Slaver Interludes

By: DoggyJ

EMAIL: doggyj0525@yahoo.com

SUMMARY: Now that Jim has been rescued from the evil Empire, will he pick up his old life? Where does that leave Blair?

Spoilers for quite a bit of the series. One scene stolen pretty much from "Switchman".

Warnings for language – R

Standard disclaimers – you know who you are and you know what you did

A special thank you to Mary Ellen who has put in almost as much work on this as my beta as I have!

 

Slaver – Interludes I and II

I Blair

 

"Jim, can you hear me? Come on, man, come on back. Yeah, you felt that, didn’t you?" Blair said softly, giving a tug on the new bond. He sighed, hoping his frustration didn’t leak back to Jim, who was having a hard enough time as it was. This whole sentinel/guide thing didn’t seem to be going very well, and Blair was very much afraid it was mostly his fault.

"Does this happen a lot?" Ethan Howard asked.

"Occasionally," Rafe replied carefully. "Jim’s still recovering from having the collar removed, and the bond is brand new to both of them. Although Jim was bonded before."

Howard nodded, having read the briefing file thoroughly. The debriefings had begun before Jim was even out of the hospital bed. Blair was with him constantly; trying to manage the almost constant spikes and zones Jim suffered immediately after the collar was removed. One or two of the other team members was usually present as well, along with the various government investigators, including Ethan Howard, who came to question the sentinel.

"Why don’t we take a little break?" Rafe suggested. Howard nodded and both men rose to leave the room. "Blair, you want anything?"

Blair just shook his head ‘no’, his concentration remaining on the man in the bed. Jim blinked his eyes slowly, focus and intelligence returning to his dull gaze. He looked at Blair, the question plain in his expression.

"Just a few minutes this time," Blair said, regret coloring his tone.

"It’s okay, Chief, don’t blame yourself," Jim answered tiredly.

Looking away, Blair tried to hide his bitter thoughts. If not himself, then who was to blame? Surely not Jim, who had survived against incredible odds. Not the collar; that was gone now. Who was left but the guide who had stumbled into this relationship with no training and no preparation? Who was now letting his sentinel down every single day?

"Sandburg," Jim started to say, but Rafe and Howard came back into the room at that point. Blair pushed his chair back from Jim’s bedside. The bond between the two men reverberated with things unsaid.

"Ready to get back to it?" Howard asked. Reluctantly, Jim turned his attention back to the investigator. "We were talking about Oliver, Norman Oliver."

Jim grimaced. "Yeah, I remember. He’s the one who furnished the intel for us on the mission to Peru. I couldn’t believe it when he popped back up just before the war."

"Did you actually see him?" Howard asked.

"I attended the briefing session where he recommended that all the military sentinel units be sent east," Jim growled.

Blair sat forward, leaning over to place a soothing hand on Jim’s arm. He could feel the anger rising once again; the same anger that had sent Jim into his latest zone at the mention of Colonel Norman Oliver. Extending his empathy through the bond, Blair attempted to defuse the rage before it sent Jim’s senses spiraling out of control. "Easy, big guy," he murmured. "Keep it under control."

Jim shot his guide an angry look that Blair managed to completely ignore. He knew this particular emotion was not directed at him, but at the man who had sold out Jim and his crew once before, and all the nation’s sentinels during the Split.

The decision to have all military sentinels in one place had long been a subject of discussion among the remaining military and government leaders who had forged the Western Pacific Alliance after the Split. That they had been betrayed was clear, but the forces behind the decision had remained a mystery. Now Jim’s information was helping them to build a better picture of what had been happening during that chaotic time.

A few more names were mentioned as Jim tried to remember who had been at the meetings he had attended, and who had been rumored to be calling the shots. A short time later, Blair stood to call the interview to a close.

"Mr. Howard, I’m sure you understand that Jim’s still recovering from his ordeal and injuries," he said, indicating the bandages that circled Jim’s neck. "I think that’s enough for today."

Howard stood, nodding at Blair’s suggestion. "I think I have about all I need right now anyway," he said. "Capt. Ellison, thank you for your time. You’ve been very helpful. Dr. Sandburg, thank you for your assistance, as well." Howard shook hands with Jim and Blair and then followed Rafe from the room.

Even though Howard had called Jim ‘Captain’, his status within the government of the Alliance was still unsettled. Jim had been a Captain in the Army of the United States of America, but since there was no more country by that name, what was he now? In the Empire, he had simply been a slave sentinel. Now that he had been rescued, he would eventually have to choose to either remain in service to the new government or return to civilian life. That decision had also been weighing heavily on Blair’s mind.

Jim sighed wearily, closing his eyes. "Tired?" Blair asked, unnecessarily.

"Yeah," Jim agreed. He reached out for the cup of water on the tray table beside his bed. Bending the straw a little, he sipped eagerly at the cold liquid.

"You hungry yet?" Blair asked.

"Not right now," Jim answered. He put the cup back on the table and lay back, closing his eyes.

"Why don’t you just rest for a while," Blair suggested, but Jim had already slipped into a healing sleep. Even though the burns around his neck were not life threatening, they were painful. And the stress his body had been put through in the previous week, trying to remove the control collar, had left him worn out, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Blair kept trying to convince himself that was the cause of Jim’s continuing spikes and zones instead of the ineptitude of his guide. But the doubt remained that if Dan Wolf were here Jim would not be having nearly as hard a time. After watching the sentinel sleep for a few minutes, Blair left the room.

Simon met him in the corridor. "How’d it go?" the captain asked.

"Pretty good," Blair answered. "Jim had some good information for Howard. I think it will help them understand how all this happened." The two men turned and headed toward the break room.

"How was Jim? He feeling any better?" Simon watched his agent closely. He knew Sandburg; knew that the young man would more than likely blame himself for the sentinel’s difficulties.

Blair looked away. "Had a little spike. And a zone."

"Blair," Simon stopped and took his arm, turning Blair to face him. "I think we need some help on this."

Although his body was turned toward Simon, Blair’s eyes were far away. The expression on his face was bleak, defeated. "I think we need a lot of help," he answered, so softly that Simon almost didn’t hear him.

"Come to my office. There’s someone I’d like you to meet." Without any further discussion, Simon turned and headed down the hall with Blair following meekly behind.

Blair’s empathy flared as he approached Simon’s office. Before he ever reached the door, he knew that another empath waited inside. Not only an empath, though; the person inside the room was also a guide. Stomach sinking at the realization, Blair prepared himself to meet his replacement.

"Dr. Blair Sandburg, I’d like you to meet Jack Kelso." Simon stepped around his desk and took his seat.

Blair froze, staring as the man turned his wheelchair to greet him. The name tickled some memory at the back of his mind, but he didn’t have the energy right now to pursue it. This could not be happening. They surely weren’t planning to match Jim up with this man. Jim had already expressed his desire, in no uncertain terms, to join their team and return to the Empire to try to free other captive sentinels. Had Jim changed his mind and said something to Simon?

"Sandburg?" Simon’s sharp tone brought Blair’s attention back into focus. Kelso was sitting patiently, still holding his hand out. Numbly, Blair reached forward to shake the offered hand.

A faintly amused smile crossed the man’s face as he turned back to Banks. Blair’s effort to read the other man met a smooth, hard wall of resistance. "Captain, could we have a few minutes alone?"

"Oh, uh, sure," Simon replied, standing back up. "Take all the time you need." Contrary to Kelso, Simon was easy to read. He projected an air of smug satisfaction and guarded hope. The betrayal almost made Blair sick to his stomach.

Once they were alone, Kelso asked Blair to sit down. "Makes my neck hurt when I have to look up all the time," he explained. Blair quietly sank into a chair.

"I’m not your replacement, you know," Kelso said quietly. He waited while the words sank in to the young guide’s mind.

"You’re not?" Blair asked, confused. "Then, what?"

"I’m here to help you, to teach you," Kelso answered.

Blair looked away, ashamed of his earlier assumptions. "Would… uh, would you like anything Mr. Kelso? Something to drink?"

"Some coffee would be nice," Kelso replied, again smiling that small smile. "Relax, Guide. You’re broadcasting all over the place."

Embarrassment heating his face, Blair quickly got two cups of Simon’s special coffee. Kelso sipped the rich brew appreciatively. "Not your standard break room coffee," he commented.

"No, Simon’s cousin runs a gourmet roast shop. Wars may come and go, but coffee is forever," Blair joked weakly.

"First of all, call me Jack," the other man began. "We’ll be seeing a lot of each other over the next few weeks. Now, let me tell you a little bit about myself. You already know that I’m a guide, right?" At Blair’s nod, the other man began to speak. In spite of his original trepidation, Blair found himself increasingly interested in the man’s story.

"I started out in the Navy," Jack said, settling back in his wheelchair, sipping his coffee. "That’s where I was paired up with my sentinel, Chris Kelley. Kelley and Kelso, K&K," he reminisced. "We were unstoppable. It wasn’t long before we made the Seal team. But politics reared its ugly head, and we found ourselves increasingly involved in missions that had nothing to do with deterring aggression or maintaining the freedom of the seas," he quoted a portion of the Navy’s official mission statement.

"So, when the time came to re-up, we decided to get out. We had been approached by the CIA, and with our skills, felt we could do more good for our country that way." Jack’s gaze became distant, and Blair could feel just the faintest trace of pain and loneliness from him.

"I can’t tell you where we went, on that last mission, but we were paired with a Seal team for a covert insertion. A couple of our old buddies were on that team. Our LCAC - " Jack paused at the confused look on Blair’s face. "Landing craft - was blown out of the water by a shoulder-launched missile. Someone knew we were coming," he added bitterly. The similarities to Jim’s ill-fated mission in Peru were not lost on Blair. He sat forward attentively.

Continuing in a flat voice, Jack said, "Both of Chris’ legs were blown off. Ma – our buddies pulled us away from the wreckage and around a point of land on the island. By the time they got us up to shore, Chris was dead. I was…" he waved toward his useless legs. "They called for extraction and got us the hell out of there. We never did discover who sold us out."

"Did you…" Blair began, then cut himself off. Jack looked at him questioningly. "I’m sorry, I was about to ask something intensely personal," Blair apologized.

"No, go ahead. It’s not like I haven’t had to tell this over and over again," Jack answered.

"Jim told me, when his guide was killed, that he felt it, felt the bond break. He said it was like acid in his mind," Blair said.

Jack was nodding. "I don’t remember much about it, I was in a lot of pain. But I do know that when Chris died, I felt him go." He paused. "I wanted so badly to go with him, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t," he all but whispered.

"I’m sorry," Blair offered, sincerely moved by Jack’s pain and loss.

"When I recovered, I wrote a book exposing the corruption in the government, including the Navy and the CIA. Not a bestseller, but I did get some interesting death threats," Jack said, trying to lighten the atmosphere. Blair could feel the man fighting against the constant despair that threatened to drag him down, weakening his barriers, as he talked about his slain sentinel. "I joined the faculty at Rainier, teaching foreign affairs, and also taught at the Cascade Regional Sentinel/Guide Training Facility."

Blair snapped his fingers. "That’s why your name seemed familiar. You also wrote an article about surviving the loss of the sentinel/guide bond." Blair jumped up. "In fact, I was looking for that just last week, after Jim told me about his guide, Dan Wolf."

"I’ll send you a copy," Jack said, smiling genuinely now. "Since the facility closed down after the war, a lot of that information is harder to find. But the current government wants us to keep our skills up for the time we will have more sentinels in the Alliance. In fact, your name has come up more than once as a possible candidate to join our group."

At Blair’s surprised look, Jack actually laughed. "Your articles were very insightful, from a non-guide point of view. Also, we have several young people we are keeping an eye on that have very strong sentinel potential. Just because all the functional sentinels were sent to the east doesn’t mean there isn’t a new generation waiting to grow up. And those new sentinels will need guides of their own eventually. Of course, now you are a guide, with your own sentinel."

The lively interest on Blair’s face faded as his attention was brought back to the current circumstances. "Yeah, well, that’s not going so great," Blair admitted sadly.

"Don’t be so quick to give up, Blair," Jack said. "Even if you were an older, more experienced guide, you’d still have a hard road ahead of you. I have never heard of either a sentinel or a guide that was able to forge a new bond once the original one had been broken. And you know there’s only one known way to break the bond, don’t you?"

Mutely, Blair nodded. Conventional wisdom held that the only way to break the bond was through the death of one or the other. And for a sentinel or guide to survive that was very rare. But no one had ever developed the collars before, either. Blair had wondered if there was some new way, chemical or otherwise, that might break a bond. He had not been looking forward to finding out; to being the first to have his bond broken through means other than death. Jim was the one for firsts here; the first collared sentinel to be freed and the first sentinel to forge a second bond with a guide.

A faint pull along that bond alerted Blair that Jim was waking up from his rest. He raised his eyes to Jack’s, pleading for understanding. Suddenly, ghostly fingers brushed his mind, feathering along the bond. "He’s waking up, isn’t he?" Jack asked.

Blair shivered. He had never been touched by an empath of Jack’s strength before; didn’t even know that one guide could feel another’s bond.

"Go to him; tell him I’m here to help you both. You’re doing a great job so far, Blair. Follow your instincts, they won’t steer you wrong." Jack’s tone was reassuring, but Blair still had his doubts.

An hour later, Blair and Jack were both sitting in Jim’s room in the medical wing. They had set up two more tray tables so that the two guides could eat dinner with Jim while they discussed the situation. The initial meeting between Jim and Jack had gone well, the two men comparing stories about their military experience and trading the usual kinds of jibes between members of different branches of the service.

Blair had brought in a folder containing his observations of Jim over the past few days, including a detailed chart of Jim’s zones and spikes. He had included every variable he thought might impact the sentinel, from what he ate and when to how much sleep he had gotten the night before. As Jack was looking over the information, Megan came in to the room with a pill cup in her hand.

Introducing Megan and Jack, Blair’s mind was only partially aware of their brief conversation. From the chart he had developed, he was fairly sure that Jim was due for another episode soon. Thinking about possible triggers, his eyes strayed to the small with paper cup Megan was handing Jim.

"No! Stop! Don’t take that," Blair said urgently. All eyes turned to him, surprised at his outburst. "Jack, what about the medication? Jim’s episodes seem to be coming in fairly regular cycles. Could that be a factor?"

Jack frowned. "It’s a good possibility," he agreed. "Every sentinel is different, just as every human being is different. We all have certain commonalities, but one person may be allergic to aspirin where another is not. The same with sentinels, what one might tolerate with no ill effects can send another one into a tailspin."

"Jim, how’s your pain level?" Blair asked.

"About a four," he answered, watching his guide.

Blair snorted. "Does that mean it’s really a six and you just don’t want to admit it?" he challenged.

"Are all you guides this pushy?" Jim turned to Jack. The faint undertone of irritation was not lost on Blair, but Jack seemed unaware of it.

"Only the good ones," Jack answered. Megan waited patiently, something she had learned to do when it came to Jim and Blair.

"Okay. Um, well, Megan, how about if Jim takes the antibiotic and we skip the pain pills for now. I don’t like him to turn down the dial for pain, but he’s still in the medical wing I don’t guess anything can really go wrong," Blair suggested.

"Jim?" Megan asked.

"That’s fine by me. I’m not really in that much pain, honestly," he answered.

In a flash Blair had dropped his barriers and effortlessly read the other man’s lie. He gave a long, warning look at his sentinel that would have made Dan Wolf proud. Jim sighed.

Jack chuckled. "Oh, you two are gonna make a great pair," he predicted. But the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.

Megan gave Jim the antibiotics then she and Jack waited while Blair talked Jim through resetting his dial for pain. Megan wanted to be satisfied that her patient was comfortable while Jack watched the interaction between guide and sentinel closely.

After Megan left, Jack spoke up. "I think you guys are doing fine. Any pairing takes time to settle in as you get to know each other, know your strengths and weaknesses. You haven’t exactly started out under the best of circumstances, either. Blair, I’ll get that information you wanted when I come back tomorrow. You get some rest, both of you. And quit worrying," he added pointedly to Blair.

After Jack left, Jim turned his sharp gaze to his guide. "Worrying?" he asked, raising one eyebrow.

"About you, of course," Blair answered. "I just couldn’t seem to get a handle on all these episodes you’ve been having."

Jim grunted. "Episodes, huh? Is that what you call them? And of course, you’re completely responsible for my control, or lack of it." There was an edge to Jim’s voice.

Blair felt his way cautiously along the bond, finding the frustration and anger that had been underlying so many of their interactions lately. Every time Blair pulled Jim out of a zone or brought him down from a spike, the antagonism and resentment soon followed.

"Well, yeah. I’m your guide," he said.

"And what am I? The guide’s dog? Turn it up, dial it down, concentrate. Jump through the hoops. Good boy," Jim shot back sarcastically.

Blair stood, clamping down ruthlessly on the hurt Jim’s words caused. "I don’t know what your problem is, man. I’m doing the best I can, which is obviously not good enough. That’s why we brought in Kelso."

"Have you ever thought that maybe, just maybe, I might have some responsibility for my own senses? For my own abilities?" He paused, staring hard at Blair. "For my own control?"

"Yes, of course. Ultimately you are. But right now, you’re…" Blair trailed off, uncertain how to say what he wanted to.

"I’m what? Fucked up? What is it you think I am?" Jim challenged.

"Vulnerable," Blair said. "I was just trying to help. I know I have no experience, no training for this. But I just wanted to help you. Sorry if I screwed it up." Blair turned to leave then stopped by the door. "I’m sorry I’m not Dan."

"Shit," he heard from the room behind him. "Sandburg! Get your ass back in here!" The words followed him down the hallway. "That’s not what I meant, Chief." But Blair was too far away to hear.

The next morning, when Jack arrived, there was a distinctly chilly atmosphere between sentinel and guide. Blair sat back passively, almost defiantly, as he allowed Jack to outline what he hoped to accomplish in the coming few days. Jim was sullen and withdrawn, answering Jack’s questions in as few words as possible.

"Alright, cut the bullshit. What’s going on here?" Jack finally demanded.

"I don’t know, ask him," Jim sniped. He had been allowed out of bed for breakfast and was sitting in a chair. "He’s the one with all the answers."

Stung, Blair turned on him. "I never said I had all the answers. According to you, I don’t have any of the answers, do I? At least, not the right ones. Not the ones Dan would…"

"Stop right there, Sport," Jim warned. "You’re…"

"Both of you stop right there," Jack rapped out. He maneuvered his chair around so that he was facing both men better. "What the hell is going on here?" Jim and Blair stared at each other in the sudden silence, both maintaining their barriers as strongly as possible, neither wanting the other to know how badly their words hurt.

"Blair, drop your shields," Jack ordered.

"What?" Blair turned to him, stunned.

"Move your chair over by Jim and drop ‘em. All the way," Jack said sternly.

Blair hesitated a moment longer, not sure he wanted to be that close to the sentinel just yet. But he did want their relationship to work; he wanted more than anything to be the guide Jim deserved. He moved his chair, avoiding looking directly at Jim.

"Now, drop your barriers," Jack said insistently.

Finding that he couldn’t read anything of Jack’s intentions, Blair decided he would have to trust the older, more experienced guide. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. The emotions of all the people at the compound rushed in, overwhelming him. Strongest were those of Jim and Jack, because they were the closest.

Blair was inundated with feelings from Jim that he had touched on before; anger, frustration, and resentment. But the strength of those feeling was so much more intense than he had imagined. There was also a solid core of residual pain from the previous bond, no matter that it had happened several years ago. Gasping in pain, eyes squeezed shut, Blair tried to stem the flow of raw emotion pouring through him.

"Blair," he heard Jim call.

"No, don’t touch him. Not yet," Jack said.

Panting harshly, Blair tried to understand why he was being forced to endure this. Jack was a hard, cold presence in mind, radiating a confusing mix of pity and ruthlessness, his own pain a throbbing undercurrent to Blair’s. Other people registered as a spike of irritation here, a fleeing pang of lust there, a jumble of worry, fear, joy, annoyance, anxiety, contentment – all too much for Blair to sort through and screen out. Tears of distress leaked out from under his eyelids as his mind was assaulted with an overload of input.

Words were said around him that he couldn’t understand as he clutched his arms, rocking in agony. Then he felt a touch on his shoulder, soothing and calming him. A blanket of protection spread over his ragged nerves, muting the outside influences into a bearable mélange of background sensation. His breath slowed as the pain receded, leaving him weak and weary.

"You’d better have a good explanation for this," Jim growled at Jack as he shielded his guide from the empathic overload.

Jack appeared unfazed by Jim’s anger. "Do you know what that was?" he asked.

"Yes," Jim snarled. "You sent him into overload, and you did it deliberately."

"Blair, did you realize what was happening to you?" Jack turned his attention to Blair, who was wiping at his eyes with a tissue he had grabbed from the table next to Jim.

As the onslaught had eased, Blair had been able to listen to the conversation around him. "Empathic overload," he repeated.

"Since you and Jim have been bonded, have you ever experienced that before?" Jack asked.

"No," Blair answered, shuddering at the memory. "But I’ve been in pretty constant contact with him." He may not have had any training as a guide, but he did know that now he had to make regular contact with his sentinel in order to maintain his barriers. A newly bonded pair would have to make physical contact once or twice a day. As time went on and their bond strengthened, they would find they could go for longer periods of time, even up to a week or more.

"Jim, did Dan ever overload?" Jack switched his attention to the sentinel.

"Not often," Jim answered grudgingly. "More so after we were captured. A lot, toward the end."

"Blair, you have a lot of knowledge about this relationship, this bond, between the two of you, but little experience. Jim, you have the experience, although this is a new situation for you to be in. You have both got to work together, as equal partners, in order for it to be successful." Jack folded his hands as he slipped into lecture mode.

"Now, there will be times where one or the other of you has to take the lead. Just now, it was Jim. He had to protect you, Blair, from your own abilities. Now that you are a bonded guide, your empathy will be much stronger than it has been in the past. In order to control that, you’ll need regular contact with your sentinel. And there may be times when you’re tired, sick, or hurt, that Jim will have to shield you and control that for you. Do you understand?" As Blair nodded, Jack turned back to Jim who still had his hand on Blair’s shoulder.

"Jim, you have just been through an incredible ordeal. You’re senses are all over the place, and Blair has been doing the right things to try to keep you centered and grounded. You may have expected that, once the collar was off, you have the same kind of control that you had with Dan. When that wasn’t the case, when you couldn’t prevent yourself from spiking or zoning, you blamed yourself for being weak, for needing Blair to take over. And you resented that. Am I right?" Jack pressed.

Blair’s barriers were still down, the bond between them wide open. He could feel Jim’s acquiescence to Jack’s analysis, his agreement with the reasoning; just as Jim could feel how his treatment of Blair had hurt the younger man. Following that acceptance was a flood of shame over how he had treated his new guide.

"Don’t, Jim," Blair whispered, still shaky.

"I’m sorry, Chief," Jim replied. "I’ve been pushing you away, hurting you. I never meant to do that."

"Well, I might have been a little over controlling," Blair admitted.

"A little?" Jim moved his hand, ruffling Blair’s hair. As Blair reestablished his own barriers, Jim allowed him to pull away, sit up straighter in his own chair. Jack smiled, well satisfied with his first lesson.

The week went by quickly. Jack led them through several techniques to strengthen their bond, to ground and center each other for longer periods of time, and to reach out over ever increasing distances. Eventually they would be able to spend extended periods of time apart, but as the bond was still new they needed to reinforce each other more frequently. Jim was allowed to move back to his room and even begin a light workout routine. Several days later, Jack left.

***

Blair shifted nervously in his seat. His intellect told him he was merely analyzing a situation, just as he had done before and after every mission he had undertaken for the Alliance. But his emotions and conscience called him a traitor, made him feel like he was betraying the man, the sentinel, he was now bonded to as a guide. For this very sentinel was the situation under discussion. Blair had tried to get Simon to include Jim in their meeting, but Simon had said it was still too soon. To keep Jim from worrying about his conflict, Blair held his barriers as strongly as he could.

Megan had finished her medical findings, reporting that Jim was essentially healthy and in good physical shape, despite his years of slavery. He seemed to be recovering from the removal of the control collar well, and was scheduled to meet with the plastic surgeon to discuss the scarring on his neck from the burns.

Joel had been the liaison between Simon’s group and other government agencies that were interested in any information Jim could give them about the Empire. He had coordinated the reports from Jim’s debriefings with the different investigators that were sent, many seeking answers to the same questions.

"The greatest surprise, I think," Joel summed up, "is that so many of the captive sentinels and their guides seem to be working with the Empire willingly. In fact, I guess they can’t even be called captives at this point. Either they were with the revolt in the first place, or have decided their best chance of survival is to go with the winning side."

"Of course," Blair interjected, "that way they get more freedom. The guides don’t go nuts due to the confinement and the sentinels don’t get collared. A logical decision from their point of view."

"But that still leaves a significant number of collared sentinels who are being kept against their will," Joel added. "Like Jim was."

"So," Simon said, turning to Blair, "how does he seem to you? Emotionally, that is?"

Blair sat forward in his seat. The agent had started college at sixteen, earning a B.S. in both anthropology and psychology. He had gone on to take several graduate courses in psychology, but eventually winding up with a doctorate in anthropology.

"He is remarkably intact considering the ordeal he’s been through," Blair replied. "He’s still often frustrated with his senses, but seems to be re-learning how to handle them more and more each day. The zones and spikes had been less severe this week, and he’s been able to pull out of them more quickly. I think changing his medication helped quite a bit, and Kelso was a great trainer."

"And how about the two of you? You getting along okay?" Simon asked, watching Blair closely. The tension between Jim and Blair had been obvious to everyone working with them, although it seemed to have eased up quite a bit since Kelso’s guidance.

"We’re working together much better now," Blair replied. "It’s just going to take time, practice, and patience. You have to remember that traditionally the guide was older than the sentinel, thus being able to better guide the younger partner. Dan was several years older than Jim. With me being younger and totally inexperienced, that just makes it a little more of a challenge."

Looking around the table, Simon asked, "Well, any further questions or comment?" As the others shook their heads, he continued. "You’ve all had a chance to see the personal file that we’ve compiled on him. Jim Ellison was born and raised in Cascade and went to college on an Army ROTC scholarship. After basic, he was recommended for the Rangers, eventually attaining the rank of Captain.

"There is a notation on his service record that he was a possible sentinel, but his senses were latent. He was shot down and stranded in Peru for a period of about eighteen months, and there are indications that his abilities became active during that time," Banks continued, summarizing the information in the reports.

"Isolation," Blair murmured, "and possibly some connection with tribal peoples."

Banks looked over at Blair to see if he had anything further to add, but Blair just waved for the captain to continue. "Discharged from the Army, returned to Cascade and joined the local police department. Married Carolyn Plummer, a forensics specialist, and that’s where he met Dan Wolf." Several heads popped up at the mention of Jim’s wife’s name.

"Yes," Simon nodded, "that Carolyn Plummer. But, they were divorced after about two years of marriage in an amicable agreement. Shortly after that, Jim worked a serial bomber case where he was isolated on stake out for an extended period of time."

Simon glanced back over at Blair, who was nodding his head. "When he came back in, his senses had come back on line and he was bonded to Wolf. The serial killer turned out to be the daughter of one of the soldiers killed when Ellison was shot down in Peru. After her father’s death, Veronica Sarris was recruited into the conspiracy to overthrow the American government. Her terrorist cell was taking out strategic transportation and government sites. Jim was successful in catching her, but the rest of her group got away. A few months later, war broke out and Jim and Dan were both called back to duty."

"Carolyn Plummer, in R and D?" Joel asked.

"One and the same," Simon agreed. "She doesn’t know he’s back yet, and neither do his father or brother. Whereabouts of his mother are currently unknown; we can’t even determine whether she is still alive."

"So many missing," Meagan murmured sadly. The situation in the former United Stated of America was similar to what happened in Germany after World War II when the Berlin wall was erected, cutting friends and families off from any contact with each other for years.

"Both his father and brother are still in Cascade." H took up the narrative. "His father, William Ellison, is head of Ellison Enterprises. Since much of their business was overseas, in South America and the Pacific Rim countries, the impact on his company was not as great as on some others after the Split."

"Steven, the brother, works for Ellison Enterprises, trying to get some of the sporting interests back in operation," H continued. After the war, there was little time or money for leisure activities, but those industries were slowly becoming profitable again. The Western Pacific Alliance had just started their first professional football season again, and basketball was going strong.

"He’s in charge of a string of racetracks from SoCal up to Vancouver. In fact, he’s been in town restoring the track at Lastings Park. They’re scheduled to reopen next week." H looked around the room, completing his report.

"Okay," Simon said. "People, thank you. Megan, keep me updated on his health. I think we’re about done here."

As everyone stood up, stretching and working the kinks out after sitting so long, Simon turned to Blair. "Sandburg, I’m going to need you just a little longer."

"Sure," Blair agreed. "Just let me run to the bathroom and get a refill on my coffee and I’m all yours." One he was alone in the bathroom, Blair sighed and leaned against the door. He had to check on Jim. This protectiveness he felt had appeared when Blair had first seen Jim on his undercover mission to the Empire. Their sessions with Kelso had only strengthened this instinct.

Now Blair stood alone in the men’s bathroom, taking deep breaths and trying to center himself. Although he had been an empath all his life, being a bonded guide was a new experience for him. When he was with Jim, just a touch or a word from the sentinel was enough to bolster his barriers. However, he had been in a meeting with Simon and the others all morning, keeping his shields as high as possible, and was beginning to feel the stress beating at his mind. He decided to try some of the techniques Jack had taught him to draw strength from his bond with the sentinel without physical contact.

Blair tried to lower his shields just enough to reach Jim who was working out with Rafe to get himself back in shape at the other end of the building. Tensing, he could feel control slipping away from him as the combined emotional energy of the personnel at the compound crashed over him. Mouth open in a silent scream, Blair sank to the cool tile floor, hands clutching frantically at his head as his mind threatened to shatter.

The pressure against his body a few moments later didn’t even register as the door was forced open from outside, scooting him across the slick floor of the bathroom. Blair felt a soothing touch on his mind, cooling the burning pain that was consuming him.

"Easy, Chief, I’ve got you now. You’re okay, just breathe. That’s it, that’s good." Strong arms were lifting him, turning him. Something warm and wet was being wiped across his face. As he became more aware, Blair could smell the sickening stench surrounding him.

"No, he just threw up, probably from the pain," Blair could hear Jim saying. "I don’t think he hit his head, Megan, just an empathic overload. Pulse is weak and rapid. Damn, I should have checked in with him sooner. We’re still working on how long either of us can go without contact. I didn’t see him this morning before the meeting."

Blair blinked at the self-recrimination he heard in Jim’s voice. He had to pull himself together, had to tell Jim this wasn’t his fault. His vision began to clear and he could see Jim’s sweaty, flushed, concerned face close to his own. "What?" he tried to say, but as his mouth began to move the vile taste almost made him throw up again.

"Easy," Jim said again, helping Blair sit up. "Can someone get me some water? Thanks. Here, rinse your mouth out with this." A paper cup was held to Blair’s lips, and he sipped the water, swishing it around in his mouth before spitting it back into the cup. The cup disappeared, replaced by Megan’s worried face.

"Sandy? Can you hear me?" she asked. Blair nodded weakly, reluctant to switch his focus from his sentinel to the doctor. "Look at me, Sandy. How many fingers am I holding up?"

"Three," Blair croaked.

"Good guess. Now how many?" Megan countered.

"Still three," Blair answered, a little stronger.

"What happened? Did you fall? Hit your head?" she persisted.

Although Jim’s presence had restored his barriers and effectively shielded him from any other emotional input, Blair’s still sensitive mind flinched as the spike of annoyance from the other man. "Sorry," Jim muttered, pulling back.

"No," Blair started. He cleared his voice, then continued. "It’s like Jim said, an overload. They – the barriers – just slipped away from me," he admitted, embarrassed.

"How do you feel now?" Megan asked.

"A little shaky, headache," Blair allowed. "But better." He avoided looking at Jim. Another failure on his part as a guide. And he had been trying so hard.

"He’ll be alright," Jim was saying. "Just let me get him to his room, get him cleaned up. Let him sleep it off." And then he was being lifted to his feet, escorted through the knot of people, including two armed guards, who had gathered outside the bathroom.

Another wave of embarrassment flooded over him as he heard Simon calling to someone down the hall. "Get someone in here, get this mess cleaned up. Megan, I want him checked out, make sure he’s okay." Blair lowered his head and shuffled along the corridor.

"Almost there, Sandburg," Jim murmured softly. "Just a few more steps."

"I’m fine," Blair snapped, trying to pull away. "I can walk by myself."

"Yeah?" Jim questioned, letting go of his arm. Blair swayed dangerously until Jim grabbed him again, steadying him. "Yeah, you’re just fine, Junior." Was that a smirk Blair could hear in Jim’s voice? Better not be.

Megan had followed the two men to Blair’s room. An aide met them there with a small device Megan could clip to Blair’s finger to get a quick reading on his blood pressure and heart rate. Blair sat on the bed while the doctor checked his vital signs. Jim leaned against the wall by the door.

"Well, you’re blood pressure’s still a little low and but your pulse is slowing down some," Megan commented. "I think you’ll live. You want anything for the headache?" Blair shook his head negatively.

"All right, I’ll leave you alone." She turned toward Jim. "You call me if he gets worse." Jim nodded as Megan left the room.

"Okay, Chief. Strip and into the shower with you. I can only dial my nose down so far, you know," Jim said lightly, pulling Blair to his feet.

"Ha ha," Blair muttered sourly as Jim pushed him toward the small bathroom.

"You gonna be able to shower by yourself?" Jim asked.

Blair pulled his arm out of Jim’s grasp again by way of an answer, stumbling away from him. Once inside the relative privacy of the bathroom, Blair almost angrily pulled his soiled clothing off, throwing them in the corner. Jim’s shielding had protected him from outside input, but he was wide open to the sentinel in the other room. He was sure that the other man could read his anger and shame quite clearly. Still fuming, Blair turned the water on and stepped into the shower.

Rinsing out his hair, Blair heard the door open. No privacy in his mind, why should he expect any privacy in the shower? "Just me, Chief. They’re here for the laundry, so I want to go ahead and get these clothes cleaned." The compound operated much like a miniature hotel, food and laundry service was included. Humiliation swept over Blair again as he thought of Jim, with all his sensitivities, having to handle the mess he’d made. The surge of reassurance he felt through the bond only made him feel worse.

Blair dried off and turned to find that Jim had brought him clean clothes when he had taken the soiled ones. Thinking of the earlier incident, Blair turned back to the sink and thoroughly brushed his teeth, rinsing several times. He quickly combed through his hair and opened the door back to his room.

Jim had settled in the chair in front of Blair’s desk, idly looking through some of the books stacked there. He looked up as Blair stepped reluctantly out into the room.

"Hey, Chief, you look better. Feel better?" the sentinel asked, rhetorically. He knew very well how Blair felt.

"Yeah. Sorry about that." Blair looked at Jim. The older man must have run all the way from the workout room to the bathroom. He was dressed in a black sleeveless t-shirt and gray knit shorts that were still damp with sweat. "Um, I’m fine now. You can go on back, if you want to," Blair stammered.

"Sandburg," Jim started impatiently, then stopped as Blair flinched. "Come here." Jim got up from the chair and sat on the bed, patting the mattress beside him.

"Come on over here and sit down," he said again as Blair hesitated.

Dreading the coming confrontation, Blair walked slowly to the bed and sat down. Jim turned him slightly so that the two men were facing each other. Gently, Jim took Blair’s hands in his. "Relax; I’m not going to hurt you. Just breathe, nice and slow, and let me in."

Staring into Jim’s light blue eyes, Blair took a deep, shuddering breath, and let it out. He could feel Jim as a presence in his mind, as if the other man were pouring a healing balm over the faint burning sensation. Again, embarrassment rose up that he couldn’t control his barriers any more effectively.

Jim had the audacity to chuckle. "Now you know how I was feeling last week," he said. "Don’t be so hard on yourself. Remember, Dan had problems sometimes, too, especially after we were captured. And he had been trained all his life by his tribe in the ways of the guide."

Needing to know the truth, Blair searched the face of the man before him as he felt the honesty within their bond. "I’m sorry," he said again, but this time for not trusting the sentinel to understand.

"It’s going to take time, Blair. You’ve told me over and over again just to give myself time to get my control back. You have to give yourself the same chance."

"I know," Blair started to say, but Jim stopped him with an upraised hand. The other man stood still, his head turning toward the door.

"Simon," Jim said, relaxing. A knock sounded and Jim allowed a faint smile to cross his lips.

"Come in, Simon," Blair called.

The captain opened the door, a frown marring his features. "How did you… Which one… Never mind. I don’t want to know. Sandburg, how are you feeling?"

"Better. Sorry about that," Blair apologized again, earning a scowl from the sentinel.

"About that, just exactly what happened back there?" Simon demanded.

Jim stepped in before Blair could speak. "Empaths, in general, have to maintain some type of barrier against the constant input of emotional energy that all of us put out or they can suffer overload or burnout. For a bonded guide, that input is magnified significantly. They usually can’t maintain strong enough barriers on their own; they need regular contact with their bonded sentinel, especially at first. I," guilt colored Jim’s words, "let him go too long."

"Not your fault, man," Blair said, only to be interrupted by a huge yawn.

"He’ll be fine, Captain," Jim assured Simon. "He got quite a jolt this morning; all he needs to do now is sleep. I’ll shield him."

Simon looked at Blair, whose head was now drooping toward his chest. "Did I know about this?" he asked.

"I think I …" Blair interrupted himself with a huge yawn, "might have mentioned the possibility."

"So this could happen again, right?" the captain persisted.

"Not if I can help it," Jim growled. The sentinel turned his full attention to his guide. After watching them for a moment, Simon turned and quietly left the room. Blair had fallen asleep sitting up, and Jim had eased him gently into the bed, pulling the covers over him when he shivered.

When Blair woke next, he could tell that several hours had passed. Jim had obviously left at some point, because he was now showered and dressed in clean, fresh clothing. Blair studied him for a moment. In a blue, button down shirt and khaki pants, Jim looked just like anyone else. There was nothing to show how different he was from every other person in the Alliance. Even the new pink flesh of the scars around his neck could be explained by carefully crafted lies.

When they had first removed the control collar from Jim, he had asked how soon he could joint their team and return to the East to rescue other captive sentinels. But what if Jim didn’t want to stay with Special Ops? What if he wanted to resume his life of before? A job with the local police? A family; father, brother, and ex-wife. Where would a young, inexperienced guide fit in with all that?

"You’re awake, and you’re thinking too hard," Jim said, turning toward Blair with a smile.

Blair pushed himself up in the bed, resting against the headboard. "You been here long?" he asked, hoping to distract Jim.

"Long enough," Jim answered. Cocking his head to one side, the sentinel studied his guide intently. "Why don’t you tell me what’s got you so wound up?"

"I’m not sure I can, yet," Blair said apologetically. He winced as he could feel Jim’s own barriers shutting him out. "I will, I promise, as soon as I can."

Jim turned away, a bleak expression replacing the easy smile of just a few minutes ago. "It’s about me, isn’t it?" he said harshly. "What you – they – are going to do with me." His hands fisted in his lap.

"No, no," Blair protested, stunned at the implications he read in the other man. "Well, yes, in a way. But not what anyone’s going to do with or to you. What you want to do."

"What?" Blair read the confusion from the other man.

He stared at Jim, anxiety and a touch of fear in his dark blue eyes. "What do you want to do? Now? I mean, after the plastic surgery?" Unable to bear seeing the answer in Jim’s eyes, he looked back down at the blanket covering his lap.

"I don’t think it’s up to me, is it?" Jim asked carefully.

Blair snorted. "Of course it is," he stated. "I told you, you’re not a slave here. You can do whatever you want to, go wherever…" His voice trailed off. And suddenly the decision he had been dreading was upon him.

Sympathy and understanding flooded Jim’s face; flowed along the bond. He came over to the bed and sat next to Blair, facing him. "I think what you’re really asking is what’s going to happen to you, as my guide. Aren’t you? Am I going to take you away from this? Make you do something you don’t want to?" He didn’t need an answer; the flood of apprehension that flowed back to him provided that.

Jim sighed. "Chief, we’re a team now. I don’t decide anything, and you don’t decide anything. We decide together, okay?"

Hesitantly, Blair nodded. "There are things you need to know," he said quietly. "And we’ll tell you, as soon as we can. We just have to get clearance."

"I know, I was in the military before, remember? I got the ‘need to know’ part down. I’ll wait. Like I said before, I trust you. That hasn’t changed," Jim said wryly.

Blair looked up sharply. "But you’ve been shutting me out so much lately. Even after last week. I mean, it’s better, but you’re so…" He stopped, horrified at what he had been about to say.

"I know," Jim sighed. "And I’m sorry. It’s just that, sometimes, it all hits me, what happened. Dan. I get so angry, so full of rage." Jim stopped, and Blair could feel his struggle for control. "I’m afraid I’ll hurt you again, and I don’t want to do that. I owe you my life. And probably my sanity," he added quietly.

"We’ll work it out," Blair said, sounding much more confident than he felt. His sentinel was not fooled for a moment.

They were left alone for the rest of the day, free to wander around the grounds, watch television, or browse through the library. Jim was eager for any information relating to the recent war and the changes that had been brought about in society. The next morning, Simon called them both into his office.

***

 

Slaver Interludes

II Carolyn

 

Blair and Jim strolled through the outside market near the pier. Jim kept raising his hand toward the still healing, itching skin under the collar of his turtleneck shirt. A brief touch on the arm or a quiet ‘don’t’ from Blair would have him dropping his hand quickly back to his side, or tucking the errant appendage into his pocket.

"Hey, look," Blair said, pointing to an open air café. "Let’s stop and get something to drink."

"I’m not thirsty," Jim answered irritably.

"I know," Blair answered with a small shrug. "But let’s sit down anyway."

Annoyed, Jim followed his guide over to the round tables and sat down across from the younger man. When the waitress came over, he ordered an ice tea to Blair’s frozen cappuccino.

Restlessly, Jim shifted in his seat, looking around at the myriad of people strolling through the booths. The weather in Cascade this day was perfect; clear blue sky and just a hint of a breeze from the bay.

"What’s wrong, Jim?" Blair asked.

"Nothing," the sentinel replied, too quickly.

"You can’t fool me, big guy," Blair said quietly.

Jim sighed. "I don’t know. Just… too many people. Too much freedom. Too soon, maybe."

"Maybe," Blair agreed. "You want to go back?" Blair let just the barest hint of sympathy leak through the bond he shared with the other man. He had to jump back, mentally, as Jim’s surge of anger flowed back at him.

"No," Jim snapped. He might know what Blair was doing, but wouldn’t call his guide on it. Jim knew as well as Blair did how vitally important it was for him to gain control of his senses with the aid of his newly bonded guide. Now that the collar had been removed, there was no electronic device available to modify his brain waves to control either a spike or zone.

Since their sessions with Jack Kelso, Blair had been able to gain greater control over his abilities as a guide, with a few exceptions. Now that he felt more confident, Blair had pushed Jim into working harder on reintegrating into normal society. Or as normal as life was after the split.

If he was to be a functional human being again, much less a functioning sentinel, he had to get back out into the world. Learn again how to move through a crowd without cringing at each inadvertent touch or startle at a flash of light off a window. Learn how to deal with the smells of body odor, perfume, bad breath, food, and the myriad other smells common to modern living. Learn to screen out the sharp sound of laughter, the shrill cry of frustrated infants, and the constant susurration of too many people in one place.

"Here you go, gentlemen," the young woman said brightly, setting their drinks in front of them. "Will there be anything else?"

Noting Jim’s gritted teeth, Blair answered. "Not right now, thanks." He smiled brilliantly at her, gratified when she smiled back.

"Hey, man," he leaned over the table, darting a glance at the young woman’s departing back.

"Sandburg," Jim growled.

"Okay, okay." Grinning, Blair sat back in his seat. His smile faded into something gentler. "Headache?" he asked quietly.

"Yeah," Jim admitted, taking a small sip of his tea.

"Just relax. I think you’re dialed up a little high. Tone it down a bit." Blair risked a quick touch to Jim’s hand, feeling his tight control ease through their bond. They sat quietly for a few minutes, just enjoying being away from the compound for the day.

The sentinel had come out of the Empire with literally just the clothes on his back and nothing else. At the compound, the basic necessities and some clothing had been provided for him. This trip into Cascade had a two-fold purpose. The first was to get Jim acclimated back into normal society, and the second was for him to pick up some much needed personal items.

Jim had suggested several shops he wanted to visit, and had been disappointed only twice when the stores had closed or were no longer there. He was familiar with the city, but at the same time shocked at some of the changes that had taken place in his time away. Only one of the store owners had recognized him, welcoming him back warmly.

Blair had tensed when they passed a couple of police officers walking through the market, but Jim had not recognized them and they had not paid the two men any attention. Jim’s reintroduction into his old life would have to be handled carefully if they wanted his abilities to remain a secret. Those who knew him before on the police force would surely remember that he was a sentinel, and would probably want to know if he still retained his heightened senses. Their cover story would have to be perfect when and if they ran into any of his old colleagues.

After a few minutes, Blair cleared his throat. "So, what are you going to do?" he asked.

Jim didn’t need to ask what Blair was referring to. Since their meeting with Simon a few days ago, the subject of Jim’s family was never far away. Blair knew he was driving Jim crazy by asking so often, but he needed to calm his own anxiety. If Jim wanted to go live with his father or brother, Blair couldn’t – wouldn’t – stop him. But where did that leave Blair?

"Look," Jim said, leaning forward. "I already told you. Carolyn and I had already divorced before I was reactivated. My father and brother – I didn’t exactly have a real relationship with them before I left."

"But they’re your family, Jim. You have to at least let them know you’re alive." Once again, Blair found himself arguing in favor of Jim contacting his family members. He didn’t understand why it seemed so important, especially as it might mean separating him from Jim. But he knew that Jim and Dan had not lived together, so it must be possible for him to exist without the sentinel by his side twenty-four hours a day. Kelso had said it was. After all, how would it look if Jim moved back in with his ex-wife, dragging his guide along with him?

Jim’s thoughts had obviously taken a different track than Blair’s. "So Carolyn’s with your group," he mused. "Research and development. That sounds like her. Always did like science. So nice and neat and logical. So different than dealing with an emotionally closed off…." Jim cut off his tirade, somewhat surprised at the bitterness in his voice.

"I would like to see her. If that’s okay," he added. He knew that, although free in theory, the fact that he had been freed from the collar with his senses functional was still considered classified information.

"We’ll make the arrangements," Blair said. He had pushed for this, so why did he feel so disappointed when Jim agreed?

***

The tension in Jim's room was palpable. Blair gnawed his lip in frustration. "It's not a matter of trust," he tried to explain again. "What if you have a zone or spike? And you're twenty miles away from me?"

Jim just ground his teeth together, settling the shoulders of his gray suit jacket more comfortably. Blair sighed. "Would it make you feel better if I said it was for your own protection?" The blast of antagonism that beat against Blair's shields was his answer.

"Look, you won't even know we're there. Rafe and I will stay in the bar." Jim was no more listening to him than the man in the moon.

Blair stepped forward and took hold of Jim's arm. He could feel the corded muscle beneath the jacket and shirt. Taking a deep breath, Blair closed his eyes and dropped his shields. He let all his worry and apprehension flow through the bond. Jim stiffened, tried to fight against the onslaught of his guide's emotions, but slumped in defeat.

"Chief, there's nothing to be afraid of," he said gently. "I'm just going to have dinner with Carolyn, not run off into the sunset with her. Nothing is going to happen to me."

"But what if…" Blair started again.

Jim stopped him with a look. "No what ifs. Okay, okay, you guys can come. You're going to anyway. Simon's orders, no doubt," he added dryly.

Blair had the grace to look away. "Well, man, you're our secret weapon. Didn't you know?" he said, half-jokingly.

Jim grimaced. This dinner with his ex-wife was the first step in notifying his family and old friends of his return. He would tell them only that he had been rescued, but that his abilities were no longer functional due to his former guide's violent death. His presence at the intelligence compound would be explained by claiming that he had valuable information on the Empire's defenses. As, indeed, he had.

Jim had wanted to drive into town by himself, but Simon had denied his request. As a compromise, Jim was allowed to drive in one car, while Blair and Rafe followed discreetly. The two other men would wait in the bar at the restaurant, ostensibly to be available if Jim experienced any difficulties with his senses. Of course, the other, unspoken reason was to keep an eye out for anyone who might take too much interest in him.

Blair and Rafe munched on bar snacks, watching the sportscaster on television and nursing a single beer each. Rafe was trying to extol the virtues of rugby while Blair remained firmly entrenched in the basketball camp. Suddenly, Blair's head shot up and turned toward the dining area, just as the sounds of a disturbance reached their ears.

A woman's voice was shouting. "He's choking! Someone help him!"

Without a word, Blair rushed into the dining room to see Jim frantically grab a glass of water from a nearby table and gulp it frantically. Before Blair could reach his side, a waiter ran up to the sentinel. "Sir?" the hapless man questioned.

"What the hell is in this?" Jim demanded, pointing to his dinner.

Blair had kept his barriers raised due the close proximity of so many people, many of whom were drinking, thus lowering their inhibitions. Without Jim to help shield him, the press of emotion had been harder to handle than before the bonding. Lowering his defenses, Blair could tell immediately that Jim was in danger of a major spike. But to approach him in public as a guide trying to help control his senses would be like waving a red flag to any watchful eyes in the area.

Blair identified Carolyn immediately, and could feel the shock of recognition run through her as she caught sight of him. But her training prevailed, and she gave no sign of knowing him. Sending her a sharp warning glance, Blair strode up boldly and grabbed Jim's arm. The other man swung around angrily, almost as if he didn't even recognize his guide. "Hey, man, I'm a medic," Blair improvised. "What seems to be the problem?" He sent as much calming reassurance across the bond as he could.

Stunned, Jim stared at him for a moment, and then looked around the restaurant at the other diners staring at the scene. The waiter broke in, talking to Blair. "There are just the usual seasonings, herbs and paprika. Maybe he has a food allergy?"

Blair nodded, looking back at Jim. "A good possibility. How are you feeling now, sir?" he asked, face completely serious. Through their bond, Blair could feel Jim pulling back from his anger, embarrassment and humiliation taking its place as his senses settled.

With a disgusted look at both of them, Carolyn just shook her head and walked away. Blair was getting very strong readings of anger, disappointment, and regret from her. Jim had been given some money to cover the expenses of renewing his life, so he grabbed his new wallet from his back pocket and threw some money on the table as he followed her out the door.

Rafe jerked his head toward the door, indicating that Blair should follow the couple and he would follow shortly. Nodding his thanks, Blair hurried to the door, looking carefully before stepping out on to the street. He could see Jim running after Carolyn, who had opened her umbrella against the rain that had threatened all day.

"Wait," Jim called. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry." They stared at each other for a moment until Jim pulled her close in a strong embrace, kissing her almost frantically. She pushed him away.

"I thought you were dead," she cried, then repeated more softly, "I thought you were dead." Taking a deep breath, she continued, grasping his arms. "I don’t know what you’re really doing," she glanced at Blair, "or why you’re back. But I found someone new. We're good together. Not like I had with you, but it’s… nice. No drama, you know?" she sniffed. Even though Blair could not see her tears, he felt them.

Carolyn looked away, almost dropping the umbrella as she fumbled in her purse for something. Jim took it from her and held it over her head, shielding her from the rain. Blair could see light from the streetlamp glint off of something metal in her hand, and tensed. But as he felt no threat from her, he waited to see what would happen.

"I kept the loft," Carolyn said. "I've been renting it out, but it's been empty for the past two months. It's still in your name." She pressed the key into Jim's hand. "Here. After all, it's your home." And without another word, she took her umbrella and walked away. Jim watched until she got in her car and left the parking area.

Rafe joined Blair, nodding that he had taken care of the waiter and the bill, smoothing over the confusion. Blair walked over to Jim, still staring down the street in the rain, the key clutched in his hand.

"Ready to go back?" Jim just nodded, closed off, and followed Blair. Rafe drove the car that Jim had brought to town, while Jim rode back with his guide. Neither man spoke, both lost in their own thoughts.

***

The end, for now