Continued from Part 2
Blair wrung the moisture from his curly locks in an attempt to get his hair dry while he watched his two lovers romp in the water. Nick's emotional revelation in the cabin had left them all feeling drained. So, after a quick brunch, the three had piled back onto the bed for a long nap...
Oh, yeah, and they'd slept a little too.
But eventually, the lure of the great outdoors had been enough to call the trio out of the peaceful cocoon of the cabin and into the late afternoon sunshine. The brightness of the early fall day had made it seem more like summer and, when they'd come across a lake during their impromptu investigation of the cabin's surroundings, the splendid, sparkling water had been too much to resist.
The grad student had enjoyed the aqua aerobics earlier, but couldn't tolerate the brisk water any longer. The lake was fed from a mountain stream and, man, that water was cold! Besides, as much as he loved his hair long (well, as much as Jim loved his hair long), the blasted stuff took forever to dry. Better to get started right now 'cause going to bed with damp hair sucked.
"Hey, Chief!" Jim called from the small lake. "You done already?"
"Yeah, Blair," his younger lover added. "Where'd you go, the water's great!"
Blair stopped toweling. "Are you two nuts, man! That water's freezing!"
"Oh, stop being such a big baby," Jim admonished. "It's not that cold!"
"Besides," Nick chimed in. "We'll have fun warming you up later." The younger man leered and waggled his eyebrows up and down.
"Look, if you don't have sense to come out of the cold, well, so be it! Sometimes I think you military types don't have the proper number of nerve endings--or maybe ignoring your body's signals is something that they teach you in boot camp. As for me, a nice fire sounds good right about now."
Blair went back to his toweling and didn't see the look shared between Jim and Nick.
"Lieutenant Boyle, I do believe we've been insulted." Blair looked up at the deliberately bland tone of Jim's voice.
"Yes, Captain Ellison, I think we have." Nick wasn't quite as good at pulling a wooden face as the older man. A smile kept twitching at the corner of his mouth. "We aren't going to let him get away with that, are we?"
Jim tilted his head to the side, apparently giving Nick's question deliberate thought. "No, Lieutenant, I don't think we can let his slander pass. Wouldn't do for this miscreant to think he can sully the reputation of the military any time he chooses."
As Jim spoke, both of the men started moving through the water towards the grad student. Blair realized his mistake and started to run, but as athletic as the anthropologist was, he was no match for a former covert ops agent and an ex- SEAL. With much squirming and squealing, Blair was "invited" back into the lake with an ungraceful splash.
Popping his head out of the water, Sandburg flung his now thoroughly wet curls out of his eyes and glared at the two laughing men. "This means war!"
So involved did the three men become in their new game that none of them felt the penetrating gaze of the preditor lurking in the nearby trees.
Jim moaned under Nick's talented fingers, the smaller man managing to find every knot in the detective's back. Subduing the unrepentant anthropologist had turned out to be a bigger task than either of the ex-military man had imagined. The slighter grad student had insisted that his smaller stature and lack of covert training entitled him to cheat. Which he did. Gleefully. Much to their chagrin, his two bigger opponents, one topping him by scant inches and the other by half a foot, found that skinnydipping left a certain prized body part out and hanging and available to be used as a convenient handle.
It hadn't taken long for Sandburg to have both of his lovers well in hand.
That, of course, led to a entirely different type of frolicking and the trio returned to the cabin tired and utterly satiated.
Ellison was in superb physical condition, but the ex-Army Ranger had found the afternoon activities a bit taxing. Even soaking wet, comparatively Blair didn't weigh all that much, but repeatedly lifting and lowering his Guide's body while balancing on one of the shore's slippery rocks had strained the big man's back. Especially considering the pounding his own body was taking. Making love in the great outdoors had its appeals, but a nice, soft bed was a heck of a lot more comfortable.
Blair watched Nick rub baby oil into the detective's sore back muscles, enjoying the way the ex-SEAL's hands lingered at the waistband of Ellison's boxers. The grad student could empathize with the hungry look in the younger man's dilated eyes; he'd feasted on the sight of Jim laid out like a smorgasbord too.
The Ellison buffet would have to wait, though. They had some things to talk over first.
Sandburg walked over and knelt by his two lovers, his sturdy academic's hands covering Nick's oil-slicked ones and stilling the massage. "I think we need to talk about something, guys."
Jim groaned. His first mate's timing was perfect--Not! "*Now,* Chief?"
"Yes, now." Blair punctuated his remark with a smart slap onto the Sentinel's taut buttocks. "Turn over, Jim. None of us is going to be able to concentrate with you spread out like that."
The cop flipped over and scooted so that his back was supported by one of the chairs. "Satisfied?"
The grad student looked the taller of his mates up and down. "Nope, but that'll come later." Turning his mind back to serious matters, Sandburg continued. "I've been thinking..."
"That's dangerous!" Blair ignored Jim's comment. The big guy was bound to be a bit grumpy at the interruption.
"I've been thinking," the grad student started again, shooting his older lover a glare. "About why our animal spirits showed themselves to the Coeur D'Alene locals."
Both of his lovers gave him their undivided attention.
"I don't think it was an accident. I think it was a deliberate attempt to draw Nick here."
At Blair's pronouncement, Nick's brow furrowed in thought. The Legacy member didn't know if he liked the direction that Sandburg's thoughts were taking him. "Yeah, but how would your animal spirits know that I would be the one drawn here? For all they knew, somebody could have brought in a great white hunter." Sensing the younger man's uneasiness, Jim pulled him in to a loose embrace.
"How else to explain it? Look, I'm not a true shaman
yet. I don't know how all this stuff works. I just know that no one else
has ever seen our animal spirits before and that suddenly they're showing off
for complete strangers. And one of those strangers just happens to know you and
you just happen to come down here and we just happen to fall in love with
you...." Blair threw his hands up in
frustration. "Does that sound like coincidence to you?"
Nick looked shell shocked. "You... love... me?"
Jim bent and kissed the top of his head. "Of course we do, Sport. I thought we'd made that clear already."
Nick blushed. "Well, I know that you care, but *love...*"
Blair sighed. In his eagerness to get the supernatural roots of the mystery, he'd forgotten Nick's need for reassurance. His callousness had almost hurt the younger man. "He's right, you know. We do love you, Nick."
"I love both of you too."
The men from Cascade grinned over Nick's ducked head, each realizing that the ex-SEAL had just downed a major hurdle. Blair came close to where Boyle sat with the detective and knelt in front of them.
"Don't get me wrong about this, Nick. I'm not regretting that you came into our lives--I just think it's more than serendipity. I think there's something else we need to do for you."
Nick looked up at him with shining eyes. "What else could you possibly do for me? You've already given me more than I ever expected."
Blair bit his lip. The shaman had been surprised the night before at Nick's easy acceptance of the fact that he and Ellison possessed animal spirits. But, he'd also sensed the younger man's lack of trust for the spiritual guides. He wasn't sure how the idea he'd thought of last night was going to go over.
"When Jim accepted jaguar, it helped him accept a part of himself that he'd been holding at arm's length." Even now, the grad student didn't mention Ellison's Sentinel senses. "When I embraced my animal spirit, it saved my life. The wolf let me merge with Jim's and gain the strength to come back from drowning. I think that your nightmares--remember, you said you have them frequently--are because you haven't found your animal spirit yet. Discovering it, embracing it, will help you accept a part of yourself that you need. I think that you're hurting because something within you is broken and you need to fix it."
Nick's hazel-green eyes locked with Sandburg's blue ones. The ex-SEAL had no doubt that there was something wrong with him. The abuse from his father. Losing his SEAL unit. Leaving the navy in disgrace. Julia. He'd simply had too many emotional wounds in his life to heal without any scars, but was surprised at Blair's phrasing. If anything, the one remaining momentous aspect of his life that he'd been holding out on was taken care of last night; and this afternoon; and would be again this evening, if he had any say about it. Now that he'd finally admitted to being attracted to another man, and acted on those attractions, Nick could concede that he'd wasted a lot of time in his life on mistaken assumptions. Barking up the wrong tree, as it were.
Seeing the confusion in his new mate's eyes, Blair leaned forward and gave the younger man a soft kiss. "You don't have to do this, Nick, but I think you need to."
The ex-SEAL looked up to Jim for guidance. The bigger man gave a wordless nod and the Legacy member looked back at the anthropologist. What it came down too, he guessed, was if he trusted his lovers.
"Okay, what do I have to do?"
Nick Boyle squirmed at bit as he sat on the grassy ground, wiggling in order to find a more comfortable sitting position. When he'd agreed to a quest to find his animal spirit, he didn't know that it would involve a lot of sitting. As if concurring with his peevish mood, the ex-SEAL's stomach growled. If Nick had been surprised to find that a vision quest involved a lot of meditating, he'd been appalled to discover that it had also involved fasting.
"What do you mean, I can't eat all day?" The dismayed young man had asked when Blair gave him the good news.
When caught in the throws of academic ecstasy, Sandburg could go days without eating and the grad student had been less than sympathetic to his lover's plight. "You have to clear everything out of your system, for the vision quest that'll take place later in the day. You have to be able to let go of your physical body in order to reach the proper state of consciousness. Food acts as an anchor."
Nick had crossed his arms over his chest and pouted.
"What else am I going to be deprived of?" he asked suspiciously. Jim chuckled from the sidelines, evidently enjoying seeing his two younger lovers face off.
"Nothing much. In the morning, there'll be cleansing baths. In the afternoon, you'll start the meditation. That'll go into the evening. Sometime, probably in the middle of the night, your animal guide will join you on your spiritual journey and reveal itself to you." Blair tipped his head to the side and put a finger to his chin, as though deep in thought. "Oh yeah, and no nookie."
"Excuse me?" It was Jim who had asked the question, no longer benevolently smiling.
Blair had quickly found himself being backed into a corner by two imposing figures. "Ummm... it's just for the one day, fellas. Sex acts as an anchor too."
Nick had looked at Jim in dismay. It had only been a day since he'd become a part of this relationship, it had seemed cruel to deprive him of the physical comfort of his lovers so soon--even temporarily.
Jim had stopped stalking Sandburg and wrapped Nick in his arms. "Remember, Sport, you *don't* have to do this. You say the word and the spirit quest is off."
Now sitting in the remnants of the day's sunshine, Nick remembered that he had considered the detective's offer carefully the night before, not daring to look in the shaman's face. "No, Blair's right. This is something I have to do."
Jim had kissed him before stooping to gather the ex-SEAL in his arms and moving towards the bed. "Tomorrow's a whole night away." The cop had beckoned to Blair with his eyes and Sandburg came to join them. Together, they had started removing the younger man's clothes, kissing the firm flesh as it was exposed...
Nick let the memory of the night before dissipate as his body's reaction to the remembrance made finding a comfortable position even more difficult. Nothing in this lifetime would make him regret what had transpired the night before as he had been pressed between Jim and Blair's bodies, but the ex-SEAL admitted to himself that his timing could have been better. Having your first experience at being bottom the night before an all-day sitting marathon was not a good idea. Luckily, the ritual for a vision quest included long soaks in herb-filled baths, so he was able to soothe his aching behind a bit before the day's events.
Boyle opened his eyes as he heard footsteps approach.
"How are you doin'?" Jim was squatted in front of him, the concern in the detective's eyes evident.
"Oh, I'll live."
"I know that, Sport," Jim's smile warmed the ex-SEAL. "But will you enjoy it?" Ellison reached out one big hand and cupped his youngest lover's face, his thumb moving back forth in a gentle caress of the ex-SEAL's cheek.
The motion reminded Nick of how tenderly the older man had moved in and out of him the night before and the young man blushed. Lying wedged between the two older men, Jim ever so delicately preparing and entering him while Nick had faced Blair, one leg thrown over the grad student's hips in order to get as close to the anthropologist as possible, had been the single most erotic moment in his life.
The Legacy member caught Ellison's roaming thumb in his mouth and started to suck.
"Ah, ah, ah.... we will have none of that!" Blair's smile took the sting out of his admonishment. "C'mon, Nick, you start that and all of this dieting will have been for nothing."
Reluctantly, the ex-SEAL left off sucking Jim's thumb and let the cop slide it out of his mouth. "You are a slave driver, Sandburg."
Blair ignored him and started setting out bowls containing the plants he'd gathered while Nick had meditated. After a little consideration, the trio had chosen the clearing where Nick had seen the tracks of the jaguar and wolf as the site of the vision quest.
"It's time for the next level," the anthropologist explained. "I found some local flora that will give off a fragrant smoke when burned. It's not incense, but it'll do." Blair grinned at Nick. "We're at the beginning of the end, Nick."
"Good, let's get on with it." Spiritual mumbo jumbo had never been his strong suit, but with these two men beside him, the Legacy member was sure that his metaphysical journey would be successful.
By the time a cold dawn had arrived, all of Nick's optimism had evaporated. The only thing the night's cold vigil had produced was a numb butt. Considering how his posterior had ached from the previous night's use, that itself was something of a relief, but it definitely was not the outcome the trio had hoped for.
"I'm sorry, Blair. This is all my fault." Nick's father had made him feel like a failure every time he'd attempted to please him. Blair and Jim weren't judgmental like the Major had been, but the seeds of self-doubt had planted long ago. Even though he hadn't been overly eager to meet his animal guide, when the vision quest failed, the former SEAL automatically blamed himself.
"No, it's not. It's my fault. I must have goofed up the ritual somehow..." Sandburg gave his younger lover stiff competition in the self recrimination department.
"Look, gentlemen, I hate to interrupt this pity party," Jim wrapped an arm around each set of slumped shoulders, "but maybe neither one of you is at fault here. Maybe Nick's animal spirit is just shy."
Blair rolled his eyes but grinned at the older man's attempt to cheer them up.
"It's chilly. It's been a long night. Why don't we take this inside, what do you say?" The sooner he had his dejected lovers inside and got some warm food in them, the happier the big man would be. "I'll get this stuff cleaned up, you guys head on up."
The two younger men saw the wisdom in his words and headed towards the cabin, arms wrapped around one another for warmth. Ellison was left to pick up the bowls and kick dirt on the remnants of the fire.
Jim whirled around at the unexpected voice. At first the clearing seemed empty, Blair and Nick's beloved forms having already disappeared up the path towards the rented cabin. But then, as the sun's light began kissing the sky, the ex-Army Ranger saw a familiar form outlined against the dim light.
The specter of Jim's old friend and mentor during his days in Peru nodded its head dispassionately. The shaman had bled to death on Jim's couch over a year ago, but being dead apparently hadn't slowed the man down any.
"His quest was doomed to fail, Sentinel."
Ellison felt his anger rise. Blair had put his heart and soul into coming up with that ritual, chanting in Chopec for half the night, trying to lead Boyle on his vision quest. And Nick... the kid tried to hide it, but the older man knew his new lover was upset that the ceremony had failed.
"Why?" The detective put all of his frustration in the word.
"To find one's spiritual guide, one must be open to himself and those he loves. But how can he be when you and your Guide, who love him, do not gift him fully with your trust?"
The Sentinel winced. He and Blair had been waiting to find the right moment to tell Nick of his enhanced senses, but the time never seemed to be right. To think that their reticence might have led to this failure cut deep...
Jim opened his mouth to speak but Incacha held up his hand to ward off his words. "The truth is a sword that cuts both ways, Inquery. The young one has not been totally truthful to you... or to himself. You and your Guide have awakened his heart, but it does not belong to you."
Incacha's words felt like hammer blows to the Sentinel's gut. He and Blair had only known the ex-SEAL for a couple of days, but he was already firmly entrenched in their hearts. The pragmatic detective had known that making their relationship with the young man permanent was a long shot at best, but he'd hoped they'd find a way to work it out.
As Incacha faded away into the strengthening light of the new day, he left one final word of wisdom. "If you love him, set him free. If he truly belongs with you, he will return."
And if not, Jim finished as the ghost-Incacha disappeared, the third part of your soul will be rift from you forever. With a heavy steps and a heavier heart, the big man trudged up the hiking path to join his lovers.
Nick's moan brought the two men sleeping to either side of him fully awake. After returning to the cabin, all three men had listlessly eaten breakfast before piling into bed. They'd slept all of the morning and part of the afternoon away, until the youngest man's moan disturbed their slumber.
"Derek...." As Nick's head began to toss on the bed, Blair reached out to push the ex-SEAL's short bangs off his forehead. Now that Nick was their lover, the shaman correctly sensed that both he and Jim would be safe touching him, even in the throws of a dream.
"Shhh, it's okay. We're here." The anthropologist bestowed a chaste kissed on Nick's now bare brow. "You're safe."
The soothing voice and caress calmed Boyle, although the former SEAL didn't wake up.
"Man, Jim, do they ever let up?" Blair's eyes had a worried look as he contemplated the nightmares that plagued Nick.
Jim grinned at him. "I hate to tell you this, Chief, but that first moan... it wasn't because of pain or fear...." The Sentinel had clearly scented Nick's arousal during the first part of the dream.
Blair's eyes narrowed. "You mean he was having a wet dream about his boss?"
"Yeah, I think so." Both men looked down at the uneasy sleeper between them. "Poor kid, that's gotta be rough."
The anthropologist was surprised that the normally territorial detective was taking the news in stride that their new lover was dreaming of someone else while in their bed. "That doesn't... bother... you?"
Jim settled back down, remaining propped on one arm in order to see over Nick's recumbent body and look at the grad student. "A little. But, let's face it, Chief, what happens when our vacation is over? Nick's in San Francisco, we're in Cascade. They border the same ocean, but it's not a quick commute. I don't know about you, but if Nick can't be with us, then I'd at least like to think that he wouldn't be alone."
Clearly, Sandburg hadn't considered what would happen to the trio when their little idyll was over. "Detach with love, huh?"
"Somethin' like that, babe. But it's not going to be easy."
"Wha's not gonna be easy?" Nick's voice was sleepy.
Blair reached down and kissed the end of his nose. "Resisting you long enough to make supper."
Waking up, the ex-SEAL gave the older man a drowsy smile before lazily opening his legs in an invitation. "Why bother? Giving in to temptation is a lot more fun."
Supper was just going to have to wait.
An hour later, somehow the three pulled themselves away from bed long enough to satisfy their stomachs' cravings. Amidst a lot of nibbling--on lips as well as on the food-- a simple supper was on the table. Ellison was grateful that, despite the cabin's sparse furnishings, its larder came well stocked. Even though there were three hungry men to feed rather than the expected two, there was enough to go around.
"So, Sport," Jim started, when their consumption of supper slowed down enough to allow conversation. "Do you want to tell us about your latest dream."
Nick put down his macaroni-filled fork. "No."
Blair waited for a few heartbeats, until it was obvious that the ex-SEAL wasn't going to answer. "'No.' That's it?"
"Yeah." On seeing the hurt look on his lovers' faces, the Legacy member relented and explained a bit further. "It's nothing. Just a dream, no sense in wigging out about it." The young man shrugged in feigned nonchalance, as if he could dismiss the experience so casually.
The gesture and the attitude made alarm bells go off in Sandburg's shaman's mind. "Dreams are far from nothing, Nick. They're important--"
"Yeah, tell that to my old man!" After rudely interrupting the grad student, Nick got up from the table, grabbed his plate, and headed for the sink. The young man savagely scraped his plate off before throwing the unfortunate dish into the sink. Breathing hard, Nick braced himself against the counter, back to the two men remaining at the table.
"Your dad didn't... appreciate... your dreams, huh, Sport?" Jim knew what it was like to have a father that didn't believe in his son.
Nick snorted before turning around to face them. "I've had dreams... nightmares... since I was a kid. My dad, you'd think I'd done something to shame him. Every time I woke up crying, or calling for my mother, he'd come in instead. Said he'd give me something real to cry about. It got so that I learned that, if I was gonna wake up screaming, to do it silently."
"Last time I looked, Nick," Blair whispered, "neither Jim nor I was your dad." The anthropologist held out his hand. "C'mere. Don't shut us out."
Nick looked from Blair to Jim, looking for the expected disapproval. Instead, all he saw in their eyes was love. Smiling a little in relief, he sat back down at the table, taking Blair's and, when it was silently offered, Jim's.
"Dreams can be important, Nick," Blair explained, in his best shaman voice. "Sometimes, they're windows to the soul... and sometimes they're foreshadows of things to come..."
The Legacy member shifted uneasily in his seat. Three of his House's members were psychic; he knew full well that dreams could be visions of the future. But revealing that knowledge would also lead to revealing the Legacy. Besides, his old man had been a Legacy veteran. Surely, if Nick's dreams had meant anything, Major Boyle would have known.
Seeing the ex-SEAL's discomfort, Jim realized that Blair might have found another key to healing Nick. Evidently, one of the painful secrets that the younger man was keeping had to do with these dreams somehow, but the kid was too uncomfortable to say anything. Well, the big man reasoned, Nick wasn't the only one at the table that had a secret. Maybe it was time to set an example about relinquishing them to someone you trust...
"Nick, let me tell you about my time in Peru..."
As the burly detective told the tale of what really had happened when his Army Ranger unit had crashed, Boyle's eyes grew wide with wonder. Now he understood why Jim had been able to hear him the other morning when he knew that he'd been all but soundless. The young man, intimately familiar with covert agencies, also instantly realized why the Sentinel had chosen to keep his abilities hidden. A man with talents like Jim Ellison would be coveted by any number of organizations, including the Legacy, and being careful about who he trusted was imperative to both Jim and Blair's continued safety.
As the true import of the gift he'd been given became clear to Nick, the young man realized that he had something to offer his companions in turn. Looking up from where his hands clasped the older men's on the rough table, Nick looked up at them with shining eyes. Deciding to do this had lifted a huge burden from his heart. "I have something I should tell you. The Luna Foundation is only a front..."
As the young man revealed the history of the Legacy, it was Jim and Blair's turn for amazement. Never in their wildest dreams had the two men from Cascade thought that Nick's secret would be so unbelievable. But, as the thought occurred to them, they met each other's gaze and started to laugh. After enhanced senses, spirit guides, and evil Sentinels, how could they not believe?
"So, you're like the Ghostbusters or something?" Trust Jim to place the Legacy on par with a Dan Ackroyd film.
Nick got up to start clearing the table; their supper having long since gone long cold. "Something like that." His lovers joined him and soon all three men were involved in the chore of washing the dishes.
Supernatural forces and human crime labs seemed far away in this domestic scene.
Jim decided that, as long as they had two pesky secrets out of the way, they might as well try to get three for three. "So... you dream about Derek often?" The Sentinel's guess was rewarded by a quick blush and the sweet scent of Nick's sudden arousal.
"Once in a while," the embarrassed young man admitted. "But usually not when I'm in bed with someone." After their earlier conversation, the ex-SEAL was quick to realize that there would be no lying to Jim Ellison. The young man was relieved, he'd hated lying to either of his lovers and was glad the necessity was over and done with. He didn't really relish the thought of discussing the Precept to either of them, but figured it was the least he could do for previous half-truths regarding the Legacy.
"First Blair, now you," the bigger man wryly commented. "This Derek must be some hot stuff."
Startled, Nick shot a confused glance at the grad student, who was dutifully drying the dishes as the younger man washed them, but looked like he'd really rather be under the table at the moment. "Blair, what's he talkin' about?"
"Remember when I said I met your Dr. Rayne when he was a guest lecturer?" Upon seeing Nick's nod, the sheepish anthropologist continued. "Well, it was before Jim and I were together and I may have been a little... eloquent... regarding his physical charms."
"A *little,* Chief?" Jim loved to tease the older of his two lovers. "I thought you were going to start writing him poetry."
Nick looked at them both like they were nuts. "Then you don't mind?"
"You mean, why aren't we angry?" At the Legacy member's nod, Blair pursed his lips and tried to give a clear answer. "You're not angry that Jim and I were together before we met you, are you?"
"No, of course not!"
Jim kissed one of Nick's sweater-covered shoulders. "Well, then how can we be mad that you're attracted to Derek. He came first, after all." This time, the Sentinel kissed the side of Nick's neck. "You've got a spot in our hearts, Sport. Nothing's going to change that. Not time. Not distance. Not even the incredible, peerless, dashing Derek Rayne."
Satisfied that he hadn't committed a cardinal sin by bringing up the Precept, Nick went back to his dish washing. "It's not like I've got a chance in hell with him anyway..." he muttered.
Blair looked at him in surprise. "Why not?"
Nick sighed explosively. "You haven't seen the way he treats me. Like I'm a child. I'm a professional, for God's sake! Sometimes he acts like I can't even do my job, let alone that he'd see me as someone he'd want to get together with."
"What makes you think he's doubting your ability to do your job?" Jim asked.
"He's always double-guessing me. 'Nick, you're taking too many risks.' 'Nick, you could have been killed.' 'Nick, you should have called in some back-up.' That kind of stuff." The ex-SEAL shrugged and put another plate in the water to be cleaned.
The Sentinel scratched his chin. "I hate to tell you this, Sport, but that doesn't sound like he's double-guessing you. Sounds more to me like a man desperate to protect someone he cares about."
At Ellison's words, Blair snorted. "Now, there's the pot calling the kettle black!"
"What did you say, Chief?"
The grad student used his damp dish towel to pop the bigger man in the behind. "Let me refresh your memory. Do the words 'Stay in the truck, Chief' sound familiar?" Sandburg left the Sentinel to rub the sting out of his own butt and turned to the younger man. "Nick, let me clue you in to the joys of having an older lover. Get used to being coddled. Some days, I think that Jim feels like it's not even safe for me to tie my own shoes."
"I am not that bad!" At Ellison's protest, Blair held up the towel in warning. The big cop subsided and let his lover continue.
"Look, you just have to accept the over-protectiveness of an older lover as a manifestation of how he loves you."
"So you think Derek...might...be attracted to me?"
Blair looked the buff young man up and down. "O-o-o-h, yeah!"
"He'd be a fool not to," Jim chimed in.
Uncomfortable with the implied compliment, Nick deflected the attention. "So, Blair," he asked. "This over-protective stuff sounds irritating."
The grad student grinned at Ellison. "You get used to it. Besides, there are side benefits too."
"Yeah?" "Like what?" Sandburg had tweaked both of his lovers' curiosity.
"It takes the older guys a bit longer to get it up, but when they do... man! They last all night!"
The Sentinel blushed deep red and Blair laughed out loud at the cop's expression. The big man looked so cute when embarrassed that Nick finally took pity on him. The ex-SEAL came up behind Ellison and wrapped his arms around the taller man's waist. Reaching up with hands still sudsy from the dishwater, Boyle reached his hands under Jim's sweatshirt to tweak his sensitive nipples. "All night, huh?" The young man purred as he nipped a convenient shoulder. "Wanna prove it?"
What else could Ellison do but rise to the challenge?
The next morning brought clouds and cooler air. Still, Nick had thrown off the pensive mood the failure of the vision quest had brought and was too energized to contemplate spending the day indoors. With a minimal amount of coaxing, he persuaded the two older men that a hike was in order.
"Okay, okay, you win," Blair finally relented. "But if it rains and I get wet, you're going to regret it."
"I'll make it up to you," Nick promised with his trade mark quirky grin.
Jim laughed and warned the ex-SEAL. "You don't know what you're getting yourself into, Sport. A wet Blair is a grumpy Blair."
"Hey!" Blair was good at combining indignant outrage with pouting. "If you had to de-tangle this mop, you'd want to stay out of the wind and rain too."
"C'mon, Blair," Boyle had reasoned. "If your hair gets wet, I'll brush it out. Scout's honor."
"Promises, promises..." the anthropologist grumbled, but made no further protest, despite the inauspicious weather conditions.
As the three men enjoyed exploring their beautiful surroundings, Jim was bemused to hear his youngest lover keep up with Sandburg's academic talk. Apparently, working for the Legacy exposed the ex-SEAL to all sorts of cultural artifacts and Nick was actually more well-versed in mystical relics than the grad student. Ellison was also something of a scholar in addition to being a warrior, but now the big man could understand why people were surprised by that fact. A brawny type like himself or Nick just didn't inspire thoughts of an equally sturdy mind.
But Jim and Nick had more in common that simply being intellectual warriors. They found to their delight that they shared a deep and abiding love for junk food. Blair, characteristically, was thoroughly disgusted with the two.
"Is this something else they teach you in the military?" the anthropologist said in disbelief, upon hearing Nick expound on the charms of Hostess Twinkies. The former Ranger and SEAL looked at him innocently. "I mean, do all you soldier- types have cast-iron stomachs and clogged arteries?"
Nick laughed. "If you'd been served some of the crap that I was in the Navy, you'd think junk food was quality stuff too."
"I suppose that *this,*" The detective waved a nasty-looking weed in Sandburg's direction, "is your idea of a nutritious snack."
Blair looked at the wilted plant. "Uhhh, no. Actually, that one has a very bitter taste if harvested in the fall....but if you pick it in the spring, let it dry, and grind it into a powder, it becomes a powerful aphrodisiac."
His two lovers had been following the first part of his description with respect for the anthropologist's knowledge of herbs and local fauna. But Blair lost his rapt audience when he got to the aphrodisiac part. Jim and Nick looked at each other and back at the grad student. Their owl-like gaze made Blair lose his poker face and the curly-haired man started to chuckle.
"Oh, man. You should see your faces!"
Jim didn't bother to answer. He simply took a firmer grip on his weed and began to stalk his laughing lover. Blair saw the danger just in time and took off running, not trying too hard to get away. The detective caught him in short order and was walking the unrepentant joker over to where Nick was sitting, so that both of Sandburg's victims could "punish" him.
It was the kind of fun and play that reminded you of your childhood, where cares and troubles seemed far away. It was also the kind of afternoon that caused you to lower your guard, especially if you were in the company of loved and trusted companions.
Lowering your guard is never a good idea.
Jim Ellison was wrapped up in Blair, the detective focused on the joyful noise of his lover's laughter, the big man's attention directed on making sure his slippery captive didn't escape. In his focus, the Sentinel didn't see the snake curled up under a fallen log. Didn't hear the ominous warning rattle.
But Nick did.
Sitting several feet from his approaching companions, the ex-SEAL's eye was drawn towards the rattlesnake. Nick spared a brief regretful thought for his stupidity in leaving his gun back at the cabin. Then, he moved.
"Jim," he yelled as he dove for his lovers. "Watch out!"
Ellison saw his youngest lover's sudden lunge out of the corner of his eye. Hearing the warning, the big man looked down at his and Blair's feet and saw the danger. But it was too late, the irate snake had already started its strike, right at Blair's ankle.
Nick's tackle caught Jim at knee-height and was forceful enough to send both men from Cascade flying. Quickly rolling to a standing position, Ellison whirled and saw that the reptile was disappearing into the nearby bush. Realizing that it was more afraid of them than they were of it, the Sentinel moved to check on the closest of the two young men. Blair had the wind knocked out of him, but appeared okay. The grad student waved him off, shooing the big man in Nick's direction.
Boyle was laying perfectly still a few yards away. The detective approached his prone form quickly, his big hands turning the slighter man over with care. Nick was perfectly limp and Jim was able to move him with ease, but the detective's heart stopped with worry when he saw the ex-SEAL's head loll bonelessly. Afraid of what he would find, Ellison gently touched the young man's neck, feeling frantically for Nick's pulse. It was thready, but still there.
Jim was relieved until he realized that his fingers had come away red.
Finally smelling the metallic tang of blood, the Sentinel moved Nick's head to the side slightly, being careful to keep the motion to a minimum. As he did, the puncture wounds on the ex-SEAL's neck were clearly visible.
Nick had been bitten by the snake, in an artery.
"What's the matter? Is he all right?" Blair had recovered his breath and worriedly stood behind where Jim knelt by the ex-SEAL.
"He's been bit, Chief." Ellison removed his light fall jacket, its large size allowing him to wrap it around Nick's still body, even though the young man was wearing a jacket of his own.
Blair crouched down beside them. "But... rattlesnake bites aren't fatal, are they?"
Jim looked up at the anthropologist, wishing he could reassure the younger man that Nick was going to be okay, but his training as a medic made him aware of just how dangerous Nick's situation was. "Normally, no, they're not fatal. Although, if you don't act fast, you can loose an extremity." The detective grunted as he hoisted Boyle's smaller form into his arms. "But it got him on the neck, Chief. It's not like we can put a tourniquet on it. We have to get him back to the cabin. I think I saw a snake bite kit there."
Blair, with his short legs, had to trot to keep up with Ellison's fast stride. "Wouldn't it be faster if you used a fireman's carry?"
The Legacy member was cuddled like a child in the detective's arms. "We have to keep the bite area elevated..."
Nick Boyle heard their voices as though they were coming from the bottom of a well. He could discern the near-panic in Blair's voice and Jim's too, even though the older man kept his fear restrained better. The ex-SEAL longed to reach out for both of them and reassure them that he was all right, but he couldn't seem to get his body to move....
As even the beloved voices faded, Nick opened his eyes to find himself in the middle of a rain forest. In wonder, the young man turned around, the lush vegetation surrounding him much different than the Idaho timberland.
"What the hell?" Where was Jim and Blair?
"Don't worry, young one. Your friends are safe." The voice was deep and regal, taking care to enunciate each word exactly. But the voice's owner was nowhere to be seen.
The chuckle answering his demand was deep that it rattled the leaves of the giant trees surrounding him. "I do not think you are ready for that yet."
"Who are you?"
"I am your beacon. I am the one who has been calling to you since you were a child. I am the one you sought--and failed to find--on your vision quest."
Nick wasn't a very trusting soul. "What do you know about that?"
"I know that if the hunter truly does not wish to locate his quarry, that it will never be found."
These riddles were getting old. Fast. "Look, I don't have all day here. Say what you mean and get it over with. I have to get back."
"Get back to what?" It was the mysterious voice's turn to ask a question. Oh well, it least it was better than a riddle, even if this joker was asking the obvious.
"To Jim and Blair. I think they're worried."
Silence met his answer for a moment, and then the whole forest seemed to sigh. "Yes, child, they are."
"And who's fault is that?" Sometimes the best defense is a good offense, so Nick decided to turn the tables on his invisible companion.
The answer stunned him.
"It's yours, of course."
As much as Nick wanted to deny it, deep down, he knew that this mystery being was right. "Why?" For the first time in this odd conversation, the young man's voice sounded forlorn rather than belligerent.
"Those are most blind, who refuse to See." The bodiless voice's pronunciation left no doubt what type of sight he meant. Nick was suddenly reminded of Derek in the throws of a vision, or Alex caught in a tempestuous premonition.
"No, I don't have that gift."
His inquisitor questioned his denial. "And how do you know that? Did you not dream of Richter's threat before he appeared? Did not a nightmare of Julia warn you of the succubus?" With each question, the voice became louder and deeper, until Nick's entire world shook. "Do you deny the vision of a jaguar and wolf that led you to Idaho?"
In the real world, Nick's limp body suddenly convulsed, nearly ripping from Jim's arms. Despite their hurry, the big man stopped, crouching to cradle the writhing form as best he could. Blair scrambled around to insert his knee's under Nick's head, cushioning it from banging against the ground. "My God, Chief!" Jim declared as they tried to keep their lover from hurting himself, "I've never seen a reaction like this."
Back in Nick's dream world, the mysterious forest stopped shaking and the young man resolutely picked himself up from the ground. When the dreamscape had begun to rock, even Nick's athletic nature couldn't help him keep his balance during the forest's wild tremors.
The ex-SEAL thought on the last thing the voice had said before the dreamquake. That by denying the dream of the jaguar and wolf, he would be denying his lovers.
The one thing he could never do would be to disavow anything to do with his lovers.
"No, I.... cannot... deny that I saw Jim and Blair's animal spirits before I left San Francisco."
The forest and its surrounds disappeared in a flash so bright that Nick had to close his eyes. When he opened them, he was surprised to see two sets of blue eyes staring at him in loving concern.
"Are you all right, Nick?" Blair asked.
"No, little one, he is not. But he will be."
Startled, Jim and Blair whirled around, leaving Nick to struggle to a seated position on his own. All three men could see the figure of man dressed in worn jungle fatigues, accompanied by a wolf, that lurked at the edge of the woods. Nick stared, startled to see that this apparition was Jim. Or, at least, at first it seemed to be Jim. But, as the ex-SEAL looked closer, he could see the lack of warmth in the doppleganger's eyes.
"Ummm, guys, you want to tell me who's joined the party?"
Blair laid a hand on Nick's shoulder, pushing to keep the still-weak SEAL on the ground. "Shhh," the grad student admonished. "That's Jim's spiritual guide...and mine."
"That doesn't look like a jaguar to me."
Sandburg hissed in frustration. "Sometimes they take human form." As if that explained everything. But despite the appearance of the "animal" guides, neither ghostly form seemed to be the one that had spoken.
Then they noticed the large form gliding through the air toward them. While both Nick and Jim silently cursed their gunless state, Jim further chilled by the fact that his Sentinel sight couldn't lock in on the newcomer.
As the figure approached, it spoke again, the voice seeming to project out ahead of it. "His eyes have been opened, shaman. He is on the path towards wholeness." When it had finished its pronouncement, the shape flew out into plain sight.
It was a gryphon.
The three men stared, stunned at what they saw. Blair's natural curiosity allowed him to recover first. "Are you Nick's animal guide?"
The beast nodded its head regally before going to join the other two spiritual beings.
"Jesus, Sport," Jim tried to take this revelation in stride. "I didn't know you were such an overachiever."
"It makes sense, Jim," Blair's agile mind was already working on the ramifications. "A Sentinel is rooted in the natural world. So is a shaman and Guide. So, it makes sense that our animal spirits are based on the natural world. But Nick fights the supernatural. When you think about it, his spirit guide would almost have to be paranormal too, just to keep up."
The gryphon's hissing laughter raised goose bumps on their skin. "Very true, shaman. It is easy to see why you have been chosen to be the Sentinel's Guide. Just as the Sentinel had to accept his gift, so did Nick."
His two lovers looked at the ex-SEAL in surprise. The young man shrugged, not quite ready to talk about it. "It's a long story..."
Jim recognized the evasion for what it was, but knew now was not the time to press. Wordlessly, the big man pressed Nick's shoulder in sympathy. The younger man tried to get up, but stumbled due to his body's still weakened state. Immediately, two pairs of ready arms steadied him. Nick looked at each of his lovers gratefully and gave them a smile. Then, shaky but managing to stay on his feet, the young man approached the gryphon. As much as he loved the other two, this was something he had to face on his own.
Sensing his need, Jim and Blair stayed back.
The ex-SEAL drew near to the supernatural animal and placed one hesitant hand on its warm flank. Overwhelmed by the strength and beauty of the beast, Nick felt the soft sensation of feathers covering impregnable strength. "You're... part of me?" It seemed incomprehensible that such a thing of beauty could be in any way related to him.
The gryphon bent its head, giving Nick an oddly gentle look for such a fierce creature. The creature's huge wings surged up to surround him in a feathery embrace. "Yes, young one. I have always been with you. You need me, I am part of your soul. I have the strength of a lion because you do. I have the clear sight of the eagle because you also possess it." Nick knew that what the animal said was true, but his spirit guide wasn't quite done saying his piece. Too soft for even Sentinel ears to hear, the gryphon continued. "I am not the only missing piece of your soul." As the animal guide made its pronouncement, Nick had a sudden vision of Derek's face and the ex-SEAL's heart lurched. God knew he wanted Derek, but how would that affect his relationship with the Sentinel and Guide?
As if the gryphon sensed his conflict, it continued. "Calm, young one. One's soul contains more than one piece."
With that cryptic statement, the gryphon backed away from him. While the spirit- Jim and wolf simply faded from view, the gryhpon launched itself back into the sky with a fiercely joyful cry.
Nick's body suddenly reminded him that it had been through quite a lot and the young man felt himself start to sag. In a heartbeat, Jim's warm arms were around him again and the young man's world tilted as he was lifted into the bigger man's embrace. Suddenly weary to the bone, the ex-SEAL tried to form a protest.
"Hush," Blair said as the grad student kept pace with the burden-laden Sentinel. "Remember what I said before about being coddled. You're just going to have to put up with it."
Nick had a chance to mutter "Great, just what I need, another mother," before he lost consciousness completely.
The ex-SEAL was still muttering under his breath the next day, not having been able to convince either of his lovers that he was "all right already" and to let him out of bed. Even taunting Blair that he was acting like Ellison didn't do him any good. The normally good-natured anthropologist had threatened him with a ladle if the ex-SEAL's foot so much as touched the floor.
To the ordinarily active Legacy member, the novelty of being totally pampered had quickly worn off. It didn't help his mood any that the young man was trying to struggle with how to tell Jim and Blair that he would soon have to leave for San Francisco.
A call to Charlie had assured the Native American that he was still okay and that he'd discovered the cause behind the disappearing cat. It had taken some fast talking to convince the tracker that the whole thing was some kind of prank, but Nick thought he'd pulled it off. Charlie was half convinced he was nuts, anyway, so it wasn't that hard.
The gryphon's words that Derek was a part of his soul had hit the ex-SEAL hard. He'd felt himself gravitating towards the Precept for a while now and it was a heady experience to have verification that his attraction was real. But reaching for the new would mean leaving the old behind and the young man didn't know if he was ready to leave Jim and Blair just yet. Besides, his relationship with the two men was too new itself to be discarded.
"Dinner is served." Jim approached the bed, lifting Nick's plate with care, towel draped over his arm like a fancy napkin and a look on his face to mimic that of a haughty butler. The Sentinel was rewarded for his antics by a brief smile, but was dismayed to see the haunted look soon return to Nick's eyes.
"What's wrong, Sport?" The detective perched on the edge of the bed. He and Sandburg had been trying to give Nick his space, but it wasn't having the desired affect. Blair came out of the bathroom and heard his older lover's question. Silently, the anthropologist joined the other two at the bed, his eyes pleading with Nick to open up to them.
Nick gulped. This wasn't going to be easy. "I learned a lot of things yesterday..." Neither of his lovers interrupted him, but the young man had to stop to clear his throat. "I think... I have go back to San Francisco. I have to learn how to use this gift of mine...I have to go back to Derek."
"We know." Sandburg's voice was quiet.
Boyle looked first at the anthropologist and then the Sentinel in disbelief. The quiet acceptance in their demeanors shook him. Was it so easy for them to let him go? Hell, he'd been agonizing over it and they didn't even care!
Ellison heard Nick's heart speed up and saw the conclusion his youngest lover had jumped to written on the younger man's face. "Whoa, there, Nick! We didn't say it was going to be easy for you to go or that we were even happy about it...."
"...we just know that's what you need to do." Blair finished for him. The calm mask the grad student had been wearing to hide his distress cracked and Nick could see how upset the smaller man was. The ex-SEAL's heart melted as he realized that he'd been wrong about the couple's intentions. They weren't happy he was going; they were setting him free. Holding his arms out silently, the Legacy member beckoned Blair to him. Sandburg rapidly crawled across the bed into his embrace, with Jim not far behind.
Huddled together in a pile, they comforted each other in the way that only lovers could.
Derek bounced into the San Francisco Legacy Houses's kitchen, startling his two female colleagues that were already eating breakfast.
Balls bounced. Tiggers bounced. Derek Rayne normally did not, so the two women were more than a little bemused at the Precept's mood. Their boss nodded a good morning to the ladies before moving past them to open up the refrigerator. The refined Dutchman grabbed a carton of milk, opened it, and drank right from the carton, only stopping when some of it dribbled out of the side of his mouth and down his cheek. Alex looked at Rachel, Rachel looked at Alex, and then both women turned to gawk at Derek.
Feeling the weight of their stare, he turned to look at them. "What?"
"We're wondering if we need to go check your bedroom for pods," Alex explained.
"You know, pods from the pod people that have stolen away the real Derek Rayne and replaced him with this uncouth stranger."
Derek laughed and wiped his mouth. "Can't a man be cheerful around here?"
Rachel looked at him skeptically. The man had been an absolute bear ever since Nick took off and now he was chiding them for noticing he was in a good mood? Still, it was an improvement over his recent attitude. "You have to admit, Derek, that you've been kind of down lately."
"True," he confessed, but quickly added. "But that's probably just because of all the fog we've had recently." Fog? In San Francisco? Like that was a new occurrence. There was no doubt in the psychiatrist's mind that the Precept was hiding something.
The European put the milk back and headed back out of the kitchen. At the door, he paused to give them some good news. "I got a call from Nick this morning. He's coming home tomorrow." With that pronouncement, Derek went back up the stairs to get dressed, a jaunty spring in his step as he moved.
Big grins covered the faces of his friends. So, Nick calls to say he's coming home and suddenly their Precept is as giddy as a teenager?
Both women had their doubts about that particular little coincidence.
"Hey, we'll always have Paris."
Both of the men from Cascade looked askance at their youngest lover's strange pronouncement.
The Legacy member gave them a lopsided grin. "It sounds more romantic than 'We'll always have Idaho.'"
Nick's two lovers had insisted on walking him to the outskirts of town, wanting the three of them to stay together every minute possible. Nick had agreed, also loathe to break up their trio. Coeur D'Alene had popped into sight much to quickly for any of them and soon the lovers found that they couldn't put off the unavoidable separation any longer.
Even though they'd said their true goodbyes the night before, Jim Ellison would be damned if he let Nick leave with a joke. The Sentinel grabbed the ex-SEAL around the waist and swung him down in a deep dip, like they were performing a tango. While he had the ex-SEAL conveniently down positioned, the Sentinel kissed him so passionately that Nick would be sure to taste his biggest lover for hours afterwards. The young man was breathless as Jim swung him back onto his feet. "Don't forget us." Boyle could only nod in answer.
Blair approached the younger man more gently, reaching up to frame Nick's face in his hands. The grad student stared at him for a long time, like he was burning the Legacy member's features into his memory. Nick couldn't take the lost look in the anthropologist's eyes and bent down for a kiss that, while every bit as thorough as Ellison's, was a lot more tender. "You take care of each other, you two," the former SEAL admonished his lovers.
Nick picked up his packed and started walking backwards, wanting to keep Jim and Blair in sight for as long as possible. Finally, the young man gave in to the inevitable, and turned around to walk forward, stopping one last time to wave before he went around a curve in the path and out of sight.
Once Nick was out of view, Blair gave in to his tears and turned to hide his face in Jim's chest while he sobbed. Ellison bent to bury his nose in his lover's hair, not even trying to kid himself into thinking that the gesture was only for Sandburg's comfort. The big man was every bit as torn by this separation as the grad student was. The two had already agreed to head back to Cascade after Nick left, even though they had a few days of their vacation left. Idaho would seem empty without the ex-SEAL and they didn't think they could bare to stay in the cabin with just the two of them.
Finally, Blair quieted and looked up into Jim's eyes solemnly. "This isn't forever, Jim. We'll see Nick again, don't you worry." The Guide turned in the big man's arms to look down the hiking path that their youngest lover had taken. "When you love something, you have to set it free. If it truly belongs to you, it'll come back." This time, when Sandburg looked up at him, his eyes were shining in joy. "He belongs with us, Jim, he'll be back." Blair's tone held no trace of uncertainly.
Of that fact, Ellison had no doubt, especially since he'd just heard Blair echo Incacha's earlier words to him, words that he'd yet to share with his mate. And Sandburg claimed to be a shoddy shaman!
"You're right, Chief. Let's go home."
Parting was sweet sorrow, but the sadness was leavened by the thoughts of the reunion that would surely come. Somewhere, so high as to almost tough the clouds, a gryphon cried out its agreement.
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