A/N The usual disclaimers apply regarding me not owning anything or making any money from anything and so on.

 

I'm not Jewish, so if I've got anything wrong, I apologise.  Just chalk it up to artistic licence.

 

 

'cause there's really nothing left here to stop me


 

"What do you mean it's not working?" Saul's strident tone made Naomi's headache step up a notch.

 

"I'm dying here. Can't you see that?" She pulled out of his arms and went to stand by the kitchen window. She looked out, but didn't see the unkempt garden or the pretty houses with their lace curtains and carefully tended lawns across the street.

 

"We've only been married three months. How can you tell it's not working?" Saul took a step towards her, but she moved away.

 

"I… I feel stifled. I simply can't be a housewife. There's so much world to see, so many things to do."

 

"Then why did you agree to marry me? No one forced you to. When the shadchan* introduced us you could have said no."

 

Naomi's reply was silence.

 

"Naomi, why did you marry me?" Saul's voice was gentle and full of pain. "I know we don't love each other, yet. But, I was hoping that with time…"

 

Naomi's parents had despaired of their headstrong daughter. Intelligent, but stubborn, she'd not worked in school and had spent most of her time going out with friends. They turned to their Rabbi for help and he'd thought that maybe she needed a change of life and marriage might be a solution. Even though she'd only been sixteen, to their surprise she'd agreed to meet the shadchan the Rabbi recommended. They were completely amazed when she said that she'd marry Saul Cohen a slightly older, devote Jew. Little did they know that the reason she chose him was because his job as a building inspector meant he often had to travel away from home. She thought she'd finally be away from her parents and, for a lot of the time, on her own without supervision.

 

However, she hadn't counted on her even more devote in-laws. Every other day someone from Saul's family would just 'pop round' with cakes, books on childcare, advice on housekeeping or a recipe. It was driving Naomi mad. The little criticisms, the snide remarks voiced in sugary tones, the friendly 'advice'. Then the talk turned to the fact that she wasn't pregnant. She wasn't even seventeen she insisted and had only been married three months. She had time. She needed time to live first.

 

"I'm sorry," her voice broke on a sob. "I just can't." The sound of the front door slamming behind her echoed down the street.

 

I've always thought that I would love to live by the sea

 

"What's your name, pretty one?"

 

Naomi shielded her eyes from the bright sun as she looked up. All she could see was a dark outline against the brightness.

 

"Oh, sorry." The shadow moved and sat down beside her on the sand. It turned out to be a youngish man with the wildest clothes the woman had ever seen: bright colours, clashing patterns, bead necklaces… And his hair was long and held back with a leather thong that crossed his forehead. "My name's Astral Consciousness."

 

"What?" She knew she sounded rude, but what sort of name was that?

 

"Astral Consciousness, but most people call me Az."

 

"Oh." She didn't quite know how to deal with this exotic creature.

 

"And what's your name? Goddess of the Sea? Phoenix, because of your red hair? Bright Sun, because you're like so like the sun's rays? No, no, I know. Blue Sky because of your eyes."

 

Naomi giggled. "It's Naomi."

 

"But that name does nothing to describe your inner or outer beauty. I shall call you Butterfly. No, Pretty Butterfly." He lay back and lit a strange looking cigarette. The pungent smoke tickled Naomi's nose. "Did the balmy winds of the Pacific bring you here to California or were you born in this peaceful paradise?"

 

"Um, no. I'm from Jetmore, Kansas State." She didn't explain that rather than arriving on the winds she'd run away from her new husband and family leaving a short note saying that she wouldn't be back and asking them not to look for her.

 

"You here to join up with your liberated sisters and brothers to fight against oppression and stop the war?"

 

"Um, no. I work in a book shop downtown."

 

Astral, or whatever his name was sat up abruptly. "Don't you care about what our government's doing to our cousins across the water in our name? Laos, Korea, Vietnam…"

 

"I just wanted to live by the sea. I'd never seen the sea before." Naomi felt small and stupid in the face of this man's passion. She didn't take much notice of current affairs.

 

"Listen, sister, you can't live your life in ignorance. We ARE the people of the planet and we owe it to humanity to free ourselves and others from the shackles of organised tyranny!"

 

"Oh," was all that Naomi could say in the face of this declaration.

 

He took one of her small hands in his and stared into her blue eyes. "Do you want to learn? Do you think that the planet should be saved? Are you a part of humanity?"

 

She nodded, mesmerised.

 

"Well, come and meet my brothers and sisters. We're out at Johnson's farm. D'you know it?"

 

She nodded again.

 

"Will you come?" He could read the hesitation in her eyes and bent to kiss her on the lips. Eventually, drawing back he cupped her face with both his hands making the smoke from his strange cigarette drift past her nose. He stared into her eyes. "Well, my Pretty Butterfly, see you there?"

 

Naomi, still reeling from the first passionate kiss she'd ever experienced, smiled.

 

I apologise that once again I'm not in love


 

"You're just like all the others!" Astral's voice spat at her, but it didn't stop her cramming the last of her clothes into her canvas tope. "You said you loved me!"

 

Pretty Butterfly sighed, took another long puff of her spliff and felt the smoke calm her. She turned to look at the agitated man. "Listen, Az, I do love you, really. But I also love Moonjava, Marley and Patches. And Faith and Wildwind…"

 

"But I thought you…"

 

I'm very grateful to you," Naomi spoke over his protests. She laid a hand on his right cheek. "You showed me this life and how important it is to love everyone and what we can do to change the world. But now my purpose is to take the message to others." She sat back down on the mattress and closed her bag.

 

"You mean take New Sage's message," he spat.

 

"New Sage is showing me a new way to enlightenment." She ignored the man's snort. "I thought you'd be pleased for me."

 

"I just… just… I wanted…"

 

"Please, Az. You taught me that love is too beautiful not to share. Our destinies are taking different paths." She stood up and pulled the bag onto one slim shoulder. "We'll meet again. I'm sure."

 

She gently kissed his lips and then walked out of his life in a swirl of bright coloured fabrics until all that was left was the faint smell of patchouli.

 

While my heart is a shield and I won't let it down


 

"You… you're married?" Naomi winced at how childish her voice sounded.

 

"What difference does it make? You believe in free love, don't you?"

 

"With like-minded people."

 

"I'm like-minded. I played by the rules of this place; what few there are."

 

"But, but what about your wife?"

 

"She's off playing being corporate. Keeps me in the manner I've become accustomed to." He glanced over at the pretty young woman hovering in his door way. He'd been hanging out in Haight Ashbury with some friends when they'd spotted the group of hippies walking down the street in bare feet singing some protest song. His friends had laughed and threw out some disparaging remarks. Gary, however, had spotted the beautiful redhead with a painted butterfly on her right cheek.

 

Having become somewhat jaded with the playboy lifestyle that his wife's money provided him, he was looking for something different. When the butterfly turned and smiled at him he knew he'd found it. It didn't take him long to buy the clothes, grow his hair, call himself Black Bee and integrate himself into the 'Free Desire' commune just outside 'Frisco. He felt like a child let loose in a sweet shop with Pretty Butterfly being the box of expensive chocolates. The fact that he was more than twenty years her senior made the tasting all that much sweeter.

 

But all good things have to come to an end and his wife was making sounds that maybe she was fed up of paying for his profligate lifestyle. So, he'd shaved, washed and changed his clothes. Pretty Butterfly had entered his room as he was sliding his wedding ring back on his finger. To say that she was disappointed and upset was an understatement.

 

"But aren't you…? Don't you want to help the oppressed?"

 

"Oh, for Pete's sake." He picked up an expensive looking leather wallet from the orange crate he'd been using as a bedside table. "Without those 'oppressed'," he made quote marks with his fingers, "people, America wouldn't be as powerful as it is and we'd still be living in covered wagons."

 

"And Vietnam and…"

 

"Bomb the lot of them. They deserve it." He walked towards her and she pressed herself back against the wall. Leaning over he gently kissed her forehead ignoring her pained gasp. "But you were worth having to share the bathroom and live with so many unwashed, flaky people. Bye." And with that he strode out of the building.

 

Naomi couldn't hold back the tears and she sank down to the floor. Something broke inside her.

 

To travel the world alone and live more simply

 

Naomi left the commune and Pretty Butterfly behind as she went out into the real world searching for the thing that she thought she'd found with the free-loving peacemakers. Wanting to get away from the States she travelled to Europe fortunately finding enough work to pay her way. It was on a farm just outside Reading in the south of England that she realised that she'd missed an undetermined number of periods. Plumping down on a bale of hay she mentally counted back. Oh, God, she was pregnant! But what about morning sickness? Swollen breasts? She put her hand on her stomach. Was it a little rounder than usual?

 

"Naomi!"

 

Her head went up. Susan, the mother of the two boys she was looking after was calling her.

 

"Naomi, where are you?"

 

The voice came closer and the young American girl simply sat there strangely lethargic. She knew she should answer or walk out of the barn, but she couldn't move. A shadow filled the doorway.

 

"Oh, there you are. I… Are you all right? Naomi? You've been crying."

 

Naomi put her hand up in surprise and felt the tears on her face. "I… I just…"

 

The kind British woman walked over and put an arm round the shaking girl. "Sh, sh. It's all right. Whatever's the problem we'll sort it out, all right?"

 

But if my life is for rent and I don't learn to buy


 

Susan had been absolutely fantastic once she'd spilt the beans. Taking charge in her no-nonsense way, she'd arranged doctor's visits, midwife appointments and, Naomi had no idea how, somehow got her booked into this hospital under an assumed name. When the young American had questioned why this was necessary, Susan's explanation was frank.

 

"They'll take your baby away and put you in a home for wayward girls if they find out you're seventeen and unwed. Is that what you want?"

 

Naomi had numbly shaken her head and fallen in with Susan's plans. The only experience of childbirth she'd had, had been in books and helping out at a couple of births at the communes. The young women there had seemed to have little problem with pain, but now she suspected it was because they'd been mostly stoned. She jumped when a sharp voice intruded into her thoughts.

 

"For goodness sake! You need to take care of your son yourself." The nurse looked at the young woman who was curled up in bed staring at nothing. "Mrs Goldberg, I know the birth was difficult, but really you haven't even looked at the baby for two days!"

 

Naomi slowly turned and raised her eyes to the nurse in her bright white, stiff uniform as she pushed through the curtains surrounding her bed. She was exhausted and hurting in places she didn't want to think about. And the baby! She'd been too tired and weak to hold the red-faced, screaming bundle in her arms for long after the birth. Now, she was stuck in this ward with all these women cooing and gushing over their babies and it was driving her crazy. She needed to escape, to get away.

 

Something moved in the nurse's arms and she shuddered.

 

"Your son's hungry!" The thin woman thrust the bundle into Naomi's arms. "Why haven't you named him yet?" The nurse sighed in exasperation. She didn't have time to be mollycoddling this spoilt American whose husband was strangely absent. She suspected that there was no husband, but kept her thoughts to herself. She sighed again as the young mother held her baby as if it was a bomb set to go off. Bending down she adjusted the woman's arms and undid the front of her nightgown.

 

"Like this." She placed Naomi's hand on the back of the baby's head and pushed it towards an exposed breast.

 

Naomi flinched as the baby greedily latched on and started sucking.

 

"Okay, I'll leave you to it," said the nurse after a minute. "I'll be back in a few to see how you're getting on." With that, she swished through the curtains leaving her patient alone with her son.

 

Thoughts of giving him up for adoption swam through her head as she looked down at the squirming figure in distaste. A long breath escaped her lips and she searched for something to occupy her thoughts. She glanced down. She'd not really looked at her baby before and despite everything, curiosity stirred something in her. With one finger she pushed back the blanket that was covering the baby's head and breathed in sharply. Dark curls with a hint of red in them peaked out. As she pushed the blanket back further they sprang up and glistened in the light above the bed.

 

Hearing her gasp, the baby opened his lids and gazed unfocussed at the blur above him. Naomi was completely mesmerised. Her son's eyes were a deep, rich blue and appeared to be filled with all the wisdom of the ages.

 

"Hello, ktantan*," she murmured. A tiny hand with perfect tiny nails waved as if in greeting. Almost reverently, she held out a finger and then smiled when it was grasped strongly. "My, you are a strong one." The blue eyes seemed to twinkle up at her. Naomi took in a deep breath and felt something soothe her spirit.

 

'cause nothing I have is truly mine

 

"Thank you for everything." Naomi pulled Susan into a hug. "I promise to pay you back for…"

 

"Stop it," the older woman chastised gently. "Think of it as a gift for Blair."

 

"But at least the ticket," Naomi protested as she stood back.

 

"If you can later, when you're on your feet, all right. But don't put yourself out or deprive Blair of anything."

 

"Last call for British Airways flight BA342 to Dallas leaving from gate 16. Last call…"

 

"Go, or you'll miss the flight." Susan pulled her into a hug again and then bent to place a kiss on the bundle strapped to Naomi's front. "And take care of him." Her voice turned husky and she swallowed.

 

"I will." The young American woman felt her eyes starting to fill. "And again, thank…"

 

"Go."

 

With one backward glance Naomi picked up her bag and strode towards the gate. As she settled herself into her airplane seat she glanced down at her son.

 

"It's just us, now, Sweetie. Ready to see the world?"

 

Blue eyes gazed up at her and a smile graced the full lips.

 

 

* shadchan – matchmaker

* ktantan – little one

 

 

Life for Rent by Dido

 

I haven't ever really found a place that I call home


I never stick around quite long enough to make it


I apologise that once again I'm not in love


But it's not as if I mind that your heart ain't exactly breaking


 

It's just a thought, only a thought

But if my life is for rent and I don't learn to buy


Well I deserve nothing more than I get


'cause nothing I have is truly mine

 

I've always thought that I would love to live by the sea


To travel the world alone and live more simply

I have no idea what's happened to that dream


'cause there's really nothing left here to stop me


It's just a thought, only a thought

 

But if my life is for rent and I don't learn to buy


Well I deserve nothing more than I get


'cause nothing I have is truly mine

 

While my heart is a shield and I won't let it down


While I am so afraid to fail so I won't even try


Well how can I say I'm alive?

 

But if my life is for rent and I don't learn to buy


Well I deserve nothing more than I get


'cause nothing I have is truly mine

 

 

 

The usual disclaimers apply. I own nothing except the words in this story and am making no money from my efforts.

 

 

Chapter one

 

The lights flickered across the walls and the faces of the watchers. The tinny voices issuing from the speakers caused a few jaws to clench and eyes to narrow, but no sounds came from their mouths. Then a particularly horrifying image spilled across the screen and Blair felt tears pooling in his eyes.

 

He leapt out of his seat the back of his hand pressed against his lips. Jim jerked his head and went to grab his guide, but missed.

 

Blair backed away from him hands held up in treaty. "No, Jim. No more. I can't." He turned, pulled open the door and darted through.

 

Jim jumped up to follow, but stopped when he felt a hand on his arm. "Let me go, Captain."

 

"Hold on a moment. Just let him cool off a moment." The dark-skinned, Major Crime's captain pulled harder on his detective's arm.

 

"He's suffering. I need to go to him." Ellison looked towards the door his guide had just gone through. His sentinel senses followed him as he sped down the corridor and then winced as the toilet door banged against the wall.

 

"Ellison. Jim," Banks' voice cut through the buzzing in his ears. "Look, you'll just embarrass him. He's the one who said he could take it and to lose it like that in front of us. Well…"

 

The detective slumped back into his chair and glanced over at Edwards. His Clan second looked back at him carefully keeping his face neutral. "What do you have to say?"

 

Edwards shrugged. "I wouldn't allow David to see these." Although his voice was calm and non-accusatory both Jim and Simon could hear the underlying: 'My guide listened to me.'

 

Jim mostly agreed, but was annoyed at his second for pointing it out. He'd tried to stop Blair from watching the films they'd taken from the Centre where experiments on guides had been taking place. The younger man though, had insisted saying that as someone who'd been there he'd be able to give the police officers valuable information on what was going on. He'd also experienced some of what they were going to see and Jim thought that part of his insistence was to lay some of his ghosts to rest. Sandburg was a strong man and an even stronger guide, but the latter also made him sensitive to emotions making him vulnerable. Jim had been afraid that it was going to be all too much. It looked like he was being proved right.

 

However right he was though, no sentinel would allow his guide to be criticised by another person even if it was only a subtle innuendo. "Blair can make up his own mind."

 

"True, but perhaps in this case his thought processes are too -," Edwards searched for the word, "emotional?"

 

Ellison opened his mouth to argue, but then realised he was wasting time when he should be with his guide. He jumped up again, but then paused when he heard the younger man talking to someone.

 

"What?" Simon looked at his detective.

 

"He's talking to David."

 

"I asked him to hang around in case…"

 

Ellison glared at the other sentinel. He was being inordinately sensitive for a change; something that the ex-marine wasn't really known to be.

 

The three men swung their heads round when the door opened a crack and Blair stood so half an eye could be seen. "Uh, Jim, I'm going for coffee with David. Um, is that okay?" The half eye was pointed somewhere towards Jim's knees.

 

Stepping over to the door, the sentinel sensory scanned his guide noting the slightly elevated heartbeat, the sweat beading on the upper lip and the tremors running through the body. "Are you all right?" He murmured putting a hand on the young man's shoulder and letting his thumb rub on a pulse point in his throat. Behind him he could see Edwards' guide leaning against a wall studiously avoiding looking at the two men.

 

"Yeah, man." Blair swallowed then looked up at the feelings of support and comfort Jim was sending through the bond. He smiled at the worried look on his sentinel's face. He felt his tense muscles relax. "I'm sorry… I thought… I mean…"

 

"Don't be silly. We understand." He pulled at a long curl. "I'll see you back at the loft. Okay?"

 

The younger man let out a shaky breath. "Dial everything down a notch. You're going to see and hear some pretty difficult… things."

 

Jim just had to smile. His guide was fighting off a panic attack, but still thinking of his sentinel. "Go." He went to turn then stopped. "Oh, can you get some milk? We're out."

 

Sandburg looked at him nonplussed for a second and then his face lit up with a grin. "Subtle. Very subtle," he whispered realising that Jim was bringing things back down to the mundane in an effort to calm him.

 

"Worked, didn't it?" Now, get." He stepped away and pulled the door shut. "He's gone to get a coffee with David," he said, for Simon's benefit. Edwards, with his guide there, would have been monitoring the situation and more than likely heard what had been said. He sat back down in his chair and steeled himself. "Let's get this show back on the road," he ground out.

 

Simon pressed the button on the remote control and the frozen pictures on the television came back to life.

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

"So, where should we go?" Blair knew his attempt at being upbeat was failing miserably with the other empath.

 

Fortunately, David was too polite to comment and kept his voice calm and non-judgemental. "There's that new place over on Carter Avenue, if you like?"

 

"Yeah. Good idea." Blair jumped on the suggestion as if his life depended on it. Normal. He needed normal in his life. "You got wheels? I came in with Jim."

 

For a moment David hesitated. Although he'd had his driving licence for years he'd never really driven much as typical sentinel behaviour meant that Edwards always drove. However, seeing the Senior Guide Prime fighting tooth and nail for as much independence he could get, he'd come out of his shell more and, with his sentinel's help, had bought a car. "Um, yes," he said eventually. "You sure you want to…"

 

Blair talked over any objections the other man might have been trying to express, "Let's go. I'm parched."

 

Fifteen minutes later David carefully parked a few shops away from their intended venue. Sandburg had kept up a steady flow of words, hands gesticulating in symphony, that the driver had found difficult to interrupt. While David pushed some coins into the parking meter, Blair fished his glasses out of his backpack and peered at the menu stuck to the window of the café. Hearing someone walk up behind him he turned thinking it was his friend.

 

"Hey, they've got…" His words stuck in his throat as he came nose to nose with Chancellor Edwards from Rainier University. "Oh…"

 

"Sandburg," Edwards' smile got ten out of ten for the obvious effort it cost her, but zero out of ten for its complete lack of warmth. She pointedly looked up and down the street. "The Senior Sentinel Prime not with you?" She made it sound as if Blair had absconded from a high security mental hospital.

 

"Um, no. He's…" The grad student took a deep breath. He was NOT going to be intimidated by this woman! "He's at the station. Did you wish to speak to him?"

 

"Shouldn't you be with him?"

 

"Jim's an adult. I'm sure he doesn't need me holding his hand twenty four hours a day."

 

"He allows you out without him?"

 

"Despite being a guide, I am an adult. Sentinel Ellison knows that and treats me accordingly."

 

"Senior Guide Prime?" Edwards and Sandburg were so engrossed in their confrontation that they both jumped when David's quiet voice interrupted them. "Is everything okay?"

 

Blair turned to his friend with none of the relief he was feeling evident on his face. "Guide Prime Sutherland, Chancellor Edwards was just enquiring after my sentinel. Do you know the Chancellor? Wait a minute. Is she any relation to your sentinel, Guide Sutherland? Chancellor, do you have any sentinels in your family? Chancellor? Where are you going? Chancellor!"

 

"Oooh, I didn't know it was possible to walk so fast with heels that high," David murmured.

 

Blair shivered. "God, that woman scares me." He turned to the other man. "Thanks, man. Your timing's impeccable."

 

"Any time, Senior Guide Prime. I'm here to serve." He finished with a little bow.

 

"Dork!" The senior guide blew out a little breath. "Look, I don't… Um, how about…?"

 

David didn't need an explanation. With the emotional battering his fellow guide had taken at the film viewing and then the confrontation with Chancellor Edwards the last thing he needed was to be surrounded by the emotions of other people. "Would you like to come back to our place for a coffee? Or…" he hesitated watching Blair's face closely. "…I could take you home?"

 

Blair could feel his barriers starting to fray and the idea of being in the comfort of the loft even if Jim wasn't going to be there was enticing. "Oh, I've got a great tea I found in a small shop down in China Town. You like tea, don't you?"

 

"Absolutely." They started walking back towards David's car. "I'll just call Neds to tell him about the change in plans."

 

Chancellor Edwards stood next to her car and fished her phone out of her handbag. Turning slowly, she looked back the way she'd come and watched the two guides climb into a car. She dialled a number from memory and when the call was answered spoke without letting the other person say a word. "I have an idea. We've been looking at this the wrong way round." She licked her lips. "We've been testing Dark Sentinels and Guides separately, no?" She paused a few seconds listening intently. "Just wait… No, listen…" She turned away from the road as the car containing the two guides drove past the watched as it disappeared from view. "We need to examine a Dark Bonded Pair and I know exactly who to use."

 

Chapter two

 

As soon as Sentinels Ellison and Edwards entered the building where the Senior Sentinel Prime and his guide lived their senses searched for, and found, the two human beings that were so important to their wellbeing. Unconsciously, they latched onto their heartbeats and scanned their surroundings to make sure they weren't in danger. Loud music was playing, but pushing past the noise, and to their horror, they heard the two men shouting and their heartbeats were off the scale. Ignoring the fact that the door to the loft was locked, they burst in guns drawn and senses on high alert. Uncomprehendingly, as they came to a shuddering stop the guides' shouts morphed into peals of uncontrollable laughter.

 

The two younger men totally ignored the impressive entrance of their sentinels and continued to wrestle on the blue settee.

 

"No, David. Let go." Blair tugged on whatever the other guide was clutching to his chest.

 

"Gerroff. It's my turn." David's voice came out in short gasps as he tried to control his giggles.

 

"What the fuck is going on here!" Ellison's voice shot out like a gunshot.

 

Two dishevelled heads popped up over the back of the settee and two pairs of bright blue eyes set in flushed faces opened wide in surprise.

 

"Neds!" David let go of the disputed object and struggled to get up from his seat. Unfortunately, when Blair lost the resistance he'd been pulling against he jerked back off the settee and landed on the floor with an 'oompf'. David was torn between rushing over to his agitated sentinel and helping his fellow guide now lying on the floor. Looking down at Blair, however, decided it for him as the senior guide broke into infectious giggles and he had no other option except to join him.

 

"David!"

 

"Chief!"

 

The two sentinels holstered their guns and almost leapt over the settee in their haste to get to the guides. However, it was dawning on them that the danger that they thought the two younger men had been in was nothing more than a fight over the games console that Blair was now brandishing in triumph.

 

"I win," he positively chortled. "Oh, hi, Jim. Neds," he said chirpily seeing the two men look down at him in exasperation. "What's the matter?" He continued starting to feel Jim's emotion through the bond.

 

"Chief," he started to answer then ground to a halt. How could he say that he and Edwards had burst through the door thinking that the other two men had been in danger? Blair would obviously chide them for reacting rather than using their senses properly as they should have done in the first place. He looked at his other sentinel who was running his senses over his guide making sure that nothing bad really had happened. He bent down to pull Blair off the floor. "Well," he continued seeing he was on his own, "we… um… I…"

 

"Wow," Sandburg exclaimed, "what happened to the door? How come we didn't hear that?"

 

"Because the music's too loud." Ellison strode over to the stereo and savagely stabbed at the off button.

 

David and Edwards looked up at the silence.

 

"What happened to the door?" The guide asked innocently.

 

Blair glanced at Jim and then at Neds noticing the uncomfortable looks that passed between them. "Trying out its strength." He smiled wolfishly at his sentinel.

 

"What?" David's wide eyes showed his complete lack of comprehension.

 

"Uh, yes," Jim jumped in. "I've been thinking for a while that the door's just not strong enough and I was talking to Edwards and we decided to test it." He frowned. The door had, in fact, not resisted long against their efforts. Had he and Edwards been criminals trying to enter the loft the door would not have been much of a deterrent. His guide would not have been well protected even in his own home. Now he could get a much stronger door and Sandburg would be in safer surroundings. He smiled in satisfaction and then realised the feeling of amused bemusement filtering through the bond. Not wanting to see the sardonic expression that had to be gracing Blair's face he picked up the phone and started rummaging around in a drawer for the telephone directory. He was going to call a door company straight away.

 

"I'm taking David home," Edwards stated firmly. He felt a quick escape was prudent.

 

"But, I've got my car here," protested his guide. "And we were going to order in pizzas."

 

"That's okay. Ellison drove me here. Give me the keys."

 

"But it's my car."

 

"Ellison, Blair, see you tomorrow." With a hand on David's back he started pushing the younger man towards the door.

 

"Oh, yeah, bye Blair, Sentinel Ellison." He moved out of the loft at Edwards' quiet urging. "But Neds, I want to drive."

 

"No, it's okay. I've got it…" Their voices faded down the stairs. Well, at least to Sandburg they did.

 

"Jim."

 

Ellison seemed to be engrossed in the Yellow Pages, but looked up at his guide's voice. Scanning him, he realised that the other man was pale despite what had been happening earlier. He detected the slight tremors coursing through his body and delving into the connection they shared noted that Blair was troubled. He cursed himself and putting down the objects he was carrying he marched over to the younger man and engulfed him in a hug. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have allowed you to see that film."

 

"No, it's okay, man," Blair mumbled into the taller man's chest. "I wanted to be there. Needed to… But it was just too hard to bear." He smiled in pleasure as he felt a hand start stroking his hair.

 

"Still…"

 

"And anyway, it's not just that. I met Chancellor Edwards outside the café. That's why we came back here." Ellison's arms tightened around him.

 

"What did that bitch want?"

 

"Oh, she was just being her usual snooty self. It's… I simply can't stand her. I don't like the idea that she obviously had something to do with the Centre, but we can't do anything about it."

 

"Yet," Jim growled. "We'll get something, don't you worry. But now we bond." He started gently pushing the other man to the settee.

 

"Um, don't you think you should do something about the door first?" A wry grin flittered across his face as he watched the dilemma the sentinel found himself in. The bond was calling to him, but so was the need to protect his guide from anyone coming through the broken door. He looked down at his guide and then at the door uncertainty clear upon his face. "Go. Fix the door. I'll be waiting for you here."

 

Jim nodded and settled Blair down on the settee as if he was made of china. Taking a step away he hesitated.

 

"It's okay, sentinel. I'm safe. I am always safe when you are present." He got a swift grin in reply then watched Jim close the battered door and prop a heavy chair under the handle to block it.

 

Coming back to his guide he quickly settled himself comfortably and then pulled the younger man back into his arms. With a contented sigh, Blair snuggled against his sentinel's chest and the two men sank into the bond.

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

Jim yawned and stretched his back trying not to disturb the warm lump sleeping against his chest.

 

"Ummm."

 

Too late.

 

His stomach gave a mighty rumble. Twisting his wrist he stared at his watch. 9 PM! Shit, where had the time gone? It was a shame that bonding didn't also fill the stomach.

 

"Come on, Sandburg. Let's eat and then get to bed."

 

"Uhhh."

 

"Articulate tonight, I see?"

 

"Inarticulate and hungry." He pushed himself upright and grimaced as he tried to run his hand through his tangled curls. "What are we eating?"

 

"What have we got in the freezer?"

 

"Some of my ostrich chilli."

 

"Why don't you heat it up and I'll see what I can do about the door?"

 

"You're on." He headed towards the kitchen. "And then we've got to talk about the meeting in Washington DC."

 

"Do we have to?" Jim's voice came from the cupboard near the front door that held the few tools that weren't kept in the basement storage area.

 

"It's going to be great!" Blair pulled out a large plastic container out of the freezer and after pulling off the top he placed it in the microwave. "Meeting other Pairs, seeing how they function, showing off how well our Clan functions. You do realise that the North Western Territory has the largest number of Senior Prime Pairs out of all the Territories." Plates and cutlery were placed on the table. "And that's because of you, you know? You're the best. And all the other Territories know that. That's why we get requests from Pairs to become Clan members all the time."

 

He came to a halt as he realised that the other man was conspicuously silent. "Eh, Jim, you all right?"

 

The sentinel was closely examining the damaged door his back turned towards Sandburg. He mumbled something.

 

"Sorry, didn't get that. I'm not a sentinel, you know?"

 

"Uh, I'm not going." The door seemed to need close inspection.

 

"What d'you mean you're not going? Of course you have to go. We're meeting the President. Me, a lowly guide meeting the President of the U S of A."

 

Ellison turned and grabbed Sandburg by the shoulders. "You're not just a lowly guide. You're the Senior Prime Guide to the Senior Prime Sentinel of the North Western Territory, doctoral candidate and have the Captain of Major Crime as a friend. The President should be honoured he's meeting you."

 

"Really?"

 

Ellison nodded earnestly.

 

"Simon thinks of me as a friend?"

 

The detective huffed a laugh. "Sure, short stuff. He has an, uh, abiding affection for you." He pressed his forehead against his guide's. "Do I really have to go?"

 

"Jim, this is the first time in history that such a gathering's going to take place. There are Territories that still treat their guides no better than slaves despite the recent changes in the law. We can show them how things should be. And the President invited you personally."

 

"Invited US personally, Chief. Your name was on the invitation, too."

 

The microwave pinged and the two men stood back. For a moment, they just looked at each other and silence filled the loft. Another ping broke the stillness.

 

"Okay. We go."

 

"Yes!" Blair's smile was incandescent and Jim's inner sentinel puffed up with pride knowing he was the person to put such unbridled joy on the man's face. The younger man turned towards the kitchen. "And do you realise what an anthropological opportunity this presents? I should be able to get at least two papers out of this. And the data I'll be able to get for my diss. You know…"

 

Jim let the sound wash over him and let a small smile decorate his face.

 

Chapter three

 

"Sorry I'm late." Blair threw his backpack under Jim's desk and slumped into the chair next to the sentinel. He realised his left leg was bouncing and made a conscious effort to stop.

 

"Busy day, Chief?"

 

"You have no idea. Why on Earth students think that I haven't already heard all the excuses possible for why their assignments aren't ready, I'll never know. Mind you, saying that your mother took yours to show to her coffee morning group because she's so proud of you is pretty inventive."

 

Jim smiled at the babbling and relaxed slightly. Although they didn't need to be together twenty-four hours a day, he always felt better when his guide was near and he could protect him. He went to pick up the white out for the form he was working on when something pinged on his guide radar. He twisted round in his seat bringing his full attention onto the younger man. "What happened?"

 

"Huh?" Blair's look was innocence personified.

 

"Something's upset you. What?"

 

"Wha… Wh…? How can you tell?"

 

If the detective hadn't been so determined to find out what had upset the other man he would have been amused to see the normally on the ball grad student floundering.

 

"Your heartbeat's up slightly. So is your temperature and I can smell a trace of anxiety in your body odour."

 

Blair gaped at his friend. "You can spot all that without using touch? Wow. I've got to document this." He dove under the desk and pulled out his backpack. A hand on his arm stopped him.

 

"Chief, nice one, but don't change the subject. What happened?"

"Uh, nothing really."

 

"Sandburg." Jim's tone brooked no argument.

 

Blair's shoulder's slumped and he sighed. Pulling something out of his bag he quietly laid it in front of the other man. At first Ellison couldn't quite grasp what he was seeing then he felt his blood boil. It was a small leaflet that had the rather dubious title of 'Guide Rules: A guide's true place in modern society.' Underneath was a hand drawn picture of a small, vacuously smiling young man standing with his hand on the arm of a buff, serious looking man dressed in a park ranger uniform. The latter was pointing at a group of people in the distance that obviously looked in trouble while talking into a radio. Scanning the pages inside expressions such as 'a tool for the sentinel', 'happy knowing they help their sentinel', 'no need for higher education', 'happy with their lot' jumped out at the detective.

 

"Where'd you get this?" He growled almost dropping the document in his disgust.

 

"I found it on my desk at Rainier," Blair's voice was small and he looked down at his hands that were rubbing up and down his thighs. "This morning. When I arrived."

 

Jim brought the document up to his nose. Printing ink, cigarettes, the natural smells that he associated with his young guide and something else, something faint… slightly fruity…

 

"Come on, Jim. Listen to my voice." Blair's voice was soft and the sentinel could feel his fingers kneading his forearm.

 

"I'm okay," he said gruffly. He hated losing control and to do it in such a public place… He gave a quick look around the bullpen and realised no one was paying them any attention. Blair had brought him out of the zone quietly and efficiently. "Thanks," he murmured.

 

Blair gave him a quick smile. "What did you smell?"

 

"Cigarettes and something floral?" He pulled out a plastic evidence bag and put the leaflet in it. "I almost recognise it."

 

"Err, what are doing?"

 

"Taking this down to forensics. They can dust it for prints."

 

"Hey, there's no need for that. It's only a prank."

 

"Then why is your heart beating like a jack hammer?" Ellison stared at him until Sandburg bent his head hiding behind his hair and all he could hear were words like 'damn', 'lie detector', 'no privacy'. "Blair?"

 

"It's just a joke. You know what students are like. The others…" he stopped, a guilty look flashing across his face.

 

"Others? There've been others?"

 

"Yeah, but they weren't as bad."

 

"Where are they?"

 

"I binned them. Listen," Blair's voice took on a pleading tone, "I don't want to make waves."

 

"Do other guides at Rainier get them?"

 

"I… Well… I don't know. No one's said anything."

 

"And your office door is always locked when you're not there?"

 

"Of course, man!" He bristled. "My diss is in there. You think I'm going to allow someone get their mitts on that? And I wouldn't let the stuff I've got on you fall into the hands of a bunch of students."

 

"So, how did they get in?"

 

Blair's mouth opened then closed again as he thought over what Jim was implying. "Students can pick locks."

 

"But not the locks we put on."

 

Sandburg forbore pointing out that there was no 'we' in that decision. His sentinel in full Blessed Protector mode had insisted that his guide was going to work in an office that had a state of the art lock and that the windows were secure and free of drafts. The university had at first balked at this and then feeling the full weight of Cascade's Senior Sentinel Prime's insistence they'd agreed only asking that security have a duplicate key. It meant that the Pair had to clean the office themselves, but Jim decided that that was a small price to pay for absolute privacy.

 

"Ellison, Sandburg." Banks' bellow from his office interrupted them.

 

They stood up and Jim put a hand on the back of Sandburg's neck. "Please," he whispered, "let me get forensics to look at this. I've got a funny feeling about it."

 

"Sentinel feeling or detective?" Blair's voice was soft and he had a small smile on his face.

 

"Both." At Sandburg's quick nod Ellison straightened. "Come on. Authority has called."

 

"Sit down," Banks nodded at them as they entered his office.

 

"What's up, Captain?" Jim asked, as he first made sure that his guide was comfortable then plonked himself down in a chair.

 

Simon glanced over at Sandburg and grinned slightly as the younger man rolled his eyes at the sentinel's mother henning. "Well, now that you've decided to go to DC we need to talk about your cases." He sighed heavily. "You've really chosen the best time to go - not." He held up his hand as Blair started to protest. "I know, Sandburg. You didn't chose the dates and I know that this conference is important for you sentinels and guides, but damn it, I'm trying to run a police department here!"

 

"The President himself invited us," Jim said mildly.

 

"I know, know. But d'you have to take another five days off?"

 

"Another five days?" Blair questioned looking at his sentinel. "What for?"

 

"I thought we could get some fishing in. I've got loads of leave to take and I thought it would be nice if we could get away for a few days just the two of us."

 

The guide's face broke into a soppy grin. "Aw, that's great." He paused. "But what about Rainier? I've got lectures…"

 

"Don't worry, I've squared it with them. All I had to do was mention the President and they were falling over themselves to let you go."

 

Bristling internally that Jim had gone behind his back, Blair also understood that it was both the man and the sentinel's need for control that had pushed him to do so. "Thanks, Jim. But," he continued sotto voce, "we'll be having a discussion later about sharing things with the guide."

 

Ellison turned a light shade of pink and opened his mouth to reply.

 

"Well, that's great for you," Simon's growl butted in, "but while you two are off playing some of us will be slaving away. So, if we could get back on track, please?"

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

Jim sat up in bed and glanced at the clock on the bedside table. 5:35 AM. Something had woken him up and he now sent out his senses to catalogue his environment. Nothing untoward was detected outside the loft. There were no intruders inside. His guide was… His guide! He jumped out of bed and padded down the stairs not bothering to put the light on. Reaching Blair's room he hesitated before opening the doors. Guides had little privacy if they lived with their sentinels, so Jim didn't want to intrude if there really wasn't a problem. Quietening his breathing he stretched his senses to try and find what it was that had woken him up.

 

Blair's temperature was up, but he was also cocooned in a nest of blankets. Next he checked his heart… and he burst into the room.

 

"Wha…?" The younger man lurched out of his blankets at the noisy intrusion. He tried to speak, but found he couldn't catch his breath.

 

Jim crossed the room and knelt down next to the gasping man. "Calm down, calm down." Blair's heart was thundering in his ears. "Blair, come on." He grasped his chin and turned the red face towards him. "Slow breaths. Come on, Chief, slow breaths."

 

Blair felt as if his heart was going to explode. Mouth wide open and eyes tearing he tried to understand what was going on. Jim's words came to him as if through a fog. He brought his hands up to his chest as if he could slow his heartbeat. He looked into his sentinel's eyes in mute appeal. However, as his heart pounded in his ears and a red mist filled his eyes he laboured for more breath that wasn't there.

 

The sentinel tried to damp down the feeling of panic that was sizzling along the link he had with his guide. Reaching out a shaky hand he placed it on the suffering man's shoulder. He opened his mouth to try and calm him down when Blair gave a shudder and collapsed.

 

Chapter four

 

"Jim?" Simon's voice was uncharacteristically hesitant as he entered the hospital waiting room. However, the man standing in front of the large window with his right hand pressed against the glass ignored him. The captain stood still for a few seconds then made his way over to where Edwards and David were sitting. He sat down next to them and indicated the silent sentinel with his chin. "What's going on? I thought a sentinel shouldn't be separated from his guide when they're sick."

 

Edwards sighed and kept his voice low: not because he was afraid that Ellison would hear him, but more that he didn't want to disturb the general hush in the area. "Normally, yes. But Sandburg's got a highly transmissible bacterium that affects both sentinels and guides. In sentinels it's relatively benign. Guides can be quite sick with it."

 

"I've not heard of this before. Is it… ? I mean what's the prognosis?" Simon had come to the hospital as soon as he'd heard the news, but he'd been caught up in meetings all day and it was now late afternoon.

 

"It's very rare. I've never known anyone to get it. We're not even sure where the parasite comes from originally, but it's found in certain grains. In healthy individuals it's not usually fatal especially if treatment's started early enough. Sandburg's in good hands. He should be okay."

 

Banks let out the breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding. He'd been afraid for his friend knowing what losing a guide did to a sentinel. He was also surprised to find that he'd grown to like the irrepressible, talkative student and appreciated his contributions not only in grounding Ellison, but also his insights that helped his detectives solve crimes. "So what's the treatment and how long does it take?"

 

"Antibiotics and help with his breathing. Keep his temperature down and hope that his heart isn't permanently affected." Edwards' voice was calm, but Simon noticed that his arm was tight around his guide's shoulders and David's hand was gripping his sentinel's thigh. "The next twenty-four hours will tell us how long before Sandburg's back on his feet, but don't expect him back in the bull pen before a couple of months."

 

"Oh." Banks didn't know what to say. He glanced up at Ellison who, as far as he could tell, hadn't moved a millimetre. A thought suddenly came to him and he turned back to the Pair. "Um… what about his senses? I mean without Sandburg to… to… do his stuff…"

 

"His stuff?" Edwards' eyebrow rose, but spotting the captain's glare he rushed on. "Other guides can surface bond with him for a while and if his guide's still unable to bond then he may have to take suppressants. It's not ideal, but it'll be adequate."

 

Jim subconsciously heard the conversation going on behind him, but he dismissed it as unimportant. All his concentration was on the figure lying in the bed behind the thick glass he was pressed against. His guide was so very still and pale and surrounded by machines that beeped and whooshed and gurgled and scary figures dressed in all-in-one suits and facemasks.  His whole being yearned to be in there with him, but the doctors had bundled him away from the sick man as soon as they'd realised what was going on. He, himself, had been examined from top to bottom and given several shots apparently to reduce his risk of catching this disease. Or, as one exasperated doctor said, "…to prevent you infecting every sentinel and guide in the city."

 

Something pinged loudly in Blair's cubicle and he leaned further into the glass so his nose was touching it. The white figures bustled around doing, who knew what, to the patient for a few minutes then calmed down when the pinging stopped. After another fifteen or so minutes all but one of the figures moved towards the exit. There was a double door system with a small vestibule where they left their suits and masks to reveal themselves as two nurses, who walked off, and Dr Holland with another man in a white coat who moved towards Ellison. This was Dr Solomen from the Burton Sentinel/Guide Institute in Saint Paul who'd been called in to consult once the hospital had realised that the situation wasn't as simple as they'd first thought.

 

"How is he?" The sentinel didn't wait for the doctors to speak.

 

"Sentinel Ellison, as Dr Solomen is the foremost expert in Sentinel and Guide illnesses, so I'll defer to him. Doctor?"

 

All eyes turned to the rotund, salt-and-pepper haired gentleman. He held out his hand. "Senior Sentinel Prime, it's an honour to meet you."

 

Jim just merely stared at him ignoring the outstretched hand. "What's happening with my guide?" He growled.

 

Simon nearly missed the flash of anger that crossed across the doctor's face. It made him shiver and he wondered why.

 

"Yes, of course. Guide Sandburg is suffering from infective endocarditis lucernus, a rare form of the disease that affects both sentinels and guides. This one is caused by an airborne infection and is more dangerous when the infectee's immune system has been compromised and lung capacity is diminished. Which I believe is the case in this instance after Guide Sandburg's drowning a few months ago." The doctor swallowed as he looked directly into the eyes of the sentinel that were gleaming with fierce concentration. His silence was unnerving. "Treatment will be appropriate antibiotics and increasing blood flow to prevent the damaging molecules to settle in the heart. Treatment has to be aggressive if we're to protect the heart from endocarditis – inflammation of the inside lining of the chambers of the heart." He took a breath, but before he could continue he was interrupted.

 

"How long will it take for him to get better?"

 

For the first time the doctor looked uncomfortable. "You must understand, Senior Sentinel Prime…"

 

"Ellison will do." The man's posturing was beginning to annoy the already on edge sentinel.

 

"Um, yes. Okay. There's a risk that the heart could be damaged beyond repair and there's also a risk of stroke. But of course we'll do everything we can to prevent that. Early treatment is found to be quite effective. However, we need to take him to Saint Paul where we have everything on hand for optimum care and to give him the greatest chance of surviving. Even so, best case scenario we're talking months before Guide Sandburg will be back on his feet."

 

"When do we leave?"

 

"How did he get it?"

 

Banks and Ellison spoke at the same time.

 

"This bacterium is airborne and it normally occurs when a guide or sentinel carrying it comes into contact with a guide or sentinel susceptible to catching it. I know that Blair is a student at Rainier, which means he comes into contact with lots sentinels and guides." Dr Holland looked at Ellison for confirmation.

 

"He also works with me at the police department," Jim swallowed thinking that his work could have put his guide in this predicament. "He, he mixes with all sorts of lowlifes…"

 

"It's not a disease that's restricted to a criminal element," Solomen answered. "It could be someone who thinks they've just got a cold."

 

"So how…?"

 

"We can discuss this later," interrupted Holland. "More importantly we need to talk about his transfer to Saint Paul."

 

Ellison didn't hesitate. "Do you have to organise the transport? The Clan can help if necessary."

 

"No need. We have a plane that we use for cases like this, so we can leave tomorrow morning," answered Solomen.

 

"Good. That'll give me time to pack a few things for Sandburg and myself."

 

"Right. I'll get that sorted out straight away." With that the doctor strode down the corridor.

 

"If you don't need anything else, I can get on?" Asked Holland.

 

"Of course. Oh, can I go in?" Jim indicated Blair's room.

 

"As long as you respect the safety requirements, there shouldn't be a problem. And although we've given you the vaccination you can't touch him skin to skin. He's at his most contagious at the moment. I'll inform the staff." He nodded to everyone and followed Dr Solomen down the hall.

 

The eager sentinel had his hand on the door when Edwards' voice stopped him. "Ellison, what about DC?"

 

"What about it? You can go without us."

 

"You know that's not possible."

 

Jim turned, steel in his eyes. "Sentinel Prime Edwards, if I decide I'm not going then I'm not going." Turning again, he entered his guide's room.

 

Edwards sighed and spoke under his breath, "You know better than that." He started when Banks intruded on his thoughts. He'd forgotten that captain was there.

 

"Why? What's the problem? It's just a meeting, isn't it?"

 

"Not really. The President wants to discuss bringing in some new laws protecting guides. Ellison's input as Senior Sentinel Prime of one of the most important territories in the country and a Dark Sentinel will be primordial. And," he turned towards Simon, "please keep this quiet, he wants to create a sort of sentinel/guide governing body and he's going to ask Ellison and Sandburg to head it up."

 

Simon was alarmed at the thought that he could lose his best detective and his sidekick. "Would that mean they'd have to move there?"

 

"That's something to be discussed. But you see why it's essential that at least Ellison go. He just doesn't realise his national influence."

 

"Blair will convince him to go." David's quiet voice was full of conviction.

 

As one the three men turned to look through the observation window into Sandburg's room where Jim, covered from head to foot, was gently brushing the curls off his guide's face.

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

Solomen hung up having organised the arrival of the Institute's plane. Sitting back in Dr Holland's office chair he glanced up making sure that the door was closed. He pulled out his mobile phone from his jacket pocket and dialled a number from memory.

 

"Yes, it's Solomen. Phase one successfully completed. From tomorrow the guide will be in our hands." He closed his phone and putting it back in his pocket he allowed a satisfied smile to cross his face.

 

 

 

 

Chapter five

 

Although he couldn't see it, Blair was convinced that Jim's jaw was clenched in a grim-faced scowl. They'd been talking for nearly an hour regarding the trip to Washington DC – well to be accurate it was mostly a few words interspersed with silences as Blair needed to rest frequently and Jim was simply being stubborn.

 

"You gotta go, man," Blair's words were soft, but there was no mistaking the steely look in his eyes.

 

"No," Jim's voice brooked no arguments. He was horrified that his guide could even contemplate being separated from him for more than a day. While it was perfectly possible for Pairs to spend time apart especially if one was ill or injured neither would be very happy about it. But more than that, there was something telling Jim not to spend too long away from his guide.

 

"Listen…"

 

"Stop talking, Chief, save your breath. I'm staying with you." He pulled Blair's blanket up a few centimetres to just under his chin. If he sounded a bit petulant, so what? Didn't Sandburg need his sentinel as much as he needed his guide?

 

"Please." The sentinel kept his eyes glued to the bed not wanting to look into his guide's beseeching eyes knowing that if he did so, he'd be lost. "You know it's so important you be there." He heard the painfully drawn in breath and the heartbeat increase despite the sedatives prescribed to keep the heart calm. "Go for a few days… C'me t'Mnsota afta… Be okay fr few days…"

 

Jim looked up as a soft hand landed on his arm. "I… I can't abandon you…"

 

"Yr not." The blue eyes started drooping. "Gotta save the guides…"

 

"Is it that important to you, Chief?"

 

"Please." The word was little more than a whisper.

 

Ellison leant forward and rested his covered forehead against the exposed one of his guide's feeling the fever beginning to take hold. He wished he could touch the younger man directly. Already his natural odour was fading beneath the onslaught of antiseptics and medication. "Two days. I'll go for two days and then I'll join you in Saint Paul. You wait for me, okay?"

 

"Promise."

 

The sentinel really couldn't refuse his guide. When it came down to it he could refuse him very little. "I'll hold you to that, Darwin."

 

Blair's breathing evened out as he slipped into sleep. Jim stayed where he was for a moment and then with a despondent sigh sat back in his chair. How could he leave his guide when he was fighting for his life? The door opening broke him out of introspection and a robed person entered.

 

"Sentinel Ellison, I'm Senior Nurse Annabelle Leggerty. I need to take Guide Sandburg's vitals and you…"

 

"Don't make me leave. Please." Jim sat up in alarm.

 

"It's okay. Don't fret." The brown eyes twinkled above the facemask and Jim detected a slight Jamaican burr in the voice. "We've been told about the situation and you can stay with your guide until you leave tomorrow. A cot'll be brought in later, so you can sleep if you need to." Annabelle was an experienced sentinel/guide nurse and knew that separating a Pair when one of them was sick wasn't in either of their best interest. "But meanwhile, I need you to go and stretch your legs. Get something to eat and drink and shake the cobwebs out of your mind."

 

The sentinel hesitated his eyes sliding, almost against his volition, towards his supine guide. Once more his senses roamed over the figure cataloguing his breathing, temperature, natural odour and general wellbeing.

 

"Don't worry, pet. I'll take good care of him. And I'm sure he'll be pleased to know you're taking care of yourself.'"

 

"Okay. I must admit I haven't eaten since last night and I've drunk far too much coffee. He'd be moaning at me if he knew." Standing up he brushed a gloved hand down Blair's cheek. "I won't be long, Chief." He turned towards the nurse. "He likes to be called Blair. And he feels the cold, so keep him covered."

 

As he walked out of the isolation room Sentinel Langston and Guide Michaels rose up from the chairs against the wall opposite.

 

"Jim, how is he?" Amanda asked.

 

"Stubborn." Came the terse reply.

 

"Uh, well, that's good," Amanda glanced over at her sentinel.

 

"How is he physically?" Langston insisted.

 

Jim ran his hand through his short hair and leant up against the wall. "Holding his own, but mostly out of it. Except of course, for guilting me into going to DC."

 

"That's $10 Edwards owes David," murmured Michaels.

 

Ellison glared at the Pair, but they could tell his heart wasn't in it. "Well, anyway, I've been thrown out," he stated glumly. "I've been told I should eat and drink something."

 

"Then that's what we're going to do," the motherly guide said briskly.

 

"When are you leaving for DC?" Asked Langston as he started ushering the Clan leader towards the lift.

 

"The day after tomorrow."

 

"I've got an idea," Amanda said brightly. "Let us know what you think Blair would like to have with him in Saint Paul. If you don't object, give us your key and we'll go and pack some bags. That way you can stay longer with him."

 

Jim's smile was large and genuine and lit up his face despite the worry still lurking in his eyes. "Thanks." Although short of words his gratitude was obviously heartfelt.

 

They headed off to the hospital canteen.

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

Ellison stood in the corner of Sandburg's room biting his lip. Numerous figures were bustling around the hospital bed hooking up machines and drips and doing various medical things to the person lying in it.

 

One of them turned towards him and Jim recognised Dr Solomen behind the mask. "Sentinel Ellison, we're going to inject the sedative before we transfer Guide Sandburg to the gurney. If you want, you can sit with him until it takes effect. Then we have to move fairly rapidly and transport him to the plane."

 

Before he'd finished the sentinel was bending over the bed. Blair's face was flushed as his system was now fighting the fever that was ravaging his body. His nose and mouth were covered by a mask that was providing not only oxygen, but also some sort of chemical to keep his lungs clear. "Hey, Chief," he fought hard to keep his sombre emotions out of his voice, "they're going to take you to the plane in a minute. You look after yourself and I'll be with you in a few days."

 

"L't D'vid look afta you n d'nt let Presdnt tk you inta stayn' DC." The guide's words were slurred and soft, but Jim had no problem hearing them.

 

"Don't you worry. I've got your notes and David's been priming me with the things you and he have been discussing." Out of the corner of his eye he saw Solomen inject something into one of the IV ports. He placed a gloved hand on Blair's chest. "Claimed and marked, my guide."

 

"Clm'd n mrkd, m senl," his words trailed off as his eyes closed.

 

"Excuse me, sentinel." A female voice with a Jamaican burr intruded into Jim's consciousness. "We need to get moving."

 

"You're going with him?" Jim had noted how caring of his guide the nurse was.

 

"Uh huh. This young man will be my priority until the staff in Saint Paul take over." Leggerty knew that the sentinel was looking for reassurance. "It's the best place for him."

 

He reluctantly moved away and watched as they transferred the limp figure to a box-like gurney that unfortunately, looked too much like a coffin for his taste. The facemask was removed and a see-through, plastic cover was placed over the sick man and fastened down. Jim heard a faint hiss as an oxygen bottle was opened to fill the case so Blair could breathe on his journey to Saint Paul.

 

"Sentinel Ellison," Solomen moved in front of him as the cavalcade moved out of the room. "We'll take good care of him." He unconsciously repeated the words Nurse Leggerty had spoken yesterday.

 

Although his words seemed sincere there was something that, to Jim, appeared off with the man. He couldn't quite put his finger on it. Was it the obsequious way he talked to him, but talked about Sandburg as if he were a child? Mentally shaking his head he dismissed his concerns as merely stress at the situation. "Dr Solomen, I'll hold you to that." He spoke not only as a sentinel whose guide was sick, but also as a Clan leader entrusting a member to his care. "And thank you for everything. I'll see you in a few days."

 

"Till then." Solomen strode out of the room and as Jim watched him go he shivered. For a few seconds he fought against giving in to the feeling that he'd been torn in two. Then squaring his shoulders and holding his head high – he was not going to let his guide down – he went to face the next few days without the person that allowed him to function in a world that could be a minefield to a sentinel.

 

Chapter six

 

Jim was missing Blair with an ache that was almost physical. Despite the fact that he'd been Clan leader for a number of years he hated all the politicking that came with it. And doing it across the continent with the President of the USA in attendance didn't make it any more palatable. His guide would have been in his element. He'd argued with Clan leaders who still believed their guides were merely tools to be used by the far superior sentinels. It was a shame Blair wasn't there to ram down their throats how wrong they were. He'd been inordinately proud of Edwards and David when they'd given their extremely well received talk that they'd written with Sandburg to a packed auditorium. Blair would be pleased. He'd fought off a number of dubious invitations from both men and women while eating soggy canapés and drinking expensive champagne. The grad student would most likely laugh his head off when he heard about that.

 

He'd called the Institute in Saint Paul at least twenty times to hear the same message; Sandburg was holding his own and it was too early to say what the prognosis was. He'd lightly bonded twice with David with Edwards hovering protectively near by. He wasn't Blair. He'd made a couple of preliminary agreements with other Clans who wanted to form treaties with the Cascade one. If Blair had been there it would have been half a dozen. Despite the hotel having been 'sentelised', the sheets were rough and the white noise generators were noisy. Having Sandburg near would have made all that irrelevant.

 

Fortunately, it was now the last reception. Tomorrow morning he was flying to Saint Paul to join his guide.

 

"Why the frown, Sentinel Ellison? President Walker's voice sounded in his right ear. He turned. "From what I've heard it's been a very successful couple of days."

 

"President and Mrs Walker." Jim made an effort to appear more alert. It wasn't too difficult. The President and First Lady had turned out to be personable, approachable realists with a real interest in understanding sentinels and guides. "Sorry, I'm just a bit distracted. And you're right, this has been an excellent opportunity."

 

"And have you thought any more about my suggestion?" The President was referring to his idea of setting up a Sentinel and Guide Council.

 

"Jeremy," the First Lady's voice was soft, but sharp. "He's already explained once that while his guide's sick he can't make any decisions. They have to decide together." She turned to the sentinel. "Any news on Guide Sandburg?"

 

Ellison smiled. Her concern was genuine. "No change really."

 

"When he's better you'll have to bring him here so that we can meet him. We've heard so much about him."

 

"He sounds like a good person," added the President.

 

"He is," Ellison couldn't keep the pride out of his voice and inwardly cringed. He was sure he sounded like all the bonded sentinels he'd secretly laughed at as they grinned fatuously each time someone praised their guide. "He's also a bit of a handle, to be perfectly honest as well."

 

The Presidential couple laughed politely and with promises to keep in touch they all went their separate ways. Jim, spotting his second in command and his guide across the room, made his way over dodging numerous attempts to get him to join in conversations. Even though the room was installed with high-end white noise generators and a string quartet played softly up on a stage, he kept his voice low.

 

"I'm out of here."

 

Edwards grinned. He and his guide were taking advantage of the cottage that Ellison had booked before Sandburg had become ill. The deposit had been non-refundable. So rather than lose the money the Pair had agreed to use the holiday accommodation for a few days. "What time's your flight?"

 

Jim glanced at him with a slight grimace knowing full well that the other sentinel knew and was simply rubbing it in that his Clan leader was going to have to get up before dawn to make it to the airport in time.

 

"Yeah, well, it's a good excuse to get out of here. If I get another woman of a certain age asking me with feigned innocence as to whether it's true that bonding only occurs during sex, I'll scream."

 

David snorted. "At least they don't ask you if you get beaten if you do something wrong."

 

Edwards bristled and opened his mouth to protest.

 

"Don't worry. I tell them that you don't use the belt any more." He ducked when a hand came up to swipe the back of his head and then smiled at his sentinel when the hand grabbed his shoulder pulling him close.

 

"I'll leave you two fight off the invitations." Ellison looked over David's shoulder. "Oh look, it's Senator Bentine's wife. And she looks as if she's determined to make you change your mind about her offer to try out the hotel's hot tub."

 

The Sentinel Prime's eyes widened and a faint blush pinked his cheeks. Jim looked on in amusement as he rarely saw the former Marine so discomfited.

 

"Ellison, perhaps you should bond with David before you go to bed?"

 

"No, it's okay, thanks. We bonded earlier. I'm good to go until I see Sandburg tomorrow. Mrs Bentine, you're looking lovely tonight. I was just telling Edwards here how much I enjoy a hot tub after a long day." He ignored the glare sent his way. "I must leave you as I'm flying early tomorrow. Good night." As he walked away he could hear the portly woman's voice over Edwards' protests and smiled to himself. It quickly faded though as he thought about what his guide was going through. 'Soon,' he spoke to the empty place at his side, 'I'll be with you soon.'

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

Jim stretched and jumped out of his seat as the plane came to a stop. Despite being bumped up to First Class (he suspected the First Lady had had something to do with that) he'd not been able to fully relax during the nearly six-hour flight. No one else in First Class moved unlike the noises that were coming from Cattle Class as people opened overhead lockers. A pretty stewardess bustled up to him.

 

"Sentinel Ellison, we've had word a car's waiting for you when you get out of the airport. You don't have any checked luggage I believe?" At his nod, she opened the locker above his head and he reached in to take his bag. "Follow me and we'll get you off straight away."

 

As the doors to the arrivals lounged slid open Jim spotted the card with his name being held by a short dark-hued man. He walked over. "I'm Ellison."

 

"Oh, great. Follow me, man."

 

They started walking towards the exit.

 

"How far's the Institute?" Jim asked as they climbed into the car. "I know it's in a place called Atchison, but have no idea where."

 

"It's about fifteen miles and if traffic's okay we'll get there in about twenty minutes."

 

The sentinel slumped against the window and after the driver's attempts at conversation fell flat the journey continued in silence. Jim had never been to Minnesota and knew little about the state. And to be perfectly honest he couldn't care less. All he wanted was to get to his guide.

 

Eventually, the car drove through large, cast iron gates and up a long drive. Trees lined the route and well-manicured lawns stretched out on either side. A slight bend brought them to the front of a massive Colonial style building. Its white walls gleamed in the autumn sun and the windows fairly twinkled. The car came to a stop before the impressive steps leading to the front entrance. Before he could even open his car door, Dr Solomen was coming down the steps. They met on the bottom step.

 

"Senior Sentinel Prime Ellison, what a pleasure to have you at my Institute. I only wish it was under better circumstances."

 

"How is he?"

 

"I do believe the antibiotics are beginning to work and his temperature's falling slightly. If you'd like to come this way, I'll take you to him."

 

They started up the steps, Jim clutching his bag and Dr Solomen chatting. A few moments later, just as they entered the building, Jim felt a hand on his arm. "Sorry, what?" He looked down at the slightly shorter man.

 

"I asked if you'd like something to eat or drink."

 

"Um, no. I'm all right thanks." He wanted to go back to what he'd been doing: trying to listen for Blair's heartbeat. He knew that it was ridiculous, as there were probably state-of-the-art white noise generators everywhere, but he couldn't help himself.

 

"I understand," Solomen's words were underlined by a small chuckle. "I imagine all you want to do is find Guide Sandburg. Well, follow me." He turned right and pushed through a set of double doors. Even though the corridor was slightly less opulent than the gracious entrance with its sweeping staircase, it still retained much of its original decoration. Turning left they stopped in front of some very modern-looking lift doors that looked totally out of place.

 

Solomen pressed the down button and spoke when he saw Ellison's raised eyebrow. "Our isolation rooms are down two flights. The house is built on a slight hill and we added the more modern section of the institute behind the original building so the façade wouldn't be ruined." The doors opened and they stepped in. Solomen pressed the button marked 'Lower Level 2', the doors closed and the lift descended smoothly. It opened onto a brightly lit modern corridor and the doctor took them to the left.

 

He stopped in front of a large door marked 'Isolation Ward. Authorized Entry Only'. He swiped the card hanging from a lanyard around his neck through the card reader to the right of the door. There came a little beep and the door opened. Solomen pushed and they entered into a square area with two doors in each of the three walls opposite them. A large desk dominated the room. It was empty.

 

"This way." He led them to the last door on the left. Under the small window was a plaque bearing the legend 'Iso Room 4' and under that was written 'Guide B. Sandburg'.

 

Jim went to open the door his need to see his guide almost overwhelming him.

 

Chapter seven

 

Joel Taggart knocked on the frame of the open door to Simon's office and poked his head through the opening.

 

Banks looked up from the papers he was reading. "Joel, come in." He leaned back in his chair and took a sip from the coffee mug sitting on his desk. He grimaced as he realised that it was cold.

 

"You're working late."

 

"Paperwork," Simon's reply was terse, but heartfelt. He got up from his chair and looked mournfully at his empty coffee maker.

 

"Fancy catching a bite to eat?"

 

The captain turned round in surprise. "Actually, what are you doing here so late?"

 

"Martha's gone out with some girlfriends. She said I could fend for myself for once."

 

"When's the last time your wife let you loose in her kitchen?"

 

"Exactly. So I thought a nice juicy steak would be good compensation."

 

"You're talking about Mr Billie's, I hope?"

 

"Got it in one."

 

Simon looked at his watch. "Wow, it IS late." He moved back to his desk. "You know I haven't heard from Ellison today. I would have thought he'd let us know that he'd got to Saint Paul and how Sandburg was faring. Have you heard from him?"

 

"Nothing. Perhaps he's too caught up in their reunion?"

 

"You could be right." He turned off his computer and picked up his mug. "Let me clean this and then we can be off."

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

"Morning, H." Megan breezed into the bullpen pulling off her rain-dappled coat.

 

"Connor. How's it hanging?"

 

"It's raining."

 

"Nooo. God, I can tell you're a detective."

 

"Drongo." The Australian made her way to the coat rack in the corner of the room. Hanging up her coat she noticed one of Sandburg's corduroy jackets draped over one of the hooks. She turned back to the black detective. "Hey, have you heard from Ellison at all? Do we know how Sandy's doing?"

 

"Nothing. When was he supposed to be getting to the Institute anyway?"

 

"Yesterday lunch time as far as I know. Perhaps Banks will know."

 

The bullpen doors crashed open and Rafe rushed into the room. "H! Get moving! Gellini's been spotted coming out of the diner on the corner of Magnolia and 56th."

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

"Rhonda could you get Captain Peters on the phone, please?" Banks called out of his office.

 

"Yes, sir."

 

Simon kept on working until he heard his secretary walk into his office carrying a folder.

 

"Captain Peters isn't in today. I've left a message asking him to call you tomorrow unless it's urgent?

 

"No, no. That's all right. Is that the vacation requests?"

 

"Yes. I've got everybody's except Ellison's and, of course, Blair's."

 

"Damn!" Simon looked up at the clock on his wall; it showed that it was almost 5 pm. "Have you heard from him today?"

 

"No. In fact a number of people have been asking me whether you had any news."

 

The captain pulled his cell phone out of his trousers pocket and looked at the screen. "I forgot to turn it back on after my meeting with Keaton." Governor Keaton was an elderly statesman who abhorred being interrupted during his meetings and insisted all mobile phones be turned off. "Maybe Ellison left me a message." They waited a moment while the phone powered up. Banks had three messages, but none of them were from the sentinel. "This is getting ridiculous. Would you mind getting the phone number of, what was the name of that Institute?"

 

"The Burton Sentinel/Guide Institute. I'll get on it straight away."

 

When she came back she was followed by Connor and Taggart. Banks waved them in when Joel explained that they'd overheard Rhonda obtaining the number he'd asked for. Taking the piece of paper he dialled and waited.

 

"Uh, yes. Hello. This is Captain Simon Banks of Cascade Police Department, Washington. One of my staff, Blair Sandburg, is hospitalised with you at the moment. I'd like to talk to his sentinel, Jim Ellison if at all possible. If not, could you give him a message, please? … No, Washington State. We're on the other coast. … No, I understand you can't give me any news about your patients. Detective Ellison isn't a patient and anyway I only want to speak to him. … Well, could you then ask him to call me? … Okay…" He pulled off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Looking up at the people in his office hanging on his every word he rolled his eyes. "Could I then speak to Dr Solomen, please? … Could you ask HIM to call me, then? … No, I understand he's a busy man. So am I and I'd like some news regarding my men. … Thank you, I'll look forward to it. Good bye."

 

He hung up, sighed and put his glasses back on. "As you've probably gathered, Ellison's not available. She's left a message with Dr Solomen, but doubts that he'll be able to get back to me today."

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

It was early afternoon and Brown, Rafe and Banks were sitting round the table in the Captain's office poring over the Gellini file. The case had been on going for a few weeks now and missing the major fraudster yesterday had put the cat among the pigeons. They all looked up when Rhonda poked her head through the door.

 

"Captain, I have Dr Solomen on the line."

 

"At last," Simon growled. "Put him through, please." He moved towards his desk and looked over at the two detectives. "You can stay." He picked up the receiver. "Dr Solomen, thank you for calling me back."

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

"I didn't think Jim could get this disease," Megan said frowning.

 

Most of Major Crimes was crowded into Banks office and were discussing the information he'd received from Dr Solomen.

 

"Apparently, this one has mutated and the vaccinations he received had no effect."

 

"What I don't understand," Brown mused, "is that Jim got sick five days after Hairboy. I mean he wasn't in contact with him for what, five days? So how did he get it?"

 

"Solomen didn't say."

 

"Did he at least say how Blair's doing?" Asked Joel.

 

"He couldn't give me much information, but said that he was doing as well as expected."

 

"Damn," Brown said feelingly. "They really have bad luck those two, don't they? Can't we at least call them? There must be a phone in their room."

 

Everyone murmured his or her assent.

 

"Hey, we should send them a care package," Connor put in. "Some of those teas Sandy likes."

 

"A double Wonderburger deluxe," H said and everyone laughed.

 

"At least some cards or something?" She turned to Banks a questioning look on her face.

 

"I'll find out what they can have. Well, that's all I can say for the moment. Both Ellison and Sandburg are in for a difficult time, but at least we know it's not usually fatal."

 

"Yeah, but what if it's mutated into a lethal strain?" Asked Rafe.

 

Simon looked startled for a moment. "I didn't think of that. Solomen said he'd keep me informed so I'll ask him when he next calls. I'll let you know if I hear anything else. So meanwhile, it's back to work, please."

 

They all filed out until only Joel was left sitting staring at his coffee.

 

"Joel?"

 

"Uh, what?" The former bomb captain looked up with a start. "Sorry. Got lost in my thoughts." He stood up and pushed his chair back against the table and then stood there with his hand on the chair back.

 

"Joel what's the matter?"

 

"I think I might head over to Cas Gen. What was the name of that doctor? Holland, yeah." He straightened and made for the door.

 

"You think there's a problem?"

 

"No. Yes. I don't know. I just want to understand more about this disease and he seemed pretty decent."

 

Banks stared at the other man for a moment. They'd been friends a long time having climbed through the ranks together. Although Taggart hadn't been a detective long having only recently transferred from the Bomb Squad, he trusted his friend's instincts. And he knew that the gentle man had a soft spot for the guide. He nodded. "Let me know what you learn."

 

Joel nodded in turn understanding more than the words.

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

"Morning, guys," Simon's voice spread through the bullpen as he made his way to his office. He didn't hang about wanting to get to his coffee maker. Rhonda always put the machine on if she arrived before him and it was one of those days. The enticing smell was already seeping out his door and he quickened his step. Greetings followed him, but no one stopped the big man. They'd learnt that it was dangerous to come between Banks and his coffee so early in the day.

 

"Ahh," the captain breathed in the heady aroma and took a sip. Pure heaven. A knock at the door had him jerk his head up, but he calmed down when he saw that it was Taggart. "Come in. Coffee?"

 

"No, thanks. I've just had some."

 

"So, did you get hold of Dr Holland?"

 

"No, he'd gone home. But I did get to talk to Senior Nurse Leggerty. She's a highly experienced sentinel/guide nurse and specialises in infectious diseases. She was a bit surprised about what I told her, as apparently this had never happened before. I said that the information had come from Solomen and – I don't know – she looked… I don't think she likes him much. Anyway, she said she'd find out what she could and talk to Dr Holland and call me when she had something."

 

The two men looked at each other. Was something not right or was it simply their concern for the Pair that was making them suspicious?

 

 

Chapter eight

 

Jim tiredly lay back on the cot without even taking his shoes off. He couldn't move; his whole body ached and his head was pounding. A half moan, half sigh made him open his eyes and turn his head to look at the figure curled up on the bed next to him. God, how had it come to this? His thoughts flew back to what had happened when he'd seen his guide again after their five-day separation…

 

The small vestibule leading to Blair's room was almost identical to the one in Cascade. Hurriedly he dropped his bag onto the floor and dressed himself in the protective overall that was green instead of the white used at home. All the while his eyes were glued to the figure lying in the bed beyond the large window in front of him. He looked no different to how he'd looked the last time he'd seen him. Machines hummed and beeped and various plastic bags containing diverse fluids led to tubes that were connected to his arms. He was still wearing an oxygen mask and Jim was pleased that Blair was still strong enough not to need to be intubated.

 

Then he was through the second door and without knowing how he did it, he was stroking his hand down his guide's face. It took him a second to realise that he could feel no excessive heat rising from the skin. Sending out his hearing he listened to Blair's breathing and couldn't hear the wheezing that had been starting to sound in the young man's lungs. He then concentrated on the heart and apart from an unusually slow beat it, too, sounded normal. Blair appeared to be in good health. Had the drugs cured him already?

 

He looked up to see Dr Solomen still in the vestibule staring at him through the window. The doctor pressed on a button to the right of the window and his tinny voice came through a speaker set up high in one corner.

 

"Senior Sentinel Prime Ellison, you've probably noticed by now that your guide seems to be in very good condition. There's an easy explanation for that. In fact Guide Sandburg was never actually ill."

 

Jim frowned. He was hearing the words, but to his tired brain nothing made sense.

 

"It was all a ruse to get the pair of you here. Certain drugs administered in a certain fashion can imitate the symptoms of infective endocarditis lucernus and as it's such a rare disease it was easy to fool the doctors in Cascade."

 

"Um, why?" The detective was slowly shaking his head as what the doctor was saying penetrated his consciousness.

 

"You're a Dark Pair. The first to be known about for years. We heard about what Guide Sandburg did to those two women and decided that it was time to do some tests. So, you'll be staying with us a while. Guide Sandburg's only sedated. We didn't want you feeling anything through the bond. He'll more than likely be waking up soon."

 

"What if we don't agree to your tests?" Ellison could feel a cold tendril of anxiety in the pit of his stomach start to form.

 

"You don't have a choice. This room is totally sealed and the only way of opening the doors is from the outside."

 

"We'll be missed. People will want to talk to us."

 

"There'll be told that despite the vaccines given to you, you unfortunately contracted the disease and are unable to talk to anyone."

 

"Who are you?"

 

"It's not important to know who we are, but you managed to break up our project in Cascade. If we'd known what Guide Sandburg was capable of we wouldn't have let Sentinel Barnes anywhere near him."

 

'Oh God,' thought Ellison. They were in the hands of the people who'd been running the Centre in Cascade.

 

"Now, I'll have some food brought to you. There's a bathroom through that door to the right. I can bring you some magazines, but no television I'm afraid. I'll be back in a little while." He turned away and then turned back and pressed the button again. "You can take off those protective clothes. Guide Sandburg isn't contagious."

 

"No, wait!" Jim rushed up to the door and was dismayed to see no door handle. He banged on the glass, but the doctor ignored him and opened the outer door. "You can't do this! Stop! I said stop!" He pummelled the glass with his two fists to no avail. Stepping back he pulled off the green overalls, facemask and hat and peeled off the rubber gloves. Disgusted, he threw them into a corner.

 

"Cell phone," he said suddenly and pulled it out of his jacket pocket. He pressed the switch to turn it on having forgotten to do so once he'd left the plane. Waiting impatiently for the screen to light up he glanced over at Blair. Nothing had changed there. The phone beeped, but to his dismay not one of the bars indicating there was a network showed. He then looked around for his bag thinking that maybe there was something in it he could use. He groaned when he remembered he'd left it in the vestibule.

 

He walked back to Sandburg's bed and cupped the younger man's cheek. "Hey, Chief. Time to wake up. Your sentinel's here and we're in deep shit." Nothing. He stood up straight and looked around the windowless room. "Okay, Ellison", he muttered, "what do you need and what have you got?" Time to do some exploring.

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

"Come on, Chief, open your eyes. You can do it."

 

"Mmmm."

 

Somehow Jim knew that the younger man was trying to say his name. Blair had been making funny little snuffling noises for the last ten minutes and his eyes had been moving under his eyelids. The sentinel desperately wanted him to wake up so he could check that he was all right. And he also wanted that formidable intellect working on their problem.

 

"Yes," he breathed as slivers of blue peeked out from underneath heavy eyelashes.

 

"Jim? Wass goin' on?"

 

"Take deep breaths and open your eyes a little more for me." Now that Blair was more awake, Jim sent out the feeling that meant he wanted to bond

 

The guide, programmed to respond to his chosen sentinel, opened up his own mind to receive the connection. What he felt made him open his eyes wide all traces of the sedative wiped from his body. "Jim! What's up? What's going on?" He struggled to sit up, but was pushed flat as his buff sentinel climbed onto the bed and buried his nose into his neck. Automatically, his hand came up to brush the short hair.

 

Subconsciously, he noticed that he wasn't connected to any drips and the hated oxygen mask was gone. However, he had more important things to deal with and all his concentration was centred on Jim. The sentinel was sending out feelings of distress and anger overlaid with strong feelings of relief and happiness. Then the bond took over and all coherent thought fled out of the building.

 

It was more than half an hour before either of the Pair moved. Reluctantly, Jim lifted his head from Blair's shoulder. He smiled as the arm draped round his shoulders tried to tug him back down again.

 

"Chief," he whispered into the ear conveniently placed in front of his mouth, "we've got serious things to talk about. I'm afraid we're in a bit of a situation."

 

Blair opened one eye and with a sigh released the other man. Jim sat up, but kept a hand on Blair's arm wanting to keep physical contact. He pulled the grad student up until he was resting against his chest then leant back against the head of the bed.

 

Before he could open his mouth to explain, Blair spoke up. "Does this situation explain why I've been disconnected from all medical paraphernalia and am feeling rather good for someone who's battling a deadly disease?"

 

Jim explained everything that had happened since he'd got off the plane until a close-mouthed orderly had slipped a tray with some sandwiches and a plastic cup of water through a sliding opening in the observation window. The detective had tried to get him to talk, had shown him his police badge and had ended up shouting, but all to no avail.

 

"God, I thought that maybe they'd included plastic cutlery I could use somehow because, believe me, there's nothing in this suite that could be classed as escape material. I mean, there aren't even any needles attached to those IVs. I thought I might as well disconnect you after what Solomen said." He stopped as he picked up on Blair's increased heart rate and smelt his anger.

 

"That bastard," the younger man said in venom. "I thought I was dying and going to leave you… leave you all alone. Without a guide. I thought at least we'd not been bonded long so that there was a possibility you'd survive." The arm around him tightened.

 

The sentinel had to clear his throat a couple of times before he could speak. "It's too late, Chief. There's no way I'd survive now."

 

Blair put up a hand and patted the arm around him. There was no point arguing; it was just the way between Pairs with a true bond. Fortunately, the rumbling of his stomach interrupted the mushy moment. "Oh, man. Tell me you didn't eat all those sandwiches? I haven't eaten in days. And d'you think you could find me something better to wear? I HATE hospital gowns."

 

Chapter nine

 

"Please, no more. I can't… " Blair's voice faded off into a sob.

 

"What are you doing to him? Leave him alone, you bastards!" Jim strained against the restraints that tied him to the gurney.

 

Dr Solomen ignored both men and continued to stare at the computer screen. "Um, look at this." He pointed to something and his colleague/fellow torturer to whom they'd never been introduced turned and bent towards the screen.

 

"I don't know. I think it's an anomaly."

 

"But we saw this yesterday and it's stronger today."

 

The tall man looked thoughtfully at the Pair tapping a pen against his teeth. The sound seemed to reverberate through the sentinel's head. "When did we start bringing them in together?"

 

"Two days ago."

 

"Okay. How about we continue with both of them today and then test them separately tomorrow?"

 

Solomen nodded, noted something in a file and the other man left the room.

 

"Sandburg, you okay?" Jim's voice was hoarse from all the shouting he'd been doing over the last – he couldn't remember how any days. Blair was positioned somewhere behind a bank of equipment. He couldn't see him, but the ragged breathing echoed through the room like a warning.

 

They'd been pretty much left alone the first day supposedly to allow time for the sedatives they'd been pumping into Sandburg to leave his system. Despite the narrowness of the bed, they'd slept together revelling in their physical and mental closeness.  The separation hadn't ben so bad on the guide as he'd mostly slept through the whole time. It had been different for the sentinel especially as he'd had the added worry of wondering whether his guide was going to survive his illness intact. So, if he was more touchy feely than normal neither commented on it.

 

Their brief reprieve had been broken the following day as just after breakfast two 'orderlies' – Jim used the term loosely as the pair of them looked like professional wrestlers – had come to take Blair away. Jim had done his best to protect his guide, but a few prods from a Taser had had him jerking on the floor his senses going haywire. The last thing he'd heard before succumbing to the encroaching darkness had been the younger man screaming.

 

"Jim! Jim, are you all right?" No, let me see to him. You could kill him with…"

 

When he'd woken up, he'd been angered to find himself dressed in the same type of sweats that he'd found in the small bathroom earlier and that Blair had gratefully donned. Everything else had been removed; his wallet, badge, phone and even his shoes. He'd spent a totally frustrating few hours at first banging on the windows, doors and shouting at the two surveillance cameras. When that had produced no visible result, he'd laid down on Blair's bed – it was marginally more comfortable than the cot they'd provided for him – and had tried to find the younger man via their connection. Unfortunately, all that had happened was that he'd got a headache and then he fell asleep.

 

He'd been woken by an orderly pushing lunch through the observation window. Again, talking to the man had been a waste of time. He'd eaten the typical hospital food grimly somehow knowing that he'd need to keep his strength up despite the fact that worry for his guide was gnawing at his stomach. A few hours later, a very subdued Blair had been brought back. Jim had been anxiously standing by the door as soon as he'd been able to hear his heartbeat through the white noise generators.

 

"Chief, you all right?" What have you done to him?" His questions had fallen on deaf ears. Any thoughts of trying to take on the two men supporting the guide had gone right out the window when they'd thrust the younger man at the sentinel. Jim had had to act quickly to prevent Blair from crashing to the floor. Lifting him up he'd placed him on the bed and examined him closely. There hadn't been any obvious signs of torture or injury apart from a couple of round, red marks on his temples and red ring around his ankles and wrists. No brownie points for guessing where they'd come from!

 

"Jim." Blair's voice had been soft, but the questing hand had been strong once it had latched onto the detective's arm.

 

"What happened? What did they do to you? Are you hurt?"

 

Blair's eyes had opened and he'd almost smiled at his sentinel in Major Blessed Protection Mode. "Just tests. They wanted to compare the data now that I'm bonded to the data they have from before." He'd yawned.

 

"You have a headache," Jim had pointed out firmly.

 

"And you know the best cure for that, don't you?"

 

The sentinel had needed no further prompting and had climbed onto the bed. Gathering his guide into his arms, they'd sunk into the bond.

 

And that was how it had continued with either one or the other being taken away for tests for the next few days. It was difficult to judge time passing as there were no windows and arrival of the meals were their only indication. The tests had not been difficult physically at first. For Jim there'd been evaluations of his senses, which had been uncomfortable, but bearable. Blair had been subjected to tests relating to his empathy that left him tired and with headaches.

 

However that had changed a while back. They'd been separated at night and when they were brought together into the 'torture chamber' as Blair had named it, they weren't allowed to touch. For Jim it had been getting difficult as his senses were starting to become erratic. Two days without being able to bond and without damping drugs was eating into his control. He was also very worried about his guide. Bonding was necessary for an empath to keep his barriers up so that he wasn't swamped by the emotions of everyone around him. Apart from when he'd been sedated, Blair had never gone more than a day with bonding. He'd tried sending the younger man support through the connection they had, but it was becoming more and more difficult as the guide's control began to fray.

 

"Jim, I hurt."

 

The sentinel's heart was breaking at hearing his guide's obvious pain. "I'm here, Chief. I know it hurts, but try and be strong. Please, don't give up."

 

"Wanna go home."

 

"Me, too." 'Oh, God. Me, too,' Jim repeated in his head. "Hey, Solomen! There's no point doing tests if your subjects can't function, is there?"

 

To his surprise the doctor moved over to him and examined him a pensive look on his face. "You do know why we're doing this, don't you?"

 

"No, not really."

 

"No one understands how sentinels and guides are created, nor how the bond helps in controlling your senses or preventing a guide to burn out. We've tried testing non-bonded sentinels and guides, Pairs and even children just as their talents emerge, but we've found nothing. We know that with a Dark Pair everything's magnified: senses, empathy, connection etc. Maybe we can find something in you two that'll help us."

 

"Help you to do what exactly?"

 

"Manufacture artificial sentinels or remove the need for a guide or a sentinel. Wouldn't it be easier for you to be able to live your life without having to rely on a another person?"

 

Jim fought down the desire to rip the man's throat out for suggesting the thing. For the moment he was talking and he wanted to get as much information out of him as possible. "To what end?"

 

"Oh, there are a number of uses." Solomen's eyes roamed around the room.

 

Suddenly, it became clear to Ellison what their kidnappers were trying to do. "You're trying to destroy the instinct to protect that every sentinel and guide has. Without this instinct you can turn them into assassins, thieves, spies, mind readers… God, you want to control them. You want control to be out of the hands of the guides and in yours."

 

The doctor merely shrugged, but eyes still wouldn't settle on Ellison's face.

 

"So why are you telling me this now?"

 

"Well," Solomen looked earnestly into Jim's eyes, "if you and Guide Sandburg cooperated this would be much easier on you. And think, if we were successful you could be part of our organisation. You could train them. Think of all the money you could make. You'd longer have to rely on someone else for your control. You'd be free to live the way you wanted to."

 

Jim was flabbergasted and for a moment didn't know what to say despite the fact that the rogue doctor was saying exactly what he'd been thinking before he'd bonded with Sandburg. "And just how would these sentinels control their senses and these guides block other people's emotions? Chemicals? Implants? And who would produce these things? You and your cohorts, I imagine. Control what controls guides and sentinels and make a fortune. You want me to cooperate in tests that cause my guide and myself extreme discomfort so that you can kill our bond and profit from our suffering." He took a deep breath. "WHY THE HELL DO YOU THINK I'D DO THAT? If you could experience a bond you'd know just how crazy I'd be to want to give that up. So, come on do your worst."

 

He noticed with a certain detached interest that Solomen's face had turned an interesting puce colour.

 

"Oh, don't you worry, Senior Sentinel Prime Ellison, you've seen nothing, yet." With that he stalked out of Jim's view and a second later he heard a door slam.

 

"Way to go, man," Blair's voice was faint, but the sentinel could hear the pride that infused it.

 

"Just saying how it is, but, thanks." Jim closed his eyes knowing that this respite was going to be short lived and that they were going to have to dig deep to get through what was coming next.

 

On to the rest here: starfishyeti.dreamwidth.org/2143.html 

 Chapter ten

 

Blair Sandburg thought that he had to be in hell. His head hurt, his gut hurt, even his fingernails hurt. The bed he was lying on dipped and a warm body pressed up against his back. Two arms came around his chest and he clutched onto them as if he was drowning.

 

A soft voice whispered into his ear. "How you doing, Chief?"

 

"I hurt."

 

"What's the worst? Your head?"

 

He nodded and gentle hands started rubbing his temples. A soft probe into his mind pushed him towards bonding, but he was too tired to respond. The probe became more insistent and without having to do anything the bond opened up like a flower and soothed his aches and pains. He sighed in pleasure and pushed himself further back into Jim's chest. Bonding was the only thing that was keeping them sane in this hospital of horrors.

 

Sometime later he rose up out of the bond to hear his sentinel whispering in his ear. "Wake up, Chief, but don't react. Keep your eyes closed. Can you hear me?"

 

Blair's reply was only loud enough for his sentinel to hear. "I'm awake."

 

"What did they do to you today?"

 

"See whether I could react to films of emotions, audio recordings and people imitating feeling angry or whatever." He snorted. "They have no idea. I think I got the headache from trying not to explode with disgust. Call themselves scientists? I'll tell them…"

 

"Shh, shh." Hands rubbed at his temples again. "Don't let them know how you really feel."

 

They both jumped as the outer door flew open. Jim instinctively covered Blair's body with his own. Three large orderlies came barrelling into their room and straight for the two on the bed. For a few minutes there was complete chaos as they tried to separate the sentinel and guide while the Pair did everything they could to prevent them. A Pair always acted more on instinct just after bonding.

 

"No, no! Leave him alone!" Blair's voice was almost a scream.

 

"Touch him and I'll kill you!" Jim's voice was almost a feral scream.

 

"If you don't calm down, I'll Taser him!" One of the orderlies' voices cut through the pandemonium like a hot knife through butter.

 

Ellison froze. He raised his eyes and saw Sandburg lying on the bed with an orderly holding a Taser on his chest. The two men fighting him took advantage of the calm and pulled his arms behind him slapping on padded restraints around his wrists. The sentinel, comprehending what was happening, started to struggle.

 

"Sentinel, I have your guide in my control," the orderly shouted again.

 

Right at that moment, Dr Solomen bustled in. "What the hell is going on?"

 

"We tried to separate them and they just went ape shit," the orderly panted out.

 

"Is that an official diagnosis?" the doctor snapped. He turned towards Ellison. "Calm down. Why kick off now? We've separated you before."

 

The sentinel was lying face down on the floor panting with his hands restrained behind his back and the two orderlies lying across him. He tried to heave himself up, but it was to no avail.

 

"My sentinel, calm down," the guide's voice was a mere whisper, "I'm unharmed and will remain so if you calm down." Jim blew out a shaky breath and let his body relax. The orderlies didn't move.

 

"God, d'you know nothing about bonded Pairs?" Blair asked Solomen. His voice was sarcastic despite the situation he found himself in. He was pleased to note that the orderly holding the Taser on him was panting and sporting a few scratches and bruises to his face. As the three men had burst into the room two had headed for Ellison while the remaining man had gone for the guide. They'd obviously thought that the sentinel was the person who was the real danger and hadn't taken into account how a guide would react when his sentinel was threatened. Even though he was weakened through the tests he'd been enduring over the last few days, Blair had put up a good fight.

 

Solomen whirled round. "What d'you mean?"

 

"We've just bonded; just undergone a process that exists to make us become closer by channelling our base instincts. And you get your goons to barge in and disrupt that closeness. Of course we're going to react. Sheesh, I thought you were a sentinel/guide doctor." He wasn't too sure that annoying the man was a good idea, but he needed to give Jim time to calm down before he got himself seriously hurt.

 

Solomen looked as if he was going to blow, but with visible effort, he got himself under control. "Any other information you'd like to share?" He stared coldly at the dishevelled grad student. "Huh, I didn't think so," he said sharply when Blair merely stared back at him no expression on his face. He turned to the orderlies holding Ellison on the floor. "Take him."

 

Jim was hauled up and started to struggle again. He stopped when he saw Blair on the bed a Taser on his chest.

 

"I'm okay," Sandburg whispered.

 

The detective allowed himself to be dragged out of the room. He twisted his head so he could see his friend and then he was out in the corridor. To his surprise, the two men took him to one of the rooms on the other side of the isolation area. His restraints were undone and he was thrust through the door. He found himself in the vestibule to a room that mirrored the one he and Sandburg had been in except instead of being green this one was painted yellow. A shove on his back urged him to open the second door and he walked in. The door was shut behind him and he heard the lock snick into place. He didn't move, but sent out his hearing to search for Blair's heartbeat – nothing. The white noise generators drowned out everything. He slid down the wall and rested his head on his bent knees.

 

Blair, meanwhile, had been released and was now sitting up against the wall. "Why are you doing this?"

 

Solomen looked at him. "Life would be so much easier if only you'd cooperate," he said ignoring the question.

 

"Another thing that proves you know nothing about sentinels and guides."

 

The doctor shook his head slowly and nodding at the third orderly turned away. The two men left the room. Blair curled onto his side letting the anguish he'd hidden from the doctor flow through his body. "Be strong, my sentinel," he murmured.

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

"Morning, everyone," Joel called out as he walked into the bullpen. Greetings in various degrees of alertness floated across the room. Reaching Banks' open door he knocked on the doorframe.

 

Simon was on the phone, but looking up he waved the former bomb captain in. "Okay, good luck in the test. Let me know how it went." He put the phone down and walked over to his coffee machine. "Coffee?"

 

"What is it today?" Taggart asked as he pulled the door shut.

 

"Plain old coffee."

 

"That does me good. Was that Daryl on the phone?" He took the mug handed to him.

 

"Oh, yeah." Simon eased himself back into his chair. "He wants to go to a party, but his mother's said no. I said I would talk to her and find out why. I did tell him that if I agreed with her I wouldn't give permission either."

 

"I take it he wasn't too happy with that?"

 

"He thinks that just because his mother and I are divorced he can play us off against each other."

 

"Huh, teenagers."

 

Both men shook their heads thinking of the escapades their respective children got up to.

 

"You here to talk about Ellison and Sandburg?" Banks asked after a few seconds of silence.

 

"Uh huh. I couldn't get hold of Dr Holland, but I did run into that nurse again." He took a sip of coffee. "She admitted that she wasn't an expert on this sort of infection, but also said it didn't sound right to her. She thought that we should be getting more information than we are. She's going to ask Dr Holland and will call me when she has news."

 

Simon sighed. "I suppose that's all we can do for the moment. Let's hope Solomen calls as well and we can get this cleared up."

 

"What's making you so jumpy about this?"

 

"I don't know, but something is."

 

A knock on the door made them look up.

 

"Come!" Banks barked out.

 

Edwards and David walked in.

 

"Captains Banks and Taggart. Good morning," said the sentinel echoed by a 'good morning' from David.

 

"Gentlemen, when did you get back?" Simon gestured to for them to sit down, but didn't offer them coffee.

 

"Last night."

 

"How was the conference?"

 

"Good. But before we get to that, have you been in contact with Ellison and do you have any news on Blair?" Neither sentinel nor guide missed the look that passed between the two captains. "What? What's going on?"

 

"When's the last time you spoke to him?" Joel asked.

 

"The morning he left for Colorado."

 

"That's five days. Damn," Banks cursed. "Okay, this is what we're thinking…"

 

Chapter eleven

 

Ellison paced up and down, up and down; five paces from wall to wall and four and a half from wall to bathroom door. He was going crazy. Or he was already crazy and he was in hell. He had no idea how long he'd been locked in this room away from his guide. It had to be days if the number of meals he'd been served were anything to go by. Oh, and the fact that he was losing control of his senses; his skin was itching, the lights were too bright… He tried listening for his guide, but all he could hear was the air from the conditioning unit and his own breathing.

 

When they'd first been separated they'd been able to feel each other through the bond and Jim had taken comfort from that. However, as time past the connection had faded until now there was nothing. Banging on the doors and walls had changed nothing and shouting only made him hoarse. His emotions swung between anger, frustration, disbelief and despair.

 

God, how was Blair coping with this? 'He must be crawling the walls by now,' he thought absently scratching at his right arm. Bending down he rubbed behind his left knee and then started on his arm again. He stilled as he realised what he was doing. Pulling up the sleeve of his sweatshirt he stared in dismay at the red rash adorning his forearm. He leant his back against the wall and slid down until his was sitting on the floor. Resting his head on his bent knees he struggled to find his dials.

 

'How come with Blair present it was an exercise that took seconds?' He asked himself five minutes later. With relief he felt the itchiness on his skin start to fade away as he wrestled down the dial for touch. His control shattered as his bedroom door opened and Dr Solomen walked in. He sighed and lifted his head, but didn't bother standing.

 

"Skin giving you problems?" Solomen stood in front of him leaning a hip against the bed.

 

Ellison stared at him no expression on his face.

 

"We've had to sedate Guide Sandburg. There are no white noise generators for emotions."

 

The sentinel didn't move except for a tightening of his jaw. He didn't want to give the doctor the satisfaction of knowing that his words had chilled his heart. His guide was suffering and he could nothing to help him. Solomen watched him intently for a while as if trying to read his thoughts. Not getting any visible reaction he frowned and pushed away from the bed. Without a word he left closing the door with a loud bang.

 

Jim flinched and lowered his head on his knees again. Tremors coursed through his body. 'Blair, Blair, Blair,' ran through his mind and his hands clenched into fists. They HAD to get out of there, sooner rather than later, but he could see no way of achieving that. All he could hope for was that Simon or Edwards would realise that something was wrong and would come to their rescue. Taking a deep breath he visualised his dials and again wrestled with bringing them under his control.

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

"Banks," Simon barked down the phone. He'd just spent a frustrating morning with a civilian police observers group and now had a raging headache. All he wanted to do was sit in his office with the blinds closed and drink his coffee. Unfortunately, he was on duty and that option wasn't open to him.

 

"Captain Banks, this is Dr Holland from Cascade General."

 

"Oh yes. Thanks for calling me."

 

"Nurse Leggerty told me that a Captain Taggart had been enquiring again about Sentinel Ellison catching infective endocarditis lucernus. As I said before I must admit I was very surprised that he'd become infected what with the preventive treatment we gave him. So, I called Dr Solomen." He paused.

 

"Did you talk to him?" Banks prompted when the silence continued.

 

"Yes." Holland's affirmative was hesitant and soft.

 

"And?"

 

"Solomen confirmed that the particular strain that infected Guide Sandburg was a mutant and unfortunately the treatment given to Sentinel Ellison would have been less than optimum."

 

"So he can be treated now?" Simon took a sip from his coffee. There was obviously something troubling the good doctor.

 

Holland's sigh whispered down the line. "He described a convincing treatment plan, but…"

 

"Something's not quite right."

 

"No. Yes. I don't know. I just can't put my finger on it. Maybe it's nothing."

 

"You're a doctor. I would think that you should trust your instincts."

 

The line hummed as the doctor thought about the captain's words.

 

"You and Captain Taggart are concerned beyond medical considerations," he eventually said making it into a question.

 

"Let's just say that we're used to trusting out instincts as well. What can you tell me about Dr Solomen?"

 

"Not much really. He studied originally to be a paediatrician and interned at St Bartholomew's in Maine. He says that while he was there he saw a number of sentinels come on line really young and suffer from not finding guides. It's what got him interested in sentinel and guide studies. He then did a post doc at Rainier and since then regularly gives seminars there. He was appointed director of the Burton Sentinel and Guide Institute three years ago.

 

"He's the foremost expert on sentinel and guide illnesses and diseases. So, when Guide Sandburg was brought in and infective endocarditis lucernus was diagnosed it made sense to call the Institute."

 

"Is it normal for the director of such a place to fly half way across the country to consult on a case such as this?"

 

"No. But we were lucky. He was at Rainier giving one of his seminars."

 

'Was he really?' Banks thought. "Dr Holland, you've been extremely helpful. Thank you."

 

"Not a problem. You'll let me know if your 'instincts' are founded?"

 

"Of course. Oh, just one more thing?" Simon asked as an idea popped into his head. "Do you know if Dr Solomen knows Chancellor Edwards at Rainier University?"

 

"Oh yes. They met when they were doing their posts docs."

 

Bingo!

 

"Thank you, Dr Holland. You've been a great help." He hung up and thought for a minute rubbing his eyes under his glasses. He picked up the phone again. "Rhonda, could you find out if Sentinel Edwards and his guide are available, please? And if they are, could you ask them to come and see me and when they arrive I'd like Captain Taggart to join me. Thanks."

 

Thirty minutes later he looked up at the knock on his door and watched as the three men walked in. He moved over to his conference table and they sat down. "Before I start I'd like to know if anyone's had any more information from Saint Paul?"

 

"I still keep getting the message that as I'm not next of kin all they can say is that they're doing as well as expected," Joel said disgustedly.

 

"As Ellison's second in command I do get a little more information, but I've still not managed to speak to either Ellison or Sandburg. I asked whether anyone could visit and was told that they were still in isolation and heavily sedated so all a visitor would be doing would be staring at them through a window." Edwards' frown showed what he thought of the situation.

 

"I've decided it's time to play dirty," Simon informed them with some satisfaction. He smiled as the others looked at him with growing interest and a feral gleam in their eyes. "I contacted Ellison's family. It was hard going because they're away a lot on business. Stephen, Jim's brother, is in Japan and won't be back for another week. However, when I explained the situation to him he said he'd call his father who was in London at the time."

 

"I thought Jim didn't have any contact with his family?" Asked Joel.

 

"He hadn't. But once Sandburg found out that Jim had a father and brother, he started bringing them together again. Apparently, William Ellison nearly had an aneurysm when he met Jim's guide. He obviously didn't fit in with what he thought was suitable for his son and a Senior Sentinel Prime. Stephen Ellison says that his father now thinks the sun shines out of every one of Sandburg's orifices because he's brought his eldest son back into his life. And, I quote, 'turned my brother back into the decent human being he was before his senses came on line'."

 

David nodded. "Guides who are empaths make great negotiators and Blair's the strongest one I know."

 

"He's also a good person," Taggart said proudly. He'd also had a soft spot for the grad student and he'd noticed how since his arrival in the pull pen things had started to run more smoothly, there were fewer arguments and people just seemed to be happier. He knew that Rhonda was constantly singing his praises as he helped her with her computer, smoothing Simon's ruffled feathers and calming overworked detectives.

 

"Anyway," Simon continued, "Mr Ellison is flying from London tomorrow straight to Saint Paul. He is a family member and is going to insist that he sees his son."

 

"I don't understand," questioned David. "Why don't we just insist and get the Minnesota police or Clan to go and ask some questions?"

 

"Although I've had my suspicions, up until now I've not really had much proof." He recounted his conversation with Dr Holland finishing up with, "I do think, however, that it's time for me to check up on my men."

 

"Fancy taking a few Clan members with you?" Asked Edwards.

 

"As many as would like to come." Banks grinned wolfishly. "Meanwhile, I think it might be an idea to set up some surveillance on Edwards. The Chancellor, of course, not the sentinel."

 

Edwards' answering smile was strained.

 

"Do we really have enough grounds to get a warrant?" Taggart questioned.

 

"No, but I was rather hoping that it could be considered a Clan matter?"

 

"Oh, I think that falls into the category of protecting Clan interests very neatly," Edwards answered Banks' grin with one of his own.

 

Chapter twelve

 

If he thought screaming would make him feel better he would. In fact he'd already tried it and all he'd got was a sore throat and a hard slap across the face. Automatically, his tongue explored the cut on the inside of his mouth where his cheek had impacted with his teeth. Instead, he thought he'd try something else. Ignoring what was going on around him he breathed in deeply through his nose, held it for three seconds then let it out through his mouth. He did it again and again until he had a rhythm going and he could feel his muscles relaxing. Almost unconsciously, his bond started searching for his sentinel. 'Jim, Jim,' he started up a litany in his head. He knew it was useless as he'd tried many times before, but even just saying his name made him feel better.

 

After a few minutes though, his calm was interrupted by an urgent desire to scratch his forearms. 'Oh, great,' he thought sardonically, 'here I am trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey and I want to scratch. He glanced down at his bare arms strapped onto boards at angles to his body. Apart from the IV port in the back of his left wrist they looked unchanged. Lying his head back down onto the gurney he blinked: the lab's lights suddenly seemed much brighter.

 

He closed his eyes again and was surprised to find himself looking at the inside of a shower stall. In amazement he watched a hand move forward and turn off the water. Was he now completely crazy? He tried banishing the images from his mind so that he could get back into his meditative state. 'Jim, Jim, Jim.' Breathe in, hold, breathe out. Breathe in, hold…

 

*Chief?*

 

He stilled holding his breath. The images in his head also stilled.

 

*Chief, is that you?*

 

God, it so sounded like his sentinel. He breathed out in a gasp. He MUST have totally lost it.

 

*Open your eyes.*

 

It was his sentinel speaking so he did so.

 

*Yes!*

 

He felt the other man's exultation as if it was his own.

 

*Listen, I can see what you're seeing. You're in the lab again and Dr Solomen's doing that really gross thing with his ear.*

 

Blair snorted. The doctor had a disgusting habit of cleaning his ears out with whatever implement happened to be handy. At the moment he was using a plastic stirrer that had come with his coffee. He looked up at the noise and Blair coughed covering up his laugh.

 

*Jim, it is you, isn't it? You've just got out of the shower?*

 

*Yeah. God, Chief. How are you? I can feel you've got a massive headache.*

 

*It's okay. It's manageable now. It must be this connection that's making it better. Is your skin playing up?*

 

*The rash is disappearing as we speak. Hey, this must be like that time with Barnes in the woods.*

 

There was silence for a moment as they both contemplated this.

 

*What are they doing to you?*

 

*Nothing… Well, nothing much.*

 

*What d'you mean?*

 

*Seriously, it's nothing to worry about. We should be thinking about what we can do with this.* Silence greeted him. *Jim?* He started to panic. Had he, in his despair, merely created this conversation?

 

*Okay… for now.* Blair breathed a sigh of relief. *D'you have any ideas of how it can help us?*

 

*Not at the moment. I do certainly feel better, though. It's almost as if we're bonding. What about you?*

 

*That's exactly it. Hey, keeping us apart to get us to bond in a panic isn't going to work now, is it?* Blair could feel Jim's grim satisfaction as he was feeling it himself.

 

*Hey, Chief, d'you think you can do that frying the brain thing as well?*

 

Blair felt his blood run cold. He felt very uncomfortable with his 'power' to overwhelm sentinels and guides and basically burn their minds. He'd only done it twice and the second time he'd killed a guide. He swallowed and strengthened his resolve. If it meant getting his sentinel out of the clutches of these sadists, then that was what he was going to have to do. *I… I don't know.* His mouth was dry and he tried licking his lips. *Maybe it only works on sentinels and guides. But it's worth thinking about.* A hand gripped his arm and his eyes flew open. 'Oh God,' he moaned silently, 'here we go again.'

 

*Chief, I can see him. Don't worry. I'm with you now. I'll shield you as much as I can. You're not on your own now.*

 

Just before injecting the liquid into the guide's IV port, Dr Solomen hesitated. Was that a small smile on his subject's face?

 

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

"Captain Banks."

 

Simon sighed and looked around at the voice calling his name. He'd popped into the small supermarket near the PD during his lunch break to get some much-needed provisions. He knew it was going to be a long day and he'd be too tired to do it once his work day was finished. He knew he'd simply want to chill out in front of the television while eating a totally unhealthy ready meal. He relaxed when he saw it was the Pair Langston and Michaels.

 

"Uh, evening. What brings you here?"

 

"We followed you," Michaels said simply.

 

"You did?" Banks looked at her with some consternation.

 

"We wanted to talk to you away from sensitive ears," Langston said with a wry smile.

 

"Oh, okay. What do you want to talk about?"

 

"Edwards thinks it would be a good idea if you organised a poker night at your house tonight with the detectives you've got working on our project and invite some of the Clan as well."

 

"Why at my house?" Simon asked confused. "Why not at the sentinel suite or one of your houses?" Mentally he groaned. He was already tired.

 

"We don't normally allow non-Clan members onto the premises. One or two okay, but five or six would be difficult for the guides."

 

"And too many sentinels, bonded or not, at another sentinel's house would be difficult for the sentinels," explained Michaels.

 

"Oh, I see," Banks murmured when in reality he had no idea what they were talking about.

 

"There'll be four of us," the sentinel continued very much aware of the captain's confusion, but time was of the essence. "We'll bring pizza and drinks. Enough for ten?"

 

A few hours later Simon was still unsure why everyone was meeting at his house, but gamely opened the door when the bell was rung again. Megan, wearing an inordinately bright pantsuit grinned and held up a six-pack of beer.

 

"G'day, Captain," she said. "I've brought Australian beer just in case you don't have any."

 

"This isn't a party," he growled back.

 

"I know, but one won't be over the top."

 

"Move yourself, woman. You're causing a traffic jam." Brown was standing behind her eyeing what she was wearing. "That outfit…" he stopped as a tight-eyed glare was sent his way, "just looks great on you. Captain, thanks for having us," he said hastily and stepped past her into the house.

 

Banks closed the door and followed the detectives into the dining room where Edwards, David, Langston, Michaels, Joel and Rafe were tucking into pizzas.

 

"Hope you saved us some," H mock growled.

 

"You snooze, you lose," Rafe answered back taking another bite of his piece. "Mmm."

 

"Don't listen to him," Amanda said, "there's enough for everyone."

 

Simon squeezed into the already crowded room. "Okay, everyone. I've got some more chairs here, but you're going to have to get close. Hope you've all had showers today."

 

With much laughing and ribald comments everyone scooted round until they were all, more or less, sitting round the oval table. Joel was interested to notice that Edwards and Langston had placed their guides so that their backs were to one of the room's corners and were bracketed by the sentinels. He'd never seen Clan members mix so readily with non-Clan members before and wondered whether it was Blair's influence. The young man had been seen having lunch, on several occasions, with a mix of sentinels, guides and 'ordinary people'.

 

After the pizzas had been consumed and they were sipping at beers or coffees, files and papers replaced the empty boxes and the atmosphere became serious. Simon looked over at Ellison's Clan second wondering who was going to start. Although he outranked all the police officers present he also acknowledged that the potential kidnap victims were the Clan's Senior Sentinel Prime and Senior Guide Prime. Edwards looked back and nodded indicating that Banks should lead the meeting.

 

"Okay," the captain gazed around the room, "who wants to start? The Clan, as you were the ones who called this meeting?"

 

"Thank you, Captain," Edwards said. "As you know the Clan has been keeping an eye on Chancellor Edwards. After a meeting with the Clan's lawyers we've decided to declare her "A Potential Danger to the Clan."

 

Everyone heard the capital letters in his voice.

 

"Really?" Banks couldn't disguise his surprise and his satisfaction.

 

"Um," Megan interrupted, "I understand the title, but what does it actually mean?"

 

The Sentinel Prime turned towards the Australian exchange officer. "It means that we can use our senses during our surveillance of her and our findings are admissible in court."

 

"Oh, beaut," she crowed. "We have GOT to get a law like that in Oz."

 

"Well, let me tell you what we've discovered."

 

Chapter thirteen

 

Dr Solomen was sitting in his office going over the latest notes in the Dark Pair's files. He brought his mug up to his lips and grimaced when the cold, bitter coffee registered on his tongue. He slammed the cup down and pushed himself back from his desk. Standing up he put his hands on the back of his hips and stretched; he could feel his vertebrae pop. Then leaning forward he rested his hands on his desk and stared unseeingly at the papers scattered there.

 

What the hell was going on? They'd kept sentinel and guide separated for four days now. Ellison's senses should be giving him hell as the control his guide provided had been removed. And Sandburg should be a gibbering wreck and close to overload from all the emotions battering at his psyche without the shielding his sentinel provided him. Instead, the Dark Pair were behaving as if they were bonding every night. When they'd tried this with non-Dark Pairs, they'd lasted a maximum of three days. Dark Pairs were supposed to be more sensitive and thus more prone to overloading, but…

 

He blew out a breath in frustration. His backers were beginning to get antsy at the lack of data from all the tests they were performing. They'd taken a big risk in snatching the Senior Sentinel Prime of the Cascade Clan and his guide. Admittedly, there had also been a soupçon of revenge in choosing this particular Pair for testing, as they'd been instrumental in taking down the Cascade operation. But now, he wasn't getting the results he'd promised and holding on to the Pair was increasing the risk of their ruse being discovered. The virus story was only going to last for so long before difficult questions started being asked and he would have to announce that, sadly, the Pair had succumbed to the disease.

 

Sitting back down in his chair he stared at the papers again. He picked up the phone and punched in a short number. "Chan, it's Dr Richards. Sandburg's still in the lab? – Okay, take Ellison in in about thirty minutes." He put the phone down and gathered up the papers. Time to get back to work.

 

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

Simon Banks strode of the plane and Megan Connor struggled to keep up.

 

"Captain, hold on a minute," the dark-haired Australian puffed out.

 

The tall man stopped and turned a rueful grin on his face. "I'm sorry, I just want to get there as soon as possible. I forgot that – "

 

"Not everyone has legs as long as yours and especially me?"

 

"I…"

 

"No, don't worry, Cap. I'm as eager to get there as you."

 

The Major Crimes captain and the Australian Inspector had left Cascade the morning after the meeting in Banks' house. In the meeting Edwards had reported that their surveillance on Chancellor Edwards had revealed some very interesting phone conversations to various people in which unfortunately, she hadn't mentioned any names. However, in one conversation she'd booked a flight to Saint Paul for two days in the future. It of course, could be complete coincidence, but the fact that she'd had to wriggle out of a department meeting and a faculty dinner meant that her visit was obviously important and nothing to do with work. Her excuse of a family emergency sent the major Crimes detectives to detecting the whereabouts of all her relatives. Strangely enough, none of them appeared to be in Minnesota.

 

It had been agreed that both Clan members and representatives from Major Crimes should head for Saint Paul and hook up with the Clan there and William Ellison who had arrived late last night. As with Cascade, most of the Clan members were police officers in various departments across the State. It was a slight risk as there was no guarantee that there wasn't a corrupt sentinel or guide in the Clan, but it was highly unlikely. Hopefully, the Institute would be kept unaware of their actions. Carefully, nobody mentioned Alex Barnes, as it appeared that she'd been an anomaly. Or at least they hoped she had been…

 

Picking whom to send had been difficult, as everyone had volunteered. The obvious choice on the Clan side had been Edwards and his guide, David, but with the Senior Sentinel Prime absent, the Sentinel Prime decided it was better that they stay behind and hold the fort. So, Michaels and Langston with another Pair had headed out that morning. Sentinel Briggs and her guide, Vitell, were two female detectives from another precinct, but members of the Clan. Vitell had been a nurse before becoming a police officer and had worked in a sentinel/guide institute in another State.

 

Banks had pulled rank and declared that he was going. Megan was the Major Crimes member with the lightest caseload so it was decided that she could accompany him. No one mentioned that the woman was fiercely protective of the new guide ever since she'd been shot trying to protect him from Barnes. Neither sentinel nor guide had blamed her for Sandburg's kidnap by the rogue dark sentinel, but she felt that she had something to make up to them.

 

Not having bothered with checked luggage the two made their way over to the car rental counters. Within minutes they were standing in front of a large SUV checking the licence plate number against their rental papers.

 

"Well, you did ask Rhonda to reserve something that would be large enough to accommodate your frame," Connor murmured.

 

"But damn," Banks almost sputtered, "the only thing it's missing are the cow horns on the hood." He'd been expecting a nice sedan with all the extras not this… this… gas guzzler.

 

"Well, at least we'll fit in," Megan replied eyeing the vehicles parked in the airport car park. "Shall I drive?" She asked innocently.

 

Simon sent her a disgusted look and stalked over to the driver's side. She smiled sweetly and clambered into the passenger seat. Twenty minutes later they pulled into the car park of a hotel situated on the outskirts of the city that had been recommended by the Minnesota Clan.

 

"I hope at least Rhonda booked two rooms," the captain growled as they walked towards reception.

 

Megan forbore answering knowing that Simon wasn't really maligning his very efficient secretary, but expressing his real worry over the situation. Minutes later she joined him in his room having dropped off her bag in her room adjoining his.

 

"I've called Langston. They'll be here soon." Simon was sitting in one of the comfy armchairs in front of the window his long legs stretched out in front of him sipping a mug of coffee made up from the complimentary supplies provided by the hotel. Airplane seats weren't comfortable for people of his height. "And they've managed to procure some guns for us."

 

She nodded in understanding and plonked herself down in the other armchair. As this was a somewhat covert mission they hadn't wanted to draw attention to themselves by checking in their weapons with the airplane flight staff. Edwards had arranged with the Clan here in Saint Paul to provide them with arms.

 

"I've also called Mr Ellison and he'll be joining us as well."

 

"Do you know whether he got in to see them?"

 

Banks' frown was almost the only answer she needed. "No. Apparently they were undergoing 'tests'."

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

Ellison was crawling the walls. An hour ago, as far as he could tell, Sandburg had severed their connection leaving him feeling bereft and frustrated. There'd been a spike in Blair's heartbeat and his emotions that had blasted down their connection like a bullet then – nothing. Even though his guide had been sedated he had still been able to feel their link, but now… He struck at the mirror in the bathroom hoping it would break and at least give him the satisfaction of having made a mark. Unfortunately, or fortunately for his hand, it held. He dragged in a deep breath. Why had he done it? Why had his guide cut the one thing that was keeping them both at least moderately sane? Because it had been a voluntary action; he simply couldn't contemplate the alternative…

 

He heard the door to his room open and stilled. Two sets of soft footsteps made their way to the bathroom door. Orderlies. Only orderlies wore those rubber-soled shoes that made that particular sound on the linoleum. Without even a knock, the door was opened and Jim stared into the face of Bubba. It was more than likely that it wasn't his real name, but the sentinel thought that it suited the particularly large orderly. Another large orderly that he'd christened Herc, stood behind and slightly to one side.

 

"Haven't you ever heard of knocking?" Jim demanded.

 

Bubba looked nonplussed for a moment. "You gonna come quietly or do I hafta shackle you?"

 

"Where you taking me?"

 

"Quiet or shackles."

 

The sentinel sighed. He was very tempted to resist just so that he could get rid of some of the frustration he was feeling. However, he also knew that he wouldn't be of any help to Blair if he was banged up. "Quiet," he eventually answered.

 

Bubba merely nodded and stepped back from the door. Sandwiched between the two behemoths they marched towards the lab. Outwardly he looked calm, but inside his heart started to beat faster. 'Please let Sandburg be there and in one piece,' the mantra ran through his head as he prayed to the gods of quirky guides and talkative anthropologists. The lab door opened and he peered through his eyes going straight to the gurneys with their massive restraints standing in the centre of the room.

 

"Ah, good." Dr Solomen was leaning against the empty gurney, but Jim ignored him.

 

The other gurney held a figure and he stumbled towards it something burning deep in his psyche, pulling him forward… He stopped. Oh, God, was that his guide?

 

"What have you done?" He roared and felt his control slipping. "What have you done to my guide?"

 

Chapter fourteen

 

Banks was pleased that the Minnesota Clan had had the foresight to book the hotel's conference room; getting eleven people in his room would have been a tight squeeze. Sitting round the table he eyed the Clan Senior Sentinel Prime and his guide comparing them with Ellison and Sandburg. Although they seemed to work well together they didn't have the easy camaraderie that the Cascade Pair appeared to have. He wondered whether it was because they were a Dark Pair or whether it was because they were simply good friends.

 

He stopped his wool gathering tuned back into what William Ellison was saying.

 

"… told him I don't know how many times, but he said that it was sentinel and guide business and that superseded even family contacts. This is ridiculous!" Jim's father was obviously agitated and was walking back and forth in front of the large windows. "I want to see my son!" He turned towards Simon, the only person he knew in the room. "Are they right? Can they stop me?"

 

The tall captain looked towards the Minnesota Clan members. "I believe Senior Sentinel Prime Sarenza can answer that better than I can."

 

"Please, call me Ricky," the dark-haired man said. "Unfortunately, Mr Ellison, Dr Solomen is perfectly correct. If a certified sentinel and guide doctor deems it's in the best interest of his patient he can refuse access to them."

 

"But how can I be… I mean… I'm his father. How can I not be in his 'best interest'?" There followed an uncomfortable silence, as the Pairs carefully didn't look at each other. "Well? Is someone going to answer? What are you keeping from me?" Ellison senior's glare held the full force of a successful businessman and one of the richest men in Cascade.

 

"We're not keeping anything from you," Langston replied. "It's just that we're touching on something we simply don't talk about with non sentinels and guides."

 

"Make an exception." Ellison's tone was sharp.

 

Langston sighed and pulled Amanda closer to him. "The bond is what keeps us sane. It's as essential to us as… as…"

 

"Breathing," his guide added and all the Pairs nodded in agreement.

 

"It's precious and fragile and outside factors can disrupt it so we protect it. If the Senior Sentinel Prime and his guide are sick and unable to bond then they're vulnerable."

 

Ellison stared at him a moment and then with a short nod he slipped into the seat next to Megan.

 

"Okay," Banks spoke to Sarenza, "what can you tell us about the Institute and Dr Solomen?"

 

"We've only heard good things." The sentinel looked at his Clan members who nodded in agreement. "Are you certain there's a problem?"

 

Connor sat up squaring her shoulders and opened her mouth.

 

Simon got in first. "We wouldn't be here if we didn't have genuine concerns." Seeing that wasn't going to be enough he presented all the evidence and suspicions they had regarding the Centre in Cascade, Dr Solomen and Chancellor Edwards. Once he'd finished Sarenza and his Clan members sat quietly thinking hard.

 

"Do you remember that Pair we met last year?" It was the second Minnesota sentinel, Raymond Loxen, who spoke. "They'd been at the Institute because the sentinel had had a problem with an allergic reaction."

 

"Yes," his guide, a young woman called Patsy von Roth, continued, "the sentinel said that he was sure something funny was going on, but couldn't quite put his finger on it."

 

"Okay," the Senior Sentinel Prime finally said, "presumably you have a plan?"

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

Blair let out a shaky breath and revelled in the physical contact with his sentinel. Jim had come roaring in to the lab and his anger had battered at his already fragile barriers. But what had hurt him the most was the almost unholy glee emanating from Solomen as he stood gazing at the computer monitors reading how the strong emotions were affecting the guide's brain waves.

 

"Jim," Sandburg had whispered, "please, stop. Calm down."

 

The roaring man had continued to rant and would have been tearing technicians and doctors limb from limb if the two large orderlies who'd brought him and another who'd been in the lab had not contained him.

 

Frustrated that he wasn't getting through, Blair had resorted to their sentinel/guide connection. *Sentinel, your guide urges you to calm. He needs you. Sentinel, listen to your guide! Look at Solomen. He's getting off on this, man!*

 

Ellison had calmed as if cold water had been poured over him and everyone had gaped at him in surprise. The three orderlies had held on to him just in case, but Blair had seen that all the fight had gone out of the sentinel even if his anger had still been simmering under the surface.

 

"May I go to my guide?"

 

The grad student had been amazed at how controlled Jim's voice had been even if he'd not been able to disguise his contempt at the situation. Solomen had nodded and once released, Jim had shot over to the gurney like a rocket. Not asking for permission, he'd undone the restraints holding his guide still and had gathered the smaller man into his arms.

 

"Shh, I know it's hard, my sentinel, but don't give them more data," Blair's voice had been nothing more than a breath and his arms were tight around the other man's waist.

 

"What have they done to you?" Jim's hand had gently rubbed across his guide's bald head.

 

And Blair had told him reliving the awful moment…

 

"Damn!" The technician cursed as one of leads got caught up in Blair's hair again. He tugged.

 

"Ow," complained the guide, "watch what you're doing." Even sedated the pain had been fierce and made his eyes water.

 

"Shut it," growled the technician pulling again. The lead came free taking quite a few hairs with it.

 

Blair laid his head back on the gurney and wished that his hands were free so he could rub the sore spot on his scalp. Taking a deep breath he tried to ride out the massive headache that had been building up over the last few days. He'd read up a lot on bonding including on how Pairs coped when separated for long periods. He never thought, however, that he'd end up being a case study himself and in such circumstances.

 

Another painful tug brought him out of his thoughts.

 

"This is ridiculous," the technician said disgustedly. "He's too hairy. I can't get the pads to stick."

 

"Oh, for goodness sake," Solomen's voice came from behind the bank of monitors on Blair's right, "shave it off if you have to."

 

'No, no, no!' Blair screamed inside his head. His sentinel loved his hair. He said its softness calmed him and he loved counting all the colours contained in its locks. Sandburg slammed down on the connection he had with Jim. He couldn't allow the other man to feel his distress or he'd probably do something stupid trying to get to him. The last thing they wanted to give Solomen was an opportunity to study a dark sentinel in Blessed Protector mode.

 

He closed his eyes as the technician started hacking at his hair and tried thinking of other things. However, he couldn't help a tear snaking down his cheek as the heavy tresses floated down to rest on his shoulders. A buzzing sound made him shudder and as the electric razor scraped across his head he had to use all his will power not to call out to Jim. Once it was over all he wanted to do was run his hands over his skull that felt uncommonly light and exposed. He shivered as cold electrodes were pressed onto his skin. 'It's only hair,' he said to himself. 'It'll grow back. And anyway look on the bright side, at least Jim won't be moaning about hair in the drains. And think of the money I'll save on shampoo and gel.' Somehow it didn't make him feel better…

 

"Don't worry, Chief, it'll grow back," said Jim unconsciously echoing what Blair had said to himself earlier. He dropped a kiss onto the exposed skin and tried to keep his tone light. He knew that he wasn't fooling his guide, but it was all he could offer him at the moment. Fortunately, they'd been led back to the room that they'd shared before they'd been separated. The first thing they'd done was to bond fully and they both now felt immeasurably better for it.

 

He grinned as he remembered the doctor's expression as he realised that his ploy hadn't worked and the readings he was hoping for from his experiment hadn't reached his expectations. He quickly sobered, as he had to acknowledge that they were playing a dangerous game. If Solomen wasn't getting any results he wouldn't have a reason to keep them any longer and somehow he didn't think he'd be sending them back to Cascade.

 

"Hmm, Jim?" Blair stirred in his arms as he felt his sentinel's worry through the bond.

 

The detective leant down until his lips were only millimetres away from his guide's ear. He mourned the fact that before he would have complained about getting a mouthful of hair, but he resolutely put that thought out of his mind. "I really do think we have to come up with a plan for getting out of here."

 

Chapter fifteen

 

"So, it's agreed," Simon said realising that somehow he'd become the leader of this little band of… He searched for a word that would describe this disparate group of people, but came up empty, "William will start on finding a lawyer and making a lot of noise that hopefully will keep them distracted. Connor and I are the pesky visitors that won't go away. The Minnesota Clan will hit the streets getting as much information as possible on the staff in the hopes of finding some way in. Briggs and Vitell will be joining you.

 

Langston and Michaels will also be blitzkrieging the Institute on behalf of the Cascade Clan. Everyone okay with what they're doing?" He watched as there were nods all around. "Right, well I suggest that we call it quits for tonight so we can get an early start tomorrow?"

 

Sarenza stood up and his Clan members followed. "We'll start our investigations tonight." He turned towards the two Cascade Pairs. "In the absence of your Senior Sentinel Prime I assume the watch. Your Clan is our Clan, your problems are our problems until correct order is re-established."

 

Simon looked on interested as Langston, Michaels, Briggs and Vitell stood in their turn.

 

"In the absence of our Senior Sentinel Prime we accept your watch." Langston's voice was calm and strong. "Our Clan is your Clan, our problems are your problems until correct order is re-established."

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

Jim woke up when the door to their room opened accompanied by the smells of toast and orange juice. He waited until the door closed again and opened his eyes. Blair's back was pressed up against his chest and sometime while they'd slept he'd pulled Jim's arms around him and was clutching both hands in his. Blair's bald head was pressed under Jim's chin and he swallowed as reality hit him.

 

"Jim?"

 

Damn! He'd not schooled his thoughts quick enough and Blair had obviously had picked up on his anger.

 

"It's okay, Chief. Time to get up, breakfast's here."

 

The grad student sat up with a groan and rubbed his face with his hands. One strayed up to brush missing curls and he stilled. "Well, showering will be quick this morning," he said and scrambled off the bed.

 

"Have breakfast first."

 

"I'm not hungry." He moved past the bed, but the sentinel caught his arm.

 

"Chief…"

 

"It's okay, man." Blair kept his eyes on the floor. "I just need to process."

 

"Blair, look at me." At first there was no movement. "Please." The head came up slowly until his guide's face came into view. God, his eyes looked huge and for the first time Jim realised how much weight the younger man had lost. He tamped down on his anger. Blair was suffering enough. He didn't need to deal with strong emotions just now. "Chief, I know you're upset and you have every right to be, but please believe me when I say it doesn't matter to me what you look like. You could be painted blue and have a bone through your nose and I'd still want you as my guide.

 

"You are so much more than your hair. You're intelligent, funny, steadfast, innovative… I could go on forever and still not touch on who you are and what you mean to me." He paused. "I just wanted you to know." He peered anxiously at the younger man then breathed a sigh of relief as a small smile crossed Blair's face.

 

"You know for an anal, tight-lipped, out-of-touch-with-your-feelings sort of guy you don't do too badly," he said giving Jim a big hug. "But can I at least go for a pee?" He asked into his chest. He grinned to himself as he felt a hand lightly tap the back of his head.

 

"Get thee gone, imp," Jim's voice held a smile as he let the smaller man go; crisis averted, for now.

 

Over their meagre breakfast the conversation turned to more serious things. Sitting close to each other they tried their new ability to converse inside their heads. Nothing happened. They tried sitting apart. Nada. Admittedly, it was difficult trying to communicate non-verbally while also holding an inane conversation for anyone who was listening. Jim was finding it harder than Blair the king of multi tasking. Feeling totally frustrated they moved into the bathroom to wash up and take advantage of the sound of running water to mask their conversation. Even so, they had to be careful just in case the opposition had a rogue sentinel listening in. A well-trained sentinel would be able to block out what they didn't want to listen to and concentrate on what they were saying.

 

Jim got the shower running and stood close next to Sandburg at the washbasin where he was putting toothpaste on his toothbrush. He started to say something, but the younger man held up a hand. He then realised that the guide had on what he called his 'working through a problem' face. He left him to it knowing that his quirky brain and formidable intellect would come up with something. So he quickly undressed and stepped under the steaming water. Caught up in the tactile pleasure of the hot water pounding onto his stressed body he yelped as a cold hand landed on his back.

 

"Push over a bit, man." Jim turned and tried to glare at his guide who'd climbed into the cubicle with him. However, Blair cut him short. "Wash my back for me?"

 

The sentinel awkwardly picked up the non-perfumed shower gel and squirted a generous amount on Sandburg's back. He started to soap up the shorter man's back and when he'd felt how tense the muscles were he turned it into a massage. Sensitive fingers found knots and smoothed them out to the tune of soft moans that were getting louder.

 

"Well, if anyone listening had questions about what two grown men are doing in the shower together your vocal display has just about told them."

 

"Sorry, it just feels so good. Bend closer."

 

For a couple of seconds Jim didn't react until his brain worked out what Blair had just said. Leaning forward slightly he leant his forehead on the back of his guide's bald pate. "What's up?" He whispered.

 

"Remember when you saw through my eyes the first time? What was going on?" Blair's voice was less than a whisper, but Jim easily heard it.

 

He grimaced, as he didn't like thinking about the circumstances. "Barnes was just about to skewer you," he said drily.

 

"And the second time?"

 

"We'd been separated for a few days and you were undergoing some tests."

 

"So, suffice to say, both times we were feeling pretty emotional, stressed even."

 

"Uh huh." Ellison was beginning to see where this was going.

 

"And when I did my frying people's brains out thing. I was pretty distressed then as well, wasn't I?"

 

"Uh huh."

 

"So, to test this out we need to get emotional. I know it's going to be difficult for you, but if you think of me driving your truck and getting it scratched you should quickly get into the right frame of mind."

 

The detective slapped the other man's right buttock. Secretly he was pleased to hear Blair's teasing. He knew his guide was strong and giving him something to work out was a clear way of getting him out of any funk he was in.

 

"Ow!"

 

"Okay, smart ass. You're pretty clean now, so you can get out and give me some space."

 

Silence reigned as both men concentrated on creating the connection that went beyond their bond. Jim briefly wondered what Blair was thinking about before settling his thoughts on how angry and frustrated he felt over how they'd been kidnapped and experimented on. He pictured his guide lying in his hospital bed struggling for breath when they'd all thought he'd been infected with a virus. He recalled every groan and scream the younger man had made when he could no longer take the experiments in silence. He…

 

*Jim?*

 

"Yes! Chief…"

 

*Speak in your mind, man. And don't shout.*

 

*Yeah, okay. Sorry.*

 

*I can see you're still in the shower. Feel like coming out any time soon?*

 

The sentinel turned off the water, stepped out of the cubicle and grabbed a towel. Sandburg came in dressed in the sweats they'd been given to wear when they weren't being experimented upon. "I know your senses are better, but I noticed that you still have those nasty marks where you obviously couldn't resist scratching. I want to put some antiseptic cream on them."

 

Early on, Blair had asked for a sentinel/guide first aid kit so he could treat the consequences of Jim's sensitivities. He knew that the detective was still uncomfortable when he lost control so he was careful to keep his tone matter of fact.

 

"Okay, Chief, but I get to treat you as well. I saw those injection points on your arms and even though those restraints are padded your wrists are fairly raw."

 

Leaning over Jim while slathering antiseptic cream on his arms, Blair leant forward so the other man's mouth was near his ear. "So, it worked," he whispered knowing that Jim could hear him.

 

"Yeah, but it's difficult if each time we want to use it we have to get all emotionally worked up."

 

"Turn your arm over," Sandburg said out loud then lowered his voice. "If you'd done those tests like I'd wanted to we would probably have control over it by now."

 

"Moan, moan, moan. And anyway, what about the tests on your ability?"

 

"Moan, moan, moan."

 

"I think the next time you're in the lab you're gonna have to try it."

 

"I don't know if it'll work on non sentinels or guides."

 

Jim placed an arm around the smaller man's shoulders and pulled him close into his chest. He knew that although Blair had come to terms with the fact that he'd killed a sentinel and fried a guide's brain to save his own life and by default, his sentinel's, he still had nightmares about it.

 

"But…"

 

Blair held up a hand. "But I'll try if it means getting us out of here."

 

The sentinel pulled his guide closer as he felt tremors run through the young man's body.

 

Chapter sixteen

 

"Look, mate, I don't care what the doctor says. I want to see my fiancé even if I can't speak to him. Surely I can look through a window at least? My Sandy will know I'm there."

 

Banks was impressed by Megan's performance as a frantic woman desperate to see her sick boyfriend. The poor receptionist was also buying the performance and was holding on to his patience by the skin of his teeth. The captain decided to increase the pressure.

 

"Have you informed Dr Solomen that I'm here? Captain Simon Banks, Cascade Police Department."

 

"Um, yes. Just hold on a moment, please." The receptionist stood up and disappeared through the door behind him.

 

"I think we've got him on the run, Captain," murmured Connor. They'd been piling on the pressure for about fifteen minutes now.

 

"Yeah, but he's not the one we want."

 

A few moments later the man was back. "I'm sorry, but as I said, Dr Solomen's not available and he's the only person who can authorise access to the isolation ward."

 

"Well, where is he? You're trying to tell me that he's the ONLY person who has the relevant authority? What happens when he's on vacation?" Banks' voice rose so that the other people in the reception area turned in interest to see what was going on.

 

"Um, he appoints someone before he leaves."

 

"So, where is he now?"

 

"He's busy. If you want to leave your telephone numbers I'll make sure he calls you as soon as he's free. If you could…"

 

"Not good enough, mate," Megan's declaration cut through his quiet explanations. "I haven't seen my fiancé in days. I don't know how he is, how he's doing. Please, you've got to help." Her voice broke and a tear spilled out of her right eye.

 

"Can I help?"

 

Banks and Connor turned to see a rotund gentleman in an expensive suit standing before them with a taller, younger man standing just behind.

 

"And you are?" Simon stood up straight in a not too subtle show of dominance.

 

"Edgar Wortherington III, Professor of Medicine and Administrative Director of this Institute."

 

"Strewth," Megan whispered.

 

"Well, then maybe you can help us? I'm Captain Simon Banks of the Cascade Police Department, Washington State. This is Inspector Megan Connor who's engaged to one of my men. You've had two of my men here for a number of days and I would very much like to see them. However, Dr Solomen seems to be strangely unavailable."

 

"Dr Solomen is in charge of the therapeutic side of this Institute. If he says that seeing your men is impossible at the moment then I'm afraid you'll just have to take his word for it."

 

"No good enough."

 

"Well, you'll just have to. You know that with sentinels and guides treatment just isn't the same for others…"

 

"I do know, Mr Wortherington…"

 

"Professor Wortherington."

 

"I do know how to behave with sentinels and guides, Professor Wortherington. I have worked with many and count them among my friends so I do know how to keep my emotions in check. I really can't see how simply getting to see my men could put them in danger."

 

"Really, I…"

 

"How can I be dangerous for Sandy? I love him…"

 

"If you bear with me I'll see what I can find out for you." The professor walked off his back stiff and his head held high. The younger man, who'd never been introduced, smiled at them wanly and scurried off after the rotund administrator.

 

Simon and Megan looked at each and smiled grimly.

 

Dr Solomen looked up in annoyance as his office door opened. "Edgar," he said dryly, "do come in."

 

"Gustaf. We have a problem."

 

"What? If it's about Captain Banks and some Australian woman down in reception, I already know."

 

"So, what are we going to do about it?"

 

"Stall them. I just need a little more time. The last figures are quite interesting. There's something…" He trailed off as he looked down at the papers scattered on his desk.

 

"I'll do my best, but that's not all." He waited until the doctor looked up at him.

 

"Hmm?"

 

"Chancellor Edwards will be here tomorrow lunch time."

 

"What on Earth…? Why the hell is she coming?"

 

"No idea."

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

"I'm Attorney Bernard Schlomberg, and my client, Mr Ellison, would like to speak to Professor Wortherington and Dr Solomen. Now, if at all possible."

 

The poor beleaguered receptionist looked back at the angry looking man and the superior looking lawyer. "I'll just see if he's available." He picked up a phone and dialled a number. "Mrs Slocum, I have a Mr Ellison with his attorney and they'd like to see Professor Wortherington as soon as possible. Uh huh. Okay, I'll tell them." He put the phone down. "Professor Wortherington is in an important meeting at the moment. It's due to finish in about thirty minutes. If you'd like to take a seat over there Professor Wortherington will see you as soon as he's free."

 

Schlomberg nodded at Ellison and they moved to the comfy seats that were placed near the large windows near the entrance to the hospital. Forty-five minutes later the attorney was just about to get up to see what was taking so long when a woman approached them.

 

"Mr Schlomberg, Mr Ellison?"

 

The two men stood up.

 

"I'm Mr Ellison."

 

"If you could follow me, I'll take you to see Professor Wortherington."

 

They found themselves in a well-appointed office where a short, rotund man was sitting in front of a vast expanse of desk.

 

"Please sit down. I'm afraid I don't have a lot of time. What can I do for you?"

 

"I'm Bernard Schlomberg, Attorney at Law and this is my client, Mr William Ellison. His son, Senior Sentinel Prime James Ellison and his guide, Blair Sandburg, are undergoing treatment at this establishment. Mr Ellison has been denied access to his son by Dr Solomen."

 

"If Dr Solomen has denied access I'm not too sure what I can do. His word is final when it comes to medical matters."

 

"I haven't actually been able to speak to him directly," Ellison's voice sounded as if he was talking to a slow employee. "I understand that he's most probably busy, but I would have thought that he could spare me a few minutes to explain to me just why I can't see my son."

 

"I really can't say. The good doctor probably thinks that his time would be better spent actually doing his job."

 

"Professor Wortherington, under Article 112.3 L of the Minnesota General Health Act, family members have the right to visit a patient in hospital unless the patient has given express instructions to restrict such access or unless their treating physician has declared that such a visit would impair their patient's recovery.

 

Mr Ellison hasn't even had the courtesy of a phone call."

 

Wortherington stood up. "I'm really sorry, Mr Ellison. Dr Solomen is an excellent doctor, but his people skills aren't the best. Why don't you give me your telephone number and I'll make sure that he gets back to you today?"

 

"I have a better idea," William stayed seated. "I'll go and wait in reception and you let me know when Dr Solomen can speak to me."

 

"It would really be…"

 

"I've already spoken to a judge." Schlomberg also stood up. "If necessary, another sentinel/guide doctor can be appointed to carry out an independent assessment."

 

The administrator tracked Solomen down in the lab in the isolation ward. The doctor was inputting something into a computer.

 

"Gustaf."

 

"I'm busy."

 

"Ellison's father's here with a lawyer. He wants to see his son."

 

"Well, obviously he can't."

 

"I know that." Wortherington wandered over to the computer and peered at the screen. "I can stall him for a few hours, but he insists. The lawyer talked about getting a judge involved."

 

"Damn."

 

"How long do you need?"

 

"More than a few hours."

 

"I think if you went and spoke to Ellison you could put him off until tomorrow. Come up with some reason why it's not possible right this moment."

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

'Oh God, not again,' the Institute receptionist wanted to bang his head on the desk. Instead he pasted a stiff smile on his face and hoped that the sentinel in front of him wasn't listening to his heart.

 

"Sentinel Langston, you're not even family. The isolation ward has strict restrictions on who can visit."

 

"That may be true of general hospitals, but surely a sentinel/guide institute understands that Clan law over-rides normal practices? I've been sent by my Clan to check up on our Clan leader and his guide."

 

"Um, I understand your frustration…"

 

"Well then, we'd like to talk with Dr Solomen."

 

"He's really busy and that gentleman over there is waiting to see him as well."

 

The Pair looked over and saw Mr Ellison agitatedly turning the pages of a newspaper.

 

"Ah, Senior Sentinel Prime Ellison's father. If he doesn't object we'll wait with him. However, Clan protocol demands that at some stage in the near future I get to physically see our leader." With that he and Amanda strolled over to the comfortable armchairs.

 

Forgetting for a moment that he'd just been talking to a sentinel the receptionist kept his eyes on the Pair and scraped his hand through his hair. "Oh shit," he mumbled, "more trouble." He gulped and turned bright red when the sentinel turned and gave him a narrow-eyed look.

 

He picked up the phone and dialled a number that he'd already dialled numerous times that day. "Mrs Slocum, I have a pair from Cascade, Washington who wish to see Sentinel Ellison. I know, but I thought it important that Professor Wortherington be informed…"

 

"God, Edgar, three times in one day! I'm trying to speed up things here. If you keep interrupting me I'll never get things done!"

 

"It may be too late, anyway."

 

"What d'you mean?"

 

"A Pair from the Cascade Clan has turned up wanting to see Ellison and Sandburg. They're sitting with Ellison senior in reception. Look, we knew that this couldn't last for long. I was hoping for some sort of result before now, though."

 

"Oh, this is ridiculous. Okay, I'll go and explain to them that the treatment's at a critical point. They can see them tomorrow…" He raised a hand when the administrator went to protest. "I'll then inform them in the morning that unfortunately Guide Sandburg died during the night and his sentinel zoned massively and followed him soon after. Due to the contagious nature of the disease their bodies were incinerated straight after."

 

Chapter seventeen

 

"We've done this before. Not much I know, but in the four months we've been bonded you've made amazing progress. You CAN do this." Blair's right hand rubbed up and down Jim's arm while his left hand rested over his heart.

 

The sentinel had a hand on Blair's nape where a thumb rubbed the skin under his ear. "Push through it," his guide whispered. "Find where there's nothing and rip it apart."

 

Jim frowned. He could feel a headache growing behind his eyes. He'd been trying to get past the white noise generators for nearly half an hour and his frustration was growing. He was beginning to regret his reluctance to undergo the tests that Blair tried so hard to get him to do. He promised himself that once they'd got out of this situation he'd never moan again when Blair proposed he exercise his senses.

 

All of a sudden he felt something give and he heard voices. "… inform them in the morning that unfortunately Guide Sandburg died during the night and his sentinel zoned massively and followed him soon after. Due to the contagious nature of the disease their bodies were incinerated straight after…"

 

Blair felt Jim's heart speed up under his hand and feelings of anxious frustration poured through their bond. "What? What's up?" He spoke into Jim's chest.

 

The taller man bent down until his mouth was pressed up against his guide's ear. "Things are coming to a head. We're running out of time. They're going to kill us soon."  He pulled him closer as he heard the soft gasp.

 

"We have to do this then. No, I have to this. Oh, God, what if it doesn't work? What if it does work? I'll have to kill someone. Oh, man. Oh, man. Jim, I don't think I can, but I have to…" His breathing speeded up and became shallower.

 

"Shh, shh." Jim held him tighter. "I know it's hard, Chief. But please, calm down." His words were drowned out by the gasps and racing heart. Talking wasn't going to cut it. Bending even further he tipped Blair's head back until his throat was exposed. He gently blew on the skin at the junction of ear and throat and then sniffed. For a moment he bemoaned the fact that he wasn't getting a mouthful of hair. The smaller man's hands grabbed at his shoulders and he could feel the tremors running through his body.

 

Nothing was working; it was time to bring out the hard-core methods. He gently pushed Blair back until the back of his knees hit the bed and they tipped over. He carefully manipulated the two of them until they were lying on the bed. Blair's breathing hadn't calmed and Jim could feel the tendrils of panic start to bleed into him from their link. The sentinel pulled his guide's head back and gently bit down on his neck where he could see the faint marks of his teeth from when they bonded for the first time. As he did so Blair's mind exploded into his and he had a hard time preventing himself being swept up in the maelstrom.

 

Slowly, he brought calm to chaos and together they sank into the bond. Ten minutes later he reluctantly withdrew from Sandburg's mind. The other man mewled in protest and he tried to pull himself closer into Ellison's chest.

 

"Chief, come on. You need to wake up."

 

"Five mr m'nts, man."

 

Jim snorted softly. As much as he'd like to give Blair the time to recover from his panic attack and the brief bond, they had to get out of the hole they were in. "Blair, you can sleep later. For now we have to get going."

 

"Wha..?"

 

He watched as the grad student, a veteran of end of term marathons and nights of little sleep, pulled himself together. As awareness came into those deep blue eyes he also noticed the look of shame that crossed the face. Blair ducked his head, but found his chin caught in a hand that forced him to look into his sentinel's face. Testing the link between them his heart clenched as felt what Blair was feeling. Dark Sentinel took over.

 

"Guide, do not be ashamed. You have suffered much and everyone reaches their limit eventually."

 

Blair flushed. "I have let you down, my sentinel."

 

"Hush. You have never let me down. I am very proud of you and what you have achieved. We have only been bonded a short time and not under the best of circumstances..."

 

The guide reacted immediately to his sentinel's distress. He cupped the other man's cheek. "Although the circumstances of our joining were less than ideal I don't regret that we are now bonded. You are now part of me."

 

"So believe me when I say that what just happened is nothing that should concern you. You know I would not lie to you."

 

"You didn't flip like I did."

 

Jim realised that the Dark Guide had retreated and that small voice was totally Blair. He fought down the small internal voice that was telling him to hurry up. The man was hurting. Although Blair was extremely intelligent, very personable and, truth to be said, sometimes a bit arrogant, he was also very insecure when it came to what he perceived as Jim's abilities as a detective and former Ranger.

 

"You're an empath, Blair. You feel things more strongly than me. It's what makes you able to understand people better than I. Your insights into human behaviour have helped on numerous cases. So don't be upset you're made the way you are. I'm not. We complement each other. We're a great team."

 

"Your brawn and my brains?"

 

The detective laughed and went to ruffle the man's hair, but quickly pulled his hand back when he remembered there was no hair to ruffle.

 

"I'm sorry, Jim."

 

"Ah, no apologising. All right?" He pulled Blair closer so he could lower his voice. "Could you use your vast intellect to get us out of here, then?"

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

"Ellison, Sandburg, come with me." Solomen jerked the gun he was holding as he walked through their door.

 

The two men stood up slowly and Jim moved in front of Blair. Not that he thought he'd be great protection against a bullet.

 

"Why don't you let us go? People must be worried about us and starting to ask difficult questions. What the hell are you going to do?" Jim tried knowing that really he didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of persuading the man to release them.

 

"Just get going. I need your brains not your kneecaps."

 

Reluctantly, the two men shuffled out to find themselves face to face with a short, plump man who was awkwardly holding a gun. Ellison gripped the back of Sandburg's neck placing his thumb just under his ear. He concentrated in sending his hearing out trying to punch through the white noise generators. Blair put his hand in the small of his back and started to gently rub it through the sweatshirt.

 

The plump man gestured with his gun and they slowly moved through the little vestibule into the Isolation Ward proper. Jim squeezed Blair's neck, their signal for Blair to start, and he felt the smaller man's pulse begin to speed up. There was no guarantee that it was going to work, but they were running out of time. He'd checked, as far as he could with white noise generators everywhere, and he couldn't detect anyone else in the near vicinity.

 

"Dial it down, man," Blair's voice was a whisper. "As far as you can." He shuddered as he remembered what he'd done to Alex Barnes. He didn't want his own sentinel suffering the same fate. Dialling down was the only defence they could think of for the moment.

 

Wortherington went to open the lab door while still keeping an eye on the Pair and the gun trained on the sentinel. He looked a mean SOB and had no illusions about what he'd do to him if he managed to get out of their control. He lifted a hand and rubbed it across his forehead. He had a headache that was growing second by second. Hardly surprising considering the strain he was under. He was beginning to wonder why he'd agreed to Solomen and Edward's experiments. He pushed the door open and switched on the lights.

 

"C'm on, Edgar. Get a move on." Solomen was impatient and Wortherington was holding things up. They had limited time before he had to kill the Dark Pair (and wasn't that a waste?) and there was something that had happened the last time that he wanted to explore further. He knew it was risky doing this without lab assistants, but the less people involved in their deaths the better. It was also why they doing this so late at night. Now, his head was killing him. "Edgar!" He leant round the large sentinel to see what had stopped the other man.

Wortherington was leaning against the door jam, his face ashen and the gun in his hand was shaking. A shaft of pain speared the doctor's head and he felt sweat break out on his body. He took a sideways step so he was facing the Pair. It felt like he was walking through quicksand. The sentinel's eyes were clenched tight and he was swaying slightly. He was also mumbling something under his breath that the doctor couldn't catch.

 

The guide, however, was staring right at him with an intensity that made him gulp. For a moment, the blue eyes seemed to glow and the pain in his head spiked. Solomen heard someone keening and realised that it was himself. What was the guide doing to him? He had to stop him. He tried to bring the gun up, but a large hand took it out of his nerveless fingers. A thump behind him told him that the administrator was down. God, he was hot and his head… He hit the floor and curled into a ball trying to escape the pain. Vaguely, he heard another body crash down and wondered who it could be. Darkness claimed him.

 

Chapter eighteen

 

Simon cursed as his mobile phone rang. He searched for the bedside light and then grabbed the offending item.

 

"Banks," he growled and peered short-sightedly at the bedside clock: 11:43 PM. He'd been asleep approximately twenty-five minutes! 'This had better be good,' he thought.

 

"Sorry to disturb you, Captain. It's Sentinel Edwards."

 

The big man rapidly became more awake. "Edwards, what's going on?" He fumbled for his glasses bringing the hotel room into sharp focus.

 

"I've just been informed that Chancellor Edwards advanced her trip and got on a flight to Saint Paul thirty minutes ago. She should be landing in about two hours."

 

"Any idea why she's advanced her travelling plans?"

 

"She got a phone call that seemed to agitate her. Unfortunately, we couldn't hear what the other person was saying. She took the call in a professor's office and we hadn't got that one tapped. Anyway, whatever she heard made her change her flight pronto and she left without even picking up her suitcase."

 

"Okay. Thanks for that. We'll keep an eye on her and see where she goes." He hung up the phone and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Why did sitting around doing nothing tire him more than a gunfight? He and Megan had returned to the Institute at lunchtime after getting a phone call from Wortherington's PA to say that Dr Solomen could see them briefly later that afternoon.

 

They'd arrived at reception at the end of the afternoon to find Ellison senior and the senior Cascade Pair also waiting. After being bored for more than an hour an orderly had come and taken them to the doctor's office. They'd listened to him waffling on about that it was a crucial moment in Ellison and Sandburg's treatment and that they were very sick and he was sorry that the news wasn't so good and if they came back tomorrow morning he'd allow them to look in on them for five minutes.

 

Simon hadn't believed a word of it and neither, it appeared, had anyone else. Unfortunately, without more evidence there wasn't a lot they could do. For the moment they had to be contented with the promised visit and hope that the Saint Paul Clan came up with something.

 

That, unfortunately, was wishful thinking. After meeting up again at the hotel, Sarenza had told them that they had some promising leads and were trying to confirm some rumours, but that was as far as they had got. The Clan had put a watch on Dr Solomen, but up till now he hadn't left the Institute. Frustrated, they had gone out to eat at a sentinel-friendly Italian restaurant and William Ellison had insisted upon paying. The Cascade contingent had retired to the hotel bar where they'd indulged in some expensive whisky and wines carefully not drowning their sorrows, again paid for by Ellison, and then went to their rooms early.

 

The captain had started to watch a basketball match on the television, but after twenty minutes he'd found his eyes drooping and he'd gone to bed. Now, he needed coffee, strong coffee. Fortunately, the room's drink-making facilities produced a coffee that wasn't all that bad. While waiting for the kettle to boil he called Connor and asked her to call Langston. Then he'd taken a quick shower to try and shake the cobwebs out of his tired brain.

 

Twenty-five minutes later found everyone in the hotel conference room. There was a state of the art coffee machine on a counter against one wall that had Simon purring in pleasure and he had his second cup in thirty minutes. Once the Minnesota Clan arrived they got down to business. It was decided that the Clan would follow Edwards, as she wouldn't recognise them. Banks had had the forethought to bring a photo of the woman so at least they'd know whom to follow. The others would hang back and keep in touch by radio or through the sentinels.

 

It was no surprise to anyone when the woman drove her rented car to the Institute. A quick check with the Clan members who were watching Solomen indicated that the doctor still hadn't left the place. At that time of the morning the car park was virtually empty and Edwards parked her car not far from the main entrance. Banks watched her disappear inside.

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

"C'mon, Jim, get up. Please," Blair's voice was full of the tears that he was desperately trying to keep from falling. His head was killing him and his whole body felt as if it were on fire. His sentinel had collapsed and was now lying with his head in Blair's lap his glassy eyes staring at nothing. "Oh God, please don't let me have killed him. Jim, come back. Listen to your guide. He needs you. I need you."

 

He wasn't too sure what exactly had happened with the sentinel, but suspected – and hoped – that he was in a massive zone. The grad student glanced at the other two men and winced. The fat man was lying on his back his body twitching and tears pouring down his face. Solomen was curled into himself lying very still. Blair could only see a portion of his face, but the blood under his nose was very visible.

 

As he'd started to attack their gaolers he'd tried very hard to separate Jim from the red haze that had been building up in him. Unfortunately, as the pain in his head had increased, he'd found his control slipping. For a moment, it had appeared that the sentinel wasn't suffering as much as the others and Blair had taken heart. However, just after Jim had taken the gun from Solomen, he'd collapsed. In his panic, Blair had focussed all his rage on the man who'd held them captive for so long and who'd put his sentinel and he, through so much hell. The doctor had fallen as if poleaxed.

 

Shaking, the guide was now trying to bring his sentinel out of his zone. After several minutes however, nothing was happening. It was hard to concentrate when he was feeling so rotten. The other two times he'd used his 'power' he'd past out. This time though, he'd hung on to consciousness with a steely determination. He couldn't lose control; there was a risk that if he did so he'd kill his sentinel.

 

Help. He needed help. There were drugs that would help Jim. Get him kick-started so as to speak. But he had no idea where they were. He looked again at the other two men; they weren't going anywhere. He stroked his sentinel's forehead with a feather-light touch.

 

"I'm going to get help. You be here when I get back. You hear me? Please, please hear me."

 

He gently placed the detective's head on the floor and using the wall for support, he pulled himself upright. He was moving with all the fluidity of an arthritic 90 year old, but at least he was up. What now? Looking around the room he tried to spot a telephone, but apart from the desk in the middle, it was empty. Making a wide berth around the plump man he staggered into the lab. Using the wall to keep him up he made his way to the bank of computers carefully ignoring the two gurneys with their straps standing in the centre of the room.

 

Ah, there was one. He lowered himself to a conveniently placed chair and picked up the receiver with a shaky hand. No dial tone. Okay, maybe it was like a lot of business phones and you had to dial a number to get an outside line. He pressed the zero and held his breath.

 

"Reception, how may I help you?"

 

"I… I need an outside line," Blair said shakily. He licked his lips.

 

"I'm sorry, sir, but that line is for internal calls only."

 

He quickly hung up. He had no idea who was in on their kidnapping and who wasn't. He had to get moving, there could be someone coming to check up on the call. 'Think, Sandburg, think,' he berated himself. If only his pounding head would let up for a minute! Moving back to his sentinel he carefully lowered himself down so he could touch him.

 

"Jim, can you hear me? Come back to me. Your guide's having a bad moment." Was that a slight twitch of the mouth? He couldn't be sure, but he waited a few seconds gently rubbing his hand over the older man's heart. "Okay, be like that."

 

Taking a few deep breaths to try and settle his nerves he gamely stood up. Looking around the room he went to run his hand through his hair as he always did when thinking. Encountering only fresh air made him swallow and he tightened his lips. Lowering his hand he made his way to the wide double doors that stood behind him. He squinted at them perplexed; they had no handles. He tried pushing them, but they didn't budge. Bending down so his face was only a few centimetres away he searched for a keyhole – nothing.

 

He huffed in annoyance very much aware that he was on borrowed time. He took a step back and spotted a large, grey button about waist height to the right of the doors. Leaning over he pressed on it. The doors opened with a soft swish and he found himself face to face with Chancellor Edwards.

 

Chapter nineteen

 

They stared at each other for several seconds. Then all of Blair's pent up anger, frustration and worry over Jim boiled over. His right arm came up and he delivered a perfect hook to the woman's face. For a second she just stood there then she staggered back hitting the wall of the corridor behind her. Her legs gave way and she slid down the wall to lie in a crumpled heap.

 

"Ow, ow, ow." Blair danced on his toes and shook his hand in the air. That had hurt! He was just going to walk over to see if she was really out for the count when he heard voices calling to him down the corridor.

 

"You, don't move. Police."

 

He looked round to see several people bearing down on him at a fast pace. Who were they? What did they want? He looked around in panic searching for something, anything that could save him. There was no point running. In his weakened state he'd probably take two steps before falling on his backside.

 

A tall, dark-haired man quickly caught up with him brandishing a gun. "Saint Paul Police, keep still."

 

Another, shorter man went towards the woman slumped on the floor.

 

"P…p…Police?" He didn't want to say too much as he wasn't sure who he could trust.

 

"Kneel on the floor hands on top of your head."

 

"What?"

 

"I said…"

 

"Sandburg?"

 

Blair looked up at the tall dark shape standing in front of him.

 

"Simon?" He felt two arms go around him and he burrowed into their warmth.

 

"God, Sandburg, what have they done to you?" He turned to Sentinel Sarenza. "It's all right this is Guide Sandburg."

 

"Oh, Simon. Jim!" Blair lifted his head and started to pull at the taller man. "Come on, he's here. He needs a doctor. This way. Come on."

 

Banks looked over at Sarenza who turned and told one of his Clan members to go find a doctor. He then followed the young guide through the double doors where three men were lying on the floor. One of them was Jim and his heart jumped in his chest. Suddenly, the room was full of medical staff and police officers and Blair was clinging on to him as if his life depended on it.

 

"Please let him be okay. Please let him be okay." Blair's litany was a constant murmur under all the hustle and bustle.

 

"Sandy?"

 

The young man turned towards the woman who'd been such a good friend when he'd first been bonded with Ellison. She gasped when she spotted his bald head and saw the dark smudges under his eyes. He looked truly dreadful.

 

"What on Earth's happening here?" They all turned to see a tall doctor with dishevelled hair standing in the doorway. "Professor Wortherington? Dr Solomen?" He took a step towards them, but was stopped when a tall man walked in front of him.

 

"Detective Sarenza, Saint Paul PD and Senior Sentinel Prime, Minnesota Clan. Who are you?"

 

"I'm Dr Peters. I'm Head of Sentinel/Guide Medicine and was called in when no one could find Dr Solomen or Professor Wortherington." His eyes were pulled over to where the two men were being worked on by medical staff. "Could you tell me what's going on, please? What's happened to them?"

 

"I will, but first of all I need to know in the absence of Dr Solomen who's the best doctor you have for treating a zoned sentinel?"

 

"Is the sentinel bonded?"

 

"Yes, but his guide," Sarenza indicated a bald man who was hovering over the third man on the floor while being held up by a big, black man and a pretty woman, "is in serious need of care himself."

 

"Dr Sara Bongrand. I'll call her and then you can explain to me exactly what's going on."

 

THTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTBTHTB

 

"Why isn't he waking up?" Sandburg was lying on the same bed as Ellison and was stroking his forehead with his fingers. He'd been treated for severe exhaustion and dehydration and a cracked knuckle in his right hand and had two drips feeding nutrients into his left hand. As opposed to Jim, he wasn't wearing a hospital gown, but a pair of sweats with the sleeves cut short. When the nurse had first presented him with the gown, Blair had flipped and it was only when Simon had suggested the sweats that he'd calmed down.

 

"I don't know," Banks replied for at least the tenth time careful to keep his tone calm and without inflection. He shifted again in the chair that wasn't designed for people of his stature and glanced quickly at the bed. Although he no longer winced, Blair's head was still a shock.

 

The guide was extremely fragile emotionally at the moment and his concern over his sentinel wasn't helping. Dr Bongrand had turned out to be a no-nonsense woman in her early fifties who nevertheless treated the guide with sensitivity and compassion. Blair had told them all what had been done to Jim and he since the sentinel had arrived in the Institute in a tired voice. However, when it came to what had occurred to put Jim and the two kidnappers in the state they were in he'd broken down.

 

"I did it," he'd sobbed and Megan had put her arms around him. "I killed my sentinel. It was me."

 

"What d'you mean?" Banks had asked the question gently. Although the Minnesota Clan and PD were present it had been decided that due to the circumstances it would be better if Blair gave his statement to people he was comfortable with.

 

"I'm a Dark Guide. I have this power to kill." He'd looked up at Simon. "D'you remember Alex Barnes? I did it. I killed her."

 

It was Langston who had, with great reluctance and only after speaking with Sentinel Edwards in Cascade, explained what had happened. As much as the Clan didn't want other people to know what Blair was capable of, it was important the doctors knew so that they could treat Ellison. Sarenza had declared the information Clan business and that vendetta would be declared on anyone who talked about this outside of certain circumstances.

 

Unfortunately, the information hadn't helped Bongrand and four hours later Ellison was still not quite zoned, but not quite awake either.

 

Banks looked up as there was a light knock on the door and Megan poked her head round. He put a finger up to his lips and jerked his head at the bed. Blair had finally succumbed to his exhaustion and was drooling on Jim's chest dead to the world. His sentinel, hooked up to a number of quiet machines and stuck with numerous IVs in his arms, was lying still his eyes open slightly so a sliver of blue shone out.

 

The Australian tiptoed in and sat in the other chair after pulling it close to the captain. "I've just got back from talking to Sarenza and his boss, Captain Schuman. Unfortunately, Solomen and Wortherington aren't in any condition to talk. In fact, it doesn't look like that the doctor's going to make it."

 

Banks sighed and hoped that Sandburg would have his sentinel there to help him if the worst happened. "What about Edwards?"

 

"Wellll," Megan's voice was full of smug satisfaction, "at first she denied everything. She was just here because she was concerned about Blair etc., etc. Unfortunately for her, Wortherington kept meticulous notes and her name is liberally noted all the way through them." She grinned. "To avoid having blood vendetta declared on her she's going to be giving up the financial backers of this little operation."

 

"Good."

 

Silence reigned for a few seconds as they reflected on all that had happened in the last few days.

 

"Oh yes, I nearly forgot." Connor pulled out a padded envelope from her handbag and handed it to Banks. "These are CDs with all the tests and results from Solomen's experiments. Ricky assures me these are the only copies. What should we do with them?"

 

"Destroy them."

 

The two of them jumped at the raspy voice coming from the bed.

 

"Jim."

 

"Jimbo."

 

They leant over the supine figure big smiles on their faces.

 

"How are you doing?" Simon gripped the detective's shoulder relief in his voice.

 

"I ache all over and my chest is wet."

 

"We can move him if you want."

 

"No!" Ellison managed to snake an arm around his guide's shoulders and when his exclamation caused the smaller man to half lift his head. "Shh, go back to sleep. We're safe."

 

"'kay. Five mints." The younger man rubbed his cheek across Jim's chest and then, with a sigh, sank back down into a deep, healing sleep.

 

"Simon, please. Destroy those CDs. I don't want anyone getting their hands on it no matter how well intentioned they are."

 

"Okay. Connor?" Banks held out his hand and took the envelope. Taking out six crystal cases he handed three to the Australian and opened the three he kept removing the silvery CDs. Together, they snapped the discs into the smallest pieces possible and put them back into the envelope.

 

"I'll take these and I'll dump them into as many bins as I can find," Megan said. "Good to have you back, Jim. I'll see you later." She walked out after placing a kiss on first Blair's bald pate and then Jim's forehead making him blush.

 

Jim sighed and turned so that his cheek was resting on Blair's head.

 

"You look tired, Jim."

 

"I am."

 

"I'd better tell the nurses you're awake and then we'll be needing your statement. Okay?"

 

The detective waved a hand then placed it back on Blair's shoulder as Banks walked out of the room. "We did it, Chief," he whispered shakily. "We actually did it."

 

Epilogue

 

Sentinel and guide stood on the loft balcony each holding a bottle of beer watching the sun slip into the sea. Blair smiled to himself as Jim's hand again ghosted over his head. As much as the detective said he loved the younger man's curls he seemed to be fascinated by the soft fuzz that was now sprouting. He moved closer so that their hips were touching and felt their link humming between them.

 

"You know, Chief, something's troubling me."

 

"Oh? What's that?"

 

"Why didn't our spirit animals turn up this time? I mean with that Barnes woman we were tripping over them. We could've used their help, no?"

 

"Mmm."

 

"C'mon, spill."

 

"What?"

 

"You're using that voice as if you know something I don't. So, tell me."

 

"I don't know anything, but I do have some ideas." He turned so that he was facing the other man. "We were really floundering when Alex took me. Lost even. And don't even think about feeling guilty. It's over, we learnt from it and we're better because of it. All right?"

 

Jim flushed and then nodded. His hand once more brushed the soft hairs on his guide's head.

 

"Well, I think that this time we had to find the solution ourselves. The spirit animals showed us what was possible, but we had to find out how to use what we we're capable of. Looking back now, I think that if we had really been in trouble they may very well have nudged us in the right direction. But I think we did all right, so they stayed away."

 

"Yeah, we survived, didn't we?"

 

"It did point out one thing, though?"

 

"What's that?"

 

"We need to do more tests."

 

THE END

starfishyeti: Snowy mountains (Canigou)
A/N: The usual disclaimer applies. I don't own them and no money is being made from this.

"Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing."
Barry Finlay, Kilimanjaro and Beyond

All he could hear was the chirping of the birds and the rustling of leaves as the breeze played through the trees. The sun felt warm on his face and the smell of pine filled the air. He stopped a moment and gazed up at the mountain looming before him. Rather than looking ominous, the sunlight turned the rocks golden and the peak rose majestically into the bright blue, cloudless sky.
He shivered with anticipation. It was a long way to go, but he was prepared. Nothing was going to stop him making it to the top. Shrugging his shoulders so that the pack nestled more comfortably, he grinned and set his foot on the path that snaked up between the rocks.

Blair opened his eyes and for a brief second wondered where his was. His head was filled with the images of mountains and blue skies: the last remnants of his fading dream. The sounds of someone else snoring in the room coupled with voices and footsteps resonating behind the closed door brought it all back to him. He stretched feeling his vertebrae pop and he couldn't help it; he almost laughed out loud.
He was in his shared dorm room in Rainier University Halls of Residence and today was his first day at that august establishment. At sixteen years of age he was now a freshman and taking his first steps to becoming Dr Blair Sandburg, world-renowned anthropologist. He leapt out of bed eager to start the day.

The path had become considerably steeper, but was still manageable. He had no idea how long he'd been climbing, but he'd certainly made some progress. Carefully, he turned round and settling himself on a large mound of grass he gazed out over the magnificent vista laid out beneath him. He and heights weren't meant to be friends, but he felt that the occasion warranted him taking stock of how far he'd come.
Below a river glinted in the sunlight and the forest stretched beyond it to as far as the eye could see.

He dropped his gaze to where there was an outcrop of rocks that had made the going a bit difficult for a while. In fact there were a couple of moments when he'd thought that he couldn't go on. The summit had seemed unobtainable. Fortunately, his natural stubbornness had come into play and he'd pushed forward.

He got to his feet and turned back to the trail. Things could only be good from now on; the end was in sight.

Waking with a snort, Blair pushed himself up onto his arms taking the paper that was stuck to his face with him. He'd fallen asleep while studying again. Sitting up straight, he pulled the paper off and spying the Burton monograph he pulled it towards him. He opened the page to the drawing of the sentinel and an eruption of laughter bubbled up from his stomach.

Suddenly, he couldn't keep still. He clambered out of bed and started dancing round the cold warehouse that he called home clutching the monograph to his chest. He'd done it! After all these years of searching, doubting his research, listening to his theses advisors telling him to change his dissertation subject, he'd finally done it. He'd found a sentinel. A real live sentinel with five, count that, Blair, five enhanced senses.

He collapsed onto the bed and looked again at the drawing he'd shown Detective Ellison the day before. "Oh yes, man," he said breathlessly, "you're gonna help me make it to the top."

He was tired and needed to rest for just a minute. Finding a fairly flat rock, he perched himself on it and gazed around. The normally blue sky was slightly overcast and the mountain seemed colder somehow. Looking up to the summit he was perplexed to see that it didn't look any nearer despite the fact that he'd been keeping a steady pace along the trail. Okay, not with the speed and assurance of the lower slopes, but he'd still been moving constantly upwards.

Letting his eyes fall to the river below he frowned. Rather than the blue, fast running water he normally saw, it appeared to be muddy and sluggish. Shaking his head he reluctantly stood up again. There was nothing he could do about it, so it was best he just concentrated on getting to the top. Rolling his shoulders, the backpack felt heavy. Facing the mountainside once more, he dug his heels and started up the trail once more.

It was the pain in his shoulders that shook Blair out of the sleep that had had him dreaming of mountains again. With a groan he lifted his head and surveyed his office. He'd fallen asleep on his desk again. Although Jim had apologised for reading the introductory chapter of his dissertation, Blair had felt a certain reluctance to going back to the loft with the man.

Claiming he had some papers to grade, he'd made his way to his office at the university. Intending to do some of the countless tasks he had to do as a TA, he'd instead merely sat at his desk eyeing the dark blue folder holding his dissertation. Deep thinking had brought forth no insights as to what he should do now and the hectic and emotional hours he'd spent at the PD that day had exhausted him. So, pillowing his head on his arms, he'd given in to sleep. He'd decide what to do later.

Damn, the rain was cold! It blew into his eyes blinding him and made the path treacherous. To prove the point he took another unsteady step and slid down the trail. Falling onto his hands he scrabbled about trying to find some purchase. Nails torn and palms scraped he managed to stop himself from sliding too far by slamming his chest down. Pressing himself into the ground he simply lay there for a moment trying to get his breath back.

Squinting against the onslaught of water, he tried to look up to see just how much ground he'd lost. It was difficult to judge, but he was sure he'd lost at least a few days of climbing. He managed a glimpse of the summit, now looking foreboding and distant. He dropped his head onto his hands feeling his breath hitch in his aching chest. Did he have the strength to go on? Did he want to go on?

The door opening woke Blair out of a light doze. He found that the plastic, oxygen prongs up his nose were uncomfortable enough to prevent him from sinking into a deep sleep. His heart sank when he saw that it was Megan and not Jim who was creeping through the door. He closed his eyes again wondering whether he could get back to the sun-soaked mountain he used to dream about rather than the cold, inhospitable place that it had become in recent years.

"Sandy?"

He dragged his eyes open again and found the Australian woman standing next to his bed.

"Hi," he rasped out and immediately hunched over in a fit of coughing.

"Hey, hey."

A soft hand rubbed his back and once he'd stopped hacking up his lungs another hand held a glass of water out to him. He sipped from it gratefully and brought his reddened eyes up to Megan's. "Thanks," he whispered.

"No probs, mate. Apart from the coughing how're you doing?"

"Believe it or not, better. My chest still hurts though."

"Yeah, well. I can understand why."

Silence reigned for a moment as they both studiously avoided the Jim Ellison shaped elephant in the room.

Megan broke first. "Damn it, Sandy!" She started pacing up and down in the small space. "I just don't believe it. It's my case and he and Banks have gone haring off to South America somewhere chasing that murdering bitch!"

"Wha?" Unfortunately, Blair's mental faculties were pretty much on par with the state of his lungs. "He's gone? He's not here?"

"Yeah, gone. Last night, the pair of them. Without even a word to me."

Blair sank back into his pillows despair clutching at his heart. He felt moisture on his face and thought for a moment he was reliving the moment when the murky water of the fountain had sucked him down. However, he realised that, in fact, it was the caress of cold rain.

"Oh, god!" His words were torn away by the blustery wind buffeting the mountain. He'd lost his backpack earlier as the wind had caused him to tumble back down the trail and now was in danger of losing his jacket to the wind's malicious fingers. Bruised, battered and scraped his ignominious fall had come to a jarring stop at the rocky outcrop he'd passed so long ago.

The wind seemed to laugh at him and a sob was his only reply. He was bewildered at how he had reached this point. Everything had been going so well. The summit had almost been in his grasp and the trail had been easy going. He didn't know what to do; didn't know what he was capable of doing. He certainly wasn't sure that he could make up all the ground that he'd lost.

Another gust of wind tore at him and sent his hair into his eyes and mouth. He clutched harder at the rock he was lying against. It looked as though the only thing he was capable of doing at the moment was to hold on to the rock.

Blair awoke to burning eyes and the tight feeling in his chest that meant he'd been crying. Apprehensively, he cast his eyes to his ceiling as if he could see through it to Jim's room above him. He heard nothing, which meant that he'd not been crying audibly. Or maybe he had been and the detective had simply decided to let him get on with it.

He scooted up in the bed until his back was up against the wall. He started to run his hand through his hair and then stopped. Despite his vehement declaration in the bullpen that he wasn't cutting his hair he was pretty certain that the academy would insist upon it. God, the academy. He was going to become a cop! Due to his mother's meddling and his complete ball's up as an ethical anthropologist he was crossing over the thin blue line.

But did he want to? Could he do it? Did he deserve to? How could he become an upholder of truth and the law after so publicly declaring himself a fraud? He felt as if he was drowning again and the only thing he had to hold on to was a small gold badge.

The wind had died down, but he didn't have the energy to move. He lay shivering against the rock simply 'existing'. After a time – he had no idea whether it was hours or days - he lifted his head to peer at the mountain peak, but it was shrouded in mist. Was this total despair he was feeling? Why was he going through this? How had his easy climb up a sunlight mountain turned into this fight for survival?

He was just going to lie here until he… A muted growl sounded to his left. He stilled. Another growl, louder and closer. Oh, god. It sounded like a bear. Maybe if he stayed very, very still he wouldn't be noticed? Unfortunately though, his recent luck was running true to form and he felt something tug on his sleeve and then a burning sensation in the arm beneath. A stronger tug had him sliding down the slope and as he picked up speed he looked back to see a large grizzly roaring upright on its back legs.

"WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU WERE DOING?"

Jim's voice cut through the noise of the police clean up of an operation gone bad. Blair winced as his strident tone notched up the pain of his headache.

"Please, detective," the paramedic treating him looked up, a glare on his face. "He's just woken up and your shouting isn't helping."

"Sandburg!" The paramedic glared at the newcomer, but Banks ignored him and advanced on his hapless detective, hands on hips. "Care to explain what on Earth was going on in that disorganised head of yours? How I'm going to explain to the Chief of Police that because of the actions of my rookie detective three of Washington's most wanted managed to escape despite the presence of more than 30 officers of the law? You're no longer a revolting student, but a detective. You have to be responsible for your actions. You can't go through life without realising there are consequences that affect other people. Well?"

"Sir," Blair's voice was thready, but firm, "I was doing my job."

"How can you…?"

"Captain, let him explain." Jim turned towards his partner, his arms crossed and his face grim. "I'd really like to know as well."

"There was a fourth person."

Simon opened his mouth to protest then snapped it shut when Ellison put a hand on his arm.

"I saw someone creep up behind you with a weapon in his hand. I called out a warning trying not to make too much noise and not warn the others. However, he didn't hear me. I saw him aim at either you or Jim and called out again. He turned and I shot at him. I… I… think I hit him." Blair swallowed.

"Detective, think carefully for a moment. The Baker Gang is made up of three, not four, but three members. Your partner was tracking them in the warehouse while all you had to do was make sure no member of the public strolled onto the scene. A job you failed miserably. I want your gun and your badge. You're suspended until IA rules on this. And I hope they throw the book at you!"

He strode away after receiving the requested items disgust at the situation evident in every line of his body.

Blair looked up at his partner who was staring down at him no expression on his face.

"Sandburg…"

"I saw him!" He hissed.

"How come I didn't…?"

"Isn't it enough that I saw him?"

Before Jim could reply the paramedic came back. "Okay, we have to get going. Careful, detective, I'm closing the doors."

"What hospital?" Jim shouted as the doors were closing. He heard a shouted 'Memorial'.

Looking around at the scene he spotted Banks talking to the Head of Forensics, Serena. He didn't look a happy man. Jim went over to join them.

"Tell Ellison."

Serena sighed and turned towards the detective. "We found a number of cigarette butts and a few splashes of blood where Detective Sandburg said he saw someone. We dug out two slugs from the wall above where you and Captain Banks had been standing. From the damage, it appears they'd been fired from a pistol with a silencer." She paused and looked up at the two men who were absolutely still and staring at her with frightening intensity. Very reluctantly she continued, "I can't say more for the moment, but on first impressions, it appears that the bullet that creased Detective Sandburg's arm was fired from your position."

Both men turned to look at the ambulance, but it had already left. Their shoulders slumped and they turned towards each other. Jim blinked. For a moment the image of a roaring grizzly was superimposed over his captain.

What was the point in trying anymore?

He found himself lying face down on the edge of a small bluff overlooking the river. Slowly, with almost delicate precision, the earth gave way and with hardly a splash he slid in to the water. It was icy cold and full of silt. He made an effort to kick up and his head broke the surface. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of the mountain peak. The clouds had parted and a ray of sunlight was illuminating the rocks in a golden glow.

And he finally understood; the mountain was too high for him. It had always been too high.

The door to the loft opening jerked Blair awake. The TV remote control slipped out of his hand and clattered to the floor.

"Hey, Chief. Sorry to wake you." Jim entered and hung his jacket on the hooks whistling under his breath.

"So, how did it go?"

Jim's enormous smile was answer enough. "She said 'yes'."

"Hey, congrats, man. Have you set a date?"

"She finishes her internship in three weeks, so we thought about a month after that. You'll be my best man, won't you?"

"I'd be honoured."

"And there's a cherry on the icing, too."

Blair raised an eyebrow.

"Amy's father runs a multinational oil and piping company out of Daytona, Florida. They build deep-sea platforms, refineries etc. And they need someone to troubleshoot problems that arise in countries that aren't too stable. The pay's great, the hours are better and I'll be pretty much my own man." He opened the bottle of beer he'd got from the fridge and took a long swig while staring out of the balcony windows. "I'll probably sell this place, but don't worry, there's no rush. You can take all the time you need to find somewhere else."

He finished his beer and stretched. "Well, I'm bushed. I’m off to bed. Good night, Chief."

The water closed over his head.

Coercion

Sep. 9th, 2012 12:06 pm
starfishyeti: Prison window (Alcatraz)
"I'm telling you, they suspect something," the young man ran his hand agitatedly through his long curls and paced back and forth in the empty hanger.

"How d'you know? Have they said anything?"

"Well, no, but…"

"Well, nothing," the detective with the pale blue eyes turned away with a dismissive gesture.

"Stop!" Putting a hand on the taller man's shoulder, the angry man's voice rose in volume. "I'm a guide, remember? You kept me there even though you know it's difficult for me because I'm a guide. I can feel things, remember? Surely what I've given you already is enough to take them down, no?"

"Guide Sandburg," the detective swung round dislodging the hand on his shoulder. He loomed over the shorter man and took a step forward pushing the other man towards the wall. "I haven't forgotten anything. Perhaps though, you've forgotten that we still haven't found your mother and if we can't find your mother we can't protect her, can we?"

"Jim, careful," the voice was so soft only the sentinel heard it making him stop advancing on his prey.

"Sorry, Joel," the words were conciliatory, but the tone matched the cold eyes. "Guide Sandburg, I know it's difficult, but we've almost got what we need. We need the big names, though, or they'll simply go elsewhere and start all over again. Just a couple of days more. You know that by getting what we need you'll be saving hundreds of guides from a fate worse than death." He watched the features before him flow into lines of resignation.

"Okay," Sandburg blew out a breath, "but if I get the slightest hint that anything's going to happen, I'm like, so out of there."

The detective slapped his shoulder and with an obviously false smile pushed him towards the hangar doors. "We have a sentinel team on constant watch, so they'll be there if anything goes down."

"But they can't hear past the white noise generators. I mean Dr Touring's developed this mega…"

"Sandburg… Blair. We have everything under control. Trust us. Trust me as a cop and a sentinel. You have your alarm, so if anything happens use it. Okay?"

Blair snorted, but allowed himself to be pushed out of the doors. He climbed into his battered Corvair and with a backward glance at the two men watching him he drove off.

Joel Taggart, former bomb squad captain and now working in Cascade PD's Major Crimes opened his mouth, but was interrupted.

"Don't start, Taggart," the voice almost growled.

"Ellison," a single word, softly spoken and Cascade's Senior Sentinel Prime, Major Crimes Detective First Grade James Ellison's shoulders slumped.

"Don't you think it's hard for me to send a guide into possible danger? But we need the information. God knows what those bastards are doing to them. Some of them are only children for God's sake!" He started towards the two men had left their car and Taggart had to hurry to catch up.

"I may not be a sentinel, but I also understand the need to save someone, ANYONE, from suffering. However, I also think that that boy needs to know that his mother's dead."

Ellison stopped and turned so quickly that Taggart had to take a step back to avoid being flattened. "And then what? He'd pull out and we won't get the names at the top. We've been on this for months. It won't make any difference if we arrest the lowlife. Those bankrolling this will simply go elsewhere and we'll be back to zero again."

"You're preaching to the choir, here." Taggart's normally calm voice held a hard edge. "I just think you're underestimating him. He's seen some pretty horrible things in those labs, had some bad things happen to him as well, but he's stuck it out for nearly six months now."

Ellison waved a hand in what could have been taken as an insult if the men didn't know each other so well. "He's just a grad student, Joel, not a cop."

"A grad student that's been on expeditions in dangerous situations…"

"And he's a guide."

And there lay the crux of the matter. Although great strides had been made in improving the laws regarding guides they were still seen as being weaker and needing to be protected. Ellison being a Dark Sentinel felt this even stronger than normal sentinels. It was tearing up him inside that guides were being illegally experimented on and that he was having to use another guide to bring the lab down. Unfortunately, this frustration often came out in misplaced anger.

Despite being found to be a remarkably strong guide at an early age, Sandburg's mother had defied convention and had refused to have him enrolled into a guide school. She travelled around the world taking her son with her and educated him herself. Which meant that everyone was amazed when Blair started university early, sailed through his degree and Masters and was now working towards his Ph.D at only 24 years of age.

However, this also brought him to the attention of some unsavoury characters. They'd lured him into their clutches through grants and interesting projects researching guide genetics. Chancellor Edwards from Rainier University had encouraged him to accept their offer, which surprised him a bit as she'd never been terribly enthusiastic towards the young student. Blair, unfortunately, proved that his intelligence was not a fluke and had discovered what was really going on. He protested to his boss thinking it was a few renegade staff doing the illegal testing. When he found out that the real purpose of the Centre was to try and find a way of controlling guides and through them, their sentinels, he informed them he was going to the police.

At first Edwards threatened firing him from his teaching job, then two men roughed him up a bit outside his warehouse home and warned him off and then when he still insisted they threatened him with the one thing guaranteed to make him toe the line: his mother. After a few weeks, though, he knew that he had to do something to save the poor souls that were being tortured in the name of 'science'. That his mother, being an activist saving everything from rainforests to battered women, would understand. Rather than go directly to the police he told a friend who was a guide to a police officer in the Cascade PD. The police officer told both his captain and the head of his sentinel clan.

In exchange for the police finding and protecting his mother, Sandburg had become a reluctant pawn in the fight to bring the criminal group down. Unfortunately, Sentinel Detective Ellison was running the show and he'd never met a more cold hearted, unfeeling bastard in his life.

Ellison and Taggart reached their car and climbed in. Just before pulling away, Ellison sighed and turned to look at his passenger.

"I don't like it either, Joel. I really wish we could do it another way, but you know pulling Sandburg out and trying to put in one of our guys would take, I don't know how long. And all those guides suffering… I just can't…"

"I know, Jim. I just don't like lying to him."

"A few more days and then it'll be over. I'll even let him slug me if it makes him feel better."

With that they left the scene each caught up in their own thoughts.

Sandburg meanwhile wiped his sweaty hands again on his jeans as he drove. God, he just KNEW something was going to happen and it was going to happen to him. He debated whether he had time to swing by his flat and change his clothes, but decided he didn't want to be later than he already was. He had to manage his meetings with the police around his work at the 'Centre' and often had to obfuscate as to where he'd been. He'd also change his clothes even though there were no sentinels at the Centre to sniff out where he'd been he didn't like taking chances. But he'd got a flat tyre and arrived late for his meeting and now had to get back.

He sighed. It looked like he was going to have to take a risk this afternoon whether he liked it or not.

CCC CCC CCC CCC

Jim Ellison gratefully shut down his computer and stretched his arms above his head until his vertebrae popped. It'd been a long day and the meeting with the guide had been long and hard. Recently his senses had been jumping all over the place and he was beginning to think that it was the proximity of Sandburg that was the cause. And that made him angry. The man and cop didn't want a guide, but the sentinel was calling out for the close trust and complicity that a true bond brought. For the moment though, he was denying it to himself and, more importantly, to those around him.

"Ellison, my office."

He cursed under his breath as Simon Banks, captain of the unit called out to him. He slowly walked over and entered the office redolent with the smells of coffee and cigars.

"Captain," he said as he eased himself into one of the chairs placed in front of the desk.

"You look tired."

"It's been a long day."

"Coffee?"

"No thanks. I'm swimming in the stuff."

"Uh huh." The dark skinned man nodded sympathetically and then changed tack. "Is that why you didn't come and tell me about your meeting this afternoon?"

"Uh, no." Ellison shifted in his chair. "You were at that meeting and then Dan asked me to examine that body they found down at the docks."

"Find anything?" The captain's question seemed casual, but his interest was great. Ellison had the potential to be a great sentinel if only he could control his senses better. That meant that bonding with a guide something he was quite reluctant to do not wanting to commit himself to having to share his life with anyone else. He was only holding on to his position as Senior Sentinel Prime due to a number of factors that required a fine balancing act.

His senses, when working correctly, were the strongest of all the sentinels in the clan, but only when they worked well. There were other sentinels, many of them bonded, who were eyeing his position with proprietary looks. None were in a position yet to challenge Ellison, but everyone knew that they were playing a waiting game. Banks, not understanding his detective's reluctance to bond, simply wanted him to get on with it so he could concentrate more on being a good detective. Fortunately, Ellison was in Major crimes due to his investigating talents, not his sentinel ones.

Banks didn't need sentinel sight to see the slight grimace on the other man's face at his question.

"Unfortunately, my uh, senses weren't, um, cooperating."

"Well, maybe it's time…"

"No, Simon. You know how I feel."

The captain sighed and rubbed the hand not playing with a pen over his head. "Jim," he tried to keep the exasperation out of his voice, "you've been saying this for nearly a year. And your control isn't getting any better. If you want to remain productive you need to bond."

Ellison jumped out of the chair and stalked towards the window. Leaning his head against the glass he cupped his hands behind his neck. "Not yet. I can't… "

"I really don't understand your reluctance. Other sentinels don't seem to have problems with being bonded."

"I like being on my own." The detective's shoulders slumped. "I don't want to need any one."

"What about this Sandburg? Joel says he's a strong guide…"

"Simon, just…" he was interrupted when his mobile phone rang. He pulled it out of pocket and flicked it open. "Ellison."

Banks looked up when he saw Jim push himself away from the window tight anger on his face.

"I'm on my way." He turned towards his captain. "That was Edwards out at the Centre. Sandburg set off his alarm. He's in trouble."

"Let's go."

Within minutes the two men were on their way down to the garage.

Chapter 2

The battered Corvair pulled into the car park in front of the imposing building known as the Centre. The setting was magnificent: the large, former clinic was situated in a beautiful park of mature plants and trees 20 kilometres from the city of Cascade. Unfortunately, the beauty hid a rotten core where evil men and women inflicted pain and suffering on children and young adults so they could get rich.

It was early afternoon and Blair was hoping that he could pass off his lateness as due solely to his flat tyre. He got the books (his excuse for being out of the centre) from the back of his car and made his way to the large double doors that stood menacingly in front of him. Taking a deep breath he pushed open the right one and slipped into the foyer. Compared to the bright daylight outside, the interior was dark and he blinked peering through the gloom.

"Guide Sandburg."

He jumped as a voice came out of the gloom to his right. Squinting, he recognised Dr Macintosh, Chief Research Officer. Or, Chief Torture Officer, as he liked to call him in his head.

"You're late."

"I'm sorry. I got a flat and…"

"Liar."

"What?" He swivelled round to the left where a woman's voice he didn't recognise sounded. "No, I'm…"

"Oh, you got a flat all right, but that's not all you did."

His eyes were now accustomed to the gloom and could see a tall, blond-haired woman stalk towards him. With a sinking feeling he felt his skin tingle with the typical reaction he got whenever a sentinel was near. With predatory grace she came closer her brilliant blue eyes fixed on his. Blair gulped and saw a small smile appear on her lips. One part of his brain was admiring the feline beauty the woman possessed while the part was screaming at him to just get the hell out of there. The second part won and he took a step back towards the door and bumped into something unyielding.

Strong hands grabbed his upper arms and he was brought to a halt. With morbid fascination he watched the woman lean into him and sniff. He tried to press himself back into the body holding him in place, but it was like pushing against granite. The woman moved over his body until she stopped with her nose hovering over the shoulder that Ellison had sniffed. The woman growled.

The woman actually growled!

"Sentinel," she uttered low in her throat. She moved until her nose was pressed into Sandburg's neck at the junction with his shoulder. She whirled round towards Dr Macintosh making the grad student jump. "You promised me the guide! Another sentinel has touched him."

The doctor bustled over and put a calming hand on the woman's head. "Alicia, calm down. Don't worry, you may have the guide just as I promised."

"Uh, Dr Macintosh…"

"Quiet, Sandburg. Alicia, he hasn't bonded. He can still be yours."

"Doc, I'm not bonding…"

"I said quiet!"

"But…"

"Tompkins, quiet him."

Before he could react, Tompkins had whipped an arm round his chest and had forced a handkerchief into his mouth. All Blair could hope for was that it was clean.

"Sentinel Bannister, Tompkins will take Guide Sandburg to the bonding cabin and you can bond with him to your heart's content." The doctor gently pulled the woman towards the door and nodded to the guard holding the young man.

Blair wriggled and fought and tried to spit out the cloth in his mouth, but to no avail. The guard merely lifted him off the ground and carried him like a recalcitrant child out of the building and towards a path that led to the left. The young man could feel a panic attack approaching; he did so not want to bond. And even if he did, he certainly wouldn't bond with this freaky sentinel who was sending out some seriously negative vibes. Just before he was swamped with the descending red mist of panic he remembered the alarm Ellison had given him.

Twisting his body round under Tompkins' steel grip across his chest he gripped the bracelet around his left wrist and squeezed. 'Please hurry. Please hurry,' ran through his head as they approached a small cabin nestling amongst some tall trees. He couldn't understand why they were heading for it. As far as he knew it was just a storage area for garden tools. However, when the door was opened and he was thrust inside there wasn't a tool to be seen. Instead he fell onto what felt like thin mattresses and they cushioned his fall a bit.

"Alicia," Macintosh's unctuous voice came from the door, but was interrupted by an almost inhuman scream.

"Get out! Mine! Mine!"

Sandburg looked up to see the slim woman pushing the heavyset doctor out of the door. This was his chance. One against one was better than three against one. Not that he was underestimating the sentinel at all. A sentinel in the thralls of bonding heat could call on some pretty amazing reserves of strength. Spitting out the piece of cloth in his mouth he got to his feet. Although dim, the lighting in the room was adequate enough for him to see that he was fucked. The walls and ceiling were lined with the same sort of matting that was on the floor; no windows, no doors other than the one they'd entered through. Or if there were any other openings they were well hidden and he didn't have the time to look. The sentinel had closed the door and was advancing on him in a most predatory manner.

"Uh, hi," his mouth was dry and he licked his lips. "My name's Blair and you know I don't really…" He yelped as he was pushed on to the floor and straddled by the female sentinel. He started struggling. "No, no. Get off me!" He bucked his hips and arched up off the matting. "I said, get off me."

He gave one almighty surge and tipped the woman off him. He scrambled upright and backed towards the wall keeping a wary eye on his adversary.

The sentinel stood up a cold grin upon her, he had to admit, full, luscious lips. "Guide," she almost purred, "come and bond with me. You know you want to."

"Err, no, actually, I don't." He started edging towards the door.

"You're calling to me. Can't you fell it?" Her eyes never left his and she matched him step for step.

"Sorry, you must have me mixed up with someone else. Look there are loads of guides out there who want to bond. I'm sure you can find a suitable one really easily. In fact, I have a few friends who I could introduce you to. There's Phil, he's great. Strong and kind and REALLY wants to be bonded. I'm really messy and I talk a lot. You'd get fed up with me pretty quick." He felt the doorframe with his shoulder and put out a hand to try and find the handle without losing sight of the woman. With relief he felt the smooth metal and gently pushed it down. It didn't budge.

Alicia's smile deepened and she held up a key. "I don't want another guide. I want you; a dark guide…"

"But I'm not…" He tried the handle again knowing it was futile.

She spoke over him, "Don't be stupid. Of course you are. I can feel it and why the hell d'you think they wanted you here anyway? It wasn't for your intelligence or your pretty looks." She pounced on him and he twisted away.

However, he tripped and as he landed he felt something snap in his right wrist. He grunted in pain and tried to push himself up, but she jumped on to his back forcing him back down. He screamed. Without knowing how, he found himself flipped over and staring into cold, lifeless eyes that glimmered with insanity. He grunted as she backhanded him violently a ring on her finger cutting the skin. His vision dimmed momentarily and then a sharp pain radiated down his shoulder from his throat. She'd bitten him. He felt her mind stabbing into his, but with desperate strength he threw her out.

She drew back as if she'd been slapped. "What did you do? Tell me." She shook him like a terrier with a rat.

"Keeping you out," he hissed between clenched teeth.

"You can't, you can't. You're a guide."

"And? News for you lady, this guide's not for the taking." He tried to twist away again, but by now she'd entangled her hand in his hair and was pulling his head back. "Aaaargh! You bitch!" She bit him again on exactly the same spot she'd bitten earlier only to find herself thrown out of his mind once more.

In fury, she punched him hard splitting his lip. Rather than it subdue him, for some unknown reason it seemed to enrage him more. She drew back as he jerked his head forward trying to nut her. How dare he? She was a sentinel, a dark sentinel and he MUST submit! Grabbing his hair with her other hand as well she slammed his head into the ground. He merely grunted. The mattresses were thick enough that they cushioned most of the force, but thin enough for the young man to feel some pain. Unfortunately, that didn't seem to be enough for her as she slammed his head again, and again, and…

Despite his best efforts, Blair couldn't fight against her or the encroaching darkness. Just before he lost consciousness he heard the door open.

"Alicia, quick. The police are here," Dr Macintosh puffed out sounding more than a bit anxious. "Come on, we need to get out of here."

The woman stilled then clambered to her feet. She bent down and started pulling at the young guide.

"What are you doing?" Macintosh was half out the door. "Leave him."

"No! He's mine." In a great feat of strength she hauled Sandburg off the floor and flung his arm across the shoulders. Fortunately, it wasn't the broken arm, however, his head felt as though it was about to explode. "Help me," the sentinel snarled.

"Don't be ridiculous. I'll find you another."

"I want this one. You promised."

With a long-suffering sigh the doctor grabbed the guide's arm. Unfortunately, this time it was the broken one and Sandburg screamed. Ignoring his moans they dragged him out of the cabin. Once outside the sentinel lifted her head and looked towards the gates of the park. "They're nearly here. I can hear them. We need to head to the trees."

They started along a path that climbed gently upwards towards a small formal garden. They'd almost reached the hedge surrounding it when the cavalcade of police cars, unmarked cars and an ambulance swept through the gates in a display of flashing lights and wailing sirens. They drew up in front of the building and the cars disgorged officers and…
Bannister' head whipped round her vision focussed in on a man who had climbed out of the lead car. Her lip curled back in a snarl. Even at this distance she could sense the other sentinel. He was the one who had touched her guide. He wasn't going to get him. Obviously though, he could sense her because his eyes unerringly turned to where they were standing on the path.

"Oh God," the doctor's voice betrayed his fear, "they've seen us. They're coming this way. I'm out of here. Leave him." With that he dropped the arm around his neck and darted through the hedge.

The female sentinel could feel the sentinel getting closer making her skin tingle. She pulled the guide into the garden and realised the futility of trying to escape. There was no way she was going to make it to the cars on the other side of the open space before the police arrived unless she ditched the young man. But she couldn't let the other sentinel take her guide. Her eyes lit upon the ornamental fountain sending water up into the sky.

Blair felt almost totally disconnected from what was going on around him. His head and wrist were throbbing in agony and his vision was greying in and out. All he wanted to do was lie down and not wake up until the pain had gone. However, the crazy sentinel obviously had other ideas. He felt himself being pulled forward and tried to dig his heels in. His legs felt like wet noodles though, and despite his best efforts he couldn't do anything to stop her.

After a minute or so he felt his shins hit something hard and he teetered. Instinctively, he flung his injured arm out to try and find his balance, but it was to no avail. He felt a hand on his back and then he found himself under water. He opened his mouth to scream and cold, dirty liquid flooded in. He coughed and more water entered. He couldn't breathe… he couldn't see… or think. Thrashing about only clouded his vision more as he disturbed the filth lying on the bottom. Suddenly it was all too much effort and cold lassitude stole over him. He closed his eyes one more time.

Chapter 3

Ellison could feel something pull at his senses. He got out of the car and slowly turned round examining his surroundings.

"There!"

His ears exploded with agony as Sentinel Edwards' voice sounded just behind him and he winced.

"Sorry," Edwards whispered sheepishly.

The Senior Sentinel Prime grunted and set off after the group. Edwards, his guide and two uniforms followed him. Within seconds the three fleeing people had disappeared behind a high hedge. Picking up speed Ellison sent out his hearing to try and determine where they'd gone. He cursed to himself as his senses were currently going through an uncooperative stage. "How many?" He whispered to his Clan second in command knowing HIS senses were fine because he was bonded.

"Three. Two together, one of them a sentinel and one non-sentinel moving to the west."

Ellison looked at the uniforms and gestured with his head to the right. They nodded in acknowledgement and moved off to chase down the single escapee.

"I can hear only one heartbeat now."

They all knew what that meant and sped up. Reaching the hedge they paused and in practised movements they took out their guns and, covering each other, they went through the gap. Nothing, except a few flowers, shrubs and an ornamental fountain. For a moment, Ellison's senses came back online and he could hear a woman's running footsteps and gasping breath.

He started to follow when David, Edwards' guide, called out, "Neds, Sentinel Ellison!"

The two sentinels spun round and at first couldn't see what David was pointing at in the fountain. The setting sun turned the sparkling water into a star-studded waterfall and for a moment Ellison could feel himself slipping into a zone. He then saw something red move in the fountain itself and with a shock realised that it was a body. Jerked out of his near-zone he hurried over as the other two men waded into the water and pulled the body out. Bedraggled long hair obscured the face, but with an almost visceral jolt to his gut he recognised Sandburg.

They laid the grad student on the grass and Edwards put a hand to the young man's neck even though with his senses he couldn't hear a heartbeat.

"He's, he's dead, isn't he?" David whispered.

"Yeah, but it's only been a short while. Hopefully we can save him." Edwards positioned two hands over the supine man's sternum. "David go and get the paramedics."

"But…"

"Go!"

David hesitated knowing that all they needed was to call them on a radio, but also knew his sentinel was trying to protect him from the emotional stress if they couldn't revive the Sandburg. Edwards' 'David!' galvanised him into action and he shot off back through the hedges like a gazelle.

"Ellison, you just going to stand there or are you going to help?" Edwards' voice came out in little grunts as he jerked down on Sandburg's chest.

The detective tried to shake himself out of the strange disconnection that seemed to have taken control of his mind and body. Moving to kneel by the head, he cleared the mouth with his finger, tipped the head back, pinched the nostrils and waited for Edwards to stop. Seconds later his mouth covered the cold and waxy lips and he blew. The two men lost themselves in the lifesaving rhythm; … press, press, breathe, press…

Voices and hands intruded into their concentration announcing the arrival of the EMTs. Within minutes one paramedic was squeezing air into Sandburg's lungs with an ambu bag while the other checked for a heartbeat with a stethoscope.

"No pulse," the second EMT said. "How long's he been in cardiac arrest?"

"No more than a few minutes," Edwards replied.

"Okay."

The two medical personnel continued working on the drowned man until after a few minutes the one performing heart massage stopped.

"Let's try atropine." With scissors she sliced through one of the arms of Sandburg's shirt and then the white t-shirt beneath. Taking a hypodermic out of her equipment bag she prepped his upper arm and injected a dose into it.

Everyone watched as she again listened with her stethoscope then looked up at her colleague. With a regretful shake of their heads the man and woman knelt back on their heels.

"Nothing," the woman stood up and turned to the two sentinels, David and Taggart who'd followed them into the garden. "I'm sorry, he's gone."

Their words came to Ellison as if through water and he shook his head trying to clear his ears. His eyes focussed on the dead man's blue lips and everything around him faded away.

"Use the power of your spirit animal."

He stared in astonishment at Incacha the Chopec shaman who had helped him when he'd crashed in the Peruvian jungle whilst on a mission as a Ranger many years before.

"Wha…?"

"Quick, you do not have much time."

Suddenly, he saw a black panther racing through a blue-tinged jungle with a large, grey timber wolf coming from the opposite direction. The two animals leapt towards each other and with a flash of light, they merged and disappeared. Ellison found himself kneeling beside the student. Putting both hands around the other man's face he stared into the slightly open, but dead eyes.

"Come on, Sandburg. Come on," he murmured, "don't give up. Don't do this."

He ignored Joel's hand on his shoulder and his quiet words, "Jim, he's dead. Let go."

"No, he's not dead. Sandburg, come ON!"

To everyone's shock the body under his hands convulsed and water erupted from the previously slack mouth. He quickly turned the man onto his side and held his head while Edwards shouted for the EMTs to come back. Everyone looked on amazed as the dumbstruck paramedics confirmed the seemingly miraculous revival and placed an oxygen mask over the shivering man's face. Quickly, they lifted him onto a stretcher, wrapped blankets around him and proceeded to carry him down to the ambulance.

CCC CCC CCC CCC

The waiting room clock gave another little annoying click just as the hour hand touched the twelve. Ellison glared at it. Every half hour, as had happened for the last two hours, that click would intrude upon his contemplation and he was getting fed up with it. The speculative looks he was getting from Edwards and David weren't helping his mood any, either. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the other sentinel move towards him an obvious question on his face.

"Your senses are better, aren't they?"

"Why d'you ask that?" He tried to keep his voice disinterested.

"We've been here two hours and every time the clock clicks you wince. I've never known your senses to be so steady or so sensitive for so long."

"Haven't noticed."

"Jim, something happened at that place," Edwards' voice was irritatingly calm as if he was talking to a scared victim. "We all saw the light."

"Nothing happened!" Ellison ground his jaw and David idly wondered if it was a sentinel habit because Neds did exactly the same thing when he was irritated about something.

Edwards wasn't to be swayed; he knew the Senior Sentinel Prime too well. "I think you started to bond…"

"No way…"

"…and David can feel it."

Jim closed his mouth with a snap and carefully avoided looking angrily at the guide. Edwards may be his second in command, but no sentinel would take kindly to another sentinel expressing any negative feelings towards their bonded guide. Fortunately, before he had time to compose another denial, he was interrupted by a doctor coming into the room.

"Are you here for Guide Sandburg?"

Edwards smirked as the other sentinel leapt to his feet and his grin got wider as he listened to how the man introduced himself.

"Senior Sentinel Prime, Detective Ellison."

"Ah. Is Sandburg your guide?" The middle-aged doctor seemed a bit taken aback. "I was told he isn't bonded."

"He's not. It's just that… we were there. At his drowning. And resuscitation."

David and Edwards grinned at each other seeing their normally unflappable Clan leader tripping over his words.

"Right. Okay." The doctor smoothed his small beard with one hand. "Well, I'm Dr Holland and I've been treating Guide Sandburg."

"How is he? Will he be able to answer some questions?"

"He has a minor concussion where his head was repeatedly banged into something that was, fortunately, not too hard. A few days' bed rest should sort that out. He was fairly out of it at first, but is picking up nicely now. The right scaphoid, that's a small bone in his wrist, is broken. It's not serious, but several weeks in a cast will be necessary. He has a number of scrapes and contusions, none which need stitching except the cut on his cheek." The doctor pulled the door open and stood with his hand on the handle. "I can tell you the rest as we walk to his room if you want to speak to him."

The three men followed the doctor towards a lift.

"What we're really concerned about are his lungs and any possible infection," Holland continued as the lift doors closed. He pressed the number four button and the lift lurched upward. "I believe the water he ingested wasn't terribly clean?" He looked at Ellison questioningly.

"It was fairly dirty, yes."

They exited the lift and moved to the right. Both sentinels felt their hearing become muffled and knew that they were in a sentinel ward where white noise generators deadened all sound.

"Does Guide Sandburg have any allergies?"

The three men looked at each other and then back at the doctor.

"Um, we don't know," Ellison replied. "We don't know him that well."

"Oh, okay," the doctor seemed a bit nonplussed.

"We could contact the university. They probably have medical information on all their students," David suggested.

"Excellent idea," the Senior Sentinel Prime smiled at the guide. He didn't fail to miss the prideful smile and pat on the back Edwards bestowed upon the younger man. David blushed and leant into his sentinel's touch. For a moment Jim felt a moment of envy at the closeness of the two men, but he shook it off as he reminded himself that he didn't want to bond.

The doctor stopped outside a door bearing the number 423 and a card with the name Guide Sandburg written on it. "We've got him on broad spectrum antibiotics in the hope of heading any infection off at the pass. His breathing's a bit compromised so we have him on oxygen All in all, I think he's an extremely lucky man. Unless, of course, his brain was without oxygen for a considerable time. And that we'll know when he's a bit more compos mentis."

Lucky wasn't exactly the word the other men would use, but at least he was alive.

"Do you have any questions?" The doctor continued.

"How long will you be keeping him?"

"Depending on the infection, ideally two to three days. Ready?" He opened the door.

"Jim?" Edwards spoke.

"Yeah?"

"I really don't think David and I need to go in. Sandburg only met us briefly on two occasions. You can interview him on your own."

"You're right." Ellison felt torn. He wanted to rush in and make sure the guide was all right, but at the same time he was apprehensive about going in on his own. What if Edwards was right and he HAD started to bond? No, ridiculous! 'Get a hold of yourself, Ellison,' he told himself and strode through the door after the doctor.

He almost staggered by the senses smorgasbord that greeted him as soon as he'd crossed the threshold. Smell was bombarded by antiseptic, medicine, cleaning fluids and something else that he associated with the young man lying in the bed. Sound was a cacophony of hissing oxygen, dripping liquids and a soft thumping that played counterpoint to the beeping of the heart monitor. And finally, the pale over-bed light shone down on a crown of curls that glistened and refracted and a pair of sleepy blue eyes turned towards him…

"Sentinel Ellison? Um, detective…?"

A hand on his arm brought him back down to earth with a bump.

"What?" He snapped.

"Were you zoning?" The doctor looked worriedly up at him wondering if he was going to have to treat another patient.

"No, certainly not. I was merely thinking about my questions."

"Uh huh." Holland looked at him somewhat dubiously, but then catching the cold glare sent his way decided that in this case discretion was most certainly the best medicine. He bustled over to the bed taking a penlight out of his pocket. "Guide Sandburg, how are you feeling?" The young man was lying propped upright with several pillows presumably to help with his breathing. He had several drips fixed to his left hand while the right was encased in a green cast and rested on some pillows. Three stitches and a dark bruise marred the left cheek and a bandage peeked out of the neck of the scrubs he was wearing.

"'all m Bla."

"I beg your pardon?" He looked worriedly at his patient wondering if his mumbles were a sign of brain damage.

"He said to call him Blair," Ellison translated.

"Oh, okay. Well then, Blair, how are you feeling?" He bent and shone the light into Sandburg's left eye.

"Blin'."

"Sorry?" The doctor was beginning to feel as if he'd stepped into a play where he didn't know the language. He moved the penlight to the other eye.

"Blind," Sandburg spoke a little louder, "in both eyes now."

A strange noise behind him made the doctor turn round, but all he could see was the sentinel, detective, whatever, closely examining the safety notice on the back of the room door. His face looked a bit red. Maybe he really was sick.

"Any nausea?" He turned back to his patient.

"No, I haven't had any hospital food, yet."

Holland ignored the gulping noise, as it sounded again, not wanting to delve too deeply into what the sentinel was up to. He started asking the standard questions meant to determine the patient's cognitive state.

"Good, good," he eventually finished. "Everything seems to be in order. Well, if you feel up to it you can have a light supper and we'll see how that goes down. Meanwhile, Sentinel Ellison here would like to ask you some questions. Do you feel up to it?"

"Do I have a choice?" Blair winced. That had come out more bitterly than intended.

"Um," the doctor could find himself losing control of the situation again.

"Dr Holland," Ellison stepped forward, "I'll take over from here."

"Yes, well. Guide Sandburg… Blair," he hastily changed the name when the man in the bed glared at him. "If you get tired just press the button here." He clipped the electronic box on to the rail on the bed and scurried out.

For a moment silence reigned while Blair closed his eyes and tried to take in a few calming breaths and Ellison examined the patient without making it obvious. However, something kept pulling all the sentinel's senses towards the younger man. Sandburg was pale except for the dark rings under his eyes. He had to fight against an instinct to gently caress the dark bruises and tightened his jaw even further. It made his voice rough with emotion and he sounded angry.

"Can you tell me what happened?"

The guide's eyes flew open and Ellison could hear his breath catch. Unfortunately, it also caused a coughing fit. Without thinking the sentinel eased the man forward and gently rubbed his back. Eventually the coughing stopped leaving Blair gasping for air and tears in his eyes. Spotting a jug of water, the sentinel filled the glass standing next to it and helped the guide to drink. After finishing the glass the patient lay back with his eyes closed and wiped his brow with a shaky hand.

A few seconds later he opened his eyes again and stared at the man still perched on the recliner next to his bed. "I don't understand, man" his voice was back to sounding rough.

"Don't understand what?"

"Why are you being so nice to me?"

"You up to telling me what happened?"

Sandburg was silent for a moment examining the sentinel closely while said sentinel merely stared back a bland look on his face. He then sighed and indicating he'd like more water started to recount what had occurred that afternoon. Ellison listened closely ignoring the flash of anger when he heard about the other sentinel attacking the guide. He also resolutely ignored the sweat forming on Sandburg's brow or the small tremors that raced through his body as he lived through his drowning again. Eventually, his voice hoarse, they reached the part where the grad student had woken up on the grass next to the fountain.

"Thank you," he said quietly.

"What for?"

"You apparently brought me back to life."

"Not just me. And anyway, I'm a cop. It's my job."

"Yeah, well. Thanks all the same."

Ellison quickly changed the subject not wanting to spend too much time on the emotional minefield. "So you have no idea as to who this Alicia Bannister is?" He didn't fail to notice the shiver the name produced in the younger man.

"No way." He took a drink of water. "But I think she was several fries short of a Happy Meal, if you know what I mean?"

"Uh huh. Do you think you could to describe her well enough so we could get a composite done of her?"

Sandburg laid his head back on the pillows his eyes drooping. "There's no way I could forget a face like that." His eyes flew open again and he opened his mouth to speak only to be caught up in coughing fit once more.

Ellison grabbed the glass to prevent it from falling to the floor. He stood up and placed a hand on the other man's shoulder and rubbed it gently not realising that his thumb was resting on the base of his throat. "Okay, Chief, deep breaths. C'mon, you can do it."

The guide in Sandburg woke up at the contact and for a moment the grad student was convinced he could hear the howling of a wolf. After several pain-filled minutes he eventually calmed down enough to ask the question that had so agitated him. "The children. What about the children? Are they all right?"

"I don't know."

"Oh God. What about Macintosh? You got him?"

"Don't know that either."

"Well, what the hell do you know?"

"Whoa, Chief, calm down. I followed you here so have no idea what's been going on there. Okay?"

The two men glared at each other until Blair felt his eyes drooping again. He snuggled down into the bed his left hand unconsciously rubbing his chest where it'd been pounded during CPR.

"'m too tied to ar'ue," he mumbled as his eyes closed completely.

Jim sat quietly for a moment contemplating the situation he found himself in. As much as he didn't want to admit to it he was beginning to think that Edwards was right. But he didn't WANT a guide and as far as he knew Sandburg didn't want to bond. A dark head poking round the door interrupted his musings. A tall body followed it through as the eyes saw the detective slumped in the recliner next to the bed.

"Ellison," Banks nodded at the man. "This him?" He walked over and stood for a moment looking at the sleeping figure. Jim had to admit that he didn't look too prepossessing with his hair tangled, his mouth open and his breaths sounding a mix between a rasp and a snore. "You get anything out of him?"

The sentinel repeated what Sandburg had told him and ended with a question of his own, "We manage to pick up this Bannister woman and the doctor that was trying to get away?"

"The doctor, yes. He was caught trying to get away in an ambulance. The woman, nothing. D'you think she's dangerous?"

"Well, she did kill Sandburg."

"Maybe we should put a guard on him. He is, after all, our star witness. I'll get some uniforms on this."

"Um, I could take first watch."

"Really?

"No problem. What did you find at the Centre?

The tall man grimaced at the question letting the change of subject go for now. "Twenty-six victims, mostly children. Some of them no older than five." He ran his hand across his head and slumped into a plastic chair that was positioned against the wall.

Ellison twisted round to face him not saying anything having recognised the need in the other man to speak about what he'd seen.

"And you know why we couldn't find any trace of anyone coming out of that place?"

The detective shook his head when he saw Banks was waiting for an answer with righteous anger growing in his eyes.

"They funded part of their studies by selling on their 'subjects' once they couldn't use them anymore!"

Ellison felt an answering rage burgeoning in his chest: they both new why certain people who weren't sentinels, would buy empathic guides. "Do we know who bought them?"

"Some. They kept meticulous records. What I can't believe is that many of the staff working there claim they didn't know what was going on."

"Well, Sandburg'd been actively trying to find out and he didn't know the full picture. Anything on the big names?"

"There's a mass of stuff to go through. We're going through it as quick as we can. We don't want anyone to slip through the cracks."

"Bring some of it here and I can look at it while I'm sitting guard."

"No point. By the time we get it here it'll be too late. We need to move fast on this. We've got the Mayor's top paper trail investigative team on it." He tiredly hauled himself off the chair. "I actually came to get Edwards and David. We've got the guides here and I want to question some of the older ones. I thought having a pair would make it easier on them."

"I could…"

"No, I think a bonded pair's better."

The sentinel nodded seeing the logic behind the statement. He felt himself being torn again; he wanted to be doing something to find the funders of the project, but he also needed to stay exactly where he was.

"Have you eaten?"

"I had a sandwich while waiting."

"Okay." The captain walked towards the door. "I'll send someone to relieve you in a couple of hours."

As soon as the other man had left, Ellison's eyes, almost of their own volition, swung back to watch the guide.

Chapter 4

"What have you found out?" Banks sipped his coffee and looked at Detective Henri Brown as he entered his office where was talking to Ellison, Edwards and Taggart. It was early in the day, but he unfortunately, had meetings all day and this was the only moment he could meet with his detectives and representatives of the Cascade Sentinel Clan.

"Not much, but then again I've not had much time to do all the relevant searches."

The captain nodded in acknowledgement.

"First interesting point is that the prints came back as Alex Barnes who has a rap sheet for some pretty high scale stuff." He handed round some mug shots of a beautiful, blonde woman with large, but oh so very cold blue eyes.

"Could Sandburg have got the name wrong?" Asked Taggart.

"Probably not," H answered. "She's also known under the names of Angel Barnett AND Alexia Boardman. Three years ago she was sentenced to two years prison for breaking into Feldman High Tech Industries in Maine. She was caught before she could steal anything hence the light sentence. She's also got a reputation as a guide breaker. Supposedly a dark sentinel she's apparently LOST," he made quote marks in the air with his fingers, "two guides."

"How the hell do you lose a guide?" Questioned Edwards.

"You go camping with them and they get swept away in a flash flood or lost somewhere on a mountain."

"But didn't anyone wonder what was going on?"

"She lost one as Boardman and the other as Barnes."

"God!" Edwards' exclamation was heartfelt and no one was surprised when he edged closer to his guide.

"I'm afraid that's all I was able to get overnight. I've got some other searches running."

"Good work." Brown nodded and left the office. "Anything interesting found at the Centre?" Banks directed the question to Taggart who was overseeing the search at the building.

"Nothing so far on the paperwork. We've come across two computers, but their encrypted. We're getting the tech boys onto them. We found some films, though," he stopped and took in a deep breath. "They're… "

"Disturbing?" Ellison asked the question when it appeared Taggart couldn't continue.

"Some of them are so young. And the screams!"

Ellison looked over at Edwards and David. "I claim blood vendetta against the people responsible for this and the people who carried out their orders."

"So witnessed," Edwards intoned.

"So witnessed," repeated David.

"Now hold on a minute!" Banks surged out of his chair. Blood vendetta was a serious affair and rarely invoked. It meant that the clan had claimed the right to punish the perpetrators of the crimes against the young guides. Punishment could be banishment from the territory or even death. "This is a police matter. I won't have what basically amounts to a witch hunt in Cascade."

"Captain," the Senior Sentinel Prime's voice rang with all the authority of his position, "with all due respect once guides were involved it became of interest to all sentinels bonded or not. We take abuse of guides very seriously."

"I would hope that you take abuse of anyone seriously!"

"We do. It's just that guides are vulnerable, they need, they…" Ellison ground to a halt obviously finding it difficult to express what he was feeling.

"I think what the Sentinel Ellison's trying to say," David's calm voice broke in before the captain could jump in, "is that it's ingrained in sentinel genes to protect guides. But it's only recently that we guides have full rights as ordinary citizens and unfortunately a lot of the time we're still treated as something to be feared or pitied which makes us easy prey and puts our sentinels' back up."

Edwards put a hand on his guide's back where no one could see trying to calm the slight tremor's running through David's body. "This is the fourth place in the North West Territories that we know about. Other territories have reported possible centres as well. The bosses need to be shown that they cannot get away with it. The courts have tried and failed, so maybe it's time for some Clan Law," he said.

Banks opened his mouth to answer, but then shut it again as he thought through the implications of what Edwards had said. "Okay," he eventually said, "but if we get to them first and manage to convict them and sentence them to your satisfaction you'll leave them alone?"

The two sentinels looked at each other and nodded.

"Agreed," Ellison said, "but we can't be guaranteed to hold back if they resist arrest." His smile was cold and predatory.

"Agreed," Banks repeated. Secretly he was pleased. As a police officer his duty was to uphold the law and find evidence to make convictions stick. But how many times had he been disappointed and frustrated when he saw an obviously guilty person get off scot-free. This time though, there was a more ancient justice in play and the criminals wouldn't get away with it. "Okay," he continued, "I'm afraid I have to go to my first meeting. You know what you've got to do, so I'll leave you to it."

With that the others left the office and banks headed out of the bullpen a number of thick files under his arm.

"Jim."

The sentinel turned round at the sound of his name and came face to face with Megan Conner the exchange officer from Australia. "Yeah?"

"The hospital called. Your guide needs some stuff from his home and wondered whether you could get it?"

"He's not my guide!"

"Okay, keep your hair on. Well what you've got left."

"Very funny, Conner. Why the hell did the hospital phone here? Doesn't he have any friends who can help?"

"Don't know, mate. I'm just giving you the message," she said tartly, thrust a piece of paper into his hand and turned away.

Ellison looked down at the list. "Toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo… conditioner! What man uses conditioner, for God's sake?"

"A man with hair."

You didn't need to be a sentinel to hear the laughter that rippled through the listening detectives at Brown's comment. Ellison's glare shot round the room, but everyone seemed to be extremely interested in what they were doing and no one looked up to catch his eye.

"David, could you…?"

"No!" Edwards' reply was sharp. "He's not an errand boy. And anyway, we're heading back to the hospital to continue our interviews."

"I don't have a key," Ellison's voice was almost petulant.

His protests were all in vain and he found himself standing in front of a large warehouse with another sentinel from his clan and her guide.

"You sure this is the right address?" Lisa looked around at the less than salubrious area with a frown on her face.

"That's what the file says." Ellison looked again at the note he'd scribbled earlier wondering whether he'd copied the address incorrectly. "Okay, let's go."

They moved towards the door that hardly looked strong enough to keep out a child. Taking out the key that he'd got from Sandburg's effects that had been bagged as evidence, he put it into the lock. The door swung open at his touch and the two sentinels looked at each other whilst taking out their guns.

"Can you hear anything?" The clan leader asked quietly. Although stronger than the woman his senses were playing up that morning.

Lisa's guide, Karl, moved closer to her and put his hand on her shoulder grounding the sentinel. She cocked her head in the classic listening pose and after a few moments shuddered. "Nothing human, but I can hear a lot of movement which I can only guess comes from rodents."

Ellison led the way up the stairs and found himself in a dark, cavernous space. He caught sight of something small disappearing behind a row of crates and he grimaced. Moving forward with Lisa and Karl behind him they fanned out through the large room. It looked as if a living area had been created behind the crates as they could see a settee and the back of a television. Approaching the crates Jim made a face, as it also seemed that Sandburg wasn't a neat freak; clothes, books and papers lay scattered about.

However, as they looked around it rapidly became clear that the state of the place had nothing to do with Sandburg's housekeeping skills – well at least, not entirely. The clothes had beer and ketchup poured over them. The books and papers had been ripped to shreds and the television screen had been kicked in. Someone had slashed the settee and the floor was covered with smashed glass and crockery.

"Why do I get the impression this isn't the result of a student party?" Lisa was putting on a pair of plastic gloves. She bent and picked up the remains of an old leather-bound book. "This smell of urine!" She went to put back on the floor when Ellison put out his hand.

"Hold on." He leant forward and smelt it. "Damn!" He said with feeling and pulled his phone out of a pocket.

"What?"

"Don't touch anything else. Rhonda, can you get me Joel, please?" He turned towards the others. "I couldn't smell anything at first because of the ketchup and spices, but… Joel? I'm at Sandburg's place and it's been completely trashed and I get the same smell that was on him at the Centre. Yeah, Alicia or Alex whatever she's called… Can you get forensics over here?... We'll wait, but I really think we need to double the guard at the hospital. This destruction's personal… Thanks."

CCC CCC CCC CCC

Not quite knowing how it came to pass, but Jim found himself outside Sandburg's hospital room clutching a paper bag in his hand. Two uniforms were sitting on a couple of chairs in the corridor drinking coffee.

"Ellison," the elder one nodded at the detective.

"Donaldson. Everything okay?"

"Totally calm. But then I hardly expected anything else in the Sentinel and Guide Suite."

"Don't let it make you complacent, she's already killed him once."

"We're on it."

"Thanks." The detective knocked on the door and then walked in not waiting for a response. Sandburg was half lying on his side his mouth slightly open and the pillow under his head sported a damp spot. His breathing was slightly raspy, but the oxygen prongs in his nose had been removed. He was still attached to an IV and another bag had been added. The remains of his lunch was still on the roll away table. Looking at the amount left he concluded that either the young student wasn't hungry or he wasn't a fan of chicken broth and vanilla pudding.

Half grateful and half disappointed at the fact that Sandburg was asleep he placed the bag on the chair next to the bed where the other man would see it and turned to go. Unfortunately, he brushed against the bed jostling the man in it who woke up with a grunt.

"Eh, wha?" Blue eyes blinked as Blair looked around himself and spotted the sentinel.

"Sorry," Ellison turned round, "didn't mean to wake you."

"No, it's okay. All I seem to do is sleep." He shifted round and tried to hitch himself up in the bed.

Ellison darted forward and pressed the bed controls to bring up the head area. "Is that all right?"

"Yeah, thanks, man." He yawned and ran a hand through his hair. He grimaced as he touched the greasy locks. "God, I need a shower."

"Ah, yes." Ellison picked up the paper bag and put it on the guide's knees.

"Oh great. You got my stuff. That's gre…" his voice tapered off as he pulled out a brand new toothbrush and unopened toiletries. He looked up. "Um, this isn't my stuff. I wouldn't put this chemical crap anywhere near my body. Couldn't you get in?"

The sentinel looked into the guide's eyes steeling himself to tell him about the destruction of his property. They were an incredible blue and looked at him so trustingly he couldn't tear his own away. In fact, they weren't simply blue, but also turquoise, teal, azure, sapphire…

"…tive Ellison. Can you hear me? Come back. Listen to my voice. Detective…"

Jim's sight and hearing snapped back into focus. Almost panicking he looked around the room and found Sandburg looking at him with concern. He felt warmth on his arm and looked down to see a hand sporting a cannula gripping it. With an inarticulate cry he wrenched himself free and took a couple of steps away from the bed.

"Hey, hey. Detective, you all right?"

The sentinel found himself leaning against the wall and rubbed his face with his hands. His heart was pounding and he could feel sweat pooling under his arms. God, what had he done? Without saying anything he tore out of the room and ignoring the startled looks of the two uniforms on guard he blew threw the doors leading to the stairs. He ended up leaning over the banister breathing in great gulps of air. As he'd been drawn into Sandburg's eyes he could feel a strand of something curling up out of the ether ensnaring him, calling out to him… He hadn't zoned, but he'd started to bond! What an idiot! He had to get out of there. Within minutes he was in his vehicle and racing through Cascade.

Blair stared in amazement at his room door as it slowly closed behind the detective. It opened again and one of the police officers guarding him poked his head in.

"Everything okay?" He asked.

"Uh, yeah. I think."

"What happened?"

"Not too sure really."

The officer looked at him for a moment, eventually nodded and withdrew. Sandburg lay back on his pillows going back over in his mind what had just happened. The sentinel had been looking at him and then just seemed to lose it. At first he thought the man had zoned on something, but he didn't have the typical 'gibbering idiot' look sentinels got when they were overwhelmed by their senses. At first he didn't want to do anything hoping the man would snap out of it. As time went on though, it looked like he was going to have to do something himself or call for help. Sighing, he'd put into action what every guide was taught whether they wanted to bond or not – and he most certainly DIDN'T want to bond.

At first nothing had happened then he felt something warm begin to spread through his body. He'd tried to discount it and concentrate on getting the detective out of his funk. However, it was becoming harder and harder to ignore it and just as he was thinking that he was going to have to let the other man fend for himself and deal with the sensation, the detective jerked. He'd seemed panicked and had rushed out of the room before Blair could say anything.

'Well,' he said to himself as he lay back down, 'what was all that about?' As he drifted off to sleep again he failed to notice that the warm sensation had disappeared and he was clutching the paper bag of toiletries to his chest.

Chapter 5

"What?" Sandburg's open-mouthed look of indignation didn't do him any favours. The unshaven chin, rat's nest hairstyle and the too large, new sweats making him look like a kid wearing his big brother's clothes didn't help either.

Ellison glared back and took a step closer to the hospital bed. "You can't go back to the warehouse and you're still under police protection. And we've decided that the best place to protect you is at my place."

"YOU'VE decided…! I don't want it." The sullen pout didn't improve his looks any. "I just want to go home and take up my studies again. I've had enough of being a spy."

"Look, you can't go back home. All your stuff's been destroyed and…" he stopped when he heard the guide's heartbeat increase.

"What d'you mean 'destroyed'? You said that there was a bit of damage. How much damage?"

"Blair," Joel said softly and sending daggers at the sentinel he sat on the recliner so his eyes were level with the distraught man. "The person who broke into your accommodation was obviously very angry and did the maximum damage possible. We think that it was Alex Barnes. We tried to salvage as much as possible…"

Sandburg swallowed. "My books?" He asked in a small voice.

"Some might be salvageable." Taggart looked pained.

"My artefacts?" If anything the voice was smaller.

The large captain shook his head sadly.

The guide dropped his eyes to his knees, but not before the two men saw his eyes fill up with tears. Ellison went to say something, but Taggart shook his head at him an angry look on his face. The detective shrugged not comprehending Taggart's anger. He was going to be sympathetic. Really. It was just that they needed to get moving.

After a few minutes Joel spoke again, "Are you ready to go?" He asked gently.

The smaller man nodded without lifting his head and stood up. He swayed for a moment and the captain took a grip on his upper arm. The smaller man looked like a homeless waif and, Joel thought, that's technically what he was. He helped the younger man into the waiting wheelchair and took the handles almost pushing the sentinel away. Anger was perhaps too strong a word for what he was feeling, but he was fed up with all this sentinel/guide business and Ellison even more. The man was a bit standoffish at the best of times, but since the start of this case he'd become a hard, insensitive cop. Taggart understood his need to save the poor guides that were being experimented on, as he'd felt exactly the same, but this time the sentinel had been walking a thin line between needing the get the job done and exploitation of a private citizen.

The captain tried to engage the Sandburg in conversation as they moved through the hospital corridors, but all he got back was a nod or shake of the curly head. They reached the main entrance and stopped before exiting as Ellison checked that no female sentinel was lurking somewhere ready to pounce on his guide – no, the guide. Sandburg, unbonded guide. The detective indicated all was safe just as a large saloon car rolled up. Ellison opened the door, helped Taggart with the silent student, said goodbye to the captain and then jumped into the passenger seat.

"Hello, Guide Sandburg," the soft voice broke through Blair's introspection. "How are you doing?"

Blair looked up and around the car. Edwards was driving and Ellison was riding shotgun half turned in the seat so he could easily look both forward and back. He turned his head and looked into the concerned eyes of Edwards' guide. "Umm?" He replied vaguely.

"It's David and Neds there's my sentinel. We visited the other day, but I think you were still very tired."

"No, I remember you." Blair had been touched by their concern regarding his health. He also hadn't failed to notice how Ellison had hovered nearby especially when the other sentinel had got close to him.

"So, how are you doing?"

"Okay." He tipped his head back so it was lying on the headrest and stared out of the window. The other empath obviously picked up on his mood and left him alone. The two men in the front were talking quietly and as their soft voices washed over him he started drifting in that half awake feeling that had seemed to plague him since his drowning. He became more awake when the car came to a stop and the two sentinels got out. Ellison opened his door and squatted down.

"Okay, Chief? We've arrived. Let me help you out."

Blair rolled his head until he was looking at the other man. For a brief moment he saw the head of a black panther superimposed over that of the sentinel. He closed his eyes and when he opened them again the panther was gone. When Ellison aided him out of the car and then put his arm around his shoulders to help him up the three flights of stairs he didn't object. They stopped in front of a door marked with a 307 and the detective opened it with a key. They entered into a large space filled with bright sunlight and the young guide had to blink his eyes to be able to see properly. He was gently pushed forward and helped to sit down on a large blue settee facing a fireplace.

He looked round with curiosity. The light came in through large glass doors leading out to a terrace. He was sitting in a large room with, in one corner, stairs leading up to an open, railed area. A kitchen with a central island filled another corner next to the front door. The flat was white and sterile with few personal effects scattered about on the few pieces of furniture. With a start he realised that he was being spoken to.

"Sandburg, you with me?"

He looked up to see the Senior Sentinel Prime bending over him with a strange look, half concern/half hunger, on his face.

"Yeah, sorry." He rubbed his face with his right hand. "What?"

"Would you like something to eat or drink?"

"No, I'm fine. Thanks."

"Look, I've got your bag here. We found it in your car."

Blair's face lit up in a lopsided smile and he grabbed the bag with his good hand. "Oh great. I thought I'd lost it. Thanks, man." He looked up when Ellison sat down next to him and cleared his throat. To his amazement the ice man was looking uncomfortable. For long seconds he said nothing and the guide could feel waves of anxiety pour off the other man. Concerned, he looked over at the Edwards and David who were seemingly totally absorbed in making coffee.

"Sandburg, um, Blair, I have something to tell you."

Blair's eyes swung round his own anxiety mounting at Ellison's tone and the waves of not-quite fear rolling off the man.

"It's about your mother." The sentinel could hear the young man's heart start to speed up and he could see the sweat beginning to pearl on his forehead. Despite his feelings about he didn't want to bond all he wanted to do was take the guide in his arms and protect him from the bad news he was about to give him. Bad news made worse by him wilfully keeping it from him to get him to cooperate in their sting against the Centre.

The student tried to swallow with a suddenly dry mouth. "What?" He asked hoarsely.

"I'm sorry, but… but your mother was murdered eight weeks ago."

"Wha, whe… What?"

"We think the Centre had sent someone to kidnap her from the cabin she was renting in Colorado. But she fought back and in the struggle she fell down some steps and broke her neck. Some hikers found her body half buried in the forest behind the property."

"No, no. You said you couldn't find her. When did you find out?"

Ellison and Edwards looked at each other and the Clan leader took a deep breath. "Six weeks ago."

Blair stood up slowly from the settee his breaths coming hard and fast. "But you… I…"

"Here. Drink this." Edwards held out a glass of water out to him.

"Fuck your water. And fuck you!" The young guide lashed out with his casted arm and the glass went flying to smash on the coffee table in the centre of the room.

Ellison rose up and took a step towards him. "Sandburg…"

"Don't come near me. You lied. You're lying now. She can't be dead." Blair backed away from the three men who were looking at him as if he was a head case. Perhaps he was, he thought hysterically.

"Guide Sandburg, we're really sorry, but we really needed to get those bastards and…" Ellison sounded sincere, but Blair was too worked up to read him. And quite frankly he didn't give a damn as to how sincere he was.

"She's my mother. My only relative. I don't know my father, I don't know my grandparents. I don't have brother, sisters, cousins. It's only my mother and I. It's only been my mother and I for as long as I can remember." His voice rose as a red haze filled his eyes and his body felt hot. "You're lying! You've got to be!"

Ellison and Edwards looked at each other worriedly. The young man was rapidly sliding into hysteria.

"Neds."

The two sentinels swung round abruptly at hearing the pain-filled voice of Edwards' guide.

"David! What is it?" The sentinel darted forward to where his guide was standing hunched over his hands rubbing his temples. Now that he wasn't concentrating on the other guide he could feel the pain and terror coursing through their bond.

"I can feel it," David ground out. "He's projecting. Oh, God, Neds. Make it stop. It hurts. It hurts!" He fell to his knees and Edwards knelt next to him his arms round his shoulders.

"Ellison, what's going on?"

The detective was standing between the two suffering guides his head turning first towards one then the other.

"Senior Sentinel Prime!" Edwards barked out.

"It's a myth," he said softly. "Dark guides are a myth."

Both guides were now making horrible keening noises that grated on the sentinels' senses. David was lying on his side on the floor rocking back and forth his eyes scrunched shut.

"He's a dark guide?"

"But they don't exist," Ellison insisted.

"Does it look like they don't exist? Look what he's doing to David! Do something!"

"Sandburg." Ellison took a step forward trying to get closer to Blair. "Chief, please. You have to calm down."

The young man's keening grew in volume and he, in turn, fell to his knees his arms crossed across his stomach.

"Neds! Help me!" David's voice was rising in volume.

"Ellison, do it! He's killing David!" Edwards' voice held a note of panic that Jim had never before heard from the former marine.

The senior sentinel put a hand on Blair's shoulder. It was like mainlining lightening as the guide's emotions scorched through his psyche. "Stop it!" he shook the younger man to no avail.

"If you won't do anything, I will. I'll kill him if necessary!"

Ellison turned his head to see Edwards kneeling next to his guide one hand on his shoulder the other holding his gun and pointing it at Blair. David's eyes were rolled back in his head and his body was wracked with violent tremors.

"Ellison!"

Jim shuddered. His mind and senses were being battered making it almost impossible to think. All of a sudden, from somewhere deep in his being, something forceful surged up and took control of his body. With an inarticulate roar he pushed the unbonded guide to the floor ignoring its verbal protests and struggles. Straddling the body with his own he trapped the broken arm with his left thigh. His right hand caught the guide's left arm that was trying to push the heavier man off and slammed it into the floor above the supine man's head. His left hand twisted into the smaller man's curls and he pulled exposing the guide's throat.

"No, no, no, no! Geroffme! Geroffme!" Blair fought against the pull on his hair, but the sentinel was too strong and his thoughts were coming as if they were moving through molasses. His mind exploded as Ellison bit down hard where his shoulder met his throat. As he spiralled down into unconsciousness his last thoughts were that at least both sides of his throat would now match.

Chapter 6

Blair blinked and stared at the white ceiling above him. His thoughts felt sluggish and his body ached. Little by little sound encroached on his hearing: voices and footfalls at a distance, a beeping noise to his left and a raspy snoring to his right. He rolled his head towards the snoring and saw Ellison uncomfortably sprawled in a large, sickly green, reclining chair. His head was thrown back, hence the snoring. He looked tired and his lower lip was puffed and split.

Seeing the sentinel brought up vague, disturbing images that made his heart beat faster and his scalp start to prickle with sweat. The beeping noise to his left increased in speed and coupled with the antiseptic smells pervading the room Blair came to the unfortunate conclusion that he was back in hospital. His mouth went dry when Ellison woke with a start and the light blue eyes swung unerringly towards the young guide.

"Chief, how you doing? The sentinel leant forward and gently picked up Sandburg's left hand rubbing a thumb over the knuckles. With his other hand he tenderly brushed back a curl from the younger man's forehead a fatuous grin on his face.

Blair pressed his head harder into his pillows. Hard-ass Ellison he could cope with. This smiling, gentle man was throwing him into complete confusion. He swallowed. "What happened?"

"D'you want something to drink? Or I can get you some ice chips? Are you hungry?"

With growing horror Blair realised he could feel Ellison's concern, feel some sort of connection like a golden rope glowing between them. He looked down at their hands lying on the bed covers; his own thumb was caressing the sentinel's hand! He snatched it back terror beating at his control.

"We… we… bonded?" His voice came out as a squeak.

"Yep."

"But… how? I didn't… I don't want to bond. We can't…"

Ellison opened his mouth to say something when he was swamped with overwhelming feelings of panic. The beeping of the heart monitor echoed the rapidly increasing heartbeat of the guide on the bed. He looked into wide, frightened eyes as the fast, shallow breathing also increased. Sandburg was having a panic attack. Whatever happened he couldn't go through what had occurred that afternoon again. He had to calm the man down. Suddenly, the door burst open and Dr Holland surged through followed by a nurse.

"What happened?" He demanded heading towards the bed and put a hand on Blair's chest.

"I don't know," Ellison replied as he was pushed back by the determined nurse. His sentinel instinct was to fight her for possession of his guide, but fortunately for the woman, common sense won out. "He just started panicking."

"Nurse, 15gms of intravenous Ramadol. Guide Sandburg, look at me. Come on, try and relax. Deep breaths."

Blair's un-casted hand scrabbled against the bed covers and his rasping breaths grated on the sentinel's ears.

"Yes, doctor." The nurse ran out of the room and within minutes was back with an injection and antiseptic swabs on a tray.

Holland prepared Blair's upper arm with alcohol and then injected the contents of the hypodermic into the muscle watching the guide intently. "It's a mild sedative," he said, briefly looking at Ellison. "It's safe for bonded Pairs, so you shouldn't be affected by this. - Good, it's working."

Blair looked gratefully up at the doctor as his tight chest muscles slowly relaxed allowing him to feed blessed oxygen to his struggling lungs.

"Thank you, nurse. Keep hourly obs for tonight. Keep an eye on his oxygen levels. If necessary, give him some air."

The nurse nodded and left the room.

"Guide Sandburg, you rest now. I'm just going to talk to your sentinel for a moment. He'll be right outside the door."

"No m' sen'el." Sandburg could feel the sedative attack his cognitive faculties and it seemed as if his tongue was now three times its normal size.

The doctor totally ignored him, patted his shoulder and nodded his head at the door to Ellison. He then left.

The sentinel leant over the man in the bed to visually check that he was okay. Blair's eyes were at half-mast hiding their brilliant blue and intelligence. Ellison put a hand on his shoulder letting his thumb gently rest on the bandage covering his bite mark. "I'm sorry, Chief. I know you didn't want to bond. I didn't either, but… but doesn't it feel right?" He whispered.

The guide didn't answer as his eyes slid all the way shut. Sighing, the detective tore himself away from the bed despite his inner sentinel screaming at him to stay. Opening the door he found the doctor talking to Captain Banks.

"Sentinel Ellison," Holland turned towards him, "why didn't you tell me Guide Sandburg was a dark guide when you brought him the first time?"

"Dark guide?" Banks turned to his detective, his eyebrows raised in a classic questioning expression. "What's a dark guide? And what happened to you?" He indicated Ellison's lip.

"Quite fascinating really," the doctor answered instead. "It was thought that they existed many years ago, so it really is quite amazing to find one today. I should inform the…"

"No one," Jim growled. "You inform no one."

"But it's incredible. A dark guide's not been…"

"Listen to me," Jim stepped forward unconsciously using his size to intimidate the doctor, "being a dark guide's what got him into trouble in the first place. And the second place as well come to think of it. He was being experimented on. D'you understand? No one can know about him."

"Yes… but… I mean, he needs to be examined. We have no idea of his sensibilities, limits…" The doctor looked at the dark captain as if for support.

"Will someone please tell me what you're talking about?"

"Keep your voice down, Simon." Ellison turned once more to Holland. "This is now a Clan matter. Understood? If I hear you've spoken to anyone else about this you'll be subjected to Clan justice."

The doctor stared at the pissed off sentinel his mouth hanging open. Suddenly realising that he was looking like an idiot he closed it with an audible snap. "Well," he sounded indignant, but Ellison didn't care, "understood, Sentinel Ellison. But don't be surprised if you have problems later. I'll just go and check up on Guide… Guide… " For a moment he couldn't remember David's surname and finally he walked away in disgust.

"Jim?"

"Give me a second." He opened the door to Sandburg's room and looked inside. Although subconsciously he'd been monitoring his guide with his hearing, he wanted visual confirmation that everything was all right. He stared fondly at the man ignoring the light snoring and the drool that was pooling on the pillow. Unfortunately, he didn't realise that he was also looking decidedly soppy, which made Simon's eyebrows rise even more. He gently closed the door. "Okay, let's sit in those chairs and I'll explain everything. Well, as much as I know."

"Can't we go down to the cafeteria? I'd kill for a coffee. Even hospital coffee. I've brought a uniform with me, so the kid won't be unprotected."

Jim's eyes darted round the corridor avoiding his captain's eyes and he rubbed the back of his neck with a hand. "Uh, it's okay. I'll just stay here."

Banks' eyes narrowed as he looked at his obviously discomfited detective. "Are you bonded with Guide Sandburg?" He eventually asked.

"Uh, well, you see, that would be a yes."

"I thought you didn't want to bond. Or Sandburg for that matter. And what on Earth are you going to do with a student for a guide?"

Ellison tiredly plopped onto one of the row of chairs lined up at the end of the hospital corridor facing the nurses' station at the other end. He shifted until he had a good view of Sandburg's room. Tilting his head, he listened for a moment and with a satisfied nod turned to face his captain who sat down next to him. "What do you know about what happened this afternoon?"

"I know you took Sandburg back to your place and two hours later he's back in hospital and David's in another room. And you're sitting here with a split lip and a cut hand."

"Okay," Jim sighed and leant forwards resting his forearms on his knees. "Sandburg wasn't too happy about coming to my place so I had to tell him about the damage done to his place. He, uh, was quite upset over that. Anyway, when we got to the loft I told him about his mother and he just freaked."

"And?" Simon prompted when the other man became silent.

"You need to know a little bit of history that isn't common knowledge. When sentinels were rediscovered in the 1950s they were classified into three groups: lesser sentinels with low level senses, beta sentinels… "

"Like Edwards."

"…and alpha."

"Like you."

Ellison nodded. "Well, what a lot of people don't know is that alphas are then split into two groups: lesser and dark. Dark sentinels are stronger, more aggressive, harder. There have only been a handful of dark sentinels known worldwide during the last 60 years." He fell silent again.

"Jim?" Banks's voice was soft. "Are you one?"

"Yeah," his voice was more of a sigh. He sat up and leant back in his chair. "As you probably know guides are split into two groups: minor and senior. Most are senior guides and they're the ones who guide all three groups of sentinels."

"Even the dark sentinels?"

"It's not a true bond, but they do get on pretty well together."

"Wait a minute? Didn't Sandburg say that Barnes woman called herself a dark sentinel? If you say there're very few what are the chances of two being in Cascade right now?"

"We think it's because Sandburg's a dark guide. But we're pretty much in the dark, no pun intended, regarding dark guides because as far as anyone knows there's never been one in living memory. In fact, many people think they're a myth as the only information we have about them can be found in various folk tales from around the world."

"And are dark guides like dark sentinels? Stronger, more aggressive?"

"Not really. Oh, their emphatic powers are stronger, but that's not the main difference. Apparently, they can project their emotions and seeing what Sandburg did I'd say it's more than a theory. He sent David into overload and both Edwards and I were suffering big time. He was killing David and we were… So I… I don't know what happened really."

Simon kept quiet seeing how hard it was for his friend to find his words.

"Something was pulling at me. No, not at me, at the sentinel. God," he ran a hand over his face, "I jumped him. I lost control and pinned him down like I was arresting a perp. Needless to say he didn't like it and fought back. And then… damn it!" He jumped up from his chair and stood so his back was to Simon. "I bit him."

"What?"

Jim twisted round. "I bit him here." He indicated his neck. "Just like that nutcase Barnes woman. God, I bit him like an animal. I'm no better than that criminal."

The captain almost gaped up at his friend. He knew Ellison prided himself on being in control and to have lost it like that must be eating him alive. There being a number of sentinels and bonded pairs in the Cascade PD, Banks had a rudimentary understanding of how the symbiotic relationship worked. However, he was out of his depth here and knew it. He also knew that he had to calm the other man down.

"Jim, you're nothing like that woman. You didn't try to kill Sandburg. And I KNOW you. You may be seen as a hard ass…"

Jim raised an eyebrow at that.

"…but you do care. You simply don't show it much… Or at all, really." He ignored the sardonic look sent his way and ploughed ahead, "But now that you're bonded your control should be okay, no?"

"Yeah, but…"

"How are your senses?"

"Better. Much better. Incredible really."

"And that's good, no?"

"Yeah, but a bond's for life…"

"At least you're not bonded to someone like Jingles."

Jim snorted at the image of the pedantic and fussy administration officer in the Mayor's office. A low level guide, he would whistle TV publicity music under his breath: hence the nickname. Fortunately, he didn't want to bond because that whistling would drive any sentinel completely barmy within the space of a day.

"But you're right, Simon. How's he going to cope with being bonded to a cop in Major Crimes?"

Chapter 7

Blair looked up from his contemplation of his blanket-covered toes as his hospital room door opened and he sighed in relief as he saw his friend and fellow grad student slip in. "Oh Beavis, am I glad to see you."

Beavis, or Andrew Lee to give him his real name, approached Blair's bed and whistled softly. "Wow, Butthead, what the hell happened to you?"

"I'll tell you when we're on our way." The guide stopped in his ungraceful process of getting out of bed and squinted up at the other man. "You DO have a plan for getting me out of here, don't you? One that's going to work?"

"Whine, whine whine. You sure you're up to it? I mean you look pretty banged up there." He stopped and held up his hands as his friend gave him a lopsided glare. "Okay. It's cool, man. Yeah, yeah. Don't worry it's all arranged. Daisy's going to start a diversion in about ten minutes."

"Great. You're gonna have to help me dress. I'm a bit handicapped here. And no peeking at my butt! These hospital gowns leave nothing to the imagination."

"So, not only are you vertically and mentally challenged you're now also physically challenged? And anyway, I've seen your butt way more than I'd like. You're the one who likes skinny-dipping, not me," Andrew said from his lofty 6ft 2 inches height as he helped Blair pull up his jeans.

"Ha, ha. Do NOT quit your day job."

"I don't have a day job, remember? My parents are rich enough to keep me in the manner to which I am so totally accustomed."

Neither bothered mentioning that he was also intelligent enough to be doing a PhD in Human Nutrition and Dietetics and didn't need his parents' money to pay for his education. He'd managed to get a number of grants and scholarships for that and his parents merely contributed to his living expenses. Which is why he lived in a two-bedroomed house just off campus and drove a fairly new sports convertible. He and Blair had met when they were both doing their MAs. The fact that Andrew was several years older didn't bother either of them and they'd hit it off. Andrew had at first tried to persuade the other student to share his house, but Blair had refused. He knew that their lifestyles were totally different and that would become a problem over time and ruin their friendship. Also he valued his independence too highly to want to share with anyone. That wasn't to say that he didn't go and stay with Andrew for days at a time when it was really cold and the heaters in his warehouse were fighting a losing battle.

Just as Andrew finished tying Blair's laces on his trainers they could hear shouting at the end of the corridor outside. Poking his head out the door the tall grad student was relieved to see the uniformed policeman who'd been sitting outside the hospital room stand up and look towards the noise then turn back. Indicating that Andrew should go back in he stood in the doorway one hand on his gun and the other gripping the door handle.

"Lock the door after me. Don't open it until I tell you to. Okay? Only me or Ellison, you hear?"

"Understood, officer," the tall student's look and tone were sincere and the policeman closed the door and waited until he heard the lock engage before moving down the corridor.

After waiting several minutes, the two young men quietly opened the door and checked that no one was looking their way. Seeing the police officer was involved in a heated argument at the nurses' station they heaved a sigh of relief. Exiting they turned left and disappeared through the entrance to the stairs. Within minutes, they were out of the hospital and heading for Andrew's car.

Sandburg was looking around the car park hoping against hope that he wouldn't see a tall, buzz-cut sentinel heading his way. He heaved a sigh of relief as they climbed into the convertible and were on their way to his flat. Ellison had spent the night napping in the cot the hospital provided; standard procedure with bonded pairs and Blair had been beginning to feel caged at the physical presence of the big man. Just after breakfast, the detective had been called into the PD. After much grumbling and exhorting the uniform outside the room to protect his guide 'with his life', the man had eventually left. Blair had breathed a sigh of relief and had wasted no time in telephoning Andrew pleading with him to help him get out of there.

He gave his friend a quick explanation of what had been happening and then fell silent. Admittedly, he had conflicted feelings about what he was doing. He was desperate to take back control of his life, but he also felt as if he was abandoning Ellison. He resolutely pushed the latter feeling away. He hadn't ever wanted to bond. He'd wanted to stop his undercover work at the Centre. He was an anthropologist for God's sake, not a spy! And his mother… His thoughts skittered away from that particular hurt. It was too big and too painful to contemplate at the moment. And he couldn't even start to process the fact that he'd died! He could see long periods of meditation in his near future. His mother could meditate for… No! He WAS NOT going to think about his mother!

His thoughts were whirling around his head giving him a headache when they came to a stop. Looking round he realised that they were parked in front of the warehouse where he lived. Easing himself out of the car he shuffled over to the battered front door.

"There should be a key under there." He indicated a pile of bricks lying against the wall.

Finding it, Andrew unlocked the door and he followed Blair into the dark area.

"Man, oh man." The guide stood stricken at the devastation of his living space. It looked as if someone had tried to create some order out of it, but had quite obviously given up. He tottered over to a pile of torn papers and books and picked up the remains of a photograph. A sob escaped his mouth as he traced the ripped up face of his mother. Feeling his legs give out he collapsed onto a conveniently placed packing case.

"Fuck, Blair." Andrew was standing amongst the remains hands tugging at his hair. "You must have really pissed off that woman." He looked over at his friend noting the bowed and shaking shoulders. He crossed over to the seated man and knelt in front of him. Hesitantly, he put a hand out and gripped an upper arm. "I'm really sorry about your mother and… and all this. If there's anything I can do…" He trailed off uncomfortable about expressing his feelings despite their friendship.

Blair sniffed and looked up giving his friend a watery smile. "Thanks, Butthead." He looked around once more and clenched his jaw when he noted his smashed South American masks. They'd been collected during his travels with his mother and later when on expeditions as a student. Each one had a story linked to it and now they were… He shook his head. "Could you take me to Rainier, please?"

"You sure? You look pretty wiped out. Don't you think you should go back to the hospital?"

"No! Please, I just want to get my life back. I need… I really need…" His throat closed up as he tried to articulate his feelings.

"Okay, Beav. If that's what you really want."

"Thanks, man."

Andrew helped him up and with a hand hovering near his arm in case the smaller man wavered they exited out into the sunlight. He pulled the door shut and went to lock it.

"Don't bother," Blair's voice was cold and brittle. "I'd be glad if someone stole it all. I'm probably gonna have to pay someone to take away all that shit." He turned away before his friend could see the tears in his eyes.

Lee hesitated then locked the door anyway. Hiding the key back in its place he hurried after Sandburg feeling sorry for the man, but not knowing what he could do ease his pain.

Forty-five minutes later and with a shaking hand, Blair opened the letter the Humanities department secretary had given him along with the spare key to his office. She'd also given him the news that Chancellor Edwards was very, very (she'd emphasised the two 'verys') angry with him due to the wanton destruction of University property and the events that had happened at the Centre three days ago. It appeared that Barnes had not been content to destroy only his home but had continued her destructive rampaging on campus in his office/storage room. He and Andrew had been shocked into silence at the utter devastation that greeted them once the door was open. Blair had gone straight to his metal filing cabinet and pulled open the bottom drawer. With a sinking feeling, he confirmed that all his dissertation work: notebooks, CDs and books had not survived. Years of work gone in one fell swoop.

Having finished reading the letter he laid his head down on his crossed arms that were resting amongst the shattered pottery and torn paper that littered the top of his desk.

"Blair?" Alarmed at his friend's change in pallor, Andrew stepped forward. Not getting a reaction he picked up the letter lying next to Sandburg's left hand. He quickly scanned its contents. "Fuck, fuck, fuck! She can't do that. Man, what a bitch! Blair, you gotta fight this."

Blair didn't move or react in any way except to bury his head further into his arms. Andrew looked at the letter again and then at his fellow student wondering what he should do. Seeing the obviously distraught man's shoulders shake, he moved round the desk.

"Come on, man." He went to put a hand on his friend's shoulder, but stopped in alarm when the door to the office slammed open. He jumped in front of Blair in a futile effort to protect him when an obviously angry, large man strode into the room.

"Sandburg!"

Blair's head jerked up a look of despair and resignation on his face.

Chapter 8

Banks' secretary, Rhonda, gaped in shock at Ellison's smiling face and then slid her eyes over to Megan who was grinning at her reaction.

"Told you, mate," Megan positively chortled. "He's a changed man."

"And it's because he's bonded?"

"Yep."

"So what's his guide like? Have you met him?"

"Not yet. But I'd really like to if he's had this effect on old stone-face only after a few days!"

The man under discussion looked over to the two women and winked. He couldn't help it; he was feeling good. After all those years of putting off bonding with a guide he'd never have thought that the benefits were so dramatic. Bonded sentinels had tried to tell him, but he'd put it down to sentimental, or sentinelmental, hogwash. So here he was, senses humming along nicely and looking forward to getting back to his guide. His guide! He had a guide. For a moment his grin widened before he mentally shook himself and got back down to the report he was just finishing off.

His desk telephone ringing interrupted him and he snatched up the receiver. "Major Crimes, Detective Ellison speaking… What? … When? ... How?"

Heads turned as his voice increased in volume and he rose from his chair.

"I'm on my way." He slammed the phone down and grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair.

"Ellison, what's up?" Banks having heard the noise had come to his office door.

"My guide's gone missing from the hospital." He strode towards the exit.

"Connor, go with him."

"Why me?"

"Connor!"

"I'm going. I'm going. But don't you think a Pair should go as well?"

"Good idea. I'll get Langston and Michaels to meet you there."

Megan hated riding with Jim at the best of times and this was a long way from best. She clung to the dashboard as the blue and white pick up screeched its way round a corner and nearly clipped a parked car.

"Hey, Jimbo. You're not going to help your guide if we get creamed before we get there."

The sentinel didn't reply, but there was a slight lessening in the pick up's speed. They soon arrived at the hospital and Jim parked with little regard to regulations. Without even locking up the two detectives rushed into the building and up to the sentinel/guide floor. Coming out of the lift they turned left and almost ran down the police officer that was pacing to and fro in front of the nurses' station. He stopped and paled when he saw the sentinel bearing down on him, but bravely held his ground.

"Detective, uh sentinel, um I…"

"What happened? You were supposed to be keeping him safe!"

"I…"

"Where is he?"

"Detective…"

"Where were you?"

"Jim!" Megan's sharp voice cut through the detective's tirade. "Let him speak for God's sake."

"Senior Sentinel Prime!"

Everyone turned to face the sentinel/guide pair that had just exited the second lift. Sentinel Peter Langston was a Scene of Crimes Officer and his guide, Amanda Michaels, was a Scene of Crimes Photographer. They'd been bonded for many years and were considered the Pair to use when a calming presence was needed. They were also used to prove to people that the bond didn't create an unnatural relationship. Guide and sentinel were married – but not to each other. Langston was married to a very pretty, young primary school teacher. They had a five-year-old daughter who carried the sentinel gene. Michaels, six years older than her sentinel, had been married to her librarian husband for a number of years and they had two teenage boys.

Ellison went to speak, but Connor jumped in first, "Officer Paolini was just going to tell us what happened."

The young uniform gulped, as he became the object of scrutiny of everyone there.

"Well?" It was obvious that the Clan leader was holding on to his temper by the skin of his teeth.

"Eh, Sandburg told me that someone was coming to see him. He gave me his name and I checked his identity and let him in. There was then an altercation down the corridor. I told the two men to lock the door and not open it until I told them that it was all right to do so. I then went to investigate the disturbance. It was a young woman who was demanding that she be allowed to see her boyfriend. The nurses were dealing with it so I returned to Sandburg's room. I knocked on the door, but there was no reply. I knocked again and then tried the handle. The door opened and the room was empty. I checked the bathroom and then the cupboards where I noted that Sandburg's clothing was also missing.

"I called hospital security and we carried out a search of the unit and when no trace of Sandburg could be found I informed the PD. I was gone only a few minutes."

"You were supposed to keep him safe!" Ellison tried to advance on the man, but both Connor and Langston jumped forward and grabbed his upper arms. "Let me go!"

"Quiet! This is a hospital." Another voice entered the fray and Dr Holland pushed his way through the group to stand in front of the enraged sentinel. "Enough."

"Jim! Jim, calm down. This isn't finding your guide." Megan put all her strength into pulling on the man. "It isn't Paolini's fault."

"But…"

"No. He did everything right. He was here to make sure no one got in to Sandburg's room not to stop anyone from leaving."

"Sentinel Ellison," Michaels used her 'guide voice'. No one could say why, but if guides spoke in a certain way sentinels responded almost against their will. "We need to find Guide Sandburg and this isn't advancing us any." She waited while the detective visibly brought himself back under control. "It appears that he left under his own volition."

Ellison pulled his arms out of Megan and Langston's grasp and cupped the back of his neck. He took in a deep breath and stood up straighter. "Okay. Where'd he go?"

The officer just looked at him helplessly. "Um, Guide Sandburg said his friend's name was Andrew Lee and a fellow student. He was tall, around six one, six two and slim. Dark straight hair, dark eyes with evidence of Asian influence without it being too obvious."

"I'll get onto the University," Megan said and stepped away pulling out her mobile phone.

"Sentinel Ellison…" Michaels was using her guide voice again.

Jim the detective didn't want to be called 'sentinel', but Jim the sentinel was lapping it up.

"You're bonded," the guide continued, "you can feel him. Just concentrate." She looked at Langston and at his slight nod placed a hand on Ellison's arm.

Immediately, his senses strengthened and he felt a slight pull in the back of his mind. "North," he blurted out in wonder at being able to feel the connection. "His apartment is north." He whirled round and headed for the stairs knowing that the lift would take too long. He HAD to find his guide.

Followed by the Pair and Connor who was still trying to get an address out of the university, Jim rushed down the stairs and out into the hospital car park. He went towards his vehicle, but was stopped by Langston.

"Let me drive. You can't concentrate on finding him and drive at the same time."

The other sentinel hesitated for a second and then nodded.

On their way to Sandburg's warehouse digs, Ellison felt the pull move. "We have to go east. He's moving away, but I don't know where."

"It's not Lee's place," Megan commented. "His place is up round Maple Park." She'd finally been able to coerce, beg, threaten, the university into giving her the grad student's address.

"Isn't the university in that direction?" Michaels asked.

"Yes!" Jim felt the rightness of his position. "He's there. Quick."

Langston didn't even bother to comment, but merely turned the car around. He understood the other sentinel's consuming need to find his guide. He was merely grateful that his was sitting behind him with her hand on his shoulder. The hand tightened for a moment indicating that Michaels had felt his pleasure along their bond.

Ellison's frustration grew as only a kilometre from the campus the traffic came to a stop due to a minor, but extensive bumper bender. Three cars were involved blocking the whole road. The drivers were arguing loudly as to who was to blame and drivers stuck in the jam were letting their discontent known by excessive use of their car horns. Both sentinels winced. Langston, had his guide to help him reduce the input into his ear; Ellison was on his own. He moaned and leant forward covering his ears with his hands. Then before anyone could do anything he was out of the car and stalking towards the unsuspecting drivers.

"Shit!" Exclaimed Langston. "He's going primal. He'll kill those men."

"Go after him," Megan said quickly. "I'll deal with this. Just get him to Sandburg."

With a grateful look the Pair raced after Jim reaching him just as he was verbally castigating the three men arguing in front of their damaged cars. The largest of them turned and seeing a new target verbally attacked with gusto. Connor watching from the car could see the situation degenerating into a brawl.

"Senior Sentinel Prime," Langston called out loudly. The large driver froze and his mouth dropped open. In other circumstances it would have been amusing to see when, as one, the three arguing drivers took a step back. "We can't stay here, you need to get to your guide."

Ellison turned and like a guided missile (pun intended) strode through the drivers and onlookers who parted like the Red Sea. Michaels and Langston scurried to keep up. Connor could only grin at the expressions on everyone's faces.

She turned to the silent drivers and held up her warrant card. "Inspector Connor. Now, who wants to tell me what happened?"

As they got closer to the university Jim could feel a growing tendril of unease, which made him pick up his pace. He vaguely knew the campus, but had no idea where Sandburg's office was. For a moment he hesitated as they entered Rainier grounds. There were a number of students milling around and he pounced on a young man talking to two women.

"Anthropology. Where is it?"

"Wha?"

"Anthropology building. Where is it?"

"Over there," one of the women pointed to the left.

Ellison headed off and as the Pair followed Langston threw back a hasty thank you. He couldn't help but hear what was being said behind them as they moved away.

"Who d'you think that was?" Asked the bemused male student.

"He's obviously a sentinel," replied the woman who'd indicated the Anthropology building.

"Hey, I heard that cute anthro grad student bonded with the Senior Sentinel Prime. Oh, what's his name?" Mused the other woman.

"Ellison?" Her friend questioned.

"No, the student. Hamburg? Stanburg?"

"Blair Sandburg," the man said sullenly. "You don't really think he's cute do you?"

"Oh yes," the two women answered with fervour.

"But he's so..."

Once in the building, Ellison stopped and extended his senses. He could hear voices, phones ringing, chalkboards squeaking as they were written on and echoing footsteps. The smells of floor polish, chalk, coffee, sweat and pheromones from thousands of young men and women in their sexual prime impregnated the walls and he almost gagged. Seeing his distress, Michaels put her hand on his arm. His senses focussed and through all the distractions he smelt the clean smell of his guide and heard a voice say, "Fuck, fuck, fuck! She can't do that. Man, what a bitch! Blair, you gotta fight this."

He darted through a pair of swing doors and down a short flight of stairs into a darkened corridor. Dim light spilled out through a window set into a door behind which he could hear two heartbeats. His guide was in that room and was apparently in great distress. Not stopping he flung open the door. A tall, dark-haired man looked up in alarm and moved in front of the person sitting at a desk. Dark curls flew round as the person's head jerked up and Ellison found himself staring into the bright blue eyes of his guide.

"Sandburg!"

Chapter 9

Ellison looked worriedly at his newly minted, young guide sitting dejectedly on the settee staring out of the glass doors leading out onto the terrace. Somehow, he didn't think that those blue eyes were seeing the spectacular view of first the town and then the sea. His hands stilled on the counter top where he was cutting some bread for a late lunch. He was uncharacteristically undecided about what to do to get through to the other man and had resorted to preparing comfort food: tomato soup and cheese sandwiches with a glass of milk. A frightening number of medicine bottles were lined up along the kitchen counter. They were Blair's, prescribed by the hospital to stave off any infection that could be lurking in his lungs from having inhaled the dirty fountain water. Earlier Edwards and David had picked up the prescription, had collected the medicines and then had dropped them off at the loft. He made a mental note to himself to thank them the next time he saw them.

He carried the food over to the dining table and called out gently, "Chief. Sandburg, come and eat. I hope you like cheese." Truthfully he had no idea whether the young student was Kosher, vegetarian or a junk food addict. He went back in to the kitchen and opened the fridge door to grab a beer for himself and noted that it was the last one. "When would you like to take your pills? Before or after eating?"

The man on the settee didn't reply, didn't move, didn't even acknowledge he'd heard.

"Blair?"

Still nothing. The sentinel examined the fledgling connection between them and discovered that he couldn't feel his guide. What had happened? Was it deliberate or a result of the emotional overload that Sandburg was obviously experiencing? Although as a man he respected Blair's need to be left alone the sentinel in him demanded to be let in. He hesitated to join the grad student remembering the events that had taken place at the university earlier that morning.

As he'd burst into the anthropologist's office there was a tall man standing in front of his guide, whom he assumed was Andrew Lee. He'd tried to stop the sentinel from approaching the desk, but Ellison had brushed him aside as if he was a fly. His worry and concerns for Sandburg's well-being had boiled over into anger once he'd seen that he was apparently unharmed.

"Where the hell have you been? What on Earth do you think you were doing? Do you have any idea of the wasted time everyone's been put through while looking for you?"

Blair's silence had only fuelled his anger further and he'd gone to lift the younger man off his chair.

"Leave him alone you big bully! He doesn't want to go with you."

Two hands had grabbed him and had tried to pull him away. He'd turned to find that the other student was shouting in his face. How dare he try to separate him from his guide! His guide! He had then raised a fist to inflict punishment only to find face to face with said guide.

"Don't you dare hit him!" Sandburg had risen from his chair and had pushed Jim in the chest using his cast with great effect. The detective had been so surprised he'd taken a step back.

Just at that moment, Langston and Michaels had waded into the melee and had managed to calm everyone down. Lee had been apologised to, Ellison had been placated (no one was going to take his guide away from him!) and Sandburg had been inspected by his sentinel to make sure that no further hurts had been done to him. The senior sentinel had then decided to take his errant guide home and without further ado had hustled him out of his office only to realise, once outside, that they had no transport. An uncomfortable fifteen minutes had passed while they'd waited for Joel to bring Jim's vehicle from the PD.

Ellison had held on to Blair with a strong grip across his shoulders and had tried to get him to talk, but had only got back monosyllabic replies or a shake of the curly head. All the while Andrew had stood nearby glaring at the group. Despite being glared back at by the detective he'd asked his fellow grad student if he was really okay with going along with the other man. A short nod and a bent head had been the only response he'd got. He'd tried insisting, but eventually was led away by Langston who'd spent a moment talking quietly to him. Ellison didn't bother listening in; all his senses were concentrated on his silent guide.

Amanda had then tried using all her empathetic skills to break through his silence, but had had no better luck. She'd looked worriedly first at Ellison and then at her sentinel who in turn had raised an eyebrow at his Clan leader who had shrugged in reply. Eventually, the awkward silence had been interrupted by Megan's arrival with Langston's car followed quickly by Taggart.

Sandburg's silence had now been going on for over an hour. Having been working closely with him for several weeks, Jim was pretty certain that this was not the grad student's normal behaviour. In fact, generally it was difficult to shut the loquacious man up especially if he was worked up about something. Quietly, he approached the settee and sat next to his guide almost touching him. He'd tried talking. He'd tried being quiet and giving him time. Now, it was time for the man to take a back seat and the sentinel to take over. Leaning forward he sniffed at the other man's rigid throat. A tensing of muscles and an increased heartbeat was all the warning he had that Sandburg was going to try and bolt.

He snaked out an arm and wrapped it around his guide's upper body and brought him closer so that the man was tucked up against him. He ignored the weak struggles. He shifted Sandburg's body around and with his other hand he tipped the curly head back so it was resting on his shoulder.

"No, please," Blair's voice was quiet and plaintive. He was so tired and had no energy to protest more forcefully.

"Don't fight it. Come on, you need this as much as I do."

"I don't wa…" his voice faded as Ellison gently rubbed over the healing wounds on his throat with his thumb.

"Don't talk. Just feel," Ellison's tone was soft and encouraging. He dipped his head and his mouth gently covered the wound he'd made only yesterday morning even though it felt like it had happened a lifetime ago. Then, he'd almost been totally out of control as the dark sentinel in him had responded to the anguish being projected by Blair. Now, he was relieved to feel none of that mental despair and suffering emanating from the other man.

Sandburg stiffened and made a small mewl of protest. He tried to resist; tried to use the same defence he'd used against the female, dark sentinel. It was all to no avail, though. He felt himself spiralling out of control until he was caught up in Ellison's mind and his turbulent thoughts calmed. Gratefully, he realised that this sentinel wasn't trying to dominate or take control. Rather, there was a tentative probe, a questing for comprehension and a desire for complicity between the two men. Emotionally and physically exhausted, hurting more than he thought possible, Blair let the guide in him answer the sentinel's call and together the two men sank into the bond.

CCC CCC CCC CCC

The setting sun bathed the loft in a soft, golden light turning the stark space into a warm and inviting place. The rays hit Jim's face waking him. He blinked. Opening his eyes fully he looked down at the warm weight resting against him. From his position he could only see the top of Blair's head and the curly hair shifting with each exhalation. He felt a rush of affection flood through him for the sleeping man; God, he felt good! Bonding was better than sex. Well, almost, he hastily amended. That was a road he didn't want to go down as most people already had a distorted view of the bonding process. And anyway, he far preferred tall, leggy redheads with bumps on their chests to short, talkative, hairy students with bumps lower down on their bodies.

He didn't want to move, but unfortunately, his bladder had other ideas. Gently, he eased himself out from under his guide, stood up and stretched. He was pleased to hear the little noise of protest the man made as they lost physical contact. He sent out a warm, calming thought touching the grad student's mind with a feather-like touch. He was amazed at his mental control. Ghosting a hand over the curls he then took the blanket that was folded over the back of the settee and draped it over the sleeping man. He smiled as Sandburg made a snuffling noise and buried himself deeper into the cushions until only the top of his head showed.

As he passed the dining table he caught sight of the curling sandwiches drying on their plates. Fortunately, he'd had the forethought to turn off the burner under the tomato soup before the bonding session. He turned towards the bathroom. Coming out he had an idea and slipped through the red curtains that covered the entrance to the small room that nestled under his mezzanine bedroom. Small and dark and full of boxes it would make an ideal bedroom for his guide. Not for those reasons of course, but because with his guide being so close he'd be able to protect him and be lulled to sleep at night listening to his heartbeat. And wasn't it oh so convenient that Sandburg's warehouse had been trashed?

Planning out in his head what he'd need in terms of paint, curtains and furnishings he walked out of the room and almost burst out laughing at the sight that met his eyes. Fortunately, he managed to stop himself somehow knowing that the other man wouldn't appreciate it. Blair stood in the middle of the living room wrapped in the blanket from the settee like an Indian on a reservation. His eyes were at half-mast, he had creases in his left cheek and his hair stood out from his head in an impressive impression of a bird's nest. From where he was standing, Ellison had no problem hearing the gurgling in his guide's stomach. It set off a sympathetic gurgle in his own. He glanced at the dry sandwiches and congealed soup.

"Chief, d'you like Wonderburger?"

Chapter 10

The next two weeks were a revelation for Jim Ellison and Major Crimes. For Jim it was like he'd been given a new lease of life. His senses were humming and he was closing case after case with remarkable ease. And it wasn't only the senses that were helping him do this; he was very pleasantly surprised at his guide's depth of knowledge and how anthropology was so useful in solving crimes. His mastery of the computer and all things relating to forms and paperwork was simply heavenly and it was comical to see Jim preen when Banks commented on how much better his reports were.

His colleagues were extremely grateful to the young guide, but for a completely different reasons. Jim had always been a good detective, perhaps too focused on putting away criminals and not on the victims, but a decent person nevertheless. However, as a social human being his character had left an awful lot to be desired. A loner, he'd never joined in the joking that sometimes took place in the bullpen. Poker nights had been arranged without his presence and he'd never discussed Jags' games with the others. So, it was to great pleasant amazement when one morning he'd walked in with a box of doughnuts for everyone and had joined in the talk about the basketball game that had been on the television the previous evening.

Things in the Clan had also settled down as well, as all the sentinels acknowledged Ellison's superiority and his position as Clan leader. In fact many of them were completely blown away at how strong his senses had become and how he managed to control them with his guide's help. This effectively also shut up those sentinels who'd been jockeying for Ellison's position, which made the majority of the Clan members breathe a sigh of relief. The last time the he'd been challenged a sentinel was left for dead and his guide was now locked up in a mental institution.

So, everything was sweetness and light for Cascade's Senior Sentinel Prime and Senior Guide Prime – or not. In all the euphoria no one really noticed how Blair was becoming quieter or how he was losing weight. You could hardly blame them, as nobody really knew the young man who was now in their midst. In fact, the young guide was sinking further and further into depression. Cut off from everyone and everything he knew he had no idea how to get himself out of the despair he was feeling and who to ask for help. Still resentful of how the detective had lied and treated him he quite frankly didn't trust him. Normally, a sentinel would be able to detect such a situation with their guide, but Ellison had never been formerly trained and he was blinded by how well he was feeling and, despite their shaky start, how well everything seemed to have worked out.

CCC CCC CCC CCC

Blair looked up as his sentinel and Captain Banks walked out of the captain's office. Ellison was laughing at something the other man had said and looked totally relaxed. They approached Sandburg where he was typing up one of the detective's reports.

"Jim, I, and my superiors, thank the stars when you bonded with a grad student."

Neither of them noticed the small grimace that flitted across Blair's face.

"I didn't know that I knew so many multi-syllable words." The sentinel affectionately ruffled his guide's hair.

The two men laughed and Banks slapped Ellison on the back.

"Well, after working so hard you need to eat. Replenish your energy, you know? And I fancy one of Mr Billies' spicy quarter pounders with bacon. What d'you think?"

"Sounds good to me. What about you, Chief?"

"Oh, um. No, it's okay. I'll stay here. I'm not that hungry."

"You sure? You do too much work here. You need to relax."

"I really want to finish this report and then I'll get a sandwich."

Ellison's eyes narrowed as Blair's heartbeat increased and he opened his mouth to ask him what was going on.

"Come on, Jim. He obviously doesn't want to be seen with two old men like us. I'm sure he's got better plans. Let's go. That burger's calling my name." Simon pulled on his coat and walked out of the bullpen.

Blair ducked his head and stared at the papers on his desk almost holding his breath.

"All right, Chief," Ellison said eventually and pulled his jacket off the back of his chair. "I shouldn't be long. And remember, if you leave the building don't go alone. That woman's still out there. Take an officer with you or a member of the Clan."

Having met the Clan sentinels that were police officers, Blair thought it highly unlikely that he would have anything to do with them. Basically, they were Ellison clones: big, buff and bossy. And the bonded ones were worst. They moved around the PD with smug looks whenever they were with their guides as if to say, 'Look at us? We're bonded and vastly superior to you.' He also hated how they treated their guides as if they were mindless and fragile. At least Jim didn't do that, he thought. Well, not all the time.

"Blair?"

"Yeah, okay. No sweat."

The guide continued typing until he was certain that the two men had left the building. His hands then stilled and he stared unseeing at the computer screen. Digging into his trouser pocket he pulled out his wallet and opened it. Twenty dollars hadn't miraculously appeared in its empty slots. It was still as depressingly empty as it had been that morning. He stared at the single credit card it held. There was no point in trying to use that, as his bank account was as empty as his wallet. God, he was hungry, but he couldn't, wouldn't ask Ellison for money. He wasn't gong to be a kept man!

He'd just have to go and get another cup of coffee from the break room; at least that was free. And if he was lucky maybe someone had brought in some cakes or doughnuts. He had to make a pit stop first, though. Three cups of coffee now needed to make their way out of his body! Taking a deep breath he shakily stood up and made his way into the men's toilet. He sighed in relief when he found it empty and made his way to the line of washbasins where he splashed cold water on to his face. Looking up he stared into the eyes of the person staring back at him in the mirror.

Who was he? Oh, he had the same eyes and same curly hair as that eager grad student who'd gone to work at the Centre thinking he was going to do great things. How the mighty were fallen,' he laughed to himself. How did he get to this place? What the hell was he doing here? He'd never wanted to bond and here he was, guide to the most senior sentinel in Cascade. Not to say that Ellison was a bad man, or that he treated Sandburg badly. In fact, he was solicitous of his guide. He'd done up the spare room asking him his opinion as to what colours and furnishings he'd wanted. He encouraged him to leave his room and they spent the evenings watching television or DVDs. And not once had he forced him to bond always asking him if he wanted to.

Sandburg was still handicapped with his broken arm, but Jim never complained about helping him button up his shirts or tie up his shoelaces. He'd asked about the foods he liked and what sort of activities he liked doing. He was obviously trying to make up for the way they'd bonded and the lies he'd told him regarding his mother, but… Blair took in a shaky breath. But Jim, caught up in the newly-bonded feeling that painted life in a golden glow, didn't KNOW his guide; didn't know the person that had been Blair Sandburg, Anthropology Graduate Student, Teaching Assistant and ABD. Didn't know that his dreams of being a world-famous anthropologist were now lying shattered at his feet, that he missed teaching with a fierce ache or…

With a groan he curled over the washbasin and rested his flushed face on the cool porcelain. This wasn't him. He mentally shook himself. Where was the person who'd started university at sixteen as an emancipated minor? The person who'd stood up to loggers with his friends, refused to bow down to Ventriss and his money when the student had been caught cheating…? The confident student on the cusp of getting his Ph.D., the TA who regularly taught to packed auditoriums, who'd gone on expeditions to war torn countries and faced down marauding natives. The outgoing man who had a large circle of friends and who dated on a regular basis…

Having minored in Psychology for his Masters he recognised that he was depressed, but what the hell could he do about it? He had no money and was being sued by the university for even more of what he didn't have. He had no status other than that of Guide to a sentinel. For the first time in his life he felt adrift and without purpose and, oh God, he missed his mother. His breathing quickened…

"Blair?"

He jumped almost smashing his nose. Straightening up he rubbed at his face and turned to face the intruder. Joel Taggart was standing just inside the door with a concerned look on his face.

"Blair," he repeated, "what's wrong?"

"Uh, nothing. I'm fine."

"Sorry to contradict you, but you don't look it." The captain's tone was solicitous and he took a small step towards the obviously distraught man.

"It's nothing." Blair shifted uncomfortably and pushed away from the washbasin. "I need to go and finish Jim's reports. You know how cranky he gets if they're not done in time." He gave a little laugh that was patently forced and went to go past the former bomb squad captain.

"And where is Jim?"

"Went to lunch with Captain Banks."

"And you didn't want to go?"

"I'm not really that hungry." He tied to edge past the taller man when his stomach betrayed him and gave a massive rumble. A large hand shot out and gripped his upper arm gently. He stilled, his head averted and his eyes looking down to the floor.

"Blair?" If anything, Joel's voice was even softer. "Talk to me. Please. Let me help."

Sandburg's emotions were all over the place. God, he was NOT going to cry! A sob was torn out of his body against his will. Gentle arms drew him into a solid chest and a hand cradled the back of his head. His emphatic abilities allowed him to feel the genuine, non-judgemental concern flowing out from the man holding him. It was too much. The dam broke and he cried out his despair and disappointments into the other man's chest and all the while Taggart held and comforted him.

Chapter 11

Ellison burst through the bullpen doors and frantically looked around. "Where is he?" Brown and Rafe looked up in surprise at his noisy entrance. "Where – is – he?"

Simon rushed in after him having waited for a lift rather than climb the seven flights of stairs as his detective had done. The pair of them had been enjoying their greasy burgers and had been talking about going camping with Blair and Daryl, Simon's son when Jim suddenly stiffened. For a few moments the captain hadn't realised that Ellison had checked out of the conversation and then had ground to a halt at seeing his detective's vacant look.

'Oh, God,' he'd thought, 'had he zoned?' He'd cleared his throat, "Uh, Jim? You all right?" Was he going to have get Sandburg here?

The sentinel had stood up letting his cutlery fall to the table. "Blair!"

"What? Where?" Simon had also stood looking around the restaurant expecting to see the guide.

"Something's the matter." Ellison had started for the door oblivious to the stares coming from the staff and other customers.

Simon had thrown some money on the table and had quickly followed the other man. He'd caught up with him on the pavement and had grabbed his arm. "Wait a minute. What's going on?"

"Blair's upset." He'd turned to look at his captain. "Come on. We need to go."

"Call him."

"What?" Ellison had stared at him impatience clear in his eyes.

"Call him on his cell, while I drive." Banks had been under the impression that his normally on the ball friend, hadn't been firing on all cylinders.

"Oh, yes. Good idea. Come on."

The ten-minute drive back to the PD had been fraught with tension, as the sentinel had tried desperately to get hold of his guide. At one stage Simon had been certain that Jim had been growling. At their arrival people had flattened themselves against the walls as the detective had rushed through the corridors and up the stairs to Major Crimes.

"Jim." Ellison turned and saw Edwards standing in the door to Banks' office. "In here."

"No. I need to find Blair." He whirled round to examine the room again trying to listen out for his guide's heartbeat. "Is it that woman? That mad sentinel, does she have him? He's not hurt is he?"

"No. We need to talk."

"Not now. I…"

"Senior Sentinel Prime, we need to have a conversation regarding the Senior Guide Prime." Edwards' formal tone brought Jim up short.

"Come on, Jim. I have a good idea he knows what's going on." Simon took hold of the sentinel's upper arm and guided him to his office.

On entering, they found David and Joel seated at the conference table. Edwards pulled out a chair next to his guide for his Clan leader and once the other man was seated he sat so that Jim was seated between them. Simon looked at Taggart who nodded at the chair on his right. Even before his captain was seated, Jim rounded on his second in command.

"What's going on? Where's Sandburg?"

Surprisingly it was Taggart who answered, "With Megan getting something to eat."

"What? I don't understand. Where?" He half rose out of his chair.

"He's all right," Joel continued.

"Will someone PLEASE explain to me what's going on?" Ellison was becoming angry.

"Senior Sentinel Prime, please listen to Captain Taggart and he'll tell you everything you need to know."

"But, but… Joel's not a sentinel or a guide."

"Jim," Banks spoke up, "the quicker you listen, the quicker you'll understand. Okay?"

The detective nodded and turned his eyes to the former Bomb Squad captain.

"Jim, I found Blair in the men's room in a right old state. At first, he didn't want to tell me what was the matter, but eventually I got the story out of him. Before I tell you what he said I need to ask you some questions."

"Wha…?" Ellison subsided at his captain's glare and looked enquiringly, if somewhat mutinously, at Taggart.

"Have you registered Blair as your guide, yet?"

"No. I was going to do it…"

"Has he been put on your medical insurance?

"Not yet."

"So who's playing his medical bills?"

Jim opened his mouth, but Joel rode over his explanation with the next question. "Have you done anything about his return to Rainier?"

"I didn't know I needed to…"

"Have you made arrangements for him to see his mother's grave?" Joel's voice was implacable.

"Um, I haven't thought… I didn't…"

"Have you been aware that Blair's been losing weight?"

Ellison went to open his mouth then paused. With a sinking feeling he could see where this was all going. "Joel, what did Blair tell you?" He asked softly.

Taggart's stern face relaxed a bit; he couldn't be totally angry with this man. He'd never gone through the sentinel education system having been a late bloomer, so he could be forgiven some of the blunders he'd made. As far as he was concerned the Clan itself and the Cascade PD had also been less than stellar in their handling of the guide.

"I'll tell you about the university first, because I, to my shame, have a hand in this as well. When Blair got to his office the day he left the hospital without telling us there was a letter waiting for him. He'd been fired from his teaching position due to his long unexplained absence and also was no longer eligible to complete his Ph.D. This meant he was going to have to start paying back his student loans."

"But we told the Commissioner's office to write to Rainier explaining the situation!" Ellison protested.

"Apparently, it was never done and we never checked."

"But…"

"Let me finish and then you can explode."

Ellison nodded curtly.

"He then received another letter from the university asking them to reimburse all the damage done to his office. Considering that the office contains many artefacts and rare written records, the total amounts up to a pretty penny."

"But that was Barnes or Bannister or whatever she calls herself."

"Chancellor Edwards it appears, doesn't care. Blair's an easy target."

"Why didn't he come to me and explain all this? I'm his sentinel for God's sake!"

"You're also the person who lied about his mother and forced him to bond with you." He held up his hand to stop the other man from speaking. "We all know the reasons why, but just for a moment, look at it from his point of view. He'd been taken from all his friends, from his work, his property destroyed, all his dissertation work destroyed. He longer had a job except to play second fiddle to a sentinel." Both sentinels bristled at that, but Joel ignored them. "He'd been injured, is being sued, has no money and he's lost his only relative, who was his mother to boot. D'you think he's thinking properly?" Despite his best intentions, his voice rose in anger.

Jim looked poleaxed. Before he could gather his wits together, Edwards spoke, "Senior Sentinel Prime, as your second in command I also am guilty. You do your job as Clan leader so well we tend to forget that you've not had the same training as us. Had you registered Sandburg as your guide he would be now receiving the Guide's Allowance. It's not an enormous amount, but at least he would have had enough to buy clothes, food etc."

"But he eats at home with me," Jim's voice was no longer angry, but bewildered and plaintive.

"And when he's here at the PD?" Joel asked gently. "How often does he go out eating with you or do you see him eating something in the break room?"

Jim frowned.

"Not only that," Edwards continued. "He would've gone for counselling at the Guide Centre as you should have done. You know that it's mandatory for anyone forced into a bond. I'm sorry. I failed you and more importantly, I failed your guide."

"As have I," David spoke for the first time looking extremely apologetic.

The senior sentinel looked around the table reeling from all the information he'd been given. During the last two weeks when he'd been on cloud seven his guide had been depressed and hurting and he'd not seen it. What good were these senses if he couldn't even detect what was going on with the man with whom he had an intimate, mental connection? His lip curled up in self-recrimination.

"Jim, stop it," Banks' voice cut through his morbid thoughts. "This isn't the time for apportioning blame. I think what Joel and Edwards are trying to say is that we had better make things right. We were all caught wanting on this one."

"We?" Ellison's tone was sarcastic. "What have you done that you need to be reproached for?"

"Sandburg maybe a guide and I admit I don't really understand this sentinel/guide shi… business, but he's also a member of Major Crimes. It's my responsibility to make sure that he's integrated into the team with the minimum of problems and that like all my men he knows he has my support."

Silence greeted this statement for a moment. Jim looked with gratitude at his friend and gave him a small smile.

"Right," the captain continued, "we now need a plan of action."

"First, we go and sort out the bastard who fucked up when they didn't do the letter for Rainier."

"I'll deal with that," Simon jumped in. "You have a much harder task – making up to your guide."

"Joel, where is he?" Ellison turned towards the other captain.

"He's over at the vegetarian bistro on Cooper Street."

"He's a vegetarian?" Jim asked in horror thinking about all the meals they'd shared in the loft: meat lovers' pizza, grilled steaks, lasagne…

"No. It's just that he really likes vegetables."

"You gave him money, didn't you?" Jim went to put his hand in his pocket.

"Forget it. It was my pleasure."

"But.."

"No, really. I wanted to."

"Thanks."

"Okay," Banks interrupted the two men, "Sandburg's okay for the moment in Megan's tender care." He ignored the sardonic snorts and incredulous looks he got from the others. The Australian Inspector was a fine police officer, but she wasn't known for her 'soft' side. "I take it that you, Edwards, and David are going to sort out the guide registration and counselling?"

The two men nodded and Edwards turned to Ellison. "I'll let you know when your first appointment's going to be and if you give me his details I'll start the registration process. All you'll have to do is take him in and sign the papers."

"Thanks."

"I'll see what I can find out about his mother," Joel offered. "I know his name's Jewish, but I don't know if he practices." He looked at Jim enquiringly who shrugged his shoulders. Another thing he didn't know. "Well, that's something to find out. He lost all of his stuff when that woman destroyed his apartment. Maybe the PD can do something there?"

Banks was nodding his head. "He was working on a police matter when that happened. I'll make sure that the department's insurance replaces the maximum possible."

Jim looked at his colleagues – no, his friends - with gratitude. He then sobered as he thought about what he was going to have to do now. His guide was hurting and lost and it was up to him to try and make things right. They'd got off to a bad start so a new start was needed. "Okay, that all sounds good. But I'm going to sort out that Chancellor myself. My guide is going to get his doctorate."

CCC CCC CCC CCC

The most important sentinel in Cascade, Clan leader, Detective James 'Jim' Ellison, former Ranger, ex-special ops agent and general badass sat nervously in his vehicle contemplating his residence. And why was he vacillating? One longhaired, short, stubborn, opinionated guide was waiting for him in his loft and he had to go and speak to him. Apologise, comfort, be touchy feely – all the things he hated doing. In fact, he'd rather single-handedly face a machine gun emplacement armed only with an umbrella and a rolled up newspaper.

He rubbed his hands over his face and took in a deep breath. 'Come on, Ellison,' he berated himself. 'You know damn well that he deserves this and more!' He glanced at the parcel on his passenger seat. It contained a top-of-the-range laptop he'd bought to replace the one destroyed at Sandburg's warehouse. He hoped that the younger man would see it not as an attempt to buy him, but as the apology it was intended to be and a promise of how things were going to be for now on. Deciding that he'd prevaricated long enough he picked up the box, opened his door and froze when something cold and hard pressed into his neck.

"Senior Sentinel Prime," said a low, purring voice, "we finally meet face to face – so as to speak."

"Bannister?" Jim breathed the name.

"I prefer Barnes. Alex Barnes. Now, I believe that you have something that belongs to me."

Chapter 12

Blair relaxed back into the settee and admired the view in front of him. The attractive Australian Inspector was bopping along to the CD playing on the stereo while making tea in the kitchen of the loft. He must be getting better if he was noticing beautiful women again. Having had a good lunch helped, but he was still emotionally and physically exhausted. And, if he had to be honest, a little embarrassed at his losing it in front of Joel. Fortunately, the large man had been kindness itself and had taken Blair's meltdown in his stride.

"Who did you say this was again?" Megan asked as she walked towards him carrying two mugs.

"Louise Attaque. It's a French group," he replied taking the mug she held out to him.

The woman sat down next to the young guide and sipped at her tea. "I must admit, I never thought that vegetarian could taste so good."

"I'll pay Joel back."

"Uh, uh. That's something you have to talk to him about, but I don't think he'll want to listen."

"But I…"

"Listen, mate, it's no point talking to me."

The young man nodded and resolved to speak to the large captain with such kind eyes. But where he was going to find the money, he didn't know. Later, he'd deal with that later and simply enjoy feeling his life was normal even if it was just for a few hours.

They sat in companionable silence for a moment and Blair felt his eyes drooping with fatigue. Megan looked at him out of the corner of her eye. She'd been pleasantly surprised at the bistro, as the young man had seemed to emerge from his shell a bit. He'd regaled her with some of his adventures on expeditions he'd been on as a student. Then suddenly he'd obviously remembered that now as a bonded guide such expeditions were now a thing of the past and he'd fallen silent again.

She wanted to see that light in his eyes again and hear the same enthusiasm in his voice and she wracked her mind for something to say. However, there were so many subjects that were taboo: guides and sentinels, university, his family, travelling, friends, girlfriends… Oops, she saw his mug begin to slip and managed to grab it before its contents tipped out on the floor.

"Wha…? Oh, sorry. I didn't realise how tired I am." He rubbed his hand through his hair and yawned.

"Why don't you go and have a snooze? I'll just wait here till Jim gets here."

"If I sleep now I won't sleep tonight. Tell me about yourself."

"Sure?"

He nodded and pasted an encouraging look on his face.

She shrugged. "Not much to tell, really."

"Oh, come on. An Aussie in Captain Banks' court?"

She laughed at the film reference and then made the mistake of looking into his eyes. Puppy dog eyes had nothing on him! "I bet all the girls fall for that expression!" He stiffened and his eyes became shuttered. "What? What's the matter, you prefer men?"

"No. Women are just great, thanks."

"Then what?"

Blair looked away a blush staining his cheeks.

"Don't tell me you're a virgin?" She laughed, as he turned even redder. "I see the way you've been eyeing up the women at the PD."

He laughed, too, but it wasn't a pleasant sound. "I had a healthy love life."

"Had?" She was beginning to get annoyed with his evasive manoeuvres. "You're not dating anymore?"

"How can I?" He burst out and lurched off the settee turning his back to her. "How can I go out with a girl now? Bring one back here? God, Ellison would be able to smell our pheromones, hear us… I can't, I just can't."

"I don't understand. Jim can't expect you to be a monk, can he?"

"A Jewish monk. That'll be a first."

"Blair! I just can't believe that Jim's insisting you stay celibate. I mean look at Michaels. She's married and Langston doesn't seem to mind."

"No, he hasn't said anything. It's just, he's a sentinel and he'll know. I mean everyone knows. I'm not exactly shy when it comes to dating, but it's different when you're bonded. Oh, God, he'll be able to feel my emotions! Has he felt it when I look at a woman? Does he know when I've been turned on. Oh…"

Megan stood up and put her arm around his shoulders. " Calm down a moment. Have you spoken to him?"

"Oh, yeah. I can just see it. Senior Sentinel Prime Ellison, could you dial down your hearing and smell because I want to bring a woman into your home and have sex. I mean, I want to have sex with her, not him."

That almost made her laugh at the image, but she managed to swallow it back. "I really do think you're making a mountain out of a molehill. You need to speak to him." She ignored the snort coming from the guide. "I know he seems unapproachable, but he's really changed since he bonded with you. He could even be called human, which believe me, before your arrival was not even a possibility."

"Really?"

"Yeah…" Her reply was interrupted by a knock on the front door. She put her finger up to her mouth, pulled out her gun out and walked over to stand close, but also to one side of the entrance. "Who is it?"

"Sentinel Ellison."

She and Blair exchanged looks. Jim never introduced himself as a sentinel. Something was obviously up. She indicated that the guide should go into his room where there was a fire escape so he could escape if need be.

"Don't you have your key?"

"My arms are full. Come on, Megan, open up." He never called her by her first name.

Blair went to move to his rooms when he stopped. He could feel Jim through their connection and he felt – anxious? But, there was something else. Another sentinel? He concentrated and realised that he recognised the tingling that cursed through his body. It was her! The sentinel that had killed him.

"Megan," he whispered.

She turned towards him and gestured with her hand towards his room.

No, no, she didn't understand. He mouthed the word 'sentinel' and she frowned at him.

"Connor!" Ellison's voice sounded strained. "I'm gonna drop everything."

Blair shook his head and the Australian woman again gestured with her hand, but with a bit more force. She just wasn't getting it. He looked around frantically and saw the note pad and pen Jim used for telephone messages. Awkwardly holding the pen in his left hand, he wrote out a shaky 'sentinel' and 'Bannister' then held it up to her. She frowned and then all hell was let loose.

Gunshots thudded into the door. Connor dove for Sandburg and pushed him behind the settee. He sprawled on the floor ungracefully with an 'oomph' and she almost straddled him. Before she could bring her gun up to face the door again it was pushed violently open. Ellison moved forward jerkily and she realised that there was someone small behind him holding a gun to the back of his head.

"Shoot and I'll kill him! Put your gun down, now!"

Megan hesitated and saw the blond woman, who she now recognised as Barnes, grind the gun barrel harder into the detective's head.

"Don't do it," he ground out and received a tap on his head for his pains.

"Shut up. Listen lady, I'm a sentinel and I know exactly what you're going to do before you've even decided. I will blow his head off unless you put the gun down."

"But then you won't have a hostage," Megan said slowly bringing up her gun.

"Oh, believe me when I say I'll be able to get both of you at the same time." Megan's shoulders slumped slightly as she saw the female sentinel point another gun at her this one held in her left hand. "And don't think I'll miss. I've spent hours practising shooting with both my hands. So, you'll both be dead and I'll get what I came for anyway."

"Barnes, give it up. Someone will've heard the shots and called the police. Once they recognise this address there'll be here in minutes," said Jim.

"Which is why we're going to hurry up. Sandburg, come here." Blair peered out shakily around the corner of the settee. He stared wide-eyed at the woman and shook his head. "I'll kill him and that woman. Is that what you want? Do you want me to kill this sentinel?"

Blair was torn. Although he hated the idea of being bonded he couldn't bear to see his sentinel hurt. It was well known that sentinels were overprotective of their guides. However, it was not so well known that guides were equally protective of their sentinels. He shifted on the floor and felt Megan's hand on his head urging him to stay still. He moved again and the Australian hissed at him, "Keep still."

"What's it to be, Guide Sandburg? Are you going to come quietly or are you going to be responsible for the deaths of this sentinel and that woman?"

"Don't you listen to her, Chief! Ow! Back off woman!" Ellison snarled as he was again hit on the back of his head.

"I'm losing patience here. You, drop your gun. I won't say it again." She pressed her gun hard into Ellison's head so that it was pushed forward making him look a bit like a turtle.

Connor looked at the detective and at his slight nod of the head laid her gun on the floor.

"At last. Sandburg?"

Blair could feel an insane need to giggle when both sentinels cocked their heads in unison in the classic listening position. He looked up into his sentinel's eyes.

"I can hear the sirens, Blair. There almost here. Just hold on." He grunted and crumpled to his knees as a massive pain blossomed in the back of his head.

"Jim!" The young guide awkwardly pushed himself off the floor.

Megan made a lunge for her gun, but fell back with a cry when Barnes' gun fired. She collapsed onto Sandburg and was still.

"Oh God, you've killed her. You bitch!" Blair screamed at the female sentinel.

"She's still alive. I can hear her heart. Now come on."

"No. Jim…"

"Do you want me to put a bullet in his head?" The female dark sentinel was standing over the downed detective one of her two guns pointing at his head. Seeing his slight headshake she put her second gun into the waistband of her trousers. She then strode towards the trembling guide and wound her hand into his curls. She pulled him up and placed the barrel of her gun just under his left eye. "Good to see you again," she said sarcastically. "Now, let's go."

Dragging him along by his hair, Blair was surprised when they moved towards his room and not the front door. She went unerringly to the fire escape. Not letting him go, she placed her gun on the back of his head. "Open it."

With great difficulty he pulled back the bolts with his left hand and shoved the door open. She pushed him through and they were out in the open. "Down," she barked.

"I can't. In case you haven't noticed I've got a broken wrist, which I might add, you caused."

"Believe me, if necessary I'll drop you. You can't run far with two broken legs."

He gulped and turned to put his foot on the first rung. Just as he started down the metal ladder he glanced back into the loft. He couldn't see Megan at all and all he could see of Jim was the top of his head and a growing pool of blood.

Chapter 13

"Blair, Chief. Where are you?"

Jim's plaintive calls for his guide were hard to listen to for anyone. For the Clan sentinels and guides amassing at 852 Prospect Place it was sheer agony. They all breathed a sigh of relief when a car pulled up and Michaels and Langston spilled out of the doors.

"Third floor." Lisa opened the door to the building and started for the stairs her guide and the guide/pair close on his heels.

They burst into the loft onto a scene of controlled chaos. Paramedics were just wheeling a gurney holding Megan towards the front door. The woman was awake and complaining bitterly behind the oxygen mask that had been fixed over her face. Rafe was trying to calm her down and not get in the way of the medical team. However, the Pairs' attention was all on the blue settee where their Clan leader was being treated for a nasty cut on the back of his head. Edwards and David were seated on either side of him while Captain Banks was pacing back and forth in front.

Lisa and Karl followed the gurney out and pulled the door closed behind them. Langston and Michaels had to brace themselves against the emotional backlash that was filling the room.

"We'll get him back. I promise, Jim. We'll get him back." David was stroking the detective's forearm with slow, controlled movements. He and his sentinel looked up in relief as Michaels approached.

"BlairBlairBlair." Ellison's voice had fallen into a keening monotony and his hands were clenched into fists on either side of his head.

Edwards jumped up ceding his place to the older guide. Michaels perched on the armrest of the settee not quite touching the suffering sentinel. Langston hovered behind his guide trying to ignore the possessiveness that building in his gut. Amanda looked up at him an unspoken question in her eyes. She laid a hand a hand against his cheek. "Yours, my sentinel."

He cupped her hand with his own. "Yours, my guide." He breathed in her scent. "Help him."

She smiled at him and then turned to the stricken sentinel. "Senior Sentinel Prime, may I touch you?"

At first, Jim said nothing and then not stopping his litany, he nodded jerkily. The paramedic had finished and knowing what to do when a sentinel was emotionally overwrought withdrew quietly. Amanda nodded at her in thanks and slipped down to sit next to him. She gently placed her hand on Ellison's arm all the while talking softly to not irritate him further, "Let me help. I'm not here to take your guide's place. Blair Sandburg is your guide. Your bonded guide. I have no wish to bond with you, but you're hurting and I can help you with that."

She smiled slightly when she heard the whispered "Mine" so soft it was almost a breath. She opened up her empathy and the sentinel jerked. "No, Jim, calm down. I know I'm not Blair and I'm not your guide, but let me help…" Her hand was in constant motion running up to his shoulder and down to his wrist.

He tried not to, but Langston could do nothing else other than hover over his guide while she helped their Clan leader in his moment of need.

Edwards walked over to where Banks was now staring out of the large windows talking into his mobile. He finished his conversation and turned to look at the sentinel. "So, you think it's that dark sentinel woman that's taken Sandburg?"

"I'm pretty sure, but once Ellison's got his himself back under control he should confirm that."

"What's she going to do to him? I thought a bond was for life and it couldn't be broken unless one of them died?"

"That's usually the case."

"So, why didn't she kill Ellison? That would leave her free to bond with his guide."

"It would have probably sent Sandburg into overload and as he's a dark guide – "

"He would have done that projection thingy?"

"Yeah, well that 'thingy'," Edwards said sardonically having experienced it himself, "most likely would have been uncontrollable without a bond and Barnes would most probably burn out herself."

"So, what? If she can't bond with him…?" Banks stared at the SWAT officer convinced he was holding back something. He suspicion was confirmed when the man gave Ellison a glance and then moved further into the corner.

"She could flat line him," he whispered, obviously uncomfortable with the subject.

"What?"

"Shh." He looked at over at the settee again where it appeared the two guides were making headway with the distraught sentinel. "Stop his heart so he's technically dead and then revive him. That could break the bond."

The captain looked at him in horror. "Kill him?" Even though his voice was soft it still expressed all the horror he felt.

"Just for a second or two."

"And this works?"

"Most of the time."

"God, that's barbaric." A thought struck him. "But what about Jim? Wouldn't he suffer?"

"It could kill him."

Simon opened his mouth to reply when all hell broke loose. Ellison rose off the settee surging past the two guides and sending David to the floor.

"Chief!" There was such anguish in his voice it almost brought tears to everyone's eyes. His eyes darted round the room. "I can't feel him." He turned and grabbed Amanda's arm. "He's gone. Oh, God, he's gone."

"Senior Sen… Oh, who cares about protocol? Jim, Jim. Listen to me." The female guide rose so she was standing in front of him one hand on his chest and the other trying to grasp his cheek.

Banks turned to Edwards. "She's done it? Already?"

"I don't think so." The sentinel moved towards his Clan leader. "If Sandburg were dead, Ellison would be too or a quivering wreck on the floor. But then again, he's a dark sentinel. Maybe he could withstand the break."

Michaels had been joined by Langston and they were holding onto Ellison who was fighting to get free.

"Chief, Chief!" The man's cries were getting louder. He managed to free an arm and walloped Langston round the ear. Edwards waded in and threw his arms round the other sentinel's upper body.

"Peter," Amanda gasped out, "in my bag, the Bentinate." She was holding onto Ellison using her empathy to calm the man. "David, link."

The younger guide moved forward hesitantly and then placed his hands over those of the woman. For a brief moment, Jim calmed and then reared up again. Banks hovered around the group unsure of what to do. When the man looked as if he was going to get free the captain moved forward to help.

"Don't touch him!" Langston's voice stopped him. "You don't know how to shield your emotions and in this state you could hurt him." He moved towards the sentinel injection in hand. "Hold him!" He darted forward, pulled Jim's shirt open at the neck and managed to stick the needle into the top of his shoulder.

The affronted sentinel roared and as his legs began to buckle he turned accusing eyes towards his 'attacker'.

"It's okay," murmured Michaels, "it's only something to calm you down."

They gently moved him to the settee and lifted him onto it. As his head hit the cushions his eyes closed. Just before going completely under he opened his eyes one more time and searched again for his guide. "Blair…" his plaintive cry was no more than an exhalation of breath, but it resonated through the room like a prayer.

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"Don't even try it," the voice hissed in his ear.

For a moment, Blair had thought that once at the bottom of the fire escape he'd be able to give the woman the slip. Unfortunately though, she'd again twisted her hand in his hair and had kept him in place. She urged him to the end of the alley where a car was waiting engine idling.

"Get in and make it quick. And if you even so much as call attention to us I'll shoot anyone I see." The young guide gulped and climbed into the back of the car. Barnes quickly followed and pressed her gun into Blair's side. "Move."

At first he thought she was talking to him when he noticed the woman in the driver's seat. The dark-haired beauty blew a kiss at Alex and they pulled away not too fast and slipped into the traffic just as a couple of black and whites screeched up to the front of the building. The sentinel pushed him down so he was under the level of the window and they built up speed. He could feel the excitement and pleasure coming from the two women and something else… He swallowed when he noticed that the strongest emotion battering against his barriers was bonding heat. He almost giggled in relief as he realised that it was directed at him, but it was rather between the two women. Which meant that the driver was a guide. She had to be a minor though, because the signal was very weak.

He tried to raise his head, but it was unceremoniously pushed down again. The car turned to the left and picked up speed. They'd obviously turned onto the motorway and Blair tried to figure out which direction they were now travelling in. He slid into the door as the car swerved sharply. A grunt escaped his lips as something stabbed him in the back, probably the door handle.

"Keep it down, Iris," Barnes' voice was sharp. "We don't want to draw attention to ourselves."

"Sorry. It's just some idiot who cut us up."

"Okay, Guide Sandburg, I'm going to give you something to make you sleep. No, don't panic," the sentinel continued as she felt him tense under her hand. "I'm not going to hurt you – unless you give me reason to. It's guide friendly, so you don't need to worry. We just don't want you to know where we are and we don't want you projecting, do we?"

Blair tried to protest, but due to the space he couldn't get any purchase and the hand on his head kept him down. He could feel panic start to curl in his stomach and all the moisture was sucked out of his mouth. He felt something prick his neck and a burning sensation from the point of contact spread up into his jaw. Suddenly, his head felt too heavy to hold up and he sent out an agonising call through his bond, "Jim!" For a second, he thought he heard an answering call then it was abruptly cut off. Just as he went under he sent an accusing look to his kidnapper; she'd injected him with more than a sedative.

Barnes felt the man under her hand stiffen as she injected the sedative/dampener into his neck. She stroked his curls. "Shh, shh. Don't fight it," she murmured. His body stilled and she relaxed. Bending her head she breathed in the essence that was the guide. Even though she could feel the bond he had with that other sentinel, he still called to her and she had to resist trying to storm into his mind and possess him. 'Patience,' she told herself, 'soon he'll be yours. Patience.' Just as she felt him going under something jolted her psychically and she shivered.

Chapter 14

Soft voices intruded into his consciousness. He blinked his eyes open and for a moment he wondered where he was. A few seconds later he'd worked out that he was at home and was lying on his settee with the afghan covering him and by the light streaming through the glass doors, it was late afternoon. His mind was sluggish and he felt disconnected from reality somehow. He blinked again when a face came into view looking down at him with a small smile.

"Senior Sentinel Prime, how are you feeling? Just stay lying down for a moment because you'll probably feel a bit nauseous if you try to get up straight away."

And it all came crashing down on him: the dark sentinel, Megan getting shot, being hit on the head and the loss of his connection with Blair. Blair! He lurched up and everything did a loop-the-loop. He flopped back down again fighting the churning in his stomach in the hope that everything in it would stay down. For a moment his senses flared; the light became too bright, the sounds too acute and the smell of Simon's coffee overwhelming. He almost panicked and then with a deep breath he wrestled them back under control.

"Well, look how good you listen."

Jim carefully turned his head and spotted his immediate boss sitting in the yellow armchair a mug of coffee in his large hand. He took in a few breaths and felt a hand on his shoulder.

"Do you want to try that again, but a bit slower?"

He looked up again into the face of Peter Langston who was being very careful to keep his expression neutral. "Okay."

Slowly and with no jerky movements he rose up until he was upright and his legs were safely on the floor. For a moment he thought he was going to have to make a dash to the bathroom, but after a few shallow breaths his stomach calmed down.

"This will probably help." A hand came into view holding a glass of orange liquid. "It's ginger ale," said Amanda.

The first few sips went down slowly and then as it appeared it was going to stay down the glass was quickly finished. He nodded his thanks and handed the empty glass back. Almost against his will, his hand went up to the bandage on the back of his head. Sensitive fingers felt the heat from the broken skin, but fortunately it seemed that the wound hadn't needed stitches. He looked over at his captain.

"Any news?" His voice was hard, but inside he was screaming; his guide was gone and if they didn't find him soon he'd be bonded to someone else while he would be… No point thinking about that now.

"How are you feeling? And your bond…?"

If the situation weren't so serious Jim would have laughed at the look on Simon's face. The man worked with sentinels and guides everyday, he was a friend of the Cascade Clan's Senior Sentinel Prime, but he was still uncomfortable with the more esoteric elements of bonding. And, to be honest, he wasn't too happy with it himself. "Fine. News."

"I think what he's trying to ask is can you sense your guide?"

Not wanting to have to examine how he felt too closely he glared at Langston. The other sentinel merely gazed calmly back. Ellison might be Clan leader and a detective in Major Crimes, but at the moment he was a sentinel whose guide had been ripped from his protection. In other words he was an emotional time bomb waiting to explode.

"No." The reply was grudgingly given.

A painful silence followed while everyone thought about what that could mean.

"Well, it could just be the remnants of the Bentinate," Amanda's voice sounded hopeful.

Jim didn't bother replying. "How long was I out?"

"Just under two hours," Peter replied.

"And what's the news?" Ellison was getting desperate.

"Not much."

"What d'you mean 'not much'." He glared over at Banks who merely raised a disapproving eyebrow at his tone.

"All we know is that a dark car was seen speeding out of the alley. Unfortunately, no one can tell us the make or the plate. However, the driver was a dark-haired woman. So, of course, it wasn't Barnes. Unless she was wearing a wig."

"Would you like something for your headache?"

He didn't bother asking how Amanda knew he had one; she was an empath and the way he was squinting was probably a good indication as well. "I'm fine," he almost growled at the female guide despite knowing that all she was doing was trying to help.

"Ellison!" Langston's voice held a warning as he went to put an arm around her. Not even the top dog in the Cascade Clan spoke to another sentinel's guide in that manner. And no sentinel would let it go unpunished, no matter who was talking.

Jim looked up guiltily. He was hurting and worried, but that was no reason to upset someone else's guide. "Guide Michaels, I apologise for my tone. My punishment is in your hands."

Amanda's gasp filled the space. Never before had a senior sentinel said those words to a guide. "No, Sentinel Ellison, I understand your distress. I accept your apology. No punishment is necessary."

"Put him over your knee and spank him," Banks said drily. "It always worked well with Daryl when he was having a tantrum."

"No comments from the peanut gallery, please," Ellison's voice was equally dry. "What are you still doing here?"

"Well, detective, I'm waiting to hear what happened so we can go about finding your guide. Instead, I'm listening to a grown man growl like a bear with a sore head."

Jim blushed slightly and suddenly found the floor very interesting. "Maybe it's because I'm feeling like a bear with a sore head." He took in a deep breath and then looked up at the three people who'd been taking care of him. "I apologise. To you all. Amanda, I'd love something for my head. It is quite sore." He looked over at his captain. "It was Barnes. I was sitting…"
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This time was different, he decided, blinking his eyes and staring up at the brown ceiling. He was pretty sure he wasn't in hospital (and hadn't he had enough of that establishment recently?). There were a number of things that led him to reach this conclusion: the walls were dark wood and the window was boarded up, he was fully dressed and lying on a settee and the final clincher was the chain round his left wrist that was attached to something underneath him.

"Thirsty, Pet?"

He jumped and swivelled his head to find Alex staring at him hungrily.

As much as he wanted to refuse to cooperate, the drugs had made him woozy and his mouth felt like it was full of cotton wool. Not trusting his voice he nodded cautiously not wanting to aggravate his head or his unsettled stomach. He tried to lever himself into a sitting position, but his broken wrist and the chain made things awkward for him. He cringed when the woman moved forward and pulled him upright with a brusque movement.

"Sorry," she said, not sounding it in the slightest, "I can't let you have anything. We don't want any messy accidents, do we?"

He frowned as he tried to make sense of her words. However, his brain wasn't firing on all cylinders, yet. "I'll be careful," he said slowly.

She laughed, an unpleasant sound. The next instant he was pushing his body as far as he could into the rather thin cushions, as the dark guide leant over and sniffed at him.

"Don't," he gasped out, "I'm bonded."

She pulled back. "Not for long, Pet."

"What? What d'you mean?"

"Later." She patted his arm and looked towards the door her head tilted to one side. A few seconds later it flew open and the woman who'd been driving the car stalked in intense anger on her face and a streak of what looked like grease on her forehead.

"It's not working!" She threw the tool bag she was carrying onto the rickety table and started pacing in front of the boarded up window. Alex crossed over to her and put a hand on her shoulder.

"Calm down, Iris. I'll come and help."

At first the other woman went to pull away and then she turned and lowered her head onto Alex's shoulder. "If we can't get it to work we won't have any electricity."

"I know, I know, but we'll get it to work together. Okay?" She caught Iris' chin in her fingers and lifted up her face. Bending her head she buried her face into the dark-haired woman's neck and breathed deeply. For a moment, nobody moved.

Blair watched them, fascinated against his will. He couldn't understand what was going on. If this Iris was a guide, why was Barnes so eager to bond with him? His answer came a little while later when Alex pulled away from the other woman frustration on her face.

"Damn, damn, damn!" The blond woman slammed her two hands on the table.

It was now Iris' turn to comfort. "Come on, let's go and get that generator working. Once it's working we can get on with it, okay?"

"But I want to bond with you! Not him." The sentinel was almost in tears.

"I know. I'm sorry, I…"

"No! It's not your fault. You can't help being a minor."

"And it's not yours for being a dark sentinel. So, it's no one's fault. All right?"

Alex blew out a breath and nodded. Turning, she saw Blair staring at them. She stalked over to him all grace and menace and stood so that he had to lean back to keep her face in view.

"What the hell are you looking at?" She growled. Before he could answer she slapped him hard making his eyes tear up. "Listen, Pet, this is not a floor show. Once we've got the generator running we're going to flat line you and break your bond with that great behemoth, the Senior Sentinel Prime of Cascade," she sneered. "Then we'll bond." She slapped him again as his heart sped up and he opened his mouth to protest. "And it won't matter if you're left a gibbering idiot. In fact it would be better if you were. I don't want to bond with you, but I have to. So, I suggest you cooperate or I might be tempted to wait a little while before we revive you. You know, induce a bit of brain damage?" She didn't wait for an answer, but swept out of the door with Iris in tow.

For a few seconds Blair simply sat there trying to absorb what she'd said. Slowly, the meaning of her words seeped into his mind. Oh, God, they were going to kill him. She was going to kill him - again. He could feel the panic start to rise up from the pit of his stomach. No, no, no! He started to tug at the chain. "Jim!" He called out in his mind not realising he'd also verbalised the plea. "Jim, please." He tried reaching out through their bond. Unfortunately, the drug he'd been injected with was still blocking him and he flailed about in the emptiness where the bond should have been. He fell into complete panic then and like an animal caught in a trap he pulled and pulled at the chain around his wrist not noticing his flesh tearing and the blood starting to drip onto the floor.

Chapter 14

Blair didn't notice the single light bulb start flickering to life. When it finally lit up the gloomy room however, he stopped his struggling and looked up. "OhGodOhGod OhGod," he murmured and he felt as if his heart was going to explode from his chest. Before he could start again on the chain the door opened and the two women walked back in.

"See, I told you we'd get it…" Alex's head whipped round her nostrils flaring. She marched over to the settee and slapped Blair hard across the face.

'Oh oh, Loony Tunes 1 and Loony Tunes 2 are back,' he said to himself as blood dripped from his split lip onto his chin.

"What have you done, pet? You stupid man." She lifted his left wrist and traced a finger over the torn flesh. Mesmerised, Blair watched as she put the finger into her mouth and sucked his blood. "Iris, bring the vodka. Now, pet, I'm going to take off the chain, but don't think you can escape. Iris here, will have a gun on you at all times." She sat down next to him pushing him back into the cushions.

The other woman placed a bottle of clear liquid on the floor next to the sentinel's feet. Pulling a handgun from the waistband of her jeans she leant up against the table and fixed her eyes on the male guide. Alex scrabbled around in a pocket and brandished a shiny key. She unlocked the little padlock holding the chain round his wrist and made a tsk sound as she saw the damage he'd done. Bending down she lifted up her trouser leg and slipped out a knife from the sheath strapped to her calf.

She grinned at Blair's involuntary gasp. "Don't worry, pet. This isn't for you."

"Easy for you to say not to worry, but you're not lying here waiting to get your brains fried by two loony tunes. And stop calling me 'pet'. My name's Blair."

Alex's smile slipped and she leant forward holding the blade so the point was resting just below his left eye. "I'll call you whatever I want, PET. You don't need two eyes to be my guide." She pressed the point into his skin and watched a bead of bright red blood well up.

Sandburg licked his lips and swallowed. He tried not to show his fear even though he knew that she could hear his heart pounding and smell the sweat that was running down his back.

"And anyway, I DON'T WANT TO HAVE TO HAVE YOU AS MY GUIDE!" The young grad student tried to pull back as the woman suddenly jumped up and started pacing around the room waving her knife around. She lurched back to him and bent over so her face was centimetres from his. "WHY CAN'T I HAVE THE GUIDE I WANT? IT'S NOT FAIR!"

"AND YOU THINK MY LIFE'S FAIR?" Blair couldn't help it, but quite frankly, he'd had enough! He sat up and shouted back into the beautiful face with the cold, mad eyes. "YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT A FUCK UP MY LIFE'S BECOME AND IT'S ALL BECAUSE OF SENTINELS. SO DON'T…." He came to an abrupt stop as once again Barnes slapped his face. He was REALLY getting pissed off about that. What was it with this woman and slapping?

"Well, now that we've got that out of our systems let's see about patching you up." Blair gaped up at her as she calmly sat down next to him her heaving chest the only sign that she'd completely lost it a few minutes previously. "Iris, would you pass me the bottle of vodka, please?"

He'd completely forgotten about the other woman and sent a glance in her direction as she hopped down from the table. She looked bored and uninterested in the proceedings, but her gun never wavered from its target. Going over to a bag sitting on the floor near the front door she pulled out a bottle and handed it to the sentinel. Before returning to her post she stopped a moment and looked down at their captive.

"We won't damage him too much when we beak his bond, will we?" She asked Barnes bending down and running the barrel of her gun down his cheek. "I mean he's a pretty thing and could be more useful than just being a guide, if you know what I mean?"

"We'll see," was the simple reply. "Get back to where you were, now."

Blair closed his eyes in despair. It was true he'd been lamenting his lack of a love life, but this certainly wasn't how he wanted to solve the problem. 'Jim, Jim, please. I'm sorry. Please come and save me. I'll be a good little guide. I won't complain and I'll even hang up my wet towels and…' His eyes flew open again as he felt a tug on his arm accompanied by a ripping sound. Alex had cut his shirt sleeve with her knife and was now tearing it off.

"Hold out your arm." She sighed when he hesitated. "I'm taking care of your wrist, that's all." He held it out and seconds later he screamed as she grabbed his forearm and poured vodka over the torn skin. "Oh, don't be a baby." She roughly bandaged it with his torn sleeve and then re-attached the chain. She stood and stretched. "I'm famished. What have we got to eat?"

"Aren't we going to kill him?" Iris asked in the same tone of voice as someone asking whether they were having beans for supper.

"Not right now. He's still got the dampener running through him and we need him online so I can bond to him. We need to time it properly, though, as we don't want him contacting Ellison before we flat line him." She turned and gave him an evil grin. "An hour and a half to two hours should do it."

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Jim stared bleakly at his computer screen and tried to bring it back into focus. Banks had wanted him to stay at home and rest (as if that was going to happen with his guide out there in the hands of another guide!), but he'd insisted in joining him at the PD. However, with the way his head was pounding a small part of him was thinking that crashing out on his bed would have been the better idea. He winced when the captain walked out of his office and bellowed (raised his voice his inner sarcasm corrected).

"Listen up, everyone. Just got news from the hospital. Connor's out of surgery and doing well. The bullet nicked one of her ribs and a lung, but she should be out of hospital in a week and back on duty in about four."

A small wave of 'yeahs' and 'yays' came from the listening detectives and they went back to finding out what they could about where Barnes might have taken Ellison's guide.

It was a measure of how bad he was feeling when the sentinel jumped as a brown hand holding two white tablets was thrust in front of his eyes. He looked up to see Joel looking down at him a sympathetic smile on his face.

"Go on, it's only aspirin," he said.

He hesitated.

"You've got a really bad headache and you're squinting at the screen. You need to be working at optimum capacity if you want to find Blair quickly."

"Thanks." Jim smiled ruefully at the man and swallowed the tablets with a mouthful of coffee – cold coffee. He grimaced at the taste. The next moment he was on his feet staring at the double doors.

Joel was just about to ask what was the matter when the doors opened and every sentinel and guide that worked in the PD and a few that didn't walked in. They all looked grim and menacing - even those that worked as support staff. Just as Edwards reached Ellison Banks' door flew open and the man came out.

"What's going on?" He questioned looking in amazement at the 30 or so men and women crammed into the bullpen.

Joel merely shrugged equally in the dark.

"Senior Sentinel Prime," Edwards' voice was serious and respectful, "I have gathered the Clan together. We are ready."

"Ellison?" Simon's voice was sharp; he didn't like not knowing what was going on.

Funnily enough it was Edwards that answered, "The Senior Guide Prime has been kidnapped. It is our duty and our purpose to find him."

"But what can you do that we're not doing? We're using every resource available to us."

"Yes, but we're not bound by the same constraints that the law dictates." Jim's voice was grim.

"What d'you mean 'constraints'? You're law enforcers, not vigilantes. What are you going to do?"

"We're sentinels and guides living up to our nature; we protect the tribe no matter who is part of it. There are some laws and some imperatives that take precedent over man made laws." He turned to the group and pulled himself up straight. For a moment Joel and Simon saw another figure before them dressed in tribal clothes, paint on his face and a large crossbow strapped to his back. They blinked and it was Ellison once again.

"My guide has been taken," he addressed the Clan.

To everyone's complete surprise the group started to growl softly.

"He has been ripped from my side by an unscrupulous and criminal sentinel."

The growls got louder.

"He has been taken from our protection and care."

There was now a constant noise interspersed by angry mutterings. The whole bullpen stood mesmerised and the corridor outside was filling up with PD personnel eager to see what was going on.

"The sentinel that took him intends to try and break our bond."

There were a few shouted 'no's, a few moans and the growling increased in volume.

"I cannot allow this to go unpunished. I, and the Clan, have been insulted. We will find the Senior Guide Prime and wreak the ultimate chastisement upon his ravishers. I declare Clan Blood Hunt!"

The roar that filled the room was deafening. As the sentinels and guides started filing out of the room, Banks strode over to his detective. He grabbed his arm. "What the hell do you think you're doing? You going to kill these people or what?"

"It's my right to do so."

"But you're a detective for God's sake! You're supposed to uphold the laws of this country not ignore them."

When Jim finally turned to him his voice gentled and Simon could finally recognise the agony that Blair's kidnapping had caused him shining in his eyes. With alarm he saw Jim place his badge and service gun on his desk. "For this, all I am is Clan leader and a sentinel whose guide has been taken from him. There's nothing you or anyone else can or has the right to stop it."

The police captain opened his mouth to say something, but Ellison had turned away and was striding out of the room followed by Edwards and his guide. Suddenly, the three men stopped and stared intensely at the corner of the bullpen. They then seemed to shake themselves and carefully not looking at each other they were gone.

"What was that about?" Simon asked Taggart. The former bomb squad captain was staring at the same corner shaking his head a bemused expression on his face. "Good lord, Joel, I thought I'd never see the like. Civilised men acting like…"

"Sentinels and guides concerned for one of their own."

"I know, nevertheless…" Banks' sigh was heartfelt. "Brown, Rafe. Keep Ellison in sight and do your best to prevent a blood bath – if you can."

"Thanks, Cap," Brown's voice was sardonic. "And how are we supposed to do that?" He mumbled at his partner as they rushed out of the room.

"Okay," bellowed Banks, "everyone back to work. The show's over." As he turned to go back to his office he glanced at the corner that the three men had stared at. It was empty. Shaking his head he entered his office and shut the door not realising that moments before the corner had been occupied by a large, black panther roaring its approval at the Clan's actions.

Chapter 15

"What have we got?" Ellison climbed into the front passenger seat of Edwards' car and looked at his second who was already sitting behind the wheel. He felt edgy, almost as if ants were running along his veins instead of blood. He tried again to contact Blair through their bond, but again he failed. He clenched his hands in frustration and a nerve in his jaw twitched. A hand landed on his shoulder and a wave of calm swept through him. He covered the hand with one of his own and threw back a grateful smile to David who was sitting behind his sentinel. Squeezing it gently, he placed it on Edwards' shoulder and the other sentinel puffed up in pride at how his guide was helping the Senior Sentinel Prime.

"Edwards, where are we going?" Jim looked around in confusion as he realised they were heading towards City Hall, as something was very gently urging him to go north.

"Everyone's gathering in the Sentinel Suite. We need to…"

"No."

"Sorry?" The Sentinel Prime took advantage of the red light to look at his Clan leader. The other man was staring out of the passenger window his hands curling into fists on his thighs.

"We need to go north."

"Are you feeling Blair?"

"No. Yes. No. I don't know."

All three men jumped when an irate driver behind them blasted them with his car horn. Edwards raised his hand in apology and pulled away from the lights.

"Perhaps it's the panther," David's voice was soft.

"What?" Jim turned to look at the guide.

"Maybe you're feeling something different because it's not Blair you're feeling, but your spirit guide. Do you realise, we all saw it. I mean, I've read about this, but…" Jim looked in amazement as the normally reserved guide launched into a rapid monologue.

"Hold on a moment," the senior sentinel cut in, "what on Earth are you talking about?"

"You saw it, didn't you?" A small amount of hesitation crept into his voice. "The panther. In the bullpen? And it belonged to you – THAT I felt strongly."

"Well… I saw something…"

"I saw it," Edwards spoke, "but we'll have to shelve it for a moment. We've arrived." He drove the car into the underground car park and pulled into a space marked 'Sentinel Suite'.

They got out of the car and were making their way towards the stairs in the corner when Jim stopped and looked behind them.

"Wha…?" Edwards started to ask, but Ellison held up his hand for silence.

A car slowly entered the space and moved through the aisles. Ellison strode forward and cutting through a line of cars stepped out in front of the vehicle making it come to an abrupt stop. The driver's window rolled down.

"Damn it, Ellison! Give someone a heart attack, why don't you?"

"Looking for someone, H?" Jim bent to look into the window. "Hello, Rafe."

"Jim…"

"Banks sent you?"

"Uh huh."

"To stop me?"

"No, babe. Rafe?" H turned to the man in the passenger seat who handed him a paper bag, which was then passed onto the sentinel.

Jim's eyes widened when he opened it and saw his badge and service revolver. "You swipe them?"

"No. Banks gave them to us."

"Why?"

"Listen, man. The cap, us all, we all understand the pressure you're under and how split you are between being a cop and a sentinel. We want to help you find Hairboy," Ellison's eyebrows raised at the nickname. "Hey, it's appropriate, no? Anyway, we're not here to try and control you and the Clan, but we're here more…"

"..for damage control - if needed," Rafe added when his partner seemed unable to find the right expression. "We're not going to stop you and if the situation calls for it, we'll help you bury the body. However, if there's a way that this can be resolved within the dictates of the law, well, we'll do that as well."

For a moment, Jim said nothing while he looked at the two detectives as if he was trying to see into their souls.

"Okay," he said finally. "You can park over there." He indicated the spaces for the Sentinel Suite.

The two sentinels and guides waited for the two men to get out of the car. Edwards had simply raised his eyebrows when Ellison had joined them. He'd got a slight shrug and a rueful grin in reply. Eventually, all five of them got into the lift and Edwards pressed the button for the fifth floor after having tapped out a code onto a pad next to the call buttons.

"Okay, before we get up there, there are certain things you have to agree to." As Jim spoke to the two detectives they realised it wasn't their colleague before them, but the Senior Sentinel Prime of the Cascade Clan. Almost unconsciously, they stood up straighter. "There are things that you'll see here that we'll ask you to keep to yourselves. There are places you cannot go and some meetings that you will not take part in. If you're not okay with that, you can leave."

H and Rafe didn't even bother to look at each other.

"Jim, we're not here to do an exposé of Clan secrets," Rafe said. "Just let us know what's going on and we'll go with the flow."

Ellison nodded and gave them a small smile just as the lift pinged and the doors opened. Lisa and her guide, Karl, were waiting for them and opened their eyes in surprise at the presence of the two detectives. It was extremely rare to see non-sentinels and guides in the suite. Brown and Rafe, in their turn, were surprised to see their reaction. From what they knew about sentinels, they should have been able to detect their presence.

Jim, seeing the expression on their faces, bent to murmur something in their ears, "This place is riddled with white noise generators including the elevator. Can you imagine what it would be like otherwise? 50 sentinels listening in to you going to the toilet." He smiled as the two men shuddered and then raised his voice. "Lisa, Karl, would you mind giving H and Rafe here a tour of the common areas?" He turned back to the two men. "I need to speak to some people about something totally sentinel. It shouldn't be long and then you can join in the planning discussion. Okay?"

Five minutes later found Ellison, Edwards, David, Langston, Michaels and the Clan archivist and her guide sitting around a table in the suite's conference room. Someone had provided coffee and Jim sipped at his brew appreciatively. With so many sentinels coming and going here everyday it was understandable that the coffee had to be good. It was certainly better than the brew they served at the PD.

"Thank you for coming, Dr Fontana," said Edwards.

"No, no problem. In fact thank YOU for informing me of this." The middle-aged woman had an eager, but pleasant smile. Her guide was pulling out books and files from a large documents bag and placing them on the table in front of her. "Now, you said to me over the telephone that you, your guide and the Senior Sentinel Prime saw a black panther in a place where one would not normally be seen."

"I've often referred to the bullpen as a zoo, but even so, a panther's not something I would have expected to see there," Jim remarked drily. "Look," he turned towards Edwards, "do we really have time for this?"

It was the doctor who answered, "Understanding your spirit animal and why you're suddenly seeing it could more than likely help you in finding your guide.

"It could lead me to Sandburg?"

"Maybe, which is why we need to talk now." At his tense nod, the doctor continued, "Now, I need to ask some questions before I can tell you what I think. Is this the first time you've seen it?"

"Yes," but in his mind he hesitated. Something was there… 'No, just concentrate on what you're doing,' he said to himself. 'The sooner we're out of here, the sooner I can find my guide.'

"How did you feel when you saw it?"

"What do you mean?"

"Did it feel familiar? Were you afraid? Was it trying to say anything to you?"

Ellison almost squirmed in embarrassment. He hated anything that smacked of spiritualism or esoteric mumbo jumbo. "It was just there," he eventually said. "And it wasn't talking."

"And you two saw it as well?"

Edwards and David both nodded in reply. "I felt it belonged to Sentinel Ellison," the empath added.

"Really?" Fontana looked at him with interest. "And you? Did you feel that?" She turned to Jim.

"I don't know."

"Okay," she seemed a bit taken aback by his obvious negativity, but it didn't discourage her. She made some notes in an exercise book and then turned towards Langston and Michaels. "You two have been bonded the longest. Have you ever seen a spirit animal?"

"Never," answered Langston.

"Has anyone ever heard of anyone seeing one? From another Clan even?"

They all shook their heads.

"Fascinating," she breathed. "Carla, Sandburg's Masters thesis." She took the bound document that was handed to her and opened it where a blue place marker had been stuck. "Now, Guide Sandburg in his…"

"Who?" Ellison's voice cut through hers like a knife.

"What?" She looked up at the interruption.

"You said Sandburg. Blair Sandburg my guide? What's he got to do with this?"

"Oh, didn't you know?" She asked in surprise.

"Know what?" Jim was holding on to his temper with fading strength. As far as he was concerned all this was simply wasting time. The need to be out on the streets was eating away at him.

"The Senior Guide Prime's university studies have been on spirit animals in history and discovering why they've not been seen since modern sentinels. He's quite brilliant really. It's a shame he's not been able to continue his studies. What other insights into spirit animals would he have found? Mind you, it doesn’t surprise me that Edwards wants to get rid of him."

Ellison lowered his head, eyes closed. He felt deep shame at how he'd been taking his guide for granted by not asking him what he wanted to do with his life and ignoring his needs.

"Why? What did she do?"

He opened his eyes and looked up at Edwards' question.

"He reported someone for cheating, but as this student's father was a big contributor to the university, Chancellor Edwards told him to ignore it. Sandburg wasn't happy and continued to make waves, so he was sacked. Well, it turned out Ventriss was a rapist as well as a cheat and is now in prison. Edwards was forced to reinstate Sandburg. Then it was discovered that Ventriss had also stolen Sandburg's thesis before it was finished and had sent it to a publishers. But at first no one had realised that it'd been stolen. In it, Sandburg had cited confidential documents that the university didn't want revealed to the general public. Big brouhaha.

"Sandburg was sacked again. Edwards made a lot of public announcements regarding Sandburg's dishonesty, underhandedness Etc. Etc. When it was revealed that he was completely innocent and that his thesis committee had given him permission to use these particular documents she again had to eat cold crow and ask him back to complete his doctorate. So of course, with his absences from the university while he was working at the Centre and the fact his office was trashed – and you can't tell me that he was responsible for that! – she jumped on the chance to not only sack him from his TA job, but also out of the Ph.D. programme. What a waste."

"Blair will be completing his Ph.D. and I personally, will be dealing with Chancellor Edwards. Got it?" Ellison had listened to Fontana's disapproval while she told the story and knew that it was directed at him. However, his anger was directed at the woman who'd been making his guide's life a misery. He'd get his guide back and then Chancellor Edwards would be feeling the full might of the Clan.

"Uh, yes, Senior Sentinel Prime. Good. Excellent."

"Can we get back to spirit animals, please?"

"Yes, of course." Fontana turned back to the document. "Well, as I was saying, Sandburg states that spirit animals were rarely seen except by Pairs who'd taken part in a bonding ceremony in a sentinel/guide temple. It was believed that there were numerous temples around the world, but the only one known to us now is in Mexico."

"But we've never been to Mexico," said Ellison. "So…?"

"He also thinks that sentinels and guides that were commonly called 'dark' were able to reach this level without the ceremony. Of course, that's only speculation as there hasn't been a dark guide for… Oh." She stopped and slowly raised her eyes to Ellison. He merely looked back, a neutral expression on his face.

"Right, well, okay," she looked down at the document in her hands and took in a deep breath. "He, he also believes that the sentinels and guides could communicate with their animal guides and thus communicate with each other over great distances."

She looked up as she heard the small gasp that came from Edwards' guide and saw the Senior Sentinel Prime's face tighten in anticipation. His blue eyes blazed as he leant towards her.

"Does this mean I can communicate with my guide even though he's not here?"

"I… I… Well, perhaps. Has he seen his spirit animal? Do you know what it is?"

Jim's heart was pounding so hard in his chest he felt that it was going to explode. "No," he whispered, "I don't know. God, I don't know what it is."

Chapter 16

"Can you feel anything yet?"

Iris looked up at the female sentinel from where she was lounging against a wall sipping at a beer. She cocked her head in a way very reminiscent of a sentinel concentrating on listening. Blair fought to keep his heart from pounding and the fear he was feeling to swamp his mind. He could also feel the first tendrils of the link with his sentinel beginning to form. He was hoping against hope that the minor guide couldn't feel it also.

"Umm. There's something, but… It's weak." She looked over at the other guide and licked her lips. "He can feel it, too. That's why I can taste his fear." She laughed as he turned his head away from her look. "We might as well get him ready."

Alex sashayed over to the settee where Blair was still chained. He'd often read the word in books and had always wondered what sashaying looked like. Well, now he'd seen it and…. 'Oh, God,' he thought, 'distracting yourself isn't going to work now, Sandburg. Time to get yourself out of here.'

"Well, Pet, time to get busy."

She had her big knife in her hand and he eyed it nervously. She'd said she wasn't going to hurt him, however he also knew that with her sometimes all the lights were on, but no one was in. She leant forward, grabbed the front of his shirt and the t-shirt underneath and cut them open from navel to sternum. Pulling the two halves apart she gazed down at his chest.

"My, my. Hairy little thing, aren't you?" While she'd been cutting, Iris had come up to the settee with a rope in her hands.

"Not too bad," she said also copping a look. "Gives me something to hold on to. We'll have to shave a bit so we can get skin contact. Sit up straight and hold out your right arm."

Blair locked onto the words 'skin contact' and could feel panic to well up in him again. It was really going to happen. He was going to die – again. By the same person, no less. He felt a hand in his hair painfully tugging his head upward.

"What?"

She leant in so her face was centimetres from his. "There are two ways of doing this. You cooperate and you come out of this okay. You don't cooperate and, well… You don't need all your fingers to guide, do you? Okay?"

He nodded and pulled himself so he was seated upright his feet flat on the floor. Gingerly, he held his casted right arm out. He looked around to see Alex staring at him hungrily while running the flat of the blade across her cheek. He felt a tug on his right arm and saw that Iris was tying it to the settee armrest. She moved round to his left and grabbed the chain. She held out her hand and the other woman placed the padlock key into it. Quickly, she unlocked Blair's left wrist and twisted the rope around it. He gasped against the pain as she pulled it tight so that his arms were now spread-eagled across the back of the settee.

"Let me explain how we're going to do this," Barnes said as if she was explaining how to bake a cake. "The easiest way of stopping your heart is to pass an electric current through your body. We need to make sure the current goes through your heart so we're going to tape the wires here," she touched the left side of his chest, "and to your right hand. That's why we removed the chain."

Iris had moved away and now came back with a disposable razor in her hand. She started to dry shave his chest.

"Please…" His mouth was so dry it was almost impossible to get the word out.

Alex continued as if he hadn't spoken, "Once your heart has stopped beating, Iris will breathe for you using an ambu-bag. We'll wait a few minutes to make sure that the bond is definitely broken then we'll give you a shot of atropine to get your heart going again. Simple, see?"

Blair most certainly did not see. He closed his eyes and his right knee started bouncing up and down. 'Jim. Sentinel, don't abandon your guide!' He screamed out in his mind. Suddenly he stopped moving. Something was happening to his body; he was growing hot and a sharp pain was stabbing his head. His eyes flew open. He knew this feeling; he'd felt it before. This had happened in Jim's loft when the sentinel had bonded with him.

"He's doing something!" Iris' shrill voice broke into his thoughts. "Stop it!" She leant towards him shouting into his face. "I said stop it." He smiled at her the smile not reaching his eyes. "Alex, can't you feel it?"

"What?" Alex moved over so she was standing next to the other woman. She started rubbing her arms as if ants were crawling up them. Iris put her hands to either side of her head and staggered back from the settee. Alex winced in sympathy as her head also started to throb. "Iris, what's up?"

The dark-haired woman started moaning, "It hurts. It hurts."

The sentinel turned to the young man. "Whatever you're doing, stop it. Just, stop it!"

Blair didn't bother answering, but merely closed his eyes and concentrated on controlling the thing that was flowing out of his body. He didn't even open his eyes when his face was slapped once more. Oh, she would pay for that. He was so fed up of getting slapped.

"Alex, help me!" Iris' voice was turning into a gurgling scream.

The dark sentinel lurched over to her and tried to catch her as she crumpled to the floor and started shaking. They landed in a tangle of limbs Alex on top. Iris was now panting hard and started hitting her head with her balled up fists.

Alex grabbed her hands. "No, no. Don't, you'll hurt yourself." But she was beginning to find it hard to block out the growing pain in her own head.

The other woman was now lying on her side her arms wrapped around her body rocking to and fro and moaning piteously. Suddenly, she jerked and her nose started to bleed. She then went limp. For a moment, Alex thought she was dead and then she saw her chest move. She tried to get up, but it felt as if the inside of her head was boiling. She screamed and everything went black.

Blair painfully opened his eyes a slit. The two women were lying in a heap on the floor obviously unconscious. His head was agony and his body was on fire. He couldn't take the pain any more; it was killing him! Biting down on his lip he used the pain to try and take control of his body. He felt something give way in his head and then he knew no more.

CCC CCC CCC CCC

"Blair!" Jim's scream made everyone jump.

The Clan members had finished their meeting with Dr Fontana, collected the two Cascade detectives and had gathered together in the conference room with various other Pairs. Edwards had started organising assignments in the search for the kidnapped Senior Guide Prime. Rafe and Brown were liaising with Major Crimes and Jim… Jim was sitting at the head of the table taking no part in the proceedings. People would cast wondering glances at him, but he was ignoring them all.

David lifted a questioning eyebrow at his sentinel wondering whether the Senior Sentinel Prime was zoning. He and Michaels had managed to link lightly with him so at least he had control over his senses. They hadn't replaced Sandburg and it hadn't been a true bond, but it had been enough to help him for a while. Edwards shook his head; Ellison wasn't exactly zoning, but he wasn't exactly all there either. Which is why when the Clan leader shouted it took everyone by surprise.

"What is it?" The Clan second in command demanded. "Can you feel Blair?"

Rafe and Brown were even more taken aback when all the sentinels and guides visibly shivered and Jim leapt to his feet shouting at the table.

"Where is he? Take me to him, please. He's suffering."

"What are you seeing?" Langston also rose.

"He's seeing his spirit animal." Edwards stood up and turned to Jim. "What's he doing?"

"Don't just sit there and roar, show me where he is."

"What the hell's going on?" Brown had reached his limit and was desperately trying to make sense of the situation.

"Wha…? Is the wolf Sandburg's?" Jim was almost pleading now.

"Jim," Amanda's voice, although soft, was infused with whatever forced sentinels listen to their guides, "tell us what you're seeing."

Brown was just about to demand once more for an explanation when he felt a hand on his arm.

"Just wait a moment," Langston whispered in his ear. "I'll explain in a minute."

"Jim?" A note of steel entered the female guide's voice.

The man under everyone's scrutiny plopped back in his chair and scraped his hands down his face. He looked up again and everyone could see a faint light of hope in his eyes. "The black panther appeared on the table and just sat there roaring. We have to go."

"As soon as you've told us what you saw. It could be relevant."

Ellison glared at Edwards and then looked back at Michaels. "There was then a large grey wolf and it seemed to jump into the panther… Oh, God, I remember. When I revived Sandburg after that bitch killed him the same thing happened. The wolf must be my guide's spirit animal."

"And then what?"

"The panther looked to the north, roared and vanished. He's calling me north." He stood up. "Let's go."

"Wait…"

"No!" Jim's voice was firm and commanding. "Enough talking. My guide's in trouble and we need to find him. He's somewhere north." He started for the door.

"But…"

"How can…?"

"We need to…"

"Enough! Your Clan leader has spoken," Ellison's voice trampled over the objections and everyone fell silent. He'd been listening to Edwards, Fontana, Michaels and had been led about like a child while he'd been reeling from his guide being ripped from him. He was Cascade's Senior Sentinel Prime and Clan leader – it was time he acted like it. "We're leaving. If anyone disagrees we shall meet in the gym."

A hush fell over the room and all the sentinels carefully avoided looking at anyone while their guides edged closer to them.

"What does that mean?" Rafe murmured to Peter.

"It means that if anyone challenges Ellison on this they'll also have to challenge him for the position of Senior Sentinel Prime and Clan leader," Langston's voice was barely a whisper.

After a moment of silence, said Clan leader swept out of the room followed by the Pairs until only the Langston/Michaels Pair and H and Rafe were left.

"In the gym? What do they do? See who can do the most press ups?" Brown's tone was dubious as they stood up to follow in their wake.

Langston looked at him steadily without any trace of a smile on his face. "No. They fight and if one of them doesn't yield, it's to the death." With that he put his arm round his guide and they left the room.

The two detectives looked at each other.

"He was joking…"

"Nah, it can't be true…"

They spoke at the same time, stopped and then hearing the silence realised they were alone.

"Shit," said H and with that they raced after the Clan.


Chapter 17

People in Cascade looked on in amazement as a cavalcade of cars raced through the city streets. The first and last cars had lights and sirens blazing while the four in between had hazards flashing and the drivers were leaning on their horns. Fortunately, for pedestrians and drivers alike, although they didn't know it, the lead cars were being driven by sentinels with their sight dialled up to the maximum.

"You okay there?" Rafe's voice was tight as H narrowly missed a lamppost that was obviously risking its life by being on the corner of the street they were turning into. The dapper detective sat in the passenger seat seemingly unperturbed unless you noticed his white-knuckle grip on the dashboard.

"Got it under control, babe," Brown's voice was equally stressed despite the calm words and he didn't take his eyes off the road.

"Do you know where we're going?"

"North? Huh, I'm just following the rest."

Silence reigned for a moment.

"What do you think about this animal spirit thingy?" Rafe mused.

"Gawd knows. I'm still working out the sentinel/guide bond thingy."

"I must admit, I've never seen Ellison like that before."

"You've only known him a while. You should have seen him when he was in Vice… Shit!"

They rounded a bend and Brown jerked the steering wheel to avoid slamming into the car in front of them. The others had slowed right down and were now entering a car park leading to one of Cascade's many parks. The two detectives waited before turning in and parking next to the others. Getting out they joined the Pairs who were converging on Edwards' car. Spotting Langston and Michaels they eased over until they were standing next to the sentinel and guide.

"What's going on?" Brown asked them.

"Shhh," was Langston's reply.

Michaels leant over and spoke softly to them, "Ellison's lost the connection…" Brown had an insane desire to laugh and nearly asked whether the Clan leader should change his mobile phone network. "… no point moving if we don't know where we're going."

"Does, does that mean Sandburg's dead?" Rafe asked matter-of-factly.

"Don't know. With a dark Pair it's difficult to say."

"So, what do we do?"

"Wait, I'm afraid."

"Oh. H, I'm going to call the captain to let him know what's going on."

"Okay," Brown nodded at him and turned to the female guide. "How about getting something to eat? I mean if we're gonna be here a while."

It was Langston that answered, "Not a bad idea." He looked around and then up. "However, we need to get inside somewhere. It's going to rain."

The detective looked up at the clear sky and then back down at the sentinel an eyebrow raised in question.

"Trust me." Was all he got in reply.

CCC CCC CCC CCC

The sound of rain on the roof dragged him out of the black hole that was his mind. He licked his lips desperately trying to get his dry mouth working. Opening his eyes, Blair blinked trying to get them to focus. 'This waking up in strange places and not knowing immediately where I am is getting really old, really fast,' he said to himself. He tried to turn and his memory came crashing back as his tied arms prevented himself from doing so. Oh, oh…

He brought his head up and immediately spotted the two women lying on the floor. Iris was on her back, eyes open and blood under her nose. Alex was huddled next to her and he couldn't see her face. The smell of sweat and urine filled the small room. "Oh, God," he said out loud. "I've killed them, I've killed them." His right leg started bouncing up and down in agitation. A small noise made him still and he held his breath. Iris sighed and her left arm jerked hitting the sentinel who, in turn, moaned.

They were alive, but obviously out of it – for the moment at least. Probably the best thing to do now would be to get the hell out of Dodge before they regained their senses – ha ha – if they ever did. The young guide gave an experimental tug on the ropes; they weren't budging. He tried bouncing up and down on the settee to see whether he could move it or dislodge the ropes. After a few minutes he had to give up as he was getting nowhere except for producing sweat that ran down his back and an awakening of the pain in his torn wrist.

He glanced at the window trying to gauge how long he'd been out, but it was difficult to see past the boards. Suddenly the single bulb alight began to flicker and then died. The cottage was plunged into darkness. Either the generator had broken down again or he'd been out long enough for it to have run out of petrol. With a sigh, he laid his head back against the cushions. His life officially sucked. Something tickled the back of his mind and with a start he realised he could feel his connection to Ellison. It was faint and vague, but undeniably there.

"Jim!" He called out both out loud and in his mind. "Sentinel Ellison, please. Come and get me out of here." He wasn't so far gone in his despair that he failed to miss the irony of calling out to a person that, before he'd been kidnapped, he'd quite happily never see again.

He stilled when he heard something rustling in the corner of the room behind him. At first he glanced over to the two women to see if they'd moved. To his relief they were still where he'd last seen them if the dark lumps he could make out in the gloom were in fact them. He strained his head round to try and see if he could see what was making the noise. Crashing thunder made him wince and a gust of wind made the roof creak alarmingly. Fearfully, he looked up hoping that it would hold. The last thing he needed was to be buried under collapsed timbers.

The noise in the corner caught his attention again and he craned his neck once more. His heart hammered painfully in his chest when a large black panther followed by a wolf padded out of the shadows. He opened his mouth to scream, but closed it again when logic and something in the back of his mind stopped him. What were the chances that a real panther and wolf were standing in a run down cottage in north Washington State? And something… there was something telling him that he'd seen them before.

"Uh, hello, kitty?" He was pleased to note that his voice quavered only a small amount. "Um, what you doing here, guys?" He gulped as they rounded the settee and the panther rose up to put his very large paws gently on his chest. For an imaginary animal it seemed to be remarkably heavy. Blair held his breath as blue eyes stared into blue. Then, the jungle predator gave a loud sniff, his nostrils flaring, and eased himself down. He was about breathe out in relief when the wolf did exactly the same thing only just before descending it gave a very wet lick to Blair's cheek.

"Ugh, thanks," he said sardonically trying to wipe it on his shoulder. He then watched fascinated as the panther walked over to the two women lying on the floor. As it sniffed Alex she moaned and it growled in response. Dismissing the two women it turned and stood nose to nose with the wolf. They stood there not moving for a few seconds until the wolf gave a small yip. The panther then bounded away and vanished through the door. Blair blinked; it hadn't passed through the doorframe, but through the door itself. He turned to look back at the wolf, which seemed to be grinning at him with a knowing smirk on its face.

"Are you going to disappear as well?" He grunted as the large canine jumped up onto the settee and after turning a few times settled down so that it was leaning against his side. "Um, don't suppose you could chew through theses ropes for me, do you?"

Blue eyes blinked at him and then closed as the wolf laid its head on its paws.

"Thanks for nothing." The guide grinned at himself. "Well, I seem to be taking this very calmly. Or is it because I've finally flipped and I'm now in ga ga land?" He moved a bit so he was pressed more firmly against the animal appreciating the warmth it was giving out. "Now, where have I seen these animals before?" He closed his eyes in an effort to go back through his memory.

The wolf cracked open an eye as the human's breathing smoothed out and its head lolled on to its chest.

CCC CCC CCC CCC

"We're off!"

Brown nearly choked on his sandwich when the passenger door of his car opened and his wet partner slipped in. Someone had gone to get a selection of sandwiches and some drinks from a local shop while Ellison had paced back and forth across the car park. Even from a distance, the two detectives could see he was seething in frustration. When it had started raining (and wasn't it annoying that langston had been correct?) Edwards had tried to get the man back into the car, but had been resolutely ignored. He'd not even stopped for food.

They'd discussed for a moment to see if there was anything they could do to help, but had come to the conclusion that the Clan seemed to have everything under control. 'Yeah,' Brown thought to himself, 'complete control. Which is why we're sitting here in a car park waiting for an imaginary panther to show itself again.' Well, now it seemed that was exactly what had happened and they were back to following the cars again.

Rafe wiped his face with his handkerchief and shivered. He peered past the windscreen wipers that were doing a valiant job of trying to keep the windscreen clear of the torrential rain that was now falling.

"What happened?" Brown asked.

"Jim just suddenly stiffened, turned to face north and then Langston jumped out of his car and shouted 'I can see it, too.' They then jumped back into their cars and started off."

"Oh."

And to be perfectly honest, there wasn't really an awful lot more that could be said. After about another half hour of driving they turned off onto a track that led off into the trees that lined the road. Another ten minutes of bumping around brought them to a clearing where the other cars had stopped. They got out of the car and made their way in the rain to where the Clan had gathered under some trees. With a sigh, Rafe looked down at his all leather shoes knowing that they were going to get ruined. And why, oh why, had he put on his light blue silk shirt today?

A loud crash of thunder made everyone jump and a number of sentinels visibly winced. Ellison had been looking up the hill as if he could see through the trees. He now turned and Brown realised that the light had diminished with the storm and the approaching evening and that soon it was going to be difficult for the non-sentinels to travel on foot unless they had some pocket torches.

"Okay, he's not too far ahead," Jim spoke softly, but clearly. "Can anyone hear anything?" He looked at the sentinels who all shook their heads. "Neither can I. Does anyone know this area?" Again shakes of heads.

"Oh, hold on a minute," a young uniformed officer spoke up.

Ellison looked over at him enquiringly.

"Ah, Sentinel Parks, sir. And this is my guide, Joseph Brinks." He indicated another uniformed officer standing next to him who, if anything, looked even younger.

"Go on."

"Yes, well. I don't know the area, but Joe and I do a lot of hiking. We've got some walkers' maps in the car and I'm pretty sure one of them covers here." At the Clan leader's nod he rushed down to his vehicle and was back within a minute clutching a plastic bag. He pulled out a folded map and started to unfold out onto the bonnet of the nearest car. Ellison's smile was small, but heartfelt.

"Uh, won't the map get wet?" Lisa asked.

"It's not a problem," Brinks answered. "It's coated in plastic."

Ellison, Edwards, David and the two detectives huddled round the young sentinel with everyone else trying to look over their shoulders. Parks pointed to a spot marked Blue Falls area. "We're here."

"Yes!" Jim's voice was exultant as his finger landed on the paper where the outline of a building was drawn. Everyone could read the legend 'Forestry Commission' written underneath. "He's here. How far is that?"

"Um," Parks peered closely, "2,350 yards."

"Right. Edwards, the white noise generators." The Sentinel Prime, followed by his guide, moved way. "You and Brinks stay here. Don't let anything or anyone past you. Okay?" The young Pair nodded. He looked round at his fellow Clan members and then spotted Rafe and Brown watching him.

"It's okay, Jim," said the taller detective, "we're all out of our jurisdiction here."

"Thanks, but you need to stay back… No, wait." He held up a hand when they went to protest. "It's getting dark and soon you'll need flashlights to see where you're going. We're going after a sentinel. We're doing what we can to mask our presence with white noise generators, but she'll be able to see light. We don't need anything."

"What about the guides?" Asked Rafe. "They don't have sentinel vision."

"No, but they'll be with their sentinels who'll make sure they'll be all right. I'm not asking you to sit this one out, but just to stay back a bit until we say it's okay."

The two detectives looked at each other and then nodded at him.

"Thanks. Right this is what we're going to do…"

Chapter 18

For once, Jim was really grateful that he had his sentinel abilities because by the time they'd reached the cottage the sky was almost black and the rain hadn't let up at all. Everyone was soaking wet and the guides were grumbling that it wasn't fair that the sentinels could dial down their sense of touch and not feel the cold. It had been eerie moving up the track knowing that his Clan members were with him, but not be able to hear them as each pair was carrying a mobile white noise generator. Concentrating on the strengthening pull towards his guide he was unaware of the appraising looks sent his way by the other sentinels. The way he moved so confidently through the dark and rain showed them how well he was controlling his senses and how strong they were even without his guide at his side.

The bedraggled group stopped once the cottage came into view and then having discussed before what everyone was to do the building was surrounded within minutes. Jim sent out his hearing to try and work out whether he could sense who was there. For a moment all he could hear were the sounds of the pounding rain and wind though the trees then a loud thumping filled his ears: Blair's heartbeat! He latched on to it like a drowning man latches on to a life boat. It became louder and louder until it was all he could hear, all he could concentrate on, all he…

"… come back to me, Jim. Listen to my voice…"

He jerked at the hand clasped around his face and the softly whispered words close to his ear. Turning he saw Amanda kneeling next to him with her sentinel protecting her back and holding an umbrella over them. He suspected that the umbrella was for the female guide and he was just benefitting from the fact that she was so close to him. Not that it was really doing any good with the wind now sending the rain almost horizontal.

"Good, you're back. Are you all right?" Her voice was soft, but he had no problem hearing it.

He nodded mortified that he had lost it at such an important moment. A sudden burst of thunder made everyone flinch and one of the younger sentinels a few metres away bent over his hands covering his ears. His guide immediately put his hand on his back and started murmuring into his ear.

"Don't worry," she continued. "You're doing really good considering the stress you're under that you're without Blair."

"He okay?" Edwards' voice sounded from somewhere behind him. The female guide nodded at the Clan second. "Right. Ellison, can you hear anything?" It appeared that the Senior Sentinel prime was the only one of the gathered sentinels that could punch through the white noise created by the generators and hear beyond them.

"Yeah." He allowed himself a little smile; his guide was alive and only a few metres away. And more importantly it appeared that their bond hadn't been broken. "I can hear three heartbeats and one of them is Sandburg's. No one seems to be moving, though, which seems a bit strange. I wonder if they're sleeping?"

Edwards frowned. "I would have thought that they'd be more concerned about breaking your bond than sleeping."

Ellison almost flinched at the seemingly cold statement and sent his hearing out again. There was no talking or rustling of clothing. All that could be heard was quiet breathing and three slow, rhythmic heartbeats – beating slowly, filling his ears…

"Shit, he's going again. Senior Sentinel…"

The sound of a roaring panther was answered by the mournful howl of a wolf and brought him back to Earth. He opened eyes that he didn't remember closing. "I'm back. I'm back." God, he'd be happy once he had his guide safely by his side again. He wiped his hands down his face trying to get the rain out of his eyes. The jacket and Jags cap he was wearing was about as useful as toilet paper in the sea.

"Whew, I'll be pleased when we've got Sandburg back." Edwards unknowingly repeated his thoughts and pulled his own guide closer to him. "So, ready to move in?"

Jim nodded and stood up holding his back up revolver in his hand. "Let's go."

Those who had guns, pulled them out and quietly moved closer to the cottage: sentinels in front with their guides tucked in safely behind them. It was showdown time.

Meanwhile, experiencing the same delightful weather conditions Rafe and Brown were struggling with the mud. They had one torch between them, which hardly penetrated the steady stream of drops. Rafe's city shoes gave him no grip in the mud and for what felt at least the 100th time he grabbed onto Brown. Unfortunately, Henri wasn't in a much better state and the pair of them went down in a tangle of arms and legs.

"Sorry, sorry," mumbled Rafe as he tried to extricate himself. Even though he was wearing a cascade PD issue rain slicker he knew damn well his suit was ruined – along with his shoes. With much wriggling and swearing, he managed to get himself upright only to lose his footing once more. This time however, the landing was softer as he fell on his fellow detective.

Brown's breath came out with an 'oomph'.

"Oh, God, I'm sorry," Rafe said as he lay across his partner's broad stomach. He looked up alarmed as H started shaking. "Hey, what's up? You all right? Did I hurt you?"

The shaking increased.

"H, tell…" He stopped as he realised that what he was hearing wasn't tears, but laughter.

"I'm sorry – ha, ha, - babe. I can't – ha, ha, - help it," Brown managed to gasp out between laughs. The laughing eventually subsided and the two men sat up. Rafe eased off his human cushion until he was sitting despondently in the mud. The taller detective leant over to grab the torch that fortunately was still shining despite the fall. He shone it over themselves and broke out into giggles again.

"What?" Rafe's tone indicated that he wasn't finding the humour in their situation.

"Sorry," H repeated, "but just look at us. Two city detectives, one in a designer suit and the other in a Hawaiian print shirt rolling around in the mud like a couple of kids mud wrestling."

Rafe looked down at himself and then over at Brown. He burst into laughter more at his friend's giggling than the situation. However, it turned into full hilarity when Brown, trying to get up again, slipped so he was nose down on the track. What he wouldn't do for a camera now.

CCC CCC CCC CCC

"Urgh, get off me." Blair whipped his head to one side as a wet, rough tongue rasped up a stubble-covered cheek. The wolf huffed in what seemed to be amusement. "You're trying to tell me something, aren't you?" He examined the blue eyes looking at him with almost human intelligence. "You're trying to tell me that Ellison's my true sentinel, aren't you? That I should accept the bond," he said with a sigh. The wolf seemed to grin for a moment then gave him another lick and jumped down from the settee.

"Uh? Where you going?" He asked as the wolf disappeared through the door. He jumped as a peal of thunder rattled the ramshackle building. Fearfully, he looked over at the two women and with alarm noticed that only the dark-haired guide was lying on the floor. "Oh, God," he moaned. His eyes darted around the room trying to see where the sentinel was in the gloom and then jumped when she staggered across his view and fell to her knees next to the supine female guide.

"Iris. Wake up." She pulled at the other woman's shoulder and then lightly patted her cheek. "Come on, wake up." She slapped harder and Blair almost snorted at seeing her continue to employ her 'getting attention' technique on someone else. However, it appeared her tactic wasn't working; Iris simply lay there staring up at the ceiling a vacant look on her face. Almost tenderly, Alex wiped at the blood under the other woman's nose. "Please, Iris, please."

For a few painful moments she stayed hunched over and then slowly, ever so slowly, she stood up and turned towards the settee. Blair's breath hitched as even in the darkened room he could see the gleam of madness in the woman's eyes.

"What did you do?" He voice was quiet and raw.

He licked his dry lips. "I… I…"

"What. Did. You. Do?"

She stalked over and leant over him. He shrank back as far as the ropes would allow. Was she going to slap him – again? She pulled out her knife. Okay, he decided, slapping was good. He could cope with slapping if she would only put that knife away. He gulped as she laid the blade along his left jugular.

"You took them. You took away my senses. They're gone. All gone."

She whirled away and again knelt next to Iris. He sighed in relief, but was sure his relief was going to be short lived.

Tentatively, he sent out his empathy and was amazed when he couldn't feel her at all. He jumped when she screamed and slammed the knife into the floor. Was she really not a sentinel anymore or was he still blocked by the dampener? No, he preferred to believe her. He had to try and connect to his sentinel.

She lifted her hands to her head and gripped her hair pulling hard until her eyes teared.

He let his lids fall shut and concentrated on his bond with Jim, the man he didn't want to be bonded with, but so needed to come and save him.

She rose up shakily and gripped her knife in a trembling hand; all reason had fled her mind.

Something started tingling in the back of his mind and he concentrated on it as if he was nursing a fragile flame.

Turning, she stumbled and then caught herself on the table.

A picture of a black panther and a grey wolf leaping towards each other appeared behind his closed eyelids and he smiled.

She stealthily approached the settee not needing sentinel senses to see in the gloom; she knew exactly where to find the person who'd done this to Iris and her.

His bond hummed and, like a golden arrow, sped out of the cottage ignoring the closed door and passing through a wall.

Slowly, the knife raised and she swayed for a moment as her headache increased.

The golden arrow flew through the dark and the rain.

She straightened and with a low moan stood over the man on the settee.

The bond found its target and his smile deepened in pleasure as it was acknowledged.

For a moment, she stood staring at the man that could have been the solution she and Iris had so badly needed.

Relief and a feeling of satisfaction came back to him along the golden thread.

She raised her hand up above her head.

He opened his eyes.

The knife swung down in an unwavering arc.

Chapter 19

"Did you see that?" Karl whispered to Lisa, his sentinel.

The Pair were positioned to the left of the cottage trying to find some shelter from the elements under a large oak. The sentinel stared in open-mouthed amazement at the panther and wolf that suddenly appeared in front of them. For a moment they stared at each other and then the two animals ran off into the dark.

"Do you think…? I mean…"

"Spirit animals," Lisa almost breathed the words. "I've heard of them, but I thought it was just a myth."

"Like dark guides?"

"What d'you mean?"

"I think Sandburg's a dark guide."

"Dark guides don't exist."

"No, listen. Look how strong Ellison's become since he bonded. And don't you feel that there's something about his guide that just isn't like other guides? And now we're seeing spirit animals?"

Despite the seriousness of the situation the sentinel stared at her guide. "What something? I haven't felt anything."

"Well, I'm not the only one. Other guides have felt the same as me."

Lisa was silent a moment as she digested this. "It's not the moment to be discussing this. And even if it were the case the Senior Sentinel Prime would have told us if he'd wanted us to know."

"True. But imagine…?"

The woman snorted at her guide's wide-eyed expression. "Concentrate on the matter at hand."

The reply was almost too soft for even enhanced hearing. "Yes, oh my mighty sentinel."

She shook her head ruefully and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder and was comforted in return when he covered it with one of his.

Jim, surrounded by his second in command and his guide, Langston and Michaels, started when a large, black panther and a ferocious looking wolf appeared out of the pouring rain. Amanda gasped and then calmed when she realised that neither animal showed even one spot of water on their coats. The wolf leapt up and put its large paws on its human's sentinel's chest and while the panther let out a mighty roar, it licked a bristly cheek. The two animals then simply vanished.

"My God," the female guide whispered.

"Blair!" Ellison's head swung round and he stared at the cottage. "He's alive. I can feel him, but we have to hurry."

As quickly and as quietly as possible, they made their way right up to the cottage. Suddenly, Jim's vision went dark and when it cleared again he was staring up into Alex Barnes' mad face. She moved and he saw the large knife she was holding above her head. It was then that he realised that he was seeing through his guide's eyes. She was going to kill him! In one smooth moment he straightened, lifted his gun and shot through the door.

Rafe and Brown came to a slithering halt as the sound of a shot rang out through the forest. They looked at each other and then doubled their efforts to get to the cottage. After more than ten wet, exhausting, slippery minutes they were able to make out the building and the Clan members standing around the door. Examining their faces they were relieved to see no obvious signs of distress. Pushing through the crowd they made their way inside and were forced to stop when their feet came up against a female corpse lying on the floor. The head was a bloody mess, but the blond hair they could see peaking out under the red gave them a good idea of who it was.

A whimper made them look up. Fortunately, enough torches held by Clan members were on in the small room that they could clearly see what was going on. Ellison was seated on the battered settee and, mindless of the blood and brain matter that coated everything including the man in his arms, was crooning soft reassurances into his guide's ear. Ropes were lying on either side of them and it didn't need a lot of guesses to know what they'd been used for. The whimper came again and they realised that the noises were coming from Sandburg.

Brown grimaced. He'd grown to like the guide who was always ready to help anyone in the bullpen. He certainly didn't deserve to be kidnapped and then covered with his kidnapper's bodily fluids. Looking round again he saw Edwards and a Pair kneeling next to a dark haired woman who was lying completely still on the floor, eyes open. The Pair were obviously medics of some kind as they had a bag open full of medical supplies and were doing medical things to her. He went over and joined them. At first he thought the woman was dead, but then he noticed her chest move fractionally as she took in a shallow breath.

"What happened?" He asked and felt Rafe come up behind him.

Edwards stood and pulled his guide to his side. "We were outside waiting to go in when Ellison shot through the door and then crashed through it himself. We thought he'd lost it. Thought his bond had been broken, but when we got in we found her," he jerked his head towards Barnes' body, "on the floor clutching a big knife and poor Sandburg tied to the sofa covered in blood and other things. Poor bugger," he added feelingly and drew his guide even closer to his body. "He was almost catatonic, but went completely wild when we tried to touch him. Fortunately, Ellison managed to get through to him. Don't know how he knew where she was to be able to take her out like that."

"And her?" Rafe lifted his chin to the still unmoving woman on the floor.

"Don't know. She's presumably the dark-haired woman seen driving the car when they kidnapped Sandburg, but for the moment we know nothing more. We found her like this: totally unresponsive. And Sandburg's not in a condition to be able to make a statement."

"Edwards?"

They all looked over to where a sentinel who was a forensics officer at the PD was holding up a handbag in a gloved hand.

"What have you got?" Edwards asked as the sentinel joined them.

"A driver's licence. It says 'Iris Johnson' and apparently she's a minor guide."

"Ah." The brief exclamation showed that Edwards had understood something fairly significant that was totally incomprehensible to the two detectives.

"What?" Asked Brown.

Edwards glanced over to the Senior Sentinel Pair. He didn't know just exactly what Brown and Rafe knew about dark sentinels and guides and he didn't want to give away too much information. Fortunately, they were interrupted when a ragged 'No' exploded in the room. Blair lifted up his bloodied arm to push away Amanda who was standing next to the Pair a bottle of water and a cloth in her hands.

"Chief, shh. Calm down. All she wants to do is to clean you up. You're covered with… things," Ellison finished lamely. He tightened his arms around the trembling man trying to impart feelings of comfort and security. He'd dialled his sense of smell right down, but even so, the smell of blood, brains and urine was hard to miss.

"Don't touch me," Sandburg's voice was small and quavering. It didn't need sentinel sight to see the man had reached the end of his tether and was holding onto his marbles with the last bit of fuel in his tank and any other expression you wanted to use.

The female guide looked to her Clan leader for guidance. Sandburg had also refused examination by a paramedic. Fortunately, he hadn't objected to his sentinel using his senses to check him over and Ellison was pleased to note that apart from his torn wrist and a few new bruises he was mostly suffering from dehydration and shock. More importantly, his guide needed to bond and to be perfectly honest, so did he.

"Sandburg," he waited until large, blue eyes looked up at him, "would you let me clean you? I promise to be gentle." He bent his head when he almost missed the whispered entreaty.

"Too many people."

Of course, his barriers were most certainly non-existent with the stress, let alone the effect the drugs would have had on them.

"Once everyone leaves, I'll clean you then, okay?" A curly head nodded against his chest as his guide let out a trembling breath and lay back into the one place where he felt safe. Ellison looked up and raised his voice, "I'd like you all to leave for a moment." He felt slightly guilty knowing that it meant they all had to go back into the rain, but quite frankly, he didn't care. Right at this moment, his guide was his priority.

The guides and sentinels started packing up and moving towards the door. Brown and Rafe looked round in amazement.

Rafe put a hand on Edwards' arm. "Hold on a moment. This is a crime scene and there's an injured person here. You can't just leave."

"We can't do anything for her here," the paramedic guide spoke up. "We'll call for transport. She needs to be in hospital as soon as possible."

"But what about the body?" Brown interjected. This was NOT how police officers behaved at a crime scene.

"She's not going anywhere."

"I… can't believe…"

Edwards suddenly turned and pushed his face close to the detective's. "As you said, you're out of your jurisdiction. This is Clan business and it takes precedence. And besides, do you really want to piss him off?" With a nod of his head, he indicated the Senior Sentinel Prime who was glaring at them from the settee.

Grumbling softly about having to go back out in the rain, the two detectives allowed themselves to be led out of the cottage. Knowing that it was merely symbolic, Edwards pulled the damaged door shut behind him. Shivering slightly as he adjusted his dials, he went to organise the Clan - not everyone needed to hang around in the rain - and everything else that was necessary when there was a death and injured people to take care of.

Sandburg gave a little sigh as silence once more reigned in the little cottage. One part of his brain was wondering whether the tension he was feeling was how a sentinel felt when their senses were spiking while the other part was reeling with exhaustion. He pressed his head into the chest he was leaning against and listened to the strong heart beating under his ear. It rumbled as his sentinel spoke and he felt the words as much as he heard them.

"Chief, they're all gone. It's just you and me now. Can I clean you?"

Blair nodded and started to ease himself up. Jim helped him and was amused to see that the other man's hand never lost contact with his arm, which made things a little awkward. However, if that was what his guide needed to feel better, then that was what his guide was going to get. Bending down to get the bottle of water and cloth that Michaels had left for him was an exercise in contortionism, but he managed it. He wetted the cloth and with a gentleness that only a mother could emulate, he started to clean Alex Barnes' blood and brain from Sandburg's face.

"I didn't know if you were coming."

"Oh, Chief. Don't you know, I'll always come for you?"

"Well, I've not been a good guide to you, have I?"

Ellison stopped for a moment and looked at the man. "I know we started off on the wrong foot; I didn't want a guide and YOU certainly didn't want a sentinel. And there are things that we need to discuss and sort out and I owe you an apology. No." He cupped a hand around Blair's cheek when he would turn away and looked straight into his eyes. "No, don't protest. I didn't want to bond, but now that I have you I wouldn't go back to being alone again. Not for anything."

For a moment the younger man held his breath and he stared into his sentinel's eyes as if he could see into the man's soul. And maybe, Jim thought, with his emphatic abilities he could. He continued gently wiping the other man's face and felt it when his guide's body relaxed as all the tension left him.

"O… okay," Blair said eventually. "We do have lots of things we need to sort out, but later. For now, could we… could… I mean, could we bond?"

Jim's smile was gentle, but his heart was jumping for joy. "Any time you want. All you have to do is ask."

He hadn't finished cleaning his guide completely, but that could wait. This was the first time that Blair had asked to bond since that first traumatic bonding in the loft. Climbing back onto the settee he wrapped his arms round the smaller man and buried his nose into his neck. They sank back onto the thin and lumpy cushions.

"Claimed and marked, my sentinel."

"Claimed and marked, my guide."

Chapter 20

Blair blinked then opened his eyes. 'Oookay, I see my life is continuing in the fashion it's adopted recently,' he murmured to himself staring up at a white ceiling. 'However, I am getting majorly pissed off with this waking up in places different to where I'd lost consciousness.' He turned his head and recognised his bedroom in the loft. The light peeking through his curtains told him that it was late morning and that meant he'd been out for hours. A knock on the wall next to where the curtains hung in place of a door to his room made him jump.

"Uh, Chief, can I come in?"

'Well that's different,' thought Blair. 'Before, he'd just barge in.' "Yeah, man, enter at your own peril."

"Don't worry," Jim replied as he entered, "I'm an ex-Ranger, a detective in Major Crimes and a sentinel so I think I can manage your bedroom."

The young guide snorted and then realised what the other man was carrying in his hand. "Is that coffee?"

"Uh, huh." The sentinel put out his other hand and helped Blair sit up in his bed. He very carefully said nothing about the pillow marks on his guide's face or the way that his hair puffed up in a halo around his head.

"What about house rule number 182 about no foodstuffs in my bedroom?"

Jim handed him the mug, opened the curtains to let the sun stream in and sat down in the chair in front of the small desk. "My rules, so I can break them if I wish."

They grinned at each other. Despite the issues between them that still had to be resolved there was a new easiness in their relationship.

"Um, how did I get here?" Sandburg asked noting that he was dressed in a clean T-shirt and his damaged wrist had been bandaged. Awkwardly with his casted arm, he lifted up his blanket and saw he was wearing different boxers to the ones he'd been kidnapped in. "Did YOU change me?"

"How d'you feel?" Jim countered with a question of his own.

"You tell me." The words were hard, but the knowing look in his eye took the sting out of them.

"Temp's fine, but you have a bit of a headache. You're still a bit dehydrated and you need to eat. Your wounds aren't infected and your broken arm is knitting nicely. The cast should be off next week. Your lip could do with some ice and the last bit of the dampener should be gone from your system by lunch time." He stopped as he saw Blair's eyes widen and his mouth drop open.

"You can tell all that just by looking at me?" He was even more amazed when the sentinel went bright red and closely examined a piece of lint on his trousers.

"Iexaminedyouwhileyouweresleeping," he mumbled.

"I beg your pardon. You need to speak up. I'm not a sentinel, you know."

The piece of lint must have been really interesting as Jim lowered his head even more. "I examined you while you were sleeping."

"Oh, okay." He let that slide knowing how sentinels acted around their guides. "How did I get here, anyway? Last thing I remember was being in that place. With… with…" Everything that had happened the day before came rushing back; the kidnapping, the threats, the stuff he'd done with his empathy, the bullet coming through the door killing… "Oh, God," he swallowed.

Ellison looked up alarmed as his guide's heartbeat and breathing sped up. "What's up? Chief?"

"I killed her, didn't I?"

"No, I did. I shot her, remember?"

Blair shuddered. Oh, yes, he remembered seeing the knife descending and thinking it was all over for him. Then the next minute her head exploded and he was covered in blood and other things too horrible for him to contemplate. "No, not Barnes. Iris."

"As far as I know, she's still alive."

"But is… Is she okay?"

Ellison leant over and put a comforting hand on his arm. "Look, Blair. You'd been kidnapped and they were going to flat line you. Break our bond." Despite the seriousness of the subject, Sandburg almost smiled at the righteous indignation in the sentinel's voice at the idea. "You were protecting yourself. You did what you had to do. I'm proud of you."

The following silence was broken by Blair's stomach rumbling loudly.

"Hungry?"

He jumped on the change of subject. "No. Yes. Starving. But first, how did I get here? How did you find me? What happened after we bonded?"

"You fell asleep."

"Jiiim!"

"Okay. How about I tell you everything while you eat? I got some sandwiches from that deli near Rainier."

"Natural Earth? But that's miles away and it's vegetarian only. You're not vegetarian are you? No, stupid," he admonished himself. "He worships at the holy shrine of Wonderburger so sacred to all cops." Blair managed to ease himself out of his bed with a little help from Ellison and it was with a triumphant smile that he stood up straight and stretched.

Jim blinked. This was the first time he'd seen the man smile with such unrestrained pleasure. His whole face had lit up and the sentinel found that he just had to smile with him.

"Funny, very funny, Sandburg." He helped the younger man into some sweats and then they shuffled out of the bedroom as Blair, now that he was moving, was beginning to feel every ache and pain from his ordeal.

"Ow, ow, ow. God, I feel like I went three rounds with Mike Tyson."

"Yep, You'll be sore for a while. Once you've eaten I'll run you a hot bath with some Epsom Salts. That'll help."

"That sounds good."

Once seated at the dining table and Blair was tucking into his tofu and mung bean sprout on wholemeal while Jim ate his surprisingly delicious hummus and roasted red pepper pita, the guide made a 'come on' gesture with his hand. "Okay," he said, "spill. What happened? How'd you find me? And how come you're being so nice to me?"

Jim reddened and looked down at his food.

"No, oh sorry, man. I didn't mean it like that. You weren't rotten to me before. It's just like you were being nice to me because I'm your guide and you had to do it. This is… well…" He indicated his sandwich. "Just more personal. You know what I mean?"

The detective nodded, but didn't look up.

"Jim." He waited until the other man raised his head. "Thanks. For everything." Blair was pleased to see a small smile appear on Ellison's lips and the clenching of the jaw relaxed a fraction. "So, oh mighty sentinel, tell me how you came to be outside that particular cottage just as that loony tunes was about to fillet me?" He smiled when he heard an angry growl rumbling low in his sentinel's throat.

CCC CCC CCC CCC

Blair knew that Jim's jaw was dancing like a cat on a hot tin roof, but he ignored it. He could understand his sentinel's angst and in fact, felt a small amount himself. However, he also knew that he had to do this. So, squaring his shoulders and taking in a deep breath, he pushed open the large imposing door and entered the building Ellison almost stepping on his heels. The first impression he got of the Cascade Sentinel/Guide Psychiatric Clinic was a sort of hushed calm. The pretty, young woman sitting at the impressive reception desk caught his eye and he gave her a huge grin.

"Down, boy," murmured Jim.

"Can I help you?" Asked the blond-haired goddess.

Sandburg went to open his mouth, but Jim got in first, "Senior Sentinel Prime Ellison and Senior Guide Prime Sandburg to see Dr Markham."

"Certainly, sir." She indicated a group of plush looking chairs. "If you'd like to wait, I'll inform the doctor you're here."

The two men sat down and Blair leant towards the sentinel. "What's with the titles, man? You don't like using them normally."

"I know, but sometimes, when you want something you use what you have."

"Uh huh." The guide looked down at his knees and noticed his left one was bopping up and down. He made a conscious effort to stop it. "You didn't need to come, you know."

"Chief, there is no way in hell that I'm allowing you to visit someone who kidnapped you without me with you even if she's basically a vegetable." He didn't miss Blair wincing at his description and he leant forward and put a hand on his knee. "Don't. You did what you had to do. And I'm very grateful that you did what did, to survive. I'm very pleased that my guide was returned to me."

Blair gave him a rueful smile looking up at him from under his lashes. The moment was saved from turning into a Hallmark instant by the arrival of the doctor. A tall, almost cadaverous woman, Dr Markham had a warm inviting smile.

"Senior Sentinel Prime Ellison and Senior Guide Prime Sandburg," she held out a hand in greeting. "Glad you could make it."

The two men rose and Ellison took her hand first. "Well, I must admit I wasn't too keen on the idea, but my guide can be very persuasive when he wants something."

She turned towards the younger man to shake his hand. "Guide Sandburg…"

"Blair, please."

"Okay. Then please call me Janine. I realise it must be very difficult for you to be here, but I understand. We all need closure and if this visit will help I'm happy to be of assistance."

"Quite frankly, I'd be more than happy never to see her again," Jim said acerbically. "She kidnapped my guide and was going to flat line him. She got off lightly."

"Jim, please," Blair's voice was quiet, but heartfelt. "I need to finish this."

The sentinel sighed. "Okay. Let's get this over with." Although reluctant to be present, he was here to support his guide.

In the two months since Sandburg's ordeal they'd made huge steps in building up a strong pairing, but perhaps more importantly they'd become friends. The grad student was back at Rainier teaching and completing his PhD. Unfortunately, they had no concrete evidence against Chancellor Edwards, so she was still a thorn in his side. However, having the Senior Sentinel Prime of Cascade taking an active interest in his guide's studies meant that her fangs had been pulled somewhat. Sandburg had also become a valued member of Major Crimes and not just because of his guiding of Ellison, but also because his wealth of knowledge was making essential contributions to solving crimes. And later in the year they were going to visit Naomi Sandburg's grave in Colorado.

Walking through the quiet corridors made Jim's skin crawl despite the extensive use of white noise generators. Or perhaps, because of them. To take his mind off where they were he watched his guide as he talked with the good doctor. Blair was obviously spooked about the visit, but looking at how he was speaking animatedly waving his hands around you'd have to be a sentinel to notice. He'd accompanied the young man when he'd been reintegrated at Rainier and was pleased to see how he'd been welcomed back – mostly by the female students he'd had to note. There'd been an uncomfortable moment when his friend Lee had accosted the sentinel in the corridor, but the fellow grad student had calmed down when Blair had taken him aside and explained things.

The biggest surprise for Jim had been listening to the young man give a lecture to a packed auditorium. His guide had bounced in front of the podium and, despite knowing nothing about anthropology, Ellison had found the lecture fascinating. Blair's teaching method was clear and full of little anecdotes, which brought the subject to life. However, the fondest memory he had of that day was when Sandburg's mentor, a Dr Stoddard, had arrived in his office carrying a large brown envelope. The two of them had hugged and if their eyes had been extra bright, no one said anything.

Stoddard had then handed Blair the envelope and to the young guide's delight it had held the last draft of his dissertation he'd sent to his dissertation committee. It meant that instead of having to start from scratch, he only had to make up a few weeks of work. It was at that moment that Jim had produced the present that he'd bought for Blair the day of his kidnapping. The joy on his guide's face when he saw the laptop and the hug he'd received had made his inner sentinel puff up in pride.

He came back to the present as they came to a stop in front of a door. Dr Markham put her hand on the handle, but before opening she turned towards the two men.

"You could find this distressing. Iris is catatonic and unable to do anything for herself except breathe, so there's a lot of equipment. Don't be alarmed by it. Okay, ready?"

Blair bit his lip and rubbed his palms on his thighs. Jim moved a bit closer and sliding his hand under the rich curls he gripped the back of his guide's neck. He sent encouragement down their link and got a small smile in reply. At Sandburg's nod, the doctor opened the door and they filed into the room. Despite the white noise generators Ellison could hear Blair's heart beating like a piston engine. Approaching the bed they all stared down at the dark haired woman lying there.

Dr Markham picked up the chart clipped to the end of the bed and started reading it giving them some modicum of privacy. Blair took in a deep breath and moved closer until he was staring at the slack features of Iris Johnson. She was lying on her back staring unblinkingly at the ceiling. A number of drips ran into her arms and various bags hanging below the blanket held fluids that neither man wanted to examine too closely. Ellison sent out his senses and felt – nothing.

"Oh God," Blair's hand came up to cover his mouth.

At his interjection the doctor put down the chart and went to stand on the other side of the bed.

"She's not feeling anything. No pain, no hunger. Nothing. She's at peace." The two men looked up at the doctor surprised at her declaration. She smiled sadly at them. "I did some research on her when she got here. Did you know that she'd been married?"

They shook their heads silently.

"Her husband, David Lash, was a strong guide who unfortunately had been severely abused by his mother. He bonded with a sentinel who worked for the FBI. The sentinel was transferred to Sacramento and Lash abandoned her. They didn't know that she was pregnant and in her distress she lost the baby. She then met up with an Artie Parkman who turned out to be a drug dealer and got her addicted to cocaine.

"When in rehab she met Barnes and the pair of them went on a crime and killing spree. She was a very unhappy lady who'd suffered a lot. Sad, I know, but that doesn't excuse her actions." She looked down blushing a bit at her impassioned explanation.

"No, it doesn't," Jim said firmly.

"Thank you," Sandburg said quietly and taking one last look at Iris, walked out of the room.

Ellison found him leaning against the wall to the right of the entrance his face lifted up to catch the sun dancing between the grey clouds. He joined him and slung an arm around his shoulders.

"You all right?"

"Yeah, man." They stood in companionable silence for a few minutes. "I still feel guilty about doing that to her, but…" he held up his hand as his sentinel went to protest, "I wasn't going to risk our bond and if it was the only way of stopping them, well..."

"Lunch?" Jim asked pushing away from the wall, but keeping physical contact with his guide.

He had to smile at his sentinel's answer to difficult emotional moments. "Yeah, I really wasn't in the mood for food this morning."

"I noticed. I'm not happy about it. You need to eat more."

Blair rolled his eyes and they moved towards Ellison's vehicle. "My treat as thanks for coming with me."

"No, it's okay. I'll…"

"No way, man. I've got money now, remember? And you're letting me stay rent-free. So, it's my shout."

Ellison opened the passenger door and jogged round to the driver's side. "Great! Wonderburger here we come."

"I'm paying, so I choose."

"I'm NOT eating sprouts."

"And anyway, you had Wonderburger two days ago."

"How do you know that? You were at Rainier all day."

"Ah, we guides have ways of knowing these things."

The light blue Ford pulled out of the car park and drove towards Cascade.

"Jim?"

"Yeah." He was beginning to recognise that tone of voice. It meant that his guide was working out something in his head.

"When I was in that hut. Waiting for you, just before you came. There was a moment, like, well… it was like you were in my head. Not like our bond, but as if you were really there. It's hard to explain, but…"

"Hey, I know what you mean." Jim was surprised at himself discussing this. He hated the mystic shit that came with being a sentinel. "For a moment I could see with your eyes. That's how I knew where to shoot."

"Wow. Cool. Hey, man, we've got to do tests. Loads of tests."

THE END
starfishyeti: Snowy mountains (pic#3061550)
Disclaimer: I do not own The Sentinel or the REM song ‘Make it all OK’ and I am making no money from this story - much as I would love to do so.


Chapter one

Blair flipped the burger and cursed as the hot fat spat at his hand.

Big Vinnie Parisi slapped him on the back and bellowed in his ear, “Doncha worry, BS. One day you’ll have wonderful hands like mine!” He lifted up two meaty paws, pitted and scarred with numerous tiny burns and waggled them in front of Blair’s face.

“Vinnie, leave him alone and serve!”

“Okay, Maria,” the big man sighed, “I’m coming, my lovely.” With one last slap that nearly sent Blair face down onto the frying food, he turned back to the hungry customers that were yelling orders for burgers, corn dogs and chips.

Blair grimaced and slid two burgers, a fried egg and a slice of bacon onto the warming pan that stood on the counter at the front of the trailer. Immediately, the small woman with the salt and pepper hair, large eyes and larger heart darted in and scooped up one of the burgers and placed it in a bun.

She looked up at him and smiled, her eyes twinkling. “60 minutes and we’re done, all right?”

“BS, three burgers, two turkey steaks and four large fries!” Vinnie drowned out Blair’s soft reply as he tiredly nodded at his employer.

All three of them knuckled down to finish the evening rush of the final day of the Pine Ridge County Fair. The last customers picked up their orders and drifted off into the night as the three people that had served thousands of hot meals and cold drinks over the period of the fair wearily started to clean the small food concession.

“Blair, you don’t need to do this. Vinnie and I can manage. I know you started early today. Billy-Bob told me.” Maria gently took the sponge out of her temporary assistant’s hand and turned his face to look at her. “You did good. You helped us out a lot and we’re grateful. We’d really appreciate it if you could come with us to Sheridan.” She smiled hopefully up at the man who’d been helping them out while her and Vinnie’s only son recovered from a bad motorcycle accident.

Although he’d been with them for nearly three weeks they knew little more about him than the day he’d started. He’d turned up at the fair looking for work and they’d been grateful to take him on for cash and no questions asked. He’d been a good worker and a number of other stallholders had discovered him to be versatile and reliable and had used him for a number of different jobs around the fair. Only that morning, Billy-Bob, the shooting gallery owner had had him fixing the runners on the moving targets. They wouldn’t be the only ones sad to see him go if he didn’t take the Parisis family up on their offer.

As the man pondered her request, Maria couldn’t help wondering again about the sadness held deep in the blue eyes and the air of defeat that hung about his shoulders. Obviously intelligent and well educated, she’d only seen him with one small leather backpack that he carried with him wherever he went and a sports bag that held his one-man tent and a sleeping bag. He was painfully thin, despite her efforts at fattening him up, and walked with a pronounced limp favouring his left leg. His clothes were clean, but threadbare and she’d never seen him buy anything except for absolute necessities.

“Yeah, come with us,” interjected Vinnie. “Please don’t leave me all alone with the little lady.”

“Vinnie!” scolded Maria, “Go and empty the bins.”

As her husband backed out of the small trailer he lifted his hands in an imploring gesture and mouthed at Blair, “See? Pleeeease.” He quickly ducked out of the door as Maria turned and lifted her hand menacingly.

She turned back to Blair. “That man will be the death of me.” But it was said with affection and a small smile graced her lips. “Well, what do you say?”

“I’ve never been to Wyoming.”

“Great!” And to her own surprise she gave him a quick hug. Standing back, slightly embarrassed, she stood dumbfounded as Blair’s whole face lit up with a blinding smile. ‘Oh my,’ she thought to herself, ‘if only I wasn’t married and was twenty years younger…’

The man before her put up his hands and covered his mouth, as a large yawn seemed to erupt from his very soul. He grimaced, “Sorry. Guess I am pretty wiped. You sure you don’t need me to help with the clean up?”

“No, go on. I know your leg’s hurting and you need your sleep. It’s a long drive and we’re leaving early. You’ll need to drive Mikey’s car for him – the idiot. “

“Okay, thanks.” Blair took off the dirty apron that was obviously too big for him and laid it on the counter. He picked up his backpack and limped towards the door then stopped as Maria called to him.

“Wait! Here’re your wages.” She held out a handful of notes. “I’ve given you a $30 bonus… Ah, ah,” she held up her other hand as Blair tried to interrupt. “You’ve earned it. We wouldn’t have been able to manage without you. Go and get yourself something nice.”

‘There goes that smile again,’ she sighed. ‘Just who is he?’

“Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Blair took the money and stuffed it into his jeans pocket. He carefully made his way down the narrow steps of the trailer and slowly cut across the emptying fair ground. People were swarming over the stalls and rides breaking them down ready for packing them away. Some of them waved at Blair and one or two invited him to join them for a beer. He waved in return but held his head down and kept going. Eventually he slipped between two caravans and into the dark space behind.

His small, one-man tent was set up under a large oak. He opened the zip and crawled in pulling his backpack behind him. He lit the gas lamp that was hanging from the centre pole and pulled off his boots. Checking them over he decided that the soles were good enough to last for another couple of weeks especially if he was going to be driving and not walking to Wyoming. Not that he had a particular desire to go to Wyoming, but one destination was as good as another, as long as it wasn’t Cascade. He pulled his tee shirt up to his nose and grimaced at the smell of cooking fat that permeated the material despite the apron he’d worn. He struggled out of it, tugged his jeans off and stuffed them into a plastic bag. He’d be able to wash his dirty clothes once they stopped off for the night. There was always someone among the group who willingly included his clothes when they did a wash. He suddenly realised that he’d forgotten his wages in his jeans and pulled the wad of money out of the pocket.

He quickly pulled on a tee-shirt that had been rolled up in his sleeping bag along with a pair of cut off jeans. Leaning out of the tent he quickly washed his face and brushed his teeth using water from a plastic bottle. Finished, he put the soap in a plastic bag and then put the bag with his toothbrush and toothpaste into his toiletries bag. Maria and Vinnie allowed him to use the shower in their caravan in the mornings, but he had to ‘make do’ in the evenings. He wasn’t bothered; he’d endured worse since he’d been on the road. Zipping the tent up again, he stretched out his legs before him and examined the messy scar on his left thigh. It was red and raw, but he thought that it was looking slightly better. Delving back into his backpack he pulled out a small earthenware pot. Carefully he massaged some of the brown paste from the pot onto the scar wincing at the deep ache and then wiped his hands on a small towel. He then pulled on the cut offs.

After returning the pot he took out a small metal box and flicked the lid open. He unfolded the paper lying on top of the pile of money inside and smoothed it out onto the sleeping bag he was sitting on. Carefully, he counted out his wages and keeping the $30 bonus aside he took out the money in the box and piling the amounts together put it all in a courier service envelope along with a bank slip. Picking up the paper again he subtracted the amount from the figure on the list and wrote the new total underneath. With a sigh he traced his fingers over the numbers then put the paper back into the box and the box back into the backpack. He sealed the envelope and with a slightly shaking hand he wrote the destination on the front:

First Cascade Bank
Student Loans Division
1112 Main Street
Cascade

Placing the envelope in his backpack, he closed his eyes and for a brief moment let his despair wash over him. Then taking a few deep breaths he ran his hand through his short curls, forgetting for a moment and trying to brush them behind his ears, and centred himself. Taking the small windup alarm clock that stood in the corner of the small tent he set the alarm for 5:30. That would give him 4 ½ hours of sleep before having to get up and pack away his tent; that was as long as he managed to actually get to sleep. His first month on the road, he’d slept deeply and without dreams finding it difficult to drag himself awake whether he’d slept in a cheap motel or in his car next to the road. Recognising it as a symptom of his depression he’d been dosing himself with liquorice tea and herbs. However, his depression seemed to lift a little the further he got from Cascade and now his sleeping patterns had swung the other way.

Resolutely he turned off the lamp and crawled into his sleeping bag. He tried emptying his mind so he could slip into sleep, but even in his exhausted state, it eluded him. The different sounds of the fair being dismantled filtered into his tent: voices, laughter, engines and music. Then as one song started his breath caught in his throat and despite his best efforts, tears welled up in his eyes. It was REM’s “Make It All Ok”, the same song that had been playing in the Volvo as he’d driven away from Cascade leaving his dreams, hopes and regrets behind him.

“You threw away the ballast and you rowed your boat ashore
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?
You made your ultimatum too big to ignore
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?

So you worked out your excuses, turned away and shut the door.
The world's too vast for us now, and you wanted to explore.

It's a long, long, long road
And I don't know which way to go.
If you offered me your hand again I'd have to walk away…”

With a groan, he buried his head under his arms and started humming a rock song. When that didn’t work he started on a mantra designed to calm him down. After a while, the music stopped and the voices faded away. As the moon started its downward slide towards dawn, his breathing eventually evened out and Blair slipped into the blue jungle of his dreams.

JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB JBJBJBJB

“Ellison! My office.”

Jim looked up from the report he was reading and turned his raised-up eyebrows to his partner. His eyes skittered over the person sitting at the desk next to his and he clenched his jaws. Daniels looked up and grinned at him, but his smile faltered as he noticed the grinding teeth. He knew that once again, the detective had forgotten that he wasn’t the person he wanted sitting next to him.

All he’d ever wanted since he’d started as a rookie detective in Homicide four years ago was to be Ellison’s partner. However, his idol had already had a partner, unofficial true, but still a big presence in the man’s life. At first, and like many others, he’d thought that they were a couple, but finally he’d realised that they’d simply had a strong, if unusual, friendship. He’d thought that all he’d have to do was be a good cop and be patient; Sandburg would eventually get his PhD and go back to academia. Then the ‘diss’ mess happened and before anyone could blink an eye the ‘fraud’ was a real cop.

He watched Ellison head for the captain’s office and tried to quash the bitter taste in his mouth. Sandburg was gone and he, a Wisconsin, backcountry, farm boy, had taken his place. He’d worked hard and deserved to be where he was. He’d seen an opportunity and had gone for it. Squirming a bit in his chair, he remembered exactly what he’d done to get here. Oh, nothing illegal or immoral, just perhaps, a little nasty. A shame really, because Sandburg had been a good guy and all in all he’d liked him. It was all for the best though, as he truly believed that Ellison needed a partner like him; a man without doubts hanging over his head. All that he needed now was for Ellison to realise that too.

Jim strolled into Captain Banks’ office, “You yelled, sir.”

“Close the door and sit down.” Banks lifted his head from the papers he was reading and studied his best detective. He noticed the hard look and sighed internally. Outwardly the man showed nothing of what he was feeling, but he knew his friend was hurting from the ‘betrayal’ perpetrated by Sandburg leaving after only six months as a detective. Everyone thought that he would slip back into his pre-BS character: cold, standoffish and aloof. While it was true that he laughed less and was more reserved, he’d not turned back into ‘Iceman’ Ellison.

He, himself, couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. After Sandburg had accepted the offer of a badge and had passed the academy with flying colours despite his oft-declared hate of guns, he’d hoped that the two men could get their friendship back on track. He’d been a good detective (that had never been in doubt) and Banks was still annoyed that after all his and Ellison’s hard work in getting him the position, he’d thrown it all away three months ago when he’d left Cascade with no explanation and no notice. He’d made no contact since.

However, he also had to admit, that there seemed to have been a brittleness in the younger man and the zest of life that had previously shone in his eyes had been replaced by a world-weary wariness. Where before he’d been sure of himself, maybe a bit too sure, he’d become hesitant and had seemingly withdrawn from his friends in Major Crimes. Ellison on the other hand, had behaved as if nothing had happened even to the extent of once telling Sandburg to wait in the truck! To tell the truth, Jim hadn’t been the only one in the unit finding it difficult to treat the young man as a cop and not the observer he’d been for four years. Perhaps he, as captain, should have tried harder…?

“How’s the Granger case coming along?” He gestured with his coffee mug, but Ellison lifted his hand in a negative as he sat down in one of the chairs in front of his captain’s desk.

He ran his hand through his short hair and sighed. “It’s coming.”

“And what does that mean?”

“What do you really want to talk to me about, sir?”

Simon grimaced. Ellison knew him too well. He took a long drink from his mug as a way of buying time; he wasn’t looking forward to this conversation. “I’ve had news from the Feds. Apparently Berger’s son has stepped into daddy’s shoes and is screaming out for vengeance.”

“What the hell can he do? We took out almost three quarters of his daddy’s cohorts. There’re mostly only lowlifes and small fry left. Hell, how could an 18-year-old boy hope to rebuild the sort of crime base his father had?”

“Well, there’s a problem. According to FBI sources, he’s made a deal with Escobar’s lot.”

“What!?” Jim agitatedly lurched out of his chair and put two hands behind his neck. He glared at Banks. “I thought the Feds had sorted him out. They said they had an ironclad case against him. They said they had two witnesses who saw him take out Councillor Martin. What the hell is going on, Simon?”

Simon’s face showed all the anger and disgust that he felt at the situation. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Sighing, he put them back on and looked up at Jim. “The two witnesses were found with their throats cut under Pier 22.”

“Brilliant! Really brilliant. So what are we going to do now? You know Berger junior’s going to come and try and take us out, don’t you? And with Escobar behind him he won’t care who he takes out with us.”

“I know. Which is why the Feds want to put you, I, and the rest of the team into a safe house until they sort this whole sorry mess out.”

Ellison looked at him in dismay. “You expect us to put our lives in the hands of those bozos? No way! You and the others can go. I prefer to protect myself my way.“

“I’m with you on this one. Nevertheless, we should offer the safe house to the others.”

“Yeah, you’re right. But I have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to say.”

“Just call them in.”

Jim put his head out the door and saw Megan and Joel poring over a file on Megan’s desk. “Hey, you two. You’re wanted in here.” They both looked up enquiringly at him. “Have you seen H and Rafe?”

“In the break room,“ answered Megan closing the file. “What’s going on, Jim?”

“I’ll go and get the other two and the Captain’ll explain.”

Once everyone was seated around the conference table in Banks’ office, he repeated what he’d told Jim. After the comments regarding the intelligence of the FBI had died down and the expected refusals to take advantage of their ‘kind’ offer, they got down to deciding what they could do to take down Berger and Escobar.

During a lull in the long discussion Taggart, studiously avoiding Ellison’s eyes, broke the silence, “What about Blair?”

“What about him?” interjected Simon before Jim could retort, no doubt angrily and at length.

“Well, I mean he was in on the bust as well. Shouldn’t he be warned?”

Unfortunately, Jim jumped in before Banks could respond. “He’s not here, is he? He left and we don’t know where he is.”

“And I wonder why?” Although Megan spoke quietly she knew that Jim would hear her.

“What’s that supposed to mean, Connor? If you remember, he just left without telling anybody anything. Obviously just couldn’t hack it and did his usual cut and run.”

“Oh god, I’ve had it!” Taggart put a hand on her arm hoping she would calm down. She looked down at him, “I think it’s about time he was told a few home truths.” He waited a few seconds thinking, then nodded and lifted his hand off her arm.

“Connor!” Simon barked her name.

“I’m sorry Captain, but I’ve had enough. I didn’t say anything when Sandy was here because he asked me not to, but now he’s gone…”

“Connor, this isn’t the moment…”

“Let her talk, Simon.” Both he and Jim looked in shock at Joel’s quiet statement while H and Rafe looked on in silent amazement. “These things need to be said and Blair needs, and deserves, to be warned.”

Simon waved a hand and looked over at Jim noticing the jumping nerve in his jaw as he glared at the female detective.

Megan took in a deep breath, “Sandy gave up his career and became a cop for you.” She snorted as she saw Jim roll his eyes. “Yeah, laugh it up ‘big guy’.” She deliberately used Blair’s nickname and grinned in satisfaction when she saw the man flinch.

“I never asked…”

“Don’t give me that crap, again! You never asked! No, you just expected. Anyway, that’s not the point. Sandy was trying to be a cop knowing everybody was watching his every move and that half the PD was cheering him on to fail. He knew that he’d have to be twenty times better than anyone else and all the time terrified that he’d have to use his gun. ”

“Hold on a minute,“ interrupted H, “why’d he turn away from us – his friends? Why’d he always eat alone in the break room? We weren’t good enough for him to go to lunch with?” Rafe was nodding along with this and even Jim looked like he agreed.

“You drongo,“ spat Megan, “he was broke and couldn’t eat out all the time! Why’d you think he never came to poker night? He was embarrassed! He’s having to pay back his student loans and a lot of his grants. Rainier insisted.”

“We wouldn’t have made him pay,” insisted Rafe.

“I know, but he had his pride. I tried to make him understand, tried to tell him everyone understood, but you kept organising Jags games and booking that stupid French restaurant. God, he was living on nothing and eating less. Didn’t you notice that he was losing weight? And you,” she pointed a finger at Ellison, “you threw him out. He was down, virtually penniless and then you made him homeless.”

“Hold on a minute!” Jim jumped up from his seat and glared at her. “I was undercover! I couldn’t risk having him at home. He could have said something about my, my senses. I couldn’t have that. Cortizzi had bugged the loft.”

“But he didn’t know you were undercover,” Joel said calmly. “He thought you were throwing him out for real.” He looked over at Simon. “Blair was Jim’s partner and unless there was reason to think that he was the PD leak he should have been told.”

“Unfortunately, that decision was taken out of my hands.”

“But, but… I gave him clues. I thought he’d pick up on that,” Jim stammered.

“How could he?” argued Megan. “He was having to deal with too much. He was convinced you didn’t trust him. That you resented him and were only putting up with him out of guilt. He believed you.”

“No, no. Blair’s brilliant, he’d worked it out. Simon?” Ellison looked in growing dismay at Banks.

Simon opened his mouth to reply when his door burst open and two men walked in. “What the hell’s going on?” he barked. “Who the blazes are you and haven’t you heard of knocking?”

“FBI agent Smith and my colleague, Patel.” Both tall, dark-haired men held out their IDs and the older man continued talking. “Sorry for interrupting, but the Commissioner asked us to come down and talk to you about taking you to the safe house.”

The Major Crimes group looked at each other and then all eyes turned to Captain Banks.


Chapter two

It was still dark when the cavalcade pulled out of the fairground. Blair, in an unfortunate twist of fate, found himself following his employers’ trailer driving a 1969 Ford truck. He was grateful that it was a bright red and had been ‘pimped’. He didn’t need too many reminders of his previous life. Gratefully, he sipped at the hot coffee that Maria had thrust at him as they left their caravan after breakfast. He was clean, well fed, was earning money and was amongst people that he liked. It did a little to fill the empty places of his heart.

They stopped off in a small town that he never knew the name of for lunch. He took the time to search out the local courier office and sent the envelope of money on its way. Getting into the truck he eased the vehicle back into line and dutifully followed the trailer in front. Unfortunately, not having to navigate left his mind mostly unoccupied. This allowed his thoughts to wander and despite his best intentions, they wandered back to Cascade, Jim and the train wreck his life had become. Determinedly, he turned on the radio and searched for a station that played rock. Finding something he liked, he wound down the window and tapping his hand on the side of the truck, he sang along. The wind ruffled his short curls and if there were tears in his eyes he could claim they were from the dust on the road.

They spent the night in another nameless town. It was high summer and Blair didn’t bother putting his tent up. Dressed in a sleeveless t-shirt and cut off shorts he lay on his sleeping bag and stared up at the stars. He had no idea what attractive picture he made as he propped up his head with his hands. The short curls that hugged his head accentuated his large eyes and cheekbones. He was underweight, but hard, physical work had built up lithe muscles in his arms, legs and chest and the sadness in his eyes merely created an enticing air of mystery.

“Warm night, isn’t it?”

Blair jerked and sat up. A youngish, plump woman with short blond hair was standing in front of him holding two glasses that glistened with condensation in the ambient light. Not classically beautiful, she had a friendly face and her cupid bow lips were turned up in a welcoming smile.

“Ummm, it is,” he answered. “Felicia, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.” The woman beamed obviously delighted that he knew her name. “I thought you might like something cool to drink. It’s home-made lemonade.”

Blair looked at her for a moment. A number of women amongst both the fair people and fairgoers had made it obvious that they weren’t averse to spending a bit of time with him. Up until now, he’d made it plain that he wasn’t interested. He’d not been on a date since just before the fountain and Alex. His head had not been in a good place for so long and romance had been the last thing on his mind. But maybe the time was right to finally move on. He scooted over on the sleeping bag.

“Thank you. I’d love to try your lemonade.”

The woman handed him a glass and sat down next to him. He let her shoulder brush against his and felt the warmth of her leg through the cloth of his cut offs. In her late 20s, he knew that she made jewellery that she sold out of her little caravan and to shops in the towns they stopped at. Her parents ran one of the rides; he couldn’t remember which, along with her brother. He remembered the talk he’d heard about her. She had been married, but her husband had died while trying to break up a drunken fight at some fair a few years back. There’d been no children, but apparently she’d been pregnant and she went into premature labour when she’d heard the news about his death. It had been far too early in the pregnancy and the baby had died. She’d picked herself up with the help of her family and friends, but it had been a difficult time for her.

She, in turn, saw the pain shining out of this enigmatic man’s eyes and just felt she had to do something to help. He was so alone and she couldn’t bear it.

“Do you know any of the constellations?” She asked sipping from her glass.

“This is good,” said Blair as the cool liquid slid down his throat. “Some of them. See that one there? That’s the Great Bear. Do you know there’s a tribe in Polynesia that believes that the stars are the souls of people waiting to be born? They give names to the stars hoping that the soul will come down to Earth.”

“Really? What sort of names?”

“Well, ordinary names…”

“What like Bob or Susan?”

“No,” he chuffed a small laugh, “names like Kalani, Uhila or Mahal.”

“Oh…”

Maria, closing the door of her caravan glanced over to where Blair had placed his sleeping bag. She smiled in delight.

“Vinnie, come here.”

“What, woman?”

“Shhh, just get over here.”

Vinnie sighed and pulled himself out of the comfortable chair he’d been sitting in while reading a newspaper. Standing next to his wife he looked over to where she was pointing. He smiled and put an arm round her shoulders. They stood there for a few moments then pulled the door shut, locked it, turned out the lights and went to bed.

The group got to the fairground late the following afternoon. For the rest of the day it was organised chaos as the stands, rides and booths were set up. The sun was sinking down to the horizon when Blair tiredly set up his tent in an isolated corner of the park. As he sat in the open flap watching the final streaks of red in the evening sky he half smiled to himself thinking about the previous night. Before, in another lifetime when he’d been with an attractive woman, he would have poured on the charm, flirting outrageously, trying to get at least a kiss. But that had been the old Blair. Instead, they’d talked and took comfort in each other’s company. No pressure, no expectations; simply two people passing the time together with, perhaps, a tiny hint of something that could be.

The following morning was equally busy as the fair was set up and Blair was in great demand for his eclectic skills. To his surprise, and quiet pleasure, Felicia brought him lunch under the interested eyes of some of the fair people. He blushed as he heard some of the ribald, but friendly comments from the men. Towards mid afternoon he made his way towards the Parisi trailer. Vinnie and Maria greeted him like a long lost friend rather than the man who was temporarily helping them out. He grabbed an apron and wrapped himself up in its voluminous folds. Mickey, their son was obviously a big man. Grabbing the box of tomatoes sitting on a work area, he started washing the vegetables in the small sink.

Vinnie sidled up to him and nonchalantly started slicing the washed tomatoes and putting the slices into big, aluminium bowls. “Sleep well last night?”

Blair slid him an expressionless look.

“Vinnie!” Maria’s voice sounded from beneath the counter where she was putting out hamburger and hotdog buns.

“What? All I asked him was whether he slept well.”

He winked at Blair, as a short ‘Huh’ was his only response. Blair’s smile was small, but genuine and for the first time in many months he felt the ice around his heart melt slightly. “Well? How d’you sleep?”

“Not bad, thanks. And you?”

“Great. Wonderful. So, you like lemonade?”

“Vinnie!”

“Woman, stick to your buns. This is men’s talk.” Maria jumped up and started poking her large husband in the chest. He lifted up his hands and started back-pedalling towards the door. Blair didn’t understand the heated conversation that followed as it was in Italian, but he had a pretty good idea of what was being said. He smiled to himself and another piece of ice melted.

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“We’re not going,” stated Simon. “We’re police officers for Pete’s sake! We don’t run off because some mobster wannabe has made threats against us.”

Smith closed the door and moved towards the group. “I understand totally. We did try and tell your commissioner that, but he didn’t seem terribly convinced.”

“And anyway,” interrupted Jim, “why should we put our lives into the hands of the idiots who lost the Escobar case?” He crossed his arms in front of his chest and glared at them.

“What he said,” agreed H and the others nodded.

“Yes, well,” said the agent called Patel, “we don’t really blame you. We’re looking into the situation.”

“It’s suspected that there’s a leak in the Seattle office, which is why we’ve been brought in from Atlanta. Neither of us has been north of the Dixie Line apart from times in Quantico and those visits we try to keep to a minimum. Washington’s given us carte blanche to poke into all those dark, shadowy holes that haven’t seen the light of day for years.” Smith smiled depreciatingly at the indignant people before him.

“And I hate spiders,” Patel added deadpanned.

Everyone stared open-mouthed at the strangest FBI agents they’d ever met. Who’d a thought? Feds with a sense of humour?

“Well, anyway,” Simon growled, “we’ll be fine on our own. And the best way of protecting ourselves is to take the bastards down.”

“We’re working on that,“ put in Smith.

“This is our case,” argued Simon. “We put in a lot of work and effort to get Berger and we can get his son.”

Smith laid the file he’d been holding in front of the tall man and opened it. “I’m afraid this is out of all our hands. Because of Escobar, this is an FBI case. It’s going to be difficult enough for us without having to provide protection for you.”

“We don’t need your protection!” Rafe blurted out.

Simon held up a large hand as he slowly went through the contents of the large file. Sighing he handed it onto Taggart who in turn opened it and turned it round so everyone could see the pages. For a full two minutes silence reigned except for the sound of pages being turned and heavy breathing from the people round the table. Each sheet held photos of the detectives and their loved ones in various places around Cascade: in front of the PD, getting in and out of their cars, in front of schools, even through the windows of restaurants and cafés. There was a carefully drawn gun sight over each of their faces.

“These were sent directly to the governor’s office,” Smith continued. “She’s taking the threats very seriously. I’m sorry, but you really have no choice.”

“Where do you want to take us?” sighed Simon.

“Captain, you can’t!”

“Simon, we can’t trust them.”

“Sir, I’m not going into a safe house…”

The Major Crimes group tried to convince their boss through noise alone. Simon sat back in his chair and pulled off his wire-rimmed glasses. He pinched the bridge of his nose and waited for the shouting to die down. Eventually, silence again fell, but everyone still looked pissed.

“We have to take this seriously…”

“Simon, I have an idea.”

Everyone turned to the former Bomb Disposal Unit captain. “The commissioner’s been going on for ages trying to get us to go on one of those ‘team building’ initiatives.” He drew quote marks in the air with his fingers when he said ‘team building’. “Couldn’t we all go on one of those? We’d be together and difficult to find. If we can find one that has military connections I’m sure it’d be even better protected.”

Smith and Patel looked at each other and Smith pulled out his cell phone. “This is agent Smith, could I please talk to the commissioner. Yes, he’s waiting for my call. No problem, I’ll hold.” He put his hand over his phone. “This could take a while.”

Banks sighed, he seemed to be doing that a lot today. “Okay, everyone. You’ve got work to do. I don’t want you leaving this floor alone. Even if you need to go to the john, take someone with you.”

“Gee,“ drawled H, “I ain’t had anyone hold ‘lil Percy while I peed since my mama had me in short pants.”

Simon smiled in thanks at Brown’s efforts to lighten the mood as everyone filed out of his office.

“Don’t worry H,” Megan put an arm on his shoulder. “I’ve got to have someone go with me as well. If you close your eyes, you can come with me into the ladies’ and I’ll handle your problem for you.”

Jim slowly got up from the table and looked over at Simon. He looked shell-shocked and Simon thought for a moment that he was zoning, except his eyes held a pained bewilderment instead of the usual emptiness.

“Go on, Jim. We’ll talk later.”

Ellison nodded and followed the others through the door.

Twenty minutes later Simon called everyone back into his office. “Okay, we have a result.”

He nodded at Smith who spoke encouragingly, “The Governor’s agreed to your idea. Tomorrow you leave for a week’s team building. I’m not going to tell you where because little ears might be listening. Needless to say, it won’t be near Cascade, so you need to pack thoroughly for some rough living. Remember, don’t tell anyone about this. We’ll take care of your families. And don’t forget, turn off your cell phones. You can be traced through them.”

Simon jumped in before the objections that were brewing in his detectives’ eyes could get started. “I tried arguing our case, but the governor was adamant. I’m sorry, I tried, but we have no choice. Just look at it as an all expenses paid holiday. I’ve looked over what’s being done for our families and believe me they will be protected. They’re best protected if we’re not around.”

“Hey, babe,” H clapped Rafe on the back, “you’ll have to leave Armani behind.”

“Yeah,” chortled Megan, “I don’t think they do suits in checked flannel. And by the way, have you ever been camping?”

“Laugh it up. You’ll see…”

“Okay, enough,” interjected Simon. “No-one’s to be alone from now on and that includes tonight. We’re going to have bunk up together. Brown, get your mind out of the gutter. This is what we’ve decided…” It was going to be a long night.

“Simon, what about Blair?” Taggart insisted.

“Blair Sandburg?” questioned Patel. He opened the file he was holding. “Oh yes, he was part of the operation as well. Do you know where he is?”

There was an uncomfortable silence until Banks spoke up, “He left some months ago. Unfortunately, no-one knows where he’s gone.”

“He didn’t leave a forwarding address?”

“No,” Simon’s answer was short.

“Jer,” Smith spoke to Patel, “do what you can to find him. He needs to be protected as well. Mind you, if you can’t find him Escobar probably won’t be able to either.” The unspoken ‘I hope’ was clearly heard by everyone in the room.

The following morning two unmarked cars picked up Banks, Taggart and Ellison from the loft and the others from H’s house. They were driven to the airport where a small plane was waiting for them. Despite the danger hanging over their heads there was a holiday atmosphere in the aircraft. Once the ‘seatbelt on’ sign blinked out Simon stood up and faced his detectives.

“I can now tell you where we’re going. In fact we’re not going on one of those exercises, we couldn’t find one that would take us on such short notice. So, what we’re doing is going on a camping trip. The FBI is going to provide us with off road vehicles and tents and all that we’ll need. And yes, Jim, the equipment does include fishing tackle.”

Jim gave a wan smile while the others laughed. The three men had talked long into the night and both he and Simon had done a lot of soul searching regarding their treatment of Sandburg. Jim was beginning to feel uncomfortable about some of his assumptions and actions. Soul searching was not really something he embraced willingly. He’d rather have his fingernails pulled out! Slowly… Without anaesthetic! He’d genuinely thought that Blair was happy to be his partner despite everything he’d given up and that their friendship was strong. He’d been so convinced that they were on the same wavelength he’d launched himself into the undercover op without a moment’s thought about how Blair would see it. Obviously, wishful thinking and relief that he and Simon had found a way of creating something good out of the ‘diss mess’ had made him blind to what had really been going on.

“Okay, Simon, spill it,” Taggart encouraged. “Just where are we going?”

“Wyoming.”


Chapter three

The fair was in full swing – music, screaming voices and machine noises competed with the smells of candyfloss and cooking meat for Blair’s attention. His head was pounding and his leg was aching, but he continued flipping burgers and hotdogs. Burgers had never been his favourite food and he was certain that after this he wouldn’t even be able to stand the smell of them ever again. He longed for an algae shake or a simple vegetarian meal, but out here in the ‘boondocks’ meat was eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

They’d been there for five days and frankly he didn’t know how long he could continue. He’d lost weight again as his appetite was capricious. Not because of his depression, which at long last seemed to be easing, but because of his physical exhaustion. As a grad student, TA and sentinel’s assistant he’d spent weeks of little sleep and had thrived on the challenge. Now, however, the last three months were catching up with him; the emotional stress, the sense of worthlessness he felt and the physical beating he’d experienced when leaving Cascade. He needed a break.

One thirty in the morning and he could finally hang up his apron. Maria and Vinnie took one look at him and nodded at each other.

“BS,” Vinnie put a big hand on his shoulder and stopped his forward shuffle, “stop a moment.” Blair turned up his bloodshot eyes and tried to focus them on his employer’s face. “Tomorrow’s Tuesday and usually there’re fewer people.”

“And it’s supposed to rain,” added Maria.

“Take the day. Sleep in late and relax. We’ll be able to manage without you for once.”

“No, it’s okay. I can…”

“Blair, stop. You’re exhausted and exhaustion can be dangerous.”

“But, you need… I need…”

Maria took his face in her hands. “Don’t worry. We’ll be okay and we don’t want to lose you. We’ll pay you for tomorrow as well. Now, go. Bed. And I don’t want to see you before ten tomorrow. All right?”

Blair looked from her to Vinnie who nodded. “Thanks. Thanks for everything.” He exited the trailer almost falling down the steps. He dragged his aching body to his tent and flung himself onto his sleeping bag. He managed to pull off his boots and wondered for a moment whether he had the energy to brush his teeth. Before he’d even finished his thought he was asleep.

He woke up the following morning strangely troubled. Blearily, he peered at his little clock: 9:47. Certainly, he felt more rested, but his sleep had been disturbed by dreams of blue jungles and roaring big cats. He remembered very little of the actual content, but the feeling of expectation that had pervaded them, remained. Opening the tent he stared out at the miserable weather and shivered. Pulling on his boots and rain slicker he grabbed his toiletries and a change of clothing and dashed through the rain to the Parisis’ caravan.

The door was pulled open before he could knock by Maria.

“See, I told you it would rain. Come on in.”

He shook out his slicker and left it and his boots under the awning protecting the steps. “Good morning. I know it’s not ten yet, but is it all right if I’m here now?”

“Don’t be silly. Breakfast’ll be ready by the time you’re out of the shower. Oatmeal and honey okay?”

“Maria, it’s a shame you’re already married.”

“Get on with you! Go, go.”

Twenty minutes later and feeling 100% better, he left the tiny bathroom to find Felicia drinking tea with Maria at the pull out table. Maria quickly stood up and gently pushed Blair to the bench.

“Sit, sit.” She placed a mug of tea before him and went to dish up the oatmeal.

“Good morning Blair.” Felicia leant forward and placed a light kiss on his cheek. Both the women ignored the slight blush that infused his face.

“Good morning, Fel. How are you? Miserable today isn’t it?” He gratefully took a sip of the hot brew and smiled at the healthy dose of honey that sweetened it.

“Maria told me that you’re not working today. I’m taking some of my pieces to one of the jewellers in town this morning and I was wondering if you wanted to come with me?”

He glanced up at Maria who was studiously avoiding the two of them. “If Maria’s sure that I’m not needed…”

“I told you already, we’re okay. I can’t see too many people coming today.”

“Then I’ll come, with pleasure.”

“Great! How about I pick you up from here in about 40 minutes?”

Sheridan was a pretty town just outside the Bighorn National Forest. With a population of around 14 000 it was large enough to have most of life’s everyday amenities without losing its identity. It was proud of its heritage and had a number of old buildings and museums. In summer it was full of tourists who were taking advantage of its position near Yellowstone Park as well as its 2 400 kilometres of trails through the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area, an area where no motorised vehicles were allowed.

Blair and Felicia arrived at the jeweller’s just before lunchtime. After twenty minutes Felicia and the shop owner shook hands. Felicia had a big smile on her face and she took Blair’s arm as they walked out.

“You must be my good luck charm! That was the best deal I’ve made in months. Let’s go celebrate, my treat. Apparently, there’s a really good lunch place in the historic quarter.”

“But I’ve just had breakfast,” protested Blair.

“Call that breakfast?! You need more substance on your bones. Anyway, I heard that they do really good salads as well as the best chocolate fudge cookie ice-cream in the state.”

“Okay,” Blair smiled, “but I can pay my share.” As long as it wasn’t too expensive.

“No, no. I insist or we go back straight away.”

“But…”

“No buts. I’m not listening.” She put her hands over her ears and walked down the street. “La la la laaa, la la la…”

Blair caught up with her laughing and pulled her hands down. “All right. You win. At least let me pay for the drinks.”

“Done.”

After lunch they were in no hurry to get back to the fair ground. Although the rain had stopped the sky was a sullen grey and the low-lying clouds topped the nearby mountains. Wanting to avoid the commercial district of the town they decided to go and visit the Sheridan County Museum. Walking round the exhibits that told tales of the ranchers, railroaders, miners, soldiers and Indians that had lived in the shadows of the Big Horn Mountains, Felicia was struck at how Blair seemed to know an awful lot about what they were seeing. For the first time since she’d seen him he was totally relaxed and in his element. She watched mesmerised as his eyes sparkled behind the gold-rimmed glasses he’d put on to read the notices and his hands danced as he explained something making the exhibit come to life.

She and Maria had often discussed the mystery that was Blair Sandburg. That he’d been hurt in life, both physically and emotionally, was evident. That he was running way from something was also evident, from what though, he’d given no hint. Seeing him like this only deepened her desire to know him better. She was afraid that she was falling for him; the first time she’d felt any hint of attraction since her husband’s death. She also knew that his stay with the fair was only temporary and she steeled herself against falling too deeply. She would take what today had to offer for who knew what tomorrow would bring.

After two hours of walking she saw his limp becoming more marked and decided to call it a day for the museum. Not wanting to end the comfortable time they were having together she suggested that they go have a drink somewhere.

“Umm, don’t you have to get back to the fair?” Blair looked at her, his blue eyes wide open in question.

“Not really. I’ve made a good sale today, so I can treat myself to some time off.”

“Oh, okay. I umm… well, really…” Blair came to a stop. How to tell her that he had no more money for drinks? There was no way he was going to allow her to buy drinks as well as lunch. He’d spent almost all of his allowance for the week paying for the courier service and replacing a few needed items such as a toothbrush and shampoo. He’d had enough for the drinks at lunch but it had left him with only $3 and some change. Certainly not enough even for two coffees and a tip.

Felicia saw his embarrassment and guessed the reason for it. “I’ve got a better idea,“ she said gaily. “I’ve got some more of that homemade lemonade. Why don’t we go back to my caravan and you can tell me more about the Indians that lived here before we horrible white people came and ruined their lives?”

Blair hesitated and looked into her eyes. However, he could only see unfeigned interest and pleasure swimming in their green depths. And maybe a promise of something else? He made up his mind. “That would be great. I’d love that.”

“Good.” She took his arm and they chatted of inconsequential things as they made their way back to her parents’ little car. The fairground was on the outskirts of the little airport and as they driving past a private plane came to a halt in front of the small terminal. Blair watched as the door opened and a set of steps folded out to the ground. A group of people slowly made their way down them. Although he couldn’t see their faces, he felt a cold hand run down his back and he shivered. He looked harder to see if he could recognise them but by that time the car had moved further away.

“Are you all right?” Felicia stopped the story she was telling about a mishap that had befallen her brother as a child when she saw Blair shiver out of the corner of her eye.

“Yeah. Someone must have walked over my grave.” He rolled his shoulders and smiled. “So, what did your mother say?”

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Jim gratefully shook out his legs as he walked down the plane steps. He’d dozed on and off through the flight but his sleep had been plagued with glimpses of something blue that he couldn’t get a handle on. Walking across the tarmac he gazed across the wet airfield to the cloud-shrouded mountains when suddenly a cold feeling of apprehension made him shudder. He stopped and looked around himself to see if he could spot something out of place.

“What’s up, Jim?” Simon stopped beside him and looked around as well. “Can you sense something?”

“I don’t know,” Jim sighed. Since Sandburg had left his senses had become more and more erratic up to the point that he hardly used them anymore. He had to admit to himself that it was a mixed blessing. He’d hated how they’d controlled his life but on the other hand, they did come in use at a crime scene. “Maybe someone simply walked over my grave.”

Simon clapped him on the shoulder and they followed the others to the small terminal. Once inside Simon walked up to the information desk where a young woman was on the phone. As she saw him approach she hung up and turned a bright smile towards him.

“May I help you, sir?”

“My name is Banks and I believe there are some vehicles waiting for me?”

“Oh, yes. Simon Banks? Could I have some ID please?”

Simon pulled out his driver’s licence not wanting to use his police ID.

The woman examined it carefully then handed it back to him. “Thank you. I don’t know about any vehicles but this letter was left for you.”

Simon took the letter, thanked her and moved over to where the MC group was standing. Opening it he quickly read the contents and then looked up at his expectant colleagues. “Apparently, there’s a delay with the off-roads. They won’t be ready until late tomorrow morning. We’ve been booked into the hotel across the street.“

“Typical,” groused H. “Feds couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery.”

“Well, Rafe,” smiled Banks, “it looks like you have a stay of execution. One more night in a real bed.”

“And hot water,” sang out Megan.

“And television,” added Brown.

Once settled into their rooms they met again in the hotel lounge.

“It’s only 6:30 and I know I’ll go stark raving mad if I have to wait around this dump until tomorrow. How about we go into town?” suggested Henri.

“Oh, it’s not that bad,” Rafe objected.

“No, I know, babe, but it don’t have ALL the comforts of home, you know?”

Megan jumped in before the two men could get into another friendly dispute. “The receptionist told me there’s a fair on just the other side of the field. There are rides and stalls etc… Why don’t we go there?”

“A fair?” Rafe declared indignantly. “How old do you think we are?”

“Great idea, Connor,” laughed H. “I haven’t been to one in years. I challenge you to a shoot out, Rafe.”

“What do you think, sir?” Megan looked over at their captain her eyes shining.

“Well, I think you should stop calling me ‘captain’ while we’re on this little trip. And I’m not too sure we should leave this hotel or split up. Joel, what d’you think?”

Taggart looked around the little group and spotted Ellison. Although sitting with them, he seemed both miles away and caught up within himself at the same time. Sitting around doing nothing didn’t seem a good idea. “I can’t see any harm in going for a few hours. As long as we stay together and get back early enough.”

“Yes!” Megan and H gave each other a high five while Rafe buried his face in his hands.

As they went back to their rooms to get their waterproof jackets Jim walked up the stairs with Simon. “Uh Simon, I don’t really want to go.”

“Sorry, Jim. We’ve got to stay together and anyway, it could be fun.”

“I’m not really in the mood.”

“It’s just for a couple of hours. Keep the kids happy, okay?”

Jim sighed and nodded. Perhaps a couple of hours of distraction would help him get his thoughts into order.

“Good. I’ll even buy you some cotton candy.”

Once at the fair, Jim was pleased that his senses were behaving as the noises, smells and flashing nights could have played havoc with them. However, the feeling of apprehension he’d experienced at the airport was back and it was making his back itch. He trailed behind the others watching their antics and cursing the mud that sucked at his boots. He ignored Megan and Brown’s efforts to get him on some of the rides and refused Simon’s offer of cotton candy.

An hour into the visit he could feel a headache building up and the itch in his back was becoming an irritation. Following the others again he nearly walked into Joel’s back before he realised that they’d stopped. His heart jumped into his mouth when he heard Megan’s shout.

“Sandy! My God, it’s Sandy.”

He pushed past his colleagues until he could see what they were looking at. A small caravan could be seen behind a fortune-teller’s tent and a stall selling magic tricks. In the soft light over the caravan entrance they could see a blond woman leaning out of the door kissing the curly-headed man standing on the caravan steps.

Before he could stop himself, Jim bellowed, “Sandburg!”

The man jerked out of the woman’s arms and whipped his head round. His face paled as he stared into the flashing blue eyes of his Sentinel. For a moment time stood still as he hesitated and the detectives were frozen in shock. He murmured something to the woman and started to limp slowly towards the group. The woman stared after him for a second and after a long look at the detectives she went back into the caravan.

As he came closer Megan rushed forward and threw her arms around him in a tight hug. That broke the spell and Rafe and H joined her.

“Hairboy, what you doing here?”

“What happened to your hair, man?”

“Where’ve you been? You’re limping. Are you hurt?”

“Hold on a minute,” called Taggart, “let the man speak.” As the three detectives stood back Blair looked at the small group avoiding Jim and Simon’s eyes.

“Hello, everyone,” he smiled grimly, plainly uncomfortable, “what a surprise.”

In the silence that followed Jim could hear the music from the dodgems behind him pound into his head.


“When I saw you at the street fair, you called out my name.
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?
You said we could start over, try and make it all okay.
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?

So our past has been rewritten and you threw away the pen.
You'd said that I was useless, but now you'll take me in again.

Well Jesus loves me fine.
And your words fall flat this time.

Was it my imagination, or did I hear you say,
‘We don't have a prayer between us.’ “


Chapter Four

Simon took charge and pointed to the space between the stalls. Everyone moved with him to get out of the way of the fairgoers milling about. Blair rolled his eyes, but went with them and positioned himself with his back to the lights so his face was hidden. Although Jim didn’t say anything he was very conscious of how he scrutinised him intently.

“Sandburg, good to see you.”

“Really, Simon?” Blair ran his hands through his short curls. “Well, you’ve caught me at a bad moment. I was on my way out to get some marshmallows.”

“But Sandy, where’ve you been all this time? Me and Joel tried to find you, but…”

“Yeah, we wanted, well…” H came to an uncomfortable stop under Blair’s expressionless gaze.

“I think what he’s trying to say,” continued Taggart, “is that apologies need to be said and we’d really like to know how you’ve been.”

Blair’s eyes flashed and he glared at the people he’d thought, a long time ago, had been his friends. “Hell, I know I made mistakes, but I really don’t think I need to apologise to…”

“No. No, stop,” Taggart lifted his hands to halt the angry man. “We need to apologise to you.”

“Oh.”

“Look, Sandburg… Blair,” Simon tried to keep the frustration he was feeling at the situation out of his voice. “This is obviously not the place for this sort of conversation. We’re staying in the hotel at the airport for tonight. We could talk there, if you’re up for that?”

“Please, Sandy,” whispered Megan. “I’ve missed you.”

He looked around at the pleading and hopeful faces around him then spotted his former partner’s stoic look. “And you, Jim. Do you want to talk?” He almost laughed when he saw Jim clench his jaw in typical ‘Ellison, hard cop, no bullshit’ fashion.

“I think certain things need to be said,” Jim finally and reluctantly agreed. “And an explanation wouldn’t go amiss.”

Simon sighed as he saw Blair bristle under the implied criticism. “I think what Jim’s trying to say in his own inimitable way is that a number of errors were committed on both sides and perhaps we could have the conversation that we should have had months ago.”

For a few long seconds Blair didn’t speak then his shoulders slumped. “You’re right. It would be good to clear up certain things.” Jim was the only person who heard him say under his breath, “And then, I can try to get on with the rest of my life.”

Without noticing, Jim realised that the itch between his shoulders was gone. His senses were humming with energy and he could hear conversations by people high up on the big wheel, smell every spice used in the chilli sauce in a food trailer 20 metres away and see the few fine strands of silver in Blair’s curls even though he was standing in the dark. Everything was back in place and he felt better than he’d felt for months. And it got his back up. He’d been doing fine without Sandburg. Hadn’t he?

“Look, I can’t come straight away,“ Blair continued, “I’ve got things to do.”

“Still after the women, eh Chief?”

“It’s none of your business and I think you’ve forfeited the right to call me Chief!” He took in a deep breath and turned to Simon. “How long are you here for?”

“Only for one night. We’re leaving tomorrow morning.”

“Right. I’ll be over in about an hour and a half. Is that okay?”

“Fine. We’ll be waiting for you.”
Jim stood still at the bitter words thrown at him by his former partner. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but the other man had turned and limped away.

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It was almost 10 o’clock by the time Blair made it into the hotel. It had started raining again and despite his rain slicker, he was wet. Shaking it out he spotted his former colleagues in the lounge. Even from a distance of ten metres he could feel the tension radiating from Jim. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and limped over. He really didn’t want to do this, but knew it was the only way he was going to get peace of mind and be able to put the past behind him.

As he approached them, Simon and Joel stood up. Joel pulled up an armchair next to his where they were sitting round a low table and indicated for Blair to take it. “Would you like something to drink?”

“Um, a tea would be good, please. Just sugar, no milk.”

“I’ll get it.“ Rafe jumped up and walked over to the bar. Nobody said anything until he came back with a tray holding a small pot of hot water, a teabag in a mug, a bowl of sugar cubes and a teaspoon. “They only had English Breakfast. Is that okay?”

“That’s fine, thanks.” He poured the hot water into the mug and as it was steeping looked at Simon. “Where do you want to start?”

Simon cleared his throat and ran his hand over his short hair. He opened his mouth to say something when Jim burst out, “Why did you leave without saying anything? I thought we were friends?”

Talk about jumping in feet first.

Simon shifted uncomfortably hearing the pain in the detective’s voice. They all knew that Ellison was a very private person and the fact that he was revealing so much meant that he was obviously under a lot of strain.

“Look,” said Megan, “I think that perhaps there’re things you need to speak about that don’t concern us. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow and I’m bushed. I’m off to bed. Sandy, it’s great to see you. Please, contact me. Phone, e-mail, letter, pigeon post. Anything.” She bent down and put her arms around him before quickly walking over to the lifts.

H and Rafe both shook Blair’s hand and slapped him on the shoulder.

“Don’t be a stranger, Hairboy. I’ve got some apologising to do myself. Also Rafe here’s getting too good at poker. We need you to bring him back into line.”

“I need to apologise as well,” added Rafe. “Call us when we’re back in Cascade. Will you?”

“Maybe,” answered Blair. “I’ll think about it.”

The two detectives grinned and saying goodnight followed Megan into the lift. Joel leant forward and made to get up, “Blair, I should…”

“No, please stay. If you would?”

“If you’re sure?”

“I’d like you to.”

“All right, I’ll stay.”

“Thanks.” Blair fished out the teabag from his mug, dropped in two cubes of sugar and stirred his tea before looking up at Jim. “Will you allow me to tell my story without interrupting? I don’t think I can get through it otherwise.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure that he doesn’t interrupt. All right, detective?” Banks gave Jim his patent ‘I’m the captain, you have to obey me’ glare

“Agreed. But we all get to have our say after.”

Blair took a sip of his tea to buy time and hoped that no one noticed his shaking hands. For three months, since his departure from Cascade, he’d relived, analysed, dissected and questioned what had happened since he’d found his Sentinel and how his friendship with Jim had unravelled to the point that it had. At long last he was able to have his say, so why was it so difficult to start? He looked up at the three men sitting around him. Simon looked exasperated, but also a little uncomfortable. He couldn’t tell whether it was from guilt or unease. Joel merely looked encouraging and he nodded when Blair caught his eye. And Jim. Jim looked almost hopeful or was that simply wishful thinking?

“I was blown away when you offered me the badge. I was amazed that you had so much confidence in me after the mess I’d made with my dissertation.” Blair stared into the middle distance not wanting them to read in his eyes how much that whole time had cost him.

Ellison opened his mouth, but closed it when Simon put a warning hand on his arm.

“I mean, I’d just called myself a fraud on television and here you were offering me the chance to become a detective. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy – hell, deep in my heart I knew that it was impossible, but I really wanted to be Jim’s partner. So, I accepted. I mean I’d died, so how hard could it be?” He didn’t notice how Jim flinched at those words. “But God, it was hard. The cold shoulders, the gun training, the little notes left in my locker… I expected that, but the physical hazing… they were training to be cops! If they were treating me that way, how were they going to be with the general public?”

Jim couldn’t hold himself back any longer. “Why didn’t you say anything? God, I’d’ve…”

“What? What would you have done?” Blair for the first time looked Jim directly in his eyes. “This was my battle to fight. And… I…” he almost whispered the words, “I wanted you to notice. I wanted you to SEE me. But you carried on as if nothing had happened.” He took another sip of tea and ran his hand through his short curls.

Jim’s eyes glazed over as he thought about his behaviour while Blair had been in the academy and then as his official partner. He’d been so happy that he’d finally had Blair at his side and that he and Simon had found a way to help him after he’d thrown away his academic future. He’d not lied when he’d told him that he was the best cop he’d ever known, and Blair had proved him right. But had his pleasure blinded him to the real situation? Had his desire to have everything ‘right in his world’ meant that he’d totally missed what had been going on under his own nose? But why had Blair said nothing? Then the answer hit him - Alex… Ever since that whole debacle Blair had been withdrawing within himself. Jim could recognise that now, but did this knowledge come too late?

“And then I started at the PD and for a while things were okay, apart from the times you told me to stay in the truck.” He grinned sardonically. “I could ignore the nasty comments, the fact that I was pulled into IA five times in six months, that my expenses took ten times longer than anyone else to be reimbursed, the fact that the DA wouldn’t allow me to be mentioned on any case unless he absolutely had no choice. That I was suffering from depression, crippled by debt and facing possible prosecution by some of the people who’d awarded me grants,” Jim’s head jerked up at that, “was merely something to get through. I could even ignore the fact that I wasn’t really a part of Major Crimes despite carrying a badge…”

“Now, hold on a minute, Sandburg,” Simon blustered. “How could you even think that?”

“The postal bombing case – ‘What do you know about bombs, kid?’ The Fondsville rape case – ‘Just grow up, Sandburg.’ Even though I was the one who made the connection you congratulated Jim for the bust. The school theft case – ‘When I want your opinion, Sandburg, I’ll ask for it.’ Remember those comments, Simon? In all the time I spent in the PD not once did I hear you denigrate the others like you did me. I know all about entering into closed societies and I knew it was going to be difficult to break four years of behaviour and conditioning. In spite of my training, cutting my hair, dressing differently you still saw me as the irritating, know-it-all grad student observer who’d blustered his way into the department.

“And I let it happen, man. I thought as long as I was Jim’s partner, as long as he trusted me I could put up with anything. I didn’t pull you up on your behaviour. I allowed my guilt over the dissertation to control my actions. Then you, Jim, picked a fight with me and threw me out of the loft.” He lifted up his hand, palm out, as Jim started to object. “And after those long weeks it was revealed that you were undercover, I finally realised that you still didn’t trust me. And probably never would. It’s just beyond you.”

“I do trust you,” the words were almost whispered.

“Then why didn’t you tell me? Why did Daniels know and not me, your partner? Why, when the shit hit the fan, did you accuse me of releasing the diss? Selling you out when I thought you knew I’d never do that? Why…”

“Daniels?” Simon butted in. “What’s Daniels got to do with this?”

Blair tore himself away from his memories and focused on what Simon was asking. He rubbed his forehead and lowered his hands into his lap. “He showed me the notes Jim left in his locker at the gym. The notes he’d left for the DA. He said that he’d been told not to tell anyone until the op was over.”

“Jim?” Simon turned towards Ellison a frown on his face.

“I didn’t leave any notes for anyone. As agreed, I had contact with no one from the PD. What did they say? How’d you know they were from me?”

“Um, they listed bank accounts and names and things like that. I didn’t really read them, but I recognised your writing. I was a bit upset at the time.”

“What the hell was he playing at?” Simon turned to Taggart. “Do you know anything about this, Joel?”

Joel was frowning and looked up at Simon’s question. “Doesn’t Daniels have a cousin in the DA’s office?”

“And?”

“It was well known that he’d been trying to get into Major Crimes for a while and he’d stated many times that he’d love Ellison as a partner. Unfortunately, Jim already had a partner. Maybe this was a way of coming between them. He could have got the notes from anywhere. It wasn’t as if Blair would question where they came from.”

“I shall be having a strong word with him when we get back. I think he’ll be finding himself on the short track to a disciplinary action if not outright dismissal.”

“But why didn’t you say anything to me? Why didn’t you confront me over this? It’d never stopped you before,” Ellison sounded completely confused.

“I wasn’t in a good place mentally!” Blair jumped out of his chair and stood with his back to them facing the large windows and staring at his image reflected in them. He tended to avoid looking at his reflection not willing to see how the last year had changed him from an enthusiastic grad student with a bright future before him to an embittered nobody with nothing but a painful past. “I was confused, hurting. I didn’t know what to do. Then karma really showed me the way.” His laugh was hollow as he wrapped his arms round himself and then fell silent.

The other three looked at each other anxiously as the silence dragged on.

Eventually, Joel quietly asked, “What happened, Blair?”

At first, they thought he wasn’t going to answer, but after dragging in a ragged breath he started to speak, “I was walking up to my front door that same evening you revealed the op when I was jumped from behind. There were at least three men, but they put something over my head so I couldn’t see. I’m sure they were cops, though. They dragged me indoors and started beating on me, nothing worse than I’ve had before, but I couldn’t defend myself, there were just too many. And all the time they were calling me a fraud, and a dirty Jew and that Cascade didn’t need a cop like me and I shouldn’t hope that Ellison would come and save me as he’d obviously decided enough was enough.”

Simon and Joel looked on horrified while Jim was clenching his teeth hard enough to hurt.

“Then… then… they said I’d need a permanent reminder of my sins. They carved the word ‘liar’ in my left thigh with a knife and held me down while they shaved my head. They laughed when they poured vodka over the wound saying they didn’t want me to die from infection. That I should live to suffer as I’d made other people suffer. I passed out. When I woke up I was in my car somewhere, I don’t know where. It was packed full of my clothes and books and stuff. Just shoved in any old how. My leg was bandaged and I… I just… lost it.”

Joel had tears in his eyes as realised what this gentle, intelligent man had gone through. All he’d ever wanted to do was find a sentinel and do good in the world.

“So, I just drove.” He didn’t describe how he’d thrown up at the side of the road. How he’d dosed himself with painkillers and how he’d had to stop every few hours when the pain and the remorse or the shaking had just got too much to continue driving without endangering others. “I don’t know how I did it or where I was going and when the car broke down I walked. I’m still walking, or rather limping. I pick up jobs here and there, send money to pay off my debts when I can and live each day as it comes.” Taking a last final breath and not knowing what to expect, Blair turned round. What he saw brought a lump into his throat.

Joel was looking at him with pained compassion on his face. Simon was staring at him with a mixture of anger and shame while Jim… Stoic, never show weakness, hard ass ex-ranger Jim had tears in his eyes and such anguish on his face his own eyes teared in sympathy.

“God, Sandburg. Blair,” Simon’s uncharacteristic hesitancy would have made him smile in other circumstances, “I’m sorry that you felt that you were on your own, that I made you feel inadequate, that God,“ he pinched between his eyes, “that I failed to give you the support that I should have given you both as your captain and your friend.”

“Thank you, Simon. You have no idea how much that means to me.”

“San… Blair, I want you to think about coming back. You were, are an excellent detective and I would be honoured to have you back in my team.”

“I don’t know. A lot of bad things happened and I don’t know if I can go back there.”

“Think about it.” Simon stepped forward and awkwardly patted the smaller man’s shoulder. “As soon as we get back, I’ll be the one responsible for getting those bastards who hurt you.” Blair looked into his eyes for a moment and then nodded.

Joel stood up as Simon stepped back and enfolded the friend he thought he’d never see again into his arms. With tears in his eyes and a pointed look at Jim telling him not to listen, he whispered long into Blair’s ear. The emotionally charged man at first stared at the floor then jerked his head up. Blushing, he shyly smiled at the man who had quietly supported him both while he’d been an observer and then as a detective. With a final hug, Joel caught Simon’s eye and the two men made their way towards the lifts.

Which left just Jim and Blair standing awkwardly avoiding each other’s eyes.


Chapter five

“Didn't you believe that I have finally turned away?
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?
Anything to hold onto to help me through my day.
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?

Jesus loves me fine.
But his words fall flat this time.

It's a long, long, long road
And I don't know which way to go.
If you offered me your world, did you think I'd really stay?
If you offered me the heavens, I would have to turn away.
Was it my imagination, or did I hear you say,
"We don't have a prayer between us."
Didn't you, now? Didn't you, now?
Didn't you?”

Neither moved as the last notes of the song faded into another melody.

“It’s late and I’ve a long day tomorrow,” Blair shook himself free of his introspection and went to pick up his jacket.

“What? You’re willing to listen to the others, but me, I get a brush off!” Jim found he couldn’t help himself. His old fears and reactions reared their ugly heads once more. Looking at the knowing look on Blair’s face he stopped himself from continuing. Taking a deep breath he recognised that this sort of behaviour was partially responsible for the gulf that had kept him separated from the other man.

Blair sighed and sat back down in his chair. “Sorry, man, you’re right. I just didn’t think you’d want to speak to me. No, that’s not right, I suppose I didn’t want to hear what you had to say. I mean I know you’re angry, and you have every right to be. I really dropped the ball with Alex, but I did try to tell you. I know I should have tried harder. But I’m angry, too. You abandoned me…”

“Sandburg…”

“…when I needed you. You pushed me away. I know I should have pushed back, but I was so frightened of losing everything. Then I gave up my life, my academic career to protect you…”

“Blair…”

“Did you even thank me for that? I know I should have protected my diss better, but you…”

“Chief!”

Jim’s use of the nickname he’d given him back when he’d thought that nothing could destroy their friendship brought him to a shuddering stop.

“Blair, I’m sorry.” He almost laughed at Blair’s open-mouthed shock. And he realised that despite everything he still thought of this man as his best friend although he was also certain that he’d ruined any chance of Blair thinking the same of him. He jumped in quickly taking advantage of the silence, “I let you down. Ever since Alex, and even before that, your dissertation was hanging over my head. I was terrified that you’d publish and then be off doing world, book signing tours and I’d be left dealing with all the shit. I know that you’d never do that, but it’s like I couldn’t see beyond my fears.

“Then the diss happened and it seemed as if all my fears had come to be. And you, you gave your press conference. God, Chief, no-one’s ever done something like that for me before. And when Simon and I came up with the idea of giving you a badge, all I could think about was I could finally have you as my full time partner and I ignored what my heart, and if you really must know, a certain black panther was telling me. I allowed you to throw away your life and the only thing I could come up with was something that answered MY needs. You died because of me and lost your chance of getting your PhD all because you wanted to help me. No, let me finish. I know what you’re going to say.”

Blair sank back into his chair mesmerised by the torrent of words coming out of this normally taciturn man. For years he’d tried to get Jim to open up, to come to terms with the more ‘spiritual’ side of being a Sentinel and now that their partnership was over it seemed that the miracle had finally occurred. His mind was reeling from the situation so much that he couldn’t even form a coherent sentence.

“You feel you made mistakes, too, right?” Jim looked at him expectantly waiting for an answer. As the silence progressed, Blair hesitantly nodded. “You did, but no way were they as bad as mine. In fact, just before coming here, Connor let me know in no uncertain terms, just how bad I’d been behaving.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “It was a wake up call. I’ve been an unfeeling, selfish bastard who let his best friend ruin his life because his friend, me, was too frightened to do anything else. I forced you to become a cop when I know it isn’t want you wanted for your life. Um, feel free to jump in at any time to contradict me.”

“Why stop you when you’re on a roll?”

Was that the faintest trace of a smile on his face? “God, I took you for granted. Didn’t appreciate…”

“Okay, enough!” Blair jumped up from his chair. He’d been up and down so many times he felt like a jack-in-a-box. “Who are you and what have you done with Jim? Man, you make it sound like it was all your fault and that I’m some shrinking violet and you’re some emotionally, repressed creep. I’m an adult. I can, and do, take responsibility for my actions.”

“I know, but I didn’t help.”

“Jim, we had a seriously fucked-up, co-dependant relationship. Maybe, we should have gone to marriage counselling!”

Jim’s heart clenched at his use of the past tense.

“It was supposed to be a mutually beneficial arrangement; you get help with your senses and I get my diss. But we both lost our objectivity. My thesis subject became a friend and I became your partner and that’s my fault. As the scientist I should’ve known better. I became too involved. I had a choice: distance myself from you or change my diss. But I was enjoying the rollercoaster too much. However, I wasn’t a cop and that’s where your, and Simon’s, responsibility kicks in. I. wasn’t. a. cop. But I went undercover, helped arrest perps, assisted in operations. What the hell was I thinking? How did you let me do all that?”

“Because it felt right. You were meant to be there, by my side. Don’t tell me you didn’t feel that, too? And…” Jim hesitated. He hated the ‘mystical’ side of being a Sentinel, but he’d do this if it meant getting through to the man standing before him. He’d refused the water once before, maybe it was time to get his feet wet. “Don’t you think it’s a bit of a coincidence that somehow we’ve both ended up in the same place at the same time? You know; ‘Of all the fairs, in all the towns, in all the world, he walks into mine’,” he said with a terrible Bogart accent.

Blair snorted in amusement and Jim felt a faint tendril of hope grip his heart. “Yeah, no, yeah… Whoa, I hadn’t thought of that. But, God, I was winging it! I didn’t know what I was doing half the time. But, yeah, most of the time it felt right.” He lowered his voice until even with his sentinel hearing, Jim could hardly hear. “But you resented me.”

“Look,” Jim walked up to him, put both hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eyes trying to put as much sincerity as possible into his voice. “We both made mistakes, but you’re the only one paying for them. I didn’t lie when I said you were the best cop I’d known, but now I know that being a cop isn’t what you are. But this isn’t what you are either. There must be something we can do so that you can be my partner? I miss my friend. And I don’t resent you. Not now. We’re a team. And that’s something I didn’t realise before now. My senses are better when you’re around and if I want to be a Sentinel I need to be the best there is. I need you to help me be that.”

Blair moved so that Jim’s hands slipped off. “I can’t come back. Too many memories, too much… pain. What happens the next time you feel threatened and you turn on me? What would I go back to? I can’t be an academic, I’m not a cop. Those who…” he swallowed, “who hurt me are still there. What if they try again? People want references and they want to know why I have holes in my CV. All they have to do is search my name on the Internet and they’ll have the whole sorry story. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but don’t worry, I’m down, not out. I’ll work something out.”

“But I want to help. I’ll tell everyone about my senses….”

“No! You can’t!” Blair started limping back and forth in front of the rain-wet windows. “You’ll have the press hounding you again. People like Brackett’ll be after you. Man, it would be so the wrong thing to do.” He looked up at Jim a smile lifting up the corners of his mouth. “But thanks for offering.”

“We’ll sort something out. We’ll get those bastards who jumped you. If they’re cops they’ve probably done it to other people and they’ll do it to others that don’t fit their narrow view of what being a cop is. The university screwed you over, so did Sid. You told them ‘no’ enough times. They need to be told they can’t get away with their actions. What if they do the same to someone else?”

“I don’t know,” whispered the agitated man.

“Chief, you haven’t been thinking properly for a long while. You’re a fighter, don’t let them win.”

“God…”

“Tell me something. What were you going to do once you got your doctorate? Teach full time? Go off on expeditions?” He watched as something he’d not seen for such a long time infused the other man’s face.

“You know, before everything hit the fan, I was thinking about that.” His eyes flashed and his hands started weaving patterns in the air. “Lots of police forces are beginning to use forensic and cultural anthropologists. Not just to understand criminals or serial killers, but also victims, witnesses. I mean we live in such a multicultural society it makes sense that if we want to get the best out of the community we have to know where the people that make it up are coming from. And the police are in the front line, so it makes sense that they’re aware of all this.” He ground to a halt as he saw Jim grinning at him. “What?” He asked defensively.

“It’s just so good to see you so animated. I haven’t seen this side of you for such a long time.”

Blair looked away uncomfortably and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Yeah well, I’ve had other things on my mind.”

“If we can work something out, would you try?”

“Jim, what can be done? I declared myself a fraud. On national television, no less.”

“Hell, we’ve taken on serial killers, psychos, South American guerrillas, rogue CIA agents; how difficult are a university chancellor and a puffed up book publisher going to be?”

Blair laughed out loud and Jim’s senses latched onto the sound. God, how he’d missed his partner and his irrepressible humour!

“I need to think this through. It’s too much…”

Jim sadly looked at the man who had suffered so much because of him – No! - because of who they both were and what life had thrown at them. “Is there any good fishing round here?”

“What?” Blair looked at him perplexed at the change in subject. “Hold on a minute. Just what are you all doing here? You on holiday, or what? Because believe me, I just can’t see Rafe slumming it here.”

“Do you remember the Berger case?” As he launched into the explanation of what had happened over the last few days Blair sat down next to him and Jim drank in everything that made Blair, Blair.

An hour later Jim quietly opened his bedroom door trying to be quiet. “How did you get into my room?” He glared at his captain who was lounging on HIS bed watching the television with the sound turned low chewing on an unlit cigar.

“I’m a captain,” he declared as if that explained everything. “Tell me, how did it go?”

“It went… well.” He stopped and thought for a moment. “In fact it went very well, better than I could’ve hoped for.”

“Is he coming back?”

“Too soon to say. He’s going to finish this fair as he feels he can’t let his employers’ down. Apparently, they’ve been really good to him.”

“Did you tell him about Berger?”

“Yeah. But d’you think they’ll find him? I told him to be careful. I also gave him the number for the FBI office here.”

“So, we just hope he contacts us at some later date?”

“I got him to promise to keep in touch and we both know Sandburg keeps his promises. Meanwhile, he’s given me permission to see some lawyers about how the university screwed him over and see if we can get some sort of settlement out of that book publisher. And I’m going to get those bastards who did him over.”

“Don’t you worry, I think you’ll have quite a number of people ready to help you there. And how do YOU feel?”

“Good. Better.”

“Your senses are behaving, aren’t they?”

Jim just smiled and then yawned widely.

“Well, I’m pleased.” Simon hauled his body off the bed and yawned himself in sympathy. “It’s time I was in bed. See you at breakfast.”

“G’night, Simon.”

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At breakfast Banks was called away to the phone. A few minutes later he walked back in and leant over his team. “We have a problem.” Everyone looked up at him with forks and cups frozen in hands and questions in their eyes. “Get your bags and meet me outside in fifteen minutes.”

Twenty minutes later found the group from Cascade standing in the morning sun with their bags around them waiting for Simon to finish the phone call he was having in his room.

“Hey.” They turned round and came face to face with the woman that Blair had been kissing the night before. Something seemed to be bothering her and she looked suspiciously at them. “Aren’t you the people that Blair was going to see yesterday evening?”

“Hello, Miss…?”

“Felicia.”

“Hello, Felicia. I’m Jim. Blair used to be my roommate and partner.”

“Well, was he all right? I mean, he told me he was going to see some old acquaintances, but I could see he wasn’t too happy about it. I made him promise to come and see me when he got back. I waited and waited, but he never came. I thought that maybe he was too upset and had gone straight to bed. So, I went over to his tent this morning, but it’s empty. I don’t think he slept there.”

“Are you certain he didn’t simply sleep elsewhere?”

“I’ve asked everyone. He’s not anywhere! He was upset about seeing you, I could see that. Are you sure you haven’t done anything to him?”

“Miss, my name is Joel. Believe me, we wouldn’t do anything to hurt Blair. He’s our friend, but also, we’re police officers.”

“Oh god, what’s happened to him? Maybe he hurt himself walking back and is lying next to the road. I should go look. Will you help?”

“Okay everyone, we have a possible prob… Oh, hello?” Simon spotted Felicia and ground to a halt.

“Simon,” Jim spoke urgently, “Blair didn’t get back to the fair last night.”

“Shit!” Simon turned to the woman, “Excuse us for a moment, please. I need to talk in private to my friends here.”

“No. You know something. Tell me what’s happened to Blair.”

“I’m really sorry, but I can’t…”

“Don’t give me that. I don’t believe you’re cops. I’m going to call the police.”

“Look, Miss…”

“Felicia.” Jim and Joel supplied together.

“Felicia, if what you say is true then Blair could be in real danger. If I tell you anything more, you could be in danger as well. Here’s my badge. See, I’m a captain in Major Crimes, Cascade, Washington. I’m afraid that if you want to see Blair again you should forget that you ever saw us. Understand?”

She looked round fearfully at the people before her. “No, not really. I don’t understand at all.”

Just at that moment a sedan followed by two off road vehicles drew up in front of the hotel. A slim woman descended from the sedan and walked over to the group. “Mr Banks?” She looked at Simon.

“Yeah, that’s me,” he continued before the woman could say another word, “I take it you’re FBI?” The woman nodded. “We have a problem. Blair Sandburg’s missing. His friend here has just informed us of this.”

The woman turned to look at Felicia taking her badge from a pocket in her jacket. “Agent Archant, FBI. Could you please tell me everything you know?”

As the two women spoke Simon gestured at the detectives to follow him a little distance away. “This is not good,” he spoke quietly, but forcefully. “Smith called from Cascade to tell me that apparently Escobar knows that Sandburg’s here in Wyoming.”

“And as usual,” Brown said bitterly, “they come up with their information just a bit too late.”

Jim said nothing. Suddenly, that maddening itch between his shoulder blades was back.

Chapter six

Blair sighed again and let his aching head drop onto his chest. To put it mildly, his karma sucked, and big time. He’d not seen Jim for three months and within six hours of meeting up again he’d been kidnapped! He hoped that all this suffering meant that when he finally died for good, he was going STRAIGHT to that big, blue jungle in the sky. He was so going to have a long chat with God, Yaweh, Olodumare or whoever about how in his next life his karma was going to be much more on his side. He wriggled trying to find a comfortable position on the damp, stone floor, but having his arms duct taped behind him made it nigh impossible. Luckily, his legs weren’t tied, but for the moment the only advantage to that was he could restore circulation by shaking them out. Using them to escape would have to come later because there was no way he was going to get out of where he was just on legs.

Lifting up his head he tried focussing again. Unfortunately, the effort made his stomach roil and he swallowed in an effort to prevent the nausea becoming full blown. Having already vomited twice he knew exactly how his head felt after. He blinked wishing that he could wipe the blood off his face. It had dried into a sticky mess over his right eye and every time he blinked his eyelid stuck to it. He had no idea how long he’d been unconscious and no idea where he was being kept. It was obviously a cave with a large metal door, obviously locked from the outside, fixed into a man-made hole. He’d woken in a patch of sun that was streaming in from a gap in the rocks way above him. The patch had moved quite a bit since then, but it was his bladder that was telling him that he’d been there more than a few hours. It had taken many tries with him panting heavily through his open mouth to get himself upright.

He had a vague idea of how he’d been taken; blurred images of a car driving slowly next to him as he walked, the sound of footsteps behind him, the pain of something connecting with his forehead as he’d turned around… He should have been more careful, more aware of what was happening around him. Jim had warned him, but his thoughts had been filled with their conversation and how cold and wet he was feeling. However, he’d also thought that it was unlikely that Berger would bother going for him all the way out here. Well, he’d got that totally wrong.

He’d also foolishly imagined that once he’d been able to have his say to Jim, Simon and et al he’d be able to shake the dust off his shoes, figuratively speaking, and be able to move forward. However, he now realised that despite what had gone down and what had been done to him he still wanted Jim as a friend, still wanted to be a part of his life and that of Major Crimes. Which probably made him one seriously fucked up individual! He also admitted to himself that he was frightened; frightened that although on the face of it, Jim was sincere in his protestations of wanting to make things right between them, he was also ruled by his own fears and emotional hang-ups. He didn’t think that he could physically or mentally live through another year like the last one.

For the moment though, he had other, more important priorities. Gritting his teeth against the anticipated pain he called out hoping this time someone would answer, “Hey, anyone out there? You know things are getting a bit desperate here. I’m really not into peeing in my pants…” He ground to a halt as a key turning in the metal lock echoed in the room/cave. He held his breath as the door swung open and two large men entered. He squinted at them trying to see if he could recognise them acknowledging the fact that if they were letting him see their faces his long-term well being wasn’t their main priority. “Um, great guys. I really hope there’s…”

“Get up,” big-bad-guy-#1, as he’d decided to call them, growled.

“’Get up’ he says. Get up, huh?” Blair mumbled to himself as he tried to lever his sore body off the ground without either doing a face plant on the floor or sending his stomach heaving.

“I said ‘get up’,” the goon repeated.

“I’m trying here, man.”

Big-bad-guy-#2 stepped forward and grasping Blair’s left arm just under the shoulder hauled him off the floor. “Whoa…!” Blair gasped as his head spun, his eyes watered and his stomach did a loop-the-loop. Through sheer willpower and by gritting his teeth he managed to hold on to what was left in his stomach. He felt himself being dragged across the cave and tried to get his shaking legs to support him. “Hey, hey, slow down, man.” Ignoring him, the men continued to drag him through the dark for about five minutes until suddenly turning a corner Blair found tears running down his face as he tried to cope with the sudden bright light that streamed through the tunnel entrance.

He felt something tug on his wrists and his hands were free, which was quite fortunate as big-bad-guy-#2 let go of his arm and he pitched forward onto all fours.

“You wanna piss, then piss,” said either bbb-#1 or bbb-#2 he couldn’t tell as their voices were so similar.

Blair dragged himself upright by clinging onto a large boulder near the cave entrance. Turning away from the men he fumbled with his jeans and heaved a sigh of relief as he emptied his bladder. He contemplated making a run for it and just as quickly dismissed the idea as foolish considering his weakened state. While zipping himself up again he thought it was time to try and find out some information. He was pretty certain that his kidnapping was linked to the information that Jim had given him the night before, but wanted to make sure. I mean how likely was it that two completely separate bunch of bad guys wanted to kidnap him? “Uh, guys, do you think…?”

“No talking.”

“I just… Ompf!” Bbb-#1 grabbed his arm and spun him face first up against the rock. Pulling his arms together bbb-#2 again wound duct around his wrists. “Couldn’t you…?”

Bbb-#1 leant against him and hissed into his ear, “If you don’t shut up I just might tape your mouth. Capish?”

Blair nodded emphatically. With the way his stomach was feeling, the last thing he needed was to be gagged.

“Good. You thirsty?”

Blair nodded again. Being spun round for a third time made him feel like he was in a dance that he had no idea how to do. He almost fell as his left leg buckled slightly with the movement. Bbb-#1 held a bottle up to his lips and he drank gratefully even though the water was warm. He tried following the bottle with his mouth when it was pulled away, but a hand on his shoulder held him in place. Perhaps he didn’t have to worry straight away about an early demise if they were giving him water. Hopefully this would give him some time to come up with an escape. Feeling marginally better he looked around to see if he could see anything that would tell him where they were. Unfortunately, the only thing he could say with certainty is that they weren’t in town and that was despite the fact that his eyes were still a little blurry.

They were standing on the side of a steep valley. The slope opposite was covered in pine trees right up to the skyline. The way the sun was hitting the trees Blair reckoned it had to be early afternoon. He must have been unconscious for at least eight hours. Not a good sign. The valley curved round to the left so he had no idea what was beyond while to the right all he could see was more hills and trees. They could be anywhere, even another state for all he knew.

Bbb-#2 started pulling him back into the tunnel and he tried to resist. To his complete mortification the two men simply picked him up by his upper arms and carried him. They reached his prison again and without ceremony he was pitched forward. He desperately tried to find his footing before slamming into either the wall or the floor. However, having his hands tied behind him and with the way his head was spinning he failed miserably. His left leg gave out under him and he hit the far wall with his left shoulder. He awkwardly slid down onto his side with his cheek scraping against the rough rock. For a few seconds he watched the bright lights dancing in front of his eyes until his vision went black and he lost consciousness.

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The whole circus, as Simon liked to call it, had moved into the hotel conference room. More FBI agents had turned up and the room had been turned into a command centre. Underneath the sounds of fingers on keyboards, printers and faxes gorging out paper, phones ringing and the cacophony of many voices speaking, there was an almost palpable hum of anxiety. He glanced again at Ellison who was standing by the window worry and anger almost physically radiating off him. Feeling his captain’s eyes on him the man shook himself out of his introspection and made his way over to him.

“Fancy a coffee in the lounge? I’m paying.”

Simon eyed the very expensive and complicated coffee machine provided by the Feds themselves sitting on one of the desks. The coffee from it was excellent and more importantly, free. “If you’re paying.”

The two men left the noisy room and sat themselves in a corner of the lounge with their coffees. Jim looked around casually to make sure that no one was in listening distance. “What are we going to do?”

“Jim, the FBI are in charge here,” Simon replied mildly waiting for the explosion he knew was going to happen.

“Crap, Simon! It’s Blair…”

“I know, but we’re out of our jurisdiction here. We have no resources, no authority…”

“We have me.” Jim ran both his hands through his short hair.

“Keep your voice down.” Simon looked around them to make sure that no one had heard. Jim had said that his senses were better and could be monitoring the area, but he still wasn’t sure how reliable they were. “What can you do? I know you’re good, but even you can’t find him when we don’t even know where to look.”

“If the agent in charge would let us in on the investigation I know that we could help.” It was obvious that with Blair’s kidnapping the situation had changed drastically and there was no need for them to go running into the hills. By playing his hand this way, it was more important that Berger, and by association Escobar, was brought down.

Simon didn’t doubt that was the case, but SAC Patton was only following procedure in not letting them take an active role in the search. “Jim…” He was interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the MC group. They pulled up chairs so they were in a loose circle around the two men almost as if they were protecting them.

“Captain,” Brown started without preamble, “we’ve got to help. I mean, they’re Feds!” As if that explained anything, and perhaps with their previous history with the FBI, it did.

“We can’t just sit here and do nothing,” added Connor. “We’ve got the advantage of knowing Sandy and knowing Berger. How can they refuse that sort of help?”

“And we’ve got Jim,” Rafe grinned nodding his head at Jim. “If he can’t find Blair, no one can.” Everyone watched the Sentinel squirm a little and turning their heads so it wasn’t obvious. Even though Blair and Jim had agreed to tell them about what he was (as if they hadn’t worked it out for themselves already. They were detectives after all!), the man still wasn’t comfortable about so many people knowing.

Jim gave Rafe a brief smile of thanks for the confidence he had in him. However, it also created a cold feeling of fear to curl low in his gut. Although his senses had improved since meeting Blair yesterday, they’d been erratic for the three months the man had been gone. How would they act now that Blair was gone again? He gathered his resolve around him like a safety blanket. There was no way he was going to lose his friend having just found him again! He’d make darn sure that his senses worked.

Banks pulled out a cigar from his cigar holder and jammed it into his mouth. He had no intention of smoking it, but it was a good delaying tactic as he searched for an answer. He caught Taggart’s eye. The man was also looking at him expectantly. “Et tu?” He murmured. Before he could say anything else Jim jumped in again.

“Let’s call Smith and Patel. Maybe they can intervene for us with the office here?”

Simon sighed and then stopped. Why not? The agents in Cascade had seemed to be pretty reasonable after all. He also felt that he should be doing something, anything, to find Sandburg. “Wait here.” He pulled himself out of his chair and disappeared into the conference room stiffening his shoulders against the fight that was sure to happen.

After an anxious 30 minutes he came back out followed by SAC Patton and walked over to the group. Jim tried to read Simon’s face, but the man was giving nothing away. They came to a stop and Patton looked around the group. “Okay, you’re in. It was stupid not using the extra manpower, but I had to follow procedure.”

Jim started to say something, but stopped as Patton held up a hand. “You’re in, but there are conditions. If you leave this hotel you take an agent with you. You have no jurisdiction here, so the agent’s in charge. If you question anyone, the agent does it. You get any information, you share. You go anywhere alone and you’ll be back here confined to the hotel. I know your priority’s getting Sandburg back and we’re doing everything we can to do that, but, remember there’s also a bigger picture here. We need to bring Escobar and Berger down. All I’m asking, is that you bear that in mind and don’t do anything to jeopardise the operation.”

“We’ll try…“ started Ellison.

“No! You won’t try, you’ll DO. We’re giving you the courtesy of being in on the search don’t make us regret it. That courtesy can, and will, be revoked if necessary. Understand?”

“They understand,“ replied Simon. “Don’t you?” He glared at everyone individually until they each nodded acceptance. Jim clenched his jaw for a few seconds then reluctantly agreed.

“Good,” stated the FBI agent. “There’s going to be a task force meeting at six. Meanwhile, you can use the phones, computers etc. we’ve set up in the conference room. See you at the meeting.” He turned and made his way back the way he’d come, but stopped and turned back towards them. “Oh yes, I thought you might like to know how Sandburg was found by Escobar.”

The group looked at him expectantly.

“Through a bank. He’s regularly sending back money to pay off his student loans. Sends it by courier service in cash. Apparently, there’s someone in the bank who’s been selling information to the highest bidder.”

“How did you find out?” asked Banks.

“Sheer and utter luck. One of our snitches in Cascade heard the payoff and contacted the FBI offices. Said the name Sandburg caught his attention. Something about having good taste in trainers. Said he’d first tried contacting someone at the PD, but when he was told that person wasn’t there he contacted us as he thought that the matter was urgent.” With that, he walked into the conference room.

“No,” murmured Ellison. “Not trainers. Sneakers.” ‘What were the odds that his snitch was also snitching for the Feds?’ he thought. Was it fate finally deciding to pay back Blair for all the bad luck he’d had ever since he’d found his Sentinel. Whatever it was, once back in Cascade with Blair at his side, he was going to buy the most expensive sneakers he could find in thanks.

“Only Sandburg would get himself into trouble by doing something right,” said Banks. “All right, let’s get our little lost lamb back safe and sound.”

“Yeah!” Megan cooed delightedly. “And then we’re not letting him out of our sight again. He’s coming back with us to Cascade.”

The group followed Simon to the conference room each one either patting Jim on the back or clasping his arm in sympathy. Jim ground his teeth. He appreciated the gestures, but in reality all he wanted was his friend safe and sound. The words of the song he’d heard last night swirled around his head.

“You said we could start over, try and make it all okay.
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?

So our past has been rewritten and you threw away the pen.
You'd said that I was useless, but now you'll take me in again

Well Jesus loves me fine.
And your words fall flat this time.

Was it my imagination, or did I hear you say,
‘We don't have a prayer between us.’ “

He only hoped that Blair realised that he was serious in his desire to make it all okay. And while it was true that he couldn’t change the past, he, or perhaps even better, THEY could learn from it and do everything to make them have a future together as partners, friends – whatever Blair wanted was fine with him as long as it was side by side as it should have always been from the beginning.


Chapter seven

Simon halted in front of the conference door. “Okay, let’s discuss how we’re going to play this. Connor, I want you to start the research here using anything the FBI are willing to let you use: computers, faxes etc. Joel, I want you to go over everything they’ve amassed so far. Agent Patton seems on the up and up, but on principle I don’t trust them to hold something back. You can help Connor at the same time.”

He turned towards Rafe and Brown. “You two go to the fair and question people there. I’m pretty sure Sandburg’s been taken, but I don’t want egg on our faces if it turns out he simply skipped out. Apparently, he’s well liked there and I think you’ll get more information if you stress that we’re not FBI, but Blair’s friends. You’re going to have to be inventive so whatever agent you’re with doesn’t catch you doing the questioning.

“And that goes for you and me too, Jim. I want to see if you can find anything along the route he took last night. That’s going to be difficult if we have an agent watching our every move. God, where’s Sandburg with his obfuscating skills when you need him?”

Nobody missed the irony in his question.

Megan and Joel slipped into the room discussing possible lines of enquiry they could pursue. Megan headed for a computer that was sitting with its darkened screen in a corner and turned it on. Joel walked up to the large white board that held numerous photos of Berger and Escobar in the top left corner and a photo of Blair in the centre. He wondered where they’d picked it up from, but when he examined it closer he saw that it was a copy of Blair’s PD warrant card. He started reading the information on the board taking copious notes.

Banks followed his four detectives into the room and looked around for Patton. A number of people were either working on computers or talking on telephones creating a low hum of noise. Spotting Patton at the head of the file-and-paper-covered conference table he made his way towards him. He was talking on his mobile phone and while he waited for the agent to finish he cast his eye over the whiteboard that Joel was examining. After a few minutes Patton wound up his phone call and made a few notes on the pad sitting on the table. He then turned to Banks with a questioning look on his face.

“Banks.”

“Patton.” Banks nodded at the agent. “I’ve got an important question I should’ve asked this morning.”

“Uh huh.”

“Any indication that Berger and Escobar know that we’re here as well?”

“Don’t know if they knew before, but if they’re the ones who snatched Sandburg I’m sure they know now.”

“Yeah, that’s how I see it, too. Do we know who’s here in Wyoming?”

“We’re working on it. We think, and I stress that we have no proof, that at least two of Escobar’s henchmen are here and they’ve hired local muscle.” A female agent came up to him and handed him a fax. He read it quickly and then handed it to Simon. “Confirmation that two men known to have connections to Escobar boarded a plane to Casper, Wyoming two days ago. We’re checking car rental places, cab companies, hotels. The usual suspects.”

Simon looked at the grainy photos of two shifty looking large men. He didn’t recognise them, but a number of possible names were listed below: José Martinez, Juan Martinez, Oscar Ramos, Oscar Ramirez etc… “Do we know where they are now?”

“Working on that, too. The photos aren’t great and we’re waiting on clearer ones from the central database.” His phone rang again and he answered with an apologetic smile. “Patton. Uh huh. No. I don’t care what he says; just tell him to get it done. Right. Speak to you later.” He hung up and turned back to Banks.

Simon jumped in before he someone or something else could interrupt them again, “As you can see I’ve got Connor and Taggart here. I’m sending Rafe and Brown to ask around at the fair…” Patton went to say something and he spoke over him. “You’ve probably done so already, but without putting too fine a point on it, you’re Feds and we both know how that more than likely went down with the fair workers. I know you said we couldn’t ask questions, but I’d like you to reconsider in this case. We’ll be asking questions as Sandburg’s friends. We can prove that and there’s a chance that they’ll open up more to us.”

Patton considered his words and then nodded. “Okay, but they go with an agent.”

“Agreed.”

“I’ll tell Agent Archant to meet them in front.”

“Thanks. Meanwhile I’d like to take Ellison and walk the route that Sandburg would have taken last night.”

“Why? Forensics has done it already.”

“I know, but we know Sandburg. He could have left a clue that only we would recognise. He can be pretty inventive.”

“Okaaay.” Patton didn’t sound 100% convinced.

“And we don’t need anyone to come with us. We’re not going to be asking anyone questions.” Simon really didn’t want any witnesses to Jim doing his ‘stuff’.

“Unacceptable. None of you go anywhere without someone with you. As well as you not having any authority here, you’re also under the risk of being targeted by Escobar. I meant it before – I WILL have you confined to this hotel if necessary.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll go get my jacket and meet Agent…?”

“Agent Goodson,” Patton answered after a long, considered look at Simon.

“…Agent Goodson out front.”

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The lunchtime rush had finished, but there were still a number of people ordering food at the Parisis’ trailer when H, Rafe and Agent Archant turned up. Archant had turned out to be a fairly new agent and this was the first major case she’d been involved with. She’d driven the two Washington detectives to the fair all the way talking nineteen to the dozen. H and Rafe exchanged bemused looks. She made them feel old and jaded. Rafe realised that she also reminded him of how Sandburg had been when he’d first started working with Ellison. He didn’t realise how much he’d missed the former grad student and now, former detective.

Waiting for a lull in the orders, they watched the couple that had apparently adopted Blair. Jim had repeated the little Blair had said about them the night before telling them that Blair obviously held them in great esteem. After another fifteen minutes they had their opportunity and stepped forward.

“Mr and Mrs Parisi?” H asked.

The couple eyed them warily.

“We’ve already spoken to you lot,” the large man answered standing protectively behind his wife.

“Oh, we’re not FBI,” countered H. “We’re police officers from Cascade, Washington and Blair’s our friend.”

“You the ones he met yesterday? ‘Cos if you are, Fel said he didn’t seem right pleased to see you.”

“Yes, well,” Rafe answered a little uncomfortably, “Blair left Cascade after a big misunderstanding. We, um,” he knew instinctively that only the truth, no matter how unsavoury, would prove their sincerity, “we didn’t treat him with the respect and consideration that he was due.”

“Basically, we fucked up,” added H, “and lost a good friend and a damn good cop.”

“Blair had been a cop?” Mrs Parisi asked amazed.

“Yeah, it’s along story and I’m not too sure we should be the ones telling you. It‘s really up to Hairboy, sorry, I mean Blair, to give you the details. But just take it from us, he’s one of us and we’d do anything to get him back.”

Mr Parisi looked at his wife for a few seconds and she eventually nodded at him. “Okay,” he said taking off his large apron, “we’ll close up here for a while. The lunch rush is over anyway. We can talk in our caravan, but I don’t know what else we can tell you. BS doesn’t talk much.”

Brown and Rafe looked at each other. Sandburg doesn’t talk much? Were they even talking about the same person?

Unfortunately, the Parisis were right in their assessment of not being to able to give much more information. They’d explained more of how they’d employed Blair glossing over how they were paying him, and stressed what a reliable and hard worker he was. Maria Parisi had made tea for everyone, including Agent Archant, and they were sitting around the small caravan table when she stiffened.

“Vinnie, do you remember what Art said yesterday morning? About Blair’s tent.”

The man looked at his wife for a moment blankly then his eyes showed he’d remembered.

“What? What d’you mean ‘Blair’s tent’?” questioned Rafe.

“BS has a small tent. We let him use the washing facilities here in the morning and sometimes he eats with us, but he sleeps in his tent and keeps his stuff there. Well, the small amount of stuff he has. It amazes me that he can get by on so little.”

“So, what happened to it?”

“Art, Arturo Blanco, he works on the big wheel, said he saw someone hanging around the tent yesterday morning.”

“And?”

“That’s all he told us. We checked it over but couldn’t see if anything was wrong. BS was in Sheridan and we didn’t see him when he got back ‘cos we were working, so we didn’t get the chance to say anything to him.”

“Where is Mr Blanco now?” asked H.

“Working, I imagine,” Vinnie answered.

“Could you take us to him, please?”

“No, I’ll bring him here. Art’s a bit ‘shy’, if you know what I mean?” Vinnie glanced at the cops and FBI agent. “I think he’d be more comfortable here.”

Brown nodded and Vinnie left the caravan only to return ten minutes later with a tall, thin, nervous looking man in tow. Maria went over to him urging him into the caravan when he hesitated.

“C’mon Art, no-one’s going to ask you difficult questions. They just want to know about what you saw yesterday. You’re not in trouble. You know that Blair’s missing and these people here just want to find him. Do you want some tea?” The man visibly relaxed under her soothing chatter, but still eyed the three intruders warily and refused to sit down.

“Mr Blanco, I’m Detective Rafe from Cascade and Blair’s a friend of mine. Would you mind telling us what you saw yesterday?”

The man swallowed and then took a large gulp of the tea that Maria had pressed into his hands. ” I was walkin’ near them trees where Blair has his tent. I was, um, going for a piss like. When I saw a man hoverin’ over the tent I askt him what was he doin’ like.”

“About what time was this, Mr Blanco?”

“Um, just ‘afor noon, I reckon.”

“Please, continue.”

“Well, he just a looked a’ me and said s’mthin’ and walked off. I watched him ‘til he went ‘n came got Maria ‘n Vinnie.”

“Could you describe the man for us?”

“Dunno, really. He was big, though.”

“What do you mean by big?” H tried to coax more information from the obviously uncomfortable man. “Big muscular or tall? What was his hair like?”

“Umm, he was big like. Bigger ‘n you and with muscles. Dinna see his hair, he was wearing a cap.”

“Did you see the colour of his eyes, then? Any idea of his age?”

“I didna notice his eyes, but I reckon he’s like ‘bout same age as Blair.”

“Was he either of these two men?” Rafe pulled out a folded copy of the fax showing Escobar’s men.

Blanco squinted at the bad reproductions and slowly shook his head. “I c’n’t be certain, but ahm pretty sure, no.”

“Was he carrying anything?”

“Nope.”

“Where did he go?”

“I watched him outta the park. He went through trees toward airport.”

“Anything else you can tell us?”

“Nope.”

“Okaay. Well if you think of anything, will you let us know? Here’s my card with my cell number.” Rafe held out his hand to the man who looked at it fearfully then took it and scuttled out of the caravan.

A gloomy silence fell over the group. Although Blanco’s information was interesting, without a better description it was going to be difficult getting an identity. H pulled out his phone and updated Joel back in the hotel who promised to pass the information onto Patton.

“Maybe someone else at the fair saw him.”

Rafe and Brown looked at Agent Archant in surprise. She’d been so quiet up to now that they’d forgotten she was there.

“Uh huh,” agreed Brown, annoyed with himself for not thinking of it first. “Okay, Babe,” he turned to his partner, “let’s get out there and go ask some questions.”

“I think it would be a good idea if I came with you,” Vinnie interjected. “You know, some people might not be so open otherwise, if you get my drift?”

“What about your stand?”

“Don’t worry about that,” Maria said calmly. “Blair needs to be found and found quickly.”

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Agent Goodson eyed the police officers from Cascade with mixed feelings. While he understood their need to be doing something to find their missing friend, he couldn’t understand why Patton had given them so much freedom. Well, he was stuck with them and it was his duty to protect them and he’d do it to the best of his ability. He turned again towards the dark captain and concentrated on what he was saying.

“…must be great fishing out here.”

“I don’t fish.”

“Oh. Do you hunt?

“No. Don’t like hunting.”

“Oh, what about…”

Jim grimaced as he listened to Simon trying to distract the FBI agent. They’d walked the road leading from the hotel to the fairground confident that it was the route that Blair would have taken the night before. The rain that had passed and the mid-afternoon sun was beating down on his head. He wished that he’d thought to remember to take his Jags cap as trying to use his senses in the bright sunlight was giving him a headache. He stared at the road again and sniffed discreetly in an attempt to catch a trace of something that would lead them to Blair. Unfortunately, the rain had washed away any signs of his former partner and there was no telling if any of the detritus on the side of the road related to the kidnappers.

Suddenly, a familiar smell drifted across his nostrils – Blair! The previous evening he’d subconsciously catalogued the younger man’s scent; the smell of fried food, the more subtle smell of a herbal shampoo, the flowery smell of a woman’s perfume. He could now smell the unique combination coming from a clump of bushes on his right. Walking over to them while being careful not to walk on any obvious traces on the ground, he could also see something glinting in the sunlight. Getting closer he realised that it was the torch that Blair had been carrying in his jacket pocket. Although the area around the hotel had been brightly lit, the road had been in total darkness and he certainly would have been using it to get back to the fairground.

Going no further, he called out, “I’ve got something!”

The other two men hurried over, but stopped on the road itself.

“What have you got?” questioned Simon eagerly.

“It’s Blair pocket torch. I saw it in his jacket last night.”

“Okay,” Goodson pulled out his phone. “I’m getting forensics out here.” He started talking rapidly to the person on the other end.

Jim retraced his steps across the damp ground and joined his captain. They moved a few metres away from the agent.

“Anything else, Jim?” Simon asked in a low voice.

“Nothing obvious. The ground’s fairly damp there and I didn’t want to mess it up any more. This is probably where he was snatched and they obviously forgot about or couldn’t find the torch.”

“Or it rolled away and they didn’t want to waste too much time looking for it.”

“Mmm, could be.” Jim looked down the road towards the hotel where he could see a number of vehicles pulling out of the car park. “Hope they find something that’ll help us.”

Simon could do nothing except agree with the man.

Six o’clock came and the hotel conference room was filled with around twenty men and women including the Cascade contingent. Agent Patton sat at the head of the table and cleared his throat, “Right everyone, let’s get this show on the road. Greaves tell me what you got.”

Jim half listened to the report on the searches carried out on Berger and Escobar’s possible financial and criminal links to the area, which to be honest, didn’t seem a lot. His interest was piqued when an Agent Wozniak reported that a car had been rented to two gentlemen holding Washington driving licences. Photos of the licences were displayed on the whiteboard and somehow he didn’t think that the names underneath were real. It didn’t really matter as what was important was now they had clearer images of the men. They were still searching for where they were staying and were using the local police in the search.

Another agent got up giving a forensic report on Blair’s torch and the area surrounding where it had been found. Only Blair’s prints were on it and a few possible shoe marks had been noted, but it was difficult to read anything from the information. The best bit of evidence was a tyre track from a vehicle that had stood on the ground near the bushes where the torch had been lying. They were in the process of searching for tyre brand, size etc. and once having the information they would have a list of vehicles using this type of tyre. As for the kidnap itself, no one had seen anything which was hardly surprising given the time it occurred and the remoteness of the road.

Eventually, the reports swung round to Brown and Rafe and Jim woke up fully. He had heard a little of what had gone on at the fair, and in his opinion, this was the best lead they had.

Brown stood up and walked over to the whiteboard. He placed on it a photocopy of a police-booking photo showing an unsavoury looking individual staring belligerently at the camera.

“Aloysius Temple Brown, 32, a long time resident of Sheridan. No relation I hasten to add.” A polite smattering of laughs came from the room. “He was seen by a number of people at the fair notably around Blair’s tent. We managed to get a good description of him and it turned out that he’s known to the local PD. He’s a small time crook with a couple of convictions for aggravated burglary. An APB’s been put out on him and we’re waiting on being able to go question some of his known acquaintances.”

As the meeting went on Patton threw it open to questions and suggestions. Pizzas were brought it in and the men and women worked into the evening. Assignments were passed out for the following day and eventually everyone went up to their rooms. The Cascade group gathered in the room shared by Rafe and Brown, as it was the biggest.

“So, Simon, what’s next?” Joel eased himself into one of the armchairs standing against the windows. Although they’d been given assignments by Patton, they were low key, ‘something to do’ actions to keep them appeased.

Simon had an unlit cigar clamped between his teeth and he took the second armchair. “Patton doesn’t realise how good we are especially when have a vested interest in the outcome. Joel, you and Connor continue to do what you were doing today. You managed to get some good information. H, Rafe, stick with the agents working with the local PD. You and I, Jim, we’re going to find this Aloysius Brown.”

“What about having to take an agent with us?”

“We’ll ask for Goodson. He seemed to be impressed by your detecting. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind hanging out with us again. Okay, bed everyone. I want us up early tomorrow.”

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Lying on the cold stone did nothing to ease the aches and pains Blair felt in his body. He groaned and immediately started coughing, which unfortunately sent shards of pain through his head. He eventually managed to draw breath without hacking up his lungs and he lay immobile for a moment, a miserable, shivering wreck. He cursed silently. Ever since his drowning in the fountain, his lungs had been susceptible to infections and dust. Obviously getting wet last night and then lying in this cold cave for hours had done him no favours.

Apart from the few gulps of water he’d had earlier and the tea last night (and that he’d brought up), he’d had nothing to eat or drink for a while and he was beginning to feel the effects. He thought about trying to sit up, but realised he simply didn’t have the energy. He found his thoughts wandering and tried to bring them back to his situation. ‘You know, Jim,’ he thought to himself, ‘I’ve changed my mind. I obviously need looking after. I’ll come back to Cascade, but just come and find me first.’


Chapter eight

The phone ringing next to his bed woke Ellison from a disturbing dream. Grabbing it he simultaneously glanced at his watch on the bedside table while growling into the receiver. His watch read 2:34. “Yeah? What’s up?”

“Uh, hello? This is Blair.”

Jim woke up fully hearing the exhausted and pain-filled voice. “Chief! Where are you?”

“Jim! Don’t know. Somewhere in the mountains. I was kid…”

His grunted as the sound of flesh on flesh replaced his voice.

“Ellison. We have Sandburg. He’s alive. If you want him to stay that way you and your colleagues come out to Thorne Rider Park baseball fields without the Feds.”

“How is he? Is he hurt? Let me talk to him.” Stretching his hearing he could hear harsh coughing being muffled in the background.

“No, you listen to me! You don’t listen, he gets hurt. You don’t do what we say, he dies. We’ll expect you at the park at six this morning. We see a helicopter, a uniform or even a car I don’t like the look of and we’re out of there.”

“You’ve got to be joking! We’re being watched, we can’t take a piss without an agent being with us.”

“Well, you’d better find a way or it’s bad news for Sandburg. We’ve got no food for him and I guarantee you’ll never find him in time.”

“Fucking bastards! Let him go or I’ll …” He stopped as he realised he was talking to the dial tone. Immediately, he dialled 69, but got the message that the number was blocked. He jumped out of bed and pulled on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Grabbing his gun he left his room not realising that he’d not turned on the light and had done everything in the dark. He knocked softly on Simon’s door in an attempt to not to make too much noise. “Simon, open the door,” he whispered trying to project his voice.

Nothing happened. “Simon,” he tried more urgently listening to the snores coming from behind the door. He risked raising his voice some more, “For God’s sake, wake up, please.”

“Wha, wha…?” He heard a bed creak then footsteps and the door opened to reveal Banks dressed in stunning, burgundy satin pyjamas peering at him short-sightedly with sleep-filled eyes. “Ellison, what the…?”

“Shh.” Jim pushed past him into the room after checking to see that no-one else along the corridor had been disturbed. “Keep your voice down.”

Simon slowly closed the door behind him and made his way back to his bed. Sitting down on the edge he picked up his glasses from the bedside table. Putting them on he watched the Sentinel pace backwards and forwards across the small space. “Jim, what’s going on?”

“The kidnappers just called me.”

“What?!”

“Shhh, I don’t want the Feds to hear. I spoke to Blair. He’s still alive.”

Simon felt the curl of fear in his stomach unwind a bit. “So, what did they want? How did they get your number?”

Jim cupped the back of his neck with both his hands. “The usual: go to a place alone or they’ll kill him, don’t tell the FBI, listen to them or they’ll hurt him…”

“How did he sound? Was he able to tell you where he was.”

“Exhausted, in pain. How he always sounds when he’s been kidnapped!!”

“Uh huh.” Unfortunately, he knew exactly what Ellison meant.

“He said something about mountains, but that doesn’t help us much here.” He resumed his pacing. “Why did I let him go back alone? I should’ve made him stay with us or gone back with him at least.”

Simon got up and gently led Jim to his bed then pushed him down so he was sitting on the edge. He pulled the single chair over and sat in it so that his knees were almost touching the other man’s. Touchy-feely wasn’t really his thing, but he could see that he needed to be a bit more empathetic than normal. The last 48 hours had really been an emotional roller coaster (no pun intended!) for the man and he needed grounding. God, he was channelling Sandburg! “Jim, forget about should haves and could haves and let’s concentrate on what we can do now.”

Jim blew out a long breath. “You’re right. Do we tell Patton?”

“You know we can’t acquiesce to their demands?”

“I know. God, I know.” Unfortunately, as a cop he knew only too well that giving in to kidnap demands rarely brought good results. Also FBI policy was to never give in – that led to criminals thinking they could get what they wanted through kidnapping. However, as a private individual it was difficult to take.

“We can only do what we do best – find the bastards before they do anything else to Sandburg. And to do that we need all the resources that the FBI have. We need to find out how they got your number. Did they call the switchboard or did they know by other means?”

Jim simply shrugged, his concerns were more immediate. There was a moment’s silence as each man contemplated the heart wrenching decision they were being forced to make.

The captain took charge. “I’ll get dressed while you go and wake the others. Take them down to the conference room and get the coffee on. I have a feeling we’re going to need gallons of the stuff. I’ll go and wake Patton. Do you know what room he’s in?”

“I think it’s 332.”

“Okay. And Jim?”

“Yeah?”

“Put some shoes on.”

The man looked down at his bare feet then ruefully looked up at Simon. “Guess I had other things on my mind.”

‘And isn’t that an understatement?’ thought Simon.

Thirty-five minutes later sleepy people were slowly filling up the conference room and the coffee machine was working overtime. Patton was in discussion with an agent waiting for everyone to arrive. The Cascade group was sitting in a corner in a protective circle around Jim watching what was going on.

Simon spoke quietly so that only Jim could hear him, “Can you tell me if anyone’s listening in?”

Jim started and looked at his captain then tipped his head to one side in his classic listening stance. Megan spotting what was going on put her hand on his arm grounding him.

After a few minutes Jim lost the glazed look and leant forwards. “As far as I can tell there’s no one outside within a few hundred metres and I don’t think there are any listening devices in this room. I can’t say more than that without risking a zone.”

“That’ll have to do. Joel, remind me to ask Patton if they’ve done a sweep of this building. I wouldn’t put it past Escobar to have someone outside with a directional mike!”

The last person slipped into the room and Patton indicated Banks to join him at the head of the large table. He stood up and addressed the room, “Sorry for disturbing your beauty sleep, but we’ve had a development. I’ll let Captain Banks explain.”

Simon cleared his throat and recounted the very short conversation Ellison had had with Blair’s kidnappers. “It’s now 3:15,” he ended with, “which doesn’t leave us much time to sort something out. Because what ever happens we’re getting Sandburg back.” With a pointed look at Patton he finished speaking and made his way back to his seat.

“As Captain Banks said, we’ve got very little time, so let’s get cracking. This is a map of the park in question.” A large folding map was fixed to a whiteboard and Jim saw why the kidnappers had chosen that particular meeting place. The baseball fields were a large open space with very little cover for anyone approaching. It would be impossible to move anyone or anything without being seen from the surrounding area. Looking at the faces of the people around him he knew that they’d come to the same conclusion. “Gutierrez and Johns get in touch with Sheridan PD. We need them out and about looking for ANY trace of Escobar’s men and who they’ve hooked up with here.”

The two men nodded and headed out of the room.

“Michaels, King contact park rangers, mountain guides, anyone who has a reason to be out in the mountains to see if they’ve spotted anything that could help us.” The male and female agents picked up their notebooks and shot off. “Okay, that leaves the rest of us. I’m open to suggestions.”

An hour and a half later Jim twisted in his seat, frustrated. This was going nowhere. They had two options: go and get taken, don’t go and try to find Sandburg before he starved to death. He knew which one would be chosen; all law enforcing services knew not give in to demands made by criminals and terrorists. And although he understood and agreed with the policy he didn’t have to like it. The Feds were discussing ways of tracking the kidnappers without being caught, but most of the suggestions meant revealing their presence. They had just over an hour to sort something out and get to the meet.

After listening to another stupid suggestion and with a stomach burning from too much coffee, he’d had enough. He eased away from the table stretching his back and slipped out of the room. Simon glanced over at Joel who nodded and went after the detective. He found Jim sitting in a corner of the darkened lounge.

“What are going to do?”

The words were whispered, but in the silent space Joel heard them clearly. “Don’t give up hope just yet. Don’t forget that Blair’s a resourceful and intelligent man. He’s managed to get himself out of tricky situations before.”

“How come this always happens to him?”

“You know what he’d say? Bad karma, man!”

Jim snorted in amusement despite himself. “You know we’ll never get close enough to be able to follow them?”

“What about you? How far can you be and still be able to track them?”

“Close enough. I’m not thinking at my best, Joel! Let’s speak to Simon.”

Patton looked up at the three men exasperatedly. They’d walked up to him in the conference room and had tried to convince him that they could deal with the meet. “What the hell’s the matter with you? You CANNOT go off on your own! Apart from the risk to yourselves, you could jeopardise our operation.”

“What operation?” Jim snapped. “You don’t have a plan and the meeting’s in 40 minutes.”

“Jim, quiet.” Simon put a hand on his arm. “Look Patton, we need to tell you something, but not here.”

“Unless you can tell me you know where Sandburg is and can save him, I don’t want to know. I’m seriously regretting my decision to let you in on this.”

Simon jumped in before Ellison could aggravate the agent more, “It’ll only take a few minutes and it could be the answer we’re looking for.”

Throwing his arms up in the air, Patton stood up brusquely from the table and stalked out of the conference room. Fortunately, the lounge was still empty at this early hour so they didn’t have to go far. He stopped by the windows, turned towards the men following him and crossed his arms. “Well, what is it? And this had better be good.”

The captain glanced over at his detective noting the clenched jaw and blank face. Although he’d agreed to this he knew that he wasn’t particularly happy with the situation. “We’re telling this to you on the understanding that you can tell NO ONE else.” He waited until the agent gave a short, reluctant nod. “Ellison can track the kidnappers without electronic means.”

Patton stared speculatively at the silent man for a few seconds. “So you really do have enhanced senses?”

Jim froze and stared at the man. “What do you know about it?” He asked angrily his automatic, defensive reaction taking over.

“Did you really think I wouldn’t search out all the information I could on the people I’m supposed to be protecting? I read about Sandburg’s dissertation and how he declared it fraudulent.”

The man before him winced, but remained silent.

“So now you’re telling me it was all true? And you expect me to believe that you’re really this Sentinel Sandburg wrote about?”

“I can prove it, but we really don’t have the time, do we? You’ve obviously done your research. Do you really think two police captains would be standing here with me if they didn’t know it was true?”

Both Banks and Taggart nodded at Patton’s questioning look.

Patton was silent obviously thinking things over. “Okay. What can you do?”

“I’ll be able to hear them talking from anywhere on the field. I’ll be able to keep them in view from up to a mile away. If their vehicle is burning oil I’ll be able to tell where they’ve been. Is that good enough?”

Patton nodded slowly. “Tell me something. If you really are, what was the expression again, a Sentinel, why did Sandburg lie?”

An awkward silence followed his question. Simon cleared his throat. “That’s not relevant to this operation and…”

“It’s none of your business,” Jim snapped.

“Perhaps not how I was going to say it, but basically he’s right,” continued Simon.

Patton looked as if he wanted to argue, but looking at the faces of the men before him he realised now was not the time. “Acknowledged, for now. Okay, how are we going to play this?”

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Blair took a sip of water then with shaking hands, carefully twisted the cap back on the bottle. He’d been rudely woken up in the night from his intermittent slumber by his kidnappers bursting into his cell with bright torches. They’d dragged him along to the tunnel entrance and propped him up against the wall.

“You’re going to talk on the phone,” bbb-#1 (he’d thought it was #1 but in the wavering light it had been difficult to say) had told him emphatically, “you’ll give your name and nothing more. Okay?”

“Wha… wh…?” In his weakened state Blair had found it difficult to understand what had been going on. “Owww!” His eyes had watered as his hair had been gripped in a large hand and his head forced up so he’d had to strain up on his toes. He’d scrabbled at the wall behind him with his bound hands in an effort to stay upright.

“Listen, fucker,” the man had snarled directly into his face, “just say your name when I tell you to. All right?”

Blinking away his tears he squinted up into the angry eyes boring into his. “Yeah, man. I hear you.” Thankfully his hair had then been released and he’d locked his knees as his trembling legs had started to fold beneath him. A phone had been held up to his ear.

“Speak,” the man had commanded.

“Uh, hello? This is Blair.”

“Blair! Where are you?” He’d almost collapsed when he’d heard Jim’s anxious voice in his ear. ‘Please, please, please,’ he’d chanted in his head, ‘come and find me, Big Guy.’

“Jim! Don’t know. Somewhere in the mountains. I was kid…” The phone had been pulled away from his ear and he’d been slapped to the ground. He’d landed with a grunt that had set off a spate of coughing. By the time he’d caught his breath the phone conversation had been over and his two kidnappers had been discussing something over his head. He’d been feeling too rotten, too sick to follow the conversation. They’d then dragged him back to his little hidey-hole, cut the duct tape around his wrists and left him there in the dark.

And now he was watching the confines of his prison slowly become visible as dawn sent light down the hole above his head. Another shiver coursed through his body and he wrapped his arms round his chest grateful that he could do so. He wondered why they’d untied him and the only answer he could come up with was depressing. They could see that he was in no state to even attempt an escape or inflict any damage on his kidnappers. His breath whistled in and out of his lungs, his chest felt tight and his left leg hurt with a deep ache. With the way he was feeling he realised they weren’t far off in their assessment.

As the room lightened he saw something gleaming by the door. He crawled over to it and was surprised to see a large plastic bottle of water. Thank God! He was so thirsty. Then realisation hit him like a fist in the gut. This was it! They weren’t coming back; they’d left him to die in this cold, unfeeling place. Then why the water? “Blair, get a grip,” he admonished himself. His voice sounded gravely and his breath wheezed in and out of his lungs. “If they wanted you to die they’d simply put a bullet in your head.” Feeling marginally better he opened the bottle and took a couple of gulps. Not knowing how long it would have to last he made himself stop from drinking more.

It felt wonderful going down his parched throat and he almost opened the bottle again for another mouthful. Unfortunately though, once it reached his stomach it also reminded him that he’d not eaten for quite a while. The nausea from the day before had lessened somewhat, but his head was still aching fiercely and his vision was still a bit fuzzy. He wondered what Jim was doing and questioned himself as to whether the man was even looking for him. ‘Of course he is, doofus. He was pleased to see you and even apologised for his behaviour.’ However, he couldn’t keep the little voice of doubt that spoke softly in his ear quiet. He’d given up too much, lost who and what he was in the fervour of finding and being with a Sentinel. For all his arrogance and surety, Blair still needed reassurance about his usefulness and place in life. The last year had seriously undermined his self-confidence.

He dragged himself over to the metal door and inspected it closely. Perhaps he should see about getting himself out of his prison. Belatedly, he thought about searching his pockets to see what resources had been left him. His slicker gave up a ticket stub to the museum in Sheridan and a soggy receipt. His jeans unfortunately, were empty of his penknife and wallet, but his left back pocket contained a crushed packet of unsalted peanuts. He stared forlornly at the meagre haul. Even MacGyver would have had a problem creating a means of escape with this sorry lot. He debated opening the peanuts. They would ease his hunger a bit, but also increase his thirst. His stomach had other ideas though as it woke up with a grumble at the thought of food. Resigned, he pulled the packet open. The small number of nuts that he allowed himself tasted like sawdust, but determinedly he ate them knowing he needed the energy.


Chapter nine

Dawn was just beginning to tint the sky with a rosy hue as Jim, Simon and Patton settled themselves in behind a pile of rocks on the outer edge of the baseball field in Thorne Ryder Park. Out of sight of the various access roads leading to the park, Patton had assigned various agents and the Cascade detectives to different vehicles. Although in radio contact he’d forbidden them to make contact except for emergencies. Everyone was on edge not knowing what was going to happen.

“Tell me what you can see,” whispered Patton.

Jim smiled tiredly. The agent had a pair of binoculars and was probably able to see just as well as he. “Nothing,” he replied. “And you?”

Patton didn’t answer and continued to peruse the area.

“I can’t hear anything either,” Jim continued, “except the usual sounds of birds, insects and the acid in your stomach from too much coffee. And the only smells I’m getting are your aftershave, Simon’s cigars and that somewhere near here there’s a dead animal.”

The agent started and lowered his binoculars to look at him.

“And believe me, it is an animal,” the detective jumped in before he could say anything. “I can smell the decay and rotten fur.”

Simon didn’t miss the speculative look the man gave Jim. If he’d read the agent correctly he didn’t think the information regarding Ellison’s senses would go any further. However, he wasn’t omniscient when it came to reading people. Look how he’d got it totally wrong when he’d first met Sandburg!

“Unit 1, report,” Patton spoke quietly into his radio.

“Nothing moving here,” came the loud, crackly voice in reply. He quickly turned down the volume.

Jim winced and dialled back his hearing. “Warn me next time, please.”

“Uh, sorry. Unit 2, anything?”

“No sign of any vehicles approaching.” He got the same information from all his agents and he was getting worried. It was nearing the meeting time and he’d thought that there would have been at least one kidnapper keeping an eye on the proceedings. To say he wasn’t happy was putting it mildly.

Suddenly the radio crackled. “Unit 3 here. Vehicle approaching park entrance.”

All three men turned their heads as one towards the road leading into the area. Sun glinted off two binoculars while Jim concentrated on focussing his vision. After a minute a small, red car pulled in and parked under a tree. The doors opened and Simon realised that he was holding his breath. A second later he sensed Jim beside him deflate and curse softly. He felt like joining in as he watched a young couple climb out of the car. Dressed in running clothes they did a few stretching exercises then set off in a loping run along one of the paths.

“Stand down,” Patton growled into the radio. “False alarm.”

Jim turned onto his back and let out a long breath. His muscles were tight and aching from holding them rigid for so long. He hated waiting. He was a man of action and all this doubt and hanging around was doing his head in. He wanted to find Blair so badly he could taste it. How could fate be so cruel to have let the man back into his life and then snatch him away again? As much as he knew that he wanted Blair back he also knew that he was going to have to change his behaviour before the younger man would be comfortable with him again. He just wanted a chance to be able to show Blair that he could.

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With his ear pressed up against the metal door, Blair strained to hear any noise. However, everything was silent and it worried him. He pulled his head back and leant his body against the cool metal. Instead of feeling cold as he had earlier he could feel sweat pooling under his arms and in the small of his back and knew that he now had a fever. He’d watched the patch of sunlight work its way across the rocky floor and judged that at least four hours had passed since he’d eaten some of the peanuts. God, what was going on? A cold ball of fear nestled uncomfortably in his stomach. ‘Shame it hasn’t filled me up!’ he groaned to himself.

Truth to say, he was getting worried. No, in fact he’d been worried before, but now he was getting really worried. He’d vaguely heard his kidnappers talking over his head as he’d been lying on the ground coughing his guts out after speaking to Jim. They’d said something about 6 o’ clock. He could only assume that it was the time that Jim and/or the others were supposed to give themselves up. Surely four hours was enough for something to have happened and someone to have got back here? Unfortunately, it only fed his fear that he’d been left to die.

Despite being so dehydrated he’d had to urinate at least once. He’d banged on the door and called out, but no one had come to take him out. In desperation he’d dragged himself to a far corner and had peed there. With the increase in temperature as the day progressed the smell was becoming more pungent and wasn’t helping his nausea. Feeling his stomach roil again he turned and once more banged on the door. “Hey! Anyone there? Please, let me out.”

His hand slipped down to his side and his body followed it onto the floor. “Please,” he whispered, “I don’t want to die here all alone. Hell, I don’t want to die anywhere.” He shivered as his fever rose. Clasping the rain slicker that he’d removed earlier when he’d felt hot, he clumsily pulled it over himself. Tucking his hands under his armpits in an effort to get warm again, he squeezed his eyes tight. He gave himself over to the despair he felt and cried tears that his dehydrated body could ill afford. He thought of Jim and really, really hoped that he was looking for him and that he’d forgiven him for all the mistakes he’d made as his friend and partner.

As his fever increased he started singing the song that had been turning round and round his head for the last 24 hours. His cracked voice filled the little space and was absorbed by the stone walls. He tried to ignore what the words were saying, but was afraid that they described both his past and his future.

“Didn't you believe that I have finally turned away?
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?
Anything to hold onto to help me through my day.
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?

Jesus loves me fine.
But his words fall flat this time.

It's a long, long, long road
And I don't know which way to go.
If you offered me your world, did you think I'd really stay?
If you offered me the heavens, I would have to turn away.
Was it my imagination, or did I hear you say,
"We don't have a prayer between us."
Didn't you, now? Didn't you, now?
Didn't you?”

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“Nothing,” Jim whispered as his sat staring out of the hotel lounge’s windows.

“What was that?” Joel, who was sitting next to him, asked.

“Nothing,” Jim spoke louder. “We waited for hours and there was nothing!” His voice rose, as did his agitation. “No kidnappers. No Blair. Nothing!”

After waiting for another two hours the discouraged agents and detectives made their way back to the hotel. In all that time there hadn’t been even the slightest hint of the kidnappers. They were all beginning to think that it had been a ruse of some kind. After another task force meeting and a quick lunch provided by the hotel Jim had taken his coffee out into the lounge in an effort to clear his head. Joel had followed him ten minutes later.

“Maybe we scared them off,” suggested Joel.

“No, I don’t think so. I think they never intended to show up. All access roads to the site had been under surveillance a good few hours before we arrived. There’d been no sight nor sound of them.”

“So, what was their plan?”

“I don’t know. God, I simply don’t know. But all I do know is that we have to find Sandburg soon.”

Both men looked up when they heard Patton and Banks in full discussion, walk towards them followed by Megan. They stopped in front of where they were sitting.

“Okay, Brown and Rafe are with the PD seeing if they can find Escobar’s men or the local man, Brown,” Simon explained.

Patton nodded his head slightly and continued the report. “Local PD’s been keeping an eye on Brown’s home and known haunts, but no one’s seen him for a while.”

Jim ground his teeth in frustration. Megan, noticing, sat next to him and put a hand on his arm. “We’ll find him,” she whispered. “Or more likely, Sandy’ll get out all on his own. You know how resourceful he is.”

He gave her a small smile and was going to say something when Banks’ phone rang. The captain stood up and walked a little distance away from the group. A few minutes later he signalled to Patton who was talking to another agent. Looking at his face the detectives stopped talking and looked at him questioningly as he hung up.

“That was Rafe. Two bodies were found in an abandoned unit in an industrial estate. They’ve been shot in the back of the head execution style. It’s highly likely that one of the bodies is that of Aloysius Brown.”

“Oh, God!” Megan put a hand over her mouth.

Jim buried his face in his hands.

Just then Agent Goodson poked his head out of the conference door. “Patton,” he called once he’d spotted him, “Sheridan PD on the phone.”

The Cascade group followed him into the conference room and clustered around as Patton took the receiver. “Special Agent Patton…. Uh huh…” The agent glanced up at the group around him. “Hold on a moment, Sheriff,” he spoke into the phone, “I’m putting you on speaker.”

“…problem.” The tinny voice echoed out of the phone.

“Could you repeat what you’ve just said to me, please?”

“Right. It’s definitely Brown and his buddy in drink and crime Eddie Simmons. Simmons was also known to us for his numerous stays in our county prison. Usual stuff: DUI, aggravated assault, public disorder, theft and so on. We’d suspected he was with Brown in this kidnapping. They were big game hunters and knew these mountains pretty well. Simmons had a car and we’re looking for it now. As far as we know Brown was without transport.”

“But nothing on them to give us a hint of where they’ve been?”

“Sorry, nothing. Forensics is going over them now.”

“Uh, hello, Sheriff? Captain Banks, Washington Major Crimes, here.”

“Hi. It was your man we think Brown and Simmons took, right?”

“Yes. We appreciate all that you and your men are doing to help us in this.”

“Hey, no problem.”

“You say the bodies haven’t been moved yet?”

“No, but it won’t be long.”

“Would you mind keeping them in situ until we can get there?”

“Uh, how will that help?”

“Sheriff Black, would you just hold a moment?” Patton interrupted the conversation and muted the phone cutting off the local man. He rounded on Banks. “Why do you want to see the bodies?”

“So Jim can do his stuff,” he replied quietly.

“But forensics…”

“Can forensics pick up smells?” Jim interrupted in a low, forceful voice. “Can they taste car exhaust? Can they say what’s in the soil just by rubbing it between their fingers?”

Patton looked at him startled. “You can do all that?” he asked amazed.

“That and more. But I need to get to the bodies quickly.”

“I had no idea how sensitive your senses can be. Okay, you’re on.” He un-muted the phone, “Sheriff, sorry for that.”

“No harm done.”

“Expect us there in ten minutes and please don’t move the bodies.”

“If that’s what you really want.” By his voice he obviously thought that they were crazy, but wasn’t going to push it.

Fifteen minutes later Patton, Ellison and Banks were standing before two bodies that were lying amongst piles of rubbish in an old and dirty warehouse. One man was on his back, his forehead had a massive hole in it where the bullet had exited and his half-opened eyes were staring up at the ceiling. The other was half on his side showing the small hole in the back of his head. Flies were buzzing about them and in the heat the smell of urine, faeces and blood was overpowering.

Jim moved closer and for a moment dialled back his smell. Focussing closely, he carefully went over every inch of the bodies. He paid close attention to the boots and finger nails where dirt could be seen. First he smelt it, rubbed it between his fingers then put a small amount on his tongue. Inspecting it closely with his eyes he could see tiny flecks of some type of shiny stone. Standing up he dialled up his smell and tried to filter out all the odours that he knew to expect at the scene. Unfortunately, he was finding it difficult and his eyes watered as his nose was assaulted.

Simon saw what was happening and moved over to put his hand on his arm. “Jim, do you need to take a break?” he asked quietly.

“Just wait a second.” Taking a few shallow breaths he nodded at his captain and breathed in deeply again.

Patton, standing a few metres away was avidly watching the proceedings. Much to the disgust of the local PD and the FBI’s forensics team, he’d cleared everyone out of the warehouse. He was fascinated by what Ellison could do and couldn’t understand why the man wanted to keep his talents secret. He was imagining how such advantages could help any law-enforcing agency. Suddenly, the detective reared back with a groan. Banks jerked him back and turned him away from the bodies. Patton was surprised to see tears streaming down Ellison’s face. “What’s up? What’s happened?”

“One second,” Banks brusquely brushed him off. “Jim, dial it down. Remember what Sandburg taught you.”

The man was gasping for breath and rubbing his eyes with his left forearm. Patton took a step forward, but Banks waved him off again. “Jim, Jim, listen to me, feel my hand on your arm. Feel its warmth, feel how the breeze coming though those doors is blowing across your face and listen to my voice.” He kept up his litany until the other man sighed and turned his reddened eyes towards him.

“Thanks, Simon. That was a doozy.”

“How are you feeling now?”

“Better thanks.”

“Did you get anything?”

“I think so. I need to process it first though.”

Simon didn’t fail to notice the words he used, but didn’t mention it to Jim. It wouldn’t help at this to remind him of the person they were desperately trying to find. “Okay, go and get some water. We’ll be out in a minute.” He watched as the man walked out of the warehouse and then when he was certain he was out of Sentinel hearing turned to Patton. “What just happened is why we don’t want Jim’s abilities to be public knowledge,” he said quietly.

“What DID just happen?”

“He can get lost in one sense. It can overwhelm him and he needs help to bring it back under control by focussing on something else.”

“And every criminal would be playing on that and his life as a cop would be over, right?”

“Uh huh.”

“How has he managed to survive so long?”

“Sandburg. He taught him to control them pretty much. Had he been here, Jim would’ve been out of that zone much quicker than I managed. Hell, he wouldn’t have been allowed to zone in the first place. Sandburg’s got a way of talking that Jim just seems hardwired to obey.”

“So that’s why Sandburg was offered a detective’s badge?”

“No.” They both turned round as Jim walked back in followed by Rafe and H. “Blair was offered a badge because he was a fucking good detective. Something we seemed to have forgotten.” He took a long swallow out of the bottle of water he was holding. Deliberately, he changed the subject. “This is what I discovered; there are traces of a stone or mineral that has a distinctive texture and colour. I can also smell a plant. I think it’s a flower and has an oily feel to it. They’ve both been riding horses and recently too. Simmons had been in a bar, probably last night, where he’d drunk a large quantity of beer and had eaten barbecued chicken wings.

“Brown had sex last night. With a woman who wears a floral/spicy perfume and whom I think has a baby. I could smell faint traces of baby formula. And both of them had been in contact with Blair fairly recently. Simmons has…” he drew in a breath, “Simmons has traces of blood on his pants. Not much, fortunately. But I think it’s Blair’s. That’s all.” He took another swallow from the bottle.

Patton realised his mouth was hanging open and closed it with an audible snap. “That’s all?” he finally managed to gasp. He shook his head. “Who needs forensics when you’re around?”

Jim grimaced as he heard the echoes of an excited young man wearing a multi-coloured waistcoat. “Yeah, but it can’t be used in evidence.”

Simon broke in before Patton could say more. “Rafe, Brown, what you got?”

Brown pulled out his notebook. “No vehicle in the vicinity non-accounted for. No witnesses, nothing.”

The FBI agent shook himself out his speculations and brought his mind back to present business. “Okay, let’s take this outside.”

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“Didn’t you now, didn’t you?” Blair’s raspy singing echoed round the bare space. “Well, Jesus…” he broke off as a round of coughing wracked his body. “Uhhhh,” he groaned once he’d got his breath back. He wrapped his arms round his chest trying to ease the deep ache there the coughing had aggravated. He shivered as sweat ran down his face and into his eyes making them sting. He could feel the lung infection taking hold and his temperature rising.

Propping himself shakily on one elbow he searched around for the bottle of water. Finding it he tried to calm his trembling enough to prise off the top. He took two large gulps and sighed as the water cooled his raw throat. Blearily he peered at the bottle; just over half remained. Looking up to see where the light from the hole in the roof was he attempted calculating how long since he’d been brought back, but his brain wouldn’t co-operate. All he knew was that he’d been singing until his throat ached. He didn’t want to stop though; a sore throat was a million times better than the silence and all that represented.

Clutching the bottle to his chest he lay back down. “It's a long, long, *cough, cough* long road *cough, cough*, And I don't *cough, cough* know which way to go *cough, cough*…”


Chapter ten

Jim looked around himself; another room full of computers, phones and cops. If he closed his eyes he could almost think that he was back in Major Crimes in Cascade. He lifted his cup of coffee to his mouth and took a sip. Almost gagging he slammed the cup back onto the table spilling some of the cold liquid. Simon looked over at him and raised an eyebrow. Brown passed the detective a paper tissue and a sympathetic smile. Jim nodded his thanks and sending an apologetic grimace in Banks’ direction mopped up the spilt liquid.

After examining the warehouse and its environs the team had followed Sheriff Black to Sheridan PD. There, they’d gone over the evidence collected by forensics and were brought up to date with the search for Brown and Simmons’ movements. The police had a good lead on who the woman Brown had slept with and an FBI agent was out with a cop hunting her up. More police officers and agents were trolling the bars trying to find where the Simmons had drunk and eaten. They were now waiting for a couple of park rangers to arrive.

Sandburg had said that he was somewhere in the mountains. Unfortunately, that meant a lot of ground in this mountainous state. After examining a detailed map, Jim was certain that with the information he’d been able to pick up on the bodies and with the help of the rangers he’d be able to narrow down the area to be searched. He thought that unless they’d been out riding for pleasure, where the kidnappers had hidden Blair was probably in the park where mechanised vehicles were forbidden. For him though, he knew it was going to be difficult trying to get the information he needed without giving away how he’d got his.

Just then a man and woman dressed in the dark green uniforms of the Park Service walked in. Patton, who’d been talking with one of his agents, went to greet them. “SAC Patton, Caspar FBI office. Thanks for coming.” They all shook hands.

“Senior Ranger Jane Bristows and this is Ranger Robert Pascal.” Bristows was a tall, gangly woman with a fair smattering of grey in her brown hair while the man was younger and stockier with thinning dark blond curls. They both had the tanned, windblown look of people who spent a lot of time outdoors. Jim could smell pine, horses and car exhaust on them.

“Jane, Robert. Glad you could make it.” Sheriff Black bustled up with a pile of folders in his arms. “Now that everyone’s here we can move to the squad room where we’ve set up an incident base. Sorry it took so long, but we’re not used to all this action.”

A large table had been brought into the windowless room and chairs placed around it. It was flanked by two whiteboards and a paperboard and in the corner the ubiquitous coffee machine gurgled. The edges of the table were covered with papers and files while trays of sandwiches and pastries filled the centre.

Black placed the files he was carrying on top of another set on the table and gestured for everyone to take a seat. “Please help yourself to whatever you want. There’s coffee over there and hot water if you prefer tea and cold drinks are in the fridge below. So, without further ado I’ll hand the reins over to you, Agent Patton.”

“Sheriff, you’ve done us proud. We really appreciate all that you’ve done.” The FBI agent stepped up to one of the whiteboards on which was basically a reproduction of the boards in the airport hotel. He pointed to the five photos that were arrayed along the top and spoke to the two rangers. “This is the kidnap victim, Blair Sandburg. You’ll find information on him in the file before you, so I won’t go into too much detail now. These two are known to be Escobar’s cohorts and flew out here from Cascade, Washington two days ago. These are local men, Brown and Simmons, who were apparently hired by these two. Their bodies were discovered this afternoon in an abandoned unit on the Blue Thunder Industrial Estate. We need to know where they could have hidden Sandburg. The victim managed to tell us that they were in the mountains, but here…”

Jim winced hearing Blair described as a victim, but knew that, unfortunately, that was exactly what he was. ‘Not for much longer, “ he vowed to himself.

Pascal stood up and unfolded a map of the park. Sheriff Black helped him fix it with magnets to the second board. “As you can see there’s a hell of a lot of ground to search and not a lot of people around. There are a number of caves and old cabins that could possibly be where the victim’s hidden, but most of these are either visited by the public, are in really remote areas or are in bad condition. Presumably, they’d need somewhere where they could take someone without being seen, but also with reasonable access. Which leads us to the old mines.”

“What was mined here?” Simon asked.

“Mostly coal and some gold. The area still has a large number of coal and coke mines, but the gold mines were a catastrophe. There was a small gold rush in the late1800s but the finds were few and far between. Most of the abandoned mines are up here.” He pointed to an isolated area of the park. “However, there’re about fifteen and it would take ages to scout them all out.”

“We need something to narrow the search down.” Patton avoided looking at Ellison. He also was wondering how to introduce the information Jim had without revealing the man’s heightened senses.

“Are all these areas the same?” Simon directed his question at the two rangers.

“What do you mean?” The female ranger responded.

“I mean any plants, rocks etc. that are specific to particular areas. If there is anything that, for example, is found only in one place we could differentiate each area in advance. Then once forensics comes back with their results on the traces found on the bodies we’ll be ready to go.”

‘God bless you, Simon,’ thought Jim.

“Oh, I see what you mean.” She got up to join her colleague at the board. “Well, there’s not a lot we can tell you as most of the mines are in a small area with similar flora and geology. However, there are a few particularities that could help. For example, at Mine 65 fossils of prehistoric animals were found, here at Bucko’s Bluff a seam of lead was mined at the same time as the gold and at this one,” she pointed at a point on the map, “over 30 miners died of the Spanish flu and are buried in the mine.”

Neither Simon nor Patton had missed how Jim had stiffened at the mention of lead.

“What about plants?” Patton continued.

Ranger Pascal looked up at the map. “That’s harder as the plant life is pretty uniform over the whole area. It’s true that different plants grow at different altitudes. Cockscomb pine grows no lower than this line here, for example.”

“I was thinking more of a flower.”

“Flower? Bristows questioned. “What sort of flower?” She turned to look at Jim when he replied.

“Um, something oily, quite strong smelling. Sweet.”

Thankfully, neither of the Rangers seemed ready to question him on where he was getting his information, but he noticed some of the agents and cops looking at him curiously.

“What do you think?” Pascal looked at his boss. “Spruce Bloom?”

“Possibly. What colour is it?”

“Sorry. Couldn’t tell you.”

“Well, Spruce Bloom does flower this time of year and is found mainly under spruces; hence the name. It’s quite rare and does have a strong smell.”

“Excuse me,” Sheriff Black called from the back of the room. Everyone turned to look at him. “Sorry to interrupt, but I just got an urgent message from one of my men out at the airport. Seems that two men loosely answering to the descriptions of Escobar’s men flew out on a flight to Oklahoma this morning.”

“And we’re only hearing about this now, because… ?” Patton barked.

“An elderly gentleman in the airport had a heart attack and in the kafuffle no-one paid too much attention to people boarding the plane. It was only as the gate person came back on duty this afternoon that they put two and two together.”

“Damn,” said H.

“Perfect,” Banks looked at Patton. “We need to…”

“On it.” The other man was already on his phone asking to be put through to the Oklahoma FBI office.

“Sheriff, do we know what time the plane landed?” Simon called out.

“Couple of hours ago.”

“So they’ll be long gone.”

“I guess. I asked the airport to send us their surveillance films.”

“Two field agents out of Oklahoma City are going to question staff there,” Patton interjected.

They all avoided looking at Ellison who was sitting at the table with his head in his hands. Feeling his eyes on them he looked up. They were surprised to see steely determination in his eyes instead of the despair they expected.

“We’ll find him,” he stated firmly. “If we can’t find Escobar’s men, we’ll do it the hard way, but believe me, failure’s not an option.” He stood up and went to join the two Rangers at the map.

“Close are they,” Asked Black, ‘him and his partner?”

Simon looked at him sharply to see if there was any innuendo hidden in his bland question. The Sheriff looked back at him neutrally.

“You don’t know the half of it.”

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“Why don’t you go and get Jim?” Blair stared at the black panther sitting in the corner of the cave to his right. “What’s the point *cough, cough* of being a spirit guide if you’re not going to do anything to help?” He was so hot, but he wasn’t sweating due to his increasing dehydration. He gulped down another mouthful of water. He had to force himself to stop drinking and placed the bottle carefully on the floor. “What, cat got your tongue?” He chuckled at his lame humour and coughed again. “You know, I must be dying. Why else are you here? Seems I only see you when I’m dying. Or dead.” He looked at the cat. “Am I dead?” The cat lay down and started cleaning its paws totally ignoring him.

The light was fading and Blair was becoming weaker as his illness progressed. He was half propped up against the metal door and hadn’t moved all day. His head fell on his chest and then jerked up again when he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye. “Whoa, Incacha. Hey, man.”

The Chopec shaman that had helped Jim when he’d been stranded in Peru and who had later died in the loft while trying to protect his tribe sat cross-legged next to the panther. He eyed the sick man, but said nothing.

“Incacha, am I dead?”

“You have met and conquered death once before.”

“Huh?” Blair’s brow furrowed. “Does that man I’m going to conquer death again?” He grinned. “Cool!”

“A true shaman seeks enlightenment and follows the right path.”

“Umm, I don’t quite get you *cough, cough*. Sorry, I’m not really up to philosophy at the moment. Couldn’t YOU go and get Jim for me? You know, contact him like at the fountain?”

“Use the power of your spirit guides and all shall be revealed.”

“Incacha, I don’t know how to use their power. Jim’s the one with all the powers. If you *cough, cough* can’t get Jim, help me reach him somehow on the spirit plane.” He looked hopefully at the ghost, spirit or whatever, but the man merely looked back at him.

“The power of the spirits is strong.”

“I hear you, man. Really, I hear you. Though I’d rather have *cough, cough* Jim or even a key for this door. Or how about a phone?”

“What’s up, Chief?”

Blair almost hit his head on the door jerking it round at the voice. He saw the Sentinel sitting in the corner he’d designated as his toilet. The smell didn’t seem to be bothering either the man or the grey wolf that lay beside him. Probably had his senses turned right down.

“Hey, Jim. Great to see you, man. Glad you found me.”

“You know, you were a really good friend and a great cop.”

“Uh, thanks, I think. Don’t you think we should be getting out of here? Wait a minute, ‘were’? You trying to tell me something?”

“I’m sorry I didn’t treat you right, but you know I can’t trust you.”

“What?“ *cough, cough*

“I need someone I can trust. You really should try to drink more.”

“I don’t understand. You said… you apologised… huh?” He was finding it difficult to follow the conversation.

“It’s over.”

Blair stared at the man who was caressing the wolf in slow, light strokes still seeming oblivious of where he was sitting. “What’s over? What’s going on? *cough, cough* Jim, come on, let’s get out of here.”

“You sure he can really help you?”

“What the fu- *cough, cough*.” Blair gripped his hair with both hands and shook his head. “Oh man, oh man,” he groaned.

Jim turned and looked at Simon who was puffing on a cigar squatting in front of Blair and looking at him appraisingly. “Don’t worry, Simon. Once I’ve got control of my senses I’ll cut him loose.”

“You know he’s not a cop, just an observer?”

“The way of the shaman leads to greatness.”

Both Jim and Simon ignored Incacha though the panther yawned exposing its ferocious teeth.

“You’re not really here, are you?” Blair whispered the words holding a shaking hand over his mouth.

“I’m sorry, Chief, but I think you should find someone else to help you. Come on Simon, Incacha, let’s go.”

Incacha stood in one fluid moment and brushed a tender hand over Blair’s curls. His eyes were full of regret, but just before turning away, he winked at the perplexed man. Blair gaped at him with his breath wheezing in and out of his open mouth.

“Incacha, do you like fishing? I heard there’s a really good river not far from here where the fish are this big.” Banks stood up next to the native man and before Blair’s eyes the three men faded out leaving him alone with the two spirit animals.

“Oh, God, oh… oh *cough, cough*. Someone help me, please.” The distraught man slid down the door until he was lying uncomfortably on his side. The panther padded over to where the wolf was stretched out on the floor. It was then that Blair noticed that his spirit animal was thin and ragged looking. Its fur was patchy and dirty and its breath came out in short pants, but it thumped its tail tiredly on the floor when the panther started licking its ears. It looked over at Blair and he could see the pain in its eyes. The animals then began to fade as well until they’d disappeared entirely. He was once again, alone.

Blair began to shake as tears ran down his face. His shakes increased in intensity, but by then he’d lost consciousness and didn’t notice. He also didn’t notice when his jerking body up-ended the bottle of water that in his fevered state he’d forgotten to close. The water ran across the stone floor soaking into his hair and mingling with his tears.

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“I’m off to bed.” Megan yawned and pulled herself out of the armchair in Brown and Rafe’s bedroom. “It’s going to be a long day tomorrow and it’s been a long while since I’ve ridden a horse. I NEED to be rested.”

Taggart stood as well. “I’m not riding any horses, but you’re right, it’s going to be a long day.” They walked out of the room together.

Simon, Rafe and H looked over at the hunched figure sitting at the end of H’s bed elbows on knees. Jim looked out of it, but they could see the muscle jumping in his jaw as he ground his teeth.

“Come on, Jim, Connor’s right. Time for bed.” Simon stood and put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “You’ll want to be fresh for tomorrow.” He knew, and understood, that Ellison was chafing at the bit. He’d wanted to hare off to the park that evening, but although for him night was no obstacle to his vision, it would have been sheer madness to expect the others to follow him.

Jim looked up at Simon and opened his mouth to reply. Changing his mind he shook his head and heaved himself off the bed. He was tired and tomorrow looked as if it was going to be longer than today. He’d talked at length with the rangers and had narrowed the list of mines down to four possible sites where Blair could be. Unfortunately, two were far from the others and all four were in the park where no motorised vehicles were allowed. Sheridan PD had agreed to go with some of the Rangers and look at the two outlying sites while Bristows and Pascal were taking the Cascade group to see the two others. Jim had high hopes for one of the sites. Every time he thought about it the itch between his shoulder blades intensified.

Not everyone could ride horses though, so Taggart and Brown were staying at the hotel and would be helping the search for Escobar’s men. Connor had ridden many times in Australia and, surprisingly, Rafe was an accomplished rider if a bit rusty. Ellison had ridden as a youth. It was one of the accomplishments that his father thought that someone of his social standing should have. He’d also done some riding as an Army Ranger. Simon had ridden a few times when younger and had even been on a few riding holidays with his ex-wife. He knew though, that he was the person with the least experience and the most likely to hold them back. He was determined to not let that happen.

“Don’t forget, Rafe. 5am alarm. We don’t want to lose anymore light than necessary.”

The younger man groaned. “Thanks, Captain.” He looked at the pinched look on Jim’s face. “Don’t worry. I’ll be up and raring to go. Just don’t forget the thermos of very strong coffee. I think I’m going to need it.”

Twenty minutes later silence reigned in their bedrooms. Jim lay on his back with his hands under his head as sleep pulled him under. His last thoughts were of his former partner, ‘Hold on, Chief, I’m coming. Just hold on.’


Chapter eleven

“Damn it!” Simon cursed at his mobile phone as its strident ring woke him up. He turned on his bedside lamp and felt around for his glasses. Blearily he looked at the time on the phone and cursed again: 4:38. Flipping it open, he barked into the offending machine, “Yes, what is it?” The tinny voice at the other end blew the last cobwebs from his tired brain as what was being said sunk in. “Yeah, okay. Thanks for that. Keep me informed.” He closed the phone and for a few seconds leant his head back against the wall. Maybe he was getting too old for this.

Five minutes later he was out in the corridor hastily dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. Standing up from tying his trainers he saw a door further down the corridor open and a dishevelled Patton step out. They walked towards each other similar expressions on their faces.

“Smith called you, too?” Simon didn’t bother keeping his voice down; everyone needed to get up now anyway.

“Patel actually, but yeah, I got the news. Explains a few things doesn’t it?”

Simon didn’t bother answering taking it for the rhetorical question it was. Patton started banging on doors. “Okay, everyone. Wakey, wakey! Time to get up. I want you down in the conference room in five minutes.”

Simon turned to the rooms containing his colleagues. It was going to be a very looooong day. He needed coffee, and fast.

Taggart closed the door behind him and sat in the chair next to the dresser. A rumpled looking Megan handed him a mug and he sipped the hot liquid gratefully. It wasn’t brilliant as coffees went, but it was full of caffeine. He looked at his watch. Had it only been five hours since they’d left this same room to get some much-needed sleep? Mentally shaking himself he concentrated on what Simon was saying.

“… called Patton and I with some disturbing news. Apparently, Berger’s started an all out turf war back in Cascade. Funnily enough, his first target was Escobar’s headquarters.”

“But, I thought they were allies?” Rafe sounded perplexed.

“All a ruse. As were the threats against us.”

“He wanted us out the way,” said Megan with growing comprehension. “We’re the ones who know his organisation the best, so with us gone he had a better chance of implementing his plan undetected and unopposed.”

“What about casualties?” asked H who was making himself another cup of coffee from the supplies placed in each room.

“Information’s still a bit sketchy, but there are reports of dozens of dead all over the city. This is going to have major repercussions in the crime world.” Simon was satisfied that so many criminals were now out of the picture especially as they’d done it to themselves. However, he also knew that probably amongst them were innocents who’d been caught up in the crossfire. “Okay, Patton’s called a meeting. We should go join him.”

“What about Blair?” The voice was quiet, but nevertheless, everyone in the room heard it.

“Nothing changes, Jim,” answered Banks. “We’re still going to find him.”

“Don’t worry. Sandy’ll be back with us by this evening.”

The others murmured their agreement with this statement.

“Okay,” Ellison nodded. He doubted that it was going to be easy, but he appreciated the sentiment. He followed the captain out the door.

The conference room was a shadow of how it had been the night before after the kidnappers had phoned Jim. Sleepy agents were nursing cups of coffee sitting round the large table, but instead of the lively discussions that they’d engaged in then, there seemed now, to be an expectant hush. Patton was on the telephone talking, or rather arguing, with someone on the other end. Jim listened in for a moment to both sides of the conversation, but dismissed it as nothing to do with the case. Heading straight for the coffee the Cascade detectives served themselves and then joined the FBI agents at the table.

Just at that moment Park Rangers Bristows and Pascal followed by another two Rangers entered. Seeing Patton somewhat occupied Bristows spotted Banks and made a beeline for him. “Captain Banks, morning. Is everyone ready?”

Simon stood. “Rangers Bristows, Pascal. Good morning. There’s been a bit of delay as we’ve had some important news from Cascade.”

“Oh. Good or bad?”

“A bit of both really. Why don’t you all get some coffee? I don’t know how long we’ll be.”

“Not to worry.” She beckoned the Rangers to follow her and they went off to raid the coffee machine and the boxes of plastic-wrapped pastries that someone had rustled up from somewhere.

“Sir,” Megan watched the Rangers for a moment and then turned towards the captain, “we don’t all need to be here do we? As we’re up anyway we could head off.”

Simon was about to reply when he noticed that Patton had finished. “Hold that thought.”

“Sir, sir,” Agent Goodson hung up the phone he’d been quietly speaking into and jumped up from the table unknowingly cutting Banks off just as he was about to speak to the SAC.

Patton glanced up from where he was looking at some papers and raised an eyebrow at the man.

“That was Sheridan General Hopsital. Blood tests on the man who had the heart attack have come back positive for Dofetilide. It’s a heart medicine that can cause shortness of breath, a pounding heart and chest pain.”

“Just like the symptoms of a heart attack,” he mused. “And I take it that the gentleman in question hadn’t been prescribed it for any reason?”

“Got it in one, boss.”

“So how did he manage to get it in his system?” Someone in the group asked.

“Well,” Goodson looked down at his notes, “it can come in powder form that dissolves really quickly in water. Apparently, the victim, a Mr. Hilton, had a sandwich and a coffee at the bar. His wife says that the place was crowded and people were brushing past them all the time.”

“Interesting,” Taggart murmured.

“Good,” continued the SAC, “get down to the airport and see if you can find anyone who saw anything.” Goodson nodded and headed for the door. “Garcia, go with him.”

Banks looked over at Jim and noticed the clenched jaw and the stiff hands lying on the table. He could understand; all this was interesting, but it wasn’t getting them any closer to finding Sandburg. Just at that moment his phone rang. “Banks,” he barked. “Chief Parks, good morning. What can I do for you?” He winced as the strident voice of Cascade’s Chief of Police blasted into his ear. “Um, yeah. No, it’s not…” he looked over at the others who were showing an obvious interest in the conversation. Nodding at his officers he beat a hasty retreat out of the conference room. They all followed him.

“I beg to differ, sir,” he continued. “Blair Sandburg was a detective with us and also a personal friend…” He sighed as he listened further. “May I make a suggestion, sir? No, I realise that the situation in Cascade is critical, but… Yes, sir. No, sir. My suggestion, sir?” He rolled his eyes and took a large gulp from his coffee. He had the sinking feeling that he was going to need all the fortification he could get. “I’ll send Taggart and Brown back on the next flight. No, I don’t think Ellison would be willing to come back with them.”

He looked at Jim who was emphatically shaking his head.

“With all due respect, sir… Okay, I’ll send Rafe as well, but I don’t think forcing Ellison to come back is the right way to go…. Yes, sir. Um, Connor’s taking a week of leave and I’m requesting a week as well…. I know she’s a cop as well, but ultimately she’s not under our authority.” Everyone could hear the shouting and Banks held the phone away from his ear.

Jim grabbed it from Simon and started talking over the Chief, “Sorry for interrupting, sir, but if I don’t get my week’s leave my resignation will be on your desk tomorrow.”

“And mine.”

“Mine, too.”

He looked around in surprise as the others spoke loudly enough to be heard by the irate man on the other end. He smiled at them gratefully. “Yes, sir. Thank you. I’ll, um, hand you back to the Captain.”

Simon listened for a moment. “Thank you, sir. I’ll keep you informed of our progress and I assure you we’ll be back in Cascade as soon as we’ve found him.” He let out a long breath as he hung up. “That is one pissed off Chief of Police.” Pointing his telephone at Jim he glared at him. “You’re lucky you’ve been Cop of the Year so many times that he thinks the sun shines out of every orifice. When we get back you’d better keep out of his way for a while.”

Jim shrugged. Whatever.

“Okay. You all heard what’s going on. Sorry, Joel, Brown, Rafe. I couldn’t persuade him to let you stay. Also, it seems that the situation back in Cascade’s a bit volatile.”

“Not to worry, Simon,” Taggart put his hand on his shoulder. “I have every confidence that you’ll find Blair. And then you’ll bring him home, won’t you, Jim?”

“I’ll do my damned best.”

“Shove him in your suitcase if necessary. Come on you two, let’s get packed and on our way.”

H and Rafe both slapped Jim on the back and laid a hand on Megan’s arm.

“Good luck.”

“Tell Hairboy to get his skinny butt back to Cascade. The PD ain’t the same without him.”

They disappeared into the lifts.

“Right.” Simon rubbed a hand over his head. “I’ll let Patton know we’re leaving and give the Rangers a head’s up. You two go and get ready. Meet back down here in fifteen minutes.”

The sun was beating down as they climbed into the two off-road vehicles parked in front of the hotel. Simon sat in the passenger seat of Bristows’ car clutching a backpack holding water, cereal bars and a waterproof jacket. Megan allowed Jim and his longer legs the front seat of the vehicle where Pascal was waiting for them and climbed into the back. Without further ado they set off to the ranch where the Rangers kept their horses.

It took a while to get everyone fixed up with the right horse and Jim found himself getting irritable with the delay. He knew it was necessary, but the itch between his shoulder blades was getting stronger. What’s more, he was getting glimpses of something black out of the corner of his eye. No matter how quickly he turned to look he could never get more than a fleeting glimpse. The others, sensing his increasing frustration, gave him a wide berth. Simon seemed to be the only one brave enough to try and get more than monosyllabic replies to his comments.

Eventually, the horses were ready and the horse trailers were hitched to the vehicles. The small convoy set off for the Tongue River Ranger Station high up in the hills. They slowly climbed up into the park through meadows full of flowers, rocky escarpments and dramatic scenery. The river itself tumbled down through gorges and forested plateaus and seemed perfect for fishing. Simon idly wondered whether, once they’d found Blair, they’d have the opportunity to try out its fish. Jim gave it a cursory glance his mind obviously elsewhere.

They arrived at the Ranger Station mid-morning. It was small, but had impressive views overlooking the Tongue River Gorge. The two rangers carefully parked the cars and trailers and led the horses out and tied them to the hitching posts in front. They loaded them with saddlebags of food and water, a first aid kit and emergency equipment

“Gather round everyone, please,“ Bristows called out. Once they were standing before her she held up three radios. “Presumably you know how to use these. They’re on the right frequency, so you won’t need to fiddle with them. We’re sticking together so you shouldn’t need to use them either, but in case of emergencies they’ll work where phones won’t.” She looked at them sternly. “And we ARE sticking together. We’ll be going into some quite wild country where really only very experienced hikers or riders go. Apart from the obvious problems of snakes, bears and wolves there are hidden cliffs and mine shafts. If you don’t know where you’re going you could find them in the worst possible way. Okay?”

Simon, Jim and Megan nodded. Simon was beginning to doubt the wisdom of him being part of this expedition. His lack of riding experience could be a severe disadvantage. No, he owed it to Sandburg and Ellison was a good friend. Looking at the man’s face he vowed to not be the one that held them back.

“Right. One last saddle and equipment check and then we’re out of here. We’ll ride in the following order: I’ll lead followed by Ellison, Connor and Banks. Bob will be bringing up the rear. Let’s get to it.”

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The mouse crept out of the tiny hole and sniffed the air its snout twitching. The large beast that had been making strange noises had finally quieted and stopped moving. Cautiously, the little animal scuttled closer and inspected the slumbering behemoth. It reeked; an acrid odour of sickness, blood and urine that made the mouse wrinkle its nose. A susurration of air from the beast’s snout caused it to freeze and it waited until its heart had stopped racing. Edging forward again it sniffed at an outlying paw; salt! Eagerly it licked at the little grains and snuffled round looking for more.

A small puddle lying in an indentation in the rocky floor gave it some welcome water and after drinking it spent a moment washing its whiskers. Suddenly, it spotted the beast’s pelt. Edging closer to the head it buried its nose into the matted mass. The brown strands smelt of sweat and dirt, which didn’t worry the little animal, as it was also soft and warm. It was perfect for lining its nest. Carefully, with its sharp little teeth it grabbed and pulled - nothing. No reaction from the beast. Encouraged, it pulled again and with a mouthful of soft fur it ran back to its nest.

On its third run, just as it was approaching the beast’s head again, the behemoth moved. The mouse froze. Was it waking up? Fearfully, the tiny animal ran back to its hole and observed what was going on. Strangely, the beast didn’t rise, but lay on the ground making strange, jerking movements and little grunts. The movements got faster and more violent until the beast’s back was arching off the floor and its paws were beating out a tattoo on the rock. After several minutes the convulsions lessened and then stopped. All that could be heard was the beast’s harsh breathing.

The mouse decided that it was too dangerous to risk taking any more of the fur. Turning, it scurried back into the hole leaving the beast alone in its lair.

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Simon wriggled around in the saddle again. He was pretty certain that he was going to be suffering for days and that soft cushions were going to be playing a very important part in his immediate future. Fortunately, the riding hadn’t been too difficult up ‘til now and if he’d not been worried about Sandburg he could almost imagine he was on holiday. Jim’s silence also contributed to his concerns. Generally, he wasn’t a talkative person, but even so he wasn’t initiating any conversation and was responding to questions with only one-word answers or grunts.

They’d reached the first mine after riding for about two hours. Jim hadn’t even wanted to get off his horse saying that Blair wasn’t there. Bristows and Pascal had looked at him strangely and Bristows had started to argue. Simon had shaken his head at her and then suggested that they stop for some lunch. Bristows had shrugged and had pulled off one of the packs from her horse. Jim had tried to protest saying that they didn’t have the time to waste. That Blair didn’t have the time. They’d all pointed out to him that becoming exhausted and pushing themselves beyond their limits was risking the search more. He’d begrudgingly eaten a few sandwiches and drunk some water before urging them back on their horses.

They were now on their way to the second mine and they were all watching Jim with growing worry. The two Rangers were beginning to think that the Cascade detective had something seriously wrong with him and couldn’t understand why everyone and especially the captain, was taking heed of what he said. Simon and Megan could only assume that Jim was using his senses. However, the way he kept looking around them and then whip his head round with a calculating glance wasn’t how he usually acted.

Connor turned in her saddle once more and raised an eyebrow at Simon after Jim had almost fallen off his horse staring at a point amongst the trees lining the trail.

Simon nodded in reply and spoke up, “Uh, could we take a short breather? I need a bathroom break. Drank a bit too much at lunch. Sorry.”

Bristows twisted round and after a searching look at Ellison held up her hand to stop the convoy. The two Rangers swung off their horses as limber as when they’d started out that morning. Megan got off and thrust her arms above her head with a groan and stretched out her back. Simon gratefully put feet to ground and mostly managed to stifle the moan that escaped his lips. ‘I really am getting too old for this shit,’ he thought to himself.

“Come on, Jim. Let’s find a nice bush to piss against.”

“I don’t need to…”

“Have someone hold your hand. I know. But we can keep an eye out for snakes together.”

“But…”

“Humour me,” Banks whispered.

Jim sighed and tying his horse to a tree on the side of the trail followed his boss into the brush. When they were far enough away from the group Simon stopped and put a hand on his arm. “Jim, what’s up? Apart from worrying about Sandburg, of course.”

“What d’you mean?” His face was turned away, his look distant.

“Don’t give me that. You’ve been distracted and jumpy as hell since we started out. Even before. Tell me.”

“Simon,” Jim blew out a frustrated breath and then looked straight into Simon’s eyes, “I keep seeing… something.” He stopped.

“What?” What are you seeing?”

“Nothing.”

“Ellison!”

“A panther! A black panther.”

“Black panther. But there aren’t any…”

“Of course not! It’s my… my spirit animal.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah,” Jim replied bitterly, “remember all that?”

“I’ve never understood ‘all that’. What does it mean?”

“I think it’s leading me to Sandburg.”

“How?”

“At that mine. I kept seeing it walking away from there. And now it seems to be urging me to go faster. Simon… I think we’re running out of time.”

“Sandburg?”

“Yeah. I don’t know what to tell you. I can… just… feel it.”

Silence reigned for a few seconds.

“Okay. Then let’s hurry.”

Chapter twelve

The sun was beginning to set when the horse convoy finally approached the second mine. Bristows was riding with stiff shoulders showing her displeasure at the situation. Ellison had been constantly urging her to ride faster and she’d had to pull out the big guns and threaten to call the whole search off if he didn’t calm down. Banks had played peacemaker and had managed to soothe rustled feathers and keep Ellison from going off the deep end – and the path. So, it was with enormous relief when her horse rounded a large rock and the gaping entrance of the mine came into view.

The path had wound round the side of the mountain and had sometimes narrowed to a heart-stopping width. The view of the valley with its rocky escarpments and pine forests was magnificent, but no one paid it any attention. Tired and anxious their thoughts were on what they were going to find inside. Jim sent out his senses, but could neither hear nor see anything or anyone in the immediate area. The panther appeared in front of the entrance, roared massively and then bounded into the dark.

The path widened out onto a plateau enclosed by rocks and stubby trees. They could go no further. Suddenly, Bristows was overtaken as Ellison urged his horse forward at a canter. He was out of the saddle and running for the entrance even before the horse had come to a stop.

“Ellison!” Simon bellowed. “Wait! There could be…”

“I can only hear one person,” Jim shouted back before disappearing into the mine his voice echoing across the valley.

‘Hear only one person?’ Bristows tried to make sense of Ellison’s answer. ‘What the hell does that mean?’ She turned round in her saddle. “Banks…?”

“Later. I’ll explain later. Connor, grab the first aid kit and follow him. And be careful!” Simon knew that the long hours in the saddle had played havoc with his muscles. Getting down would be a study in pain and the younger woman would be much quicker than he. Carefully, he eased himself out off the horse and gratefully felt solid ground under his feet. He looked up when someone grabbed the reins and he gazed directly into Pascal’s sympathetic eyes.

“It’s okay, Captain. We’ll look after the horses.”

“Thanks. Stay here until we say otherwise.” Hitching a saddlebag holding water and food over one shoulder he switched on a torch and hobbled into the mine. Although he was in pain he wouldn’t allow it to slow him down. Stopping a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dark he shone his torch over the rocky walls. The entrance narrowed almost immediately into a tunnel that led away in front of him. He was just about to call out to Jim and Megan when he heard a gun shot. He let the bag slide to the floor and pulled out his gun. Listening carefully he could faintly hear two voices. Following the tunnel to the left he drew his gun up as the torch caught a figure running towards him.

“Halt! Police!”

“Don’t shoot, Captain!” The person skidded to a stop. “It’s me, Megan!”

“Connor, I heard a gun shot.”

“Quick, we need water.” She tried to dodge past the tall man but he clutched her arm.

“In the bag. I’ll get it. Who shot at whom?”

“We found Sandy. Well, Jimbo did. In a locked room. We had to shoot the padlock off.” She looked up at him, suddenly still. “He’s bad. I’m going to get Bristows to call for a medevac.”

“Okay, go. Wait!”

Connor turned as she darted past. “What?” Impatience was written on her face.

“Where are they?”

“Not far.” Her words echoed as she disappeared round the corner. “Just keep going. You’ll find them easily enough.”

Going back and picking up the bag he continued down the corridor as fast as he could and eventually came to an opening flanked by a large, rusty metal door leading to a small room lit by torchlight. Jim was leaning over a figure sprawled on the floor. He suddenly wished he could dial down his smell like the Sentinel as the rank odour of sweat, urine, blood and sickness reached his nose. Joining him on the floor he propped up his torch against the wall so that it gave a bit more illumination.

He looked more closely at Blair and winced. The man looked dead and it was only the slow, hitching breaths that indicated he was still alive. Under the blood from a nasty cut over his left eyebrow, the dirt and the dark bruises that peppered his face, the skin was starkly white except for two patches of red on his cheeks. Even from a metre away he could feel the heat pouring off the body. The man looked gaunt and somehow diminished and obviously completely unconscious. But what made his heart ache was the evidence of tear tracks that had left clean trails through the dirt and grime. Jim was gently easing off Blair’s shirt, handling him as if he was made of fragile porcelain all the while whispering a litany of comforting words and sounds.

“What do you want me to do?”

The Sentinel didn’t stop what he was doing, but brushed an unruly curl off a bloody forehead. “We need to cool him down. His temp’s over 104°. Get his shoes and pants off. We also need to get him out of this place. Away from this stink.”

“Okay. How bad is he?” Simon didn’t take umbrage at how Jim was giving him, the Captain, orders. It was obvious the man was holding onto his calm through sheer determination. At first he thought he wasn’t going to get an answer and was about to repeat his question when Jim spoke again.

“No broken bones as far as I can tell. He’s got that nasty cut and a few bruises here and there. It’s his lungs. They’re heavily congested and his breathing’s compromised. His fever’s too high. I… I could hear him convulsing through the door.” He’d finally managed to get the damp t-shirt off and he threw it into a corner. Tearing a sleeve off Blair’s shirt he poured water from his canteen over it. Gently he started wiping the dirt off his battered face murmuring soft encouragements. The sick man didn’t move or react at all to his ministrations.

Simon was having a rough time trying to undo the tangled laces on Blair’s dirty boots. In frustration he pulled out a penknife from his jeans pocket and slashed them. He mumbled an apology as he undid the button and zip on the filthy jeans and started easing them off the slim hips. His breath caught as he pulled the jeans down Blair’s thighs.

“Oh, god,” his voice broke through Jim’s concentration.

Jim froze as he saw what had upset the other man. Blair’s left thigh was marred by a mess of raised, angry looking scars loosely spelling out the word ‘liar’. He said nothing, but Simon read the smouldering anger and the promise that he’d get those responsible written clearly on his face. Just then Megan burst back into the room closely followed by Bristows. The Ranger wrinkled her nose at the smell and stayed by the door. The room was small and with four people in it already she would only be in the way.

“Jim,” Megan sounded harried, “the helicopter can’t make it now.” She dropped to her knees next to him and blanched when she saw what they were looking at. “Oh, Sandy.” Her fingers hovered over the scars as if she could brush them away.

“What d’you mean?” Jim glared at her.

“It’ll be too dark.” Bristows voice came from behind and Jim swung round to face her.

“What?”

“By the time they get here it’ll be after sunset. They won’t be able to land.”

“They don’t have to. They can send down a basket.” Both his and Simon thoughts flashed back to the mess with Quinn and Sandburg’s reaction to being airlifted out. Somehow, Simon thought, they wouldn’t get the same reaction this time.

“They can’t fly here after dark. There are too many peaks and the air currents in the gorges make it too dangerous.”

Simon grabbed his arm as Jim started to surge up in anger. “Stop it. Just calm down a moment.” The man subsided. “What do you suggest?” he asked the woman.

“We keep him alive until they can get here.”

“You…”

“Jim, she’s right. A little brusque perhaps, but right.” He relaxed a bit when Ellison subsided and turned back to Blair.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound unfeeling. I was just… anyway... I’ve brought more medical stuff, antibiotics and intravenous saline… And I’ve found the place where the kidnappers obviously were living. They’re cots, a camping stove, sleeping bags…”

“Show me.” Simon jumped up and almost bundled the woman out the door.

Megan put her hand on Jim’s arm. She waited until he’d turned and looked at her. She bit her lips as she saw the pain in his eyes. “We’ll do whatever’s necessary. He’s strong…”

“Strong? Just look at him. He’s barely hanging on.”

“He’s got something to live for again. He’s got you back and us and if my womanly intuition hasn’t failed me, I’m pretty certain he and that Felicia are more than ‘good friends’.” She raised her hands to make quote marks when she said the last two words.

Jim’s lips twitched as he looked fondly back at the man who he’d considered, and still considered, his best friend. “Ah Chief, trust you. What is it with you and women? How many does that make now?”

“What’s wrong with that?” Megan snapped, eyes flashing. “He’s a good looking, red-blooded, single male. As long as he doesn’t hurt them, why can’t he have a string of girlfriends?”

“Wha.. whe…” Jim raised his hands. “Where the hell did that come from?”

“Why do you always have to put him down?”

“I wasn’t. I was just… Look. I wasn’t criticising him. It’s a joke between us.”

“Well, it didn’t sound like one.”

“I don’t think it’s your place to decide what we joke about,” he snapped back.

Megan was about to reply when Simon came back into the room. “It’s good…” he stopped as he noticed the angry looks on Megan and Jim’s faces. “What’s going on here?”

“Nothing.”

“Just a misunderstanding. Right, Connor?”

Megan didn’t say anything and then letting out a sigh, nodded.

“Okay. So, we can use the place Bristows found?” Jim’s voice held none of the anger that had filled it only seconds before.

Banks glared at them both and wished he had a cigar to chomp on, but unfortunately he’d left them in the other saddlebag that as far as he knew was still on his horse. His gaze then fell to the suffering man on the floor and his face softened. “It’s much better than here and there’s a bit of equipment we can use. Can we move him?”

“Nothing’s broken, so I think he’ll be okay. Let’s do it now so we can get him settled and treated as soon as possible.” He shifted so that he was crouching above Blair’s head. “You take his legs.”

Together, and with infinite care they lifted the younger man up. Jim could feel the fever burning into his hands and the sweat was making his grip slip. Fortunately, the other room wasn’t far and they made it without dropping their precious cargo. Bristows had been joined by Pascal and the two of them had been busy. They’d turned on a large battery run lamp and had prepared a cot with a sleeping bag while using another rolled up as a pillow. Antiseptic wipes, gauze, IVs and other medical supplies were placed on opened saddlebags that had been laid on the floor. Gently placing Blair on the cot, Jim adjusted the folded sleeping bag so that his upper body was slightly raised in an effort to ease his breathing.

Standing up he looked over at the two Rangers. “Thank you. You’ve done great.”

“About earlier…” Bristows started.

“It’s nothing.”

“No, listen. What I wanted to say is that before coming a Ranger I was an EMT. I can help.”

“Thank you. Thank you, very much.” He turned back to Blair. “As far as I can tell he has no broken bones. However, I’m very concerned about his lungs and fever. Last year he drowned and since then he’s been prone to infections. We need to get fluids and antibiotics into him.”

“And get his temperature down, I imagine. I’ve got saline and intravenous antibiotics here. Rob,” she turned to her colleague, “go and cut a straight branch about a metre and a half long. Make sure it finishes in a vee.”

“Clever.” Ellison looked up from where he was examining the medical supplies with an appreciative grin.

“What’s that for?” questioned Megan.

“We’re going to tie it to the cot so we can hang the drips from it,” Bristows replied.

“Oh.” She turned to the male Ranger. “Would you like me to help? I can hold the torch or something.”

Pascal smiled at the pretty Australian. “That’d be great.”

“Okay, what do you want me to do?” Banks asked as they walked out.

For the next hour the five people worked calmly to try and reduce Sandburg’s raging fever. Jim and Bristows had fixed Blair up with saline and antibiotic drips. They’d disinfected and taped up the cut on his forehead and with Megan they were now wiping his body with water-soaked cloths. They’d dressed him in clean boxers and had cleaned him up as best they could. Their attempts at getting him to ingest some water had failed, so were relying totally on the drip to rehydrate him. They took heart that at least he’d not convulsed again, but unfortunately, he still remained unresponsive. As far as Jim could tell his temperature hadn’t increased, but it wasn’t falling either.

Banks and Pascal were boiling water for coffee and arranging trail mix and power bars out as an evening meal. Apart from softly spoken words here and there, no one spoke and Blair’s raspy breathing filled the space. So, when Bristows’ radio squawked everyone jumped.

*…istows… come in… tton, here…*

“Bristows. Say again.”

*Age… tton. …oo hear..*

“Hold on a moment. I’m moving to get a better signal.”

*…don?”*

“Hold on.” Her voice faded as she walked towards the entrance of the mine.

“Jim.”

Ellison looked up as a tin mug appeared in front of his face held in a brown hand. He grasped it in two hands as he sniffed the coffee fumes with a look of bliss on his face. “Simon, you’ve just saved my life.”

“How is he?”

“No better. No worse.”

“Connor, go and get something to eat. I’ll take over.”

Megan stood up and stretched her back listening to the vertebra crack. She trailed the back of her hand across Blair’s bruised cheek. “I’m just going to get something to eat,” she whispered. “I’ll be back soon. Don’t go away.”

Jim stood up from where he’d been sitting on the cold floor taking his coffee with him. He wandered over to where the food had been laid out and then wandered away again. Although he was hungry he knew he couldn’t eat. There was a cold ball of ice sitting in his stomach that the coffee was doing nothing to melt. His eyes were drawn again and again to the man on the cot fighting for his life. He gripped his coffee mug tightly. He wanted to rail against the injustice of it all; wanted to throw his mug against the wall and get his hands on the bastards who had done this. Instead, he gritted his teeth and silently prayed.

Simon sat on the floor and picked up the cloth the Australian Inspector had been using and wetting it from a water bottle he wiped it over Blair’s chest and then down his arms. Even through the damp cloth he could feel the heat of his fever. He took the chance to really study the man and tried to reconcile the figure before him with the lively, noisy, kind-hearted grad student that had taken the PD by storm all those years ago. God, he’d seemed so young and innocent. Little by little though, the light had dimmed in his eyes as he’d endured psychos, being shot, poisoned, beaten up, been killed and then the ultimate insult, betrayed by his best friend and his boss. Because although he wanted to believe otherwise, he HAD betrayed the man.

His musings were interrupted as Bristows walked back into the room. “The helicopter will be here first thing in the morning. They’ll take off at dawn, so should be here around 6:30. Thank you.” She took the cup of coffee that Pascal handed her. “I also spoke to a doctor who said to carry on with what we’re doing, but he’ll be available all night if anything changes. And finally, Patton told me to tell you that, and I quote, ‘Berger’s dead and Escobar’s on the run.’ Hope that means something to you.”

Jim and Simon looked at each other satisfaction on their faces warring with anger.

“He can run, but he can’t hide,” growled Jim.

“You came back.”

Megan looked at the three men wondering who had spoken.

“Did you catch any fish?”

“Sandy!” Megan’s shout cut through the silence.

Jim jerked round dropping the tin cup with a clang. Within seconds he was kneeling next to his friend. “Hey, Chief,” he almost crooned, “how you doing?”

Blair turned his head and looked at Jim out of half-lidded eyes. The older man was concerned to see the usually brilliant blue faded and lacklustre. “Jim?” Suddenly, his breath caught and his body curled forward in a paroxysm of coughing. It was so violent he almost came off the cot and it was only Jim’s quick reflexes that caught him. Everyone could hear the man struggling for breath as he clutched at Jim’s shirt.


Chapter thirteen

“Shh, shh. I got you,” Jim whispered as he rubbed Sandburg’s back. After a few, excruciating minutes the coughing subsided and everyone could hear the whooping breaths as the sick man tried to get oxygen back into his lungs.

“Here.” Bristows squatted next to the cot and held out a water bottle. Jim shifted bringing Blair up so that he was leaning sideways against his chest. It was awkward as he was kneeling on the cold floor, but he wasn’t going to let go of him now. He continued rubbing the bony back feeling the heat from the fever burn into his body. With his other hand he tipped up Blair’s chin until his head was against his shoulder. Gently, almost tenderly, the woman brought the bottle up to the panting mouth. “Just a bit. It should ease your throat.”

Blair looked at the figure in front of him with watering eyes. His chest felt tight and his lungs laboured to bring him enough oxygen. He was burning up, his head was muggy and he felt somehow disconnected. He wasn’t sure whether what he was seeing and experiencing was real, but spotting the bottle he decided that if he could his slake his raging thirst he really didn’t care. He lifted a hand to take it and realised that he was shaking so much that he’d spill most of it before it got anywhere near his mouth. However, the woman on seeing his problem simply put the bottle to his mouth and let a few drops past his lips.

Paradise! The water was warm and tasted of plastic, but it was better than anything else he’d ever tasted in his life. His mouth eagerly sought out more and he tried to tip the bottle closer with his shaky hands. He felt a sharp tug in the back of one of them and blearily looked down at the plastic tubes attached to it.

“Slow down,” Jim’s voice rumbled in the ear that was pressed up against the detective’s jaw. He was comforted by the familiar sound that he could also feel vibrate through his body. “Take it easy or you’ll be sick.”

A few more sips later and the bottle was removed. Feeling a bit better, which wasn’t all that difficult considering just how shitty he’d felt a moment before, he took stock of where he was. He was obviously lying against Jim and he was surprised at how right that felt. For the moment all the pain and despair that he’d been feeling were pushed aside and he revelled in simply being cared for again. He’d deal with the rest later when he felt better. The unknown woman had stood up and was talking to an unknown man. The way they were dressed led him to believe that they were park rangers. ‘Way to go, Blair. Brilliant powers of deduction there!’

A face swam into view and he recognised Megan’s smile. “How you feeling?” She cupped his burning cheek with her hand and he leaned into its coolness.

“Megan,” he whispered, his voice nearly just a breath. “You here, too?”

“Yeah.” She moved her hand to lay it on his forehead. “I’m glad you’re back with us. You had us worried for a while.”

He tipped his head up as he heard the sound of a throat clearing above him. “Feeling better, Sandburg?”

In the gloom he recognised Simon looking down at him. He couldn’t be certain, but it almost seemed as if the captain was concerned. “D’you get any fish?”

“What?”

“Fish, S’mn. Catch any?” He could feel his eyes getting heavy again and his head felt as if it was stuffed with cotton wool. Suddenly, his body was moving as Jim lowered him back down to the cot.

“Okay, Chief, I think you need to sleep some more.”

“D’n’t go.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.” The others looked on as the big detective carefully arranged the sleeping bag so that Blair’s upper body was raised. He laid his hand on his forehead to gauge his temperature. Was it his imagination or had it finally fallen? If yes, it had reduced by only a few points. Nevertheless, this, coupled with Blair’s return to consciousness, confused though he was, could only be a step in the right direction. “Ranger Bristows,” he called out to the woman.

She walked over from where she’d been rummaging amongst the cereal bars looking for one that could tempt her to eat it. “Jane. Call me Jane.”

“Okay. And I’m Jim.” He ran a hand through his short hair. He gestured at the sick man. “His temp’s dropped a bit and it’s getting cooler in here. I don’t know whether to cover him. All we’ve got are the sleeping bags and I think they’re just too warm.”

The Ranger looked down at the sorry looking figure on the cot. Dressed in only a pair of too-big boxers, she could see evidence of the fever in the flushed skin and the sweat that plastered the curls to his head. “Maybe we can dress him in a t-shirt? I agree using a sleeping bag would only increase his temperature.”

“Does anyone have a spare t-shirt?” Jim raised his voice so the others could hear him.

“I’ve got one,” replied Megan, “but I don’t think it’s your colour.”

“It’s not for me, Connor. It’s for Blair.”

“Oh.” She walked over to the cot. “I don’t think it’ll be big enough even with all the weight he’s lost.”

“Um, I’ve got something,” Pascal spoke up. He opened his saddlebag and pulled out a dark green t-shirt. He shook it out and handed it to Jim. “It’s old, but clean.”

“Thanks.” Together with Megan he managed to get Blair into it without disturbing him too much although they’d had a fun time threading the drips through one of the sleeves. If the situation weren’t so serious Megan would have laughed at the contortions they’d put themselves through. With his short curls Blair looked like a boy wearing his big brother’s clothes. Pascal’s t-shirt came down to his knees and the shoulders almost reached his elbows. Damp spots were already showing on the dark cloth and Jim could see small tremors run through his body.

As Simon re-hooked the plastic bags back onto the branch he noticed that the antibiotics bag was almost empty. “Hey, Jim. Got another one of these?”

“Damn, no.”

“Tablets?”

“A few, but he needs to be awake to be able to take them.”

Simon looked at his watch. “It’s gone ten. Why don’t you get some sleep?” He held up his hand when it looked as if Jim was going to object. “I’ll sit with him. And I’ll call you if he wakes. Go on, just for a couple of hours. Okay?”

“Well…”

“Bristows will stay awake with me.”

Jim looked at his sleeping friend and let his senses roam over him. He could hear the congested lungs, the heart beating sluggishly, but strong and see the sweat beading on the flushed face.

“Jim. Jim!”

He jerked at the hand on his arm to find Simon staring at him worriedly. “What?”

“You were zoning.”

“I wasn’t. I was just examining him. Okay, I’ll rest for a while. Thanks.” He turned to find a place where he could sleep and noticed Megan settling herself in a corner her head propped up on a saddlebag. Bristows and Pascal were quietly talking while sipping coffee. And suddenly, he felt exhausted. Exhausted in body and soul. Almost stumbling he made his way to where a few cardboard boxes lay against a wall. Copying Megan, he laid his head on a saddlebag. As he relaxed tensed muscles he could hear Simon softly singing while he wiped Blair’s face and arms with a wet cloth. The song followed him down into his dreams.

“Mmmm, mmmmm, something, something
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?
You made your ultimatum too big to ignore
Didn't you, now? Didn't you?

Mmm, something your excuses, turned away and shut the door.
The world's mmmm, mmmm, and you wanted to explore.

It's a long, long, long road
And I don't know which way to go.
If you offered me your hand again I'd have to walk away…”

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Jim stretched his back and stood up. He brushed the leaves and moss that had stuck to his body and took in a deep breath. The smell of leaf mould, rain and sweet flowers filled his nose; he froze. What the…? He looked around at the blue-tinted jungle and then at himself. He was dressed exactly as he’d been during his stint with the Chopec even to the bow strapped to his back. Ahh, he was dreaming. But, God, everything felt so real. He put out a hand and fingered a large, white flower that hung from a tree. He could feel the tiny striations along the petals, smell the rich, cloying perfume, he brought his hand up to his mouth and tasted the bitter oil that coated his fingers. He’d never had a dream this vivid before.

A roar from a large cat sounded to his left. Turning, he caught sight of his spirit guide standing on a rocky outcrop visible through the trees. It roared again while staring directly into his eyes and then with a switch of its tail it jumped down from the rock. Staring again into the man’s eyes it loped off between the trees. Jim hesitated then ran after the animal. Dodging trees, bushes, hanging vines and jumping over odd stream they ran for at least ten minutes. The panther slowed and disappeared from view behind a particularly large and thick bush.

Following, Jim skidded to a halt at the image before him. A large grey wolf lay on its side panting with its eyes closed. The panther was leaning over it licking at its muzzle and whining deep in its throat. The big cat glanced up at his human counterpart and Jim could see the pleading in its eyes. The wolf wasn’t moving apart from the rapid rise and fall of its chest. Cautiously, Jim approached the two animals and knelt down next to the wolf. He put out a hand and softly stroked the top of its head. The panther stopped what it was doing, lay back on the ground and watched him without blinking.

“Hey, buddy,” he whispered, “how you doing? Whoa!” He jerked back when the fur under his hand turned into long, curly hair and he found himself stroking the head of a very naked Blair. Unfortunately, he seemed to be just as sick as the wolf and his breathing sounded rough. He carried out a quick survey with his senses and noticed that this Blair, although exhibiting the symptoms of a respiratory infection, carried no other wounds or scars. In fact he looked exactly as he had when Jim had first met him almost six years ago.

“Unnngh,” Blair moved under his hand and rolled onto his back. His eyes fluttered open and he stared up Jim. “Jim? Where…? What… ?” He curled over to his side as he erupted into a spate of violent coughing. He felt Jim rubbing his back and keeping his hair off his face. After a few painful minutes he stopped. “I don’t believe this. Even in an effing dream I’m sick!” He rasped out then looked down at himself. “And naked.” He took in a shaky breath. “How come you’re dressed and I’m naked? It’s my dream for Pete’s sake.”

Despite the seriousness of the situation waiting for him when he awoke Jim couldn’t stop his lips twitching in amusement. “Actually, it’s my dream, Darwin.”

“And you’re dreaming of me naked? Uh, should I be worried here? Ow!” he rubbed the back of his head where Jim had gently swiped him. “Okay. Why did it hurt? Probably because I expected this, so I created the pain.”

“Uh? Sorry, you’ve lost me there.”

“So, if I’m lucid dreaming I should be able to control this.” He looked down at his body, closed his eyes and stilled.

After a minute Jim spoke, “Chief, what you doing?”

“Shhh.” He watched as Blair, opened his eyes, squinted and frowned while making flowing movements over his body with his hands. “Well, that’s just put a spanner in the works.” He stared up at Jim who was still kneeling next to him and pointed a finger at him. “Naked, now.”

“Sandburg! I’m not undressing for you. I’ve never been naked in any of my dreams and I’m not starting now!”

The other man sat up, looked at him intently then his shoulders slumped and he crossed his arms across his chest. “Why isn’t he naked?” He mumbled. “He should be naked.”

Jim was beginning to get peeved. “Will you tell me why you’re so desperate to get my clothes off?” Then his eyes opened wide as he thought of something. “Oh God, if this is my dream why am I dreaming you asking me to get naked?” He jumped up and backed away from Blair. “Oh, I need to wake up now. Ow.” He’d pinched himself, but all that changed was he now had a red mark on his arm.

“No, no.” Blair scrambled up and then bent over as coughing again wracked his body. Jim darted forward and grabbed his arm when it looked as if he was going to fall.

“Slow down. Sit.”

“No, wait. Don’t you see? We’re not dreaming. This is a vision.” His face lit up in a face-splitting grin. “Oh man, I’m having a vision. *cough* I don’t believe it. At last.”

“Okay, okay. Calm down a minute. Sit, before you fall and we’ll talk about this.” He helped his excited friend back to the ground.

“A vision, yeah!”

“All right. You’re having a vision. Know why?”

“Hunh?”

“Any idea why we’re having this vision?”

“Ummm, no. Hey, you’re the expert.”

“A couple of visions do not an expert make. You’re the one who studied all of this.” He winced at his use of the past tense, but thankfully Blair hadn’t noticed.

“Right, right. I hear you.” Blair ran his hand through his hair and froze. “I’ve got long hair.” He felt his face. “And I’m not hurt.”

“And the scar on your thigh’s missing.” Jim gestured at the limb in question.

“But I’ve still got this cough.”

“So, what does it mean?”

“No idea.” He started muttering under his breath using his hands to punctuate certain thoughts.

Jim tried to listen, but after catching words such as ‘shamanistic practices’, ‘autohypnotic’ and ‘entheogens’ he stopped and was content to simply watch. He realised with a pang that this was a Blair he’d not seen for a long time and that he’d missed him. Missed that unbridled enthusiasm for knowledge and comprehension. When had that light been extinguished? He compared the Blair sitting next to him to the brittle and defensive Blair that he’d spoken to at the Sheridan hotel. He wasn’t naive enough to think that riding around with him hadn’t changed the anthropologist. He’d experienced a lot during those years and in some ways he’d grown up. But at what cost? Certainly, the business with Alex had had a large part to play in the transformation. But he had a feeling that it had been only one link in a long chain of disasters starting when he’d read the dissertation chapter and culminating in the situation that led to Blair becoming a cop. And he was uncomfortably aware that he’d been a principal contributor.

He shifted on the moss-covered ground. That wasn’t to say that Sandburg had been some paragon of virtue or innocent victim. Far from it! His lack of forethought, emotional insecurity and desire to be accepted had created circumstances that Jim had been ill equipped to handle and he’d resorted to pushing him and his needs away. Looking back on it now he understood that although they’d become friends, they’d become friends on his terms. And Blair had gone along with that. He’d turned down career-enhancing opportunities, given up any chance of ever becoming Dr Sandburg and had endured months of hell at the police academy to be his friend.

And what had he done as Blair’s friend? Rented out a small room under his stairs to him. Big deal. Blair had paid him every month for that, but he’d still thrown him out of that room with no warning. Saved his life several times. So what? Blair had done the same for him on numerous occasions. Got him a job as a cop. Look how that had turned out. And how had he thought that Blair could ever be a cop? Oh he was good at the detective work, brilliant even. But the sticking to rules and, more importantly, carrying and using a gun, just wasn’t who he was.

He’d been so happy when Sandburg had said yes after Simon had thrown his friend the detective shield. They’d be able to work together full time and he’d be able to use that vast intellect and innate understanding to help him police Cascade. So, he’d ignored the subtle and not so subtle nasty comments made to Blair by officers that had not been in the know. Had ignored the fact the DA had said that IA had to sign off on all ‘Detective Sandburg’s reports until further notice to make sure that no ‘irregularities’ occurred’. Had failed to see that his partner had been hurting, insecure and depressed and then compounded it all by going undercover and keeping him out of the loop. Because through it all, it was important that he’d been the one in control.

Well, this had to stop. His need to be in control had led them to this and it was time to let go some of it and place it in the hands of the one person he knew that would never abuse it. Slowly, he undressed.

“Chief.”

“Ummm.”

“Blair. I’m naked.”

“What?” Blair turned his head and his eyes widened at the sight of Jim sitting naked as the day he was born with an enormous grin on his face. He glanced at the pile of clothes on the ground and then back up to his face.

“I’m giving you control and I’ve realised that the water really is fine.”

“Water? Control of what? This vision? Because I’m telling you now, I can’t control anything here. I’ve tried and perhaps…”

Jim interrupted him with a hand. “No, control over me.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“No, listen. I’ve worked it out. Where we went wrong. I’ve got to give up some of my control to you and you, you’ve got to take it.”

“Sorry, you’ve lost me.”

Jim told him what he’d worked out while looking straight into his friend’s eyes trying to convince him of his sincerity. He held nothing back being brutally honest about how he’d failed Blair and how Blair had let him. He ended up with an apology and a promise that he’d never take him for granted again and would do anything to restore his friend’s reputation. Hope made his heart race and brought sweat out on his brow. For once though, he couldn’t read what the other man was thinking on his, normally very expressive, face. Coming to an end he stopped and waited. And waited. Blair said nothing. He watched, as eventually the other man turned away and stared into the distance his shoulders slumped.

“Blair?” He asked hesitantly. He lifted a hand wanting to lay it on his shoulder, but aborted the movement uncertain of how it would be received. He caught his breath when Blair turned round to face him tears swimming in his eyes. Oh, God, had he messed up, again? Had he said too much? Had it been too little, too late? “Chief, I’m… ,“ he swallowed. “Ummmf.” He suddenly found his arms full of a naked Blair who’d thrown his arms around him and had burrowed his head under his chin.

“Thank you. Thank you.” Blair felt as if his heart was exploding with joy. He drew himself back and placing his hands on his shoulders he looked Jim in his blue eyes. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that. I’ve been hurting for so long and I just didn’t know what to do. I thought… I thought I’d failed you. That you didn’t trust me. Had never trusted me… I’m sorry, so sorry…”

Jim put a hand over Blair’s mouth silencing him. Blair rolled his eyes, but Jim didn’t miss the glint of humour in their depths. “Enough. Are we good?” In answer Blair once again hugged his Sentinel. Jim hugged him back revelling in the contact his senses absorbing Blair’s essence like a sponge.

They both remembered at the same moment that they were naked and Blair was almost sitting in Jim’s lap. They jumped apart studiously avoiding each other’s eyes. “You breathe a word of this to the others and I’ll… ” Jim growled with a smile on his face.

“Don’t worry, man. I want to be able to continue to date women and word of this would seriously cramp my style. Besides there’s no way I want to fuel the rumours about us at the PD.”

Jim’s smile faded. “I… I’m so sorry for what happened to you. I should’ve been… “

“Jim, leave it. I’ve accepted your apology. You’ve accepted mine and we’re now on the right track again. Let’s just leave it at that for now. We’ll deal with the rest when we get back to Cascade.”

Jim didn’t fail to miss the ‘we’ in the last sentence nor the fact that Blair’s lungs sounded clear and his temperature was normal. He finally felt at peace. He took in a deep breath and settled his head deeper onto the saddlebag…? He sat up with a jerk and looked around the dark room. Megan was still sleeping in the corner and Pascal was sitting propped up against a wall with his head on his chest. Simon and Bristows were still on either side of Blair’s cot trying to cool him down. And Blair… Blair’s breathing was still wheezy and even from where he was Jim could sense that his fever had increased.


Chapter fourteen

Jim’s good feeling from his vision/dream/whatever faded as the long night slowly bled towards dawn. They spent hours battling Blair’s fever with what they had to hand. They soon ran out of water and had resorted to using cardboard torn from the boxes as fans. Sandburg became more and more restless and seemed to settle only when Jim stroked his face and spoke quietly into his ear. They’d tried crushing the remaining antibiotics into some water in an effort to get them into him, but it met with limited success as most of it dribbled down his chin. So, it was with a collective feeling of relief when Bristows’ radio crackled and they could hear Patton’s disjointed voice. The helicopter had taken off and was on its way.

Covering him with a sleeping bag they carefully carried the sick man on his cot out of the tunnels and into the fresh air. As the helicopter approached Jim pulled the cover over the curl head and he and Simon held it down to protect him from the debris churned up by the downdraught from the blades. All too soon Blair had been strapped down and winched up into the aircraft. Within minutes it had disappeared round the bend in the valley. Unfortunately, there’d been no room for Jim in the basket with Blair and he didn’t want to delay the flight while the basket was lowered again. For a moment everyone stood staring up at the sky in silence until Jim shook himself out of his stupor and made a run for his horse. Within minutes the horses were saddled and everyone was ready to leave. And then it was a nightmare dash back down the mountain.

Fortunately, Banks had organised transport to be waiting for them when they got back to where they’d left the vehicles. Bristows and Pascal urged them to leave straight away saying that they would take care of the horses. Five hours after they’d left the mine dirty, hot, thirsty, exhausted and anxious for news Jim, Simon and Megan swept into the entrance of Sheridan General Hospital. Agent Goodson leapt up from a chair where he’d been reading a newspaper and intercepted them before they’d reached the reception desk.

“Captain Banks! Detective Ellison!”

Like flocking birds, the three detectives turned and impaled him with their eyes.

“Agent Goodson, we don’t have time…”

“No, wait. I’m here to take you to Mr Sandburg.”

“Where?” Jim almost barked the word.

“Third floor. Critical Care.”

“How is he?” Ellison called as he headed across the foyer to the bank of lifts on the left weaving his way through the people dotted about the space.

“Um,” Goodson scurried to catch up with him, “they won’t tell me much. Just that he’s stable.” They piled into one of the lifts as soon as the doors opened. A man ran up and was about to follow them in when he took a second look at the dirty and smelly trio and the man who was obviously a Fed. He beat a rapid and strategic retreat. “It’s a Dr Petersen who’s treating him,” continued the agent as the lift rose. Jim impatiently watched the numbers on the panel indicating the lift’s position.

The doors opened again on the third floor. Opposite them was a pair of imposing doors that were closed. A large sign of black and red letters was attached to the front: “Authorised Access Only. Press for admittance.” An arrow pointed to a button on the right next to a metallic speaker grill. Jim pressed it without hesitation.

After a moment’s wait a crackly voice issued out, “Yes?”

“Detective Ellison to see Blair Sandburg.”

“Oh, right. Bear with me a moment.”

After a tense wait Jim was just about to press the bell again when a voice from behind made everyone swing round.

“Detective Ellison?” A thin, almost cadaverous, tall man in his 50s with blond hair dressed in a white coat and holding a file was looking questioningly at the group.

“Uh, yes. That’s me.”

The man held out his hand. “Dr Petersen. I’m Mr Sandburg’s primary physician.”

“Captain Banks, Inspector Connor and Agent Goodson,” Jim introduced the others. “How is he?”

“I think it would be a good idea if we spoke for a minute first. If you’d like to…”

“Is he all right?”

“He’s sleeping at the moment. If you’re in a position to do so I really need information on Mr Sandburg’s medical antecedents and previous health history.”

“I just want to see him.”

“Jim,” Simon put a hand on his arm, “let’s go and see what the doctor has to say and give him the information he needs. I’m sure if there were any urgency he’d have said so. No?” He looked pointedly at the tall doctor.

“Of course,” Petersen covered his mouth with a hand as he yawned. “Excuse me. I’ve been on call for 32 hours and it’s catching up with me. Mr Sandburg isn’t in any danger and I really need as much information as possible so I can give him the best treatment possible.”

Jim nodded, but Goodson stopped them before anyone could move. “Uh, Captain?”

“Yes.”

“I just need to tell you that Patton’s clearing out of the hotel. Now that Sandburg’s been found and Escobar’s men have gone the task force’s been wound up. I don’t need to stay here. The hotel’s kept your rooms for you and when you need to get there call me,” he handed Banks a card, “and I’ll take you back.”

“Thank you. And thank Patton for me. For everything.”

“No problem. Patton would like to see you before you head back to Washington.” With that he turned and pushed through the door leading to the stairs.

Minutes later they were seated in Petersen’s office gratefully sipping on hot coffee provided by an orderly. The doctor took a large swallow from his mug and opened the file on his desk before him. “Right. SAC Patton has filled me in on what happened to Mr Sandburg and I’ve put him on some broad-spectrum antibiotics to combat the infection, Ringer’s Lactate for the dehydration and he’s on a respirator. It only kicks in when his respirations are depressed. I’m a bit worried about his lungs. There’s considerable scarring, which is compromising his breathing slightly. Do you know how the scarring occurred?”

No one said anything until Jim, studiously avoiding looking at anyone in the eyes, spoke up. “About two years ago he drowned. Was dead, but we managed to revive him.” He stopped not wanting to relive one of the most painful events of his life.

“Uh huh. Did he actually stop breathing for any length of time?” The doctor obviously thought the detective was exaggerating.

Again, silence.

This time Megan answered, “Doc, the EMTs declared him dead. For at least twenty minutes.”

Petersen opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again as he saw the looks on their faces. He made a note in the file.

“Has he woken up?” Asked Simon.

“Not really. He’s been semi-coherent a few times, but the good news is that his temperature’s finally beginning to fall. He has a mild concussion and we’ve stitched the cut on his face. Fortunately, apart from severe dehydration and the lung infection there’s nothing much else wrong with him. Except…” he looked down at the file before him, “there’s a nasty scar on his left leg…?” He looked up when again his question was followed by silence. What was it with these people? There were more undercurrents flowing around them than in the Baring Straits. All the staff treating Sandburg had seen the word carved into his leg and speculation had been rife. These people (his friends?) obviously knew more than they were saying and were uncomfortable with the subject.

Simon glanced first at Jim who was gazing out of the window his jaw clenched then at Megan who was glaring at Jim. He sighed and told the doctor the bare facts of how Blair had been chased out of Cascade.

“He was a cop?” Petersen asked with a noticeable show of surprise.

“What’s wrong with that?” Jim barked half rising out of his seat. “He was a bloody good detective and had earned his place...”

Petersen was taken aback with the vehemence of his statement. “I’m sure he was. I wasn’t casting aspersions on his career choice. It’s just that with the state of his lungs I’m surprised he passed the physical.”

“Yeah, well,” Simon shifted uncomfortably on his chair, “he was a special case.”

Petersen opened his mouth, but was interrupted before he could speak.

“Can we see him now?” Jim had reached the end of his patience. They waited while the doctor thought over what he’d seen and heard.

“With some provisos,” he eventually said. He stood and picked up the file cradling it to his chest. “Mr Sandburg’s sleeping at the moment and he needs his rest. I’ll allow you access, but can’t allow you in to see him the way you are.” He held up a hand and continued before they could verbalise an objection. “You’re filthy and quite frankly you stink. As you are, you’re a health hazard and won’t be allowed into the unit dirty. You need to clean up and you look like you could do with a decent meal. Do that and I’ll allow you in. Agreed?”

As much as they wanted to argue they acknowledged that the doctor’s points were valid. Jim’s shoulders slumped realising that he wouldn’t be seeing Blair in the immediate future. They would have to get back to the hotel, shower, change then get back again. It would all take AGES!

“Look, I understand your impatience. There’s a shower in the doctors’ lounge that you can use. I’ll bring you some scrubs. How does that sound to you?”

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Jim, Simon and Megan stood anxiously once more before the closed Critical Care entrance having rung the bell again. They were clean, had had a quick sandwich and were now dressed in blue and green scrubs and thin cotton slippers. They each took a step back as one of the double doors swung open and a diminutive, 40-ish female in white tunic and trousers poked her head out.

“Come in.” They followed her into a sort of vestibule/waiting room holding a padded, faux leather bench and a small table covered in dog-eared magazines. The walls carried bright posters stating ‘Healthy Hand Washing’ and ‘Fight Congenital Heart Disease’ or offering services for stroke and cancer victims. Before going through the next set of doors the nurse stopped and turned toward them. “Good afternoon. My name’s Aurora Carter and I’m the Critical Care senior nurse for this shift. I need to explain a few things and ask you some questions before you go in. Are any of you suffering from a contagious disease or do you have any sort of infected wound?”

She watched them carefully as they shook their heads. “Good. This isn’t intensive care so the visiting hours are slightly more relaxed. You can stay with Mr Sandburg from 10 am to 8 pm, but you’ll be asked to leave when we have to treat him or when we consider he needs to rest. There’s limited room around the beds, so I’m afraid it’s only two people at any time. Please turn off your phones. Although you can use them in the general parts of the hospital, in here there’s simply too much sensitive equipment. Also, as you’ll see it’s quiet in there, so please keep your voices down. You’re not allowed to bring in any food or drink or flowers, but you can bring cards. Each time you enter you must disinfect your hands using the gel in the distributer there.” She indicated a plastic box fixed to the wall on the right of the second set of doors.

“Please don’t touch any of the medical equipment. I know that seems obvious, but you’d be surprised what some people do. That’s about it. Everything’s here in this pamphlet, which I urge you to read.” She handed each of them a folded sheet of paper. “Any questions? Or is there anything you need to tell me?”

The trio blinked at the nurse trying to get their tired brains to sort through all the information they’d just been given.

Simon was the first to get his head round the question. He looked down at the paper in his hand. “I think we’re okay, for now.” The others nodded in agreement when she looked at them.

“Fine. Who’s going first?” She didn’t need to be a mind reader to know that the male, blue-eyed detective was going to be the first through the doors.

“You go with him, sir” Megan spoke up. “I’ll go later. I’m going to use the wait to decompress a bit.” She sat down on the bench with a grateful sigh, leant her head against the wall and closed her eyes.

Jim and Simon followed the nurse into the hushed and dimly lit room. There was a central island consisting of a large counter surrounded by various screens and other equipment at which a female nurse was writing. The space was filled with the sounds of heart monitors beeping, respirators and automatic blood pressure cuffs. There were eight beds positioned against the walls six of which were occupied by patients in various states of awareness. A male nurse was quietly talking to an elderly man who, quite frankly, looked more dead than alive. Before anyone could say anything Jim unerringly headed for the second bed on the right and stood at its foot. For a moment he just stood examining the figure that lay on it.

He was pleased to notice that Blair’s colour was better and even through the noises of the beeping heart monitor and automatic cuff pressure he could tell that his lungs were clearer. Various tubes ran in and out of his body pumping fluids and medication in and draining waste away. The fever was still present if somewhat reduced, but it was obvious he was unconscious and not just sleeping. A small towel covered him from his stomach to mid-thigh exposing most of the awful scar on his thigh. He felt Simon looking over his shoulder and saw the small nurse lay a gentle hand on her patient’s forehead.

“Mr Sandburg, you’ve got some visitors.” She said softly and brushed a curl out of his eyes. “A Captain Banks and a Detective Ellison are here and an Inspector Connor’s waiting to see you as well.”

“Blair,” murmured Jim.

“Sorry?”

“If he was awake he’d tell you to call him Blair, not Mr Sandburg.”

“Blair it is, then. I’ll leave you to it.” And with a final glance at the equipment arrayed around him, she left.

Jim took the chair on the left and pulled it up to the bed before sitting down on it. He picked up Blair’s hand cradling it in both of his and cleared his throat. “Hello, Chief. We got here as fast as we could. You’re getting good treatment so I want you to concentrate on getting better as soon as possible. Then we go back to Cascade…”

Simon tuned out the monologue and stood leaning against the bed’s footboard letting his eyes roam over Sandburg’s still form. He made a silent vow that he would use everything within his power to get him back the life that he’d given up in order to protect his friend.

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“Jim, you’ve been here all afternoon without a break. The nurse said that Sandy’s not going to wake up before tomorrow morning at least and he’ll need you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed then. And you can’t be too comfortable in those scrubs. I know I need to get back into some real clothes. Come back with me. The Captain left ages ago. We’ll eat, go to bed early and be back here first thing tomorrow morning. They’ve got your phone number and know to call you straight away if there’s any change.” Megan leant over Blair’s bed to look Jim directly in the eye all the while stroking the younger man’s arm.

Jim didn’t appear to be listening as he wiped Blair’s face with a dampened face cloth. Megan pulled back and sighed.

“Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed?” Jim looked up at her a quizzical smile on his face. “Is that a technical term? And how do you know what my tail’s like in the morning?”

“Jimbo!” She hissed at him keeping her voice down. However, she was pleased to see the humour in her colleague’s eyes again.

“Chief, we’re leaving now to get some food and a bit of rest. And really, green scrubs aren’t my thing, you know? We’ll be back tomorrow morning. I expect to see your baby blues then. Okay?” He brushed the back of his hand across his friend’s cheek and stood rolling his aching shoulders. He’d been sitting hunched up over Blair’s bed for too many hours, but hadn’t wanted to leave in case he woke up. With one last fond look he headed for the doors.

Megan bent over the man in the bed and put both hands round his face. “Get better, Sandy. Jim’s been like a bear with a sore head since you left Cascade. See you tomorrow.” She kissed him on the forehead and followed her colleague out of the room.

“I heard that, Connor.”

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The jungle was quiet as the setting sun sank below the treetops. The grey wolf and black panther loped together into the clearing and drank from the stream running through it. The hunting had been good that day and they were both tired, but sated. Finding a pile of fragrant leaves the wolf lay down with its head on its paws. It watched as the panther padded round it twice then lay down curling its body around the smaller animal. Giving the wolf’s ears a couple of swipes with its tongue the large cat laid its head onto the fur-covered back. As night fell the two animals slept.


Chapter fifteen

Simon looked up from his cholesterol-laden breakfast as Jim stumbled into the hotel dining room. Although he'd shaved and was wearing clean clothes he looked rather the worse for wear. The captain raised his eyebrows as the man sat down in front of him with a mug of coffee and a sorry looking walnut muffin on a plate.

"Is that all you're having?" He shovelled another mouthful of bacon into his mouth and followed it with a gulp from his second coffee of the morning.

"Not hungry."

Oh oh, short answers. Not a good sign. "What's the matter? Didn't sleep well?"

"Yes, no… some of the time." He pushed his muffin around the plate. "I slept, but my dreams were… vivid."

"Well, I'm not surprised. This last week has been… eventful. But look at the bright side. We've got Sandburg back. He's going to be okay and then he'll be back with us in Cascade."

"And then what, Simon? What's he going to do? You heard the doctor. He shouldn't have been a cop in the first place with the state his lungs are in. I'm sure that this little episode hasn't helped. And do you think he'll want to be a cop again?" He looked at his boss disgustedly. "Look what happened to him when he was a cop. We created the opportunity and then failed to give him the support he needed and deserved. I then abandoned him. Me, his 'blessed protector',” his voice was rich in self-disgust. “And if he's not going to be a cop, what else can he do? His academic reputation's shot.” He took a deep breath. “God, what a mess."

"Whoa, Mr Negative. Okay, enough of the guilt trip and negativity. Yes, we let him down. But we tried to make something good out of a difficult situation. Sandburg didn't help by not telling us how he really felt or how bad he was really having it at the PD. So, now we've acknowledged that, we need to move on. The question should be how are we going to make it up to him?"

Jim nodded slowly. He did have a tendency to feel guilty for a lot of things; even for those he wasn't responsible. He could also acknowledge, however, it was just wasting energy rueing what you couldn't change. The best thing was to learn from past mistakes and get on with the present. "First, we sue the fuck out of Berkshire Publishing. Get them to admit that they published the diss without his permission. Then we get that bitch, Edwards. At no point did Sandburg tell them that it was his dissertation. I want him to be able to finally get those three letters after his name. He deserves it."

Simon smiled to himself as Jim became more animated and watched him wolf down his muffin. "So, we need a good lawyer,” he commented. “Any idea of who we can use? Let's face it, we don't usually deal with the sort of lawyer that we need."

"Hold on a minute." Jim got up and came back with another coffee and a plate piled high with sausages and fried eggs. "I'll give my dad a call. He has a number of lawyers on speed dial."

"And Beverly Sanchez. She might know someone."

"Good idea. And Kelso. He could be a good source. I'm sure he'll be able to help with the Rainier side."

"Sandburg's agreed to this?" Although he felt like he was possibly raining on Jim's parade, he didn't want him taking over the other man's life. Lack of communication throughout their time together both before and after Blair had become a detective had ultimately led to the friendship falling apart.

"Well, when I brought it up the other evening he didn't say no. At least let's see what's possible and then he can decide. I think he needs to have options."

"Fair enough."

Silence reigned for a few minutes as the two men ate and mulled over possible solutions to the 'Sandburg Dilemma'. Both of them vowed to themselves that 'this time' they would not let the man down. Simon wiped his mouth with his napkin and placed it on his plate before standing up.

Jim stood up with him. "I've arranged for a rental car so that I can get to the hospital easily. Do you want to come with me?"

"Can't. I'm flying back to Cascade later this morning. I'd love to stay, but I've been ordered back. And I mean 'ordered'. Strongly ordered."

"I see. But I'm staying and if the 'powers that be' don't like it my resignation'll be on their desks before…"

"Jim, it's okay. You've got another week. Four days unpaid unfortunately, but it's the best I could do. You'll also have to pay for your room from tonight."

They entered the lift together and Banks pressed the button for their floor.

"Understand. Thanks. I appreciate it. And thanks for… well, everything you've done."

They exited the lift and walked along the corridor stopping in front of Simon's room. The captain opened his door and turned to Jim before entering. "Keep me updated with Sandburg and tell him I expect him to… to get his skinny, know-all ass better and back to Cascade."

"I don't think his ass is the problem, Simon."

"Funny, Jim. Really funny," he replied dryly. "Don't give up your day job. And make sure you get back ASAP or you won't have a day job."

"Ha ha."

"Okay, I'll get the ball rolling in Cascade. I'll call as soon as I have anything."

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There was a woodpecker hammering in his head while punching in a number on a phone. It was obviously an international number because the beeping was going on and on and on and… "Will you just finish already?" He called out. God, what was that awful noise? It sounded like a lovesick cow mooing to an indifferent bull. No! That noise was coming from him. He couldn't breathe. His chest was on fire. He wanted to cough, but couldn't. There was something in his mouth - down his throat! He was choking! God, help! What was going on?

"Hey, Blair. Shh, shh. Calm down. It's okay. It's okay."

He latched onto the soft, female voice and the hand that was rubbing up and down his arm. He turned his head slightly and felt something pulling at his mouth.

"It’s okay. Don't worry. Nurse! He's waking up."

He tried opening his eyes, but the bright light only increased the agony in his head. "Nghh."

"Mr Sandburg. Glad to see you awake.” Another female voice intruded on his pain and he moaned.

"Don't panic, you've got a tube in your mouth to help you breathe. Can you open your eyes?" A cool hand gripping his arm replaced the rubbing.

He heard more steps working their way up to where he was lying. Another cool hand caught his wrist and he opened his eyes a slit. All he could see was a blurry expanse of white and he could feel his heart pounding in his chest. Panic was keeping away the black edges that wanted to intrude on his consciousness.

"Mr. Sandburg, I know you're frightened, but please calm down. You're safe and you're in Sheridan General Hospital. I'm Doctor Petersen." The voice turned away from him. "Nurse, take the visitor out and bring a cup of ice-chips, please."

"Yes, doctor."

The hand tightened on his wrist, but rather than hurting it seemed as if it was anchoring him to reality.

"Mr Sandburg, you have a tube down your throat which has been helping you to breathe. We're going to take it out now, but I really need to you to calm down for that. Can you do that, Mr Sandburg?"

Concentrating on the hand holding his wrist he tried to bring his chaotic thoughts under control. Opening his eyes a few millimetres more he found himself looking into concerned, light blue eyes that crinkled into a smile.

"Hello, there. Glad to see you awake. As soon as the nurse… ah, here she is..."

Within minutes he was sucking on ice-chips letting the cool liquid soothe his aching throat. He couldn't help it when tears of relief ran down the sides of his face into his hair. The removal of the tube had been unpleasant and painful, but he felt so much better without the feeling that he was choking. However, his chest still felt tight and heavy and his head was pounding. A cool cloth was wiped across his hot face and he looked up gratefully at the nurse.

"Mr Sandburg," the doctor softly called to him.

He turned towards the voice. "Blair. Please… call… me…" his voiced rasped and burnt his throat.

"Mr Sa… Blair. Please, try not to talk. You'll only aggravate your oesophagus. I need to ask you some questions and all I want you to do is nod or shake your head. Do you understand?"

"Yes…"
"Ah, ah. Nod or shake, all right?" He smiled when his patient gave a small, rueful grin and nodded. "Good. Do you know what happened to you?"

And so the torturous question and answer session went on. Blair learnt where he was and how he'd got there and his body was going to be sore from the convulsions the high fever had caused. The doctor learnt that fortunately, it seemed as if they hadn't had any adverse effects on his patient other than that and that with proper treatment and a reasonable length of time he should recover. However, he also knew that even with all the treatments available to him the young man would be left with a permanent limp. The nasty wound on his left thigh had at some stage become infected and had badly damaged the muscles. He held off from telling him for the moment as he deemed that it could wait until the sick man was stronger.

He could see that the session had exhausted the patient. Quickly, he explained what course of therapy he was going to follow and urged him to drink lots once his throat allowed him to do so. "If all goes to plan we'll have you in a standard room tomorrow and home again by next weekend." If he hadn't been looking closely at his charge’s face he would have missed the fleeting glimpse of panic that filled the tired looking eyes. "Well, we're finished here and I can see you're tired. I'll let your friend back in, but only for a few minutes. You need your rest. Okay? Do you need something for your headache?" The exhausted man nodded. "Right. Nurse, 25mg of Meperidine. Every four hours if needed."

Blair dragged opene eyes that had drifted shut again as he felt a cool hand on his arm.

"Blair, I just wanted to see you before I left. The doctor said to let you rest. I'll try and get back this afternoon. Okay? I'm so glad… Thank God, you're all right."

He wanted to reply, but he felt his body giving in to the exhaustion and drugs that were pulling him under. His eyes closed again.

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The lift door opened and Jim stepped out avoiding the woman waiting to board. She looked vaguely familiar, but most of his consciousness was taken up with wondering how Sandburg was.

"Detective Ellison?"

He turned, impatient. All he wanted to do was get into Critical Care. The woman was standing in front of him and the lift doors had closed again. "Yes?"

"Do you remember me? I'm Felicia."

For a moment Jim's mind was blank. "Oh, yes, Felicia. Blair's friend from the fair."

A smile lit up her face. "I just wanted to say thank you for finding him and sorry for the way I acted at the hotel."

"Don't worry. You only had Blair's well being at heart. Um, have you been in to see… ?"

"Oh, yes. I wanted to come yesterday evening, but I was working and Agent Patton said that it probably wasn't a good time. He told the hospital that I should be allowed to visit. So, I came as early as possible this morning. He woke up and they took the respirator out."

"What? He woke up?" Jim blinked trying to keep up with the rushed explanation.

"Only for a while. He's sleeping again, so I left."

Jim felt annoyed that he'd not been present. He'd stopped off at a shopping mall to get some toiletries and other stuff for Blair and hadn't got to the hospital as early as he'd wanted. He let out a long breath to calm himself down. The important thing was that Sandburg had not woken up alone. Someone had been there for him. "How is he?"

"As I said, they took the tube out, but he can't talk very well. They won't tell me much I'm afraid. He does look good though."

"Good," Jim repeated the word and glanced at the double doors leading to the Critical Care Unit.

Felicia noticed. "I'm sorry. I'm keeping you."

"No, no. It's all right." Jim brought his attention back to the woman.

"I've got to go anyway." She pressed the button for the lift. "Please tell him that I'll try and get to see him this afternoon."

"I will. And thanks for being there for him."

The lift doors opened and she stepped in. "Not a problem. He's special."

The doors closed and Jim was alone. 'You're right,' he thought to himself. 'He IS special.' Not wasting any more time he strode across the corridor and pressed the buzzer on the intercom.

After speaking with the nurses regarding Blair's progress he made his way over to his bed. Before seating himself he looked down at the face of his sleeping friend. Thankfully the man seemed a bit better and he didn’t even need all the medical equipment to tell him as he used his senses. He'd not really paid attention before despite the fact that he'd been there for hours yesterday, but now he realised that someone