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.

Warning: Adult language and situations.

With thanks to our beta reader Olwyn

The Reflection in the Mirror Series: Part 3 (August 23, 2001)

THE LORDS OF THE JUNGLE

By Susan and Maedoc



Hunter was barely able to roll to his feet before Ellison hit him head on. The two grappled for a moment, the Dark Sentinel screaming for vengeance. They traded blows and punches, and were evenly matched for a while, until the Sentinel Prime gained the advantage and stunned Hunter with a blow to the jaw. Hunter fell back and Jim was about to finish the job, when Blair rose and walked over to the enraged sentinel.

Sandburg moved with a dark fluidity that was totally out of character. Dark Guide reached out and grasped Ellison's arm. "No," he said quietly, and bit by bit, Dark Sentinel calmed. Ellison released Hunter and stood silently as he linked with his guide.

The Shield guarded me. He protected me. Dark Guide was insistent, persuasive as he muted Dark Sentinel's rage.

Hunter watched Blair No, not Blair. Someone else... take control of Ellison. The other Blair turned to Ellison and raised a hand to his face. Ellison turned his head to scent his guide's hand, drawing his guide close.

The acquiescence stunned Hunter. The Senior Sentinel Prime, the man that had nearly killed him, submitting to the guide, allowing the guide to control him.

The Not-Blair stepped closer into Jim's space, and Jim's arm went around his waist and the guide was pulled close. The younger man's arm went around his sentinel's neck and he lowered his head onto the sentinel's chest. Cocooned in his sentinel's mind and in his embrace, the Dark Guide subsided and allowed Blair to return.

Hunter saw the shudder that ran through the smaller frame. Blair blinked, confused, and then tried to pull away, but Jim held him tightly and soothed him with words and touch, speaking so softly that even Hunter could barely hear him. Finally, the smaller man calmed. Jim began to gently massage the back of Blair's neck and back, easing the tension out of him.

Finally, when his guide was relaxed against him, Blair's heart beat calm and his breathing back to normal Jim fixed Hunter with a furious glare. "Any more trauma you'd like to inflict?"

"I didn't know." Hunter sounded regretful, which was highly unusual for him.

"What the hell did you *think* was going to happen when you put the tape on?"

"I just wanted some answers. His file was sealed, and the GDP reported that tapes were in circulation -- an inside job." The explanation was stiff.

"So you decided to terrorize my guide," Jim said quietly, but Blair was immediately distressed as his sentinel's aggression rose. Jim pushed his anger back and patted his guide on the back soothingly.

"I tried to get the file unsealed, but the Chief refused. IA has access to everything in the department, but for some reason, they wouldn't give me this." Hunter walked up and down the length of the office, musing out loud. "I needed to find out what was going on."

"You could have asked me," Jim said bluntly.

Hunter shot him a sharp glance. "Right. And you would have immediately volunteered all information about Sandburg."

Jim didn't say anything for a time, then sighed. "Probably not."

"So?" Hunter arched an eyebrow. "Where does that leave me?"

"In a mess," Jim muttered, but his anger was subsiding. Hunter had brought out the big guns in a 'bad cop" psych manoeuver, but Jim would have probably done the same thing if it had been anybody but Blair. The fact that Hunter was more like him than different was a bit unsettling.

"I didn't mean to freak him out," Hunter offered, which was the equivalent of a groveling apology in anyone else.

Jim nodded grudgingly. "He says you shielded him...afterward."

"I had to. His barriers were gone." Hunter was matter of fact, but seemed uncomfortable with what he had done. He abruptly changed the subject. "Sandburg - he was different."

Dark Guide, a voice whispered to Hunter, an ancient memory returning.

Blair finally looked up and blinked like a confused owl. Hunter watched as recognition returned. Blair saw Hunter and flinched slightly before he seemed to gather himself together and reached a hand out to Hunter. Shield.

Jim caught Blair's hand before they could make contact. "No, Blair."

Blair pulled from Jim's grip, so Jim reluctantly stopped protesting. Blair reached out again.

"If you hurt him, Hunter..." Jim warned.

"I won't." Only two words, but Jim could feel the sincerity of the statement.

Hunter put his hand out palm up, and slender fingers curled it. Never breaking contact, Blair eased from one sentinel to the other, Jim's hand resting on Blair's back. Blair was surprised when his wrist was caught and he was pulled close to the other sentinel. Blair moved Hunter's hand up against his heart, then moved Jim's hand so that both mens' hands overlapped on his chest. Blair leaned his head back against his own sentinel's chest and opened the link between the three of them.

For a moment, Hunter almost pulled away, but the pressure on his hand stayed firm. How long the three of them remained linked, the IA captain had no idea, but it was enlightening, and humbling. In that time he saw all he needed to know of what had happened to Blair -- like scenes on an old film projector. The panther and the wolf, Jim's bonding with him, Alex, then Wilson. Blair made a guttural noise in the back of his throat. Immediately, Jim's arm went around him. All the atrocities Blair had suffered at the hands of Alex and the GDP were played back, and as Blair moaned, Hunter's other hand came up to rest on the small guide's shoulder.

Then awareness submerged into twilight. Hunter sank deeper into the bond, almost panicking until he felt Blair's mind moving around him, supporting him. Hunter could see a camp; he knew without knowing how that this was a gathering of the Clan, the ancient Clan. The people carried swords and were dressed in leather and tunics. Hunter saw Jim, only he knew it wasn't Jim, and next to him, the Blair he had seen earlier, the one that was all power and sharp edges and feline grace -- nothing like the grad student Hunter knew.

Hunter could see himself too -- only it wasn't him -- yet it was. He knelt on one knee paying tribute to the Sentinel Prime. The other Hunter wore black with a great sword over his shoulder. The Sentinel Prime accepted the vow of fealty, placing his hand on the other Hunter's head as he growled a challenge to all that stood around them. The Senior Sentinel of the clan claimed his Shield -- a sentinel of his blood that would be his bodyguard and that of his guide. A sentinel that would speak with his authority and enforce clan law even as he protected them.

Then he saw that his guide was lying flat on his stomach by his side as the other Hunter's hand rested on the guide's head. When the other Hunter stood, his guide got to his feet, and his hood was pushed back. Only it wasn't a man, it was a young female, and one whom Hunter knew: Sarah. She looked calm, confident, and reached for her sentinel, reinforcing their connection. Dark Guide looked vaguely hostile, but settled under the touch of the Sentinel Prime. Both the Shield and his guide were now part of the clan. Hunter finally accepted that there was something going on which was beyond what he could ever have imagined. The camp scene faded away as they came out of the link and Jim eased Blair to him, and Hunter pulled back.

"You have your answers, Hunter." To a lot more than the case.

Hunter gave Jim an unreadable look. Then he focused on Sandburg, who was still looking shaky and pale. "I'll nail these bastards," Hunter promised, then reached out to pat the Guide's shoulder, but stopped. Hunter let his hand drop, but Blair understood the aborted gesture of comfort.

"Sorry, kid," Hunter said brusquely, then walked out.

Jim looked round the room -- this was not the ideal place to bond. In his weakened condition, Blair needed to be somewhere safe and warm -- his barriers were nil. The only place that fit the bill and was within easy distance was, ironically enough, the GDP Office on campus. Since Lieutenant Harris had become a supporter, life was now much better for Blair.

Jim looked up to see Alan, one of Blair's students, look through the open door. He gave a low whistle when he saw the mess the room was in, then he saw his teacher being supported by his sentinel. Alan knew Detective Ellison was in BP mode, and didn't ask the question he normally would have. Answers could wait -- Mr. Sandburg looked really bad.

"Can I help?" Alan asked as he moved slowly into the room, keeping a respectable distance from the pair. He was judged silently, and then Ellison nodded. Alan pulled his cell phone out and made a quick call. The sentinel and guide were met at the main entrance to the building by three of the soccer team members, and the four players formed a human barrier around the sentinel and guide as they walked to the GDP station. It was done with low key efficiency as they managed to prevent anyone getting too close.

The door to the GDP station opened and Rebecca looked up. She was new to the GDP and this was her first posting. She was holding down the fort for Guard Knight while he finished his report to Lieutenant Harris. She looked up to see a tall man with icy blue eyes holding a younger man who looked about to collapse.

"Good afternoon, sir, er, Sentinel." He had to be a sentinel -- the man looked feral.

"Bonding suite -- now." The man ordered as he moved toward the hall where the suites were located.

Rebecca stood up agitatedly. "Sir, I have to have a name, and your guide needs to...."

"My guide doesn't have to do anything," Jim said menacingly. "Bonding suite."

Knight was down the hall when he heard the voice and came running. It was Ellison and Sandburg, and the kid looked terrible.

"Senior Sentinel Prime, I'm sorry I wasn't here. The bonding suites are free." Knight hurried to placate the man who looked about to rip off heads.

"Out of my way," Jim growled, and Rebecca stepped backward.

Knight led the way, opening the suite door and standing back as the sentinel and guide entered the room. Once the door closed, Knight flipped the red light on and then went back to the main desk.

"Rebecca, you don't ever want to make that sentinel angry. He's the Senior Sentinel Prime of the city, and that long haired kid is the Guide Prime. If you ever see him or the sentinel walk into this office, you come and get me or the lieutenant immediately."

Rebecca nodded, fully aware of her narrow escape from the sentinel's wrath.

In the bonding suite, Jim noted with approval that the bonding platform was stocked with pillows and blankets -- everything needed to make a safe haven for a hurting guide to rest in. Blair was drained and made no attempt to stop Jim from fussing around him. Part of him knew that Jim needed to do this, but the other part simply basked in the care and attention. Blair let his body relax on the soft platform.

Jim removed his jacket, badge and gun, and placed them away from the platform. Sometimes, if stressed, Blair could be a little unpredictable in the bond, especially if the Dark Guide was still half out of his box. Jim could handle the aggression of the Dark Guide, but it had scared the hell out of him the first time it had happened. Blair was still assimilating Dark Guide, trying to mesh him completely with his own personality, and so most times when the ancient guide popped to the fore, it was rather like a Jekyll and Hyde switch.

This time, Blair just huddled further into the blankets, and gave a soft sigh as his sentinel settled on his side near him. Jim put an arm around him and pulled him closer. The mental merge was healing and fortifying -- Blair could feel the affection and understanding Jim offered. Blair's fingers wrapped in the front of Jim's shirt as he tugged at him. The sentinel curled around his guide, moving Blair's head to rest on his shoulder. As the bond went deeper and the fear began to fade, Blair regained his balance. He was safe. Wilson was dead and the past could not touch him anymore.

~~~~~~~~~

Sarah looked across the table at Hunter. He was picking at the chicken she had prepared for dinner.

"Captain Hunter?" she asked hesitantly, "Is something wrong with the food?"

He had been brooding ever since he had gone out that afternoon. After the visit from GDP Lieutenant Munro, he had announced he needed to make a quick call, and had instructed Sarah to stay at the office. Sarah had wondered what it was all about, because when Hunter had returned, he was ominously quiet.

"Food's fine," he said irritably. "I have things on my mind."

Sarah withdrew, hoping she hadn't angered him.

He looked up and sighed. "It's not you, Sarah. I'm just not hungry."

Sarah got up to clear the table. She put away the leftovers and loaded the dishwasher. Fixing a cup of coffee, she brought it out to her sentinel, who was looking out the patio door -- his favorite thinking spot.

He took the cup with mild surprise -- it was amazing how his guide was learning to read him. "I have an IA interview at the hospital tomorrow. You'll come with me."

Sarah looked worried. "Sentinel, I..." she tried to vocalize her concern. She had never sat in on an interview before. The thought of Hunter tearing somebody to shreds was frightening.

"It's part of what I do, Sarah. I know you're holding your barriers better now -- Sandburg told me so."

Sarah nodded and looked down, but her heart rate gave her away.

Hunter got up and crossed over to where she sat. Seating himself on the armrest of the chair, he reached out and ran his hand over her hair, then moved to massage her neck. She stiffened at first, then slowly eased. His touch wasn't threatening, and it stabilized her. He waited until his guide relaxed under his touch -- even that was progress from a few days ago -- and just let the link between them hum. She finally nodded, and Hunter got up, satisfied. His guide understood what both of them had to do.

The next morning, Sarah hastily downed a bowl of cereal as she waited for the English muffin to pop from the toaster. Hunter didn't routinely eat breakfast on work days -- he had announced it the day after their bonding -- but Sarah knew that was unhealthy. Maybe she could sneak something in since he seemed so preoccupied. Slathering the muffin with real butter -- no margarine for Hunter, she had discovered -- she slid the plate in front of the man bent over the newspaper. He looked up at her, frowning, and she held her breath. They locked eyes for several seconds -- then he deliberately reached out and picked up the muffin and returned to his paper. Sarah moved into the kitchen and leaned against the refrigerator, trying to calm her breathing. That was close. She never knew how he would react if she did anything on her own initiative.

Hunter gathered his briefcase and files as Sarah got her jacket, checking to see that she looked professional and presentable. She scurried to the door when Hunter tapped his keys impatiently. They had worked out a routine of sorts in the last two weeks, and despite the incredible emotional upheaval of her graduation, the run-in with her family and the horrible scene at the mall, she actually felt a bit more secure now. He still scared her, but he hadn't abused her.

The drive was short, and Hunter parked in the reserved slots for police and fire vehicles. After they got out, Sarah looked up at the hospital and felt her feet dragging. The last time she was here had been when she had tried to run from the GDP guards and Hunter had caught her. She couldn't remember everything that had happened, but her anxiety level rose as soon as they entered the lobby.

Two GDP guards were standing there, and they turned to look at them as they walked in.

It's Captain Hunter. Rex Mitchell cursed his own bad luck. The last thing he needed was another run in with the IA captain who had created such a ruckus the last time he was here.

Sarah saw the uniforms and started trembling. Hunter moved her close to his side, keeping his arm around her.

"It's okay, Sarah. They're just on routine duty." His eyes challenged the GDP guards, and they stepped back automatically. They got on the elevator, Sarah behind him near the back wall. The other passengers gave them a few curious looks, but one hard look by the Sentinel had them averting their gaze.

"When we do the interview, it'll be with four of us. The undercover police officer, his advocate, you and I. You will sit next to me; if you start to feel overloaded, you may connect." Hunter instructed her as they walked down the hallway to the nurse's station.

Sarah just nodded, clinging to his coat when Hunter stopped to check on which room Smith was in.

"Can I help you?" the unit clerk blinked, fluttering her eyelashes at the handsome man who stood in front of her. Prime, she noted approvingly.

"I'm here to see Samuel Smith," Hunter said, his lip curling as she attempted to flirt. "Official police investigation," he added, showing his badge. Obviously, Monica had never heard of Captain Hunter, or she wouldn't be trying to seduce him.

"Room 308," Monica said breathily, pouting when Hunter ignored her. Then Monica caught a glimpse of the girl standing behind him, clutching at his jacket. "How...sweet," she said, irked that her charms weren't working. "Is this 'bring your daughter to work' day?"

Hunter just stared at the woman, not answering. Sarah peered around Hunter, wincing at the dislike she felt from the woman. Hunter moved Sarah closer to him, running his hand over her back possessively, shielding her from the piranha in scrubs. She leaned against his side, shivering at the emotions coming from the secretary. Man-eater.

"Come on, Sarah, we have work to do," Hunter rumbled as he turned away from the nurse's station. Monica narrowed her eyes. This couldn't be his daughter -- not with the proprietary way he moved his hand over the girl, which could only mean that...

"Monica, do you have a death wish?"

She turned to see one of the nurses standing behind her. "What?"

"That's Captain Hunter from Cascade PD. He was here two weeks ago on another case. My husband works for the police department and told me all kinds of horror stories about that guy. He doesn't like women."

"He's gay?" Monica seemed dumb-founded.

"No, no, no," the nurse answered impatiently. "Rumor has it that his ex-wife cheated on him with his partner. Any female who has tried to approach him gets shot down in flames."

"Not all of them," Monica sneered, watching the young blonde girl moving down the hall with the captain.

"That's his guide," the nurse said, not liking Monica's attitude. The whole hospital knew what had happened. The grapevine worked just fine, thank you.

"He's a sentinel?" Monica said. Then she smiled speculatively. "They say sentinels are the best lovers -- they know every hot spot there is."

The nurse just shook her head. "I wouldn't even try. And whatever you do, don't mess with the guide. People have gotten killed for that."

Monica ignored her as she planned her next strategy. The guide was not an issue -- it wasn't as if they were normal citizens.

Hunter entered the room to find the injured man propped up on pillows. He had suffered a severe chest wound and had nearly died. After surgery, his post-operative recovery had been complicated by pneumonia, so he had been on the ventilator up until a few days ago. The chest tubes had been removed, and he was hoping to go home in a few days. Hunter had judged the timing of this interview carefully. The man no longer had the excuse of injury to avoid the IA investigation.

"Officer Smith," Hunter said blandly, Sentinel senses noting how the man's heart rate accelerated. The man was scared, more than he should be for a routine investigation. Or maybe not so routine. Hunter had his suspicions, and after interviewing Rafe twice, he felt sure that something was out of whack.

"I'm Captain Hunter," he smiled. "This is Sarah. I have a few questions about the shooting."

"I..uh...I really don't remember much," Smith mumbled, not meeting Hunter's eyes.

"Oh, I'm sure we can refresh your memory," Hunter purred, and sat down near the bed and set up his recorder. The advocate cleared his throat, unnerved by the man who dominated the room just by walking in it.

Hunter's questions started off innocuously, and Smith was actually regaining his equilibrium, lulled by the seemingly friendly inquiry. Hunter led him down the path, and the man never saw it coming.

"Officer Smith, your partner, who witnessed the shooting, stated that Detective Rafe did not identify himself as police officer before opening fire. Is that correct?"

"Yeah -- I mean, yes. He just pulled out his gun and I thought he was some whacko, so I drew my weapon. Next thing I know, I was down. I don't remember much after that."

"So you are certain that Detective Rafe shot you without ever identifying himself to you." Hunter leaned in, his voice low and confiding.

"Yes," the man said, but his heart sped up.

Hunter smiled then, a chilling little smile and the tiger moved into the room. Sarah saw the large cat standing near the door, its blue eyes focused on the prey. "Officer Smith, you are lying."

"No way," the man blustered. "That damn detective tried to kill me!"

"Officer Smith," Hunter said gently, in a tone that had the man cringing away, "I don't suffer fools. Or liars. Your heart rate was fine until I asked the question about Detective Rafe identifying himself. Your breathing increased and your skin pH changed. I don't need to remind you that sentinel vital sign evaluation is admissible in court, do I?"

"Captain, I really think..." the advocate protested, but shut up when Hunter turned to look at him.

"You can't prove anything," Smith argued weakly. "I say he didn't, and my partner says he didn't."

"Ah, then my investigation will expand. Unfortunately for you, there was a witness who corroborates Detective Rafe's assertion that he did identify himself. That, with the fact that you have obviously lied here, and the fact that your partner will no doubt be caught in the same lie, will lead to charges against both of you for falsifying a report."

Smith didn't respond, his heart racing as he broke out into a sweat.

Sarah could feel the desperation and rage coming from the man. She reached out and laid a hand on Hunter's arm, as much to calm him as to protect her barriers. Hunter let her connect, but focused on the man in the hospital bed.

"What made your partner lie for you, Smith? Could it be that you didn't follow procedure? Were you worried that something on the assignment would come out? Or maybe you had some dealing going on outside the case that you didn't want anyone to know about. Am I close?"

Smith swallowed nervously.

Hunter leaned in, his voice almost a whisper. "Admit it, Officer Smith. Save yourself from a heap of trouble, because I will take you down, one way or the other."

Ignoring his advocate's frantic shushing motions, Smith broke. He babbled the truth, that he had succumbed to the lure of making some easy money -- and then when Rafe had shown up, they had tried to cover up what they were doing. His partner had lied about the shooting to cover for them. In all the IA furor that would erupt, with Smith as noble victim, the illicit drug dealing would be swept under.

Hunter took the rest of his statement while the hapless advocate just muttered and sighed. Next stop would be Smith's partner.

"I think this concludes this interview, Officer Smith. You will likely be facing charges, so as soon as you are released from the hospital, you will be taken into custody for further questioning." Hunter picked up his cell phone and called for a uniform detail to handle the rest.

"Captain Hunter," the advocate ventured, clearly upset by the confession. "This won't be admissible as a confession as this is an IA internal investigation."

"No problem," Hunter said. "Officer Smith will make a full confession as soon as the he's been advised of his rights, won't you, Officer Smith?" Hunter looked at the hapless man as if daring him to refuse.

"I want a deal," Smith croaked. "There's more stuff going on than you know."

Hunter nodded. "I thought so. We'll talk again. My department will be in touch."

Sarah stood up and clutched Hunter's jacket as he moved to the door. Her head was hurting a bit, but her barriers were holding. It had been fascinating and scary to watch Hunter question the man.

"You did well," Hunter remarked as they walked from the room.

She looked up at him, astounded. He thought she had done well? "But...I needed to connect." Her crestfallen expression indicated that she thought she had failed.

"I don't expect you to be Super Guide in two weeks," he growled, but he tucked her against his side.

When they went past the nurse's station, Monica watched how the good-looking cop kept the girl close to him, leaning down to whisper into her ear.

"Excuse me, Captain," Monica called out sweetly.

Hunter stopped to look at her. "Yes?" His tone was not inviting.

"I understand you're new in town. I wondered if you'd like a little company for sight-seeing, maybe a home-cooked meal to welcome you?"

Sarah shivered. The woman was all dark and edgy emotions.

Hunter looked at the woman, eyeing her up and down, then dismissed her. "I don't think so."

Monica wasn't used to being turned down. She always got what she wanted -- men, especially. She was furious at the refusal but calmed herself. "Maybe some other time, then."

"I wouldn't count on it," Hunter said succinctly, and moved away from the woman.

"She's not very nice," Sarah whispered as they got on the elevator.

"Shark," Hunter drawled, totally unimpressed.

Somehow, that made Sarah feel better. Then she wondered what would happen if Hunter did get involved with a woman, or even marry again. Would he throw her out? Would he give her back to the GDP? Then they could do anything to her -- maybe even give her to a sentinel who would.... Her anxiety must have telegraphed itself again, because Hunter gave her a painless little tap on the head.

"You're my guide, Sarah. This partnership is for life." While he didn't sound overjoyed with the prospect, neither did he sound disgusted. She reached out to touch his arm, needing to connect, and he allowed it.

When they reached the main lobby, she latched onto his jacket and exited the elevator. A girl in a wheel chair was sitting the hall, her leg in a mysterious metal contraption. It was Willow, one of her classmates.

"Sarah?" the girl said. "Is that you?"

Sarah stopped. She looked up at her sentinel, who nodded his permission.

"Hi, Willow. Did you have an accident?" Sarah tried to sound normal, but her anxiety was pushing Hunter close to BP mode.

"Fall from my horse," Willow grimaced. "Broke my leg in three places. They did surgery and I have to come for rehab. I missed graduation."

So Willow didn't know. The one person in her school who probably was unaware that Sarah was a guide -- now bonded to a sentinel.

"Who's this?" Willow asked curiously, looking at Hunter. She knew Sarah's father and sister.

"Captain Hunter, this is Willow Nathan. Willow, Captain Hunter." Sarah kept her introduction very formal, and the other girl gave her a puzzled frown. While Willow could hardly be called a close friend, they had known each other a long time and had spent time at each others' houses growing up.

Willow was about to ask another question, when a strident voice intervened. "Willow! What do you think you're doing?" The older woman came hurrying over, looking at Sarah as if she smelled something bad.

"Hello, Mrs. Nathan," Sarah said softly, wincing at the animosity the woman projected.

"Don't you dare speak to me, or my daughter! I heard about you! You're nothing but a guide! Shame on you for trying to pretend that you were normal." Mrs. Nathan tugged at the wheelchair handles, moving Willow back even as the girl protested, shocked at the revelation. Sarah felt the surprise, then the pity the girl projected at her.

Hunter immediately stepped in front of Sarah and stared her down. Mrs. Nathan went pale as the man in front of her seemed to fill the hallway. She hastily pushed the wheelchair away from the angry sentinel. Sarah stood watching after them, numb.

"Come on," Hunter said brusquely. "We have to get back to the office. I have to interview Smith's partner today, and then Detective Rafe." He dismissed the unpleasant woman from his mind.

Sarah walked quietly by his side, but Hunter could feel her turmoil. When they got back in the car, Sarah surprised him by saying, "I used to play at Willow's house when I was little."

Hunter frowned as he looked over; his guide was hugging herself for warmth.

"When my Mom died, Mrs. Nathan came and stayed for a few days -- cooked supper, helped with the funeral. She said I could call her up and talk anytime. She taught me how to make angel food cake from scratch..." Sarah's voice trailed off. Her throat was closing up, burning. "I never thought she'd actually hate me."

Hunter knew that he couldn't negate anything she had said. He reached out hesitantly, then put his right arm around her, pulling her close to him. Sarah leaned into his shoulder, needing the link. Needing him. He didn't say anything, just held her to him, but for Sarah, it was enough.

~~~~~~~~~

The encounter with Mrs. Nathan had rattled what meager confidence she had gained. Sarah had gone to the interview with Officer Smith's partner, and it had been a broiling mess -- with Fredericks shouting obscenities and jumping up to attack the IA captain. He had moved toward Sarah to start something, and Hunter finished it.

"Think you're going to attack my guide?" he asked conversationally, one hand holding the smaller man up against the wall, the other slowly choking him. Hunter wasn't playing now -- he was slowly asphyxiating the man.

"Captain Hunter!" the man's lawyer screamed. "You're killing him!"

Hunter ignored the voice. His guide was in danger, and this man was the cause. The solution was simple.

"Sentinel," this time it was a softer female voice that teased through his mind. "Please, let him go." Sarah was hanging onto Hunter's arm, moving so that she saw his face. Hunter finally looked at her.

Her anxiety for him distracted him. He let go of the man and moved to catch his guide close to him. She leaned into him, and for the first time, put her arms around his waist, hanging on. She couldn't bear any more violence.

The officer, who had been turning a dusky gray, was too busy trying to breathe to put up much of a fight. The advocate was too busy berating the man for his stupidity at attacking a sentinel, much less his guide, to notice the silent communion.

Yours, she said, clutching at him, needing protection from the horrible, violent emotions.

Mine, he reassured her, shutting out all the ambient darkness as he shielded her. Neither of them noticed as the advocate ushered his client out the door.

They had gone back to his office, and even those who couldn't give a damn about Hunter or his guide-toy noticed how pale she was. They returned to his office and Hunter deliberately focused on his case files. He was too angry to bond.

Sarah got up after a couple of hours, a silent question in her eyes. Hunter ran his hand through his hair and grunted an affirmative monosyllable that translated to "Coffee. Now." She went out to Samantha and fetched a cup for Hunter from coffee maker on Samantha's back table, adding the sugar and nothing else, just the way he liked it.

The woman who sold sandwiches and pastries came through just about then. She always did a killing business with the cops. Several people were already crowded around the cart, selecting items.

"Sarah?" This from Len Miller, one of the more pleasant investigators at IA. "Did you want something?" He felt sorry for the kid -- her sentinel didn't even allow her to talk to people. The girl looked way too pale. Didn't her sentinel feed her?

Sarah looked up at the man -- he was in his early forties, and his emotions weren't malignant like some of the others, but even pity was emotionally wearing. Sarah quickly shook her head.

Miller frowned -- the kid was hungry -- he just knew it. Samantha shot him a warning glance -- as a guide, Sarah had to have permission to do anything, even eat. When he saw Sarah glance at the bill exchange between the woman and one of the cops, he knew it was more than that. The poor kid didn't have any money.

Miller had actually taken his son's Sentinel 101 textbook from school and read through it. Guides were generally completely dependent on their sentinels for everything. They were property with no rights, and of course everyone had heard of the terrible things that sentinels did to their guides. The captain's an ice-cold SOB, but I don't think even he would hurt a kid. It was a slow revelation over the last week. Even Miller had suspected the worst initially, but watching his boss handle his guide, Miller's opinion slowly was changing. The captain didn't strike her, didn't make her kneel, actively defended her. While Miller privately thought Hunter's control over the girl was nothing short of slavery, he didn't abuse her, at least not in public. The guide, Sarah, had at first just seemed shell-shocked, but now she actually seemed to depend on the big man to keep her safe.

We haven't done much to make you feel welcome, have we? Miller thought guiltily. We hate the guy, and so we took it out on you. Another uncomfortable revelation. She had saved Snow, even though he had said the most vile things imaginable about her. She helped Samantha. She actually kept the boss from exploding on more than one occasion. He was still an asshole, but a little less volatile.

Sarah moved back into the office with the coffee mug, but Miller caught the wistful look she directed at the chocolate croissant. Heading over to the woman, he plunked down a dollar and took the pastry, neatly wrapped in a napkin. He walked up to Samantha and nodded to the door. Samantha hesitated -- Miller's offer could be misconstrued as a challenge to the sentinel.

Miller took Samantha's silence as assent and knocked on the door.

"What?" came the bark.

Miller opened the door cautiously. "Captain, can I have a minute?"

"What is it, Miller?" Hunter looked up from his computer -- neither friendly nor helpful.

"Dessert cart came around. Thought your guide might be hungry. It's nearly 1:30." Miller kept his tone level, but just being in Hunter's presence unnerved him. He held out the wrapped croissant.

Hunter looked at Sarah. She seemed stunned at the gesture. Tuning into his guide, he heard the faint stomach rumbles. He could actually sense her blood sugar level -- low. Damn it! His guide was hungry, and she hadn't dared say anything to him. Maybe two interviews in one day had been a bit much -- she had been tiptoeing around him while he had acted like a....

Sarah kept her eyes down. Hunter was getting angry all over again.

Hunter stared Miller down for the longest time, finally he nodded. "Fine."

Sarah's head shot up. He had agreed? Miller handed his parcel over, and Sarah gingerly took it, their hands never touching. She glanced at her sentinel again. He nodded.

"Thank you," she said softly to Miller, a tentative smile blooming as she sensed the genuine concern coming from him. She had a nice voice, low, a little musical. All guides seemed to have that in common: a soothing voice for sentinel ears.

"You're welcome," Miller said, and beat a swift retreat before the captain changed his mind.

Sarah waited.

Hunter grimaced. "Go ahead, eat the damn thing. Why didn't you tell me you were hungry?"

Sarah dropped her eyes again, uncertain.

Hunter sighed. "Because I've been biting your head off for the last two hours, that's why," Hunter answered his own question. "Look at me." The words were sharp.

Sarah looked up warily, croissant forgotten.

"You tell me if you're hungry, or thirsty or tired. I can guess pretty well, but I'm not omniscient." He was upset -- she could feel the emotion welling up in him. His voice leveled out again. "I'm not going to punish you for it." Then another thought struck him. "You need spending money. It's my fault for forgetting it. We'll take care of that tonight."

She just stared at him.

"Eat, Sarah," he grumbled, and she did so, one eye on him, the other on the door that Miller had exited through. Miller was the first person who had actually approached her other than Samantha.

When she finished eating, she wiped her hands and mouth, and threw the napkin away. Reaching out, she touched his shoulder, her silent gratitude swamping him. Hunter said nothing -- but through the connection she could feel his regret.

~~~~~~~~~

Rafe waited in the hallway outside the IA offices, pacing restlessly. H was there for moral support, even though he couldn't sit in on the interview.

"The third time, H. He's going to grill me for the third time. If I was cleared, it would have happened right away. He's going to hang me." Rafe was working himself up into a frenzy.

"Take it easy, Rafe. You don't know that," Brown tried to soothe his partner.

"What if I am found guilty? I'll lose my job. Then I'll be facing criminal charges. I'll go to prison." The very thought of Starkville, with its high walls and predators made Rafe shudder. Suddenly, an image of Blair popped up. Rafe would be facing exactly what that poor kid had suffered, and Rafe knew he wouldn't be nearly as brave as Blair.

"H," he whispered, so the advocate wouldn't hear.

"Yeah?"

"If it...if it goes down bad, and I'm sentenced to prison...."

"It's not going to happen. No way Banks would let that happen."

Rafe swallowed, doggedly continuing. "If I have to go to prison, I...."

"You're gonna what," H demanded, suddenly chilled by the desperation in Rafe's eyes.

"I can't..." But the thought came through his eyes.

"No way!" H exploded, then quieted when the advocate frowned at the noise. "You are not going to end it -- I won't let you!"

"I can't...face that," Rafe said, and H believed every word. Rafe was going to kill himself rather than go to prison. Both men jumped when Hunter walked around the corner.

"Detective Rafe," Hunter said softly, motioning the man into the conference room. His advocate followed, and soon the door shut gently in H's face. Brown sat down in the hallway to wait and worry.

"So, from the top, Detective. What happened when you approached the suspect?"

"He was shoving something into the crate -- looked like drug packets," Rafe said for what seemed the hundredth time and variation. He was hoarse and scared. Hunter had been at for the last hour, trying to trip him with inconsistencies, forgotten details. This was the third round, and the IA captain was absolutely shredding him now.

Rafe stumbled over his words again, and Hunter straightened up, moving behind the detective. "Detective, I'm sure you're aware that if found guilty, you'll be facing criminal charges. You'll do jail time."

"I told you, I identified myself. The guy just pulled a gun and I shot him," Rafe's voice cracked.

Hunter leaned in closer, moving into Rafe's personal space from behind, just shy of actually touching him, but close enough that the younger man cringed away. "Do you know what happens to cops in the pen? There's a whole lot of grudges against the police, and you'll make a handy target." Hunter moved so that Rafe could actually feel the captain's exhalation of breath on the back of his neck. It looked totally innocuous to the advocate, but Rafe knew it was blatant intimidation. "Then there's the fact that you're a good-looking young man. I don't need to tell you what happens to pretty boys like you, do I?"

Rafe pulled away, breathing heavily. "I told you everything. I told you!" The tremor in his voice and the dilated pupils were uncomfortably reminiscent of Sandburg.

"Detective Rafe, what haven't you told me? The one piece of the puzzle? I know Smith and his partner were dealing -- Smith confessed yesterday. It's all over the department." Hunter moved to grasp Rafe by the chin, forcing the man to look at him and ignoring the advocate's indignant sputters. "You will lose your job, and you will go to jail. Who are you protecting?"

Rafe was ashen, his skin sweat-sour, irritating the Sentinel's nose.

"Who are you protecting?" Hunter repeated, and Rafe suddenly slumped. His head went forward. The IA captain had broken him. The sentinel acknowledged the kill and waited while the man tried to slow his breathing, then Hunter moved around in front of him. His voice was calm now, almost lulling. He was doing good cop-bad cop all by himself, Rafe thought hysterically, but he couldn't defend himself against it.

"Now, tell me about what you kept out of the reports, for whatever misguided reason."

"Sullivan was there with Smith and Fredericks," Rafe said wearily. "I only reported on Smith and Fredericks."

"Sullivan was dealing, yet no one, not you, not Smith and not Fredericks would implicate him. This raises some interesting questions. What kind of hold does he have over you?"

Rafe looked up with an expression that could have sat on Sandburg's face -- scared, overwhelmed, trying to do the right thing in a wrong world. "He doesn't have anything on us. It's what we want for him."

"Explain that," Hunter coaxed as he leaned against the table edge.

"Sullivan has a little girl, maybe nine. She had cancer a couple of years ago -- had chemo, then it relapsed and she got a bone marrow transplant. Thought she was home clear, but it came back two months ago. Her only chance is some fancy experimental treatment that the insurance won't pay for. He borrowed everything he could, we all chipped in, and when I saw him with Smith and Fredericks, I knew he was probably playing his last card."

"He broke the law, Detective," Hunter reminded him softly.

"Screw that! His daughter is *dying*! I just couldn't..." Rafe buried his face in his hands.

"All right, detective. I think this concludes the interview. You're free to go." Hunter switched off the tape.

Rafe looked at the IA captain. Was he under arrest? "What...?" he croaked.

"You are formally cleared of the shooting," Hunter stated calmly. "A report will be forwarded to the appropriate parties this afternoon."

Rafe sat there, shaking. "What about...the other?"

"You mean your lie?" Hunter drawled, eyes narrowed. "I'll be addressing that in a separate report."

"No -- I lied. I admit it. What's going to happen to Sullivan?" Rafe was barely able to get the words out.

"I can't discuss an aspect of an IA investigation with you, Detective, even if you are involved." Hunter moved to pack up his briefcase.

Rafe couldn't believe the man was so cold. Sullivan had tried his best, and know he would lose his job, maybe even go to jail, when his family needed him most.

The advocate quietly left the room at Hunter's signal.

"Captain, please..." Rafe pleaded.

"Are you asking me to look away?" Hunter said almost conversationally. "Compromise the integrity of the investigation and sweep this under the carpet?"

"No," Rafe swallowed. "I know you won't do that. Just could you..."

"Could I what, Detective," Hunter said impatiently.

"Could you...do the right thing, whatever it is? Just...help him." Rafe shut up. Hunter wasn't Jim, willing to see shades of gray and bend things around the edges for the greater good.

"Dismissed, Detective," Hunter said firmly, and Rafe gave up, barreling past Henri to the men's room where he could throw up in privacy. H headed after him, but stopped when Hunter came out of the room.

"Your partner is presently upchucking several donuts and a Dr. Pepper," Hunter said mildly. "Not a good combination on a nervous stomach. You'd better check on him."

H stepped back a bit from the captain, wishing he knew what the hell had happened. He had been sick the day of the shooting and Rafe had only told him surface details.

"Is Rafe...is he clear?" Brown asked, knowing the IA captain couldn't answer that. He was just so worried about what Rafe might do once he got home. From the faint curl of Hunter's lip, Brown knew Hunter had overheard Rafe's desperate declaration.

"Take your partner home, Detective Brown. You both have work to do tomorrow." Hunter hadn't said a thing about the case, but the simple statement that Rafe was expected back at work could only mean one thing: Rafe was cleared.

"Thank God," Brown said quietly, then rushed to check on Rafe, who was still retching.

Hunter took the stairs back to his office where Sarah waited, curled up in his office chair. She had a dozen file folders in front of her, but was staring into space.

"Stealing my chair?" Hunter growled, and Sarah shot out of the chair, almost landing on the floor.

"My apologies, Sentinel, I..." before she could finish, he came over and plopped his briefcase on the desk. He looked incredibly tired, and not a little disturbed. Guide instincts took over, and she moved to the bonding mat. Kneeling down, she waited. Hunter stared at her, his expression unreadable, then he walked over and locked the door and lowered the blinds.

He walked over to her, and she didn't dare move. He needed to bond, his emotions were a royal mess. She leaned against his leg, wanting to help, but scared by both the magnitude of his feelings and the weariness in him. He moved her onto her back, running his hand over her, again and again, the motion soothing her and eventually calming him. She turned onto her stomach felt his head settle on her back, his arm going around her, claiming her. After a while, his body relaxed as he settled into the bond, and Sarah finally diffused the last of the storm and allowed herself to rest.

My Guide. Only mine.

~~~~~~~~~

Despite his willingness to help with anything and everything, there were times when Blair just had to get away from the university and the PD if he was going to get any of his work done. Between the students coming during his office hours and the detectives in the bullpen needing help with their computers and the files and the whole Guide Prime business, Blair kept pretty busy. He had taken the day to make a dent in his workload.

Blair's dissertation outline had had been accepted, and now he had to work on the meat of his project. Experiments, controlled trials, observations -- Blair made a mental note to get the clan together for some interviews -- background research and old historical documents, the list seemed endless. He chewed on the tip of his pen -- the thought of dragging Jim into the lab for formal tests would surely send his sentinel into permanent grouch mode. But Jim would do it -- he had promised he would. Jim always kept his promises, Blair thought with a small smile. He tapped his pen on the table. With Hunter now on the scene, Blair would need to get him into the lab as well, but how he would talk the surly and prickly IA captain into something like that was going to be a trick worthy of David Copperfield.

With a sigh, Blair took a sip of his tea and looked over his notes. At least he had a career and a chance to get the honor of putting those three letters after his name -- something only a few short months ago he thought he had lost forever. And all because of one hair-challenged, neat freak, anal-retentive cop who had stood up to the system and made a difference. Blair made another mental note to talk to Sarah about Hunter -- see how things were going.

Blair pushed his glasses back into place and then his fingers began to fly over the keyboard. He logged onto the internet and noted absent-mindedly that he had mail. When he had first come into Jim's life, Jim had bought him a new laptop computer -- Jim's way of reassuring his guide that he was serious about letting Blair have his life back. Blair's laptop was his constant companion; he never left home without it.

Blair remembered the evening a few months ago when he had come home and found Jim surrounded by a mountain of computer boxes, looking sheepish.

"What's up, Jim?" Blair asked as he navigated around a pile of styrofoam pellets. He couldn't believe that Jim "I hate computers" Ellison would have spent this amount of money on what could only be the most state of the art system Blair had ever drooled over. The hardware in the room was enough to put the university computer geeks into total bliss. Color laser printer, scanner, monitor, video capture equipment, webcam, writable DVD, re-writable CD-ROM and more. Blair paused to examine some of the things Jim had shucked out of the boxes and was laying out with the care Taggart usually used for explosive devices.

"It's just electronics, Jim," Blair said, amused by the look of trepidation in his sentinel's eyes. "You figured out how to get the entertainment system set up -- it shouldn't be too complicated to get your computer up and running."

"Not mine. Yours, Chief. A little welcome to the family present from my father."

Blair was speechless. Then he started to babble. "Jim, I can't. This stuff is state of the art. I mean, the Pentium 8 has only just been released." Blair stuttered, overwhelmed. The equipment was worth thousands. "I can't, Jim, it's too much." Blair's expression told differently, but as much as he wanted to keep them, he didn't know what Jim's reaction would be to his father lavishing such an expensive gift on his guide.

Jim seemed to consider for a moment, then said, "He would really be hurt if you didn't keep it, and you do need something with a bit more power than the laptop." As if to make his point, Jim added, "You did say that the screen makes it hard to read sometimes."

Blair bit his lip, then looked up. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure," Jim said, a small smile warming his face. Blair was still learning that other people could care for him despite the social stigma of his guide status.

"Okay, twist my arm," Blair had laughed nervously, but his eyes made sure that Jim had understood 'thank you for letting me have it.' "Do you think it would be okay if I phoned and thanked him?"

"Go ahead, Chief. I know he'd like that."

Blair disappeared into his room with the phone. As much as he wanted to start look at the treasure and assemble the pieces, he wanted William Ellison to know how much he appreciated the gift.

Jim watched as Blair put together his system after dinner, carefully following the instruction manuals. Jim was watching the ball game, stretched out on the couch while his guide mumbled blissfully from amidst the stack of boxes and equipment. There were worse ways to spend an evening, Jim mused. His guide was happy -- something that didn't happen with enough regularity.

Blair looked up and caught Jim watching him. The older man was amused at the mess, but there was affection underneath it. They connected across the few feet of space between them. For several seconds, Blair let the warmth of the feeling wash over him, then smiled as he returned to his assembling.

Blair shook himself out of the memory and ran his hand over the monitor. He still hadn't utilized everything on the system, but it was always an adventure figuring out something new. He opened his email, checking the PD address first in case Jim had sent him a request for information that he wanted tracked down on the internet. He tapped in Jim's password and the emails appeared on the screen. Puzzled, he saw one titled Guide Blair Sandburg. He clicked and opened the message up.

From: A Fan <blairfan@boxmail.com>
To: James J. Ellison <J.Ellison@cascadepd.gov>

 

Subject: Guide Blair Sandburg

Hi Blair, I thought you might find this link interesting.
A video star and now the Internet.
Do you think they got your good side?

A Fan

Blair's hand moved the mouse across, sick with dread. The screen came up black with lurid banner. Guided in Pleasure.

Dear God, no. Blair's mouth went dry and his breath was coming in quick gasps. This can't be happening; Jim said they got all the tapes. Blair's hand was shaking as he clicked on the banner and entered the site. There was a full screen picture of him, naked on his knees. The leash was so tight that it contorted his body, his head bent so that it nearly touched the ground. His hips were thrust upward and one of the whips that Wilson had used on him was fanned out across the back of his head and neck. It was obscene.

There were links. My God, there's more.

He closed his eyes and clicked on the first link.This can't be happening. Not now. It was almost as if he were falling into the picture. He was back in the cell but at the same time was watching from a distance. The ice cold touch of the alcohol on his skin and then the sting of the needle as they had pumped the drugs into his body. They would take his barriers down and would make him susceptible, suggestible. His body would react to their touches even though his mind was screaming against it. No matter how hard he fought against it, he would lose the battle again and again.

Blair only remembered a handful of times they had actually taped after drugging him. The rest of the time, they had kept him aware and terrified as they viciously abused him. He hadn't seen the cameraman -- he had been lost in the shadows. Wilson and the other two guards usually drank or abused recreational drugs to get themselves stimulated for what they were going to do, prolonging his terror.

Blair shuddered as he felt Wilson's hand run over his body. The guards had pulled him into one of the most obscene wraps that the degenerate guard had ever imagined. Laid on his back looking up at the camera, his body was spread so that he was completely open. Then Wilson had dropped a bag near his head, and brought the object out. Wilson had rubbed it across Blair, arousing him despite his efforts to fight, and then raping him with it, over and over, hurting him and then bringing him to climax. They forced him into every depraved sexual act they could think of as they recorded it for posterity. Blair was unable to control his body responses, crying silently as they called him a slut and a whore as they used and abused him.

His hand moved and clicked, his mind only fixed on the screen, lost in the horror. More photos -- sick, perverted images -- and video files, even sound files. A multi-media nightmare. He felt past and present collide and looked at the counter at the bottom of the page -- 4560. Four thousand five hundred and sixty people had visited the page, had seen him like that.... Blair moaned as he began to rock in his chair. How many from the university or the police or the GDP had seen it? They would all know now. They would all know his shame.

Blair felt the nausea rise, then he leaped to his feet to run to the bathroom. He bent over the toilet, heaving over and over, unable to stop the spasms. He was in an ice cold sweat, his body shivering. After he had nothing left by sporadic dry heaves, Blair shakily got to his feet and cupping his hand drank some of the water and spat it out. He looked into the mirror and loathed what he saw.

How can you look at yourself? How can Jim bear to touch you, to let you bond with him when he knows that you did that? A small voice at the back of his head tried to reason with him, but all he could see in the mirror was the look on the face of the man on the tape, submissive and aroused by the drug, wanting, begging for them to touch him, moving into their hands, pressing up against them. Whore.

Blair's fist hit the mirror, again and again, until it splintered, distorting the reflection, but he still kept hitting it, trying to remove his face from it and with it the memories.

Jim fumbled at the door, balancing the grocery bag as he dug out his keys. He had run to the market to pick up some of the fresh bread and cheese that Blair liked. When he opened the door, the food was dropped to the floor. The first thing that hit him was the smell of sickness and then blood. Jim pulled out his gun, moving into the loft cautiously.

He heard Blair's racing heartbeat and his sobbing breaths as Blessed Protector searched for danger. No one else there except his guide. Holstering the gun, Jim pushed open the bathroom door to see his guide banging weakly on the mirror with a bloodied hand.

The sentinel immediately caught his guide from behind and pulled him back. Lost in the horror of the past and the present, Blair screamed incoherent pleas as he fought the man holding him. He would hurt him, the man would hurt him.... Blair struggled, throwing his head back, trying to escape the person behind him. Jim narrowly missed being hit in the face.

"Chief, it's me. Settle down. Blair!" Jim hung on grimly as the smaller man fought even more desperately. Blair wasn't registering anything Jim said. Jim realized that his guide was beyond hearing him. It was just as bad as the flashbacks Blair had suffered when Jim had first claimed him. God, kid, I thought we were past this.

Jim tried to link, but Blair wasn't responding. Jim used his superior strength to spin Blair around and pin him against the wall, facing him. "Come on, Chief. It's Jim. You're safe."

Blair continued to twist and buck, but Jim just hung on, letting his body weight immobilize the struggling smaller man. Jim opened the link again, wading the vicious currents of Blair's emotions, calming him with meaningless rumbles until Blair finally quieted. Jim concentrated on his guide's breathing, willing it to slow down, willing the heart to stop racing. Finally Blair's impossibly wide blue eyes looked up at him with such despair that it broke Jim's heart.

"When is it going to end, Jim? What do I have to do?" Blair asked brokenly.

Jim pulled Blair close, feeling the smaller arms going around him as he hugged Blair, tucking the curly head under his chin. I've got you, Chief.

"You survived it, Blair. No one can take that away from you." Jim moved his guide out of the bathroom into the living room.

Blair tugged viciously at his hair. "The internet -- there are web sites...they, they have a w-w-web site with my picture on it from the v-video."

Jim closed his eyes. Why did he have to find them? "The sites will be closed down, Chief. I promise you that."

"Y-you can't find all of them. The owners..."

"Are breaking the law, and by the time the Ellison Corporation lawyers are through with them, they won't even have a hard drive to write on."

Blair's eyes widened. Jim's father was helping?

Jim read the thought easily. "Much as I respect and admire Simon, Cascade PD doesn't have the same type of clout my old man does."

"But when Mr. Ellison -- when he sees them, he'll think...." Blair was almost sobbing the words.

Jim eased Blair away from him slightly so that he could see his face. "Listen to me, Sandburg. My father was not the kind of dad I wanted or needed when I was young, but he wants to make up for the past. Anything in my life is important to him, and whether you believe it or not, he actually likes you. He knows what you did for me. Hell, he said that you made me human." Jim shook Blair lightly, trying to emphasize his point. "You're protected. "

Blair looked shocked. "He knows? You -- you told him?"

"He knows, Blair." Jim tucked his guide even closer. "Believe me, he'd lead the mob to take these people down." No need for Blair to know that a full set of tapes had been sent to his father and the lawyers were already on the cyber trail along with several investigators.

Jim moved Blair to the couch and sat him down. Jim got up to retrieve the first aid box, which was restocked with distressing regularity. Jim washed out the cuts, using sentinel vision to pick out slivers of glass. Blair made no sound except an occasional hiss as Jim picked out the splinters with the tiny tweezers that came with the kit. When Jim finished bandaging him and turned to clean up, Blair caught his hand.

"I wasn't trying to...." Blair's voice trailed off as he looked down.

"I know that, Blair," Jim reassured him as he gave Blair's uninjured hand a squeeze. Then he put the supplies away and returned from the kitchen with one of his guide's faintly meadowy-smelling teas and put it down on the coffee table.

"Jim," Blair was about to protest, but he could see that the mother hen was in residence. Blair moved nearer, and was caught and eased down to rest on against his sentinel. The colorful throw was pulled around him and only when he was tucked up to his sentinel's satisfaction, did Jim pick up the mug of tea and take a sip of it. For all that had happened, Blair couldn't help the small smile. The big bad ex-Ranger was checking to make sure the tea wasn't too hot for him.

Jim held the cup as Blair drank obediently, relaxing into the security. The sentinel's other hand moved on his back in reassuring circles. Once Blair had drained the cup, he was encouraged to put his head down and the arms tightened around him.

Blair was drowsy now, reaching out to touch Jim's shoulder. "My sentinel."

"Yours," Jim affirmed. The link between them was wide open as Blair was lulled into sleep. Jim's eyesight focused on the screen of the computer, and the picture of his guide. He would find out who was doing this and they were going down.

Blair slept through the quiet knock on the door. Jim opened the door to find Sarah standing there, a hesitant look on her face.

"Sarah?" Jim asked as he stepped back. Hunter moved into view behind her.

"There was a disturbance in the Force," Hunter drawled, and Jim blinked. Hunter's dry sarcastic wit took getting used to. If they had felt something, then it meant...Jim turned to look at his guide, still asleep but restless.

"What happened?" Hunter asked, and Jim filled him in as Sarah hesitantly approached the couch. "I got this anonymous email, and then -- wham! -- it was like something was shaking the foundation."

"You saw it," Jim said neutrally. He didn't want to elaborate in front of Sarah.

Hunter nodded. No point in getting into the nasty side of it in front of his impressionable young guide.

Sarah reached out, needing to help, but Hunter's facial expression froze her in place. She didn't move as he walked up to her, but the rapid heart rate and fine tremor was clear indication of her anxiety, and easily sensed by both sentinels.

"May I, Sentinel?" Sarah was formally requesting permission to link with the Guide Prime. Jim nodded, but it took Hunter longer. Finally, he gave a short nod and stood by, watching everything with a wary eye.

Remembering what Blair had taught her, Sarah reached out and touched his arm, gently touching against his mind. The emotions roiled and she almost jerked back. Hunter growled, but she continued, moving into Blair's mind, wrapping her emotions around him. Hunter touched Sarah's back, and Jim touched Blair and all four linked. With two sentinels and a fellow guide to calm and support, Blair's soul settled and he moved into dreamless healing sleep.

Sarah sat on the edge of the couch, unsure what to do next.

"Here, Sarah," Jim said softly, and laid the throw around her, ignoring Hunter's brief bristle.

Hunter shoved Jim out of the way and deliberately wrapped his guide in a colorful cocoon, then moved her to lie down next to the unconscious young man. "He needs you to be close for a while, because Ellison and I need to talk."

Police business, Sarah thought, still uncertain if it was okay. She had such a fear of upsetting Hunter that she held her breath.

Hunter brushed across her hair, a possessive soothing gesture, and Sarah immediately calmed. She settled next to Blair, his arm going around her in his sleep, and soon Sarah drifted off as guide soothed guide.

Jim waited until the slow, easy respirations indicated both guides were sleeping. "I have some ideas on how to proceed on this case," Jim said as he and Hunter adjourned to the kitchen. He pulled out two mugs and poured Hunter a cup of coffee without even asking how he took it.

Hunter took the coffee, his senses straying back to the two guides on the couch. "I'm all ears," he said, sipping at the invigorating brew.

Jim outlined his plan and Hunter nodded, occasionally interjecting a comment or a question. When they finished, Hunter and Jim moved back out to the living room. Blair was on his side, tucked behind Sarah, who was just a swirl of bright cotton held against him.

"They remind me of puppies," Jim mused quietly. "All curled up for safety and warmth." He drained the last of his coffee. "Sometimes it's hard not to view them as weaker and dependent, with their need for emotional protection. But God, they are anything but weak."

"No, they aren't weak," Hunter agreed, the complex feelings of vague jealousy and protectiveness he had for his guide warring it out as he observed the serene scene before them.

Jim was about to say something, when a soft knock heralded the arrival of Simon Banks. Jim let him in and poured another cup of coffee. Hunter gave Simon the recap of their discussion, perversely enjoying the slightly unsettled looks the Major Crimes captain gave him. Hunter was still an unknown quantity as far as Banks was concerned.

Blair registered two things: voices and the fact that Jim had suddenly become smaller and softer. He opened his eyes and found himself curled up around Sarah, who was wrapped in the throw and lying next to him on the couch. The young girl was asleep.

Carefully, so as not to wake her, Blair pulled himself up and peered over the back of the couch. Seated round the kitchen island were Captain Hunter and Simon Banks. Jim looked at him over his coffee cup. "How you feeling, Chief?"

"Better," Blair admitted, surprised. He waved toward Sarah. "What's this?"

"The email made it a matter for IA, so Captain Hunter came over. Since you were pretty drained, Sarah connected up with you. She said you had shown her how to do it."

"Yeah." Rubbing a hand over his eyes, Blair turned his attention to Hunter. "Thank you for letting her help me."

The slight hint of uncertainty made Hunter clear his throat. He nodded brusquely.

Blair could tell that Hunter was hovering on BP mode, so he gently shook Sarah's shoulder. She yawned, blinked sleepily, then suddenly realized where she was. She shot up and tried to stand, but got hopelessly entangled in the cover. Hunter was there catching her before she headed nose first into the carpet.

"Easy," Hunter rumbled, pulling her close.

Sarah just held onto him, marveling that he didn't seem angry or upset. She leaned into him sleepily. It was almost midnight and she was tired.

"I'm taking my guide home," Hunter announced. "It's past her bedtime."

Simon felt his jaw drop. The taciturn IA captain was making a non-threatening, non-sarcastic humorous comment?

Hunter just stared blandly at the tall black man as he ushered his guide out. When the door closed behind the pair, Simon looked over at Jim. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but did that man just crack a joke? Is this one of the seven signs of the apocalypse?"

"Probably," Jim agreed, his eyes twinkling. Blair seemed better -- more centered and together. "We can discuss the rest of this in the morning. My guide's up past his bedtime, too."

Blair just rolled his eyes at the gentle teasing, and bid Simon goodnight as he stumbled to his room. He fell into bed, and was asleep as soon as he pulled the cover over himself.

"It's going to get ugly," Simon warned.

"It's already as ugly as it gets -- there's not much more they can do to break him, Simon. But I'll nail these bastards -- my word as Sentinel Prime."

"There you go again with all this medieval mumbo-jumbo," Simon complained as he headed for the door. "There are times when I think I don't even want to know."

"I'll keep you informed," Jim promised, but there was a feral glint in his eye that made Simon shiver slightly.

"'Night, Jim," Simon said, his voice fading as he walked down the stairwell.

"'Night," Jim called back, then settled down to the computer to do a little investigating of his own.

~~~~~~~~~

Sarah leaned back into her seat and watched the houses go by. It was early morning and the city was only just waking up for the day. She knew that behind those windows, children were getting ready for school. Parents were fixing breakfast and getting ready for work. All was right in their world -- as long as they didn't have the empath gene in their body. She pushed the thought away -- all it did was make her depressed and there was nothing she could do about it.

Hunter could feel the melancholy tinge of her emotions. She never said anything, tip-toeing around him unless he directly questioned her. She was still afraid of him; even when her guide instincts took over and guide bonded with sentinel, there was still a little element of uncertainty. While Hunter still believed firmly in the concept of control over the guide, having Sarah still fear him like that was unsettling.

Since the blow-up after her refusal to bond after the GDP review, Sarah now obeyed him completely, trying desperately to learn everything she could. The fact that she was learning more about sentinels and guides for survival rather than her own edification made Hunter feel vaguely despotic. He never had been much of a good nurturer, but he wished more than once that he could relate to Sarah with the ease that Jim did with Sandburg. Jim loved the kid, and Blair obviously reciprocated the feeling. Sarah was scared to death of him, and Hunter still wasn't sure exactly what he felt for his guide. Protective, certainly. After all, he was a sentinel, and she was an innocent victim in this whole circus drama. Concerned for her well-being -- she was his guide and his responsibility.

Hunter had to teach her how to be a guide, with Sandburg's help, and that was responsibility as well. But beyond that, Hunter wasn't sure he knew how to care about another human being, or even if he wanted to. Whenever the Guide Prime watched them together, Hunter had the uneasy feeling that Sandburg was waiting for something, observing and analyzing on one level, and somehow just sensing on another. The Dark Guide/Dark Sentinel/Shield concept was something else again, which Hunter was still trying to come to terms with, especially when he had seen how the other Sarah seemed so calm and in-tune with her sentinel.

Sarah was lost in her own thoughts, thankfully. Hunter didn't feel up to a philosophical discussion of reincarnation and tribal memory -- or his emotions, for that matter. Sarah sighed slightly, then looked at her sentinel. He looked...grim. Cautiously, she tested the ambient emotions, but they weren't angry, just in turmoil. He was an immensely complicated and conflicted man.

Sarah mentally reviewed her battle plan. Mr. Sandburg had given her the police manuals to read, and she had learned what she could about the IA forms. Just learning more about what Hunter did in Internal Affairs made her feel a bit less lost. The bondings were still overwhelming emotionally, but less frightening physically. He was a big, strong man, but he hadn't harmed her. Maybe if I do exactly what he wants -- try to be a good guide -- he'll let me see Pop and Mandy. It was a hope she lung to, but didn't voice. She knew better.

She observed him, though, and learned little things about him. He liked his quiet time, but with his guide in sensory reach. He tolerated her cooking. When on the job, he was focused with a frightening intelligence. He tolerated Jim Ellison, and strangely enough, Blair Sandburg, but anyone else was flotsam on the sea. He didn't gave a damn about his neighbors or what they thought unless it interfered with his life. He had no friends and seemed to prefer it that way. He was abrasive, intolerant and moody. The man-eating unit clerk from the hospital tried to stop by the IA office to try her luck again, and he had verbally sliced her to shreds in full view of his entire department. When Monica stormed out, each of his people silently thanked a higher power that the captain hadn't fired both barrels on *them*.

Through the bond, Sarah could feel the isolation, the bleak loneliness underneath the sarcastic shell, even the pain. Her empathic nature and guide instincts wanted to help him, but she didn't know how, so she just did what she could and hoped that things would get better. They were already, relatively speaking, but she was still waiting for the day when she didn't feel afraid anymore.

Hunter was slowing down at an intersection when a car cut in front of him, and he had to brake and pull over hard to avoid hitting it. The driver was slumped over the wheel.

"Stay put, Sarah," he ordered as he got out of the car and walked over. The woman seemed to be unconscious. Her window was open, and Hunter reached in to touch her shoulder. She suddenly moved and the spray went right in his face. Suddenly he was fighting for breath; his eyes were on fire and he couldn't see.

Sarah was out of the car, all thoughts for her own safely gone. Her sentinel was hurt and needed her. She saw him sink down onto his knees even as he clung to the car. Two men appeared from another vehicle, one trying to grab her as she ducked around him and ran to her sentinel, trying to lift him. Hunter's arm went around her, holding her close as he blindly grabbed his weapon. His senses were spiking -- haywire.

Mrs. Lyman looked out of her window, rubbing the head of her terrier, talking to it softly when she saw what was going on in the street. She picked up the phone and called 911, all the time keeping her eyes on the attack in the street and hoping the police would arrive in time to stop it. The man on the ground was holding onto the girl, trying to fight them off, but was overpowered and beaten, and she was dragged away screaming.

Sarah tried even harder to claw herself free from them, trying to get back to Hunter.

Mandy hauled her mask off. "Sarah, it's all right. It's me. We're here to help you." But her sister wouldn't listen and struggled until Leo injected her with a sedative and she went limp in their arms.

The last thing that Hunter heard was his guide calling his name and trying to hold onto him before she was dragged away. Then he felt one hand on his arm, the other pressed against his face, and the brush of a mind against his. "NO!" Hunter came around and caught the person touching him and pulled him down to him, one hand caught in his hair. He opened his watery eyes and found himself nose to nose with Blair Sandburg.

Blair stayed very still, not even daring to breathe. Hunter was in major BP mode and just pulled out of a chemically induced zone out. They stared at each other for several long seconds. Blair's heart was racing, but Hunter wasn't hurting him...yet.

Blair deliberately spoke to Jim, who was about to handle things his way, which meant major body mutilation. "Back off, big guy. He's not going to hurt me, are you, Captain?" Brave words, but Hunter felt the tremor. He loosened his grip and Blair slowly eased back, his hands moving to press against the IA captain's chest.

"If you could let up on the death grip, I would really appreciate it," Blair said calmly, only his heart rate giving away his nerves.

Hunter released the smaller man and let his hands drop to his sides, then realized he was in a bed. A hospital bed. Damn it to hell! Jim stood hovering at the end of the bed fixing him with an icy stare. He was not happy with how Hunter was treating his guide.

"Sarah." Hunter's spirit animal was pacing back and forth at the foot of the bed while the panther and wolf stood watch at the door. The tabby was gone.

Once Blair stood up, Jim closed the distance and stood right behind him, both hands resting on Blair shoulders. The sentinel was claiming ownership.

Jim looked at Hunter. "They took her. We've got everyone available looking."

Hunter growled. His head hurt, and his senses were off line, but he had to get going -- his guide was missing.

Blair kept his eyes on Hunter as he reached back to grasp at Jim's hand. The kidnaping had brought back bad memories for them both -- when Blair had been kidnaped by some unbonded sentinels. Blair could feel the anxiety building in Jim through the heavier pressure on his shoulders, the fingers digging in. Jim was scared of losing him again. Blair dropped his head forward in submission to his sentinel, reaffirming that he was still here, right where he should be. Jim moved his hands over Blair's head and shoulders, feather light, not even realizing he was doing it, before his hand circled Blair's neck. At the touch, Blair brought his head up, allowing Jim's thumb to brush against his trachea as Jim's fingers rested on his pulse. From anyone else, it would have been the prelude to a choke hold, but from Jim, it was an affirmation. It was also a signal of trust from Blair, a variation of throat exposure practiced by wild animals.

Hunter watched the two men as they focused on each other, unaware of their surroundings. Hunter threw the blanket back, swung his feet out of bed and tried to stand up, only to be caught and pushed back down again.

"Take it easy," Jim was there, pushing the stubborn sentinel back.

"Fuck taking it easy; my guide is out there." Hunter was still unbalanced, his vision tunneling and then expanding, like a visual migraine. His skin seemed over sensitized, the hospital sheets scratchy and itchy. Sounds were too loud, then barely audible.

"And ploughing up the floor with your face is going to help you? You were zoned out for at least two hours before I got the call and brought Blair. They were going to try and jack you out of the zone. Blair thought natural was better and played his Guide Prime card." Seeing that Hunter was not going to stay put, Jim sighed, "Chief, get the doctor, and then we'll get Hunter out of here."

Dr. Cromwell came around the corner of the corridor and stopped dead in his tracks. Walking towards him was the long-haired guide that had got him put on probation by his boss over his handling of the guide's rape examination. Cromwell had almost lost his residency slot over the issue when not only the Senior Sentinel Prime but the Cascade PD and the famous William Ellison, major donor to the hospital, had raised a stink. Cromwell was trying to lie low for a while.

All thoughts of keeping a low profile vanished when he saw the look on the guide's face as he recognized the doctor. A momentary flash of fear, then it was if something else came alive behind the guide's eyes. His whole body language changed -- became predatory. The guide was now walking as if the place belonged to him.

Cromwell deliberately blocked the guide's way, "Guide, show your respect to an Officer Doctor of the GDP."

Dark Guide looked the man up and down; the look in the guide's eyes was disturbing. Cromwell had seem the same look in some of the patients he had treated with paranoid schizophrenia. Violence barely held in check, but with some other-worldly quality.

Blair stepped into the doctor's personal space, moving close enough that Cromwell backed up reflexively. The smaller man's dark blue eyes shone with the eerie confidence of the assured victor. Blair stared at Cromwell, his body moving in an almost hypnotic rhythm from foot to foot. It was the kind of graceful movement associated with dancers -- or martial arts experts. Cromwell started sweating -- whoever this man was, it wasn't Blair Sandburg.

"Step aside," the guide said softly, and Cromwell moved back hurriedly, watching as the man moved down the hall past him. He quickly moved to the nearest nurse's station.

"Hello, this is Dr. Cromwell. I need to speak to the director," Cromwell looked around to see if anyone was listening, then resumed his conversation. He was still sweating fear.

Blair walked into the room, Dark Guide still hanging around the edges. Jim looked up quickly -- his eyes narrowing at the look on Blair's face.

"Put him away, Chief," Jim ordered softly, watching as his guide struggled to comply. Blair latched onto Jim, and with the connection, Dark Guide moved reluctantly back deep inside the mind and heart of Blair Sandburg.

Hunter and the attending in a physician were currently involved in a heated argument -- make that shouting match. The doctor was refusing to release the IA captain because he was newly bonded and would be at risk of zoning out without his guide plus dealing with the emotional trauma of his guide being kidnaped. Hunter asserted his right to leave against medical advice.

Jim sighed, but knew he would have done exactly the same thing if he had been in Hunter's place. "Dr. Walker, I know you don't want Captain Hunter to leave, but I'm sure we can handle any zone outs. My guide is Guide Prime of the city and Hunter is member of my clan."

The physician fumed -- now the Sentinel Prime was getting into it. Couldn't these men see that clan rituals from thousands of years ago weren't the same as modern medicine? The two sentinels weren't budging, though, so the doctor threw up his hands in frustration. "A guide looking after two sentinels is unheard of -- what about the territorial imperative of the sentinel?"

"Look, Captain Hunter will be staying with me where both my guide and I can watch out for him. He's going to leave with or without your approval, so why don't you just fetch the AMA forms and he'll sign them and we'll get out of your hair." Jim made his voice reasonable and calm.

"I still think that the GDP should..." the man protested.

"Shove the GDP, Doctor," Hunter said rudely. He had moved to loom over the much smaller doctor and the man's pen all but went through the paper on the clipboard. Hunter grabbed the document, signed it almost blindly as his vision continue to tunnel and expand.

Walker sighed as Hunter moved to the bathroom to change into his street clothes, and hissed a "Good luck, Guide. You're going to need it," to Blair as he walked out of the room. The disgusted snort from the bathroom indicated that Hunter's sentinel hearing was back on line.

The inevitable argument started the moment they got to the truck. Blair took the back seat, so that the two sentinels could sit up front. Blair watched the streets go by and got a sinking feeling as he watched the two men. He could see them talking, but weren't loud enough for him to hear. The emotions, though.... Double your pleasure, double your fun, Blair thought with grim humor. Now he had two stubborn, opinionated, headstrong sentinels to keep in line. Oh, rapture.

Blair leaned forward. "Okay, now be good sentinels and tell the guide what's going on.". His voice was half-request, half-order. Dark Guide was still lurking.

"Just calling in to Simon, Chief, that's all," Jim reassured Blair as he hit the speed dial on his cell phone.

"The doctor said that Captain Hunter has to rest," Blair insisted.

"Hunter. The name's Hunter, Sandburg." The correction was almost absent-minded as the IA captain tuned into what Ellison was telling Banks on the cell phone.

Blair paused, tentatively thinning his barriers to the man, wanting to know what he felt. There was no anger directed against him. Amazing.

Blair reached out, almost drew back, then laid his hand on Hunter's shoulder. The sentinel froze at the touch, then slowly relaxed. Jim paused from his conversation, eyeing Hunter balefully as he tried to drive, talk and keep his guide under his watchful eye -- all at the same time.

"Eyes on the road, Jim," Blair said softly, reaching out now to connect with his sentinel. Jim stopped bristling.

"I'm fine, Sandburg," Hunter growled.

"Okay, okay, but you still need to rest, man."

Hunter just grimaced. Guides always fussed. It was part and parcel of what they were.

Jim snapped the cell phone shut. "Okay, Simon wants us to stop by the precinct briefly, then we can pick up some stuff from Hunter's house and then head back to the loft."

~~~~~~~~~

Mandy looked at Leo worriedly as they drove off, leaving the sentinel helpless. Sarah was unconscious in the back seat, her breathing sluggish. "Are you sure she'll be okay?" Mandy asked.

"She'll be fine," Leo said. "I gave her a damper with the sedative."

"Damper?" Mandy asked, confused. 'What's that?"

Leo gave her a sidelong glance. "Man, you don't know anything about how this works, do you? Since her sentinel isn't with her, she needs a damper to keep from overloading on the emotions around her."

"The GLA says that's just a myth," Mandy said stubbornly. Sarah would be fine.

"Hate to break this to you, but it's true. Once an empath bonds, the pathways are blasted open. It's either shielding by their sentinel, or artificial dampers, or they go insane."

"But I hear the drugs can cause brain damage, long term, and they eventually stop working." Mandy bit her lip.

"Don't worry, where Sarah's going, she can stay safe from people, and they're discovering new medications all the time." Leo dismissed Mandy's concerns, but Mandy began to have the first seeds of doubt plant into her heart. What if this is the wrong thing to do?

They pulled up to a small motel a few miles outside of Cascade. Leo registered under a fictitious name and paid cash. Driving around, Leo carried Sarah in and laid her on the bed.

"Ship leaves at 6:00 AM tomorrow, so we'll lay low for now. You should probably go and get your Dad and bring him here. Wait a couple of hours so nobody spots you. You know you can't leave the country with her -- it'll be a few weeks until you can arrange for that "cruise" that will take you to her."

Mandy nodded uncertainly. "You'll watch over her?"

"Absolutely," Leo said, but something in his reassuring smile didn't feel right. Mandy dismissed the faint tingle as nerves and got ready to grab her car, which she had left here the night before. The getaway vehicle would be hidden out in the country or pushed off a cliff.

Mandy sat down next to Sarah -- she looked so pale and small. Mandy towered a good five inches over her sister, and had always been protective of her. The whole family had been guarding her for so long, that they couldn't imagine Sarah on her own. "He won't ever touch you again," she promised. "That bastard will never hurt you again." She got up to leave, noting the room number as Leo saw her out.

Once Mandy had driven away, Leo took a few moments to examine his prize. Virgin empath -- if Mandy was to be believed -- worth more than any drug on the market. That is, if the sentinel hadn't claimed his rights yet. You never knew with sentinels. Leo wrapped her in a blanket, and carefully moved out the door to another vehicle. His cohort would dispose of the getaway car.

Sarah remained still, not aware of anything as Leo laid her in the backseat. After a 45 minute drive, Leo pulled up to an old warehouse at the docks. He put Sarah over his shoulder and entered the key code. The door opened to reveal several rough looking men, one at the computer.

"She the prize?" One man pointed at Leo's burden.

"Yep. I'll get her secured in the back room. Buyer will be in tomorrow night. She'll probably sleep until later tonight. I have an extra dose if she wakes up."

Leo moved into the room and laid Sarah on the narrow cot. "Okay, kid, let's examine the merchandise." He stripped her quickly, his gaze totally clinical and objective. A bit thin, but nicely shaped for her size. Flawless skin -- that was a plus. Long legs for her height. Decent breasts. Nice color hair, totally natural. He pulled on a rubber glove -- time for the final check. Pushing open her legs, he pressed a finger in between, entering her body. Even in her sedated state, Sarah flinched in pain. He reached the barrier and stopped. "I guess your sister was right," Leo whispered. "Pure as the driven snow." He removed his hand, and stripped off the glove.

He pulled her clothes back on, and tied her hands and feet, looping the rope to ring in the wall. She wasn't going anywhere.

~~~~~~~~~

Mandy glanced at her father worriedly. It was now two house since she had left the motel, and no one seemed to be following them. "It just up there, Pop," she pointed as the building came into view. The getaway vehicle had already been removed.

"Room 6," Mandy said, as they got out of the car. Mandy knocked lightly on the door. No answer, she knocked again, then opened the door. The room was empty.

"Where the hell is she?" Max cried. "Mandy, where are they?"

Mandy just shook her head, shocked. What had happened? Had someone followed them? "I have to get back to university, contact the GLA. Maybe they know. Maybe he had to move her for safety. Maybe..." She trailed off.

"You mean you have no idea where she is? Where would they have gone?"

"I don't know," she said and Max groaned.

"Okay, I'll ask the desk clerk and drive around. You contact your GLA buddies. We can't let the police know -- or we'll get into trouble," Max urged.

Mandy got into her car, and again the sick feeling hit her. Something wasn't right. Sarah was in danger.

~~~~~~~~~

Simon looked up as they entered the office, and he waved them to a seat. For all the gravity of the situation, Simon nearly smiled. He was used to Jim in BP mode hovering around Blair, but the poor kid now had *two* of them. Jim remained standing as Hunter sat, with Blair tucked on the inside away from the door. Uh huh, Simon mused, I see that 'protect the guide' is in full swing.

"Major Crimes has the case, because of the sentinel angle. The GDP aren't too happy about it, but the mayor thinks it's better that we handle it. It seems the GDP isn't too happy about playing in our sandbox when we have all the toys." Simon almost lit one of his infamous cigars, but Jim's quick head shake stopped him. The IA captain didn't look well. "Since this email indicates some involvement within the police department, it also make the case IA. It's a helluva mess, kids."

Simon handed the email across, only to have Hunter grab it first. He might not like the man, but the Major Crimes Captain could see how rattled Hunter was by the loss of his guide. He actually cares about the girl. Maybe you're not the cold-blooded SOB I think you are.

From: GLA <anonymous@boxmail.com>
To: James J. Ellison <J.Ellison@cascadepd.gov>
Subject: Chief Slaver

The girl is free from the abuse of her sentinel.
He has raped her for the last time.
FREE ALL GUIDES NOW!

Jim shook his head. "They have two issues, Sarah and Blair. The web site was a direct attack on Blair."

"I betrayed them," Blair said softly, shivering a bit. Jim moved closer to him, comforting him. "I'm Guide Prime, yet I haven't stood up and protested the treatment of the guides in Cascade."

"You've done as much as you can for now -- you're making a difference, blazing some trails. This can't change overnight, however much we both wish it could."

Simon pulled them back to the matter at hand. "I spoke to the Commissioner, and she has agreed to a joint venture between IA and Major Crimes."

"No way," Hunter gritted. "I'm not compromising the confidentiality of my department."

Simon leaned back in his chair and sighed. "No one is asking you to give up state secrets, Hunter. All I'm saying is a little cooperation between departments will help solve this quicker. The main thing is to get Sarah back safely, then we can focus on the fruitcakes who are gunning for Blair. I don't like the fact that there are ties to Cascade PD with this whole mess."

Hunter just grunted, trying to work things through in his head, which by now was the recital hall for some pretty serious elephants in tap shoes. His senses were still cascading, however hard he tried to control it.

Simon pressed the intercom. "Rhonda, have Brown and Rafe come in here."

The two younger detectives knocked and then entered. Rafe ground to a halt as he saw Hunter sitting there.

"Brown, Rafe, you'll be working under Captain Hunter and Detective Ellison on the Sarah Freeman kidnaping and the Sandburg assault. Any information you have needs to be made available to them immediately."

Brown nodded, eyes wary, while Rafe looked like he wanted to have an anxiety attack that would rival any of the Blair Sandburg specials Jim had been unfortunate enough to witness.

"Settle down, Rafe," Jim said. "He's not after you this time."

Rafe just swallowed. He had been cleared in the IA investigation, but Captain Hunter had made mincemeat of him in the process.

Hunter glared at both detectives. "Do you have a problem with that, Detective Rafe?"

"No, sir." Liar, screamed the inner voice.

Blair, Sentinel soft, said "Pull the claws back, Hunter. Rafe is one of the good guys. He's going to help us find Sarah."

Hunter settled back, one eyes on the hapless detectives who looked as though their captain had ordered them into the inferno.

Just the jungle, gentlemen, thought Simon. Just the jungle.

~~~~~~~~~

The trip up to the loft was made in silence. Blair found himself pinned to the back of the elevator behind a wall of sentinels. Jim stopped at the door of the loft and scanned his territory for any intruders. Finding none, he opened the door, but blocked Blair from entering. His senses were tuned to any lingering trace of an unwanted visitor, but no one had trespassed. He finally allowed Blair in the door, with Hunter bringing up the rear.

Blair's mind was racing. Telling the doctor that he would be able to take care of two sentinels was easy in theory, but in practicality, it was going to be a lot harder. Sentinels were solitary creatures, despite their clan structure. They were territorial to the point that no marriages between sentinels had been recorded in the last 30 years. They couldn't stand having another sentinel in their territory possibly going after their guide. Now Blair was going to have two bull moose ready to knock heads over him. I feel so loved -- not.

This was going to need extremely careful handling. At least with Hunter being the Shield of the clan, there was some precedent for him being there, if the ancients could be believed. Blair could play the submissive card, as the ancient Dark Guide had done when needed, but in this case it wouldn't work -- both sentinels needed to know that the guide was in control.

Hunter dumped his bag on the floor and looked around. He hadn't really paid much attention the last time he and Sarah had stopped over. The place was tidy but Sandburg's influence was everywhere. Police journals vied with National Geographic and various anthropology textbooks on the coffee table. The multi-ethnic decor was vivid and bright against the plain walls, the apartment made homelike with pictures, colorful masks, clay pots and various artifacts. It was strangely jarring, but it seemed to suit the two men who lived there.

Through the folding doors, he could see what had to be Sandburg's room. It looked like a paper bomb had hit it and was now mutating into some giant cellulose creature that would soon swallow up all that remained in the room. How the man could find anything was beyond Hunter -- he would never let his guide keep her room in such a mess. Of course, you haven't let her have enough to cause a mess, either, came the annoying little voice inside him. He squelched the guilt.

Jim looked from Blair's room to the couch and back to the room. If Hunter stayed on the couch, he'd be closer to Blair than Jim would. "Chief, move your things to my room. I'll take the couch and you can have Blair's room, Hunter."

Oh, boy, here we go. First territorial imperative, thought Blair, but obediently moved to gather some of his things. Blair ducked past Hunter and began to collect his stuff when he caught the look on the IA captain's face -- it was almost comical.

"You actually live like this?" Hunter sounded half bemused, half horrified.

"Sorry, Captain," Blair said as he tried to juggle a pile of clothes and some books, and nearly dropped both in his haste. The captain stepped in to survey the chaos, then looked down. He had almost stepped on what looked like a five day old sandwich, slowly dessicating and turning an interesting shade of orange-gray.

"Whoops, let me get that," Blair said, dropping the books and trying to clear a path to the door. Blair glanced up, catching Hunter's expression of distaste and disapproval at the mess.

Blair froze. He was kneeling, trying to clean up, and the man in front of him blurred into the shape of the GDP training sentinels. One of them had looked at him like that, barely veiled disgust, just before he had beaten him.

Hunter frowned as Sandburg's heart rate accelerated. In the next moment, Blair dove for the door, but Hunter's arm came up and blocked him.

"It's all right, Sandburg. I'm not going to do anything." Hunter kept his arm across the door frame for a few seconds, just enough to let Blair's instinctive fear response subside, then deliberately let his hand fall.

Jim stood watching, on alert when his guide's heart started to race, but Hunter hadn't done anything. The look in Blair's eyes made it clear to both sentinels that he was lost in a past nightmare. Going against his instinct, Jim waited. Blair finally moved forward, half expecting that Hunter would grab him, but nothing happened.

Blair rushed to Jim and was pulled close. He dropped the things he held and his arms went around his sentinel's waist as he buried his head against Jim's chest. The tremors were running through the slight frame. Then a large hand began to gently massage his neck and head.

"Flashback, Chief?"

"Yeah. It's stupid, but I remembered one of the training sentinels. He used to wait for me to make a mistake and then he'd leash me. He'd leave me like that for hours. Sometimes he'd beat me. He looked...like that," Blair floundered, trying to explain his reaction to Hunter's disapproval.

"I don't beat guides, Sandburg," Hunter growled, but kept his distance

Jim just kept up his steady massage until he felt Blair relax against him. He had gotten Blair through his fair share of flashbacks. The best way to combat it was to get things back to normal routine.

"Chief, why don't you get dinner started while I run through the house rules with Hunter." Jim gently pushed his guide toward the kitchen.

Blair opened the fridge and pulled out a beer. He needed to settle his nerves. He wouldn't be able to manage the two of them if he kept freaking out like that.

"You allow your guide to drink?" Hunter was staring at Blair in disbelief.

"He's over twenty one," Jim said mildly.

"But he's a guide," Hunter said. "Alcohol and guides don't mix."

"Another GDP myth," Jim said dryly. "He's my guide, and he drinks if he wants to."

Blair could see the two spirit animals coming nose to nose -- both cats spoiling for a fight. He clanked the bottle down hard on the counter, causing both sentinels to jump. Time to get things straight.

Blair walked over and moved between them. He gave Jim a poke in the chest. "You sit down, big guy, and you, Hunter, sit right there." Both sentinels glared, but grudgingly sat on opposite ends of the couch while Sandburg paced in front of them.

"Okay -- here are the ground rules. No, don't look at me like that, Jim. You're the boss -- I know that. These are just the Sandburg Rules For Peaceful Cohabitation Of Sentinels." The lecturing tone wasn't lost on the older men. "You're both alpha sentinels, both bonded and used to having guides at your beck and call." Blair sensed Jim pulling back and caught his wrist, letting his mind brush across Jim's until he felt his sentinel settle down. "For the next few days, until we get Sarah back, I'm the only guide here. Basics first: I'm Jim's guide, marked and claimed, and nothing and no one is going to change that. We have our rules and you have yours, Hunter, but we're going to have to compromise a bit."

Blair let that sink in, then continued. "I'm going to take a few days off from Rainier. The last thing I need is to have either of you zone out, and I don't think I would have any students left if you come around the university in this condition." Blair paused to look at Hunter. "I'm here to help you, man. I'll be your guide until Sarah gets back. If you need to bond, you tell me. It's not the same as having Sarah there, but I know I can help. Just don't wait until the last minute and pounce -- I'm not fond of being pounced on by giant cats."

The last was said in a humorous tone, but since linking with Blair and Jim at Blair's office, when the ancient memory had been replayed to him, Hunter knew what the smaller man had suffered through. The kid had been forced far too many times into far too many nasty things. Any sudden move on his part could trigger another flashback like that of a few minutes ago. Hunter knew that if he bonded with Sandburg, he was going to have to treat him just as gently as he did Sarah, maybe even more so. This guide had been scarred deeply by his experiences. How in the hell did Ellison bond with him when the guy couldn't bear to be laid down without freaking out?

Blair watched him, noting how the captain fought to keep his cascading senses under control. He could see the tiny shivers running through the sentinel -- a sure sign that he needed to connect with his guide. "Do you need to bond?"

Hunter closed his eyes; his headache was getting worse and worse. He eventually nodded.

Blair knew that Jim would not allow Hunter to bond with him without his being there. Both the sentinel and the man needed to protect Blair.

Hunter opened his eyes, looking around for the bonding mat, then he remembered the rumors he had heard when he first came to Cascade IA. Supposedly, Ellison didn't use a bonding mat -- he preferred to use a bed. When Hunter had run into Sandburg the first time, he didn't honestly know whether he truly had believed it, or if he was just out to piss Ellison off when he made those comments about Blair being Ellison's boy-toy. Then Sarah had complicated the picture, and he had been handed the same garbage -- rumors and innuendos. Paybacks are a bitch.

Jim saw Hunter looking around. "Sorry, don't own a mat."

Blair flinched. That tone of Jim's was legendary -- he was daring the IA captain to make something of it. Deciding to defuse the atmosphere, Blair began to pull the cushions off the couch and laid them on the floor. Hunter just stood and watched the guide as he knelt down on the makeshift bonding platform, then slowly lower himself onto his back. His body was tense.

"Blair doesn't lay on his stomach; he bonds however he wants to." Jim's tone was still ominous.

Blair was grateful. With all the flashbacks he had been getting recently, being on his stomach with a strange sentinel pinning him down would have been a surefire way to trigger another anxiety attack. As long as he could see Hunter, he'd be okay. He had to be okay.

Both sentinels could smell the change in the younger man's scent. Blair's heart was going double time. For all his willingness to help, and his duties as Guide Prime to the clan, he was still scared. It reminded Hunter of when he had bonded with Sarah the second time, and how she had watched him with cornered eyes.

Moving slowly, Hunter knelt down next to him, then laid down on his side, propped himself up on one elbow, watching the younger man. Blair was muttering some mantra, trying to slow down his breathing. Blair kept his eyes on Hunter the entire time. The need to bond and connect was getting more and more keen, but Hunter held himself in check. This was not his guide; this was Sandburg, and he couldn't take -- Sandburg had to give.

Blair was biting his lip; he had agreed to this. He then fixed his eyes on Jim. His sentinel, bless him, was hovering around the back of the couch, ready to come to his aid. "I'm okay, Jim. I'm okay, I'm okay, I'm okay..." the repetitive words actually seemed to help Blair calm down.

Hunter put an arm around Blair's waist and pulled the younger man closer in a controlled easy movement. Blair was so tense that Hunter thought he'd shatter. With the guide tucked next to him, Hunter ran his hand over Blair's shoulder and arm lightly, letting the physical contact remind the younger man that they had linked before. But the light bond and memory link they had shared in Blair's office was nothing compared to what Blair had to do now.

Hunter lowered his head to rest on Blair's chest so that he could hear the comforting thump of his heart, though it was still much too fast. As he laid there unmoving, the heart rate slowed and Blair's arm moved up hesitantly, then rested on Hunter's back. Blair allowed his mind to slide into Hunter's. Just like in the memory link with Sarah, he could see the tiger in a swirl of snow, blue eyes burning, searching, angry. This was not his sentinel, but both Blair and Dark Guide recognized the Shield of the clan, the only sentinel that could hold and bond with the Guide Prime. It would never be as intense or as deep as with his own sentinel, but much deeper than any other sentinel could reach. Hunter let himself sink into the bond, and slowly Blair's eyes closed.

Hunter woke, headache gone and senses back on line. He didn't know how much time had passed, but Jim was hovering over them.

"Blair's still asleep," Jim whispered, but his guide was grimacing in pain. Bending down, Jim picked up Blair and moved him onto the couch which Hunter had re-assembled. Jim sat down, settling his guide against him, Blair's head resting against his chest. His hand began to lightly massage away the headache that Jim could feel vibrating through the bond. He always knew if Blair was ill or even just under the weather. As Blair's headache faded, Jim allowed himself to sink into a bond with his guide, fortifying and easing both of them.

Hunter moved around the kitchen putting together a simple meal. They would have to make sure that Sandburg ate; he had used up a lot of energy in the bond. Hunter was amazed that the guide was able to diffuse his emotions so well -- it wasn't as complete as with Sarah, but healing nonetheless. Sandburg had been scared to death, but he'd done it anyway. The kid was a trooper.

Blair's eyes opened and he looked straight into Jim's shirt. He tried to lift his head only to have a firm hand hold him down. "It's okay, Chief, I'm here."

"Hunter?" Blair said fuzzily.

"He's fine -- he's cooking dinner for us."

Blair yawned and patted the broad chest he rested against. "Wake me when dinner's ready." Then he closed his eyes again.

Blair managed to eat about half of the plate Hunter handed him before he drifted off again. Jim ate his meal one handed, refusing to let go of Blair, even when Hunter offered take Blair long enough for Jim to get up. Hunter just shrugged when Jim snarled.

Jim shifted Blair slightly, then looked up at Hunter. "Sorry I snapped just then. It's just...Blair can panic, sometimes."

"Flashback," Hunter said.

"Yeah, he needs to feel safe. If he wakes up alone, he can panic. I don't want him having another anxiety attack." Jim slowly rocked his guide, lulling him back into deeper sleep. The amount of patience Jim demonstrated was immense, and something that Hunter never would have.

Hunter reached a hand out, and lightly stroked the long hair from the closed eyes. Jim watched him closely, but didn't object. Hunter was not projecting anything negative.

"How does he do it? Deal with all this crap that they throw at him." Hunter's question was more rhetorical, so Jim stayed quiet, letting all three of them link.

Hunter smoothed Blair's hair back again, ancient sentinel instincts coming out. "He really thought I was going to hit him."

"He's got a lot of demons," Jim said simply, and pulled Blair's sleeve up just a bit to show the old scars around Blair's wrist. "It was a caustic wrap." There was pain in the sentinel's voice.

"He's a good man," Hunter said, obviously not used to voicing such sentiments. "I'm sorry."

"Shit happens, Hunter," Jim sighed, but the determination in his voice broadcast quite clearly that he was going to put a stop to it, one way or the other.

Hunter allowed himself another swipe across Blair's head, then stepped back. "I have to find my guide," Hunter said abruptly, moving out of the link. "She's out there, and God knows what's happened to her. If they hurt her..." Hunter thought of his military training and the ways he'd make those bastards pay. Ellison might have been black ops, but Hunter had been trained by some of the world's leaders in the art of torture during his military undercover work. As much as it repulsed him, he knew a thousand different ways to inflict pain.

"It's late, and there's nothing more we can do tonight. Tomorrow we regroup, and put together what we have. H and Rafe are tracing the car, and we have one witness who called 911 for you who might be of some help. You need to get some rest, or you'll be no good to anybody."

"Dr. Ellison: the voice of reason," Hunter mocked lightly, but there was no animosity in his tone.

"My word as Sentinel Prime, we'll get her back." The intensity in Jim's voice surprised the IA captain.

Blair stirred, his hand closing on Jim's shirt fretfully .

"You want to put the kid to bed?" Hunter asked, but Jim just shook his head.

"I'll stay here until he wakes up, then he can toddle off. He'll probably have nightmares tonight."

"Take him up to your bed, Ellison," Hunter said, irritated. "I'm not going to make any comments."

"Or have any thoughts?" Jim said, his mouth quirking slightly.

Hunter looked suitably disgruntled. "Hell, much as the two of you would make a cute couple...." The sarcasm was heavy, but then Hunter backed off. "I know it isn't like that. I was out of line when I said that at the hospital."

"Vincent Hunter, apologizing. Twice. I think I'd better write this down on my calendar," Jim said facetiously.

Hunter didn't even dignify that with a reply.

Jim eased Blair up and stood, hanging onto the younger man. Moving Blair into a modified fireman's hold, he ascended the steps and laid the young man down. Blair never stirred. Hunter was staring out the balcony door, senses sweeping the area, searching for his guide.

"We'll find her," Jim repeated softly, knowing Hunter would hear him even from this distance.

Hunter gave a brief nod in acknowledgment, then resumed his vigil until fatigue drove him into the small bedroom under the stairs. He laid awake for a while, listening to the unfamiliar noises inside and outside the loft until he drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

~~~~~~~~~

Hunter thumped the pillow, then threw it to join the other four on the floor. How the hell does the kid sleep on this thing? He blinked at the small electric clock -- 3:30 AM. He swung his feet off the bed and sat up. Something was moving through the loft. He got up, his hand reaching for his weapon, when he sniffed and caught the scent of Blair Sandburg. Moving to the door, he let his vision adjust to the gloom, watching the guide make his way gingerly down the stairs. Blair headed straight for the refrigerator. He pulled the door open, contemplating the contents as he rummaged and came out with some fresh fruit salad. He glopped a good portion into a bowl and after grabbing a spoon, he headed for the couch.

Blair shuffled his way to the couch, settled down on it and tucked his feet up under himself. Without looking up, he said, "Don't need to just stand there, Hunter. I know you're there."

The IA captain came over and settled on the chair across from him, not wanting to crowd him. Blair offered him some of the fruit, but Hunter just shook his head.

"Jim always has snacks in case I get the munchies," Blair explained, his voice muffled by a mouthful of food. "When I first came here, I had lost a lot of weight. He still worries that I don't eat enough." Blair paused. "I don't sleep very well, sometimes." Nightmares, he meant, but didn't say it.

Hunter watched Blair. There was something about conversations in the middle of the night that tended to bring out the frightening, absolute truth in people. The words were out before he could stop them.

"The first night, Sarah asked me to leave the light on," Hunter said quietly. "She cried herself to sleep." It was an edgy memory that still cut into him at odd moments.

"Does she still cry?" Blair asked gently.

"Not anymore," Hunter said stiffly, and closed in on himself.

"She's a great kid," Blair said, sensing the man didn't want to discuss it further. "She's smart and tries hard. I know it wasn't fair to saddle you with a guide when you didn't want one, but I couldn't let her go through...this." Unconsciously, he rubbed the scars around his wrist.

"I don't abuse my guide, Sandburg," Hunter gritted, instantly defensive.

"I know you don't," Blair said, and the quiet certainty instantly calmed the sentinel. "I know you don't, because you proved it to me." He looked up, and this time, there was no fear in his eyes. Blair had taken his leap of faith.

Jim, who had woken and was watching and listening from the top of the stairs, waited. This was Blair's issue to resolve and put to rest without interference from his sentinel. Hard as it was for him, Jim stayed where he was.

Blair and Hunter just stared at each other, each processing that proclamation of trust. Finally, Blair yawned, food and emotional catharsis making him sleepy. He got up and put his dish in the sink, then walked past Hunter, who still sat, tracking his every move. Hunter could sense Ellison at the top of the stairs, waiting, watchful.

Blair patted Hunter on the shoulder. "We'll get her back, and they'll pay -- my promise as Guide Prime." It was an echo of Jim's earlier words, and Blair was no less serious. Moving up the stairs, Blair spotted Jim at the top of the steps.

My sentinel, he thought fondly. Gritting his teeth and fuming the entire time, but he didn't interfere. Blair let himself be caught close and settled back into bed.

~~~~~~~~~

Max had been driving for hours, asking everyone he ran across whether they had seen a man and a young girl, but no one had seen anything. It was almost 4:00 in the morning and he was unable to continue. He headed home, exhausted and more afraid than ever. Mandy's sporadic calls on his cell phone hadn't raised much hope. Leo's office had been empty and their were no messages. No one among her GLA contacts had heard anything. Something must be really wrong.

Mandy went to Colin's apartment -- she had never met him, but he had contacts everywhere.

She knocked softly, and the door opened to reveal several suspicious faces. "Yeah?"

"I'm Mandy Freeman, GLA. My sister is missing and I need your help."

Ever suspecting a trick, it took a few moments before they let her in. The girl was pale, exhausted and wrung out.

"I'm Colin," said one man. "Debbie told me you might coming by." The man looked like a sci-fi series reject, his eyes serious and paranoid, wild hair everywhere. He led Mandy to the couch. "Okay, from the top, and then I'll decide whether this is worth my time and trouble."

Mandy blinked back the tears, then started from the beginning. "My sister is an empath. She was bonded about three weeks ago against her will...."

~~~~~~~~~

Jim was the first down in the morning. He put the coffee on and looked up as Hunter came out of Blair's room. Neither man mentioned what had happened a few hours before. Jim handed Hunter a cup of coffee and got a grunt of gratitude. Another Ellison trait. Both sentinels turned to look at the stairs as Blair came down, half-asleep. He suddenly found himself fixed on by two pairs of blue eyes, each of which held the same need -- the need of a sentinel to make contact with his guide. Uh, oh.Territorial imperative number two. Blair slowed his pace a bit, thinking furiously.

Hunter's hand tightened on his coffee cup and he deliberately turned away, "So, Brown and Rafe, are they really any good, or is Banks just jerking my chain?"

"They're good cops, Hunter, and they're both guide-safe. Banks is a good man -- just give him a chance."

Jim moved to block Blair, his hand reaching to catch his hair and hold him still. He leaned in and scented him, his senses wrapping around his guide.

"Chief -- shower. Now." Jim could still detect Hunter's scent on his guide, and it irritated him.

Blair sighed. "Good thing that I don't take this as an insult to my personal hygiene, big guy, otherwise I'd get paranoid."

Blair showered quickly, trying to work out how to best handle the situation. He dried himself, then noticed that his clothes had disappeared. What the...? Blair wrapped the towel around himself, his hair a wet mass of curls plastered to his head and neck. He opened the door, peering around it.

"Okay, which one of you jokers stole my clothes?" The two men stood drinking their coffee. It looked friendly, but the moment Blair lowered his barriers, he could feel the suppressed aggression that seem to vibrate through the room.

He knew he had scored a direct hit when Jim colored. This had to be some sort of sentinel territorial action. "You'd better hand me something else, then, because I am so not into streaking, man."

"On the door handle, Chief."

"Oh." Blair reached around and collected the clothes hanging there and disappeared back into the bathroom. Jim's old Cascade PD t-shirt, and his own sweats and boxers. Okay, big guy, you want to make sure Hunter knows whom I belong to. Jim's T-shirt to mark him. Blair sighed -- it was back to primitive behavior.

Blair came out of the bathroom rubbing his hair and nearly collided with Jim. His sentinel had moved so quickly that he hadn't even seen him. The towel was plucked out of his hand and thrown across the room. A strong arm went around his waist while Jim's other hand over his head and shoulders. He leaned in and inhaled, filling his lungs with Blair's unique scent. No trace of the other sentinel. Jim rested his forehead against his guide's for a moment, then almost reluctantly eased back. His hand ruffled Blair's hair affectionately and then he headed to the bathroom.

Blair could feel Hunter watching him, but he ignored it and poured himself a cup of coffee. He knew without turning around that Hunter had moved right behind him, not touching, but looming over him. Blair dropped his barriers slightly and could feel the need and loss that emanated from the man.

Blair was a bit nervous, but not of Hunter. The man had already proven he wasn't going to savage him. He was worried about how to address Hunter's need without sending Jim into major BP mode. Blair turned to face the taller man.

Hunter instinctively reached for him to claim him, but Blair stepped back. "No," he said firmly, the edge of Dark Guide in his voice. "That's not how this is gonna go."

The sentinel blinked, frowning, still operating on instinct.

"I'm Jim's, claimed and marked. You know that." Blair held the sentinel's gaze, knowing he couldn't back down. The guide had to be in control.

The man was returning slowly, and Hunter waited.

"Tell me what you need, Hunter," Blair said softly, relieved that the man was back in control of himself.

"To connect," Hunter said, head tilted to the side, puzzling as to why he would feel a need so similar to what he felt with Sarah. Blair wasn't his guide, and yet....

Jim moved into the kitchen, ready to do battle, but found his guide in total control of the situation. There was a quiet confidence in Blair's eyes that had been missing for quite some time. He was no longer afraid of the IA captain.

Blair glanced at Jim, who nodded his agreement. He placed Hunter's right hand over his heart, and moved Hunter's left hand to his throat so that Hunter could feel his pulse and the warmth of his skin. Hunter closed his eyes as he connected, leveling his senses from the guide's heart beat and the soothing vibes he sent out. Jim grasped Blair's shoulder, then Hunter's, and all three connected. Dark Guide, Dark Sentinel and the Shield -- triumvirate.

After several minutes, Hunter moved away, allowing Jim and Blair to re-establish their bond.

Hunter poured himself another cup of coffee as he began plotting his guide recovery strategy. He was meeting with Banks, Rafe and Brown at 8:00 AM to go over the game plan.

He looked over -- Jim and Blair were now back to the land of the living. Blair poured himself a bowl of some nuts and twigs muesli concoction while Jim pulled out bacon and eggs and cheese.

"Omelettes," Jim declared as he began beating the eggs. Blair poured orange juice for everyone and set the table.

Just his luck -- he was stuck with two breakfast types. Hunter sighed as sat down and drank the juice. He wanted to get going, but the two of them obviously weren't going to budge until they ate. Draining the remains of his coffee, Hunter was lost in thought until Blair nudged him.

"Here, until the omelettes are ready," Blair said, shoving a plate in front of him. Hunter stared down at it -- one English muffin, with real butter. How did...?

Blair just smiled at him, and returned to microwaving the bacon.

~~~~~~~~~

Mandy finished her tale while one of Colin's friends did some computer checking in the background. "What went wrong? Leo said they could get her out of the country no problem." Mandy sniffed into the tissue Colin had handed her.

"Mandy, there's been rumors going around about Kessler for months. I think there's more truth to it than I ever wanted to believe."

Mandy looked at Colin blankly.

"Rumor has it that he's been dealing in illegal trade -- guide slavery. Selling empaths to the highest foreign bidder. I haven't been able to prove it -- yet. Kessler's always been a wild card -- he'd sell his own mother for a profit."

Mandy slumped in total despair. "Can you help me find her?"

"She's probably out of the country by now," Colin said roughly, then relented. "All right, I'll try. Did he mention which ship?"

A loud knock at the door startled all of them. Tom went over and peered out. A mild looking man stood outside the door, he opened it cautiously. "Yeah?"

"Cascade PD," Rafe said as he pushed open the door. "I have a warrant." H and Rafe moved into the room, and spotted Mandy.

H stared at the girl -- she matched the description. "Mandy Freeman?" he asked.

Mandy looked trapped. She tried to bolt, but Rafe caught her and cuffed her. "Mandy Freeman, you're under arrest on suspicion of the kidnaping of Sarah Freeman. You have the right to remain silent..." She was led off while Colin stood stiffly. H recognized him as the informant who had helped Blair.

"You involved in this?" H said threateningly.

"No way, man." Colin sneered at the cop.

"I'd haul you in, but you're too valuable as an informant. I have some questions I need answers to."

"Whatever," Colin shrugged, hands typing at the keyboard of his computer. The day he couldn't outsmart the police was the day Colin was taking early retirement.

Colin was suitably vague, and H finally stopped. He knew he wouldn't get anything else out of the man at this point in time. "We'll be in touch -- don't leave town."

~~~~~~~~~

Jim was just finishing the last of his omelette when the phone rang. "Ellison."

Jim straightened. "Yeah, H. We'll meet you at the station." He got up and grabbed his jacket. "That was Brown -- they just took Mandy Freeman, Sarah's sister, into custody. "

Hunter grabbed his own jacket -- the rage and thrill of the chase filling him. "I wondered if they'd try something stupid -- guess that answers my question."

Blair shut the door and locked it, then raced after the two sentinels.

"It's apparently a little more complicated. She claims she doesn't know where Sarah is."

"Time for a little interrogation," Hunter smiled unpleasantly. Jim's expression reflected much of the same.

Blair was reminded just how dangerous these two were and shuddered a bit.

"Come on, Chief, hurry it up," Jim said impatiently, but gave him a brief pat on the back. We're good, Chief. We're fine.

~~~~~~~~~

Mandy sat in the interrogation room and wondered what was going to happen now. She had refused to answer any questions at all -- lawyer or no lawyer. She had tried to reach her father after arriving at Colin's apartment, but he wasn't at home or work, and his cell phone was out of range.

Rafe stared at the young woman who looked like she was in her early twenties. She was taller than Sarah, and her hair was darker, but there was a strong resemblance.

"Ms. Freeman," H began again. "We know that all you want to do is help your sister, but kidnaping her from her sentinel is not the way to go. You have no idea what the consequences are of separating a sentinel and guide."

Mandy just turned her face away. Let them throw her into jail -- the GLA had already warned her that participating in their group meant she'd get arrested sooner or later. She was not going to let that cop hurt her sister again.

The attorney tried to talk to his client, but she wouldn't speak to him, either. "Ms. Freeman, as your appointed counsel, I am trying to help you, but I can't do that if you won't talk to me." The man was at the end of his patience.

Mandy just stared at him.

The man gave up in disgust. "Fine. Call me if she decides to talk or wants my help." He got up and left the room. H was about to take her down to holding, when the door opened, and Jim Ellison, Captain Hunter and Blair walked in.

"Good morning, gentlemen," Jim said mildly. H and Rafe got up, pleased to hand over the problem to the other three men.

"She won't talk, and she won't let counsel help her. She's been mute since she got here," Rafe said wearily. He hadn't slept all night, chasing leads until a GLA tip had led him to Mandy Freeman and Colin Sharpe. The father was nowhere to be found.

'Why don't you guys get some coffee," Blair urged. Both H and Rafe looked beat. They moved out of the room gratefully.

"Ms. Freeman, I'm Detective James Ellison, and this is my guide, Blair. I presume you know that this is Captain Hunter."

Mandy stared from one face to another -- they looked almost exactly alike. Identical sentinels? Then she looked down again, lips tightening. She wasn't going to talk to them, either.

"Blair, why don't you go grab some coffee yourself, and have Rafe and H fill you in on the case." Jim smiled at his guide, but Blair could feel the primitive current underneath. Jim didn't want Blair there. For a moment, Blair's face reflected hurt and confusion, then Jim reached out and patted his back.

It's okay, Chief. We're going to do a little good sentinel-bad sentinel.

"Okay, man, you want anything?" Blair kept it casual.

"Nah, we're fine. Just need to talk to Ms. Freeman a bit," Jim said in his easy, 'everything's going to be okay' voice.

Mandy glared at both men. She wasn't talking, no matter what they said.

"Ms. Freeman, Mandy," Jim amended. "I know you want what's best for Sarah, but tearing her away from her only emotional support will only hurt her in the long run."

Mandy didn't even acknowledge him.

Jim sat down, looking and acting like everyone's big brother. "Mandy, Sarah is bonded. What that means is that unless she can connect to her sentinel, she's going to out there alone with no shielding. Damper drugs only work so long -- and then she'll overload. Despite everything you've heard, Sarah is better off with Captain Hunter. He'll keep her safe."

The look she now gave him could have incinerated paper.

"We need to find her before something really bad happens."

Mandy contemplated the toe of her athletic shoe. She was scared to death for Sarah, especially after what Colin had said about Kessler, but she wasn't about to talk to these animals. The GLA would help -- they'd help her find Sarah.

Jim looked over at Hunter about the next ten minutes of coaxing and cajoling had brought about nothing but angry silence.

The door opened suddenly. H looked tense. "Jim, can I talk to you for a minute?"

Jim got up with Hunter and they exited the room, leaving Mandy seated at the small table.

"What is it, H?" Jim asked.

"Well, Blair decided to call Colin, and managed to get some more information. Seems that the mastermind behind the kidnaping is Leo Kessler."

"Kessler? From Rainier?" Jim had never liked the man.

"According to what Colin told Blair, Kessler's probably linked to a guide slavery ring. If he had a hand in the kidnaping, then Sarah's in danger. We have to find Kessler."

Hunter immediately began questioning H further, but Jim was distracted by the sight of his guide seated at his desk, staring into space. Jim walked over to him.

"Chief, you okay?" Jim laid a comforting hand on Blair's shoulder.

"Colin said Leo was the guy who arranged the kidnaping. Colin's always been straight with me. He didn't want to rat on Mandy, but he said she came to him because Leo disappeared with Sarah." Blair twirled the phone cord in his hand. "If it's true...if it is true, then Leo's not the person I thought he was." Blair was pale.

Betrayed again. Sometimes Jim wanted to just smash the wall in his anger for Blair. Another supposed friend who turned out to have a hidden agenda. If nothing else, it certainly explained why Jim felt such animosity towards Kessler.

"Did Sharpe have any idea where Kessler is?"

"Nope. I told him to check his contacts because Sarah...." Blair swallowed convulsively. The thought of Sarah being sold like a slave into something even worse than the GDP nauseated him. Then he looked up. "Any luck with Mandy?"

"She's not talking, but it's about time for Hunter to play bad sentinel."

Blair pointed to Jim's computer. "Colin said he'd send some files on Leo -- photos and stuff. I can go ahead and download it while you talk." Anything to keep busy. Anything to not think about the man he had thought was his friend.

Hunter walked up just then. He was furious. "That stupid bitch actually handed Sarah over to a guide slaver!" He ran his hand through his hair, beside himself. "We've got to find him before...."

"Yeah, before," Jim agreed, tipping his head toward Blair, warning the other sentinel that the topic was dangerous.

"I'll be in questioning her. This stops right now." Hunter stalked out of the bullpen heading toward the interrogation room.

Jim squeezed Blair's shoulder, then moved to follow his half-brother.

When Jim entered the room, Hunter wasn't playing nice. He was in the young woman's face, leaning over the table in full intimidation pose. She shrank back from him.

"Ms. Freeman, because of you, I lost my guide. Besides the fact that she's not shielded, alone and scared, you have managed to deliver her to the proverbial 'fate worse than death'. Do you have any idea what guide slavers do?"

Mandy bit her lip. Despite her attempt to ignore him, her heart rate sped up and she was perspiring.

"They sell guides to the highest bidder. An empath, pound for pound, is worth more on the black market than any drug, any precious stone, any biological warfare weapon." Hunter was dangerously close to losing control. "She'll be put through a hell far worse than anything you could imagine, and eventually, when the drugs are no longer effective and she's no longer a novelty, they'll let her overload. She'll die -- in agony -- and all because of your asinine left wing radical beliefs that guides are enslaved to sentinels."

Mandy's eyes were tearing up, but she stayed silent.

"You think you have the right to make choices about Sarah's life? She's an empath -- and like it or not, she came on line. She needs a sentinel to survive, just like I need a guide. You really think that running out of the country is going to fix all her problems?"

Mandy choked, but Hunter wasn't finished.

"Sarah is in the hands of that maniac, and he's going to destroy her -- all because of you. You pathetic, stupid bitch!" Hunter grabbed her by the arm and hauled her out of the chair. He was in full BP mode as he slammed her up against the wall.

"Hunter," Jim warned, but didn't stop him. This was clan business now, and the law enforcement rule books went out the window.

Hunter growled, but let Mandy slide down the wall until she collapsed.

Blair entered the room, and both sentinels turned. This is bad. This is very bad.

Hunter hauled Mandy back into her chair roughly. He was sentinel -- howling for vengeance against one who had hurt his guide.

"Captain Hunter," Blair said, but the man ignored him. "Shield," he amended, and the captain turned to look at him.

Blair handed over some photos printed on the department color printer. Horrible photos of a guide sale. The despair on the young empath's face in those photos, as he was shown in shot after shot, violated and abused, was eerily similar to the tape Hunter had viewed of Sandburg. The young man in the photo was fair and he had reddish hair, but it still hit too close to home. Blair's hand was shaking as he passed the photos over.

Jim immediately pulled his guide to him, sheltering and comforting him. Hunter finished leafing through the photos, then spread them out on the table in front of Mandy.

"This is what is going to happen to Sarah. She's going to be sold and violated, over and over. Is this what you want? Is this better than being with me?"

Mandy was gagging at the pictures, but Hunter never let up. "Answer me! Is this what you want for your sister?"

Mandy broke. She was sobbing as she shook her head.

"Where is she?"

"I don't know! I swear! Leo just disappeared, and we've looked and looked...."

Jim moved to sit down and turned on the tape recorder. "Do you agree to make a statement? Do you want counsel present?"

Mandy waived counsel and began babbling the whole story, but by the time she finished, they didn't have much more to go on. "I've asked everybody on campus with the GLA -- nobody knows where he went."

Hunter moved in front of the young woman, pacing and thinking out loud. "There has to be someone who knows something."

"I know someone," Blair said softly, still leaning on Jim. The older man was worried about his guide. The young empath was still shivering.

"Sandburg?" Hunter said, moving closer to him and automatically reaching out to grasp his shoulder. Blair didn't flinch, and actually calmed even more at the Shield's touch. Jim didn't even bristle -- much.

"Who would know about Leo, Blair?" Jim asked quietly.

"Naomi." With that, Blair slumped back, the vague headache behind his eyes transforming into a full blown migraine.

Swearing under his breath, Jim hauled Blair out of his seat. "We'll be in the bonding suite, Hunter. After I stabilize him, we'll go hunt Naomi down. Give me twenty minutes."

Hunter nodded, then turned his attention back to Mandy. "I have a few more questions, then you'll be taken down to holding. There will be a warrant put out on your father. If anything happens to Sarah because of this, I'll extract it in blood." Hunter was almost over the edge, barely hanging on to his humanity.

Mandy just cringed and nodded.

~~~~~~~~~

The phone rang and Jim snatched it up and barked "Ellison." The caller started to speak, and Jim gestured. "Chief, it's Naomi." Blair had called his mother, but it had taken a while to track her down. Jim handed the phone over. When he saw the curious look from Hunter, Jim added "his mother."

"I thought you said his mother was dead."

"It's a long story." Jim shrugged. "He thought she was dead, which put him through hell, but it was the catalyst to make him break away from Barnes. He didn't find out until weeks after we bonded that she was still alive." He stopped there, his expression somber.

Hunter caught the drift -- another area of Sandburg's life that was a mine field.

Blair turned his back on the two sentinels, but it was only an illusion of privacy as either man could have easily heard his conversation. Blair's heart began racing, and both sentinels looked up. Blair cupped the mouthpiece and waved a hand to get their attention as he mouthed "Radar up, man."

Puzzled, Jim pushed the dials up so that he could hear Blair and Naomi's phone call. Hunter looked up and immediately listened in as well.

"Naomi, I know she's scared, but she has to talk to us. Sarah's life depends on it. No, I promise -- no heavy handed sentinel tactics." Blair put the phone down and took a steadying breath as he felt himself pinned by twin laser blue eyes. "The girl's name is Crystal -- she's in the GLA and she's been living with this guy named Don Minter. She heard something last night that made her think that Leo is slaving guides. Naomi is, like, mother confessor to the Cascade GLA. She's talked the girl into coming to speak to me, er, us."

When Blair got up the two of them followed him. He clearly heard Hunter hiss "His mother's GLA?"

"That and 'save the whale', 'hug a tree', etc. You name it, and Naomi has a bumper sticker for it." Jim's voice was a mixture of exasperation and reluctant admiration. "She's always on some damn crusade."

"He calls his mother Naomi." Hunter was still figuring this one out. "And she's GLA. Any other little surprises you have in store for me?"

"Wait until you meet her. She's a real...."

"Jim! She is my mother," Blair cut in before Jim could finish the sentence.

Blair just knew this wasn't going to work. There was no way that the two sentinels were going to be able to keep their emotions under control. The café was a known meeting place for the GLA, and the two of them screamed 'sentinel cop' at the top of their lungs. Blair moved ahead of the them and suddenly veered left and kept going.

"Sandburg!" Blair ignored Jim's furious shout as he ran and dived into the elevator and hit the down button. He forced a smile for Amy, the lone occupant of the elevator. "Nice day."

She just smiled back as she watched him shift from one foot to the other, his left hand fingering the car keys. Naomi had told him where to meet her before he had asked Jim to dial up. If he could just get out of the garage and make the meeting, then he might have some information that would help all of them. That is, if his sentinel didn't mangle him for bugging out on him.

Blair's car was pulling away just as the sentinels came crashing through the fire door.

"I'm going to handcuff him to my desk," Jim vowed grimly. "Every time Naomi enters the picture, Sandburg's brain drains out his left ear."

"He's not running away from you," Hunter pointed out with surprising insight. "I imagine he doesn't want to get his mother into trouble."

Jim sighed in disgust. "So, you want to follow him?"

Hunter considered it, then shook his head. "Let's continue with Sharpe's data. If Sandburg isn't back in an hour, we'll track him down."

"You trust him?" Jim seemed surprised.

"I've been inside his head," Hunter said quietly. "That's all I need."

Jim couldn't say anything to that, so the two men headed back to the elevator.

~~~~~~~~~

The café was a retro sixties vegetarian ethnic cooking haven and a GLA hot spot. Blair had even spent some time here, before Alex and the GDP had gotten their hands on him.

Naomi got up and hugged and kissed her son. "You're looking good, sweetie," she said, inwardly relieved. She worried about him, even though Jim had promised to look out for her baby boy. Then she looked past him. "Jim isn't with you?"

"I thought it would be best if he stayed with Hunter -- he's the girl's sentinel. He's pretty shook up about her kidnaping." Blair settled into the seat across from her and put in an order for a double latte.

"Is he like Jim?"

"Yes and no. Hunter's different. He's a bit colder." Blair paused at Naomi's concerned frown. "He's not a monster, Mom. This kidnaping has got him in BP mode 24/7 and he seems to have adopted me." When he saw the look of alarm on his mother's face, he added quickly, "Nothing to worry about. Honest. I'm just looking after him as well as Jim until we get Sarah back. He's related to Jim, but there's some family issues going on there."

"Sweetie, did Jim let you come see me today?"

Blair shifted uncomfortably. "Well, not quite, but I thought that two sentinels sitting there giving Crystal the third degree was not going to help her talk to us. So I gave them the slip."

"Jim... he won't hurt you?" Naomi was still hesitant. She knew that Jim Ellison thought the world of her son and she had seen the way he treated him, but all the same, she was still afraid for Blair.

"Nah, Jim wouldn't do that. He'll yell and blow off steam, but he wouldn't hurt me." The certainty in Blair's voice relaxed Naomi.

He looked up to see a young woman approach them. She spied Naomi, then looked at Blair. He gave her his light-up-the-world smile and she smiled back.

~~~~~~~~~

Simon Banks looked from Hunter to Jim and then back at the IA captain. The argument was loud, vocal and looked as if it was getting out of hand. A brief knock on the door startled him.

Blair Sandburg stood there sheepishly. "Hi, guys."

Simon barked "Ellison!", but Jim wasn't listening. In two strides, he had Blair by the scruff of his shirt and had lifted him completely off the ground. Jim levered him over into a chair, looming over the younger man.

"Easy, big guy, easy. You're wrinkling the shirt." Blair pressed his palm against Jim's chest, his eyes wide. "Come on, man, let me go." His sentinel was almost choking him with his own shirt.

Jim was relieved to see Blair back in one piece, but the sentinel was not in the mood to be rational. The sentinel leaned down and sniffed at him. He could detect Naomi's scent on his guide, but no others.

Blair, recognizing BP instincts, stayed still. Until Dark Sentinel calmed down and let Jim emerge again, Blair would have to play it cool.

"The GLA takes guides." It was a feral snarl.

"No one tried to take me. I'm here, and I'm safe in your territory."

Then Blair saw Hunter looming over him as well. Oh, boy.

Jim pulled his guide out of the chair, transferring his hold to Blair's arms, facing his guide. Hunter moved behind Blair, the Shield's hands resting on Blair's shoulders. Blair was effectively trapped between the two of them.

The Shield scented the guide, frowning. "The other scent?"

"His mother's," the Sentinel Prime rumbled.

Simon waved the other members of the bullpen away. This was sentinel business, and since Sandburg wasn't being hurt and didn't seem distressed, he decided it was better to let whatever was happening finish its course. Simon stepped out and closed the door.

Blair lowered his head, submissive, and let his breath out slowly. Jim was still operating on instinct, and although he was upset, Blair knew that Jim wouldn't hurt him. Jim's hands moved over him quickly, checking for injuries, then Blair felt Jim's hand go around the back of his neck, then circle his throat, the thumb lightly stroking his skin. Blair lifted his head as he lowered his barriers -- letting them drop to nothing -- knowing that the two sentinels would feel it. He was completely vulnerable, but serenely secure.

It was a complex bond amongst the three of them. Jim's angry protective instincts and Hunter's need to shield clashed and amplified each other, but as they stood there, Blair could feel both sentinels settle down as he sent soothing vibes to them. Gradually, Jim and Hunter emerged from their sentinel personas.

Hunter released Blair, and Jim pulled the younger man close to him. Blair closed his eyes. Another potential disaster averted.

Jim finally moved Blair back to look at him. "What did you get, Chief?" He put aside his anger at the maneuver Blair had pulled -- for now. They would definitely discuss it later.

"An address," Blair said quietly, and proceeded to explain what had transpired.

~~~~~~~~~

Rafe and H stood outside the apartment door, arrest warrant in their hands. Rafe knocked on the door, but received no answer. Nodding to H, he tried the door. Locked. They broke the door in to see a man sitting at the desk, open-mouthed shock on his face at the intrusion. He got to his feet, and was spun around and cuffed before he knew what was happening.

"Don Minter, you have the right to remain silent...." The voice went on, advising him of his rights as he was taken to the squad car and transported to headquarters.

Don stared at the wall of the interrogation room and settled down for a long wait. His lawyer was on the way and he would make mince meat of the goons who had grabbed him. Don wasn't scared of these yahoos -- they couldn't touch him.

A big man came in, removing his glasses and cleaning them before looking at Don as if he was some specimen under the microscope.

"Mr. Minter, I'm Captain Banks. If I were you, I'd tell us what we need to know, because if you don't, this could get very intense."

"I know my rights. I'm not saying anything until my lawyer gets here. You think you can threaten me?" Minter scoffed.

Banks smiled pleasantly. "No, Mr. Minter, I wouldn't threaten you. I don't need to. You see, when you took a guide, you transgressed twice. Under criminal law, but also under sentinel law. Any threat or harm to a guide leaves you at the mercy of the sentinel in question. If you talk, you might get out of here with some of your bodily parts intact, but if you don't....."

"Yeah, watch me shake, here," Minter sneered.

Simon shrugged and then opened the door. "Detective Ellison, Captain Hunter, I believe you have some questions for Mr. Minter?" Simon closed the door, just catching the look of apprehension on Minter's face as the sentinels closed in on him.

Outside the room, Blair leaned against the wall, a cup of hot tea in his hands. He was a bit shaky from grounding the two aggressive sentinels when Minter had been dragged in half an hour ago. "Don't worry, Simon. They might be throwbacks to pre-civilized man, but they are cops. They won't do anything that's outside of the law -- either law."

Banks just looked at him. "You know that for a fact, Sandburg?" Personally, Simon had his doubts about Jim or Hunter's self control.

Blair nodded, then winced when a short, abruptly cut-off cry emitted from the room. "Of course, that still leaves them a lot of room for creative ideas."

~~~~~~~~~

Simon looked at the officers in the briefing room. They were a mixed bag: Major Crimes, IA and clan members -- all together for one reason: to bring down the man who had taken Sarah Freeman.

His voice was level as he addressed the assembled group. "Don Minter told us everything he knows. Kessler is holding Sarah at one of the old warehouses down near the docks. He's a guide slaver -- he offers rogue guides the chance of freedom and then sells them to the highest bidder. Supposedly, the buyer comes in tonight. We have one shot, people, so let's do this right."

Simon tried to ignore the low rumbling growl coming from the IA captain. Blair leaned forward slightly, his hand making contact and gently patting the sentinel on his shoulder, taking the edge off his aggression.

"Rafe and Brown are going to go in with Minter. We can't wire them, but the sentinels will be monitoring them. They are going to be offering Kessler a guide: Blair Sandburg."

Blair felt Jim's grip tighten on him. Jim wasn't happy about the danger Blair was putting himself in, but Blair had insisted.

Simon sighed at the low rumble. "It has to be an empath to be convincing. We need Blair's help in locating Sarah, and to help her if she's overloaded. Brown and Rafe will find her, and keep them both safe until the cavalry comes. Ellison and Hunter will follow you in, the rest of us will follow and cover all exit points in case anyone makes a run for it. No one gets out of there; we take them all down."

~~~~~~~~~

Blair looked at himself in the locker room mirror and shook his head. He was supposed to be a rogue guide who had been kidnaped as a sex slave. He suppressed a shudder, and then felt Jim's hand on his shoulder.

"You scared, Chief?"

Blair breathed in and out, nerves thrumming. "Yeah, I am."

"Good," Jim said. "That'll keep you alive. Don't you dare play hero." The concern in his voice balanced the lecturing tone.

"That could have been me, Jim. I trusted Leo. I was going to go on his freedom train." Blair shivered.

"The panther would never have let you, Chief." Jim was absolutely certain of that.

Blair pulled himself out of the memory. "Okay, big guy, let's get this show on the road." Blair tilted his head slightly and looked at his reflection. His clothes were torn and dirty. His hair was pulled out of the ponytail. But it still needed something....

"You're going to have to hit me, Jim."

"What?!"

"Look, if you want this guy to believe it, then you're going to have to rough me up. The better we sell this, the better chance we have of getting to Sarah without a shot being fired. There is no way that they'll buy that I was picked up without a struggle, so you're going to have to deck me".

"No way, Sandburg," Jim growled and stalked away.

Blair shook his head, then he looked at Hunter. Like his own sentinel, he had dressed in the all black uniform used by the SWAT team. Blair walked over as the IA captain put his kevlar vest on. "Captain Hunter, you heard that."

Hunter looked up warily as he tied his boots. "Don't even think about it, Sandburg."

"You know it has to be done, and Jim won't do it."

"Sandburg, look, I don't want to hurt you."

"Hunter, you have to, because if you don't, they might not buy the story. I don't want to risk Sarah's life." That got the other man's attention. "I want to get her back just as much as you do -- but you have to help me out."

"Sandburg...." Hunter wasn't convinced.

"Just do it, man." Blair stood still, bracing himself.

"Sandburg, this is going to hurt," Hunter warned, still wavering.

"Hey, been there, done that," Blair smiled, but the shadows in his eyes told Hunter that this was no small commitment. "Do it and stop being a wimp."

Hunter was right; it hurt. The blow hit him in the face, bruising his lip and cheek and giving him a bloody nose. Hunter pulled the punch, but it still put the smaller man down. The sentinel had applied just enough force to cause surface damage, but not enough to break bones.

"Ow." Blair just sat there for a moment. "I'd forgotten how much that hurts."

Hunter immediately pulled Blair back to his feet, his hands running over the smaller man. Blair's hand rested on Hunter's arm to support himself. Then he turned to launch himself at Jim before he could take Hunter down with his bare hands.

Blair clung to him, blocking his path. "Easy, big guy. I asked him to do it. Made him do it, so chill out." Blair found himself pushed against the wall with hands running over his body, checking him out. When Jim was sure that Blair was okay, he stepped back.

Jim looked over at Hunter. "If you had done that for real, I would have killed you."

"If I had done that for real, I would have let you." With that, Hunter walked out, leaving Jim to ponder exactly what his half-brother meant by that.

~~~~~~~~~

Minter knocked on the door. The viewing slot opened.

"Don." The man looked past him, "Who are they?"

"Let me in. Kessler told me to bring them here. They have a rogue empath -- a buyer would pay good money for this one."

Rafe caught Blair by the hair and pulled his head back, arching his neck back as he pressed Blair's face against the slot.

The man behind the door grinned. "Looks like prime meat, especially if he's cherry. I think we can make a good deal on him."

The door was thrown open, and Rafe manhandled Blair in.

"Kessler here?" Minter asked, looking around.

Billy stood there, semi-automatic machine gun in his hands. "Yeah, checking on the new chick he brought in. She's gonna be real sweet for the right buyer. He checked her out -- said she's pure. She'll bring in major bucks." The man leered, and then his eyes bulged as an arm went around his neck and he was pulled backward. He hadn't noticed the two men who had moved in behind him. Hunter's arm was around his throat and his hand against the man's jaw. One twist, and the man's neck broke. Billy fell in a lifeless heap.

The two sentinels looked around the room. A small laptop was up and running. It was connected to a printer. Blair picked up the paper and threw it down in disgust. "Shipping instructions for Sarah."

Jim nodded to Rafe and Brown. "Watch our backs -- we're going to get Sarah. Make sure Minter stays put."

"Look, I told you that Kessler only has two other men working for him," he blanched as he looked at the body on the floor. "That only leaves Pete. He...."

"Tall, blond?" Rafe asked.

"Yeah."

"Edwards and Lisa took him out. Looks like only Kessler is left."

Jim saw the spirit guides leading the way -- the panther and the tiger, with the wolf behind them, heading down the corridor. Heart beats echoed from each of the rooms, more empaths. The large cats kept moving until they saw the tabby cat. It was lying on its side outside one of the doors, making a pitiful whimpering noise. The tiger bent down his head and nuzzled it gently before his head came up and he roared.

Both sentinels looked at the Dark Guide, who ordered, "Remove the threat."

Jim kicked the door down, going high while Hunter went low. Leo grabbed Sarah and pulled her in front him, pressing the barrel of the gun her head. Sarah was only half aware, her breathing sluggish. A few bruises showed on her neck, but otherwise she looked unharmed.

"Drop the guns or she dies."

Neither of them moved. Jim looked around, trying to find an angle to take Kessler out.

"Don't even think about it, Sentinel. Even you aren't fast enough to stop me from putting a bullet in her head."

Hunter growled. Leo realized that the man must be her sentinel. He looked just like Ellison. What a weird little world.

"She's prime, Sentinel," he taunted the man. "Worth a fortune. What's the matter -- you can't get it up anymore, old man? Is that why she's still a virgin? Nobody ever touched her there...until I did."

Hunter eyes narrowed, the fury spilling over.

Jim touched his arm, warning him to keep cool. "He's baiting you -- don't fall for it," he whispered only loud enough for Hunter to hear.

"Move into the room and away from the door, Blair," Kessler gloated. "Pity I never got you in here. I had a good price for you, cousin." Leo saw the look of surprise on the smaller man's face. "Oh, you didn't know that, did you? I have a bastard guide for a cousin. I was going to tell you just when the buyer staked his claim on you. See your face when you realized that your own flesh and blood had sold you out, but this is even better."

Hunter only had the split second to realize what Leo was going to do. He crashed into Blair as the gun fired and he took the bullet meant for Blair. It knocked the wind out of him as it hit the vest. Jim started forward, only to be pulled up as the gun went back to Sarah's head.

"I'm not playing games. Drop the gun and kick it away. Next time, Cousin Blair won't be so lucky."

Jim let the gun drop, watching Kessler moved around with his hostage.

Hunter's voice was for his ears only. "Tell me when he's close. I'll take him and you grab Sarah."

The two sentinels exploded into action with the power of their spirit guides. Sarah was pulled free and away as Hunter launched himself at Leo. It wasn't the man who attacked, it was the sentinel. Sarah was pulled out of the room. The screams that echoed behind her didn't sound human.

Then it went quiet. Sarah was twisting fretfully, but mercifully, still mostly unaware of what was going on around her. Thank God, thought Jim, praying that she had been spared most of the horror. Her pupils were pin point with the sedative.

When Hunter finally appeared, he fairly radiated lethality. There was blood on him, a lot of blood. Jim sniffed -- Kessler's blood, all of it. Hunter reached out to touch his guide, but stopped. His hands were bloody, and he didn't want her touched by anything of the bastard who had kidnaped her.

"Clean up at the sink, Hunter," Jim said quietly. "I'll hang onto her for now." Jim carefully picked her up, cradling her against him.

Hunter vacillated, then reluctantly nodded. He had to get the stench of death off himself. He managed to get most of the gore off before Simon entered the warehouse on Blair's all clear. Blair went over to where Jim held Sarah, touching her head lightly, then went over to Hunter. Deaths, no matter how justified, were never easy. Grasping Hunter's shoulder, he sent as much support as he could to the sentinel. Amazingly, Hunter accepted it.

Banks barked orders as they secured the scene. When they viewed what was left of Kessler, they all agreed that no human could have done that to him. In the blood they found a print. The forensics technician whistled softly; it was the paw print of a large cat. They must have been into endangered animals as well as humans.

Simon was talking with Bernie Clark from IA. This whole mess would never go to review because Kessler had kidnaped a guide. Sentinel law reigned in any case of threat or harm to a guide. Hunter went over and gently took Sarah from Jim. She was nearly unconscious, but immediately sensed him, turning her face into him. Safe.

Miller and the four other detectives from IA where among the first to reach their captain.Miller spoke for all of them. "Captain, is she okay?" In that instant, they saw something in Hunter's eyes -- the worry -- the man behind the sarcasm and bad attitude. He does care.

He looked around at his own people, the contingent from Major Crimes and the clan -- sentinels and guides. They had all come to help Sarah -- to help him. It was an uncomfortable moment -- Hunter didn't like feeling beholden to anyone -- but he had to acknowledge them.

"She'll be okay. Thank you -- all of you." With that, Hunter clenched his jaw and headed for a squad car. He had to get his guide to the hospital to be checked out.

Jim and Blair accompanied him. Jim drove while Blair held onto Sarah in the back seat.

World's largest combination teddy bear and security blanket, Jim thought with a smile.

Sarah was quickly whisked up to the sentinel floor, where Dr. Lambert met them. Blair relaxed slightly. This was the good doctor, the one who had been kind to him during the rape exam. Lambert's eyes widened as he recognized Blair and Jim, but merely said, "Good to see you both." Blair had trouble meeting the man's eyes, but there was nothing but compassion radiating from the man.

"Who's this?" The physician asked. "I didn't know you had a twin, Detective Ellison."

Hunter clenched his teeth -- still in BP mode and still ready to kill.

"Captain Hunter, Dr. Lambert. He's one of the good guys. Dr. Lambert, Captain Hunter, Internal Affairs and his guide Sarah."

Lambert was all business as Hunter laid her down on the examining table. "What happened?"

"She was kidnaped and drugged -- we think a damper/sedative combo. We just want to make sure she's not hurt." Blair explained, then he and Jim withdrew from the room.

Nurse Dunlevy came in, and helped undress Sarah, putting her in a gown. Hunter refused to budge. This was his guide, and he wasn't leaving.

She was still semi-conscious, so it made things easier. Dr. Lambert looked her over, muttering about a couple of bruises, but seemed satisfied there were no major injuries. "I don't see any major injuries -- looks like an illegal GDP cocktail we've run into before. She'll probably be in and out for hours yet, then she'll have a killer hangover. No permanent damage, though."

Hunter sat by the examining table, his hand running over Sarah's head, calming her fretful movements. "There's one other thing, Doctor. I'm concerned that she may have been assaulted."

"Sexually assaulted?" Lambert asked, treading very lightly.

Hunter locked eyes with the man, then said deliberately, "Not raped -- I would have sensed that. Her kidnapper claimed he touched her."

"Well, we can certainly check, but unless there are injuries from penetration, there would be no way to tell for sure," Lambert hedged.

Hunter just stared at him.

"I'll check her -- if you'd be so kind as to step out...."

"I'm not leaving her, Dr. Lambert. Rig a sheet, drape her, I don't care, but I'm not leaving my guide alone."

Lambert blustered, but gave in. Nurse Dunlevy carefully draped Sarah with a sheet and Lambert made his check quickly, thankful that the girl was unaware of what he was doing. He worked quickly, then gently pulled down the sheet.

Lambert looked straight into the IA captain's eyes. "No sign of any injury or penetration -- she's still intact. If he did touch her, he didn't injure her."

Hunter relaxed slightly. He wouldn't tell Sarah about this -- no sense in upsetting or frightening her. He doubted she would remember much of anything of the kidnaping.

Nurse Dunlevy carefully dressed Sarah again while Hunter signed the discharge papers. Hunter scooped Sarah up and she moaned a little, quieting when he whispered to her.

Lambert opened the door, hesitating with his last question. "The kidnaper -- he's been arrested, right?"

"He's not going to cause any more problems, Dr. Lambert." The half smile was chilling.

"Oh. Is he in custody?"

"I killed him," Hunter said simply. He turned from their shocked faces and walked out into the hallway.

"She okay, Hunter?" Jim asked as he and Blair walked up.

"No major injuries. The drug will wear off by tomorrow."

"And the other?" Jim asked quietly. All three of them knew what he really meant.

"No injuries," Hunter said softly, and Ellison and Blair relaxed.

"Let's get you home," Jim said, and grabbed onto his own guide, holding him close.

The trip to Hunter's house was made in silence. When Jim pulled up into the driveway, Jim turned to look back at Hunter. "Simon will review the Mandy Freeman case tomorrow. I'll check into it as well. You need to be home with Sarah."

"It's already tomorrow, Ellison," Hunter said dryly. 2 AM -- the witching hour.

Hunter got out and Blair opened the front door so that Hunter wouldn't have to juggle for his keys. They waited until Hunter laid Sarah on the couch and covered her with the afghan.

"Good night, Hunter," Blair said softly. "Get some rest."

"Thanks for your help, Ellison, Sandburg," Hunter said brusquely, but they saw how carefully he adjusted the afghan over his sleeping guide. They exited quietly.

Maria Randall, ever vigilant neighborhood watch person, had looked out the bedroom window at the sound of the car door slamming. She watched Captain Hunter carrying his guide into the house. She looked like she was sound asleep. Maria muttered under her breath. The girl was too young to be out all hours doing God knows what terrible police business. They were accompanied by a man who was the spitting image of Hunter -- a twin? -- and a younger man with long hair. Vice squad, perhaps? Maria hastily called to Marty, who sleepily refused to get up. There was no way he was getting out of his comfortable bed to spy on the unfriendly police captain next door.

All four went into the house, and then the other two men came back out. Maria's eyes opened wide as she watched the taller man push the younger one against the side of the car, one hand tangled in the long hair, holding it close to the scalp. The man leaned in to scent at the young man's throat. For a moment, Maria wondered if she had just witnessed a lover's quarrel, but then she saw how the taller man touched the smaller man's head, tilting it in a way that was extremely familiar.

Another sentinel! Maria let the curtain fall, and jumped when the taller man looked up at the window, eyes narrowed. He had seen her! Maria scrambled into bed, heart pounding. There was another one -- and it looked like the captain's twin brother. She closed her eyes tight. That had been close.

Blair leaned into Jim. "Come on, big guy, we're probably giving the neighbors a fit."

Jim had to grin. "Well, at least one," and pointed to the upstairs window of the

house next to Hunter's.

Blair groaned. "We'll bond once we get to the loft, but let's take it off the street, okay?"

"Unless I'm mistaken, Chief, those must be the nosy neighbors who called the cops on Hunter." Jim had a twinkle in his eye, and just that made Blair feel better. His sentinel was lightening up, finally. The rescue and its aftermath had been intense.

"Great," Blair flopped his head back against the head rest after getting in the car. "First, they figure that they have a child abusing psychopath next door, and now they probably think...." he trailed off with a sigh. He should be used to public misconception of the sentinel-guide bond and behavior by now.

"Let 'em wonder," Jim said sagely as he turned on the engine, and the two men met eyes and broke into helpless laughter.

God, it felt good to laugh! Blair knew he was just this side of hysteria, but they were over-tired, over-wrought and not a little bit punchy from stress and lack of sleep. Despite everything, they made it home safely.

Blair flopped onto the couch, exhausted. His face hurt, and he had a dull, throbbing headache.

Jim sat down next to him. "Tell me what you need, Chief."

"Bond, Jim." There was desperation there now, as the adrenaline rush faded. The horrible words Leo had thrown at him were now eating into Blair's mind. The memories were coming back and casting long shadows.

Jim laid down, pulling Blair next to him, comforting his guide with words and touch. Tomorrow they would pick up the pieces and sort out the puzzles, but not tonight. Both men connected and sank into the bond, finally letting the day go.

~~~~~~~~~

Hunter woke at 6 AM, stretched out on the couch, Sarah curled next to him in her afghan cocoon. Funny -- he hadn't remembered falling asleep. He eased away from her, grimacing as he stretched. 4 hours of sleep just didn't cut it anymore.

Sarah stirred, then opened her eyes. For a moment, she panicked, then Hunter was at her side, linking. You're safe.

She relaxed bit by bit. "Sentinel?" her voice was trembling. The last thing she remembered was Hunter collapsing to the ground, then being pulled away from him. "Are you okay?" she asked, reaching a shaky hand out. "What happened?"

Thank God, she doesn't remember. "Well, your well-meaning sister had you kidnaped to save you from me, but something glitched in the plan. They drugged you, so you slept through most of it, but Ellison, Sandburg and I managed to find you and bring you home." It was a glib recital delivered so blandly that Sarah knew some major details had been omitted.

"You're not hurt?" Sarah asked.

"I'm fine. It was a chemical zone-out, but Sandburg brought me out of it. And you're fine too, except for the damn sedative they gave you."

"What day is it?"

"Thursday," he said, "We're off today. I don't think either one of us is up to facing the office."

Sarah could feel a cold little chill -- Hunter wasn't telling her everything. She had missed something critical. "Please don't lie to me," she asked solemnly. "Tell me what really happened."

Hunter sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Go get cleaned up first, we'll eat some breakfast, and then I'll give you the Reader's Digest version." He, of course, would carefully omit certain details and a lot of the gore.

She got up slowly. Her head was pounding and the world did a nasty little tilt. "Nnnhhhhh," she moaned, trying not to move too quickly.

"Your first hangover," Hunter said dryly. "Remember this when you decide to try alcohol."

She made her way slowly up the steps, supported by her sentinel. He guided her into the bathroom.

"Can you manage?" he asked.

"Uh-huh," she said, marginally more steady.

She climbed into the shower and cleaned up as quickly as her pounding head allowed, washing the grime from her hair. A few bruises, but nothing really hurt. Guess I was lucky.

She dried off, brushed her teeth and then wrapped the towel around her and headed back to her bedroom. On the bed was one of Hunter's T-shirts -- a Jags one. Mr. Sandburg had explained the need for the sentinel to mark a guide as his or hers. How Detective Ellison made Blair wear one of his shirts to mark him. She pulled on underwear and a pair of sweat pants. Picking up the shirt, turned it in her hands, then pulled the faded blue shirt over her head -- it smelled like him -- a evergreen type of smell, mixed with other subtle overtones. It was a scent that made her feel safe.

She towel dried her hair gingerly -- even her hair hurt -- then made her way slowly downstairs. He met her at the bottom of the stairs. Grasping her arms lightly, he leaned in to sniff at her neck -- running his right hand over her head and back. His scent was on her and no one else's. The sentinel rumbled in satisfaction. She stood perfectly still, letting Hunter do what he would. He wasn't hurting her. Finally, he moved back.

She reached out to touch him. Yours. The connection was strong.

Hunter led her to the table -- he had fixed real breakfast food -- waffles. She slipped into her chair, waiting for him. He walked over and set a plate in front of her.

"Eat, Sarah," he coaxed, and she looked up, the faintest hint of uncertainty in her eyes. Trust took a long time to build, and Hunter was not a patient man, but for this, he would be. For this, he would.

~~~~~~~~~

The day was overcast, suiting Hunter's mood entirely. Sarah was safe at home with Sandburg watching over her. Funny how his view of the long-haired kid had changed over the last few weeks. He actually depended on the young man to help with Sarah.

Ellison was driving them to the waterfront where they would meet with Max and Mandy Freeman. Hunter had pressed charges -- the man had escaped the empath concealment and GDP break-in and assault charges by the grace of Commander Slater, but Hunter wasn't nearly as forgiving. His guide had been this close to ruin, and it would be quite some time before he would be able to put the incident behind him.

They would be facing a suspended sentence in a plea bargain agreement. It was the perfect weapon: they step out of line in any way, displease the sentinel or interfere in his life or that of his guide -- and they'd end up in jail. It was a much less violent solution to the problem, as Ellison pointed out, and more far-reaching than an actual restraining order. The sentinel had a lot of power in society, especially when it came to his or her guide, and Hunter was ruthless in using his.

It had relieved Sarah, knowing she wasn't actively involved in the consequences to her family. Her divided loyalties had been greatly stressed by the kidnaping.

Ellison turned off the truck engine as they waited for the pair to show up. "You okay, Hunter?" Jim sounded concerned.

"Not really," Hunter finally answered. He still wasn't used to Ellison treating him like he mattered. He was here because he needed to see them face to face and make things clear. He needed -- what was Sandburg's catch phrase? -- 'closure'.

"It's show time," Jim said as beige four door sedan pulled up and Max and Mandy Freeman got out of the car. They seemed smaller, and very tired.

Jim got out and watched Hunter exit the truck. He stood like a monolith -- untouchable and unshakable as the Freemans approached. Jim moved just behind Hunter, silently showing support.

"Captain Hunter, I..." Max's carefully prepared speech dried up at the look in the taller man's eyes. The man behind him, almost identical in appearance, mirrored the same cold stare.

"I have no interest in listening to excuses or apologies," Hunter said. "Captain Banks told me about your plea bargain agreement. Sarah is my guide, claimed and marked. You will keep your distance. If you attempt to contact her, you will go to jail, but only after I'm done with you." The tiger was purring at the prospect.

"I was just trying to protect her!" Max said urgently. "She's my child. Surely you can understand..." It was no use. The sentinel's expression didn't change.

"Captain Hunter," Mandy almost stepped back at the fury in his face. "I won't apologize -- I did what I thought I had to do. Turns out I was wrong." Her voice was low and pleading. "Just...don't take it out on Sarah. She had nothing to do with it. It was my idea." She had spent the night in jail along with Max, and even though the news about Sarah's rescue had overjoyed her, she spent the rest of the night wondering what the man had done to Sarah in his anger.

Max just stood there, looking for some sign of humanity -- some little spark of compassion. Nothing.

"This is your only warning. No contact whatsoever." Hunter rumbled.

"Ever?" Mandy asked, pleading with Jim. He seemed much more reasonable than the IA captain.

Hunter simply turned and walked away.

"Detective Ellison?" Max was begging, but didn't care. This was the Senior Sentinel Prime -- surely he could do something to help.

Jim considered his reply carefully. "I would keep a very low profile, if I were you. Hunter can hold a grudge longer than anybody I've ever met. Maybe later, much later, he might reconsider."

Max finally gave in to the inevitable. Holding Mandy close, he seemed to fold in on himself. "Detective?"

"Yes," Jim sighed, pity vying with irritation. In a weird sort of way, Jim understood what Max had done, even though he wouldn't condone it.

"Could you tell her that we love her, and that we'll wait, however long it takes? We won't leave her."

Jim nodded and began to follow Hunter. The sound of a gulp pulled him short. He turned around again to face them. "Mr. Freeman, he has never hurt her -- ever." Jim made eye contact for interminable seconds, then he left them standing there as it started to rain. Hunter was brooding in the truck and Jim got in and turned on the engine. On the drive back, Hunter didn't say a word.

Jim glanced over, watching Hunter as he stared out the window. He wanted to say something supportive, but knew his half-brother would probably withdraw even more. Much better to get him riled -- at least he'd talk.

"Keep peace with the Lords of the Jungle -- the Tiger, the Panther, the Bear," Jim quoted, tongue firmly in cheek.

"Where the hell did that one come from?" Hunter grumbled as he turned to face Ellison.

"Rudyard Kipling -- The Jungle Books." Jim actually looked smug. "Sorta fits, don't you think? You tiger, me panther?"

"Gotta be from Sandburg, right?" Hunter asked, rolling his eyes.

"My walking encyclopedia and dictionary," Jim said cheerfully. A irritated Hunter was better than a morose one.

They pulled up in front of Hunter's house. "Come on, Shere Khan, time to get our guides."

"Bite me, Bagheera."

~~~~~~~~~

Blair tucked the afghan over Sarah, who was sleeping on the couch. The remnants of the drugs hadn't cleared completely and she was still sluggish. But unhurt. That was the most important thing.

Blair sat on the rug and leaned back against the couch. Sarah whimpered softly and moved closer to him and Blair leaned his head back against her arm, feeling her subside as he soothed her. It had been horrible. Sarah's kidnaping had brought back terrible memories, and Blair had woken several times last night with vivid nightmares of a mutilated Leo Kessler chasing him. Luckily, Jim had camped out on the couch to be close to him.

Blair was tired: emotionally, physically, spiritually. He still had unknown people gunning for him with the tapes and the web site, and Leo had betrayed him. How far and how deep, Blair didn't know, but Colin and Jim were both checking into it.

The door opened and Hunter moved in, senses scanning his territory. Seeing Sarah asleep, he relaxed slightly. Jim followed him into the living room.

"Everything okay, Sandburg?" Hunter asked. The young man looked older, dispirited.

"Fine," Blair said as he struggled to his feet. "She slept, mostly." Jim gathered him close, and Blair just leaned in.

"Thanks for your help, Sandburg," Hunter said after checking on his sleeping guide. Hunter held out his hand and Blair took it, bemused. It was a quick handshake -- but the meaning was clear: thank you. Not adult to child, or sentinel to guide. Man to man. Hunter was showing him respect as a person.

Blair's eyes got a little shiny and Hunter backed up. "No way. No mushy sentiment in my house. Whatever gets you through the day, Sandburg, but don't expect me to follow suit."

Hunter sounded just as sarcastic and cutting as always, but Blair wasn't buying it. He had seen inside this man, and caustic edges and temperament aside, he was honorable.

Jim ushered Blair to the door and Hunter saw them out. Jim paused, then decided to play his last card of the day. "Dad wants to see you."

Hunter stiffened, then turned his face away. "Goodbye, Ellison."

Jim and Blair exited after an uncomfortable pause. Hunter closed the door and then leaned against it. He was just as tired as Blair had looked. He didn't need this on top of everything else.

"Rot in hell, William Ellison," Hunter whispered, then went back to his guide.

 

End -- Lords of the Jungle