Author's Notes: Another tale from a Series of stories about a Sentinel and Guide Pair in a world that accepts them and celebrates them as Partners.

Warnings: Angst. Child-Endangerment. AU. Xover. More World-building. SIP (Series in Progress).

Disclaimers: As before, not mine. Just borrowed. Except Martha. Oh, and all medical mistakes are mine, too.

Relatives Series Story Seven: Talents and Trades

By Jayed

EMAIL: Jayed

The Town Council held a Welcome Ball eight months after Simon's Force and three other new Families took up residence. The other new Families had come to start a series of businesses, a diner, a camping and sporting goods store, and a candy "shoppe," complete with ice cream counter. The last was actually the birth-Family of the Town Council Head's Spouse. They'd recognized a good opportunity and moved from their previous location in the New England Consortium.

Rumor of the party reached Simon's Family about six weeks before the event was to take place. Official invitations followed a week later. Rafe used the weeks to good purpose. He had taken clothing measurements for the whole Family in the first week of settling in, and now he took up the challenge of outfitting the whole Family, all thirty four adults and six children, including tiny Sophia, in Orange, the color of Protective Services and of Simon's Family Signs. The sewing machines hummed, "manned" by Rafe, by all the Mothers at one point or another, and, surprisingly, by Henri, Blair's counterpart singing mechanic, and Rafe's best friend in the House, besides Megan, of course.

Orange is not a color that compliments all people, but Rafe, true Master of his craft, found shades that worked together harmoniously and allowed the entire Family to wear clothes that signaled their solidarity. Not incidentally, the clothes were also comfortable and incredibly beautiful. No one else in the Town had anything like their outfits nor had anyone else made the effort to dress as a Family. Their group entrance into the Party Hall was as dramatic as Rafe's theatrical heart could have wished.

Inevitably, of course, Simon's Force, with its Pair, infant Guide, and Master, inspired some envy. This party made it worse, yet it was hard for folks to have ill-feelings toward the city's main Protectors.

*** The Mayor's Spouse was the first to step up, however, as she recognized a good opportunity. Her husband was the Head of the town's main grocery store concern, and his elected position made her one of the social mistresses of their little Society. If anyone was going to set a fashion trend, well, she was going to be It, or at least part of it.

The town's arrangement with Simon's Force was the usual mix of money and barter, some cash and most of the Family's necessities. Individuals were free to make side deals for additional supplies, for luxuries, for gifts, for frivolities. Her birth-Family's Chocolates were all but world-renowned. Her blood-father had connections through his own birth-Family to one of the best breweries in the whole of the country. Surely she could work out something.

So Martha became the first. Within a few months, the ladies of town were lining up to bring Rafe silks, laces, and satins, and he turned their bolts of fabric into beautiful creations, dresses and suits and lingerie. When Rafe had Joined, Simon hadn't realized what a valuable commodity he'd turn out to be. Rafe, always remembering how this Family had stood up for him against the two persecutors from his childhood, was almost always willing to share the gains of his personal trades with the Family. Thus, Simon's Force was always well-supplied with the little things that made for special occasions and casual celebrations that stood out. Simon, himself, was particularly fond of one particular oatmeal stout (as was Jim). The children appreciated weekly ice cream cones (as did Jim). The only thing Rafe didn't share with everyone were the boxes of coconut clusters. Those were Megan's. End of discussion (sorry, Jim).

*** With the success of Rafe's venture, other members of the Family began to branch out a bit. Henri started a little sideline in motorbike repair. The town's two mechanic Families didn't have anyone with any specialized skill with that particular vehicle. Henri's trades, with Ezra's interested and careful assistance, turned into a multipart operation that eventually saw the Family come into possession of an antique spinet, a pair of brand new electric guitars, and enough harmonicas, pennywhistles, and other small instruments to keep the next few generations of the Family's children loud and painful to their Sentinel's ears.

Ezra himself entered in the Trading arena as a broker for some of the other Families who didn't have a Family Financier. He managed the books for some of the smaller stores and helped broker some of the trades between various Families in the town, making sure deals were fair and equitable so that no Family had an unfair advantage over another. He always took small percentage interests in the trades, and passed those interests on to Simon and the Three Mothers so that household necessities beyond the minimums could be obtained. The city provided staples and dry goods, but simple things and sufficient, not abundance or quality beyond the average.

Ezra had married Li Po within days of Sophia's birth. The sight of her showing off the little girl to the assembled Family members awoke in him the desire to have such a family within the Family for himself. The loneliness of his childhood seemed like a momentary nightmare or a story that belonged to someone else. He had his brothers and a wife. He even had Blair, the little friend of his youth.

Even better, Ezra knew that his "brothers" were also settling down in ways that they hadn't really done while working with Orrin. Buck and Josiah, both loathe to actually marry, had settled for Family Spouse relationships with Faith, Christine, and Marybeth, all of whom seemed equally happy with their arrangements. Chris seemed to be trying to decide if he was courting Mary or not, or maybe she was the one trying to figure it out. With the donning of his orange party outfit, Chris had come out of his deep mourning and perpetual black. Nathan had an Outspouse named Rain, member of the Dentistry Family a few towns away. JD and Casey seemed destined to follow he and Li Po into matrimony any day. It had been a momentous first year.

*** The Family had had few real problems in the town over their first year. Most of the crimes had been petty, the clinic's work had mostly focused on preventative and minor outpatient care, and the dangers that had seen the ending of Simon's previous Family seemed far away.

Of course, a town cannot really stay that quiet forever. Shortly after the Family celebrated its one year anniversary, complete with all the trimmings any of them could have wanted, the first group of Apprentices invited to work with Simon appeared. Simon and Joel had gone to the Family Fairgrounds, leaving the Family under Chris temporarily, and set up a small booth with other Patroller Families in the Protector area of the Apprentice Fair which was held two weeks after the Family Fair ended. They'd interviewed and been interviewed by a wide variety of candidates.

Surprisingly, the two men had agreed that none of the Patroller Family candidates had particularly impressed them. They had been drawn instead to a small group of school friends from the desert community of Vegas. Each came from a completely different background-Woolworkers, Linguists, Lawyers, and Farmers-but the four were fast friends and hoped to train together and, clearly, looked ahead to forming a Family someday, most probably under Sarah, the most driven. Four seemed a good number for their first set of Apprentices. They made the offer and returned home to wait for the younger folks to make their plans with their own Families input and advice.

*** There were three young men-Warwick, Greg, and Nick-and the young woman-Sarah-all nineteen and loose from their birth-Families for the first time in their lives. Although they'd come to be trained as Patrollers, it soon became apparent that they all had interests that led them in slightly different directions. Warwick was drawn to study crimes of a financial nature, perhaps because of the poverty of his youth. Greg, son of scientists, was fascinated by the science of crime-fighting. Nick, child of high-powered defense attorneys, was drawn to victims' rights issues. And Sarah, child of farmers who'd fought drought for many years in her infancy, found her specialty in arson and fire-related crimes. Each was thus set to work not only with Simon, but with mentors who could assist them with their particular focus.

Thus, Warwick worked with Ezra and with some of the folks in the town's three banking concerns. The latter were all quite flattered to find themselves drafted to help train someone to look into fraud and similar crimes. It wasn't an unusual arrangement, but the town hadn't really had a viable apprentice program of any kind for several years. As the only son of a poor and illness-broken Family of woolworkers, the young man found the world of high finance a definite fascination.

Greg worked with Serena, the Family coroner and forensics specialist. He also spent some time with the Pharmacy folks, members of the large Grocery Family, who, like the bankers, were happy to help train a criminologist. His blood-parents had always been overprotective of him, and he was happy to find a place in the Police world that fascinated him, but which wouldn't put him in direct harm's way. He felt only relief that his chosen profession had a place for him that wouldn't give his blood-mother more grey hairs and possible heart-trouble. Yet, for him, there was a kind of excitement in the pursuit of the smallest clues as well as in the tracking of actual criminals.

Nick was set to work with Olivia, who had victim's rights training, and with Josiah, Family Counselor. When he wasn't studying, he was staggeringly popular with all the Family's children and with the other children in the town. He'd come from a blood-Family of seven children within a birth-Family with almost forty children in all. The first apprenticeship he'd been offered had been with a Family with no children, and he hadn't been able to convince himself to take it, even though the Family and Apprentice-Master were quite well respected and the offer had been quite a compliment to him and his birth-Family, highly sought after defense attorneys.

Sarah was able to spend half her time with her three Police Protector apprentice-mates under Simon and half her time with the two apprentices of Hagen, the Apprentice Master and Second of Inga's Family, the town's Fire Protectors. She didn't take part in all of their fire-fighting training, but she did get a good grounding. The lone and lonely child of a small farm Family, it was good for Sarah to find herself so accepted by the two different training groups and to find herself doing so well in all her work.

Of course, the whole of Simon's Family of Patrollers were happy to step up to teach or help any of the apprentices. It was a joy to spend time with eager young minds and to pass along knowledge and stories. Although technically they were all too old for "nannying," the Three Mothers were only too happy to include the four in their care of all of the younger folks in the Family.

Unfortunately, all this continued happiness just made some silent observers just that much more jealous of the Family and all its various members.

*** The first hint of trouble came when the elementary principal called upon Simon to express concern over Nick's "interest" in the little girls at the elementary school. Fortunately, the whole situation was resolved without Nick even being aware of it, but the anonymous letter the principal had received was not something Simon was prepared to let go. It was slander of a most dangerous kind. Rumors of something of this nature would never let the young man go if they were to circulate through the town. Making the young man self-conscious around younger children would have devastated him and crushed a warm heart.

Reluctant to share the damning letter even with the greater part of his own Family, Simon had asked Jim to examine it for any hints, any stray scent or signs, that would give a clue to where it had come from. The page was printed on standard paper using a standard printer. Furious on the part of the younger man, whom he knew, as Sentinel and human being, to be innocent, he was sorry he couldn't find anything to trace back to the originators.

The second hint came when Warwick was accused of thefts of petty cash from one of the banking concerns. Again, the Banker brought his concerns to Simon, as Warwick's Apprentice Master, and again the situation was resolved, although this time the apprentice, mortified and stunned, was informed of the charge. No apologies from the Banker were enough to convince the younger man to return to his establishment. Rather than reflecting on Warwick, townsfolk wondered why Warwick was doing so well with the other two banks and not with Ernesto's. Thus, this problem lingered even after the money, surprise!, turned out not to be missing at all, but misplaced by one of the clerks. Again, Jim was quietly called in, and again he wasn't able to detect anything that might help. Money is notoriously "dirty."

Aware that someone was making a serious attempt to cause trouble, either for the four apprentices in particular or for the Family in general, Simon called a Family Meeting to discuss the situation and to put everyone on their Guard. Greg and Sarah were warned to be especially careful, and Hagen, invited to the Meeting, offered the assurance that his Family would keep an eye on the young woman when she was with them.

However, nothing happened for several weeks, and the Family decided that the unknown person must have gotten his jollies and moved on.

*** What happened next could not have been predicted. Trying to go after the apprentices had made the unknown enemy seem cowardly and weak. Going after a Bonded Guide and the Family's first baby, an infant Guide, was cowardly and insane.

At the edge of the Family's compound was a small pond full of brilliantly colored carp and surrounded by wild tiger lilies in the same orange. When planning the Family vegetable gardens, Inez, Family Nutritionist, had put some effort into making this pretty spot, filled with the Family's ubiquitous orange. Blair was known to take Sophia there to pat her hands in the water and coo at the flowers and fish. A connection with Nature was part of being a Guide, and Blair had decided that eight month old Guides were not too young.

It was a lazy, deceptively quiet Sunday morning. Ken and Dave were on foot patrol downtown, Vin and Buck were doing the campground checks, and Elliot and Olivia had taken Nick with them on driving sweep around the town's borders. The Three Mothers had taken the other children into town for their weekly ice cream, and Jim had gone with them, promising, as always, to bring Blair back whatever the exotic flavor of the week was. Most of the rest of the Family and the other three apprentices were out by the high school taking part in one of the weekly pickup games of soccer and softball. Simon had gone off with Joel, Chris, and Dan for some fishing.

Thus, the only one home with Blair and Sophia when it happened was Ezra who had chosen to spend his day in a hammock rather than running about, although he was a wicked-armed shortstop when his mood went the other way. He was just about asleep, a financial journal falling from his lax hand, when he heard it. In the whole of his life he hoped to never hear a sound like that one ever again. The fact that the sound came from the throat of his long ago charge only made it worse.

Without realizing it, Ezra was on his feet and running, running as if his own life depended upon it. The journey seemed nightmare slow, and it was a nightmare that greeted his eyes when he arrived at the pond. Both Blair and Sophia were facedown in the water. Neither moved. Blood streamed from Blair's head when Ezra pulled them out, and he was faced with a decision he could hardly make. Full member of his Second Protector Family, Ezra had training in First Aid and CPR, but he couldn't work on both. Holding back the sobs that would make him unable to work on either, he took out his cell phone and hit the Family Emergency signal. He spoke one word, "Pond," and then flung the phone away as he reached, as he knew he could only do, for the tiny body of Sophia.

Turning her gently in his hand, he patted her back until water gushed from her tiny mouth. Turning her over and laying her gently on the ground, he began CPR, pleading in his mind for her to breathe, just breathe, please please please please breathe. He paused to see if she had taken breath on her own. Nothing. Back to CPR. Back to pleading. Trying and failing to ignore the still body of the other very young Guide lying near him, losing his battle to keep tears from falling, but not faltering in his efforts to save the baby, to save Sophia as he knew Blair would …would have…wished. Finally, he was rewarded with faint movement and then a weak cry. Sophia was breathing.

As if that was a signal, he was suddenly no longer alone. Nathan, returning from a visit to Rain, had gotten the emergency signal as he turned in the drive. He'd raced into the house for his bag, and he was already hard at work on Blair. Looking up, he caught Ezra's eye. "Sophia?"

Sophia answered him herself with a loud, indignant wail. She was wet, and her tummy hurt, and the air was full of tension she could feel. Her usual caregivers and playmates were no where in sight, and no one was making it all better. The other warm one was feeling cold. Things were not right. She wailed again.

Nathan took a moment to relieve Ezra over the little girl, recognizing that Ezra was really a patient, too, at this point, but not able to really do anything more for him than offer a few words. "That's the very best sign. You got to her in time, Ezra. You saved her. Take her into the house and get her into dry clothes." He paused, hands busy with working to save Blair, "You did good, Ezra." Then his attention was completely on Blair.

Ezra staggered to his feet, Sophia clutched in his arms, too tight, but he couldn't help it. Gulping sobs were now pouring out of his mouth. His pleas continued, silently, but now for Blair, for the three year old he'd been and the good person he was now. Before he'd made it to the house, a series of vehicles came screeching up the drive. The passenger door of one vehicle flew open before the car even stopped and full-throated roar was heard, the counterpart to the despairing cry of so few, yet too many, minutes before, "Blair!" And Jim was running. Running as if his life depended upon it because in his case, it did.

Elliot and Olivia appeared, dazed and confused, and took Sophia from him, and Nick, compassion shining in his eyes, pulled Ezra into a hug, letting him cry, and keeping the others from trying to question him while he was so clearly distraught. After a few minutes, he led Ezra into the house in the wake of Elliot and Olivia. Nick got Ezra up to his room and made him change into dry clothes. Serena poked a head in, noted Nick's quick head shake, and continued on her journey toward Sophia. John came in to help Nick wrap Ezra in blankets to head off shock, but then he, too, left Nick to keep a quiet eye on the unhappy hero of the day. Nick stayed, asking a few quiet questions, his training kicking in even in these personally traumatic moments, until Li Po, eyes wide in the ubiquitous shock, appeared in the doorway and then the room. Ezra stood and practically fell into his wife's arms. She smiled a tremulous thanks to Nick, and he left the two of them alone.

That hour was forever imprinted upon Jim's soul. His Guide, blue and still, lying beside the little pond. Ezra soaking wet and holding the screaming infant Guide. Simon asking him if he could hear Blair's heartbeat, getting him to focus, even as John and Roy arrived to help Nathan get Blair, keep Blair, breathing on his own. Finally, too long, a few minutes, an eternity later, Blair coughed and gagged and woke. "Jim," he gasped, trying to speak, arms reaching instinctively even with his eye shut, "Jim. Sophia. Men." He gasped. "Please."

Ignoring the gurney Roy was pulling into place, Jim reached down and lifted Blair into his arms, carrying his precious burden into the house, into the clinic. He wanted to check on Sophia, he wanted to look for clues, he wanted to find out what men Blair had mentioned and then to beat them into dust. He wanted to stay with his Guide. He sat.

Dan, joined soon thereafter by Alex and Kim, took over the examination of Sophia from Serena, freeing her to go back down to the pond and start doing what she could to find forensics evidence to explain what had happened. Keen-eyed Sarah and Greg joined her, careful to avoid making any more footprints around the already disturbed scene. Nick joined them a few minutes later. Simon and Joel appeared to help as well. Chris had been dispatched to look after Ezra and to get what information he could.

Nick gave a quick report of what he'd been able to gather, "Ezra said he was lying and napping in the hammock when he heard Blair scream Jim's name. He didn't hear anything else, but he ran to the pond. He found both Blair and Sophia in the water. No one else seemed to be around. He pulled them both out, and then, realizing he could only work on one, chose Sophia." Involuntary tears appeared in his eyes as he tried to imagine the horror of making a choice between a dear old friend and an innocent baby.