Reveille - Rogue

Lieutenant Colonel Jim Ellison of the US Army Rangers, also known as Enqueri among the Chopec, paused in his morning recon of the Chopec Pass. His American partner on the recon, Captain Rochester Cunningham, paused along with him. "Sir?"

"I hear something, Rock."

Cunningham said nothing, not really surprised by his commanding officer. During the five months that they had been in Chopec territory - the second tour of duty for Ellison in this region - the older man had constantly been "hearing" or "seeing" things that had always saved their butts more often than not. Certainly, what the Lt. Col. had heard or seen should have been too far out of range, but Rock had seen soldiers develop sensitive ears or eyes or noses while out in the field in a potentially dangerous situation. And he had been briefed thoroughly before heading out on this mission. The reports on then-Captain Ellison by Captain Mathis were that Ellison had shown signs of mental fatigue by "hearing" and "seeing" things that just weren't there. At least, not at the moment. It would take a few minutes, but eventually, whatever Ellison had seen or heard would make itself known. Now that they were back in the Peruvian jungle, Cunningham and the rest of the unit sent in with the Lt. Col. had been treated to the return of such behavior, although Ellison had never displayed it while back in the states.

Ignoring for the moment the man by his side and the Chopec warrior who had gone with them on the scouting trip but remained hidden in the undergrowth, Jim let his hearing range out on its own. While the fact that his senses were so powerful that he could so something like this was scary, he had also realized the advantage of having them that sensitive. When his heightened senses resurfaced once he had arrived and spent a few days in relative solitude in the jungle, it had brought back memories of his first tour of duty in the Chopec pass. He was once again becoming comfortable with what his senses could do.

Now, he could easily detect sounds coming from nearly two miles away. A group setting up camp, talking, laughing, arguing, discussing. Frowning slightly, he shook his head, willing his hearing to go back down again. Turning to look at the Ranger standing off to the side, he said, "Some sort of group two miles west, making camp. We'll go check it out. Under no circumstances do we give away our presence."

"Sir, yes sir," Cunningham replied with a grin.

"You get that, Rapana?"

"Yes," a quiet voice replied overhead, and Jim looked up to see the young warrior perched in a tree limb, grinning down at him.

"Smart-ass. Let's go. Pass the message that we're investigating, Rapana."

Nodding, the Chopec used the thick stick he was holding to tap out a coded message on the huge tree trunk that echoed loudly. It would be picked up by others further in the jungle and passed around, thus ensuring that the rest of the tribe's warriors and the other Rangers in Jim's unit would know what was going on and be able to help should they need it. Once that was done, Rapana quickly dropped back into the undergrowth alongside the semi-visible trail as the two American men quickly began jogging towards the camp Ellison had heard.

****

Everyone in camp paused as they heard the rhythmic tapping echoing through the jungle.

"Ah. It appears that our presence has been noted and the tribes are being informed that we are here," said an older gentleman of perhaps 55 or so.

"Do you know the code they're using, Professor Dixon?" asked a young woman in the group.

Barnabas Dixon shook his head with a grin. "This is my first trip to the Chopec Pass, Lacy. I don't know how they operate. Yet. That's what we're here for, after all, remember?"

"I hope they don't get pissed and throw us out of here. Or worse yet, go into hiding," said another young woman.

"How would that be worse, Ally?" a young man clearly in his thirties wanted to know.

"Well, think about it, Greg. Knowing that they're out there but being continually frustrated by never seeing them or hearing them speak? Or discovering the results of the messages they pound out so we can decipher it? Way worse."

The others nodded and then one young man with long, curly brown hair grinned and said, "That's because you want to see what their sexual practices are so much that you'd scream yourself into a heart attack if you got denied that chance."

The rest of the group laughed as Ally called out, "Better than nothing, Blair! And you can't tell me that 'Table-Leg' Sandburg isn't dying to get to know it himself!"

Blair grinned and razzed her, then went back to pitching his tent and stowing his gear.

****

Ellison, Cunningham, and Rapana watched from their hidden positions in the dense foliage only a few meters from the camp. When the teasing about finding out the Chopec's sexual practices began, the three men grinned quietly amongst themselves. After a while, they knew they weren't going to discover too much more about the group that was camping on Chopec land, but also knew that they were not there for harmful purposes. Best to simply leave them be and the Chopec - and Jim's unit - simply go on about their business, and the three men took their leave.

A mile later, Rock looked over at his CO. "Do you suppose they'll be in any danger while they're here from human interference?"

Jim shrugged. "It's possible, but not especially so. We've nearly wiped out or arrested the drug-runners and the insurgence groups. The ones remaining rarely come into the Chopec Pass; if they do enter this territory, we'll keep an eye on 'em, but we'll only interfere if they become a direct threat to that study group or the tribe's welfare."

"Got it." The captain was silent for a long moment, then grinned and said, "Some of those kids were pretty cute, though, weren't they? I wouldn't mind letting that Ally check out my sexual practices sometime!"

Jim snorted. "Never figured you for having an eye for the jail-bait type, Rock."

"I can't help it if I like 'em young-looking. But I only go after them if they're legal. How 'bout you, Jim? Which one would you make a play for if we could?"

Ellison shook his head. "Not telling, Rock. It's counterproductive, anyway. Get your mind off those birds and back on the slugs we're supposed to be ridding this place of."

"Hah! That means you've got your eye on one of 'em. That's okay, sir; I'll keep it to myself. Bet it was that brunette chick, though; you always did like 'em dark and sleek-looking."

"Now, how would you know?" Jim asked with a grin.

"Scuttlebutt gets around, sir."

"Hmph. Alright, let's get back to the village. I want to spread the word and see if the others found anything."

"Yes, sir."

But as he, Rock, and Rapana hiked back toward the Chopec village, Jim reflected that the captain had been right about him taking a liking to a brunette; but the brunette in question had broad shoulders, long, curly hair, and a lyrical, masculine voice that made a beautiful sound when it laughed.

****

Nearly a month later, Jim reflected to himself that he had, quite probably, lost his mind. Why else would he have taken to spending as much spare time as he could camped out not far from the study group, waiting in vain to catch glimpses of a certain long-haired man? He'd been doing this for two weeks, now; lured by thoughts of the young student - whose name was Blair - but not entirely certain what his fascination with him was. Unquestionably, Jim knew he was attracted to Sandburg; the younger man was beautiful in a masculinely angelic way. Being bisexual, Jim was comfortable with the lust he felt skirling through his veins whenever he saw the young anthropologist.

It was the almost tender pang he felt in his heart and soul whenever he saw Blair that was bothering Jim.

During his stakeouts over the last two weeks, his enhanced hearing had picked up a lot of clues and he had pieced them together and shared his knowledge with the villagers and his unit. The study group was from a university called Rainier, from Cascade, WA. That had been a surprise to the unit, as their home base - the well-known Fort Lewis - was close to Cascade. In fact, three of the men in the unit were from that city: Jim, Lieutenant Benjamin Payne, and Lieutenant Joshua McCoy. The study group was being led by a tenured Professor by the name of Barnabas Dixon, and while he demanded hard work from his team, he was fair, ethical, and even fun-loving enough to crack jokes with the students. That had earned him a measure of respect from the soldiers, although he was unaware of it. The rest of the group - made up of a mixture of anthropologists and botanists - were of three women and four men. Jim had learned that there was to have been a fourth woman, but she had become ill at the last minute and a replacement hadn't been found for her in time. The three women were named Lacy McGuire, Allison Orr, and Almeda Flynn. A brunette, blonde, and an obviously fake redhead as Jim doubted "vampire red" was a color found in nature amongst humans. Lacy and Almeda were botanists, while Allison was an anthropologist. She was, in fact, the same Ally that wanted to study Chopec sexual practices and was nearing her 25th birthday. When Rock had heard that, he had gone off swearing a blue streak about how irritating it was to keep hidden from her when he'd let her study him all she wanted to.

The four young men in the group were Greg Thompson, Michael Bishop, Jordre Duncan, and Jim's personal favorite, Blair Sandburg. Thompson and Duncan were the botanists among the males and the rest were anthropologists.

Jim often found himself echoing Rock's sentiment about how irritating the hiding was whenever he thought about letting Sandburg get hold of him.

As it was, he had gotten lucky, sort of, in that Blair had wandered off on his own today. The young man was only 3/4 of a mile from the Chopec village and Jim had warned the others to keep as quiet as they could so they wouldn't draw attention to themselves. After all, Jim and his unit had to live and work with the Chopec while they were here for the duration of their mission. They couldn't afford to have any contact between the study group and the Chopec. The soldiers understood how irritating it was for the students, but it couldn't be helped.

As he sat situated in the shadows of the dense foliage, ignoring the bugs that were crawling around him, Jim watched with a hungry gaze as Blair moved amongst the giant trees, checking for signs of habitation and passage through that area. He was wearing a pair of old, threadbare jeans, a T-shirt in only slightly better condition, and sturdy hiking boots. His back was to Jim, and when he spread his legs slightly and bent over to study a flowering root, Jim was certain he had died and gone to heaven as the worn denim was stretched snugly across a firm, muscular ass.

Unaware of it, he concentrated too hard on the vision before him and his awareness faded away.

It wasn't until he heard the chatter of automatic weapons fire that he was brought out of his trance.

Glancing around wildly, Jim realized that Blair had long since left the area they had been in and he had once again gone through one of his odd trances. Surging to his feet, he ran towards the sound of the gunfire, looking around for possible enemies. He met none on the way and slid to a halt at the base of a huge tree that was on the perimeter of the camp. What he saw made his jaw tighten in anger and regret.

A group of five men who were part of the latest drug-harvesting group had raided the camp. Bodies lay twisted and sprawled in the dirt, blood streaming from bullet wounds. Jim could hear only two heartbeats still thumping among the students. To his relief, one of them was Sandburg. The other was Allison. Everyone else was already dead.

As he watched, the five men began checking the bodies and when they found Allison and Blair alive, Jim could see the intent behind the evil leers on the terrorists' faces. Hearing his name hissed, he glanced quickly to the right and found Rock and the rest of his unit spread out around the perimeter. That meant that the Chopec warriors were scattered among the foliage, hidden from sight but no less deadly. Anger etching his features, he gave the signal to leave only two of the murderers alive for questioning.

His order was acknowledged and a moment later, gunfire once again shattered the air as Jim and Rock took out the two men who were bending over the prone figures of Allison and Blair. The rest of his unit took down one more man and Chopec paralyzing darts that wouldn't kill, merely incapacitate, knocked out the two remaining terrorists.

Swarming in quickly, Jim and his unit assessed the students' injuries and the killers' condition. Binding up their wounds, Blair and Allison were handed off to Payne and McCoy. Two of the Chopec took command of the paralyzed terrorists. Then that group left for the safety of the village.

Rock stood with Jim, looking down at the dead bodies of anthropologists and terrorists alike. "Damn. They just snuck right in, sir. There was no warning."

"I know. I didn't hear them either until it was too late. Shit! We're going to have to wrap the bodies and bury them so animals won't get them, along with their belongings. Those assholes" - he pointed at the killers' bodies - "can get dragged out into the woods and be left to rot. Who's making the next trip into Lima to radio command?" Ordinarily, they would have brought radio equipment with them and relayed messages to the base in Lima, but Jim had learned a hard lesson about trusting people. So, shifts were taken once a month in which one of them made the four-day trek into Lima to send information and receive it, then trek back in.

"Reyes, sir."

"Alright. He's going to have to tell them what happened and have somebody give the coordinates to Rainier so they can come collect the bodies. For now, let's get busy."

The remaining soldiers set about gathering up the American students and their professor. Long since used to death and killing, it still struck them as a total waste and an unfair attack that needed avenging. The soldiers had found the members of the study group amusing and entertaining; that their lives had been cut short, with the exception of two of them, was sorrowing and regretful.

Some of the Chopec warriors took the terrorists' bodies out into the forest and left them lying in a heap, spitting on them and making the mark of the condemned against them before turning away and leaving them to whatever happened. No sympathy or remorse would be had for these scum.

In the camp, six individual graves had been dug and now, the bodies - wrapped in the tarp from most of the material from their tents - were carefully lowered into the ground. Their belongings - clothing, books, papers, and so on - were wrapped in the remaining canvas and lowered in with them. Then the graves were filled in and rock cairns placed over them. Crude markers had been made and their names were placed over their graves, to give them identity.

One of the more religious men in Jim's unit, a man by the name of Wynn Harper, took a deep breath and began the Lord's Prayer. When he was done, he murmured, "I don't know if you were all Catholics, Christians, or what, but it's the best I can do. I wish you peace in the next life."

"Amen," the others added, and then turned to make their way back to the Chopec village.

****

Blair groaned sharply as he awoke, his right shoulder burning with pain. He started when hands gently touched him, then firmed their grip when he tried to jerk away.

"Easy," a deep male voice murmured softly. "Take it easy, kid. You're okay. You're going to be okay."

Struggling to open his eyes, Blair ignored the pain as much as he could. When his eyes were open, he found himself looking up at an American man who wore Army fatigues or at least part of them. He blinked in confusion and opened his mouth, but nothing came out except a dry rasp.

"Hold still. You need some water." The man's face disappeared from view and a moment later it was back and the soldier was holding a canteen. "Here. Slowly and carefully, sip."

Blair felt hands slip behind his neck and gently lift him to help him sip. He did so, coughed, then sipped again before turning his face away in a quiet refusal of more. His head was carefully lowered and he looked up at the soldier again. "Who are you?" he whispered raggedly.

After setting the canteen down, the man settled back by his side and looked down at him. "My name is Jim Ellison. I'm a Lieutenant Colonel in the Airborne Rangers of the United States Army. Me and my unit are down here to help the Chopec clear up the last of the terrorists and drug-harvesters, and to prevent others from coming down. Unfortunately, the men who raided your camp slipped past our notice. I'm sorry, Mr. Sandburg, but only you and Ms. Orr are alive."

Blair's eyes widened and then filled with tears. "Oh, no. Oh, my God. Lacy, Almeda ... Mike, Jordre, Greg, and the Professor? All dead?"

"Yes. If it's any consolation to you, they probably never knew what hit them and felt no pain. They died instantly. You and Ms. Orr were the only survivors. The raiders were preparing to ... violate you both, when my unit and the Chopec arrived to stop them. We took two of them prisoner for questioning; the rest we killed."

"Oh, God," Blair groaned. He tried to turn away, roll onto his side, but let out a hissing moan when pain spiked through his shoulder.

"Stop. Don't move," Jim said quietly. He reached out and repositioned Blair on his back. "You took a hit in the shoulder. It's a little infected, but I took the bullet out and rubbed it down with alcohol, but in this warm, damp environment, it's difficult to avoid any infection. Ms. Orr is in much the same shape as you are, only she took the hit in her leg. One of the Chopec women is sitting with her now. Part of their system is that men and women are kept separate while healing or sick."

"How do you know so much about them? We're here to study them, but we haven't seen-" Blair began, then stopped with a pained grimace. "I mean, we were here to study them...."

"I already told you. My unit and I are here under orders to help the Chopec defend this pass from insurgence operatives and drug-harvesters. And this is my second trip down here to perform this duty," Jim replied.

Sandburg swallowed, then blinked as a thought occurred to him. "Wait a minute ... Jim Ellison? James Ellison? 'Beyond the Call'? Back in '90, you were Captain Ellison, weren't you? The one who was rescued after being stranded here for 18 months? I remember reading about it in the news. You were the one who survived that crash and then blew the whistle on a corrupt Colonel named..."

"Oliver. His name was Oliver. Yeah, kid, that was me. It was proven that I had nothing to do with the crash and that I did my duty above and beyond. I was offered the chance to 'retire', but decided to stay on. What can I say? I've always wanted to be a soldier. So, I was promoted to Major and worked my way up the ranks. When the terrorists and drug-harvesters began encroaching on this area again, another team and me came in to help out." Jim couldn't believe he was rambling on like this. And to a complete stranger - a civilian stranger - no less!

Blair nodded slowly. His shoulder ached and the pain in his head was excruciating, but he didn't want to go back to sleep just yet. This soldier - this man - was fascinating. Swallowing again, grimacing against the painful dry clacking of his throat, he started to speak again but instead found the canteen being brought to his mouth.

"Here. Drink a little bit more," Jim urged, lifting the student's head again.

Blair sipped at the water and then pushed the canteen away weakly. "Thanks. That helped. Um, what's been done about the ... the bodies?" Tears filled his eyes again at referring to his friends and the professor as 'bodies', but he blinked the liquid away. Now was not the time to fall apart; especially not in front of this splendid specimen of manhood.

"We wrapped them and their belongings up in the material from their tents and then buried them deep, piling rock cairns on top of them, with grave markers identifying them. One of my men, 2nd Lieutenant Alexander Reyes, left two days ago for Lima and the Army base there. He'll inform our superiors of what happened and have them notify Rainier for a retrieval operation. Which makes what those drug terrorists did just that much more stupid. By killing innocent university students and a professor, they've brought down a whole bunch of attention and firepower on their operation. If they'd been smarter, they would've ignored you guys."

Glancing down, Jim saw the indignant and hurt expression on Blair's face, and quietly cursed himself. "Chief, I'm sorry. I didn't realize how that sounded. What I meant was-"

"I know what you meant, Mr. Ellison. You were thinking like an Army officer, not a civilian. We're casualties, statistics. We're not humans, not to you," Blair said coldly, his blue eyes glittering up at the man seated next to him.

"Now listen, Sandburg. What happened to your study group was regrettable - infinitely so - but you're right; I'm here as a soldier, not a tourist. This is my job; to make war or performing operations that will prevent war from breaking out. I'm sorry you lost your friends, but don't hold me accountable for it!" Jim snapped back.

The younger man was silent for a long moment. Finally, he asked, "How do you know our names? Has Ally woken up yet? How long has it been since the attack?"

"It's been three days since the attack. No, Ms. Orr has not woken up yet, although she's in roughly the same condition as you are. And I know your name because over the last month, my unit and the Chopec have kept an eye on your group."

"What? You were spying on us?!" Sandburg gasped. "How close have you gotten?"

"Right up to the perimeter of your camp, sometimes. It's ridiculously easy to hide among the plant life around here. We learned a lot about you; almost a reversal of what you and your group came here to do with the Chopec. Yes, we all hid from you. We couldn't afford letting you chance meeting the Chopec and learning of our existence. We're here on an official covert operation to rid the Pass of the drug-harvesters-"

"You knew they were there? You knew we were in danger ... and did nothing to warn us?"

Ellison frowned at the accusatory tone coming from the young man. "There was no sign of terrorist activity in your area at the time you arrived up until the attack. It was determined that letting you stay was a low-risk factor in keeping our operation hidden. It would have meant exposing our activity if we'd had to run you out and if we'd had to do that anyway, the danger would already have been too great to safely get you out."

"Low-risk? You call what happened to us low-risk?!" Blair shouted, then doubled over, coughing harshly.

Jim reached out and braced the student against the coughing fit. When Blair had quieted, Jim rolled him over gently and brought the canteen up. He was startled when it was struck out of his hand. He glared down at the lightly panting young man and was surprisingly saddened when he found anger and accusation in those pretty blue eyes. "Sandburg?"

"Go away. Leave me alone. Leave Allison alone. You're good at that; look how well it worked. My friends are dead because you did nothing. How dare you! Who gave you the right to play God with our lives?!" Blair hissed, anger and pain and grief tearing at him. He knew he would regret these words later, but right now, he could do nothing to stop their emergence from his mouth.

Jim drew himself upright and let a blank expression settle over his face to hide the hurt from those spiteful words. "The United States Army, that's who."

"You make me sick. God, my mother was right; all you establishment types are pigs." He closed his eyes on a wave of pain and nausea. "Go away. You've done enough to last a while."

Nothing more was said. Blair kept his eyes closed for a few moments longer and when he opened them again, Ellison was gone.

****

Emerging into the late afternoon sunshine from the healing hut Sandburg was resting in, Jim squinted against the brightness. He also found Cunningham waiting for him.

Rock whistled when he saw the granite expression. "Huh. Kid sure has a way of showing his gratitude for saving his life, doesn't he?" the captain muttered. "I heard almost everything, sir."

Jim said nothing, merely continued walking away from the hut. He was heading towards the visitor's lodge that made up the barracks where he and his men slept. He wanted to gather up his rifle, clean it, check it out, and then head out on a scouting mission. Anything to get away from the hurting, hurtful young man lying in that healing hut.

"Sure hope that Ally gal is a bit more even tempered when she wakes up. Dalisa is sitting with her now; the progress report is good. Her fever's breaking up and Dal thinks she'll wake up soon; either tonight or tomorrow morning."

"Good. Sooner they're healed up, the sooner they can be shipped out." Jim's voice was clipped, cold, and curt.

"Sir, it might be a while before Rainier sends anyone in after them-"

"I'm well aware of that. They'll stay here in the village until somebody does come after them, but they will not wander out of it, is that clear? They are now under our protection and the Chopec's, but we cannot afford to let them go on their own. I don't care how many jungles they've been in, I'm not leaving anything else to chance!" Jim snapped, entering the hut and settling down with his rifle to give it a quick check.

Rock was silent, then squatted down next to the other man. "Sir ... Jim ... what happened to those kids and their teacher was not your fault."

Ellison looked up with cold, angry blue eyes. "No? Then who's was it, Cunningham? I was the one who made the decision to let them stay after I decided there would be little risk. I made the call, I was wrong, and they paid for it."

The captain was silent for a moment, then settled down on the bedroll next to the other man. "Jim, I know you were in the area. How could you not have heard them creeping in?"

Sighing, Jim rubbed at his temples, a sure indication that he had a migraine starting up. "I was watching Blair. Just ... watching him. He did ... something and I did that usual gray out trance thing of mine. Next thing I knew, gunfire was going off."

Rock nodded. "You're only human, man; sounds like a human ailment to me, anyway. This wasn't your fault."

"Then who's was it?"

"The drug-gunners'. Fate's. Universal timing that sucked big time. I dunno, but it wasn't your fault. You let them stay to get their work done because you were thinking of them. Thinking that we could keep them safe. And we saved two of them, Jim. That has to count for something. We could easily have lost them all."

Jim merely sighed and shook his head as he got to his feet. Leaving the lodge, he began striding towards the perimeter. Calling out in Quechua, which all of his soldiers understood as well as the Chopec as opposed to only some of the Chopec understanding English, he said, "I want a scouting party out right now! See if we can't find some sign of further trespassing from those killers."

Young Chopec warriors leaped up to follow the American commander as he went striding out of the village. Behind them, the Rangers scurried to grab up their weapons and then headed out as well, pairing off with the Chopec to scout the tribe's territory as Ellison had demanded.

****

Blair groaned as he woke up and stiffly rolled over. Feeling hands on his uninjured shoulder, he flinched, thinking it might be Ellison come back to take exception to his harsh words from yesterday.

Not that he should. It's his fault we're banged up like this anyway! he growled to himself.

However, as he finished rolling over and opened his eyes, he found himself looking up into a darkly tanned face that had long black hair braided into two neat rows. Paint adored the man's face in a broad symbol, and more paint was on his throat and arms. When the man smiled at him, the skin around his brown eyes crinkling into laugh lines, Blair automatically smiled back.

"My name is Incacha," the man said in halting, though clear English. "Enqueri says that you are called 'Blair'."

"Who?" Sandburg whispered, then licked his lips and swallowed.

A shallow bowl full of water was lifted to his mouth and Blair tilted his head and gratefully sipped. He let his head settle back down and smiled. "Thank you. Who is Enqueri?"

Incacha frowned for a moment, then grinned again. "His Amer-i-can name is 'Jim'. Here, among the Chopec, he is known as Enqueri."

"Chopec? You're Chopec?" Blair asked excitedly.

Incacha nodded. "I am the shaman for my people," he explained carefully. "I have been praying to the spirits for you and the young woman. I am sorry, but I do not think you will be able to ... study? Yes, that is the word. You will not study us right now."

That dimmed some of his enthusiasm. "Yeah. I guess that would be rude, wouldn't it? Since you're hosting us while we heal and all...."

The shaman grinned. "As you say."

"How is it you know English so well? Have the soldiers been teaching you?" Blair asked, struggling to sit up.

"Yes. Enqueri began teaching us when he was here many seasons' passage back. It is so we can understand the city men when they come in with their machines and their false smiles and offers of greed to leave our home and let them destroy it. This way, Enqueri says, we will not be cheated."

"Hmph. So he can be smart occasionally."

Incacha regarded the young man before him in confusion. "Why do you say that?"

"Because, Incacha, it's his fault me and my friend are here and the others are dead," Sandburg said heatedly as he rested back against the hut's wall tiredly.

"Know this to be the truth, do you?"

"He admitted as much to me! He said that he was the one who made the decision to let us stay in the area because he thought there was little to no risk to our safety! He was wrong! What's more, it really doesn't mean anything. We're just civilian casualties."

"You already know him so well that you can decide this after one conversation?" Incacha asked calmly.

Blair shrugged, irritated. "No, but-"

"So then he has spent the last ... how do you say it? Month? He and his men, keeping an eye on you and your friends, guarding you as best they could to ensure your safety. He has done this for nothing because on the unfortunate one occasion that they were not near, the enemy discovered you?"

"That's beside the point! He should have informed us of the danger-"

"Your teacher ... he did learn the area before you came down? Enqueri says that knowing the territory you plan to enter before you enter it is a requirement in your land."

"Well ... no, we did research the area. We knew that drug-harvesters were in the area, but not this close! We should have been safe."

"Because you were not part of the proven battle? Because you were not soldiers?"

"Yes! That's why!"

"And do the evil men of your land leave the innocent people alone should they happen upon them somewhere, even though they are not part of the bad doings?"

Blair shook his head in frustration. "No. I understand what you're getting at, shaman. I don't like it, but I get it. But if there were danger, Jim should have warned us."

"Did he tell you why he did not?"

"Yes. Said it was because we would have blown their 'cover' on their 'operation'. That is the most flimsy excuse I've ever heard. The role of the US Army is supposedly to protect its 'tribe' when there is clear and present danger. What happens to us? We get shot and most of us killed!"

"Enqueri did what he had to do. By remaining hidden to complete his task, he is removing more of the evil men who send the white powder over to your country to ruin the minds and bodies of your people. If he had revealed his presence and that of his men, he would have had to leave, allowing the evil men to return here in force, with greater numbers and weapons. There is a saying that your people know; it is one that Enqueri taught me: the good of the many outweighs the good of the few. He was following orders from his leader to the best of his ability. He does regret what happened to you and your friends, young one. I can promise that much. Your presence, and those of the others, was an unexpected obstacle to his duty, but he accepted it, and was hurt when you were attacked. He feels as much as any man does."

Blair was silent for a long, long moment, digesting this. Finally, he asked, "If he was protecting us, where was he that day when we needed him?"

"The Sentinel was watching over you in particular. You were close to our village and Enqueri seems taken with you. He does not yet understand why, but he will in time. However, that day, he was watching you and he faded away into one of his ... trances. That is what he calls it; a 'trance'. He was not aware of anything until the sound of the attackers' weapons called out."

Blair felt a quickening of excitement in his heart and he flinched slightly when his shoulder twinged as he attempted to sit up quickly. "Sentinel? You call him 'sentinel'? Why?"

"Because he is the Guardian. He sees farther than other men; hears more, feels more, can smell hidden scents, taste hidden tastes...."

Shuddering, Blair leaned back against the wall in a daze. "A sentinel," he whispered. "A real, live sentinel...."

"Yes. And his helpmate has come to him at last."

"He has a partner? Someone to watch out for him, to bring him out of zone-outs?" At Incacha's blank look, Blair clarified, "His trances. They're called 'zone-outs'. He has someone to watch out for him?"

Incacha nodded. "Yes. You."

Blair gaped, shocked. "Me?"

"You. I have seen your coming in my visions. For so long, he has walked his path alone in the visions. Then, I saw you. You joined him on the path, walking beside him, helping him stay on the path, easing his fear, and pain, and loneliness. You are his helpmate, come to him at last."

"Me?" the young American repeated incredulously. "Not that I don't love the idea - I mean, a chance to study a real live sentinel - but me? I can't be his partner!"

"Why not? It is clearly what you are meant to do."

"Because he is in the Army. He is a United States soldier and I'm a civilian; a non-soldier. We would never be allowed to stay together unless he left the Army, and he told me that being a soldier is what he has always wanted. Besides, he's here on a tour of duty and I'll be leaving soon."

"He will not always be here. He will not always be a soldier. He will always be a sentinel and he will always need his helpmate to guide him. You know what he is, young one. Why do you suppose it is that you, who know so much of sentinels, should come here and find one so suddenly?"

"Yeah, well, my karma has got to be seriously messed up if it took the death of my friends and teacher in order for me to find him." Blair yawned suddenly and blinked sleepily.

"I will leave you to rest now. You do need to rest. I changed your dressing while you were asleep," Incacha stated as he got to his feet.

Glancing down at the new poultice on his shoulder, Sandburg blinked in surprise. "Oh, thanks. Um, by the way, my friend, Allison. Has she woken up, yet...?"

"Yesterday morning, but she is still tired from her ordeal. She has been sleeping a great deal today. Perhaps in a day or so, you will both be healed enough to see each other. Rest now, young one. Your sentinel will not like it if you are unwell."

Sadness flowing through him, Blair whispered softly, "But he's not my sentinel."

Then, unable to escape the lethargy stealing through him, he succumbed to the sleep his body insisted he needed.

*****

Jim sat inside the lodge where he and his men slept. He was carefully taking apart, cleaning, oiling, and putting his rifle back together. He'd already organized the rest of his stuff and was looking for something to do seeing as how he was "off duty" at the moment. He looked up when he heard a rapid heartbeat and slightly panting breath at the door. "Sandburg?"

The student nodded and glanced away for a moment, then back at the Lt. Col. "Yeah. Um, hi. Listen ... I would like to apologize to you. I was extremely unfair in my remarks to you; you didn't deserve them."

Ellison sighed. "Sandburg ... kid ... you listen. I did deserve them, okay? You were right; I knew there was danger nearby and I didn't do anything. You and your friends paid for that mistake."

"You didn't do 'nothing', Jim. May I call you Jim?" Sandburg asked as he entered the lodge, careful of his right arm, which rested in a sling.

"Be my guest. It doesn't make a lot of difference out here. Chief, I'm sorry, but I'm kind of busy here-" the older man began, but he halted when Blair interrupted.

"No, you're not. You're trying to make an excuse to keep from talking to me. I can understand that. I mean ... I've probably offended you and angered you to the point that you wish I had been one of those bodies-"

Jim was on his feet in a flash, the rifle clattering to the ground as his hands tightened in a vise-like grip around Blair's uninjured shoulder and the back of his neck. He shook the younger man as he snarled down into wide, surprised blue eyes. "No! I do not think that! Don't ever say that again, Sandburg, do you understand me?"

"I - I ... yes, Jim. Please, it hurts...!" Blair gasped out, and the grip immediately loosened but didn't fall away completely.

Ellison glanced down at the younger man, appalled at his own behavior. "Oh, my God. Blair ... I'm sorry. I don't know what I was doing ... are you okay?"

Grinning up at the soldier, Blair replied, "Yeah, I'm fine. You were careful enough with me. Jim, relax, okay? That was a stupid remark I made and it wasn't entirely in the best of taste. Forgive me?"

Jim nodded and stepped back with a rough sigh. He turned away, looking at one of the walls for a long moment, then suddenly swung back around to face Blair. "What is it about you?" he demanded heatedly. "What is there about you that is affecting me like this? Before you showed up I was the perfect soldier; in control of my emotions and my actions and my reactions. But ever since you arrived, I've been drawn to you like a moth to light and am acting totally irrational around you! I've never met you before now, and yet here I am, behaving as if we're close friends and have been for years."

"I think it has to do with you being a sentinel and me supposedly being your 'guide'," Blair said quietly.

Ellison froze at that statement. Finally, after a long, terrible silence, he said in an icy voice, "What did you say?"

"Hear me out, Jim. Let me say what I need to say before you do ... whatever. A couple of days ago, Incacha came to talk to me. Being a shaman, he helped me see the truth about your role in what happened to the study group; that you were 'following orders to the best of your ability' and that though you did what you could to protect us, regrettably, we were still attacked. I understand that now and I'm so sorry I said those hateful things to you earlier. They weren't fair. Anyway, he also told me that you're a sentinel. Now, I already know what a sentinel is. I've been researching them since I was, like, twelve, man! So imagine my surprise when I'm told that you're a sentinel and that I'm supposed to be your 'helpmate'; your 'guide', in effect. Listen to this, okay? There's a monograph that's over a hundred years old that was written by Sir Richard Burton - the explorer, not the actor. In it, Burton claimed that in all tribal cultures, every village had what he named a Sentinel. This was someone who patrolled the border."

"You mean a scout."

"No; more like a watchman. See, the sentinel would watch for approaching enemies, change in the weather, movement of game. Tribal survival depended on it."

"Okay, got it. What makes someone a sentinel?"

Blair grinned excitedly. "A sentinel is chosen because of a genetic advantage; a sensory awareness that can be developed beyond normal humans. These senses are honed by solitary time spent in the wild; I'm willing to bet that your time here in Peru - both earlier and now - is connected to why your senses are suddenly going haywire. Anyway, at first, Burton's monograph was disputed and now it's basically forgotten. I mean, there are certain manifestations today of maybe one or two hyperactive senses, like taste and smell; people who work for coffee and perfume companies. Oh, and in Vietnam, the Army long-range recon units that had to-"

"-change their diets to fish and rice because a Cong scout could smell a Westerner by his waste."

"Yes, right; exactly. There are hundreds and hundreds of documented cases in America of one or two hyperactive senses but not one single subject with all five. That's where you come in. Incacha told me that all five of your senses are incredibly acute. As I said, I think it's being in Peru that's triggered everything. Even with your soldiers here and the Chopec, you still end up spending time alone in the jungle, right?"

"Yeah, but what-"

"There, see! That's just it; being alone for so long, with no one else around you is what triggered your senses - made you come on-line. In short, you're becoming what nature designed you to be: a behavioral throwback to a pre-civilized form of man."

Jim felt the fury well up in him fast and hard. He reached out and grabbed hold of Blair's shoulder and neck again, then slammed him up against the wall of the lodge, pinning him there as he moved in close, getting in the younger man's face. "Are you out of your mind? I'm going crazy doing the impossible with my senses and reacting irrationally to you just for you to tell me I'm some sort of caveman?"

"All right, maybe that caveman crack was a little out of line-"

Jim shook him once, hard, accidentally banging the back of Blair's head against the wall. The younger man winced even as Jim hissed, "Listen, you neo-hippie witchdoctor punk! I don't know if you're aware of it but there are drug-crazed killers on the loose out there in the jungle and I really am under no obligation to keep you here and away from them, so if I were you, I would stop jerking me around and start giving me some straight answers about what in hell is going on here!"

"Jim! Ow, man, that hurts!" Blair gasped.

"Then talk, Sandburg, and talk fast," Jim growled.

"Relax, man. If you mess with me, you'll never find out what is up with you! I've been studying sentinels for years and I'm the only one in America, so far as I know, who believes in them anymore."

Ellison loosened his grip, then steadied the younger man when he staggered slightly.

Blair glanced up and smiled his thanks. Reaching up, he rested his left hand on Jim's right biceps. "Look, you believe that your senses are real, that what you're doing with them is real, right?"

Jim shrugged and tried his best to ignore the tingling thrill that shot through him at the kid's touch. "Yes. I kind of have to, when everyone else around me is believing I'm doing it."

"Okay, then. What's needed is control. You keep having zone-outs, Incacha said. He mentioned that's what happened so that you didn't hear the drug thugs come into the area."

"Zone whats?"

"Zone-outs. When you concentrate too hard on one sense. Which one was it that day?"

"Uh - sight. I was ... watching you." The older man glanced away, embarrassed to be caught by such an admission.

"Hmmm. Well, anyway, you zoned out, which is why it took the sound of the gunfire to bring you out of it. A big shock that woke you up, almost literally. Now, Burton mentioned that each sentinel had someone to watch their back, to keep things like this from happening. Even Incacha said he saw me become your helpmate in a vision. I prefer the term 'Guide'. That's kind of what a sentinel's partner does," Blair said with a grin.

Jim sighed and then gave a small quirk of a smile to the younger man. "That's a fine idea, Chief, except for one little thing."

"What's that?"

"You'll be leaving soon. And then there's the fact that I'm in the Army and you're not."

Blair's face fell and his enthusiasm dimmed. "Yeah, I know. But if we start working on it now, I can help you gain a little control and then we can teach one of your soldiers - the one you trust most - how to do this. How to guide you. I mean, Incacha can't claim one hundred percent assurance in his visions. He said he only saw me walking down the 'path' with you - meaning the sentinel path. He didn't say how long."

Before he could continue, Jim stilled and tilted his head. Blair watched him and then stepped back quickly as the bigger man suddenly began walking towards the doorway. "What? What is it?"

"Reyes is back from Lima already. He must have been running most of the way there and back to have made the roundtrip in only seven days," Jim grunted as he exited the lodge.

Blair followed along swiftly, then detoured when he saw Allison sitting near a fire, one of the other soldiers talking with her and making her smile, which he was pleased to see. When he stopped in front of them, they both looked up and he grinned at them both. "Hey, guys. Ally, Jim says Reyes is back from Lima already. He'll have news about what Rainier is up to."

"Finally. I want to go home and have a hot bath that will never end and try to put some of this behind me," Allison groaned as she began struggling up from the ground.

The soldier quickly got to his feet, then grasped her around the waist and easily lifted. He set her down lightly but kept hold of her as he grinned down at her. "Only some of it, Ally?" he murmured.

"Well ... not you, Rock," she said with a grin right back at him. "You can drop me a line anytime!"

Blair laughed as the three of them began walking towards the small knot of people that was gathered close by. "You're an incorrigible flirt, Ally."

"True, but just think of how much fun it must be to corrige me, then."

"There is no such word."

"Might be now," Rock said with a leer that he aimed in Ally's direction.

Her delighted giggle did wonders for both men, brightening their moods helpfully.

However, that mood was soon dashed.

Jim turned towards the two students and Rock as they made their way up to the new arrival. "Bad news, gentleman and lady."

"Oh, no. What is it?" Blair asked quietly, reaching out to take one of Ally's hands in his.

"Reyes radioed our superiors. They radioed back that they were going to hold off on telling Rainier about the attack for now. Our tour of duty here is over in three weeks. A new team will be sent in at that time. My unit and I are to bring you back to Lima with us."

"But ... what about the others...?" Ally asked quietly.

"There are reports that a new drug force is sweeping into the area. The Peruvian government and the new covert ops team that is being sent in will work with the Chopec to eliminate the threat. So there are two options. We either take the bodies back with us - that means a three or four day hike through the jungle - or your university waits until the dust settles again to collect the bodies. That could be months, however. It's up to you. Once we arrive in Lima, we'll tell our superiors which one we've decided on and they will handle the rest accordingly. You have three weeks to decide."

The stunned, incredulous expressions on their faces tore at Jim, but he kept his expression unreadable.

"That's it? We have three weeks to decide whether or not to haul our dead friends' bodies through the jungle or leave them where they are until someone can get around to them?" Blair asked quietly.

"Yes, Mr. Sandburg, that is it exactly. If you decide to leave them here, I promise, they won't be forgotten. But that is the choice you have to make," Ellison said, equally quietly.

Allison and Blair looked at each other for a long moment, then nodded as they reached a quiet agreement. "Will you excuse us for a while? We'd like to go talk about it," she said softly.

Jim nodded. "Rock...?"

"I'll stay with them," the captain said immediately.

"We don't need a babysitter, man," Blair protested.

"No, but you will have someone nearby to offer help or protection in case you need it," Jim replied curtly. With that, he turned his back on them and resumed taking Reyes' report.

Feeling strangely hurt at the abrupt rebuff, Blair nevertheless turned away, offering his arm to Allison. The two of them walked slowly away, Rock walking beside them quietly. The three of them headed out into the forest after the Ranger picked up his rifle along the way. They didn't go very far, just enough to remain in sight of the village but out of earshot. Although Blair knew it wouldn't be far enough to get out of Jim's range.

The two of them settled on the fallen trunk of a huge tree, now covered in moss. Rock took up a position not too far away, leaning against another tree, his eyes beginning to scan the surrounding area.

The students were silent for a long moment. Finally, Ally said in a hushed voice, "What do you think we should do, Blair?"

"I dunno, Ally. It doesn't seem right to leave them laying there for what could be months," the young man replied, reaching up to scratch underneath his ponytail lightly. "On the other hand..."

"On the other hand, it would be really ghoulish carting their bodies around for a few days. I mean, we would probably be exempt from it because of our injuries, but still, the idea of it..." she muttered, shivering slightly.

"Yeah, I know. And look at it this way: they aren't in unmarked graves. Jim said they had grave markers identifying them and they're buried really deep. The only way they could be disturbed is if someone deliberately did it."

"Uh-huh."

Blair glanced over at the young woman beside him, surprised at her one word answer. Ally had a reputation for being nearly as talkative as he was. When he saw the tears dripping down her face, he felt his heart pang in sympathy. Reaching out, he pulled her against him, letting her cradle her head on his shoulder. He began stroking her back as he whispered soothingly, "There you go, Ally. I know it hurts; let it out."

She began sobbing as she choked out, "They ... it was so fast...! One minute, they were ... alive and ... then ... now they're buried and gone and - and - and it's not fair, Blair! It's just not fair that we have to leave them there! They ... they didn't do anything ... to deserve this ... we didn't do anything...!"

Rock watched, feeling helpless and not liking it, as Blair did his best to soothe the young woman.

"I know, honey," Blair said quietly, tears in his own eyes. "I know. You're right, it wasn't fair. Not at all. But Jim and the others, they made those bastards pay for it. Made them pay dearly. And they're going to keep making them pay. So you just cry it out, honey. You just cry it out."

She did, for a long few moments until she finally rested quietly in his arms, and he simply sat there, comforting her.

After a while, he noticed that she was asleep. He started to wake her up, but Rock stepped forward. "Don't. I'll carry her in; she needs rest."

Blair looked up at the soldier searchingly. "You're really taken with her, aren't you?" he asked quietly.

Rock flashed the younger man a grin. "I like 'em young looking. And she's got a great sense of humor. Now, let me take her. I'll be careful."

Nodding, Blair gently shifted Allison so that Rock could easily scoop her up and cradle her in his arms. He stood still, bracing himself so Blair could grab hold of him and haul himself onto his own feet, and then the three of them returned to the village as quickly as they could.

The two students had been given their own hut to rest in. It had been built with the intention to house a family as soon as the bonding ceremony for one of the warriors and his lady was completed, but in the meantime, Blair and Allison had a place to stay. They would leave before the bonding ceremony, so the two Chopec in question thought nothing of letting their new home be used for a little bit.

As Rock ducked in and gently settled Allison onto her bedroll, Blair stood looking around the village. God, he wished he could document all this, but the operation going on here was classified and he was forbidden from doing anything, even talking about it when they got back. A moment later, he jumped, startled, when Jim appeared beside him silently.

"Hey, Chief," the older man said in greeting.

"Hi, Jim. We decided that we'll leave our friends where they are for now. After all, they're not in unmarked graves and they received justice for what happened to them. They can be collected later. God, I can't believe how callous that sounds," Blair said with a shudder. Then he blinked when one of Jim's hands reached up and stroked his hair soothingly, almost the same way he himself had comforted Allison.

"I know it sounds rough, Chief. I'm sorry it's necessary. But you're holding together real well, if it's any consolation."

"Kind of. Yeah, I guess. Anyway, is there something you wanted?"

You have no idea, Jim thought to himself. Aloud, he said, "Yeah. You said something about helping me get control over these senses. Think we can do it in three weeks?"

"We can sure as hell try," Blair said with a delighted grin. "Remember, though, you'll have to train one of your army buddies to help you with this after I'm gone."

Jim looked down at him a trifle sadly. He didn't want to think of a time when he wouldn't be near this young man who had, in a very short, traumatic time, had quite an impact on him. "I know, Chief. So ... you want to start now?"

Nodding, Blair gestured towards the edge of the village and the jungle beyond. "Yeah, sure. Let's do it."

Side by side, they walked towards the forest and disappeared into it.

Incacha watched them go with a smile on his face. Everything was happening as he had seen it.

****

TWO AND A HALF WEEKS LATER

"No, no. Come on, man. You were doing so well! What happened?" Blair asked, gently rubbing Jim's shoulder as the older man shook his head to clear the cobwebs.

"I don't know. I had the scent; had it identified, tagged, and located, and then suddenly everything spun out of control. Just ... bam!"

"Right. What about the dial?"

"Huh?" For a moment, Jim was confused and then he remembered. Closing his eyes, he pictured his dials and found that he had lost control of the one for scent. Setting it back firmly to where it had been, he nodded and opened his eyes. "Yeah, I'd lost hold of the dial. It's set again. Want me to try one more time?"

Blair shook his head. "No, it's enough that you identified and located the scent and that you know what to look for now in case something like that ever happens again. No point in exaggerating a headache."

Jim grinned and nodded. "Right, Chief. Look, I've got some time before it's my turn to take the watch. Want to head over to the water hole and relax for a few minutes?"

"Sounds good." Getting to his feet, Blair turned and began walking through the jungle towards the large pool that was located at the base of a nearby cliff, a waterfall continuously flowing down the rocks to the water below, creating fresh water.

Ellison quickly slipped into place beside him, his rifle shouldered, yet positioned where he could use it instantly if he had to. "How's your shoulder, Darwin?"

Blair glanced over at the soldier, then twitched his shoulder carefully. "Not too bad. Those poultices and the therapy you ordered me to practice are helping a lot. Barely hurts now. How's your thigh?" About a week ago, Jim had been grazed by a bullet when he and his unit and the Chopec had engaged a group of terrorists attempting to take over part of the Chopec Pass where the coca plants were plentiful.

"Hardly notice it anymore. It'll leave a scar, but that's to be expected," Jim said with a shrug.

"You've got quite a few, haven't you?" the younger man asked quietly.

"Goes with the job, kid. Can't be a Ranger without earning a few 'badges'."

"Yeah, but doesn't it ever worry you? That you're always walking into situations where you could die, or be left in a lot of pain for the rest of your life?"

Jim was silent for a long moment, then said, "Sandburg, I've discovered something. Life is a near-death experience anyway. What's the point of going through it being afraid of the inevitable? Might as well get something worthwhile accomplished. Besides, I know I'm doing a lot of good for people this way. While my methods are sometimes less than savory, I get the job done. Whatever happens to me, happens."

"So you're not afraid for yourself. What about family? Friends? Don't you have anyone who is scared for you?" Blair questioned as they finally emerged from the jungle and walked over to the pool. The fine mist from the splashing of the water on the nearby rocks settled over them and Blair smiled at the pleasant sensation.

"My family ... well, let's just say, I could care less and so could they. As for friends, all of mine are pretty much in the same situation," Jim muttered as he stood by the edge of the pool and began stripping off his clothing. He had enough time and he wanted to take a relaxing dip in the water.

"Oh, come on. Surely not, Jim," Sandburg protested as he began to remove his own clothing. He had long ago given up any shyness around the Chopec or the Rangers. People frequently walked around half-naked anyway, due to the heat and humidity of the jungle.

"Why do you say that, Chief?"

"Well, because you're..." Blair began, then trailed off, blushing lightly.

Forcing his body to behave itself, Jim walked over and put one finger under the younger man's chin and lifted, forcing Blair to look at him. "Because I'm...?" he prompted.

"You're ... a ... pretty great guy," Sandburg whispered, and looked away. "I can't imagine anyone not caring."

That touched Jim deeply. Smiling slightly, he lifted both hands and framed his new friend's face with them. "Thanks, Chief. Feeling's mutual, you know."

Blair knew the sentinel could feel the heat of his blush vividly against his palms, but he couldn't stop it as he muttered, "Thanks, man."

Lightly patting the pinkened cheeks, Jim grinned and then turned to enter the water, having removed his clothing already.

Watching the beautiful sight before him - specifically the play of muscles of that gorgeous ass - the younger man shivered a little before forcing his body to behave and stripping off the remainder of his clothing. Then he followed Jim into the water, wading out until he could comfortably splash down to float in the water. After all, he told himself as he shut his eyes, it's not like you have a chance with him, anyway.

Jim grinned as he watched his friend glide by, eyes closed against the spray of the mist as he paddled about. He darted a quick look at the younger man's groin and smiled appreciatively at the sight. Blair might have been short, but he made up for it in other areas. Stocky with muscle, the grad student physically was no wimp. Jim's blue eyes caught sight of the still healing scar tissue on his right shoulder and his smile dimmed. Sighing, he fell forward into the deeper section and then dove under the water.

Feeling the new ripples of something large entering the water, Blair opened his eyes a little bit, but saw no sign of Jim. Smiling as he realized the other man had gone under for a quick swim, he shut them again. When he felt Jim surface beside him, he reached over and lazily patted one muscular arm. He felt one of Jim's hands ghost over his own arm and then they relaxed into the water.

A little while later, Blair sat up and crouched low in the water beside the sentinel. Looking down at that handsome, relaxed face, he asked, "So, what about a girlfriend? You never really answered my question; do you have anyone back home who will care if you're hurt?"

Jim opened his eyes and his breath caught slightly at the sight of the beautiful young man above him, sunlight shining through the wet ringlets of his long, curly hair. "What?" he asked, not really hearing the question.

"Do you have a girlfriend? Someone you're intimate with who will care if you're hurt?"

"No." Jim sat up, then stood. He gazed at the waterfall. "I had a lover before I left, but it wasn't anything serious. We parted as friends and if neither of us is in a serious relationship when I get back, then we'll probably get together a few times, until one or the other of us ships out."

"Oh. What's her name?" Blair asked as casually as he could.

The older man was silent for a long time, then decided that he would tell. After all, the worst that Blair could do was to ignore him. "His name," Jim said softly. "His name is Wyatt. No, no relation to the Earps so far as I know. He's a good guy, though, and a good lover. He's just not my type for a permanent relationship."

He turned to find Blair staring at him with wide, unblinking eyes, his mouth slightly parted. The younger man didn't appear to be breathing. "Blair? Chief?"

"You're ... gay?" Sandburg asked quietly, unable to believe his luck.

Jim shrugged. "Bisexual, but yeah, I'd say so. Is that a problem?"

Slowly, a grin spread across Blair's mouth and he shook his head. "No. I'm bisexual, too."

Ellison blinked, surprised. "You are? But you gave no indication of-" He immediately closed his mouth.

"Of what? Wanting a man?" Moving closer, still crouched in the water - in a vain attempt to shield his sudden erection - Blair said softly, "Wanting you? I've had lots of practice about hiding what I am. I bet you have, too, which is why I had no clue about your sexuality."

Trembling slightly, feeling warmth begin pooling in his groin, Jim reached out and threaded one hand into the waterlogged curls. "Do you want me?" he murmured quietly.

"What do your senses tell you, Jim?" came the soft reply.

Closing his eyes, the sentinel inhaled deeply and he caught the scent of arousal. His sense of touch easily detected the heat coming from the body crouched in front of his. His ears caught the sound of their racing hearts and his taste buds suddenly craved to know the taste and texture of the man before him. He opened his eyes and stared down heatedly at the younger man. "You want me."

Blair nodded. "Yes. I have for the last couple of weeks, now. The only question is, do you want me?"

Without saying a word, Jim reached down with his other hand and gently began urging Blair up out of the water as he began bending down to meet him.

Closing his eyes, Blair lifted his mouth and waited. He didn't have to wait long as his mouth was taken by the firm softness of Jim's. At first, the kiss was dry, gentle, chaste. Then, as they became used to each other, their mouths opened and the kiss deepened, became hotter, wetter, more intimate.

Blair rested his hands on Jim's hips as both of Jim's cradled his head for the kiss. It felt so good, tasted so good, he could have stayed there forever, but a moment later, Jim was yanking him upright and pressing their bodies together. Their chests and bellies rubbed sensuously against each other's, their erect cocks stroking gently together and sending prickling shocks of pleasure along their nerves.

Jim pulled back slightly and took a shuddering breath. He'd never, ever felt this before. Every nerve ending in his body was alive, tingling. He opened his eyes and met Blair's, exchanging a heated glance with the younger man, feeling a sensation of awe that this incredible, gorgeous student desired him. Smiling, he wrapped his arms around his new lover and began walking Blair backwards towards the edge of the pool. They were almost there when Blair stumbled and went down, pulling Jim down with him. The older man cushioned the fall with his own body, then rolled over so that he was atop his lover, the two of them lying in a puddle of water, little wavelets lapping around them. Then he was surprised as he found himself rolled over so that Blair was atop him. He started to say something and found that he couldn't say a word at the blazing look the younger man gifted him with. A moment later, he realized briefly that he never would have been able to say anything anyway, not with what Blair was doing to him at the moment.

Thoroughly delighted at having this opportunity, Blair took his time as he kissed Jim once again, then began working his way down, his teeth and tongue grazing the sentinel's neck and chest. His hands stroked down Jim's ribs and his flanks, then up and over his belly as Blair suckled and tongued first one hard male nipple and then another, enjoying Jim's shudders and soft mewls of pleasure. Sliding down further, he took advantage of Jim's spreading legs and settled between them. He wasted no time; gathering up Ellison's hot, hard, throbbing cock, he set his mouth on him.

Jim arched up and cried out, then bit his lip to muffle that cry. His eyes were wide open, staring sightlessly at the sky, all his awareness on the hot moistness of the mouth that engulfed him, the tongue swirling over the head of his dick, the suction of that incredible mouth, the deep sound of satisfaction from his lover, as if Blair had never tasted anything so good. Shuddering again, he bucked up into that glorious mouth, pistoning gently in and out of the slick heat that held him. When Blair's mouth pulled off of him, he whimpered his distress, then purred as the short, hairy body swarmed up his to lay full-length atop him. He wrapped his arms around his lover as he heard Blair whisper in his ear, "Shhh ... that's it. It's okay, big guy. Didn't want you to come yet. Want you inside me; want you to come inside me."

Growling, Jim bucked up and rolled them over again. Bracing himself over the younger man, he stared down heatedly into lust-filled blue eyes and smiled ferally. "You want me, Chief? You got me."

He scooted up onto his knees, still hunched over, as he let his extra-sensitive fingers map the contours of Blair's face. He moved further down, cataloging the feel of neck, shoulders, arms, hands. Moving back up, then down over a very hairy chest, pausing to play with erect nipples, enjoying the gasping and squirming that resulted. Further down, over the firm belly and lean hips, skirting the groin, and down short, muscular thighs that he just knew were going to feel like heaven when they wrapped around him.

"Jim ... oh, Jim, please..." Blair pleaded breathlessly, his hips thrusting up involuntarily. He had to have those hands on him, right now!

Grinning again, Ellison took that hard, leaking cock in his hand and slowly stroked up and down in a firm, smooth rhythm. Blair thrust up into his hand, his eyes closing as he purred with the sensation of being stroked so nicely.

A moment later, his eyes flew open in surprise when a hot, wet mouth latched onto his dick and started sucking for all it was worth.

Jim felt like purring, but couldn't, as he took Blair's cock into his mouth as far as he could. His lover tasted a little salty, very creamy, wonderful. Wanting more, Jim drew him deeper into his throat, sucking hard. He had to hold Blair down as the younger man began to thrash and buck, going wild with need. A few moments later, Jim pulled back, breathing as hard as Blair, and then straightened up slightly. Reaching down, he lifted Blair's legs and placed them over his shoulders, bracing the younger man's hips with his own. Shifting them carefully, he grasped the firm cheeks and pulled them apart gently, baring that tight little hole to his gaze. Lifting his eyes, Jim met Blair's own blue stare and smiled again.

Then he drove Blair out of his mind by leaning down and placing his mouth on his lover's entrance.

For many long moments, as Jim licked and nipped and sucked, Blair writhed and shuddered and begged to be taken. When two of Jim's fingers pressed against his mouth, he wrapped his lips around them and sucked, wetting them thoroughly. When those fingers withdrew from his mouth, he sighed with the loss of them, then thrilled when he felt them take the place of that hot, talented tongue.

Carefully, Jim pressed his fingers inside Blair. He spent long, precious minutes gently stretching the younger man, letting him grow accustomed to the feel of the fingers inside him. Ellison could tell by the tightness that Blair hadn't done this for a while and the last thing he wanted to do was hurt him. Once he was sure that Blair was okay, he gently eased Blair's hips back down to the pool bottom and followed with his mouth. He began sucking his lover's cock again as he stroked inside the younger man with his fingers. It wasn't long before Blair shuddered hard and cried out.

Pulling back, Jim caught most of the come spilling out of Blair's penis. He gathered it one hand, whispering assurances and praise, and then spread the slick fluid over his own erection. Leaning over the panting, dazed young man, he pressed the head of his dick against the stretched opening and pushed.

"Ahhh..." Blair sighed as he felt himself being invaded by Jim's cock. Opening his eyes, he smiled up at the older man and drew Jim's head down to his own, claiming that soft, sensual mouth for his own. As they kissed hungrily, he lifted his legs, wrapping them tightly around Jim's hips, drawing the sentinel deeper inside him.

Jim shuddered hard. He'd been right; Blair's legs felt so good wrapped around him. Hell, his lover felt good, period. So hot and tight, the right amount of pressure folded around his aching cock ... oh, yeah.

He began to move, slowly at first, then his pace increased gradually. Withdrawing, pausing, then driving in again, moving smoothly in and out. He groaned into Blair's mouth, the sound one of utter pleasure, and nearly purred again when he heard the delighted moan the younger man gave. Shifting his angle slightly, he searched for and found the tiny nub inside that was guaranteed to give Blair maximum enjoyment.

Shouting, Blair arched up violently, his arms and legs tightening almost painfully around the sentinel's body. His head was flung back and he growled when he felt teeth and tongue and lips attacking the bared expanse. His prostate was nudged once again and he bucked up hard, slamming his hips to meet Jim's. "Yes!" he yelled. "Yes, yes, oh yes...."

They moved harder, faster, straining together. Jim's fingers were clenched hard in the mossy pool bottom as he drove hard into his lover, shuddering in his need to be further in, to be so far in that Blair would never get him out again. And from what the older man could tell by the strength of the muscular contortions of Blair's sheath, he didn't want Jim to leave him, either. He felt one of Blair's hands work between their bodies and he caught that hand by the wrist and tugged it away from its intended goal of Blair's erection.

"No," he grunted, shoving in harder. "Only me. Nothing else; just me. I'm the only thing that will make you come."

Sandburg cried out softly at this statement, accepting it, wanting Jim to give him everything.

Frantic now, writhing against each other as they arched and thrust in a sensuous, age-old dance, they felt their orgasms getting closer and closer and closer still until...

...Blair screamed, only to have that scream cut off by Jim's mouth clamping hard over his as he came; coming so hard and fast that his vision dimmed and he was only aware of the sweet sensation of relief as his come poured out of him.

Gasping fiercely, Jim shuddered fiercely as he whipped hard into Blair's ass, thrusting once, twice, again, one more time until finally, oh yeah, finally he was coming, spurting into his lover's ass fast and hard, right where he wanted to be.

They lay together, groaning quietly, Jim still atop Blair. Occasionally, one or the other would thrust against the other slowly as the last of their climaxes rolled through them.

Finally, Jim gathered his strength and slowly pulled away, withdrawing carefully and rolling to rest on his side beside Blair. When the younger man sighed regretfully at the feeling of loss, Jim smiled and pulled his lover into his arms. However, he wasn't entirely happy. He had just had the best sex ever in his entire life, even knowing that Blair would leave him eventually, and how was he supposed to live without the younger man now?

Good Lord, Ellison! he snapped to himself. Would you listen to yourself? Yeah, he's an exceptional lover and a really nice guy, but don't kid yourself. You're a Ranger, have been one for years. You've been self-sufficient even before the Army. You'll be able to live just fine without him. Buck up and take care of business. Don't dismiss him harshly, but let him know that this can't continue.

Blair sighed as he snuggled against the broad chest of the older man. "That was great, man."

"Mmm."

The non-committal answer roused Blair from his passion-induced lethargy. He lifted his head to look at his new lover and saw the doubt and regret in Jim's eyes before the soldier could conceal them. Sighing, Blair let his head drop back down. "I'm sorry you regret it," he said quietly, stroking the smooth chest that lay under one of his hands.

Tightening his hold on the younger man, Ellison sighed as well. "I don't regret it, Chief. I regret our circumstances, but not that. You're right, it was great. The best ever. But you know we'll separate eventually. I have my life in the Army and you have yours in the university. The twain shall not meet, you know."

"Oh, I don't know. I'd say they met just fine a few moments ago," Blair teased, happy when a chuckle rumbled through Jim's chest. "Seriously, I know what you're saying, Jim. We shouldn't have started anything we don't have much hope of continuing back in the States. And I regret that because, like I said, you're a really great guy. But, you know, Jim, I like to think we've become friends while we've been together here in Peru. And as friends, don't you think we could enjoy each other while we're together?"

Jim sighed again and shook his head as he began sitting up, urging Blair up with him. Sitting facing the younger man, he said, "I don't know if that's a good idea, Chief. I mean, my job forces me to keep an emotional distance from a lot of people. I don't know if I want to get any more emotionally attached to you than ... than I already am."

Blair glanced away, then back at Jim, and smiled sadly. "If you say so. I think that's a shame, though. But ... you know, the offer's there. Anytime you want me, want to see me or talk to me...."

"I know, Blair. Thank you. You're going to make an excellent husband or life-partner for someone one of these days. I envy the lucky bastard who finally gets you," Jim said, his own sad smile on his face.

"Right."

They were silent again and then Jim checked the angle of the sun and cursed. He got to his feet and helped Blair to his. "I've gotta take my turn on watch soon. Hurry up and get dressed, Darwin."

"Careful with that name, Jim," Blair teased as he began pulling on his own clothing when they stopped next to the rock where they'd put their clothes earlier.

Jim gave him a puzzled glance while slipping on his own clothing. "Why? Don't you like it?"

"I like it just fine. But Darwin means something else other than a reference to the evolutionary."

"It does? Like what?" Jim asked as he finished tying his bootlaces.

"Darwin is Old English for 'beloved friend'. So stick that in your helmet and wear it well," Blair said, flashed a grin at the sentinel, and then began walking away.

Jim blinked, then snatched up his rifle and hurried after the younger man.

****

The rest of the time in the village passed swiftly and before Blair and Allison knew it, it was time to leave with Jim's unit and rendezvous with the chopper that was bringing in the new team. The two of them gathered up their stuff and waited as Jim's team gave last minute instructions and good-byes to the Chopec people. Hugs and gifts were exchanged as the two students looked on. They had already said goodbye and thanks to the few Chopec they'd interacted with while they were there, so the only thing they could do now was wait.

Incacha and Jim stood off to the side, watching the crowd, and then the shaman turned to Jim and said, "I will see you again someday, Enqueri. It was good to have you with us for a time."

"I enjoyed seeing you again, too, Incacha. Although you shouldn't have filled Blair's head with the idea that he's my 'helpmate'. It's not possible between us; not in our country."

"It is more possible than you know, Enqueri. Not only possible, but it must be so. You are the sentinel; he is your helpmate."

"I'm a soldier, Incacha. He is not and will never be."

"And you will always be part of your Arm-ee?"

"I plan on it, yes."

"Plans do not always go the way we want them to."

Jim gave the shaman an irritated look and was met with a calm smile in return. Snorting, he replied, "Be that as it may, I still don't think it will happen."

"It will, Enqueri. Now that you have met the other half of your soul and have started the bond, you cannot be without him."

"Started the bond? What do you mean?"

"At the waterfall, three days past."

Jim's mouth dropped open. "You watched us?"

Incacha nodded. "I heard a scream. I investigated. I saw you both. It is nothing to be ashamed of, Enqueri."

"I'm not ashamed! But ... I didn't hear you..." the soldier muttered, then blushed and glanced away.

The shaman gave him a knowing grin. "You were ... busy."

"Hmph."

Reaching out, Incacha touched Jim's chest over his heart lightly. "Don't deny your heart, Enqueri. Don't deny your soul. It will only lead to suffering and death for you both."

Jim stepped back, shocked. While he faced that probability most of the time as a soldier, Blair ... well, Jim did not want to go there. Once had been enough, thank you.

"Go now, Enqueri. It is time for you to return to your own land. Do not forget what you have learned in this one," Incacha said quietly.

Ellison nodded. "I'll miss you, 'Cacha."

"We will meet again."

Nodding again, Jim then turned and walked away from the shaman and over to his unit and the waiting grad students who had their packs strapped on their backs tightly. "Everyone ready?"

"Sir, yes sir!" the soldiers replied in unison.

"Yeah," chorused the two students.

Jim had to fight to keep from reflexively bellowing at the two of them for a proper reply - now that he'd put himself totally back into a military mindset - and instead nodded sharply. "All right. Let's move out!"

Quickly, they all left the village, an escort of Chopec warriors going with them.

****

They made good time the first day, detouring around the study group campsite where the bodies of the fallen students and professor were buried. Allison wanted to make a quick stop, in order to pay respects, but Jim vetoed that idea, saying they had to stay on the move and not spend more time than they had to. He apologized, but it was necessary that they do this. She had nodded her acceptance and they had continued.

However, they had to make camp relatively early, despite making excellent time. Allison's leg had been healing, but it still wasn't strong enough for an all-out run through the jungle. And Blair's shoulder was aching like a bitch of a bag of a thing as well, though he would have continued with it. Jim called a halt, though, and they set up camp. He refused to bring the students back in worse condition than they should be in at that stage of healing.

Later that evening, Jim watched as Blair got up from his bedroll. Nearly everyone else was asleep, except for a couple of his soldiers and the two Chopec warriors who were on sentry duty deeper in the jungle. His eyes met Blair's and when the grad student walked away from the camp and into the surrounding foliage, Jim hesitated only briefly before following him.

When they were a good ways away from everyone, Jim reached out and caught the smaller man's arm, bringing them both to a halt. "What the hell are we doing out here, Sandburg?" he growled.

"For a couple of things," Blair answered. "First, I want to know how your senses are doing. Do you have the dials under control? Is anything bothering you exceptionally?"

Jim shook his head. "No, the dials are fine. I don't know if I remembered to thank you-"

"You didn't."

"-but, thank you for thinking of the 'dials'. They help a great deal. And nothing is bothering me beyond ordinary stuff."

"Well, it just might when you get to the states. Suddenly, there's gonna be a lot of different odors hanging around; sights and smells and tastes and textures. You need to really practice with those controls, man."

"Right, got it. What's the other thing bothering you?"

"Who have you decided on to help guide you?"

"Rock. I'm going to have him permanently assigned to me and whatever missions I go on. I can trust him. He already knows about my senses anyway."

"Well, good luck prying him away from Ally. They're besotted with each other."

"Rock? Besotted? With her?"

"Why not? She's exactly his type and she really likes him. They're good for each other," Blair stated somewhat indignantly.

Jim sighed and rubbed at his temples. "Great. That's just terrific. Hope she doesn't mind being an Army wife and relocating around occasionally."

"She's an anthropologist, Jim; she's used to being on the move."

"Right. Well, if that's all-" Ellison began, then stopped when Blair placed his hand flat against his chest, halting him. "Chief?"

"I was ... thinking ... maybe we could ... one last time?" Blair asked quietly.

Trembling slightly, Jim inhaled slowly. "Chief ... Blair, I told you, I don't think it's a good idea..."

"I know, but ... you're the best lover I've ever had, Jim, and I like you a lot. One more time, so I can have some really nice memories of the Lieutenant Colonel who rescued me and forgave me even when I was an ungrateful ass and then blew my mind. Please?"

For a long moment, Jim was silent. Then, he grinned and carefully set down his rifle. "As I recall, I blew something other than your mind, Sandburg."

Blair grinned at him in the semi-darkness. "That you did. Care to do it again?"

"Yes," Jim whispered, and gathered the smaller man to him.

Their loving this time was no less passionate, but a little slower than the frantic need from before. Jim blew Blair's mind again - among other things - and then he took the younger man from behind, claiming the lithe body in the most primal of positions. When Blair came, clenching spastically around his erection, Jim muffled his yowl with a hand over his lover's mouth. Then he clamped his jaw shut around his own howl of completion as he shot his load deep inside Blair's body.

When they were done, they carefully got dressed, checking each other over, and then walked back to camp quietly. Before they entered the camp, Blair gave one last stroke to one of Jim's arms, then moved to his bedroll and bundled up into it as Jim went back to his chosen watch point, his eyes staying fixed on Blair until the younger man fell asleep.

Leaving Jim with restless thoughts and turbulent emotions.

****

Two and a half days later, they met the chopper carrying the other team at the rendezvous point. The other team had already dropped and they raced into the surrounding trees to where Jim and the others were waiting. Jim gave hurried instructions that the Chopec warriors would escort them back to the village and that their escorts could speak English. Not fluently, but enough to understand what was said to them and to get their own point across. Then he and the others sprinted to where the chopper was waiting with rope ladders lowered. Blair and Allison were sent up first with the others swarming up after them. Gear was stowed and everyone was belted in as the chopper immediately swung up and over the jungle and headed towards Lima once everyone was aboard.

It was many hours before Blair and Allison, sharing a room on base, saw Jim or Rock again. They were confined to quarters, so the two of them were playing their second round of Gin Rummy when the Rangers appeared.

"Jim! Rock! Hey, guys," Blair said with a grin after answering the door at the knock.

"May we come in?" Jim asked politely.

"Yeah, sure, come on in. What's up?" he asked, stepping back to let the two soldiers in.

They entered, Jim nodding at Allison while Rock went over with a grin and leaned down to hug her, which she returned with a wide smile.

"We'll all be flying out tomorrow for Washington. We'll be landing at one of the air force bases near Fort Lewis. From there we'll catch a helicopter flight to Fort Lewis. Each of us will have to go through a debriefing. The Chancellor at Rainier has been contacted by now and apprised of your situation. There will be a media blackout as far as any Army participation. You will be advised to state that members of the local tribe found you, patched you up, and then escorted you out of the jungle. From there you made it to Lima and then contacted the local police. You were routed through channels and since there was a military flight leaving for Washington the next day, you were placed on board. After your debriefing tomorrow, you'll be driven back to Rainier University. Is any of that unacceptable to you?" Jim asked quietly.

Blair and Allison looked at each other, then shook their heads. "We ... would tell the truth, ordinarily, but we understand why we can't. And it's not a criminal cover-up; we know that what you're doing is doing more good than bad in the scheme of things. So, we'll tell the story you've given us," Ally said.

"That's my girl," Rock said with a small smile, taking her hand in his.

Blair and Jim looked at each other for a long moment, everything they wanted to say but were unable to was in their eyes.

"Well," the Lt. Col. said after a while, and he got to his feet. Rock immediately followed.

"Lights out pretty soon. We'll see you tomorrow morning. Good night; sleep tight, both of you," Ellison said pleasantly.

"Right."

"Sure, thanks."

With a nod, Jim was gone. Rock paused to nod to Blair and smile at Ally, and then he was gone, too.

With a sigh, Blair lay back on his bed and stared at the ceiling. Very soon, now, he wouldn't even be able to see Jim anymore. He was not looking forward to it.

"Hey, Blair?" came the soft voice from the bed next to his.

"Yeah, Ally?"

"You really have a thing for him, don't you?"

He blinked and rolled over to look at the young woman who was stretched out on the other bed. "Say what?"

"Ellison. You've got a thing for him. You're in love with him," she said quietly.

He thought for a brief moment about denying it, then nodded mutely.

"Damn. Poor guy. It must suck, being in love with him and knowing he's in love with you, and the two of you probably never getting together again. Although you might, if my plans for seeing Rock again means that Jim might be around-"

"What do you mean, he's in love with me?" Blair demanded.

Ally grinned at him. "Don't be coy, Blair. Anyone can see by looking at the two of you together that he cares very much about you, and vice versa. What? You can't tell?"

He shook his head. "I know we're friends, but he said he doesn't want to be emotionally attached to me any more than he already is."

She grinned wider. "Blair, ol' buddy, ol' pal, that sounds like the classic case of someone who is already in love and is playing the role of self-sacrificing hero."

His jaw plunked down and his eyes widened. "What? No way! You're kidding, right?"

"Blair, come on. You have been around the block a few times, right? Don't you recognize any of this?"

The young man fell back on his bed and stared at the ceiling as he thought long and hard about it. Finally, he whispered, "Holy shit!" when he realized Ally was correct.

"See? Told ya," she teased.

"Oh, pipe down. I know that. I just can't stand the fact that it's too late to do anything about it."

"What do you mean?"

"After tomorrow, I'll never see him again. If I go down to Fort Lewis asking to see him, he'll give orders not to let me in. And he'll never come looking for me. Rock, on the other hand, is going to be sniffing around you as much as he can. You're the lucky one in this adventure, Ally. You've found your man and you get to keep him, too."

She looked at her friend with a saddened expression. "Oh, Blair. I'm sorry. I didn't know things were so difficult for you."

He sighed. "Yeah, well-" Just then, a bell rang once through the building they were in and he groaned and stood up. "Lights out. Come on, let's sack out before someone comes to yell at us."

Already in sleep clothes, they quickly turned down the blankets on their beds and turned out the lights. A few moments later, they paused as they heard the strains of evening "Taps" floating through the air and for just a minute, tears welled in their eyes as they thought of the friends that were still buried out in the jungle and gave silent prayers for them.

The excitement and energy of the day caught up with them and before long, they were both sound asleep.

****

The flight to Washington was uneventful and before Blair or Allison knew it, they were landing at the air force base. Hurriedly, they all piled into the helicopter that was waiting to transport them and soon they were landing at Fort Lewis.

Jim sighed as he climbed out of the chopper and helped Blair down while Rock helped Ally. The two Rangers escorted the students over to the jeep that was waiting to take them to one of the civilian debriefing rooms in a building on the far side of the Fort. Jim and Rock returned the salutes the two soldiers waiting at the jeep gave them, and then Rock said goodbye to Ally, promising that he would write and call. Giving her a quick hug, he then said, "'Bye, Sandburg. It was nice meeting you." Then he turned and walked away.

Jim glanced down at the young man who stood before him as one of the soldiers helped Ally into the jeep while the other stowed her and Blair's gear. Sighing, he held out his hand. "It was an honor and a privilege to meet you, Mr. Sandburg. Good luck in your future endeavors."

Blair smiled up at his friend as he shook the proffered hand. "Nice use of ten-dollar words, Lt. Col. Further proof that Army grunts aren't just grunts. Thanks. It was nice meeting you as well. And good luck to you, too." He was silent for a moment, then said sentinel soft, "I guess this is goodbye, isn't it?"

Jim nodded. "I won't forget you, Chief," he murmured.

"Well, that's good to know. So, see you around, man."

"Yep. Take care of yourself ... Darwin," Jim said with a grin. Patting Blair once on his uninjured shoulder, he then turned around and walked away.

And never looked back.

Blair watched him go with a heavy heart, then turned and climbed into the jeep, thanking the soldier who offered a steadying hand and then he and Ally were being whisked away across the fort grounds. When her hand curled around his, he gripped her fingers firmly in silent gratitude for her support.

****

Jim sighed as he walked towards his home on the grounds of Fort Lewis. He lived over in the housing development. He could have stayed in the Officer's Quarters, but he figured that after all he'd done in the line of duty, he deserved to have a real home.

It didn't feel like one, though. It hadn't for months. Not since a certain longhaired anthropologist had come into his life and then gone out of it.

"Jim! Sir, wait up!" a voice called out, and he stopped and turned, then smiled with mild amusement when he noticed that Rock was still at least five blocks away from him. He waited as the captain jogged towards him, then slowed to a walk. Turning, Jim paused until Rock was beside him and then continued walking towards his house.

"Hey, Rock. Something important come up?" Jim asked politely as he pulled out his keys and unlocked the door to his home.

"You could say so, sir," Cunningham replied with a grin as he followed the older man inside, shutting and locking the door behind them. He was wearing cammies, not a dress uniform like Jim, so he waited until Jim had hung up his jacket and removed his hat before adding, "I've decided to ask Allison to marry me."

Ellison swung around in surprise. After a moment, he started grinning, then chuckled. He held out his hand as he said, "Good job, soldier. I was wondering how long it would take you to realize you'd better snag her quick before somebody else did!"

Rock laughed as he shook his CO's hand. "Thanks, Jim. I was wondering ... would you be offended if I asked you to be my best man at the wedding?"

"Offended? Hell, I'd mind if I wasn't asked! Why did you think I would be offended, Rock? We're buddies, aren't we?"

"Yeah, Jim, except ... you know Sandburg will be at the wedding."

Jim froze. That little detail had slipped his mind. After a moment, he said carefully, "I see." Turning, he walked away, entering the kitchen and hearing the other man following him in. "Would you like some coffee? I'm making fresh."

"The special roast? Sure, I'd love some. It's been a while since I've had decent coffee."

"Oh, really? Why is that?" Jim asked as he began to make the coffee.

"I've been scrimping for a while, if you have to know. Had to get some great rings for Ally."

"Hmm. Makes sense. So, let's see them."

With a grin, Rock dug the small gray box out of his chest pocket and handed it over to Jim. Without a word, Ellison opened the box and smiled at the two rings nestled in the fabric within. A small gold band that had a tiny, though perfect diamond nestled in the setting was clearly the engagement ring. The other ring was a slightly larger gold band that had tiny gemstones circling it. He studied it for a moment, letting his sight go deep enough to enjoy the color and clarity, then pulled back and looked at his friend. "They're beautiful. Why the gemstones?"

"Well," Cunningham said as he took the box back, "the gemstones are each of the stones attributed to every month of the year, but they symbolize certain things. Thought she'd get a kick out of that, being an anthropologist."

"Uh-huh. What do they symbolize?"

"Um. Lessee: Garnet is for constancy; Amethyst is for sincerity; Aquamarine is for courage; I left out the diamond because that's in her engagement ring, but it's for innocence. Emerald is for love and success; Pearl is for health and longevity; Ruby is for contentment; Peridot is for marriage success; Sapphire is for clear thinking; Opal is for hope; Topaz is for fidelity; and Turquoise is for prosperity."

"Very nice. It's probably cost you most of your savings and part of each paycheck, right?" Jim teased as he got up to fix their coffee and then handed a mug to his friend.

"All of my savings and only a small amount for the last five paychecks, thanks," Rock shot back.

The two of them laughed and sipped slowly at their coffee. Finally, Rock put down his mug and stared hard at Jim. "So, you won't back out of being my best man because Sandburg's going to be there?"

"No. Why would I?" Ellison replied calmly.

"Because I know how much he means to you and forgive the frankness, Jim, but I think you're being an idiot by staying away from him."

"I didn't ask you for your opinion, Cunningham."

"No, but I'm giving it just the same. You deserve my honesty if I'm going to be your substitute guide, Jim."

"You are my guide, Rock."

"No, I'm not, man. We both know Sandburg is your real guide. You respond to him like you never have with me and that's all right. I don't swing that way, anyway."

Jim froze, then looked hard at his friend. "What are you saying?"

"Jim ... I followed you and Sandburg that night you both snuck out of camp when we left the Chopec village. I left when it was obvious where things were headed, but your relationship with him suddenly made a lot of sense. Why you were so close to him even though you barely knew him. Why you were so drawn to him. And it's okay, man. Don't ask, don't tell, I know. I've never breathed a word about it to anyone, not even Ally, but I think she knows anyway. You and I are the only ones who have discussed this, I swear. I'm already keeping a lot of secrets for you; this is one more that I can keep."

"Jesus!" Ellison bellowed as he leaped out of his chair. "First Incacha, now you ... was there anybody who didn't get a peepshow from the two of us?!"

"Incacha saw you? When?!"

Jim stopped pacing, his face flushing red. "That night, that you saw us ... it wasn't our first time together."

"Oh." Mildly embarrassed for his friend and CO, Rock let the topic go. After a while, he said, "So, you'll still be my best man? It would mean a lot to me to have you stand up with me, Jim."

"Of course I'll stand up with you. Don't be an idiot," Jim snapped.

Rock laughed. "Sir, yes sir. Of course, sir."

"Asshole."

"You bet."

They were silent for a little while longer and then Rock said quietly, "He really misses you, Jim. He hasn't said anything, but it's obvious. He tries not to be, whenever I talk about you, but it's clear he's hungry for news of you. A lot like the way you get whenever I talk about him if I've seen him after I've come back from seeing Ally. He wants to know how you're doing, but won't ask beyond how your senses are doing. I fill him in on the rest. Ally says he's different from how he used to be before Peru."

"Big surprise, Rock. His study team was murdered and he was injured. It's only recently the bodies were brought back for burial in the States. I'm damned lucky that our media center fields the press. They keep calling for interviews and so on."

"Right, but it's more than that, Ally says. She said he used to be so hyper and excited that he'd wear people out just by looking at him. That he would talk constantly, about anything and everything, and be involved in so many projects people weren't sure whether or not he was quite human to have that much energy. She says nowadays, he attends classes or teaches them - he's a teaching fellow, remember? - and helps out on a few projects and mainly keeps to himself otherwise. Doesn't go out much, hardly ever dates - she said that was really odd - and is quiet a lot of the time - which has people worried, according to her. She said he told her that Blair had been advised to go for counseling sessions at least fifteen times in the first two months alone!"

"Rock ... I know you mean well, but drop it, okay? I know he's missing me. Just like I'm missing him. And ... it might not be a problem for much longer," Ellison said quietly.

That got the captain's attention. "Oh? Why's that?"

"I was just coming back from a meeting with Colonel Sullivan. He said it was obvious that burnout was catching up with me. He's put me on leave for a couple of weeks; told me to go out and get some R & R and decide whether or not I really wanted to continue in the Army."

"Holy shit! He said that? But you've done your duty each time we've been sent out-"

"Yes. He said my record of service was exemplary, but it was clear that I'm unraveling. My 'dispiritedness' is becoming really obvious. So he wants me to get my head straightened out before I crash and burn."

"Huh. So, what are you going to do?" Rock asked.

Jim was silent for a long time, then gave a short laugh. Draining the last of his coffee, he said, "It's kind of surprising, really. Since I was a teenager, I knew that I wanted to be career Army. That was it; just into the Army and fight, fight, fight, fight, fight, die. Never really thought of being anything else. But you know? In college, I minored in economics and business, among a few other things. I would make a good businessman. My father ... he's a born businessman. And arrogant, too. He's got enough arrogance to choke a horse. So I'm figuring that I might go into business and give him a little competition. I'm not exactly a poor man, Rock. I inherited a trust fund when I was twenty-five and I've barely touched it. And then there was the backpay from that first mission to Peru, and my savings have really built up. I could easily go into business and make a killing there. And I could put the profits to good use."

"What kind of business?" Rock wanted to know.

"I dunno. Haven't thought that far, yet. I'm gonna call my father, let him know about all this, and see what his reaction is. It's be good for the old man to get a boot in the ass and wake him out of his complacency," Jim said with a wicked grin.

"Hah! Knowing you, he's going to have a size 11 shit-stomper so far up his butt that he'll have to drop his pants to say hello."

Jim howled with laughter, then, at the image of kicking his father's ass so hard that his tailbone was up between his shoulder blades.

Rock joined in, pleased that he'd gotten the Lt. Col. to unwind enough to belly laugh.

****

Blair answered the intercom and when he heard Ally identify herself, he got up and opened the door to the warehouse. He immediately fell back a few steps, his arms automatically wrapping around her, when she leaped inside and hugged him hard. "Ally! Whoa, girl! What the hell...?"

"Blair! Blair! Look!" she squealed, and held her left hand up in front of his face.

He blinked, then pushed her hand back far enough so he could see clearly, then grinned widely. "Rock got serious, huh?"

She beamed, hugging him again so hard that he oofed! and fought to loosen her arms so he could breathe. "Yep! Decided to make an Army wife out of me!"

"Shouldn't that be 'decent woman'?" Blair teased.

"There's no fun in that," she teased back, then let him go so he could shut the door. Following him into his living space, she added, "Guess what else?"

"I'm almost afraid to; I don't think my ribs can take it," he muttered.

"Jim is going to be his best man!"

Blair froze in his tracks. Finally, he turned to look at her. "What?"

"I said, Jim is going to be his best man at the wedding. And you know you're invited! I'd make you one of my bridesmaids if I could get away with it-"

"If you even try putting me in a dress, that wedding day will never arrive," Blair growled threateningly.

"Spoilsport. Anyway, since my folks are dead ... I was wondering, would you give me away?" Ally asked with a shy grin.

Sandburg felt his heart melt and he sighed. "Of course I will. But don't you think Professor Buckner..."

"No. He's a nice guy, Blair, but we're not friendly enough for me to ask him to do that. You and I are, though. So, you sure you wanna give me away?"

"I've been trying to for years and yet you keep coming back," he teased, then ducked the playful whap she aimed for his head.

"Yeah, well, this time Rock gets to keep me. Okay, then! The wedding is in two months, June 10th. It'll be held at the Fort Lewis chapel. Either a suit, a tux, or an Army uniform, depending on which one you either feel better with or have to wear," she said with a grin.

"I don't have a suit."

"Guess that means you're renting a tux, then. That's fine with me; you look totally delicious in one anyway, with your hair pulled back. I've seen you, remember?"

"Yeah, but-"

"Blair, if it's a matter of money, you know I'll give it as a gift."

"It's not money. It's..."

"Jim. Him, being there. When you haven't seen or heard from him in so long."

"Yeah."

She sighed. "Blair, I'm sorry. I don't know what to do. If you really don't want to be there; if it will be too difficult for you-"

He turned to her and wrapped her up in a hug. Pulling back, he grinned at her. "Hush up, Ally. I'll be there with bells on, and you know it. No way I'd miss an event like this!"

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. I don't want to explain to a hospital surgeon why some crazy woman wearing a wedding dress tracked me down and crammed her bridal bouquet where the sun don't shine. I'd probably be told that I deserve it for being so stupid!" he laughed.

She snorted. "Funny, shorty."

Blair grinned. "Yeah, I thought so. So ... June 10th? Great. I'll have enough time to get money saved up for the tux and a few other things. Just don't forget to invite me to the rehearsal, okay?"

"Hah! As if!"

"Really? You wouldn't believe the interesting story Daphne told me about how you helped her with her wedding..."

The teasing went on from there, but always in the back of Blair's mind was the nervous thought of seeing Jim Ellison again.

****

TWO MONTHS LATER

Jim sighed as he looked around the neighborhood that housed Blair's warehouse home. Lord, what a dump. And someone like Sandburg lives here? What is that kid thinking?

Shaking his head, he walked up the steps leading to the door and pressed the intercom. He waited for a few moments, then pressed again. A moment later, a buzz came back and a voice crackled out of the speaker. "Hello! May I help you?"

"Chief? It's me ... Jim. Jim Ellison."

There was dead silence for a long, long moment, and then Blair spoke again just as Jim was starting to get truly nervous. "Uh ... yeah. Um, hi. Okay, hold on and I'll let you in."

The intercom clicked off and then Jim heard the faint buzz of whatever security system was in place shut off. Footsteps inside drew closer and then locks turned in the door. A few seconds later, it was open and Jim was looking down at the younger man for the first time in months. Smiling somewhat sheepishly, he said, "Ah, hi, Chief. May I come in?"

Blair nodded and stepped back, inviting the sentinel inside.

Once Ellison had stepped in and walked away a few feet, Blair shut the door and re-locked it, then turned and walked past the larger man, leading the way deeper into the warehouse. When he reached the end table by the couch, he flipped a couple of switches and Jim heard the buzz of the security system click on again. Looking around, Jim noted that the warehouse was big and drafty, with only a small section occupied by Blair. He was about to comment on the haphazard arrangement of clothes and furniture when there was a loud snap, a chilling squeak of pain, and then scurrying in the darkened corners. "What was that? Mice?"

Blair grinned and shook his head, his blue eyes dancing behind his glasses. "No, definitely not mice. Rats. Mice are like cute and small, but these ... these!" He held his hands about two feet apart and grimaced.

"How can you live like this?" Jim demanded.

"Where else am I going to find 10,000 sq. ft. for only $850 a month?" Blair countered.

They stood in silence, simply looking at each other, and then the younger man gestured at the clothing the sentinel wore. "You're out of uniform."

Jim blinked, looked down at his jeans and T-shirt and light jacket, nodded. "Yeah. Well, that's part of what I came to see you about."

"Oh?"

Jim nodded.

"Huh. You want anything to drink?"

"Beer, if you got it," the older man replied.

"They're in the fridge, man; help yourself," Blair said with a grin, gesturing at the old model fridge humming not so quietly in the kitchen area along the wall.

Ellison gave the younger man a smirky grin, then moved to get one for himself. "You want one?" he called back.

"Sure; thanks."

Bringing the beer back over to the couch, he settled down on one side of the sofa while Blair took the other, handing the student a bottle. Once they were uncapped and a healthy swig had been taken from each, Jim cleared his throat and sighed. Finally, taking a deep breath, he began.

"Well, Chief, I've had a long time to think of things. Mainly about the two of us. Now, before I go any farther, let me say this: I have a difficult time talking and getting my feelings out in the open. If you'll bear with me, I'll say what I'm getting at eventually; just give me time, okay?"

"Okay," Sandburg said with a nod.

"All right. So, I've been thinking for these past few months about us. About how I'm missing you so much it really doesn't make sense, considering how briefly we were together. But I'm missing you like I'd miss some vital body part that I depended on for functioning one hundred percent. And I know you've been missing me, Chief. I've been keeping updated on you."

"Rock."

"Yeah. He trades information back and forth between us pretty good, I'm guessing. But here's what I'm getting at. Before we left the village, Incacha warned me to not attempt living without you. That you're my guide and no one else, and it would hurt us both - maybe even kill us - if we were separated from each other. Especially after we ... made love."

Blair smiled, a soft, teasing smile. "Bet that killed you to use such a romantic phrase," he said quietly, gesturing at the sentinel's slightly pink face.

Ellison glared at the younger man. "Okay, after we both fucked raw, happy now?"

"Well, you needn't be so vulgar..."

"Shut up, Sandburg. I'm trying to get a point across here," Jim growled, irritated.

Hiding a smile behind his beer bottle, Blair gestured for the older man to continue.

"Okay, so he warned me, but I didn't take it too seriously. Claimed that it would have to be like this because I'm Army and you're not and that's the way it would be. He asked if I would always be in the Army. At the time, I was very, very sure."

Blair blinked, startled. He sat up straighter on the sofa, a worried frown crossing his face. "You're saying you're not in the Army anymore?"

Jim shrugged and glanced away. "I haven't resigned yet, but after Rock and Ally's wedding in a week, I'll leave. And you know what? I'm not upset about it. It's my choice and it was made because of lots of factors, not just the fact that I'm missing my guide and ... hopefully, my partner."

Sitting back, Blair pondered that. "Huh. What factors?"

"Well, I was getting a serious case of burn out. I'd do my work, go on missions, but I was losing interest seriously. I dunno, maybe I've had all the death and dying I can take for a while. But it became really obvious that I was - am - very tired, and I would like to do something different with my life, now. So, I called my old man."

"You what? I thought you said they didn't care!" Blair said, shocked.

Jim shrugged again, then grinned. "Turns out I was wrong. At least, sort of. Ahhh, I dunno. Anyway, my old man is a businessman. Maybe you've heard of Ellison Enterprises?"

Blair nodded. "Yeah! They're a world-wise company and one of the first to work with the indigenous peoples in some of their foreign plants rather than mow right over them ... holy shit. You're saying that your father is...?"

"The CEO of that corporation. Yeah. Anyway, I told him I was thinking about leaving the Army and going into business for myself. That he could use the competition. He blew his cork, but we actually got to talking - although it did turn into a shouting match on more than a few occasions - and he admitted that he was glad to see me again. I don't really want to talk about the whole thing right now, Chief, I'm sorry. A lot of it is personal and I'm still having trouble believing it..."

"No, no, man. That's all right, I understand. Keep going? Please?" Blair asked softly.

Jim trembled slightly at the soft, pleading look in those blue eyes and that luscious mouth, but nodded and kept going. "Anyway, it finally boiled down to the fact that I had no need to go into business against my father because he's planning to retire anyway. Since I have a business degree from college, I'll know what I'm doing. Dad would like it very much if I joined up with Steven, my younger brother, to be co-CEOs of the company. I've agreed. All the paperwork is being done up by both Ellison Enterprises - for when I take over, with Steven - and the Army, for when I leave. I'm not exactly a poor man, Chief. I've got some back pay from that first stint in Peru, following the crash and the loss of my team. And my savings are built up. And now being a CEO ... well, I'm well off."

"What are you getting at, Jim?" Blair asked quietly.

"I told my father that there is someone I love very much who I plan on asking to become a big part of my life. I told him that person is a man ... you. He took it better than I thought he would. Apparently, he's had a few wild flings in his own youth as a bisexual man. Let me tell you, that was a complete surprise to me. I never in my life would have thought my father was anything other than straight. Anyway, what I'm getting at is, I would be honored and privileged beyond words - and utterly grateful, being the romantic sap that I am - if you would be my life-partner? Live with me? Help me in some aspects of the company?"

"Why?"

Jim blinked. "Why? Well ... because you're an anthropologist, that's why! You know so much about people and places ... I figure you can easily help out with the environmental corps in the company and come up with how many creative new ideas and programs about just about anything. I mean, I know how smart you are-"

"You couldn't know that unless you had me checked out by running a search through your Army computers or by having Rock do a little snooping, you couldn't know that! All we talked about in Peru was mainly the sentinel stuff and me apologizing for being a total ass!" Blair commented.

"It ... ah ... was a bit of both, actually," Jim replied.

"The search thing and Rock?"

"Uh-huh."

"Damn." Blair was silent for a long moment, then finally sighed. "Okay. But that's not the 'why' I was talking about. I meant, why do you want me to be your life-partner? Because I'm your guide?"

"Partly. But it's more than just that, Blair." Jim scooted closer on the sofa and held the younger man's eyes with his own for many seconds. "It's the way I feel about you. I fell in love with you, Blair. Back in Peru and it's only gotten stronger these last few months. Yeah, Rock has helped me out as a guide and done a good enough job that he could be my guide permanently, but I want you. I want you near me constantly. Whether you're my guide or not has nothing to do with it, really; I love you, Blair Sandburg. I want you to be mine and live with me. I'll be yours, too, you know." That last was added with a somewhat shy grin.

Blair was silent for a long moment, then slowly smiled. "I don't want to be a kept man. I'm working on my doctorate."

"I heard, but come on, why waste your time on that dry topic of American social structures when you could write on your favorite topic of sentinels?" Jim bated him.

Sandburg blinked. "Excuse me?"

"Uh-huh."

"Uh, Jim, no. I couldn't. I don't see how, not without exposing you and that would be dangerous-"

"Dangerous for Jim Ellison, yes; for Enqueri, though, it's a different story entirely." A wicked smile on his face, the sentinel snickered. "Hear me out. One of the things I wanted to tell you is that Ellison Enterprises is getting ready to open up a new plant down in Peru, near Lima. The name Enqueri is not known by anyone except the men from my team who were down there and the Chopec. Before we left, it was made clear to all of them that Enqueri must never be revealed to anyone else because of my gifts. So, the name has remained silent. When I take over the Enterprises with Steven, I'm going to head down there to oversee the plant production personally. Who better than me, right? If you're my life partner, I can take you with me and while you're down there, you can 'meet' Enqueri and write about him and give that to your dissertation committee to chew on, sadly explaining how not long after, 'Enqueri' was killed because of an accident during a zone-out. I'll ask the Chopec to give 'Enqueri' a funeral and give me a new name. They'll do it, as they'll understand the need for it. So you can get your information about sentinels and still leave out anything leading to me."

"That sounds really unethical, that does," Blair said. Then he grinned. "But it's a damned good plan. I can see why you made it to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel already!"

"So, you'll agree? Move in with me? Share my life?" Jim asked, feeling his stomach knot with nervousness he wasn't at all sure he could bear up under.

Smiling, Blair scooted closer and wrapped his arms around his sentinel's neck. "Of course I will. I love you, too."

Grinning widely, Jim hugged his guide to him tightly for a long while. Then he pulled back and began kissing the younger man softly. Between kisses, he whispered, "Are you aware of the fact that Incacha is a shaman?"

"Um, yes, had noticed that," Blair replied a bit distractedly as he began working at Jim's belt, trying to loosen it.

"That means he can officiate at wedding ceremonies among the Chopec. And they have no laws against same-sex marriages," Jim said softly as he slid his hands under the T-shirt Blair wore.

Sandburg went still and they pulled back enough to clearly see into each other's eyes.

"Are you ... asking me to marry you, Jim?" the guide asked quietly.

Jim nodded. "Yeah. I don't want anything less. I know the marriage won't ever be recognized in America - other than Hawaii, that is - but I want you to be my partner in everything, Chief. And I'd like to make it official."

"My God. So much, so quickly, when we haven't seen each other in so long..." Blair moaned.

"But we never stopped loving each other, did we, baby? Or stop thinking of the other?" Jim prompted, moving to pull the shirt off his lover's body.

"No, never," Sandburg swore fervently.

"Then is it a problem?"

"No. I want to marry you, Jim Ellison."

"Good, because I want to marry you, Blair Sandburg."

Grinning at each other, they then devoted all their attention to their lovemaking, knowing that they had months of loneliness to make up for and plenty of time now to do it in. Everything else would take care of itself, now that Sentinel and Guide were together again, for good.

THE END

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Acknowledgements: Dedications: To Alyjude, for kicking my ass. =) To Bluewolf for helping me when I was lost and stupid (pretty much a round-the-clock job.) To Lisa for getting me in on this, and to everyone who has ever liked my work. And of course, to my listsibs and my other three ladies: CatMoran, Patt Rose, and Mary Shukes. Thank you, all.

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