It took about a month for Rafe, Simon, H and Joel to get a working understanding going between the two ‘camps.’ Jim stood back and let them hash it out, which was funny in an almost-ugly kind of way. As soon as H and Joel figured out that Simon, and Rafe to a lesser degree, thought there was something wrong with both Jim and Blair, they got very pissed. Simon and Rafe, naturally, got defensive.
“Karma’s going to smack you on the ass, if you keep laughing at them,” Blair had observed quietly one night at dinner. His blue eyes had been warm and filled with good humor, though, so Jim had just continued to watch the unfolding drama with a fair degree of amusement.
They finally worked it out on a hunt, something Jim had essentially forced them to go on with all the other adult males in the village, barring those who worked at other tasks. The men had gotten into a shouting match, over what Jim still didn’t know, and attracted the attention of a pissed off great cat whose home they’d disturbed.
It had been a twofold lesson: first, don’t shout in the jungle unless it’s an emergency, and second, if you want to stay alive, you work together.
Joel had accidentally bumped Jim face first into a prickle bush during the ensuing chaos of killing the great cat. That, as Blair had later pointed out, had been karma smacking Jim on the ass since he was allergic to the damn bush and ended up with a serious case of hives. Things went a lot smoother after the incident, though, so Jim was inclined not to bitch too much about the hives.
The second month, the four men had reminded Jim of a group of tomcats asserting dominance. H and Rafe were immediately relegated to the bottom of the pile. Joel turned out to be too good-natured to really want to be in charge, though he had no problem letting Simon know when he thought the other man had his head up his ass. Once that got sorted out, life in the village calmed down a lot.
Jim and Blair, meanwhile, got a lot better acquainted with each other while all of that was going on. Not that Jim got to see a lot of his mate. Incacha made sure Blair was always busy with something, whether it was helping with injuries, learning the language, learning the rituals, and a number of other things Jim was positive the shaman had created just to keep him prowling around Blair like the cat he sometimes became.
They snuck off together whenever possible. Jim was sure his body would remain forever unfulfilled when it came to Blair, because he could never get enough. Kissing led to making out. Making out led to petting. Petting led to grinding helplessly against one another and it was generally at that point Incacha or one of the other elders showed up and chased Jim off. It was both embarrassing as hell and frustrating beyond belief.
Still, at least they ate their meals together and they always walked the village together after dinner. There was something calming and sweet, something that filled his aching heart, about holding Blair’s hand as twilight descended into dark. They generally ended up sitting at the village outskirts and stargazing before parting for the night.
“Incacha wants me to go on a vision quest.”
The words startled Jim from the near-doze he’d been in, with his head resting on Blair’s lap. He frowned up at the other man. He hadn’t thought Blair’s studies were that far advanced. He’d only just become passable in the language a couple of weeks ago. “When?”
“Tomorrow,” Blair replied.
Jim jolted upright. “What? Why so soon?”
Blair caught his hand and said, “There’s no real reason to put it off. He said you would just wind yourself up if left to stew about it. Looks like he was right.”
Jim shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m just worried. They take a lot out of you.”
Blair practically bounced with interest as he asked, “So you’ve done one?”
“Three,” Jim replied. The last one was fuzzy, lost to a haze of mind-altering herbs, but he remembered one thing clearly: he’d come out of it expecting to find his mate and been bitterly disappointed on realizing it had just been a hallucination.
Blair’s eyes widened in surprise. “Really? Wow! Can you tell me about them? What was it like? There’s a sweat lodge, I know. How did the drugs affect your senses and your shifting ability? What did you see? Did you see anything?”
A reluctant chuckle escaped him at the rapid-fire questions. He tugged Blair into his arms and leaned back against the large boulder they’d settled down by. Blair had grown a lot more comfortable with Jim’s cat-form in the last couple of months, thanks to repeated exposure. Now, if they managed to drift into a nap together, he almost expected to wake up covered by a large feline.
“The vision quests I went on will be different than what you’ll go through. Mine were… pretty intense, but yours will be a lot stronger. Incacha’s probably hoping you’ll find your spirit guide, though that might not happen on the first try. Yes, it’ll be in the sweat lodge. You’ll fast beforehand and be in seclusion for a whole day ahead. We won’t see each other for a couple of days.”
Blair no longer looked so thrilled and he sighed. “Oh well. As things go, a couple of days won’t kill us.”
Jim kissed the top of his head and breathed in the slightly soured smell of him. Incacha had had him in the sweat lodge earlier, Jim could also smell the medicinal herbs that lingered in his hair. “No, but it’ll feel a lot longer than just a couple of days.”
They had only another half hour sitting together under the stars before Incacha collected Blair. Jim kissed Blair lightly, wishing he could do more than that, and then said, “Good luck, chief.”
Blair smiled and said, “Try not to kill Simon on the trip tomorrow.”
Jim grimaced. He’d managed to put the ‘reconnaissance’ trip out of his head for a couple of hours. Simon had been getting antsy just hanging around the village, now that things with Joel and H were settled. They were all going out on a field mission to map the surrounding area with a scanner. “Thanks, Chief.”
Blair chuckled as he and Incacha walked away.
Jim sighed and watched them go for a few minutes before turning in the direction of his own bed. It was going to be a long couple of days.
* * * *
Blair had fasted and meditated many times before, so the preparation for his vision quest wasn’t too far outside the norm. He slept as usual the first night, though in Incacha’s workspace where he kept all his herbs and saw patients, not in the elder’s home. Incacha woke him before dawn to meditate, which was how he spent his time when not being instructed by the shaman on controlling fear and emotion in a dreamscape. He restrained a bitter laugh at the irony of that, given how he’d been raised.
His hunger faded away by afternoon, leaving him empty and light inside. Blair sat with Incacha as he waved herbed smoke over him and chanted. He knew enough of the language to understand that Incacha was asking for clarity and revelation on Blair’s quest. Mostly, he felt sleepy from whatever the herb was and drifted easily along with the words.
The next night he spent in a dancing circle with Incacha and several of the villagers who regularly participated in the spiritual health of the village. Drums kept syncopated time as a lone flute cried in the darkness. Weakness had fled the way of hunger by dawn when he was led to the sweat lodge. Blair felt buoyed and filled with energy, alert with curiosity for the next part of his journey.
He broke into a sweat almost instantly inside the steamy sweat lodge. It felt like breathing water, the air was so thick. He coughed a few times, sitting where Incacha directed him on the floor in the center of the circular structure. Three of the elders were already there, sitting against the opposite wall, one of them poured more water over the heated rocks to release still-more steam.
“The path to self-knowledge is a difficult one,” Incacha said, sitting with the other elders. He sprinkled something over the rocks. The air took a distinctly medicinal, but sweet, turn as he continued, “There will be many pitfalls as you journey inward, but know that you are never alone.”
The steam around Blair shimmered somehow and he sucked in a startled breath. The light dimmed, but he didn’t know if it actually did or he simply imagined that it did. A growl filled the air, low and menacing. Blair’s heart jumped in his chest and he tried to get up, but couldn’t move. A large shape moved in the steam and his fear increased exponentially.
When the wolf stepped into view, Blair tried to scream for Jim and couldn’t. All he could do was close his eyes and howl wordlessly in fear.
* * * *
It took all Jim had not to break into the sweat lodge when Blair screamed in fear. He couldn’t tune out his mate, just had to endure the harsh cries as they continued. He could have turned down the volume of his hearing, but that felt wrong somehow; that he should at least be with Blair in spirit, if not body.
Simon ran up to the sweat lodge and exclaimed, “What the hell are they doing to him?”
Jim planted himself more firmly in front of the entrance. “Nothing. Blair’s on a vision quest. Whatever he’s seeing, it’s from his own mind.”
“Vision quest? What the hell is that?” Simon demanded.
Jim wasn’t surprised the other man didn’t know; he didn’t seem all that spiritually enlightened. “The short explanation is that Blair fasted and participated in ritual dancing for the last day and now he’s consumed herbs to allow his consciousness to travel to the other side in search of knowledge.”
Simon actually blanched at the explanation and said, “You’re telling me that he’s been given a mind-altering drug and now he’s what, hallucinating? Let me by, right now!”
Jim shook his head and told him, “No one interrupts a vision quest once it begins.”
Blair’s screaming chose then to stop and Jim flinched at the silence.
Simon glared at him. “You can’t be okay with this.”
Jim shrugged and said, “It’s his choice. If he wants to be a shaman, then he has to go through what every shaman does.”
Simon stepped right up to Jim and hissed, “He doesn’t want to be one, he just wants to be with you. If he gets hurt, it’s on your head!”
Rafe appeared suddenly, pulling at Simon’s arm and dragging him back a few feet. “Easy, Simon. Come on, relax, it’s fine. Incacha wouldn’t hurt Blair, you know that.”
Simon scowled at him, snarled, “I don’t know that!” and stormed off.
Rafe sighed and gave Jim an apologetic look before jogging after Simon.
Jim nodded towards H and Joel, who both had curious expressions in place as they waved hello, and settled in to wait.
* * * *
Blair slowly grew aware of his surroundings again, but barely noticed them. The steam had lessened to a marked degree, though it was still present. Mostly, his thoughts remained with the frightening and revealing vision he’d had.
The great wolf had been explicit in showing Blair just how tied to his mother and his old life he remained. He’d sliced into his chest with razor-sharp claws to show his heart beating, but a rusted chain sprouting from it that seemed to go off into the infinity of space. There had been no doubt where the other end rested, not to Blair. The question was, how to sever the bond?
“You have seen much.”
Incacha’s voice brought Blair the rest of the way out of his near-trance and he looked over at the older man, nodded. “Yeah, I did. Thank you.”
Incacha smiled and said, “I provided only the tools. You did the work, Blair.”
Blair climbed to his feet and groaned at the pulled muscles. He must’ve been thrashing around pretty violently at some point.
“Enquiri can bring you to soak. I won’t expect you back until tomorrow,” Incacha said with a wink.
Blair gaped a little in surprise and then grinned. “Thanks!”
If that wasn’t permission, he didn’t know what was.
He staggered out of the sweat lodge only to run smack into Jim.
Strong arms wrapped around him, steadying him, and Jim gave him a searching gaze before relaxing into a smile. “Have a good trip?”
Blair snorted. “Not especially, but it was enlightening.”
Jim stepped back, but moved an arm over Blair’s shoulders. “That’s what happens, sometimes. Hungry?”
All of a sudden, Blair noticed just how hungry he was; his stomach rumbled angrily, no longer subdued by the herbs in the air of the sweat lodge.
He looked over at Simon’s call and bit back a sigh at the furious expression on the black man’s face. Blair braced himself and forced a smile when Simon stopped in front of him. “Hey, Simon, what’s up?”
Simon’s jaw dropped for a few seconds and then audibly clicked shut. He took a visible breath and then asked through clenched teeth, “Are you all right?”
“Starving and tired, but nothing a good meal and soak won’t cure,” Blair replied honestly. “Sorry I didn’t warn you, but I knew you’d try to stop me.”
Simon’s jaw flexed as he took in the words and then turned and left without another word.
Blair winced and muttered, “Way to be open-minded, Simon.”
Jim wrapped an arm around his waist and said, “Nothing you can do about it, Chief.”
“I know.” Blair sighed. Then he smiled and said, “Feed me and then it’s time for that soak.”
Jim smirked a little. “Among other things.”
A shiver of anticipation ran through Blair and his grin widened as they walked to get something to eat. Blair kept to a light meal, eating just enough vegetables to take the edge off and drinking down a cup of broth to finish it off. They were joined by several of the locals, plus H, Joel, and Rafe. Jim left once he made sure Blair had food and Blair frowned at his back before he disappeared from the common hut.
“So what did you do, exactly?” Joel asked curiously.
Blair thought about how to answer that and then said, “Fasted, danced up a storm, and then went into the sweat lodge where I inhaled steam-delivered hallucinogens. Basically, I connected with my primal side to induce a vision, a way to find out what was going on in my subconscious.”
Rafe’s eyebrows lifted. “It seems like a lot of risk for a small payoff. You were… it didn’t sound like fun.”
Shrugging, Blair said, “It’s not supposed to be fun. I confronted a lot of demons.”
Rafe shook his head and countered, “It’s not like you don’t know your own mind, Blair. You’re very self-aware. It doesn’t seem to be enough of a payoff.”
Blair gave him another shrug and said, “It was for me.”
Unlike Simon, at least Rafe looked thoughtful as he fell silent and went back to eating.
Conversation turned to a new hunt scheduled to take place the following day and Blair finished the rest of his meal in peace. Jim returned in short order with a bag over his shoulder, which he dropped to the ground as he sat beside Blair. His hand rested on Blair’s thigh, a comforting weight and a warm connection. Cheerful goodbyes were exchanged and Blair let Jim tug him to his feet, leaning into him as the bigger man’s arm slung over his shoulders.
Blair didn’t need to talk as they walked to the hot spring, centered and peaceful in a way he rarely felt. The hum of drowsy afternoon insects added to the contented feelings. It didn’t take long to walk along the pool, but he startled when Jim tugged him beyond it. He quirked an eyebrow at Jim only to get a ‘trust me’ grin. Blair snorted and followed where he was led without complaint.
The path faded into a much narrower, seldom-used path with branches and vines growing across it. They held hands on the last part of the journey, unable to continue walking side-by-side. It was a good fifteen minutes that they stepped out of the dense foliage into a clearing with a sunken pool. Even from the jungle’s edge, Blair saw the steam rising from the pool. He walked over to it eagerly, looking down at the smallish pool with its crystal clear, bubbling water. There was a set of rough stone steps leading down to the sand at the bottom, pale and soft looking.
“I figured we’d want a little more privacy than usual,” Jim said, smiling.
Blair grinned back at him and said, “Good thinking.”
He stripped out of the stiff shirt and pants that he’d worn through the last couple of days. Jim did the same, allowing him a long look at the other man’s body. Blair didn’t start drooling, he had seen most of Jim before, but it was a close call.
Jim caught his expression and grinned. “C’mon, Chief. Bath before anything else. You’re a little ripe.”
Blair rolled his eyes and muttered, “Yeah, yeah,” good naturedly as he dipped his toes into the water. It was hot, but not scalding. He lowered slowly into the water with a groan of pleasure as heat immediately sank into aching muscles. He savored every submerged inch until he was down to his neck and then shifted a short distance from the steps so Jim could join him.
Jim moved faster getting into the water, but not by much. He hissed and grimaced as he dropped into the water and then leaned against the wall opposite Blair. They sat in silence for a while and Blair enjoyed the relaxation, closing his eyes and drifting to the gentle, bubbling water. He jumped a little when something brushed his shin, eyes snapping open to find Jim looking innocent as could be while his foot slid up Blair’s shin to his thigh.
Blair grinned and observed, “You’ve got really long legs.”
“It’s a small pool,” Jim demurred, pale eyes filled with humor. His foot withdrew and he walked over to Blair, tugging him into his arms as he said, “Hi.”
Happiness filled Blair as he wrapped his arms around Jim’s neck and legs around his waist. “Hi there. Come here often?”
Jim’s low chuckle went right through him and then their mouths met in a slow, easy kiss. They made out there for a long time, trading control of it back and forth with heady, hungry breaths and touches. Blair was hard in very short order. Even if he hadn't been celibate for so long, the way Jim responded to every touch and groaned into his kisses were enough to more than do it.
He broke off the kiss and gasped, “God I want you.”
Jim's grin was feral and he said, “However you want me, I'm yours.”
Way too many scenarios flashed through his mind, distracting Blair for a few seconds. Dragging his unruly thoughts back into order, Blair grinned back and said, “As nice as this is, I think I want everything with you in less... watery surroundings. For now, though...”
Blair squirmed down a little until his cock pushed against Jim's. Jim got the idea and pulled him in tight, rolling his hips. Blair moaned and nodded, then started kissing him again. Jim's other hand reached up and his fingers twisted in Blair's hair, pulling with little sparks of pain that made him gasp in pleasure. It was over too fast, like he knew it would be, and Blair cried out as his body tightened to the tipping point and crashed over it. He heard a harmony of growls from somewhere nearby, but the world faded out before he could do more than think, God, I love him.
* * * *
Blair woke up comfortably ensconced in Jim’s arms and lying partially on him and a thick blanket. He didn’t remember leaving the pool, but then, it had been a pretty intense orgasm. He yawned and sat up. Most of his muscles were still sore from the dancing and vision quest, but the hot water had helped a lot. It looked like dawn was coming and his bladder was definitely making noise, so he carefully pulled out of Jim’s embrace and walked over to the tree line to relieve himself.
Before he could, a low growl caused him to stiffen in alarm. Blair slowly turned towards it and found the wolf from his vision quest standing a few feet away. Jim slept on, somehow oblivious to the danger. Blair held up his hands and said, “Nice wolf. Take it easy,” even as he wondered how it was possible that a representation of his subconscious was in the real world… which made him realize that he was still sleeping. Blair looked around himself with new eyes and caught the bluish tint to the world.
The wolf bared its fangs at him, growling louder.
He swallowed nervously even knowing it couldn’t really hurt him. “What do you want?”
It walked closer and Blair didn’t know what to do, so he stood his ground. It was, after all, another part of himself. While their last interaction hadn’t been pleasant, he wouldn’t turn down any learning opportunity.
Without warning, it leapt at him. Blair shouted in fear and flung himself backwards, but the wolf slammed into his chest.
Blair woke with a shout, flailing and jumping to his feet. His chest felt like some large, hoofed animal had kicked it and he barely managed to gasp in enough air.
“Blair? You okay?”
Getting himself under control, Blair stood from the unthinking defensive crouch he'd gone into and met Jim's worried gaze. His heart still pounded against his ribs, but he nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I just... um, are spirit guides supposed to show up uninvited?”
Jim's pale eyes widened. “Did yours?”
“And then some,” Blair muttered. He looked around and saw the the sun was low in the sky, but in its morning rotation. Startled, he said, “I slept through the night?”
Jim grinned and said, “Yeah. I was taking it as a compliment.”
Blair rolled his eyes, but closed the distance and wrapped his arms around Jim. “I suppose this means we have to go back?”
Jim kissed him briefly and said, “We do, yeah. Actually, we should probably get going now if we want anything for breakfast.”
They made it back with plenty of time to spare. Simon glowered at them without bothering to hide it while H and Joel just grinned. Rafe maintained his usual neutrality.
The next couple of months passed in a blur. Blair learned so much from Incacha that his head sometimes felt like it would explode. Thankfully, Jim always showed up at just the right time for a bit of distraction and the would spend the night away from the village. They would pack some blankets and snacks and head out of the village with a warning look from Incacha. Sometimes Blair was so tired, the silent warning wasn't even needed.
Staring into their campfire one night, stretched out with Jim under the blankets, Blair asked abruptly, “What about all the other people on this planet? There has to be more than just this tribe and the one that raided the village. Are they all rural? Are there any cities?”
Jim chuckled and tightened his arms around Blair's waist. “I was wondering how long it would take you to ask. I know Incacha's been focusing just on the healing arts with you.”
Jim kissed the back of his neck and said, “This is the legend as told to me and to Incacha from his father and on up the family line. In the time of the Great Upheaval, the old Gods brought the People here to a new paradise on a beam of light. The People spent a generation learning how to live as one with the land, aided by those who lived here already, the Tribes. The People merged with the Tribes and formed a new whole. Many generations later, sickness walked the land and nothing stopped it. Once the dead outnumbered the living by double, then did the sickness fade away. Those who remained, split apart so as not to incur the sickness by living in such great numbers together.”
Blair hummed thoughtfully and said, “So they've remained tribal ever since. Do you know where the stone tech came from?”
Jim shook his head. “No, but then I was never going to be a real healer like you are. I'm sure Incacha will cover it at some point.”
Blair rolled over and rested his head on Jim's chest. It soothed him to hear the steady beat of his heart. “My wolf's a pain in the ass.”
Jim laughed softly and said, “More visits?”
“I wish I could figure out what he wants,” Blair complained. “At least then I'd get some sleep.”
Jim's fingers combed through Blair's hair and he said, “Maybe he just wants acceptance.”
Blair yawned and said, “Maybe.”
He woke up the next morning to empty blankets and shivered, sitting up. It smelled like something was burning. Blair frowned on seeing the fire had been banked, so that couldn't be the source. Standing, he called out, “Jim? Where are you?”
A growl instantly caught his attention and Blair gritted his teeth in pure frustration, turning towards the sound. His wolf stood a few feet away, looking twice its usual size with its hair just about standing on end.
Blair snapped, “What do you want? I'm tired of this! Just tell me what you want!”
The wolf let out a howl and it was such an anguished sound that Blair shivered in response. It sounded like the animal had been abandoned and betrayed by its staunchest friend or lover. It howled again and Blair instinctively rushed over to it, stopping mere inches from it. The wolf stopped baying and looked up at Blair with such sadness that he felt gutted. And then he understood that Jim had been right. All this time, he'd been fighting himself, fighting his choice even though he'd wanted to stay. He'd thrown himself into his studies with Incacha but rebuffed what the older man tried to teach him in his heart, what Jim had shown him from moment one... acceptance.
Blair knelt hesitantly and reached out. The wolf snapped at him, fangs bared, but Blair just let out a shaky breath and continued until his hand rested on the thick, dark fur. The wolf kept growling, but it was more of a wary sound than anything, and Blair ignored it. He slowly lifted his other arm and wrapped both around the wolf. He breathed deeply and then sighed it out, closing his eyes as he whispered, “I'm sorry. So sorry. I do want you. I accept you. I accept both of us.”
He woke up with tears streaking down his face and Jim looking down at him soberly. Blair smiled, an odd contentment filling him in an entirely new way. He suspected it would take more than just once to come to terms with eschewing how he'd been raised. But when embracing himself and his new philosophy of life came with such benefits, letting go of the shame of showing his emotions and the freedom of loving Jim, Blair could hardly wait to feel this way all the time.
Blair pushed up and kissed Jim's mouth, soft and sweet, then smiled at him. “Got a question for you.”
One of Jim's eyebrows lifted, but he only countered, “What's that, Chief?”
“Will you marry me?”
Blair grinned at Jim's dumbfounded expression, which quickly morphed into joy.
Jim pulled him in for a tight hug and said, “Hell yes, Blair. Just name the time and place.”
Blair kissed him again, hungry for more and feeling his own joy expanding exponentially as Jim returning with equal passion.
Blair laughed at Incacha's perfect timing, breaking off the kiss. The shaman had been good about leaving them alone more, especially when Blair was at his wits' end, but still had uncanny timing on when to interrupt them. They hadn't had sex since that one time in the hot pool.
Jim winked and said, “Looks like it's time to go home.”
They stood up and Blair took Jim's hand in his, lacing their fingers together. “Home sounds great.”