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Right to Dream

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This novel was originally published in March, 2002, by the great folks at Angel Wings Press.
Thanks to my tireless betas and the gang at JBs. I appreciate you guys more than you'll ever know.

Lots of romance and mush, with a bit of adventure thrown in.

Even heroes have the right to dream
--five for fighting--

Sentinel James Ellison stood at attention in front of Commander Simon Banks' desk. He kept his eyes forward and his body and senses under tight control.

"Sentinel Ellison, I think you are aware of the reason that you were summoned to my office today," Commander Banks said stiffly.

"Yes, sir!" snapped Sentinel Ellison.

"Sentinel Ellison, you've been granted many chances during your tenure under my command." Pages rustled but James' eyes never faltered. "Sixteen, to be exact, Sentinel Ellison. You have fifteen days left in your tour. You do understand what that means?"

"Yes, sir!" Ellison answered.

"Damn it, Ellison, you're one of my best officers. I don't have a choice!" Banks growled.

James stood rigidly. "Understood, sir."

"For God's sake, James, at ease."

Ellison took a quick breath and relaxed only slightly, afraid that any distraction would cause one of the zone outs that had been overtaking him more often of late. His eyes finally met his commander. "You've done everything anyone could ask of a fine officer and friend, Simon. Thank you. I'm ready."

Simon shook his head. "You may be ready, James, but I'm not. I've had you under my command for ten years. You and I have been friends for most of that time. You knew that you were required to pledge with a Guide by your 38th birthday. My God, man, you've had sixteen chances. One of them had to be acceptable to you! What the hell do you expect me to do? You've refused every candidate."

James' eyes held Simon's. "I couldn't do it, Simon. None of them was right. Not a single man or woman. I'm no longer interested in trying and I've decided that I'm ready for Ending."

Simon sighed deeply before he continued. "I'm required to explain your rights fully and to have you sign the proper forms."

"Yes, sir," James answered softly. "Please proceed."

Simon shook his head and spoke slowly. "Sentinel James Ellison, because of your failure to pledge to a Guide before your 38th birthday, you are offered two options by the mercy of the United Government of the Western Alliance. First Option grants you the choice to remove yourself physically from the borders of this Alliance within twenty-four hours of the anniversary date of your birth. If you chose to do so, you are reminded that you must stay outside of the borders for the rest of your natural life. Failure to follow this edict will result in your immediate termination. Do you understand First Choice?"

"Yes, sir," James answered.

The commander nodded. "Very good. You are offered Second Choice by the mercy of the United Government of the Western Alliance. You may chose to submit to surgery to repress that portion of your brain that governs your Sentinel abilities. You are notified that should you chose this option, you will be assigned to manual labor at the facility of our choosing. You will be provided shelter, clothing, medical care and other essentials for the remainder of your natural life. Do you understand Second Option?"

"Sir, you seem to be forgetting something."

"And what would that be, Sentinel Ellison?"

"That although I will no longer have Sentinel abilities and although I will be provided my needs for the remainder of my natural life, that I will be unable to comprehend or function at a level above that of a twelve year old child."

Simon's fingers gripped the clipboard he was already clutching tightly and he threw it to the desk with a clatter. "To hell with you, James! Do you know what this is doing to me? I've thought of you as a brother for these past ten years. Do you think I'm enjoying this?"

James softened a bit at the imploring tone of his friend's voice. "I'm truly sorry, Simon. Let me sign and in fifteen days I'll be on my way. You know I can't submit to surgery. I'll sign for First Option."

Simon breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank God. At least I'll hold in my heart the idea that you are alive. Perhaps someday when the laws have changed, you'll be able to return."

James snorted. "Simon, you are a dreamer. I often wonder how you ever rose to the rank of Commander with your radical ideas. You know as well as I that it will only take so many of the zone outs before I am dead, be it of weather or enemy or wild animal. But at least I'll die whole." James leaned forward on the desk and picked up the pen, quickly scribbling his name, rank and identification number on the page offering First Option. He stood tall and held out his hand to his friend.

Simon stared at the outstretched hand. He slowly clasped the strong fingers. "We will not say our good-byes until it is absolutely necessary. You have fifteen days, James, use them wisely."

"And just what would you suggest, Commander Banks?" James bit his lip. He hadn't meant to sound so condescending to his superior and friend. "I've already disposed of all unnecessary personal items and my vehicle's packed and ready."

"You know as well as I do, James, that we are bound by the laws of the Western Alliance. You and I took a solemn oath when we joined City Protection to uphold its laws. We do not have the right to pick and choose the laws that we wish to uphold and dismiss the ones that we do not like."

"Yes, Simon," James said quietly, "I know. Believe me, I know."

Simon came around the desk and put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "There are people right now in the Sentinel Council who are working to change the archaic laws. I don't agree with forcing any Sentinel to have to choose. There has to be a way to control an unpledged Sentinel as he approaches his maturity. The doctors and scientists have been experimenting for many years. I hear some of their research is looking quite promising."

"With all due respect, Simon, that doesn't help me a hell of a lot." James shrugged his shoulders. "There isn't much else we can do today, Simon. Not today, or tomorrow, or next week or next year. But if it makes you feel any better about this, you should know that I'm ready. Simon, I'm tired of fighting for control day by day. I'm tired of being alone and I'm more afraid of going berserk and hurting innocent people than I am of being cast out of my home and my country."

"Damn it, James, in the last fifty years not one Sentinel has gone 'berserk', as you so nicely put it, and committed a murder."

"But it has happened, Commander, and hence, the reason for the law. It was to protect every innocent person and it still is. Until there are permanent measures available to control unpledged Sentinels, these laws will not be repealed."

Simon held up his hands imploringly. "Enough! Why are you so determined to convince me that this is what's best for you?"

James smiled quickly and then became serious once again. "To spare you as much pain as possible, Sir. You are my one true friend and I don't wish to see you in pain, especially over me. I am easily replaced, Simon."

Simon growled, "Not to me, you aren't."

James cocked his head and gave Simon a rare genuine smile. "Thank you, Simon. Permission to be dismissed, Sir?"

"Dismissed, Sentinel Ellison," Simon said quietly with a firm squeeze on James' shoulder.

James snapped to attention and saluted his superior. "Good day, sir," he answered sharply before quickly turning on his heels to leave.

Ensign Ridigo, Commander Banks' assistant, knocked and opened the door just as James was reaching for the handle.

The ensign burst out excitedly, "Commander, you gave me strict orders to advise you the second any candidates were bought into the city. There are three Possibles in the Greeting Room right now." Ensign Ridigo suddenly remembered his manners. "Sir!" he saluted Sentinel Ellison crisply.

Ellison saluted in return and started to leave the office.

"Wait, Ellison," Banks ordered. Ellison stopped. Banks said to his ensign, "Thank you, Ridigo. Dismissed."

"Sir." Ensign Ridigo saluted and took his leave.

"James, you heard what he said. Three Possibles."

James sighed and turned to his Commander. "Please don't make me go through this again. I've made my decision. I'm content. Let it go. I'm asking you as a friend."

Simon moved to stand face to face with James. "As a friend, I'm asking you to attend to the possible candidates. As your Commander, I could order you do so, but I won't do it. It's your decision. I only ask that you try this one last time. If not for yourself, then think of my son. James, you know he has Sentinel abilities. Is this what I might one day see for his future? Your fate? I need hope, James."

A small smile crossed James' lips. "One last time, Simon. For Daryl. I'll present myself to the candidates one last time. Are we agreed?"

A wide smile crossed Simon's face. "Yes, Sentinel Ellison. Thank you. We are agreed."

The Sentinel/Guide Greeting Room was housed in the same building with the City Protection Headquarters and the Sentinel Council's main chambers. Likewise, the City Mayor's offices were located on the top floor of the government complex.

The room was painted in a warm shade of green thought to be the most inoffensive and noninvasive color by the Sentinel Council. It was furnished with a few chairs and several sofas of the same color, in a hand-spun soft material specially made by the expert weavers of the south area of the Western Alliance. The table in the far corner held drinking glasses and pitchers of water. Other than these simple accompaniments, the room held no other distractions.

When Commander Banks and Sentinel Ellison reached the hallway outside the Greeting Room, two unpledged Sentinels stood quietly waiting, each hoping for the chance to meet the Possibles. While Sentinels were not rare, they were uncommon and valued. In the city of Cascade with its four million citizens, only sixteen Sentinel/Guide pairs lived and worked. Some of these pairs were not native to the city, having come from other regions of the Alliance for pledging, and would at some time venture onto other areas of the country.

The citizens here were a bit more used to Sentinels and Guides than in other Alliances because Cascade was where Sentinels came on their quest for a Guide. Here, the search for suitable Guides was conducted and the bonding and training of pairs was held. Any citizens deemed fit by the Sentinel Council was eligible to be presented for pledging. There were no special requirements to become a Guide other than a good moral character, a desire to dedicate oneself to the Sentinel to whom one was pledged, and a willingness to work with and protect the people as a whole.

When the two saw Sentinel Ellison approach, they quickly deferred their positions at the door to him. All Sentinels in the area were aware that Ellison was approaching Ending, and even if there was no friendship or affection between any two Sentinels, they all prayed that they would not be facing the same fate when their own time expired. They deferred without any discussion or dissention.

James nodded briskly to each and they acknowledged his greeting in return. He stood quietly for a second in front of the door, straightening his shoulders. One of the Sentinels quickly opened the door for him. He inclined his head in thanks and stepped through.

James opened his senses just enough to take in the three figures occupying the room. One man was sitting on one of the sofas, apart from the two women who sat close together on another divan. The tall, slender, dark-skinned man rose when he came into the room and James quickly surveyed him first.

James crossed to the man and held out his hand. "I'm Sentinel James Ellison. What province are you from?"

"I am Joshua Bradley. I come from the Idaho area of the Western Alliance. I am happy to meet you, Sentinel Ellison." Joshua grasped James' hand. James opened his senses fully to the man, taking in his scent, sight and smell, and he held Joshua's hand between both of his and searched his face closely. While he found nothing distasteful in the man's appearance or scent, he did not feel any connection to the handsome black man either.

"Thank you, Joshua Bradley." James gave him a smile and a nod. "Good luck on your search to pledge to a Sentinel." He dismissed the man as gently as possible.

James turned to the two women sitting on the far side of the room. He crossed the space and the scent of their fear assailed his nose. He stopped, puzzled. Candidates sometimes were apprehensive or tentative or excited, but fear was not usually present. After all, candidates volunteered to be pledged. It was considered a high honor in Western Alliance society to be bonded to a Sentinel.

Sentinels were valued for their many and varied abilities. They protected the citizens in a variety of ways. They sensed dangerous weather patterns. They kept the crime rate down considerably. They could be excellent doctors and psychiatrists, able to sense physical and mental ailments and provide much needed care. They provided many valuable services from finding one's lost pet to saving entire towns from tornadoes and brush fires. Fear was an unusual reaction to the presence of a Sentinel.

James approached the two women warily. One of them looked quite young to him, hardly more than a teenager. This also puzzled the Sentinel. Candidates were not allowed to present themselves until they were eighteen years of age. This girl looked barely more than fifteen. The other woman was of proper age, but other things sent James' warning bells clanging. He scanned her vitals quickly. She was hungry and dehydrated. Her clothing was stained and soiled. When he tested the air around them, he catalogued several unusual smells. One was medicinal and the other... The other eluded him. James worked hard to dissect the scent. Masculine. Musky. One-of-a-kind. He shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose.

James stopped further away than he usually would when meeting a Possible. Something about the women's demeanor made him apprehensive. He spoke softly, "I'm Sentinel James Ellison. What are your names?"

The younger girl hid her head in the shoulder of the older woman, letting her hair drop across her face. The older woman looked at him through blonde lashes. "Please don't hurt us."

James stepped closer. "I have no intention of hurting you. Why would you say that? Didn't you volunteer for pledging?"

The older woman shrank back into the sofa when James moved. "I'm not sure what you mean by pledging. We were taken from our home by force."

"Please excuse me a moment," he said. He turned quickly and crossed the room, throwing open the door. Four or five anxious faces stared wide-eyed at Sentinel Ellison. James called out, "Commander Banks, please come in here."

Simon quickly responded and James closed the door, grabbing Simon' arm and moving close to him to whisper, "Simon, what the hell is going on? These women haven't volunteered for pledging. They say they've been kidnapped. You know that is against the law. Forced bonding was outlawed fifty years ago."

"I have no idea what you're talking about. Kidnapped? That's ludicrous," Simon said, looking over at the women. "Get them out of here quickly and into my office. I intend to get the bottom of this. I take it you didn't pledge with any of them?"

James' lips curved in a small smile. Simon was ever hopeful, James knew. "No, Simon. Not with the man, especially not with the women. They're both hungry and sick. We need to help them. Commander, none are my Guide."

Simon shook his head dejectedly. "Okay, James, okay. Bring them to my office. I'll let the others meet the man. And I'll order food. Once they've eaten, we'll question them. Then we'll see that the physician examines them and that they are cared for until we can find their families."

James' strong hand clasped his friend's shoulder. "Thank you, Simon."

Simon shrugged. "It's the Sentinel in you. You always take care of people."

"That's the way it is."

The two women sat quietly in front of Commander Banks' desk. He sat behind his desk and James stood at the window several feet away from the women and slightly behind them, observing, testing. The fragrance still clung to the women and James used all his resolve not to touch them, to rub his hands on their clothing and skin to enhance the scent. He knew it wasn't the smell of either woman. What was it? Someone they were with just before they were brought into the facility? James was itching to ask who had brought them and where this person was now. All of his senses tingled with energy whenever the scent wafted to his nose. His skin burned and his eyes watered. He bit his lip sharply to forestall any runaway senses. Pain always focused his senses. Whenever he felt himself loosing focus, he dug his fingernails into the palms of his hands hard enough to leave marks.

Commander Simon questioned the women kindly. "Please tell me your names and what led you to be in our city. Tell me all the details. If you were brought by force, I want to help you. It is against the law to force anyone to pledge with a Sentinel. It is also against the law to kidnap any person away from their home or family."

The older woman spoke. "How can we trust you? We saw money changing hands. You might be in on the kidnapping."

Simon sighed. "I don't have any proof to offer you other than my word. But you know that when you told Sentinel Ellison you had not volunteered, you were not forced to continue. Hopefully, that will tell you our intentions are honorable."

The woman considered for several moments. "Yes, that sounds logical. I did feel that he seemed sincere." She glanced quickly over her shoulder at James. "I'm Estela Ward and this is Mary Greene. We're from the Southern Region of the Western Alliance. Our province is Nevada. We lived, ah, we live in a farming community. Our Region provides citrus for our markets and export to other Alliances.

"I'm an agricultural scientist. My main duty is to oversee the irrigation of the fields. One late afternoon, Mary, Blair and I walked out to one of the outer fields to check on a drainage pipe that had been acting up. It was a warm evening and the sky was beautiful. I had finished checking the pipe and we were sitting, talking and enjoying the fresh night air. We were watching the sunset when a white van came down the main road where we were sitting on a fence."

"Wait, there was another woman with you?" the Commander asked.

Suddenly, the young girl burst into tears. Estela slid an arm around her shoulders and drew her close. "Shhh. Mary, it will be all right. I know you're upset about Blair." Estela looked at the Commander. "No, Blair isn't a woman. He's a teacher from our community school. Blair Sandburg. He was helping Mary with her studies. She wants to take the test to be able to become a teacher herself. He is a friend of ours." Estela sighed and swallowed hard.

Commander Simon gently encouraged Estela. "And then?"

"The van stopped and the men got out. They said they were looking for work. We always need field workers and we often see men and sometimes women with children come through our province looking for work. I was explaining to them who to talk to in town about it and who was hiring. I guess I wasn't paying much attention because suddenly they attacked us. I don't know quite what happened, but I do know that they had drugs and needles. I remember one minute I was sitting and talking and the next one of the men grabbed me and I felt this pinch in my arm. I woke up in the back of the van, tied and gagged."

"How long ago was that? Do you have any idea?"

Mary spoke for the first time since the whole ordeal began. "Six days ago."

Simon cleared his throat. He hated the next question but he had to ask. "Were any of you sexually assaulted?"

Estela's eyes met Simon's. "No, thank God. They seemed to be more interested in the money we would bring and the alcohol they consumed. They paid Mary and I little attention as long as we were quiet and cooperated. But, please, sir, you have to find Blair. Those men, they were terrible to him. Blair would not cooperate, so they withheld food and water from him. Mary and I tried to sneak him something to eat, but they caught us and withheld food from us for a full day. After that, Blair refused our offers when we tried again. He said he couldn't take the food because we would be punished. Even after several days without any food or water, he wouldn't cooperate and constantly tried to help us escape." Estela's voice dropped to a whisper. "They kept him drugged after the first couple of days. He was in and out of consciousness after that. I don't know if he's alive or dead. Please, you have to find him," she begged.

James had quietly moved to stand directly behind the two women. His senses were on fire. He watched as his hand seemed to move of its own volition and rested lightly on Estela's shoulder. He felt her start slightly, but when she looked up and their eyes met, James' warm blue eyes instantly calmed the frightened woman. She nodded shyly at James.

"What did the men look like? Also the van. Any details will help. What they said and how they talked. I will find your friend," James said in a quietly forceful voice.

Once again, Mary, ever observant, supplied the needed information. "The white van had faded red letters on the side. Annie's Catering. Gus. About thirty, blond hair, blue eyes, fat. Mark, same age as Gus, blond hair, brown eyes, skinny, bad skin. George, forty, black hair, mean eyes, average weight. Bobby, young, stringy brown hair, brown eyes, smells bad."

Simon said, "Good work, ladies. A few more questions and then you will be taken to a nice place to wash and sleep. After you are rested, you will be taken to wherever you wish. Your families will be contacted. If there is anything else, just request it."

Estela managed a quiet smile. "Thank you. You've restored our faith in outsiders. But sir," she asked Simon, "what is this pledging you mentioned?"

Commander Banks looked surprised. "You don't have Sentinels in your Alliance? People with heightened senses who help guard and protect and work with the citizens?"

Estela shook her head, wide eyed. "No, what a wonderful thing! Sentinel Ellison is one of these remarkable people?" At Banks' nod, Estela smiled. "May I have one?"

Banks chuckled. James smiled just a bit and said, "Thank you, ma'am. Please, anything you can tell me about where the men and their hostage might be heading will be very useful."

With her quiet observant ways, Mary again provided details. "I heard them talking about what to do with Blair. They thought I was asleep, but I was pretending. They said he was worth a thousand dollars alive to the doctor. They didn't call him by a given name, just 'the doctor' as if it were his title. They said they were meeting this doctor at a converted warehouse in the Brookstone District. Does that help?"

James sucked in his breath. "Good God!"

Estela's head swiveled to face James. "What?"

When James did not respond, Estela took Mary's hand and looked at James. "Blair is our friend. Tell us."

Commander Simon cleared his throat. "The Doctor is the nickname of a piece of scum who barters in human beings. We've tried to find the man for a couple of years now but he always manages to elude even our Sentinels. He is a worthless piece of human debris, but he never stays in any one place more than a day or two. He roams a huge area of this part of the country. If he has your friend, it may be too late, I'm afraid. Your friend might have already been sold off." Simon shook his head and sighed.

"Sir?" James snapped to attention. "Permission to find the bastard, sir!"

"Go, Sentinel. And for God's sakes, be careful. You don't have a Guide, you know."

James nodded. "Yes, sir, I seem to remember that fact." With a crisp salute, he turned to leave.

"Ellison!" Simon growled.

James stopped with his hand on the doorknob. "Sir?"

"Your backup, Sentinel Ellison. Need I remind you of regulations?"

James sighed. "No, sir." He turned the handle and left.

Simon turned his attention back to the women. "One last important thing. Please tell me in great detail how you came to be in this building, who brought you here, and how you ended up in the Greeting Room. If any of my people are involved, I intend to root out the perpetrators and punish them to the full extend of our laws."

Estela nodded, and then began relaying the details that the Commander requested.

After arranging to meet the backup officers in the Brookstone District, on the corner of Harding and Waycroft, James made a quick stop at his quarters. He didn't want to attract attention when he reconnoitered the warehouse district, so he changed from his clean, crisp street uniform of dark blue pants and a starched light gray shirt, to a baseball jacket, worn blue jeans, a flannel shirt and running shoes. He put his Panthers basketball cap down low over his eyes. A quick peek in the small bathroom mirror pleased him, and in just minutes he left with his pistol tucked under his jacket and an extra small revolver tucked into his ankle holster. James revved up the old Suburban that he had kept running for the past fifteen years using a variety of remanufactured and recycled parts, shoe strings and paper clips.

The engine purred like the well-oiled machine it was in spite of its ragged appearance. James pulled up in the warehouse district of lower Cascade thirty minutes later at the prearranged location, and surveyed the renovated buildings. The formerly dilapidated area had been slated for rehabilitation a few years ago, and very little of the previous derelict appearance remained. It was quickly becoming an area of hardworking factories, small private businesses and renovated living spaces.

James parked the Suburban and stood quietly on the sidewalk in the light evening drizzle. The temperature was starting to drop, and Sentinel senses indicated that the rain would turn to snow in a couple of hours. The two casually dressed undercover officers waited in silence while the Sentinel worked the area. James pulled his jacket closer and opened his senses as wide as he thought he could safely handle it.

Smells, sights, sounds and colors bombarded James' senses. Overload was imminent and he could feel himself starting to slip away. He quickly tamped them down to almost nothing and stood breathing heavily for several minutes. Wrong plan, Ellison, he growled at himself, angry at his lack of control. Okay, new plan. Scent only. James slowly dialed up his sense of smell until it was fully open. He brought forth the scent of Blair Sandburg that he had stored in his brain, and compared the fragrance to the scents reaching his nose.

James started walking towards the waterfront slowly, sniffing lightly and cataloguing, the officers following close behind. He had walked about two blocks before he was finally rewarded with just a touch of the aroma. He stopped and considered, turning from one side to the other, then deciding on a direction, he started walking again, slowly and deliberately. The scent of the man grew stronger with each step. James felt his body respond. His blood hummed in his veins, his skin felt warm and his breathing escalated just a bit.

Each footstep seemed to speak to him. My Guide. My Guide. My Guide. He followed on instinct, putting one foot in front of the other until he walked smack into the side of a white van. A white van with faded red letters that once read: Annie's Catering. James stopped and leaned against the cold metal with both hands, the scent of Blair Sandburg, a person he had never seen before, tantalized his entire body. So this is what it feels like, he thought quickly. I always wondered about what the other Sentinels said when they described it. You'll know, they said. How? I always asked. God, now I know. James sent up a quiet plea. Please let him be alive!

James opened his senses, searching, listening. From inside the warehouse, he could hear five heartbeats. He filtered out two of the voices that were speaking to each other.

"...have shit for brains, Bobby. How much did you give him? I told you I needed him awake by tomorrow! He's hardly breathing now." A door was slammed and footsteps tapped. "This is gonna come out of your sorry ass. You'd better pray he wakes up by morning. Then you'd better pray that he's walking and talking by the time we meet..."

James pulled back and huffed out his breath, concentrating, connecting his smell and hearing together. If anything would send him into a zone out, it would be piggybacking without a Guide. It was almost forbidden for unpledged Sentinels to use this particular ability without proper assistance. Several Sentinels had been accidentally killed doing just this same thing alone.

There! Blair Sandburg's scent and his heartbeat. James' brain catalogued the two identifying characteristics and now he would be able to distinguish his Guide's heartbeat in a city full of people.

James concentrated on the heartbeat. It was too slow and erratic for a healthy person. Blair Sandburg was sick or injured or drugged, or any combination of the above. James bit his lip and he felt a growl grow in his throat. He had the urge to rush into the building, screaming and tearing into anybody in his path, but he fought the urge fiercely. The need to protect, to bond, to pledge, almost overwhelmed him, but after a struggle, he retained as much control as possible.

The Sentinel motioned to the two officers and the three men skirted the quiet building and stopped, leaning against the wall, getting their bearings. Right now, the Sentinel's main goal was to safely remove the Guide from the custody of his kidnappers. James would have preferred to creep in and remove Blair quietly without being detected, but he didn't know how good his chances were to accomplish that goal. Two of the four heartbeats were close to Blair Sandburg's. From James' perusal, too close for a quick snatch. Besides, if Sandburg were unconscious, it would complicate matters.

James pulled his pistol and checked the clip. He made sure his extra clip was full, and breathed in and out several times. The urge to rescue the Guide was too strong to ignore and he knew he had to do something now. He had fifteen days before he was just as good as dead. He would just as soon be killed in this mission than die a slow death in the wilds. His only hesitation was putting Blair Sandburg in danger.

James pondered his options. He needed a distraction. The front of the building was furthest away from the heartbeat of the Guide. With orders to the two waiting men to cover the rear exits, he made his way back to where the white van was parked and opened the gas tank. He stuffed a piece of old rag he found lying on the ground down into the tank until it touched fuel, and he let the liquid soak into the rag. He pulled out the end and lit the fuel-soaked rag. It blazed instantly.

James turned and quickly skittered around the corner of the building, waiting until the blast from the exploding gas tank shook the ground. Glass from the windows on the side of the building shattered. Pieces of flying debris from the vehicle flew into the wooden building and ignited interior fabrics and decorations. Within minutes, the first floor of the building, where an unopened restaurant and bar were located, was in flames. James could hear the popping of liquor bottles and the small explosions of flammable materials.

The four occupants fled through a ground floor exit, abandoning their captive on the second story of the burning building. As James made his way through the front entrance, he was vaguely aware of the sounds of their attempted escape and the shouts of the two backup officers demanding their surrender. He heard the popping of gunshots, but he was too focused to give the ruckus his full attention. His attention was on the sound of Blair Sandburg's heartbeat. He raced up two flights of stairs and down a long, high-ceilinged hallway to the very end. The last door on the right was locked, and James didn't hesitate, kicking in the door in one swift motion.

James opened his senses and the Guide's scent filled his nostrils. He breathed in deeply, allowing his ears to hear the sounds of his shallow breathing. The covered windows let in little fingers of light and he adjusted his vision quickly, barely having a chance to look at Blair Sandburg for the first time. The smoke started to fill the room and to burn his eyes, so James scooped up the unconscious man from the dirty floor and retraced his steps before the smoke could overwhelm his Sentinel's senses.

Once out of the burning warehouse, the rescue workers and EMTs that had been summoned immediately surrounded James and his burden. He almost couldn't relinquish his hold of the Guide, but common sense prevailed. He knew Blair needed medical attention, and barked to the EMTs that he would stay with the injured man. They acquiesced to his request, of course. Sentinels and Guides always received the best possible care. They bundled the Sentinel and the unconscious Guide into a waiting ambulance and made their way to the hospital under full steam. Cascade Memorial was closest and luckily, one of the two hospitals in the entire city to have a Sentinel/Guide team of physicians.

James still hadn't had a good chance to examine Blair and once again, his perusal would have to wait. One of the EMTs had already clamped an oxygen mask over Blair's face and was busy setting up an IV line and checking his vitals. James caught glimpses of the Guide between the moving hands, and while he could see that he had long hair, it was so dirty and matted, that he had trouble telling what color it was.

James closed his eyes, his lungs burning from the smoke inhalation. The attendant took one look at him and checked his vital signs when he noticed the Sentinel's labored breathing. He quickly put an oxygen mask on him with instructions to breathe deeply and to relax, reminding him that the Guide was getting the best care that they could possibly give. James knew that the EMTs assumed they were a pledged pair, but he didn't have the energy right now to explain. All of his focus was taken up with willing Blair Sandburg to keep breathing.

Once at the hospital, the Guide was stabilized and treated quickly and efficiently. He was moved to a Sentinel/Guide room that was specially decorated to be soothing and comfortable to people with heightened senses and for their companions' comfort. The doctors explained his condition to the anxious Sentinel.

"Sentinel Ellison, I'm Doctor Brandford and this is my partner, Doctor Carter. We're going to be Mr. Sandburg's attending physicians. He's been drugged with a powerful depressant and he's dehydrated. Baring any unforeseen complications, he should recover fully. He needs rest and attentive care right now."

James stood quietly listening to the physicians. He figured he might as well tell them since his main concern was Blair's well being. He hadn't even let himself think about what was going to happen when Blair regained consciousness. Now that James thought about the circumstances, he realized how naive he had been thinking that when he located the Guide, everything would be set right.

Upon reflection, he realized now that because Blair Sandburg was a kidnap victim, he would want to be returned to his home and family. He was fully within in his rights to reject James as a pledged Sentinel to him. Furthermore, the very idea that Blair did not choose to be presented to James made him uneasy and apprehensive about his feelings. He felt incredibly guilty for even thinking of Blair as a possible Guide. James felt he could never accept a Guide who had not come of his own free will into his life. He buried his desires deeply and concentrated his energies on helping the injured man the best he could.

"Doctors, the truth is that I just found Blair Sandburg today. He was taken from his home by force. I've never seen him before this afternoon but I knew immediately that he was my Guide. We've never met and he's not made the choice to pledge to me. And the offer will not be made. But that's irrelevant. Please be sure everything is done for him that needs to be done. I'm accepting full responsibility for his care. All charges are to be applied to my accounts."

Doctor Carter patted James' arm. "He's young and strong. We both feel that he'll make a full recovery. It looks very good for him. You seem like a good candidate for pledging. I can only wish you the best. Thank you for explaining the circumstances of this unfortunate incident. I'll keep that in mind during the course of his treatment. Now if you'd like to attend to him, he's in Room 405."

"Thank you. I'd like that," James nodded.

"You're welcome, Sentinel," they said in unison.

James opened the door to Room 405. Finally, he would be alone with the Guide. He stopped and shook his head. Stop! He's not 'The Guide'. He's a sick man who needs your help. Just remember that and you won't be as disappointed. James took a deep breath, exhaled and entered. The same fragrance of Blair Sandburg tantalized his nose, but this aroma was much sweeter. He smiled to himself, walked to the side of the bed and finally took a good long look at Blair.

The orderlies had washed the grime from Blair's hair and body and James' heart skipped a beat when he looked into the handsome face. His shoulder length hair was a chestnut color and cascaded down the pillow in curly tendrils. James' fingers touched the still-damp locks and mapped the contours of the smooth forehead, strong nose and full pale lips. He had the urge to peek under his eyelids to see the color, but he knew they would be a vibrant sky blue.

James pulled off the blanket covering Blair's body and his hands mapped the contours through the thin hospital gown. James' hands skimmed over the warm neck and strong shoulders, down the firm, furry chest and flat stomach, across the pelvis and down the muscular thighs. The gown ended in the middle of Blair's thighs, and James' hands touched the bony knees, ran down the shinbones and around the feet and toes. His hands felt the rough soles of Blair's feet and the tiny hairs on the tops of his toes. He held each hand in turn, examining it closely, noting the strong fingers and the calluses from where Blair held his writing implements too tightly.

He committed each and every square inch of the Guide's body into his memory for those long nights when he was in the barrens alone. He would retrieve the memories and savor the warmth and beauty of Blair Sandburg, his Guide. Now he knew what he had been missing all these years and it was this one longhaired, unknown man. But James knew everything he needed to know. He knew in his heart that Blair would be smart and funny and kind and caring. He sighed and shook his head.

Too bad it was just too late for James Ellison. He also knew he should go. He had no right to be here, but he couldn't leave Blair's side. That was too much to ask of the Sentinel, and even though he was angry with himself for his weakness, he couldn't leave. He had to see Blair's eyes. He had to hear his voice. He had to hear his laughter just once. Something to hold in his heart.

The Sentinel sighed wearily. The room held another bed and James pushed it close to Blair's. He lay down and drifted into a light sleep, senses opened for any sounds of awakening from the unconscious man. For the first time in his life, he fell asleep listening to the sounds of the Guide's heartbeat anchoring his senses. It was a calm, wonderful feeling, and even though he had every intention of dozing lightly, the gentle sound sent him into a deep sleep quickly.

Early the next morning James' eyes opened with a small start. He had slept better than he could ever remember. He rose and was scanning Blair's vitals when the Sentinel/Guide doctor team entered to examine their patient. He stood quietly listening to the pair work together giving Blair another thorough once over. When they were finished, they relayed their findings to the Sentinel.

"Your Guide is doing better this morning," the Sentinel doctor told James. "He's responding somewhat to outside stimuli which indicates that the depressant is wearing off very much on schedule."

The Guide physician practically finished her Sentinel's sentence. "And he's running just a mild grade fever. The fluids have helped with the dehydration, and the antibiotics have staved off the intestinal infection that we detected on the blood test."

The Sentinel said, "He should regain consciousness with the next four to six hours. Sentinel Ellison, you need some food. You look a bit pale. We'll have something prepared freshly for you."

The Guide nodded, "And please ring immediately when your Guide awakens. We want to be sure his mental functions are normal, also. We'll have that food sent right in."

"Thank you. I guess I am a bit hungry. Food would be good. And thank you for taking care of him." James looked back once again at Blair. He fought the urge to run his hands through his hair and to touch his body.

The pair smiled. "That's our job," the Sentinel physician said to which her Guide added, "And you're more than welcome."

Promptly, a tray of freshly prepared hot and cold food was brought, along with fresh-squeezed orange juice. As James ate, he wondered if the oranges were possibly imported from the Southern sector where Blair and the women he had helped had been taken from. He hadn't realized just how hungry he was until he had started eating, and in a short time, he had consumed everything on the tray. .

When he was finishing the last of his meal, an orderly knocked and entered carrying a change of clothes, a towel and toiletries. James thanked the man and used the shower in the small bathroom for a refreshing wash, scrubbing away the smoky remains from the previous day. He used the toothbrush, toothpaste and razor that had also been provided and once he had finished his ablutions, he felt much better.

James went to the side of Blair's bed and watched him intently for the longest time. He drank in the sight of his face while he scanned his body for minute changes that would alert him to Blair's resurfacing from unconsciousness. James patiently waited until he was finally rewarded several hours later with small changes in Blair's drugged condition. He could sense Blair's body working to awaken and he talked soothingly and softly to him.

The small moans and body twitches signaled to James that Blair was indeed struggling to awaken. He encouraged him constantly, rubbing his arm lightly and concentrating on calm, warm thoughts to comfort the ill man. It seemed like an eternity to the anxious Sentinel before the Guide's blue eyes finally opened and he struggled to focus.

Blair surfaced slowly. He could hear muffled sounds and vaguely feel something touching his arm. He forced his heavy lids open and he tried to focus. The sounds gradually became clearer and he recognized the words, but not the voice. Someone was speaking to him. The voice was soft and gentle. Warm and kind. Blair closed his eyes and just listened. He was instantly comforted by the peaceful tones.

He almost let the voice lull him back into sleep when he suddenly remembered. He remembered the pain. The hot confines of his prison in the back of the van with his hands and legs tied tightly and forced to lie for hours on a pile of filthy rags. He remembered how he and his friends were kidnapped. The drugs forced into him were so powerful that he was unable to even stand. He remembered the thirst and the hunger.

Blair's eyes flew open and his hands pushed out as he tried to escape. He clenched his hands into fists and fought as hard as his weakened condition would allow. He had to run. Had to save himself and his friends. He would have screamed if he could have found his voice, but his dry throat only closed up on him and the only sounds he made were whimpers. Suddenly, strong arms held him close. Held his flailing arms gently but firmly. A warm hand petted his hair. The voice, sympathetic and soft, spoke over and over until Blair's brain finally started processing the information.

"Shhh. It's okay, Blair Sandburg. You're safe. I'm with you. I'll protect you. Shhh."

The words and the feelings wormed their way into Blair's mind and body and he finally stopped fighting. He went limp in the circle of the comforting arms and let himself drift on a cloud of warmth and peace as the voice continued its relentlessly calming drone.

"Good, just relax, Blair Sandburg. You're safe. Do you hear me? Your friends are safe. Estela and Mary. They helped me find you. Open your eyes and look at me. I'm your friend."

Blair obeyed the gentle request and his eyes opened to look into the warm, clear blue eyes of his rescuer. A soft smile greeted Blair and the strong mouth spoke again. Blair watched, mesmerized, as the lips moved and the words tumbled out.

"Blair Sandburg, I'm James Ellison. I'm so happy you're going to be well again. Can you speak to me? Tell me how you feel?"

Blair sighed contentedly and swallowed. "Hello, James Ellison. I'm fine now," he whispered a bit hoarsely.

James trembled slightly as summer sky blue eyes met his. They were as beautiful as he had known they would be. He smiled again and ran his fingers down the side of Blair's face. "Hello, Blair Sandburg. I'm so glad you're fine now."

Blair smiled and yawned. He closed his eyes and rubbed his cheek against James' shirt. He snuggled against his chest and immediately fell into a deep sleep. James sat for several minutes savoring the feel of Blair in his arms before he gently laid the sleeping man back against the pillows. Then he used the call button to let the doctors know that their patient had awakened.

James tried to stay away. He left Blair's room determined not to see the Guide again. He had no right to interfere with Blair's life. Guides volunteered for pledging. They knew in advance what kind of life they were choosing. A Sentinel trained as a physician expected that his Guide would be a trained health care professional also. Likewise a Guide teacher would offer to be pledged to a Sentinel teacher, and a city protection or military person bonded to someone of like training. It was deemed important that the pairings had similar life goals and desires in order to perpetuate the best possible bonding. Accidental bondings were few and far between and highly discouraged.

But Blair hadn't volunteered. He was a teacher and James was a city protector, a police officer. It was wrong of him to present himself to this man for pledging. James dashed out the front entrance of the hospital and ran down the street, not stopping until he had run more than five miles. He only stopped, winded and thoroughly irritated at himself, when he could run no further. He was even more irritated when his feet started back in the direction of the hospital, seemingly of their own choice and nothing he said to himself changed the direction of his mission. He argued with himself the entire time.

Do not do this! Leave Blair Sandburg alone. Go home and get ready for Ending. You have enough work to do. Please, please, Ellison, stop now! Oh, God, help me. I can't stop myself.

James steeled his resolve enough to deny himself permission to enter Blair's room. He found an empty chair at the far end of the hall and sat wearily, eyes glued on the door to the Guide's room. He opened his senses and closed his eyes when Blair's warm, musky scent tickled his nostrils. James flicked out his tongue, practically tasting the flavor of the Guide. He retrieved the feel of Blair's body under his hands as he had catalogued earlier, and he allowed the sound of his Guide's heartbeat to completely overwhelm his ears. He immersed himself totally in the Guide; senses opened to the maximum.

James had one goal in mind. He planned on zoning out totally and finally right here and now, with the wonderful sounds and scents of Blair Sandburg surrounding him, caressing him, warming him. There would be no one to retrieve him from such a deep zone out, and after a few hours, he knew that without intervention his breathing would start to falter and finally stop, and he would pass on without any pain. In just a couple of minutes, James felt himself slipping away. His lips curved up in a small smile and he prayed passionately to every god of heaven and earth to let him stop breathing and slip away, quietly and finally, zoned on the only person on the entire planet that he loved.

Blair lay dozing fitfully. He had awakened after James had left and had immediately searched for the owner of the clear blue eyes and reassuring voice. He was unhappy and instantly wary when he could not locate the man who had identified himself as James Ellison. Several attendants and nurses came and went, checking on him. He questioned them relentlessly on the whereabouts of James, but they just smiled and looked sympathetically at the unpledged Guide until he was upset and anxious.

The hospital personnel were very kind and compassionate when the rumor of the kidnapping and the mismatched Sentinel and Guide had buzzed through the hospital grapevine. Blair's doctors sent in a helpful attendant with a tray of food to coax him into eating, but he had no desire for food, the very sight of which made him queasy. The nurse finally gave up his quest to feed his patient and after checking the IV solution and oxygen supply, he turned the lights down low hoping that the uncooperative Guide would at least relax enough to sleep.

Blair lay tensely in the bed; his ears strained for the sound of James' voice. He fought the sleepiness that kept overtaking him, dozing and waking over and over. He had just started to doze once again when he heard a small commotion outside his door. He heard footsteps rush past and voices raised more than usual for a quiet hospital ward. He roused himself and looked around the room, searching once again for James. Disappointment flashed through his body when he couldn't find the warm touch and the soft voice. The sounds outside the door caught his attention. He gingerly swung his legs off the bed and lowered himself to his feet, testing his equilibrium. Blair's head started to swim and he felt shaky and weak. A water pitcher sat on the stand beside the bed and he poured a glass and drank deeply. The liquid felt wonderful to his thirsty body so he poured another and drank again.

Blair set the glass down and leaned against the bed for a minute until he felt strong enough to start to cross the space to the door. The oxygen tube in his nose stopped his progress first and he pulled the apparatus over his head. When he started forward once again, he felt a sharp painful tug on his hand from the IV taped there. He inspected the needle and tubing for a second before pulling it out gingerly. He breathed in and out several times and when he felt strong enough, he crossed the room and opened the door, peering down the hall in the direction of the ruckus. He saw several nurses and doctors anxiously moving and talking, circling the man sitting in a chair. At first there were four or five bodies in his line of vision, but when they parted, Blair was surprised to see James Ellison, his rescuer, sitting like a statue with eyes open and unblinking.

Stories that Blair had heard over the years on his travels around the country came back to him in flashes. Sentinels. Guides. Hyperactive senses. Zone-outs. Blair's feet moved toward the Sentinel and when he approached James, the small crowd parted to grant him access. He put his hands on James' shoulders and looked around.

"Why don't you do something for him?" Blair asked in a hoarse voice.

One of the attendants spoke. "Sentinel Ellison does not have a Guide. It's against Sentinel rules for us to interfere at this point."

Blair touched the soft brown hair. "What do you mean, at this point?"

Another offered, "He's unpledged and he's given instructions not to interfere with his passing. We cannot provide any intervention. We must abide by his wishes."

Blair glared at each individual. "So you'll just watch him stop breathing and die?"

One by one, the nurses and orderlies whispered among themselves and drifted away. An older woman stopped and turned back to Blair. "You know what to do. It's up to you now. But think about your decision wisely. If this is what you want, follow your instincts. They will not fail you." She gave him a quick smile and a pat on the back and left quietly.

Blair shook his head in disgust at their apparent lack of compassion, and turned his attention back to the Sentinel. He felt drawn to this man. His fingers skimmed James' head and face and he looked deeply into the opened, unfocused eyes. He wanted those eyes to see him. He wanted to hear that softly forceful voice speak again.

When the Guide put a hand on James' chest, his breathing was so shallow that Blair could barely feel the chest rise and fall. He almost panicked, thinking he was too late. He quickly put both hands on James' face and said, "Listen to me, Sentinel. Focus on my voice. Hear my words. Follow the sound of my voice. You have to come with me. James, listen. Focus. It's Blair. I need you to wake up." Blair ran his hands over James' face and head. "Come on, Sentinel. Do it now. Please, wake up."

While Blair spoke, he studied the handsome face intently and suddenly James sucked in his breath harshly and blew it out. He breathed in and out heavily several times and closed his eyes, moaning quietly. He leaned his head into Blair's warm hand, rubbing much like a pet cat begging to be caressed. Then his eyelids fluttered and opened to meet Blair's concerned gaze.

Blair smiled. "Good job, Sentinel. Good job. Welcome back. How are you feeling?"

James sighed deeply and closed his eyes, wrapping his arms around Blair's waist and leaning against the firm chest. Blair stood quite still not really sure what to do, but when he felt James' unsettled breathing and the tremors coursing through his body, he slid his arms around James' shoulders, holding him tightly. He rested his cheek on the top of James' head, murmuring, "It will be okay. Just relax and breathe."

James' arms tightened. His defenses were down and the words tumbled out seemingly of their own accord. "Oh, God, Blair, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean for this to happen. I didn't want you to know. I just wanted to go quietly but I couldn't stay away. I tried. I really tried." James' throat tightened and he forced back the sob that rose unexpectedly.

Blair spoke softly. "I know about Sentinels and Guides, James. I know what it means to reach Ending. I also know how I feel right now."

James raised his head to look directly into Blair's eyes. "How do you feel right now, Blair?"

"I feel drawn to you. I feel safe with you. I feel the need to help you and protect you. I don't know why but then I guess I do. I feel warm and happy. I feel lost and a bit scared and confused."

"I'm sorry," James whispered once again, pressing his forehead onto Blair's chest.

Blair's arms tightened around James' shoulders and he answered, "It's okay. You have nothing to be sorry for."

They stayed wrapped in each other's arms until James felt Blair's knees shake. James growled, "You're still sick, Blair Sandburg. You should be in bed," and pulled the recovering man into his lap.

Blair's head dropped onto James' shoulder and he held him close. Almost immediately, the exhausted Guide fell into a light sleep. James rose, gathering him into his arms, and without thinking, he kissed his forehead tenderly. He smiled when Blair's arms slid around his neck and his head snuggled in the crook of his neck. James carried him back into his room, but when he tried to lay him down on the bed, Blair's eyes opened just a crack.

"No!" he whispered harshly and his arms tightened around James' neck.

The Sentinel nodded and petted Blair's head. "Shhh. Okay. I won't leave you alone."

James slid onto the bed and pulled the drowsy Guide onto his chest, wrapping his strong arms around the slender shoulders. Blair made several contented sounds and after a couple of settling-in wiggles, drifted off to sleep once again. James petted the curly head with one hand and stroked Blair's back with the other, relishing the feel of his Guide's body pressing against his. He bit his lip to forestall the words that begged to be said and he closed his eyes. I love you, Blair Sandburg.

James drifted on a calm sea of serenity until a rumbling sound interrupted his dreams. He woke slowly with Blair's warm body plastered against him. James lay still and listened. The rumble came again. He grinned. Blair was hungry and his stomach was protesting the lack of food. He fumbled for the call button and when a nurse answered, he asked for a tray of food. Then he woke the sleeping man.

"Blair Sandburg, wake up." James gently rubbed his back. "You've been asleep for a while and your body is hungry. Come on, you can sleep more later."

Blair mumbled and squirmed a bit, and finally opened his eyes. He lifted his head from James' chest and smiled. "Oh, hello."

"Hello yourself, Chief."

Blair's eyes brightened. "Who, me?"

James nodded. "Yes, do you see anyone else here?"

Blair gave James a warm smile. "No. Just the two of us. How are you feeling?" Blair's face grew serious. "What the hell were you trying to prove?"

James gently but firmly moved Blair down onto the bed and rose. "I do not wish to discuss it. You shouldn't have interfered."

Blair's eyes blazed. "Interfered? I interfered? I saved your life!"

James' face grew cold. "I didn't ask you to save my life."

Blair pulled himself up and sat on the bed, legs crossed. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I only wanted to help. I didn't mean to intrude on your damned suicide," he added sarcastically.

James cocked his head and almost smiled. "I know you were trying to help. Hell, Chief, I'm sorry, too. I shouldn't have sounded so nasty about it. It's just that..."

Blair waited expectantly and after a few long minutes of silence, he asked, "It's just what, Sentinel Ellison?"

James' usual defensive shield rose and he shook his head. "It's nothing, Sandburg."

Blair was ready to protest when the door opened and an orderly brought in a tray of food. The smell tantalized the hungry Guide and he sat up with interest. James noticed Blair's sudden attention and smiled.

"You're hungry," he stated. "That's good. The doctors say if you eat, you won't have to be fed intravenously any longer."

Blair grinned. "I couldn't eat before, but I think I can now. Now that you're here," he added quietly.

James set the tray on the rolling table and slid it within Blair's easy reach.

Blair smiled. "Oh, man, thanks." He removed the covers from the dishes and looked at the expanse of food. "There's more than enough here for both of us. Please, sit down and help me eat some of this. I haven't seen this much food for days and days. I need help."

James sat opposite Blair on the bed and occasionally took a bit of one thing or another, but mostly he just watched Blair eat. Blair was so busy concentrating on eating that he didn't notice James' intent study of him. James watched every move and catalogued everything Blair did or said. He ate neatly and quickly and the food disappeared in short order.

"Good job, Sandburg," James said when he pulled the tray away.

Blair nodded, yawning widely. "Oh, man, I'm sleepy again. I can't seem to stay awake for very long." He lay back on the bed.

James pulled a blanket over the Guide. "It's your body telling you that you need rest. Just sleep. You'll feel much better very soon. Good night, Blair Sandburg."

Blair yawned again, covering his mouth with his hand. "Please, just call me Blair. You keep calling me by my first and last name like it's one word or something."

James blushed just a bit. "I'm sorry. I was raised in a very formal household. I didn't want to be too familiar uninvited."

Blair shook his head. "Geez, you're invited. Just Blair. Okay?"

"Sure, Chief."

Blair grinned. "Or Chief. I like it. What shall I call you? Sentinel Ellison seems a bit too formal for me. Hmm, let's see. James. James is way too stuffy. Jamie." Blair's bright eyes met James. "I think I'll call you Jamie."

"I'm not a pet. You can't just decide to call me something," James growled.

Blair grinned widely. "It's just a nickname. You know, something you use for someone you like, but if you don't like it..." He pouted.

The corner of James' lip twitched just a bit and his eyes sparkled. "No, it's okay." James looked at his friend seriously. "You like me, Blair?"

Blair nodded and yawned again. "That's a silly question. Of course I like you. You saved my life." His eyes started to close and he forced them open. "You know what that means, don't you Jamie?"

"What, Chief?"

"You're my Blessed Protector now. You saved my life. You're honor bound to protect me forever. It's a custom that's a thousand years old." Blair's eyes started to close and James turned to leave. "Wait," Blair called out. When James turned and looked at him questioningly, Blair peered at him through half-closed lids. He whispered sleepily, "Jamie, please don't go just yet."

James smiled softly. "I'll stay until you fall asleep."

Blair started to drift off but he fought the lethargy. "You'll be back in the morning?" he asked, just a bit plaintively.

James hesitated.

"Please?" he whispered as his eyes closed.

"In the morning. I'll come back in the morning for just a bit." James said, watching until the Guide was in a deep sleep. He turned and started to leave but something tugged at him. He walked back over to Blair's side and with a fingertip, skimmed above the skin of his full lips. He sighed deeply and forced himself to walk away.

Blair was lounging back on the bed, reading a very informative book that explained the details about Sentinels and Guides, when there was a knock at his door. "Come in," he called out.

A large black man came halfway into the room and smiled. "I'm Commander Simon Banks. I spoke with you on the telephone earlier."

Blair straightened up, nodding. "Oh, yes, come in, please. You're Jamie's boss."

"Jamie?" Simon was puzzled.

Blair's hair bounced when he nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, Jamie. Sentinel James Ellison."

Simon gave the young man a quick once-over. He certainly was not the type of Guide that he had envisioned for his friend and best officer. Rather than a clean-cut military-type, Blair looked very much the wild-child, peace and harmony neo-witchdoctor type that James would certainly not have gravitated to. But for some reason, the man's outgoing demeanor and open attitude brought a low chuckle to Simon's lips. "He lets you call him that?"

"Why yes, he does. Pardon my manners. I'm Blair Sandburg," he said holding out his hand. When Simon took the hand, Blair added, "It's very nice to met you. Jamie says you're a good friend."

"It's nice to meet you, too, Mr. Sandburg. Sentinel Ellison's told you that, has he?"

Blair nodded happily but then his face became serious. "Please, Commander, how are my friends? I haven't been able to find out any information about them other than they're okay."

Simon smiled. "Yes, they're better than okay, they're here to see you if you're up to it."

Blair sat up straight. "Yes, please! I've been so worried."

Simon strode to the door and opened it. "Come in, ladies, Mr. Sandburg's anxious to see you."

Simon held the door and Estela and Mary hurried into the room. Blair held out his arms and they quickly crossed to him, the three hugging tightly.

Blair murmured, "It's so good to see you both."

"You too, Blair," Estela said, pulling back and wiping her eyes. She patted Blair's arm. "How are you feeling?"

Blair's arm stayed around Mary's shoulder and she sat on the side of the bed with her arm around his waist. "I'm doing really good. And it's even better now that I've seen you both!" Blair held out his hand and Estela laced her fingers in his. "Thank God you're okay." He turned his face. "Mary? You'd better say something before I really get worried."

Mary raised her face to his. "You scared the heck out of me, Blair."

Blair chuckled and gave her a quick hug. "I was scared, too, believe me."

"Blair, guess what?" Mary said excitedly. At Blair's grin and enthusiastic, "What?", Mary continued. "We gave the Commander and Sentinel Ellison all the information about what happened and we helped them catch two of the men who were in with the kidnappers."

"Oh, wow, that's great. Tell me!" Blair looked wide-eyed at his friends.

Banks interrupted. "Ladies, I'll have one of my assistants pick you up in an hour and take you back to your hotel."

Estela sat on the foot of the bed and looked at Simon. "Thank you once again, Commander. That would be just fine. You are a kind man."

"You're welcome, ma'am," Simon said and turned to Blair. "Mr. Sandburg, nice to meet you."

"Thanks, Commander. Same here," Blair said. After Simon left, he turned his attentions back to his friends. "So tell me everything."

Mary smiled. "Only if you'll tell us your story afterwards."

Estela nodded and Blair laughed. "Deal."

"Well," Estela started, "as luck would have it, we ended up in the wrong place in the City Office Building. After they took you and sold us to some strange men, they blindfolded us and tied our hands. We were driven for a long while and then they parked and made us get out of the van. We couldn't see a thing and it was so quiet, I had no idea where we were."

Mary spoke up, "They made us go into this room and told us to sit and be quiet. That someone would come and get us. They said if we talked to anybody that they would kill you, Blair. They said they had a camera on us and were listening. I was so scared to make a sound."

"We waited forever," Estela said. "Even if we wanted to, we couldn't escape. I tried to open the door, but it was locked. There were no windows either, so we were trapped. Finally, I heard the door unlock and this young black man came into the room, but all he did was say hello to us and go to sit down on the other side of the room. I was confused at this point because he didn't take us away. I barely had time to even think about what to do next when the door opened and this very handsome man walked in."

"I was scared of him at first," Mary said. "He was tall and had a strong voice, but after he spoke to the man who was waiting, he came over and I was surprised at how softly he talked to us."

Blair smiled and held Mary's hand. "It was Jamie, wasn't it? Sentinel Ellison?"

"Oh, yes, Blair. He's a Sentinel. It's wonderful. He has special abilities and he's strong and fierce." Estela smiled. "He has beautiful eyes."

Blair said, "He is wonderful, isn't he? Then what happened?"

"It's a good thing that some criminals are so stupid." Estela laughed and Mary joined in. "They put us in the wrong room. Can you believe it? Instead of the room next door, they put us in the Greeting Room. When we told the Commander about it and described the men to him, he had us look at photographs of the officers and workers in the building. Mary and I both picked out the two men and he had them arrested for all kinds of illegal activities. They thought if they operated right out of the law building, that no one would notice them." Estela shrugged. "It worked for a while, but they slipped up and we helped catch them. Now they won't hurt anybody else."

Mary grinned and nodded, her bright brown eyes shining. "Yes. They're going to jail for a long time. I hope they never get out!"

Estela put a hand on Blair's shoulder and their eyes met. "I've heard some of the cleaning women in the hotel talking, Blair. He's looking for his Guide. He's looked for years and years, but he's never pledged. I've heard all about Sentinels since I've been here and I've been reading up on them. It's so exciting, but it's also frightening what happens to them if they don't find a Guide."

Blair sighed. "Yes, Estela, I know."

Mary looked right into Blair's eyes and said, "It's you, isn't it, Blair? You're his Guide."

Blair lowered his head. "I think so. I feel drawn to him. I want to be with him." Blair's voice dropped. "I don't think he wants me. I'm not a police officer. I'm not..."

Estela put a hand under Blair's chin and raised his head. "Nonsense. You're a great person. You're smart and funny and handsome. What's wrong with the man? Good heavens, he couldn't find a better partner. I'll talk to him."

Blair shook his head vehemently. "No, please, Estela, promise me you won't talk to him. If he doesn't accept me on his own, it's not worth it. He has to come to me. He has to want me."

Estela rubbed Blair's shoulder. "Okay, okay, calm down. I understand. I won't say anything, but it does make me very angry, even if it means that you would stay in Cascade. I know, Blair, I know you're feeling the wanderlust again. I think you were planning on moving on anyway. You've been restless the last couple of months."

Mary patted Blair's hand. "You were staying to help me, weren't you, Blair? Just until I took my entrance exams to teachers' college."

Blair nodded. "I'm sorry. I just can't stay in any place for long. Something always tugs at me. But now, here in Cascade and with Jamie, I feel like I've found what I've been looking for. I hope he gives me a chance. I don't know what I'll do if he rejects me."

Estela gave Blair a quick kiss on one cheek and Mary kissed the other. "We'll miss you, but good luck, Blair. You've been a great friend. You saved our lives."

"Yes, Blair," Mary added, "thank you. You made me feel like I had the ability to become a teacher. I've been kind of shy my whole life and you made me believe in myself. Thank you for that."

Blair smiled even though his throat tightened. "Thanks. That means a lot to me. I'll miss you both. I'll expect letters regularly telling me about your lives, okay? We'll always be friends."

The three friends hugged again and then talked about how Jamie found Blair, about their future plans and how they hoped their lives went, until the City Protection liaison came to pick up Mary and Estela. They hugged good bye once again with promises to see each other again someday.

James was still quite perturbed with himself. He had managed to stay away from the hospital for a good bit of the time, but three or four times he had found himself making up some excuse to stop by and visit with the Guide for just a few minutes. Once it was to fill out his report about the crime. Another time it was to clarify something Blair had said on his statement. Then he had the flimsy excuse that he felt it his duty to check on Blair to see that he was getting enough sleep and eating healthy food. The shopping trip for the clothes and toiletries was a very good reason to visit, he felt. At least that's what he told himself when he tried to convince himself it was the only reason for one of the visits. Finally, today, he didn't even bother with an excuse. He just came when Blair called and asked for James to pick him up and take him to his hostel until he could make plans to return home.

Blair pulled on the clean socks and new sneakers. "Hey, Jamie, thanks so much for the new clothes. Everything is great. I'll have to think of some way to repay you." Blair hummed under his breath while he tied the shoes. "I can't wait to get out of this place. I don't care much for hospitals."

James stood leaning against the wall, watching as Blair finished getting dressed. He was very pleased that Blair was well on the road to recovery, and his doctors felt he was well enough to leave the hospital, as long as he promised to rest for a few days and eat properly.

"You're welcome, Sandburg. Whenever you're ready, I'll drop you off at the hostel."

Blair disappeared into the bathroom, talking while he brushed his hair and pulled it back with an elastic band. "I wanted to talk to you about that, Jamie. Say, man, I really don't want to stay in a strange place. What do you say about me coming to stay at your place for a few days?"

"No way, Chief. You'll be more comfortable at the hostel. It's nice and clean and there are other young people there too. You'll have plenty of company."

Blair came from the bathroom and stood quietly surveying James. "Come on, Jamie, it's just for a week. Just until this damned snowstorm finally gives way and I can make arrangements to get back to Nevada." Seeing James' unrelenting expression, Blair pressed harder. "Please, please, man, just one week, then I promise I'll be out of your hair. You know that none of the trains are running because of all the snow and ice."

James glared at Blair. At his Guide. Could he stand to have Blair in such close proximity and not take him into his arms? Could he resist the desire to seal their bond in the fire and excitement of intimate contact? Could he resist pulling Blair into his bed and taking him for his own? Their eyes still held each other's. James felt his heart race. Those eyes. So blue, so alive, so intense. James sighed and relented.

"One week. Then you have to leave. Deal?" James held out his hand.

Blair grinned and bounced on his toes. "Oh, man, thanks so much!" Blair grasped James' hand in his.

Immediately at Blair's touch, the intense spike of desire crashed through James' body and he almost crushed Blair's fingers with his. His senses jumped and tingled. He dropped his hand quickly and clenched his teeth, jaw twitching. He knew it was a mistake, a huge mistake to have Blair so close, but he couldn't disappoint the ecstatic Guide. James almost snorted at himself.

You are such a fool! Not disappoint Blair? Admit it, Ellison, it's not because you don't want to disappoint him. Why lie to yourself? In fact, admit it. It's more than that. It's because you want him close, need him close, if only for a little while. Swear to yourself, nothing will happen. You will not cross that line. Swear it!

The snow fell relentlessly and by the next morning, another 8 inches of the white powder settled on the 20 inches that had already fallen. The wind howled and large drifts accumulated against vehicles, buildings, homes and roadways, bringing a good portion of the city to a standstill.

At James' loft, Blair had taken a shower, started coffee, and was standing at the windows looking out over the harbor watching the snow steadily fall. James trotted down the stairs, buttoning his heavy wool sweater.

"Good morning, Blair," James called and went to the kitchen to pour coffee. "You want a cup?"

"Morning, Jamie. Yes, please. I tend to gravitate toward warm places, but watching nature's fury is so fascinating. This is awesome," Blair exclaimed.

James smiled while he poured two cups and came to stand next to his guest. Once again, he was delighted with Blair's attitude towards finding something interesting even in a winter storm. "Here you go, Chief."


They stood quietly watching the snow fall for several minutes when the telephone rang. James grabbed the receiver and spoke.

"Ellison... Yes, sir... I'll be there in forty minutes..."

James put his cup in the sink and said, "Sorry, Blair. Work beckons. I don't know how long I'll be, but make yourself at home. I'll bring dinner later."

Blair crossed the room quickly and pulled a coat from the rack beside the door. "I'm going with you."

James shook his head. "No way, Chief. I have to go into the precinct. I don't have time to babysit."

"Babysit? You don't have to babysit. I'm not a baby, damn it. You need me. You might have trouble with your senses. You need backup," Blair insisted.

"Wrong, Sandburg. You are not my Guide and you are not a cop. There is no way you're going out on the street with me."

Blair planted himself directly in front of James. "Look at me, Jamie. Look right at me and tell me you don't need me. Tell me you don't want me with you."

James glared at the stubborn man. "I don't want you with me. I don't need you. Now will you get out of my way?"

Blair stared hard at the equally stubborn man, then he moved out of James' way. "Whatever," he mumbled, walking away.

James bit his lip. Why did Blair have to make things so hard? Why didn't he just accept that James didn't want him for a Guide? Because he knows you're a damned liar? James almost laughed. He looked at Blair's rigid shoulders and proud stance and he moved to stand behind him, putting his hands on Blair's shoulders.

"I'm sorry, Chief," James said as he ran his hands up and down Blair's arms. "What do you want me to say?"

Blair sighed and turned to face James. "Say what's in your heart. I've been waiting. I've been trying to be patient. Talk to me, man, please," he pleaded quietly.

James looked into the smoky blue eyes and before he knew what he was doing, he leaned down just a bit and kissed Blair lightly on the lips. Blair closed his eyes and savored the warm lips pressed against his. James pulled back abruptly and blushed when his eyes met Blair's.

"My heart says that you're a good man and that I'll miss you when you leave." James turned and opened the door.

Blair stood very still and his disappointment crashed over him. He closed his eyes tightly, not wanting to see James leave. He sighed, knowing that he would have to get used to seeing James leave because that was exactly what his intention was, to leave Blair behind. Today it was temporary, but in a few days it would be permanently.


Blair's eyes flew open. "Yes?"

"Ah, you coming?"

Blair grinned. "Yeah, sure, I'm coming." Blair followed the Sentinel closely. Every hour was precious. He had no intention of missing a second of the time James allowed him to spend together because every second was another chance to get closer to him. Blair had no intention of giving up until James physically put him on the train back to Nevada, and he had every intention of fighting every step of the way. He wanted James for his own and by God, he would do anything to make that happen.

James knocked on the door to Commander Banks' office.

"Come," came the deep voice.

James opened the door and entered, followed by Blair.

Banks glanced up, down, and back up with surprised eyes. "Sentinel Ellison?"

"Sir?" James answered.

"Why is Mr. Sandburg with you?" Banks asked.

"He's staying at my place until he can get out of Cascade. The trains aren't running, sir," James offered.

Simon growled, "I know that, Sentinel. I meant, why is he with you right now? You know very well I need you for an assignment."

James stood at attention in front of Simon's desk with Blair next to him. "Commander Banks, Blair Sandburg volunteered to help me with my senses for a couple of days. I thought this might be a good chance for him to put me through my paces, sir."

"Sentinel Ellison, is this man pledged to you?"

"No, sir."

"Is this man a trained protection officer?"

"No, sir."

"Then he cannot accompany you on an assignment."

Blair listened to the discussion and the more he was ignored, the more irritated he became. "Just a second here, Commander. First of all, I'm right here. Please don't speak as if I'm some piece of furniture or something. Second, I'm a grown man. I can decide exactly what I want to do myself. I've volunteered to help Sentinel Ellison. He's been having trouble controlling his senses and I happen to be the only one to whom he responds when he's zoned out."

James listened to Blair's tirade and he felt his admiration for his Guide grow. He knew Blair would be intelligent and now he knew he was brave also, willing to fight for what he thought was right.

Commander Banks rose and moved from behind the desk to glare down at the Guide. "Mr. Sandburg, I'm only trying to protect you. You are a private citizen and also a crime victim. It is not my way to put people I'm trying to protect in harm's way. I didn't mean to insult you and for that, I apologize. However, you are not putting yourself in danger by accompanying Sentinel Ellison on his assignment and that's final."

With that dismissal, Simon turned his attentions to James. "Robert Jones, one of the men caught at the warehouse the other day when you rescued Sandburg, has rolled over on his contacts. In exchange for a reduced sentence and a new identity, he has agreed to give us information on 'the doctor'. He set up a meeting for tonight at midnight in an underground-parking garage on Rayburn Avenue.

"Listen, James, Jones said that this 'doctor' is leaving town tomorrow and that he has a full load of merchandise. This might be our only chance for a long while to nab this son-of-a-bitch. I'm extremely short-handed with this weather situation. You and I will take the assignment." At James' curt nod, Simon continued, "Conroy from Vice has agreed to play the part of the merchandise. He fits the profile of the kind of young men this scumbag has a market for. Dark hair, blue eyes, physically appealing and unblemished. He should be here for debriefing any minute." Banks glanced at his watch. "In fact, I spoke with Conroy more than thirty minutes ago. He should have been here by now."

The Commander went to the door of his office and peered out. "Brown, have you seen Conroy?" At Brown's negative response, Banks said, "Send him in the second he arrives."

The phone on Banks' desk rang, "Yes?" he answered, and listened for several minutes before he hung up.

"So much for that plan. Conroy's been hurt in an auto accident and with this weather, I don't have another man to spare right now. Damn it, this might have been our only chance to catch this scum," Simon grumbled.

Blair spoke up. "Commander, I can be the merchandise. Obviously, I fit the profile. You and James will make sure I'm safe. Please, I want to catch this bastard. He is responsible for my friends and I being kidnapped. I think I've earned the right to do this."

"Sir?" James interrupted. "If I may interject, I think Blair's right. He won't be in danger. This 'doctor' doesn't want to hurt him, he wants to sell him. The most the guy will do is look him over. We need to do this, Simon, tonight, before it's too late."

Simon shook his head. "I don't like it. Not one bit, but hell, James, you're right. We need to do this tonight before some other innocent person is injured or killed. And if the information pans out and he's already taken hostages, they need to be released." The Commander looked intently at the Guide. "Sandburg, you listen to Ellison and me, and do exactly what we say. No heroics."

Blair grinned and nodded. "Heroics, Sir? Not me, Commander." Blair bounced. "Yes, sir. I mean... No, sir. Thank you, sir."

Simon glared again at Blair before he turned to James. "Ellison, you listen to the Guide. I know how you are. You're a stubborn bastard." Simon almost smiled.

"Yes, sir." James nodded, then he thought, Listen to the Guide. Keep the Guide safe. "Simon, when did he become 'The Guide' anyway?" James held up his hand. "Don't answer that."

Blair grinned even wider and Simon chuckled as he shook his head. "I don't want to have to explain to the Mayor and the Chief Commander how a Sentinel managed to get his Guide killed. They would have my ass but good."

It was very dark and the snow never let up when James put the Suburban in four-wheel drive and they headed on the twenty-minute drive to the location of the parking garage. He drove carefully with Simon sitting in the front seat next to him and Blair in the back. James stopped the vehicle about half a mile from the rendezvous point and climbed out. Blair joined him and James sent his sense of hearing ahead as far as possible.

James cocked his head and listened. Blair spoke quietly to him. "Steady, Jamie. Don't force it. Let it flow from your body. Listen gently. The night is very quiet. You should be able to hear a long way."

James followed the dulcet tones and was rewarded with the sound of an engine running up ahead. Three voices were heard, all male.

"...and if this new guy works out tonight, we'll have a new supplier. My man in Oregon tells me that they need at least ten a week for export. The market is ripe for young ones with big blue eyes. It's something they don't see in their country." A snort was heard and a derisive laugh.

"I don't like bringing in a new man this late in the game. If he so much as twitches wrong, I'm wasting them all."

A slap of skin was heard. "You'll do as I say or I'll waste you, Freddie."

The voices faded. James shuddered and Blair's hand rubbed his shoulder while his steadying voice reached James' brain. "Concentrate. Stay in control, James. Focus. You're doing a good job."

James pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. "Thanks, Chief. There are three of them. They're not suspicious about the meet. Hopefully, things will go as planned. Remember, after they give me the money and I turn you over to them, I want you to faint right at their feet. That will throw them off enough for Simon and me to make our move. Got it?"

Blair nodded, eyes wide. James smiled and patted his arm. "You okay, Blair?"

Blair shrugged. "Yeah, a bit scared and a lot excited. Let's get these clowns."

James patted Blair's arm before he took a piece of rope and tied Blair's hands in front of him. Then he put a gag in his mouth and a blindfold over his eyes, and had him lay down on the back seat. He threw a blanket over Blair, then climbed back into the truck and proceeded to the rendezvous point.

James maneuvered the Suburban down into the second level of the underground parking garage and stopped about thirty feet from an extended cab pickup truck. The truck had a shell over its bed and James scanned it quickly. He looked at Simon and said in a low, angry voice. "There are five heartbeats in the truck besides the three in the cab."

Simon acknowledged with a slight nod. James got out and stood beside the driver's door. Simon climbed out, pulled his hat low over his eyes, and joined James. The waiting truck's headlights came on, blinding them temporarily. James threw his arm across his eyes and turned away. Simon clamped a strong hand on his arm to steady him. The truck's doors opened and the three men moved quickly towards James and Simon. They had guns drawn. James dialed down his eyesight and lowered his hands, shoving them into his pockets.

The taller man ordered, "Put your hands where we can see them."

James pulled his hands out and held them up, as did Simon. The taller man stood with his gun trained on James while one of his cohorts, a short black man, patted down James, pulling his gun from the waistband of his jeans. "You'll get this back if and when the negotiations are completed," he said.

The third man covered Simon until the black man moved to pat him down, also pulling his weapon from his shoulder holster. "Same with you." The smaller black man's eyes traveled up Simon's large frame appreciatively. "You're a big one, aren't you?" At Simon's glare, the smaller man laughed and shrugged.

James cleared his throat. "I brought your merchandise. Show me the money."

The tall man, obviously the leader, said, "Not very neighborly, are you? Not so fast. Let's exchange names and phone numbers in case we want to go out on a little date at some time in the future." He chuckled at his own joke before he said menacingly, "Nothing gets done until I'm satisfied you're not cops."

Simon spoke first. "I'm Sam Bonds. This is Jim Edwards. We were given the word by your contact, BobbyJ. We been pals with him for a while now and when he got busted, he gave us a heads-up. He knew we needed some fast cash so he clued us in. He said you paid in cash on delivery and you were looking for a good man in Cascade." Simon chuckled loudly. "We like to deliver and we like money so here we are."

James said in a drawl. "Yeah. We like cash, lots of cash and we don't much care how we get it."

The tall man snorted. "Not real smart, aren't you?"

James grinned and shrugged. Simon slugged James in the arm. "Be polite to the man, Jimmy."

James shrugged again. "Let's see the money. That's all I care about."

The tall man moved close to James and stared at him. "I don't like you much."

James dropped his eyes quickly and slumped his shoulders. "Sorry," he mumbled, "I didn't mean nothing."

The tall man stood for a long minute staring at James' bowed head before he laughed out loud and slapped James' arm. "You're forgiven. You can call me The Doctor. It's because I like a smooth operation. Oh, and it also means that I like to cut people who double-cross me." Once again, he laughed at his own humor. He inclined his head to the black man. "That's Spike. The other is Freddie. See, nice and polite. Freddie, show him the cash." His cohort pulled out a thick envelope from his coat pocket and handed it to James.

James opened the envelope and thumbed the bills, counting quickly. He looked up and said, "We want an extra $200 because of the bad weather."

The Doctor snorted and Spike laughed. "Screw you, asshole," Freddie chimed in.

James handed back the envelope. "No sale."

The three men exchanged glances. The Doctor said, "Okay, let's see the merchandise. An extra $200 if I approve."

James nodded curtly and motioned to Simon, who opened the back door, pulling off the blanket and yanking Blair out by the scruff of his coat, holding him steady with a hand under his arm. James could hear Blair's rapid heartbeat and his quickened pulse. Simon pushed Blair towards James who caught him under the armpits. "Steady," he whispered and he clamped a hand on the back of Blair's neck, making it look like he was using force when he was actually almost caressing the warm skin.

The Doctor moved closer while Spike put his gun against James' side. James glared at the black man and he pulled back slightly. Freddie pushed his pistol against Simon's chest making him step back. The Doctor pulled off the blindfold and with a flashlight that he fished out of his pocket, shined it directly into Blair's eyes, blinding him. Blair closed his eyes involuntarily and the man grabbed him roughly under the chin. James growled and pulled Blair out of his grasp.

The ringleader barked, "I need to see the color of his eyes. You'd better back off. I have a right to inspect the merchandise. You want to do this or not?"

James nodded curtly and shook Blair's arm, "Stay put," he ordered and moved back a half step, not releasing his hold on Blair's elbow. The Doctor once again flashed the light on Blair's face. This time, Blair had had enough of a warning to stand still. The Doctor grunted his approval and without warning, grabbed Blair's crotch. Blair squeaked and jumped back, falling against James' broad chest. The tall man groused again, "Damn it, hold him still. He'd better be in one piece. I don't take damaged merchandise. Cock and two balls or no sale!"

It took all of James' resolve for him to let the disgusting man paw Blair's body. James could hear Blair's heart thudding in his chest and sensed his revulsion at the man's touch. Thankfully, he was content with examining Blair through his pants and did not insist on a more thorough inspection.

The Doctor stepped back, apparently satisfied, and he motioned to his companion. "Give him the envelope and an extra $100."

James barked, "I said an extra $200!"

The man's eyes narrowed. "You'll take an extra $100 and like it. Next time, if you bring me quality merchandise, I'll consider the extra."

James glared for a long minute, his hold on Blair never faltering. Simon groused, "Take the extra hundred and let's get out of here. I got a hot lady and a warm bed waiting." James nodded curtly. The envelope and the extra bill were passed over, and Spike grabbed a handful of Blair's jacket and yanked him towards their truck. Blair stumbled and when the man turned to yank him again, Blair folded into a heap without making a sound.

With their attentions diverted by Blair's apparent fainting spell, and before the three men had time to notice what James was doing, he reached under the front wheel well of the truck and pulled out two handguns that he had duct-taped there earlier. James covered the distance between himself and the closest man to him, Spike, in two long strides while tossing one of the guns to Simon. As Spike was yanking Blair to his feet, he smacked the unsuspecting man deftly on the back of the head. Spike sank quickly to the ground.

Simon caught the gun and started in Freddie's direction. Freddie raised his gun and aimed at Simon, who aimed and fired first, hitting him in the shoulder. He twisted and fell, yelling in pain. The leader, who had been walking in front of Blair and Spike, turned and raised his gun at James. Before James could aim back at him, Blair scrambled to his feet, crouched over and rammed his head right into The Doctor's stomach, sending him flying backwards. He landed hard and when his head smacked the pavement, he was knocked unconscious.

James swiftly pulled the Guide to his feet and yanked the gag out of his mouth. "What the hell do you think you're doing? You were in my line of fire, Sandburg!" he yelled. "Are you okay?" He quickly untied Blair's hand and spun him around several times, inspecting him closely and patting his hands down Blair's arms and chest.

Blair pressed his hands against James' chest. "Slow down, Jamie. I'm fine. I'm not hurt. How about you?"

"Damn it, Chief, what the hell was that?" James was still yelling, shaking him by the shoulders.

Blair bounced on his toes. "I helped, didn't I?" he said excitedly.

James clenched his teeth and shook his head. "After I told you what to do and after you promised to do exactly what I said, you didn't listen!"

Blair glared. "Would you please stop yelling at me?"

Simon's booming voice interrupted their argument. "Ellison! There are five people in the back of that truck who need help. Now shut up and move your ass! Backup should be here in five."

James glared once again at Blair before he strode to the back of the truck to liberate the hostages, Blair at his heels to offer assistance. The hostages were quickly released and taken to the hospital by the EMTs who arrived within minutes. The three worthless criminals were turned over to the EMTs to be treated for their various injuries and to be booked by the backup officers.

When the scene was finally under control, James had enough time to stop and breathe. He looked around for Blair, locating him sitting on the hood of one of the patrol cars. James walked over to him, automatically scanning his vitals. Blair's heart rate and pulse were racing.

"Say, Chief, I know you're scared. It's okay to be scared after something like that. You're not a trained police officer. Anybody would be upset."

Blair blurted out excitedly, "Oh, man, I'm not scared, I'm hyped! That was so cool. Geez, Jamie, now I know what it's like to be you. Well, not exactly be you with the heightened senses, but the primal man part. Man, that is so cool"

James tugged Blair from the roof of the car and directed the eager man to the passenger side of his Suburban. Blair continued talking while James opened his door and guided him into the seat, buckling his seatbelt for him. He chattered all the way back to Prospect Street, up the stairs and into the loft.

James was starting to get worried. "Sandburg, please calm down. This was just a routine bust. You're going to give yourself a headache if you don't calm down."

Blair paced the living room while James put on the kettle for tea. "Man, I've never done anything like that before. Keeping your cool. Not blowing your cover. I could do this, Jamie. I could get to like the excitement."

James poured hot water over the tea bags and capped the pot. "Chief, it's not all fun and games. What about using a gun? You have to be able to control your emotions and be willing to kill another human being. Do you think you could do that?"

Blair stopped and ran his hands through his hair. "Geez, Jamie, I hadn't thought about that. I'm not really sure I could do the shooting part, but the undercover work would be great. That I could handle."

James poured tea and brought a cup into the living room. "Blair, sit down right now and relax. You're starting to worry me."

Blair grinned widely. "Oh, okay, sorry. I guess I'm just a bit excited, huh?"

James smiled. "A bit, Chief? I'd say overly so. Sit down."

Blair plopped on the sofa, crossing his legs. James handed him the cup and Blair took it with a grateful smile. "Thanks, man." He took a sip of the hot liquid. "Oh, God, that tastes great."

James smiled and joined Blair on the sofa after fixing himself a cup. They sat for the longest time drinking in silence. James scanned Blair surreptitiously. Finally, his heart rate and pulse returned to normal and James was able to relax.

Blair sat back and watched James. "I know what you're doing."

James glanced at his companion. "What's that, Blair?"

"You're listening to me."

James sat very still. "Yeah? What makes you say that?"

"I can tell. You get this look."

"Sandburg, I don't get 'this look'. I don't get any look."


"Why what?"

"Why do you do it? Why do you tune into me? Does it comfort you? Does it make you feel centered? Do you like it?"

James stood quickly. His face was an expressionless mask. "No more questions, Chief. It's none of your business. Nothing about me is any of your business."

Blair rose and stood quietly, waiting until James' eyes met his. "Everything about you is my business," he said quietly. "I want everything about me to be your business."

James glared. "Sandburg, you're leaving at the end of the week."

Blair smiled. "I don't have to leave, Jamie. I can stay. We can talk about this. We can work on this."

James' jaw twitched. "There is no 'this'. There is no us. I don't want you here."

Blair sighed. "Oh," he said breathlessly. "I thought after tonight..."

When he did not continue, James said, "You thought what, Blair?"

"Nothing, man, nothing at all." Blair turned and started towards James' spare room. "I'm tired," he said dejectedly. "I'm going to bed."

James stood rooted to the spot on the living room floor until he heard Blair undress and climb into bed. He listened to the sounds of Blair's unsettled breathing and he knew that he was upset. He bit his lip and clenched his hands into fists. Damn it, Blair, Why do you have to torture both of us? I can't do this.

Do what, Ellison, do what? All he wants is for you to love him. It's so easy. Just knock on the door. He'll invite you in, you know he will. Seal your bond. You want it. He wants it. Take him now!

James knocked softly on the door. He heard the sounds of Blair clearing his throat. Finally Blair called out, "Come in."

James pushed the door open and stood in the doorway. "Chief?"

"I'm right here, Jamie. I'm sure your senses tell you that."

"Yeah, I know." When James just stood silently, Blair fidgeted with the blankets.

"Did you want something?" he asked.

"I just wanted to ask if you were okay. If you're hungry or anything."

"No, man, I'm good. Just tired."

"Oh, okay, Blair. Good night."

"Sure, whatever." Blair sighed sadly. James backed up and turned to leave. He stopped and leaned his forehead against the doorframe. Blair sat up and asked, "Sentinel Ellison, are you okay?"

James turned and his sad eyes met Blair's. "No, Blair, I'm not okay."

Blair sat quietly under James' silent scrutiny. Their eyes met and Blair reached out a hand. "Come here." At James' hesitation, he added, "Please."

James walked over and took the outstretched hand in his. Blair tugged until James sank onto the side of the bed. Blair licked his lips. "Jamie, please kiss me," he whispered.

James nodded and tilted his head sideways. Their faces were just inches apart and James leaned in just a bit, meeting Blair's forward motion halfway. Their lips touched, warm and silky. James pressed a hand on the back of Blair's head and deepened the kiss. Blair reacted quickly, sliding a hand behind James' head and they kissed longingly and passionately. Hungry mouths melted together and opened under gentle pressure. Tongues intertwined and pushed against each other before each man took a turn exploring the hot recesses of the other's mouth. The fires were ignited and started to burn hot and deep.

Blair whimpered and wrapped his arms around James' shoulders, pulling him down with him when he flopped to his back. James followed willingly and their lips never lost contact. Rather, James put his weight against Blair's body, pressing him hard onto the mattress and he kissed him almost fiercely. Blair encouraged James' demanding kisses by thrusting his tongue into James' open mouth and moaning, digging his fingers into the back of James' neck.

James ground his hard erection against Blair's and he groaned and thrust, rubbing their dicks together in burning desire and scorching friction that was almost overwhelming even through their clothes. He threaded his hands into Blair's hair and clenched them into fists, twisting them almost painfully. The desire coursed through Blair's body and he relished the feel of James' body rubbing hard against his. He groaned deeply into James' mouth and suddenly he tensed and came in long, hot spurts. James followed quickly, the smell of Blair's come and the scent of his arousal sending him falling over the edge. He gritted his teeth and came intensely, biting the tender skin of Blair's neck while his seed pulsed from his body. He slowly slid onto his lover, panting harshly.

James roused himself quickly when he sensed Blair's difficult breathing. He pushed himself up on his hands and looked down into his lover's face. "I'm heavy on you."

Blair smiled. "Just a bit. It's okay."

James shook his head and smiled. "Only you, Blair, would be okay with me crushing you."

Blair shrugged. "Anything to keep you close."

James pushed himself from the bed and slid to the floor, kneeling beside the bed. He smoothed the heated forehead and brushed the wild locks of hair away from Blair's face with a trembling hand. James leaned over and kissed Blair's lips tenderly. "I'm going to take a shower."

Blair nodded. "And afterwards, we'll talk."

James rose and walked across the room, looking back at his beloved. "Sure, Blair, we'll talk."

James left and Blair lay quietly thinking. He didn't believe James' statement for a second. He saw the look in James' eyes. He saw the guilt and the desire and the love and the sorrow mixed together. Blair sighed. What else could he do to make things right? To make James accept him as his Guide fully and finally? Blair sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees, resting his chin on his knee. Think! he ordered himself. There has to be something.

Blair was deep in reverie when James, showered and dressed, stopped in the doorway, observing him intently. "I have to go out for a while. I'll, ah, I'll catch you later."

Blair watched James seriously. "Sure, Jamie. I'll be here," he managed to say, fighting the urge to scream at James. What have I done now? What else can I do? Why can't you love me?

James said, "Good bye, Chief." Then he left quietly.

After James had gone, Blair took a quick shower and made another cup of tea. He sat in the darkened living room, drinking and thinking, wrapped in a warm blanket that he pulled from the back of the sofa. Then he paced the floor of the apartment until sunrise. He located Simon's telephone number from James' address book, sitting on the small table just inside the door, and dialed.

"What!" the sleepy voice barked.

"Commander, this is Blair Sandburg. I need your help."

"What is it, Mr. Sandburg?"

"It's Jamie, Sir. I need to talk to you about Jamie and me. I need you to do something for us. Please, Commander, you're my last hope." He paused and then added, "And Jamie's too."

"What's on your mind, Mr. Sandburg?" Simon asked.

"Jamie is determined to 'save' me from our bonding. I know he feels just as strongly about me as I do about him, but he thinks he's doing the right thing by refusing to let me pledge to him. I want to be able to offer him something. I want to offer him a compromise."

"What kind of compromise?"

"He feels that I don't fit into his life. He hasn't said it, but I know he doesn't like the idea that I might be put in danger. I figure if I can offer him a workable solution to our problem, that he'll accept me and let me stay with him. Simon, I want to pledge to him. I need Jamie. I can't tell you what it feels like." Blair sighed and ran his hands through his hair. "He makes me feel so good. I want to love him and be with him and guide him."

"Sandburg, what do you expect from me? You know I'll do anything within my power to help James. He's like a brother to me and he's been a good friend. My son, Daryl, admires the hell out of him. What can I do?"

"Commander, I want you to look into another phase of police work for Jamie. One that I can join in. Being a cop defines who Jamie is. If he could still be a cop and I could be at his side, I think I'd have a good chance of convincing him that we belong together."

There was a bit of a pause before Simon said, "You know, Sandburg, you make a lot of sense."

Blair smiled to himself. "You seem almost surprised."

"I didn't think you were a good candidate for James at first, but after last night and this morning, I think I was wrong. You're a good match. You stand up for yourself. I have a feeling you'd protect him with your life. James needs a strong companion. I think you fit the bill."

"Thank you, Sir. It's important to me that you approve. So what do you think about my idea?"

"I think it has great merit. Let me talk to a couple of the department heads. I'll see what I can come up with."

"Thanks, Simon. May I call you Simon? Thanks. That's great."

Simon's chuckled. "Yes, you may, Mr. Sandburg."

"Call me Blair. If we're going to be friends, you should call me Blair."

"Are we going to be friends, Blair?"

"I sure hope so, Simon."

"Give me a few hours to see what I can do. I'll call the minute I get a firm answer."

"Okay, Simon. Thanks. I'll be waiting."

By 11 am Blair was a bundle of hyperactive wires. James still had not returned and his addled brain finally processed the information. He's not coming back!

Blair dove for the telephone but just as the thought hit home, it rang.


"Ah, sorry, Sandburg. It's Banks."

Blair ran a hand through his disheveled hair. "It's okay, Commander. It's just that Jamie hasn't returned. Simon, I think he's gone. He's not coming back." Silence from the other end reigned until Blair asked, "Simon?"

"How long has he been gone?" Simon finally asked.

Blair sighed. "Almost eight hours."

Simon's heavy sighing reached Blair's ears. "You may be correct, Blair."

"Tell me, Simon," he demanded, "where's he gone? You know, don't you?"

"He's gone into the wilderness. He had his truck packed and ready days ago. If it helps at all, James was fully outfitted for survival. He is more than capable of surviving in the wilderness."

"What the hell are you talking about? You don't think... Oh, my God. That self-righteous, egotistical, stubborn, pig-headed jerk!"

"Yeah," Simon agreed.

"He's playing martyr again, isn't he? He's saving me from him. I'm going to kill the bastard myself," Blair said through clenched teeth. "Where's he gone, Simon? Do you have any idea?"

"Yes, I have a pretty good idea. He's gone into the Highland area. It's a remote area with a string of trapper's cabins that lead to the Canadian border. It's where Sentinels who have failed to pledge are banished."

Blair clenched his fist while he paced restlessly. "That is the most archaic, stupid, ridiculous, not to mention cruel thing I have ever heard. And you people call yourselves civilized?"

Simon remained silent under Blair's tirade. How could he argue when he felt the same way?

"I'm going after him," Blair stated adamantly.

Simon started to protest but he realized the futility. Instead, he said, "If you need to do this, Sandburg, at least do it properly. You'll need outdoor survival gear and a four-wheel drive. I'll come with you."

"No, Simon, thanks. I have to do this alone. But I'd really appreciate your providing me with the equipment. If Jamie doesn't want to come back, then I'm staying with him. If I can't find him, well, then I'm not coming back, either. I have to do this, Simon. I have to."

Simon sighed once again. "I'd like to talk you out of this, Sandburg, but I understand. I'll make arrangements to send the equipment and the vehicle over to you. Give them about an hour." Simon paused, then he said, "Blair, just promise me you'll take care of yourself and James. Listen, if this helps, I talked to my CO and explained the situation to him. James is highly thought of in this district and he said he would hate to lose him. He's willing to accept James' transfer into Internal Investigations."

"Thank you for treating me as an equal, Simon, and not yelling at me for doing this. But what exactly does this type of transfer mean?"

"That means that if James agrees, and you agree to stay with him and attend training classes on police procedure and protocol, you would investigate complaints against officers from citizens or other employees of City Protection. You'd have to examine and assess the degree of compliance with established policies and rules, and evaluate citizen satisfaction with police service."

"Simon, that sounds perfect for us. I'm very willing to take whatever training is necessary."

"I think James and you would be an asset to the department. It's not an easy job. You are up for scrutiny yourselves, but James is of the highest moral character. There would be a background check on you, of course, but from what I've seen of you these past few days, I don't think that will be a problem. You'd have to be willing to discipline your fellow officers. This can cover everything from criminal conduct to sexual harassment, to dishonesty and rules violations."

"And my official position would be a protection officer, I gather," Blair added.

"Yes, that's correct. You wouldn't be required to carry a firearm but you would be sworn in officially. James would still be permitted to carry his weapon but this position does not usually call for use of a firearm. James is fully aware of what this type of assignment entails. If you and he can come to an agreement, I'm willing to offer the positions to you. You would be paid an annual salary on the scale provided by the department. What do you say, Sandburg?"

"Commander, I say thank you. First, I'm going to find that son-of-a-bitch and after I beat the crap out of him, I'm going to ask him if he's willing to compromise. That's all I can do, Simon. And I hope to God that it works."

"You're a good man, Blair."

Blair grinned into the receiver. "Thank you, Commander. I'll bring him home."

Carefully following the map provided by Simon, Blair made it to the trailhead after several hours of cautious driving in the deep snow. Luckily the day was clear and bright and the road was relatively easy to follow. Blair slowed down and watched for the turn off from the main road onto a secondary road that led to the trailhead. When Blair maneuvered the Jeep around the last stand of trees, he saw James' blue Suburban parked along the side of the road. Blair pulled the Jeep close behind James' vehicle and climbed out, surveying the area.

The forest was thick with tall pines reaching to the heavens. The air was cold and crisp with the wonderful fragrance of pine permeating the entire area. The sun was glinting off the blindingly white snow, sparkling in the sunshine like specks of diamonds. It would have been a beautiful winter day if not for the mission that Blair found himself on and the many speeches he practiced over and over to convince one hardheaded Sentinel that they belonged together. If you find him, Blair, only if you find him.

It seemed to the Guide that divine providence was with him. It had not snowed in the last twelve hours and James' tracks were clearly seen as they led down the trail, disappearing around a bend. Blair sighed deeply and he strapped on his snowshoes and backpack. He put on snow goggles to protect his eyes from the snow's glare and clamped a heavy wool hat on his head. After tugging on thick gloves, he breathed in and out several times and forged ahead.

It was late in the day, past two p.m., but Blair was determined to start on his quest immediately, utilizing the couple of hours of daylight he still had left. From the forestry map provided by Banks, Blair knew that there was a trapper's cabin about four miles from the trailhead. He also knew he could cover the distance in that timeframe and that was his destination for his first night.

As he walked, he wondered how successful his quest would be. James was a Sentinel, after all. If he cared to notice, he would know hours ahead of time that Blair was searching for him. He could easily elude the search. His one hope was that James would notice and descend upon him with the wrath of the gods, angry that Blair had followed, so that he might give Blair the opportunity to talk some sense into James' thick skull.

Blair followed James' tracks effortlessly for the first couple of miles, but as he walked under the tall pine trees, the snow that had melted and fallen from the tree branches obliterated the tracks. Blair swore under his breath and continued walking toward the trapper's cabin. He made his destination in the waning daylight and pushed open the creaking wooden door. Blair looked around cautiously, first checking for wild animals and then, with hope, checking for James Ellison. After finding neither, he shrugged off the heavy pack, unbuckled the snowshoes, and set about making a fire in the old stone fireplace.

The former occupants had left a good stack of dry wood in the corner. Blair thanked the unknown tenants while he started his fire, and made a mental note to leave a pile of wood drying in the cabin for its next visitors. He tossed out his sleeping bag on one of the wooden cots and unlaced his hiking boots. Then he boiled water and fixed a hot meal of dehydrated vegetable soup and crackers with cheese spread, along with a steaming cup of hot chocolate. He yawned and stowed the remains of his meal before crawling into the sleeping bag. Blair knew that he was still not totally recovered from his ordeal and he was determined to keep his strength up with lots of food and sleep. He tossed restlessly thinking of his Sentinel before sleep finally overtook him.

Blair woke suddenly and sat up quickly. He listened intently, hearing the howling of a wolf in the far distance. He glanced around nervously. It was still dark. He rose, wrapped the sleeping bag around his shoulders and opened the cabin door. The night sky was giving way to the dawn in the horizon. A few late stars twinkled against the smoky gray blanket. Blair shivered and listened. The wolf howled again, followed by the sound of the scream of a large animal. There were probably mountain lions in this area, Blair mused. He was more than surprised when he realized that the sounds of the wild animals did not frighten him, but instead his blood hummed in his veins. His pulse quickened and his heart pounded, not with fright, but with excitement.

Blair turned and closed the door quickly. He stoked the banked fire, set his pot of water on to heat while he packed the rest of his gear. Even though he was anxious to set out, he forced himself to make tea with plenty of sugar and eat a large portion of granola. He then packed quickly and threw open the door. The sun was just peeking over the horizon and Blair made good on his promise to leave a supply of firewood in the cabin for the next travelers. When this was finished, he closed the door firmly behind him and walked into the glade in front of the cabin. He stood very still, listening, testing the air around him.

The wolf slunk into the clearing about forty feet from Blair and stopped, eyes blazing. Blair never moved a muscle. He knew without a doubt that he was a dead man. The wolf could cover the space between them in four or five long strides and have Blair's throat in its jaws in mere seconds. Blair forced his eyes to drop and not to challenge the powerful animal by meeting its glare. He stood breathing heavily until after many minutes, he glanced up to see the wolf sitting on its haunches in the same exact spot as earlier. Their eyes met and Blair's eyes widened in surprise. The wolf's blue eyes mirrored Blair's exactly.

The wolf rose and trotted out of the glade with a backward glance at Blair. When Blair stood rooted to his spot, the wolf stopped, circled twice, gave a low, quick bark and stood facing forward. Blair's mouth dropped open. The wolf wanted him to follow him!

"Okay, okay, I'm coming," Blair said.

The second Blair started walking towards the wolf, it trotted down the trail, always keeping just ahead of him. Occasionally the wolf stopped and sniffed the air. Blair stopped and waited, likewise testing the air around him. The wolf seemed happy with their progress and the miles flew by as the hours ticked away.

With an internal clock seemingly set on Blair's rhythms, just when Blair's body was fatigued and needed rest, the wolf turned from its determined path and entered a thick stand of pines. The trees grew so close together that the ground under them still showed beds of dry needles. The wolf flopped down and rested its head on its front paws. Blair stopped, still thoroughly amazed at his traveling companion. The wolf's eyes slid back and forth, constantly watching, and its ears flicked and turned, listening. Blair was close enough to see the hairs on the wolf's forehead ripple when his eyes and ears moved. Blair dropped his pack and dug out a bottle of juice. He drank deeply and ate several handfuls of dried fruit and nuts, along with a few peanut butter crackers.

Finished with his meal, Blair spoke to the powerful animal. "I sure hope you know where we're going. You seem to know I'm following you." Blair chuckled. "Hell with that! You insisted that I follow you. I'm not sure who you are, but I know that you're trying to help. Thank you. I'd offer you something to eat, but I'm not sure I have anything that's to your liking."

The wolf's ears flicked back and forth at each word that Blair spoke. He rose and shook himself from nose to tail, turned and started off on his quest once again, with Blair close behind. The wolf walked deliberately for several hours and Blair put his faith in his sense of direction. They didn't seem to be following any sort of trail any longer and Blair knew that James had started out hours ahead of him the previous day. He could only hope that the wolf had some sort of a sixth sense that led them on the most direct path to the Sentinel.

The wolf never faltered until he reached the edge of an overlook. He sat, tongue lolling from the side of his mouth, and waited patiently for Blair to come and stand a short distance away. The wolf stared hard down into the valley below. Blair followed his line of vision, shielding his eyes with his hand against the bright sunshine, but try as he might, he couldn't see what had captured the wolf's rapt attention.

Blair pulled off his sun goggles and unclipped the binoculars tethered to his belt, focusing the glasses and scanning the area below him. A movement caught his attention and he adjusted the knob, finding a large herd of elk moving along the treeline at the far right end of the valley, grazing as they walked. Blair watched as they pawed the deep snow, uncovering blades of hay and grasses and munching the vegetation.

A small woof made Blair jump and he looked at the wolf, grinning. "What?"

The wolf rose and stared intently down valley just to the left of where the elk herd grazed. Blair once again scanned the area. There! It had to be. A man walked across the middle of the wide expanse of white and as Blair watched, he suddenly stopped, his attention caught by the herd of elk. James! Blair's heart raced and he cupped his hands around his mouth, yelling "Jamie!" at the top of his lungs. James did not react to Blair's shout even though Blair knew well and good that he should have been able to hear him. Blair shouted again and raised the glasses to his eyes. When he trained them once again on James, he saw that he was standing very still, head up looking at the elk.

"Damn it, Jamie! Don't zone on them!" Blair muttered, knowing full well that was exactly what had happened. He scanned the area quickly, looking for the easiest trail down the side of a steep ravine, when he heard a strange sound. It started out quietly and then became louder. Soon it sounded like a freight train was crashing through the valley. Blair put the binoculars to his eyes and quickly focused on the area from which the sound was emanating. His stomach lurched and his mouth went dry when he saw the snow in the upper part of the valley above where James was standing, sliding down the side of the mountain straight towards him.

Blair dropped the binoculars and plowed ahead, screaming at James to look out, but the figure never moved. Blair started to panic and flung himself headlong down the side of the ravine, but the first tumble stopped him cold in his tracks. He stopped and gathered his wits about him, realizing that if he broke his leg or his head rushing ahead without thinking, he would be of absolutely no use to James. He sat and quickly removed his snowshoes and attached them to the backpack. Then he picked his way down the side of the ravine carefully, moving as fast as he could safely, crawling over and around large boulders and downed trees.

Blair stopped several times and looked through the field glasses, watching the wave of snow careen down the narrow valley, and held his breath when the snow slide finally reached James' position. He bit his lip fiercely when the avalanche overtook James and swept him away. He forced himself to keep his binoculars trained on the slide and to watch as the snow entered a large stand of trees, uprooting small ones and crushing larger pines before it finally slowed and stopped. He scanned the area with the binoculars several times, trying to pick out a sign of James' position but he could see nothing that revealed where the Sentinel had been buried.

Dead silence reigned. Blair continued his trek down the side of the ravine and when he reached the valley floor he was not able to move very quickly. The large slide had littered the field with boulders, broken tree branches and huge chunks of snow, slowing his progress.

"Jamie!" Blair called over and over while he searched frantically. There was no way that Blair could possibly search such a huge area, but he never thought of the futility of the situation. He had started a search pattern so that he didn't waste time looking over the same area twice, when a familiar noise caught his attention. The wolf was about a hundred yards away, digging frantically and barking noisily.

Blair raced across to where the wolf was digging, flung off his backpack and dropped to his knees, digging with his hands alongside his companion. He prayed the entire time. "Please, please, Jamie. Please, don't do this to me. Oh, man, come on. Jamie, I love you. Give me a sign here, Jamie. If you can hear me, give me something."

After digging for several moments, Blair's hand touched something. He scraped away the snow and saw it. A boot. A sob rose in Blair's throat and he quickly uncovered the boot, then the leg and upwards. The snow was heavy and packed, and it seemed like an eternity to the distraught Guide before he was able to uncover James' neck and then his face. He worked silently, tugging and pulling until he had James out of the snowy grave.

Blair knelt beside James, pulled off his gloves and wiped the snow from the cold face. Blair pressed his ear against James' mouth and cried, "No, no, no," when he realized that James was not breathing. He quickly listened to his chest and was unable to hear his heart beating. Blair tipped James' chin up and opened his mouth while pinching his nose, blowing into James' mouth twice. He then counted seven chest compressions, remembering the training he had years ago and never had had to use.

Blair steadily performed the resuscitation exercise several times. Ventilate. Compress. Check for response. He didn't have the energy to speak after a while but he never faltered. After what seemed to be forever to the anxious Guide, James finally took a breath. Blair felt James' chest rise and fall when he put both hands on it, and he sat for several minutes catching his own breath and enjoyed just watching James breathe.

Once James' breathing seemed steady, Blair gently and thoroughly examined him from head to foot as well as he could through his heavy, wet clothing. He could not detect any broken bones, but he did find a large bruise on the side of his forehead that Blair figured might account for his unconscious state. James might very well have a concussion after such a hard tumble.

Blair looked around, realizing that nightfall was fast approaching. Just as he started to reach for his backpack, a movement in the treeline to his right caught his eye. He saw the wolf watching him with attentive eyes. Blair smiled and raised his hand, "Thanks for your help, Brother." The wolf gave a low bark and turned to leave. Blair watched his retreat and his mouth dropped open. Just before the wolf disappeared into the trees, a large black panther lopped across Blair's line of sight and ran up to the wolf. Blair was even more surprised when, instead of defending their territories with teeth and claws, the panther playfully cuffed the wolf on the side of the head. The wolf yelped and jumped back. The panther trotted off followed by the wolf. The last thing Blair saw was the wolf mischievously nipping at the heels of the big cat.

In spite of the circumstances, Blair found himself smiling when he grabbed the backpack and pulled out a thermal blanket. Blair spread the blanket on the snow next to his Sentinel and inch by inch, worked James gently onto it. He gathered up two of the ends and pulled, making a sled on which to move James to a protected place under a grove of trees.

Blair pitched the two-man tent that was packed into his gear and built a fire. He checked on James constantly. While he was breathing steadily, he showed no signs of regaining consciousness. Blair was worried beyond belief, but he couldn't afford to take the time to stop right now. James' life depended on him and he worked steadily and silently. He spread out his sleeping bag in the tent and moved James under the shelter, removing James' wet clothing down to his thermal underwear that was, luckily, still dry. Blair wrapped him in the sleeping bag; once again checking to be sure his breathing was steady. He placed a hand on James' forehead, sighing with relief that at least his temperature had returned to normal.

With the fire blazing brightly, Blair had just put a pan of snow on to melt and make into cocoa, when he heard James moan. He set the pan down carefully, knowing that when James awakened he would need some fluids as soon as possible. Blair crawled on his hands and knees through the small opening, and flicked on the lantern he had placed within easy reach next to James.

Blair's hands smoothed the short soft hair and patted his cheeks gently. "Jamie, come on, wake up for me. That's right. Open your eyes." Blair talked and stroked soothingly until he was finally rewarded with a response.

James forced his eyes open and the first thing he saw was the face of Blair Sandburg hovering over him. He sighed and whispered hoarsely, "I knew when I reached heaven, I would find my angel." He closed his eyes and sighed again, content to slip away peacefully.

Blair smiled and put his warm hands on James' cheeks. "Jamie, wake up. Come on, open your eyes. I need you to talk to me. I've been really worried about you."

James gradually became aware of the throbbing in his head, the cold of his body and the warmth of Blair's hands. He fought against waking, but Blair's persistent voice forestalled his return to unconsciousness. He shivered and his teeth chattered, and he once again opened his eyes.

"Blair?" he whispered.

"Yes, it's me, Jamie. Tell me how you feel."

James' teeth chattered again. "I'm so... sooo cold. My h... head." He bit his lip.

"Listen to me, Jamie," Blair said, "I'm going right outside of the tent to make you something to drink. Do you understand me? Tell me what I said."

James nodded slightly and then winced. "Yes, something to drink. I understand."

"Good job." Blair patted James' chest. "I'll be right back." Blair scurried out and dug through the pack, finding a packet of hot chocolate. He hoped that the sugary substance would elevate James' blood sugar and warm his body. Blair prepared the cup quickly and returned to James' side.

"Talk to me, Jamie. Do you think you can sit up? I'll help." Setting down the hot cup, Blair put an arm around James' shoulders and maneuvered him into a sitting position. Blair wrapped the extra blankets around James' shoulders. "Do you feel sick or faint? Tell me. I need to hear you tell me. I'm worried you might have a concussion."

James sat breathing heavily for a few seconds before he turned his head gingerly to look at Blair. "I'm feeling okay. My head hurts but I'm not sick. Maybe a bit dizzy."

Blair smiled and kept his arm around James' shivering shoulders, reaching for the cup. "Here, hold this in your hands. It's nice and warm. Drink very slowly. Just take a small sip at a time."

"Okay," James answered softly and wrapped his hands around the cup Blair held in front of him. He sighed with relief when the warmth touched his hands and he brought the cup up to his lips, taking small sips as Blair had instructed.

Blair sat quietly, rubbing James' back through the blankets until he had finished the drink. He took the cup from James' hand and set it aside. "How was that?"

"Good, Sandburg. Thanks." Their eyes met. "I'm too tired right now to ask about how you found me."

"Just lay back and rest. I'm going to be right outside. I want to check the fire and grab a bite to eat. Just call me if you need me."

James nodded and slid to the ground with Blair's help. "Okay." His eyes closed and he drifted off.

Several hours later, when James woke, Blair was not in the tent. He listened and could hear him poking the fire and adding more branches to keep the blaze hot. James could feel the heat from where he lay and he relished the warmth. He waited and after a long while, when Blair did not come into the small tent, he called, "Blair?"

In seconds, the wool-covered head popped in. "Jamie, what is it? Are you okay? I'm going to make you some tea. I'll be right in."

Once again, Blair prepared a cup of hot beverage for James, but this time when he crawled into the tent, James had managed to sit up on his own. Blair grinned, "Hey, you're up. How are you feeling?"

"Good observation, Chief. I'm up, more or less. Thanks," James said when Blair handed him the tea. He took a sip. "This tastes really great."

Blair grinned happily. "Oh, man, that's so wonderful. I'm happy you're okay. You really had me scared."

As James drank the tea, he watched Blair over the rim of the cup. "How did you find me, anyway? And what happened?"

Blair was excited when he told the story. "You were caught in an avalanche. It was really awful but guess what? I had a traveling companion! It was so cool! See, this wolf showed me the way. And he helped me dig you out. Then I saw the wolf with this black panther. Did you know that there aren't any black panthers on the Northern Continent? I was really surprised. And the wolf was friendly..."

"Chief, please! Slow down. What in the heck are you talking about? A wolf? Any wolves out here would rip you to shreds and have you for dinner. And a wolf never travels with a panther."

"I know that, man, but this happened. I saw it, really I did. He led me right to you and we saw you get swept away by the avalanche. I was so scared. There was no way I could have found you under all that snow. He barked and dug and I dug, but I didn't bark, and pretty soon, there you were."

James sat dumbfounded. "Ah, okay, Sandburg." He eyed Blair suspiciously. "Did the doctors at the hospital give you any medication to take when you were released? I didn't think about having you examined for psychological trauma. Maybe the scare of the kidnapping is manifesting itself in hallucinations."

Blair sat back on his heels and peered at James. "You don't believe me," he said very quietly.

"Blair, it's not that I don't believe you. I believe you think you saw a wolf. I believe you think the wolf helped you. I just find it hard to believe that it was real."

"Then how do you explain what happened? I know what I saw, Jamie, and I saw a wolf. Not only that, I saw the wolf and the black panther traveling together. Nothing you say will convince me otherwise." Blair crossed his arms and said huffily, "I know what I saw."

"Okay, Blair, I'm not going to argue with you. I'm tired and I bet you are too. Why don't you get some sleep? It will be morning in a few hours."

Blair sat rigidly, hurt at James' terse dismissal of his feelings, and even more hurt that James thought he was hallucinating or maybe even worse, lying. "Sure, man, whatever."

"Come on, Sandburg, lie down. Get some sleep." James coaxed.

Blair lay down a few feet away from James with his back to him, and wrapped himself in one of the thermal blankets. James put a hand on his shoulder but Blair gave a little shake. James bit his lip and pulled his hand away quickly.

"Try to sleep, Blair."

His curt "sure" forestalled any further discussion, and James listened to Blair's breathing. It was a long while before he sensed that the Guide's body relaxed and he drifted into sleep. Only after Blair fell asleep that James was able to do so.

The sun shone brightly on another beautiful winter morning. James opened his eyes and listened to the forest around him. He could hear the birds singing and the scurrying of small animals in the underbrush. He heard several squirrels chatter and leap from branch to branch in tumbling play. He heard the Guide's heartbeat outside the tent and the sounds of him cooking food over the campfire. The smell tantalized James and suddenly his stomach rumbled, letting him know that it had been too long without food.

James rose and pulled the blanket around his shoulders. His boots were sitting right next to him. Blair had obviously brushed the snow from them and propped them near the fire, because when James put his hand into the leathery interior, they were dry and still a bit warm. James pulled on the boots and scrunched over to exit through the small tent opening. He stood quietly and watched Blair's busy hands preparing the meal.

James' nose told him that there were dehydrated scrambled eggs, crackers with strawberry jam and peanut butter, and hot cocoa. His stomach rumbled again.

"Blair, the food smells wonderful."

Blair looked up, their eyes meeting, and he nodded with a small smile. "Come on, then. Dig in. It's all ready."

Blair spooned the hot eggs onto a metal plate along with a small mountain of crackers, and handed it to James who took it gratefully.

"Thanks." James gave Blair a warm smile.

Blair smiled in return. "Hey, it's okay. Just sit and eat. How are you feeling? I have some headache medicine with me if you need it."

James shook his head and he dove into the food. "No, thanks, my head isn't too bad this morning." He stopped to eat several more mouthfuls. "Besides, I try not to use a lot of medications. Sometimes I have allergic reactions."

"Oh, right. I hadn't thought of that. Guess that's just another good reason why."

James took the cup of hot chocolate Blair handed him. Blair then sat cross-legged a few feet away and ate.

James stopped eating and looked at Blair. "Another good reason why what, Chief?"

Blair shrugged. "Why I wouldn't make a very good Guide. I didn't know that medication would be bad for a Sentinel."

James finished his food and drained the last of the chocolate. "You're being a bit hard on yourself. How would you know? You haven't had experience with Sentinels before. It's something that's explained in training."

Blair likewise finished his meal. He stood and took James' plate and his own and quickly cleaned them with handfuls of snow before stowing them in his pack. "Training, huh? Well, I don't have to worry about that because I'm not going to be trained."

Blair busied himself cleaning up and storing the rest of the uneaten food for another meal. "More cocoa?" he asked James. At the negative response, he took the pan of hot water from the fire and after setting it on a rock, dropped in several handfuls of snow. He tested the water with his finger and when satisfied, Blair dug through his backpack until he fished out a square of cloth. He dunked the cloth into the water, rung it out and approached James.

Blair spread the cloth across his hand and said, "Let me wash that face of yours. It's kind of dirty and besides, it will make you feel better."

James nodded and sat quietly under Blair's ministrations. He gently washed around the bruise coloring James' forehead and when he finished, he touched the damaged area lightly.

"Does that hurt? How does it feel?"

"It's good, Sandburg. Just a bit sore. Thank you." James' hand clasped Blair's retreating one. "Blair, I mean thank you." He squeezed the fingers quickly before releasing them.

Blair shrugged. "Sure, man, it's okay." He turned and started breaking camp. "Here's your clothes. I dried them as best I could next to the fire. The map shows that there's one of the trapper's cabins about two miles from here. I think we'd better try and make for cover. You're not in any shape to hike out today."

James took the clothes and dressed while he talked. "I smell another storm coming in too, Chief. We're going to need shelter soon."

"Can you make it that far?"

"If you'll help me."

Blair nodded. "Be glad to." Once again he fell silent and went about the task of breaking camp and packing.

James pinched the bridge of his nose and ran a hand on his forehead. He knew Blair was upset but he just couldn't bring himself to talk about it. He was starting to feel guilty about being so brusque with Blair the night before, but just what did the man expect of him anyway? He hadn't asked Blair to trek out into the wilderness and save his life. Why couldn't Sandburg just mind his own business? James sighed. And that stuff about the wolf and the panther? Did he really think James would buy that story? Well, he's not going to make me feel guilty, James thought as he berated himself severely, and, in usual Ellison fashion, buried his feelings deep inside.

James' strength started to wane about halfway to the cabin and the last quarter of a mile found him leaning heavily on Blair's shoulders.

"Come on, Jamie, just a bit more. I know you're tired. I'll fix you some hot tea and then you can rest."

"I'll make it, Chief."

"I know you will. You're too stubborn not to."

"Me? You hurt me, Blair. I'm as amenable as a kitten."

Blair snorted. "Yeah, a panther is more like it. One with a thorn in its ass."

James guffawed and Blair kept him amused with biting retorts the last couple of hundred yards. They finally reached the cabin and James sank gratefully on the threshold, groaning as he sat.

"I hadn't realized I had that many muscles that could be so sore!" James exclaimed.

"Man, you took a hell of a ride. It's amazing that you didn't break something."

"I hurt my head, didn't I?"

"Well, with you, that's a moot point. Your head is so damned hard that nothing could break it."

James chuckled and feigned outrage. "Once again, Chief, you've cut me to the quick."

Blair joined in his laughter. "Yeah, I forgot. You're the most sensitive man in the Western Alliance. So sorry to hurt those delicate feelings."

James grinned, relieved to see some of the Sandburg energy returning. He hadn't realized just how much he enjoyed Blair's company until now. They'd only been together about a week and already James was tuning into Blair's laughter and bright smiling eyes and quick wit. At Blair's insistence, James sat and watched him ready the small cabin for their use. He unpacked, stowed the food on the mantel and utensils on the fireplace hearth, spread out the sleeping bag on one of the cots and the two thermal blankets on another. All of James' equipment had been lost in the slide but Blair was more than willing to share. He was glad that he had been outfitted with a good supply of food and other essentials for the trek.

James enjoyed the warmth of the sun on his aching body while Blair gathered armload after armload of wood that he stacked in a corner of the cabin.

"If that storm blows in, there's no telling now long we might be holed up here. I just hope the food lasts."

"We can trap or fish if we need to. I hear a river. Its not too far and there are probably trout."

"Trout! God, I'd love a fish dinner."

James smiled. "You can cook fish, Blair?"

Blair grinned. "Hell, yes, man, I can cook anything. I was a chef in a New York City restaurant for six months once. Not only that, but I can gut and clean just about anything."

James laughed. "Oh, really, Tarzan. And just where did you learn that particular skill? I didn't know that about you."

Blair's solemn face looked at James. "There are a lot of things about me you don't know." He turned away swiftly and busied himself loading the stone fireplace with wood and starting the fire that blazed quickly under his proficient touch. He examined the contents of the small cabin, finding an old wooden box with various pots, pans, and utensils and an old metal bucket that had been left behind by the cabin's various inhabitants. On one of the walls a pair of worn snowshoes hung on a rusty hook. He pulled them down and examined them, finding them to be in serviceable condition with only a couple of broken leather straps.

James watched Blair silently. He realized that Blair was confident about his outdoor skills and seemed to know his way around a rough lifestyle. He's right. You don't know a lot of things about him. Why don't you ask? James sat so still for so long that Blair thought he had zoned. At Blair's gentle touch, James looked up and shook his head.

"I'm not zoned, Chief," he said. Then he added to himself, I'm terrified.

Blair stoked the fire into a roaring blaze and soon the heat took the chill from the air. The sun contributed to the warmth, and the interior of the cabin was finally warm enough to allow the shedding of hats and coats.

Blair tugged gently on James' arm. "Come on, Jamie, up you go."

James allowed himself to be guided to his feet and steered in the direction of the cot. Blair pushed on his shoulders until he sat and he unbuttoned James' heavy coat, pulling it from him.

"Food first, then sleep. You're exhausted," Blair said.

James didn't argue. He ate the food Blair handed him and finally, unable to keep his eyes open a minute longer, he curled on his side on the small cot and fell into a deep sleep. Blair pulled the sleeping bag around his body and zipped the sides so that James was cocooned in its warmth. He stroked James' soft short hair gently, sighed deeply, and went to lie down to sleep.

Blair hadn't realized how tired he was until he woke late the next morning. The sun was shining brightly and had already climbed high in the morning sky. He stretched and groaned at the sore muscles that he so rarely used these days. It felt good to be physically active once again. Blair rose and pulled his insulated pants over the long johns he had slept in. When he opened the cabin door and looked around, James was just entering the small glade in front of the cabin. James grinned at his companion and held up a couple of freshly caught trout.

"Fresh fish for breakfast!" James called happily, proudly showing off the fishing spear he had fashioned from a sturdy tree limb.

Blair couldn't help but grin at the Sentinel's obvious pleasure with his catch. "Wonderful! I'm starving. Let's get these cleaned and cooking."

True to his word, Blair cleaned the fish while James readied the frying pan and rummaged around in the store of dehydrated foods for some accompaniments for the fish. He selected a couple of packages of dehydrated vegetables and poured some of the water that was heating onto the items. When Blair had the fish ready, James fried them crisply. The smell was wonderful and soon, with full plates, the two men ate with gusto.

After the satisfying meal, Blair made instant coffee with powdered milk and sugar, and they sat quietly drinking. Finally, after a long while, Blair broke the silence.

"So now what?" he said.

James answered, "It's clear and that storm has blown over. You can hike out today."

"I'm not leaving."

"Yes, you are."

"Am not."

"Are too."

"Screw you, Ellison."

"You have a smart mouth, Sandburg."

"Jamie, can we talk seriously? I mean, really seriously? I need to know what's going on."

"Blair, please, nothing's going on. Really. I just felt trapped. I needed to get out. I'm sorry I hurt your feelings but it wasn't what I expected." James sighed.

"Oh," Blair said breathlessly. "You mean, I wasn't what you expected."

"Don't take it personally, Chief. I've been alone for most of my life. My folks sent me to Sentinel Academy when I was six. I only went home on holidays and after I got to high school, I hardly even went home then. I'm used to being alone."

Blair rose and stood looking down at James intently. "Do you want to tell me the truth or do you want to keep on with this little story?"

James' eyes finally met Blair's. His ire rose and he growled, "Are you insinuating that I'm lying?"

Blair returned the hard gaze. "Yes."

James rose. "And to what purpose?" he said through clenched teeth.

Blair stood his ground. "Because you're scared." To which he added hastily, "And it's okay to be scared. I'm scared, too. Talk to me, man, just talk to me."

James shook his head. "There's nothing to talk about. Just let it go, Sandburg. Please."

"You're determined to stick with this story? You don't care about how I feel?"

"It's my life, Chief. I have final say."

"To hell with that, Sentinel Ellison. Like I don't have a say?" Blair stood with arms crossed.

"Not in this, Sandburg. Just go home. Go back to your life. Forget about this whole unfortunate mess," James insisted.

"Do you think I can honestly go back to my life and forget about you? If you do, then Jamie, you have absolutely no idea who I am and what I think or feel."

"You have to push, don't you?" James practically growled. "You just don't take no for an answer."

Blair stood as tall as possible and he practically growled in return. "I can take no for an answer, but I think you owe me an explanation of the whys. Why is the answer no, Jamie, why? Don't you feel it? Don't you want us to be together?"

"Chief, you're making this harder than it has to be. Besides, wearing me out with your constant chatter won't work."

Blair's eyes clouded over and his face fell. "You know, you're absolutely right. I'm making this harder than it has to be." Blair grabbed his backpack from the floor and started tossing various items into it. "And I certainly don't want to wear you out." James watched with his arms crossed while Blair gathered up his belongings and a small portion of the food supply. Blair shrugged into his jacket and pulled his hat on his head, stuffed his gloves in his pockets and slid the backpack on. He grabbed his snowshoes and flung the door open hard enough for it to thud against the wall, shaking the small wooden building.

Muttering under his breath, he walked to the edge of the glade and sat down to strap on the snowshoes. "Of all the hard-headed, egotistical, self-centered... He makes me so pissed!" Blair buckled the straps and stood, not looking back, still talking to himself. "Why do you push and push, Blair? When are you going to learn? Just because you're in love with the guy doesn't mean he feels the same way!"

Blair started down the trail, talking constantly, angry at James' stubbornness and his own failure at persuading him that they belonged together. "You are such a fool. As if you want someone to want you because you wore them out. Of all the stupid, ridiculous, mean... Oh, I could just..." Blair walked resolutely away, knowing full well that James was listening to every word. "Have a happy life, James Ellison. Oh, right, how stupid of me," he said in a condescending voice. "Have a happy death." He snorted, then berated himself severely. "Just shut up, shut up right now. I'm tired of listening to you."

James stood in stunned silence. What had he done? Blair had trekked out miles just to find him. He had saved James' life at the risk of his own. James knew that Blair felt the bond between them, just as he did. Why did he deny it? Admit it, Ellison, he growled to himself. You're scared. You are a coward. And for being a coward, you're losing the love of your life. You're losing your Guide. You've hurt him because you're terrified to tell him the truth? It's not a question, Ellison, it's a statement! Do Something! his mind screamed at him. Don't let him go! If you do, you'll regret it for the rest of your life. Even if you survive out here alone, is keeping your silence worth the loss? Take a chance. Risk it all. Take that leap. Is Blair worth it to win him in the end? Hell, yes! he yelled at himself.

James quickly slipped into his jacket and raced out the door. He looked down the trail but Blair had already disappeared into the trees. He focused his senses on Blair's heartbeat and scent. The musky aroma of the Guide tickled his nostrils and the thump of his heart filled his ears. He started down the trail, calling to Blair, but the Guide was so intent on his mission to put as much distance between them that he never heard James' voice.

James had a bit of trouble negotiating the path without snowshoes and it slowed his progress down. He kept his focus on Blair's scent and he grimaced when Blair occasionally launched into another diatribe about James' hard head and his own failure as a Guide. Finally, James saw Blair's figure up ahead and he called out to him. He saw Blair falter for a second but without turning around, Blair quickly forged ahead.

James called, "Sandburg! Chief, please wait."

Blair muttered under his breath, "Leave me alone!"

James called out, "Please, Blair. Stop."

Blair forged ahead. "No way, man. I'm leaving you alone, just like you asked. No more pain-in-the-ass Sandburg to bug you. You're free, man, free. Enjoy."

James plowed on. "Blair, I'm asking you to please stop and listen to me."

Blair kept up his pace. "I'm not a consolation prize," he said softly. "Unless I'm your grand prize, I'm not willing to settle for less, James. I deserve better."

"Damn it, Sandburg! I'm begging."

Blair stopped. "You're begging?" he asked quietly.

"Yes," he yelled. "Please, I'm tired of yelling. Come back and we'll talk."

"Only if you talk and I listen," Blair said Sentinel-soft and waited. "Jamie?"

"I'll talk and you'll listen," James called.

Blair finally turned and made his way back to where James was standing expectantly. He stopped several feet away and stood silently, his body tense.

"I have some things to tell you, if you're interested," James offered.

"Okay," Blair answered noncommittally. He was still hurt and he was not opening himself back up unless there was a very good reason. James knew instinctively what he needed to do and say to the Guide. He had made up his mind and now he was determined to convince Blair that he had made a mistake.

"Let's go back into the cabin so we can sit and talk," James added, "Please, Blair."

Blair nodded and followed the Sentinel back to the small cabin. He sat on the fireplace hearth and James sat on the cot. Both men were silent. Blair refused to start the conversation.

James finally rose and rubbed his hands together. "Right. Okay. Give me a second. This is really hard for me."

"Sure, man, take your time. I can always stay tonight and walk out tomorrow."

"Sandburg, you are not helping."

"What did I do now?" Blair asked a bit plaintively.

James shook his head. "It's not you, Blair, honest to God. It's me. I'm not good with long speeches and I'm trying to figure out just how to say this."

Blair stood in front of James. "Just say it. I can handle it," Blair said, expecting the worse.

James huffed out his breath. "I feel the connection to you, Blair, I feel it all the way down to my very soul. I want you so badly but I'm so scared. I've never been... I've always thought that... Oh, hell."

Blair rubbed James' arm. "Take your time. One thought at a time. You can tell me anything, Jamie, don't you know that?"

James gave Blair a small smile and gathered his courage. "I'm not used to spilling my guts, Chief. The fact is that I'm afraid of being out of control. I'm afraid of losing control. I'm afraid of hurting you if we...ah, you know, if we have relations. I've never had a lover before. That night, at my place, was the first time I'd been that close to another person." James blushed bright red. "I've always, ah, taken care of it myself."

"Why not, Jamie? Why haven't you had a lover?" Blair asked softly.

The words gushed out, much to James' surprise. With Blair, it seemed almost easy to explain. "I've been scared my whole life that I'd lose control. That I'd have to give control to someone else. That I'd hurt someone and not be able to stop myself or even know that I'm doing it. I'd rather not even take the chance."

James paced a few steps. "You have to realize that from when I was a small child, it was drummed into my head to stay in control. Always the biggest lesson was to be in control. 'Don't be distracted or you'll find yourself dead.' And the lessons went on. 'Pledge to a Guide. That's the only way to survive.' It was pounded in over and over. Blair, it's just so hard to live like this. I'm always afraid I'll lose that control. And for me, it's been so long, I couldn't see myself turning over any control of my life to anybody, Guide or not."

James' hand rested on Blair's shoulders. "And then I met you, Blair, and I wanted you so badly." His voice dropped. "I still do. I feel connected to you. I want to hold you and kiss you and... Well, everything."

Blair looked into the sad blue eyes of his Sentinel. "What about when you insisted you didn't want me because I hadn't chosen to pledge to you? Was that the truth?"

"Yes, that's part of it. I felt really guilty. After all, you didn't ask to be kidnapped and almost killed. You didn't ask to be pledged to me. It wasn't right that you felt compelled and had no choice."

Blair moved closer to James. "I might have been brought to Cascade under duress, but Jamie, there's something I need to tell you about me."

"Sure, Chief. You can tell me anything," James echoed.

Blair smiled. "Listen to me. You don't know a heck of a lot about me, but here's the short version. I'll be twenty-seven on my next birthday and I've been on my own since I was sixteen. I've been to twenty-eight countries on this planet. I've worked my way around the globe. I've done every job you can imagine. I've been to college three times. I've slept with more women than you can count. I've searched everywhere, but until I found you, or rather, you found me," Blair laughed, "I never felt this way before. Never. Only you, James. It's you I've been searching for all these years. And do you know how it feels?"

James shook his head, a smile turning up the corners of his mouth. "But I'll bet you'll tell me."

Blair's face was serious when he said, "Only if you want me to."

James rubbed his hands up and down Blair's arms. "Of course I do. Tell me and give me the long version," he invited.

Blair was very serious when he said, "I feel warm and tingly. I feel hot and horny. I want to touch you, be near you. I want to help you and protect you. I want you to take me and make love with me. Kiss me and talk to me. Tell me your heart's desires. What you want for dinner. What you don't like. What makes you happy. What makes you sad. Who's your favorite basketball player. Everything, Jamie. I want to know and see and feel and touch and taste everything about you. You'll be my first too, Sentinel." Blair smiled into James' questioning eyes. "I've had plenty of women, but you're my first and only man. I don't know how, but I've always known I'd find you. I've been waiting for you forever."

Blair moved closer and put his hands on James' chest. James covered Blair's hands with his. "I've never been close to anybody. Simon is my only friend. I'm scared, Blair, really scared. I don't know if I can do it. But if you'll help me, if you'll guide me, then I'd like to try."

Blair's eyes looked at James with so much passion and love that James felt his heart ache in his chest. He was overwhelmed with the depth of Blair's acceptance of him and his willingness to love him. His throat closed up and he felt tears prickle his eyes.

"I'd love to try, Jamie, so much." Blair smiled at the Sentinel and slid a hand behind his head, pulling James' lips to his for a slow, gentle kiss. When they finally parted, Blair said, "I have to say this. You and I, Jamie, it has to mean something. It has to be permanent. You have to be willing to accept me as your Guide. You have to respect me and treat me like an equal. Can you do that, Jamie? Look into your heart and decide."

James stroked Blair's hair lightly and smiled softly. "My heart tells me that I love you. That you love me. That you're my equal. That you're my better. My Guide," he whispered and he leaned in for another kiss.

"My Sentinel," Blair murmured just before James' lips met his.

Blair took James' hand and led him over to the cot. "There's no way this will stand up to both of us." Blair chuckled and pulled the sleeping bag from it and spread it in front of the fireplace. He threw more wood on the blaze and turned to James, holding out his hand. "Come here," he whispered invitingly.

James was very serious when he came to stand in front of his lover, who said, "Let me do this for this first time, please?" At James' nod, Blair slowly and deliberately unbuttoned James' flannel shirt and pulled his thermal undershirt off over his head. James closed his eyes when Blair's hands roamed over his muscled chest for the first time.

"So beautiful," Blair murmured, lightly caressing the wide expanse of skin. He bestowed a tender kiss on each nipple before moving to unbutton the heavily insulated pants. Blair knelt and untied James' hiking boots and with a tap on each leg, pulled them off. Still on his knees, he removed the outer pants and the long underwear, leaving only heavy cotton boxers.

James breathing escalated rapidly, and when Blair reached up and tugged down the boxers, James' dick started to slowly fill. Blair stood and whispered, "Please let me just look at you." At James' slight nod, Blair stepped back and his eyes drank in his lover's exquisite body. James was lean and hard in all the right places with well-defined muscles. His dick was thick and full, rising firmly from the crisp light brown hairs. Blair stepped forward and very gently cupped the heavy balls in his hand. "So beautiful," he repeated.

James shivered and Blair's soft voice immediately reassured him. "It's okay. I'm right here. Just lie down and let me touch you."

James licked his lips and sank to the floor, stretching out on the bag while Blair undressed himself quickly. He watched from half-closed lids, and when Blair threw off the thermal long johns and boxers, his breath caught in his throat.

"Blair, you, too." He tried to put his feelings into words. "You're beautiful, too. You're my angel," he added breathlessly, while his eyes drank in the sight of his lover's lean, hairy body and thick erection.

Blair's dick was hard and already starting to drip from the excitement that coursed through his body. He reined his emotions and focused on James, sinking to his knees next to his lover. He leaned over and pressed their lips together, his hair falling over their faces and tickling James' cheeks.

Blair's hands started a slow roaming trek over James' neck and chest, and he pulled back from the kiss to look intently into his face. "Stay with me, Jamie. Listen to my voice. Feel what I'm doing to you. Anchor yourself to my voice but feel, Jamie. Let yourself feel."

Blair's voice was slow and steady, low and comforting, but his hands! James' addled mind wondered if he could survive Blair's hands. They were demanding and forceful and everywhere at once. They petted his chest soothingly and tweaked his nipples relentlessly. They caressed his balls lightly and stroked his dick aggressively. They rubbed his thighs and stomach and hips with warm strokes, then kneaded the flesh roughly. James' brain heard Blair's voice and held on to it desperately while his body responded to Blair's touch. His blood boiled; his heart thumped wildly. His dick ached and throbbed, leaking madly. His balls tightened and all too soon, the pumping of Blair's hand on his erection sent him over the edge. Again, Blair's voice encouraged him.

"Feel, Jamie. Scream your pleasure. Let me hear you. Let go," Blair ordered gently.

James' orgasm burst forth in hot, stringy pulses and he heard himself scream, "Blllaairrr!" It felt so good, so good. "So good," he mumbled over and over with Blair's name on his tongue.

Blair lay down and pressed himself against James' body. "I'm right here, Sentinel. Look at me."

James pried his eyes open and looked into the loving face of his mate. "Kiss me."

Blair nodded seriously and complied, kissing James roughly and amorously, thrusting his tongue into the eagerly opened mouth, and exploring every inch. Blair rubbed his aching dick against James' thigh, moaning into his mouth, searching for release. James rolled to his side and pulled Blair close, their lips never parting. He cupped a strong hand on Blair's asscheek and clamped his thighs around Blair's erection.

Blair shuddered at the sudden heat, and thrust madly into the delicious flesh. They kissed noisily and fiercely and James' tongue thrust into Blair's mouth in rhythm to his hips. Blair's orgasm rushed forward and he froze, his dick spurting his seed between James' legs. With James' arm wrapped around the back of his neck and his hands holding Blair's body against his, all Blair could do was moan and whimper into James' mouth while James sucked on his tongue until the last pulse erupted from his dick.

They collapsed against each other, panting and shivering. Blair pressed his face against James' chest and slid an arm around his waist. James' arm cradled Blair's head and his free hand reached out, pulling over them one of the blankets that Blair had tossed onto the floor. He then wrapped his arm around Blair's shoulders and kissed the top of his head.

"Blair, I love you."

Blair sighed contentedly. "I love you, Jamie."

They slept.

It was dusk when James woke suddenly. Blair's warm body was pressed against him and he felt content and snug. He listened, hearing the far-off sounds of a wolf howling. The sound stopped and when the wolf howled again, it was closer. James gently extricated Blair's arms and legs from around his body and rose, shivering in the cool air. He tucked the blanket around Blair's sleeping form and stopped for a minute to toss a large armful of wood on the dying fire. It smoldered and when the wood caught, it blazed and popped, sending heat into the room.

James pulled the extra blanket from the floor and wrapped it around his body. He opened the door a crack and peered out. His eyes adjusted quickly to the dying light and he jumped back in surprise when he saw a large gray and black wolf standing at the edge of the clearing. When their eyes met, James smiled. Blair! The wolf gave a low bark in greeting, then his attention was suddenly diverted. He looked to his side and James was even more surprised to see a large black panther enter the far side of the clearing.

The wolf gave what James could only describe as a happy bark and raced to the panther, leaping on him with delight. The forward momentum of the wolf sent the panther tumbling to its back and it growled and latched his large jaws around the wolf's throat. They wrestled playfully for several minutes, rolling and biting, nipping and growling, before finally standing and shaking off the snow that clung to their coats. The large cat licked the side of the wolf's face and rubbed his head on his flank. The wolf returned the caress with a couple of quick licks of his own and the pair turned and disappeared into the night.

James had opened the door while he watched the pair cavorting, and when Blair's hand touched his arm, he looked down, smiling. Blair's eyes gleamed with delight and James couldn't help but smile at the happiness reflected there.

"You saw them!" Blair exclaimed.

"Yes, it was wonderful!" James said excitedly, "Just like you said, Blair." James turned to his lover and pulled him close. "Just like you said. I'm so sorry I doubted you. It will never happen again. I only hope you can forgive me."

Blair's hand cupped the strong jaw. "You're forgiven, but never doubt that I love you." Blair's voice was low and demanding. "Never. I'll never betray you or hurt you, not while I have a breath left in my body."

James took the hand in his and kissed the palm. "I swear it too, never will I doubt or betray you. I'll always love you."

They melted against each other for a long hug, holding each other close and reveling in the feel of their bodies pressed together. James kissed the top of Blair's head. "You're cold. Come on. Let's make something hot to drink and have something to eat. I'm starved!"

"Sounds good to me, Jamie. Lately, I'm always hungry."

They worked in harmony. Stoking the fire. Fixing coffee. Preparing a meal of dehydrated chili with beans and crackers with trail mix for dessert. Talking, touching, laughing, sharing bites and sips. Soon, after a quick cleanup, the fireside pallet called to the two lovers.

Blair rummaged through the backpack, finding the first-aid kit and popping the lid. James sat cross-legged near the fire watching him intently. He picked through the various items until he held up a small tube. "Ah- ha!" he exclaimed with satisfaction.

James grinned at Blair's pleased expression. "What is it, Chief?"

Blair knelt in front of his Sentinel. "Look." He held up the tube. "We can use this for lube. It's hypo-allergic and very mild. It's lotion for sunburns, but I think it will work."

James rose to his knees and put his hands on Blair's waist. He said hoarsely, "What do you want, Blair?"

Blair slid his arms around James' neck and their lips met in a slow, loving kiss. Blair pulled back. "Take me now. Claim me. Put your mark on me. Your scent on me. Your seed in me. Make me yours. " He kissed James almost fiercely. "Do it now."

James' breath hitched. "I'm afraid. I don't want to hurt you. What if I can't stop? What if I zone?"

Blair's strong hands clamped on James' face. "I'm right here. I'll never let you fall. I'll always be here to catch you, Jamie. I have faith in you. You will not zone or hurt me. Have faith in yourself, Sentinel," he ordered.

James nodded. "I have faith in you, Guide. Always."

James took the tube from Blair's hand and set it on the hearth to warm. He took Blair's hand and brought it to his mouth. He kissed the palm and slowly kissed the tip of each finger. Their eyes bore into each other 's and Blair's breathing escalated and his heart raced. James placed Blair's hand over his heart. "This beats for you and because of you. I am pledged to you, Guide."

Blair's eyes became wet around the edges and his nose prickled just a bit. He put James' hand over his heart and said, "I am pledged to you, Sentinel. I am yours."

James gave Blair a dazzling smile that lit his entire face and crinkled his eyes. He crushed Blair to him and kissed him passionately until they were both struggling for air. Blair trembled when James' hands caressed his back and traveled down to knead the firm cheeks. He pressed his body harder against James, his dick swelling rapidly as James' fingers trailed through the cleft and stroked his asshole. He spread his legs and whimpered with pleasure while James' lips and tongue conquered his mouth.

James broke the kiss and looked into the eyes of his passionate lover. "Let me love you, Blair."

Blair just nodded, too overcome with emotion to speak. James guided him to his hands and knees and he knelt behind Blair, running his hands over Blair's thighs and ass soothingly. "You are beautiful, Blair. You have such a good body. You're hard in all the right places." James' hand reached through his legs and stroked the throbbing dick and under James' touch, the erection became rock hard and fluid dripped steadily from the end. James rubbed his thumb around the head and gathered up the liquid, bringing it to his mouth and sucking with pleasure. "You taste wonderful." He leaned down and licked Blair's backbone while his hand explored Blair's dick. His free hand snaked around Blair's waist and tickled up to his nipple, rolling the nub to hardness between his fingers.

Blair knelt before his lover, presenting his most private parts for James' admiration. Tremors shook his body when James' fingers danced over his dick, tickling the slit and the sensitive area around the head. Blair groaned and shuddered at each touch. James' tongue laved his back and when his fingers tweaked his nipple, the sensation went straight to his groin and his dick throbbed with need. The feelings were so profound that the whimpers came unbidden. He focused his senses on James' hands, savoring each touch, each caress. He was vaguely aware that James had stopped touching him, but before he could gather enough wits to turn his head to see why the wonderful hands had abandoned him, they returned quickly back to his body and slick fingers caressed his asshole.

Then it happened. Feelings like nothing he could have possibly imagined coursed through his body when lubed fingers gently but firmly pressed and twisted and entered his ass. James' gentle voice reached his ears. "Relax, my love. You're so wonderful, so beautiful. I love you." The fingers started to slide back and forth and Blair's body responded, pressing back and meeting each thrust until he was rocking steadily onto the welcome invaders. Working on instinct, James rubbed Blair's special spot several times, bringing forth a scream from him. "Jaaammiee! Oh, oh, please, more..." He panted and pumped his hips frantically. He sobbed, "More, more, please."

James rose to his knees and, holding Blair gently by the hip, he slid his lubed dick into Blair's waiting asshole, slowly working deeper and deeper each time Blair's body accepted another inch of his hard shaft. He worked patiently until he was buried to his balls in his lover's body. He stopped, overwhelmed for a minute and caught his breath, biting his lip fiercely to regain control.

James' gentle voice spoke to his lover. "Blair, tell me, are you okay? Does it feel all right? What should I do?"

Blair's mind struggled to answer. "Oh, Jamie, so good. I'm okay. It doesn't hurt. I feel so good," he whispered breathlessly. Blair pushed back on James' lap and wiggled his ass, pushing against James' hard shaft. .
James slid an arm around Blair's waist and in one fluid motion; he sat back on his heels, bringing Blair to his knees and then back onto his lap. With his hands on Blair's waist, he embedded his erection as far as it could go in Blair's eager body.

Blair was in ecstasy. James' dick filled his channel with a fullness that was both aching and satisfying. He felt claimed, possessed, loved. He slumped against James' chest and his head languished on James' shoulder. When James' teeth and tongue licked and bit their way around Blair's ear, it sent goosebumps down his body. Every touch, every lick, every kiss, added to the profound feelings. Feelings that he never wanted to stop. With one of James' arms wrapped around his chest, holding him close, James' other hand stroked Blair's erection. Each stroke brought a moan from Blair's lips and his body trembled. He clenched his teeth and all too soon, came in spurts over James' hand.

"So good, Blair. You feel so good." James whispered in his ear as he came. "You're beautiful when you come. Your face is so full of passion. I love it when you come for me. It's hot and sticky and it smells like the very essence of you. Your body is so willing to let me touch you."

"Jamie," he whispered breathlessly, turning his face to meet James, "Kiss me, please kiss me."

James' hand held Blair's chin and once again he kissed him relentlessly, until Blair was sure he would pass out. The whimpers came deep from Blair's throat and he tried to thrust on the hard, throbbing dick buried in his ass, wiggling and pushing back futilely.

"Please, Jamie...please, please," he implored.

"You're mine." James said adamantly. "Say it," he growled.

"Yes, yours. Always."

"Tell me again," James demanded while his fingers rolled one of Blair's nipples persistently.

"Oh, God, oh," Blair panted, "yours, yours. Take me now, please. Yours."

James' teeth caught Blair's earlobe, worrying the tender skin before pressing his lips to it. "I'm yours, Guide. Yours! Say it!" The sweat ran down Blair's face and James' hand wiped it from his brow, licking the moisture from his fingers.

"Jamie, you're mine, Sentinel. Mine," Blair murmured and pushed his hips down hard, clenching his ass muscles, making James gasp. "Oh, God, Jamie. Come in me, please..."

Blair's breath caught in his throat when James' nails found his nipples, scraping gently over the aching points, sending tingling stabs of delight straight into Blair's groin, making his dick react. Would this wonderful torment ever stop?

"More," Blair demanded, almost sobbing.

Next James' hand found Blair's balls and he rubbed and stroked the tender flesh and rolled them between his fingers until Blair's dick started to become hard once again. James' fingers never stopped, rubbing the balls and tweaking the nipples until Blair was panting, his hips were thrusting and his dick was full and firm. James' mouth explored Blair's ear and licked and kissed the skin on the side of his face and neck, and when Blair's erection was rock-hard once again, he finally guided Blair to his hands and knees.

James petted Blair's back and ass. "I want you to remember this first time, my Guide. Remember me making love with you. Making you come. Remember everything."

Blair's mind was a pile of useless atoms and his body had never been so alive, so vibrant as it was now under James' control. His entire existence centered on the dick thrusting in and out of his ass. Each stroke sent waves of pleasure coursing through his body and the sounds tumbled out unbidden from his throat. He grunted on each forward thrust and groaned on each outward pull, relishing in the feel of James' dick pulling back and pushing in, over and over, relentlessly brushing his prostate.

Blair's body was on fire and he repeated a babbling litany while James' dick conquered his ass, "Mine, yours, love you, mine, Sentinel, remember, always remember, so good, so good..." until he was coming fast and furious once again. "Jaammiiee!" he screamed.

The smell of Blair's semen combined with the profound feeling of Blair's ass muscles around his dick, sent James over the edge. He dug his fingers hard into Blair's sides and thrust frantically, and his erection shot hot come into his lover's welcoming body. James' orgasm was so strong that he couldn't breathe and he clenched his teeth tight to forestall the scream building in his throat. He thought he would never stop coming, and when Blair contracted his muscles around James' spurting dick, the extraordinary feeling overwhelmed the Sentinel. The scream rush forth and he howled his lover's name before finally collapsing on Blair's back, pressing him to the floor.

When he was sentient enough, James moved just enough to take the brunt of his weight from Blair's body, and to look into his face, smiling at his lover already out like a light. With a hand tangled in Blair's long hair, he slid into oblivion right behind him.

The lovers woke the next morning at the same time and when their eyes met, both men grinned foolishly. After gentle good-morning kisses were exchanged, James peeled the wild strands of hair stuck to Blair's skin.

James hugged Blair tightly. "Ah, if you don't mind my asking, how do you feel this morning? Was I too rough? Did I hurt you? Are you sore... you know, there?"

Blair giggled harder. "Jamie, I love you, you silly boy. You can say ass, you know." Blair rose to his hands and knees and pushed James flat to the floor, hovering over him. He moved in for a soft kiss and when he pulled back, he whispered in a low voice, "I feel well-loved, Jamie. I can't wait to do it again."

James smiled and ran a hand through Blair's tangled hair. "Tell me. What did it feel like?"

Blair stretched out next to his lover. He laced his fingers together, rested them on James' chest and leaned his chin on them. "It was awesome. I could feel you deep inside of me. I felt taken, possessed and a wonderful fullness in me. I was part of you and you were part of me." Blair laughed and the vibrations coursed through James' body, making him smile. "And see, you didn't have a thing to worry about. You were in control. You didn't hurt me. Far from it. Man, it was overwhelming. What did it feel like for you?"

James caressed Blair's bare shoulder. "I could actually feel your heart beat through my dick and feel the blood rushing in your veins. It made me so turned on. God, Blair, I loved everything about it."

Blair smiled and his eyes met James' with so much love that James had to kiss him.

"Come here, you," James whispered invitingly.

Blair grinned and scooted up James' body until their faces were inches apart. "You wanted something?" Blair asked teasingly.

James' hand grabbed a handful of Blair's asscheek. "Now, what would make you think that?"

Blair's wide-eyed innocent expression tickled James. "I'm pretty smart. I figured it out all by myself."

Blair pressed his lips against James, savoring the familiar feel of his lover's mouth under his. He deepened the kiss and soon they were kissing amorously. Suddenly, James started laughing into Blair's mouth. He pulled back and looked quizzically at James.

"Oh, great. Is my kissing that funny?" Blair pouted sweetly.

James laughed harder. "No, Chief, its not that, it's just that I could hear your stomach rumbling and then mine started and it was just so funny. I'm sorry, really. I'm not laughing at you, but it just sounded funny. When you were kissing me, I could feel it rumbling in my mouth."

Blair started laughing and soon both men were laughing so hard the tears started to leak out of their eyes. Blair laughed until he got the hiccups and James patted him on the back while he tried to catch his breath.

"What do you say we have some breakfast, Blair?"

"Good idea... I'm up... for that. Darn... it! I hate hic... cups."

"You'll live, Chief. Come on."

The men turned to chores and once again worked efficiently together. Soon the food was ready and when they sat to eat, James was pleased at the light banter that flowed easily between them. He had never felt so at ease with anyone before and he enjoyed the feeling fully.

After the meal, Blair shook out the sleeping bag and the thermal blankets while James cleaned up. "Oh, man, I smell awful!" Blair exclaimed, standing holding his underwear. "And these are gross, man, really gross. I can't put these back on. I need a shower like yesterday."

James grinned at his naked lover huffing around the room, rummaging for clean clothes. "Kind of hard to take a shower here, Blair, but there's always the river."

"Ewwww. You think I'm going to swim in that river!? It's freezing. There's ice in that river, man. No way in hell I'm getting in that water!"

Blair came over and stood in front of his lover. "Here's the plan. I have one clean pair of boxers and one clean pair of long underwear. You can use the boxers because you certainly won't fit in my long johns. Then we're putting that old bucket on the hearth and fill it full of snow until it melts and it's nice and warm. Then I'm taking a bath." Blair dumped out the backpack's contents in the middle of the cot and rummaged through the pile. "I've got one wash cloth. One small towel. One bottle of liquid soap and one disposable razor. It will have to do because I can't stand myself another minute longer."

James smiled, thoroughly enjoying Blair in hyper mode. He was perfectly able to talk to himself, make plans and forge ahead without any input from James, who found the small hysterics endearing. He smiled to himself thinking, I must have it really bad!

Blair looked up from his pile of treasures. "You too, Panther Man. You might be king of the forest and you might be a wonderful lover, but you need a good wash, and I don't need Sentinel senses to know that."

James couldn't keep quiet any longer and he burst out laughing at Blair's one-man hissy fit. He wiped his eyes, and said, "God, Chief, I love you." He crossed the space to where Blair sat and hauled him to his feet, kissing him soundly. "A bath it is, Blair."

It took a good two hours for the snow to melt in the metal bucket Blair found, and to reach a temperature just above warm. He divided the water into two other smaller containers, some for washing and some for rinsing.

"First I have to wash my hair. Either that or I'm shaving my head. It's disgusting!" Blair exclaimed.

"Come on, Chief, sit down and put your head back. I'll wash it."

Blair smiled. "That's an offer I can't refuse." Blair sat cross-legged in front of the fireplace and tipped his head back. James used a cup and poured the clean water over his hair, using an empty cooking pot to catch the runoff. He rubbed a bit of the liquid soap between his palms and scrubbed the strands of hair as best he could with his limited supply of water. He rinsed out the soap and squeezed out the excess water.

"Hand me that comb. It doesn't matter if the water runs down your back. You still need to wash anyway." Blair handed over the comb and James gently worked his way from the front to the back and down each side, working out the tangles and knots, not an easy task for a man who had never had long hair nor had to care for anybody else's locks. His sensitive fingers could feel each strand of silky hair and the sensation was almost enough to make him hard.

Blair sat quietly under James' ministrations, enjoying the feel of his lover's fingers gently massaging his scalp when he had to tug on a particularly nasty tangle. They talked as James worked.



"How much food did you figure we had?"

"Two, three days at least. That is if we don't fish. Why?"

"Let's not go back just yet."

"Sure, Chief. It's okay with me. I like being out here with you, but we'll have to go back eventually."

"Me, too. I like being with you. I want us to have some time together to get to know each other. Just a day or two more and then we'll go back. All right?"

James stopped combing and put a hand on Blair's shoulder. "I love being here with you," he repeated.

After a couple of minutes of silence, Blair spoke again.


James chuckled. "I'm right here, Blair."

"Oh, yeah, right, I know. Ah, there's something we need to talk about. Can we do that now?"

James bit his lip. "Yes," he said quietly.

"It's about you and me."

"I've been thinking about that, Blair."

"Really? That's good, man. What have you been thinking?"

"I've decided to quit the force. I want to go to Nevada with you."

Blair's head turned quickly to meet James' eyes. James put a hand on Blair's head and turned his face forward. "Don't move, Chief, or I'll never get this finished. Your hair is a mess."

"Jamie, that's so great. Thanks for offering, but I have an idea, too."

"Let's hear it, then."

"What would you say if I told you that your boss is willing to transfer you into Internal Investigations and that they're willing to assign me as your partner? Provided, of course, that I take the necessary training courses and pass the background check."

James hands froze.


Two warm hands touched Blair's shoulders and lips pressed against his wet skull. "You'd do that for me?" James asked breathlessly.

"Yes," came the soft answer.

"Just like that? You'd give up your life for me."

"Jamie, I'm doing what I do because I didn't have anything else that I felt so deeply about. I like teaching, just like I liked the other hundred jobs that I've done, but nothing means as much to me as being with you. And from what Simon said, I think you and I would be perfect for this job. We'd be together and both have a salary. We'd have plenty of money to live on. We'd..."

"Blair, stop. You don't have to convince me." James moved to kneel in front of his lover. "Thank you. It sounds wonderful. When we get back, we'll talk to Simon. Okay?"

Blair rose to his knees and threw his arms around James' neck. "I was so scared you'd fight me on this. Thank you. I love you."

James hugged Blair closely and buried his nose in his damp hair. "Me, too, Chief. I love you, more than you could imagine.

Blair looked seriously at his mate. "One more thing."

"What's that, Chief?"

"I want to join in whatever organization or group that may be working to change the laws about banishing unpledged Sentinels. I think it needs to be brought to the forefront and the laws need to be repealed. I need to do this, Jamie. It's not something I can ignore."

James smiled at his lover. "Blair, I think that's a wonderful idea. I'll stand behind you on whatever you do. You only have to ask and I'll help in any way I can."

Blair gave James such a dazzling smile that James felt his heart jump at the beautiful sight. "Thank you," Blair said, Sentinel-soft.

"You're a good man, Blair Sandburg," James answered just as softly, and kissed his lover's full lips tenderly. "Come on. Let's get washed up. You're starting to smell a bit ripe."

Blair grinned and smacked James lightly on the arm, the two lovers easily slipping into a comfortable role of playful mates. "Me? What about you? Oh, man, you are in so much trouble." Blair grabbed the washcloth and after putting a bit of the soap on it, he said, "Come here, this will be fun."

James smiled and stretched out his arms. "Have at it, Blair. I'm all yours."

They spent a long while washing each other's bodies, exploring the nooks and crannies, stopping for kisses and nibbles, and finally, rinsing with the warm water. They talked and laughed and James even giggled when Blair found his ticklish spot right under his arm and above his fourth rib.

"There, all finished," Blair said triumphantly. He ran a hand through his drying hair. "God, that feels so good!"

James laughed and made tea, and they were soon wrapped together in the blankets back in front of the fireplace, enjoying the warmth of the fire and of their companionship.

James placed a warm hand in the center of Blair's hairy chest and said softly, "I want you in me, Blair. I want to feel it."

Blair looked up at James from his reclining position against his chest. "Really? You're sure?"

"I've thought about it. I want to experience it. I want you to be part of me, just like I was part of you. I'm a bit scared about it. I never realized I was such a big baby before." James sighed.

"Oh, man, you're not a big baby." Blair ran a hand over James' smooth face. "You're a huge baby."

James looked down at his lover with his mouth wide open. Blair grinned mischievously and James dug his fingers into Blair's sides, tickling mercilessly. They laughed and giggled and wrestled and finally collapsed, panting and chuckling with abandon.

Blair swallowed hard and said to his lover, "I wish we could stay out here forever."

James sighed. "Me, too, Chief. Me, too. We'll spend time together, just the two of us. I need this too much."

Blair just nodded and smiled at James' gentle declaration. Soon they were kissing gently, and one kiss turned into another and soon their mouths hungrily devoured each other, tongues battled for dominance, each giving way for the other to control the kissing in a mutual give and take. Soon dicks were hard and aching, throbbing shafts begging for release.

Blair lay on his back. "I want that dick in my mouth yesterday, Jamie."

James' voice caught in his throat at the sight of his lover lying naked, dick erect, waiting his pleasure. Blair held out his hand and James squeezed the lube on Blair's fingers. He straddled Blair's chest, hands on either side above his head and knees just under his armpits.

James' dick was within easy reach of Blair's mouth. He wrapped a strong hand around the base of James' shaft and guided the heavy head to his lips. James shuddered when Blair's tongue flicked out and licked the rapidly dripping slit. He groaned when Blair's lips wrapped around the head and laved the surface with his tongue. Blair's mouth and hand pleasured James' dick and with the lubed fingers, he gently rubbed James' tight pucker. Tiny whimpers built in the back of James' throat and when the first finger pressed hard enough to slip in, he held his breath.

Blair's mouth released James' dick. "Jamie, breathe. Come on, even breaths. You're doing great." Blair stopped his exploration of James' ass until he heard him breathing once again. "Good job, Jamie. Let the feelings flow through you. Enjoy them. Remember to breathe. You still with me?"

"Yes," he whispered. "Oh, I feel... finger... Blair!" he said, already unable to speak in sentences.

Blair wiggled his finger in James' ass.

"Yes!" he said again. "Please..."

Blair guided James' dick to his mouth once again and started a slow sucking motion. He gently worked two fingers in James' virgin ass, stretching and twisting gently, then adding a third, never letting up on his laving of James' dick with his tongue. James was trembling and panting feverishly, first thrusting into Blair's mouth and then pushing down on the fingers, moaning and shuddering, unable to decide which feeling he wanted more of. Sharp spikes of pleasure crashed through him, sending his body into nirvana and his brain into meltdown. Everything burst open in a blaze of energy. The intensity obliterated his verbal skills and all that came out were panting gasps and single syllables.

Small noises bubbled forth and James tried to think. "Yesyesyes... ooohhh, Bb... llaair... ohohoh... more... there..." But soon James was deep in the pleasure zone and every sense was concentrated on his dick and ass. It was so erotic, so fascinating, so physically satisfying, so emotionally fulfilling that he almost zoned watching his dick slide in and out of Blair's mouth.

When Blair's fingers brushed James' prostate, even single syllables were wiped from his speech and only keening whimpers came forth. Blair's hand pumped and stroked James' dick while his mouth sucked the head. His fingers simultaneously thrust into James' ass until his entire body was on fire. His orgasm shot from his body into Blair's waiting mouth and each brush of Blair's fingers on his special spot brought forth another gush of his seed. Blair swallowed each drop hungrily until James' dick was limp.

James' arms shook and he rocked back, resting his ass on Blair's thighs and his head on his chest. He could feel Blair's dick pressing into his stomach and he could feel the sizzling fluid leaking from the head on his skin. James was sure he would ignite in a ball of fire. Only after he managed to settle his racing heart and runaway pulse just a bit, was he able to catch his breath. He rose to his hands and knees again and leaned over his lover, looking into Blair's eyes.

Blair gave James a brilliant smile that was promptly returned, then he dove on Blair's mouth, kissing fervently, running his tongue around the insides, tasting his semen and Blair's own flavor. He kissed Blair until he was thrashing and moaning under him, pumping his hips futilely, his shaft feeling like it was ready to burst. Blair tried to reach for his own dick but James sat up and grabbed his hands, holding him by the wrists.

"No," he ordered and tempered the word with a gentle smile and a soft voice. "Put it in me, Guide."

Blair nodded, "Hurry."

James squeezed more of the salve on his palm and coated Blair's thick shaft liberally. The touch of James' hand sent Blair right to the edge and James could sense the almost painful need for release. His eyes were screwed shut and his teeth were clenched. James immediately felt sympathy. He said softly, "It's okay, Blair. You've waited so long. Come for me." James' slick hand stroked Blair's aching shaft. Blair felt his orgasm rush forward and he tried to stop it.

"No, no, no," he cried when hot come streamed out over James' hand. A sob escaped his lips.

James held him close. "Shhh. It's okay, Blair. Enjoy it. Feel the sensations. It will be okay," he murmured soothingly while his warm hand stroked Blair's dick until the last pulse.

Blair buried his face in James' neck. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I couldn't help it."

"Don't be silly, Chief. We're not going anywhere tonight. Hell, I've seen your recuperative powers. Give you ten minutes and we'll try again."

Blair's breathing hitched. James looked down into his lover's face and wiped the sweat on his upper lip away with a finger, sucking the liquid into his mouth. He kissed the hot forehead and asked, "Are you okay now?"

Blair's fingers gripped James' arm fiercely. "Yes," he said quietly.

Tender kisses were rained on his eyelids, his forehead, and his nose. "Good. I love you. It was wonderful, Blair. You're right, the feelings are so intense. I know that when your dick is in me, it will be so good."

Blair's eyes met James'. "With you, it's all good."

James nodded and gently, slowly, amorously, kissed Blair's reddened lips.

Blair smiled and snuggled into James' arms. He was still disappointed that he hadn't been able to make love with James tonight but he knew that they would try again very soon.

Soon happened just a few hours later. James woke up grinning to a Blair Sandburg who was revitalized and energized. Blair's lips teased James' mouth. His tongue tickled James' nipples and his fingers caressed his balls. James' shaft jumped to attention under Blair's ministrations and when Blair lay back and slicked his own dick this time, James groaned once again at the sight.

He watched enthralled while Blair's hand stroked his own shaft, spreading a thick coating of the lube for James' comfort. Blair's eyes were closed and his mouth was open, tongue flicking out to lick his lips.

"Blair," James whispered huskily. "Promise me that you'll let me watch while you jerk off one of these days."

Blair smiled and stroked his dick slowly. "Does it turn you on, Jamie? Does it make you want to come on my chest?"

James watched wide-eyed, nodding, his dick full and pulsing with desire.

Blair smiled languidly and moaned softly, stroking once more. "But tonight, this is for you." He caressed his shaft again. "Tonight, I want your first time to be facing me. I want you to see my face and I want to see yours. Do it now, Sentinel."

James didn't hesitate. He straddled Blair quickly, held Blair's full dick in his hand, angled his hole right against the head of Blair's shaft and, after he took a cleansing breath, he pushed down gently but firmly until Blair's dick was fully buried in his ass. James stopped and centered his sense of touch on the erection filling his tight channel.

"Jamie? Listen to the sound of my voice. Concentrate. Hear my voice. Come back, follow my voice." Blair's drone broke through James' zone.

James shook his head slightly and shivered, and their eyes met. Blair's hands petted James' hair and face. James said huskily, "I'm here, Chief. It's so intense! I couldn't help myself, but I'm here." James adjusted to the feel of the thick shaft buried in his ass. "It's so good, Blair, so good. I need to feel it all. It feels... Oh, God, you're in me, Blair!" he said in a surprised voice. "I never thought I would ever feel like this."

Blair's laughter sent tremors through James' body. His hands held James' face and he looked deep into his eyes. "It's okay, my love. Take your time. You just move whenever you want to. Use me, love me, make yourself feel better than you could ever imagine."

James kissed Blair's tender lips once again and nodded. He tentatively raised his body so that Blair's dick slid out just a few inches. He rocked back, testing. The feelings were almost overwhelming at first, but after he repeated the action several times, his body acclimated, his senses settled down and the gratification coursed through him. James worked his sensitive ass up and down Blair's hard shaft, finding the right angle to pull out and brush his own prostate with the head of Blair's dick. He grunted and moaned whenever he rubbed that special spot and soon he rocked steadily, reveling in the delicious sensations of Blair's dick sliding in and out of his body.

James tuned into the rhythms of Blair's hips and found that when he pushed down and Blair thrust up, the feelings were even more rewarding. Then a wonderful thing happened. The experimenting lovers slid into their own dimension, a place that touched both their brains and their bodies, and they moved in harmony, their rhythm perfect. Each giving the other pleasure, instinctively knowing what the other needed or wanted. When to move, when to stop, when to wiggle or roll their hips. They moved as two halves of the same whole. Complimenting each other, making each other feel the most profound passion that could be felt by two people that now moved in perfect accord.

Blair's orgasm rushed forth and he came in James' waiting body. James relished in the feel of the fiery semen coating the inside of his passage and as Blair's dick spurted, James came also, shooting his seed across Blair's sweaty chest. They both looked deep into each other's eyes through their orgasms and spoke each other's names and murmured sweet words of love, oblivious to the entire world. Right here and right now, nothing else existed but each other.

Two days later, the morning dawned cold and gray. James stood in the doorway testing the air.

"I don't sense a big storm coming in, Chief, just fog. I think we can start out like we planned."

Blair came up behind his lover and slid his arms around the strong chest. "Okay, Jamie, whenever you're ready. I know you have duties and obligations. And it's about time we returned." He rested his cheek against James' back. "I'm going to hate having to share you with the real world."

James' hands covered Blair's where they laced together on James' chest. "Same here, Chief." He turned and ruffled his lover's hair. "Come on, there, buddy. We're burning daylight and home's waiting," James ordered, turning in his lover's arms and kissing the upturned lips. "Mmmmm, you taste bad."

Blair pulled back, laughing. "Oh, thanks, man. I can't wait to use a toothbrush and shampoo, and shave with a sharp razor."

They laughed and talked, putting the final touches on their equipment for the trek back to civilization and soon they were on their way. The time went quickly and they covered the distance back to the waiting vehicles by the time the sun had started to sink in the Western sky. They walked out of the trees and both men stopped suddenly. They looked at each other with wide eyes.

"Do you see what I see?" James asked.

"I think so, if you see what I see, then I see what you see," Blair answered.


"Yeah, damn."

The men watched in astonishment as the wolf and the panther lounged on the roof of James' suburban. The panther lay with his front paws stretched out in front and sitting on his back haunches, much like the statute of the Sphinx on the African continent. He was regally surveying his territory with the wolf lying next to him, his head on the panther's back. The black cat had sensed the two men before they became visible and he watched intently when they emerged from the forest. The panther made a small rumbling noise deep in his throat and the wolf was instantly alert. They both rose, the four sets of eyes met across the small expanse of ground.

Blair raised his hand. "Thank you, Wolf. He's fine now. Thanks to you. I'll never forget you."

James put a hand on Blair's shoulder, squeezing tightly. "They're beautiful, Blair. But why?"

Blair smiled at his lover. "The Indians believe that everyone has a totem, an animal spirit, to guide and protect them. I think they're ours."

"Oh," James whispered. "It's amazing."

Blair nodded. "Yes, it's very amazing. It's unbelievable. Jamie, I know you're very special. I know you're a Sentinel, but I think you're even more special than that." Blair looked over his shoulder and his eyes met James'. The admiration and love blazed in those eyes. "I don't know what it is yet, but I know you're destined to have wonderful things happen to you. It will be my great pleasure to be there when they happen."

James' hand pulled Blair back against his chest and he kissed the top of his head. "Chief, it will be my great pleasure to have you with me, no matter what happens."

The panther screamed once and launched itself from the roof, landing lightly on the ground, followed closely by the wolf. After a test of the air, the panther surveyed the area once again. His eyes met James' and James felt a tremor run down his back and goosebumps run down his arms and legs. He felt as if he were looking into a mirror. He raised his hand and said, "Go in peace, my Brother."

The powerful animal growled and in the blink of an eye the pair disappeared. James and Blair stood watching the place where they had been for a long while before James said, "Come on, Tonto, let's go home."

Blair laughed and as they walked towards their vehicles, he asked, "Oh, and I suppose you're the Lone Ranger?"

James laughed loudly and shook his head. "Not any more, Chief, not any more."

James drove his Suburban and Blair followed in the Jeep, and they made Cascade in good time. The weather had been dry for the past few days and the roads were clear from the daily sunshine, or had been plowed and sanded. They made their way through the city and to the City Protection parking garage to return the borrowed vehicle and equipment, and to let Simon Banks know that they were safe and sound. James felt that he owed it to his superior officer and friend to make a personal appearance rather than an impersonal phone call.

James pulled his truck to a stop and Blair pulled next to him. The garage was deserted but for one lone officer who approached James and saluted. "Sentinel Ellison, please follow me."

James saluted the lower-ranking officer. "Why is that, Ensign?"

"Please, sir, I've been ordered to ask you to follow me. No other explanation has been permitted."

James looked bewildered and shrugged. "Lead on, Ensign." He put his hand out to his Guide. "Come on, Chief."

Blair grabbed the strong hand. "What's going on, James?"

"I have no idea. We'll find out shortly, I'm sure."

They followed the ensign to the fourth floor cafeteria, where he stopped and pushed open the door, motioning with his hand and saying, "Please, sir." He nodded to the Guide.

James and Blair walked through the doorway and stopped, looking around, their eyes wide with amazement. The cafeteria was filled with people. Everyone from the Major Crime branch of City Protection, the Mayor's Office, from other departments that occupied the building, and even two members of the Sentinel Council were gathered. All eyes watched the Sentinel and Guide enter the room and suddenly wild clapping erupted. A huge sign was stretched across the entire room with the simple greeting, Good Work! James and Blair stood together, blushing and grinning foolishly.

When the clapping died down, Simon stepped forth with a bottle of champagne and a handful of glasses. Other members of James' squad moved forward with more glasses and huge smiles on their faces.

James looked at Simon and said, "Simon? What's going on?"

"Congratulations, Sentinel Ellison. Word is out that you've pledged to a Guide."

James' mouth fell open even more. "How in the heck did you know?"

Simon laughed deeply and he popped the cork on the champagne, sending it flying and liquid bubbling down the side of the bottle. He poured two glasses and handed them to his friend and his friend's companion. "James. Mr. Sandburg, ah, Blair."

James took the glass, still taken aback. Blair grinned and nodded, taking one also.

Simon spoke as he poured another glass. "I won't keep you guessing any longer. I had alerted the State Patrol and the County Sheriff's offices in this part of the state to keep an eye out for you two. When you stopped for gasoline in Clayton Falls, my good friend, Sheriff Connor, saw you and called to inform me that you were both alive and heading back to Cascade. Thus, I had several hours advance notice. I knew if you were both still alive, that you were pledged." At James' and Blair's still surprised expressions, Simon laughed loudly. "Close your mouths, gentlemen. I am a police officer, after all. I can use deductive reasoning also. And besides, Sandburg would never have let you live, Ellison, if you hadn't pledged to him."

James shook his head and laughed. Simon joined in. "Simon, thank you. You never did give up hope, did you?"

"No, I guess I didn't. I had complete faith in you, my friend." Simon clinked his glass with James'. "And in you, young man." He then clinked his glass with Blair's. "Now let's toast to your new life together, Sentinel Ellison and Guide Sandburg."

James held up his hand. "First, there's something I'd like to do that I never dreamed I'd have the chance to."

Simon pretended to glare at his officer. "Then do it, Sentinel!" he ordered, unable to hide his wide smile.

James maneuvered Blair to stand facing the crowd and he stood directly behind his Guide with a hand clasped on his shoulder. He cleared his throat and said, very seriously, "Everyone, I'd like to introduce Blair Sandburg, my Guide."

The crowd cheered happily. Blair bounced on his toes and grinned, and James smiled and blushed bright red. Soon friends swarmed the couple, patting backs, kissing cheeks, shaking hands and hugging. James had never been touched so much in his entire life as he was now. Blair's eyes met his through the throng of well wishers and smiles were exchanged.

Are you okay, Jamie?

Never better, Chief, never better.


Blair's head swung back and forth, searching for the face to fit the familiar voice.

"Blair!" Suddenly, Estela swooped down on her friend and hugged him fiercely. Blair hugged her back, picking her up and spinning her around before setting her back on her feet.

"Estela! Oh, my God. You look wonderful!"

Estela spun around, arms wide, for Blair's perusal. She was wearing a very pretty navy blue suit. Her dark blonde hair was fixed in a flattering style and she had on make-up and new shoes.

"You look so beautiful," Blair said. A tap on his shoulder had him spinning around. "Mary!"

"Hello, Blair."

Blair held out his arms and Mary quickly entered his warm embrace. He stepped back and held her at arms' length. "Mary, you look great. Just like a rock star." They all laughed loudly. Mary was wearing the latest fashion black jeans and a black velvet sweater. Her long hair was dyed a vibrant red and she had jewelry on her ears, neck, fingers and wrists.

Blair was still in shock. "Oh, my God. I leave for a few days and my friends turn into lovely butterflies."

"Thanks, Blair," Mary said, giving him another quick hug.

"Yes, thank you," Estela echoed, planting a kiss on Blair's cheek.

"There's someone I want to introduce to you," Blair said, searching for James in the crowd. With that special Sentinel/Guide radar, they instantly located each other, eyes meeting, and James immediately came to Blair's side.

Blair wrapped a hand around James' arm. "Mary and Estela, this is my Sentinel, James Ellison."

James shook hands with each of the women. "It's nice meeting you once again under much better circumstances."

"Yes, it is, Sentinel Ellison. Thank you," Estela said.

Mary smiled shyly and shook his large hand. "Nice to see you again, Sentinel."

Estela bounced excitedly. "I have someone I want you both to meet, too." She had no sooner said the words than a dark-haired man of Asian descent appeared at her side. He put his hands on her shoulders and she leaned into his touch. "James Ellison and Blair Sandburg, this is my Sentinel, Chuan Lee Quan."

"What?" Blair's mouth dropped open in surprise. He had enough presence of mind to shake hands with Estela's Sentinel and said, "Very nice to meet you."

Estela nodded happily and Mary giggled.

James shook hands with the Sentinel. "Yes, Sentinel Quan and I have met before. I'm happy that this visit to Cascade was more successful than your first one." Then he said to Estela, "You've made a good match, ma'am. He's a fine man and you'll be a good Guide for him."

Estela smiled. "Yes, he is, isn't he? And he's very handsome, too."

Chuan Lee blushed. "Thank you, my pet." He kissed her cheek. "Sentinel Ellison, thank you for saving Estela's life. Mary's too. Without your swift intervention, none of this would have happened."

James shrugged. "All in a day's work, as you know, Sentinel Quan. I'm very happy that you were able to pledge. I wish you both a full and productive life."

Chuan Lee bowed slightly. "Once again, thank you. We owe you a debt."

"You're welcome." James accepted the honor.

Blair burst out, "Tell me how this wonderful thing happened."

Estela laughed merrily. "Well, after you scared the heck out of me by taking off, I'd gone over to the city Protection offices to talk to Commander Banks about you. I was so worried about you, Blair."

"I'm so sorry! But now you know why I had to go after Jamie. I couldn't 'not' go after him. It's in my soul, Estela. He's in my soul."

Estela patted Blair's arm. "Yes, I know that now, but I still was upset. I was walking through the building when I heard the excitement buzzing. A Sentinel was in town and he was searching for a Guide to pledge to. Well, I asked who was this person and what someone had to do to pledge. After meeting Sentinel Ellison, I so did want to become a Guide. It's what I've been feeling that I've missed all these years. Why I never felt connected to anyone special before. I'd been reading everything I could since I first heard about them right after your Sentinel rescued Mary and me."

Blair nodded encouragingly. "Go on. Then what happened?"

"Well, I asked who he was, and it surprised me beyond belief that he was a scientist. And not only that, a specialist in agriculture. You know that's my field, Blair, so I went right back up to Commander Banks and asked him what I had to do to offer to pledge to the Sentinel."

Chuan Lee's arm held Estela's waist while she spoke. At the simple gesture, Blair felt a warm hand on the back of his neck. The fingers skimmed on the warm skin and Blair felt the goosebumps raised on his arms. He turned his head to smile warmly at James, who smiled in return.

"And then it happened. The Commander made a few phone calls and they said yes, I could! I went into the same room where we first met Sentinel Ellison and I waited, along with several other people. Chuan Lee walked in and he looked at me and I looked at him, and wham! I was overwhelmed. My heart raced and I was all hot and flushed. I knew who he was instantly. He came over and took my hand and that's all it took. It was the most spiritual experience I've ever had."

James smiled. "And so you pledged to each other."

Chuan Lee and Estela nodded together. "Yes," they said in unison.

Blair was so happy he almost cried. He hugged Estela tightly once again and shook hands with Chuan Lee. "That is so cool, man, so cool."

Mary chimed in, "Yes, it is, isn't it? I'm so happy for them both. And especially tickles to know that they're both coming back to Nevada to work together."

"What about you, Mary?" Blair asked. "How are you doing?"

Mary smiled at Blair. "Now that everybody's safe, I'm very happy. Blair, I've been so worried about you!" She gave him a quick hug. "I'm going back to Nevada with Chuan Lee and Estela and finish my schooling. Then I'm going to teach. I know that's what I'm supposed to do."

Blair smiled and held her hand. "Good girl. You'll be a great teacher and the kids will love you. Just remember to work hard and have a bit of fun, too." Blair leaned over and kissed her cheek.

Mary blushed. "Thanks, Blair. I will."

The friends chatted for a bit longer and drank another glass of champagne.

James whispered into Blair's ear, "I'm going to talk with Simon for a minute. I'll be right back."

Blair smiled. "Sure, Jamie. I'll be here."

James approached Simon with a smile. "Commander, thank you for this." James gestured to the room.

"How are you doing, really?" Simon asked seriously.

"It's good, Simon. It's not what I expected but then it's better. I don't know." James shrugged. "It feels right."

Simon clamped a hand on his shoulder. "Good. That's all I can ask. I'm relieved, James. Daryl is too. He couldn't be here, but he sends his regards."

James nodded. "Thank him for me, Commander."

"I'm going to miss you in the field, Sentinel, but you'll be a worthwhile addition to Internal Investigations. Both of you," Simon added.

"I'm going to do my best, sir."

"You always do. I don't have any doubt about that. And your Guide seems to be an okay guy. He's kind of scruffy looking, but a haircut will help with that."

James' eyes sought out his Guide and he drank in the sight of Blair talking animatedly to a future colleague. Already people were gravitating to the outgoing, friendly man. "He's not cutting his hair, Commander," he stated emphatically, smiling softly as he watched his mate.

Simon chuckled deeply. "Okay, Sentinel, okay. Down boy. He doesn't have to cut his hair as long as he maintains a neat and professional appearance on the job."

"Thank you, Simon. You can depend on us." James' ears picked up a small sound from his Guide. He looked and when their eyes met, Blair's hand covered his yawn. James nodded to his Commander, "Excuse me, Simon, Blair needs me. Good night, sir."

Blair yawned and rubbed his eyes. James was at his side quickly and held his elbow. He said to their friends, "Thanks for the welcome home, but we're both pretty tired. I think my Guide needs to rest."

Wishes for a good night were shared by all. After the group dispersed, Blair turned to James. "Hey, I'm good. I'm not tired," he said through another wide yawn.

James chuckled and ruffled his hair. "Sure, Chief. You're not tired."

Blair leaned against James' strong body and James' arm circled his Guide's shoulders. Blair smiled softly at his Sentinel. "You're tired, too. I can sense it."

"Oh, you can, huh? You can sense I'm tired?"

"Yeah, man, I can sense lots of stuff about you."

James turned Blair towards him, their bodies lightly touching. "What can you sense right now, Guide?"

Blair cocked his head and looked knowingly at his mate. "You're horny."

James laughed loudly and gave Blair a quick hug, leaning to talk softly to him. "There's something I need to tell you."

"What?" Blair asked, meeting James' warm blue eyes.

"I wanted to wait until we were in a different location from the mountains to be sure and now I'm sure." James looked around quickly before meeting Blair's eyes. "It's all so clear, Blair. I always thought that having a Guide would mean that things would be, I don't know, different. And they are, but it's a good kind of different."

Blair put a hand on James' chest. "Tell me," he invited.

"Everything is better. I see better. I hear better. All of it. It's brighter and louder and... Just better. Instead of losing control of my life and senses to a Guide, I've never felt so in control before. It's because of you. Do you understand?"

Blair smiled that special smile he reserved for his lover. "I understand," he said simply. "Let's go home, Jamie, please. I need to be with you. Feel you next to me. I need to touch you and hold you. Now, Jamie."

Their eyes held each other and the need to reaffirm their pledge burned hot and bright. James nodded and he slipped an arm around Blair's shoulders. "Good night all." James waved and called to the room full of people.

"'Night, and thanks!" Blair added.

Good nights were called out in return along with more good luck wishes. Simon's voice echoed loud and clear over the other voices in the room. "Forty-eight hours, Sentinel Ellison and Guide Sandburg, and I want you in my office, ready to get cracking! The Guide has paperwork to fill out. Classes to prepare for. Books to read and a Sentinel to keep an eye on."

"Yes, Sir," James called out happily. "Two days and we'll be ready," he said as he steered his lover out of the room.

On the elevator ride down to the parking garage, Blair rolled his eyes and complained. "Books? Paperwork? Classes? And watch out for my Sentinel, too? Is it too late to change my mind?"

James looked down at the Guide nestled under his shoulder and his heart felt full of love and adoration. The warm blue eyes met his and he softly kissed the luscious, full lips. "It's way too late for that, Guide. You've been claimed and pledged now. You might as well enjoy it."

Blair shivered under the gentle lips of his mate. Never did he ever dream he could love and desire one person with every fiber of his being until now. "Oh, believe me, Sentinel, I plan on enjoying every minute for the rest of my life, starting right now."

Their lips met again in the warmth of friendship, the heat of desire, the sweetness of love, and the bond of their destinies. Pledged now and forever.

End Right to Dream by LilyK:

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Disclaimer: The Sentinel is owned etc. by Pet Fly, Inc. These pages and the stories on them are not meant to infringe on, nor are they endorsed by, Pet Fly, Inc. and Paramount.