John slips into the hospital room as softly as he can, pushing the door closed behind him. He stands beside it for a moment, quiet and still, contemplating the thing he is about to do. It is dangerous, risky not only to his budding medical career but also to his personal liberty. The thought sends a spike of fear through him, but he cannot deny that the excitement that follows feels good. He takes a deep breath, steels himself, and moves further into the room.
There is only one occupant: a gaunt, pale young Alpha Sentinel, stretched out unconscious on the narrow hospital bed. Tubes run to his arms, providing him with life-giving nutrition and hydration, and he is hooked up to a heart monitor which beeps out the steady rhythm of his pulse.
John saw him being admitted, was the junior doctor on rotation when the young man was initially diagnosed. Drug overdose, they had said. He was already nearly unconscious when he had been brought in, apparently found passed out in his flat by a police officer. His heart had not beaten so calmly then; tachycardia off the scale, like nothing John had ever seen in university. He flailed and called out and struck viciously at anyone who got close to him, terrifying in his semiconscious delirium until they had strapped him to the bed.
And of course the blood test came back positive for a truly shocking concentration of cocaine. Needle tracks and deep bruising in the veins of his arms made his method and nature clear. So, drug overdose ultimately resulting in coma; obvious.
The hospital Guide had assessed him, as was routine when a Sentinel came in demonstrating any kind of problems with consciousness, and had stated that she could detect no hint of a zone. John had stood by, baffled, as she announced that this Sentinel was fairly weak in ability and did not need her help.
But John Watson, junior doctor and Omega, saw something else. This young Alpha was a drug abuser, yes, and had clearly overdosed. But he was also a Sentinel, one so powerful that John could feel the echoes of his mind even through the shields he maintained, shields strong enough to have kept his Guide nature from becoming apparent for many years. And the Sentinel was caught in a zone so deep that his mind could not free itself, pulling him down into a trance state that looked indistinguishable from a coma.
John had not mentioned anything to the senior doctor attending the case. He was a junior doctor, which meant that his unsolicited opinion was only slightly more valuable than that of the janitorial staff. Also, even if he was believed, they would ask how John was aware of the Sentinel’s zone. And he had spent far too long hiding his Guide abilities to casually give himself up now for the sake of a junkie Alpha Sentinel.
All of which does not explain why John is standing in the Alpha’s room now, looking down at him as he drifts, locked in the zone and unaware of anything around him. The Alpha appears malnourished, with dark circles beneath his eyes and skin so pale and thin that it looks as if it will tear like tissue paper from the slightest touch. His hair is long and greasy, falling on the pillow around his head in limp dark curls. Despite all this, though, John can still see that he is beautiful. He looks like a fragile work of art, roughly handled and damaged. Whether or not he is broken remains to be seen.
John draws a slow breath. He cannot leave the Alpha like this, locked in a zone and unable to come out. Never having gone to the Tower himself, all he knows about Sentinels is what Harry passed on to him from her own Tower lessons. Scant details from her early years, shared in quiet giggling whispers on her brief trips home; less and less as time passed, as Harry became thinner, greyer, giggles and whispers alike dying out until eventually she refused to speak of it entirely. But John vaguely recalls being told that if a Sentinel stays in a zone too long it can damage their abilities, render them unable to access the zoned sense again in the future.
Even if John could find a safe way to convince the hospital Guide that the Sentinel might be zoned, he does not know if the man has that kind of time. So instead he has decided to try to help out himself.
If he is caught, he will almost certainly be kicked out of the medical program, forever losing the right to practice medicine. Junior doctors are not permitted to participate in these types of procedures, and are certainly not allowed to initiate them without informing the senior doctor. But, more disturbingly, if John’s Guide abilities are discovered he will be sent to the Tower for Guide training. And, with Harry’s warnings still ringing in his ears even after all this time, John is desperate to avoid that. Especially when he remembers the way that his sister gradually disappeared once she was sent to the Tower, eroding and turning inward before his eyes.
John has no idea how to do the thing he is about to attempt. He has some idea how dangerous it is, but he reasons that it cannot be much more dangerous than leaving the Sentinel in this condition. He has read a few books on the topic and discussed it with Harry a few times, when they were younger, but his practical knowledge is nil.
He has already decided that he will only drop a portion of his shield. His empathy is powerful, that he does know, and if allowed to flow unchecked he might cause significant damage to the Sentinel. Harry had been able to teach him that much, carrying snippets of her own Guide training home to share with John; the basics of shielding, how to filter and interpret the constant flow of information his ability brought him, the value of guiding.
Letting instinct guide him, John places his hands on the Sentinel, one resting gently on his clammy forehead and the other on his skinny chest, just over his heart. John notes with concern that he can feel the troughs and ridges of the Sentinel’s ribs even through the hospital blanket, and then pulls his mind back to what he is doing. He closes his eyes and lets his shield drop slightly, allowing a tendril of his empathy to unwind and touch the Alpha Sentinel’s mind.
Flashing lights, flaring bright as the sun. Screams, honking car horns, voices raised in anger. Colors, vivid throbbing pulses of chromatic glow washing over the world. Thumping bass and screeching guitar and the blaring of sirens. Light is stabbing at him, piercing his eyes and slashing directly into his brain. The clang of metal against metal, the harsh scrape of metal against the pavement. A voice whispers somewhere nearby, and the sound scrapes across his ears like sandpaper, shaking the earth like a thunderclap.
John nearly recoils at the intensity of sensation churning in the Sentinel’s brain, the cacophony pounding on his mind like nothing he has ever felt, but he holds firm. He allows the sensations to wash over him, making no attempt to direct or even categorize them at first, simply letting himself become accustomed to the incredible influx of information.
Time passes, although John has no idea how long, and eventually the onslaught of sensory overload starts to stabilize. It is still horrible, overwhelming, intense, but it feels more bearable than before and John is ready to try to help. The first thing to do, he recalls, it to identify which sense is zoned. The nature of the Guiding is dependent on the sense involved, so that is where he will start.
Slowly, carefully, John lowers his shield some more, deepening the connection between his mind and that of the Sentinel. He starts to pay attention to the sensory information that is coming to him through the connection, struggling to remain conscious and aware in the face of the intense blasts of sensation. He attempts to identify the basic type of sense underlying the chaotic swirl of information, mentally sorting each separate image and feeling that jolts him into the appropriate sense category.
Gradually, John is able to detect a theme in his sorting, but it is not one that he expects. The sensory information he is drawing from the Sentinel is clearly both visual and auditory in nature.
Is it possible that this Sentinel is zoned in two senses at the same time?
John has never heard of this, had always assumed it was not possible. Certainly Harry had never made any mention of it, back when she would still speak of her training. On the other hand, there is so much he does not know about Sentinels and Guides. Maybe it is just something uncommon that no one has thought to bring up with him. As far as most people know, he is nothing but a regular Omega; as a result, there is quite a lot of information on a wide variety of subjects that no one cares to tell him.
John is not sure what comes next, how to use his own abilities to guide the Sentinel out of the zone, so again he allows instinct to guide him. He focuses on the visual input first, because it seems to him to be the most jarring. He lets his empathy push against the Sentinel’s mind more firmly and tries to send visions of calm things, simple everyday scenes, picnics on the beach and children playing. He vaguely remembers Harry telling him that this was the strategy the Tower taught.
The Sentinel’s reaction is immediate and powerful. The visual sensations get worse, flying through John’s brain at a speed that renders them incomprehensible. And at the same time the Sentinel brings up his own shields, shoving hard against John’s empathy in an attempt to force him away. The Sentinel’s shields are incredibly strong, and John can tell that if he had not already established a connection there would be no way he could reach the Sentinel’s mind through them. As it is he has to drop his own shields further in order to resist the push and retain the connection he has already created.
John stops sending his visions, and almost immediately the Sentinel relaxes his guard. The visual sensory overload is worse now, though, and John wants to kick himself. He pauses, maintaining his connection with the Sentinel’s mind but doing nothing else, and considers.
Adding visual input was clearly not the answer, so what might help instead? He tries to imagine the Sentinel’s perspective. What would he want, if he were the one locked in that vortex of sensory information? The answer comes to him almost instantly, and it seems so blindingly obvious that John cannot believe he had not thought of it earlier.
He turns his attention to the Sentinel and draws the visual sensory information back to himself. Again he has to take a moment to get oriented, but eventually he is able to focus on each piece of information as it flashes through his mind. He waits until he recognizes an image – car headlights, vivid and piercing and growing larger with each second – and he labels them, pushing the name of the vision into the Sentinel’s mind along with an image of a car.
Again the Sentinel’s shields batter against his connection, but he ignores it, focusing instead on the effect on the sensory overload. This time, his attempt does not seem to be making it worse, although he cannot tell if it is helping.
He resumes his focus, identifying any visions that he can and providing names and other information to help the Sentinel organize the information in which he is drowning. Absently, he continues to make adjustments to his shield and the connection he is maintaining with the Sentinel in order to provide the maximum amount of help. The Sentinel’s attempts to force his connection away seem to be fading as the chaos of his mind decreases.
Suddenly, all at once, the visual sensations disappear from the Sentinel’s mind. John sways, disoriented as the flow of information through his own mind stops all at once, and has to grab the bed rails to hold himself steady. The Sentinel must have snapped out of the visual zone, he realizes after a moment.
John replaces his hands on the Sentinel and widens his awareness, and immediately sounds thunder through his head as he focuses in on the Sentinel’s auditory overload. This time he takes a moment first to consider what might be helpful, instead of trying to remember secondhand information he got years ago. The only idea that occurs to him is to try to decrease the intensity of the sounds.
John allows his connection with the Sentinel to increase until it is as strong as he can make it. He waits, bracing himself, and then creates a blanket of white noise, pushing it through the link he has forged and wrapping it around the Sentinel’s mind. John can heard the sound, a low constant static roar, and he does not know if he is hearing it in his head or if he has somehow managed to actually make a real, audible sound using his empathy.
The Sentinel fights, struggling against their connection with his shields once more, but John barely feels it. He holds the noise steady, all of his attention focused on the slew of auditory sensations still filling the Sentinel’s mind. As he listens, he is sure that the intensity of the sounds is decreasing.
This time, when the riot of sound winks out of his mind all at once, John is somewhat prepared for it. What he is not prepared for is the way that the Sentinel’s mind almost immediately fills with sensation again. It is neatly organized this time, information from all five senses pouring in in a flood cold bright beeping Omega smell rough blankets hard mattress hospital pain arms empathy Guide and thoughts flashing through the Sentinel’s mind almost faster than John can even perceive them.
He feels a mental touch against the connection again, not a shield but a light questing touch which sinks easily into the empathy link he has created. For a moment he is aware of the Sentinel’s extreme focus, echoing with hints of personality, sharp and hard and quick, but then there is a sensation of awareness, as if the Sentinel is looking back at him through their connection.
Shocked, John severs the connection all at once. His empathy recoils, snapping into his mind with a silent crash, and suddenly he is aware that at some point during the guiding he completely dropped his shields. His empathy oscillates almost out of his control as he fights to bring them back up, and he can feel the force of it straining his mental discipline to the limit. He struggles, silent and still, to control his mind before the push of his mental power escapes him and injures someone.
Minutes pass as John fights against his own mind, but finally, finally he is able to get his shields in place. Once they are up, locked and strong as always, he relaxes. He opens his eyes and is shocked to find himself standing beside the Sentinel’s bed, hands still resting gently on his head and chest. He feels exhausted, like he has run a marathon, but he is not even breathing heavily. The Sentinel still appears to be unconscious, and his heart monitor declares that his heart rate is still calm and steady.
John looks at his face, but he cannot see a difference. However, he feels certain that what he has just done has saved the Sentinel’s abilities, and possibly even his life.
John lifts his hands and smooths down the front of his scrubs. He should go, does not want to be seen here, but he is reluctant to leave the Sentinel’s side. He dithers for a moment, and then turns toward the door. Which is just opening.
A Beta nurse steps into the room, looking at the chart in her hands. John freezes. The nurse raises her eyes and stops, looking at him curiously.
“What are you doing in here?”
“I was… ah…,” John makes a vague hand gesture, “I was just checking in on this patient.”
The nurse narrows her eyes. “You’re not his doctor.”
“No. But I was here when he was brought in and I just… I just wanted to see how he was doing.” John swallows.
“I see.” The nurse looks at him for another moment. “You’re an Omega, aren’t you, love?”
John bristles at the diminutive, but keeps it off his face. As an Omega, he has had to become accustomed to being treated like a child, but that does not mean he likes it.
“I see,” the nurse says again, regarding the Alpha Sentinel where he lies on the bed. “Well, then, I think I understand. But let me tell you, dear, this one’s not worth it. He may be an Alpha, and even somewhat handsome, but he’s also junkie and that sort doesn’t change.”
John clenches his jaw, remembering the incredible deluge of information that thundered through the Sentinel’s mind just before he broke the connection, the speed with which that mind assimilated information and drew conclusions. Junkie or not, the man lying on the bed beside him is remarkable, and John is offended at this Beta’s casual dismissal. He does not respond.
After another silent moment, the nurse nods her head toward the door. “Run along now, sweetheart. I won’t report you, but take my advice and forget about this one.”
Without a word, John marches past the nurse and out into the hall.
When he comes back to check on the Sentinel three days later, during his next shift, the room is occupied by an elderly Beta man recovering from a heart attack. No one can tell him what happened to the Alpha Sentinel, and it is only then that John realizes he never got the man’s name. When he checks the computer system, furtively looking at patient records while the nurse is off getting coffee, the only name he finds is John Doe.
Four years later, when the laws are finally changed, John leaves his position as a senior doctor at Bart’s to join the Royal Army Medical Corps. And if he still occasionally finds himself thinking about a skinny, drug addicted Alpha Sentinel with dark curly hair and the most amazing mind John has ever encountered, no one has to know.