest, get back into bed, and get some sleep. It's hard enough to kick you out of bed in the morning when you've had the full allotment; I don't want to face the bear that you turn into when you're one-third below optimum snooze-time."

Blair's face split in a wide yawn, as if the reminder of the late hour was a direct hit to the sleep-center of his brain. "You're right, man," he agreed. "Tomorrow's another day, and things will probably fit together better after some decent sleep." He powered down the computer, turned off the desk lamp, and slipped back into bed. "Thanks for the words of wisdom, man; I really appreciate it. G'night."

"More like good morning, Chief; I'll see you in a couple of hours." He smiled as he closed the door gently behind him.

Jim sat at his desk with a file open in front of him, but it was simply a cover for his waffling thoughts. How much credence should he give this dream-vision thing of Sandburg's? On the one hand, after meeting the enigmatic spirit guide in Peru -- that morphed from a black panther to an entity that wore his own face, for god's sake -- it was hard to deny that spirit visions might be real. On the other hand, maybe they'd both been creating their own visions -- Jim, because he'd been worried about finding Simon and Darryl, and Blair, because he was worried about how Incacha's 'passing the way of the shaman' would affect him.

But ultimately, did it matter if the dream-vision was "real" if Sandburg believed it? Probably not; belief was a powerful thing. He'd seen people do some really crazy things, and other people do some really extraordinary things, when driven by sincere beliefs -- regardless of how the outer world judged those beliefs.

Okay, working hypothesis -- Blair sincerely believed in his dream-vision, and would react as it had been "real", so Jim would have to treat it the same way.

Wait... no, wrong hypothesis. If he simply went along with Sandburg's beliefs, that would imply that whatever measures Blair took in response to his visions wouldn't matter; if he was comfortable with his solutions, his psyche would be satisfied with whatever answers he found. But if the dream-vision had represented some kind of spiritual truth -- if some powerful Beings were watching and/or judging Sandburg's actions -- trying to fudge the rules could be dicey.

And, really, although religious beliefs took many forms, most of them had large areas of commonality. Didn't that mean that there was likely some kind of universal Truth that people were trying to access, however imperfectly?

So, better -- safer? -- hypothesis. If he considered the religious teachings of much of the world, the things he'd seen Incacha do, and the spirit guide who'd advised him when they went to rescue Simon and Darryl... it would be best if he believed in the dream-vision just as strongly as Sandburg did. But in that case, he didn't think it was a good idea for Blair to twist the meaning of his spirit-vision instructions. Whatever Gods there might be, they could sometimes get... surly... if their expectations were flouted. He wasn't sure they should put it to a test.

By that reasoning, the best course of action was to convince Sandburg to take a sabbatical from the university, and send him on his 'journey of learning' right after Christmas. But where did that leave him? Even after two years, he still needed Sandburg's help to manage these damn senses. Not every moment of every day, thankfully. For instance, he was usually able to maintain a pretty even keel with his senses when Sandburg was at the university. But there were still times when a sensory spike damn near crippled him; if Sandburg wasn't around to help, recovery was slow and painful.

And, now that he thought about it, he realized that he usually scheduled his fieldwork for times when Sandburg was away from the university, and able to travel with him. It hadn't been a conscious decision on his part but, looking back, it seemed he usually 'needed' to tackle his paperwork when Sandburg couldn't be at the PD. But, as soon as the kid showed up, that's when Jim 'needed' to get out and visit crime scenes or question witnesses. In other words, he'd been depending on Sandburg's backup with his senses most of the time -- on the order of ninety percent. The few times he had to work a scene without Sandburg, he made sure to take one of the other detectives with him. Maybe just having another person around, even if it wasn't Sandburg, helped him stay better-focused. Or maybe he simply didn't extend his senses as much when Sandburg wasn't around to cover his back. Whatever; his days of working without a partner were long past.

So, what would happen to him if Sandburg was out of his life for eight or nine months? The prospects looked... grim; unpleasant at best, and damned near unendurable at worst. He'd probably be okay if his senses automatically shut down when the guide left, but he had no control over that, and couldn't be certain it would happen. If they didn't shut down -- if he had to contend with his senses without Sandburg's help for that long a time -- he had the uneasy suspicion that he might not even survive if his senses went into near-constant spiking and overdrive. And it wouldn't be a pleasant death.

Well, according to Sandburg, the vision-shamans had insisted -- or at least strongly suggested -- that the sentinel should accompany the guide. It might not be so bad; if Sandburg was talking to shamans, they were likely to be away from cities, in more natural environments, which would give his senses some down-time. And if he got bored while Sandburg spent days discussing esoteric mumbo-jumbo with the local shaman, he could always pick up the occasional day-job.

But could he afford it? Jim turned to his computer and accessed his pay records and accumulated leave-time, then blinked in surprise. For years, he hadn't been using large portions of his allotted time off, but he hadn't realized that it now added up to five months! He could take five months leave with pay, and he'd always been frugal with his money. He could easily cover the next three months out of his savings, for him and Sandburg both.

And it might not even come to that. Eight months -- till the end of August -- was just an assumed outer time-limit, to allow Sandburg to be back at the university for the fall semester. He might learn all he needed to know by the beginning of May, for instance, or even April.

Hmm... A slow, broad smile grew on Jim's face. If Sandburg finished his 'lessons' early, they'd be off the clock, with no reason to come back any sooner than they'd planned. They could easily wander around the country, checking out prime surfing areas and fishing spots. The idea had an almost guilty attraction, like a little boy playing hooky from school. But why shouldn't he? He never had played hooky, and he was pretty sure Sandburg would tell him it was an American iconic rite-of-passage that everyone should experience at least once. And wasn't Sandburg always telling him that the sentinel should listen to the guide? So, he would -- and be sure to pack his fishing gear and surfboard when they took off.

Jim relaxed into his chair, relieved of a tension he hadn't noticed until it was gone. This decision felt... right. He just hoped he could make Sandburg see the sense of it.

Of course, Simon wouldn't be happy when he requested eight months' leave. Jim regarded the captain's closed door thoughtfully. In fact, he'd be pretty pissed. But it wasn't like Jim would be leaving him understaffed; Simon would have two months to find a replacement detective. He'd undoubtedly bluster loudly -- the captain rarely responded any other way -- but Jim knew the secret phrase. 'It's a Sentinel thing' -- guaranteed to make Simon clam up and accept whatever Jim or Blair suggested. It might seem unfair, but you really couldn't argue with the truth. It was a sentinel thing, and he did have to go with his guide.

Jim shrugged as he stood; might as well get the yelling over with now. He crossed the room, and knocked on the captain's door.

Blair seemed to levitate into MC at twelve-thirty, his excitement showing in the satisfied grin on his face. "Jim!" he called before he even reached the desk. "This is going to work; Tom was happy to trade his Tuesday class for mine on Friday, so I'll have a three-day weekend every week. And I had some other ideas that I think will help everything work out."

"That's great, Chief," Jim said sincerely as he rose to grab his jacket. "I have some ideas to run by you, too. But we'll have to save it for after we get home; right now I need you to help me check out a crime scene."

"Right now?" Blair seemed faintly surprised. "Yeah, sure, man; that's what I'm here for. But it seems odd that you need to go out as soon as I walk in the door. I guess policework is the very definition of 'never a dull moment', huh?"

Jim snorted softly as they waited for the elevator. "You know better than that, Sandburg; you've complained often enough about how boring stakeouts are. But I just realized something this morning. Turns out, I've been saving the boring stuff, like paperwork, for when you're not at the PD. If I have to work a crime scene, it just makes sense -- no pun intended -- to wait till you're available to watch my back, senses-wise."

"Really? That's so cool!" Blair bounced onto the elevator and pushed the button for the garage level. "But I mean... really?"

"Yes, really," Jim said dryly. "I'll let you figure out the statistics for yourself, if you want. And that's part of what we need to talk about tonight. But for now, get in the truck; the good citizens of Cascade are waiting for us."

By unspoken agreement, they shelved the heavy discussion till after dinner. During their meal of meatloaf -- Sally's secret recipe, which Jim hadn't shared even with Blair -- green beans and mashed potatoes, they kept to such important topics as the Jags' chances to make it to the championship, what the construction of a new elementary school a mile away would mean for the neighborhood, and whether or not the city really needed a new shopping center between Hay Avenue and Riley Drive.

After the dishes were washed and put away, Jim poured them each a fresh cup of coffee and urged Blair into the living room. As they sat down, Jim spoke before Blair could get started. "Chief, let me go first? I've been thinking, too, and my conclusions might change your plans a little."

At Blair's assenting nod, Jim settled back and took a deep breath. "Okay, here's the deal. Your dream-vision was either real, or an invention of your inner psyche." He raised a hand to stop Blair's automatic protest. "Yeah, I know, Western thinking. Just bear with me, okay?" Blair looked stubborn for a moment, then relaxed and nodded again.

"Right. Now, if the dream-vision is an invention of your inner psyche, whatever steps you take to meet the shamans' requirements will be good enough; your subconscious will set it up for you to feel you've succeeded. But if the dream-vision is real, on some spiritual level that I don't even want to think about... then trying to finagle around the shamans' requirements in a half-assed, off-again, on-again manner is likely to come back and bite you in the ass. And if the guide gets ass-bit, it's likely to be not too good for the sentinel, either."

Jim leaned forward, staring directly into Blair's eyes. "What I'm saying is, if we treat the whole situation as real, and it isn't, no harm, no foul. But if it's the other way around, there's no telling what could happen. So I think you should commit to that 'journey of learning', and take that sabbatical for the spring and summer. But also, I've been thinking about the problems my senses would likely give me without you around as backup, and it ain't a pretty prospect. So, just to be sure that the sentinel remains sane during that time... I'll go with you."

"What?" Blair's rose in a surprised squeak. "You can't be away from the PD that long! I mean, it might not take the whole eight months, but it could. Would you even have a job when we got back?"

"You know better than that, Chief. The PD always needs good policemen and detectives. At most, I'd simply have to re-certify. But here's the best part -- I have five months accumulated leave. I could sit around here in front of the boob-tube and get paid till the end of May, but I'd rather travel with you. In fact, I've already put the official request through channels."

"What about after that? I mean, I'm an expert at living from temp-job to temp-job, but I can't see you in that kind of lifestyle."

"You wound me, Chief. Rangers are endlessly adaptable; I can manage day-jobs with the best of them. But I also happen to have plenty of savings to draw on; we won't have any problem."

Blair sipped his coffee as he stared toward the darkened balcony doors. Not having to do his 'studies' piecemeal would make things a lot easier. And, to be honest, it was a real rush that Jim -- even as he admitted he was skeptical -- still believed enough in his dream-vision to turn his life upside-down. And he'd certainly feel better if Jim was with him, and not dealing with his senses alone for weeks or months at a time.

Not only that, with Jim's 'sabbatical' plan, he'd be able to deepen his work with the shamans in this area before they left. He'd been planning to spend only one or two weekends with each individual. It wasn't an ideal way to learn, but he'd felt such urgency to take everything in as fast as possible, to not miss out on information that he might need to help his sentinel. But now there was no rush; he could meet with each shaman for as many weekends as he needed, or the shaman was willing to give, until he'd absorbed all he could.

But still... it was a major change for Jim, the guy who could easily have written the book on 'consistency and order'. Traveling cross-country on a shaman-hunt would be the very antithesis of Jim's whole lifestyle. Blair focused again on his friend, his expression a mixture of hope and doubt.

"Man, I can't think of anything I'd like better than traveling with you while I do this. But... are you sure? I mean, absolutely sure? I'll basically be wandering wherever the wind blows, without any particular goal -- just finding shamans willing to teach me, probably by each one sending me to the next. Spontaneous meandering really isn't your thing, you know?"

Jim chuckled. "You'd be surprised, Sandburg. Special ops rarely proceed exactly to plan; if you can't develop a certain spontaneity, you're likely to end up dead. And between you, me, and the gatepost, it'll pretty much be an extended vacation for me. You'll have to go to 'school' every day to talk to the shamans, while I get to laze around walking, fishing, snoozing. I'm going to rub your nose in it every evening -- nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah." His eyes lit up as he stuck out his tongue, finally reducing Blair to laughter.

"How can I argue with such a well-reasoned explanation? All I can say is, 'welcome aboard, man; glad to have you along'."

"Then it's settled," Jim declared with evident satisfaction. "'Before the new year starts' -- say, December twenty-seventh? -- we load up the pickup and follow your nose."

"The pickup? We're taking the Volvo! After all, it's my learning-journey."

"Sandburg, it won't be much of a journey if we have to stop for repairs every other day. Besides, do you really think the Volvo is up to some of the back roads and rough trails we'll probably end up on? The pickup is much better suited for any rough terrain we run in to."

"Yeah, but..." Blair stopped, unable to find a reason Jim might consider valid. "The truck... feels wrong."

"Wrong? You like 'classics', it was built the year you were born... what could be righter than that?"

Jim was right, of course; the truck would be eminently practical. But, somehow, Blair's instincts insisted that the truck would be a hindrance. "I'm afraid some of the places we go, the truck'll seem too... ostentatious. If they see us as 'the man', people might not talk to me."

"'Ostentatious? Sandburg, it's twenty-eight years old; it'll fit right in with every other vehicle on the back roads. I'll even refrain from washing it, so it'll be sporting an authentic patina of road-dust."

Blair shrugged. "I know it isn't logical, but I just can't go in the truck."

"Well, the Volvo certainly isn't suitable for that long a trip!"

"It'll be fine!" Blair shot back. "If you don't like it, you don't have to come!"

"I thought you needed the sentinel to travel with the guide!"

"If the sentinel is going to be an ass, the guide can manage alone!"

They froze, staring at each other in dismay. Jim broke the silence with a tentative, "Chief, what's going on, here? We have two perfectly serviceable vehicles -- well, if we got the Volvo tuned up -- so where's this coming from?"

Blair shook his head, looking somewhat dazed. "I don't know. You're right, it doesn't make sense. But I can't shake the feeling... give me a few, okay?" Without another word he kicked off his shoes, sank cross-legged onto the rug in front of the couch, took a deep, centering breath, and closed his eyes.

Jim watched him, trying to wrap his head around what had just happened. Their usual communication included teasing, joking, bitching and griping, but they didn't almost come to blows over a simple difference of opinion. If he didn't know better, he'd think they were possessed. He hoped they weren't; the deeper he got into this sentinel shit, the more it seemed that anything was possible.

Finally, Blair opened his eyes and looked up at his friend. "I think it's an equality thing," he announced.

Jim frowned in confusion. "Care to explain?"

"Well, it seems like, if we take the truck, the guide is acknowledging the priority of the sentinel, but if we take the Volvo, it's the other way around. And, at some instinctual level, neither one of us can accept that."

"So, what's the answer? Somehow, I don't think Greyhound would take us where we want to go."

"You got that right," Blair agreed. "But you know... I've never had much of a problem getting around by hitchhiking."

"Illegal in some places, and potentially dangerous as hell," Jim said grimly. "Not while I'm with you."

They lapsed into silence, each turning over possibilities. Blair sighed and leaned back to rest his head on the couch cushion; his mind was drawing a blank.

"Chief... how do you feel about hogs?" Jim asked tentatively.


"Motorcycles. If we each have one, then wouldn't we be confirming that neither of us has priority over the other?"

Blair considered the suggestion. He could see it, both of them traveling the back-roads side by side. Motorcycles were actually very egalitarian vehicles, and would take them into the roughest country. But... "I can't afford it," he sighed. "It sounds good, but if you buy both bikes, then the sentinel is top dog again. I suppose I could sell the Volvo to buy the bike, but I really like that car."

"And riding a bike around in Cascade weather until we're ready to leave wouldn't be very pleasant," Jim agreed. "Cold and wet would be your world every day."

"Yeah. Bad enough taking off in December on a bike, but if we head south, we'd be in warmer weather in a couple of days. Starting to use it now... I can't say I'd be thrilled."

Both men became silent again, each brain turning over ways and means. Jim juggled a germ of an idea, refining it, firming it up till it looked good to him. Now if only Sandburg would agree.

"How about this, Chief? I buy both bikes -- used, so they're not so expensive -- then we sell them when we get back to Cascade. That way, I'm not out any money -- well, no more than expenses on the road, but we'll be sharing those. And as far as I can tell, even though the sentinel and guide watch out for each other, it's kind of a mutual balancing act. One may carry a bit more of the load at one point, then it's the other's turn. If I carry a bit more to start with, but it evens out at the end, will that work?"

Blair gave the suggestion careful consideration, checking it against the internal censor -- or was it a compass? -- that had been so adamant against the use of the truck. He'd already decided the cycles were a good idea, but would this make him indebted to Jim in any way?

The internal censor/compass/voice -- and where the hell had it come from? he wondered. Something he'd unconsciously picked up in his shamanism studies, or had the dream-vision gifted it to him without his knowledge? Anyway, it seemed to agree that Jim's proposal was an acceptable compromise.

Blair felt the tension that he hadn't realized he was holding, flow out of his shoulders as he relaxed for the first time since the argument had started. He smiled softly, looking up at Jim with a clear gaze.

"Yeah, big guy, I think that'll work out just fine. I really appreciate the suggestion -- and how far you're willing to go to help me do this 'journey of learning' right. It means... well, a helluva lot more than I can say."

Jim shrugged, uneasy with profuse expressions of gratitude. "You've done so much for me, Sandburg, helping me with these senses; it's little enough repayment."

Blair shook his head, smiling more broadly. "I beg to differ, but I won't force it on you. So, what kind of bikes do you think we should get?"

Jim stood and stretched, then ambled into the kitchen and returned with a couple of bottles of beer, handing one to Blair. "I think we've exercised our brains enough for one evening, and we have time to decide that another day. What d'ya say we catch the last half of the Jags' game?"

"I could go for that," Blair agreed. He lifted himself onto the couch, accepted the beer from Jim -- who was already aiming the remote control at the TV -- and settled in to enjoy the rest of the evening with his best friend.

Blair's first 'free Friday' was a great time to start gathering information. He stopped at several motorcycle dealers to pick up brochures. Even though they'd be buying used -- which he carefully didn't mention to any of the eager salesmen -- he figured the brochures would help them choose the best bike for their purposes. He was leaning toward Kawasaki, but Jim would probably have different ideas.

At Administration, Blair filled out the necessary paperwork -- all 32,683 pages of it, or so it seemed -- to meet the requirements for taking a research sabbatical to encompass the spring and summer semesters. He used quite a bit of creativity to explain the research he'd be doing, and how it applied to his dissertation; he was quite pleased with the result. It should be approved with no problem.

Then he was off to the library, where he booted up his laptop to use their wireless access. The Tulalip tribe was closest to Cascade, with a reservation just north of Seattle. If he headed south on I-5, he could be there in an hour, or a little longer. Pictures of Quil Ceda Village looked pretty much like any small-town America. Human societies were endlessly flexible; it was natural -- regardless of how unique their personal culture -- for many to adjust, at least outwardly, to the dominant civilization. Blair hoped that it was only a surface adaptation, and that the tribe retained enough of their cultural identity and spirituality that he'd be able to meet with a true shaman or medicine man. If not... well, try, try again. The dream-vision shamans had indicated that the journey would not be easy. If the Tulalip couldn't help him, maybe they'd know a tribe that could.

Blair glanced at the library clock, then started loading everything in his backpack. He and Jim were meeting for lunch at Mario's Pizza and Pasta, followed by an afternoon of reviewing a couple of troublesome crime scenes -- unless they were interrupted by a significant crime in progress. Considering how smoothly things were going right now, he estimated the possibility at about fifty percent.

"Hey, Jim!" Blair pulled out the brochures before he dropped his backpack at the end of the booth-seat and slid in beside it. "You already ordered?"

"Large meat-lover's for me, medium veggie-lover's for you. You know, Sandburg, I think I just figured out why you grew up so short -- not enough protein in your diet. If you started eating more meat, maybe it's not too late."

"Couple of problems, there, big guy. One, vegetarian diets don't stunt growth, as witness the gorilla and elephant. Two, I'm statistically average; I can't help it if I work with overgrown behemoths."

Jim raised a sardonic eyebrow. "Keep telling yourself that, Sandburg; maybe someday you'll believe it. Personally, methinks the man doth protest too much."

"Unlike some people, I learned long ago that height has nothing to do with a man's character. You happen to have both. But we also know that some of the biggest assholes think they can get away with that behavior just because they're larger than whoever they've chosen as a target. I prefer 'short' as a designation over 'asshole'."

"Guess I can't argue with that," Jim agreed. "What's all this stuff?" He picked up one of the brochures to see the cover.

"I thought they might help us consider the pros and cons of the different bikes. What do you think of a Kawasaki?"

"I think it's highly overrated. And we don't need a discussion; we'll both ride Harley-Davidson Road Kings. They're well-built and solid; they'll stand up to thousands of miles and months of travel. Put a pair of fiberglass saddlebags and a cargo-carrier on each, and we'll be able to take everything we need and go anywhere we want. I know a mechanic in El Paso; he's got a good eye, and will find us a couple of reliable used bikes. I'll ask him to check 'em over, tune 'em up, and we'll be ready to hit the road right after Christmas."

"What! Wait... you..." Blair sputtered, caught between shock and outrage; hadn't they settled this whole 'taking over' business last night? Just then, their waitress appeared with their pizzas. By the time each had slid several slices onto their plates and started to eat, he'd had time to regain his composure.

"First," Blair said between bites, "how did you get to be the guru of motorcycle selection? Second, you couldn't find anyone closer than El Paso? That's quite a commute to get to our rides."

"I learned more in Vice than just how to knock heads together," Jim said mildly. "We can sit down and I'll show you all the advantages a Road King has over any other bike, but believe me, it's by far the best choice. And I've owned one before; I know their quirks, and I'll be able to keep them in good working condition."

"Huh? If a Road King is so great, why would you need to 'keep it in working condition'?"

"Vibration, Chief. No matter how well it's put together, bits and pieces shake loose or break down -- unless you keep on top of things with regular maintenance. I'm your man."

"Cool! And I bet you'll catch potential problems even sooner with your sentinel senses. I wonder if there's any way we can test how much sooner you notice problems than the average rider would?"

"Not likely. There's not a lot to measure if I keep fixing things before they even break down."

"Point," Blair conceded. "Now, why El Paso?"

"Well, you had a point about taking off from Cascade in the middle of winter. The twenty-seventh is a Saturday; most Christmas travelers won't be heading home till Sunday. If we buy the tickets now, we can get them pretty cheap." Jim had contemplated offering to buy Blair's ticket, but worried he might see it -- again -- as the sentinel trying to claim 'priority' over the guide. Best to assume Blair would manage it somehow, or ask for help if he needed it. "I figured we could fly down to El Paso, then head south into Mexico. You start your shaman studies there, where you can be comfortable in warmer weather. Then, as the summer heats up, we can work our way north, kind of staying in the more temperate areas, and finally end up in Cascade." Jim winked at Blair's open-mouthed expression. "Hey, I'm smarter than the average bear -- and isn't it the duty of a sentinel to look out for his guide?"

"Yabba-dabba-do," Blair said softly. "I like the way you think. We'll have to check ticket prices but, yeah, I think I can swing it."

When they had reached the mellowing-out stage, each about halfway through his pizza, Blair considered it an auspicious moment to mention the other part of his plans.

"Y'know," he said softly, "Just because I'll be going on a long-term sabbatical doesn't mean I can't get a head start on the face-to-face shamanism studies. I have all these three-day weekends between now and the end of the semester; seems kind of pointless to do nothing with them. I thought I'd head down to the Tulalip reservation tomorrow, see if their shaman or medicine man is willing to talk to me. Unless you had something else planned for the weekend...?"

Jim squashed his automatic protest. It would only be two days; he didn't need Blair living in his back pocket every second of every day. "Just show up without any warning, or asking if it's okay?" he asked, trying to keep his voice neutral. "Do you think that's -- I dunno -- the 'acceptable' way of approaching a shaman?"

"Well, I don't have a name or address to write to," Blair pointed out. "I suppose I might find it out -- they actually have a website, all about their village and lifestyle and what they do for the community and planet. But generally speaking, it's more respectful for a seeker to present himself in person, so the shaman can judge what kind of person he is, and whether he's worthy. I might get nowhere, but I won't know if I don't try."

Jim bit off a large piece of pizza as a delaying tactic before answering. Sandburg had a point. If he had to take this 'learning journey' -- and they were already operating under the assumption that it was inevitable -- then there was no sense postponing his opportunities to gain information. "Tell you what," he finally said. "I know you need to go, but you know that I can't help worrying about something going wrong. Let me check out the Volvo tonight, you be sure your cellphone is charged up, and I won't chain you up to prevent your leaving."

"Thanks for understanding, man; it means a lot to me." Blair's smile was dazzling.

"What about the sentinel accompanying the guide thing; you want me to come along?"

Blair considered it. "I think maybe I should go alone the first time, get the acceptance of the shaman. He'll let me know when the sentinel needs to join the lessons. Besides, I don't even know that the Tulalip will have someone who can help me; they might send me to try the Skokomish or Yakima."

"Okay, Chief; it's your call. Just remember, I'll be there --" The ringing cellphone interrupted his words. "Ellison." ... ... ... "Okay, Simon, we'll head right out." He took a last swig of coffee, stood, and tossed enough money to cover the bill on the table. "C'mon, Chief; duty calls."

"Well, at least we got to finish most of our lunch," Blair observed philosophically as he grabbed his backpack and followed Jim out the door.

Blair stared into space one evening, his attention far removed from the textbooks scattered across the table. It might work; they weren't leaving for seven weeks. Of course, getting the info out of Jim might be tricky; the sentinel would know if he told an outright lie. But he might manage an almost-truth.

He waited till the news paused for an ad, then spoke across the room. "Hey, Jim, can you give me the number of your friend who found the bikes for us?"

"Why, Sandburg? No way he'll let you trade the Road King for a Kawasaki; he has too much respect for a good bike to let a friend of mine ride a substandard model."

"Nah, nothing like that," Blair assured him. "I just wanted to check the cost of a customized paint-job. I think it would be kind of cool if the bike was one-of-a-kind, you know?" Which was absolutely true; he didn't have to mention that he didn't intend the paint job for his bike. It would be a great Christmas present for his friend and sentinel.

"Something like that can get pretty pricey," Jim warned. "But I guess you won't be satisfied till you find out for yourself. Call nine-one-five, five-five-five, six-two-eight-three; ask for David Barrett."

Blair noted the name and number in his school day-planner. "Thanks, man; I'll give him a call tomorrow."

It was almost noon before Jim had time to sit down at the phone. He dialed Dave's number, hoping that Sandburg hadn't yet spoken to him.

"Dave? Ellison. ... Cold and rainy; we don't expect anything else around here. ... Yeah, yeah, rub it in, buddy. For that, you'll have to knock a hundred bucks off the price.

"Listen, has my partner -- guy named Sandburg -- already talked to you? ... Damn; I hoped I'd cut him off at the pass. Have you started the new paint-job yet? ... Good, glad to hear it. Listen, whatever he wanted, don't do it. I want his bike painted exactly like I told you; if he doesn't like it, I'll take the grief. But this is really important to me; I don't want any changes at all. ... Thanks, buddy. Knew I could count on you."

He hung up the phone, extremely satisfied with himself. Sandburg would get that particular Christmas present a couple of days late, but Jim was comfortably certain that it would knock his socks off.

As November slipped into December, enough small changes had accumulated that Jim was beginning to notice them. Sandburg had found a kindred spirit in Patrick Emborski, the shaman of the Tulalip tribe, and spent every other weekend with him. Jim had gone with Blair once, and found the man pleasant enough, with the knowledge and information that Blair so desperately wanted to learn. But, despite Sandburg's almost visible hopes, Jim hadn't felt any kind of connection with the shaman. Emborski had assured Jim that he was not the shaman who would help the sentinel strengthen his connection with the guide, but that they would meet the 'one they needed' on their journey.

Under the effects of his shaman lessons, Sandburg seemed... more mellow? More grounded? Jim wasn't sure he could describe it. Sandburg still bounced, still demonstrated his unending energy and zest for life, but it was a bit lower-key, and he seemed more self-confident, less anxious about helping Jim with his senses. Jim felt it every time he needed to use his senses; somehow they worked better now, more easily, even though it didn't seem that Sandburg was doing anything different to help him. If this was the result of a few weekend lessons, he couldn't imagine what he'd be capable of -- what they'd be capable of -- when Sandburg really got his mojo going. Best of all, as far as Jim was concerned, Sandburg had quit almost all of the infernal 'testing'; it seemed like he instinctively knew, without question, what Jim would be able to do. Once in a while, he'd ask for something that Jim thought of as a 'perimeter check' -- like, "Hey, Jim, how many blocks can you still clearly read a license plate?" or, with a pair of binoculars to his eyes, "See that old blue van going over the bridge. Is the engine running smooth, or does it need a tune-up?" -- but they were insignificant blips compared to the former aggravation of extensive and sometimes painful experiments Sandburg had inflicted on him.

At the PD, Jim was taking care to ensure that there would be no loose case-threads dangling when he left. The replacement detective Simon had hired was a woman, Sharon Cagney, tall and good-looking -- Sandburg was still the shortest person in MC -- with short-cropped, shaggy brown hair. She was actually intelligent and competent, despite Jim's private grumbling to Sandburg about her suitability for the job. Blair laughed and called him a reactionary Neanderthal. Sharon functioned well as Jim's partner, and didn't seem to think it was at all odd that Blair joined the two of them whenever he wasn't at the university. When Sandburg helpfully suggested that anyone who could work with Jim without wanting to punch him out demonstrated a self-control that would be able to handle anything Cascade would throw at her, Jim had to concede that MC would probably get along without him for the next eight months. He hoped he'd be able to close all his open cases by Christmas but, if not, Cagney would very capably pick up the slack.

One evening, just three weeks till 'D-day' -- their plane tickets were confirmed for 4:00 PM on the twenty-seventh -- Blair paused in grading the final-exam essays. "Jim, I've been thinking..." he started, his voice carefully casual.

"Which is frequently dangerous," Jim observed. "What's on your mind, buddy?"

"Well, you talked about doing maintenance on the bikes, which means you'll need to pack tools and maybe small parts in our gear. You'd probably get a lot better deal on prices if you waited till the twenty-sixth, when you could hit the post-Christmas sales."

Jim kept his grin to himself. Real subtle there, buddy. But, really, Sandburg was in a bind; it was difficult to warn someone off something you knew they needed, and were likely to buy for themselves. And, not so coincidentally, he was in the same boat.

"Makes sense, Chief," he said solemnly. "Doesn't hurt to get the best bang for the buck I can find. Of course, the same goes for you; if you're looking at any specialized gear, you should also wait for the after-Christmas deals."

Blair raised his eyes to meet Jim's. Busted, their expressions acknowledged, but they'd keep up the fiction until Christmas. At least, neither knew the details of what the other was planning. Satisfied and in harmony with each other, Blair returned to his grading, and Jim to his newspaper.

Christmas Day dawned cold and clear. Jim heard Sandburg stirring early. They'd planned to sleep in, but Blair hadn't been able to manage that lately; the closer they came to his journey's beginning, the more excited he became. Blair was already starting the coffee, being as quiet as he could. Ordinarily, Jim could sleep through Sandburg's stirrings but -- whether because he was also feeling the effects of pre-travel excitement, or because the sentinel was ever more closely attuned to the guide -- he recently seemed to have lost that facility. Well, a day or two spent traveling on motorcycles would probably ensure that Sandburg slept long and deeply. Meanwhile, Jim got up, threw on his robe, and headed downstairs to help his friend with an early breakfast.

After eating, they strolled into the living room, although Blair's 'stroll' had a definite bounce component. Since they'd be leaving in two days, they'd kept the Christmas decorations to a minimum; a tiny, pre-decorated artificial tree sat on end of a long table in front of the balcony doors, while a Menorah stood at the opposite end. The presents sat under the table -- one large and one smaller box from each man to the other, with a second small box for each that was a group present from everyone in Major Crime.

"So, which first, big or small?" Jim asked.

Blair gave the problem due consideration. "Well, if the big presents blow our socks off, the smaller ones might not get the full appreciation that's due them. But if we open the smaller first, we might skip past them too fast to admire them properly in our hurry to get to the big ones."

Jim grinned. Watching Sandburg over-analyze the question was worth paying admission.

"Sooo... I think we should open the big presents first, take a lot of time to admire and enjoy them, then clear our minds to properly appreciate what's next."

"Works for me." Jim retrieved both larger boxes from under the table, handing his to Blair, and setting aside Blair's to him for a few moments. He wanted to enjoy the full effect when Blair saw what Jim had so carefully selected for him.

Blair ripped off the colorful wrapping with the eagerness of a child, pulled off the top of the box, and froze. Slowly he stroked the leather inside, then pulled out the top piece to examine it more closely.

The jacket was an unusual shade of grayish-blue, and the snaps and decorative studs were the dark blue of late evening. The gloves and trousers beneath the jacket were the same remarkable color. Blair was speechless as he looked from the exquisite motorcycle leathers to Jim, and back again. When he finally found his voice, he couldn't manage much. "How... where...?"

"Special order," Jim replied succinctly, thoroughly satisfied with the effect of his gift. "It seems to me that a shaman deserves something a little out of the ordinary, and ever since those dreams I had in Peru, I associate 'blue' with the spirit-world. Besides," he added, trying to lighten Blair's thunderstruck expression, "the color will enhance your eyes; you'll have every lady within a hundred yards swooning at your feet."

"Except for the ones that get a look at you first," Blair smirked. "I saw yours when you brought them in. In that black and silver, you'll look twice as buff as you already do; you'll have to beat the ladies off with a stick." Then he fell silent again, carefully set the box aside, and stood to try on the jacket. It was a perfect fit.

"Man, I can't thank you enough," Blair murmured, his voice husky, stroking the arm of the jacket as if it were a kitten. "I just figured to hit the sales tomorrow, and find a leather vest to wear over my regular clothes, you know? Especially since we're heading to Mexico, where it'll be warm."

"No way in hell, Sandburg," Jim almost growled. "Leathers aren't for a macho image or to keep you warm; they're to keep your skin from being flayed right off your body if you wipe out. No matter how well you ride, there's always some damn fool around who'll ignore a cycle and pull some asshole maneuver that'll put you in danger. Times like that, blue jeans and flannel shirts might as well be tissue paper, and a vest will do nothing for your arms and legs; you're not going to chance it."

Blair still seemed almost mesmerized. "This is so great; just unbelievable!"

"Believe it," Jim suggested. "The sentinel looks out for the guide, remember? But now that you've given it the proper appreciation, put it aside so I can open my present for my share of appreciation."

Blair folded the jacket back into the box with a last pat, then looked anxiously at the box Jim held. "That's... it can't even compare..." he stuttered.

Jim shook his head as he carefully cut off the wrapping paper. "No comparisons, Chief; it's always the thought that counts." As he opened the box, he drew in a sharp breath. He'd suspected that Sandburg would give him the tools that would be necessary to maintain the bikes, but this went far beyond his expectations. The compact toolbox inside held a Harley-Davidson-specific collection of every size and type of screwdriver, wrench and pliers he'd need, along with an assortment of washers, gaskets, springs, screws, wires, glue, electrical tape, and even separate kits for repairing rubber and fiberglass. Given a frame and wheels, he could practically build a whole new cycle with this equipment.

"Chief, this is amazing. There's not a single problem that might happen with those bikes that I couldn't fix with what I have here. You did a bang-up job, buddy; I really appreciate it."

"You're sure?" Blair asked anxiously. "I talked with a Harley-Davidson mechanic, and put in everything he told me, but if I missed anything, I'll be happy to add it tomorrow."

"No need," Jim assured him. "You've covered every possible eventuality, I promise."

"Well, good." Blair settled back, trying not to let his friend notice how relieved he felt. The two gifts didn't compare, but he was gratified that Jim seemed to really like it, or at least appreciate the thought that Blair had put into it.

"Now that we've suitably enjoyed our number one gifts, are we ready for round two?" Jim asked. Although he tried to appear nonchalant, Blair noticed a definite twinkle of anticipation in his eyes.

"Right; my turn to do the honors." Blair returned with the two smaller boxes, tossing Jim's into his lap, and holding on to his own. "You first, this time."

Jim dutifully opened his box to find an envelope tucked inside. He pulled a slip of paper out of the envelope, glanced at it, and started to chuckle.

"Jim?" Blair was... okay, a tiny bit miffed. His gift wasn't supposed to be funny.

"It's kind of a timed joke, Chief. Open yours, and you'll see."

Blair opened his box to find a very familiar envelope tucked inside. With a feeling of inevitability, he pulled a slip of paper out of the envelope. It was, as he'd somehow known it would be, a gift certificate to Biker's World for any helmet and pair of biker boots in stock -- identical to the one he'd given Jim. He snorted, looked across at Jim, and began to snicker.

"Great minds, right, Chief?"

"I don't know, man. Either you'll have to climb up to match my brilliance, or I'll have to damp myself down to your level. Either way, it's kind of scary."

"I think I'm hurt, Chief."

"Really? I thought your name was Jim." They tried to retain their composure for another moment, then both burst in to full-out guffaws, laughing till they clutched their ribs and tears ran down their cheeks.

As the laughter finally subsided, Blair caught his breath enough to ask, "I suppose we did it this way for the same reason?"

"Only way to go," Jim assured him. "Boots have to fit just right, and helmet-preference is so individualistic that you're just looking for disappointment if you try to choose for someone else."

Jim crossed the room once more to retrieve the final gifts. As Blair took his, he looked at it doubtfully. "I don't get it; we exchanged presents with everyone at the unit Christmas party two days ago." They'd both received small, compact items -- from neck-cloths to insulated coffee mugs -- to make traveling more convenient. "Why would they give us more?"

"You're the anthropologist, Sandburg. Could it possibly be that they intend to demonstrate that they'll miss us, and hope we'll come back? So open it, and find out."

Jim hid his slight frown; even after all this time, Blair was still insecure about his place in Major Crime. He didn't seem to comprehend that the other detectives liked him for himself, rather than just tolerating him as an unofficial partner to Jim.

"Okay. Together?"

"Right with you."

Again, each box held an envelope. When Blair opened his, he gasped. "Jim!"

"Same here, Sandburg." Jim counted the fifty-dollar bills in his envelope. "It's a thousand bucks, buddy. Quite a demonstration, wouldn't you say?" Blair was still staring in shock at the bills tucked into the envelope. "Try reading the note."

"What? Oh... I didn't even notice." He pulled it out and read aloud, "'To Jim and Blair. When you get tired of roughing it, treat yourselves to a hotel room and a restaurant meal. Have a safe trip'. Wow; everyone signed it -- even Dills, and I didn't think he liked me that much."

"Maybe not, but you're part of the team," Jim assured him.

"I don't even know what to say to something like this."

"You say 'thank you' -- and you'll be able to do that when we all meet at Simon's for our combination Christmas dinner / farewell party. As a matter of fact, we need to leave in about an hour; I promised Simon we'd get there early to help with everything. So go get dressed; you can practice your 'thank you' speech while you do."

"You sure we don't have to bring anything? It just seems wrong to show up empty-handed. Maybe some beer?" Blair headed toward the bathroom to shower and shave.

"Okay, we'll pick up a couple of six-packs on the way so they won't throw us out." Jim smiled fondly at Blair's retreating back. One of these days, Sandburg would realize that he really did fit in with the men and women of Major Crime.

Since they'd left their vehicles in the PD parking garage for safety -- tucked into the most distant back corner, where no one ever wanted to park -- Simon picked them up to drive them to the airport. He stared at the two duffle bags and rolled sleeping bag that each man carried. "You'll be gone for maybe eight months. Are you sure you're taking enough?"

"We're sure," Jim said easily. "A pair of saddlebags -- even the large size -- and a top cargo carrier can only hold so much gear.

"And it's not like we're heading off to the wilds of Borneo," Blair added. "There'll be actual stores and stuff along the way, where we can buy what we need."

Simon favored him with the glare that never seemed to have an effect on his civilian observer. "You know, Sandburg, it's going to be mighty quiet without you around; I think I'm going to enjoy it."

Blair grinned. "I'll send you a postcard, Simon, just so you don't forget me."

"He always has an answer, sir," Jim pointed out.

"That's another thing I won't miss. Get in, both of you."

With their gear stowed in the trunk, Blair in the back seat, and Jim riding shotgun, they were on their way. Conversation was sporadic; everything had already been said a dozen times over.

When they reached the airport, Simon pulled into short-term parking. "You don't need to do that, sir," Jim suggested. "We'll be fine; just drop us off at the curb."

"That's no way to send a friend on a trip, Ellison," Simon growled. "So pipe down and try to act just a little refined."

"Refined; yes sir," Jim answered. Blair snickered behind him.

Simon waited while Jim and Blair checked their bags, then walked with them as they headed toward security, quite a distance down the concourse. They passed a couple of off-set seating areas, where friends and family could wait for arrivals, or watch through the large windows as the planes carrying their loved ones took off or landed.

As they passed the third, Jim and Blair were startled by a shout of, "Surprise!" from a dozen voices, while Simon smirked beside them. Turning, they saw that the entire contingent of Major Crime had taken over this area, complete with posters taped to the supporting pillars. Have a safe trip! and Hurry back! and We'll miss you! expressed the sentiments of their friends as the group surged forward to bring Jim and Blair into their orbit.

They were subjected to a round of handshakes and back-slaps, as well as hugs from Rhonda and Sharon, while typical inanities nevertheless assured them of how much their friends cared. Joel enfolded Blair in a fierce hug. "Don't let this be goodbye, son," he murmured. "Just, 'see you later', okay?"

"Absolutely, Joel," Blair assured him. "We'll be back by the end of August, just like a pair of bad pennies."

Gradually, there was nothing left to say. Simon stirred; it was a captain's duty to look out for his men. "Your plane leaves in forty-five minutes," he pointed out, "and you still have to pass through security. I hate to say it, but -- shoo!"

"Shooing, sir," Jim agreed.

"Thanks, everyone!" Blair spoke loud enough for the whole group to hear. "We'll see you in August!"

Jim and Blair left their friends behind and passed through security. Then, together as always, sentinel and guide boarded the plane for the first leg on their long journey of knowledge and discovery.

Blair sighed as he threw his bags on one of the motel-room beds, and collapsed beside them. Five hours of travel -- two hours to LAX, an hour layover, then two hours to El Paso -- felt like twenty-five. "Y'know, maybe riding down from Cascade wouldn't have been so bad, after all."

"But the bikes are here, Chief. Kind of pointless to have them trucked to Cascade so we could ride to El Paso."

"Yeah, but the airlines make travel less pleasant every year. At this rate, they're going to piss off the public till they all go belly-up."

"If that happens, how will all the little anthropologists get halfway around the world to their latest expedition?" Jim asked mildly. Sandburg didn't often get grumpy but, when he did, he let it all hang out. "There's a Red Lobster just a couple of doors down. Let's go; you'll feel better with a good meal under your belt."

"You're a slave-driver," Blair grumbled. But he heaved himself off the bed and headed into the bathroom to wash his hands.

Thirty minutes later, halfway through his fried trout, crab linguini and rice pilaf, Blair's mood had mellowed. "I guess I didn't realize how hungry I was. Thanks, man; this was a good idea."

"Glad to be of service, Sandburg. In repayment, I expect you to bring me breakfast in bed, tomorrow."

"Jim, if you can't make it to the 'complimentary continental breakfast, I don't think we'll get very far on this trip. By the way, what's the plan for tomorrow? Does your friend open his shop on Sunday?"

"No, but he said he'll meet us there at ten-thirty. It's his week to act as an usher at the first two church services, so he can't get away any earlier."

"Hey, that's cool. I think I might actually be able to sleep late tomorrow; seems like I've been running short lately, even for me."

"Unless excitement has you up at the crack of dawn," Jim suggested. "You've been antsy for the last two weeks."

"Oh, well." Blair shrugged his disinterest in the subject. "It's not like we'll be punching time-cards for the next eight months. I'll have plenty of time to sleep if I need it."

"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm ready to get started on that." Jim signaled for the check, handed his credit card to the waitress, and added a generous tip when she brought the receipt.

Then, together, Jim and Blair headed back to the motel, and what they hoped would be a good night's rest. From now on, a soft bed for the night was likely to be an occasional luxury.

The taxi deposited them in front of Barrett's Bikes at 10:25. At 10:35, a gold Toyota Camry with red racing stripes and flames on the back quarter of each side -- obviously a custom job -- pulled up and a tall, balding man climbed out and gave Jim a cursory salute. "Hey, Cap."

"Not anymore; just plain Jim Ellison. Dave Barrett, my partner and friend, Blair Sandburg."

Shaking Blair's hand, Dave remarked, "You must be hiding a lot of gumption under that hair, kid, to put up with this old bear."

"He's not so bad," Blair grinned. "Make sure to feed him enough meat, and he generally plays nice. I take it you knew him in the army?"

"Yep," Dave said as he unlocked the door and ushered them in. "Best damn Captain I ever served under. I was sorry to see him muster out."

"Times change," Jim remarked. "Look at you; driving a Toyota instead of riding a hog?"

"Great paint job, though," Blair said enthusiastically. "Your work?" If so, it suggested the paint job he'd ordered, sight-unseen, wouldn't disappoint.

Dave grinned at Jim. "Thing is, you can't put a wife and two little girls on the back of a hog. I use the cycle on workdays, the car on weekends. And you got it, kid; custom paint jobs are one of our specialties."

Jim's slap on the back was almost enough to make Dave stagger. "Congratulations! When did that happen?"

"Got married five years ago. Mandy's three, and Beth just turned one."

"Kids are so great," Blair said. "Gives us hope for the world."

"Great for me," Dave agreed. "But you didn't come to talk about my family. Wait here a minute. I need to turn on the lights before you see them; I want you to get the full effect." He disappeared through a door behind the sales counter, while Blair bounced and Jim regarded him suspiciously. Could it be...?

Soon enough, Dave opened the door and said, "Come on through."

They were barely three steps past the door when Jim and Blair stopped in their tracks, stunned.

The bikes were facing each other, side-on toward the observers, spotlighted to show off every detail.

"Jim... that's just..."

"Great minds again, Chief. Merry Christmas, by the way."

"Yeah, you too," Blair answered, absently. He hardly knew which bike to examine first -- the one he'd had painted for Jim, or the one Jim had obviously had painted for him.

Jim's bike -- fenders, gas tank, hard-sided, rectangular saddlebags and top cargo carrier -- was painted in a pattern of blotched green, to simulate the canopy of the forest where he'd lived for eighteen months. On each side of the gas tank was a plain white circle, background for a 'head-shot' of a snarling, blue-eyed black panther. Larger white circles on the saddlebags showcased a head-and-shoulders image of the same representation of Jim's spirit guide. It was amazing; Dave had perfectly executed the picture he'd had in his head as he'd described what he wanted.

Apparently, Jim's vision had been similar to his. Blair's bike was a hazy, medium blue -- the color Jim had seen in his spirit visions, he supposed -- with very pale blue circles scattered across the gas tank, saddle bags and even the sides of the cargo-carrier. As he circled the bike, he saw that each circle held the head-image of a different animal -- buffalo, falcon, lion, eagle, wolf, gorilla, lynx, hawk, bear, cheetah, horse, dolphin, orca, and cougar. "Jim?" he asked, softly.

"You said Incacha told you that your spirit animal was strong and wise," Jim answered, just as quietly. "I just picked what I thought might be suitable candidates. Even if your own spirit animal isn't shown, I thought the others might bring you good luck... or something."

"I can't imagine anything better. Thank you, Jim. I mean, really... thank you!"

"Back at'cha, Chief. That design is just inspired."

Dave had stood quietly, watching as his artwork was duly admired; the absorbed appreciation was an artist's version of a standing ovation. But he'd promised his wife he'd be home in time for Sunday lunch with his in-laws. "I'm glad it meets your expectations Jim, Blair. But my wife is waiting, and I expect you want to get on the road."

Brought back to reality, Jim and Blair began to sort the contents of their duffle bags into the available spaces on their bikes. But when Blair opened his cargo-carrier, he found a power-converter attached high on one side. Puzzled, he followed the lead through a hole in the front of the carrier and saw that it was connected -- he couldn't quite tell how -- to the engine. "What's this?" he asked, looking from Jim to Dave.

"Jim's idea," Dave said. "I never thought of it before, but I think I'll start offering it as an option for the businessmen who like to cycle."

"And you told me it wouldn't work," Jim teased.

"Reckon that's why you were captain," Dave shot back.

"There'll probably be times when we won't have electricity available," Jim explained to Blair. "I figured you could plug in your laptop and charge the battery when we ride. That way, you'll have enough juice to use it in the evening."

"You see, Dave," Blair said earnestly, "this 'old bear' is the best partner a man could have. I think I'll keep him." His shining eyes, turned toward Jim, spoke a more eloquent 'thanks' than words could express. Jim gave his partner a dazzling smile, supremely satisfied with the effect of his gift.

Finally, belongings stowed and bedrolls strapped behind the seats, Jim and Blair wheeled the bikes out of the shop, which Dave locked behind them. After accepting final effusive 'thanks' from both men, he got in his car and drove away, presumably toward home.

Jim turned toward Blair. "Well, Chief, where are we headed?"

"Piedras Negras, south of San Antonio. Juanita's email said the shaman of the Kickapoo tribe in Mexico wanted another shaman to vouch for me before he'd agree to see me. The Kickapoo on the reservation south of Piedras Negras are related to those in Mexico. If the Texas shaman won't vouch for me... well, I'll ask his advice and follow it."

"Just one favor, Chief?" Jim asked as he pulled the road atlas from its position on the very top layer in the cargo carrier. He scanned the Texas map, noting road numbers and towns. "Let me be the navigator? I mean, a budding shaman needs to concentrate on more important things, don't you think?"

Blair glared at Jim, then broke down and snickered. "I think that's the nicest put-down of my directional abilities I've ever heard. Sure, big guy, knock yourself out."

"I hope not. Okay, it looks about six hundred miles; as late as it is, we won't make the distance today. We'll go east on I-Ten, maybe spend the night in Fort Stockton?"

"Hey, you're the navigator; as long as we get there, I don't much care how we do it."

Jim paused, giving Blair a long, measured look. "You know, Chief, we really do make a great team. I think I'm going to enjoy the next few months." He placed the atlas back in the luggage carrier, and strapped on his helmet.

"You know it, man!" Blair answered, strapping on his own helmet. "This is going to be so cool."

In unison, Jim and Blair settled on their bikes. The engines roared to life as they kicked the starters and, together as always, sentinel and guide headed toward their destiny.

The End

Author's Notes

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(no subject)

Date: 2009-09-30 10:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] carodee.livejournal.com
I enjoyed this very much and the end took me off into the sunset with Jim and Blair. Roadtrip! One of my fave story kinks. Um, if you wrote a sequel I would be so right there!

The shamanism was fascinating and I particularly liked how Blair, who theoretically knows more about this than Jim, is doing the Westernized version of scheduling this quest at his convenience and it takes Jim, who worked with Incacha, to understand and insist on doing it the right way. True equals here.

BTW, I spotted a beta comment still in the text. [888 - Cindy] in the 'Let's buy hogs' scene.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-06 05:11 am (UTC)
starwatcher: Western windmill, clouds in background, trees around base. (Default)
From: [personal profile] starwatcher
Hi, Caro!

I enjoyed this very much and the end took me off into the sunset with Jim and Blair.

Ah, thank you! My muse insisted on the motorcycles, and I really had to work to make it reasonable. I had thought that Jim was driving one of the bigger, fancier trucks at that time, and it would make sense it would fit in where Blair wanted to go. Jim was right, the '69 wouldn't have been a problem, but the muse wouldn't budge.

Roadtrip! One of my fave story kinks. Um, if you wrote a sequel I would be so right there!

I'd love to, but right now the muse isn't interested. And, all the while I was planning on the cycles, I was remembering that I still want to write "biker butch Blair and long-haired hippie Jim", going from town to town on their motorcycles, doing good and moving on, as a sequel to your "Letter" challenge from so long ago. What I'm afraid now is that, if I try to write a sequel to either, they'll get so tangled I'll never sort it out.

The shamanism was fascinating and I particularly liked how Blair, who theoretically knows more about this than Jim, is doing the Westernized version of scheduling this quest at his convenience and it takes Jim, who worked with Incacha, to understand and insist on doing it the right way. True equals here.

As always, each man trying to do the best for the other. (Well, Blair's usually the one who's making more accommodations, but I firmly believe Jim's heart is in the right place.) Once Jim saw how much Blair was hurting, I think he just had to admit the reality of his own visions, and go with Blair's.

Beta -- Oops! Thanks for that. I read to my BFF as each part is written; I use 888 as a bookmark for where we left off. I'll go delete that.

Thanks for such a lovely feedback; I really appreciate it.


Date: 2009-12-02 09:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zanesfriend.livejournal.com
A series of sequels describing their various adventures would involve too much anthropological/historical research into the various tribes of the Southwestern US, Mexico, Central America, and perhaps even South America. But perhaps your muse would cooperate more if you skip that part, or only tell it in summary, and show the results when they come back to Cascade; among other things, Blair would probably ditch the Sentinel diss (thus avoiding TSbyBS) in favor of one on Shamanism

That other series you mention sounds a great deal like "Route 66"; nevertheless, it would be interesting to see.

I'm starting an AU that branches off somewhere between S2 and TSbyBS in which Blair gets fed up with the academic life and decides not to finish his doctorate at all. I'm not sure yet if he goes to the Academy and joins the force or becomes some sort of civilian attachee' to the force.

Re: Sequel

Date: 2009-12-03 02:34 am (UTC)
starwatcher: Western windmill, clouds in background, trees around base. (Default)
From: [personal profile] starwatcher
A series of sequels describing their various adventures would involve too much anthropological/historical research into the various tribes of the Southwestern US, Mexico, Central America, and perhaps even South America. But perhaps your muse would cooperate more if you skip that part, or only tell it in summary, and show the results when they come back to Cascade; among other things, Blair would probably ditch the Sentinel diss (thus avoiding TSbyBS) in favor of one on Shamanism.

You've put your finger on the largest part of the problem; my Google-fu is not strong. Besides, although I don't object to research in terms of writing a good story, I don't want to do enough to write my own dissertation. <g> Your solution sounds very workable; my muse is going "hmmm..." Maybe one of these days, something will come of it; thank you for the suggestion.

That other series you mention sounds a great deal like "Route 66"; nevertheless, it would be interesting to see.

I've never seen that show; Mom was quite strict about "suitable" TV viewing when I was young. Regardless, when CaroDee wrote 'R' is for Run! for the first SentinelSecrets challenge, my reaction (in part) was: "This could be the start of a great series of short stories - Jim and Blair in different places, just happening to stumble into a situation that can be helped by the talents of Sentinel and Guide, then moving on. Sort of a combination of The Pretender and The Lone Ranger. Just an idea. (hint, hint)

Aie! I just had a vision - Jim with long hair in a ponytail and beaded headband, flowered shirt and bell-bottomed jeans, Blair with crewcut and eyebrow piercing, all in leather, as they ride off into the sunset with the townsfolk saying, "Who was that hippie and that biker tough?" *g* Sorry, just couldn't resist."

Was Route 66 anything like the Lone Ranger or the Pretender? Nothing new under the sun, is there? <g> But Caro wrote a very compelling story (I highly recommend it if you haven't read it), and I've never been able to get the vision I had of their future out of my head. Maybe one of these days I'll bring it to life...

I'm starting an AU that branches off somewhere between S2 and TSbyBS in which Blair gets fed up with the academic life and decides not to finish his doctorate at all. I'm not sure yet if he goes to the Academy and joins the force or becomes some sort of civilian attachee' to the force.

Ooh, that sounds compelling. I look forward to seeing how it turns out.

Re: Sequel

Date: 2009-12-03 04:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zanesfriend.livejournal.com
Route 66: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Route_66_(TV_series)

Anent my series, Blair is fed up with:

1. Institutional politics; all the backstabbing and infighting and toadying to donors, and the like.

2. Students who are either majoring in hookups and minoring in parties or are focused on career-preparation--but in neither case are really there for an education.

In short, Ranier is a credentials-factory, rather than a community of teachers and learners.

Re: Sequel

Date: 2009-12-04 12:42 am (UTC)
starwatcher: Western windmill, clouds in background, trees around base. (Default)
From: [personal profile] starwatcher
Ah, no wonder I never saw it; I was all of eight years old in 1960, with a bedtime of 7:00 PM.

(For anyone following, the more direct link is Route 66 TV Series.)

I can definitely see why Blair would get fed up with such conditions; I certainly do! You should be able to do a lot with that. Happy writing!

Re: Sequel

Date: 2009-12-04 06:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zanesfriend.livejournal.com
I never saw it except in re-runs. But it sounds like what you're describing. Stranger(s) who come into town, perhaps on some quest of their own, solve people's problems, then move on; stranger(s) have very good reason to keep moving. Kung Fu, Knight Rider, Viper, Quantum Leap, The Pretender--many shows used this premise.

The conditions I described are fairly common at medium-sized/medium-eschelon universities. The big, old-line, heavily-endowed schools can tell people like Mr. Ventris what to do with his money. The elite schools may have students who like to party, but they also make them work. The small, residential liberal arts colleges still preserve the tradition of a teaching/learning community. But mid-grade schools like Ranier. . . .

Both my parents were college professors, and I've worked in higher education myself.

The story is getting very 'talk-talk'--Blair discussing his situation and options with Jim, with Simon, probably with Eli, and perhaps with a few others.

I haven't resolved Blair's future status with CPD. Does he go through the Academy, or does he become some sort of civilian attache?

(no subject)

Date: 2011-04-02 08:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tvwatching.livejournal.com
Just read this and enjoyed it!

I like the idea of them going off and learning more together. I know the format of the show never would have allowed for it but something like it was probably needed given what we saw of the more spiritual side of the Sentinel stuff. Loved how balanced everything seemed between them.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-04-04 01:06 am (UTC)
starwatcher: Western windmill, clouds in background, trees around base. (Default)
From: [personal profile] starwatcher
Just read this and enjoyed it!

Thank you. I'm so pumped it grabbed you, especially since it's not what you'd usually look for.

I like the idea of them going off and learning more together. I know the format of the show never would have allowed for it but something like it was probably needed given what we saw of the more spiritual side of the Sentinel stuff.

As you say, it would never happen on the show; as the creators pointed out a few times, the show was about 'The Sentinel', not 'The Guide'. They've also said (in several con interviews) that the spiritualism they showed us in SenToo was no big deal, and they were never planning to return to it, even had the series continued. This is a case where fandom has taken off in an 'unexpected' direction -- with beneficial results, IMO.

Loved how balanced everything seemed between them.

Thank you again. I often feel I'm writing the guys with rose-colored glasses -- especially considering the unevenness between them in some of Season 3 and 4 -- but it just feels "right" to me. I'm always pleased when it works for my readers.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-04-04 02:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tvwatching.livejournal.com
I think in the end it boils down to the fans having different exceptions than the show writers (which is usually the case) - resulting in people hating on Jim for everything when really the lack of balance had to do with the format of the show...and the writers feeling Jim was more important than Blair [okay yes it's the woobie thing but the intense hate for Jim still feels ridiculous].

(no subject)

Date: 2011-04-12 09:00 pm (UTC)
starwatcher: Western windmill, clouds in background, trees around base. (Default)
From: [personal profile] starwatcher
Hi, again. Sorry to be so late back; I got bogged down in paperwork for school meetings.

Yes, to all your points. But I really think the Jim-hate is considerably diminished now. Unfortunately, many of the stories were written 'back in the day', and I think writers played into each other's expectations, even if unconsciously.

I manage to read past it -- if it's not too large a part of the story -- because the guys have usually reconciled whatever by the end. Still, it is an unfortunate part of TS fanfic.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-04-12 09:54 pm (UTC)
loriel_eris: laurel leaf (Default)
From: [personal profile] loriel_eris
This is utterly gleemaking!

I have to admit, I was not expecting it to end where it did, so add me to those who would be totally on board with a sequel! And regarding your comments above... It's not the road trip bit that I'm desperate to see (though I wouldn't say no!), but the return to Cascade bit. How the MC gang coped without them, how they treat Jim and Blair on their return, how Jim and Blair deal with being back in Cascade, how what they've learnt changes things, how things have changed.

But sequel or no sequel, this story was completely and utterly gleemaking! Thank you!

(no subject)

Date: 2011-04-13 01:01 am (UTC)
starwatcher: Western windmill, clouds in background, trees around base. (Default)
From: [personal profile] starwatcher
Oh, my word! What great ideas for a continuation of the storyline! There's so much depth and scope available. Unfortunately, that's not usually one of my strengths in writing. But I never know what the muse will insist on; she might yet send me down that road.

this story was completely and utterly gleemaking! Thank you!

I'm so glad you liked it! This comment was a lovely surprise in my inbox. You're very welcome, and thank you for the lovely feedback.



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