*This is the third story in the TS/LFN Xovers. I highly recommend reading the first two before tackling this one.
*I don't know a thing about shamanism so in regards to Sandburg's shaman skills, think the word "fiction."
Sandburg sat alone in the van parked on the private beach and listened to the party aboard the yacht anchored a mile from the coast. Jim was at that party, as well as Nikita and a half a dozen other Section One agents. He heard the music, the laughter, the clink of glasses, and felt just the teeniest bit of anger. Jim and the others were having a blast and here he was, in a musty old van alone, with a receiver crammed up his ear. Ian Fleming should have written about this side of being a secret agent. He could have called it, "Bored, James Bored."
Of course he knew he was a vital part of the mission. He coordinated the movements of the agents in play, passed along information from headquarters, and yes, he knew all the escape routes in case the mission had to be aborted. But couldn't he be vital and active at the same time? At least back in Cascade he was occasionally in the thick of things and Jim would yell for him to stay in the truck, which was useless and... Hell, there he went again. Remembering a life that had been abruptly ripped from him, first by a zealous Department of Defense subgroup who wanted to study a Sentinel/Guide team and then ultimately by the Section.
Section One liked to call itself an antiterrorist group but Sandburg, after five long years as an agent, wondered exactly what was the criteria that differentiated an antiterrorist group from a terrorist one. Loss of life seemed to be the major theme of both as well as general mayhem and a "back-at-cha" attitude. Somewhere in the back of his mind he understood the fine line. If he hadn't, he couldn't have survived this long as a Section operative. Well, that was a lie, he laughed to himself. Understanding didn't really play a big role. He survived Section the same way he survived everything else-- Jim. Whenever he had questions about his purpose, about his life, Jim was the answer.
Sandburg knew that even after all this time Jim felt guilty for getting them involved in the Section. Jim was a Sentinel, meaning he had five heightened senses, and those senses had been the cause of him stumbling into a Section operation. From that moment on, Section One had monitored him and when the moment came where they could successfully "recruit" him, they had grabbed it. Of course Section recruitment wasn't a mere billboard with someone pointing and saying, "We Want You!" No, the organization's recruitment involved simulated death and symbolic rebirth as a Section operative. The only choice a recruit had was to live as an agent or die for real. Not much of a choice if you thought about it.
Someone sighed in his ear and he focused his thoughts once again on the mission. "What is it, Nikita?"
Her whisper came though the commlink. "This isn't working, Sandburg. Roland doesn't believe I'm a witch."
"I told Madeline it would be better if she played the role," Blair muttered. But when had anyone in Section ever listened to him? The mission profile had Jim and Nikita posing as a husband and wife team interested in Nick Roland's supply of arms. Roland was deep into the occult and Nikita was supposed to convince him to work with her husband because the signs were right for the collaboration. Between Sandburg and the support operatives, certain "coincidences " had occurred that were supposed to push Roland into believing in Nikita's powers. "None of the setups have worked?"
He opened his mouth, then shut it. Was he sure this was what he wanted to do? Did he want to give another part of them to the Section? Without discussing it with Jim first? But his partner hadn't asked his permission when it came to telling Section about his abilities. No. He'd ordered Sandburg to sell them the whole Sentinel package. A unilateral decision. He was capable of that too. "Okay, tell Roland you're angry that he doesn't believe you. Tell him you're so angry you're going to rain on his parade, so to speak. Inform him that if he doesn't want his guests to get soaked, he better move the party indoors."
"Sandburg, there's not a cloud in the sky," Nikita argued.
Another person who doubted his abilities. And she was a friend. "Go dance with Jim," he ordered. When Jim was in the field with Nikita, he didn't use a comm unit of his own. He just snuggled up to Nikita and was capable of hearing everything. "Jim, I want Nikita to tell Roland it's going to rain." He waited for the inevitable, "Sandburg, are you out of your mind!" , the ever-cautious, "Is this the way you want to play it, Chief?" or a profound but simple, "No."
"Sure, Chief. You better check with the radar service first. We wouldn't want Roland to look at the Weather Channel and find out a storm was predicted anyway. Wouldn't be good for Nikita's image."
Sandburg's conscience pricked him as he contacted the service. Why had he had such little faith in Jim? In all their years together, Jim never doubted his partner's ability to do anything. At times, that had been really stupid because his mouth often made claims he wasn't sure he could keep. But just knowing Jim was counting on him often made the impossible possible. "All clear in this part of the world, Jim. The rain should begin in about twenty minutes." He heard Nikita voice her doubts again, heard Jim defend him with a surety that had Nikita issuing the challenge to Roland. That meant it was time for him to cash the check his mouth had written.
He stepped out of the van and onto the deserted beach. Folding himself into a lotus position, he began the concentration exercises which would put him in a meditative state. Perfect for contacting the elements. Beside being Jim's Guide, Blair was also a Shaman. Mainly he was a spiritual counselor for Jim, keeping the Sentinel in balance. Sometimes, in emotional situations, he also counseled others like Nikita and even Michael without them really being aware of it.
But it was when he and Jim took their semi-annual retreat to the woods that he really learned just what he could do as a Shaman. There had always been an underlying need for the Sentinel and Guide to connect with nature. Back in Cascade that meant camping trips whenever possible. Here at the Section, it meant telling Operations that they needed two weeks every six months to recalibrate Jim's Sentinel abilities. The Section knew very little about Jim's powers, other than they worked, and despite the poking and prodding of Medlab, they had kept the information between them and used it against Section whenever they needed a break.
Over the years, these retreats included the strengthening of Sandburg's powers. It was Jim who insisted he delve deeper into his shamanistic side. He was afraid that the Section would repress his partner, make him deny the caring, emotional part of his Guide that made him what he was. So he pushed the Shaman into finding out his limitations and what they discovered was his very powerful connection to the natural world. It had been scary at first, watching a plant bloom because he willed it to or watching a bird fly off whose broken wing had been healed by a simple touch. But he had finally grown somewhat comfortable with it, deciding that if Jim could handle being a Sentinel, he could handle being a Shaman.
However, the knowledge had never been passed on to the Section. Until now. As soon as the mission was reviewed, there were going to be demands for an explanation. How much they would tell them, he and Jim would sit down and decide before debriefing-- and after Jim berated him for revealing his powers in the first place.
Raindrops brought him out of his thoughts and he grinned up at the cloud-covered sky. He'd done it! He'd never tried it under pressure before. Laughingly shaking the water out of his hair, he went back into the van, dried off, and re-inserted the receiver. "Report, Nikita."
"Jim is arranging the meet with Roland right now. How in the world did you do that, Sandburg?"
"Just one of the tricks I have in my bag," he said cockily. "Report the details of the meet as soon as you can."
Sandburg leaned back in his chair and smiled. Shaman 1, Section 0. Good to be in the game again. Someone knocked on the van door and he almost tilted over in alarm. Going for the gun hidden beneath a floor panel, he aimed and asked who was at the door.
Cautiously opening the door, he did indeed see the Section's top computer expert waiting impatiently in the rain. "What are you doing here?" he asked curiously.
"Operations wants you back at headquarters so I'm your replacement."
"Is this an abort?"
"No, just you. Jim and Nikita remain in play."
Sandburg shook his head. "No way. Operations knows the rules. Jim and I always work together."
Birkoff shrugged. "Some of us in Section do only as we are told." He had ceased wondering why Jim and Sandburg seemed to operate on their own, making Michael, Madeline, and Operations dance to their tune instead of the other way around. He knew it was more than Jim sleeping with Madeline-- although that was strange enough. No, the two men had an edge, of which he only had an inkling, that made them valuable enough to "write their own ticket" in Section. "I'm to replace you and you are to go with the driver outside."
Sandburg sighed. He liked Birkoff and didn't want to get the computer genius in trouble. "Jim's in negotiations with Roland now. As soon as he finishes I'll tell him I have to leave. The Section better have a good explanation for this because he's going to be as mad as hell."
"You can't wait. Transport is ready to go at the airport. You have to leave immediately."
Sandburg rubbed the back of his neck, feeling the tension build there. What to do? Jim would have a fit as soon as he left. The Sentinel was so good now that he would know as soon as his Guide got into the waiting SUV. It could blow the whole mission. What the hell could be so important back at the Section that it required his presence posthaste? Saying a prayer on Nikita's behalf because she was the one in Jim's direct line of fire, he grabbed his backpack and swung it to his shoulder.
"Okay, I'm leaving, Birkoff. And here are two warnings for you: one, as soon as he can, Jim is going to demand to talk to Section headquarters and if you know what's good for you, you'll link him up without question; and two, you'll be calling the mission from now on so if something happens to Jim, it'll be your head I go after." He defiantly tossed the gun to his replacement and exited the van. Before getting into the black SUV, he bent and touched the ground. Just as he lost sight of the sea, moonlight reappeared.
Section One - Briefing Room
From the van dock Sandburg was directed to the briefing room where Operations was waiting impatiently with Michael, Madeline, and a team of operatives. "Good of you to join us, Sandburg," Operations said snidely as the man slid into a seat.
Ignoring his boss, Sandburg glanced around the room trying to determine what was going on. It was the Delta team so that meant it wasn't a highly dangerous mission planned. Of course Alpha team was with Jim and Nikita, but as far as he knew, Beta and Gamma weren't in play. Operations was pointing to the schematics of a building so he thought he better listen.
"This is where the ball will be held. The young woman with the information will be wearing a pink gown and will respond to the words, 'pink was my mother's favorite color,' with the phrase, 'my mother's favorite color was green.' You got that, Sandburg?"
The Guide was startled. "Why should I?"
"Because you will take the meet."
Sandburg swallowed hard and looked to Michael for confirmation. "I will be the agent in play?"
"Yes, Sandburg. You will be impersonating Collin Tomlinson, a reclusive anthropologist who will be attending the University of Peru's Annual Gathering-of-Minds Ball. You will make contact, then escort Silvia Ortega to Section transport."
"Because?" he asked. It was obvious why he was perfect for the job but he wanted to know what information Silvia Ortega had.
"As you know, there is an insurgent group forming in Peru to protest the commercialization of the rainforests by certain top name industries. Ms. Ortega has knowledge of this group and has indicated a willingness to share the information with us," Michael replied smoothly.
"I will personally be handling the interrogation," Madeline said. "All you have to do is contact her and get her to the plane safely."
Sandburg nodded. "When do I leave?"
"In two hours."
He looked at Operations in total disbelief. Michael saw the look and quickly dismissed the rest of the team. "What seems to be the problem?" Michael inquired softly.
"The problem is that Jim can't possibly be here in two hours and it was agreed that we always go on missions together," Sandburg said tightly.
"I was under the impression this had been cleared," Michael remarked, looking at his two superiors for confirmation.
"It has," Operations said curtly. "By us. We don't have time to coddle the two of you. You are the most qualified operative for the assignment. Therefore, you will go to Peru and Jim will complete his current assignment. End of discussion."
Sandburg nodded. "It certainly is the end of the discussion. Sorry to mess up your profile, Michael, but count me out." He stood to leave.
"Take one step and I'll cancel you myself," Operations warned.
Sandburg turned to Madeline. "If you value Section One at all, you better talk to him."
"Is that a threat?" Operations thundered angrily.
The Shaman ignored him, still focusing on Madeline. Not only was she Jim's lover but an expert psychological profiler. She, of all people, would know what the Sentinel was capable of-- especially when it came to the well-being of his Guide. "Jim will already be furious because you brought me back here without warning. Do you want to risk setting him off by sending me into a situation, without him at least overseeing in the van?"
"He's just as expendable as you!" Operations fumed. These two had been thorns in his side long enough. Sure, the Sentinel was the biggest asset to Section since Michael, but at least Michael knew his place. These two from the very beginning had made demands and like a fool he had made the concessions because he thought it was for the good of Section. But enough was enough. "What the hell could either of you do if I decided to cancel you?"
Sandburg's blue stare was as icy as his partner's could be. "You don't really want me to answer that, do you?"
Before Operations could sputter out a response, a voice came through on the intercom. "There's a priority one message from Jim," someone in communications said. "Shall I patch it through the terminal up there?"
"Yes," Michael said.
"No," Operations stated flatly.
"Put it through," Madeline decided and because the communications operative was more frightened of the profiler than he was Operations, he channeled the feed to the briefing room. After all Operations would merely kill you; Madeline usually didn't play as nicely.
The face which appeared on the screen was definitely not on the side of angels. "Somebody want to tell me what the hell is going on? Where is Sandburg!"
He moved quickly in front of the panel so his partner could see him. He could hear the anxiety in the familiar voice and saw fear masquerading as anger in his eyes. "I'm here, Jim."
Now real anger flared. "You better have a good explanation, Sandburg."
"Birkoff had orders. I didn't want to get him into trouble."
He and Sandburg had leeway in the Section; their friends didn't. Jim's expression softened a bit. "I understand, Chief. Orders from whom?" he asked, deceptively calm.
"They were my orders," Operations said, a challenge in his tone.
"And my orders also are that he is to fly to Peru in two hours and retrieve an informant." A steely glance was the only reaction his words received. As if that was supposed to mean something to him. It was time Jim and Sandburg realized who was really in charge. "This is Section One, damn it, and I am the one in control. For five years the Section has danced to your tune, but let me tell you something, Mr. Sentinel, the novelty has worn off. You're just another operative as far as I'm concerned," he concluded, with a dismissing wave of his hand.
Operations glanced around the table looking for reaction from those who were suppose to support him. But Jim was good when it came to making allies. From the beginning he had recognized the significance of Madeline. He'd had her bedded and wrapped around his little finger long before Operations returned to the Section and took the helm again. Operations had always thought he could count on Michael keeping his distance from everyone in Section One, except for Nikita, of course. There was something between them that couldn't be denied even by the robotic operative. So what had Jim done? He'd spotted the chink in the master operative's armor and started chiseling. He made Nikita his virtual slave... what the hell was a guide anyway? All he ever saw was her pampering Jim, rubbing his shoulders, massaging his temples, talking to him in a deep, sexy voice... And Michael, proof that any man can be turned by a pretty face, believed they were just friends. Hmph. With friends like that, who needed prostitutes?
Jim had singlehandedly destroyed the balance of power in Section and had left him with no one to turn to. He couldn't even bitch to George, his immediate superior because then he would have to reveal the secret of the organization's recent success rate. Jim could go undercover anywhere and not be detected. Not only didn't he need surveillance or communications equipment that could give him away, but the large man was a surprising chameleon. He blended in with militant groups, glad-handed politicians as if he was one, even had standing membership in three rival syndicates. And his face was so honest that drug dealers, arms merchants, and hardcore despots trusted him with goods and confidences. Section had clearly benefitted from his recruitment-- at least on paper.
When his eyes flicked back to the screen, Jim's piercing stare, even colder than his own could be, was still aimed directly at him. "Isn't it time for you to be making your threats? Shouldn't I be pleading for my life or something?" Operations asked sarcastically.
Jim slowly blinked, as if considering whether to reply or not. "The time for threats and pleas is past. I will not waste words on a man like you-- a man with no honor," Jim said, knowing the insult would particularly bother his opponent. Operations was basically a military man like himself. A military life began with the word honor and ended with it upon the tombstone. "We had an agreement which you have chosen to dishonor. What has to be done, what I have to do, is clear. To those innocents who will be affected, I apologize."
Operations watched Madeline pale, which was not a good sign. "Now that sounds like a threat to me," he said uneasily.
"Merely your interpretation."
Sandburg knew it was not a threat, just a statement of what was to come. The night before their first mission together, Jim had devised a way to get them out of Section if the need arose. Because they had already been considered dead a year before being reunited, they hadn't wanted to go back to Cascade; their friends and family had gotten on with their lives and they figured the disruption wasn't worth it. So, since all that mattered was that the two of them were together, they decided the Section was as good a home as any... unless Operations chose not to honor the agreement that the two operatives always worked as a team.
During the past five years, plotting a way out of Section, or even something a bit more destructive, had become a game to Jim, a way of keeping his black ops skills fresh. He kept a numbered list which his partner had to memorize because of the role he played in each entry. In some he merely had to get "the hell out of Dodge" at the appropriate moment. In others, he had to punch in a code, insert a computer virus, make a phone call, set a timer... The variety never ceased to amaze him. Jim could take any piece of information he may have overheard, reports accidently seen, computer code he may have glimpsed, and turn it into the utter destruction of Section One.
So what would it be, now that Operations was about to "break the camel's back"? Would Jim want to physically wipe out Section, eradicate the entire upper echelon, or merely take out Operations? He sighed and waited for Jim to choose. Then he realized he didn't want him to, at least not now, not for this. Because if he were honest with himself, he was kind of jazzed about the thought of actually going on the mission. Before Jim made an irrevocable decision, maybe he should be honest with him.
"Jim, wait," he said softly and the Sentinel's eyes sought his. "I want to do this, Jim. I want to go to Peru," he confessed. Hadn't he been complaining about being bored? Hadn't he been hoping for an assignment all his own? This was the perfect mission. Minimum risk at best. Flirt with a few women. Find the one he was supposed to meet. Escort her to the plane. He let the eagerness show in his eyes. He wouldn't beg in front of an audience that actively searched for weakness, but he knew it wouldn't be necessary. As their powers had strengthened, so had the bond between Sentinel and Guide.
Jim knew how restless Sandburg had been, how he had missed the action (and yes, the trouble) he'd gotten into in Cascade. Part of the reason Sandburg hadn't been in play much was Jim's fault. He was a Section operative and he did what he was told to do well, but that didn't mean he liked the Section or trusted the people in charge. Policework had been dangerous, but he'd had faith in Simon and his fellow officers. He'd known Simon wouldn't let Sandburg be exposed to needless and unreasonable danger and if his partner did get into trouble, help wouldn't be hard to find. Not the case in Section. So Jim had been in double "protect mode" since he woke up and found Sandburg at his side.
Just weeks ago he recognized he'd been holding the reins too tight and he had resigned himself to being an observer in the Mobile Com (the van) while his partner was in play as soon as a "safe" mission was dropped into their laps. The Peru operation, what little he knew, didn't sound particularly dangerous. And Sandburg was a grown man, capable of making his own decisions. If he thought he could do this, without the Sentinel holding his hand, then he probably could. "Okay, Chief. Let's go over the mission profile."
Sandburg grinned. "Michael did it. He thought Operations had cleared the mission with us," he hastened to add. Michael and Jim got along, which made Nikita extremely happy, and he didn't want Jim to think the senior operative was part of Operations' plot. "Why don't we transfer the call to his office and get started. Michael?" The operative nodded and started to stand.
"How long have you been letting these two make changes to your tacticals?" Operations asked coldly.
"Since the beginning. Jim's abilities change so often it is easier to let them tell me what he can do, then base the mission on that." When his superior failed to comment, he rose and nodded for Sandburg to proceed him to his office.
Left alone with Madeline, Operations glared at his second-in-command. "Thanks for all the support," he said dryly.
"Thanks for almost getting us all killed," she replied just as tersely.
He chuckled bitterly. "You buy into everything Jim says, don't you? Including this bluff?"
She steepled her fingers in front of her. "Bluff? I don't think so."
His mouth straightened in a thin line. "What kind of secrets have you let slip during pillowtalk?" he asked derisively.
Madeline gave a small smile. "When we're in bed, Jim and I rarely talk, Marcus," she said, knowing he would remember a past where the same could have been said of the two of them. "Jim doesn't need me to find out Section's secrets. You've ignored the reports I've sent to you on Jim's developing talents, haven't you? If you had read them you would know that if he was just coming into Section from the van access area, he would be able to hear our conversation. You would also know how far away he can read a computer screen and that he can now decipher and interpret certain sounds made by Section's computer system. Combine that with his ability to determine what information was typed by fingerprint signatures on any given keyboard and you will realize that nothing in Section is secret from him."
Operations was stunned. He'd been wary of Jim since the day he returned from a substation and found the operative had managed in a few months to change how Section had operated for decades. When the man had admitted to having special abilities, he had at first scoffed until Jim had proven what he could do. After that, he had used the man and his partner but, as Madeline had charged, he had never kept up with the man's evolving skills. "Why the hell is someone that dangerous still alive?"
"Because up until now, he has used his talents for us. But if you keep up this unnecessary power play we won't have to worry about success rates, or even failures. Because Section One will no longer exist."
Operations sighed and looked at the woman he had trusted for nearly a quarter of a century. He had never known her judgment to be impaired, even when he had been the man in her life. "Are you sure of this, Madeline?"
Madeline closed her eyes, then opened them slowly to look into the blue ones across from her. "Perhaps you have reason to doubt me, Marcus. But not about this. If there is one thing I know about Jim, and despite what you think, he is not an easy man to analyze, is that he can destroy Section One. And if you seek to attack him through Sandburg, even the most religious of us haven't a prayer."
"I'm proud of you, Jim," Nikita said as she sat on the bed in the hotel room opposite her fellow operative. "There was a time not too long ago when this would not have ended so passively."
Jim nodded, wondering if Nikita had even an inkling of what this passiveness had cost him. It had taken everything he had learned about control not to kill Operations. Probably would have done it without thinking if the man hadn't been several hundred miles away. Operations was the worst kind of man in his book, a man without honor. The bastard had agreed he and Sandburg would always work together and after five years of unquestioning service, he was reneging on that agreement. "Sandburg wanted to go on the mission. Operations wanted him to go. Who am I to argue?" he said with a dismissing shrug of his broad shoulders.
Nikita knew better than to accept the nonchalant attitude. Jim was fanatical about Sandburg's safety and he trusted that safety to no one but himself. Knowing Sandburg was going into a situation without the Sentinel as backup had to be killing him inside. But she was also aware that when Jim hurt the most, he built up walls no one could scale except Sandburg. Even she, maybe the only other person he fully trusted in Section, wouldn't be able to reach him until he knew his partner was safe. "By the time Roland is taken down tomorrow and we are on our way back to the Section, so will Sandburg, chattering all the way to this girl, no doubt," she added with a smile.
"Yeah," he agreed, simply because she was trying so hard to make him feel better. But Nikita didn't, couldn't, understand the terror he was feeling. Years of experience had taught him that Sandburg plus a female(any age, any reason) equaled T-R-O-U-B-L-E. And this time his Blessed Protector was going to be half a world away.
Peru - Gathering-Of-Minds Ball
Sandburg, a.k.a. Dr. Collin Tomlinson, was having a ball-- pardon the pun. Everyone was curious about the reclusive anthropologist and women were naturally drawn to a man with "an air of mystery about him." So he smiled a lot, flirted, ogled a few ladies who conveniently left certain items of clothing at home, shipped champagne, and told a few really bad jokes. It was like the parties he had attended at Ranier University, only better.
A woman, maybe twenty if her birthday was yesterday, approached him wearing a pale pink gown, the top of which seemed to be hanging on in sheer defiance of gravity. "My mother's favorite color was pink," he said to her. And if Naomi ever wore a dress like this, no wonder I don't know who my father is.
"My mother's favorite color was green," she replied in barely accented English.
Dr. Tomlinson performed a deep bow. "May I have this dance, senorita?" Sandburg took her into his arms, drawing her close. The girl (he kept reminding himself of her youth) was certainly healthy, he thought, as he stepped back to keep from crushing her, er, dress. "You speak English quite well," he said to distract his mind.
"I have been practicing since I was a young girl. The big money is in America, no?"
"So I've heard."
Her large brown eyes widened in disbelief. "You are a big secret agent, senor. I know you must be very rich."
Gee, another Ian Fleming fan. Too bad Operations wasn't. "We need to get you out of here, Ms. Ortega," he said softly. In a louder voice, he said," If you feel faint, perhaps a bit of fresh air will revive you. Shall we step outside?"
"Not just yet," she said stubbornly.
Sandburg's heart skipped a beat and he suddenly wondered if coming on this mission without Jim was such a good idea after all. "What do you mean, 'not just yet'?" he asked anxiously. He noticed she was scanning the crowd and a shiver crawled along his spine. "Who are you looking for?" he demanded.
"The one who is coming with us. He will be of great value to your people. He is a former rebel."
Former, my ass. Call it a shaman's knowledge, a guide's instinct, or good ol' Blair's sense of "been here before" but he knew without a doubt, the mission was screwed. Placing his arm around her neck in a light embrace, he spoke into his commlink. "Mission has been compromised," he whispered softly. "Package breached security. Advise."
There was a few seconds of silence. "Peripheral activity has been detected. Advise immediate withdrawal with package. Evasive action recommended. Reinforcements are en route."
At that moment, the doors to the ballroom exploded under the power of assault rifles. Sandburg grabbed his charge's arm and dove beneath the draping skirt of the banquet table. The girl started to protest but one icy glare stopped her. Under the cover of the long table, he devised his own tactical, glad for the many hours he'd worked on Jim's. There was a window in the ladies room that opened onto the jungle bordering the university. Once in the jungle they could find somewhere to hide and wait for Jim. He started crawling in the direction of the bathrooms.
At the end of the table, he pulled the skirt up and peeked out. People were screaming, soldiers were shooting, but neither people nor soldiers were between them and the lounge area. Good. Taking a deep breath, he pulled his reluctant charge into the ladies room. Using the Swiss Army knife Jim had given him their first Christmas together in the Section, he removed the screen from the window and shoved Silvia Ortega through it. Then he scrambled out himself.
The first thing he saw when he picked himself off the ground was that gravity had finally won the war with Silvia's dress and while the girl frantically stuffed herself back into the strained fabric, he took off the jacket to his tuxedo and handed it to her. Maybe it was the flash of his white shirt or perhaps mere random shooting, but suddenly there was a hail of bullets falling in their direction. He shoved the girl toward the protective covering of the jungle and just as they fell to the hard ground, he felt the fire of hot lead pierce his flesh.
Somewhere Over The Atlantic
Nikita looked across the airplane at her brooding partner. Hours earlier Jim had played arms buyer with his usual flair and Nick Roland was now property of Section One. He would be abused, then used at the Section's will-- or was it whim? It was better than the alternative, she supposed. Anyway, as soon as the mission was completed. Jim had withdrawn as if he was steeling himself against an anticipated blow.
But when the blow came, Nikita saw Jim's preparations had been inadequate. One minute he was sitting there staring out the window and the next he gasped, then got that frozen look on his face which told her the Sentinel had zoned. Hurrying to his side she grabbed his shoulders, glad the other operatives would be flying out later with Roland. Madeline, maybe trying to make amends, had arranged for her and Jim to leave immediately after the mission so that Jim and Sandburg would arrive at Section at approximately the same time.
"Jim, snap out of it," she said softly, but commandingly. Sandburg had worked with her, teaching her to lower her voice one quarter of an octave in order to reach Jim better. "Come back, Jim." He blinked and twisted away from her hands. Not a good sign. "What is it, Jim? How can I help?" Instead of answering, he stood up and headed for the cockpit. Biting her lip, she followed.
Entering the control cabin, Jim first glanced at the fuel gauge, then turned his attention to the pilot and co-pilot. "There's been a change of plans, gentlemen. This plane will now be heading to Peru."
The pilots looked at each other. Was the operative crazy? Hijacking a Section plane? Each reached toward a pocket beneath his seat. In a flash, Jim broke the co-pilot's hand and pressed a weapon against the pilot's head. "Oh, did I forget to say please? How impolite of me. Now change the damn heading. And I advise you not to screw with me. I do know what the correct coordinates should be," he warned.
"Sandburg?" Nikita asked as she stood in the doorway, ready to take out the co-pilot if he were foolish enough to try something else. As soon as Jim said Peru, she knew something had happened to Jim's real guide. She had always sensed the two men were connected in some way, but she hadn't known how strong the bond was... until now.
Jim nodded, watching the pilot closely as he reset the dials. "The mission has gone sour. Sandburg has been hurt."
Nikita came in and lay a hand on his shoulder briefly before reaching for the radio. She wouldn't bother asking him how he knew."What happened in Peru?" she demanded when she made contact with Section One.
"How did you know something was wrong, Nikita?" came Birkoff's bewildered response.
Michael, like Nikita, decided to skip the obvious. "There was a leak. Rebels have overrun the ball. Our operatives are currently securing the premises. We've had no report on Sandburg or the package."
"Sandburg has been injured. We are currently on our way to Peru."
"Course change acknowledged and authorized. We will contact you when more information becomes available."
Nikita looked up from the radio. "You heard Michael, gentlemen. You now have authorization to fly to Peru. I take it me and my partner may now return to our seats?"
They nodded and she guided Jim out of the cockpit. "You say he's hurt?" Her partner nodded. "But he is alive?" Another nod. "Then he will be fine, Jim. Surely he knows you are on your way."
"He knows, Nikita. But we're so far away. I don't know if he can last that long," Jim said hollowly.
She took the seat beside him and lay her golden head against his shoulder. Without even thinking about it, he adjusted his arm to wrap around her and pull her close. That was a trick Sandburg had taught her: the way to comfort a Sentinel was to seek comfort in return. She could already feel tension easing in him. There was no way he would totally relax until Sandburg was safe and sound, but she figured every little bit helped. "He'll last, Jim. He knows you're coming for him and he'll last. Hope will keep him going."
He kissed the top of her head and prayed she was right.
Section One - Control Room
"What do you mean Jim's plane is already headed toward Peru?" Operations asked Michael. "Do you mean you contacted him before you contacted me?"
Michael stepped off to a corner of the room where he, Operations, and Madeline couldn't be overheard. "Nikita contacted me first. She demanded to know what had gone wrong. Then she informed me that the plane was already headed to South America. I assume Jim knew what happened and changed the flight plan himself. I merely authorized the change in order to protect the pilots."
"How the hell did he know?" Operations looked first to Michael and then to Madeline for an answer.
"I can only assume they have a psychic link that we were unaware of. Or perhaps it only manifests itself in times of great duress," Madeline guessed. It fit what she knew of the two men: the abnormal closeness, the ease with which they shared the same space, the energy that flowed when the two were together.
Operations groaned. As if Superman and the Boy Wonder weren't enough trouble... Yes, damn it, he knew he was mixing comic characters but what the hell? "Our own little private psychic network? How lovely. Are you sure these two are worth it?"
"Yes," Madeline and Michael said in unison. Operations shook his head and left.
"Did Nikita say anything else?" Madeline asked.
"Sandburg has been injured."
Madeline stiffened. "Keep me informed, Michael."
He turned back to the busy control room. "I will."
Peru - The Jungle
"Not so tight."
Sandburg nodded as Silvia adjusted the bandage on his upper arm. Operating on pure adrenalin after the shooting, he had managed to lead Silvia through the jungle for at least a mile before the pain and loss of blood required him to stop. Hell, why didn't I remember how much getting shot hurt? Apparently, the ol' mind conveniently forgot all the bad stuff that happened to him in Cascade. Well, the rose-colored glasses are off now. I know adventure means pain and exhaustion and agony and pain and pain... "It's my own fault, you know," he told the girl. "I came down here without my trusty Blessed Protector. Should have known something like this would happen."
"Your blessed protector? Is that a bulletproof vest or your favorite weapon?"
Despite the pain, Sandburg smiled. "Definitely my favorite weapon." He'd used one sleeve of his shirt for padding and the other as a tie. Too bad he didn't have any antiseptic. Didn't bring his trusty Protector or backpack. What had he been thinking? "His name is Jim. He is my partner and best friend. According to him, I am his responsibility so he does his best to keep me safe."
"Apparently his best is not good enough," Silvia said as she stood and looked around the jungle, not realizing she had offended the operative until she felt his hand close tightly around her arm.
"Don't you ever say anything negative about him again, do you understand me?" Sandburg said, giving her a shake. "It's my fault for leaving him behind and I swear if I get out of this alive, it will never happen again. And while we're discussing this, I better warn you not to say anything like that to his face when he gets here. He can be dangerous when angry." He sighed and let her go. He didn't have energy to waste on the stupid child. "Let's go. I probably left a trail of blood behind. They'll track us eventually."
"We're going to go deeper into the jungle? Why not head for the city where your people can find us?" Silvia pulled the borrowed jacket closer around her as she listened to the sounds of the jungle. From what she could tell, the supposed secret agent didn't even have a weapon to defend them against the wild animals nearby.
"Jim will find me wherever I am. Besides, in the city I couldn't do this." He placed both palms on the ground and asked nature to protect and shield him. Maybe because this was Peru, the origin of his power, but whatever the reason the response was immediate. All around him, the heavens flooded open and lightening streaked the sky.
"What are you?" Silvia cried as thunder clattered against her ears. She shivered as the storm raged, yet not a single drop of rain touched her nor the secret agent. Had the Americans learned to control the weather or was the agent more powerful than he appeared?
"Someone you should listen to. Come on. We have to get somewhere safe and wait for Jim."
Somewhere Over Peru
"Michael, we'll be landing momentarily. Do you have any new information?" Nikita asked as she added the finishing touches to her black missionwear. Gun here. Grenade there. Oops. Almost forgot the knife in her boot.
"Yes. The rebel threat has been eliminated. Therefore be advised that the package is now acceptable collateral. If found, you may proceed as you see fit."
Great. Sandburg is risking his life for someone they don't even care about anymore. Typical. "Understood, Michael. Anything about Sandburg?"
"The university has been searched. There is no sign of him or the woman. Our operatives are searching the city now."
"He's in the jungle."
Nikita looked at the man who had been deathly silent for the past several hours. He had only stirred to change into missionwear and arm himself. "Michael, he is in the jungle."
"Then we cannot look for him. There is a severe storm occurring. Even though it is morning, there is no light."
She looked at Jim and he nodded. "We'll contact you when we have him." She broke the connection with Michael. "Sandburg is causing the storm?"
"Yes, it is protecting him from the remaining rebels who are hunting him."
Nikita resumed her seat beside Jim. "Can you tell me how you know this?"
He shook his head. "I just know."
Thirty minutes later, they were abandoning their vehicle as the jungle grew denser and the rest of the journey would have to be taken by foot. "We're not going to be able to go much further," Nikita yelled over the whipping wind, the rain drumming on top of her head. Michael had been right; the clouds were so heavy, none of the light of day was showing through. It could have been midnight to her eyes. Thankfully, she had night goggles to help her. "The conditions are making travel impossible."
Jim squatted to the ground and placed both hands against the muddy earth. Nikita waited quietly, on alert as her partner did whatever it was he was doing. Slowly, but surely, the weather started to clear. "Now we go," he said when the rain stopped.
When he would have disappeared into the jungle without an explanation she stopped him. "You can control the weather too?"
"No. But Sandburg's powers recognize me and mine recognize him. The jungle, the sky, know that I am here to help him," he explained to his guide. "And, Nikita, stay close. The storm will not abate until Sandburg is safe."
Flinching as a nearby tree crashed to the ground, she did just that.
Peru - Jungle Cave
"You are dying!" Silvia Ortega screamed. "I don't want to die with you," she wailed.
"If you leave here that is exactly what you will do," Sandburg said as he huddled against the cave wall, alternating between freezing and burning up. God, he hated infections and fevers. It had been a long time since he'd felt so miserable. And the girl's refusal to listen wasn't helping any. "Stay here and Jim will find us. Go out there and either the rebels will kill you or the storm will."
"If you utter that man's name one more time, I will kill you myself," the girl warned. She was tired of hearing about the blessed protector who was coming to save them. As they had stumbled through the trees and tall vegetation, Sandburg, as she learned he was called, had constantly talked to this Jim. He had asked for forgiveness, then salvation. Obviously Jim was some kind of deity in his part of the world. Of course, it was Sandburg who had started the storm. Maybe they were all gods... and she had betrayed them. Suddenly Silvia didn't feel too well.
"Even make a motion that looks like you're going to harm him and you won't have to worry about the rebels or the storm," a voice said and with horror, she watched a man materialize from the darkness outside the cave. With a squeak and a hasty genuflection, Silvia ran to the far corner of the shelter.
"How's tricks, Jim?" Sandburg asked as he tried to keep from passing out. He wasn't worried about staying conscious; Jim was here now and he would be safe. But he didn't want to appear to be a major wuss, especially since Nikita was right behind Jim. He refused to faint in front of two women.
"I was going to ask you the same thing, Chief. This isn't the time of year for Peru's rainy season, you know? You just blew a hole in the global agricultural economy. I hope you realize that," he joked as he emptied his pack of medical supplies. One good thing about whatever it was connecting them, he had known what was needed. "Brought along a bag of that new artificial blood, Chief. Ought to make you feel better in no time. Especially once I add an antibiotic and a painkiller."
Sandburg sighed as Jim expertly hooked him up to the I.V. bag. "You're so good to me."
"Someone has to be, considering how you treat yourself," Jim said gruffly.
His partner reached out for his hand. "I'm sorry about this, Jim. I'd forgotten what it was like, the pain, the fear... I'm going to leave this cold op stuff to you and Nikita from now on, okay? And if I ever get any bright ideas like this again, you have my permission to kick my ass until I start making sense, okay?"
"Promises, promises," Jim said, squeezing the hand in his. "I want you safe, Chief, but I don't want to shield you from life."
Sandburg looked at his bandaged arm and remembered the feel of the bullet tearing through his flesh. "Shield me, Jim. I'm begging, man."
Jim started dabbing at his friend's other assorted cuts and bruises. "Your choice, Chief. Just remember, no matter what, I'll always be here." He flicked his eyes to the other side of the cave where Silvia Ortega had fled upon his arrival. She stared at him in fright, her pulse racing off the scale when she saw him look at her. "What's her problem?"
"She thinks you're a god. The things I have to do to get you women," Sandburg quipped, managing a smile as the painkillers kicked in.
"I hate to tell you, Chief, but I think you overdid it this time. Now before you start feeling too good, do something about the weather. I want to airlift you out of here."
"No problemo." He touched the ground and thanked the elements for their help. Quiet fell throughout the jungle. "Somewhere to land around here?"
"There's a clearing about a half a mile away," Jim said, then paused and tilted his head. "Excuse me a minute, Chief." He walked toward the mouth of the cave where Nikita was standing and drew his gun. "Down, Nikita," he called, then shot into the darkness. There was a grunt, then silence.
Nikita climbed slowly to her feet, chagrined because she had called herself standing guard. How had she missed the approaching rebel? She glanced at Silvia who was busy crossing herself again, then at Sandburg, who was merely smiling under the influence of the painkillers. Reluctantly, she finally looked at Jim. "I'm sorry," she said, her words as inadequate as her actions.
"It's okay, sis," Jim said, using the affectionate title to emphasize he wasn't angry with her. "Inform Section of our coordinates and request pick-up. We'll be ready to move in a few minutes."
"Sure, Jim," she said with relief. It would be so easy for him to expect everyone to perform at his level, to forget no one had the senses he had, but Jim was a better person than that. Much too good for the Section, she thought to herself as she contacted Michael.
Jim shrugged out of his jacket and carefully wrapped Sandburg in it. "Always the gentleman, aren't you, Chief," he commented, having noticed Silvia sporting the top of the tux.
"Had to do something, man," Sandburg said with a giggle. The pain was a real distant memory by now. "She was popping out all over. Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy," he added in a singsong voice.
Jim shook his head and smiled. Undrugged, Sandburg would have been turning many shades of red. He glanced over at the girl and wondered what to do with her. Section obviously didn't care anymore. If he left her in the city, there may be remaining rebels who would harm her for betraying them and he certainly couldn't leave her here in the jungle-- even if she was the one who had screwed up the mission and gotten Sandburg shot. Maybe if his partner had died, he would feel differently. But for this moment, he couldn't, wouldn't, take the life of such an innocent. If the Section wanted her canceled, they could damn well do it themselves. "Grab the girl, Nikita, and let's get going." He helped Sandburg to his feet. "Come on, Chief. It's time to go home." Giving his best friend all the necessary support, he led the group into the waiting arms of Section.
Section One - Operations' Office
Operations walked into his office, cut on the lights, and sat in his chair before he realized he wasn't alone. He started to reach for his weapon, but realized it wasn't necessary. If the man had wanted to kill him, he'd had plenty of opportunity to have done it already. "What can I do for you, Jim?" he asked politely.
Jim tossed a file onto the desk. Operations glanced at it curiously, then paled as some of the papers slid out. With a hand whose trembling only was apparent to Sentinel eyes, he flipped through the assorted records, transcriptions, and private notes. When he finished his perusal, he looked up at Jim with dead, haunted eyes. "What do you want?"
The Sentinel grinned, but anger shone in the bottomless depths of his eyes. "I'll let you know when the time comes. Until then, our original agreement is in effect-- with perhaps a few necessary changes. Understand?"
Operations nodded in defeat and watched the man leave the office which should have been secured in fifty different ways. But even fifty more security measures couldn't have stopped the Sentinel. He understood that now. Madeline, Michael, Nikita, they had all figured it out and now he too was aware of the true situation.
Section One was under new management.