Jim Ellison quietly opened the door to the loft and stepped back to enjoy the view. Blair was seated in the middle of their living room amidst a sea of paper. The younger man's long curly hair was pulled back from his face, but a few rebellious strands had managed to escape. As the grad student rifled through the various brochures and other literature he had gathered, he occasionally had to blow a wayward curl out of his eyes. The endearing gesture made him look even younger than usual. It was hard to believe that the exuberant young man was nearly thirty years old.
Sandburg was Jim's Guide, partner, and lover-all rolled
into one. That was a lot to pack into one small, albeit adorable, package. Not
to mention the work involved in the anthropologist's own graduate studies and
teaching responsibilities. Sometimes Ellison wondered how the younger man
juggled all of those roles and still have his
seemingly boundless store of energy.
The one time he'd asked Blair how he did it, the slighter man had grinned cheekily before claiming that he was fueled by lots and lots of sex.
Ellison could live with that.
Personally, the Sentinel figured it was just that his lover threw himself into whatever he did with his whole heart, body, and soul. Unfortunately, that left the young man vulnerable to burn-out. Even before they'd become lovers, Blair had declared that the older man was his "Blessed Protector" because Ellison had saved his life. Now that they were life partners as well as work partners, Jim had extended that responsibility to include making sure his love didn't overextend himself.
It wasn't easy.
Take now, for example. The evening before, Ellison had surprised his lover with the news that he'd been granted two week's leave. Jim's police captain, Simon Banks, was more than his boss. He was a trusted friend-and the only person besides Blair who knew about Ellison's enhanced senses. Despite all of his personal loyalty, however, the two knew that Banks would call Jim in off vacation if the need arose. To prevent that from happening, they'd decided to vacation away from Cascade and out of immediate reach. That morning, Jim had idly mentioned that maybe they should get some information on travel packages. His Guide had taken that off-hand remark to heart and now their living space looked like the Tasmanian Devil had recently paid a visit.
So engrossed was his lover in inspecting the various documents, that he hadn't heard the older man come in. Ellison walked over to Blair, playfully tugged the ragged ponytail to one side, and planted a sloppy kiss on the anthropologist's neck. "What did you do, Chief, rob a travel agent?"
Blair chuckled and turned his face up for a kiss, which Jim promptly provided. "Hey, you're back early."
"Yep. Got everything cleared off my desk in record time. I know Simon wouldn't go back on his offer for the time off, but I didn't want to give him any excuses to call us back." Jim's strong hands started kneading his partner's shoulders. When was the kid going to learn that sitting on the floor, hunched over papers, was not good for his back?
Blair groaned as his talented lover found every tense spot. "It would have gone faster if you'd let me come with you. You know I'm quicker with the paperwork."
Jim snorted and broke off the massage, turning to examine the closest pile of papers. "Guess again, Chief. You would have chatted with H about the Jags game, given Simon advice on college programs for Daryl, and then start flirting with Rhonda. Next thing you know, a dead body'd be reported and-poof-no more vacation."
"I do not flirt with Rhonda!"
"Give it a rest, Valentino. I know you don't mean anything by it. You just can't help yourself, that's all."
Blair rolled his eyes heavenward. "Look, just because I know how to talk to a woman, doesn't make it flirting. Not all of us are smooth enough to tell a woman she smells like his grandmother and then still expect her to be civil to him..."
Jim let the familiar words of the friendly argument wash over him as he glanced over the travel materials that Blair had gathered. It was early September, so Cascade's weather was warm yet, but knowing how his lover hated the cold, the Sentinel was betting that his better half would choose a warm destination. It was only a matter of where. Florida? Mexico? Peru? But much to his surprise, each and every document had to do with Idaho.
"Chief?" Jim's question interrupted Blair's well-used tirade. "What's up with this?" The Sentinel held up a color brochure expounding on the virtues of the Gem State.
"Idaho, Jim. Located in the Northwestern part of the United States. Lots of virgin forests. Great skiing. Home to one of your favorite food groups, the potato."
"I know what it is, Mr. "Wet-And-Cold-Is-My-World," but it's a little early in the season for skiing. What makes you want to go there?"
Blair bit his lip and hesitated before answering. "I don't know."
"You don't know?"
Jim's question galvanized Blair into action. The young man sprang up from the floor and started pacing. "I don't know, Jim. I went to the travel agency thinking maybe we could go to one of those isolated Caribbean islands. You know, just you and me, a hammock, and the beach. But they had a poster up promoting skiing in Idaho and suddenly, I just knew that's where we had to go."
Had to go. Blair's word choice made Jim a bit nervous. Last year, the anthropologist had been awakened to the gift of the shaman. It had taken a long time for the reluctant young man to mention it in any manner other than a joke. Despite his anthropological studies and experiences with other diverse cultures, something about the whole shaman bit spooked the young man. But Sandburg's own near-death experience with Alex Barnes, an evil Sentinel, had brought the powers and abilities of the position to the forefront. Since then, the grad student had spent what little spare time he had left studying various shamanistic traditions. Still, it was basically uncharted territory for both men...
Ellison expediently quelled Blair's nervous pacing by pulling the slighter man in for a full-body hug. "It's okay, Chief. You don't have to try to explain the unexplainable. If you feel that's where you have to go, then that's good enough for me. Idaho, it is."
Blair relaxed into the big man's embrace. "Thanks, Jim. I'm sorry I let the shaman stuff slide when Incacha passed it on to me. I should have known better than to hope it would go away! I really let you down..."
"Hey, watch what you're sayin', that's my lover you're dissing!" Jim waited until Blair smiled before continuing. "I understand, Chief. Remember how long it was before I told you that I'd seen my animal spirit?"
"Yeah, but I still don't see why you put up with me..."
"I tell you what, I'm willing to put up with these mysterious shaman episodes of yours if you're willing to put up with my occasional reversion back to a pre- civilized man."
Blair shivered with anticipation at Jim's words. He loved it when the bigger man got all neanderthal. Still, it wouldn't do to give in too easily...
"Yup," Jim answered, while enthusiastically burying his nose in Sandburg's curly locks.
"...And that's different from your normal behavior in what way?"
Blair yelped as his Sentinel decided to answer him with actions instead of words. Before the grad student could protest, he was lifted and hoisted over Ellison's broad shoulder. The big bed upstairs wasn't quite the primitive cave that a neanderthal would have used, but it would be a lot softer for the pounding that was about to ensue.
Somehow, neither man seemed to mind.
"Mijn godheid, you don't understand! You could have been killed!" When Derek Rayne was upset, his Dutch accent was more pronounced. Right now, he was so furious with his young colleague, that it was surprising that he could even still remember to speak in English rather than his native tongue.
"No, Derek, you don't understand!" Came the angry retort. "I saved your sorry behind!"
The two Legacy members faced off against one another. The demon, Ne'Tsirk, had led the San Francisco Legacy House on a not-so-merry chase, killing its summoner and then wounding one of their House members before they were able to run it to ground. As it was, Ne'Tsirk had been poised to add the House's Precept, Derek Rayne, to the casualty list before Nick Boyle had managed to stop it. The San Francisco House's chief of security had frantically run into the graveyard minutes behind his leader, only to find Derek sprawled on the cold ground, the demon preparing to use his own sword to finish him off. In desperation, the ex-SEAL had used his gun. Not on the demon, which would have been fruitless, but on the tree above it. Nick's expertly placed shots had severed a limb from the tree. How the young man had managed to notice amongst all the action that it was a rowan tree was nothing short of miraculous. The wood of a rowan is anathema to supernatural entities and the falling limb had impaled Ne'Tsirk.
Flash. Bang. No more demon.
Instead of reacting with gratitude, once recovered Derek had lashed out at his youngest House member. Nick hadn't expected a big brass band or anything of that nature, but a thank you would have been nice. It was par for the course, lately, though. It seemed he couldn't do anything right where Derek was concerned.
"Nick, you can't tell me that you knew there was a rowan tree there. For all you knew, you had no way of stopping the demon."
Nick actually hadn't had a plan when he'd entered the graveyard. He'd known Derek was down and was only trying to distract Ne'Tsirk. The best the former SEAL had hoped for was to annoy the demon, so that it maybe would have turned on him and give the Precept a chance to escape. Nick had been raised in the Legacy, by a father that had shown him in no uncertain terms just what his value in the world was. As he'd been taught time and again by Major Robert Boyle, a grunt like Nick existed only to protect the more valuable members of the team. And Derek, Precept and psychic to boot, was much more valuable to the Legacy than Nick Boyle.
There was no way in hell, though, that Nick would admit his lack of a plan to Derek.
"Fine, boss. Next time, I'll just let the monster eat you!" Nick realized he was being childish, but strode away from the argument anyway. His feelings were so mixed up about Derek that, if he stayed any longer, he had a feeling he'd do something he'd regret.
Funny thing was, he didn't know if that irrevocable action would be to hit Derek...or to kiss him.
Now, this was more like it!
The Sentinel straightened his tired back and took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the crisp pine-scented air. Jim Ellison couldn't remember the last time he'd been in an environment that was so pure. For that matter, it had seemed over the last few months that he'd been crowded by heartbeats. Not Blair's, he was always aware of his lover's beloved rhythm on a subliminal level, but those of the myriad of people he came into contact with every minute of every day. He might be the Sentinel of the Big City, but it wreaked havoc on his eardrums.
Not to mention the smell.
The police detective waited until his partner caught up to him, the younger man's shorter legs made it hard for him to keep up with his lover. Given Blair's navigation abilities, or lack thereof, the Sentinel had wanted to reach the top of the ridge first-to clandestinely spy out their route and insure that the two would actually reach their rented cabin before dark. It didn't take the big man long to spot the small building in a clearing some goodly distance from his vantage point.
"So, we lost yet?" Blair panted out when he caught enough breath to speak. So much for being subtle.
"Nope, Sacajewea, the cabin's just up ahead."
"Would that be 'Just up ahead' for people with long legs or 'Just up ahead' for me?" The grad student put his hands on his back and arched his spine. The Sentinel winced as he heard an audible pop.
"Umm, maybe you better rest a minute, Chief." Jim took his partner's backpack from him and led the weary young man to a shaded spot under a nearby tree. Both of the lovers were athletic men, but the shorter Blair considered it a challenge to his manhood to keep up with the bigger man's pace. Ellison was sympathetic to Sandburg's feelings, but got frustrated that the anthropologist wouldn't give himself a break. Not only did Jim top him by over half a foot, giving him the advantage of longer legs, but he also was an ex-Army Ranger. If the military had taught him anything, it was how to march. Sometimes Blair didn't account for that.
"Relax, babe," he encouraged Blair, sitting beside him on the cool, moist ground. There was a bit of a nip in the air, so the Sentinel wrapped his arms around the lithe form and cuddled his love close. With a sigh of contentment, the grad student leaned into the embrace, tucking his head under Ellison's chin.
"Man, this is nice! So quiet, I can almost hear the trees growing."
"But it's not quiet at all, Chief," Jim refuted. "I can hear a baby robin chirping for its mother. A little further off, a beaver is chewing down a tree. Probably for its dam. And when the breeze blows just right, I can hear the trees talking."
Blair grinned at Jim's uncharacteristic silliness. "The trees are talking, huh? What are they saying?"
"That *you,* are the most beautiful creature they've ever seen." Each word was punctuated with a kiss.
Ellison's efforts were rewarded with a giggle. "Talk like that'll get you anywhere."
"That's kind of what I'm hoping for, Chief." The Guide let his lover take him in his arms for a session of love, natural-style, confident that his Sentinel would monitor for any intruders.
Off in the distance, the normal sounds of the forest momentarily stilled as the roar of a jaguar and the howl of a wolf sounded. But by then, Sentinel and Guide were too busy to notice.
Nick Boyle tossed and turned in his cold bed, anger at his precept making sleep impossible. Damn stubborn Dutchman! Who died and appointed Derek God, anyway? The young man got up and decided to head down to the library. Maybe a book would distract him.
The former SEAL padded down to the House's reading room and picked up the first volume at hand, which was Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. Curling up on a soft chair, Nick read beyond the point where his eyes got heavy. Not aware of the change from the waking to the slumber world, the young man finally drifted off to sleep.......
Soaring. Even in parachute training, he'd never gotten this vivid an impression of true flight. Nick regaled in the sensation of gliding for a few moments before turning his attention to the green canopy of the forest below him. Interesting. From the variety of trees, it appeared to be the type of forest you'd find in the western portion of the United States. Now, why had he expected it to be a rain forest? His interest peeked, Nick directed himself down for a closer look.
As he drifted closer to the woods, Nick's keen eye was drawn to movement below him. Focusing, he could see that the motion that drew him was two running forms--a wolf and a black jaguar. Very odd. Both were predators and probably wouldn't clash unless it were over food, were they in some sort of territorial contest?
Diving, Nick followed the two animals, easily avoiding the grasping branches of the trees surrounding him. But as fast as the ex-SEAL was, the two four-footed creatures below soon outpaced him. Nick heard the unmistakable scream of a big hunting cat, soon followed by a wolf's distinctive howl. The primal cries made Nick's blood hot and he re-doubled his efforts. Moments later, the young man caught up to his quarry in a small clearing. The two earth-bound animals, each obviously male, were facing off and Nick hovered to watch, uncertain what to do. Both were beautiful animals; he'd hate to see either of them injured.
The ex-SEAL didn't have long for his inner debate, because the jaguar pounced the much smaller wolf. In a blink of an eye, the big cat had the canine trapped underneath its massive paws. The wolf, however, was something of a scrapper and quickly bit on the great, black tail. Nick thought for a moment that the wolf would get away, but the jaguar leapt and trapped the smaller gray and silver form beneath it. The cat reached for the back of the wolf's neck and Nick winced to think of the huge jaws snapping it like a twig.
Much to his surprise, however, the jaguar seemed to hold the wolf's neck in a gentle grip, apparently only attempting to control the wolf's movements, not to harm. The wolf gave a small cry of pleasure and Nick could see the cat's hindquarters, covering those of the wolf, move in an oddly rhythmic pattern.
They were mating, not fighting.
The revelation shocked Nick into wakefulness, the young man's sudden movement tumbling the forgotten book from his hands. Wiping the sweat out of his eyes, he replaced the volume in the bookcase with trembling hands. Recovering his equilibrium, Nick decided to take himself back to bed. The tired ex-SEAL chastised himself all the way up the stairs, shaking his head in self-recrimination.
"Geez, Boyle," he muttered to himself in self-disgust. "Dreaming about animals getting it on! What's next, wanking off to episodes of National Geographic?"
Sleep was a long time coming.
Coeur D'Alene was buzzing.
That past summer, the citizens of the small Idaho town's interest had been piqued by the abrupt, night-time appearance of a sleek, private helicopter. The high-tech flying equipment had swooped out of nowhere and descended on Qiana's Peak one night, just as a fiery explosion had rocked the area. One local had been involved, a Native American tracker named Charlie Wolfe, but the normally gregarious man had proven strangely reluctant to talk about the episode. The whole sleepy village had talked about the incident for months, with rumors of government cover-ups and James Bond-like adventures growing with each telling.
Until the ghost cat showed up and gave the town something new to talk about.
If tourists had reported it, well, city folk were not known for their intimate knowledge of Idaho's fauna and flora. But no less than three natives had seen the mysterious black hunting cat that seemed to disappear into nowhere. That gave the reports some credence and interest in the oddly colored animal rose. But then one hunter reported cornering the animal in a cave, only to have it vanish into thin air. He claimed that the blue-eyed beast had winked at him before it faded.
That little tidbit had caused most of them to take the reported sightings with a grain of salt. It appeared someone was having a little fun at their expense. Winking black mountain lions indeed!
The one person who took the reports seriously was Charlie Wolfe. Thanks to his adventure with the mysterious Nick Boyle, he had more experience than he liked with disappearing creatures. After hearing the third rendition of the beast's disappearing act one evening at the diner while he was having supper, he decided he was just going to have to do something about the situation. Coeur D'Alene was a nice little town, not to mention his birthplace, and he wasn't about to let become overrun with supernatural flotsam and jetsam. Clambering back into his dilapidated truck, he headed back to his cabin with a mission in mind. He had a business card to look up and a phone call to make.
It was time to call in a favor.
"Nick, are you awake?"
The ex-SEAL pulled his pillow over his head and rolled over in a futile attempt to drown out the sound of his colleague pounding on his door. Sunday was the only day of the week that he let himself sleep in and skip his rigorous physical training rituals. The young man knew that his father wouldn't have approved, but Robert Boyle had been in his grave for ten years and Nick no longer gave a damn what the SOB would've said about his "lazy" son.
Besides, God had rested on the seventh day. Nick figured that if a six-day work week was good enough for the Almighty, then it was good enough for him.
"Nick?" The door to Nick's room slowly opened and Alex Moreau poked her curly head into the darkened room. "I'm really sorry to do this to you, but the guy on the phone says it's urgent."
"Mmmph? So'sat?" Nick responded to the urgency in Alex's voice by flopping onto his back, but sleepy young man wasn't quite awake enough to force his tongue to cooperate.
Alex laughed to herself as her Legacy partner knuckled sleep out of his eyes like five year-old. The young man didn't often let any of them see him this vulnerable and the researcher found the sight to be incredibly sweet. The Legacy researcher resisted the urge to brush back the hair out of the half-lidded eyes. She knew that with Nick's military training, it was dangerous to wake him up and that only his utter trust in her had allowed her this far into the room unmolested. Even more- than-half asleep, Nick's subconscious had recognized her and cataloged her as "safe." But touching him at this point would be needlessly pushing her luck. Better safe than sorry, no matter how soft and inviting his tousled brown hair looked. It really had been a shame to wake him, but in their line of work, they couldn't afford to ignore a possible emergency.
"He wouldn't tell me who it was, just that you knew him and owed him 'big time,'" she explained as she handed him the phone.
Nick yawned until his jaw cracked, waving his hand at Alex to indicate that he was awake. Smiling ruefully, she mouthed the word "sorry" and left the room, giving him privacy for his conversation.
"Boyle." Not the friendliest greeting in the world, but then, what could this mysterious caller expect, having deprived him of his one lazy morning of the week?
"Would that be Nick Boyle?"
"Yeah, you got him. Who are you and what do you want?" Damn, this had better not be a salesman.
"It's Charlie, Nick, Charlie Wolfe. You remember, from Idaho..."
Nick shot up from the pillows to sit on the edge of his bed, memories crowding the sleep out of his brain. Idaho...a hunt through the woods surrounding Coeur D'Alene...Richter. No, he wasn't likely to forget.
"Yeah, I remember, Charlie. What can I do for you?"
The big detective groaned and rolled over in his and
Blair's make-shift bed. Due to the last-minute nature of their travel plans, the
couple hadn't had much of a choice in accommodations. The cabin they'd rented
was snug enough, but the furnishings left a lot to be desired. It was one-room
style and came with two twin- sized beds, the Spartan nature of the cabin making
it clear that it was used primarily for hunters who wouldn't be wanting to spend
much time indoors. It had only taken a moment to realize that they were going to
have to do something about that situation-the two hadn't slept apart since
becoming lovers and weren't about to start now. A quick lashing of the two beds
together, with sleeping bags and blankets piled on top had taken care of the
problem. Or, at least, it had seemed to during the daylight. Now that it was the
middle of the night, the Sentinel was keenly aware of the crack dividing the two
mattresses. Despite the strenuous hike-and even more strenuous
love-making session afterwards-sleep was difficult and Ellison tossed and turned in an attempt to get comfortable.
Blair was the love of his life and other part of his soul, but God help the grad student if he made any "princess and the pea" comments in the morning.
Thinking of the anthropologist got the sleepy man to wondering why his arms were empty. Sandburg usually cuddled close during even the warmest nights. Too groggy to make use of his enhanced senses, Jim used the time-honored tradition of fumbling around the bed with his hand to try and find the younger man.
Jim gave up the battle and opened his eyes. Based on past experience, he knew that he wouldn't be able to go back to sleep until he found out precisely where the curly-topped man was. Ellison scanned the bare cabin and it didn't take long to spot his lover. Blair was at the window, dressed only in moonlight, pensively gazing out the window.
Worry over his love's state of being banished the remainder of the Sentinel's drowsiness and allowed him to use his senses with a sharper focus. The detective concentrated his hearing and was relieved at the sound of a calm and steady heartbeat. For a moment, he'd been afraid that Blair had experienced another nightmare-and that he himself had slept through it. But it looked liked the kid had been having a hard time sleeping in that torture device called a bed too. Sandburg was the thoughtful one, he's probably gotten up so he wouldn't disturb his mate...
Now fully awake, Jim left the bed and approached his lover from behind. Sensing the chill radiating from the slighter man's body, he enveloped Sandburg in a hug and bent down to kiss the cool cheek. As he did so, he could see that Blair's deep blue eyes were wide open and staring sightlessly across the moonlit landscape.
Absently, the young man reached up to pat the Sentinel's face. "The Serpent Path...the wounded soul comes from the south," he murmured, seemingly not fully aware of his surroundings.
"What was that, Chief?" Maybe Blair was having a dream after all.
"He is most blind who will not see..."
As Blair continued to babble, Ellison became nervous. The kid'd been having the occasional nightmare ever since working with the cop, probably because of all he'd experienced since hooking up with the detective. Normally, when the night goblins came, Jim would wake him and snuggle with him until he fell back asleep. But this was different--more like a waking dream or a trance.
The bigger man grabbed Sandburg by the shoulders, turning the smaller man away from the windows, and gently shook him. "Blair, come on now, wake up! You're scaring me here, Chief."
Big blue eyes blinked and the frozen stare was broken. Shaken, Blair reached up to clasp Jim's hands where they were resting on his shoulders. "Jim? Wh-What? Why am I all the way over here?"
Relieved, Jim planted a kiss on the top of the anthropologist's head. "I was kinda hoping you could tell me that."
But the grad student simply shook his head in confusion. "...and it's cold!"
Chuckling a bit at the forlorn protest, Ellison once again wrapped his arms around his shivering partner and steered him towards the bed. Everything seemed back to normal for the moment and morning would be soon enough to figure out the strange episode.
Right now, he had a pair of cold toes to warm up.
Nick stopped right outside his Precept's office and squared his shoulders. This wasn't going to be easy...
Telling himself not to be a wuss, the young man gave a quick knock on the door and poked his head into the room without waiting for an answer. To his relief, Rachel Corrigan was with Derek. The older woman often used her skills as a psychiatrist to act as a buffer between the two strong-willed men. Now, if only she thought his idea was a good one and didn't go all mother-hen on him, this might actually go better than he'd originally thought.
The two older Legacy members looked up from the file they were studying when he entered the room.
"Is everything okay, Nick?" Rachel asked, leaving her perch on the corner of Derek's desk to come over and greet him.
"Everything's fine, Rachel," the ex-SEAL said, giving her a quick good morning kiss, "I just didn't get to play slug-a-bed as long as I would've liked."
The young man felt his leader's penetrating stare, although the Dutchman didn't leave his seat the way Rachel had. "Yes, Alex said that you received an urgent phone call early this morning."
Nick sensed the command to explain that was couched in the casual statement and decided that this was the perfect opening. "Yeah, I'm gonna have to go back to Coeur D'Alene for a few days."
Rachel's face mirrored her dismay. "Coeur D'Alene? Isn't that in Idaho?"
"Yes, it is." Although her question had been aimed at Nick, it was Derek who answered. "It's also where he faced Richter."
"Richter's dead," Nick flatly stated, his tone of voice indicating that he'd brook no argument on this one. "Trust me, he's not the problem."
"Then there is a problem." Funny, how the Precept could pack a world of meaning into one little sentence. In spite of himself, Nick started to explain.
"There's this guy out there. Charlie. Remember him?" At the nods of his colleagues, the young man continued. "Well, he took a bullet because of me. I know the Legacy paid for his medical bills and all, but I owe the man. He could've taken off when it got rough...and he didn't."
"So what's the problem?" Rachel asked.
"There's been several weird sightings around the area. Some sort of big hunting cat that disappears into thin air. It's probably nothing, but Charlie saw Richter's men disappear and I think hearing these stories has got him a little nervous. He asked me to come check it out."
Derek rubbed his chin, deep in thought. "Do you think it could be connected to Richter? After all, when he commanded his dead soldiers to return to the land of the living, you said that they vanished into thin air as his power waned."
"I blew that place straight to Hell, Derek." Nick was a little offended. He'd assured the Dutchman that Richter was dead and dealt with. Didn't the man trust that he knew how to do his job right?
"Be that as it may, Nick, but I think it would be prudent to take someone with you. Just in case these sightings are connected to Richter. The Coeur D'Alene area is isolated. It would be dangerous for you to be so far from backup should you come to need it."
Derek's words did not sit well with his youngest House member. The evening before, the older man had yelled at him for saving his life. Yelled at him! Then, he just had expressed doubt over Nick's judgement over whether or not Richter was truly neutralized. And on top of all of that, the Dutchman was saying he needed a sidekick to help him do a routine job.
Any one of the situations would be enough to make the young man angry. All of them together was enough to really piss him off.
"I don't need a babysitter, Derek," Nick ground out through clenched teeth. "I'm a big boy, I can handle this all by myself." The last was said as the young man strode for the door.
"Nick, I don't think that's wise..." The Dutchman started to follow the ex-SEAL but was stopped by Rachel grabbing his arm.
"Let him go, Derek." At seeing the Precept's confused expression, Rachel explained her reasoning. "Watching the two of you the past couple of months has been painful. It's like watching two caged tigers circling one another. What he needs-what you both need-is breathing space."
Derek wordlessly nodded as the truth of Rachel's observation struck. Things had been awfully tense between him and his chief of security of late. Maybe Nick going off on his own for what should be a routine case would give them some space. The young man would go off for a few days, blow off some steam, and then he'd come back refreshed.
Please God, let him decide to come back!
Blair opened sleepy eyes to see Jim sprawled out next to him on the bed, propped up on one arm in order to watch him. Seeing that his lover was awake, the bigger man reached out one hand to brush the unruly curls out of Sandburg's beautiful face. "Hey there, gorgeous."
"Hey yourself," the anthropologist answered, luxuriating in a bone-popping stretch before leaning up to snag a good morning kiss. "You been awake long?"
Actually, Ellison hadn't slept at all after that little trip to the Twilight Zone that his mate had taken the night before, but Blair didn't need to know that. Sandburg could feel guilty about the littlest things. "Nah, just long enough to enjoy the view."
"Yeah, but Jim, you're facing away from the window..." The grad student's protest trickled off as Jim smiled indulgently. They'd been together almost two years and the kid still couldn't accept a compliment gracefully. The anthropologist blushed and chuckled ruefully. "You sure you don't need to get your eyes checked?"
"Nope." The Sentinel let his eyes roam up and down the slighter man's body. "I can see just fine." Ellison leaned in for another kiss, reassuring himself that his lover was back to his normal, exuberant self. "Chief, do you remember what happened last night?"
Blair lifted one eyebrow in mock surprise. "Man, if you've gotta be reminded the next morning, we're not doin' something right!"
Jim gathered his Guide in his arms and rolled so that the young man was draped across his chest. "I'm not talking about sex, smart ass-"
"Well, that's a switch!"
The detective placed a finger over Sandburg's lips, silencing the anthropologist. "This is serious, Chief. Do you remember getting out of bed last night?"
Blair's forehead wrinkled as he became aware of how intense the older man was. "No, Jim. I remember you putting me into orbit, some mutual stickiness, and then sleeping. Until just now, that is."
"You don't remember any dreams last night?" The mute shake of his partner's head made Ellison brought home the fact that the grad student truly didn't remember the odd vision of the night before. The Sentinel quickly brought the young man up-to-date.
"Out of the south, huh?" Blair's dismay having blanked out the whole experience quickly gave way to the curiosity of a born scholar. "One of the shamanistic traditions I've been studying links the points of the compass to your life experiences. The south is supposed to represent your past and memories."
"So you think that your...dream...last night has something to do with why we're up here."
"It might. You okay with that?"
Jim kissed the end of the younger man's nose. "As long as I'm with you, I'm okay. Together, we can deal with anything."
Blair grinned in reply. "I'm going to hold you to that, you know."
The Sentinel's grin matched his Guide's. "That's what I'm counting on, Chief."
Nick Boyle finished getting out of his rented jeep and gave a mock salute to the figure hobbling over to him. Coeur D'Alene was a small enough town that, even with badly marked roads, finding Charlie Wolfe's place had been a breeze. The young man's pleasure at seeing the friendly tracker waned as he realized that the man was limping.
"What happened to you? That leg isn't still bad from the last time, is it? I thought Derek arranged to have all of your medical needs seen to?" The ex-SEAL peppered the Native American with questions as he approached.
"Nah, this gimp is from trying to help a fool city boy avoid a animal trap," the older man grimaced at remembered pain. "Next time, I'll just let the idiot walk into it."
Nick grinned in relief. He was beholden to Charlie Wolfe for helping him with the whole Richter mess. It had given him twinges of guilt to think that a "civilian" might have been permanently damaged from helping him and he was glad to be mistaken.
"So, I hear you have a disappearing mountain lion around here..."
Charlie snorted in disgust. "I never heard of a pitch black mountain lion before-and especially not one with blue eyes that can disappear into thin air whenever it gets the notion." The tracker looked away, squinting over in the direction of the woods surrounding Pike's Peak. "No, this is something...different. I haven't seen it myself, but the descriptions I've heard reminded me of what happened a while back. You seemed to have some experience with that kind of thing and I figured it was best to call in an expert. No one's been hurt, yet, but..."
Nick knew Charlie to be a pragmatic man. If the tracker was concerned, there was good reason. The ex-SEAL moved around to the back of the jeep to get his gear. "Why don't you fill me in on the sightings."
"Okay, come inside and I'll feed you while I explain. Then we can start the hunt."
"Wait a minute, you're not going anywhere with that leg," Nick had been around Rachel long enough to pick up on some of her mother-hen routine, even if he did tell himself that he wanted Charlie left behind simply because the injured man would slow him down.
"If this thing's as nasty as the last disappearing figures that were hanging 'round here, you'll need some backup."
"Now you sound like my boss," Nick grinned widely to take the sting out of the words. "Besides, I think I can handle one little kitty cat."
The ex-SEAL clapped Charlie soundly on the shoulder as both men headed up towards Wolfe's log cabin. The tracker shook his head ruefully as he realized that he wasn't going to be able to change the young man's mind.
"You SEALs. You're all nuts."
"Fifty-one, Mississippi. Fifty-two, Mississippi. Fifty-three, Mississippi."
The Sentinel carefully counted off the numbers. He had a long way to go to reach one thousand, but the benefits of this little exercise would outweigh the tediousness of his count.
Even after their talk this morning, Blair had been edgy. He reassured the older man that he wasn't scared or worried but the young shaman had admitted to an undeniable feeling that they would soon find out exactly what had drawn Blair to this area. And waiting for whatever it was to arrive was making the kid anxious.
The kid had been bouncing off the cabin walls all morning, so Ellison had suggested they take the opportunity of quiet time while they could and do some sensory skills tests. The big man figured it would keep the anthropologist busy and he wasn't too surprised that the grad student had leapt at the chance to put the Sentinel through his paces. Jim might begrudgingly acknowledge that the tests and exercises helped him hone the use of his senses, but he didn't often willingly volunteer for the drills either.
After a minimal debate, the two decided that the easiest and most useful activity would be their own version of hide-and-seek. Jim would stay in the cabin for a set period of time and Blair would try to hide from him. The fact that neither man had brought a watch along on their vacation caused some difficulty until Blair suggested the age-old tradition of counting. The grad student trusted his partner's promise not to use his senses until the specified time.
Jim was finding his promise not to monitor his lover a lot harder to keep. Sandburg was a trouble magnet and the older man worried that he might get into mischief. But even Blair couldn't get into too much trouble out here in the boondocks, could he?
Damn! The Sentinel thought over some of the messes the grad student had gotten himself into and started counting faster.
Sandburg chuckled as he came upon the tree that branched out across the stream. The rocks around the bank wouldn't be able to hold his scent long, not with the spray hitting them from the nearby water. All he had to do was use the branch to cross the stream and the Sentinel might be fooled.
For a minute or two, anyway. The anthropologist knew that this game had a foregone conclusion, but maybe he could make his partner sweat for a minute.
Resolutely, the young man jumped for the branch above his head. If he did this quickly enough, he'd be across before his fear of heights had a chance to kick in.
Nick paused for a moment to take in the beauty of his surroundings. He knew he was supposed to be tracking a supernatural animal, but on a bright day like this, it was hard to concentrate on the paranormal. It had been a long time since he'd been in the forest for pleasure. The young man had occasionally gone hunting with his dad, but those had been far from pleasurable times. As a boy, he'd enjoyed the thrill of the chase, but being with his hypercritical father made the outings more of a chore than fun. Once Nick was in the SEALs and had a taste of hunting two- legged prey-and being stalked by his adversaries himself-the idea of hunting for amusement had become repugnant.
Sighing at the dismal turn his thoughts had taken, the young man started up the hiking trail again. He'd yet to see a single track or mark, but Charlie had sworn that the sightings had been concentrated in this area. It was the same part of Coeur D'Alene that the rental cabins were located. That was in part why Charlie and those natives that didn't discount the stories out of hand were so worried. Coeur D'Alene thrived on the tourist trade, and if the cat started attacking people, it would be very bad for business.....
<Crack!> The loud crash was immediately followed by an even louder splash, causing Nick to jump. The young man reached for his gun, the sudden noises making him think he might be under attack.
When the cry for help ended in gurgles, the ex-SEAL took off at a run-it sounded like someone was in trouble. The hiking trail soon widened out as it approached a fast-moving creek and Nick saw the source of the sounds. Someone was in the water and pinned by a huge tree branch. He couldn't make out the form clearly, but could see that whoever was trapped was smaller than himself and had long hair. Even in the mere flash it took the young man to notice the details, the branch shifted in the creek's current, forcing the curly head under the water.
Knowing he only had a moment to act, Boyle dropped his pack and waded in, muscles automatically bracing to resist the flow of the stream. Reaching the tree limb, the young man dug in and pushed. Luckily the branch hadn't had time to settle and he was able to get it to move. Turning in the cold water, Nick shifted so that the limb was against his back, keeping it from moving back onto the person in the water. If it shifted again, he would be in danger of being trapped too, but he'd be damned if he'd let anyone die on such a beautiful day. The arms of the trapped person flailed out of the water and Nick reached down to help the unknown individual up. As their hands grasped, the ex-SEAL gave a heave and pulled.
The trapped body came out of the water and into his arms. With the slight form pressed tightly up against him, Nick could tell that the person he rescued was male. Boyle knew the two of them would have to move soon or risk being pinned again, but realized that the man he'd rescued was still coughing up too much water to be of help. Deciding that it would be better to give him a moment to collect himself, Nick let the man rest against him for a minute. The other's form was only a couple of inches shorter than the SEAL's, but the stranger wasn't as muscular, giving the appearance of being smaller than he actually was. Feeling strangely protective, Nick stroked the drenched man's back in comfort as tried to catch his breath. After a few more wheezes Nick felt the dark head resting on his chest move so that the tree's victim could look him in the face. Curious to know who he was dealing with, the ex-SEAL looked down...
...into the bluest eyes he'd ever seen.
With a sigh of relief, Jim counted off "One thousand, Mississippi" and left the cabin. Now where could the imp have gotten to? Ellison grinned when he remembered the look on Blair's face when he cautioned the young man not to get lost. No doubt he'd pay for the comment later, but the big man couldn't help but tease his directionally disadvantaged counterpart.
The detective was just in the process of dialing his senses back up to track the grad student when he heard the sound of the tree limb breaking. Heart already in his throat, Ellison was beginning to move towards the sound when he heard his lover's cry for help abruptly cut off.
Sprinting through the forest, Jim Ellison went into automatic Sentinel mode. His mate was in danger and he was much too far away. Eyes continuously scanning the terrain ahead of him so that he could avoid any obstacles, the big man focused his hearing and soon heard the rhythm of Blair's heartbeat. It was pounding much too fast, but at least it meant the kid was still alive.
Whatever relief the Sentinel felt at the knowledge that his lover still lived was soon eclipsed by the realization that another heartbeat had joined his partner's. Ellison called on hidden reserves and managed to surge ahead even faster. The presence of a stranger, coupled with whatever had befallen Blair, spelled trouble. What nut case had the grad student stumbled across this time? Another psycho like Lash? Had Brackett escaped from whatever dark rock the feds had hidden the rogue agent under? Determined to protect his mate at all costs, Jim vaulted the last fallen tree trunk and reached the stream.
And came to a complete and sudden stop.
Blair was still in the water, but despite Ellison's dire visions as to his lover's fate, the young man seemed to be quite safe. In fact, he was nestled in the arms of a slightly younger man. A young man whose strong arms encircled his lover's pliant body, holding the trembling form close to his own...gently embracing the anthropologist as though he could hold him forever.
The sight should have sent the Sentinel into a murderous rage. Ellison knew very well how irresistible his lover was. The big man had fought the green-eyed monster on more than one occasion-and usually lost. More than one man, not to mention countless numbers of women, had been growled at by a very large, very jealous lover when they dared to actually touch Sandburg instead of being content with just looking. And for some of the more lecherous, even looking got them in trouble.
But rather than raising his hackles, the sight of this unknown young man clasping his lover so tightly went straight from the pupil of Ellison's eye right down to the tip of the big man's cock.
For a moment, the Sentinel's mind went off into its own little world. Visions of Blair intertwined with this athletic newcomer while he himself watched wreaked havoc with his breathing. As tempting as the fantasies were, however, the detective reminded himself that Blair wasn't out of the woods yet, so to speak, and still needed his help. Keeping a wary, although not suspicious, eye on the stranger, Ellison clambered down the bank towards his beloved.
"Baby, are you all right?"
At his words, the anthropologist lifted his head from where it rested on the stranger's chest and gave a weak smile. "Yeah, I think so."
As soon as he heard Sandburg's voice, something deep inside the Sentinel relaxed. His mate was safe. "You ready to come out of the water?"
Blair looked around as if noticing his surroundings anew. As he did so, he realized that he was being supported, most tenderly, by someone who wasn't Jim. The grad student flushed and reached for his lover. "P-p-please?" It might be September, but the stream was mountain-fed and the young man's lips quivered with cold.
Reaching down one long arm, Ellison grasped Blair's hand and heaved him up to shore. Once he had his Guide in his arms, Jim was reluctant to let go and carried the smaller man several feet from the creek's bank. Even when he found level ground to set him down, the detective kept his arms around him for a few moments more, glorying in feeling Blair's heart beating so closely to his. Enjoying the fact that it was his arms around Sandburg and not those of some stranger. Even if the stranger did rival his partner in the attractiveness department.
"Ummm........." An embarrassed voice called out from the stream. "I hate to interrupt, but I could use a hand here...."
Ellison gave the top of his lover's head one quick kiss before setting the anthropologist down to return to the stream. Leaving the young stud stranded in the water was a poor way to repay him for helping Blair. Somehow, even though he'd yet to hear a word of explanation from either of them, the cop knew that the young man had been helping his lover, not hindering him.
As Jim turned to help the stranger, the grad student plucked at his sleeve.
"Jim..." The anthropologist was apparently at a loss for words, but Ellison could read the "I love you" written plainly in his eyes. It was right there next to the "I'm sorry" message.
"It's okay, Chief." The big man reassured him. "We'll talk about it later."
With that, the Sentinel turned towards the new man in their lives.
Blair was mortified.
When the branch broke, the grad student's first thought had been that Jim was going to tease the hell out of him for falling into a creek on this trip. But then the large tree limb had pinned him underneath the water and the grad student had panicked, calling out in alarm for his Blessed Protector. But, deep down, he knew that Ellison would have kept his word to not monitor him until the count to one thousand had been reached and that the big man would be too far away to help...
Then the branch had miraculously moved.
When a muscular arm reached down to help him, the grad student assumed that it belonged to his lover. But, although the body he soon found himself pressed against was just as athletic as Jim's, it was also a lot smaller. Closer to his own size, actually. Too relieved at first to shift positions, the anthropologist had let the stranger's obvious strength buoy him for a moment.
And then a moment more.
The arms around him weren't Jim's, but they made him feel just about as safe. How could that be, when the Sentinel was the other half of his soul and this new person was a stranger? Confused, the young man lifted his head to look at his rescuer.
God, he was beautiful
A few years younger than Sandburg, the newcomer had all-American good looks, a snub nose, and the most soulful hazel-green eyes that the police observer had ever seen. Groaning at the betraying turn his thoughts were taking, the anthropologist sighed and hid his face in the younger man's chest. A young man that the grad student had already named, in spite of himself, "Blessed Protector Junior."
What was Jim going to say?
Nick stood in the fast-moving water of the stream and shook. Not because the water was cold, although it assuredly was, but at the feelings running through him. When he'd looked down into the curly-haired stranger's face, it seemed like the world had stopped. The only thing that existed for the young man in those moments was the deep blue pools of the other man's gaze.
Then he heard a strong voice call gently from the bank, "Baby, are you all right?", and his world started up again with a jolt. For a heart-stopping moment, the ex- SEAL thought that maybe he was the person being so addressed and it sent shivers up his spine to hear an endearment being said to him in such a tender voice. But as the body in his arms jerked in recognition, Nick realized that the man he was holding was the one being referred to so lovingly.
He should have known better. Endearments were for other people.
As he looked up to the stream bank to see who the newcomer was, Nick's world was rocked one last time. The new stranger was big, easily as tall as Derek but much more muscled. Short, brown hair topped chiseled features that spoke of the man's strong character, although the concern written there softened his face. The ice blue of the buff stranger's eyes was easily discernable even from the water.
Did everyone in these Idaho woods but him have neon blue eyes?
While Nick had studied the latest comer to their soggy little party, he was only marginally aware of the conversation going on between the other two men. Longingly, the ex-SEAL watched as the big newcomer helped the slighter man out of the water and into his arms.
Nick had been restless for months, yearning for something but not really knowing what. The young man had known that his feelings for Derek had changed; he no longer thought of the older man as his mentor or simply his boss. But his emotions, whenever he allowed himself to analyze them, were all mixed up--not to mention what happened whenever he allowed himself to take a really good look at the elegant Precept. Now, as he saw the two men on the stream bank wrapped up in each other, he finally realized what it was that he had been craving.
He was tired of being the strong one.
Even as the thought crossed his mind, Nick knew it wasn't quite right. He was tired of being strong *alone.* He longed to have a life partner who could shoulder his share of the burden. Someone that he could count on to be there when he needed coddling--and who in return would be willing to let him be protective when he needed to. A mate that could be his heart's friend as well as his body's lover. Up until recently, he always thought that elusive someone would be a female and that he simply hadn't met the right woman yet.
But maybe he wasn't looking for a woman after all...
Jim Ellison reluctantly left his drenched and shivering mate on the creek bank and moved to help the stranger get out of the water. The big man knew that they owed the younger one for helping Blair, but the "Blessed Protector" part of Jim wanted nothing more than to stay put and hold his Guide until the anthropologist's trembling stopped.
Ellison told himself--firmly--that his strange attraction to this newcomer had absolutely nothing to do with his hesitation.
Grabbing a convenient tree trunk for an anchor, the Sentinel braced himself and offered an arm to Sandburg's rescuer. Equally as athletic as Ellison, it was obvious that normally the young man would have been able to get up the steep bank himself. However, the stranger had also used his body to prop up the fallen tree branch to keep it from trapping Blair in the water. Even though the grad student was now safely ashore, any movement would dislodge the heavy limb and very likely sweep the Good Samaritan down the stream with it.
The younger man grasped Jim's offered arm and the Sentinel felt the warmth of his grip go all the way through his body. Hazel-green eyes met icy blue before the smaller man blushed and looked away. Evidently, Ellison wasn't the only one that felt a tingle.
"Ready?" Jim asked. At the other's nod, the Sentinel heaved and boosted the stranger up. At first, the water seemed reluctant to let go of its embrace of the athletic form, but at Ellison's steady pull, the young man popped out of the creek like a cork. Overbalanced at the stream's sudden surrender of its "guest," both men fell back on the bank, the slighter stranger on top.
For a moment they were nose-to-nose, but the other man immediate rolled off to lay at Jim's side. Jim looked at him for a moment, already missing the sensation of the young man's body pressed next to his, but was soon distracted by a shadow falling across his face. Looking up, he saw his lover's worried countenance.
"Are you all right?" asked the grad student.
Jim smiled. Blair was the one standing there dripping wet, no doubt freezing cold from his unanticipated swim, and he was asking about his mate. "Yeah, Chief, I'm fine."
Wide blue eyes moved to the recumbent form next to him. "What about him?"
Touching the young man to check his condition seemed too intimate, so the Sentinel extended his hearing. The heart beat was probably too fast, but the stranger's breathing seemed to be easing and his lungs clear of fluid. "I think he's okay."
Since the detective's had his senses dialed up, it was easy for him to detect the musky scent of his mate's arousal and the murmur of Blair's lightly breathed "Oh, he's more than okay" comment. It seemed that Ellison wasn't the only one attracted to the newcomer. That, at least, was a relief.
But what the hell were they gonna do about it?
Oh, that was subtle, Boyle!
When the large stranger had reached down to help him out of the stream, Nick had not been prepared for how good the bigger man's fingers had felt on him. As soon as the larger hand had gripped his arm, the ex-SEAL had been struck by the thought of how warm it was and how strong the grip was...and how good the man's hands would feel touching all over his body. Thus mesmerized, the young man had not been paying attention and was therefore not prepared when the stranger had yanked him out of the water.
To his embarrassment, he landed right on top of the big guy. Well, the ex-SEAL himself was embarrassed, but parts of his body weren't. As soon as Nick felt his groin stirring, he rolled off the big chest. Geez, he didn't even know the guy's name, fer cryin' out loud!
The young man lay panting for a few moments, wondering if either of the other men had noticed his reaction. Nick had gotten used to, sort of, his attraction to Derek-the first time he'd ever had a sexual response to another man. Until this afternoon. When his body had reacted to not one, but two other men.
Nick groaned softly and ran his hands over his face. He heard the soft murmurs of nearby voices, but tried to tune them out. The two men were obviously romantically involved and deserved what little privacy he could give them after their scare. Thinking of the other two as a couple immediately got the ex-SEAL to imagining them coupling and he groaned again as he pulled his mind away from the tantalizing images. This was a fine mess he'd gotten into.
"Are you okay?"
Nick looked up from his prone position and saw that his creek companion was looking down at him in concern. Not bearing to see worry clouding those azure eyes, he sat up to reassure the other man.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Just not used to tree wrestling. Paul Bunyan, I'm not." His quip was rewarded with a small smile from the curly haired man.
The other stranger came behind the smaller man and engulfed him in his arms. "Well, blue ox or no blue ox, we're very grateful to you."
On getting an up-close view of the two men embracing, it wasn't Nick's "ox" that he had to worry about being blue.
The ex-SEAL pushed himself up from the ground, telling "Babe" to mind its manners and be a good boy. "I was just in the right place at the right time."
"Lucky for me," the smaller man said. "I'm Blair Sandburg, by the way." Blair untwined one arm from the older man's hug in order to offer Nick a hand to shake. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Blair's hand might be a little smaller than the other guy's, but it was nearly as strong. The ex-SEAL was loathe to let go, but figured he'd better if he wanted to keep it. The big guy didn't look like the sharing type. "I'm Nick Boyle."
"Jim Ellison." The older man nodded at Nick instead of offering his hand. At first, Boyle was a little worried that he'd offended the other, but soon realized that Ellison had his hands full.
Full of Blair, lucky stiff.
"Look, both of you are soaked to the skin. We've rented a cabin not too far from here. Do you have a change of clothes?" At Nick's nod, the older man continued. "Let's get the two of you into something dry, okay?"
Nick bit his lip, realizing that the faint quivering running through his body could only partially be attributed to being wet and cold. The ex-SEAL didn't like feeling out of control and these new emotions about the two men he'd just met made him feel like he had as much control over his body at the moment as Tokyo had over Godzilla. Maybe it would be better if he just went on his merry way...
Sensing the other man's hesitation, Blair played his trump card. The smaller man moved completely out of Jim's embrace and moved closer to Nick, placing one hand on his arm. "Please?"
Rachel Corrigan had once told Nick that he had a good "puppy dog" look and he'd wondered what she meant. Taking one look at Sandburg's pleading blue eyes, the meaning of the phrase became crystal clear.
What else could he do but say yes?
Continued in Part 2
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