He felt the damp wall of the cave wit blind hands, craving nothing more than what he couldn't remember. The memory was there, tugging at him, but every time he tried to reach out for it, the wisps of his thoughts vanished into the darkness where he found himself. The humid air stole his thoughts so that he couldn't even remember his name, but he knew that he had to find someone. That pulled him forward into the darkness.
He had stumbled forward several steps before he realized that the stone under his palm was too smooth for a cave. Fingertips found the seam between two giant stone blocks, where drops of moisture were trapped. He pulled his hand back and wiped it on his shirt. He was wearing a shirt, so didn't that mean he had come from somewhere? That he was someone? He had the vague impression that he must have had a name when he first put on the shirt.
The sound of water splashing echoed, and he froze, a sudden sense of danger swirling around him in the humid air. There was danger here. He knew that even if he didn't know his name. Power rose from the ground like a fog, and it soaked into him, making his knees tremble. He should run. He wanted to. If he ran, he wouldn't have to fear the power that soaked into him. But something kept him.
A laugh captured his attention, and he turned toward the sound. Power frightened him. He didn't want to be here, but the voice called to him. Laughter turned into a string of crystals that hung in the air and glowed dimly. While his skin crawled, he suddenly understood that if he didn't finish this journey, the darkness would swallow him. The only light was in the center of this dark world, down where the power gathered like a storm cloud.
He could see the giant blocks now, some carved with stylized animals that chased each other though their stone world. One of the tiny glowing crystals flickered and died, and he knew he had to make a choice. Yes, the power frightened him, but if he ran from the power, he was going to lose something that was so vital to him that he couldn't live without it. He knew that. Now if he could only figure out what he was in danger of losing, then he might be on his way to figuring out who he was and why he was in this place.
Inching his way down the sloping corridor, he could hear two voices intertwining. More splashing sounds made the crystals suspended in the air glow brighter. As much as he feared the power, he wanted it now. He wanted the power, but he couldn't have it. Not yet. He didn't know how he knew that, but he did. Something was missing, and the world was off-balance. It was like he had hung a painting, but the painting was really a jigsaw puzzle, and he had hung it on the wall when he still had one piece missing.
The closer he walked toward the center of this odd stone world, the more convinced he was that something was missing. But the sounds pulled him forward into a large chamber. A red stripe of ancient stain still remained along the top of the wall and the pillars still had Mayan gods carved into the blocks of stone. Steam rose from two pools, and a wet trail led from one shallow basin to the other.
Now he could see limbs, two bodies coiling around each other in a tangle of lust and need and love. The emotion was so strong that he stumbled back until the stone wall stopped him. The entrance he had just used seemed to have vanished. A hand stroked over a curved hip, the skin pink from heat and lust. Then fingers pressed as one lover pulled the other closer. Each finger became the center of a white island in the other's flesh as one lover held tightly to the other. A loud gasp broke the silence as the twining bodies slowly shifted. The smaller one lowered a mouth to the other's collar, tasting and nipping while the taller writhed in need.
He couldn't see beyond their bodies, straining toward one another, two women struggling to become one. The smaller woman was on top now, and her knees straddled her blonde lover, pinning the taller woman down into the water, but the tall woman laughed. Her laughter was deeper than the voice that had summoned him here. The blonde reached up and caught her lover with a hand behind her head and pulled her close for a long kiss.
The heat from that kiss made steam rise like smoke. Mist drifted across the floor so the Mayan gods seemed to wink in and out of existence. Clove and peppermint tickled his nose, the soft scent barely noticeable. It was the smell of safety and magic and home and danger. He couldn't sort his emotions, but some little part of him told him that scent was closest to memory, most able to trigger long lost thoughts and feelings.
He looked at the woman on top. She was older than her lover, a smiling face and small breasts still fighting age and gravity although her body was softer than her young lover. The blonde's body was all muscle and power and hard curves that promised danger, and yet her body was pliant under her lover's hands, moving and writhing and turning in time with the other's gestures. The older woman slid back, the water slopping over the sides of the stone basin, and the younger one reached out with a raw desperation that made the watcher suck in his breath. Part of him wanted to go to her, to soothe her and gather her in his arms, but the sense of danger intensified.
The older woman looked at him, a sharp warning in her expression. He was suddenly aware that she was just as dangerous as her younger, stronger lover. For all the muscle in that well-built body, the younger woman was grasping, clinging to her lover for security. But the older woman knew exactly what she was doing. She would kill him. Maybe.
He was suddenly swamped with confusion. Why was he here? The older woman rose from the water to sit on the edge, and her lover wrapped long arms around the woman's waist, laying her head in the other woman's lap. The water slid over their curves, making their bodies glisten.
"Sweetie?" the older woman asked. But it wasn't her lover she looked at. Her hand stroked her lover's head and down over a curved shoulder, but her gaze remained on him. The blonde nuzzled in toward her lovers nest of pubic hair. The reddish curls caught the light that seemed to bounce around the room without any source or any ending, and the blonde squirmed to get a better angle. The older woman gasped, her head falling back and her spine arching in pleasure.
Something in him reacted. Lust and jealousy and fear all twisted through him.
"Alex, wait," the woman gasped, her fingers finding her lover's shoulder.
"Naomi," the young woman whispered.
"Fuck!" Blair sat up in bed, his heart pounded so hard that the pain of it radiated down into his arms. He flew out of bed and was half way across the room when a hand caught his arm.
"Chief, Blair... SANDBURG!" The voice finally reached him, and Blair looked around, his heart still beating painfully fast and his brain still half-convinced that it was in some sort of temple. "Blair, calm down." Jim pulled him carefully close, like a man reeling in a fish. "It's okay, Chief. It was just a dream." Jim's arms wrapped around Blair, and Blair let himself be captured in that embrace. Hiding his face in Jim's chest, he tried to separate himself from his dream.
"Oh man," he said slowly, still caught in the dream-feelings.
"It's okay," Jim crooned, pulling him back toward the bed. "You have to calm down, Chief. Come on, you're going to break that heart of yours if you aren't careful."
"Oh fuck," Blair gasped out.
"I think that'd be a bad idea right now. You're already worked up enough, Chief," Jim teased. Blair aimed a punch at Jim's stomach, and then he immediately sagged into his lover's arms. Jim tightened his embrace and Blair let himself be slowly rocked. "Hey, come on, Chief, talk to me," Jim asked after a long silence.
"I need therapy."
"Hey, I could have told you that," Jim said. Beneath the teasing tone, Blair could hear the worry.
Blair had been ripping himself apart lately. He'd finished and defended the dissertation, but the army now officially had sixteen reported cases of Sentinels, two in comas, and a half dozen others whose senses had gone dormant and seven active Sentinels who were heading for either a coma or losing their senses. And everyone seemed to be pushing for him to go and work with those men and women, probably because everyone didn't know that Jim was his Sentinel. Blair was starting to really regret those little biographical details he'd buried in his dissertation—the ones that suggested the late, beloved Officer Clyde Olio had been his Sentinel. But none of those real-life fears were causing this.
"This is way more therapy inducing than stress. Man, I dreamed about my mom."
"That's pretty normal, Chief." Jim sounded confused.
"Naked," Blair said in a very unhappy voice.
"Naked?" Jim's voice rose a half-octave.
"Oh." Jim fell silent.
Pushing back, Blair wiggled free so he was sitting next to Jim instead of huddling in the man's lap. "Exactly. ‘Oh.’ Man, that was..." Blair shivered in horror. That was therapy-inducing. That was disturbing to levels that he had never before been disturbed.
"Oedipal?" Jim finished his sentence for him. Blair glared at him.
"I didn't know who I was. Any feelings I might have had were totally not my fault because I had no idea who I was. I was some guy who didn't exist outside the temple where I found myself."
"Temple?" Jim's tone of voice immediately put Blair on guard. He turned and really studied his lover. Jim's body had gone stiff and his hands fisted the sheets.
Jim just shook his head. "You've just been working too much."
"Oh man, do not make me use the guide voice," Blair warned. Of course, by warning Jim, he also gave Jim the option of tackling him and putting a hand over his mouth. Jim wasn't beyond doing that. About half the time, Jim did that during foreplay. He'd use his physical strength to hold Blair down and make Blair come so hard that Blair would be seeing stars behind his eyelids. The other half of the time, Blair would get his guide voice going, that sultry tone that turned Jim into a pile of happy mush that let Blair lay him out and feast on him. But right now, Blair wasn't kidding. The look of utter and total panic on Jim's face made it pretty clear his idiot Sentinel was hiding something. If he had to use guide voice to get Jim to confess, he so would.
"It's nothing," Jim said dismissively, but he certainly didn't do anything to try and stop Blair from using his guide voice.
"Come on, Jim," Blair said, working to keep his voice silky and calm even though his guts were still tied in knots. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, his dream had been entirely too Oedipal. "Why the reaction to the idea of me being in a temple?" Blair ran a hand up Jim's arm.
Jim gave him an amused look; that and the long pause were clearly Jim's way of saying that he was choosing to share and not just the puppet getting pulled around by the guide voice.
"I've been dreaming about a temple," Jim admitted.
"And?" Blair asked when Jim seemed to fall silent again.
Sighing, Jim stood up and looked over the railing into the living room. At first Blair thought Jim was ignoring him, but then he realized that Jim's eyes were tracking something invisible in the dim light. "What is it?" Blair asked.
"Our spirit animals." Jim whispered the words, but then he never liked talking about the spiritual aspects.
"Oh man. We're both dreaming about a temple, and now you're seeing spirit animals. Something is seriously up."
Jim might have answered, but the phone rang. The sound was so loud and alien that it startled Blair. It was almost as though he expected bird calls and the sound of wind through jungle trees, which was odd considering they were in the middle of the city.
"You'd better get it, Chief," Jim said as he kept his gaze on whatever invisible scene he was watching.
"They can wait."
"No." Jim finally turned and looked at Blair with dark eyes. "They can't."
Blair's skin turned to goose pimples as a cool breeze seemed to sweep through the loft. The phone stopped ringing and the answering machine went off with a click. Blair listened to his own voice greet the caller.
"Sweetie?" Naomi's voice called. "I know you're upset, but sometimes we just have to forgive the universe for not catering to our own personal views. I'm down in Mexico, and I really think you and Jim should come down here. The weather is beautiful, and Alex and I were thinking of having a lesbian wedding on the beach. It would be the absolute scandal of town, and you do know how Alex loves a scandal." Naomi's voice was carefree and almost childlike in its joy, but Jim cocked his head to the side and frowned. "Anyway, Sweetie, I'm about out of battery. My cell phone does not like the humid weather down here, but I'll be waiting for you. I'm just sure Jim can find us. See you soon." The phone clicked off, and the silence was thick.
"Jim?" Blair asked softly.
Jim sighed. "Get your bag, Chief. We're heading to Mexico."
"Fuck." Blair sat down heavily on the bed.
"Chief?" Jim finally turned away from the railing. Reaching over, he turned on the lamp and Blair blinked against the sudden light. "I thought you were the one who wanted us to embrace the more mystical elements of our connection. I'd think chasing after some dream image would make you happy."
Blair fell back onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. "If that was some sort of mystical dream, do you know what that means?"
Jim sat on the bed, his hand warm against Blair's knee. "It means our lives are about to get strange again. It also means that Alex and Naomi have beaten us to whatever it is that's going on, and that does not put me in a particularly good mood."
"Man, that means I saw my mother having sex," Blair complained loudly. "This goes beyond therapy-inducing. This is up there at voluntary lobotomy land."
Jim chuckled. Jim actually had the nerve to chuckle. Blair sat up and glared murder at his lover. Holding his hands up in surrender, Jim still couldn't stop smiling. "Look at it this way, Chief. In another universe, I would have followed up on my initial attraction to your mother instead of holding out to seduce you. That could have been me you saw having sex with your mother."
"Oh man, okay, that would be way worse." Blair stomach churned unhappily at the thought.
"Exactly. That would be worse, so now you have something to be thankful for. Alex doesn't ever get to touch you, I never have to touch your mother, and now we need to get down there because if Alex thinks for one second that she's some sort of queen of the Sentinels because she found that temple first, I'm about to knock the queen on her ass and take the throne. Get dressed, Chief." Jim suddenly sounded all business as he headed for the closet and started pulling out clothes.
"Throne. Wait, there's a throne?" Blair leaned forward. "I remember two pools. I remember a pillar with Mayan gods, but I don't remember a throne."
"Two pools in the room with the red stripe?" Jim asked.
Blair's mouth fell open. Shit. His idiot Sentinel had been having prophetic dreams and not sharing them. Again. One of these days Blair was going to murder Jim... right after he recovered from the trauma of seeing Naomi naked.
"You just haven't gone far enough in the dream, Chief," Jim said. "There's a throne. And right now, from the way I'm feeling an almost instinctive urge to find and protect Alex, she's sitting on it. So, move your ass because she's about to get dethroned, and I need my guide for this little coup to work." Jim's face was set. That was the expression he normally used when he was in the last stages of an investigation, tracking down some suspect.
"Well this is going to be a fun family reunion," Blair sighed as he got up and headed for the luggage.
"If I get my way it is," Jim said, entirely too cheerfully.
"Man, you are going to tell me all of these dreams on the flight down, every single one. And then you are going to apologize for not telling me about them earlier. Profusely. Profuse apologizing is in your future Ellison because maybe, just maybe, if you had told me that you were dreaming of some temple, we could have done something before I got the Technicolor image of Naomi and Alex naked." Blair dropped the suitcase on the bed, but before he could open it, Jim had caught him around the waist.
"Blair, I am sorry." Jim's words were a warm breath against the back of Blair's neck. "I didn't want the power that I could feel in that place. I didn't want to take the risk that you might be in danger there."
Blair turned to look at Jim. "And now?"
Jim sighed. "And now we have to deal with Alex and Naomi opening Pandora's box." After a quick kiss, Jim reached over, opened the suitcase and started dumping their clothes into it. Clearly, it was time for a little trip.
Blair shifted, his back aching. It was only once he reached around and pulled a branch out from behind him that he realized that he had fallen asleep in the forest. The last thing he remembered was being on the plane. Jim had been calling Simon from the airport, and the loudspeaker had called their flight.
Standing up, Blair groaned as every muscle complained about the movement.
The sounds of the jungle surrounded Blair, and he scratched at a bug bite just under his left ear. It'd been years since he'd been on expedition, and honestly, he'd gotten used to Jim's big bed and lazy mornings. Arching his back, he tried to stretch out the sore muscles and recover some scrap of memory that would tell him where he was.
While he picked twigs out of hair, he studied the land around him. The trees were so thick that he couldn't see past the small clearing. But mountains rose to his south. Blair had the nagging feeling that he was supposed to be searching for something or someone. He might be searching for someone. Or maybe he was supposed to go somewhere. Blair yanked a particularly tangled twig out, taking a good chunk of hair with it.
"Damn it. Oh well. When the going gets tough, the tough go..." Blair scratched the sore spot on his scalp where he'd pulled his own hair out. The tough go somewhere. Dammit, he couldn't remember where, and he was suddenly sure that he was supposed to be going somewhere. But where? Blair turned a circle and looked around, but other than the mountains in the south, every direction looked the same. Where was he supposed to be going?
"The Shaman searches inside himself." Incacha stepped out of the shadows of the trees.
"Well, yeah. Only, I’m not a Shaman," Blair pointed out.
"I passed the way of the Shaman on to you." Incacha looked down, and Blair watched as a red stain appeared on Inchacha's chest exactly where the bullet had killed him two years earlier.
Blair took a step back. "Okay, you may have passed the way over to me, but you definitely skipped the parts where you explained any of this."
"Does a Shaman need to have his heart explained to him?"
"If he's supposed to understand it, yes. Yes, he does. Okay, I am obviously dreaming here. Wake up Sandburg." Blair slapped himself across the face. The only thing he managed to do was give himself a sore cheek. "Ow," he complained softly. Incacha cocked his head to the side and stared at Blair. "Yeah, yeah, that didn't work that well." Blair rubbed his face.
"You deny the reality of this world?" Incacha sounded honestly confused now.
"Since it's a dream, yeah. Man, I haven’t had a dream like this since this time when I was 17 and I tried peyote when I was visiting this tribe. Whoa. That was a seriously bad trip."
"A Shaman must take that trip," Incacha said firmly.
"Just say 'no.' That is my motto, especially considering I live with a seriously anal-retentive Sentinel. I'm just imagining his face if I came home stoned. He'd handcuff me to the bed until I took the sobriety pledge." Blair started walking toward the jungle to the south. It was entirely too weird to look at Incacha with his blood streaked down his body. Blair pulled a vine from a tree. The dream was so real that the dew slipped down the side of his hand and soaked into the cuff of his shirt.
"If you wish to guide your Sentinel along his path, you must scout the way. Otherwise he will never claim the throne you seek."
Blair turned around. "That is where you are totally off base. Jim does not want whatever mystical throne is up for grabs."
"Then another will claim it." Incacha's wound had vanished, and now he carried a spear in one hand. "If she had walked into the chamber alone, the power would have taken her, consumed her. But she has what Enqueri lacks, a guide who walks the shamanic path." Incacha slammed the butt of his spear into the ground, and Blair gasped. He felt like Incacha had slammed him in the chest with the spear.
"What do you see?" Incacha demanded. He slammed his spear into the ground again, and Blair clutched his chest and fell back against the tree. The dew soaked into his clothing, and his whole body started shaking.
"A jungle," Blair answered, more confused than ever.
"Where are you?"
"In a dream."
"Where are you?"
"In a dream!" Blair shouted. Fuck. His whole body ached.
"If that is what you think, that you cannot walk this path."
"I'm kinda okay with that. In fact, I'm okay with waking up any time now." Blair gasped and clutched his chest as the pain radiated up and down the side of his body.
"Then you cede power to Salka and Chaska?"
"Who?" Blair grunted. Seriously, he needed this dream to be over.
"Chaska—the star. The one who is bright enough to be seen even through the mist that rises from the jungle." Incacha closed the distance between them and knelt down next to Blair in the tall grass. "Salka—energy which is uncontrolled and unharnessed."
"Whoa, you want to give power to Alex and Naomi? Man, that is seriously not a good idea. I mean, Naomi's amazon period was only slightly less terrifying the first time around, but you're talking about giving her actual power."
"Do you now hear? Are you finally listening young one?"
Blair blinked as he tried to get his brain to focus on the details. The jungle was blurring into indistinct forms and, illogically enough, a wolf was standing in the middle of the clearing.
"Stop trying to understand and simply embrace what you cannot measure or control." Incacha reached out and slapped Blair hard enough that the sting brought the world back into focus.
"They have woken the power. You may cede the battlefield or fight. But if your Sentinel chooses to fight, you must show him the way. He can battle for the power only if you have cleared the path. Otherwise Salka will embrace what Enqueri would keep from her."
"Oh man, this is so not a dream, is it?" Blair rolled to his side, the entire left half of his body radiating pain.
"A Shaman must die that he may live again and walk the paths to which most are blind."
Incacha stepped back and his body sank into the ground and turned into the mist that rose up in curls and wisps. A black jaguar stood at the edge of the clearing now, and the wolf stood up to meet him, moving to stand between Blair and this new visitor. "Okay, I know I always said I wanted to see spirit guides, but I could have lived without this," Blair grunted, and then his whole body arched up off the ground as he screamed in pain. The two animals ran toward each other, leaping at each other so that they met mid-air in a brilliant explosion of light.
"Blair, just keep breathing. The paramedics are right here. Just breathe for me, Chief."
Blair blinked. The top of an airplane. He was looking at the top of an airplane. His shirt was open and Jim knelt next to him, both hands on his chest. Jim gave five hard thrusts before he stopped and really looked at Blair.
"Chief, can you hear me?"
Blair looked over and realized that Jim's cheeks were stained with tears. Airplane passengers were hanging over their seats, staring at him, and a stewardess was clutching her hands to her throat like some sort of B-movie damsel in distress about to get stabbed by the killer in the basement.
"Ow," Blair said softly.
Jim laughed. It was a ragged sound that burst out of him. "That's right, Chief. You're fine. The paramedics are coming up the tarmac, so you just focus on breathing."
Blair nodded and let his eyes fall closed again. In the dark behind his lids, he could see a temple with a stone archway leading up the stairs into the sacred chamber. Shit. Next time he was leaving the mystical stuff to Jim. No wonder the man lived in the land of denial. Blair was just suddenly certain they couldn't afford to live there anymore.
"Hey, how you feeling, Chief?" Jim asked the second Blair opened his eyes. The machine that monitored his heart sounded like a metronome, for which Blair was very grateful. Words like 'heart attack' had been floating into his awareness for some time now, but he just couldn't get himself to focus.
"Like a bus hit me," Blair admitted. His whole body ached.
"You had a heart attack mid-flight. The pilots got us down as fast as they could, but you really had me worried, Blair."
"Worried with good cause or just doing your mother hen impression?" Blair asked. His voice sounded weak, but he couldn't seem to get enough air in his chest.
"You weren't breathing for almost ten minutes. You should be brain damaged by now, so I think we can say this is more than my mother hen instincts," Jim said dryly.
"Man, that was..." Blair whistled. "I saw the craziest stuff. The whole out-of-body experience. It wasn't like that classic light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel thing. There was just a jungle. And Incacha was there, and a wolf that ran right at a black jaguar. Then they collided, and there was this big burst of light. Whoa."
"Yeah, I saw, Chief."
"You... what?" Blair blinked to try and bring Jim into focus.
"I saw the same image. I think we shared a vision, somehow. I'm sorry, Blair. I never wanted to drag you into this supernatural crap with me."
"Drag me? No way. You were not dragging." Blair tried to push himself up on one elbow, but his body failed him and he fell back against his pillows.
"Slow down there, Speed Racer. You're still hooked to about a thousand machines and full of meds." Jim reached over and raised the head of the bed, rearranging Blair's pillows for him. Smiling, Blair waited until Jim had finished fussing before he continued.
"Einstein said the greatest experiences we can have are the ones with the mysterious. We are definitely there. Come on in, man. The water's nice."
"I was already in the water before you showed up, and it has a hell of an undertow," Jim warned.
"Whatever," Blair said. Yeah, it was probably a little rude to totally dismiss Jim's worries, but for years, Blair had been left on the sidelines while Jim had the visions and the powers and that was actually sounding really petty, even in Blair's head. "Did you see Incacha?" Blair asked.
Jim nodded, but he didn't make any other comment.
"Did you hear what he said about..."
"Naomi and Alex?" Jim's expression grew dark. "Yeah. I heard. Blair, you do not have to fight for anything."
"Actually, I think he was saying that you had to do the fighting," Blair pointed out. "I was supposed to be the scout."
"Who cleared the way," Jim said darkly, and from his tone of voice, he was not a happy camper about that. "No, we are waiting until the doctor clears you, and then we're catching the first flight back to the States."
"No." Jim clenched his teeth so tightly that his jaw bulged.
"Are we going to talk about this?" Blair asked.
Jim's only answer was a glare.
"Hey, no way do you get to arbitrarily make my decisions for me." Blair could feel his own temper flare up, and the heart monitor started beeping faster.
"You almost died, Blair. Whatever this shit is, I don't care about it." Jim leaned in close, and Blair could feel the heat of his body and smell the musk from too many days of sitting in a chair without bathing. Jim's beard had a few days' growth, and Blair frowned as he really noticed how exhausted Jim looked. "I don't give a shit about Naomi or Alex or some fucking temple. You almost died."
"Hey, I’m here," Blair reached up and rested his palm against Jim's forearm. "I'm here."
Jim rubbed a hand over his face and sank back down in the chair next to Blair's bed.
"Tell me the truth, Jim," Blair carefully kept his voice soft and inviting. "Do you feel the pull? Can you feel a protective urge toward Alex? Has she claimed some power?"
Jim's eyes darted away to the corner of the room, and that was the only answer Blair needed. He respected that Alex had moderated her illegal activities since taking up with Naomi. He even respected that Naomi's version of ethical and the world's version of legal did not always meet in the middle. She was an adult who could make her own decisions. However, he was not going to turn over some Sentinel throne to them.
"We're going to the temple," Blair said firmly.
"No, Sandburg, we're not." Jim fisted Blair's sheets.
"Yes, Ellison, we are."
"You are not leaving this hospital bed," Jim said. Sitting back, he crossed his arms over his chest and gave Blair a look that he normally saved for suspects. Blair glared right back.
"Not right now, no. But the minute I can stand on my own two feet, we're going."
"Over my dead body."
"That can be arranged, Ellison," Blair threatened. His heart monitor beeped out a merry rhythm.
"¿Qué hay? ¿Cuál es el problema?" A nurse rushed into the room and to Blair's side.
"We were just talking," Jim defended himself. Clearly he was less charming in Mexico than in Cascade because the same smile that made the nurses at Cascade General break all the rules for him totally failed.
"Out," the nurse said, pointing to the door. Jim opened his mouth to argue, and she raised her hand higher. "You, out or I call the guard. You will not upset him." Jim's jaw looked about ready to pop, but he headed for the door. "Estúpido," she added under her breath as she checked all the tubes and machines that monitored Blair.
With a sigh, Blair considered his rescuer. "He really is okay to be in here." Blair gave her a friendly smile. Either she was immune to charm or Blair was seriously off his game because she didn't even look at him twice.
"He makes your heart go too fast. No healthy," she offered curtly. "You sleep. Need much sleep."
Blair really couldn't argue with that because his eyes were already trying to close on him even as she lowered the bed back down and unarranged all the pillows Jim had carefully braced under him.
"El pollo sabe mas que ese idiota."
"Yeah, but he's my idiot," Blair muttered. A warm hand patted him, and then Blair slipped into sleep.
Blair walked into the loft. Night stars dimly shone through the Cascade clouds in one window while sunlight poured in through the other, so that was pretty much a dead giveaway that he was dreaming. Again.
"Man, I am all in favor of lucid dreaming, but this is getting silly." Throwing his keys into their basket, Blair tried to just let go and let the dream carry him where it would. His laptop was sitting open on the table, and Blair blinked as he saw the mess. How on Earth had it all gotten to this? He'd only left for half an hour. He had a clear dream memory of walking downstairs and back up, but the table. Oh God. Vegemite was smeared into the keyboard... and someone had thoughtfully dusted sugar all through the carpet. Oh shit. Jim was going to have a fit.
Blair took one look at the kitchen and flinched. It looked like about a dozen eggs had gone flying and landed all over the island and a bag of flour lay on its side, spilling out into the broken egg mess. He was so not cleaning that.
Blair walked around the living room to see how bad the damage was. If this was a spirit walk and their loft really looked like this, Jim was going to have a heart attack. He was going to have a heart attack and then kill someone. Oh god. Was that paint? Blair moved toward the far wall and looked at the red splatters. Real blood would have darkened and turned brown, but maybe this was dream blood, forever red.
Kneeling down on one knee, Blair could see how thick bubbles of the liquid rose from the floor. He hoped it was paint. It looked like paint. And the furniture was moved. Blair went over to pull the couch back into position.
"Oh, sweetie, is the mess all you notice?" Naomi stepped out from the bedroom under the stairs, the one that had been Blair's before he'd moved upstairs.
"No offense, mom, but this place is a disaster. Jim is going to have a heart attack." He stopped. Okay, the heart attack metaphor was probably not appropriate given the circumstances.
"Jim, Jim, Jim." Naomi rocked slightly as she said his name in a pretty insulting tone of voice.
"Do not start, Naomi." Blair stood up and crossed his arms.
"I'm letting this go. I'm letting this go," she whispered to herself as she stared at the ceiling. "I am letting this go."
"Mom," Blair said wearily.
"I raised you better than this. I raised you to be open to the universe, and a few years with that man, and all you see is the mess." Naomi looked at him, and her expressive face was twisted with worry. "Blair, look at the wall."
Blair turned, and above the red paint splatters, the wall had a stunning mural of a sunset that seemed to catch the ocean on fire. For a second, he was lost in the colors. "Open your eyes, sweetie. I know that not all police are jack-booted pigs. I even suspect Jim is a good man, even if he is anal retentive and annoying; however, he chose you. He had a whole society telling him that he should find a nice girl, and he had the strength to choose you. I respect him for that." Naomi wrapped her arms around Blair's waist and hugged him. But you need to find your inner eye. A mess is just a byproduct of beauty, so if you want to create, you have to accept the mess."
Blair blinked, and the sunset was gone. In its place was a tunnel of rough-hewn stone that opened onto the ruins of a temple rising from the jungle. "What?" Blair took a step back, pushing his mom back with him. "Whoa. Okay, this is some seriously freaky dream imagery."
Naomi sighed and looked around. "No offense, but this is remarkably mundane dream imagery. Is this really your spiritual landscape?"
Blair turned to look at her. "This is home."
"The world used to be your home." Stepping backwards into the living room, Naomi spread her arms and twirled. Her skirts swirled around her legs and made ripples in the air. As each ripple intersected a wall, cracks appeared—cracks through which Blair could see Chicago and New York and the commune they'd stayed at when he was six that had fields of horses and bright pink and fluorescent green horse barns.
"The world still is my home. I just happen to like having one spot in that world that's mine." Blair fought an urge to shout at his mother because she could just never understand his point of view. Oh, she could spout all about how she heard him, but she didn't listen. "I want to have a home. I want to be here," Blair argued.
Naomi frowned. It was the sort of worried expression she'd given him before he'd tried jumping off the barn loft into a hay bale during his superhero stage when he was six. But she'd let him jump, and he hadn't ended up with anything worse than hay in very uncomfortable places. "And I don't want my home to look like this." Blair grabbed a pillow off the floor and threw it back up onto the couch before pulling the couch back toward the wall.
"It has better feng shui where it is now," Naomi pointed out.
"That's what you value, Naomi. Jim and I actually want to be able to see the television." Blair grunted as the couch slipped back into place. Better. A little part of Blair appreciated the irony that he was the one trying to enforce the house rules and clean the place. Jim would laugh his ass off if he could see this.
"Oh man... what were you trying to make?" Blair asked in dismay as he abandoned the living room and headed for the kitchen.
"I wasn't trying anything, it just so happens that I accomplished making your favorite cake," Naomi pointed out. Blair blinked, and a two layer banana walnut cake with buttercream frosting appeared in the middle of the mess.
"Nice symbolism, mom, but I don't think you need to make this much of a mess just to get the cake made." Blair carefully lifted up the cake plate, long strings of yoke clinging to it. That was just gross. Gross and unsanitary.
"Jim is not a good influence on you," Naomi leaned against the square pillar and got a sour look on her face.
"Jim just offered another way of life, one that I happen to like more." Blair just stopped. If this was his dreamscape and his dream, he should not have to clean up his mother's mess. "Naomi, I appreciate that you see the world a little differently," he started slowly.
"And I raised you to see the wonders in the world," she interrupted him.
"I do, mom." Blair put the cake plate right back down in the middle of the mess. "Lots of people would walk in here and only see the mess. I do see the good that's come from it. Although, really? Vegemite on my computer?"
"I have a very nice poem for you on there," Naomi said softly.
Blair sighed. When it came to stubborn, Naomi had the rest of the world beat hands down. Sometimes the guys at the station teased Blair about putting up with Jim and his stubborn streak, but none of them had ever seen stubborn. Now Naomi, she did stubborn. Stubborn and about as unsubtle in her metaphors as a human could get. He just wished her metaphors hadn't made such a mess out of his dreamscape. "Does this have to do with whatever Sentinel power is up for grabs?" Blair just came right out and asked.
"The world destroyed Sentinels. Did you know that daVinci was a Sentinel? He could track the path of a bird's wing in flight and trace the muscles under the skin as a naked man ran. Ibn al-Haytham created the entire field of optics because he could literally see the particles of light. But society decided that if people were different, that had to mean they were bad and evil. They burned Sentinels alive. They called them witches and drowned them. They called them crazy and locked them up in asylums for their own good." Her words were soaked in sarcasm. "It's time to change the world, baby."
Blair closed his eyes and tried to center himself. Naomi could push his buttons faster than anyone else on the planet, including Jim, and he just had to get this conversation right. He just hoped this was a real conversation because if this was just his psyche practicing this little confrontation, he was going to find and strangle whoever was in charge of the spirit plane.
"Mom, change is good."
"Exactly. And Alex and I are in a better position to really create that change."
Blair put his hands on her shoulders. "But change that comes too fast is too destructive." Naomi opened her mouth to argue, but Blair shook his head. "You could have made the cake and then cleaned up that mess before you moved on to the poem. Change is good, but this much change without at least some planning? Whoa. Seriously not good."
"Without change, Sentinels will continue to be lost."
"Man, I get that. I know that. Naomi, I'm the one who's working with the Army to try and help the men and women who have senses suddenly coming online. I know things are changing, but if you go walking in and rip away at everything, you're going to drive these men and women away."
"Sweetie, you don't know that."
"Yes, I do. I saw Jim when his senses came on. I've read the records of those soldiers on base."
"And you couldn't help Alex." Naomi's voice was gentle, but those words were a knife through his guts.
"Okay, you're right on that front," Blair said slowly.
Naomi cocked her head and looked at him with such sympathy that Blair, for just a second, wanted nothing more than to bury his face in her shoulder and let her comfort him. "Alex was already farther on the spirit plane that you were. She could feel the power there, but the power threatened to consume her because she needed help."
"That I wasn't providing," Blair said grimly. The first time he'd met Alex, he could feel the pull toward her, the itch that refused to go away until he tried to help her. Jim had been ready to jump out of his skin from day one, but Blair's sexual relationship with Jim had destroyed any chance Blair could use him for his dissertation. Alex had been not only a chance to save his dissertation but also someone who Blair felt a bone-deep need to help. Of course, that had ended with Jim going a little mad and kidnapping Blair to get him as far away from Alex as he could.
"Oh, honey. It isn't your fault. I sometimes wonder if society doesn't handicap men. You're rewarded with power and status if you just follow society's rules. Of course, you are bisexual, so that gives you some incentive to challenge the status quo."
Blair shook his head, it was like her words were cobwebs clinging to him, and he suddenly realized how heavy he felt. "You're trying to keep me from clearing the way for Jim," Blair stepped back. Moving was like trying to walk underwater, every molecule of air seemed to push against him.
"Alex is the stronger Sentinel. She embraced her senses so much faster than Jim." Naomi's voice was not only convincing, but she was right. In two weeks, Alex mastered the skills it had taken Jim a year to finally control. A little part of Blair wanted to just sit down in the middle of the kitchen. "She'll be a beacon for any Sentinel strong enough to gravitate towards," Naomi took a step toward Blair, but Blair shook his head at the thought of Alex leading anyone anywhere.
"She's a terrorist," Blair pointed out. He stepped forward, swimming against the thick air as he headed for the mural of the tunnel on the living room wall.
"She was lost. Blair, this is dangerous."
"Like having a heart attack on a plane?" Blair asked, still pushing his way forward. Naomi walked beside him, only she didn't seem to be having the trouble he was. A light wind tickled her hair and made her skirt billow as she paced him, but Blair was leaning all the way forward, struggling through the ever-thickening air.
"A heart attack? Oh Blair, are you okay? Where are you? I'll come right over." Naomi rested a hand on Blair's arm, and for a second, Blair couldn't move forward at all. He felt a sweat break out as he pushed against some invisible barrier.
"I'm just fine. More than fine actually. Most cultures believe that it takes a journal beyond death to start a shamanic journey, so I guess that means I'm on my way. Freaked Jim out, though," he admitted. Naomi pulled her hand back, and Blair stumbled forward. He might have fallen except the air was so thick that it held his weight for that fraction of a second it took Blair to get his feet under him.
"You're not as far along your journey as I am. I would be the better Shaman."
That made Blair stop. "You are pretty good at this. What gives?"
"I was studying shamanic rites of the Hopi when you were still in diapers. Face it, Sweetie, I have better control of the spirit plane."
"I can't argue with that," Blair admitted. He started moving forward again. His back felt damp and clammy with sweat as he struggled toward the threshold where the living room met the temple.
"You don't have to fight for this power. Sweetie, Alex and I—"
"No, Naomi. No and more no. You might be better at this stuff, but your idea of helping is going to drive people away. I won't let you do that to Sentinels."
"And what if your version of helping turns those same Sentinels over to the government? You're working with those people, Blair. You're talking about helping soldiers develop their senses. Do you really think that the government is just going to pat them on the head and let them take those senses wherever they want? Will they let those Sentinels retire from the military?" As Naomi's words grew sharper, a wind picked up and started shoving at Blair, pushing him to the side, away from the temple.
"I'll do my best to make sure that never happens, mom. I am your son, remember." Blair's toe touched the threshold and all the pressure and the wind ended so suddenly that Blair fell forward, his hands slapping the cold stone of the floor a half second before his body did. "Ow."
Naomi knelt next to him. "Are you okay?"
"Great." Blair rolled to his side and catalogued the bumps and bruises. "Just great."
Standing up, Naomi offered him her hand, and Blair took it, grateful for the help as he climbed back up onto his feet. "Whoa. So this is the temple."
"Hi, Blair." Alex nodded at him from the step where she was sitting. She had a stack of small wooden darts next to her and she was mixing something in a stone mortar. Blair swallowed his fear as he thought about all the deadly concoctions one could make with jungle plants.
"Alex would never hurt Jim," Naomi chided. Slipping her arm around his waist, she pulled him farther into the ruins. "This isn't about killing each other. However, if Jim really thinks he's the better Sentinel, he'd better be prepared to prove it."
"And that is not going to happen," Alex promised fiercely.
Naomi left Blair's side and went over to sit on the step next to Alex. Letting the mortar rest in her lap, Alex reached an arm around Naomi's waist and pulled her close before leaning in for a kiss. Without any hesitation, Naomi tangled her fingers in Alex's hair, holding her head captive as she kissed Alex with such intense passion that Blair could feel his face heat from his blush.
"Okay, that is my cue to wake up. Seriously. I do not need to see that." Strangely, Blair couldn't look away either. Eventually Naomi pulled back, her lips parted as she panted almost silently. Alex's eyes remained closed, her neck arched so that the muscle rose in a graceful line under her skin.
Naomi looked over at him. "Oh Blair. I do love you, but you'll see. It's just better to let us take on this battle, honey.”
"How about we let Jim and Alex decide that one," Blair suggested.
Alex's eyes slowly opened, and for a second, they were the eyes of a cat. In that second, Blair knew that she was the stronger Sentinel. Her instincts lived in her in a way that Jim had never experienced. For him, his spirit guide was always a pace ahead of him, warning him. But her spirit animal crouched within her heart, making her into something far more feral and far more powerful. Fear made him shiver, even in the jungle heat.
"I will win," Alex said with confidence.
"You'll try," Blair admitted. The rest of the conversation was lost as a nurse dropped a pan and the crash brought him back to his hospital room and the sound of his heart monitor pounding out a rhythm fast enough for a good mambo.
“I can't believe you talked me into this.” Jim hacked at a vine with a little more enthusiasm than strictly necessary.
Blair shoved a curtain of cut vines and leaves out of his way as he stumbled behind Jim. The jungle was not kind to a man with short legs. “Hey, you know full well what the alternative is. Are you really willing to turn phenomenal cosmic power over to the Amazon twins?” Blair might love his mother, but he wasn’t going to trust her with any sort of power. Of course, he was also smart enough to not say that to her face. She would give him some lecture about male assumptions and dominance that he really didn't need to hear. He had no problem with a woman having power. But his mother… she worried him. He'd been there through her Amazon phase, and it scared the shit out of him. If she had too much power, the entire world was going to collapse around her ears, and she was going to dance through the ruins. Naturally they would be very pretty ruins. Knowing Naomi, they would be rainbow colored.
Jim snorted. “I dare you to say that your mother.”
“I thought you loved me.” Blair gave Jim a reproachful look when Jim glanced over his shoulder.
“I do. I just don't love you enough to get between you and Naomi.” Turning back to the path, he hacked through another draping vine.
“Around Naomi? Hell yes. Simon runs for the bathroom when that woman shows up,” Jim pointed out. “Besides, my job is to take care of Alex. You get to take care of Naomi.” Jim stopped, his hair was stuck to the back of his neck, and the pack rose and fell. It made Blair feel a little better that Jim was out of breath too. “Unless of course, you would like to go home,” Jim said without turning around. “We could catch an airline out of Mexico City and be there tomorrow. And that we could forget that any of this shit ever happened.”
“Yeah and then we could spend the rest of our lives having dreams on the astral plane where Incacha gave us shit because we gave up the throne.” Blair would rather deal with Naomi than Incacha. The last time he’d been on the astral plain, the man had been downright cranky. Without a word, Jim hacked through the last vine to clear the way to a long, narrow clearing. Fire must have raged through at some point, but all signs of it had vanished and the jungle was sending up new trees with their pencil-thin trunks to reclaim the opening. For now, though, it meant that Jim got to break into a long-limbed stride that made Blair trot to keep up.
Jim stopped so suddenly that Blair ran into his back and nearly fell on his ass. At the last second, Jim's hand darted out and caught him by the arm to keep them from going down. “Do you have any idea what exactly were fighting over?” Jim asked. He guided Blair off the path and through a tangle of bushes before taking them back to the path. Either Jim was getting paranoid or they were close enough that Alex was leaving little surprises on the path.
“Not a clue,” Blair admitted. He pulled the hair tie out of his hair and ran his fingers through the soggy curls. Between the humidity in his sweat, he felt like a limp rag. “You've been having these dreams longer than I have. Don't you have any clue? I mean, I haven't even seen the throne in my dreams. I just keep getting the technicolor of my mom having sex.” Blair pulled his hair back into a ponytail and wrapped the band around it. “That is enough to make me question my own sanity. It's also enough to make me not want to ever look her in the eye again. Some things? Some things a son should simply not see.” Blair grimaced as he thought about how Naomi and Alex touched each other.
“Have you considered that she's showing you those images intentionally to embarrass you into staying away?”
“Oh hell yes,” Blair blurted. “She's my mother, Jim. Trust me, I know exactly how manipulative she can be. Manipulative and terrifying and way too intelligent. If she had been born in a day in an age when women had equal opportunities, she would've been ruling the world before she was thirty.” Blair shook his head as he readjusted his pack.
Jim made a low noise in the back of his throat. “I'm not sure I want to live in a world ruled by Naomi Sandburg. I happen to like things being neat. I'm fond of boring.”
Blair snorted. Jim might make noises about how much he liked his boring life, but he spent a lot of time doing interesting things. A man who like to boring life did not join the Army. Okay, he might join the Army, but he didn't join the Rangers. He sure didn't run off and become a national folk hero on the front of some magazine. A man who liked boring didn’t work his ass off to get into Major Crimes, and he didn't decide halfway through his midlife crisis to turn gay. For a man who claimed to love boring, Jim spent a lot of his time chasing interesting. And from the glare Jim was giving him right now, he knew exactly what Blair was thinking.
“How's your heart holding up?” Jim asked in a complete change of subject.
“You can monitor it better than I can. How is it doing?” Blair scratched his chest over his heart. Considering that he'd had a heart attack just two days ago, he was feeling weirdly fit. The doctor called it a miracle; Blair was calling it mystical. If he had known that merging spirit animals were so good for the body, he would've been advocating it a long time ago.
Jim cocked his head in an expression that suggested he was listening closely. Long seconds passed and Blair watched the light filter in through the tree branches. The sun was nearing noon now, and the heat pounded down on them. As much as Blair complained about the cold in Cascade, he wouldn't mind a little cold right now. The heat weighed on him, making every step harder. At least, he hoped it was the heat. He had no illusions about what his mother would do to stop them from claiming the throne.
“Your heart sounds good,” Jim said. “I still think we should have stayed at the hospital.”
“Man, medical testing is not going to be able to explain why my heart recovered so fast, and you know it.” All medical testing was going to do was bring entirely too much interest to them. Blair didn't feel even a little bit guilty about using his guide voice on Jim to get Jim to spring him from that place. The doctors were getting too interested, and Blair didn't feel like ending up a test subject for some Mexican doctor to poke and prod. “So how close do you think we are?”
Jim turned back toward the old path and studied the jungle. It all looked like trees to Blair. That might be why when he was studying the Kombai Tree People he got so lost. Navigating wasn't his best skill. That's why was so amusing that as the shaman, his job was supposedly to help them navigate the spiritual world. Naomi had told him that he didn't have the skills she did, and she was right. But that didn't mean he was going to give up.
“I think we’ll be there and another hour, maybe two,” Jim said. Again, he tilted his head to the side of his body tense as he listened for something. Blair moved closer and rested his hand on the small of Jim's back, waiting for some sign that Jim had identified the threat. Instead, Jim shook his head like a dog coming up out of water, his jaw clenched tightly.
“Just relax,” Blair coached. “You know she's out there. You know she's trying to mess with your senses.”
Jim nodded, quick sharp movement. Maybe it was Alex out there playing games with Jim's senses or maybe it was something to do with the fact that this jungle was home to primitive sentinels. This was where the Temple of Sentinels waited. And unless the dream plain was lying, this is where Alex and Jim would have to fight for leadership of sentinels. Blair had always seen himself as a rational man. Naomi went from the counterculture to the New Age, she danced between Chinese beliefs and Indian gods, she was open to the whole world, and Blair's rebellion had led him to science. In rebelling against Naomi, he had sought to measure and count and explain the world. And now, the world wasn't so easy to explain.
Jim's hand rested on his shoulder. “Are you okay, Chief?”
“Just freaking out.”
“Isn't that my job?” Jim gave Blair a grim smile.
“Yeah, well, you weren’t doing it all that well. I thought I'd take over for a while.” Blair smiled back, and Jim’s body seemed to loosen. With a crooked smile that came a little close to honest amusement, he reached up to tug Blair’s pony tail.
“I'll make sure I do a better job just as soon as I take care of Alex.”
Blair nodded. Considering that Jim usually did either repress or freak when the weirdness came, he was handling this better than Blair had expected. “Are you still feeling protective toward her?”
Jim didn't answer, but from the way his jaw muscle bulged, Blair was guessing that was a yes. Whatever power was down here, Alex had tapped into it. Alex and Naomi. When those two had gotten together, Blair knew there was going to be trouble. He just never guessed how much. He'd thought that a huge exposé in the newspaper about the lack of security on biological weapons and a number of ecoterrorist attacks that sounded eerily familiar were the worst of it. However, the idea of Alex and Naomi in charge of sentinels scared him a hell of a lot more.
“I'm going to knock her right off the throne, Sandburg. And I don't care if I have to go through your mother to do it.” Jim gave Blair one of his patented glares as he guided Blair to the edge of the clearing to a point where the faint trail led back into the deep jungle.
Blair held both hands up in surrender. “Oh man, I am not even going to argue with you. I'm the one who's been getting attacked in the dreamscape.”
“I hate this shit,” Jim muttered as he turned and started hacking his way through the jungle again. Either Naomi and Alex had chosen another path to the jungle, or there were spots where they’d had to crawl to get through the thick foliage. This part of Mexico was a popular tourist destination, but no one had been using these trails – not tourists or natives or even the drug runners that were starting to move into the territory. Blair wondered if that had anything to do with the Temple.
He might've run that theory past Jim, but for the next hour or so he was busy just trying to keep up. Vines clung at his legs, sweat slid down his spine, and his legs felt like lead. Jim, however, silently powered through the jungle. Except for the faint grunts as he swung the machete, he was silent.
A little part of Blair wondered why he'd insisted they come in all. In another universe, maybe he would've let his mother have the power. However, he'd worked with sentinels. He'd seen the men and women suffering and struggling to get control of their senses, and he couldn't imagine any of them working well with his mother. The soldiers were angry. They resented their bodies and fought every attempt to try and get them to use nontraditional medicine to ease the symptoms. Blair had watched some slip into comas right in front of his eyes. If Naomi breezed in and started talking about feng shui, blood was going to get spilled.
SBA LENDING PODCAST
BUSINESS DEPOSITS PODCAST
Whether your business is already up and running or just getting started, we want to provide you with tools and resources to start and grow your business.
Episode 02: Business Banking Solutions
You have a great idea for a new business… now how do you turn it into reality? It’s important to find a trusted and knowledgeable banker to help easily manage the everyday finances of your business. In episode 02 of fIRST things First, we break down everything from documents you may need to present when opening a bank account, what you should look for when talking with a banker, to fraud protection and types of deposit accounts and other products and services available to help make banking more convenient, easier and possibly even save time.*
Episode 01: SBA Lending Solutions
Own a business? Want to start one? Now what? There are many loan choices out there today for small business owners and it can be challenging to understand the differences. In episode 01 of fIRST things First, we break down the different types of Small Business Administration (SBA) loans available to help business owners start and grow their business.*
*fIRST Things First podcasts are for informational purposes only. Any information provided is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified legal, accounting, or tax advisor. You should consult with the appropriate professional before any business decisions are made.
Additional Business Tips & Solutions
You successfully started your business, now what?
You successfully started your business, now what? A business bank account is a great first step that will help you stay legally compliant and protected when you're ready to start accepting or spending money. It also provides benefits to your customers and employees. Opening a business bank account is a simple process but documentation is required to open an account and may vary by financial institution but here are some examples of things that you may need to bring with you:
· Employer Identification Number (EIN) (or a Social Security number, if you're a sole proprietorship)
· Your business's formation documents
· Articles of incorporation
Benefits of business accounts
· Protection. Business banking offers limited personal liability protection by keeping your business funds separate from your personal funds. Merchant services also offer purchase protection for your customers and ensures that their personal information is secure.
· Professionalism. Customers will be able to pay you with credit cards and make checks out to your business instead of directly to you. Plus, you'll be able to authorize employees to handle day-to-day banking tasks on behalf of the business.
· Preparedness. Business banking usually comes with an option for a line of credit for the company. This can be used in the event of an emergency or if your business needs new equipment.
· Purchasing power. Credit card accounts can help your business make large startup purchases and help establish a credit history for your business.
Benefits of a full banking relationship
One of the most important aspects of owning a business is the relationship between you and the banker. You need to build trust and have confidence. A banker will ask questions to understand the nature of your business, cash flow and information about financial statements. Sometimes you will get an introductory offer or rate in the mail from a financial institution but those offers only last for a short period of time. It really comes down to building a relationship and knowing and trusting your banker.
Additional business products to consider
A debit card will allow you to set up electronic purchasing and recurring supplier payments, make purchase online or in-person and protect your business from unauthorized purchases with Visa’s Zero Liability Policy.
A credit card will allow you to make business-related purchases online or in-person, build a credit history, improve payment flexibility, optimize cash flow and protect your business from unauthorized purchases with Visa’s Zero Liability Policy.
Remote deposit Capture will improve cash flow by accelerating the collection and clearing of customer check payments by preparing and processing check payments electronically. It will also reduce costs by decreasing time, transportation and administrative expenses associated with your bank deposits. You can also make deposits from multiple locations and/or to multiple accounts from one platform.
Online banking is important to help you stay in control of the daily account management. Online banking services provide encrypted, secure access for you and designated employees to manage your business accounts, transactions and activity.
Merchant services allow you the ability to accept credit and debit card payments from customers through a secure, encrypted channel. It can help your business strengthen customer relationships, improve cash flow and streamline payment process.
Do you own a business or plan to start one and need funding? Start or grow your business with loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA). The SBA doesn’t lend money directly to small business owners. Instead, it sets guidelines for loans made by its partnering lenders, community development organizations and micro-lending institutions. The SBA guarantees these loans will be repaid, which eliminates some risk for the lending partners.
SBA Size Requirements
The SBA defines small businesses that qualify for funding into three categories. Manufacturing companies with fewer than 500 employees, retail oriented business averaging less than seven million in sales and any business with profitability less than an average of five million or a net worth less than $15 million.
Guidelines for SBA Lending
Lenders and loan programs have unique eligibility requirements. In general, eligibility is based on what a business does to receive its income, the character of its ownership and where the business operates. Normally, businesses must meet size requirements, be able to repay and have a sound business purpose. Even those with bad credit may qualify for startup funding. Lenders will provide you with a full list of eligibility requirements for your loan which may include:
· Officially registering as a business
· Physically located in and operating in the U.S.
· Owner investing their time or money in the business
· Exhausting all other financing options
Types of SBA Loans
The Small Business Administration provides loans for credit-worthy purposes such as the acquisition of business real estate, machinery or equipment, working capital or other ventures.
Explore some of the most popular SBA loan offerings below:
· SBA 7(A) is the most frequently used and can be used for a variety of business needs from acquiring real estate, equipment, establishing a new business, acquiring a business, or expansion with a lending amount up to $5 million
· SBA Express can be granted to businesses in need of a revolving line of credit up to $350,000
· SBA CAPline is designed to help small businesses meet their financial and cyclical working capital needs with the ability to offer up to 5 million in a revolving credit line
· SBA 504 provides long-term, fixed rate financing to acquire major fixed assets for expansion or modernization and the assets are typically real estate, buildings, equipment and/or machinery and loan amounts up to $5.5 million
· SBA export loan and express export loan are for any company that exports directly or they supply product to a company as a primary exporter
Choosing the right lender
Choose a lender that is knowledgeable and understands the ins and outs of financing. When it comes to SBA financing, the lender needs to be able to show you the value of using SBA – the costs vs. the benefits. You want to look for someone who asks questions and offers you the right solutions for your business needs.
Watch out for interest rates that are significantly higher than competitors’ rates, or fees that are more than five percent of the loan value. Make sure the lender discloses the annual percentage rate and full payment schedule. A lender should never ask you to lie on paperwork or leave signature boxes blank. Don’t get pressured into taking a loan. Survey competing offers and consider speaking with a financial planner, accountant, or attorney before signing for your next loan.
Documents needed to apply
Not all loans are the same - each loan is unique. You may not be required to provide all of these items, but some of the most common documents a lender may ask you to provide are: personal documents, resume, business plan with projections, personal and business credit reports, income tax returns, financial statements, bank statements, collateral and legal documents.
Small businesses with less than 100 employees experience a median loss of $154,000 due to fraud, according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE). This number is higher for small businesses than most large companies.
All businesses face unique challenges in the fight against fraud and employees and customers are just a few people who might take advantage of your small business. Corporate account takeover is a type of fraud where thieves gain access to a business’ finances to make unauthorized transactions, including transferring funds from the company, creating and adding new fake employees to payroll, and stealing sensitive customer information that may not be recoverable. Here are a few tips help to keep your small business safe:
Educate your employees
You and your employees are the first line of defense against corporate account takeover. A strong security program paired with employee education about the warning signs, safe practices, and responses to a suspected takeover are essential to protecting your company and customers.
Protect your online environment. It is important to protect your cyber environment just as you would your cash and physical location. Do not use unprotected internet connections. Encrypt sensitive data and keep updated virus protections on your computer. Use complex passwords and change them periodically.
Work with your bank to prevent unauthorized transactions. Talk to your banker about programs that safeguard you from unauthorized transactions. Positive Pay and other services offer call backs, device authentication, multi-person approval processes and batch limits help protect you from fraud.
Pay attention to suspicious activity and react quickly. Look out for unexplained account or network activity, pop ups, and suspicious emails. If detected, immediately contact your financial institution, stop all online activity and remove any systems that may have been compromised. Keep records of what happened.
Understand your responsibilities and liabilities. The account agreement with your bank will detail what commercially reasonable security measures are required in your business. It is critical that you understand and implement the security safeguards in the agreement. If you don’t, you could be liable for losses resulting from a takeover. Talk to your banker if you have any questions about your responsibilities.
Is your business prepared if a disaster were to occur?
Businesses should prepare for the impact of the many hazards they face in today’s world including natural disasters, serious illness, technology related hazards and human related incidents. It is important to have a disaster plan to keep your business running.
The Department of Homeland Security is a great resource and their site provides a five step program to prepare your business for a disaster. The five steps are Program Management, Planning, Implementation, Testing and Exercises and Program Improvement. To find out details about the five step program and for more information on this topic, visit https://www.ready.gov/business.
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