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 4 (December 5, 2001)
EYE OF THE TIGER
By Susan and Maedoc
Hunter crouched behind the car, his guide behind him. It never failed; he always managed to end up in the middle of a hostage situation or a shoot out. This time, the hostages and the bank robbers were in a building across the street currently surrounded by the SWAT team.
“Keep behind me, Gary,” he warned. His guide obeyed him without question, but kept a hand on Hunter’s shoulder, steadying his sentinel and grounding him.
“I thought we just did this last week,” Gary muttered humorously. Nothing much fazed the younger man; he was steady as a rock.
“Well, it makes a break from chasing down the latest leads on the Vincenzo murder,” Hunter shrugged. “Syndicate hit - and damn if I can figure out who leaked the safe house location.”
“Maybe you should transfer to IA,” Gary suggested, tongue in cheek. “You always did like to kick ass and take names.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Hunter growled, swatting his guide with mock irritation.
“You’re close, Hunter. I can feel it.” Gary suddenly shivered. It was as if a ice cold fog had moved over him.
“Gary?” Hunter turned to look at his guide. ‘What’s wrong?”
Before he could voice another word, the high pitched sound of a bullet caused Hunter to reflexively slam them both to the ground. “What the...?”
It had come from their side of the street. Holding his gun up, Hunter’s sentinel senses searched and found the heat path left by the bullet and traced it back to...“Shit. It’s one of ours. Gary, we have to move....”
A second whine, and this time Gary shoved Hunter to the side as something slammed into the guide with a horrible ripping sound.
Gary made a gurgling noise and Hunter frantically turned the smaller man on his back. His guide had been shot in the neck, just above the Kevlar vest.
“Man down!” Hunter yelled, pressing frantically against the wound. “I got you, kid. Just hang on until I get the medics.”
The amount of blood was staggering. Gary choked as he grabbed onto Hunter, trying to breathe. I’m sorry, Hunter. The bond they shared was fading.
“Don’t you dare die on me! Gary? Gary!” Hunter could feel the blood pumping through his hands as Gary’s eyes glazed over, and after several agonizing seconds, the tortured breathing stilled forever. Hunter felt the empathic connection finally break, leaving him cold and alone.
Hunter lifted his hands from the body that had been his guide. A third bullet whizzed over, and Hunter spun and instinctively shot at the sniper, barely registering when a SWAT team member fell from his perch.
They’ll pay. They’ll all pay.
Hunter woke, heart pounding frantically. He hadn’t had the nightmare in months, not since leaving DC. His guide... his sensory net picked up Sarah’s even breathing and he slumped back. She was safe.
He was soaked in an ice-cold sweat. Getting up, he got in the shower to warm up. He hadn’t expected the dream to return. It was three a.m. and he had to get up in few hours to go to work - their first day back since the kidnapping. Pulling on clean sweats, he trudged downstairs. He couldn’t sleep now.
Blair crouched next to his unconscious sentinel. Another head injury and Simon would probably make Jim wear a helmet. Okay, so the small avalanche of objects that had tumbled from the roof of the warehouse wasn’t exactly a predictable thing even given their penchant for the weird and off the wall, but it had effectively incapacitated Jim.
“Come on, Jim, you have to wake up,” Blair urged, uneasy. It was dark and their back up he had radioed for still hadn’t arrived. The drug dealers were still in the warehouse.
“Hello, Blair,” Blair spun around to see a familiar face. Leo smiled at him.
“You’re dead,.” Blair blurted. “You’re not real.”
“I’m very real,” Leo countered, holding his gun steady. “I told you I’d be back.”
“You’re dead,” screamed Blair, shaking Jim to no avail.
“So are you,” Kessler said before firing. Blair felt the bullet enter his throat, ripping his windpipe.
Can’t breathe. He could only make gurgling noises as Kessler moved over and shot Jim through the head. Blair’s last vision was of Jim’s motionless body with half his head gone.
Blair woke in a panic. It was just a dream. Leo Kessler was dead and gone. He couldn’t hurt anyone anymore. Glancing around at the shadows in his room, he felt chilled. Blair got up and padded barefoot into the kitchen to get a drink of water. He looked up the stairs to where Jim slept. Keeping his voice calm even as his heart hammered away, he said, “It’s okay, Jim. Just getting a drink. All’s well in your territory -- the guide is safe.”
Upstairs, the sentinel turned over, and slid back into sleep again. His unconscious mind had registered his guide moving around the loft. Blair’s reassurance eased Jim back into sleep, but something else was niggling at him despite his guide’s calming words.
Blair sat down on the sofa and tugged the blanket around himself. His mind was whirling and his fingers tapped the side of the glass, a nervous reaction that he wasn’t even aware of. He tried to work through the nightmare that had woken him.
He had felt the connection between the Shield and the Dark Guide coalesce. Hunter had said that he had felt Blair’s fear and pain when he had opened the email. Now it seemed it was a two way street.
Blair had felt Hunter’s pain even in the depths of sleep, and that had spiraled him into his worse nightmare. Blair had a lifetime’s worth of bad memories to torment him, but this one was the worst.
There had been a time when Jim had lost his memory in an accident, and he had reverted to a guide’s nightmare sentinel -- all ‘my way or the highway’. Blair rubbed his face and shuddered. He could still remember Jim backhanding him across the face, putting him down on his knees. The pain from the blows was nothing compared to emotional distress of having Jim do a 360 and treat him like he was less than human.
When Jim had looked at him, his eyes were someone else’s. The sentinel must have picked up the scent of his guide’s fear, yet Blair still had been treated worse than a dog. The humane society would have rescued a dog from this hell, but a guide...a guide didn’t even rate protection. A guide had no rights at all.
Remembering the bits and pieces of how Jim had treated him, Blair had somehow emerged from the swamp of fear only to find himself in another nightmare: Jim was helpless, and Leo had come for his revenge.
Nothing could have hurt Blair more than to watch his sentinel, his best friend, die in front of him. Not even dying himself could hurt as much as this. Blair knew intellectually that his nightmares were merely an expression of his unconscious fears and not a psychic premonition of revenge from beyond the grave, but he felt the bullet rip through his neck with an intensity that convinced him that there was more than just Blair nightmares at work.
The voice in the dark made him jump. “Jim.” Blair bit his lip; he knew that his sentinel would hear the tremor in his voice.
“You wanna explain why you’re sitting here with a heart rate of 140?” Jim sat down next to his guide.
“Bad dream,” Blair offered weakly.
“Uh huh,” Jim said skeptically. “Let’s try that one again.”
“I dreamt about Leo Kessler,” Blair said, carefully avoiding the part about Jim’s head injured personality. One word about that and Jim would go BP, and then into a depressive funk of guilt.
“He can’t hurt you, Blair.”
“He came back. You were unconscious, and he came back. He shot me, then he killed you.” Blair tugged at his hair, trying to banish the images.
Jim reached out for his guide, drawing him close. “Musta been pretty scary, Chief.” He moved his hand soothingly over Blair’s back.
“How did Hunter’s guide die, Jim?” Blair looked haunted.
“He was shot by a SWAT team member on the take. He actually saved Hunter’s life by shoving him out of the way.” Jim was trying to figure out why this was so important.
“Where was he shot?”
“Through the neck, just above his vest. Bastard did it on purpose.”
“That’s what happened in the dream. I could feel the bullet, Jim. I could feel it.” Blair was getting agitated.
“Easy, Chief. Just because you had a dream doesn’t mean you’re channeling.”
“I’m sharing Hunter’s dream,” Blair insisted. “I’m dreaming his dreams.”
“This is just a bit too Twilight Zone for me, Chief,” Jim said firmly. “You’re not going to convince me that you’ve somehow tapped into Hunter’s subconscious after one bonding.”
Blair just stared at Jim, Dark Guide looking out through his eyes, willing his sentinel to understand and believe that there were more things in heaven and earth than Jim’s pragmatic nature would admit to.
Jim sighed, but knew that Blair wouldn’t rest until he had convinced Jim that magic was afoot.
“Tell me what you need, Blair.”
“Claim and mark, Sentinel.” Blair shivered again despite the blanket around his shoulders.
“Claimed and Marked, Guide.” Jim stood up.
Blair needed to banish the hurtful memories, just as he needed to understand the ones that somehow connected him to Hunter. The hand that took his arm was firm but gentle. As Blair was drawn up, he only had time to place the water glass down, when he was swept into strong arms and taken to the sentinel’s territory. With a sigh, Blair just hung on for the ride.
Sarah stirred as she felt her sentinel’s turmoil. Frowning, she sat up. Something wasn’t right. She crept out of room, not even bothering to put a robe on over her PJs. Moving barefoot down the hall, she peered first into the bathroom -- no Hunter. His bedroom door was open and the room was empty.
The downstairs was dark, but then, Hunter wouldn’t need to turn on the lights. She went down the stairs carefully and saw his shadowy figure at the open patio door. The moon illuminated his face just enough to see him but not to distinguish his expression. The night breeze ruffled the edges of his hair. He was staring at the mountain again.
“Captain Hunter?” she said softly, unsure whether he had heard her.
“Go back to bed, Sarah.” His voice was flat.
She reached out to touch him, but withdrew her hand at the last second. She retreated to the kitchen and pulled out a mug and began heating water. She deliberately bypassed the coffee and went for the cocoa. When the mug was ready, she moved back into the living room.
“Here.” She pressed the mug into his unresisting hand.
He sipped, more from force of habit than need, then frowned as the taste registered. “This isn’t coffee.”
“It’s hot chocolate,” she explained patiently. “Chocolate makes you feel better.”
“I thought that was a female myth,” Hunter said, but took another sip. His guide was fussing over him, and he was man enough to admit to liking it.
“No, really, it has something to do with endorphins. It’s actually a mood elevator. I read about it once.”
“Better living through chemistry?” Hunter raised an eyebrow.
“It’s comfort food -- like chicken soup.” Sarah wasn’t surprised by the dubious expression on Hunter’s face.
“You think I need comforting?” That eyebrow had almost launched off his forehead.
Sarah paused, but then let her empathic instincts guide her. “Yes.” She reached out and touched his shoulder, and when he didn’t object, leaned into his back. Her hand moved in a slow circle -- light, almost questioning. She didn’t know what was wrong, but knew that she had to help him.
Hunter could feel the hesitancy in her. She was unsure of him on many levels, and it was rarely that she touched him of her own volition. He took a few more sips of the chocolate and then set the mug down.
Moving backward, he led them to the bonding mat. Sarah knelt down, and Hunter circled her several times, sentinel senses surrounding her. Hunter finally settled onto the mat, pulling his guide down beside him.
“Mine,” he growled, in a way that would have scared her to death a week ago.
“Yours,” she whispered, sensing his pain, an old grief that strangled her and made her feel like crying.
When his head settled on her back and she moved into his mind, she caught the glimpse of a face, a young man with sandy hair and warm brown eyes, then it slipped away leaving the tiger alone in his frozen landscape.
Sentinel and guide both closed their eyes and didn’t stir again until morning.
The light coming through the patio door woke her. They had both fallen asleep after the bonding, something that they had done several times before, but usually Hunter woke at first light, his sentinel senses detecting that subtle change that triggered his circadian rhythm. This time, he was still asleep, no doubt exhausted by whatever had upset him last night. She moved, and when she brushed against Hunter, she froze. Oh, God. He was....
Hunter stirred and lifted his head. He still had her partially pinned beneath him, and she was staring up at him in shock. Registering her panicked heart rate, he moved back onto his side. Sarah tried desperately to move away from him, but he held her still.
“Sarah, it’s okay.”
She went beet red with embarrassment. He had never....
“It’s an involuntary response, Sarah.” His lips twitched. “We men don’t have much control over that. It doesn’t mean that...”
Sarah moved from embarrassment to fear. Mandy had warned her, and she had foolishly trusted Blair’s reassurance. Now Hunter was going to...
“Sarah, nothing’s going to happen.” He sounded condescendingly amused. “I think I can control my animal passions.”
She felt tears pricking her eyelids. He was laughing at her -- making her feel stupid and silly and small.
Hunter shifted so that he lay on his back and pulled her over so that her head rested on his chest. She was shivering, refusing to look at him. Hunter knew whatever he said, she was probably going to take it the wrong way. “Sarah, it’s just one of those things that happens. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to attack you, or that you did anything to cause it. You’re my guide, not my sex slave. Besides, after my ex-wife, I’ve sworn off women for a while.”
Hunter sighed. She was so damn young, and so inexperienced. He decided to tackle the issue head on as per his usual method. “Okay, let me explain something here. I know damn well you haven’t done anything more serious than hold hands with a boy. That’s not bad and it’s not wrong. I, on the other hand, have probably done far too many things that I shouldn’t have. We’re not in the same book, much less on the same page.”
She tried again to pull away, but his grip tightened, so she subsided.
“What happened just now is physiology. Reading a magazine or watching TV can do that. It just happens sometimes; it’s not you. Before you take that the wrong way, that’s not an insult to your female charm. You’re adorable, Tiger, but you’re half my age and I don’t mess around with kids.”
She registered the casual endearment, but shifted unhappily. No matter how he put it, she felt terrible.
“It happens sometimes, that a sentinel and guide get involved, but I’m not in the market for anybody right now, and you’re my guide. I have a responsibility to you. Most of the people we run into won’t buy that, but I’m a man of restraint.”
She couldn’t help the choke at that blatant exaggeration. Restraint. Hunter. Right.
He pulled her closer. Sarah couldn’t look at him. It was easier to deal with this when she didn’t have to see his face.
Hunter moved his hand over her back, soothing her. “Sandburg would probably say that some things are meant to happen, but not this. I don’t want a woman in my life right now. I didn’t want a guide, either.”
She cringed, and he felt it.
“Ah, hell, Tiger. I’m not going to trade you in. We’re bonded for life.”
Sarah lay quietly, listening to Hunter’s heart beating under her ear, a soothing lub-dub lub-dub. He smelled like evergreens and running water, a cool rich scent that eventually relaxed the knotted muscles in her stomach. She desperately wished that she was older; that she knew more about life, about sentinels, about anything. It was just so frustrating to try to keep up with him and to figure out how to help him.
Or how to help myself, she thought miserably. It was depressing to realize that she was the wuss of the century.
Hunter made a growling noise, and her attention shifted back to the man holding her. They lay there for a while until she finally was able to ease from him and sit up. She looked down at the man sprawled comfortably on the mat. He wasn’t self-conscious about his body or his personality. He was a man who knew his strengths and used them ruthlessly to his advantage, just as he understood his weaknesses and worked around them. If Hunter didn’t have such a rigid personal code of ethics he would have been a first class megalomaniac.
“I should get ready,” she said, trying to edge off the mat, but his hand on her arm stopped her. She tugged, but his grip didn’t loosen one iota. “Captain Hunter?”
“We still have time,” he said quietly, looking over at the pink and gold striations on the horizon, back lighting the mountain. Almost sunrise.
She was pulled back down to rest against him, the sentinel relaxing in the light bond as he purred with contentment.
Sarah remembered the times growing up when she and Mandy had stayed up late on weekends watching monster movies sprawled on a big quilt in the TV room, her father between them, both of them draped over him for security when the scary parts came on the screen. Curled close to her father, she had felt the love and protectiveness in him -- his determination to keep her safe.
Now, next to Hunter, she could feel a type of protectiveness, but it was different, more intense. This wasn’t affection, or love, or friendship; it was possession -- ownership with a very primitive edge. Scary, violent, wild and overwhelming. This wasn’t just the sentinel that made it that way, but the man himself.
Hunter rumbled something wordless, tucking her closer to him.
If she closed her eyes, Sarah could pretend she was safe at home. That everything would be okay again. A little self deceit for self preservation.
Hunter said nothing, eyes focused on the horizon. She wondered what he saw out there as they watched the sun finally take over the sky.
Sarah pulled her suit jacket on and brushed through her hair. It was getting a bit long in the bangs, so she’d have to call for to schedule a hair cut …she paused as realized that she couldn’t do that anymore. She couldn’t go shopping, to a movie or to the grocery store without her sentinel’s permission. She sat back on the bed, a bit depressed and still rattled by Hunter’s insomnia and the incident after their bonding.
He had scared her to death, and at the same time, made her feel about twelve and painfully naïve. She remembered the amusement in his eyes and voice and mentally cringed. Not only a wuss, but an idiot, she berated herself.
If it had been Mandy, she would have made some smart remark, turned it into a joke, laughed it off. Mandy would have probably yelled at him, taken some control, but not Sarah. She had panicked and promptly reinforced the fact that Hunter didn’t think she was capable of tying her own shoelaces, much less be his guide.
Mandy would have handled it better, she thought, and through the depression, felt a twinge of frustration that her sister had always been so confident, knew so much more about the world, and men, and …. Sarah stopped herself when she recognized her own anger. It wasn’t Mandy’s fault that the GDP had caught her. It wasn’t Mandy’s fault that she was at Rainier and Sarah might never be.
It wasn’t Mandy’s fault that Sarah had been born different.
Grabbing a tissue, Sarah wiped at her eyes and blew her nose. She couldn’t blame her family for wanting her to be safe, but now that all bets were off, and her destiny decided, Sarah couldn’t run away from her responsibilities. Nothing could be the same again. She had to do this on her own.
If this is what growing up is, Sarah thought as she crumpled up the tissue and threw it away, it sucks.
Hunter yelled from downstairs so she gathered her bag and headed down the steps. It was her first day back at IA since the kidnapping, and she felt a bit nervous. Samantha and Len Miller would be glad to see her, but everyone else would probably have been just as glad to have her disappear off the face of the earth. As her thoughts turned gloomy again, she mentally shook herself. It didn’t help anything.
Hunter glanced over as he drove. Sarah was looking out the window but not really seeing anything. His nightmare had taken him by surprise, but his guide tuning into his distress both comforted and surprised him.
Then there had been that moment when they both had woken after the bonding. It had amused him, to some degree, as he wasn’t used to any female quite so shy, but the ‘animal passions’ crack had definitely been out of line.
Some sentinels did take the bond in a carnal direction, with or without the guide’s consent, and that was what had led to groups like the GLA spreading propaganda about guide whores and slaves. More often, it was plain physical abuse by sentinels who, in Hunter’s estimation, should have been left to rot for taking advantage of empaths who couldn’t defend themselves because of their need for shielding.
Discipline doesn’t mean abuse. Hunter knew that discipline was the only thing that kept the military functioning seamlessly, a guiding principle for many different people carrying out a common goal. Yet the rigid protocols of the GDP, which he had followed all his life, seemed more and more askew as he got to know his guide.
Gary had been a textbook guide, always spot on with whatever protocol was called for at the time, but Gary hadn’t taken it to heart the way Sarah did. He hadn’t been scared and intimidated by the ritualistic behavior, especially in public.
Or maybe he had, and you just conveniently forgot it, Hunter thought bitterly. Then Gary had sacrificed his life for his sentinel, and left Hunter alone with his guilt and his memories. Hunter wasn’t sure whether he hated Gary for that.
Hunter looked over at Sarah. So damn young. Then Hunter stopped himself. She was learning and she hadn’t run, even when she had thought he was going to abuse her. Terror or dedication?
Hunter had reviewed the new GDP regulations, and found them to be reasonable. Ellison, of course, wanted to change the way the world ran. Guides and sentinels were equals, and should be treated that way. While Hunter noted Ellison’s social conscience, he knew that there would always be a territorial imperative in any sentinel-guide relationship. Yet after dealing with Sandburg the last few weeks, Hunter wasn’t exactly sure that Ellison was the one actually in charge.
I am, Hunter reassured himself. The sentinel protective instincts were always there, and he wouldn’t ever let his guide out of his reach long enough to even think about getting into a compromising situation. She’d never leave him -- he would ensure that through any means necessary.
Sarah, picking up on his troubled thoughts, shivered. He hadn’t meant to upset her, in fact, no other female of his acquaintance would have looked quite so spooked at a little harmless biological reaction. His blunt approach to things wasn’t exactly designed to reassure people, but she had calmed down. Still, it’s a screwed up world, Hunter, when a morning woody scares somebody half to death.
Hunter parked in his assigned slot at the precinct garage and Sarah clutched his jacket as they got on the elevator. Already the emotions of the building were crowding in. Any high-stress environment, like a hospital or police department, tended to batter her barriers relentlessly. Hunter tucked her to his side, his hand smoothing over head absently as he read through some memos.
When they walked through the glass door into the bullpen, all talking ceased and everyone turned to stare at Sarah. She felt horribly conspicuous and wanted to hide behind Hunter, but he kept her ahead of him, one hand on her shoulder.
“Hi, Sarah,” Miller got up to cross over to them. “I’m glad you’re doing better.”
Lowering her barriers, she felt his concern, and then, more concern from others around them. A far cry from the hostility that had been plaguing her for the last three weeks. After glancing up at Hunter, she answered Miller.
“I’m fine. Thank you for helping him find me.” When she smiled, it was a revelation.
“He didn’t work solo, you know,” came a voice on their right, Bernie Clark, back from vacation and ready to assume his second-in-command duties at IA. “Nice to see you back, kid.”
Like little ripples, the others followed, most with awkward greetings and mumbles, most not meeting Hunter’s eyes, but genuinely concerned. Snow, of course, and a couple of others kept their distance. Not that Sarah even wanted to be approached by them, and their dark thoughts.
At the silent permission from Hunter, Sarah acknowledged and thanked the members of the IA team that had participated in her rescue. They seemed much more human now.
Sarah had been settled into Hunter’s office to help Samantha with another database conversion problem, when Miller and Clark approached Hunter.
“Yes?” Hunter was already irritated by the sight of the small mountain of paper on his desk, but he kept his voice civil.
“Just wanted to tell you that we’re glad she’s safe. She’s a good kid.” Clark was taking his life in his hands trying to initiate a personal conversation with the Dark Side of the Force, but Miller knew it had to be said.
Hunter stared at both men, who waited to make sure the sentinel wasn’t going to go ballistic over their interest in his guide. “I appreciate your help, gentlemen,” he said finally, then withdrew to his office. Before the door shut, they could see Sarah reaching out to touch her sentinel’s arm, and how the big man relaxed into his chair.
“He’s so much better since he bonded,” Miller commented quietly. “You can actually almost talk to him now.”
“Yeah, but I still wouldn’t want to cross him,” Clark replied. “He’s the meanest SOB this department’s ever seen.”
“But not to her,” Miller pointed out, inwardly glad that the captain had proved to have a soft spot for his guide.
“No, not to her,” and missed completely the look of impotent fury on Snow’s face.
Hunter sipped his beer and watched his guide move around the kitchen. Sarah paused in her dinner preparations. She wasn’t at all sure of the emotions she was sensing from Hunter. Some anger -- but he was always angry about something. Impatience -- again, nothing new or different. But then...curiosity. Hunter was actually curious?
“After dinner, we can sit out on the patio. It’s a nice evening.”
Sarah felt her heart speed up. Something was wrong. What did he want?
Hunter moved behind her, letting his hand move over her back. “No hidden agendas. I’m not mad at you. We’re just going to sit outside and talk.”
Sarah let out her breath, but she was still wary. There was always an agenda. It just was a matter of what.
After dinner, Hunter pulled out two lounge chairs and set them side by side. Leading Sarah out, he settled her in one chair while he slouched down in the other. The chairs were angled so that they could see each other. For a time, they sat quietly, Hunter monitoring his guide’s vital signs until she finally calmed down.
“Pretty scary, this lounge chair sitting,” Hunter offered, dead pan.
Sarah’s eyebrows shot up, then she had to choke back a hysterical giggle. His humor, in the rare times it surfaced, was usually cutting and sarcastic. This was dry and mellow. She relaxed slightly.
“We’ve been bonded for a month, but it occurs to me that we don’t know very much about each other.” Hunter stared off into the distance at Mt. Rainier. “I don’t even know what you like to eat.”
“Why do you want to know?” Sarah asked softly, remembering their first few days together and his harsh pronouncement that her old life was over.
“You’re my guide -- I should know more about you. Especially since....” He cut off that thought abruptly, unwilling to voice his suspicion. Sandburg had shown him many things when they had bonded -- not the least of which was the profound trust and love Sandburg shared with Ellison. They were brothers, soul mates, best friends. That kind of connection for a sentinel and guide was rare. Hunter knew he didn’t have it in himself to be that open or trusting, but there had to be a reason that he had imprinted on Sarah. Sandburg had shown him that both he and Sarah had been part of the ancient clan, and their memories, or souls, were still there, tucked away.
Sarah wanted to know more about him, but he was just so intensely private. The fact that he wanted to know more about her seemed out of character for him. She had gotten used to certain behavior patterns from him; he was comfortingly consistent most of the time. Having him go off into left field like this troubled her.
“Let’s play a little game,” Hunter suggested blandly. “I’m going to ask you a question, and you answer, then you can ask me one. The only topics off-limits are my ex-wife and William Ellison.” He waited until she met his gaze.
Sarah hesitated, then asked, “What’s your favorite food?” There. That was safe.
“Pizza,” Hunter answered promptly. “What’s your favorite color?”
“Green.” She thought a moment. “What music do you like?”
“Jazz. Classic rock and roll. How about you?”
“Celtic. Alternative.” She really looked at him now, feeling braver. “What do you do for fun?”
“I like to read. I like sports.”
“I like to read,” Sarah said softly, and her body relaxed back in the chair. She mulled some more questions in her head.
“What were you hoping to do after graduation?”
The blunt question startled Sarah. “I wanted...I wanted to major in history.” She didn’t meet Hunter’s eyes. That was a raw wound - along with her family. She changed the subject. “Why do you hate Detective Ellison?”
“I don’t,” Hunter said matter of factly. “I’m not exactly fond of him, but he’s tolerable, even as Sentinel Prime.”
“What about Blair?” she asked, pushing in the second question before he could think of his next one.
“He’s tolerable,” Hunter repeated, but his voice warmed slightly. He would never admit to feeling anything other than the Shield’s duty toward the Guide Prime. It was safer that way.
Sarah gathered up her courage. “Will...will you ever let me see my family?”
Hunter’s face darkened, but he kept his voice even. “When I get over what they did, we’ll discuss it. Not before then.” His tone indicated that might not happen until the next millennium.
She withdrew from his anger, and for a few minutes they were silent. The air was cooling off as the sun went down.
“Why are you still afraid of me?” Hunter’s eyes were distant.
There were so many reasons: his anger, his inflexibility, his mysterious past, but ultimately, she went with the only answer she had: “I don’t know.”
They stayed outside until it grew dark, each of them lost in their own thoughts.
Blair walked up to the door, hands stuffed in his jacket pockets. He had been appointed babysitter for Sarah today. Hunter was going to be in court and felt it would be better for his guide to avoid the emotional upheaval of this particular case. So Blair was keeping Sarah with him for the day -- with the full blessing of the Shield. Life certainly took some strange turns and twists.
Hunter opened the door in mid-knock, and Blair jumped a bit. Those sentinel reflexes still surprised him. “Morning, Sandburg,” Hunter grunted.
“Good morning,” Blair said, smiling slightly. It had only been a week since the kidnapping, and Blair’s facial bruises had faded to a yellow-brown. The fact that Blair had asked Hunter to inflict them didn’t make them any less significant.
Hunter stepped back, allowing Blair to enter. As Blair walked past the taller man, he instinctively stilled. The Shield brushed a hand over his neck, barely touching him, but it was definitely a possessive gesture -- Shield guarding Guide Prime.
Hunter grunted again and let Sandburg move into the kitchen where Sarah was eating a bowl of cereal.
“Hi Sarah,” Blair said, sliding onto the high kitchen stool next to her, leaning his elbows on the counter.
She hastily chewed and swallowed. “Good morning, Mr. Sandburg.”
“Blair,” he said. “I think it’s okay for you to call me by my first name.”
She nodded, still spooning cereal in. Late again.
Blair looked down at the bowl, then at the cereal box sitting on the counter. “Frosted Flakes?” He was grinning at her. “Great, huh?” He tapped the cartoon character on the box, then turned his gaze at the sentinel sipping his coffee and reading the paper at the dining room table not ten feet away.
Sarah groaned at the pun, causing her sentinel to look up with narrowed eyes before he shook his head at the foibles of youth and went back to his paper..
“Shhh,” she hissed. “It’s been my favorite cereal ever since I was little.”
“And he never gave you grief about it?” Blair asked, his lips twitching.
“He eats Wheaties, when he eats cereal.” She looked over at him, frowning slightly. One English muffin wasn’t a decent breakfast, but at least he ate something.
“Froot Loops,” Blair whispered conspiratorially. “Jim likes Froot Loops, straight out of the box. Calories and additives be damned.”
Sarah’s eyes widened, then she giggled.
This time, Hunter looked up, nearly severing Sandburg in two with his eyes. “Isn’t it time for you two to be on your way?”
“Hey, I’m ready,” Blair said easily, noting how Sarah tensed.
Hunter could hear his guide’s heart rate increase, but ignored it. He got up and walked over to Sarah and brushed over her hair, his touch exquisitely gentle, and she slowly calmed. He rinsed out his coffee mug while she ran upstairs to the bathroom to brush her teeth.
Hunter got his briefcase and jacket. “I should be home by six, Sandburg. Can you drop her off?”
“No problem,” Blair said, getting off the stool and jiggling his car keys. “My last student conference is at four thirty, so I can run her home after that.” He met Hunter’s eyes without flinching.
“Keep an eye on her,” Hunter ordered, but the meaning was clear: Let her out of your sight and I’ll kill you. Metaphorically speaking.
“Gotcha,” Blair said, pushing the hair back from his face. Sarah reappeared, tugging a jacket on over her T-shirt.
“Remember what I said last night, Sarah,” Hunter admonished, and Blair watched as Sarah tensed again, her expression wary.
“Yes, Captain Hunter.”
“See you later.” With that, Blair ushered Sarah out the door.
Sarah sat quietly in the passenger seat, lost in thought.
“Quarter for them,” Blair said.
“Huh?” Then she flushed. “Sorry.”
“Must be pretty deep thoughts,” Blair said, turning onto the main road toward Rainier University.
“Just thinking about Pop and Mandy,” she said glumly. Sarah was quiet for a few minutes, then, “I miss them.” She sounded just this side of tears.
“Hey, hey, what brought all this on this morning? You guys have a fight last night?” Blair reached out to pat her head, feeling her misery.
As if Hunter would tolerate having any of his wishes challenged. Sarah rubbed at her eyes. “I just want to talk to them, just for a little bit. Even a phone call would be okay. But he said no. He told me I’d better not try to contact them while I’m with you.”
Typical Hunter -- threats and intimidation. Sarah had worked up the courage to ask for something, only to have Hunter shoot her down. Blair sighed, knowing just how effective Hunter’s intimidation tactics were.
“They have a suspended sentence, Sarah. If they violate the agreement terms, then...”
“They go to jail. I know.” Sarah’s voice was dull.
“Sentinels are complicated,” Blair said quietly. “Those primitive instincts can cause major problems in modern society, but it’s all still designed to keep you both safe. The important thing is that you’re okay and Hunter’s okay. The rest will sort itself out eventually. You’ll see your family again -- I’m sure of it.”
Sarah leaned back in the seat. “Mr. Sandburg -- Blair -- are you ever scared?” She tugged at her jacket zipper fretfully.
“Every moment of every day,” Blair answered honestly, and Sarah’s eyes met his in shock.
Blair gave her a small smile. “It’s a matter of degree. There are some things that scare me no matter what. Heights; small, dark places; guns. Then there are things that scare me in certain circumstances: loud voices, some...reminders from the correction facility.” Blair didn’t elaborate on that. “It just depends on the situation. We all have fears that we live with.”
“Are you scared of Detective Ellison?” The question was hesitant.
“No,” Blair said with such certainty and affection that Sarah blinked. “That’s not to say he didn’t scare me at the beginning, but that was my problem, not his. I had some issues I had to work through.” The Blair reached out to brush Sarah’s cheek. “Are you still afraid of Hunter?”
“Sometimes.” Sarah looked down at the floorboard. “Well, most times. He just gets so angry, and I don’t always know what to do. He was so mad last night when he told me to stay away from Mandy if I ran into her at Rainier.”
Blair had experienced the turmoil in Hunter’s mind during their bonding, and had seen things that he couldn’t share with Sarah. Guide Prime and Shield now knew far too much about each other for comfort. Blair couldn’t break that confidence, not even for Sarah’s sake.
She looked back up at Blair. “Are you scared of him?”
“I was,” Blair admitted. “He’s pretty overwhelming. Not now, though.”
“What changed?” Sarah needed to know.
“Leap of faith,” Blair said mysteriously, then smiled at her confusion. “You’ll get there. Look how much better things are already.”
Sarah still didn’t know exactly what Blair meant, but took comfort from it. Blair always seemed to know what would eventually come about.
“We okay?” he asked as they pulled into the parking lot behind Hargrove Hall.
She nodded, and a radiant smile lit up his face. For the first time, Sarah really looked at him as a man, and thought him beautiful.
They walked up to his office and Blair motioned for her to sit down while he shuffled through paperwork. “Okay, I’ve got a nine a.m. lecture, followed by a student study session. Lunch break from eleven-thirty to one. Then some research in the library and then student sessions after that.”
Sarah nodded. It would be a long day sitting in his little office.
After some intense paper shuffling, Blair emerged triumphant with his lecture notes. “Okay, you ready?”
Sarah sat there and stared at him.
“You mean you’d rather sit here than listen to me lecture on comparative coming of age rituals in Polynesian micro-societies? Don’t think so.” Blair laughed and cheerfully dragged her out the door.
When they entered the lecture hall, only a couple of students were already there. She was nervous. What if her barriers failed? What if they found out she wasn’t really a student?
“Just have a seat right there, Sarah,” Blair said softly, indicating a front row seat next to the windows. He looked up as Alan, captain of the soccer team and now anthropology major, came in. “This is Alan, one of my students. Alan, this is Sarah Freeman, a friend of mine who wanted to sit in on a couple of classes.”
Alan reached out to shake her hand, and the girl hesitated before clasping his briefly. Then Alan knew: another guide. Mr. Sandburg just looked over Sarah’s head, silently telegraphing a message.
“Nice to meet you, Sarah,” the jock said and sat down next to her, effectively blocking her from the other students.
Sarah stole a look at the tall young man. He didn’t radiate any hostile emotions, in fact, he seemed to have both respect and affection for his professor.
“He’s really a good teacher,” Alan said. “He knows a lot of stuff.”
Sarah smiled shyly and focused on Blair, who was scribbling something on the board. The lecture hall slowly filled, and she tentatively lowered her barriers. There were one or two negative vibes, but mostly it was just the usual early morning student ambience.
Alan was right. Blair Sandburg was a dynamic lecturer. He was full of fascinating facts and stories, lots of humor and had that deep compelling voice. The lecture was over far too quickly, and Blair answered questions at the lectern while Sarah waited near the windows. Alan stood casually at her side, keeping the others away from her.
Blair smiled at Alan. His student was a God-send.
“Ready?” Blair asked, holding out his hand. “Thanks, Alan,” he called over his shoulder, catching Alan’s wave.
Sarah grasped his hand gratefully as he led her to another lecture room where he had a short study session with several students. She sat quietly at his side after he introduced her and watched how Blair explained the concepts the students were having trouble with.
This is what I want, she thought. I want to learn everything.
Blair finished the session, and then mimed eating from across the room. Sarah nodded back -- she was hungry. They walked to the cafeteria, when a young man shoved into Blair, almost knocking him down the steps.
“No guides allowed,” the young man sneered. “Go home and kneel at your sentinel’s feet, you freak.”
Blair stood straight, masking his anger. The insults and gestures still occurred occasionally, despite the fact that he had been here over six months. The student’s three buddies had come to join him, surrounding Blair and Sarah.
“This your little girlfriend, Guide? She know you’re a freak?”
“Hey, maybe she gets off from him being on a leash.”
“Hey, Guide, does your sentinel do the two of you at the same time?”
Sarah kept her hand on Blair’s arm, refusing to let him go even when he tried to push her behind him for safety. They hadn’t done anything violent, but Blair wasn’t taking any chances. Dark Guide was ready.
Sarah’s eyes widened as she felt the Other emerge. That’s not Blair.
The young men kept up the insults, freely including Sarah. It was just like when her classmates had surrounded her at the mall -- all hateful, negative emotion. Then suddenly, they scattered. She looked around to see a GDP officer approach them.
“Oh no,” she whispered, wanting to flee, but she couldn’t leave Blair.
“Is there a problem here?” Blair looked up to see Lieutenant Harris, a concerned expression on his face. “Those kids give you a hard time?”
“No, just the usual crap, Lieutenant.” Blair said. “But thanks for asking.” Blair didn’t kneel, and it was clear the GDP officer didn’t expect it.
Harris stared at the bruises on Blair’s face. “You ran into a door, right?” His tone indicated he didn’t believe that for an instant.
“Nah, got this on a case,” Blair said truthfully. “Didn’t duck quick enough.”
Harris stared curiously at Sarah, who stood behind Blair. She wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“Well, if you’re sure....” Harris trailed off, disturbed by the students’ behavior and feeling very protective of the young guide.
“We’re fine, Lieutenant.” Blair smiled reassuringly.
“Take care of yourself, Sandburg,” Harris said, and patted Blair on the shoulder before moving off. Sarah wasn’t the only one flabbergasted by the little display. A small crowd had gathered and was whispering, speculating why a GDP officer would defer to a guide.
“Let’s take a run off campus,” Blair suggested. “We’re getting a little conspicuous.”
Sarah followed him to the parking lot. The demonstration of prejudice against guides was ugly, but not unexpected. The support from the GDP, though....
“It’s kinda complicated,” Blair said softly. “Lieutenant Harris feels responsible for me on campus.”
Sarah had a million questions, but there was one that topped everything else. “Who was he?”
“Who?” Blair asked as they got into his car.
“The other,” she said.
Blair stared at her, then his eyes crinkled with amusement. “It’s a long story -- I’ll give you the highlights over lunch.”
They settled in the small Thai restaurant and placed their orders. The place was blessedly quiet, which was soothing to both empaths.
Blair leaned forward as Sarah sipped her soft drink. She could get lost in those eyes, full of pain and secrets.
“The ancient clans of sentinels and guides have a way of popping up from time to time. Once upon a time, there was a Dark Sentinel who was searching for a Dark Guide....”
Sarah ate mechanically, but concentrated intently on what Blair was telling her.
“So, Dark Guide is you, Dark Sentinel is Detective Ellison?”
“Part of us, at any rate. Past life, tribal memory -- it’s a bit convoluted. I have memories that surface that aren’t mine -- not mine present day, I mean -- and dreams -- I have plenty of those.”
“Do you believe? Really believe it?”
“Oh, yes,” Blair smiled.
“Was I there?’ she asked finally. “Was Captain Hunter?”
“Yes, you both were, but that’s another story for another time.”
“But I...” she stopped abruptly at Blair’s look of mild censure. She wanted to know more.
Blair reached out and threaded his fingers through hers. It’s not time yet.
But I need to know. I need to know what to do. Her frustration and lingering uncertainty echoed through their link.
You already know, Sarah.
I don’t want to be afraid any more.
Then accept what you are. The guide has the power.
Their wordless conversation surprised Sarah, but Blair’s small smile showed her that the Guide Prime still had a few tricks up his sleeve.
She nodded, but Blair felt the small blip of despair in the girl. She wanted so badly to study -- and those dreams had died hard and painfully. She wanted to gain control of her life, but her sentinel wouldn’t let her. She needed something to build up her self-confidence -- something to let out the bright, interesting young woman inside that timid shell.
“We have another stop to make before we head back,” Blair said as he paid the bill, waving aside Sarah’s offer to split the check. It made him happy, though, that Hunter was providing her with an allowance.
“Where?’ she asked as they headed back to the car.
“You’ll see,” he twinkled at her, steering toward the area of town that held a variety of small shops and funky boutiques.
They parked in front of a small store. The sign was faded, but still colorful. Esoteric Trivia. They stepped inside through a beaded curtain and the scent of incense and a tinkling of wind chimes was pleasantly mixed with some soothing new age music being played on the loudspeaker. It was a warm, peaceful place.
Sarah let herself be led to the counter where Blair looked through the glass case, searching for something. Finally he spotted what he was looking for.
The saleslady smiled at the handsome young man. “Can I help you?”
“That pendant -- may I see that?” Blair pointed to a roughly oval shaped stone, yellowish brown and about an inch in diameter in a simple silver setting.
“Certainly. For you?” she asked as Blair held the stone in his hand, closing his eyes as he tuned into it. She waited - this was not just some tourist looking for pretty rocks. He knew what he wanted. His tribal necklace should have been the first clue.
Blair opened his eyes again. “No, for her,” and gently drew Sarah forward. “Hold this, Sarah. Put it in your left hand, and tell me what you feel.”
She took it gingerly, then almost dropped it. “It’s warm. I can feel it humming.” Her eyes were so wide that Blair chuckled.
“It’s not going to bite you, Sarah. Just let it sit in your hand.”
As she did, she saw the wolf and tabby sitting by the door, watching her, approving. Blair leaned over her shoulder as he spied them.
“They think it’s right. Do you?”
“Right?” she asked, unconsciously rubbing her fingers over the stone. It felt good.
“Is it right?” he repeated, his eyes asking more.
“Yes,” she finally whispered.
“We’ll take it. Can you put it on a short silver chain?” Blair handed the pendant back to the saleswoman, who nodded as she polished it and threaded a choker chain through the mounting.
Blair took back the necklace and placed it around Sarah’s neck. It sat right in the hollow of her throat. “Perfect,” he announced.
“What is it?” she asked, still unnerved by the humming she felt from the stone.
“This stone energizes a woman's self-confidence and repels negativity. It grants the wearer courage, will, strength and grace.” Blair said softly, his hand settling on her face, willing Sarah to believe in herself. “It’s called tiger eye.”
Sarah looked back at him, her hand coming up to cover his. The saleswoman stared at them. She wasn’t sure exactly what the connection was between the two young people, but it was a powerful one. Lovers? Somehow, she didn’t think so. Siblings? Maybe, though they looked nothing alike.
Sarah felt Dark Guide looking into her head and heart, and finding more than Sarah there. Finally, he stepped back as the saleswoman cleared her throat discreetly.
Blair paid for the necklace and waved aside Sarah’s protests. She looked down to see the tabby and wolf rubbing against her legs, then circling to Blair.
She grasped his arm. Thank you.
He smiled and took her by the hand as he led her out the door.
Back at Blair’s office, Sarah was still musing over the stone when Blair’s cell phone rang and he answered, his face scrunching into a frown as he continued to listen. “Yeah, Jim, I hear you. We’ll be careful. What? Oh, that. Just some disgruntled students who....” Blair trailed off, wincing at the pithy reply from his sentinel. “Lieutenant Harris took care of it. He called you, right?” Blair sighed as his sentinel, who could go into BP mode over the telephone, continued to add warnings and advice. “Yeah, man, I promise. We’ll stay here. I have some student sessions and some research time at the library.” Blair sighed again as he hung up.
“Is everything okay?” Sarah asked.
“There’s been an attack on a student just off campus - he was robbed at gunpoint, roughed up a bit. Jim wanted to make sure we stick together. And of course he found about those students....” Blair sighed again, even more heavily.
The phone rang again. “Yeah, Jim, what?” Small pause. “Oh, Hunter, you sound just like him.” Whatever Hunter said caused Blair to pull the phone away from his ear with a flinch. “Sorry. What can I do for you? Yeah, Jim called about that.” Blair leaned on the edge of his desk, rolling his eyes. “And that, too. No, the students didn’t do anything....” Another pause for a sentinel lecture. “Okay, I’ll meet you at your house at 5:30. No problem. Yes, sir. Right away, sir.” This time Blair just grimaced as he hung up. “Man, I keep forgetting how autocratic he is.”
Sarah hovered anxiously. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. Just got my orders from the Shield,” Blair said, his sense of humor returning. “Let me show you a magical and wondrous place....” Blair led Sarah to the library, and for a time, they forgot about outside threats.
Sarah looked around the library with its high-domed ceiling and case after case of books, some freshly printed, some delightfully old and musty. It was quiet, almost like a church. Blair led her to a small room and picked up some old documents and books stacked behind the special collections desk. There were manuscripts there that looked hundreds of years old.
“These are historical accounts of sentinels and guides,” Blair said reverently as he ran his hand over the old paper. “I’m doing my thesis on dark sentinels. There isn’t much information about them, but since Rainier is the site of the Sentinel Institute, the library here has almost all relevant documents from around the world. The person who wrote this has been gone for over two hundred years -- and we’re reading it today.”
Sarah reached out hesitantly and touched the yellowed paper. “It’s like speaking to the dead.” She traced the faded ink with a respect that Blair admired.
“What do you want to study, Sarah?” Blair asked.
“I wanted to major in history.” She felt the old ache again. “I guess I was just dreaming.” She looked down at the table, frustrated and upset.
“Don’t ever give up your dreams, Sarah. Jim gave mine back to me.”
Sarah looked at him and her vision blurred a bit, but Blair tactfully distracted her. “I’m looking for any accounts of clan social structure. Part of my thesis is how dark sentinels interacted with their clan and with outsiders -- social hierarchy, clan roles and so on. You want to help me with this?”
“Me?” Sarah asked, but the gleam of excitement was impossible to miss.
“I can always use a research assistant,” Blair said. “I’ve got some books I’d like you to read to bring you up to speed on sentinels and guides, but most of what I do is just sift through documents to pick out the little grains of truth.”
“I don’t know if I....” Sarah wasn’t sure if she would be allowed to help Blair.
“I don’t think Hunter will mind,” Blair reassured her as he pushed several documents toward her. “Why don’t you go through these and let me know what you think. I can’t possibly go through all this on my own; there aren’t enough hours in the day.”
Sarah took the papers and began to read. Blair watched her concentrate on the faded script as she absently reached for a pen and began scribbling notes on some blank paper Blair had placed on the large table.
Oh, yes, I think we’re finally getting to see the real Sarah. Blair smiled and went back to his own stack of material. They passed the next two hours in companionable silence.
When Blair pulled into Hunter’s driveway at 5:40 PM, Jim’s truck was parked on the street. Surprise, surprise. Blair got out and opened Sarah’s door for her. She got out and the two guides headed for the front door.
“Bet you they’re both in BP overdrive,” Blair sighed. “Probably been pacing for the last twenty minutes. Brace yourself, kiddo.”
The door opened, and two sentinels caught hold of their respective guides, checking them out and making sure they weren’t injured. Blair looked over at Sarah, she looked back and suddenly they both snickered.
“What?” Jim demanded, eyes narrowed.
“Something funny here, Sandburg?” Hunter growled.
“Nope. Not a thing,” Blair said innocently, but Hunter didn’t trust that look.
“I want a full report,” Jim ordered as he led Blair over to the dining room table. Blair sighed as he sat down. Jim was in BP mode, and nothing was going to stop him from finding out every last grisly detail.
Hunter was still standing in the entry way, his hand moving over Sarah’s neck, leaning in to scent her. He noticed the necklace and his eyes narrowed. ‘What’s this?”
“Blair gave it to me,” Sarah said, biting her lip. “He said...he said it’s to help me.”
Hunter touched the pendant, sentinel senses picking up the minute vibration of the stone. “What is it?” he asked, but his voice was softer now. There was something familiar about it....
“It’s supposed to help me focus -- it’s tiger eye.” She held her breath as Hunter touched the stone again, his eyes distant, almost zoning, then he snapped back. They stared at each other, then Sarah looked away, unnerved by the intensity.
Hunter gave her one of his inscrutable looks, then took her by the arm and led her to the table. “From the top,” he ordered both Blair and Sarah, wanting to know exactly what had transpired with the students and the GDP.
Blair touched Jim’s arm, and Sarah reached for Hunter’s, and both guides gave their account of the student harassment. After a brief admonishment of keeping safe, Jim and Blair left, leaving Sarah in the kitchen contemplating the menu. Spaghetti - that would be quick. She pulled out the ground beef and began browning it, adding only a pinch of salt. Spices tended to cause Hunter major problems, so she usually just added them to her own serving after cooking.
She was well into dinner preparations when she noticed that Hunter still stood in the kitchen doorway, tracking her movements. He didn’t say anything, and he was watching her intently. It made her nervous. “Sentinel?”
“We’re off the next two days. After all that’s happened, you need to learn some self defense. We’ll go over some things.”
Sarah paused in stirring the sauce. “I apologize, Sentinel. I tried to get away from them....”
Hunter let out an angry sigh. “The kidnapping wasn’t your fault, and I don’t expect you to be able to ward off the bad guys with martial arts. All I want to do is to make sure you learn a little about protecting yourself. You’re small, so you have to learn how to use leverage to make up for it.”
Sarah resumed stirring. She had hated the feeling of total helplessness when the man with Mandy had grabbed her. “I’m not a jock,” she said quietly. “Pop never let me participate in sports, or any clubs. They might have found out...about me.”
Hunter considered that. In many ways, his guide had been sheltered from real life. In his bid to try to keep her from the GDP, Max Freeman had locked Sarah away from normal teenage experiences, and had made her dependent. It was like religious fanaticism -- or brainwashing. Wasn’t that abuse, in a different way?
“We’ll work on it. I work out every day because of my job.” He gestured vaguely at the exercise equipment in the small room off the living room. “I like to run. You’ll come with me.” He had deferred his runs the last few weeks because of the bonding and subsequent events, but he had still used the exercise equipment. Even as a captain, Hunter felt duty-bound to stay in shape. Now even more so: he had a guide to protect.
“Running?” Sarah said dubiously.
“This isn’t boot camp, Sarah,” Hunter said with just a trace of humor. “I’m not expecting you to run marathons. This is just staying physically fit.”
Sarah turned to look at him doubtfully.
“Trust me.” The simple request was quite serious.
Sarah locked eyes with him, then nodded. The tiger purred, and the sentinel relaxed.
Hunter was up early Saturday, and woke Sarah, who just blinked for several seconds. “Time to go running. You have a jogging outfit?”
She shook her head. “I have sweat pants.” She was sleepy, but pulled herself up to get up and rummage in the drawer. It was too early to contemplate exercise.
“That’ll work. Meet me downstairs in five minutes.”
Sarah wasn’t looking forward to this at all. She pulled on a t-shirt and the pants, adding cotton socks and her tennis shoes. She met him at the bottom of the stairs.
“We’ll jog today -- easy pace,” Hunter announced. He was dressed in shorts and a Cascade PD t-shirt, expensive looking running shoes on his feet. He was obviously a serious athlete.
As they went out the door, Hunter admonished, “Stay on the inside of the sidewalk.” The sentinel was still on watch.
They started out and Sarah gamely kept up. After about fifteen minutes, his guide’s breathing grew a little harsher. Her heart rate was up - but not dangerously so. He slowed his pace, and she pressed on. Her muscles were starting to cramp, but she kept on. She couldn’t fail.
Hunter spent the next ten minutes watching his guide from the corner of his eye. She was tiring; he could hear her heart accelerate. But the damn kid kept going. She seemed afraid to stop, and Hunter realized that she thought it was a test.
“Okay, that’s enough for one day,” he said. “Let’s head home.” He slowed to a walk and she gratefully followed suit. She was so out of breath that all she wanted to do was drape herself over the nearest shrub and just lie there.
“This is supposed to be enjoyable,” Hunter said conversationally. “An early morning run is invigorating.”
Sarah stared up at him through her sweaty bangs. Her lungs were still burning. Enjoyable? This?
Hunter hid his smile. She looked...irritated.
“Give it a couple of weeks. You’ll be amazed at the difference.”
Later that afternoon found Hunter out in the back yard explaining more self defense moves to Sarah. She looked over to see Mr. Randall from next door step out on his patio and freeze. The man scurried back in the house at one look from Hunter.
“Idiot,” Hunter said, without heat. He turned his attention back to Sarah. “Okay, let’s try going through that maneuver.”
Sarah knew she could never match his strength or weight, but she was quick, and doggedly let herself be ‘thrown’ again and again. Never once did Hunter actually let her hit the ground with any force. Finally, after paying close attention to his instructions and watching how he moved, she succeeded in twisting herself so that Hunter lost his balance and went down.
She stared at him, horrified. “Sentinel, I....”
Hunter rolled to his feet effortlessly. “Next time, move a little more to the side. It’ll give you better clearance.” He wasn’t angry; in fact, he looked pleased.
“I...was that okay?” Sarah still wasn’t sure.
“Not bad,” Hunter growled, but his eyes were almost smiling. “You up for a few more?”
“Yes,” Sarah said, and when they met eyes, she could feel the connection humming.
After dinner, Sarah hauled out the books Blair had given her. She had Burton’s text plus several other books she would have to wade through before she knew what Blair was looking for. But it was a real research project of historical significance. Her heart sped up just slightly in anticipation as she set the books on the dining room table.
“What’s all this?” Hunter grunted as he finished his after-dinner cup of coffee.
“Sentinel reference texts,” Sarah said, her pen scribbling furiously in a notebook.
“More homework from Sandburg?” Hunter reached out and sifted through the book stack; he’d read most of them at one time or another.
“Not exactly,” Sarah said evasively. She certainly didn’t have Blair’s talent for obfuscation.
The tint of uncertainty in her voice made Hunter narrow his eyes. “Then what is it -- exactly?”
“Blair’s thesis. He’s working on sentinel clan structure and interpersonal dynamics, and he thought I could help with the research. See -- he’s got so much to do and read, and he thought if I could help him sort through documents, he’d get done quicker, and it would only be when you don’t need me, so maybe I could....” Sarah’s words were almost tripping themselves in her haste to convince her sentinel.
“Uh huh. PhD dissertation. And Sandburg can’t possibly do it without you.” The sarcasm was light, but still pointed.
Sarah drew in a deep breath. She touched the stone at her neck with nervous fingers.
Blair’s voice echoed in her head. The guide has the power.
“I really want to do this, Captain Hunter. I promise not to let it interfere with your job.” Confident words, but the effect was marred by the slight tremor in her voice, and the pulse pounding in her throat.
Hunter paused - he had several options. He could say what popped first in his head -- a firm, unequivocal ‘no.’ He didn’t want his guide even thinking of an academic future. He wasn’t Jim Ellison, indulgent to a fault.
Or he could put her off with vague promises of someday, which would pacify her for now, but would keep her hopes up unfairly. He had no trouble manipulating the truth to suit his needs, but she didn’t deserve that.
Or you could say yes. It’s not like she ever asked you for anything except her family. The little voice was pushing his guilt button with annoying accuracy. It was, of course, the least attractive option.
“Why would you even want to do this?”
Sarah frantically grasped for a convincing argument: academics, research, contribution to society, but in the end, she opted for the truth. “Because I can help, and learn.”
“Your job is to be my guide. Tell me just how this will make you a better guide.” Hunter’s voice was cutting.
Sarah nearly cringed at the tone. Part of her wanted to back off and forget this whole conversation, but something else inside her urged her on.
Accept what you are.
“I’m learning to be a guide, but Blair says we can learn a lot from the past.”
“So you think by reading a bunch of manuscripts by some weirdo anthropologists is going to make you a sentinel expert?”
He was looming over her the way he did the people he interviewed in his IA investigations. “No, but it’ll help me help you.” She closed her eyes, her heart hammering away at the risk she was taking.
Hunter contemplated that for a long agonizing minute. Then -- “All right.” He almost snarled the words.
Sarah opened her eyes. She nearly fell off her chair in shock. He had agreed? “Captain Hunter, I....”
“As long as you don’t neglect your guide duties, I’ll allow you to spend some time with Sandburg and his pet project.” He sounded calm, but his jaw was clenched. He was seething just at the thought of her devoting her attention to anything else. Anyone else.
Sarah swallowed the lump in her throat. “I promise that I’ll....”
Hunter cut her off. “I said it’s okay. I’m going to review some files.” He turned to walk away, but Sarah reached out, catching him by surprise.
She held onto his wrist almost desperately. She had to make him understand. She wasn’t abandoning him or betraying him.
Hunter opened the link, and immediately calmed despite her anxiety. She watched as his posture relaxed bit by bit. Then Hunter gently disengaged from her grip, and Sarah felt the oddest sensation of loss.
He walked over to the living room and picked up his briefcase and returned to sit down at the other end of the table. Pulling out the files, he began skimming over the pending cases.
Sarah watched him covertly, her mind skittering in a dozen different directions. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t even upset anymore. Confused, she stared blankly at the page in front of her.
“You have to turn the pages to read, Sarah,” he said quietly, and when she looked up, he was nose deep in his case reports.
Sarah stared for a few more seconds, then got back to Burton. The silence that settled between them was a bridge -- not a barrier.
“We have an interview today,” Hunter announced. Sarah was eating her usual bowl of cereal, and when Hunter caught sight of the box, she hastily shoved it to one side. “It’s going to be a bad one.”
Sarah winced. Sullivan, the hapless man who had sunk to illegal drug trade to try to finance an experimental cancer treatment for his daughter that the insurance company refused to pay for. He had committed a crime, but with the best intentions. Now he was suspended and under IA investigation.
“This is a charged situation, and there’s going to be emotional fallout.” Hunter didn’t sound upset over the prospect.
Sarah gnawed on her lower lip. Her barriers would take a beating today. She finished her cereal and rinsed out her bowl. She went upstairs to brush her teeth and hair while Hunter flipped through his file folders and carefully packed his briefcase.
Hunter didn’t say much as he drove them to the office. When they entered, the room grew quieter. Everyone there knew what Sullivan had done was wrong, but no one had the heart to blame him for his desperate last attempt to save his child.
Rafe and Brown were there, hanging out. Several officers from different divisions congregated in the bullpen and the hallway, each one of them trying to show support. Sullivan’s captain had placed him on suspension right after Sarah’s rescue, and Hunter had decided to take the interview himself. The suspicion his own men, much less the other cops, viewed Hunter with was upsetting to Sarah. They weren’t so much angry as they were scared; Hunter took no prisoners and his judgment was absolute.
Hunter moved through the bullpen, Sarah clutching at his jacket. Miller managed a small smile for her, and she nodded, not daring to say anything while the atmosphere was so heavy.
Hunter walked into his office with a curt “Good morning” for Samantha. He deposited his briefcase on the desk and opened it to extract the necessary files. Picking up his recorder, he nodded to Sarah, who latched herself onto him as they went to the interview room.
Sullivan, a compact wide-shouldered man with prematurely salt and pepper hair, sat nervously at the table, his advocate beside him.
“Officer Sullivan, I’m Captain Hunter with Internal Affairs, and this is Sarah. I have some questions for you.” Hunter set down the recorder after turning it on. He and Sarah sat down opposite the man.
“What happened on the day Detective Rafe shot Officer Smith?”
Sullivan was sweating. His voice had a wobble to it as he recounted the events of the day, which pretty much corroborated what Rafe had told him.
Hunter continued his questioning, focusing on the shooting and its aftermath before going to the meat of the interview. It was a standard technique: get the man more comfortable, then strike.
“Officer Sullivan, why were you at the scene to begin with? This was a vice undercover operation.”
“Uh -- I just happened to be driving by when I saw Smith and wondered what he was doing, so I stopped to check on him.” Sullivan’ heart was racing as he lied.
“I see. You knew Officer Smith worked undercover, yet when you saw him, something made you think you needed to blow his cover.” Hunter’s voice held just a trace of mockery.
“Yeah, I thought he might be in trouble, so I needed to check on him.” Sullivan was squirming as he recounted the story everyone, including Smith, had told him to use. From the way the IA captain watched him, Sullivan was sure the man wasn’t buying it.
“Tell me more about what happened next,” Hunter said, and settled back to listen to the awkward tale. After several rambling minutes of nervous speech, Sullivan finally stopped.
“So, you were simply being a good Samaritan.” Hunter said levelly, monitoring the man’s vital signs. Sullivan couldn’t lie worth a damn. The story he was concocting sounded like a bad TV movie.
“Yeah, I just needed to make sure they were okay, you know? Cops need to protect each other.”
“But to what point, Officer Sullivan? Do they lie? Do they withhold evidence? Do they commit crimes?”
Sullivan was shifting in his chair restlessly. He knew that Captain Hunter was a sentinel -- knew that the man could read his body better than any lie detector -- and he knew that this man would never deviate from the rules. Sullivan was scared to death.
Hunter kept up some innocuous questions, neatly pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions in Sullivan’ story until the man was so rattled that he finally stopped answering.
“Sullivan, why don’t you stop wasting my time. You were dealing. I know it, and you know it. Admit it, and we’ll move on.”
“You don’t understand,” the man choked. “I wasn’t....”
“What? Somebody held a gun to your head and told you to deal? You were dirty and you got caught. Now you’re making excuses?” Hunter got up and moved around to the man. The aggression level was rising. Sarah wanted to reach for him, but stopped when Hunter glared at her.
The advocate frowned at Hunter and whispered to Sullivan who pulled himself together.
“You’re a dirty cop. Because of your little deal, Smith almost was killed. Rafe went through inquiry. Why the hell should anybody care why you did it?” It was merciless and cruel, and calculated to push Sullivan over the edge. “You’re a crook, plain and simple.”
“No! I’m not like that! I....”
“You played for sympathy from your fellow cops with your tale of woe, and thought all would be forgiven. Well, it won’t be. You committed a crime, Officer Sullivan, and I can prove it.”
Sarah was growing more and more distressed as the anger and terror coming off the man started beating at her barriers. Couldn’t Hunter feel it?
“I had to do it!” The moment the words were out of his mouth, Sullivan lost control. Ignoring his advocate, he grabbed the table edge. “My daughter - she’s dying. This is the only chance. You can’t stand there and tell me you wouldn’t do that for your kid!”
Hunter curled his upper lip. “What I would do or not do isn’t up for speculation. This is about you.”
“Captain Hunter, surely we can come to some agreement. As you can see, Officer Sullivan is under a lot of stress and susceptible to making poor judgments because of it.” The advocate’s oily attempt to smooth things over was met with a snarl.
“Officer Sullivan is a thief and a liar. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he played the odds that he wouldn’t get caught. He was caught, and now he has to pay for it.” Hunter leaned into the man. “You might as well sign on the dotted line, Sullivan, and save me from dragging this out. If you don’t confess, I’ll be interviewing your co-workers, your friends and your family. Do you want your wife to be brought in here to answer questions? Your parents? I assure you, I’ll bring your whole family tree in here, and in the end, you’ll go down just as hard, but with a lot more noise. Do you really want to subject them to all that?”
Sullivan was breathing hard. The thought of his wife being forced to answer questions by this...animal... shriveled his rage into despair. Hunter kept at him, poking into his psyche with jabs and taunts until Sullivan finally collapsed.
The advocate protested loudly, but Hunter was tuned into the man’s heart beat - frantic, thundering, and he felt his vision go gray as the noise engulfed all other sensory input. He was frozen until he heard her voice calling him, beckoning him back.
“Sentinel? Captain Hunter?” Sarah was at his side, her hand touching his chest, and he breathed in and shook his head. Hunter glared at the advocate, who had watched with fascinated horror as the sentinel had zoned. Sullivan was lost in his own misery.
“Officer Sullivan, you have two choices: confess now, or I’ll tear you down, bit by bleeding bit.” Even Sarah shivered at his cold detachment.
Sullivan gave up. Despite what his advocate said, Sullivan signed his confession papers, then sat back, totally numb. It was all over: for him, for his wife and for their ten year old.
Hunter turned deliberately to the advocate. “Counselor, now that the formalities are over, I need a word with Sullivan -- alone.”
The advocate was about to protest, but the feral light in the sentinel’s eyes had him scurrying out the door
Sullivan just sat there. The IA captain had trapped him without effort. “What happens now?” The man’s voice was bleak.
“I take your confession to the inquiry board, and after reviewing all the facts, a decision will be made as to what charges will be filed.”
He was going to jail. Sullivan couldn’t even work up enough energy to move, to protest, to scream against the futility of all his efforts.
Hunter then moved around to Sullivan, leaning against the table edge. “Why didn’t you tell your captain about this?”
“What?” Sullivan asked, confused.
“Why didn’t you tell him about Beth?” Hunter asked. “The only people who knew about your daughter’s situation were your cronies at your station, and a handful of people from other divisions.”
Sullivan gave a short, bitter laugh. “What good would it do? The insurance wouldn’t pay for it. I tried everything I could to appeal. I sold everything I could, borrowed from everybody I knew, but it was not even close to what Beth needed. After the bone marrow transplant, I thought we were clear. When she relapsed three months ago, everyone we saw told us she had six months max. The experimental trials are just starting in the US -- and only for adults -- no exceptions. I researched everything I could, and found they’re doing limited runs on children in Europe. But I’d have to pay everything out of pocket -- the travel, the medicines, the hospitalization -- $200,000 minimum.” Sullivan paused. “Because I can’t afford it, my child is going to die. What’s drug dealing compared to that?”
“Lesser of two evils?” Hunter suggested, his face expressionless.
“Yes.” Sullivan seemed to calm at that. “I’d do it again.”
“Knowing that you’re committing a crime, betraying your department and fellow officers, and endangering the public you swore to serve and protect.”
“Yes, even then.” Sullivan finally met Hunter’s eyes. “Have you ever loved someone so much that you would lie, cheat, steal or murder to keep them safe?”
Hunter’s eyes flickered, but he didn’t answer.
“I guess I’m going to jail, huh?” Sullivan was exhausted. Even the thought of prison didn’t frighten him, just the thought of not being there when Beth.... “Would...would they consider waiting a few months, before they...I just want to be with her at the end.”
Sarah, feeling the man’s pain, was compelled to go over and touch the man’s shoulder, wanting to ease him. Sullivan startled at the touch, but when he felt the concern, he slumped, sobbing quietly.
Captain Hunter? He could feel her voice in his head, asking him to help the man.
Hunter stared down at the man whom he had systematically and ruthlessly broken. He had done his job, coldly, efficiently and by the book, and felt absolutely no satisfaction. He couldn’t compromise an investigation or let his personal feelings cloud his objectivity. Hunter weighed his options, looking first at Sullivan’s shaking shoulders, then at his guide, who waited for him to do something.
The right thing.
“Officer Sullivan, I will be presenting my evidence and your confession at the inquiry board meeting. My recommendation will be for your dismissal from this department.” Hunter watched the man’s shoulders stiffen. “As for the criminal charges...I will recommend that criminal charges be dropped due to extenuating circumstances.”
Sullivan’s head bobbed up in disbelief. The IA captain was actually going to go to bat for him?
“Why?” He couldn’t even fathom why the sentinel would even consider leniency with his opinion of crooked cops.
“Because you’ll be needing to travel soon to McKinley Medical Center -- it’s a military hospital that’s doing research in pediatric oncology. They’re running trials similar to those you found in Europe, but only on military and government employee dependents.”
“But why would they...?” Sullivan was confused.
Hunter took a piece of paper and scribbled a name and number. “Because you’re going to call Dr. Michael Bowen, chief of pediatrics at McKinley, and tell him that Captain Hunter said it’s time to repay the favor.” He handed the paper to Sullivan, who took it with shaking fingers, barely daring to hope.
“I...I don’t know what to say,” Sullivan stammered, every preconceived notion about the captain flying out the window.
“I’d advise you to call as soon as you get home, Officer Sullivan.” With that, Hunter stood, and caught Sarah close to his side. She leaned into him, her gratitude on top of Sullivan’s making him want to bolt.
Hunter grabbed his file folders while Sullivan just scrubbed at his wet face, staring down at the piece of paper. Hunter paused just as he and Sarah were about to exit the room.
Hunter hesitated, then said, “What you asked before: the answer is yes.” Then he and Sarah moved out the door.
Sullivan stared after Hunter long after the man had left.
Hunter walked past the silent bullpen and into his office, Sarah hanging onto him. No one said a word and when the office door clicked shut, Sullivan made his way through the hall, his advocate holding onto his arm.
Rafe cringed in sympathy. The man looked like hell.
“Sullivan?” H asked. “What happened?”
“Officer Sullivan is not answering questions at this time,” his counsel said imperiously. “Now kindly....”
“No, it’s okay. They’ll find out soon anyway.” Sullivan looked straight into Rafe’s eyes. “Thanks for all you tried to do for me, but I’ve confessed.”
The small rumble of disbelief grew in volume.
“Are you crazy? Sullivan, it’s extenuating circumstances!” H was waving his arms, almost apoplectic.
Sullivan seemed almost calm. “No, I haven’t lost my mind. I knew it would happen; you guys warned me about Captain Hunter: no prisoners.”
“God, Sullivan....” The despair and understanding in Rafe’s voice nearly undid him.
“It’s for the best,” Sullivan said, weary to the bone, and walked down the hall to the elevator.
“What’s going to happen to him?” Another officer asked in hushed tones.
“I don’t know,” H said helplessly, as all eyes once again focused on the closed door of the captain’s office.
Sarah had just finished her shower and was rooting through the refrigerator for eggs and milk to make omelettes. Pulling out cheese, ham and tomatos, she began her preparations. Stretching up to reach the top cabinet for the pan, she felt her muscles protest. They had been running every morning for two weeks now, and even though she was gaining more endurance, it would be a long time before she could keep up with Hunter. He insisted on the runs and the self defense lessons, no matter how sore and tired she was.
Hunter came down the stairs, freshly showered and totally relaxed. He sat down at the table and allowed Sarah to serve him a plate. It was an unspoken agreement: she ran; he ate breakfast.
“We’re going shopping today,” Hunter said, causing Sarah to look at him as if he had grown antlers.
Hunter? Shopping of his own free will?
“Do I need more work clothes?” Sarah asked worriedly. Granted her professional wardrobe was expanded due to the recent purchases, but maybe he was dissatisfied with her professional appearance.
“No. Just for fun. I want to check out the new music store.”
Sarah sat for a minute, trying to process that.
“You don’t want to go?” Hunter asked.
“I...” she hesitated, part of her yearning for something normal, like window shopping, and part of her dreading a scene like their first visit to the mall.
“It’s for fun, Sarah,” Hunter said, almost gently, waiting until she looked up and gave him a tentative smile.
It takes time, he thought. It just takes time.
They entered the mall and walked past the fountain. Sarah shivered as she remembered her classmates ganging up on her.
“They try anything, and I’ll kill them,” Hunter said matter of factly.
Sarah choked at his calm pronouncement. She looked around nervously, but there was no one she recognized.
“That fountain,” Hunter said frowning. “I don’t like it.”
Sarah felt a vague, shadowy chill as she stared at the water bubbling. There was something about it....
“Come on, Tiger,” Hunter said, tugging her along behind him. Again, he didn’t make her assume the guide position. It took a few minutes until the nickname registered. He used it sporadically, mostly when he was in a mellow mood, which wasn’t as often as Sarah would have liked. It was the one thing that gave her hope that he might be coming to care about her as a person.
They stopped outside CD Circus, a mega-music store that somehow still had an intimate feel to it. Rather like the combination bookstore/coffee shops, it had chairs and listening stations and a small coffee bar in the back. There was no music played overhead -- it all was piped into the CD sampler stations. The overall atmosphere was serene and mellow. No wonder Hunter liked the concept of a music store like this.
“Have you got your wallet?”
“Yes, Captain Hunter.” She clutched her purse closer to her. She actually had money of her own to spend. Hunter had explained that the GDP gave him a fixed sum for her up keeping, which personally he thought was insulting, so he would pay that into a bank account for her, and from that he would expect her to pay for the extra things she wanted. Hunter had added that Ellison had jumped the gun with Sandburg; he had seen the ATM card the kid had, but it was legal slight of hand, and the new regulations would soon be in effect allowing guides at least a savings account.
Sarah had squirreled away everything she could, hoping that one day she might be able to continue her education. A university education was expensive. But she would dearly love to get some CDs, and maybe some books. The Cascade Public Library had a strict policy of not allowing guides to borrow books. She still remembered the day last week when Hunter had picked up some reference texts and she had tentatively inquired about getting a library card. The library assistant had rudely snubbed her, and Hunter had shredded the woman. It hadn’t gotten Sarah a card, but it had surely made a lasting impression on the library staff.
“I’m going to look in this section,” Hunter said, indicating the Jazz sign on the wall. “Stay where I can see you.”
The sentinel was fussing, but Sarah knew she’d be able to check out the entire store without Hunter losing track of her.
“Yes, Captain Hunter.”
“Hunter. I thought we agreed on that. We’re not in the office now.” It was said gruffly but the emotion behind it came through their connection and she knew it wasn’t anger.
Sarah still had trouble with the casual use of his name. Both he and Detective Ellison were so formidable, and she wouldn’t even think to address the Sentinel Prime so informally. “Yes, Hunter,” she corrected herself, feeling his hand smooth over her hair. The connection calmed both of them.
She moved off to the popular music area while Hunter flipped through CDs that caught his interest.
She moved down the aisles, looking through various CDs. She stopped at the Celtic section, debating on which CD. It would have to be just two CDs; she had to be frugal. Then she could maybe get a book or two. She was used to budgeting money; she’d grown up middle class, but now it was vitally important. She had a goal to save for.
She had pulled out her selection and was moving to the pop section. Hunter was tracking her absently. If she got some of that wailing head-banging music he’d.... He’d what? Take her music away? Hunter growled to himself. Of course he wouldn’t. He’d tell her to keep the noise down, just like Ellison did with Sandburg. Of course, Sandburg was always playing some aboriginal music or whale noises, so it was more weird than annoying.
Hunter put the CD back with more force than he intended, causing a few heads to turn and look at him. Why does it always come back to Blair Sandburg? The young man had somehow, Shield to Guide Prime notwithstanding, managed to insinuate himself into Hunter’s life. He shook his head. Admit it: you like the kid. You might not like his clothes or his music or his mess, but the kid has a good heart. Hunter mentally slammed the door shut on his feelings. How the hell had the kid gotten so close?
The answer came like a soft whisper in his mind. Because you’re the Shield, and he’s the Dark Guide; you are joined now and in the past. Hunter shivered a little. These little episodes -- flashbacks -- were coming more frequently, even during his waking hours. He picked up another CD -- one he didn’t have yet, then moved on to the rock section. He pushed the ancient memories away. Repression had become an art form for him.
Sarah picked up an album of some particularly loud artist and smiled. She could almost hear Pop’s despairing voice yelling at his daughters to turn the music down. And then Mandy would tell him to let up, and they’d all laugh. Sarah’s smile faltered a bit. She’d give anything to hear Pop yell at her again. The wave of sadness she beat back, but just barely. Hunter was watching her from across the room, eyes narrowed as he focused on his guide.
“I’m okay,” she whispered, knowing Hunter could hear her, and Hunter finally went back to his browsing.
“Hi. Can I help you?” The young man’s voice startled her. About her age, and wearing a employee name tag pinned to his rock band T-shirt, he was smiling at her. She half expected to see him look at her the way the boys from her class did, that smug look that said she was a guide whore. But this boy didn’t know she was a guide.
He had long light brown hair and a scraggly goatee, an earring and a great smile. He was cute, she noted, but she knew that admiring cute guys from afar was the only way she would ever appreciate the male species. Kyle had shown her what guys really thought of guides, and her sentinel wouldn’t put up with her having a boyfriend. Not that she wanted one. Not really.
“I’m looking for the latest Flaming Berries CD .”
“Hey, that one rocks. Just came out. They’re over here,” the young man said, liking the look of her. She had the prettiest eyes he’d ever seen; green and quiet and a little sad. “I’m Sean. Haven’t seen you around before.”
Sarah shrugged evasively. “I don’t get out much.”
“Now that’s a shame,” Sean said, as he led Sarah to the new release stack. He was flirting with her, and probably didn’t mean a thing, but for Sarah, it was flattering, if a bit unnerving.
“So, would you like to get a coffee after my shift ends?” Sean was saying, only to find a large, extremely angry man step into his personal space.
“Sarah.” Hunter’s voice was a low rumble.
“Hunter, he just...” Sarah tried to explain, tried to defuse the anger that was building up in him.
“I know what he just wanted,” Hunter said, drawing Sarah to him. Hunter’s head tilted to one side as he noted the young man’s heart rate accelerate. “Think you’re up to taking me on?” Hunter smiled mockingly at the kid, using his alpha male status and size with ruthless intent.
“Hey, man, no worries. I was just talking to her....” the kid was actually backing up away from the sentinel, his voice cracking with apprehension.
“Back off,” Hunter said menacingly. “Don’t even think about approaching her again.”
“Sure, man, no problem,” and with that the boy fled. Hunter watched with primitive satisfaction. No one was going to claim his guide.
Sarah knew it was just the sentinel going BP, but it still upset her.
“We’re going home,” Hunter said grimly.
“But, I wanted to get a book....” Sarah trailed off at his thunderous expression. She paid for her two CDs, barely acknowledging the salesgirl’s friendly greeting.
On the way home, Hunted noted how quiet Sarah was. She hadn’t said a word since they had left the music store.
“Are you pouting?” Hunter asked, his temper still simmering. The whole scene had brought back some ugly memories of his ex-wife. “That skinny kid get you excited?” Hunter had a tone he had never used before.
Sarah looked up at him in shock. She withdrew mentally and physically from the attack.
As soon as he said it, Hunter regretted it. “I didn’t mean that,” Hunter said and reached out to her. When she cringed from his touch, he lightened his grip, but didn’t let go of her. “My ex-wife....”
Sarah stilled, allowing him to pull her closer. The woman had betrayed him, that much she knew. He had so many demons Sarah couldn’t keep up with them all, but his ex-wife was the top contender.
“He was just being nice,” Sarah said quietly, not wanting to upset him more.
“I know,” Hunter acknowledged stiffly, but moved her to lean on his shoulder, her very presence calming him.
When they pulled up in the driveway, Hunter paused before getting out of the car. “What I said back there -- I didn’t mean it. You’re nothing like her.”
Sarah merely nodded, still a bit unsure of his temper.
Hunter moved into the living room and turned on the stereo system. It had started to rain again, the sky gray and gloomy. He slipped one of his purchases into the CD player, and settled on the couch to listen to the singer’s husky voice lament about love and loss.
Sarah walked past him, trying to escape to her room, but Hunter snagged her hand.
Stay. It was a wordless request.
Letting her guide instincts take over, Sarah sat down on the couch, allowing Hunter to pull her close, not sure who was comforting whom. The sentinel protectiveness was vying with emotional need for his guide. She opened the link as Hunter moved her until her head was resting on his chest. The melancholy jazz made an almost soothing background to their bond. Sarah finally relaxed as she felt the regret in him for causing her pain. She closed her eyes, yielding to him.
Mine. And then Hunter closed his eyes as well.
Sarah sat at the table in the Special Collections room and scribbled dutifully as Blair called out translated words from an ancient Sentinel manuscript. He had his hair tied back and was vibrating with excitement that he had found a mention of Dark Sentinels.
This was their third joint visit to the Rainier University Library, and Sarah treasured the time she was allowed to spend helping Blair with his dissertation.
Hunter was less than enthusiastic about her helping Blair, but at least he had agreed to it. Since today was a slow paperwork catch-up day, Hunter had freed her to spend the afternoon with Blair.
“I think we need Garringer’s text,” Blair frowned as he puzzled out some more of the ancient writing. “Unfortunately, it’s in the other collections room. Sarah, could you run over and get it for me?”
Blair looked up when Sarah didn’t answer right away. “Sarah?”
“I…will they let me take it?”
Blair remembered how one professor had tried to have him barred from the library. He refused to dwell on it. “Just tell them it’s for me. Jody’s working today -- she likes me.”
“Okay.” Sarah stood up, reminding herself that she was a capable adult. She made her way across the huge central atrium until she found the other room and met Jody, a dark-haired woman, rather bohemian in dress, who couldn’t do enough to help Sarah help Blair.
“He’s a doll baby,” Jody said fondly. “He works harder than all the other TAs combined because he has to prove himself over and over.” She handed over the old book. “You one of his students?”
“Uh…yes,” Sarah stammered, realizing that it was in fact the truth. She just wasn’t a Rainier student.
“He’s a good teacher,” Jody beamed.
“He’s a great teacher,” Sarah agreed.
“And cute,” Jody said with a grin. “All the girls usually end up having a crush on him. If I weren’t ten years older, I’d give those co-eds a run for their money.”
It was impossible not to like the woman - she didn’t have a negative vibe in her entire body.
“So, dontcha think he’s adorable?” Jody asked with a wink.
“It’s not like that,” Sarah said softly, almost wistfully.
“Never hurts to look,” Jody said, noting how out of place the girl seemed. She was another one with secrets, and eyes that had seen too much. No wonder she and Blair had gravitated to each other. Jody let the girl escape after that, not wanting to make her more uncomfortable than she already was.
Sarah thanked Jody and headed back through the library stacks. She had almost cleared the first set when a voice stopped her.
Sarah turned to see Mandy standing there. For a few seconds they just stared at each other, then Mandy had her arms around Sarah, catching her in a desperate hug. Sarah clung to her sister, feeling Mandy’s pain and love and anger, each emotion complicated and intertwined. But it was Mandy.
“I missed you,” Sarah whispered, unwilling to let go.
“We’re so worried about you,” Mandy said fiercely. “After the kidnapping, they told us we could never see you again.” Mandy looked up, expecting any second to see the grim faced sentinel barreling up behind them. “How did you get here, Sarah?”
“I’m helping Blair -- Blair Sandburg, the Guide Prime, with his dissertation.”
“This is great! This means we can see each other without anybody knowing!” Mandy was nearly bouncing with excitement. “Maybe even Pop could come by.”
“Mandy, I…” Sarah trailed off, knowing that stubborn look all too well. When Mandy had an idea plant in her head, nothing could uproot it, especially not logic or common sense. But Sarah knew it was a bad idea, even if there wasn’t the threat of the suspended jail sentence. She wanted more than anything to be with her family again, but not at this price.
“He’s never gonna know,” Mandy crowed.
“He’d find out,” Sarah said quietly.
Mandy’s enthusiasm died down. “Does he…has he hurt you?” Mandy pulled back enough to really look at her sister. She was a little pale, but Mandy couldn’t see any obvious bruises.
“No,” Sarah said, but wouldn’t meet her sister’s eyes.
Mandy immediately thought the worst. “He hasn’t….” Mandy’s voice trailed off. She had always been protective of the younger girl. “Sarah, please tell me.”
“He’s not like that, Mandy. He doesn’t beat me.”
“I saw the tape. He tied you up like a dog!”
Sarah flinched. “That was something else. He didn’t want to, but he had to for the GDP.”
Mandy had her own flashback of the interrogation in the precinct, and Hunter slamming her up against a wall, showing her the guide sale photos. The man was violent and dangerous.
Sarah looked up to meet her sister’s eyes. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
“Sarah, I don’t know what all happens with a sentinel and guide, but you’re young and he’s probably fed you some line about…..”
Sarah had grown up with her sister and knew how much Mandy had tried to be a substitute mother, sometimes to the point of suffocation. “I’m not an idiot, Mandy,” and there was a bite in Sarah’s voice that cut off Mandy’s intended monologue that would no doubt include GLA propaganda and a few references to the Stockholm syndrome. “I didn’t lose my mind when I bonded.”
“They forced you to bond.” Mandy said, and Sarah’s anger died at the tears in Mandy’s eyes. No matter how over-protective and smothering she was, Mandy only wanted what was best for her.
“Yes,” Sarah sighed, a vague headache starting to build. “They didn’t give me any choice. But Hunter needs me.”
“We need you!” Mandy said. “Pop and I. We’re your family.”
“Hunter’s my sentinel,” Sarah said simply, unable to explain what the bond between them meant. Only another sentinel and guide could know the intricacy of that connection.
“He won’t let us see you,” Mandy choked. “Maybe not ever.”
Sarah just stood there, divided loyalties and Mandy’s pain shredding her already wounded soul. “I’m sorry. I wish it were different.” Sarah was on the verge of tears herself.
“Sarah?’ The familiar voice had Sarah spinning around. Blair stood there. His face was solemn.
“I didn’t plan this,” Sarah said urgently. “It just happened.”
“Sarah, you know about the restraining order. This can’t happen now, much as you’d like it to.”
Mandy wanted to hate the curly-haired young man, but the sorrow and understanding in his eyes disarmed her.
“Come on, Sarah. Just walk away now and we’ll chalk this up to a random encounter. If Hunter finds out…..”
Then a tall figure emerged from the stacks. For a minute, Sarah thought it was Hunter and froze, then Detective Ellison moved into the light.
“You forgot your book, Chief. I came to drop it off to you.” Jim turned to look at the two girls, still rooted in place. “What the hell is this?”
“Jim, Sarah ran into Mandy by accident. It’s just a fluke.”
“You were told to stay away,” Jim said softly, his eyes nearly incinerating the older girl. The Sentinel Prime was furious at the perceived threat to his clan, his Shield.
Mandy glanced from Sarah to Jim to Blair, then suddenly, she bolted. Jim didn’t even bother going after her.
Jim walked up to Sarah, who was trying to desperately not to cringe. Hunter was all heat and turmoil when he was angry; this man was ice.
“Would you care to explain this, Guide?” Jim was a foot in front of Sarah, his fury buffeting her.
“Jim, ease up, man,” Blair urged, latching onto him. “This isn’t her fault.”
Jim shook off his guide, Dark Sentinel controlling his actions.
Sarah wanted to run, and knew she couldn’t. There was no way she’d escape the Sentinel Prime.
Sarah slid to her knees, hands going behind her back, head bowed.
Blair tried again, his hand gripping Jim’s shoulder, willing him to calm down. It took several agonizing minutes, but the Dark Sentinel finally submerged, leaving the man of reason behind.
Looking down at the small blonde head bowed before him, Jim felt sanity return with a healthy dose of guilt. Why don’t you go out and kick some puppies while you’re at it, Ellison?
“Sarah?” Jim crouched down in front of her.
“I apologize, Senior Sentinel Prime,” Sarah said, waiting for the blow or the rage. Either one would hurt the same. “The fault was mine.” It was formal phrasing, straight out of Burton, and it twisted Jim’s heart.
Jim reached out to touch her face, even though he could feel her flinch. “I seem to make a habit of this, don’t I?”
Sarah just waited, heart pounding, eyes on the ground.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Sarah. I’m sorry I scared you like that.”
He drew Sarah to her feet. Luckily, no one around had noticed the little melodrama in the library stacks.
Blair latched onto Jim, who led a silent Sarah back to the privacy of the Special Collections room.
Sarah was settled into a chair, and Blair moved to sit on the table edge behind her, not unlike a guard dog.
“Going to protect her from the big bad wolf, Chief?” Jim’s lips twisted with wry humor.
“Panther, Jim,“ Blair corrected him. “I’m the wolf.” The slight grin he gave his sentinel immediately eased Jim. Blair was used to Dark Sentinel emerging, but Sarah wasn’t.
“First things first: I’m not going to have you staked to an anthill, keelhauled or run through the gauntlet, Sarah. As Sentinel Prime, I just want to know what happened.”
Sarah looked at Blair first, who laid a comforting hand on her shoulder, then finally looked up at Detective Ellison. His face was very serious, but the fury was gone.
“I just ran into her,” Sarah explained haltingly. “Mandy wanted to meet me here again, maybe bring Pop.”
“And what did you say?”
“That they’d go to jail, because Hunter would find out. I don’t want them to go to jail.”
“She’s trying to make you choose.”
“They’re my family,” Sarah choked.
“But…” Jim encouraged, knowing instinctively what came next.
“He’s my sentinel. He needs me.” The more Sarah voiced it, the righter it felt.
“And you need him,” Jim said. “It doesn’t mean you love your dad or sister any less.”
Sarah rubbed at her eyes, trying to regain her composure.
“It’s like a tug-of-war, isn’t it?” Jim’s voice was gentle, his best ‘small children and animals’ tone he used for most injured things. “Blair had the same problem with his mother and me.”
Blair grinned a bit, but knew Jim’s truce with Naomi was the only thing that had kept Blair from drowning in Lake Guilt.
“Do you let Blair see his mother?”
Jim nodded. His eyes met Blair’s over her head. “Sometimes he forgets to tell me about some of their meetings, dives into elevators and is gone before I know it.” His tone was so dry Blair could see the dust clouds.
Blair nearly laughed at the reference to his last meeting with Naomi when they were trying to locate Sarah after she was kidnapped.
“Hunter hates my family,” Sarah said, shivering a bit.
“He’s angry with them, but he doesn’t hate them.” Jim had moved to straddle a chair backwards, making himself comfortable.
“You really think so?” Sarah’s eyes were begging for reassurance, a glimmer of hope that Hunter would eventually relent.
“Yep, I do.”
“Why?” Sarah seemed confused by Jim’s certainty.
“Because without your family, you’d never have been born. So how could Hunter hate the people that made you?” Jim gave her a friendly tap on the nose.
Sarah’s eyes got shiny, much like Blair’s did when he was emotionally overwhelmed. Jim, never comfortable with excess emotion, cleared his throat.
“We should get you home, Sarah,” Blair said softly, breaking the spell
Sarah was dreading it. Hunter would immediately scent Mandy, and then….
“I’ll explain it to him,” Jim offered. “He can’t stop every random occurrence in the universe.”
“What about...what about Mandy?” Sarah didn’t want her sister to get into trouble.
“Mandy will be fine,” Jim reassured her as he got up and stretched.
Blair helped Sarah to her feet, then moved to Jim. She glanced up at Detective Ellison, who was like Hunter, but not. Blair was leaning into him, laughing as the sentinel ruffled his hair, connecting. There was joy there. And love. And friendship. Sarah didn’t realize that her expressive face gave her away: the longing and need for that kind of connection.
Sarah walked behind the two men, keeping a respectful distance. With Blair, she was used to him taking her by the hand or arm, letting their empathic connection bolster each other, but she didn’t dare do that in front of the Sentinel Prime without his permission.
“Coming, Sarah?” Blair asked, and she moved a bit closer, but still didn’t touch him.
Blair reached out automatically, but to his surprise, it was Jim who caught her hand, moving her to his left side, while Blair remained on his right.
Sarah very nearly stumbled in surprise, then apprehension. But the Sentinel Prime wasn’t angry. He was shielding her and Blair at the same time, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“Time to go home, kids,” Jim announced and led the two guides out, one by the hand, the other hanging on his jacket.
“You guys doing that family outreach thing?” A curious student had spied the trio moving out of the library, noting how the tall man kept hold of both younger people not unlike a father with his children.
Blair chuckled but didn’t say a word. Jim, mellowed by the bond, merely smiled. “Yeah, we’re doing that family thing.” With that, all three disappeared down the hall.
Hunter was not in a good mood. He had several investigations he was following, the fallout from Sullivan’s dismissal from the department and to top it all off, the Chief of Police was playing phone tag with him. The first message had been brief: Call me. When Hunter had returned the call, the chief was in a meeting. The Chief’s follow up call was while Hunter and Miller were reviewing the week’s case load in the conference room. The second message was more insistent: Call. Urgent.
What the hell is so damn important? Hunter groused. It wasn’t as though he worked in a vacuum. He sent bi-weekly status reports to the brass, and so far, everything ran smoothly.
Samantha gestured urgently as soon as he walked back to his office.
“And here he is, sir,” she said in her plummiest assistant voice, all the while gesturing frantically at Hunter. “Captain Hunter, Chief Towson.”
Hunter walked into the office, senses automatically searching for Sarah. He spotted her in the far corner of the bullpen, untangling some computer cables and gesturing earnestly to Miller. He homed in on her voice.
“You can’t bypass the surge protector. What if there was a lightening strike? If the printer isn’t working right, let’s reload the software and...”
Hunter eased. His guide was fine. He picked up the phone. “Hunter.” He listened, then responded. “Yes, Chief, I was tied up. What’s the problem?”
“No problem at all, my boy. You’re doing a hell of a job with IA. The mayor is pleased down to his toenails. The annual Cascade City Gala is next weekend and Sandy never got your RSVP.”
The gala -- a black tie event for the beautiful people of society: politicians, the wealthy, the influential, all wrapped up in pretentious chit-chat and really bad food. Hunter wanted to attend the gala about as much as he wanted to have multiple simultaneous root canals -- all without anesthetic.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to...” Hunter began, but was promptly overridden.
“Nonsense. The mayor wants you there. You turned your department around. Ellison will be there -- he’s up for Officer of the Year again. Mayor wants to show both of you off.” The Chief was polite, but his tone was firm. “You will be there.”
Wonderful. Hunter rubbed at the vague headache starting behind his eyes. “Sir, I really don’t think....”
“Surely you have somebody you could escort to the gala? Good looking guy like you must be swimming in attractive women.” The Chief mistook his hesitancy as embarrassment. “Oh, I keep forgetting you’re new in town. Haven’t had much time to meet people, right? My niece Dolores is a fine young woman who’d be more than happy to....”
Before Towson could inflict his darling niece upon him, Hunter interrupted. “Chief Towson, I have someone to bring.” He resigned himself to the inevitable.
“Wonderful news, my boy. Glad to hear your social life hasn’t suffered. I’ll let Sandy know you’ve confirmed.” With that, Towson hung up.
Hunter sat at his desk, fuming.
“Captain, are you all right?” Samantha hovered in the doorway.
He glared at her. “No, I’m not all right. The mayor and Chief Towson have conscripted me to attend the Cascade Gala. I hate parties!”
“I’m sure you can show up for an hour or two, then escape out the back door,” she soothed in a motherly way. “Who knows, you might even enjoy it. Food is supposed to be better this year.”
“Have to find my goddamn tux,” he muttered, rubbing at his temples.
“Your date might enjoy it,” Samantha said bracingly.
Hunter just stared at his secretary. “You think so?” he asked neutrally.
“The music’s good, usually.” Samantha offered, uncertain what the funny glint in her boss’s eyes meant. “There might be some excitement, yet.”
Hunter was smiling now, a little predator smile. “I imagine there might be,” he said enigmatically, and Samantha wisely withdrew and shut the door.
Hunter tuned into Sarah again, she was tapping at a keyboard. “So, now we’ve configured the printer, so it should work. Let’s run a test document....” She was eating a chocolate doughnut -- no doubt bought by the indulgent Miller.
Decision made, Hunter picked up the phone and dialed. “Ellison, it’s Hunter. You going to the gala? Yeah, got my marching orders from the chief. He was going to offer me his niece as an escort. I’ve got a better idea.”
Jim listened, then exploded with laughter. “You want to what?”
Hunter just growled. “You heard me. Those fancy society types want to look at the exotic sentinel super cops, then they get the full package. I’m taking my guide with me.”
Jim chuckled at the image of Hunter flouting society, but then sobered. “You really might hurt Sarah by putting her on the spot like that. You’re using her to piss people off.”
Hunter rumbled. “There’s no one else I’d want there with me. My ex-wife and every back-stabbing bitch like her can burn in hell.”
“Whoa. Easy, Hunter, just wanted to make sure you’re not using her for revenge.”
“I’m. Not. Using her.” Hunter stressed through gritted teeth.
“Okay. Fine. Your business. I don’t even know who I’ll bring. Maybe Caro.”
“My ex,” Jim explained patiently.
“Didn’t know you had an ex, Ellison” Hunter said gruffly, uncomfortable that his half-brother’s life mirrored his own more often than not.
“We just weren’t compatible long term,” Jim sighed, twirling the phone cord as he propped his feet on the desk. Anything to get out of the endless pile of paperwork that awaited him. His guide was at Rainier, and Jim was stuck with a small mountain of reports. “Sometimes, though, I have to wonder if I hadn’t been a sentinel -- maybe it might have worked out.”
“Whatever,” Hunter cleared his throat. “I’m bringing Sarah.”
Jim considered Hunter’s choice, then recklessly went along with it. “Hell, why not. I’ll bring Blair. Lord knows I get enough cracks about my ‘boy-toy’ that I ought to show him off.” Jim’s sense of humor was tickled at the thought of the looks they’d get.
“You’re going to take Sandburg with you?” Hunter had to admire the gutsiness of that move.
“Yeah, we can double date,” Jim drawled, and Hunter almost choked. “I’m kidding, Hunter. Don’t have a seizure.”
“Could get messy,” Hunter warned, suddenly becoming the voice of caution. “Two guides at the gala.”
“Could be enlightening,” Jim corrected. “Guides are people. Maybe it’s time for society to see them up close and personal.”
“Now who’s using whom?” Hunter asked with light irony.
“I’m not as flamboyant as you, Hunter, but I can get my point across. Without hurting my guide.”
“It’s settled then. I’ll meet you there at seven PM. We go in together.”
“Safety in numbers?” Jim asked, amused.
“No,” Hunter said evenly. “Clan solidarity.”
“Sorry. You’re absolutely right. It’s a clan matter,” Jim apologized. “We’ll be there.”
“Later, Ellison,” and with that, Hunter hung up.
Jim stared at the phone, then dialed Blair’s cell phone. “Blair, buddy, got any plans for Saturday? I had this idea....”
Hunter now had a full-fledged headache. He was leaning back, trying to let his neck muscles relax when Sarah opened the door.
“Captain Hunter?” She could feel his irritation all the way out in the bullpen. “Do you need something? Coffee?”
“Come in, Sarah. We have to talk.” Hunter gestured to her desk chair and Sarah scooted in, her mouth dry.
“Did I do something wrong?” she asked, trying to gauge his mood.
Hunter squinted at her. “Why is it every time I need to talk to you, you think I’m about to rip your head off?”
Sarah just waited, her heart a little too fast. But she wasn’t cringing and didn’t look away.
“This coming Saturday is the Cascade City Gala, and the Chief of Police has requested my attendance.” He scowled. “VIP gathering, and I can’t get out of it.”
Sarah, who had learned how much Hunter hated social gatherings, winced in sympathy.
“So, I have to go, but you...”
“I’ll be fine, Captain. I’ll stay in the house. I don’t need a babysitter.” This was said with quiet dignity. She knew he was still in BP mode after the kidnapping, but she was perfectly capable of staying home alone.
Hunter tipped his head to the side, fixating on his guide. “That’s not what I meant. I want you to come with me.”
“But...” Sarah faltered, wondering why he wanted to drag his guide along to a social event. “Are your senses in trouble?”
“There’s no one else I want around me, especially at a damn party.”
Of course. Hunter would need his guide to keep calm. The thought depressed Sarah in a way she couldn’t even quantify. “Yes, Sentinel,” she responded obediently.
“It’ll be a three ring circus, I’m sure, but Ellison’s going -- with Sandburg, no less.”
“Detective Ellison is bringing Blair?” Sarah felt a little better. At least she wouldn’t be alone. She surmised correctly that guides were not exactly at the top of the social list for events like these.
“Yeah,” Hunter said, rubbing at his neck, and Sarah got up and hesitantly put her hands on his shoulders, willing him to relax. His tension was like little cables under his skin. She moved into his mind when he opened the link, and slowly Hunter’s headache eased. When she couldn’t detect any more pain, Sarah let her hands drop.
“Thanks,” Hunter said quietly. “I have to dig up my tux out of the basement and have it cleaned.”
“I don’t have a formal dress,” Sarah said hesitantly. “The prom...wasn’t an option for me. Pop thought it would be better if I didn’t get too close....”
Hunter grimaced. Max Freeman had done plenty of damage in his quest to keep his daughter safe. Maybe she wouldn’t be so skittish and unsure of herself if Freeman hadn’t have cloistered her like a nun. Then again, Hunter was only starting to see glimpses of the true Sarah. After sharing the memory link with Ellison and Sandburg, Hunter knew there was more to her -- much, much more. It was a frustrating puzzle that kept him guessing.
“We’ll go out and find you a dress,” Hunter announced. “Can’t have my guide looking like Cinderella.”
Sarah had taken her seat and looked at him quizzically. “A formal is expensive,” she hedged.
“I can afford to take care of my guide,” Hunter said, irritated.
Sarah shut up. Hunter was stressed enough over the whole thing.
“We can go over to the mall after work today,” he said, shuffling through his file folders. “Nothing too elaborate. Simple is best.” He didn’t sound upset, just distracted.
Sarah tested the ambient emotion around him. No anger, just the usual emotional chaos that was Vincent Hunter. And the force for chaos was taking her shopping in two hours.
“Sarah!” Hunter yelled from the bottom of the stairs. It was 6:40 and they were going to be late if they didn’t hurry.
Hunter straightened his tux and threw on a light raincoat. It was raining -- a perpetual state of affairs in Cascade -- and it suited his mood, which was somewhere between irritable and resigned.
“Sarah, get a move on!” Women. They were all the same. They took forever to get ready. Sarah came down the stairs, already dressed in her raincoat and carrying a small purse.
“Sorry,” she said as she hurried down as fast as her heels allowed. “I’m ready.”
Hunter looked at her critically. She was wearing makeup -- just a trace of eye shadow and lipstick. She looked...older. Well, at least this way he might not get as many snide remarks about robbing the cradle.
They got in the car and Hunter grumbled as he pulled out into traffic. It was almost comforting to hear him muttering under his breath at the other drivers.
“We’re supposed to meet Ellison and Sandburg at seven.”
Sarah was nervous. This was a major social event with people that could affect Hunter’s career. She still wasn’t sure about going in the first place, but she mentally reviewed the etiquette her mother had instilled in both her daughters. Above all else, Sarah would not shame her sentinel.
“Stop fidgeting, Sarah. This isn’t a GDP review.” Hunter swore as a driver swerved in front of him, but kept the car steady.
Sarah quieted, but stole side-long glances at her sentinel. He didn’t want to go to the gala, but the Chief had railroaded him into attending. Now, if she could just keep him from blowing up and offending somebody important....
They pulled up outside the Cascade Museum where the gala was being held, and the valet took Hunter’s keys and drove off. Just then, a white and blue truck pulled up and Jim and Blair hopped out.
“Hey, sorry we’re late,” Blair said cheerfully.
“We just got here ourselves,” Hunter said dryly as he watched Sandburg bounce. The kid actually looked excited about the whole thing.
“Great, let’s go. I’m starving.” Blair bounced up the steps in front of Jim.
“You haven’t had the pleasure of gala catering yet, Chief. Last year it was barely edible.” Ellison looked amused.
“So, what’s on the agenda?” Blair asked conversationally as he and Jim handed their coats to the coat check girl who batted her lashes at them.
Ellison wore a traditional black tuxedo which fit his long frame as if he were born to it. Blair had his long hair pulled back and wore a collarless pale blue shirt with a modern cut blue tuxedo jacket. His earrings and necklace added a primitive touch that Jim know would have most of the women there panting after him. Even Sarah wasn’t immune; her eyes were a little glassy as she stared at Blair.
Hunter helped Sarah out of her coat. When the men caught a glimpse of her dress, Sarah found herself the unwanted center of attention. Her near ankle length midnight blue dress had a few scattered beads on the bodice that flowed to a gently flaring skirt that was slightly asymmetrically cut, and it molded her figure nicely.
Blair broke the silence. “Wow. Sarah, you look terrific.” He leaned over to peck her on the cheek. She didn’t know what to say, but when she caught Jim’s amused stare, she flushed and looked away.
A little crush on Sandburg, eh? Jim thought, and was encouraged by the fact that Sarah was at a point to even start thinking about such things. You haven’t stopped living, kid. Trust me on that one.
“You look lovely,” Jim told her, enjoying the pleasure in her eyes at the compliment.
Hunter bristled, but took a long look at his guide. She looked elegant yet reserved. Just the image he had insisted on when they had gone shopping. The nice saleslady had whisked Sarah away, and when they had returned, she had a shopping bag with a dress, shoes, hose, purse and a complimentary makeup sample bag. He hadn’t been interested in details. Maybe he should have been.
“Hunter?” Jim prompted.
Hunter looked down at his guide, who was nibbling anxiously on her lower lip. She was worried that he was upset with her, or her choice of dress. The look of mild censure on Ellison’s face along with the encouraging one on Sandburg’s spurred him to action.
“You look beautiful, Sarah. I like the dress you chose.” When she lit up, Hunter wondered why he hadn’t said something sooner. Positive reinforcement, Sandburg called it. Hunter was getting better at acknowledging her accomplishments at work, or in their physical fitness regimens, but it hadn’t occurred to him that she needed something more.
Sandburg whispered only loud enough for the two sentinels to hear. “Every woman wants to hear when she looks beautiful.”
Jim coughed as Hunter glared at the helpful advice offered by Ellison’s guide.
“Thank you, Dear Abby,” Hunter said dryly as he shed his own coat. His tuxedo was just as traditional as Jim’s, but was dark blue. His tuxedo shirt had a band collar, and he looked just as elegant as his half-brother.
“You look very nice, Captain Hunter,” Sarah said sincerely, proud of her sentinel.
“Thanks,” Hunter said, and surprised Sarah by offering her his arm. She hesitated, then took it gingerly. He was treating her like a normal citizen, not a guide. She felt totally out of her depth.
As they made their way to the main room, Hunter could feel Sandburg’s approval. It certainly made a switch to have Sandburg in the mentor role.
“I’m not your sentinel, Sandburg. You don’t need to fuss,” Hunter muttered.
“No, but you are my shield,” and the note of ... affection?... in Blair’s voice nearly made Hunter miss a step.
“Whatever, Sandburg,” Hunter grunted, but Blair just smiled.
The room was teeming with people, perfumes and colognes, voices and colors. Both sentinels winced.
“Dial it down,” Blair and Sarah said simultaneously, then laughed as they realized what they had done.
“Ah, Hunter, Ellison, so glad you could make it,” came a booming voice behind them. Chief Towson beamed at them.
“Chief,” Hunter said curtly, and Jim followed with a slightly less terse greeting.
“This is my wife, Linda,” Towson smiled, introducing the elegant brunette who stood at his side. She seemed nice, Sarah thought, as she lowered her barriers slightly.
“Linda, Detective Ellison from Major Crime, and Captain Hunter from Internal Affairs,” Towson said. “They sure do look alike, don’t they?”
“Pleased to meet you,” she said politely, shaking each man’s hand.
“My partner, Blair Sandburg,” Jim said, and Blair kissed the woman’s hand with a courtly flair that had her middle-aged heart skipping a few beats.
“Detective Sandburg, nice to meet you.” Jim didn’t correct the woman’s assumption and Blair grinned as he realized Jim wasn’t going to volunteer any information. Perhaps they’d get through this without any nasty scenes.
“This is Sarah,” Hunter said quietly, and Sarah formally shook her hand, and then the chief’s.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Mrs. Towson, Chief Towson.”
“Why aren’t you adorable!” Linda exclaimed. “Captain, I think it’s lovely that you brought your daughter to the gala.”
Jim looked everywhere but at Hunter, who was getting a nervous tic in his jaw. Blair reached out and laid his hand on Hunter’s back, warning him not to explode.
“Mrs. Towson, we’d love to chat, but none of us have eaten yet and we are starving.“ Blair smiled at the woman, laying on his considerable charm.
Instantly diverted, Linda made a shooing motion. “Go, eat, eat. The food is actually edible this year. I told Mona to get a new caterer after the fiasco last year. Why, the sushi sent one poor man to the hospital! Then....”
They made their escape.
“Man, that was close,” Blair sighed. “Hunter, that could have gotten ugly if you’d have blown up at Towson.”
“You said it, Chief,” Jim added as he snagged something that bore a passing resemblance to a Swedish meatball. “Hey, this isn’t bad.”
“You don’t need to lie,” the quiet voice startled all three men. Sarah looked very solemn. “They’ll find out, anyway.”
Hunter was about to express what ‘they’ could do with themselves when he caught the look in her eye. He restrained himself. “How about we adopt the infamous ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ motto for tonight.”
“Sounds fair to me. How ‘bout you, Chief?” Ellison was now munching something on a cracker.
“I’m okay if you’re okay,” Blair said around a mouthful of asparagus.
“Sarah?” Jim prompted.
She nodded, but seemed quite subdued. Hunter guided her over to the hot hors’ d’oeuvres.
“I’m not ashamed of you, Sarah. I just don’t see the point of advertising that you’re my guide if we don’t have to.”
“Yes, Captain Hunter,” Sarah nodded, but knew in her heart that fairly soon someone would figure it out, and then...she shuddered at the thought of Hunter slicing and dicing the beautiful people surrounding them. Not so much for their sake, but for what impact it might have on Hunter’s police career.
After all four of them had eaten, Blair turned his attention to the room. It was interesting sociological study: the rich and powerful congregating with many ulterior motives: see, be seen, wheel and deal, check out the competition, curry political favor. Jim leaned down to whisper a pithy comment in his ear and Blair laughed out loud. Several people turned to stare at the two men. The taller man had a hand on the younger man’s neck as he stood behind him, head bent so that his nose was almost buried in the younger man’s hair.
“Uh...didn’t Linda Towson say that was Detective Ellison’s police partner?” one woman asked.
“I thought she did, but maybe she meant...”
“God, what a waste that would be. It’d be a damn shame to have them involved with each other. Two prime guys like that -- I know I’d much rather volunteer to be the filling in that sandwich.”
“Theresa!” The first woman’s voice was scandalized.
“Oh, come on, Mary. Just look at them -- they’re gorgeous. You can’t tell me the thought didn’t cross your mind.”
“Want to go over and say hi?”
Just then, the younger man leaned his head back against the older man’s shoulder with an easy movement, obviously used to doing it.
“You know, I’m starting to feel like those women in the commercial who bought beers for those two handsome guys only to find out....” Theresa smiled ruefully. “They’re way too touchy-feely for straight guys.”
Meanwhile, Jim, who had idly listened in to the conversation, snorted with laughter. “Well, here we go again.”
“What?” Blair asked absently, preoccupied with the fascinating sociological tableaux around him.
“The two women by the bar? They think we’re an item.”
Blair’s eyes widened, then he wrinkled his nose. “Too bad. They’re both foxes.”
“Nothing stopping you from going over to say hello, Chief,” Jim encouraged.
Blair shook his had, equal parts amused and regretful. “Nah, the one thing I don’t want is a major scene. They’ll figure it out eventually, and then....” He closed his eyes briefly. The stigma of being an empath was nowhere more apparent than in high class social situations like this. He would have been barred at the door if they had known in advance.
Jim felt his guide’s spirits drooping. “It’s okay, Chief. I’m with you.”
“I know that, Jim, but every now and then, I just have to wonder, you know, what if? Most times I can overlook it. When I’m teaching, I know I know more than my students and I have the advantage. Even as Guide Prime, I have an edge. But here? Nothing counts here except your pedigree.”
“You’re the most important person in my life, Chief. That’s the only thing that counts with me.” Jim ran his hand over his guide’s head and neck, briefly touching his forehead to the back of Blair’s head.
Blair basked in the connection. Jim always knew what to do. For someone not very verbose or physically demonstrative in general, Jim was a virtual teddy bear for one slightly psychologically damaged guide. Once again, Blair had to marvel at the fates that had brought Jim Ellison into his life.
“Told ya,” Mary said wistfully. “They’re not only together, they’re in love.”
Theresa shrugged. “Win some, lose some. But if they ever want to play sandwich....”
Jim, who was about to snag another snack from the buffet, caught the comment clearly. Turning, he looked straight at Theresa, lifted up a cucumber sandwich, and took a long, slow bite, never dropping his gaze. His wicked smile paralyzed both women.
Theresa went beet red and scurried out, her friend two steps behind her.
“Hey, what’s up with the chicks?” Blair asked, having retrieved two fresh bottles of beer.
“It’s a sandwich thing,” Jim said vaguely, but didn’t bother to hide his smirk.
“Right. You wanna explain that one?” Blair pushed the beer bottle into Jim’s right hand.
“Maybe someday,” Jim said, feeling much more cheerful. “Where did Hunter disappear to?”
“He’s been surrounded by the brass for the last half hour. Everybody wants to see the triumphant IA captain,” Blair took a swig of beer.
“How’s Sarah holding up?” Jim asked.
“Okay, I think. They got a couple of strange looks, but I don’t think they’re sure what’s going on.”
Jim felt a tug of sympathy for his half-brother. The age difference was a double edge sword at this point. Ten years from now, no one would blink, but now....damned twice.
Blair studied the sentinel-guide pair standing on the other side of the room. Sarah was tucked against Hunter’s side in a seemingly casual embrace, but Blair knew he was shielding her.
“Does it ever bother you, Blair? I mean, when people assume that you and I....” Jim had never really asked Blair about that. Blair was such an open, non-judgmental person that Jim had never even stopped to consider that the physical closeness between sentinel and guide might upset Blair.
Blair turned to grin at him. “No way, man. I’m your guide; you’re my sentinel. It’s not a problem -- well, except maybe when I’m trying to pick a woman up -- that would tend to put a damper on things trying to explain that.”
“I just don’t want you to feel uncomfortable,” Jim said earnestly.
“I hear that.” Blair just turned around to face the room and settled his head back against Jim. The simple trust in that gesture moved Jim deeply. It hadn’t been so long ago that any touch would have spooked the younger man.
Blair looked out over the crowd, catching the curious looks some people were sending in their direction. “You know, it’s ironic that I’d be more socially acceptable as your lover than your guide.”
Jim’s chuckle rumbled through his chest, and Blair could feel the vibration under his head.
“You’re cute, Chief, but I don’t swing that way.”
Blair snorted in amusement. “Just how often do you have to explain the whole sentinel-guide thing to your dates? I haven’t seen you go out more than a couple of times since we bonded.”
Jim paused, and for a moment, Blair was afraid he had offended him.
“I didn’t go out very much even before we bonded. It’s not a priority at this point in my life. I mean, sure, if the right woman came along...”
Blair winced. “And I’ll always be the stumbling block.” There was regret in his voice.
“Let’s get one thing straight, Chief. You come first, no matter what. If I ever find a woman willing to deal with that, then we’ll talk.” Jim was quite serious.
“Things being what they are, happily ever after doesn’t sound like a viable possibility, at least not for me.” Blair turned to face his sentinel.
“Chief, you’re my guide -- first, last, always.” There was absolute certainty in his sentinel’s voice.
Blair stared at Jim, emotion welling up in his eyes. The kid couldn’t hide his feeling worth a damn, and raw sentiment had never been Jim’s forte. Especially in public.
“Don’t get sappy on me, Sandburg. Otherwise they really will think you’re my boy-toy,” Jim said lightly.
“Sorry, man, didn’t mean to go all emotional.” Blair swiped across his eyes casually. He would not sniffle.
“‘S okay,” Jim said, and ruffled his guide’s hair like Blair was ten, earning a sharp jab to the ribs.
Sarah had stood quietly beside Hunter while he made reluctant small talk with the chief and various political figures. He introduced her only as Sarah, and people weren’t exactly sure what her connection was to him. He didn’t explain, and anyone tempted to ask further questions was promptly frozen in place with one glare.
Hunter was not a people person, and his very aloofness made him all the more interesting, especially to the women who came over to check out the handsome IA captain. They were beautiful, sophisticated and extremely predatory. Sarah could feel their visceral emotions bombarding her -- and it made her feel unclean.
Hunter was answering the city commissioner’s question about technology upgrades for the police department when he felt Sarah shiver. Glancing around, he saw several women eying him like a chocolate they’d like to drag off and unwrap -- with their teeth. Hunter deliberately put his arm around Sarah and drew her to him. Instantly, her barriers stabilized.
“You okay?” he asked quietly, bending down slightly.
“Yes, Captain,” she whispered, trying not to cling to him. She was an adult; she could handle this.
Hunter moved his hand over her neck and back and tucked her closer. She leaned into him gratefully. The sentinel let his hand move over her back possessively.
“Danielle, did you say that was his daughter?”
“That’s what Linda said, but look how he’s touching her. Fathers don’t touch their daughters like that.” The woman sounded more smug than alarmed.
“You think he...?”
“She’s awfully young, and for a police captain to do something like that, well....”
Hunter, who had heard the exchange, was getting pissed off. He hadn’t done anything he considered blatant or obvious, but they were still looking at him like he was some dirty old man.
Sarah felt the rumble starting, and laid her hand on his forearm, trying to calm him. He wasn’t going BP -- he was just pissed. Either way, there would be casualties.
“Captain, please,” Sarah pleaded, only loud enough for sentinel hearing. She knew the women must have said something, but they were too far away for her to hear. One sarcastic remark, or worse, a little violence, and Hunter’s police career could go down the tubes.
Hunter bristled, but before he could lash out, Sarah moved her hand to his chest, calming him. She stroked him like a cat, murmuring quietly, and he slowly relaxed.
The people he had been conversing with watched with morbid fascination as the girl they thought was his daughter touched him like she was calming a wild animal. The man reciprocated, stroking her hair and back, oblivious to the crowd. It was almost unbearably intimate.
“Uh, Captain Hunter, I thought this lovely young lady was your daughter. Guess I was mistaken,” the commissioner offered weakly.
“I’m not her father,” Hunter said deliberately, and left the rest hanging. He stared at the commissioner, eyes watchful.
“Um, yes, well....” the man stuttered to a halt, trying to extricate himself.
“Does it bother you, Commissioner, to see me touching her?” Hunter’s claws were flexing as he toyed with the man who was turning purple with his attempt to avoid an explosive political situation.
“Of course not, Captain. Your private life is certainly your own.” The feral light in the police officer’s eyes was unnerving him.
“I always thought so,” Hunter mocked. “If you’ll excuse us.” With that, Hunter led Sarah away.
The two women immediately went over to their cronies to share the latest scandal.
Jim watched Hunter mock the commissioner, sentinel senses picking up the entire conversation. “Oh, shit.”
“What?” Blair demanded.
“Hunter just snubbed the commissioner. Great. Hunter, you are such a dick.”
“What did he do?”
“They don’t know the about guide thing -- they think Hunter and Sarah....”
“Ouch,” Blair winced. “It doesn’t help that she looks like she’s about fifteen.”
“Of course, Hunter won’t bother to explain, and let them think the worst...” Jim was irritated but resigned to his half-brother’s obstinate nature.
“He’s Hunter,” Blair said simply. “Anybody who gets to know him won’t believe that kind of crap.” Dark Guide felt just as protective of the Shield as the Shield did of him, despite the sentinel’s bull-headedness.
“Well, at least you look like you’re old enough for me to have my wicked way with you, Chief.” Jim tried to lighten the atmosphere, but he was worried.
Blair sighed. “Shouldn’t be too long before people figure it out. I’m amazed we lasted this long.” A part of him regretted that the little masquerade would be over, and he’d be back to being a guide -- a nothing in society’s eyes. It had been pleasant to pretend for just a little while.
Jim could feel the darkening emotions through their link. Time to pull Sandburg back up the surface and then go rescue Hunter from making a complete ass of himself.
“And when they figure it out, they’ll be watching to see what primitive, mystical crap we’re gonna do. Pagan rituals, combat, a little blood-letting -- we could really mess with their heads,” Jim mused, cleverly distracting Blair from his little reverie.
“You’re Sentinel Prime,” Blair said in dignified, professorial tones. “It would be beneath you to mislead the public like that.” His eyes, however, were saying the opposite. They practically sparkled with the thought of causing a little uproar.
“Ah, come on, Chief,” Jim said, tongue in cheek. “You never let me have any fun.”
“The guide wants you to behave yourself,” Blair said sternly, trying hard not to laugh at Jim’s mock-wounded expression. “We’re gonna show them the natural symbiotic relationship of sentinels and guides.”
“Right. People will eventually have to get used to what sentinels and guides do. It’s not wrong or shameful, or, Allah preserve me, carnal.”
“So if I were to...say...get territorial, you wouldn’t mind?” Jim teased him.
“Uh, Jim, this is not exactly the time and place....’ Blair heart rate accelerated in minor panic at the thought of Jim going primal sentinel in front of the glitterati. “These people can affect your job....”
“God, you’re easy, Sandburg,” Jim said, rubbing his knuckles over Blair’s head.
“I’m not going to embarrass you.”
Blair let his breath out in a whoosh of relief. His sentinel could be absolutely perverse to prove a point. Jim and Hunter shared more than a few personality quirks.
Both men turned at the sound of a familiar voice.
“Dad? I didn’t know you’d be here,” Jim accepted a rather self-conscious hug from William Ellison.
“Last minute decision,” the elder Ellison joked. “How are you, Blair?”
“I’m fine, Mr. Ellison, and you?” Blair responded politely, only to find himself also enveloped in an abbreviated hug, much to his shock and amazement. It was sincere affection, which dumbfounded him even more.
“It’s good to see you both,“ William said sincerely. “Jimmy, how are you doing?”
“We’re doing pretty well, Dad,” Jim said as he patted his guide affectionately. “Any word on the sting?”
“Ten sites shut down, nothing back on the web in the last week. We’ve rounded up a few people,” William said with satisfaction.
Blair went a little pale at the mention of the guide porn sites that featured illegal tapes of his abuse in the correction facility. It was humiliating, especially in front of Jim’s father.
“Easy, Chief,” Jim calmed him with a few gentle pats. “It’s a start, and we’re that much closer to catching these guys. Right, Dad?”
“No one gets away with hurting my family,” William said with a trace of anger that reminded Blair very much of Jim. Then the words sank in. My family.
Blair looked up at William, stunned surprise making his eyes huge.
“You’re family, Blair Sandburg. I always do right by my family. Sometimes it takes half a lifetime, but I do.” William cleared his throat as he looked at his son. It had taken a long time for them to come to an understanding, much less a cordial relationship, but William knew Blair had been the guiding force behind the reconciliation. He owed Blair a debt he could never repay.
Blair was starting to look a little shiny-eyed again, so Jim distracted him. “Come on, Chief, any more sentiment and I’m going to buy stock in Hallmark.”
“Sorry,” Blair apologized sheepishly. The sentinel gave his guide a one-armed hug from behind.
“Is he here?” William asked hesitantly.
Jim paused. Hunter would rather be skinned alive than talk with William Ellison - he had made that perfectly clear. “Yes, but he doesn’t....”
“I just want to see him. I’ve had my investigators keep track of him all these years. Newspaper clippings, school records, photos -- but he’s refused to see me.”
“If he doesn’t want to see you, Dad, perhaps it’d be better to let it lie.” Jim was doing his best to stay neutral. He didn’t want William Ellison hurt, and strangely enough, he was loath to inflict any emotional wounds on Hunter. Not that he cared about the schmuck or anything.
“I just want to see him, Jim. He’s done well at IA; the mayor tells me. And he has a guide again, so that’s good, right?”
“It’s very good, Mr. Ellison,” Blair reassured him. “Hunter is doing much better since he bonded, but I have to agree with Jim. Things are very combustible at the moment.”
“I want to see him,” William repeated stubbornly, his immovability so reminiscent of Jim that Blair had to swallow a chuckle.
“Whatever, Dad,” Jim said resignedly.
“Captain Hunter, perhaps we should leave,” Sarah suggested quietly. “You’re upset, and I don’t want to cause you any more problems.
“You’re not a problem. You’re my guide,” Hunter said through clenched teeth, now moving into BP mode as he observed some of the people whispering and pointing at them.
“...and to think a police officer can get away with this. He’s a terrible example of leadership.”
“Maybe he’s the victim here. I know these young girls today -- morals of a mink in heat. Maybe she led him on....”
Hunter growled, and pulled away before Sarah could catch hold of him. “Stay here,” he warned her. “Don’t even think about moving.”
Sarah froze and watched her sentinel head over to the women. Blood would be shed. She watched anxiously as he approached the group of women, who first lit up, and then seemed to shrink away as he proceeded to rip into them with no regard for social niceties.
“You must be Sarah,” the words startled her and she spun around to see a tall man in his mid fifties smiling at her.
Sarah instinctively stepped back. She had no idea who this man was and her sentinel was probably burying his career right about now.
“I’m William Ellison, Jim Ellison’s father.” The man smiled, but his eyes were anxious. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Mr. Ellison,” she said faintly. If Hunter knew he was speaking to her, he’d rip the older man to shreds.
“I know my other son probably doesn’t want anything to do with me, but I had to see him. He’s grown into a fine man.” The quiet regret was palpable. “He looks so much like Jimmy.”
“Mr. Ellison, I....” At that moment, Blair and Detective Ellison materialized next to her.
“Dad, you know how we sentinels don’t like having our guides messed with,” Jim said in a superficially friendly voice, but the warning in his eyes was clear.
“Jimmy, I just wanted....”
The sound of a glass dropping distracted Jim as he turned to see Hunter, ice-cold fury personified, rip into a woman who was floundering helplessly.
“Damn it, Hunter, you just had to go ballistic.” Jim moved toward his half-brother, intent on saving the man from himself.
“They were saying terrible things about him,” Sarah said quietly.
Blair immediately took her hand. She was cold. He could just imagine what they had said about her, but Sarah didn’t mention that. He could feel it, though, the echoes of the nasty remarks and crude comments.
“I don’t want him to get into trouble. If he gets the wrong person mad....”
“You’re worried about his career?” William found that fascinating.
“The next time I hear any of you make a nasty comment about Sarah, I will personally guarantee you’ll regret it.” Hunter was calm, too calm, but his voice rumbled like the giant cat he was. “You want to make speculations about me, knock yourself out, but not one word about her.”
“Captain, we....” one woman rushed to apologize. He looked dangerous and not a bit violent.
The tiger moved across the room, bringing goose bumps and a strange chill. Something about the feral snarl finally clicked.
“Omigod, he’s a sentinel,” one whispered.
“A sentinel? So she’s a guide. That explains....”
“No wonder he keeps touching her. That’s what they do.”
“What a relief, I thought for sure he was....”
The whispers were gaining volume, until a strident voice interrupted them. “Doesn’t mean a thing. Everybody knows sentinels screw their guides. He just decided he wanted something young and fresh.”
There was an audible gasp as the speaker moved forward, her crude comment shocking the ballroom into stillness. Monica had waited to get her revenge for being shot down at the hospital and at the station: it was now her moment of glory.
Hunter turned to look at her, and despite her bravado, she flinched. His eyes weren’t human.
Moving forward, he stopped exactly two feet in front of Monica. “I told you what would happen if you ever threatened or bothered my guide. Just because you have an itch I refused to scratch doesn’t mean I’ll let you get away with this.” His hand moved to circle her throat, slowly tightening his grip.
Blair rushed up. Whoa, Darth Vader. No choke holds in the ballroom.
Moving next to his brother, Hunter barely registered the Sentinel Prime until Blair moved behind them, one hand on each sentinel’s back as Dark Guide connected them.
Later, people would swear they saw a blue light envelop all three men, arcing between them.
The Shield wanted -- needed -- revenge. He watched in savage satisfaction as the woman choked and gasped for air. Everyone else was too afraid to move.
“No, Shield,” came a deep persuasive voice. “There are other means of vengeance.”
Dark Guide was talking softly to the man slowly choking Monica to death, and the sentinel finally released his grip, letting the woman fall to the floor. The marks on her neck would turn purple soon.
“Now, now, I’m sure this is all just a major misunderstanding,” the mayor burst in heartily. “Why don’t we all just calm down. I’m sure none of you meant to imply that Captain Hunter was doing anything wrong.”
Hunter’s lip curled. The mayor and his wife had been some of the first to speculate and gossip. The look he gave the mayor nearly shriveled him.
Everyone waited to see what would happen next. They had heard stories about the primitive behavior of sentinels, but no one had witnessed it first hand.
Dark Sentinel rumbled menacingly. “As Sentinel Prime, I invoke Vendetta.”
Hunter’s unholy smile at that pronouncement was enough to make most of the guests back away. Monica scrambled to her feet and fled. Neither sentinel made a move to stop her. She would be dealt with soon enough.
Chief Towson knew he had to diffuse the situation. Sentinels could legally invoke all kinds of ancient laws, which superceded modern law if sentinels perceived a threat to themselves or their guides. He had heard that Detective Ellison was Sentinel Prime, and he sure lived up to it. What worried Towson was that Hunter was somehow connected to Ellison in a sentinel way. God knew, the man looked like he was Ellison’s twin.
“Captain Hunter, Detective Ellison, on behalf of all of us here, I apologize for any insult to you or your clan.” Towson was a smart man, and he could play politics with the best of them. Right now, he had to keep the two sentinels from doing something Towson would regret.
Dark Guide continued to talk softly, and then broke the link. Hunter and Jim were silent, then turned to look at Towson.
“As Sentinel Prime, I accept your apology,” Jim said formally, then caught his guide close. Blair hung on to Jim, thankful that no one had died tonight.
“He’s one, too,” a soft voice murmured in astonishment. “That’s another guide.”
“Guides. They brought guides to a gala? They aren’t even citizens.” The disgusted remark drew a furious glare from Towson. Did these people have a death wish?
“I don’t take kindly to anyone insulting my sons, or their guides.”
Blair’s head whipped around to see William Ellison, looking disdainful. The man had always sounded like displeased royalty when he was angry.
Everyone in Cascade knew how much power William Ellison wielded: socially, politically and financially. He was claiming both men as his sons? That set up another whispered round of speculation.
“Any insult to them is an insult to me,” William stated simply, and his calm pronouncement silenced the room.
At Jim’s signal, Hunter and Blair withdrew back to where Sarah waited. Her sentinel was angry, no, make that furious. He didn’t even acknowledge William Ellison.
Sarah moved toward Hunter, hesitated, then surprised him by putting her arms around his waist and holding on tight. She was shaking, worried sick about him. The little power display he had just put on would probably jeopardize his job.
Hunter tuned into his guide, opening the link. She was scared, but it was different. She was scared for him. The sentinel would sort that one out later. Right now, he had to reassure his guide.
“Shh, it’s okay.” Hunter rubbed her back soothingly. “I promise not to maim anyone -- yet.”
She choked. He was serious! She hung onto him -- just touching him blocked out some of the nasty emotions that had been crowding her. Of course the not so quiet whispers and comments had been harder to block.
Slut. Whore. Guide. The way the words were used indicated people thought the terms were synonymous. She should be used to it now; people wondering about what it meant when Hunter touched her and then their erroneous, prurient conclusions. She should be used to the condescending little stares meant to put her in her place, and the pity and contempt in their faces. But she wasn’t, and it hurt. It hurt.
Pulling back slightly, she moved slightly behind Hunter, one hand in his tuxedo jacket and the other on his arm. Good little guide back in her place. Now that the cat was out of the bag, she didn’t have to pretend anymore.
Another hand touched her back and she jumped. Hunter snarled, then looked around to see Jim Ellison standing there. Ellison was in BP mode, Blair hanging onto his jacket and murmuring soothing phrases designed to calm down the Sentinel Prime.
Jim moved his hand over Sarah’s head, Sentinel Prime to clan guide, and Sarah held very still, unsure what to do. If she pulled away, she’d offend the Sentinel Prime, and if she didn’t, Hunter would go completely BP.
“You all right, Sarah?” Jim spoke deliberately to her, ignoring his half-brother’s tension.
She swallowed, then nodded, keeping a apprehensive eye on her own sentinel. Hunter didn’t like having other people touch his guide, even if it was the Sentinel Prime invoking his right as clan leader.
Blair watched the display, and the anthropologist in him was making rapid mental notes. It was acceptable for both the Shield and the Sentinel Prime to touch the Guide Prime, but when the Sentinel Prime touched the Shield’s guide, things were not so clear cut. Even though clan law allowed the Sentinel Prime to do almost anything he wanted to do, there was still territorial imperative at work. Not to mention the fact that the Shield and Sentinel Prime were still trying to work out what, exactly, their relationship was with each other.
Am I glad this isn’t some ancient ‘droit de seigneur’ ritual. Blair thought with grim humor. He’d learned by trial and error on how to deal with both sentinels and keep them from killing each other. Sarah didn’t even have the luxury of controlling her own sentinel yet, but she was learning quickly. It wasn’t fair to put her in the position of having to answer to two sentinels, even if Jim meant well.
Blair deliberately reached out to Hunter, distracting the man from what might just turn into a pissing contest. Hunter stopped bristling when Sandburg touched him, completing the connection. Both sentinels gradually eased.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I’m kinda tired,” Blair said lightly, nudging Jim.
“You’re right, Chief,” Jim agreed, letting go of Sarah and watching with hooded eyes as Hunter moved her close to him and she leaned into him. The clan was unified.
Hunter was still angry, but had it under control. His guide was safe, and Monica would be dealt with. The beast within him was anticipating the hunt. He was about to follow Sandburg to the coat check area when a voice stopped him.
Hunter turned to see William Ellison standing not five feet away from him, a hopeful, apprehensive look on his face.
Hunter’s jaw clenched as he stared at the man who had sired him. For years, he had deliberately avoided meeting the man. He wanted nothing of William Ellison: not his money, his attention, or his excuses.
“Vincent, I...I just wanted to see you. You’ve never responded to my letters, or my calls. When you moved back to Cascade, I thought perhaps....”
“You thought wrong.” Hunter turned to walk away.
“Vincent,” William tried again.
Hunter stopped again, part of him wanting to keep walking and ignore the man as he’d done for years. The sentinel in him, however, wanted something else. Eying the older man coldly, Hunter nearly shriveled the indomitable William Ellison with his contempt. With precise icy diction, he said “Go to hell.”
Hunter turned on his heel, nearly dragging Sarah behind him as she tried to keep up with his long stride
William seemed to waver slightly where he stood. The shocked murmurs around him indicated the little exchange had not gone unnoticed by the crowd.
“I lost him, Jimmy,” William whispered.
“You never had him, Dad,” Jim corrected him gently, and put his arm around his father. As he led the older man out of the room, Jim had a strange wish to do the same for his half-brother, who despite his cold words, was hurting just as bad as his father was.
“Mr. Ellison, William, he needs time.” This from Blair, the peacemaker.
“I wish I had your faith,” William said sadly as Jim retrieved their coats.
“Jim came back,” Blair said bracingly. “He had to do that on his own terms.”
“But will Vincent?” William looked old and tired.
Blair simply put his arms around the man and held him. When Jim came back, William made a hasty exit.
“I feel so damn sorry for both of them,” Blair sighed after they got back in the truck.
“This isn’t our battle, Chief,” Jim said quietly.
“But it is our family,” Blair said seriously, and shivered as the lingering emotions bumped against his barriers.
“I can’t fix this one,” Jim said, frustrated and sad. “But, God, I wish I could.”
Blair stared out at the dark wet pavement that reflected the lights in shiny red and white streaks. The damp seemed to seep though the truck despite the heater running on high.
Blair reached out to latch onto Jim, and Jim’s hand closed over his arm, pulling him close. Blair closed his eyes and lost himself in the connection. Neither man spoke the rest of the way home.
Sarah rolled over in her sleep, restless. The day had been long, and the gala a moderate nightmare. Hunter had promptly fired up his computer on their return home and had scooted Sarah upstairs with a mug of cocoa saying he had some research to do. Sarah knew full well he was working on eliminating Monica. After reading Burton’s text, she knew a vendetta declared by sentinels was a very serious matter.
Still, she had felt a bit like little Cindy-Lou Who, sent back off to bed while the Grinch planned mayhem and destruction via the internet. She wasn’t even going to think about Hunter’s ice-cold response to William Ellison’s overture.
Then, in that hazy REM phase of sleep, the dream came. Like some ghost, she could walk around unseen and unheard, watching shadows of the past. It was the Ancient Clan that Blair had told her about.
The Sentinel and Guide Primes were there, but Blair was dressed in black robes over boots and pants, a sword hung in a shoulder harness. He stood close to Mr. Ellison, the palm of one hand resting against Mr. Ellison’s shoulder. Blair was leaning into him, speaking quietly as if trying to calm him down.
It was then she noticed the sword at Mr. Ellison’s side and the sheath of throwing knives across his back. Both men looked deadly. She slowly circled them, stumbling back when Blair’s head whipped around and he seemed to stare straight at her. Those eyes were burning into her.
She felt her barriers buckle from the blast of raw energy, and backed away from him. The emotions were primal, searing across her mind: MINE!
She edged further away from them. She saw Hunter, the ancient Hunter, dressed in black. In the functional battle clothing, he was all strength and animal power -- a lethal predator.
Then she saw herself: a little bit taller, obviously in peak physical condition. She had long hair, drawn together behind her back and carried a long knife at her side. She was throwing a sleeping roll over the back of a bay horse, and lashing it into place.
Hunter moved forward, and Sarah expected to see her other self kneel to him, but instead the other her glared at him over the back of the horse, if anything moving further away from him.
“If you think that over-sensed barbarian is going to share a horse with me, you’re mistaken. He can walk.” She ignored Hunter and spoke directly to the Sentinel Prime.
Sarah watched as her ancient self looked at Hunter as if he were something that had just crawled out from under a rock. Hunter being Hunter, no matter what generation, completely ignored any protests. Sarah was fascinated by the dynamic between the two -- ancient Sarah wasn’t going to meekly accept being bonded.
The guide has the power.
Was this what Blair meant? Did she really have the capacity to control her own destiny? The dream began to fade, and Sarah slipped back under.
Hunter had finally made to bed by two a.m.. His research had produced some fascinating tidbits of information, thanks to the Cascade PD database, and a few government ones that weren’t public knowledge. Once military, always military.
He was unable to sleep, despite his fatigue. It wasn’t the little scenes at the gala that disturbed him; it was the look on William Ellison’s face when he had told him to go to hell. It was the sorrow in Sandburg’s eyes, and the sympathy in Ellison’s that stuck in his craw. He didn’t need anybody to care.
He thumped his pillow, trying to knead it into shape, then finally rolled over and dropped off to sleep. Around him was a mist, and he found himself in a clearing, watching his counterpart from the ancient clan.
The other Hunter was bleeding from a head wound, helped up by the other Blair.
“You are bonded sentinel. Where is your guide?”
Hunter could feel the other’s anger, his grief at the loss. It was nearly as upsetting as his nightmare about Gary.
Then he saw Sarah, ancient Sarah, approaching. “What will you do without a guide?”
She was the one, the true guide. Both ancient and modern Hunter knew this instinctively. She was the one.
The dream faded and Hunter woke up with a start. He extended his senses, and when they had located his guide, sleeping soundly, he calmed down. He ran his hands through his hair, yawned and settled back to sleep.
Blair was dreaming again, this time of the Ancient Clan, and relived Huon’s anguish at the death of his guide. He made a strange moaning sound, and Jim, his sentinel antennae on full alert, woke. Padding down the stairs, he peeked into his guide’s room to see Blair tossing his head, making unintelligible sounds.
“Chief?” Jim whispered, sitting down at the edge of the futon, not wanting to scare his guide awake. He should have known that the tension of the gala would bubble up from Blair’s subconscious mind. Jim had offered to sleep on the couch, but Blair had insisted he was fine and gone to his own room. Three hours later, Jim had felt Blair’s turmoil.
Reaching out to gently grasp Blair’s shoulder, he tried again. “Chief, you okay?”
Blair moaned again, brow furrowed, then bolted upright.
“Whoa -- easy, Chief. You were dreaming again.” Jim opened the link, letting their connection calm Blair down.
“Man, it’s too weird. I can actually feel what he’s thinking.” Blair yawned and blinked sleepily. The scientific side of him was marveling at the connection.
“More hocus-pocus about Hunter?” Jim said, an edge in his voice. While the Shield was a guardian for Blair, it didn’t stop the occasional bout of jealousy.
“You’re my sentinel,” Blair said seriously. “He’s the Shield.” As if that explained everything.
“I knew this gala was a bad idea,” Jim sighed, and automatically settled back on the futon when Blair scooted over to make room for him. Draping his arm around Blair, Jim pulled his guide’s head over to rest against his chest.
“It’s not a bad thing, Jim,” Blair reassured him. “We’re all connected, all four of us. It doesn’t change what we are to each other.”
“Yeah, well....” Jim sounded grumpy, but relaxed back against one of the many pillows Blair kept on the bed. “I just don’t want you to forget your priorities.”
Blair hid a grin. “No chance of that, big guy.”
They lay there for a time, letting their link hum, then Blair raised his head.
“Does it really bother you that much, Jim? That I’m getting stronger, strong enough to help somebody else?”
Jim shifted uncomfortably. He was all for anything that made Blair feel needed, wanted and important, but reconciling his ideology with Dark Sentinel instincts wasn’t that easy.
“I just...” Jim hesitated, searching for the right words. “I just want to make sure I don’t lose you.” That simple statement covered a lot of old insecurities and needs. Jim needed him just as much on a personal, emotional level as he did as a sentinel.
“You won’t Jim. Not ever.” Blair settled back down, heartened by the words and the emotions Jim was projecting. They fell asleep, this time without any dreams.
Jim woke around 7:00, blinking at the unfamiliar surroundings before he realized where he was. Blair, cocooned in the comforter was sprawled on his side of the bed, snoring lightly. Jim got up quietly and went to the bathroom to shower and then got dressed. He was in the mood for something with lots of cholesterol, fat and flavor and no nutritional value whatsoever. Bakery run, he decided, scrawling a hasty note and laying it on Blair’s night stand so his guide wouldn’t wake and wonder where he was.
Thirty minutes later, Jim returned triumphant and paused at the landing outside the loft. There was a second heartbeat in there. Before he could draw out his gun, the door opened and William Ellison stepped out.
“Dad?” Jim relaxed. “What are you doing up at the crack of dawn?”
“Hello, Jimmy,” William said quietly. “I just stopped by to apologize for last night. It was a foolish thing to do, and I regret putting you in the middle of it.”
Blair peeked through the doorway, sleep rumpled and obviously distressed.
“Dad?” Jim began again, but William just mumbled a farewell and hurried down the stairs.
“Chief, what was that all about?” Jim maneuvered his guide backward until he could shut the door.
“Your father came by to apologize,” Blair said softly.
But it had been more than that, Jim realized. His BP instincts rose with a vengeance.
“Blair, I want to know exactly what happened here,” Jim ordered.
“I...” Blair hesitated, then simply placed a hand on Jim’s shoulder, opening the link. Closing his eyes, he laid his head against Jim’s chest as he was pulled close. Some things were easier to say without words.
The newspaper seller watched his creepy regular customer coming along the sidewalk towards him, and suppressed a shudder; there was just something about the man that put him on edge. It was 6:00 a.m. and Charley was just as uptight as if it had been pitch dark and a monster had walked by.
The man never gave his name, and truthfully, Charley didn’t want to know. He had accidentally touched the man’s hand once while making change, and the customer’s cold reptilian skin had repulsed him.
The man picked up the Cascade Times and leafed through it. Sometimes the man leafed through the paper, other times he tucked it under his arm and walked off. There were no greetings or verbal exchanges, yet the customer showed up nearly every other day.
Charley watched the man's face freeze and his mouth pull into a bitter, silent snarl. The man tore the paper as he tried to fold it against the wind that was tugging the paper this way and that. With a curse, he threw it to the ground and picked up another, tearing it in his haste to find what he had just seen, then discarding it on the ground with the first.
Charley nervously fingered the small knife he kept in his pocket. "Come on, man. You’re going to have to pay for them – this isn't a lending library."
The man threw a third paper on the ground.
“You don't want me to call the cops."
The man finally seemed to recognize that Charley was speaking to him and registered what he said. He shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled a five dollar bill out and thrust it at him. Then he stormed off.
Charley looked down at the paper, puzzled. Each one was turned to the society page, showing some fancy shindig that had taken place last night. Highlighting the article was a photo of two almost identical-looking men walking out the Cascade Art Museum main entrance. Frowning at the caption “The Family Ellison”, he noted two smaller figures standing behind then men, a young girl and a long-haired young man.
Picking up the second paper, Charley felt a sudden chill. In that picture, the face of the young man had been obliterated.
“So, how did the rest of the weekend go?” Blair perched on his desk as Sarah sat on his office couch. It was the Monday after the gala, and Hunter had dropped Sarah off to a waiting Blair Sandburg just outside Hargrove Hall. Hunter had announced that he had paperwork to do, tons of it, and would allow Sarah to spend some time on Blair’s diss. Even though she knew it was irrational, she felt abandoned by her sentinel; dropped off to another keeper.
Just like a kid at daycare, Sarah thought miserably. “He was on the computer most of the time.” She looked down at the floor. “He wouldn’t tell me anything.”
“Ah, Mr. Military Covert Ops – I recognize the syndrome,” Blair teased, but Sarah didn’t even smile.
“He doesn’t trust me,” Sarah whispered.
“He’s trying to protect you,” Blair corrected quietly. “A vendetta is dangerous.”
“She’s not very nice, but she isn’t a criminal.”
“That’s what I thought about Leo Kessler,” Blair reminded her gently, and Sarah paled. “Sarah, I got very bad vibes from her. You know you did, too.”
“What if he kills her?” Sarah fretted. “Then it’ll be my fault.” The thought of a death because of Hunter’s protective instincts chilled her. She was worried about this obsession of Hunter’s. It was almost as though he was using Monica as a substitute target for his ex-wife. Sarah hadn’t dared say anything after the time he had lashed out at her at the mall when the sales clerk had asked her out.
“Whatever the Shield does to protect himself, his guide or the clan is sanctioned by law. Hunter’s not impulsive – he knows exactly what he’s doing, and why.”
Sarah shivered at Blair’s calm acceptance.
“He doesn’t murder in cold blood, Sarah. He’s not that kind of man. You should know that more than anyone.”
The rebuke, though tempered, stung. Sarah looked down again, concentrating on the floor tiles until they stopped blurring.
Blair got up, walking over until he could sit down beside her, not quite touching. He know he had hurt her, just as he knew the reminder had been necessary. When she finally looked up, she nodded, but her eyes...those eyes....
Sarah stood up and walked to the door.
“Hey,” Blair called out as she moved to the door.
Sarah stopped, not ready to deal with another dressing down. She raised her barriers, and when he touched her, she instinctively pushed him away, mentally and physically.
Blair’s eyes widened in surprise, part of him admiring the small show of defiance, but Dark Guide wasn’t taking anything from a clan guide not his equal.
He reached out again, and this time she flinched from the power. Her barriers winked out of existence. She waited for the inevitable retribution; she didn’t want to meet Dark Guide face to face any more than she wanted to see Dark Sentinel again. The Sentinel Prime and Guide Prime’s ancient counterparts were not nearly as tolerant as their modern day incarnations.
Yet his light touch didn’t hurt at all.
“I’m sorry,” Blair said simply. “I didn’t mean to snap at you like that.” He was now projecting security, and friendship: Blair Sandburg warm fuzzies. “I never, ever meant to hurt you.” She gradually relaxed.
“It was a hell of a party, eh?” Blair said, changing the subject. He slid his arm around her as they walked out of the building, linking them and giving her support. The Monica issue was dropped by mutual silent consent.
He’s strong, so much stronger than I’ll ever be. Sarah looked over again, watching his handsome profile as Blair commented on some sentinel eccentricities. I just wish...I wish....
The squeal of brakes brought his head around. A black van accelerated across the parking lot, swerving around two parked cars and hitting a trash container, sending it flying. The driver’s door opened, and for a split second, all Blair could see was Alex Barnes jumping out. He pulled Sarah with him as she tried to drag her away. She reflexively pulled away, but he refused to let her go. His mind flooded her with his own fear as one word screamed silently through her head: RUN!
Sarah kept up with him as they flew across the common. He had glimpsed the baseball bat in the man’s hand. There was only one thing that he could do.
“Sarah, you’ve got to run to the campus police.” Blair let go of her hand and slowed, allowing Sarah to move away. “Go tell them what’s happening.”
“Get out of here and get help!” Blair turned his back on her, and grabbed the nearest trash can and slung it towards the man as he came round the corner.
The man dodged it and closed in on Blair. “You think you can stop me, you little freak?”
Blair edged backwards, trying to find something to protect himself with.
Sarah ran as fast as she could. She saw a man in a black uniform crossing between the two buildings, heading toward the GDP station.
“Mister!” she yelled.
When the man turned, she recognized the uniform: GDP. She pushed her fear down -- Blair needed help. “Mr. Sandburg, back there. Please -- he’s being attacked!” The man caught hold of her, steadying her.
Guard Knight pushed her toward the station. “Tell them what’s happening.” He set off at a run. As he came up, he saw the baseball bat swing down, catching Blair in the side. Knight ploughed straight into the man, his momentum taking them past the injured guide. The man twisted, throwing Knight on the ground. Knight landed heavily, the breath knocked out of him. The attacker raised the baseball bat to bring it down when Blair tackled him. He was about sixty pounds lighter than the man, but it sent the attacker staggering. Blair tried to hang onto the man, but he threw himself backwards against the wall, trapping Blair the second time. Blair let go as the man turned and swung at Blair’s unprotected head.
Knight managed to hook the attacker’s arm and haul him back, but the attacker brought the bat back hard and this time Knight went down. The man was about to finish the job when he heard feet pounding on the concrete. He took off.
Knight slowly crawled over to where Blair lay against the wall. He could see that the smaller man had blood seeping from a head wound in his hairline. He reached out. “Sandburg, you okay?”
Blair felt like his head was going to fall off. “I’ve felt better, Knight,” he quipped weakly. He put a hand out, and together they managed to get to their feet.
When the GDP guards arrived, they saw a guide, correction, the Senior Guide Prime propping up Guard Knight.
Harris shook his head. How the hell am I going to explain this to Ellison?
Sarah hovered anxiously behind the Lieutenant. He had recognized her from when the students had been hassling them.
The GDP paramedic was finishing his examination. “You were lucky. Scalp laceration that’ll need some stitches. Bruising to your shoulder, side and stomach. You might have cracked a rib -- can’t tell without X-rays.”
“Guard Knight -- how is he?”
The paramedic almost hesitated, then remembered who this was. “Guard Knight’s shoulder is dislocated. I think he has a concussion.”
Blair and Knight were gently moved into the GDP van. Sarah sat next to Blair, holding a gauze pad to the seeping wound on his head. She also wrapped her emotions around him, grounding him. Harris watched the two young people - there was something about the girl.... When she looked up, he knew: empath. She shivered a bit, but Harris kept his distance. Whoever she was, she was connected to Sandburg, and by extension, the Senior Sentinel Prime. He didn’t want Ellison to have any more reason to go after him.
Harris was seated in the waiting room of the ER at Cascade General Hospital while Sandburg and Knight were being examined. He wondered if he should have insisted that they take Sandburg to the sentinel floor, but Blair said his barriers were fine. Across from him sat the young blonde guide -- Sarah, he corrected himself. He had made it a point to find out who she was and whom she belonged to. When she had mentioned Captain Hunter, Harris had winced. Commander Slater had told him all about the IA captain and the unusual bonding. If Ellison was bad, Hunter was ten times worse, and a clan member to boot.
The girl was shivering slightly as the emotions of the sick and injured around her began encroaching. Then James Ellison came through the door -- twice. Harris blinked; the second man looked enough like Ellison to be his twin.
“Harris,” Ellison barked, drawing the GDP lieutenant to his feet. “Where’s my guide?”
“In there,” Harris gestured. “He said he didn’t need the sentinel floor....”
“Damn stubborn kid,” Ellison griped, but headed for the main ER doors and began arguing with the receptionist manning the entrance. The other man had gone over to Sarah and pulled her up out of the chair, lightly running his hands over her and checking her for injuries in full view of the entire waiting room. He ignored the muffled gasp of alarm by an elderly lady seated near them.
“You okay?” Hunter asked gruffly, his hands gently holding either side of her face as he looked down at her.
Sarah nodded. “Yes, but Blair....” She shivered. The emotions around them were chaotic, and she leaned into him, taking comfort from the shielding.
“I’ll check on him,” Hunter said, running his hand soothingly over her back. The shocked little lady finally turned away, unnerved by the display.
Hunter took Sarah and moved behind Ellison, who was not making any headway with the receptionist. Time to throw his weight around. “I’m Captain Hunter, Cascade PD. You have one of my men in there. This is Detective Ellison, the man’s partner. We need to see him now.”
“I’m afraid you can’t go in there,” the receptionist said firmly. “The doctor’s still with him and until they’re done, I can’t....”
Jim had had it. Ignoring the woman, he hit the door panel opener and walked through. Before the woman could hit the panic button that would alert security, Hunter stopped her.
“I wouldn’t,” he rumbled. “You see, Detective Ellison is also Senior Sentinel Prime of Cascade, and that’s his guide in there.” He saw the woman’s eyes go wide, and she stuttered.
“I really would hate for this to become an administrative problem, so I would suggest that you leave well enough alone.” The tone was mild, but the look was feral. Another sentinel. Were they twins? She shrank back in her chair.
Harris followed on Hunter’s heels, slipping through before the receptionist could protest. Harris found the examination room where Blair sat on the bed. His head had been sutured, and he was trying to put his shirt back on with cautious movements.
Blair looked over and lit up in relief. His sentinel was here. Jim went from BP mode to overdrive. Circling his guide, he opened his senses to the maximum, tuning into Blair. Harris, standing in the doorway, saw the way the sentinel tilted his head to one side, scanning the smaller man.
The sentinel closed the distance, and reached out and skimmed over the laceration in his scalp. Satisfied that his guide had no serious head injury, he slid one hand under Blair’s shirt, his hand moving feather light over Blair’s ribs. Pushing the younger man back, he then ran his hand over Blair’s abdomen, searching for any internal injuries. Blair lay still, knowing his sentinel had to make sure he was okay. He had been X-rayed -- no fractures -- and the physician had sutured him quickly and with no negative comments or even emotions about guides. Jim ran his hands over Blair’s arms, then pulled back, satisfied that his guide was only bruised.
Hunter had moved up behind Harris, causing the GDP officer to jump slightly. Harris had not been formally introduced to the man, and by the look the IA captain was giving him, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be.
When Ellison moved back, Hunter moved forward. Harris’ mouth nearly dropped open as Hunter’s hand descended on Blair’s shoulder. The guide was eased back up to a sitting position, and Hunter’s hands moved over Blair’s head and shoulders in an abbreviated scan, then he, too, stepped back. The two sentinels exchanged a silent communication, and then Hunter moved back to his own guide.
Jim turned to Harris. “We’ll take a statement from them and you’ll have a copy tomorrow.”
Harris nodded. He still had his own man to check on.
Blair pulled on Jim’s arm. “Guard Knight -- I need to know if he’s okay.”
“Not now, Chief.”
“Jim, he helped me. If he hadn’t....” Blair left the rest hanging.
“Is Guard Knight still here?” Jim turned to Harris.
“Yes, this way.” Harris took them down the hallway and pushed open the door. Knight was propped up with a sling on his right arm. He looked very groggy. They had obviously reduced his dislocated shoulder. He tried to sit up, but Harris motioned him back.
“Knight, Senior Sentinel Prime Ellison and Captain Hunter are here to see you.”
Knight managed to sit up slightly. “I’m sorry, sir. I allowed your guide to be hurt.” He could see his career going down the toilet if Ellison wanted to make a case of it. They had not exactly been on the best of terms because of the way Knight had treated Blair in the beginning.
Ellison moved over to the man on the bed, sentinel senses noting how the man cringed back slightly, waiting for a reprimand. “Blair wanted to make sure that you were all right.” Ellison watched the man tense, waiting for the other shoe to fall. Then Jim added “Thank you for risking your life to help Blair. I won’t forget it.”
Knight relaxed back against the bed, but his heart was hammering away. “Glad to be of assistance, Sentinel Prime.” Knight was vastly relieved that he wasn’t going to be raked over the coals. He still felt nauseated and dizzy from the blow to his head. The CT scan had been normal, but he still had a whopper of a concussion.
“Come on, Chief, the man needs to rest.” Blair was gently escorted out of the room. Hunter stayed, Sarah clutching at his jacket.
“I’m Captain Hunter, Cascade PD Internal Affairs,” he said, formally introducing himself to both GDP men. “Guard Knight, I have a few questions.”
Knight was trying not to get sick, but the room was doing a nasty tilt when he tried to sit up again. The thought of being grilled by a sentinel related to Ellison was daunting.
Sarah got on her tip-toes and whispered to her sentinel. He looked down at her, then nodded brusquely. “Tomorrow, Knight, when you’re not about to throw up all over everything.”
Harris was surprised at the forbearance. From everything he had heard, the IA captain was not a man to allow personal weakness or injury to interfere with an investigation. Maybe it was his guide....
Harris looked at Sarah speculatively, wondering how much control she had over the sentinel. Then he lowered his eyes when he heard a low rumble. It would not do to have the sentinel go BP because of his curiosity.
Hunter and Sarah exited, meeting up with Jim and Blair in the parking lot. Sarah moved toward Blair, then remembered she needed to check with her sentinel.
“Please, Captain Hunter?”
Hunter finally nodded, and Sarah moved over to the other empath. She had been worried sick about him. Reaching out, she touched his arm, wanting to connect, and let him know how much it meant to her that he wasn’t badly injured. Blair was the only friend she had, and if she lost him....
Blair reached out and caught her in a gentle hug, mindful of his ribs, and she clung to him.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” she whispered.
Blair let his cheek rest on her head.
Jim opened the truck door, then caught a glimpse of Hunter’s face as the other sentinel watched the two guides embrace. There was a look in Hunter’s eyes that Jim found disquieting. What the hell is going on inside his head?
Caught up in their guides, neither sentinel saw the man watching them.
End - Eye of the Tiger