Disclaimer: This is an amateur effort written purely for the fun of it, and no money has exchanged hands. It is not intended to breach the copyright of Paramount/Pet Fly Productions or CBS Productions/Studios USA.


Thanks to Connie for beta reading this story

 

Warning: Adult language and situations.


The Reflection in the Mirror Series: Part 5 (April 11, 2002)


THE CLAWS THAT CATCH


By Susan and Maedoc



The man moved quietly through the remote mountain forest. He absently noted the chill in the air and the frost crunching under his feet. Snow was coming soon; he could smell it in the air.


Glancing up, he saw a small cat curled on a tree limb, watching him. The dark spots on its light fur blended into the foliage and the darkness. The little cat made eye contact, then looked away, then back, all the while blinking slowly.


The man stared back. The little cat hesitated, then slipped back in the branches out of view.


The man moved on deeper into the forest.


There was another here. The beast moved out of the trees. The man paused, light blue eyes locking on light blue, as the tiger approached.


“I know you,” the man said, the feeling of recognition teasing the edge of his memory.


The tiger watched him, silent.


The man hesitated, then reached out to touch the tiger’s head as it moved closer, rumbling.


His hand continued to smooth over the tiger’s head, registering each purr. The man murmured, “Why did you come back now?”


The tiger swished its tail.


A strange noise, like a cough, drew the man’s head up. Peering out from the trees was a black cat with the same blue eyes as the tiger.


The man watched as the black animal moved closer but kept a distance between them. The tiger looked over its shoulder, each cat sizing the other up.


The panther moved even closer, and the tiger growled a challenge.


The panther crouched, ready to spring, but a gray shape moved in front of it, blocking the way. The canine eyes were a deep blue, shades and shades darker than either large cat.


The man reached out, and the wolf came to him, moving to his side to rest its head against the man’s leg.


Both cats leaped on the man -- and vanished.


Hunter woke with a start. Glancing around the bedroom, nothing seemed out of place. The soothing rhythm of his guide’s heart beat was just down the hall.


Hunter rubbed his eyes. Esoteric dreaming had never been his strong suit, but Sandburg would have had a field day with it. Hunter had seen the spirit animal several times since bonding with Sarah; knew its significance, but he had never stopped to consider why he had accepted it so readily.


“Too much Animal Planet,” Hunter whispered, turning over only to encounter a warm bulk lying next to him on the bed. He froze, cop instincts screaming at him to grab the handgun from the night stand. The rumbling purr stopped him. Letting his eyes adjust to the gloom, Hunter made out the striped body curled next to him.


“Just what I need: an overgrown house cat to shed all over my bed.” Hunter’s grumble was negated by a gentle rub of the big cat’s fur. The tiger stretched in delight, then snuggled closer.


“Don’t think you’re gonna make a habit of this, buddy,” Hunter warned as he let his head settle back on the pillow.


The tiger ignored him as it huffed out a breath and went back to sleep. Hunter soon followed.


~~~~~~~~~


Blair was parked at his desk, paper piled precariously around him. He peered around one of the unsteady stacks to check on Sarah’s progress with the sorting. He’d gotten his stitches out from the head wound he had suffered during the campus attack, and the week of light duty, at his sentinel’s insistence, had made major progress in healing his bruised ribs.


“How’s it going?” Blair couldn’t even see the floor with all the boxes and books scattered around.


Sarah glanced up from her cataloguing. They had had every intention of working on some more Dark Sentinel manuscripts, but after seeing the mess from Blair’s latest sentinel research acquisitions, all ten cases and countless books, they realized something had to be done to organize things.


“Umm...I think we need more file boxes,” Sarah replied. Hunter had agreed to allow her one day a week with Blair, and she was trying to make the most of it. The small concession made her hopeful that others might follow, in time.


“Oh, man,” Blair moaned. “I don’t have room for all this stuff!” He waved his hand despairingly at the overflowing shelves of artifacts and books.


“If we label the boxes and stack them on top of each other like file drawers, we can use the back wall.” Sarah pointed to the only free area in the whole room.


“I need a mental health break,” Blair declared. “Let’s go to the Digital Bean for ice cream.” The Digital Bean was a coffee/ice cream shop with internet access just off campus that was a student and faculty favorite.


They walked out of Hargrove Hall into the sunshine and Blair breathed in appreciatively. “Late summer – I love this time of year. No fall classes for a few weeks, time to savor the campus.”


Sarah felt a quick pang at his words. If she hadn’t been bonded, she would be starting classes next month. If...if...if. She berated herself for moping – she needed to focus on the positives.


“What would you like, Sarah?” She realized belatedly they were now standing at the counter with the student worker patiently waiting to take their order.


“Oh!” She smiled apologetically. “Sorry. Banana split, please.”


“Double fudge ripple sundae,” Blair ordered, and pulled out his wallet.


“No, my treat,” Sarah insisted, and carefully counted out the bills.


Blair watched her; she was coming out of her shell, slowly but surely. She missed the flirtatious wink the student gave her and the universal male look of approval that proclaimed: cute chick.


But Blair didn’t.


As they made their way to a table, Blair chuckled. “He was checking you out.”


“What?” Sarah asked, confused.


“The clerk. He was checking you out.” Blair couldn’t resist teasing her.


Rather than blushing, which Blair expected, Sarah went pale. “No, I....”


“Hey, what’s wrong? He wasn’t doing anything nasty; he just thought you were cute.” Blair stared at her, worried.


“No, I can’t....” She trailed off, remembering the ugly scene at the record store and Hunter’s reaction.


“Sarah,” Blair reached out and threaded his fingers through hers, linking. Almost immediately, Blair knew what was wrong.


Sarah looked down at her untouched ice cream. It was bad enough to have the memory of Hunter’s reaction; now she had the Guide Prime in the equation.


“You didn’t do anything wrong.”


She glanced up, eyes troubled.


“He’s going to have to come to terms with it,” Blair said softly. “You aren’t her.”


It figured that Blair would know – he always knew. It was scary coping with Hunter’s demons, but it was even more frightening to have Blair know so much more than he’d ever reveal.


With a reassuring squeeze of her hand, Blair smiled. “Hey, how about we just drop this topic and enjoy our ice cream.”


When she nodded in relief, Blair took a scoop of his sundae and fired up the computer. “I wanna surf a bit – any requests?”


“I’d like to know more about the spirit animals,” Sarah said shyly. “I tried to read everything in the books you gave me, but they didn’t say much.”


“They wouldn’t,” Blair said as he typed in a URL. “That’s something very rare and special.”


“What does it mean to have one?”


Blair waited while the page loaded. “The meaning of a spirit animal is complex. It’s generally a guide or a protector in the spiritual realm, but it depends on what cultural context you’re working in.”


“What does it want?”


Blair smiled. “You’re looking at it backwards. The spirit animal is there for you: to teach, to protect, to help you understand.”


“How do I ask it what I’m supposed to learn?”


“That’ll come when the time is right.”


“That doesn’t help much,” Sarah sighed.


“I know – but some things have to be experienced first hand in order to learn from them.” Blair wasn’t deliberately being vague. As a teacher, he knew full well that certain things had to come at their own pace. “The first step is to learn about the animals themselves – their characteristics, habitats, even the mythology surrounding them.”


“When I saw my cat the last time, it looked different.” Sarah took a scoop of banana and ice cream and chewed thoughtfully.


“Different?”


“The colors...they were different. Maybe it was a little bit bigger.”


Blair just nodded, a curious half smile on his face. Then he looked back to the computer. “Here we go: the gray wolf. My spirit animal. See all the neat stuff?” Blair moved the screen so they could both see. “I love these wilderness preservation sites.”


They read through the page, then Blair surfed on to show Sarah all about the panther.


“Strictly speaking, it’s not a panther, which is a black leopard. Jim’s spirit animal is a melanistic jaguar. We just call it a panther out of habit. Plus, it’s easier to find panther stories than jaguar stories, not to mention cool Kipling quotes.”


“What about the tiger?” Sarah asked.


“Siberian tiger. Largest tiger breed, often found in snowy, mountainous regions, solitary predator. Sound like somebody we know?” They read through the description.


Sarah looked glum. “You have all these exotic wild animals. And I have a house cat.” It was depressing to be so ordinary.


“Watch,” Blair said as he clicked on a few links. “Does this look familiar?”


Sarah stared at the tiny cat, with its light fur and spots. It looked just like her animal did now.


“It’s no larger than a house cat, also found in mountainous regions, and quite rare. All of our animals are endangered species, but yours is the most endangered of all.”


“How did you know...?” Sarah’s first question trailed off. The Guide Prime was doing it again. “What is it?” She leaned forward to read the accompanying text.


“The oncilla - otherwise known as the tiger cat.” Blair reached out to touch the stone she wore around her neck. “Tiger eye, tiger cat – pretty cool, huh?”


“But what does it mean?” Sarah leaned back again.


Blair gave her a mysterious smile. “That’s for you to find out.”


~~~~~~~~~


Todd sat at his state of the art computer crunching potato chips. The high tech machine looked out of place in the dingy one room apartment. Piles of fast food bags littered the floor along with junk food wrappers and stacks of paper.


Todd pushed his stringy hair back from his face as he typed. He was an graduate student at Rainier University in the computer science department. Average student, but excellent web site designer. And he’d found someone to pay him for what he enjoyed doing most.


His attention was fixated on his latest creation. He’d run through the video “Guided Passion”, and found some excellent clips to capture and put on the site. Flash, avi or mpeg? he mused, knowing that not everyone would be able to view certain formats depending on their web browser and media player software. Ah, what the hell. I’ve got enough server space for several formats.


He ran through the clip: the guide’s eyes were glassed over, but most people wouldn’t pick up on the drugged state. They would be too busy watching the action to notice anything else. The guide was actively moving and moaning, pleasuring one guard while another took his own pleasure on the writhing body.


Todd nodded; it looked perfect. He knew that the sites had a cult following in the campus underground. Shocked and titillated, people checked out every update and every new site he created. He uploaded the file and the updated index page.


I am a Web God, he gloated, leaning back in his chair. He reached for his can of soda and grimaced -- it was flat. Getting up for the first time in three hours, he got a bag of nacho chips and a fresh can of root beer – time to check the other sites.


Todd put his chips down in shock as he went from site to site. 404 - Page not found.

What the hell? He logged on via ftp to the servers hosting the sites and couldn’t connect. Same thing via telnet. Someone had taken down his web sites. Someone had pulled them, but who?


Picking up the phone, he dialed frantically.


“This had better be an emergency,” came the raspy voice of his still unseen boss.


“The web sites,” Todd stammered. “Somebody pulled them!”


“Damn it,” the man cursed. “All right, just stay calm. I’ll get somebody on it.”


Todd hung up, uneasy. The man who had hired him said it was easy money - just design sites and maintain them, but it seemed like things were getting a bit more complicated. When the phone rang, he jumped.


“Hello?” he said cautiously.


“Stay off the net for the next two days. I’ll let you know when you can upload again.”


“Uh, what happened?”


There was a pause. “You know what killed the cat.” The connection broke.


Todd stared at the phone, then hung up. What seemed like a harmless porn fantasy was now a lot darker and murkier.


Maybe I should get out of this, Todd thought, and got up to lock his door. Maybe I should just get the hell out of Dodge.


~~~~~~~~~


“Hey, Sarah. It’s six o’clock.” Blair shoved a file box against the wall and let out a grunt. The boxes were already stacked seven high, and they still had more stuff to organize.


“Oh, no!” Sarah yelped. Hunter had ordered her to be home by six. “I’m late. I still have to cook.”


Just then Blair’s cell phone rang. “Hello?”


Blair grinned at Sarah. “Hi, Hunter. Yeah, we’re still here. We’ve been sorting papers all day.” Blair listened intently. “Late meeting? Yeah, okay, I can do that. Sure, no problem.” Blair hung up and chuckled.


“What?”


“Hunter has a late meeting with the city commissioner. He probably won’t be home before 8:30, so he wanted me to make sure you ate supper.”


“I don’t need a babysitter,” Sarah sighed.


“But I need food,” Blair blinked innocently. “Any chance I could get invited for dinner?” It was shameless manipulation, but Sarah caved under the look.


“Where’s Detective Ellison?”


“Jim’s got some kind of reunion with a few of his army buddies tonight. I really didn’t want to hear a bunch of ex-military jocks with receding hairlines reminisce about the good old days.” Blair gave Sarah a rueful glance. “Just too testosterone, ya know?”


Sarah tried to picture Hunter with a bunch of his military compatriots. She wasn’t sure he even had any buddies.


They arrived at Hunter’s house, and Blair took the house key from Sarah, opening the door. Just like Hunter, he made sure the house was safe, relying on his empathy to scan for unwanted presences.


“So what’s for dinner?” Blair asked conversationally.


Sarah peered into the refrigerator. “How about stuffed peppers?”


“Sounds great. I can set the table.” Blair rummaged through the cupboards, locating dishes and glasses.


They worked in companionable silence, Blair fixing salad while Sarah browned meat and stuffed the peppers.


“You’re going to microwave them?” Blair asked in horror.


“Sure,” Sarah said. “It tastes about the same, and it’s quicker.”


Blair just shook his head at the sacrilege. She had made enough for four, probably to accommodate Hunter’s appetite, which if it was anything like Jim’s, would keep three normal people fed.


After dinner, Blair glanced at his watch. “Hey, what day is it?”


“Tuesday, why?”


“Turn the TV on,” Blair ordered. “It’s almost eight.”


Blair picked up the remote and switched the channels. “I just love this show.”


Sarah settled on the couch. “I haven’t seen it since...well, since.” She bit her lip. She loved the show too, but Hunter was more a Discovery Channel/PBS viewer with a life-long addiction to ESPN. She really hadn’t had a chance to watch anything she wanted to for fear of upsetting her sentinel.


“So what happened the last few months?”


“Well, you know the one boyfriend left. And Piton has had this crush on her, but she said he was beneath her. That didn’t last for long.”


“You mean they actually got together?” Sarah gasped.


“Well, not yet, but I’m sure as heck that they will. Remember the episode where they were under the love spell? Those two have an amazing chemistry. Much better than old what’s-his-face. I always thought he was brooding wet cardboard.”


“Most people really like him,” Sarah ventured shyly. “But I always liked Piton better than Seraph.”


“Yeah, he can act.” Blair grinned at her shocked gasp. “Well, it’s true. Take Seraph --I’ve never heard a worse Scots brogue in my life, and I’m no expert by any means.”


“Seraph’s good looking,” Sarah said neutrally.


“So’s half the world. Doesn’t make him memorable.”


“Piton’s so...” Sarah trailed off, uncomfortable with the direction her thoughts were taking.


“Hey, it’s okay. You can appreciate a good looking actor. I’m gonna maintain my devotion to Sienna.” Blair grinned as he wiggled his eyebrows.


They settled down to watch the show. The key turning in the lock barely registered as both empaths were engrossed in the show’s heroine battling yet another monster.


“I might have known,” came the deep voice as the door opened. “Leave you two alone and you start cultivating all kinds of bad habits.” Hunter walked in, eyeing the TV with disfavor.


“Hey, it’s almost over,” Blair grinned. “Just getting Sarah caught up on the episodes she missed.”


Hunter glared at him. He was tired, hungry and in the mood for a fight.


“I have your plate ready,” Sarah was already hurrying to the kitchen. “All I need to do is heat it up.” She popped the plate in the microwave as she pulled a bowl of salad out of the refrigerator.


Blair trailed into the kitchen after her and poured Hunter a glass of ice tea. “C’mon, Hunter. Lighten up. It’s just a TV show. Here, sit down and we’ll serve you.”


Hunter sat, still glaring while Blair placed glass, silverware and napkin in front of him. Sarah brought the hot plate to him, not daring to breathe until he took the first bite and grunted approval.


He looks so tired, Sarah thought.


“Go finish watching your show,” Hunter ordered. “Mindless drivel that it is.”


Sarah wavered, not wanting to upset him more.


Blair sat down across from Hunter, eyes sympathetic. “Bad day, huh?”


“Just long,” Hunter grunted. Sarah laid a hand on his shoulder and opened the link, sensing his headache. Bit by bit, the headache eased as Hunter ate and his guide gave him support.


When Hunter had cleaned his plate and was starting on his salad, Blair stood up.


“Well, I gotta get home. Jim should be back from his reunion and I’m at the PD tomorrow bright and early.”


“Thanks for staying with her, Sandburg,” Hunter growled, feeling much better and unwilling to admit it.


“No problem,” Blair replied. “I got a free dinner and didn’t have to cook.” He grinned at Sarah.


Sarah saw Blair out, then returned to her sentinel, clearing off the dishes. She fixed a cup of coffee for him as Hunter removed his tie and jacket, sighing in relief.


“What do you see in that show, anyway?” Hunter peered at her, his expression inquiring. He vaguely knew about the show -- some supernatural thing -- but had never had much interest in it.


“It’s entertaining,” Sarah said. “It’s funny and scary.”


“That actress – she’s about your size,” Hunter said, catching the end credits on the screen. He narrowed his eyes. “Looks a bit like you, too.”


“Sienna is beautiful,” Sarah said wistfully. “I’m not.”


Before Hunter could say anything, she turned away to finish cleaning up. He followed her into the kitchen, leaning against the door jamb.


“What is it about the show that sends you?” Hunter asked bluntly. Her feelings were easy to read, and the hint of melancholy disturbed him.


Sarah hesitated, not wanting to sound ridiculous. “In that world, she’s different. She has special powers that she doesn’t want, and an obligation she can’t get away from. She can’t be normal, ever.”


Hunter moved behind her, not quite touching. “Sort of like empaths...and sentinels.”


“I guess,” Sarah shrugged, not turning around.


“Does it make you sad?” Hunter asked softly.


“No, not really,” Sarah shrugged again, staring blindly down at the counter she was wiping. “It’s all make-believe. But she....”


“She what?” Hunter asked, somehow sensing this was very important.


“She’s strong. She survives. She’s not very big, but she can fight the monsters and win.”


“Are you fighting monsters, Tiger?” Hunter smoothed a hand over her head, his touch gentle.


Sarah opened her mouth, then shut it again. She felt like crying, for some reason.


Hunter opened the link, waiting. When Sarah connected, he just moved her back to rest against him. Sarah closed her eyes and slowly relaxed into her sentinel’s hold.


Mine.


~~~~~~~~


Hunter pulled out some case folders from his briefcase as he exited Simon Banks’ office. He was still investigating the various links to the guide porn tapes. It was a convoluted and complex problem – just the kind of challenge that gave him a predatory thrill.


Pulling out his cell phone, he hit 2 and waited.


“Captain Hunter’s residence, may I help you?” The normally low and pleasant voice was definitely nasal and congested. Sarah had managed to catch a summer cold, that, while not serious, made her too miserable to accompany her sentinel today.


“Just checking in,” Hunter said tersely, aware that members of the bullpen weren’t above eavesdropping on any conversation deemed interesting.


“I’m fine,” Sarah said, then promptly sneezed twice and blew her nose.


“Uh huh, I can certainly hear it,” the mild sarcasm was mitigated by the note of concern underneath it.


“Really, I’m okay. Just sniffly. I’m drinking orange juice.”


“Go lie down on the couch and take a nap,” Hunter ordered, then hung up.


Sarah stared at the phone, then sighed as she hung up. He’d only been gone four hours and already called three times. Part of her appreciated his concern, even if it just was sentinel to guide, but the other part of her wanted to strangle him with the telephone cord for hovering.


Sarah sneezed and grabbed another tissue. She sat down on the couch and absently flipped through the TV channels with the mute button on. It had been a fight to get Hunter out of the house that morning. She had been a bit congested last night, but she had woken up with an industrial strength cold and Hunter had gone into BP mode.


He’d all but pinned her down while he ran his hands over her, his senses checking for congestion and fever. Finally, he was satisfied that she would survive the day. He was fully prepared to call in, but Sarah had insisted she could stay at home and drink lots of liquids while he went to work. It still mystified her how she had managed to manhandle her six foot one sentinel out of the door.


Looking over, she saw her spirit animal curled on the rug near the patio door. It looked content just to rest there, Sarah thought drowsily, as the cold medicine kicked in and she drifted off to sleep.


Hunter was in BP mode and nothing and nobody was going to talk him out of it. His guide was ill, and she was alone at home for the first time since the kidnapping. And speaking of sick guides....


Hunter looked over at Sandburg; the kid had been called in to help because Hunter had zoned twice in Simon’s office due to the fresh coat of paint on the walls. Okay, the kid had volunteered -- more or less. But now the kid was coming down with the same damn bug, only worse. Sandburg had stubbornly insisted on staying with Hunter for all two hours of the meeting with Banks and the Deputy Chief of Police.


Blair sat at his desk, trying to keep it together. He felt awful. Maybe it’s the flu. God, my muscles ache. He shivered a bit with a sudden chill. With Sarah sick and Jim in court, there was nobody else to keep Hunter grounded. Focusing Hunter had tapped out the last of his reserves; his barriers were disintegrating rapidly.


Simon peered out the door of his office, his face lined with concern when he looked at Blair. The young man looked really ill.


Hunter homed in on Blair. The kid had his head in his hands as he leaned on the desk, his arms trembling with the effort to hold his head up. Hunter caught him before he nose-dived into the computer monitor.


Hunter caught a glimpse of the kid’s eyes - glassy and red-rimmed. He could smell the sickness that soured the kid’s scent, and felt the heat radiating from the compact body. In just a few short hours, Blair had gone from mildly ill to truly sick


Hunter snarled when somebody walked too close to Blair’s desk. The Guide Prime was sick, and the Shield must protect the guide.


“Sandburg, what am I going to do with you? You should never have been allowed to come in this sick.”


“Somebody had to do it, man,” Blair countered, his voice raspy, rattling in his throat.


“And you call me stubborn?” Hunter moved Blair back a bit so he could lean against the back of the chair. “You could give lessons in obstinate, Sandburg.”


H was keeping a careful distance from the IA captain, but at the same time wanted to help Blair, whom he genuinely thought of as a friend. He had scrounged around the break room and found some of Blair’s favorite tea. He had made up a mug and was bringing it to Blair, but before he could get close, Hunter intercepted him.


“Blair, would you like..?” The words were cut off as Hunter locked a hand around H’s upper arm. H froze instantly.


“Relax, I just brought him some tea,” H croaked, not wanting to push the sentinel over the edge. Hunter gradually released his grip.


Hunter took the mug from H, rumbling a warning, and H backed off hurriedly.


Blair managed to look up. The IA captain sniffed at the tea, managing to stop a sneeze at the smell of it. Then, to Blair’s mortification, he took a sip of it, checking the temperature, and only then placed it in front of him with the curt order to drink it.


“I don’t need...” Blair protested weakly, but Hunter wasn’t listening. A firm hand descended on his neck. Blair half expected to be shaken into submission, as Hunter was in major Blessed Protector mode, but all Hunter did was lightly massage Blair’s aching muscles, trying to encourage him through touch to drink the tea.


“If you won’t go home, then at least drink something. You’re dehydrating.”


Blair just didn’t have the energy to argue with another alpha sentinel. “Okay,” he sighed in surrender.


With one glare at the rest of the room, Hunter finally settled down in Ellison’s chair, and started to leaf through his reports. He couldn’t focus on them. He could hear the congestion in the smaller man, and the heat from his body was like a furnace to him.


Blair began to cough and Hunter rubbed his back soothingly as Blair tried to bring up the mucus irritating his lungs, but it rattled in his chest and refused to budge. Hunter waited patiently for the coughing fit to finish.


Maybe I should go home, Blair thought dizzily. I’m freezing. But the thought of driving while feeling like this stopped him. I’ll probably run off the road.


Hunter could feel Blair shivering. He slipped out of his jacket and pulled it around his charge, and was rewarded with a muffled thanks. Blair pulled the coat closer around himself; it was still warm from Hunter’s body heat, and had a pleasant evergreen scent that soothed the guide.


A light tap to his arm, and the cup was placed in his shaking hand, and he was gruffly ordered to drink it.


Yes sir, Mr. Sentinel, sir. Blair didn’t say anything out loud, but Hunter caught the little flash of rebellion all the same.


“Drink it, or I’ll pour it down your throat, Sandburg,” Hunter growled, but he spoiled the effect of the threat by rubbing Blair’s back soothingly.


So Blair sipped and shivered while Hunter watched over him.


Daryl Banks looked around the bull pen, paused and then headed for Jim Ellison. Rhonda had given him an evidence report fresh from the lab to be given directly to the detective. A volunteer gopher for the next couple of weeks, Daryl had decided to do his work placement with his father at the police department. After all the problems with his university placement, when he had fallen in with the wrong crowd and acted like a real jerk, Daryl was eager to make amends.


It was about playing his dues; a man always paid his dues, his father told him, and Daryl knew he had a long way to go before Detective Ellison would trust him. After that horrible rough start, he had gotten to know Blair and to respect the empath for his character and strength. Daryl was still deeply ashamed of how he had treated Blair in the beginning.


It hadn’t been easy. When Daryl had first arrived for his junior internship, Ellison had treated him with an icy politeness that had hurt more than any yelling or temper. The Sentinel Prime wasn’t ready to forgive the teenager for what he had done.


But Blair smoothed the way for him; now Detective Ellison only looked as if he were going to take his head off, instead of actually doing it.


Daryl caught a glimpse of Blair, nearly hidden behind his sentinel, and frowned. Detective Brown had told him that Blair was ill, but it looked more like the young man was ready to collapse.


For a moment, Daryl hesitated. Approaching a sick guide was dangerous, as he had learned in Sentinel 101, but Rafe and Brown were close by, and it wasn’t like Detective Ellison could kill him, right?


Daryl could see the younger man shivering and felt indignation rise. Why would Ellison make his guide work when he was obviously sick?


“Respectfully, sir, you shouldn’t have brought your guide in today. He looks terrible.”


The sentinel looked up, eyes narrowed, and Daryl took a step backward.


Blair tried to say something, but was silenced by the larger man.


Daryl, seeing the sentinel bullying Blair, got brave. “If you don’t take him home, I’ll have to tell my d....”


“Keep your nose out of what doesn’t concern you!”


The next moment, Daryl was lifted up from the floor by the front of his sweatshirt. His feet were hanging in mid air.


Blair scrambled to grab Hunter. All he managed to say was, “Hunter, don’t...no,” before he collapsed in a spasm of coughing. Blair fell to his knees, choking on the fluid he couldn’t clear.


Can’t breathe, he wanted to scream, but he couldn’t get words out, or air in. Panicking, he tried to pull himself up, but Hunter was there, and whacked him on the back sharply.


Daryl, forgotten for the moment, raced toward his father’s office. “Dad, come quick! Dad!”


Blair coughed and sputtered as the back blow dislodged the mucus plug. Rafe and H were on their feet, ready to rescue Blair from the wrath of Captain Hunter, but stopped when they realized what was happening.


Blair just gasped brokenly as the bluish tint to his lips faded.


“Easy, Sandburg,” Hunter rumbled as he gently moved Blair to lie on his side. “Just breathe.” His hand moved over the unruly mop of hair, calming and soothing.


Simon had looked out as soon as he heard his son’s voice, and when he saw the IA captain grab his son, he was running out of his office. By the time Simon entered the bull pen, Hunter had released the teenager, who yelled for his father and managed to run straight into him.


Simon quickly looked his son over for any injuries, and then moved him off to the side. Sandburg was gasping and shaking, but he clung to Hunter and refused to let go of the captain.


“What in the hell is going on?” Simon barked.


“He choked,” Hunter snarled, but his touch on Blair’s back never stopped. He swept Blair up off the floor and without even asking, carried Blair into Simon’s office and laid him down on the sofa.


The cushions were pushed behind his head as Hunter propped Blair up so he could breathe more easily.


“Sorry,” Blair choked, coughing again. His chest felt on fire. His mouth opened and closed spasmodically as he tried to talk.


“Come on, my little guppy; time to stop the fish impersonation.” The words were gruff, but Hunter’s touch was the opposite.


Hunter moved to sit on the sofa, and Blair clung to him, grateful for his shielding and support, yet a small selfish part of him desperately wished Jim were here.


Daryl, who had snuck in after his father, gingerly handed a small bottle of mineral water to Hunter. “Sentinel Ellison, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean....” He stopped as he felt the man’s blue eyes sweep over him.


“The name is Captain Hunter. And you are...?”


“Daryl. Daryl Banks.” He then turned puzzled eyes to his father. “Dad?”


“Leave it, son.” Simon dropped his hand onto Daryl’s shoulder and firmly guided him out the door. “We’ll talk later.”


Keeping Blair cradled against him, Hunter unscrewed the top of the bottle and coaxed Blair to take a few sips. It soothed Blair’s raw throat, and after Blair drank about half the bottle, Hunter eased him back down against the cushions.


“You know, Sandburg, next time I want hazardous duty pay,” Hunter groused, but his touch was soothing as he smoothed the long hair out of Blair’s eyes.


Simon returned and paced in front of the two men on the sofa. “How is he?”


“His barriers are shot, and he nearly choked to death on his own spit. Just wonderful, thanks.” The withering sarcasm made no impression on Banks.


“Daryl already told me what he did, and he apologized. He didn’t know.” Banks was grateful Hunter hadn’t injured his son; he could have done a lot of damage. The IA captain’s newfound self restraint must be another curious part of the Sandburg Effect.


Blair’s eyes felt like grit and a major headache had erupted. He had no barriers left. He groaned as he was lifted up, and then an arm went around him and he was pulled close. Reaching up, he grabbed a fistful of the expensive linen shirt Hunter wore, knotting it as he buried his face against the warm chest. The arm around him tightened.


Hunter rolled his eyes, muttering something about long haired guides, but shifted slightly to allow Blair to settle against him.

 

“Welcome to the club, Hunter.”


“What?”


“Parenthood -- or something like it.”


“This is a sentinel thing,” Hunter said sharply. “He’s not a child -- he’s a guide.”


“Right,” Banks looked unconvinced. “You protect them, you nurture them and provide for them. What exactly would you call that?”


“The bond,” Hunter said with a steely expression. “It works both ways.”


Banks wisely shut up.


Hunter looked down at the guide, wrapping his senses around him, monitoring his vitals. “Time to go home, Sandburg. I think we’ve had enough drama for one day.”


Blair just nodded, exhausted.


“I’m taking him home, Banks. When Ellison gets out of court, tell him to come over to my house to pick up Sandburg.”


Simon watched Hunter wrap a blanket around the shivering guide. The IA captain was full of surprises. Not only did he take care of his own guide, with a sensitivity Banks would never have given the man credit for, but he also watched over Blair. Curiouser and curiouser.


Blair half-dozed as Hunter carried him out. “I can walk,” he protested, too tired to be embarrassed.


“Yeah, I know. ” Hunter said, never pausing. “Just once, Sandburg, quit arguing.”


Sarah woke, but the little cat was gone. Pulling herself upright, she blew her nose for the nine millionth time. Hearing the car pull up outside the house, she looked out of the window, mindful of her sentinel rules about opening the door in his absence. The next minute, she threw open the door as Hunter came up carrying a blanket covered figure.


“Out the way, Sarah; he’s no light weight,” Hunter warned softly, as he maneuvered carefully around her.


“Blair?” The curly dark hair was unmistakable.


“He’s sick. Ellison’s in court, and I can’t leave him alone.”


“Should I call the doctor?” The Cascade PD had its own clinic. Sarah had gotten her mandatory physical there.


“If I bring modern medicine within ten feet of Mr. Natural Herbal Remedy, here, he’ll have a fit,” Hunter sighed, but he was worried. Blair’s fever had risen higher.


Hunter hesitated, then carried Blair up the stairs. He paused; his bedroom was closest, but Ellison would go ballistic if his guide were in Hunter’s bed. So it would have to be Sarah’s room – guide to guide, no threat.


“We’ll put him in your bed for now. Maybe Ellison can convince him to go to the hospital.” Hunter didn’t sound too hopeful about that.


“Can I help?” Sarah was pale, her nose and eyes reddened. She didn’t look that well, either, Hunter realized belatedly.


“Get some water, and some Tylenol,” Hunter instructed, peeling back the multi-layered clothing, all the while talking to Blair; the last thing he wanted was for the kid to have a flashback.


When Sarah left the room for the supplies, Hunter finished undressing the younger man, leaving him in his boxers. Then pulled the sheet up over him and left the comforter off. Too many layers and the kid’s temperature would go even higher. His hand ghosted over Blair’s forehead: 103.6, give or take a tenth of a degree.


Sarah returned with the Tylenol and helped Hunter get the pills down Blair. The young man was muttering something, delirious, but calmed when Sarah and Hunter touched him.


“His barriers are gone,” Sarah said, aghast.


“Damn fool kid,” Hunter groused, then looked up at his guide. “Did you take your vitamins?”


“Yes, Captain Hunter. And the echinacea. And the extra vitamin C. And the zinc.”


“Good,” Hunter said, satisfied that his guide had obeyed him.


She sneezed and rubbed at her sore nose. “It’s just a cold,” she reassured her sentinel, just as worried about Blair as he was.


“I don’t want you catching this,” Hunter said as he reached out to stroke over her hair. “You should be resting.”


“I’m okay,” Sarah said, wanting to do something to help, but not sure what.


“Sarah, call the office. See if Banks got a hold of Ellison yet.”


Sarah went downstairs, snagging another tissue on the way. She checked the number list by the phone and carefully dialled the number for Major Crime.


“May I speak with Captain Banks? “ Sarah waited while she was connected. “Captain Banks? This is Sarah Freeman. Captain Hunter wanted to know if you had reached Detective Ellison...yes, good. I’ll keep watch for him, thank you.”


Just then the front door slammed open, making her jump.


“Where is he?!” Ellison roared, and Sarah moved back warily.


Marching over to her, he slid a hand around the back of her neck, freezing her into immobility. Turning her head from side to side, he narrowed his gaze. “You’re sick, too.” His touch gentled. “Where’s my guide?”


“Upstairs. He has a bad fever.” Sarah tried to calm her pulse down so Hunter wouldn’t come tearing down the steps.


“Okay, let me at him.” Jim propelled her up the stairs at top speed.


“Blair?” Jim moved into Sarah’s room and saw the young man curled on Sarah’s bed, one hand clutching Hunter’s.


Hunter gently disengaged Blair’s grip, allowing Ellison to move in to check out his guide.


“I got the gist of the story from Simon,” Jim said. He ran his hands over Blair’s chest, frowning at the congestion and the light wheeze he felt and heard. “What do you think?”


“Bronchitis at the very least. Maybe pneumonia. He refused to go home.”


“Sounds like him,” Ellison sighed, noting the heat. “He’s burning up.”


“Fever’s better now,” Hunter said as he ran a hand over Sandburg’s forehead. “He’s your guide, but I think he needs antibiotics.”


“I’ll call Carlson -- he owes me a few. See if he’ll stop by and give him a shot or something.”


“You know Sandburg will have a fit about this,” Hunter warned, but found himself liking the plan.


“He has to be upright and mobile before I’ll listen to him bitch,” Jim said grimly.


So Hunter moved downstairs with Sarah while Ellison used his cell phone to contact the physician, who agreed to come over right away. While the doctor and Ellison were occupied with Blair, Hunter fixed soup for Sarah.


When asked what she wanted, she said simply, “Chicken noodle.”


“Ah, yes, your infamous comfort food,” Hunter said, but obliged her. He also fixed some sandwiches to go with it. They sat down to eat, Hunter monitoring each sniffle. They had just finished when Ellison came down the steps with Dr. Carlson.


“The shot will help, but he needs a full ten day course of oral antibiotics. I would prefer to have him in the hospital, but we’ll take what we can get. If he worsens, call me.”


“Thanks, Pete. I owe you.” Jim clapped the man on the back gratefully.


“No, you don’t. You saved my life. Nothing will ever balance out that. Take care, Jim.”


“And?” Hunter prompted Ellison as soon as the physician was out the door.


“Pneumonia, he thinks. Blair got a shot – that woke him up! Now he’s feeling sorry for himself and muttering about guerilla tactics and disrespect for traditional healing.”


“Sounds like Sandburg,” Hunter observed. “Have a bowl of soup and a sandwich, and then you can take him home.”


“I really should get going,” Jim protested, but Sarah was already pulling out a bowl and spoon and stifling a sneeze.


“You – sit,” Hunter ordered his guide. “You’re not one hundred percent, either.”


Jim watched as Hunter fussed over his guide, pouring her a glass of juice. She was pale but clear-eyed. Jim sat down and sampled the soup, finding himself hungry after all.


“Is Blair going to be okay?” Sarah asked Jim, her eyes anxious.


“Sure he will,” Jim answered, his eyes crinkling with a smile. “He’s just too damn stubborn to take care of himself. I couldn’t take him with me to court; the judge has something against guides, but if I had known....”


“I handled it, Ellison,” Hunter said tersely.


“Yeah, you did. Thank you,” Jim said simply, and turned his attention back to his soup.


Sarah watched the sidelong glance Hunter gave his half-brother. It might have just been her imagination, but there was the slightest flicker of warmth in it.


Glancing toward the patio, she saw all four spirit animals. The wolf was a bit gaunt, but was resting on the panther’s side. The tiger was curled behind the wolf with the small cat in between its paws. All four animals were sleeping peacefully.


Sarah turned back to the two sentinels who were talking quietly and amiably about sports. Maybe it will be all right, she thought, and kept the vision to herself.


When Jim finished eating, he went back upstairs to check on his guide. The storm that had been threatening all afternoon finally broke, bringing in nasty winds and sheeting rain.


Hunter went up to check on the pair. Blair was curled up in the covers, and when Jim tried to uncurl him to pick him up, he groaned in protest.


“Ellison.”


Jim looked up to see Hunter in the doorway.


“It’s pouring down rain. It wouldn’t be a great idea to drag him out in this as sick as he is.”


“I need to get him home,” Jim answered, trying once again to loosen Blair’s grip on the covers.


“Don’t,” came the irritated, delirious mumble as Blair burrowed deeper under the covers.


“Look, Ellison, why don’t the two of you just stay the night? Storm should be over by daylight, and maybe that antibiotic will have kicked in.”


Jim looked up, territorial imperative at full throttle. He didn’t want to stay, but Blair defied the third attempt to move him, moaning pitifully.


“You can stay here with him, keep him calm,” Hunter said. “Give him a chance to get better.”


“Worried about Blair? The tone was edgy, and just a tad aggressive.


“He’s the Dark Guide, I’m the Shield,” Hunter said simply, sounding so matter of fact that Jim wanted to punch him. What was it about the two of them that created such a strong connection?


Hunter, seeing Ellison heading for BP mode, stayed calm. After all, he knew all about territorial imperatives. “He’s your guide, Ellison.”


Jim sighed when he realized how ridiculous he had sounded. “I know, you’re just trying to help. Believe me, I appreciate it.” Then Jim frowned. “Where’s Sarah going to sleep? We’ve commandeered her bed.”


Hunter thought it over. If Sarah had his bed for the night and he camped out downstairs, then Ellison would be closer to her than he was. The sentinel in him wouldn’t put up with that. Ellison wouldn’t sleep on the couch because it would keep him away from Sandburg, who needed him to heal. Of course, he could always put Sarah on the couch, but she was sick and the couch wasn’t that comfortable. So that left....


“I’ll put her in my bed with me.” Hunter turned to see Sarah standing in the doorway, eyes huge at the statement.


Jim caught the look on her face and winced. Poor kid, she was spooked enough about the whole sentinel-guide thing without throwing in a few more territorial behaviors.


“Hunter,” Jim warned, and Hunter focused on his guide, monitoring the elevated heart rate, the slight change in scent. She was scared.


“I’ll handle this,” Hunter said, taking Sarah by the arm and leading her out of the room.


Try a little tact, Hunter, Jim thought as he stripped off his shirt and trousers and climbed into the bed. Even in his sleep, Blair moved toward Jim, curling up next to him. Opening the link, Jim simply held his guide tight.


Hunter led Sarah to his room, deliberately ignoring her pounding heart.


“Ellison’s decided to stay until the storm passes. He needs to stay with Sandburg, and I don’t want you sleeping on the couch while you’re sick.”


“I could just...” she motioned to the floor.


The sentinel shook his head, BP mode on. “No.”


“Captain Hunter, I....” Sarah trailed off, not wanting to make him angry. They had fallen asleep together several times after bonding, but this was his bed....


“Sarah, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” Hunter said, smoothing her hair. “I won’t pounce – I promise.” There was just the slightest hint of amusement in his voice, enough to remind her of that morning when they had awakened after bonding and he had....


Her eyes stung. He was making fun of her again....


“Sarah.”


When she looked up again, he wasn’t laughing, as she feared he might be. Or even sneering.


“It’s really no different than the bonding mat, except that it’s softer and has pillows.” Hunter knew she was unsure of him on a physical level. She was still getting used to touching him and being touched, but this was a huge step outside the comfort zone.


She looked at the bed, then back at him.


“You’re sick, you don’t feel good, and I wouldn’t get any sleep if you were down on the couch, or vice versa, so this is the best solution.”


Sarah bit her lip, trying to slow down her heart and not act like a scared child.


“You know,” Hunter said casually, “Ellison and Sandburg don’t even own a mat. They use a bed to bond.”


Sarah’s eyes grew even wider. She heard him chuckle at her expression.


“Sandburg was injured pretty badly when they first bonded. Ellison didn’t want to hurt him more by putting him on the floor or a mat, so they just got into the habit of using the bed.” He looked straight at her, catching her gaze and holding it captive. “It’s just furniture, Sarah.”


Sarah finally nodded, and went to the bathroom to change into her PJs and brush her teeth. When she came back to Hunter’s room, he had changed into a pair of sweat pants. He was telling her again, without words, that she was safe with him.


For a moment she hesitated, then took the side furthest from the door. Slipping under the comforter, she laid her head on the pillow. Every muscle was tense.


Hunter got in on the other side. He pulled the comforter halfway up his bare chest and turned on his side to look at her.


“You’re not going to be able to sleep if you keep this up.” He sounded irritated, and that calmed her more than anything else could have. He pulled her to him. “See? Just like bonding. You’re exhausted, I’m damn tired and we are both going to get some sleep.”


That was more the autocratic Hunter she knew. He just held her until the heart rate slowed and her breathing evened out.


“Remember, kid, we’re not even in the same book.” The admonishment was accompanied by a gentle rub over her back as he opened the link, sending feelings of protection and security.


Feeling achy but warm, Sarah finally relaxed and closed her eyes.


She was dozing, not quite asleep, when she dimly heard him ask her a question.


“Uhm?” she mumbled.


“I said, what are you thinking?” He was still connected, but the emotions she was projecting were a little hard to read.


“I feel safe,” she confessed, half-asleep, and drifted off.


The sentinel rumbled, satisfied, and followed her into sleep.


~~~~~~~


Blair moved fretfully and Jim automatically rechecked vital signs. Blair’s temperature was up again.


“Okay, Chief, time for more Tylenol.” Jim reached over and opened the small bottle Hunter had left at the bedside and shook out two tablets. Reaching for the water glass, he pulled Blair up and stuffed the pills in his mouth.


Blair spat them out, moaning and trying to pull away.


“Come on, Chief. You need this to get the fever down.” Jim patiently popped the pills back in and poured water down his guide’s throat.


Blair choked and sputtered, but reflexively swallowed.


“There you go,” Jim said, easing his guide back down on the pillows. Blair’s eyes were open, fixed on the corner of the room.


Sentinel senses swept the room – nothing there.


“Burning...burning me,” Blair muttered, delirious as he reached up to ward off something. “Fire people burning me.” His head moved back and forth in agitation as his heart rate accelerated.


“You’re just hallucinating, Blair,” Jim explained softly. “It’s the fever.”


“Fire...burn...” Blair moaned as he tried to move away from the nightmare images.


“Shh, Chief, I’ve got you.” Jim rubbed a hand over his guide’s back as he pulled the young man close. “The fire people can’t get through me.”


Blair mumbled something unintelligible, still upset, but gradually his body relaxed as the fever dipped down and the man holding him continued to murmur reassurances.


“Jim?” Blair eventually opened his eyes, glassy but more coherent.


“Yeah, Chief, just go to sleep. You’re safe.”


“I dreamt....” Blair began coughing again, so hard that he thought he’d rip a lung, and when the paroxysm passed, he just gasped for air.


“Just rest, Chief. I’ve got you.” Jim laid his head on top of Blair’s, cradling the empath against him.


“Always got me,” Blair slurred sleepily as he settled down. “You always do.”


~~~~~~~


Sarah woke just before dawn and tried to ease out of her sentinel’s hold. Hunter muttered, tightening his grip. Trying again, she managed to slip out of the bed. “Just going to the bathroom,’ she whispered and her sentinel settled back to sleep.


After she used the facilities, she heard movement in her room. Detective Ellison must be getting Blair up to go home. She went downstairs to heat some water. Soon, there were steps on the stairs.


Follow the sneeze, Jim walked into the kitchen. “Morning,” he said. “I’m going to warm up the truck and then get Blair home.”


“How is he?” Sarah asked.


“Better,” Jim yawned, stretching the kinks out of his back. “Temperature’s down a bit.”


“I have some coffee and tea,” she offered hesitantly. “If you’d like some before you go.”


Jim nodded, accepting the mug and sipped gratefully. It had been a long night and he was tired from his constant vigil. “Sorry about throwing you out of your room -- both Blair and I appreciate it, though.”


Sarah nodded as she worked on fixing a mug of herbal tea for Blair.


“You okay?” he asked.


“I’m fine,” she said, not quite meeting his eyes. “The cold is much better.”


That’s not exactly what I meant.


Jim had worried a bit, especially since he recalled Blair’s reaction when he had first taken him up to his bed. She had looked almost as frightened as Blair had.


“I meant, after last night.”


He was the Sentinel Prime and could ask anything he wanted, but she felt uncomfortable talking about it.


“I’m fine,” she mumbled, embarrassed.


“Is he a blanket hog?” Jim teased, trying to put her at ease.


She shook her head, her face flushing.


“It’s okay, Sarah. Nothing to be embarrassed about – just one of those sentinel-guide things you’ll get used to.” He didn’t mention that it could get more territorial as time went on. That would be just a bit much for her to handle at this point. “Just want to make sure you’re okay.”


He reached out and patted her on the head, and just then Hunter walked into the kitchen and snarled when he saw Ellison lay a hand on his guide.


Jim turned around, totally at ease. “Sarah just made some coffee for me. I’m gonna get Blair some tea and then we’ll be out of your hair.”


Hunter gradually relaxed when he realized everything was fine. But Sarah was biting her lip again, so he moved over to her.


“It’s barely 6:00 AM,” Hunter said as he ran his hands over her, checking for any new signs of illness. She looked a little better, not so congested, but she was eyeing him nervously. “You shouldn’t be up.”


“I just wanted to make some tea for Blair, and some coffee...” she apologized.


“So where’s my cup?” Hunter demanded, and she hurriedly poured him one, only relaxing when he took a sip and then ran his hand over her back in thanks. Crisis averted...maybe.


Jim had headed upstairs, poured the tea down his recalcitrant guide, and was now carrying him down the stairs.


“Damn it, Jim, I can walk,” Blair griped, then started hacking.


“Just concentrate on breathing, Chief. I’m going get you home and back in bed.”


Hunter walked over to where Jim was juggling for the door knob and opened the door.


“Thanks, Hunter,” Jim said as he turned sideways to get Blair through the door. “And thanks for taking care of him and letting us stay.”


“No problem,” Hunter said, brushing over Blair’s forehead. The fever was definitely down.


Sarah, standing behind Hunter, reached out to touch Blair’s sleeve. “Get well soon,” and hastily let her hand drop when she realized she had touched him without the Sentinel Prime’s permission. Jim pretended not to notice her furtive movement.


“Thanks, Hunter, Sarah,” Blair wheezed, and subsided with more coughing.


Detective Ellison smiled at her, really smiled. “Thanks for the coffee, and the room. We’ll see you later.”


After they left, Hunter walked over to the patio door, staring through the overcast gray dawn, but the mountain was obscured from view.


“I can’t see it this morning,” he commented quietly, sounding almost lost.


“It’s still early,” Sarah said softly. “Maybe it’ll clear up later. Come back to bed.” When she realized what she had just said, she turned bright red. “I mean...I meant....”


Hunter turned around, true amusement in his eyes, one eyebrow arching.


Sarah buried her face in her hands, groaning inwardly at her unintentional slip of the tongue. Could this get any worse?


“Sarah,” a hand brushed gently over her head. “I know what you meant.”


Sarah peeked at him through her hands, then fled upstairs to the bathroom.


By the time she left the bathroom, Hunter was just finishing changing her sheets. “I don’t want you getting sick, so I changed your bed.”


Her sentinel was looking out for her as always.


“We won’t run for a few days until you’re back to normal. By Monday you should be okay.”


Sarah climbed into her bed, still rattled.


“Sleep in a bit – it’s a good day to do that,” Hunter said as he pulled her comforter over her, tucking her in. “I’ll be in my room if you need me.”


“Captain, I mean, Hunter?”


Hunter stopped and turned around. Sarah was finally looking at him.


“Thank you for taking care of me.” She swallowed a couple of times, trying to regain her equilibrium.


“You’re my guide,” he said in gruff tones, but his eyes were warmer than she’d ever seen them.


~~~~~~~~


The man watched as the hacker sifted through the cyber trail to locate the source of the account suspensions. Percy was a geeky little weasel, not unlike Todd, but with one important difference: discretion. The hacker had been in business for ten years because he did the job and kept his mouth shut.


“Anything?” The man asked.


“Well, all of it seems to trace back to a law firm called MacLean and Stevens. They filed an injunction and all the sites were shut down.”


“I need a name,” the man said impatiently.


“They’re a small, highly specialized firm - technology and big business, espionage, patents and so on.” Percy suddenly straightened up. “Got him.” He turned to the man standing behind him. “Their biggest client is William Ellison.”


The man rubbed his jaw. William Ellison would have to learn that he couldn’t interfere with a man’s business and not expect to pay for it.


~~~~~~~~


Hunter stretched, contemplating ending the day a bit early. Sarah was still in his office sifting through computer files, and Hunter had allowed her to continue while he met with Bernie Clark to discuss some open cases. Walking down the stairs, Hunter juggled his file folders. The paperwork never seemed to end.


Turning his cell phone back on, it beeped. Message waiting. After listening, Hunter cursed fluently and at great length. Taking the steps two at a time, he burst into the bullpen. He was about as angry as his men had ever seen him, and they didn’t say a word as he strode to his office.


“Where’s Sarah?” Hunter demanded, pinning Samantha with his gaze.


“Detective Ellison came to pick her up for the meeting,” Samantha said with some trepidation. “He said you knew about it.” She had never seen her boss so furious.


Hunter snarled as he walked into his office, locked up his files and grabbed his briefcase.


He walked out of the bullpen to total silence. He dialed Ellison’s cell phone, but only got voice mail. The same with Sandburg’s cell. No one was home at the loft. He then dialed Major Crime and managed to get Captain Banks.


“Banks, this is Hunter. Where’s Ellison?” Hunter demanded.


Simon leaned back in his chair, chewing on his cigar. The IA captain sounded like he wanted to rip off heads.


“Don’t know – he left here saying something about a meeting. Not my day to watch him.”


“I can’t reach him on his cell,” Hunter growled. “What about Sandburg?”


“Are you planning bodily harm?” Banks asked sarcastically.


“Hell, no! This is an emergency.”


“I think he’s meeting some friends for dinner. Said something about the new Greek restaurant on Solomon.”


“Thanks,” Hunter growled as he hung up.


Driving through the city, Hunter hung a left on Solomon, sentinel eyes searching for the restaurant. Pulling into the no parking zone, he shut off the engine. The traffic cop who came walking up to him never even got a chance to complete her warning about illegal parking before the police ID was shoved in her face.


“Captain Hunter, Internal Affairs,” Hunter rumbled as he got out of the vehicle, towering over the young cop, who hurriedly backed off when she realized not only was he a police captain, but a sentinel.


The restaurant door was pulled almost off its hinges. For an agonizing moment, there was silence in the small room as Hunter stood in the doorway, his eyes sweeping over the people until he fixed on the man he wanted.


Carol looked up. “Uh...Blair....”


The other Rainier University TAs at the table held their breath. It was Detective Ellison, and he looked furious.


Blair had felt Hunter’s presence just before he made his entrance. Shaking his head, he muttered under his breath, “Sentinels.” Only then did he turn around in his chair.


Hunter came striding towards him. “Do you know what he did?” Hunter’s hand came down on Blair’s neck, shaking him lightly.


The other people at the table were worried. Was Detective Ellison going to hurt Blair?


“What who did?” Blair asked warily. He hadn’t forgotten how impressive Hunter’s intimidation techniques were, but the Shield wasn’t hurting him.


“He took Sarah!” Hunter roared, totally unconcerned about making a scene.


The manager came over, trying to intervene, but one look at Hunter’s expression stopped him.


Blair smiled reassuringly at the man. “It’s okay. Hunter’s a police officer.”


The grad students at the table looked at each other wordlessly. Hunter? This was Detective Ellison, wasn’t he?


“Slow down, man. What do you mean, he took her?” Blair had his suspicions, but waited for confirmation.


“The clan. He’s taken her to a damn clan meeting.” Hunter shook Blair again for emphasis.


“Blair,” Carol protested.


“Hey, guys, it’s okay. This is Jim’s brother, Captain Hunter.”


The students at the table exchanged worried glances. The man – no, sentinel -- was manhandling their friend.


“Hunter, can you keep it down to a dull roar?” Blair got up and reached out to grasp Hunter’s arm. Blair let his hand move up and down the sentinel’s arm, letting his barriers drop. It had an almost magical calming effect on the taller man.


The grad students at the table were fascinated despite their apprehension. The sentinel-guide connection was something few were privileged to witness. How was it Blair could calm another sentinel than his own?


Hunter was growling, but his grip on Blair’s neck had lightened. “I never asked to be the Shield.” The frustration in his voice was unmistakable.


”You gotta live with it, man. Non-refundable one way ticket.” Blair turned to his friends. “Sorry, guys. Duty calls.”


“You okay, Blair?” Carol wasn’t convinced Blair was safe with this man, relative of Ellison or not.


“I’m fine. Just some sentinel business to take care of.”


The waitress arrived with the food, setting Blair’s plate down. Blair was caught by the jacket and held in place.


“Put that in a doggy bag,” Hunter indicated the meal Blair had ordered. “You’re eating on the way.”


The waitress hurriedly packed up the food and Blair pulled out his wallet to pay her when Hunter tossed a twenty on the table.


“Let’s go – I have a sentinel to kill.”


Blair barely had time to grab the bag before he was dragged out the door.


Blair was munching on his food as the car took off like an guided missile. “You know, this is something you both have in common,” he mused. “It’d make a good chapter for my paper – sentinels and moving machinery, subtitled: the sentinel and his car.”


Hunter only had time to shoot Blair a withering look as he squeezed through a traffic gap that was rapidly closing. “Eat your food, and don’t drop any of it on my upholstery.”


“Yeah, yeah.” Blair waved a piece of meat as if to make his point. “Whoops.” A large chunk of something coated with sauce fell on the floor.


Hunter swore. “Keep your head out of the floorboard; you can clean the car later.”


“Ta dah!“ Blair held up the offending article. “Clean your car for a bit of gyro? Get real, man.”


~~~~~~~


Sarah looked around the room at all the unfamiliar faces. She moved closer to Detective Ellison, her fingers clinging to the back of his jacket.


“It’s okay, Sarah. These are our clan members.” Jim could feel her apprehension, and moved to tuck her against his side like Hunter did.


“Senior Sentinel Prime,” Sentinel Edwards greeted him formally. Then he looked at Sarah. “And who’s this?” He smiled at the girl, trying to put her at ease.


Sarah stared at him wordlessly.


“This is Sarah Freeman, Hunter’s guide. Sarah, this is Sentinel Edwards. I think you may have met his guide David.”


David smiled at her. Sarah recognized him from the department store.


“Hello,” she said softly, overwhelmed by the atmosphere.


“Nice to meet you, Sarah,” Edwards said, reaching out to her, but she pulled back.


“Easy, Sarah, this is part of it. All the sentinels and guides connect.”


Sarah stared up at Jim, worried. Hunter didn’t like anyone touching her, and if he caught scent of the other sentinels....


Jim moved her forward slightly, one hand on her shoulder. “I’ll introduce you to everyone.”


One by one, sentinels and guides approached, each one touching her shoulder or head. It wasn’t what she expected, and the link was astounding.


“See? Not so scary after all, eh?” Jim smiled down at her. “They’re just trying to make sure you’re connected to the clan.”


“The Shield’s guide,” Dr. Harvey said in her usual forthright manner. “Why isn’t he here?”


Sarah winced; Hunter wanted nothing to do with the clan. He accepted his Shield duties reluctantly, but he wasn’t about to ‘join the cult’, as he put it.


“Hunter will be here,” Jim predicted, knowing full well Hunter was probably ready to mutilate something as soon as he got the message. If Mohammed won’t come to the mountain....


~~~~~~~~


Commander Dan Slater had been the first person to suggest a clan room in the Cascade City Building. They had soon taken over most of the fourth floor, with the full blessing of the mayor in his eagerness to smooth over the ballroom incident at the Cascade Gala.


Jim, of course, had seized the opportunity to create a sanctuary for the sentinels and guides of Cascade. Although it wasn’t officially restricted to those of sentinel and guide blood, no one else had been foolish enough to try to enter without permission.


Jim and Blair had, over the last six months, implemented some guidelines for sentinels and guides in Cascade. As Sentinel Prime, he made this the first place that any outside sentinel came to upon setting foot in Cascade; it was a required courtesy when coming to a new territory.


Martin Hopkins was an unbonded sentinel, and had just been assigned to Major Crime. The department had arranged for him to meet the Senior Sentinel Prime and his clan. James Ellison’s reputation was legendary, both as sentinel and as a detective, and if Hopkins wasn’t accepted by Ellison, he could kiss his new job goodbye.


Hopkins got off the elevator and spotted a guide-sentinel pairing in front of him. The large military looking man had a long-haired kid pressed against the wall. For a moment, Hopkins though the sentinel was disciplining the guide, but as he got closer, he realized that the kid was actually holding the sentinel back.


“He brought her here on purpose, the underhanded bastard. He knows I don’t want any connection with the clan,” the man snarled at the kid.


”Easy, man, it’s cool.” Blair tried one of his coaxing, soothing smiles, which was wasted on the angry sentinel. “She needs to get to know everyone, even if you don’t want to associate with them. Just calm down – you can’t just burst in there – you know that.”

Blair took a deep breath, and the grip on his shirt tightened. He was dragged up on his toes so that he was nose to nose with one very pissed off Vincent Hunter.


“Sentinel Prime or not, he had no right!” Hunter growled. “I’m going to....” He trailed off with a snarl of disgust when he realized that Blair was calmly meeting him head on. There was no fear in the face of the Dark Guide, in fact, there was a trace of humor at the situation. Blair had Hunter over a barrel, and he knew it.


Hunter leaned into Blair, still royally pissed at Ellison, then realized that another sentinel was present. With a lightening fast movement, Hunter released Blair and then turned to block the new sentinel, his eyes raking up and down the man. Hopkins came to a halt, trying to keep his breathing level.


“What are you looking at?” Hunter spat. He had a new target, and one that he didn’t have to hold back on.


“Back off, man, before you scare him. Geeze, Hunter, chill out.” Blair walked around, straightening his jacket and shirt, as if being pinned to the wall was just a routine part of his day.


“Blair Sandburg,” the young man met Hopkins’s eyes levelly as he put a hand out. He had his suspicions that the man was a sentinel, and had dropped his barriers slightly to get a fix on him.


“Detective Martin Hopkins.” The sentinel was clearly puzzled; the alpha sentinel near him was fuming, and the guide seemed to expect the same courtesy as if he were a citizen.


“You got a problem with shaking hands?” Hunter growled, BP mode on. He was ready to slice and dice.

 

With a shrug, Hopkins shook hands with Blair, surprised to feel the strength of the young man’s grip.


“There you go, Hunter -- no threat. So, who are you visiting?” Blair viewed Hopkins critically.


“Detective Ellison. I just transferred to Major Crime.”


“You’d better come with us, then. We’re going in.” There was a hint of amusement that not even the chilling glare that Hunter shot him could extinguish.


When Blair started towards the door, he was caught by the scruff and pulled close, so that Hunter formed a human barrier between him and the unbonded sentinel.


Blair sighed; the Shield was just doing his thing. He latched onto Hunter, subtly edging him toward the door. Well, at least this would take Hunter’s mind off Sarah.


Hopkins took a mental deep breath. He had been told that the Cascade Clan was intense, but he never expected it to be this bad.


~~~~~~~


Hunter entered the clan room, and saw Sarah. He was relieved to see her safe, but was still ready to kill. Sarah was sitting next to a young woman who was holding a baby in her arms. Leaning over the woman was a kindly looking man whose frequent small touches of the young mother indicated that he was her sentinel.


“Ellison!” Hunter walked up to Jim and without warning, slugged his half-brother. Jim was knocked to the ground, but rolled to his feet quickly.


“I’ll give you the one punch, Hunter, but not anything more.” Jim stood ready for anything.


“You fucking son of a bitch,” Hunter growled.


Blair was trying his best to calm the Shield, but Hunter was oblivious to his attempts.


“I’m Senior Sentinel Prime. You swore fealty. I’m invoking the mandate.”


“I don’t want her here!” Hunter seethed.


“It’s part of the package,” Jim replied. He wasn’t surprised by the physical attack, but had to admire Hunter’s total lack of concern at slugging the Sentinel Prime in front of the entire clan.


Hunter shifted from foot to foot, aware that the rest of the occupants of the room were watching him closely.


Jim just stared at Hunter. “You knew this was coming sooner or later. The clan needs to know Sarah so that they can protect her if needed. What you do on a social level with them is your own business.”


Hunter looked over at his guide, who was watching him with dread. “Come here, Sarah.”


She moved over to him, and Hunter immediately ran his hands over her, checking her over. The scent of the others on her infuriated him. Hunter glared at the assembled sentinels, who were bristling at his aggression.


“This is Captain Vincent Hunter,” Jim introduced him to those who were unfamiliar with the man. “Hunter, our clan. You probably know most of the sentinels from when Sarah was kidnapped.”


The subtle reminder of the clan’s assistance in rescuing Sarah made Hunter pull himself together.


“My apologies, Sentinel Prime,” Hunter growled. It stuck in his craw to say the words.


Blair beamed at the other clan members. “Hunter’s just a bit BP. He tends to forget the social graces when that happens.”


The little barb made Hunter flush.


Edwards looked at Hunter with a stony expression. “This is the Shield?”


“You got a problem with that?” Hunter turned on the sentinel. “I’m ready whenever you are.”


Hopkins just hung in the background, wishing he could just slip away unnoticed.


“Oh, yeah,” Edwards snarled, and took a step forward.


A loud whistle stopped them. “Guys, time out.” Jim walked over and held up a hand. “Before this deteriorates into a free for all, I’m immediately ordering a cease and desist.” He then turned to his half-brother. “Hunter, this is our clan. Chill out, or so help me, I’ll pound you into the ground.”


The challenge and reminder of the confrontation at Blair’s office did the trick. Hunter calmed down.


While the other sentinels watched suspiciously, Hunter was introduced to everyone. He managed to remain civil.


“He really isn’t a jerk when you get to know him,” Blair confided to David, well aware Hunter could hear him. “He just goes BP and his brain shorts out.”


Hunter flushed again. “I apologize,” he said to those assembled. The words had obviously been pried out of him, but they were sincere.


Sarah detached herself from her sentinel, letting Jim and Blair guide him around. By the time a half hour had passed, things were reasonably calm, Hunter included. He still wasn’t in the least bit happy, but nobody was mortally injured.


Sarah was sitting with the young mother again. Her sentinel growled as Hunter came up. Whatever Hunter was about to say was lost when Sarah looked up.


“Isn’t she cute? She’s only a week old.” Sarah was fussing over the baby, her finger held by a tiny fist.


The young woman looked up and smiled as Jim walked over.


“Hunter, this is Sentinel Niven, Vice and Tina Parker. They’ve been on maternity leave.” Jim reached out to touch the baby’s smooth cheek, smiling as she rooted toward the motion. “And this is Maria.”


“The baby is yours?” Hunter’s eyes swept from sentinel to guide.


Niven looked insulted. “No, my guide is Mrs. Parker.”


Blair grinned: another milestone. Before, Niven would have said his guide was Tina. Now he was giving her full name – a person in her own right – and he was acknowledging her marriage publicly.


“Cute kid,” Hunter mumbled, looked slightly uneasy.


Niven relaxed slightly, launching into the colorful story of how Blair had delivered the baby while trapped in an elevator.


It figured – Sandburg and chaos went hand in hand most of the time.


“Would you like to hold her?” Tina asked Hunter, surprising Niven and Jim, but panicking Hunter.


“Uh, no, thanks. I’m not good with kids.” Hunter tried to at least sound polite about it.


“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Blair said sotto voce, glancing over at Sarah. “You do okay.”


Sarah missed the exchange as she fussed over the baby.


“She’s not a little girl,” Hunter glared at Blair. “She’s eighteen years old.”


“Yeah, I know,” Blair replied. “Just wanted to make sure you did.”


Before Hunter could throttle Blair, Jim interrupted him.


“Your choice, Hunter, but the clan is part of what we are...and were.” The reference to the ancient clan made Hunter pause.


“Guess I can take it if you can,” Hunter muttered, feeling trapped.


“That’s my Shield,” Blair said affectionately. “And I’m still not cleaning your car.”


Hunter made a half-hearted attempt to grab him, but Blair pulled away, grinning.


Looking over at Jim, Hunter hunched his shoulders. “I still don’t want this.”


“I know,” Jim said, not without sympathy. “Responsibility’s a bitch sometimes, isn’t it?”

 

Hunter’s eyes went back to Sarah as she played with the baby. The walls were closing in.


~~~~~~


Hopkins was just about at the door trying to escape without anyone noticing when he heard a rumble.


Jim turned his attention to the new sentinel who was trying his best to become one with the wall. As if on cue, the guides were pulled back behind their sentinels.


“Unbonded,” came a low whisper, repeated around the room. The word seemed to imply unclean.


Hopkins took a steadying breath, the hair on the back of his neck rising. “Senior Sentinel Prime Ellison, my name is Martin Hopkins. I’ve just been assigned to Major Crime.”


The Dark Sentinel emerged as Jim’s posture changed. Blair’s hand rested on his shoulder, but the Dark Sentinel reached up, and moved it away. He was in full challenge mode: an unbonded sentinel was entering his territory, and therefore could be around Blair when he was by himself, ergo, he could be threat to the Dark Sentinel’s guide.


The Dark Sentinel moved towards the newcomer, but when Blair tried to follow, he was effectively caught and pulled back against Hunter. The Shield was protecting the Guide Prime, even if the Guide Prime did not see the threat.


Blair tried to escape, but found himself expertly pinned.


“Stop it, Sandburg, or I’ll cuff you,” Hunter growled, his hold tightening.


Blair craned his head back, trying again to free himself from Hunter’s grip, but was unable to move. He couldn’t see Hunter and was trapped from behind just like...Blair tensed, remembering when he had been held against his will, unable to get away, while they....


Hunter felt the smaller man stiffen and his heart rate accelerate, and cursed under his breath. “I’m not going to hurt you, kid.” Hunter dipped his head to scent at Blair’s neck, the instinctive action of a sentinel trying to calm a skittish guide.


The Sentinel Prime looked back, eyes narrowed, but apparently decided his guide was safe with the Shield.


“Stop that flashback -- right now!” The exasperated command was so typical Hunter that Blair relaxed against him, the memory fading away.


Blair waited a few seconds until the thundering in his ears died down, then protested. “You have to let me go, man. Jim could do him some serious harm.”


“If Hopkins is stupid enough to try to challenge him, then he doesn’t belong in Major Crime.”


Hunter glanced back at Sarah. She nodded: she would stay put.


Blair tugged experimentally, but Hunter’s grip didn’t loosen.


The man approaching him reminded Hopkins of a giant cat stalking its prey. The Sentinel Prime circled him slowly and deliberately. Hopkins had to make a visible effort not to move, but he was nervous of having the man behind him.


When Ellison spoke, his voice was sentinel soft, but it was enough to make Hopkins jump.


“Do you honor the guide, in all forms, and do you vow to protect the guide to your own death, be it needed?” The formal phrasing was the beginning of the ancient ritual ceremony of accepting unbonded sentinels into the clan.


“Yes, sir,” Martin managed to stutter, meanwhile thinking: what the hell is going on here?


“You are unbonded, yet you wish to be where my guide is. Threaten my guide, or touch him, and I will kill you.” Jim’s nostrils were flaring with aggression. “He is mine, marked and claimed, in this life and the next.”


Hopkins could hear the sentinel’s voice change from a deadly purr to a snarl. The Dark Sentinel had caught the edge of Blair’s scent on the man. Before Hopkins could ask what was wrong, he was lifted up by the throat, while the Sentinel Prime roared, “My guide!”


Blair swore and twisted abruptly, catching Hunter off guard. Blair was free of the Shield as he crossed the distance to his sentinel and threw himself on Jim’s back.


The Sentinel Prime shoved Hopkins away from him as he caught Blair and tugged him around, so that empath was plastered against him.


Blair clutched Jim’s jacket. “Its okay, Jim. I just shook hands with him. He treated me like a citizen.” Well, with a little prompting from Hunter. “That’s what you wanted, right? It’s not a threat to you, or us.”


Blair rubbed his face against the sentinel’s throat and jaw. It was one of the more primal actions of a guide, and Blair only used it in extreme situations when Jim’s Dark Sentinel couldn’t be kept under control. Blair had to struggle to keep the Dark Guide from emerging: the last thing he needed right now was his own ancient persona coming out to play.


The Dark Sentinel’s aggression began to fade; his guide was with him, and showing that he understood his place by his sentinel’s side. The sentinel caught Blair’s right hand, and rubbed it against his neck, replacing Hopkins’ scent with his own.


Hopkins stayed where he was on the floor. He had never seen anything like the Sentinel Prime’s behavior, and realized with dawning horror that Ellison was a Dark Sentinel.


“I thought Dark Sentinels were just a legend,” Hopkins whispered.


“No,” Blair looked down at the unbonded sentinel. “He’s quite real.”


At the Sentinel Prime’s nod, Hopkins slowly got to his feet. The Senior Prime looked at him as if he could see every sin Hopkins had ever committed, then the Dark Sentinel pulled back, leaving only James Ellison.


“Welcome to Major Crime, Hopkins.”


Hopkins hesitated, unsure.


“You’ll get your standard probationary period – Captain Banks will see to that – but I’ll be watching you, and so will the clan.”


Hunter let out a rumble, and Hopkins almost panicked. This was the other sentinel he had seen in the hallway who looked just like Ellison, and the one who had struck down the Sentinel Prime.


“Hunter is the Shield; my right hand, and protector of the Guide Prime.”


“Not to mention, head of Internal Affairs,” Blair added helpfully.


Hopkins winced.


“He’s not nearly as nice as I am,” Jim said, measuring the man in front of him. “So bear that in mind if you ever get near my guide, or, God help you, his.”


Hunter stood waiting, and Sarah moved to him, touching his shoulder and leaning into his back. Hunter’s aggression level was about a 9 on a scale of one to ten. He calmed at her touch.


The clan members watched carefully; Sarah was young, but she was obviously devoted to her sentinel.


Blair sighed in relief: another crisis averted. Then a tug on his hair focused him back on the sentinel standing behind him. There was a going to be a bonding in his immediate future.


Blair patted Jim’s arm soothingly. “I know, big guy.” The arm around him tightened fractionally, and turned his full attention back to Jim. The sentinel’s hand reached up and circled his throat, his thumb brushing at the pulse point.


It was the absolute trust that most impressed Sarah. Blair clearly had suffered unspeakable, horrible things in his life, yet he still trusted Jim Ellison completely.


I just wish I could be that comfortable. She turned her head, and in the next moment, the whole room tipped and folded back in on itself. She was back in the time of the ancients.


There was the Sentinel Prime -- Jeme – holding his guide close. Blaer was wrapped around him as the sentinel nuzzled and petted his guide.


Blaer snarled at her; the Guide Prime was lethal at this time -- his need to bond permeated the air around him. Another guide was near them, threatening Blaer’s bond.


Huon pulled Sarane to him. They watched as Jeme half-carried, half-dragged his guide into the darkness of the woods away from the camp to bond under the stars and the eyes of the gods.


With a shake of her head, Sarah was back in the present. She stared at Detective Ellison and Blair. She had seen the physical affection between them time and again, but never the intense bonding behavior.


Hunter ran his hand over Sarah’s back before looking at Jim. “I think you’ve made your point, Ellison. Take it to the bonding suite before you corrupt my guide.”


Jim made a cheerfully rude gesture at the sarcastic comment, allowing Blair to drag him off the bonding suite. The other sentinels and guides took the display in stride, resuming quiet talk among themselves.


Sarah tried to take it all in. They were completely accepting of the situation and totally at ease with the instinctive behaviors.


Blair trusts Detective Ellison, so maybe.... Hunter couldn’t quite interpret what was in her eyes, or that subtle alteration in her scent. He pulled his guide to rest against him as he swept his senses around the room – no imminent hostility from the other clan members.


Then Hunter turned and stared at Hopkins. “As Clan Shield, I think we need to have a little talk.”


“Um...Captain Hunter?” Sarah tugged at his sleeve, knowing Hunter was still itching to shred something.


“Why don’t you go see the baby again while Hopkins and I have a little chat.” Hunter looked like a tiger approaching a goat with a dinner bell ringing in the background.


“You’re impossible,” Sarah muttered, and her hand flew to her mouth when she realized what she had said.


Hunter stared down at his guide, then deliberately turned back to Hopkins as if Sarah hadn’t spoken


“I won’t be long.” With that, he gently pushed her toward Tina Parker.


Hopkins swallowed as Hunter approached, a travesty of a smile on the Shield’s face.


Maybe I’ll rethink my transfer to Major Crime.


~~~~~~

 

Entering Major Crime, Martin Hopkins looked around. The bull pen looked much like any other in the Cascade PD, or any other police department, but looks could be deceiving: Major Crime was the elite of the elite, and Captain Simon Banks did not accept anyone who was just average.


If he could make the grade, Hopkins would be one of the youngest detectives in the department. He wanted it badly, but the pressure of meeting both Captain Banks’ and the Sentinel Prime’s expectations was overwhelming.


He nervously straightened his tie. Looking around, he saw a familiar face – Sandburg, the Guide Prime. The guide had been at least friendly to him at the clan meeting. Hopkins had not yet bonded, but there was something about Sandburg that drew him. Bonded guide or not, the young man was the epitome of everything Hopkins wanted: a strong, intelligent, devoted guide.


Without even thinking about the possible ramifications, he headed over to where Sandburg sat typing on a keyboard. Before he reached the desk, the guide’s head came up and Hopkins found himself pinned by a pair of dark blue eyes. Then Sandburg smiled in welcome.


“Did you want something?” The voice behind him was a low rumble of challenge. Hopkins jumped as he turned around, finding himself looking up at Captain Hunter. The man was in his personal space, and knew it. Hopkins took a step backward. Where was Detective Ellison?


“Sorry, Captain. I’m reporting for duty.”


“Then sit over there.” Hunter jerked a thumb toward the other side of the room and moved closer to Sandburg.


Hopkins heard the guide’s voice, soft and soothing. “C’mon, Hunter, cut the guy some slack.”


Hopkins watched as Hunter ran a hand over the smaller man’s back, pausing on the nape of his neck, fingers lightly stroking the skin. Sandburg reached up and touched Hunter’s arm, and Hopkins had to wonder how one guide could have that kind of close connection with two different sentinels -- even if they were twins.


Hunter looked up and growled at Hopkins, making the man stop staring and hurry over to the empty desk pointed out to him.


A man came over to introduce himself. “Hi, I’m Henri Brown. People call me H. You the new guy? Rafe will love it -- he’s been the new kid on the block for the past six months and he’s getting tired of it.”


Martin shook hands, relieved by the man’s friendliness.


“Rafe, come over and meet....” H left the name hanging in the air as he shrugged. “Sorry, didn’t catch your name.”


“Martin Hopkins. Pleased to meet you.” Hopkins was nervously eyeing the sentinel watching him from across the room.


Rafe shook his hand. “Hi. First day here?”


“Yeah, I’m supposed to meet with Banks and learn how the department operates.”


“If you want to join Major Crime, there are some basic rules for survival,” Rafe explained. “The first one is that you never touch the guide. Blair Sandburg is Senior Guide Prime of the city, but more importantly, he’s Ellison’s guide. You touch Blair, and your ass is grass.” Rafe glanced over at Hunter and suppressed his own uneasiness. “Do you have any trouble with guides?”


“No,” Hopkins said, suppressing a nervous cough.


Rafe nodded and continued. “Good. The next thing is that you don’t mess with Jim Ellison. The man’s a good cop, but he’s got a temper and when the storm warning’s out on him, you don’t go near him.”


Hunter glared in their general direction, and H wondered why the IA captain was still being so hostile.


“I’m a sentinel.” Hopkins just came out and said it.


“Oh, man,” H sighed.


“Unbonded? I don’t see a guide with you.” Rafe looked curious..


“Unbonded,” Hopkins admitted. “I haven’t found the right guide yet, but I’ve already met Detective Ellison and Captain Hunter. They, uh, laid down the rules.”


“I just bet they did,” Rafe muttered.


“And they actually let you in here with Ellison,” H whistled soundlessly. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but that’s like committing suicide. All you have to do is look at Blair the wrong way and you’re a dead man. Some unbonded sentinels kidnapped Blair a few months ago, and believe me, the fact that any of them are still breathing is a minor miracle.”


Hopkins just swallowed nervously, stealing another glance at Hunter.


“And don’t even think of crossing Captain Hunter,” H emphasized.


“He’s lethal,” Rafe said, and Hopkins wondered what the flash of terror in the man’s eyes was all about.


“Captain Banks didn’t think it was going to be a problem,” Hopkins said helplessly.


“The captain’s not always sentinel savvy,” Rafe said, feeling Hunter’s eyes burning into his back. The IA captain still made him nervous, and the sentinel knew it. It was like being circled by a Great White, and knowing that you were on the lunch menu.


“Hopkins, my office, now!” Banks bellowed.


“Well, nice meeting you, Hopkins. Hope everything works out,” H said bracingly as the new detective made his way to Banks’ office.


The door shut behind him, and Rafe and H exchanged knowing looks.


“Think he’ll make it?” Rafe asked.


“Not a chance,” H sighed, and both of them returned to their work.


Hunter was not happy. Ellison was back in court with the guide-hating judge, and he was stuck watching over Sandburg, who had to be at the PD today to finish up some of Jim’s despised and now extremely overdue reports before Banks went ballistic.


Ellison also know this would be Hopkins’ first day, so he wouldn’t leave his guide unprotected. So the Shield was on duty and in BP mode – nobody touched Sandburg.


“Where’s Sarah?” Blair asked, and Hunter grimaced.


“She’s helping Samantha, my secretary, with something. She’s safe enough over there until Ellison gets out of court. You, however, are another story.”


Blair’s eyes crinkled with a smile. “I really don’t think I’m gonna be jumped by some savage unbonded sentinel.”


“Damn straight. I’ll kill him first.”


Before Blair could voice his opinion to that, Banks was calling out his office door again. Hopkins was back at his new desk filling out forms and studiously ignoring the alpha sentinel bristling at him.


“Captain Hunter, do you have a minute?”


Hunter took a quick look around the bullpen, admonished Sandburg to stay in visual range and walked over to Banks’ office.


Simon waited for the IA captain, watching Hunter’s intimidating effect on the members of his bullpen. The man was a menace. The only person that seemed to sail through the emotional storm unscathed was Blair Sandburg, and Simon had a sneaking suspicion that it had something to do with the Dark Guide mumbo jumbo.


Simon sat behind his desk – just a subtle reminder of who was in charge of this department. Not that it would influence Vincent Hunter. The fact that Hunter looked just like Jim Ellison was something that Simon still had trouble with. Jim had mellowed through his connection with Blair, but Hunter was still all hard edges, despite his bonded status.


“Hunter, I hope there isn’t going to be a problem with Hopkins. He’s good, and I’d hate to think his being a sentinel is going to count against him.”


“It’s not that he’s a sentinel, it’s that he’s unbonded,” Hunter pointed out with remarkable patience.


“It’s not his fault.” Simon leaned back, chewing on his cigar. “The GDP tells me he’s weak in three senses, so it makes for a harder guide match.”


“Do yourself a favor and transfer him now. He’s going to be sniffing around Sandburg – it’s inevitable -- and one day you’re going to find Ellison hanging him from the nearest light fixture – post mortem.”


“His record is good and he’s attending regular mixers. I want this to work out.”


“Attending mixers doesn’t stop the itch.”


Simon didn’t care for the predatory look on Hunter’s face. The sentinel was staring out of the window at the newest member of Major Crime.


“You want him to fail, don’t you?”


“It’s nothing personal, Banks. Just sentinel business.”


“Seems like a damn convenient excuse anytime you want something.”


Hunter turned and raised an eyebrow. “Are you questioning my judgment?”


Simon backed off just enough to avoid sailing over the edge. “I want you and Jim to give Hopkins a chance.”


“He’ll have that: one chance. He screws up, he’s history. Ellison will see to that.”


“And you?”


“Not my department, Banks,” Hunter replied, looking back at the object of their discussion.


“But you’re still involved, as a sentinel.”


“My job as Shield is to keep Sandburg safe through any means necessary.”


“And Sarah?”


“She’s my guide and primary responsibility. Hopkins gets anywhere near here and I’ll kill him.”


The cool, complacent certainty in the IA captain’s voice made the hair on the back of Simon’s neck stand up.


“They say absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Simon muttered, rubbing his eyes.


“You think I’m corrupt?” Hunter asked, almost conversationally.


“Well, no, but you can’t tell me you don’t enjoy scaring the shit out of people,” Simon sputtered.


“Everybody needs to get their jollies somewhere.”


Simon blinked, unsure if the man was cracking a joke or not. With Hunter, it was hard to tell. Simon then moved on to the next topic of concern. “About the other day, when Sandburg was sick....”


“What about it?”


“My son didn’t mean to cause a problem. He was just worried, and he didn’t know you weren’t Jim.”


“I heard all about your son’s antics at Rainier,” Hunter said, the barest hint of a sneer in his voice. “A little guide prejudice goes a long way.”


Simon gritted his teeth, but conceded the point. “Yeah, I know. Daryl was being stupid and he’s paying for it. He really has come to care for Blair. He just wanted to help him.”


Hunter waited.


“What I wanted to say was...thanks for not mangling my son.”


“Despite my reputation, I seldom massacre teenagers,” Hunter said sarcastically as he flopped down in a chair. “Is this conversation going somewhere anytime soon?”


“So much for my attempt to be subtle,” Simon groused, wondering why he had even bothered to try. He got up to pace the room. “I wanted to talk to you about family.”


“Shit, not this again.” Hunter threw up his hands. “I’ve had about all I can take about ‘family’ the last couple of days. So who put you up to this? Ellison?”


“This is from me. I know Sarah’s family has a court order against them, but I’d just like to give you a little perspective from a father’s point of view.”


Hunter just stared stonily. “And I’m going to listen to this because...?”


Simon stared back. “Because you care about your guide’s well-being. I’ve seen how you take care of Sandburg, and I’ve even caught glimpses of how you treat Sarah. You care about both of them.”


“I’m a sentinel, they’re guides,” Hunter said shortly.


Whatever you say, Hunter. Denial is a long river.


“Sarah’s family is not something you can just toss aside. She needs them.”


“That part of her life is over,” Hunter gritted. “She’s my guide and that’s the end of it.”


Simon snorted in derision.


“This has nothing to do with you, Banks. Where the hell do you get off giving me advice?” Hunter was about to get up and walk out, when the expression on Banks’ face stopped him. It was the same serious, concentrated look Sandburg had when he had something Really Really Important to say. Reluctantly, Hunter leaned back, arms crossed across his chest, doing his best to tune Banks out.


Simon noted the gesture, but continued. “Daryl’s in a tough spot - he’s 14 and trying to cope with puberty, the divorce and having his whole belief system of sentinels and guides come crashing down around his ears, thanks to Sandburg.”


Hunter just looked bored.


“I love my son, idiotic moments and all. I know you understand what it’s like to take care of and nurture another person - I mean, guides do need a lot of maintenance, according to Sentinel 101 – but I don’t think you understand exactly what it means to have a child.” Simon paused, searching for the right words. “With children, you have this overwhelming need of not only protecting them, but to make sure they grow up with the right tools to live on their own. You...mold them. You shelter, feed, and educate them, letting them grow up with morals and principles, in the hopes that one day, you can let them go and that they’ll survive in the big bad world. You have all the protective instincts of a sentinel for a guide, but you know that you’re only doing all this so that one day they’ll be on their own, carrying a little piece of you with them.”


Hunter stayed silent, but he was listening.


Simon took off his glasses and polished them absently. “The hard part is letting them make their own mistakes and learn from them, but the hardest part of all is when you make mistakes and they end up hurt because of them.”


Hunter’s eyes flickered.


Yes, Captain, you know exactly what I mean with that one, Banks thought, recalling how Hunter’s first guide had died.


“Sarah’s family made a horrible mistake in trying to help her, but they didn’t do it to piss you off. They love her, and you’ll do almost anything for someone you love.”


Another eye flicker, but no comment.


Simon put his glasses back on as he abruptly changed topics. “Did Jim ever tell you that I once hit Blair?”


Hunter’s sudden tension indicated the Shield was back.


“Daryl was talking to Blair in this office, and I saw Blair touch him. Logic and reason went flying out the window. The only thing I could think was that he was molesting my son right in front of me. It was instinct -- the need to protect Daryl -- but there was no excuse for what I did. Before I even knew it, I was in here, and Blair was on the floor.”


Simon started at his fingers as they wrapped around the coffee cup he had just picked up. “I’m not proud of it, Hunter, but where children are concerned, the primitive tends to come out.”


Hunter shifted slightly.


“I wanted to kill him, for daring to do what every parent fears most of what could happen to their kids. The only thing that stuck in my head was all the rumors about how sentinel and guide touching meant something sexual, and that Blair was going to corrupt my boy. I reacted blindly. That was my son, and I had failed to keep him safe.” Simon took a sip of his now cold coffee. “So put yourself in Max Freeman’s shoes for just a few minutes. He’s protected her all her life, trying to keep the GDP from enslaving her and hurting her, then you come along with your sunny personality, and manage to convince him their worst nightmare had come to life. She’s not only bonded, but to someone Freeman can’t trust not to do what he fears most.”


Hunter ignored the personality crack, looking thoughtful.


“Is it really so different from a sentinel needing to protect a guide?” Hunter stayed silent, so Simon tried again. “If she had been your kid, Hunter, what would you have done?”


After several long minutes, Hunter nodded. “Yeah, I can see why he did it, but that doesn’t mean I’ll put up with it.”


Simon changed tactics. “Okay, so we’ve established motive. Now, let’s get to the core: Sarah needs her family. She’s eighteen, but she’s still a kid, having been, rightly or wrongly, emotionally sheltered all her life.”


“He kept her dependent. I call it abuse,” Hunter stated baldly.


Simon took another sip of coffee. “Her upbringing wasn’t ideal, but she turned out to be an intelligent, thoughtful and compassionate young lady. She’s shy, but that’s something a few years and a little self confidence will take care of. Despite the problems, Max Freeman still managed to raise a good kid.”


Hunter sighed, but nodded reluctantly.


“You agree – good. The way I see it, both Blair and Sarah are doing so much better. Jim saved that young man’s life in more ways than one, and even though I hate to admit it, you’re doing good things with Sarah.”


“So nice to get a vote of confidence,” Hunter drawled.


“I still don’t like you,” Simon said with blatant honesty, “and your methods are downright brutal, but you’re getting decent results.” Simon kept his opinions of Hunter’s own emotional health to himself. That was another conversation for another day.


Hunter narrowed his eyes again, but waited.


“Sarah’s already proven to you that she’s going to stick it out. I don’t know if it’s a sentinel-guide blood oath or something, but she’s going to stay with you. That’s amazing, considering the circumstances.” Simon was warming up for the final salvo. “So why don’t you prove to her that you trust her to keep her word? You’re her sentinel - the closest connection any human being can have, even more than a parent and child. The Freeman family can’t break that. You don’t want to punish Sarah for what they did.”


Hunter ruminated for several minutes. “I’ll think about it, Banks.”


“That’s all I ask,” Simon said, heartened by the fact that the IA captain had even stayed to listen.


Hunter got up and walked to the door. He paused and looked back. “Why didn’t Ellison kill you for hitting Sandburg?”


“Because Blair told him not to.”


“He would.” Hunter left and headed back to Ellison’s desk.


Blair was chatting with Rafe and Brown. His hands were flying in all directions and he was bouncing with enthusiasm. The two police officers were having fits of laughter at whatever he was saying.


Hunter must have blipped on his guide radar, because Blair turned and smiled at the IA captain as he approached. “Hi, Hunter. I was just telling Rafe and H about the mating customs of the Topec Tribe of the Amazon.” Glancing at Hunter’s expression, Blair added gently, “Rafe, H, you’d better give Captain Hunter some space.” Seeing their worried looks, he added, “It’s just a sentinel thing.”


Hunter caught Blair’s wrist and then all but dragged him out of the bull pen.


“Hunter, ease up, man. What do you want?” Blair dug in his heels to no avail.


The sentinel paused and looked up and down the hallway before dragging the smaller man into the elevator and hitting the stop button. Reaching up, Hunter switched off the security camera.


“What’s wrong?” Blair asked, not moving because he could all too clearly see the Shield begin to take over the man.


“You didn’t tell me that Banks had hurt you. I’m the Shield – I need to know these things. No one touches the Guide Prime.”


Blair took a deep breath. “Look, I appreciate the concern, but this was before we even met. It was just a stupid misunderstanding.”


“You should have let Ellison take him apart,” Hunter roared.


Blair watched the way Hunter’s body language changed and tried to soothe him. “Simon Banks is Jim’s friend. He made a mistake, that’s all. He’s practically family.”


“No!” The word burst out, fuelled by whatever demon was chasing the Shield.


Blair closed the distance between them. He reached up and placed a hand on Hunter’s chest over his heart.


The taller man stilled at the gesture.


Blair tipped his head back, showing his throat and letting his barriers drop. Hunter pulled him close as he scented at Blair’s throat. The grip got even tighter as Hunter ran a hand over him, instinctively checking for injuries.


“Hey, I’m okay – really,” Blair said softly, and Hunter’s grip gradually eased.


Hunter looked like he had just come out a zone, blinking. “What...?”


“The Shield kicked in -- big time,” Blair explained, still leaning into the sentinel. “No harm done.”


Hunter grunted, but let Blair move back from him.


About then, there was a hammering on the door of the elevator. It was Edwards. “Sandburg, you okay in there? Hunter, if you’ve hurt him, I’ll disembowel you!”


“You can try,” Hunter growled loudly.


“Open this door!”


Blair sighed – another sentinel fracas in the making. “You’d better open it and I’ll calm everybody down.”


Edwards was through the door before it had completely opened. Blair’s arm blocked him.


“It’s okay, Edwards. No prob...oomph.” The air was driven out of Blair’s lungs as the SWAT officer pulled him to safety and ran frantic hands over him.


“I’m fine. One BP sentinel at a time, please,” Blair said, as he carefully extricated himself from his self-appointed savior.


Hunter just sneered, which made Edwards bristle. “See? Not even a bruise. You can run back to our fearless leader and tell him you saved the day.”


Blair put a hand on Hunter’s arm to calm the Shield down. The connection between them was obvious by Blair’s half-exasperated, half-indulgent guide expression


Edwards flushed when he realized that Blair hadn’t been in danger. He was about to let loose on the IA captain when Hunter moved past him, deliberately shoving the other sentinel back a step.


“This isn’t over, Hunter,” Edwards seethed.


“Want to take my job?” Hunter said in the deadliest voice Edwards had ever heard, even including the Sentinel Prime. “You’ll have to take me on.”


“Don’t think I couldn’t,” Edwards said, too furious for rational thought.


“I know you couldn’t,” Hunter sneered as he took a step toward the other sentinel.


Despite his words, Edwards found himself stepping back instinctively. He had seen Dark Sentinel come out, but this...this was something even darker.


“Have a nice day, Edwards,” Hunter mocked, as he swiped a careless, yet proprietary hand over Sandburg’s hair.


“Son of a bitch,” Edwards muttered as Hunter moved down the hallway and out of view.


“It’s okay,” Blair smiled, trying to lighten the atmosphere. “He just takes his Shield duties very seriously.


“Just what do you see in that prick, anyway?” Edward asked.


Blair was about to defend Hunter when the voice behind him made him jump. “Which one, Edwards?”


“Your damn brother, Ellison,” Edwards spat. “Egotistical son of a....”


“Yeah, I know, I know,” Jim sighed as he pulled his guide close. “You just can’t pick your family, can you?”


                         ~~~~~~~


Hunter headed back to his office to pick up Sarah. Walking into the near empty bullpen, he saw his office door open and Sarah sitting on the floor pulling off parts from the sad specimen of a computer sitting on the carpet.


“Doing a little surgery?” he asked, making her jump with surprise.


“Captain Hunter,” she scrambled to her feet. “Samantha’s computer was acting up, so when she went home, I....”


“Decided to play doctor?” Hunter walked over, peering at the carcass. “What’s wrong with it?”


“I think it’s a bad video card,” she said, getting back down to poke about in the interior of the case.


“We have a city department that’s supposed to take care of computer maintenance,” Hunter said, unlocking his desk to retrieve some folders.


“Uh huh,” Sarah said, never pausing.


“So what’d they say?” Hunter leaned back, propping himself on the edge of his desk


“That maybe they might get around to looking at it next week, and maybe they might be able to have it back here in two weeks.” Sarah pulled out a ribbon cable, cleaned off the connector with a pencil eraser and carefully reattached it. “They’re morons.”


Amused despite his foul mood, Hunter watched Sarah. “So you told them to get lost.”


“Well....” Sarah looked a bit guilty. “I just said you weren’t happy about the delay.”


“Throwing my reputation around?” Hunter almost smiled. “What did it get you?”


“8 AM service call tomorrow,” Sarah said, barely meeting his eyes.


“Not bad, Tiger. Guess you have picked up a few things on how to get things done.” Hunter gathered the rest of his things and motioned to the door. “Time to get out of here.”


“I just need to close the case,” Sarah said, rapidly reassembling the computer and setting it upright against the wall.


“How’d you learn all this computer stuff anyway?’ Hunter asked as they rode the elevator down to the parking garage, Sarah clinging to his jacket to avoid the emotions of the crowd around them.


“I always liked to play with electronic things. My Dad always said...he said he should never have gotten me all those Lego building blocks when I was little.” Sarah got quiet, , the old familiar ache in her throat returning.


Hunter said nothing, steering her to his car and both of them got in without speaking. “We’re going to make a stop on the way home,” Hunter said, driving west out of the city toward the water.


Sarah watched him, troubled by the conflict in him. He was upset, and she had no idea why.


Pulling up in one of the many small parks around Cascade, Hunter parked the car and got out, motioning for Sarah to do the same. They walked for a while along a bike path until he found a bench where they could sit. The wind blew Sarah’s hair around her face, but barely ruffled Hunter’s short hair cut.


“It’s been almost three months now,” Hunter mused, looking out over the water to the mountain range. “I never wanted another guide, and yet you came along and turned my world upside down.”


Sarah pulled into herself, hearing the sting of accusation in the words.


“And now I’ve got the clan hanging over my head, thanks to Ellison,” Hunter growled. “Just one big happy family.” He stared out over the water, not even looking at his guide.


Sarah said nothing. She had actually liked meeting the other sentinels and guides, after the first overwhelming magnitude of the connection. Maybe Hunter was blaming her for that, too. “Sentinel, I....”


Hunter cut her off. “So between Ellison pulling the Sentinel Prime power play, and Sandburg giving me hints about self-improvement, I really didn’t need Banks’ lecture on my responsibilities.” He rubbed his neck futilely against the headache that was building.


Sarah reached out slowly, laying her hand on his shoulder, feeling his chaotic emotions and the stress that was tightening his muscles into little knots. He didn’t push her away, so she concentrated to open the link and ease the pain.


For long minutes, they sat there, water lapping against the shore, sea birds swooping and calling, the occasional bicyclist riding by. Hunter felt the tension headache ease slowly, subsiding into a manageable dull discomfort.


Hunter finally voiced what was bothering him. “I’ve decided to let you see your family.”


Sarah froze, then her heart sped up in agonized hope. “Really?”


“It’s going to be a supervised meeting -- I still don’t trust them after the crap they pulled trying to kidnap you -- so I called Ellison and he’s agreed to letting us use his place for neutral ground.” Hunter clenched his jaw, the headache threatening to return just at the thought of having the Freemans anywhere near Sarah.


“Really?” Sarah repeated, her voice wobbly.


Hunter looked at her fiercely. “Don’t you dare cry. After all the shit over the last few days, I do not need you to start turning on the waterworks.”


Sarah caught her breath at that, mentally wincing. As if she wasn’t reminded day in and day out of being weak and dependent...she gritted her teeth to keep the distressed sound from escaping.


“Low blow,” Hunter retracted the statement almost instantly. “That wasn’t fair.” He reached out and tipped her chin up, looking at her intently. Sentinel senses swept over her, registering each vital function, every nuance of expression.


“I miss them,” Sarah said quietly, her voice still rough with suppressed emotion.


Hunter moved to lean her against him, one arm around her waist, her head tucked under his chin, her body turned so that she was sitting sideways on the bench. Held against her sentinel, Sarah let her barriers drop, accepting the shielding, and the wordless sensation of apology emanating from him. The stinging in her eyes subsided.


“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Hunter grumbled, but tightened his embrace as a curious passer-by stared at them. He glared at the woman, who hurried past them at his look. “A very bad feeling.”


Sarah relaxed into the link, her heart slowing to a rhythm that matched her sentinel’s. It was a beautiful thing: hope.


~~~~~~~


Sarah sat in one of the easy chairs watching her sentinel pace the loft. Watching him bristle with each step, she felt her apprehension grow.


Detective Ellison was lounging on the couch, watching Hunter’s measured stride while Blair laid out some cookies and tea, ever the perfect host.


“You’re gonna wear out my carpet if you keep that up, Hunter,” Jim said laconically.


Hunter merely raised his head and snarled.


Blair knew this was not the time for helpful platitudes. Crossing over to Hunter, he grasped the older man’s shoulder. “You’re in charge of this meeting, Hunter. No one will challenge your authority.” Hunter seemed to calm slightly at the Guide Prime’s touch.


Sarah just waited quietly, curled up in her chair. She should have been the one to calm her sentinel, but he was so worked up about her family that when she had tried to soothe him on the car ride over to the loft, he had just rumbled in irritation. So she had backed off.


“They get their visit. Then they leave,” Hunter stated for what seemed to be the eighth time in the past thirty minutes. “I’m going to be here the entire time. One wrong move, one wrong word, and I’ll....”


“Hunter.” This time it was Jim who stood by him. “Ease up. Sarah’s nervous enough about this meeting without having to play referee.”


Hunter grumbled but allowed Jim to steer him toward the couch. He didn’t sit, merely leaned against the back, watching the door.


Both sentinels suddenly tipped their heads. “They’re here.”


A few minutes later the elevator arrived on the third floor. Some footsteps, then a tentative knock at the door. Blair opened it immediately, and ushered Max and Mandy in.


“Hi. Glad you’re here. Come on in.” The two of them followed Blair, studiously avoiding direct eye contact with either Jim or Hunter, both of whom hovered in the background.


Max walked toward the living room, and spotted Sarah sitting in the chair. Everything faded away except for the girl in the slightly tatty recliner. Somehow, he had expected to see the same pale wraith he had glimpsed at graduation: frightened, lost, withdrawn. With some surprise, he realized that his youngest looked physically fine. Her hair was longer, almost down to her shoulders and lightened by the summer sun as it always was this time of year. She even sported a hint of a tan. She wore faded blue jeans and a blue t-shirt. Her hand was worrying at a strange brown stone she wore around her neck.


Max moved closer, finally reading the faded design on the shirt: Cascade PD. The shirt was about five sizes too big for her, so he knew damn well whom the shirt belonged to.


Bastard.


As Max met Sarah’s eyes, he saw so many things: love, worry and at the back: fear.


“Pop?” Sarah’s voice quivered only slightly.


Max moved toward her, but a low rumble froze him in his tracks. A large shape moved in front of him. A large, unfriendly shape.


“Pop?” This time Sarah was standing up, peering around her sentinel and trying to move toward her father.


Hunter caught her, rumbling something, and she nodded before he allowed her to move again.


Max was relieved when the IA captain moved out of the way. Sarah hesitated, her emotions all topsy-turvy, then Max was pulling her close. “Sarah, my baby...”


Smelling the familiar scent of British Sterling aftershave, she could feel her eyes leaking as she buried her face into his chest. “Pop,” she whispered, hanging on as tightly as she could, afraid if she let go he’d slip away forever.


Max was whispering to her, meaningless broken words that didn’t require translation.


Sarah stayed silent, content to savor the first physical contact with her father in nearly three months.


“Oh, God, honey,” Max sighed. “I never meant for this to happen to you. I should have....” He looked up to see Hunter staring at him, a half sneer on his face. The arrogant expression was enough to push Max over the edge. His rage and loathing of the man bubbled up, uncontrolled.


Sarah, barriers wide open, felt the emotions like molten lava over her skin. Pain exploded along every nerve ending as she went clammy. Her father clung more tightly to her when her knees buckled, then he realized something was wrong. Sarah was ghost-white and freezing cold, her mouth open in a silent scream.


Hunter went into BP overdrive as soon as his guide’s heart rate shot up. Pulling Sarah away from Max, he scooped her up into his arms and moved to the couch.


Max tried to go after them, but Ellison blocked him.


Sarah was shivering in Hunter’s embrace, head moving weakly back and forth as she moaned in pain.


“Get out of my way! She’s sick!” Max tried to move, but Jim had him in a grip that he couldn’t escape. Sarah was making a keening noise that made Max struggle even harder. “Damn it, let me go. He’s hurting her!”


Mandy, who had watched with horror, tried to move toward her sister, but Blair was there, blocking her just as effectively as Jim. He had her by the wrist, and she couldn’t break his hold. He’s a lot stronger than he looks, she thought hysterically, and finally subsided when her escape efforts didn’t yield any results. “Please, he’s hurting her – can’t you hear her?”


Sarah sounded so much like Blair in pain that it made Jim go BP as well. Jim could actually feel Sarah’s pain cut through him from across the room. This interconnection among the four of them unnerved him at times.


Sarah wanted to scream but didn’t have the voice. Guide needed sentinel, and Sarah clutched at the only safehold she had. As Hunter’s hands moved over her, she could feel the pain lessening as they linked. The tiger had the smaller cat between his paws, nuzzling it, trying to take its pain away.


Max watched as Hunter ran his hands over her body with a familiarity that chilled him through the heart. That was his baby Hunter was groping -- his innocent little girl who....


“He’s not hurting her, Mr. Freeman,” Blair said softly. “She’s in overload -- it’s a shock to the system. They need to bond to stabilize her barriers.”


“She’s crying,” Max gritted, trying once again to pull from Ellison’s hold. “She’s in pain.”


“I know,” Blair said, moving Mandy to a chair. Reaching out again, he latched onto Jim, connecting. “Her barriers were wide open when you hugged her.”


Max’s eyes widened with disbelief. “Are you saying that I did that?!”


Blair nodded regretfully. “Your anger – she had no way of blocking it.”


Max’s face lost all color, and Jim had to catch him before he passed out. Swearing under his breath, Jim moved Max to the chair Sarah had been sitting in.


“Stay there,” Jim warned, moving back to Blair.


Max wanted to vomit; he had hurt his own child.


Hunter turned and laid back on the couch, rolling Sarah on top of him. Both were oblivious to their audience.


Instead of struggling, as Max expected, his daughter buried her face into the man’s neck, clinging to him. Gradually, under the meaningless rumbles and proprietary touches, Sarah’s shivering eased and her body relaxed. As his guide’s pain eased, so did the sentinel’s aggression.


Sleep, he commanded, and she allowed their link to take her to twilight.


Mandy was both fascinated and horrified by the interaction between her sister and Hunter. “He keeps running his hands over her,” she whispered. “Why is he doing that?”


Blair detached himself from Jim to move over to the worried young woman. “It’s like a sensory scan,” Blair explained. “He can tell what’s wrong just by touching her.”


“Then why does he keep doing it?” she fretted. The intimacy of it reminded her uncomfortably of the GLA propaganda of guides as sex slaves.


“Because it feels good,” Blair said simply, shocking her into silence. Her open-mouthed stare very nearly made him laugh despite the gravity of the situation. “What I mean is, it’s a healing thing, a physical connection that reinforces the emotional bond.”


Max was mute, but he was obviously listening to Blair.


“He’s touching her everywhere,” Mandy whispered, aghast at how Hunter moved his hands over Sarah’s head and neck, occasionally moving down her arms and legs. He even ran his hand under her shirt, making soothing circles on her bare back.


“That’s how it works,” Blair said with a small smile. “A sentinel and guide bond on many levels.”


“He doesn’t...?” Despite everything, Mandy still was worried that Hunter had taken advantage of her little sister.


This time it was Jim who answered. “No, Ms. Freeman, we sex-starved sentinels don’t throw our guides down and rape them at every opportunity.” The sarcasm would have done Hunter proud.


Mandy went red and sputtered.


“Hunter isn’t like that.” Blair patted his sentinel on the back, sending soothing vibes to him. “He’s just doing what all sentinels do: healing and protecting through the bond. It’s not sex despite what the GLA claims. In fact, if you come right down to it, the bond is much more intimate than sex.”


Mandy and Max looked at each other, swallowed heavily, then looked back at Sarah. She made a slight whimpering noise, and Hunter immediately tightened his embrace until she settled down.


“He’s...he’s hugging her.” There was disbelief in Mandy’s voice, as if she couldn’t trust what she was seeing. “He’s cuddling her.” The visual impact sent all her carefully constructed GLA arguments off into space.


“He’s looking out for her, taking care of her. A sentinel’s vow is to serve and protect his guide, not unlike what the police do for society,” Blair said quietly. Jim moved behind him, a possessive hand gripping Blair’s neck. “This is what a sentinel and guide are: two bodies, one soul.” At that, Jim’s hand relaxed.


“Does he...does he really care about her?” Mandy reached for Max’s hand, clinging to her father. She had her doubts as to what the intimidating IA captain possessed in terms of compassion.


“He’d die for her.”


Neither Max nor Mandy could say anything to that.


The room settled into an uneasy silence for the next little while. Sarah stirred once or twice, but a single touch from her sentinel settled her down. Hunter focused entirely on her; the Sentinel Prime would guard his back.


Jim paced; Blair soothed. Finally, Sarah woke, blinking. She tried to sit up, but was caught and settled back against her sentinel’s chest.


“Rest,” Hunter ordered. He turned his head to glare at Max. He kept the anger damped down as long as he was connected with Sarah.


Max gathered up his courage and moved out of the chair towards the couch. “Sarah?” His voice shook as he reached out, then dropped his hand at Hunter’s warning growl. “Sarah, I’m so sorry, honey. I never meant....”


“Mr. Freeman, I wouldn’t touch her right now,” Blair warned.


“I won’t,” Max said in a hushed voice, still overwhelmed by what he had done in his ignorance. “I’m so, so sorry...” Max bent down on his knees so that Sarah’s face was at eye level. The tears in her eyes ripped through him. He felt like crying himself. He barely registered Mandy moving down next to him, both of them wanting to reach out and not daring to.


“‘m okay,” Sarah mumbled, feeling like she was swimming underwater – everything heavy and slow.


“Why don’t I let Sarah take a nap in my room?” Blair suggested, turning his guide instincts on full as he grasped Hunter’s shoulder. The sentinel relaxed slightly, and finally allowed Blair to pull Sarah up and help her first to the bathroom, and then to his room. Hunter rolled off the couch in a smooth, predatory coil and followed Blair as he shepherded Sarah to the bathroom, both waiting patiently until she came out. Blair tucked her into his bed, and even Hunter couldn’t find fault with the efficiency and care the Guide Prime used to settle her.


“Will you stay with her?” Hunter asked. “We’ll bond, but first I...”


Blair was already climbing onto the futon, wrapping himself around Sarah like a giant comforter. Hunter almost bristled, but knew that Blair’s empathic shielding would help heal Sarah’s emotional pathways.


“I’ll be back shortly,” Hunter promised, and let himself out of the room.


Mandy and Max sat side by side on the couch, their strained silence and palpable guilt annoying Hunter even more.


“I knew this was a stupid idea,” Hunter began, barely containing his temper. “If you don’t know enough to keep your emotions in check when her barriers are down, then...”


Max clung to Mandy, unable to look Hunter in the face. After all the things he had accused the IA captain of, he himself had inflicted pain.


“Hunter, maybe we should...” Jim suggested, only to be interrupted by a knock on the door. “Hang on while I get that.” He had been so focused on their little drama that he hadn’t even noticed someone approaching the loft.


“Jim!” a female voice bubbled. “I thought I’d surprise the two of you and take you to lunch.”


A tall woman swept into the apartment smiling at Jim as she gave him a peck on the cheek. Then she saw Hunter and her eyes widened.


“My goodness, he really does look like you!” Walking up to Hunter, she grasped his hand and shook it. “Hi, I’m Naomi, Blair’s mother. You must be Captain Hunter. I’m so glad you were able to find Sarah. That must have been terrifying. How’s she doing? You’re from Washington, right? I have friends in DC - you know the Thompsons? Anyway, I just came to take my boy and his sentinel to lunch. Would you like to come along?”


Hunter looked bemused. The woman was beaming at him, hardly pausing for breath. Chatty, but harmless, he decided, finally understanding what Ellison meant about the bumper stickers.


“You know, you really are quite handsome,” Naomi said with purely feminine appreciation. “I thought Jim was drop-dead sexy, but you, honey, you are just plain gorgeous.”


He simply stared as the woman finally spied Max and Mandy hunching defensively on the couch. “Hi there. Are you friends of Blair’s? I’m Naomi.” She walked past Hunter, patting him almost absently on the butt as she passed him. She was shaking hands with Max and Mandy and they managed to form coherent replies despite the tension in the room, which Naomi seemed oblivious to.


“Ellison, is she for real?” Hunter looked over at Naomi with an expression somewhere between disbelief and indignation. “She patted me on the ass!”


“It’s a compliment,” Jim said, suppressing a smile with effort. “Apparently, you struck her fancy.” He waited while Hunter’s eyes widened, then narrowed.


“She’s GLA, and she wants to jump my bones.” Hunter didn’t know whether to be insulted or flattered. Even if he were in the market for a woman, it certainly wouldn’t be some flaky New Age left wing radical who talked a hundred miles an hour.


“No accounting for taste,” Jim said lightly.


“If you think that I’m...” whatever Hunter was going to say trailed off when he heard the quiet sniffle from the couch.


“Honey, what’s wrong?” Naomi was crouched down in front of Mandy, holding both her hands in her own. “Whatever it is, maybe I can help.”


Mandy burst into tears, and Naomi immediately got up and sat down next to her and held her. “Surely it’s not that bad.”


Max’s jaw was trembling; he wanted to cry himself, but the sentinels in the room would close in for the kill if he showed any weakness.


“Freeman, come with me,” Jim ordered. “I’m going to get some coffee while Naomi and Mandy talk.”


Max glanced at Hunter; the man was watching him balefully. Then he got up shakily and moved to the kitchen.


“Hunter, why don’t you let me handle this end. Go bond.” It was a directive from the Sentinel Prime, and Hunter finally gave in with bad grace.


Stalking over to the little room, he opened the door to find both empaths sound asleep: Sarah curled up under the colorful quilt with Blair sprawled on top of it, snoring lightly.


Hunter moved over and grasped Sandburg’s shoulder, shaking lightly. “Sandburg, you can get up now.”


Blair just muttered and turned over.


“Wakey, wakey, Sleeping Beauty.”


That must have registered, because Blair’s eyes opened, puzzled, until he remembered where he was. Surprisingly, though, he felt no panic. Just like with Jim, Hunter had somehow connected with him before bringing him to full consciousness, even if Hunter was unaware of what he did.


“Hey, man, sorry I fell asleep. I was up late last night grading papers.” A jaw-cracking yawn punctuated the words.


“How is she?” Hunter ran his hand over his guide’s head, noting with satisfaction how she turned into his touch, almost nuzzling.


“She slept; I fell asleep. What’s up?” Blair got up, stretched so that every other vertebra popped and sighed in relief as his back loosened.


“Well, the sister is currently watering the couch, and Ellison dragged Freeman into the kitchen for some Sentinel Prime lecture.”


“I kind of figured that. You know, he never meant to hurt her. They just don’t understand.”


“If I had my way, they’d still be far away from her.” Hunter’s lips were compressed.


“You know that’s not a long-term option, not if you want to avoid hurting Sarah.”


“She’s mine.” That simple statement was shaded with a hundred different degrees of possessiveness.


“She’s yours,” Blair agreed, and Hunter unruffled slightly. “They just need to be taught how to deal with her. They’re not challenging you.”


“If they do, they’re dead.”


Blair shifted topics to help defuse the sentinel’s growing anger. “I thought I heard another voice out there.”


“Your mother is here.”


“Naomi’s here? I thought she was in Tibet this month.” Blair bounced slightly in pleasure.


“She wanted to take you and Ellison out to lunch,” Hunter drawled. “Of course, I wasn’t expecting the proposition.”


“Prop...” Blair’s expression was priceless. “Oh no, please don’t tell me she....”


Hunter’s expression was somewhere between a sneer and a smirk. “Does she always hit on strange men?”


Blair closed his eyes. “Oh, man. See, Naomi’s sort of the free love type, and she can be really up front about what she wants.”


“I think I figured that out when she groped my ass.”


Blair had to struggle not to laugh; the IA captain was obviously trying to stay blasé about the whole thing, but Naomi was a force of nature that even sentinels couldn’t overcome.


“She, uh, has this thing for tall men with blue eyes.”


“Sandburg, she’s your mother, so I’ll say this as nicely as I can: I’m not looking for some hippy GLA activist to complicate my life.”


“She’s a great Mom,” Blair defended her. “She just has some personality traits that take getting used to.”


“Then steer her toward Ellison; that would keep it all in the family.”


“Jim? And my Mom? Uh-uh, no way.” Blair tried to picture Dark Sentinel and Naomi peacefully cohabiting -- not a chance.


“Oh, but it’s fine if you throw me to the wolves,” Hunter grumbled.


“I’m sure she’d be gentle,” Blair said, tongue in cheek. The humor dancing in his eyes finally relaxed the larger man.


“Sandburg, so help me, I’ll....” Hunter growled, but the irritation was mostly for show. He huffed out a sigh at the cheeky grin Sandburg gave him and moved to lie down next to Sarah, taking her in his arms.


“Don’t worry, Hunter – Sarah’s the only woman who matters.”


Hunter stared down at his guide. She was still asleep, but the pathway was open and she moved even closer to him.


Looking back up at Sandburg, he saw the kid’s eyes, watchful and knowing. Hunter felt something shiver across him, like static electricity, as Dark Guide and Shield linked without even touching. For several moments, they just stared at each other, then Blair broke the link.


“Bond and heal, and I’ll see you later,” Blair whispered as he moved out the door.


Blair shut the folding doors and found himself staring at his mother rocking Mandy as she sobbed all over Naomi’s sympathetic shoulder. Max was in the kitchen, head bowed, as Jim, gesticulating impatiently, was reading him the riot act.


Naomi looked up and her eyes lit up when she saw her son. He motioned for her to finish dealing with Mandy and slipped into the kitchen where Max was barely holding it together. Jim had obviously ripped a few strips off the man’s hide because he flinched at the sound of Blair’s footsteps across the linoleum.


“It’s just me, Mr. Freeman,” Blair reassured him.


“Sarah?” Max asked, his voice still unsteady.


“She slept, and they’re bonding. I don’t think she’s in pain anymore.”


“I’m sorry,” Max said. “More sorry than you can possibly imagine. I never meant....”


“We know,” Blair said as he moved to his sentinel, leaning into Jim’s back. “It’s just going to take some work on controlling your feelings when you’re around her. Any emotional extreme can hurt.”


“That son of a bitch...” Max gritted.


“That ‘son of a bitch’ is the only thing keeping her sane, and the only man who can protect her. Whatever you think about him, it’s not his fault that Sarah came on line. I did that.”


“You?” Max gaped at the curly-headed young man.


“It was unintentional,” Blair said. “I was injured, I felt her near me, and it just happened.”


Max moved toward Blair, only to find himself in a choke hold and roughly shoved against the cabinets.


“Don’t even think of touching my guide,” Jim snarled. “He saved your daughter from the correction facility.”


Max slumped in Jim’s grip. “I just want it to go back the way it was. We kept her safe for so long; we could have done it.”


Jim let go as Max tried to compose himself.


“You couldn’t have done it forever, Mr. Freeman. Some things just have to take their natural course.” Blair was in full soothing mode, his voice lulling. “Eventually, there’ll be changes in how society treats empaths, but for now, we have to play by their rules. She’s much safer bonded than running scared.”


“I want her to be able to go to school. I want her to be able to fall in love and get married. She shouldn’t be called a whore, like she was less than human. I don’t want her to have to kn-kn-kneel to anyone.” Max’s voice broke on the last sentence, and Blair simply moved in to hold the older man as he cried in great gulping sobs.


Across the counter, Naomi met Blair’s eyes in a moment of complete understanding as they each comforted a Freeman. Jim sighed as he poured out some more tea and went to get the box of extra soft tissues with aloe that Blair kept stocked for cold and flu season. Jim suppressed the urge to be anywhere but here.


Eventually, the storm of emotion passed. Blair moved Max out to sit with Mandy as Naomi went into full den mother mode, reassuring father and daughter.


“I have a better idea,” Naomi announced as she stood in front of the pair. “How about the three of us go to lunch? I think I might be able to help you with all this. It took a long time until I was convinced Jim would look after Blair the way he should be looked after, and I had lots of questions even the GLA couldn’t answer.”


“You’re...you’re GLA?” Mandy asked, wide-eyed.


“Charter member,” Naomi said proudly as Blair winced and Jim rolled his eyes.


“And you still let Blair bond?”


Naomi turned quiet, unkind memories returning. “It’s a long story, best told where we can sit and really talk. Would you like to?”


Blair moved over to his mother, wrapping her in his arms. Max watched as Jim laid a hand on his guide’s back, but didn’t interfere with the embrace. The sentinel was watchful, but his expression was indulgent.


Max was struck by the profound connection the two men shared. Detective Ellison obviously cared about the man as much as the empath. If the bonding had truly been predestined, why couldn’t Sarah have found a sentinel like him? Instead, she had a moody, arrogant, disturbing and aggressive man who....


“I’ll come with you,” Blair offered. “Explain some things to you about the bond. Jim can stay here with Hunter and Sarah.”


“Will he let us see her again?” Mandy was still wiping her eyes.


“Why don’t we take this one step at a time?” Blair suggested as he grabbed his jacket. With a complete lack of self consciousness, Blair moved to his sentinel and wrapped his arms around the taller man. Ellison returned the embrace and tugged affectionately at his guide’s hair before letting him go.


It was all so simple, Naomi mused. The bond was present in every word, every gesture, every thought. Her son was safe with this man, and more importantly, his soul was safe.


“We’ll be at Veggie Paradiso, Jim,” Blair said as he ushered a very subdued Max and Mandy ahead of him. “Don’t even think about Wonderburger while I’m gone.”


Max expected the sentinel to reprimand his guide for his words, but Ellison just laughed. Max let himself be guided out the door, his thoughts in turmoil.


~~~~~~~


Naomi escorted her charges to a corner table in Veggie Paradiso. It wasn’t a GLA haven per se, but GLA activists were known to frequent it from time to time. Naomi was greeted warmly by several acquaintances.


“Well, let’s order something, then we can talk.” Naomi quickly looked over the menu and placed her order, then gently encouraged Max and Mandy to do the same. Blair smiled at the waitress as he gave his own order.


Blair waited until he had both Max and Mandy’s full attention. He gave them a brief review of his life before Alex and the GDP, the nightmare with the other sentinel and the corrections facility, then focused in on what was truly important: his life with Jim. He answered some of their questions as he went, unflinchingly honest and at times quite graphic.


“Is that...would that have happened to Sarah?” Max gulped, shocked by the magnitude of what Blair had suffered during his captivity.


“I don’t know, but I couldn’t take that chance. There’s no way I could let her endure even one tenth of what I went through.” Blair shivered slightly, and Naomi reached out to stroke his hand gently.


“Detective Ellison really saved you, didn’t he?” Mandy asked hesitantly.


“Yes,” Blair affirmed. “He healed me. He gave me back my life and my academic future, but most of all, he became my brother and best friend. We can’t survive without each other – it’s a sentinel and guide proviso – but now we wouldn’t want to even if we could.”


“And Captain Hunter?” Mandy was still trying to figure out how the IA captain fit in the scheme of things.


“He’s Jim’s half-brother, and the Shield of the sentinel clan,” Blair said. “I can’t really explain that other than to say that he’s sort of the second in command.”


“He’s violent,” Mandy whispered. “He threw me against the wall. What if he....?”


“He was in BP mode, protecting his guide,” Blair explained. “Any threat to the guide can be met with violence.”


“How do I know Sarah hasn’t been abused? How do I know he hasn’t said or done something to hurt her or frighten her? He had us arrested, kept us away from her – why should I trust you?” Max was getting agitated.


“You’ll have to take her word, Mr. Freeman. I can answer some of the questions you have, but there are things you’ll have to ask her yourself. I won’t say it’s been smooth sailing, but they’ve settled down together fairly well.”


“The way he touches her – bonding, linking, whatever it’s called -- it’s just so....” Max paused, still trying to cope with the images of Hunter touching his daughter so intimately.


“Mr. Freeman, this is all part and parcel of the sentinel-guide bond,” Blair tried to explain. “You have to realize that....”


“It’s wrong!”


Naomi leaned in, her eyes flashing. “Wrong? Are you saying that when Jim touches my son, it’s unnatural? That it makes Blair less of a man? Or that it’s some sexual thing between them?”


Max slumped back. “No, I didn’t mean that. It’s just....” He trailed off, unable to qualify all the things that upset him about Sarah’s bonding to Hunter.


Naomi gentled her expression. “Look, I know it’s difficult. When I first saw my son, he was leashed, with some tall, stern military-looking cop dragging him like a dog. I almost died when I saw whom my son had been bonded to. I thought that Jim had hurt Blair and would continue to hurt him; I was wrong.”


Max looked down at his food, which he had barely touched. “You’re a protestor -- how can you live with the fact that your son is a guide?”


Blair just sat back, letting Naomi direct the conversation. He knew how passionate and persuasive his mother could be.


“Blair was born an empath – nothing can or could change that, but I wanted him to be free, just like you did with Sarah. We moved around a lot, but Blair wanted to settle and study. Then when Alex came onto the scene, the world changed.”

 

Naomi’s expression was now one of grief. “My son was tortured by a sentinel; he was raped and abused by the GDP. He suffered things that would have broken other people, and he survived.” She waited until Max looked her in the eyes. “If I could have spared him one moment of his pain, I would have, even if it meant my death. I love my son, Max, possibly even more than Jim does.”


Max cleared his throat uncomfortably.


“I wouldn’t have wanted my son to be a guide, but since I have no choice, I’ll cope with it. Does it anger me that he has no personal rights? Yes. Does it hurt me that he’s no better than a slave in society’s eyes? Absolutely. But since we can’t change things overnight...” she glanced over at her son, a militant light in her eyes, “we live the best we can.”


Blair smiled at his mother; she would always be his champion.


“But Detective Ellison isn’t the norm for a sentinel; you said so already.” Mandy poked her straw in her glass, swirling the ice cubes.


“He’s a good man, personally and professionally” Naomi agreed. “He saved my son. I really can’t say what type of man Captain Hunter is, but he’s anything like Jim Ellison, then Sarah is lucky to have him.”


“Lucky,” Max repeated. “He forced her to bond, kept her away from us and then....”


Blair sighed; they were back to square one. “Mr. Freeman, what exactly are you the most worried about? What a sentinel-guide pairing are to each other? What type of man Hunter is? Or perhaps the fact that your daughter is finally getting a chance to grow up in the real world?”


That last sentence had the bite of a Dark Guide. Max winced.


Blair pushed his hair back and launched into lecture mode. “Look, a sentinel and guide have a close physical and emotional relationship. That means they touch each other, they link mentally and physically, and western society will always be uncomfortable with that closeness. This is something you can’t change and will have to learn how to accept.”


“He forced Sarah to bond,” Max worried his paper napkin, systematically shredding it. “How do I know he isn’t forcing her into other things?”


“That was instinct,” Blair said quietly. “A bonding is sentinel behavior that is ingrained. Despite the territorial overtones, it’s not something meant to injure the guide.”


“Are you telling me she wasn’t scared to death?” Max said belligerently.


“No, I won’t lie and tell you she wasn’t afraid. She was just as scared as I was when I was bonded to Jim. But Hunter didn’t hurt her – he’s never deliberately hurt her.”


“He’s not a nice person,” Mandy said, remembering her interrogation at the police station.


Blair paused, searching for the right words. “Hunter is a very complicated man - he’s suffered some devastating personal losses and he’s gradually recovering from them. But he’s not a monster.”


“He’s so cold,” Mandy shuddered.


“Not when you get to know him.” Blair gave Mandy a small smile. “He’s a very private man and he doesn’t trust easily. Add to that the sentinel instinct, and you have someone who isn’t going to be very approachable. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have principle and ethics.”


Max’s expression was disbelieving.


“I’ll be blunt,” Blair said. “If he had wanted to, Hunter could have done anything to Sarah after bonding: raped her, beat her, starved her, kept her on a leash – or worse. A sentinel can do anything he wants to with his guide, with society’s blessing. But he didn’t.” Blair locked gazes with both Freemans as he reiterated. “He didn’t.”


It was obvious that Blair was firmly in Hunter’s corner. Max and Mandy looked at each other as they digested that.


“But what about what Sarah wants?” Mandy still looked troubled.


“Sarah was locked away to keep her safe, and wasn’t allowed to things she would have normally. She wasn’t involved in any out of school activities, didn’t have any friends to speak of, didn’t get to date. You tell me if that would have been her choice.” Blair neatly turned the tables on them.


“Damn it, I was trying to protect her!” Max nearly tipped his glass over. “Don’t you dare insinuate that I hurt her!”


“But you did,” Blair said softly. “Just as you did earlier. And you’ll continue to hurt her if you can’t accept what has to be.”


Max swallowed again. It was so much easier to blame the GDP, Hunter and the Sentinel Prime for what had happened.


“I just want her to be safe,” Max whispered.


“Hunter will protect her,” Blair said. “Just as he protects me.”


Max and Mandy stared in confusion.


“The Shield not only has his own guide, he’s also bound to guard the Guide Prime – me.”


That was an unexpected twist. Obviously, there was more to the whole sentinel-guide thing than either Max or Mandy expected.


“And he cares about you?” Mandy asked, and was rewarded with a million watt smile of affirmation.


“Yeah, we get along fairly well now, although at times, it’s sort of like having two dads.” Blair grinned as he took a bite of his sandwich. “But nothing between us will even come close to the bond Hunter has with Sarah, or that I have with Jim. That’s what it’s fundamentally meant to be: two bodies, one soul.”


“It’s scary to accept that someone else will now always come first in your daughter’s life, but you’ll destroy her if you can’t reach some kind of peace with Hunter.” Naomi reached out to cover Max’s cold hand with her own. “I had to make a choice and I accepted Jim. I can’t say that we’re the best of friends -- I get the feeling that he just tolerates me for Blair’s sake – but I think that I’m making some headway.”


Blair chuckled a little at Naomi’s wry humor. He then turned back to Max and Mandy.


“Hunter agreed to the meeting, didn’t he? I’d say that was a major concession to keep Sarah happy.”


“Is she? Happy, I mean?” Mandy covered her father’s other hand, gripping it tightly.


“Getting there,” Blair said, his eyes holding secrets he wasn’t willing to share.


“It’s just that...” Max trailed off, knowing he had some serious thinking to do tonight.


“I know,” Naomi patted his hand, “Believe me, I know.”


~~~~~~~


Naomi pulled up outside the loft. Hunter’s car was still parked there.


“Maybe we could....” Mandy began, but Blair shook his head.


“I really wouldn’t push it right now. Hunter and Sarah bonded, and he’ll want to get her home in safe territory.”


“But....” Mandy attempted to protest.


“Mandy, let it go,” Max said wearily, his head aching with the stress and guilt. “We’ll just have to wait a bit and see if Captain Hunter will let us see her again.”


“He probably won’t,” Mandy sniffled, ready to burst into tears again.


“Oh, he will, it’ll just take a bit until he calms down,” Blair reassured her. He got out of the car and was about to open the door for Mandy when Hunter came out of the building, Sarah tucked by his side.


“Sandburg,” Hunter acknowledged. “Are they gone?”


“They’re in the car,” Blair said. “They’ll be leaving shortly.”


“Damn fool idiots,” Hunter muttered as he tucked his sleepy guide in the passenger seat and fastened her seat belt. “I knew this was a bad idea.” he moved back and closed her door, ready to walk around to the driver side.


“Nobody’s perfect the first time at anything.” Blair was bouncing slightly as he tried to make his point.


“Just tell them to stay away. I’m not putting up with this crap.”


“Oh, I already told them to lie low for a while. They’ll do whatever you say, but maybe when things calm down, we can try again.”


“When hell freezes over,” Hunter muttered, but without his usual vitriol.


“I’m sorry it didn’t go better,” Blair said regretfully. “But Sarah needed to see them. You saw how much it meant to her.”


Hunter sighed – the kid was out to improve the universe, Hunter included. “Whatever, Sandburg.”


“I’m just doing my guide thing,” Blair said with a quick grin. “You’d miss it if I didn’t.”


“Like jock itch,” Hunter jibed, but his hand went over Sandburg’s hair in a quick caress before he got into the car and drove away.


Max watched the body language of the sentinel – he was too far away to hear anything – and saw the gentle touch the sentinel gave the young man. Once again, Max’s paradigms shifted as he tried to assimilate what he thought he knew of Captain Hunter, and what actually was.


By the time he and Mandy were driving home, Max had done more thinking than he had ever imagined he’d do.


~~~~~~~~


Pulling up to the Ellison Corporation building, Blair parked in the visitor’s lot and then made his way inside.


The receptionist Maddie looked up and her smile became forced. She remembered all too clearly when she first met Blair Sandburg - a guide - and had allowed her opinion of guides to show. She’d nearly lost her job.


Sandburg had bonded to Mr. Ellison’s son and that made him extended family; she’d learned the hard way that you never piss off family.


“Good morning,” Maddie said politely, but Blair could feel the restrained animosity. “Mr. Ellison is expecting you in the new north wing. Just off to your left.” She pushed the visitor log toward him, carefully avoiding any physical contact.


“Thanks,” Blair said quietly, resigned to her attitude.


“If you’ll just sign in,” Maddie said, uncomfortable. They said that empaths could see into your soul, and the thought of someone looking that close both frightened and repulsed her.


“Problem?” A large man with a military crew cut walked up. “Is this kid bothering you, Maddie?”


“This is Guide Sandburg. He’s bonded to Mr. Ellison’s son.” The barely concealed distaste in her voice made Blair shift a bit.


“You’re Sandburg?” The man sounded surprised, and Blair braced himself for a conflict.


“I was invited....” Blair began, but the man didn’t need an explanation.


“My name is Merriman, head of Ellison Corporate Security. If you’ll just follow me, Mr. Sandburg, I’ll escort you to Mr. Ellison.” The man was polite, his tone respectful.


Blair looked at him closely, but Merriman’s gaze was steady, his emotions neutral. No judgment there.


“Thanks,” Blair said as he followed the security guard down the hallway to the newly constructed wing. The guard excused himself, leaving Blair alone in the hall. He wandered around, admiring the art work decorating the vast space.


“Like what you see, Blair?” William spoke from the doorway.


“It’s great!” Blair enthused. “I like the way you integrated the modern and the ancient.”


“I told them the building had to achieve balance,” William said as he moved closer to Blair and bent down and removed a section of the temporary flooring. “These are the native structures hundreds of years old. We built right over them, but...” He put a hand up to stay Blair’s instinctive protest. “We’re preserving the original structures. The final floor will be laid so that people can view the excavation – the best of both worlds.”


William replaced the flooring and stood up. “I know I asked you to look over the site from an anthropological point of view, but I promised Jimmy that I’d feed you. Something about grading blue books and missing meals?”


Blair flushed guiltily. Sneaky sentinel didn’t miss a thing. “I’m okay,” he protested, then his stomach rumbled as if to contradict him.


“How about we grab some lunch?”


“Sure, Mr. Ellison,” Blair said obediently when he saw the resolve on the older man’s face.


“Ahem,” William cleared his throat.


“I mean...William.” Blair still wasn’t used to the informality


“Much better.” William led his charge to the patio where the small café did a booming business with corporation employees and the general public.


“What are you in the mood for?” William asked as they were seated.


Blair perused the menu. “Umm, how about a veggie pita and the spinach salad?”


“That’s too healthy for me -- give me a steak any day.” William gave their orders to the hovering waiter and leaned back. “So, any thoughts so far?”


Blair launched into an enthusiastic dissertation on native culture and his thoughts on preservation. William enjoyed watching Blair wax eloquent.


The shot took both men by surprise. Blair found himself slammed to the floor as a second shot rang out. Security arrived a few seconds later amidst shouting and screaming of the restaurant patrons.


The head of Ellison security rushed over as his men secured the area, but the sniper was gone. William Ellison lay on the ground, Blair pinned beneath him. A bloody stain was spreading across William’s back. A security guard turned William over and Blair was able to sit up.


William lay there, an identical stain on his chest. Blair grabbed a napkin and pressed it against the wound. He could feel the shock William was in, and his own skin grew clammy.


“Sir, are you hurt?” It was the guard who had escorted him to the new wing - Merriman. He tried to move Blair back, but Blair resisted.


“Call an ambulance!”


“Already on the way,” Merriman reassured him. “Are you wounded?”


“Please, call Detective Ellison, Cascade PD,” Blair begged, now almost as pale as William.


“Okay,” Merriman soothed as he motioned to one of his men to make the call. “Let us check you out.” He didn’t know a lot about sentinels and guides, but was aware that they could be physically hurt by extreme emotion. The young man cringed from him.


“No...don’t touch,” Blair choked out, as the paramedics arrived. “My barriers....” The somewhat incoherent explanation was enough to make the man back off.


Blair watched them as the EMS personnel applied dressings and started an IV. The were sticking a tube down William’s throat, and then moved him into the ambulance rapidly.


A second team of rescuers headed toward Blair. The young man was gray and clammy, blood smeared over his shirt.


“Here’s another one,” the medic said sharply as they surrounded Blair. “Set up an IV.” He knelt down and reached for Blair, who jerked away.


“No!” Blair moved back from the well-intentioned medic’s touch.


“Just let me check you out,” the medic said soothingly. “That’s a lot of blood on your shirt, and you don’t look so good.”


“No, not shot. Need...Jim,” Blair’s pulse was thready.


“Don’t touch him,” Merriman said, stepping between Blair and the paramedics. He looked exactly like what he was – an enforcer.


The paramedic was shocked. “Are you crazy? He’s hurt. He needs medical attention.”


The guard pulled his jacket back, showing his weapon. “Ellison Corporate Security. Step away from him.” His tone was calm, reasonable and dead serious.


“You can’t do this!” The medic saw the guard reach for his gun and backed off.


Just then, Cascade police officers burst onto the scene.


“Thank God!” The medic rushed over to one of the uniforms. “Can you guys do something? That man’s hurt and the pit bull won’t let us near him.”


Blair shivered, the emotional extremes on top of William’s injury were graying out his vision.


“Just lie still.” Merriman didn’t touch him -- just stood over him. “I won’t let anyone near you. Mr. Ellison said you were to be protected at all times.”


My own private guard dog, Blair thought dizzily. Every boy should have one.


There were voices arguing, but they faded into a blur of background noise. It seemed like forever until a familiar hand touched him.


“Chief.” He was enfolded in a warm, solid embrace.


Blair clung to Jim. “Your dad...gunshot. We have to get to the hospital.”


Jim ran his hands over his guide, checking him for injuries, then pulled him up. “We’ll get you checked out too, Chief.”


“Just backlash...I’m not hurt.” Blair wanted to burrow into the embrace. Just touching Jim was making the pain lessen. He felt Jim support him all the way to the truck.


“We’ll just make sure,” Jim said as he quickly loaded Blair into the passenger seat.


Blair leaned against his sentinel as they made the drive to the hospital.


“What happened, Chief?” Jim concentrated on the road, his guide and the fury that was welling up at the thought of someone trying to kill his guide.


“Two shots...second one hit your father. West side. Couldn’t see....”


“Security said they didn’t find anyone. Normally, I wouldn’t give private security the time of day, but Dad has the best. Ex-military, for the most part. Merriman was a SEAL – not that I’m comparing Navy to Army Rangers — but he’s sharp.” The little edge of Ranger arrogance would have made Blair smile under other circumstances.


Blair clutched Jim’s arm, not daring to link while Jim was weaving in and out of traffic running red lights and siren.


“Merriman thought the sniper was aiming for Dad,” Jim said, negotiating a sharp right turn. “I’m not so sure about that.”


“William saved me,” Blair said, sounding lost.


“I know, Chief.”


They pulled into the ambulance entrance and Jim parked in one of the emergency vehicle slots.


“Let’s go, Chief.” Jim helped his guide out of the seat. Blair was still a bit shaky but not as clammy.


Jim strode in – Blair hanging onto his jacket more for balance than anything else – and nearly ran over one of the nurses.


“Detective Ellison?” She frowned. “What happened this time?”


It seemed like everybody at Cascade General ER either knew him or of him, a notoriety Jim could have done without.


“Not me,” Jim said shortly. “My father – William Ellison. Where is he?”


The nurse’s eyes widened. “He’s been taken up to surgery. 4th Floor.”


“Condition?” Jim’s voice was rough.


The nurse hesitated, then: “Critical, Detective, but he was still alive.”


Jim closed his eyes, and felt Blair open the connection, giving him support despite his own shaky status.


“There’s a waiting area outside surgery. If you go up, I’ll have one of the nurses update you on what’s going on in there.”


“I appreciate it,” Jim cleared his throat. “I have to get my partner checked out, too.”


The nurse finally caught a glimpse of the pale young man, shirt stained with blood, standing behind the tall detective.


“Bring him into room 5; I’ll let Dr. Adams know.”


“No,” Jim said emphatically. “Sentinel floor.” He tucked Blair closer to him.


“All right,” the nurse said agreeably. Sentinels were very picky about their guides. “I’ll call and tell them you’re on the way.”


Jim hauled Blair up to the sentinel floor despite his protests. Once there, Dr. Lambert gave Blair a quick check, pronounced him physically fine and admonished both of them to bond.


“I know you’re worried about your father,” Lambert soothed, “but he’s still holding his own in surgery. ER called me just before you came up, and I called the OR. Dr. Fitzgerald has the case; he’s our best cardiothoracic surgeon on staff.”


“I....” Jim hesitated.


“Fifteen minutes isn’t going to make a difference,” Lambert reassured him. “You can use the lounge to bond -- just lock the door.”


“Thanks, Dr. Lambert,” Blair said, clinging to Jim. His barriers were nil, and he’d never survive the ambient emotion at the hospital without bonding, but for Jim, he’d try.


Dr. Lambert excused himself, leaving sentinel and guide alone.


“Jim, if you’d rather not....” Blair trailed off. Both of them were worried about William Ellison.


“You come first, Chief. I already told you that,” Jim said, managing a small smile. “Let’s get ourselves straightened out, and then we’ll check on Dad.”


The lounge had a nice wide couch, and both men settled gratefully on it.


~~~~~~~~


The surgery waiting room was painted in soothing blue and peach with serene new age music piped through the speakers.


Jim walked up to the volunteer at the desk. “I’m Detective Ellison, Cascade PD. My father William Ellison is in surgery and I’d like an update.”


“Let me check for you,” the elderly lady said as she picked up the phone. After a brief conversation, she looked back up at Jim. “Dr. Fitzgerald is nearly finished and will be moving him to recovery. He’ll be out to talk with you in about half an hour.” The little lady smiled reassuringly.


Blair sat, Jim paced. Forty minutes came and went until a man in green surgical scrubs walked in. Jim threw his second cup of vending machine coffee into the trash.


“William Ellison’s family?” The doctor turned to Jim. “I’m Dr. Fitzgerald.”


“Jim Ellison, Cascade PD.“ Jim shook the man’s hand. “Is he okay?”


“Mr. Ellison suffered a gun shot to the back and chest. He has a collapsed lung with some tissue injury and arterial damage. We’ve repaired what we could and put in a few tubes. It was touch and go for a while, but he pulled through the surgery, and barring any complications, he should make a full recovery.”


Jim seemed to sag with relief. “Thank God.”


“It was the damnedest thing,” the surgeon shook his head. “The bullet had hit his aorta, but it was almost like something had sealed the wound off. He coded once en route, but came right back. I still don’t know how he survived the wound -- it should have been fatal.”


“He’s a tough old bird,” Jim said gruffly.


“Yeah, well, I’ve seen my share of miracles, but this tops everything. The paramedics were so worked up that they were seeing things. They just kept muttering about some wild animals chasing after the emergency squad.”


“Wild animals?” Blair asked, his expression neutral.


“Yeah, something about a tiger and a panther, and a wolf inside the vehicle. Crazy, huh?” The surgeon rubbed his tired eyes; he’d been up for the past 24 hours with multiple trauma cases. “I mean, even I thought I saw something in the OR. Power of suggestion, I guess.”


“Thank you for everything, Doctor,” Jim said, exchanging glances with Blair. “When can we see him?”


“Oh, in about an hour or so. He’ll be in recovery for a bit, then we’ll move him to SICU – Surgical Intensive Care.”


“Thank you,” Blair chimed in, and the weary physician nodded and made his way back to recovery.


“Wow,” Blair said. His eyes were almost glowing. “This is amazing.”


“You trying to tell me our spirit animals saved my father?” Jim rubbed his neck fretfully.


“Wounds don’t seal themselves without a little help,” Blair mused. “The panther, the wolf and the tiger. Do you suppose...?”


The waiting room door crashed open, making Blair and the volunteer lady jump.


“What the hell happened?” Hunter demanded.


“Did they call you?” Jim asked.


“Did who call me?” Hunter growled. “I’ve been buried in file folders all day. I was about to take a lunch break when – wham!” He glared at Blair. “Did you get yourself hurt, Sandburg?”


“No,” Blair managed.


“Then why is there blood on your shirt?” Hunter accused, sentinel nose analyzing the source.


“It’s William Ellison. He was shot.” Blair said. “He saved my life.”


Hunter stood still, jaw clenching. His eyes gave nothing away. “Is he dead?”


“No,” Jim said quietly. “He pulled through surgery. Merriman from Ellison Corporate Security said it looked like a professional hit. I’m just not sure if he was aiming for Dad, or for Blair.”


Hunter went BP. Stalking over to Blair, he ran a hand over Blair’s head and neck. Blair let his barriers drop, knowing Hunter needed to check on him.


Jim watched closely, but Hunter hadn’t done anything to challenge the Sentinel Prime. He was just fulfilling the Shield’s duty. Finally, Hunter dropped his hand.


Blair noticed Sarah standing in the doorway. “Come on in, Sarah,” he beckoned. “We won’t bite.” He managed a small smile for the girl.


Sarah walked in; the atmosphere was tense.


“I...uh...I don’t want to intrude....”


“You’re not intruding,” Jim said, trying to summon a smile.


“Does this have to do with the web sites?” Hunter frowned. “Sandburg’s on the tapes, but Ellison had the sites shut down. Hard to tell who they’d want to go after.”


“I’m not sure. I’m going to see Dad when he gets out of recovery, then I’m going back to the crime scene to check things out.”


“What web sites?” Sarah asked, confused.


The three men looked at each other. Even though Sarah knew that Blair had been abused at the GDP facility, she didn’t know about the tapes or the derivative web sites.


“I’ll explain later,” Hunter said deliberately. “You and I have lots of work to do.”


Jim and Hunter stared at each other. Finally, Hunter broke the silence. “I’ll check out things on my end; I’ll let you know if I find anything.”


“Appreciate it,” Jim answered.


Another awkward silence.


“Ellison.” Hunter had his guide firmly in grip and was almost out the door.


“Yeah?”


“I’m sorry.” With that, Hunter walked out with Sarah.


Blair just stood looking after them. “One small step....”


“What was that, Chief?” Jim was focusing in on William’s heartbeat - strong and steady.


“Nothing,” Blair said, latching onto his sentinel. “Just thinking out loud. You know that’s always a dangerous thing with me.” He smiled at Jim as they linked and waited for their chance to see William.


~~~~~~~


William looked very frail lying in the hospital bed. His eyes were closed, the ventilator moving his chest up and down with slow, even respirations.


Watching from outside the glass door, Jim’s jaw tightened. “He’s not breathing on his own?”


“No, he is, he just needs a little extra support for the next day or so. It lets the body rest a bit so he doesn’t have to struggle to breathe.” The SICU nurse smiled reassuringly. “I imagine he’ll get off the ventilator soon.”


“How is he?” Blair asked.


“He’s doing extremely well - a miracle from what I’ve heard. Vital signs are good, he actually woke up a bit, but we’re keeping him sedated so he won’t fight the ventilator.”


“I don’t want him drugged,” Jim objected.


“It’s just temporary. We’ll wean him off the sedative and when he breathes well on his own, we’ll take the tube out.”


“Can we see him now?” Blair asked.


“Of course. He can still hear you, although he might be too groggy to communicate.” The nurse stepped back to allow the two men to enter.


Stepping into the room, Jim just stared at his father. Funny, he hadn’t really noticed the lines in his face. Careworn, older, every line a crevasse in a fading canvas....


“Jim,” came the voice, snapping him out of the zone. “Stay with me, man.”


Jim reached out to gently stroke his father’s face. “You’ve had a bad day, haven’t you, Dad?”


William’s eyes fluttered open, confused, then seemed to clear. He tried to form words around the tube but couldn’t.


“Shh, just rest. Blair and I just wanted to check on you. Doctor says you’re doing great.”


Blair was there, holding William’s hand. “You saved my life. Thank you.”


William coughed against the ventilator, setting off the alarm. The nurse was there, and injected some medication into his IV. “Just something to calm him. It’s frightening when you think you can’t breathe. By tomorrow, he should be doing well enough to get him off the ventilator. He’s a very motivated healer: he’s already pushing the envelope.”


“Wonder where he gets that from?” Blair mused, tongue firmly in cheek.


“We’ll be back, Dad. You just rest.” Jim waited until William’s eyes closed, and the hand in his relaxed.


“I have to call Steven,” Jim sighed. “He’s in Europe somewhere on business, but I know he’d want to be here.”


“I already asked Captain Banks to do that,” Blair said softly. “I called from the waiting room while you were getting coffee.”


“Looking after me, Chief?” Jim asked wryly.


“You know it,” Blair replied firmly.


“Time’s up,” the nurse said. “You can visit again in two hours.” Her sympathetic smile alleviated the sting of the SICU’s strict visiting hours.


“No problem,” Jim said. “Call me if anything changes.”


Jim and Blair exited quietly after leaving all possible contact numbers with the nurse, and headed back to the crime scene to see what they could come up with in the way of leads.


~~~~~~~


Sarah sat at her laptop in Hunter’s office as she ran through some files Hunter had asked her to check. She wanted to know what exactly the web site problem was, but Hunter had never really answered her.


“Captain Hunter,” she began, and he looked up from his own computer in irritation.


“What?” It wasn’t quite a snarl, but the tone was surly.


“You said you’d explain about the web sites,” she prompted.


Hunter looked over at her, mulling over what he could say to explain it without causing a bigger problem.


“It’s about Blair, isn’t it?” She had felt the emotional undercurrents at the hospital, and all of them had triangulated back on Blair as soon as Hunter mentioned the web sites.


“Yes, it’s about Sandburg,” Hunter sighed, leaning back in his chair.


“It’s bad, right?” Sarah tensed. “Is it the same thing that upset him when we went over to Detective Ellison’s loft?”


“Yes.” Hunter unlocked a file drawer and pulled out a video tape. He tossed it on the desk in front of Sarah. The lurid title and colors overlaid a photo of a naked young man in an extremely compromising position. The face was hidden, but there was a haunting familiarity in the hair....


“That’s Blair,” Sarah swallowed, recognizing him despite his emaciated state. “What...?”


“While Sandburg was at the correction facility, he was... abused. The bastards taped it, and then distributed the tapes – guide porn.” Hunter spat out the words as if they tasted bad. “Now there are pieces of the tapes up on web sites.”


Sarah made a distressed sound, staring at the tape.


“They apparently decided to go after William Ellison when he had the web sites pulled.”


“Or they’re after Blair,” Sarah shivered as she moved back from the tape, sick to her stomach at the sight of it.


“Or after Sandburg,” Hunter agreed. “The only sure thing is that there’s a link somewhere in Cascade PD.”


“Poor Blair,” Sarah choked. She had caught a glimpse of his abuse in the corrections facility, but had no idea of the extent or breadth of it until now.


“I need to know you can handle this,“ Hunter said grimly. “I’m going to get to the bottom of this, but if you flake out on me....”


“I won’t,” Sarah said resolutely, though her voice cracked a bit. “I promise.”


“Good,” Hunter said, watching his guide closely. She was a bit shaky but kept eye contact.


“I’ll do anything to help him,” Sarah vowed.


Hunter gave her a sidelong glance. “Yeah, I figured as much.” There was the barest hint of...something...in his voice.


Sarah reached up to grasp Hunter’s arm, opening the link. “Tell me what to do.”


Hunter reached over her shoulder and tapped a command into her lap top computer.


“There. You’re now in the Cascade Police database. Use some of that computer know-how and start looking for any patterns, especially in Vice, of guides, porn, high tech, that sort of thing. There are so many documents that it’ll take a small eternity – another reason to update this dinosaur of a database. I’m still searching through the IA files.”


“I don’t want anything more bad to happen to Blair,” Sarah murmured.


Hunter sat back down. “Not on my watch, it won’t.”


Sarah stared down at the tape, shivering. If she had ended up in the correction facility....


Hunter’s hand moved over her head and back. “Just for the record: I would never let anything happen to you, either.” He let that sink in, then ordered, “Let’s get cracking.”


He turned back to his own computer, muttering under his breath as he always did when concentrating on unpleasant tasks.


~~~~~~~


“You doing okay, Chief?” Jim watched his guide climb out of the truck at the Ellison Corporation building.


Blair was still a bit pale – he probably had a headache and would never admit to it – but flashed Jim a reassuring smile. “I”m fine. We have to find something to catch this guy.”


They walked to the café, stepping under the yellow police tape and were nearly tackled by an overzealous rookie cop.


Jim curled his lip back as the rookie’s more senior partner rushed up with an apology and waved them through.


“Sorry, Detective. He’s new.”


Ignoring the uniforms, Jim concentrated on the scene. Rafe and H were talking to forensics in the restaurant, then spotted him and came over.


“Jim, how’s your dad?” H looked worried.


“He made it through surgery. Doctor’s think he’ll make a full recovery.” Jim cleared his throat. “Thanks for asking.”


“I’m glad. Rafe and I interviewed all the guests, nobody really saw anything but everyone agreed there were two shots fired.”


“Bullets recovered?” Jim crouched down to look at the bloodstain on the floor. So much blood....


“Jim, stay with us.” Blair’s hand on his shoulder pulled Jim back from the brink.


“Haven’t found them yet,” Rafe said. “Maybe you could....”


“We’re on it,” Blair vowed. “Okay, Jim: the bullets came from the west side. I think the second one hit your dad, but we were half way to the floor by then.”


“So it would have headed that way,” Jim pointed to the corner of the patio. The ivy along the stone wall would make it difficult to locate the slugs.


“You can track the second bullet by the blood,” Blair said softly. “Focus on the scent, then extend outward.”


Jim hesitated.


“Mark the scent,” Blair coaxed, holding out his stained t-shirt.


Jim grimaced. It was ghoulish.


“That’s it. Now, stretch out your senses, beyond the floor. Go outward until you mark it again.”


Jim closed his eyes, letting his guide ground him as he extended his senses, filtering out all other scents until...”There.”


Walking over, Jim’s vision narrowed until he saw a glimmer of metal amongst the foliage. “Get me some gloves and a knife, Chief.”


Jim pulled on the gloves and pried out first one, then the second bullet.


“Teflon coated,” Jim swore under his breath. “These jackals are serious.”


“I’ll take that, Jim,” H said, holding open an evidence bag.


“Based on the angle, the bullet would have come through the trees over there,” Blair pointed out, surprising H.


“When did you graduate from the academy?” H teased him, coaxing a slight grin from Blair.


“Nah, he got his magic decoder ring from a cereal box,” Jim deadpanned.


Blair elbowed his sentinel in the ribs, glad that Jim could joke. He would need that resilience later when everything hit him emotionally.


“Detective Ellison, your presence is technically a conflict of interest.” Simon Banks strode over, chewing on a cigar and frowning ferociously. “You really shouldn’t be here.”


“Simon, don’t even think of trying to pull me off this case,” Jim growled.


“Jim....”


“I invoke my right as Sentinel Prime of Cascade,” Jim said, eyes hard.


Simon sighed, knowing Ellison had him by the short hairs. “Just be careful. I reached Steven Ellison in Geneva. He’ll be catching a flight back to the states tonight.”


“Thanks, Captain Banks,” Blair said, nudging Jim, who gruffly added his own thanks. “We’ll just get back to work.”


“Let’s check it out, Chief.” Jim walked over to the edge of the patio, concentrating on some of the fallen branches.


“What are you looking for, Jim?” Blair asked, never letting go of the taller man.


“The bullets may have sheared...yep, there we go.” Jim picked up a small branch, showing the cut edge. “Bullet cut this one. Now all I need is to find the spot....” Looking up, he scanned the tree until he found the matching cut.


“You’re gonna draw a trajectory,” Blair deduced. “From the bullet impact to the tree, then outward.”


“You really did earn that decoder ring, Chief,” Jim smiled. “We’ll make a detective of you, yet.”


“So where did the shots come from?” H asked as Jim let himself search the bullet trajectory.


“There,” Jim pointed. A multi-story building across the green space surrounding Ellison Corporation would have provided a perfect vantage point for the shooter.


“We gonna check it out?” Blair asked.


“Try and stop me, Chief.” Jim started walking, forcing Blair to a half run to keep up with his sentinel’s longer legs.


They were on the roof, Jim scanning every crack and cranny.


Blair peered over the ledge and backed up. “Man, I hate heights.”


“Stay away from the edge, Chief,“ Jim warned him sharply. He still had bad memories from when Blair had crawled out on a ledge to save a jumper.


“Anything?” Blair pushed his hair back since the wind insisted on blowing it into disarray around his face.


“Maybe.” Jim reached down and picked up something. “I think we have our first major clue, Watson.”


“What is it?” Blair stared at the shiny object.


“Uniform button,” Jim said, turning it so that the initials ‘CPD’ stood out. “Cascade Police.”


“Shit,” was all Blair could say.


~~~~~~~


Jim was pacing the waiting room, waiting for the time to pass by so he could see his father again. He and Blair had gotten back to the hospital in record time, but the surgeon was with him and so they had to wait.


Jim had considered getting some police protection for his father, but because of the possible link within the department, he abandoned the idea quickly. One of Merriman’s men stood guard near William Ellison’s room. Money couldn’t buy everything, but it did make the hospital much more accommodating to unusual requests from their major donor of funds.


The door to the SICU opened and the nurse beckoned to them. Jim nodded to the guard, who looked over Jim and Blair carefully until he recognized who they were.


“Anything?” Jim asked the guard in a low voice.


“Nothing yet, Detective Ellison,” came the polite answer.


Blair stared at the guard – they all seemed so polite, but something in their eyes reminded him of Jim, and Hunter. Ex-military, all of them.


Jim looked back at the nurse.


“He’s doing fine – should be off the ventilator by morning. He might even have handled it tonight, but Dr. Fitzgerald wanted to give him some extra time.”


“He’s healing a lot faster than expected, isn’t he?” Blair asked.


“You can say that again,” the nurse commented as she led them back to William’s room. “The mind is a funny thing – it can influence everything.”


“How about faith?” Blair asked.


“That, too,” the nurse commented, a small pendant shifting on her necklace.


Sentinel eyes caught it. “What’s that?” Jim asked, intrigued by the small silver object.


“Nothing,” she said hastily, shoving the necklace under her scrub top. “Just jewelry.”


Blair stared at her for so long she began to feel uncomfortable. Those deep blue eyes were looking right inside her.


Guide, she rationalized. They sensed many things about a person.


Shaman, something else whispered, and she finally looked away.


Blair just nodded knowingly. “We’ll take all the good karma we can get.”


William was resting, but stirred as soon as they entered the room.


“We’re back, Dad, just like we promised.” Jim held one thin hand, while Blair held the other.


William again tried to form words, but the tube interfered.


“You’ll get the tube out tomorrow, Dad. We’ll get the SOB. Merriman’s pulling out all the stops.”


Blair was moved by Jim’s gentleness. Jim had never been very comfortable with physical contact with his father after years of growing up with what constituted appropriate manly conduct and a severe lack of physical affection, but since bonding, Jim had made great progress in expressing himself through touch.


“Stevie’s on his way. He should be back in the States by morning. He’ll come straight here from the airport.”


William’s eyes were welling over.


“Don’t cry, Dad. It’s gonna be okay.” Jim settled his father with a few gentle pats, much like he did with Blair.


“Time’s up,” the nurse said softly. “He needs his rest.”


Jim pulled away reluctantly. “I’ll just camp out in the waiting room.”


“You’d be better off going home and getting a good night’s sleep,” the nurse advised softly. “He’s very stable, and you’ll be no good to him if you aren’t rested.”


Jim automatic response was to protest. He was a terrible patient himself, and wasn’t going to change his ways.


“She’s right, Jim. We still have to go see Hunter, and you know they’ll call if anything changes.” Blair knew better than to push too hard. Jim would get bull-headed and do the opposite just to be contrary.


“I don’t want to leave him,” Jim argued, but Blair merely glanced at the corner of the room, where the panther and wolf were holding vigil.


“You’re not, man.” Blair guided his sentinel to the door. “We can do more good looking for the shooter than wringing our hands here.”


Jim saw the spirit animals standing watch and gave in.


The nurse followed them out. “I promise we’ll call with any changes.” She looked at Blair intently. “Although I guess you’d probably know before we did.”


Jim was puzzled, but Blair merely nodded as they walked past the nurse.


“Blessed be,” he said softly, and was rewarded by her luminous smile.


~~~~~~~


“Where to now, Jim?” Blair asked. It was after seven, and his stomach was politely inquiring when food was forthcoming.


“Hunter’s home by now. We’ll go to his house.” Jim had called him, saying they had some evidence and couldn’t go through regular police channels.


They pulled up and by the time they reached the front door, Hunter had it open.


“What the hell is all this cloak and dagger stuff?” Hunter grunted.


“Can we come in?” Jim asked impatiently.


“Yeah, fine. Sarah’s fixing dinner, so make it quick.”


“You’re such a charming host,” Jim ragged on him, just because he could.


“Dinner?” Blair smiled like the angelic host. “What’s she making?”


“Meatloaf,” Hunter said warily, knowing what was coming.


“I haven’t eaten in 24 hours,” Blair said, turning his best puppy dog eyes on Hunter. It worked like a charm.


“Ah, hell,” Hunter growled. “Sarah! Ellison and Sandburg are here.”


Sarah poked her head out of the kitchen, accurately assessing the situation. “I have enough for four.”


Hunter sighed in defeat. The fates were conspiring against him.


Sarah watched Detective Ellison as he paced around the kitchen. Blair was setting the table and Hunter was printing something off the computer.


“How is your father doing?” she asked softly, feeling a sharp edge of anger mixed with grief around the Sentinel Prime.


“Better,” Jim said, managing a small smile. “He’s healing at an amazing rate.”


“I’m so sorry it happened. I’ll keep looking through the files until I find something.”


“Hunter got you on an electronic paper chase?” Jim accepted the piece of celery she held out to him, crunching it with a now awakened appetite.


“They hurt Blair, and they’ve hurt you and your father. I’ll do anything I can to help,” Sarah said simply.


Jim was touched by her resolution. “You’re a stand up girl, Sarah,” he said, smoothing over her hair in much the same way Hunter did. The affection in his touch warmed her.


“Going to borrow my guide, Ellison?” Hunter drawled sarcastically. He had entered the kitchen and caught most of the exchange.


Before Sarah could pull back, Jim laid a hand on her shoulder.


“If I didn’t have Blair, I’d take her on in a heartbeat,” Jim said, completely serious.


Sarah stared at Jim, then a smile bloomed in her eyes. She hugged the compliment to herself as she turned back to fixing dinner.


Hunter narrowed his eyes as he walked over to Sarah, moving her close to him. “Go bug your own guide, Ellison.”


Jim just smiled and stole another piece of celery on his way out.


After the four of them had eaten, and Blair and Sarah were finishing bowls of some revolting multi flavored ice cream while their sentinels enjoyed a cup of coffee, Jim handed the button he had found to Hunter.


“This was lying on the shooter’s perch. I didn’t turn it over to forensics, because this is looking like an inside job.”


Hunter turned the button over, lips tightening. “What uniform is going to have sniper skills like that?”


“A uniform who’s more than just a cop.”


“Syndicate?” Hunter mused.


“Or terrorist,” Jim replied. “Or maybe just a man for hire.”


“How can you be sure it’s really a police officer? Maybe he was just wearing the uniform,” Blair interjected, considering all possibilities.


“There was a piece of thread on the button. It had a very distinctive scent,” Jim said.


“Like what?” Sarah asked, fascinated.


“Cascade PD has these god awful air fresheners they use in the marked patrol cars - I think they got a bulk discount on them. They smell like something citrus had a bad run in with a pine tree.”


Hunter grimaced; he remembered the scent. “So that makes it much more likely it is a uniform.”


“Yeah,” Jim sighed. “We’ll have to start going over duty rosters tomorrow to try to figure out who it might be.”


“I’ll handle that,” Hunter growled. “This kind of undercover work takes some serious long-range planning. It’s starting to look like more than just guide porn.”


Jim rubbed his neck, trying to relax his tense muscles. “That’s what I was afraid of.”


~~~~~~


Blair was waiting for the inevitable.


Jim had systematically taken care of his guide, checked on his father, tracked down evidence on the shooter, conferred with Hunter and rechecked on his father, all the while remembering to make sure his guide ate dinner and that a plan of action for uncovering the connection within the Cascade police department was in place and ready to go. With iron jaw and cool control, Jim Ellison, Super Cop, had saved another day.


He can’t keep this up, Blair thought, watching his sentinel staring out the window at the rainy night. He’s angry and upset and...repressing.


“Jim?” Blair stood slightly behind him, sensing the conflicting emotions in his sentinel.


“Yeah?” Jim rubbed his neck again, trying to banish the headache brewing in his skull.


“You don’t have to be Superman all the time.”


Jim turned around to stare at his guide. “What?”


“You don’t have to pretend things are fine. It’s okay to be mad, or scared or sad. God knows, I’ve been through the emotional gamut.”


“Are we practicing amateur psychology again?” Jim squinted at him.


“Well, I did minor in it,” Blair said, laying a hand on his sentinel’s back. “It’s not healthy to keep things bottled up.”


“I’m fine, Chief,” Jim said, eyes distant.


“No, you’re not.” Blair’s voice was sentinel soft. “Your dad was shot and could have died.”


“I’m handling it,” Jim shrugged, turning back to look out the window.


“At what cost?”


“It’s my job, Blair. I’m a police officer, and Sentinel Prime. I’m supposed to take care of things.”


“And who takes care of you, man?” Blair asked, now leaning into the taller man. “Who takes care of the Guardian of the City?”


“You do, Chief,” Jim sighed ruefully, finally turning around.


Blair was watching him closely, reading his face the way he sensed Jim’s emotions.


“I can’t let go, Chief. If I do, I may never get the pieces together again.”


“It’s not wrong to need,” Blair said softly. “You’re always there for me. Why shouldn’t I be there for you?”


Bit by bit, Blair eased Jim toward the couch. Jim finally let himself be pushed down with Blair curled up next to him.


Blair knew he could only nudge Jim so far in examining his feelings, so he waited, opening the link between them.


“I almost lost you,” Jim finally whispered, his voice rough with self recrimination. “And my father’s lying in the hospital because I can’t track down these bastards.”


Blair hugged Jim, giving him the support he needed and didn’t want to ask for. Jim was wallowing in guilt again.


“Stop it, Superman,” Blair ordered. “Some days are diamond, others are kryptonite.”


Jim snorted. “You have this talent for mangling metaphors, don’t you, Chief?”


“Yeah, yeah.” Blair turned so that Jim’s head was resting against his chest.


“Hey, Chief?” Jim asked drowsily sometime later.


“Um?”


“Thanks.”


Blair just held him tight.


~~~~~~


Hunter had pulled the duty rosters from every station while Sarah checked vehicle logs. There were advantages to being IA, Hunter thought grimly. You ask for information, and people hand it over without any fuss.


“These officers are all accounted for between 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM,” Sarah said, pushing a printout over Hunter’s desk. “This other list are people who are possibilities.”

Sarah had cross referenced calls and managed to eliminate 68% of the uniformed officers by placing them away from the crime scene at the time of the shooting.


Hunter looked over the lists, then up at Sarah who stood watching him anxiously.


“Good job,” Hunter said, watching her posture relax slightly. “What else?”


“What about those officers who were off yesterday? Couldn’t one of them have done it?” Sarah was wracking her brain to figure out how else to narrow down the search.


“Possible, but if you see here, most of the ones off were at the training session on special weapons. Everyone scheduled to be there was at the session - no one unaccounted for. Perkins was sick - I verified him at his doctor’s office at 1:15 PM, about the time of the shooting. Those three,” Hunter pointed to a group of names, “I’m still checking on, but I think they’ll be cleared.”


“Now, here’s what we do next.” Hunter pulled out the complete police radio transmission log for the last 24 hours. “Vehicle logs can be altered, but not radio traffic. It’s a digital system with automatic vehicle tracking via GPS. Why we can have this kind of technology, and yet the rest of the computer system be from the middle ages, I’ll never know.”


With Sarah cross checking duty rosters, they narrowed their list of potentials to fourteen people.


“Not bad,” Hunter stretched in his chair. “This is workable, number-wise, but I think we can narrow it down even further.”


“How?”


Hunter pulled out a map and using paperclips, laid out the location of seven squad cars. “Okay, going by their transmissions, this is where each of them were at their last transmission prior to the shooting. And here,” Hunter now placed thumbtacks on the map, “are where they logged in next after the shooting. As you can see, these three cars were tracked about ten minutes prior to the shooting. They were too far across town to have made to the scene, so I think we can safely eliminate them.”


Watching Hunter, his eyes narrowed in concentration as he pushed paper clips around, made Sarah think of a boy with his train set.


“These four, however, were either near enough to the area or in a radio window that makes their location at the shooting indeterminate.”


“And if it was one of them, then his partner is just as guilty,” Sarah deduced.


Hunter looked up, “Maybe. Maybe not. They might have split up on a routine call, one of them ran across the street to grab lunch, anything is possible. Or, our shooter could have gone out alone yesterday.”


“And if he did, where’s his partner now?” Sarah swallowed. It was one thing to read crime novels and speculate - this was the real thing.


“So we have four patrols – eight officers – that I have to investigate.”


“What if the shooter figures out what you’re doing?” Sarah had visions of Hunter being shot by sniper fire.


“That’s why we make it unofficially official.” Hunter mentally flexed his claws. “If they’re worried about an IA investigation into stolen city property, they won’t suspect what we’re really after.”


“You’re going to create a fake investigation?” Sarah had to marvel at the twisted logic.


“Let’s just say, I’m widening my scope,” Hunter replied as he pulled up the personnel files on all eight suspects.


It took a few hours, but Hunter was pretty sure he had his man. He’d have to personally check on all of them, but his sentinel instincts told him that Farley was the one. The record was just a little too smooth, a little too bland, and he had nothing remarkable in his background check. That alone raised Hunter’s suspicion.


Hunter picked up the phone and dialed Ellison. “Ellison? Yeah, it’s me. Listen, that software you asked me about? I think I found a place that carries it here in town. Never trust your credit card to one of those internet companies.”


Sarah frowned, but Hunter just agreed to meet with Ellison, then hung up.


“What was that about?”


“I think some of the PD offices and phone lines might be tapped. The office here is clean, and so’s my line, but I don’t want to take chances with another department until Ellison can make sure. He’s not exactly in top form right now.”


“His father’s in the hospital,” Sarah reminded him, and Hunter’s eyes became opaque.


“You did good work here, Sarah,” he said, deliberately changing the subject. “Now let me get something set up for the ‘investigation’ and then we’ll be on our way to meet Ellison.”


~~~~~~~~~~


Jim walked past the newest security guard who nodded a greeting but never stopped his scan of the area around William Ellison’s room.


“You know, Jim, they all have that secret service look -- dark glasses, no smile, perfect posture,” Blair commented as they entered the hospital room.


“They keep him safe,” Jim said. “That’s the only thing that matters.”


William Ellison was off the ventilator, an oxygen mask on his face and tubes coming from his chest, bubbling liquid in their vacuum containers.


“Dad?” Jim whispered.


William opened his eyes, then reached up a shaky hand. “Jimmy,” he said hoarsely, then looked over. “Blair.” The effort of talking seemed to make him short of breath.


“Hey, you’re looking better,” Jim smiled. “How’s the pain?”


“All fuzzy,” William complained thickly, wincing when he tried to move. The pain medicine was definitely helping, but nothing could totally remove the sensation of having had your chest cut open.


“Just lie still,” Blair counseled as he held onto William’s left hand. “You have tubes in you that can’t come out yet.”


“Put...cath’ter in me,” William complained, indicating the tube currently draining his urine. “Hate it.”


Jim winced in sympathy. Tubes in the chest were fine, tubes in the bladder – well, that was something a guy really, really didn’t want.


“Who?” William asked, trying to clear his muddy thoughts.


“The shooter? We’re still working on that. Meeting Hunter in an hour. The guard is here to keep you safe.”


“Blair?” William turned his head to look at the empath.


“I’m fine. You save me, remember?” Blair smiled.


“Tired,” William sighed, trying to keep his eyes open.


“Then rest, Dad. Stevie will be here before eleven. He’s currently somewhere over Colorado.”


William mumbled something unintelligible and drifted off to sleep.


“What’s the word?” Jim asked as soon as the nurse entered the room to check vital signs and fluid output.


This was a new nurse, but just as nice.


“Hello, Detective. Thalia’s off today, so I’m it. My name’s Laura.” She checked a monitor, then smiled reassuringly. “Dr. Fitzgerald thinks a couple more days here in the SICU, then he can be moved to a regular room. He’s going to be in the hospital at least a week or two, although he’s healing much faster than anyone expected.”


“My brother Steven will be here this morning, but no one else is cleared to visit. The guards are ordered to keep anyone else out. Make sure every hospital staff member entering this room is known to you.” Jim was all cool controlled cop, his eyes frosty.


“No problem, Detective,” Laura nodded.


Blair watched as the panther carefully climbed onto the foot of the bed, curling up at William Ellison’s feet. The wolf lay by the door.


“Always where you’re needed,” Blair whispered, subtly nudging Jim, who had to smile when he saw what the animals were doing.


“Call for anything,” Jim ordered, and headed out with Blair to meet Hunter.


~~~~~~


They met in the park. There was no rain at the moment, but the cloud pattern indicated it wouldn’t stay dry for very long.


Blair commandeered a picnic table and all four sat down with the files.


“So, after process of elimination, we have eight viables, with Farley my main suspect.”


Jim read over the file Hunter handed him, his lips tight. “You gonna question him?”


“Eventually. The other three pairs first, then Farley’s partner, then Farley. It’s just going to be a preliminary thing – something to set them on edge as they anticipate the formal IA interview to follow.”


“Why don’t you go after Farley now?” Blair asked, chewing on the hamburger his sentinel had all but shoved down his throat as soon as they had gotten out of the car. It was if Blair had a perpetual sign around his neck that said “feed me.”


“I want to flush him out with a fake investigation. By the time I hit the pair in question, word will be out on stolen city property, and they’ll be unaware of the true agenda.”


“You play a lot of Stratego when you were a kid?” Jim snorted.


“You and I both did more covert planning than either of us can ever talk about,” Hunter said evenly, and Jim nodded his acknowledgment.


“Here they go again: military black ops,” Blair mumbled around a bite of food.


“How did you get authorization for doing this?” Jim asked.


Hunter frowned. “I don’t need to. My department, my rules.”


“You gonna tell Chief Towson that when everything blows up?”


“The Chief gave me carte blanche to run IA. We covered the possibility of in-house investigations.”


“That takes a lot of long-range planning, too,” Jim said, reluctantly admiring Hunter’s tenacity and foresight.


Hunter brushed off the compliment. “As it is, both Farley and Wilkins, his partner, are off today. The other six are on, and I bet anything they’ll call their buddies after I get through with them.” Hunter looked over Wilkins’ file. “Wilkins had an incident his rookie year - rumor was drugs, but it all got swept under by his captain, who transferred out of state soon afterward. If Wilkins really does have a chemical dependency problem, or financial problems because of it, he’d be a ripe candidate for blackmail.”


“How long has Farley been on the force?”


“Two years.”


“That’s a long time to plant someone, if what we suspect is true.” Jim rubbed his eyes.


“Have you swept your department for possible surveillance?” Hunter packed up the files.


“Damn...I should have thought of that,” Jim swore under his breath.


“Your dad’s in the hospital,” Blair said quietly. “You can’t think of everything.”


“There’s no excuse for missing something that obvious,” Jim snarled, angry at his own lapse.


“Just take care of it now, Ellison,” Hunter said, his voice completely free of condemnation.


Jim was waiting for a sarcastic comment, but when it didn‘t come, he stared at his half-brother. Hunter ignored his questioning look.


“I’ll handle the preliminary interviews. It’ll take me about three hours, and then we can go after Farley and Wilkins.”


“You call me,” Jim stated. “I want in on this.”


“I can’t help it if you just happen to show up on one of my investigations on a hunch, now, can I?” Hunter said, deliberately not answering the question.


Sarah had been arranging the forms for the fake investigation, fascinated by the discussion. She was trying to stay quiet because she was hungry, since her sentinel had completely forgotten about lunch.


Unfortunately, her small stomach rumble was clearly audible to both sentinels.


“Didn’t you feed her?” Jim demanded. “It’s almost two o’clock.” He pulled out his wallet. “Here, Sarah, go get a hamburger or hotdog.”


“I can take care of my own guide,” Hunter said sharply, but Sarah had already gotten up after shyly thanking Jim.


“You know, Ellison, there was a time when my guide would have run the other way when you talked to her,” Hunter groused. “Now she thinks everything you say is golden.”


“Can I help it if she likes me?” Jim smiled. “Must be my endless charm and devastating good looks.”


Hunter rolled his eyes, but let that slide.


Sarah returned with three jumbo hotdogs, and carefully set one in front of each sentinel before sitting back down.


“I hope you don’t mind, Detective Ellison, but I know both of you haven’t eaten either.”


Jim’s hotdog had extra mustard, just the way he liked it, and Hunter’s had ketchup and relish, cooked exactly how he preferred -- a little burnt around the edges.


“Thanks, Sarah,” Jim said, chewing with pleasure.


Hunter looked down at the food, then at Sarah, then finally picked up the hotdog and took a bite. He gave a short grunt of approval.


Jim and Blair stared at him until he finally looked up. “What?”


Blair cleared his throat.


“Thanks,” Hunter muttered, and Sarah picked up her own food with an inaudible sigh of relief.


Jim hid his smile and generously decided not to torment Hunter about it.


~~~~~~


Sarah clung to her sentinel’s jacket. They had visited three precincts to talk to the six officers about ‘missing city property’. The uniforms had been puzzled, then scared when Hunter had asked questions, never really saying what was going on and since it wasn’t an official IA interview, no advocate was allowed.


Fear always made a good impression.


“You really think they’re going to call Farley and Wilkins?” Sarah asked as they exited the bull pen.


Hunter tipped his head, searching for something. “Yes, so... and here we go. Rhodes just made a call to Wilkins.” He listened intently. “And he just told Wilkins to sober the hell up, so this is gonna get interesting.”


Hunter pulled out his cell phone and hit the speed dial. “Ellison, I’m on my way to Wilkins’ place. One of the uniforms made a call to warn him after I talked with him. Yeah, I just ‘happened’ to mention that I still had to track down a pair of officers from the precinct who were off today, and they put two and two together.”


Hunter walked quickly to the car, with Sarah trying to keep up with his longer stride. “Address is 1228 Knight Street, Apartment F. We’ll meet you there.”


Sarah was getting nervous. The thrill of the chase had her sentinel flexing his claws. His adrenaline rush was making her feel jumpy. Before long, they pulled up in front of an older but well maintained apartment building.


Hunter got out just as Jim and Blair pulled up behind them.


“You want Blair and Sarah to wait out here?” Jim asked. “Don’t know what we’re going to find, or if Wilkins is still there.”


“No way,” Blair protested. “What if one of you zones?”


“You’ll both stay in the hall away from the door,” Hunter said decisively.


Jim just nodded as the two sentinels scanned the building before they entered.


The third floor landing was a bit dark, but immaculately clean. Motioning to Sarah and Blair to keep away from the door, Jim knocked sharply.


“Wilkins? Cascade PD. We have some questions for you.”


No answer. Hunter knew the man was in there - his frantic heartbeat and the strange scent of the intoxicants he had been using nearly swamped him.


There was a hesitant shuffle, then the door cracked open.


“What do you want?” The man looked strung out, eyes and nose red and a bit sweaty. His eyes went wide and then he blinked furiously. “Shit, I’m seeing double.”


“Officer Wilkins, I’m Detective Ellison from Major Crime, and this is Captain Hunter from Internal Affairs. Can we come in?”


“Whaddya want?” Wilkins asked, both confused and belligerent.


“We need to talk to you,” Jim repeated patiently.


“No...bad time,” the man slurred.


“Wilkins, we can either do this now, or I’ll place you under arrest and haul you downtown – your choice,” Hunter said.


Wilkins stumbled back and opened the door. “Okay. Sorry. Partied last night - hung over,” not realizing that the two men were sentinels and could smell the lie.


Jim kept the door open a crack, so Blair could listen in.


“Officer Wilkins, your recreational choices are of no interest to me unless it impacts my investigation,” Hunter said. “What I want to know is where you were on Tuesday between noon and 1:30 PM.”


“At work,” Wilkins said, dunking his head under the kitchen faucet to try to sober up. “Why?”


“At 1:15 PM, William Ellison was shot at his corporate headquarters. I think you know who did it.”


Wilkins’ heart rate shot up, and he suddenly lunged toward the door. Jim tackled him before he could clear the kitchen.


Jim marched his prisoner back into the kitchen, resolutely ignoring the profanity. “This is just an unofficial chat, Wilkins, but if you do something stupid again, I’ll haul your ass downtown. We clear on that?”


Wilkins was shivering now, terrified. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”


“Save it, Wilkins,” Hunter snarled. “We know you’re lying.”


Wilkins was sobering quickly. “I’m not saying anything until I talk to my lawyer.”


“But you’re not under arrest, Wilkins,” Jim pointed out. “Why would you need a lawyer?”


“I’m not talking!”


“Then I’ll haul you in,” Hunter said, reaching for his cuffs. “Ted Wilkins, you’re under arrest for....”


Wilkins lunged again, this time toward the bedroom, and managed to grab his gun.


“Put that away, Wilkins,” Jim warned. “You’re gonna make this a whole lot messier.”


Wilkins wasn’t pointing the gun; he just held it while his eyes darted around, looking for any possible escape.


“Just talk to us, Wilkins,” Jim urged. “You don’t want to get in over your head.”


“You gotta understand. He said he’d kill me if I told anyone.” Wilkins’ gun hand trembled.


“Who was going to kill you, Wilkins?”


The man wavered, sweating his terror. Then he seemed to calm as he came to some decision.


Jim’s posture eased slightly.


Wilkins raised the gun so quickly, neither sentinel could stop him. He pulled the trigger and fell, a neat hole through his own head.


“Goddamn it,” Hunter cursed, as both of them rushed over, but Wilkins was quite dead.


“What scared him so badly he’d commit suicide before letting them find out he had talked?” Jim dialed for back up on his cell phone. “We have to get to Farley.”


At the shot, Blair burst in, skidding up behind his sentinel. He stopped, stricken at the sight of the dead man.


Jim turned, swearing under his breath. “No need for you to see this, Chief.”


Hunter moved back and caught sight of Sarah in the doorway. “I thought I told you to stay put.”


She could see the man lying motionless on the carpet, and felt his residual emotions, terror and hopelessness. She swallowed, sick to her stomach.


Hunter pulled her close, his hand running over her back. Her barriers were holding, but a violent death was traumatic for any empath to be around.


“Sandburg, I want you both to go wait in the car. Neither of you needs to be around this.”


Blair wanted to protest, but Sarah was starting to look a little green, so he nodded. He remembered all too well his first experience with death, and it wasn’t pretty. He took Sarah’s hand and they bolstered each other as they left the apartment.


“It’s not like on TV,” Sarah said in a hushed voice.


“I know,” Blair sympathized. “It’s ugly and horrible.”


“Why did he do it?”


“He was more afraid of what Farley’s people would do to him than of killing himself to avoid it.”


Sarah shivered, and Blair put his arm around her. Somewhere along the line, he had become an old hand at dealing with death – and that was more than passing strange.


After a uniform detail came to deal with the mess in apartment F, Jim and Hunter decided to ship Blair and Sarah off to the loft for safety, despite both guides’ protests.


“But I’m supposed to be your guide,” Blair argued.


“Yeah, I know, Chief. And I’m your sentinel and supposed to protect you. This thing is escalating, and I don’t want you or Sarah caught in the cross fire. Farley might have been aiming at you, and I’m not going to give him a second chance.”


“You weren’t going to let me come along when you went to see him, were you?” Blair accused. “Not even before this.”


“Nope.”


“I’m not helpless,” Blair sighed.


“No, you’re not,” Jim said, rubbing Blair’s neck soothingly. “But you’re not a cop, either. I want you safe, and the way things look now, both Hunter and I will have to watch each other’s backs.”


“You’ll have back up, right?” Blair asked.


“Uh huh, eventually” Jim said, pulling his kevlar vest out of the back of the truck. Hunter was doing the same. “But you’re not going to be there.”


“I hate feeling useless,” Blair sighed, not for the first time cursing his empathy for putting him in a position that made him vulnerable.


“You’re not,” Jim said, giving Blair a friendly shake. “Let us sentinels do what we were trained to do. You always take the lead for other things in this strange new world of ours.”


Blair looked a little comforted by that. “If I hadn’t been a guide – just a normal observer – would you have let me come along?”


Jim grinned. “Absolutely not. What do you think – you’re gonna take out the bad guys with paper weights?”


“Well, I could just tip something heavy over on them,” Blair sighed, but realized that Jim was right.


The panther and tiger were already waiting by the truck.


Hunter was talking quietly with Sarah, who nodded periodically.


“Hunter, you ready to roll?”


“Yeah,” Hunter said, checking his weapon and adjusting his vest.


Sarah held his suit coat. “Be careful,” she whispered.


Hunter just lifted one eyebrow and snorted. “He won’t get by us.” He put the jacket back on over the vest.


Sarah had always thought him invincible - strong and ruthless, but after seeing the dead police officer, she knew it wasn’t true. Hunter could die, and if he died....


She shivered, and Hunter pulled her close, opening the link. Mine.


She concentrated, willing her sentinel to balance his senses, grounding him. She allowed herself to lean into him for several seconds, and then let go, stepping back. Their eyes met, held and the link hummed, even without touching. Then Hunter closed the connection and Blair pulled Sarah with him to drive Hunter’s car back to the loft.


Jim drove quickly to the address listed in Farley’s file.


“Think he’s home?” Jim mused, turning left.


“I imagine every guy at the precinct has called him by now.” Hunter rechecked his weapon. “My guess is that Farley probably knows we’re on to him. His partner killed himself when we went to talk to him, and I’m sure one of the uniforms called to tell him - unofficially. Farley’s probably smart enough to put it all together.”


“I guess the plan backfired,” Jim grumbled.


“Nope - we just didn’t know all the variables.”


“This one’s mine,” Jim warned. “I want this arrest.”


“No problem.”


They pulled up in front of a small one-story house.


“You sense anything?” Jim concentrated on piggybacking sight to hearing.


There was one heartbeat within the house.


Jim and Hunter walked up to the door slowly, their vests hidden by their jackets.


“Farley, Cascade PD. Open up.”


Farley was moving, and Jim and Hunter took defensive positions on either side of the door away from the windows.


“Farley, I need to talk to you!”


The bullet came from behind them, the high whine warning both sentinels milliseconds before it struck. Jim and Hunter dropped down into the hedge, rolling to safety.


“He’s across the street,” Hunter hissed, his nightmare replaying itself as thought of Gary.


“Then who’s in the house?”


They stayed down, each sentinel looking and listening for any betraying movement.


Jim caught the flash of metal, aimed and fired, cursing when he missed.


“Farley, we know you’re out there. You can’t get away,” Jim shouted, moving his position.


Another shot, this time so close it nearly deafened them with the whistle.


“He’s good,” Hunter grunted, following Jim behind the garage. It wasn’t a perfect barrier, but better than a hedge.


“But we’re better,” Jim said grimly.


“You move west, and I’ll play with him. By the time you circle around behind, you can get him.” Hunter peered around the edge of the garage. “Farley - surrender yourself!”


Another shot went by.


Jim managed to crawl under some bushes and move off the property and out of Farley’s line of vision. Two patrol cars screeched to a halt in front of the house, and the four uniforms got out. Their car windows exploded.


“Get down!” Hunter yelled, watching to make sure the officers were able to take cover.

“Farley! You’ll never get out of this alive!” Hunter continued to goad the man, hoping to make him react and lose his focus.


Hunter motioned to one of the uniforms to cover him, and ran to a better vantage point behind a large tree. He was in direct line of fire, but that worked both ways.


One of the officers was radioing for more backup, but Hunter knew they had to flush their prey out of its stronghold. His hand gun didn’t have the range necessary to reach Farley, who no doubt had a top of the line rifle.


Hunter and Jim were both quite familiar with stealth operations, and good as the kid was, he’d never be able to match their combined experience. Age and treachery would always overcome youth and skill.


Already across the street, Jim entered the back of the convenience store where Farley was perched. Hunter moved from blockade to blockade, drawing fire while the other police officers did their best to cover him.


Hunter slipped under the awning and out of Farley’s view. Inside the store were three people, a clerk and two customers, all lying motionless on the floor. His lips tightened as he looked at the elderly man, his arms still draped over an equally elderly woman, protecting her even in death. The clerk, no older than Sandburg, lay face up, an expression of bewilderment in his dead, staring eyes.


He extended his senses, picking up two heart beats, one slow and steady, matched almost perfectly to his own, which he knew was Ellison, and a faster one that could only be Farley.


Ellison was on the back side, climbing up the fire escape, while Hunter moved to the roof entrance.


Farley knew someone would be coming, so they had to play this just right. Hunter poked his head outside the door to the roof, and pulled back from the gun fire.


“Farley, give it up. We’ve got more backup on the way, including SWAT!”


Farley was turned toward him, intent on his target. He didn’t see Ellison climbing up on the roof behind him.


“Farley!” Hunter yelled again.


Farley aimed carefully, then froze. The cold metal shape against the back of his head was unmistakable.


“Don’t move.” His sound wasn’t even human, and Farley hesitated a fraction of a second, before spinning on his captor. He never got the chance to pull the trigger, as Hunter shot him clean through the neck above his vest.


“Shit!” Jim cursed. The man was bleeding too rapidly to stop. “Who put you up to this, Farley?”


Farley’s eyes were almost gleaming with malice as he spit up blood. “Never tell....”


“Farley!”


The man’s eyes glazed as he went limp.


“Damn it,” Jim rubbed his eyes. “I wanted answers.”


Hunter walked up and stared down at the lifeless form. “He killed the store clerk and an elderly couple.”


“Justice, but no answers,” Jim said wearily, getting to his feet. He looked down at Farley. What a waste.


“Justice,” Hunter repeated tonelessly. He pulled himself from the morass of memories and leaned over the edge of the building to give the all clear sign.


Both Hunter and Jim walked down the stairs without speaking. Jim took a quick glance at the victims inside the store but didn’t stop. Police were escorting a woman out of the house. Going by the outfit, she probably charged by the hour.


Once outside, they were met by Simon Banks.


“Would you two cowboys like to explain what the hell you were doing?”


“IA investigation,” Hunter said shortly, in no mood to put up with any command bullshit from Banks.


“That explains you, but it sure as hell doesn’t explain why Ellison is here.” Simon glared at his detective.


“I had a hunch - met Hunter at Wilkins’ place. We radioed for backup coming over here.” Jim smiled glibly.


“You don’t have the authority to commandeer one of my men without asking me,” Simon ranted at Hunter, who rolled his eyes.


“I volunteered, as Sentinel Prime, to assist the Shield,” Jim said virtuously. “It was a danger to the clan.”


“You know, Ellison, I’m trying to go along with this sentinel business as much as I can, but what you two just did bordered on vigilantism.”


Hunter just gave him inscrutable look number six, and walked away.


“I want a full report, Ellison. Don’t think being Sentinel Prime is going to get you out of explaining what the hell went down.”


“Of course, sir, as much as I can reveal from an official IA investigation.” The innocent tone put Simon on full alert.


“You sneaky, conniving....”


“Simon, I’m hurt,” Jim managed to look wounded. “How could you possibly accuse me of using the system against my commanding officer?”


“Oh, just go home, Ellison,” Simon said, rubbing his aching head. “Do your sentinel voodoo and make the world safer for the rest of us mere mortals.”


Jim clapped Simon on the back, ignoring the blistering look his captain gave him, and caught up with Hunter.


“So where do we go from here?” Jim said as they got into the truck.


“Back to good old fashioned research,” Hunter answered, leaning back in the passenger seat, unbelievably tired. Three innocent civilians were dead - and he should have been able to prevent it.


“When we get back to the loft, we can all order pizza.”


Hunter just stared. “We just witnessed a police officer’s suicide and took out a sniper, and you want to eat?”


Jim gave him a mild look. “No, but our guides need to eat, and I think it might be nice to have a couple hours of downtime before starting on those damn reports.”


“Whatever,” Hunter groused, but felt a weird sense of relief. He didn’t want to be alone with his thoughts just yet.


“Fine,” Jim said as he drove back to 852 Prospect, his brother quiet but not hostile at his side.


~~~~~~~~~


Jim walked into the private room where his father had been moved to just this morning. He still had two tubes in his chest, but the dreaded urinary catheter was gone and Steven Ellison sat next to the bed holding vigil.


“Hey, Stevie,” Jim said softly


His brother’s head snapped up. “Jim.”


For a moment, Steven felt eight years old again, wanting to run over to his big brother for protection, but the years of estrangement and the tension of worry kept him from moving.


Blair followed Jim into the room.


“Hello, Blair,” Steven smiled, easier.


“Hi, how are you coping?” Blair moved to where Steven sat and gently patted his shoulder, a comforting gesture that Steven wished with all his heart that Jim would have given him.


“Okay. I stayed with him yesterday, got a few hours of sleep, then came back. They moved him this morning, and I think it wore him out. He’s been sleeping for the past hour.”


Jim looked down at William. “He looks better – not so pale.”


“Any word on the sniper? Merriman told me you were looking for him.”


“He’s dead,” Jim said bluntly. “A uniform cop, and before you ask, I don’t know why yet.”


“You killed him?”


“No, Hunter did,” Blair said.


Steven didn’t know how he felt about that. He’d never officially met Hunter, but his father had shared a few things about the IA captain, and nothing sounded very good.


“I...I wish I could have been here earlier. To help, I mean.” Stephen looked at his father, the larger than life figure he’d tried so hard to emulate over the years.


“You came as soon as humanly possible,” Blair said bracingly. “Jim was on it right away.”


Golden Jim. Cop of the Year. Army Ranger hero. Steven felt the familiar twinge of inadequacy. He’d always looked up to Jim - hero worshiped him and coped with the pain of loss after Jim had left for college. They hadn’t spoken again until shortly before Jim had bonded. It wasn’t either of their faults - they had just grown apart, fueled by Jim’s rift with William, until they had reached the point of polite strangers.


Steven liked Blair - he was a good kid, devoted to his sentinel, but seeing Jim with Blair, teasing and playing with him like a younger brother, created a hollow ache inside Steven’s chest.


That might have been me, if things had turned out differently. I might have been able to keep that connection with Jim - be a part of his life. Steven shook himself from the introspection, but he couldn’t fool Blair. The empath felt his thoughts clearly.


Blair gave Steven’s shoulder a brief squeeze. The sympathy was almost more than Steven could cope with.


“So what happens now?” Steven asked, trying to concentrate on the present.


“We go back to research. Since Ellison Corporation has so many resources, maybe they could help.”


“Not a problem. Dad appointed me acting CEO if anything happened, so I’ll go ahead and authorize whatever you need.”


“Thanks,” Jim said almost absently. “Better you than me in charge of that conglomerate. Talk about major headaches.”


“I enjoy it,” Steven said almost defensively. “I’m good at it.”


“I know,” Blair said. “Jim’s not cut out for suit work. He’s Sentinel Prime – a protector.”


Jim gave Steven a quizzical smile, concentrating on William’s vital signs - strong and even. “You have your niche, I have mine.”


Steven nodded, and turned when William woke.


“Stevie?” William smiled, his oxygen mask replaced by a nasal cannula. “Jimmy here too?”


“Right here, Dad. Blair and I just wanted to let you know that we caught the sniper.”


“Who was he?”


“Cop,” Jim said, and proceeded to explain again what happened.


“Hunter killed him?” William coughed, wincing in pain as he did.


“He tried to kill me, so Hunter took him out.”


William smiled a bit sadly. “Your brother’s looking out for you.”


“He’s the Shield,” Jim explained. “It’s a sentinel thing.”


William asked a few more questions, and Jim sat down by the bed to answer them.


Steven sat quietly, listening, but his own feelings were turbulent. Jim wasn’t his anymore, and never would be again.


“Steven?” Blair laid a hand on the man’s back, troubled by the bleak emotions.


“I have to go – check on a few things. I’ll call. Take care, Dad. I’ll be back this afternoon.” Steven walked out before he lost control.


“What was that all about?” Jim asked, frowning at the sudden departure.


Blair watched the open door, feeling the emotions slowly dissipate. “A sentinel thing,” he said softly, knowing the hurt and unable to change it.


~~~~~~


Jim dropped Blair off at the loft so he could pick up his car.


“You gonna be okay today, Chief?”


“Yeah, I’m going to swing by Hunter’s office and pick up Sarah. I still have stuff to sort, and maybe a change of scenery after the last few days will help get things back to normal for us.”


“Farley might be out of the picture, but his boss isn’t, so be careful,” Jim warned, feeling slightly uneasy and not knowing why.


“You stayed up too late filling out those reports,” Blair smiled. “I’ll be fine.”


“I’m serious, Chief. Something’s coming. I can feel it.”


“By the pricking of my thumbs....” Blair quoted.


“You always tell me to trust my instincts,” Jim glared at his guide. “I’m telling you: something’s not right.”


“Then I’ll be more careful,” Blair said seriously, opening the link. “But I can’t stop living my life.” He rested his head against Jim’s shoulder, hugging the taller man.


“I don’t like feeling like there’s a shadow over me,” Jim grumbled. “Everyone I see is a potential threat.”


“You’ll figure it out -- I have faith in you.”


Jim smiled suddenly. “Yeah, that you do. Blind faith, mostly, but I’ll take it.”


“Is Hunter okay – I mean, after shooting the guy?”


“You know Hunter - Mr. ‘I refuse to discuss this’.”


“It’s weird - his old guide died just the same way Farley did.”


“Metaphysical implications aside, I think Hunter came full circle on that issue.” Jim ruffled his guide’s hair. “I need to talk to Steven later about the information we need for the investigation.”


“Yeah,” Blair said, thinking of the look in Steven Ellison’s eyes as he had walked out of the hospital room. “He’s probably a bit shaky himself about all this.”


“Nah – Stevie’s a rock,” Jim said. “He’ll have Dad home in days, with private nursing and Merriman’s band keeping guard. He’ll be fine. ”


I don’t think so - not quite yet. Blair didn’t voice it, though. It was just another Ellison family wrinkle that he’d have to think about for a while.


“You and Sarah stay on campus, and call if there’s any problem.”


“Will do,” Blair said as he unlocked his car. Shoving a box of papers to one side, he winced at the mess on the floor.


“You ever clean this thing, Chief?” Jim asked. “Or are you working on developing sentient life?”


Blair just grinned and drove off with a wave.


Jim spent the rest of the morning shuffling paper, the nagging sense of worry never leaving.


Picking up the phone, he dialed IA. “Hunter, it’s Ellison. Have you got the Form 118 filled out yet?”


Hunter’s reply was inventive, and not repeatable in polite company.


“I think I have everything done from my end. Chief Towson okay with everything?”


“Yeah, but he’s not happy that Farley got on the force in the first place. His next mission is to intensify screening of all police candidates. Keeps him occupied and on another PR mission.”


“Works for me,” Jim said. “Simon’s still pissed, but at least he’s talking to me.”


“It would be a miracle if we could have a couple of days without mayhem and destruction.” Hunter balanced the phone on his shoulder as he looked over the last stack of forms he needed to complete before he could move on with his original search. “Sandburg said he’d bring Sarah home at six, and then I’m going to check some of my military contacts to get some more information.”


“Steven said he’d put any resources we needed at our disposal.”


“Steven who?” Hunter asked, still concentrating on the forms.


“Steven Ellison.” Jim paused. He knew Hunter had never met Steven, either.


There was a long silence, then a noncommittal grunt. “Whatever. Call me if you find out anything.”


Jim hung up the phone, staring into space. When his cell phone rang, he jumped.


~~~~~~


Sarah had Blair’s car keys in her hand, jingling them as she walked. She had run out to his car to pick up the a file he had left behind. She was glad to be with Blair today – seeing the dead man had spooked her, and her sentinel had been royal mess by the time they had gotten back to his house last night -- his emotions chaotic. They had bonded, but Sarah still wasn’t sure Hunter was back to his usual baseline yet.


As she got close to Blair’s office, she knew that something was very wrong. Blair’s voice was raised and she could feel the anger in the room. Her hand froze on the door frame. A man stood with his back to her, a long coat covering his GDP uniform. He turned around and Sarah flinched from his hatred.


“Who’s your little friend, Sandburg?” The sarcasm cut through her. The man noticed her reaction, and his eyes narrowed. “Well, well, well...another guide.” He walked over to Sarah, eyeing her carefully. “I wonder if her sentinel knows your degrading past, Sandburg. If he did, I’m sure he wouldn’t let her near you.”


The man’s eyes held something that made Sarah want to run.


“On your knees, Guide,” the man ordered, and Sarah dropped the file and went down as the door closed behind her.


Blair tried to make it around the desk to her, but was blocked by another GDP guard. “Going somewhere, little man?”

 

Blair stopped, knowing that this was what the man was waiting for. Don’t give them the opportunity -- keep cool.


“Captain Gross, you have no authorization....” The blow across his face was hard enough to throw Blair’s head back, but he managed to stay on his feet. He reached up, and a thin trace of blood smeared his fingers.


“That’s always been your problem, Sandburg. A smart mouth and never doing what you were told. No wonder Slater gave you to Wilson for training. Down -- extreme position. Face in the carpet NOW!”


He snapped the word, taking pleasure in seeing Blair jolt, but instead of going down on his knees, Blair pulled himself a little taller. “No, I’m Senior Guide Prime of the city of Cascade. I don’t kneel to you.”


For a moment, Blair though that Gross was going to explode. The man’s face went purple, his neck veins standing out. Gross pulled the leash out of his pocket and swung it around, catching Blair off balance and knocking him down.


Blair tried to fight, but the two guards with Gross leashed him while Sarah looked on in horror.


With Blair immobilized on his knees, Gross turned his attention to the other guide.


“Leave her alone!” Blair yelled, only to be hit by one of the guards.


Gross circled her slowly, enjoying the way she trembled. “Your sentinel has taught you well. When did you complete your GDP training?”


Sarah remained silent, trying to remember all the guide rules.


“You may speak.”


“I haven’t,” Sarah whispered, and Gross’s face darkened.


“Rogue.” He spat the word at his lackeys. “See what happens – Sandburg spawns others of his kind.”


Gross pulled himself together, then looked back at Sarah. “Shall I tell you what happens to rogue guides?” He was smiling now, delighting in her fear.


She tried to swallow, heart thundering in her ears.


“You’re a pretty little thing,” Gross mused, one finger tracing her throat. “Your sentinel must enjoy having you in his bed.”


Sarah flushed, then went pale. She cringed from his touch.


“And shy,” Gross said, finger tracing lower across her trembling skin. “I think I’ll like putting you through your paces. You could be an inspiration to Sandburg, here.”


Blair was furious, but unable to free himself. “Stop it, Gross.”


Gross turned; the blow caught Blair across the head, and he hit the side of the desk. His body went limp as he lost consciousness.


“No!” Sarah screamed, and Gross backhanded her sharply. Stunned, she could only stare as blood dripped from her mouth and nose.


Alan Fraser came out of the library and then began to run as he saw the two men carrying Mr. Sandburg out to a GDP van. A third man had Sarah and was dragging her despite her struggles.


Alan ran to Blair’s office, rummaging through the papers until he found Professor Sandburg’s cell phone. For a moment, he hesitated, then hit the first speed dial button.


“Ellison.” The voice definitely sounded like ‘speak now or hang up’. Then the voice softened as he probably recognized the caller ID. “Hi, Chief, what’s up?”


“Sentinel, I mean, Detective Ellison?”


“Who is this?” The voice barked.


“Alan Fraser, one of Mr. Sandburg’s students. Look -- three guys just dragged him and the girl - Sarah, I think her name is – off in a GDP van. He...he wasn’t moving.”


“Where are you?” The voice became official.


“In Professor Sandburg’s office. The van left campus, north side.”


“Don’t touch anything else, and stay put. Hit 2 on the speed dial.” With that, Ellison hung up.


Alan stared at the phone. Number 2 could only be the girl’s sentinel, and there was no way he could be worse than Ellison.


“What is it now, Sandburg?” The voice sounded so much like Ellison that Alan nearly dropped the phone.


“Sandburg?”


“Uh...this is Alan Fraser, one of Professor Sandburg’s students. Detective Ellison asked me to call.”


“What happened?”


“The GDP took them away, and ....”


“Sarah.” The emotion in the one word, plus the volume, made Alan move the phone away from his ear.


“You’re at his office? Okay, I’m on my way. Don’t move.”


Alan waited, pacing the office. Not five minutes later, Ellison came through the door.


Alan was glad the table was between them. “I’m Alan Fraser – I made the call.”


Jim recognized him from the time Sandburg had overloaded after being confronted by the guide porn tape.


“Start talking,” Ellison ordered as he prowled around the office.


“There were three of them. Two of them had uniforms, the guy who looked in charge might have, but he had a long coat on over it.”


“They weren’t campus GDP,” a new voice cut in, and Alan thought he was seeing double.


“What...?” Alan stammered.


Hunter knelt down and touched the side of the table. “Blood – Sandburg’s.” He noticed a small spot on the floor. “Sarah’s.” He would kill the men who had hurt them - slowly and painfully.


Ellison was growling low and under his breath as he smelled something familiar.


It made Hunter turn around. “You recognize something?”


“Gross -- captain in the GDP. He tried to get his hands on Blair at the Sanctuary. The man knows Blair’s off limits, and.... “ Jim broke off. He could hear a soft shrill noise. Crossing the room, he pulled the left desk drawer open and saw the palm Dictaphone he had bought Blair, still taping.


Jim switched it off and rewound the tape. As he and Hunter listened, their faces became grimmer.


“Slater -- I thought he was one of the good guys.” Hunter growled.


“So did I. He’ll answer for this.” Jim looked around the office one last time. “Gross wouldn’t have taken Blair anywhere near Rainier, which means that we need Slater to tell us where.”


~~~~~~~~


Dan Slater was picking at his sandwich as he read the report in front of him. There was a loud crash, and the door was kicked in. The Shield entered, with the Sentinel Prime on his heels. Or was it the other way around? No, Shield first -- he had the suit on.


Dan only had time to push back from the desk before Jim was on him. His chair was pushed back against the wall, and Jim’s foot rested on the seat, pinning him.


“Slater, why didn’t you tell me you were the one who sent Blair to Wilson? Just a little thing you wanted to keep secret?”


“Jim, what the hell....”


Hunter had moved to join Jim. Slater looked from one to the other, and knew the first stirring of fear: the sentinels were feral.


Jim took out a dictaphone and hit the button.


That’s always been your problem, Sandburg. A smart mouth and never doing what you were told. No wonder Slater gave you to Wilson for training. Down -- extreme position. Face in the carpet NOW!


“That wasn’t me, Jim,” Slater swore. “My father was a training supervisor then. But he would never have given Blair to Wilson if he had known that....” The rest trailed off as Jim grabbed him by the throat.


Hunter just rumbled, ready to kill.


“I’m not lying, Jim,” Slater said, his heart rate only slightly elevated from the stress. “You’d know if I was.”


Jim stared at him intently, sentinel senses monitoring Slater for the slightest fluctuation.


“What’s this all about?” Dan croaked.


“Gross picked Blair and Sarah up. On whose authority, Slater?”


“Not mine,” Dan said grimly, not daring to move.


“We’re going to find them.” Jim’s grip tightened slightly. Dan didn’t even dare breathe.


“Then let me up so I can help.” Dan kept eye contact, knowing both sentinels could sense his emotions.


Dan waited until Jim let him go and eased back, then moved to his computer. He typed as he picked up the phone, talking rapidly to someone at the other end. As Slater entered the GDP database, he didn’t notice that both Jim and Hunter had seen and memorized his password codes.


“Gross, Alan. He was reassigned from the Sanctuary after that business with David Lash. He’s...damn, he’s back in Cascade, working for GDP Medical.”


“I’m not liking this, Slater,” Jim warned.


“He’s on leave at the moment. He shouldn’t be doing anything GDP related while not on duty.”


“Where would he go? The kid said they headed north of campus.”


“GDP Medical has a satellite office on Main and Calvert. My guess is he took your guides there.”


“Get me Claydove,” Jim ordered.


“Uh, he’s in Hawaii for two weeks. I’m in charge in the interim.”


“Then get off your dead ass on your dying feet and start fixing this problem!” Hunter, eloquent as always, grabbed Slater by the jacket and hauled him out of his chair.


Slater didn’t say a word, gesturing to Gibb to join them as the men walked out of the office.


“So what’s Gross up to?” Hunter asked. “Just a grudge?”


“More than that,” Jim said grimly. “He gets off on dominating guides.”


“Dominating meaning...?” Slater asked.


“You figure it out, Slater.”


~~~~~~~~~


“Blair,” Sarah whispered, trying to get him to wake up. They had both been thrown in back of the van and driven away from campus. She had tried to keep track of the turns, but her worry for Blair had handicapped her sense of direction.


Her nose had stopped bleeding, but her face felt swollen, especially her right cheek and lip.


“Blair?” Blair stirred slightly at her voice. He was still leashed, and Sarah reached out to try to remove it, but one of the guards slapped her hand away.


Sarah moved to pull Blair’s head in her lap. The guard stared suspiciously, but didn’t interfere.


Sarah linked, trying to support him as best she could. He had a split lip and a laceration at his temple where he had hit the table. She was scared in a way she never had been with Hunter.


The van slowed, then pulled to a stop. Back doors opened and Blair was dragged out.


“You,” Gross ordered. “Come here.”


Sarah got out, and immediately sank to her knees at his side, head down.


Gross smiled - here was one guide who had learned quickly who was in charge. “Good girl,” he said, one hand briefly moving over her neck. “Maybe I won’t have to hurt you after all.”


Sarah tried to keep her breathing level. If she resisted, he’d leash her, and then she’d never be able to help Blair.


They moved into the building and back into a room that held a variety of sinister looking medical equipment.


A youngish looking man in a white lab coat stood waiting by a table. “Is this the guide for testing?”


“Sandburg, Blair. Section 8, involuntary empathic testing.”


The lab tech frowned. “He’s been injured. That might affect testing if there’s been any significant brain trauma.”


“He just hit his head,” Gross said dismissively. “He’s already waking up.”


“Remove the leash and put him on the table,” the lab tech ordered, absolutely no compassion in his voice or eyes. Guides weren’t people.


Blair was stripped to his boxers and placed on the table, his wrists and ankles placed in the attached leather restraints.


Gross watched as Blair woke, feeling the heat coiling in his belly as the guide realized where he was and bucked against the restraints. Blair was back in his nightmare, and screamed.


Sarah huddled against the wall, shivering from the terror she felt in Blair, and the lust in Gross. The two guards barely spared her a glance - she wouldn’t be a problem.


~~~~~~~~


The Medical Center had once been a town house in old Cascade. Dan managed to get through the door first, hoping to prevent the maiming that would take place if Blair Sandburg and Sarah Freeman had been hurt in any way.


The guard on duty got to his feet when he saw the Commander. “Can I help you, sir?” His eyes moved past Slater to look at the two sentinels. There was no mistaking what they were, but the guard had never seen identical twin sentinels before.


Jim took a steadying breath. He could hear Blair’s voice in his head. White noise generators, man, are obsolete where you’re concerned. All you have to do is find the bubble of silence and then push past it.


One moment there was silence and then Jim was beyond it. He could hear Blair’s heart beat and then a cry of pain.


The Dark Sentinel emerged in response to the cry, but this time it was joined with the panther. The two of them started up the stairs. Hunter’s head snapped around and the guard froze as the IA captain’s lips pulled back over his teeth, and he and the tiger followed the Sentinel Prime.


When the guard reached the emergency button, Gibb caught his wrist. Gibb shook his head. “If you value your pension, and your life, don’t move.”


Gibb ran after Slater. At the first landing they saw two unconscious GDP guards sprawled on the floor. The two sentinels hadn’t even broken stride.


Captain Gross leaned over Blair while the lab tech adjusted dials and buttons. He ran his hand across the sweat soaked body that lay limp on the examining table. Blair was shivering, his eyes unfocused and his breathing as harsh as if he had run a marathon. Glancing at the monitor, Gross watched Blair’s pulse spike as soon as he was touched.


They’ll break you, Sandburg, and after the testing is done, I’ll break you in the way you should have been.


Blair shuddered. The electrodes on his head were secured with very fine needles, and an IV dripped into his left arm. The drug had brought his barriers down, and now he was wide open. Only his strength of will was holding back the probe that was trying to push into his mind to record his empathic rating. It hurt, so badly he thought he was going to pass out. His mouth was bloody were he had torn open his lip from biting it.


Gross knew that his touch was causing pain. Even the lab tech was protesting – he had performed many empathy rating tests, and even those under Section 8 had never been like this.


“Captain Gross, this is a violation of procedure. Please don’t touch the guide during the test.”


Gross just motioned to his men who immediately dragged the protesting technician out of the room. Gross had been watching closely, and he knew which dial to turn.


He wanted to inflict pain.


Gross moved the dial from 7 to 9, and Blair arched off the table, screaming.


Sarah watched from her corner of the room. The guards had left, and the other man had his back to her. She carefully got to her feet.


The guide has the power.


Picking up a metal tray lying on the counter, she took two steps. Her heart was pounding so hard that she was sure that Gross would hear it. Moving up behind him, she swung the tray with all her strength at his head.


The thud was sickening as the man slumped forward. She pushed him off Blair, and his body hit the floor hard. She yanked out the IV, then pulled off the monitor cables, the electrodes peeling off Blair’s body and the needles slipping out of his skin. The emotions nearly swamped her, but she quickly began unbuckling the restraints, her fingers fumbling slightly in her haste


She had managed to free Blair’s arms when she was pulled back. Gross glared at her, the hatred in his eyes mixed with madness.


“Bitch,” he spat, and hit her so hard she slammed into the wall. Grabbing the leash, he moved toward her.


Blair, forgotten for the moment, roused enough to undo the leg restraints, his hands unsteady.


Sarah was bleeding again, and her head felt like it had cracked open. She remembered what Hunter had taught her and tried to move so she could catch the man unaware and upset his balance, but her equilibrium was way off.


Blair pulled himself off the table, moving on wobbly legs. He threw himself on Gross, who elbowed him in the stomach, but Blair hung on. Gross turned so that Blair hit the wall, and the world went gray.


A roar, and the panther was there. Blair tried to stay conscious, but the world was growing darker. “Jim,” he whispered, before everything went black.


Jim burst through the door to see Blair hit the wall, and launched himself at Gross. One well aimed fist, and Gross lay unmoving on the floor. Torn between the need to kill and to see to his guide, the Dark Sentinel decided the man was no threat at the moment.


Blair stirred. “Oh man, my head,” he moaned.


“Easy, Chief,” and Blair was moved into his sentinel’s arms. “Let me take a look at you.” Jim laid Blair down flat on his back, and made a through check of his guide. Split lip, a big goose egg on his skull as well as the laceration. No broken bones, but lots of bruises. 

Hunter moved to Sarah, who was pulling herself up from the floor. She was still oozing blood from her lip and nose, and her right cheek was purple-black.


“I hit him with a tray,” Sarah said, her eyes dazed from the impact against the wall.


“Did you? Good,” Hunter said as he moved to pull her gently to her feet. “Where else are you hurt?” Although the words were calm, he was fury personified.


“Head hurts,” she said, weaving slightly. “Why do they keep hitting us in the head?”


“I think she might have a concussion,” Slater said as he finished cuffing the semi-unconscious Alan Gross and handing him over to Gibb. “I’m sure Blair does.”


“Blair?” Sarah tried to look over where Jim cradled his guide.


“You’re both going to be fine,” Hunter said as he pushed down the anger. His quick but thorough check showed that Sarah’s head and face had borne the brunt of the damage.


“Wanna go home,” Sarah mumbled as she was picked up and cradled in her sentinel’s arms.


“Soon,” Hunter promised as she laid her aching head against his shoulder.


“I hit him in the head,” Sarah repeated.


“You did great,” Hunter growled.


“Not mad at me?” Sarah asked anxiously.


“You did just fine,” Hunter reassured her, and Sarah finally relaxed.


“We have to get them to the hospital to get checked out,” Jim said as he stood up, supporting a very shaky Blair.


Hunter moved over so he could see for himself that Sandburg was okay.


“The machine,” Blair mumbled, and Slater walked over and ripped the data modules out.


“All results destroyed,” Slater said, as he crushed the equipment with his foot. Nothing of Blair’s Section 8 examination would survive.


Gibb pulled Gross to his feet. Jim turned, ready to attack. Gibb could see Blair’s mouth opening and closing, but no sound came out – only his sentinel could hear him. The Sentinel Prime was shaking his head, but when a trembling hand reached up and brushed his jaw, the sentinel calmed and nuzzled at his guide’s palm.


“We’ll take it from here,” Slater said as Gibb began hauling Gross out the door. “He’ll be in GDP custody while we investigate. He’ll face a court martial.”


The other two GDP guards who had helped Gross were also in custody and being taken in. They would have a lot of explaining to do. The lab tech was busy explaining himself downstairs, and would be dealt with as well.


Sarah reached out a hand and Blair took it, guide connecting with guide, and by extension, sentinel with sentinel.


“Gross,” Jim said deliberately, waiting until Gibb turned the man around to face him.


Jim’s voice had the tone of a man issuing a death warrant. “As Sentinel Prime, I claim Blood Vendetta against you.”


“As Shield, I claim Blood Vendetta against you,” Hunter added, his tone even darker.


Slater had never heard a sentinel claim vendetta. It was supposedly just a custom of the past, but he felt himself go cold. He knew that he had to get to his father and find out what the hell had happed, because the senior Slater would surely be next.


“We should go to the hospital,” Dan offered. “The GDP will pick up all medical expenses.”


“I’d better be hearing Claydove’s voice in the next two hours,” Jim ground out. “The GDP is not going to weasel out of this one.”


“Yes, Sentinel Prime,” Dan said formally.


An hour, several X-rays and two CT scans later, Blair and Sarah were pronounced bruised and scraped with mild concussions, but no other major injuries.


“I’d really like to keep them overnight for observation,” Dr. Lambert said. “It sounds as though you have your hands full tonight, anyway.”


Hunter immediately objected. “I don’t want them left here alone.”


Jim was agreeing, when a female voice broke in.


“Jim, Hunter, the GLA said my baby was dragged off...” She took one look at Blair and gasped. “Blair! Sweetie, what happened?” She took her son in her arms, clucking over his wounds and cuddling him.


Blair just went with the flow. His head hurt too much to do anything else.


“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Jim gestured toward Naomi, catching Hunter’s eye.


Hunter considered. Naomi was flighty, but she obviously loved her son. And she was a mother, so she’d make the perfect babysitter. He finally nodded.


“Naomi, Blair and Sarah were hurt when they were kidnapped.” Jim gave her a brief rundown, emphasizing the need for both empaths to be watched closely for the next few hours.


“Dr. Lambert, what if Naomi kept an eye on them tonight. Would that be okay?”


“I suppose. I have a mild painkiller for them, and something for nausea if needed, but they should just rest. If they develop any serious signs of head injury,” Lambert waved a pre-printed instruction sheet, “then they need to be brought back immediately.”


“I’ll handle this,” Naomi said breezily. “Blair hit his head often enough throughout his childhood that I memorized that sheet.”


“I don’t like to impose,” Jim said, “but we have things we need to take care of.”


“I’ll be happy to look out for them,” Naomi smiled, releasing Blair so that she could talk to Sarah. “Hi, you probably don’t remember me, but I’m Naomi – Blair’s mom. I was there when your dad and sister saw you a couple of weeks ago.”


Sarah looked over at Hunter, unsure.


“It’s okay, Tiger. She’ll just keep an eye on you while we fill out the paperwork.”


Sarah knew it would be more than paperwork, but nodded. She didn’t want to be left with a stranger, even if it was Blair’s mom, but there wasn’t any choice.


Hunter moved over to her, carefully smoothing her hair so as not to cause any pain. “I’ll pick you up later tonight and take you home.”


Sarah opened the link as Hunter reassured her. Then she looked into his eyes for so long that Hunter wondered if the concussion was affecting her. Finally she mumbled, “Okay.”


Jim hugged his guide, then patted Sarah’s shoulder. Hunter moved a hand down Blair’s back.


The sentinels followed Naomi to her car, carefully putting their guides in the back seat.


“Get some rest,” Jim ordered Blair.


“No TV,” Hunter added. “I don’t care if it is Tuesday.”


Naomi waved as she pulled out of the parking lot.


Jim’s cell phone rang. “Ellison.” He looked over at Hunter, indicating that he should dial up his hearing.


“Dr. Claydove. Slater fill you in? Fine, now you tell me what you’re going to do to address this.”


Jim and Hunter listened, not in the least happy with the excuses and plan of action.


“What do you mean, ‘until the final investigation is completed’?” Jim growled. “So he sits in his cell for the next few months while the GDP figures out what to do with him. Bureaucratic procedure, my ass.” Another minute passed. “Yeah, whatever.” Jim hung up, furious.


~~~~~~~~~


Larry Slater sat at his desk enjoying a cup of coffee. Very soon he would be retiring from the GDP Training Section. He savored the coffee as he leaned back in his chair. His secretary Margaret, who had been with him since the beginning, would be retiring too. Maybe then, he thought, she’ll finally say yes.


A widower for the last fifteen years, Larry had asked Margaret to marry him at least twice a year, and she’d turned him down every time, saying it was a conflict of interest. After October, that excuse wouldn’t work anymore.


Larry’s face lit up with a smile and he stood up as his son entered the office. Margaret smiled in the background as she closed the door. She shared an almost maternal pride in Daniel, who returned the familial feeling.


“Daniel,” he greeted his son warmly. “What can I do for you?” His smile faded when he saw Daniel’s expression. “What’s wrong? Is it Joyce, or the children?”


“No, not them. Dad, we have to talk. There’s an extremely serious problem.”


Larry sat down, motioning his son to do the same.


Dan sat down, trying to figure out where to start. “The Senior Sentinel Prime has declared a blood vendetta against a GDP officer.”


Larry stiffened. “What for?”


“The Senior Prime and the Shield’s guides were kidnapped and injured. They declared vendetta against him, and rightfully so, but there’s more.”


Larry was trying to take it all in. Vendettas were things from the history books, not modern day sentinels.


“Do you remember Guide Blair Sandburg? He went through your facility about eight months ago.”


“Sandburg,” Larry frowned, and then he turned to his computer and tapped in his password. “Blair Jacob Sandburg. Yes, he was in the corrections facility – rogue guide. He was resistant to my training, and so he was moved. I remember the case – he was a trouble maker.”


“Dad, he’s bonded to the Senior Sentinel Prime. And when you handed him over, he was abused by the guards.”


“Abused?” Larry frowned. “Sometimes extreme methods are needed to bring a guide in line....”


“Dad, Wilson and his men sexually abused him.”


“What?!”


“He was raped, he was drugged, and they taped it all and distributed the tapes as guide porn.”


“Danny, I....”


“Tell me you didn’t know about it.”


“Daniel, guides or not, they’re still human beings. I don’t allow that kind of perversion.”


“Then why didn’t you know what was happening in your own division?”


Larry met his son’s accusing stare. “I...I don’t know.”


“The Sentinel Prime found out it was you who gave him over to Wilson.”


“I’ll check into the Wilson matter,” Larry promised, “Then I’ll....”


“Dad, Wilson was taken into custody four months ago. He was found dead in his cell.”


Larry felt himself grow cold.


“I’m worried, Dad. They’ll be after you next, unless I can stop it.”


“Daniel....”


“Blair was hurt in GDP custody, something that should never, ever have happened.”

Dan got up, looking down at his father. “I love you, Dad, but I can’t accept what you let happen to Blair.”


“Blair? You mean Guide Sandburg.”


“No, Dad. I mean Blair.” Dan let that hang in the air. “Be careful.”


Dan left his father sitting at his desk, staring unseeingly at the closed door.


~~~~~~~~~~~


“I want this bastard,” Jim said as they walked to Jim’s truck. Hunter had left his car on campus when they had gone to see Slater, and he decided to leave it there until he was ready to pick up Sarah. “He might be in custody, but that’s not enough.”


“The GDP won’t punish him nearly enough,” Hunter agreed when they reached the vehicle.


“Claydove’s trying to hush up this one – I can feel it. All that run around about investigation is just smoke and mirrors. He just wants it to go away quietly.”


“It’s too high profile,” Hunter pointed out. “They’ll launder this one by a token conviction, and when all is said and done, he’ll still be out there.”


“Damn it!” Jim punched the door of the truck in frustration.


“Bottom line, Ellison: your guide isn’t safe as long as Gross is still alive.”


Jim stared at his half-brother, trying to read his expression. “You realize, Captain Hunter, that what you are proposing is illegal.”


“Illegal?” Hunter mused on that. “Technically, any threat to the clan is grounds for vendetta.”


“But he’s already in custody.” Jim climbed in the driver’s seat and switched on the engine.


“Then what do you suggest? A jail break?” Hunter asked sarcastically.


Jim grunted, a short sound of frustration and tension. Looking out the window, he saw the dark shape at the edge of the road, looking straight at him. It seemed to be waiting.


A memory came back as the panther stared straight at him: blood and vengeance – a vendetta of one. Wilson had been killed in his cell by an unseen intruder, and Jim finally remembered how.


A striped body moved next to the panther, and both cats moved down the road, side by side, heading towards them.


“Do you see them?” Jim asked.


Hunter looked out, lips tightening as he saw the spirit animals walking so close they seemed to be one body.


They moved seamlessly, both elegant predators, and somehow together, they seemed more.


Together.


Jim breathed out slowly as the animals faded from view. “I think I know what we have to do.”


Hunter gave Jim a measuring look, but kept his own counsel.


They settled into the conference room at Major Crimes. The window provided an unobstructed view of the two men seated at the table working on the police reports of what had happened. It all looked very official from the outside.


“This has to be the screwiest idea you’ve ever come up with. I expect flights of fancy from Sandburg, but you’re usually grounded in reality.”


Jim just ignored Hunter’s irritation. “Some things have to be believed to be seen.”


“I’m not talking about visions, with or without the benefit of hallucinogenic drugs. This is about an out of body experience!”


“Why is it so hard for you to believe this, Hunter?”


“It’s not disbelief – since I met the two of you I’ve had more weird mystical shit happen to me than ten people should experience in a lifetime.”


“You scared?” Jim challenged.


“No, it’s not that, either.” Hunter rubbed his aching head. “This is more than two sentinels going after a threat to their guides. This is...shifting paradigms. It’s messing with the natural balance.”


“Never thought you’d be worried about your karma,” Jim said pointedly. “Think the gods are gonna come after you if you do something about Gross?”


“Hell, no!” Hunter snarled. “This is justified. He attacked; we defend.”


“Then what’s the problem?”


“If we do this, then everything moves to a whole new level. This is a spirit walk.” Hunter ignored Jim’s look of surprise. “What? You think I don’t understand what’s happening here? This is doing something on a spiritual level; there’s always a price.”


“You think we haven’t paid?” Jim’s voice was quiet now. “The things we’ve had to give up to function – and what’s expected of us every single day of our lives? That Blair and Sarah haven’t paid, over and over, for the gifts they were born with and can’t get rid of? They paid in blood today. We can’t depend on human justice to keep our guides from harm. Time to let something else balance the scales.”


Hunter settled back in his chair. Everyone in the bullpen could see the two men talking over their files: a perfect alibi.


“Once you open this door, it can never be closed again.” Hunter looked at Ellison. “If you think the connection is freaky now, it’ll multiply exponentially.”


“Blair said it would – damn if he wasn’t right all along.”


“If anyone is a shaman in our happy little group, it would be Sandburg. He should be here for this.”


“Unfortunately, neither of our guides is any shape for something like this. We know what we need to do.”


“It just works better when he’s here,” Hunter grumbled.

 

“Yeah, he’s a good referee, but we’re just gonna have to learn to play nicely together in the sandbox.”


Hunter ignored the jibe. “The trick will be to do this without raising suspicion.”


“We’re here working on reports. We’ll just move so we’re both facing away from the window. As far as those guys out there are concerned, we’ll never have left the room.”


Hunter stared at Ellison. “Once we start this, we can’t go back. Are you ready for what happens after this?”


“Are you?” Jim countered. “You and I won’t be able to ignore our connection any longer – on any level.”


Hunter paused, then sighed. “If I can handle Sandburg in my head, I suppose it won’t make that much difference having you there, either.” And that was about as profound as he was willing to get with his half-brother. There were still too many things unsaid between them.


They shifted around, and Jim relaxed back in his chair. “It’s like skirting the edge of a zone. Just let your senses go inward until you reach the center, then let go.”


“You’ve done this before,” Hunter grumbled again.


“A couple of times. Blair’s the best tour guide you could ask for when it comes to mystical things.”


“And he’s not here.”


“But I am.” Something in Jim’s eyes made Hunter pause.


“You’ve done this without him, haven’t you?”


Jim looked more like his animal spirit than human, his eyes burning. “Wilson died in custody; they never found out what killed him.”


“The guy from the correction facility.” Hunter recalled. “More Sentinel Prime stuff?”


“I don’t know,” Jim said. “All I know is that I didn’t remember what had happened until I saw the panther on the road earlier. But it was justified -- eye for an eye.”


“Those animals really complicate things,” Hunter sighed.


“Come on, Hunter. Let’s do it.” Jim leaned back, letting his breathing slow as he relaxed.


Hunter watched for a few seconds, then closed his eyes, his posture relaxing as he began the inward journey. Sound and light faded until he reached a calm oasis where the tiger stood. The tiger sprang, and Hunter found himself inside a different form. That was his body sitting there, but now he walked on all fours.


Great. Here I am, starring in ‘Cat People: The Final Frontier.’ Hunter cautiously moved a few steps, finding the animal form lighter and more flexible than his human shape. This is just beyond bizarre.


Hunter saw the panther waiting by the door. The tiger joined the other cat as they moved through the wall and out of the building.


The panther seemed to laugh as they moved through solid objects. They ran down streets, faster and faster, never tiring despite the speed. It was exhilarating, the rush of blood and muscle, that was and wasn’t there.


The panther focused intently on their path as they made their way to the GDP detention facility. Stopping outside the building, they stared at the guards, then moved past them, invisible.


Tracking their quarry, they came to his cell. A guard was down the hall, oblivious to the two spirit animals.


They slipped through the door, and faced the enemy.


“Whaaa?” Gross slurred, having drifted off to sleep. He sat bolt upright. There were wild animals in his cell.


The low snarls coming from the animals raised the hair on Gross’s neck.


“No, please...” Gross begged, backing up against the wall. The panther’s eyes looked just like...”Oh, my God.”


The panther yowled, unheard by anyone except the man he stalked.


“Ellison, it’s you, right? Gotta be. Please, don’t do this. I can....”


You can die. The whisper in Gross’s head was as clear as any spoken word. The tiger had moved closer.


“No!” Gross screamed, before the panther ripped out his throat.


The tiger pulled the man down, breaking his neck with a single bite. Both cats moved in to finish the job.


It had taken less than three minutes, and the guard had heard nothing, not even Gross’s dying scream.


They walked back out of the cell, out of the building, out of the city until they reached the ocean. Splashing into the surf, they cleaned the gore from their bodies, washing away the blood and the evil they had touched.


Clean once more, they began the journey home. Side by side, their rhythm perfectly matched, they ran. When they reached the precinct building they slowed, moving through walls as if they didn’t exist. The two men hadn’t moved and the animals laid down.


Hunter could feel himself separating from the tiger, and in the hazy place between the spiritual plane and reality, he saw Ellison. They brushed by each other, a quick spark of light and heat, and then settled back into their own bodies.


Jim opened his eyes to see Hunter staring at him, an unreadable expression on his face.


“We did it,” Jim said, stretching slightly. “We actually did it.”


“Righteous kill,” Hunter said bitterly. “His blood was foul.”


“Regrets?” Jim asked.


“Not about this,” Hunter said enigmatically.


Jim was about to ask, but the expression on Hunter’s face stopped him.


~~~~~~~


Jim drove Hunter back to campus to pick up his car. Hunter had been silent for the entire trip, his entire body radiating tension.


“Hunter.”


Hunter turned his head at Ellison’s voice. “Yeah.”


“You okay?” There was concern in Jim’s voice – enough to make Hunter hunch his shoulders defensively.


“Fine.”


The master of monosyllabic communication strikes again, Jim thought.


“What do you want to do about Slater senior?” Hunter shifted the topic neatly.


“I’m thinking I’ll be digging around in the GDP database for the next couple of days. I’ll decide then.” Jim turned into the lot at Hargrove Hall. “Here we are. You can follow me back to the loft to pick up Sarah.”


“I wonder how Sandburg’s mother managed.”


“She is his mother,” Jim drawled. “I’m sure she wouldn’t do anything to risk his health.”


“Uh huh,” came the skeptical grunt.


“Just because she has the hots for you...” Jim trailed off at Hunter’s glare. “She’s not a bad lady.”


“Then you go ahead and make her day,” Hunter said tersely. “I am not interested.” He got out of the truck and stalked over to his car.


Jim waited until Hunter started the engine, then drove back home, his thoughts now going back to his guide. He was pushing the elevator button when Hunter walked in the door.


“I think they’d both benefit from staying home the next few days. It’ll give me an excuse to go database searching.” Jim got in and moved back so Hunter could follow him.


“It should never have happened,” Hunter growled.


“Sarah did a pretty gutsy thing, hitting Gross like that. It’s no small thing for an empath to get physically violent.”


“She did fine.” Hunter wasn’t in the mood to examine all the implications of it. “Nice to know she values Sandburg enough to brain a GDP officer.”


“You jealous?” Jim asked curiously. “You’re her sentinel, not Blair.”


“Stuff it, Ellison,” Hunter said, with a tone that indicated the conversation was over.


Jim unlocked the door, only to find the chain in place. Naomi rushed over and unhooked it.


“How are they?” Jim whispered, seeing both guides sleeping on their respective couches.


“Not too bad. I gave both of them something for the nausea, and they’ve been resting. No bad head injury signs.” Naomi looked energetic and in full earth mother mode. She smiled at Jim, and gave Hunter the once-over, her eyes lingering on his chest.


Jim walked over to where Blair slept, laying a gentle hand on his head. Blair’s eyes fluttered open, then he smiled.


“Howya doing there, Chief?” Jim helped Blair sit up, then sat down beside him, hands ghosting over him for any changes in his physical condition.


“Better. Head still hurts.” Blair yawned -- the nausea medication made him feel sleepy.


“I imagine it does.” Jim looked over to where Hunter leaned over Sarah’s sleeping form. The IA captain was stroking Sarah’s head, and she turned into his touch. Little by little, Hunter’s body relaxed as he made sure his guide was safe.


“What happened?” Blair asked.


Jim shook his head, and Blair eyes darkened. He knew without Jim saying anything that things had reached an inevitable conclusion.


“Sarah’s a sweetie,” Naomi said to Hunter. “She was worried about being away from you, but she settled down. It must be hard on her, being away from her family.”


“I appreciate you looking out for her,” Hunter growled. “But keep your opinions to yourself.”


“Ouch,” Naomi said good-humoredly. “Sorry, didn’t mean to step on your toes.”


“Why don’t I have you come back tomorrow, Naomi? You can spend some time with Blair while I catch some time at the station.”


“Sure, Jim.” Naomi brightened at the thought of spending more time with her son. Then she turned to Hunter. “Will you be okay?”


“Ms. Sandburg, I am well capable of taking care of my guide. I don’t need anyone’s help.” Hunter was just this side of rude, but it didn’t seem to phase the woman.


“Everybody needs,” Naomi waved a blithe hand. “It’s just getting people to face it and admit it.” She leaned over and kissed her son, then gathered her purse and coat. “I’ll be back at 9 AM.”


Jim nodded, noting how Hunter focused back on his guide. He had picked her up and she hadn’t woken.


“I’ll give you a call tomorrow, Hunter,” Jim said as Hunter carried her to the door. “After I’ve done a little digging.”


Hunter nodded brusquely, and looked carefully at Blair, then nodded in satisfaction. The Guide Prime was safe. He looked down at Sarah and his mouth tightened. Somehow, even death didn’t seem enough for what Gross had done to his two charges.


After Hunter left, Jim sat with his arms wrapped round Blair, centering himself on the very life force of his guide. Blair laid his head down to rest against Jim, his headache easing as they sank into the bond.


After a long while, Blair stirred. “Jim?”


“Yeah, Chief?” Jim had moved so that he was stretched out on the couch, Blair draped over him like a living blanket.


“What really happened tonight with you and Hunter?”


Jim hesitated, not wanting to distress Blair while he was hurt.


Blair raised his head from Jim’s chest to look into his sentinel’s eyes. What he saw in those pale blue depths both comforted and terrified him. “Jesus, James.”


“Not Jesus, Chief,” Jim smiled slightly. “Something a little more primitive.”


“I dreamt that the panther and the tiger were hunting,” Blair said softly. “Did you?”


“If a waking dream counts, I guess so.”


“You and Hunter...?” The anthropologist in him was fascinated.


“I finally remembered what happened with Wilson.” Jim stared at his guide, willing him to understand.


“It’s dangerous, what you did,” Blair fretted. “More dangerous than you could possibly know. What if things had gone wrong?”


“The panther was there,” Jim said simply. “He and the tiger handled it.”


“How do you feel?” Jim wasn’t the type of man who could go on a spiritual quest and not come back changed.


“Relieved,” Jim said. “Gross is no longer a threat.”


“And Hunter?” Blair knew the spirit walk wasn’t the only thing that had happened.


Jim hesitated. “We connected. No going back now.”


Blair reached up, his fingers brushing over his sentinel’s forehead. “Then you did what you were meant to do.” He laid his head back down on Jim’s chest as his sentinel’s arms tightened around him, keeping him safe.


“I wish I could be sure of that, Chief,” Jim finally whispered, but Blair was sound asleep.


~~~~~~~~


Hunter watched Sarah dozing in the passenger seat. She had woken briefly, then fallen back asleep as soon as he began the drive home.


In the last two days, he had killed two men, and their deaths should have weighed on him, made him feel guilty, but they didn’t. What he felt was a satisfaction that was primitive and unrelenting.


The deaths of the civilians, though, those were different....


He pulled up in the driveway, his sentinel senses scanned for danger: none.


He was about to carry Sarah into the house, but she woke up enough to stumble along beside him. He got her upstairs, where she crankily insisted she could go to the bathroom all by herself. When she came out of the bathroom, PJs on and teeth brushed, he guided her to her bed.


“My head hurts,” she mumbled as he tucked her in.


“I’m not surprised. Wall: one, Sarah: zero.” The light sarcasm was tempered with genuine concern.


He was about to leave, but Sarah’s voice stopped him.


“Hunter?” She was shivering slightly, the shadows on the walls turning into nightmare beasts. “Stay?”


Hunter walked back to the bed and laid down next to her, pulling her over so her head rested against his chest. Almost immediately, she eased, her muscles relaxing, and the headache diminishing as he shielded her. Even the nausea was almost gone.


Hunter ran a hand over her back, trying to ease her into sleep, but every time he tried to move, she made a distressed sound, so he gave up trying. An hour later, when her slow pulse and breathing indicated she was finally down for the count, Hunter carefully eased off the bed, tucking the comforter more closely around her.


He walked downstairs and fixed himself a cup of coffee and opened the patio door to stare out at the mountain. He could still see the bodies of the people in the convenience store, intruding into his mind and bringing back thoughts of Gary.


He took a deep breath, and let it out, allowing the wind to pull away the bitter memory, the night air soothing his senses. He stood there a long time, lost in the sounds of the night.


~~~~~~~


The call came at midnight. “Gross is dead.”


Hunter paused when he recognized Dan Slater’s voice. “Really?”


“Yeah, I just called Jim. Something tore that man to shreds, and nobody saw a thing.”


“Strange.”


“Uh huh,” Slater said. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about this, would you?”


“I was in Major Crime all evening filling out paperwork with Ellison.”


“So says the entire department. What in the hell went down?”


“Slater, don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to.”


The tone was mild, but Dan felt an icy shiver. “I just wanted to let you know that we’re still investigating the tape situation. We’ll keep you informed every step of the way – GDP to IA.”


“I appreciate that, Slater.” Hunter’s voice was gently mocking now.


“Damn it, don’t lump me in with that sick, perverted....”


“I don’t,” Hunter said reasonably. “If I did, you wouldn’t be here.”


Slater drew in a deep breath. “There were two sets of prints in that cell. Cat prints, which we know is impossible, because that cell was locked, and there aren’t any wild cats within the city limits.”


Hunter leaned back against the wall, one ear monitoring Sarah’s breathing and heartbeat. “I guess it depends on what you believe,” Hunter said. “Myself, I don’t believe in boogie monsters.”


“You’re not going to tell me, are you?” Slater sounded tense. “Hunter, about my father....”


“Goodnight, Slater,” and Hunter hung up. He undressed and got into bed, exhaustion catching up with him.


Two shapes crept out of the corner and slunk up on the bed. Opening one eye, Hunter saw the little cat and tiger settle down and make themselves comfortable on the king size bed.


“I think I’ve started my own private zoo,” Hunter sighed, but couldn’t keep his eyes open long enough to protest. The last thing he heard before he fell asleep was the gentle purr of the tiger lying next to him.


~~~~~~~~


Dan Slater stared at his computer as if willing it to reveal the secrets of the universe. He had heard nothing from either Ellison or Hunter. Gross was dead, and the two GDP guards who had helped him had been quietly dismissed. That left only one unfinished bit of business.


Dan logged on and accessed the GDP database. “That can’t be right,” he muttered to himself. “This shows I was logged in two hours ago.” He froze – someone had somehow gotten a hold of his password. With a sick feeling, Dan pulled the activity log, and his heart nearly stopped. Larry Slater’s file had been pulled up, along with his home address.


Dan tore out of the building.


Larry Slater had spent the last two days in a hazy state of apprehension, ever since his son had come to him with stories of sentinel vendettas. Even his dreams had been plagued with shadowy figures chasing him.


He jumped at the knock on the front door. Peering through the view hole, he relaxed as he recognized Dan.


“Daniel – come in.” Larry held the door wide.


Dan stood on the porch, his expression even more serious than last time. “Dad, you have to come with me. Ellison and Hunter are coming after you.”


“I’m not running,” Larry said indignantly. “Just because you think some ancient sentinel curse is going to....”


Dan reached out and grabbed his father by his shoulders and shook him. “Listen to me! This isn’t some game. They’re coming after you because of what you did to Blair.”


“All I did was my duty, and I’ll stand by it.”


“Dad, they don’t care about GDP duty. This is a clan matter, and the Sentinel Prime has the right to seek vengeance. Do you understand? He has the legal right to kill you because of what you allowed to happen to his guide.”


“He wouldn’t....” Larry swallowed when he saw the desperation on Dan’s face.


“He would. Gross is dead, and you’re going to be next. Dad, you have to come with me so we can try to stop this.”


“How?” Larry grabbed his jacket and followed Dan out the door.


“We have to go to the one person who might listen to us.”


“Who?”


“Blair Sandburg.”


~~~~~~~


Dan took a deep breath and knocked. The door opened only slightly, held by the security chain. A woman in her forties with short brown hair peered at him inquiringly. She looked vaguely familiar...then the penny dropped: this must be the elusive Naomi Sandburg.


“Hi, my name’s Dan. I’m a friend of Blair’s - just wanted to see how he was doing.” He kept his voice light and friendly, trying not to let any of his nerves show. The skills he had learned to deal with sentinels seem to have worked, because the woman relaxed.


“From the university?”


“Sort of.” It’s not really a lie. We do have an office there.


Dan couldn’t afford to have the Sentinel Prime and the Shield catch them in the hallway. The door opened and Dan all but pulled his father into the room.


“Blair, sweetie, a friend of yours is here. I’ll just run to the grocery store while you visit, okay?” With a wave, Naomi disappeared out the door, completely missing the other man standing behind Dan.


A face appeared above the back of the sofa, long hair tangling every which way and several bruises stood out against the pale skin. Blue eyes suddenly went wide, and Blair was on his feet, his stricken gaze never leaving Larry Slater’s face.


“No...no....” Blair began to back away, his nightmare come to life again. He was scared to death, his whole body shaking.


Dan saw Blair’s instinctive fear response and mentally kicked himself for frightening the younger man. “Blair, we just want to....”


For a moment, Blair’s head went down, then slowly came back up. His eyes were different – his whole body language changed. Dark Guide was out of the box.


Larry’s hand moved to his gun; he had seen more than one psychotic guide in his time – pathways burned to a crisp and driven to insanity.


Dan caught his arm. “It’s all right, Dad. I should have expected this.” He looked directly at Blair. “I need to speak to Blair. I know you’re here to protect him, but it’s not needed.”


Blair moved around the couch with feline grace, now as much a predator as the Sentinel Prime.


Dan moved forward to block the Dark Guide from his father. Like this, Blair was unpredictable, and if Dan were honest, this incarnation scared the hell out of him.


“This is my father, Larry Slater. He was....”


”I know who he is. He gave me to Wilson. He saw all the reports of my injuries and didn’t give a damn.”


The elder Slater couldn’t fathom what was happening.


Dark Guide took a couple of steps closer, eyes glittering with hate. “Did you tell him how you kept me on my knees in your office all day?”


Dan turned. “Dad, talk to me.”


“Get in line.” The words grated out, low and deadly, behind him.


“Ellison.” The Sentinel Prime and Shield had caught up with them, and he hadn’t even heard them enter the loft. Dan’s heart was beating double time.


“Go ahead and talk,” Jim ordered. “A man should confess his sins before he dies.”


Dan shuddered. There was no way he’d be able to stop both sentinels. He had one chance, and that was to reach Blair.


Dark Guide never looked away from the elder Slater. “The doctor reported that I had caused trouble in the medical facility. Wilson and his men had hurt me. I heard the doctor tell him that I had been....” He took a deep breath. “That I’d been offering myself to the guards. It was a lie, but no one believed me.”


Jim’s low growl rumbled around the room, echoed by Hunter.


“He had me in his office on my knees all day. I could only move once every two hours. If I moved in between, even the slightest bit, he added an extra hour to my punishment time. His secretary came in and out, and he kept me there. He took phone calls, had his lunch, and I didn’t even exist to him.” Dark Guide spat the last words out.


“Dan, all I did was put him through a standard 12c punishment – nothing that you haven’t done before.”


And that, Dan realized with sudden self-loathing, is the greatest shame of all.


“Rogue guides are never put in our facility because they’re saints. For God’s sake, look at him! He’s violent -- dangerous.”


“Did you know what Wilson was up to?” This time it was Jim asking, daring Slater to lie.


“There was no evidence of....”


“No evidence? What the hell do you call the injuries Sandburg had?” Hunter had moved toward Larry, sizing up his prey.


“They said he prostituted himself,” Slater argued weakly. “Wilson was an experienced officer with excellent training results. He was harsher than some, but there was never any mention of...that kind of thing.”


“How would you know?” Jim countered. “How many guides did Wilson abuse and terrorize while you sat in your little office and played God? How many went insane after being subjected to that kind of filth?”


The Sentinel Prime was ready to declare vendetta - just two words and Jim could legally kill the older man without any repercussions, even from the GDP.


Larry was quickly divested of his weapon, and forced to his knees by Hunter, cuffed like a criminal. Knowing or unknowing, Larry Slater was ultimately responsible for what had happened to Blair Sandburg, and the sentinels were determined to make him pay.


Hunter had his weapon pointed at the back of the elder Slater’s head, execution-style. The sentinels could detect the change in the man’s scent – pure terror.


“How does it feel, Slater?” Hunter rumbled menacingly. “All tied up, no place to run, your life forfeit. A clean kill is too good for you -- I’ll make it last a while.” The tiger growled in anticipation.


Dan tried to move to his father, but one look from Jim stopped him.


“Jim, please.”


The Sentinel Prime ignored him.


Dan tried again. “Jim, he wouldn’t have allowed it, if he had known what Wilson was doing.”


“He should have known,” Hunter said. “Ignorance is no excuse.” He pressed the gun against the back of Larry Slater’s head.


Dan wasn’t getting through to the sentinels, so he threw in his last card. “Blair, he’s been with the GDP for thirty years - he’ll be retiring soon. I know there’s no excuse for what he missed, but I don’t think he deserves to die.”


Dark Guide waited, eyeing Dan dispassionately.


Dan’s voice cracked. “Blair, he’s my father. Please don’t let them kill him.”


The pain and fear in Daniel Slater’s eyes was what tipped the scales. Dark Guide drew back, leaving Blair staring at the GDP commander.


Dan Slater had always, within the limits the GDP imposed on him, gone to bat for him. Blair remembered how Slater had slowly won his trust, trying to help him in an imperfect system.


Blair couldn’t hurt Dan like this.


“Jim,” Blair said, moving to the Sentinel Prime.


Hunter stayed ready, waiting for the word. His hand stayed rock steady, the gun barely touching the terrified man kneeling at his feet.


The Sentinel Prime snarled, but calmed at his guide’s touch. Jim caught his guide close, his hand wrapping around Blair’s throat, his thumb stroking the jugular, then the side of his face under his jaw.


Blair dipped his head to brush his face against the hand, opening his mind and letting his barriers drop. That action alone would tie Jim to him, calm the sentinel’s rage.


Let it go, Jim. We don’t need to kill him.


Jim pulled Blair close, putting his face against his neck. Little by little, the sentinel relaxed.


Larry Slater remained motionless; watching his son beg for his life hit him hard. Larry had screwed up – he was forced to admit it now – but his son was paying the price, pleading for mercy from the Sentinel Prime.


Whatever this strange behavior was Larry had witnessed earlier, the empath was not what the GDP had labelled him. Sandburg had intervened, not on Larry’s Slater’s behalf, but for Dan’s sake.


Hunter snarled when Slater senior shifted slightly, and Blair looked over, shaking his head. The gun moved away from his prisoner’s head and Hunter waited.


Larry finally spoke. “Senior Sentinel Prime, I ran the punishment session on Sandburg, because he was a rogue guide and trouble from day one. I won’t apologize for doing my job.”


The growling response was deep and feral.


“The fact that Wilson....” Slater paused, swallowed, then, “assaulted your guide was something that I never knew was going on. If I had known, I would have had Wilson dismissed, immediately. Punishment is one thing - abuse like that...I would never have allowed anyone to hurt a guide like that.”


Hunter sneered. “Convenient excuse, Slater. A few Hail Marys, and all is forgiven, right?”


Jim was posturing despite Blair’s soothing. “This means nothing, because you still believe guides are inferior.”


“I wouldn’t have let him be hurt like that,” Larry repeated in a hushed voice.


Blair detached himself from Jim, and held out a hand to Larry Slater, ignoring his sentinel’s rumbled warning.


Dan understood. Blair was going to scan his father for the truth. It might be the only thing that would stand between him and death.


“Dad, Blair’s going to read you. Hold still.”


“Danny....”


“Do it, Dad.”


Larry tensed, not knowing what to expect -- the old tales about soul sucking empaths rearing up in his mind.


“It’s all right, Officer Slater. I’m not going to hurt you.” The reassurance was ironic, as Larry found himself in a position he had forced Sandburg into not too many months ago.


The empath’s touch tingled a little, then grew warm. Larry could almost feel something shimmer over his skin – something bright and hot – then it faded away.


Blair let go, stepping back. “He’s telling the truth.”


Jim Ellison waited for an interminable period of silence, then signalled Hunter, who uncuffed his prisoner.


“Your retirement is effective today,” Jim pronounced.


“Do I have to leave Cascade?” Larry asked, quite subdued and shaken.


Jim considered for several agonizing seconds. “No. But come anywhere near my guide, and all bets are off.”


The door opened, and Naomi came in with two grocery bags. “Blair, found some fresh eggplant -- we’ll feast tonight!”


She came to an abrupt halt, seeing Hunter and Jim and Blair’s friend. Who was the older gentleman, though?


She smiled brightly. “So, who’s staying for dinner?”


Naomi might not have an empath, but the vibes were very bad. Looking questioningly at Blair, she set down the grocery bags. A movement on the stairs drew her gaze. Three shadowy animal shapes moved downward, a tiger, a black panther and a gray wolf with the most beautiful deep blue eyes. The wolf looked right at her, and her face softened into a tender smile. This was her son’s spirit animal that she had glimpsed from time to time over the years.


The two large cats radiated lethality and grace, both with stunning light blue eyes. The panther was stayed close to the wolf. The tiger was on the wolf’s other side. Much as she admired the panther, it was the tiger that fascinated her – it radiated an energy that pulled at something inside her.


Most authorities dismissed the idea of spirit animals as a shared hallucination brought about by a chemical reaction in the brains of sentinels and guides, but Naomi had seen the wolf from the time it was a small cub until just before Blair had been kidnapped by Alex Barnes. Seeing the wolf now - healthy and vibrating with life - made her bless Jim Ellison once more for saving her son.


The wolf was about to come to her, only to be firmly nudged away by the shoulder of the panther. Obediently, it sat down as the two big cats circled the two other men in the room. Naomi watched as their mouths pulled back to display long fangs, and she realized: these two men were not friends.


She turned to younger of the two men. “You said that you were a friend of Blair’s from the university.” She was mad and getting madder. “You lied, didn’t you?


Dan saw the look on Jim’s face – anger building like a slow burn fuse.


“Jim, I didn’t mean any harm. I just had to get in to talk to Blair, before anything got out of hand. I didn’t think this lady, er, Mrs. Sandburg, would let me in if I told her I was GDP.”


“That’s right, I sure as hell wouldn’t. And it’s Ms. Sandburg, you miserable....”


Jim was impressed. He’d never seen Naomi angry, but she sure looked like she could burn as hot as needed.


“Naomi - let this go, okay?” Blair hurried over. “We’ve already gone through all this.” He wanted to get the Slaters out of the loft before things exploded. Right this moment, Jim was under control, but it was the Shield that Blair knew he had to watch out for. Hunter was working on a whole different set of emotions and instincts.


Blair ran a soothing hand over his own sentinel’s shoulder, his touch reassuring Jim that was safe. He could read Jim’s emotions clearly, and could feel the sentinel’s need. A threat had been removed, and the need to bond was starting to build. The sentinel would need to claim his guide.


“Dan, I think you should go now and take your father with you. What’s done is done.”


Larry Slater still couldn’t believe that not only was a guide telling his son to leave, but was also calling him by his first name. Larry’s thought must have been readable, because the sentinels bristled.


Naomi walked to the door and pulled it open, her eyes flashing with temper. “Don’t let it hit you on the way out.”


Larry kept his eyes on the sentinels all the time he edged towards the door. His eyes opened wide in shock as he saw the Shield go over to the Sentinel Prime, who had pulled his guide into a full body hug and was scenting at his neck.


The Sentinel Prime looked up and nodded, and the Shield moved so that the guide so he was between the two of them. The Shield’s head bent to scent at the other side of the guide’s neck, one hand resting on the smaller man’s shoulder.


In nearly thirty years with the GDP, Larry had never seen anything like this: two sentinels watching out for one guide. Just what kind of power did Blair Sandburg have over these two men?


Dan caught his father’s arm and yanked him out of the loft. Naomi saw the tiger and the panther curled around the wolf like littermates. Her son was in no danger.


She grabbed her purse and exited the loft, making sure that the two GDP men were gone, and headed for a small vegetarian café down the street. She’d grab a bagel and some herbal tea, and come back in an hour or so to fix dinner – the men were bound to be hungry by then.


Blair stood perfectly still, his barriers down, while the two sentinels made sure he was safe. He felt the warmth of Jim’s affection and the Sentinel Prime’s devotion to his guide, and the angry, protective instincts of the Shield. The primitive emotions were intense, but not painful as they amplified each other.


Closing his eyes, Blair let the triad bond do what it willed.



End - The Claws That Catch

 

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