Guide's Choice

by Shadde

 

Summary: AU. Though sentinel and guides are known, equality is not something both enjoy.

Disclaimer: Jim and Blair belong to Pet Fly. I'm just borrowing them for the month. All original characters are mine.

 

Prologue

*As the university bus pulled up before Protector's Sentinel Home for the unguided Blair felt his heart beating a rapid tatoo that left his chest feeling like a child's drum in the hand of a demented two year old. He was here at the Sentinel home, a place he had always been warned against. Today the teachings of his childhood would be proved or disproved and for the life of him he couldn't decide what he hoped the outcome would be.*

*The bus came to a stop before the well designed brick structure with tinted windows and surrounded by extravagant greenery, though flowers were conspicuously absent. He exited the bus with the rest of the student guides and was greeted by a tall, older man with salt and pepper dusty, brown hair. He was built like a runner who lifted light weights and his eyes were astonishingly black. Pools so deep you could sink in them and never find your way out. His voice like most guides was soft and melodious.*

*"I'm glad to have you here today. We have a grand tour arranged for you today. Please follow me..."*

Chapter 1

"This is the dayroom where most of our sentinels spend their day. They like to be as close to nature as possible so even on rainy days we leave the doors to the garden open. As you can see the lighting, colors and sounds are both neutral and muted as all our residents suffer from severe spikes and zones. We use baby detergent and herbal mixtures to keep down the scents and allergic reactions," Dr. Felessen instructed.

Blair who had somehow ended up at the back of the group and being one of the shortest couldn't see, pushed his way through the throng to gaze curiously into the spacious, airy room. The low stimulus dayrooms' decor blended nicely into the well-appointed gardens visible beyond the screened glass doors. The peaceful sound of the rain and wind calmed even his excitable nature. Most of the occupants he could see were sprawled out or curled up gazing through the screens and breathing long, deep breaths of the plant, scented air.

At least they were until the vibrations of the student guides empathy played upon the raw nerve endings of the sentinels signaling the very close proximity unbonded guides. Now they were all turned toward the door fixated by the sight of their salvation if the students would just say yes, even those so far gone they had one foot in the here and now and one in the Zone Ward.

Only one sentinel refused to acknowledge the guides presence. He sat as still as stone, hard jaw jutting from an expressionless face, a formerly big man decreased by degrees in a short amount of time. It caused his jeans and sweater to hang on his muscled form loosely.

Blair couldn't help noticing him right away. He had to stop himself from entering the room so entranced was he by the living, breathing representative of the ancient, primitive, warrior sentinel. An icon of Blair romanticized dreams and fantasies since childhood. He was as enthralled as when he was a child an imagined all sentinels as a cross between Robin Hood and King Arthur. That of course was before Naomi had pointed out their Achilles Heel of needing a guide just to function normally in everyday society. This had almost but not quite destroyed his imaginings until he saw himself at some brave defender's side as important as themselves because he kept the defender safe. Naomi had did her best to destroy this fantasy especially as Blair soon found out, he was a guide.

Abrupt, sudden movement in the room beyond drew Blair back from his past reminisces as some of the more desperate sentinels made an abortive break for the door and the unbonded guides. They were quickly restrained by previously invisible guards, guides not called to bond or low level empaths.

The students stumbled back in alarm but Blair found himself clinging to the doorframe unable to turn away from such need. He wasn't the only one.

Another stir in the room brought their attention around to the sentinel who had refused to acknowledge them as he rose in a fluid, cat-like motion a sharp hiss of censure in his voice. The whole room was captivated by his dominating, presence the sentinels leaving off their desperate attempt at the unbonded guides drawing together with the other present residents, a group unto themselves. The guards stepping back to wait and the student's coming back to cluster in the doorway.

They were to be disappointed however as the words of the commanding sentinel remained inaudible to all but those with enhanced senses. By his actions touching, and squeezing the shoulders of the others they could tell though he was giving comfort but also correction as he glanced with disdain and anger toward the main entrance and the gathered students.

Finally he stepped back allowing other more in control sentinels to comfort those on death's door and moving with dignity and purpose left the room by the residents entrance ignoring the hovering guards, lest he try for the unbonded guides.

When he was gone and order restored by residents comforting and succoring their mates the guard faded back into the unreveling decor of the room.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

"That is our stoic, domestic warrior and leader among the sentinels though he's only been a resident here a couple of weeks" Dr. Felessen reported a tinge of amusement in his voice at the students stunned expressions.

"Wow. What was he before he came here?" One girl asked to hectic ribbing and joshing of her mates at the desire and excitement in her voice.

Unfazed by the young guides levity Dr. Felessen answered her question directly and firmly. "That will be shared with his guide and his guide only. We believe in protecting the privacy of our residents."

"Was he rejected by his guide, or did his guide die?" Another asked.

"Isn't he a bit old to be looking for a guide?" One bored young man asked disdainfully.

"No he was not rejected and has never had a guide. There are other facilities for the recently widowed or rejected. He is older than most sentinels seeking a guide but he is a special case."

"Why are sentinels' called widows when their guide dies?"

"I thought sentinels aren't able to survive more than five years after their twentieth birthday without a guide?" A big, burly student asked suspicion coloring his red cheeks. "Isn't that why they make us take these tours before we graduate from the guide program, to see if we will bond and save some poor, suffering sentinel?"

Dr. Felessen frowned at the students and quickly ushered them away after glancing back into the dayroom knowing the sentinels could hear the students despite ongoing white noise generators when they were so close.

"One question at a time" He admonished taking a deep breath to quell his anger and disgust at the young guides knowing that a negative response would never convince the selfish, self-centered, self-absorbed, materialistic students to commit to one of his needy sentinels. "Bereft sentinels are called widows because the bonding is closer to a marriage than any other kind of relationship and many times a sentinel will not survive beyond a day after their guides death."

"As for our warrior as I said he is a special case. The only sentinel in recent history to survive outside a pairing for more than five years past the deadline." He spoke with a touch of awe and pride in his voice that his center had gained the warrior sentinel as there was one other facility he could have gone to. "Still," He said suddenly sad, "Even he couldn't last indefinitely and is here as in desperate need of a guide as the rest."

"He sure doesn't act like he wants a guide." A snooty voice dripping with sarcasm and anger spoke up from the side where a faux blond haired girl leaned against the wall, surrounded by her clone entourage, her plain, blue eyes snapping in indignation that a helpless, needy sentinel had ignored her presence.

Dr. Felessen wasn't the only one turned off by her attitude and lack of empathy. He couldn't help wondering how she had got into the guide program as he had a fairly high empathic ability and could feel only the barest touch of empathic vibration in her. He was surprised. *Had she rejected her sentinel already causing his or her death or did she know someone?*

Blair wondered the same, as his ability had been classified as the highest of any guide tested and she barely caused a shimmer in empathic realm. He thought she'd never be a bonded guide. Sentinels definitely needed more than that to bond. She could easily be classified as non-enhanced as well as some of her clones Blair noted turning his antennae her way. Surprisingly enough two of her group were quite high and Blair wondered how they could stand to listen to her drivel.

"He nor will any of the others beg for their life. They, all the sentinels have gone through so much deprivation and pain in their lives with strength and courage. They know without guides they will die but they are still brave in the face of that, carrying on until they can't function any more and only acting as you saw them today when the input becomes so great they can no longer filter even a little bit of it out. The next step for them will be the Zone Ward.

"Isn't it kind of dramatic to say they are facing their deaths? Zones don't kill." Miss faux blond spat anger at the obvious deception of the doctor.

Blair had to admit he wanted to know the same thing since his mother had told him so many stories growing up of bonded guides duplicity in trying to trick guides into giving up their freedom and choice.

"No it is accurate as you will soon see. Follow me. I have something to show you that will cure all of you of your delusions of bonded guides duplicity. For it is unbonded guides who refuse their responsibility who are guilty of lies and misinformation." His voice showed his venom and outrage at unbonded guides. Motioning the students after him he turned to far wing of the Home.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 2

He led them to a different part of the home set in a separate wing close to the small cemetery built on the hill behind the Home. Dr. Felessen pointed it out through the tinted windows on the cross section which connected wings of the facility.

Blair turned away deeply disturbed by the evidence of sentinel's death in this home if they remained without a guide.

As they entered through a large, heavy steel door they found themselves in a dimly lit corridor where sound was cut by more than half by high power white noise generators making their steps sound muffled. Blair bumped into the girl in front of him the light was so low because of covered lighting plates and dimmer switches. He found himself having to be careful not to crash into the walls and the staff who passed quietly by the students like silent ghost in their white uniforms casting sad and angry looks on the wary young guides. Blair could sense that they too were guides, bonded or high level empaths not called to the bond.

He rubbed at his nose taking indistinct sniffs at the colorless, flavorless air and pushing his fingers into his ears feeling like he had gone deaf.

The smooth, padded floor and walls, nonexistent scent and muted light might relieve overloaded senses but it made the guides feel as if they had lost half of theirs.

"What's their problem?" A young man, shorter than Blair and slight at that with brown, black hair and brown eyes asked in a whisper afraid to break the sacred silence.

"You wish to know their problem? Why they look at you with such anger and hatred? This is why," Dr. Felessen said curtly forcefully pulling back the heavy, brown curtain from before a glass viewing window exposing to the world the pathetic, helpless occupants within.

Blair felt his breath catch in his chest. He couldn't breath. He thought he was going to die until a pounding on his back forced him to take a breath. He looked up gasping and wiping the moisture from his eyes thanked the short, skinny student who had asked the last question. He laid his head on the glass, his eyes closed refusing for a moment to review the horror just beyond his head.

A strangled sob made him look up as one girl bolted back down the hall a hand over her mouth, blue-gray eyes huge in a pale face. Forced to face the sight in the other room he felt his own stomach roil. Looking at the others gathered around he discovered them standing still as statues shocked into a terrible silence. He felt his assurance and arrogance die as his innocence was sacrificed on the alter of truth.

His mother for the first time in his life had been frighteningly wrong. She who had always fought for the rights of the downtrodden and defenseless had protested against the right of sentinels to have guides believing the reports of bonded guides was rhetorical hype. Decrying the mandatory bonding of guides as depriving them of freedom and choice she had helped condemn hundreds of sentinels to the slavery of their senses with the accompaniment suffering and pain.

He knew her denial and protest was partly because she was a guide and in part because her son was one. And yet how could he totally accuse her when he still felt a small spark of resistance at the thought of being forced to bond.

* * * * * * * * * *

Turning from his macabre thoughts he gazed on the blank eyes and empty expressions of the sentinels beyond the window who were hooked up to every machine imaginable which monitored all their bodily functions, the lights and alarms turned off except for the buttons at the nurses station. They lay five to each side of the room hands laying lax and still, mouths slack and drooling. Like wax figures frozen in time, they appeared dead.

Blair finally had to look away knowing he would go screaming from the hall like the other guide if he continued to look on such monumental human misery. He saw Dr. Felessen was watching their response and felt some anger at the manipulation of the older guide understanding why his mother never trusted bonded guides.

After a bit the doctor finally released them from the sight, pulling the curtain back before the window and escorting the stunned young people back to the main wing.

When they reached the sunny, open area of the main part of the home Dr. Felessen addressed them again. "That concludes our tour for today. My assistant will show you back to the entrance where you can pick of packets of today's tour and a video of the bonding process. There will also be a buffet and you will be able to mingle with bonded pairs before you return to the university."

Blair was still bothered by what they had seen and couldn't let go so easily. "Ho...How long does it take for a sentinel to reach that stage?"

"It depends on the sentinels' level of sensitivity. Some are more affected by the environment. They need guides immediately, sometimes in their late teens. For most if they haven't paired up by twenty-five, twenty-seven the latest for the dullest.

"Can they be saved once they get that bad?"

"It has never happened. They usually won't respond after going that far, not even to their true guides. Wh...why is this allowed to happen!

"Because," Dr. Felessen countered "guides are not taught that this what their gift is for. They are given the choice to refuse or choose. Most would rather use their gift in non-guiding practices for profit. Chasing after material gain and wealth they forsake those who truly need their gift hurting not just the denied sentinels but destroying the empathic center of their own brains leaving them little more than empathic retards, all because they were unwilling to give up a modicum of their freedom. Do you realized that sentinels give up far more freedom than guides when they bond? Their whole life is dictated to by others and they face torment and death if someone doesn't take pity on them! So you'll have to forgive me if I don't feel much sympathy for a guides loss of freedom! I'm a guide. I'm bonded." The doctors words were sharp bullets in their hearts as he blasted them from his anger and heartsickness at the waste.

It forced Blair to face his mother's teaching honestly and to find them wanting. *Did he have the right to push his freedom at the expense of another's life? No he didn't. But what about all the lives he wouldn't be able to reach because he'd be tied to one person, his sentinel.* This had always been his mother's objection. She was a people person and could not even be faithful to one man.

The argument went over and over in his head until he banished it hoping to end the ache that had taken up residence. "Why not recruit older guides if younger ones are ready for that kind of commitment."

"You didn't listen young guide. There are no older guides able to bond for once they have denied their calling and their intended sentinel dies they lose their ability and are forced to live the rest of their lives as an unenhanced person." Dr. Felessen felt exasperation at having to reiterate himself to long-haired, aqua blue-eyed guide of the calming, melodious voice that would be so beneficial to a sentinel. He felt this young man and several others felt the call to bond but needed that extra push to make the commitment.

"I thought not all empaths are guides? After all for every sentinel there is ten guides?"

"True, but those who are called to bond can't escape this fate and even those who are not called to the bonding if they reject to help those in need they too will lose their ability.

"It can't be true you lose your empathy. I grew up with my mother being a empath that refused to bond and yet she retained her full ability always being able to help others by knowing what they were feeling."

"Perhaps she was never called to bond and she never rejected to help someone in need. I don't know but I can tell you I have documented cases of what I'm saying. Some people not just empaths are good at reading people's body language and listening between the lines. It doesn't make them empaths. Those who were and lose that ability always feel a loss they can never fill. Some turn to drugs, drinking and violence. Others find themselves serving as low level empathic guards in homes like this one or teachers at the university or the sentinel schools."

Blair had nothing more he could say to that.

Dr. Felessen seeing there were no more questions forthcoming stepped back and motioned his previously unobserved assistant forward.

"Please follow me back to the entrance. You'll be able to get lunch and meet those like myself and the doctor who have taken that plunge."

The students followed her as Dr. Felessen made his way back into the bowels of the building.

* * * * * * * * * *

Back at the entrance tables had been set up with platters of finger food: sandwiches, crackers and cheese with slices of meat; cookies, pastries and drinks: coffee, iced tea and punch.

Standing about the tables eating and socializing were men and women of all ages, most young, some as young as the students and one couple comprised of late teen girl and boy. These were obviously the pairs by the way they stood. Sentinels and guides recognizable by their behavior. The sentinels touching their guides hair and breathing in their scent.

The guides for their part rubbed their sentinels arms and touched their cheek, giving frequent comforting hugs or leaning back against them which was made easier as the sentinels as a group were taller than their guides even the women who had male guides.

Dr. Felessen's assistant left them as soon as they entered the room going over to join a group that included a tall, elfin, amazon of wild, wind blown red curls and dancing green eyes.

Blair stood back to observe and study the interactions between guide and sentinel fascinated by the joy and pleasure on the faces of the guides. He had always known bonding was a balm to the sentinel but these guides acted as if it was a balm to them as well. Not only that they showed themselves to be just as possessive about their sentinels as sentinels were reported to be about their guides when one of the unbonded guides approached.

The unbonded guides were not turned away if they showed a true interest like Stacy Adams who was accepted into the ranks as if she were already bonded which Blair had no doubt she would be by the end of the day for she had been affected most by what she had seen here even running crying from the Zone Ward to be found red eyed and shaking in the connecting quarter when the other guides and Dr. Felessen returned.

Big, Burly Steven Bresher also meshed well with the pairs and Blair inundated with his and Stacy's and Deborah's yearning need found himself almost pulled across the room and joining the. He had to lock his knees and take several deep breaths to push back his own yearning desire. He could only be grateful that the pairs respected his refusal because if they had welcomed him as they welcomed the others he would capitulate unable to resist.

Another student who sought entrance but couldn't get into any group, his sick, cloying empathy distorting the ambient to such a degree even a desperate sentinel would not go near him. David Lash just seemed to cause people to want to get away from him.

Snooty Laura Trumbull also was not welcomed though she showed no interest in the pairs herself. The two in her group who were real guides were encouraged to talk and mingle though.

The others ate, chatted with each other and an occasional pair but when the bus arrived they got on without any hesitation this chore done and it wouldn't be to later in their life when a younger, still active empath took their lucrative spot would they remember Dr. Felessen's warning.

Blair looked back as he climbed on the bus almost deciding to stay as he saw Stacy and Steve standing with the pairs preparing to join that society themselves.

Finally deciding against making such a decision today he climbed aboard and settled with a pained sigh in a seat staring out a window and back to the Home until it passed out of sight.

* * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 4

Jim left the day room on a direct line to his room trying to push down his own desperate need ignited by the presence of the unbonded guides. No one knew how close he was to the edge which is what had made him snappish at the suffering sentinels.

He entered his room and lowered himself wearily onto his bed staring fixedly at the nondescript ceiling until he felt himself slipping away into it's blandness. Jerking himself back he flipped onto his stomach with a snort of disgust at his out of control senses.

He hated this, absolutely hated it. He couldn't even control his own body and mind. How could he ever be any use to any one again. To much stimuli or to little always waiting to ambush him around every corner; In every bright light or too poignant scent or loud sound. He pounded the soft, non hypoallergenic mattress and wanted to scream at its' sterility. He'd rather see dust or feathers flying in chaotic swirls right now.

All he wanted was to go home. Back to Prospect Avenue, to his loft apartment and back to work in Major Crime.

But he knew all that was denied him forever unless some wet behind the ear kid deigned to take him on as a sentinel and that was highly unlikely. Even the few guides who chose to bond wouldn't chose one as old as himself. He was screwed and he knew it. His future set. In a matter of months, a year at the most he would zone out and become an occupant of the Zone Ward where he would breath his last and die.

Knowing this did not stop the fission of pain in his gut at the thought of such a death, no dignity, no privacy, no choice. His personal wish would have been up close and personal with his piece but Simon had forever ended that option when he'd discovered him with the gun in his mouth and tackled him, wrestling it out of his hand before he could pull the trigger. A short stay in the psych ward at Cascade General, then a one way all expense paid trip here, to Protector's Sentinel Care Home for the perpetually pathetic.

He snorted at himself, deriding himself for his self-pity. Get over it Ellison. Like the army taught you make the best of whatever circumstances you find yourself in. Okay he was stuck here so he'd make this home until he wouldn't care any more where his useless, empty, body rested.

The sound of pounding feet headed his way caused him to lift his head. He frowned. It shouldn't be that loud. Not with white noise generators softly ssshing and soft set floors. Not to mention no one wore any but the softest soled shoes here. He concentrated bringing his hearing within normal parameters seconds before he would have been deafened by Casey Tam's enthusiastic entrance.

"Jim did you see them? All the unbonded guides that came today?"

"Yes Casey. It would have been hard to miss them as they stood ogling us poor needy sentinels. There was almost a riot, the long timers attempting to stampede the door which would have caused guard maneuvers and lock down procedures."

"I heard. It must be excruciating for them to be so close to salvation and yet not able to have it. I wonder how I'd act if I was that close to going down?"

"You're strong Casey. You'd be like me and resist the temptation to shame yourself before those who enjoy your pain so much."

"I hope I would but I can't be sure and I hope I don't have to find out." She was silent for a moment contemplating with compassion and empathy the plight of the long timers then her eyes beginning to sparkle again she sat forward on Jim's bed where she had plopped, on entering his private room. "I don't think I'll have to worry about it though. I think I felt my guide today. I don't know which one she is but she was in that group and she's as ready to bond as I am."

Jim sat up his face set in a serious expression, his eyes and voice grave. "Now Casey don't get your hopes up, even if one of them is your guide, and even if she, she?"

"Yes Jim, she. I don't know how I know it's a she but I do."

"Well even so. Even if she is here and feeling the call of the bond it does not mean she'll heed it." He did not want to discourage the girl who looked up to him as a father/big brother figure but he also didn't want to see her destroyed by routed hope.

"I know that's a possibility Jim, but I also know it's not what is going to happen today. She is going to bond with me. I don't just feel it, I know it," She insisted vehemently.

"Okay, I believe you Casey." Jim knew he couldn't dissuade her and who was he to knock someone else's instincts when he had lived by his for so long relying on them despite evidence to the contrary.

He couldn't deny it either. He felt the calling of the bond stronger than he ever had before. A yearning stronger than the pull he had felt for his wife Caroline on their wedding day. His guide was also here.

His guide? Who was he kidding. He tried to shake the certainty out of his head but it would not be dislodged. It didn't matter though, even if his guide was here he wasn't ready to bond, he? Yes he. He knew the gender of his guide also but he wasn't coming for Jim.

He listened with half an ear to Casey bubble on about the guides and which one she thought was hers as he listened to Dr. Felessen continue the tour, directing the students to the disturbing Zone Ward.

He felt himself slipping away from his room and reality when one melodious, calming voice out of all the others, a male student questioned Dr. Felessen identifying himself as a truly empathic person hurting for sentinels especially those on the Zone Ward. Even when he spoke in anger Jim was held and enthralled sinking deeper.

He came back to himself moments later Casey shaking and calling him frantically. "Jim...JIM! Wake up! Please Jim wake up. Jim come on. Come back!"

"I'm here. I'm okay Casey" he answered a bit breathlessly his heart beating out his fear and anxiety at what had almost happened. "Thanks Casey. It's okay. I'm alright now."

Sighing in relief she confronted him "What happened? I was afraid I'd have to get the doctors. You were listening to the guides weren't you. You heard your guide didn't you? That's why I couldn't get you back. Which one was it, do you know? A man, a woman?

"Stop it Casey. I don't know what you're talking about. I'm an unbonded sentinel who's been too long on his own. Zones are natural for me." His voice brooked no argument. As usual Casey took no notice.

"I know you think you won't find a guide because you're too old Jim, but I know you will. You can't give up hope. You have made it too far for it to end in the Zone Ward. You've lived longer than any sentinel alive without a guide. There's a reason for that. We may not know that reason but someday it will come out. You're destined for something great."

Jim gave her a hug touched by her naive belief and sincere care for him. "You too Casey. You too. I'm tired now. I need to rest and you need to be heading to the meeting room." He smiled. "Some of the guides have remained. One of them is probably your guide."

Casey leaped from the bed her whole body vibrating with excitement. "You see your senses are the strongest of all of us, even without a guide. You have something extraordinary to do Jim, just you wait and see." Then she was gone in a blink, a deer chased by a large predator. The comparison made him smile for Casey's spirit animal was a white tailed deer and his, a black jaguar. His smile grew bigger as his jaguar spirit leaped onto the bed and lay down on the mattress grooming it's whiskers in a self-satisfied way.

Shaking his head at the energy of youth he lay back on the bed but couldn't help listening for that melodious voice again to see if he had stayed. Not hearing it and realizing what he was doing he angrily got up from the bed and stormed from the room back down the corridor and into the day room and from there to the rain, sprinkled gardens.

He didn't acknowledge that his anger was partly because of the absence of that voice. He didn't even realize that was why he was angry.

* * * * * * * * * *

In the meeting room the unbonded guides were introduced to the sentinels. By unspoken consent the most desperate were allowed to go first although all the sentinels longed to be one of the chosen.

Casey was one of the last to be allowed access to the guides allowing her to stand back and watch, observing which guides responded to which sentinels. Malik a dark-skinned, African American was quickly paired up with Thomas a sentinel who had been at the facility for almost four years. He was just one step away from the Zone Ward and Casey couldn't help cheering for him. The relief on his face and the absence of pain since she had known him made him look ten years younger, closer to his twenty two years.

Steve Bresher was also quickly hitched with petite Amanda Lee another long timer but not quite as far gone as Thomas. She probably had a couple more months before she reached that place.

Oliver Crenshaw took a little longer picking out his sentinel and was finally bonded to Oliver Denishaw a relatively short timer having only been at the home for two years. O and O danced through Casey's mind causing her to laugh out loud. How would they know who was who? Use initials, OC and OD? That was worth another laugh as the guide could be looked at as the officer in command and the sentinel as od'ed on his guide.

One of the girls, Deborah Winters, wouldn't even try with any of the other sentinels convinced she was destined to be paired with the warrior. Dr. Felessen sent a guard to bring Jim. He truly doubted she and Jim would connect, but until she had a chance to at least try and find out her juvenile crush was not the same as empathic attunement she would not even give the rest of the sentinels a chance.

Stacy Newman on the other hand reached out to every sentinel presented to her and was fast frustrated with her inability to connect. Casey found her eyes being drawn back to the girl again and again. This was her guide. She knew it. She had to restrain herself from attacking as sentinel after sentinel approached her guide.

That restraint was broken when Stacy in desperation was drawn to a partial connection with Chas Tome, another newbie like Casey. Before she knew it she was across the room and tossing Chas to the other side with a strength she never knew she had. Stacy reacted in surprise and fright which angered Casey even more causing her to turn with a snarl toward the other sentinel. Taking control quickly Stacy soothed the sentinel girl with her soft voice.

Rubbing her hands over Casey's arm and shoulder a look of awe and joy swept her pained features smoothing out her wrinkled brow as a tingling sensation swept her arm to her head and heart catching her and Casey up in a wave of delicious warmth, and roiling emotion as they joined, sharing each other's memories, lives and abilities. In that moment they found themselves in a northern forest surrounded by the sounds, smells, sight and touch of the life around them both participating in Casey's enhanced senses while Stacy shared her empathy. With the guidance of the other for a moment out of time they explored each other's abilities traveling through this strange land with a white tailed deer and small, brown sparrow. The animals stuck close to them and the girls knew they were significant. After only a short time they opened their eyes to find them self the center of attention. All had stopped to watch the fourth connection that day.

Jim arriving as the girls traveled to the spirit realm to secure their new bond stood in the door with the guard right behind him to arrest his retreat and was barely able to stop his moan from becoming audible to all but the gathered sentinels at a bonding that was not his own. He was glad for Casey though. She had been right, from what Jim had heard as the students toured the home Stacy was ready and willing to bond. She had been searching for her sentinel and had found her in Jim's little sister/play daughter. He was overjoyed for the both of them.

After the wave of empathic vibration died down one of the aides ushered sentinel and guide out and Jim found himself pushed to Deborah's side and down into a chair beside her. Jim knew she wasn't his guide and couldn't stop his flinch of distaste as she reached for his hand.

"Hello I'm Deborah but all my friends and family call me Deb. You can call me that too. I knew when I saw you today we were going to be joined. I want what Stacy just experienced."

Jim found his hand suddenly in her small, cold one. He turned to glare at the presumptuous guard as his strong aversion to her touch forced him to snatch his appendage back and wipe it unobtrusively on his jeans.

Deborah couldn't stop the distress from appearing on her own narrow featured face as she snatched her hand back, scrubbing it on her suede, dust colored skirt disappointed that the warrior was not her sentinel.

Jim stood abruptly. "Sorry," He tersely replied hiding his own distaste behind a blank face as he moved out of the way of the crowding sentinels, now that Deborah, all my friends call me Deb was free to try for another.

He didn't stay to find out who the lucky sentinel turned out to be.

* * * * * * * * * *

Two days after the senior guide trip to the sentinel home Blair was surprised by a visit from Naomi.

"Mom what are you doing here?"

"I can't visit my son just to see how he's doing?"

"Yes mom, you can visit just to check up on me it's just that you so rarely do."

"I know Blair but I just felt like I had to come and see you."

"This doesn't have anything to do with my visit to the sentinel care facility, does it? Because if it is you don't have to worry. You see I've made it through the mandatory tour without bonding. You can go on to India and meet that new guru you were so hyped on last time we talked."

"I didn't come because I feared you'd bond Blair. I taught you better than that. I just wanted to make sure you were alright emotionally and your aura hadn't been to clouded by the horrors that they expose you to when you go to those prisons of suffering."

"Mom have you ever been to a home, or are you quoting from what others have told you?"

"Oh no I've been, Blair. They forced *us* to go in our senior year of high school, not university. I thank the goddess they've made it illegal to force impressionable young minds to face things they are not prepared to fight against. Many a young person in my day bonded because they believed the lies we were fed!"

"Naomi what if they're not lies but truth? Have you ever been in a Zone Ward?"

"I told you they showed us everything Blair and that is not truth. That is bonded guides underhanded way of getting young empaths to become guides."

"Mom that suffering wasn't faked. Those people looked dead and the reaction of the staff was real too. I could feel it! Remember I'm a high level empath so I can feel when someone is lying to me!"

"No the sentinels and staff aren't faking because those in power keep their hidden agenda under-wraps to all but those in their circle. *They* do that to the sentinels. Do you think it's that hard to put a sentinel in a zone coma? The staff is not told anything but what the general public is, so they think it's real."

"What about the cemetery?"

"*They* don't care about lives! Who cares if a couple of sentinels die from their mistreatment?"

"Mom if you care about how sentinels are treated why did you teach me against helping them?"

"No, not against helping but against being roped into slavery, tied to one of them for all eternity. I taught you against giving up your freedom and choice."

"Naomi don't you think 'for all eternity' is an exaggeration?"

"No Blair they taught us the bond is for life and transcends death. No one deserves to rob another of their freedom and choice in this life and the one that comes after."

"But if we don't use our abilities to help them then we condemn them to a life of pain and misery, a very short life; a horrible death."

"I know it seems that way Sweetie but it can't help them by forcing them to be tied to the same person for all eternity either. This way they are allowed to go on to find a better life. Perhaps they were chosen to suffer this burden because in their next existence they will be called on to do something great or I don't want to contemplate this, but what if it is punishment for a terrible former life."

"Even if that's true what will be our punishment in the next life, for allowing *their* suffering? What if this is *our* test?"

"That's why I have always fought for ways to make sentinel's life more comfortable and to give them more natural ways to control their senses without having to rely upon someone else. Sentinels are solitary by nature and would be quite happy to not have to rely upon guides for the daily existence."

"But Mom no ways have been found for control of senses without guides as far as I know. At the care home we went to yesterday they had a sentinel there who had outlasted all previously unbonded sentinels. They call him the warrior and after only being there two weeks he's already the defacto leader." Blair detailed to Naomi animation in his voice, hands and body.

Naomi listened with trepidation and discomfort to the excited tone in Blair's voice and the fascination on his face when he spoke of this warrior sentinel. She had done her utmost best to destroy his affinity for sentinels when he was a child but like she had once been, it couldn't be defrayed.

"Blair, Blair I'm sure he's fascinating but what does he have to do with your anthropology studies? Like you said you have had your visit and made it through intact. Now instead of worrying about sentinels you can concentrate on studying new peoples and their culture."

Blair stopped talking and pacing back and forth his hands frozen in midair at Naomi's interruption. Studying the look on her face he realized she did not want to talk anymore about sentinels but he wasn't through yet. There was one more thing he needed to know.

"Mom do you still have your empathy?" He asked softly watching her _expression and feeling in the ambient the weak vibrations of her gift. He caught his breath when he felt how weak her empathy was. He had never noticed or thought to question when his mother's vibrations had become so infinitesimal. She was just his mother back then. Not a guide or empath and he was used to her helping people by knowing their emotions. Now her gift was no larger than Laura Trumbull, maybe weaker. He got glimpses of times when his mother could no longer tell people their feelings, exactly but had to guess, getting close but no longer being right on the ball. He gasped realizing that must have been when she lost her abilities. Dr. Felessen was right. How did she cope?"

"Blair, Blair, BLAIR!"

Blair came back from his thoughts to find his mother staring at him. He realized she had called him several times when he had failed to respond to her answer to his question.

"Sorry Mom. Got caught up in my thoughts."

"What were you thinking about?"

Blair waved his hand negligently. "Forget about that Mom. What I want to know is how can you function without your empathy? When did it leave you? Can you still sense anything about other people's emotions? Why did you chose not to bond if the young people in your day were tricked into it? "

Naomi paled at Blair's questions turning away.

Blair slapped himself on the forward disgusted with his insensitivity. "I'm sorry Mom I didn't mean to just blurt it out like that. It's just that the doctor at the home told us if the bond called to us and we denied it then we would lose our abilities and I just realized you no longer have a empathetic vibration. I just wanted to know... . No forget it. I'm sorry."

Naomi turned back to face Blair's contrite _expression. "No you should know. No I'm no longer much of an empath Blair but I don't believe it's because I didn't bond. It goes away with age. All of the empaths I know around my age and older have lost their abilities except for Minna."

"Isn't Minna bonded?"

"Yes she is. I wasn't there to stop her from making the biggest mistake of her life like she did for me."

"She stopped you from bonding?"

"Yes. I was drawn to a small, rugged young man with sandy, colored curls and blue eyes deeper and bluer than the ocean. We spent that night together and I thought to bond with him, before Minna told my parents were I was. They dragged me out and Minna talked and talked at me until I came to my senses. I never returned to the home. I found out he died seven years later on your birthday."

Blair set stunned. His mother had not just told him that she was called to the bond and had not always been against it, but she had also told him who his father was. "When I was six?"

"Yes Blair he was your father. Your father was a sentinel. But isn't that what they tell you? The strongest guides have sentinel blood? Didn't you learn that in your classes. They taught us that every year in every health class. Your great-grandfather was a sentinel. That's why my empathy was so strong, and my mother's."

"But, but mom why would you never tell me any of this. I've always wanted to know who my father was. Why didn't..."

"No Blair no more. That part of my life is dead. Remember what I'm always saying..."

"Yeah, yeah...detach with love. But Mom this is about me..."

"It doesn't matter Blair I won't discuss it anymore. I have let it go and got on with my life. I raised you and because your father was a sentinel he could never have had a hand in it. I made my choice before you were born."

Blair sighed knowing that his stubbornness had come from Naomi and if she didn't want to talk about something she wouldn't. "Okay Naomi. I understand, will you be going to India after you leave here?"

"Oh yes. I am so excited about..." Even as Naomi talked Blair was making plans on how to find out about his father. Knowing now more than ever he had to do something to stop the suffering and dying of sentinels.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Jim?"

Jim lifted his head from the bed where he was lying contemplating his bleak future and turned to look at the door. "Casey." He smiled sitting up to rest with one leg on the floor and his arms resting on his thighs taking a moment to examine his one time daughter/little sister. "Hey how are you doing?"

"I'm doing good Jim. I'm so happy and I really love my guide. I can't describe what it's like to bonded. It's the most amazing experience. Stacy and I get along so well. It's like we've always known each other. She's the sister I always wanted but mom would never give me."

Jim found himself chuckling at Casey's usual whirlwind conversation wondering if the girl ever took a breath between sentences. "You know I'm happy to hear that and I'm glad it's going so well for you. You were right Casey, your guide was here that day and ready to bond. You've got good instincts. Always rely up on them."

"I will Jim and don't worry. Your guide is out there. He or she may not be ready to bond yet but they will be when it's time." She hesitated a moment catching Jim's full attention as she wasn't one for caution when she was talking. "Did...did the one you heard that day ever come back?"

Jim shrugged waving his hand abstractly in the air. "He comes every other day. He's interested in me as a warrior and longest lived sentinel outside of a bonding. He wants to do a paper on me. I don't think he's to interested in bonding even though I believe it calls to him. He see's himself as a helper of all mankind not just one ornery sentinel. Say's he wants to figure out ways for sentinels to cope with their senses without needing to rely upon others.

"Oh Jim I'm sorry. Maybe he isn't the one for you after all. Do you want Stacy to talk to him, to show him being a guide is not the loss of freedom or stricture he believes?"

"No. That's okay Casey. Just leave it! What I'd like to know is when am I going to meet this extraordinary guide of yours. "

"Right now." She bounced regaining her former animation. She moved to the door and in a quick movement brought the other girl around the door frame by her arm. Stacy stood frozen for a moment her large blue-gray eyes looking lost in her pale freckled face. After only a moment she regained her equilibrium and pushed her blondish, reddish waves out of her face. Her tentative smile and quick curtsy had Jim liking what he saw. This guide would never abuse or abandon her sentinel.

"Jim this is Stacy Newman. Stacy this is Jim. He is both my friend, confidant and big brother."

"Hello." Stacy said in a clear, musical alto voice here face pinking with embarrassment at the squeak of nervousness.

"Hello Stacy," Jim said kindly not deigning to stand so as not to frighten the girl. "It's good to meet the one who has taken Casey out of here. She deserves a life. She's a good sentinel. If you take care of her, she will take care of you."

"Oh Jim don't lecture" She said exasperated at his serious tone.

"No I'm glad you have someone who cares so much about you Casey. It makes me feel good to know my sentinel had a protector in this place."

Now it was Casey's turn to blush. "Don't be silly Stacy. I was never in any danger while here. Everyone's pretty nice and the staff takes real good care us. They're aren't any fights allowed and with camera's in every corner private assaults are out of the question. And any way everyone's trying to get out of here not get locked up in some place worse."

"Casey's right about that. The sentinel homes are probably one of the safest places to be as sentinels are traditionally protectors and even the on the precipice of Zone Out won't attack another."

"I think I've heard that but I'm still glad. Casey's the first really close friend I've ever had. I was always to shy before to talk to people but with her by my side I don't feel so self-conscious."

Jim nodded understanding how being not alone helped you get over your fears. "How are your classes going?"

"Oh Jim they are so exciting." Casey gushed plopping down on the mattress and pulling Stacy down with her. "We're learning so many new things. I can't wait until..."

Jim listened with an interested look on his face letting the girls voices wash over his raw nerve endings giving appropriate feedback at the right intervals. He was surprised how Stacy's voice could help him control his out of control senses when she was not his guide. He wondered was it because she was bonded? He'd have to ask Sandburg when he came back to visit in a couple of days. Then he shook his head when had he begun to center his life around the young guides arrivals, saving questions and discussion topics for his regular visits?

He shook his head putting aside that train of thought to concentrate back on the girls but they were winding up.

"It's been nice meeting you Jim but Casey and I have a pairing workshop in half an hour we have to attend."

"It's going take us that long almost to get to the university what with lunch hour traffic."

"Well you girls drive carefully and it was nice to meet you to Stacy."

When the girls were gone with their energy and bustle Jim sank back on the bed but soon found he couldn't stay there as the effects of Stacy's presence gave him a sense of well-being he had been missing since Sandburg's last visit. Pushing himself into an upright position he took leave of his room and found himself in the gardens breathing in the fresh air and enjoying the warmth of a rare sunshine.

Tomorrow Blair would be coming and Jim sense's would settle down once again. He just had to hold out until then. Stacy's presence had helped. He would be fine, tomorrow.

"Hey Jim."

He turned at the hearty greeting and waved at his captain. "Hi Simon."

* * * * * * * * * *

 

Blair returned to the home six days after the student's tour and four days after Naomi's visit. He told himself it was because he needed to learn more about sentinels to help them learn to control their senses without a guide.

But he couldn't really fool himself. Dr. Felessen and Naomi had both given him things to think about. He still didn't know if he wanted to bond but after finding out his father was a guide he knew he had to help them. If he didn't bond he knew he was risking his empathy because the bond called to him. He definitely wasn't one of those empaths who could get away with not connecting to a sentinel.

When he entered the facility he found himself before the long front desk set up to the side of the outer hall that led to the interior of the building. The woman at the desk looked up at him over her round glasses with a questioning look. Then she frowned. "What do you want unbonded? We don't take visits from your kind lightly. To many of our residents are in need for us to allow unbonded guides to wander unchecked through our halls.

"Oh I don't want to disturb anyone. I was here several days ago on the seniors tour and I saw the one you call the warrior sentinel. I wanted to interview him for some research I'm doing."

The ugly look on her face had Blair backpedaling. "I don't want to hurt him it's just that I felt drawn..."

"Well why didn't you say so." Her countenance lightened immediately here let me show you to the meeting room and I have someone bring him from his room." She was all bubbly and light now. "We'd all hoped that our warrior would find his guide. He's so special."

As she gushed and babbled on and on Blair found himself unable to get a word in edgewise and before he knew it he was alone in the infamous meeting room where sentinel and guide pairs were made. Sinking down onto one of the comfortable, deep chairs he buried his face in his hands. He hadn't come here to bond. How did he always get himself into these things?

He shook his head and waited fearfully for Jim to appear wondering if he would be arrested for trying to defraud a desperate sentinel.

Hearing the sound of the knob turning he turned to look up into the coldest, most frightening, light-blue eyes he had ever seen. The warrior stood there stiff as he had been the first time Blair had seen him, face expressionless, body still missing several pounds. Today he was dressed in dark slacks and a black tee shirt under a orange and blue flannel shirt that brought out the color in his eyes.

He studied Blair with a discerning gaze and would have turned to leave the room if Blair hadn't called out and arrested his retreat.

"Wait! Please don't go."

The sentinel turned back to look at him, his gaze chilling Blair to the bone. "Why? What do you want of me? Apparently not to bond despite what Frenchie said."

Blair shook his head. "I don't know a Frenchie. I just came by because I wanted to meet you. You see I'm an anthropologist, a senior in the master's program and under the auspices of the guide section for the advancement of empathic abilities in real world situations. I'm really intrigued with how you've survived so long without a guide and want to study you."

"No." Jim face impossibly became harder, his eyes colder and he stepped back into the corridor.

Sweat popped out on Blair's face. *How was he going to convince this sentinel his motives were clean and he wasn't looking to exploit him or use him.* "That didn't come out right. Sometimes my mouth get ahead of my brain and can be real insensitive but I need you man. This is important, not just for you but maybe for all sentinels."

Jim crossed his arms over his chest. "Okay spill it Chief and I'll tell you if you'll have me or if you'll have to find some other research subject."

Blair took a deep breath "I want to help sentinels find organic and mental triggers to control their sensory input without the reliance on outside assistance."

Jim sighed. "Again Darwin and in English so us plebeians can understand."

Blair blinked staring at Jim with his mouth gaped open. There was no way Jim was a plebeian being that he knew that word and how to use it. He eyed the sentinel suspiciously feeling like he was being had. "Okaayy I want to teach sentinels how to control their senses without the need of a guide."

Jim nodded his head. "I thought that's what you said and the answer is still no."

Blair was shocked. "Why?"

"Because you want to use me to find ways to assuage your guilt about not wanting to bond. I'm not going to be your scapegoat or excuse for why you didn't bond."

The sentinel's words hit Blair in a very sensitive part of his anatomy. The part which harbored his guilt for not. This made him angry and he retaliated with his vitriolic words aimed to strike the heart. "You obviously don't care about any one but yourself. You've survived without a guide for a number of years but it doesn't matter if other sentinels have that option! You want to hold onto your oh so precious pride and freedom!"

"My freedom! What freedom guide! I'm locked up here without a right to leave unless some child calling themselves a guide hooks up with me. I'm forced to come to the meeting room every time one of these professed guides mentions me and you call that freedom and pride! Well I'm not some blasted lab rat chief and if you haven't noticed I'm no better off than any other sentinel trapped here!"

Once again the sentinels words left Blair feeling like the lowest of the lowest which just fueled his anger more. "Then that's why you even more need my help to teach you how to control your senses. So you can get out of here and not have to rely on me or any other guide!"

"You think I don't want to learn how to do that?" I've lived 34 years relying only on myself, my wits and my brother's in arm. You think I'm now eager to put my life in the hands of a civilian?"

"Well then let me help you!"

"Fine! You find a way and I'll let you study me to your hearts content."

Blair felt his heart leap with and inexplicable joy and excitement at the thought of being able to spend time with this sentinel. He didn't even realize it wasn't for the research purposes either.

Blair came out of his joyous haze to see the sentinel almost half way down the corridor back into the depths of the building. "What's your name?" he called out quickly before the sentinel could disappear.

Jim turned, stared at Blair at moment. "James Joseph Ellison. You can call me Jim." Then he was gone.

Blair whispered to himself "James Joseph Ellison, Jim." The name of his sentinel.

* * * * * * * * * *

Jim headed back to the day room and the welcoming gardens quietly mouthing the name of his guide. Blair Sandburg, anthropology student.

* * * * * * * * * *

After Blair's first visit he came once every two days, not wanting Jim or himself to get to dependent or reliant on each other but able to continue their own separate lives.

Not able to walk about the facility or sit in the garden with Jim he took him out to different eating places in Cascade but never farther than five miles from the home, a guard trailing behind never out of line of sight. He asked Jim numerous questions and ran as many preliminary test as he could gaining insight into his own personal sentinel.

Finding out Jim was a detective and had served in the army didn't surprise him as Jim exuded the aura of cop and soldier. He understood Jim's rage at having been found and brought to the home by his captain but blessed the man he didn't know.

He was glad to find out Jim had forgiven his captain and now welcomed his visits. It relieved him to know his sentinel hadn't been abandoned *and* cut off from his former life. Finding out that other detectives also visited Blair couldn't keep his curiosity about Jim's life down. He wanted to meet his captain and fellow officers to learn more about his sentinel and how he had functioned in his job without a guide.

A couple of weeks into his visits he happened to arrive when Simon Banks was there giving Jim a run down of Major Crimes' week. Blair was excited finally getting a chance to meet this important person in Jim's life.

"Hi I'm Blair Sandburg. I'm an anthropology student at Rainier under the anthropology and guide programs. I'm studying Jim to find out how he's managed to survive and function so long without a guide so that I can formulate procedures and mental devices to train him and other sentinels how to control their senses awareness and input without the need to rely upon often reluctant empathetic guides."

Simon stared at him as if he had lost his mind his eyes wide as he turned toward Jim with a flummoxed expression feeling like he had been run over by a word train at the students non stop explanation.

Jim grinned used by now to Blair's enthusiastic responses. "Simon this is the guide I was telling you about that's been studying me, Blair Sandburg, student and energize bunny respectively. Blair this is my captain and one time jailer Simon Banks."

Simon frowned at the reference to him as being a jailer, knowing Jim was referring to him getting him admitted here. "So you're the guide who instead of using his abilities to help my best detective get back into the field would rather find away to dump your responsibility back on his shoulders." Simon hostilely replied choosing to ignore Jim's comment to focus on Blair. He eyed him up and down with a look of disgust and after holding his gaze turned away dismissing him altogether.

"So have you had any other offers from other potential candidates Jim?" He asked pointedly ignoring Blair and aiming to give insult.

Blair was left with his mouth open at the rude response and turned pleading eyes on Jim fearful he had other guides offering their services and might even have found someone else. The very thought of that left an emptiness in his gut he thought he would drown in.

"No I haven't found anyone I could connect with." Jim answered, giving Blair an intent look, letting him know that he wasn't the only guide who showed interest in him.

Blair gasped in a breath of both relief and dismay. He had never thought that once he started spending time with Jim that any other guide would try to move in own his sentinel. Then taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes having to admit to himself that he had no real claim on Jim if he refused to bond with him.

If Jim bonded though their was no way his guide would allow Blair to continue to study or spend time with Jim. That thought left him feeling lost.

Jim nodded when he saw Blair realized that but after that the visit went relatively well especially when the captain left. Blair was able to forget the threat to his claim.

* * * * * * * * * *

Visiting at other times he also got to meet Jim's other colleagues. There was Henri Brown who everyone called H and his partner the dapper young model Henri called Mr. G.Q., Jonathan Rafe. They both treated him with tentative friendliness H even giving him the nickname of Hair boy. Rafe was bit more reserved but Blair discovered that was because like the captain he didn't like that Blair hadn't immediately bonded with Jim.

Megan Conner the Australian Inspector who worked with the men was the least forgiving for his hesitation as she introduced him to her own sentinel Mark Anders but the most friendly as she showed a physical attraction to him as long as he kept his distance from Mark.

Megan's existence also helped him understand why the detectives didn't treat him differently as a guide. They were used to working with one and she had obviously pr oven her worth. He was ecstatic whenever she came a visiting and he was there for she was one of the few he could discuss what it was like to be a bonded guide without censure or a sales pitch.

He surprised to find out she didn't feel trapped or stymied being a guide. That bonding to Mark did not keep her from helping anyone else who needed her special skills. That in fact she felt she was *better* able to help others because of her bonding with Mark that allowed her to extend her empathy like her presence allowed him to extend his senses. Not just that she loved her sentinel and was as protective of him as he was of her, maybe more.

This was also the point-of- view of Stacy Newman who visited Jim on a regular basis with her sentinel Casey Tam who was very close to Jim. He drilled Stacy relentlessly on her perceptions, more than curious, but needing to know as she had been one of those with him the day that had changed his life when he had toured the sentinel care home. He needed to understand and perceive how she saw the bond and how it had altered her life and future plans.

It confused and surprised him that she didn't feel it had altered her future plans at all and had instead of limiting her present life had instead changed it for the better. She couldn't imagine not having Casey in it or not being bonded.

"It's the most wonderful experience Blair. You don't know what you're missing. It's all lies what the unbonded guides say. You don't give up *anything* when you chose to bond but your selfish, narrow ways of thought and interaction. You think your empathy is so great now. You bond and it'll be so much greater you won't know what to do with it. I can almost read minds and it is Casey who keeps me bound in this world instead of me keeping her. I'm so glad I made the choice. Though I didn't really. It chose me."

* * * * * * * * * *

"Hey Jim how are doing?"

Jim rolled slowly painfully toward the deep, gruff voice of his captain. He saw the look of startled shock on Simon's face at his ragged appearance."

"Good God man what happened?! You look terrible."

Jim attempted a smile but it slid without even trying into a grimace. "Always the one for tact, huh Simon."

Simon swallowed still unable to draw his eyes off his friends emaciated form. "Have to keep that ego down somehow" he said half-heartedly. "But seriously Jim what's wrong?"

Jim tried to shrug but it turned into a shudder of pain as sharp lances of agony scoured his nerve endings. "We all knew that if I didn't get a guide I wouldn't last forever."

"What do you mean if you didn't get a guide? What about that university student, Sandbur, Sandbug, Sandbar... or something like that? Isn't he your guide? You said you felt drawn to him or if not him what about those who've requested you when coming on their own?"

"It's Sandburg. Blair Sandburg sir. He doesn't want to be a guide or he doesn't want to bond to be more exact. He was studying me, remember, to find ways to help me to function without a guide."

"Well where is he! If his techniques aren't working then he aught be here making more or something!" Simon shouted in frustration and fear.

Jim winced at his loud voice, squinching his eyes shut against the pain, all of his senses were off the scale as Simon's scent of cigar smoke and wet leather almost suffocated him as the light beat down into his oversensitive eyes burning and blinding and his skin felt as if it was being rubbed raw by his soft, many times washed, denim shirt and jeans and the Downey bathed spread he was lying on. He choked out a reply before curling into a ball clutching his knees to his chest breathing fast out of his mouth and unable to stop the tears from flowing down his pale, sunken in cheeks, illuminating in the dull light the dark circles under his eyes.

"He hasn't found any techniques yet that are effective. He hasn't been here for four days now. Said something about a school trip or expedition." Jim shook his head, moaning in pain.

"What!" Simon exclaimed softly so not to exacerbate Jim's pain. "How could he leave you like this? Didn't he realize how much you need him?"

"He not my guide Si... . He's not responsible for or to me. He's tried to help and he wasn't obligated to do that. I'm grateful for all he was able to give me. It's just my time Simon. I've outlived all other unbonded sentinels. It's just my time. Let it go sir." Jim groaned softly swallowing quickly to stop his stomach from rebelling.

"No Jim I can't accept that. It doesn't make sense. There's got to be something, *someone* can do. I can't accept that this is the way it has to end. Where does the kid live? I'll get him back here if I have to arrest him."

"No! Simon, you can't. It's his right, his choice. Leave it alone Simon. Please."

"Jim?"

"No Simon. I don't want you begging him for me like I'm some desperate druggie needing a fix. I won't beg for his or anyone else's help. I don't want to talk about it anymore. Tell me how the Winter's case is going? Did Megan and Mark find out what that odd scent at the house massacre's was? What about Jose Gargaros? Has he revealed his source for that new designer drug to Rafe and H yet."

Simon looked at his detective and recognized the look of stubborn despair on his face. Taking a deep breath and deciding not to argue anymore with Jim about Sandburg and his condition. He sat gingerly on the bed and drew his detective into his arms wincing at ragged breathing, He pulled him close to his chest and rocked him silently for a moment, then began to talk softly informing Jim of Major Crimes' doings.

"Mark identified the scent as coming from the weapon, a hatchet used to cut green wood in the forest. The perp was slaughtering anyone who went into the woods for a day. Harold Wilcox is his name, a schizo, paranoid lunatic with psychotic tendencies who felt the forest belonged only to him and no one else had a right to it. He followed the victims back to their residence hacked his way inside and slaughtered anything moving."

"Glad you got him off the streets."

"Yeah he'll be a guest of __________ until they stick him with a needle. Jose finally came through and Brown, Rafe, Dennison and Lang along with Vice and Narcotics are working a joint expenditure since they found out the sellers were underage prostitutes selling to their Johns and Jane's. We have a major bust planned two days from now when we hope to take down the dealers and manufactures."

Simon was quiet for a moment studying Jim's pale features. "A new case just hit my desk. Someone is killing unbonded guides. They leave their bodies in front of sentinel care homes, training centers and schools stripped, their throat slit, bodies covered in bruises and evident broken bones with a message in their own blood written meticulously on their bare chest and torsos.

"What does the me...message say."

"You selfishly keep your gift for yourself while sentinels suffer and die so now you will join them."

Jim raised his eyebrow giving Simon an inquiring look. "It can't be a sentinel unless he or she is deranged. No, it can't be a sentinel at all not even a suicidal sentinel, crazy as a loon could handle the deaf of a guide even one who had chosen not to be one. They would irrevocably zone at the scene and be helpless to escape."

"What if the sentinel were bonded?"

"Doubly impossible Simon. Could you imagine having a connection with a guide then being able to kill another one? There's no way they could kill a guide in that way or handle their blood. The scent alone would drive them into overload and possibly a zone out not even their guide could draw them from. If not a zone out the feel of if would send them over the edge into the primal state and make them feral. They'd have to be restrained or killed."

"A guide/sentinel pair?"

"Still impossible. No guide would do that to their sentinel it could get both of them killed. The sentinel for the reasons I mentioned and the guide by the hands of their betrayed, crazed sentinel."

"So we're looking for a deranged guide or someone, perhaps a family member with a connection to sentinels."

"Or an activist but I think you're right. It sounds more like a family member of a sentinel denied the bond who died in a home."

"That's what Megan and Mark thought too."

"Then why ask me Simon if you already knew this? Trying to distract me from my plight or make me feel I'm still useful for something besides wasting valuable oxygen?"

"Jim!" Simon protested his face flushing with embarrassment at being so transparent. "You know I don't think you're useless or wasting anything."

"I know Simon just being facetious. Sorry. It's okay though you don't have to make me feel useful I know I'm no longer any use to you except a distraction and something to take away your free day that could be spent with Daryl or spent doing something you want."

"Jim this is what I want. To spend time with you. I'm not wasting anything and I'd rather be here than anywhere else, doing anything else. Understand detective."

"Yes sir! Thank you Simon."

"Mark wanted your opinion on this anyway. Like he said he's been bonded since nineteen. He doesn't really remember what it's like to be unbonded and wasn't totally sure if they couldn't do something like this if they weren't crazed."

Simon brushed his hand through Jim's soft brown hair. "I've got to go now" He whispered to the almost asleep sentinel eager to get out of their and find Jim a guide or find Sandburg. His blood burned hot with a rage he refused to let surface while he held Jim. He had never trusted that kid and now he knew why. He hated Blair Sandburg for doing this to his friend; For giving him hope then snatching it away.

He lowered Jim onto the mattress taking a sea green, mountain valley patterned afghan off a chair to cover him. One more brush of Jim's hair and he slipped out of the room storming through the building and out the doors heading toward his car and Rainier on a mission to find help for his friend.

* * * * * * * * * *

Simon searched Rainier University high and low for Blair Sandburg in the Anthropology and Guide buildings only to learn definitely he had gone away for a month long expedition in Brazil.

He then put his efforts into trying to find another guide for his detective from the guide program but though the director was sorry for his friend and thought it important he survive- being the longest lived sentinel without a guide- he couldn't help him because it was a guides' choice and they couldn't be forced, coerced or strongly encouraged.

Was the director a guide? Yes. Was he bonded? Yes. And he still didn't see the evil of not encouraging guides to take a sentinel? Oh yes he saw the evil but it didn't change the law or a guides right to freedom of choice.

Simon left the university disgusted and angry and hating selfish guides like he never had before. How could someone choose to let others die when they could save them?

Talking to his contacts, his detectives and other bonded guides, he found out he wasn't the only one trying to find Blair or a guide for Jim. Stacy the young guide he had met when her sentinel Casey, came to see her adopted big brother was talking to her former school mates who had not chosen sentinels the day she had. Megan was looking through potential police guides and seeing if she couldn't find one from Australia.

Nothing, nothing and no one. There didn't seem to be a guide anywhere for Jim and Simon found out it was too late to find one anyway. When he returned three days later to the home Jim was in the Zone Ward. He had slipped into the comatose state a hour before Simon got there.

* * * * * * * * * *

Simon stood outside the viewing glass window his hands fisted against the glass, his eyes unnaturally bright behind his spectacles. He breathed in deep gusts of air trying to control his emotions and his anger. *This shouldn't be happening. There should have been something more he could have done. There should have been a guide for Jim.*

Part of Simon's anger was for himself, his failure, but the rest was reserved for Blair Sandburg. He hoped he never met him on dark night in a dark alley. He hoped the student stayed in Brazil. *How could he have done this to Jim? Given him hope, then abandoned him like an unfaithful wife.*

He turned from the window his eyes blinded by the moisture caused by the to bright lights he told himself though the Zone Ward was quite dim. On his way out the Ward he ran into William and Steven Ellison heading in. Apparently the home had called them. Nodding his acknowledgment to their grim visages he passed them on by. Outside of the building he leaned up against it's brick facade and pulled a cigar out jamming it into his mouth, he pounded the brick beneath his hand and cursed selfish guides and genetic traits that set up a part of the population for a long, painful and undignified, early death. He also cursed political directives that allowed a part of the population with the means to help to choose rather they would or not.

Finally dashing away his angry tears and blaming it on the wind he walked away knowing when he returned it would be to bury his friend.

* * * * * * * * * *

Blair was tired, dirty and desperate when he was finally picked up five miles out of Cascade by a young, man a couple years older than himself. His benefactor was close to his own height but bigger and buffer. His hair was like Blair's, curly but with more blond and he wore it long pulled back in a ponytail that hung far down his back. His eyes were the same blue as Blair's, maybe a little lighter. He wore a blue, square patterned cotton shirt over another blue shirt and faded jeans tucked into hardy, black hiking boots. His muscles bulged as he shifted gears in the dark, green SUV he was driving.

"You look like you've come a long way?" His voice was surprisingly soft and musical for such a, buff man.

"Yeah I've been traveling for four days: walking, hiking, and hitching rides.

"Anybody ever tell you hitching a ride isn't safe these days?"

Blair looked at his benefactor nervously for a moment but then taking a deep breath quoted a quick mantra to himself *good thoughts, good thoughts. Haven't met a freaking weirdo the whole time I've been traveling and I've come to far to be stopped now. I hope.*

"I've heard it but when I was a kid me and my mom used to travel all over the U.S. and several countries by hitchhiking. I've found that most people who pick up a hitchhiker do it out of friendliness and charity. Anyway this is the first time in a long while I've done it. Been to busy studying to go anywhere except expeditions and those are paid for by the school. The only reason I'm doing it this time is it's an emergency. I was down in Brazil with my adviser. You see I'm an anthropologist and he just found a formerly unknown tribe down there who allowed him to study them and he invited me to go along as he knows I have an interest in primitive cultures especially in that area of the world. You wouldn't believe some of the things we witnessed when we met up with the __________. They are the most fascinating-"

"Then why did you leave?"

Blair was left with his mouth open when his benefactor interrupted his rambling monologue. He snapped it shut and blushed with embarrassment. "Sorry I have a tendency to run off at the mouth when I'm excited. I had to leave though. I had to come back."

"Why?"

Blair laid his head back against the headrest and shook his head. "I just had to man," He said softly. Looking out the window he saw they were back in Cascade city limits. "Can you drop me off at Protector's Sentinel Care Home? If it's out of your way drop me off at the next street and I'll catch a bus.

"No that is alright I'm going that way."

Blair looked at him in surprise. "You know where it is?"

"Oh yes I've been there many times. Why do you wish to go there?" He looked at Blair intently. "Are you a guide? Did you leave your sentinel there while you went on your ex-pe-dition?"

Blair felt a shiver slither down his spine at the menace in the formerly cordial tone. "No uh, I don't have a sentinel. I um, have friend there who needs me."

"If you don't have a sentinel or apparently want one, why would anyone there need you?"

Blair stared at the other man wondering at the steeped anger he heard in the other's voice. He glanced nervously at the door but found it locked by the control on the driver's door. Sliding closer to the door and further away from the driver he leaned his back up against the door watching his *benefactor* out of the corner of his eyes.

"Well?" Darren Stiles grated out, "Why would anyone in a sentinel care home need you if you don't choose to bond? You're no good to yourself or anyone else for that matter!" Even as he challenged Blair he was planning the fate of the young man, another selfish, greed enticed guide whose body would testify to the fact that lack of caring for others and wasting of a gift to help, didn't pay. He'd leave his bloody, nude form on the steps of the home showing the hurting sentinels housed there that someone cared and felt for them and was working to end their suffering or at the least making those who let it happen suffer the same fate.

"I have been doing some good." Blair felt forced to defend himself. "I was trying to learn techniques and methods of control that sentinels could do without benefit of guide help."

"Did you find any?" Darren voice was hard.

"No I didn't. Maybe I wasn't meant to but it doesn't matter that's not why I'm going back there now. There is a sentinel there who I think... . I think he needs me." He closed his eyes stumbling over what he was trying to say, knowing that the other man's arguments were the same ones he had been castigating himself with since he felt the urgent need to return. "

"I, he needs me and now I think I understand. I need him," he said softly more to himself than to the other man.

Darren wondered if he shouldn't go ahead and make an object lesson of the young guide regardless, but no there were to few guides willing to bond for him to deny a sentinel a right to that exalted state. He would wait and if the student did not keep his word he would kill him then. Vengeance for all the lost sentinels could be enacted now or later.

"Here it is," Blair called out anxiously as the building came into sight. He found himself unable to sit still. His heart beating a staccato rhythm in his chest. His lungs trying to pull in air that seemed close and heavy. Cold chills and hot sweats descended over him leaving him alternately rubbing his arms and pulling his shirt away from his chest while pushing back his wayward hair.

The SUV slowed in front of the doors and Blair was out the door almost before it stopped pulling his backpack with him. "Thank you," he called distractedly already halfway through the doors of the home.

He went past the reception desk at dead run never hearing the voice of the receptionist calling him back. Finding himself in the home corridors leading to the residents rooms his head flipped back and forth as he tried to decide which way to go until something pulled him to the right and he found himself coming to a stop before an open door.

A quick look inside proved that this was indeed Jim's room. The bed and room were meticulous. You could bounce a quarter off the mattress. Everything was neatly lined up and two pictures adorned the cabinet closest by the bed. They were pictures of Jim with Simon and the other with his fellow detectives. Only in the picture with Simon was there a smile on his face and even that one was small and didn't engage all of his face. From his belongings and pictures Blair could see he was a very reserved man but none of that mattered right now. He needed to find Jim. The sense of urgency he had been feeling since he left the states was making him feel nauseous and weak.

He was about to turn and retrace his steps to the day room, to check the gardens where he knew Jim spent a lot of his time when someone came around the curve of the hall.

The young woman stopped to observe him for a moment, seeming to sniff him out, her dull brown eyes suddenly lighting, she gazed hungrily at him. Blair felt as if his nerves were screaming. He couldn't let this woman touch him. He began to back away but stopped looking over his shoulder when he felt the presence of someone behind him. No, several someones as the other sentinels scented out his presence. The main reason why no unbonded guide was allowed unescorted in the residence hall.

The young woman glanced at Jim's room where Blair had come from and taking a deep breath to get herself under control spoke, "If you're looking for Jim, it's to late. He's in the Zone Ward."

At Blair's sudden pallor and wavering stance she suddenly remembered that he was the guide who had been visiting Jim but had gone away.

For a moment anger flashed in her eyes and her hands clenched, but the pull of an unbonded guide was too strong and she found herself reaching for him.

"NO! NO! no, no, no." Blair moaned unaware of the battle raging about him as the sentinels fought each other to be the one to claim him. He sank down the wall, curling into a ball on the floor, clutching his knees to his chest, he rocked unconsciously moaning softly.

*It couldn't be! It just couldn't be. He couldn't be to late. He'd tried so hard to convince himself that Jim would be better off without him as a guide or even that Blair himself was really meant to bond with such an important and prestigious sentinel. How could he have let this happen? Jim had trusted him. Had begun to rely on him. Oh God had he slipped away into a zone because of hopelessness after Blair left? Or had his senses' glommed unto Blair so that when he wasn't there Jim couldn't control?*

Blair felt physically sick. He bolted up from the floor and into Jim's room never noticing the guards dispersing the mob of sentinels who had gathered at his presence before Jim's door. In the bathroom adjoining the room he emptied his stomach into the porcelain god bending almost double over the white commode.

He barely felt the cool cloth on his face as someone led him out of the bathroom back into the room proper. He was pushed down gently onto the bed and he curled up like a child looking for comfort pulling Jim's pillow into his arms and burying his face in its' cool, clean folds, his shoulders shook with silent sobs.

*Is this how he would feel for the rest of his life, this empty loneliness?*

* * * * * * * * * *

Dr. Felessen was standing with Jim's friends and family around his death bed waiting for him to take his last breath so they could disconnect the monitors and prepare him for his final rest when Nurse guide Lindsey touched him on the arm. He looked around questioningly.

"Blair Sandburg, Jim's guide to be is here. He's in Jim's room causing havoc and panic in the residence ward." She whispered softly.

Nodding Dr. Felessen excused himself and left the room quickly ignoring the curious glances from Simon and some of the others not wanting to get their hopes up but forgetting there were sentinels in the mix around Jim's bed.

Simon stopped Lindsey from leaving. "What's going on?" He tried to keep his voice low not to disturb the grief of William, Steven and Sally. Jim's father looked like he 100 years old rather than the 61 years he had actually lived and Sally and Steven were pale and wan.

She shook her head unwilling to say anything until the doctor returned. "Dr. Felessen will be right back. You'll have to wait for him."

With an explosive sigh Simon turned back into the room and looked pointedly at his other sentinel detective Mark.

"What was that about, Captain?" Brown asked.

"Who knows. I can't decipher whispering any better than you can Henri. Detective Anders?"

Mark hesitated a moment glancing at Jim's family who were now watching him also along with everyone else including the young sentinel girl Jim had taken on as a sister Casey Tam.

Taking a deep breath fearing what commotion his information would cause he told them. "Nurse Lindsey reported that Blair Sandburg was here," he said in seprecual tones.

Anger suffused Simon's face while William Ellison's clouded and Rafe clinched his hands. Steven, Megan, Mark, Casey and her guide Stacy on the other hand brightened with hope.

"How dare he show up here!" William raged. "What he wants to watch the end result his giving my son hope, then abandoning him? Jimmy was always to trusting!"

Jim's friends' looked at each with surprised questioning looks. Jim trusting. Those two words weren't ones they could exactly see using together but no one would refute the angry, grieving father.

"There might be a chance for Jim now," Megan said softly moving up beside the bed to take Jim's cold, limp hand trying not to look into his blank, wide open eyes.

"Jim is special," Casey said furiously. "I know Blair being here will make a difference. There's no way Jim lasted this long or came this far to just die. I told him he had something important to do and I still believe that."

"Wishful thinking young lady!" William spat. "The only thing my son has left to do is die. You heard the doctor no sentinel has ever come back from such a state before, not even at the voice of their true guide. And I refuse to believe that unschooled, uncouth, son of a hippie is my son's true guide. Jimmy has been a soldier and a domestic warrior. His true guide would be someone of his own class and station."

No one was willing to call William on his prejudice not even Steven though usually had no qualms fighting with his father.

"You better hope that isn't true Mr. Ellison" Joel cut in. "Else your son is doomed."

"It might be better if he was," William murmured.

"Dad!"

"Mr. Ellison! How could you say such a thing? Jimmy deserves to live." Sally interjected speaking for the first time.

The conversation was arrested when the door opened to admit the young guide of everyone's conversation. He looked nervously around.

* * * * * * * * *

Dr. Felessen approached the distraught young man rocking in misery on Jim's large bed. "Guide Sandburg?"

Blair's head whipped around his heart beat taking off at the unexpected interruption. "Dr. Felessen where's Jim? He isn't... Don't tell me he's..." Blair choked off unable to finish.

"No guide Sandburg, not yet. He is close but I believe he's been waiting for you. His family and close friends have gathered around his bed to facilitate his passing. "Come. You probably won't be welcome but if I'm right we may not have to attend a funeral after all."

Blair pulled himself up from the bed, shaky with his despair and weakness from exhaustion and lack of food. He followed the doctor from the residence ward the connecting building where the Zone Ward was housed. Arriving at the doors to the room where he had so long ago looked on other lost and dying sentinels he took a deep breath gathered his courage and entered behind Dr. Felessen, only to find every eye staring at him.

* * * * * * * * *

William's face flushed hot with rage when Blair entered Jim's room before Dr. Felessen. Looking beyond at the doctor he spat angrily at him, "Doesn't my son deserve the right to die with as much dignity as possible in these circumstances without being made a public show? I want that man removed right away! It is for Jimmy's *friends* and family to be present at his death bed not this, this, low life who betrayed my son!"

Blair gulped unable to stop the moisture from once again rising to his already reddened eyes but he refused to cry or otherwise show weakness in front of Jim's family or friends. *How could they ever believe he could do what he must do, if they saw him weak, as well as duplicitous.*

It was hard for him to stand before them as an object on display but he knew he deserved their censure for his cowardice behavior. He looked around and saw their faces; their various expressions. Captain banks looked angry and suspicious but he also looked hopeful as did Rafe. Steven, Jim's brother was watching him with a peculiar intense look that made Blair wonder if he didn't have some heightened senses himself and wasn't reacting to Blair's guide vibrations. Henri Brown and Joel Taggert both detectives who worked with Jim and had accepted Blair without reservation and actual friendliness had looks of hope as well as did Stacy Newman, his former classmate and now possibly fellow guide, Megan Connor and her sentinel Mark Anders. Casey and Sally moved toward him as if to touch him pleading in their eyes and whispered on their lips. Looking to William though he saw a smoldering rage and an inexplicable hatred.

"I'm sorry Mr. Ellison. So sorry for what happened to Jim. I just didn't think. I went away to get my head together, to understand if this is really something I could do or even if I was worthy *to* connect with such a sentinel as Jim. I never meant to leave him vulnerable. I hadn't realized he had book marked me on his senses and was relying on my presence for stability or I never would have left."

"Then why have you returned?" Dr. Felessen asked gently before any one else could speak.

"I...I felt...Something drew me back. Called to me. I couldn't rest, eat, sleep, think until I started the journey back almost as soon as I arrived in Brazil. I've been traveling since then with no money or transportation, not even my passport, to get back. When I got here and found out Jim was in the Zone Ward I thought it had all been for nothing. All the hurry, strain and turmoil. That I had lost and would have to live with the consequences of my fears for the rest of my life." He looked beyond William and those gathered to Jim's pale, emaciated form and took a deep breath, his voice almost too quiet for anyone but the sentinels to hear "I may still have to."

Blair moved to Jim's bedside taking up his cold, limp hand he pressed it against his chest and closing his eyes took a deep, steadying breath calming his breathing and pulse. Leaning forward to gently brush the uncharacteristically long hair from Jim's moist brow he looked up at the other's in the room. "I don't know if I can call him back. I don't know if he'll listen to me. I don't know what I'll do if he does. All I know is I've accepted Jim *is* my sentinel and he needs me and I won't abandon him again."

Blair turned his attention back to his sentinel and began to gently but firmly call him home.

* * * * * * * * *

"Come on Jim it's time to come back now. It's safe. I'm here Jim. I came back. I didn't want to acknowledge that I needed you even more than you needed me. You only need someone to help you control your out of control senses. I need grounding in the real world so I don't get lost in academic puzzles and scientific theory. Please come back Jim. I know you're angry with me and you have every reason to be but you have to come back!"

Blair's voice grew more desperate and demanding as he felt Jim slipping away the monitors testifying to the frightening fact as the low pulse beat ever faster as Jim's' breathing grew shallower. Perspiration streaked Blair's face, neck and underarms as he literally called Jim with all body and strength.

He cupped Jim's cheeks with his sweaty palms bringing his face only inches from Jim's empty, wide open eyes, he shook him turning his face from side to side. "Jim if you don't get your butt back here I'll tell Megan what you really think of her."

"What the h_" William Ellison angrily grit out reaching to pull Blair away from his comatose son.

Blair nimbly side stepped him but couldn't get away from Simon and Steven that reached for him as well. "Jim! Come on Jim! Wake up!" He practically yelled as he felt hands on him dragging him away from the bed. Grabbing quickly on the covers and Jim's arm he scrabbled to get away but their grip was too strong until Jim suddenly drew in a deep breath as if he had been holding it to long and then another and another.

Everyone paused staring at the bed and it's formerly comatose occupant who was now breathing regularly and turning his head back and forth as if looking for something, his formerly empty eyes full of confusion and a twinge of fear.

They moved to surround his beds their faces full of excitement and joy but Jim looked at them without recognition, panic building until Blair pushed his way through and grasped Jim's' hand again pressing it to his chest.

A beatific smile graced Jim's face and adding his own weak pressure to Blair's he gazed raptly into his eyes and they were both transported to the blue-tinged jungle of the spirit plane where a wolf and panther awaited them. For a moment of time they shared memories, dreams, thoughts and each other's gift as they traveled behind their spirit animals to a towering temple in the distance.

Dr. Felessen moved everyone back when he saw what was happening but he didn't have to explain to Megan and Mark, Stacy and Casey. They had started to move as soon as they saw the fear in Jim's eyes knowing he needed his guide.

William exploded but Jim and Blair didn't notice. For them no one else existed. Casey had a grin so large it looked like she would split her face and everyone else just looked relieved and happy.

Finally Jim and Blair were back in the room but Jim still paid no attention to anyone else but Blair pulling his hand back close into his own chest his light blue eyes full of a formerly absent intelligence and life slid closed and he was asleep, the natural sleep of the truly weary.

Blair sank down in a chair by the bed and laid his on weary head on Jim's chest drifting off to his own dream land.

He and Jim had done it. Jim had beat the odds again, the only sentinel to come back from so far for his guide.

* * * * * * * * *

The others congregated outside the door their faces happy but stunned even Dr. Felessen was surprised though he had got what he hoped for.

"I knew it! I knew it!" Casey crowed. "I told Jim he was special. I told him he wouldn't die in the Zone Ward because he had something special to do."

"Well young lady it seems your predictions were true." Joel grinned

"I to had expectations that Jim would not end so ignominiously. He's too important to the fight for guide compliance in the bond for him to die. I had hoped since he and young Sandburg had already established a previous bond that it would be strong enough to reach Jim if only guide Sandburg returned. I'm gratified to find I was correct."

Simon leaned against the glass watching the two men sleeping and frowning at the doctor's sudden bent of academese or was that walking dictionary? "I still don't trust this Sandburg. He left Jim once, and that hurt him immensely, what's to keep him from doing it again?"

"They're bonded now Captain. There's no way he can walk away from that." Stacy readily agreed with Megan.

"I still wish there had been another way to save Jim. A way that did not involve Sandburg."

"I too wish my son did not have to be tied together with such a person." William still angry with the turn of events that introduced Sandburg into his son's life said.

"Dad! Just be glad Jim's alive! If Mr. Sandburg hadn't come back we'd be burying Jim rather than arguing over the credentials of his guide."

This gave everyone pause as they realized it was true and they turned as a body to watch with Simon the endearing scene of sentinel and guide entwined together asleep on the bed.

* * * * * * * * *

Epilogue

Blair sat quietly some hours later by Jim's bed in his semi private, recovery room holding the hand that refused to release him. At least Jim's grip had loosened since he had glommed on after losing contact when they had had to move him to this room from the Zone Ward allowing the circulation to flow back in Blair's fingers.

He sat there still stunned and marveling. He couldn't believe he was a bonded guide now. A Sandburg a part of a pairing. And he didn't regret it in the least, in fact he couldn't understand why he had resisted so long. This feeling, sensation, made him feel as if he was in a perpetual glow.

Jim had come back *for* him. The first sentinel to heed the call of an absent guide. Blair shook his head wondering, *What made Jim so different? How could he keep beating the odds? He didn't know all he knew was he was now connected to a very special sentinel and man.*

Stacy and Megan had been right also. His empathy was ten times better than before and he could stretch it, without fear of being overwhelmed by others emotions. Bonding had not enslaved him, on the contrary it had set him free.

With a jaw breaking yawn he laid his heavy head down on Jim's bed, closed his eyes and slipped back into an exhausted sleep. Who would have known running from destiny could be so tiring.

* * * * * *

Jim stayed in the recovery room for three days. He and Blair reaffirmed their bond daily.

Blair's status at Rainier changed from graduate student, unbonded to full guide, alumni and he was moved into the residential guide dorms.

He was now eligible for guide grants and was entered in the advanced courses of the guide program.

He had yet to tell his mother. He had a lot to learn. He and Jim would have to learn how to live as a pairing but they had passed their first hurtle. They had accepted their destiny.

~end~

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