Summary: When Incacha passes on the way of the Shaman, Blair insists on pursuing it, despite Jim's objections. Jim finally gives in and guides him through the rite of passage. It changes them both.
Warnings: Rated NC-17, m/m, non-con, h/c, angst, partner betrayal (perceived, not actual)
Notes: I don't know diddley about the Shamanic experience.
I'm the first to admit that. In no way is this meant to be a realistic
portrayal of anything that happens anywhere.
The first time he said it, it was funny enough. So I guess that makes me the Shaman of the Great City. I thought it was just a joke to get us over the hump, past that weird moment when the danger was over but the adrenaline was still pumping. That's always a hard transition, to go from shitting your pants to counting your blessings. It's not something you can ever take for granted, that you'll make it out the other side, past the bullets and the bad guys, still in one piece, still breathing. People we cared about certainly hadn't been that lucky.
So an attempt at humor wasn't unwelcome. And Blair's good that way. He knows when to throw in some much needed comic relief. You could even say I depend on him for it.
I made a face at him, a kind of half laugh, the most I could muster under the circumstances. There was something tugging at my senses. I couldn't quite figure out what it was. Finally, I looked around, and there it was. This big black catmy cat, strangely enoughlounging on a nearby parked car, looking like a hood ornament come to life, growling at...what?...at me?...it's not like anyone else could see it.
Not surprisingly, it took my mind off what Blair was saying. So I never got a chance to tell him how crazy he was for even kidding about freaky ass shit like becoming a Shaman. What can I say? Hallucinations are damned distracting, even from the important things.
The kicker, though, is that Blair wasn't kidding. He just kept bringing it up and bringing it up. At first, I tried to laugh it off. Then I tried to ignore it. Then I got pissed. I mean, what the hell is wrong with this guy? Does he never learn his lesson? Will he never stop trying to leap into shit he knows nothing about?
"But Incacha said so, man. He passed on the way of the Shaman to me," Blair insisted.
"It's not like throwing around a football, Sandburg. It's a little more complicated than that," I said. "What Incacha did..." My voice caught in my throat. "That was just...an invitation, you could say. An opportunity. It doesn't have to mean anything."
"What if I want it to mean something?"
"Why the hell can't you ever let anything drop?"
"Why can't you ever answer a simple question?" he asked, defiantly.
I sighed. "You don't become a Shaman just because someone says so," I told him. "There's a ritual you have to perform, a rite of passage. A test, basically. Not everyone is chosen. If it's meant to be, then the future shaman has visions. He gains the wisdom he'll need to do his job. If not, then nothing happens."
He listened intently, bouncing on the balls of his feet, swinging his arms. It was like seeing a Sandburg time capsule, a throwback to the old days, to the puppy dog I'd first met way back when.
"So tell me what I need to do," he said.
His eyes sparkled at the prospect, like he was seven years old, staring into a candy store window.
"You have no idea what you're asking, Chief."
"Clue me in, then."
I shook my head. "That's just it. I can't tell you anything. The rite of the Shaman has to be a leap of faith. You go in blind, or else nothing happens. The whole purpose of the test is defeated before it even starts."
"Hey, I can handle that. Unlike some people I could mention, I'm not a control freak. Believe me, man. I'm game. For anything."
"This is not something to fuck around with, okay?" I said, feeling testy, sounding furious. "You can't take it lightly. We're talking about some serious responsibility here. And some very real power."
He smiled brightly. "Power, huh? I think I could get used to that."
"Don't be a child, Blair. You're an anthropologist. You know what I'm saying here. This is nothing to joke about."
His eyes turned hard and unyielding, a look I've learned to take seriously. "Yes, I am an anthropologist," he said. "So don't you think I have some idea what I'm getting myself into?"
"It's a hell of a lot different reading about it than it is living it. Trust me."
"I've already been living it. For three years now. Ever since I met you, I've been front and center for the Sentinel experience and all the weirdness that goes along with it."
"As a Guide."
"That's not the same thing as being a Shaman. Not at all."
"Don't you think I realize that?" he said, his voice earnest and pleading. "Don't you understand that's why this is so important to me? I know there's something more I can be. Some higher level we can take this Sentinel and Guide thing to. I've always known that, and now, I have the answer. All I need is for you to help me."
"What about your dissertation?" I asked, playing dirty, not regretting it for a moment, not if it would deter him.
"What about it?"
"You realize you wouldn't be able to continue it. Maybe as a guide you can manage some kind of objectivity. But as a Shaman? Not possible. There'd be no looking on from the sidelines. You'd have gone so far native it would take a search and rescue team to find your academic detachment. Your dissertation would be history. You'd never be able to turn it in. Much less publish it."
He gave me a long, appraising look, and then he smiled. "The one on Sentinels, no. You're right. It wouldn't be worth the paper it was printed on. So I guess it's a really good thing I stopped working on that two years ago and switched to the one on closed societies."
"After Brackett. I couldn't take any chances."
"When the hell were you planning to tell me about it? And what was that bullshit about your having enough material on me for ten dissertations?"
"It's not bullshit. I do have enough information for ten dissertations. On either topic. What I said was completely true. If you had stopped being a Sentinel, then I really wouldn't have had a reason to keep riding with you."
"You should have told me. You know that."
"Yeah. I know. I just wasn't sure what you'd do. And I didn't want you to feel"
"Responsible. In any way. It was my decision. I'll still get my degree. It's not important that I write about Sentinels. I don't need to convince the world anymore. I know you exist. That's all that matters. That and keeping you safe."
"Geezus, Chief. I don't know what to say."
He shook his head. "You don't have to say anything, Jim. I didn't pick this moment to tell you to make you feel bad. It's not some kind of emotional blackmail, either, to get you to do what I want. I just wish you'd try to see where I'm coming from on this. I don't want to be an observer. I don't want to study you. I haven't for the longest time. I want to be part of this."
"You already are."
"I want to be more. I don't want to spend the rest of my life just being some little tag-along. I want No, I need to have my own role."
I let out my breath. "Chief, I understand how you feel. I swear to God I do. It must sound really good, having your own part to play, learning all these new things, seeing what you've studied put into action. But have you really stopped to think what it's like to be a Shaman? Have you honestly imagined what it would be like to be caught between worlds? Because that's what it is. Believe me, you wouldn't just be helping me manage my weirdness anymore. You'd have a shit load all your own to deal with."
"I know. I really do. I've done tons of research on Shamans, across all kinds of cultures. I understand what they do, what their role is. And I can handle it. I swear, Jim. I want this."
"You wouldn't be just any Shaman. You need to know that."
He smiled happily. "I'd be the Shaman of the Great City," he said, sounding so pleased.
"Yes. But that's not all, either."
"What?" he asked, his eyes huge with curiosity.
"You'd be my Shaman."
He swallowed hard. "Yours?"
I nodded. "There's a connection between the Sentinel and Shaman of the same tribe. We'd be linked."
"How? Telepathy? Empathy? What?"
I shook my head. "I really can't tell you anymore than that. It's another one of those things you have to find out when you find out. But it would mean that you couldn't just pick up and take off on some expedition at the drop of a hat. You'd pretty much be stuck with me."
He shook his head. "I'd never feel that way. And I wouldn't just take off on you now," he said, his voice growing quiet. "You know that."
I closed my eyes. "But you could. If you changed your mind, if you really wanted to, you'd have that option. Being a Shaman is a whole different situation. You'd be making a commitment to me, to the Sentinel thing, to the entire tribe."
"Forever?" he asked, not really sounding very daunted by the prospect, which rather surprised me.
I shook my head. "No. A Shaman is only a Shaman as long as he chooses to be, just like with a Sentinel. But"
"You might be able to close it off someday if you decide you're finished with it. But you won't ever be able to stop knowing what you know. You understand that? You won't ever be the same again. Just like I wouldn't ever be the same if I lost my senses tomorrow. I'd always know what I'd seen, what I'd experienced. I'd always be set apart from other people because of it. Do you get that, Blair? I mean, really get it? You might be able to stop, but you can never go back."
"So?" He grabbed my arm in his excitement. "What makes you think I'm going to want to go back? I mean, do you know the things I'll experience? Everything I'll learn?"
I looked away. I couldn't bear to see all the eagerness, the sheer innocence in his face. "Yeah, Chief, I do."
He tugged impatiently at my shirt sleeve. "So don't you understand what this means to me?"
"I think I do."
He stared at me hard. "So why do you want to keep it from me?"
"I don't. It's just that"
"What? You don't want me to be your partner? Is that it?"
"You know it isn't."
"So what then? You want to keep it all to yourself? Keep me locked out. So you're the only one who's special around here, the only who's needed?"
I could feel my face turning hot. "Don't be a prick, Sandburg."
"That's it, isn't it? The Sentinel of the Great City doesn't want any competition."
I don't know why, but that stung, even though I knew it was just the anger talking. I guess I'd kind of hoped that Blair would always know I only ever want the best for him.
I'm not proud to admit it, but there's a vindictive streak in me that comes out when something really hurts me. That part of me said: Go ahead. Give the little fucker what he wants. That'll teach him. But the clear eye in me could picture what would happen to Blair if I did that, if I let him have his way, if I stood by while he flung himself into this thing he didn't understand. It would be just like what happened to me when I insisted to Incacha that I really did want to be the Sentinel of the Chopec. Over my cold fucking dead body. That was my answer to that.
"Yeah, Blair. That's right," I told him, sarcastically. "I'm keeping it all to myself."
He flipped me off, and he meant it, too. His jaw was set, and his face just kept turning redder and redder.
"Why are you being such a dick about this?" he asked.
"Blair, I swear to God. I'm only trying to look out for you."
"Well, maybe I'm sick of it. Did you ever consider that? I'm a grown man. I don't need you making my decisions for me. Okay?"
"No. Don't. I don't want to hear it. I don't care what your reasons are. I'm asking you to do this for me, to share this with me. I'm supposed to be your best friend. I'm supposed to matter to you."
"You are my best friend, and you know you matter to me. So I'm asking you to trust me, to trust that I know more about this than you do, to accept it when I say I'm only trying to act in your best interest here."
"What could possibly be so horrendous that you feel the need to shield me from it? I mean, is there cutting? Mutilation? Is it dangerous?"
"No. Nothing like that. It's not dangerous, exactly. It's just"
And I almost told him, all of it. I almost blurted out the secrets, the details, so there'd be no more questions, no more discussion. Blair would never be a Shaman, and I'd never have to worry about it ever again.
I don't know why I didn't. Maybe it was a stubborn reverence for the ways of the Chopec. Maybe Incacha's voice still rang a little too loudly in my head, saying he couldn't believe this was me, that I'd turned my back on their ways, on my own people. Or maybe it was simply that there are some things you hold secret so long that the silence becomes a habit that's too hard to break.
In any event, I didn't tell Blair. Maybe I should have. God knows.
"I can't believe you won't give me this," he said, shaking his head, his eyes glittering with rage and disbelief.
Before I could say anything further, he turned on his heel and stormed off to his room. He slammed the door and locked it. I don't know why I hated that so much, but I did. I mean, those French doors are a flimsy pile of shit. I should know. I put them up myself. If I had really wanted to get to him, I could have. I could have torn those doors right off their hinges with my bare hands. I could have forced Blair to deal with me if that's what I'd really wanted.
The thing is: I'd never needed to do anything to get him talk to me before. He'd always been so eager to engage me, on anything and everything, anytime I was willing to open up to him even the least little bit. I'd never even needed to think about how to handle a situation like this. And the truth was that I liked it that way. I never wanted to make him do anything. I just wanted him to want to patch things up between us.
But he didn't. And that really sucked.
At least, he didn't move out. That's what I kept thinking in the week after the blow up. As long as Blair was still there in the loft, I figured I'd be able to make it up to him eventually.
Except, of course, that he's really very stubborn when he's hurt or angry. It's a good thing he doesn't get upset with me any more often than he does. I hate it so much. I hate the cold shoulder and the unnatural silence and the sense of strain that comes between us, blotting out all the usual ease as if it never even existed.
I hated how he started treating me after we had that stupid fight, like I had moved out, like he didn't hear me when I spoke, didn't see me when I was standing right there in front of him. He never once wavered or slipped, either. For someone who can be so all over the place in the normal day-to-day course of things, he's amazingly single-minded in his fury.
And even though I just wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake him so hard that he'd have to talk to me, I didn't.
Instead, I tried the conciliatory approach. I made him breakfast and talked to him about my cases just like nothing was wrong and ignored the fact that he was ignoring me. I tiptoed around the loft when he was working to meet a tight deadline on his grant application. I never said one thing when he left a mildewing heap of damp towels on the bathroom floor, even though I was sure he only did it to test me. I didn't go off on him, not even once. I just kept trying to make nice and hoping for the best and waiting for him to come around. The whole time I kept thinking: Why can't he understand that I'm only doing this for his own good?
But he didn't understand it. He stayed good and pissed for well over a week.
The night things finally changed he was still out when I went to bed. Since we'd been at odds, he'd taken to going out more and more often, staying out even later than usual. Normally, I tended to stay awake until I heard him come in. Even if I was already in bed and starting to drift off, I wouldn't really fall asleep until he was home. Not that there was any real point in it. He certainly didn't need me to wait up for him. He is a grown man, after all. It just helped me sleep better somehow, knowing he was there, tucked away in his room, safe and sound.
That night, well, I don't even know how late it was when he finally dragged himself home. Late. I must have been really tired, because I couldn't keep myself awake. I fell asleep immediately, as soon as I got into bed, practically before my head made contact with the pillow. I guess I was pretty sleep deprived. Ever since he'd started making himself scarce around the loft, I'd been missing out on my rest.
But in retrospect, maybe it was actually something else, something more purposeful, something more metaphysical. Or maybe all this mystical crap I've been through with my senses is starting to color the way I see things. I don't know.
It's just that I had this dream. That's what makes me think it wasn't any accident the way I fell into a near coma the minute I lay down. These dreams of minewell, they usually mean something.
It started right away. My eyes had no more closed than wham!...I was off to never-never land. In my dream, I wandered through the jungle. Big surprise. I don't know why it's always the jungle. I mean, you'd think there would be more than one landscape in my imagination. It kind of bothers me, actually. Dreaming the same thing over and again makes me feel limited in a weird way.
I suppose the good thing about it is that I always seem to know my way around the place. In this dream, I definitely knew where I was going. My stride was brisk, purposeful, even business-like. But I wasn't afraid or on guard in any way. I was just...intently focused, I guess you could say.
Eventually, I reached a clearing. I found a temple there. It looked sort of rundown and forgotten. The stone was smudged and crumbling. There were weeds overtaking the doorway and fallen tree branches littering the ground. It was an odd place. There was something really off about it. I turned all the way around in a circle, scanning with my senses. It took me a moment to figure out what it was. And then it hit me.
Before, as I had been walking through the jungle, I'd heard all the usual sounds, wind rustling through the trees, birds calling, the skittering of animals in the underbrush. But here, it was perfectly silent, like nothing I'd ever experienced. The thing that unnerved me most was that there weren't any sounds coming from me either, even though I was trampling leaves and twigs beneath my feet, even though I can always hear the air currents around my body as I move. I had the weirdest sense of being underwater. There was that kind of stillness, that hushed sort of quality.
I stood there for what felt like an age, just sort of shifting my weight nervously and waiting, wondering what the hell I was doing there, what had drawn me, what I was supposed to do. Eventually, I decided I must be in the wrong place. I was just starting to walk away when I heard Incacha's voice, disrupting the silence like a seismic event, saying my name, calling me back.
"Enqueri, where are you going?"
When I turned around, he was standing right there.
I threw my arms around him and hugged him hard. And I could feel him. He was real. Real. I can't ever remember feeling so relieved in my life.
"Where were you?" I asked him. "I thought We all did. That you were"
"So I am, old friend. I have passed over to the spirit world."
I shook my head, not wanting it to be true. "No. You're here. You're real. I can touch you."
"You will always be able to reach out for me in your dreams, Enqueri."
The pain rushed back, making a home in my chest again. "Oh, God. Incacha, I"
"Do not grieve, Enqueri. I am well. As you can see, I am not so far away."
"I'm sorry I didn't do more to help you. I'm sorry I didn't"
He held up his hand. "Some things are meant to be, Enqueri. Some things end, so that other things may begin. This is the way of life. You know it to be so, even if you do sometimes resist it."
"You're talking about Blair, aren't you?" I asked, suspiciously.
"He has been called. You must not stand in his way."
"Bullshit! He only thinks he's supposed to be a Shaman because you passed on the way to him. Whatever that means. What the hell was that, anyway?"
"He was waiting for a sign. I gave him one."
"Why would you do that?"
"A Guide can only be so much to a Sentinel. A Shaman can be so much more. Do you not remember?"
I looked away. The memories he called up were both good and bad. I wasn't quite sure what to do with them.
"Blair and I were doing fine, just the way we were," I insisted.
"For now, perhaps. The future was not as clear."
"What? You're saying he was going to go his own way? Get tired of the Sentinel thing? So, what then? You saddle him with this huge burden to keep him chained to me? That's a great solution."
"He would not have left of his own accord. You should know that by now. But there were things that would have come between you."
I shook my head. I couldn't look at him.
"You do not believe me, Enqueri? Perhaps you would like to see for yourself?"
I was just about to tell him that, no, I didn't want to see what was going to go wrong between Blair and me. But he held up his hand, and it mesmerized me. In his palm, there was something that looked like an eye. I couldn't look away. Suddenly, it let out an intense flash of bright light, nearly blinding me. I threw up my arms to shield my face.
But even with my eyes closed, I could see. There were pictures of Blair and me, fighting, walking away from each other, the loft empty and desolate, Blair lying still and dead on the ground, me trying to pound the life back into him. I tried not to see it, but everywhere I looked there were bullets, fire, mayhem, bodies, separation, finality, death.
"Stop! Please," I sobbed, begging Incacha, begging anyone who would listen.
"Do you think the two of you could weather all this, separately, as two? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But as one, you will never need to face these trials. As Sentinel and Shaman, such misunderstandings will not be possible, as you very well know."
The pictures stopped, but the tears kept running down my face. "I don't want that. God. Please."
"You know what you must do then."
"But I don't want him to have to make this sacrifice, either. Not for me."
"Not for you, Enqueri. For the greater good."
"But he's already done more than his share. Why does he have to keep taking on bigger and bigger shit? Why?"
"Because he is for you, Sentinel. Do you not want him for your other half?"
"Not at that cost. I don't want him to have to go through what I did."
"Ah, Enqueri, but you survived. And it was necessary. For you, then. And for him, now."
"I don't want to hurt him like that."
"Like I hurt you," he said, with very real sorrow in his voice.
"I forgave you," I told him, quietly.
"As he will forgive you."
I shook my head. "I don't want this for him. He's already changed so much because of me. I don't want him to change anymore," I said, pleadingly.
"You cannot keep him from becoming what he was meant to be. You cannot resist his destiny any more than you could resist your own, Sentinel. He will not let you. He knows what he needs to do. He will fight for it, and he will win. Show the young Shaman how to follow the way. Stay by his side as he takes his first steps. Offer him comfort. This is the most you can do for him. You cannot protect him from the mission he has chosen in this life. If you honestly search your heart, you will know this is so."
With that, he turned and starting walking back toward the jungle.
"Incacha!" Anger flashed through me. "Incacha! Don't you walk away from me, damn it. I'm not finished talking to you. I'm not going to do this. You hear me? I'm not going to!"
But the silence had returned, and it damped out my words. Incacha couldn't hear me. I couldn't even hear myself, not in my ears, not like I was actually making sound. No matter how hard I tried to scream, Incacha didn't stop or turn around. I watched, helpless and frustrated, as he slipped into the dense foliage and disappeared.
"No, Jim. It's Blair. Come on, man. Wake up. You're having a bad dream."
"Come back, Incacha."
"It's okay, Jim. You're okay. Just open your eyes."
Something in me must have heard and understood, because I did wake up. But I was still utterly confused, not to mention freaked out. My heart pounded so wildly in my chest that for a moment I really thought I might be having a heart attack. The sweat practically poured off me, but I couldn't seem to stop shivering. And forget about breathing. I was gulping down air like some old geezer who smoked three packs a day his whole life.
Blair sat on the edge of the bed and watched me. He wasn't wearing his glasses, so he had to lean in and squint to see my face.
"Are you okay, man?" he asked.
I nodded, just beginning to catch my breath. "Yeah. Sorry."
He shook his head. "No. It's okay. "
"I guess I should know by now not to eat at Wonderburger, huh?" I tried to joke.
But Blair, as usual, wasn't having any of it. He got that expression on his facethe one that's a compromise between impatience and pity. It's the same one he always gets whenever he knows I'm trying to avoid something.
"You were screaming Incacha's name," he informed me.
"I was?" I asked, trying to play dumb, to stall.
I didn't know what I was going to do about the damned dream.
"Yeah, you were," he said, thoughtfully.
"I guess he's been on your mind, huh?"
I looked away. "I guess."
"Is that because of me?" he asked.
I sighed. "I just think about him. Okay, Chief? Like I'm sure you must think about Janet."
"Shit, Blair. I'm sorry."
He shook his head. "No, you're right. I do think about her. She was my friend. And she died trying to help me. She deserves to have me think about her."
"Please don't start blaming yourself again, Chief. You know it wasn't your fault."
"Yeah," he said. "And you know it's not your fault, either. About Incacha, I mean."
"Don't, Chief. Please."
"I'm sorry I've been such a prick about this whole Shaman business. I just really wanted it, so I didn't think about how you might feel or why. But I can really understand how it might seem like I'm trying to take Incacha's place. And of course, that would hurt you. He was your friend, and you're still grieving for him. And no one could ever replace him. I would never even try. I just didn't realize how it might seem to you, Jim. I'm really sorry, man. I can't believe I was so insensitive."
"That's not it, Blair. Really. I never thought you were trying to take Incacha's place. That's not my problem with it."
"Then I don't understand. Why don't you want me to become a Shaman? What were you dreaming? Why were you calling out for Incacha?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
He touched my arm. "It's important, Jim. Please. Don't shut me out."
There was something in the way he stared at me, like his whole world was riding on what I was going to say. And suddenly, it didn't feel like I had any choices.
I took a deep breath. "Incacha was telling me not to stand in your way."
I felt him go rigid. "What?"
"He said it's your destiny."
"He did? Really?"
I nodded. "There was a temple in this clearing. He just kind of showed up and started telling me all this stuff."
"Wait. So you were in the jungle in your dream?"
I nodded. I could feel him getting more and more excited.
"Oh my God, Jim. Do you think this was one of your visions?"
I shrugged. "I really don't know, Chief."
"So what are you going to do?" he asked.
I looked at him and tried to decide. Something about his near-sightedness made his expression even more naked than usual. It was like I could see the whole history of Blair J. Sandburg written there in his face, in those big, blinking blue eyes of his. I could see the wishes that nobody ever made come true, all the promises gone back on, way too many disappointments. And finally, I just couldn't be another person who failed him.
"I guess I'm going to do what Incacha said. Get out of your way."
The way his face lit upit hurt me to see it. He looked like a kid on Christmas, and I wished to God there was some way I could convince him that this wasn't the gift he thought it was.
"You're really going to help me become a Shaman?" he asked, sounding so young in his excitement.
He smiled, luminously, like a whole night sky full of stars just suddenly started shining out of his face. "Thank you, Jim! Thank you so much."
I put my hand over his, to keep him from yanking my arm off in his enthusiasm. "But do me a favor, okay?"
He went still, and his face turned solemn. "Anything."
"Just really think about it, huh? I can't prepare you for it. Not for the ritual or what it will be like to become a Shaman. I hate that. But it's got to be a leap of faith or it won't happen."
He nodded. "You know, I kind of wondered why you didn't just spill it, so I couldn't pass the test."
"Part of me wanted to. But the rest of me couldn't do that, couldn't ruin your chance, not if this is what you really, really want. But, Blair, please. You know enough about things like this from your work. I need you to think seriously about whether you really want to do this or not."
He stopped to consider it, but only for a moment. "It is. I don't know how to convince you, but I'm not jumping into this half-assed. Man, I swear. There's something in me that just feels so sure that this is right, that it's meant to be."
It was the answer I expected from him, but it left a heavy feeling in my gut anyway.
"Okay," I told him. "Then we'll do it."
"When?" he asked.
"This weekend. We'll go up to that spot I know in the mountains, the one I've always been meaning to show you. Not too many people know about it. Nobody will bother us there."
He smiled. "Cool, man. What do I need to bring?"
I shook my head. "Just your gear. I'll take care of the rest."
"Okay," he said, getting up from the bed. "Sounds good. God. I can't wait."
He lingered by the side of my bed. I could feel the anticipation churning off him. It was like heat lightning, if human beings had weather. I'm sure he could have stayed up all night talking about it.
Finally, though, he said, "Well, I guess I should let you get back to sleep. But, Jim, thanks, man. I don't know how to tell you how grateful I am. I mean, I know this goes against your better judgment. But I just really, really appreciate your trusting me like this, trusting that I really do know what I want. Letting me make the decision." He smiled and waved his hand in the air. "But this can wait until morning. I shouldn't keep you up."
He turned to go. I reached out for his arm.
He turned back to me.
"I just want you to know you can change your mind, okay? You don't have to be embarrassed or feel pressured to go through with it. We can always stop, at any point. All you have to do is say the word, and that's the end of it."
He nodded. "Thanks, man. I appreciate the thought. But I'm not going to change my mind. I'm sure about this like I've never been sure about anything in my whole life."
He said goodnight, and I watched him head down the stairs. I didn't have any doubts either. I knew he'd go through with it no matter what. I just wished to God that he wouldn't.
It was like riding along with a wind-up toy in the truck the whole way to the national forest. That's how eager Blair was. I'd wondered how he would make it through the almost two hours it took to get there. I should have realized all his restless energy would come out in constant motion. He fidgeted. He drummed his fingers on the dashboard. He bounced his foot so nervously it vibrated the seat and made me feel seasick. I couldn't tune it out, either. There was only so far I could dial down my sense of touch while I was driving and still be safe.
He didn't talk, though. And that's why I didn't yell at him about the squirming. Despite his gung-ho attitude, his silence told me that the gravity of his choice had finally registered with him. He really only gets quiet when something's weighing on his mind. I hoped that if I left him to his solitude and his thoughts he might come to his senses. Not that I really expected it or anything. But I just couldn't help hoping.
I didn't have much to say, either. There was nothing out of the ordinary about that. What was unusual, though, was how much I truly dreaded this weekend. Ordinarily, these camping trips of ours were a pure pleasurewell, as long as we didn't stumble onto drug traffickers or survivalist wackos armed to the teeth plotting world domination out in the middle of nowhere. We have had some bad luck in the past. But for the most part, it's always been relaxing, peaceful, the two of us kicking back together, totally in sync. That's not how this trip was going to be, and the thought of it made me grip the steering wheel like it was my life I was holding onto. It made me stare out the windshield like I was navigating a minefield instead of the familiar Route 60.
It didn't help that the pack stowed next to me was a constant reminder of what I was going to put Blair through. My best friend. It just seemed so wrong.
Some of the things I was able to pick up at the drug store. The reststuff I never would have been able to find in this country, some of which wasn't even legal had come from the Chopec. After Incacha's death, the others had given me a small bundle he had carried with him from Peru. It contained everything I'd need to initiate Blair. Incacha, the son of a bitch, must have known before he ever even got on that ship that he wasn't going to make it home again. And he went ahead and came to Cascade anyway, just accepting the end of his life like a sheep going off to slaughter. Because he believed it was his destiny and that was that.
And Blair wonders why I hate this mystical shit so much sometimes.
Anyway, we eventually made it to the spot where I always park the truck. We pulled out our gear, locked up and headed out. I led the way. It was maybe a forty-five minute hike, not too hard, although there were a few tricky spots where the trail had eroded a bit and we needed to watch our footing. When we crested the last ridge, I stopped for a minute to give Blair a chance to take in the view.
"Oh, my God," he said.
"It's" He waved his hand. "Breathtaking is the only word I can come up with."
"I thought you'd like it," I told him.
He shook his head. "Who wouldn't? I can't believe more people don't come here."
I shrugged. "I don't know why they don't. I guess we're just lucky."
He smiled. "You said it."
I smiled back. And I savored the feeling, like a man facing starvation might linger over a good meal. It was the last little bit of unclouded happiness I was going to have with Blair, at least for some time to come.
I led him the last of the way down the trail to the place I always make camp. There was a stream not far away, with a spot where the water pools deep and still, good for swimming and bathing. We unloaded our gear and set up camp. We'd done this so many times that it took no words, no directions to one another. We worked side-by-side, seamlessly, efficiently. Blair got the fire going, and we sat down to lunch. I had a sandwich and some fruit we'd brought from home. Blair had a bottle of vegetable juice he'd gotten at the local whole foods store and some water out of the canteen. He'd been on a strict juice fast for the last five days in preparation for the ritual.
He managed to wait until after we'd cleaned up and everything was in good order before he grew impatient.
"So," he said, the anticipation practically pouring off him. "When do you we start? Now?"
I nodded. "Yeah. I guess so. If you're ready."
"Yeah, yeah. I'm ready. Let's do it. How do we begin?"
I reached for my pack. "I've got everything we need here."
"What do you want me to do?"
"To start, Chief, you need to take your clothes off."
He stared at me, taken aback. It obviously wasn't what he'd been expecting.
"It's symbolic," I explained to him. "It represents your openness to receiving the wisdom of the ancients, the purity of your commitment to seeking the truth."
"Oh. Okay," he said, still sounding unsure.
But he started to unbutton his shirt anyway, even though his hands were shaking.
"Remember you don't have to do this if you don't want to," I told him.
He shook his head. "No, no. I'm okay."
He removed his clothes and laid them in a little pile inside the tent. I tried not to stare at him. I knew it was making him painfully self-conscious to be naked in front of me while I was still fully clothed. But Blair had always been so modest. He never ran around at home half dressed the way I did hell, the way most men did. I had to admit to myself that I'd always been curious about his body. Now that I finally had the chance to see him, I couldn't look away. He was very hairy, as I had expected, more powerfully built than I would have thought, and very nicely endowed. Beautiful, not surprisingly.
"Purification of the body is the first step," I told him. "We need to go down to the stream, so you can bathe."
"Uh, you mean like this?" he asked, sounding alarmed.
"There's nobody here but us, Chief. I promise. Not for miles and miles. I'd hear them if there were."
He still looked rather unconvinced. "Well, I guess so," he gave in, reluctantly.
"Trust me. I won't let anything happen to you."
He nodded, and the doubt cleared away from his face. "Okay. I mean, I know that. I do."
"So how about we go take care of the bath, huh?" I asked, my voice half choked.
No one had ever trusted me the way Blair did. It only made what was coming all the more difficult.
"Yeah. Let's go," he said.
I grabbed the pack, and we headed to the stream, to the place where the water was the most calm.
Blair stuck his toe in. "Damn, it's cold," he said.
"Yeah. You know how it is up here in the mountains, even in the dead of summer."
"Feels more like it's January than July."
"Just take your time and get used to it little by little."
He nodded. "Okay. I can do that."
He started wading slowly into the water. I could hear his teeth chattering as I pulled the stuff he'd need out of the pack. The ritual cleansing had to be as thorough as possible. I'd bought the best quality, all-natural products I could find, nothing that would leave a scent or a residue. I'd picked up the items at the upscale pharmacy Blair had discovered when he'd gone looking for toiletries that wouldn't irritate my senses. I'd selected for him an unscented oatmeal soap, a new, soft white cotton washcloth, a luffa, unscented shampoo, baking soda for his teeth and a new toothbrush. Everything had to be unused and pristine, so he would be properly prepared for the ritual.
Blair waded out until the water reached his waist. I rolled up the cuffs of my pants and went out far enough to hand him the bath items.
"You need to really scrub," I told him. "Everywhere."
He blushed, but nodded. He wouldn't look at me while he washed, especially when he cleaned the private places. I glanced off to the side to give him at least the illusion of privacy, but I kept watch out of the corner of my eye. I had to make sure he did a thorough enough job.
The ritual was demanding. It put a great strain on the body. I had heard stories when I lived among the Chopec of seekers who had not taken enough pains to purify themselves. Some of them had fallen gravely ill and even died as a result. Or so they said. Cautionary tales were a part of Chopec culture, a way of teaching children the value of things like patience and preparedness. So maybe none of that ever happened. Maybe it was all just a story. But then again, maybe it had happened, after all. I wasn't going to take any chances, not with Blair's life. There was no way in hell I was going to let anything happen to him, not if I could prevent it.
So I made him scrub and scrub and scrub. The last step was to clean his mouth. He made a totally disgusted face as he brushed his teeth with the baking soda, but he kept at it until I told him he could stop.
Finally, he was as ready as he was ever going to be. I pulled a towel out of the pack, a new one that had never been used, the softest cotton I could find. He rinsed off one last time and then made his way back to the bank. I held out the towel for him. He reached to take it from me, but I shook my head.
"The Sentinel does this for his perspective Shaman," I told him. "It signifies your willingness to trust me."
He hesitated a moment, but then he nodded. I began to dry him, keeping my touch light and gentle so I wouldn't spook him. I could still feel his body trembling, though. He was shaking pretty hard, so it didn't exactly take Sentinel senses to pick it up. I didn't know if it was from the cold or from fear. Or from my touch. He kept his eyes lowered, so there was really no way to tell.
For my part, I just tried to concentrate on what I was doingtaking care of him, getting him ready for what he was about to face. I worked really hard to tamp down all the tangled, sweltering emotions that touching him stirred up in me. Cotton towel or no cotton towel, it was like caressing him all over his body, and it did things to me, erotic things. Still, what I wanted didn't mean shit. Maybe it would be different somewhere down the line when all this was safely behind us. But here, now, the only thing that mattered was Blair, what he was facing, what he needed.
"Okay," I said, when I'd finished drying him. "Let's go back to camp."
"What do we do then?" he asked.
His voice was more subdued now, sober, cautious. The reality of it was truly hitting him.
"I mark you," I said.
He looked alarmed, but he didn't argue or ask a million questions, like he usually would have. He just turned and headed back to camp. I quickly bagged up the cleaning supplies and followed him.
When we got back to the site, I laid down a blanket, one of Chopec design, by the fire, and motioned for Blair to have a seat. He was completely silent now, lost in his own thoughts. I knelt down on the ground beside him, opened the pack and began arranging the things we'd need for the ceremony.
I took out two bowls, Chopec pottery, decorated with ritual symbols. I filled the first with a piece of bread. I'd picked up the loaf at the one bakery in Cascade that sells Peruvian baked goods close to the kind made by Chopec women. I also pulled out a sealed glass bottle, one of the things Incacha had brought with him for me. I uncorked it and poured the liquid into the second bowl.
Blair watched me intently, taking in every move, every detail. I placed the bowls in front of him, and he looked at me with big, questioning eyes.
I put my hand on his forehead and said a short Chopec chant, asking the ancient ones to walk with him during his quest. Blair had been studying Quechua like a maniac since I'd promised to help him follow the way of the Shaman. He understood enough to get the gist of what I was saying.
I held up the first bowl to him. "This symbolizes your commitment to the earth, to your tribe, to your Sentinel, to yourself, to this world and this life. Eat and make that responsibility a part of you."
He took the bread and ate it.
I put down that bowl and picked up the other. "This shows you the way to the next world, to the place beyond, to the spirits, to the ancient wisdom. Drink and let your eyes be opened."
He took the bowl from me and tilted it back, draining the contents.
I stood up and gestured for him to stand, as well. He got to his feet, a little shakily. I pulled out the paint pots and opened them. I stood in front of him, and his eyes grew huge as I touched my fingers to his face and began to draw the symbols.
"Blue for the sky. For the knowledge that comes from a higher source."
I dipped my fingers into the yellow and ran them down his arms in sweeps and swirls. "Ochre for the strength of will to do what must be done."
Finally, I traced the ancient pattern onto his chest. "Red for the heart. So that it may lead you along the true path."
As I touched Blair's chest and belly, his penis began to harden. He looked down at it and then up at me, bewildered and embarrassed.
"I'm sorry," he said, his voice shaky and confused. "I don't know what's wrong with me."