Captain James Ellison was hot and miserable. It wasn't as if he’d never experienced heat before. But what was it about New Orleans that made the rain forests of Peru look like paradise in comparison?
Jim looked at the six men surrounding him, waiting expectantly for their orders. His team: Panther Squad; covert ops; the best of the best.
To his right, Lieutenant Benjamin Sarris was leaning against the exterior wall of their hotel. Ben had been Jim's right hand man for nearly a decade. Similar in stature, the only major differences between the two men were their hair and eye color. Ben had short blond hair and his eyes were jade green, while Jim had dark brown hair and pale blue eyes. Ben was loyal to a fault, didn't tolerate bull and was the most organized man Jim knew, besides himself. Ben was also a master of linguistics and encryption.
Beside him stood Sergeant Matthew Wilson. Matt was the perfect nondescript soldier. Most people could spend a day with him and yet be unable to describe him when asked. His looks made him the perfect reconnaissance man. He fit into every situation and was rarely given a second glance. Matt's one distinguishing feature was his intelligence, which shone from his brown eyes. He had been a member of the team for nearly six years and Jim counted on him almost as much as he did Ben.
Staff Sergeant Bernard Jones was the team's demolition expert. There wasn't a bomb the dark man couldn't build or disarm. His weapons expertise made him invaluable. Older than the men around him, he exuded a not-so-quiet confidence. Bernie was the best and he made sure everyone knew it. A likable man, he had been with the team for four years. He had already obtained his twenty years in the service, having joined straight out of high school, but, as he often said, he just couldn't give up the show.
Sergeant Miguel Rodriguez was a young Hispanic man in his late twenties. He had been with Jim's team a little longer than Bernie. Mike could fly anything from a helicopter to a jumbo jet, could drive anything with a motor in it and his mechanical aptitude knew no bounds. Miguel embraced everything in his life with passion, whether it was work or play. He was also a notorious prankster.
Miguel paced back and forth, playfully shoving Corporal Richard Buchanon out of his way every time he passed the young man. Jim's superiors were not happy about Ricky's presence on the team. Not only was it unusual for a corporal to be on such an elite team, but having one so young had forced Jim to defend his decision more than once to his commanders. However, there wasn't a computer built that Ricky couldn't crack. His hacking skills were legendary and Jim had already fought off several attempts by various government agencies to snatch the young man away. The redheaded freckled boy was just barely twenty-one, and had an enthusiasm which Jim found refreshing.
Jim had another reason for keeping the young corporal on his team, Lieutenant Anthony Romano. Tony had worked with Jim almost as long as Ben had. Tony's "acquiring" skills were legendary in the Rangers. His bravery and calm thinking under fire made him an asset in every situation. Tony's little brother, a young man whom the Lieutenant doted on, had succumbed to leukemia two months before Ricky joined the team. The dark haired Italian with vibrant blue eyes had sunk into a depression so dark and deep that Jim feared he would have to recommend his discharge for medical reasons. But since the redhead's arrival, Jim watched Tony gradually become the young man's silent protector, keeping the rest of the team from harassing the boy too much. Jim doubted Ricky was even aware of how much he meant to Tony or how he had given the older man his life back.
While most covert ops teams had twelve men, Jim always worked with a six-man squad. He would, and had on several occasions, put his squad up against any active team. The Panthers had a rep for always getting their man. Currently, they were on a mission to locate a rogue CIA agent named Christopher Sinclair, who had felt his government wouldn't mind if he sold a classified secret or two for his own personal gain. He had, of course, been mistaken. Jim and his men were in New Orleans to either bring the man in or take him out, and, quite frankly, the government didn't have a preference one way or the other.
"So what's the plan, Cap?" Matthew asked as he wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
"This afternoon we'll just do a standard reconnaissance and get a lay of the land. So far, all we have are unsubstantiated rumors that Sinclair's even in the area. Personally, I think he'd be an idiot to return to New Orleans. But hell, what's the first rule of espionage?"
Benjamin Sarris grinned at his friend. "Hide in plain sight."
"Exactly." Jim nodded. "So pass his picture around quietly and ask if anyone's seen him or knows of him."
Corporal Buchanon shifted uncomfortably.
"What's on your mind, Ricky?" Jim asked, knowing that the youngest member of his team would never presume to question one of his orders. A courtesy he had expected the boy to get over, but he hadn't--yet. Ricky had only been with the Panthers for six months. Jim hoped that in another month he'd be as mouthy as the rest of his team. Jim didn't stand on ceremony and he trusted his men's instincts, for they had saved his life just as many times as he had saved theirs.
"Won't asking about Sinclair draw him out?"
"Normally, I would say it'd be a very good possibility, but he's gone to ground. He's not going to pop up until we've made him uncomfortable, which is why you'll be working in teams. Wilson, keep an eye on Ricky and go south. Romano, you and Jones go east. Sarris and Miguel, go west. Keep sharp. Watch your partner's back and be ready for anything."
Ricky squirmed again, then burst out, "What about you, sir?"
Tony Romano laughed out loud, clapping the younger man on the shoulders. "If Sinclair can sneak up on Ellison then the Captain deserves to be taken out."
"Thanks, I'm sure," Jim said drolly, raising one eyebrow in mock annoyance. "All right, you have your assignments. Remember, we're in civies. Let's try to keep as low a profile as possible."
"Yeah, like our appearance doesn't just scream 'cop'," Bernie said, shaking his head.
Jim laughed. "Get out of here."
Jim Ellison had been aware of his senses all of his life. Much to his father's displeasure, he had done a little research on his affliction and had come to realize he was a sentinel--a man with five heightened senses. He had, for a period in his youth, tried to repress his senses to make his old man happy. But in the end, he realized, he would never have his father's full approval no matter what he did or accomplished.
He was also aware that if he tried to focus too much on any given sense at one time he had a tendency to gray out. He was sure that his inability to control his senses had something to do with his repression, since he hadn't allowed them to develop in a normal fashion. So far, he’d been able to keep his spells from the doctors in charge and from endangering any mission. In fact, more often than not, his senses gave him and his team an extra advantage in dangerous situations and even in not so risky circumstances.
For instance, he could tell who was a native and who was a tourist simply by noticing who was perspiring and who wasn't. Tourists sweated profusely in the humid August air, stopping every couple of yards or so, pretending to window shop when in actuality they were trying to catch their breaths. Natives simply looked like they were taking a casual stroll.
He finished his beignet and licked the powder from his fingers. One thing he could say about New Orleans, its food was beyond compare.
Taking a deep breath, he pushed off the brick wall and approached an older gentleman, who appeared to be a native, and pulled Sinclair's picture from his shirt pocket. "Excuse me, sir, but have you seen this man?"
The man's brown eyes widened slightly as he looked at the picture then shook his head negatively.
Focusing on the man's heartbeat, Jim realized he was lying. "Are you sure?"
"Wí." The man looked nervously down the street, then for no apparent reason seemed to relax.
Jim followed his gaze, looking down Decauter, but couldn't see any sign of Sinclair. Realizing the older man was not going to be any help, Jim walked a little further down the street until he came upon a stooped, elderly woman. "Pardon me, madam, but have you seen this gentleman?"
The woman looked curiously down at his picture, then gasped and crossed herself. "Non. Non," she whispered in horror, backing slowly away from Jim.
"Ma'am?" he asked in his softest voice. The quivering woman, however, turned and raced down the street with a speed that belied her age and physical appearance. Jim followed at a discreet distance, not wanting to frighten her, but wondering where she was heading.
She ran, babbling hysterically, toward a man who was reading a book at a small café table half a block away. The man looked up as soon as he heard her small whimpers, concern clearly written on his young face. He stood, holding his arms out to her, and drew her to his chest, despite the heat. "Sa ena, Tatine?" he whispered, patting her back gently.
The older woman spoke rapidly, then turned to point at Jim, muttering, "Naif."
"Bon." The young man leaned down and kissed her forehead. "I will take care of this. Be at peace, Tatine."
The old woman squeezed the young man affectionately, turned and made the sign of the cross toward Jim before she hurried further down the street.
The young man turned and studied Jim for several moments. Finally, he nodded his head toward the chair beside his and sat back down.
Jim took in the young man's appearance as he closed the distance. Dressed in white, he appeared the epitome of coolness. His long, sable, curly hair was pulled back, up off his collar. His dark blue eyes showed no traces of fear or apprehension, just curiosity. The native pulled off his wire glasses and slipped them into his shirt pocket as Jim reached the table.
"Bonjou," he greeted quietly, his right hand waving toward the chair, indicating that Jim should sit.
Jim nodded and took the seat. "I apologize for frightening her. It was not my intent."
The young man smiled. "You misunderstand. She was not frightened for herself, but for you."
The young man held his hand out to Jim. "To permet mo entrodwir mo-mem."
Jim's brows furrowed. "I'm sorry. I don't understand. It sounds French, yet...not." He shook the hand anyway.
"It's Creole. Pardonnez moi, s'il vous plaît. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Blair Sandburg."
"James Ellison. Jim." Jim sat back in his chair, trying to project a confidence he wasn't quite feeling at the moment. "Why would she be frightened for me?"
A waitress approached and Jim asked for a glass of ice water.
Blair waited until the woman left, then asked in a lyrical voice, "Is it not an naif, umm, your word...is...umm, innocent, who tries to corner the devil on his own plane of hell?"
"Then you know Sinclair?"
"Know? As in personally? Non. Of the devil himself? Wí. As I would know the stench of any evil as it walks by."
The waitress returned with the glass, which was already sweating in the humidity.
Jim leaned forward intently as soon as the waitress left. "So do you know where he is?"
The young man shook his head. "Non."
Jim sighed in frustration, then took a sip of water. "Do you know if he's in town at the moment?" he asked, trying another approach.
Blair studied him for several moments and Jim felt as if the young man was trying to determine the purity of his soul. "Why do you seek the devil?"
"I'm not at liberty to say," Jim said politely but firmly.
"I see." Blair stood and gathered his book. "It was nice to meet you, Jim Ellison. I am sorree to have distracted you from your search. I would wish you luck, but I do not feel it appropriate to give my blessings to a man actively seeking his own death." And with that, he walked away.
"Damn." Jim watched the lithe figure disappear down the street. Taking another swig of water, he reached into his wallet and dropped a couple of bills on the table, then stood and followed the only lead he had on Sinclair.
Blair Sandburg leaned back against the stone wall of a souvenir shop, waiting for the blue-eyed soldier to come around the corner, for he had no doubt he would come. James Ellison had the look of a hunter. The problem was that his prey was far more dangerous than Ellison could ever imagine.
On first glance, Blair believed the man to be a cop, but then decided he was more likely a government man, probably a soldier. He had no use for government types; no doubt a holdover belief from his childhood. But then again, he had no desire to see the man die either. Not that he thought for a moment Ellison would believe the dangers he would be facing if he continued his pursuit, but that was beside the point.
He had felt something when Ellison sat next to him; a pull on the energy which surrounded him. It meant the soldier possessed some power of his own. But would it be enough to protect him if he continued his hunt?
Non. Sinclair was too steeped in the arts.
So why was he waiting for the naif?
He shook his head, wishing he knew. At that moment, Ellison flowed gracefully around the corner, almost like a cat on the prowl. Jim stumbled slightly as he realized his quarry was waiting for him. The grace of cats was vastly overrated by the public, Blair mused.
"Bonjou, again," he said in simple greeting as the soldier closed the distance between them.
They stood gazing at each other for several moments. "You knew I was following you." Jim stated, rather than asked, breaking the silence.
"Wí. Even if I had not known you would, I would have felt you radiating behind me."
Blair shrugged, then grinned. "You almost shimmer with intensity."
"Then you know why I'm following you?"
"You mean other than the fact you are intrigued by my accent?" Blair grinned impishly as he pushed himself off the side of the building and slowly started walking down the street. The soldier walked beside him, trying not to smile.
"Well, yes, other than that."
"Is there somewhere we can talk privately?"
Blair let his eyes wander over the soldier, knowing the older man would not give up his quest. Maybe, just maybe though, he would allow Blair to accompany him. He doubted James would react well to the thought of a stranger wanting to protect him. But the soldier was about to enter his world and no matter how well equipped James believed himself to be, Blair could not allow him to blunder around aimlessly. There was a delicate balance of power in New Orleans and Sinclair would no doubt attempt to destroy that balance in an effort to save himself. Too many innocent people lived between the light and dark. Although Blair knew himself to have some power, he didn't know if he was strong enough to maintain the delicate symmetry which surrounded the city. He did know that he couldn't turn his back on the upcoming battle. "Wí. My place is not too far from here."
Jim walked silently beside his new companion. A part of him thought the silence should unnerve him more, but another part of him felt as if he had known Blair Sandburg his entire life. While young in body, Blair's eyes spoke of great wisdom, as if a very old soul resided behind the exotic face and intriguing accent.
"Have you lived in New Orleans all your life?" he asked, just to hear the young man's lilting voice again.
"On and off. Mi moman...mother...is what you would call...a 'free spirit.' I have traveled the world, but have always returned to New Orleans. Once you allow this city to seep into your soul, you can never truly leave her."
Jim smiled at the thought. "So you speak Creole fluently?"
"And French as well, I suspect."
"Mi moman is French, and Creole is simply a mixture of French, Spanish, and Portuguese, with a little Dutch thrown in to make things interesting." Blair laughed. "I actually speak several languages fairly fluently, but I find comfort in the beauty of the Creole language which has not allowed itself to be homogenized for convenience sake."
"But isn't it difficult for others to understand you?"
"You have no problem understanding me." Blair grinned slyly. "Perhaps we Creoles do not wish to be understood by everyone."
Jim laughed aloud, drawing a smile from a passing couple. He was thoroughly enjoying the way Blair's mind worked.
"Mi lamson...my home," Blair said as he ducked beneath several hanging vines. They entered a small alleyway that ran for several yards and opened up into a tiny, but beautiful, courtyard. The temperature was several degrees cooler in the shaded yard and a fountain bubbled soothingly from the center of a small pond.
Jim noted that Blair simply opened the unlocked door and wondered if New Orleans was as safe as Blair seemed to think it was. They walked into a large loft-like townhouse. The kitchen was to their right as they entered. The front room was huge, with three doors off to the side: a bathroom, a small study and most likely a closet of some type. A set of stairs rose to the second floor, leading to a large open bedroom. Large plants and small trees filled the townhouse, giving Jim the feeling he had just entered a biosphere.
A small furry missile launched itself at Blair before Jim could even blink. But instead of crying out in pain, Blair merely chuckled. "Bonjou, Larry."
"What the hell is that?" Jim gasped out.
"Who? Larry?" Blair asked, turning so Jim could see the little creature he was cradling. "Larry is a Barbary ape."
"Larry?" Jim laughed.
"And what is wrong with Larry?"
Jim shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I was expecting Larree."
"I do believe he is teasing me about my accent, Lar...Larree," Blair chuckled as he walked into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and pulled out a small bowl of grapes for his little friend. "Would you like some water?" he asked Jim, once he had settled the happy little ape on the counter.
"Yes, please." Jim gratefully accepted the bottled water. "Very nice place you have here, Blair."
"What do you do for a living?"
"Actually, I'm a student at Loyola, although I do teach a few classes as well. I have my masters in Anthropology and am currently working on my doctorate in psychology and how it relates to religion." Seeing Jim's surprised look, he added, "This was mi granmoman's home before she passed away. She gave it to me to spite my mother, saying she wanted to give me roots."
"Larree," Blair grinned, "was a research subject for one of my psychology classes. Barbary apes are remarkably similar to human beings. When my project was over, I realized we had bonded and I couldn't make him go back to living in a cage. So here we are."
"So here we are," Jim repeated into the silence, not sure how to broach the subject of Sinclair.
"Have a seat, Jim." Blair indicated a comfortable sofa. Jim did as he was directed, but noted that Blair remained standing.
The young man paced quietly in front of him for several moments. Finally, he stopped directly in front of Jim. "New Orleans is probably the most unique city in the United States. It does not try to conform to the ideals of other metropolises. There are things here that are acknowledged in the open, things which are only hinted at in whispered tones in other cities."
Jim nodded, not sure where the young man was going, but feeling it was important to let him have his say.
"What do you know of voodoo?"
Jim blinked at the apparent abrupt change in subjects. "It's a form of a magic, isn't it? Used to create zombies and scare the bejeezus out of people."
Blair rolled his eyes. "Voodoo is a religion based on the beliefs of Africans brought from West Africa to Haiti as slaves. The religion is a mixture of many western traditions, including Catholicism. Many of its doctrines run parallel with Santeria beliefs. For the most part the ideology is harmless, although as with any religion, there are those who pervert the meanings behind the scriptures."
Blair sat on the armrest on the opposite side of the sofa. "New Orleans sits on a conjunction of power, a nexus between this world and the spirit world. There are those of power who can walk in both planes. It is a great responsibility. Some serve the power, doing their best to maintain the balance and harmony of the city, while others seek to corrupt it and use it for their own purposes."
Jim remained silent, wondering if he had completely misjudged the young man.
"Christopher Sinclair, whoever he is in your world, is a corrupter of power in my world. You have come seeking to beard the lion in his own den. You have no idea what you're up against."
"You're saying Sinclair can perform magic?"
"For lack of a better word, Wí."
Jim stood, anger radiating from his entire posture. His tone, though polite, was icy. "Thank you for the water, Chief. I'm sorry to have wasted your time this afternoon."
"You do not believe me." Blair sighed in resignation.
Jim walked toward the door. "I believe that you believe what you are saying; but no, I don't believe you."
Blair closed the distance between them and laid his hand on the soldier's shoulder. "James..."
Before he could say another word, Jim spun around, grabbed Blair by the arm and slammed him against the door, ignoring the frightened shrieks of protest from Larry. "Listen, you witch doctor punk, I don't have time for games. Sinclair is responsible for the deaths of over a dozen good men and women. It's my job to find him before he causes the death of anyone else. I don't have time to play in whatever imaginary world you have going on here."
Blair breathed heavily through his nose, trying to control his temper. "Hey, G.I. Joe, relax, bon? If you walk away from me now, you're never going to find Sinclair."
Jim released him and stomped back into the middle of the front room. "And why do I need you at all?"
"You need me to protect you."
Jim started for the door again. "That's it."
Blair waved one hand in front of him and whispered, "Rete."
Jim stopped, almost in midstride, frozen. "What...what have you done to me?" he asked after several moments.
"I need you to stop and listen to reason." Blair closed the distance between them.
Sweat built on Jim's forehead as he fought against the invisible bonds, although he knew anyone watching him would be unaware of his struggles.
"As I tried to tell you, there are things in New Orleans that are different from the rest of the world. Maybe it is because everyone here believes, thus giving the city its power. I don't know." Blair stood inches away from the frozen soldier. "The point is, Sinclair believes and he has power behind his belief. If you go racing into his lair, his place of power, you will die."
"And what can you do that I can't do?" Jim gritted out.
Blair leaned forward and stated confidently. "I can fight him on a spiritual level. While he may be a practitioner of the dark arts, I am a practitioner of the white arts."
"In other words, I'm a good witch." Blair chuckled impishly.
"Report." Jim massaged his right eyebrow as he waited for his men's findings. His hotel room seemed excessively crowded with six additional people in it, making him feel slightly claustrophobic.
"You feeling okay, Cap?" Wilson asked in concern.
"Yeah, peachy." Jim sighed. "What did you find out?"
"He's here all right, but no one's talking," Matt gritted out in frustration.
Jim leaned forward. "You're sure he's in New Orleans?"
Bernie Jones dropped to the edge of Jim's bed. "If he's not here, then at least everyone knows who he is."
"I don't know about the rest of you, but I figure when people flee from you in terror, muttering something about the devil, and making signs in the air at you, they pretty much know who you're talking about." Bernie shook his head in exasperation and amusement.
"You too?" Ricky Buchanon bounced excitedly on his toes. "Thank God. I was beginning to take it personally."
Miguel Rodriguez playfully pushed the young corporal into Tony Romano. "You should, runt."
"We pretty much had the same reaction." Tony hooked Ricky's arm and pulled the younger man around him so that he stood between Rodriguez and the kid. "Those who would talk to us said that we should seek the sorcière blanche."
Ben pushed himself off the wall, curious. "The sorcière blanche?"
Bernie stood and began to pace. "We had one old woman tell us to find someone named Sandburg. Kept saying don't do anything until you've talked to Sandburg." Bernie stopped directly in front of Jim. "What I want to know is who in the hell this Sandburg is and how do we go about finding him?"
Jim shut his eyes briefly, his headache momentarily flaring, then subsiding into a dull throb. "Don't bother. I know where Sandburg is."
Tony Romano laughed. "Damn, you did it again, boss."
"So what does sorcière blanche mean?" Ricky asked, rolling his eyes over the pointed look Romano was giving him about how good their captain was.
"I'm not certain, but I suspect it means white witch. Am I close, Ben?"
The lieutenant nodded.
"White witch!" Miguel shouted in surprise. "Dios mio. This mission just took a left turn into the Twilight Zone, didn't it, Captain?"
"I'm afraid so." Jim looked at each of his men in turn. "Look. I don't believe in all this spiritual mumbo-jumbo. However, everyone here does, and there's growing evidence that Sinclair has tapped into this...hysteria for lack of a better word. My first instinct was to ignore it--"
"Capitan--" Miguel started.
"I said my first instinct, Mike." Jim stood up and walked between his men, pacing slightly. "I've had some things forcibly demonstrated to me that have made me reevaluate that position."
"Forcibly?" Ben stepped in front of Jim, making his captain stop and look at him.
"For lack of a better word. Don't worry, Ben," Jim said as he put a hand on his friend's forearm. "He didn't hurt me. Just made me a...believer, shall we say."
"Can we trust this Sandburg?" Tony asked, his brows knitting together as they often did when he was upset.
"I don't think we really have a choice." Jim sighed, leaning against the wall. "He's convinced we're heading to our deaths. He seemed rather intent on protecting me, as if he somehow feels responsible for my safety."
"Well, that can't be a bad thing, can it?" Ricky piped up from behind Tony's back.
Jim rubbed his forehead again. "I'm not in the habit of putting civilians in the line of fire, Corporal."
Bernie said quietly, "I respect that, sir, but it's almost as if all roads lead to this Sandburg person."
"Could he be trying to gain power for himself by aligning with us?" Miguel asked quietly, playing devil's advocate.
Jim shook his head. "I don't think so. It's hard to explain, but I trust the kid."
Ben raised an eyebrow. "Kid?"
"Yeah, he's practically as young as Ricky over there."
"And you think he's going to be able to help us take Sinclair down?" Ben asked, doubt coloring his voice for the first time.
"Hey, I think I resent that," Ricky said, starting to move around Tony, but stopped as Miguel gave him the evil eye. "I hope you're not implying...."
"He's not implying anything, Corporal." Jim rubbed both hands over his face. "We're asking a civilian, and a young one at that, to take on a CIA operative who's into some heavy mystical shit. We'd be foolish not to give this some serious thought before we proceed."
"So what's the plan?" Tony asked, breaking the silence which seemed to settle over the group.
"For now, you all get some grub and sack out. I have another appointment with Sandburg."
"Watch your back, Jimmy," Ben said under his breath as the captain started to walk past him.
Jim patted his friend's shoulder, nodded and left the room.
Jim walked through the French Quarter not paying any particular attention to the sights and sounds which made New Orleans famous. Instead his mind returned to Sandburg's open and expressive blue eyes.
He remembered the mischievous grin, which dominated the younger man's face as he had made his pronouncement about being a good witch. The amusement had quickly faded when he sensed Jim's continued struggles against the invisible bonds. He had walked into the kitchen, waving his hand back toward Jim, releasing him from the spell. Blair's eyes had been profoundly sad as Jim stumbled out of his home.
Jim's beliefs had been rocked to their foundation. How could any rational adult believe in magic? And yet, how could he deny his paralysis? He had made his way back to the hotel in a daze; but oddly enough, he hadn't been frightened.
Why didn't Sandburg frighten him?
A part of him argued it was because he was a captain in the U.S. military, head of one of the most coveted covert ops teams in the service. And yet, he was honest enough with himself to admit there was more to his ease around the young man than that. He felt pulled toward the young witch, and wondered briefly if he had been placed under a spell.
Startled, he found himself at the mouth of the alleyway leading to Sandburg's home. Taking a deep breath, he ducked beneath the hanging vines and moved quietly toward the wrought iron gate. The little courtyard had taken on an almost magical quality in the moonlight. It was as if he had stumbled upon a portal into the spiritual plane like Blair had spoken about earlier in the day.
He moved stealthily toward the door and raised his hand to knock, but was surprised to find the door standing slightly ajar. A shiver ran up his spine, but he couldn't pinpoint the emotion causing his nerve endings to tingle.
He slipped through the opening into the darkened townhouse. Moonlight shone down through the windows in the roof. A light breeze blew around him, causing the plants to sway as if they were outside.
Jim moved to the middle of the front room, stopping when he realized he was not alone.
"Who's there?" he asked in a low voice.
A soft, almost sensual chuckle echoed from the shadows. "Who would you expect to be here?"
"Your...your door was open." Jim turned, unsure of the speaker's position even with his senses.
"I didn't expect to see you again," the voice said, changing topics.
"I apologize for my abrupt departure this afternoon."
"No apologies are needed," the voice said from behind him, and yet when he turned there was no one there. "I frightened you. And for that, je suis désolé."
"I wasn't frightened," Jim whispered.
The voice sounded amused. "Non?" Blair walked out from of his blind spot to stand in front of him. Jim noted the younger man's hair was worn loosely around his shoulders, framing his pale face, giving him a fey, almost ethereal, quality.
"No," Jim whispered, swallowing hard, as his eyes were drawn to the white shirt Blair was wearing. The shirt was unbuttoned to his stomach, allowing Jim to see the soft hair which seemed to angle downward. Jim gulped again as he noted how the shirt seemed to accentuate the younger man's bare hips, the shirt flaps barely providing enough cover in front and behind.
"Why are you here, James?" Blair whispered, moving slowly around Jim, one fingernail lightly trailing over his arm and back.
"I needed...that is...I wanted to talk to you more about...your helping us find Sinclair."
"My team." Jim didn't turn to face Blair, almost afraid that he couldn't. He felt paralyzed, not with fear, but by the finger slowly moving around his body.
"You couldn't have come in the morning?" The warm voice was amused.
Blair appeared before him again. "It's almost midnight."
"I'm sorry. I...I didn't realize what time it was." Yet, Jim made no movement toward the front door. "I...I...."
Blair looked up into his face, his pupils huge in the moonlight. "Were drawn here?"
"Did you put a spell on me?" Jim asked, barely breathing.
"Non." Blair shook his head. "But do you not feel the pull between us? I have never felt this before with anyone."
"Never," was the whispered reply.
Jim focused his sight on the face in front of him, knowing the witch was using the darkness to mask his features. "You're frightened," he blurted out.
Blair moved back several steps, but Jim moved forward, not letting the younger man widen the gap between them.
"Why?" Jim demanded. The witch didn't answer immediately, causing Jim to ask again, in a quieter tone, "Why?"
"Yes," Jim prompted, when the younger man fell silent.
"It causes an emptiness within me...as if...as if I am not complete...." Blair refused to speak any further, his frame trembling in the breeze.
"Except when you're near," Jim finished for him.
The witch's gaze shot up to Jim's face, startled. "Wí."
"I know the feeling." The soldier smiled lopsidedly.
"I know." Jim moved forward, gently engulfing the younger man in his arms. "I know." He tucked Blair's head under his chin. "Neither have I."
"I guess your accent is more intriguing than I thought." Jim grinned as he felt Blair's laughter rumble against his chest. But moments later, the young man gently pushed away from him. "Blair?"
The witch crossed his arms over his chest as if cold and shook his head. "I will help you find Sinclair," he whispered. "Where are you staying?"
"At the Place d'Armes."
"I'll meet you there in the morning, around nine-ish. That will be okay, non?"
"Yes, that'll be fine." Jim nodded; glad to have the help, but feeling as if a wall had suddenly gone up between them. He stepped forward, only to have Blair step back toward the door.
"In the morning then," Blair said quietly, dismissing him.
Jim moved forward quickly, closing the gap between them until Blair's back shut the front door as he stumbled against it. Tenderly, Jim wrapped both hands around the back of Blair's head, his thumbs gently caressing the cheekbones. He leaned down slowly, giving the witch plenty of time to escape. Blair whimpered in the back of his throat as Jim's lips touched his. Jim's tongue leisurely delved into the younger man's mouth as Blair opened for him. Blair's hands moved upward, fisting the back of the soldier's shirt. Jim allowed one hand to drop onto Blair's hip as he thrust his own hips forward, pinning the witch to the door.
"Non. Non," Blair gasped, pulling his head back, his chest heaving, his hands pressing against Jim's chest for support.
"My heart...my soul...will not be ruled by this...this feeling. You don't even know who I am."
"Are you denying this attraction between us?"
Blair almost sobbed. "Non."
Blair opened his mouth several times to speak, but nothing came out.
Jim pressed his lips against Blair's forehead, murmuring against the warm skin. "We need to go slower, explore what's going on between us."
"Why are you frightened, Blair?" Jim asked again quietly, his hands moving inside the young witch's shirt, as if he had never spoken the words about going slower.
Blair's head rolled back against the door as he arched his chest into Jim's hands. Trembling, he gasped, "I feel...I feel as if you have the power to destroy me."
"And I feel as if you have the power to make me whole," Jim countered, nibbling on the witch's collarbone. "But..." he paused, drawing back, "I'm willing to wait until you can meet me in the middle." Leaning forward, he brushed his lips over Blair's again, then moved the younger man aside as he opened the door to leave.
When he reached the gate to the alleyway, he heard Blair whisper to the night, "Granmoman, this one has the power to break my heart." And Jim vowed to let no such thing happen.
Blair stood outside the Place d'Armes and looked up at the floors above him wondering which floor James was on. He closed his eyes and shook his head, halfway convinced that he had lost his mind.
Why was he here?
Sinclair, though he was the devil incarnate, would probably not stick around New Orleans once he discovered he was being hunted. Blair opened his eyes. So why was he standing in front of the beautiful old tourist trap contemplating whether or not to get involved in a situation which didn't concern him?
If he helped Ellison in his quest, he would, in a sense, be painting a target on his own back, not only for Sinclair to see, but for all who hid in the shadows as well. Who would stand by his side after the soldiers were gone and he was alone to face the darkness; who would then know his name and mettle? He had made no plans to stay permanently in New Orleans after he received his doctorate. But if he took this stand, would he be taking on the role of city guardian? He knew many of the elderly already considered him an arbitrator, someone they could go to when things got dicey. He had not gone out of his way to get involved with the local spiritual politics, but he had also refused to turn his back when he saw injustice being done.
He sighed. Was he even strong enough to take on Sinclair? The stories of the man's powers were surely exaggerated. But what if they weren't?
Would Jim Ellison survive a confrontation with Sinclair if he stood on the sidelines?
Blair expelled a lungful of air forcefully, realizing he was accomplishing nothing by standing on the sidewalk. In or out? He looked down the street, then back up at the building. He could feel the bond urging him to enter the hotel, and hung his head in resignation as he answered its call.
Clearing his throat nervously, Blair knocked on room number 307 and was surprised when the door immediately opened.
A young redheaded man answered the door. "Yes?"
"I am sorree. I was looking for James Ellison's room. The clerk must have given me the wrong number."
"No, he didn't. This is the Captain's room."
Blair raised his eyebrow. Captain? "Is he in?"
"No, but he'll be back soon, Mr.--?"
"Sandburg. Blair Sandburg."
"Sandburg?" a voice from inside the room called out. "Let him in, Ricky."
The young man smiled, shrugged his shoulders and pulled the door open as he stepped out of Blair's way. "Come on in."
Blair hesitated a moment, but entered the room. Besides Ricky, there were four men lounging around the room.
"Since the Captain's not here, let me make the introductions." He held out his hand. "I'm Ricky Buchanon. I'm a corporal." Blair smiled as he shook the boy's hand.
"Over there is Sergeant Miguel Rodriguez." A Hispanic man, in his mid-to-late twenties lounging against the headboard of one of the two double beds, nodded at him.
"On the other bed is Staff Sergeant Bernard Jones." The dark skinned older man also nodded at him.
"In the chair over there is Sergeant Matthew Wilson." The brown haired, almost nondescript man merely raised an eyebrow at him.
"And up against the wall is Lieutenant Benjamin Sarris." A tall man about Jim's age with piercing green eyes glared at him from across the room.
"I didn't mean to intrude. Maybe it would be best if I came back later," Blair offered quietly, unnerved by the way Sarris was looking at him.
"You're not intruding." Ricky smiled at him again. "In fact, Tony and the Captain hoped to be back before you got here. The Captain said you might have a way to help us track Sinclair."
"I don't know if I'll be able to help or not. I am merely willing to try."
"He don't look like he could find his way out of a paper bag," Rodriguez stage whispered to Jones, who was lounging on the other bed.
Blair chuckled, although he didn't feel like it. The room was definitely growing chillier. "It is true that my sense of direction is not the best."
Sarris pushed himself off the wall and closed the distance between them. Blair blinked once and bit the inside of his mouth, but did not step backward. He stared up into the stone cold face above him.
"I don't believe in any of your so-called voodoo mumbo jumbo," the man growled at him.
"I'm not here to convert you, mon ami."
The man took a step closer. "But you did something to convert Jim yesterday, didn't you? In fact, I believe his exact words were that you forcibly demonstrated your powers to him. Isn't that right, Bernie?" The green eyes never left Blair's.
"I believe he said something along those lines," Jones answered quietly. "But Ben, I...."
Sarris waved off the rest of the comment and took another step forward, finally forcing Blair to take a step back. "I don't like hearing that some snot-nosed, back-swamp hillbilly forcibly demonstrated anything to my captain."
"Even though you do not believe in this 'mumbo jumbo', mi lami, it doesn't mean there aren't powers which exist beyond your understanding," Blair said quietly, never taking his eyes off the man in front of him.
The green eyes became even icier. "I think maybe I would like a small demonstration of what you did to Jim yesterday."
"I don't think that would be a good idea." Blair turned to face the boy who had let him into the room. "Please tell James I came by, but that I had an appointment which I forgot about. I will try to contact him later."
Ben's hand shot out and gripped Blair's upper arm. "You're not going anywhere, witch. If you promised to help Jim, then by God, you're going to help him."
Blair felt his temper start to flare. "Please remove your hand."
"Or what?" the Lieutenant sneered.
Blair looked down at the hand on his arm, then back up into the green eyes, before he slowly and deliberately whispered, "Brile."
Ben's eyes widened as he began to feel the heat growing in his hand. He gritted his teeth and squeezed tighter. Blair clenched his own teeth against the pain, but continued to return the man's stare, nonchalantly.
Ben began to pant.
"Lieutenant?" Miguel asked, concerned.
The officer did not answer him.
"Okay, whatever you're doing. Stop it now," Wilson said as he rose from his chair and started forward.
"Rete," Blair growled in a low and angry voice.
Bernie launched himself off the bed. "Matt?"
Blair waved his free hand at him. "Pèn."
The dark skinned man gasped in pain, doubling over and dropping to his knees.
"Dios mio," Miguel mouthed silently, crossing himself.
Ben gasped out in agony, finally releasing Blair's arm and clenching his hand between his legs, as if the pressure would somehow lessen the flaming heat in his palm. Blair took two steps back, out of Sarris' reach, then turned and came face to face with Ricky. He started to speak, but the boy shook his head, clearly frightened, raising his hands in submission. Blair spun around when he heard the rapid approach of feet.
"Vole," he whispered. The Hispanic man flew back across the room, hitting the far wall at the same time the door to the room opened.
Blair spun; his hands raised, the words of power on his lips, but stopped as Ellison and another man walked into the room.
"What the hell is going on in here?" Jim demanded.
"C'est fait," Blair whispered, waving one hand nonchalantly over his shoulder; hearing the whimpers of relief from the men behind him, although his gaze never left Jim's face.
"Your men were just explaining to me how they do not believe in...how did they say...any voodoo mumbo jumbo. It is obvious you do not need my help when you have men, like these, who have such a clear understanding of the world and the way it works. I wish you luck on your hunt, Captain." With that, Blair started to push his way past the men at the door.
Jim reached out and grabbed his arm. Blair looked up into his eyes and Jim swallowed once before releasing him. "I still...we still need you, Sandburg."
"And of course, it is all about what you need, isn't it?" Blair stepped out into the hallway. His adrenaline was starting to wane, causing him to tremble slightly.
"Please," Jim whispered.
"Your men...." he began, not turning to face the captain.
"Have a clear understanding of what we're up against now, thanks to you."
Blair turned slowly back toward Jim, his lips pressed tightly together against the exhaustion which was seeping into his bones. "I can't go back into that room. Not right now."
"Then let us meet you somewhere, say for lunch."
"Perhaps, a late lunch."
The captain's eyes closed in relief. "Where?"
"Meet me at Galatoires at two p.m. If I have found my center by that time, I will be there." He slowly started walking down the hall backward. "And Captain...."
"If you come, be prepared to buy lunch."
Jim chuckled, his eyes never leaving Blair's face as Blair backed toward the elevator. The door opened as soon as he pushed the button. He turned to enter it, pushed the button to the lobby and the close door button. He bit the inside of his mouth as soon as the doors closed. His trembling increasing as the elevator squeaked and rattled its descent to the lobby.
The elevator finally lurched to a stop and the doors opened. He almost sobbed with relief as he recognized a bellhop, who had been a student of his at the university the semester before. "Jean Paul?"
"Professor? What's wrong?" the boy yelped, jumping into the elevator and swinging one of Blair's arms over his shoulder, his other arm going around Blair's waist to support the older man.
"Do you have a spare room where I could rest for a few hours? I can pay."
"Nonsense." The boy guided him into one of the back hallways, away from the lobby. "I would never accept money from you, especially after you helped my granmoman last month."
"I don't want to cause you any trouble."
"I won't get in trouble." Jean Paul used his key to open a door to a room on his left. "Should I get a doctor?"
"Non. I just need to rest."
The boy led him to the closest double bed and gently sat him on the edge of it. "Did you..." the boy wiggled his nose, in what Blair supposed was a Bewitched gesture.
Blair chuckled, despite his weariness. "Wí."
"You aren't in any danger, are you, Professor?"
"Non. I just...overdid it."
Jean Paul knelt in front of him and untied his shoes, slipping them from Blair's feet.
"Okay. Go to sleep then. If you need anything, just call the front desk."
"Mersi, Jean Paul. I need to be out of here by one."
"I'll wake you up myself," the boy promised. "Just don't..." He wiggled his nose again.
Blair chuckled, barely managing to keep his eyes open until the boy left the room, pulling the locked door closed behind him. His humor quickly vanished and he berated himself for letting things get so out of hand. He had no business sticking his nose into other people's affairs, but, as always, he had let his heart overrule his head. He sagged back onto the bed exhausted, barely finding the strength to remove his glasses. The attacks negated his earlier offer of assistance as far as he was concerned. He hadn't made any further promises to help James or his men. Just because he felt pulled toward one Captain James Ellison, did not mean he had to throw his fate to the winds. No, Ellison would just have to get along without him, he decided as he drifted off into a deep slumber.
Jim Ellison was furious. "Does anyone want to explain to me why our best hope of capturing Sinclair just walked out of this room before I even had a chance to begin the briefing?"
"He did mention something about having an appointment," Ricky offered, gulping in fear as icy blue eyes turned in his direction.
"Shut up, kid," Ben said quietly, flexing the fingers on his right hand. "It's my fault, Captain. I didn't like the fact the kid used force on you yesterday. I wanted to put a little fear into him, you know? Sort of a don't mess with an Army Ranger thing. I just didn't realize...."
"He'd fight back," Jim finished for him.
Jim looked around the room at each of his men. Bernie was rubbing his stomach. Miguel was shaking his head as if trying to clear his vision, while Matt sat quietly back into his chair.
"I take it you've all changed your mind about what we're up against?"
"That was...." Bernie started.
"The most frightening thing I've ever experienced," Miguel said quietly, crossing himself. "I've seen some weird stuff, Captain; stuff I wouldn't even try to explain to someone else, but I have never seen or felt anything like that before."
"He just waved his hand and Rodriguez flew across the room like he was a ball." Ricky slumped onto the edge of the closest bed, apparently still not able to integrate what he saw with what he knew about the world. He looked up gratefully as Lieutenant Romano put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"I also assume you've all changed your minds about wanting him on the team?"
"Hell, Captain," Matthew said quietly, rubbing a hand over his face. "If Sinclair is into this shit, I will get down on my hands and knees and beg Sandburg for forgiveness, if you think it would help. I've been a Ranger for nine years, sir, and I've never been so scared in my entire life. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't move. I don't like not having control of my own body. I'm not real sure what he did to Ben and Bernie, but I sure as hell want him on our side."
Bernie nodded in agreement. "I gotta go with Matty on this one, sir."
Jim looked at Rodriguez.
Sarris nodded. "I'll make my apologies at the restaurant, sir."
"Very well. Ricky, get on the computer and find out where this Galatoires is, then see if you can make a reservation. I'll meet you there at 1:45. Tony, make sure none of these clowns need medical attention." Jim turned, his hand on the doorknob.
"Jim?" Ben asked quietly, his concern echoing around the room.
"I'll be okay, Ben. I'm just going to see if I can do some damage control. I'll meet you at the restaurant."
Jim had been aware, since his first meeting with Blair Sandburg that his senses were becoming sharper, more defined. He had become conscious of Blair's heartbeat the night before while he had had the young man pressed against the door. He had known the moment he stepped off the elevator that Blair was in his room with his men. Even now, he was cognizant of the fact that the witch hadn't left the hotel.
He followed the heartbeat to the first floor and to a locked door. He withdrew a thin piece of wire from his wallet, picked the lock and entered the room quickly, flipping the brass security door latch which would prevent anyone else from entering the room. Blair was dead to the world. One arm lay over his forehead, while the other one rested on his chest.
Jim sat on the edge of the bed beside the sleeping witch.
"So using the power drains you, huh, kid? Which means you're not invincible." Jim looked at the smooth face, surprised by the innocence reflected there. "I'm asking you to walk into Hell with me, aren't I?" He reached forward to touch one of the sable tresses which had pulled loose from its binding.
"I wish there was another way. But knowing what I know now about what you can do, I can't let my men go against Sinclair without you. Please forgive me. I'm just beginning to understand what this might cost you."
Blair rose through the layers of sleep enjoying a nice sexual buzz. He moaned, wishing he could remember the dream he was waking from. The hair on his arms tingled as if a warm breeze was blowing over him. Sighing, knowing he needed to look at the clock, he opened his eyes-only to find a pair of light blue eyes staring back at him.
"James?" he barely breathed.
"One in the same."
"Wha...what are you doing here?"
"Where else would I be?"
Blair blinked. Ah, so he hadn't awakened after all.
As if realizing what Blair was thinking, the vision leaned down and pressed his lips against Blair's. Since it was his dream, Blair allowed himself to respond. Parting his lips, he drew the vision in, reveling in the tongue that explored his mouth. He turned his head slightly, gasping for breath; moaning as teeth gently bit down his neck. His hands explored the chest above him, while he slowly ground upward against the hips which held him to the bed.
"I've tried, but I can't fight this pull between us," his vision told him.
Blair nibbled on the lips above his. "Maybe you shouldn't fight so hard."
"What are you saying, Blair?"
"I'm saying that I want--"
The security latch on the door thunked.
"Professor, are you okay?"
"Jean Paul?" Blair called out in confusion.
"Yes, sir. It's one o'clock. You wanted me to make sure you got up."
Blair scrambled off the bed. "Byen mersi, Jean Paul," he said, moving toward the door, but not releasing the latch. "Do you mind if I clean up a bit in here?"
"Not at all. Take all the time you need."
"Are you sure I can't pay--?"
"Not another word, Professor. I've got you covered on this."
"Mersi, Jean Paul."
The boy turned and moved down the hallway. Blair slowly shut the door, leaning his forehead against the painted wood. He knew when he turned around the soldier would be waiting for him. It hadn't been a dream at all. And he had told Jim....
"You'll have to face me eventually," Jim's warm voice said with amusement from behind him.
He closed his eyes, feeling foolish. "Non. I don't have to do any such thing."
Jim's hands touched his back tentatively. When he didn't flinch, they began to gently massage his shoulders.
"You knew," Blair whispered accusingly, without turning to face the soldier.
Jim's hands never stopped. "Knew? Knew what? Knew that you thought you were still dreaming?"
"Wí." Blair braced one hand against the door, trying not to lose himself within the warmth of the soldier's touch. "Why?"
"Because you strike me as a man who is honest with himself, even if he can't open up to others. And, I wanted to know how you felt about me."
Blair turned slowly to face the older man. "And what is it you think you now know?"
Jim leaned forward as if revealing a much sought-after secret. "You want me."
Blair tried to look past Jim's shoulders to the window on the far wall, but Jim took his chin in his fingers and forced Blair to meet his eyes. "You want me."
Blair said nothing, his chest heaving.
Jim caressed his chin, but didn't release his hold. Brushing his lips tenderly over Blair's, he whispered again, "You want me."
"I want world peace and an end to hunger, too," Blair said in quiet defiance.
Jim leaned forward. "I can't do anything about those issues, but I can do something about your wanting me." Blair trembled as the words were spoken softly at the juncture of his neck and shoulders. "Why can you say the words in a dream, but not directly to me?"
Blair slowly raised his hands and pushed gently, but firmly, against Jim's chest, putting distance between them. "And if I give you these words, James, will you stay in New Orleans? Will you give up your career in the military for me? Will you make me a part of your life? How will you explain my presence to your teammates?"
Jim straightened, anger coloring his tone. "Christ, Sandburg, I'm not asking you to marry me!"
"Ah, then I am nothing but une p'tite vite? Any port in a storm, non?" Blair pushed past the captain and walked toward the bed. He gathered his shoes and sat on the edge of the bed, unlacing the shoestrings.
Jim growled low in his throat and quickly closed the distance between them, pushing Blair back onto the bed, pulling the younger man's arms over his head, and using his body to pin Blair's against the mattress. "God damn it, you want me."
"Wí, you prick, I do." Blair struggled beneath the larger man, gazing up defiantly. The only way to free himself was to use his magic, but he was oddly reluctant to go to that extreme. Instead, he hissed at the man who held him securely, "What are you going to do about it?"
Jim gave him a hard, bruising kiss, then licked Blair's lips and kissed him again with a tenderness that left Blair shaking. "I don't know yet, but when I do I'll let you know." With that, Jim stood and strode to the door. "Go splash some water on your face. It'll help wake you up. How far away is this Galatoires?"
Blair sat up slowly, shaking his head to clear all the thoughts bouncing around his brain. "About twenty minutes if we go by foot."
"Then get a move on. I don't want to keep my men waiting."
"You don't want to keep them waiting?" Blair asked in a sarcastic tone, but quickly put on his shoes and walked past the captain into the bathroom, wondering what he had just missed.
"So, what should I expect from this place?" Jim asked his silent companion as they walked down the boulevard, slipping around tourists who blocked their way.
Blair looked over at him, a hint of amusement in his eyes. "It is one of the best French Cajun restaurants in town."
"So what's the catch?"
"Catch?" Innocent blue eyes blinked back at him.
"Oh man," Jim groaned. "We're so screwed."
A chuckle escaped the younger man. "What makes you think that?"
Jim stopped briefly, but thought better of delaying their arrival to the restaurant and began to walk again. "Okay, let's review the facts. You had just finished kicking my men's asses by the time I arrived at the room. I asked you to reconsider and meet us for a late lunch. You hesitated, but came up with Galatoires without so much as blinking. Why do I suspect this may not be the most pleasant dining experience we've ever had?"
The impish grin on the witch's face made Jim groan again. "Now, James...."
"Don't 'Now, James' me."
Blair's laughter wrapped around Jim, making him feel uncharacteristically safe. Blair opened his mouth as if to speak, but instead laughed again. "Non. Non. Non. There is nothing to worry about."
The witch's chest heaved in silent laughter. "If you do exactly as I say."
"Do as you say?"
"So what should I expect?" Jim asked, returning to his original question.
"Galatoires is a unique dining experience. The waiters have been there for decades. They know everyone. They also like to order for you. If you listen to them, you will dine like kings."
"And if you don't?"
"Well," Blair grinned wickedly, "there are different levels of dining pleasure. Think of this restaurant as New Orleans' response to the typical 'ugly American' syndrome."
Jim groaned again, wondering if there was any way to warn his men before it was too late.
Blair caught sight of Jim's team as soon as they entered the restaurant's foyer. They were standing in a tight group by the bar, looking miserable.
As soon as Jim and Blair joined them, Ricky let out a plaintive, but extremely quiet, wail. "Cap, this is one of those fru-fru places."
Blair tried really hard not to snort in amusement, but knew from Jim's sidelong glance he'd been heard.
"Galatoires is renowned for its French-Cajun cuisine," Blair said, with absolutely no trace of amusement coloring his tone. "There was a time, not long ago, when people spent hours on the street, just to stand where you're standing now. We're incredibly fortunate that they've recently opened the second floor. It has been closed since World War II."
"Do I have to eat anything?" Ricky whined like a ten-year old.
"For Cristo's sake, Buchanon. You're a God damned Army Ranger. Buck up," Miguel growled, taking a step forward, but found his path blocked by the large form of Lieutenant Romano. Glaring once more at the kid, Miguel stepped back.
"Blair!" An alto voice shrieked in delight.
Blair laughed warmly as he was embraced enthusiastically. "Bonjou, Guillaume."
"Mon dieu, mon petite. You are nothing but skin and bones. Your granmoman must be rending her clothes in the afterlife."
"Wí. She probably is, but then she always did have a flair for the dramatic."
The waiter laughed. "Come. Come. Mertin will be thrilled to know you have returned to the fold. He is cooking a poisson meuniere amandine which will just melt in your mouth and make you feel guilty for having stayed away so long."
"I look forward to it." Blair grinned. "I will need a table for eight though, Guillaume."
The waiter blinked. "Eight?"
"For my companions and myself."
Guillaume frowned while he surveyed the group. "Of course." The waiter recovered quickly. "Please follow me. I have just the table."
Blair let Jim's men follow the waiter first and grinned openly behind them. He tried to wipe the amusement from his face as Matthew turned to look at him, but knew the soldier had seen his smile.
As soon as the group was seated, the waiter cleared his throat as if preparing for a speech in front of national dignitaries. "I think today, considering the muscle structure of this group and given the fact that we must put some meat back on mon ami's bones, we will start with a shrimp remoulade, followed by the poisson meuniere amandine, and topped with a café brulot."
"I'd like a menu, please," Ben said in annoyance.
The waiter looked horrified, then said in a stiff voice. "Of course, sir."
Blair noticed that Tony watched the exchange with amusement. The soldier then turned his attention to Matt, and the two men exchanged pointed looks.
Blair asked, "Any chance we might be able to talk Mertin into fixing us a Godchaux salad this afternoon as well?"
Guillaume grinned brilliantly at him. "Wí. Of course."
"That sounds perfect," Matt said amicably. Blair watched the quiet man raise an eyebrow at Tony, then look over at the waiter.
"Well, I think I'd like a menu, too," Miguel chimed in.
Ricky opened his mouth to speak, but Tony cut him off. "My young friend here is allergic to seafood. Can you recommend a chicken dish?"
Guillaume patted Ricky's shoulder in sympathy. "Mon garçon pauvre. Well, while the chicken Clemenceau is not the poisson meuniere amandine, it is quite divine."
Tony smiled. "We'll both have that."
"I think I'd like a menu," Bernie grumbled.
Blair bit the inside of his lip to keep from laughing. "My fate is in your hands, Guillaume. But tanpri, ask Mertin not to add any extra to my plate. While he cooks better than my own dear departed granmoman, bless her soul, I must be able to walk home after the meal."
Guillaume laughed delightfully as he ruffled Blair's hair affectionately. "I will ask, but you know as well as I do that Mertin will do whatever Mertin wants." Turning to face Jim, the waiter asked blandly, "And you, sir?"
"The same as Blair, please."
Blair grinned mischievously at him. Guillaume left the table and returned almost immediately to toss the menus at the members who had not ordered.
The table remained silent for several moments, before Ricky groused, "I could have ordered for myself."
Tony simply elbowed him to quiet him.
Blair contented himself with looking at the other patrons, nodding to those he knew.
Ben Sarris finally cleared his throat. "Mr. Sandburg--"
"Blair," the witch interrupted.
"Blair," Sarris agreed and paused a moment to regain his momentum. "I wish to apologize for my behavior earlier today. I'm not in the habit of provoking civilians."
Guillaume picked that moment to return and gasped quietly as he overheard the comment. He looked horror-stricken at Blair, who barely shook his head at the waiter. The waiter nodded, then quickly took the three orders before leaving.
"I would hope not," the witch said quietly, when they were once again alone.
"I was out of line."
Blair stared for several moments at the green-eyed man. "I appreciate," he said finally, "that you are protective of your captain, but I am not the enemy. As I told you before, I do not wish to convert you. There are simply things here, in New Orleans, which cannot be explained in the conventional sense, but which are real none-the-less."
"How long have you been able to...?" Ricky asked, wiggling his fingers at Blair.
Blair chuckled at the boy's enthusiasm. "I've always been empathic." Seeing the blank stares around him, he added, "An intuition, if you will. Mi granmoman...my grandmother...was well versed in the arts. Mi moman tended to travel a lot. If I was in school when the urge to move on came upon her, I would stay with my granmoman. She taught me the ways."
"Then anyone can do it?" Matthew asked, leaning forward, his eyes intent.
"Non. I know of those who have tried but, without something innate within them, they could not grasp the concepts. It is more a calling."
Bernie took a sip of water from his glass. "Which is more powerful? White or black magic?"
"It is not..." Blair paused, then tried again. "Magic is magic. In that sense, they are equal. The power comes from the one wielding it."
"Sinclair?" Jim asked quietly.
Blair started to answer, but stopped as Guillaume brought the salads to the table. Once the waiter left, Blair leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Sinclair is known for his fascination with the dark arts. However, his desire to learn more has only been a recent occurrence. It is rumored that he found things in his granpopa's house when the old man died four years ago. Normally, I would not be worried, but his granpopa was an asogwe."
"What's an asogwe?" Miguel asked quietly.
"You could liken him to a bishop in the voodoo religion. It was rumored that he, too, was fascinated by the darkness."
Ricky and Miguel shivered together.
Ben frowned slightly after he took a bite of salad. "Can you take him down?"
"I don't know. I can only try."
"Sinclair's not gonna run, is he, boss?" Tony asked seriously, though smiled in amusement as he watched his friends who had ordered from the menus pick distastefully through their salads.
"No. I don't believe he will. Sandburg says that New Orleans sits on a nexus of power. If he's going make to a stand, this is where it'll be."
Bernie sighed as he put his fork down by his salad. "Estimated civilian casualties, sir?"
Blair's head snapped up, pinning Jim with his stare.
Jim laid his hand gently on Blair's arm. "There won't be any from us, but I have a nasty feeling that Sinclair won't play by the same rules."
Blair closed his eyes and hung his head over his salad for a moment. "I will need a day or two to prepare. I will not go into this without being...how do you say it...loaded for bear."
Guillaume returned with the main courses, serving the three men who had ordered from the menus several minutes after serving the rest of the group.
"I would like to do this as quickly as possible," Jim said quietly after the waiter left for the second time.
"So would I," Blair agreed. "Every day he entrenches himself here, the harder he will be to dig out. However, you have been passing around his picture rather indiscriminately. The darkness has eyes and no doubt Sinclair knows you're in town and has been working on ways to protect himself. I will not allow us to walk into a situation half-prepared."
Bernie snorted. "Since when is walking into a situation with an AK47 unprepared?"
Blair sighed. "A demonstration then."
"Uhh, I don't think that's such a good idea," Ricky said nervously, scooting his chair back several inches.
"Indulge me." Blair grinned challengingly at Jones. "Pick up the knife beside your plate."
Bernie swallowed hard, but clenched his jaw and did as instructed.
Blair whispered a few words, ending with, "v revini."
Sweat broke out on the staff sergeant's forehead as his hand quivered, slightly at first, but growing more pronounced. Slowly his hand began to turn the blade inward, toward his own stomach. He struggled for several seconds longer, then dropped the knife, which clattered onto his plate, drawing stares from several patrons around them. His empty hand slapped hard onto his stomach.
"Jesus Christ," he whispered.
"What if that had been a gun?" Blair asked quietly.
Ben Sarris leaned forward intently. "You can prevent that from happening to us?"
"I vote that the kid gets his two days," Matt said quietly. "All those in favor?"
Everyone at the table, nodded and said, "Aye."
With that settled, the men began eating their entrees.
"Okay, now I want to know. What's the deal with this restaurant?" Tony asked, chuckling evilly as the three men who ordered from the menu heads snapped up.
"So how much are you making the Cap tip that fru-fru waiter?" Ricky asked as he stopped next to Blair on the sidewalk outside the restaurant.
Blair tried very hard to keep his expression bland. "You must be mistaken. I am not making the Captain do anything."
"Don't give us that, kid," Tony laughed aloud as he joined them.
Blair looked over his shoulder and back into the restaurant, then at the expectant faces around him. "Thirty percent."
"Christ on a crutch!" Bernie exclaimed, clutching a fist over his heart.
"You think that's too much for the fine food you just experienced?" Blair asked, straight-faced, although it was a struggle.
Ben Sarris slapped him on the back jovially, causing him to lurch forward a step before he caught himself. "I like you, kid. You got class."
Blair shrugged, finally letting the smile blossom over his face. "I don't hold grudges very long."
"Thank God," Miguel whispered, almost under his breath.
"I'll go get the van and pull it around," Ben said, heading toward the parking lot. Bernie went with him, while the others waited.
"So what did you think of the chicken Clemenceau?" Blair asked the bouncing corporal beside him.
Ricky stopped for a moment, and frowned at him. "It wasn't half bad."
"So why are you frowning?"
"Because it wasn't half bad." He grinned at Tony as the older man pulled him around Blair, preventing Miguel from shoving the kid in exasperation. "Hey," the redhead protested. "I just wasn't expecting to like that Frenchy stuff."
"Well, you better be careful," Blair said earnestly. "Next thing you know, you might actually enjoy an opera or the ballet."
Miguel and Tony laughed while Ricky looked horrified.
Jim pushed opened the door and rolled his eyes at Blair. "I have no idea how I'm going to justify that expense to the brass." He gave the witch a much put upon sigh. "They're a lot stricter about expenses these days."
"Just tell them you had to wine and dine an informant," Blair offered helpfully.
"You've been watching too many cop shows." Jim chuckled. "Where's Ben and Jones?"
Ricky pointed down the street. "They went to get the van, Captain."
"What? I buy you guys one fancy dinner and suddenly you're expecting curb service. Come on, get your asses in gear." Jim waved a hand indicating they should follow as he headed down the sidewalk toward the parking lot. The rest of the group fell in behind him.
Miguel finally caught an opening and shoved the redheaded corporal around the corner, just as an explosion rocked the parking lot, knocking them all off their feet.
"James. James, follow my voice back," a voice whispered to him through the darkness. "Follow me back. I know you can hear me. I...we need you to come back." Hands tenderly framed his face and the scent of almonds wafted around him.
Jim clutched onto the voice like a lifeline and pulled himself back to consciousness. "What happened?" he croaked as his eyes focused on the smudged and frightened face before him.
"The van..." Blair hesitated, "exploded."
"Ben," he gasped, pushing himself off the cement and spinning toward the burning vehicle. "Jones!" he shouted, struggling forward, only to find himself blocked by Lieutenant Romano and Sergeant Wilson.
"They're both...gone, sir," Tony whispered, his voice breaking under the weight of his grief.
"What's the scenario, sir," Matt asked, his face inches from Jim's, forcing his captain to focus on their mission.
Jim swallowed hard. "Scenario Victor."
The men around him nodded as they stood waiting; the emergency vehicles' sirens drawing ever closer. Their faces could have been etched in granite for all the emotion they showed.
Jim turned toward Blair. "My men and I are here on R&R. I met you when I bumped into your chair while you were reading a book and drinking tea at the bistro on Decauter. We started talking. You offered to give us the grand tour of New Orleans."
"Wí. I understand, James," Blair whispered, his emotions on his face, unable to repress them.
"Can you do this, Sandburg?"
Blair nodded. "Reading at a bistro on Decauter. You fell over me. We got to talking. I found out you and your men were on vacation and offered to show you the sights."
The first police car came screaming into the parking lot. "Show time," Jim whispered.
Blair couldn't remember ever being so tired, mentally, physically, emotionally or spiritually. His mind was numb with the events of the last four hours.
Fire trucks, ambulances, police cars and reporters all swarmed onto the scene in a matter of minutes of each other. He repeated Jim's scenario again and again with various detectives and firemen, and once, almost, with a reporter.
Ben's face as he clapped Blair on the back and told him he had class kept flashing in his mind, along with the awed look of respect Bernie had shown him after he had dropped the knife. They were gone. In a flash. One moment laughing, the next nothing more than charred remains.
Blair could feel the rage flowing from the silent men around him as a patrolman drove them back to the Place d'Armes. Grief was also there, but each and every one of the soldiers had pushed it down deep. Now was not the time for sorrow, now was the time for revenge. Their auras practically screamed with their need to move, to do something.
A tear flowed over the bottom rim of his eye and trickled slowly down his cheek, unchecked. Why was he crying? He didn't know these men, didn't know who they were or what they believed in. Yet, he had felt their energy, their dedication, and their loyalty. He knew Ben hadn't attacked him out of spite or gain. Sarris had been trying to protect his captain, trying to make Blair understand that no one messed with someone he cared about. Blair respected that. It didn't make him any happier about their confrontation, but he appreciated what the man had been trying accomplish.
Using small movements, Blair wiped the tear from his face, not wanting to attract any undue attention to himself. The police van stopped and the soldiers clambered out and moved directly into the hotel. Blair moved sluggishly out of the van. He looked down the street; maybe he should head home and start his preparations. But before he could move, Matt wrapped an arm around his shoulders and steered him into the hotel and onto the elevator with the rest of the group. The group moved in silence to Jim's room, each staking out a position and spending a few minutes with their own thoughts.
"He's going down," Miguel said, finally, unshed tears all but blinding him.
"Yes. He is," Jim said, quietly, but with finality. He moved silently across the room and stood in front of Blair. "Can you be ready by tomorrow?"
"Wí. I can be ready by noon. Shall I meet you here?"
"No, we'll come to you."
Blair stood and walked to the door, knowing the men wanted to talk without him present. "Tomorrow then."
"Let me walk you home," Jim offered quietly.
Blair shook his head. "That won't be necessary."
"No, James. Your men need your strength right now," Blair whispered, pointedly glancing at Miguel and Ricky.
Jim closed his eyes and nodded. "Go straight home."
Blair smiled very briefly, then opened the door. "Until tomorrow."
The night was cloudless. Without the heat of the day, the humidity almost seemed comforting, like a gentle embrace. The music of the city surrounded him, trying to entice him off the streets. Most nights he would have allowed himself to get lost in the soft bluesy music as he walked, but now he found the melodies garish and loud, an unnecessary reminder that life continued despite tragedies.
The city, however, seemed subdued, as if preparing itself for the upcoming battle. He shook his head over that fanciful thought. The city would not take sides, but would simply await the victor. She had survived countless trials in the past and, no doubt, would continue to survive them long after he was gone.
Blair frowned as he thought more about the day's events. Sinclair had, unexpectedly, fired the first volley of the mêlée; but had not used the ways of power, instead choosing brute force over the supernatural.
Blair was curious about that decision. Surely the CIA agent didn't believe he could frighten the covert ops team off his trail. Non. He realized the agent had meant to take them all out in one fell swoop. Sinclair hadn't counted on the team feeling mellow after their meal, lingering to talk with Blair while they waited for Jim to pay the bill. But even if he had succeeded, Sinclair had to realize that the government would only send more men and equipment to replace the men it had lost. So why such a crude move instead of one of finesse?
Blair stopped suddenly in the middle of the darkened sidewalk.
Sinclair wasn't concerned about the government. He felt a chill course through his body. Why wasn't the agent worried? Blair swallowed hard as the answer came to him. Somehow Sinclair had found a way to secure his position. All he needed was time in order to entrench himself within the city's power and God himself wouldn't be able to remove him from New Orleans.
"What could cause such a harsh look to mar such a beautiful face, mon jeune sorcière," a silky voice purred from the nearby alleyway.
Blair's heart leapt into his throat, but his face showed nothing as he turned slowly to face the intruder. Even though he had never met Christopher Sinclair, had never seen a picture of the man, he knew, by everything he held dear, that he was now standing face-to-face with the devil himself.
"Ah, the silent type. I respect a man who doesn't feel the need to fill the quiet lulls with conversation. It shows that you're secure in who you are." Sinclair moved out of the shadows, although his face was still hidden by the darkness. He prowled slowly, almost seductively toward Blair. "No demands of who I am either. I like that. Your intelligence serves you well." The agent circled him slowly, like a cat eyeing his next meal. "You're exactly what I pictured. Young. Exotic. Pure." Sinclair reached out and tucked a loose strand of Blair's hair behind his ear. "Ah, I've embarrassed you." The agent chuckled without remorse. "I must say my associates seem to have understated your beauty. For as long as they've been keeping tabs on you, you'd think they'd have mentioned that fact at least once."
"You've been keeping tabs...on me?" Blair asked, despite his best intentions to remain quiet, but the man's statement had shocked him to his core.
"Wí. My colleagues have been keeping me informed on the activities of a certain young witch with great power rising through the community. A champion, if you will, for the elderly, the poor, those standing on the fringes of polite society; though why you bother is beyond me."
Blair remained silent. Keeping his eyes forward, he monitored Sinclair's movements carefully as the older man continued to circle him.
The agent stopped in front of Blair. With only the moonlight to see by, Blair was surprised to discover that Sinclair was a very handsome man. Tall in stature. Muscular. A man who, like Jim, radiated confidence and power. The devil, he reminded himself harshly, was also a handsome man, a seducer, the prince of lies.
The taller man leaned forward as if imparting a secret. "I have been watching you since you left the d'Armes."
"Because you intrigue me."
"Why would I be of any interest to you? I'm a student. A nobody."
Sinclair chuckled, as he glided around Blair again, one finger trailing over Blair's arms and back, much as Blair had done to Jim the night before. "You, mi lami, are not a nobody."
"Who do you think I am then?" Blair challenged.
"You are the one man in New Orleans suitable to be my lieutenant, to rule at my side."
Blair blinked in shock.
"I am...nothing like you."
"And therein lies your power. You could be the yin to my yang. My conscience, if you will."
Blair remained mute, unable to form an appropriate reply.
Sinclair molded himself to Blair's back, barely touching him, yet close enough for Blair to feel the heat from the older man. Sinclair's hands gently skimmed up and down Blair's arms, his mouth poised seductively over Blair's right ear. "Together we would be a force to be reckoned with. No one would be able to oppose us."
Blair swallowed hard, his eyes closing briefly. He had always known that Sinclair was a powerful man; he just hadn't realized how his body would react to such power. A small part of him wanted to lean back into this man's arms, to accept what was being offered. The rest of him was horrified that he could even contemplate such an idea. "I'm not interested in power."
The agent chuckled warmly. "Everyone," he whispered just barely above Blair's ear, "is interested in power."
"I'm not," Blair insisted.
Sinclair moved his head around to whisper in Blair's left ear. "And yet you take up the causes of those without a voice. Why is that?"
"Just because one is old does not mean they don't have worth. You disregard those you see as weak, never seeing the potential of what they can offer."
"Ah, see? Already you've educated me." The agent moved his hands slowly up to Blair's shoulders. "I can be taught. I can be guided."
"After all, that's who you are, isn't it? A guide?"
"Don't bother to deny it. All the ancient texts talk about the ones who guide. They are to be cherished." Sinclair's hands ghosted over Blair's chest. "Think of it. Instead of guiding a vigile, you could guide me. Think of the good we could do for this city."
"You have a raw power, young one, and you come from a line of power. Don't waste it on someone who can't appreciate who and what you are."
Blair felt a part of his defense crumble. All his life he wanted to belong, to make a difference. Sinclair was speaking to his heart. He started to tremble, but pushed himself away from the rogue agent. "No. I could never work with a murderer."
"And your captain has never killed before?"
"James? What does James have to do with any of this?"
Sinclair chuckled, but ignored the question. "Come home with me."
"What?" Blair shook his head in frustrated anger. "How can you...how can you ask me that?"
"Because you are fated to be mine, Blair Sandburg. Don't fight your destiny."
"Never," Blair whispered harshly.
The agent chuckled. "You think you can protect them from me?"
Blair started to quietly draw energy from around him. "I think I'm willing to give it a try."
"Your fight is not with me, young one."
"My fight is with you if you intend to do any more harm."
"Ah, spunk. I like that. All right then, a test. Let's see if you can keep them alive until dawn," Sinclair whispered as he disappeared back into the shadows. "Make me proud."
Blair started to pant as soon as he was sure the CIA agent was gone. His body trembled with the knowledge of how close he had let the evil get to him, but he had survived, relatively intact.
Let's see if you can keep them alive until dawn.
"Oh, god," he whispered. "James."
Jim closed the door and turned to face the four remaining members of his team. Ricky was sitting on one of the beds, his head in his hands. The boy's eyes were squeezed shut as if determined not to cry. Tony's hands gently rubbed Ricky's back, his own eyes closed, lost in thought. Miguel was mouthing the rosary, his fingers moving quickly over the polished black beads. Matt was staring at Jim, grief clouding his brown eyes, although his face remained passive.
"So what's the plan, Cap?" Matt asked quietly.
The sergeant's question seemed to galvanize the rest of the team. Miguel slipped his beads back into his pants pocket. Ricky sat up, although he didn't break physical contact with Tony. The older man continued to rub the boy's back, but his eyes were on Jim.
Jim sighed deeply. "Matt, you'll take over Ben's duties. Tony, you have Bernie's. Ricky, I want you to crack the local PD computer and tell me what they have so far on their investigation. Miguel, we need new wheels. Make some calls and see what you can do."
"Okay, then. Let's move like we have a plan."
The men began their tasks and Jim allowed himself a moment to lean back against the wall, trying to center his thoughts. Blue eyes held his as he became aware of someone stepping into his personal space.
"Are you all right, Jim?" Tony asked quietly, gently clasping Jim's forearm.
"No. But I will be once we get this bastard."
"He won't go down easy."
"Are we going to call in reinforcements?"
"Not yet. I want a shot at him first. If we can't pull it off, then I'll ask for help."
"Are you going to call this in?"
"They aren't going to be happy."
"No one's asking them to be happy. They just need to let us do our job." Jim watched the fingers of the youngest member of their team fly over the keyboard. "I'm thinking, maybe, we should leave him here," Jim said quietly, turning his head slightly to gauge Tony's reaction.
The dark haired Italian nodded. "I agree."
"The fuck you will," an angry voice interrupted them.
Both men turned to face the boy whose face was now as red as his hair. "There's no fucking way you're leaving me behind."
"Ricky--" Tony began, but stopped when Ricky slashed the air in front of him with his hand.
"Corporal..." Jim warned.
"No, sir," Ricky said, standing at attention, his entire posture rigid. "I've gone through Ranger training just like the rest of you have. I've done my job and done it well. There's no way you're leaving me behind. You're two men short. You aren't going to ask for back up and we all know it. You need me and, by God, you're going to let me do my goddamn job," the last was growled.
"At ease, soldier," Jim said firmly. When the corporal refused to stand down, Jim grinned and shot a look at his lieutenant, who was grinning proudly at the boy. "You did good, Romano."
"Wasn't that hard. Had good raw materials."
"Think he's ready?"
"If I didn't think so before, I think so now."
"Then tell him to get his ass back to the computer and do the job I assigned him."
"You heard the captain, Corporal. Get your ass in gear."
Ricky saluted both officers, executed a perfect about-face and sat back at his computer.
Jim glanced over at his sergeants, both men grinned openly at him. Ricky had finally done it. He had stepped beyond the envelope, gotten past his ideals of what the service should be and accepted the team for what it was. He was one of them now. Jim just hoped that losing his cherry, so to speak, wasn't the last thing the boy would ever do.
Jim had just finished packing his gear when he heard someone stumble in the hallway. He hissed, holding one fist upward. His men moved instantly, stopping their individual tasks and pulling out their weapons.
As the panting breaths drew nearer, Jim recognized the heartbeat.
"Stand down," he whispered, holstering his own automatic and moving toward the door, opening it a second before the witch had a chance to knock.
Blair stumbled into the room. "James, thank God."
"What's up, Chief?"
Before answering, the witch darted a glance around the room and made eye contact with each of the men. "Get your stuff. We need to get everyone out of here." When no one moved, he yelled, "Now!"
Blair grabbed Jim's shirt and shoved him back against the wall, his eyes wild. "I can't hold them off forever. Get. Your. Stuff. All of you. I'll explain once we get to my place."
Whether it was the young man's desperation or Jim's nod of compliance, his men moved with quick efficiency; gathering up their items, shutting off the laptop, and stuffing their remaining items into their duffel bags.
Blair stood in the hallway, his hands clenching the frame of the open door. "The elevator," he gritted out, when he realized they were ready.
"Wouldn't the stairs--?" Miguel started, but stopped when Blair hissed at him.
Blair led them straight to the elevator, pushed the button, laid his hands on the door, then nodded in satisfaction before he moved to the back of the group. "Hurry," he whispered when the door opened, his back pushing against Jim's as he turned and faced the empty hallway.
The men quickly filled the small metal box as soon as the door opened. Just before the doors began to shut, Blair stepped back into the elevator. A loud thump hit the doors seconds after the elevator closed. The witch slumped slightly in relief.
Jim blinked. He could have sworn he caught a glimpse of something before the elevator doors closed, something big and gray, almost beast-like, yet not, but his mind couldn't grasp the form of the thing chasing them.
"Cristo," Miguel whispered, crossing himself. Ricky's eyes got big and copied the gesture.
"Shit. We don't have wheels yet. Should we hail a cab?" Matt asked, staring intently at the young witch.
"Non. We can't take the chance of involving innocents."
"What do you suggest?" Jim asked quietly.
"We need to move directly into the middle of the street. Stay in the light. It's late enough where we won't have to worry much about traffic," Blair said quickly, again making eye contact with each of the soldiers.
"What are we up against?" Tony asked, his hand unconsciously settling on the redheaded corporal's shoulders.
Blair shook his head, unable or unwilling to give a name to what hunted them. "Do exactly as I tell you. Don't hesitate. Don't think. Just do." When the soldiers nodded, he added, "Move quickly. James, take point. You know where I live. The rest of you stay together. Don't stray too far apart." The elevator dinged and the soldiers tensed as the doors slowly opened.
"Move it," Jim said, feeling the witch's urgency, his only thought to keep his men safe.
They jogged through the lobby. Jim led, followed by Miguel, Ricky, Tony and Matt. Blair brought up the rear, practically walking backward.
"Matt," Jim called out as soon as he reached the middle of the street and turned to check everyone's position.
"I got his back, Cap," the sergeant replied instantaneously.
Jim started forward, aware of things moving in the shadows. He started to focus in closer on one of the shadows, when the witch's voice reached him. "Non, James. Not until we're home."
"Miguel," a voice whispered from the darkness.
The Hispanic stumbled, but Ricky wrapped his arm around his waist and kept them moving forward. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," the sergeant gasped.
"Limyè," Blair shouted and the street lamps around them flared brighter. An angry murmur echoed nearby, but Jim couldn't find the source.
They moved steadily forward. Jim scanned the alleyways on both sides of the street, aware of the eyes on them, aware of the sibilant hiss of hate directed their way. His skin prickled from the sheer force of the malevolence rising around them. Then suddenly, everything went still, even the air ceased to move.
"Run!" Blair shouted from his position in back.
Jim never hesitated. He ran, listening to the accelerated breathing of his men as they followed close on his heels. He finally spotted the alleyway to Blair's home and stopped just before the opening, grabbing Miguel and shoving him into the break, even as he reached for the corporal behind him.
"Move it, Romano," he yelled at the Italian, who was looking over his shoulder and starting to slow.
"Jesus Christ!" Matt yelled from the darkness, before several shots were fired.
Jim stepped forward, grabbing his lieutenant and throwing him into the alleyway, while unholstering his own sidearm.
"Sandburg!" Wilson yelled again.
"Brile!" the witch yelled with a volume Jim didn't think the young man was capable of achieving.
Voices screamed in agony, even as feet pounded toward him. Jim sighted down his arm, but blew out an explosive breath of relief as the witch and Wilson ran toward him, Matt keeping directly behind the civilian.
But as they drew near the passageway, Blair slowed, twisting slightly to grab the sergeant's shirt, and shoved him into the dark hole. He then pushed Jim forward, yelling at the brick walls which surrounded them, "Freme. Freme."
Jim moved through the wrought iron gate. Blair ran into the courtyard behind him, slamming the gate shut, locking it and stumbling backward several feet.
Even with sentinel senses, Jim couldn't get a clear fix on the form that stopped in front of the gate. The iron trembled but held. Blair stood, his chest heaving for oxygen, facing the gate, every line of his body screaming defiance.
A voice emerged from the darkness, "You can't protect them forever, sorcière."
"I don't have to protect them forever," Blair taunted back. "Go back to your master. Tell him, I passed his test. Tell him, you let a nobody beat you."
The creature threw itself at the iron gate, screaming in agony as its flesh made contact with the metal. "I shall rip out your heart, sorcière, and give it as sacrifice to our lord." The smell of burnt flesh and hair rose into the air. Jim grimaced at the stench.
Blair took a step closer to the gate and sneered. "Kouri, you krot. Run while you still can. Lagrando limyè."
The figure stumbled back as the courtyard and alleyway flooded with light, howling in frustration as it fled. Moans and shrieks could be heard as the shadows paced angrily at the mouth of the alleyway, safe in the darkness, but unable to reach their prey.
For several moments, Jim and his men stood in shock, their breathing reverberating around the tiny courtyard.
"Jim," Blair whispered, swaying slightly.
Jim immediately closed the distance between them. "What is it, kid?"
"Don't let them shoot, Larree," the witch mumbled as he collapsed to the ground.
"Report," Jim said quietly as he jogged down the stairs from the bedroom loft.
"There's one backdoor, one basement-no outside access, three skylights, the sliding glass door opening into the courtyard and the front door itself," Miguel said, unconsciously pointing out each feature as he mentioned it.
"I see you found Larry." Jim smiled, watching the youngest member of the team try to soothe the little ape who was making grumbling noises at Jim.
"He doesn't seem overly fond of you, if you don't mind my saying, sir," Matt said with amusement.
"Probably thinks I was hurting his master again."
Jim sighed, flopping into a plush armchair, knowing he looked vaguely embarrassed. "Well, I might have thrown him up against a wall a time or two."
"A time or two?" Tony laughed in shocked disbelief. "Shit. And the kid's still helping us?"
"Is he going to be okay?" Ricky asked, looking up from scratching the little ape's chin.
"Yeah, he should be fine. He's just exhausted. After my visiting him late last night, his run in with you clowns this morning, the..." Jim paused, "the incident this afternoon and now this, I'd say he's pretty much running on empty."
"But he'll still be able to help us, right?" the corporal asked anxiously.
Jim nodded. "Not that we have any right to ask him to, but I have no doubt he'll be with us every step of the way." Needing to get his mind off the young witch sleeping above them, Jim turned in his chair toward Matt and asked, "Can you tell us what you were firing at earlier, Sergeant?"
"I wish I could, sir. I was aware of movement in the shadows pacing us, but I couldn't really make out any particular form. They seemed content in trailing us, but one of them surged toward the street. That's when Sandburg yelled to run. I could hear them breathing--"
"So there was more than one?"
"We were almost to the alley when all of the...things rushed forward as one. There had to have been at least a dozen of them, sir. Sandburg stumbled and went down. I fired at the creatures, hoping to drive them back, but I don't think I hit any of them. One of them, the biggest, the one that showed up at the gate, was practically on top of Sandburg. I was going back for him when he bellowed that word, brile I think it was. The things stopped and appeared to be tearing at their skin. I don't know what in the hell he did to them and I don't care. I just grabbed him by his shirt and started running again."
"Did anyone get a clear view of the thing at the gate?" Jim asked the group.
Tony shook his head. "I tried, but it was almost as if my eyes wouldn't focus. I was aware that it was vaguely human in shape, but my gaze kept slipping off it. Even when the alley was flooded with light, I couldn't make it out."
The rest nodded, agreeing with the lieutenant.
"How did he know?" Miguel whispered into the lull of conversation.
"Know what, Rodriguez?" Jim asked.
"About those things. How did he know they were coming after us?"
Matt pushed himself to his feet and towered over his seated friend. "Just what in the hell are you implying, Mike?"
"All I'm saying is this witch has some pretty damn convenient timing." Miguel leaned back in his chair and rubbed both hands over his face.
"Well, you can just stow that shit, Ranger," Matt said angrily as he leaned forward, a hand on each armrest. "I was with him. I saw him go down. I saw the terror on his face. No one, and I mean no one, is that good of an actor. I've had the best try to play me, son, and I'm here to tell you that this kid is exactly what he seems to be."
"Stand down, Sergeant," Jim said in a voice that brooked no argument.
Wilson pushed himself off the chair, but continued to glare at Rodriguez.
"It's a fair question," a quiet voice intruded from above.
The Rangers turned as the witch slowly made his way down the stairs. Tony stood and walked to the bottom of the steps, guiding the obviously exhausted man to a chair which Ricky vacated. Without a word, the redheaded corporal handed the little ape to the witch then handed him a baby bottle. Blair smiled gratefully at him and hugged Larry to his chest briefly before giving him the bottle.
"So how did you know?" Miguel asked belligerently, ignoring Matt's scathing look.
"I...I...that is to say...Sinclair confronted me on my way home."
"What?" the group yelled, practically as one.
"Are you okay?" Matt asked quietly, gently placing a hand on Blair's shoulder. The witch nodded and smiled briefly, although it didn't quite reach his eyes.
"What did he want?" Jim asked intently, leaning forward in his chair.
Blair started to speak, but couldn't seem to find the right words to express himself. He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths.
"Take your time, Blair," Tony encouraged quietly.
Blair looked up, but his eyes caught and held Jim's gaze. He swallowed hard. "He said he wanted me to be his right hand man."
"Did he say why?" Jim asked gently.
"He said I had raw power; that I came from a line of power."
"What else did he say?"
"He said I was a guide, and that he wanted me...to be his conscience."
"The man doesn't have a conscience," Miguel retorted angrily.
Blair remained silent.
"He asked you to join him, didn't he?" Jim asked in a soft voice.
Blair nodded miserably.
"And you told him to shove it, right?"
The witch nodded again.
"He said he liked my spunk and told me he was going to give me a test."
Blair dropped his chin to his chest and whispered, "To see if I could keep you alive until morning."
"Dios mio," Miguel crossed himself.
"Are we safe here?" Tony asked, looking up at the skylights.
"Yes," Blair said quickly, trying to reassure the lieutenant. "Mi granmoman set strong wards here, wards strong enough to repel Satan himself."
"What's Sinclair's game?" Ricky asked.
"Divide and conquer," Matt said knowingly.
Miguel arched one eyebrow. "How do you figure that?"
"Sinclair has planted the seed of doubt," Jim said quietly, his eyes never leaving the witch's dejected form. "If Sandburg tells us the truth, we worry about whether or not he'll take Sinclair up on his offer when the chips are down. If he doesn't tell us about his encounter, then Sinclair uses it in the midst of battle to discredit him. Either way, Sinclair hopes to separate us from our only means of countering him on a spiritual playing field."
Blair raised his face, gratitude shining from his eyes.
Miguel pushed himself to his feet and began to pace. "So what are we going to do?"
"We, as a team, not just me, decide whether or not we feel we can trust Sandburg. If even one of us feels we can't, then we go on without him." Jim noted with some satisfaction that each of his men paled at that thought.
"As far as I'm concerned, I sticking with the kid," Matt said, speaking up instantly.
"Look, I was only asking. You know, trying to get everything out into the open. I wasn't trying to boot him off the team," Miguel said, holding his hands up in supplication.
Ricky squatted by Blair's seat and scratched Larry's head. "Hey, anyone who lives inside a biosphere with a monkey is okay in my book."
Jim turned to Tony. The lieutenant looked down at the silent witch. Blair looked back, his eyes open and honest. The dark hair man nodded. "I'm willing to put my life in his hands."
Jim slapped his legs with both hands. "Then it's unanimous."
"So what's the plan, Capitan?" Miguel asked quietly, his accent becoming stronger as his weariness washed over him.
"We sleep. Ricky, you have the first watch. See if you can coax anything more out of the police computer. In two hours, wake me up. The rest of you, get whatever sleep you can. We have a big day tomorrow. I'm not giving this asshole anymore time to entrench himself any deeper than he already has."
The men nodded wearily.
"There's a futon in the guest bedroom. It'll sleep two. The couch is big enough for someone and the bed upstairs will hold two or more. Let me just get some clean sheets." Blair pushed himself out of his chair, only to find himself being guided to the stairs by Matt.
"Get some sleep, kid. I want you in peak condition tomorrow. I'll worry about the linens."
"They're in the closet across from the bathroom," Blair supplied helpfully, cradling the little ape in the crook of his arm.
Jim watched Blair climb sluggishly up the stairs to his bedroom, exhaustion practically screaming from every pore of the younger man's body. Jim returned the small smile the witch flashed him when he reached the top, although it turned to a frown when Blair disappeared from view to prepare for bed. Matt was still at the bottom of the stairs, looking upward. Something territorial reared its head in his breast and he had the overwhelming urge to force his sergeant away.
He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts, then looked at the rest of his team. Miguel was moving sluggishly toward the guest room. Jim knew the shadows whispering the Hispanic's name had shaken the sergeant deeply. Ricky was setting up his laptop, his face concentrating on the task at hand.
Jim moved around the perimeter, checking door locks and window latches. He was so focused on his task that he almost ran into his lieutenant who was standing beside the sliding glass door.
"Something on your mind?" Jim asked quietly, when the man made no attempt to get out of his way.
"I was thinking I should ask you the same question, sir."
"I've had a long fucking day, Romano. I'm not in the mood to play guessing games," Jim said without heat, but with some measure of annoyance.
"Sandburg's a guide, sir."
"What exactly is your point?"
"Didn't you once tell us that that explorer, Richard Taylor, said every sentinel needs a guide?"
"Burton. Richard Burton. But not the actor who was married to Elizabeth Taylor."
"Whatever. You know what I mean."
Jim closed his eyes and sighed. Once, five years before, Sarris, Romano and Wilson had come to him in private and told him they suspected he had heightened senses. Knowing that a gray out could put the team at risk, he had told them everything he knew about his condition. They in turn kept his secret, and kept an eye on him when he was tired or under a great deal of stress.
"Yeah, I do." Jim shifted uncomfortably. "I...suspected it when I first met him. I mean, everything seems more focused now. Clearer. More intense. Unwavering. My senses have never acted this way before. It's as if his mere presence strengthens them somehow."
"So what are you going to do about it?" Matt asked quietly, stepping into the small circle of conversation.
"Do about what?"
"About finding an unbonded guide."
"What in the hell are you talking about?"
"What makes you think he's unbonded?" Tony asked, ignoring his captain momentarily as he turned to face the team's scout.
Matt rolled his eyes. "Do you really think the captain would be reacting to a bonded guide like he's been to Sandburg?" The smaller man shook his head as if the answer should be obvious to the two officers. "Besides, it would also explain why Sinclair's trying to entice Sandburg over to the dark side."
Jim glared at his sergeant. "What do you mean the way I've been reacting to him?"
Matt refused to be cowed. Grinning impishly at his commanding officer, he said, "You'll pardon my saying, sir, but you looked like you wanted to rip off my head and shove it down my neck when I didn't move away from the bottom of the stairs."
"You did, Jim," Tony said, nodding.
"So what are you going to do?" Matt asked in exasperation.
"Do about what?"
Tony laughed suddenly. "Who's on first?"
Both Jim and Matt glared at him.
"Sir," Matt said intensely, "It's obvious to everyone who's seen you and Sandburg together that there's something going on between you two." Matt raised his hands quickly to forestall the protest he saw brewing in his captain's eyes. "I'm not saying it's anything inappropriate. I'm just telling you that it's apparent that you two have connected on some level."
Jim glanced at his lieutenant who was nodding solemnly.
"That may be. But even if I wanted to bond with Sandburg, which I don't, I haven't the faintest idea how to go about it."
Matt cleared his throat, looking vaguely embarrassed. "I suspect you'd have to do it through...."
"Through what?" Jim growled.
"Sex," the scout whispered.
"What?" Jim barked, but calmed instantly, raising his hands to stop both men as they opened their mouths to speak. "Look. I can't, okay? There's simply no room in my life for him." Jim ran both hands through his short-cropped hair. "For God's sake, he's a civilian. And while he may be one hell of a witch, I don't see him surviving Ranger training or qualifying for covert ops. Besides, I won't ask him to give up..." Jim waved a hand around the townhouse and sighed. "I don't see how it could possibly work."
"Is that your final answer, sir?" Matt asked quietly.
Jim sighed again. "I think it has to be."
Jim blinked. "I beg your pardon."
"If you won't take the chance, I will."
Overwhelming anger coursed through Jim's blood, but he reined it in and asked in a voice that could freeze water, "And just what do you need a guide for, Sergeant?"
"Not me personally, sir, but my family."
"A guide is sort of a holy man, like an Indian shaman. They teach. They mold. They find solutions. They basically...guide. That's who they are. It's almost like they're genetically programmed to help those around them, to make them better, to make them more than they could be on their own."
"And what does that have to do with your family?"
"My people...my family are... Romani."
Matt shifted nervously, apparently uncomfortable about revealing anything about his family. "Back before World War II, we wandered quite a bit, but after coming to America, my grandfather found, well practically fell over, a guide. It was the first time our...tribe, if you will, put down roots."
Tony smiled at his friend. "I thought gypsies were flamboyant; and you, my friend, are anything but flashy."
"Who do you think worked the crowds?" the sergeant replied seriously. "Yes, our women are beautiful, but the men, for survival's sake, needed to be nondescript, so they couldn't be picked out of a crowd."
Tony nodded thoughtfully. "Makes sense."
"It sounds like your family already has a guide," Jim said pointedly, not liking the unease growing within him.
"We do, but he's eighty-five and in poor health. There's been some concern about what'll happen to the family once he passes."
Shrugging his shoulders, trying to sound nonchalant, Jim said, "Sandburg seems pretty rooted in New Orleans. I don't think he's going be willing to relocate to the Bronx."
"Then we'll move here, although the anthropologist in him might find the concept of Romani functioning in modern society fascinating enough to go to New York."
"Anthropologist?" Jim asked, shaking his head in confusion. "I thought he said he was getting his doctorate in psychology with an emphasis in religion."
"Yes, that's what he's getting his doctorate in. His master's degree, however, was in anthropology. His thesis was about sentinels, if you must know, although he has quite a reputation for studying enclosed societies."
Jim blinked. "Sentinels? You're kidding me?"
Both men grinned and shook their heads.
"How in the hell do you know what his thesis was about?" Jim demanded.
"We did some research this morning after you two left," Matt explained.
Jim tried speaking several times, but ended up sputtering incoherently. He sighed deeply and rubbed both hands over his face. "Sentinels?"
Both men nodded with wicked grins on their faces.
"What are the odds?"
They both shrugged.
Finally, Tony suggested in a quiet voice. "You should get some sleep. I'll have Ricky relieve you in a few hours."
"You might as well sleep upstairs, sir. Otherwise, I think Matt will."
Jim glared at the sergeant, who simply blinked innocently back at him.
"In two then," Jim said, before moving across the townhouse.
"Were you serious, Matt?" Jim heard the lieutenant quietly ask the team's scout. "Or were you just yanking the Captain's chain?
"I'm quite serious, Tone. Guides are incredibly precious. Once Peiter dies, my family will be lost. If Ellison doesn't want him, I'll do everything in my power to convince the kid to go home with me."
"Go home? You make it sound like you'd quit the show."
"There's more to life than the service, Tone. I love my life, don't get me wrong. But to bring a guide to my family, I would happily give all this up. All of it. In a heartbeat."
Jim stopped by the side of the bed and squatted, looking into the sleeping face of the witch. So young, so innocent, and yet so wanted. Wanted by a madman. Wanted as a possible salvation for an entire family. Wanted by a lonely sentinel.
Using one finger to push back the strands of hair covering the witch's face, Jim leaned forward and breathed in the guide's scents, committing them to memory.
He stood and walked around the bed, noting the little hammock swinging from the corner. Larry blinked tiredly at him, then sank back into his nest of towels. Jim removed his shoes, shirt and pants before slipping beneath the covers. Sandburg moaned quietly in his sleep. Jim slid across the bed and spooned up behind the twitching witch, petting the younger man's untamed hair until he fell back into peaceful slumber.
There were so many reasons why he couldn't allow a connection between himself and Sandburg. And yet, he couldn't deny what he felt; couldn't deny the fact that he was the one who had been pursuing the witch; couldn't deny the knots in his stomach over the mere thought of the witch guiding someone else.
What in the hell was he going to do?
Blair awoke, feeling the sun's rays warming his skin. He blinked his eyes open, surprised to find the Ranger captain sitting on the edge of his bed watching him.
"James?" he mumbled. "Ki le li ye?"
"Sept? Bondje, Je suis désolé. I..." He tried to sit up, but found Jim's palm in the middle of his chest, holding him down.
"We've got time."
"Where is everyone?" Blair asked, finally awake enough to realize what language he was speaking. He tried to turn his head to look over the railing, but again was stopped. Jim's hand tenderly held his chin and turned his face back toward the captain.
"They're gone. Wilson and Buchanon are getting the rest of our gear. Rodriguez is getting another set of wheels. Romano's out getting some additional supplies."
Jim's hand seemed to burn his skin with its heat. "I guess...I guess I should be getting my things together too," he offered, but didn't try to move.
"Matt says you're an unbonded guide," Jim whispered, staring intently into his face as if memorizing it.
"I...I...suppose I am."
"Can a bond be forced?" Jim asked intently.
Blair frowned. "Non. It must be consensual."
"Could it be...coerced?"
"I...I don't know. I suppose."
"Can you be bonded to more than one person at a time?"
Blair swallowed hard. "According to the texts I've read, a guide can be bonded to a community in a sense, but he or she can only have one person to whom they are individually bonded."
"What happens to your powers when you bond?" Jim used his thumb to stroke Blair's cheek.
"Theoretically, they would get stronger as I'd have two people to draw off of, instead of just myself."
"And if the person you were bonded to was a sentinel?"
Blair gazed into the older man's eyes. "A s-sen-sentinel?"
"Theoretically speaking, of course." Jim's thumb traveled down his cheek and began to tenderly trace his jaw line.
Blair whispered, "I would be pretty damn puissant...powerful. Being bonded to a sentinel would allow me to hear and feel things others couldn't, would allow me to understand nuances that..." He stopped, the intensity of Jim's gaze practically setting him afire.
"Why did you do your master thesis on sentinels, Blair?" Jim asked, bringing his other hand up to cup Blair's face.
Blair blinked in shock. "My granmoman...told me I was destined to be bonded with a watchman."
"So why is your doctorate in psychology and religion?"
Blair swallowed hard. "Because I couldn't find my sentinel. Because I can't leave New Orleans again. I want to. I tell myself I can, but I know better. So I'm trying to understand the city better."
Jim's voice dropped to a hush whisper, "So, you never found your sentinel?"
"Non." Blair shook his head and nervously licked his lips.
"So what would happen if your sentinel found you instead?"
Jim leaned forward, brushing his lips over Blair's, even as he unbuttoned his own shirt.
"Burton said that every sentinel needs a guide, someone to watch his back."
"Do you want to...watch my back, Blair?" Jim growled lasciviously down at him as he stood and removed his pants and boxers.
Blair whimpered, trembling as the soldier pulled back the blanket. "Wí," he mouthed.
Jim covered Blair's body with his own. The soldier's lips were on his neck, his jaw-line then moved lower. Blair breathed hard, trying not to pant, as Jim moved over him, nuzzling and tasting him, teething him. Blair's body arched beneath Jim's, his hands moving up and down the soldier's back. He mewled helplessly as Jim's tongue lathed his nipple ring, teething it then tugging on it gently. He tried to remain silent, but the pleasure coursing through him made that task impossible. Jim's hand slipped down his body, pushing Blair's boxers downward. Blair lifted his hips and Jim pushed them the rest of the way down his legs. As soon as his legs were free, Blair wrapped them around the soldier's waist.
Blair looked up into the light blue eyes which seemed to pierce his soul. A small voice in the back of his head cried out for him to protect himself, to protect his heart, for surely this soldier would leave it broken when he left New Orleans. But Blair couldn't deny the need he saw gazing down at him, couldn't deny that it called to him, wrapped him up and made him feel protected. Couldn't deny himself any longer. He wanted Jim, wanted to know what it felt like to be a part of this man, wanted to feel his warmth. Swallowing hard, he nodded, seeming to answer the unspoken question being asked of him.
Jim arched back slightly and fumbled with the nightstand drawer beside the bed. When he brought his hand back into Blair's line of sight, he noticed the soldier had found a tube of lotion. A part of him was frightened as the tube's meaning became clear, but he pushed it down. He wanted this. His body wanted it.
He gasped as one of Jim's cool slicked fingers gently entered him.
"Come on, babe, breathe for me," Jim crooned, moving the finger in and out of Blair's body. Blair gripped the soldier's shoulders and nodded, remembering to take a breath as he did so. He closed his eyes as Jim added a second finger. There was a momentary bit of discomfort as he was stretched, but pleasure soon washed over him in waves.
Blair gasped as a third finger was added. Jim leaned forward and blew gently on his face, reminding him to take another breath. He moaned into Jim's mouth as the soldier leaned forward to kiss him, tentatively rocking back onto Jim's fingers. The older man purred in pleasure, nibbling on Blair's lower lip. Blair closed his eyes, lost in the sensation, feeling a heat grow within him.
"Tanpri, James," he begged, knowing there was more, feeling his body crave the promised release.
The fingers were suddenly removed and Blair whimpered at their loss.
"Do you want this, babe?" Jim growled, pulling Blair's legs over his shoulders.
Blair felt Jim's hardness at his entrance. "Prends-moi, James."
"Wí. Prends-moi. J'ai envie de toi."
"You sure you want me?"
"Wí." Blair thrust his hips upward. "J'ai envie de toi."
Jim slowly pushed in. Blair arched his back, his fingers clenched in Jim's forearms.
"Shhhh," Jim crooned, stopping all forward movement until Blair relaxed. When Blair nodded, the soldier moved in a little further, slowly. Jim tenderly kissed Blair as he slowly rocked back and forth. Blair gasped, his eyes widening in stunned surprise, when Jim brushed his prostate. The soldier chuckled as he deliberately angled himself to hit the internal nub again and again.
Blair lost all rational thought. His head whipped back and forth and he tried to thrust upward, but Jim pinned him to the bed. "James," he gasped. "Bondje, James." Then the soldier stopped all thrusting movements, simply undulating in small movements against Blair's prostate. Blair began panting, his eyes widening as the fire burned brightly within him.
"Come on, babe," Jim urged from above him, his movements coming in shorter, harder thrusts. "Come on." Blair screamed, rattling the rafters as he released, pleasure rolling over him like the ocean pounding onto the beach. He was dimly aware of Jim's shout of release before he blacked out completely.
When he came to his senses, he was aware of a weight on top of him. Jim was straddled over Blair's hips, had already impaled himself on Blair's hardness.
"James?" he asked in confusion as the soldier began moving above him, shushing him even as he locked gazes with him.
Blair reached up, his hands skimming over the older man's chest. Jim entwined his fingers with Blair's and held Blair's hands to his chest. Blair thrust upward, unable to deny the siren call of Jim's rock hard body. Jim's body arched and clenched around Blair, making the witch cry out. The pace was hard and fast and before Blair could comprehend what was happening he found himself lost within his second release. Jim's cry indicating his release was right behind him.
His chest was still heaving for oxygen when he came back into himself. His eyes focused slowly on the soldier who was now sitting beside him.
"The guys will be back soon. You really need to get cleaned up," Jim said quietly, leaning forward and brushing his lips over Blair's forehead. "Go ahead and shower. I'll take care of the sheets."
Blair felt a warmth pass between them as Jim's lips touched him. He purred, reaching out to run his hands over the bare chest beside him. For a moment, the soldier leaned into his touch, then pulled back. "We need to hurry, Blair."
Blair frowned but nodded his assent. He gathered his clean clothes and headed down the stairs, noting that Larry was looking distinctly unhappy toward his bedroom. He swung out of his way and pulled a small bowl of grapes from the refrigerator for his little friend, then headed to the bathroom. He turned before he closed the door and saw the unhappy frown on the soldier's face as he pulled the sheets from the mattress.
Suddenly, everything fell into place.
"What happens to your powers if you're bonded? And if the person you're bonded to is a sentinel?"
Blair swayed as the impact of those questions hit him. He closed the door and rested his forehead against the oak wood.
The soldier had been preparing them for the upcoming battle. Maximizing their full potential. A small cry escaped Blair and he quickly moved to turn on the ancient ventilation fan to cover the sound.
Jim had used him. Non. That was not fair. Used implied he got nothing out of the deal and he could already feel his power humming through his body with new focus. He closed his eyes, feeling the tears gather on his lashes.
Yes, he had more power now, but at what cost to his heart?
Wiping the tears from his face with one hand, he put his clothes on the sink and stepped into the shower. The others would be returning soon. He needed to pull himself together before they came back.
Blair was adding the last few pouches to his backpack when Matt and Ricky gave a perfunctory knock on the front door as they entered.
"We got everything," the corporal reported cheerfully to his captain.
Matt was smiling over the redhead's enthusiasm until he looked at the witch. Moving quietly to the kitchen island, he scratched Larry and asked, "Are you okay?"
"Wí. I am also ready," Blair said, trying to put on a good face.
Matt frowned as he studied the witch's face then looked over at his captain, who was getting a report of their supplies, then back to the witch.
"Mo bon, Matthew. Really." Blair smiled, knowing it didn't quite reach his eyes. He watched the sergeant frown, but also saw the decision not to press him.
"On another matter..." Matt started, sounding casual, although there was an intensity to his eyes as he leaned against the counter.
"Wí," Blair said encouragingly, when the scout seemed unable to find the right words to continue.
"Those things last night..."
"Metal hurts them, right?"
"Well, blessed metal, at least."
"Is it hard to do?"
"What? Bless metal?"
"Non, not really. Why?"
"Those things last night...brought to mind stories my grandparents used to tell us at night. I always thought they were the Hungarian equivalent of the boogieman." Matt looked over his shoulder as if afraid to be overheard.
Blair smiled at him. "Most fairy tale creatures have at least some basis in reality."
Matt nodded. "I agree. The thing is...when I am scared, I mean truly scared, I tend to revert back to the faith of my forefathers, to their superstitions." Matt looked vaguely embarrassed. "Would you consider blessing my knives?"
Blair laid a hand on the sergeant's arm and gently said, "Of course. I would consider it an honor."
"And maybe a few bullets."
Blair grinned, but nodded. Matt grinned back, still slightly embarrassed, but with a relieved look in his eyes.
"I got wheels," Miguel announced as he strode into the townhouse, tossing the keys in the air and catching them.
Tony arrived moments later, laden with several large paper bags. Matt moved quickly to clear a spot on the kitchen island for the lieutenant. Ricky ran up and helped relieve the older man of his packages.
"Thanks, bud." Tony smiled at the kid.
"So what's the plan, Cap?" Matt asked as they gathered around the island and started pulling items out of the various bags.
"Well, luckily for us, there's a bomb squad Captain, named Taggart, who keeps copious notes on his computer," Jim said. "Ricky's been able to determine that this Taggart thinks a man named Panelli might be responsible for the car bomb. He--"
Blair's head snapped up. "Panelli?"
"Yes. Does that name mean anything to you?" Jim asked, intently.
"Wí. He was a follower of Sinclair's granpopa. Sort of..." he stopped, fumbling for the right word, "the hired muscle."
"So it's not too much of a stretch to think that he might be looking for a way to get in good with the son?" Tony speculated, stopping momentarily in his unpacking of the ammunition.
"So where do we find this pendejo?" Miguel growled.
"I doubt he'll be in town. His popa, though, owns land out in the bayou," Blair said quietly, not looking Jim directly in the eyes. "I'm thinking that might not be a bad place to start."
Jim clapped the palm of his hands together. "Sounds good. Let's move like we have a plan gentlemen."
When all was said and done, it took them until just before dusk to reach the Panelli's property line.
"Everyone stay put," Jim said quietly, then got out of the van and surveyed the trees and brackish water that surrounded the road.
"I still don't understand why you brought Larry," Ricky said, his nervousness apparent to all around him.
Blair grinned and patted the boy on the cheek. "All will be revealed shortly, grasshopper."
Miguel rolled his eyes, snorted with humor and shoved the redhead back into his seat.
Jim returned to the van and leaned inside the open sliding door. "There are motion sensors all along the road before us. There's also several in the trees. I'm starting to think Panelli might be hiding more than just explosives."
"You think Sinclair might be here?" Tony asked quietly.
Jim nodded and the group grinned determinedly as they reached for their weapons.
"I'd like to get a closer look though before we storm the place," Jim said quietly. "I want to make sure there isn't a back door or any other nasty surprises waiting for us."
"Ah, my cue," Blair said quietly, as he held Larry closer to his chest and stepped over Ricky to reach the door. Jim stepped back, letting the witch out.
"What do you think you're doing, Sandburg?" Jim growled, although the touch he laid on the witch's shoulder was gentle.
"You need information. I can provide it."
"It would take too long to explain, Captain. Just let Larree and me work. But whatever you do, don't let Larree get killed. It's important, Jim. Can you cover him?"
"Yes. The house is about a quarter of a mile away. The vegetation is thick, but I can see most of the way."
"Good." Blair shifted the little ape in his arms. "In case we're spotted, you might want to be ready to move."
Jim nodded. "Romano, Wilson, Rodriguez, you're with me. Be prepared to move out on my signal. Buchanon, you're with Sandburg."
While the men grabbed their gear, the witch began to chant softly under his breath, swaying slightly, like a thin tree in the wind. When the chanting ended, the Rangers turned and focused their attention on the quiet figure.
"Dios mio," Miguel prayed quietly under his breath.
Jim watched Larry climb down the frozen form of the witch, his dark blue eyes blazing with intelligence. Jim looked quickly back to Blair, who stood perfectly still, dull brown eyes blinking occasionally.
"Sweet Jesus," Tony gasped and crossed himself. Ricky and Matt unconsciously copied the gesture.
Jim swallowed hard, not able to give voice to what he was witnessing. Finally, he spoke, "Protect that monkey at all costs. Ricky, you stand guard over Blair. You understand me. No harm is to come to him."
"Let's move then, people."
The ape looked up at Jim, raising its arms. Jim understood and lifted it to a low-lying branch and watched as it scrambled to the main trunk. Larry moved swiftly through the trees, swinging on Spanish moss and running along branches, careful not to trip any of the sensors.
"Disang," Blair spoke quietly. The soldiers spun in surprise as the still figure spoke in a toneless voice, "So much disang. Gators sleep just beneath the surface. Waiting. Waiting."
"What's disang?" Ricky whispered to his captain.
"My guess is blood," Jim said quietly, turning back to locate the little ape in the canopy.
"Cars," the witch's voice informed them tonelessly. "Five. Men. Lots of men. Boats. Smells funny."
Acting on an impulse he didn't understand, Jim moved to stand beside the witch, never taking his eyes off the little ape. He laid one hand over Blair's heart and felt a heat pass between them. He inhaled deeply. "C4," he gasped. "Lots of it." He cocked his head to one side. "They're talking. It seems like some sort of meeting is breaking up." Several minutes passed. "They're talking about getting ready for tonight." His eyes widened and he looked over at the non-moving witch. "Bring Larry back, Blair. Bring him back now."
The witch made no indication that he heard the quiet command.
"Sandburg. Come back. Bring the monkey back. Now!"
"What's going on, Cap?" Matt asked, moving toward Jim.
"Sinclair's there. He's talking about solidifying his power tonight. He said...he said he needs Blair for the ceremony to be complete."
"Are we going in?" Tony asked, hefting a machine gun to his hip.
"Yes! As soon as the monkey gets back."
"There he is," Ricky whispered harshly, trying to get his captain's attention, while peering through a pair of binoculars. "Larry's on his way back."
"Where is he?" Jim demanded, removing his hand from the frozen witch.
"He's...Shit! Something just attacked him--like a hawk or something!" Ricky dropped the binoculars, the heavy glasses bounced off his chest, but the strap kept it from falling to the ground. Ricky lifted his rifle and sited along it. "Crap. I can't get a clean shot, sir."
"Capitan! Mira," Rodriguez gasped, pointing to Blair. Long bloody scratches appeared down the witch's arm, although Blair made no indication that he felt the wounds.
"Fuck," Jim growled. "Romano, Rodriguez, Wilson, go, contain the situation. There's no way we're letting this bastard go. I'll kill the bird and be right behind you. Buchanon, take care of Sandburg."
The men moved with the ease of a team who had worked together for a long time. Jim ran down the road until he was parallel with the ape, who was desperately dodging the talons of the broad winged hawk.
"Cap, it got him again," Buchanon called out.
Swearing, Jim focused his eyesight on the avian and pulled the trigger. A loud cry went up from the house. Jim turned and ran after his men.
Blair blinked back to reality, aware of a dull, throbbing pain in his arm. "Sa k a prife?" he whispered.
"Are you back?" Ricky Buchanon asked, intruding on his thoughts.
Blair turned toward the corporal, noting the wild-eyed stare of the younger man. He looked down into his own arms at the little ape shivering there. "Larree, you've been hurt," he gasped, cradling the ape closer while pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket and wrapping it around his familiar's arm.
"You're hurt too." Ricky gently touched his arm beside the wound.
Blair looked at his arm and frowned, but shrugged his shoulders as if to say it didn't matter. "Where is everyone?"
"They went ahead to contain the situation. Killing the hawk alerted the compound that we were out here."
"The hawk is dead?"
"I'm sure it is. The Captain never misses."
"Buchanon," the corporal's mic squawked.
"Yes, Lieutenant," Ricky answered immediately.
"Is the civilian secure?"
"Is he...is he all right?" Jim's voice this time.
"Yes, sir. Do you want us to bring up the van?"
Blair made eye contact with the boy and they both moved silently to the van.
"Probably not a bad idea. Report to Wilson."
Matt was waiting for them on the steps of an ancient verandah attached to an even older house when Ricky pulled the van to a stop. Blair took a moment to dig into his backpack and pull out a bottle of apple juice, along with a banana, and settled Larry in the backseat before locking the van doors and joining the soldiers.
"Did you get Sinclair?" Blair asked the sergeant as he approached.
"No. We were almost here when someone in the house cried out. We think that alerted Sinclair to our presence. He escaped through the bayou after he disabled the boats. I think he might have thrown something in the water too. The alligators are going nuts out there."
"Did you catch Panelli?"
"Yeah, we got the bastard, but he's not talking at the moment."
Blair took a deep cleansing breath, then said in a voice the soldiers had to strain to hear, "I think I can remedy that." He headed toward the house. "Whatever happens, play along."
Ricky looked over at the sergeant beside him. "Suddenly, I'm very, very frightened."
"You and me, both, kid. You and me, both."
"Show time," Blair whispered to himself as he entered the house.
With his face completely blank, Blair stepped into the large dining room. A walnut table had been shoved to one side, and on the floor along the walls sat ten men with their hands tied behind them. Blair nodded an acknowledgment to Tony, who was standing guard, before he moved to the center of the room.
"Well. Well. Well," Blair taunted in a cold, almost cruel voice, as he turned slowly to look at each prisoner. "How does it feel to know that at the first sign of trouble, your...master," he sneered as if the word was distasteful, "runs and leaves you to face the music alone?"
Most of the men refused to make eye contact, their heads bowed, almost in shame. One man, however, looked him straight in the face.
"He will be back, sorcière."
"For you?" Blair chuckled. "I think not."
"Non. For you. How does it feel to be the chosen one, the one who will make Sinclair the strongest leader New Orleans has ever seen? Once Sinclair has claimed you, you will be ours."
"Maybe Sinclair's, but never yours." Blair raised an eyebrow in disgust, then added, "But I won't be making Sinclair a leader of anything."
"You don't have a choice."
"Ah, but you're wrong." Blair smiled, squatting in front of the seated man. "You see, I've decided to throw my hat in the ring. To konprann?"
Heads all around him snapped up in surprise.
Panelli's confidence began to waiver. "Non. That's not possible. You've made it known for years that you don't wish power. You've always acted as an arbitrator."
Blair shrugged. "I've changed my mind. After all, why should I work to put someone else in power? Seems sort of silly, non?" He rose slowly to his feet. "I've tasted what Sinclair has to offer and decided that I don't wish to have my portions doled out to me like a child. Non, I think I will take what I want."
Panelli's face drained of all color.
"My first order of business, of course, is to remove the opposition's support."
The men on the floor fidgeted nervously.
"See the men behind me?" Blair asked, casually. "You killed two of their own." He moved slowly toward Matt, and laid an almost seductive hand on the soldier's shoulder. "You believe in an eye for an eye, don't you mi lami?"
"Wí," Matt said, with no trace of humor.
"Which two would you like?"
"What?" Panelli shouted, his already leaking face sweating even more profusely.
"I'm thinking we should let the rest turn themselves in. After all, I want people to know I can be benevolent as well."
"You'll never get away with this. Sinclair will squash you like a bug," Panelli shouted.
"Please get James," Blair leaned close to Tony and whispered, before turning to face the car bomber.
"Wí. I had thought of that. After all, most of my power is raw, untempered by trial and experience, so I've taken steps to remedy that situation."
Blair closed his eyes and began to draw in power, surprised by the strength of the energy surrounding him. There was little doubt as to why Sinclair had chosen this place as his base of operations. Blair felt his sentinel enter the house, angry and frustrated. The captain's emotions changed the energy in the room.
The men on the floor gasped, recognizing the change.
"James, a moment, please," Blair said, opening his eyes and smiling malevolently at Panelli. Jim moved to his side. Blair reached out and placed his hand over the soldier's heart. The air crackled with electricity. The bound men cried out, whispering for mercy.
Blair breathed in deeply, closing his eyes as if the power thrumming around him was sexual in nature. Biting his lower lip, he turned to Jim and said quietly, "I've told Matt that he can pick any two men here in retribution. I'm thinking the rest should be allowed to turn themselves in to the police to...cleanse their souls. But I got to thinking, maybe you wish to make a statement to Sinclair. Perhaps, double or nothing?"
Jim never blinked. "I must admit, I would like to send a message to the man who would be king."
Several of the men on the floor cried out, while others began to pray.
"But we haven't caught Sinclair yet and bodies would only draw unwanted attention at the moment."
"Wí. Good point. I hadn't thought of that."
"I think we should ask these men to go straight to the police to confess their...sins? We could even charge them with taking in Mr. Panelli?"
"Ah, but how can we trust them?"
"Rodriguez?" Jim said, never breaking his eye contact with Panelli.
"Did you get everyone's wallets?"
"You got all the pertinent information?"
"Then give the men back their belongings when you untie them."
The men on the floor did not stand up after Miguel untied them, but simply stayed where they were, no one wanting to be the first to make level eye contact with the captain.
"Are you sure I can't keep at least one?" Blair pouted, rubbing a hand slowly up and down Jim's arm. He walked behind Jim then peeked around the soldier almost playfully. "After all, I promised Matt a couple to play with and I really hate breaking my promises."
"I'll tell you what," Jim said in an appeasing voice. "If I don't get my answers and if any one fails to show up at the police station, I'll let you and Matt have your fun."
"Fair enough," Blair smiled, then sauntered back next to Matt, nudging him playfully.
"Where's the ceremony going to be held tonight?" Jim asked without preamble.
"You'll have to find him yourself," Panelli sneered.
"He'll be at Cabrini High School. In their football stadium," a balding man in his middle thirties offered quietly.
"Renet, are you nuts?" Panelli screamed.
"For god's sake's, Panelli, I have kids," the bald man shouted back, looking nervously at Blair who appeared to be whispering naughty secrets in the sergeant's ear if the grin on Wilson's face was any indication.
Panelli growled. "Sinclair will reward the faithful."
"Like he did today, leaving us behind," another man piped up. The rest of the crowd murmured its assent.
"What's he going to do there?" Jim asked, cutting through the dissatisfaction.
"We don't know. He didn't tell us. Other than to say there was going to be a ceremony of some sort. He's sending people out to gather the sorcière," another man volunteered.
Jim frowned at Panelli. "Is there a time for this ceremony?"
"Midnight," another man piped in.
Jim turned and pointed to Renet. "You will drive the lead car. The others will follow you. We will follow them. Don't make us come looking for you." Then turning to his men, Jim said, "Lieutenant, put them in the cars."
Jim closed the distance between him and Panelli. "I suggest you be very thorough in your confession," Jim whispered harshly, aware that Blair had come up behind him and laid a hand on his back. "And if I were you, I'd pray for jail time because when I find you..."
Panelli's eyes widened in horror and nodded nervously.
Jim stepped back and let the pudgy little man join the group trying to exit the building.
Blair leaned against Jim's back, trembling, when the captain's stance relaxed, indicating that the last of their prisoners were in their cars. He closed his eyes, feeling weary and trying to keep his emotions in check.
"Matt, is the C4 secure?" Jim asked, without moving.
"Good, then I want you and Mike to search the house," Jim instructed. "See if you can find anything incriminating. You have ten minutes."
Jim turned slowly and wrapped his arms around Blair. A part of Blair wanted to protest the tender feelings he was receiving from the larger man, knowing that morning's tryst had been nothing more than a way to solidify their power, but the rest of him needed the kindness, needed to be healed by the gentle touches.
"You were very convincing," Jim praised him, whispering into his hair above his ear.
"I feel dirty."
"I'm sorry, but you convinced them of the error of their ways far better than we could have done with our guns."
"That doesn't make me feel better," Blair complained, but was warmed by the approval.
"You might have saved their lives."
Blair shrugged within the soldier's arms.
"They're waiting in their cars, sir," Ricky announced, bouncing into the room.
"Let them wait a few minutes longer. Did you strip the cars of all cell phones and electrical devices?"
"And plant the homing beacons?"
"Yes, sir." Ricky, still bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet, said conversationally to Blair, "I'm surprised no one tried any of their own mojo."
"They might have tried," Blair said quietly, "but I was able to lie down a suppressing field before I came in."
"Really? That's so cool," Ricky blurted out.
"Corporal, go see if Romano needs any help."
"Yes, sir." The redhead saluted briskly and bounced back out of the room.
"And people think I'm hyper," Blair said with some amusement.
"Are you going to be okay?" Jim asked, ignoring the comment.
Blair nodded his head. "Although I could use some rest."
"We can't go back to your place. It sounds like Sinclair will be looking for you."
"I know of a safe place."
"Not here," Blair mouthed.
"Okay." Jim held him tight, laying his cheek on the top of Blair's head. Blair brought his arms up and wrapped them around the older man's waist. After several moments, Jim said quietly, "I need to check the area down here." Blair nodded, reluctantly releasing Jim from his embrace. "You stay here."
Blair nodded his assent and watched Jim move into the next room. He sat on the table and waited, contemplating the bond between he and Jim. He had been feeling it growing stronger with each passing hour and wondered what it would feel like in fifty years. He shook his head over that foolish thought. Jim had never promised him a commitment, had even been angered when Blair had mentioned it the day before. However, there was no doubt they had been successful in creating a bond. The question now became what would become of him when Jim walked away?
"Cap," Tony called out when Jim stepped onto the verandah. "What do you want us to do with the vegetable?" he asked, pointing to the man staring blankly into space from the swing on the front porch.
"Put him in one of the cars." Jim turned to look at the witch at his side, who was holding several very ancient looking books. "Was he connected with the hawk?"
"That's why you wanted Larry to remain safe."
"Will he ever recover?"
"It is not unheard of, but he will never be the man he once was."
Jim remained silent, realizing how close he came to losing the witch that afternoon while the ape had scrambled desperately through the branches of the waterlogged trees. He watched in silence as Blair moved with his booty of books to the van. Sinclair, in his haste to escape, had been forced to leave behind many of his possessions, but whether that helped them or not had yet to be determined.
Finally, he called out. "Let's move them out."
He had a bad feeling that things were going to get a whole lot worse before they got any better.
"Damn. I can't believe they drove straight to the police station," Ricky whispered in awe, leaning between the front seats, watching Sinclair's men pile out of their cars and walk up the steps to the precinct. Panelli hesitated, looking down the street toward the van, but the men around him grabbed his arms and hustled him into the building.
"Fear is a powerful motivator," Blair said quietly from behind him.
"Yeah, but still...that's...that's...just so cool."
Matt sighed behind him.
Ricky turned, frowning slightly at the sergeant. "What?"
Matt pointed toward the police station. "Yeah, they went in, but in all likelihood, only Panelli will do time. The rest are simply taking up space. I doubt any charges of substance will be pressed against the rest."
"True," Jim interjected. "But if they're here, then they can't be helping Sinclair tonight."
"Small men with delusions of grandeur, fleeing like cockroaches when the lights come on. So easy to be a big man in the dark, but not so easy in the full brightness of day," Blair whispered, one hand unconsciously petting the sleeping Barbary ape.
Ricky frowned. "But it's dark now."
"Christo, Buchanon," Miguel growled, turning in the front seat of the van to face the corporal.
Whatever he was about to say was put on hold when Jim laid a hand on his shoulder. "Mike, why don't you go check and make sure things are progressing as planned."
Miguel nodded once before getting out of the van, moving with purpose toward the steps. He stood outside the glass doors of the police department for several minutes before heading back for the van. He walked toward them with a smile on his face, shaking his head in disbelief. The tension in the van eased.
As he walked past an alleyway, a gaily dressed black woman stepped out of the shadows. Miguel spun to face the intruder, his hands moving up to protect his head, but not before she was able to blow a fine white powder off her palm and into the Hispanic's face.
"Non!" Blair shouted, shoving his way to the sliding door of the van. He fell to the sidewalk on his hands and knees, then pushed himself off the cement and raced toward the stunned sergeant.
The woman's eyes widened as the witch approached, turned and fled back into the alleyway.
"Dios. Dios. Dios. Dios. Dios," Miguel sobbed, grabbing his head with both hands. "Soy así que atornillado. Mierda. No deseo morir. No como esto."
Blair reached the sergeant and grabbed the older man's face in his hands. "You aren't going to die, Rodriguez. You aren't." Blair forced the man to make eye contact with him. Miguel's face was covered in sweat, his eyes dilated in pain.
"How do you know, man? How can you be sure?" Miguel desperately grabbed the witch's arms and shook him hard, causing Blair to gasp involuntarily in pain. "How can you be sure?"
Blair slowly raised his arms until his hands once again touched the sergeant's face. "Because I won't let you. Dromi, Miguel. Dromi."
The Hispanic swayed, but Jim caught him before he fell to the ground. "We need to get out of here. We're attracting too much attention," Jim whispered as he carried the sergeant back to the van.
Matt helped Blair back in the van while Jim belted the sleeping man into the front seat. He climbed into the back of the van even as Tony put the van in reverse.
"What happened?" Ricky whispered. "What did she do to Mike?"
Blair climbed over the seats until he was directly behind the two front seats. "Turn left," he instructed Tony, running a hand over Miguel's forehead. "She was attempting to bind him," Blair explained.
"Was she successful?" Jim asked from beside him.
Blair shook his head. "Non. She was unable to complete the incantation."
"Are you sure?"
"Wí. But do not expect him to be of any use to us tonight."
"What are you saying?"
"She was unable to bind him, but she was successful in leaving him open. If we take him with us, he'll be vulnerable to Sinclair."
Jim swallowed hard. "Is there...anything you can do for him?"
Blair nudged Tony. "Turn right at the next stop light." Looking back at Jim, he whispered, "Wí. I can help him, but not tonight. There is a fairly detailed ritual he'll need to go through, more to convince him he is his own man than magic really. But we don't have time tonight. I'll have to do it tomorrow. Until then, he'll have to stay with my friend."
"Is it the only way?"
"To save his sanity? Wí." Blair closed his eyes against the frustration welling deep within him. Sinclair was picking Jim's men off one by one and his attempts to keep them safe so far had been fruitless. He looked back at the pale soldiers staring at him intently and knew what he had to do.
Blair knocked on the back door of the ancient stone house, and smiled despite himself when he heard little feet scrambling toward them from inside. A tiny, but fierce, growl echoed off the bottom of the door.
"Back, Goliath," a tired voice called out quietly. In a louder tone, they were acknowledged, "Yes?"
"Jack, it's Blair."
The door immediately swung open, revealing a middle-aged man in a wheelchair. "Shit, Sandburg. Get in here. And your friends too."
Blair stood aside as Jim carried the unconscious sergeant over his shoulder into the house. As he entered, Ricky grinned down at the tiny dog quivering with excitement, growling, but staying rooted beside Jack's chair.
"You're Jack Kelso." Matt stopped in the doorway, stunned. He started to turn back toward Blair, but Tony gently pushed him forward.
Blair shifted Larry in his arms and closed the door behind him. He followed the rest of the men into Jack's front room where Jim had already laid Miguel on the couch. The others stood nervously, shifting their gazes back and forth between Blair and Jack.
"I take it you read my book," Jack said conversationally, petting the tiny dog who now sat in his lap. "I had almost resigned myself to the fact that while I'm writing books that are well received they are only read by a very few. I can't tell you how thrilled I am to find someone who actually knows who I am."
"Your exposé on the agency was fascinating," Matt acknowledged quietly. "Although I'm not sure why Blair brought us to you."
Jack smiled, indicating that the men should sit in the chairs behind them. "You're hunting Sinclair and you're wondering if being in an ex-operative's home is the safest place to be. I don't blame you for your skepticism, but please, believe me when I say you have nothing to fear from me. In fact, this may be the safest place for you in all of New Orleans."
Jim opened his mouth to protest, but Jack just chuckled. "There are no secrets in New Orleans, Captain. I've known about you since your men began flashing Sinclair's picture around town. You're very lucky to have met up with Blair. I doubt any of you would be alive otherwise. As it is, Sinclair's people are looking all over for you." Jack said looking pointedly at Blair. "I thought you weren't going to get involved in local politics."
"I didn't really have much of a choice, Jack. Sinclair seems to have fixated on me."
"Yes, I've heard. I've been trying to get a hold of you for the last two days."
Jack laughed affectionately. "So what do I need to do?"
"Keep Miguel and Larry safe."
"Consider it done."
"Let us regroup for an hour or two."
Jack nodded. "I'll get some food ready."
"I'll help," Ricky said, bouncing up from his chair, taking Larry from Blair, and walking into the kitchen behind Jack. "So why Goliath?"
As soon as the ex-agent and corporal left the room, Matt turned to face Blair. "Can we trust him?"
"Wí," Blair said quietly. "Jack was disenchanted with the people who came into power at the agency. While he still has a lot of connections, he cannot abide by the policies of the 'new regime' as he calls it."
"Captain?" Tony asked.
Jim leaned forward on the couch by Rodriguez' feet, rubbing his face with both palms. Looking up, he said, "I don't think we have much choice. If Blair trusts this man, I think we have to as well, for Miguel's sake. Even if I call right now, it would take too much time to get another team in place."
"Then let's get some grub and take a power nap before things start heating up, gypsy boy," Tony said, slapping Matt's shoulder affectionately as he stood.
"I'm going to regret telling you that, aren't I?" the scout tried to ask in annoyance, but too much of his humor came through to be effective.
"Count on it."
"Jack has some guest rooms upstairs," Blair said quietly to Jim after the remainder of the team headed for the kitchen. "We should probably put Miguel in one of them."
"You want to lead the way?" Jim asked the witch.
Blair nodded and waited while Jim lifted the sergeant back onto his shoulders.
"So why does a man in a wheelchair have a two story house?" Jim asked while climbing the stairs behind Blair.
"Family home. He inherited it about five years ago. People keep telling him he should sell it, but he loves it too much. He says it has character, which to me means it's haunted."
"Is it safe?"
"Wí," Blair said quietly as he opened one of the guest room doors and pointed toward the four poster bed. He watched in silence as Jim gently laid Miguel out, removed his shoes, belt and pants, and pulled a quilt over the sleeping man.
"You trust this man?" Jim asked simply, not taking his gaze off the Hispanic.
"With my life."
Jim did not turn to face the witch, simply nodded his acceptance of the simple vow.
Blair headed toward the door, but Jim reached over his shoulder and closed it before Blair could walk through the opening. Blair turned and faced the taller man.
"I'm sorry," the captain said quietly.
"For what?" Blair asked casually, knowing Jim wasn't talking about closing the door.
"For this morning." Jim leaned forward, his lips not far from Blair's ear.
Blair closed his eyes and tried not to sway. "There is nothing to forgive."
"I needed you to be able to protect yourself. The bond seemed the best way to achieve that goal."
"Mo konmprann." Blair leaned back against the door and looked down and away from Jim.
"Do you, Blair? Do you understand that I can't lose you?" Jim murmured, pulling the hair tie off Blair's ponytail and running his hands through the now freed hair.
Blair looked back at him in surprise.
Jim bent his head forward slowly, giving Blair plenty of time to put some distance between them, but Blair didn't move, other than to tilt his face upward. He sighed softly as Jim's lips brushed tenderly over his. The soldier's tongue teased his mouth until it opened under the gentle ministrations. Jim took his time exploring Blair's mouth, then pulled back slightly and nibbled on Blair's bottom lip, along his jaw line, and down his neck. Blair arched off the door and into Jim, his body seeking the physical connection of their bonding. Jim grabbed Blair's right leg behind the knee and pressed his own body closer to the witch's.
"I can feel the bond growing with each passing moment," Jim whispered, his hips thrusting forward.
Blair's head rolled back on his shoulders. He returned each thrust even as Jim suckled on his neck.
"I can feel you in every pore of my being." Jim's other hand moved leisurely down Blair's back and cupped his rear, holding him even closer. "What will it feel like in a week? A year?"
"But you can't stay in New Orleans," Blair panted, trying to remain focused, but failing miserably. He mewed in the back of his throat as Jim drove forward again.
"So what are we going to do?" Blair asked as he opened Jim's shirt and gently bit the nubs pressing against the captain's t-shirt.
Jim groaned deep in his throat. "I wish I knew." He rested his head on Blair's shoulder for a moment then scrabbled for Blair's belt.
"Jim," Blair choked out, not sure if he was encouraging the soldier or asking him to stop.
Jim dropped to his knees and reverently pulled Blair's erection from his pants. Worshipfully, he pressed a kiss around the tip.
Blair opened his mouth to cry out, but no sound came as Jim's tongue encircled the bottom of the head and trailed unhurriedly down the large vein to the base.
"Hmmm," the soldier sounded amused as he gently pressed his nose into Blair's groin. Then without warning, he reared back and swallowed Blair's erection whole. Blair gasped, burying his fingers into Jim's shoulders even as he came.
"Chagren. Mo chagren," Blair gasped, petting Jim's head.
Jim just chuckled, the vibrations making Blair moan. With a satisfied moan of his own, Jim pulled back, then slowly stood, locking his gaze onto Blair's as he licked his lips. Blair's hands stayed on Jim's shoulder even as he laid his head back against the door.
"You look like a debauched angel." Jim grinned wickedly, leaning forward and kissing Blair deeply.
Blair's hands moved down Jim's chest, but were intercepted. "There's no need. That was...taken care of when you...."
"No, it was beautiful."
Blair rested his forehead against Jim's chest. "What are we going to do?"
"I don't know. I won't lie to you, Blair." Jim raised his hand and gently cupped Blair's stubbled chin. "I won't make promises I can't keep. But know this: we are connected. I may not have gone about this bonding thing the right way, but I want this. I want our connection. I want what I'm feeling with you. We'll find a way to make this work."
Blair jerked his gaze up. "You mean that?"
"Wí." Jim smiled gently down at him. "Somehow we'll find a way."
Blair reached up and gently pulled on the soldier's neck until Jim lowered his head. Blair kissed him slowly, giving up control as soon as Jim's tongue sunk into his mouth. Blair lost himself in the gentle assault until Jim groaned and pulled back.
"We need to clean up and get some rest," Jim said quietly, pulling back from Blair's mouth.
Blair nodded. "Go clean up. There's a bathroom two doors down on the left."
Jim brushed his lips over Blair's again, then moved him away from the door before slipping out into the hallway.
Blair fixed his pants and looked over to the sleeping sergeant, trying desperately to remember how aware people were supposed to be under a sleep spell.
"Is everyone sleeping?" Jack asked as Blair entered the kitchen.
Blair nodded, smiling at the little ape, who held up its arms. Lifting Larry, Blair looked back at Jack. "I'm sorree to have brought my problems to your doorstep, Jack."
"Don't be. I was looking for a way to get involved anyway."
Blair chuckled, but quickly sobered. "Even if we win, the darkness will know our names, will know who helped me."
"Bring it on." Jack grinned and handed him a mango slice, which Blair gave to Larry. "I know you didn't want this, Blair. But I also knew you'd only be able to sit on the sidelines for a little while longer. You're too good of a man not to get involved. You've been fated all along to be part of New Orleans' history."
Blair sighed deeply, then, not looking at his friend, confessed, "Sinclair confronted me last night."
Jack leaned forward in concern. "Are you all right?"
Blair nodded. "Wí."
"What did he want?"
"He told me he wanted me to be the yin to his yang."
"He's mixing his cultures. What's a good Creole boy know about yin and yang?"
Blair raised his eyes to meet his friend's and chuckled despite himself.
"Were you tempted?" Jack asked quietly.
Blair hesitated, dropping his eyes again.
"I'm frightened, Jack."
"Because there is something within me that responds to him."
"That's understandable. You both have...abilities for lack of a better word. Maybe it's just like calling to like."
"Are you considering his proposal?"
"Non," Blair denied forcefully, his head shaking in denial. "He is a madman. Ruthless. He has no concern for others."
"But he's powerful."
"That he is," Blair conceded, scratching the little ape between the shoulder blades.
"I suspect it's a moot point anyway."
Blair looked over at him in confusion. "Why do you say that?"
"Well, it's obvious you've already bonded with someone else."
Blair's head snapped up. "You can tell?"
Jack grinned slyly at him. "And if I were to venture a guess, I'd say it was with Captain Ellison."
Blair sputtered, unable to form a coherent thought.
Jack reached forward and took Blair's hand into his own. "Your lips are more swollen than when you arrived."
Blair blushed scarlet and pulled his hand back in embarrassment.
"Did you do it to strengthen your power?"
"He d..." Blair stopped. "Wí."
"Is that wise? What's going to happen to you when the captain leaves New Orleans?"
"I wish I knew, Jack. I wish I knew."
They remained silent for several minutes as Blair fed Larry more fruit. Finally, Blair asked in a very soft voice, "You will watch over Larree for me, non?"
"Of course. He'll be here when you come back."
Blair refused to make eye contact with the wheelchair-bound man.
"You'll make sure Miguel gets the help he needs?"
Jack nodded. "What's going on, Blair?"
"I can't...I can't let them face Sinclair. He's too powerful."
"You can't be thinking of facing him alone," Jack hissed. "Not after what you said."
"I have to, Jack. They don't know what they're up against."
"And you do?"
"Trust me. I have a plan."
Blair raised his eyes to meet the other man's.
"I won't lie to them."
"I'm not asking you to."
"Lord, forgive me," Jack whispered, sinking back in his chair in surrender.
Blair gently transferred the little ape into his friend's waiting arms then picked up his backpack. "Mersi, mi lami," he whispered as he slipped out the back door.
The night seemed to be holding its breath. Blair moved through the damp and humid air, intent on his destination. He was still five blocks away from the high school.
A noise brought him up short. He froze, ears straining to listen for any sound that might...
"So where do you think he'd be headed on such a beautiful night, especially on foot?" a voice from the darkness asked. Matthew.
Blair closed his eyes in resignation.
"I don't know," Tony's voice drifted toward him, "but it certainly looks suspicious."
"You're not saying--" Ricky started.
"That he wants to have all the fun for himself? I think that's a distinct possibility," Jim's voice came strong from the darkness.
Blair dropped his chin to his chest, waiting for the almost silent footsteps to reach him. He didn't raise his head, not wanting to see the faces of the men he had come to think of as friends.
"We are Army Rangers, you know? In fact, we're sort of known as being the best," Matt said kindly from beside him, nudging him playfully with his shoulder.
"I'm not sure that will make much of a difference tonight," Blair said quietly, not raising his head.
"We've been thinking about that," Tony said, poking him gently with an elbow.
Blair reluctantly looked up at the Italian.
Tony cocked an eyebrow. "What if Sinclair isn't as spiritually powerful as you think he is?"
"Why would you say that?"
"Because he hasn't done anything by himself yet," Jim said, stepping in front of Blair. "So far he's had other people do his dirty work for him."
"Probably because he's resting up for tonight," Blair countered.
"Could be." Jim shrugged. "Guess we'll find out. Come on let's get a move on. I want to get into position before Sinclair shows up. I'll take point."
Blair sighed as he fell in behind Jim with the others.
"You know, it's been a long time since someone wanted to protect me," Matt said in a light voice. "It makes me all warm and tingly inside."
Blair rolled his eyes, but couldn't stop the embarrassed chuckle that erupted from his throat.
"It really was sweet." The scout made the last word almost syrupy.
"Don't make me change you into a frog, Matthew."
"Can you really do that?" Ricky asked, wide-eyed.
Tony, Matt and Blair all groaned. Matt shoved the redheaded corporal off the sidewalk.
"Hey, what did you do that for?" Ricky demanded as soon as he rejoined the group.
"Cause Mike's not here to do it." Matt laughed, but sobered quickly. "Sinclair's going down. No one, and I mean no one, messes with the Panthers and lives to tell the tale."
Blair prayed the scout was right.
Jim raised a hand and the men behind him instantly stilled. He slowly walked backward until he was in their midst. "Those things that chased us to Sandburg’s home are ahead of us."
"Are you sure?" Matt asked quietly.
"Yes. Not only can I hear them, I can smell them too. They reek of decay."
"Is there another way to the high school?" Tony whispered in a barely audible voice.
"It will be difficult," Blair answered. "Cabrini practically sits on the river. The area surrounding it is completely open and flat."
"What do you suggest?" Jim asked quietly, his hand gently gripping the witch's shoulder.
Blair swallowed hard. "Everyone grab a hold of someone else." When the soldiers had complied, he took a deep breath, held it, then let it go slowly. "Blank as nwit. We are pa...aryen."
"My god! Where did you guys go?" Ricky hissed from the darkness.
"We are here," Blair whispered calmly. "We must remain silent though, the suggestion won't hold up under intense scrutiny. Whatever you do, don't let go of the person in front of you. Jim, can lead us past those things and get us to the stadium?"
"Yes," Jim replied confidently.
They moved slowly while everyone got a feel for the pace and gait Jim was setting. When they reached the strip of land the creatures were patrolling they moved with an agonizing slowness. Jim feared the creatures might be able to hear their movements or smell the fear that seemed to be rolling from the men behind them, but the things seemed not to take any notice of them. Once they were beyond the creatures, they picked up their pace again.
They walked past the guards at the chain link fence and moved silently toward a rock corridor which would lead them into the stadium.
"The stands are dark, but there seems to be some light on the field," Jim reported as they neared the end of the corridor.
"Why would Sinclair do that?" Ricky whispered back.
"So he can have those things patrol the stands," Matt replied instantly.
"God, sorry I asked," the corporal groaned.
Blair felt the boy's clenched fist tremble on his back.
"Everyone quiet now," Jim commanded quietly as he slowed the pace and peeked out of the tunnel. "Shit."
Blair felt the captain take a step back and shifted back slowly himself to give the rest of the line time to adjust. They moved a third of the way back into tunnel.
"He's got some sort of altar set up on top of a platform and he's got about a dozen hostages in a pen about ten feet away from the dais. Not only are there those things in the stands, but apparently not all of his followers were in the bayou this afternoon."
"One moment," Blair whispered, releasing Jim's shirt.
"Sandburg!" Jim hissed, the moment the group became visible.
"Hold on," he reassured the captain as he removed Ricky's hand from his shirt. "I need to see if I can figure out which ceremony he's preparing for."
Moving ever so slowly, he slipped along the corridor and moved toward the entrance, viewing the field at an angle, yet still staying within the shadows. "Mon Dieu," he cried out softly. He lurched forward, only to be picked up by the waist from behind and carried back.
"James, those are my people." A hand was placed over his mouth and he was brought back to center of the group. When he was set on the ground again, he spun to face the captain. "Those are my people, James. The ones who have come to me for help. They even have Michele, the woman who brought you to me."
"It sounds like he's bound and determined to get your cooperation one way or the other," Tony observed quietly.
"They can't be harmed." Blair spun to face the lieutenant. "They can't be hurt because of me."
Tony nodded, laying one hand on Blair's shoulder but looking at Jim. "What are we going to do, Captain?"
Blair turned again and watched Jim close his eyes, knowing they were too few to handle the obstacles in their path.
"We need a distraction," Jim finally said.
"You have one," Blair whispered confidently.
"Look, Sandburg, I'm not--"
"Wí, you are," Blair hissed. "Sinclair doesn't know we've bonded. He won't know unless he gets close enough to touch me and I don't intend to let him get that close. He's expecting me. Hell, he's probably expecting you as well, but he'll concentrate on me and let his minions worry about you. Let me go out and talk to him. In the meantime, you free the hostages."
The remaining members of Panther Squad looked expectantly at their captain.
"Very well," Jim whispered, clearly not liking the option, but not seeming to have a better plan. "Romano, you and Buchanon concentrate on freeing the hostages. Wilson and I will take out the humans." He turned back to Blair. "Is there any way you can maintain the illusion of us not being here?"
"Wí. For a while at least. If things start to heat up..."
"Hey, we'll take whatever time you can give us," Matt answered with a reassuring grin.
Jim turned Blair to face him. "Remember, I'm here. Draw off me if you need to. Don't worry about asking. Just do it. Understand?"
"Don't get too close to him. Just keep him talking as long as you can." Jim leaned forward and gently pressed his lips to Blair's forehead. "We can do this."
"We don't have a choice."
Jim stepped back. "Then do your thing and give us three hundred heartbeats before you head onto the field."
"Wait, before I do," Blair hissed quietly, sliding his backpack off his shoulder and onto the ground. He squatted beside it, untied the top and removed five cloth bags, handing one to each man and two to Ricky.
"What's this?" Matt asked quietly, opening his bag and hefting out several small paper-like balls.
"A last resort," Blair said, straightening, backpack in hand. "These herbs and powders can force the shadow creatures back."
Matt carefully put the balls back into his sack. "I feel a 'but' coming on."
"Wí, there is and it's a big one," Blair sighed. "You must hit the creatures in the head or upper chest in order for these to work. Therefore--"
"The closer they are, the better your aim is going to be," Tony finished for him.
"Exactly. As I said, these are a last resort. Try not to have to use them."
Blair waited until the men had tied the pouches to their belts, then reached out and laid a hand on Tony's chest, whispering the incantation. He watched the intense Italian fade, then turned toward the corporal.
"This is just too cool," Ricky whispered as he disappeared.
"Be careful." Matt placed his own hand on Blair's chest as he himself vanished.
"Draw off me," Jim whispered intently, before fading like the rest. Blair felt the warmth of the captain's lips against his forehead and began to count. "Un...deux..."
"Trois cents," Blair whispered, removing his fingers from his wrist. "Show time."
He closed his eyes and whispered the words which would make him one with the night. Opening his eyes, he took a deep breath and walked with steady purpose out of the stone corridor and onto the field. He moved several feet within the circle of klieg lights and scanned around the field to make sure no one was looking in his direction. With a single word, he removed the illusion surrounding him.
Blair waited patiently, not calling any attention to himself, knowing that every second he gave the soldiers could mean the difference between life and death. He watched Sinclair putter around the platform, putting the final touches on the altar, making sure everything was perfect. A slight gasp rose from the hostage pen, but Blair never took his eyes off the rogue agent. Sinclair glanced up at him and smiled, his handsome face brightening briefly, then went back to his work for several moments before freezing suddenly. If the situation wasn't so horrific, Blair would have laughed at the comical expression on the devil's face.
"Mon jeune sorcière," Sinclair said finally, clearing his throat, and trying to look nonchalant.
"Christopher," Blair acknowledged.
The agent grinned brightly and headed for the stairs of the platform, but Blair raised his hand palm out.
Sinclair stopped, respecting his unspoken request. "You came."
"You didn't give me much choice."
"Wí." The agent shrugged as if events were beyond his control. "And for that mo chagren."
"Are you sorree, Christopher?" Blair asked, watching the agent's growing pleasure over Blair's use of his given name. "Because the way things look to me, you seem pretty intent on hurting people I care about."
"But don't you see," the agent said excitedly, sitting on the top step of the platform, resting his hands on his knees. "I did it for you. I wanted you to see that I can be guided."
"What are you talking about?"
"You did a wonderful job instructing me last night. You told me that just because people were old didn't mean they didn't have worth. And you were right. I gathered these," he said waving back toward the wire enclosure, "folk because I knew they had the power to bring you here."
Blair closed his eyes briefly. Dear God, Sinclair really was insane.
Jim silently slipped behind one of the human guards standing on the edge of the field. It took every ounce of discipline he possessed not to snap the minion's neck. In the end, he simply rendered the guard unconscious and pulled the body back into the nearby tunnel, stripping the man of his weapons and tying the man's hands behind his back.
Moments later another unconscious body appeared beside his guard.
"How many more?" the darkness whispered to him.
"Two, near the thirty yard line on our side of the field."
"Let's do it. Just keep an eye out on those things in the stands, will ya?"
"Trust me, I will."
"How many hostages?" Ricky whispered nervously, standing on the sideline directly across from the wire enclosure.
"About a dozen."
"Once we get them out of the cage, how are we going to get them out of the stadium without running into the creatures?"
Tony remained silent.
"The klieg lights are portable, right?"
"Yeah, they'd have to be. I mean, they're not standard issue during football season or anything."
The lieutenant didn't respond right away. "That thing, last night, ran as soon as Sandburg flooded the alley with light, right?"
"So, it would follow that as long as we all stay inside a bright ring of light, we should be okay. Right?"
"Works for me."
"That is assuming, of course, that the Captain and Wilson take out all the humans with automatic weapons and Sandburg can keep Sinclair occupied."
Ricky snorted. "Hey, who wants to live forever?"
"I do, damn it, and so do you."
Ricky huffed in amusement.
"Okay. Here's the plan. You go open the cage, I'll get a light. Once things start heating up, I'll hightail it over to you with a light. At that point, we'll see if we need another one or not."
"Sounds like a deal."
"Don't do anything stupid or heroic. You got me?"
"Oh for...cut the sir shit."
"You're so easy."
"You didn't need to gather them for me to come," Blair told the agent.
"Non. I...I just needed some time to think things through."
"What sort of things?"
"Well, you're a wanted man, Christopher."
The agent shrugged. "True."
"By agreeing to become your partner, I bring myself to the government's attention--not something I'm particularly anxious to do. Then there's the whole separate matter of my studies to consider. I've worked for years toward my doctorate. I want it. I deserve it. How will being your right hand man affect that?"
"It won't. I promise. I want you to continue with your studies. I'm not trying to keep you from them. In fact, I think in the long run they'll probably help us." Sinclair stood and walked over to the altar and leaned his elbows on it. "As far as the government is concerned, it won't be a problem after tonight."
"I wish I had your confidence, Christopher. But the way I see it, we're talking about the United States government, not the local police department. I don't see its interest in you really fading." Blair stopped, then smiled slyly. "You've got something up your sleeve, don't you?"
"Well, I don't want to brag." The agent straightened and laughed. "That's a lie. Of course I want to brag. You wouldn't believe the things I found in my granpopa's house, mon petit. I..." Sinclair's voice trailed off into silence. His eyes narrowed as he looked toward the sideline. "Well, look what we have here."
Blair followed Sinclair's gaze to a nearby klieg lights. A dark shadow squatted at the base of the stand.
Blair was horror-struck. The lieutenant obviously didn't realize that the spell wouldn't hold up under the bright artificial light. He opened his mouth to shout a warning, when a shot rang out, echoing through the ball field.
"Tony!" Ricky screamed from the darkness as the shadow fell to the ground.
Sinclair turned immediately toward the howl of outrage, aiming his gun toward the hostage pen.
"Vole," Blair shouted, focusing on the sidearm, elated when the weapon flew out of the agent's hands and off the platform.
His triumph was short-lived, however, as Sinclair turned to face him.
"Ah, so you want to play, little one? Very well, have it your own way. This changes nothing, you realize? You will still be mine. But perhaps it's not a bad thing to remind you of who I am."
Blair barely had time to mutter an incantation under his breath before he was encased in darkness.
"Shit," Jim whispered as Sinclair discharged his weapon. He could hear Romano's soft grunt of pain from the other side of the stadium.
Matt dropped his unconscious guard to the ground. "Christ, the kid's going to get himself killed."
Jim tossed his own guard aside and looked up in time to see an angry black cloud engulf the witch. Sinclair scrambled down the steps and quickly retrieved his gun, immediately shooting out the lights around the prone figure.
"What the fuck is he doing?"
Jim turned toward the voice and realized he could see the scout. "He's darkening the field so he can bring the creatures closer," Jim gritted out as he started running across the field.
"Oh shit," Matt muttered, and ran after him.
Without thought, Ricky pulled his automatic pistol and started firing at the rogue agent, advancing like a man possessed. Sinclair dove for cover behind the stage, unable to get a shot off in his direction.
An angry roar reverberated around the field as the cloud attacking the witch shattered like glass and fell to the ground. Before anyone could take a breath, Blair shouted an invocation, thrusting both hands toward Sinclair.
Ricky stopped and blinked, realizing he really didn't want to get in between the two witches. He turned and ran to his lieutenant's side. "Tony," he whispered, dropping to his knees. He reached out tentatively, noting the growing stain of blood spreading at the base of Tony's back. He placed his hand higher on the lieutenant's back, desperately seeking a heartbeat. "Goddamn it, Romano. Answer me."
The lieutenant coughed weakly.
"That's right. You stay with me. We're gonna live forever, remember?"
Tony's eyelids fluttered open, a weak smile trembled on his lips. His face twitched as the grass tickled his cheek. "Hostages?" he gasped.
"Still in the pen," the corporal reassured him.
The lieutenant tried pushing himself off the ground, but his arms gave out. Gritting his teeth, he rolled over onto his back.
"Whoa. Calm down. You shouldn't be moving, Tony. You could aggravate your wound."
"Lights...hostages," the lieutenant gasped.
"No, the lights aren't on them yet."
"I'll get them, just as soon as I get you over to the pen."
"No," Tony said in a stronger voice, his fingers trying to grip the boy's forearm but failing. "Finish...objective."
Ricky's voice wavered. "I can't leave you here--"
"Order...corporal," the wounded man growled angrily.
"No," Ricky whined, his despair making his voice quaver.
In a tone that brooked no refusal, the older man whispered, "Go."
The redhead nodded, his breath shuddering. "You wait for me, you hear? You don't leave me. You got that, Romano. You wait for me."
The lieutenant nodded weakly, even as his eyes closed.
Screaming his frustration at the top of his lungs, Ricky pushed himself off the ground and ran for the closest intact klieg light.
Matt became aware of two things simultaneously: Blair angrily shouting a spell; and his captain falling to the ground beside him. The scout immediately stopped and turned back to Jim, who was clutching his head and curling in a fetal position.
"Ellison, what's wrong?"
Jim moaned in pain.
Matt looked back toward the witch, who was standing ten feet from Sinclair, and immediately understood what was happening. Blair was trying a surgical strike, trying to take the agent out in one fell swoop, instead of opting for a prolonged battle. The witch was drawing energy from the captain, but Jim hadn't had time to prepare for the drainage.
A noise several feet behind him caught Matt's attention and he whirled around, suddenly realizing they were still in the dark. He hissed in dismay. The creatures were approaching, circling, preparing to attack, like a ravenous pack of hyenas.
"Shit," he whispered, immediately ejecting the magazine of his automatic and slapping the one with the blessed bullets in the hilt. He bent down and pulled his captain to his feet, draping the taller man's arm around his shoulders.
"Hold on, sir. We got to try for the light."
Jim nodded but immediately gasped again in pain.
Matt heard footsteps behind him and turned and fired without thought, grinning when he heard a wail of pain from the darkness.
Maybe, just maybe, they'd live to see the dawn yet.
Barely suppressing the sob welling up within him, Ricky pulled with all his might and drug the klieg light the remaining ten feet. While light illuminated the pen, he knew it wasn't enough to keep the creatures away from the hostages.
"Son, can you open the door?" an elder man called out to him.
"You're safer in there, sir. There are things out here. Things that won't come into the light." He turned and ran to the next light, keeping his eyes on a group of shadows skirting the fringes of the light. His breath caught in his throat as he realized they were working their way toward the fallen lieutenant.
"Please, God," he whimpered, struggling with the bulky pole and base. "Please, God. Please, God. Please, God."
He screamed in panic as he watched the figures move closer to Tony.
Yanking with all his might, he managed to tip the pole over and brace it on his shoulders. He staggered under the weight but moved toward the hostages.
"Son, don't leave us without options," the same old man begged quietly.
Ricky planted the pole on the opposite side of the enclosure. The pen stood out like a beacon in the darkness.
"Tanpri, son. Tanpri."
Ricky looked toward the fringes. The creatures were practically on top of Tony. He fumbled with his utility belt and shoved the wire cutters through the chain link fence, then spun and raced into the darkness.
Matt fired again. His once confident laughter now bordered on the hysterical. He knew he was hurting the creatures, knew the ones he hit were falling back, but others were replacing their fallen comrades.
He and Jim had reached the very edge of the ring of light, but he knew they weren't safe, knew the creatures would brave the weaker light in order to get to them.
He dropped his captain unceremoniously to the ground, stood over the prone body and fired his last four bullets.
Swallowing hard, he dropped the gun and withdrew his knives from his boots.
"You want us," he taunted into the darkness. "Then come get us.
Desperation gave Ricky wings. Fumbling at the bag on his belt, he threw one of the balls with all his might at the creature who was raising an arm over his fallen companion, its hand tipped with claws. The creature howled in pain as the sack exploded on its chest. Spurred on by his success, the redhead drove into the crowd, hurling packets and shouting at the top of his lungs.
Blair could feel Sinclair struggling against his assault.
He could also feel his companions around him, feel their desperation as they gave everything they had, but he knew it wouldn't be enough. He knew it was only a matter of moments before the agent broke free of the ties binding him.
There was only one way left to beat the agent and that was to force him onto the spiritual plane, to separate him from his sources of power. He prayed that Jim and Tony had been right about Sinclair not being as strong as they feared; for if he lost he knew he would never be able to return to his body. "Forgive me, mon amour," he whispered along his link to Jim. He stepped forward and wrapped his arms tightly around Sinclair's chest just as the agent opened his eyes.
Two souls joined in mortal combat.
"Come on!" Matt yelled. His chest was heaving, trying to feed his oxygen deprived lungs, even as he watch the last creature to attack him melt into the ground. He could feel every burning scratch on his body, could feel his blood-soaked clothes sticking to his skin. He could still smell the lingering odor of decay of the creatures, but nothing else came forward. "Come on, you cowards."
"They're gone, Matt," a ragged whisper called to him.
He spun and saw Jim trembling, trying to push himself off the ground. Instantly, he was at his captain's side, helping the older man off the ground.
"Are you sure?"
"Where'd they go?"
Jim shrugged, although the movement made him wince in pain. He looked over at the platform. "Dear God," he whispered as he took in the scene. Blair lay on the ground, one arm around Sinclair's chest. Both men appeared dead.
Without being asked, Matt sheathed both knives, wrapped his arm around his captain's waist and moved toward the platform.
Blair opened his eyes to find himself in the middle of a desert. While the sky was light, there didn't appear to be any sun. Sand stretched out as far as the eye could see.
"I'm impressed, mon petit. I was expecting to be hip-dip in the middle of the bayou," a voice called out, almost jovially. "I never suspected you had it in you to bring us here."
Blair turned to face the ex-agent, who seemingly couldn't make eye contact with him, as if looking in Blair's direction caused him pain. He was shocked to realize the older man's handsome features were now marred by the imperfections of his soul.
"So silent, mon sorcière. I wonder, what is going on in that beautiful head of yours?"
Blair looked at the twisted figure before him and sighed sadly. "I am ashamed to say, there was a part of me that was...intrigued by what you had to offer," Blair said in a very soft voice, his shame echoing clearly around them. "A part of me hoped that perhaps you were only misguided, tired of the show, perhaps looking for a respite. I entertained the idea that you needed me to show you the way back. But now..." He hesitated. "Look at yourself, Christopher. This is who you are, who you truly are."
Sinclair stepped toward him, and asked mildly, "So, you cannot love a monster?"
"Non. I am sorree, but I cannot."
"And I can't allow anyone else to have you," Sinclair whispered as he leaped forward, violently knocking Blair to the ground and wrapping his gnarled hands around Blair's neck.
Blair's hands clawed at the agent's, desperate for breath, but almost immediately Sinclair jerked back off him as if in pain.
"Mon Dieu, you've bonded," the agent shouted in anger.
Gasping for breath, Blair scrambled backwards, his eyes widening in horror as Sinclair's body morphed and twisted before him.
"The watchman." Understanding dawned in the blood-red eyes as they turned to gaze upon Blair. "You slut," Sinclair taunted as he advanced on the man before him. "No matter. You will still be mine." With that he threw a fireball at the still supine figure.
Ricky blinked, in stunned amazement as the creatures around him melted into the grass. He breathed heavily through his nose, spinning around, trying to find another creature to attack, but quickly realized there were no others.
He turned and dropped beside his lieutenant.
"Did...good," the Italian whispered, his eyelids fluttering, struggling to remain conscious.
"We did it. We saved the hostages."
Tony coughed then cried out. After several moments of trying to get the pain under control, he whispered, "You...did...it."
"Yeah, but you taught me everything I know," Ricky countered, running his hand over his companion's clammy forehead.
The older man smiled. "True."
"I'm always walking into those, aren't I?"
Tony's body clenched in pain. He nodded, a small whimper escaping as he did so.
The older man's hand moved weakly toward him and Ricky instantly took Tony's hand in both of his own.
"You...made...it...easier," Tony struggled to say between bouts of pain.
"What easier?" the boy asked, tears running down his cheeks.
"Well, it's not going to be easy now." Ricky bit back the cry which welled up within his soul. "It's gonna hurt like hell. But I swear to you, I'll be here every step of the way."
Tony shook his head.
"Don't you do that!" the redhead shouted angrily. "Don't you tell me you're gonna give up on me. You're all I have left in this world, Tony. You're all I have."
"Manny's waiting," the Italian whispered, looking over the younger man's shoulder.
Ricky's head turned unconsciously, then turned back, straddling the supine man's body, blocking Tony's view of what lay behind him. "Fuck, Manny. You hear me. Fuck him. He had you for eighteen years, man. Eighteen years. I've only had you as a brother for six months. I demand my fucking seventeen and a half years. I want every god damn day. Do you hear me? It's my fucking right. Don't you dare leave me the fuck alone. Goddamn it! Do you hear me, Romano?"
Tony blinked, his gaze focusing on the young man above him.
"That's right." The redhead nodded. "I saved your life six months ago. No one thinks I realize it, but I do. I do. And I'm demanding payment." The boy used his arm to wipe away the tears and snot from his face. "I demand your life in return. I demand it. It's my goddamn right!" Ricky started crying, his shoulders hunched, his body shaking. "Don't leave me, man. Don't leave me. I love you. You can't fucking leave me now."
A noise made Ricky’s head jerk up. He instantly pulled his automatic from its holster and pointed it at the source. The old man from the pen raised his hands in supplication. "I only want to help."
"Sorry. I'm so sorry." The boy lowered his weapon, then raised his other hand to his face and cried unabashedly.
"I am Pierre," the old man said quietly, addressing Tony. "Do you want to stay?"
Tony's eyes flicked over Ricky's shoulder longingly, then back to the weeping boy straddling him. He turned his head ever so slowly toward the old man and nodded.
"I cannot repair the damage. I can only keep you here. Are you strong enough to face the pain of living?"
Tony looked back up into the boy's tear-streaked face. Ricky nodded, even as he clasped Tony's hand over his heart. "Every step of the way, man. Every step of the way."
The Italian looked back at the old man and nodded.
"Then trust me," Pierre said softly as he ran his fingers over the lieutenant's face, forcing the man to close his eyes, "and dromi."
"Is he dead?" Matt asked quietly, as if afraid by asking the question he would make it a reality.
Jim shook his head. "No. I can hear his heart. It's faint, but it's there."
"We need to get him away from Sinclair," Matt said as he steadied his captain, making sure he could let go of him without the other man falling.
"Non," a voice countered.
Matt spun, only to come face to face with a tiny, hunched-over woman.
"Do not separate them for they are in a life or death struggle."
"What? How?" Jim asked, confused.
"The young sorcière was losing his advantage. Before the devil could break free, the sorcière pulled them inward, to the spiritual plane, cutting this man off from the evil surrounding him."
"That's why those things disappeared?"
"How will we know who's won?" Jim asked in a whisper, his eyes never leaving the face of his lover. His knees started to go, and Matt lowered him to the ground beside Blair.
"You will know, vigile."
Jim's face paled.
"Do not fret. Your coming has been foretold."
"How will I know, Michele?" Jim asked, finally recognizing the woman who had led him to Blair just a few days before.
"Watch him. Stay strong and speak from your heart. He may be disoriented, too tired to return on his own, you must show him the way home."
Jim nodded, even as he handed a cell phone to Matt. "Call it in, sergeant. We need damage control and we needed it ten minutes ago."
"Yes, sir." Matt took the phone, then walked several feet away.
Jim stared down at the prone figure on the grass before him. Blair's face was almost peaceful. Not a blemish marred the smooth white skin, although the hint of stubble did, making the witch look almost rakish. More than anything, Jim wanted to see the witch's blue eyes dance in impish laughter again.
Blair cried out in pain as another fireball engulfed him. His shields, barely in place to begin with, were already weakening.
Sinclair stalked toward him, rage shaking his entire frame. "You're such a fool, petite. I would have given you New Orleans on a platter. We would have ruled side by side. Nothing would have been out of our reach. What can your soldier give you that I can't?"
"Love," Blair whispered, pushing himself off the sandy ground. Spinning, he threw his own assault at Sinclair, finding some small satisfaction in making the agent stagger back.
Sinclair laughed, his back arching as the hilarity of the statement ran through him. "Love?" he shouted in mocking disdain. "Do you think your watchman actually loves you? Don't be absurd. He used you. At least I was honest with you. I didn't dress my desire up in frilly words like love and commitment."
Blair angrily launched another fireball, almost crowing in triumph when Sinclair was knocked to the ground. The agent, however, grinned slyly up at him, wiping the blood off his bottom lip with the back of his hand, smearing blood and sand over his chin. "He hasn't given you the words, has he, sorcière? He hasn't given you the words of love, nor even promised to stay with you." Sinclair rolled his head back and roared in laughter. "This is just too priceless. You gave your purity to a soldier who saw you as nothing more than a quick fuck. Well, what do they say about having a lover in every port. Oh, wait. That's the Navy, isn't it?" Sinclair roared again.
Blair staggered back, trying to put some distance between him and the madman. He knew they were evenly matched, knew that neither of them had a real advantage over the other, but also knew that he wouldn't last much longer if they continued to exchange blows.
He pointed his palms toward Sinclair, lightening knocking the agent to the ground again. He had to do something, had to prevent the agent from returning back to the world.
Jim watched in amazement as Blair's free hand twitched minutely. He blinked, almost convincing himself that he had imagined it when the witch's index finger moved again.
Jim looked for Michele, but she was slowly making her way over to Ricky and Tony. Matt was pacing back and forth several feet away, talking animatedly into the cell phone, demanding backup.
Jim swallowed hard. The old woman had warned him not to separate Blair from Sinclair, but she hadn't said he couldn't touch Blair. His body cried out, desperately needing to make a physical connection with the witch. He closed his eyes briefly, praying for guidance, praying to a god he rarely spoke to anymore.
Blair stumbled as a surge of energy wash through him.
James, he almost gasped aloud.
He felt the warmth of the soldier surrounding him, reassuring him. He dodged as Sinclair attacked again.
Suddenly, he stopped running, a plan quickly forming in his mind. The hunted had just become the hunter.
Jim's eyes widened as a jolt of electricity raced up his arm. He almost pulled his hand away to shake off the tingling sensation, when he noticed Blair's hand twitch again. Something was happening. Something important. He felt it down to his bones.
He leaned over the still figure and pressed a kiss to the still form's forehead. "Take whatever you need, Blair. Whatever you need."
Sinclair laughed in triumph as he threw attack after attack at the young witch, almost feeling bad over his brutal assault.
But the sorcière had to learn his lesson. Sandburg would belong to him, but instead of ruling by his side, he would never be let out of the bedroom. The judgmental young upstart would have to earn his place by his side now. How dare he presume to be his better. True, the witch's form here was without flaw, but no one was perfect. Everyone had their evilness, their pettiness, their jealousies. All he had to do was to find it, to release it, to show the young man how to revel in it.
"Do you really think the soldier could love something as perverted as you?" he taunted. "Tell me that your magic doesn't sicken him. Tell me he doesn't fear you. That he could love a freak of nature."
Sinclair laughed, knowing the seeds of doubt would root deep within the young man. But his laughter died on his lips when he noticed the witch was no longer running from him.
Blair grinned coldly at him. "You once asked me if I thought I could protect Jim and the others from you."
"I remember." Sinclair shrugged as if bored. "You said you'd be willing to give it a try as I recall."
"You told me my fight was not with you, but you were wrong."
"So you think you can beat me now?"
The witch sneered. "I know it."
"And where does this new found confidence come from, little one? We're both evenly matched and you know it. Neither one of us is capable of overwhelming the other. This will be nothing more than a old fashion slugfest until one of us falters."
"Ah, but you're wrong. Let's see which one of us will survive to see the dawn now."
With that, the young witch flung his arms out from his body. The desert began exploding around them. Sinclair gasped, realizing that Sandburg was using his own energy to destroy their plane. The watchman! Somehow the watchman was acting as a power sink for the witch.
Screaming in pain, Sinclair flung himself forward, desperate to catch the witch and keep him on their shrinking plane. If he was to burn in hell, he was going to take the young upstart with him.
Jim drew back as Blair's body convulsed beneath him then suddenly stilled. He shuddered as a warmth passed through him. "Blair?" he whispered, recognizing the scent of his lover. "Blair?" he called out, more sure of his speculation.
"Find him, vigile. Find him before he loses himself," Michele hissed as she hobbled toward him. "Somehow the devil has disoriented him. You must bring him back. You must do it now, vigile!"
Jim focused his senses and spotted the lightest of shadows stumbling over the grass. Without thought, he struggled to his feet and ran after it. He tried to step in the shade's path, but it moved through him, warming him slightly as it did.
"Blair!" he cried out, spinning around and locking his senses on the shadow again. He tried tackling the wraith, but sailed through the apparition.
He shook his head, pushed himself off the ground and immediately launched himself into the witch's path. He felt Blair's confusion as he passed through the witch's soul, then spun to face him.
"Blair, you need to go back to your body," he shouted.
The shadow hesitated.
"I need you."
He could feel the disbelief dance upon his skin.
"I do," he insisted. "I know it's not going to be easy, but I meant what I said when I promised you that we would find a way to make this work."
He felt the shadow vacillate. "I love you," he said, stepping into the middle of the warmth, allowing himself to project what he felt for the witch. He rolled his head back onto his shoulders, smelling the joy surging around him.
"That's right, babe. I love you. But you need to come back." He swallowed hard as he heard sirens in the distance, knowing their time was drawing near to an end. "Come with me," he instructed, moving ever so slowly toward Blair's body. "That's right," he coaxed as the shadow stayed centered on him. "We're almost there."
He knelt beside the body, and not knowing what else to do, kissed the cold lips. "Come on, babe, come back to me. Come back to me." He kissed the lips again, but this time the mouth beneath his opened. Ever so gently, he slipped his tongue into the sweet cavern.
The sirens grew louder and the screeching of tires resounded around the stadium. Jim pulled back slightly, looking at the beloved face beneath him.
"Scenario?" the witch mouthed.
"How about you and me, here in New Orleans? You finish your degree and I'll be a cop or something?"
The witch smiled radiantly up at him.
"We got men down. We need ambulances stat!" a voice shouted in the background.
"Show time," Jim and Blair whispered together.
Six Months Later
Jim Ellison stood at the end of the block and watched the merriment ahead of him as a van came to a complete stop and its doors slid open. Several people popped out, laughing and shoving each other playfully as grocery sacks were unloaded and distributed and a wheelchair was brought out from the back.
Matthew's sisters whirled about in flashes of color, and Vincent, the scout's six foot six inch, three hundred pound brother reached into the van and gently supported Tony as he lowered the invalid to his chair.
"So whose turn is it to cook tonight?" Ricky moved behind the wheelchair and began pushing it down the alleyway.
"Ah, there is a god," the boy laughed.
"You keep saying things like that and we'll be arranging a wedding," Vincent teased.
"Hmm, being married to one of the most beautiful women in New Orleans, who can not only cook up a storm, but can also charm birds out of the trees. I'm telling you now, Vinnie, I'm not seeing a drawback here."
"Yeah, you just tell Mama that."
"Hey, you said you were going to marry me," sixteen-year-old Bethany pouted.
"I was...until I discovered you couldn't cook."
"What?" the girl shrieked in mock rage and flew toward the redhead, who did the only sensible thing possible--and ran.
"It's good to see him laugh," Tony said quietly to the behemoth, who smoothly took over the pushing duties.
"Almost as good as it is to see you smile. Good day in therapy today?"
"Yeah, great day in therapy."
Jim tracked the group with his hearing as they entered the courtyard. He could hear several more voices call out as Tony entered. After several moments, the house exploded in cheers and laughter. It sounded beautiful. It sounded like home.
And yet, he remained rooted where he was.
"Scary prospect--going in, isn't it?" a voice asked quietly from behind.
Jim spun and found Matt leaning against a brick column at the bottom of the stairs leading into another building.
"Matthew." Jim chuckled as he stepped forward and engulfed the smaller man in a bear hug. "How the hell are you?"
The former scout returned the hug enthusiastically. "Doing pretty damn good, sir."
"Hey, no more of the sir crap now that we're both out."
"So," Matt said stepping back, "you're finally out?"
"Yeah. Got out last Friday."
Matt cocked an eyebrow. "And here it is Thursday."
"I...had some things to take care of."
"Sure you weren't having second thoughts?"
Ignoring the question, Jim turned back toward the van and the alley. "Romano's looking good."
"They're calling him the miracle man. That first week, the doctors said he probably wouldn't survive the surgery to remove the bullet. Then they said he'd never get out of bed. Just last month they told him he'd never walk again."
Jim turned back and looked at the brown-eyed man.
"He took his first step today in therapy. Ricky called me seconds after it happened."
Jim returned the brilliant smile. "How's the kid doing?"
"He doesn't bounce anymore. It's hard to believe how much he's grown up. He's been a rock, Jim. He's taken everything onto his own shoulders. He sees to every aspect of Tony's care. He settled the family in, gave everyone jobs, is considered fourth in the family hierarchy, after Blair, Pieter and Mama. He basically runs the show now."
Jim laughed. "Tony always said he had backbone."
"And then some."
"How's your family making the adjustment?"
"Well, the first week, all the girls could do was bitch about the humidity, but they're doing pretty good now."
"I noticed Bethany and Rakel."
"Lissa and Katya are inside. Chandra's running errands for Papa. You saw Vinnie?"
"Dimitri and Kadin are still in school. Lensar's at the pharmacy picking up Pieter's prescriptions."
"How's Pieter doing?"
"Better than expected. He's so relieved about Blair being here for the family and so excited about spending time with him that I think we might actually get another decade out of the old boy."
Jim snorted with laughter.
"So how's Mike doing?" Matt asked quietly.
"He got out too."
"I sort of figured he would."
"He went back to California to stay with his folks."
"Yeah, but how is he doing?"
Jim met his friend's eyes. "Not very well, although he's taking comfort in his faith. He's even mentioned the possibility of going into the seminary."
"Mike as a priest. Who would have thought it?"
Jim sat on the cement steps. "I think he'd make a good priest."
"Yeah, but can he give up women?" Matt asked as he sat next to him.
"I think so."
They sat in comfortable silence for several minutes.
"What about Sinclair?" Matt asked quietly, not looking at Jim.
"He's still a vegetable."
"Do you think he'll ever come out of it?"
Jim shook his head. "I think he's probably still wandering around New Orleans. With his body in Leavenworth, I don't foresee his body and soul ever connecting again."
"Serves the bastard right." When Jim nodded, Matt asked, "So everything squared away with the brass?"
Jim nodded. "It took a bit of doing to break Ricky's enlistment. I had to call in some pretty big favors, but in the end it all worked out. The Panthers no longer officially exist."
"Ah, the end of an era," Matt said somberly. "Wouldn't have been the same without Ben and Bernie anyway." Matt looked over at him. "So were you the one to tell Joyce and the kids?"
"Yes." Jim closed his eyes, remembering the cries of denial from Ben's wife when he told her of her husband's passing. "I think they'll be okay. Ben made sure they'd be very well taken care of financially."
"His oldest, Veronica, is having a really hard time of it."
"Never easy, losing a loved one." Matt shook his head sadly. "Don't worry, Jim. They won't be forgotten. We'll continue to keep an eye on them."
Jim nodded gratefully, patting his friend's knee.
"You haven't asked about Blair," Matt said after a few moments of silence.
"Yes. I suppose I am."
"Afraid that with his guiding the family there won't be any room for you?"
Jim looked at his hands. "The thought had occurred to me."
"Well, get over it. He's bonded to you. He's missed you horribly."
"I've missed him." Jim rubbed his legs with his palms. "Has the separation been hard on him?"
Jim turned, startled by the smaller man's tone. "What aren't you saying, Matt?"
The scout looked across the street, not making eye contact with Jim as he spoke. "The battle with Sinclair took a lot more out of him than he initially let on. It took him weeks to recover."
"But...but he seemed so strong. I would never have left if--"
"That, my friend, is exactly why he never said a word."
"I don't understand."
"He said you needed time to decide what you wanted. He didn't want to influence your decision one way or the other."
Jim rubbed both hands over his face. "But he's okay now?"
Matt shrugged. "Oh, he smiles and laughs, but it never quite reaches his eyes, you know?"
"He finished his doctorate in November and successfully defended it in December first time out of the chute."
"Yeah, he wrote and told me."
"He's a smart kid. You know, he's going to teach part-time at Loyola?"
"Yes. He said only one or two classes though for the first year."
"I think he's a little tired of academia right now, but he's not quite sure what else to do with his time."
"How has the situation been around here regarding the...local politics?"
"He went back to being neutral again. The police are nervous about having someone with power being neutral. They're afraid he might be tempted to dip into the dark side occasionally, but Blair has managed to develop a rapport with a local police captain by the name of Banks. He still arbitrates, but he's resisting local pressure to step forward and fill the void. Although he is exerting some power to monitor those who have stepped up to the plate." Matt grinned. "Word got out about Blair's attitude toward Sinclair's men that night. He's gained a measure of respect from those on the dark side. And so far, no one's been sniffing around trying to make a name for themselves by outdrawing the local sheriff as it were."
Jim remained silent. Matt studied his friend.
"He's lost some weight despite Mama and the girls trying to fatten him up and he never seems to get enough sleep. He's involved in everything. I worry about his burning the candle from both ends."
"He makes me tired just reading his email."
Again they shared several comfortable moments of silence. "You're worried about your place in his life," Matt said knowingly.
"We were together less than a week, Matt."
"But I thought you were writing and emailing."
"He fascinates me. He's witty, funny, optimistic, enthusiastic..."
"I'm not seeing the problem here."
"What does he want with an old out-of-work sentinel?"
"You underestimate him, mi lami."
Jim smiled. "Picking up Cajun, are you?"
"Wí. Besides, you aren't out of work. We've been waiting for you so we could open up the agency."
"So we're really going to do this?"
"What? Become detectives? Of course we are. With Ricky's computer skills, Tony's organization expertise, my blending abilities and you as front man, we can't go wrong."
"Oh, God. Famous last words." Jim laughed, playfully pushing his friend. "You know, this was your idea. I don't understand why you don't want to be the front man."
Matt rolled his eyes. "I'm Romani, Ellison. We’re never front men."
Jim chuckled. "So does this agency have a name yet?"
"Bayou Moon Detective Agency."
"You're kidding, right?"
Matt managed to keep a straight face. "Ispy Agency? We know where Waldo is."
"Hey, Vinnie just wanted to call us Cajun Rent-a-Cops."
"Now I see why you need me as front man."
Matt threw an arm around his shoulders. "So, are you ready to see him yet?"
"I guess I need to know one more thing."
"Which is what?"
"How does everyone feel about us?"
"You and Sandburg?"
"Jim, you share a precious bond, one that most of us will never experience. Don't let what anyone else thinks ruin what you have. Celebrate it. Live it. Hold on to it and never let it go. And if things get too rough, tell Mama and she'll put a curse on anyone giving you a hard time."
Jim threw his head back and roared with laughter.
"I swear Blair spends half his time countering Mama's curses. Did I mention she has a temper?"
"Umm, yes, once or twice."
"Don't worry, Cap." Matt smiled as he stood and pulled his friend to his feet. "She already thinks of you as one of her sons."
"That's a good thing, right?"
"Yes, it's a very good thing. Hey, you should consider yourself lucky. At least she won't be trying to marry you off."
"Thank God for small favors." Jim laughed then asked in a quieter voice, "So where is he?"
"Inside." Matt playfully shoved Jim toward the alleyway. "Don't worry, everyone was heading over to our place anyway."
"That's right, you all moved into the other townhouses."
"Yeah, turns out the kid owned the whole building. Gotta love his granmoman. When the woman wanted to give him roots, she gave him roots." Matt laughed as he clenched his fist in emphasis. "Anyway, we've been doing a lot of remodeling. All the units are now connected. Learn to lock your doors if you want privacy. The unit on the far end of the building will house our office. Grandma, Mama and Frannie are taking over the basement of that unit for their herb business, and Papa, Grandpa and Pieter are setting up a studio for their carvings on the second floor."
Jim just shook his head in amazement. "When you said your family was going to relocate, you weren't kidding, were you?"
Matt stopped them before they entered the alley. "Let me go first and discretely herd everyone out. Listen in, when it gets quiet head on down."
Jim nodded, suddenly incredibly nervous.
He listened while Matt cajoled the others into giving Blair some peace before dinner. When he heard a door shut, he closed his eyes briefly for courage, then headed down the brick path.
The door stood slightly ajar and he shook his head with fond exasperation. Some things never changed.
He pushed the door open and took in the rooms he had so often dreamed of while he was away. A cool breeze blew through the townhouse, reminding him of the first time he had walked into the open-aired room. He shut the door softly behind him.
Large plants and small trees still decorated the townhouse. He scanned the interior quickly, then focused his hearing, searching for the precious heartbeat.
He opened his eyes when he found the source of what he was looking for. Blair leaned against the wall beneath his bedroom, hands flat against the bricks behind him, surrounded by plants. His blue eyes seem to be absorbing all of Jim's features.
"Bonjou," Blair whispered finally.
"You knew I was here," Jim stated, more than asked.
"I felt you...radiating."
Jim took a moment to drink in the witch's pale face. Matt had been right, Blair was quite a bit thinner. His lean frame practically shouted of weariness. However, a growing smile brightened the younger man's exotic face. Jim realized he had never seen anyone quite as beautiful or as fey as Blair Sandburg appeared to him at that very moment. He took a slow step toward the witch. "I've missed you."
Blair also took a step forward. "As I you." Once the witch's hands were removed from the wall, Jim could see that they were trembling.
"But I'm glad for the time apart."
Blair stopped and frowned slightly.
"It allowed us time to get to know each other," Jim explained, taking another step. "It's been wonderful exchanging letters and email with you all these months, discovering who you are, what your hopes and dreams are."
Blair smiled brightly at him.
"It's also made me appreciate you, made me realize that I don't ever want to spend another day apart from you. Think you can live with a grumpy old sentinel?"
Blair nodded and closed the distance between them, throwing his arms around Jim's neck and wrapping his legs around the older man's waist. Jim's mouth immediately sought Blair's as he continued to move forward until the witch was partially supported by the wall.
"I was afraid, so afraid that you wouldn't, couldn't..." Blair peppered Jim's face with small kisses, then pulled back slightly, his eyes glazed with love as he rubbed the tips of their noses together. "I think I can manage."
"You know, I've been thinking," Jim said, cupping Blair's bottom as he turned and carried the witch toward the stairs.
"About this bonding thing. I've been dying to do it right for ages. Think you could indulge me for a bit?"
Blair threw his head back and laughed joyfully. "Not only am I willing to indulge you, I'm willing to give you all the practice you need."
"Well, I'm thinking it might take me years, maybe decades, to get it right."
"Slow learner, are you?" Blair teased.
"Yeah, but with your being a full professor now, I figure you can give me a few tutoring lessons."
"Ahh, bon idée, mon amour. Bon idée."
Cajun Words and Phrases
Wí - Yes
Non - No
Sa ena, Tatine? - What's wrong, Aunt? (name for older female)
Naif - Innocent
Bon - Okay or fine
Bonjou - Hello
To permet mo entrodwir mo-mem. - Allow me to introduce myself.
Moman/Granmoman - Mother/Grandmother
Mi lamson - My home
Mersi - Thank you
Rete - Freeze
Mi lami - My friend
Brile - Burn
Pèn - Pain
Vole - Fly
Byen mersi - Thank you very much
Tanpri - Please
v revini - Return
Limyè - Light
Freme - Close
Kouri - Run
Krot - Shit
Lagrando limyè - Flood light
Ki le li ye? - What time is it?
Puissant - Powerful
Bondje - Good Lord
Mo Bon - I'm okay
Popa/Granpopa - Father/Grandfather
Disang - Blood
Dromi - Sleep
To konprann? - Do you understand?
Chagren - Sorry
Mo chagren - I'm sorry
Mo konmprann - I understand
Blank as nwit. We are pa...aryen. - Black as night. We are not here.
bon idée - Good idea.
French Words and Phrases:
Pardonnez moi, s'il vous plaît. - Please, forgive me.
Je suis désolé - I'm sorry
Sorcière blanche - White witch
Mon ami - My friend
C'est fait - It is done.
Une p'tite vite - A quick fuck
Mon dieu, mon petit - My God, little one
Poisson meuniere amandine - Trout almondine
Mon pauvre garcon - My poor boy
Mon jeune sorcière - My young witch
Vigile - Watchman/Sentinel
Prends-moi - Take me
J'ai envie de toi - I want you.
Un... deux... - One... two
Trois cents - Three hundred
Mon amour - My love
Spanish Words and Phrases:
Dios Mio - My God
Capitan - Captain
Sí - Yes
Cristo - Christ
Pendejo - Asshole
Mira - Look
Dios - God
Soy así que atornillado. - I'm so screwed.
No deseo morir. - I don't want to die.
No como esto - Not like this.