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The slide from sleep into unconsciouness, and from unconsciousness into death, was so gentle that until he opened his eyes to find himself in a jungle clearing instead of the familiar bedroom, he did not himelf realize that his heart was failing.
He knew instantly that he was dead.
He had visited this jungle more than once in his dreams, and there had always been an unreal feel to it. Now it felt totally real. He looked around.
He was completely alone.
Everything was completely silent.
Now that was something new. Always when he had dreamed of the jungle there had been been the sounds of animals and birds, the sound of wind in the trees, the sound of distant running water. And there had frequently been an annoying spirit asking him questions that forced introspection on him - most often, "What do you fear?".
He had answered, "I fear being a sentinel." He had answered, "I fear responsibility." He had even answered, "I fear failing those who depend on me."
He had never given the one answer that, in his own eyes, summed him up. "I fear that I am inadequate."
And this empty, silent world seemed to be telling him that he was indeed inadequate. That in his entire life he had never been adequate enough for anyone to care where he was, and now, to care that he was dead. Not even his spirit animal was making its presence felt.
Not even his guide had waited for him, but had apparently moved on.
He hadn't expected Jack or Danny to wait, or any of his men who were killed in Peru - they had their own paths to follow, their own lives... deaths... to lead.
But he had been so sure of Blair, so sure that Blair would wait... as he would have waited for Blair, if he had died first.
Not that he could blame Blair for going on. Of course Blair felt betrayed, had chosen not to wait for him. Two years earlier he had totally failed to protect his guide.
That he himself had suffered massive injuries, leaving him hospitalized for nearly a year and with permanent damage to his heart, was not, in his opinion, enough to excuse his failure to save Blair when the trapped gun-runners decided to take out as many of the surrounding cops as they could before they were themselves killed. That Blair had been killed by a bullet that had already passed through his body was no excuse.
He should have saved Blair. Somehow he should have found a way. But he was inadequate.
A little to his right there was a big tree. He moved towards it, stumbled over a protruding root, and fell at its base. With an effort, he drew his legs towards his chest and curled up, a ball of absolute misery.
He wished he could die... and then he remembered. He was already dead.
What was left for the dead who had nothing?
The spirit that had been Jim Ellison lay unmoving, mourning the loss of his guide - as he had done every interminable day for two years. Only now he no longer had the hope that they would be reunited after he, too, died.
Blair had moved on.
At the edge of the clearing, two animals watched the panther curled up under the tree - a wolf and an owl.
/Enqueri is not aware of us,/ the wolf said unhappily. /He doesn't see us./
/He has closed himself off,/ the owl replied quietly. /After your human avatar died, he shut down his senses. When he dreamed of here, his senses were alert and he saw this place as it truly is. Now that he is actually here, with his senses closed he can only see the trees. He sees nothing else, he hears nothing, he smells nothing and he will feel nothing./
/What can I do, Incacha? I have to do something, but what can I do?/ the wolf asked helplessly.
The owl ruffled its feathers. /Somehow you must make him aware of you. You know that./
/But how? If he is effectively blind and deaf, his other senses muted into non-existence, how can I draw his attention?/
/I do not know. You are his guide, Yachachiq; only you can awaken him. You have always been good at 'thinking on your feet' every time you have been alive, have you not?/
/Yes... but this is all so different./ The wolf looked unhappily towards the panther and gsve a low, unhappy whine. /This never happened to us before, did it? Even when the avatar of one of us died before the other, the surviving one endured until it was time for us to be reunited, snd we met again happily. Why, this time, has he reacted so differently? Why has he not seen me?/
/Think, young shaman. You know why./
The wolf would have frowned if its facial muscles had allowed it. /The father of his last avatar?/
/No matter how successful a spirit has been in past lives, the influences of his most recent one are strong. You did well, and negated much of the damage, while you were alive./
The wolf considered that for a moment. /I know. But I should have been able to do more./
/If you had been given longer, you would have done more,/ the owl reminded him.
/It was not Enqueri's fault that I did not have longer./
/But he thinks it was./
Wolf and owl fell silent, watching the panther for a moment longer, before the wolf quietly padded forward. It stopped beside the panther. /Enqueri./
There was no response.
The wolf had spent so long with Incacha, he had become accustomed to the names Incacha used. With an effort, the wolf remembered the name he had called his friend in his last mortal incarnation. /Jim./
With what in a human would have been called a sigh, the wolf lay down beside the panther and began to lick its face very, very gently.
Ths panther gave no reaction, and the wolf sighed again. This was going to take a long time...
An immeasurable length of time later, Jim slowly registered the gentle caresses he was receiving. He lay unmoving for a short while, revelling in the attention, before blinking his eyes open to stare at the man sitting beside him, steadily and untiringly stroking his arm.
"Blair! You came back!"
"I never left," Blair replied softly. "I've been waiting for you."
"But there was nobody here... "
"I was, but you were so sure you deserved to be alone that you couldn't see me."
"I let you die. I failed you. I failed to protect you." There was a sob in Jim's voice.
"Jim. Say after me. 'I did not fail you. My body stopped eight bullets before the ninth passed through me to hit you.'"
"You were hit by nine bullets, Jim. The ninth, the one that left you disabled, was the same one that killed me," Blair said quietly, "though I'm not sure that anyone realized that. They knew one bullet had passed right through you, but I don't think they realized it was the one that hit me. The other eight injured you badly, yes, but you recovered from those injuries relatively quickly. The ninth damaged your heart. Basically - although it took you two years to die, the same bullet killed us both."
"Oh, Jim. Jim. Don't sound so disbelieving. Remember. Remember where we are. Here, we know these things."
"Remember... " Jim said quietly. "Remember... " He raised his head, looking around. "We've been here before."
"Often. We've been together for a long time, Enqueri."
"Yes... we have, haven't we. We chose each other long ago... "
"And I've never regretted a moment of it," Blair murmured. He reached out and pulled Jim into his arms. "Just because your last avatar didn't have a good start doesn't mean you ever have to stop trusting me."
"It was never about not trusting you," Jim said. "I was sure you'd be here waiting for me. But when I got here and couldn't see you... " He leaned his head against Blair's shoulder, accepting - absorbing - the comfort.
They remained like that for a while. At last Jim said, "You were always the stronger one."
"We each have our different strengths," Blair answered. "They complement each other. When we're together, we're more than twice as strong as either of us is on our own."
An owl flew down from a nearby tree and landed on the ground beside them, ruffled its feathers - which Blair, after two years of exposure, recognized as a precursor to what Incacha, at least, considered a significant utterance. It morphed into what was to Jim a familiar shape - Blair was more used to the owl form.
"Incacha!" Jim whispered.
"Have you accepted that Yachachiq's death was not your fault, Sentinel?"
Jim glanced at Blair. "Yes," he said. "But I should have been able to save him," he added stubbornly.
"And if you had?" Blair murmured. "I would have had two years of watching you slowly dying, knowing that I would have many years of loneliness ahead of me. My death wasn't your fault, but if you're determined to think that way, you can call those two years your penance for not saving me. Take that fact on the chin, tough guy. Take it on the chin. Now let it go."
Jim was silent for a moment. Then he sighed and said quietly, "Can I ask one favor, Incacha?"
"You can ask," Incacha agreed. Both Jim and Blair registered that he hadn't agreed to honor it.
"We never get very long between lives, and I'm tired. Emotionally exhausted. Can our next life be quieter? Peaceful? Like a holiday?"
"You'd be bored stiff before you were twenty," Blair predicted.
"Not if we were born into a hunter-gatherer tribe somewhere really remote. We would still serve the tribe, but it would be like it was a dozen lives ago. We'd get a break from living a totally unnatural existence in an overcrowded city, a break from fighting crime, a break from having to hide what I am all the time."
Incacha shook his head sadly. "The days of a dozen lifetimes ago are gone for ever. In another generation, two at the most, all that are left of the remote tribes will be seduced into 'civilization'. It would take a massive disaster to return the world to those days. The best I can give you is a life in a small town."
"Then I'll settle for that," Jim said.
Blair was watching Incacha, knowing there was something the shaman wasn't saying. "And how many years will we get in that small town, Incacha?"
"That will be your choice," Incacha said. "Your sense of responsibility to the tribe could well lead you back to one of the great cities. But if you do go there, it will be your choice."
"I suppose that's the best you'll give us, old friend," Jim said.
"It is the best I can give you," Incacha replied. "Meanwhile, enjoy your days here while they last." He morphed back into an owl and flew off.
Jim and Blair looked at each other. "You heard the man," Blair said. "Let's go and have some fun."
"Found a good fishing spot?" Jim asked.
"Not far from here," Blair agreed.
"Than let's go."
Arms around each other's shoulders, the two men headed off into the trees.