Rating: As always with this series, this story covers the subject of child abuse -- both physical and sexual -- but this time I've also written about subjects such as incest, pedophilia and the OC's characters in this story are involved in a m/m relationship. While a lot of it is 'off screen' and depicted as part of the series history, there are some scenes in this story that are more graphic than what I have written in the past. Please read authors notes for more details.
In the jungles of Peru, a lone warrior fought for his sentinel, his composed voice breaking with anger as he addressed a circle of his peers. "I will not allow this to happen. The Guide is too young."
"That is why he has been given a guardian, Incacha. Do you not have faith in the ability of the Guardian?"
Incacha whirled around in anger, addressing the speaker. "The Guardian is but a boy himself. He is not ready."
The speaker approached the centre of the circle. "If the Guardian is not ready, then perhaps it is time for him to be removed." A black jaguar, which had been prowling restlessly around the outside of the circle, let its disapproval be known, its voice joined by that of a young cougar.
"Enough!" ordered the speaker, his command silencing the animal spirits. "A decision has been made. The test will take place. If the Guardian is strong, then he will succeed." The speaker turned to Incacha. "If he does not, then the Guide will be removed."
One by one, without any further discussion, the council of peers disappeared into the night. A lone Chopec warrior stood by the fire, the jaguar beside him in unwavering support. The shadows flickered upon his defiant face. His heart could not allow this to happen. "I cannot do this alone, Enqueri. You must find your strength. You must embrace your gift. The life of your guardian depends on it... as does the life of your son".
Without taking his eyes from the flame, Incacha spoke. "The Guide must be protected at all cost."
A silent agreement was reached. When the time was right, Incacha and the jaguar would stand side by side. Together, they would take on the power of the council.
"Watch, ring, wallet, keys. That all?"
Robert Wilder picked up the items from the bench and nodded.
He took the pen thrust at him and scribbled his name.
The guard retrieve his clipboard. "You're a lucky fuck, Wilder. I would'a bet a whole year's wages that you'd be doing life for this one."
Wilder sneered at the guard. "Innocent men don't do life." He picked up his personal belongings from the counter. "Now, excuse me if I sound rude, but open the god damn, fuckin' door."
Wally Michaels shook his head in despair. He'd seen a lot of cold-hearted bastards come through those doors in his time, but it hit him in the pit of his stomach when he had to let one of those bastards back out onto the street. "I gotta think of retiring," he muttered to himself, pressing the button that released the door.
Wilder walked out into the main yard. A set of heavy steel gates was the only thing that stood between him and freedom. A chill raced through his body, despite the warmth of the afternoon sun.
In the corner of the courtyard, a lone warrior stood. "And so it begins."
Robert Wilder drew deeply on the crudely-rolled cigarette that was poised between his thumb and his nicotine-stained index finger. Watching with an enthralled fascination, he slowly breathed out, lazily following the smoke trail as it floated up toward the ceiling. A sudden, deep-seated sense of pleasure rippled through his strong body as the gentle, ribbon-like pattern was strewn apart by the pulsing action of the overhead fan. With his eyes still trained on the whirling blades as they cut nosily through the air, he absently reached under the coarse cotton sheet and roughly scratched his crotch. The burning itch that had surged through his body only hours before was little more than a pleasant tingle now, his lurid need having been satisfied by the man lying in the bed next to him.
Stubbing out the butt in the overflowing ashtray on the side table, Robert's attention moved toward the still body of his brother, his jet-black eyes roaming slowly across the expanse of Max's perfectly smooth, seductive chest, a chest that had been prepared exactly as he had ordered.
Stimulated by the visual delight before him, Robert flicked the sheet completely away. His breathing hitched, his wanton desire fed by the sight that was revealed to his wandering eye. In a display of youthful innocence, his brother lay before him, clean-shaven and bare, painting a perfect picture of obedience and submission.
The fact that this compliance was aided by the heroin coursing through the sleeping man's veins was of no consequence to him. All that mattered was that he was once again in control.
Rolling onto his side, Robert studied the man who'd been his bed partner for as long as he could remember. He regarded his brother with a mixture of conflicting emotions. He certainly felt love, and even expressed it at times with tenderness and affection, but the feeling could twist and turn into vengeful brutality in the blink of an eye. He consistently, and easily, ignored the goad of his own emotions, and placed the cause squarely on Max. His little brother was inherently weak and even though moments of strength occasionally shone through, he had always been able to get his way if he pushed hard enough.
If Robert had to describe their relationship, 'perfect dancing partners' would pretty much sum it up. His brother's fears and needs moved in exact rhythm with the traits that made up the basis of his own personality. Max's fear and insecurities kept pace and perfect cadence alongside his own power and control. Destructive as these qualities were together, they were essential elements in maintaining the status quo.
Strumming a gentle finger across the baby-soft skin that was so easily within his reach, Robert knew that a lifetime living with abuse and neglect had left a profound mark on both their lives. But unlike Max, who had wilted, shrivelling up like a flower under the hot desert sun, he had blossomed. Adapting to the harshness of their environment, he'd laid his roots deep, gathering enough nourishment for them both to survive even the most barren of conditions. He'd fed and nurtured Max, keeping him sheltered within the protective borders of his own resourcefulness and tenacity. But protection came at a price, even for brothers, and this protection had exacted a hefty toll. Max had paid, not with only his own soul, but those of his children.
Running his hand up the length of his brother's inner thigh, Robert's thoughts settled on Max's children.
Lucas and Scotty, his nephews, both beautiful and innocent, but innocent only until fate played its hand and erased from their lives the one woman who had, just by her presence, kept the monster that lurked deep inside of him shackled and bound. But, once free from its chains, the monster's craving grew until it could no longer resist the feast that was laid out before it. Revelling in the opportunity to now indulge what had been denied to him for so long, old feelings once again consumed and overpowered him. Even if he wanted to, Robert knew that there was no turning back. The monster was out of its cage.
Taking advantage of his brother at his most vulnerable, Robert focused his attention on snubbing out the light that had shone brightly while Mary had been alive. Wielding his weapons of cajoling, persuasion, and manipulation like an old hand, he slowly began to show his brother that, in these most desperate of times, the boys needed their love and that, in return, they needed to learn how to give that love back.
The process was slow and laborious and the means to the end left his brother with an addiction that, from the outset, had not been his intention, but the opportunist in him felt no remorse. He had what he wanted and that was all that was important. Domination and sexual gratification were now at his fingertips, his for the taking, when, where and however he liked... except for one major stumbling block -- Lucas; his brother's eldest boy.
"Lucas," Robert ground out harshly, his anger rising as memories of the boy's defiance weighed him down with a familiar feeling of failure. Headstrong, willful and stubborn, the child had never been tamed and, despite his best efforts, he had never managed to gain the control that was essential in keeping everything in balance.
As his inner anger surged upward and boiled over, the gentle, feather-like touch that had been caressing his brother's body changed. Taking a nipple between his fingers, he pinched the nub viciously, the pain causing Max to stir beneath his fingers.
"Shh, shh," Robert soothed, as guilt of his actions surged forward without warning. Bombarded by a wave of different emotions, Robert realized once again that he and his brother were perfectly matched. He was strong; capable and dominate and Max -- Max was so pathetically weak. Even after being responsible for the death of his brother's boy, Max had still forgiven him, and it hadn't taken much persuasion to convince him who was really to blame for the death of his baby. It was Lucas' fault that Scott was dead. It was Lucas who had reneged on his responsibility, his chore. Lucas was the one who'd taken off into the night, leaving the burden of service upon his young brother's shoulders. And it was Lucas who needed their ultimate forgiveness.
"Isn't that right, brother?" Robert whispered, leaning in and suckling at his brother's lax bottom lip. "Our boy needs to come home. We have to forgive him for what he did." Rolling on top of his brother, Robert covered Max's body with his own. Leaning in, he devoured the unconscious man's mouth, while his hips rutted to a tune of one against unresponsive flesh. "He will come home, baby brother. As I live and breathe, our boy will come home."
The air was being squeezed out of Jim Ellison's lungs at a greater rate than his body was able to replenish it. The strength in his attacker's arms was allowing very little leeway for his chest to heave and draw in the amount of oxygen that was needed for him to remain strongly on his feet. Ellison had to bring down his assailant and he had to do it quickly. While each and every move had so far been matched and counter-matched by the body behind him, the detective still held one last card up his sleeve -- one held exclusively by those with experience.
A strong knock to the midsection, a twist, and a lashing out with a well-placed, sweeping kick to the back of bare calves had Jim gaining the upper hand. He guided the body down as it made its quick and ungraceful decent onto the lawn and, without a moment's hesitation, he shifted to straddle his bare-chested attacker. "How many times do we have to go over this?" he asked, panting heavily. "When will you get it through your thick skull that I am the master and the master never loses?"
"I had you for a minute there," the fallen teenager breathed.
Jim released the grip he had on the kid's wrists and shifted back, using some of his body weight on the teenager's diaphragm, effectively preventing any hope of escape. "And that minute was when?" he asked, sarcastically. "Seems to me, a person who is in the position that you're currently in might need to learn a little humility."
"Sorry," the kid wheezed. "But that word doesn't appear on my play list."
"I knows what that word means." A small, but self-assured voice joined the conversation. Similarly bare-chested and dressed only in a pair of shorts, Lucas' foremost and favourite little partner in crime wound his arm briefly around Jim's neck before also taking a seat on the teenager's torso.
"You're three," Lucas ground out, now struggling with the combined weight holding him down. "You don't know what it means."
"I not three, I three point seven five and I do so know what it means, 'cause I are clever," Blair huffed, as if he'd been mortally insulted.
"Well, if you're so clever, Mr. Three Point Seven Five, why is your dad dry as a bone and I'm pinned to the ground by the original Ten Ton Tessie?" Lucas flopped his arm out on the grass and pointed toward the fully-loaded Super Soaker that lay abandoned on the grass. "Some backup there, Short Stop."
Blair leaned down, his elbows digging into Lucas' biceps and his nose nearly touching that of the teenager. "I not wanna do backup," he said. "And it don't matter if I did, 'cause Daddy would'a winned anyhow."
"Is that so?" Lucas' arms came up and engulfed Blair in a huge, smothering hug. "What makes you so certain?"
"'Cause he always wins, Lucas. He too big to be picked on."
The sentinel laughed at his son's words. "Yep, pretty clever kid, if you ask me." Giving Lucas a hearty slap on the thigh, he pulled himself up, stretching his overtaxed muscles as he did so. "So, what was that you keep telling me again?" He gave the boy a wry smile. "Something about being ten feet tall and bullet proof, as I recall."
The teenager rolled over with Blair still in his arms and sprang to his feet with a lot less effort than it had taken Jim. "Wheelchairs and nursing homes. Remember old man that it pays to be nice to the person who holds the keys to your future."
Ellison scratched his jaw. "Allowance and staying out to eleven." He slapped Lucas on the shoulder. "Somehow I think the keys I hold are a lot more valuable."
"Think it might be time to pick on someone short," Lucas conceded, his future dates with Laura now taking on a whole new meaning. Dropping Blair down onto the grass, he smiled mischievously at the youngster. "I'd run, if I were you, Sport." He tickled Blair's stomach before retrieving the water pistol. "You have to the count of five."
Before Lucas had a chance to take off after Blair, Jim hooked him by the arm. "And what about all this camping gear that still needs to be loaded into the truck?"
Lucas shrugged. "We're not leaving until tomorrow afternoon. What's the big rush?"
"No rush, I just like to be prepared, that's all."
"Well, you know what they say. Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow." Without another word, Lucas took off after Blair, and it wasn't long before squeals at being captured turned into laughter and the gate to the pool fence swung open and slammed shut. "So much for help," Jim muttered.
Traipsing back to the house for another load of gear, Jim's thoughts turned to Lucas' words. In the space of eight months, the boy who had been the epitome of the phrase 'short term' had gone from a kid whose foresight and expectations didn't extend past where his next meal was coming from, to a teenager who now had dreams for the future. Lucas Wilder's place in life had been transformed from a forgotten child of the streets, to a boy who now belonged.
"Catch," Lucas called, throwing the foam ball in Blair's direction.
Standing in knee-deep water on the first step of the pool, Blair caught the ball clumsily against his chest. "Hey, you made me wet," he admonished.
"You're in a pool, goof ball," Lucas laughed. "You're supposed to get wet."
Taking a break for lunch, Jim watched the antics in the pool from the kitchen window. While he trusted Lucas implicitly, Blair still didn't know how to swim and he never felt quite at ease leaving the pair alone for too long.
With less than a month until Blair's fourth birthday, he had yet to get to the bottom of the youngster's irrational fear of the swimming pool. One of the reasons he'd decided on buying the house in the first place was his son's initial excitement about having a pool and learning to swim. But as spring gave way to the warm sultry days of summer, the top step was as far as the three-year-old had ventured. Although they'd both tried to gently cajole and encourage Blair to take that final leap, he'd refused. And when Blair said no -- seriously said no -- that's when all persuasion came to an end. Somewhere, hidden deep within the child's psyche, was a reason and it was a reason that nobody had the right to challenge. Blair would swim when Blair was ready.
"You gonna throw that ball back, or am I gonna have to come and take it from you?" Lucas picked up a water pistol and aimed it playfully at Blair. "Your choice, dude. The ball, or the squirt gets squirted."
"No," Blair squealed. Moving along the step, and as far away from Lucas as possible, he giggled as a jet of water splashed just short of his legs. "You can have the ball, you can have the ball," he said. Lifting up his arms, ready to toss it back, Blair misjudged how close he was to the edge of the step and was unable to regain his balance as he began to fall. There was hardly even a splash as the three-year-old toppled into the water.
By the time it took Jim to run from kitchen to the back door and sprint toward the pool, Lucas already had his son in the shallow end and cradled safely against his chest. Ellison stopped in his tracks and worked to get his own fears under control before going any further. There were no sobs or sounds of distress coming from Blair, and no physical indication that the child was any worse for wear. Lucas' voice was soft and calming and, by the way Blair's head nodded in agreement against his shoulder, whatever he was saying obviously had the youngster's attention. An enormous amount of parental concern and a small amount of curiosity had Jim breaking one of own rules about privacy and it didn't take much internal persuasion to convince himself that he was close enough to naturally overhear what was going on, anyhow.
"I didn't drownded," Blair whispered into Lucas' neck.
"Of course you didn't drown. You were only in the water for a few seconds."
Lucas moved to sit on the stair and Blair flinched as the water sloshed around his midsection. "Blair, why are you so scared of the water?"
Jim's hearing automatically adjusted up another level.
"Because of the man," Blair answered softly.
"Because of Tom?" Lucas asked.
"No." Blair buried himself deeper into Lucas' chest. "Because of the other man... the one that drownded me."
Jim didn't move, he couldn't move. Another chapter in his son's life was about to unfold and, once again, he found himself prowling the outer edge of the circle like a starving dog banished from the pack, waiting for his chance to steal away with a morsel of food. Unintentional as it may have been, Blair had formed an exclusive club in which membership was reserved for those he deemed had earned entry by a rite of passage. There was no denying that Lucas and Blair had a special bond, not only as the brothers they had become, but also by the circumstances of their lives. There was an empathy between the pair that Jim had no real hope of ever fully identifying with. He could sympathise and he could understand and, in Lucas' case, he could be the rock that the boy clung to when life's memories became too hard, but his own son was a different story. Blair was too concerned about his emotional well-being to ever confide in him the way Lucas had. Conversations that ended in 'don't worry, Daddy', or 'please don't be sad, Dad', had clued Jim in very early on about the child's inner concerns. Lucas had once told him that Blair had youth on his side and that, as time went by, his memories would fade, but every now and then Blair would come out with a statement, or a situation would arise, that reinforced to Jim how very profoundly his son still did remember. His only hope was to persevere and to show Blair that his father was strong enough to handle the truth.
Lucas' voice drew Jim from his thoughts. "What man?"
"The man in the dream. The one with the black eyes."
For the first time, Lucas noticed Jim standing on the other side of the pool fence. Their eyes locked as a common thought ran through both their minds.
"I know some pretty weird shit happens around here, but he couldn't, could he?" Lucas whispered. The man that Blair was referring to, the one with the black eyes, was one that both Lucas and Jim knew all too well. After far too many nights of being jolted awake, shaking and soaked through with sweat and fear, Lucas had finally confided to Jim about his dream.
"No," Jim assured as he unlatched the gate and moved toward the pool. He ran his hand lightly across the top of Lucas' wet hair. "He couldn't." Lucas' dream was just that, a dream, and the only logical way Blair could have known about it was if he'd overhead one of the many late night conversations that had taken place when the dream became too hard for a sixteen-year-old to handle alone.
"Hey, Munchkin, what's going on?" Peeling off his shirt, Jim lowered himself into the pool. He ran his hand up Blair's back. "Are you okay?"
Blair turned his head and peeked out to look at his father. "Ah, ha," he nodded. Releasing the hold he had on Lucas, he moved into Jim's arms. "Daddy, will you teach me how to swim?"
"Okay," Jim replied tentatively "Are you sure about this?"
"It a good time," Blair answered.
An eerie sensation ran through Lucas' body the moment Blair broke contact, leaving him with an uncanny feeling that something a lot deeper was brewing. While Jim tended to skirt around the mystical side of his Sentinel abilities, Lucas wasn't quite as quick to negate them or write them off as hocus pocus. Fate wasn't something he'd thought of much while growing up, because to believe in fate, you needed to believe in the future and, up until now, his future had been a moot point. But as the house he occupied had slowly become a home, a future, his future, had turned from an irrelevant question to a concept with definite merit, and one that was worth protecting with everything he had.
"Lucas and Laura sitting in a tree..."
Blair ducked out of the cushion's flight path as it sailed through the air. "...k.i.s.s.i.n.g," he continued to tease, smiling brightly.
"Laura, hold on for a second, will ya? I need to do a little pest control." While Blair may have mastered the art of cushion ducking, his teenager-avoidance skills still needed a little work and it wasn't long before he found himself dangling over Lucas' shoulder, leaving his shorts-clad backside in a very precarious position. Not quick enough to ward of a playful swat, he burst into a round of giggles as he was suddenly dumped flat on his back onto the sofa. The TV flicked on and Lucas was back, looming largely over him. "Sit, stay and be quiet." The phone was snatched up again and Lucas disappeared into the kitchen, leaving the bored three-year-old to his own devises. "Daddy said you 'posed to look after me 'till he gets back, not talk to girls," Blair huffed. Poking his tongue out, he scrambled off the couch in search of something else to do. The front door was wide open, and his bike still sat in the driveway, where they'd both been, until Laura had called. "I not need you to teach me how to ride, anyhow," he sulked. Not bothering with his helmet, Blair headed out the door, kicked at the training wheels that Lucas had removed and readied himself to mount the bike.
"Hey, hold up there, little guy."
Startled, Blair jumped, his heart thumping as two large hands circled his waist.
"Don't be afraid, son," the voice behind him soothed. "I'm not going to hurt you."
Clawing at the fingers, Blair pried himself out of the man's grasp.
The large figure crouched down to his eye level and, while every instinct in his body screamed at Blair to run, a stronger portend forced him to stay.
"My name's Max." The man extended his hand, by way of introduction. "I'm looking for Lucas."
Cautious and wary, Blair backed up a little, his nervousness dissipating slightly as the tickle of fur rubbed against his legs. "Why?"
The man shrugged his shoulders before scratching his jaw. "Because I haven't seen him for a long time and I'd like to say hello."
"Why?" Blair asked again.
Max let out a chuckle, remembering fond memories of his own sons at this inquisitive age. He reached over to push the child's wayward curls out of his eyes, his hand lingering a little too long and his imagination a little too captivated by the beautiful, angelic face staring back at him. Suddenly his hand jerked away and, for a split second, Max felt a ridiculous sense of pride at being able to control a part of him that was so very much out of control. His self-adulation was short lived, however, when he looked up and realised that his power of control was limited, and this time it had been taken from him by the hands of his son.
Standing, Max faltered, unprepared for what he saw. While time and age and his propensity to indulge in the seedier side of life had taken from him his last tenure on youth, in his mind's eye, his boy had not succumbed to the same fate. To Max Wilder, Lucas had remained a child. A child who, despite the circumstance of his upbringing, still told his father how very much he missed him, how very much he still loved him... and how very much he still needed him. The young man that now stood before him with palpable hatred and anger in his eyes wasn't what he'd anticipated. Max's fairytale reunion had just been torn to shreds.
"Get out." Lucas' words were harsh and guttural.
"Son," Max whispered.
"Don't," Lucas warned. "Don't you fucking dare." He pushed Blair behind his leg. They were both still shirtless and the shorts Blair was wearing had a tendency to hang low on his hips, leaving little to the imagination of a man like his father.
"Lucas, it wasn't meant to be like this."
"No? What was it meant to be like, Dad?" Lucas spat, endeavouring to clear the foulness of the word from his mouth. "Me on all fours with my ass in the air, perhaps?"
"I'm not that man anymore," Max said quietly, aching with regret for not only not being the kind of father a son deserved, but also at his inability to stop the twitch that stirred at the base of his groin. Lucas had grown from a stunningly beautiful child into a very striking and desirable young man.
The look Lucas saw in his father's eyes was unmistakable, and a familiar vulnerability washed over him. This had to end and it had to end while his anger and hate were still strong enough to hold him together, because if he let his emotions cripple him, it wouldn't take much for him to once again fall into the trap that his father was so skilled at laying down.
Clenching his fist, Lucas reacted in the only way he knew how. He took a step forward, only to be stopped by a small, but forceful arm that wound around his leg. "Lucas, we go inside now." The arm squeezed tighter. "Please."
Suddenly Lucas realised he couldn't do this. Not to or in front of Blair. Spinning around, he roughly hitched up the child's shorts and swung him into his arms. "Get the hell off this property!" he shouted. "Get the fuck off and don't you ever come back."
"Lucas, please," Max pleaded. Survival was the ruler of Max's life these days, and if he failed to get Lucas to agree to meet with him as Robert had instructed, he had no doubt that his brother's penance would be vengeful and painful. "I just want to talk. Won't you at least give me that much?"
"The only thing I'll give you, Max, is exactly what you gave my brother." Backing up with Blair still in him arms, Lucas felt the jaguar brush against his legs. He couldn't even begin to recall how many times he had envisaged his father's death, imagining how and when it would come to pass and, when it did, how much pain the man would suffer. And now the moment was so close he could almost reach out and touch it. The cat had killed for him before and he knew that it wouldn't take much provocation for the animal to do it again.
Swallowing hard, Lucas struggled with the power he held in his hands. While every fibre of his being detested the man that stood before him, a part of his damaged psyche, a part that he considered sick and twisted, still loved his father. It was times like these that haunted him, and brought home to him just how very broken he really was.
The jaguar moved out from behind his legs and Lucas' decision was made. He reached down, laying a hand on the cat's head, steadying its agitation. "Go Max," he rasped. "Leave now, while you still can."
Somehow the gravel path under Lucas' feet managed to give way to a paved entrance and in turn to wooden floorboards. The front door slammed shut and Lucas fumbled with the lock, his shaking fingers barely able to coordinate the simple movement. Leaning heavily against the solid oak panels, he felt as if his whole world had been once again ripped out from beneath him, and fear was consuming him without mercy.
Then the silence was broken. "He going away." With his face pressed up against the window, Blair's fingers trailed through the silky smooth fur of the black cat.
Anger suddenly engulfed the teenager. "What the hell were you thinking, going out the front door like that?" he yelled.
"You left it open," Blair countered, sheepishly.
"Don't," Lucas warned. "You know damn well the rules about going out front to play by yourself." He pulled himself up inches from Blair. "Open or not is not an invitation for you to go through it."
Not afraid of Lucas's anger, but truly remorseful for his actions, Blair turned, his eyes downcast. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry is nowhere near good enough, Blair." Lucas stomach churned. Blair's fate could have been seconds away from history repeating itself. Another brother gone, another child to bury.
Resisting the urge to shake some serious sense into the three-year-old, Lucas shouted. "Go to your room!"
Blair didn't move.
"Go!" Lucas snapped harshly, this time making the boy jump. With tears brimming in his eyes, Blair took flight. His bare feet slapped across the floorboards and pounded quickly up the stairs. Slamming his door shut, he dove onto his bed, his pillow doing little to muffle the sorrowful sobs that followed.
Sinking down onto the sofa, Lucas buried his head in his hands. He needed to leave, that much he knew for certain. Max may have left, but he wouldn't be gone forever. The longer he stayed, the greater the temptation there was for his father to return and the greater the risk became to Blair. Disappearing had never been hard for him in the past. It had more or less become a way of life. But he was no longer trapped in the past, and this new chapter he was living was one that came with responsibility, with obligations and with a duty of care. Because of this, it also came with one of the hardest goodbyes he'd ever have to make.
"You're staying put."
"Jesus Christ, Jim. How can you possibly want me to stay when you know what's at stake?" Lucas argued in disbelief.
"Knowing what's at stake is exactly why you're not going anywhere."
"Jim, he's your son."
"And so are you." Jim grasped Lucas' shoulders. "You're part of this family, kiddo. You telling me you're just willing to walk away from that?"
"No." Lucas shook his head. "Not want to, have to." He wrapped his hands around Jim's forearms. "You're the only person I've ever confided in and you know damn well what my father is capable of." A shudder ran through Lucas's body. "He won't give up trying to see me, Jim, and every time he does, Blair will become more and more of a temptation."
"You need to trust me, Lucas." Jim answered. "Trust me to take care of my son... both my sons."
The word son, coming from Jim, never ceased to floor Lucas. He was a son, but a son to two men. One man who he hated with intense anger, but also loved with doleful pity, and one who he'd grown to finally admit to himself that he just simply loved. "You can't watch us twenty-four hours a day, Jim," Lucas replied, quietly.
"And I won't have to." Slapping the boy lightly on the shoulder, Jim beckoned him to take a seat on the sofa. He'd only been ten minutes away from home when he'd received the call from the kid and, while the information Lucas had imparted scared the hell out of him, it also told him that they had finally reached a defining moment in their relationship. The stubbornly independent and willful kid who had been thrust into manhood well before his time had finally let the boy inside take a foothold on his life. While protecting Blair wasn't and never would be an issue, Lucas was finally seeking protection for himself. If confronted with the same situation six months ago, Jim had no doubt in his mind that the kid would have taken off, never to be seen or heard from again. But the current Lucas Wilder needed other people. Although he would always have a maturity that other sixteen-year-olds wouldn't have, Lucas had become fallible and, while many might have seen this as a failing, Jim saw it as a huge step forward in the boy's emotional development. To be fallible meant that he'd finally opened up his heart to love.
"Lucas, by coming here, your father has broken the terms of his parole. Simon's already got an APB out on him, and knowing Simon, that means that half the cops in Cascade are out looking for him."
"He'll go back to jail then?"
"The chances are high." Jim noted the flicker of uncertainty in the kid's eyes. "Are you okay with that?"
Lucas just nodded.
"How about a change of plans?" Jim said, getting to his feet. "Why don't we head off early tomorrow morning and put some space between us and here for a while?" He'd already spoken with Simon and they'd both agreed that his place was with the boys and not out looking for Max Wilder.
"Okay." Lucas sat numbly on the couch. He'd let Jim take the decision out of his hands, this time. But, although the burden may have been temporarily lifted, Lucas couldn't stop the trepidation from creeping over him, or ignore the intuition that told him that this wouldn't be the last time he'd be running into Max.
Jim scuffed Lucas' hair before heading toward the stairs. Perched halfway up, with Big Bird clutched to his chest and a wolf pup lying on his feet, Blair sat silent and still. Padding up the stairs, Jim crouched down before reaching the top. "I think you and I need to have a little talk about a few things, don't you?"
Blair knew his daddy was angry and was cross with him for disobeying the rules. He nodded his head without saying a word.
"But first, I think there's someone in this house that could do with an apology and also a hug."
The pup scooted down the stairs and Jim reached out and drew Blair to his feet. "Go on," he said, swatting the three-year-old lightly on the backside.
Blair pensively made his way down the stairs and into the living room. He stopped, not getting too close to Lucas, who didn't even seem to notice his presence. "Do you still love me?" he stammered.
Lucas's eyes locked with the youngster and Blair lunged forward into open arms. There were no words spoken; they were brothers and there was no need.
Continuing up the remainder of the staircase, Jim headed toward the bathroom to run Blair's bath. He knew the night ahead would be a long and sleepless one, and he prayed that his fellow officers would get the job done before it was necessary for him to intervene. If Max Wilder came near either of the boys again, police procedure would become obsolete. Rules were insignificant when the well-being of his family was at stake.
"Lift." Lucas tapped Blair on the ankle.
"Are you afraid of him?" Blair asked. With his hands on Lucas' shoulders to steady himself, he lifted his foot while Lucas set about drying his toes.
"Afraid of who?"
"Afraid of the man today."
Finished with his foot, Lucas ran the bath towel up Blair's legs and over the length of his body, making sure the youngster was completely dry. "Why don't we just agree to forget about what happened today and forget about the man, okay?"
Blair wished he could, but he knew that when Incacha came to him, he always came for a very important reason, and today in his room had been no exception. Incacha had told him that his daddy needed to find his way and that Lucas had to help him find it. He didn't understand everything the spirit guide had said, but he understood enough to know that something was going to happen and Lucas needed to be strong.
"All done." Lucas draped the towel around Blair's shoulders. "Why don't you go and get your PJs on while I clean up the mess left behind by the bubble monster?"
Without warning, Blair lunged forward and wrapped his arms tightly around his brother's neck. "Be brave, Lucas," he whispered. "Daddy needs you to be very, very brave."
Before Lucas could say anything, Blair released his grip and scampered from the room. He knew going after the child and questioning him about his statement would be futile, at the very least. Blair could be as secretive and as aloof as Mata Hari when he wanted to be, and no amount of wheedling or enticement could get him to talk if he didn't feel like talking. Besides, he was drained both physically and mentally; going one on one with a wily three-year-old just seemed like too much effort for very little gain. All he wanted to do was to sink into bed and forget the day ever happened. Hearing Jim talking to Blair, he threw the dirty towels in the hamper and headed for his room. He left the door open and, despite the stifling heat, he closed and locked his window before drawing the blinds. Pulling down the bedcovers, Lucas lay down on the cool cotton sheet and closed his eyes, inwardly hoping for a night that would be free of the dreams that nightmares were made of.
Jim laid the sleeping child down on the far side of Lucas' bed. The teenager hadn't stirred an inch since falling asleep just before dinner and, given the circumstances of the day, sleep was more beneficial to the kid at the moment than food. Not forcing the bed issue with Blair and feeling his own need to keep the child close, he'd let his son fall asleep in front of the TV before moving him upstairs.
Flicking on the overhead fan to try and alleviate some of the heat from the warm, stuffy room, Jim adjusted a sheet over Blair's sleeping body. Leaving Lucas uncovered, he palmed away the moisture from the teenager's sweat-dotted brow. "It's just me," he assured when the kid stirred at the intrusion in his room. "Blair's in the bed with you." Lucas sleepily acknowledged the comment before flipping over. His fingers brushed against Blair's pyjama top and it didn't take long for him to settle back down.
After double checking to make sure the latch on the window was secure, Jim peered out into a strangely moonless night, scanning the landscape only as far as the porch light would allow. His senses had been off kilter all night, and, although he'd made a concerted effort to get them to cooperate, his hearing and eyesight wouldn't elevate beyond that of a normal level. Never truly comfortable with relying on the somewhat foreign and fickle nature of the so-called gift he'd been given, he shrugged off the inconvenience and let his detective instincts take over. His gut feeling was telling him that keeping the members of the household in close proximity was his first priority. His second was to be vigilant and prepared for whatever the night might bring. The chance of Max Wilder returning wasn't high on the list of probabilities but, not willing to store his faith in chance, Jim let his training and his intuition call the shots.
With the impenetrable darkness unwilling to give up the secrets it harboured within the confines of its shadows, Jim let the blind flutter closed. The sound of crickets and the sporadic barking of a neighbour's dog in the distance settled over him, bringing a sense of normality and order to a night where even the stars refused to shine.
Outside the window, a jaguar prowled restlessly, while a Chopec warrior watched without taking action.
Since Robert Wilder felt the means to an end well within his grasp, he could be patient as he waited for the blind to close and the house to become silent. Stepping onto the gravel path, as quietly as the stones beneath his feet would allow, he crept toward the side of the house. The back door, which had been bolted and locked, opened with a simple twist of the handle and the man with a soul as black and as sinister as the darkness that concealed his presence found himself wrestling with a decision. He could keep to the details of his original plan and attach the tracking devise to the cop's truck, waiting for the camping trip that was so obvious in its preparation earlier that day to come to fruition, or he could deviate slightly and eliminate right here and now the only obstacle which he could see standing between himself and his ultimate targets.
The young child that Lucas had seemingly taken a shine to had not only become a convenient bargaining chip, but also a ripe, juicy cherry on top of an already delicious ice cream sundae. The cop was and had always been of no consequence to his plan, and whether he killed him now or later was of no real importance. They'd all be missed eventually, but eventually was a concept that was nothing more than a matter of time, and he had plenty of time. Maybe it would be easier this way. He'd have it neatly wrapped up and could be on the road toward the border without the trouble of tracking the happy little family to the back woods of god knows where.
Cocking his head toward the second floor and listening intently for any sound or movement, Robert smiled evilly. "Too much bear shit in the woods, anyway," he muttered as his smug, superior nature endorsed his change of plans. He'd actually been surprised at how easy it was for him to gain access to the house. Lucas had either kept mum about seeing Max, or else the cop he'd hitched up with was just plain ass dumb.
Almost laughing, Robert moved arrogantly toward the stairs, but his overconfident swagger suddenly pulled up short when an eerie chill ran through his body.
Incacha stood tall and strong, blocking Wilder's path. On the eve of an event that never should have been brought to pass, the warrior reluctantly stayed true to the dictates of the council. The man with the heart of pure evil would be given the freedom to roam, as long as he did not stray from the path that had been set out before him. A locked door conveniently unlatched, notifications of an unjust release swallowed under a mountain of paperwork, and a sentinel dulled and stripped of all sense and instinct until the intruder within his territory was long gone.
The day of reckoning would soon be at hand and, when it arrived, Incacha knew that he would stand strong and proud by the side of his sentinel. But until that day arose, the council's wishes would be upheld and Wilder would stay true to his destiny.
"What the holy fuck!" The intruder blinked several times in order to clear his vision. He could have sworn on the grave of his crazy old grandmother that he'd just seen a half-naked Indian standing on the bottom stair. Blinking again, another chill swept violently over him, this time causing him to visibly shake and drop the knife clumsily from his hand.
Frozen momentarily, listening for any sign of movement that his careless mistake may have caused, Wilder endeavoured to pull himself together. Quickly snatching the knife from the tiled floor, he hastily made his way through the door that led to the garage. Dropping to he ground, he slid under the truck and attached the tracking device to the chassis. After making sure it was secure, he pulled himself out and cautiously retraced his footsteps, giving a sigh of relief when he was back out in the night air. As he made his way across the lawn toward the trees, the darkness that had hidden him before offered no solace. He felt a very real presence behind him, making the hairs on his neck bristle. For the first time in a very long time, Robert Wilder was afraid.
Slamming the car door shut and ignoring his brother's incoherent mumble, Robert shifted the car into 'drive' and gunned the engine. Speeding recklessly down the main street of the quiet suburban neighbourhood, Robert let his anger and self-loathing at the spinelessness of his actions envelope him. He looked with disgust at the weak creature in the seat next to him, lashing out with a blow to his brother's lax face. Max was the coward of the family, not him. He was the strong one. He was the one who held the power. He was the one who, no matter what, got his way because he was the one who had the balls to take what he wanted. Max was the pathetic one. Not him.
Screeching around the corner into what appeared to be an uninhabited side street, Robert pulled up sharply, the tyres of the stolen four-wheel drive slamming into the curb, and stopping in front of a poorly-lit park. With his emotions still raging, he grabbed his brother by the collar and yanked him roughly across the seat. Losing his patience as the pitiable, drug-addicted man stumbled and staggered across the grass, Robert finally came to a stop and slammed Max down, chest first, onto a wooden picnic table. A snap of a buckle, a yank on a zipper, and legs that were no longer clad with denim were forcibly kicked apart. His brother grunted under the brutal force of his penetration, the whimpering noise only serving to spur him on. "I am not weak!" he ground out, slamming harder and deeper into Max. "I have control I have always had control."
Release was quick and brutal and, as always when he abused his brother, came with a multitude of jumbled emotions. Pulling free with a care and tenderness that belied the act he'd just performed, he covered his brother's body with his own. "It's okay," he comforted gently, kissing the back of Max's head. "I'm gonna make everything okay. We'll be a family again. A proper family, I promise."
Max neither listened nor cared about this brother's words. There was no reaction or acknowledgement as his jeans were pulled up and his belt fastened. The ache that would rip through his body in the hours to come would be taken care of by the prick of a single needle. That was Max Wilder's world now, and all he cared about.
"I can drive, you know. Been doing it for a number of years now," Lucas grumbled.
"So, how about letting me?"
"Well therein lies the problem, Half-pint."
"Half-pint! You have to be kidding me. I'm only a couple of inches shorter than you and you call me half-pint!"
"Shorter being the definitive word there, stumpy," Ellison chuckled.
"You know, Jim sometimes you can be a real..."
Lucas sank further down into the passenger seat. "Sweetheart wasn't exactly the word I was looking for, but it did start with an 's'."
Blair tossed the book he was looking at onto the pile that was scattered over the back seat; the conversation in the front of the car sounding a lot more interesting than the wedding between two rabbits. "I can drive," he piped up.
Jim glanced into the rear view mirror. Its angle giving him an off-centre view of his son. "You can, can you?"
"Ah, ha. Joel teached me."
Ellison raised his eyebrows. "When did he teach you how to drive?"
"He been teaching me in his and Jessie's driverway."
"In their what?" Lucas asked.
"In their driverway," Blair answered again.
"Is that the same as the one at Wonderburger?" the teenager teased.
Lucas' taunt was rewarded with a playful whack on the arm from Jim. "What exactly did you drive in Joel's driveway, Munchkin?"
"But I didn't think that was finished yet?"
"Ah, ha, it is," Blair answered. "But Joel sayed not to tell you till I learned how to drive properly." He quickly slapped his hand up his mouth. "Um, oops."
"And why did Joel say not to tell me?" Jim asked, curiously.
"'Cause he sayed that learning someone how to drive should be left up to those 'sponsible people who have ex'llent driving records. Joel sayed that he was very ex'llent."
"Oh, he did, did he?"
"Ah, ha." Blair wiggled in his booster seat, pulling at the seatbelt that kept him securely restrained. He didn't know why he always had to sit in the back when Lucas was always allowed to sit in the front. "Dad?"
"Yes?" Jim asked, with a small measure of caution at the tone of his son's voice.
"What does 'touch with a ten-foot pole' mean?"
"Where did you hear that expression?" Jim asked.
"From Joel. He sayed that the car 'surance man don't want to touch you with one."
"Oh he did, did, he?" Jim's grip tightened ever so slightly on the steering wheel.
"Ah, ha, and so did Uncle Simon, but Uncle Simon sayed the pole would be more like twenty feet."
Lucas burst out laughing. "So, Jim, feeling a little inadequate yet?" he smirked. "Little and inadequate being both the definitive words."
Shifting quickly out of the path of another, more forceful swat that was headed in his direction, Lucas completely ignored Jim's sideward glance and swivelled around in this seat. "So, my little tattle-tail, what else has Joel been saying?"
"Hey Chief," Jim interrupted. "How about a game of eye spy? I'm driving so I have to concentrate on the road, but I'm sure Lucas would love to play with you."
A satisfied smile spread over Ellison's face. With two hours of driving still ahead of them and a three-year-old who obviously had no intention of falling asleep, Lucas had his work cut out for him. He slapped the teenager's thigh and ignored the glare that was now coming his way. "Ah, revenge," he chuckled. "Is there anything ever so sweet?"
"That one's a cat, that one's a racing car, that one's a camel and that big, huge one over there is a Rannosaurus Tex. They comed from Texas, you know."
Jim watched his little boy out of the corner of his eye and couldn't help but smile. Laying flat on his back, with the rays of the afternoon sun warming his cold little body, Blair was content and happy as the fluffy white clouds transformed the almost hypnotic blue sky into his own imaginary playground. A three-quarter sized fishing rod lay on the grass, abandoned in favour of a splash in the still-chilly waters of the shallow pond that had formed in an outcrop of rocks just out from the bank. A carefree summer had left Blair with a healthy glow and a happy-go-lucky attitude that was a far cry from the undernourished, timid child that had arrived on his doorstep so many months before.
"Holly says that a Rannosaurus comes from Texas," Blair repeated. "She says that her dad told her mom that everything big comes from Texas."
"Well there's a double-entendre if ever I heard one," Lucas laughed. He was fishing a little further downstream, but still close enough to hear Blair's chatter.
Blair took his eyes off the cloud. "What does double tundra mean, Daddy?"
"It means that either Lucas has been watching too many James Bond movies or he's finally paying attention in English."
Blair rolled his eyes and didn't bother questioning his father any further about the answer he'd given. His daddy was in a silly mood and when he started teasing Lucas, he knew it would be a long, long time before he'd get a proper answer to his question. Jessie would tell him what the word meant, because Jessie was sensible. Everyone knew that. Turning his attention back to the sky, he watched the dinosaur break apart before drifting slowly away, and wondered for a brief moment if he'd get to see a Rannosaurus Tex in the zoo if he asked his dad to take him to Texas.
With a smile still on his face, Jim felt a contentment of his own as he regarded the two boys who had become his world. He'd never really thought about his life in terms of love before. He had loved, he guessed and he knew that there must have been times when the feelings he had for his father weren't tainted by animosity and ill feeling, and also times when the bond he had with Steven was more brotherly than just wanting to kick the shit out of each other. But if those feelings existed, they existed as a minuscule part of his life and would never come close to comparing with what he now knew as love. He loved Blair, his son, with an absolute depth he'd never felt before. Although he may have tried to ignore it at first, the love he had for this child had been whole and complete, the minute he'd laid eyes on him. Lucas, on the other hand, was an entirely different story. The first time he came face to face with the kid, he'd wanted to dig the boy's heart out of his chest with a rusty spoon. Lucas had caused him more pain and suffering than he could ever imagine being humanly possible. But, buried deep beneath his torment and heartache, a different feeling still lingered. Whether it was the 'sorry for' factor coming into play when he was forced to face the atrocities of the kid's life, or whether it was the misguided, but nevertheless fierce and unrelenting protection Lucas had offered his son, he couldn't explain. Then again, no parent probably could. The love for one child over the other was incomparable, at least in his world. Blair may have been his son by birth and Lucas by circumstance, but he'd grown to love them both, fully, completely and in absolute, equal measure.
"You gotted another one," Blair squealed, drawing Jim from his thoughts.
Fighting the end of Lucas' line was a very respectable, five-pound rainbow trout.
Skipping from one flat stone to another until he reached the shore, Blair bounced around excitedly. "Put it in the bucket, put it in the bucket," he chorused.
Grabbing the net and scooping up the fish as Lucas reeled it closer into shore, Jim was fully prepared for the next statement out of the teenager's mouth.
"Hmm, three fish in a tub and they all appear to have been caught by me."
"Yeah well, Captain Ahab, I'm just pacing myself. Fishing is all about patience, perseverance and indulging in the finer points of relaxation while becoming one with nature... as the more experienced of the fishing brethren like to describe it."
"Sunshine and sensible adages," Jim jumped in, with a wisp of a smile on his face.
"Again, not quite the 's' words I was thinking of."
"Daddy, look at all the colours," Blair announced in awe. "They all the colours of the rainbow."
Jim peeked into the large plastic container. The sun reflecting on the water and bouncing off the fish did make it appear that Lucas had caught a bucket full of rainbows.
"This one is Mr. Sparkles, this one is Mrs. Glitter and..." Blair scratched his head, "I don't have a name yet for the other one."
"How do you know if Mr. Sparkles is really a mister?" Lucas interjected. "He might be a girl."
"If you pick him up, I will tell you what he is," Blair answered confidently.
"How?" Lucas asked.
"You look at their bottoms, Lucas," Blair stated, as if the answer was obvious. "When Holly's cat had kittens, her dad picked them up and looked at their bottoms. They have boy or girl typed in big letters there, so you know what they are."
"Okay," Lucas drawled. "Think it might be time for a little bit of the old birds and the bees."
Jim let out a long-suffering sigh. To date, he'd succeeded in avoiding the question of sex education. His apprehension stemmed from not only being overly cautious and wary of stirring up the memories of Blair's past, but also from the fact that he honestly didn't have any idea how to even begin to broach the subject with a three-year-old. Blair was a clever kid and rudimentary answers never seemed to satisfy his curiosity. He'd managed to pretty much skirt around the edges of the subject to date, but he knew full well that once the horse was out of the gate, Blair would ride the old chestnut at full speed until there was no more left for the horse to give. While he was pretty sure that Blair would survive the ride, he wasn't quite so certain of his ability not to stumble, fall off and be pummelled into the ground halfway through.
Lucas noted the perplexed look on Jim's face. "I thought you had a book?"
"Well, doesn't that give the ABCs of the whole thing?"
"The ABC is easy; it's the XYZ that starts to get tricky."
Jim knelt down beside Blair. The issue obviously needed to be addressed, but it could wait for another place and time. "What'd you say we blow this popsicle stand, Munchkin, and go collect us some wood for a campfire? How does hot chocolate and marshmallows under the stars tonight, sound?"
"Yummy," Blair answered. Grasping the edge of the container he let out a small grunt as he started to drag the fish back toward the riverbank. "We better put Mr. Sparkles and his friends back in the water. I think they are getting too squished in here."
"Hey, hold up there a minute, Squirt. That's our dinner in there."
Horrified, Blair looked up at the teenager. "You can't eat them, Lucas." He turned quickly back toward his father. "Daddy, Lucas is going to eat our fish!"
"Baby, that's the reason we were fishing in the first place... to catch our dinner."
The colour drained from Blair's face. "No, they our friends. You don't eat your friends." Standing guard in front of the fish, Blair's voice jumped up a pitch as he pleaded with his father. "We bringed hamburgers from the freezer. We'll have that for dinner 'stead."
Before Jim could get a word in, Lucas opened his big mouth. "Where exactly do you think hamburgers come from, Sport?"
Jim shook his head in disbelief. "Give the boy a shovel and watch him dig us all a grave," he muttered. "They come from the supermarket, Lucas," he stated firmly. "And," he added, lowering his voice considerably, "unless you are going to volunteer to do all the grocery shopping and cooking for a three-year-old vegetarian, plus work out how you're going to not only smuggle, but cook lamb roast, barbeque steak and chicken a la king in the house ever again, I'd basically suggest that you shut up now."
"Good point," Lucas nodded. While vegetables may have been tolerable, nothing compared to a juicy, flame-grilled, prime rib fillet.
Blair eyed Lucas and his father warily. "Daddy, does they really come from the supermarket?"
"Sure do kiddo," Jim answered quickly, confident that he wasn't exactly lying to Blair. He was just leaving out certain information that wasn't truly necessary at this time.
Reaching past his son, Jim began to lug the container the remaining distance to the water's edge.
"Hey, hang on," Lucas protested, but his objection came too late. Blair clapped his hands, relief evident on his face as Mr. Sparkles and his school of friends disappeared quickly downstream.
"But they were my fish," Lucas spluttered in disbelief. The empty tub sloshed unceremoniously up against his ankles in the shallow water. "I spent hours catching those."
"Well," Jim began, slinging an arm around the kid's shoulder, "I suggest that while we're busy collecting wood, you -- being the great and mighty fisherman that you are -- get to work and catch, scale, gut and fillet three more so as they look exactly like the ones Blair is used to eating at home."
"Yeah, right." Lucas rolled his eyes sardonically. "They'll still be fish, Jim."
"No Lucas, they'll be fillets."
"Fillets?" the teenager questioned.
Smiling, the detective slapped the boy on the back. "See, given enough time, I knew you'd get there, eventually."
Picking up his rod and following Blair up the path that led back to the cabin, Jim laughed at the look on Lucas' face. Life was never dull, that was for sure.
There'd been no sound, no warning. Nothing but complete and absolute silence hung in the air. It was almost as if the forest itself had been leached of the very essence that gave it life. The shadow approached, dark, foreboding and inhumanly large. It cast its evil upon the river, drowning and smothering in putrid darkness the gleaming light that once reflected upon the shallow pool.
And then the voice. It was unmistakable, ever-present in his waking hours, all-consuming in his nightmares. Lucas' worlds were about to collide.
"What, no kiss for Uncle Bobby?"
The fishing rod slipped from the teenager's hand as his worlds became one; his breathing hitched and his chest constricted. The air around him became impossibly thick and heavy, making it almost unbearable to inhale. He turned slowly to confront his demon, his face stricken but resigned. The story of his life needed no narrative, and it seemed it could never end with 'happily ever after'.
"Well, well, look at who's all grown up," Robert jeered. His eyes roamed leeringly over his nephew. "Grown up, but not so much that a guy can't still partake in a few guilty pleasures."
Lucas' response stopped short of leaving his mouth. He couldn't speak. His mind raced frantically, trying to make sense of what his eyes were telling him. This was impossible. Robert was in jail. There was no way... no possible way.
"Cat got your tongue boy?" Robert boomed. A rifle, which lay nestled in the crook of his arms, jostled against his belly as a belt of raucous laughter escaped the large man's lips. "Guess a few 'hows' are passing through your mind right about now. How did I find you, how did I get out of jail, or more to the point, how did I get sent to that hellhole in the first place?" Robert moved menacingly closer. "Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot. You already know the answer to the last one, don't you?"
"What do you want?" Lucas' voice held strong, despite the soul-shattering uncertainty that coursed through his body.
"Family, Lucas. Family is what I want. What I've always wanted."
The teenager's eyes darted, drawn to movement just beyond his uncle's shoulder. "I should have known," he whispered.
As his father inched closer, Lucas' stance became more rigid. "You bastard," he ground out. "You spineless, chicken-shit bastard."
Lucas was quick to move, but Robert was quicker. Two paces forward became a rapid three paces back as the butt of the rifle connected with the side of the teenager's head. Stunned, he fell to the ground, his knees taking the brunt of the impact as he willed his body to fall no further. He was down, but nowhere near out. As far as he was concerned, Robert's hit was on a par to being bitch-slapped. He'd suffered much worse at the hands of the man in the past, and he envisioned far worse to come before this would all be over.
"Tut, tut," Robert admonished. "Such language, and in front of you father, no less. I woulda thought the cop would've cleansed some of that sewer outta your mouth by now." Robert's boot connected with Lucas' shoulder, sending him sprawling back into the shallows. "Speaking of cops..." Pulling a handgun from the back of jeans, he tossed it to his brother. "Keep that boy of yours under control, while I take care of a few niggling pieces of business," he ordered.
"No!" Lucas cried out.
"'Fraid so, kiddie winks," Robert mocked. "But don't worry, I'm a good shot. He'll be dead before he hits the ground."
"God no!" Lucas screamed inwardly. Needing to think rationally, he shook his head in an effort to clear the fog and the ringing in his ears. Jim must have heard what was going on by now. There is no way he couldn't have. First priority, he'd stash Blair somewhere safe. Jim wouldn't make a move until that was done. Second, he'd retrieve his rifle and service pistol from the safety box under the bed of the truck. Steps one and two, easy... easy as pie. But timing. What about timing? Was there enough? Would the sentinel have enough time without being bought some? The teenager's eyes flashed towards Robert's retreating back as it disappeared up the path. Max hovered apprehensively by the water's edge, the gun gripped in his hand.
His father's weak nature had now become Lucas' strength.
"Lucas, no." Max's voice held a hint of nervousness as the boy slowly rose to his feet.
"Dad." A three letter noun, small in its structure but powerful in its emotion, especially when used against a man like Max. "Please Dad, you can't let this happen. You can't let him do this."
"I have no choice, son. I'm sorry." Max's voice may have faltered, but the aim of the gun didn't.
"There's always a choice, Dad and you always had one. You just choose to ignore it." Making his own choice and ignoring the threat that his father posed, Lucas took a chance, his only chance. He pushed past his father, knowing full well that the only strength that Max possessed to stop him was in the form of a 44 calibre handgun. The shot never came.
He'd bet his life on a speck of something good still remaining inside the man who once was a decent father. Lucas' luck, this time, won out.
"How could you have not heard?" Lucas was stunned when he came in view of their cabin. Seventy-five feet to his right, Jim and Blair went about the business of stacking wood for the fire as if there was not a care in the world. Twenty-five feet to his left, Robert had his gun aimed and cocked.
There was no time to think, no time to shout, no time to warn. As the words 'ready, steady, pop!" slipped from his uncle's lips, Lucas took flight. Tackling the man with the skill and prowess of an NFL defensive lineman, he slammed Robert's body into the ground. While the challenge may have come a second too late to stop the bullet exploding from the chamber, the barrel's aim and the trajectory of the bullet were life-savingly altered.
At the same time the bullet ripped through Ellison's bicep, Robert's rifle butt collided once again with Lucas' skull. No bitch slap this time; the force knocked the teenager deeply unconscious. This time he was down and out for the count like a victim of one of Muhammad Ali's greatest hits.
"Run, Blair, run!" His daddy words thundered in his ears, as he ploughed aimlessly and without direction through the thick undergrowth. Bracken lashed at his face, stinging his cheeks while vines entwined his angles making him stumble and fall. His knees scraped the ground and his hands fell on to his lap. They were covered in blood; his daddy's blood.
Tears trickled down his cheeks and muted sobs wracked his small frame. The man with the black eyes was real and, at the tender age of three, Blair knew full well what he wanted. "No more." His voice broke and his sobs became uncontrollable. "I don't want that no more."
Without warning he was lifted off the ground, but gave no resistance. He wrapped his arms around the body that now engulfed his and held on for dear life. "You're safe, little one," Incacha crooned, softly. "You're safe."
Two feet and eight paws tracked a weary, tiresome path back and forth across the smooth floor of the shallow cavern. The wolf pup, hot on Blair's heals, never missed a beat as its oversized paws followed in the boy's footsteps. The young cougar, resigned to third place, appeared agitated and restless, bound and held back by rules it did not want to obey.
Blair stopped suddenly, the pup and the cougar ploughing into his legs like a vaudeville clown show. "If you not want to come with me, Bagheera will." Steadfast and determined blue eyes bore into the Indian's. "He will come and he will gobble the man up."
Incacha flashed a sad smile. "Little one, I cannot. We cannot yet interfere with the path that has been laid out in front of us."
A silent tear trickled down Blair's face. "But my daddy's hurt." He held up his fingers, still stained red by the blood of his father. "Please help him."
"Come," Incacha beckoned with an outstretched hand and a soul heavier than he had ever known. Of all the guides he had tutored and nurtured, this guide, his littlest of guides, had left his mark on his heart and on his spirit.
Blair took hold of Incacha's hand, a sense of calm descending over him as his fingers were engulfed within the warm palm. "Will he die?"
"Do you trust your Guardian... your brother?" Incacha asked.
Blair nodded. He did trust Lucas, he trusted him more than anything, but the black-eyed man... there was something about him, something that went way beyond scary.
"The man is very big," Blair whispered.
"I know," Incacha answered.
"He hurt Lucas."
"I know that as well."
"Lucas is afraid."
"He is, but he has strength. A strength he will find for your father and for you." Incacha cupped Blair's cheek. "But he needs your help, little one."
"Me?" Blair responded. "I can't help. I'm too little."
Incacha smiled. "You may be little, young guide, but if you search deep enough you will find the heart of a lion waits within."
From the back of the cavern, the jaguar snarled. Incacha gave the animal a sideways glance. "I correct myself." He smiled faintly. "You have the heart of a jaguar, young guide."
"I'm as brave as Bagheera?" Blair asked, astonished.
"If you choose to be."
"How do I choose to be brave?"
"Tomorrow, when the sun rises over the first mountain peak, you will have a choice to make."
Blair listened carefully.
"You can choose to stay here with me, here with the animal spirits, or you can choose to go back to your father and to your brother."
"I not need to make a 'cision." Fear, apprehension and a smattering of courage rolled through Blair's stomach. "Daddy and Lucas need me." He pulled at Incacha's hand. "You take me now."
"At first light, little one. First you need to eat, sleep and regain your strength."
"Incacha?" Blair whispered
"I trying not to be, but I think I scared."
"Being scared is what makes you so brave, little one." The warrior got to his feet, Blair's hand still within his grasp. "Come, you must eat and sleep. Tomorrow brings us another step closer."
With a full belly, and a soft, furry mattress beneath him, it didn't take long for Blair to fall into a deep slumber. He laid his head down on the body of the cougar, quiet purrs becoming his lullaby, a young pup his teddy bear. A jaguar, strong and willful, lay down beside him, licking his fingers, erasing all traces of blood.
"You know you cannot yet interfere," Incacha intoned.
The jaguar continued to lick.
"If you intervene before the Guardian has a chance to prove himself, you will give the council the grounds they need to remove him."
The jaguar continued to lick and this time it ignored Incacha completely.
"You are a stubborn creature, Mischi, Misi." In annoyance Incacha turned his back on the cat and poked at the fire. He huffed, shaking his head. "But then, you and I have always been made of the same cloth."
When Blair left tomorrow, he wouldn't be leaving alone. The jaguar would be by his side and, in reality, Incacha wouldn't have wanted it any other way. While he placed his faith in the hands of the Guardian to take care of the Sentinel and the Guide, the boy's foe possessed an evil that one so young should not have to face alone. But if the rules of the council were broken, Incacha would deal with it like any warrior would -- in battle. If the powers that be wanted his tribe, they would have to fight for it.
"Damn, it!" Ellison yanked harshly against the restraint that kept him bound. Pain spiked from his handcuffed wrist and lashed up his arm. It stopped abruptly, slamming into his bicep, the pain akin to the full force of being thrown up against a solid brick wall.
Gritting his teeth, the sentinel banged his head back against the wall. A tight ball of pure hatred in his gut fuelled what was needed to go up against the bastard who had done this, but it was wasted energy. He was trapped. The handcuff, the immovable metal pipe to which it was attached, and a root cellar that had been designed to withstand the onslaught of a full grown grizzly, gave up nothing that would help aid their escape.
Lucas lay on the ground, still unconscious and just beyond his reach, and Blair, god, he didn't even want to think about where he might be. Jim tried to focus, tried to scan the area with his hearing in an attempt to get a fix on him, but the attempt was in vain. The whereabouts of his son was impossible to hear over the lunatic stomping through the bush on the outskirts of the cabin as Robert Wilder let loose his psychotic rage.
"Cat, if you can hear me, Blair needs you more than ever before." While the wolf pup seemed to be a permanent fixture in his son's life, the jaguar, and more recently the cougar, came and went at will. Jim tried hard to focus on the positives. The pup, like his son, was young and inexperienced, but if the cat wasn't around, then at least Blair wouldn't be alone. He had to take solace in this; if he didn't, he'd go insane with worry.
Feeling slightly woozy, Ellison levelled his breathing and attempted to sort through the array of tricks he normally used when trying to get his senses to cooperate. None of them appeared to be working. Frustrated, he slammed his head back again. "You're nothing but a fucking circus freak," he hissed, angrily.
And then it registered; faint at first, but oddly familiar to his subconscious. Closing his eyes, the sentinel concentrated. A heartbeat. It was a heartbeat. Slow and sluggish, but with every passing second it became stronger, more defined and more recognisable.
A sound, which couldn't even be described as a groan, came from the boy.
"Lucas," Jim tried again, just as the door swung open.
Footsteps, light and unsure padded down the stairs and the single light bulb, which hung from the overhead beam, was flicked on.
Max Wilder stopped, eyeing Ellison cautiously before hesitantly moving to Lucas' side.
To Jim, the man appeared to be torn; torn between coming to his son's aid and the fear of possible retribution if he did.
As Max reached down and palmed the kid's forehead, Jim knew he'd just found the man's Achilles' heel.
"I can help him, you know." He clanked the manacles against the pipe. "I've had some medical training, but I'm not much good to him shackled to this."
For a brief moment, Max seemed to consider Ellison's words, but it wasn't enough to elicit the response Jim was desperate for. He tried again, despising what he was about to say. "He's a good kid, you know. A good kid, who needs a father in his life. I know he thinks about you and I know he misses you."
"He does?" Max's words were spoken in quiet surprise, but their tone gave Ellison an inkling of hope that he just might possibly coerce the man into letting him help Lucas.
"Of course he misses you." Another voice was added to the mix, shattering Jim's hopes. "You're his father. Every boy loves his father."
Max stiffened at his brother's voice. "I wasn't doing anything. I just wanted to make sure he was okay."
"I know." Robert moved to squat down beside Max. His dark eyes bore straight into Jim's, almost if challenging him for his brother's loyalty. "I know because we're a family and families never betray one another." He took hold of Max's hand, their entwined fingers reaching out to dust over Lucas' chest. "Families care." Robert popped open the buttons on the teenager's shirt. "Families cherish." He caressed the smooth skin beneath their combined touch. "Families love." He slowly guided their fingers down, stopping at the waistband of the teenager's jeans. "Families obey." Still joined, he forced their hands to slide under the loose-fitting material before stopping and cupping Lucas' crotch. "And," he said, slowly and seductively trailing his tongue up the side of his brother's face, "all the best families copulate together."
As much as Jim wanted to yell and to scream and, with the way his current train of thought was leading him, to kill, he remained quiet, not taking the bait. Any action by him would exact a reaction from Wilder; for Lucas' sake, it wasn't a risk he could afford to take.
"But I guess you already know about sex, don't you cop?" Wilder squeezed his nephew's genitals. "Look what you've had laid out on a platter for the past eight months. Tell me, what's it like to have a sixteen-year-old and a toddler sucking on the end of you dick at the same time?"
Jim remained unresponsive, but Lucas stirred. The teenager's eyes moved sluggishly beneath stubbornly closed lids. "'im," It was weak and it was raw with pain, but there was no mistaking the name.
"Well, well, seems our boy here would agree." Robert squeezed harder. "Let's see if we can incite some sexual tension into his voice. I could do with a peep show."
"Robert, I think we should stop. I don't think he's doing so well."
"Huh, an opinion!" Robert feigned shock. "My baby brother seems to have found his balls." He pulled his hands from Lucas' pants. "What else has the cop been saying to you to give you this new-found courage, brother?"
"Nothing." Max yanked his hand free as well. "I'm just concerned for Lucas, that's all."
"I see," Robert replied. "So concerned that you take it upon yourself to make the rules."
"No," Max stuttered.
Ellison noticed the fine tremors that began to take hold over Max. Whether it was nerves, or whether Max was in need of another hit, he couldn't be sure.
"A relationship, brother, is a fine, but fickle lady. Treated well, she'll give you all the attention your heart desires. But if ignored, her blood will turn to ice." Robert rose to his feet and unbuttoned his jeans. "You wouldn't want her to go cold on you, would you?" Reaching into his pants, he fisted his cock. "Think of all the wondrous things she gives you."
Without question or a second thought, Max took over, aiming to show Robert his unwavering obedience. Freeing his brother's penis from his pants, he wrapped his lips around it, suckling hard, just as Robert liked.
"All she asks for in return is your love," Robert crooned. Running his hand through Max's hair, his breath hitched as he came close to release. "Your love, your obedience and your undeniable loyalty."
Semen flooded Max's mouth and, with the submission that was expected, he allowed not one drop to spill.
Robert breathed heavily, a trickle of sweat running down the side of his face. He patted his brother's shoulder. "Go upstairs. What you need is in my bag."
Without even a glance toward his son, Max left, taking the steps two at a time.
Wilder laughed with satisfaction. "You have approximately twelve hours before your services will no longer be required, cop, and if you wish to keep the current state of health you're enjoying at the moment, I wouldn't try that again." He adjusted his pants back into place. "Guilt trips don't work on the hopelessly guilty. Lucas may be his son, but dear brother has long passed the point of standing up for the boy." Locking his fingers around Lucas' wrist, Robert dragged the teenager to within Ellison's reach. "I want him up and functioning come morning. I may have certain specialised tastes that I like to indulge in, but necrophilia ain't one of them."
The stairs creaked and the door and the bolt clicked shut. Jim left out a sigh of relief. He'd come across some sick bastards in his time, and his ability to deal with them was pretty well refined. But this time he had personal attachments, and they fuelled a rage that he'd never quite felt before. The detective knew that he'd just gone from being a cop to being one hell of a dangerous man.
Turning his attention toward Lucas, Jim pressed his finger down on the kid's neck, relieved to find a pulse that was strong and steady. Although concerned by his lingering state of unconsciousness, Lucas' breathing was even and steady and, when pushed, he seemed to respond to stimuli.
With nothing available to help him treat the kid, all Jim could do was to keep talking, keep stimulating and try to bring the boy around. "I'm sorry kiddo, I'm so very, very sorry." Sorry that I wasn't around to take you away from it a long time ago and sorry that I couldn't do anything to stop it just now.
Ellison ran his fingers through Lucas' hair. "I'm going to do everything I possibly can to get you out of here, Lucas." His thumb drifted across a cold and clammy cheek. "But I'm gonna need your help. You need to wake up so we can blow this joint, Half-pint." Jim's touch became firmer, in an effort to try and rouse the kid. "'Cause I promise you, before this is over, this place will blow and it'll blow hard."
With his survival drive for his boys running on overdrive, Jim was determined that when the last man stood, that man would not be Robert Wilder. He had killed in the line of duty before, and at this very moment his interpretation of 'the line' had become a whole new shade of grey.
"Try and breathe through it, okay?" Each passing hour had seen Lucas' condition slowly improve and, despite the pain of his own injury and his limited range of movement, Jim had successfully encouraged the kid to move in between his legs and lean back against his chest. "That's it, just keep it up and let it pass."
Fighting off the nausea that had begun over an hour ago, Lucas sucked in heavily. His confusion was slowly abating; he was becoming more aware of what was happening and what had happened. "Blair?" he mumbled.
"He got away."
"You can hear him?" Lucas breathed.
"No, I can't find him."
"Need to concentrate." Lucas still struggled with the fog that was clouding him and even the act of talking was taking its toll.
Ellison let out a small huff. "Yeah," he agreed. Hell, if I concentrated any more, Uri Geller would be outta business and this pipe would be history, he thought. Not that he had any intention of sharing his problems with Lucas. The kid had enough on his plate without needing to worry about the screwy senses of an incompetent sentinel.
"You were shot?" Lucas tried to wrap his thoughts around the memory. "You were shot," he stated.
"Just a little," Jim quipped.
"It'll need to be bandaged... stop the bleeding."
Jim wrapped his free arm around Lucas' chest to stop the kid from moving and ran his hand up and down his arm. "It's taken care of," he assured. "My shirt's seen better days though," he added.
"I'll buy you another one for father's day," Lucas responded, quietly.
Jim pulled the boy closer. "I'm gonna hold you to that, you know."
"I'm sorry, Jim," Lucas whispered.
"Hey, don't go there, okay? None of this is your fault. You are not and never have been responsible for that bastard's actions."
"But if I'd never meet you guys..."
"Then my life would have been a whole lot emptier. I wouldn't have you and there's a very good chance I might never have seen Blair again." Jim tightened his grip. "Now, enough talking. You need to rest."
"I won't back down from him, Jim. I promise."
"Lucas, you're not to challenge him," Jim ordered. "He hasn't restrained you yet, so that's your trump card, kid. The first opening you get, I want you to hightail it into the scrub and get as far as way from here as you can."
"I'm not going to leave you," Lucas rasped.
"Yes, you are, and when you do, you're going to find Blair."
"But he'll kill you."
Jim was well aware that in a game with stakes this high, anything could happen, but he had an advantage that Wilder didn't. He hadn't underestimated his enemy.
A father, who was also a cop and an ex-ranger, had no intention of tossing in his cards or revealing his hand too early. To stay alive, he needed to play the game with caution and with subterfuge. Wilder would have no idea what he was up against until it hit him with full force.
"Promise me you'll find Blair, Lucas."
Lucas leaned heavier into Jim's chest and closed his eyes. "I promise," he whispered. I just can't promise that after I do, I won't come back for you. "I won't let you down," he mumbled.
Jim pressed a light kiss to the side of Lucas' head. "You never do kiddo, you never do."
Succumbing to his own weariness, Jim leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Blair's face filled the darkness, his beautiful, cheeky smile warming his heart and reminding him of just how very much he had to live for. Taking comfort in that thought, Jim held onto the vision for as long as he could. Be safe baby, just please be safe, because Daddy can't live without you.
"Wakey, wakey, hands off snakey." The cellar door burst open and Robert Wilder hovered on the top step, getting a visual on his nephew before proceeding further into the room.
"Well, look at you. Don't you look all refreshed and sprightly this morning?" With a wave of his rifle, he motioned for Lucas to move out of the shadows.
Shaky, but up on his feet, the teenager moved slowly back to Jim's side. He was still fighting off the nausea, and the dark throbbing bruise on the side of his face seemed to be playing a concerto in time with his pulse, but he was doing considerably better and feeling a lot more capable of standing up to Robert than he had been last night. Remembering Jim's words about biding his time and not going out of his way to antagonise, he obediently followed his uncle's directions.
A pair of handcuff keys were tossed in Lucas' direction. "Un-cuff him from the pipe and then re-cuff his hands behind his back."
Jim and Lucas' eyes met. "Do as he says," Jim said, quietly.
Kneeling down and twisting the key, Lucas released the cuff from the pipe. Carefully, he drew the older man's arms behind his back and snapped the cuff around the other wrist.
"Don't make me come over there, boy," Robert sighed.
Lucas reluctantly clicked the handcuff a notch tighter, making it impossible for Jim's wrist to slide through.
"Keys," Robert ordered.
The teenager tossed them back.
Wilder didn't even have to look at the keys to recognise that one was missing. "You know," he stated, "you'd think a person that's had as many lessons as you would start to get a little wise, eventually." He dangled the single key in front of his face. "This is exactly why I need to have a few little persuasive measures up my sleeve to keep you in line." He moved to the side of the room and motioned the pair toward the stairs. "Let's go see if we can catch one of those persuasive measures, shall we?"
Lucas helped Jim to his feet, his prolonged grip on the detective's arm more to do with steadying his own vertigo than anything else. "You okay?" Jim mumbled.
"Yeah," Lucas breathed. He moved to stand behind Jim.
"Ah Lucas, you in front," Robert directed. "I want to have a nice, clear aim on the cop's back, just in case you decide to do anything foolish." Robert held out his hand. "And let's not get lazy and forget that key."
Grudgingly, Lucas tossed it over to Robert. Out of the corner of his eye he watched with great interest as it wasn't pocketed, but instead placed haphazardly on the top shelf of a dilapidated hutch that rested against the far wall. Chance number one, he thought.
"Now, I guess you both must be wondering why I've brought you out here?" Robert circled his captives, who were now on their knees in the clearing in front of the cabin. Max hovered in the background, not offering anything but his cowardly presence. "You see, things didn't go exactly according to plan." He butted the rifle barrel against the back of Jim's head. "First off, you were already meant to be dead, but unfortunately, the little cock sucker here had other plans. Now, I could kill you right here and now, but it leaves me with a small problem." Moving across, Robert placed the rifle barrel at the back of Lucas' skull. "And that problem is control, isn't it Lucas, my boy?" Robert's heavy black boots scuffed the dirt as he positioned himself in front of the pair. "Control, however, is easy to maintain when one has the right tools. Tools such as the threat of harm to those people you've come to care about. It could be a friend, a lover, a child, or even a younger brother." He sneered. "But even the well-being of a younger brother sometimes doesn't work, does it Lucas?"
The teenager flinched.
"Don't take the bait," Ellison cautioned under his breath.
Wilder laughed. "Now, I could continue to use the cop here as my control, but I like my control subjects to be multifaceted. While I have no doubt he gives good head, something a little younger, sweeter... innocent is more to my taste." Robert squatted down on his haunches. "But my sweet little cherub seems to have scampered off." He placed the barrel under Lucas chin. "Any idea of how I could rectify that, Lucas?"
Lucas glared fiercely at his uncle, but remained silent.
"No?" Robert said, answering the boy's question for him. "Well, it's just as well I do. You see, even though he took off, my guess is that he hasn't gone far. He's what, three? How far would a three-year-old venture into these scary woods? I'd be guessing not too far. But since I appear to be having difficulty getting Mohammad to come to the mountain, I just might have to take the mountain to Mohammad." He turned his attention to Jim. "You, my friend, can be the mountain."
Chuckling, Robert got to his feet. "Huh," he sighed. "You two certainly are a quiet pair. Must be all that sex you've been having. Zaps the old energy right out of you." Pulling a handgun from his belt Robert levelled it against Lucas' temple. "Time to find your voice, cop. You call your son to come out or Lucas gets an extra ventilation hole."
"Jim, no!" Lucas gasped.
"Jimbo, yes," Robert retaliated, putting slightly more pressure on the trigger.
"He won't come," Jim answered. With his mind racing, he desperately tried to think of some way to buy some time. He concentrated, frantically, scanning the area for any sign of Blair. His ears picked up a sound that made his heart plummet. Blair was close by. The small, rapid heartbeat left no question about that.
"Come on, Jim, you can do it," Robert encouraged. "I'll look after him, I promise."
Before the sentinel could respond or do anything to take Robert's focus off Lucas, Blair stepped out into the open.
"Blair, no!" The shout echoed through the forest, but it was to no avail. The youngster's decision had already been made.
"You won't go too far away, will you?" Blair wrapped his arms around Incacha's neck. He was scared, more scared than he could remember being in a long, long time. Tom had frightened him and Tom had hurt him, and images of his face still sometimes haunted his dreams, but Tom was dead. Tom couldn't hurt him anymore. But this man, this man could, and, while Lucas had never really told him what the man with the black eyes had done to him, he knew it was very bad.
Incacha hugged Blair tightly to his chest. "I won't be too far away, I promise, little one." He pushed Blair back and cupped his cheek. "But do you remember what I told you?"
"Ah, ha, I do," Blair replied. "I not to tell Lucas that Bagheera or Rahma or you are here. He has to be brave all by himself."
"That's right," Incacha nodded.
"Incacha, what happens if the man hurts him so bad that he can't be brave?"
"Then I will come." Incacha prayed fervently that Lucas had the strength needed to take this through to the end, because dealing with the council in order to save the boy's life would be a far greater challenge than dealing with the man by the name of Robert Wilder.
Letting go of Incacha and taking a deep breath, Blair stepped out into the clearing. His daddy's shouts filled his ears, but he wasn't going to turn back. His decision had been made.
Lucas' resolve broke and he scrambled to his feet before Jim had a chance to struggle to his. He intercepted Blair and swung him into his arms, shielding the three-year-old's body with his own. Any thoughts of proceeding further were shattered when the gun, that only moments before had been pressed into his temple, fired. Lucas realised, with a sickening finality, that his impulsive action might have wrought deadly consequences.
"Jim!" The teenager spun around, relieved to find Jim still standing and still in one piece.
"It's okay." Jim raked his eyes over Blair before locking eyes with Lucas.
"Of course it's okay, dad," Robert said. "Now that little Forest Gump has returned, I can put part two of my plan into action." Wilder shoved Ellison in the back. "Move," he ordered. "You have a date with destiny."
One single look from Jim conveyed a world of information to the teenager. Within the sentinel's eyes he saw strength, fortitude and a determination that truly made him believe that Jim would be okay. He also saw something that deep down he'd known for months now -- Jim's love for them both. Despite trying so hard to keep it together, a tear ran down Lucas' cheek. "I will," he promised. The promise he'd made was the most important one he'd ever have to make -- a promise to Jim to keep Blair safe, no matter what.
"I really am a nice, considerate kind of guy, don't you think?" The path which Robert was forcing Jim to follow veered north, away from the cabin, and stayed more or less parallel to the river. In the distance, Jim could hear the distinct sound of fast-flowing water.
"I mean, I could have killed you on the spot, right in front of your kid, but being that nice, considerate guy that I am, I decided right here is a far more fitting place for you to meet your demise." Wilder pulled Jim to a stop on a grassy slope at the edge of a steep precipice.
"Besides," he said, turning Jim around so he could see his face when he killed him, "I've taken a liking to this little vacation spot and might stay a day or two. I wouldn't want the place being stunk up by the stench of your rotting corpse."
"You know what, Wilder?" Without warning, Jim slammed his forehead into Wilder's, giving the bastard a Liverpool kiss that would make any Englishman proud. "You talk too much." Robert went reeling back, completely stunned, not only by the pain, but by the unexpected move from the detective.
Still shackled and severely limited in his range of movements, Jim landed a well-place kick on Wilder's jaw, sending the man rolling perilously close to the edge of the cliff.
Unfortunately, the move also took Wilder closer to the fallen rifle and, while Robert may have been dazed, he still had enough faculties intact to reach for the weapon.
Jim lunged for the gun at the same time Robert moved. The man on the ground had the advantage and he lashed out with his feet, causing Jim to overbalance. Unable to stop the fall with his hands, Ellison fell hard, skidding into Robert's body and taking them even closer to danger. The next move was not made by man, but by a loosened section of dirt combined with gravity. As the soil gave way, Jim toppled over, landing heavily on a small outcrop of rocks about fifteen feet below the lip of the cliff. Robert was slightly luckier. He grabbed and clawed at the foliage, not only managing to find a handhold, but also a foothold in the cliff face. An unearthly, feral yell ripped from his lungs, spurring his body on and giving him the will to pull himself up and back onto solid ground. Shaking slightly and breathing heavily, he laid on his back and let loose another wild cry. The cop below was about to die.
"Fuck," Jim swore as soon as he saw Wilder scramble over the edge. He scanned the river below, hoping that his sentinel sight would kick in and enable him find a safe passage down. It worked, to a point. His eyesight was marginally better than normal and gave him an indication of what lay just below the surface of the water. The far side of the river was churning with rapids, the near side, fast flowing but not quite as laden with rocks. He was taking a chance with his life, but he didn't have a choice. He was a sitting duck where he was. Ellison jumped just as the first shot rang out. It was the last thing he remembered as his body was pulled under and dragged into the depths of the roiling river.
Incacha followed his sentinel down; his intervention had been the only reason Jim Ellison survived the fall. Twisting and turning their bodies to avoid collision with the most deadly of the rocks as the river carried them away, the Indian warrior did his best to guide his sentinel to the place where he'd face his destiny.
The sound up ahead was deafening, and Incacha braced himself for what was to come. Wash from the white water pitched and heaved before surging up against the smooth granite cliff face; the sheer volume that was being forced into such a small opening at the base of the cliff gave it nowhere else to go. Then the river disappeared. Driven underground by the lay of the land, it wound its way through the unyielding darkness before eventually returning to the light. Calmed by a broader, smoother channel, brightened by a dusting of speckled light reflecting upon its surface, the river slowed and graciously gave up its captives.
Breathing hard, Incacha pulled his sentinel from the current and waded through the shallows, dragging Ellison's limp body to shore. To the naked eye, the man no longer appeared to be breathing. But to Incacha, he was in limbo. Touching the handcuffs lightly with his fingertips and breaking their bond, Incacha picked them up and tossed them onto the river. There was nothing else he could do now but wait. Only time, and the will to live that infused the spirit of the sentinel, would guide his journey back to the living world.
Brave people were allowed to cry, weren't they? He'd tried so hard to hold back the tears, to be courageous and strong, just like Bagheera. But they just wouldn't stop rolling down his cheeks. Lucas had long given up talking to him and now just sat on the top stair with his face buried in his curls and his arms wrapped tightly around him. The man on the other side of the door had stopped saying he was sorry to Lucas and he'd also stopped crying. There was no more sound, except the snuffles from his runny nose and the funny hitching sound coming from his chest.
And he'd tried, tried so hard to be brave.
"Fuck, fuck, FUCK!" Robert yelled, his anger mounting to near uncontrollable levels. He'd watched the cop jump and watched his bullet completely miss its target and ricochet off the rocks; he'd watch himself once again fail. While the likelihood was that the cop was now being served up as fish food, the point was that it hadn't gone down like it was meant to happen. He'd lost control of the situation, and losing control made him feel more vulnerable than he was capable of dealing with. The symmetry of power needed to be brought back into balance and it would start with the one person who had thrown the whole thing out in the first place -- Lucas.
Bursting through the door, the first thing that raked past Wilder's line of vision was his brother. Curled up and motionless, his face was buried deep in the sofa cushions. The second, and strangely awe-inspiring sight, was the drug kit, upended and strewn across the kitchen table. Robert smiled a smile of the wickedly insane. Heroin; it was the perfect solution to his problem. While he might have the child in his possession, and it was true that the boy could be used as a pawn to force Lucas to obey and to submit, it wasn't the best answer. Lucas would, as he always did, be waiting, biding his time for the opportunity to escape and, when he found that opening, he'd take it and he'd take the child with him. That thought alone sent shivers down Robert's spine. While he was captivated with the idea of being reacquainted with his nephew on a more intimate level, Lucas was nearly a man. All but gone was the boyish charm that sent him spiralling into complete and utter utopia. Lucas still had his place and a purpose in his life, but the delights of youth were second to none and his nephew needed to be controlled before that ecstasy was stolen away from him.
The plan wouldn't be too difficult to pull off. Administering the first dose would be the greatest challenge, as would perhaps the second and third, but certainly by the fourth and fifth, the boy would have started to find his own need for the drug. All that was needed now was a bit of a cleanup, a warm, welcoming family meal and a reasonable dose of Quaaludes.
Puttering around the kitchen like a regular Donna Reed, Robert whistled happily. Life was good when the universe was kept in balance.
"Lucas," Robert pulled out the kitchen chair for the boy, "you can sit here. Max, you're next to him and the little fellar, Blair isn't it? Well, Blair, you can sit over here next to me."
"He stays with me." Lucas still felt like shit and he was certain at any moment his head would take a leave of absence from his neck, but Blair stayed with him, no matter what.
"Son, your Uncle has gone to a lot of effort to try and make this all nice. Can't you at least try?" Max encouraged.
Robert reached over and patted his brother's arm. "It's okay, Max, Blair can sit next to Lucas if he wants."
The teenager narrowed his gaze. This was wrong, totally wrong. Robert was far too calm. Robert was being far too nice.
Warily, Lucas took a seat, pulling Blair's chair right up against his own. It wasn't long before a small hand clutched at his thigh.
"Well," announced Robert, taking his own seat, "isn't this pleasant?" He drained the last dregs of his beer and placed it back down on the table, right next to his gun. "Now I know that this reunion has gotten off to a rather shaky start, but what do you say we all try and step forward on a new foot?"
"What did you do to Jim?"
Robert ignored the comment. "Shall I do the honours?"
"Lucas?" Blair's voice broke. "Where's daddy?"
The teenager pulled the three-year-old onto his lap. "It's okay, he'll be back," he answered quietly.
Robert chuckled under his breath "Not unless his middle name is Lazarus." He leaned over and gave Lucas a hearty slap on the shoulder. "Huh, Lazarus. Get it?" he laughed.
Rubbing his hands together, Robert lifted the lid of the casserole dish to reveal a combination of various canned soups he'd found in the cupboard. "Shall I play mother?" Ladling the soup into four bowls, which were lined up across the table in front of him, Robert handed them out in meticulous order.
Blair looked at the bowl as it was placed down. It didn't look very good, but his tummy was growling and he was very hungry. He picked up his spoon, only to have the movement stopped by Lucas. "No," was all the teenager said.
The action didn't go unnoticed. "Lucas, you got a problem?"
"No, no problem, we're just not hungry."
Robert looked at Blair. "Is that right kid? Not hungry?"
Blair shook his head, and a tiny bit of defiance crept into his voice. "I not hungry." With a little bit more courage, he pushed the bowl away. "I not want this."
"Okay," Robert conceded, calmly. "Nobody is going to be forced to eat what they don't want to eat." He reached out to touch Blair's arm, only to have Lucas pull them both back. "How about ice cream, then? You think you might be hungry for ice cream?"
"Why don't you just can the bullshit and cut to the chase." The chair scraped roughly across the floorboards and Lucas surged to his feet. Dropping Blair down behind him, he squared his shoulders and mustered his courage. "For you to reach him, you're going to have to go through me first and I can assure you that I'm not nine years old anymore."
Robert smiled. "There's no doubt you've grown, my boy, but did you obtain bullet-proof amour with that growth spurt?"
"You won't," Lucas answered cockily. Violently he swept his arm across the table, sending the bowls smashing to the floor. "So, what was it this time? Valium, Diazapam, Quaaludes?
Robert traced his fingers over the cool metal casing of the handgun. "You're mighty sure of yourself, aren't you?" He picked up the gun and levelled it at Lucas. "But what makes you so certain... so god damn sure that I won't drop you where you stand?"
"Because you still want me."
"You think I care whether the goods I fuck are damaged or not?" Robert's control was slipping. "Just take a look at your father, and let's not forget Scotty, either," he spat. "Your old man's a drug addict and the kid... well, you know how fucked up he was."
"No," Max yelled. Finally finding a voice that had been absent for so long, he cried out again. "No... don't you say that." He pressed his closed fists hard against his temples. "Don't you dare say that about him," he stated, falling to his knees and burying his face in his hands. "He was just a baby... my little boy was just a baby."
Despite his absolute rejection of any guilt, Robert Wilder did have an emotional breaking point, and his brother's grief was more often than not the trigger that released his compassion. He moved to kneel by Max. "I'm sorry," he said with genuine remorse. "I didn't mean to." While his mouth spewed a babble of apologies, Robert's mind was quite certain of just who, exactly, was responsible for Scott's death. It was Lucas; he was one hundred percent clear about that.
Out of the corner of his eye, Robert watched the one he knew was truly guilty. Lucas was standing, not moving a muscle, not appearing the least bit remorseful at his father's emotional breakdown. But the child, he was touched. He poked his body out from behind his protective shield to see what was going on, and gave Robert the chance he'd been waiting for. With the speed of a striking snake, he grabbed Blair's arm and twisted the small body into his own.
Rising quickly and backing up, he held the youngster in a firm headlock, the boy's legs dangling helplessly in the air.
"Ah ah, don't," he cautioned, squeezing a little tighter as Lucas surged forward. "Just don't."
"Let him go," Lucas said coldly.
"I will," Robert assured. "But first I need you to make a choice."
"What kind of choice?"
"A choice that involves obedience and submission."
Blair whimpered, his legs kicked out and his hands clawed at Robert's forearm.
"Alright, I'll submit," Lucas yelled. The cool, collected, tough guy facade he'd been trying to maintain was starting to show cracks.
"Not that easy, I'm afraid," Robert replied. He slowly moved around to the other side of the table and glanced briefly over at Max. Small, rhythmic, rocking motions had taken over his brother's body and Robert knew that Max had gone wherever he went when he needed to escape reality. He'd be no more trouble tonight and, after he was done, neither would Lucas.
"Sit," Robert ordered.
Taking a seat himself and positioning Blair on his knee, Robert released his strangle hold and reached into his shirt pocket.
Blair choked out a cough and tears streamed down his face. He reached out across the table for Lucas, only to be pulled back sharply. "Where's Bagheera?" he blurted out, looking around the room.
Also unable to feel the presence of the animal spirit, Lucas began to wonder the same question. "Okay," he said, trying to sound a little more reasonable. Experience had shown Lucas that standing up to Robert usually resulted in a world full of pain, but it had also shown him the strength of his own resolve. He didn't back down from the man without a very good reason, and Blair had just become that reason. "Whatever it is you want, I'll do it. Just let him come back over here to me."
"I will, in a minute." Grabbing hold of Blair's arm, Robert slammed it down on the table. Nimble fingers flicked the cap from the syringe he held in his hand. "But first you need to make that choice." Piecing the needle just beneath the first layer of skin on the youngster's tender forearm, Robert stared at Lucas. "You or him. Your choice."
Lucas couldn't quite comprehend what he was seeing. Not in this context. In his memories and in his nightmares, Robert had been the embodiment of hell in a human form, but that was a long time ago, and this... this was so real.
"Well?" Robert asked, pushing down ever so slightly on the syringe.
Blair was beyond hysterics, beyond reaction. His breathing hitched so badly, he was barely breathing at all. The teenager's choice was made. Lucas slammed his arm down on the table. "Me."
"Good choice, Kiddy Winks." In the blink of an eye, the syringe plunged into Lucas' arm and the drug entered his bloodstream. In the blink of two, the rush he felt was like nothing he'd ever experienced. In the blink of three, his stomach revolted and his world became hazy. By four, the last thing he remembered was Blair screaming his name.
Blair sat quietly on the floor, not making a move, not uttering a word. He'd done quiet before, so many, many times before. At three he was an old hand at quiet. With Lucas' head now resting in his lap, he stroked the teenager's hair with an almost fanatical obsession. The man, the one who had been crying, was in the bedroom now, the one with the black eyes had come and gone, but not before making noises that brought back an unnerving familiarity.
The front door to the cabin swung open and slammed back into the wall, making Blair jump.
"What are you looking at?" the huge man yelled, reaching for another bottle of whiskey.
Blair remained quiet, not saying a word, just stroking his brother's hair.
Then the man got that look. It was the same as Tom's, and Blair knew what was coming.
"What's wrong with you, you stupid little bastard. Cat got your tongue?" The man raised his arm and formed a fist, and Blair closed his eyes and waited.
He waited, but nothing happened. Daring to open his eyes, the only thing the youngster came into contact with was Robert's stunned look. Blood dribbled from a wound on the man's arm and Bagheera sat, preening his fur. The cat had responded to Robert Wilder's words as if to an incantation, effectively silencing him.
Wilder stuttered and spluttered, unable to form an intelligible word. Chilled to the bone by a deepening of the coldness which had been plaguing him on and off for months, he stumbled backward. The wound on his arm continued to bleed and he looked at it as if it were an apparition. His eyes flickered from the child to his nephew and back to Blair again. "Devil's spawn," he gasped. Continuing to stumble, he clasped the bottle to his chest as if it were a holy cross and edged his way toward the front door. "Devil's god damn, fucking spawn."
Jim's re-emergence back into the physical and the conscious world was not a painless event. His chest felt heavy and constricted, making breathing difficult, and pain sliced through his arm with the insistence of a buzz-saw. Rolling to his side, he struggled to his hands and knees and coughed up more phlegm than he thought could possibly exist in one man's body.
"Never a pleasant side effect of limbo, Enqueri." The warrior leaned over and smacked the sentinel hard on the back.
"Incacha!" Jim lumbered unsteadily to his feet. "Blair, Lucas... do you have them?"
"No, no I do not."
"Why?" Jim rasped out, still coughing. "Surely you know what's happened!"
"I am well aware as to what has taken place, Enqueri."
"Wilder and Lucas' father... you've taken care of them, then?"
"No," Incacha replied forlornly. "I have not done that either."
"I don't understand..." Jim's world jolted to a sudden, screaming halt. The only reason he could fathom for Incacha being with him and not protecting the boys was that the boys no longer needed protection. "God, no?" he whispered.
"They are not dead," the spirit guide assured gently. "But if you do not find your way, your balance, they could very well be."
"What?" Ellison stuttered, still trying to process the first part of Incacha's answer.
"Finding your way, sentinel, is the only way they will survive, and if you cannot do this, then their fate will rest heavily upon your shoulders until the day you pass."
Jim stared at the Chopec Warrior as if he'd just spoken in tongues. "What the hell are you talking about?" he asked, confused and somewhat affronted by Incacha's statement. "If the boys are still alive and Wilder is still with them, orb outta here or whatever it is you do and go protect them," he ordered.
"I think you are somewhat misguided, Enqueri." Incacha got to his feet and stood to his full height. "You are their Sentinel and it is your job to protect them. Unfortunately for your Guide and the Guardian, it is a job you have not been taking seriously."
"You have got to be kidding me!" Jim answered, his anger dangerously on the rise. "After everything we've been through, after everything those kids have been through, you have the gall to accuse me of not protecting them?"
"When was the last time you used your powers, Sentinel? When was the last time you used the gift that has been given to you?"
"What the hell has that got to do with this?" Jim barked.
"When!" Incacha asked again.
"I don't know!" Jim yelled. "Last week when I was looking for the cinnamon in the back of the pantry, I suppose."
"The fact is, you have not used your gift to its full capacity since the guardian came into your life."
Jim thought back, and realised that what Incacha said was true. When Blair had been missing, the grasp he'd had on his senses had been pretty damn freaky. But since then, when things had settled down to more or less being normal, so, it seemed for the most part, had his senses.
"There are certain spiritual powers, Enqueri, who believe that a Guide is wasted upon a Sentinel who does not embrace what he has been given. These same powers also believe that a Guardian is not a guardian without a Guide to protect."
"This is bullshit." Jim scrubbed his hand roughly through his hair. "They're not guardians and guides, they're kids, my kids."
"In this realm perhaps, but in others, they are nothing more than what I've stated."
"Well, you know exactly where you can shove that realm and the powers that be, don't you?"
"If only it were so easy," Incacha replied sadly. He gestured toward the ground. "Sit, Enqueri. We have much to talk about."
"No, we don't," Jim retaliated. "What we need to do is for you to get me out of here so this cop can do what this cop does best."
"Sit." It was no longer a request, but a command.
The look in Incacha's eyes had Jim planting his butt on the nearest rock.
"Survival of the fittest is, I believe, how your culture describes it," Incacha began. "As in everything to do with nature, it is those who adapt to their environment and those who meet head on and empower themselves with the circumstances of this environment, who are the ones to survive. Those who shy away, who ignore what is right in front of their eyes in favour of clutching to the ways of the past, are the ones who meet an early demise."
"And all that means what exactly?" Jim asked sardonically.
"You see me, Enqueri, you see the animal spirits, you know you have a power that not many human beings possess, but still you choose to ignore. You stay focused on your physical world and disregard what has been shown to you by the spirit world. The spirit world does not take being ignored lightly."
"I don't ignore it," Ellison bit back. "The god damn zoo that's taken up residence in my living room is a testament to that."
Incacha was becoming annoyed at the flippant nature of his sentinel. "Your choices are clear, Enqueri. You either can adapt to the new world or you can choose to flounder in the old one. If you choose the latter, the consequences for your guide and the guardian could be dire."
Jim paled. "Dire, how?"
"The council has shown you a life with a Guardian and Guide, and now you are being given a glimpse of what it could be like without them." Incacha's voice became serious. "If you continue to ignore, that glimpse will soon become a reality."
"Reality... a reality, how?" Ellison asked, not really sure if he wanted to know the answer.
"They will be removed."
"No!" Jim surged to his feet. "This council of yours... they can't do that. I won't let them."
"Yes, I'm afraid they can." Incacha reached out and laid his hand upon Jim's shoulder. "Unless you stop them."
"Stop them how?"
Incacha pointed to the river. "The way you entered holds no way back." He swept his hand downstream to where the water started to churn. "The way forward represents only death." He turned around and held his hands up in the air, almost as if praying to the smooth granite cliff face that not only surrounded them but also kept the sentinel trapped. "The secret lies within these walls. Find that and you'll find your way out."
"This is a test, isn't it?" Ellison's 'obvious' penny had just dropped. "Wilder, Lucas' father, the camping trip... it's all been a god damn, fucking test." He pinched the bridge of his nose, briefly. "Okay, I'll play your little spiritual mensa puzzle. I can do this," he said, still as angry as hell, but resigning himself to the fact that playing along might very well be his only chance to save his sons. "All I have to do is find a way out of Willy Wonka's maze here and every thing will be hunky dory, back to normal." He glared at Incacha. "I'm assuming that's how it works?"
"The test is twofold, Enqueri."
Jim slapped his hand against his thigh. "Of course it is. Why would I have expected anything less? What's the catch?" he spat.
"As your son grows, he has the potential to be a very powerful guide, perhaps even a shaman. There are many who believe that sending someone so young to protect him was a mistake. There are many who believe the guardian should be removed."
"Incacha," Ellison growled. "If you or any one of your transparent buddies do anything to..."
The warrior held up his hand, silencing the sentinel. "He is, at this very moment, fighting for your guide's life with his own. He is strong, but his quarry is stronger. He needs you, Enqueri. To survive the battle, he will need you by his side." Incacha turned and walked back down to the river. "Look beyond to find your way out."
"Beyond what?" Ellison shouted. Lucas and Blair had been left in the hands of a psychotic lunatic and Incacha was playing twenty questions.
"Beyond what is in front of your eyes."
Jim smacked the face of the wall with his hand. "I hate to tell you, Yoda, but these walls are solid rock, there is nothing beyond."
Incacha turned one more time to address his sentinel. "If there is nothing beyond, Enqueri, then you will see no further." As the shadows of dusk disappeared and gave the earth back to the night sky, so did Incacha. If his sentinel did not walk alone now, then walking alone could very well be the path he would follow until his death.
Alone and abandoned, Jim ran his hand over his short-cropped hair. "And they wonder why I don't get involved in their world," he muttered. Black and white, point A to point B... X marks the spot. That was the kind of guy he was. He wanted no 'seek and thou shalt find', no 'double, double, toil and trouble', no mystical, god damn mumbo jumbo. Just straight facts, facts which were based on solid evidence that could be correlated and linked back to reveal a chain of events and solve a problem.
Looking up at the cliff face and knowing he had to get it together, Jim tried to push his analytic detective brain to the background. "Beyond," he muttered as he surveyed the wall. "Look beyond."
'And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.'
Blair was angry, just as angry as the little boy in the book who had been sent to his room for wanting to eat up his mother and, like the little boy who had become the king of the monsters, Blair knew that he was also the king of his beasts. But, unlike the monsters in the little boy's dream, his monsters -- Bagheera, Rahma and the cougar he'd named Socks -- were real, and they could do some real gobbling up if they wanted to. But that's where the similarities to the story ended, because his monsters were doing nothing to help Lucas. He'd tried talking to them nicely, he'd tried growling and wagging his finger at them, and he'd even tried staring into their yellow eyes without blinking and commanding that the rumpus begin, but they hadn't moved an inch. Not even Rahma, his most trusted of monsters.
"Well," Blair huffed, angrily. "If you not going to do anything to help Lucas, I will." Jumping down from the sofa, the youngster was well aware of the danger of going into the bedroom, but at the moment, he was so cross he didn't care. Lucas was being hurt and it seemed that nobody but him was going to help.
Giving the animal spirits one last angry glare, Blair quietly padded across the room. He could still clearly see in his mind the man with the black eyes as he threw the blanket at his head, and he could still hear the man's voice as he was told not to move from the couch or he'd gut Lucas like a pig. But the horrible sounds that had come from behind the bedroom door earlier stirred up an even deeper, uglier memory. He knew what was going on and he knew how much it hurt. Lucas was brave, but the needle the man had given him earlier in the night had also made him sick. Now it was his turn to be as brave for his brother as his brother had been for him.
Reaching the door, Blair grasped the handle firmly, turning it, little by little, until it clicked. Easing the door open, he stopped when it creaked noisily on its hinges. Listening intently, and relieved when the loud snoring didn't stop, he mustered up even more courage and continued to push on the door until there was enough space for him to squeeze into the room. Even though it was dark, the moon shining through the window gave sufficient light for him to seek Lucas out. His breathing hitched and he struggled not to make a sound at the sight that confronted him. Turned on his side and so close to the edge of the bed that he was nearly falling off, Lucas lay completely exposed. He had no clothes on and neither did the other two men in the bed.
Blair jumped when a whisper drifted across the room.
"Lucas," the youngster whispered back cautiously.
"Blair, go," Lucas rasped again.
"No." Stubbornly he moved quickly to Lucas' side, not caring about the consequences of being caught. "Are you still sick?" he asked.
"Sport," Lucas tried again. "You have to go... you have to get out of here while you have the chance." He closed his eyes briefly as his world once again tilted and his stomach rolled. "Please go."
Blair softly caressed Lucas' bruised cheek with the pads of his fingers. "They asleep, Lucas. You get up and get dressed and then you can come with me. Then we can both find daddy."
"Blair, I can't."
The youngster tugged on his brother's arm. "Yes, you can." He tugged harder. "Please Lucas, get up."
"Hey, hey," Despite the impossibly heavy feeling that weighted his limbs, Lucas reach out and clumsily cupped Blair's cheek, trying to steady the child's growing agitation. Although his dad was doped up to the gills and his uncle drunk as the proverbial skunk, if Blair became too upset and too loud, the noise would no doubt bring Robert out of his stupor. "You know I love you more than anything in the world, don't you?"
"And you know that I'd do... do anything to protect you, but I can't go with you, Blair. You have to do this by yourself."
"Why?" Blair asked. He knew that Lucas was sick and seemed to be having trouble talking and moving, but if he tried, tried hard just for a minute, he could get out of bed and they could go and hide in the woods until he was feeling better. He didn't even have to get dressed if he didn't want to. They could take the blanket from the sofa and wrap it around him to keep him warm until they found daddy. "Why won't you come?" Blair pressed again, not understanding why Lucas wouldn't at least try.
"Because, I can't." Lucas moved his arm, which was hidden beneath a pillow. His handcuffed wrist clinked softly against the metal framework of the bed head.
Blair's eyes widened. He recognised his daddy's handcuffs instantly, and he was certain he could help. He bounced on his toes, anxious to put voice to the information he knew. "I know where the key is, Lucas!" he said a little too loudly. "I sure I know where it is."
Clumsy fingers touched the youngster's lips. "Shhh," Lucas mumbled.
Becoming more aware of the danger they faced, Blair looked over to make sure the two men were still fast asleep. His mind was still racing with information and he leaned closer to whisper in Lucas' ear. "I know I not supposed to play in daddy's truck, but one day when daddy was mowing the lawn, Rahma and I 'cided we'd go to California to see the seals, but it's a long, long way to California and we got bored and that's when we founded daddy's two handcuffs." He wrapped his arm around Lucas' neck. "They have a key, Lucas. A key we can use to rescue you and I know they work 'cause I tried it on both of them."
Lucas was becoming more and more slumberous as the minutes ticked by. "Sport, no. The keys aren't there anymore. Robert... Robert took them when he found the handcuffs. Just go, get outta here."
Blair dug in his heels. There was no way he was leaving his brother behind. "Maybe they in his pants. Daddy always puts his keys in his pants." Spying a rumpled pair of jeans on the floor, Blair unlatched himself from Lucas's neck. "I will go look."
"No." With newfound energy the teenager grabbed Blair's arm in a tight grip. "They're not there."
"Where are they then?" Blair asked. "They have to be somewhere, Lucas."
"Root cellar." It was barely a mumble, but it was enough for Blair to decipher. "But leave them be... too dangerous." And with that, Lucas' hand slipped from Blair's arm and his eyes drifted shut.
"It okay, Lucas," the youngster whispered as he leaned down and placed a kiss on the teenager's cheek. "You have a nap and I will find the key. I will be brave for us both." With a final look to make sure the men were still asleep, Blair slipped from the room, nearly tripping over Rahma as he did so. "I are still bery, bery cross at you," he admonished. "And you will be bery lucky if I not send you to bed without any dinner." He ignored the pup's whimper and headed determinedly over toward the door that led to the cellar. He didn't need to turn around to know that the wolf was hot on his heels, exactly were he always was and where he should always be.
Unlike the boy in the book, Blair's littlest of monsters didn't live where the wild things lived. His monster lived in his world and he knew that his world was a world where he and Lucas were loved the best of all.
The root cellar was dark and dank and the feeble moonlight that filtered in through the barred window was barely enough for Blair to get his bearings. The light bulb which hung from the ceiling was out of his reach, so he had to try hard to remember the layout of the room from when he'd been locked down there earlier with Lucas.
Taking the stairs one by one on the seat of his pants, Blair relied on Rahma to be his eyes. "Can you see the key?" he asked.
The pup pitter-pattered around the room, nose to the ground, pacing back and forth as it tried to sniff out what it knew they where looking for. On the hunt and zigzagging across the room in a frantic, erratic manner, the little wolf finally found its target. The scent that wafted down from the high shelf above its head was distinctive and had been ingrained into him from the very moment Robert Wilder had become known to his pack. Scratching wildly at the wooden door of the hutch, he let out a small yelp and waited for his human to come to his side.
"Did you finded it?" Blair asked. Stumbling through the dark, he could just make out the outline of Rahma's body and held out both his hands in front of him until they came in contact with the silky grey fur.
"Did you, Rahma?" Blair asked again.
A lick to his face was the youngster's answer.
"You did!" Blair squealed. "Good puppy." Getting down on his knees, Blair patted the cold, hard-packed dirt with the palm of his hands, searching for the key.
The pup butted the child's face with his muzzle before taking to its hind legs and scratching higher up on the face of the hutch with his front paws. Realisation hit Blair. The key wasn't on the ground, it was on the hutch -- a hutch which had shelves that were well out of his reach.
Flopping down, hard on his bottom, Blair dejectedly buried his face in his hands. The hutch was tall and he was too short. His fingers couldn't even reach the big table-part, let alone the stack of shelves that sat on top of that. Angry with himself for failing Lucas and for always being so small, he kicked out, his sneaker clad foot coming into contact with one of the doors on the lower section of the cabinet. The door made a popping sound, before swinging open to reveal three rickety lower shelves. Shelves he could use to clamber up higher.
With an idea now in his head, Blair sprang to his feet, and set his plan into immediate action. One by one he climbed the shelves exactly the same way he climbed the ladder on his tree-house at home. Hand, foot, hand, foot until his hand reached the lip of the hutch's countertop.
He was above eye level now, but the third shelf didn't quite give him enough height to enable him to pull himself up. Straining to see and groping around blindly with one hand, Blair's fingertips came into contact with nothing but a few old cans and the rough, scratched surface of the wooden top. "I need to go higher, Rahma," he puffed, but his feet were already on the highest shelf. Looking back down, he spied the open door and wondered if he could use that for leverage. Balancing as best he could, he took one foot off the shelf and used it to hook the side of door and drag it back toward the hutch. Letting out a sigh when he successfully achieved his task, the three-year-old lifted and placed his foot on the very top of the doorframe. With a big breath and a small grunt, he hoisted himself up. But, while it gave him the additional height he needed, the frame was not strong enough to hold his entire weight. He heard the wood splinter as the hinges started to break free from the door and he frantically clawed at the wood, trying to get enough purchase to hold on. Despite his best efforts, it didn't help; the door was breaking and he was falling. With a final attempt to keep from going down, he swung his feet back toward the shelves, but his arms weren't strong enough to hold him up. Down was inevitable and he was on his way when his foot suddenly struck something solid. The object beneath him moved and, instead of falling further he could feel himself being pushed up.
It took Blair a few seconds to realise what was happening; his foot was touching Rahma's head and the pup was trying to stand up as high as it could on its hind quarters. "Push, Rahma!" he cried out, still grabbing at the bench top. "Push!" Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, Blair was chest level with the countertop and he had enough strength in his upper body to pull himself up over the edge. Huffing and puffing, he rested his cheek against the wood, while his arm flopped down over the side. Excited licks tickled his fingers and Blair smiled down at his puppy. "You are the bestest monster in the whole, wide world," he said. "And I not never get cross at you again.
The pup dropped down on all fours and spun around, chasing his tail in a lively burst of energy. His world and his destiny may have existed on the spirit plain, but his heart and soul were firmly attached to the little boy who loved him the most.
A clattering of a tin falling from above quelled the pup's enthusiasm and he stopped suddenly. Pulling up, a little dizzy and uncoordinated, it stumbled sideways before looking up. Fear was rolling off the child and confirmed what the pup's sensitive ears had already heard. There was movement up above and it was headed toward the main room of the cabin.
Blair's first reaction to the noise was to jump down and hide and to be as quiet as a mouse, but his concern for Lucas' welfare had grown stronger than his own survival instinct. The black-eyed man said that he'd gut Lucas like a pig if he moved from the sofa, and while he wasn't really sure what gutting a pig entailed, he knew it certainly wouldn't be good.
"Where is it, Rahma?" Blair asked urgently, his voice breaking with fear that he was having trouble containing.
The wolf pup moved toward the far side of the cabinet and, placing its front paws against the door, it let out another small yelp.
Moving in Rahma's direction, Blair patted the shelf with his hand, frantically searching for the key. His fingers ran over nuts and bolts and what felt like a pile of dead cockroaches, but nothing that even resembled what he was looking for.
"Rahma!" he cried out again, "where is it?"
And then the child's fingers touched something small and cold and smooth, that felt very much like a key.
"I got it, Rahma, I got it!" Wrapping his fingers tightly around the key with no intention of losing it or letting it go, Blair quickly sat down and wiggled his backside forward so he was near the very edge of the hutch. Climbing down would not only take a certain amount of skill, but it would take time, whereas jumping might hurt, but it would get him to the ground a whole lot quicker. The choices open to Blair were crystal clear and, without a second thought, he pushed himself off. His knees crumpled as he hit the ground and his upper body fell forward, smashing his chin into the dirt. It stung and his eyes clouded with tears but he wasn't going to cry, because in the palm of the hand he could still feel the one thing that made the pain worthwhile -- Lucas' rescue.
With no time to think about his throbbing chin and with the wolf pup tugging on his t-shirt, Blair scrambled to his feet. He couldn't hear the sound of footsteps anymore and, keeping this in mind, he climbed the stairs very cautiously and very quietly. Poking his nose around the doorframe, and with Rahma squeezed between his legs doing the exact same thing, Blair immediately saw the huge figure of the black-eyed man standing just outside the front door, relieving himself on the porch.
The splashing sound of urine hitting the wooden deck stopped all too soon; too soon for Blair to make it back across the room and to the sofa without being seen. Not knowing what else to do, and with images of Lucas and pigs running through his head, Blair wondered if he should make a noise to gain the man's attention. If he got him angry enough, then maybe the man would forget about Lucas and concentrate on him. He'd been hit before and, although it would hurt, it probably wouldn't be any worse than when Tom thrashed him with a coat hanger.
Shoving his hand deep into the pocket of his shorts, Blair let go of the key and, with a shaky breath he lifted his foot from the very last stair and planted it on the floorboards. Before he had a chance to let the man know that he was no longer on the sofa, Rahma shot out from under him and ran full pelt toward the front door. A split second later, a yelp of fright rang out and something clattered against the porch. With the man's back still facing him, Blair took the opportunity that Rahma had created and bolted across the room, diving onto the sofa and pulling the blanket up over this head. Without so much as even one single breath to break the silence, he huddled in a tight, small ball, hoping and praying that he wouldn't be noticed.
After a lot of swearing and cursing, the front door finally closed and a tirade of irate mutterings about mutant rodents and shotguns reverberated throughout the room. Blair didn't think the man would bother to notice him because he was being so quiet, but he was wrong. Just as he thought he was home free, the muttering stopped, right next to the sofa. Fearing what was coming, he squeezed his eyes shut and tried desperately not to flinch when a hand touch the small of his back. He remained deathly still as it lingered for a brief moment before pulling away. Footsteps started up again and the bedroom door clicked shut with a loud bang. The black-eyed man had gone.
Daring to expel the air that he'd been holding in his lungs, Blair peeked out from under the blanket. He may have been alone, but Lucas wasn't, and there was no chance of getting the key to him until the snoring started up again.
Feeling lost and a little sick as the adrenaline rush he'd experienced rapidly began to wane, Blair pulled his knees to his chest. A small, wet nose nudged its way into the wedge of his body and he dropped his legs down, giving the pup full access to his lap. Wrapping his arms around Rahma's neck he buried his face in the pup's fur. After being brave for so very long, Blair could no longer hold back his tears. All he wanted was his daddy to come back and take them both away from this place. If his daddy was here, then Lucas wouldn't be sick anymore.
If his daddy was here, then the bed behind the door would stop squeaking and Lucas would no longer have to be brave.
"Beyond, look beyond," Ellison muttered. "Beyond what?" he suddenly shouted into the darkness, finding it more difficult to control his burgeoning anger. His voice bounced back at him, echoing off the high, smooth stone walls, and the sentinel buried his face in his hands. He was loosing control and it was a situation he needed to get a handle on, because loosing control was what put him here in the first place. For the sake of his kids, Jim knew he needed to come to terms with what he was and he needed to regain control of his senses. The consequences if he failed to do so were too enormous to even think about.
Dropping his hands, Ellison took a moment to gather his thoughts and try and put some rationale behind the challenge facing him. Imprisoned by cliffs that formed a complete and unbroken circle around the circumference of the river, the prospect of finding a fissure of any kind in the rock that would offer an escape route seemed unlikely and, if he believed what Incacha had told him, escaping via the river was out of the question as well. Escape appeared to be finely attuned to his sentinel abilities; if he could just find the key to unlock those, he was certain that key would also unlock the door to his release.
Taking a seat on the pebbled beach by the river's edge, Jim didn't even consider reverting to the bag of tricks he normally used when trying to control his senses. If this was going to work, really work, he needed to realise what he was. The man and the detective who he so stubbornly clung to needed to be put in their place. He was a sentinel, first and foremost and it was time to fulfil his destiny.
The aroma of something sweet, something that tantalised his sense of smell and reminded him of peaches on a warm summer's day, nudged Lucas closer and closer to a waking state. A warm, fresh sensation glided across his neck and face, tingling and arousing his clouded senses even more. "Jim," he whispered.
"It's dad, son. How you feeling?"
Lucas' safe place shattered within the space of a heartbeat. The fog that had surrounded him and kept him cocooned, away from the harsh reality of the outside world parted, and the unforgiving rays of reality burned down and scorched his skin. The soft, warm cloth, that moments before offered the delusion of caring, concern and tenderness, now sent waves of ice-cold shivers down his spine. "Don't," the teenager rasped. "Don't touch me."
Max continued his gentle stokes, running the cloth down the length of his son's throat and onto the smooth planes of his chest. "Lucas, I'm only trying to help," he soothed.
Grabbing weakly at his father's hand, Lucas tried to pry the cloth from his grasp. "If you want to help, then help get me out of here." The pull on his shackled wrist wrenched the teenager's arm with pain, but he paid it no heed. Pain reminded him that he was still alive, and pain kept his focus on Blair.
Blair! The fog parted even more and Lucas' heart raced. "Blair, where's Blair?"
With his hand still resting on his son's chest, Max unconsciously began to trace small, inviting circles on Lucas' skin. "He's asleep on the sofa."
Making an unsuccessful attempt to sit up, Lucas knocked his father's hand away and blindly reached out to find anything that would cover his naked body. "And Robert?"
Max shrugged, nonchalantly. "Your uncle said he was going out and that he'd be back in a few hours." Reaching over Lucas to the other side of the bed, he snagged the quilt and draped it over his son. "Is that better?"
"How long ago?" Lucas shook his head in an effort to clear away some of the cobwebs. There was an opportunity, he was sure of that, now he just had to try and stay focused long enough to exploit it.
"I'm not sure, Bug, thirty minutes maybe," Max answered. It seemed like another world away since he'd had opportunity to call his boy by that name, but like a lot of the regrets that surrounded the latter half of his life, this was one that had long since gone.
The use of his nickname stirred up a powder keg of memories for Lucas. While the majority tended to sit somewhere from unpleasant to horrific, mingled in with the bad recollections were ones that reminded him of the good times. The times when he used to innocently snuggle up to his father like the cuddle bug that he'd been affectionately nicknamed.
Pushing the unpleasant memories to the back of his mind and latching on to the good ones, Lucas knew he needed to take advantage of these if he was going to have any chance of getting his father's help. "Dad, please, you have to help me." Lucas pulled at his wrist again. "You have to help get me out of these."
"Oh, Bug, I can't. I wish I could, but I just can't."
"Why?" Lucas pleaded. God, he hated this. While the thought of begging to the man made him sick to his stomach, the thought of what would happen to Blair if he didn't had the potential to cripple him. "Dad," he continued. "If you're afraid of him, I can help. Together..." Lucas swallowed hard, unable to rid himself of the feeling that with every word he was about to say, no matter how untrue, he was betraying Jim. "Together," he pushed on, "we can beat him and become a family again. You and me, dad, and you won't ever have to be afraid of him again.
"I'm not afraid of him, Lucas," Max replied with both honesty and surprise. "I know your uncle has a temper, but he loves us, Lucas. He loves you and me and he loved your brother, more than anything in the world."
"My god," Lucas answered with disbelief. "How can you say that? How can you even think that?"
"Because I love him as well, son... I've always loved him."
"No!" This time Lucas found it nearly impossible to contain his emotions. He knew what his father was like better than anyone, but he wouldn't, he couldn't bring himself to believe that all those years of abuse came about simply because of his father's incestuous love for his own brother. He grabbed at Max's wrist and twisted it around savagely to reveal the track marks that were the reason, the only reason, Max did what he did. "You did it because of this and you continue to do it because of what he's turned you into, not because you love him. Please, dad," Lucas pleaded. "Think back to when you loved us... to how you used to love Scotty and me." Lucas' hand began to tingle, his grip becoming awkward. "Think back to when I was just a little kid, when I was nothing more than your cuddle bug. Think back to how it was before Robert changed you."
"He didn't change me, Bug," Max soothed. "I might have denied it while your mother was alive, but this is who and what I've always been and your uncle helped open my eyes to that. It's in our family, Lucas, and no matter how hard you try, you can't change what's in your genes." Max ran his hand over his scarred, pox-marked forearm. "Your uncle helped me see this and," he said, fingering one of the deeper marks, "this helps me forget," he added quietly. Max patted Lucas' hand and placed it back down on the mattress. "I know it seems hard right at this moment, but if you put your trust in your uncle the way I have, it will all work out. He'll look after us, son. He'll look after you, me and that little boy out there. We'll be together again, Lucas, and we'll be a family that shares a love so strong no one will be able break us apart."
"I'm not like you," Lucas slurred. The more he tried to focus on what he wanted to say, the harder he found it to gather a coherent thought. While he put the overall numbing feeling he was experiencing down to a side effect of the heroin, the rest of his symptoms should have been abating by now, not taking a giant leap forward. "If you need to forget, then you know what you're doing is wrong."
In his rapidly deteriorating state, Lucas didn't register the need to move away from his father's touch as Max reached out and smoothed the tension lines from his forehead. But he did resister the words. "Just rest, Lucas. Rest and let the pills do their job."
"Pills?" he muttered. Did I take pills? He couldn't remember swallowing any, all he could vaguely recall was something cool against his lips and sliding down his throat. "Water," he murmured. "You drugged the water?"
"Just a few pills, nothing more, I promise." Max assured. He picked up the washcloth and dipped it in the basin of soapy water by the bed. "It'll help take the edge off until Robert gets back."
Lucas tried to focus on his father's face. "Stay away from Blair," he ground out with the last vestige of his conscious energy. "...do to him what you did to me and I'll kill you." Lucas' world dulled and his vision filtered to grey. "...touch him... kill you... promise you that."
Ignoring the reason behind the hatred in his son's words, Max lifted the quilt away and took up where he'd left off. His brother was right about Lucas. His boy did need their love and needed to learn how to give that love back in return. The anger and turmoil that Lucas felt needed to be addressed. Hopefully, when this was done, his son would reach the same level of peace that he'd attained and he'd no longer feel the need to run from what he was.
Trailing the cloth down the inside of Lucas' arm, Max's dreams of inner peace for his son never once drifted across the consideration that in doing so he was sentencing his only child to a life dependent on drugs. In the world of Max Wilder, the prick of a needle cured all ills, no matter what the disease.
Jim had no idea how much time had passed when he finally opened his eyes. All he knew was that the world which now existed around him was a very different place from the one he'd left behind. Sounds, sights, smells, they'd all been intensified to a level he'd never experienced before. A level that told him that the sentinel, who had resided within from the day he'd been born, was now out of the box and ready to play.
Glancing up at the moon to try and get some kind of indication on how long he'd been out, Ellison shielded his eyes against the harsh glare bearing down from the night sky. The soft infusion of silver beams that had previously provided minimal light now set the sky aglow with the intensity of the midday sun. Closing his eyes again, Jim concentrated once more to bring his senses down to a more workable level. While he still had no real idea what had triggered the physical change within his body, he had worked out that if he pushed aside his anger and his hate and concentrated solely on the one thing that had kept him going, he was winning the war against the very thing he'd come to regard as a affliction and a curse. If he concentrated on Blair and Lucas and embraced the love he felt for the boys, then he was also embracing what it was truly like to be a sentinel.
Working on bringing everything down to a level that was no longer debilitating, Ellison went one step further and isolated the area around his bicep. The bleeding from the wound was under control, but the pain and heat radiating from the damaged muscle was beginning to become a liability. Pain was the body's way of telling it something was amiss, but he had neither the time nor the concern for his own well-being to let the injury slow him down. If he couldn't feel it, it couldn't hinder him; he'd deal with the consequences of that at a much later date.
Now on his feet, and with his senses working at an optimum level, Ellison perused the prison in which he'd been trapped. Closer inspection of the cliffs confirmed his earlier suspicions; there were no hidden cracks or fissures that provided an out. The river surged in from an underground tunnel along the northern side of the fortress and, after flowing and churning up a whirlpool of water, it veered back underground and disappeared into another tunnel on the southern side.
Incacha was right about the river not offering an escape route, so Ellison turned his attention to the section of the cliff which he did have access to. Laying his palm flat against the cool surface, he traced his hand over the granite, feeling every inch for some kind of key stone, or trigger, or any indication of a line or break that would give hope that there was indeed an Ali Baba's cave lurking beneath. Finding nothing, he didn't give up, but instead altered his tack.
With the use of his elevated eyesight he studied the porous surface closely in the hope of seeing any shards of light that shouldn't be naturally filtering through the rock. Squinting, suspicious, but not certain, the sentinel elevated his sight up another level when an ever so slight, but definite 'twinkle' captured his attention. Adding his sense of touch into the mix, his hand then brushed across something he'd missed the first time round. It wasn't an irregularity he could put an exact finger on, except that this section of the wall felt different; it was marginally warmer than its counterpart and it felt less intense, maybe even had a slight touch of hollowness about it. Tapping it with his knuckle, he repeated the same on the rock a few feet away and there it was -- a dull thudding noise that wasn't present in the section to his left. Rapping harder, Jim could now hear the echo as it bounced off, deeper into a hidden cavern.
Wasting no time, Ellison searched the riverbank for a rock that would aid his task. He lucked out, finding a sharp edged piece of shale amongst the smooth river pebbles, and began chipping away at the surface. The rock flaked off easier than it should have and, the harder he hacked, the more rock came flying off. It wasn't long before he'd created a reasonable sized dent. The deeper that got, the thinner the rock became, and the easier it was to remove. After persistently chipping and hacking away, the sentinel finally reaped his reward; he broke through the last layer. The hole created was no bigger than the size of a fist, but it was plenty large enough to get a visual into the void beyond. The pace of Jim's heart quickened when proof of the cave's existence came into view. Abandoning the piece of shale, he used his feet, putting the full force of his body weight behind his kicks. The rock crumbled under the pressure, and it wasn't long before the sentinel had completely broken through.
Elation was short-lived, however, as Ellison scanned the cave. It wasn't, in the true sense of the word, even a cave -- more like a thin, vertical well shaft. On the plus side, the moonlight filtering down from above gave a clear indication that there was a way out, but in the negative column, 'up' appeared to be the only way that was going to happen. Unfortunately, like the fortress he'd just left, the walls where sheer and smooth. Going through the now familiar motions, Jim performed the same routine on the shaft walls as he'd done on the cliff. Sight, touch, intensity, they all came up a blank. Having come this far, refusing point blank to be beaten, he turned his attention to the higher sections of the shaft. He couldn't feel them, but he could see them, and every so often a flash of light would reflect off the walls. Waiting patiently and observing, he suddenly realised that there was a very distinct pattern being laid out in front of his eyes which began about fifteen feet above his head. Bracing his feet and hands against the wall, much like a child would when he shimmied up a door frame, Jim started his climb. A flare of pain shot from his wounded arm, but he ignored it, willing his overall sense of touch to drop another level.
Mere inches from the first reflective light, the shaft had opened up to a point were he couldn't go much further using the method he'd employed. Straining to maintain his grip on the slippery walls, Ellison implored his muscles to stretch to their ultimate limits as he reached up in an effort to touch the light. His tenacity was rewarded when his hand brushed across an indentation in the rock. Fingering it with the precision and sensitivity of a blind man, he realised what he'd found. Chipped into the rock was a handhold. A deep, perfectly symmetrical hold that even provided an outer lip to maximise grip. Calling on his rock climbing skills that had been a basic requirement of his military career, Ellison made sure his hold was secure before he pushed off the opposite wall. He'd already calculated the distance to the next handhold and, using his arm much like rope, he let the force behind his fall become a pendulum swing. With perfect precision he latched onto the higher cavity and now had a sure hold with both hands.
Time-consuming as it may have been, but allowing for no mistakes, the sentinel painstakingly crawled up the shaft like a bug on glass pane. The moment he exacted his freedom, he immediately took off in jog. Using the river as his map and the moon as his light, he set about reaching the cabin by daybreak. He was grimly aware that, when he arrived, the cop inside would be nowhere to be found.
Robert Wilder scratched again at his irritated forearm. The volume of whiskey he'd consumed last night had played a serious number on his head and, if it weren't for the evidence right in front of his eyes, he would have sworn that he'd been attacked by a fuckin' big, pitch black, panther.
Still jittery and unsettled by the weird hallucination, he rolled down his sleeve and wondered why the hell he was even traipsing up and down the riverbank looking for the body of the dead cop anyway. He coulda' been miles downstream by now, if he'd even been washed up at all, and he had more important matters to deal with back at the cabin rather than out looking for bloated river kill. His nephew was finally beginning to see the light, if last night's activities were anything to go by, but the curly-headed kid unnerved him in a way that affected him to his very core. He couldn't put a finger on exactly what it was, but the way the child looked at him, it almost felt as if the kid was opposing him, challenging him for the right to control.
Giving up his search, Robert made his way back through the bush. He had never been a man to be held hostage to his feelings; people around him either played his game or they suffered the consequences. The child was no exception and, while initially he'd thought he'd take things easy, gain the boy's trust and ease him into the family fold, he wasn't sure whether it was worth the effort. Lucas' obstinate and mulish personality had obviously rubbed off on the kid. If past experiences with his nephew were anything to go by, this thing needed to be nipped in the bud and the boy shown exactly who was boss.
With the moon now dipping low in the sky, Robert estimated daybreak to be less than an hour away. Ah, dawn, he thought. What a perfect time for an early morning dip. Water and young children had always formed a very cohesive partnership and one he'd found had a great deal of success when a matter of persuasion was at hand. If the kid did take after Lucas, it'd be a struggle, but one he'd eventually win.
He dipped his feet into the river, upsetting the natural flow. The water swirled around his legs before continuing its journey downstream. The river was cold, so cold that he could no longer feel his toes, but it did nothing to cool him down. He was hot, too hot. His chest felt heavy, the air around him stifling, and he had trouble drawing air into his lungs. The surface of the water broke, erupting like a geyser, and long fingers curled around his ankle. He fought, but the grip was too strong. His body slid on the wet grass, his fingers clawed at the earth. The ground offered nothing to save him. He was dragged down into the frigid depths. His lungs no longer drew in air. He struggled hard, but he was losing the fight. He was dying.
No sooner had his ordeal begun, than it ended. The iron-like hold on his ankle was released and he was propelled upwards. Up towards the air, up towards life. He broke the surface, gasping for air. He was no longer in the river. He was standing in the middle of a long, tiled room. The glare of the light as it bounced off the stark white floor made him squint. An angry voice behind him caused him to swing around. "I told you not to get any fucking water on the floor, didn't I?" A child whimpered. "Don't start snivelling, you little bastard." A hand came down and latched onto the child's thin arm. It shook the small frame violently. "Who's gonna clean this up?" The hand released its grip and the child fell backward, hitting his head on the side of the tub. "Me, that's who. I'm the only one who does anything around here. You and your mother ain't worth a pile of shit." The child let out a strangled sob. "I'm warning you, Blairboy. You start crying on me and I'll give you a beating you won't forget."
"Blair," he mouthed. "Oh god, Blair." He tried to move forward, but his feet wouldn't cooperate. "Get away from him!" he tried to shout. His mouth formed the words, but no sound came out. "Get away! You touch him and I'll kill you. I swear I'll kill you." His feet found their grip on the tiles and he rushed forward, but the faster he moved, the further away the child shifted. He broke into a run, but he couldn't close the distance. Blair was moving further and further out of his reach. The faceless figure standing over the tub turned to look at him. "You're too late, boy," it snarled. "He's mine. Blairboy has always belonged to Tom." The figure grabbed the child by the hair, and shoved him down into the cold water. A scream filled the room, losing its intensity as the water filled the child's mouth, flooding his tiny lungs.
He fell to the ground, his knees smashing against the hard tiles, "No," he screamed. "No... please, no."
The splashing stopped, the struggling had ceased. The figure looked up, but this time it was no longer faceless. It was the face of a man he would never forget. "Robert?" he choked out.
Dark eyes smiled at him. "You're mine, Lucas. You'll always belong to me." He reached into the tub and lifted up the cold, lifeless body of the small child. "And so will he."
The figure approached, laying the cold, naked body of the child in his arms. He hugged the tiny body fiercely to his chest. "Please breathe... please breathe," he pleaded.
Robert knelt in front of him. "You're too late, Lucas." He ran cold, clammy fingers through Lucas' hair. "Just like you were too late to save your brother." Robert pulled his head forward and pressed his lips to the teen's. "And just like you're too late for Blair." Robert plunged his tongue into Lucas' mouth, kissing him deeply. He choked on the kiss as it cut off his airway. His heart pounded and his chest burned. He couldn't breathe. He was dying.
Lucas jolted awake with a start. Dazed and confused and still feeling the effects of the drugs, it took a moment for him to get his bearings. Unconsciously he moved his arm, the scraping of metal against the bed frame bringing reality home in one foul swoop. "Shit," he ground out, pulling harder on the handcuff, but to no avail. He was trapped, and the light of day had done nothing to change his situation. Scanning the room, and relieved to find it empty, he listened intently, in an effort to ascertain the whereabouts of his father and uncle. No sound came from in or outside the cabin, and his concern immediately switched to Blair.
Palming his hand hard against his temple, Lucas tried to focus his energy on figuring a way out of his predicament, but the remnants of a dream that had become all too familiar of late wouldn't seem to shift from the front of his mind. Like a video clip stuck in a loop, it kept playing over and over again, giving him a vivid recount of details he knew all too well. But unlike the reoccurring scenes in his dream, his waking vision heralded something more. Incacha. The spirit guide had never appeared in his nightmare before, and neither had Blair in the context he'd just dreamt. "Blair," he pondered out loud. Maybe it wasn't a part of his dream? Maybe the events he was struggling to remember had been real. Forcing himself to concentrate, Lucas vaguely recalled talking to Blair and the youngster slipping something under the mattress. "No... no way. He couldn't have, I would have known."
Gingerly rolling onto his side, Lucas reached over the edge of the bed and squeezed his hand under the mattress. "My god, he did." The key, touching the very tip of his fingers was, to him, a double-edged sword. While it may have offered him a means of escape, it could also be the very reason why there was not a sound to be heard from the main room. If Blair had been caught in the room, there was no telling what his uncle's punishment would entail. Lucas' heart plummeted at the thought. While he'd loved Scotty with all his heart and soul, his feelings for Blair somehow ran far deeper. The need to keep the child safe was so overwhelming at times, it almost felt like he was acting on an instinct that had been there since the day he'd been born. Seven years ago he hadn't fought for his brother's life, but seven years afterward, he would not be making the same mistake.
With a tight grip, the teenager slipped the key from its hiding place and slotted it into the lock. The handcuff sprang open and he pushed himself off the bed and onto his feet, but that was as far he got before his abused body sent him crashing to the floor.
Landing hard on his butt, and sending an all too familiar pain shooting up the base of his spine, the power behind Lucas' determination and will was offset by a body that didn't want to cooperate. "Some last fight," he breathed, in short, ragged breaths. He couldn't even plant two feet on the ground, let alone find the strength to stand, so how the hell was he meant to go up against Robert? He punched at the ground in anger. He'd come so far, Blair had come so far and now because he didn't have the fortitude it took to keep on going, the youngster was going to pay the ultimate price, and he was on the verge of failing another brother.
Dragging the sheet that had tumbled to the ground across his lap, Lucas could literally feel himself falling apart. While his memories of the night before were blurred and distorted and devoid of intimate detail, he'd long passed the stage where he was naive enough to think that sleeping was all that had taken place. But what shattered him more, even worse than the obvious violation upon his body, was that, at the age of three, Blair shared the same degree of naivete -- or lack thereof.
As a feeling of failure settled over him, Lucas buried his face in his hands. Another brother was about to be lost and he didn't know how to stop it.
"You do have the strength, young one, and while I know you feel that all is lost to you, you have to look deep within yourself to find it."
Lucas' head shot up in an instant. His eyes widened, not truly believing what was there, right in front of them. While the animal spirits were part of his life and he was no stranger to their comings and goings, Incacha very rarely made his presence known. The unexpected appearance of the Chopec warrior set of a spark of renewed hope racing over him, because it stood to follow that if Incacha were here, then Blair would be safe. "Blair, where is he?" he blurted out at breakneck speed.
"He is with the one they call Wilder." Incacha's answer was short and succinct and devoid of all emotion.
"What?" Lucas knew what he'd heard must have been a mistake. "You're joking, right? You know what's happened, don't you?"
"I do, young one."
"Then why isn't he with you?"
"Because that is not my duty at this time."
"How can it not be your duty?" Lucas asked with disbelief. "You're his spirit guide for Christ sakes, you're meant to be protecting him."
"I believe I have already had this conversation," Incacha replied, calmly. "Your sentinel also appeared to be under the same misguidance."
"Jim!" Spotting his jeans, less than an arm's length away, Lucas hastily reached for them. "Is he alive?"
"At this point of time, he is."
"Incacha, what the hell is going on?" Lucas implored. He frantically worked to get feet through his jeans and up the length of his uncooperative legs. "I don't understand! Why haven't you got Blair... why aren't you helping?"
"Because if I interfere too early and you do not follow the path you need to take, the danger to your brother is not one that I'm sure I'll be able to challenge."
"What?" Lucas asked, still confused. Using the bed frame for support he clambered to his feet and hoisted his jeans up, over his hips. "What danger?" he asked again. At this point Lucas was almost certain that the conversation no longer focussed around the danger that Robert presented to Blair.
"Sit," Incacha ordered, reaching out to push Lucas down onto the mattress. "You need to rally your strength and you also need to learn."
Lucas didn't resist the downward movement. "Learn what?"
"That knowledge is power and when one posses such knowledge, there is always a danger that the power will in turn possess them."
"Power?" It appeared to Lucas that the balance between questions and answers was seriously out of whack and, with Blair's life in the firing line, he wasn't prepared to play twenty questions.
"There are dark forces at play, young one; forces that have wielded their way into the hearts and minds of even the wisest among us. These forces need to be stopped, but doing so is an intricate and complicated task, and as you have discovered, it is one also fraught with many perils."
"I don't understand. What are these forces and what have they got to do with any of this?"
"These forces," Incacha continued, "have put their faith in your inability to complete the task that has been set out before you, and if indeed you do fail this task, your failure will give them their ultimate goal."
Lucas paled. "Which is?"
"No! No fucking way!" Lucas surged to his feet, sheer determination now winning the battle against the restrictions placed upon him by his body. "What task, where is it, and how do I pass?"
The passage of time in which the boy had left to prove himself had not yet come full circle; Incacha knew that if he intervened too early, the ultimate fight for the guide would result in bloodshed for many. "Do you believe in the power of the dream?" he asked.
"Am I supposed to?" Lucas questioned.
"Heed your dream, young guardian and you will find the answer to your question."
While Lucas didn't have a great many years of schooling under his belt, his street smarts often served him better than any formal education he'd received. "The river," he breathed, his intense blue eyes boring straight into the warrior. "It's going to happen at the river." Without a second to waste and oblivious to his teetering balance, Lucas turned tail and headed out the door.
The use of his name brought the teenager to a sudden halt.
"There was a man in your culture, a philosopher I believe he is so called, who spoke the words, 'what does not kill you will inevitably make you stronger'. When this is over, I believe it would be a wise decision for you to consider these words.
"When this is over," Lucas responded, with a depth of understanding that belied his years, "it may not be a consideration I'll need to worry about."
As the boy left the room and the essence of his being left Incacha's immediate realm, the spirit guide knew that the decision to stand by the side of his tribe was near. If the guardian were unable to conquer the near-impossible odds the council had stacked upon his young shoulders, then he would act. The power of the triangle lay within the points that gave its strength. The sentinel's point had already been weakened by his inability to embrace fully the gift he'd been given. The strain on the guardian was great and, if he were not able to support the load, then the guide at the top would indubitably fall. When he did, his power would be in the possession of those who'd been waiting for this day to pass.
Entrusted as the keeper of the triangle, Incacha could not let this happen -- even if it meant challenging the very foundation of the council itself.
Rallying himself for the battle ahead, Incacha joined the guardian at the river's edge. Standing unseen, he continued to put his faith in the strength of a boy who had yet to realise just how very strong he was.
Lucas didn't need visual confirmation to know what was happening by the river. The dream, which had never been anything more to him than a nightmare, had transformed into a vision and, in turn, had become a prophecy of things to come. Incacha had told him to believe in the power of the dream and with Blair's life at stake, that's exactly what he intended to do.
Struggling to maintain his balance as he lumbered down the dirt path, Lucas was already breathing too hard, and his body was protesting far too loudly at the level of exertion he was placing upon it. His head injury, combined with the lingering effects of the heroin and sleeping pills as they slowly expunged their way from his system, were proving to be formidable enemies, and it gave him pause to wonder how he was actually going to find the will to stand up and protect Blair.
The youngster's voice rang out, not only shattering the early morning harmony of blue jays and woodpeckers as they went about their business high in the trees above, but also acting as a catalyst for Lucas to ignore the laments of his body. Picking up speed, he rounded the last bend in the track to see his vision coming to life.
Although struggling hard and protesting with every ounce of strength in his body, Blair was losing the battle against the hands that were clawing at his clothes. A hard slap rained down on his backside and a large hand grabbed roughly at the back of his head. Preparing himself for what was coming next, Blair gulped in a large breath of air, just seconds before his face was level with the swirling waters of the river.
Physically still too far away to prevent his uncle from shoving Blair under the water, Lucas desperately sought anything that would put a stop to what Robert was about to do. Spotting a rock lying beside the trail, he picked it up and, without a second thought, pitched it in Robert's direction. The heavy weighted stone hurled through the air, but missed its targeted mark of his uncle's head, instead slamming with a forceful thud into the large man's shoulder.
The look of surprise that graced Robert's face didn't last long, and neither did his inaction. His shoulder twinged with the heat of the stone's impact and, for a very brief moment, his heart twinged with an outpouring of grief. There'd be no turning back this time. Lucas had literally cast the last stone and the deed was as good as done. Deep in his heart, Wilder understood that Lucas' defiant and insolent ways would never be quashed, not completely. He could beat the boy to within an inch of his life, he could humiliate, degrade and strip him of every facet of his dignity, and he could even attempt to turn him into what his father had become. But an attempt was all it would ever be. Lucas would fight him in some form or other until the day he died, and perhaps it would be easier for all involved if that day came around sooner rather than later. His nephew's suffering and his brother's guilt would be brought to end, and his own failing at not being able to control the boy would no longer be something he'd have to wrestle with.
With his decision made, Robert released the hold he had on the child and waded from the knee-deep water. It was time to start anew. It was time for Lucas to die.
His life had always been a series of challenges, and the challenge that confronted Lucas this time was one from which he had no intention of backing down. Robert came at him as he always did, hands clenched in authoritative fists and his eyes ablaze with narcissistic power. There were no words spoken as the pair came together, just man and youth fortifying themselves for the task ahead.
Robert, taller and heavier set, moved upon his nephew with a feeling of slight remorse. He did and had loved the boy in every sense of the word, and it gnawed on him that he'd never been able to convince Lucas how truly wonderful that love could be. If Lucas had just given him a chance, then he would have come to realise how perfect their family could have been. In Robert's eyes, love in any form was never wrong; he controlled the family for their own good, out of love, and they should willingly give him what he wanted and needed, for that same love. But Lucas had defiled its sanctity and its purity and corrupted their family with his hate and, in doing so, had also tried to shift the balance of power. It was time for all that stop. There was nothing more glorifying than the power of control and now, his control would no longer be under threat.
Lucas didn't flinch as his uncle approached. At the tender age of nine he had entered the school of hard knocks and, although more lessons than not had been learned with a volley of bruises and broken bones, he'd proven over time to be a more than capable student. With every defeat he'd grown, taken note and gained the knowledge he needed to graduate with honours. Speed, agility and his ability to anticipate were his 'A grade' subjects but, in his current condition, Lucas realised he'd be struggling to even make the class. But none of that mattered; he'd resigned himself to a fight and would call upon every single trick he had learned, no matter how down and dirty it was. When you were fighting for your life and the life of your brother, fair didn't even enter the contest.
Seconds before the first punch impacted his body, Lucas looked over to see Blair clambering out of the water. As the punches bandied back and forth, he yelled at the boy to run, but soon realised he may as well have saved his breath. The youngster obviously had no intention of going anywhere. Even more terrifying to Lucas than Blair's stationary stance, was his unmistakable intention to help. Dripping wet, with his big blue eyes staring out from behind saturated bangs, Blair stood with a large stone in his hand, waiting for the right time to throw it in Robert's direction. As much as Lucas' heart wanted to swell with pride at Blair's courage, life's lessons had taught him what the child's audacity would ultimately mean if he didn't win this fight for them both. Blair must be scared out of his wits, but his actions told Lucas that if he were strong enough to take on Robert in a situation like this, then it would be unlikely that he'd ever become the man's puppet. The little boy who had wormed his way into his heart was more similar to himself that he had ever thought possible. They were like two peas in a pod in so many ways; the more he got to know Blair, the more he saw of himself. Looking at Blair was like staring into a mirror.
Unbridled anger, combined with being scared shitless for Blair's life, was, for the moment, sustaining Lucas in the fight. But it was a condition that couldn't last forever. The lingering poison still pumping though his veins and the fact he hadn't eaten in over two days were taking their toll. As the clock ticked, his fists were connecting less and less with their mark and Robert's were attacking with more force. Lucas' stance was shifting from the offensive to the defensive.
Surviving to fight another day was one of the very first lessons Lucas had learned, and it had served him well on several occasions. Robert was large and he was strong and healthy. Although Lucas had never been seen as the runt of the litter, the other two qualities were fast flushing down the toilet. If he could just lay Robert flat long enough to get Blair out of here, then their chances of survival would be looking up. Incacha had told him that Jim was alive and that meant that the sentinel would be moving mountains to get back to Blair. All he needed to do now was what Jim had asked of him from the very beginning -- hightail it into the scrub and keep Blair safe. He had no idea if this was the strategy he was meant to employ to pass the test but, in his mind, keeping his brother alive was the greatest test he could ever hope to pass.
Moving quickly out of the way of an incoming fist, Lucas retaliated with everything he had. He kicked out, catching Robert in the groin and, as the man instinctively hunched over, he landed a hard, fast and near bone-cracking fist to Robert's jaw. The look on his uncle's face was one of sheer beauty to the teenager, but he had no time to revel in it. Breathing hard and taking advantage of the opportunity he'd made, he landed a solid kick to Robert's midsection.
Stunned, severely winded and in a fair amount of pain, Robert floundered, and Lucas took off. He headed toward Blair and grabbed the child by the arm. With no time to assess Blair to see if he was injured, he pushed him roughly in front of him and urged him to get moving.
The measly space of approximately five yards was the only advantage gained before Lucas was tackled to the ground, brought down by a crashing force that not only took him completely by surprise, but also sent them all catapulting back toward the river's edge. Blair screamed his name and Lucas lifted his arm to protect himself from the fists that bore down on him in a flurry of uncontrollable rage. Despite his best efforts, both physically and mentally, Lucas could feel himself losing the battle. His grip on consciousness was tenuous, his grasp on Blair slipping away.
"No!" Blair screamed. Tiny fists emulated those of the black-eyed man and Blair hit out with all his might.
"I have just about had a fucking 'nough of both of you," Robert yelled, pushing Blair backward with a rough shove. Staggering to his feet, he roughly swiped at the blood pouring from his split lip and winced at the pain radiating from his groin. He pierced the air savagely with his finger. "Enough, understand?" he yelled again in the child's direction. Breathing hard and struggling though the pain, Robert turned his attention back to Lucas. Any remorse he may have had for what he was about to do was negated by his throbbing dick and his bruised pride. The kid had entered the ring severely hindered, but still had managed to put up one hell of a fight. Lucas had just become dangerous, but it was a danger that was about to be snuffed out.
Hooking Lucas' wrist in his large hand, he dragged the semi conscious boy into the water until the depth was suitable for his next move.
The cold water sloshing around his body roused Lucas' mental state to a level where he knew what was happening. He blinked, trying to clear his vision, the result giving him a clear view of his uncle's dark eyes as they smiled dispassionately down at him. "You're mine Lucas," Robert leaned down and whispered into his ear. "You've always belonged to me and you always will."
"No," Lucas rasped weakly, but his breath was cut off. Robert plunged his tongue into his mouth, kissing him deeply. He choked on the kiss as it cut off his airway. His heart pounded and his chest burned. He couldn't breathe. He was dying. It was just like his dream, but this time there was no one around to wake him from the nightmare. This time, death would be inevitable.
But Lucas was wrong. Blair was still there and he was not giving up on his brother. He lunged forward, clawing at Robert's face and digging his fingernails into any part of tender flesh he could reach, desperate to make the black-eyed man let go of Lucas.
His plan worked. Robert immediately let go of Lucas and grabbed at the corner of his injured eye. It took a few moments for him to figure out what had happened but, when he did, his anger was insurmountable. In a fit of pure and unadulterated rage, he grabbed Blair by his shirtfront and lifted him high into the air before shot-putting him out into the middle of the river. The child went under once, before resurfacing with a splutter. By the way the kid thrashed around with panic and uncoordinated movements, it was obvious to Wilder that he couldn't swim. But he didn't care; he'd moved beyond caring. One more loose end to tie up and he'd be done. A flash of movement caught his attention and Robert acted accordingly. Lashing out, his foot came crashing down upon Lucas' chest, trapping him under the water. "Drown, the both of you!" he screamed, with raw anger. "You took what I had and you made me kill to keep it." He pressed harder on Lucas' chest, making it impossible for the struggling youth to dislodge him. "You made me kill your brother, and because of you, another child will soon be dead.
"Your time to die has come, Lucas," he yelled, screaming like a madman ranting to his flock. "Your time has come to an end!"
The sentinel's path had taken him along the rugged and inhospitable terrain lining the river's edge, making him realise that the little piece of paradise where the cabin was situated was a misleading pretence to what the countryside really had to offer.
Having kept a steady pace all night, and despite his injury, his progress had been good, and matched his original estimation. He was where he needed to be just past the break of dawn, and only minutes from the side of his boys. He'd picked up the sound of voices a little while back, but they'd been an undistinguished gabble of murmurs and jumbled syllables and he hadn't been able to gauge the meaning of the conversation -- up until now. Wilder's psychotic rage spelled out the man's intention, and the meaning was crystal clear.
Emerging from the bend in the river, Jim's eyes now confirmed what his ears had already told him. Both the boys were in danger and he was about to make the most difficult choice he would ever have to make. Blair was in the middle of the river at a depth that was well over his head but, for the moment, he appeared to be as safe as he could be, given the circumstances. The little wolf was perched atop a moss-covered rock and, with a strength that rivalled Hercules, had his son's t-shirt gripped within his teeth, demonstrating a determination that Jim prayed would hold out against the swirling current. Lucas, however, was in dire straits and the boy had only seconds left before water flooded his lungs and took his life. With no time left to think, Jim was about to rely on pure instinct as a soldier, a detective and a sentinel, but the decision was taken out of his hands. "Daddy!" Blair screamed, terrified at his own situation, but petrified at Lucas'. "Daddy, help him! Make the man stop!" he cried.
Wilder's head shot up at the sound of the outburst, his perverse pleasure at watching his nephew succumbed to his final control shattered, drawing him out of his reverie. Bearing down on him at a great of speed was the cop -- the cop who was supposed to be dead. Immediately letting go of Lucas, Wilder sprang into an action of his own. Under the bag he'd carried down to the river was his rifle. It was loaded and primed and only needed a squeeze of the trigger to rid his life of a nuisance that had been plaguing him since this whole thing had begun. Unfortunately for Wilder, the sentinel had also reached the same conclusion.
He couldn't see it, but he could feel it, and also hear it. Incacha's presence was here, Lucas was certain of that. He barely had the consciousness of thought to lift his head from the water but, nevertheless, he had. Just as he'd also been held upright by a force that was not of his own volition and steadied while a hacking cough ran through his body.
Blair. It was no more than a whisper on the breeze, but for Lucas, its message could not have been clearer. His head shot up and he scanned the river. "Blair!" he shouted. The wolf pup was losing its grip and, instantly, Lucas was on the move.
The moment he was hoisted into the air, Blair knew what was going to happen. It would be just like Lucas' dream, a dream that had also become his own. He would struggle and thrash around, but eventually his head would go under the water and, just like the dream, Lucas wouldn't be able to save him.
The dream had been hopeless, but perhaps that could be changed. Blair hadn't counted on the presence of a little wolf pup, which had not left his side since the ordeal begun. As legs and arms flailed and splashed in an effort to keep himself from going under, he barely felt the tug on his shirt, or his body being pulled in the opposite direction of the current. Rahma had snagged his t-shirt with his teeth and, inch by slow, arduous inch, the pup was moving backward on the rock, dragging Blair with him as he did so.
As soon as his body connected with the rock, Blair dug his fingernails into the hard surface, but was having a difficult time finding anything to hold. He could hear the pup's struggling pants in his ear and felt its hot breath as it steamed against his neck, but still he focussed his attention away from his own predicament and turned it toward shore. Distress and elation collided and Blair didn't know whether to laugh or cry. His daddy was here and he cried out in anguish. Lucas was drowning and his daddy was the only one who could save him.
The man's foot left Lucas' chest and Blair watched Incacha lift the teenager from the water. Then he heard his name. It was no more than a whisper carried on the breeze, but still, it was enough to send Lucas scrambling to his feet. Blair's hands had begun to shake with exhaustion and his fingernails, now torn and broken, were no match for the slippery surface of the rock. Neither were the pup's claws.
Unable to maintain his footing, the pads of Rahma's paws inched closer and closer to the edge of the rock as the frigid waters swirled around his human. Despite his best efforts, the pup could no longer hold on and tumbled into the water beside Blair. While swimming was a natural instinct, Rahma was struggling not only against the current, but the weight of the child he was trying to support.
The little wolf was losing the battle.
Lucas ran along the riverbank, keeping pace with Blair and the pup as they drifted downstream. He needed to get ahead of them both and, in his present condition, on foot was the best bet. While he was a strong swimmer, he didn't have a lot of faith in his ability to catch up to them in the water. His lungs were already burning and his fatigued muscles were just about reaching their limits. There wasn't a lot of time left, and the teenager knew it. In one last, desperate burst of energy, he picked up speed, arriving at the bend in the river before Blair. He launched himself into the water, swimming across the current in an effort to get to the spot where he figured the natural flow would take the pair. Stopping and treading water, Lucas fought against the river and did his best to remain stationary, scanning upstream for any sign of Blair. It didn't take long for the pair to round the bend, and for Lucas to realise he'd just made a deadly mistake. He'd gotten too far ahead of them and Blair was struggling to keep his head above water. He'd have to bridge the gap and the only way to do that was to swim upstream, against the current.
Even with his body already pushed to the edge, Lucas refused to give up. He'd just push harder, beyond the limits, beyond the point of no return if he had to. Blair was not going to drown. He had no doubt in his mind about that.
Asking more of his muscles than he'd ever asked before, Lucas kicked through the water. Ignoring the burning sensation in his legs and taking no heed of the pain that ripped through his chest, he was less than a body length away from sweeping Blair into his arms when the three-year-old couldn't hold on any longer. There was no sound as Blair slipped under the water -- and barely a ripple as Lucas dove down after him.
The current, which Lucas had been fighting so desperately against, turned from foe to friend and Blair's body was pushed not down, but through the murky waters and straight into his arms. What seemed like a lifetime was, in reality, less than a minute before the teenager broke the surface with Blair cradled, chest-to-chest and heart-to-heart against his own.
"I didn't drownded." No coughing, no spluttering, not even so much as a sob came from Blair. Just three little words that broke Lucas' resolve and brought the last of the walls crashing down. He buried his face in Blair's wet hair and simply cried.
With no reserves of strength to call upon to get them back to shore, Lucas continued to cradle Blair to his chest and let the river be his guide. The pup had already been dragged up onto an outcrop of rocks by the young cougar, and it wasn't long before their path took them in the same direction. His back hit the largest of the rocks, preventing them from going any further. Finding it increasingly difficult to draw air into his burning lungs, Lucas made a feeble attempt to dislodge Blair's arms from around his neck. "You need to climb up," he wheezed.
Blair tightened his grip and shook his head, refusing to let go.
"Sport, it'll be okay. The rock's big and flat, you won't fall off, I promise." Lucas cajoled the little boy with failing energy.
"No, I not let go." Blair buried his face into the crook of the teenager's neck and locked his fingers together. He was scared of climbing onto the rock, but that wasn't why he refused to let go. Lucas was making a funny noise every time he breathed and he seemed like he was very tired. Blair had an awful feeling that if he left Lucas alone, the teenager would fall asleep, and if he fell asleep, he'd slip down under the water. If he stayed where he was, Blair was certain that Lucas would stay awake. Lucas had promised he wouldn't let him be drowned and, by staying right where he was, Blair was making sure that Lucas didn't drown either.
"We have to be brave for just a little bit longer, Lucas," Blair whispered into his brother's neck. "Daddy will be here soon and then we not have to worry no more."
Lucas simply nodded his head. Talking at this moment was a waste of breath and, with the way he was struggling, even a single breath was something he couldn't afford to waste.
Tears, however, were free and abundant, and the only thing he had left to give.
So very tired and frighteningly close to the edge of collapse, Lucas rested his cheek on top of Blair's wet curls. The little boy's rapid heartbeat thumped against his bare chest and, despite the chill of the water, Blair's body warmed him to the core. "I love you so much it's almost scary." The words were so soft, that Lucas wasn't even sure if he'd spoken them out loud or if they were just another part of his fragmented mind.
But Blair did hear, and his brother was wrong. Love wasn't scary, it was the loss of love that was. Wrapping his legs in a tight grip around Lucas' torso, Blair snuggled in even closer into Lucas' chest, making a promise right there and then. No matter what happened, his daddy and Lucas would never be lost and he'd never, ever be afraid to love them.
Wilder was vainglorious by nature. Combined with the stature he'd been blessed with, this had become a dangerous combination, not only to those who had suffered under his hand, but also to himself. He was too arrogant to see Ellison for what he really was. To Wilder, his opponent was just another dumb ass cop that could be dealt with in exactly the same manner he dealt with all the dumb ass people in his life.
But it was this smug underestimation of other people's abilities that got people like Wilder killed -- eventually.
The first fist that connected with his face was unexpected and took Robert completely by surprise. He'd been hit before, but never with this kind of force, and he knew he'd have to rethink his strategy. The rifle was no longer within his reach; it looked as if the simple way out wasn't going to be so simple after all. Regaining his composure quickly, Wilder faced the cop head on, trying to intimidate and bully him with his superior height and weight. Finding the weakest point on which to prey had always been one of his specialities, and Robert worked to move close enough to the cop to lock bodies and exploit that weak spot. But that's when his plan became shot to hell. There was no reaction from the cop at all as he dug his fingers into the bullet hole. No cries or grunts of pain, no flinching or desperate attempts to dislodge his hand from his arm, and no split-second window where the cop's focus was drawn away long enough for him to gain the advantage. The only response, apart from the blood which was now slick on his fingers, was the fire that burned within the cop's eyes.
Robert was now afraid -- terribly afraid.
The fists continued to hammer heavily into his body. Wilder was not only smothered in physical pain, he was blanketed by a feeling of failure. The need to take flight was becoming overwhelming, and he spun around in an attempt to move out and away from the melee. Again seriously underestimating his opponent, he attempted to dislodge the cop's arm, which had wound around his neck the second he attempted to move. In a desperate bid to free himself, Wilder wrenched his body viciously to the right, trying to force the cop's muscles to loosen, but the implacable arm didn't break its hold; instead, it broke his neck.
Ellison had heard a man's neck snap before. While it wasn't a terribly appealing sound, this time it held a certain satisfying timbre. Consciously, he'd only set out to bring Wilder down, disable and disarm him and then let the wheels of justice take over. Unconsciously, he wasn't so sure if those were really his true intentions. Wilder was not just another nameless face in a battle or a dangerous perp on the street. The man had crossed the bounds and made it personal. The moment he'd done so, a force deeper and stronger than the cop or the soldier he was and had been, consumed Ellison. As a father, the need to eradicate any threat to his family was powerful; as a sentinel, that same need intensified to a level that shifted into the realm of deadly. The feeling was raw and instinctual and Jim now knew that it was very deeply ingrained inside him. Of all the titles he wore, 'sentinel' had moved to the top of the list.
Jim felt Wilder's Adam's apple pulse against the muscle on his forearm. He felt the man's airways tighten and heard his pitiful struggle for breath; he knew that this would not be a painless death. Releasing his grip, a part of Jim wondered if he should finish the job or if he should let nature make the final decision. Wilder's erratic and unpredictable move had initiated the break, and he had the power within the strength of his arms to finish job. All he needed to do was to apply more pressure and send Wilder into spinal shock, but somehow the shade of grey he was so certain he'd be able to live with, began to turn into an ominous shade of black. Despite everything that Jim was, a murderer wasn't one of them.
In the grace of pity, Ellison lowered Wilder to the ground and turned away. Without so much as looking back, he broke into a jog and headed back toward the river. A strangled cry filled the forest, silencing the haunting call of the raven, and Jim knew that nature, in the form and shape of a large black panther, had just had the final say.
"Daddy's coming." Blair, now shivering against the cold, lifted his head from Lucas' shoulder. The teenager had his eyes closed and appeared to be unresponsive, but Blair knew that Lucas was still with him. The tight, one-arm grip that never once lessened in pressure around his waist and the white-knuckle grip Lucas had on a section of the rock, left no room for doubt about that.
Blair's eyes were on his father the moment he rounded the corner, and he waved his arm frantically through the air. "Daddy!" he screamed, shouting as loud as he could. "Daddy, come quicker!"
Wasting no time, Jim took to the water. Blair's heartbeat was strong and fast, but Lucas didn't appear to be faring so well. The boy's heartbeat was sluggish and Jim's immediate concern was that his blood pressure would drop to a point where he'd no longer be able to stay conscious. Still feeling no pain, he stroked across the river, hoping that the damaged muscle in his arm could last the distance.
He wasn't expecting the maturity that greeted him when he arrived in the middle of the river and attempted to take Blair from Lucas' arm. His son gave him a quick, tight, one-handed hug, but refused to let go until he was convinced that his father had a firm hold upon the teenager.
"You have to hold onto him, daddy, 'else he'll get drownded," Blair pleaded.
"I will baby, I promise," Jim assured.
So badly needing to hold both his boys once again, Jim pried his body between Lucas and the rock and stabilised the kid by wrapping his arm around his chest. With Lucas now completely detached and relying on Jim for his total support, Jim encouraged Blair to let go. "Chief, come on," he said, drawing Blair out of Lucas' arm and into his own.
The three-year-old was back with a vengeance, and he latched onto his father's chest, unable to suppress the horror of his ordeal any longer. Tears and sobs and a babble of words that Jim couldn't make out followed, and all Jim could do was to hold on tight and not let go.
Lucas knew he had to open his eyes, but for the life of him he couldn't seem to manage it. Blair had called out and, while he thought he heard the word 'daddy', he was having trouble keeping his thoughts together. Then all of a sudden it hit him. His arms were empty. Blair was no longer there.
The first indication that Lucas was back with him was a hitch in the kid's breathing. The next was when the boy's head shot off his shoulder and he pushed himself out and away from his chest. "Lucas," Jim said, firmly. He locked his hand around the teenager's wrist and spun him around.
"Blair!" Lucas' eyes were wild and frantic and Jim wasn't even sure he recognised his presence. "He's gone!"
Reaching out, Jim cupped the back of Lucas' neck and dragged him back in toward his body. "No, he's not. He's right here."
Lucas' eyes seem to drift over Blair for an inordinately long time before any sign of recognition sparked. "You saved him?"
"No." Jim pulled Lucas in until he could go no further. He wrapped his arm around the boy and held him tight against his body. "You did."
Lucas melted into the embrace, his head falling against Jim's shoulder. "I did?" The confusion was back and he was finding it difficult once again to remember everything that had happened.
A small hand reached over and touched Lucas' cheek. "Ah ha."
Awkwardly reaching up, Lucas covered Blair's hand with his own. "I did!"
"You did," Jim confirmed, letting his lips drift across the top of the boy's head. "Thank god, you did."
Taking a breath and moment to centre himself, Jim contemplated the enormity of the task ahead. They were still out in the middle of the river and Lucas was a mess. Aside from the superficial injuries littering his face and upper torso, the kid's lack of cognitive ability had Jim wondering how many additional hits to the head Lucas had sustained since he'd been gone. An unaided swim by Lucas would be inviting disaster, but trying to get them both back across the current and safely to shore would also be a mammoth task.
"Take Blair," Lucas breathed.
"What?" Jim asked.
"You can't get back with both of us." Lucas lifted his heavy head from Jim's shoulder. "I'll wait here, while you take Blair."
"No," Blair's fear was gone and his stubborn streak was back. "We not leaving you, Lucas."
"Sport, it'll only be for a little while," Lucas wheezed.
"No," Blair said again, sitting more upright in his father's arm. "Daddy, tell him no."
Jim studied the determination on his son's face and knew Blair was right. They couldn't leave Lucas out here. He suspected the kid's blood pressure was already dangerously low and, combined with the difficult time he was having catching his breath, an internal injury was looking more and more likely. "He's right, kiddo," Jim confirmed. "We're not leaving you."
"Jim, you can't... you can't put me first."
"I'm not," Jim replied. "I'm putting both of you first."
"The rock!" Blair's attention suddenly settled on the pup and rock he'd been perched on the whole time. "Put me on the rock with Rahma. I not move, daddy, I promise, I not. Rahma and me will be as still as statues and not fall into the water this time."
"Jim, no." Lucas was now struggling against Jim's arm. He could make it by himself, he knew he could. There was no way Blair was staying out here while he went to shore. He'd been through too much to lose him now.
"Come, little one."
Blair's head whipped around. "Incacha!" he squealed. Without hesitation, he reached out to the warrior. Incacha would save them. Blair was certain of that.
Instinctively, Jim drew Blair back in. His trust in the spirit guide and the spirit world in general had bottomed out to a big fat zero, and he wasn't about to put the life of his son back into their hands.
"Daddy, let me go." Blair squirmed. "Incacha will take me and Rahma and you can take Lucas."
Incacha remained patient. "Have you lost your trust, sentinel?"
"Have you given me any reason to keep it?" Jim retaliated.
"I have given you the life of your boys."
Ellison was dumbfounded. "You honestly have no idea what you've done, do you?"
"Jim," Lucas pushed himself back further, "he did what he needed to do. You have to trust him."
"Trust him to do what, Lucas?" Jim snapped, immediately regretting his harsh tone.
"To fight for my life," Lucas mumbled. Finally reaching the last shred of any resilience, his eyes started to drift shut.
"Shit," Jim swore. Without hesitation he released Blair into the arms of the Chopec Warrior and lifted a hand to slap Lucas hard on the cheek. "Don't you dare!" he ordered. Treading water furiously to keep them both afloat, he gave the boy another hard slap.
Lucas rallied slightly, but there wouldn't be much time. Jim pushed himself away from the rock and positioned Lucas so he lay on his back.
"Do it myself," Lucas protested, attempting to drop his feet back down.
"Stop," Jim ordered. Lacing his arm tightly around Lucas' chest, he started kicking for shore, glancing back to make sure Incacha was following.
"Jump, Rahma!" Blair called from the safety of Incacha's arms.
The pup didn't hesitate and Incacha swept him up and followed the sentinel to shore. As soon as his feet hit the pebbled shallows, Incacha released the wolf and watched as it splashed its way to the beach. "I think, little one," the warrior began, "that you might not be as brave as a jaguar after all."
Blair was crestfallen. He'd tried so hard to do every thing right, to do all he could to save his brother. It was true he'd been scared, and he knew he'd cried when maybe he shouldn't have, but still, he really did think he'd been very brave.
Incacha knelt down and took Blair by the hand. "I think that you are too brave to have the heart of a jaguar."
"I are?" Blair answered, trying hard to hold back his tears and understand what Incacha was saying.
The warrior smiled over at the little wolf as it shook out its coat with such ferocity that it fell back into the water. He laughed. "You, little one, have the heart of a wolf -- the bravest and the smartest of all the animal spirits."
Blair's smile couldn't have been brighter or wider. He was as brave as Rahma. There was nothing better than being as brave as the bravest of all little monsters.
Max Wilder no longer shed tears for the dead, but he did shed them for himself. Staring up at him from a lonely dirt-covered track in the middle of nowhere was the reason for his tears. Robert was dead and without Robert he was lost, eternally lost, and even the barriers put up by his drug-addicted mind couldn't shield him from the horror of that.
Nor could they shield him from the revulsion of what his son had done. He knew all too well that Lucas was a troubled boy and had seen some horrific things in his life, but no manner of suffering would cause a normal human being to rip another's throat clean away from his neck. Max couldn't even begin to fathom how Lucas had physically managed to do so, but he was beyond the point of trying to work out the violent nature of his son's volatile personality.
Moving away, Max picked up the rifle that lay a few feet away from his brother's fallen corpse. It was time to take responsibility for not only his baby's death, but for Robert's. Lucas had proven that he couldn't be changed by love. If life had taught Max one thing, it was that if you didn't have love, you had nothing to live for.
Cocking the rifle and swinging it over his shoulder, Max sent up a silent prayer that in his next life, his son would find that love.
"I can walk."
Despite Lucas' improvement since they'd reach the shore, Jim had no intention of letting go. He'd already heard Incacha talking to Blair, but still he glanced downstream to get a fix on his son. Once satisfied Blair was okay, he turned his attention back toward Lucas. "You sure?"
"I'm fine." Lucas' actions betrayed his words, as his knees gave out.
"Right, so I'm guessing you mean fine as in 'flat on your ass'," Jim said, following the kid down to the ground.
Lucas broke into a brief, half-hearted smile for the first time in what seemed like a very long time. "You know that 'f' words have more potential than 's' words, don't you?"
"And you know just because you have a few minor bumps and bruises, that still doesn't get you out of the dishes if that 'f' word finds it potential."
"Yeah well, the dishwasher will get me outta that." Lucas paused. "We do still have a dishwasher at home, don't we?"
Deciphering the real meaning behind Lucas' words, Jim gently squeezed his shoulder. "No, currently he's sitting with his lazy ass on a rock contemplating the 'f' word and if it does happen to slip outta his mouth, when he does get home I can guarantee he'll have a shit load of dishes waiting just for him."
"You know, maybe those 's' words do have more potential after all."
Jim smiled. "I'm actually starting to find the ones that start with 'h' a whole lot more appealing." He pushed Lucas' wet hair away and studied his eyes. "Time to fess up, kiddo. I need to know what's going on." The evidence of a concussion was there, and Jim moved his attention to Lucas' ribs. "Where does it hurt?"
Lucas pushed Jim's hand away. "Everywhere," he answered honestly.
"Daddy!" Blair came racing up the riverbank with Rahma hot on his heels and Incacha now nowhere to be seen. He launched himself at his father and wrapped his arms around his neck. "We all safe and sound," he announced.
"We sure are, Chief." Jim pulled his son into a tight hug and kissed his cheek, amazed at the little boy's power to cope, despite the horror he'd been through.
Blair reached out for Lucas' hand. "Are you still sick?" he asked.
Jim looked over Blair's shoulder and gave Lucas a questioning glance.
"You want the 'f' word again?" This time the pain on Lucas' face betrayed the attempted humour of his words. He held out his hand for Jim to help him up. "We better get this show on the road."
Jim knew they had two choices. They could attempt to make the trek back to the cabin or they could wait and see if Lucas' condition improved. And that was it -- his only two choices. Leaving Lucas alone while he went for help was out of the question. Robert may have been out of the picture, but Max was still out there somewhere and he had no idea of the man's current state of mind. Chances were that Max had taken off, but there was also a chance he hadn't. While that chance existed, they all stayed together.
"Jim," Lucas squeezed the older man's hand, "it's nothing that can't wait until we get back to the cabin."
"Help me up," Lucas pressed again, avoiding Jim's eyes. Unsuccessfully stifling a groan as vertical became his new position, he changed the subject. "Speaking of cabins, you gonna tell me what happened back there?"
Blair, now preoccupied with chasing the wolf pup around in circles, was out of earshot and not paying attention to the conversation. "Your uncle's dead, Lucas."
Their eyes now locked and Lucas nodded his understanding. "And Max?"
"I haven't seen or heard him, but my best bet is that he's taken off." Jim positioned Lucas' arm around his shoulder and snaked his hand around his waist. "As soon as we're in cell range, I'll get word to Simon to get the local crew up here and moving on a search."
Lucas nodded, but didn't say a word.
"Lucas, I'm so sorry that you had to get dragged into all of this sentinel stuff," Jim began.
The teenager cut him off. "It's not your fault," he answered. "None of this is your fault; it's just something that had to happen."
Bullshit very nearly graced Jim's lips, but he held his tongue, content instead to focus his anger on not only wanting to kick Incacha's butt for getting his kids involved in this, but for also obviously filling Lucas' head with a load of crap.
Lucas stumbled slightly and Jim took more responsibility for the kid's weight. "You sure you can do this?"
"Yeah, I'm sure." His head was spinning and black dots were dancing in front of his eyes, but Lucas was determined to make it back under his own steam.
The going was slow and in parts became near impossible, but Lucas somehow managed to keep his grip on consciousness. They'd taken a different path back, avoiding the clearing where Robert lay, and were both sweating heavily by the time the cabin came into sight. Blair, who had been trying to help, broke off into a run, excited to be greeted by the jaguar and the young cougar, which were pacing a relentless track, back and forth outside the cabin door.
Keeping a keen eye on his son, Jim didn't fail to notice the agitation in the cat's behaviour and he was about to call Blair back when a movement behind him caught his attention. Letting go of Lucas, he twisted around just as a small muskrat scuttled across the path. Feeling slightly stupid, he turned back around to give Lucas his aid once again, but he never got the chance. Standing directly in front on them with a rifle aimed, ready to shoot, was Max. Jim didn't have time to make a move before a forceful shove on his arm sent him stumbling sideways. The rifle, however, didn't change trajectory and, in staying steady, Max made his intentions very clear. Lucas was in his line of fire and it was Lucas who was the intended target.
"You hate me that much?" Lucas rasped.
"No." Max fingered the trigger. "But you're incapable of love, and without that, you have nothing to live for."
A Chopec warrior's spear sailed though the air, hitting its target with deadly accuracy and, in doing so, not only eliminated the danger to the guardian, but reminded the Council of Peers that Incacha was indeed a force to be reckoned with.
The time had come, not only to stand strong and tall by the side of his sentinel, but to bring his tribe together to defend that power that had been entrusted to them all.
The forces may have weakened the resolve of the guardian, but they had failed to break his spirit. In that failure, Incacha had what he needed to challenge their claim. In his eyes, the test was over and, fail or pass, those who were not worthy to hold such a position would no longer judge the boy. A difficult path still lay ahead, but the boy had suffered badly and needed time and a safe haven to gather his strength, and the sentinel needed to have his eyes once and for all opened to the true meaning of what had been placed into his hands.
Without remorse or guilt of conscience, Incacha retrieved his spear from the chest of his enemy. He moved quickly to gather the young guide into his arms and shield his eyes. "You will forget, little one," he whispered into Blair's ear. As the spirit guide of one so young, he would not allow the child to remember. Visual memories would soon begin to fade and, while the emotional trauma of everything Blair had witnessed would never return to haunt him, the feelings of bravery, devotion and love he felt toward his father and his brother would remain intact and would act as powerful allies to guide him through the rest of his life.
The guardian, however, could not have the same luxury. He needed to remember, for remembering would serve to make him stronger.
As Incacha carried the guide toward the cabin, his heart could not help but grieve for the guardian's pain. If there had been any other path to take, he would have taken it but, as with all things in life, sometimes choices were not free to make. He had done what needed to be done and only hoped the sentinel would see this too -- because without the sentinel, the triangle would not survive.
"I can't love." Lucas swallowed hard. "They all died because I didn't know how to love."
"No." Jim moved to place himself between Lucas and the body of his father, effectively blocking the teenager's view. He took Lucas' face within the palm of his hands. "No," he said again, this time forcing Lucas to look at him. "Don't you play this game, Lucas. Don't you dare let them win and make you doubt who you are."
A tear trickled down Lucas' cheek. "But he was right, Jim, my father was right. I don't feel anything. The man's dead and I don't feel a thing," Lucas blurted out in anguish. He roughly swiped at the tears that continued to flow. "Max was right... I can't love."
Finding it nearly impossible to breathe, Lucas' chest constricted and he was no longer able to deal with the pain. His eyes rolled back and Jim moved to catch him before he hit the ground. "You have absolutely no idea what you're capable of, do you?" he whispered.
Lucas did know how to love; it was the ability to hate that he didn't have -- at least not with the depth that he had every right to. The boy might have been growing into a man but, deep down, he was still just a kid who was desperate for the love and approval of a man who had turned his back on his son such a long time ago. In Jim's eyes, it didn't make Lucas a fool; it only served to reinforce what a truly beautiful soul the boy had, and he felt privileged that he'd had the chance to watch this soul grow and blossom into the remarkable young man that was Lucas Wilder.
It also served to prove to Ellison how much hate he was capable of harbouring. Even in death, Max was hurting his son, and if there was a fate worse than death, Jim hoped it would be bestowed upon the bastard with all its might.
"Come, Enqueri." With a face mirroring Ellison's thoughts, Incacha addressed his sentinel. "We do not have much time." He entered the cabin with Blair still in his arms. The ceremony needed to be prepared and the sentinel needed to be convinced of its necessity. The guardian was still in danger and the longer he stayed in this dimensional plain, the graver that danger became.
Lighting the fire on the stone hearth, Incacha set about preparing the herbs; he was setting the wheels in motion to take his tribe back home to where they belonged.
Uncertain as to the extent of damage to Lucas' ribcage, Jim didn't want to chance lifting the kid in a fireman's carry and was now struggling with the full weight of Lucas cradled in his arms.
"A little bit of help, here," he bit out, in Incacha's direction.
The Indian did not look up from his place by the fire, but had no hesitation in giving direction. "Lower him to the mat by the hearth," he ordered.
While the bedroom would have been Ellison's first choice, the smell of sweat, whiskey and sex wafting from the room negated the idea immediately. He lowered Lucas carefully down, taking extra care with the boy's upper body.
"Is Lucas going to be okay, daddy?" Blair asked.
"He'll be fine, sweetheart," Jim answered, already running his hands over Lucas' body.
"Why is he sleeping?"
That, thought Jim, was the one hundred and one dollar question. Probing Lucas' facial bones, he could feel a lot of swelling and bruising but, thankfully, no sign of fractures or breaks. He thumbed the boy's lax eyelids, finding his pupils still slightly dilated. This, combined with Lucas' earlier confusion, left no room for doubt that the kid did have a concussion.
Continuing down, he probed Lucas' chest gently with the pads of his fingers. He couldn't feel any obvious breaks or misalignment of bone, but there was a distinct rattle in the breathing pattern that could be not only heard, but felt in the vibrations against his hand when he laid his palm flat.
Before Jim could protest, Incacha slipped something under Lucas' tongue.
Jim pushed the warrior's hand away. "What'd you just give him?"
"It will help with what he has already been given."
"Jesus Christ," Ellison barked. "Can't you ever just answer a question straight up?"
Incacha picked up Lucas' arm and turned it over, exposing his forearm, but not uttering a word.
There was an inkling of a memory tugging at Blair. He couldn't remember it in much detail and wasn't even sure if was part of a dream, but there was something there and it involved the man and him putting something in Lucas' arm.
"I think he gived him a needle." Blair shifted in closer and rubbed his hand up the teenager's arm. "I think the man put it in his arm."
Jim moved Blair's hand away, replacing it with his own. His fingers felt it and his eyes confirmed it. It was small, but there was a definite track mark on Lucas' vein. "Chief, do you know how much the man gave him?" Jim examined Lucas arm for more evidence. "Do you know how many times?"
"No," Blair answered with a look of worry on his face. He wanted to be of more help, but he honestly didn't remember. "I not know, but I think the other man made Lucas take some other stuff, too."
Incacha tossed Jim a bottle of Quaaludes. "Your answer, straight up," he replied.
Ellison ran his hand roughly through his hair. No wonder the kid's heartbeat was sluggish and his breathing so erratic. The heroin coursing through his veins was dangerous enough, but mixing the drug with sleeping pills took the severity of Lucas' condition to a whole new level.
Needing to know just how much Lucas had been injected with and what he was looking at in terms of immediate effects and possible withdrawal symptoms from just the heroin alone, Jim ran his hands and eyes over the entire length of Lucas' arms. Without hesitation, he moved down and snapped open the buttons on the boy's wet jeans, pulling them off as quickly as he could. Repeating the careful check up the full length of Lucas' legs and inner thighs, he gave a slight sigh of relief when he found nothing. He flicked the blanket off the sofa. "We have to get him to the hospital."
This time, Incacha's voice was gentle. "Enqueri, he is still in danger."
"Don't you think I know that?" With the combination of drugs in Lucas' system, plus the head injury, the teenager was in serious jeopardy. Gently nudging Blair away from Lucas' side, Jim readied himself to lift the boy back up into his arms. "Do I take the truck or do you have some kind of magic carpet in that mystical bag of tricks of yours that will get us there faster?"
Incacha placed a firm hand on Jim's shoulder. "Sentinel, the guardian has held his own and will continue to do so against the poison that runs through his veins, but he does not have the strength to fight any longer against those who wish to see him dead."
"Daddy." Blair's voice quavered, his eyes darting from Incacha to his father as he resumed his position by his brother's side. "Why is Lucas going to be dead?"
Jim reached out and pulled Blair into a tight hug in an attempt to shield him from any more horror. "He's not going to be dead, Chief." He turned cold eyes on Incacha. "If it's the last thing I promise, I promise you that."
Incacha laid a gentle hand on the back of Blair's head, his own cold eyes matching the sentinel's stare. "Sleep, little one."
Blair's eyelids, suddenly impossibly heavy, drifted shut and his head dropped forward with a small thud onto Jim's shoulder.
Jim jiggled his son, "Blair?" He jostled him harder, a sense of urgency creeping over him when there was no response from the child.
"He is only asleep, Enqueri, and in no danger."
"Just exactly what are you playing at, Incacha?" Ellison snapped. With one arm still cradling Lucas, he attempted to do the same with Blair.
"You made a promise to the child to keep his brother safe, Enqueri, and I am here to see that you keep that promise."
Reaching under the blanket, Incacha removed Lucas' arm and once again exposed his forearm. He traced his finger over a mark that only he could see forming on the teenager's wrist. "The Guide, the Guardian, the Sentinel. Three points of a triangle three points that hold the triangle together." Incacha continued to trace. "A triangle, however, will only stay strong if the points that hold it together are equally strong. The Guide at the top, the Guardian to the left, and the Sentinel to the right must find their balance in order for the triangle to be sustained." He stopped tracing, pressing his fingers into Lucas' skin, concealing the points on the left and right hand side. "The triangle has already been weakened, and if the Guardian fails to support the load then the Guide at the top will fall." He placed the palm of his hand completely over Lucas' wrist. "And the hands into which he will fall will be not be the hands of gentle men, Enqueri."
"Enough!" Ellison snapped. "Enough with the puzzles and enough with the bullshit. Exactly whose hands are we talking about?"
"The Council," Incacha stated. "A council whose membership has been tainted with dishonest souls."
"And this council, I'm assuming, is the same council that devised this test?"
Jim instinctively pulled Blair closer to his chest, his detective's mind racing with not only questions, but with possible motives. "A test that you knew about and were involved in, even though you knew it was corrupt?"
"It is wise to keep your friends close, but even wiser to keep your enemies closer," Incacha replied. "My involvement was for the sake of these boys."
"That's a crock of shit," Jim ground out. "You did nothing! You were there all along and you saw what was happening but you did nothing to help. You stood by while Blair was subjected to a risk that I don't even want to think about and you did nothing while Lucas went through a living hell. How could you do that Incacha? How could you have stood by and let this happen without doing a god damn thing?"
Incacha ran his thumb slowly over Lucas' wrist, his voice remaining calm and steady. "Because your world is not the only world in which I exist, Enqueri. I belong to a tribe. A tribe made up of men, women and children who live and who breathe. I could have acted and taken the guardian and guide back to our village, but without the evidence I needed to show of the corruption that exists within the council, they would have used any means within their power to retrieve the guide and dispose of the guardian. It is your tribe as well, Sentinel. Those same men, women and children who live and who breathe, also bleed, and would have bled to protect these boys. I do not know about you, but I was not willing to have the death of so many rest upon my hands." Incacha's voice grew soft with regret. "This boy's test, as unjust as it was, needed to take place and I did what I did, for the sake of our tribe. I could not interfere until he had been given the chance to prove his strength."
"And my test?" Jim asked, the look on his face portraying nothing but pure cynicism. "Was it devised by this council to be just as unfair?"
"Yours was never a test contrived by the council at all, Enqueri. The test you undertook was devised by me and me alone."
"So now it all fits into place. Lay down with the dogs and the spirit guide's ass gets bit by fleas."
Incacha's posture stiffened and his voice went cold. "I devised your test, Sentinel, so you would know what it felt like to be faced with the possibility of life without the ones you love. I devised your test so you would learn how to use these feelings to your advantage and channel them into learning how to control your senses. I devised this test so you would see that the guardian could no longer bear the load he has been carrying alone."
"The only load that Lucas has been carrying is the one placed on him by those bastards out there," Jim retaliated. "Don't you dare accuse me of not doing everything and giving everything I have to this kid."
"A triangle will only stay strong if the points that hold it together are equally strong," Incacha repeated. "You, Enqueri, were the weakest point in the triangle and this has been the load that this boy has had to bear."
"What?" Realisation was not far behind Ellison's question. The walls that surrounded his world collapsed without warning and there was nothing he could do to stop it. It was his fault.
All of it -- Lucas' horror and Blair's nightmare -- it was all his fault. He closed his eyes for the briefest of moments, trying in vain to make some sense of a senseless situation. "Then why?" he asked, still staggered. "Why didn't they just remove me? From the very start, if they wanted Blair, why didn't they just remove the weakest point? Why didn't they just remove me and leave Lucas alone?"
"Because you were no threat to their plans. You were a sentinel who for the most part mocked and ignored his senses. To the council, this made you no more than a man. The guardian, however, was developing, and his intuition growing faster and stronger than they had envisaged; those who were in possession of the same knowledge as I, knew it was time to act. The triangle was beginning to take shape and they needed to break it before it had a chance to become strong. But as you know from your world, Enqueri, conspiracy is a skilful game, and the boy could not be removed without reason. The test and his failure to pass would give them this reason."
"But what if he passed? He saved Blair's life... he must have passed."
"That depends from which eyes you chose to look. In the eyes of the council no, the boy did not pass."
"So what happens now?"
"Now we turn to the eyes of the Elders."
"And if that fails?"
"Then, together, as a tribe we fight."
"But why now?" Jim asked. "Why now are you willing to sacrifice the lives of the tribe for the lives of my boys?"
Incacha laid Lucas' hand upon his lap and reached for the sentinel's hand. He turned it over, exposing Jim's forearm at the same time he removed his palm from the teenager's wrist. A triangle, bound together by a wolf at the top, a jaguar to the right and a cougar to the left, adorned both their wrists.
Incacha stretched the palm of his hand across Lucas' forehead, and repeated the same to Blair. "Because of this boy's undying sacrifice and because of this child's bravery. And," he said, shifting his hand from Blair to rest his hand upon Jim's shoulder, "because the power of the Sentinel has come full circle, the wheels of destiny can stay true to their course." He took hold of Blair's arm to reveal the exact same mark. "You exist together not just as a family, but as an unbreakable bond, and as long as you continue to embrace what you mean to each other, it is a bond that can never be broken."
Incacha picked up Lucas' lax hand, placed it within Jim's. "But we still need to move with caution and this boy needs a chance to heal and to regain his strength. Help me protect your son, Sentinel -- help me to protect both your sons?"
Jim tightened his hold on the warm hand that lay within his own. "Tell me what I need to do?" he asked quietly.
Incacha nodded. "I will prepare the herbs."
Blanketed. It was the first thought that sprang to Ellison's mind as he struggled to open his eyes. Blanketed, not only by the reposing body of his son, plastered across his chest, but blanketed by the oppressive swelter of humidity and the cloying sweetness of native ginger and oleander. Broken English and a Chopec dialect he could not only recognise, but also comprehend with some proficiency, roused him further from his stupor. The sentinel was now blanketed by the smell of sickness.
A snuffle and a small snort was the only response he received as he moved Blair from his chest. Safe, dry and smelling very much like talcum powder, the child remained fast asleep as Jim laid him down on the grass mat he'd been occupying. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light within the hut, he was able to make out the shape of an elderly woman, hovering over Lucas.
"No," he said, in time to stop her withered hands removing the blanket that covered his naked body.
Deep, brown, knowledgeable eyes staring out from a time-weathered face were cast in his direction and Jim immediately knew that there was no ill intent in the woman's action. But still, he could not let her touch Lucas. He'd been touched too many times without consent, and the only hands he would allow to help the teenager were his own. Permission for him to do so would, he prayed, be granted simply by trust.
"I'm sorry," Jim said, edging closer to the woman. "I didn't mean to startle you." He took her hand, helping her up and leading her away from Lucas. "I will tend to his injuries."
Hands deeply wrinkled, but surprisingly soft and supple, wrapped themselves around the sentinel's, in not only a wealth of understanding, but compassion. "Ginger for the fever, sangre de grado for his wounds."
Jim unconsciously touched the binding that covered his own treated injury. "Thank you," he replied with overwhelming sincerity. Gently he led her toward the doorway of the hut, stopping for a brief moment to breathe in the sights and sounds of the village laid out before him. It was like he'd never left. It was familiar in so many ways to his senses, but yet so foreign and strange to his rationale.
A child, a little older than Blair, left his mother's side and ran to greet him. His smile was easy and enthusiastic. "Can the boy come out to play?" It was spoken in Chopec, a language he had not heard in many a long year.
"He is asleep," Jim responded. The boy's smile did not fade and, just as he had understood the child, the boy seemed to understand every word of English he'd spoken.
"When he wakes?" the boy asked.
Jim nodded. "When he wakes."
The child's mother gestured a greeting and Jim responded in kind. These people were not his own, yet he felt at ease and at home, and did not even think to question how or why they existed. His eyes were now open to the spirit world and to everything which it entailed. For the sake of Lucas and Blair, his eyes would never be closed to this world again.
Watching with a slight smile as the boy skipped over to a group of children playing what looked very much like a game of jacks, Jim turned and prepared himself for the task ahead. Lucas had been run through the mill. Each and every one of his injuries would need to be examined and treated, without exception. Kneeling down, he palmed the kid's forehead. "I'll be as quick as I can, kiddo," he promised.
Lucas didn't stir and, making the best of a bad opportunity, Jim removed the blanket, stained with Lucas' sweat and his blood. Balling it up, he tossed it over to the other side of the hut, making a mental note to burn it as soon as he could. A clay pot by the side of the mat kept the tepid water as cool as possible in the sultry climate. Laced with ginger and an herb he couldn't quite put his finger on, Jim dipped a finely woven cloth into the basin of water. He was quick and efficient but, while he would have liked to think that he was professionally stoic, it couldn't have been further from the truth. His relationship with Lucas, right from the onset, had been based on trust and making the boy feel that he did have right to take privacy for granted. He'd never intentionally overstepped that mark and sometimes even inadvertently went too far in the other direction. A simple slap on the shoulder had sometimes left him unsure what the kid would make of the gesture. But as time had passed, they'd both relaxed, becoming more comfortable with each other's company, and Lucas had finally granted him the level of trust they both now shared.
"Nearly there," Jim soothed, finishing up quickly with the worst of his ministrations.
A hand brushed against his shoulder. "The boy's garments," Incacha said, dropping a duffle to the floor.
"Thanks," Jim muttered.
Reaching for the bag, Jim fished around until he found what he was looking for. He pulled out a clean pair of boxers and a pair of well-worn khaki shorts that, despite encouragement, had always managed to find their way out of the Good Will box and back into the kid's wardrobe.
"I hope in time you will forgive me, Enqueri," Incacha said sadly. His heart took full responsibility for the boy's suffering, but his heart also told him that there had been no other way.
"If there's blame to be laid, it needs to start at my feet first," Jim replied. "This started because of me."
"This started because of greed and power, Enqueri, nothing more."
"But it continued because I was too much of a fool to see what was right in front of my eyes."
"Life shows us many lessons that we do not always learn until we are forced to do so. Pain of the heart is one of our greatest teachers and forgiveness one of our greatest lessons to learn. I think that before you condemn yourself to a life of guilt, you must look closely at what you are really guilty of."
"They both nearly died because of me. There's no greater guilt than that."
"You are wrong. Their deaths would have been a far greater burden for you to carry, but because you opened your eyes to what life was teaching you, your boys are with you now."
"But they still went to hell and back because of me."
"For your family to heal, Enqueri, and for its bond to stay strong, you must forgive yourself. Guilt and self-pity are destructive forces; if you allow yourself to wallow and be consumed by them, you will again become the link that will be vulnerable to weakness. You must remain strong, and to do that you start by forgiving yourself."
Jim thought about what Incacha said. Guilt and self-pity were destructive emotions, but crawling out of the hole they'd flung him into was going to be harder done than said. But, for the sake of the boys, it was a climb he'd have to make, and he would have start by admitting to Lucas, in particular, his failings. For him to forgive himself, he first needed to seek forgiveness.
Blair stirred, drawing Jim's attention to the other side of the hut.
"Over here, Chief." Jim manoeuvred Lucas' shorts over his hips and secured them in place.
"What you doing?" Blair asked, getting to his feet and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
"Lucas still isn't feeling very well and I'm trying to make him feel a little more comfortable."
Blair wandered over and leaned sleepily against his father's back. He peeked over his shoulder. "He still sleeping?"
"He needs his rest, buddy."
Incacha knelt down to Blair's eye level, sporting a pair of the child's shorts within his hands. With absolute and childlike trust, Blair pushed away from his father and steadied his balance with a hand on the Indian's shoulder while Incacha pulled them on.
"Where are we?" Blair asked, with the same innocence.
"We are at my village, little one," Incacha answered.
"How'd we get here?"
Incacha smiled. "On a magic carpet ride," he said.
"Liked the one in Aladdin?"
"Exactly like the one in Aladdin." He took hold of Blair's hands. "With your father's permission, little one, I would be very pleased to show you our village."
Blair bounced. "Can I, daddy, can I?"
The test had come full circle and Incacha waited, hoping that in the eyes of his sentinel, he would not fail.
Jim hesitated slightly before pulling Blair into a tight hug. He kissed the side of his head. "You make sure you stay with Incacha, okay? No wandering off." His eyes locked with the warrior's. "I'm trusting you with all that I have."
The Chopec warrior stood to his full height. "I honour your trust," he said. He tightened his grip on Blair's hand. "Come, little one, I have much to show you."
Rahma loped after the pair and, not far behind, the jaguar followed suit. The cougar did not move. Its position remained unchanged as it stood guard over the one to whom it belonged.
Jim picked up a fresh cloth and once again tended to Lucas' wounds. The boy's temperature was on the rise and the night ahead would be long.
One dose of heroin does not an addict make. The thought kept rolling over and over in Jim's mind as he bathed Lucas' body and tried to calm his agitation. From what he knew from his time with Vice, one hit generally served only to make you as sick as a dog. It was hit number two which gave you the rush, and number three which had you coming back for more. He'd only found one track mark on Lucas' body and was firm in his resolve that Lucas was neither addicted nor looking for that second rush. But he did believe, however, that the teenager's body had reached a point where it was rebelling and rebelling hard.
The boy was in and out of delirium as his temperature crept higher. Jim could do nothing but bathe Lucas' body with the tepid water available to him and try to get the kid to keep down at least some of the herbs the old woman had prepared. So far he wasn't faring well with either.
"Come on, Lump," he said, gently easing Lucas up and back into his arms. "Let's give this another one of those old college tries." He pressed an earthenware bowl against Lucas' dry, cracked lips and dribbled some of the bitter liquid into the boy's mouth, encouraging him to swallow.
Success was short-lived. Lucas' stomach revolted again, and again Jim was well prepared.
With a tired, clumsy action, Lucas pushed the bowl away. "He won't stop crying." He dug his fingers into Jim's forearms and drew his legs up toward his stomach. "He won't stop because he thinks I didn't love him enough."
"Who won't stop crying?" With Lucas now more or less sprawled over his lap, Jim rubbed his hand up and down the teenager's back in an effort to try to relieve some of the tension from muscles that felt as if they were spring loaded.
"I failed," Lucas whispered.
"Hey, hey," Jim soothed. "You didn't fail anything."
"I did." Tears mingled with sweat. "I didn't love hard enough."
Jim picked up the cloth and trailed it over Lucas' back. "That's not true. If it wasn't for you and your love for Blair, we would have lost him."
"Not Blair," Lucas murmured.
Lucas drifted off again. "Won't stop crying," he mumbled.
Lucas' physical pain was obvious, but it wasn't the only pain the teenager was contending with. Jim tightened his hold. There was such a big gap in the kid's life that Jim knew nothing about; a gap from nine to sixteen and, despite his best efforts to get Lucas to open up about those years, snippets of information were all he'd managed to get. While he'd put his money on Lucas' father and uncle being the prime culprits in the kid's nightmare, Lucas' demons could be stalking him in any manner of form, and whoever or whatever they were, they were giving him a run for his money.
In an action that Jim was not expecting, Lucas' body suddenly went ridged. His legs shot out in front on him and he arched his back and screamed in pain.
Jim was quick to react. He pried himself out from under Lucas' weight and laid him flat on his back. His quickly probed for any distension he might have missed the first time, concerned again about possible internal injuries.
"My back," Lucas rasped, turning onto his side. His eyes were clenched shut and he blindly reached around for something to grasp.
"Give him what comfort you can." Incacha appeared, with Blair at his side.
Jim took Lucas' flailing hand within his own. There wasn't a lot he could do to help comfort the kid, except physically hold on and try and help him ride out the pain.
"I knows what to do." Blair looked up at Incacha, who nodded his encouragement. Without further hesitation, he slipped in behind his brother and scooted in as close as he could. "I here, Lucas," he said, wrapping his hands around his brother's waist. "You can go back to sleep now," he whispered.
The reaction was immediate. For Lucas, Blair was like a vial filled with morphine.
"How does he do that?" Jim asked, watching Lucas' body become more and more relaxed.
"He has the healing touch."
Incacha added a touch of his own, gently probing Lucas' stomach and running a fleeting hand across his lower back. "It is an injury that will plague him when he is unwell. You must watch for the signs, Enqueri."
Blair snuggled closer, moulding himself into the shape of Lucas' body. Feeling warm and safe and a little sleepy, he let out a huge yawn, before closing his eyes. "The boy is gone now," he whispered, so soft that Jim almost missed what he'd said.
"He will sleep through the night, Enqueri," Incacha stated, knowing full well the meaning behind Blair's words. "I suggest you do the same."
Dousing the light, the hut was left in darkness to all but sentinel eyes. "Sleep well, sentinel," the warrior intoned. "The village will keep watch tonight."
Ellison's state of exhaustion had reached a point were it was now detrimental to those he needed to protect. Placing his trust, again, in Incacha, he stretched out on the other side of Lucas. He corded his fingers lightly through the teenager's hair, and rested his hand upon his little boy's arm.
Sleep followed closely behind.
It was to be expected. The quiet moments, lost in his thoughts. Thoughts that, if they lingered long enough, turned into nightmares that had him waking in the middle of the night, shaking and distraught until he found his repose... and then he'd be lost again, in those same thoughts.
It was to be expected, all of it -- the haunted looks, the apparent withdrawal of touch, the unshed tears. All expected, except for the one thing that, even if he lived to be a million years, Jim would never have seen coming. Lucas had shut Blair out -- completely, totally and absolutely. The sobbing mess bundled in his lap was a testament to that.
"I don't want it there no more," Blair cried. His little fingers scrubbed at his wrist, willing it to be naked. Willing for the mark, which signified how very much he belonged to his father and to his brother, to be gone.
"Sweetheart," Jim hushed, engulfing Blair's hand and stilling his movements. "Lucas just needs some time, that's all."
Blair shook his head, sending curls which had grown far too long, whipping against his cheeks. "He not love me anymore," he sobbed, "and I 'cided that I not going to love him no more, neither."
"Chief, of course he still loves you." He lifted Blair up, reseating him so that he was now straddling his lap. "And I don't believe for one minute that you don't love him." He wound his arms tightly around his son, feeling the wetness of his cheeks against his chest.
How did he even begin to explain to a child that he was still loved when actions so clearly told him otherwise? Lucas wasn't just being distant to Blair; he was treating the child as if he didn't exist at all. It was like Blair was no more than one of the village kids who, at the best of times, was nothing more than an annoyance. Jim had been witnessing it from the day Lucas had gained enough strength to start taking care of himself. At first he had let it go, his own instincts telling him that, after everything Lucas had been through, he did need some time, some space. But time and space had only served to widen the gap, not bridge it.
"Daddy, what did I do? Why does Lucas hate me?"
Jim pushed his son back and cupped his cheek. "You did nothing wrong, baby, and you have to believe me when I say that he doesn't hate you."
"But he won't play with me any more and he say I have to stay away from him." Blair's blue eyes glistened with tears. "He say he not have any more brothers."
The dam broke and Blair was inconsolable. Like so many other times since the day Blair had come into his life, words had no effect. The child needed to cry and Jim needed to let him. He could do everything in his power to protect Blair from physical harm, but he couldn't always protect him from his feelings. All he could do was wrap him up in love and give him the tools he needed to build a self-worth that would help him overcome.
But even self-worth couldn't always mend a broken heart and, as an hour ticked by, Blair finally succumbed to emotional exhaustion. The play and the chatter of the village children silenced as he carried Blair back to the hut. He laid him on the centre of the grass mat, bending down to place a soft kiss on a grubby little cheek which, after a hard morning of serious play, was in desperate need of washing. As he stood, the animal spirits appeared, taking up positions that he no longer disputed -- the wolf to the top, a cougar to the left, and a jaguar to the right. Blair was guarded and he was safe within the triangle.
With one last look, Jim left the hut. It was time to bring Lucas back home.
"So you got a link to cable TV or something we don't know about down here?" Jim approached the river, being careful not to crowd Lucas' personal space. "With the amount of time you've been spending here, I can't think of another reason, unless of course it's because you'd rather not be spending it with us."
Lucas just shrugged his shoulders.
"Ah, the old shrug of the shoulders," Jim said taking a seat on the ground. "It says so little, but yet it says so much."
"What do you want, Jim?" Lucas asked.
"I want a lot of things, Lucas, but first I'd like to start with your forgiveness?"
"Forgiveness? Forgiveness for what?"
"For being ignorant to what I am and making you carry a load you should never have had to carry."
"I've been carrying loads all my life, Jim. This one was no different."
"I was meant to protect you kiddo, and I failed."
"No, you didn't."
"Yes, I did, and because of my failure, you paid the price."
"Jim, I think you're giving yourself a little too much credit here. This is not the first time I've had the shit kicked out of me and it's not the first time I've had sex with my family. Hell, I don't even remember half of it, so I guess it's not all bad."
"You didn't have sex, Lucas, you were raped," Jim said, pointedly. He'd learned that when the kid wanted to play hardball, he had to play hardball back or he'd just end up chasing his tail.
"Are you sure about that?" Lucas answered back with a measure of false bravado.
"I'm positive about that, but what I'm not sure about is why you're doubting it?"
Lucas got to his feet and moved to the river's edge. "Because it hurts too much not to," he admitted quietly, his pretentious attitude failing fast.
Jim followed, making sure to keep his distance. "Lucas, I've had enough riddles and puzzles to last me a lifetime. Do an old man a favour and shed some light."
Picking up a stone, Lucas threw it out, skimming it across the water's surface. "I didn't trust you, you know. When you first made me come and live with you, I was sure it was for only one reason."
"But you never made that move. I waited and I watched and I expected, but as weeks turned into months, not once did you ever put the hard word on me. There were even times that you were so careful not to touch me or invade my privacy that I'd begun to think that maybe you thought I was a total screw-up and had no chance at all of being normal." Lucas tossed another stone in his hand. "But then things changed. You kinda relaxed and I felt as if maybe, just maybe I was meant to be a part of your family."
"No maybes about it, Lucas. You are a part of this family."
"Then why are you so afraid to touch me now?"
"Lucas, I'm not afraid of touching you." Jim edged closer. "But I guess I have been afraid of you not wanting me to."
Lucas shrugged his shoulders again. "Incacha told me that what doesn't kill me will make me stronger, and in a way he's right." Finding the courage, Lucas turned to face Jim. "But I don't want him to be right, Jim. I don't want to be so strong that I'm alone again," he said. "I've been an island for so much of my life that I'd honestly forgotten what it was like to have people around who love you just for the sake of loving you, and I'd forgotten what it was like to have someone hold you and not expect anything in return." Lucas turned back toward to the river. "You've lowered my defences and I don't know how to get them back."
"Maybe you're not meant to get them back." Jim reached out and squeezed the teenager's shoulder. "Lucas, what do you think you'll become if you walk around for the rest of your life with your emotional shields up?"
"I'll become an island," Lucas whispered.
Jim dragged Lucas back, into his arms. "Well, kiddo, unless you've got a leggy blonde and an endless supply of Pina Coladas, I'd say islands are pretty much overrated."
Lucas lifted his hands and held onto the forearms that encircled his chest. "Yeah," he responded, taking comfort in everything that Jim offered so freely to him.
"But you know, there is something that I still don't quite understand," Jim said.
"Hey, my life's an open book," Lucas replied, sarcastically.
"Well, since the pages are open, I'd like to know why you've been pushing Blair away? You know how very much he loves you and I know how much you love him and I don't understand what's gone wrong."
Lucas' gaze suddenly found the ground very interesting. "To keep him safe," he answered softly.
"Safe? Safe from what?"
"From what's in my genes?"
Jim spun Lucas around. "No," he said. "That's ridiculous and you know it."
"But what if it's not? What if one day I wake up and I've become more than I'm meant to be? What if, one day when I'm giving Blair a bath or when he does one of his nuddie runs down the hall, I see more than I'm supposed to see and I feel more than I'm supposed to feel? What happens, Jim, if one day an innocent cuddle no longer seems so innocent?"
"Lucas, you are so far off base, it's not even funny."
"Jim, my father, my uncle, they both had it and so did their father. Who knows how far it goes back and who knows how long it will continue?"
"It continues nowhere, because it stopped with you the moment you were born." Jim took Lucas' face in his hand and forced the boy to look at him. "Look me straight in the eye and tell me what you feel when you think about Blair and what you see when you look at him?"
Lucas didn't even have to think. "I see a brother who I love more than anything else in the world."
"Exactly. A brother you'd give your life to protect. You couldn't hurt him, Lucas. Regardless of what has happened in your family, you are not a part of that and it is not a part of you."
"How can you be so certain, Jim? Aren't you even the tiniest bit afraid?
"No," Jim answered with absolute honesty. "And do you know why I'm not afraid?"
Lucas just shook his head.
"Because, like it or not, you've become my son and I love you and I trust you and I know what's in your heart." He tapped Lucas' chest. "I know without one doubt what's in here."
Lucas swallowed hard. "And you can't see it. You honestly can't see it?"
Jim pulled Lucas in and folded him into his chest. "It's not there, Lucas. You have to trust me that it's just not there."
Lucas returned the hug, feeling as if the weight of the world had just been lifted from his shoulders. "I love you guys so much that it's scary, you know," he whispered.
A small hand brushed the teenager's leg. "It not scary, Lucas," Blair said with an amazing amount of confidence. "The scary part is you not forget to 'member to love."
With his eyes brimming with tears, Lucas let go of Jim and bent down, taking Blair's hands within his own. "Are you sure you're only three point seven five?"
Jim pulled Blair against his leg and laced his hand through his hair. "I'm still sticking with the forty-year-old midget story, myself."
Reaching out, Lucas touched Blair's cheek. "Do you still love me?" he asked
There were no words spoken as Blair dived into the teenager's arm. They were brothers and there was no need.
After everything that had happened and everything they'd been through, Jim finally had a reason to smile, and really smile. "Who's up for a swim?" he asked, playfully tapping both boys on the head and quietly brushing away a tear of his own.
"Me," Blair bounced. "I even knows how to swim now."
"You do?" Lucas swung Blair gingerly onto his shoulders. "Who taught you?"
Jim's smile became impossibly wide. "Come on Half-pint, I'll race you to the water."
"Hey, that's not fair, I'm still injured," Lucas complained. "Plus," he said, reaching up to tickle Blair, "I have a handicap."
"Moan, moan, whine, whine," Jim called out. He stopped just short of the water. "But you know what? You'll really have something to moan about when I tell you what's on tonight's dinner menu."
"Please, not snake again," Lucas complained.
"Nope, better. Bandicoot!"
"Yes way, and way disgusting."
"Maybe you could catch some fish, Lucas?" Blair piped up.
Lucas pulled Blair off his shoulders and plopped him down by the water's edge. "I didn't think you ate fish," he said, suspiciously.
Blair's smile quickly turned into a giggle. "I not, but I do ate fillets."
"You are most definitely a brat," Lucas responded with a broad smile, "and you have to the count of five."
Blair squealed as the water splashed in his direction. "You not catch me, 'cause I are a good swimmer now." Blair took to the water with Jim at his side and Lucas right behind.
Incacha stood at the edge of the tree line, watching the antics take place and praying that it would be a sight he would see again tomorrow.
The Elders were on their way and a decision had been reached.
"Respect, Enqueri," Incacha cautioned. "You must offer it at all times, without exception."
"I thought we were meant to be at this council meeting?" Jim grated. "It's our lives on the line after all. Surely we had a right to defend them?"
"You and the guardian are not versed in the ways of the council, Enqueri, and as such had no right to be there. I spoke on behalf of you and the guardian's case has been pleaded."
"So that's it," Jim replied. "Our fate is in the hand of a selected few."
"As it is within your world, I believe," Incacha replied.
"This is not exactly a jury of our peers, Incacha."
"No," the warrior agreed. "It is something far more powerful."
Jim cocked his head, his senses automatically attuned to the village surroundings. "They've arrived," he said, getting to his feet.
"Then I must greet them."
Ellison placed his hand on Incacha's arm. "They're not taking Blair," he stated. "No matter what happens, I won't let them have him."
"I know," Incacha replied. The warriors of their village were already prepared. They'd made a promise to stand by the side of their sentinel. It was a promise each and every man intended to keep, despite the consequences.
The pomp and ceremony that Jim expected with the Elder's arrival was virtually non-existent. They came unaccompanied, with no guards or attendants. This fact alone had Jim bristling on the edge. If they needed no protection, then they obviously had the power to protect themselves.
He'd followed Incacha's instructions to the letter from the moment they'd entered the village. Feeling like he and the boys had lined up like a pack of mutts going for 'best in show', Jim restrained himself, not moving a muscle or uttering a word.
Then words were spoken, not to him, but directed at Lucas. Jim clenched his fists and the muscle in his jaw screamed for release. "Your arm, Guardian," one of the Elders directed.
Lucas complied, his own muscles tensing as he revealed the mark on his arm.
"Your arm, Sentinel." Jim followed the teenager's lead, thrusting his wrist out for all to see.
Then, the silence was broken by a voice which was meant to remain silent. "I gotted one too," Blair said. He broke formation, going straight to the Elder's side. "See," he announced. "It just like my dad's and it just like Lucas'."
The Elder looked down upon the boy and could not help but smile at the innocence of heart and spirit that shone from the child's eyes. "And I hear you have been very brave to earn such a mark," he responded kindly.
Blair shrugged. "I not know," he said before turning around. "Daddy, I been brave?"
Jim and Lucas reached out with near exact timing and pulled Blair back to stand in between them.
The youngster looked up at his family. "Oops! I forgotted I wasn't suppose to talk," he whispered, trying now to be extra quiet.
"There has not been a time within the history of the council when such serious matters have come to hand." The frailest looking of the members turned to address Lucas. "I cannot take away the pain you have suffered, nor can I change the passage of time to right what has been wronged. I can only hope that you embrace what has come from your trials and use it to make you stronger and to make you wiser." The old man placed his hand on the teenager's shoulder. "You have been entrusted with a great worth, young guardian, and I believed in your ability to protect this worth."
The Elder's hand left Lucas' shoulder and his attention focussed on Jim. "You are their Sentinel, and as such, do not need to be told what this means."
"I don't," Jim responded.
The Elder nodded. "Good, then no more shall be said."
He winked quickly at Blair. "I myself could never see the point in staying quiet when you had something important to say."
One by one, without pomp or ceremony, the Elders disappeared and the village broke into a cacophony of noise. Ellison's first reaction was to gather his boys to his side, until he realised that the slaps that rained down on his back were done in congratulation. "So, is that it?" he asked over the fanfare of noise.
"I believe that is it," Incacha smiled back.
Jim didn't move to stop a warrior who hoisted Blair upon his shoulders, or the one who dragged Lucas over to the campfire. The smiles that graced their faces told him that he had nothing to worry about. "So what happened?" he asked.
Incacha took Jim by the wrist. "This happened."
Jim rubbed his fingers over the intricate design that adorned his wrist. "Incacha, I know the basics, but what exactly is this?"
"This is the triangle and it is a legend that goes back to the beginning of time," Incacha began. "Every tribe has a guide and a sentinel and a few, such as ours, possess a guardian to look over the guide. But the bringing of three together does not necessarily give you the power of the triangle."
"Then what does?" Ellison asked.
"The power comes when you bring together three souls who share a common destiny. Three souls who have travelled together, in one form or another, since the beginning of time."
"You're kidding," Jim said in disbelief.
"In each of these lives, the souls do not necessarily connect, but for some the connection is there from the beginning of time until the end of time. You, Enqueri, and Blair and Lucas have had this connection every time you have been upon this earth. This is why it was so important to keep this connection safe while it was still a fledging and learning to fly."
"And you knew about this... you knew about us all along?"
"With each life you have lived, I have been entrusted as the keeper of the triangle. As such, you can imagine it is a role I do not take lightly."
"Well I guess I owe you a thank you," Jim said with sincerity. "Thank you for looking out for my boys."
"It is my destiny and my very great honour." Incacha squeezed the sentinel's shoulder. "Come, join the celebrations."
"Incacha!" Jim said as the warrior began to move away. "You said this all began because certain forces wanted Blair."
"That is correct."
"As I said, your son has the ability to grow into a very powerful guide. If a power such as his is harnessed from a very young age, he can be forced to do things he is not yet strong enough to resist. Theses forces within the council wanted your son to pursue the calling of darkness."
"And they've now been taken care of?"
Incacha nodded. "Although the Elders may appear frail, they wield a mighty sword, Enqueri, and this sword is on your side."
"And you were willing to challenge this sword?"
"As I said, I have been entrusted and it is my duty."
Jim nodded his understanding. "How sure can we be that these members of the council won't return?"
"We cannot. There are no certainties in life, but you also cannot live your lives based on what could happen. Your children are young and have much to experience and they must follow and enjoy what life lays out before them, without a shadow hanging over their shoulder."
Incacha once again clasped Jim's shoulder. "It is our job, Enqueri to keep those shadows away." He slapped the sentinel's arm. "Now, I believe we have a celebration to attend."
"One more question," Jim rushed. "You haven't told me what the legend of the triangle is or how to use the power that it carries with it."
"Puzzles and riddles, my friend, are what keep the mind active and alert. When the time is right, you will find the answer."
This time Lucas interrupted their conversation. "Hey, Jim. You really have to try this stuff." He shoved a bowl filled with brightly coloured liquid under the sentinel's nose. "It'll blow your socks off."
Jim took a whiff and winced at the smell. "Lucas, this stuff is more potent that Granny Moses' moonshine." He took the bowl away from the boy.
"Oh come on, Jim," Lucas complained. "Just one?"
Ellison scanned the celebration happening around him and, in a moment of weakness handed the bowl back. "Just one," he warned. "The last thing I need is to spend the whole night holding your head up while you hurl into the bushes."
"Party pooper," Lucas teased.
Although still stiff and sore, Lucas was still quick enough to move out of the way of Jim's swat.
"Celebrations?" Incacha encouraged.
"Mazel tov," Jim laughed, grabbing Lucas and draping his arm around his shoulder just as Blair came running up.
"Daddy, I not allowed to have any of the pink drink," he huffed. "Lucas is allowed an' that not fair."
Jim swung Blair into his arms. "Well, Munchkin, I think if we look hard enough, we'll be able to find a special drink just for you."
"We will?" Blair bounced. "Way cool," he said. "When I get back home I going to show Holly my tattoo and tell her about my pink drink."
Jim's eyes darted toward the warrior.
"It will only be seen by those that need to see," he assured quietly.
Feeling a little relieved, Jim planted a sloppy kiss on his son's cheek. "You know what guys?... I think that when we get home we should take a trip to California to see the seals."
Blair's eye's widened. "You knowed about the seals?" he questioned, with reserve.
"A father has eyes that see all," Jim teased. He placed Blair on the ground to satisfy the pup, who was doing an enviable job in trying to trip him up. "Five words, Chief. Stay out of the truck."
Blair flashed a wicked smile before scooting off, as always with a wolf pup hot on his heels.
"So what'cha think?" Jim asked, turning to Lucas. "Feel like a trip to Disneyland?" Time off from work wasn't an issue he felt he needed to contend with; Simon could either like it or lump it. After everything they'd been through, he couldn't see them fitting back into mainstream with perfect ease. Lucas still needed time to heal and he needed time to be with his family and resolve his own conscience. "We might not be able to go five star, but if you don't mind sharing a room, it could be kind of fun."
Lucas stopped in his tracks. "I'm okay, Jim. You don't have to do this for me, you know?" He averted his eyes, trying so hard not to let on just how very much he did need Jim's presence just to get through the night.
"Then how about you doing it for me?" Jim answered softly.
For the very first time since they'd met, Lucas instigated an action that felt so very natural. "You gotta deal," he said, drawing Jim into a hug.
After a few seconds, Lucas reluctantly pushed back. His smile was wide. "But only if I get to drive some of the way?"
Jim hooked Lucas by the neck. "Half-pint, you have much to learn."
Lucas pulled away, giving Jim a quick smack and ducking out of reach. Their eyes locked briefly, before Lucas turned away and trailed after Blair.
With a sense of hope he hadn't felt in long time, a father stood watching his children. They were together as a family and as such, shared a bond so strong that would never be broken.
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