Reflections In The Mirror: Grasping At The Shadows

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.


The Reflection in the Mirror Series: Part 7 (September 28, 2006)


By Maedoc

Grasping At The Shadows



Beware that you do not lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.

- Aesop



Sarah stood and watched them load Blair into the emergency squad. Blair was half awake, moaning a bit, but his sentinel had a good grip on him and Blair settled down when his sentinel murmured to him.


Hunter was talking with Captain Banks, his voice clipped and business-like. Monica was on her way to be treated for her superficial gunshot wound and then she would be booked for attempted murder. Sarah shivered in the cool night air. Her wet jeans and clammy shirt and jacket were starting to feel uncomfortable.


“Guide Freeman.”


Sarah spun around in surprise. Two GDP officers stood there, one holding a leash.


“On your knees,” the second one commanded in a neutral voice.


Sarah looked around frantically for her sentinel. Where’s Hunter? Oh God, where is he?


“Once rogue, always rogue,” the first man sneered, and before she could cry for help, Sarah was forced to her knees. The leash went around her neck and Sarah screamed in terror. When a rough hand pushed her face into a rain puddle, the scream was cut off abruptly as the water went up her nose and choked her.


Hunter woke at the first sound, and dashed out into the hall. His guide sat upright in her bed, shaking and staring unseeingly.


“Sarah,” the voice finally penetrated the fear, and Sarah woke to find herself wrapped securely in her sentinel’s arms, her head tucked under his chin.


Sarah clung to him, so cold her teeth were chattering. Her body temperature was just shy of hypothermia and her face and hair were soaking wet. She coughed several times and spat up some water that smelled faintly of asphalt and gasoline.


Hunter’s teeth bared as he stared around the room, sentinel senses on full alert. Nothing. No stir of anything except....the hair rose on the back of his neck. He growled and the shadow faded.


“No you don’t.” he whispered. “I’m not playing that game again.”


He waited until he was sure it was gone, then hauled Sarah into the bathroom and dumped her, pajamas and all, into the tub. He shampooed and rinsed her hair like a child, while Sarah sat docilely. Finally, she seemed to comprehend what was going on.


“Hunter?” She looked down at her soaking pajamas. “Why am I in the bathtub?”


“You had a nightmare. You were cold, so I brought you in here. Can you get undressed and manage from here?”


Sarah looked at him, then at her wet PJs. She flushed in embarrassment.


Hunter made an irritated sound of impatience.


“I can manage,” she mumbled.


Hunter stared at her and then abruptly stood up. “I’ll wait outside for you. Make it snappy.”


Sarah stood up as soon as the bathroom door closed and stripped off her wet clothes. She coughed twice and wondered if she was coming down with a cold. She remembered the fear, but not the dream. After a quick lathering, she grabbed her towel and dried off. She wrapped another towel around her hair and opened the bathroom door. Hunter handed her fresh pajamas which she took and dressed rapidly. She was still wringing out her hair when the door opened and Hunter stepped in. His timing was always spot on.


“Hair dryer,” Hunter handed it to her. “While you do that, I’ll get you something hot to drink.”


Sarah stared after him as he exited. What on earth was going on?


Sarah’s hair was mostly dry when Hunter returned with a mug of hot cocoa complete with mini-marshmallows. She sipped it as Hunter steered her to his room. He slipped her into his bed with a minimum of fuss and protest, and then made her nervous when he checked the gun in his bedside table.


“Hunter, what happened?”


Hunter didn’t answer immediately, which made her even more nervous.


“Just a nightmare, Sarah. Last night was a bitch.”


“Is Blair okay?” she asked urgently.


“He was as of midnight. I can call the hospital again.”


“No, I think we’d know if something...right?”


“Yeah, we’d know.” Hunter got into the opposite side of the bed and drew his guide close. “Finish your hot chocolate. Then go to sleep.”


Sarah wrinkled her nose but complied. Hunter was upset about something, but she doubted she’d get anything out of him tonight.


“Will you tell me later?” Sarah asked, her eyelids heavy, not realizing Hunter had slipped something into the cocoa to help her sleep. She almost dropped the empty mug and Hunter caught it and set it on the night table.


“Later,” Hunter promised. The house was free of any unwanted presence, but he still kept watch until dawn.


***********************************


The room was quiet and private, the only light the bit of illumination from the bathroom nightlight and the weak glare of the outdoor safety lights which leaked through the curtains at the window. The man stood at the open doorway and gazed at the young man lying motionless in the bed. His exhalations were slightly raspy above the faint hiss of oxygen bubbling through a humidifier and into the plastic prongs in his nose.


The man sitting beside the bed was slumped back in the chair, exhaustion having finally caught up with him, but a slight shift in the doorway woke him and he jerked upright, his nostrils flaring in aggression. Then he relaxed again.


“Hey, Stevie,” Jim whispered, before remembering how their last meeting had ended. He locked eyes with his brother before Steven looked away.


Steven’s face was, if possible, paler than Blair’s. “Jim.” He walked over to where the guide lay so quietly. Steven’s hand shook as he reached out to almost touch Blair, then pulled back, afraid to offend the sentinel who watched over him. “I never meant for anything to happen to him.”


“I know that, Stevie.”


“Is he okay?” Steven asked urgently, once more reaching out, but again aborted the gesture at the last minute.


“He will be, eventually.” Jim ran a hand over his guide’s head, savoring the contact with his guide. “He was clinically dead, you know.”


“He won’t, he won’t be....” Steven didn’t voice his worst fear: brain damage.


“No, I don’t think so. There were...extenuating circumstances.” Jim gave a half smile at that, and Steven wondered what the hell he was talking about.


“I just wanted you to know that I’d never want anything to happen to the kid,” Steven repeated, miserably unhappy with both Jim and himself. “I’m sorry.”


Steven left as quietly as he had come in, again leaving things unsettled between them.


********************************


The man sat at the bar and leaning over his drink. Tossing back the whiskey, he signaled the bartender for another drink. He didn’t notice the older man who came to sit next to him until the other man spoke.


"Nasty night, isn't it?" The older man ordered a Scotch, and settled down to enjoy his drink.


The first man didn't answer. He continued to gaze into his drink.


"You look a little bit down," the older man observed. "She dump you?"


The younger man finally turned to look at his uninvited drinking companion. "Fuck off."


The gray-haired gentleman merely chuckled. "Now, now, rudeness never gets you anywhere, Mr. Snow. “


Snow jerked in surprise. How did this man know his name?


The man lit up a cigarette and blew a few lazy circles of smoke. “I have a business proposition for you."


"I said: fuck off."


"You work in Internal Affairs, and you've been having some problems with management." The cigarette smoke circles widened as the man exhaled with a sigh of pleasure.


Snow was drunk, but not so drunk that he did not hear the warning bells. "Just who the hell are you?"


"A businessman, Mr. Snow, with a business proposition." He smiled genially, his aristocratic features marred only by a small scar above his right eyebrow. "You of all people should know the difference between survival and getting ahead."


"Yeah? So what's it to you?" Snow shook his head, trying to clear the alcohol induced fog from his brain.


"You've been having a rough time lately, Mr. Snow. With the new captain, and your performance slipping, you're going to be out of a job before long."


Snow's mouth tightened. "I said: who are you?"


"All in good time, Mr. Snow. I would like to talk to you about this business proposition. If you are interested, then we can talk about me."


Snow leaned back dangerously, almost tipping off the bar stool. A strong hand stopped his fall.


"It's about getting even, Mr. Snow. One might even say getting ahead. Surely that is something worth consideration?"


Snow shook his head, but couldn't seem to clear his brain. The older man's gaze was hard to break; it was almost like being hypnotized. "Okay, so talk."


"Not here, Mr. Snow. We need to find a more private place."


"Like where?" Snow asked belligerently.


"I was thinking of a booth in the back. Would that be agreeable?"


Snow got up very slowly and stared at the stranger, who merely waited until Snow began moving toward the booths.


With a single graceful movement, the stranger got off his stool and followed.


*****************************************


Sam walked into the apartment while Martin hung up his jacket and turned to look at his guide. His guide. Finally. Martin had tried to bond with Sam, brutally, and forced Sam to run from the GDP. If it hadn’t been for Captain Hunter and the Sentinel Prime intervening, Sam would have been in Corrections, and he’d be without a guide.


Martin flushed a little remembering being talked through the bonding process by the older sentinels. Captain’s Hunter’s derision had been almost palpable, and the disapproval of the Sentinel Prime had made him feel about ten inches tall. Martin Hopkins had a lot to make up for, and most of it to his guide.


Sam looked around cautiously, but it seemed like your average apartment, one of six in the old building that had enough age to charm and not enough to forgo modern conveniences. The old trees around the building and the communal yard behind it looked promising.


“What do you want from me?” Sam knew from his guide training that each sentinel had their own particular quirks on what constituted appropriate guide behavior and duties.


“We can discuss that a little later after you settle in,” Martin said, trying to sound reassuring. He had a long way to go to make up for his first barbaric attempt to bond with Sam. He pointed down the narrow hall to the left. “Your room’s that way.”


“My room?” From what Sam had heard in training he expected to be relegated to a sleeping bag on the floor.


“Yeah. You think I was planning to chain you to the couch?”


Sam flushed. “I don’t know what to expect.”


Martin sighed. “I understand. I haven’t exactly been a stellar sentinel candidate for you, have I?” He rubbed his neck in frustration. His guide didn’t trust him, and he couldn’t blame him for it.


Martin led the way, and opened the door of the guest bedroom. It had a comfortable looking double bed and a dresser, a papasan chair. The curtains and bedspread were a subdued blue, the hardwood floors covered with a few area rugs in blue and brown. A framed poster of Mt. Rainier hung on one wall. There were some empty shelves that could hold books, and the closet was narrow but long - leaving plenty of room for clothes, not that Sam had that much.


“I figure you’d like to get some other things later - you know, maybe books and stuff, but at least it’s a start.”


Martin’s voice made Sam jump a little and he took a deep breath to calm himself. The guy promised you he’d never hurt you again. He promised.


“You hungry? I have some subs I could fix.”


“I don’t know,” Sam said, still looking around the room that would be his for the rest of the time he was with this sentinel.


“You don’t like the room?” Martin looked worried.


“It’s not that.” Sam walked around, running his fingers over the bedspread, the top of the dresser and the blinds on the large window overlooking the garden. He turned around to look at his sentinel. “I had a house. I inherited it from my grandmother when I was nineteen. I had a good job at the factory until I was laid off. When I applied for another job, they found out I was empathic. The GDP came and told me that I had two choices: undergo guide training, or be placed in the corrections facility.”


Martin cleared his throat, uncomfortable. 


“I thought about running, but the second day at the institute, they brought in a rogue guide from the corrections facility. It was just for the four of us who weren’t there willingly. They....” Sam swallowed, “They demonstrated what would happen if we ran.”


“I won’t let them touch you.” Martin’s voice was strained.


Sam didn’t believe that, especially not after what had just happened on campus. If the Shield hadn’t been there, the story would have had a much different ending. And he’d be in a cell, where no one gave a damn whether he lived or died.


“The GDP confiscated my car. They took away my house and all my possessions were put in storage for my future sentinel.”


Martin reached out, and aborted the gesture when Sam pulled back from him.


“So guess who owns my house now? My house, my CD collection, the furniture my grandmother brought from the old country - every damn thing I had was taken away from me, including my choice on how I would live my life, and now they all belong to you.” The bitterness was in Sam’s voice and in his scent.


“Jesus, Sam. I had no idea. Nobody at the GDP told me about this.” Martin paused, trying to figure out what to say. “I admit: I haven’t read your file. We just bonded, so I’ll do that once our bond week is up. I’ll check where they put your stuff, and I’ll get it back for you.”


“Don’t you get it? I can’t own anything anymore. I can’t legally own anything because I’m owned myself.” Sam slumped into the papason chair and shivered slightly. “It’ll never really be mine again.


Martin winced. “Maybe not legally. But as far as you and me, it’s still yours.” He tried a smile. “With any luck, you’ll be one of the grunge band junkies, music I can’t stand, so our musical tastes will never conflict.”


Sam shifted in the chair that threatened to swallow him like a Venus Fly Trap. “I don’t want this.”


“The bond? Or me?” Martin asked quietly.


“I don’t want to be a guide.” Sam almost spat the words.


“I know. But I need a guide, and this has to be better than being in GDP custody, right?” Martin wanted to reach out to his guide, but knew the younger man would feel threatened if he did.


“Is it?” Sam asked pointedly. His expression was hostile and half-afraid. “Tell me how this is supposed to be better.”


“I won’t hurt you again.”


Sam made a rude noise of disbelief.


“I mean it, Sam. I’m not a violent guy. I have no explanation other than I couldn’t get the sentinel in me under control. That’s my problem and I’ll deal with it.”


“Until you lose control again,” Sam muttered.


“We’ve bonded, for better or worse, so can we just see what happens? I’m not exactly the font of all wisdom on sentinel-guide bonds, but I’d like to try.” Martin tried his best reassuring look, while trying not to condescend.


Sam really didn’t have a choice, despite how the sentinel phrased it. But the eyes looking into his were kind, and Sam supposed it could be worse.


“I think the Sentinel and Guide Prime might be able to help us try to make the best of this situation. Sound fair?” Martin was feeling more than a little insecure about allaying his guide’s fears. Captain Hunter had already chewed him a new rear end, and the Sentinel Prime was less than impressed with the newest clan member.


Sam got out of the chair and stood up facing his sentinel. The man was only about four inches taller than he was, but considerably broader in the shoulders. If it came to a physical showdown, the sentinel would win. He’d always win.


“Sam?”


“Yeah, I guess.” Sam shrugged, but his eyes were still wary. “What kind of subs?”


*************************


The familiar, watchful presence beside him lured him back from the gray fog he had been floating in. The muted gray gave way to the remote sounds of machines beeping and the clatter of wheels and feet moving in the distance. Blair woke in the unfamiliar bed and blinked until the blurred image coalesced into the sentinel snoozing in the chair next to him.


The sentinel stirred and then sat up abruptly. “Chief.”


“Hey,” Blair croaked, wincing at his sore throat. He had pulled off the oxygen cannula during the night and Jim had seen no need to replace it.


Jim ran a hand over his guide’s head. “It’s about time you woke up, kid. It’s almost noon.”


“Yeah, well, you have a near-death experience and see how early you wake up.” Blair sat up, wincing at the dull ache in his chest. He looked down. “Hey, they fried some of my chest hair!”


“It’s not like you don’t have enough to spare,” Jim jibed. Then more seriously, “Are you in pain?”


“Just my throat. And my chest feels like somebody jumped up and down on it.” Blair took in a deep breath - it didn’t hurt too badly.


“CPR. No cracked ribs, though.” Jim gripped Blair’s shoulder reassuringly. “How much do you remember?”


“Well, I remember being in my office when Monica and her goon showed up. It’s pretty fuzzy after that until they put me in the water. I remember the water.” I remember drowning.


“No white light?” Jim leaned back, quietly curious.


“Just an endless ocean. I was sinking down into the dark; then running through the jungle. It was so surreal, man.”


“I guess everybody sees something different. I can understand the jungle, but why the ocean?”


“Beats me,” Blair shrugged. “Those sharks were nasty.”


“You seem pretty blasé about it, Chief.”


“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet.”


“Or you just don’t want to discuss it now. Right, Chief?”


Blair nodded gratefully. “It’s just...it was like a bad dream. One of my nightmare specials. But you came for me. You and Hunter did. So... thanks.” Blair cleared his throat, more to control his emotions than anything else.


“Like I said before, this partnership is for life, Chief.” Jim pulled Blair to him in a modified bear hug until the younger man calmed down. After a while, Jim eased his grip. “Things are going to change, Blair.”


Blair’s eyes were almost iridescent. “I don’t know if I’m ready for this.”


“Somebody must have thought you were. You’re the metaphysical expert, Chief. Why else would this have happened?”


Blair retreated into moody silence while Jim fussed over his guide, refilling the water pitcher and straightening the sheets.


A brief knock on the door heralded the arrival of Dr. Lambert. “Mr. Sandburg.”


“Hi,” Blair croaked.


“That tube caused some irritation, but there’s no water in your lungs. You have slight rib bruising from the chest compressions, but your lab work, CT scan and echocardiogram were completely normal. I ordered an MRI and pulmonary function tests for today, but I have a sneaking suspicion they’ll be fine too.” Dr. Lambert flipped through the chart, scribbling as he spoke.


Blair shrugged sheepishly and coughed.


“Mr. Sandburg, I’ve seen a lot in my twenty five years in medicine, including some very unusual sentinel and guide anomalies, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this. According to the paramedics, you had beamed back to the mothership.”


Jim snorted at the science fiction reference.


Blair just stared down at the blanket covering him, not knowing what to say.


“The medics said there was some mysterious ritual performed, complete with stunning CGI light effects and then you were back amongst the living. I can’t claim to not be curious about it, but something are best just left just as they are.” Dr. Lambert sighed as he flipped the chart closed.


“That being?” Jim asked.


“Miracles, Detective. They do happen, you know.” Dr. Lambert leaned in to give Blair’s heart and lungs a quick listen. “I’d be a pretty poor physician if I didn’t acknowledge that there are far more things in this mysterious world of ours that I’ll ever understand.”


Jim seemed satisfied by that.


“If things look good after testing, I think I’ll release you tomorrow. You may suffer some aftereffects from the near drowning - lung irritation and some throat soreness from the tube, chest discomfort and so on. You’ll heal in time.”


“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him,” Blair mimicked the prologue of an old science fiction series.


Jim rolled his eyes and swatted his guide over the head with a section of the Cascade Times. “Stop being such a smart ass, Chief.”


“They say that near death experiences change people, Mr. Sandburg. I wonder what you’ll discover about yourself.”


Blair inhaled and exhaled on command, then turned his attention back to the subject at hand. “Are you a spiritual man, Dr. Lambert?”


The physician paused from his check to think about the question. “What an interesting way to put that. Spiritual, yes, religious, no.” He glanced down at his patient with a faint smile. “But then, you’d know more about that than I would, right?”


Blair squirmed slightly, but nodded.


“Welcome back, Mr. Sandburg. You have your work cut out for you.”


******************************


Jim had finally been persuaded to run home a grab a shower and a change of clothes while Blair had his MRI and pulmonary function tests, and when Blair was brought back to his room he was exhausted. He barely registered the uniformed police officer standing guard outside his door, and dozed until a stirring in the doorway woke him.


He opened his eyes to see Sarah watching him worriedly, a small bouquet of flowers clenched in her hand.


“Hey, Sarah,” he smiled, marginally less croaky than earlier.


Sarah tip-toed in, unsure exactly what to say. She was followed by Hunter who immediately headed over to do a quick sentinel visual and tactile scan, which Blair tolerated with good humor.


Hunter sat down in the chair next to the bed.


“We brought you some flowers,” Sarah offered, holding out the cheerful bundle.


“Nice,” Blair smiled, and then he coughed spasmodically. “Sorry, bit of a frog.”


Sarah hesitated, then sat down on the edge of the bed and wrapped her arms around Blair and hugged him fiercely. “I’m glad you’re okay.”


Blair hugged her back, expecting Hunter to make some wisecrack about guide solidarity, but was surprised at the searching look the Shield gave him.


“I have plans for you, Sandburg. You’re not bugging out on me.” And that was about as mushy as Hunter was going to get.


Jim walked in to see Sarah perched on Blair’s bed, combing out his hair while Hunter read out loud from the sports pages and made various pithy comments on the Jags’ chances this year.


“So now you’re holding court, Chief?” Jim slapped Hunter on the shoulder in a surprisingly friendly gesture and then ruffled Sarah’s hair.


Sarah was working on snarl and smiled briefly at the Sentinel Prime before returning to her task.


“Chief, I brought some of your conditioner with me. With that rat’s nest you’ll have Sarah breaking the comb trying to get you untangled.”


“Thanks, man,” Blair sighed, wincing as she tugged again. “How about I go ahead and wash my hair now?”


Jim helped him over to the bathroom and made sure he was steady before closing the door. “If you fall and crack your skull, Chief, I’m gonna break your legs to go with it.”


Both sentinels clearly heard the put-upon sigh and minor grumbling that followed.


“So, any news, Ellison?”


Monica Lutrell had been responsible for Blair’s kidnaping and near death, and even though she was in custody, bail was unfortunately a strong possibility. Both sentinels were pissed about that, but they didn’t make the law.


“Nothing so far. She turned rat on her goons, but we still don’t know who put her up to this.” Jim stretched. “I haven’t had a chance to talk with H about what else she might have said. She clammed up once she realized she was going to take the fall.”


“When’s the bail hearing?”


“I think H said at two. He doesn’t think she’ll talk.”


“Oh, I think we’ll be able to change her mind,” Hunter said, with enough predator edge that Sarah looked up in alarm.


“She tried to kill my guide. There’s nothing to stop the vendetta once we get what we need from her.” Jim sounded just as dangerous as Hunter, and the Shield looked at him with renewed interest.


“We just need a lead on who he is,” Jim continued. “He’s probably connected to the sniper. It’s damn frustrating trying to piece this together.”


“I saw him,” Sarah said softly.


“You what?” Jim stared.


“I think it was him. When I looked inside her mind, I saw someone. He was dark.”


“Dark-skinned?”


“No – dark,” Sarah gestured over her face. “He made me feel cold inside.”


Jim’s eyes narrowed. “What did he look like, Sarah?”


Sarah closed her eyes, remembering. “Uhm...almost as tall as you. Fifty, sixty? Gray hair and gray eyes. Sharp cheekbones. A little scar above his right eyebrow. Snake smile.”


“What in the hell is a snake smile?” Hunter asked in exasperation.


“You know, like Kaa. ‘Trussst in me.’” Blair had emerged from the bathroom with dripping hair. “Only I don’t think his irises did that cool kaleidoscope thing.”


Jim swallowed a chuckle at Hunter’s expression.


This time, Sarah was able to comb through Blair’s hair and since both guides were occupied, Hunter gestured to Jim to follow him.


“Ellison, let’s grab a cup of coffee.” Translation: I need to talk to you.


“You okay for a few?” Jim asked both guides, and after an affirmative noise, walked out into the hallway with Hunter.


“You know, Sarah did a pretty good job with that description. This police business must be rubbing off. Think she can work with our police sketch artist?”


“I’ll just have her draw him for us,” Hunter answered, throwing some change into the coffee vending machine.


“Sarah draws?” Jim sounded surprised.


“Pencil, some pen and ink. She’s not half bad.”


Jim got his own coffee and mulled that tidbit over. There was obviously more going right in the Shield’s relationship with his guide than Jim suspected. Better and better.


Sarah paused in her combing, and Blair who had been lulled into a half-doze, opened his eyes.


“Blair, what did you see?”


“The ocean, the deep, deep ocean. Then the jungle, where animals chased me. Then the panther and the tiger came to save me. No pearly gates or fluffy clouds.” Yet something that I’m not entirely sure I understand, much less know what to do with.


Sarah sighed and then combed more intently.


Blair’s voice was still scratchy, but there was tenderness there. “Looking for white shores and a fair green country, Sarah?”


Sarah’s eyes stung. “I just wish...maybe...that you might have seen my mom.”


“Aw, Sarah.” Blair felt her rest her head against the back of his shoulder.


“I’m glad you’re still here with me,” Sarah whispered.


“Me, too, kiddo. Me, too.”


*******************************


Monica was escorted from her cell. Her bail hearing would begin in less than 20 minutes.


She had been to the hospital to have her superficial bullet wound cleaned and dressed, and then she had been brought to the Cascade city jail. Her one phone call to her mother had gone unanswered. And there had been no sign of the mysterious man who had offered her the opportunity to get back at the Sentinel Prime.


"Let's go, Ms. Lutrell." The police officer cuffed her with minimal concern for her injured arm.


They walked down a long hallway, the afternoon light from the large windows burning her eyes. No one spoke, the only sound the clicking of her heels, and the duller thump of police issue shoes. She watched the shadows on the floor, almost mesmerized by the dust motes.


The sound of glass shattering pulled the police officers short. They looked over at the window, then heard the thud. Monica lay on the floor unmoving.


“Prisoner down!” Weapons drawn, they scanned the hall, and out the window. Nothing.


“Is she...?” The younger man asked, while his sergeant checked for a pulse. There was blood in her hair where the bullet had entered her temple. It had taken out a large part of her skull.


“Yeah,” Sergeant Talley looked down at the body of the woman. There was no point in even starting CPR.


More officers had joined them, securing the scene. After a search of the area surrounding the building, they had to admit defeat. The sniper was long gone.


Jim’s cell phone rang, and he answered, earning a glare of disapproval from two women at the nurses’ station. Jim tried a smile of apology, which diminished the glare, but didn’t erase it. “Ellison.”


Jim looked over at Hunter and swore. “When?”


Jim listened as Hunter dialed up his hearing. “Yeah, we’re on our way.”


Jim stuck his head though the door of Blair’s room. “Chief, a sniper just took out Monica Lutrell. I have to go, but I’m keeping a guard on your room until I get back.”


Sarah looked at Hunter, who was standing slightly behind Detective Ellison. “Come on, Sarah, we have work to do, too.”


“You gonna be okay, Chief?” Jim looked torn between needing to chase the sniper and protecting his guide.


“Yeah, Jim. I’ll be fine.” He watched them leave and then settled back to puzzle out why Monica had been killed.


*******************************


Blair was home at last. Ensconced on the couch with pillows, fluffy blanket and his favorite pair of wool socks, he sighed happily. Cooling on the coffee table was a mug of Blair’s special healing tea, which Jim had made for him with more than a little glee. Hoist by own petard, Blair thought, amused but resigned to the horrible-tasting beverage.


Hunter was sitting at the table sifting through papers while Jim stuck a pizza in the oven. Sarah was throwing together a salad.


It was positively domestic at 852 Prospect.


Jim heard someone enter the building and smelled a familiar perfume. Naomi was back in town, but Blair had insisted that she not be notified about his near-drowning.


Jim opened the door just as Naomi raised her hand to knock.


“You always know I’m here,” she said ruefully. “I got back into town this morning and left a message on your phone but when I didn’t hear back, I thought I’d stop by.”


Jim motioned her in and she immediately focused on her son. “Blair? What’s wrong, sweetie? Are you sick?” She crossed over to the couch quickly, and laid a hand on her son’s forehead. “You feel a little warm.”


“I’m fine, just a little upper respiratory thing,” Blair smiled as he hugged her.


Naomi narrowed her eyes at Jim, who smiled innocently as he sat down on the arm of the couch. “Are you sure?”


“Positive,” Blair said emphatically.


Naomi appeared mostly mollified, and then she caught the sight of Hunter.


“Captain Hunter, you look a lot better than the last time we saw each other.” Her eyes wandered over him with appreciation. The blue shirt brought out his eyes and the tan. He looks good enough to eat.


Hunter’s tie was off, his shirt sleeves rolled up and collar undone. He watched her watching him and his left eyebrow lifted.


Naomi smiled brilliantly. She had meditated long and hard on her goal to seduce Captain Hunter, and there was no time like the present. “I know you’ve been awfully busy with police work - all of you have - so I thought I’d cook for you tomorrow night. Was there anything you’d especially like to have?”


Coffee? Tea? Me? Sarah could almost hear the thought being telegraphed and shifted uneasily from her spot in the kitchen.


Hunter’s lip curled, but for Sandburg’s sake, he didn’t say what he was thinking.


“Uh, Mom, I think Hunter and Sarah have a commitment tomorrow night,” Blair interjected hastily, recognizing the anticipatory light in her eyes. When Naomi went after a man, it was all-out, take-no-prisoners war.


“But he still needs to eat,” Naomi pointed out sweetly. “And I imagine Sarah would love a night with no cooking.”


Sarah shifted again, her expression worried and tense.


“Far be it for me to deny a woman the pleasure of cooking a meal,” Hunter mocked lightly, his sentinel senses reading Naomi Sandburg quite clearly. “Although we’ll probably have a difference of opinion on what constitutes dessert.”


Blair’s eyes widened as he and his sentinel observed from the sidelines. Naomi had thrown down the proverbial gauntlet, and Hunter had accepted the challenge. “Jim,” he hissed. “You have to stop this!”


Jim shook his head. “No way in hell I’m getting mixed up in this. Your mother is on her own.”


Blair tried valiantly to signal his mother to stop, but she wasn’t paying any attention to her only son.


Naomi reached out and straightened Hunter’s collar in a casual gesture, then let her hand brush lightly against his exposed throat. “Let’s just say I’m willing to negotiate.”


Hunter’s eyebrow rose higher, but he didn’t answer.


Mission accomplished, Naomi began talking about a possible menu, her female energy bouncing around the loft like a delighted top.


Sarah resumed cutting peppers and carrots for the salad. She didn’t even look up when Jim came into the kitchen.


“Sarah?” Jim looked over at the young guide. “What’s wrong?”


Sarah didn’t answer him.


“Is it Naomi? Did she upset you?”


Sarah swallowed and shook her head. She wanted Hunter to be happy - something that always seemed to elude him, but the simple truth was that Sarah didn’t want to share him, even though she had absolutely no say in the matter.


“Hunter isn’t going to abandon you,” Jim tried to reassure her. “Naomi just has it in her head that she wants a fling, God knows why.”


Sarah kept cutting, although the sound of the knife against the board was a bit more forceful.


“It really isn’t all that important.”


The knife clanked a little louder.


Jim mentally cursed Hunter. Where the hell was he when he should be here reassuring his guide?


On cue, Hunter strolled into the kitchen.


“About time you came in here,” Jim growled, gesturing to Sarah. “I think the two of you need to have a little talk.” He left them alone, and Sarah turned back to her vegetables.


“Sarah.” Hunter stood behind his guide, his hand moving over the tense muscles of her neck.


“Yes, Sentinel,” she responded politely, her formality a good indicator of her mood.


“I take it this has to do with what just happened out there,” Hunter said, feeling her neck tense even more.


Sarah said nothing, but Hunter had learned a lot about her in the few months they had been bonded. His guide was miserably unhappy.


“I’m not leaving you, Tiger. This bond is for life.”


“But Naomi wants....”


“What she wants -“ Hunter stopped. What he could say in front of Ellison, or even Sandburg if it didn’t trigger an anxiety attack, was not what he could say in front of Sarah. “She may want, but she isn’t going to get,” Hunter growled. “I’m not interested.”


Sarah turned to look at him. He stood there, confident and in control because he would accept nothing less. Even Sarah realized that was a large part of the attraction Blair’s mother felt - the dominant alpha male part of Hunter’s personality combined with the blatant refusal to be trapped by anything remotely resembling a relationship.


“But she’s beautiful,” Sarah whispered. “And she’s smart, and interesting.”


Hunter’s eyebrow took off again. “Just whose side are you on, anyway?”


“I...I just don’t want to be in the way if you want...if you want to be with somebody.” There. She’d said it.


“Tiger, I could give you a very crude explanation as to why I don’t need a woman to relieve any pent-up sexual frustration, but I won’t.”


Sarah blushed and averted her eyes.


Hunter sighed as he reached out and pulled her close to him. “It’s going to take more than a GLA hippie do-gooder to bring me to my knees. I don’t want a woman in my life and I don’t need one.”


Sarah felt his chest move with easy breaths, his heart a comforting thud under her ear. She swallowed and his arms tightened slightly. She opened the link and was comforted by his reassurance.


“You okay now?”


Sarah nodded and moved back away from him, her expression slightly wistful as she went back to work on the salad.


He never expressed himself in words. And Sarah desperately wanted to hear the words. Even a simple “I care about you” would mean the world. But Hunter would never say it, not even for his guide.


Hunter watched her for a couple of minutes, frowning slightly at her back. Sarah’s face was as expressive as Sandburg’s and it tugged at him with annoying persistence. He eventually walked back into the living room.


Jim came back in to check on the pizza and glanced over at Sarah who was intently cutting celery. Nabbing a beer from the refrigerator, he opened it and took a long, satisfying swallow; and waited patiently.


“She won’t give up, will she?” Sarah asked finally.

 

Jim’s lips quirked. “I’ll give her points for persistence, but my money’s on Hunter.”


“He says he’s not interested.”


“Don’t you believe him?” Jim took another swallow.


“I believe him. I just can’t trust her.” Sarah cringed - she hadn’t meant to say that out loud. This was the Guide Prime’s mother she was dissing.


The Sentinel Prime didn’t look upset. “She’s her own force of nature. She’s a complex woman with some pretty left wing ideology, but she doesn’t stand a chance against you.”


“Me?” Sarah’s eyes widened.


“You’re his guide.” The simple statement was offered with complete sincerity. “The Shield will always place his guide first.”


The naked gratitude in her eyes made Jim clear his throat. And now he had to lighten the atmosphere before he said or did anything that fell in the mushy category.


“You know, it might be up to you to defend Hunter’s honor,” Jim said, teasing her. “If she tries anything, I’ll hold your coat.”


Sarah looked over into the other room, where Naomi was chatting with Blair, gesturing much like her son did when making an impassioned point. “Well, I have been practicing my throws,” she mused.


Jim laughed and saluted her with his beer bottle.


*****************************


Larry Slater sat at the desk in his plush new little office and shifted stacks of paper as he sorted, signed and reviewed. His computer was busy churning out more documents and the printer hummed efficiently. Despite his initial misgivings, a few weeks of work at Mick’s company had convinced him that this job was the best career move he had ever made.


The work was interesting - he met regularly with technical and legal experts to review contracts and with marketing to go over demands and trends. His MBA came in handy, and his talent for paperwork made him everybody’s new best friend. It was a small company, but the people seemed friendly and helpful. So far, he had no complaints.


“Hey, Larry,” Mick called through the doorway.


Larry looked up and smiled. “Hey.”


“How’s it going?” Mick strolled in.


“Fine. I keep growing more paperwork, but I think I’ve got a handle on things.”


“You’re doing great, Larry. Everybody likes you, and they’re overjoyed that you can organize them so painlessly.”


“Yeah, well, give me time. It’s not going to get any easier with the new government regulations coming next month. Compliance is going to be a bear.”


Mick shrugged. “We’ll muddle through - we always do. And we have you now, so what could possibly go wrong?”


“Well, I do have a lot of government experience,” Larry said absently, half-focused on a contract.


“Exactly. I’ll let you get back to it. Got a meeting this afternoon.”


“Fine,” Larry said, looking up briefly to catch Mick’s wave and exit, and then returned to his papers.


******************************


Hunter stopped by the police morgue where Monica Lutrell’s body had been brought. Dinner last night had been interesting to say the least. Naomi Sandburg had thrown a few dozen passes, all of which Hunter had rebuffed with ease, but she wouldn’t be held at bay for long.


It had been quite a while since Hunter had been pursued with that degree of persistence, and at times it had felt like a volleyball match, with Sandburg and Sarah watching the exchange with wide eyes. Make that Sandburg, Hunter mentally corrected himself. Sarah had looked more...possessive.


Dan Wolf, the Cascade police medical examiner was sitting at his desk scribbling on one of the many forms that dominated his waking hours. He looked up to see Hunter standing in the doorway.


“Hey, Hunter,” he greeted the captain with surprising friendliness. Dan’s assistant, who still couldn’t tell Ellison and Hunter apart, always wondered why Wolf was so congenial with the abrasive IA Captain.


“Wolf,” Hunter said, not nearly as brusque as he usually was.


“Hi Sarah,” Dan smiled at the girl, who smiled shyly back. They had crossed paths a few times on cases, and Dr. Wolf never seemed ruffled by Hunter’s sardonic manner.


“What did you come up with so far?”


“Teflon-coated bullet. Same as William Ellison, but we know this can’t be the same guy. I’m sorry I missed that sniper case but I had that conference booked months ago.” Dr. Kellerman often filled in for Dan Wolf when he was out of town, and the two shared not only a lively professional association, but a solid friendship.


Hunter rubbed his chin, considering. “I have a possible linked case in San Antonio. Can you contact their medical examiner’s office on a guy named Percy found shot to death in his apartment? I’ll have Ellison’s office fax over what we have so far.”


“No problem,” Dan said. “Anything else?”


“Yeah, I need to talk to you - privately.” Hunter could see Dan’s assistant straining to catch whatever he could of the conversation. “Sarah, can you hang tight for a minute? I’ll be right back.”


Sarah nodded, looking a little lost. The two men disappeared into a small office and shut the door.


“You don’t need to protect her from everything,” Dan said affably.


Hunter glared, then rubbed his neck in a gesture reminiscent of Jim Ellison. “I need someone to clean my house.”


Dan leaned back against his desk, looking thoughtful. “You could take care of this on your own.”


Hunter gritted his teeth. “Can you help me locate someone, or not?”  


“Yes, a friend of mother’s. When would be a good time?”


“Today, tomorrow, day after, whenever.”


Dan Wolf did something people rarely did, he laid a hand on Hunter’s back, and the moody police officer didn’t shrug him off. “You fight yourself harder than anyone I’ve ever met.”


“My choice.”


Dan sighed. “I’ll call you. She’ll want to meet with you before she starts.”


“I’ll be around.”


Dan watched the sentinel steer his guide out of the building, then picked up the phone.


****************************


Hunter stood in the park waiting for the woman he was supposed to meet. Sarah was at Ellison’s loft in Sandburg’s care.


The woman who exited the car was graying but with intense dark eyes that looked much younger.


Hunter approached her, expressionless and watchful. He nodded to her respectfully. “Grandmother.”


“Dan says you need my help.”


“Yes,” Hunter said, and held up a small pouch with tobacco - an offering. She took it with grace.


“What troubles you?” She asked kindly.


“There is a...presence in my house,” Hunter said, clearly uncomfortable in expressing it. “It came for the first time a few nights ago. It tried to harm my guide.”


She gazed into his eyes. ‘You have felt this before?”


“Not necessarily this particular one, but yes, I’ve felt them before.”


“How did this happen?”

 

“I was involved with a...spirit walk recently. Whatever this thing is, it must have followed me back.”


She stared at him again, searching. Her hand reached out to hold his. “You spirit walked. You and...a brother?... you brought someone back from the spirit realm.”


Hunter didn’t change expression, but his eyes narrowed. “He wasn’t dead yet. They tried to kill him, and we only got to him in the nick of time.”


“You made powerful magic, and it came through the door you opened. Evil goes where it can cause the greatest harm, and for the choicest prey.


“That should be Sandburg,” Hunter muttered. “He’s the shaman.”


The woman regarded him thoughtfully. “Blair Sandburg. He is the one you brought back?”


“Yeah. You know him?”


“We have met, through Dan. A curious, questing mind and a generous but fragile heart. How terrible that someone tried to harm him. He has a protector, a sentinel.”


Hunter sighed. “Yeah, Jim Ellison, my...brother.”


She shook her head. “It pains you to say that. Blair would be a rich prize, but if he has come back to be what you think he is ---“


“What I know he is,” Hunter interrupted.


She continued on as if he hadn’t even spoken. “Then he has more than just protection from the spirit world. He has love, which is powerful protection in and of itself.” She looked at him sternly now. “What do you have?”


“I have a guide who needs to be protected. I have responsibilities as the Captain of Internal Affairs. I am the clan Shield, sworn to protect the Guide Prime.”


“But who protects you? Who loves and cares for you?”


Hunter looked away, jaw tensing.


“You have been betrayed by so many, lost so much. Your soul is wounded almost beyond bearing. You are the most vulnerable because of that. That is why it targets you.” Her voice was soft and maternal.


“It will not harm my guide again.” Hunter looked back at her defiantly. “I want it out of my house. Out of my life.”


“I can help with that, but you - you must send it back to where it came from.”


Hunter closed his eyes, gritting his teeth. “That is not my way, Grandmother.”


She nodded. “I know. But it must be done, and you know you cannot walk away from this.”


Hunter blew out a breath and shook his head, then sighed. “What do you want me to do?”


“Meet me at your house at the time between times. I will help you purify the house, but you must do the rest.”


Hunter nodded and then walked away, back straight and tense with fury.


*************


She arrived a half hour before sunset. Hunter was waiting by the front door.


She carried a clay bowl and some dried herbs and stood in the entryway with him.


“Do you feel it?” She asked.


“Yeah, it came back as soon as I came into the house.” Hunter didn’t seem disturbed, just pissed.


“You do not fear it,” she observed. “Perhaps you should.”


Hunter bared his teeth. “If it wants to play hardball, so will I.”


She shook her head. “You must challenge this with your mind and heart, not your physical strength. Overcome it with your faith.”


She placed the herbs in the bowl, a mixture of cedar and sage, and lit them, gently fanning the smoke on herself to purify, and then lightly fanned smoke on Hunter, who sneezed several times but tolerated it with his usual stoicism.


“You must ask for guidance, Hunter,” she prompted him. “Pray for help from your Creator.” She then began to move into the garage, directing the smoke in every corner, then entered the house and went down into the basement to repeat her actions. The ground floor was next as she moved room to room. Finally, she climbed the stairs and smudged the upstairs, even opening the trap door to the attic and directing smoke there. She saved Hunter’s bedroom for last, and here she frowned, her forehead beading lightly with sweat as she drove something toward the window.


Hunter opened the window and outside the crickets fell silent. There was no wind, yet the smoke blew away from the house, taking with it something dark and cold. They stayed a few minutes, breathing in unison, until the night sounds returned and Hunter shut the window.


She moved downstairs and lit a single candle, this time shining light into every corner, bringing in positive energy. They ended where they started - at the front door.


She looked around. “I do not feel anything, Hunter. Do you?”


Hunter swept the house, extending his senses almost to the point of zoning. “It’s gone,” he agreed.


“Finish it,” she ordered, and so Hunter did.


He was sitting on the floor, looking resigned but calm when she got up and gently laid a hand on his head. The native words she murmured were nothing Hunter understood, but he closed his eyes as he absorbed her touch. He sat there for several long minutes after she had gone.


When he finally opened his eyes, he looked around, sighed and let out a heartfelt “Oh, crap.”


****************************


A sharp knock at the loft door startled Blair, who was immersed in his latest culinary experiment. He opened the door, knowing exactly who stood outside it.


“Hey Hunter, you okay?” Blair frowned in concern. The Shield looked a bit pale.


“I’m fine,” Hunter dismissed with his usual growl of irritation when being fussed over too much.


“Uh huh,” Blair nodded knowingly. “Got a class ten headache, I bet. You and Sarah need to bond as soon as you get home.”


“Right,” Hunter said shortly, just wanting to get the hell out of Dodge before Mr. Mystic starting putting two and two together.


They left quickly, leaving Blair frowning thoughtfully after them.


“What was that all about, Chief?” Jim said, rubbing a hand over Blair’s back. He had been fighting with a leaky showerhead and so far it was a draw. The steady drip drip still taunted him


“I wonder....” Blair said, but didn’t finish the thought because his sentinel was already steering him toward the couch to bond.


Sarah sniffed the air in the house. “Hunter, what’s that smell?”


“Sage,” he said shortly.


“Doesn’t it bother your senses?” Sarah was curious. She could feel that something had happened but her sentinel had not been in the mood to discuss anything.


“Bond,” he ordered, rubbing his head in frustration. He hadn’t had a headache this bad in months.


Sarah looked up at him, then lifted a hand to trace the pain lines in his forehead. This time she led him to the bonding mat where they settled. The patio door was partially open, letting in the cool night air, lulling them both into peaceful slumber.


*******************


The phone rang while Hunter indulged himself with a second cup of coffee. Sarah was still eating her cereal and reading the comics.


“Hunter.”


“Hello, Hunter. It’s Dan Wolf. I checked with the San Antonio medical examiner, and from what the autopsy showed, it looks as though we have a similar MO on Percy. He was hit though an open window by a rifle, medium range, teflon coated bullet, single head shot.”


“Getting rid of all the loose ends,” Hunter muttered.


“This sounds nasty,” Dan commented. “They certainly don’t seem to have any leads down there.”


“Well, we aren’t doing much better here,” Hunter pointed out.


“By the way, how did things work out with your house?”


Hunter sighed. “Fine. Your mother’s friend is a formidable woman. Please thank her for me - she left before I could.”


Dan chuckled slightly. “I think you impressed her. She thinks you’re a good man, all in all.”


“Now that’s something I’m rarely accused of,” Hunter drawled.


“Not everyone takes the time to look beneath the surface.”


Hunter shifted uncomfortably and didn’t respond.


But Wolf seemed to hear the uneasy movement over the phone. “Learn to take a compliment, Hunter. It makes life easier.”


“Whatever,” Hunter sighed. Some days it just wasn’t worth chewing through the leather restraints. 


*************************


Hunter sat at his desk shifting through the files. He still had a backlog of cases he had to go through, and he wasn't sure if he had the time to concentrate on Monica Lutrell's sniper. There was still the matter of William Ellison and the guide porn web sites, not to mention the infiltration of the Cascade Police Department by persons unknown. Too damn much stuff to do at one time. He could feel the headache building and Sarah looked up and frowned in concern.


Sarah was typing an IA report into her laptop computer, but Hunter saw her switch to the police database every now and then, tossing in a search term to try to find out more information. He didn’t call her on it.


Hunter reached for his now cold cup of coffee, sipped and grimaced. Time for new cup.

His phone rang and Hunter swore as he picked up the receiver. "What is it?"


"Captain Hunter, there's someone here to see you." Samantha sounded odd.


"I told you we were not to be disturbed." Hunter was not in the mood to deal with unexpected visitors.


"Captain Hunter, she says she's your wife."


Hunter stiffened, then lay down the receiver gently. His expression was unreadable.


"Hunter?" Sarah reached out to touch her sentinel, but he stood up abruptly.


"I'll be back shortly, Sarah. Just wait in here." Hunter walked over to his office door and let himself out, closing the door behind him.


Sarah stared after him, wondering what was going on.


Standing by Samantha's desk, was a beautiful woman with long auburn hair. She turned to face Hunter, her features tense with worry. "Vincent?"


"What are you doing here, Marian?" Hunter's face was a complete blank, his voice cold.


"I had to come talk to you," she said urgently. "Matthew...Matthew is dead."


Hunter blinked, but that was his only reaction to the news about his old partner.


"Can we talk privately?" She was visibly agitated, clenching her hands.


Hunter clenched his jaw, then he shook his head. "I have nothing to say to you, Marian."


“Vincent, please. It’s important. I need to talk to you.” There were tears in her voice now.


“There is nothing you could possibly say that would interest me."


She took that blow, flinching only a little. “I know you never wanted to see me again, but it was a mob hit, and I think it was probably the same people who killed Gary."


"Leave, Marian.


“My God, does nothing touch you any more?” Her voice wobbled, her eyes glistening with tears.


Hunter was unmoved. He’d seen this act many, many times, and long ago stopped believing it. “You said what you needed to say. Now leave.”


"You haven't changed a bit. Still won't talk, still won't listen." Behind the tears, the anger was bubbling up.


Samantha, who had been trying to ignore the little scene, noticed that the rest of the department was watching the spectacle with rapt attention. They could always count on their boss for fireworks.


Sarah opened the door to see what was going on. In an instant, she knew who this woman had to be. The emotion she felt from Hunter, fury and betrayal, could only be associated with two people: William Ellison and Hunter's ex-wife.


Marian, in the midst of a scathing assessment of Hunter’s character that didn’t even change his expression, stopped abruptly when she saw a young blonde girl move behind her ex-husband, her hand moving to his shoulder in a familiar comforting gesture.


Marian’s eyes narrowed. “Is this your flavor of the month? A little young, isn’t she?”


Every person in the room sucked in a breath at that, waiting for Hunter to explode.


“Leave now, Marian. I won’t ask you again.”


“You always wanted someone who wouldn’t stand up to you. Someone who wouldn’t dare protest when you got rough. Do you smack her around the way you did me?.”


Samantha and Sarah drew in shocked breaths at the accusation.


Hunter’s voice dropped into sub-zero range. “You have ten seconds to exit, before I have you arrested for trespassing.”


“She put up with all your kinks, Vincent? How long before you put her in the hospital, too?


At that, Sarah lost her immobility. “That’s a lie! He doesn’t do that! He never did! You’re a liar. No wonder he hates you!”


Bernie Clark was astounded at the sight of Sarah, who had moved in front of her sentinel, small fists clenched. The poison in the woman was battering her barriers. If there ever had been affection there for Hunter, it had died completely, leaving nothing but bitterness.


“Leave him alone,” Sarah continued, standing as tall as she possibly could.


Marian reached out in an instinctive move to slap her, but Sarah ducked the blow, grabbing the woman’s arm and twisting until the older woman lost her balance on her high heels and hit the floor.


No one was more astonished than Sarah at what happened. She stared gape-mouthed at the sight of the woman on the floor. Then Marian rose quickly to her feet, the light of battle in her face.


“Catfight,” one of the men whispered, only to have Hunter laser torpedo him with his eyes.


“You little bitch!” Marian advanced on her prey, who was looking distinctly alarmed at her approach.


Hunter, in some corner of his mind, found the showdown mildly amusing, but pulled Sarah back against him protectively.


The rest of the people in the bullpen were appalled and fascinated. They had never read about anything like this in their Sentinel 101 textbooks.


Marian stopped at the look on his face. She knew he was capable of violence. Knew it all too well.


Hunter’s voice was quiet - way too quiet. “I’ll make this very clear: never come near my guide again. You touch her, speak to her, or threaten her and I’ll kill you. You come around here again, and I will kill you. Are we clear on that?”


“Your guide?” Marian’s face twisted in something between anger and grief. “Guess you finally did it. You never needed me, except for sex. You didn’t need Matthew. Gary was everything, only you couldn’t fuck your guide. Now you can.”


Sarah went pale, trembling with anger and embarrassment.


“You son of a bitch. You’re not going to do this to me again!” Marian almost reached out to strike Hunter, to scratch that implacable mask. She never had been able to reach him, not during their stormy marriage, and not now.


His eyes stopped her. She aborted the motion, drew in several harsh breaths to collect herself, then spun on her elegant heels and stalked out of the room.


There was silence in the bullpen. Then a muffled sob drew all eyes to Sarah. She was mortified by the accusations, and by the horrible scene.


Hunter shrugged it off. Almost nothing could embarrass him anymore, but his guide had tender feelings. Without a glance at his men, he picked her up, letting her bury her face in his neck, and quietly carried her back into his office. The shades were drawn.


“Oh, man, that was bad,” Bernie sighed to Len Miller. “Poor kid. She doesn’t get a break.”


A not-so complimentary mumble had Miller turning. “What was that, Snow? Care to repeat that?”


Snow dropped his cocky expression. He had gotten another reprimand just the other day. Things were teetering precariously in terms of job security.


“I’d be very careful about what you say, Snow. Hunter isn’t the only one that takes exception to remarks about Sarah.”


Snow looked around the room at the unfriendly faces. Since when had a guide become anything of value? These were his colleagues, and they were looking at him like he was a child molester.


“Forget it,” Snow mumbled and looked down at his reports.


Sarah knelt on the bonding mat, trying to stop shaking. Hunter was pacing, trying to let go of his own anger before bonding.


“Hunter?”


“It’s alright, Sarah.” Hunter finally moved to the mat and settled down, pulling his guide down gently beside him. “We’ll talk about it later. It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t matter.”


Sarah felt his head settle on her back and she tried to move closer to his warmth. She felt cold and shaky from adrenaline.


“I have to say, that was a nice piece of self-defense,” Hunter drawled with just a trace of humor. “Remind me to pick you up a Supergirl cape on our way home.”


Sarah’s eyes stung, but this time in gratitude. She opened the link and let herself fall, knowing Hunter would catch her.


*******************************


They had arrived home and eaten a quick dinner of leftover meatloaf, and then Hunter spread out his papers on the dining room table, waiting for his customary cup of coffee from Sarah.


She set it down beside him, and after a brief hesitation, sat down opposite him.


Ah, Christ, she wants to talk, Hunter thought, recognizing the curious glint in his guide’s eyes. Sandburg had it, and now Sarah was developing it.


“Can I ask a question?” Sarah put forth hesitantly, knowing that Hunter probably just wanted to ignore everything that had happened.


Here it comes: the age-old female questions. Why did you marry her? Do you still love her? Why did she sleep with your partner? Hunter braced himself, knowing he’d probably deflect the questions rather than re-hash ancient history.


Sarah hesitated again, then asked “Did she ever really love you?”


Whoa - that was a new twist. Hunter stared at his guide, momentarily stunned. That at least he could answer. “Probably not.”


She flinched a little. “I’m sorry.” She didn’t ask any more questions.


Reaching out to grasp her hand, Hunter opened the link. He felt her sorrow - for him. It was a rather extraordinary feeling.


*******************************


Hunter was reading the paper at the breakfast table the next morning when the phone rang. He walked over and picked up the receiver, frowning when he heard the urgent voice on the other end. Sarah watched his face go expressionless.


Setting the receiver down on its base, Hunter went back to the table and sat down, not saying a word.


Sarah looked up from her cereal, her eyes worried. “Hunter, what’s wrong?”


“She’s dead,” he said with about as much emotion as observing that the grass needed cutting.


Sarah’s eyes grew wide. He could only be talking about one person. A sharp knocking at the door interrupted what she would have said next.


Hunter got up to answer it, peering through the view hole to see two uniformed police officers standing on the stoop. Their body language was anticipatory, and Hunter didn’t care for the look in the one man’s eyes.


He opened the door. “Yeah.”


“Captain Hunter, Reynolds and Kovich from Central. We regret to inform you that your wife was shot to death at her hotel early this morning.”


Hunter waited, his very stillness creeping the two men out even more than the fact that he was a sentinel. The men looked each other, then back at him. Reynolds seemed to be waiting for something as his hand hovered over his firearm.


“Captain Hunter, can you verify your whereabouts at 5 AM this morning?”


“I was here. All night.”


“Do you have anyone who could corroborate that?”


“My guide.”


“Guides don’t count,” Kovich pointed out, and nearly stepped back when the IA captain looked straight at him. “I mean, legally their testimony doesn’t count.”


Hunter’s ice-cold eyes never wavered. “Am I a suspect?” His voice was far too gentle.


“Sir, you were heard threatening to kill the victim yesterday. Now she’s dead.” Kovich was nervous and it showed.


“I didn’t kill her,” Hunter said calmly.


The deputy chief has requested that we bring you in for questioning.” Reynolds gestured to indicate the police vehicle parked at the curb. The man didn’t like the IA captain. His tone was barely civil.


“I’ll meet you there.”


“I’m afraid not. We’re under orders to bring you in.”


“No,” Hunter stated, waiting to see what they would do next.


“You don’t have a choice,” Reynolds said, his voice louder than before.


“Are you placing me under arrest?” Hunter’s head tilted slightly to the side. It made both uniforms extremely nervous.


Reynolds cleared his throat. “You can either come with us now or we will place you under arrest. We have our orders.”


By this time, Sarah was standing in the doorway, rubbing her arms for warmth against the chill of the wind outside and of the horrible negative emotion coming from the two police officers who were watching her sentinel.


“I have to go downtown, Sarah. Wait here until I get back.”


“I’m sorry, Captain. Since you are formally being requested to come in for questioning, we cannot allow your guide to remain unattended.”


“Then she can come with me.”


“Your guide is rogue, and according to GDP regulations, if a sentinel is suspected of a crime, the rogue guide must be placed in the detention facility until the sentinel is free.”


“That’s if a sentinel is charged, not suspected,” Hunter snarled.


“Uh, according to section 14 of the revised GDP code, only suspicion of a crime by a sentinel is necessary to detain a rogue guide.” Kovich sounded almost apologetic. “The regs were updated two weeks ago.”


Goddamn GDP. More political maneuvering meant to weaken the sentinels and keep the guides at heel. Somebody’s gunning for me.


“Your guide must be placed in GDP custody immediately.” Reynolds kept his hand close to his weapon.


Sarah was shaking slightly at the escalating aggression.


“Not a chance in hell,” Hunter snarled.


A GDP vehicle pulled up behind the police cruiser, and Hunter’s nostrils flared when he saw a uniformed man getting out.


“Ben Addison, GDP,“ the man introduced himself to the two officers. He looked coldly at Hunter. “We were notified a rogue guide needed temporary detention placement.”


Addison was a fair-haired man about Slater’s age, but Hunter didn’t recognize him. He also didn’t have the time to puzzle out who had originated the call to the GDP in the first place.


Hunter took a step toward Addison. “You want to live, you keep the hell away from my guide.”


Addison looked disapproving. “I’ve heard about you, Captain Hunter.” He moved closer to Sarah, but kept just out of reach of the IA captain.


“Captain Hunter, please come with us now,” Kovich said. “I need your weapon.”


“I’m not going anywhere,” Hunter snarled, now in full BP mode. Before Hunter could fully unholster his gun, Reynolds fired a chemical into the sentinel’s face.


Hunter reeled from the spray, his senses graying out as he stumbled and dropped his weapon. He was almost oblivious to Sarah’s cry of horror as he was cuffed and thrown in back of the squad car and she was pushed to her knees.


“Hunter!” Sarah tried to struggle to her feet, but Addison had a firm grip on her arm and pushed her back down.


“You okay with the guide?” Reynolds gestured to her.


“I’ll handle her,” Addison said calmly. “She’s in GDP custody.”


“No!” Sarah’s wail was lost on the two officers who got in their vehicle and drove off, Hunter slumped unconscious in the backseat.


Once the car was out of sight, Addison pulled Sarah to her feet. “Guide Freeman....”


Sarah took her chance, twisting against his grip and surprised the GDP officer enough to break free. She took off running down the sidewalk.


Sarah ran, kicking off her low heeled shoes as she went, her feet scraping against the rough pavement that tore through her thin trouser socks and macerated her soles. She didn’t even feel it.


Addison swore as he took off after her. The kid was fast, but he had a longer stride and was in good physical shape. She darted between houses, cleared a low bush and kept going. She could hear him behind her, gaining on her.


She put in a last burst of speed when a hand grabbed her jacket and pulled her to a stop. An arm went around her, pinning her arms and another clamped over her mouth, muffling the scream. She was dragged into a group of trees.


“Stop it!” Addison tried to subdue his terrified captive, but she squirmed and fought, trying to claw his hands and bite against the palm smothering her. “Stop fighting me. I’m trying to help you!”


She wrenched her shoulder trying to free herself and felt something tear - the pain hot and sharp. A wave of nausea followed.


Addison cursed, knowing they’d attract unwanted attention before much longer. He moved his hand slightly, cutting off his captive’s air.


Can’t breathe! Black dots floated across her vision. Her arms were freed as a second hand went to her neck, pressing against her throat. Sarah clawed in vain, trying to breathe, and then her vision went dark and she fainted.


Addison immediately removed his hand from her face, checking to see that she was still breathing and then picked her up to head back to the house. It was half a block, but she would wake up soon. He walked rapidly, Sarah slung over his shoulder, cutting through back yards until he reached Hunter’s house.


Sarah moaned and stirred. He moved up the front steps and into the house. The door was still ajar from earlier.


He closed the door and then moved Sarah, now awake and twisting frantically to escape, to the living room and set her down on the couch. He grabbed her wrists to hold her in place.


“Guide Freeman,” Addison tried again. “Sarah. Please stop. I don’t want to hurt you.”


He didn’t loosen his grip. Sarah tried to stand up, but the sharp flare of pain in her shoulder stopped the movement.


“Sarah, listen to me. I didn’t have a chance to explain back there. Captain Hunter is in serious trouble.” Addison tried to gentle his tone, but it had no calming effect.


Sarah’s breathing was harsh and she was shaking.


“You’re not going to Corrections. I had to make it look good for those cops or else they would have called another GDP unit and I wouldn’t have been able to stop them from taking you away. Commander Slater sent me to help you and Captain Hunter. Sarah, do you understand what I’m telling you?”


Addison’s voice was urgent, trying to convince her, but he had allowed those policemen to take Hunter away and he hadn’t done a thing to stop them. When he had watched Hunter being taken away, Sarah felt the vengeful satisfaction in the GDP officer. No matter what he said, he had been glad to see Hunter taken down.


Sarah shivered. Was Hunter so hated that even people he didn’t know wished him ill?

She dropped her head, her submissive posture relaxing the man in front of her. He let go of her wrists, not expecting her next move.


Sarah was off the couch and heading for the front door. She managed to open it and get outside, looking frantically until she saw it. Hunter’s gun lying in the grass. She reached down and grabbed it, using her other hand to flick off the safety.


Addison grabbed her, spun her around, and then felt the gun pressing against his chest.


“Let me go,” Sarah said, her voice low but shaking.


Addison let go and Sarah backed up a little.


“Now, Sarah,” Addison cajoled. “You don’t want to do this.”


“Walk back into the house, backwards,” Sarah instructed, her hands growing slippery on the weapon. She tightened her grip.


“Sarah,” Addison tried again.


“Do it!” She sounded on the verge of hysteria.


Addison backed up the porch steps, then into the house.


“Lie down on the floor, hands behind your back.” Sarah closed the door and adjusted her trembling grip on the gun.


Addison moved slowly, waiting for his opportunity. She was moving to the phone, intending to call Detective Ellison as Addison lowered himself to the floor. The small distraction was all Addison needed. He lashed out, and the gun went flying. He had Sarah pinned before she could go after the gun.

 

Sarah’s scream came a second before the door burst open to reveal the Sentinel Prime in full Blessed Protector mode. He took in the sight of Sarah huddled on the floor, blood stains around her, and the GDP officer trying to subdue her.


The audible click snapped Addison’s attention to the intruder. “Let her go,” the Sentinel Prime said softly. “And convince me in the next ten seconds why I shouldn’t shoot you right where you are.”


Addison released the girl, staring at the man who held the gun. It couldn’t be Hunter.


Sarah scurried backward until she hit the wall.


“I’m James Ellison, Sentinel Prime, Cascade clan.” The man looked feral.


“Ben Addison. Slater sent me.” Addison swallowed nervously until Ellison finally lowered his weapon.


“Sentinel Prime, they chemically zoned Captain Hunter and dragged him off, presumably to Central. GDP regulations state that a rogue guide must be placed in corrections when a sentinel is a suspect in a crime. Commander Slater asked me to help. I came to head them off because he was too far away to get here in time, but she ran before I could explain. Then she grabbed the gun, and I had to disarm her.”


“You were happy they took him away,” Sarah sobbed hoarsely. “I felt it.”


Jim motioned to Sarah to stay put. She was hurt, but not critically.


“You didn’t contact me or any of the clan. Why not?” Jim eyed the man. He had never met Addison, who was in his early thirties and looked like a poster boy for the GDP. “As Sentinel Prime, I should have been notified immediately of an attempt to take custody of any clan guide.”


“Sentinel Prime, I came to help. I swear!” Addison was sweating, trying to convince the Sentinel Prime he was telling the truth. “I admit it. I didn’t try to stop them taking Captain Hunter away, but I never meant to hurt her. She panicked and ran and I had to stop her before anyone else in the GDP got wind of it. I wouldn’t be able to stop them from taking her.”


“I’m going to cuff you, Addison. And you’re going to sit still until I make sure Sarah is okay. After that, you’re going to give me a reason why I shouldn’t kill you.” The Sentinel Prime’s voice was just as cold as Hunter’s.


Addison was about to argue, but then acquiesced to having his hands cuffed behind him and being seated on the floor in the hallway.


“Sarah?” Jim crouched down to take a look at her, wincing when she cringed from him.

“It’s okay, Sarah. You’re safe now. Hunter’s okay. Blair’s with him, and they’re on the way back here.”


Sarah shook her head numbly. Hunter had been arrested.


“It was a political move. They don’t have any evidence to charge him. He’ll have to answer some questions, but that’ll wait until we make sure you’re okay.”


Sarah was calming down, but Jim made no move to touch her yet. She was still way too frightened.


“You okay?” Jim was two feet away from her, gauging respirations and heart rate. The adrenaline was fading.


Sarah looked into familiar blue eyes - almost the same. Almost.


“Blair got him out of the zone - that’s two for two, by the way - and they should be here any time. The Chief wanted a quick report before they could leave, so I decided to head over after that putz Reynolds let it drop that they sicced the GDP on you.” Jim gave Addison a frigid look, then turned back to Sarah, his eyes kind again.


“I...I...” Sarah finally stuttered, trying to get a coherent sentence out.


The door burst open again, and Hunter stood there, backlit by the gray morning light that cast his face into shadow. He glanced at the cuffed Addison, recognizing him, then saw his guide huddled against the wall. His nostrils flared with aggression as he moved quickly over to her, crouching down to her level. Blair came after him, moving to his own sentinel.


“Sarah.” Hunter reached out with an amazingly gentle touch to tilt her face up to him. Sentinel eyes traced the bruising on her face and neck.


She was trembling, but didn’t pull away as he traced the marks with his fingers, then pushed up the sleeves of her jacket to reveal the marks on her arms. She winced when her shoulder moved, and a light sentinel touch marked the injured ligaments. Lastly, he looked at the cuts on her feet - none too serious.


Hunter briefly stroked her hair before he let her go and Blair moved to sit next to her at the Shield’s nod. Blair all but pulled Sarah onto his lap to comfort her. She buried her face against him.


“Who the hell is this?” Hunter demanded, gesturing to the man seated on the floor.


“Addison. Claims Slater sent him to help,” Jim said, eyes narrowed. “I’ll call Dan to confirm that, and rip him a new one for letting this get out of control.”


“Addison, you’re a dead man.” Hunter stood over the cuffed GDP officer.


“Sentinel Prime, tell him!”


“Tell him what, Addison? You explain to me - in nice small words - what you did and why, and then I’ll decide whether to let him at you.”


Addison’s explanation was low and urgent.


Jim looked over to his guide, who nodded silently when Addison finally finished. Blair had detected no lies.


“You let your personal feelings get in the way of doing your job. You don’t even know Hunter.” Jim was curious at the mutinous look on Addison’s face, and both sentinels noticed a quick trip of the man’s heart that indicated there was more to the story than he was letting on.


Jim decided he’d sort that out later with Dan. “You failed to notify the Sentinel Prime that the Shield was in trouble and allowed his guide to get hurt in the process. That about sum it up?”


Addison nodded wearily. “I never meant for her to get hurt - that I swear.”


“Sarah, other than what you sensed from him when Hunter was dragged off, is he telling the truth about what happened?”


Sarah nodded, scrubbing at her face to erase the tear marks.


“You fucked up, Addison. ” The Sentinel Prime somehow made Addison feel like he was facing a judge. “I expected better of someone Slater trusts. He’ll hear about this.”


Addison waited for several tense minutes before the Sentinel Prime spoke again.


“Okay,” Jim said, having come to a decision. “Blair, Sarah and I are going over to my place while you and Hunter come to an understanding.”


“Sentinel Prime?” Addison was starting to look panicked. “What are you doing?”


Jim motioned to the two guides. “Hunter, I leave this to your discretion. No permanent damage.” Jim tossed the cuff keys to Hunter, who caught them one-handed and then set them on the hall table.


As the three exited, Addison could feel the air leave with them. The Shield was staring at him with a clinical detachment that scared Addison more than any display of anger.


“Captain Hunter?” Addison’s voice cracked slightly.


“No permanent damage,” Hunter mused. “Ah, well, can’t have everything.”


“What the hell do you want?”


“Payback,” Hunter said as he removed his jacket and tie and then rolled up his sleeves. 

“Are you such a pansy ass that you can’t win a fair fight? You want to fight, then uncuff me!”


Hunter was oblivious to the taunt. “This isn’t a fight. You hurt someone who was powerless to defend herself. This is retribution.”


“What? You’re just going to beat the crap out of me?”


Hunter smiled in a way that turned Addison’s guts to ice. “I’m a little more creative than that - just ask Slater.” Hunter moved in front of his prey. “Ready?”


Addison had heard about Slater’s demonstration as a guide and how the Shield had effectively incapacitated him. The next few minutes were a blur of agony. Whatever Hunter had done during the guide demonstration to Slater had apparently been nothing compared to what Hunter did now. Pain rolled in waves that cut off Addison’s breath.


How long it lasted, Addison didn’t know. He could still hear the buzzing in his head when he finally opened his eyes eons later. Every part of his body hurt. He vaguely felt his wrists being uncuffed.


“You have five minutes to get your shit together, and then I want you out of my house,” Hunter pronounced with his signature sneer.


Addison wasn’t sure he could even stand up.


“I could take most of that pain away,” Hunter said deliberately. “But I won’t. Sarah’s got bruises and cuts and sprained her shoulder. As long as she hurts, so will you.”


Addison finally managed to pull himself upright. The Shield offered no help at all.


He picked up Addison’s wallet, which had fallen out sometime during the scuffle. He flipped though it idly, pausing at a photo of two young children with Addison’s eyes.


“Yours?” Hunter asked, the small smile chilling Addison. The last thing Addison wanted was the specter of a vendetta floating over him.


“Are we square? I swear I won’t let what I feel about you touch your guide ever again.” Addison got more than a little desperate as the IA captain continued to stare at the photo of his children. What if Hunter decides to go after them in revenge? What if....


“I have no problems in killing you,” Hunter said, his voice emotionless. He waited until Addison looked back up at him. “But I don’t hurt kids.”


And I did, Addison thought, reality finally hitting him full force. I fucked up, and I did.  

Addison’s cell phone rang where it had landed on the floor. Hunter scooped it up and punched the answer button.


“Daddy?” The voice was young and excited. “I aced the math test. It was sooo hard and I aced it!”


Hunter paused, then handed the phone over.


Addison finally got the gist of what his daughter was telling him. Second grade math could be horrifying, but all that extra study time had paid off. Addison finally found his voice, congratulated her and she finally hung up after another couple of minutes.


Addison turned off the phone, hissing in pain as he replaced the phone on his belt clip. Every movement hurt.


“What would you do, Addison, if that had been your little girl who got run down by the GDP?” Hunter’s question hung in the air between them.


Addison drew in a harsh breath, finally revealing the man underneath the uniform. “I’d beat the shit out of the guy who did it.”


Hunter smiled thinly. “Amazing. We actually agree on something.”


Addison took the wallet Hunter held out, and then painfully made his way to the door. He left the house without looking back.


**********************


Hunter locked the door and got into his car. First stop: Ellison’s loft.


Jim opened the door before Hunter cleared the last few stairs. “So what happened?”


“Slater has seen the error of his ways.” Hunter was still radiating animosity, so Jim decided to let that go for now.


Sarah was sitting on the couch, wearing a pair of Blair’s wool socks and drinking some herbal tea that Blair told her would help with her shoulder injury. By the yucky taste, she strongly suspected it was the same concoction he had fed Hunter when he had been shot and had in turn taken himself after the near drowning.


“You doing okay, Tiger?” Hunter focused in on his guide’s heart beat - she had calmed down considerably.


“I’m fine,” Sarah said softly, relishing the gentle stroke over her head.


Blair moved into the room, a blue book in his hand. His glasses were perched on his disheveled hair. Tthe Guide Prime had been grading tests again. “So can you finally tell us what happened with your ex? You were just too BP earlier to say much about what went down.”


“She showed up yesterday to talk and tried to hit Sarah. I told her what would happen if she showed up again.” Hunter’s face was inscrutable, but Blair felt the fury. Even in death she managed to rile up the Shield. “Next thing I know, I get a call from dispatch saying she was dead. The goon squad showed up a few minutes later.” He quickly ran through the events of the previous day.


Jim walked over and pulled a few pages off the home fax machine. “I got Rhonda to send me the preliminary report. It looks like she was shot at close range by a rifle. No witnesses.”


“Somebody’s trying to set you up,” Blair said slowly.


“Who did you piss off this week?” Jim sighed. “You threatened to kill her, and now she’s dead.”


“You’re not asking whether I did it,” Hunter observed.


“Well of course you didn’t!” Blair was shocked.


Hunter arched an eyebrow at Ellison.


“No, I know you didn’t do it. Not that you couldn’t, but this wouldn’t be your style.” Jim handed the fax over for Hunter to read.


“You’ve got that right.”


Sarah was getting more anxious. “What’s going to happen? Hunter didn’t leave the house. He was there all night.”


Blair was still puzzling over the problem. “Unfortunately, a guide’s alibi isn’t worth a damn. It’s not admissible in court.” He turned to look at Jim. “Why did those officers come after him so quickly? Wouldn’t this be Major Crimes jurisdiction?”


“The Deputy Chief has his own agenda,” Hunter sneered. “He probably latched onto the opportunity as soon as it presented itself. Damn cop grapevine.”


“The people responsible were probably counting on that,” Jim observed. “And now they want you diverted for however long it takes to clear you. What were you working on last?”


“The usual. Nothing new or different other than the latest sniper killing.” Hunter sat down on the couch to look over the report. “They don’t have enough to charge me.”


“You had motive and threatened the victim in front of witnesses.”


“I didn’t formally claim vendetta.”


“Yeah, and that just makes it worse,” Jim sighed. “At least with vendetta, you have some legal protection. They’re trying to hang you with circumstantial evidence.”


“Shit,” Hunter muttered. “Who’s primary on this?”


“H,” Jim said. “You’re damn lucky because he doesn’t believe you did it, either. Anybody else gunning for you?”


“Only about half the PD,” Hunter groused. “I’m IA.”


Jim pulled out a plastic baggie with a small silver object inside. “This was found at the crime scene. It has your fingerprints - I looked. Ratcliff had one of his sentinel lackeys on the scene, and he started spouting off about running a print match as soon as they got it into the lab.”

 

Hunter narrowed his eyes at the familiar tie clasp Ellison held. “I lost that last week. Convenient how it managed to turn up at a crime scene.” He peered at it through the plastic, unable to visualize any fingerprints other than his own. “How did you get this? That’s tampering with evidence.”

 

“What evidence?” Jim pocketed the bag again. “H showed it to me when I swung past the PD on our way over here. Guess I forgot to hand it back to him.”


Blair sucked in a breath. Jim had never bent the rules this far, and when he had, it was only under the most extreme circumstances. Jim could get into major trouble for this.


“This will eventually go back into evidence. We just need a little more time, and I’m not handing them any extra ammo.” The Sentinel Prime was looking out for his Shield. “We’ll get you in for a statement today. I’m going to push Simon, because I don’t think there’s enough for a formal charge. I’ve got to keep you out and free to move so we can catch this bastard.”


Sarah gripped Blair’s hand, so worried that she thought she might get sick to her stomach.


When they walked into the station an hour later, all eyes riveted on them.


“Captain Hunter, glad you could come down and straighten this little mess out for us,” H said loudly, glaring at one uniform who made a pithy remark under his breath. “We should have you out of here within the hour.”

 

“This will be completely by the book, Gentlemen,” Banks said as he strode up. “All i’s dotted and all t’s crossed.”


“Of course,” Hunter said, eyes lightly mocking.


It was a routine interview, thorough and unbiased. Hunter held onto his temper and gave a clean concise account, which helped. Sarah also gave a brief statement, even though it wouldn’t be used in any formal proceedings.


“The Deputy Chief wants your hide,” H said frankly as he turned the recorder off. “He wants formal charges based on the threats you made and the tie clasp we found at the scene. Jim says it has your fingerprints. If the lab confirms that, the Deputy Chief will probably get it. You’ll be suspended in any case.”

 

Jim, Hunter and Blair exchanged looks. H was unaware the evidence was missing, and when he found out, Jim would be implicated too.


“I’m going to type this up and tell Ratcliff we can’t file charges right now,” H said grimly. “He’ll think of something later, I have no doubt.”


“Then I had better do what I can now. I imagine the Chief will be calling shortly to formally suspend me until the investigation is complete.” Hunter paced the room.


“Let’s get you out of here, buy what time we can,” Jim suggested, opening the door to exit the interview room.


They walked into Simon’s office and proceeded to give him an update. Not five minutes later, Hunter and Jim dove to the floor, taking Simon, Sarah and Blair down with them. The shattering window glass sprayed over them as several bullets hit the wall where Hunter had been standing.


H flung open the door. “What the hell happened?”


“Sniper,” Jim said shortly. “Aiming for Hunter.”


“Are we clear?” Simon asked.


Hunter was looking out the window. As before, no sign of the sniper. “For now.”


Jim went over to the wall and dug out a slug with Simon’s letter opener. “Teflon coated, just like with Dad. And I bet this will match what they find in your ex.” He dropped the bullet into an evidence bag H handed him.


“This will clear Hunter, right? I mean, if the same type of bullets that were used for Hunter’s ex and Monica, that means the same sniper is going after all of them, right?” Blair looked a little disheveled and very worried.


“You would think,” Jim said, but he knew all too well how easy it would be to keep Hunter out of the picture with a little more legal maneuvering. “Hunter has an ironclad alibi for Monica Lutrell. And for here, of course.”


They moved into the bull pen, aware of all the speculative whispers around them.


“Captain Hunter, I think it’s clear that you are in danger,” Simon announced, loud enough that most of the bullpen overheard him. “Obviously the person who killed your wife and Lutrell is now after you. We need to get you to a safe location.”


It sounded completely logical, and it wouldn’t hold water when the tie clasp found its way back into evidence. Hell, it wouldn’t hold water now with Ratcliff gunning for Hunter the way he was.


“I’m not going to a safe house,” Hunter gritted. “The bastard’s counting on me not being able to go looking for him.”


“Hunter,” Jim gestured to him and drew him aside for a quiet intense conversation.


Hunter grunted, swore under his breath, shook his head angrily, but finally nodded.


Blair sat with Sarah near Jim’s desk in the secure corner of the bullpen.


“All right, Simon, here’s the deal: Hunter will agree to stay at his house with both police and Sentinel protection. This way, both Sarah and Hunter will be safe. Blair and I will follow the leads he’s been working on. Ratcliff can’t bitch about that. Technically Hunter will be off duty, and he can’t go anywhere, so he’s as good as in custody.”


Hunter looked supremely pissed, but he couldn’t risk his guide. He’d been shot once - he might not be so lucky next time.


Blair walked up to Hunter while Simon and Jim worked out the arrangements. “I think I know what needs to be done.” His voice was low enough that no one could overhear except Jim.


“Yeah, Einstein?” The sarcasm just rolled over the guide.


“You need to be out looking for these guys. You must be close, or else they wouldn’t be going after you like this. I know how we can do it. You and Jim need to switch places.”


Hunter narrowed his eyes.


“It’s switch and bait, man. Jim stays at your house with Sarah, and there’ll be enough leaked out that these guys will find out. Jim and the clan will keep them safe, leaving you and me to go after the bad guys.”


“Hold it,” Hunter ordered. “You and me?”


“Yeah, I mean, everyone knows Jim doesn’t like to go anywhere without me, especially on a case.”


“Sandburg, my latest leads would take us out of town. We don’t know if this sniper is still hanging out in Cascade waiting for his next chance.”


“But whoever hired him isn’t,” Blair pointed out with inescapable logic. “We can pick something innocuous that takes us out of town, then go after him. We can do this under civilian cover if you want.”


“I don’t want to advertise I’m a cop,” Hunter grumbled, but his agile brain was contemplating the possibilities. “But coming up with fake IDs takes a bit more time than I’ve got.”


“You don’t need to,” Blair said quietly. “You’ll be Jim Ellison, and if anyone makes the connection to Detective Ellison, Cascade PD, my being there is totally self-explanatory. I’m Jim’s guide, and if necessary, something more than that.”


Hunter paused. The kid was totally earnest and going above and beyond to help, but that kind of masquerade was dangerous, not to mention psychological suicide given what had happened to Sandburg in the past.


“Sandburg, I appreciate your wanting to help, but I don’t think....”


“Hey, I can handle it. It’s totally different from before. This time I know it’s not real.”


Hunter eyed him with extreme misgiving. “You think I can pull off being Ellison?”


“I think you could pull off being anybody,” Blair said quietly. “It’s kinda scary how good you are at it.”


Hunter mentally debated the situation, then finally nodded. Blair motioned to Jim and the three men ducked back into the conference room. Blair was explaining his plan when the door opened abruptly.


“What’s going on?” Sarah didn’t look apprehensive; she looked angry. “Why are you meeting without me?”


Hunter gave her a quizzical stare.


“This affects me, too,” Sarah said bravely, though she wasn’t nearly as sure of herself as she’d like to be. “I want to know what’s going on and not find out after the fact.”


“You’re right,” Blair agreed apologetically. He of all people knew what it was like being shut out of decisions that affected his life. “So here’s my plan.”


After Blair finished, Jim looked at the others, then back at his guide. “Chief, that’s about as crazy an idea as you’ve ever come up with, and you’ve had some good ones.”


“Don’t you see? Hunter is the closest to the truth, or else they wouldn’t have targeted him again. If he can move freely under your name, he might just be able to smoke them out.”


“I don’t like the idea of you being away from me that long, Chief.” Jim crossed his arms across his chest, feeling mildly belligerent.


“And I don’t like Sarah being left in harm’s way,” Hunter shot back, irritated at the implied insult.


“Whoa, time out,” Blair interjected. “Nobody’s accusing you of ulterior motives, Hunter, and Jim, you know you can keep Sarah safe just as well as the Shield could.”


The sentinels didn’t want to give their guides into the total care of another. Both empaths could feel the tinge of possessive jealousy and concern.


“I can do this if Blair can,” Sarah spoke up, lifting her small chin to look at both sentinels.


She looked so damn cute trying to assert herself that Jim broke into a grin. “Okay, Hunter, I guess we have a deal. I’ll be you and keep the home front safe, and you and Blair can hit the road.”


Blair had the last word. “Nobody can know about the switch except the four of us. Not even the clan. Jim, you’ll have to keep away from the others so they won’t suspect.”


“I know that, Chief. And we’ll start right now.” Jim motioned to Hunter. “We’ll switch clothes and then I’ll take Sarah back to your house while you and Blair hit the loft. Clothes aren’t a problem since we’re the same size.”


Embarrassed, Sarah hastily turned her back as the two brothers exchanged clothes and didn’t open her eyes until Blair gently turned her back around.


She stared. It was eerie how much they looked alike, but seeing Detective Ellison in her sentinel’s suit, looking pissed at the world and Hunter in casual khakis and shirt, lounging against the wall, she nearly recoiled. “It’s hard to tell you apart now,” she finally said.


“That’s the whole point, isn’t it?” Jim broke out of character to smile at her. “We want everyone to believe we are who we are.”


“Sarah, are you sure you’re okay with this?” Hunter had moved close to his guide, framing her face with his hands, his fingers laced through her hair as he usually did.


“I’m okay,” she assured him, but cast a slightly worried glance at the Sentinel Prime. “I won’t let you down.”


“Hell, I know that,” Hunter growled, which settled the butterflies in her stomach down to the occasional moth.


Sarah reached out to touch her sentinel’s chest, pressing her palm against him as she opened the link. Tears pricked at her eyelids at the thought of being without him, even for a few days. “I’ll miss you,” she whispered.


Hunter allowed his forehead to touch hers briefly, unaware that Ellison was mirroring almost the exact same gesture with Sandburg.


Finally Blair moved over to Hunter, and Sarah walked over to Jim and they took their places and exited the room.


Simon crossed over to ‘Jim’ and clapped him on the shoulder. “Chief just called, Jim. I told him what happened, and he’s agreed to allow Hunter temporary leave of absence with house arrest in lieu of suspension. Bernie Clark will be acting captain and primary IA investigator on the case until Hunter is cleared.”


“Appreciate that, Simon,” ‘Jim’ said shortly, then slung an arm around Blair. “Come on, Chief, we’ve got a lot to do.” They exited, Sarah staring after them wistfully.


“Captain Hunter, I respectfully request your badge and gun. You’ll be taken to your house as soon as the bomb squad clears it. Edwards and Niven have been notified and will be scanning the house as well. You’re going to have 24/7 sentinel and police protection.”


Simon got a mocking smile as the gun and badge were handed over. He’s fuckin’ arrogant even when his ass is on the line. Simon chewed on his cigar, eyeing the IA captain with vague dislike.


‘Hunter’ sat at Ellison’s desk, keeping Sarah close. He met the collective stares of the bullpen until everyone finally looked away.


“We’re ready,” H said two hours later. “Looks like the house is clear.”

 

“After you, Detective Brown.” There was just a trace of a sneer in his voice, enough to put H’s back up.


“Listen, you asshole,” H began, tempering his words at Sarah’s wince. “I know you didn’t kill your ex-wife, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think you’re an SOB.”


“Consistency is one of my finer traits,” ‘Hunter’ agreed, and drew Sarah to his side as they followed H down to the parking garage. Her body temperature was a little lower than he’d like and she was nervous, even if it didn’t show.


“It’s going to be okay,” he reassured her in a voice too low to be overheard. “I promise.”


**************


Blair tossed his backpack on the floor as soon as they entered the loft. “Man, I’m glad that’s over. Now, we have to get you some clothes, and I have to pack and get my lap top so we can check in with Jim later. Can you access your files from my home computer before we leave?


“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Hunter grunted, still mentally calculating what lead had prompted the assassination attempt. “I need to sift through them again.”


Blair pulled a beer out of the refrigerator after Hunter made sure there were no listening devices planted in the loft. He tossed it to Hunter, then got one out for himself. He plopped himself on the couch, took a deep swallow and sighed in relief.


“Any thoughts on what triggered this?” Blair watched the Shield pace.


“Maybe. I managed to track down our police sniper the day before Marian was killed. I don’t see any mob ties to link him to Gary or my ex-partner. I don’t think the cases are related.”


Blair could feel a tinge of pain at the use of Gary’s name, but nothing at all at the mention of his ex-wife and old partner. Cold, man. Very cold.


“He was mercenary, not government issue. I still don’t know who put him in place, but I do have an idea of who might. Turns out we had a mutual associate a number of years ago.”


“CIA?” Blair asked.


“I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” Hunter answered, and waited the full ten seconds until Blair’s eyes widened and he chuckled.


“Another joke! Hey, Hunter, I’m likin’ this sense of humor you’re developing.” Blair took another swig. “So, can you reach this guy directly?”


“It wouldn’t be safe. I’ll contact him another way and arrange for a place to meet. We’ll have to meet him at a neutral location, most likely out of state. We’ll take a rental vehicle and put the truck in the shop till we get back.”


“Long road trip,” Blair observed.


“If this pans out, we might get answers to a lot of questions.”


“So who is this guy you both knew?” Blair noticed Hunter hadn’t even opened the beer.


“He’s CIA, or at least he was. If he’s still alive, which is anyone’s guess, he could provide some useful information.”


“He doesn’t seem like the type who’d help out of the goodness of his heart,” Blair guessed.


“No, he’s pissed off a number of people over the years. He went into hiding.”


“Then how are you going to get him to meet us?”


“I’m one of the people he’s hiding from,” Hunter said, finally opening the beer and taking a drink.


Blair looked aghast. “Why would he agree to meet with you if he knows you’re after him?”


“Because he knows what I’d do to him if he refused.”


Blair felt a ghost walk over him and shivered. 


*******************************


Sam sat at the dining room table, thumbing through a catalog, while his sentinel cleaned his gun in the kitchen. The last few days had been a revelation. The bond had been unifying, fortifying and had made Sam feel needed in a way he had never been in his entire life. The responsibility was almost as terrifying as the strength of the link between them.


“Hey, Sam.”


Sam jolted at the voice right next to his ear. He’d been so lost in though he hadn’t even heard the sentinel approach.


“We need to talk,” Martin said, hesitating before he sat down across from his guide.


Sam stiffened, waiting for some punitive action.


“I’m not going to hit you, for Christsakes,” Martin said, equal parts guilt and annoyance.

“You didn’t do anything wrong. There’s just something I need to tell you.”


Sam looked at his sentinel. True, he hadn’t hurt him since their disastrous first meeting, but Sam still didn’t trust the guy. “So talk.”


Martin was still trying to figure out the best way say it. “There’s something about me you need to know.”


Sam narrowed his eyes. That didn’t sound too promising. “Yeah? Like what?”


Martin cleared his throat and tapped his fingers. “I need you to know this because I don’t want you to find out later from someone else. And because it has nothing to do with our sentinel-guide bond.” Martin paused. “I don’t want you to think I ever lied to you.”


“What?”


Martin took a breath, exhaled, then, “I’m gay.”


Sam blinked, not expecting this kind of revelation. He let that sink in, then froze as the possible implications trickled through his brain.


“You’re gay.” Sam’s eyes were dilated, heart beginning to thump faster.


Martin stared at him, unsure at what level Sam was upset.


Sam launched himself off the chair.


“Sam?” Martin stood up, but kept his distance.


“No. I’m not doing that.” Sam clenched his fists. He knew that guides were subject to whatever their sentinels wanted, willing or not. The GDP had seen to that. But this....


“Sam, it’s okay,” Martin tried to soothe him, aware that his guide‘s heartbeat had accelerated to near panic level.


“No, it’s not! You can’t make me....” Sam broke off the furious protest and ran for the door. His sentinel had him in a headlock before he could reach it.


Martin held on to his guide, barely avoiding the well-placed kicks. “Sam, it’s not like that. Sam!”


Sam had almost managed to get free when his sentinel dropped him to the ground.


“I’m not touching you, Sam. I’m not going to pin you down because we both know you’re going to freak.” Martin loomed over him, but kept his word. “Listen to me. You’re my guide. I have no plans on doing anything to you that you don’t want.”


“So you’re going to make me want it?” Sam jeered.


“You actually think I’d hurt you like that?” Martin looked shocked. “That’s no better than rape.”


Sam was still breathing harshly, but he looked less angry and more confused.


Martin calmed down. Whether Sam knew it or not, he was calming down, too.


“I know you’re not gay, or even bi.” Martin waited until Sam looked straight at him. “You’re not here to be anything but my guide. That’s it.”


“How do I know you’re telling me the truth?” Sam wanted badly to link; his barriers were fraying due to stress and emotional upheaval, but now there was another obstacle between them. It wasn’t that Martin was gay, Sam told himself, feeling a twinge of guilt at his own prejudices. He just didn’t want...that.


“Because when we link, you’ll know.” Martin held out a hand. “Besides, the bond is much more important than my sex life.”


“You’re a cop. Do they know?” Sam looked up.


“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Martin said brusquely. “I keep my love life private. If they find out, well, I’m a sentinel, so that outweighs my sexual orientation. But I’m not advertising it. Gay cops aren’t welcome.”


Sam hesitantly reached out, then allowed Martin to pull him up off the floor. “So you’d be just as bad off being out as I am being an empath.”


“Pretty much. We both have our social stigma to bear.”

 

“You’re really not going to....”


“I promise.” Martin moved Sam over to the bonding mat, waiting until his guide knelt down.


Sam hesitated, then moved to lie on his stomach, body tensed. He felt way too vulnerable in his prone position. If the sentinel wanted to....well, he wouldn’t be able to stop him. He was still scared.


“Relax, Sam. Bonding doesn’t excite me that way.” Martin moved close, then laid his head on Sam’s back. “Besides, not to hurt your ego, but you aren’t my type.”


Sam snorted and then let the tension drain out of his body as the link opened between them. “But I’m your guide.”


“Yeah, you are my guide.” Martin let his senses go as they sank into the bond.


Sam closed his eyes, finally releasing the fear when he realized his sentinel was telling him the truth.


*******************************


Blair finished packing while Hunter downloaded the files onto a CD on the mega-machine Blair had gotten from William Ellison.


“Nice computer,” Hunter commented as the disc burned.


“Thanks, Jim’s dad gave it to me.” Blair could have bitten his tongue after the words slipped out.


Hunter merely gave him a stony glance and then focused his attention back on the disk.

 

“Are you sure that this CIA guy is the one you need to contact?” Blair tried to change the subject and get rid of the oppressive silence. To his relief, Hunter complied.


“I’m sure. I made a phone call to an old army contact who agreed to pass along an email. I should know something within the hour.”


Hunter’s cell phone rang and he flipped it open. “Yeah.”


Whatever was being said on the other end caused Hunter’s jaw to tighten, but he never raised his voice. “Yeah, I understand. He’ll get what’s coming to him.”


Blair walked over, starting to feel a little nervous. “So what’s up?”


“He agreed to meet. He wants compensation, of course. To the tune of ten thousand.”


“He wants ten thousand dollars? We don’t have that kind of money!”


“I have no intention of paying him money.” Hunter sounded bored.


“But you said....”


“I said he’d get what’s coming to him. Our go-between chose to interpret that as cash.”


“What are you going to do to him?”


“Depends,” Hunter drank the last of his beer. “We’ll see how good his intel is.”


Blair was in over his head and he knew it. He grabbed his duffel and headed for the door.


*******************************


Bernie Clark stood in the middle of the IA bullpen and waited until everyone looked his way. “Captain Hunter is officially on a leave of absence.”


“I’d be too if I killed my wife,” someone muttered.


Bernie scowled. “Captain Hunter is not charged with any crime. He is, in fact, in protective custody because of an attempt on his life.”


That set up a murmur of astonishment amongst the men.


“That’s right. Somebody - and believe me it’s gotta be the same perp - tried to kill Captain Hunter today with the same gun his ex was killed with.”


Speculative glances went around the room.


“I am acting captain, and will head the IA investigation to clear Captain Hunter. If you have any information about the case, pass it on to me.”


“Seems to me, we’re better off without him.”


Clark was getting angrier by the minute. “Will you listen to yourselves? This department has been corruption-free for months. We are clearing better than 90 percent of our cases, and all because of him.”


“He’s an asshole,” Stuart said, but felt compelled to qualify that. “But he’s been totally above board.”


“Yeah, he has,” Miller agreed. “Whatever else you think of the guy, he’s still a good cop.”


That set up another round of mumbling, but the dissension had died down.


“I want everyone to report to me on their cases, alphabetically. Ames, you first,” Clark ordered as he headed for Hunter’s office, pushing down the uneasy feeling that he was trespassing.


Ames had finished and stopped by the men’s room when he saw Snow splashing water on his face at the sink. The man looked ill - pasty gray and sweaty.


“Hey, Snow, you sick?”


“Food poisoning, “ Snow mumbled and hurriedly left the room.


Ames frowned after him. Something wasn’t right.


“Hey, Len?” Ames hailed his co-worker. “Snow’s acting funny.”


“Funny, how?” Miller pounced on the information, which immediately set off warning bells in Ames.


“He was in the rest room looking like he was totally hung over.”


“You think he’s using?” Len asked.


Ames shook his head. “Naw, not Snow.”


Len kept his own opinion to himself and went to seek out Clark.


*******************************


Blair glanced over at the sentinel driving the rental truck. He reached over and turned on the heat.


“Cold, Sandburg?” Hunter drawled, eyes on the road.


“Kinda.” Blair slouched a bit in the seat. He was worried about Jim and Sarah, but even more worried about their little mission. “It’s not often I get to play ‘I Spy’ with a real spy.”


Hunter snorted derisively at that.


“Well, you know what I mean,” Blair fretted, gazing out the window and then into the rearview mirror.


“No one is following us, Sandburg. I checked.”


“Hey, you and Jim might be used to this cloak and dagger stuff, but I’m not.” Blair turned the heater up a couple more notches. “I just don’t want to screw things up.”


“You won’t. Just do what I tell you.” Hunter didn’t even bother looking over.


“Yeah, okay,” Blair sighed. A small period of silence followed. Then, “Hunter?”


“Yeah.”


“How did you do it?” Blair fidgeted again, trying to relax and failing.


“Do what, Sandburg?”


“How did you do it and keep your sanity?”


This time, Hunter looked over, his pale blue eyes unreadable. They locked eyes before Blair looked down at the fascinating pattern on the floorboard.


“Are you psychoanalyzing me, Sandburg?” The tone was neutral, but Blair still felt the chill.


“No. I just wonder what it takes to do...that.” Blair left the rest unspoken.


“A lot more than most people are willing to give.”


Blair wondered just how much it had cost Hunter - how much he had paid for the things he’d done in the name of God and country. Blair shivered despite the heat.


“Did you ever end up, I mean, you know, interrogating the wrong person by mistake?” Blair blurted out before he could stop himself. He’d been thinking a lot about the various shades of gray in justice, especially since Hunter was this close to being charged with a crime he didn’t commit.


Hunter gave him a sardonic look. “Nice little euphemism, there, Sandburg. No, I’ve never ‘interrogated’ anyone who didn’t deserve it.”


“How do you know? I mean, what if...”


“Sandburg, I’m a sentinel. I know when people are lying to me. I also know when they’re telling the truth. Innocent people react differently to questioning than the guilty.”


“But how could you be sure you were doing the right thing? How did you know?”


“You’re on a fascinating little mental tangent, Sandburg, but it’s not my turn to bare my soul this week.” Hunter glanced over at the guide. “We both know you’re not talking about my past, but about your future”


Blair shifted and looked out the window.


Hunter stifled an oath. For someone as grounded and perceptive about people, Sandburg had an amazing lack of self insight. That would be a conversation for another time. Sandburg was way too wound up for another lecture.


“We need to stop for the night anyway. There are some motels off the highway up ahead.” Hunter mentally calculated how far they’d need to travel the next day.


“How long until we reach where we need to be to meet your contact?”


“Another four or five days, I’d say. We’re going cross country.” Hunter took the next exit that promised two motels, one Chicken Plaza, one Italian pizzeria and the inevitable Wonder Burger.


“How far across?”


“The Carolinas.”


Blair whistled. “That’s a damn long trip. You sure Jim has enough vacation time to make it back?”


“We might fly back. That’s why we have the rental truck.”


“You know, I could drive a bit - spell you from time to time. I do know how to drive.”


Hunter grunted. He still wasn’t sure Sandburg was physically up to it.


“Hey, I was damp, not dead. Let me help out.” Blair sounded put out.


“Tomorrow, if you’re not coughing your lungs up, maybe.” Hunter gave him a sidelong doubtful glance.


“Cool.” Blair settled back, finally content that he could be of some help.


“Sandburg, we’re going to take one room. I don’t want to have to chase after you.”


“Fine,” Blair said as he eyed the motel Hunter had just pulled up to. It looked clean and nondescript.


Hunter got out of the truck and grabbed his bag while Blair did the same. They walked into the small lobby where a bored looking clerk looked up.


“Can I help you?”


“We’d like a room,” Hunter said.


The clerk looked at the taller man in the leather jacket, then at the long-haired younger one and smirked. “Of course. How many nights will you be staying?”


“Just one,” Hunter said, and moved closer to the guide who was too caught up in the tacky art on the walls to have caught the innuendo in the clerk’s voice.


Blair almost jumped when Hunter’s arm went around his shoulder, but managed to keep still. Hunter’s left hand tangled almost absently in Blair’s hair as he signed the registration form. The motion became a sensual caress, and Blair froze at the implication. Only Hunter’s light warning kick kept him from pulling away.


“Cash or charge?” The clerk asked, smirking even more when the taller man leaned down and actually nipped the younger man’s ear before answering. Oh yeah. These two are hot to trot.


“Cash.” Hunter handed over a few twenties, then accepted the key card.


“It’s the wing to your left, about ten doors down.”


Blair’s heart was hammering loud enough that he was sure the clerk would hear it. Hunter kept him securely pinned to his side as they walked outside, playing with his hair. When the door finally closed on the clerk’s view of the couple, Hunter let go and Blair yanked away from him.


“Sandburg.” Hunter knew the kid was on the verge of another flashback.


Blair was hyperventilating by now, trembling slightly. He pulled back before Hunter could reach for him again. “It’s not you, okay? It’s just the situation. Just give me a minute. I’ll be fine.”


Hunter could have reminded him that he had agreed to play it this way. He also could have ordered him to get his act together. Instead, he motioned to the bathroom. “Why don’t you grab the first shower, Sandburg. I’m going to see if the chicken place delivers.” There was no way in hell he’d leave the kid alone in a state like this.


Blair ran a shaking hand over his forehead. “Yeah, okay.” He escaped with his duffle to the bathroom, then sat down on the floor and tried to calm himself. Get a grip, Sandburg! It took a few minutes until his legs were steady enough to support him and he could get into the shower.


When Blair emerged from the bathroom, Hunter was just paying for their dinner and then he shut the door and bolted it.


“I got you the chicken pasta.”


“Sounds good,” Blair said with a falsely cheerful note. He sat down, but his heart kept galloping.


Hunter sat down across from him at the small desk that would serve as their dining table. “Sandburg. You won’t be able to eat if you keep this up.”


“Sorry.” Blair tried to calm himself, but kept flashing back to the corrections facility. After three attempts to taste his dinner, he set the plastic fork down.


“Sandburg, come here.” Hunter hadn’t even started eating.


“I’m fine,” Blair mumbled. “Just not hungry.”


“Get your ass over here,” Hunter ordered, now supremely irritated.


Some people were soothed by lullabies and melodious voices. For Blair, an irritated sentinel did the trick. He stood up and moved over to where Hunter perched on the edge of the bed nearest the desk.


“Sit.” Hunter ordered, and then pulled Blair to sit on the floor in front of him. Hunter hands settled on the younger man’s shoulders, then moved up to his neck. Hunter found the pressure points, and Blair almost passed out from the wave of dizziness that followed. He swayed back and forth. “Whaaa...?”


“Vagal stimulation. Drops heart rate and blood pressure. Your little adrenaline rush is ruining your appetite.” Hunter kept a steady light pressure on the kid’s neck.


Blair wanted to laugh hysterically. Trust Hunter to figure out a way to calm him without a tranquilizer gun. He leaned back, still a bit dizzy, but better than before.


“Heart rate’s down to 70. You’ve stopped shaking so much. Better?”


“Yeah. Thanks.” Blair let himself lean against Hunter for a few moments, then opened his eyes. It was odd, but in some ways, Hunter could make him feel just as safe as Jim did.


“Now go eat your food before it gets cold,” Hunter ordered, but carefully helped the younger man to his feet and settled him back into the chair.


Blair suddenly felt hungry. He cleared his dinner and then attacked his side salad. “No dessert?” He turned his puppy dog eyes on the sentinel who had just finished the rotisserie special.


“First you can’t eat, now you’re starving. Here.” Hunter handed over a small container with a piece of pie. “It’s called Very Berry. I’ll let you try it first for poison.”


Blair chuckled at the sarcasm. The pie was homemade and delicious. “Mmmph. Good,” he mumbled around his first bite.


Hunter took his own piece and ate without commenting, monitoring Sandburg’s vitals. No wheezing, and the fear had faded.


“I’m going to take my shower now. We need to get an early start, and if you’re going to drive, you’d better be rested up for it.” Hunter left Blair to clean up their mess.


Hunter emerged in a pair of light sweat shorts, something he’d gotten accustomed to in dealing with Sarah. Sandburg was in one of the double beds, looking lost.


Hunter switched off the light and climbed into his own bed, but Blair shifted restlessly, unable to get comfortable as he coughed. He let out a heart-wrenching sigh.


“Oh, for the love of God, Sandburg. Now what?”


“Nothing.”


“Are your barriers okay?”


“Yeah.” But Blair’s voice wasn’t very convincing.


Now it was Hunter’s turn to sigh. “Okay, get over here.”


“I don’t need a teddy bear,” Blair protested.


“No, you need your sentinel, but that’s not gonna happen for a while.”


Blair got up and sat down on the edge of Hunter’s bed. Hunter pulled Blair down and settled him next to him. Blair shifted onto his stomach, and Hunter laid his head down on the guide’s back. “Bond. And then it’s bedtime for all good little guides.”


The sarcasm didn’t faze Blair in the slightest. He relaxed into the bond, and then drifted into slumber, never even waking when the sentinel moved him back into his own bed and tucked him in securely.


Not a single cough disturbed either of them the rest of the night.


******************


Sarah put away the last of the dishes while Detective Ellison sat at Hunter’s computer. The first rush of stress had faded since they had eaten and Hunter had checked in anonymously via the antique collector’s internet message board. Things were well on their way, and she and ‘Hunter’ were safely stashed in Hunter’s house with both sentinel and police on guard.


Jim had swept the house again for hidden microphones and had turned on a white noise generator in every room. He didn’t want to take the chance that they would be overheard by anyone.


Sarah moved into the room and set a cup of coffee down on the desk, which was accepted with an absentminded thanks. She looked out the patio door; it was dark outside. She shivered slightly as she moved around the room, lost in thought.


“You okay?” The soft question startled her.


“Uhum.”


Jim turned around and looked at the girl. She was nervous in a way she hadn’t been a few hours ago - more fretful and worried.


“It’s weird, isn’t it?” Jim smiled slightly. “Like having the babysitter here instead.”


She tried to smile, but she couldn’t dispel the anxiety.


“They’ll be okay. You know Hunter will look out for both of them.”


She made a non-committal noise of agreement, but continued to move restlessly.


“Or is it me?” Jim tipped his head to study her. “Am I making you nervous?”


“Of course not, Sentinel Prime,” Sarah said formally, but plucked nervously at the hem of her sweatshirt.


“Unfortunately, I think I am. Sarah, I’m not nearly as bad as Hunter makes me out to be.”


“But he doesn’t,” Sarah said, totally shocked. “He doesn’t say anything like that.”


Interesting bit of information there. Jim stood up, moving close but not actually touching the nervous young guide. “I promised to keep you safe. I keep my promises.”


Sarah nodded, her eyes huge, and Jim finally understood what the problem was. Her barriers were fading, and he was certain she had a killer headache with it.


“Sarah.”


She finally looked him in the eye, shifting from one sneakered foot to the other.


“You know Blair can bond with Hunter. They probably will continue to have to in order for Blair to keep his barriers intact.”


She nodded.


“Can you trust me enough for me to help you the same way?”


Sarah blushed, then went pale and made a garbled distressed sound that Jim accurately interpreted as: get me outta here.


“I don’t bite, Sarah.” Jim kept his voice low and soothing. “Keeping you drugged to the gills with suppressants is dangerous.”


“But Hunter...”


“Knew that this would be part of it. Do you think it’s any easier for me to let Blair go off with him than his leaving you here with me?”


Loyalty conflicted with need, tempered by uncertainty. “I don’t know if I can. I mean, I’m not the Guide Prime. Only the Guide Prime can bond with another sentinel.”


“How do you know?” Jim asked patiently. “I mean, until Hunter came along, I didn’t even know Blair could bond with another sentinel. There’s nothing much in the history books about the Shield and his guide.”


Sarah was literally digging her toes into the carpet.


“It’s not a betrayal, Sarah,” Jim reassured her. “Hunter’s not going to blow a gasket because you did what you had to do.”


Sarah chewed on her lower lip, weighing her options.


“We can give it a try. If it doesn’t work, I can just try to stabilize your barriers as needed until Hunter gets back. It’s not the best solution, but it’s better than nothing.”


She finally nodded, looking like Bambi in the headlights.


Jim reached out a hand, waiting for her to come to him. She approached hesitantly. The Sentinel Prime might look like Hunter, but he wasn’t. His hand closed over hers, and the headache started easing immediately. She remembered when he had held her at the hospital, and allowed him to lead her to the bonding mat.


“However you want to do this, Sarah. Your comfort level.”


She sat down on the mat, and Jim sat down next to her. She stared at him for a long while, then rolled on her stomach, hands clenched against the mat.


“You know, I never could figure out why it is I can scare you more than Hunter can,” Jim said conversationally as he ran a calming hand over her back. He surprised her by lying down on his side in front of her, head propped on one hand. “The one thing I’ve regretted in all this Sentinel Prime-Shield business is that even though we’re all interconnected, you and I seem the furthest apart.”


Sarah turned her head to watch him. “Even more than you and Hunter?”


“Yeah. He’s an SOB even on his best days, but I can understand where he’s coming from much more than I ever could figure you out. You’re a puzzle.”


Sarah gaped at him. “Me?”


Jim smiled. “You’re female. That automatically puts you into incomprehensible territory, but add the whole guide business and it gets even more complicated.”


Sarah made a negative motion with her head. “I’m nothing special.”


“Whoever made you feel that way should be shot,” Jim said with absolute conviction.


Sarah smiled this time, her nervous stomach settling. “I feel so stupid most of the time,” she confessed.


“You’re half my age, and Hunter’s. Blair has about eight years on you. That’s almost a complete generation gap. No one can expect you to operate on the same experience level. Give it a few years, and I think you’ll find it won’t matter nearly as much.”


“Really?” Sarah looked a bit reassured at that.


“Positive.” Jim arched one eyebrow, rather like his brother did. “Now, shall we get this show on the road?”


Sarah nodded and finally let her hands unclench.


He pulled her to him, waiting patiently until her breathing slowed, then laid his head gently on her back. “Okay?” he asked softly.


Sarah nodded, and cautiously opened the link. The raging emotional extremes Hunter had weren’t there. True, he had similar intensity, but the Sentinel Prime’s mind wasn’t the maelstrom Hunter’s was.


Jim closed his eyes, smiling slightly. She wasn’t his guide, but it felt right all the same. The bond pulled him down into a cool, peaceful place. Sarah’s heartbeat slowed as she joined him.

 

*************************


Snow stopped his car at the bridge across the river. He’d driven fifty miles to get rid of the weapon, and there wasn’t a soul around. Nothing but the crickets and the darkness.


Heaving the rifle over the side, he watched it sink into the dark, deep water. He had to figure out what to do next.


“Mr. Snow.”


Snow spun around, recognizing the voice.


“You had several tasks to perform, but you failed the last one.” The gray-haired man shook his head sadly. “I’m afraid I overestimated your abilities.”


“Sentinel senses,” Snow mumbled, fear licking his insides. He didn’t know how the man had found him, but it could only mean one thing.


“Yes, they are a formidable obstacle, but that can’t excuse failure.” The older man smiled almost kindly.


“I can make it right. Hunter’s holed up at his house. I can take him out there.” Snow’s voice was strained, speech accelerated with fear.


“With around the clock sentinel and police protection? Your ambition exceeds your talents.” The man chuckled slightly.


“I can make it right,” Snow said again, trying desperately to bargain. “Let me have another chance.”


The man paused to contemplate. “All right. But I won’t tolerate another screw up.”


“I promise,” Snow said, almost giddy with the reprieve.


“You have 24 hours.” The man turned to leave, and Snow moved quickly to his car. He never felt the bullet that shattered his skull.


The man stared down at the body. “A shame, really. Losing Monica, now you. Good help is so hard to find.”


*************************


Sarah woke when Detective Ellison gently shook her awake.


“Sarah, it’s almost eleven. You need to get to bed.”


She had fallen asleep after bonding. Flushing slightly, she hurriedly sat up with a mumbled apology. She missed the sentinel’s small smile.


“I’ll make sure everything’s locked up.” She watched the Sentinel Prime methodically check windows and doors, then made her way upstairs.


She paused at the door to Hunter’s room. The bed was neatly made, but a sweatshirt lay across the comforter. Without even thinking about it, she entered the room and picked it up. It smelled like him.


“He’s probably wondering about you now, too,” Jim said softly.


“It’s stupid.” She set the shirt down.


“Why?” Jim leaned against the doorjamb.


“I don’t know,” she shrugged helplessly.


“One of the most powerful memory senses we have is smell,” Jim explained. “Aroma therapy is pretty scientifically based. Antiseptic smells can give us hospital phobias, just like apple pie can make us feel happy.” He gestured to the shirt. ‘What does that make you feel?”


She hesitated. “Safe.”


Jim walked over and picked up the shirt. “Then keep it. Best security blanket in the world.”


She flushed again. “Just like a dumb puppy.”


Jim’s look was kind. “You’re not a puppy, Sarah. It isn’t a sign of weakness.”


Sarah stared at him, uncertain whether he was just trying to make her feel better, or if he was serious. She finally took the shirt from him.


“I’m here if you need me,” Jim said, and Sarah finally nodded and escaped to her room.


Before she fell asleep, she wondered if Hunter was missing her, too. She didn’t know if she could handle the answer to that.


*************************


He dreamt of her.


I love you, Hunter. She laughed up at him, sexual hunger appeased for the moment.

He rested his forehead against hers, heart still pounding.


Then he was standing outside the bedroom door, looking in as his partner fucked his wife. How their faces froze when they noticed him standing there.


Then her crumpled body, shot through the heart and head. Dispassionately, he viewed her corpse as the burning hatred he had felt for her gelled to ice and then to nothing at all. He moved away and walked back into the jungle.


A shadowy figure called after him, begging him, but he continued to walk, leaving her, and her memory behind him.


************************


Blair woke up at seven, remarkably rested. The other bed was empty. Hunter was in the bathroom brushing his teeth. He didn’t shave, and the hint of beard when he emerged made his face look dangerous. Renegade Sentinel, Blair thought, amused despite himself.

 

“We’ll hit the drive-through at Wonder Burger for breakfast,” Hunter announced as Blair took care of his morning ablutions.


“Geez, man, think of the gunk that’s ready to deposit itself in your arteries.” Blair rapidly repacked his duffel. “Do you even know what your cholesterol level is?”


“At the moment - about 120,” Hunter said, smirking at Sandburg’s look of exasperation. “You ready to roll?”


“Yeah, I’m packed. Want me to drop off the key?”


“I’m not letting you out of my sight, Sandburg.”


Blair just sighed and trudged along to the motel lobby.


The same man was manning the desk and he leered at them. “Sleep well?” he accepted the key, watching the pair avidly.


“When we did sleep,” Hunter said blandly, tugging Sandburg’s earring suggestively.


Blair wasn’t panicking like yesterday, but he still looked uncomfortable.


The clerk misinterpreted his anxiety completely. “Hey, no worries. Whatever you two have going on, your business.”


Giving the clerk a forbidding stare, Hunter leaned forward against the desk. “And it stays our business. Do I make myself clear?” This was Hunter at his best intimidating best with a voice so cold Blair was surprised he couldn’t see little icicles in the air.


“Uh, right, absolutely,” the clerk swallowed nervously. “Your business.”


They exited soon after that, much to the clerk’s relief.


“Did you have to pull that power play?” Blair griped. “If you’re going for incognito, you pretty much shot that to hell.”


“I want him to remember us very clearly.”


“Is he going to be some kind of alibi?” Blair was intrigued.


“Just a little pawn in our chess game,” Hunter said without further explanation as he backed the truck out of its parking space.


“So when do I get to hear the rest of the master plan?”


“Later. Now shut up and order.”


A few miles down the road, Blair looked back, still looking for anyone following them.


“No tails, Sandburg.”


“I can’t see anyone, either. But I’ve got this feeling something isn’t right.” Blair closed his eyes.


“What kind of not right?” Hunter kept his eyes straight ahead.


A figure swam into his visual field, a motionless shadow face down in a pool of black.

“Dead,” Blair swallowed.


Hunter swore under his breath. “Who?”


“I don’t know. Nobody I recognize.”


“What else do you see?”


Blair could make out more details now, the image shifting from black and gray shadows to color. “His head’s all bloody. I think he was shot.”


“Where?”


“There’s a bridge and a river. God, it could be anywhere.” Blair felt a bit sick.


“Can you see his face?”


“It’s bloody. His hair looks dark.”


“What else?”


“He’s clean shaven. Early thirties, maybe. I can only see the right side of his face.”


“Concentrate. Concentrate on a name.”


“How am I supposed to come up with a name when I’ve never seen him before?” Blair sounded even more upset.


Hunter suppressed an oath. “You ask for a name, Sandburg.”


Blair wouldn’t catch the significance of that comment until later. He was too busy with his private little nightmare dreamscape. “A name. I need a name,” he murmured, trying to concentrate. “A name.”


The scene changed, a white field with flakes falling from a gray sky. Blair frowned. “That make no sense. The weather just changed.”


“What is it that you’re seeing?”


Blair could barely see the figure now, lost in a whirl of white. “Winter?”


Hunter thought about it, then cursed under his breath. “Snow.”


At that, Blair saw the figure coalesce in the frozen field, blood staining the snow around the head. He made a sound of distress.  


“Executed,” Hunter concluded grimly.”We have to get word to Ellison.”


“Who is he?” Blair opened his eyes. The image faded, much to his relief.


“One of mine,” Hunter said as he pulled off the nearest exit to find a pay phone. “Bastard probably was the one who set me up.” It made sense - Snow would have had access to internal police information and since he used to be SWAT, was more than capable of the sniper attacks.


“So who killed him?”


“Good question. Probably the same person who got him involved in all this in the first place. Snow got himself reprimanded a few times and was well on his way to getting transferred out of my division. He probably jumped at the chance to get back at me.”


“You have to do something about this fan club of yours, Hunter,” Blair sighed, deeply troubled. “You think it was the same guy who hired Monica?”


“Highly likely,” Hunter concurred, coming to a stop at the service station. “Go get us a couple of sandwiches and some chips.”


“Another healthy, well-balanced meal,” Blair groused, but took the twenty Hunter handed him and got out of the car.


“Stay in visual range, Sandburg,” Hunter warned.


“Yeah, yeah,” Blair waved as he went inside the building to try to find something remotely edible.


After Hunter managed to get a reasonably encrypted message to Ellison, he pulled back on the highway.


“Feel up to driving in a while?”


Blair nodded, distracted by the images he had seen. Even under the influence of peyote in a long ago anthropological foray into native rituals, the visions had never been so clear.


The ham and cheese sandwiches had been surprisingly tasty, and Blair quaffed his root beer in silence.


“So what’s on your brain this time?” Hunter gave the kid a side-long look.

 

“I’ve never been able to see like that before.”


“You’re the shaman, kid, not me.”


“I’m not a shaman,” Blair said sharply. “People train for years to become shamans, and they’re born into it, not made.”


“Denying it doesn’t make it go away.”


“I’m a guide and an anthropology student. Just because I had a near-death experience doesn’t make me something special.”


Hunter gave him a mocking glance. “You keep saying that, Darwin. Maybe you’ll believe it in time.”


“What the hell do you know about it?” Blair tugged at his hair, a sure sign of agitation. The fact that he was getting confrontational with the Shield was a good indicator of his stress level.


“In practically every shamanistic culture, a shaman is born after a ritual death, literally or figuratively.“ Hunter spoke quietly, shocking the guide into silence. “You died, you were torn part, and you came back whole. You’ve been working all your life for spiritual enlightenment, of one kind or another. Now you’re here to do the job you’ve been destined to do. As you once so elegantly put it, welcome to club - non-refundable one-way ticket.”


“Hunter, I....” Blair swallowed. Where had all this come from? His bond with Hunter after they had done their trust exercises had shown him many things Hunter had done in the past, but not nearly enough of what the man believed. “How do you know this stuff?” Blair asked, growing intrigued despite his worry. “You’re such a traditionalist, in most ways.”


Hunter was silent for a long while, then let out a gentle breath of resignation. “My mother was pagan.”


Blair’s eyes widened, then grew bright with excitement. “Really? Man, how cool. Did you grow up pagan? What made you decide to change faiths? What do you....?”


Hunter held up a hand, instantly silencing the younger man’s questions. “This isn’t about me, Sandburg. And I’m not ready to discuss my religious beliefs, or lack thereof. This is about you taking a leap of faith.”


Blair’s excitement dimmed. “Yeah, well, aside from the fact that I don’t feel qualified to be anybody’s spiritual leader, there’s the fact that I’m an emotional basket case, and a guide.”


“Sandburg, what does a shaman do? He teaches, he heals, he protects his community, calls on spiritual help, yet does battle with hostile spirits, and he unites the tribe against all enemies. What do you think you’ve been doing with the clan all these months?”


Blair could feel the fear of failure rising up, bringing with it the memories of Alex and the GDP correctional facility. He wasn’t a shaman, he was...broken.


Hunter gripped the back of his neck, just short of pain. “You’re a survivor, Sandburg, with a classic case of PTSD. Bloody, but unbowed. You hear me? Bloody, but unbowed.” A light shake accompanied the words, then Hunter placed his hand on the guide’s shoulder, squeezing briefly before running his hand down Blair’s back.


Blair stiffened, then relaxed. The last gesture was an exact copy of what Jim did to try to soothe him. Blair wondered if Hunter was even aware of what he was doing by mirroring Jim’s sentinel behavior.


“I’ll think about it,” Blair said, curiosity warring with self-doubt.


********************


Sarah had cleared the breakfast dishes and was wiping off the counter top when the phone rang.


“Hunter,” Jim said, then listened intently. After several minutes, he hung up, swearing under his breath.


“What’s wrong? Are they okay?” Sarah’s anxious face peeked around corner.


“They’re fine. We’ve apparently had another death. Blair had a vision.””


“Who?”


“Snow, one of Hunter’s men.”


Sarah flinched. He was the one who hated Hunter and despised guides.


Jim noticed her involuntary body language. “Hey, did he ever hurt you?”


“No. I mean - not really. He just....” she trailed off, thinking of the horrible comments he had made about her in the beginning.


“I’m going to call Simon, say I have a feeling something is up. If he didn’t show up for work, then they’ll go looking for him.” Jim managed to sound exactly like Hunter, down to the sarcastic drawl when he made the call.


He came back over to Sarah after a terse conversation with the captain. “Well, Simon isn’t happy, but he’s going to check things out.” Jim steered her to the couch and sat her down. “Okay, tell me everything you know about him, or felt. This is just way too much coincidence.” 


Sarah tried to recall all the instances she had noticed his hatred of Hunter and his increasingly erratic behavior.


“Drugs? Alcohol?” Jim asked.


“No, I mean I don’t know for sure. Hunter said he wasn’t doing well and was in danger of losing his job.”


“And of course ‘I’m’ suspended and can’t access any files. Damn it all to hell.”


“I can get the files for you,” Sarah volunteered.


“He wouldn’t keep things like that on his home computer.”


“I can access his work computer.”


“Really? How?”


“We’re converting all the databases. I know the new program and it’ll let you access files remotely.” She sat down and booted up Hunter’s computer and got online.


“You know his password?” Jim was surprised.


“Well,” she said, looking guilty, “I saw him type it in a few times.”


“Smart little cookie, aren’t you?” Jim said admiringly. “Sure they won’t be able to trace us?”


“On that dinosaur system?” Sarah just rolled her eyes, looking so much like Blair when making an obvious point that Jim had to bite back a grin.


Sarah was as good as her word. She not only downloaded Snow’s confidential files, but anything Hunter and she had been working on regarding the snipers.


Jim sat down next to Sarah, and they both read the files.


“Okay Sarah, what do you think?”


Sarah looked so surprised at being asked her opinion that she just stared open-mouthed.


“Come on, Sarah, you know more about Snow than I do.”


“He was mad at Hunter. He didn’t want to lose his job, but blamed Hunter for his performance. He wanted to get even.”


Jim nodded.


Sarah clenched her hands as she made the inevitable conclusion. “He killed Hunter’s ex-wife.”


Jim tapped a pencil on the computer stand. “I agree, and if that’s the case, he probably also killed Monica Lutrell and tried to kill Hunter.”


“Then the man who hired Monica hired Snow to kill her?” Sarah shivered slightly, remembering the glimpse of him in Monica’s mind.


“If we assume that, it’s because she got caught and became a liability,” Jim said, still tapping thoughtfully.


“Then Snow did too? Become a liability?”


“Well, he did miss Hunter,” Jim said almost absently, but patted Sarah’s back to soothe her. “That’s the theory, at any rate.”


“Are you going to tell Hunter?”


“We’ll post a message on the antiques board. Let’s see: Winter had two deadly storms and a near-miss. That should explain it.” Jim logged onto the board, posting a boring paragraph and stuck the sentence in the middle of it. “I imagine he’s already figured the same thing. His cop instincts are pretty much in the same wavelength as mine.”


“So what do we do?”


Jim leaned back in his chair. “Unfortunately, we’re stuck here. Since I’m playing Hunter, I can’t access anything officially, so we might have to rely on your computer skills to get us into a couple of other databases.”


Sarah rubbed her arms, chilled. “And the man who killed Snow is still after Hunter.”


“I’m afraid so. But we’re safe here, Sarah. Sentinel guards and police.” Jim ran his hand over her hair, much like he did with Blair.


“Nobody is totally safe,” Sarah hunched her shoulders, feeling a little scared, lonely and missing Hunter terribly.

 

“No, I suppose not,” Jim admitted. “The sketch you drew of him is very good. We haven’t been able to identify him yet, but that’s just a matter of time. We’ll find him.”


“But he’s not the only one involved,” Sarah pointed out. “Even if you do catch him, it won’t be over.”


“Yeah, and that’s the hell of it,” Jim sighed and got up and moved to the couch. “Tell you what, let’s take a break. There’s a monster movie marathon on Channel 92 this weekend.”


Sarah wavered. She loved scary monster movies. She also hated them for the same

reason.


“Come on over,” Jim invited, patting the couch next to him as he turned on the TV.

“Hey, haven’t seen this one for a while - Fright Night.” He settled back to enjoy Roddy McDowell fight the forces of evil.


Sarah sat down, but Jim noticed that she held the couch cushion protectively in front of her. The cushion crept higher when the scary parts came on, and she occasionally squeezed her eyes shut. But she didn’t look away.


“You don’t like horror flicks?” Jim asked when the commercial came on.


“No, I like them,” Sarah said bravely. But it had been so much easier to watch them with her father. The movie started up again, and the cushion went back into place.

 

Jim gave her a considering look, then grabbed the afghan off the back of the couch and wrapped it around her and pulled her close to his side. “Let’s see if this makes it easier to watch.”


Sarah hesitated, then allowed herself to be tucked close to the Sentinel Prime. He was kinder than Hunter, his emotions more soothing, but she still would rather have Hunter back. How strange was that?


“Uh oh, he was invited in,” Jim grimaced. “Never, ever invite a vampire into your house. That’s as bad as not listening to the scary background music.” He had his feet propped on the coffee table, totally at ease.


Sarah choked out a laugh and finally relaxed against the man holding her.


**********************


Blair sat in the passenger seat of the truck and looked out at the wilderness. It was deserted and now going on nine PM in a rural backwood of South Carolina. Day six -- or was it seven? -- of their trip and Blair was exhausted.


“Think he’s going to show?” Blair asked, hunkering into his jacket for more warmth. They had been sitting for almost two hours waiting for Hunter’s contact to show up.


“He’ll show. He’s always been a greedy bastard.”


Blair looked out at the stretch of forest shrouded by fog. It was definitely spooky.


“Looking for the slasher of the week?” Hunter drawled.


Blair’s lips twitched. “Well, it sure looks like a scary movie out there. I don’t sense any two legged monsters out there.”


“Nothing human,” Hunter agreed.


“Oh, great, that still leaves ghosts, vampires and werewolves,” Blair said, tongue in cheek.


Hunter gave him a look of exasperation, then tipped his head. “He’s pulling up now,” Hunter said, making out the distant sound of tires. “You stay put. If he decides to get brave, I don’t want to be distracted.”


“Hey!” Blair was about to argue when the car pulled up, headlights blinding them. A lone figure got out.


“Nobody else in the car?’ Blair squinted and tried to see against the glare.


“Just him. No other heartbeat,” Hunter said calmly. “I mean it, Sandburg. Stay.”


He opened the door and got out. “Higgins,” he nodded.


“Hunter.” The man was shorter and heading toward fat. He had a pinched expression indicating chronic worry and a southern twang that strangely sounded more uptight than Hunter’s clipped accents. “Last time we crossed paths, you said you were going to kill me.”


“Haven’t made up my mind yet,” Hunter drawled, aware that Higgins was clutching a gun in his jacket pocket. “I need information.”


“Petrie said you were looking for a merc.”


“I’ve found him. I want to know who hired him.”


“Why don’t you ask him, then?” Higgins said belligerently, sweating freely despite the night chill.


“Kinda hard to do that since I killed him.” The words hung in the air for a while.


Hunter waited, his lack of emotion creeping Higgins out. There was something about sentinels that had always made him nervous. And this one in particular was the stuff of nightmares.


“I need a name, photo,” Higgins said, hand slippery on the gun. “Ya gotta give me something to work with.”


Hunter reached into his jacket pocket slowly, noting how Higgins’ hand jerked slightly in reaction. “I have a photo.”


Higgins reluctantly took the picture, gazing at in the lights of his car. “Don’t know him.”


“Try again,” Hunter said, his teeth bared in a predator smile. “I can smell the lie.”


Damn sentinels! Higgins stared again at the photo, knowing whatever he said wouldn’t satisfy the man in front of him. “He worked for a lot of groups. Most of ‘em do.”


“Something domestic, within the last three years, probably linked to Pacific Rim trade,” Hunter prodded.


“Ah, shit,” Higgins said, trying to focus on the picture, racking his ever dwindling memory. “Two companies I know of handled that kind of crap. Rampling Imports and Baristide Industries.”


Hunter filed the information in his brain, more or less convinced Higgins was telling the truth. “Who else do you know of who worked with those companies?”


“What, I’m a fuckin’ merc register? I can’t pull that kind of information out of my head.”


“But you would have the information readily available, because you were going to sell that, too. For a much higher price, of course.”


Higgins swore under his breath. The man knew him too well. “Hey, it’s business. Just business.”


“It always was. Even when collateral damage exceeded what you gained.” Hunter’s voice held the faint cold sneer that never failed to put a man’s back up.


“You aren’t lily-white either,” Higgins blustered.


“I never said I was,” Hunter replied, his features shadowed. “But unlike you, I always knew my limitations. You stay alive longer that way.”


Higgins was getting more restless, and therefore less predictable. The sound of the truck door opening caused Higgins to spin around.


“Hey, it’s cool,” Blair said bouncing up and looking about twelve. “Is this gonna take long? I’m getting hungry again.”


Hunter swore under his breath, but knew Sandburg was going with his gut instincts again. The empath no doubt could sense that Higgins was too close to the edge.


Higgins looked at the young man and how he moved up Hunter and laid a hand on his shoulder. “A guide? Thought you already had a guide. Greg something.”


“Gary,” Hunter said cooly. “I killed him, too.”


“Holy shi...” Higgins choked. “You’re crazy!”


“That’s one view point,” Hunter said. “Who else, Higgins?”


“I don’t know.” Higgins was almost dripping with sweat, his anxiety so acrid that Hunter’s nose twitched in annoyance.


“How about you give me the rest of what you planned to sell me, and I agree to leave you alone?”


“You’d let what happened go?” Higgins sounded almost desperately hopeful.


“No, but I’d let you live,” Hunter pronounced, his chilling little smile making it sound like a threat instead of a reprieve.


“Man, it’s getting cold,” Blair observed, shuffling against the chill. He was looking around casually but created enough of a distraction to keep Higgins’ attention split between the two men.


“Give me what you have,” Hunter repeated.


Higgins’ eyes darted to the truck despite himself. He tightened his sweaty grip on the gun.


“Hey, is it in the truck?” Sandburg asked cheerfully. “Just tell me where and I’ll go get it for you.”


“Front seat, inside the map,” Higgins said reluctantly, and Blair headed for the truck.


Higgins was calm now, which meant he had made his decision. Unfortunately for him, Hunter knew exactly what that decision was.


“Sandburg!” Hunter’s voice stopped the guide short.


“What?” Blair sounded like a petulant child, and Higgins made the mistake of turning back to the guide.


Hunter had Higgins on the ground, gun confiscated before the ex-CIA operative knew what was happening.


“A knife, one backup piece, there, I think that’s all of the hardware.” Hunter had Higgins in a set of cuffs in short order. “Go ahead, Sandburg.”


Blair, all business now, reached into the open window and retrieved the map. A computer CD slipped out and Blair pocketed it.


“That’s all I have, I swear it,” Higgins said urgently. “For God’s sake man, I promise I’ll disappear for good.”


“You were going to kill me,” Hunter said calmly. “And him. Between us, that’s just business. But he makes it personal.”


Higgins swallowed nervously.


“I can’t trust you, Higgins. I think an unfortunate accident is probably the best way to handle things.”


“You promised!” Higgins sounded almost bewildered.


“I lied,” Hunter said with a small smile that never reached his eyes.


Higgins stiffened, waiting for the fatal shot.


Blair held his breath, his puppy-dog eyes wide.


Hunter caught the guide’s pleading look and mumbled a curse under his breath.


Blair silently urged Hunter to let the man go. His eyes locked with the sentinel’s, both of them battling it out until Hunter sighed and gave in.


Hunter leaned down and unlocked the cuffs. “Get out of here.”


Higgins was stunned. Hunter was letting him go?


“Get the hell out of here before I change my mind.” Hunter waited while Higgins hastily got into his car. Then an explosion threw sentinel and guide to the ground.


“Jesus, what was that?” Blair was pinned beneath Hunter, shaken but unhurt. “Car bomb?”


“Hell if I know,” Hunter scanned the area, but there was no sign of another vehicle. Or another person.


“Jesus,” Blair repeated, “Poor man.”


“More like lucky us,” Hunter said as he got up. The car was shooting flames ten feet high. There was no hope for a survivor.


Blair got up on his feet, more shaken than he’d like to be, and then spun around at the sound of boot steps behind him.


“Howdy, boys,” a deep voice drawled. “Having a little bonfire?”


Hunter turned to face a man about his own age and height with long brown hair and a familiar posture.


“Who are you?” Hunter asked bluntly.


“Sheriff Lucas Buck,” the man said. “That’s Buck, with a B.”


“Jim Ellison, Cascade Police,” Hunter said without missing a beat.


“Cascade, Washington? What’re Yankee sentinel and his guide doing down here?”

The man was all lazy Southern charm with eyes that didn’t miss a thing. And those eyes were currently raising the hair on the back of Blair’s neck.


“Vacation.” Hunter let that hang, while Sandburg had moved closer to him. “My guide had pneumonia, so we’re taking some down time.” Hunter reached into his pocket for Ellison’s badge, noting that the man didn’t even tense at the gesture. The sheriff seemed to be supremely unconcerned that Hunter might have been reaching for a weapon. He wasn’t even carrying a gun.


Buck gave the badge a cursory glance, then turned his attention to the long-haired young man who was watching him with equal parts curiosity and caution. “You got a name, son?”


“Sandburg. Blair Sandburg,” Blair cleared his throat. “We were just driving through on our way to Charleston.


“Committing a little arson and murder along the way?” Buck gestured to their truck. “Rental vehicle, far away from home - looking suspicious, boys.”


“I’d like to think that both of our law enforcement agencies are willing to work together in the true spirit of collaboration.” Hunter tilted his head slightly, his senses registering things he didn’t like. “Higgins was a lead on one of our cases, so we decided to take a side trip to meet him. Then this happened.”


“It just blew up,” Blair said earnestly.


“Sure you didn’t help it along?” Buck drawled.


“Not my style,” Hunter answered just as casually.


“What exactly is your style, Captain?”


Hunter didn’t answer. The fact that the sheriff had addressed him by his actual title and not Ellison’s put him on alert.


“You’re a sentinel, traveling with a guide, in a state that has maybe three sentinels total, two of whom are retired. Makes a man wonder, especially when that sentinel doesn’t use his real name.”


Hunter smiled mirthlessly. “Or he can wonder why the sheriff isn’t exactly what he claims to be.”


The two men stared at each other for several long moments, each assessing the other until Buck broke the silence with a casual hand gesture. “Well, I guess the best thing would be for you boys to come back to the station and make out a report. Probably have you spend the night and go over things again tomorrow after I do some checking.”


“You’re gonna arrest us?” Blair squeaked in disbelief.


Hunter immediately put a calming hand on Sandburg’s shoulder.


Buck actually laughed. “You boys can spend the night at the boarding house. Miz Holt should have room for you. I’ll call ahead and let her know.” Buck walked over to the burning vehicle. “Helluva way to go.”


“You should know,” Hunter said under his breath, earning another calculating look from the sheriff.


It was pretty much routine after that. Hunter and Blair made out their statements under the watchful eye of deputy named Floyd while the fire department dealt with the burning vehicle and recovering what was left of the body. It was after eleven before Hunter pulled their rental truck in front of the boarding house and checked in with a very sleepy-looking Miz Holt.


Blair was fascinated by the decor, and the woman who owned the house, but his interest would have to wait. She bid them goodnight and Hunter hauled their bags upstairs. Blair sighed, knowing he had to get outside and decompress.


“You coming up, Sandburg?” Hunter stepped out onto the porch where Blair had appropriated the swing and was gently rocking back and forth.


“I just want to chill a bit.”


Hunter scanned the area. Nothing but a barking dog in the distance and the damp cool air. “Make it a quick one.”


Blair nodded and Hunter went back inside. Blair sighed and leaned back, letting the quiet soothe him for several blissful minutes. Then he sat bolt upright to stare at the figure that had materialized at the other end of the porch.


“You weren’t there a second ago,” Blair said, his voice slightly hoarse, but steady.


Buck simply inclined his head.


“What’d you do - teleport?”


Buck smiled at that, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “You and your sentinel are a bit of a novelty around here.”


Blair’s neck hair was raising up again. “We’re nothing special.”


Buck walked over, leaned back against the railing, his whole body language casual and non-threatening.


And Blair’s neck hair rose even higher.


“You’re mighty jumpy, son.”


“Cautious.” Blair cleared his throat, his expressive face inadvertently telling the sheriff volumes.


“Cautious is fine. Keeps you from crossing lines you shouldn’t.”


It was a warning, and one Blair didn’t take lightly. “Who are you?”


“I’m Lucas Buck, Sheriff of Trinity.” The man seemed amused at the question.


“Maybe I should rephrase that. What are you?”


The taller man locked eyes with the guide, and Blair could feel the power rise up between them. Dark Guide stirred.


“That would be telling,” The empath was trying to block him, but wasn’t able to break that tenuous link between them. “I’ve heard legends about Dark Guides and Sentinels, but I never thought I’d actually meet one.”


“Yeah, well, I don’t think I was expecting to meet someone like you either,” Blair tried for casual, but the sheriff was pushing all his esoteric buttons, and he couldn’t tell if that was bad or good.


“Do you believe in universal balance?” Buck asked and seemed to materialize next to Blair on the swing. He kept the swinging motion up while Blair held his breath at the raw energy that emanated from the man.


“Yeah, I do. There has to be. Dark and light. Positive and negative.”


“Good and evil?” Buck’s eyes were almost black now, and not even the air moved.


“That too.”


Buck smiled lazily. “Glad we agree. I’m sure you’ll be on your way tomorrow and our little town will just be a memory.”


Another warning. Don’t worry, Blair thought, I am so outta here.


“Problem?” Hunter’s voice broke the spell, and both men turned to look at him. “It’s late, Sandburg. You should get some sleep.”


Blair got up and walked to the door after a very polite goodnight and made his way inside, not even trying to hide his relief. Hunter’s hand stroked over his back as he walked by, a simple possessive gesture not lost on the sheriff.


“You need something, Buck?” Hunter’s nostrils flared with aggression.


“No, just stopped by to make sure you both had what you needed.”


“We’re fine, which you already knew. Out trawling for souls?” Hunter’s barbed question hung in the air.


“I don’t collect souls. They just aren’t cost-effective.” Buck stared at Hunter with those intense eyes.


“We’ll swing by the station in the morning, and then we’ll be gone.” It was more of a challenge than a statement. Hunter had no idea of what was standing in front of him, but human it was not.


“Probably would be best,” Buck agreed. “This town runs better without outside influences.”


Hunter moved to the door, unhurried, but his posture was wary, sentinel on guard.


“Captain Hunter.”


Hunter stopped.


“Yes, I know you’re not James Ellison. Some kind of complicated problem with snipers, vendettas, murders, guide porn and the GDP - sounds like a bad TV movie on late-night cable. You Yankees make things a helluva lot more complicated than they need to be.”


“There’s this thing called the law, which I swore to uphold,” Hunter said dryly.


“Yeah,” Buck nodded. “But the law can be a contrary bitch at times. It’s a good thing gray comes in so many shades.”


“We’ll be out of here by morning.”


Buck nodded, just a trace of...something...in his eyes. “One of these days, Captain, I’ll have to tell you about the illusion of free will.”


“Not if I can help it. Good night, Buck.” Hunter stepped inside, closing the door without a backward glance.


But you won’t be able to help it. Whistling under his breath, Buck walked off the porch and to his car.


************************************


The phone rang and Jim automatically picked it up. “Hunter.”


It was Niven. “Hunter, there’s a William Ellison out here - says he wants to talk to you.”


Jim mentally cursed. His father was the last thing he wanted to deal with given the complications and attempt on Hunter’s life. It wasn’t safe for William to be out, much less anywhere near Hunter’s house.


If he agreed to see his father, he’d have to pretend to be Hunter, and he’d had a tough time pulling it off in person, so it would have to be a conversation via the secure line Niven had arranged at the start of their house arrest. Jim was sure no matter what he said, he was sure he’d screw up either Hunter or his father in the process. But William wouldn’t be here unless it was vitally important, of that much Jim was sure.


“What the hell does he want?” Jim asked bluntly. That, at least, would be in character.


“Says he has some very important information. Should I let him by?”


Jim peered out the front window and saw Niven blocking his father’s car in the driveway, kind but immovable.


Sarah was in the kitchen fixing lunch, and Jim debated for several seconds on what to do. No matter which way he played it, there would be fallout.


“Dial him through on the secure line. Tell him he has five minutes to say his piece, and then he goes.”


Niven nodded and the phone rang a minute later.


“Vincent,” William began, only to be cut off by an impatient growl.


“You have five minutes to tell me something that had better be of earth-shattering importance.”


William swallowed, his eyes bleak, and inside Jim ached at the look on his father’s face, clear to him even twenty feet away inside the armored vehicle.


“My detectives have found some information that I think you need to know about. Are you sure we’re secure to talk?”


“No listening devices here.”


“There are some high stakes players involved in empath slavery and guide porn, most outside of the Americas, making them extremely hard to reach. But they have interests in the US, mostly corporate fronts in technology brokering, but there are possible high-level government connections here.”


Jim narrowed his eyes. “Just how high are we talking about?”


William lowered his voice. “At least two federal GDP liaisons and possibly even a cabinet level advisor.”


“Judicial?” Jim asked, his mind racing ahead.


“I wouldn’t be surprised. Federal judges can be bought. But we also have to look at CIA, the military, congress, anywhere that information can be bought, sold or suppressed.”


“You’re saying this is a national conspiracy?”


“I’m saying that this is much bigger than we thought, and since someone tried to kill you and failed, you’re going to be that much more at risk.”


“They tried to kill you, too,” Jim pointed out with the natural sarcasm Hunter always used.


“I was just in the way. You are a growing threat.”


“So they’re going to kill me, one way or the other.” Jim sounded surprisingly calm.


“I won’t allow it!” William’s eyes were now blazing with temper, surprising Jim.


“And just how do you plan to stop it?”


“Money,” William said. “Money makes the world go round. Money gives you power, buys loyalty and...removes obstacles.” There was more than a trace of barracuda in William’s voice.


Jim was wary. “How in the hell are you going to find him if we’ve been unable to locate him?”


William sounded very inch the king. “I don’t have to play by the same rules you do.”


Jim stayed silent, trying to channel Hunter as best he could.


“I’m rich, Vincent. It might be the only thing that will make a difference here.”


“You’re not that rich.”


“Rich enough, and even better, I have lots of even richer friends who owe me, both in and out of the country.”


“Big words,” Jim scoffed, more than a little worried to what extremes William would be willing to go.


“You think I’m weak, Vincent, because of what happened with your mother. You hate me for it, and I can’t blame you. But maybe I can help make up for it.”


“I don’t need any favors.”


“It’s not a favor - it’s repaying a debt.” William’s voice was hoarse with emotion.

“I’m not looking for approval or permission. I just...I just wanted you to know.”


“Fine. When Ellison gets back, you can fill him in. In the meantime, give Niven the disc in your pocket.”


“Can’t trick a sentinel,” William’s lips quirked in an almost smile. “It’s rough, and there are major gaps, but there’s enough there to continue digging.” He handed the disc to Niven.


“They’ll come after you,” Jim pointed out. “If you start something on this scale, there’s no way out.”


“I know that.” William stared at the house, wishing he could blurt out everything he felt and beg for forgiveness, for a second chance, but Vincent would shut him down immediately.


“Are we done?” Jim said impatiently.


“Yes, I suppose so. Is Sarah okay?”


The concern seemed to surprise the sentinel. “She’s fine.”


“She’s a sweet girl. I’m really glad you found another guide.”


Jim made an impatient noise, and William gave up his attempt at casual conversation. There was no breach in the wall around Vincent, but at least he had listened.


“I’ll be in touch,” William promised and hung up.


Jim leaned back against the door, a throbbing headache starting behind his eyes. He wanted to reach out to his father, but couldn’t.


“Sentinel Prime?” Sarah looked up at Detective Ellison, worried.


“It’s okay, Sarah, just got some information from my father, and I had to pretend to be Hunter. “


Sarah winced in sympathy, then reached out to take his hand. “Do you need to bond?”


Jim looked down at her and finally smiled. “You taking care of me now?”


“Isn’t that what sentinels and guides are supposed to do? Take care of each other?”


Jim let her lead him to the bonding mat. She still looked a bit wary, but not nearly as frightened as when they had first bonded.


Sarah lay down on her stomach, her hand still in the Sentinel Prime’s, and let her barriers drop and opened the link the moment his head touched her back.


Jim sighed in relief as the pain started to ease, and sentinel and guide descended into the quiet blue.


************************************


Blair had wolfed down a huge breakfast, gotten the royal tour from the delightful Miz Holt and was engaged in an amusing conversation with a boy staying at the boarding house when Hunter appeared with their bags.


“Time to go, Sandburg. We have to swing by the station and then we need to hit the road.”


“Hey, I’m just about ready. I was telling Caleb about one of my expeditions.” Blair sounded cheerful and grounded, but he had that familiar fascinated gleam in his eyes when he looked at the kid.


Hunter took his time assessing the kid. Looked and acted normal enough. But there was a faint sense of something dark underneath, like a pale shadow of the aura the sheriff had.


“You related to Sheriff Buck?” The blunt question seemed to startle the boy.


“He says he’s my daddy.” The boy looked equal parts pleased and dismayed when he said it.


“Sorry about your luck, kid.” Hunter didn’t mince words.


Caleb narrowed his eyes.


“Never mind, Caleb. It was nice to meet you. Good luck with your school project,” Blair interjected, with an exasperated look at Hunter.


“Yeah, thanks,” Caleb smiled at Blair. Children just seemed to gravitate to the long-haired young man and Caleb was no exception.


Blair thanked their hostess while Hunter paid the bill. He looked over to see a figure in the shaft of sunlight coming through the window. Caleb smiled at it.


“She’s pretty,” Blair said softly, earning another smile from the youngster.


“She’s my sister,” Caleb explained, glad that someone else could see her.


“You must be glad that she comes to visit you.”


The boy shrugged. “Most times.”


“Sandburg, get the lead out!” Hunter was in full BP mode, so Blair made his farewells and scooted after the sentinel.


“This town is so strange,” Blair remarked. “Sort of like the Stepford Wives meet the Amityville Horror.”


“Now, is that any way to talk about us?”


The deep voice made Blair jump, and Hunter scowl.


“You boys ready to hit the road?” Buck stood behind them, affable, charming and deadly.


“Past ready. What do you need, Buck?” Hunter was in no mood for games.


“Not a thing. Came by to let you know that everything checks out and you’re free to go.”


“Any leads on what happened?”


“Wrong place at the wrong time, I expect. Higgins should’ve taken that car in for maintenance more often.”


“Things just sort of happen around here, don’t they?”


“Uhm,” was all Buck said in response to the sarcastic question.


Hunter and Blair got in their truck, and Buck leaned into the open driver’s side window.


“Travel safe. I’m sure we’ll meet again.”


Hunter bared his teeth. “I wouldn’t plan on it.”


Buck watched them drive off, a faint smile on his face.


******************************************


William Ellison was tired and a bit short of breath. Bouncing back from major surgery in your late 50's was not the same as when you were twenty. His meeting with Vincent had gone better than expected, and a renewed hope had him sifting through documents and mentally calling up favors.


“Dad, you still up?” Steven peered into his father’s study. “It’s past midnight.” Steven was spending a lot of time at the house bringing his father up to date on the day to day operations of the company. With any luck, William would back at the helm in a couple of weeks.


“Come in, Steven,” William gestured, rubbing his eyes. “The investigators are giving us some good leads - it’s just a question on how we can act on them.”


“Trying to topple foreign empires, again?” Steven asked, tongue in cheek.


“Not exactly,” William hedged. “Steven, I went to see Vincent today.”


Steven froze.


“I know you don’t like him, but the possibility that our own government could be involved in all this is something he needs to know. They tried to kill him.”


“They tried to kill you! And damn near succeeded!”


“I owe him this, son. I have to try to make things right,” William’s voice softened. “He’s part of our family, for better or worse, and I have to do the right thing.”


“No matter who gets run over in the process,” Steven muttered. “I hate his fucking guts. He’s nothing but a liability.”


“He’s my son, Steven.”


The simple words cut through his youngest, vivisecting heart and soul. Two alpha sentinels, a guide prime and then there was Steven Ellison.


“Dad,” Steven swallowed.


“I’m really tired, Steven. Maybe we can finish the quarterly reports tomorrow?” William got up slowly, wincing slightly, and made his way into the hall.


“Yeah, sure.” Steven felt a stab of guilt at his father’s wan face. “I’ll be back in the morning. You okay?”


“Just need some sleep,” William said, brushing a hand over Steven’s shoulder as he slowly climbed the steps, stubbornly ignoring the elevator. “Good night, Stevie.”


The careless, casual endearment had Steven staring after him long afterward, alone in the darkened hallway.


*******************************************


“You okay, Hunter?”


They had reached Charleston and had grabbed a quick lunch at a diner.


“I’m fine, Sandburg. There is no way in hell we’ll ever go back to that town.”


“Yeah, it was spooky. I wonder what really happened to Higgins.”


“Probably broke his word. He’s always been good at that.”


“I can look at the disk as soon as we stop for the night. I sure hope his life was worth it.”


“His life was over a long time ago,” Hunter pronounced with chilling indifference. “One of us would have gotten him sooner or later.”


“What did you think about the sheriff?” Blair’s question seemed casual enough, but his nervously tapping fingers gave him away.


“I think he’s somebody we should stay the hell away from,” Hunter pronounced.


“Yeah, I hear that,” Blair agreed. “But he’s just so interesting.”


“So’s a green mamba snake, but I have no desire to get to know one.”


That apparently was that. Blair shut up and finished his sandwich with the vague unease he always associated with impending future disaster.


****************************


Blair shut the laptop down after they had spent two hours going over the information on the disc. “I don’t know what else you can do with this until you’re able to cross-reference this with the databases you can access,”


“I have to get a copy of the disc to my contact in the military, and to Ellison so he can access the law enforcement databases. We’ll carry one, but you know how things can mysteriously get lost. I think we’ll drive back. We still have a week or better of vacation time left. After that little fireball encounter we had, I don’t trust flying. Nowhere to run when you’re 25,000 feet up.”


Blair had an image pop up in his head of an exploding plane and winced. “How can Jim do that when he’s stuck at your house?”


Hunter stretched and yawned, then shot Blair an exasperated look. “Sarah can access the databases remotely. She’s seen me type in my password any number of times.”


“You think she’ll go ahead and do that on her own?” Blair was fascinated by Hunter’s acceptance of both Sarah’s intelligence and the assumption that she would take the initiative to access the database in the first place.


“I’ve taught her to think on her feet,” Hunter said wryly. “Dumb blonde she isn’t.”


Blair smiled at that.


“Time to crash,” Hunter pronounced. “We won’t leave until tomorrow. I’m going to stop at the nearest electronics store and pick up a couple of blank disks so we can run some copies. We can hit the nearest post office after that.”


“Copy a disk? How are you going to do that? My laptop is ancient and I can’t burn CDs on it.”


“While you ‘shop’ for a new computer,” Hunter explained patiently. “Shouldn’t take much to distract the sales staff.”


“This is getting way too convoluted,” Blair sighed, flopping backward onto the nearest bed and sighing with pleasure at the bliss of lying horizontal. “Then you’re actually gonna mail them? What about all the top-secret, hush-hush, don’t let the bad guys find out what we’re doing?”


“Easy,” Hunter shrugged, finally stretching out on his own bed. “Before we hit the post office, we’re going to get a nice colorful box from Toys R Us.”


Blair laughed, punching his pillow into a comfortable shape.


“You need to bond, Sandburg?” Hunter sounded casual enough, but the intensity of sentinel concern lurked behind the words.


“Nah, I’m okay. Probably will by morning, though.”


Hunter grunted a good night and switched out the light.


Blair lay in the darkness, drowsily running over the endless list of facts and intersecting incidents, trying to see the big picture - whatever it was. He was asleep five minutes later.


When Hunter heard the guide’s heart and breathing slow into slumber, he closed his eyes and followed.


***********************


Blair was dreaming. He knew that, and still couldn’t stop the nightmare. He was back in Corrections, bruised, naked and bleeding on the cold concrete. The pain was sharp, almost as sharp as the fear and despair. He huddled into a ball, hoping desperately that the men were finished with him. It was happening again, every moment he hoped to forget replaying like some insidious record. And God, it hurt!


A large hand curled around the back of his neck and pulled his head up to look into the face of a tall man wearing a vest and black duster.


“Hello again, son.” The deep southern drawl seemed to crawl inside his head. “Bad dreams?”


Blair couldn’t look away, couldn’t fight the eyes that seemed to burn into his brain. Can’t block it, can’t stop it....


“It’s just a dream.” Blair said hoarsely. “It’s just a dream.” He tried to pull his head free of the man’s grip but it was a wasted effort. “Stop it!”


“For now,” the voice drawled.


Blair woke with a start, waking up the sentinel in the other bed.


“Sandburg, what’s wrong?” Hunter rolled out of bed and moved to the distraught guide. He could smell fresh blood, and then just as suddenly, the scent was gone.


Blair was almost hyperventilating.


“What in the hell is going on?!” Hunter thundered.


“Nightmare. Bad one,” Blair gulped. The pain had felt so real.


“It’s Buck, isn’t it? He’s messing with your head.”


Blair shivered and Hunter swore. He hauled the guide to him. “Bond. I should never have let you say no last night.”


“Fuck that, man! It’s my choice. I choose!” Blair was furious and underneath the old fear was stirring and threatening to overwhelm him. He tried to pull away from the sentinel but Hunter wouldn’t let him go. After several wild attempts to free himself, Blair finally stopped struggling but his heart rate was still in the hundreds.


The moment Blair went still, Hunter loosened his grip. “Yeah, I know. Your choice. But damn it, Sandburg, why didn’t you bond when I asked you?”


“Because I thought I could handle it. I never expected anything like this.” Blair rubbed a hand over his face trying to calm down. “He wasn’t doing anything to me. He was just...observing. Like replaying an old movie.”


“Son of a bitch,” Hunter growled. “He hasn’t tried anything with me.”


“Yet,” Blair pointed out. “This is seriously wigging me out, man. What was he looking for?”


“I don’t know, but it can’t be good. We leave now. The further we get away from here the better.”


“Do you really think geographical distance is going to make any difference?” Blair knew better than that, and so did Hunter. Blair moved to lay on his back. He felt way too vulnerable to lie prone.


Hunter’s head settled onto Blair’s chest. “Don’t know, but we’re damn well going to try.”


“I think he has empathic ability, or precognitive. He’s - I don’t know what he is.”


“The operative work being ‘what’,” Hunter growled.


“If you believe in destiny or karma, then certain things are going to happen no matter what choices we make.”


“So Fate just decided our lives weren’t complicated enough and threw in a sociopathic southern sheriff?”


Blair snorted and finally relaxed enough to let himself sink into the bond, safe for the moment.


Hunter heard a slow drawl echo in his head. One of these days, Captain, I’ll have to tell you about the illusion of free will.


Hunter curled his lip and deliberately shut out the rest of the world.


***********************


Jim picked through the information on the disc while Sarah accessed the police data bases, but nothing conclusive came together. Hints, several names, but no real proof. William was right about one thing, though - this was much bigger than any of them had suspected.


“Ah, damn it to hell, this is getting us nowhere.” Jim got up from the computer and stretched.


“It’s like a giant puzzle where the pieces keep changing shapes,” Sarah said, rubbing the grit from her eyes. It was past midnight and she desperately wanted to go outside. The comfortable house felt like a cell, the walls closing in slowly but surely.


“Might as well go up to bed, Sarah.”


Hunter had left another message on the antique collector’s message board that a package should be arriving shortly, and perhaps that would help. And best of all, Hunter and Blair were heading back to Cascade. Jim would have his guide again.


“When will they be home?”


“Five, six days. It sounds like they have some information, too.” Jim had already told her about William Ellison’s plan, and Sarah had looked very worried. “There’s going to be a domino effect if Dad pushes the wrong person.”


“Are they going to kill all of us?” Sarah asked, eyes huge and uncertain.


“They’ll probably try.” Jim wouldn’t lie to her, but he hated scaring her.


Sarah shuddered a bit, then nodded. “So we have to get them first, right?”


“Pretty much. I don’t want you to jump at every shadow, but you’ll have to take precautions. Hunter won’t be under house arrest forever.”


“It’s just part of the deal, right?” Sarah looked solemn. “To serve and protect? You risk your life to do that.”


“I signed up knowing the risks, and Hunter did, too. You and Blair didn’t have a choice.”


Sarah leaned against the back of the La-Z-Boy chair. “But we did.”


“You were both bonded to a sentinel against your will,” Jim pointed out gently.


“But we chose to stay.” Sarah lifted her chin. “We stayed.”


Jim reached out and ruffled her hair affectionately. “Yeah, you did. God knows why.”


Sarah made her way to the stairs. “Because you need us.”


“Good night, Sarah,” Jim said, moved by her conviction. He cared deeply for Blair, loved him like a brother, and knew Blair returned that feeling. But Hunter and Sarah’s relationship was a lot more volatile and convoluted.


One of these days, Hunter, you’ll have to admit you care. She deserves nothing less.


***********************


Hunter walked out of the discount electronics store with two copied discs and a moderately grouchy guide.


“Took you long enough,” Blair grumbled. “I was running out of stupid questions to ask.”


”Think of it as a chance to practice your obfuscation skills, Sandburg,” Hunter said with zero sympathy. “Now we’ll get some boxes, mail out the copies and head back to Cascade.”


Blair squinted against the momentary watery sunshine. He looked around, half-expecting to see a blue vehicle waiting for them.


“He’s not here, Sandburg.” Hunter got in the truck and started the engine.


“Well, yeah, not physically, but still....” Blair peered into the rearview mirror.


“But nothing. He tries this again, and I’ll go after him.”


“Hunter, he’s not playing the same field. Barging into his town is probably the surest way of ending up as gator bait.”


Hunter sighed. “I’m not talking about actually going back there.”


“You’re gonna go after him on a spiritual level?” Blair sounded aghast. “Are you crazy?”


Hunter grunted a negative.


“Hunter, we’re talking major metaphysical stuff here. Do you even know how dangerous that is? Just coming after me when I died could have opened a door you’d never want opened.”


Hunter didn’t answer.


Blair suddenly stopped his agitated hair pulling. “It did, didn’t it? Something followed you back.” His eyes were starting to dilate with distress. “You came to save me and brought back an elemental.”


“Not quite,” Hunter finally said. “But no need to worry about it - it’s gone now. I took care of it.”


Blair was torn between the instinctive “how did you do it?” and the distress of having caused so much trouble. Vincent Hunter, pragmatic IA Captain, had apparently far more esoteric experience than Jim and Blair had given him credit for, however much he tried to hide it.


“Please don’t try to go after Buck.” Blair’s voice was raw. “It’s just too dangerous.”


Hunter reached out and absently patted the guide on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Sandburg. I’ll pick my battles.”


*************************


Blair sat cross-legged on the floor of his office, surrounded by stacks of paper. Even just a couple of weeks away had piled up more stuff than he had thought possible. He’d been at it for hours with no end in sight. He rubbed his tired eyes and thought vaguely about making a trip to the coffee machine.


“Pretty small office, son.”


Blair jerked, then looked up to see a familiar face smiling down at him. “I’m dreaming again.”


“That you are. Figured this might be a little less traumatic.” Buck hunched down to look at the stacks of journals piled everywhere. “How do you find anything in this mess?”


Blair stayed still, not wanting to escalate anything, least of all his own fear. “What do you want?”


“World domination?” Buck shrugged, smiling as he straightened back up. “Right now I just want to figure out how you fit in my universe.”


“I’m not part of your world,” Blair stated as calmly as his thundering pulse would allow.


“Oh, but you are, Professor. I first thought you were just a reincarnation of a Dark Guide, but you’re an academic, a mystic and damned if you haven’t died and come back to life. You’re unique, and you came to Trinity for a reason. I just have to figure out what that reason is.”


“Coincidence,” Blair said, but it sounded less than convincing.


“There are no coincidences.” Buck’s eyes were turning dark.


Blair wanted to wake up, he wanted to fight this apparition haunting him, he wanted to do anything but just sit there, but he couldn’t move.


Buck’s eyes held Blair captive for several long minutes, then Buck broke his gaze. “You’ve got a gold mine of potential, son, but you have a problem.”


“Tell me something I don’t know,” Blair muttered.


Buck walked over to the small dry erase board Blair kept on the wall and picked up the marker. He drew a square in the center of the board. “This is you now.” Above, he drew a triangle and a rectangle. “These represent Dark Guide and your - what is the word you use - shaman. They’re both part of you, but you can’t get them to come together.” Buck drew a large circle around all three shapes. “You know why?”


Blair stared at Buck wordlessly.


Buck drew a line separating the rectangle from the square and the triangle. “Fear. This is what keeps you from being who you’re meant to be.”


Blair hissed through his teeth. “You have no idea what I’ve been through.”


“I beg to differ, son,” Buck drawled. “The last session we had was very enlightening.”


Blair was furious, scared and emotionally raw. “I can’t help what happened or what I feel.”


“No, but you can’t let it take you over.” Buck put down the marker and moved to crouch down in front of Blair.


Blair pulled back ever so slightly, his muscles almost useless. The thing looming over him was much more than a physical threat.


“You can stop shaking like that, son. I’m not planning on doing anything to you at the moment.” Buck reached out and caught Blair’s chin, forcing Blair to look at him.”You have to get control of that fear, or it’ll run you out on a rail.”


Great. The supernatural whatever-it-was was lecturing him with that same paternalistic tone he heard too often from Hunter and sometimes from Jim. Coach Jim, Drill Sergeant Hunter and now the southern boogeyman sheriff.


“And by what miracle am I supposed to do that?” Blair let the sarcasm slip out before he could stop it.


“I could help you with that.”


How the hell does he know so much? Blair felt the fascination return, just under the anxiety. Why is he doing this?


“I could help, and maybe down the road, I’d ask for a small favor.” Buck was staring into his eyes, and Blair could feel the push against his mind, questing but not hostile. The grip on his chin wasn’t painful.


“Uh, no thanks,” Blair finally blurted out. “It’s a little too frog and scorpion to me.”


“I forgot about that old story. Something about knowing what it was before picking it up.”


“Except that I don’t know, not really.”


“Meditate on it. I’m sure it’ll come to you.” Buck let go of his captive, and Blair swallowed in relief. “You might just change your mind later.”


Blair only thought was: no way.


“My son took a shine to you - he rarely does with strangers.” Buck stood up again, all charm and no menace. “So I guess I’ll have to find out more about your little family. Your sentinel, for one, and the one who’s watching out for you now. And...” Buck smiled at the last image that popped in his head. “Now that’s one beautiful little girl.”


Sarah! Blair tightened his lips. If Buck came after Hunter or Jim, both of them would have a fighting chance, but Sarah....


“Sarah, lovely name. Biblical, like Caleb.” Buck smiled at the young man. “Caleb means devoted one, fitting for a son. Sarah means princess, and she was the only woman whom God deemed worthy to be addressed by him directly.”


Blair’s Uh-Oh meter was ringing big time.


“You four apparently come as a matched set. I’ll have to think about that.” Buck moved to the door. “Good night, Professor. I’ll see you around”


Blair woke with a start, and turned over to see Hunter staring at him in the dark.


“Sandburg?”


“I’m okay. Nothing radical. Just gotta get my breath.” Blair got up and walked to the bathroom, turning on the cold water and splashing his face. It figured that their last night on the road would be interrupted by one of his nightmare specials.


Hunter got up and leaned against the bathroom doorway. “What happened?”


“Well,” Blair began, suppressing the insane urge to laugh. “Buck paid me another visit. I’m apparently not living up to my full potential.”


“What?” Hunter narrowed his eyes.


“I just got a lecture on what I need to do to straighten my life out,” Blair explained. “That was just plain weird, man. The bad news is that Buck is interested in all four of us.”


“Great.” Hunter rolled his eyes. “So this means what? Nightmares for everyone?”


“I don’t know,” Blair said honestly.


“I’ll be paying that man a visit,” Hunter promised.


“No!” Blair grabbed Hunter’s wrist as if to physically stop him. “Leave it alone, man. As long as he doesn’t do anything aggressive, let’s just wait him out. I need time to prepare. I need to think.” Blair frowned in concentration. “He said he wants to figure out why we ended up in his town, but there’s gotta be more to that.”


“Another one of your karma theories?”


Blair let go of Hunter’s wrist as he calmed down. “If you go by that theory, then Buck makes sense. We came to his town for a reason that’s relevant to him, but then the reverse would be true, too.”


“That Buck is supposed to play a part in your life - our lives - for a higher reason? Make that a lower reason. Heaven doesn’t have anything to do with this.”


“Maybe. Dunno. Gotta think on this.” Blair crawled back into his bed. “It was strange. I was scared to death in my dream, yet Buck was there trying to tell me how I could get past that. He offered to help me - for a favor”


Hunter gave him an obelisk stare. “What kind of favor?”


“No idea. I’m not planning on taking him up on the offer.”


“Damn right you won’t,” Hunter pronounced with cool sentinel arrogance. “You can’t trust him, Sandburg.”


Blair shot him a look of exasperation. He couldn’t trust Buck any more than your average homicidal psychopath, but sadly, Buck made a lot of sense. And the universal balance issue still weighed in the back of Blair’s mind. Was his near death experience the reason Lucas Buck had come into their lives? What was it that he was missing in this picture?


“Don’t strain your brain, Darwin. You can work on this after we get back to Cascade.”


“Do you think I’m not living up to my potential, Hunter?” Blair found he could finally voice one of his secret worries in the comforting dark.


Hunter didn’t answer immediately, and Blair tensed.


“Hunter?”


“I can think of a few things you could work on. Stamina, for one. How much do you exercise?”


“Well,” Blair said guiltily, “Not much at all since, well, since Alex and the GDP got me. I guess I just haven’t been motivated.”


Hunter stared at the ceiling. He hated these late night confessions. “Since when does motivation play in? You’re a guide working with the police. You have to maintain good physical conditioning for that.”


“Jim was more worried about my recuperating from the GDP.”


Hunter sighed and decided to be brutally honest. “Ellison coddles you too much.”


That was surprisingly painful to hear. “So, like, I’m just wallowing in self-pity?”


 “You’ve had one excuse after another, Sandburg. First Barnes, then the GDP, now the near-drowning. Everyone allowed you to slack off a little more. The question is when do you want to change that?”


A few weeks ago, Blair would have curled up in dismay and pain, but now something else was simmering, waiting....“You think I want to be like this? Scared of a million things, constant nightmares and panic attacks and hoping every night my sentinel doesn’t get tired of my neuroses and kick me out?” Blair felt the anger bubbling up, but it wasn’t enough to melt the cold lump in his chest. “I’m trying to stabilize my life, take care of Jim, work on my thesis, take care of the clan, and not crack up in the process. It’s not a cakewalk.”


“Nothing worthwhile is ever easy,” Hunter agreed.


Blair finally turned to face him, livid. “You want to know what they did to me? What Alex and the GDP did that nearly made me lose my sanity?” Blair knew Jim had only given Hunter the most superficial details of his abuse, and Blair had taken great pains to hide the worst of it from Sarah and the Shield.


“I already know, Sandburg.”


“Bullshit!”


“The bond works both ways, Sandburg,” Hunter reminded him, “I saw it when we bonded on the mountain. You suppressed it, but I still saw it.”


Blair deflated, anger replaced by shame. “All fucked up, literally and figuratively.” He braced himself for the next scathing comment.


But Hunter did something unexpected. He reached across and clipped Blair in the jaw lightly, shocking the guide to full attention.


“Shut the hell up, Sandburg, and look at me.”


Blair turned his head, his eyes full of shadows.


“I told you before: you’re bloodied, but unbowed. You can fight when you need to.”


Blair said nothing.


“You can fight,” Hunter repeated. “And you can win.”


“I want Jim,” Blair blurted out before he could stop himself. He needed the reassurance and security only Jim could give him, sentinel to guide.


“I know you do,” Hunter said quietly. “But more than that you need to know you can make it on your own.”


Blair sagged against the mattress, unbearably tired. “You’re one mean son a bitch, Hunter.”


“Yep.”


Blair felt the heat in his chest shrink back to a core of ice. He turned onto his back to break eye contact with the sentinel in the other bed, cold to the marrow. He blinked to clear his eyes and pulled the covers up around his neck, trying to combat an inner chill that had nothing to do with the room temperature. And then squawked in surprise when he was abruptly yanked out of bed.


Blair felt himself being settled next to the sentinel, blankets and all, and the chill seemed to leach out of his body replaced by a peaceful warmth. “You make a great teddy bear, Hunter.” Blair’s voice was slurred, half-asleep already.


“With six inch fangs,” Hunter said dryly, knowing it would be morning before Sandburg would catch the obscure television reference. “When we get back to Cascade, you’re going to start a strength training and conditioning program.”


Blair mumbled again. Even that threat of mandatory PT couldn’t pull him out of the well of sleep beckoning him. Hunter looked over to the other bed, where the tiger and wolf curled up together in peaceful slumber. Hunter sighed and closed his eyes.


************************


It was quiet on the mountain. Hunter sat propped against the tree in the clearing where his mother’s spirit lingered. He was at peace, content with the wind in his hair and the occasional flash of sunlight through the trees. Nothing and no one to disturb him.


“Nice place.”


Hunter opened his eyes and looked up in annoyance. “Go haunt somebody else, Buck.”


“You knew I’d be by.” Buck settled himself down on a rock a few feet away from the sentinel.


“I fail to see what your fascination is with us.”


Buck laughed. “Still have to find out why you ended up in my town.”


“The world doesn’t revolve around you, Buck.” Hunter didn’t even bother to get up.


“Just my little corner,” Buck said agreeably. “But that doesn’t change the fact that our lives intersected. Everything happens for a reason.”


“What in the hell do you really want?” Hunter asked bluntly.

 

Buck leaned back and stretched like a cat. “You’re direct - saves time and effort. You’re also not afraid of me, which is interesting.”


Hunter rolled his eyes.


“That either means you’re ignorant and just don’t know that you should be scared...or you know too much.”


Hunter snorted.


“I’d say you have some esoteric experience of your own, Captain Hunter, and not the happily ever after benevolent spirits kind.”


Hunter eyed him. “Look who’s talking. You’re not human, not entirely.”


“Those sentinel senses - better than Spiderman.” Buck twirled a stick in his hand, completely affable. “So what do you think I am?”


“Trouble,” Hunter said dryly, eliciting another laugh from the sheriff.


“This doesn’t have to be a confrontation. We could work out something mutually beneficial - a little give and take.”


“You don’t really think I’m swallowing that line of bull, do you?” Hunter crossed his arms defiantly. “The only person who wins in that kind of deal is you.”


Buck shrugged. “House has the edge in any gamble.”


“I’ll keep it simple: no. No way, no how.”


Buck’s eyes were darkening, and the sky grew dim as the wind stopped moving. Hunter watched those eyes carefully, sentinel senses extending to read the man in front of him.


“I could give you nightmares, Hunter, that would keep you from ever sleeping again.”


“Right,” Hunter said, sarcasm personified.


“Careful, there, Captain,” Buck drawled. “Underestimating me could be...fatal.”


Hunter just looked at him, giving nothing away.


“Or I could give you a chance to change things. Want to go back and save Gary? Find a cure for your mother? Change it all and have her marry William Ellison?”


“You son of a bitch,” Hunter said softly, his eyes as cold as Buck’s.


“Remember what I said about free will?” Buck wasn’t smiling anymore. “What makes you think you have any choice in this?”


“Get the hell out of my dreams. I’m not playing your games.”


Buck’s eyes were normal again, and the sky was blue and serene above them. “You’d be tough to break, for a number of reasons, but there are other ways.” Buck was back to his lazy southern charm.


Hunter stood up slowly and Buck mirrored him. They were less than two feet apart.


“Everyone has an Achilles heel, Buck. I’ll find yours.”


“Maybe, but by then, it won’t matter.”


Hunter stepped forward, but Buck was gone.


Hunter woke and glanced around the motel room. Sandburg was peacefully sawing wood, and the only thing that remained was softly whistled notes that eventually faded away, but not before Hunter recognized the theme song from The Andy Griffith Show.


Despite the circumstances, Hunter had to appreciate that bit of black humor.


************************


William Ellison waited in his study. It was almost one in the morning but he wasn’t in the least bit tired. His guest would be here soon.


The dapper older oriental man walked in flanked by two burly men whose purpose was clear - guard the man between them.


“Mr. Taganoshi,” William said, forgoing a handshake for a small, perfectly executed bow.


“Mr. Ellison,” the man replied, his English clipped and very British. “You have finally called in your favor.”


“Yes,” William said quietly. “You know the details by now. I was shot, and now both my sons and their guides are in danger. I want this threat eliminated.”


“By any means?”


William smiled mirthlessly. “By any means.”


“Regardless of how many die?”


William paused at that, but he knew he had no choice. “You can’t get all of them. I know that. Just the most immediate threat, and...perhaps a warning to the others.”


Taganoshi’s organization made the mafia look like an elementary school gang. He had his fingers in many pies, not all of them legal, and he never forgot a debt.


“It’s a shame you never crossed the line, Mr. Ellison. You would have been quite good at it.”


“Thanks, I think,” William said with a short bitter laugh. “I guess I just wasn’t ruthless enough.”


“You are now.”


William slowly nodded. “Yes, I am now.”


************************


Sarah lifted her face to the sun, savoring the lightly humid autumn warmth. Wearing an old T-shirt tucked in faded jeans frayed at the cuffs, she walked barefoot along the river.

The grass was warm and soft beneath her feet.


In the distance, several teenagers were fishing and splashing in the water, their laughter and shouts barely audible.


Peaceful. It was just so pleasant and peaceful here.


“Hello there, young lady.”


Startled, Sarah turned to see a man in a button down shirt and vest standing ten feet away from her. She automatically took a step backward.


“Enjoying the river?” he asked, smiling. He was tall and handsome, but something in his eyes gave her the willies. She took another step backward.


“Careful. Don’t want you falling in the water.” He moved a little closer and she took another step back to maintain the distance between them. “I’m the sheriff hereabouts.”


Sarah studied him, nerves tingling slightly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to trespass.”


“We rarely shoot tourists these days,” Buck smiled. “Just passing through?”


Sarah frowned as she looked around again. “I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m here.”


Buck just watched her. She was small, slightly built and very young. Impressionable, unsure and probably easily manipulated. Perfect.


“Why are you here?” she asked. “This is my dream.”


“Just passing by,” he said glibly, moving a bit closer.


Sarah took another step back and lost her balance. A strong hand caught her before she fell.


At his touch, random images flashed through her mind. He and a woman in a passionate kiss, then them in a car, heading straight off a bridge. Another woman leaping through the glass of a closed window. And a dark-haired girl, bleeding and in shock, until her neck was snapped. Sarah jerked her arm from his grasp, her eyes wide. Something was very, very wrong.


His eyes narrowed in speculation.


“Who are you?” Sarah’s voice was thinner than she’d like it to be, the faint tremor clearly broadcasting her nervousness.


“Sheriff Lucas Buck,” the man said, and had her wrist shackled in his hand so quickly that Sarah hadn’t even seen him move. This time, whatever she had seen before was completely blocked.


Sarah tried to pull away, but this time nothing would loosen his grip.


“Now, let’s have a look at you,” he said pleasantly, pulling her to him. Her increasingly frantic attempts to loosen his grip only made him chuckle. “Easy, darlin’.”


Sarah stopped pulling and then suddenly ducked and twisted, successfully toppling the man as he let her go to break his fall. He was on his feet almost immediately.


“Nice,” he said, all admiration. “There’s more to you than meets the eye.” He caught her again before she could run.


This time both her wrists were locked in his hands, and he pulled her closer. Her hands were shaking and ice-cold perspiration trickled down her back.


“Don’t look so scared. I just want a good look at you.” He transferred both her wrists to his left hand - they were as slender as a child’s - and used his right hand to tip up her face.


Those eyes stared into hers, drawing out every thought and feeling until her head started to ache. He finally let her look away. “Oh, there’s much more to you than meets the eye.” He let go of her face and transferred his grip again so that he held a wrist in each hand.


“Let me go,” Sarah whispered, barely able to get the words out, her voice paper-thin.


The man smiled. “Eventually. I think both you and Sandburg will be quite useful to me.”


Sarah’s lips parted in surprise. He knew Blair? The kindest man she had ever known was being threatened by this man?


“I never quite understood what sentinels and guides were capable of - until now.”


“Let. Me. Go.” Sarah’s hands clenched, and when he caught the look in her eyes, he was pleasantly surprised. Fear, yes. But underneath anger, righteous anger. And the fierce protective instinct seen in female wild animals with young.


“You’re a little spitfire, aren’t you?” Buck’s hands tightened to the point of pain. “I love feisty females.”


This time, a new wariness crept into her gaze.


His small smile was a hundred times more threatening than anything Gross had done to her. Sarah’s pulse thundered in her neck, in her head. She licked her dry lips as she desperately tried to figure a way out of this mess.


“Easy.” Buck let her wrists go. “I got what I wanted...for now.”


Then she was alone by the river with no sign that he had ever been there.


She woke, sobbing under her breath.


“Sarah?” Jim Ellison sat at the edge of her bed, his worried expression soothing away the nightmare. “What’s the matter, sweetie? Bad dream?”


She ducked into his arms, shivering as she clung to him. She didn’t want to talk about it and Jim didn’t pressure her.


He rocked her until her breathing and heart rate slowed and she finally fell back asleep.



*************************


Jim was washing his truck - something which always relaxed him. The day was comfortably cool and overcast, with no rain expected.


“Nice truck.”


Jim turned abruptly. He hadn’t heard anyone approach.


A man about his own height stood watching him. He looked harmless enough, but Jim had long ago stopped trusting superficial details.


“Who the hell are you?” Jim held the nozzle of the hose like a gun.


“Gonna shoot me with that?” The man laughed. “I’m Lucas Buck, Sheriff in Trinity, South Carolina.”


“You visiting here?”


“Something like that,” Buck said, universal male appreciation for big motorized vehicles in his eyes as he checked out the truck.


Jim relaxed slightly, but something was niggling at him, almost like a prickle at the back of his neck. “What do you want?”


“I wanted to meet you, Detective Ellison. Sandburg told me quite a bit about you.”


“You know Blair?” Jim’s wariness descended into suspicion.


“Met him recently.”


That set off Jim’s inner alarm. “Blair hasn’t met anyone recently. He’s been out of town.”


It didn’t make sense. None of this did. He was on house arrest. He shouldn’t be washing his truck. He shouldn’t be outside period.


 “This is a dream. This isn’t real.” Jim shook his head as if to clear it.


“Real enough,” Buck said, his eyes going dark.


“Don’t even think about it,” Jim warned, the prickling feeling intensifying.


“What exactly is it that you think I’m going to do?” Buck laughed. “Attack a Cascade police officer in his own town?”

 

Jim extended his sentinel senses, careful not to zone. Buck was....something else entirely. “Why are you here?”


“You’re not that much like him. You’re more open and tolerant. Emotions more balanced. You may look alike, but you’re not.”


“What in the hell are you doing messing with Blair and Hunter?” Jim still held the hose at the ready.


“The four of you are very interesting.”


So that’s what had spooked Sarah so badly. “What did you do to her?”


“She’s a sweet little thing. Shame if something happened to her.”


Jim had no idea what was going on, but Buck was a threat to both guides and his brother. The answer was simple.


“I’ll be seeing you, Detective.” Buck stopped and then looked down at his chest in surprise. The hose Ellison held was now a gun that had just been fired. “You shot me.”


“My dream,” Jim pointed out reasonably. He’d had plenty of nightmares as a child, and learned to change them through sheer force of will.


But Buck didn’t fall.


“You should be dead.” Jim sounded less certain.


Buck straightened, amused. “Too bad you can’t kill me.” The bloody hole had vanished. Then so did he.


Jim stared down at the gun and his hand, and then dropped it as he woke.


Looking around Hunter’s bedroom, he could sense nothing out of the ordinary. Buck, whoever or whatever he was, wasn’t there.


*************************************


Steven Ellison walked into his father’s house at two in the morning and found several men he’d never seen before in the living room. Panic for his father had him grabbing his cell phone to call 911 when an older oriental man stopped him.


“Mr. Ellison, no need for alarm. Your father summoned me.”


Steven moved forward, finally recognizing the man. “Mr. Taganoshi? Forgive me, I’ve been very worried about Dad’s security and...”


“No need. Your father and I discussed a little business.”


Steven wasn’t a fool. “A debt, perhaps?”


“You are quite astute. William tells me you’ve been managing the company during his illness.”


“I’m his son,” Steven said stiffly, bitter resentment toward Hunter and guilt about Jim and Blair making his tone this shy of rude. He backtracked as soon as the words came out. “Forgive me, it’s been quite stressful.”


“There’s an old saying: three brothers, three fortresses,” the older man said shrewdly. He could always easily read between the lines when it came to family.


“Forgive me, sir, but that’s personal,” Steven answered.


“”If you say so,” Taganoshi said graciously, making Steven feel like a uncouth idiot with just a look.


“Can I get you anything?” Steven said hurriedly, trying to change the subject.


“Thank you, but we are just leaving.” Tagnoshi’s bodyguards were at his sides immediately. “Your father is still in his study.”


After executing a bow that was almost as elegant as William Ellison’s, Steven found himself alone.


He walked over to his father’s study. William sat at his desk, nursing a whiskey, deep in thought.


“Dad?”


William looked up and his face warmed. “Stevie. You saw Tagnoshi?”


“Yes. So that’s your decision?” Steven was more than a little apprehensive.


William downed the whiskey without a blink. “Yes, it is.”

 

************************


Blair sat up straighter as they passed the city limits sign Welcome to Cascade. “Man, am I glad we’re back home.” Blair almost bounced in anticipation.


“I’m crushed, Sandburg,” Hunter drawled. “Guess this joint custody thing just isn’t in the cards.”


Blair chuckled. “Come on, man, you know it’ll be great to see your own guide and sleep in your own bed.”


“I’m still under house arrest, remember? And that tie clasp will tip that into formal charges any time now.”


“If I know Jim, your fingerprints will be long gone from that bit of evidence before it reaches the crime lab.”


“Army hero boy scout tampering with evidence?” Hunter mocked. “Not likely.”


Blair grew quiet and contemplative. “No, brother protecting brother.” He looked over to see Hunter’s jaw tighten. “It’ll be chalked up to an unfortunate mistake made in the heat of the moment. Ratcliff’s little sentinel snitch who arrived on the crime scene and told H the tie clasp had your fingerprints will look like a total idiot.”


“Ellison told Brown the same thing.”


“No, he just said he wanted to look at it. The only people Jim told that he also saw your fingerprints on the clasp were the three of us.”


“You have a lot of faith in Ellison,” Hunter observed with his usual sarcasm.


“He has a lot of faith in you.”


Hunter almost ground his teeth but said nothing.


 “So do I.” Blair gave him the full benefit of large puppy dog eyes which made Hunter grumble under his breath.


“And you talk about me not having personal insight,” Blair muttered, but let the topic drop.


They rode for a few more minutes in silence, then Hunter thankfully changed the subject. “We’ll swing by my house after we pick up Ellison’s truck, then you and Ellison can head to his place.” Hunter ran through his mental checklist quickly.


“Can we have lunch first?” Blair’s stomach was rumbling and the fast food breakfast they had consumed was only a distant greasy memory.


“I’d better check in with Banks and let him know “Ellison” is back in town.” He punched the speed dial on Ellison’s cell phone.


Blair could hear Simon’s bull moose tones even without the aid of the speaker. Apparently Snow was still missing and nobody had reported a dead body.


“You’ll have to help them find him,” Hunter pointed out after he had hung up.


“Oh, yeah, no problem. Just let me just turn on my spiritual GPS system, and I’ll have this figured out in no time.”


“You’re getting to be a real smartass, Sandburg.”


“Yeah,” Blair grinned, pleased with himself.


As they approached the house, Hunter noticed two unmarked cars and another vehicle with two sentinels. He nodded approvingly. As Jim’s familiar truck pulled up, the posture of the two sentinels relaxed slightly, and one even waved as Hunter got out. Doing his best Ellison impression, Hunter waved and smiled, and kept far enough away that the sentinels wouldn’t be able to detect the switch.


The door opened and Jim whisked them inside. “Damn glad you’re here. I had a very weird dream last night. You know anybody named Lucas Buck?” He caught Blair in a bear hug which was returned with equal fervor.


“It’s a really long story,” Blair said apologetically. “We ran into him in Trinity where one of Hunter’s sources was killed in car explosion, and the next thing I know, he’s in my dreams. And Hunter’s. And now yours. I’ll explain later.”


Hunter’s eyes narrowed at Sarah, who hung back a little instead of coming forward to reclaim her sentinel. It was more than shyness - the mention of Buck’s name had spooked her.


“He was in Sarah’s dreams, too, wasn’t he?” Hunter growled, annoyed at his guide for hesitating, and pissed in general that Lucas Buck was making dream rounds. “Come here, Sarah.”


Sarah wanted nothing more than to run to her sentinel, but the look on his face was not welcoming. It was distinctly hostile. Why was he mad?


Hunter snarled and moved toward his guide, who involuntarily moved backward. He suddenly let out a growl. Sarah’s eyes widened in alarm.


Blair swore under his breath. “Shit, he’s gone primal. Hunter! Not now, not like this.”


A primal sentinel was not the most reassuring of things for a guide on a good day. Given what had happened the last two weeks, this was a very bad day.


Jim tried to block Hunter and was shoved roughly aside.


“Hunter!” Blair’s voice was sharp. “You can’t do this now!”


The sentinel paid no attention, reaching for his guide, who now had moved behind the recliner.


“Blair?” Sarah’s voice was strained. “What’s wrong with him?”


“He’s gone primal, Sarah.” Blair tried to make a soothing gesture on Hunter’s shoulder and was pushed aside. “Hunter, stop it!”


“Blair?” Not even Blair was sure how going primal would manifest in the Shield, and given Blair’s story of how Detective Ellison had ripped off his shirt in the process, Sarah didn’t even want to think about what might happen to her. She made an abortive attempt to move, but Hunter was right there, blocking her.


By clan law, no one was allowed to interfere in a primal bonding between sentinel and guide, no matter how hairy it got. It was understood that a primal bonding came well after a sentinel and guide had gotten a chance to know each other and developed a strong level of mutual trust. It unfortunately didn’t take into account any psychological issues a guide or sentinel had before bonding.


“Don’t run, Sarah.” This time it was the Sentinel Prime who spoke.


Easy for him to say, Sarah thought. He didn’t have a furious sentinel two feet away from him with murder in his eyes. Hunter circled the chair, and Sarah moved in tandem to keep the chair between them.


“Damn it, damn it, damn it,” Blair muttered. “Geez, what a cluster.”


Sarah darted to the right, eluding Hunter’s grasp by just a hair, and then the recliner was tossed aside, and there was nothing to stop him.


Sarah made a final lunge, but Hunter grabbed her upper arms and pulled her to him, bending his head to scent at her neck, much more roughly than he normally did. She twisted in vain, but Hunter wouldn’t let go. He reached up, caught the collar of her t-shirt and ripped it down her shoulder and then she felt his teeth dig into her neck. She yelped, more in surprise than actual pain.


Hunter snarled and his hand moved to the back of Sarah’s head, tilting her neck almost painfully to expose her throat even more. He bit again, a little harder, drawing blood this time. The taste seemed to placate him even as his guide cried out “NO!”


The Shield ignored her protest. Sarah did the only thing she knew to get him to let go. The surprised roar had Jim and Blair rushing forward. Hunter lifted his head, and Jim and Blair could finally see that Sarah repaid the favor and had bitten Hunter back.


“No,” Sarah repeated, scared and angry. She swallowed nervously. “No biting.”


Blair almost choked on a wave of relief. That certainly was a novel way to disarm a primal sentinel.


Hunter snarled again, but the primal urge was slowly retreating. His growling subsided little by little.


Sarah saw the change in Hunter’s eyes and went with her instincts. She dropped her barriers and leaned into the man holding her, letting him support her. His grip eased as she surrendered and accepted. She was pulled close, then picked up and carried out of the room to the bonding mat in the living room.

 

Blair snuck a peek around the corner ten minutes later. They were in bonding position, the sentinel lying with his head on Sarah’s back, deep in the bond. Sarah was lying on her stomach, face turned to the entryway. When her sentinel curled closer to her, she nodded slowly to Blair, then closed her own eyes.


Blair was then promptly dragged off to the couch to bond with Jim. Silence reigned for the next little while.


Jim left Blair dozing on the couch an hour later and walked into the kitchen. Sarah was seated on a chair while Hunter was cleaning the wound on her neck, his face grim.


“You okay?” Jim’s question was directed at both of them.


“Fi ne,” Hunter growled. “Why in the hell didn’t you stop me?”


“Stop you? You were primal. Nothing to stop once you got going.”


Hunter looked at Jim as if he had dropped twenty IQ points right there. “I could have really hurt her.” The mark on Hunter neck was just a bit of redness. It hadn’t even broken the skin. While Sarah’s injury...Hunter muttered a few more curses under his breath. He had scared the living hell out of his guide and mutilated her.


Sarah let Hunter apply antibiotic cream and a dressing, not saying a word.


“Are you okay?” Jim asked as he came over to Sarah and ran a hand through her hair. The familiar gesture made Hunter’s nostrils flare.


“I’m fine,” she said softly, looking down at the torn, bloodied sleeve of her T-shirt and lightly touching the dressing on her neck. It was still tender, but it had stopped bleeding.


“Are you okay?” Sarah looked up her sentinel, concern in her eyes. Hunter muttered something unintelligible.


“Hunter?” She longed to be caught up in the same exuberant embrace the Sentinel Prime had given his guide, but that wasn’t Hunter’s way. She rubbed her arms, slightly chilled. Hunter finally looked at her, face impassive, and she looked back down at the table. They didn’t speak.


“We should probably get going,” Jim said after an uncomfortable pause. “I want to check on things at the loft. We can come back later and go over things.”


Hunter grunted an affirmation and Blair and Jim left shortly thereafter.


They were finally alone. Sarah had fixed herself some hot chocolate and coffee for Hunter. He stood staring out the patio door while Sarah sat on the couch and tried to find some way to lighten the atmosphere.


After a brief inner debate, she decided on blunt honesty. “I missed you. I’m glad you’re back safe.”


Hunter turned around. “Is this my cue?”


“Cue?” Sarah asked, totally at sea.


“Where I’m supposed to make a heartfelt declaration on how much I missed you?”


The sarcasm was so sharp that Sarah flinched from the words. Hunter moved over to her as Sarah stood up, her stricken eyes meeting his.


“And then tell you how much you mean to me?” She flinched again and Hunter realized with fatalistic certainty that she’d either burst into tears or run off.


He didn’t factor in choice number three. Astonished, he just stared at her, the remains of her cocoa dripping off his head onto his now permanently stained shirt. He was lucky she hadn’t scalded him.


Breathing heavily, Sarah let the empty mug fall to the carpet, then spun around and stalked up the stairs. Hunter heard her door slam, the one she hadn’t closed in weeks for fear of upsetting him.


“Wonderful,” Hunter muttered as he climbed the steps and headed for the shower. His guilt over the primal bonding magnified by a factor of ten. “Brutalize her, then make her feel like shit. Way to go, Hunter.”


He showered and changed quickly. Pulling on jeans and a Jags sweatshirt, he knocked at Sarah’s door. There was no answer.


He opened the door, half-expecting to see her curled up on the bed, sobbing her heart out. Instead, she sat at the end of the bed, arms curled around her knees, expression tight and her eyes hot and dry.


“I came to apologize,” Hunter began, only to see her look up with an expression he’d never seen before. She was so angry he could almost see flames shooting out of her eyes.


“Why? You were only telling the truth.”


“That doesn’t mean I had to hit you over the head with it.”


“It’s better than lying.” Sarah bit her lip, looking back down.


“Go ahead and yell at me,” Hunter offered, suspiciously conciliatory.


“What good would it do? I can’t change how you feel.”


“Might make you feel better, though.”


“You’re a jerk!” Sarah yelled, surprising both of them.


The expression on Hunter’s face nearly matched the moment she had dumped her hot chocolate on him.


Sarah gulped as sanity returned and she realized what she had just done. She looked up again, a world of pain in her face. She couldn’t mask her emotions like Hunter could, and every conflict with him was stacked against her. She couldn’t win the battle, much less the war.


“I try really, really hard,” she swallowed, her voice rough with unshed tears. “It’s not easy when I haven’t been trained to be a guide.”


“Sarah, I....”


She cut him off. “I know I can’t change who you are, and I don’t want to. But don’t make fun of me because of who I am, or what I want.” She swallowed again. “Don’t make me feel smaller just because you can.”


“Tiger, I am sorry.” Hunter brushed his hand over her hair, disturbed at how she moved away from him.


“Fine. Apology accepted.” Sarah was hanging onto control bit the tips of her fingernails. One more word out of him, and she was going to start bawling. “Will you please leave me alone?”


Hunter wanted to refuse, but her stiff body language kept him from insisting. “We’ll discuss this later.”


Sarah wouldn’t look at him, so he finally left her room, closing the door behind him. Sarah rocked herself for comfort, the tears she wanted to shed still brimming below the surface.


**************************************


There was a distinct chill in the house when Jim and Blair returned at seven that evening. Sarah was seated on the couch curled up in her own little world, barely acknowledging their presence, while Hunter was grumbling and pouring himself coffee in the kitchen.


Blair immediately moved over to sit with Sarah on the couch and Jim headed for the kitchen.


Hunter arched an eyebrow at Ellison. He hadn’t rung the doorbell - just walked on in.

Mi casa es su casa,” Hunter drawled sarcastically.


“I need to talk to you,” Jim said grimly. “What in the hell is wrong with you?”


“What now?” Hunter was still angry at himself. Sarah had finally emerged from her room, but she hadn’t spoken to him.


“She missed you every day you were gone. She did everything she could to help in the investigation, and was so damn lonely she slept with your sweatshirt. I heard her cry herself to sleep a couple of times. Are you so pissed off at life in general that you’re never going to admit that you care for another human being ever again?”


Hunter didn’t answer.


“It’s like talking to fucking wall,” Jim said in frustration. “Haven’t you learned anything these last few months? She needs more than just the bond.”


“I’m not her father.”


“Not father, not lover, not brother, not friend. What’s left?”


“Sentinel,” Hunter said, his voice clipped, and Jim could finally sense the undercurrents. The Shield had obviously had words with his guide, and it hadn’t gone well.


“Hunter, I’m sorry for what our father did to your mother, I’m sorry your wife and partner cheated on you, I’m sorry your first guide was killed - hell, I’m sorry for all your losses, but it can’t go on like this. You can’t expect Sarah to survive on the little crumbs you throw her way from time to time.”


“What? What exactly is it that you want, Sentinel Prime?” Hunter made the title sound like an insult.


“Tell her that you care.”


“Your concern is duly noted.” Hunter’s tone had a definite ring of finality. The conversation, such as it was, was over.


Blair sat close to Sarah. He didn’t speak, just opened the link and waited. “Major fight, huh?” he said softly after a brief silence.


Sarah looked up, lost, angry and hurt.


“You must have knocked him for a loop. I can feel him simmering from here.”


“I yelled at him.”


Blair’s eyes widened in appreciation. “No shit? Sorry, sorry, ‘no bad language’ zone here.”


“I’ve heard the word before,” Sarah said frigidly.


“Whoops, you are pissed, aren’t you?” Blair patted her shoulder kindly. “Tell Uncle Blair all about it.”


“I don’t feel like it.” Sarah wanted every last one of them to just leave her alone.


Blair sat back, regarding her thoughtfully. She was developing nice little claws. “You know, I’m glad you’re getting stronger, just don’t let it isolate you, okay? If you need to talk, I’m here.”


Sarah nodded, already feeling guilty about transferring her emotions on an innocent bystander, so to speak. She reached out to grasp his hand and opened the link, sensing his vulnerability as well.


Blair sat with her, silently processing what had happened between the Shield and his guide. Hunter had a way of neatly peeling off every layer of defense a person had, then zooming in for the kill.


“It’s okay, Sarah. He’s going to have to learn a little give and take. This is a partnership, not a benign dictatorship.”


Sarah sighed and stared wistfully out the patio door, wishing she could got outside and just walk in the rain until she was too tired to walk anymore. But they were trapped here until Hunter was freed from his house arrest. Trapped in more ways than one.


“Sometimes our job sucks, doesn’t it?” Blair commiserated, and Sarah finally leaned her head back against his shoulder.


Their peaceful link didn’t last long. Jim stalked out of the kitchen and sat down in one of the recliners, brooding.


Blair patted Sarah’s back in reassurance, then got up and wandered into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and pulled out some munchies with an ease and familiarity that on some level annoyed Hunter.


Cramming some raw veggies in his mouth, Blair chewed blissfully. “Man, I was starving!”


“Don’t talk with your mouth full, Sandburg. You’re spitting broccoli on my floor.”


Hunter opened the refrigerator himself and grabbed a beer. Whiskey would have been better, but this would do in the interim.


“So which speech did you get?” Blair asked after finally swallowing. “The ‘you have to get in touch with your inner feelings’ or the one about ‘with great power comes great responsibility’?”


Hunter snorted but seemed to relax slightly.


“You know, Sarah’s grown up a lot since you first bonded. She seems a lot more confident and assertive, and that’s a credit to both of you.”


“I’m waiting for the ‘but’, Sandburg.” Hunter took another swig.


“She’s female,” Blair shrugged, as if that was all the explanation needed.


“Is that a sexist comment I hear coming from a hippy, left-wing witch doctor?”


Blair didn’t take that wrong. “No, no, I mean, in general, women are much more in touch with their emotions, right? So it would make sense that they value the emotional more.”


“Spit it out, Sandburg,” Hunter sighed.


“You said Jim coddles me too much. That kinda stung, but I can see your point. But if he hadn’t, I might be dead or insane by now. I’m just getting my equilibrium back, and maybe one day I’ll have my shit together enough to do what I’m supposedly destined to do, but in the meantime, I won’t ever shove Jim away if he thinks I need coddling. Everyone needs to feel safe, and loved.”


Hunter gave him a baleful glare. “I don’t do touchy-feely, Sandburg. Ellison’s the expert in that area.”


Blair crunched some celery thoughtfully. “Then you won’t mind if Sarah needs to go to Jim when she’s feeling lost.”


That got a reaction. “What?”


“Jim has enough affection for a whole clan of guides. He won’t mind providing emotional support for Sarah. From what he said, they got along great while we were gone. Watched movies together, played cards. Once she got over that whole Sentinel Prime thing, of course.”


Blair could see the territorial imperative settle over Hunter like a malignant rain cloud.


“Sarah is my guide.”


“Uh huh,” Blair agreed, still crunching. “And Jim is her friend.”


Hunter narrowed his eyes. “You playing Psychology 101 again, Professor?”


“I’m just saying if you don’t feel comfortable being a father figure or friend, Jim wouldn’t mind stepping in.”


Hunter’s expression was thunderous to match the ever darkening rain cloud that hovered metaphorically above him. Here comes Tropical Storm Hunter.


“Not bloody likely.”


“Just saying,” Blair said blithely, grinning at Hunter’s expression.


“Blackmail is not considered the basis of a solid relationship, Sandburg.”


“Nope, this is just a wake up call,” Blair agreed, then turned serious. “I’m not asking for what you can’t give, Hunter. Just a simple hug would go a long way to making her feel -“


“Loved?” Hunter interrupted sarcastically.


“No, just appreciated. Cared for.” Blair reached out and patted Hunter on the shoulder sympathetically, “I mean, I do what I can, but we’re closer in age, and I’m a guide, not her sentinel, so it’s not the same, you know?


Hunter took another swig of beer and brooded.


“I’m doing my best, here, Hunter, and I screw up on a regular basis despite that. If I didn’t have Jim to talk to and tell me it’ll be okay, even when I know it won’t, I think I’d go nuts. It’s that unconditional thing - you know, no matter how bad you fuck up, I’m at your back?”


“Anything else, Tonto?”


“Just....” Blair hesitated.

 

“What, Sandburg?”


“The same counts for you, I mean, I’ll always be here if you need me, okay? Unconditional.”


“You start singing Peter, Paul and Mary and I’ll drop kick you off the roof.”


That made Blair grin again, and got up and snagged an apple and bit in. “Cool. So when’s dinner? I’m starved.”


************************************


By unspoken agreement, Jim and Sarah fixed supper. Hunter didn’t say anything, but he did walk through the kitchen at one point and ran his hand through her hair, letting his fingers brush against her dressing in wordless apology.


Sarah didn’t try to pull away from him, although her posture remained wary. Hunter had to be content with that.


Jim tried to lighten the atmosphere. “You know, Sarah, when he went primal you should have just kneed him in the groin.” His tongue was firmly in his cheek.


“I tried, but he’s too tall,” Sarah said ruefully. “So I dumped my hot chocolate on him later.”


Jim laughed out loud and for a moment, the tension eased. Blair came in and they finished fixing dinner.


“So after that, we hightailed it home,” Blair concluded through a mouthful of spaghetti. “We still don’t know how everything connects.”


They had talked about the files from William Ellison and Higgins, Snow’s apparent murder, the possibility of high-level government corruption and William Ellison’s plan for eliminating the danger to them all. It had gone on for the better part of two hours, and they’d barely scratched the surface.


“So when am I going to face formal charges?” Hunter brooded, thinking about the tie clasp.


“Oh, that. Well, there was a little accident at the crime lab after you left. Chemical spill, small fire, and a whole evidence locker went whoosh.” Jim sipped his beer.


“Convenient,” Hunter commented dryly. “Wonder how you managed that long distance.”


Jim just shrugged. “Jaguars don’t like labs.”


Blair stared at his sentinel. Jim had actually gone out of body and....


“Later, Chief.” Jim stopped his question easily. “Bottom line is that Hunter should be cleared shortly and then we wait and see. If Snow is found, maybe we’ll find his weapon, too. That would go a long way to speeding up the process. Somebody’s going to be gunning for us, and now Dad’s involved. It’s going to get extremely complicated, not to mention dangerous.”


“Thanks,” Hunter mumbled, irritated to be in debt to the Sentinel Prime. Hunter was in no mood to rehash what he considered a total lack of control on his part, much less the not so subtle prodding for a newer, more sensitive Shield.


That left the dreams.


Hunter took advantage of Blair’s occasional need to shut up and swallow his food. “We have another problem: the sheriff in Trinity, South Carolina.”


“What in the hell did you two get yourselves mixed up in?” Jim paused with a strand of spaghetti dangling precariously from his fork.


Hunter gave him a brief summary, with a few comments thrown in by Blair.


“So then all of us dreamt about him,” Blair concluded, looking around the table.


Jim nodded. “What does it mean, Chief?”


“Wish I knew. This is one Pandora’s box that should never have been opened.”


“Hang on, Chief. Are you saying you did this?”


“No, not directly. I mean, somehow this has got to be tied with me drowning and the spirit walk you and Jim did. Hunter said an elemental came back with us.”


Hunter rolled his eyes. ”I told you, Sandburg, it’s already taken care of.”


“And this elemental is what, exactly?”


“A sort of primal force. It can be good or bad. Bad in this case, obviously.”


“And this elemental was like a supernatural dog whistle that summoned Buck?”


Hunter snorted at Ellison’s question.


“Maybe. I mean, Hunter’s convinced I have shamanistic abilities, so maybe this is part of what I’m meant to do, or overcome, or face.” Blair had his doubts on that one.


Jim sighed and rubbed his nose. “Why can’t we just have your garden-variety snipers, terrorists and black market mafia underworld? Why does everything we do turn into the Twilight Zone?”


“It isn’t, honest. I mean, you believe in our spirit animals, you’ve done spirit walks. This isn’t that much of a stretch to believe there are other things out there.” Blair was at his most professorial earnest. “I’m not sure what he wants, but it’s connected to all of us. We can’t let him divide and conquer.”


“Chief, I think we have a few things on our plate that take priority,” Jim pointed out.


“I know that, and we can’t afford to be distracted, by him least of all. All I’m saying is that we have to be careful on every level.”


“Hunter?” Jim asked. “What do you think?”


Hunter narrowed his eyes. “He’s dangerous, but I don’t think he’s an immediate threat. More like something that might creep up later.”


“How do you know?’ Jim was curious.


Hunter shrugged. “Just a feeling.”


Jim nodded. “Okay, so we keep that in mind.”


Blair swallowed the last of his salad. “I’m going to do a little research and try to come up with a game plan, but in order to do that, I need to know exactly what happened in everyone’s dreams.”


He waited expectantly as the others thought about what, or what not, to tell.


“Be honest, guys. I can’t work with incomplete information. Ya gotta tell me all the details, even if it’s uncomfortable.”


“Didn’t you know, Sandburg?” Hunter said, lifting his water glass in mock salute. “Everybody lies.”


****************************************


Jim and Blair had finally left. Sarah was sitting on the floor, leaning against the couch. Hunter was flipping through his CD collection until he found one that suited his mood.


The music started softly as Hunter poured himself a shot of whiskey. “We have to talk.”


Sarah shrugged, uncomfortable.


“I don’t blame you for getting mad. I was out of line. As for the primal thing, that was poor form, especially after not being here for two weeks. The last thing I want is for you to get hurt.”


Hunter didn’t mince words, nor did he candy coat them. That was about as profound an explanation he was going to give, Sarah concluded, and stared down at the carpet, startled when Hunter sat down across from her.


“Here.” Hunter handed her a small glass.


Sarah took the glass and looked at it, then stared back up at him, open-mouthed.


“It’s whiskey. Sip it slowly or you’ll choke.”


“Uhhhh....” she stammered. The only alcohol she’d ever had was half a glass of champagne on her sixteenth birthday. She had experienced an emotional overload from Mandy, who had broken up with her then-boyfriend, and her father had forbidden her from ever drinking again.


“I’m not trying to get you drunk,” Hunter said, true amusement lighting his face.


“No, it’s just, the one time I had alcohol, Mandy had just broken up with Reed, and then, well....” she trailed off, but Hunter caught the gist of it.


“No problem, Tiger. You run into trouble, we bond.”


She sniffed at the drink, wrinkling her nose at the strong fumes, then sipped gingerly. Almost immediately, she went into a coughing spell that nearly choked her. “Ugh, that’s nasty!”


“Acquired taste,” Hunter said, still amused. “You want me to treat you like a grown up, right?”


Sarah set down the glass on the coffee table. He still didn’t get it.


“Talk to me, Sarah.”


“This isn’t what I want.” Sarah tried to think of how to best express herself.


“What do you want?” He sounded genuinely curious.


“I want to know that what I think counts, too, not just what you decide. Not the police stuff, I mean, with that you obviously know best. But I do know computers, and, and....” she made a frustrated motion with her hand as she tried to articulate her point.


“You want a vote,” Hunter said.


Sarah looked up at him earnestly. “I just want you to listen to me. I’ll be wrong 90 percent of the time, but the other ten, maybe I can help. Maybe I’ll be right sometimes.”


Hunter stared down at his drink. “I’ll try, Sarah. That’s all I can promise.”


“Okay.” She leaned back against the sofa again, content with one small victory.


“I want to know more about your dream about Buck.”


Sarah shifted uncomfortably. “I already told you at dinner.”


“Yeah, yeah, I got the gist of it. What I want to know is what you felt. He plays with people, tries to find their weaknesses.”


Sarah pushed the still full glass around the coffee table with one finger. “I’m not sure. He said Blair and I would be useful to him. I got mad because I knew he did something bad to Blair, made him remember something horrible.”


That was an understatement, Hunter thought. “What did he threaten you with, Sarah?” Hurting Sandburg?”


Sarah shook her head.


“What, then?”


She flushed slightly. “He, uh, he said he liked feisty females.”


Hunter sat back. “Son of a bitch. That fucking...” He grimaced in apology for his language. “I’ll kill him.”


Sarah reached out to grasp his sleeve. “He didn’t -“


Hunter gave her a humorless smile. “The hell he didn’t.”


“He let me go,” Sarah said earnestly. “It was just a dream.”


“You know better than that, Sarah. If it happens again, you call for me.”


“Can you go into dreams, too? Like a spirit walk?” Sarah was fascinated despite her apprehension.


“There’s a lot of things I can do but choose not to. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Now come here.”


Sarah looked at him confused. “You need to bond?”


“Not just yet. Come here,” he repeated, standing up and holding out a hand.


She took it and was pulled gently to her feet. He steered her to sit on the couch and settled her next to him.


“Hunter?”


He laid back, pulling her against his side. “I just want to listen to the music for a bit. With you.” Then he did something that he’d never done before: he rested his cheek against the top of her head. He was trying to make amends, but it wasn’t easy for him. He wasn’t good at gestures of affection, and worse at words.


Sarah opened the link and let him pull her close, her head resting against his chest. She might have finally cried now, but the peaceful link between them drained the sorrow from her.


***************************


Blair threw himself on his bed and sighed in relief. There truly was no place like home.


“Sandburg, you want to take a shower, have a beer or bond?” Jim leaned against the doorway and grinned at his guide. Blair looked like a contented hedgehog.


“All of the above, man.” Blair stretched and sighed. “I hope things are going okay at Hunter’s.”


“I don’t feel any major earthquakes,” Jim shrugged. “This is something they’re going to have to work out on their own.”


“I know, and it really was much better than this afternoon, but I hate leaving her to the proverbial tigers.”


“I can hear your mental gears spinning, kid. What are thinking?”


“Hunter thinks I can locate Snow’s body. I’m willing to give it a try, but that kind of meditation can open up other doors best left closed.”


“Want me to watch your back?” Jim offered.


“Anytime, Jim, but I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. I’ll set a circle, light some candles, but as to what pops up, who knows.”


“Go shower. I’ll find some candles.” Jim left Blair’s doorway so Blair grabbed some clean clothes and emerged from the bathroom ten minutes later with wet hair and a thoughtful expression.


Blair created a circle around the coffee table. “I’m going to keep you outside the circle, Jim, just in case you need to intervene.”


“I’m not really up on all this spiritual stuff, Blair. I wouldn’t know what to do.”


Blair gave Jim an amused look. “This coming from the man who spirit walked and brought me back from the dead. Just go with your instincts.”


Blair settled himself on the floor in front of the coffee table and lit three candles. “I’m not doing any ‘spells’ Jim, just trying to meditate. Problem is, anytime I do anything these days, weirdness follows.”


Blair closed his eyes, letting the stress flow out of his body, trying to ground himself.


Jim watched in fascination as his guide’s heart rate and respiratory rate gradually slowed and body temperature dropped.


“No demonic apparitions yet, Chief,” Jim said, and Blair’s lips twitched slightly at the joke.


Show me where Snow is. Blair concentrated on the memory of the man’s bloodied face.


The river came into view, just like before. There was no body lying on the ground, but the water seemed to turn blood red as he watched. Was he in the water?


Landmark? Blair concentrated. A farm house off in the distance, an old broken down car. An unpaved road leading away from the river. Where?


The scene was pastoral beauty and drew him, but he knew better than to wander.


“You do get around, Professor.”


The familiar southern drawl in his left ear made Blair stiffen, but he didn’t break concentration.


“Trick is to always know where the bodies are.” Lucas Buck stood by the river, sun glinting on his hair, completely relaxed.


“What was that, Chief?’ Jim asked, frowning at something that seemed to have permeated the loft. His guide’s heart beat had jumped just a little.


Blair clenched his right hand, willing himself to remain calm.


“Look a little further up the road,” Buck pointed with an amused smile. Buck’s presence faded away and Blair’s heart rate slowed again


Blair concentrated until he saw a county road with a battered sign that read Conover, population 423.


Blair opened his eyes, frowning a little. “It’s on or near a farm in the town of Conover.”

He blew out the candles and opened the circle.


“What exactly was that I felt, Chief?” Jim dropped a soothing hand on his guide’s shoulder.


“Lucas Buck, just dropping by.”


“We’ve got to get rid of him.” Jim had relived his guide’s dream encounters in the bond and was more determined than ever to keep Blair safe.


Blair sighed and leaned back against the couch. “If it only were that easy.”


Jim picked up the phone and spoke to dispatch. Then he hung up. “Conover is about sixty miles northeast of Cascade. I’d better call Simon.”


“He’s in the river. I can probably tell you almost exactly where.”


“You saw the body?” Jim looked quizzical as he dialed Simon’s home number.


“Not exactly. There was blood in the water.”


“Moving water would have dissipated that within hours.”


“Yeah, I know. Think of it as a spiritual buoy.”


“And the gun?”


“We’ll find it,” Blair said, and went to fix himself some hot tea while Jim talked to Simon.


****************************


“They found him, and the rifle.” Jim announced the news as soon as they walked into the house.


Hunter looked up from the papers spread over the dining room table while Sarah sorted file folders. They were in tune again, and Jim nodded approvingly, earning a half-hearted glare from Hunter.


“You should be getting a call from the Chief soon. The ballistics tests match for your ex and Monica Lutrell, so you should be cleared shortly.” Jim sat down at the table, looking over the neat stacks.


“And then the fun begins,” Hunter drawled. “Who do you think they’ll try to hit first, me or you?”


“Actually, I’m more worried they’ll go after our guides,” Jim gave Blair a concerned look, but Blair was talking to Sarah and not paying attention to his sentinel.


“Then we’d better get cracking on this,” Hunter pronounced and handed Ellison a stack of printouts. The conversation turned back to the investigations as they went into cop mode and tossed ideas around. It had become so technical and mind-numbingly tedious that both guides had decided to retreat to the living room.


Sarah sat down on the couch and Blair lay down next to her. She pulled a small pillow onto her lap, then settled Blair’s head on her knee.


Blair was exhausted and slightly achy despite a recent bond with Jim, and felt guilty because poor Sarah had been through the wringer with primal bond and a huge fight with Hunter, yet she was still offering him comfort. Sarah let her hands weave into his hair and gently massaged his temples.


“I’ll give you three hours to stop that,” Blair nearly purred, finally giving in and relaxing. “I guess things are okay again between you and Hunter.”


Sarah just smiled and massaged his scalp and neck. It was like petting a giant house cat.


“I think all that meditation drained me,” Blair sighed, his headache easing as Sarah offered support.


“Is that how you found Snow?”


“More or less. I had a visitor that stopped by in the middle of it.”


Sarah bit her lip. She knew exactly who he meant.


“I hope he doesn’t come back.”


“You and me both. I want you to be very careful in your dreams. Don’t trust him.”


Sarah nodded, still slightly spooked at the memory.


“What happens next, Blair?”


“I don’t know. I wish things were clear cut, but they’re not, not on any level.”


“So what do we do?”


“We wait, we think, and most of all, we stick together.”


*************************


Hunter had just finished a two hour meeting with the mayor and chief of police. He was cleared of all potential charges and now had the unpleasant task of investigating Snow’s death and the killings Snow was responsible for.


The mayor had apologized profusely. The Chief had expressed his condolences for Marian. The deputy chief was lying low and sweating blood because he knew Hunter would be after him in short order.


Sarah had sat with him through the entire meeting, grounding him when his temper flared, even though only she could sense it.


“You look a little pale,” Hunter observed as he ushered his guide from the conference room to his office.


Sarah shook her head determinedly. “I’m okay.”


“You have a headache, you’re borderline hypoglycemic and....” Hunter trailed off, knowing that if he said the last thing out loud, his guide would shrink with embarrassment. “You have an ibuprofen deficiency,” he finished, arching an eyebrow.


Sarah groaned and almost cringed. Nothing was sacred.


“Let’s get you some food. We have a lot of paperwork to catch up on.”


Hunter stopped in the bullpen, his eyes taking full measure of the people working there who had stopped to stare at their boss as if he had just risen from the grave.


“Clark, report to me in my office.” The quiet order seemed to reverberate throughout the room. His people were spooked, and knowing the efficiency of the cop grapevine, they already knew Snow had been murdered. What they didn’t know yet was that Snow was the major suspect in the killings of Marian and Monica Lutrell. That wouldn’t stay secret for long.


“Get her some lunch,” Hunter ordered Samantha, tolerating her effusive greeting as Bernie Clark followed him into the office and shut the door.


Len Miller came over and patted Sarah on the shoulder, startling her. “Hey kid, glad you both are back.”


She gave him a smile, but didn’t speak. Miller smiled back.


Hunter sat at his desk, giving Clark a cool, measuring look.


“What is going on, Hunter?” Bernie Clark was angry, upset and feeling very out of the loop.


Hunter deliberated a moment, then went with his instincts. “This goes no further than the two of us, Clark. Snow murdered Monica Lutrell and my ex-wife.”


Clark’s face went pale with shock. “What?”


“Sit down, Clark, while I give you the abbreviated version. Then we have a lot of work to do.”


Bernie sat and eyed his boss with something between disbelief and horror.


“This is ugly, Clark, so I need your undivided attention.” Hunter slammed a file folder on the desk, making Clark jump slightly. Then he smiled in a way that made Clark want to exit the room promptly. “Shall we get started?”


*******************


William Ellison sat at the large oak desk in his office and stared around the room. It had been almost three months since he had been shot, and although he still tired far too easily, he was now officially back at work. Half days, at Steven’s insistence, but it was better than trying to keep up from home. He had to take control, especially with the ball he’d set in motion.


His secretary came in with a cup of excellently brewed coffee and two of her homemade peanut butter cookies. She gave him a warm smile and with the ease of long familiarity, straightened his suit jacket collar and left him to the small mountains of paperwork on his desk.


At the top of the stack was a handwritten letter addressed in elegant unfamiliar script and William opened it to read a cryptic note. It has begun.


Taganoshi was nothing if not thorough.


William knew he would receive more hand delivered items, each with a summary of pertinent data on the individuals involved. He searched his conscience for the guilt that surely would surface by essentially ordering cold-blooded executions, and couldn’t find it.


What does that make me? William sipped his coffee and reflected, then ruthlessly tore his mind back to company business. No sense dwelling on what couldn’t be changed.


**************************


Sarah sat in the bullpen at the Sentinel Prime’s desk. Captain Banks was gesturing broadly to Jim Ellison and Hunter as they spoke quietly in the corner, while Blair was down in records, gathering up file folders. The Snow case had bloomed into a department wide investigation, and Hunter was chewing though police divisions with very sharp teeth.


And here I am, doing the computer grunt work, Sarah sighed. She frowned at the list of data she perused.


The sentinels had moved into Captain Banks’ office and Blair was still downstairs.

The phone rang, and Sarah automatically picked up. “Detective Ellison’s desk.”


The distorted voice crackled through the bad connection. “Look outside.”


“Excuse me?”


She heard something, almost like a wind chime and turned to look at the window. There on the roof of the building across the street were two figures, one male, one female.


A wave of terror, not her own, hit her like an avalanche. There was an empath outside.


A voice cried out - female, frightened. “Help me!” How Sarah was able to hear her through the closed window, she didn’t know. She could feel the woman’s fear and shivered. She still clutched the phone, but the caller had already hung up.


“Somebody help me! HELP ME!”


Detective Rafe materialized next to her. “Christ, he just...” The man had poured a canister of liquid on her, and then suddenly she was engulfed in flames.


The human figure screamed again and again, and Sarah could hear both the voice and the mental cry as she watched the figure burn, writhing in agony. She fell to her knees and clasped her hands over her ears, not realizing she was screaming too, feeling the terror and the pain of burning alive.


The rest of the bullpen had moved to the window. A general alarm had several officers running out of the building and heading across the street.


Captain Banks was out in the bullpen. “Secure the building!”


Sarah huddled on the floor behind the desk, shivering in overload, blind and deaf to anything except what she had just seen and felt.


A man’s face moved into her visual field. He had dark hair and eyes as blue as Hunter’s, but he was a stranger.


“Look at me. Look at me!” His voice was barely audible, the cadence strange.


She finally looked up with unfocused eyes, unaware of the strangled pitiful sound coming from her throat.


There was general chaos as Jim finally located Blair, who came in wild-eyed and agitated. Jim had him pulled to his side as they both attempted to figure out what had just happened.


Hunter instinctively searched for his guide. Her scream still reverberated through him.

Pushing aside several uniforms, he finally found her.


A stranger in plain clothes crouched before her, holding her head in both hands. She tried to fight him, then her eyes rolled back as she slumped into unconsciousness.


Hunter let out a roar and dove for the man who had hurt his guide. The man stood up too quickly, and Hunter realized the man was a sentinel. Hunter reached for him, but the man was fast, just dodging out of reach.


“Hold on.” By the accent, he was definitely not a citizen of the Americas.


“I’ll kill you!” Hunter moved in quickly.


The man was shorter than he was, early thirties, and had a look in his eyes that Hunter vaguely recognized.


“You’re her sentinel,” the man pronounced calmly. “I had to break the link she shared with the other empath, or she might have died with her.”


Hunter had his hand on the man’s leather jacket. “You son of a bitch,” Hunter pronounced coldly. “You’re a dead man.”


“Too late,” the stranger’s lips quirked in a reference that was lost on his audience.


A shower of glass sprayed into the room and everyone instinctively ducked at the rapid, repeated gunfire. “Stay clear of the windows!” Simon bellowed. The noise then abruptly ceased.


 Jim stared across the street from a safe angle. “The shooter’s running away. I don’t think our uniforms will get over there in time.”


“We’re clear!” Simon looked around, noted Blair behind Jim. “Everybody okay?”


Hunter still had hold of the stranger’s jacket and pulled the shorter man to his feet, intent on neutralizing the threat.


“Hunter?” Simon Banks raced over. “She okay? No, don’t kill him. He’s a police officer.”


Hunter’s fist flexed, but he reluctantly let go of the shorter man.


“You’ll need to bond right away. This kind of thing can push a guide into insanity.” The man straightened his leather jacket with a sardonic weariness that almost mirrored Hunter.


Sarah was curled on her side, heart rate and respirations rapid and irregular. Blair rushed up and tried to link with her, but found himself blocked.


“I can’t reach her!” Blair’s agitation doubled. He too had felt the empath’s death, but nothing like Sarah had. “Something’s blocking me.”


Hunter scooped her to him, images of Gary flashing through his mind. He tried to get her to open the link, but she was still unconscious.


“What in the hell did you do to my guide?” Hunter ground out.


“A simple mental technique, not unlike a knock out. It breaks the link between empaths, but not a sentinel-guide link.”


Jim looked at the small ashen figure. Her lips and fingers were blue, her face almost gray. Worried, he monitored her vitals.


Blair huddled close to Hunter, linking to him to help. The Shield didn’t argue.


“Go bond,” Jim ordered Hunter quietly. “Get her stabilized, and then we’ll figure out where to go from here. Blair, go with him.”


Hunter scooped Sarah up and walked out with her, giving the new man a chilling expression that promised retribution at a later time.


Rafe walked up, his face grim.


“Is she...?” Simon gestured to the blackened figure lying on the rooftop.


Rafe nodded, sickened. “She’s dead. No sign of the perp, or the shooter.”


“Christ,” Jim swore, his expression grim. Then he finally turned his attention to the newcomer. “And who the hell are you?”


Simon interrupted before the man could answer. “Jim, you know about our officer exchange program. We almost got a constable from Australia, but the UK won out. Helluva way to start your first day.”


Jim narrowed his eyes. This man was obviously a sentinel, but there was something very different about him. Instinctively, he went into regal Sentinel Prime mode.


The man waited patiently, his blue eyes matching Jim’s for coolness.


Behind him, a sharp cry snapped Jim’s attention. A large bird perched on the filing cabinet, spreading its wings and looked straight at him with predator eyes. A spirit animal meant that....


“Jim, this is Detective Inspector Dave Creegan from London’s Serial Crime Unit. He’ll be attached to Major Crimes for the next six months.”


The bird gave another cry, unheard by anyone except the two sentinels who stared each other down.


***********************


William Ellison opened the next hand-written missive and stared down at the name. He gently set the paper down into the ashtray he never used, and lit a match to it, just like the previous note. He watched it burn, mesmerized by the flames.


Then he leaned back and closed his eyes.


One.