Redhawke.org
Flight
Flight
By Vision

Beta Read by: Gemini
Written for PetFly by: Gail Morgan Hickman
Rated PG

~~~~~~~~~~ Act I ~~~~~~~~~~


Jim stared at the stack of files on his desk, silently wishing that they would magically disappear. Blair had been gone most of the morning, leaving him with a huge stack of paperwork to complete by the end of the day. Jim's eyes drifted to Simon's closed office door, his mind wandering from his arduous task to the conversation that he and Simon had exchanged last week. He remembered every detail of their meeting, almost as if it had happened just a few moments ago. He could still see the captain's smiling face as Simon told him about the trip to Peru that he and Daryl were planning.

Jim shifted in his seat as a sudden shiver worked its way along his spine. Of all places on earth, why did the anti-narcotics conference have to be in Peru? Clearing his throat, Jim turned his attention back to the files on his desk. Snatching one off the top of the pile, Jim began perusing the first page of the file. He knew that his reactions to Simon's trip were way off base, but something deep inside him seemed to scream a warning in his mind.

"Jim, can I see you in my office, please?"

Please? This was definitely something big. Jim couldn't ever remember Simon using that word when summoning anyone into his office. "Be right there, sir."

Jim closed the file, neatly stacking it on top of the pile. He could feel a number of eyes watching him as he made his way across the bullpen to Simon's office. Obviously he was not the only one who had noticed Simon's strange behavior. Lightly tapping on the door, Jim waited for an invitation before entering the room. Simon sat behind his desk, an unreadable expression on his face. Jim seated himself in the chair closest to the door, just in case he felt the urge to leave.

"You wanted to see me, sir?"

"Jim, I have something important to tell you."

The tension in the air grew thicker as Jim waited for his captain to continue.

"The mayor was here early this morning. It seems he has some business he'd like to discuss with you."

Shrugging his shoulders, Jim tried to think of a logical explanation as to why Mayor Daniels would want to speak to him. "What kind of business?"

"You can relax, Jim, there's nothing wrong, quite the contrary actually. Mayor Daniels is quite impressed with your work."

"Really? He could have fooled me."

Simon barely broke a smile as he shifted a file folder across the desk towards Jim. "I think you should read this."

Jim took a few moments to read the contents of the file, shaking his head as he scanned the words on the page. "What’s this got to do with me?"

"You’ve been offered a job with the mayor’s office."

"Excuse me? You’re kidding, right? I mean, Daniels and I aren’t exactly friends, if you know what I mean."

"He’s specifically asked for you. He wants to meet with you later this week. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Jim."

"Sounds like you’re trying to get rid of me," Jim joked, tossing the folder on the desk.

Leaning forward in his chair, Simon tapped the edge of the folder with his index finger. "You’re the best detective in this precinct, but you’re also my friend. Just think about it, okay?"

"I don’t think…"

"Just meet with the man, hear him out." Simon pushed the folder back across the desk towards Jim.

"Whatever you say, Simon," Jim muttered, snatching the folder from the desktop and shoving it under his arm. "You can come in now, Sandburg," Jim raised the volume of his voice so as to be heard through the closed door.

Joining the two men in the room, Blair closed the door behind him. "I hate when you do that."

"Do what?" Jim asked, suppressing a grin.

"Know what I’m doing before I do it."

"If you two gentlemen are finished, I have a few last-minute things that I need to do before my son shows up."

Brushing past Blair, Simon exited the room, closely followed by Jim and Blair.

"When you’re in Peru you’ve got to go to Cusco and see the remains of the Temple of the Sun. It’s 400 miles from Lima – absolutely beautiful. And of course, you’ve got to go to Machu Picchu, the lost ancient city. And if you go north from there…"

Stopping in mid-step, Simon held up a hand to ward off any further suggestions from the overzealous anthropologist. "Sandburg, I’m only going to be in Lima for three days. Most of my time will be spent at the anti-narcotics conference."

"I’m surprised you’re still thinking of taking Daryl," Jim added, avoiding Simon’s eyes.

"I thought we had this discussion, Jim? The government has virtually won the war against the guerrillas. I thought you of all people would know that."

Shifting his feet nervously, Jim nodded weakly. "Right. I’m just concerned, that’s all."

"You okay?" Blair asked, noting Jim’s nervous movements.

"Fine. So I take it you’ve booked the 'copter for that little fishing trip?"

Blair couldn’t believe his ears. Simon was taking his son to one of the most culturally stimulating places on earth, and he was planning to go fishing.

"Ever since the divorce, Daryl’s been having a real rough time. The fishing trip will give us a chance to get to know one another better."

As if on cue, Daryl strode into the bullpen, a somber expression on his face.

"Hey, there’s the man now," Blair exclaimed in his usual energetic manner.

Eyeing the three men, Daryl made his way towards them.

"Hey, Daryl, pumped about going to Peru?" Jim questioned, hoping to lighten the boy’s mood.

"Keeps me out of school, anyway."

Throwing an arm around his son’s shoulders, Simon smiled. "Not quite. I’ve talked to all your teachers and gotten your homework assignments. You’ll have plenty to do."

Shrugging off his father’s arm, Daryl rolled his eyes dramatically. "Oh, man."

Taking a slip of paper from his pocket, Simon handed it to Jim. The name and address of where Simon and Daryl were staying were neatly written on the small sheet.

After they said their good-byes, Jim watched as father and son made their way towards the elevator. Folding the piece of paper that Simon had given him, Jim carefully tucked it into the breast pocket of his jacket. The file folder still firmly tucked under his armpit, Jim made his way towards his desk. Quickly shoving the folder in his desk drawer, Jim’s head snapped up at the sound of his name.

"Hey, Jim, phone. It’s Mayor Daniels' office."

Jim hadn’t even noticed that Blair had approached his desk, or that the phone right beside him had begun to ring. Blair held out the receiver, scrutinizing Jim with his gaze. Taking it from his hand, Jim proceeded to cover the mouthpiece with his hand. "Do you mind?" Jim asked, giving Blair one of his patented glares.

"Sure, man, I’ll just go borrow some of Simon’s coffee."

"Just don’t leave any fingerprints," Jim joked, waiting for Sandburg to be out of earshot before answering the phone. "Ellison."

"Detective Ellison, this is Kathy Dwyer, Mayor Daniels' secretary. Mayor Daniels would like to meet with you sometime this week."

Jim smiled to himself at the professional manner in which Kathy handled herself in public. They had met a number of years ago at a political function, and had dated a few times. Jim could hear the slight edge of teasing in her voice as she tried to keep the call as professional as possible.

"Well, Ms. Dwyer, I think that can be arranged. Of course, I’d much rather see you than your boss."

Clearing her voice, Kathy continued, "How’s Wednesday for you?"

"Wednesday morning is fine."

"We’ll see you around ten."

"Right."

Jim hung up the phone just as Blair returned with two cups of steaming liquid.

"I leveled out the bag so Simon wouldn’t notice."

"You’re crazy, Sandburg. We’re talking about Simon here; he’s gonna notice."

Taking a sip of the coffee, Blair closed his eyes in appreciation of the rich, strong brew. Leaning his hip on the edge of Jim’s desk, Blair waited patiently for Jim to look up from where he had seated himself in front of the computer. Jim hit a few keys, trying to ignore the two piercing blue eyes that threatened to bore a hole in his head.

"What is it, Chief?"

Blair sighed in exasperation, shifting his body to lean in closer to Jim. "What did Mayor Daniels want?"

"Oh, that. Nothing, it was his secretary, Kathy Dwyer."

"Is there something you’re not telling me?" Raising his eyebrows playfully, Blair blew a kiss in Jim’s direction.

"Cut it out." Jim laughed, leaning back in his chair. "She’s a friend."

"Sure, man, whatever you say. Look, I’m gonna head back to the loft. You gonna drop by later on?"

"Yeah, I’ll see you later."

"Okay."

Blair downed the rest of his coffee quickly, waved a hand in Jim’s direction, and hurried towards the elevator.

~~~~~~~~

Simon turned his gaze skyward, thanking the heavens for sparing him and his son from the same fate that had befallen his friend, Jim Ellison, several years before. His thoughts drifted to similar situation that Jim had been faced with so many years ago. He remembered news stories of how Jim's team had plunged to their death in this very jungle, and how Ellison had been the lone survivor of his unit. He watched as Daryl absently studied the pilot of the downed helicopter, the young boy shaking his head in disgust at his present situation.

"Man, this really sucks. Three days in Lima, and all I do is go to museums and do homework. Now, look. Now I'm stuck in the middle of a jungle a zillion miles from nowhere. I'd rather be in school."

Simon was still reeling from the brush with death that he and Daryl had just averted, and was in no mood for his son’s sarcastic comments. "I didn’t plan for the helicopter to break down. As soon as he gets it fixed, we’ll be on our way."

Simon turned his attention back to the pilot, hoping to inquire about the status of the 'copter. He was relieved to find out that the damage was minimal, and that they would be on their way in a matter of a few minutes. Daryl had been pacing impatiently behind him, muttering words about fathers and fishing trips under his breath. Simon turned, expecting to see Daryl’s sullen face right behind him. Instead, he found only the lush greenery of the jungle. Wandering away from the pilot, Simon began to search the area for his son.

"Daryl." Simon moved through the dense undergrowth calling the boy’s name as he made his way to a small river.

Daryl called to his father, motioning with his hand for him to join him.

"Boy, how many times do I have to tell you not to go wandering off?" Simon bellowed, moving to stand by his side.

"I just wanted to have a look around."

"Yeah? You should have brought your pole." Simon stared into the eyes of his son, suddenly regretting his earlier outburst. So much of the world was still so new to Daryl, and in some ways, Simon wished that he could look at humanity in the same trusting manner that his son did. "Look. I’m sorry about all this, Daryl."

"Nah, that’s okay, Dad."

"No, it’s not okay. I want to spend time with you, and I planned this whole trip and never once asked you what you wanted to do. I guess I haven’t been listening very well, have I?"

The distant sound of a helicopter starting caused both men to look skyward. As the helicopter flew overhead, the two men watched in horror as a missile was fired into the air, catching the 'copter in mid-flight. The helicopter exploded, a fiery cloud of metal raining down on the jungle floor.

Grabbing his son’s arm, Simon ran for cover.

"Let’s get out of here. Go!"

~~~~~~~~

Jim paused outside the office door, taking a moment to straighten his tie and steady his nerves. He hated meetings like this, especially meetings that involved him personally. He wished that Simon had been around in the last three days to provide some sort of support system for his doubts and questions. He had thought about telling Sandburg about his meeting with Mayor Daniels, but soon thought better of it. There was no reason to involve Sandburg unless it was absolutely necessary.

Jim had spent most of last night reading and re-reading the fine points of the job offer that Mayor Daniels had dropped in his lap. He had to admit, the job itself was what every police officer dreamed of: a six-figure salary, a nine-to-five job, benefit package, and retirement benefits. It was an incredibly impressive package that left little to be desired. Although the job perks did seem rather tempting, it was the actual focus of the job that appealed to him even more.

Gripping the doorknob, Jim forced his feet into action. He smiled as he entered the room, catching the attention of the woman behind the big oak desk.

"Detective Ellison, how nice to see you again."

Standing, the woman extended her hand, a bright smile adorning her features.

"Ms. Dwyer, it’s good to see you, too."

Looking around the room to be sure that no one was watching, Jim kissed her hand lightly, grinning at her sharp intake of breath.

"Mayor Daniels is waiting for you. I’ll let him know you’re here."

Quickly pulling her hand from his grasp, Kathy pressed the intercom button on her desk. "Detective Ellison is here to see you, sir."

"Send him in," a muffled voice sounded from the intercom speaker.

Clearing her throat, Kathy looked nervously into Jim’s eyes. "You can go in."

Leaning over the desk towards her, Jim whispered, "Remind me again why we broke up?"

Keeping her voice at a stage whisper, Kathy added, "Conflict of interest. You and my cousin don’t exactly see eye-to-eye."

"Maybe I can change that," Jim added with a wink.

Jim strolled away, pausing to give her a warm smile before entering the large double-door office.

It was true; Mayor Paul Daniels and Detective Jim Ellison had never quite seen things in the same light. And yet they seemed to have found common ground in the makings of an elite anti-drug operation that would hopefully clean up the streets of Cascade.

After shaking hands with the mayor, Jim seated himself in one of the high-back chairs, wondering for a brief moment what it would be like to sit on the other side of the desk for a change. He had always been on the receiving end of orders, never the one truly responsible for the workings of an intricate, life-changing organization. In the minutes that followed, Jim found himself engrossed in the mayor’s words, quickly forgetting any negative feelings that he harbored about this man.

The job was quite simple. Jim would lead a team of hand-picked undercover officers in the fight against drugs. A dummy corporation going by the code name "Euphoria" would be set in place in order to trap potential drug dealers and smugglers. A fake lab would be set up, and police officers impersonating pushers and users would be strategically placed within the community. Jim couldn’t help but be impressed by the offer, and for the first time in his career, he was beginning to have second thoughts about his current employment. Only one nagging thought seemed to cast a shadow on this silver-lined cloud. This job, the job of a lifetime, did not include Sandburg….

"I’ll need your answer as soon as possible. I’m anxious to get this operation under way."

Nodding, Jim stood, gripping the mayor’s hand in a firm handshake. "I understand, sir."

"I know we’ve had our differences, Detective, but quite honestly, I need a man like you heading this team. Given your background in Vice, your military training, and your exemplary record with the PD, I know I’m making the right choice."

"Thank you, sir."

"I’ll be waiting to hear from you."

~~~~~~~~

Twenty minutes later, Jim entered the loft, tossing his keys in the basket, and heading for the kitchen. Reaching for the still-warm coffee pot, Jim listened to Blair’s side of a phone conversation.

"That’s terrific. Thanks a lot. Absolutely. No, no --thank you. Thank you so much. I’ll get back to you, okay? Bye bye."

Jim smiled at his friend’s obvious enthusiasm, watching with amusement as Blair bounced around the kitchen area, his arms waving wildly.

"Do you know who that was? Dr. Eli Stoddard’s secretary."

"And who’s that?" Jim asked, taking a sip of his coffee.

"Eli Stoddard -- one of the greatest living anthropologists, and just happens to be my mentor -- got funding for an expedition to Borneo to study the effects of modern civilization and what it’s done to the indigenous people that live there. And he asked me to go with him."

Jim felt genuinely happy for Blair, knowing that recognition for his studies was few and far between. "Congratulations. You going to do it?"

"I told him I needed to think about it."

"What’s to think about? Go."

Blair hesitated, surprised at Jim’s willingness to let him go. "You really think I should?"

"You kidding me? A couple of weeks in Borneo sounds like a blast."

*It’ll give me time to decide if I really want this job that Mayor Daniels is offering. Might be a good test to see how I can manage alone.*

"Jim, we’re not talking about a couple of weeks here. I mean, this kind of study involves a major commitment of time. At least… a year."

The coffee mug in Jim’s hand shook as he fought to gain control. The thought of losing Blair suddenly became very real. He could see the eagerness and confusion in the young man’s eyes, and felt the need to look away. "A year? What about, you know, our project -- this, uh, sentinel thing?"

"Jim, I know, but … but this kind of opportunity."

No longer able to stay in the same room as Blair, Jim brushed past him, intending to head upstairs to change. "Then you should do it," Jim stammered, pulling at his tie to hopefully alleviate the sudden feeling of lightheadedness that washed over him.

"Are you upset?"

"No."

Any further discussion was drowned out by the sound of the phone ringing. Blair moved to answer it, only to have Jim snatch the receiver away from him. Blair watched the play of emotions that crossed Jim’s face as he spoke to the individual on the other end of the phone. Seconds later, Jim hung up the phone, turning to face Sandburg.

"Simon’s helicopter went down somewhere in eastern Peru."

"Do they… do they know if there’s any survivors?" Blair stammered, almost afraid to hear Jim’s answer.

"They don’t even know where it went down. The pilot must have been off course."

The men exchanged worried glances, not sure of quite what to say. Jim broke the awkward silence, announcing that he was going upstairs to pack. Blair watched him leave, noting the hesitation in his movements. All thoughts of Borneo forgotten, Blair hurried to his own room to toss a few items into a bag.

Dropping to sit on the edge of his bed, Jim took a moment to gather his thoughts. His body tingled with some kind of bizarre sensation that he had never experienced before. A feeling of weakness pulled at his muscles, a fog-tinged mist settling in his mind. A low growl sounded in his ears, causing him to jerk his body towards the head of the bed. Shaking his head, he tried to clear the image of a black, animal-like form that flashed before his eyes.

*Simon needs you!*

The words were spoken to him, forcing him to block out any other thoughts or fears that plagued his mind. Gathering up his supplies, Jim shoved the necessary items into a duffle bag and hurried down the stairs. He was surprised to meet Sandburg, bag in hand, waiting for him by the front door. Part of Jim was angry at the young man for wanting to follow him, but the other part begged to have him at his side.

~~~~~~~~

Simon searched the remains of the helicopter, instructing Daryl to look for any objects that might be of use to them in their fight for survival. He watched his son carefully, trying to reassure him with his presence that things would be all right. Noting the shocked expression on the boy’s face when he saw the dead pilot, Simon moved to block the horrific image from his son’s eyes.

The sound of rifles being cocked forced the two men to abandon the helicopter. They ran, hoping to lose the men in the dense undergrowth of the jungle. Simon faltered, catching his foot on an exposed root. He went down hard, calling to Daryl to run and not to stop. Refusing to leave his father’s side, Daryl helped Simon to stand, and the two men hobbled another few feet before being totally surrounded by the soldiers.


~~~~~~~~~~ Act II~~~~~~~~~~

As the plane dipped lower, Jim stared out over the wide expanse of the jungle and tried to keep his thoughts focused on the here and now. A pang of fear stabbed him as the faces of his Army Ranger team lost in the helicopter crash several years before hovered before his eyes. Feeling the need to break free of the morbid thoughts, Jim turned his attention to Sandoval.

"I appreciate your arranging things, Captain Sandoval."

"It is the least I can do. Simon is a good man."

Nodding, Jim produced a map based on a military satellite photo of the area. "A friend at the Defense Department got me this. According to the Pentagon analysts, this is the remains of a jet ranger helicopter." Jim pointed to a relatively clear area on the map. "Here’s a point where we can land. It’s called the Almaguas Valley."

Turning in his seat, the pilot voiced his disapproval in Spanish. Jim and Blair listened to the heated discussion between the pilot and Sandoval, The arguing soon subsided and the pilot reluctantly agreed to land the plane in the designated area.

~~~~~~~~

Glancing around the rather primitive, yet functional camp, Simon tried to remain calm. The soldiers who had surrounded him and Daryl at the river were standing nearby, watching his every move. Producing his badge and identification from his pocket, Simon handed them to the man in charge.

"You’re an American policeman," the leader offered, studying the badge with keen interest.

"Yes."

"You’re a long way from home, Señor Banks."

"My son and I were on our way fishing. Our helicopter was shot down by some kind of rocket. Your men almost killed me and my boy."

Identifying himself as Carl Reischer from the Calvera Lumber Corporation, the man extended his hand in greeting. Simon hesitated, still wary of the possible threat that the man could hold for him and his son. After a few seconds, he accepted the outstretched hand, hoping to elicit some help from the stranger.

"I’d like to get a message to my friends in Lima," Simon urged, not wanting to expose Daryl to this type of situation any longer than necessary.

Carl agreed to help, telling Simon to leave a message with a man named Rosario. Carl excused himself, telling Simon that he had some business to take care of in the jungle. An uneasy feeling settled in Simon’s mind as he watched the man retreat into the hidden canopy of the jungle. *There’s definitely more to this place than meets the eye,* he thought.

~~~~~~~~

"So, Jim, how’s it feel to be back in the jungle, man?" Blair asked, trying to break the uncomfortable silence.

Looking up from the map, Jim quickly shifted his gaze away from his partner. "Got other things on my mind, Chief."

"It’s just that we’ll be near the area where you developed your heightened senses, right?"

"I got other things on my mind," Jim repeated, glad that any further discussion was cut off by the pilot’s voice.

"Señors! The valley."

Moving towards the open cabin door, Jim’s eyes swept the landscape below. Memories of his ill-fated trip to Peru drizzled along his senses. The smell of burnt flesh, the pain-ridden cries of his team, the taste of his own blood, and the horrific images of fellow soldiers dying in his arms, stole his breath away. A faraway voice accompanied by a light touch on his shoulder, brought him back from the impending zone out.

"You okay, Jim?"

"Fine," Jim lied, keeping his face turned away from Sandburg. "The crash site is at the north end of the valley." Jim pointed to a clearing just ahead of them.

"You want me to land in the clearing there? Impossible!"

The pilot and Sandoval exchanged heated words as Jim moved about the cabin gathering his gear.

"I haven’t got time for this. Do a fly-by and I’ll parachute in."

"Parachute?" The word stuck in Blair’s throat as he imagined what it would be like to jump out of a moving aircraft.

Sandoval shook his head. "How will you get back?"

"On foot if I have to. But I’m not leaving my friends."

"I doubt that they’re alive."

"Then I’ll bring back their bodies."

Blair felt a sudden rush of emotion as he listened to Jim’s words. He had no doubt in his mind that Jim would actually follow through with his plan. He pictured Jim trudging through the forest, dragging a makeshift stretcher made of tree limbs and branches behind him. It would be just like Jim to put the lives of others before his own, to protect the tribe no matter the consequences. Sentinel abilities aside, Blair respected Jim for who he was as a man.

Readying himself for the jump, Jim prepared himself mentally for the trip back into his past. He could feel Blair’s presence behind him, grounding him in a way that no other person had ever been able to do. Turning to give Blair a final glance, Jim was surprised to find him adjusting the straps on one of the parachutes.

"Sandburg, what the hell are you doing?"

"I used to go skydiving with a friend of mine. I was actually pretty good at it."

Shaking his head, Jim pressed his index finger into Blair’s chest. "This isn’t some weekend la-di-dah here, Chief. You come in wrong, you get hurt."

Gripping Jim’s wrist, Blair stared deeply into his partner’s eyes. "I’ll take my chances."

Jim hesitated for a moment, reading the depth of conviction in Blair’s eyes. "Then I guess I’ll see you on the ground."

Blair smiled, releasing Jim’s wrist and pointing to the ground below. "Walk in the park. Piece of cake, man."

Smiling, Jim gave Blair the thumbs up sign, and jumped out of the plane. Once Blair was left alone, the reality of the situation began to sink in.

"I can’t believe I’m doing this!" Blair yelled, to no one in particular.

"God be with you, señor."

"That’s great. Right now, I can use all the help I can get!"

Holding his breath, Blair closed his eyes and leaned slightly forward. The rush of air and the sudden loss of gravity shattered his calm demeanor.

"Oh… my… god! Jim! Jim! Jim, where you going? I don’t know how to steer this. I’ve only jumped tandem," Blair screamed, clutching the straps of the chute in white-knuckled fear.

"Sandburg!"

"Oh my god! Help me!"

Throwing his head back, Jim tried to console his frantic friend. "Pull on your right!"

"Help! I don’t know how to do this! I was just kidding! Don’t leave me," Blair screamed, his voice rising in terror.

"Sandburg! Pull on your right!"

"Jim, don’t lose me! Don’t lose me. Watch where I’m going! Come and get me, please. Help me!"

Blair stared wide-eyed as his feet connected with the top of a tree. Branches snapped under his weight as the 'chute snagged in the gnarled maze of limbs.

"Oh, great. Really great. Oh, please, please, please, please, please."

His eyes darted to the ground, estimating the gap between himself and the hard surface below. Pulling on one of the straps, Blair fell the short distance to the earth below. The momentum of the fall threw his body into a series of tumbles, ending at the bottom of a hill. Recovering quickly, Blair staggered to his feet, feeling a rather strange intrusion in his pants.

Jim appeared from the underbrush, eyeing his friend for possible injuries. The only visible sign of trauma seemed to be located near Blair’s privates. Jim smiled, doing his best to hide his amusement.

"There a problem, Chief?"

"Wait a minute, Jim. I’ve got something in my pants, man."

"How exciting."

Undoing his pants, Blair held up a lizard for Jim’s inspection. "Whoa! Oh my god. You see that thing?"

Jim’s head snapped to the right, as a low, throaty growl sounded in his ears. At the same moment, an image of a large black cat appeared in the distance.

"What is it? You all right, man? What is it?" Blair asked, baffled by Jim’s lack of response.

"Nothing. Let’s go."

~~~~~~~~

As he took a sip of coffee, Simon's thoughts drifted to his men back in Cascade. He wondered just how much information they had about his and Daryl's disappearance. He pictured their concerned faces, frowning at the thought that his colleagues were probably dealing with the fact that he was presumed dead.

"Any idea when we’ll be able to get back to Lima?"

Reischer smiled at the police captain, gesturing with his fork towards Daryl. "A helicopter is coming in the morning to pick you up. You can fly back with them."

Simon nodded, thanking Reischer for his kindness.

"Your message was to a Captain Sandoval of the Lima police?" Reischer asked, trying to keep his tone light.

"Well, yes, we were staying with him while I was at the anti-narcotics conference," Simon offered, not reading anything into the man’s words.

"Why do you cut down the trees?"

Simon tensed at the ferocity in his son’s tone. "Daryl…"

"It’s okay, Captain. I like curiosity; it’s an admirable trait. It’s my job, young Banks," Reischer answered casually, his eyes fixed on the young man.

The hair on Simon’s neck bristled as he listened to his son’s hasty judgments of the man who was to be their rescuer.

"Yeah, well, at the museum in Lima, they said over 800,000 acres of Peruvian rain forest are destroyed every year. And if it keeps up, there won't be any trees left at all."

Reischer met the young boy’s unwavering gaze, making a mental note to keep a close eye on the lad until he and his father were rescued in the morning. "You're right to be concerned, Daryl, but not all lumber companies are bad. The fact is, every time we cut down a tree, we replace it with two new ones. After all, if there aren't any trees left, my company would go out of business."

"What about the animals and the Indians who live in the places where you do cut down those trees? I mean, they've still lost their homes."

Reischer decided to put a stop to this line of questioning, hoping that his next few words would satisfy the overly curious lad. "If we stop harvesting trees, pretty soon we'll have no more wood for building houses or making paper or printing books. Now, what about that? Nobody wants to give up the things that make their life more comfortable. But don't worry. Wherever possible, we relocate the animals we displace. As for Indians, there aren't any in this area."

Reischer picked up his empty plate, signaling the end of the intrusive conversation. "I’m sure you both could use some rest. I’ll check back with you later." With a departing wave of his hand, Reischer disappeared through the doorway.

"Let’s try to remember that Carl Reischer is our ticket out of here, Daryl. I’d appreciate it if you left your attitude at home."

"But, Dad…"

"No ‘buts.’ From now on, I expect you to treat him with respect."

Father and son walked silently towards their own tent, both too exhausted to speak. Simon settled himself on a cot, almost immediately falling into a deep slumber. Daryl dropped down on the cot beside his father, but was unable to find a comfortable sleeping position. The events of the day plagued his thoughts, causing him to toss and turn on the small mattress. A strange sound, just outside the tent, grabbed his attention. Carefully making his way to the screened window of the tent, Daryl watched a group of Indians being led into some type of underground hideaway. Leaving his post by the window, Daryl moved to his father’s side, gently shaking his shoulder.

"Dad. Dad, wake up. Wake up!"

"What?"

"Wake up. It’s important."

Simon sat up on the cot, noting the urgency in his son’s voice. "What? Oh, Daryl?"

"Dad, look, Reischer said there were no Indians in this part of the jungle, but I saw some. They're holding them prisoner."

"Whoa, what are you talking about?"

Grabbing his father by the hand, Daryl pulled him towards the screened window. Moving the flap aside slightly, Daryl gestured toward the area where he had seen the men being led down the hidden stairway. "Look, look, Reischer's men took them to some kind of place. You got to come with me now."

"All right."

The two men peered through the entrance to the tent, checking to be sure that they were not being watched. Simon held Daryl’s hand loosely in his own, gesturing with his other hand for the boy to remain quiet. Eyeing a group of stacked crates just a few feet away, Simon folded his body into a crouched position and darted towards the safety of the wooden boxes. With slow, careful movements, the two men made their way to the area that Daryl had pointed to. Just as Daryl had predicted, Simon found what seemed to be an underground hatch. Lifting the lever, Simon and Daryl eased themselves down the rickety steps into the room below. Keeping themselves well hidden, they watched as a group of Indians and armed guards moved about the makeshift prison.

"What are they doing?" Daryl whispered.

Simon shuddered as he thought of the new dangers that he and his son now faced. "Making cocaine. They’re processing the leaves into paste. We got to get the hell out of here. Go."

They headed up the ladder, Daryl in the lead. They reached the top, only to be met by Rosario and another soldier.

"Going somewhere, Señor Banks?"

Simon gave Daryl a deadpan stare, hoping that the boy could read his mind and would remain quiet. "Look, why don’t you just leave the boy out of this?"

"Afraid not, Señor. As you Americans say, you have made your own bed."

The butt of the soldier’s gun pushed into Simon’s back, propelling him forward. Simon and Daryl were led towards the main part of the camp. Seizing a moment of opportunity, Simon turned on his captor, jostling the gun from his grip. Daryl grabbed the gun from Rosario’s holster and aimed the gun at the shocked man’s head.

Casting an anxious look at his son, Simon pulled the weapon from the boy’s hands, pocketed the clip, and gave Rosario back his gun.

"You get in the truck. We’re going for a little ride."

The three men entered the truck, Simon in the middle. "Remember, my gun’s going to be pointed right at your side."

"The men at the gate will want to know why we’re going out."

"Tell them we're driving to the helicopter crash site. I told you there was money on board. And don't you try anything. My son is the top student in his Spanish class. Remember, anything happens, you're the first one to be shot. Drive!"

Rosario complied, slowly moving the vehicle towards the gate, his eyes darting from the road ahead to the gun pressed against his side. Seizing a moment of opportunity, Rosario grabbed for the weapon, catching his captor off guard. Simon and Rosario fought for possession of the gun, their hands entwined in a merciless struggle for their lives. A single shot rang out, penetrating the windshield of the truck, showering shards of glass into the cab of the truck. The gun clattered to the ground, the truck veering in a zigzag pattern as the two men fought to gain control of the situation. Gripping the man by his shirt, Simon shoved him hard, causing him to topple against the doorframe. A quick, solid punch to Rosario’s face finally sent the man sprawling on his back through the open door.

Clutching the steering wheel, Simon cranked it to the left, barely missing a large tree blocking their path. Slamming his foot down on the accelerator, Simon prayed that he could get himself and Daryl to safety. The sound of gunfire tore through his thoughts, forcing him to duck his head in response.

"Keep your head down!" Simon yelled, grabbing his son by the shoulder and shoving him hard against the seat.

Suddenly, a loud noise erupted from under the truck, sending waves of fear through Simon’s mind. The truck lurched forward and upward, spiraling, and crashing, metal snapping and bending before his eyes. Throwing his body on top of his son’s, Simon did his best to shield the boy from the explosion.

The truck landed on its side, tossing the passengers into a heap against the driver’s side door. Simon gasped as a piece of jagged metal sliced into his upper thigh. Without thought for his own injury, Simon shoved Daryl away from him towards the broken window.

"Run! Daryl, get out of here."

"Dad…"

"No, I’m stuck. You get out of here."

"No!"

"I love you, son. Please…"

Simon’s softly spoken words hung in the air between the two men.

"Please, son. Just run."

With a final glance at his father, Daryl pushed away from the truck, and ran….



~~~~~~~~~~ Act III ~~~~~~~~~~

Jim sighed in exasperation as he walked the perimeter of the helicopter crash site for the fourth time. His mind swirled with questions and doubts, making it impossible to concentrate.

*"A once in a lifetime opportunity…."

"I mean, this kind of study involves a major commitment of time. At least… a year."

"On foot if I have to. But I’m not leaving my friends…."*

"Just take your time and concentrate," Blair’s voice coaxed, shaking Jim from his thoughts.

"I am concentrating. It just feels like my senses are... confused or something."

Running a nervous hand through his hair, Blair tried to think of a possible solution to the problem. "All right, close your eyes. Take a deep breath..."

Jim slammed his fist on the remains of the 'copter, "Look, I don’t have time for this, Sandburg."

"You want to find them or not? You got to work with me. Now close your eyes. Okay. Now don't push it. Just let it happen."

Jim closed his eyes, trying to focus his thoughts. He searched for his inner self, the core of his existence. Drawing in a slow, deep lungful of air, Jim waited expectantly for the surge of sensations to cover his body. There was no light sprinkling of humidity on his skin. The vivid landscape held no richness of color. His ears did not detect secrets of the earth. His mouth felt dry and parched amidst the wet greenery. The air around him held no aroma or odor, only the stale plainness that he had long forgotten.

"You getting anything?" Blair asked expectantly.

"No…."

"Damn. I don't understand this, man. Uh... okay, um... There's got to be an explanation for... maybe it was the parachute jump, the sudden change in air pressure. Or, uh... maybe it's the shock of being back in the jungle."

Jim’s body tensed as a shadowed figure of an animal moved, just off to his right. He watched it move, mesmerized by the silken, black fur and the piercing blue eyes. At any other time, he would have grabbed Blair’s arm and run, but for some reason, he knew that the panther meant him no harm.

"What's wrong? What is it?" Blair followed Jim’s gaze, but could see nothing. Jim shook his head, clearing the image from his mind.

"It’s nothing. Come on, Chief, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover before nightfall."

Blair stared at Jim’s back as he watched the older man trudge off into the jungle. He knew that there was more to these sensory episodes than Jim was willing to tell, and he was determined to find out what.

~~~~~~~~

Reischer delivered another hard blow to Simon’s face, causing the police captain to topple sideways in the chair.

"I want the truth!" Reischer yelled, quickly losing patience with the uncooperative man.

Rubbing a hand across his abused jaw bone, Simon nodded. "Okay, here it is. I'm with the D.E.A., working in cooperation with the Peruvian government. We had information there was a drug lab in this area so we decided to check it out. Shooting down the helicopter was a big mistake. By tomorrow, you'll be knee-deep in cops and soldiers. So if you had any sense at all, you'd let me walk out of here now."

Reischer leaned in closer to Simon’s face, the heat from his breath touching Simon’s cheek. "That's a nice story, but I don't think so. I think your arrival here was an accident."

Simon held his ground, refusing to be intimidated by the man’s interrogation tactics.

"If that was true, how did I know about the location of the drug lab?"

"I’m sure your son could tell us." Reischer turned, gesturing to Rosario. "Get him out of here. Put him to work with the others."

Rosario, who had remained quiet during the exchange, stepped forward, roughly grabbing Simon by the arm. "You want me to clean up his wound?"

‘No. Once we have the boy back, we’ll use daddy here as some leverage."

Simon could no longer contain his anger. "Leave the boy out of this! He has nothing to do with this."

"Ah, but he does, Señor Banks, and when I find him, and rest assured I will, you both will regret the day you came here."

Snapping his fingers, Reischer signaled for Rosario to remove the prisoner. A small smile appeared on Reischer’s face at the thought of having Banks and the boy safely in his grasp.

"Soon, Señor Banks, very soon…"

~~~~~~~~

Jim grabbed one of the blankets and tucked it around his shoulders. It was a cool, moonless night that seemed uncharacteristically cold for the jungle. He looked into the fire, lost in thought at the magnitude of the decisions and doubts that weighed heavily in his heart. Blair lay sprawled on his side, a notebook and pen resting close to his elbow.

"How are your senses doing, man?"

"I get momentary flashes and... then they're gone."

"All right. At least that's one thing. You haven't lost them completely. Look, when you were here five years ago and you first discovered your abilities, did anything like this ever happen?"

Jim thought for a moment, feeling somewhat angry with himself for not being able to recall more about his time in Peru.

"Not that I can remember."

"I don't know. Maybe it's something in the food or the water, or maybe, or maybe it’s something else."

Blair let the last of his words drop off, hoping that Jim would feel the desire to open up to him

"Let's just drop the scientific stuff, okay?" Jim snapped, not bothering to hide his growing anger.

"Jim, if we can find out the cause, maybe we can fix it. Maybe it’s something other than scientific. Maybe it’s something, you know, something that might be bugging you."

"So now you’re saying it’s psychological? Sandburg, let it go. Maybe we should just get some sleep, all right?"

Knowing that he had probably pushed the issue far enough, Blair decided to give Jim some breathing space. Experience had taught him that pressing Jim about his personal feelings never led to anything good.

"Whatever, man."

Drawing the blanket up around himself, Jim settled himself on his side, willing his mind to rest. The fiery embers danced and snapped, drawing his mind away from the day’s burdens, to the peace of slumber.

He drifted outside himself, in a blue-tinged world of shadows and distorted shapes. As his vision cleared, he became aware that he was alone. Struggling to a sitting position, Jim looked across the campfire to where his partner should be. Instead, the image of the panther stared at him, turning, and daring him to follow.

"Sandburg. Sandburg. Sandburg! Sandburg, where the hell are you?"

For the first time since he had met Blair, Jim felt utterly alone, stripped of his senses, lost from the one man who had brought him closer to his true self than anyone else ever had. He stood, afraid to move, afraid that his next step might lead him farther away, or closer to, whatever fears lay hidden in his mind. A twig snapped behind him, and before he could react, he was face-to-face with the shining eyes of the panther. Throwing his hands in the air he tried to protect himself from the beast as it leapt towards him. He screamed, as the animal pushed him with such force that he fell backwards onto the cold ground.

Jim’s eyes snapped open, his heart racing from the nightmare. He could see Blair clearly by the light of the fire, his chest rising and falling in the rhythm of sleep. Jim spent the rest of the night watching over the young man, afraid to lose sight of him even for a moment.

As the first light of day awakened the jungle, Jim gently roused his partner from his slumber.

"Hey, Jim," Blair remarked drowsily. "You sleep okay? I thought I heard you up once or twice."

"Fine. I slept fine. We better head out."

The two men hastened to gather up the supplies, and were on their way in a matter of minutes. Before long, they stumbled upon a small village, seemingly deserted.

"Looks like an Indian village."

"You stay here," Jim cautioned, pinning Blair with an intense glare.

Jim concentrated on his surroundings, frustrated by his inability to use his senses to scout the area. Rounding the corner of a tent, he was totally unprepared for what happened next. A large piece of board connected soundly with his head, sending him staggering backwards. He fell to the ground, his last coherent thought centering on the safety of one Blair Sandburg.

Blair heard the thud of Jim’s body as it hit the ground and, seconds later, the distraught cries of a woman. Peering around a corner from a safe distance away, he watched as the woman dropped down beside Jim’s unconscious form and began assessing his injuries. Blair moved from his hiding place, thoughts for his best friend’s safety overriding his own fears.

"Hey! Move away from him. I said, get away."

The woman looked up, tears streaking down her face. "I mean no harm. Please, I thought he was a mercenary. Please, I’m Kimberly Ashe, I’m a botanist from U.C.L.A. I’m sorry…. I’m so sorry."

Blair noted the genuine concern on her face, and made his way to Jim’s side.

"Oh, man, what the hell did you hit him with?"

"A board. I was just trying to protect myself. I had no idea."

Positioning himself on his knees, Blair gently laid a hand on Jim’s forehead.

"Oh, man, he’s out. Come on, Jim, wake up for me, man. You’re not gonna make me do this alone, are you? I’m not real good at this Lone Ranger stuff."

Blair settled back on his heels, feeling for the first time since he had met Jim Ellison that he was truly alone.



~~~~~~~~~~ Act IV ~~~~~~~~~~


*Alone? He thinks he’s alone….*

Jim heard Blair’s words, somewhere deep in his subconscious. The urgency of his tone awakened the desire to return to the waking world. Jim fought through the layers of pain, clawing his way back to the voice, and the man who needed him. He opened his eyes, barely recognizing the concerned face of his friend.

"Hey, Jim? Hey, buddy. Jim."

An unfamiliar face swam into Jim’s field of vision. Suddenly concerned for Blair’s safety, Jim lurched forward, grasping a fistful of Blair’s shirt.

"Whoa! Whoa! Slow."

Jim regretted the movement, feeling suddenly overcome by the pain in his head

"Oh, man…."

Jim felt the strong arms of his friend supporting him as he shifted to a seating position.

"You okay? Maybe you should rest. We’re not in any danger. This is Kimberly Ashe. She's a botanist from U.C.L.A. She's been living here with these Indians doing a survey on the disappearing plant life here in the rain forest. She thought you were a mercenary."

"Mercenary?"

"Last week, men came to the village to recruit workers for their lumber camp. The chief said no. He thinks that cutting down the trees offends the forest gods. And then, three nights ago, the men attacked the village and took all the adults prisoner. I managed to escape with the children."

Jim closed his eyes briefly as Blair gently probed the injured area on his head.

"What children?" Jim inquired, wincing as Blair touched an exceptionally tender spot.

Moments after Kimberly called out a few words in Quechua, a group of frightened children emerged from the forest.

"What are you still doing here?" Jim asked Kimberly, his eyes settling on the sad face of a small child.

"I didn't know where else to go. My radio was destroyed, all my medicines and supplies were taken, and the nearest town is a hundred miles to the west through the mountains. I didn't think the children could make it. At night, they cry for their parents."

"What are we gonna do, Jim?"

"We’re gonna do what we came here to do, and then we’re gonna get these people out of here. Help me up, Chief."

Blair helped Jim to stand, wrapping a steadying arm around his friend’s waist.

Turning to face Kimberly, Blair asked, "Is there a river or something, someplace I can get some water?"

Kimberly pointed in the direction of a river. "Over that way. I’m very sorry."

Releasing Jim, Blair gathered up his knapsack and took his place at Jim’s side once more. Brushing off Blair’s attempts to help him walk, Jim made his way towards the water. Blair held back, watching Jim’s slow movements as he crouched at the edge of the river and splashed water on his face.

The water felt good on his skin, and Jim found himself covering his face with his hands in an attempt to block out both the physical and emotional pain. Conflicting emotions battled for his attention, making him feel weak and vulnerable. One minute he wanted Blair right beside him, the next minute he was pushing him away. The idea of needing someone, of depending on someone the way that he so obviously depended on Blair, was something he just couldn’t face. He had spent most of his life without a mother, his father had forced him to be someone that he wasn’t, and his brother was basically non-existent. He didn’t need anyone, or so he had thought….

Jim pulled his hands away from his eyes only to find Blair seated on a nearby rock staring at him. Blair handed him a wet cloth, gesturing towards his forehead.

"Use this. I’ve got some stuff in my bag we can clean that up with. You dizzy or anything?"

"No." Jim stared at his reflection in the water, not wanting to meet Blair’s eyes. "My sentinel abilities are gone. It’s as if someone just turned off the switch."

"Well, maybe it's just temporary."

"I never wanted this damned thing. All it's done is screw me up." Plunging his hand in the water, Jim watched his reflection dissolve into shattered droplets of water.

Blair shifted off of the rock, coming to stand within a foot of his partner. Jim made no move to stand, his eyes still fixed on the moving water.

"Well, it's also saved your life more than once and the lives of a lot of other people, too."

"What good is it if I can't control it?"

Throwing his hands up in exasperation, Blair raised his voice in indignation. "You can control it. It just takes time."

"You mean we can control it. I can’t do it without you. We don’t have time! Simon and Daryl need help now!"

Blair knew he was taking a big chance invading Jim’s personal space, but he had to make the man understand that he was serious about wanting to help him. Grasping Jim by the shoulder, Blair turned Jim’s body to face him.

"Then we have to do this together. Damn it, Jim, tell me what's going on. I'm your partner."

Jim felt his anger slipping away, the tight grip of Blair’s hand on his shoulder relieving some of the tension. "I've been seeing something. I don't even know if it's real."

"What have you been seeing?"

Jim hesitated, knowing in his heart that Blair was the only person in the world he could share something like this with. Anyone else would have laughed, but Blair would understand….

"A panther. I saw it when we first landed, and ever since, I can feel it watching us and following us. I know it's there, but when I look, there's nothing. Last night, I saw it in a dream. It was more real than any dream I've ever had."

"Well, the Indians would say that the panther is your animal spirit and it's trying to talk to you. And a psychologist would say that it's your unconscious mind trying to speak to you in symbols. Now, either way, you just got to quit fighting it and see where it leads you."

There was no mockery in Blair’s voice, no disbelief or teasing tone.

"You mean where it leads us. And what if it doesn’t lead us anywhere? What if this is just some stupid image that means nothing? What then? Maybe we should just leave it this way. Maybe we should pack it in."

Blair looked out across the rugged landscape, allowing the hidden meaning behind Jim’s words to sink in. "Is that what you want?"

"I don’t know what I want. All I know is that I just can’t go on like this. You’ve got a life, Chief, or at least you had one until you met me."

A sudden movement to his right caught Jim’s attention. The low rumbling growl of the panther drowned out Blair’s words. Jim moved, almost in a trance-like state, towards the sound. His legs carried him forward, his mind closed to everything but the silken black image that darted in and out of the underbrush. Blair followed him, fighting to keep up, stumbling awkwardly over the rough terrain. The weight of his backpack slowed him down, keeping him a good ten strides behind Jim. Seconds after he had collapsed from sheer exhaustion, he could hear Jim’s voice a number of yards ahead.

"Chief! It’s Daryl. I found Daryl!"

Blair pulled himself off of the ground as he saw the two men approaching, Jim’s arm wrapped protectively about the boy’s shoulder. Relief filled Blair as the seemingly uninjured boy greeted him with a hug. The three men trudged back to the village, Blair’s mind brimming with unanswered questions.

After arriving at the village, Daryl informed Jim and Blair of Simon’s whereabouts, and the events leading up to his meeting with Jim in the jungle. Jim listened intently, memorizing the finer details of Daryl’s description of the setup of the camp, and the position of the hidden drug lab. According to the young man, at least twenty men, heavy weaponry, and armored vehicles surrounded the place where Simon was being held prisoner.

"He’s hurt. My dad, he’s hurt. You got to help him. He can’t walk. It’s his leg, some metal from the truck must have cut his leg."

"Don’t worry, Daryl, everything’s going to be okay. Right, Jim? You just have to trust us," Blair soothed, trying to convey reassurance in his voice.

Jim nodded, hearing the testament of faith in Blair’s words. "We’ll find him. You stay here. You’ve done great, Daryl. Your dad would be proud. You let us take care of the rest."

Jim stood up, moving away from the two men to stand by himself near the edge of a tent.

Excusing himself, Blair joined him, laying a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder. "You saw it again. You saw the panther. That’s how you found Daryl. What you said before, about my having a life before you, before we met. You’re right, Jim, I did have a life, and now I have something more. I’ve got two lives, yours and mine, twice the reason to be here. We’re partners, Jim. What we share is more than just this sentinel thing, much more."

Keeping his back to Blair, Jim disappeared into the tent, making Blair’s hand fall away from his shoulder. Blair followed him, watching as Jim readied a primitive type of crossbow and blow gun that lay discarded on the floor. Jim said nothing as he removed the gun strap from around his neck and handed the weapon to Blair.

"What’s this for?"

"I’m going into the jungle to scout the area. I want you to keep this, just in case."

"Jim, what about you?"

Slinging the crossbow over his back, Jim smiled at the look of concern on his friend’s face. "This is all I’ll need. These darts are tipped with curare. Not enough to be lethal, but they will cause temporary paralysis."

Jim turned, intending to leave, but found himself stopping just shy of the tent flaps.

"Hey, Chief? I’m glad you came."

"Me, too."

The words seemed suspended between the two men, a source of strength to both of them as they went their separate ways.

~~~~~~~~

Jim ran towards an unknown landscape, his entire being filled with something beyond his control. The panther charged ahead of him, leading him beyond the confines of the jungle, to a different, blue-tinged reality. Jim followed the animal, his heart beating in time with the animal’s thundering footfalls. They ran for what seemed like an eternity before stopping in front of some type of altar. Jim watched as the animal changed shape before him, morphing into a human being.

"Who are you?" Jim questioned, his mind finding it hard to grasp what his eyes had just witnessed.

"The question is: who are you?"

"I don’t understand."

"Your return to the jungle was no accident. This is the place you were reborn as a sentinel. You have been brought back to complete the circle."

"Why have my abilities been taken away?"

"To remind you of who you were. What you've experienced so far is just an initiation. Now is the time to make a choice. You can go back the way you came and be an ordinary man, or you can go forward, but to do so will require your life and your soul. Are you prepared to make such a journey?"

Jim hesitated, scenes of the past few days running unchecked through his mind.

"I’m not sure."

Jim felt a rush of air in his face, causing him to blink to clear his vision. As the haze cleared, he found himself at the edge of a large cliff, staring down at the rushing water below.

*A journey? My life and my soul….*

"I'm standing at the edge of a cliff. If I go forward, I'll die."

"Yes."

"Okay, I’m ready."

~~~~~~~~

The world around him seemed to fade in and out of focus. For a moment he was unsure of exactly where he was. The panther, the altar, and the spirit had all disappeared, leaving him alone in the jungle once again.

A panicked cry shook him from his thoughts.

"The village."

A surge of energy filled his body as he ran towards the village. He could feel the earth’s vibrations beneath his feet. The minute droplets of moisture that rained down from the underbrush quenched his thirst. His eyes darted across the landscape, zeroing in on the tiniest details of the rainforest. He could smell the gun oil, even before reaching the deserted village.

His senses had returned, but Sandburg was nowhere to be found….


~~~~~~~~~~ Act V ~~~~~~~~~~


"I’m telling you, man, I’m an anthropologist," Blair answered, fighting against the ropes that bound his wrists.

"I don’t believe you."

Reischer stepped forward, backhanding Blair across the face. "Don’t lie to me, Mr. Sandburg. Believe me, I have ways of making you talk."

"I have nothing to say."

Reischer smiled, taking a few steps backwards towards the young black man behind him. Turning his back to Blair, Reischer grabbed a fistful of Daryl’s shirt and hauled him to his feet.

"Leave him alone!" Blair yelled, shaking his head in disbelief. "He’s a kid. He’s just a kid."

"Precisely. I’ll give you a few minutes alone to think about that." Having made his point, Reischer exited the tent, leaving the two men alone.

~~~~~~~~

Jim waited until Reischer had cleared the area before making his move towards the tent. A lone guard stood poised outside the entrance to the tent, his eyes sweeping the area for anything suspicious. Jim crouched on all fours, slowly making his way around the side of the canvas tent wall. He could hear both Blair and Daryl’s voices coming from within, and was relieved to find that both men seemed relatively unscathed. It had taken every ounce of self-restraint for Jim to listen to Reischer’s threats and remain in control.

Without hesitation, Jim seized a moment of opportunity, firing a dart at the unsuspecting guard. The man swayed on his feet, fingering the inflicted wound with his fingertips. Jim lunged at the man, grabbing him from behind and dragging him away from the tent opening. After subduing his victim, Jim eased himself slowly into the tent.

"Jim!"

"Shhh."

Working quickly, Jim untied the two men’s hands and ushered them towards the door.

"We got to move fast. Any idea where Simon is?"

"He's probably in the underground drug lab. That's where they took Kimberly and the kids," Blair offered, meeting Jim’s eyes.

"Daryl, I need to know exactly where that lab is. If I have any chance of getting us all out of here in one piece, I'm gonna need your help," Jim stated, looking pointedly at Daryl.

Daryl looked from Jim to Blair, trying his best to remember every detail of the set up of the camp.

"The tent where they kept my dad and me was about three tents from where we are now, maybe four. I'm not sure." Daryl pointed with his finger in the direction in which Jim should be traveling. "You could see the hatch almost directly from the tent."

"Great. I'm leaving it up to the two of you to get us some transportation out of here. Do you know where the motor pool is?" Jim kept his attention focused on Daryl, hoping that the young man had noticed where the men had been keeping their trucks.

Daryl nodded, "Around the corner, not too far from the main gates."

"Okay. I'll meet you guys in front of the hatch. Depending on what kind of shape your dad is in, he may not be able to walk too far."

After a brief discussion about the possibility of something going wrong, the two younger men headed off towards the motor pool tent while Jim made his way towards the area that Daryl had explained housed the drug lab. Jim knew that there was a strong possibility that he and Simon would not make it out of the drug lab alive. He hoped that both Blair and Daryl would find the courage to leave them behind if the plan went sour. Jim could see in both Blair and Daryl's faces, the calm certainty that everything would turn out all right.

Jim hid behind a tent within a few feet of the hatch leading to the drug lab. The heavy scent of C4 hung in the air close to him. Hoping that his instincts were right, Jim ducked into the tent and began rummaging through some storage crates. Pocketing a few grenades that were tucked into the boxes, Jim moved back to the hatch.

Jim lifted the hatch, making sure to keep his presence well hidden. With the stealth of a predator, he entered the lab and crouched behind a few packing crates. From his position, he could see the pain etched in Simon’s face as he limped around the shadowed area. Slowly, Jim raised himself above the packing crates, pressing the chamber of the dart release mechanism to his lips. The red-feathered dart soared unnoticed across the room, imbedding itself into the bag in Simon’s arms. Simon looked at the dart, following its path back to the man encased in the shadows. Relief and gratitude washed over him as he met Jim’s eyes.

On Jim’s cue, Simon hefted the heavy bag at one of the guards, knocking him to the floor. Jim dove at the other guard, stunning him with a solid punch to his midsection.

"Am I glad to see you," Simon remarked, looking at Jim in amazement.

Sliding his arm around Simon’s waist, Jim nodded towards the exit. "Same here. All right, everybody, we're getting out of here. Move! Move! Move! Let's go! Move it!"

Jim helped Simon to the ladder, supporting most of his weight as Simon fought to remain standing. Jim scrambled to the top of the ladder, propping the hatch door open with his back as he reached for Simon’s hand.

"Come on, Simon!"

"Go on! I’m just gonna slow you down."

Jim reached in further, snagging Simon by the shirt and hoisting him towards the top.

"I didn’t travel halfway across the world to give up now. Grab on!"

Simon clutched Jim’s outstretched arm, his hands trembling with the exertion. Jim pulled him to safety, rushing him towards the approaching truck. Men, women and children piled onto the vehicle as the sound of gunfire erupted from all sides. Jim dashed back to the drug lab, tossing a grenade inside the hatch, and running for the safety of truck.

Blair gunned the engine as he watched Jim slip into the rear of the vehicle. Blair drove through the camp, trying desperately to keep the speeding truck on the right path. Jim watched from the rear of the truck as the explosives tent burst into flames. He could see Reischer’s face as he aimed a bazooka at the retreating vehicle.

The truck slowed momentarily, and Jim jumped from the back of the vehicle and dashed back towards the camp and Reischer.

Blair watched in stunned silence as Jim charged towards the person responsible for his friend’s pain.

~~~~~~~~

Jim kept his distance from Reischer, hoping that the element of surprise was on his side. A noise from the tent beside him caught his attention, causing him to take an awkward step backwards. A large machete cut through the material just inches from his head. Rosario lunged at him, and they fought for possession of the weapon. Raising the machete above his head, Rosario prepared to deliver the fatal blow. Jim stumbled, his hand reaching blindly for a piece of wood behind him. The machete sliced through the air, impacting with the piece of wood, and becoming imbedded in the grain. Jim heaved himself off of the ground, thrusting his body towards the perp, and knocking the man off balance. Rosario fell to the ground, his head connecting soundly with the edge of a packing crate.

Clambering to his feet, Jim snatched an arrow from his sheath and loaded the crossbow. Reischer smiled as he aimed the bazooka at Jim, his eyes squinting in concentration. The arrow whizzed through the air, finding its mark before Reischer could pull the trigger. Jim watched as the man teetered on his feet, the bazooka wavering in his hand. The barrel dropped to the ground, discharging on impact.

Jim closed his eyes to the horrific image of the perp’s body being blown apart. Instead, Jim focused on the urgent cries of his curly-haired partner, making sure he was all right….

~~~~~~~~

Jim tapped lightly on Simon’s office door, waiting for the man on the other side to invite him in.

"Come on in, Jim," Simon offered, turning his head towards the opening door.

Jim entered the room, moving towards his captain and friend.

"How did you know it was me? I thought I was the sentinel," Jim joked, glad to see Simon looking rested and happy. It was nice to see his captain back behind his desk where he belonged.

"I figured you’d be dropping by."

"You sure you’re feeling okay?" Jim asked, indicating Simon’s bandaged leg.

"Fine. Why don’t you take a seat?"

Jim dropped into a nearby chair, replaying in his mind what he would say next. "Simon, I…"

"You don’t have to say it, Jim. I understand. When I told you about that job offer from the mayor, I was just doing my job. As your captain, it was my duty to let you make your own decision. I wanted to tell you to stay, but I couldn’t. I’m your friend, Jim, and because of that, I had to let you go."

"I know, Simon."

"Do you have any idea what it was like for me to see you in that drug lab? I thought I was dead, Jim; I thought Daryl and I were both dead. And then, there you were, and Sandburg right on your heels. It was incredible."

Jim stared into Simon’s eyes, hoping his next words would let the older man know just how much his friendship meant to him. "I turned him down."

"Thank goodness. Have you talked to Sandburg?"

"I never told him about it. I didn’t really think it was important. I’d prefer if we just kept it between us."

"He won’t hear it from me. Go home and get some sleep, Jim, you look exhausted. Oh yeah, and tell that roommate of yours the next time he decides to steal coffee from my personal stash, he should learn to level out the bag better."

Grinning, Jim moved towards the door. "I’ll tell him."

~~~~~~~~

Jim listened to the message on the answering machine, watching his partner for any signs of distress. Blair took the beer from Jim’s outstretched hand, and proceeded to turn off the machine.

"I guess you should call him back," Jim stated flatly, trying to keep all emotion out of his voice. He could hear Simon’s voice in his head telling him that it was his job as Blair’s friend and partner to let him make his own decision, no matter how hard that decision may be.

"Well, actually, I've already decided not to go. This sentinel thing... You know, it's more than just a research project. Uh... it's about friendship. I just didn't get it before."

"Okay."

Jim walked out to the balcony and leaned against the railing. The weight of the world seemed to have been lifted from his shoulders, leaving him with a feeling of utter contentment.

"You know, you were really something out there in the jungle, man. I've never seen you so focused, so in control. It was pretty amazing. You never did tell me how you got your powers back."

"They just came back."

"Why do I get the feeling like you're not telling me everything?"

Jim flinched at the thought of the job offer and the file folder that still lay securely tucked in his desk drawer. He wondered if there would ever be the right time to tell Blair about the panther, the altar, and the mysterious man.

"Because I just don't have the energy to talk about it right now. We're home. Let's enjoy it."

Blair moved to stand beside Jim on the balcony, raising his beer bottle in a toast.

"Welcome home, partner."

Jim turned at the sound of a low, rumbling growl coming from his bedroom. The panther stared at him, their eyes meeting in understanding.



The End


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