Blair opened his eyes, saw fire, and seven shamans. He started to shake, but none of them moved, they only gazed at him as though from far above.
"How does this help me?" he demanded. "What are you telling me? Jim is not going to die."
"All men die," the Siberian said.
"Your visions are your own," the Chinese woman said. "We do not send them."
"But what does it mean? Jim can't die."
"Perhaps you see what you fear," Incacha offered. "Enqueri saw much darkness in his visions, yet what he feared did not come to pass."
"You mean I can stop it? I can keep Jim from dying?"
His younger self raised his head. "Not if you're not there, man."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"Are you certain?" Scarf-woman asked.
"Yes. I know where my heart is."
"Prove it," the Siberian barked.
She threw something onto the fire. Smoke engulfed him, and Blair felt himself rising from the ground. Carried on the smoke, he passed through the tent roof and floated up, higher, higher, until he could no longer see the tent.
His feet touched solid ground, and the smoke dissipated. Blair swore, and jerked back. He stood on the edge of a cliff. To his right, a waterfall roared. Far below, dark water waited, jagged rocks thrusting up through the surface. Before him, a rope bridge stretched across the gap, so narrow that a crosser would have to set one foot in front of the other. The guide rope looked no thicker than twine and just as apt to break. On the other side, six of the seven shamans waited. His younger self was--
"Right here, man."
Blair jumped, and tried not to think murder. Or would it be suicide? "Don't do that!"
"Sorry. You know what's going on here, right?"
"Yeah. This is a test." Blair inched a little closer to the edge. "What if I can't do it?"
"No big deal. You'll just be back where you were before Incacha passed the way to you."
"Will I still be able to help Jim?"
"This isn't about Jim, my brother. It's not about friendship, either. It's about you. Who are you?"
His younger self disappeared. Blair peered over the edge again. Oh, God. It was a long way down. But, hey, at least he knew this was a vision and nothing could really happen to him. Right?
He tore his gaze from the rocks below. Okay, Blair, you can do this. You have to do this. No matter what his other self said, there was no real choice. He needed to be a shaman. He needed to help Jim. How much of that was his own need and not Jim's, he could think about later. Right now, he had a string to cross.
Blair took a deep breath, and slid one foot onto the rope. It prickled his bare skin, but felt strong enough. He grabbed the guide rope, squeezed his eyes shut for a second, and hauled himself onto the bridge. The bridge swayed. He clutched the guide rope with both hands, surprised that it didn't snap from the tension. Sweat was already beading on his face.
"Oh God oh God oh God oh God. I don't think I can do this. I don't--"
Blair shut his mouth. He was going to do this. He was on the bridge; it was holding him. All he had to do was move. Straight line. One foot in front of the other. Easy. Anyone could do it. Jim would do it without a second thought, and Jim was a lot heavier than he was. He could do this. If he could just get his foot to work again. Right now, it seemed to be paralyzed, along with the rest of his body. Dammit, move!
Slowly, Blair lifted his right foot and placed it ahead of his left. Okay, good. He did the same with his left foot, and slid his hands along the guide rope, making sure one always had a good grip. Great. He was moving. He wasn't looking down; that would be bad. He wasn't trying to look back, to see how far away from the cliff he was. He wasn't looking forward, either. His gaze was locked on the guide rope, where it was staying, no matter what. He liked the guide rope. The guide rope was his friend.
Oh, swell, now hysteria was setting in. He did not need that. Calm down, Blair, there's no reason for panic. You're doing this. You're fine. Everything's cool. Really. A little rope-burn is a good thing.
Right foot, left foot, slide. Right foot, left foot, slide. Great. Great. You've got the rhythm now, you've got all the moves, baby. This is cool. This is good. Right foot, left foot, slide. Just dont get cocky. Cocky's bad. Cocky leads to trouble. Right foot, left foot, slide. Right foot, left foot--
Something snapped. Blair's head jerked up, and he froze in place. What the hell was that? He ran his eyes along the guide rope. Was that a strand of fiber hanging loose at the other end? No, couldn't be. Couldn't be. He was supposed to get across. That was the test, right? Right?
Right foot. Left foot. Slide. Right foot. Left foot. Slide. Right foo--
Another strand snapped. The guide rope felt wrong now; there was too much give. Blair raised his eyes to the shamans on the other side. They watched without expression. Except, of course, for his younger self. That bastard was grinning, as always. He had never been like that.
Blair returned his gaze to the rope. The shamans were not going to help him. But he was more than halfway across. He could do this. He just had to move a little faster, a little smoother, try not to jar the guide rope so no more strands would--
A third strand broke. A fourth. Oh, God. Oh, God. He was going to die again. Real or not, it was still going to suck. But he wasn't going to stand here. He wasn't just going to wait for it. He was going to cross this damn bridge.
Right, left, right, left, and another strand broke, but he didn't stop, he didn't even slow down. Right, left, right, left, right, left--
Gunshots--one-two-three! The last strands snapped, and the guide rope plummeted. He dropped it and kept going, but the loss of the guide rope set the bridge swaying wildly and he was no tightrope walker. Blair pitched over, grabbed for the bridge, missed. Falling! Oh God, he was falling! The water churned, the rocks rushing up to rip him apart, and he closed his eyes, couldnt look, didn't want to see.
"Progress report, man. How am I doing? Do I make a good you?"
Blair's eyes flew open. Oh my God, this wasn't happening, this could not be happening, but it was Lash, in that crummy wig and his old coat with the patch on the sleeve where Kincaid's men had almost shot him, and he was chained in the dentist's chair, but there was no warehouse, no candles, everything was dark around them and only Lash was illuminated, a psychotic beacon.
"You suck!" Blair spat. "You think you can be me? When's my birthday? Huh? What was the name of my first girlfriend? How old was I when I broke my arm falling out of Mrs. Danbush's tree? Huh? Come on, you freak, answer me!"
Lash just stared at him. Something snapped inside, and he wasn't afraid anymore, he was angry, angry that he was going through this again, angry that they were making him, angry that he'd ever had to go through it in the first place.
"You can't be me! Only I think what I think, feel what I feel!"
"I can be you," Lash declared.
"No! Only I can be me!"
"Who are you?"
"I'm Blair Sandburg, dammit!"
"Exactly." Younger self patted his shoulder. "Man, I thought you'd never get it."
He wanted to punch the grin off his face. But he had the sneaking suspicion that if he did, he'd be the one to end up with the bruises. Seething, he glared from shaman to shaman. They were unimpressed.
"What the hell kind of test was that? You rigged it against me!"
"It's not about winning, man," his younger self said. "It's about commitment."
Younger Blair shrugged. "Whatever."
"Okay, so I passed, right? I'm committed. Or I should be. Are we done now?"
"Chill," his younger self said. "You asked for this, remember?"
"Yeah." Blair sighed, and the tension drained from his body. "I did. This is good. It's all good. I hope."
The shamans again formed a semi-circle, assuming their former places. Blair faced them, trying not to wonder what could possibly be next. The Chinese woman approached him, silk robes rustling. From her sleeve, she took something small and green, which she handed to Blair. It was a piece of jade, less than two inches across, carved in the shape of a lotus flower.
"It is a shaman's duty to see," she said. "Open your eyes, initiate."
She returned to her place, and the Aboriginal man stepped forward, leaning on a staff taller than he was. He showed Blair a double-pointed quartz crystal about two inches long, but didn't give it to him. Instead, he reached up and patted the top of Blair's head. Blair smiled at him. The old man smiled back, and slammed his hand down on Blair's head, driving the crystal into his skull.
"Ow!" Blair ducked away from him, frantically feeling for blood. He didn't find any. He didn't even find a wound. He glared at the old man, to no effect.
"It is a shaman's duty to dream," the Aborigine said. "Dream wonders, maker."
Scarf-woman swayed, smiling. She took the yellow scarf from her head and draped it around Blair's neck.
"It is a shaman's duty to love." She stroked his cheek. "Know your heart, sweet Blair."
He blushed. She laughed, and kissed him lightly on the mouth before returning to the others. Struggling to keep a straight face, the Cheyenne moved forward. He pressed a tiny leather pouch into Blair's hand: a medicine bag.
"It is a shaman's duty to choose. Choose wisely, wolf-brother."
The Siberian clanked and clanged, halted inches away. Shorter than Blair, she still managed to look down her nose at him. She yanked a piece of metal from her costume and held it out to him. Blair took it from her. It was a charm, roughly fashioned in the shape of a wolf.
"It is a shaman's duty to know," she rasped. "Learn well, wolfcub. If you can."
She turned her back on him. Incacha waited politely for her to resume her place. He clasped Blair's left arm, as he had just before he died. This time, Blair didn't try to pull away. This time, he wasn't afraid. Incacha smiled. He tugged a slender, curling red feather from one of his braids and laid it across Blair's palm.
"It is a shaman's duty to guide," he said softly. "Show your sentinel the way, shaman."
"I'll try," Blair said, the only answer he had felt compelled to give.
Incacha went back to the semi-circle. Blair's younger self bounded over, rolling his eyes.
"Forget all that duty stuff. Just be you, man." He leaned close, and whispered, "Nothing's written in stone."
"That's profound," Blair said. "I'll add it to my notes."
His younger self laughed. He reached up, plucked the gold star from his forehead, and pressed it to Blair's. Grinning, he stepped forward. Blair braced for a collision, but his younger self had become insubstantial. Their bodies merged, and Blair was left with six other shamans. He looked from one to the other, and smiled.
Blair opened his eyes. Sunlight sparkled on the blue water before him. He stretched his upper body and straightened his legs, letting out a groan. Man, he was stiff. Must be getting old if he couldn't meditate for a few hours without getting sore. But God, he felt good. Better than he had in a long time.
A flash of red caught his eye, and he turned his head, expecting to see a flower. Caught on a twig, a red feather fluttered, though there was no wind. Blair took the feather into his hand, stroked it gently. This couldn't be a coincidence. The feather had to be Incacha's gift to him.
Time to go. Jim was waiting. Blair pulled on his clothes. He put the feather in his pocket, took a last look around, and climbed back up the slope. Jim met him at the top.
"Everything okay, Chief?"
He smiled. "Everything's good, Jim."
"I was getting ready to go haul you out of there."
"Why?" Jim echoed. "Three days, Chief."
"Three days?" Blair shook his head. Well, that explained the stiffness.
"Did you get what you needed?" Jim asked.
"Yeah. Yeah, I did."
"Anything you want to talk about?"
"Not yet, man, I've gotta process first. Let's just go home."
Blair watched while Jim packed up his meager camp and extinguished the fire. He didn't offer to help, and Jim didn't seem to expect it of him. There was too much in his head, too much to think about, to consider, to--he laughed softly at himself--analyze. When Jim was done, they set off into the jungle, back toward the town, the airport, and home.
"This is gonna sound strange, but there isn't by any chance a gold star on my forehead, is there?"
"Man, it feels good to be home."
Blair dumped his backpack on the floor and shrugged out of his coat. Jim grabbed it from him before it hit the floor too, and hung it on one of the hooks. Blair never even paused. He just staggered on, into the living room, where he flopped onto the couch. Laying his head back on the cushions, he closed his eyes and just breathed.
Jim sat down beside him, watching him. Blair still hadn't talked about whatever he'd experienced, but something had definitely changed. He was smiling a lot more, which could only be good. But when he wasn't sleeping, he usually had a dreamy, thoughtful look in his eyes that Jim wasn't sure he liked.
Blair must have felt his gaze. He opened his eyes and smiled. "What's up, Jim?"
"You tell me, Chief."
"It was amazing, man." His eyes sparkled, for God's sake. "Transcendent."
"All your problems solved?"
"No. Picked up a few more, actually. But it's okay. It'll work out." Blair ran a hand through his hair. "I've decided to go to the academy."
Jim tried not to sound triumphant. "Good."
"Yeah, well, I can't be an observer anymore, and someone's gotta keep an eye on you."
"That's your job, huh?"
"You got that right, man."
"Does this mean you know who you are now?"
"Yeah." Blair sat up straight and stuck out his hand. "How ya doin'? I'm Blair Sandburg."
Jim shook his hand, matching Blair's grin with one of his own. "Jim Ellison. And I'm doing great."
Blair yanked him into a hug. Jim froze for a second, then put his arms around his partner and patted his back awkwardly. He didn't let go. This was long overdue.
"So am I, my brother," Blair said. "So am I."