Disclaimer: The main characters are not mine, this is an amateur effort written purely for the fun of it, and no money has exchanged hands, and it is not intended to breach the copyright of Paramount and Pet Fly Publication. My thanks to Susan, my beta reader for making the series come alive

Learning Curves
Second Lesson: New Friends

(Takes place during 'Living with the Past')

Ellison glanced over at his passenger, his icy blue eyes worried. The police sting to net the GDP guards who had been blackmailing empaths into providing "escort" services had been wildly successful. But Jim wasn't too happy with the cost to the young empath who had served as bait and who also happened to be his guide. Blair had been making small whimpering noises low in his throat ever since Jim had practically carried him from the seedy apartment the guards were using for their entertainments." The smaller man was swamped by his sentinel's coat and, though he held it tightly against his too thin frame, he was still wracked by shivers. Jim suspected that the constant trembling was as much from the drugs that had been pumped into him to ensure his cooperation as it was from the frigid night air. One slender hand clung tightly to the sentinel's arm and frightened blue eyes remained fixed on his face as if Blair was afraid Jim would suddenly turn into a GDP guard.

"It's okay, kid. We're almost home. Try to relax, Blair. I'm here and I'm not going anywhere." Ellison repeated the comforting words at close intervals during the drive back to the loft. And though Sandburg would jerkily nod his head after every repetition, Jim didn't think the meaning was getting through the night's trauma.

Finally, thank God. Ellison had never been happier to turn the old blue and white truck into its parking space and kill its engine. He tried to coax Sandburg's hand away from his arm so he could get out of the truck but the gasped "Please... please" convinced him that was a bad idea. Instead, he eased the shaking body across the seat until he could lift his guide down from the driver's side. Sandburg was still deeply under the drugs' influence and his coordination was shot to hell. He was barely coherent; it seemed as if the only thing he could track was the whereabouts of his sentinel. As soon as his feet touched the ground, the young guide plastered himself against his sentinel. Jim had forbidden the empath to link with him while he was driving. Given the night's events, Jim suspected he'd have an accident if the two men shared the fierce emotions engendered by the operation.

"Chief, we're home, buddy. Open up the path, kid, and hang on."

That invitation managed to pierce the chaos that wore on his mind. Blair immediately connected along their link, needing to be close, needing to be sheltered by his sentinel's barriers. His own shields were in tatters due to the drugs that had been forced on him and the ambient was alive with the emotions of people he couldn't even see. His feet weren't working right. He tried to apologize to Jim for his clumsiness but his mouth wasn't working right either. Someone was making a horrible, soft noise and Blair tried fuzzily to see who it was. Jim, man, so'body needs help. You're a sen'nel, need to help... "Easy, Blair. I've got you, Chief. You'll be fine." The voice was warm and comforting. Thas me? Oh, man, Jim, so'thin's really wrong, man. Jim didn't answer the question... and Blair wondered if he had even said it out loud. His mouth didn't want to work. Neither did his feet... he stumbled and a strong arm went around him. He leaned gratefully into the broad shoulder.

Jim did not like anything about his guide's condition. Once or twice, he thought the kid had tried to say something but the drug made nonsense of his efforts. Damn those bastards! How can anyone find pleasure with someone who's this far out of it? Ellison shuddered as he thought of what would have happened to his guide if he had been even five minutes later through the window. There was no way Sandburg could manage the three flights of stairs to the top floor and home. Jim pushed the button on the elevator and waited impatiently for the car to arrive. Blair was moaning now, a heartbreaking, barely audible whimpering that left the sentinel wanting to break something... preferably Wilson's head. Ellison's head whipped around as an older couple came in from the night air.

The Sanders, second floor rear, Jim automatically identified them. Two sets of eyes surveyed sentinel and guide and then exchanged glances. Jim bristled, taking their action as one of censure for his sick guide. The Sanders joined the two younger men waiting for the elevator.

"Evening, Detective Ellison." Mrs Sander's smile was slightly strained as she greeted her neighbor.

"Mrs Sanders, Mr Sanders." Jim's voice was stilted, closing off further conversation. A *ding* announced the arrival of the elevator and Jim waved the older couple in first. Then he brought Blair in and stood behind him, acting as a physical barrier between his guide and the Sanders.

"J...im..m. I-I can n-not, b-bl...hurts." The sheer desperation in the stuttered words roused every protective instinct Ellison possessed. He gathered his guide closer, settled the curly head against his chest with one big hand, wrapping his other hand around a wiry back. Sandburg was shaking so badly, his teeth were literally chattering. Jim lost interest in the Sanders' reactions.

Mrs Sanders shook her head as the obviously ill man wound one shaking hand into the older man's sweater. She looked at her husband and ignored his warning headshake. She moved closer to the two men and the young one cried out in pain and tried to merge with the big detective.

"Mrs Sanders, stay back... Please." The please was an afterthought to the harsh warning.

"I was a nurse, perhaps I can help you, Detective." She wasn't one to give up easily in the face of so much suffering.

Jim forced himself to take a breath to calm down. "Thank you, but that's not a good idea, Mrs. Sanders. Sandburg was drugged against his will. It will take a while to get out of his system and in the meantime he won't be able to stand having anyone close to him."

"Detective?" she sounded puzzled.

"I am a sentinel, he's my guide." His tone made the statement a challenge.

"Detective, I have dealt with guides and sentinels. I can help." The door chimed on the second floor but neither husband nor wife made any move to leave.

Ellison looked down at the barely conscious man leaning heavily against him. He knew only enough about his neighbors to grudgingly return a "hello" and to be sure the police didn't want them for anything. He liked it that way. But now... he looked at the tangled curls hiding an ashen face. Blair needed help; he should probably be in the hospital. Jim felt a cold chill as he thought of Blair in a huge building full of the physically and mentally ill with his barriers gone. If he accepted Sanders' offer of help it would be more contact with a neighbor than he had ever allowed in the entire time he'd been living on Prospect Avenue. He never wanted contact... still didn't. But Blair... He looked into the elderly woman's eyes and saw nothing but compassion.

"Please." It slipped out before he knew he was going to say it. But before he could call it back or make it mean something else other than the plea it so clearly was, Mrs. Sanders smiled reassuringly. The decision was finalized as her husband stopped holding open the elevator door and got back on. With a flourish, he punched "door close."

Mrs Hetty Sanders had seen sentinels with hurt guides before and, although she had retired years ago, this was ground that she knew well. She gave her husband's hand a squeeze as the door opened to the third floor. "Lead the way, Detective."

"Jim. My guide is Blair." Ellison scooped the young guide into his arms and Blair's face pushed into the curve of his shoulder and neck.

"Jim, give Jonathan your key and he can get the door open. Now, what was he given?"

Jonathan Sanders shook his head. Hetty was firmly in her maternal mode and he strongly doubted that the taciturn detective would ever recover. He and his wife had often talked about the loner on the top floor and she had more than once suggested they invite him over for dinner. The invitation had never been made; something about Jim Ellison had always made them step back from him. Now that they knew he was a sentinel, Ellison's actions and their reactions made sense. He had been a latent sentinel; probably struggling for control and closing himself off from people and stimuli he had no way to handle. Now he had a guide. Jonathan hid a smile. His wife had not stopped wondering about the younger, smaller man who had taken up residence with the detective since the day he suddenly appeared in the loft. He had teased her gently but she had insisted that there was something not quite right about the young man in the absurd clothes. His gentle, charming smile did little to hide his nervousness as he moved swiftly past them on his way to and from the third floor. Score another one for Hetty. It all made sense now, this Blair was a newly bonded Guide... who seemed to have little in common with the Sentinel he was tied to.

Jonathan saw the look on his wife's face when they entered the loft. She had obviously not liked what she had been told. Hetty sighed, then said comfortingly, "The drug will leave his body, Jim, but it will take all night. He will be very suggestible and highly sensitive so you will have to keep calm. Blair will have no idea where your anger is directed, Jim."

"Can't we give him something, Mrs. Sanders?" Now that was an outright plea from the tough cop. Jonathan shook his head, Maybe not much in common but that's one man who cares deeply for his guide. A man who wasn't happy when Hetty answered his question,

"There's nothing you *can* give him, Jim, unless you want to put him in the hospital. It will just take time. Now sit yourself down. Jonathan, go and get some blankets or a comforter from the bedroom." She pointed to a small bedroom off the main living area and went on giving orders. "You need to keep him warm and comfortable. And you need to keep him close, he'll need all the shielding he can get from you for the time being. And, Jim dear, you may call me Hetty."

Jonathan grinned at the detective. For one minute, icy blue eyes warmed in shared male amusement for the absolute command taken by the little - five foot nothing - white-haired lady. "That's my girl." Then he added, "Don't worry, Jim, she will look after you both."

Jim watched as the old couple bustled around his apartment, starting a fire, putting a kettle on, shaking out blankets and shook his head. A few short weeks ago he would have tossed their offer of help aside, sure that they had an agenda he didn't want to know about. But a few short weeks ago he hadn't come into possession of the compassionate bundle curled in his arms who seemed to have opened more than his senses. Now... he could see they were trying to help him. Hetty was throwing open the cupboard doors and sentinel hearing picked up her muttered words about men not eating properly. He couldn't help but smile at her complaints; she and Blair would no doubt get along great on the matter of Jim Ellison's diet.

Jonathan appeared in front of him holding the comforter. He was careful not to get too close to the empath. Jim arranged it around them both, trying to add his body heat to task of warming his guide. The younger man was still shivering, his skin cold and clammy. Blair's arms were wrapped tightly around him, the curly head pressed against the crook of his neck. Hetty sat down on the coffee table in front of Ellison, a cup in her hand. She was careful not to touch the empath as she held the drink out and explained, "The drugs cause dehydration. He needs to drink, he will feel better for it later."

Jim took the cup and took a sip, judging its temperature and contents before he held it for his guide to drink. Sandburg's voice was so soft that only Ellison could hear the protest. He firmly ordered his guide to drink and Blair complied, his eyes closed tightly. The liquid hit his stomach and came back up, splattering both men. Dry heaves continued to wrack the small frame as Jim gently rubbed Blair's back.

Hetty hurried back with towels, "It's all right. This can happen, Jim, nothing to worry about." Jim continued to rub his guide's back as another spasm wracked him. This time Jonathan managed to grab a wastepaper basket and push it in place beneath Blair's mouth.

The next hours were the worst Jim could remember ever living through as Blair worked through the drug reaction. The old couple looked after the partners allowing Jim to concentrate just on his guide. Jim swore he could *feel* Sandburg climbing into the sentinel's nervous system and wrapping it around him. When the nausea seemed to have abated somewhat Hetty brought out some clean sweats for Blair while Jonathan ran a hot tub. Blair was still pretty much incoherent but he cooperated, clumsily to be sure, with getting his clothes off and himself into the tub.

Jim saw the look exchanged when the Sanders saw the clothes his guide was almost wearing. Tensely, he told them an edited version of what had happened, making clear to the couple that Blair had been given no choice in the matter of dress. The compassion he saw in their faces, their redoubled efforts to bring some ease to the young empath made Jim realise, for the first time, what he had forfeited when he had systematically iced out his neighbours. Jim was surprised to discover that Hetty could actually touch his guide without causing him pain. Bright brown eyes twinkled as she explained, "I've more than a touch of empathy myself, dear. Not enough to be of interest to the GDP..." She was interrupted by a heartfelt "Thank God" from Jonathan. "...but enough to have learned how to shield and project only what I want. And this poor boy has had so much evil projected at him that my emotions probably feel as good as this bath. It's not only the body that filth clings to you know."

A bit of an Irish lilt had crept into her voice as she crooned the last words. Hetty laid a gentle hand on an ashen face and nodded as Blair shifted restlessly. "Time to get him out of there and covered up again, Jim. Jonathan, poke up the fire, please." Faster than Ellison would have thought possible, Sandburg was dried off and helped into the clean sweats. Jim coaxed him to drink yet another cup of herbal tea and this time it stayed down. Ellison helped his guide curl up on the couch, a curly head resting on a pillow in the sentinel's lap. Almost an hour later, deep blue eyes opened up and looked around the loft. A voice made hoarse by an irritated throat whispered, "Jim? Home?"

"Yeah, kid. We're home." Ellison ran his fingers through the still damp curls.

"Some'uns here?" There was a little anxiety in the question and Jim said soothingly, "Mrs and Mr Sanders are here, Chief. They came up to help out when they saw how ill you were."

"They... know?" Embarrassment colored the young face.

Hetty leaped into the breach, "Yes, Blair. We know how brave you were tonight and how you helped the police put those criminals away. Now, you just rest. When you're feeling a little better, we can put our heads together about the diet of this sentinel of yours. Tsk... were it not for your teas, we'd have been reduced to giving you beer!"

Blair actually managed a weak laugh before exhaustion pushed him into a deep sleep.

When Jim was sure he'd sleep, he got to his feet and scooped his guide into his arms as if he weighed no more than a child. "He'll be more comfortable in bed now."

Hetty nodded, "Just keep him warm and let him sleep the rest of it off. Try and get him to drink and eat tomorrow morning. It will be a struggle because he's going to feel like he's got one hell of a hangover. That will pass and then he'll be able to build his barriers up again. I'll look in on the two of you tomorrow morning."

"Hetty", her husband warned, not sure how the sentinel would react to her blithe assumption of welcome. He remembered all too clearly the icy lone wolf cop who had once threatened to ticket him for illegal parking outside the loft on a bad day.

"Thank you, Hetty. I'd appreciate that."

He hesitated at the door to Blair's small room and Hetty said firmly, "You'll be putting him in your bed tonight, Sentinel, and you'll be staying with him. He will rest better if he can feel your presence. Go on, do as I say, dear." Ellison reddened just a tiny bit but he nodded and carried his guide up the stairs. Hetty followed them up and said approvingly, "Ah, it's a good big bed. Plenty of room for you both." She pulled back the comforter and Ellison carefully lowered the smaller man onto the mattress. He turned to thank the elderly woman and discovered that she was already at the door with her husband. Hetty spoke in a whisper, knowing the sentinel would hear, "I'll take the second key from the dish, Jim, and return it tomorrow. I'll stop by about 10:00. Sleep well, dear. Blair will be all right."

The door closed and was locked. He extended his senses and heard Hetty say, "They'll be all right, Jonathan. Remind me to check the cupboards and see if we have any of that vitamin drink. Blair will need that tomorrow morning, poor boy."

Jim crawled into bed and settled down where he could drape an arm over Sandburg's chest. Even asleep, his guide moved closer to him. Ellison set his sensory net and allowed sleep to claim him. The adrenaline rush from the bust coupled with Blessed Protector worries had kept him awake far too late; now he was crashing.

Something awoke him...something wasn't where it should be... he was missing the warmth of his guide's body. He sat up with a start. How the hell did the kid get out of bed without waking me? He lost interest in that question when he heard the sound of water running and a desperate voice sobbing, over and over again, "GOT TO GET RID OF IT."

He took the stairs two at a time and knocked on the bathroom door. He didn't wait for an answer but announced, "Blair, I'm coming in." Oh God , kid. I am so sorry...

Sandburg was in the bath with the shower turned on high. The water pounded on his body as he knelt scrubbing at his arms, shirtsleeves pushed high, until his skin was red and raw. Steam billowed around the partially closed shower curtain and Jim winced as he felt the temperature of the water sluicing over his guide's flesh. He reached and turned the cold water higher, not enough to shock but enough to bring the temperature out of the scalding range. Then he quickly caught Sandburg's wrists. Blair tried to pull free from his hold, almost falling on the slippery tile but Jim kept him upright. Even a five o'clock beard could not disguise the youth of the face that lifted to him. Ellison's breath caught in his throat; he had never before seen such despair on another man's face over the course of his very adventurous life.

"I... I can f... feel their filthy hands on me, all over, got to get... get rid of of them." Sandburg struggled to pull his hands free.

Jim was worried by the almost hysterical tone in his guide's voice as much as by the fact that Blair apparently didn't even remember the bath he'd had earlier.

"Let me, Blair, please. I am your sentinel. I can see the marks of their hands, let me clean them off." Come on, Chief, listen to reason here before I lose mine.

Sandburg's wide eyes stared up at him, trust replacing the horror that had darkened their blue. Ellison released the slender wrists and took the face cloth from one unprotesting hand. He soaped it up and then ran the cloth over one shaking hand, covering each finger with the lather. He washed the wrist and arm, all the time talking in soft supportive tones. Then he repeated it with the other arm, the chest and back and down the lean length of his guide's body. Blair never said a word until Jim hung the washcloth over the faucet.

"All gone, Jim?" Anxiety colored the question.

"All gone, Chief." Assurance filled the sentinel's voice.

"Sure?" Willingness to believe infused the one word.

"Trust your sentinel, they are all gone." Rock solid certainty underlay the answer.

A moment later, Ellison's arms were full of soaking wet guide. The sentinel ignored the fact that he was now equally as wet. That didn't matter; all that mattered was to keep his guide calm. He heard Blair mutter something about his hair. Jim raised a hand and gently touched the long hair. "Let's get you out of here and I'll wash this as well." He helped Blair out of the tub. Exhaustion had the young man literally swaying on his feet. Jim kept up the reassuring words that had calmed Blair in the shower as he helped his guide out of his sodden clothes. His calm voice was at odds with the desperate petition he made to keep at bay any memories from Blair's time at the facility. Please, God, I don't call on You often but don't let the kid flashback to that godforsaken cell. God, he doesn't need that, doesn't deserve that.

Wrapping large towels around the smaller man, Ellison reached for his terry robe hanging on the back of the door and got that on his guide as well. Blair liked wearing layers and layers of clothing; probably a reaction to being kept naked in the correction cells for weeks on end. Jim shook his head not wanting to go there.

Jim carefully washed his guide's hair and began rinsing off the soap. For a moment, he almost lost himself in the texture of the long hair when a small hand caught his wrist. A tired voice pleaded, "Jim, don't leave me, stay with me." Ellison smiled; even half out of it, his guide was looking after him. Jim bundled the long hair up in another towel and grinned to himself. The kid was definitely high maintenance. The sentinel supported his weary guide back to the bed and sat them both on the edge of the mattress. He began to towel off the curly hair, Blair resting against his chest. The ministrations did more than dry the wet head, Jim could feel the smaller body relaxing. When Blair was fully relaxed, Jim eased him down on the bed.. Ellison removed the antibiotic/analgesic cream from his pocket and rolled up the sleeves of the too large robe that engulfed his guide. Gentle fingertips salved the raw skin on Blair's hands and arms. The young man murmured something sleepily, too soft for even sentinel hearing to make out. Jim smiled and continued his first aid knowing that Blair would feel better for it in the morning. Jim opened the robe and treated the bruised side and stomach, frowning at the still obvious weight loss. Finally, he closed the robe and slid back into bed. Even asleep, his guide immediately moved closer and threw an arm over his sentinel as if to make sure he couldn't leave him.

Jim exhaled slowly. Not too long ago, he would have died of embarrassment to be in such close quarters with another man but now caring for his guide, giving him the physical closeness necessary for shielding, seemed second nature. In the last few weeks he had learned so much from this *neo-hippie punk* who dressed as if he was a refugee from the Salvation Army and was probably brighter than anyone else Jim knew. Ellison was no longer the hard assed SOB loner who didn't give a damn about anyone or anything; who had done his job but never saw the people behind the crime. Because of this young man, this young life that was now his to guard, he had started to see people as individuals. A kid that he would have thrown up against a wall and frisked without a second thought had changed him for good. The frightening thing was that Jim knew it was not just the sentinel-guide connection; it was much more. He had found a friend and that made it surprisingly easy to accept the responsibility for his guide's life and happiness.

Jim's fingers stroked a slightly flushed cheek. The skin was too warm, Blair was running a slight fever. Mrs. Sanders... Hetty... had warned him that might happen but it was nothing to worry about so long as it remained low grade. Ellison lay his hand on Blair's forehead and, with a soft moan, his friend turned into his touch. Jim found himself smiling at the trust given to him so freely by a young man who should have learned to be wary of everybody. Jim was determined to never betray that trust. He grinned, amused at himself... it just went to show it was never too late to change. It was a lesson he doubted he would have learned from anyone besides the empathic young man he called friend, partner, and guide.

The End
Written by Susan Foster
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