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DROWNING


Jane Leavell

He was swimming up to the surface, but it was so very far away that he didn't think he d make it. Everything hurt. Everything was blurred, ripples distorting the images, and sometimes what he saw was erased by a wave cascading over it. That was funny, somehow, he knew it ought to be funny--funny ha-ha, not just strange--but he couldn't put the pieces together. All he could do was keep swimming to the surface.

There had been a voice, a voice speaking interminably. He d tried to make it go away, but it wouldn't.

"Blair?"

He burst through the bubble like breaking the surface of the ocean, his ears popping.

"Blair, can you hear me?"

Maybe he really was in the ocean, because now his lungs felt full, and he started coughing. Gentle hands helped him sit up, bent him over his knees, and patted his back as he wheezed. It seemed to take forever. It felt like he'd come this close to drowning, but when his eyes focused, he wasn't anywhere near water. He was in a bed, and there was a mermaid leaning over him, tipping his face up.

He blinked away the tears. "Sorry. Having trouble breathing."

"You were having that nightmare again, weren't you?" The golden-haired mermaid squeezed his shoulders hard. "That s a good thing, Blair, really. The doctors said it s a sign your memory is trying to come back."

His memory? He hadn't lost his memory, had he? Of course not. My name is Blair, he thought triumphantly. Surely remembering that proved he wasn't suffering from amnesia. Except she d called him Blair three times already, so of course he knew that was his name. Try something more difficult, Darwin, like where you are now. And who she is.

Squinting up at her, he tried some names. Carolyn. Cassie. Megan. None of them seemed to fit. Hesitantly, he rasped, "A-Alex?"

"There, you see? The last time you woke up, you thought I was your mother."

"Naomi," he suggested, pleased to have the name fall so trippingly from his tongue.

"That s right. Naomi."

"Is she here?" Blair twisted away from the comforting arms, trying to survey the room.

"No, we weren't able to find her when you when it happened. She s somewhere in Tibet, meditating. Remember?"

Well, no, not really, but it sounded like something Naomi would be doing. Reassured, Blair gave the room a quick study, and was even more comforted to see that he wasn't in a hospital after all. He was in a large bedroom, with timber walls and a window overlooking mighty pine trees. The window had dark varnished wooden shutters instead of curtains. He himself was in the massive wooden four-poster bed with spindle posts, and the mermaid was sitting in a matching rocking chair--except that she wasn't a mermaid, she was a blonde woman in a green satin nightgown--and there were plastic bottles of pills and potions littering the top of the matching night-stand. Definitely not a hospital room, but it bore a vague resemblance to something out of a rerun of Bonanza.

The scary thing was, it didn't seem to be the least bit familiar.

"Amnesia?" he asked Alex. "I have amnesia?"

She patted his hand. "Nothing serious. The doctors say it s a combination of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and well, you went without oxygen for several minutes. You've made a great comeback, and you re going to keep getting better. I see a difference every day. Really."

Blair felt little bumps running up his arm, and wished he hadn't wakened. "Why was I without oxygen?"

Those blue eyes were like water, shimmering but obscure. "Tell me what you remember."

"My name is Blair Sandburg. And you're Alex." She waited, but he felt like a little boy afraid he was going to flunk the test. After a moment he asked in a small voice, "Was I drowning?"

Alex moved very close to him, her eyes locked with his, her voice low but very certain. "I got to you in time, Blair, and we're safe here. We're up in the mountains, where no one can find us, and I ll take care of you until you're better, and then you'll take care of me."

The way he felt right now, it was going to be a lifetime before he was up to taking care of anybody, but it was hard to disagree with her. Her hand gently stroked his cheek, then wrapped itself in one of his curls and tugged.

"Lie back down and see if you can sleep. You're still weak."

A wave of dizziness washed over him, as if triggered by her words, but he didn't want to succumb. Closing his eyes would bring a return to the darkness, leave him drowning again, alone and terrified in the dark. "I'm okay. I want to stay awake, okay?"

As if he hadn't spoken, Alex released the curl and picked up a tablespoon and plastic bottle instead, concentrating on pouring out a thick colorless liquid. Maybe he hadn't spoken loud enough. Blair tried again.

"Work. Don't I, uh, have to be at work? Soon?"

Alex hesitated. "Do you remember where you work?"

He hesitated, too. "The university. In Cascade. I m a graduate student. A teacher." His voice became firmer. "I teach."

Her smile was warm and gratifying. Now he felt like a little boy about to be given a piece of candy. "That's wonderful, Blair! It is coming back to you."

Blair nodded emphatically. "I'm better. I can stay up. Talk."

The spoon pressed unrelentingly against his lips. "The doctors prescribed medicine and rest, and it's working. We're not going to stop now."

"But--"

As soon as Blair's lips parted, the tablespoon tipped, and he choked on the thick oily fluid oozing down his throat. It tasted horrible, worse even than the time he and Spotted Owl munched on eyeballs from roadkill, goading each other into their own imaginary Indian manhood ritual. At least this time their parents weren't going to find them throwing up and punish them for general stupidity.

Alex brushed his hair back from his face, her touch soft. "We'll talk tomorrow, Blair. We'll have all the time in the world to talk, now." Her face was getting unfocused now, blurred, as if seen through a layer of water. "Sweet dreams, sugar...."

=#=#=#=#=#

How am I supposed to get any sleep, when that voice keeps nagging at me? Hey, you. Shut up. Shut up. SHUT UP!

Maybe he shouldn't argue. Fighting back is dangerous. It s always better to play along and talk fast while you evaluate your options. Running is good, too. Because...what if the voice comes attached to a gun?

As if that idea were a trip-wire, it produced a terrifying image. He had opened a door, and found himself face-to-face with a man a big man, broad-shouldered and big-handed and the man was very angry. Those blue eyes were drilling into him, diamond-hard and just as unyielding. One arm was bound to his chest in a blue sling but there was a black, gleaming, very deadly gun in Blair s face, the muzzle looking to be about cannon-size from his point of view. One twitch of the finger on that gun's trigger, and it would be goodbye, Blair Sandburg, hello, one hell of a messy corpse

"NO!"

Blair found himself sitting bolt upright, coughing and gasping for breath. "Oh, man. No."

"Blair?"

"Alex?" He ran a hand over his face. "Man, I m sorry, I didn't mean to yell."

"What s wrong?"

He squinted, but in the moonlight he could only make out glints of golden hair and a negligee that was colorless in the darkness. Somehow he got the cough back under control. "I had a nightmare. Sorry."

She glided to the edge of the bed. When he bent back to look up at her, it wasn't only the darkness that made her face hard to read. She seemed closed off from him, remote somehow. "About what?"

"I don t know, some guy some guy with a gun. He was really mad. I thought--I thought he was going to shoot me."

Just saying it started him shivering as though he had hypothermia. Alex sat on the edge of the bed and ran her hand up his arm and around his shoulder, pulling him close, relaxing.

"It's okay, baby. He can't find you. Trust me."

"It was real? It wasn't a dream?"

She pushed him back against the pillow, stretching out with him. "You need your sleep."

"Yeah, but I don't think I can sleep, not after that."

"Try," she murmured. Her lips brushed his forehead, and for some reason he flinched back, inexplicably frightened. She stopped, her voice cool. "Blair?"

"Storry. Just leftovers from the dream, I guess. Who was that guy, Alex?"

She rolled on top of him, the ice melting, and grinned. "I'll tell you in the morning. Tonight, we have better things to think about, don't we?"

Blair's arms folded around her, and she chuckled, a deep purring sound from the chest. Their lips met, then she pulled away, rubbing her cheek against his. He stroked her back, and she arched under his hands, her tongue darting out to lick his ear, his cheek, his chin. Her hands rubbed against his chest hair, the fingers tightening and then closing again.

"Owww!"

"Awwww, poor baby. Are you still sore there?" She nuzzled his chest, lapping at one nipple with her tongue. "Let mama kiss it and make it all better."

This was not the way his mother used to comfort him after a nightmare, but Blair already suspected it was going to prove a lot more effective.

Alex was right. The Bogey Man with the gun could wait until morning.

=#=#=#=#=#

The irritable cries of blue jays woke him in the morning, and Blair opened his eyes to early morning sunlight. Lying still and alone in the bed, he assessed himself clinically. He was still coughing occasionally, but his chest didn't feel congested. He felt more alert today, his thoughts less cloudy. Alex hadn't given him any more of that greasy medicine, and that might have something to do with it. He had never approved of messing up the body chemistry; "if it ain't broken, don't 'fix' it" was his motto, which was better than anything DARE had come up with lately. Maybe he could talk Alex into letting him substitute something more organic today.

Alex said he'd been oxygen-deprived. That could do serious brain damage, but he didn't feel damaged. My name is Blair Sandburg, he told himself, and my mother is Naomi, and I teach anthropology at Rainier University, and--and--

And he could remember the courses he'd taught, the students he worked with, the books he'd read, the dates he'd enjoyed many, many dates with many, many different women, a veritable potpourri of femininity but he was skittish about going any deeper than that. It was as though he felt safer not knowing, safer floating on the surface. Diving too deep could dredge up something awful.

One thing was sure, he wasn't the type to lie around in bed doing nothing. Cautiously, Blair threw off the warm flannel sheets and blankets and let his feet hit the floor. Geez, the floorboards were cold. Why couldn't they stay somewhere warm, like California?

When the room stopped looking like a Tilt-a-Whirl ride at the carnival, he eased himself to his feet and stretched. His muscles felt cramped and disused, and his chest and rib-cage ached as if he'd been the loser in a fist fight. A big fist fight. When he looked down, he could see a pattern of ugly blue-black bruises under the chest hair.

"This is so not me," Blair murmured. Wasn't his motto always 'make love, not war'? Or even 'he who lies and runs away lives to play another day'?

Shuffling to the table in the right-hand corner of the room, he sat down a little more heavily than he had intended and angled the mirror to peer at his own face. It was him, all right, as if there had ever been any doubt. The long dark brown curls were loose around his face, badly in need of a good brushing. The smoky blue eyes that met his were curious but quite familiar. He stroked his chin. When had he started growing a beard? That had to go, man. Between the beard and the hair, he looked like the younger brother of St. Peter.

"Admiring yourself, Sleeping Beauty?"

Blair turned and smiled at Alex, then realized he was stark staring naked and tried to hide himself in both hands. "Uh, Alex, do I have a robe or shorts or something?"

That provoked a gust of laughter. "After last night, you're afraid I'll see something I don't like?"

Still hunched over, he made it to his feet and scuttled toward the bed sideways. The pink of his blush probably looked like sunset behind dark clouds where it ran under the bruises; it sure felt burning hot. She's right. Why am I so embarrassed? It's not like we're strangers or something. Just the same, he leaped into the bed and pulled the sheet halfway up before he swallowed and met her gaze. "Uh, good morning. I guess."

"I'm glad someone feels rested. I was hoping to sleep in a little later than dawn."

She did look tired; there were tension lines at the corners of those gray-blue eyes. "Oh, wow, I'm sorry, Alex, did I keep you up last night?"

She stroked his hair once. "The question is, did I keep you up last night?" she said teasingly. "I seem to remember that I did."

I am not blushing. I'm just warm in these covers, that's all.

"I think we skipped a dose of medicine last night...." Alex's voice trailed off as she turned to the nightstand, reaching for the spoon.

"Can't we skip it again now? My head feels so much clearer this morning. Honest."

"It feels clearer because I've been giving you the medicine the way the doctor ordered."

"How about we wait until after lunch?" She looked back over her shoulder at him, one eyebrow arched, lips compressed. "Okay, then, after breakfast? You promised you'd tell me about Him."

"Him?"

"The dude with the gun," Blair said, and shivered again.

After a moment, Alex nodded. "Fine. But after breakfast, you'll come back to bed and take your medicine without giving me any grief. Agreed?"

"Scout's Honor," Blair agreed, holding up one hand in a Scout salute.

"You were a Boy Scout?"

"A Girl Scout, actually," he said, and shrugged when she looked disbelieving. "It was a small town in Montana, and there weren't enough boys my age to form a troop, so we sort of consolidated."

"And what did you learn in the Girl Scouts?"

"Oh, the usual stuff: tying knots, climbing trees, sewing, and keeping our pledges. A Scout's word is her bond. Or his, as the case may be."

"Well, don't expect a gourmet meal. Cereal and toast is about my limit in cooking."

"And coffee? Or tea?"

She raised her eyebrow noncommittally and swept out of the room. God, who wears black high heels and a tight black dress cut off at mid-thigh in a log cabin in the woods on a mountaintop? Not that I'm complaining. It just seems so out of place. I guess Alex isn't an outdoorsy sort of person.

Once there was nothing more to watch sashaying through the door, Blair threw back the sheet and stood up again. If bed-time was right after breakfast, he was going to delay breakfast as long as humanly possible.

The bedroom was completely impersonal: no icons or talismans or tribal figures around, let alone woven mats, which would at least have warmed the floor. Oddly enough, this was reassuring; he couldn't remember this room, but it must be because he didn't live here, not because he had terminal amnesia or anything. Pulling open a few drawers produced a set of powder-blue sweats, but he had to sit down to get into them without toppling over. They fit okay, if a little loose, but they had that new store-bought feel.

It didn't seem likely that this mini-Ponderosa would rely on an outhouse and outdoor shower, so he slipped out of the bedroom in search of a Cartwright-style bathroom. The cabin included one family room, one kitchen where Alex was rummaging through cabinets and swearing under her breath, one other bedroom with the door firmly closed, and yes, finally a bathroom.

With the door securely locked behind him, Blair dropped the sweat pants, examining the bruises again. If he'd been beaten up, why was his face unmarked? Who would hit him hard enough to fracture a rib or two--because they definitely had--yet leave his head, shoulders, arms, and legs pristine? And why?

Even more mystifying: why was he so grateful to find no tub, only a large shower stall? A tub was a comfortable and romantic place to spend an evening with a lady, and he clearly remembered more than one such sensual experience, yet right now he could barely force himself to slip into the stall and turn the water on.

When the first spurt him in the face, Blair staggered to the rear of the stall, arms in front of his face. He was flat on his back, sopping wet but not in the shower. His eyes were closed, so he had no idea who was there, but he could hear them, even though everything sounded weak and distant: there were men all around, yelling, hitting him in the chest so hard he thought it would snap in two. Blair gasped, sucking in a mouthful of spray, and scuttled to the side of the shower stall, away from the water. Mother of God, what was that? What had happened to him?

Don't think about it, man. Don't worry about it. Alex is gonna explain this, and nothing is as scary once it makes some sense, right?

His head felt like a tom-tom being used for some tribal rite. He rubbed his temples hard, eyes squeezed shut, trying to erase the memory, but the headache still lingered even when he moved back into the shower spray. Maybe he'd stick to sink washing for a few days.

At least bathing made him feel clean, if not relaxed. There were supplies--soap, shampoo, shaving cream, razors, deodorant--but only the feminine versions had been opened, and they were all generic supermarket brands that he knew damn well he didn't use. Where was his own stuff?

She said we're safe here. Maybe we had to hide out so fast that we couldn't stop to get our own stuff.

That reminded him of the guy with the gun, not a good image to focus on when you're trying to scrape your chin and throat with a razor blade. Blair stared at the mirror, thinking only about shaving. This was a familiar action; he could remember shaving everyday, sometimes listening to music tribal chants, folk music, New Age stuff. You aren't crazy or amnesiac when you can remember details like that, right?

Once the hair was combed, Blair tried to pull it back, but the bathroom didn't have anything he could use to tie it. Shrugging, he left the mass of dark curls to dry by themselves and swallowed hard. No more delaying. It was time to find out just what was going on.

Sliding into a chair at the kitchen table, he stared at the tea bag straggling from the coffee mug. "Lipton tea? You made me Lipton tea?"

Alex sat across from him, sipping at a mug of coffee. "You said you wanted tea."

"Well, yeah, but this is chemically cleaned and totally lacking in nutritional value. I mean, it's okay, but herbal tea is really better for you, and has lots more taste, too. There's this one blend of--"

"Whoa, boy. Are you always this hyperactive in the morning?"

The corner of his mouth twitched. "Actually, I'm this hyperactive all the time. It's proof that I'm feeling better, right? I mean, that medicine makes me feel so druggy---"

"Blair. You did promise."

"Yeah. Right. Just let me finish this cereal and tea, and then we talk, and then I take my medicine like a good little boy."

She didn't react to the bitterness in his voice. "That's right. If I get a chance to go shopping, I promise I'll pick you up some herbal teas, but this cabin is pretty well stocked already."

Although he hadn't actually tasted any of it, all the cereal was gone. It felt like he hadn't eaten anything in days. Alex sat silently watching him practically inhale two more bowls of Cheerios. She looked tired.

When he made another mug of tea, she put his bowl in the sink and sat down again. He felt a sudden urge to say something like I changed my mind. Let's just go to bed and skip the information, okay?

As if reading his mind, Alex said levelly, "Are you ready for this?"

He ducked his head, finding the floorboards suddenly very interesting. "Yeah. I'm ready."

"Fine. Blair, I'm a Sentinel. Do you understand what that means?"

The dude with the hard face and cobalt eyes wasn't wearing a sling this time; he hurled Blair against the wall with both arms, planting the hands on either side of Blair's shoulders, moving up close and way too personal, his face so near that you'd almost expect him to rip out your throat with those white teeth. Blair tried to merge into the wall of his office, turning his head to one side, placating words pouring out of his mouth so fast that he was babbling.

"Blair!" An open palm walloped his cheek, but it couldn't be the angry guy, because a blow from him would probably roll Blair's head from between his shoulders like a golf ball heading for the green. "Blair, what's wrong with you?"

He ducked away from a second slap, shaking his head. "No, no, I'm okay now. It's just...." He took a deep breath. "A Sentinel. Someone with hyper-sensitized senses who existed in ancient tribes as a scout and protector. Sir Richard Burton said--"

"That's right. You're working on your doctoral thesis on that theme. In fact, you could be a full professor already, but you've been putting off submitting it until we can figure out how to do it without giving away my identity."

Blair folded his arms around himself, squeezing hard despite the protest from his chest and ribs. "Why?"

She met his gaze evenly. "Because people--the Feds, crooks, Chinese, Russians--will want to use my abilities."

It was hard to breathe, somehow. It all makes sense. I did I do research Sentinels.

"Jim Ellison--" she began.

"---is a Sentinel, too?"

"Yes, his plane crashed in the jungles of Peru a few years ago, and when he came out, he went a little crazy, because he couldn't control his senses. Somehow he found out that you had started working with me, and he tried to keep you for himself."

The flashbacks made a little sense, then. "He threw me up against a wall. He pulled a gun on me."

"I'm not surprised. He'd do whatever it takes to steal my guide, my shaman."

On one level, he was marveling, Wow. This is, like, totally awesome. I was right all along. There are Sentinels still around today. But on another level, a frightened voice was saying, You're a particularly juicy bone, and two real powerful dogs are fighting over you.

The headache became overpowering. Blair lunged to his feet, the kitchen chair toppling in his wake, and barely made it to the bathroom before seriously regretting those three bowls of Cheerios. He hugged the bowl, slowly becoming aware of Alex stroking his hair and whispering to him.

"Blair, Ellison tried to kill you. Do you remember? And my senses have been out of control ever since. That's why we're hiding out here, until you can train me again."

"Kill me?" Wearily, he sunk from his haunches to lean against the wall. Someone wants to kill me? Me? It was unbelievable. "What good would that do him?"

She shrugged. "When he realized you'd made your choice, I think he decided he'd rather see you dead than helping me. You give me too much of an advantage." She stroked his hair again, as though he were a pet, or maybe a cherished child. "But you're safe now. Ellison thinks you're dead."

He was shaking again, too worn out to be embarrassed. "He tried to drown me?"

Fiercely, Alex gripped the hair on both sides of his head and pulled his face up. "Don't think about it! The doctor said that just aggravates the stress syndrome. You want to get your memory back completely, don't you? Well, then, don't think about Ellison, or the fountain. Concentrate on getting better, and on helping me with my senses, okay? Because the sooner we can leave the country, the better. Right?"

Blair nodded. Alex stood and held out her hand. Leaning on the toilet with one hand, he helped her pull him to his feet and stumbled to the bedroom. Nap-time had never been a success with him even when he was a toddler there were too many interesting things to explore to waste time sleeping in mid-day but now he just wanted to retreat into the warm covers, bury his head under two pillows, and hide. If it weren't for the high probability of nightmares, he'd stay there indefinitely.

Alex brought the filled tablespoon to his lips.

"Take this. You'll feel better when you wake up."

I don't even know what this stuff is for," Blair thought distantly, but he'd had enough trauma for now, thank you very much, so he opened his mouth and let the liquid glide down his throat in an oily stream.

=#=#=#=#=#

It's not fair. I should be sound asleep.

Blair was sitting in some old dentist chair, only he wasn't in a dentist's office, he was in some grungy warehouse filled with clothes and guitars and wigs hanging on the walls or from the ceiling. Even stranger, he was chained into the chair.

This is too weird. I know nobody likes dentists, but I don't remember having to be chained up when I went to one.

He'd been struggling, tearing at the chains, and it felt like he'd torn some muscles as well as a fair amount of skin. With the basement so cold, only the trickling blood on his wrists and ankles was warm. There was a gag in his mouth, and behind it the only dampness was the bitter taste of some drug. It would take a crowbar to prop his eyelids open. He didn't have the strength to keep his eyes open, but terror made him fight to do so, because he knew there was a monster in this basement, an utterly insane and merciless creature, and it was after him.

Oh, no, gotta wake up, man. Gotta wake up before he comes back for me.

Only he couldn't wake up, because this wasn't just a nightmare, this was real, it all happened, and it was going down now, man, time was running out.

Open your eyes! At least open your eyes!

Blair's eyelids cracked open, and he focused groggily on the face of James Ellison.

"NO!"

He sat up too fast, making his chest protest, heart pounding. If he kept waking up screaming from nightmares, it was no wonder Alex looked worn out. Or was it having her senses whacked out? Anyway, at least she hadn't come in to hold his hand this time. You're a grown man. Act like it, for God's sake.

Forcing himself to take deep breaths, Blair ran both hands through his hair, which felt as though he'd just stepped out of the shower. He kicked off the covers, wondering why there were no clocks or watches around here. It was still daylight outside, but he had no idea how long he'd managed to sleep; all he was sure of was that although his thoughts felt muzzy, his pulse was too busy breaking Olympic speed records to let him doze any longer.

"This really sucks."

Yeah, that pretty much summed it up. Did that stuff in the basement really happen? If so, all he could say was that this Ellison guy really got around. Guns, drowning, beatings, Gothic basements complete with drugs--was he working his way through the assassins' handbook or something?

Blair climbed out of the bed and went to the window. No nightmare territory out there. Lots of green. New grass, dense groves of evergreen trees, birds cheerfully chirping their little hearts out, a squirrel with its cheeks stuffed racing out of one tree and leaping to another with a larger squirrel angrily pursuing it. The one with the nuts got away. Maybe he could take it as a good omen, a sign that at least Ellison wasn't going to bite him in the butt, a method of assault he apparently hadn't tried yet. That is, not that Blair could remember.

It had to be late afternoon. Well past lunch time. Maybe he could keep a snack down, anyway.

If I slept so long, why am I so grumpy? Why do I feel like I didn't get any rest at all?

Well, drugged sleep isn't as good for you as natural sleep, he reasoned. And I did have at least one nightmare.

Yet it was more than that. He felt as though he'd pulled an all-nighter, studying a subject that he disliked intensely. The whole time he was sleeping, there was a voice in the background, lecturing, nagging. It sounded like Alex, only he couldn't quite make out the words. It was important to listen to her and to remember the words, but they just wouldn't come back.

Maybe I am brain-damaged. Won't that be swell. Not a whole hell of a lot of jobs for brain-damaged graduate students at Rainier University these days, I'd bet.

Alex was right. He shouldn't think about it. It certainly wasn't making him feel better.

Standing here admiring the scenery was going to wear thin in a hurry. Blair left the bedroom very quietly, in case Alex managed to take a nap, and decided to check the kitchen for some low-fat nutritious food--anything except Cheerios.

On his way to the kitchen, Blair glanced at the family room and stopped short when he realized someone was standing there. His first reaction was a panicked certainty that Ellison had found them, but Ellison didn't have shoulder-length hair the color of sunlight.

"Alex? You up for some food?"

She didn't react, just stood there with her head cocked to one side, her eyes narrowed, staring at the logs in the wall to the left of the door.

"Um, Alex?" To himself, his voice sounded whiny, as if he were some little kid whose mommy was weirding out. It was a sensation he was intimately familiar with. "Alex, is something wrong?"

She might have been carved from ice, and certainly her skin felt cold when he crossed the room to touch her arm. How long had she been standing there this way? Blair snatched an Indian blanket from the back of the brown leather sofa and wrapped it around her shoulders, easing her onto the cushions, holding her shoulders.

"Alex, listen to me. This is Blair. You remember me. You know my voice." He made very sure that voice was calm, soothing, and confident. "You're zoning out here. Concentrate on the sound of my voice, okay? We're in the cabin, and everything's going to be fine if you screen out everything else and just listen to my voice ."

When she twitched in his arms and gasped, he knew it had worked, and a rush of triumph washed over him. He still remembered his studies, still knew what to do for a Sentinel for his Sentinel. No matter what had been done to him, no matter how frightened he still was, no matter what memories had been lost, he had a purpose and skills that hadn't been taken from him.

Alex moaned, her hands flying to her face. "My head is killing me!"

Still warming her with his own body, Blair gently pulled her hands away and let the forefinger of each hand trace circles on her temples, pressing harder with each circle. "It's okay. There are some pressure points that will help, and once you warm up again, I bet the headache will disappear." His fingers moved to the back of her neck, repeating the circles there until he felt her relax. "Better?"

"Mm-hmm."

"Come in the kitchen and tell me what happened while I fix us something to eat."

When he helped her to her feet, she looked at the shadows forming on the wooden floor. "My God, how long was I standing there? It must have been--"

"- -hours," he nodded. "That's my guess, too. Coffee all right?"

She blinked and huddled in a chair, still wearing the blanket. "Yes, of course."

"You should add sugar; a zone-out can be a real shock to the system." He opened the refrigerator and stared into it, wishing he didn't feel so much like a blurred picture of himself. Whatever that medicine was, it was probably too strong for him, since he didn't use many corporate-produced pharmaceutical supplies. "Too bad I don't have the ingredients for my specialty. A bowlful of ostrich chili would give us both a little extra energy."

"That's all right," she said faintly. "I'm not hungry right now."

She watched in silence as he poured two cups of coffee and made himself a cheese sandwich topped with lettuce and dipping mustard. Taking a bite from it even as he thrust the mustard jar back into the fridge, he dropped into the chair opposite her.

"So. What triggered it?"

"The zone-out?"

He nodded, still eating.

"I told you my senses have been uncontrollable." She shifted position. "While you were sleeping, I thought I'd listen as hard as I could, see if-- if anyone was approaching the cabin. I could hear birds, and chipmunks, and squirrels, and wind, and branches rubbing against each other, and then I could even hear insects flying and buzzing and stomping up and down those branches with all their little feet." Alex reached up and thrust her hair behind her ears. "I could hear everything all at once, very loud, and I thought my head was going to explode."

"You shouldn't do that when I'm not with you to talk you out of the zone."

Alex looked unhappy about that. "Did ancient shamans always follow their Sentinels everywhere?"

"I don't think so. Not everywhere, anyway, but they worked together as a team."

"Don't you know any tricks to help me keep from this 'zoning-out' crap?"

Through with the sandwich, Blair ran both hands through his hair. "This is, like, so frustrating. My brain feels like mush, and I'm half asleep when I'm theoretically awake. Maybe if I was back at the university familiar surroundings have been proved to trigger memories or maybe if I had my notes, my books--"

"You do."

He started coughing. "Huh?"

"I brought as much as I could, but I've been waiting until you were up to it." Alex dropped the blanket and went into her bedroom, returning with an armload of books and a backpack. "I couldn't get everything--the main thing was getting you away from Ellison--but I brought what I could."

A child finding stacks of presents under the Christmas tree couldn't possibly be happier than this. Blair rummaged quickly through the pile, mentally noting each treasure: a monograph by Sir Richard Burton, some advanced psychology texts with highlighted sections that could help in dealing with a Sentinel's emotional issues, pages and pages of notes he had written on Sentinels, floppy disks bound together with rubberbands, even a laptop.

"Oh, wow, Alex, this is so--this is- -"

"You think you can use this to help me?"

"Oh, yeah." Dazed, he went through the pile one more time, holding them close to his face until she went back to the bedroom for his wire-rims. He started trying to sort through the handwritten pages, which were in a mess. "Alex, this is fantastic. If there's stuff I've forgotten about Sentinels and guiding them, this'll remind me, for sure. I can...hmmm...."

"Blair?" When he didn't respond, she tugged on a lock of hair until he looked up again. "I tried, but I can't make heads or tails of most of this stuff. How about if I leave you to it?"

"What? Yeah. Sure." His eyes dropped back to the papers.

"If I'd known this was what it takes to stop you chattering, I'd have given it back days ago," she muttered, and wandered away.

It didn't really register. Sorting what she had given him, he was left feeling the materials were as incomplete as his memories. The laptop was virgin, nothing loaded on it but Windows and Microsoft Office. The floppy disks were out of order, and some of them--maybe a lot of them--were missing. The handwritten stuff was out of order, and definitely missing pages, leaving it a jumble of incomplete thoughts. A lot of this stuff was old. Where were his records of working with Alex? There were tons of notes on other written texts, and descriptions of tests and test results that he must have run, but there should be substantial journal entries detailing his interaction with the subject, and they just weren't here.

"How come it's all 'he'?"

"I beg your pardon?"

Blair twitched. "Oh. Alex. Uh, just talking to myself." He gestured at the pile on the table. "I know I was trying to keep your identity secret, but it defeats the purpose and it's politically incorrect to use only 'he' instead of flip-flopping from paragraph to paragraph so it's all non-sexist and non-specific. There's only one place where I use 'she,' and that's where I'm going to introduce Subject A to Subject B."

"You thought you could study Ellison the way you were working with me, but obviously it didn't work out. Make some room, Blair. I found a box of some sort of herbal tea that's probably stale, but I brewed you a pot." She set the teapot on top of a book on human senses, and he hastily removed it, wiping the book off on his sweatshirt. "Won't this stuff help us?"

"Well, yeah, don't get me wrong, this is great, but it's gonna take me awhile to put everything together." He scowled at the laptop, putting another floppy in. "It just feels superficial, you know? Like the important stuff, the details, are missing."

"Drink your tea before it gets cold."

"Tea?"

"I made you tea, remember? Drink it and eat some more cheese. You haven't been eating. You got some antibiotics for the fluid in your lungs, and other meds, but man doesn't live by medicine alone, and I have to say that it doesn't look like you intend to stop for a real dinner."

"Right." Blair drained the first cup all at once, then screwed up his face in a massive grimace. That stuff tasted awful, whatever it was, despite the rosehips and orange peels. "See, there's generalities here, but I could really use anecdotal reports about your Sentinel abilities in action, to balance with the theories."

She poured more tea and pressed it into his hand. "You were as close to death as a man can get and still survive. You can't expect the memories to come rushing back, or not to be a little blurred when they do return."

I thought I'm not supposed to think about that," he said in a small voice.

"No, of course not." Her hands settled on his stiff shoulders, kneaded them, washed down his back and erased the tension. "Drink your tea."

He swallowed another hot, foul-tasting cupful and scanned the current floppy, remembering writing what was there yet still feeling no real connection. It was almost as if someone else had lived this, in some alternate universe somewhere....

=#=#=#=#=#

Not another dream! Wake up, man! You do not want to go here.

He wasn't at the cabin, and he wasn't at the university. Wherever he was, he really, really didn't want to be there. A woman had screamed, and there'd been another gun pointed at him, and the air stank of cordite, and his chest was killing him. This time he'd been shot in the chest.

Naomi was right. Guns are way Not Nice.

His hands fumbled at his chest, feeling the warm hole where the bullet had ripped through his shirt, but no blood. It had to have hit him there it knocked him right off his feet, and his chest felt pulverized. But instead of torn flesh, his fingers met solid material. A vest? Where had he gotten a Kevlar vest, for crying out loud?

Look out, Blair. The Bogey Man is coming .

James Ellison was leaning over him again, looking worried, checking to see if the bullet had hit home.

What is it with that man and guns, anyway? Blair was starting to get angry. Did he run out of ideas and have to start repeating himself, or what?

He opened his eyes, relieved that at least he hadn't screamed, and for a moment thought he had gone blind. Everything was gray and black. Eventually he realized he had fallen asleep, apparently crashing right into the keyboard of the laptop. With infinite care, he levered himself upright, confronting a screen and a half of nothing but the letter 'z.'

"Ow." Tenderly, he probed his rib cage. "Man, that is one freaky dude."

"Did you say something, Blair?"

"I had a nightmare. A daymare. About Ellison."

She came to the doorway, looking slim and tall and elegant in a floor-length white silk negligee that had no business being in a cold log cabin on a damp Washington mountaintop. "Oh?"

"Did he, uh, shoot me?"

"I thought we agreed that the doctor was right and we wouldn't try to remember that incident."

He dropped his hand from his chest. "No, I don't mean this time--before."

"Why do you ask?"

"Because I dreamed he shot me, but I was wearing a Kevlar vest. Where would an anthropology teacher get one of those?"

"You didn't. He did shoot you in the chest, but your laptop took the bullet, and you ran away. You were only bruised, but quite upset about losing the computer and your data." She grinned at him. "Isn't it funny how dreams mix things up that way? You're scared and feel like you need a Kevlar vest, your ribs hurt, so you combine it with that shooting thing--a little of this, a little of that, all swirled together."

As a psych minor, he knew that was how dreams worked, but something about this one still bothered him. Shutting down the laptop, he said morosely, "Just because someone thinks I'm a neo-hippie witch doctor punk is no reason to go around trying to kill me all the time."

"Your feelings are hurt." She was trying not to laugh. "I don't believe it. Is that what this is all about?"

"Not exactly, it's...." He wasn't sure what it was, so he trailed off and made a face.

"Blair, he wants a guide, and if he can't have you, he wants to make sure I don't have an advantage over him. For heaven's sake, it's nothing personal. It's well, think of it as jungle ethics. Survival of the fittest."

"But a Sentinel is supposed to be a guardian, not a destroyer. He's like a good cop is supposed to be, meant to serve and protect, and especially to protect the tribe's shaman, because that's who looks out for him. It's a symbiotic relationship, a very close one, and--"

She put an arm around him, pulling his head against her chest. "Aren't we close?"

"Well, yes, but--"

"You're my guide, not his. I'm the one who'll protect you. I'm the one you're sworn to help. Right?"

"Right."

She kissed the top of his head. "I shouldn't have given you those books and that computer. I let you overwork yourself, and now you're stressed out."

"That's not it! I pull all-nighters all the time, and then still teach three classes and do student conferencing and--"

"That's when you're healthy, Blair. Now you're going to get some rest, or I'll hide that stuff somewhere until you're better." She took his right hand and stepped back. "Come on."

"I'm not a puppy dog," he muttered sullenly, but found himself trailing after her like a graduate of Obedience School.

"Maybe not, but you sure get away with a lot when you start rolling those Siberian husky eyes at a girl."

He growled deep in his throat, only half playing along, and pulled his hand free to rub both arms briskly. "This place feels like an ice house. Couldn't we hide in California, or Hawaii, or Peru, or something?"

"I'm working on it. Hiding out somewhere warm and pleasant costs money."

"Somebody should have to pay us to hide somewhere this cold and damp."

"Could be worse; could be Alaska." She drew back the covers and curled up on one side of the bed, supporting her head on one arm. "Get yourself ready for bed, and I'll see if I can warm it up for you."

Washing his face and brushing his teeth left him feeling less groggy. Great; wake up all the way just in time to go to sleep, Sandburg. He sat limply on the toilet, hands dangling between his knees, and wondered just what was going on.

There's an incredibly gorgeous blonde in your bed, waiting to make love to you, and you know from last night just how good she is at it, so why aren't you happy? Huh?

A little voice deep inside answered, Because a Sentinel and her shaman should feel a bond, and it's just not there. Maybe it's from brain damage. Maybe it will come back. But right now she feels like a stranger. A gorgeous sexy stranger, but a stranger.

He straightened up. Okay, so he didn't remember meeting Alex, didn't remember working with her, didn't remember their first quarrel or the first time they made up or how they spent Sunday afternoons together. She saved his life. She saved his work and brought it back to him.

Together, they would make it through this mess.

He slipped back into the darkened bedroom, acknowledging to himself that her body heat was making the cold sheets a lot more welcoming. Alex ran one hand through his hair, but when he moved closer, she stopped him.

"Blair, I didn't want to worry you, but with these nightmares the best thing is just to say it. The doctors say you did suffer brain damage from lack of oxygen." He swallowed hard, and her fingers stroked his throat. "Nothing major, nothing we can't handle. But you may suffer confusing images."

"Images? You mean hallucinations?" He heard his voice wobble.

"Replacing me with Ellison in your memories, maybe. When you first woke up, you were obsessed with him. Do you remember?"

He shook his head. The words wouldn't come, any more than the memories would. In the darkness, she sighed.

"Try this. Do you remember skydiving with me?"

"Skydiving?" His voice shot up to soprano. "In the sky?"

"That is why they call it skydiving. I know you're afraid of heights, but you did it for me. Remember?"

When he closed his eyes, he could remember wearing a parachute and screaming all the way down over a jungle, but that was Bogey Man Ellison diving with him, not Alex Barnes. She was right. The doctors were right.

"Or how about the time we broke into an airfield to keep a rogue CIA agent from unleashing the Ebola virus?"

Although he squeezed his eyes tight, he felt one tear escape. He shook his head hard. "It's all him."

"Hush. It's okay. We'll work it out. And if we can't...well, we'll create new memories, starting now. Just promise me that every time you have a false memory, with Jim Ellison in place of me, you'll tell me about it. All right?"

"I don't want to think about him. I won't think about him."

"Fine." Her lips brushed his forehead, then each cheek.

No. I'm not a child, to be kissed and cuddled every time I cry.

Blair rolled over on top of her, pinning her in place. Her blue eyes glinted silver in the moonlight as she blinked up at him.

"Oh, my," Alex purred. "Are we going to make a memory?"

"One that not even I can forget," he told her fiercely, and silenced her next question with a kiss.

=#=#=#=#=#
Having swum through this, I would like to continue to "Drowning" Part 2.

I feel like I'm drowning. I'm swimming to Jane Leavell's Fan Fiction Page to try a different story.

No, on second thought, I'll dive into Jane's main page to check out the links and guestbook.

Never mind, I'll just call a lifeguard.

Copyright 1999 - 2013, Jane A. Leavell. All rights reserved.