Disclaimer: The main characters are not mine, this is an amateur effort written purely for the fun of it, and no money has exchanged hands, and it is not intended to breach the copyright of Paramount and Pet Fly Productions.

Learning Curve
Lesson Four: Birthday

Ellison smiled as he heard the Corvair pull into the parking lot. His impatient wait for Blair to get home had finally ended. He had big plans for his guide on this special day. He waited quietly on the stairs leading to his bedroom, wanting to see the look on Blair's face when he noticed Jim's carefully positioned offering. His smile changed to a frown as his guide moved slowly into the loft, not even noticing his sentinel's presence. The anthropologist's characteristic bounce was missing and there was a weariness on his face that worried Jim. Looks like a not so good day at Rainier. Ellison made the assessment quickly then smiled again. He had just the thing to raise the younger man's spirits.

Blair came into the loft dragging his feet. His day at Rainier had been long and hard. Doctor Higgins had gone out of his way to make his life miserable. The graduate student's public recognition as the discoverer of the Temple of the Guides and the invitation to write a paper on it for publication had only worsened the professor's dislike of him. The Dean's secretary had gleefully told him all about Higgins' *loud* meeting with her boss after Blair had been credited with the find. Higgins had a long list of complaints to air but he had fumed most over the fact that the news release had identified him as "Blair Sandburg, BA, MA" as if he was a normal person and not a guide. Higgins' complaint had fallen on deaf ears; the Dean had her eyes set on higher things than the sour grapes of one of her faculty. Blair shook his head wearily. What does it take to get accepted?

Blair tossed his keys into the bowl on the counter, started to shrug off his jacket and froze. On the kitchen table was a brightly colored envelope and a small flat box meticulously wrapped in silver paper. What was this? Before he could investigate, a warm voice spoke behind him. A simple sentence that he hadn't heard in years. A well-meant wish that sent a spike of fear through him as memories surfaced.

"Happy Birthday, Chief."

Ellison took a step forward as Blair spun around. Sandburg's face showed something akin to total fear, his heart beat rocketed and he turned deathly pale. Concerned, Jim started forward and Blair bolted out the front door as if he couldn't get away fast enough. Running from what? Ellison considered that with a frown, icy blue eyes settling on the small package that had stopped his guide in his tracks.

Jim cast out his senses. As suspected, his guide had not gone far. The sentinel had learned early on of Blair's bolthole on the roof but at the same time he had realized that his guide would always come home. As long as Blair was not hurt or cold, Jim left him alone, knowing the kid sometimes needed this illusion of privacy. The very thing he had lost when he bonded to a man who could tell everything he had been up to simply by opening his senses. Jim was usually willing to leave him alone. But in this case... Blair would consider the temperature freezing on the roof and his guide already had a slight cold, so Jim went after him.

Jim pushed open the heavy door that led to the roof and saw his guide's hunched shoulders flinch at the noise as if he were the sentinel. Ellison shook his head. Sorry, kid, but this time you don't get to hide out. As he started over the open expanse of gravel he thought of the irony that someone who hated heights as much as Blair found some sense of security on the roof. His young guide was a mass of contradictions.

Jim sat down by the younger man. Sandburg's legs were drawn up against his chest and his hands were fisted on top of his knees. He looked... miserable. Ellison reached past the huddled form to tug his guide's jacket closed. Blair flinched again and wrapped his arms around his knees, a clear request to be left alone. Jim pulled his hands away and moved a few inches away, mirroring his friend's pose except that his own hands were loose and open.

"Blair, birthdays are supposed to be happy. What's wrong, buddy?"

Sandburg drew in a deep breath, his face hidden against his arms. He didn't answer but Ellison could feel the small tremors that shook him.

Ellison took his own deep breath and forced a hint of demand into his next question. "What's wrong, Blair?" Come on, Chief, talk to me. Maybe the empath picked up the worry in his sentinel's thoughts because the younger man choked out an answer that only raised more questions.

"Stupid, so stupid, man."

Jim waited. He'd learned that sometimes it was better to let his guide proceed at his own pace. The answer came... slowly at first and then picking up speed.

"Bad memories... my birthday... first one Naomi decided to actually celebrate only because the commune we were at was like into it and the pigs - the cops... they..."

Blair's head shot up as he realized what he had said. "God, no, Jim. I'm sorry... I didn't mean..." He caught at his sentinel's arm.

Jim didn't take offense at the pig reference. He knew that Blair was lost in the moment that had generated whatever memories had sent him running from his sentinel. And he hid a smile as he realized that the kid had reached out to him. Jim warmly clasped Blair's hand where it lay on his arm and encouraged.

"The police, Blair, what happened?"

"Naomi didn't know but the commune was squatting, trespassing. The owners took exception. The police were called in and they went to evict the people. It got rough. I was separated from Mom in the fighting. I got hurt somehow... I don't remember how... I was brought to a care facility and I must have done something to make them suspect I was an empath. They started to test me..."

"But they would need your mom's consent, Blair. Where was Naomi?" Jim was careful to not sound accusatory.

"She was in jail with the rest of the commune. We were overseas somewhere when this happened. I was made a Ward of Court, I think they called it. I... I don't really remember what happened, its all kind of jumbled up." He pulled in on himself. "Naomi was released when they found out she was American but she didn't know where I had been taken and no one would tell her. I... it took a while before she found me and helped me escape. I don't remember much about the testing, just that it hurt, hurt badly, and the doctors scared me." Blair was quiet but Jim could hear the rapid pounding of his heart. "After that Naomi gave me presents when she could, when there was money and she found something she thought I would like, but not on that day, not ever on that day."

"How old were you, Blair?"

"Five, six... I don't really remember, Jim. I... don't really want to remember." There was remembered fear and desperation in the last sentence, whispered sentinel soft.

"Sorry, buddy, I didn't mean to bring back bad memories." Ellison rubbed his guide's arms gently, trying to bring some warmth into a chilled body.

"Jim?" Blair's voice had stopped quavering.

"Yeah, Chief?" Jim prodded gently.

"Why didn't Naomi get the American authorities to help me? They helped her."

Jim had the feeling this was a memory the kid had always kept close. He chose his words carefully. "Blair, empaths are not allowed out of the country except under strict conditions. I got the feeling that Naomi suspected you were or could be an empath. She would not have wanted the authorities to know you had been tested..."

"Oh... I always wondered. But that makes sense."

"You never talked to Naomi about this?" That surprised Jim, given the closeness he had seen between mother and son.

"Mom had bad memories too, Jim. It... hurt her to remember." And you couldn't stand to feel anyone hurt much less your mom. So you took it all on your own shoulders. Got it, kid.

"Like I said, Chief. I'm sorry I reminded you of something you wanted to forget." There's too much in your life you want to forget, Chief.

"You didn't know, Jim. And it was nice of you to bother about my... birthday." Wide blue eyes held something more than fear as Blair finally looked at his sentinel. Gratitude.

"What say we replace those bad memories with some good ones, Chief?"

"Jim?" Confusion crossed the expressive face.

"You feel up for a party?"

"Party?" Blair still sounded lost.

"Sure. At the Sanders'. I'm not the only one who figured out it was your birthday. Hetty has been baking all day. That triple chocolate cake you like so much..." Jim said temptingly and got a nod back.

"Time to put it to rest once and for all. Just one more thing that can't hurt me any more. Right, Jim?" At the trust in that voice, Jim thought fervently, Gods, don't ever let me let this kid down.

"Come on. Let's go open your present." Jim got up, reached a hand down and drew his guide to his feet in one fluid motion. Ellison kept an arm around Sandburg's shoulders as he guided the kid back to the apartment.

Blair approached the present as if it was alive and was going to strike at him. He carefully peeled the paper away until a wallet lay exposed. Not just any wallet but one Blair had seen and secretly coveted.

"Thought it would be better than that canvas thing you use." There was a diffidence in his sentinel's voice that fooled Blair not at all. His sentinel had known, somehow his sentinel had known.

Blair didn't seem to hear him but Jim saw the trembling in his fingers as he slowly traced the patterns on the wallet. It was woven of leather and cloth in warm earth colours. "Peruvian," Blair said it softly. He glanced up and saw his sentinel nod.

"Thanks." One simple word perhaps but with complex emotions behind it. His sentinel, his friend had gone to the trouble to find out his birthday and to drive across the city to get this particular wallet just because he knew that Blair had been looking at it.

"Open it, Blair." There was a smile in the older man's voice.

Inside the wallet was a phone calling card paperclipped to a small laminated card. Blair's eyes widened with surprise as he saw a list of emergency telephone numbers. Jim's was there, of course, but so was Commander Slater's office and home numbers. That stopped him in his tracks... the commander's home number and... and Simon Banks' numbers as well.

"You have trouble, Chief, you use them. Okay?" Ellison was serious, he needed his guide to understand that he not only could but should use those numbers.

Blair nodded, still lost in thought. A puzzled frown crossed the grad student's face as he felt something else in the wallet. He dug into a small compartment and blushed crimson as he found two condoms tucked in the back.

With a laugh in his voice he asked, "Taking your job of blessed protector a little serious, are we?"

"Always, Chief." Ellison grinned as he answered but Blair heard the serious intent behind the lightly spoken words. He closed his eyes and felt himself drawn into a warm hug. "Happy birthday, Chief, and many more."

Blair clutched his wallet and nodded his head against Jim's shoulder. He had a sentinel, a blessed protector, a friend, a brother. Happy birthday indeed! He thought happily.

0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0

Mavis Taggart took to Hetty Sanders straight away, birds of a feather certainly. Mavis looked around the room at the jumble of people. The Sanders' apartment was large but even with all the furniture moved against the walls, it could barely contain all the celebrants. The party was in full swing. And Blair Sandburg was in the thick of it.

Mavis contrasted the animated young man who was the reason for this party with the one she had first seen at her Americas' Day party... there was no contest. Blair was laughing as a tall, stunning woman made a production of sniffing and tasting a morsel of food held out to her by a young, dark haired man. She announced with the gravity due a declaration of war. "Cream of tartar... heavy cream... confectioner's sugar... pineapple... rum." Blair checked the card he was holding and held two thumbs up. Applause rang out as well as various catcalls. "Too easy!" "Got anything harder, Blair?"

"What in the world?" Mavis turned to her hostess. Hetty smiled but before she could explain, a young blond man plucked Mavis' cake from her hands with a radiant smile. "Thanks. I didn't want them to start on the birthday cake until Blair had a chance to cut it!" He turned back to the group by the table and called out. "Here, I've got another one." He disappeared into the swirl of people. Mavis sent a puzzled look at Hetty who was smiling at the cake thief indulgently.

"They started the game a while back. So far they've had most of the contents of my larder out. They're convinced they've detected the ingredients in Hoppers' secret sauce."

"Sentinels?" Mavis was surprised. Hetty Sanders seemed to take the presence of sentinels in her home as a matter of course.

"Well, I think about eight of them are."

Before she say more, Blair arrived, after threading his way through the crowd, a tall glass of mixed juices in his hand. Like all the guides, he wasn't drinking although their sentinels seemed determined to make up for that. Blair was grinning. He was having a blast. It was certainly an education to see all the sentinels unwind together. It reminded him of Vikings celebrating in Valhalla.

"Mrs. Taggart, Captain! You came too."

The big captain said fondly, "Well it is your birthday, son." He handed Blair a gaily wrapped package as Mavis said,

"Blair, your birthday present. I hope you like it. HAPPY BIRTHDAY." She drew the surprised young man into a brief hug.

Blair actually blushed. "Thank you, Captain, Mrs. Taggart."

"Open it, son." Taggart encouraged, wanting to make sure that Ellison knew what he had been talking about.

Blair plopped down on the sofa and opened the paper. A blinding smile lit his face and Joel relaxed. Ellison had steered him right; the anthropology book was obviously a hit with the kid. Taggart watched as Blair read the message he had inscribed on the leaf and blushed even more. Blue eyes were unguardedly happy as the young observer looked up and said a heartfelt, "Its great, just what I wanted! Thank you. And the message..." he continued shyly, "that's great too. Thanks." He bounced off the sofa and reached for Mavis' hand. "Come on, I want to show it to Jim."

Mavis almost pulled back. She could not imagine why he wanted to include that cold fish in anything. But she was all but tugged along until they reached Ellison. Her eyes widened in astonishment. If the change in the young empath was startling, then in Ellison it was a miracle. The grim faced stoic detective she knew was grinning and JOKING. He looked a lot younger and his smile when he turned at his guide's call was mega-watt. For a moment she could see the true Jim Ellison.

The sentinel draped an arm round his guide's shoulder and gave a light hug as he looked at the book his personal anthropologist was showing him. The older man was making all the right noises of appreciation and when he looked over at Mavis there was gratitude in his formerly cold eyes.

Ellison had been fielding questions about presents for his guide for the past two weeks. Getting Blair's reading list for the next semester from Doctor Woodward had been a stroke of genius and a godsend. The kid's book collection was growing by leaps and bounds and Jim foresaw the need for another bookcase in the near future. Not everyone had asked for advice, at least not from him. Sentinel Prime Edwards had brought some CDs that David had chosen, earth music that he thought Blair would like for meditation. Jim had made a mental note to get earplugs after a non-too- subtle hint from Edwards that he might need them. The other sentinel admitted his own guide had the same CDs and added, "Get the earplugs in before the aborigine drum solo." Jim looked around the crowded apartment as Blair was dragged off by David and couldn't contain a smile. Good memories, Chief, that's what I promised you.

Dan Slater was watching the Sentinels at play as his wife chatted to Carolyn Plummer. Carolyn had already given her present to Blair; a multi-colored scarf that had won her a grin. But her sisterly kiss on the Guide's cheek had won her an even bigger present than the one she had bestowed - a blinding smile of approval from Jim. Slater had watched the by-play with amusement. Simon's gift had drawn cheers as it was opened... a flak vest with "Sandburg ...Observer" printed on the back.

Slater wondered what the GDP would make of this gathering of sentinels, guides and normals who had as their focus one deliriously happy young anthropologist. As the commander looked on, Edwards looped an arm around Blair and pulled him close as Karl was snagged by Jim, and David by Lisa. It seemed to be a new kind of sentinel parlor games with a totally unheard of swapping of guides. The "name that ingredient" contest was back in play. Soon, the pattern was repeated with the non-sentinels being pulled into the game. Rafe ended up with a slender girl called Katherine, newly bonded to Jason, who was with H. Eventually, the non-sentinels got thrown out of the competition for the cheating done by the sentinel/guide member of the partnerships who were doing their best to interfere with the other sentinels in the game.

The whole party wound up in a truly wacky game of charades that had Slater laughing until his eyes ran with tears. There really was something different about the sentinels of Cascade. Slater sobered as he pondered the honor and trust he had been extended along with the invitation to this gathering. He vowed silently to be worthy of it. He looked up and caught Simon Banks smiling at him with a knowing look on his face. Slater grinned and shrugged. He knew that the big police captain sometimes felt just as much at sea in the world of sentinels and guides as he did.

Finally, when the food had been ravaged and the kegs run dry, the party began to wind down. The guides began to usher their tipsy sentinels out the door to drive them home and put them to bed with aspirin and ice bags. Hetty heard inebriated assurances from each and every sentinel and more sober agreement from each guide that it was the best party anyone had ever attended. That assessment was confirmed by the PD and University guests as they trickled out. When only Jim and Blair were left, Hetty waved away their offers of help and shooed them back to the loft.

Blair tightly clutched as many of his presents as he could carry as Jim juggled the overflow into the elevator and up to the loft. Once inside, Blair made coffee while Jim sorted through what he laughingly referred to as "the loot." Jim had had several beers and was nicely mellow. It had been good to see his sentinel so relaxed. Blair had enjoyed the party. He still could not believe that all those people had turned up for him, it was the kind of party he had only dreamed of having. He wished Naomi... he pulled back from that thought and recalled the party instead. The parlor games had started as a joke and then everyone had entered into the fun of it, even Mavis and Joel Taggart and Simon and Dan. Blair had watched in awe as Captain Banks and Commander Slater had proven to be the team to beat in charades.

He put the coffee down on the table in front of the sofa. Before he could head back to the kitchen for the aspirin he had ready, his wrist was caught and he was gently tugged down onto the sofa. He extended his empathy and felt the need that was suddenly burning in his older friend. The sentinel needed to bond and claim his guide. Willingly, Blair sank down next to him. Bonding no longer held any terror for him. He was brother and partner, not servant or slave. Ellison made it different. There was a joy in the bonding that was even greater tonight. A large weight, built up of memories and fears, had lifted from his heart... the gift of his sentinel, the best present he had ever received. From now on, this was the birthday he would always remember.

The end

Written by Susan Foster
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