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 6 (July 13, 2003)

 

DESTINY WHICH MAKES US BROTHERS

 

By Susan and Maedoc

 

Blair was thrown into the room and hit the floor in an explosion of pain.

 

The sentinel was there, moving to pace around him. When Blair tried to move, the sentinel snarled. Before Blair could move away, the sentinel grabbed him, forcing him onto his stomach.

 

Blair struggled, and his head was pulled back painfully. “NO!” he screamed, but it was useless. With a quick movement, the larger man had Blair pinned to the floor, immobilizing his arms and paralyzing him with his weight.

 

“PLEASE!” Blair screamed hoarsely, his heart rate at panic level. There was no spirit animal here to protect and calm. The sentinel wasn’t letting Blair yield to the inevitable – he was claiming his guide.

 

Blair was barely able to breathe from the weight on his back. Then it came -- the brush of an another mind against his, overpowering him. Terror worse than anything Blair had experienced from Alex or the GDP overwhelmed him: the sentinel was going to force him to bond.

 

Blair was beyond verbal comprehension as the sentinel tried to settle him down. The fear kept him fighting, but after long minutes of futile struggling, Blair eventually slowed down, his injuries preventing him from keeping up the fight.

 

Blair went still and shook uncontrollably as the sentinel ran his hands over him, imprinting and creating the connection that would last their lifetimes and beyond.

 

The touch against his mind wasn’t violent or brutal, but Blair’s neural pathways flared with pain as he fought the link. He held out for as long as he could, but the sentinel just waited until his guide couldn’t fight it anymore.

 

Blair exhaled a long breath that sounded more like a sob as he finally yielded. The connection sealed, easing the pain, but it was too late. Blair was now irreversibly connected to the man who held him powerless.

 

I don’t want this. The futile thought echoed in Blair’s head as he was pulled up to lean against the man who now owned him. Shivering, he sat on the cold floor while the sentinel rumbled something dark and possessive. This isn’t what was supposed to happen!

 

The door opened cautiously, and a unfamiliar face peered in. “Captain Hunter? You okay?”

 

Looking up at the man who held him, Blair froze.

 

The sentinel growled a warning to the man at the door, then pinned his guide more securely to him. “Mine,” he rumbled.

 

“NOOOOOOO!” Blair screamed in anguish, even though the sentinel was shaking him, ordering him to stop it.

 

“Damn it to hell, Blair. Wake up!” Jim shook the younger man until he opened his eyes. For a moment, Jim saw terror – hopeless fear – then Blair seemed to recognize where he was and sat up, heart pounding triple time.

 

“Jim?”

 

“Yeah, buddy. It’s me.” Jim reached out and pulled his guide to him. “What the hell was that all about?”

 

“I dreamt....” Blair trailed off, trying to make sense of the nightmare.

 

“What about, Chief?” Jim soothed, hiding his worry at the magnitude of Blair’s reaction. His guide was covered with bruises and cuts. He didn’t need a flashback on top of those injuries.

 

Blair cleared his throat a few times before he answered. “I...I relived the bonding, only it was a bit more...intense...than what actually happened.”

 

“I knew this would happen,” Jim growled. “With Gross beating the shit out of you and then the Slater senior showing up, no wonder.” He tucked Blair closer to him, trying to absorb the tremors that racked his guide yet carefully avoiding the sore spots. “It’s okay, Chief. Just a bad dream.”

 

Blair clung to Jim. Was this some sort of premonition? Or just a reflection of his subconscious fears?

 

Jim rocked his guide, sensing Blair’s deep level of distress. Blair had grown much stronger, but there were still times when his past experiences reared up and knocked him for a loop.

 

Blair felt Jim’s heart beat under his ear like a soothing metronome, slowing down his own breathing and heart rate until he reached a center calm and could focus on the meaning of the dream. Why Hunter instead of Jim? Or, looking at it from another angle, why wasn’t it Jim?

 

“So what scared you like that, Chief?”

 

Losing you. “The sentinel...he took my choice away.”

 

Jim winced. “Damn. It figures that I’d be a bastard in your nightmare.” He patted Blair’s back in apology.

 

“It wasn’t you in my dream, Jim,” Blair admitted.

 

“What the hell are you talking about?” Jim’s eyes narrowed.

 

“The sentinel who claimed me was Hunter.” Blair braced for the inevitable reaction.

 

“What?!” Jim roared. “Did Hunter hurt you?”

 

“No!” Blair said quickly, sending soothing vibes through their link. “Come on, man, you know he hasn’t.” Blair’s headache was back full force, and his pain was immediately transmitted to his sentinel,

 

Jim moved to lean back against the headboard. “Are you still scared of him? Is that what this is about?”

 

Blair carefully moved his aching body down to rest his head against Jim. There was nowhere else in the world that felt safer than leaning on his sentinel. “No, I guess...maybe the dream was just an expression of my subconscious.”

 

“You’re losin’ me, Chief. Why would you dream about Hunter forcing you to bond if you weren’t still afraid of him on some level?” Jim refused to give up, convinced that his half brother had somehow, some way, adversely affected his guide.

 

“It’s not that Hunter was bonding with me, it’s that you weren’t.”

 

“Huh?”

 

Blair relaxed slightly as he sorted out his emotions. Dreaming about being bonded to Hunter was a major reality curve ball, but the freak out factor had come from the prospect of a world without Jim Ellison in it. “The first time I dreamt Leo Kessler killed you, but this time...this time you weren’t even there.”

 

“I don’t understand, Chief.” Jim patted Blair’s back. “Care to translate that into plain English?”

 

“The only sentinel there was Hunter. You weren’t there.” Blair raised his head to look Jim in the eye. “You weren’t there.”

 

“I’m not going anywhere, Chief,” Jim soothed, finally understanding what Blair meant.

 

“You don’t know that, Jim.” Blair’s anxious expression was clearly visible to the sentinel despite the gloom. “No one can promise that.”

 

“I know, but I’ve never had the feeling that one of us would go on alone.” He ran a gentle hand over Blair’s head. Just his touch alone dimmed Blair’s pain to a bearable level.

 

“But what if....”

 

“We’ve always been together, lifetime after lifetime. No reason that should change now.”

 

Blair stared. “Wow, Jim. I didn’t think you believed in reincarnation.”

 

“I’m not that narrow-minded,” Jim sounded slightly irritated. “How else do you explain the Dark Guide and Sentinel?”

 

“Sorry,” Blair said sheepishly.

 

Jim pulled Blair even closer. “You’re my guide, Chief. Nobody else’s – mine. It’s fate, karma, kismet, whatever, but we’re always gonna be together.”

 

“Destiny,” Blair whispered, his head settling back down against Jim’s chest. He relaxed, comforted by Jim’s conviction.

 

“Yeah, destiny sounds right.” Jim strengthened their link, letting Blair feel his protection. “But as to Hunter bonding with you – there’s no way in hell that could have happened.”

 

“I don’t know. Maybe in some weird parallel universe, it did.”

 

“You know, Chief, sometimes a nightmare is just a nightmare. It doesn’t always have to be a harbinger of doom.”

 

“But you don’t dream....” Blair tried to sit up again, but didn’t get very far.

 

Jim pulled his guide back down to him. “Sure I do. I’m just not doing the psychic channeling thing you seem to do.”

 

“But you could.” Blair’s quiet statement made Jim pause. “If you wanted to.” If you accepted.

 

Jim deliberately side-stepped the issue. “Look, I know the Shield is connected to you and that he looks out for you – that’s a given – but maybe this is getting a little too much for you to handle, dealing with Hunter on top of everything else. You’ve got a concussion, Chief, remember?”

 

“This isn’t about me and Hunter.”

 

“No? From where I’m sitting it damn sure looks like it is.” Jim groused.

 

Blair sighed. “I understand that my own fears tend to come out whenever things get wacky, but there’s more to this dream than my phobias.” He frowned in the darkness. “In fact, I think it’s more of a problem with not enough connection, rather than too much.”

 

Jim snorted. “Yeah, right. Hunter’s always hanging around. I’d say the two of you have enough connection to last a few millennia.”

 

Blair stared at Jim for a long, intense moment. “It’s not my connection to the Shield. It’s your relationship with Hunter.” Blair now sounded certain of that.

 

Jim cleared his throat, uncomfortable.

 

“You and he spirit walked together.”

 

“I know, but Hunter....”

 

“He needs you. He’ll never admit it, but he does. He never had a father, never had his brothers, and he lost his wife, his best friend and his first guide. I’d say that makes for a pretty lonely guy, wouldn’t you?”

 

“Blair, I can’t force him to reconcile with my father.”

 

“Yeah, I know that, but you could make him more a part of your life. Not just police issues, or sentinel duties, but family stuff.”

 

“Adopt a kitty?” Jim almost smiled at the thought. “You seem to think that Hunter wants to be included in my life.”

 

“He’s your brother, Jim. I know you accept that now, but it’s easier to think of him as that over-achiever IA captain or the Shield than as the man himself.”

 

“Why is it that you always stick up for him?” Jim was genuinely mystified. “He’s a jerk.”

 

“We bonded,” Blair said logically. “I’ve seen inside him. He’s not a jerk – well, not all the time, anyway.”

 

“Yeah, and the three of us bonded last night, but it still doesn’t make Hunter my best friend.”

 

“That’s the problem,” Blair said earnestly. “Both of you are holding back from each other. You’re both willing to open up to me, well, at least Hunter is getting there, but you’re not connecting to each other on a personal level.”

 

Jim hesitated. “Trust takes time, Chief.”

 

Blair settled down in the link, fatigue and his aching head catching up with him. “Just try, Jim. Just give it a try.”

 

~~~~~~~~

 

Hunter unlocked the door, letting himself in the house quietly. It was after eleven, and the Slater business had been settled for now. When Ellison had called that he was going after Larry Slater, Hunter had hesitated in leaving Sarah alone.

 

Sarah had urged him to go when she heard that they had to deal with Larry Slater, a man Sarah knew had allowed Blair to be abused. She insisted she could just rest, and Hunter finally, reluctantly, had settled her on the couch with some juice and a sandwich. She hadn’t called, so he had presumed everything was okay.

 

The juice glass sat on the coffee table half empty, but the sandwich hadn’t even been touched. Sarah was curled up on the couch asleep, her brow knit slightly and her heart rate a bit erratic.

 

Hunter cursed under his breath; his guide had been alone all evening – alone and in pain – while he had attended to sentinel business. He walked over to the couch and looked down at his sleeping guide. The bruises on her face were stark against her pale skin. He ran a hand over her head, and she made a soft noise before settling down. He registered her pain and nausea when he opened the link.

 

Sarah turned to him and her eyes opened moments later. She blinked several times before she recognized him. “Hunter?”

 

“How are you doing, Tiger?”

 

“Dizzy,” she said, the room spinning slightly as she tried to sit up.

 

“Stay put,” Hunter ordered as he took off his jacket and sat down next to her.

 

He laid down, pulling her to rest against him. He would settle for a partial bond – grounding him and maybe settling her headache. A full bonding would have shredded her already tenuous barriers, and Hunter wouldn’t inflict that on a hurting guide.

 

“Blair?” she asked, already drowsy.

 

“He’s fine. Slater’s retiring from the GDP. Hopefully that’ll be the end of it.” Hunter stroked her hair, disturbed that she hadn’t called him if she had felt so bad all evening.

 

“Guide Prime...you have to keep him safe,” she yawned.

 

And what about you? His Shield duties to Sandburg were ingrained, but his own guide came first. She would always come first.

 

“Sarah....” he trailed off when he noticed she was asleep again. He strengthened the link, wrapping his senses around her, standing watch.

 

A little after midnight, he tried to get up so he could carry her up to her bed, but she tightened her grip on him.

 

“Sarah, you should be in bed. It’s late.”

 

Sarah opened her eyes. “Please...can I stay here a little bit longer?” With you, she meant, but didn’t quite dare say it out loud.

 

Hunter brushed his hand over her face, breathing in her cinnamon scent. The sentinel was satisfied that his guide needed him and wanted him near her. And the man...the man wasn’t exactly sure how he felt.

 

“Sure, we can stay a little longer.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Jim untangled himself from his Blair cocoon and settled his guide back to sleep. It was still early and the nightmares had prevented them from getting much sleep. With any luck, Blair would snooze for a few more hours.

 

Jim showered quickly, then threw on some jeans and a T-shirt and rummaged in the kitchen for the coffee. A familiar scent preceded a soft knock on the door. Jim opened the door, knowing who would be there.

 

“Hi Naomi.”

 

“Jim - is Blair still asleep?” Naomi looked bright-eyed and full of purpose. “I’m leaving on a trip to India tomorrow and I’ll be gone a couple of weeks. I wanted to say goodbye to Blair before I headed home to pack.”

 

Jim beckoned her in. “He had a nightmare last night, so I’m letting him sleep in a bit.”

He was getting more comfortable being around her, but she still had a unpredictable tendency to swerve into left field. He supposed it was just a Sandburg thing. “Care for some coffee?”

 

“I’d love some tea,” Naomi declared, following Jim into the kitchen.

 

“Blair has all kinds of stuff stashed up here.” Jim rummaged and pulled out several containers. “See any kind you like?”

 

Naomi glanced at them, then picked up the blue one that Jim knew was Blair’s special morning mix. One day, on a whim, he had tried to guess how many ingredients were in it, and had stopped counting after fifteen and a near zone. Jim poured himself some coffee and the two of them sat down at the table, each sipping and enjoying their respective brews.

 

“I’ll just stay until he wakes up. Is that okay?”

 

“Sure, Naomi.” Jim wondered what they’d talk about for the next few hours, but they shared the paper and some bagels, and Jim was almost completely relaxed when Naomi suddenly swerved.

 

“Jim, can I ask you a question?”

 

“Sure.” He didn’t even look up from the sports page.

 

“I mean, a personal question.”

 

“Uh...sure.” Jim looked up and eyed her warily.

 

“Jim, how do you seduce a sentinel?”

 

Jim spewed coffee over his paper. “What?”

 

“How do I lure one in? Taste, smell, touch?” Naomi smiled as warmed to her topic. “I really want to approach this with the right ammo.”

 

Jim looked like a deer in the headlights. “Uh, Naomi, I’m flattered, but....”

 

Naomi’s eyes narrowed with amusement. “Poor thing. I didn’t mean you. Not that you aren’t sexy as all get out, but it’d be like nepotism. No, I have another sentinel in mind.”

 

Jim knew where this one was heading. “I really don’t think....”

 

“He is a hunk,” Naomi sighed. “Strong and mysterious with all that macho sex appeal.”

 

“Naomi, he’s not very fond of the female gender right now. He’s been badly burned.”

 

Naomi reached out to cover Jim’s nervously tapping fingers. “Oh, honey, I know that. He’s been wounded to the soul -- you can tell. I’m not looking for romance or lasting relationships. In fact, I don’t think I’m cut out for commitment. I haven’t been a major success in any long-term relationships -- just ask Blair. All I want is the chance for a hot little affair. My libido kicks in every couple of years, and your brother is just the thing for my poor deprived hormones to take a bubble bath in.”

 

Jim cleared his throat. He tried to think of a tactful way to deflect her interest in Hunter. “I wouldn’t want you to get caught in the crossfire when he gets angry.”

 

Naomi’s eyes gleamed. “Well, the whole plan is to get him to think it’s his idea.”

 

“Huh?” Jim leaned back, totally at sea.

 

“I just want some insight into how sentinels view sex. What are major turn ons and turn offs. Then I go after him, but make him think it’s his idea.”

 

She was a beautiful woman, but when intense, she practically sparkled. Any other man would go down without a fight -- even Jim wasn’t immune to her charm -- but Hunter...he’d tear her to shreds.

 

“Look, you have no idea what his background is. He wasn’t just hurt -- he was betrayed.”

 

Naomi nodded. “I thought so. And he refuses to trust. I can see how poor little Sarah has her work cut out for her. But I’m not looking for true love, or for the key to his soul. Shallow as it sounds, I just want his body.”

 

The humor in her eyes reassured Jim. She was too sensitive a soul to be deliberately callous about sex, but she certainly had an uncomplicated viewpoint.

 

“Well, that’s...uh....”

 

“Pretty straightforward. Hot tiger sex with a man - a sentinel - who makes my ovaries melt.”

 

Jim coughed when the coffee assaulted his windpipe.

 

“You know, Jim, perhaps you shouldn’t be drinking all this coffee if it makes you choke.” Naomi gestured concernedly with her tea mug. “Tea really is better for you.”

 

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jim gasped and finally cleared his lungs. “So you’re planning to seduce Hunter no matter what.”

 

“Uh-huh.” Naomi sipped serenely, contemplating the possibilities.

 

“He doesn’t play nice, or fair. He’s pretty protective of Blair, so he probably won’t mutilate you, but he can get pretty damn nasty.”

 

“I imagine.”

 

Lady, you don’t know the half of it. Hunter had turned misogyny into an art form.

 

“He’s dangerous,” Jim said bluntly.

 

Naomi felt a delicious shiver. “Oh, I like a dangerous man.”

 

Not when he’s homicidal, Jim thought, but Naomi wasn’t hearing a word he was saying.

 

“He won’t go down without a fight,” Jim said, resigned to the fact that the woman was going to commit emotional suicide. “And he could hurt you badly.”

 

“No risk, no reward,” Naomi said, stretching cat-like in her chair. “I can handle myself.”

 

“I’ll remind you of that when you come back bleeding,” Jim said cynically.

 

Naomi smiled sweetly. “I’ll win, in the end.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a small notebook. “Now, let’s just start with some basics about your brother: favorite foods, music, hobbies. We can get to general sentinel preferences on sex positions and kinks later.”

 

When Jim choked for the second time, Naomi decided she’d better switch him to tea.

 

Two hours later, Blair stumbled into the kitchen, yawning and rubbing his eyes. “Mom? Didn’t know you were here.”

 

Naomi hugged her son, deciding that he looked a little better. “I’m off to India for a retreat. I’ll back to visit in a few weeks, but I wanted to say goodbye.”

 

Blair yawned again, but hugged his mother as hard as his injuries allowed. “Travel safe, okay?”

 

“Try not to get beat up, okay?” Naomi teased, but Jim could see the light of worry in her eyes.

 

Naomi gathered her purse and coat and Jim walked her to the door. “Thanks for the information, Jim.” She was sure after a couple of weeks of cleansing and meditation, she’d be ready to tackle her goal.

 

“Be careful. I really think this is a bad idea.”

 

Naomi waved off his concern, hugged Blair one last time and whirled out the door.

 

Blair made his way back to the kitchen and pulled a bottle of orange juice out of the refrigerator. Never one on ceremony, he chugged several mouthfuls directly from the container. He didn’t even think about the first time he’d tried to get something to drink from Jim’s refrigerator.

 

“Great - Blair germs in my orange juice.”

 

Although it was said with a growl, Blair recognized the affectionate teasing and didn’t get alarmed. “I’ve had my shots.”

 

“You need caffeine, Chief. Coffee or tea?”

 

“Coffee,” Blair yawned, and snagged a bagel. “What were you and Mom talking about?”

 

Jim set out some cream cheese and a butter knife. His guide needed to eat more - he was still underweight after eight months. It worried Jim a little, but Blair was slowly regaining his appetite for food and life in general.

 

“Sex.”

 

Blair woke up. He met Jim’s eyes with stunned amazement. “Say what?”

 

“She asked me how to seduce a sentinel.”

 

Blair was speechless. Then, “No -- no way. This is so not happening!” He ran his hands through his hair in agitation. “This is my MOM!”

 

Jim let him hang for several seconds, then grinned. “Relax, Chief. She’s not after me.”

 

Blair sighed in relief; then the other penny dropped.

 

“Oh no, I thought she was just kidding about that. She’s really going after Hunter? No, no, no, no, no....”

 

“Chief, as charming as your mother is, I don’t think Hunter is going to let her get to first base, much less start a raging affair.”

 

Blair put his head on the table and groaned. “She said she wants an affair? God!”

 

“Well, actually, I think the term was ‘hot tiger sex,’ but you get the general drift.” Jim was enjoying this far too much.

 

Blair moaned pitifully. “Hunter’s gonna flip out, and then - wham! - meta-pyrotechnics.”

 

Jim laid a friendly hand on his guide’s shoulder. “Chief, your mom’s all grown up. I warned her, but she said she can handle it.”

 

Blair threaded his fingers through his hair. “Jim, to tell you the truth, it’s not my mom I’m worried about.”

 

Jim grinned suddenly. “Personally, I think it’ll be fun to watch. From a safe distance, of course.”

 

Blair sipped his coffee and sighed. “Our life just get stranger and stranger.”



~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Sarah woke to find her sentinel standing over her. “Hunter?” she yawned, her eyes opening.

 

“I’m going to go run. I don’t think your head is up to bouncing along the sidewalk just yet.” Hunter smoothed a hand over her hair, checking on her condition.

 

“I’ll get up,” she mumbled sleepily. She sat up, relieved that she no longer felt light-headed while changing positions.

 

“Dizzy? Sick?” Hunter growled, carefully monitoring her vitals.

 

“Nuh-uh,” she said as she stood up slowly. This was their first day back to work together after her head injury.

 

“We have to stop by the hospital, and then I have an interview.” Hunter mentally ticked off the tasks for the morning.

 

“Okay,” she yawned again. She headed for the bathroom while her sentinel observed her gait - steady - and satisfied that she would be okay, he loped down the steps to go on his run.

 

Sarah showered and washed her hair, gingerly soaping around the goose egg. It was still sore.After drying off and pulling on her bathrobe she stared into the mirror. The bruises were awful, so she put on some foundation but it couldn’t quite mask the purple discoloration. Well, at least now I know how Blair feels. She combed her damp hair and winced when she hit a snarl on her sore scalp.

 

The last week had been surreal. Between her disastrous family reunion and being kidnaped by the GDP, not to mention William Ellison being shot, life was one continuous run of chaos. She’d been too busy and distracted to focus on her own life, but that wonderful time of the month was approaching again, and with it, the usual bit of depression.

 

I want to see my family again. Maybe Hunter would consider another meeting when the dust had settled a bit. And maybe I’ll stop being scared to ask for it, she thought glumly. Dream on, little lemon, dream on.

 

She hung up the towels just as Hunter came through the door downstairs. She headed for her room, nearly colliding with Hunter.

 

“Whoa,” Hunter grabbed her arms to keep her from losing her balance. “You okay?” He was sweaty and on an adrenaline high from his run. Running was one of the few things that seemed to make Hunter happy.

 

“Uh huh,” Sarah said, just the thought of running making her feel queasy. “I’ll fix breakfast.”

 

Hunter headed for the shower. He came down fifteen minutes later, shaved and dressed in what Sarah privately thought of as one of his ‘power suits’, a conservatively cut dark blue outfit that made him look even more intimidating than usual. She felt sorry for whomever he was interviewing today.

 

He ate his muffin and drank his coffee while Sarah went through her bowl of cereal and some toast. Without saying anything, she handed him the headlines and the sports pages of the newspaper, while she looked at the funnies. Hunter grunted his thanks when she poured him another cup of coffee and he pushed the orange juice container over to her.

 

“I want to talk to the pathologist who did the autopsy on Farley. He’s working at the hospital today, so we’ll swing by there. My military contacts are still looking for any other connections he may have had, but his official record is squeaky clean, so that makes it harder to track.”

 

“Is it government?” Sarah asked.

 

Hunter’s eyes narrowed in interest. “What makes you say that?”

 

“Well, if somebody cleaned his record, or planted a false one, he’d have to hack into multiple databases. Either there’s a fantastic hacker who helped him, or he got clearance from a higher source.”

 

Hunter smiled. The kid was sharp. “I agree.”

 

Sarah gaped. “You do?”

 

“Yeah, somewhere along the line, somebody up there either helped out or turned a blind eye to what was going on.”

 

“And you’ll find out who,” Sarah said, feeling an odd shiver of foreboding.

 

“Eventually. And then....” Hunter mentally flexed his claws at the thought.

 

Sarah got up to rinse out her bowl and glass while Hunter drained the last of his coffee. Sarah walked upstairs to brush her teeth, moving more slowly than she normally did.

 

“You sure you’re okay?” Hunter frowned.

 

“I can handle it,” Sarah said determinedly, not wanting her sentinel to think her spineless.

 

“You don’t have to prove anything,” Hunter guessed with frightening accuracy. “A concussion is a concussion. I’ve had my share.”

 

“I can handle it,” she repeated, a stubborn look on her face that had Hunter smiling inwardly. His little guide was learning to stand her ground, and he approved – to a point.

 

She came back downstairs and looked reasonably steady. When she walked past him, Hunter didn’t catch her hand, just allowed it to brush over his own, creating a fleeting connection that resonated like a bass note, more feeling than actual sound.

 

“If you get sick, you let me know,” Hunter lectured as he backed the car out of the driveway. “You can take a nap at lunch time.”

 

Sarah stifled a sigh. He was in BP mode already. “Okay.” She settled back, determined not to look out the window because that truly would make her feel sick.

 

They pulled into the hospital parking lot and Sarah’s heart rate spiked slightly. She looked calm outwardly, but Hunter could sense her unease.

 

“Just visiting. Remember that.”

 

Sarah clutched his jacket as they walked inside. Heading down a long hall, the antiseptic smell was overpowering.

 

“Dial it down,” she said softly when Hunter grimaced.

 

“I can, but what about you?” She was looking a little pale.

 

“I’m fine,” she insisted, carefully avoiding any contact with the people crowding down the hall.

 

They reached the pathology wing tucked in the west end of the building. It was a nearly deserted with pieces of equipment leaning against the walls. There were more smells here: formalin and...blood. Sarah swallowed against the rising nausea.

 

“I have to actually view the body, Sarah. I don’t know if you should come in with me.” Hunter’s look of concern took the sting out of the words. “Formaldehyde and upset stomachs don’t mix well.”

 

“But...what if you zone?” Going by the smells, it was highly likely.

 

“Better me zoning than you losing your breakfast.” Hunter tipped her head up, noting the slight greenish tinge to her face. “Just have a seat here, and I’ll be out soon.”

 

“No,” Sarah insisted. “I’ll come with you.”

 

Hunter watched Sarah bite her lip. She was bound and determined to accompany her sentinel; Hunter couldn’t fault her guide instincts, but he didn’t want his guide throwing up because of good intentions.

 

“Okay,” he said, and tucked her close to him. “But just one gag, and I’m hauling your little butt back out here -- capisce?”

 

Sarah walked with him through the double doors. There were residual emotions here - like pale ghosts. Just little wisps of feelings, as opposed to the clamor of the rest of the hospital.

 

“Dr. Kellerman,” Hunter stated when a young man at the desk asked how he could help them. “Captain Hunter, Cascade Police.”

 

“I’ll page him for you,” the young man said. “He’s down here somewhere.”

 

Dr. Kellerman was a tall gangly redhead with copious freckles - another Doogie Howser. Hunter sighed. This was sure to be a waste of time.

 

“Dr. Kellerman? Captain Hunter, Cascade PD. I’m here on the Farley autopsy.”

 

Kellerman shook Hunter’s hand, looking a bit distracted. “Farley...Farley...oh, yes. The sniper. Man, that was not a good thing.”

 

He sounds like Sandburg, and he probably isn’t much older. Hunter felt his misgivings rise exponentially.

 

“Dr. Kellerman, did you do the autopsy?”

 

“I did.” Kellerman looked up, caught Hunter’s dubious expression and grinned. “Yeah, I know, I get it all the time. Way too young to be a doctor, can’t know squat about anything, yadda, yadda, yadda.”

 

Hunter didn’t even blink.

 

“If it’ll set your mind at ease, Captain, I’m actually Vice Chair of Pathology, I teach at Rainier’s School of Medicine, and I was 42 my last birthday. I know what I’m doing.”

 

Hunter waited without replying.

 

Kellerman didn’t look perturbed in the least. “You’re a cautious man, Captain. I like that in a police officer.”

 

The doctor motioned for Hunter to follow him. “I have the body laid out. I can give you a run down, but since you’re a sentinel, maybe you’ll sense something I can’t.”

 

Kellerman paused to peek at the girl standing half-way behind her sentinel. “Is this your guide?”

 

“Yes,” Hunter said shortly. “Can we get on with this?”

 

Kellerman just shrugged at sentinel idiosyncrasies and smiled at the girl, who nodded but didn’t speak.

 

The body lay on the steel table, hips draped with a sheet, waxen and cold.

 

Sarah swallowed convulsively. Her sentinel heard it. 

 

“Sarah....”

 

“I’m okay,” she said in a muffled voice.

 

“First time seeing a dead body?” Kellerman asked her sympathetically.

 

“Actually, it’s her second,” Hunter interjected impatiently, “but I’d like to get her out of here as soon as possible.”

 

“Hey, no problem,” Kellerman waved his hand. “Have a good look.”

 

Hunter walked over, vision and smell piggybacking themselves as Sarah grounded him. She carefully avoided looking at the body.

 

“One shot kill. Tore his trachea and partially severed the internal and external carotid arteries, leading to rapid exsanguination. Hell of a shot.”

 

“Thanks,” Hunter muttered as he concentrated on sensing the body.

 

“You shot him?” Kellerman looked surprised. “I thought captains stayed behind their desks.”

 

“Not me,” Hunter growled, then traced his fingers over the skin of the left upper arm. “There’s something here.”

 

“Probably was a tattoo,” Kellerman said. “Laser removal, would be my guess. Hard to tell what the pattern might have been. It’s the only identifying mark I could find.”

 

Hunter’s fingers traced over the area. “A circle with cross hatches.”

 

“You can tell that just by touch?” Kellerman looked impressed. “The toxicology tests were negative. Missing his appendix, but nothing else earth-shattering.”

 

“What about the DNA testing?”

 

“I’m actually expecting those results back today,” Kellerman said as he opened a file folder up. “You’ll have the full report by tomorrow.”

 

Hunter walked over to wash his hands at the steel sink. Nothing else on the body would give them any further clues.

 

They walked out, Sarah looking a little green but still holding it together.

 

“Would your guide like some 7-Up? Might settle her stomach.”

 

Hunter was about to refuse, but Sarah looked hopeful, so he nodded. A few sips of the carbonated beverage actually brought her color back.

 

“If I can help with anything else, just let me know,” Kellerman said. “This guy was bad news.”

 

“Thanks,” Hunter said shortly. Then he paused. “You wouldn’t happen to know a Blair Sandburg, would you?”

 

“Blair - Anthropology Wunderkind of Rainier? Known him since he was an undergrad.” Kellerman grinned. “He took a couple of my classes in forensic anthropology way back when I first started teaching there a few years ago.”

 

“Figures,” Hunter muttered. Two peas in a pod. The doctor even bounced like Sandburg.

 

“Hey, you know him, then. I haven’t seen him for a couple of years.” Suddenly Kellerman looked anxious. “He’s okay, isn’t he?”

 

“He’s fine. He’s bonded.”

 

“Blair’s a guide?” Kellerman let out a long whistle. “Never knew he was an empath. Oh, man, that must have been rough. The poor kid - damn GDP probably got him, right? Bastards. All Blair wanted to do was get his PhD and teach.”

 

“He’s still doing that,” Hunter growled defensively. “His sentinel let him continue his education.”

 

“Well, thank God for that,” Kellerman said fervently. “I didn’t think sentinels generally were that understanding about higher education. So who’d he end up with, anyway?”

 

Hunter, fast growing annoyed by the chatter, stared at the doctor levelly and said tersely. “My brother.”

 

Kellerman stood mute in shock as the sentinel and guide walked through the doors.

 

Hunter tugged his guide along. “Let’s get out of here.”

 

They walked down the hallway as the freight elevator ahead of them began to rumble. The doors opened and several men in black blazers stepped out.

 

Sarah froze at their military bearing. GDP?

 

The men moved out into the hall and spotted them.

 

“Contain and secure,” one man barked as two other men moved toward them.

 

Sarah gazed frantically for an exit, but the men were in front of them before she could even think of moving. Her heart sped up as they approached, but Hunter just tucked her to his side.

 

“Problem?” Hunter drawled, neither impressed nor interested.

 

“I’m sorry, sir. We’ll have to ask you to clear the hallway.”

 

Hunter waited a beat as he tilted his head and stared cooly at the Joe Friday clone standing in front of him. “Don’t think so.”

 

“Sir,” the man began more determinedly, “I’m afraid you’ll have to-”

 

“I don’t ‘have’ to do anything. Get out of my way,” Hunter ordered, jaw clenched.

 

The first man was about to do something stupid – like challenge Hunter – when a voice interrupted. “Jim!” A young man rushed up to him. “I didn’t think you’d be able to make it today. Thanks for coming. Where’s Blair?” He laid a friendly hand on Jim’s arm,

 

The two security guards stepped back at their boss’s signal. This must be the famous James Ellison and they hadn’t known. Merriman would chew their butts for sure on this one.

 

Hunter looked at the man, eyes cold. “Who are you?”

 

Oh, shit. Steven tried not to panic when he realized what he’d done. This isn’t Jim – it’s Vincent Hunter. Oh, shit, shit, SHIT!

 

“Steven Ellison,” the man said, his heart rate accelerating.

 

“I’m Captain Hunter,” Hunter drawled, a slight sneer punctuating the words. “Step out of the way before I start arresting people for interfering with an official police investigation.”

 

Steven was about to explain, when an ambulance cot rolled out of the elevator with two paramedics, a nurse and several more Joe Friday types.

 

Hunter looked over and caught William Ellison’s gaze. The man looked smaller, lying there with an oxygen cannula in his nose and various other medical devices hooked up to him. William’s eyes widened with surprise, then with tentative hope, but Hunter ground his teeth as he deliberately turned away from the man.

 

William’s face fell at the rejection.

 

“We’re...we’re just transporting him home and needed extra security,” Steven said hesitantly, more than intimidated by this cold look-alike of his brother. “Jim said you’re investigating the shooting?”

 

Hunter gave Steven a measuring look. “When the Cascade Police deems it appropriate, you will be informed about relevant aspects of our investigation. Until then, this case is confidential.”

 

It was a deliberate snub, and Steven knew it. “Fine. Sorry I even asked.” He turned to follow the ambulance crew.

 

“Mr. Ellison.”

 

Steven froze. The hair on the back of his neck went up at the predatory purr.

 

“One of my men will be interviewing both you and your father for the investigation in the next few days. Don’t leave town.”

 

Steven gritted his teeth and kept walking, trying not to betray his emotional state, but he knew that the sentinel could hear and smell his fear.

 

Hunter waited until the hallway cleared, then looked back down at his guide. The look in her eyes was...disquieting.

 

“Why did you do that?” Sarah asked softly.

 

“Do what?” Hunter grunted, his mind already back on the investigation.

 

“Why were you so mean to him?”

 

Hunter was about to snap at her, but checked himself. “It’s old business.”

 

“He wasn’t the one who hurt you.” Sarah had felt Steven Ellison’s emotions strongly -- he might be part empathic himself -- and they had been a broil of apprehension and anger. “Why would you want to hurt him?

 

Hunter just grunted and ignored the question, leading his guide out of the hospital.

 

Sarah didn’t say anything more, but Hunter could feel her disappointment in him the entire ride over to the precinct.

 

And it gnawed at him.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Hey, isn’t that Captain Hunter?” One of the nurses frowned as she watched the tall figure crossing the parking lot below the nurses station window.

 

“Looks like it. Did you hear what happened at the gala a few weeks ago? Monica got shot down big time.”

 

“Really?” The first nurse commented almost gleefully. “And she was so sure she’d land him, too.”

 

“Kinda convenient that she went on family leave the next week, wasn’t it? I still don’t buy that her mother is that sick.” The disdain in the second nurse’s voice reflected most of the floor staff’s attitude toward the unit secretary.

 

“Well, she supposedly left town, but I’m thinking she’s just lying low - rumor has it the Sentinel Prime claimed vendetta against her.”

 

“What the heck does that mean?” A third nurse chimed in.

 

“Well, according to Sentinel 101....”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Larry Slater opened the bottle of whiskey he had been saving for a celebration. Pouring some into a glass, he gulped it down, then poured another. How in the hell had the situation gotten out of control?

 

His son had dragged him over to meet with Blair Sandburg, then the Sentinel Prime had shown up and nearly had him executed. Larry hadn’t truly known what terror was until Captain Hunter had placed a gun at the back of his head and told him how much he was going to suffer before he died.

 

Dan had dropped him off after his stay of execution, unwilling to talk about what had happened. Dan had admonished his father to call Dr. Claydove immediately. Of course, Larry had put it off, but apparently Jim Ellison had already called, because Claydove had called and after a verbal bashing, accepted Larry’s resignation.

 

He wouldn’t lose any of his pension or retirement benefits, thank God, but the humiliation of it burned him. He’d been exiled, and his son wasn’t doing anything to stop it. He had never meant that Blair Sandburg to be hurt in the way he had been, but couldn’t they see that it wasn’t his fault?

 

Larry rationalized things more and more as he drained the bottle, shifting blame to Wilson, the lack of GDP resources and the supernatural influence the Guide Prime had on the Sentinel Prime and his clan. It was all their fault. He drifted off in a haze of alcohol and self pity.

 

He made it into work the next day much worse for the wear. Mumbling a greeting to Margaret, he stepped into his office and looked around. Per Dr. Claydove’s orders, Larry Slater would hand over all files to Lt. Brougher, who would take over for him, and relinquish all passwords and keys to GDP headquarters. His office would be cleared by noon.

 

“Larry?” Margaret asked. “What’s wrong?” He looked pale.

 

“Taking early retirement,” Larry said, trying to smile. “Orders.”

 

“Is it your heart? Did the doctor tell you something?” Margaret’s brown eyes were full of concern.

 

“Yes, I was told something,” Larry said, not quite meeting her eyes. He was embarrassed to be in this position, and didn’t know how to tell her what had happened the night before.

 

“But...” Margaret stopped when Larry turned away to start clearing his desk. “Can I help?”

 

He loved her, but not even she could help with this. “It’ll be okay. Just sort of a shock to be told that I can’t work anymore. Still had some things I wanted to do before I retired.”

 

“Larry....”

 

“I won’t be your boss after today, Margaret.”

 

His wistful expression tugged at her maternal instincts. She laid her hand over his in a promise of solidarity. “No matter what, I’ll still stand by you.”

 

Larry’s eyes filled with tears, shocking both of them, and he mumbled an excuse and busied himself at his desk. “Please excuse me, Margaret. I have to get packed before Lt. Brougher gets here this afternoon.”

 

Margaret reluctantly walked out of his office, troubled by what Larry wouldn’t say. Just what had happened? Was he critically ill? Dying? She’d get the full story - even if she had to find Dan and ask him.

 

Larry filled file boxes mechanically. Personal papers, photos, mementos, everything from a nearly thirty year career compressed into six small boxes. The furniture was GDP issue, and the majority of the files GDP property. Brougher would take over this office and make it his as they had planned, but it was months sooner than expected.

 

As anger and self pity warred it out, Larry thought of Sandburg. The guide was over the edge - couldn’t anyone see that? No guide should be able to bond to two sentinels - a guide didn’t have that kind of power, and it was surely a perversion, a sickness. Yes, the guide had been horribly abused, but Larry had seen the guide’s head come up, a dangerous light in his eyes, and knew there was madness there.

 

Of course, the Sentinel Prime and his brother didn’t see it.

 

The Sentinel Prime shouldn’t have an unstable guide, but they were bonded, and the only way to break the bond, short of death, would be to flat line the guide....Larry stopped the thought abruptly. Ellison would kill anyone who attempted to harm his guide, and Larry had already come too close to death.

 

The phone rang, jolting him back to reality. “Hello?”

 

“Larry Slater, you old hound dog! What’s this I hear about you retiring?” It was Mick Eastwood, another GDP career officer who had retired two years ago and started, with remarkable financial success, his own consulting business.

 

Larry sighed. The word was already out: nothing stayed secret in the GDP for long. Hopefully, not everything had come to light.

 

Mick had always been an entrepreneur, moving up the GDP ladder until he reached his glass ceiling, then moving out into the private sector where his acquired skills paid much, much better. Mick would have made a good corporate shark, with his cunning tactics and ambiguous morality.

 

“Health problem,” Larry said shortly, slightly uneasy and unable to say why. Even though he and Eastwood went way back, they’d never been especially close. “Had to retire a few months earlier than expected.”

 

“So they say,” Mick said agreeably, and Larry tensed. What did Eastwood know?

 

“Well, I didn’t have a choice,” Larry mumbled.

 

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mick sympathized. “Those sentinels and guides can be a pain, can’t they?”

 

“What do you want, Eastwood?” Larry rubbed his aching head, trying to clear the fog of hangover.

 

“Why, to offer you a job, Larry. I can always use a good man in my organization. That is -- if your doctor will let you.”

 

Damn him! He knew. He knew what the Sentinel Prime had done. “Mick, please.” Larry sat down in his desk chair. On top of everything else, he was being mocked.

 

“Take it easy, Larry. I’m serious. Do you want a job or not?”

 

It was tempting. It certainly would mean more money than his retirement funds would provide, and it would give him a chance to tie up loose ends.

 

“I have to think about it,” Larry hedged.

 

“How about we meet at Pronto’s for lunch? I can give you the whole spiel.”

 

“Well....”

 

“Come on, Larry. We’ve known each other a long time. You don’t think I’d let a buddy of mine down, do you?” Mick sounded sincere, but under the concern was something dark and oily.

 

“Okay, I’ll meet you.” Larry confirmed the time, then looked around his office one last time. Maybe this is a new door opening, he thought, and suppressed the vague feeling of unease.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mick Eastwood got up and shook hands with Larry with the slick ease of a politician. His close-cropped silver hair contrasted with a surprisingly unlined face, though Larry knew for a fact that Eastwood was in his mid-fifties. Facelift? Good genes? It almost gave him the creeps.

 

“Hi Larry. You look good. Too good to be retiring early.”

 

Larry shrugged and dropped the man’s hand. “You know how it goes.”

 

“Yeah, I do. I know you aren’t all that keen on private sector work, but it pays well, and there’s plenty of upward mobility.” Mick sat down and signaled the waiter who came over immediately and got their drink orders, then discreetly disappeared.

 

Don Eastwood, Larry thought with a flash of morbid humor. Just like some sort of syndicate.

 

“What kind of job do you have in mind?” Larry asked, pausing when the waiter returned with their beers. He never felt completely comfortable in civilian clothes - like he lost part of himself without the uniform.

 

“Some background work. I’m mainly working in corporate brokerage - some technology, some security, a little of this and that.”

 

“And they pay you for this kind of stuff?”

 

“You wouldn’t believe how much people pay for certain things. It’s all marketing - getting your buyers and sellers connected.”

 

Larry suppressed a shiver. Something felt...off.

 

Mick leaned forward, his face earnest. “I think we’d work well together, and I can always use a good man on my team. You’re the best paper shuffler I ever met - and I mean that as a compliment. The IRS would do handstands to get you.”

 

“What kind of salary are we talking?” Larry was weakening.

 

“Here’s my proposal,” Mick said, shoving a few papers across the table. “Of course, this doesn’t even include the corporate benefits you’d receive: health, dental, vision, health club, time-shares.”

 

“My God!” Larry stared at the figure in front of him. “That’s twice what I’m making...was making.”

 

“Yeah, I know,” Mick leaned back to assess his man. He was this close to saying yes.

 

“What about stock?”

 

“Options after a year. So what do you think?”

 

“Well, I guess I’m in.” Larry cleared his throat and took another sip of beer. He’d be a fool to pass up an opportunity like this. But as he watched Mick Eastwood place his lunch order, he had a niggling feeling that he had just stepped into an abyss.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Jim turned onto the quiet street that led into the exclusive neighborhood William Ellison called home.

 

“I just wish we coulda been there when he got home from the hospital,” Blair fretted.

 

“Chief, I think Simon’s exact words were: clean up all other open cases or else.”

 

“He knows you’ve been concentrating on finding the sniper.”

 

“Yeah, and I’ve had over a week and a half with no solid leads. He said if we don’t get moving on our other cases, he’ll get creative.”

 

Blair’s lips quirked at Jim’s exasperated but indulgent tone. Jim cared for Simon Banks, and the feeling was obviously mutual, but in usual cop-like fashion, they expressed their friendship with a combination of insults and rough physicality.

 

Then Blair replayed what Jim had just said. Our cases. As in: yours and mine. “Our cases?” Blair gave his a sentinel a pleased grin.

 

“You don’t see any other partner in this truck, do you?” Jim reached over to ruffle his guide’s hair. “You’ve got all the right instincts. Here we are, Chief.” Jim turned into the driveway. Through the rolled down windows, Jim surveyed the house. “And right on cue: the Keystone Kops.”

 

Two unfamiliar men materialized on either side of the truck, each holding a weapon on its two occupants.

 

“Step out of the vehicle, please.” The man was in his early thirties, but his eyes were watchful, and too experienced for his age.

 

“I’m Jim Ellison, William’s son.” Jim said calmly, leaving his hands in view on the steering wheel.

 

The gaze didn’t falter. “We’ll have to verify your identify. Step out of the vehicle.”

 

“I have my ID,” Jim answered, reaching slowly for his badge.

 

“Stop. Get out of the vehicle -- now.” The man’s voice hardened.

 

The second man reached for Blair and found his wrist encircled by a crushing grip.

 

“I’m only going to play your Danger Mouse games so far. You touch him, and I’ll kill you.” Jim’s feral growl immediately put both guards on alert.

 

“Step out now!” the first man ordered. Jim smoldered as he got out, suffering the man’s impersonal touch as he was frisked and his ID was pulled out and inspected.

 

“All right, Detective Ellison. You’re cleared to go in.”

 

“Gee, thanks,” Jim drawled sarcastically.

 

“I won’t apologize for doing my job,” the first guard said calmly. His eyes never wavered from the sentinel’s face.

 

Jim stared him down. “Just as I wouldn’t regret killing you if you had laid a hand on my guide.”

 

The only recognition of a sentinel was a brief flicker in the guard’s eyes. “Fair enough.”

 

Jim headed up the walkway, then turned to look back. “What’s your name?”

 

“Reed, Timothy,” the man said, his nervous-looking partner keeping a more respectful distance. They had just insulted a Sentinel Prime who happened to be the boss’s son.

 

“I think we’re in trouble,” the second man whispered to Reed.

 

“No, not yet. This guy’s the type who’d tell you to your face if you screwed up,” Reed sighed fatalistically. “Besides, he’s a cop.”

 

“Got any outstanding traffic tickets, Reed?” Jim asked wolfishly, and despite himself, Reed nearly smiled.

 

“Nope, just a couple of less than stellar incidents from my Ranger days.”

 

This time, it was Jim who almost smiled. Rangers were a breed apart.

 

“Go, Army,” Blair muttered facetiously. “If this turns into one of those macho military bonding things, I’ll go join Merriman and root for the other team come time for the Army-Navy game.”

 

Both men spared Blair a pitying look and Jim grabbed his guide in an affectionate headlock. “Basketball’s your sport, Chief. Leave football to the heathen masses.” 

 

“You said it, not me,” Blair grunted, elbowing his sentinel in the ribs and extricating himself as Merriman walked up and greeted them.

 

“Gonna be outnumbered soon, Merriman.” Jim gently jibed the head of Ellison Security. “You navy boys were sailors, while the rest of us were soldiers.”

 

Merriman, to his credit, didn’t rise to the bait, though his lips quirked at the joke. “Your father’s settled in. Ate a light dinner. The nurse is in there now.”

 

“Thanks,” Jim said, and towed Blair behind him as they climbed the stairs.

 

A soft knock and the door was opened by a familiar face. Thalia smiled and held open the door, her necklace openly hanging over her floral scrub top.

 

“He’s dozing right now. I just gave him some pain medicine.”

 

Jim walked in and stopped by William’s bed. “No hospital bed?” Jim frowned at the oversight.

 

“No way I’m sleeping in a hospital bed,” William slurred as he opened his eyes.

 

“Bumpy mattress, synthetic pillows,” Blair agreed as he expertly fluffed one of William’s down pillows and helped the older man sit up a bit. “This is much better.”

 

William chuckled, then winced at the movement. He was still wearing oxygen, but he looked better.

 

Thalia excused herself and William focused on Jim. “Jimmy, about Hunter....”

 

“Dad,” Jim interrupted, “It’s okay. Blair told me what you told him the morning after the gala.”

 

William almost mentioned seeing Hunter at the hospital that morning, but instead reached for his son’s hand. “There’s so much about that I want to tell you -- things I need to explain.”

 

Jim eased his father back as he tried to sit up completely. “I know, Dad, but it’ll keep for now. You’re still recovering, and we first have to find out who came after you and why.”

 

“But,” William protested, only to find himself back down and tucked under the covers. “Damn it, Jimmy, I’m not some helpless old geezer!”

 

“No, you’re a middle aged business barracuda, slightly wounded but still trying to kick my ass,” Jim smiled. “Just work on getting well, and I promise we’ll hash out the other stuff when the time is right.”

 

William grumbled, but the pain medication was kicking in again. “There’s never enough time -- sometimes it’s too late,” he mumbled as he fell into a narcotic doze.

 

Blair helped Jim settle William, then followed him to the door.

 

“You know, Jim, he has a point. This stuff is going to have to be discussed sometime.”

 

“I know, Chief. It’s just -- I’d rather him have a fighting chance when we have the great showdown at the OK corral.”

 

“What about Hunter?”

 

“Him, too.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Hunter and Sarah entered the bullpen to hear a short frustrated female scream. Samantha pounded the keyboard of her computer and pushed away from her desk.

 

Hunter raised an eyebrow at his normally unflappable secretary. “Problem?”

 

“I hate this computer. It’s a piece of junk. I hate the software. And I really, really hate tech support -- condescending, whiny little teenage snots.”

 

Hunter had never heard an outburst quite like that from her, so he wisely decided to ignore it.

 

Sarah hid her smile and slid into Samantha’s seat to try to fix the latest glitch. The computer was outdated, but the biggest problem was the long, slow process of database conversion that locked up the system on a regular basis.

 

Hunter sighed. His guide would be needed here more than with her sentinel. “I’ll let Sarah help you with this, but I have a meeting in an hour.”

 

“If Sarah can sort this out, I’m buying her lunch,” Samantha declared.

 

“Okay,” Hunter decided and strode into his office, where even more paperwork waited on his desk. He slogged through the most important stuff, keeping half an ear on Sarah as she coaxed the reluctant computer back into some semblance of order. And right on cue, Len Miller came over with a doughnut. It was becoming routine. Sarah was finding her niche, and the department was functioning well, one or two people notwithstanding.

 

Hunter gathered his briefcase and locked his file drawers. “Sarah, I have to run over to the university. Can you handle this until I get back?”

 

Sarah nodded, eyes intent on the screen. “Uh huh.”

 

“Keep an eye on her,” Hunter ordered, catching both Miller and Clark’s eyes. The two men nodded gravely. 

 

Hunter’s hand smoothed over Sarah’s hair, and for a moment, she leaned into his touch. It was a gesture that kept the men watching them wondering how the guide managed to tap into the IA captain’s human side. It was a curious connection: intimate, but not loving. And despite most of them having refreshed their memories with their Sentinel 101 texts from school, they still wondered what it was all about.

 

“He treating you okay, kid?” Barney Clark asked after Hunter had exited the floor.

 

Sarah looked up blankly, her concentration on the computer.

 

“Sarah?” Clark prompted, wanting to make sure. Hunter had looked fairly livid the other day when they had come from the morgue, and Sarah had all but tiptoed around him the entire day.

 

“Yes, I’m fine,” Sarah answered politely.

 

And you wouldn’t tell us a thing, even if he were beating you daily, Clark thought. But she wasn’t cringing away from Hunter, and seemed to take comfort in his touch. Hunter might shred his men, verbally or physically, but he hadn’t been seen abusing his guide. He wouldn’t need to -- one look was enough to send grown men scurrying for cover, much less a kid like her.

 

Clark settled down at his desk, watching Sarah out of the corner of his eye. Miller had actually made her smile with one of his lousy jokes. She was still so quiet and wary of contact, even without her sentinel around.

 

Snow watched Hunter exit the bullpen, but dropped his gaze when Hunter turned around and chilled him with just a look.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Walking into Hargrove Hall, Hunter watched the students stream out of classrooms, laughing and joking. Making his way to the small office in the corner, Hunter could see Sandburg sitting on the floor, sorting though papers. His hair was a wild mass of curls and his glasses were perched on his forehead as he mumbled to himself.

 

When a shadow moved over him, Blair jumped.

 

“Sandburg.”

 

Blair looked up to see Hunter in the doorway. “Oh, hey. What’s up, Hunter?”

 

“I have a little problem I think you can help me with.”

 

For just a second, a dark memory flitted through Sandburg’s eyes, but then it was gone. Not quite a flashback, but enough to make Hunter shift uncomfortably at the reminder of his last visit here with Sandburg.

 

Blair stood up and brushed off his pants. “What kind of problem?” He walked toward his desk, and felt Hunter’s hand brush over his neck. Blair went still, letting Hunter affirm he was safe. The Shield was on watch, and it soothed away the brief recall of another not-so pleasant encounter.

 

“Our sniper had a tattoo -- the only distinguishing mark on him, and it looks vaguely familiar, but I can’t place it.”

 

“Do you have a photo?” Blair asked.

 

“It was ablated by laser, but I could still feel the design.” Hunter picked up a pen and a blank piece of paper from the desk and drew the design.

 

Blair stared down at it. “Man, it does look familiar. It’s not a modern design. I’ve seen this before.”

 

Hunter leaned against a bookshelf while Blair studied the drawing.

 

“Hmmm,” Blair mused, then went to the bookshelf and pulled down several reference texts. “South American, I think. This might take a while.”

 

Hunter paced the office leisurely, scanning the contents with sentinel eyes. “I’ve got a bit of time.”

 

“So where’s Sarah?” Blair thumbed through the first book.

 

“Preventing my secretary from committing computer assault and battery.”

 

Blair chuckled. “The Cascade PD needs to upgrade before the whole system dies.” He picked up the second book and flipped pages. “Hang on - here it is. See?”

 

Hunter got up and took the book, staring at the ancient symbol. “Yeah, that’s it. What exactly is it?”

 

“It’s a specialized warrior tribal marking -- an assassin, for lack of a better term.”

 

“Is this some kind of cult?”

 

“None that I’ve heard of. I’m thinking it might be a group symbol - you know, like special forces have snake tattoos? Maybe he was military.”

 

“I can’t find any record of him in the armed forces database.”

 

“Maybe he was covert ops, like you and Jim?” Blair suggested as he sat down on the couch and stared at the design.

 

“My source would have been able to trace that.” Hunter took the book back from Sandburg and stared intently at the symbol.

 

“Maybe he just wasn’t US military.”

 

Hunter nodded. “Possibly. Or maybe he was a mercenary - no ties, no trace. That’s gonna be a bitch to try to track down.”

 

“I’d start with any forces with military operations in South America. He was Caucasian, so that narrows things down a bit.”

 

“Can you get me any more information about this symbol? I need something a bit more in depth than your standard google search.”

 

“Yeah, I have access to some pretty specialized archives here at Rainier.” Blair stood up. “I’ll do a little research after my lecture.”

 

“If anybody can track down academic trivia, it’s you, Sandburg,” Hunter grunted

 

“Is that a compliment?” Blair asked, tongue in cheek.

 

Hunter ran a hand over the empath’s head. “Don’t let this go to your head, Dr. Livingston. I take my sources where I can.”

 

Blair smiled and carefully refiled the books as Hunter exited his office. The Shield wouldn’t say it, but he appreciated the help.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Sarah sat on her bed and reached for the picture of her mother. It was raining, a perfect accompaniment to her mood, and she traced her mother’s face lightly with a finger tip. She missed so many things about her mother - her scent, her voice, but mostly being able to hold onto her, absorbing the very essence of her. Sarah cleared her throat. She’d have to get the photo glass replaced soon. It was getting a bit blurry.

 

“Sarah!” Hunter was yelling from downstairs. Another work day, and Sarah didn’t feel like going in.

 

“Coming,” she called back as she got her jacket and purse.

 

“What’s on your mind?” Hunter asked idly as they pulled out of the driveway. “You’re more quiet than usual.”

 

“I...I need to go somewhere today. Alone.”

 

“No,” Hunter said flatly. “After Gross, you’re not going anywhere alone. I’m not too sure you and Sandburg should be out together, given what happened.”

 

“I just need to....” Her explanation was cut off abruptly.

 

“No.” Hunter’s tone indicated that there was no room for negotiation.

 

Sarah sat there, her face turned away from him. He just wouldn’t listen.

 

The bullpen was busy, which Hunter liked to see. The department review last week indicated things were going well, and Chief Towson was pleased. Of course, some of his men were still being brought up to snuff, but for the most part, Len Miller was keeping them in line. Hunter’s opinion of Miller had risen quite a bit as he watched his deputy balance the needs of the men and his boss.

 

Hunter walked by several desks, and caught the edge of something not quite right. A slightly acrid scent, a slightly rapid heartbeat. He focused, and his eyes eventually rested on Snow. The man had been doing his job but was filled with bitter resentment after being read the riot act by Hunter.

 

Snow looked up, not quite hiding a smirk, but it faded when pale blue eyes bored into him.

 

“Something funny, Snow?” Hunter drawled.

 

“No, sir.”

 

“I expect the Dobson report on my desk by the end of the day.” Hunter watched Snow’s face tighten up. It was grunt work, and would require extra effort to complete.

 

“Sir, I....”

 

“By five, Snow, or I’ll have to reassess your position here.” Hunter had no hesitation about keeping his department in line. If Snow couldn’t make the grade, he’d be out on his ass. His last two investigations had been sloppy, and Miller had already warned Snow that another written reprimand would go into his file if he didn’t straighten up.

 

Sarah dipped her barriers slightly, almost recoiling from Snow’s animosity. “He hates you,” she whispered, sentinel soft.

 

“I know.” Hunter just walked to his office and settled at his desk while Samantha greeted them and dumped a small mountain of paper on their desks.

 

“Aren’t you worried?” Sarah asked, still shivering.

 

“No. He starts anything, and I’ll finish it.”

 

The rest of the day was a busy blur. Hunter excused himself to meet with Miller after getting Snow’s report, and the bullpen was emptying out. Sarah peeked out of the office door. Samantha had already left. Grabbing her purse, Sarah walked out the door.

 

A couple of the men gave her strange looks, but didn’t say anything. If Captain Hunter’s guide was going anywhere, it must be under his orders.

 

Sarah walked out of the building, hoping Hunter wouldn’t notice. She walked down the busy sidewalk to the bus stop, glancing at her watch. The number 11 transit should be here any minute. She got on the bus and paid her fare, finding an empty seat and watched for the downtown stop she needed to catch the Grayhill bus. Mercifully, people ignored her. She got off fifteen minutes later. Stopping in a flower shop, she bought an arrangement and waited for the next bus.

 

Grayhill was at the north end of town, where suburbia met rural, and when she reached her destination, it was after six. It was a three block walk, but she made good time, stopping in front of the gates of Grayhill Cemetery. They were locked.

 

Sarah bit her lip and looked around. She contemplated the high wrought iron fence for several minutes before making her decision. Passing the flowers through the narrow bars, she began to climb.

 

Hunter was furious. He had come out of his meeting at 5:30 to find his guide missing. When one of his men reported she had walked out, he immediately called the one person who might know where she was.

 

“Sandburg!”

 

“Hunter?” Blair’s voice could barely be heard over the rock and roll favored by the Campus Brew House, where the Anthropology TAs were celebrating Dr. Woodward’s birthday. Glancing at the bar, Blair saw that the grad students were cheering the good doctor on. The professor could sure hold his own on tequila shots.

 

“Sarah’s missing!”

 

“Whoa, say that again?” Blair tried to move to the door to escape the music volume.

 

“She’s gone.”

 

“Kidnapped?” Blair was horrified.

 

“No, she walked out,” Hunter growled. “Said she wanted to go somewhere today, but I told her no.”

 

“That’s not like her,” Blair said slowly. “Wait...hang on. What’s the date today?”

 

“September 6,” Hunter said impatiently. “What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

 

Blair moved outside where the noise level was manageable. “Aw, man, didn’t you read her file? Sarah’s mother’s birthday is in September.”

 

Hunter’s mouth tightened. “So where would she be, Sandburg? You knowing everything about her, down to the last bit of trivia.”

 

Blair winced. That had been a direct swipe. “Ouch, man, retract the claws. She just confides some things in me, you know, guide to guide.”

 

“Where, Sandburg?”

 

“Grayhill Cemetery,” Blair said, not surprised when Hunter abruptly cut off the call. The Shield was in BP mode, and this was one time that the Guide Prime should stay completely out of it.

 

Blair walked back inside the bar. His fellow TAs were well on their way to getting totally smashed. They laughed and jostled each other as Blair found his seat at the large table.

 

“Everything okay, Blair?” Carol asked.

 

“Fine. Just some sentinel business.” Blair sipped gingerly at his beer. Even now, he didn’t trust himself when it came to alcohol. Dark Guide was hard enough to control when he wasn’t under the influence of a mind-altering substance.

 

“Sentinel business,” Tony burped drunkenly -- too sloshed to censor his words. “Hear you’ve got two of ‘em now. You goin’ for some kind of record?”

 

“Tony, shut up!” Carol warned. Tony was a jerk when he was sober. Drunk, he was an asshole.

 

“Twin sentinels. Must be a rush. They take turns on you?”

 

The conversation at the table halted as everyone stared. Blair’s face burned, first with shame, then with slow-growing anger. “You’re drunk, Tony. Drop it.”

 

Tony just laughed. “Everybody knows what guides do for their sentinels.”

 

“You don’t know anything, Tony,” Carol hissed. “Shut up before I make you.”

 

Tony laughed again, as if finding this hysterically funny. “C’mon, Sandburg, I know you guides are perverse. Hell, there’s even a web site dedicated to guide porn made right here on campus. Ever think of a movie career?”

 

Blair paled. Tony couldn’t possible have made the connection, could he?

 

“Watch a lot of porn?” Carol said snidely. “That’s what guys do when they can’t get the real thing.”

 

Tony bared his teeth at her, but continued. “So tell me, Sandburg, you get off on taking two of them up the ass at the same time?”

 

This time, the silence at the table cracked like thunder. Blair wanted to run away from the stunned stares. Most of the anthropology department now knew him well enough not to think that there was anything like that between sentinel and guide, but a few TAs from other departments at the table were shocked and titillated at the possibility.

 

Tony was too drunk to recognize the danger he was getting himself into. Planting his hands flat on the table, he levered himself to move directly into Blair’s face. “You can tell me, Sandburg. What’s it like to have two of them fuck you?”

 

“Well,” a new voice drawled, “If you’re that keen on finding out, I’m sure I could oblige you.”

 

Everyone looked up to see Max, math TA and openly gay, rise to his full six foot three and haul Tony back into his chair. The tone might have been sarcastic, but Max’s eyes were livid. “You want to cut your baby teeth on me, little boy?”

 

Tony tried to jerk away from the grip on his shoulder. “Get the hell off me. I’m no fag!”

 

“Uh, uh, uh. I hear a politically incorrect phrase. I think you just violated a student conduct rule on nondiscrimination.”

 

“He’s a guide!”

 

Max snorted. “So because he’s a guide, he must be a queer?”

 

“Blair isn’t gay,” Carol protested.

 

“The hell he isn’t! With that long hair, earrings, climbing all over that sentinel - both of them.”

 

Max loomed over Tony. “Tony, if Blair were gay, I’d be all over him like stink on a skunk. Trust me on that one.”

 

Blair turned beet red at the oblique compliment, and pondered sliding under the table. Anything to get away from this circus.

 

“But since he isn’t, and my instincts are never wrong, I’ll just have to pine away in unrequited lust.” A weak chuckle arose from a couple of people at Max’s wry look. “He’s a guide and whatever relationship he has with his sentinel is his business.”

 

“He’s a goddamn pervert,” Tony insisted, then he howled as a pitcher of beer cascaded over his head, soaking him completely. He turned to confront his drencher. “Listen, you ass-wipe!”

 

When Tony saw who held the pitcher, he immediately shut up. “Omigod...Dr. Woodward - sir, I....”

 

“I think you’ve said quite enough, Tony. In fact, you’ve probably talked yourself into an official reprimand for harassment.” The professor was furious. “You are talking to the Guide Prime of the city of Cascade. His sentinel is the Sentinel Prime. The political ramifications of insulting a Sentinel Prime aside, there’s the matter of respect and human decency. You will apologize immediately, and then get out of here.”

 

Blair was flabbergasted. Who would have thought that mild-mannered Professor Woodward could get that upset? The man held his alcohol and his dignity - just one more thing Blair had to admire.

 

Tony was sobering quickly, and mumbled an apology as he got to his feet. The grad student were whispering among themselves but Blair didn’t feel any negativity being directed toward him.

 

“Carol, will you call a cab for him? He’s an idiot, but I don’t want him to get arrested for DUI.” Dr. Woodward sat down next to Blair and gave him a consoling pat on the back. “Sorry about this, Blair. My birthdays are usually a little more genteel.”

 

Max sat back down and watched Tony’s progress across the room. Carol sighed but got up to follow Tony outside.

 

“Max?” Blair caught the other TA’s attention. “Thanks for sticking up for me.”

 

“Anytime,” Max smiled. “It’s still a damn shame you’re straight. My libido will never recover.”

 

That set up a wave of relieved laughter, Dr. Woodward included. Blair sipped his beer but knew that soon he’d have to make his excuses. His barriers were weakening, and a low throbbing headache had started behind his eyes.

 

Tony was weaving on the sidewalk as Carol whistled loudly at a passing cab.

 

“Christ, don’t do that!” Tony jerked as he tried to maintain his balance. “Don’t know why you’re all upset. Guides shouldn’t be at university.”

 

“Tony, if it were up to me, I’d let you walk out into traffic.”

 

“Corrupt,” Tony mumbled. “Porn everywhere on the net.”

 

Carol remembered what he had said earlier. “You said someone at Rainier is making web sites?”

 

“Guide porn,” Tony blinked blearily, weaving slightly. “Todd’s got a hell of sweet deal on those sites.”

 

“Todd?” Carol asked, trying for a friendlier tone. She had to find out, for Blair’s sake. If this was another campaign to try to discredit Blair like the posters of him in a leash that were posted all over campus a few months ago, then Blair and Detective Ellison should know.

 

“Todd Myers - Computer Science. He’s got some serious cash flow from that.” Todd wasn’t even aware of what he was saying, babbling about how Todd had made good money before the sites had been shut down a couple of weeks ago.

 

Carol hid her disgust as she made noncommittal noises and tried to extract what information she could about Todd. They were both sleaze balls; no wonder they hung out together.

 

The cab pulled up, and Carol stuffed him into the back with instructions to take Todd back to the grad student dorm. She was about to walk back into the bar, when she hesitated. Blair was already upset, and likely wanted to go home. Fishing her cell phone out of her purse, she dialed information for the non-emergency number to the Cascade Police Department.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Hunter drove quickly, his temper simmering. His guide knew better than to disobey him, but she had done it anyway. Probably Sandburg with his wild ideas. Maybe he should reconsider the amount of time the two guides spent together.

 

Parking in front of the gates, he scanned the area, just catching a small figure clearing the fence. His heart nearly stopped as he watched Sarah crawl over the razor sharp spear-like projections on top of the fence and slide nimbly down the other side. She picked something up off the ground and walked down the pathway that divided the cemetery. Silently, he followed.

 

“Hi Mom,” Sarah whispered as she knelt in front of the neat plot. There were fresh flowers here, left by Pop and Mandy earlier. She carefully placed her small arrangement of wild flowers next to the others. “Sorry I’m late.”

 

Each year since they had lost Ann, the Freemans had always come to pay their respects on her birthday. Max had always felt it was better to remember Ann on her birthday, and not the day she died. This was the first time Sarah had missed the family gathering.

 

Sarah could feel little pockets of grief around her – the lingering emotions of the living – bumping gently against her. Her mother’s funeral had been a haze of numb disbelief, the first birthday visit not six months afterward, a torrent of wild anguish, but now it had become a gentle melancholy that twinged her heart, but didn’t break it.

 

“I haven’t been here in a while,” Sarah said as she pulled a couple of weeds out. “I was bonded.” Sarah waited, letting that sink in. “I knew you’d hate that, but it’s better now.” She continued to talk quietly, not even thinking how odd it might seem to anyone watching that she was carrying on a conversation with the dead.

 

Hunter, of course, heard every word, and deliberately slowed his pace. The anger had settled down, as even Hunter could feel the peace surrounding him, with the occasional wisp of mourning brushing past him. The rain had stopped, and some late evening sunlight came through the clouds to illuminate the fine old trees and quiet rolling green space.

 

“Sarah.”

 

The voice behind her made her jump and scramble to her feet. Turning, she saw Hunter standing there. She swallowed convulsively, waiting for what would surely happen next. He had already told her what he would do if she disobeyed him or tried to run.

 

Hunter moved to stand beside her, grasping her arm. His guide flinched, but gradually relaxed when he opened the link.

 

“Why?” he asked, trying to read her emotions.

 

“We always come on her birthday,” Sarah whispered, gazing down at the colorful flowers nestling against the headstone. “I tried to tell you.”

 

“You know you shouldn’t have disobeyed me,” Hunter growled, but moved her closer to him.

 

Sarah blinked to clear the stinging from her eyes. The flowers had fractalized into a kaleidoscope of colors. “I’m sorry.”

 

Hunter reached out and lightly brushed her hair from her face, scenting the briny fluid trailing her cheek.

 

“I miss her,” Sarah choked.

 

“Some things never go away.”

 

Sarah stared at him, unsure what he meant.

 

Hunter gestured to the flowers. “Why don’t you introduce us, Tiger?”

 

Sarah flushed. He must have heard her one-sided conversation from the beginning. She snuck a glance at him, then slowly smiled. He was serious. Taking hold of Hunter’s hand, she guided it to the rough granite surface of the stone, where his fingers traced the carved letters of her mother’s name.

 

“Ann Freeman, meet Vincent Hunter, my sentinel. Hunter, my mom.”

 

The wind kicked up, blowing through Hunter’s hair and teasing around his neck. He suppressed a slight shiver of awareness.

 

“Hello, Mrs. Freeman,” Hunter said softly, eyes squinting against the sunlight. The wind rose up and died down again, almost as if she were answering.

 

“I can always feel her here,” Sarah said, closing her eyes as the wind playfully lifted her hair.

 

Hunter pulled Sarah to him, not surprised when a gust of wind came up between them.

 

“She’s mine now,” Hunter said simply, no trace of animosity in his tone, and the wind died down.

 

Sarah rested her head against him, savoring the quiet until the sun disappeared back behind the clouds and it was time to leave.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Hunter walked across the campus from Hargrove Hall. Normally Sandburg would have picked up Sarah, but he had an early exam and a faculty meeting with his advisor, so Hunter had agreed to drop her off for their weekly guide quality time.

 

The students milled by, laughing and chatting. Hunter hadn’t missed Sarah’s wistful look as she had watched them on their way here. He pushed down the guilt and kept walking.

 

Hunter frowned as he heard shouting in the distance, and the frantic thundering of feet headed his way. Two GDP guards appeared around the edge of a building chasing a man.

 

“GDP, halt!”

 

Another rogue guide. The young man had short, shaggy black hair and olive-toned skin and looked to be in his early twenties. He was injured – Hunter could smell the blood – but it wasn’t his business, after all.

 

“Rogue, halt!” The guard ordered as they gained on their prey. Hunter didn’t recognize either guard and they both ignored Hunter as they focused on the young man trying to escape them.

 

The guide tripped, and fell heavily a short distance from where Hunter stood. The guards pounced. The guide screamed as they touched him, writhing in pain as the two guards wrestled with their captive and attempted to leash him.

 

Hunter could smell the man’s terror, and despite his best efforts to stay uninvolved, Sandburg’s face kept superimposing itself on the stranger. Same age - similar build - although they really looked nothing alike. Nothing alike at all.

 

The guide cried out again in agony. He even sounded like....

 

Help me. The scream in his head was universal - a guide was in danger. Cursing himself for it, Hunter strode over and pulled out his badge. “Captain Hunter, Cascade Police.”

 

The guards whirled around. The older one sneered. “This is GDP business. The police have no jurisdiction here.”

 

Hunter smiled. That should have been their first warning.

 

“I’m also Sentinel Shield, Cascade clan.” That got their attention.

 

“This guide is rogue.” The taller guard defended himself. ‘We have orders to bring him to the correction facility.”

 

“What did he do?” Hunter asked, standing between the guards and the guide.

 

“He just finished his six month basic training at the institute, when he decided to run.”

 

“He’s been there six months, and just now decided to make a break for it?” Hunter arched an eyebrow in disbelief.

 

“He attended his first mixer and a sentinel matched. Before we could take him to a bonding room, he ran.”

 

The guide was moaning, setting Hunter’s teeth on edge at the sound.

 

“How the hell did he get hurt if he just ran?”

 

“He fell down the stairs,” one guard mumbled.

 

Looking down at the young man, who watched the sentinel like a mouse in front of a cobra, Hunter made a quick assessment. “His barriers are gone. According to GDP regulations, a damper must be administered before leashing.”

 

“You have to catch them first,” the guard protested.

 

“You,” Hunter pointed to the first guard. “Give me the leash.”

 

The guard was about to protest, when he saw the icy glint in the sentinel’s eyes. The restraint was passed over without a murmur.

 

Taking the leash, Hunter moved to the young man. “What’s his name?”

 

“Guide Michaels.”

 

“His first name,” Hunter growled.

 

“Sam,” the second guard volunteered. “He...uh...he really hasn’t caused any trouble until today.”

 

“He panics, and he’s immediately classified rogue,” Hunter muttered in disgust, and crouched next to the guide. “Sam, I’m Captain Hunter.”

 

A sentinel. Even though Sam could barely hear him, waves of agony stealing his breath, he tried to move away. Sentinels only wanted one thing: a bond. Sam screamed reflexively when Hunter touched him, then went boneless when he realized the sentinel’s touch didn’t hurt. The pain dialed back to a bearable level as the sentinel shielded him.

 

“Please,” Sam whispered, his vision swimming.

 

“Sam, there’s no way out,” Hunter said matter of factly. “You have two choices: come with me now, or I let these two take you to the correction facility.”

 

Staring up into the sentinel’s cold blue eyes, Sam wavered. The sentinel didn’t look like any better choice than the GDP. But there was no hunger for bonding in those eyes, that while impossible to read, were calm and direct.

 

“You,” the Sam whispered hoarsely, grasping at the only possibility for rescue, but when he saw the leash, he jerked away, and was promptly flattened by the sentinel.

 

“Don’t move.” The cold command was far more effective than any shouted orders from the GDP.

 

Sam lay still, sobbing under his breath as the sentinel looped the cord around his neck. Only rogues were leashed, and part of every guide’s training included watching the GDP handle a rogue guide from the correction facility - a live visual warning of what would happen if they ever decided to run. It had given Sam nightmares for weeks.

 

“Damn it,” Hunter muttered, when he felt the guide tremble. The loop around the guide’s neck was pulled just shy of a choke. “Lie still,” Hunter warned Sam as he deftly continued leashing the guide, restraining him without causing additional pain.

 

The guards watched as the sentinel leashed the rogue with more skill than they’d ever witnessed, even from their GDP instructors. The complicated loop system was a wrap they had never seen before. They looked at each other wordlessly

 

The kid was still shaking when he finished. Hunter huffed out a breath and mumbled a few select curses. “If we don’t do this by the book, you haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of getting out of this mess. You follow me?”

 

Sam bit his lip and nodded.

 

Pulling the young man carefully to his feet, Hunter turned to the guards. “I’m taking him to Commander Slater.”

 

“Sir, we have to....”

 

Hunter snarled, and the guards backed down.

 

“Yes, sir. If you’ll follow us.”

 

Sam stood quietly, too afraid to struggle. The sentinel began walking, guiding his captive along. There was enough slack in the cord between his ankles to walk, but not to run, and his hands were firmly restrained behind his back. As they walked, Sam could feel the curious stares, and hung his head in shame. They’d all know about him.

 

When they entered the campus GDP office, Commander Slater was just walking in through the back entrance.

 

“What the hell is going on?” Slater marched up to Hunter.

 

“That’s what I’d like to know,” Hunter sneered. “I found two GDP guards chasing an injured guide, and trying to leash him without dampers.”

 

Slater narrowed his eyes. “You two,” he ordered the guards. “My office. I’ll be there shortly.”

 

“Who leashed him?” Slater asked as he walked up to the guide who cringed and dropped to his knees, head down.

 

“I did,” Hunter replied. “Your goons couldn’t even suppress their emotions when they touched him. Ever had a hot poker against your skin?”

 

Slater’s mouth opened, then closed. He turned to Rebecca. “Get me this guide’s file. What’s his name?”

 

“Sam Michaels,” one of the guards answered.

 

“Hunter, bring the guide to the medic’s office.”

 

The fact that Slater had decided to treat the injured guide first elevated him slightly in Hunter’s estimation.

 

Sam finally realized that no matter who held the leash, he was still in GDP custody. He began to struggle, and was half-dragged along by the sentinel who towered over him.

 

“Stop it,” Hunter ordered, as he hauled his captive up onto the examining table. “No one is going to hurt you.” Hunter took off the leash, but anticipated the furtive escape movement and blocked it easily.

 

Both men heard the soft sob, and each pretended not to.

 

“Relax, Guide Michaels. We’re just going to take a look and see how badly you’re hurt.” Slater pitched his voice to a soothing register. The guide watched both of them warily.

 

“Take off your shirt,” Slater said, cursing under his breath when the guide’s fingers trembled too much to undo the buttons. “Never mind, I’ll do it.”

 

In just a few seconds, Sam was stripped to his briefs. He sat on the paper-covered table and shivered in the cool air.

 

“Banged up a bit,” Slater noted. “How did he get hurt, anyway?”

 

The guide stayed silent; he had not been given permission to speak.

 

“They said he fell down the stairs,” Hunter said derisively.

 

Slater did a quick but thorough check. His medic training came in handy on occasion. “Nothing that needs to be sutured - some superficial cuts and bruising. He might have cracked some ribs.” He cleansed the wounds and applied an antibacterial cream and a few dressings to the worst ones.

 

Hunter moved forward, and reached out to touch Sam’s rib cage. Sentinel touch ghosted over the bruised ribs. Sam shivered again but didn’t move.

 

“No breaks,” Hunter announced.

 

“Next thing you’re going to tell me is that you have X-ray vision,” Slater muttered as he pulled out a syringe and drew something up out of a glass vial he retrieved from the small refrigerator.

 

“Goes right along with my other super hero powers,” Hunter agreed blandly. He allowed Sam to get dressed again in his beat up jeans and flannel shirt.

 

Slater sighed. “Well, let me get him comfortable, then I’ll get the story from the guards and check the guide’s file.”

 

“We,” Hunter corrected him. “We’ll look at the file.”

 

“This is strictly GDP business,” Slater said, knowing the protest would be useless.

 

“Not if I make it a clan matter.”

 

“Convenient excuse when you want something.”

 

“Isn’t it just?” The undercurrent of mistrust was still there, a holdover from when Hunter came close to shooting Larry Slater due to the Sentinel Prime’s declaration of vendetta.

 

Sam looked back and forth between the two men, sensing the animosity, and then paled when he saw the syringe in the commander’s hand. “No!”

 

“Take it easy,” Slater soothed. “This is just a little something to stabilize your barriers and help with the pain.”

 

“Don’t kill me!” Sam tried to bolt, but didn’t make it off the table. “NO!”

 

“No one is going to hurt you, Sam,” Hunter repeated, and held him while Slater prepped the vein in the guide’s arm.

 

“Please don’t kill me,” Sam sobbed as the needle entered his skin. The medicine began to take effect. His struggles slowed and stopped as his eyes glazed over. In two minutes, he was asleep.

 

“I put a sedative in with the damper. He should sleep for about two hours.”

 

“Fine. Let’s put him in a bonding room,” Hunter said, hauling Sam up and putting him over his shoulder.

 

“Room A is free,” Slater said, leading the way. He watched as Hunter carefully set the young man down on the mat and tucked a blanket around him. Slater made a mental note to explore that behavior later.

 

Hunter followed Slater to his office and leaned against the wall as the two guards made their report and were verbally reprimanded for not following guidelines. They slunk out of the office as Rebecca came in and handed over the file.

 

“Well, he was latent. Identified six months ago at a job physical.” Slater frowned as he read through some papers and handed them over for Hunter to peruse. “Looks like he voluntarily agreed to training.”

 

Hunter snorted at that. More than likely, the GDP had made an ultimatum, and the guide had taken the lesser of two evils.

 

“Did fairly well at the institute. Passed all his courses. Instructors thought he was a bit reserved, even for a guide. Wonder why he ran?”

 

“They said he attended a mixer, and a sentinel wanted to bond.”

 

“Well, hell and damn,” Slater muttered as picked up the phone. “Let me get to the bottom of this.”

 

“Jenkins? Commander Slater. What happened at the mixer? Yeah, that I know. They caught him. He’s hurt, but not badly. No, he’s not at Corrections, he’s here. So who was the sentinel? Okay, send the file over now.” Slater hung up and moved to his computer. He opened his email and downloaded the file and then printed it.

 

“So, who was it?”

 

“Martin Hopkins - unbonded. Hard match because of three minor sense deficiencies. We’ve been working with him quite a while now. He’s been pretty aggressive these last few weeks - something about needing the bond to keep his job.”

 

Hunter sneered at the name. The new detective at Major Crime who had been sniffing around Sandburg.

 

“You know him?” Slater asked.

 

“New detective in Ellison’s division.”

 

“Well, he apparently decided Guide Michaels was the one, so Jenkins prepared the bonding suite but then Michaels took off.”

 

“Let me get this straight: he meets the guide for the first time, then decides he’s going to bond right then and there?”

 

“Yeah, like you don’t know anything about doing things like that,” Slater said pointedly, and was satisfied to see Hunter’s lips tighten.

 

“That was different.”

 

“Uh, huh,” Slater said knowingly. “Of course.”

 

Hunter straightened, and despite himself, Slater pulled back. He backed off and returned to the subject at hand. “From what I can tell, Hopkins scared the kid.”

 

“And the moment he runs, it’s all over,” Hunter growled.

 

“GDP regulations state -”

 

“Fuck the regulations. The kid took the training, for whatever reason, and yet when he panicked and did something stupid, he’s labeled a criminal.”

 

“The law is the law. All I do is enforce it.”

 

“You really think putting that kid in corrections is going to fix anything?”

 

“No, as a matter of fact, I don’t.” Slater ran his hand through his short hair and leaned wearily back in his chair. “The kid’s just scared. Even I can see that. The GDP supervisor should have realized that and made allowances. Maybe delayed the bonding for a few days so they could have gotten to know each other a bit better. Guides aren’t that plentiful that we can just waste them.”

 

“So who’s the idiot who allowed this to happen in the first place?”

 

“Probably Lt. Disher. He’s been a bit too lenient with sentinels wanting their way. The regulations are supposed to protect both guides and sentinels until bonding is completed.”

 

“Unless the guides go rogue - then all bets are off,” Hunter sneered.

 

“When they go rogue, they lose everything. Not that they had much to begin with.”

 

“Are you really going to toss that kid in the GDP slammer? After what happened to Sandburg?”

 

“Rogue guide incidents have decreased forty percent since then. I don’t know if it’s the live demonstrations from the GDP corrections facility, or....”

 

“You actually haul in a rogue guide and show him off?” Hunter gritted his teeth.

 

“It’s a graphic deterrent to bad behavior,” Slater defended. “I’d rather give a guide nightmares about what might happen than make him actually live it.”

 

Hunter’s cell phone rang and he swore. “Hunter. Yeah, Ellison, I got caught up. I’m at the GDP campus office. A little incident occurred.” Hunter listened, watching Slater out of the corner of his eye. “Yeah, go ahead. I’m sure as Sentinel Prime, you’ll want to know all about it.”

 

Hunter hung up and looked directly at Slater. “He’ll be here shortly.”

 

“Damn you, Hunter.”

 

“Been there, done that.”

 

Both men retreated into silence. Not ten minutes later, Jim Ellison marched past two GDP personnel and waved aside their protests as he headed directly for Dan Slater’s office. Opening the door, he found Hunter seated, looking through a file folder and Slater fuming and pacing.

 

“Next time, Ellison, you handle your clan politics yourself.” Slater glared at Jim.

 

“What happened?” Jim made himself comfortable in the remaining chair. Slater made a succinct report, though Hunter interrupted with pertinent details. Jim just listened.

 

“Well, I have to say, Hunter, your clan instincts are coming along nicely,” Jim finally commented.

 

“Clan, my ass. This was guide abuse.”

 

A subtle distinction from the master of intimidation, Jim thought. “Well, it sounds like you managed the problem well enough. What would you do at this point?”

 

Hunter paused. Ellison had never asked him for any advice or opinion on clan matters because, simply put, Hunter wasn’t interested.

 

“This guide isn’t a member of your clan!” Slater was pacing again.

 

“But he will be, if Hopkins bonds with him. So you might say we have a vested interest in keeping said guide in reasonable mental and physical shape.” Jim waited for Hunter to answer.

 

“Ideally, someone would monitor Hopkins to make sure the bonding doesn’t become traumatic.”

 

“This isn’t like teaching your little brother how to make out with his first girl!” Slater exploded.

 

Jim hid a smile with a cough. “A lot of it is instinctual, but things can be fine-tuned if problems crop up.”

 

“So give him a damn instruction manual!”

 

Hunter gave him a hooded look. “As someone once told me, everything takes practice. It helps if at least one member of the bond knows what they’re doing. Or you one of those lucky few that got everything right the first time you took a woman to bed?”

 

“Bonding isn’t sex! You said so yourself!” Round two went to Hunter, as Slater went red.

 

Jim coughed again. Slater had already lost this verbal battle and didn’t even realize it. “But it is a very intimate thing, and there’s no point in scaring the kid any more than he has to be.”

 

“But....”

 

“Look, as a general rule, sentinels are a bit older than their guides, and more life-experienced. Since they are generally the aggressors in the bond, at least initially, it helps if they have some self-control. A guide’s mind can be torn apart if the sentinel doesn’t take care.”

 

Slater sighed and rubbed his neck. “So what happened back in the old days - sentinels and guides bonded in front of an audience to teach others how it’s done?”

 

“Yes,” Hunter replied, a small smirk on his face.

 

Slater went even redder.

 

“You volunteering to tutor Hopkins, Hunter?” Jim asked, tongue in cheek.

 

“Hell, no!” Hunter glared at his half-brother. “You’re Sentinel Prime. You teach that idiot.”

 

“Well, then I suppose you’ll have to help the guide - Sam, right? - although I thought it’s part of the curriculum now to have a trial run with a training sentinel.”

 

“Only in the correction facility,’ Slater sighed. “It’s never been necessary for routine training.”

 

“So what does the GDP do to help with bond problems?” Jim neatly deflected back on the GDP commander. “We already know that rogue guides are thrown to the wolves no matter they’re feeling.”

 

“Well, the sentinels and guides get some lectures on bonding, and we try to let them get to know each other over a few days, then....”

 

“And then nature takes its course,” Hunter muttered.

 

“Well, it worked for you!”

 

Hunter got up, and Jim whistled a cease-fire. “That’s enough. This isn’t helping this particular pairing. Are you sure they’re compatible, Slater?”

 

“According to Jenkins, they imprinted.”

 

“So we teach them,” Jim decided.

 

After a phone call to Blair, who was giving an exam and then had a mandatory meeting with his department head, Jim realized that he and Hunter would have to handle this one on their own.

 

“Blair has a test he has to give, and an appointment he can’t cancel afterward. I don’t think Sarah’s at a point yet where she could help with this.”

 

“Damn right she isn’t,” Hunter growled protectively.

 

“I guess it’s up to us then, Hunter,” Jim stared at his half-brother, trying to read the expression on his face.

 

Hunter got up to go to the bonding room, and Jim followed him. They looked through the small viewing port to where Sam lay motionless on the mat.

 

“Damn, he’s younger than Sandburg,” Jim commented. “How much longer is he going to sleep?”

 

“Should be awake any time. Have you gotten a hold of Hopkins yet?” Slater asked

 

“He’s on his way over,” Jim answered. “It might be better if we started with the guide. He might try to run again.”

 

“Not if he’s leashed,” Slater sighed.

 

“He’s probably scared enough without you tying him up,” Jim frowned

 

“He already has been,” Slater sniped, looking straight at Hunter.

 

“You leashed him?” Jim asked, surprised.

 

“Either me, or those GDP goons. He had no barriers.”

 

Jim gave Hunter a long, considering look.

 

The two sentinels moved into the bonding room. Slater checked Sam’s vitals and the guide stirred fretfully and his eyes opened. Seeing the uniformed figure above him, he gave a strangled yelp and tried to pull away. “Easy. I gave you a damper and some pain medicine. Probably feels like the worst hangover of your life.”

 

Sam stared wordlessly as he struggled to sit up. Looking across the room, Sam saw Sentinel Hunter - twice. He rubbed his eyes, but the double vision persisted.

 

“That’s Captain Hunter, the Shield. You’ve already met him. Over there is Sentinel Prime James Ellison. They’re brothers.”

 

“I won’t bond,” Sam croaked, head still fuzzy from the medication.

 

“The Sentinel Prime is going to run through the bonding process with you and with Hopkins. We want to help you,” Slater said quietly.

 

Sam turned his face away.

 

“I’ve met Hopkins; he’s not a bad guy,” Slater continued. “He’s just a bit over-eager to bond.”

 

Sam shivered.

 

“Sam, I’m Sentinel Prime Ellison,” Jim introduced himself, crouching down to talk to the guide at eye level. “We’re just going to demonstrate what the bonding process is. We’re also going to supervise this bonding, so that Hopkins doesn’t try any commando tactics.”

 

“No,” Sam said, but knowing that the protest would be ignored just like a few hours ago, when another sentinel decided he could take what wasn’t given.

 

“You’ve imprinted, Sam. Deep down, you know this bond match is right.” Slater sounded professorial, but determined.

 

Hunter, seeing that the kinder, gentler approach wasn’t accomplishing much, moved in. Leaning down, he whispered into Sam’s ear. The guide went ghost-white, then raised stricken eyes to Hunter’s. Finally, he nodded in acquiescence.

 

“What did you say to him?” Slater asked curiously, as Sam sat docilely waiting for the inevitable.

 

“I told him that there was always one sure way out of anything, if he were brave enough to choose it.”

 

“Damn it, Hunter, quit with the mental manipulation!” Jim said, totally exasperated.

 

“It’s not a game - it’s a choice.” And one I know Sandburg thought about at least once.

 

“Sam, why don’t you sit over here. I’ll try to explain if you have any questions.” Jim then moved over to Hunter. “Flip a coin as to who plays what?” Jim asked, digging in his pocket for a quarter.

 

“I have a better idea: I’ll play sentinel, and Slater can be the guide.”

 

Slater came to attention at that. “What?!”

 

“Ellison needs to be the moderator, and I sure as hell won’t play guide. You’ve seen enough bonds, Slater, to play the game.”

 

Slater’s heart rate shot up. “I’m a GDP officer. I don’t....”

 

“Yes, Commander Slater? You don’t what?” Hunter’s voice was mocking, his eyes daring the GDP officer to refuse. “After all, you’re the one trying to convince Sam there’s nothing to be scared of.”

 

Jim watched the exchange between the two men. The Shield still held Larry Slater responsible for Blair’s GDP trauma, and by extension, his son Dan for the sins of the father. It wasn’t logical, or fair, but that didn’t seem to bother Hunter.

 

“Are you afraid, Commander?” Hunter had moved closer, the extra three inches in height feeling like about two feet as he moved into Slater’s personal space.

 

“Of course not!” Slater blustered.

 

“Well, then, there’s no problem with you demonstrating a bonding, is there?”

 

Sam’s neck prickled with the tension in the air.

 

“I’m not a guide, Hunter. I can’t pretend what I don’t know.”

 

“All you need to do is act scared, Slater. And follow orders. You can do that, right?”

 

“You --”

 

Jim finally spoke up. “This isn’t helping, guys.”

 

“Fine,” Slater gritted, and removed his gun while Hunter took off his own gun and his jacket.

 

“Assume the guide position, Slater.”

 

Slater moved to the center of the mat and knelt down, watching Hunter warily. Sam was stunned at the sight of the GDP commander assuming a guide position.

 

“Head down, Slater,” Hunter ordered, enjoying the way the commander’s jaw tightened.

 

Slater lowered his head, and Hunter moved to pace around him, snarling slightly and looking positively feral.

 

Damn if he doesn’t look like a Dark Sentinel ready to claim his guide, Jim thought. Judging by Slater’s nervous breathing, he must be thinking the same thing. Blair had explained to Jim one afternoon exactly what had gone on in the first bonding between them. Jim hadn’t realized just how primitive his behavior had been until he’d caught the replay during a bonding session.

 

Jim had also never realized how good an actor Hunter was until now. It made whatever Hunter had done in the military that much more dangerous. Military and whatever else they had dragged him into. Jim was quite sure Hunter had been part of a government agency other than the army.

 

“There’s a lot of primitive behavior in a bond,” Jim explained to Sam. “The sentinel needs to know the guide is submitting to him, and that includes the current guide posture.”

 

Slater watched Hunter’s shoes move around him in a deliberate prowl. The almost sub-vocal growl was raising the hair on the back of Slater’s neck.

 

Hunter suddenly grabbed Slater and flipped him. Slater found himself pinned face down. He flailed instinctively, and Hunter did something that shot a wave of pain through his neck and ended the struggle.

 

“This is the primary bonding position. It’s more for show than anything else. A total submission by the guide.” Jim moved to sit next to Sam, and laid a reassuring hand on the guide’s shoulder.

 

Just like with his twin, this sentinel’s touch caused no pain. Sam relaxed slightly.

 

“Uhn,” Slater groaned through the burning at the base of his neck. What in the hell had Hunter done?

 

“You’re supposed to be acting, Slater, remember?” Hunter whispered in his ear, before growling into Slater’s neck.

 

Jesus, is this what it’s like? Slater thought, heart rate easily double his normal resting rate. He couldn’t move, even if he wanted to.

 

“And this is generally when final imprinting occurs,” Jim continued.

 

Hunter moved off Slater, and laid a warning hand on his back when the commander would have shifted. “Don’t move, Slater.”

 

Slater was still feeling the aftershocks like little needles through his back. Before he realized what was happening, Hunter was frisking him.

 

“Enough already,” Slater whispered harshly.

 

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Hunter murmured. In this close proximity, he could feel the weak empathic tendency in the man, latent and probably unknown.

 

Hunter opened the link, and Slater could feel a cold mist closing around his mind.

 

“NO!” Slater screamed, not understanding what was happening, or why.

 

Jim looked up sharply, noting Hunter’s feral expression. What in the hell had he done to Slater? Hunter was acting, but Slater wasn’t. That was real fear in the GDP commander’s face and in his scent.

 

Hunter moved over Slater, who now tried to rear up, only to feel himself pinned again, this time unable to move away from the encroaching fog.

 

How does it feel, Slater? Tell me how that feels. The words were coming straight into his head. Slater wanted to scream again, but couldn’t.

 

Then the fog lifted, moving away, and Slater sagged with relief. Ice-cold perspiration dampened his uniform.

 

“The connection seals, and the bond is complete.” Jim would find out what had happened after the whole bonding business was over.

 

Hunter got up, pulling Slater into a sitting position. Slater sat with his head hanging low, trying to regain his composure.

 

Sam stared mutely. It was supposed to be a demonstration, but he had the feeling something more than that had happened.

 

“Any questions?” Jim asked.

 

Sam hesitated, then, “Does it hurt?”

 

Slater looked up, a dazed expression on his face

 

“The bonding? No.” Hunter answered this one. “Getting flipped on a mat? Depends on how you land.”

 

Slater finally got to his feet, refusing any assistance from Hunter.

 

Jim turned his attention to Sam and answered a few more questions, glad to see the guide was calming down.

 

Slater got out a handkerchief and wiped his face. He stiffened when Hunter walked up. “Christ on a crutch. What the hell was that supposed to prove?”

 

“Nothing in particular. You always wondered what it was like, so now you know.”

 

“And the Vulcan death grip thing of yours? Don’t tell me that’s part of bonding.”

 

“No, just something to keep you in character. You were supposed to be acting.”

 

“I’m not a guide, but you, you...”

 

“You had no idea you were empathic, did you?” Hunter’s tone was lightly mocking.

 

The look of incipient panic on Slater’s face was extremely satisfying. Hunter let him hang for several seconds, then relented. “Relax, Slater. You’re not empathic enough to be a guide.”

 

The relief, and the shame of guilt that followed it overwhelmed him. Slater leaned against the wall, trying to control his breathing.

 

Hunter moved behind him, and Slater flinched. “You made your point, okay? Just back off.”

 

“We’re going to work with Hopkins next. You ready?” By Hunter’s tone, he doubted it.

 

“I’m fine,” Slater gritted, wondering if Ellison knew what had happened. Probably did. Hunter was gaining power, and Slater was sure that would become a major problem for the GDP.

 

When Slater stood up straight, a residual burning in his neck made him wince. Hunter touched his shoulder and Slater jerked away.

 

“Hold still,” Hunter ordered, and Slater fumed but stopped moving. A simple pressure stopped the pain. Slater took a deep breath, then moved as far away from Hunter as he could. They turned their attention back to the guide.

 

“Sam, when you first met Martin Hopkins, what did you feel?” The question from Jim drew all eyes to him.

 

“I dunno...kinda like an electrical shock.”

 

Jim and Hunter exchanged glances. “How many unbonded sentinels have you come into contact with?”

 

“Twenty, thirty,” Sam admitted.

 

“And you only felt that way with one of them?” Jim persisted.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“What does that tell you, Sam?” Jim asked, his eyes infinitely kind.

 

“I’m s’posed to bond with him.”

 

“Was he a jerk?” Hunter asked.

 

“No, he actually was kinda funny. Cracked jokes about the mixer, but then he touched me, and then....”

 

“Lost control and scared you,” Hunter said bluntly. “So you ran, and got yourself into a hell of a lot more trouble.”

 

Sam’s jaw started to quiver. “They’re gonna send me to Corrections?”

 

“No,” Slater sighed. “I’m not going to send you to Corrections. This shouldn’t have been allowed to get out of control in the first place. You bond with Hopkins like you’re supposed to and we’ll call it a day.”

 

“Speak of the devil,” Hunter growled.

 

Martin Hopkins knocked on the door he was directed to. His guide was here - he could sense it.

 

Slater opened the door, and Martin caught sight of the young man and nearly leaped on him, when Hunter put him down.

 

“Hopkins, I’m going to explain a few basic facts of life to you. This is your guide. He’s been hurt because you decided to act like a caveman. You’re not going to do it again. You will bond under supervision of the Sentinel Prime and do exactly what he says, down to the letter. We clear on that?”

 

Martin choked an affirmative.

 

Jim came over and looked at him coldly. “I expect better of my clan. You’re thirty years old. Act like you have a brain in your head.”

 

“He ran,” Martin seethed in frustration. “He ran away from me.”

 

“You scared him,” Jim said. “And you physically hurt him. Is that what you want for your guide?”

 

“Of course not!” Martin said. Had he really scared the kid that much? In the haze of the connection, he hadn’t been paying too much attention to anything but the need for bonding. Looking back, Martin replayed the meeting in his head, and winced at the memories: a choke hold, a head banged on the floor, a hoarse plea for him to stop.

 

“Sam?” Martin moved into the room, and his guide cringed from him. He cringed from him! Martin reached out, wanting to make amends.

 

“Stop right there,” Jim ordered. “Sit down on the mat.”

 

Martin sat, legs crossed and waited. Every time he looked at his guide, he felt the almost electric charge in the air. This was his guide -- no doubt at all.

 

“Sam, you come and sit here, about six feet away from him.” Sam moved stiffly to seat himself facing the sentinel.

 

Up close, Martin could see the bruises, and smelled the faint scent of blood. He had done that. “Sam, I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you.”

 

Sam wouldn’t look the sentinel in the eye.

 

“I won’t do it again,” Martin promised.

 

“You bet your ass, you won’t,” Hunter muttered.

 

“Hopkins, move close enough so that you can touch Sam, but no closer,” Jim ordered.

 

Martin scooted forward, and waited.

 

“Both of you, hold out a hand.”

 

Martin extended his hand and waited. After a brief glance for reassurance, Sam reached out and their hands clasped. It was like touching a live wire. Sam dropped Martin’s hand immediately.

 

“Try again,” Jim encouraged.

 

This time, they held on. Sam stared at the man destined to be his sentinel.

 

“Does it feel right, Sam?” Jim asked.

 

“Huh?” Sam looked distracted, frowning as he focused on the incomplete connection that promised to be so much more.

 

“Does it feel right?” Jim repeated.

 

“It does to me,” Martin said in a hushed voice, trying not to scare his guide.

 

“Yeah,” Sam whispered as he let the sentinel’s hand go again. “Yeah.”

 

“Sam, I want you to kneel on the center of the mat. Hopkins, over here.”

 

Hunter watched the guide move himself into position, scared still, shaking slightly.

 

“Okay, Hopkins, I’m sure you know the mechanics, but you’re going to have to be careful,” Jim instructed.

 

Hunter glared at Martin. “You’d better take about as much care with this as you did with the first virgin you slept with.”

 

Jim suppressed a smile. Trust Hunter to lay it on the line.

 

Martin flushed in embarrassment, but nodded. He moved around his guide, lightly touching his head. Instinct was taking over, and his touch roughened, then gentled immediately at Hunter’s growl. After several strokes over the guide’s hair, the sentinel moved to shift his guide on his stomach.

 

“Hold it!” Jim moved in. “Sam, you do it.”

 

Sam hesitated, then carefully moved to lay on his stomach, eyes seeking the Sentinel Prime’s face.

 

Martin knelt, moving his hands over his guide, imprinting and discovering the injuries he had unknowingly inflicted. Sensing his guide’s fear, he just kept up a soothing stroking motion, almost lulling.

 

Hunter finally nodded, and Martin moved over his guide, keeping his full weight off the younger man’s injured ribs. A light touch against Sam’s mind was all it took for the guide to open the link. Martin buried his face into Sam’s neck as their connection sealed - pure wonder on his part, and a reluctant hope on Sam’s.

 

Several long minutes later, Martin got up, holding Sam against him. “My guide.”

 

Sam’s vital signs had returned to normal. Looking up at the Sentinel Prime, he then turned to look at his sentinel. His sentinel.

 

“I think they’ll be okay now,” Jim said softly, as he led Hunter and Slater out of the bonding room, leaving Martin and Sam to stare at each other.

 

“Well, one disaster averted,” Slater sighed as they returned to his office. “The paperwork will take hours, though.”

 

“We still have that surprise meeting with Myers, thanks to Blair’s friend Carol giving us that lead.”

 

Slater still looked a bit frayed around the edges, Jim noted. “Slater, you okay?”

 

“Fine,” Slater dismissed. “I better get cracking on these reports.”

 

“Be right out with you, Ellison,” Hunter said, waiting until he and Slater were alone.

 

“I have nothing more to say to you, Hunter,” Slater said coldly. “I did what you wanted, so get the hell out of my office.”

 

If it had just been anger, Hunter would have shrugged it off as inconsequential. But there was still a subtle scent of fear coming from the man.

 

“Slater, being partly empathic isn’t the end of the world. You’re not going to be a guide.”

 

Slater finally exploded. “Maybe I won’t, but what about my kids? What if they....”

 

Hunter curled his lip. “What if? Guess that means you might have to rethink exactly what the GDP is and does.”

 

Slater’s breath hitched as he turned away from the sentinel. He’d have the kids tested, right away. Across the border, so if the results came back positive, he could make sure Joyce and the kids would be safe. Safe from the GDP, safe from....me.

 

“Slater,” the voice was soft and very close to his ear. “You know what’s at stake in the GDP’s future. There’ll be a lot of crossroads ahead. Choose wisely.”

 

Hunter’s hand touched his shoulder and Slater whirled around, eyes wild and scared. Slater looked like Sandburg about to have a panic attack, and despite Hunter’s general indifference to the GDP commander, he could feel his conscience niggling at him. Hunter could almost hear Sandburg lecturing him on playing nice, or worse yet, being kind.

 

“Slater, close your eyes,” Hunter growled.

 

“What?” Slater tried to pull away from the sentinel’s grip.

 

“Just do it.”

 

Slater’s teeth bared. “You can taking a flying....”

 

“Close your eyes, Slater.” Hunter’s grip transferred to Slater’s neck, and Slater froze at the implied threat.

 

Slater swallowed, then reluctantly closed his eyes, almost drowning in the emotions he was experiencing. The mist returned and he jerked away, only to find Hunter’s face just inches away.

 

“Close your eyes,” Hunter repeated, his voice almost gentle now.

 

It was soft fog that wrapped around Slater now, soothing and calming. Slater finally opened his eyes, feeling a bit disoriented, but calmer.

 

Hunter’s expression was unreadable. “It isn’t all bad, Slater.” With that, he left the GDP commander alone, confused and exhausted.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Ellison stood outside the GDP campus office and waited for Hunter, who finally walked out, sunglasses in place, and looking fully in control.

 

“So,” Jim ventured as they walked over to Jim’s truck. “Mind telling me what you did to make Slater just about run screaming into the night?”

 

Hunter turned to face Ellison, his eyes hidden by the mirrored glasses. “Slater’s empathic.”

 

“Holy shi....” Jim starting swearing. “How the hell did you find that out?”

 

“The proximity. It’s weak, and obviously latent, but it’s there.”

 

“I’ve never felt a thing,” Jim argued. “How can you be sure?”

 

“I felt it, so I opened the link.”

 

“What did you do to him?” Jim asked bluntly.

 

“Just made him aware of what was there.” Hunter’s expression was calm.

 

“And scared the living hell out him in the process?”

 

“That, too.” Hunter didn’t sound regretful.

 

“Hunter, Dan Slater’s the closest thing to a friend we have in the GDP.”

 

“You, maybe, Ellison. He’s no friend of mine.”

 

“And you don’t want him to be, either,” Jim guessed. “He’s not responsible for what his father did.”

 

“No, but he is involved what’s going to happen with the GDP from here out. Rumor has it that Claydove is grooming him to take over some day.”

 

“Ounce of prevention?” It was convoluted logic, but if Hunter gained control over Slater, he’d also gain a measure of control over the GDP.

 

“If you like,” Hunter shrugged.

 

“He’s an ally, Hunter. You won’t have any if you keep this up.”

 

Hunter smiled mirthlessly. “I don’t need the friendship of the GDP.”

 

“I’m talking about the man, not his job.”

 

Hunter just gave him a bored look, and Jim gave up. “Never mind. Just be careful whose toes you step on. You might need their help one of these days.”

 

They got into Ellison’s truck and Jim turned on the ignition. “So, what’s the likelihood that anyone else in Slater’s family has empathic traits?”

 

“Low to moderate.”

 

“He’s got kids. Damn, he must be freaking out about that.” Jim put the truck in reverse and backed out of the parking lot.

 

“Slater’s probably got them heading across the border by now.”

 

“For testing, or for good?” Jim asked sharply.

 

“Either/or. You don’t think that he’d let the GDP ever get to his kids, knowing what might be in store for them?” Hunter’s lip curled at the convenient double-standard. “After all, if you’re GDP, the same rules don’t apply.”

 

“He’d be stupid not to call in favors,” Jim pointed out. “Slater isn’t stupid.”

 

“Every guide is equal, but some are more equal than others? Welcome to the GDP Animal Farm.”

 

“You see things pretty black and white, don’t you, Hunter?” Jim headed across campus to the computer science building.

 

“Some things.” Hunter opened the door as soon as they came to a stop outside the campus building.

 

Jim sighed but made a mental note to check on Slater. If this wasn’t irony, Jim didn’t know what was.

 

“So, Myers is supposedly in the lab right now?” Hunter asked.

 

“According to the department secretary. Figured we’d have a better chance to catch him off guard this way.”

 

“Todd Myers?” Jim said as they walked into the computer lab.

 

A thin, stringy haired man looked up. “Yeah?”

 

“Cascade Police. We have some...”

 

Todd was on his feet and trying for the door when Hunter grabbed his jacket collar, spun him around and dropped him back into the chair.

 

“I’m Detective Ellison. The man over here is Captain Hunter. He’s not in a good mood, so I wouldn’t try anything else stupid.”

 

“What do you want?” Todd asked nervously. “I haven’t done anything.”

 

The look Hunter gave him was cold enough to inflict freezer burn. “We have some questions, Mr. Myers. It would be in your best interest to cooperate.”

 

Jim moved in. “Mr. Myers, we have reason to believe that you are connected with some underground web pornography - specifically guide porn.”

 

Todd went white and he swallowed.

 

“You are responsible for the web sites,” Hunter stated rather than questioned. The man’s vitals were better than a lie-detector.

 

“Hey, man,” Todd protested. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.” But he was sweating now, and both sentinels could smell the lie.

 

“We’re investigating several murders that may be linked to the person or persons who hired you.” Jim watched as Todd looked furtively back and forth between them.

 

“I don’t know anything.”

 

“You’re lying, Mr. Myers, but that’s neither here nor there. Consider this a friendly warning. Porn is pretty small potatoes compared to murder, but even if you’re just peripherally involved, you could still go down as accessory.” Hunter watched the man’s eyes dilate and his breathing quicken.

 

“Just a little something to think about, Mr. Myers,” Jim said as he pulled out a business card. “Here’s my card if you change your mind about talking.”

 

Todd stared at his computer monitor blindly as the two sentinels exited the room.

 

“Think he’ll run?” Jim asked as he and Hunter headed back to his truck.

 

“Not before he gets in touch with his boss.”

 

“You know, we might have done better by just tapping his phone lines without this little warning.”

 

“Nope. A little motivation goes a long way. I know his kind. He’ll try to get in touch with his boss, and set off a nice little chain reaction.”

 

“Let’s hope this one doesn’t backfire,” Jim sighed, then pulled out his cell phone to call Blair. “Hey, Chief, it went okay. I’ll fill you in tonight after you drop Sarah off. Yeah, I know you have a million questions, but’s it going to have to wait. I have a meeting with Simon and I still have to finish some paperwork. Yeah, catch you later.”

 

Hunter had several meetings as well, but still had the urge to check on his guide. “I should just pick up Sarah right now.”

 

“They’re safe enough for now. No sense in getting them upset by messing up their routine.”

 

Hunter unlocked his car door and prepared to get in when Ellison’s voice stopped him.

 

“You did a good thing with Sam Michaels, Hunter.”

 

“Somebody had to.” Hunter dismissed the praise and got in, shutting the door. He drove off without looking back at Ellison.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Blair saw Hunter’s sedan in the driveway as he pulled up to the house. The door opened and Hunter stood on the porch waiting.

 

Blair and Sarah made their way up the driveway, and Sarah was caught close, then gently scooted into the house.

 

“Sandburg.” The greeting was neutral, but Hunter’s eyes weren’t.

 

“Hey, man, you okay?” Blair asked worriedly.

 

Hunter reached out and curled his hand around Blair’s neck, drawing him closer. Sentinel eyes focused on him, searching through skin and bone, delving deeper and deeper, past tissue and water, through chemicals, atoms, and beyond.

 

The pale blue eyes seemed to reach into his soul, and Blair finally shifted uneasily. What is he seeing? Deep inside, Dark Guide stirred, acknowledging the connection and the challenge that would soon come.

 

The grip gentled and Hunter’s hand swept casually down his back in a calming gesture.

 

“Hunter?”

 

“Thanks for bringing her home, Sandburg,” Hunter said shortly.

 

“Hunter, you sure you’re okay?” Blair was still troubled by the Shield’s intensity.

 

Hunter tugged Blair’s ponytail in a gesture of farewell. “Fine, Sandburg. It’s just been a long day. See you later.”

 

Hunter went inside and shut the door, catching Sarah and almost dragging her to the bonding mat. They settled there while Blair walked back to his car, puzzled over what the encounter had meant and tried to dispel a vague feeling of unease.

 

“Hey, Chief,” Jim greeted his guide the moment Blair burst into the loft.

 

“What happened? Who ran? What did Hunter have to do with it?” The questions came out rapid-fire as Blair dumped his book bag and moved to where Jim was sitting on the couch.

 

Jim looped an arm around his guide and pulled him close, opening the link. He quietly related the story. Blair remained silent for the recitation.

 

“So they’ve bonded, and I think they’ll be okay now. The kid was just scared, and it toppled a whole stack of nasty GDP dominoes.” Jim patted Blair’s back. “We probably could have done it much better if you’d been there to help.”

 

“No, I don’t think so,” Blair said softly. “I think you and Hunter needed to do this.”

 

“Something else came up in the process,” Jim sighed. “Daniel Slater is partially empathic.”

 

Blair’s eyes widened to saucer size. “How? I never felt anything like that in him.”

 

“I don’t know. Latent, but Hunter said he sensed it, and of course, had to show Slater who was boss.”

 

“How did Hunter...never mind. This must be a Shield thing.” And maybe it explained why Hunter seemed so intense.

 

“What - he’s an empathy Geiger counter?” Jim snorted.

 

“I don’t know. Nothing really has been documented about what kinds of talents Shields possess.”

 

“He put the fear of God into Slater, that’s for sure.”

 

“Poor Dan. First the mess with his father, and now this empathy...” Blair broke off as the implications sunk in. “He’s not guide material, is he?”

 

“No,” Jim replied. “But his children might be.”

 

Blair looked stricken. “Aw, man. He having them tested?”

 

“Hunter’s sure he’ll send them out of the country until they know for sure. If this were any other GDP officer, I’d say too damn bad about your luck, but Slater’s one of the good guys, despite what Hunter thinks.”

 

“This must have really messed Hunter up today - having to rescue a guide, then dealing with Slater.”

 

“It’s more like Slater’s messed up, Chief. Hunter doesn’t pull any punches.”

 

“But Hunter saved the guide, even when he didn’t have to. That’s gotta count for something.”

 

Jim pulled his guide closer, leaning back against the couch. “Vincent Hunter with a social conscience? Sounds pretty farfetched to me.”

 

Blair sighed. The gap between the brothers wasn’t closing quick enough to suit him.

 

Jim pulled Blair’s head down to his chest, and Blair gave up and closed his eyes, submerging into the bond.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The next morning, Jim was engrossed in the paper and a bowl of cold cereal. Blair tossed his papers in his backpack. Today was a half day at the university, followed by some ride along time with Jim.

 

“Did you call Dan?’ Blair asked as he made himself some toast.

 

“He’s not in. Took a personal day, and he’s not at home.”

 

Blair’s antennae went up. “Is he okay?”

 

Jim shrugged as he looked up. “I don’t know. Lt. Harris said he didn’t say much when he left last night.”

 

“Well, keep trying, okay?” Blair grabbed his toast and headed out. He knew he had to track Dan Slater down.

 

After parking at Hargrove Hall, Blair hesitated, then headed over to the GDP campus office. Every time he came here, he could feel the memories closing in. Nothing good had ever happened here, and even though he was Guide Prime and no longer had to kneel except in extreme circumstances, he felt nervous.

 

There was a new GDP officer at the desk, one Blair hadn’t seen before, and he looked up at Blair’s entry. “Can I help you?”

 

The officer’s eyes narrowed. Guide. “On your knees, Guide.” The man said, his tone frosty. “Show your respect.”

 

He was an officer, and therefore could order a guide down, but Blair clutched his backpack and stood straight, despite his racing pulse. Oh damn, Jim. Why does this always happen when you’re not around?

 

“On your knees!” The officer was coming around the desk when Lt. Harris came out of his office.

 

“Sandburg?”

 

“Lt. Harris.” Blair almost wilted with relief. A GDP confrontation was not what he had in mind this early in the morning.

 

“On your knees,” the other officer bit out.

 

“This is Blair Sandburg, Guide Prime. He doesn’t kneel.” Lt. Harris’s tone matched the other officer in coolness.

 

The officer’s eyes narrowed. The new GDP regulations were too lenient in his mind, but rules were rules. He turned away, ignoring Sandburg completely.

 

“How about an apology?” Harris prompted, and the officer did an about face.

 

“To a guide?” The incredulous look of contempt chipped at Blair’s resolve.

 

“To the Guide Prime, whose sentinel would not take kindly to what you just did.”

 

The other officer stared at Blair, then slowly, deliberately spat at Blair’s feet and walked away.

 

Blair took a breath and tried to stabilize his emotions. Just a little reminder to keep you in your place, Sandburg, lest you have any delusions of ever leading a normal life.

 

Harris came over, chagrined and embarrassed. “Sorry about that. He outranks me, otherwise I could have....”

 

“He’s...he’s not coming here is he?” Blair cleared his throat.

 

“No just visiting for a couple of days. He’s from out of state.” The unspoken thank God resonated between them.

 

“I’m looking for Commander Slater. Jim can’t reach him at home.”

 

“He’s not in - personal day,” Harris said.

 

“It’s important. Do you have any idea where he might be?”

 

“I honestly don’t know. He was pretty preoccupied last night. Said he had to do some thinking about a problem.”

 

Blair pondered this. “So, like, does he have a favorite thinking spot?”

 

“Actually, he’s always liked the little forest park at the edge of town.”

 

“Okay, I’ll check it out, but if he shows up, could you please have him call Jim?”

 

“What’s going on, Sandburg?”

 

Blair shrugged. “I dunno. That’s what I’m here to find out.” He trudged out the door, with Harris watching after him.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Blair pulled into the tiny parking lot. Slater’s GDP issue car was parked at the other edge of the lot, but Slater was nowhere to be seen.

 

Blair got out of the Volvo and dropped his barriers, trying to sense the man’s whereabouts. Turning left, he followed a dirt trail that wound into the woods. It didn’t take long until he reached a small clearing, where Dan Slater sat on a fallen log, his back to him. He wore a T-shirt and jeans, a jarring contrast to the uniform he usually wore.

 

“Dan?”

 

Slater jumped. “Jesus, Blair. Don’t sneak up on me like that.”

 

Blair walked up to him. “Are you okay?”

 

Dan shook his head, his smile bitter. “No, I’m not.”

 

“Jim told me what happened - I mean, with Hunter.”

 

“Yeah? Did he tell you that I’m apparently empathic?” Slater almost spat the words.

 

Blair flinched inwardly, but realized the remark wasn’t meant as a personal insult.

 

“And then Hunter....” Slater stopped. He didn’t want to look too closely at what Hunter had done, and why. That kind of ruthless calculation was terrifying.

 

Blair moved to sit next to Dan, keeping a few feet between them. He stayed silent, waiting for the GDP commander to say what was on his mind.

 

“I sent my kids across the border last night.” Dan’s voice had quieted. “They were tested this morning.”

 

Blair braced himself. “And?”

 

“They’re not empathic, neither one of them.” Dan looked over at the trees, his vision blurring.

 

“That’s good,” Blair soothed.

 

“Yeah.” The normally steady voice trembled.

 

“So they’re coming home?”

 

“Yeah,” Dan repeated as he tried to contain himself.

 

“You were afraid for them,” Blair said as he laid a gentle hand on Dan’s shoulder. “And now you can relax and know they’re safe.”

 

“Because they’re not guides,” Dan cleared his throat. “And the GDP can’t touch them. What kind of hypocrite does that make me?”

 

Blair’s hand tightened comfortingly. “It makes you a father who would protect his kids from anything no matter what.”

 

Dan thought of Max Freeman, his terror and rage when he had found out about his daughter. It cut Dan even deeper now, knowing that he could have been in the same situation. His self-doubts, which had been rearing up ever since getting to know Blair Sandburg, were back full force. “I would have resigned, first thing, if they had tested positive. I would have never allowed them to come back.”

 

Blair nodded. “I can’t blame you for that.”

 

And that, coming from Blair Sandburg, sliced into Dan’s conscience with razor sharpness.

 

“I was never so scared in my life.” Dan shifted awkwardly at the admission.

 

“I know.”

 

They sat side by side for a while until Dan could collect himself. The Guide Prime had somehow shifted roles, acting as mentor instead of victim. Dan knew Blair was strong, but he had vastly underestimated that strength while Blair had come to terms with his fears and brutal GDP conditioning.

 

“So where do you go from here, Dan?”

 

“I’m not quitting.” Dan didn’t dare look Blair in the eyes. “I still think I can make a difference. The only way I can do that is within the GDP infrastructure, because everything else would have to come down from the government.” Dan took a steadying breath. “Hunter said there were choices coming up quickly and that I had better choose carefully.”

 

“Hunter tends to be right about stuff like that. He’s politically savvy, despite what he says about bureaucracy.”

 

“There’s been a lot of political rumbling of late. Anything from guide emancipation to a potential civil war in the next few years. Certain factions are gaining power, others are losing it. Things are changing, and I don’t know who’s going to win - if there are even going to be any winners.”

 

A revolution, Blair thought, blinking at the storm clouds in the distance. Of sentinels and guides.

 

“As for what’s coming down the pike, I just don’t know.” Dan sounded frustrated and uncertain. “We have some state department liaison to the GDP coming out here in the next couple of weeks to brief Dr. Claydove on what’s happening on a federal level.”

 

“You’ll choose the right direction,” Blair reassured him.

 

“How do you know?’ Dan turned to stare at the thin young man who held back something very old and powerful behind those deep blue eyes.

 

Blair smiled easily. “Because I know you.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Blair walked into Hargrove slowly, mulling over what had happened with Dan Slater. Across the oval he could see several GDP personnel walking with the officer who had spat at him this morning. Blair detoured so they wouldn’t see him. Blair stopped short at the flyer taped to his door. It was short and to the point, and Blair resisted the urge to tear it off and shred it.

 

He peeled the paper off, and carefully folded it and put it in his backpack. The paper still held remnants of the emotions that had created it. Blair unlocked the door and made his way to his small couch and sat down. It never stopped. He could pretend for a while, push things down under his multiple responsibilities, his research, but reality came back and made sure he didn’t forget what he was.

 

Jim stepped off the elevator and juggled several grocery sacks as he unlocked the loft door. “Hey, Chief? Wanna help me carry this stuff in?”

 

No answer. Jim immediately went into search mode, scanning the loft. Backpack tossed in the corner, jacket draped over a chair - Blair was back from Rainier, but not in the loft. Jim extended his senses, until he located the one heartbeat in the entire world that mattered.

 

He headed for the stairs.

 

The rooftop garden was a haven they had started to give Blair a place to escape to when he needed to be alone. Hetty and Jonathan had already expanded it and were experimenting with some vegetable hybrids. Jim stepped around the latest experiment and closed the distance to his guide. Blair was leaning against the retaining wall, looking across the city, but seeing nothing.

 

“Chief?”

 

Blair didn’t move, which promptly pushed Jim into BP mode.

 

“What’s wrong?” Jim laid a hand on his guide’s shoulder, feeling the slight tremor.

 

“It won’t ever stop, Jim. I realize that now. Fancy titles won’t stop it, Dark Guide won’t stop it. No matter what I do, or you, or the clan, it’ll never, ever stop.”

 

“Let me have that, Chief.” Jim gently pried the folded paper out of Blair’s right hand.

 

Jim glanced at the paper. A high resolution screen capture from the guide porn web site and the words ‘Fuck the guide for $10 a trick’. Jim cursed fluently and inventively.

 

“I’m sorry, Blair.”

 

Blair was staring at his wrists, then ran his finger over one of the scars, tracing it.

 

Jim’s vision focused on the thin, vertical line that bisected the wrap scars that circled both his guides wrists. It was too thin and too clean for the leash. He hadn’t even noticed that small discrepancy in the rage at seeing the scars for the first time. Taking Blair’s arms, he looked at both wrists, seeing the scars on both wrists, at the exact same position.

 

Blair closed his eyes, fighting the urge to regress and cry. He was a man, or at least he had been one before the GDP had gotten to him. Blair turned his face back to look out over the city, looking down until the vertigo took hold.

 

Jim pulled him back. “I think we need to talk.” And not about the flyer. That would be dealt with, but it such an empty, spiteful thing compared to what concerned Jim now.

 

Blair found himself sitting on a small bench they had hauled up when they had first started the small garden.

 

“Tell me about these scars, Chief. They didn’t come from a leash.”

 

“Razor,” Blair said, still tracing the scar.

 

“When?” Jim asked simply.

 

“About a month before I began looking for you to turn Alex Barnes in.”

 

Jim closed his eyes against the grief.

 

“It wasn’t me, Jim. I mean -- I didn’t cut myself. She did.”

 

“She did?”

 

“She liked to hurt me. She liked to watch her men hurt me. One time, after she’d finished with me for the night, she must have sensed something in me. So she got a straight razor and cut my radial arteries.”

 

Jim pulled his guide close, letting Blair lean back against him. “Chief, I’m so sorry.”

 

Blair’s lips twisted, unseen by the sentinel behind him. “She wanted to scare me. Take me to the edge. That turned her on more than anything else.” Blair let his eyes close. “She walked away for a few minutes, letting me bleed. I could have held pressure by twisting against the ropes. I could have slowed the bleeding, but all I could think was how easy it would be to just let go, and everything would stop. All the pain would be over - forever.”

 

Jim turned his guide around, staring intently into the young man’s face.

 

“I didn’t make the cuts, but the decision was still mine.”

 

God, Chief. Why didn’t you ever tell me about this? “So what happened?”

 

“She came back just in time. I was unconscious. I woke up in a clinic.”

 

“Blair, are you thinking that way right now?” The no-nonsense police officer tone contrasted sharply with the gentle hand smoothing over Blair’s hair.

 

“No.”

 

“Are you sure?” Now Jim’s voice had softened.

 

“I wouldn’t ever leave you,” Blair said simply. “I told you that when I climbed out on the ledge to help the jumper.”

 

“That’s not the point, Chief,” Jim shook him lightly. “I’m not the important factor here. You are.”

 

“We belong together.”

 

“Blair, if you ever start to feel that way. You come to me first.” The sentinel was still in major BP mode.

 

“I just have my days when it overwhelms me,” Blair said softly. “I should be used to this stupidity by now.”

 

“Leave it to you to lump prejudice in with the annoyance of shower mildew.” Jim pulled his guide close to him again. “I can’t fix what hurt you in the past, Chief, but by God, I’ll take on anything that comes in the future.”

 

“Just a mean ‘ol puddytat, huh?”

 

Jim snorted with laughter. “You got it, Chief.”

 

Getting up, he pulled Blair off the bench to walk back to the wall. He handed Blair the flyer and watched as his guide tore the paper into progressively smaller pieces, and then threw them over the edge, the wind whipping them up and over across the city.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“So, he said I could upload again, and I did,” Todd said nervously, looking around for hidden danger. “Now I can’t reach him. Haven’t for 2 days. Phone’s disconnected and nobody’s contacted me.”

 

“Maybe he’s done with you.” Hunter tapped the folder he held. He had agreed to take the meeting with Myers when Ellison couldn’t break away from another murder case.

 

“Yeah, and maybe he’s trying to kill me,” Todd retorted, pushing back his stringy hair. “That car almost ran me down last night.”

 

“Why would he kill you? You said you don’t know anything,” Hunter drawled.

 

“I don’t know!!!” Todd yelled, then quieted his voice. “Maybe he thinks I know something. I just get really bad vibes.”

 

“I need more than ‘bad vibes’ and a disconnected phone number,” Hunter said impatiently. “Any names? Addresses? Anything at all?”

 

“I told you: I never met the man. He paid in cash, and with it I bought the equipment I needed. Someone else paid for the server space.”

 

“Who?”

 

“I don’t know. I tried a whois search, but the corporation listed doesn’t exist. I contacted Internic, but since I’m not the domain owner, I can’t get any info.”

 

Sarah sat quietly, mulling over what Todd was telling them. “When did you do the search?” Sarah suddenly piped in, startling both men.

 

“Two days ago,” Todd finally answered.

 

“What does that have to do with it?” Hunter asked, genuinely curious.

 

“They probably traced the inquiry. If they identified your IP, they probably figured out you were asking questions.”

 

“Nah,” Todd said smugly. “Didn’t use my machine.”

 

“Which one did you use?” Hunter was tapping the folder again.

 

“The...the one at Digital Bean,” Todd stammered.

 

“Brilliant, Einstein. A campus machine - or close enough. And they added 2 and 2, and came up with you.” The sarcasm in Hunter’s voice was sharp enough to slice. “A spy you ain’t.”

 

“Hey, I was just trying --” Todd’s protest was cut off by a loud whistle. His eyes widened, then he slumped forward, a neat hole through his chest.

 

“Get down!” Hunter yelled, pushing Sarah under the table they were sitting at. Tracing the bullet path, he fired. Something stung his right shoulder, but he fired again, and a car peeled out of the small parking lot: silver four door, no plates, two occupants.

 

“Captain Hunter!” Sarah crawled out when Hunter slumped to the ground, a pool of red forming on his light gray jacket.

 

“Bastard winged me,” Hunter muttered as he looked and listened for any danger. They were gone.

 

And so was Todd -- shot clean through the heart.

 

Sarah pulled Hunter’s jacket and shirt aside; the wound was pumping blood in spurts. She pulled off her sweatshirt and pressed it to Hunter’s shoulder, trying to stop the bleeding.

 

“Call it in,” Hunter rasped, his vision graying a bit. “It’s still bleeding like a sonovabitch.”

 

Sarah yanked Hunter’s cell phone out of his jacket packet and dialed.

 

“Cascade Dispatch,” the terse voice answered.

 

“Lakeland Park. East parking lot. Officer down.” Sarah said urgently.

 

“Who is this?” The voice barked.

 

“Captain Hunter has been shot. I need an ambulance!”

 

“Okay, calm down. I’m sending a patrol car and an ambulance. Who are you?”

 

“Sarah, his guide,” she answered, continuing to apply pressure to the wound. The bleeding was slowing down but Hunter was pale and clammy.

 

“I’m trying to keep him from bleeding to death,” Sarah gulped. “Please send someone to help.”

 

“Should be there in five minutes,” the voice said, sounding compassionate. “Is he breathing?”

 

“Yes, he’s awake.” For now, Sarah thought, as she watched her sentinel fight to stay conscious.

 

“Just hold pressure on the wound. Is anyone else hurt?”

 

“Yes, but I think he’s dead.” Sarah’s voice held only the slightest tremor, but it was enough to make her sentinel shift restlessly.

 

“Okay, hang in there. Help will be there soon.”

 

“Please notify Detective James Ellison that his brother has been shot,” Sarah begged, maintaining pressure on the wound that had soaked her sweatshirt and her hands. She set the phone down to get a better grip. “You hang in there,” she murmured to Hunter, opening the link and supporting him. She barely noticed Todd’s body, not four feet away from her.

 

Hunter calmed as they linked, his breathing evening out.

 

It seemed like an eternity, but the flashing lights and sirens finally heralded the arrival of two police cars and a ambulance. The paramedics jumped out after the police gave the all clear and hurried over.

 

“He’s been shot in the shoulder. I’ve held pressure, but it’s still bleeding,” Sarah said as she leaned her body weight into the blood-soaked sweatshirt she was using as a compress.

 

“Okay, let me get an IV going,” the female medic said to her partner. “He awake at all?”

 

Hunter moaned a bit, but barely flinched from the IV stick.

 

“Looks nasty,” the male said. “Probably has an arterial bleeder.” They quickly and competently loaded Hunter onto the cot after applying a pressure dressing.

 

“Lungs are clear,” the female medic said. “BP 90/40. Heart rate 130.”

 

Sarah held onto Hunter’s hand throughout.

 

“Is he your dad, kid?” The male medic asked. “You going ride with us to the hospital?”

 

Sarah nodded, and the man assumed the answer to both questions was ‘yes.’

 

The police were working on Todd’s body.

 

“We’ll get a statement from Captain Hunter later,” the officer pronounced. “Where’s the girl? She’s his guide, isn’t she?”

 

“Yeah, but I think she went with the squad,” his partner answered. “We’ll have to get her statement at the hospital.”

 

“Great,” the first officer grimaced. Now he’d have to deal with an injured sentinel and his guide.

 

Sarah refused to get in the passenger seat of the squad; she sat down on the floor of the vehicle and held Hunter’s uninjured hand.

 

“BP’s up to 110/50,” the female medic commented. “I’m running in another liter of saline.” She turned to Sarah. “Does he have any medical problems? Allergies?”

 

“Uh...no, not that I know of. He’s a sentinel,” Sarah said.

 

“Sentinel? Are you his guide?”

 

Sarah flushed slightly and nodded, bracing for the inevitable distaste when people found out what she was.

 

“Keep hanging on to him. He needs it,” was the woman’s only comment as she hung another IV bag. “I’m not giving him anything for pain. He’s too out of it and I don’t know how sensitive he is to meds, anyway.” The woman looked up and smiled reassuringly. “He’s just a couple pints low right now.”

 

Sarah relaxed slightly at the woman’s concern.

 

They pulled into the ambulance entrance and unloaded Hunter. They wheeled him inside with Sarah clinging to him.

 

“Excuse me, Miss? Can you come out and give us some information for a chart?” A woman in a pink scrub top approached her, causing Sarah to lose her grip on her sentinel.

 

“Oh, but I need to....”

 

“They have to take a look at him, so you won’t be allowed back there for a while anyway,” the secretary soothed.

 

Sarah looked uncertainly at the door of the trauma room as two police officers positioned themselves outside the room. Reluctantly, she followed the secretary to her desk.

 

After supplying the information, Sarah slipped into the bathroom to wash her hands. She scrubbed furiously, trying to get the red grit out from underneath her fingernails. She carefully avoided eye contact with anyone.

 

Sarah sat down in the hard plastic chair furthest away from the mass of humanity waiting to be seen. Their emotions were scraping at her barriers, and she shivered slightly. If only Detective Ellison would come and help.

 

After a half hour, she walked up to the triage desk and asked to go back to see Hunter.

 

“I’m sorry, but they’re still working on him,” the nurse said kindly after checking with the charge nurse.

 

“Is he...?” Sarah gulped.

 

“No, he’s stable, but they still have things they need to do.” She smiled reassuringly at the young girl who had blood stains smeared on her T-shirt. “I think your father’s going to be fine.”

 

Sarah flinched inwardly but didn’t correct the lady. She made her way back to her seat. Better to be thought a relative than a guide. If the GDP found out she was sitting here alone....

 

“Are you alright?” The female voice startled Sarah.

 

A tall woman in her forties looked down at her, a worried expression on her face. Her name tag indicated she was Lynn Gordon of Social Services.

 

“I’m fine,” Sarah said, casting a quick glance over to the ER doors. Still no word about Hunter.

 

“You look a bit pale, dear.” The woman could see the bruising on the girl’s face and, sadly, recognized the patterns a blow from a fist made. “Are you here with someone?”

 

“My...Hunter’s been hurt. The police....” Sarah was too distracted to focus on what the woman was asking.

 

“The police brought him in?”

 

“No, the squad,” Sarah said, still watching the doors, wishing not for the first time that she could track her sentinel’s heartbeat the way he did hers.

 

“Honey, if you’ve been hurt, maybe you should be seen.”

 

“Huh?” Sarah blinked, finally looking at her. “I’m okay.” She felt closed in suddenly, and desperately sought to distract the woman.

 

Fate intervened and Mrs. Gordon turned as someone called to her. She excused herself and Sarah sighed in relief. Maybe the woman would forget about her. The last thing she wanted was to draw attention to herself.

 

“Sabrina?” Lynn flagged down one of the nurses as soon as she dealt with another minor crisis and was able to walk back to the ER nurse’s station. “Is there somebody named Hunter back here?”

 

“Hunter...Hunter... yeah, the trauma in Room 4.”

 

“What happened? There’s someone out here waiting for him.”

 

“Gun shot, according to the squad. Police are in there with him.”

 

Lynn sighed. Another domestic violence -- she was sure of it now. “Hand me that chart, will you?” Lynn scanned the face sheet. Vincent Hunter, age 37, city employee. And the girl was maybe 15. Armed with the few facts she knew, Lynn made her way back to the waiting room. The poor child had to be protected.

 

Sarah started when the woman reappeared in front of her.

 

“Is Mr. Hunter your father?” Lynn asked in a friendly voice.

 

Sarah hesitated. Finally, “No. Hunter’s not my father.”

 

Lynn sat down next to Sarah, who pulled back a bit. The social worker noticed the defensive body language but had no way of knowing Sarah was trying to protect her emotional barriers.

 

“What’s your name?”

 

The woman was relentless. Sarah chewed on her lower lip, trying to figure out how to get rid of the woman. “Sarah,” she answered. “Really, I’m fine.”

 

“Have you known him long?”

 

“A few months,” she hedged, silently willing the woman to leave.

 

“He’s quite a bit older than you, Sarah. Do your parents know about him?”

 

Sarah eyes widened. She was starting to get the picture. “Mrs. Gordon, thanks for your concern, but I’m fine.”

 

The lady just looked more determined. “Sarah, domestic violence is a very real problem. I can see the bruises on your face. Does he hit you?”

 

Sarah moved back and put some space between herself and the social worker bent on rescuing her.

 

“He keeps you away from other people, doesn’t he?” The woman’s voice was sympathetic.

 

If you only knew, Sarah thought. “Please, I’m fine. There’s no problem.”

 

Lynn shook her head. “I’d like to help you. It’s obvious you’ve been hurt.”

 

“Lynn, what are you doing here? We have a meeting in five minutes!” A tall brunette about the same age as Lynn walked up. “Come on, we’ll be late.” Another social worker, going by the name tag, but she didn’t look friendly in the least.

 

“Hang on a second, Mitzi. I just need to--”

 

“Mrs. Gordon....” Sarah said at the same time.

 

“Lynn, what are you doing?” Mitzi tapped her foot impatiently.

 

“Mitzi, she’s been hurt. I just want to make sure she’s not been abused.”

 

Mitzi stared at the girl. She looked vaguely familiar. Then it clicked. “She’s a guide.”

 

“What? Are you sure?”

 

“She’s the one from a few months ago. Remember? After the bus accident?” Mitzi stared disapprovingly at the girl. No empath should be out alone in public without their sentinel to keep them in line.

 

“But she....”

 

Mitzi’s mouth thinned; Lynn should have known better. “This is a total waste of time. She’s guide, not a citizen.” She looked at Sarah, noted the bruising, but shrugged. “Be more attentive to your sentinel’s needs and maybe he won’t have to punish you.” The woman dismissed Sarah as quickly as she had swooped in to collect her co-worker.

 

Lynn winced at Mitzi’s comment. There’s no way I can help with this. She’s a guide. “Sarah....”

 

Sarah knew people were listening; all conversation around her had ceased as people stared. Sarah had seen the reaction, time and again, when people found out she was an empath, but this was worse. This woman was a social worker.

 

“You...you’re saying that I deserve to be hit?”

 

Lynn tried to smooth things over. “I’m sure Mitzi didn’t mean that.”

 

Sarah felt the knot squeezing her chest, cutting off her air. “If I’m a citizen, it’s abuse, but because I’m a guide, it’s okay? How can you think that?”

 

The woman gave her a tight smile. “I help people, not guides.”

 

Sarah drew in a dismayed breath. “I am a person!”

 

“Perhaps you need to be reminded of how to behave in public.” The frosty tone was in complete contrast to Mrs. Gordon’s concern and kindness.

 

Lynn felt and looked helpless. There was nothing she could legally do.

 

Sarah kept her eyes on the ground, her cheeks burning with shame.

 

Mitzi walked over to the triage desk and whispered to the nurse. Within two minutes, two uniformed GDP officers came down the hallway heading directly for the waiting room.

 

Sarah froze in her seat, heart racing madly. GDP! And they were heading straight for her.

 

“Problem?” The older officer asked Mitzi.

 

“This...guide...is here without supervision,” Mitzi sniffed. “We can’t allow her kind to run around the hospital like that.”

 

Sarah cast a panicked look at Lynn, then at the two men who had moved a few feet in front of her.

 

“We’ll take it from here. On your knees, Guide,” the man commanded.

 

“No, you can’t!” Lynn protested, but no one was listening.

 

“On your knees, now!” The man was reaching for Sarah, when he was spun around and slammed against the wall.

 

“Touch her, and I’ll kill you.”

 

The GDP officer was about to unload on the assailant when he got a good look at who was holding him by the throat.

 

“Sentinel Prime,” he croaked.

 

“You got that right. You get the hell away from her before I do something you’ll regret.”

 

“My apologies, Sentinel Prime. We were unaware.”

 

“You know,” Jim said, almost conversationally. “I get that excuse a lot. Trouble is, it won’t keep me from killing you. Back off!”

 

The two officers beat a hasty retreat, while the ER waiting room whispered and pointed.

 

Sarah suppressed the urge to run to him for comfort, and wrapped her arms around herself as she shivered from the emotions around her. Her barriers had just given way.

 

Jim looked over at the two women. “Move away from her, please.” He had seen their name tags, and tried for courtesy. Going by their expressions, it was a wasted effort.

 

The women withdrew hastily, leaving Jim staring down at Sarah. Hunter was obviously still being worked on. He could hear his half-brother’s heart beat - fast and a little thready.

 

“Come with me,” Jim ordered, and Sarah got up, following him, unsure and a bit scared.

 

They moved to the grieving room, where families of critically ill or injured patients could wait with some modicum of privacy. Shutting and locking the door behind them, he turned to Sarah, who couldn’t help a small flinch as he reached out for her.

 

She was unprepared for what happened next. The Sentinel Prime bent his head and scented at her neck, then ran his hands over her, checking for injuries. Sarah calmed at his touch; he was seeing to her safety.

 

“They told me Hunter was shot. Have they kept you out there all this time?” Jim cupped her face, staring at her intently.

 

“They won’t let me see him. I don’t know if he...if he...” Sarah choked.

 

“He’s currently cussing a blue streak,” Jim said, tilting his head slightly as he listened. “And I won’t repeat his anatomically impossible suggestion.” He stared hard at her. “Now what happened out there with you just now?”

 

Sarah told the story, haltingly, grateful for his support for her barriers. His hands rested on her shoulders, a comforting weight.

 

Jim managed to hang on to his temper, but only just. “Okay, let me check on Hunter, then I’ll be back and you can tell me exactly what happened with the shooting. I’m sure somebody got Hunter’s version as soon as he was able to talk.” Jim stood up, glancing around the room. “Will you be okay for about ten? Blair’s on his way over, but he’s caught in a traffic gridlock at 24th and Wilmington, so he’ll be here as soon as he can.” 

 

Sarah nodded, and sat in one of the chairs, still shivering.

 

Jim hesitated, but she nodded, so he went out and walked right past the triage nurse with a barked. “Detective Ellison, Cascade PD. That room is off limits until I give word.”

 

The nurse nodded, totally nonplused, as the tall detective made his way back to the ER.

 

Jim stopped outside the closed door and heard voices arguing.

 

“Captain Hunter, we’ll have to do some repair work on your shoulder. I don’t think you have any vital organ damage from what I can see, but it needs to be explored and cleaned, and I can’t do that in the ER.”

 

Jim recognized the voice of his father’s surgeon, only this time he sounded much more harassed.

 

“You’re not putting me under.”

 

“You’ve lost a fair amount of blood. There’s a risk of infection, plus possible hidden nerve or blood vessel damage.”

 

“No.” The protest was weak, but emphatic.

 

Jim opened the door, and was immediately blocked by a uniformed officer.

 

“I’m sorry, sir. This room is off limits to...” the man trailed off as he caught a glimpse of the intruder’s face. He looked at the patient, then back at the intruder. What the hell???

 

Jim flipped open his badge. “Detective Ellison, Major Crime. He’s my brother.”

 

The uniform immediately stood down. “Sorry, sir. I have orders to guard Captain Hunter.”

 

“Appreciate that, but I need to talk to him.”

 

“Of course, sir.”

 

“Hunter, what the hell happened?” Jim walked over, looking at his brother, currently only one shade darker than the white sheets he was lying on. He looked like death warmed over.

 

“Snipers. Took our informant out. Winged me.” Hunter struggled to sit up. “Sarah?”

 

“She’s safe. Blair’s on his way over, too. I’ll park them at my place until you’re back on your feet. She’s worried sick about you.”

 

“Can’t go under,” Hunter muttered, fighting a wave of nausea. “Need clearance.”

 

Jim immediately recognized the problem. This wasn’t about sentinel medication reactions or obstinance; this was about national security risk.

 

“I understand, Hunter. Let’s see if this can be done under local. Dr. Fitzgerald?”

 

The surgeon just sighed. “It would be very tricky and horribly painful, but if he dialed down – maybe.”

 

“Hunter, can you go with that?” Jim leaned down to stare at the ghostly reflection of his own face.

 

“Yeah...but if...Sarah....”

 

“My word as Sentinel Prime: I’ll guard her like my own.”

 

Hunter nodded, a strange relief flooding him. He had updated his will only a few weeks ago to make sure if anything happened to him that Ellison would inherit responsibility for Sarah, but to have Ellison’s word eased his mind more than he would care to admit to.

 

“Okay, Dr. Fitzgerald, he’ll agree to it.” Jim laid a hand on Hunter’s arm. “I’ll be out in the waiting room with Sarah and Blair.”

 

Hunter finally let go and passed out.

 

As the nurse arranged to get Hunter transported to the OR, Jim motioned to the officer to keep close. “I’ll be in the grieving room until my partner shows up, then we’ll go up to the fourth floor waiting area.”

 

Dr. Fitzgerald checked on his patient and wrote a few orders on the chart. He looked up to see the detective running a hesitant hand over the patient’s head.

 

“Detective Ellison?”

 

Jim looked up self-consciously, then he straightened abruptly. “Call me if he causes any trouble.” He walked out of the room without looking back.

 

Jim opened the grieving room door to find Sarah curled up in the chair, shivering from the emotions around her.

 

“Sarah.”

 

Sarah looked up and reached out to him, needing to connect, but aborted the gesture, and looked down at the floor. It wasn’t her right to ask.

 

Jim cleared his throat and settled down in the larger easy chair next to her and took her hand. Almost immediately, the cacophony around her blinked out. The shielding was like a fuzzy blanket of silence.

 

Feeling the slight tremor of her hand in his, Jim moved beyond his sentinel instincts to pure human need. He gave her arm a tug, and pulled her sideways into his lap.

 

Sarah froze in shock.

 

Jim moved her so that her head rested under his chin, her back supported by his left arm. “Okay, I know I’m not Hunter, but you’ve had a hell of a day all the way around, and your barriers are non-existent. Just let me do the driving for a bit.”

 

Sarah didn’t know what to do. He was shielding her, but he was also cradling her like a child, the way her father always had when she was little and had been hurt or scared. It formed a lump in her throat that was the only thing blocking the tears. She gradually relaxed as Jim made soothing noises in the back of his throat.

 

He wasn’t Hunter, but still, it felt so comforting....

 

Jim sensed Blair’s presence the moment he entered the hospital. Jim tracked his guide’s heartbeat as Blair made his way to the ER and then to the grieving room. Blair opened the door to see Sarah sound asleep, cradled by Jim.

 

Jim looked up and caught the dark flash in his guide’s eyes. It was suppressed in a instant, but Dark Guide didn’t like seeing another guide in his sentinel’s arms. Blair forcefully pushed his alter ego back down. Jim was now enough at ease to offer not just shielding but emotional support for someone other than his own guide - a minor miracle, that – and Blair didn’t want to break the spell.

 

Blair moved over to Jim and sat down on the chair arm. He leaned into his sentinel, linking without waking the girl. Jim almost sighed out loud - the relief of having his guide connected to him overwhelming him.

 

“How bad?” Blair whispered.

 

“Shoulder wound. He needs some surgery. Lost a lot of blood, but no major organ damage, Dr. Fitzgerald thinks.”

 

Blair leaned over to look at Sarah. “She hurt?”

 

“No, but she had a bad run in with the GDP in the waiting room.”

 

Sarah stirred, then opened her eyes. “Blair?”

 

“Hey, kiddo.” Blair smiled softly, as he stroked over her hair and lowered his barriers to check on her. “You doing okay?”

 

Sarah woke up completely and realized where she was. She scrambled off Jim’s lap with a muffled apology.

 

“Easy,” Jim said with a smile. “You’re fine where you were.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Sarah mumbled again. She was mortified - falling asleep on the Sentinel Prime wasn’t exactly the best form.

 

“How are your barriers?” Jim ran a hand over her arm, answering his own question. They were still gone, and nothing but a bonding would restore them, but they’d cross that bridge when they came to it.

 

“Stay close,” Jim instructed as he ushered both guides to the door. “We’ll head on up to the surgery waiting room.”

 

As they rode the elevator to the fourth floor, Jim filled Blair in on what had happened to Todd based on what Sarah had told him and the initial report from the PD.

 

“He’ll need to stay in the hospital, right?” Sarah asked, finding herself neatly sandwiched between the two men.

 

“If I know Hunter, he’ll try to check himself out right after surgery,” Jim sighed as they walked out of the elevator.

 

“He really shouldn’t,” Blair murmured. “He’s going to need some help for a few days.”

 

“Yeah, tell that to Mr. Majestic,” Jim snorted.

 

The waiting room was mercifully empty. Blair sat down next to Sarah, holding her hand to help shield her. Jim managed to extract all the details Sarah could remember about the shooting, and then ran through the GDP encounter again for Blair’s benefit.

 

“Sorry you had to go through that, Sarah,” Blair said quietly, knowing just how frightening and humiliating it was to be singled out like that. His hand squeezed hers comfortingly.

 

A uniformed police officer came and took Sarah’s statement, all the while watching Detective Ellison with a nervous eye. The Sentinel Prime made sure the officer wrapped it up in minimal time.

 

After the officer had left he got up and conferred quietly with the desk volunteer, then walked back. “About another fifteen minutes or so. He’ll be in recovery about 30 minutes, then he’ll be moved to a room.” Jim tilted his head, homing in on Hunter’s vital signs.

 

“Can I see him?” Sarah asked.

 

“Once he’s out of recovery, it should be okay,” Jim reassured her, then winced as he caught Hunter’s voice: he was already arguing with the nurses. “Well, he’s back to form. Raising hell and causing trouble.”

 

Sarah caught her breath in dismay.

 

Blair wrapped an arm around her and hugged her. “It’s okay, Sarah. Everything is going to be okay.” He looked over at Jim. “What’s he doing now?”

 

Jim listened, then sighed. “Does the term ‘absolute idiot’ mean anything to you, Chief?”

 

“Oh, boy. Mutiny already?” Blair knew he’d have to do something to keep the Shield calm until Sarah could connect with him. “Well, since you have everything under control here, maybe I should go and check on Hunter.”

 

Jim threw his guide a wry glance. “How about tying him down to the bed?”

 

“Nah, I’m not into bondage.” Blair grinned at Jim’s expression. “I just have to see if they’ll let me go back there.”

 

“Well, going by Hunter’s latest ‘suggestion,’ if you don’t, they’ll probably strangle him.” Jim’s brief moment of humor faded as he looked back at his guide. “Chief, watch yourself. I already had to rip those two GDP guards. They might be on this floor.”

 

“I’ll be careful. Now, let’s see if my magnetic personality works on the geriatric set.”

 

Blair walked up to the volunteer and glibly charmed her into letting him go back to recovery. If his charm didn’t work, the increasing vocal volume of an irate sentinel probably would have. Blair looked back and winked at Jim. See? Nothin’ to it.

 

Blair followed Hunter’s voice down the hall. Sure enough, there were two GDP guards patrolling the hallway, and a uniformed Cascade police officer stood just outside the recovery room door.

 

Weaver and Oates were nervous. Too late, they had found out that the guide was a member of the Sentinel Prime’s clan, and that her own sentinel was injured. A bonded guide needed to be kept safe until his sentinel was well enough to take over the responsibility for him. The last thing they needed was for a guide’s barriers to collapse.

 

Mitzi had made it sound like she was a rogue running loose, and so they had come on strong, and belatedly remembered that the new regulations forbade anyone except a GDP officer or a sentinel to order a guide to kneel. Unfortunately, the Sentinel Prime had heard them. They had screwed up, as Rex Mitchell scathingly informed them, and if the Sentinel Prime wanted to make an issue out of it, they’d go down.

 

Weaver nudged his partner as he saw a young man dressed in multi-colored clothes come bouncing down the hallway. They noticed him slow slightly when he saw them, then his pace increased again. To the experienced eyes of the GDP, it spelled Guide with a capital G.

 

Oates’s eyes narrowed slightly, then he recognized the young man. Blair Sandburg, the Guide Prime. He deliberately blocked the younger man. “Sorry for detaining you, but we’d like to speak to you.” Oates kept a careful distance from the Senior Guide Prime.

 

“Yes, ” Blair hesitated, then read the name badge. “Guard Oates. What can I help you with?”

 

“We were called earlier because of a unsupervised guide. The social worker said she was causing a problem, so we intervened. We...uh...we ordered her to her knees.”

 

Blair’s expression darkened and a faint shiver went down both guards’ backs. The guide looked...dangerous.

 

“We know that we overlooked the new regulations and that Weaver had no right to order her down, but we, well, the Senior Sentinel Prime saw us.”

 

Dan Slater was slowly weeding out any of the guards that refused to adopt the new regulations on guide management, and they had made a major mistake, publically in front of the one man that could have their asses in a sling.

 

Blair fought and managed to gain control of the darkness inside him. He dipped his barriers and read the guards. Beyond the nerves, there was genuine regret. If they hadn’t been pushed into thinking Sarah was rogue, they would have been much more civil – for the GDP, that is.

 

“We’re truly sorry about the mix-up,” Oates added.

 

“I’ll talk with the Sentinel Prime, but I can’t make any promises.” Blair was unflinchingly honest.

 

“We’d appreciate it,” Weaver said evenly, and he and his partner moved away.

 

Jim sat in the waiting room with Sarah next to him on the small couch. He had her tucked against him, shielding her even as he monitored Hunter and Blair’s encounter with the GDP guards.

 

Attaboy, Chief. Sic ‘em!

 

Gently he rocked Sarah, feeling her shiver, her fingers clutching his jacket. It reminded him of Blair, and he tightened his grip on her.

 

Blair slowed as he approached the uniform at the doorway to Recovery.

 

“Blair Sandburg, Detective Ellison’s guide. He asked me to look in on his brother.” Blair held up his observer pass for inspection.

 

For a moment, the uniform seemed to look him up and down, taking in the unorthodox clothing but not dwelling on it. He carefully scrutinized the pass, then he nodded and pushed the door open to allow Blair in.

 

“Let me up,” Hunter demanded, already trying to pull his IV out.

 

“Captain Hunter, please calm down. You can’t --” the weary nurse protested.

 

“The hell I can’t,” Hunter snarled, then he froze, looking over at the doorway.

 

“Hi, Hunter.” Blair walked up and took the Shield’s left hand in a firm grip. “Jim’s looking after Sarah. Why are you being such a terrible patient?”

 

“Have to get going,” Hunter grunted, fighting to sit up.

 

Blair sat down on the edge of the bed, and the two nurses exchanged glances: Guide.

 

Blair ignored them. “You got shot, Hunter. This isn’t a splinter, you know.”

 

“It’s just a flesh wound,” Hunter gritted, trying to stay in control of the pain.

 

“Yeah, well, Monty Python references aside, you aren’t in any shape to leave.”

 

“No.”

 

Blair sighed. “I could give all kinds of reasons to stay, but the main thing is that you have to let yourself heal enough to function. You won’t do anyone any good if you can’t get around.”

 

“Can’t. Sarah....”

 

“Jim and I will take care of her. She’s worried sick about you, you know. You’re causing her major stress by being so bull-headed. She needs you, but you can’t help her if you’re passed out on the kitchen floor.”

 

“I can handle it,” Hunter insisted.

 

“Yeah, man. I can just smell the testosterone,” Blair jibed as he stroked his hand over Hunter’s good shoulder, creating a soothing rhythm that had a subtle but definite calming effect. “C’mon, just a day or two. Sarah can be with you as much as you need, and I promise to take care of her.”

 

Hunter compressed his lips, looking away. He hated feeling weak and helpless. He hated to need.

 

“My Shield needs to be in top form,” Blair teased gently. “Can’t have the other guides thinking he’s a has-been warrior.”

 

“Sandburg....”

 

“For Sarah, and for me. Please?” Blair turned his puppy dog eyes on, and knew he had scored when Hunter huffed out a breath of exasperation.

 

Blair lowered his barriers completely and leaned down, laying his head on Hunter’s chest. Hunter stiffened, but Blair just lay there, opening the link between them. Hunter’s good hand came up of its own volition, tangling through Blair’s wild mass of curls.

 

For some indefinable reason, Sandburg had placed faith in him: faith to take care of the Guide Prime, and faith to protect Sarah. But the guide’s heart rate had increased just slightly, then leveled back out as soon as the link opened, and Hunter recognized the source.

 

Hunter had spotted the brief hesitation before Sandburg had decided to link up with him. Anxiety. It was still there, hidden under all the Guide Prime responsibility and the Dark Guide memories, knotted and snarled through whatever nightmare images remained from his abuse by the GDP. It leaked out, now and then, despite Sandburg’s efforts to control it.

 

Hunter could spot fear at a million paces, and was a master at using it, but not for this. The kid trusted him, but the tiny trace of uncertainty running underneath that trust was starting to bother Hunter. Soon, he’d have to do something about it.

 

Hunter muttered, blocking his thoughts from the empath. Now wasn’t the time. And the prospect of yet another sentinel responsibility irritated him even more. Then there was the fact that Sandburg considered him a work in progress and was subtly trying to improve his Shield, something which annoyed Hunter as much as it baffled him.

 

A low growl signaled Hunter’s frustration at the whole situation.

 

“Come on, Hunter,” Blair urged as he let the link calm Hunter down and silently boosted the Shield’s recovery. It didn’t take long until Hunter caved.

 

“All right, all right. One day,” Hunter groused, surrendering to the shameless manipulation.

 

Blair hid a smile, and took his time sitting back up. “Jim and I will see you when they bring you to your room. Sarah needs to bond, and you need to bond to heal.”

 

Hunter growled under his breath. “Who made you God, Sandburg?”

 

Blair just smiled. “You did, Hunter.”

 

Hunter muttered a light obscenity, but didn’t argue. He shifted and winced at the pain in his shoulder.

 

“Now, how about you rest and let the nurses do their job? We’ll see you upstairs shortly.”

 

Blair waited until Hunter settled down, and then quietly withdrew. The nurses were extremely grateful for Blair’s intervention, but still wondered how another sentinel’s guide could handle this particular sentinel.

 

Blair came out into the waiting room, rubbing his neck. “You hear all that, Jim?”

 

“Yeah. I gotta say, Chief, you can manipulate with the best of them.”

 

“Me? Manipulate?” Blair widened his eyes, trying to look innocent.

 

“Uh-huh,” Jim said. “He’ll take it from you. He would have kicked me in the teeth, if he had the strength.”

 

Well, maybe someday he’ll listen to Jim, Blair thought hopefully. “We can go upstairs to the sentinel floor in about a half hour.”

 

“Is he okay?” Sarah asked, still leaning on Jim, her eyes anxious.

 

“He will be, when he can have you close,” Blair reassured her. “Bonding will help both of you.”

 

Sarah shrugged, feeling inadequate and helpless. She should have been the one to go back and calm her sentinel. She should have....

 

“She should stop blaming herself and just do what needs to be done,” Blair said softly as he walked over and kissed the top of her head. “You’re doing fine, Guide Freeman. You’re doing just fine.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Sarah stared through the doorway of the dimly lit room. Hunter looked like he was barely breathing. He stirred as he sensed her.

 

“Sarah?” he rasped.

 

She walked into the room, stopping right beside his bed. Reaching out, she traced a line of pain in his forehead. “Does it hurt very bad?”

 

“I can handle it,” Hunter declared.

 

Sarah linked, felt the sharp agony in his shoulder. “Dial it down. Let me help.”

 

Bit by bit, the burning lessened, and Hunter’s jaw relaxed. Sarah hesitated, then moved to sit on the bed, staring down at him. They locked eyes for a while, then Sarah moved to lay her head on his good shoulder, her hand moving over his chest in slow circles until he relaxed completely.

 

“Sleep,” she whispered. “Just rest and I’ll stay right here.”

 

Blair and Jim watched Hunter fight his fatigue until his eyes closed. Sarah curled up with Hunter, nodding to Jim and Blair, who finally left quietly.

 

The whole rest of the day Hunter alternately woke and slept, dragging himself to the bathroom because he refused to use the urinal and barely tolerating the nurses as they hung IV antibiotics and checked his dressing. He also refused all pain medicines, which made him grouchier than normal.

 

By the time night time rolled around, Sarah was exhausted from trying to keep him from over-exerting. Hunter finally fell asleep, and Sarah catnapped beside him. She woke multiple times during the night when Hunter shifted restlessly, but she was able to soothe him back to sleep. The nurse checked on him a couple of times, but didn’t wake the sentinel-guide pair. Neither Sarah nor Hunter were disturbed by the rumbling purr that came from underneath the hospital bed.

 

Hunter woke at 7:00 AM, groaning as he sat up.

 

Sarah immediately tried to push him back down. “Hunter, you need to rest....”

 

“I need to get out of here,” he growled. Then he looked at her closely. She was pale and looked exhausted. Had she been awake all night? “How are you doing?”

 

“I’m fine. How’s the pain?” Sarah stared at him anxiously.

 

“Tolerable,” was the clipped reply. “I’m outta here.”

 

“Hunter, please....”

 

The sentinel simply ignored his guide’s protest. Sarah, trying her best to shove him back into bed, lost her balance and fell heavily. A shocked gasp alerted them to an intruder.

 

Lynn Gordon was shocked as she saw the guide thrown to the floor. Injured or not, the sentinel didn’t have to hurt his guide. And this one looked just like the sentinel who had nearly eviscerated the GDP guards yesterday. Twins?

 

“Sarah?” Lynn asked, barely entering the room. A sentinel in BP mode was dangerous, and right now, he was also wounded and unpredictable. Sarah got to her feet and moved to Hunter’s side.

 

“Who the hell are you?” Hunter snapped. His free hand moved over Sarah briefly, making sure she wasn’t hurt.

 

“Lynn Gordon, Social Services. I just came to check on Sarah.”

 

“Why?” The blunt question was terse.

 

“Well, seeing her injuries yesterday, I just wanted to make sure....”

 

Sarah rubbed her aching head. Here we go again. “Hunter, I --”

 

“What the hell is she talking about?” Hunter glared at his guide.

 

“The bruises. On her face,” Lynn said nervously.

 

“You think I hit my guide?”

 

The low growl made Lynn jump. “Those injuries came from a fist,” Lynn insisted, trying to make up for her lack of protest yesterday.

 

“Interesting,” Hunter drawled, eyes so cold that Lynn wondered if there was any feeling left in the man. “And you’re sure I did it.”

 

Lynn was about to launch into another campaign, but Sarah interrupted her.

 

“No! Hunter didn’t do this.” Sarah moved back on the bed, settling next to him, willing him to calm down. “He didn’t hurt me.”

 

“But he threw you to the floor just now!”

 

“I slipped trying to shove him back into bed,” Sarah explained, leaning into Hunter’s brief stroke over her head. “Just an accident.”

 

“Are you sure?” Lynn was still worried. The man looked quite capable of violence.

 

“He’s my sentinel,” Sarah said, with a quiet conviction that immediately settled the sentinel down. “I’m his guide.” For the first time, she actually sounded proud of that.

 

“And she’s fine,” came a new voice as Blair Sandburg popped into the room, bearing a bag of cinnabons and several covered drink containers. “Hi, I’m Blair Sandburg, the other watcher of the beast.”

 

“Excuse me?” Lynn looked totally confused.

 

“Senior Guide Prime,” Blair explained. “Hunter’s backup guide. Or is he my backup sentinel?” He looked over to where Hunter sat propped up against the pillows. Hunter actually had some color in his face this morning. He was better, which meant he’d be itching to sign himself out. “Brought breakfast. Hospital food sucks – no offense,” he added, smiling at Lynn. “Really, Sarah’s fine. We both got banged up on a police case.”

 

“Well, if you’re sure....” Lynn trailed off.

 

“I’m sure,” Blair said soothingly as he skillfully nudged the woman out the door with more reassurances. He then carefully checked for any nurses, and once the coast was clear, turned back to Hunter. “Whew! Leave you guys alone and what happens? Now, I know that you haven’t had breakfast, so here’s something to tide you over.”

 

Hunter and Sarah exchanged bemused glances.

 

“Okay, one coffee for Hunter, hot chocolate for Sarah, and a double latte for me. Here - cinnabons are fresh.” Blair passed out the goodies, then took a sip of his own drink with a sigh of appreciation.

 

Sarah sipped her chocolate, comforted by the sweet flavor. Hunter stared at Blair, then sipped as well. Damn kid thought he had him figured out, did he? Blair chatted about this and that while Hunter watched and sipped. Damn coffee was damn near perfect. And the kid was bouncing around like a ferret on speed.

 

“Just how much caffeine have you had this morning, Sandburg?”

 

“Hey, this is my first cup,” Blair protested. He moved to sit on the opposite side of the bed. “So, how is it?”

 

“The coffee? Fine.”

 

“No, you. How. Are. You?” Blair enunciated.

 

“I’m leaving this morning.” Hunter’s gaze dared Blair to protest.

 

“What’d the doctor say?”

 

“That my patient shouldn’t be eating breakfast and drinking coffee, not to mention thinking of leaving.” The dry voice startled all three.

 

Blair winced. Busted. “I was just trying to....”

 

“Yes, I know. Recovery told me that you were instrumental in keeping the peace yesterday, Mr. Sandburg. I appreciate that, but Captain Hunter is in no way ready to leave. He lost a lot of blood and refused transfusion.”

 

“Just give me iron pills,” Hunter muttered. “I’m not staying.”

 

“Let’s play a little game,” Dr. Fitzpatrick suggested sardonically. “I’m the doctor, and you’re the patient.”

 

Blair winced at the sarcasm. Hunter actually looked amused.

 

The surgeon peeled off the dressing and inspected the wound. “Looks pretty good. No infection.” He moved Hunter’s shoulder around, and didn’t even elicit a wince. “You’re dialed down, Captain. That’s cheating.”

 

“I’m going,” Hunter insisted stubbornly.

 

“If you can get up and walk out of here, maybe I’ll listen to you. Who’s going to take care of you? You need rest, good food in moderation,” he looked over at Blair, who grinned sheepishly, “antibiotics, iron supplement, the works.”

 

“Jim and I’ll take care of him,” Blair said, his voice muffled by food. He swallowed, nearly choking himself. “Hunter and Sarah will stay with us.”

 

“Maybe in a couple of days,” the physician frowned as he deftly redressed the wound.

 

“Maybe right now,” Hunter drawled. “Give me the papers. I have them memorized.”

 

“I’m sure you do,” Dr. Fitzgerald said, muttering under his breath about pig-headed sentinels.

 

Blair cleared his throat. “I don’t think you’re going to convince him to stay. Jim was a medic in the army. And I have a number of herbal remedies that...” He trailed off at the physician’s look that said: oh, no – another granola-crunching, tree-hugging druid. “Well, since Hunter won’t stay on principle, we’ll just do what we can.”

 

Hunter rolled his eyes but stayed quiet.

 

“Okay, so let’s get the forms, then we’ll get you down to the car and swing by your place for clothes and stuff, then it’s back to the loft.” Blair rubbed his hands together like a master strategist.

 

“I advise against this, Captain Hunter,” the surgeon reminded him.

 

“I know,” Hunter rumbled, then focused on what Sarah was saying to him. Her whisper was inaudible to anyone else.

 

“Fine,” Dr. Fitzpatrick sighed. “On your head be it. Risks of signing out against medical advice include bleeding, infection, coma, death, permanent disability and so on.” He turned to leave the room.

 

“Doctor?”

 

Fitzpatrick turned back. “Yes?”

 

“Thank you,” Hunter said shortly. Sarah patted her sentinel’s shoulder in approval.

 

For the first time that morning, Fitzpatrick smiled. “You’re welcome. Please take it easy. This wasn’t a splinter.”

 

After the man left, Hunter glared at Blair. “You guys hire the same speech writer?”

 

Blair laughed, scooping up the empty cups and disposing them in the trash can. “Okay, Sarah, if you can help him get dressed, I’ll go get the car. Have the nurse wheel him down to the main entrance. We’ll get fresh clothes at your house, and both of you can have a shower at the loft.”

 

He grabbed the sack of cinnabons, then stopped, considering. Pulling out the last two, he rolled them under the bed. A loud purr greeted the gesture, followed by munching sounds.

 

Blair whistled as he left the room. Even the GDP roaming the hallways couldn’t dampen his mood. Hunter would be alright; he’d see to that himself. Sarah was safe and Jim was looking for the man who had shot his brother.

 

Sarah peeked under the bed. “I didn’t know cats liked cinnabons.”

 

Hunter just sighed. Cyclone Sandburg strikes again.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Hunter was hunched in the wheelchair as a hulking orderly wheeled him down to the hospital entrance. Sarah held his prescriptions and a sheaf of instructions as she walked beside him.

 

As they waited at the main entrance, a gust of wind blew rain under the overhang, adding to Hunter’s good mood. He rumbled in irritation as he shivered. The suit jacket had bit the dust after the shooting, and his thin shirt wasn’t quite enough to keep the wet chill out.

 

“There he is,” Sarah pointed out as a vehicle pulled up in a rumble of engine noise.

 

Blair hopped out and opened the passenger door as the orderly held onto the wheelchair as Hunter insisted on climbing into the car under his own steam.

 

Hunter glanced around at the mess of paper that had been considerately shoved into the back seat to make room for him to sit. It was now threatening to topple over onto Sarah, who perched in the only available space.

 

“This is your car?” Hunter recalled the paper monstrosity in Sandburg’s room, but this was worse.

 

“Yeah. Great, isn’t she?” Blair patted the dash with pride.

 

“It’s a mess.”

 

“Love me, love my car,” Blair quipped as he carefully pulled out into the hospital drive to head over to Hunter’s house.

 

“I wouldn’t propose just yet, Sandburg,” Hunter grunted.

 

“You are so not my type, Hunter,” Blair grinned, happy to distract the IA captain from the pain. As long as Hunter was grumbling, he wouldn’t be thinking about his shoulder.

 

Hunter just snorted and let his eyes close. The car heater was working its magic and making him sleepy. Sarah held onto his left shoulder and supported him.

 

Blair kept up light monologue for the entire drive to Hunter’s house. Hunter just filed it under ‘semi-soothing background noise’ and managed to tune Sandburg out.

 

“...so I thought I’d teach Sarah to drive this thing.”

 

Hunter woke up. “What?!”

 

“Sarah. She needs to be able to drive. Well, that and continue her education, but we’ll get to that later.”

 

“Sandburg.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Shut up.”

 

Blair shut up, but his eyes were twinkling at Sarah in the rearview mirror.

 

Sarah wanted to just pick up clothes for herself and Hunter, but Hunter insisted that he wanted to shower at home, so Sarah ended up taking the quickest shower on record, then cleared the bathroom for Hunter, who brushed off both Blair and Sarah’s offer of help.

 

Hunter came out in jeans and holding a T-shirt. His dressing was soaking wet and bloody.

 

“Ah, man, you started the bleeding up again,” Blair scolded as he peeled back the tape. “Good thing neither you or Jim have much chest hair.”

 

“This is an anomaly,” Hunter pronounced. “I’m not accident prone.”

 

“Jim is,” Blair said, as Sarah handed him a gauze pad which he positioned over the wound and held while Sarah taped it. “Guess those genes must’ve skipped you.”

 

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you, Sandburg?” Hunter scowled.

 

“Me?” Blair raised bushy eyebrows. “Perish the thought, man. Take care of a grumpy, wounded sentinel? Not my idea of a good time.”

 

Hunter muttered under his breath, but let Sarah help him pull on the T-shirt and a sweatshirt for warmth.

 

“Now, I better get you guys back to the loft before Jim has a cow.”

 

“Ellison’s home?” Hunter sounded less than thrilled with that fact.

 

“He’s been out all night looking for the guy who shot you. Came home about six and wanted to catch some sleep before I brought you home.”

 

Hunter mumbled something, but quit ragging on Jim. The light tone, ever so subtle, was a gentle reminder that chafed. Hunter realized belatedly that Sandburg had probably been up all night, too.

 

“Jim’s pissed off because of Simon won’t officially allow him to work the case, but you know him. He’s been going at it unofficially and waving his Senior Sentinel Prime badge around to get his way. Not that you’d know anything about that kind of behavior, of course,” Blair added, tongue in cheek.

 

Gratitude had never come easy for Hunter. He opened his mouth, then shut it again, but Blair just gave him a friendly pat on the back. The guide knew what the sentinel meant to say, even if he was unwilling to voice it.

 

Back in the car, Hunter tried to slow his breathing and dial down. All the exertion had flared his pain level somewhere between agony and ‘shoot me now.’ He was getting clammy.

 

Sarah linked, subtly edging the pain back down until Hunter’s brow smoothed out and his body relaxed.

 

“We’ll work out the sleeping arrangements. I thought maybe Sarah might like to sleep on the couch and you could have my room again. I’ll bunk with Jim. Just one big happy family.”

 

Hunter considered. “I want Sarah with me.”

 

Blair paused. Jim had told him about Hunter commandeering Sarah into his bed when Blair had been sick with pneumonia, and privately thought it was too much, too soon. He didn’t even want to think about the fact that soon, very soon, Hunter would go primal, and Sarah wasn’t ready for that, not by a long shot.

 

“Hunter....” Blair hesitated.

 

“My guide,” Hunter growled, and that was the end of the discussion.

 

Blair met Sarah’s eyes in the mirror, and was encouraged that although she seemed a bit unsure, she wasn’t scared out of her wits.

 

Blair was in monologue mode again, but Hunter just let the young man’s voice wash over him like the tide. If you just sat still, it was almost like a white noise generator - calming and curiously cleansing.

 

Blair finally ran out of steam three blocks from Prospect.

 

“Okay, Motormouth, you can give it a rest. I am dialed down. My pain is in control. I am not zoning.”

 

“Yeah, but I still think....”

 

“Sandburg, duct tape can be arranged.”

 

“Cool. And everybody said you didn’t have a sense of humor.” Blair grinned widely as he parked right in front of the loft.

 

Hunter climbed out, holding Sarah close to him. “Who said I was kidding?”

 

The elevator rattled its way to the third floor while Blair dug in his backpack for his keys. If Jim was still sleeping, he didn’t want to wake him. When they reached the apartment door, Blair stopped and reluctantly handed his key to Hunter. Injured or not, Hunter was the Shield, and the sentinel would not allow him to go in first. He had to keep both guides safe.

 

By the time they made it inside, Jim was at the bottom of the stairs, sleep mask pushed on top of his head, and clad in the ugliest pair of plaid boxers Hunter had ever seen.

 

“Hunter,” Jim nodded. “Knew you’d sign yourself out. No leads yet, but we can talk strategy later.”

 

Hunter nodded back coolly, both men starting to bristle slightly. The old territorial imperative was flaring up again. It was instinctive, even though Hunter had been there before. It was always the same when a sentinel, even one related by blood, entered Jim’s territory. Hunter wasn’t much better. 

Jim reached out lightening fast and caught Blair to him, scenting at his neck. Satisfied that only his scent was on his guide, he finally let Blair go. He then reached out to Sarah, but Hunter blocked him.

 

“If this pissing contest is nearly over, can I go get lunch ready?” Blair asked politely, and both sentinels gave in with barely audible grunts.

 

Sarah stood slightly behind Hunter, then moved to his uninjured side. Hunter held onto her until the Sentinel Prime relaxed and the throwbacks were once again modern day sentinels on reasonable terms.

 

“Hunter, how about you and Sarah go bond? I’ll fix some grilled cheese sandwiches and a salad.” Blair steered Hunter and Sarah to his room, and caught Jim’s warning growl. Blair practically pushed them through the door, and then turned to see Jim staring at him, his nostrils flaring with residual aggression...and need.

 

Returning to his sentinel, Dark Guide stared him down until the primal sentinel’s aggression faded.

 

On my terms, Sentinel. On mine.

 

Jim nodded, allowing his guide to make the first move. Blair reached out and was caught tightly against the taller man. The feral sound both of them made was both a warning and a promise. 

 

Lunch would have to wait until sentinel reclaimed his guide.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Hunter was resting on the couch while Blair and Sarah fixed dinner. It had been a tiring afternoon, with Hunter fighting the pain and his enforced captivity with equal rancor.

 

Finally, after hearing Hunter bitch about something for the third time, Jim had grabbed the medicine bottle, shook out two pain killers and presented them to Hunter.

 

“Take them.” Jim’s tone was a growl.

 

“No way in hell.”

 

Jim loomed over Hunter, who struggled to sit up. “You’re not operating at full capacity. That means I can kick the shit out of you with minimal effort. Take the pills, or I’ll shove them down your throat.”

 

“You can try,” Hunter rumbled back, and the aggression in the room escalated.

 

Blair came out of the kitchen, eyes wide. “Hey guys, what’s going on?”

 

“He won’t take the pain pills. I told him he has no choice.”

 

Blair hid a smile. “So, you’re going to pop them in his mouth, hold his nose and clamp his jaws shut like a Golden Retriever?”

 

“If I have to.” Jim nodded self-righteously.

 

“Ellison, you fucking prick!” The words cut off when Hunter saw Sarah enter the living area, wincing at his language.

 

“Haven’t I told you to stop swearing in front of the kids?” Jim’s sardonic humor seemed to break the tension.

 

Hunter leaned back, pale and sweaty.

 

“Hunter, there’s no need to suffer. Take half a dose and we’ll do some breathing exercises so you can dial the pain down, okay?” Blair pulled a cushion onto the floor near Hunter’s head, then moved to the stereo and selected a CD.

 

“Take it,” Jim repeated, holding out a pill and a glass.

 

Hunter grumbled but popped the pill and took a long drink, sputtering at the taste. “What the hell is this crap?”

 

“Herbal tea. Boosts healing and your immune system.”

 

“Taste like dead grass and sweat socks,” Hunter groused, setting down the glass with a grimace.

 

“I know,” Blair grinned. “But it’s good for you.” The CD he had put on began to play - some soothing harp and flute music set to ocean waves.

 

“Wonderful. New Age elevator music,” Hunter bitched, but let Sarah adjust the pillow under his head.

 

Blair moved over to Hunter. “This isn’t really meditation; it’s just a relaxation technique. You can’t control the sensory spikes when you’re hurting this badly, so we want to blunt the pain so you can regain control.”

 

Hunter grunted, but seemed to like the idea of regaining control. Sarah dabbed at his forehead with the dishtowel she held, wiping away the clammy sweat.

 

Blair took Hunter’s good hand and settled himself on the large cushion. Jim flopped into the recliner and Sarah moved to sit on the arm of the couch near Hunter’s feet.

 

“Now, the pain medicine should be helping soon, but I want you to slow your breathing down to twelve slow breaths a minute.” Blair demonstrated, breathing deeply and evenly.

 

Hunter rolled his eyes, but began to breathe in unison with Blair.

 

“All you can feel is the air moving in and out of your lungs. You’re safe and protected, and your body is relaxed.”

 

“Practicing a little voodoo, Dr. Mesmer?”

 

Blair grinned a little at Hunter’s sarcasm, quietly lectured, “Just breathe.”

 

Hunter breathed, guided by the voice that shifted universes, and with Sandburg’s quiet coaching, found that the pain was lessening. Tension eased from his muscles, relaxing him. The words no longer registered, just the tone, and Hunter knew he was skirting the edge of a zone, but knew he wouldn’t fall over the edge. The lights and sounds muted as the pain slipped away. The last thing Hunter heard was Sandburg’s whisper, “Sleep.”

 

Jim got up and looked at his half-brother who slept deeply, the lines of pain smoothed out. “You sure he’s not zoned?” he whispered.

 

“Nope. Just sleeping. He’s still aware. See? His ears twitched when you talked about him.”

 

Jim snorted.

 

“He’ll sleep for a couple of hours. We can eat now and I’ll microwave him a plate when he wakes up.”

 

Jim followed Blair into the kitchen, looking back to see Sarah stroking her sentinel’s forehead before moving to settle next to him.

 

“Make that two plates, Chief.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The door opened before Simon’s fist had even hit the door, and he found himself looking straight at Jim - or was it Hunter? Then he saw Sarah appear and her hand brushed the sentinel’s back. Well, that answered that question.

 

“Captain Hunter, you look a hell of a lot better than I thought you would after just being shot.”

 

“Simon, I thought you could tell the difference.” Jim sounded disappointed but his eyes twinkled.

 

Simon groaned at his mistake. “So where is your evil twin?”

 

“On the couch with Sandburg.”

 

“You might want to rephrase that, Jim. The mental polaroid I’m getting ain’t pretty.”

 

“They’re watching the Discovery Channel.” Jim ushered Simon in, but kept Sarah at his side, ignoring the surprised look Simon gave him. “Well, Hunter is watching and Blair is running commentary, “ Jim added.

 

Simon couldn’t contain his curiosity. “What’s this?” He gestured to Sarah, who had moved a little behind Jim. The Major Crime captain still intimidated her.

 

“Just a little training exercise that Blair is working on. Mutual support system.” Jim ran a hand over Sarah’s back, soothing her.

 

“This is another one of those sentinel things, right?’ Simon took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t even want to know.”

 

“Just as well. So, what’s up?” Jim knew Simon wouldn’t have stopped by to visit Hunter just for social reasons.

 

“Police matter I need to discuss with the two of you.” Simon’s warning look put Jim on alert.

 

“Sarah, why don’t you and Blair check out his office?” Jim glanced over at his guide and managed to telegraph the request for privacy with just a look. His guide could read him better than a road map.

 

Sarah nodded, moving back to the couch and Blair got up, both guides heading for the door.

 

“Office? What office?” Simon looked confused.

 

“Rooftop garden. Blair’s little sanctuary.”

 

Blair was ushering Sarah out the door and Hunter struggled to his feet, facing Banks.

 

He looked pale, but the eyes were just as cool and calculating as always.

 

“Hunter,” Simon greeted him stiffly.

 

“Banks.”

 

“Well, now that we’ve exchanged polite greetings, Simon, what’s so important?”

 

“We’ve got another lead on the guide tapes. Something I think Hunter should take a look at.”

 

“How bad?” Hunter asked bluntly.

 

“Bad enough,” Simon replied, handing over a folder.

 

Jim flipped it open, and his lips compressed. Wordlessly, he handed it over to Hunter.

 

Hunter’s jaw tightened, but he looked carefully through the contents, then back up at Banks. “I don’t want Sandburg or Sarah getting wind of this.”

 

“Absolutely,” Jim agreed. “They don’t need to see this - period.”

 

“What will you do with this?” Simon asked.

 

“When I’m back on my feet, I’ll do some digging. This isn’t new; it can wait until I’m back full time.”

 

“I’m leaving this to your discretion, Hunter. Don’t make me regret this decision.” Simon headed for the door, Jim right behind him.

 

“He okay?” Simon asked as Hunter made his way gingerly back to the couch. He was looking a bit gray.

 

“No, but that won’t stop him.” Jim cast an irritated look over his shoulder. “He’d be pushing the envelope even at death’s door.”

 

“Hmm. Sounds like another sentinel I know,” Simon drawled.

 

“Simon?”

 

“Yeah, Jim?”

 

“Go home.” Jim shut the door in Simon’s chuckling face.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Three days later, Hunter had improved dramatically. The pain was bearable, and Blair was trying some gentle range of motion exercises to keep the joint from freezing up.

 

“I’m going home tomorrow,” Hunter announced as he allowed Sandburg to stretch his shoulder.

 

“Mm,” Blair mumbled as he moved Hunter’s arm back a bit further.

 

“You sure you’re up to it?’ Jim asked bluntly.

 

“Doesn’t matter. It’s time.” Hunter hissed out a breath as Sandburg reached the limit on his mobility.

 

“Sorry, man, but I gotta do it,” Blair apologized. “You can keep up the exercises at home after you see the doctor.”

 

“I can take out my own stitches,” Hunter growled.

 

“Left-handed?” Blair peeked under the bandage. The wound was healing well with the herbal poultice. “Are you a glutton for punishment?”

 

“Then Sarah can do it,” Hunter said, and his guide nodded uncertainly.

 

“Okay, Hunter. Time for a break.” Blair got up and let Hunter lean back into the couch cushions. Hunter was exhausted, even if he would never admit it.

 

Footsteps in the hallway alerted both sentinels. Jim went over, knowing who would be on the other side.

 

“Jim!” Naomi swept in. “Just got back from my retreat. I heard Captain Hunter was shot!”

 

She pecked Jim on the cheek, then embraced her son. “Blair, sweetie, you look so much better!” She squeezed him tight, then turned to smile at Sarah. “Hi, Sarah. It’s nice to see you again.”

 

“Hello,” Sarah said softly.

 

Naomi’s eyes moved until she caught Hunter, and let them linger. “Hello, Captain Hunter. I’m so sorry to hear about you getting hurt.”

 

“Thanks,” Hunter said abruptly, just shy of rudeness.

 

Naomi pulled something out of her enormous handbag. “I figured you might be getting bored, so I brought you the latest Sports Illustrated to read.” She handed over the magazine with a sweet smile.

 

Hunter gazed at her warily. “Thanks.” This time the tone wasn’t quite as abrupt.

 

Naomi felt a little tingle watching him. Even wounded and pale, he still had an aura of power and control that intoxicated her. “It was my pleasure.” She watched him out of the corner of her eye as she chatted with Blair, just enjoying the view of Hunter’s bare chest.

 

Sarah knew Hunter was distracted by the injury and the pain, but something was up. She lowered her barriers slightly, and felt.... Her eyes widened when she realized the emotion coming from Naomi Sandburg

 

Sarah excused herself and walked into the kitchen, Blair’s mother was attracted to Hunter. No, more than attracted, she thought, flushing a bit in embarrassment. The emotions were red and bright, high energy and female. Sarah wasn’t sure how she felt about that and snuck a glance at her sentinel.

 

His head lifted as if he sensed her stare, and they locked eyes. A short nod from Hunter was all she needed to settle the butterflies in her stomach. The bond remained.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Sarah had cleaned the kitchen, vacuumed the downstairs and generally tidied up while Hunter got the trash ready for pickup. Sunday mornings had taken on a routine, with the afternoon reserved for grocery shopping and whatever other outing Hunter had in mind. He occasionally took her to the mall, the bookstore and surprisingly, to her old salon to get her hair trimmed. Sarah had left it long; Hunter seemed to prefer it, tugging at the ends or letting his hands thread through the strands when they bonded.

 

Sarah stacked some books, when one fell to the floor and a photo slipped out. Frowning, she picked it up. It was a candid shot; Hunter in what she recognized as army fatigue pants, boots and a green t-shirt, standing with a young man similarly dressed. Both were grinning at the camera, Hunter’s arm slung casually around the shorter man’s neck. The young man had brown eyes and sandy hair and Sarah knew she had seen him before.

 

Hunter looked younger, and he looked happy. His smile was relaxed, and posture confident. Sarah traced the picture with her fingers. There were still emotions lingering on it -- bittersweet.

 

Hunter walked into the living room to see Sarah holding the picture, her eyes focused somewhere else.

 

She jumped slightly when she noticed him standing behind her. “I’m sorry, it just fell out of the book.”

 

Hunter took the picture, looking at it carefully before setting it down on the coffee table. He moved to the patio door and looked out toward the mountains, partially obscured by clouds. His guide didn’t ask, which both soothed him and made him feel guilty.

 

“That was Gary,” Hunter said after a while. “We had just gotten back from a training exercise.”

 

Sarah moved behind him, wanting to comfort him but unsure how.

 

“Six months after that photo was taken, we both left the military and transitioned into the civilian police. We were in homicide for four years together. He died just before his thirtieth birthday.”

 

“What was he like?” Sarah asked softly.

 

“Steady, calm, driest wit I ever met. Liked sports, especially outdoor ones. Major movie buff. He just missed the DVD revolution.”

 

“He loved you,” Sarah whispered, reading between the lines and understanding what Hunter couldn’t say.

 

Hunter closed his eyes, then opened them again. “And he died because of it.” He opened the patio door and stood outside alone, letting the rain fall on him.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Monica walked down the aisle of the supermarket, her hair bundled under a scarf and dark glasses obscuring her face. She couldn’t take the risk of being recognized. The Sentinel Prime had declared vendetta, and so she had taken emergency family leave to deal with her ‘sick’ mother. But her mother didn’t take kindly to such a deception, and was threatening to call the hospital. Monica had never liked her mother.

 

She didn’t want to leave Cascade, but something would have to give sooner or later. She couldn’t hide indefinitely.

 

When Monica had handed in her forms, the Human Resources director hadn’t even looked her in the face. Monica could feel the almost-smirk the woman gave her.

 

“Of course Mom hasn't been well for some time, and now that things are going downhill, I have to be with her.”

 

"Of course. I understand” The HR director made a quick note on the bottom of the form. “Please give our best wishes to your mother.” The words were conciliatory, but the tone was not. Monica was used to women disliking her. When you were beautiful and smart other women automatically hated you for getting all the men. In her current state of mind, however, it was grating on her nerves.

 

Monica threw a couple more items into her cart, sudden tears of frustration pricking her eyes. It wasn’t fair. All she had done was try and pick the man up, for God's sake! Who would take a guide to a social function? Everyone knew they sat at home, or were put in a hostel. No one, she mentally screamed, took their guide out in high society! It would be like introducing people to a guide dog, and expect it to keep up intelligent conversation.

 

And Captain Hunter exuded raw sexuality like few she’d ever met. He would have ben dynamite in bed. Of course, Ellison wouldn’t have been half bad, either. And if he had suggested a little two on one with that long-haired guide of his.... Monica shivered deliciously at the thought of sharing a bed with both a sentinel and a guide-whore, momentarily distracted from her anger by the erotic images in her head

 

“Monica Lutrell?”

 

Monica looked up in alarm. Who had recognized her?

 

A stranger stood in front of her cart.

 

“What do you want?” She asked bluntly.

 

“I have a business proposition for you, Ms. Lutrell.” The man was tall and slickly handsome. Middle-aged but well kept.

 

Monica gave him the once-over, then regretfully dismissed him. “Not interested.”

 

The man smiled with considerable charm. “I heard about the problems you had at the gala, I just had to tell you that it wasn't your fault.”

 

“Tell that to the Sentinel Prime,” she hissed quietly, not wanting to draw attention to herself.

 

“It’s always tricky business dealing with sentinels and guides. They think they have all the power in the world, don’t they? And to be publicly humiliated like that? Horrible.”

 

Monica compressed her lips, wavering between accepting the sympathy and wariness of a stranger. “How do I know you’re not with them?”

 

The man laughed. “You don’t. But you’re a smart woman, and a smart woman can look at all the angles. I just want to talk to you. You’re free to refuse my offer if you’d like, but wouldn’t you like to even the score?”

 

Monica considered, then finally nodded with a feline smile.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Hunter sat in his recliner, looking over where Blair Sandburg bounced up and down on his toes.

 

“So we thought it might be fun for all of us to take a long weekend and you know, recharge the mental batteries and get away from all this...stuff.” Blair gestured vaguely at the pile of IA reports on the dining room table. “All work, no play, and all that.”

 

“Ellison wants to go camping?” Hunter sounded wary.

 

“It‘ll be fun. A little hiking, a little fishing, and best of all, no psycho assassins or GDP around. I’m sure a little rest and sunshine would help you heal that much faster,” Blair assured him.

 

Between the disgusting herbal concoctions Sandburg had shoved on Hunter while the Shield was recuperating at the loft and some physical therapy sessions, Hunter actually had recovered much more quickly than expected. Being a guide, Sandburg naturally liked fussing and nurturing, but he was also an amazingly effective healer, which required much more than compassion and empathy. Healing was not for the weak-minded or faint of heart.

 

“Sunshine? You do realize you live in Cascade?” Hunter’s gruff teasing brought out a blinding smile.

 

“So, you guys wanna come along?”

 

“I’d have to rent a truck. My sedan won’t make it on the back roads.” Hunter still wasn’t convinced.

 

“Jim knows this spot on Rainier, half way up the mountain. Federal forest, but Jim knows some people and we can get a fishing permit.”

 

“Have it all figured out, eh?”

 

Hunter was caving; Blair just knew it. “I’d like for you both to come with us,” he said simply.

 

Hunter sighed as those earnest deep blue eyes focused on him. The kid had a lethal weapon there, and he didn’t even know it.

 

“Yeah, okay. I haven’t taken any vacation days yet, but I suppose I could swing it, since I barely used any sick time.” Hunter turned to Sarah. “You want to go?”

 

She nodded. She had always loved hiking and camping, the one sporting activity he father had allowed her, as it generally kept her away from anyone but her family.

 

“Fine. Next weekend, right? I’ll call Ellison and settle the details.”

 

“Cool!” Blair exclaimed happily. “If you need any gear, Jim has extra stuff.” He whirled out the door with a vague farewell, leaving Hunter to contemplate the quiet wake Sandburg had left behind.

 

“I have a tent, and sleeping bags. Gary and I used to camp....” Hunter cut off the sentence. “You have hiking boots?”

 

“I have boots at home,” Sarah faltered at his thunderous expression. “I mean, at my old house.”

 

And in order to get them, she’d have to make contact with her family, something Hunter wasn’t in the mood for in the least.

 

Sarah dropped her eyes, blinking back the sting. She had hoped that he’d relent and let her see her family again, but going by his face, it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

 

“Sarah.” A hand went under her chin, lifting her face. They locked eyes, each waiting the other out.

 

She swallowed heavily and the touch under her chin lightened.

 

“We’ll swing by and pick up your things Wednesday afternoon,” Hunter said, letting his hand fall and turning away abruptly.

 

Sarah took in several deep breaths. “Do you...do you want Blair to come along?”

 

The peaceful mediator, and the only buffer Sarah had.

 

“No,” Hunter growled. “I’ll make sure the GDP requests your father and sister vacate the house while we’re there. I’m not putting up with any more stupidity on their part.”

 

I won’t get to see them. The knowledge sat in her throat like a lump of ice. She turned away this time, but her sentinel caught her shoulder, drawing her back. She was cold, and so he pulled her against him.

 

My guide.

 

He waited patiently until the stiffness left her posture, and instinct took over as she relaxed against him. Sarah was unsure whether it was his body heat or the shielding that warmed her, but she stopped fighting it and closed her eyes.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Sarah walked up the steps to her house - her old house - and paused at the front stoop. The same crack still ran across it, like a twisted Y. She reached for the door, but stopped abruptly. She didn’t have a key anymore.

 

“They were supposed to leave it unlocked,” Hunter said. He had contacted the GDP campus office to make sure the house was empty when they stopped by.

 

Sarah swallowed against the lump in her throat, then turned the handle. Stepping in, the first thing she noticed was that it smelled different from Hunter’s house. Maybe the paint, maybe something else. It felt...foreign. She guiltily suppressed the disloyal thought.

 

Moving into the living room, she looked around. Except for a few little changes, things looked exactly how she had left them four months ago.

 

Hunter prowled around as Sarah moved slowly across the room toward the stairs. He noted the pictures on the mantel and wall, a procession of photos of Sarah and her sister, from baby shots to fairly recent ones. School photos, candids, a few Sears-type holiday specials.

 

Sarah had obviously that same solemnity even as a young child -- wide watchful eyes, thoughtful smile. He lingered at one of her around age 6, gap-toothed but smiling in a Halloween costume of some vaguely familiar cartoon character.

 

Then his eyes caught the photo of Mandy in a graduation gown. There was a conspicuous absence of a similar shot of Sarah. Hunter rumbled and moved away from the photos, following Sarah to the stairs

 

Sarah climbed the steps and headed for her bedroom. Opening the door, she stopped again, eyes tearing up. Her bed was made neatly with her stuffed animal collection lying on top of the comforter. Her old dolls were on the shelf above her bed. Her desk still had a few books lying on it, and the music and movie posters still graced the walls.

 

Sentinel eyes took in everything, then focused on Sarah, who stood in the middle of the room looking lost.

 

“Where’s your gear?” The abrupt question jarred her out of immobility and she walked to the closet. Her hiking boots were still in their box. The Goretex jacket hung neatly at the side. She pulled out some old flannel shirts and paused as she stared at the other clothes: a couple of dresses, some sweaters, pants and jeans.

 

“Go ahead, you might as well take all of it,” Hunter growled, not liking the erratic pace of his guide’s heart.

 

She managed to find her backpack in the corner, and began stacking her belongings on the floor. She kept her mind on the monotonous rhythm of stacking and sorting, because she knew she’d start to cry if she let herself think about anything else.

 

Sarah gulped. Hunter heard it.

 

“Sarah?” A firm hand settled on her back.

 

She shook her head, and kept pulling out clothes. Her eyes and throat were burning.

 

“Sarah.” Hunter turned her around, and Sarah moved away blindly, grabbing for one of her stuffed animals. It was a mistake; the sorrowful emotion clinging to the fuzzy object hit her along with the faint scent of her father’s cologne.

 

She gulped as the pressure built to almost unbearable. Her father had held her toy. It hurts -- he hurts. She struggled to get her breathing under control in a series of hitching near sobs.

 

Hunter pulled her against him, rumbling something while his hand threaded through her hair, wrapping the silky strands around his fingers, before letting them slip free.

 

“You’re going to see them again, Sarah. Just...not right now.” The guilt was back, whispering in the back of his mind, and getting harder and harder to ignore.

 

She moved back from him, not meeting his gaze.

 

Hunter wordlessly hefted the duffle bag he’d brought along while Sarah carried her boots and jacket as they walked back downstairs without speaking.

 

They had almost reached the car when Sarah finally spoke. “It’s not home anymore.”

 

The grief in those simple words cut through the territorial imperative to the man underneath.

Hunter brushed his hand over her face, tracing the smudged tears. “I know, Tiger. I know.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Jim lazed in the afternoon sunshine, sprawled back in the soft grass near the river. It was Indian summer, with warm temperatures and balmy winds. Hunter was off hiking and Sarah was taking a nap.

 

He glanced down to look at his guide, who was lying perpendicular to him, head propped on Jim’s chest as he dozed. Blair shifted on his human pillow, then settled down. The link was humming softly, and Jim felt more at peace than he had in weeks. It had been an excellent idea to get away for a while. Lost in his reverie and half-zoned from the soothing sound of the water, Jim didn’t notice the intruders until one of them spoke.

 

“Well, lookit what we got here. “

 

Jim looked up to see three scruffy-looking men with rifles.

 

“Jess, looks like we got ourselves a coupla fags.” The man chewed and spat tobacco juice.

 

The one called Jess squinted in revulsion. “Just ain’t natural.”

 

The third man just glared as if personally affronted at the sight of the two men resting against another.

 

Jim froze and Blair was now awake and tense. Jim sat up slowly, and the men moved closer.

 

“I don’t like your kind,” the first man announced. “Freaks like you are destroying the Americas.”

 

Jim got up slowly, pulling Blair up with him.

 

“Aw, look at that. Ain’t that sweet? He’s helping out the little woman,” Jess sneered.

 

“You have a problem?” Jim said evenly, noting the nervous motions of the hands holding the rifles. They were looking for an excuse to shoot.

 

“Yeah, I got a problem,” the third man finally spoke. “Queers like you.”

 

Blair could sense their hostility and furiously tried to think of what to do to defuse the situation. The men were armed; Jim wasn’t. Even a Dark Sentinel could be felled by bullets.

 

Sarah woke when she heard voices and peered out of the tent. Oh, no! She looked around feverishly. The radio and cell phone were in the truck. There had to be...she crawled to the back of the tent and slipped out, circling to Jim and Blair’s tent and entering it from the back. So far, they hadn’t seen her.

 

Blair was trying to move into a position where he might be able to help Jim, but the leader suddenly moved in and clipped him with the rifle, sending Blair down on his knees.

 

The men were grinning - tight, nasty smiles.

 

Jess kicked at Blair, sending him sprawling face down. “Should be used to this position by now, boy.”

 

Jim almost lunged, but the rifles came up and targeted. He didn’t want to escalate anything.

 

Sarah found Detective Ellison’s service revolver. After carefully checking that the gun was loaded and the safety was on just as Hunter had taught her, she slipped the gun into the waistband of her jeans. Hesitating, she grabbed the Sentinel Prime’s Cascade Police sweatshirt and pulled it over her head. It nearly swallowed her, and effectively hid the gun from sight.

 

“I say we shoot ‘em. Don’t need no perverts around here.”

 

Sarah caught her breath; she had to do something quickly. Mussing her hair, she opened the tent flap and stumbled out.

 

Yawning, she blinked and looked around. “Daddy?”

 

All eyes snapped to her. The men saw a sleepy young girl blinking against the strong afternoon sun. “Daddy, where are you?”

 

She moved toward Jim and Blair, pretending not to see the men on her left, then startling. “Daddy!” With a cry, she raced to Jim and grabbed him around his waist, looking fearfully over her shoulder.

 

Jim, who had managed to hide his surprise, immediately fell into the role. “It’s okay, baby.”

 

“What happened to Uncle Blair?” she asked, staring at the young man who was lying still but was fighting to keep Dark Guide under control.

 

“He’s okay, baby. Daddy won’t let them hurt him.” Jim stared hard at the men.

 

“He’s a fag and has a kid?” Jess sounded totally disgusted.

 

“We kill them, we’ll have to kill her, too,” the leader announced casually. “Can’t have no witnesses.”

 

Jim was tense, thinking furiously. It was two against three, but the men had guns.

 

Sarah turned so that her right side was facing away from the men, and carefully pulled out the gun, passing it between Jim and herself until Jim felt the metal touch his stomach and froze, not daring to believe.

 

“Loaded, but the safety’s on,” she whispered too soft for the red necks to hear anything. Her heart was hammering away, her hands shaking slightly.

 

Jim’s arms tightened around her in thanks. “When I say go, drop and roll,” Jim said softly, masking his movements as he carefully took the gun and flipped off the safety. “Now.”

 

Sarah dropped, rolling to the side and over to Blair, who scrambled to cover her. Jim fired twice, knocking Jesse’s and the third man’s rifles out of their hands. They fell to the ground, clutching their wounded arms, but the leader had disappeared.

 

“Damn,” Jim swore as he listened, sentinel senses searching for any betraying sound. “Stay low, Chief.”

 

His guide’s heart rate shot up, and Jim glanced back to see the leader holding his rifle to Blair’s head.

 

“Drop the gun,” he said, chewing and spitting.

 

“I’m a police officer,” Jim said grimly. “Drop your weapon.”

 

Something hateful passed through the man’s eyes. “Not only a fag, but a fag cop. Two things I hate most.”

 

Blair lay still, all but smothering Sarah beneath him. The rifle was cold against the back of his neck. There was no way he could fight his way out of this mess.

 

“Put the gun down,” the leader repeated. “Or I’ll start with your pretty boy and then finish with your kid.”

 

Jim calculated the odds. He wouldn’t be able to keep the two wounded men at bay and deal with their leader without risking Blair and Sarah. He had to do something before they regained control.

 

“I’m gonna gut shoot your lover boy and leave him to die slow,” the man said, loathing in his voice.

 

“I don’t think so,” came a new voice, and the leader spun around, rifle raised. Hunter felled him with a single shot.

 

“Damn, am I glad to see you,” Jim breathed, briefly checking to see if the man was still alive and moving to the other two and removing their weapons. “Throw me some cuffs.”

 

Hunter reached into the truck and fished out the disposable plastic cuffs that both of them carried for large scale arrests. Within a minute, all three men were secured as Jim called the Department of Forestry to arrange emergency medical services.

 

“Read them their rights,” Hunter ordered, as he radioed the local sheriff to arrange for disposition of the men after their wounds were treated.

 

Blair was up, checking on injuries, even though the first two men spat obscenities at him.

 

“Don’t you touch me, faggot,” Jess threatened.

 

“No worries,” Blair said dryly, “I wouldn’t want to touch you.” Their emotions were dark and chaotic. His heart was still going double time at their narrow escape.

 

“I can’t even go for a walk without you getting into trouble,” Hunter griped as he caught Sarah and checked her over. Satisfied that she wasn’t hurt, he moved to check on Sandburg.

 

Blair had been settled on a large rock while Jim checked the bump on his scalp. “Thank God you have a hard head, Chief. Anything else hurt?”

 

“Nah,” Blair shrugged. “I’m okay.” He looked up and smiled. “Hey, Hunter. Thanks for the rescue.”

 

Hunter ran his hand over Blair’s head briefly. “I thought this was supposed to be a vacation.”

 

Jim patted Blair’s shoulder, then walked over to Sarah, who was picking twigs out of her hair. Looking up, she saw him stride purposefully toward her and faltered. Was he angry?

 

“Sentinel Prime, I...” The rest got cut off as Jim swung her up into the air and twirled her around before setting her back on her feet.

 

“You were magnificent,” Jim praised. “Absolutely great.” He punctuated the words with a warm, all-enveloping hug.

 

Sarah was flabbergasted at the open demonstration of affection. Half-anxious, she stared up at the Sentinel Prime, not knowing what to say.

 

“Did you catch what she did, Hunter?” Jim turned to smile at his half-brother. “Quick thinking on her part got me my gun.”

 

Hunter walked up and moved Sarah to him, but for the first time, allowed Ellison to keep his hand on her shoulder.

 

“I heard you the entire trip back,” Hunter said shortly, then looked directly into his guide’s face. “Not bad, Tiger. Not bad at all.”

 

Sarah lit up. From Hunter, that was the ultimate praise.

 

Moving his guide to him, Hunter framed her face, staring down at her. Jim withdrew to deal with the prisoners and await backup.

 

“I remembered what you said about loading the gun,” Sarah said, feeling a bit nervous as he continued to stare at her intently.

 

“That’s good,” Hunter said, then released her. “When we get done with these clowns, we’re going to bond.” The sentinel stared back at the prisoners, eyes narrowed with aggression. He had to reclaim his guide and affirm that she was truly safe.

 

Reaching up, Sarah lightly touched his cheek, one of her few voluntary gestures. Her heart slowed as they linked. ‘“Okay.”

 

Jim and Hunter were talking with the sheriff while Blair picked up some things from their camp site that had been scattered in the shuffle. Looking over at the three men, he could feel their hostility beating at his barriers.

 

They hated, however irrational and narrow-minded, but the third man projected something else beneath that. Looking over into the man’s face and catching his gaze, Blair almost recoiled at the heat.

 

Lust. Beneath that good ol’ boy fag-hating exterior, the man wanted him with that sick, dark hunger that Gross and Wilson had projected. Blair tried to keep his composure and to keep the nightmare memories from swamping him again.

 

“Chief, you okay?” Jim was there, laying an arm around his shoulders, and immediately recognized what was spooking his guide. Turning to look at the prisoner, his nostrils flared and he growled loud enough that the law enforcement officials looked up in surprise.

 

The prisoner broke eye contact as he finally recognized what he facing: a sentinel. Jim walked over and leaned down to whisper in the prisoner’s ear, and the man paled. As Jim walked away, he smelled the involuntary loss of bladder control of the man behind him.

 

Hunter, who had caught the words Ellison had whispered into the prisoner’s ear, walked over to join him.

 

“Pretty creative, that threat,” Hunter commented.

 

“Promise, not threat,” Jim corrected absently, scanning to make sure Blair stayed far away from the prisoners.

 

“Yeah, does no good if you can’t back it up, does it?” Hunter said, growling in pleasure at the thought of a little mayhem.

 

“No dismemberment,” Jim ordered sternly.

 

Hunter gave an exaggerated sigh. “Anyone ever tell you you’re no fun at all, Ellison?”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Blair was quiet that evening. Jim and he had bonded, as had Sarah and Hunter, and all four were finishing a light supper that sat surprisingly well despite all the emotional upheaval.

 

Blair moved off to sit on the river bank in the evening sunshine. He wasn’t projecting any ‘don’t touch me’ vibes, nor did he seem to need any physical reassurance. Jim watched his guide, and satisfied that Blair just wanted some thinking space, he went off to gather more firewood before it got dark.

 

Sarah saw Blair off to himself, and kept her distance. Even the Guide Prime needed some time alone.

 

After an hour or so, Blair looked up and smiled at Sarah, who gingerly made her way over to him.

 

“I don’t want to bother you,” she said carefully.

 

“Sit,” Blair said, tugging her down beside him. “I’m all ‘thunk’ out. Keep me company?”

 

“Okay.” Sarah settled next to him, watching the gorgeous sunset.

 

“You did great today, Sarah. You saved us.”

 

Sarah colored at the praise. “I just....”

 

“Did what needed to be done. That’s all anybody can ask.”

 

Sarah leaned into Blair, content to rest against him.

 

“It’s fitting better now - the guide business, I mean - isn’t it?” Blair felt her hair brush against his cheek.

 

“I guess so.”

 

Blair was impressed with her progress in a few short months from terror-stricken victim to semi-confident guide. He relished the thought of seeing her a few years from now, when she had the maturity and confidence to take Vincent Hunter in hand. Blair planned to have a camcorder ready for that day.

 

“I know so. There’s just so much other stuff happening right now that we haven’t had the time to really focus on guide and clan stuff, not to mention spiritual things. We’ll get to that eventually.”

 

Sarah tipped her head to look at Blair. He seemed so calm and confident, but she knew his emotional scars were deep and painful. Even after all he had suffered, he was still looking out for everyone: Detective Ellison, Hunter, the clan, herself. How did he do it? How did he keep himself together with all those horrible things in his head?

 

“You’re the bravest man I know,” Sarah said softly, and it was Blair’s turn to blush.

 

“All sham. Inside I’m a roiling mass of neuroses and insecurities,” Blair joked lightly. He knew just enough psychology to be dangerous, and to repress what he had to in order to function. It wasn’t healthy, even he knew that, but it was survival.

 

“It wasn’t right, what they said,” Sarah said, picking a grass stem and looping it into daisy chains.

 

“Idiots are everywhere,” Blair dismissed, but shivered inwardly at the memory of the intense emotions. And from the darker memories that plagued him still.

 

“I’m sorry they hurt you,” Sarah said, catching the faint backwash of emotion from the Guide Prime. They both knew she wasn’t talking about the red necks. Her eyes stung in sympathy at the pain and fear that had surfaced involuntarily.

 

“Sorry about that,” Blair said, embarrassed at having let his guard down. Sarah didn’t need his nightmares on top of her own fears.

 

“I can’t even imagine how horrible it was,” Sarah looked down at the grass stems she held. “I was so scared that something like that was going to happen to me.”

 

“I couldn’t let you go to the correction facility, not after what I went through.” Blair tucked a strand of blonde hair behind her ear. “I know you felt like I threw you to the lions -- excuse me, tiger -- but I had to go with my instincts.”

 

“Is it a Dark Guide thing?” Sarah was still trying to understand what motivated Blair into the paths he took through his life and others.

 

“Partly, I guess. Ancient memories and imperatives, but I just get these feelings about what I need to do, and you should always trust your instincts.”

 

“About Hunter....”

 

“He’s complicated, isn’t he? Even more than I suspected. Layers and layers, and still more to go.”

 

“Yes,” Sarah said. She was still frustrated by his mysterious past and his emotional vendetta against William Ellison.

 

“He still scare you?” Blair asked sympathetically.

 

“Not as much. Just...sometimes, you know?”

 

Oh yes, I know, Blair thought.

 

“Can I ask you a question?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“You like to be touched by Mr. Ellison even though you were....” She stuttered to a halt and then trailed off in embarrassed silence.

 

“Even though I was raped,” Blair said softly.

 

Sarah made a sound of distress and would have pulled away, but Blair held on to her.

 

“No, Sarah. It’s okay.” Blair pulled her close to him. “It’s not something I like to dwell on, but it happened. I can’t ignore it or pretend it doesn’t affect me. I live with it, have anxiety attacks and nightmares. I probably always will.”

 

Sarah berated herself for even bringing the subject up.

 

Blair stared off into the distance. “The first time Jim touched me, I thought he wanted sex, just like the others, but all he wanted to do is protect me. It’s more than bonding, his touch heals me.”

 

“And you touch him,” Sarah wondered.

 

“Yeah, that was actually easier, because I was the one making contact. I think it heals him, too. I know I feel lost when he’s not around me. Six foot one security blanket, but he doesn’t mind.”

 

“Even though people think that you....”

 

“Yeah, even though they think I’m his love slave,” Blair chuckled suddenly. “I guess I should be flattered if they’d even think I’d be someone Jim would be interested in, if he swung that way.”

 

Despite the humor, Sarah could feel the undercurrent of self-doubt. “But you’re smart, and funny and good-looking. Why wouldn’t people think that? I mean...well, that you’d be a catch....” Sarah flushed again. Every time she opened her mouth, she made it worse.

 

Blair’s eyebrows shot up. “Well, thanks for the compliment, but the package has major interior damage. I’m no prize.”

 

“I think you are,” Sarah said quietly, and Blair was touched by her faith in him.

 

“So why the question, Sarah?”

 

“I was scared at first, but now -- when he’s not angry -- it feels....” Sarah cleared her throat. “When you were sick, he had me sleep with him. I just don’t....”

 

“It’s that damn societal thing about people and touching. If it’s not family, it’s not okay, and these days, even family is suspect.” Blair’s voice was soothing. “It’s not wrong to touch your sentinel, or to like it if he touches you.”

 

“When Hunter...when he touches me, I feel safe,” Sarah said hesitantly.

 

“That’s exactly how it should be. He’s protecting you, as a sentinel and a man.”

 

“But one time, when we bonded, Hunter, he... well....” She made a vague gesture, and Blair had to fight to keep from smiling.

 

“Had an erection when you bonded,” Blair put in, saving her from completing the sentence. Poor kid. After all that GLA propaganda her sister had fed her, no wonder she was worried. And now totally embarrassed.

 

“I don’t suppose it helps to say that it’s a guy thing, huh?” Blair watched the top of her head. “It happens to all guys; I’m sure Hunter told you that.”

 

A small nod.

 

“And he probably, in his usual tactful way, tried to explain that, right?”

 

Another nod.

 

“Would it help if I said it’s happened to me, too?”

 

Sarah finally looked up, wide-eyed.

 

“Jim and I were bonding once, and next thing I know...well, I was worried Jim would freak out and punch me, but he just started laughing and told me I’d better be thinking of a tall, leggy redhead.”

 

Sarah blushed again.

 

“He understood it was a physical reaction, and not a personal thing. And if you ever saw Marlena you’d understand --” Blair broke off at the fascinated look Sarah gave him. “Never mind, just a little mental tangent. Anyway, just because Hunter had a...reaction doesn’t mean he’s after something more.” Blair pulled out a grass stem and twirled it between his fingers. “Sex isn’t bonding, and bonding isn’t sex.”

 

“But sentinels and guides – do they ever get together?”

 

“Yeah, sometimes a sentinel and guide do fall in love. It’s rare; I think there’s some evolutionary thing that keeps it from happening in general because of all the bonding issues, but it does happen occasionally.”

 

“And if it isn’t love?” Sarah asked solemnly, thinking of all the GLA propaganda Mandy had inundated her with.

 

“Then it’s abuse, pure and simple. There are bad people everywhere. Most sentinels and guides are reasonably happy with each other, although the GDP is something else altogether.”

 

“If guides were citizens....”

 

“Then we’d be a force to contend with,” Blair declared, then sobered. “It’s fear that got us where we are today. If society hadn’t been so afraid of what sentinels and guides could do, we’d all be free.”

 

Both of them gloomily contemplated the state of the universe, then Sarah broke the silence.

 

“Blair, what happens if you or Mr. Ellison ever falls in love?”

 

“That would be a major problem,” Blair sighed. “Spouses aren’t very tolerant of guides.”

 

They both thought of Hunter’s ex-wife -- a sterling example of when things went wrong.

 

“Jim said I’ll always come first. Guess I’ll just have to trust that he won’t throw me out.” Blair gave Sarah a quick hug when he felt her mood dip. “Hunter’s not going to kick you out of the house.”

 

Yet, Sarah thought, but if Hunter fell in love again, however improbable that sounded right now, Sarah was sure she’d be given back to the GDP. Any woman who managed to snare Vincent Hunter would never put up with a guide hanging around. And then....

 

“Stop it,” Blair said. “You’ll drive yourself nuts thinking about this. The bond you have isn’t going to break if he starts dating or marries again. It doesn’t work that way.” And as much as he hates the ex-wife, I doubt that would happen anytime soon, if at all, Blair thought to himself. Blair then brought up the issue that had been hanging in the back of his mind for the past week. “It’s going to get more intense as time goes on.”

 

“What is?”

 

“The bond between you and Hunter.”

 

Sarah flinched slightly.

 

“He’s not going to drag you off to his cave, Sarah,” Blair reassured her. “It’ll just be more intense emotionally and physically when you bond.”

 

“Why?” Her innate curiosity overcame her apprehension.

 

“It’s a particular phenomenon noted with Dark Sentinels. Before you bring up the obvious, I know Hunter isn’t a Dark Sentinel, at least, not the way Jim is, but he’s very powerful - the Shield had to be. He’s sort of in a class by himself, and I don’t know exactly what all the traits are, or how they manifest themselves. It’s another bit of Sentinel behavior I’m hoping to discover more about.”

 

“Primal means what?”

 

“Primitive. Basic. Visceral. Operating on instinct and emotion, rather than intellect.”

 

Out of control, Sarah though nervously. Hunter was scary when he was in control. What would happen if he wasn’t?

 

“But sometimes sentinels....”

 

“Yeah, some sentinels hurt their guides, intentionally or unintentionally. But Jim wouldn’t; Hunter wouldn’t.”

 

“Did Mr. Ellison ever go primal?”

 

“Several times,” Blair said, tongue firmly in cheek. “He’s destroyed some of my favorite shirts.”

 

“He tore your clothes?” Sarah was shocked.

 

Blair laughed. “The shirt, not me, and it wasn’t...it’s hard to explain. Heat of the moment, as it were. You just had to be there.”

 

“But how can you let...?” Sarah wondered how Blair could cope with violence given his experiences.

 

“Let Jim touch me like that? It wasn’t easy. Guide instincts help, tribal memory helps, Dark Guide helped, but I still freaked out the first time it happened. It took a while until I figured out that Jim wasn’t hurting me and I could go with the flow.”

 

“Weren’t you scared?”

 

“Sure,” Blair admitted. “But the guide part of you takes over - it understands even when the human part is trying to have a panic attack. The bond is absolutely pure at that point – total trust.”

 

“But it’s more than the bond, right? He loves you.”

 

“Yeah, go figure. Grad student empath and emotional basket case.” Blair’s slightly self-deprecating humor surfaced. “But we’re stuck with each other and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

 

Sarah felt a familiar twinge of envy, but stayed silent.

 

“You’re worrying about something that isn’t going to happen for the next little while, and when it does, it’ll be okay.”

 

“Are you sure?” Sarah asked anxiously.

 

“Positive,” Blair declared, and was gratified when she finally relaxed beside him. No point in spooking her about things at this point. Hunter would have to guide her through it, and Blair hoped that the IA captain would show a bit more finesse this time around.

 

“I wish I knew what was coming,” Sarah said, worrying her grass chain.

 

“If I had that kind of power, I’d have my own TV show and several million in the bank,” Blair said dryly.

 

“But you feel something?” Sarah persisted. “You said you trust your instincts.”

 

An image of dark water flashed into his mind, and Blair suppressed a shiver. “I have feelings and impressions, but there’s no way to know for sure exactly what’s going to happen.”

 

“Don’t leave me,” Sarah said simply, and Blair reached out and took her hand and held it tightly. Both empaths watched the sun disappear behind the mountain tops.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The next day, when the dust had settled, Blair finally sat down to catch up on his writing. His pen traveled across the pages of his leather bound journal as he outlined some salient points about sentinels that he had discovered on this trip.

 

His latest theory was that the sentinels needed the mountains and forests to soothe the primal inner sentinel, a balm for overstretched senses, and to reconnect to nature.

 

Frowning, Blair tapped the pen against the page. Of course, it would help to have some field experiments to validate the theory, but getting Jim in a lab, even a outdoor one, was going to be tough with everything that had happened lately. His sentinel wouldn’t let down his guard as long as his guide, or his clan, was in danger.

 

Lost in thought, he didn’t notice the shadow moving over him, then his pen scraped across the page as he jerked, heart pounding. Blair looked up, and Hunter saw a split second of terror as the younger man’s hand tightened convulsively on the book, then relaxed and his heart slowed back down.

 

“Hi Hunter,” Blair said, not quite meeting the Shield’s eyes. “Make some noise next time you move, would ya?”

 

Hunter paused, looking down at Sandburg. The kid was fine with him most of the time, Dark Guide slowly meshing into Sandburg’s personality and giving him the confidence that had been systematically beaten out of him by the GDP, but the Shield needed absolute trust in order to protect the Guide Prime. Sandburg was still not completely sure of him.

 

Hunter deliberately shuffled his feet noisily, coaxing a small grin from the empath and finally, direct eye contact. Hunter scanned the guide’s face - just the faintest residual of anxiety. With Sandburg’s flashbacks, it made dealing with him difficult, as Hunter couldn’t possibly know all the triggers that would set the Sandburg off into a nightmare.

 

When the kid was in control, or thought that he was, he was fine, but when he was unsure, he was vulnerable. Hunter deliberately pushed away the memory of terrorizing Sandburg in his office with the videotape. They had to move past that now.

 

“Don’t strain your eyes, Darwin. It’s getting dark.” With that, Hunter moved away and passed Sarah, engrossed in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and ruffled her hair. He signaled and waited for Ellison to follow him.

 

“Sandburg’s jumpy,” Hunter said tersely, once they had gotten out of earshot of their guides.

 

“Are you surprised? Look at what happened yesterday.” Jim leaned against a tree trunk and watched Hunter pace back and forth.

 

“The only person he trusts one hundred percent is you.”

 

“Yeah, so?”

 

“He needs to be sure of his Shield protecting him.”

 

“He is. He’s trusted you much faster than anybody else he’s gotten to know.” Jim had wondered what had preoccupied Hunter for much of the day.

 

“It’s not enough.” Hunter frowned into the evening sky. “At the clan meeting, he had a bad flashback. He still has times when he loses it.”

 

“You can’t always control involuntary responses. When he has nightmares, sometimes even I have a tough time breaking through to him.”

 

“You can retrain those responses.”

 

Jim stared, intrigued. “What did you have in mind?”

 

“Remember the trust exercises we had in basic? I want to try some modified versions on Sandburg. Work on desensitization.”

 

“Hmmm,” Jim pondered. “It’s kinda risky. Anything might set him off.”

 

“Anything already does,” Hunter countered.

 

Jim sighed as he rubbed his neck. “Yeah, I know. I’m all for anything that might help him, but it’ll have to be up to him. I won’t force him to do anything.”

 

Hunter was silent, then said “We’ll just have to make it worth his while.”

 

When the two sentinels returned, Blair was just finishing and he sighed as he closed his journal. It was almost dark.

 

“Hey, Chief,” Jim greeted him.

 

Blair looked up and smiled.

 

“How ‘bout a new chapter for your paper?”

 

Blair set down the book, interested. “What did you have in mind?”

 

Jim grinned. “Hunter agreed to do some joint lab testing with me.”

 

Blair positively bounced. “All right!”

 

Hunter rolled his eyes. The professor was enraptured with the idea of dragging two sentinels to the lab. “One test, Sandburg.”

 

Blair was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth: getting two related sentinels to test was a researcher’s dream. His mind was already racing as to when he could get the lab time scheduled.

 

“Of course, turn about is fair play.” Hunter moved closer and waited until the words registered.

 

Blair looked up, a bit confused, then saw Jim standing over him as well. “Uh...guys? What’s up?” There was a faint hint of nervousness in his voice.

 

“I have a little test of my own I want to try,” Hunter said deliberately. “It’s a little exercise in trust.”

 

“I do trust you, man,” Blair protested. “You’re my Shield.”

 

“This is a little bit more specific.” Hunter was in one of his inscrutable modes and impossible to read.

 

Blair’s eyes widened. “This isn’t gonna be, like, one of those military things where you hang off cliffs and cross canyons, is it? I hate heights.”

 

“Nothing like that, Chief,” Jim said as he reached across and tugged the book from his guide’s hands, smiling reassuringly at him.

 

“Uhhh....” Blair said weakly, feeling cornered.

 

“As the Shield, I need to know you’re not going to panic on me if we end up in a hot situation. You about freaked out at the clan meeting. I can’t have you doing with me that if we’re under fire.”

 

Trust Hunter to make it sound so ‘departmental policy,’ Jim snorted silently. Hunter really was a devious son of a bitch.

 

“Yeah, but....” Blair looked back and forth between the sentinels.

 

“Your choice, Chief, but this is the only way Hunter’s agreed to allow any testing.” Jim let his hand fall to Blair’s neck to soothe him. “I really think it might help.”

 

“I dunno...” Blair said, looking uncertain.

 

Jim rubbed the tight neck muscles under his hand, trying in vain to get his guide to relax.

 

“What do you...” Blair trailed off when he saw Hunter pull out a bandanna and a length of rope. His heart accelerated as he pulled back instinctively.

 

Sarah, who had been reading by the firelight and only vaguely following the conversation caught the emotional rush coming off Blair and looked up, worried.

 

Hunter’s hand brushed across her hair as he moved closer to Sandburg. ‘’Don’t worry, Tiger. I know what I’m doing.”

 

“Up to you, Blair,” Jim reminded him, and Blair swallowed convulsively, his research greed vying with self preservation.

 

Hunter folded the bandanna into a blindfold and moved so that Sandburg could see him. “This is about you trusting me; I need to know you can do that.”

 

Blair pulled back when Hunter reached out to him, so Hunter waited.

 

Blair knew intellectually, instinctively that Hunter wouldn’t hurt him, but his nightmare from a couple of weeks ago came back to him. Was this what it meant? That he was supposed to create a deeper link with the Shield? Or was something else going on he didn’t know about yet.

 

Fortune favors the bold. “Okay, I’ll do it,” Blair whispered, but both sentinels could smell his doubt.

 

“Easy, Blair,” Jim murmured, standing close but not touching his guide.

 

Hunter walked behind Blair, close enough that Blair could feel the energy pouring off the man, but not actually touching him. Moving slowly, Hunter looped the bandanna around Sandburg’s neck, like a scarf, allowing him to get used to the weight of it, then he slowly eased it up around the young man’s eyes.

 

The darkness was absolute. Blair held his breath, uncertain what lay ahead.

 

“That’s the whole point, Sandburg.” There was a trace of humor in Hunter’s voice as he rested one hand on Sandburg’s shoulder and the other on the back of his neck. “Trusting me even when you don’t know what’s coming.”

 

“No monsters out there that I know of, Chief,” Jim teased, trying again to get the younger man to calm down.

 

“I know,” Blair whispered. “Nothing there that I don’t take with me.” He silently cursed himself when his voice quavered slightly.

 

“Stand up, Sandburg,” Hunter ordered softly, and Blair got to his feet, reaching around for Jim.

 

“This is you and me, Sandburg. Ellison stays right here.”

 

Jim didn’t look too happy with that statement, but grudgingly nodded.

 

“Last bit,” Hunter said, taking hold of the empath’s right wrist and wrapping the rope around it.

 

“You’re gonna tie me?” Blair sounded incredulous.

 

“It’s instinctive to reach out and grab a hold of things or ward them off, especially when you can’t see. You have to trust me to do that for you.”

 

Blair’s lips tightened. “I don’t like this, man,” he said honestly. “I want you in the lab; I’ve dreamt of it for months, but this --”

 

“There’s always a price for what we want, Sandburg,” Hunter reminded him, and brought Blair’s wrists together, tying them in place in front of him. Blair almost panicked, until he realized that the bonds were loose enough that he could pull free anytime.

 

Hunter held onto Blair’s wrists, waiting until the tremor subsided. It was never easy confronting your fears, no matter what they were.

 

Blair deliberately relaxed his shoulders. As Hunter said: it was about trust. He could feel Hunter’s approval as his wrists were released. Hunter took his arm and escorted him from the campsite.

 

Jim stared after them. It was the hardest thing for him to do -- letting Hunter take his guide away, especially since he could smell the sour tinge of almost-fear. Sarah’s hand settled lightly on his arm, giving wordless comfort.

 

“Tree branch,” Hunter said, stopping Blair so that he could touch his foot to it, then step over. The went around, over or under several more obstacles, and each time the tension level in the smaller body diminished.

 

“You make a good guide dog, Hunter,” Blair commented, having regained a bit of his equilibrium during the 20 minute walk. Hunter was right: he constantly wanted to hold up a hand to protect his face or feel what was ahead of him. With his hands bound, Blair had to let the sentinel guide him. It occurred to him that not once had he tripped, ran into or had been hit by anything since they started their little walk about.

 

The roar of water came up on their left. Blair figured they were near the cliffs and tried to keep to the edge of the path.

 

“No,” Hunter barked. “You go where I say.”

 

“Hey, man, I’m not falling down those cliffs. That water is cold!”

 

“If I wanted you over the cliffs, I’d toss you over, Sandburg, but since that would piss Ellison off and probably give you another case of pneumonia, I’ll pass.”

 

Blair relaxed again. A grumpy, irritated Hunter was always comforting.

 

They finally stopped in a quiet area, and Hunter moved behind him, resting his hands on the empath’s shoulders.

 

“That was step one. Ready for step two?”

 

Blair tensed again as Hunter pushed him down on his knees. What was he doing?

 

“Hunter, I....”

 

“On your stomach, Sandburg.”

 

Hunter had never insisted on the guide protocols that Blair found so offensive, but he was doing so now. Why?

 

Blair felt himself being lowered to the ground, his arms outstretched above his head. His first reaction was to rear up, but Hunter pushed him back down.

 

“Let me up!” Blair said hoarsely, his nightmare coming to life again. Before he could try to struggle up again, Hunter pinned him.

 

“Damn it, let me go!” Blair twisted and kicked, furious and terrified. Hunter had promised not to hurt him and here he was, forcing him into the submissive guide position. Blair struggled, but the two hundred pound weight on his back was impossible to budge.

 

“Sandburg,” a voice growled into his ear, “Who am I?”

 

Blair tried again, tearing his wrists free and nearly managing to dislodge the sentinel, but Hunter grabbed his now unbound wrists and pinned him more securely.

 

“Who am I?” Hunter repeated, waiting for logic to catch up with emotion.

 

Blair continued to fight, so the sentinel opened the link.

 

“Who, Sandburg?”

 

Several ragged breaths later, Blair finally comprehended the question. “Hunter.” With that acknowledgment, Blair stopped struggling, a little embarrassed by his fear reaction.

 

“Yeah, so you want to stop trying to kick me?” Hunter sounded irritated. “Trust me, this isn’t my idea of a good time either.”

 

Blair let himself slowly relax under the weight and the feeling of protection from the Shield.

 

“What’s this about?” Blair finally asked, realizing he wasn’t going anywhere until Hunter let him up.

 

“Sniper sighted. Somebody just shot at us. Something exploded. It could be anything - but if I need you to dive for cover, I don’t want to have to tie you up to keep you there.”

 

Blair’s hands flexed, but Hunter’s grip remained steady - not hurting, but not releasing either. Blair’s academic side kicked in, reminding him of basic sentinel behavior: the sentinel would always shield the guide, protecting him with his body.

 

“I can’t see you.” Blair said quietly, not knowing how to explain what it felt like, being pinned from behind, helpless. How to keep the horrible memories of the correction facility and the abusive training sentinels and GDP guards from surfacing.

 

“You couldn’t see me while we were walking, either,” Hunter pointed out. “But you trusted me not to let you fall.”

 

“This is different,” Blair muttered, trying to move his head and getting nowhere. “I’m not exactly rational about being pinned down, okay?”

 

“No shit.” The sarcastic drawl eased something tight in Blair’s chest. “You always know when I’m around. I need you to keep that feeling uppermost in your mind.”

 

Blair sighed. “I can’t just shut off the rest of my mind; it just keeps on going and going and going....”

 

“Sandburg, you meditate, right?”

 

“Yeah.” Despite the uncomfortable position, Blair was calming down.

 

“Try some visualization techniques. Whenever you’re around me, concentrate on the Shield, so when a curve ball hits, you’ll link before you freak out. It should become automatic. That’ll give you a few seconds to think before you decide to panic.”

 

“Use the Force, young Skywalker,” Blair suddenly chuckled.

 

“More or less,” Hunter acknowledged. He tilted his head to the side as he listened. “Your heart’s finally slowed down.”

 

“Can I get up now?” Blair said, trying again to lift his head. “No offense, but you weigh a ton.”

 

“In a minute,” Hunter replied, letting go of Blair’s wrists. “Ellison doesn’t scare you when he does this. No reason I should, either.”

 

Blair’s breath hitched. From Hunter, that was tantamount to declaration of emotional support. What would it be like, Blair wondered, when Hunter finally opened his heart up all the way?

 

Hunter got to his feet, and then helped Blair stand up. Blair had barely regained his footing, when he was shoved back down.

 

“Ooof!” Blair hit the ground and the sentinel pinned him again. Other then trying to catch the breath knocked out of him, Blair realized that this time, there was no cold wave of panic through his gut.

 

“Who am I, Sandburg?” The sound in his right ear was predator keen.

 

“The sentinel trying to squash me like a bug,” Blair gasped. “You been eating your Wheaties again, man?”

 

“Sandburg....” Hunter’s voice was a threatening growl.

 

“The Shield,” Blair sneezed as leaf debris went up his nose. “My Shield.”

 

“Good.” Hunter sounded satisfied, and again hauled Blair to his feet. Blair braced himself for another slam dunk to the ground, but Hunter just eased him down to sit on a tree trunk.

 

“Okay, that went fairly well. On to step 3,” Hunter said conversationally.

 

Blair groaned. The Shield ignored it.

 

Hunter left his wrists untied and tugged him along closer to the cliffs. Blair heard the water grow louder and suddenly dug in his heels.

 

“Sandburg, you can either walk or I’ll throw you over my shoulder,” Hunter snarled.

 

Blair shuffled along uneasily, the rush of water so close he could almost feel the spray.

 

“We...we didn’t talk about confronting my more mainstream phobias, man,” Blair swallowed, his skin going clammy at the thought of standing at the edge, unable to see the drop.

 

“Sit,” Hunter directed, and moved to sit down beside the younger man. “We’re about ten feet from the edge. You’re not going to fall.”

 

Blair waited, uncertain what Hunter wanted now. The psychologist in him had to admire Hunter’s grasp of what made people tick, even if he used it ruthlessly to his own advantage.

 

“Terror’s a tricky business,” Hunter mused out loud, pulling the bandanna down so Sandburg could see him. “It’s a knife edge balance between fear and panic.”

 

“You make it sound like it’s a vocation,” Blair said as he blinked and tried to adjust his vision to the darkness.

 

“It is, for some.” Hunter’s face was hidden in shadow. “Terror and pain are things that require exquisite control to be used effectively.”

 

He was talking about torture, Blair realized, and shivered. Hunter came from a much darker place than Jim ever did.

 

“Sarah’s still a bit afraid of me, but for her, it’s more of facing the unknown. You’re afraid of me because you know what I’m capable of.”

 

That was direct, and more than a little unsettling to hear it said out loud. Blair still couldn’t see Hunter’s face.

 

“I could hurt you in ways the GDP couldn’t even begin to imagine,” Hunter said harshly.

 

The menace in the sentinel’s voice nearly made Blair jump. He tried not to flinch when Hunter’s hand reached out and curled around his throat. Blair’s carotid pulse pounded under the sentinel’s light grip.

 

“I could break you - mind, body and soul.” Hunter’s voice was almost monotone now, matter of fact in a way that sent a chill through the empath, but the epiphany happened a nanosecond later. The thing that Blair had almost forgotten in his fears.

 

“But you won’t,” Blair said quietly, his voice calm in his reaffirmed conviction, his heart slowing to a comfortable rhythm. “You promised you wouldn’t.”

 

“So I did,” Hunter replied, releasing Blair’s neck and moving his hand to grip the still too thin shoulder. “So why don’t we agree to trust each other?”

 

“We do.” Blair let himself relax into the touch.

 

“Not all the way,” Hunter stroked over the guide’s shoulder. “I want you to read me, so you’ll know exactly where I’ve been and where you stand.”

 

Blair didn’t manage to hide his surprise. The Shield was offering a no-holds-barred bond -- a glimpse into his soul.

 

“Shouldn’t Jim...?” Blair voice trailed off when Hunter’s hand clenched.

 

“This is between you and me, Sandburg,” Hunter managed yet again to push off any discussion of the bond between Dark Sentinel and the Shield, or brother to brother. “I’ll worry about the other variables in the equation some other time.”

 

Blair came to a decision. Moving slowly, he rolled and laid on his stomach. He felt Hunter move beside him, and was pulled close before Hunter’s head came down to rest against his back. No wave of panic, no gut-clenching rush of terror. Hunter wasn’t Jim, but he meant no harm. The Shield was here to keep him safe.

 

Blair sighed in relief and let his barriers drop. He opened the link, not surprised by the raging emotions he encountered as he moved into the sentinel’s mind.

 

“Take a good look, Sandburg,” Hunter whispered as he closed his eyes and sank into the bond. “But watch out for what you’ll see.”

 

Jim found them lying there an hour later, sound asleep, with Blair’s square, capable hand locked in Hunter’s larger one.

 

Hunter stirred, opening his eyes and lifting his head to stare at Jim.

 

“How’d he do?” Jim asked, gesturing to the exhausted guide and trying, almost successfully, to suppress the wave of jealousy.

 

Hunter sat up slowly to avoid disturbing the kid. “Fine. He had a few bad moments, but I think we’re on the same page now. Where’s Sarah?” After the incident with the gunmen, Hunter didn’t want either guide left alone.

 

Sarah peeked out from behind Jim. “I’m here. We were worried about you. You’ve been gone over three hours.”

 

Hunter got up and moved to his guide, scenting at her neck and pulling her close. The strand of melancholy in him disturbed her so she put her arms around him and held on, amazed that he accepted the comforting gesture.

 

Jim moved to wake Blair, linking immediately and when Blair opened his eyes, Jim saw he was calm and his eyes full of things that Jim would have to sort through later.

 

“It’s late; we should all get back to camp and get some sleep.” Jim put an arm around Blair to steady him as he yawned and nearly walked into a tree.

 

“Look where you’re going, Sandburg,” Hunter swore. “We came this far without you destroying the vegetation, so let’s keep it that way.”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Blair yawned again. “Gripe, gripe, gripe. One lousy trust exercise, and a sentinel thinks he owns you.”

 

“Sandburg?” Hunter moved ahead with Sarah, leaving the Sentinel Prime to haul up the rear.

 

“Yeah?” Blair said absently as he tried to pick out the obstacles on the path. Jim steered him away from tripping over something large and leafy. Sentinel vision sure came in handy when you didn’t have a flashlight.

 

“Next time, I’m taking you rappelling.”

 

Blair stopped suddenly, nearly pulling Jim off his feet.

 

“Rappelling? Wait a minute. I am not climbing down any ropes!”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Jim looked over at his guide who was curled up in his polar sleeping bag on the other side of the tent, almost but not quite touching the sentinel watching over him. Blair liked the extra padding and softness of the sleeping bag, so his sentinel had indulged him with a top of the line model from their favorite outdoor gear store.

 

Blair was finally asleep, after a brief bond which, unfortunately, did not answer the questions Jim had about Hunter. His guide was worn out and needed the sleep, so Jim would wait until things settled down about before delving into the psychological minefield that was Vincent Hunter.

 

Blair sighed in his sleep, frowning and muttering, until Jim ran his hand over Blair’s back, settling him back down. Who knew what he was dreaming about?

 

But the kid seemed calmer, and certainly less jumpy. Jim had an idea of what Hunter had done, but would extract all relevant details from his guide once Blair could keep his eyes open for longer than thirty seconds.

 

Jim had made it a point to try to dig up more information about Hunter’s military intelligence background, and had run into an obscure link to the CIA. The firewall that had come up had shut him out of the system almost immediately, but Jim now knew that Hunter had been submersed in something a little more deadly than military police work. Not just special ops, but black ops. Jim sincerely doubted that Hunter would ever be totally out of whatever covert past activities he had been involved in.

 

And here he was, head of Internal Affairs in Cascade, Washington after a career in homicide and IA in the District, with an ex-partner, an ex-wife and a murdered first guide. What brought you here, Hunter? What the hell brought you back to a place you probably never wanted to set foot in again?

 

Blair shifted restlessly, and Jim immediately pulled Blair closer to him, noting how the younger man immediately relaxed. Jim would have to save further speculation until after his guide woke up. Hard to sleep, when someone’s constantly talking in your head.

 

Hunter wasn’t asleep. He knew Sarah wasn’t either.

 

“Hunter?” she whispered.

 

“Go to sleep, Sarah. It’s late.”

 

“What about you?” Sarah was worried after the session with Blair. Hunter seemed more withdrawn than usual.

 

“Go to sleep,” Hunter repeated, but softened the order with a quick stroke over her hair.

 

Confused and still worried, Sarah closed her eyes, until fatigue overcame her good intentions and she drifted off.

 

Hunter lay awake for a long while afterward.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Jim woke at dawn, the gradual change in light calling him from slumber.

 

Blair stirred when Jim sat up. “Jim?”

 

“Morning, Chief. Sleep okay?”

 

Blair rubbed his eyes and stretched. “Uh huh.”

 

“Were you warm enough?”

 

Blair gave him an incredulous look. “I’m in a polar sleeping bag. Might as well set me on slow roast.”

 

“You get cold easily,” Jim responded quietly. “It’s hard to regulate your body temperature when you’re still twenty pounds underweight.”

 

Blair shrugged, but looked away. The reminder depressed him.

 

“Chief?” Jim gently turned Blair’s face back to him.

 

“I never got cold before,” Blair finally said. “Before Alex, heat or cold never really bothered me. But now....”

 

Jim pulled his guide to him, wrapping Blair in a secure embrace, sleeping bag and all. “You had over two years of abuse, Chief. You can’t bounce back physically from that in just a few months.”

 

Blair rubbed his forehead in frustration. “It still feels like I’m behind the eight ball. No matter what I do, I’m always catching up, always not quite where I need to be.”

 

“Always kicking himself in the ass so I never have to do it for him,” Jim drawled, his gentle teasing finally drawing the younger man out of his depression. “We’ll get there. You’re healing and that just takes time. As for emotionally, I know we can’t erase what’s happened, but you said yourself that Dark Guide is going to eventually integrate into your personality and then - watch out world!”

 

“I wish I could be sure of that,” Blair sighed. “It’s too bad they never left a Dark Guide/Dark Sentinel handbook for us to look this stuff up in.”

 

“Chief, even if we had a book like that, with our luck it would open some ancient cursed temple and then we’d be chasing some grandiose psychopathic soul-sucking demon all around Cascade.”

 

“Didn’t I tell you to stop watching that movie late at night?”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Hunter?”

 

Sarah stirred to see Hunter fully dressed and tying his hiking boots.

 

“I’m going hiking after breakfast. I want you with me.” No polite requests, just an order. Last night he had been withdrawn, today he seemed resolute.

 

Sarah sighed but crawled out of her sleeping bag to get dressed. “Do we get to eat first?”

 

The four of them ate pan cooked biscuits and bacon, with coffee all around except for Sarah who heated a small pot of water on the fire and made herself some tea.

 

“Sarah and I are going for a hike. We’ll be back in a few hours.” Hunter stuffed some snacks and two bottles of water into his backpack. The gun went in as well.

 

“Take your cell phone, just in case,” Jim said, and Hunter nodded.

 

Blair watched as Hunter and Sarah moved up the path away from the camp site. Hunter was on a mission - of that he was sure - but Blair had no idea what kind. The Shield was in inscrutable mode again.

 

Jim waited until he was certain Hunter was out of hearing range, then turned to Blair. “Is he as mentally screwed up as I think he is?” Jim asked bluntly.

 

Blair choked on his biscuit.

 

“What did you see in his head?”

 

Blair swallowed, considering, then regretfully shook his head. “Sorry, Jim. I can’t tell you that.”

 

“What the hell are you talking about? I’m your sentinel!” Jim thundered. “And Sentinel Prime. My guide doesn’t keep secrets from me.” Dark Sentinel was looming, but Blair refused to be cowed.

 

“They aren’t my secrets to share,” Blair said softly.

 

“Are you telling me that he swore you to silence?” Jim snorted.

 

“No, he didn’t need to.” Blair got up and refilled his coffee cup. “He was trying to help me, and he did. I can’t betray his confidence.”

 

Jim growled, extremely displeased. “So now you’re Father Confessor?” His tone was barbed, and Jim immediately regretted it when Blair withdrew from him. “Ah, hell, Chief. I’m sorry. I’m biting your head off for doing what you think is right.” Jim poured himself another cup of coffee and tried to settle down. “It’s just too much for you. You’re nursemaid, and babysitter, teacher and Guide Prime, and now psychoanalyst for the Shield.”

 

Blair lips quirked. “Hardly. I just understand him a little better. You know about his first guide and his ex-wife, but there’s stuff in his past that’s even worse. I’m amazed he’s as normal as he is, with that background.”

 

“I wouldn’t call him normal,” Jim drawled. “But why would a glimpse into his head make you feel better?”

 

Blair stared into the campfire. “It’s hard to explain. He’s done a lot of things - some very bad things - but he had his reasons and it’s not my place to judge him. I guess I feel better knowing that even though he’s done those things, and could in the future, he has the control and choice not to.”

 

“Safety scissors,” Jim said whimsically.

 

Blair chuckled. “Nah, more like a knife with a blade cover.” Blair moved to rest his head against Jim’s shoulder, and felt Jim relax immediately. “He could do anything he wanted to, but he promised me he wouldn’t. If nothing else, he’s a man of his word.”

 

“And he doesn’t abuse guides,” Jim added.

 

“Yeah, and he doesn’t abuse guides. He’s trying to retrain my fear responses with those trust exercises.”

 

“Is it working?”

 

“So far. I didn’t like it, but I know why he did it. He understands the human mind quite well. That’s why he’s so good at psychological games.”

 

“He enjoys it,” Jim pointed out.

 

Blair couldn’t negate that. “I didn’t say it was a good thing to do. We all have our survival mechanisms.”

 

“And our sick quirks,” Jim sneered. “He likes scaring people.”

 

“No, he likes controlling people. Actually, you both do, but you do it though leadership, and he does it through intimidation.”

 

“Are you saying I’m like Hunter?” Jim sounded put out.

 

“You’re both alpha sentinels. That translates into power and control.”

 

“I’m not like him, Chief. Never in a million years.” Jim tossed the rest of his coffee on the fire and got up to find a handy bush.

 

Blair sat and sipped his coffee, wisely saying no more.

 

Hunter kept an easy pace, since Sarah had to take twice as many steps to keep up with his long stride, but she didn’t look winded. All that running was paying off.

 

They rounded the pass and came to a trail that led through the forest into a small clearing. The forest was alive with birds, the wind rustling the evergreens and few deciduous trees, but Sarah stopped, drawn by the underlying serenity

 

Hunter watched her as she absorbed the surroundings.

 

“This is a sacred place,” she whispered.

 

“Yes.” Hunter moved ahead, never hurrying, the wind ruffling his hair and clearing his mind.

 

They stopped at a very old tree and Hunter ran his hand over the bark, absorbing.

 

Sarah reached out to touch the tree, and felt something so gentle and warm that her eyes teared up.

 

“Who’s here, Hunter?” The question came naturally. There was more than just the place around them. She sat on a boulder, letting the wind blow her hair around her face.

 

“I scattered her ashes here. She always loved this place most of all.”

 

Sarah’s eyes met his and she took his hand and held it tight. She looked over to see the tiger rubbing his face against the tree, then curling up underneath it.

 

They stayed there for an hour, never speaking, link humming, until Hunter got up and motioned her to follow him back.

 

As they walked, a small branch fell at Sarah’s feet, four small pine cones still attached. She didn’t question the urge to pick it up and carry it back with her.

 

“Nice hike?” Blair asked when they returned to camp.

 

“Yeah,” Hunter answered, the lingering trace of tension gone and he went to help Ellison fix lunch.

 

“Whatcha got there, Sarah?” Blair picked up the branch, admiring the tiny pine cones. His eyes narrowed when he felt....

 

“I think it’s a gift,” Sarah said softly.

 

Blair laid the branch gently back into her hands. “Be sure to keep it safe.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Hunter was fly fishing, with Blair inexpertly attempting to cast his line while Hunter gently jibed him about his lack of fishing skills.

 

Jim was whittling a piece of wood, fully aware of his guide but not in the mood for fishing.

 

Sarah looked over when Blair crowed in triumph as his line went out with minimal snarl. Hunter said something which made Blair burst into laughter and Hunter ruffled his hair.

 

Sarah was glad for Blair, that he seemed more comfortable with Hunter, but felt like they were a million miles away from her.

 

Jim felt her mood, and immediately guessed the problem. “You know, Sarah, if I were a guide, and some other guide was making time with my sentinel, I’d have to do something about it.”

 

Sarah jumped as Jim’s voice broke her concentration. “Uhm....”

 

“In fact, I’d have to make sure the other guide knew exactly whose sentinel he was.” Jim’s voice sounded terribly serious, but his blue eyes were twinkling with humor.

 

“It’s okay,” Sarah said. “Blair needs to --”

 

“Blair needs a lot of things, but what does Sarah need?” The humor was tempered with compassion. “Hunter’s the Shield, which gives him lots of responsibilities he’d rather not have, but he’s your sentinel.”

 

“I know,” Sarah agreed obediently. “It’d just that – Blair’s Guide Prime.”

 

“Uh huh. And that changes what about the fact that Hunter belongs to you?”

 

“I can’t just....”

 

“You know, that water is nice and cold,” Jim hinted with barely suppressed laughter. “Ought to be enough to break up that little shmooze fest.”

 

Sarah looked over to where Blair perched precariously on a rock above the river. “Push him in the water?” She sounded shocked at the concept.

 

“Either him or Hunter.” Jim sounded cheerfully unconcerned about either man taking a little plunge. Blair was much more at ease since Hunter had drawn him closer, but Jim didn’t want Sarah to feel like she was being left out because of sentinel imperatives and general machismo. “But that’s just me. Up to you if you want to stake your claim.”

 

Sarah jutted out her chin, determined that she wasn’t going to stay a wuss forever. Mandy would have done it in a heartbeat, and so could she. Walking up to where the two men were discussing some bit of sports trivia, she almost lost her nerve. Then she cleared her throat. “Fishing lesson is over.”

 

Hunter’s eyes narrowed, but Blair did a double-take. He hadn’t heard that edge in the girl’s voice before. “We’ll be done soon,” Blair reassured her.

 

“Now,” Sarah said, and suddenly pushed him into the shallow water. Blair made an impressive splash, then immediately stood up in the knee high water and pushed his hair out of his eyes, half bemused, half amused.

 

Hunter just watched, inscrutable, as Sarah leaned over and earnestly explained. “My sentinel.”

 

Somebody’s gettin’ territorial. Blair just grinned, totally unoffended. Dark Guide knew exactly where she was coming from, and judging the way Jim was snickering, no doubt she had received a little coaching.

 

“Better get out and dry off, Chief,” Jim chuckled, reaching out to haul Blair out of the river. He pulled his guide along, leaving Sarah alone with Hunter.

 

“That was different,” Hunter said blandly.

 

Sarah flushed, but managed to maintain eye contact.

 

“Care to tell me what brought that on?”

 

“You didn’t ask me to go fishing,” Sarah said quietly.

 

“Ah.” Amazing what one little syllable could convey. Slightly mocking, more than two thirds amused and just a tad surprised. “Do you want to fish?”

 

Sarah reached out for Blair’s abandoned pole and after making several adjustments, flared out her line gently in a beautiful arc to the center of the river.

 

Hunter mouth quirked as hurled his line out parallel to hers. “I guess there are a few more things I didn’t know about you.”

 

Sarah concentrated on her line. “Is it catch and release here?”

 

“No, it’s definitely keeps.”

 

Sarah looked over, and when she caught his expression, she smiled.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

They pulled up outside the loft and began unloading camping gear.

 

“Blair, don’t forget the tent. I think I stashed in under the....” The rest was muffled by the small avalanche of things that shifted as soon as Jim pulled out the lanterns.

 

“You okay, Jim?” Blair relaxed as the stream of light profanities reached his ears.

 

Hunter pulled out several boxes out of the rental truck and deposited them on the sidewalk. “Ellison, get moving. I have to get this truck back before six or they’ll charge me for an extra day.”

 

“Why don’t you just buy a truck?” Blair asked, juggling the sleeping bags and an air mattress.

 

“I like my car,” Hunter said tersely.

 

“Yeah, but you could always get a second vehicle for fun trips.”

 

“I have a boat for that.”

 

“Really? I didn’t know that. Cool! Jim, he has a boat. When do we get to go out?” Blair was bouncing again.

 

“Yeah, Hunter, when do we get to go?” Jim was enjoying watching Hunter succumb once more to the infamous Puppy Dog Eyes. His half-brother was obviously torn between instinctive refusal and not disappointing the wide-eyed guide.

 

Hunter had no problem telling Ellison where to go, but Sandburg was looking so thrilled that he restrained himself. “When things settle down, maybe.”

 

“Cool!” Blair handed Sarah several small boxes to carry. “Sarah, you any good at deep sea fishing?” The two guides made their way into the building loaded with camping gear.

 

“Since when did I get sucked into taking ‘family’ vacations?” Hunter grumbled.

 

“Come on, Hunter, it’ll be fun. We have plenty of board games to keep the kids busy on our next road trip.” Jim’s teasing got the desired effect. Hunter whacked him in the chest with a nice heavy box and stalked back over to the truck.

 

“Think of it, Hunter. A nice long trip with sing-along songs and twenty thousand choruses of ‘Are we there yet?’ Maybe Disneyland would be good.” Jim was enjoying himself immensely.

 

Hunter growled in irritation. “Don’t even think about it.”

 

“Hell, we could organize a bus. Take the whole clan along.”

 

“I have a gun, and I’m not afraid to use it.”

 

Dear God, that was humor! Vincent Hunter was making a joke. Jim broke out into laughter and casually pounded the IA captain on the back as Hunter made several benignly disparaging remarks about Jim’s lineage.

 

Hunter followed Sarah and Blair inside the building with another load of camping gear while Jim wrestled with a few more boxes.

 

“Jim.”

 

Jim spun around, then smiled. “Hey, Stevie. What are you doing here?”

 

“You said you’d be back from your trip today, so I thought I’d stop by.” Steven shrugged nonchalantly, but he looked uptight.

 

“How’s Dad doing?” Jim asked, ignoring Steven’s nervousness, surprised that his brother had even made the effort to come over. In fact, Steven had never even seen Jim’s loft.

 

“He’s okay. Tires easily, but he’s up and walking around the house, getting grouchy.”

 

“Needed a mental health break, huh?” Jim teased, wondering what was up.

 

“I have a lead for you about the shooting. Computer hacker by the name of Percy apparently did some work for somebody concerning Dad’s business right before Dad was shot. We traced his hacking, and went looking. Percy was found dead last night in his apartment in San Antonio.”

 

Jim swore under his breath. “And his employer?”

 

“Nobody knows.”

 

Jim sighed. “Another loose end. Thanks for the tip, Stevie. I’ll put a call in San Antonio PD tomorrow and see what they’ve discovered.”

 

“No problem,” Steven said, and an awkward silence fell. Jim was just about to break it when Blair came bouncing up.

 

“Steven! Hi. We just got back. How’s your dad?”

 

Steven watched the young man bounce and had to smile. “Better, thanks. Just dropped off some news for Jim about the case.”

 

“Cool. Guess we gotta get back to work on things, even though the break was nice.”

 

“Mostly,” Jim agreed. “But there’s always something that manages to gnarl up our vacations.”

 

Steven was about to ask what the latest disaster had been when Hunter and Sarah walked out of the building. Steven froze.

 

“Oh, hey, this is Captain Hunter and his guide Sarah,” Blair introduced, feeling a major negative vibe rising. “Hunter, Sarah, this is Jim’s brother Steven.”

 

“We’ve met,” Steven said tersely.

 

Hunter arched a mocking eyebrow, but said nothing.

 

“You have? When?” Jim frowned.

 

“At the hospital, when we brought Dad home.” Steven’s heart rate increased, and both sentinels eyed him, one curiously, one disdainfully.

 

“Well, this is Sarah,” Blair continued gamely, not missing the mutual hostility the men projected.

 

“Sarah,” Steven tried to remember his manners. It wasn’t the girl’s fault that her sentinel was an asshole.

 

“Mr. Ellison,” Sarah reached out her hand before Hunter could stop her. Her eyes widened when she touched the man’s hand. Steven Ellison was part empathic after all, and what he felt toward Hunter....

 

“Sarah,” Hunter warned, and she dropped Steven’s hand like a hot potato and with a mumbled apology she retreated back to her sentinel, who pulled her close to him.

 

“I should go,” Steven said abruptly.

 

“Oh, don’t let us hold up a family reunion,” Hunter mocked. “I have a lot of paperwork to do tonight. Lt. Clark will be stopping by for your and your father’s statements in the next few days.”

 

Steven nodded jerkily, fuming at the arrogance the man exuded.

 

“Is Dad up to it, Stevie?” Jim frowned again. Simon had gotten a statement from William as soon as he was able to talk for the regular police report, but the lengthy interview process for an IA investigation was physically and emotionally draining.

 

“No time like the present.” Steven looked everywhere except at Jim or Hunter.

 

“Ellison, we’ll be going. I’ll fax you an IA update tomorrow afternoon.”

 

“Good,” Jim said absently. “If anything pans out with this hacker, I’ll let you know.” Hunter, of course, had heard every word Steven Ellison had said about the investigation.

 

“Fine. I’ll get your tackle box back to you later this week.” Hunter had practically absconded with it after deciding Sarah needed to learn to tie better lures.

 

“No prob,” Jim answered, diving back into the truck to rummage for his jacket. “See ya.”

 

Hunter and Sarah got into the rental truck and drove off, leaving Steven to stare after them.

 

Blair was worried. The melancholia he had sensed in Steven at the hospital was now overlaid by some serious anger. What had happened between him and Hunter?

 

“I have to go,” Steven mumbled and slipped away before Jim or Blair could confront him about what was really bothering him.

 

“Okay, Stevie. Talk to you this week.” Jim waved as Steven crossed the street and got into his BMW.

 

“What’s eating him?” Jim asked, although he had a pretty good idea that Hunter was part of the problem.

 

“Hunter probably did his IA thing at the hospital,” Blair guessed. “You know how autocratic he gets.” Blair didn’t tell Jim about the undercurrent of pain and jealousy Steven was projecting. Things were screwed up enough in the Ellison family without throwing in yet another sibling rivalry issue just now.

 

Steven pulled around the corner and stopped. Jim had lent Vincent Hunter his tackle box. When he and Jim had been boys, that had been one of the few sacrosanct items that his older brother never shared with other people. No one, not even William Ellison, had been allowed to touch that battered box.

 

And he just hands it over to him. Steven knew it was stupid to be upset by a fishing tackle box, but seeing how Jim seemed at ease with the surly police captain, and how Hunter had carelessly tugged Blair’s pony tail before they left, Steven could feel a cold chill in stomach. His hands tightened on the steering wheel as he leaned his head forward, willing the stinging in his eyes to subside so he could drive home. Always on the outside, looking in.

 

When his vision cleared, Steven carefully drove away, completely unaware of the long-haired young man standing at the corner watching after him with sad eyes.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Jim sighed and stretched at his precinct desk. Ten reports finished, thirty more to go. He looked over at Blair, who was busy typing in information on the kidnapping case they had wrapped up yesterday, thankfully with a happy ending.

 

“Chief, can you get me the Baker files from Records?”

 

Blair looked up and smiled. “And stop by the break room and get a cup of coffee for you on the way back?”

 

Jim grinned wryly. “Well, yeah, that, too.”

 

“Sure. Need to stretch my legs anyway.” Blair got up and headed out of the bullpen. As he walked down the hall, he raised his barriers, nodding at those people he passed. Most of them knew him, or of him, and their emotions were mostly curious, if not friendly. But there were still exceptions. A particularly hostile-looking man passed him and the wave of emotion bashed into him. Blair strengthened his barriers and moved on to the elevator.

 

As he turned down the dimly lit corridor after getting off the elevator in the basement where Records was housed, Blair felt a strange tingle at the back of his neck. Before he could act on it, he was pulled off his feet. One arm wrapped around his chest, pinning his arms and the other went across his throat, blocking the reflexive scream.

 

Blair clawed at the arm at his throat, then just as suddenly stopped his struggle and the arm across his throat eased.

 

“Not bad, Sandburg. Less than five seconds of panic.”

 

He was set back down on his feet, and the familiar voice had Blair leaning back into his captor in relief. “Hunter,” he croaked, then cleared his throat as he tried to calm his pulse into something approaching normal.

 

“Didn’t you detect me?” Hunter asked conversationally, one hand moving over the kid’s hair to soothe him.

 

“Had my barriers on ‘high’,” Blair explained, closing his eyes in relief. “Felt a tingle, then - wham!”

 

“You did fine. Connected when you were supposed to.”

 

“Yeah, and had near cardiac arrest in the process,” Blair retorted, moving away from the security of Hunter’s grip and turning to stare at the Shield. “How long are you gonna keep this Cato routine up?”

 

“As long as there’s fuel in the Silver Hornet, Inspector.” Blair’s reference to the ambush attacks by Inspector Clouseau’s servant Cato had Hunter thinking of the movie trivia games he and Gary used to play. Gary had beaten him every single time, but Hunter hadn’t minded at all. Funny, the things you missed when people weren’t there anymore.

 

“I’ve gotta get some records for Jim,” Blair explained as he walked toward the office at the end of the hall.

 

“Yeah, I know. Stopped by to give some paperwork to Ellison and he said you were down here.”

 

“Jim sent you to ambush me?” Blair stopped in amazement and just the slightest bit of hurt.

 

“Nope, but I did tell him what I’d do. That’s why he’s not down here trying to kick my ass.”

 

Blair relaxed. “So where’s Sarah?”

 

“With Ellison. He somehow bribed her into reinstalling his word processing program. I believe chocolate was mentioned.”

 

Blair chuckled. “They really have come a long way, haven’t they?”

 

“I guess the same could be said for us, too, Sandburg.” Hunter said quietly.

 

Blair studied the Shield’s face and reached up to lay a hand on the taller man’s chest. The sentinel relaxed under the touch as they linked.

 

Blair let his head tip forward, barely touching Hunter’s jacket. “Yeah, man, I guess it can.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Lt. Bernie Clark pulled up into the driveway of William Ellison’s residence. God, what a house. The rich were certainly different. Stepping out of the car, he heard footsteps and an armed man appeared next to him.

 

“Name and business,” the man ordered.

 

“Lt. Clark, Cascade Police,” Bernie said, holding out his badge.

 

It was scrutinized, then handed back. “Come with me, Lieutenant.”

 

They were good, Bernie mused. Alert, direct and quick. Then again, William Ellison would only employ the best.

 

As they entered the house, Bernie was greeted by an older man with watchful eyes.

 

“Merriman,” the man introduced himself. “Head of Ellison Corporate Security.”

 

“Lt. Clark, Cascade PD. Is Mr. Ellison up to the interview?”

 

“He says he is. I would caution you though that he gets tired easily. His nurse will let you know if he needs to take a break.”

 

“I’ll be here, too,” a new voice interjected. “I know you wanted to talk to me as well.”

 

Bernie turned to see a dark-haired man.

 

“Steven Ellison.” They shook hands politely. “Guess he wasn’t going to stoop to take care of this himself.”

 

Bernie sighed. Hunter didn’t have a great reputation around here either. “It’s a conflict of interest, as Mr. Ellison is technically a family member of Captain Hunter’s.”

 

“Oh, yeah? Doesn’t stop Jim from investigating.” Steven sneered.

 

“He’s doing that unofficially as Sentinel Prime. Captain Banks won’t let him work the official investigation for the same reason.”

 

“Well, maybe you could let us know what you’ve found out. Captain Banks hasn’t had much to say.”

 

Bernie shook his head apologetically. “I’m afraid not. The police investigation we can discuss, but this portion is an internal investigation and won’t be released to you or your father.”

 

Steven was about to say something, then stopped and excused himself.

 

“That’s one unhappy man,” Bernie commented quietly.

 

“It’s been stressful for everyone,” Merriman said diplomatically. “Shall we get started?”

 

William pretty much reiterated what Bernie had gotten from his previous statement. They pursued a few more leads, but really didn’t shed any new light into the case.

 

“How is Hunter doing? I heard he was shot as well. Jim says he’s back to work and everything, but since you work with him, I thought maybe....”

 

“He’s physically fine, Mr. Ellison. Backlogged on cases, as we all are, but working hard to find out who did this.”

 

“Really?” William looked so hopeful that Bernie didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was more the sniper than the fact William Ellison got shot that interested Hunter.

 

Bernie closed the interview, then began with Steven Ellison, who surprisingly, had a good grasp of the treacheries of both the civil service and the corporate world and offered some interesting possibilities for motives. Bernie took copious notes along with his recording, and departed soon after.

 

Steven poured himself a scotch and sipped absently while staring out the window at the rainy gardens.

 

“Stevie?”

 

Steven spun about, sloshing his drink.

 

“Hey, didn’t mean to scare you. Did the interviews go okay?” Jim moved into the room, patting Steven’s shoulder apologetically. “Blair’s in with Dad. They’re talking about some herbal remedy Blair wants him to try to boost his healing.”

 

“It was okay. Lt. Clark seems like a good guy.”

 

“He’s pretty solid. I checked on that Percy lead. Nothing so far. All computer equipment was missing. Someone did a very thorough job of covering their tracks.”

 

“So we still don’t know who or why.”

 

“We don’t know the key players pulling all the strings. The damn web sites and the guide porn are part of it, but there’s something above that we haven’t tracked down.”

 

“And you can’t pursue that 24 hours a day. My investigators are still searching, but it’s damn slow work. Every time we find a lead, it evaporates, or someone gets killed.”

 

“I’m doing the best I can, Stevie. I can’t work this officially. You know that.”

 

“Yeah, I know, I know.” Steven took another drink. “You’re busy with other cases, and I’ve got Ellison Industries to run. Doesn’t give much time to play Sherlock Holmes. Of course, I don’t have to deal with running a clan.”

 

The edge in Steven’s voice had Jim raising his eyebrows. “I’m Sentinel Prime. The responsibility I have --“

 

He was cut off by Steven’s impatient gesture. “Right. It’s a sentinel thing.”

 

Jim crossed his arms and eyes his brother carefully. “What the hell is going on with you? You show up at the loft and nearly go at it with Hunter, and now all of a sudden I’m not doing enough?”

 

“You spend more time with that damn IA captain than you do with Dad.”

 

“Hunter’s investigating, so he’s an invaluable resource. He’s also part of my clan.”

 

“And so you automatically go on vacations with every sentinel you know?”

 

“He was shot. He and Sarah needed a break. Blair and I needed a break.” Jim was starting to feel harassed.

 

“Yeah.” Steven turned to look out the window. “Of course.”

 

“Is this about Blair? About me having a guide?”

 

“No! No, it’s not that. Hell, after what that kid’s been through, he needs to be protected, and you’re the best protector I know.” Steven’s voice calmed.

 

Jim digested that. “Then it’s Hunter. I know he’s not everybody’s best pal, but he is the Shield.”

 

Steven took another swallow of scotch. “And sentinels come first.”

 

“What the hell is crawling up your butt? I can’t change what I am.”

 

Steven took a few deep breaths, trying to control the emotions welling up. He didn’t notice Blair slip into the room. It came out before he could stop it. “You gave him your damn tackle box!”

 

“What?” Jim gaped at him. “You’re pissed because I lent him fishing gear?”

 

“You don’t even remember, do you? When we were kids, nobody got your box. Not Dad, not me.” Steven halted when his voice cracked. “You go away, for years. You forgot I even existed. Then you’re back, and suddenly you have a guide.”

 

Blair moved to Jim and was caught close. The emotional pain Steven was projected raked at his barriers.

 

“I can deal with that. You’re a sentinel, you need a guide. But you’re known Hunter for what - three or four months? And suddenly, he’s....” Steven stopped. It didn’t do any good to state the obvious.

 

Even Jim could feel it now. “Stevie, I’m sorry.”

 

“What? Sorry about Hunter being in your life? No problem. Dad wants him in the family in the worst way.” The sarcasm was heavy. “Or are you sorry that ever since you came back to Cascade I’ve seen you less than five times in five years?” Steven stopped and chugged back the rest of the scotch. “Screw it. I’m out of here.”

 

Steven walked to the door, but not before Blair caught his arm, trying to comfort him.

 

Steven shrugged him off but despite his anger, he gently disengaged the guide’s grip.

 

Jim and Blair stared at each other wordlessly.

 

“God, Chief, why didn’t I see that coming?” Jim berated himself.

 

“You’re not the only Ellison with supreme self control and major abandonment issues,” Blair said softly.

 

“You knew?” Jim stared at his guide, growing angry.

 

“I suspected. It’s kinda hard to miss the emotional tidal wave.”

 

“Why the hell didn’t you tell me?” Jim grabbed Blair’s shoulders and shook him.

 

“You had enough to deal with,” Blair responded calmly. “The two of you need to talk this out.”

 

Jim let his hands fall, and closed his eyes. “All I do is screw up.”

 

This time it was Blair who shook his sentinel. “You didn’t screw up. This is not a simple problem, and it’s not exclusively yours. There’s no easy fix for family heartaches. We both know that by now.” He steered Jim over to the couch, taking charge, and amazingly, Jim let him.

 

“God, I’m so tired,” Jim sighed as he leaned back and closed his eyes.

 

“Bond?” Blair asked, worried at the bleak emotions that had replaced the anger.

 

“Yeah, Chief. Please.” Jim reached for his guide almost desperately.

 

They settled there to the accompaniment the rain pattering against the glass and the welcome peace of the link between them.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Hunter pulled his sedan up to the clearing where a clan gathering was taking place. For some reason, they had decided that outside the regular clan meetings, which Hunter avoided like the plague, the occasional informal get-together would help achieve solidarity.

 

God save me from the PTA, Hunter sneered inwardly. It was all just a little too perky for consumption. He got out and shut the car door, noting that all the sentinels raised their heads to scope out the intruder.

 

“What do you want?” Edwards asked bluntly. “Ellison isn’t here.”

 

“I know,” Hunter drawled. “I’m actually here to see Niven.”

 

“Why?”

 

“That’s between him and me,” Hunter answered almost pleasantly.

 

“With Ellison gone, I’m designated alpha. State your business, or get the hell out of here.”

 

“Official IA investigation on a need to know basis.” Hunter almost smirked at the frustration in the other sentinel’s eyes. “Now go run along and do whatever it is you do at these little fun fests.”

 

“Hunter, so help me....”

 

“What is it, Edwards?” Niven came up, looking a bit tense.

 

“Need to talk to you,” Hunter said shortly, sparing a nod for Tina, who held her baby with one arm and her sentinel’s shoulder with the other. “Alone.”

 

Tina looked uncertain, but Niven gave a quick hug. “It’s okay, Tina. Won’t take long.”

 

Walking off to a picnic table where the remains of the earlier potluck were strewn across its surface, Niven pushed some dishes aside and sat down.

 

“Okay: talk,” Niven said warily, wondering why he had been singled out by IA.

 

“Something came up during the investigation into William Ellison’s shooting,” Hunter said, pulling open a large manila envelope. “You being in Vice, I wanted you to see this.”

 

Hunter handed several photographs over, and Niven glanced at them and his lips tightened. “Christ. Kiddie porn?”

 

“Look closer, Niven,” Hunter said, balancing a hip against the table edge. “This isn’t porn.”

 

Niven focused on the photographs - a girl and a boy, neither more than eight or nine years old - and saw the signs of abuse. Burns, whip marks, bites. As he shuffled through the photos, he swallowed heavily. “Jesus, what is this?” The photos were horrifying in their explicit sexual content, and the children’s expressions were like silent screams. Niven, who considered himself fairly unshockable, realized that this was beyond anything he’d ever run across.

 

“Snuff party.”

 

Niven’s head shot up. “These kids....”

 

“Were tortured, raped and killed.”

 

Niven closed his eyes to take a calming breath. “How can you be so blasé about this? These are children! This has got to be the worst thing I’ve seen in 20 years on the force.”

 

Hunter didn’t twitch an eyelid. “I’ve seen worse.”

 

Niven almost replied, but after looking at the captain’s face, held back. Gut instinct told him Hunter meant that most sincerely.

 

“Why are you showing me this?”

 

“There’s evidence that someone in Vice may be linked to it. There’s also a video. I didn’t think you’d care to see that.”

 

“You got that right.” Niven rubbed his face wearily. How did Hunter keep his feelings so controlled? “Then why come to me? Why not my captain?”

 

Hunter looked Niven straight in the eyes. “Because it’s more than just child crime. These children were empaths.”

 

Niven looked like he was going to get sick. He glanced over to where his guide and her baby sat, knowing in his bones that the child was as empathic as her mother. What if someday Maria fell into the wrong hands, and suffered like those poor children had. Children just coming into awareness of their special senses, then tortured and murdered in a way that would be worse than any hell imaginable.

 

The kids would have felt every touch, every sound, every feeling, every fear a hundred times more intensely, until their captors put them out of their misery. How long had it dragged out? Hours? Days? Weeks?

 

“Why isn’t the GDP looking into this?” Much as Niven disliked the organization, at least they had a system in place for tracking down things like this. Guide porn was sad fact of life.

 

Hunter just stared, and Niven swallowed heavily. “They’re involved, aren’t they?”

 

“I’m not at liberty to comment on that.”

 

“You can’t just dump something like this in my lap and tell me ‘no comment’!”

 

“I’m telling you to keep your ears open. Vice is your department.”

 

“Does Ellison know about this?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And Blair?”

 

Hunter shook his head. “He doesn’t need this on top of what’s already happened to him.”

 

Niven looked startled that Hunter would even consider Blair’s feelings. Then his jaw firmed. “Empath abuse makes this a clan matter.”

 

“Give the man a cigar,” Hunter drawled. He gathered up the photos and replaced them in the envelope. “You hear anything, let me know.”

 

“I”ll talk to Ellison.”

 

Hunter leaned forward, bracing a hand on the tabletop as he narrowed his eyes. “You’ll notify me directly, as this is an IA matter. I’ll decide what information needs to be passed along. Until then, this is confidential. No discussion with anyone, clan or not. We clear on that?”

 

Niven reluctantly nodded. “I hope to God you know what you’re doing, Hunter.” He watched Hunter pull out one of his business cards and hand it over. “Blair, he’s okay, right?”

 

“Why wouldn’t he be?”

 

“You aren’t making him --”

 

Hunter rolled his eyes. “No, Niven, I haven’t dragged out the rubber hoses to make him spill his guts about what happened.” The memory of the showing Sandburg the tape tweaked uncomfortably at the back of his mind.

 

Niven searched Hunter’s face carefully, then sat back, astounded. “Well, I’ll be damned. You care about the kid.”

 

Hunter’s face smoothed into a blank mask.

 

Niven took a deep breath. “I’ll keep you up to date.”

 

Hunter switched off the white noise generator he carried in his pocket. He couldn’t take the risk that the other sentinels would overhear them.

 

Niven got up and moved to Tina, hugging her almost desperately, his other hand smoothing over the baby’s downy fluffs of hair. Tina just held on to him, casting a worried look over his shoulder at Hunter, who simply nodded and walked back toward his car.

 

“Hunter!” It was Edwards, looking large and in charge. “Where the hell do you get off carrying a white noise generator around here?”

 

“When I deem a conversation to be private,” Hunter answered, dismissing the other sentinel.

 

“By God, you’ll learn to have a little respect. This is my clan.”

 

“Oh, really?” The dry tone coupled with the half-sneer that never failed to put Edwards’ back up pushed the SWAT officer over the edge.

 

“As long as you’re here, you’ll do what I say.”

 

Hunter arched an eyebrow. “Not a chance in hell.”

 

“You swore fealty!”

 

“To the Sentinel Prime, not to you.”

 

“You can’t just come in here and --”

 

“I told you: I don’t answer to the clan, or to you. You can play your little group politics and be Ellison’s right hand fetch and carry boy. I’m not interested.”

 

“You still have to answer to Ellison,” Edwards gritted.

 

“My duty as Shield is to protect the Sentinel and Guide Prime, no more, no less.”

 

“I’m second in command,” Edwards hissed. “I take over if anything should happen to Ellison.”

 

“That doesn’t mean shit to me.”

 

Edwards grabbed Hunter’s shoulder to spin him around, and found himself shoved back, almost completely off his feet.

 

“You want a fight?” Hunter asked softly, his eyes feral and mirroring those not a yard away from him. “I’m game.”

 

A few of the clan members moved closer, but were waved back by Edwards.

 

“Winner takes all?” Edwards bristled.

 

Hunter sneered. “Let’s make it winner chooses forfeit.”

 

“Fine with me.”

 

Edwards moved in low and kicked out, catching Hunter a glancing blow. Hunter spun and blocked the next punch. The clan gathered, but knew they didn’t dare interfere with the challenge.

 

It was seemingly an even match as the men traded blows, until Edwards got a good look at Hunter’s face and realized the IA captain was playing with him. Enraged, Edwards managed to land a hard blow to Hunter’s flank, then found himself down on the ground as Hunter systematically beat him into submission.

 

It was over in minutes. Edwards lay on the ground, bleeding slightly from the mouth and feeling like he’d been run over by a garbage truck. Hunter’s foot rested lightly on his throat.

 

Edwards tried to shift, but the feral snarl above him stopped him. Looking up into Hunter’s eyes, Edwards saw a man who had killed many, many times -- up close and personal -- and had no problem letting history repeat itself.

 

“Yield,” the guttural order was the only thing Hunter had said since their little battle had begun.

 

Edwards arms felt numb and heavy. The IA captain had hit some pressure points and had effectively incapacitated his opponent. He couldn’t even reach up to grab Hunter’s leg.

 

Edwards had good martial arts training, but what Hunter had employed was something else altogether generously coated with the best military training money could buy. Military police, my ass. This guy was an assassin.

 

“Yield,” Hunter repeated, increasing the pressure on Edwards’ throat just enough to cut off the man’s air.

 

Edwards choked and gave in to the inevitable. “I yield,” he croaked.

 

Hunter leaned down to pull Edwards up by the front of his shirt. “I take it we’re clear on chain of command here?”

 

Fucking sonofabitch bastard. Edwards loathed Hunter; despised his attitude, his arrogance and his lack of humanity. But none of that changed the fact that Hunter had won. Hunter let him fall back to the ground. David was there as soon as Hunter moved away, pale with worry and making distressed sounds over every scrape and bruise his sentinel sported.

 

Edwards finally regained the feeling in his arms and managed to pull himself into a sitting position, wincing as his ribs protested.

 

“By right of challenge, the Shield chooses forfeit.” Niven looked just as uneasy as the rest of the clan as he made the expected announcement.

 

Hunter stood in the center of the small circle, his face expressionless. Whatever he decided, the clan would have to honor.

 

“Guide.” The order had several faces snapping to Hunter, but he was looking straight at David.

 

Edwards froze. “My guide’s off limits!”

 

“I pick the forfeit,” Hunter reminded him, an unholy smile emerging as the full implication of the defeat hit Edwards.

 

David swallowed, uneasy.

 

“Come here,” Hunter ordered, his voice perfectly even, but the light of victory - and vengeance - was in his eyes.

 

“Damn it, leave him alone!” Edwards struggled to stand. “You got a beef with me, fine, but leave my guide the hell out of it!”

 

“David,” Hunter ordered, his voice dropping a register, “come here.”

 

David glanced at Edwards, then almost frantically at the rest of the clan. They stood immobile, watching and waiting.

 

Edwards grew even angrier when he realized the clan wasn’t going to stop whatever Hunter was planning to do. “David, don’t you move!”

 

“David.” The soft words curled menacingly around David’s neck, like some serpentine ghost.

 

“David!” Edwards bellowed. “I forbid it!”

 

“Shield’s prerogative,” Niven growled, and the rest of the clan murmured agreement. “You lost, Edwards. The Shield won the right to determine loser’s forfeit.”

 

Edwards had almost made it to his feet, then collapsed in pain. David tried to move to him, but was blocked by Lisa.

 

“Dr. Harvey will see to him.” She tried to smile, but she was just as worried as the rest of clan.

 

David slowly turned to face the Shield.

 

“Don’t move, Edwards.” The command came directly from Niven. “Don’t interfere.”

 

“That bastard’s going to hurt my guide!” Edwards caught the exultant expression on Hunter’s face. He had won, and he was determined to make the enemy pay.

 

“You move, and I’ll shoot you.” The calm pronouncement by Niven shocked Edwards into silence.

 

“Go on,” Niven ordered David quietly. “Go to him.” Niven could see the animosity between the two sentinels, but Captain Hunter had never actually hurt a guide.

 

David reluctantly made his way over to Hunter. A million thoughts jiggled through his brain. Why weren’t Blair and the Sentinel Prime here to stop all this madness? All around him the emotions were gathering like distant thunder clouds. He felt horribly isolated and afraid.

 

Scared to death, Hunter noted. Nothing could disguise the acrid scent and the fine tremor.

 

“Kneel,” the Shield ordered. David’s eyes flashed briefly in rebellion before he obeyed, trying to tune out his sentinel’s anguish and the wave of terror building up inside him. What did Hunter want from him?

 

Hunter reached out and laid his hand on David’s head, and the younger man flinched.

 

“Drop your barriers,” Hunter ordered.

 

The guide shivered, but closed his eyes and braced himself as he let his barriers go, expecting pain. After a few seconds, David looked up, bewildered. No pain, not even physically from the sentinel’s touch.

 

Hunter’s hand moved to encircle the back of the young man’s neck, ignoring the splutters of protest from Edwards.

 

We who are about to die, salute you, David thought fatalistically.

 

“Look at me.” At the sentinel’s soft order, David raised his head to look straight at Hunter. “You’re the forfeit. Swear fealty to me, David.” The order hushed the entire clan.

 

Niven had to admire the Machiavellian brilliance of the maneuver. By acknowledging David as an individual, and securing his loyalty, Hunter would bind the guide to him. As long as David was sworn to the Shield, Edwards would be powerless against Hunter.

 

David swallowed, feeling a rumbling purr against his neck, yet knowing that there was nothing there. Damned if you do, dead if you don’t. After a long hesitation – “I swear.”

 

Hunter looked over at Edwards, who was almost incoherent with rage. “Damn it, Hunter, quit playing mind games with my guide! Let him go!” Niven easily manhandled the injured sentinel back to the ground.

 

“Open the link, David,” Hunter ordered, and the guide’s eyes went wide, looking so horrified at the notion that Hunter almost laughed.

 

David wanted nothing more than to get back to his wounded sentinel and to bond. The emotions were gathering in giant waves to crash over him, and pound him into oblivion. At this rate, they would destroy him.

 

“David.” The Shield’s voice was a silky reminder. David opened the link.

 

Silence. The terrifying ambient emotions were gone, and although David couldn’t read the man linked to him, there was no negative emotion being projected to him. The sentinel was shielding him. David went limp in relief; the Shield wasn’t going to hurt him.

 

Jim and Blair knew about David’s trouble keeping his barriers, and had long ago figured out it was his job to maintain harmony, something that as beta guide, David had gradually come to accept as his clan role. But Hunter couldn’t have known that, could he?

 

What do you want from me? The wordless conversation through their link effectively shut out Edwards, which infuriated the SWAT officer, but he could do nothing to stop it.

 

I’m the Shield. He must accept it. With you bound to me, he has no choice.

 

David looked a little dazed, then his jaw tightened. I won’t go with you.

 

Hunter moved his hand to grip the young man’s sturdy shoulder, far less fragile than Sandburg’s. I’m not taking you away from anybody. Your job is to keep your sentinel in line.

 

He was Sentinel Prime in Boston. He took second in command here only because he knew he couldn’t beat a Dark Sentinel. But this...he....

 

He accepts, or he dies. Hunter’s face was blank, which scared David more than any anger could have.

 

David shivered, looking back worriedly at his sentinel. If only his sentinel could be made to see reason. I’ll do what I can. David glanced up for permission to move.

 

Hunter reached out a hand, and David hesitated before taking it. He was pulled smoothly to his feet and then steered back to where Edwards was fuming and glaring. As soon as David was within arm’s reach he was pulled down and tucked against his sentinel, who, despite his own injuries, thoroughly checked out his guide.

 

“What the hell are you trying to pull with that stunt, Hunter?”

 

“Just a little lesson in clan dynamics, Edwards,” Hunter mocked.

 

“If you’ve hurt him....”

 

“Now why would I do that?” The deliberately ponderous tone raised Edwards’ hackles.

 

“Listen, you sonuvabitch, if I find out that David’s been hurt in any way --”

 

“Now, there’s a good BP sentinel. Just don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Hunter interrupted him.

 

Edwards tried again to stand. “I’ll kill you!”

 

Hunter curled his lip. “Try.” He stared unblinkingly until Edwards dropped his gaze.

 

Dr. Harvey moved in to check over her patient, clucking over him and muttering about stupid male rituals.

 

“David, you okay?” Edwards had a death grip on his guide, almost to the point of smothering the younger man.

 

“Fine,” David said, overwhelmingly glad to be back at his sentinel’s side. He was still trying to figure out what had happened.

 

“He can’t make you do anything,” Edwards insisted.

 

“I promised,” David said simply.

 

Edwards was about to launch into another tirade when Ellison’s truck pulled up.

 

Hopping out of the truck, Blair looked around. “Whoa, Jim, something big went down just now.”

 

Sarah climbed out behind Blair, and before her feet touched the ground, she was pulled into her sentinel’s arms. In any other circumstances, Tina would have thought it was cute how the Shield hovered over his guide, but the sentinel still radiated a lethal intensity that she found disturbing. But he was calm now, his guide held close to him and his head bent down to talk to her.

 

“Report,” Jim ordered, and Niven walked over to explain what had happened.

 

Blair rubbed his face and sighed. Clan diplomacy was obviously an alien concept to Hunter, judging by his satisfied yet cynical expression. But he had done nothing outside his rights as Shield. He had been challenged, won and determined the loser’s forfeit. And what a strategic masterpiece it was, too. Blair didn’t know very much about the art of warfare, but hazarded that Hunter was an expert.

 

David looked okay. He was busy fussing over his sentinel, when the sentinel gave him enough room to breathe. Edwards, however, looked like he’d had the crap kicked out of him. Blair moved over to check on the pair while Jim walked over to where Hunter stood with Sarah.

 

“I think you dented my beta,” Jim observed.

 

“Got a problem with that?” Hunter growled. A quick pat on his shoulder by his guide settled him.

 

“You and Edwards have been heading for a collision since the beginning. What set all this off?”

 

“He thought he was in charge.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

“I’m the Shield. Whatever you want to with all this clan stuff is between you and him. I ain’t playing.”

 

“So, you beat the shit out of him, in front of the entire clan, and then you bind his guide, so Edwards theoretically can’t get back at you.”

 

Hunter just shrugged.

 

“Any other emasculinazation planned for today?” Despite himself, Jim was impressed at the relatively bloodless coups.

 

“I think he got the message.” Hunter stretched some protesting back muscles. Sarah instinctively moved her hand over his back. Someday he’d have to teach her how to give a good back rub - or maybe he’d just let her walk on his back, geisha-style. Hunter snorted silently at the thought of her reaction to a request like that.

 

“This won’t be that easy. Bruised ego aside, Edwards isn’t the type to just roll over and woof.”

 

“You’re expecting more trouble?” Hunter arched one eyebrow.

 

“Hell, yes,” Jim said dryly. “There’s always plenty of that in Cascade. I just don’t need this kind of crap within the clan.”

 

“I already told David what the stakes were.”

 

“Nice bit of psychological warfare,” Jim commented blandly. “Edwards hates you.”

 

“He can go ahead and hate me from now until eternity for all I care. As long as he stays out of my way, we’ll be fine.”

 

“I don’t want him dead.”

 

“Then he’d better toe the line, hadn’t he?” Hunter smiled slightly.

 

“Hunter, leave it alone.”

 

“Ellison, that stopped being an option the moment I swore fealty to you.”

 

Jim pinched the bridge of his nose to try to block the headache that was threatening to emerge. “I don’t get paid enough for this.”

 

Across the clearing, Edwards watched the Sentinel Prime and the Shield. They seemed totally in tune, despite their differing opinions on life and the universe. Sarah was seemingly content to stay by her sentinel, but the faint furrow in her forehead indicated she wasn’t immune to the tension in the air.

 

Blair came up, rattling about ancient customs and waving his hands around as he admonished both sentinels to please make sure Edwards got home okay because David was worried and no point in the whole clan stressing out and besides that, wasn’t it cool that more ancient clan rituals were emerging?

 

Both sentinels reached out - Jim to clamp a hand over his guide’s mouth, and Hunter to ruffle his hair. It was obviously a familiar thing for them, as Blair just rolled his eyes impatiently and tried again to expound on his latest theories.

 

Edwards tucked David closer. His entire body ached, and he was furious over what had happened. First, he’d lost the challenge, and now he was certain Ellison would make him honor the forfeit.

 

“You sure he didn’t hurt you?”

 

David tucked his head under his sentinel’s chin. “He didn’t hurt me.” Confused me, scared me and threw me for a loop, though. I don’t know how Blair can handle him.

 

“Thinks he’s so damn smart,” Edwards bitched, hoping his ribs were just bruised and not broken.

 

“He is smart,” Dr. Harvey said tartly as she cleaned his scrapes. “Much as you males can be considered intelligent with all this posturing.”

 

Edwards glared at the clan healer. She always made him feel like he was twelve years old, and just as predictable. “He thinks he can just come in here --”

 

“Give it a rest,” Niven barked. “He already said he doesn’t want your job.”

 

“You don’t understand, Niven,” Edwards argued.

 

“Unfortunately, I think I do,” Niven said, his voice softer now. “You’re worried about Hunter taking your place in Ellison’s eyes. He’s the Shield. You know as well as I do that blood outweighs clan.”

 

Edwards tucked his face into David’s neck, refusing to comment.

 

Well, isn’t this a lovely development. Niven walked back over to Ellison, who had left Hunter to suffer through Blair’s latest exposition on Dark Sentinels. Sarah seemed to be enjoying it, though.

 

“He thinks you betrayed him.” Niven’s voice was quiet.

 

Jim nodded, eyes grim. “I know, but it’s not what Edwards thinks. Even though it’s a little unorthodox, this arrangement might keep the clan from splintering.”

 

Niven looked over at the Shield, who had resigned himself to a long-winded explanation and leaned against the truck cab while Blair expounded. “Your brother is a very complicated man, Ellison. Can’t say I care for him, but he surprised me.”

 

“What - with this thing about swearing fealty?”

 

“No. That he was careful not to hurt David.”

 

“Edwards would argue about that,” Jim commented.

 

“Edwards can’t see past his own expectations right now. He’ll get over it - he has no choice. They say you can’t fight destiny.”

 

Jim squinted at the Vice cop. “You know, I never thought of you as the philosophical type, Niven.”

 

Niven surprised him by smiling. “Guess that’s just another thing you learned about me.”

 

Jim looked into the steady, kind eyes and thought of all that Niven had done directly and indirectly for him and Blair. Niven was a rock, a calm anchor in the storm.

 

“I’ll need you to help keep the peace. Will you do that?”

 

“Of course, Senior Sentinel Prime.” It was a formal acceptance of responsibility, but their was more than just duty there. Niven had come into the little circle surrounding Jim and Blair, and found a comfortable spot. How many people had come into Jim’s life because of Blair? The clan, the gang at Major Crime, his neighbors Hetty and Jonathan, Naomi, Daniel Slater -- all of them friends, to one degree or another. Some of them could even be considered family.

 

“Take care of him,” Jim said, looking over to where Edwards was being assisted over to his car by Lisa and Dr. Harvey. “I’ll have to hash this out some other time.”

 

“Will do,” Niven reassured him, then gathered up Tina and Maria to follow Edwards home.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Jim stirred from sleep, frowning at the faint light coming from downstairs. Blair was awake, but not rummaging in the refrigerator the way he usually did in the middle of the night.

 

“Chief?” Jim called down softly. “You okay?”

 

Blair was unconsciously repeating an Ellison pose, looking out the open balcony door.

 

“It’s pretty cool out there, Blair. Want a sweatshirt?” Jim had walked up behind his guide and rested his hands on the younger man’s shoulders.

 

“No, thanks,” Blair sighed.

 

“Nightmare?” Jim punctuated the question with a brief rub over Blair’s back.

 

“Nah. Couldn’t sleep.” Blair continued to look out into the night, trying to dispel the shadow that seemed to hover over him. He had spent the last two hours lying in bed trying to meditate and figure out just what was bothering him, but all that came was fragmented bits of scenery, and dark water.

 

“You scared?” Jim asked.

 

“Uneasy,” Blair corrected him. “Can you tell that by my vital signs?”

 

“Nope, you control them pretty well when you meditate. It’s your scent.”

 

“Great - I stink of uneasiness.” Blair turned around with an apologetic look. “I’m the one who kept you up in the process.”

 

“What’s bothering you, Chief?”

 

“I don’t know,” Blair ran his hands through his hair several times. “That’s the damn problem. Something’s up, and I can’t tell who or where or how.”

 

“With you? With me?”

 

“I don’t know. Damn it, I just don’t know.” Blair moved to the kitchen and put on the kettle for tea.

 

Jim was talking, and suddenly he seemed far away, his voice faint, his image translucent. Blair dropped the tea kettle he was filling into the sink

 

“Chief! You okay?” Jim was there in a heartbeat, settling Blair into a chair. The kid looked like he’d seen a ghost.

 

Blair got clammy. Was this what it meant? Jim was in danger.

 

“Promise me that you’ll keep someone with you tomorrow.” Blair grabbed his sentinel’s arm, his grip terrifyingly strong. “Don’t ever be alone. Promise me!”

 

“Sure, Blair. You’ll be at Rainier, so I probably could get Rafe and H to tag along. That DeSanto murder case is a nasty one.” Jim soothed his guide, taking charge of the tea preparations and finally pouring him a nice hot cup of chamomile with plenty of sugar.

 

Blair sipped and steadied himself. He had to be strong and not distract Jim. There was no way he could ride along tomorrow with two mandatory meetings and the fact that Jim would be in court most of the day.

 

They sat for a while, until Blair looked steadier.

 

“You okay now? Want to come up?”

 

Blair’s lips quirked. Jim was volunteering to act as teddy bear.

 

“Thanks, but I’m all grown up now, Dad.” The teasing seemed to lighten the sentinel’s mood.

 

“Holler if you need me, Chief.” Jim waited until he could hear his guide settle into bed, then climbed up to his own bed. He finally dozed off.

 

In the room below, Blair concentrated on keeping his vital signs steady so Jim wouldn’t be alarmed. He’d finally recognized the shadow for what it was.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Blair looked up to see a woman entering his office. “Hello, can I help you?” His eyes widened as he recognized Monica from the gala. The woman had disappeared after Jim had declared vendetta, and now she was in his office.

 

Monica pulled out the gun, pointing it at Blair’s chest. “You’re coming with me.”

 

“Listen, I.....”

 

“Come with me, or I’ll shoot you right here.” Her eyes were not quite right, her gun hand shaking slightly.

 

Blair was sweating. He could see an unfamiliar man standing just outside the door. There were two of them and a gun -- not the best of odds. It was late, and there wouldn’t be many people in Hargrove Hall at this time of night.

 

“What do you want?”

 

Monica just waved him to stand up, her partner moving into the office. He looked like a thug -- big, nondescript and threatening.

 

Blair stood, hands in the air, and moved away from his desk, his feet scuffling in the dusty floor. Before he could ask another question, the man had hit him in the jaw and he slumped, unconscious.

 

They exited the building without incident.

 

“You know where to take him,” Monica said, her eyes feverishly bright. The thug nodded as he tossed his captive over his shoulder and walked away to the car hidden behind the trash dumpster.

 

Monica pulled out her cell phone and dialled. “Got him. It’ll be done soon.” Then she got into her car, turned on the engine and savored her victory by blasting her radio as she drove out of the parking lot.

 

Hunter swore as his cell phone rang. He’d been pulling some boxes out of the basement and nearly fell off the ladder in his surprise. It was eleven o’clock at night - who would be calling this late?

 

“Blair’s missing,” Jim said urgently. “I haven’t been able to reach him and there’s no answer at his office. He wanted to grade some papers and stayed late.”

 

“I’ll meet you at Rainier,” Hunter said shortly, a bad feeling coming over him.

 

“Hunter?” Sarah was at the top of the basement stairs. “Something bad. can’t explain, but I feel....”

 

“Sandburg’s missing. Grab your jacket and let’s go.”

 

Hunter and Sarah arrived at Hargrove Hall just about the same time Jim did. They got out of their cars and went inside the building.

 

Sarah stopped at the doorway, causing both sentinels to pause.

 

“Sarah?” Jim asked.

 

Sarah dropped her barriers, wincing at the emotions. “They took him. I can feel it.”

 

Hunter focused on the scuff marks in the floor. Two letters, hastily scrawled, stood out.

 

“VM,” Hunter frowned. “Initials?”

 

Jim stared at the lettering. Then it clicked. V. Vendetta. M. Monica.

 

“She’s involved. The bitch from the gala. I knew we shouldn’t have stopped looking for her after she disappeared.”

 

A new voice from the doorway had both sentinels spinning around and growling. “Uh, excuse me? Are you looking for Blair?”

 

“Who are you?” Jim demanded.

 

The girl nearly bolted in fright. Jim immediately went into reassuring police officer mode. “It’s okay, I’m Blair’s sentinel. Detective Jim Ellison. Do you have any idea where he might be?”

 

“I’m Rita Lewis, undergrad student. Blair was going to help me with my paper tonight, but when I got here the office was empty. Then some idiot went tearing out of the parking lot blasting Led Zeppelin and so I had to see what was going on.”

 

“A woman?” Sarah asked, fearing the worst.

 

“Yeah, some crazy chick. She looked to old to be a student. She was heading for Denton Park when she left. Only the students use that shortcut.”

 

“Can you describe the vehicle?”

 

“Well, it looked blue or gray. The fluorescent lights make it hard to tell at night. Four door Ford Tempo, plate started with LFN, but I couldn’t see the rest.”

 

Hunter was on his cell ordering an APB as they headed out for the parking lot.

 

“Thanks for your help, Rita.”

 

“When you find him, can you please tell him I was here?” Rita called after the retreating figures, totally confused and not a little apprehensive.

 

Jim waved an affirmative, and the three of them piled into Jim’s car.

 

“Sarah, do you think you might be able to sense anything?” Jim was concentrating on his driving, but spared the empath a glance.

 

“She’s here,” Sarah whispered as they pulled into the forested sanctuary near the campus that made a very attractive meeting place for romantic trysts.

 

The car was parked, the front door open and no occupant inside. Both sentinels scanned the area until they detected the heart beat in the small copse of trees.

 

“Police! Come out with your hands up!”

 

A bullet flew by, and both sentinels hit the ground, Sarah squashed between them. They retreated behind some concrete benches and Hunter moved stealthily. The metallic sheen of the gun was clearly visible to sentinel eyes, and Hunter fired. A short scream, and then several police cars pulled up.

 

Monica lay on the ground, clutching her bleeding arm. The cops swarmed over the scene, while Hunter and Jim moved over to the wounded woman.

 

“Where’s Blair Sandburg?” Jim hissed, one hand curling around Monica’s throat.

 

She shook her head furiously, spitting at him and refused to speak.

 

Hunter reached down to shake the information out of the woman, but she shrieked. “Police brutality!”

 

Simon rushed over, trying to keep both sentinels from getting themselves into trouble. The Sentinel Prime had many rights when it came to protecting his clan, but there were television cameras at the periphery that were drooling over the prospect of the Cascade Police Department being thrown into a media circus.

 

“Jim, Hunter, let her go.”

 

“No way, Simon,” Jim said, repeating Hunter’s choke hold from the gala. “She knows where Blair is, and I’ll get that information however I need to.”

 

“Let her go,” Simon commanded. “You may be Sentinel Prime, but I’m your boss and this is a suspect in police custody.”

 

Jim was feral, and Hunter was rapidly following him.

 

“I’m not telling you anything,” Monica sneered as a paramedic bandaged her wound. She smiled in triumph as Jim let go. “You can’t touch me.”

 

“Want to bet?” Hunter said, deciding to handle it himself. His grip nearly crushed her windpipe.

 

“Hunter! Let her go!” Simon somehow managed to pry the IA captain’s fingers from the woman.

 

She gasped for air, her expression malevolent. “You’re too late.”

 

“What?!” Jim reached out, but Simon blocked him, nearly tackling his detective to keep Jim from killing her.

 

“Keep them away from me,” Monica wheezed through her abused throat. “I’ll sue.”

 

“Where’s Blair?” Jim roared.

 

Monica shrugged, the vicious glee in her face setting Jim into BP Supreme mode.

 

“He’s dead by now,” Monica laughed, her eyes not quite sane.

 

“Bitch!” Hunter’s hand was blocked by Simon.

 

Sarah had been watching from behind the men. Monica was telling the truth - Blair was dying. The connection she felt was fading. Moving forward, she centered herself and touched Monica, nearly recoiling from the darkness. Following long forgotten instincts, Sarah moved into the woman’s mind and linked. Images chased across her visual field: a domed skylight, a fountain, and a motionless body floating face down....

 

“No!” Sarah cried out. She let go of Monica, who looked a bit dazed.

 

Hunter immediately pulled her to him. “What?”

 

“I know where Blair is,” Sarah said as she scrambled to her feet. Blair’s empathic presence was getting dimmer.

 

“No way,” Monica sneered. “No way in hell.” They would never find him in time.

 

“Cascade Mall. Hurry!” Sarah said, running for the car. Jim and Hunter followed without question, Jim barking at Simon to send backup.

 

The three minute drive was an eternity. Sarah shivered, trying to connect across the space between them, but Blair slipped out of reach.

 

Blair was sinking into the ocean, the teal and green fading to blue and then black as he sank to the bottom. It was cold. No light, no air. Then the sharks came, circling him. He could feel his body tearing as they separated him into pieces, his blood draining into the abyss. Curious -- he felt no pain as they dismembered him. There was no need to breathe here.

 

Jim and Hunter kicked in the glass door of the retail store, racing for the central fountain as one of the uniforms located the power panel to switch on the lights.

 

The moon barely lit the atrium, but sentinel eyes could see the motionless figure in the water.

 

“Chief!” Jim pulled him out and almost threw him on the floor. Checking for a pulse, a heart beat, anything. The sudden burst of light made Jim wince and dial down. He began CPR and eventually the medics moved in to check on Blair.

 

Hooking the still figure up to the monitor, they paused at the reading.

 

“Asystole,” one medic muttered. “He must have been down for a while.”

 

“Do something!” Hunter ordered.

 

The medics started an IV and pushed medications as Jim continued chest compressions. The tube in Blair’s throat passed oxygen into his lungs with no response.

 

It was night time in the jungle. It smelled of rotting vegetation and Blair was pinned by the animals who rended his flesh. He couldn’t move, couldn’t make a sound. This time, there was pain.

 

“Try pacing him,” the other medic suggested as he attached the external cardiac pacemaker. Blair’s body jerked with the electrical stimulus, but neither sentinel heard a heart beat with it.

 

“No capture,” the first medic sighed. “We’ve gone full court press with this and he’s not responding. We’ll call it.”

 

“No!” Jim ordered.

 

“I’m sorry, but he’s gone,” the lead medic said compassionately. “We’re too late.”

 

Jim snarled as he continued one man CPR.

 

“Jim,” came the gentle voice behind him. “He’s gone.”

 

“Simon, I have to help him!” Jim paused. “I can’t let him die!”

 

Hunter had moved close, staring down at the motionless body. He could barely feel the empathic connection, but as long as there was a trace....

 

“Take the tube out,” Hunter ordered.

 

“Uh...sure, Captain,” one medic said. Often, it was easier to deal with a death when the medical equipment wasn’t disfiguring them.

 

“Hunter....” Jim closed his eyes, his rage and grief swamping him.

 

“All right, Ellison, like you told me before: it takes two.” Hunter moved to kneel on the other side of the guide.

 

As the sentinels met eyes, there was an almost audible crackle. Jim immediately understood what Hunter wanted them to do,

 

“We’re going after him,” Hunter pronounced, and Sarah moved to Blair’s head, carefully pulling it into her lap. The wet strands of hair immediately soaked through her jeans.

 

Jim placed his left hand on Blair’s face, while Hunter mirrored the action with his right. Jim moved his right hand to Blair’s chest, and after a millisecond hesitation, Hunter’s other hand covered Jim’s.

 

Reaching out, Sarah curled her hands around the sentinels’ wrists, anchoring them to herself, and to Blair. Both sentinels glanced at her, and Sarah nodded.

 

Closing her eyes, Sarah waited.

 

They were coming after him. The animals were chasing him through the jungle, the man-beasts not far behind. Why couldn’t they let him go? He needed to be here - there was something he had to do.

 

Jim concentrated fiercely, moving to the center. He opened his eyes to see the jungle, and his form had changed. The jaguar yowled as the tiger joined him and they moved to hunt.

 

His bare feet stamped across the ferns and grasses as he ran. The animals were almost on him. He fell heavily and they were there, tearing his limbs, his skin. Then suddenly, they ran off. He lay there, blood soaking into the ground as the tiger and jaguar moved over him. It hurt so much.

 

Simon watched incredulously as his best detective and the IA captain seemed to enter the mother of all zones. The sentinels were motionless, barely breathing, as they knelt by Blair Sandburg’s body. He reached out to comfort Jim, when a hand stopped him. Looking down, he saw Sarah’s small hand holding his wrist in a pincer grip.

 

“No,” she whispered, and Simon backed off. Her eyes were almost glowing. Her spirit animal was curled up behind her, both of them anchoring their counterparts in the other plane.

 

Rafe felt a cold shiver as he watched a blue arc pass from Hunter to Ellison and back, then envelop Sarah and Blair. Sarah’s hair stood up from the static.

 

The jaguar and tiger carefully picked up the body parts and moved them closer to the bleeding trunk. He wanted to tell them it was useless, but he couldn’t speak. The animals stood over him, twin sets of light blue eyes boring into him.

 

“What the hell are they doing?” H whispered, his skin creeping from the electric charge in the air.

 

“I have no idea,” Simon answered, too spooked to stop the bizarre ritual, whatever it was. Maybe it was a funeral rite.

 

He could feel his body knitting back together, with pain worse than when it had been torn apart. Legs and arms moved back into their proper places, wounds sealing, until he could stand, naked and unmarked.

 

The jaguar was back, silently waiting. He felt the change. His body morphed into the wolf, this time a sweeter pain. The tiger moved to his left side and the jaguar on his right, then they leapt simultaneously and disappeared in him. The wolf was complete.

 

Jim twitched, then calmed. Hunter made some sub-human sound, then subsided. Sarah opened her eyes and slowly released the sentinels’ wrists.

 

Hunter and Jim opened their eyes. Simon rushed forward, ready to offer his sympathies on their loss. The kid had survived so much, only to be felled by a jealous woman and some unknown psychopath.

 

“Jim....” Simon tried again, his voice thick with emotion. “I’m so sorry....”

 

Jim eased back, his hand slipping out from underneath Hunter’s. Both sentinels stared down at the serene face of the guide.

 

Simon swallowed the lump in his throat. Sandburg looked like he was only sleeping.

 

“Jim,” Simon squeezed Jim’s shoulder. “It’s okay to let go.”

 

“No one is letting go,” Hunter said curtly, his right hand moving gently over Blair’s face. “No one is ever letting go.”

 

They had snapped, obviously. In the course of their sentinel death ritual, Ellison and Hunter had lost their grip on reality.

 

“He’s dead, Jim,” Simon tried again.

 

At that, Sandburg’s eyes fluttered, and he gasped and spit out water. Jim rapidly turned him on his side so the water could drain out.

 

“Jesus!” Simon was unable to believe what he was seeing. “He was dead!”

 

“Not dead,” Jim said, patting his guide’s back as Blair coughed and gasped. “Not quite.”

 

Hunter was stroking the young man’s hair, murmuring something inaudible.

 

The medics moved in to place an oxygen mask over Blair’s face and hook him back up to the heart monitor. As they rechecked vital signs and talked amongst themselves about the miracle they had witnessed, Jim continued to hold onto his guide, supporting his barriers.

 

Simon was shaken to his soul. He had never seen anything like it and knew he never would again. Blair was propped against Jim, Sarah and Hunter on his other side. Sarah was squeezing the water out of his hair with a towel while Hunter groused about the crowd and barked at a uniform to clear the area and to get the ambulance cot so they could take Sandburg to the hospital.

 

Jim stared intently into his guide’s eyes. Something else had happened there in that jungle - something strange and wonderful.

 

“Hunter, can you sense it?” Jim said sentinel-soft, moving so Hunter could really look at the empath.

 

“That was it, then,” Hunter said, scanning Sandburg for any new variance in vital functions.

 

“It’s gonna be a hell of a ride from here on out,” Jim sighed, cradling his guide close as he carefully avoided the monitor cables and the oxygen tubing.

 

“You’re the one who believes in destiny, Ellison.” Hunter stood up, catching Sarah to him. She leaned into him for comfort more than shielding.

 

Blair was conscious, barely. The voices around him were familiar, so he decided to let himself stay in the lovely gray cloud for a little longer. Time enough later for what would need to be done.