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Fate's Fallout

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Fate's Fallout

by KC

The Sentinel does not belong to me. Nor do his pals. You want to buy them you gotta talk to Petfly and Paramount and I wish you luck. I made no money from this. No copyright infringement was intended, intentional or otherwise.

I've admired Susan Foster's AU GDP series for a long time, and found it refreshingly original, very inspiring. This story is based loosely upon that; meaning that while there are details which come straight from it, it's not a carbon copy. This story follows its own strange little path. I might do a followup story to it, all it would probably take would be some lubrication in the form of feedback! (Hint, hint.) Thanks and love to B.P. As always.

Watch out for AU, a particularly nasty bad guy, kidnapping, attempted non-con, eventual consensual stuff (not with the same fellow), oh, and bonding and such in line with what you generally see with GDP series stories.

Blair panted, huddled in the dank dark corner, wincing at every sound, wrapping his arms around his face to muffle the sound of his breathing, the sounds of pain he could not control. Were they gone? He'd lost track of how much time had passed during the blurred agony following the attack. The mere memory of the slashing pain was enough to cause an audible whimper. He pulled up his knees, wrapped his arms around them, and rocked himself.

When the pain eased enough, he lifted his head and rested it on his knees, staring into the dripping, unlit interior of the abandoned warehouse. He heard the scurry of busy rodents, the distant slosh of water in the bay, the never-ending creak of a long-abandoned wreck of a building.

But he heard nothing beyond that, no furtive voices or footsteps, nothing to indicate he was being hunted again. He looked around his dismal surroundings, and he felt safe.

Out here, too, his headache eased finally enough to the point where he could begin to think again.

None of this made any sense at all. A few weeks ago, he was a happy, successful, and popular college professor of anthropology. A week before the summer break, he began another round with the recurring sequence of nightmares, massive headaches, and over-sensitivity to other people's presence from which he had suffered periodically, as far as he could determine, since puberty. Usually, it flared up, lasted for a couple of miserable weeks, and subsided, to disappear again for several more months.

This time, though, it had been far more intense and lasted longer, to the point where he'd nearly been unable to finish his remaining classes and get the grades reported, paperwork finished, and details finalized for his fall classes. He was glad he wasn't burdened with the responsibility of teaching any summer classes, but now he was frankly beginning to wonder whether he would even survive until the fall term.

He had no explanation for it, but all of the sudden he simply couldn't handle being around people. Any time anyone got within a certain distance, he started feeling dizzy. His hearing reduced itself to a buzz. If they got too close, or if they touched him, it got worse, much worse. He would feel a rush of emotion, he never was prepared for it, never knew what it would be. Sometimes it was affection, sometimes curiosity, sometimes stress or frustration or irritation, or sometimes even sexual arousal. But always, no matter the emotion, the pain it caused him was excruciating. Crippling.

It never seemed to be connected to how he himself was feeling at the time, and he didn't understand why it happened.

He thought about talking to a doctor, but it sounded too odd, too strange. His friends who ran the herbal remedy shop didn't have answers, still, he had tried several different teas and herbal supplements to no avail.

The only thing that made any sense at all was something he'd eventually found on the Internet, something that scared him so much he prayed it could not be true. When he had researched his symptoms, there had been a pretty strong indication that they matched those of a very rare type of unbonded guide who was nearing what they called the 'do or die' stage, end term, where they had to bond with a sentinel or die from the need of it.

Trouble was, he was not, as near as he could tell, a guide. And if he was, God forbid, he certainly didn't want to be. He'd had an unconventional upbringing, his mother raised him by herself, always one step in front of the people who wanted to pigeonhole them, settle them, homogenize them. And she had managed to keep him from the mandatory testing, which if he were a guide or sentinel, would have identified and caused his institutionalization, because that was how society worked.

As far as he could tell, from everything he could ever remember hearing, ranging from stories told around campfires, to published literature, life as a guide was no life at all. They were legally subjugated, their rights of a citizen stripped away for the greater good, to live out a life in service to a sentinel. It was in fact highly illegal for someone to hide the empathetic abilities which labeled a guide, and if he were caught now, if he were tested and found out this late in life, he would be punished, sent away to a frightening correctional institution, there to be shown the error of his ways, his mind and body forcibly programmed to accept the life of service to which he'd been damned.

He'd read the horror stories posted on the Internet, stories of what went on in that place, of torture, rape, and all too often, death. He'd read, in disbelief, of the laws eliminating the rights of guides, stripping them of all ability to pursue a normal life away from whatever sentinel claimed them. From what he could tell, the process of claiming a guide amounted to a free for all feeding frenzy, winner take all. From the moment they bonded, he legally belonged, body and soul, to another man or woman.

He could not have a bank account. He could only own certain possessions, a few clothes, toiletry items, and that was all. No car. Not even a library card. He served at the pleasure of the sentinel, period. All else was deemed too distracting by society. Sentinels were considered too important, too precious, and somewhere along the line, laws had been proposed, supposedly well intentioned, but in reality ever more constricting and torturous. And yet no one protested. No one would speak for Blair Sandburg, if it turned out that he was indeed a guide. Instead, he would be vilified for hiding this about himself. He would lose his position at the University, would never have any other, never be published or go on an expedition ever again.

He would rather die, if this were truly what was in store for him.

He shivered in the cooling air. The past few days had been the worst yet, he'd finally been driven from his comfortable apartment, driven by fears of what was going on, cramped by having no one to turn to, fear of dying. If he was to die, he was damned if he'd spend the entire time he had left indoors.

So, he went walking. Away from people. Which meant down by the old line of abandoned warehouses near the water. He'd walked for hours, at last feeling a little bit of relief from his symptoms, which gave him hope that perhaps this latest flare up was beginning to ease.

Until twilight crept up on him, and he realized his mistake, that there was, after all, a certain type of person who came out to the old rotten piers at night. He did not fit in with the small groups of poorly dressed, dangerous looking people who turned to stare at him, muttering to one another. He'd turned and headed for home as soon as he'd realized his mistake, but he had scant hope of getting there unscathed.

And all too soon, his hopes that his condition had improved were dashed. A scruffy looking girl bumped his shoulder, and a sensation of hopelessness and raw anger poured over him, took him to his knees. After that, he was kicked, punched, beaten to the ground, his wallet and keys and jacket robbed from him in a swift attack that left him reeling, both physically and emotionally. Then he was seized and dragged into the nearest building where in the leisure of privacy, things would have doubtlessly descended beyond any capacity for him to recover.

But somehow, during the attack, some primitive protective instinct had guided him, despite his ability to do it cognitively. Somehow, he had managed to delve deep within his mind, calling on some ancient power he neither believed he had nor knew he could control, something which enabled him to gather up the pain and fear caused by the storm of emotional onslaught, and in an immense effort, project it into the minds of his attackers. They screamed, reeled, broke off and ran away.

And he had no idea what he had done, how he'd done it, just a bare awareness that slipped around the crushing haze of pain in his mind and overwhelming exhaustion of his body, that he had the merest chance where none had been before, that he had to hide, and he had to do it now.

And he had crawled, broken, into his safe corner.

"Sentinel Ellison?" Footsteps clattered down the steps behind him, painfully loud, trying to catch up to him. Resigned, he paused, turning to Administrator Edwards.

Sam Edwards pulled himself to a halt beside Jim. "Please don't leave already, Sentinel. You didn't even meet all the potentials. Didn't speak to any of them. Surely if you gave them a chance -"

Jim shook his head. "No. None of them are gonna work for me, Sam. I didn't get the slightest ping."

"You never do, Sentinel. Because you never try."

Jim's jaw tightened and he turned, slipping on his dark glasses. The conversation was over. Edwards tried to follow for a few moments, continued to speak, but Jim wasn't listening.

Simon pushed off the pillar he was leaning on and settled in, striding beside Jim. "Nothing?" he asked.

Jim shrugged. "Nope."

Simon shook his head. "I'm beginning to wonder."

Jim unexpectedly let out a gust of laughter. "Only now? Shit, Simon, I've been wondering since the first time they made me come to this place. I'll never find a guide here. I can't handle all these nice, uniform, yes sentinel, no sentinel, would you like to touch me sentinel, programmed brainwashed shit for brains little robots. They creep me out."

Simon sighed. "I know. Me, too. But we have to try. Maybe, someday...I just don't want to lose you, Jim. You didn't ask for this to happen. And it'll end up killing you if you don't find someone."

"I know that, Simon. I live with it every day when I have to take those damned dampeners. I can feel them losing their effectiveness, don't want to start taking even more of them. But at the same time, I hate this whole thing of having to be dependent on a guide. I hate all of it."

Jim was covering familiar ground. He'd been an extremely rare sort of sentinel. His family's status had enabled him to be exempt from the mandatory testing as a child, and he hadn't shown any signs of latent sentinel abilities in childhood, none that he could recall, at any rate. It hadn't been until he'd reached adulthood, when he'd been on a tough stakeout assignment all by himself, that his abilities had manifested suddenly, nearly killing him.

It also meant that he'd skipped the programming that sentinels received from a young age, too, one equivalent to what future guides received, but with completely differing emphasis, one of dominance and elevation, instead of servitude and obedience.

Jim had suffered through the abbreviated version, sickened to his soul by the mere thought of the harsh system. He'd ended up turning to and relying heavily on his captain, Simon Banks, to act as a sounding board, to keep him grounded in what he knew was right and wrong, and often, to help him out when he could not help himself. They discussed the injustices of the system, the unhappy parallels between this modern involuntary servitude and the slavery that American society had previously allowed. Simon agreed with Jim's feelings, had the same opinion himself.

It was hard for either of them to even believe that such a system was allowed to function in their modern world, much less accepted as necessary and largely unprotested.

Simon knew Jim needed more than what he could provide, though he would have done anything he could for his friend. What Jim needed, simply, painfully, was a guide. Without one, he wouldn't survive much longer. When the drugs lost their ability to dampen his senses, Jim was going to die.

Jim tried. He screwed himself up, forced himself to visit the facility repeatedly, attempting to find a compatible guide, but each time he went, he was driven out in mere minutes, assailed by both the thinly veiled desperation of guides needing to bond as much as he did, sickened by the process and need for it, refusing to, in effect, sentence someone to a life of service to himself. He could not accept it.

And if he died as a result, so be it. He probably had a few months yet, his affairs were in order, he would hold strong to his principles.

His family was supportive, trying to help. His father was searching far and wide, throughout the world, trying to find a guide who had not been through the program. But all the money in the world was of no help in this case. If there were any black-market guides, they were buried deep, hidden well. But still, William Ellison searched. He did not want to lose his son.

Jim grimaced as he regarded the still faintly smoldering body in the dumpster. Simon stood nearby to steady him if he had to. It was getting harder and harder for Jim to cope with crime scenes like this one, it would be kinder to let him move to a desk, but not unexpectedly, he had refused to even consider it.

"I dunno," Jim said, arm firmly planted over his nose and mouth. "I can't see anything that helps. It's just a stinky dead guy. All I can tell you for sure is that I think the poor bastard was still alive when he got torched."

Simon nodded and waved the evidence specialists over to begin their work to process the crime scene. He hadn't expected Jim to find anything, but it was Jim's case, he was entitled to try.

But now, he had to get his friend and subordinate away from this, into some fresh air. Jim coughed and gagged, visibly shaken. Simon took his arm, silently apologizing for the necessity of the discomfort for Jim, and all but dragged him down to the pier. The morning-chilled sea air seemed to revive Jim, and he was soon able to straighten up and lose some of the sick look.

They stood silently for a few more minutes. Simon wondered if Jim felt as desperate as he did, whether he wondered each day if this would spell the end of his ability to work, to function. But he didn't say a word.

Jim stood, relishing the crisp clean air. It was a partial relief for him, being down near the water, away from the city and its bustle and confusion of riotous noise and scent and sight. He wondered if he'd find the same comfort up in the mountains. He turned to ask Simon whether he'd be interested in some fishing that weekend, when he caught...something. A scent. A sound? Something.

Some primitive force, which he would have haughtily dismissed as mere curiosity, pushed him into motion. Simon crinkled his brow, called his name, and followed him.

Jim stopped, eyes sweeping all around, confused. What was that? Where was it coming from? It was wonderful, whatever it was, comforting, somehow familiar, a pleasing gingery musk that pulled him, called him.

He closed his eyes to zero in on it.

When Jim entered the dilapidated warehouse, Simon didn't know whether to call for backup or follow him in. He didn't know what he was doing, but he came along gamely. Jim was moving faster and faster, finally breaking into a run, fixed on something ahead in the darkness. Simon pulled out his revolver and followed more cautiously, ready for trouble.

He pulled up in surprise, though, when he reached the darkened corner. Jim was kneeling beside some nasty homeless guy, who looked deader than hell. Simon drew closer, perplexed. Jim glanced up at him, his eyes full of wonder and joy. Simon took a step back. What the hell was going on? Jim was looking at this bum like he'd found a long-lost brother. Like he'd found a - oh, shit. No. No way. This was not possible.

Jim reached out a hand, gently pulled the dark matted hair away from a face that turned out to be surprisingly young, surprisingly pleasing. The skin though dirty seemed well maintained; the features were attractive and nicely balanced, but too thin and bearing signs of strain, as well as a very recent fight he appeared to have lost.

This didn't resemble someone who'd been consigned to life as a homeless person. This person didn't belong on the streets at all.

Jim smiled. It seemed to light up the entire warehouse. Then he gently gathered the unconscious man into his arms and stood.

Simon shook his head. "Your place, mine, the hospital, or the carwash?"

Jim ignored him and started walking.

Simon shook his head again. "All right. Your place it is."

He woke to the comfort of clean sheets, quiet, and warmth. He stirred and stretched carefully around the stiffness, the aching. He dimly realized he must have gotten home somehow. Then his nose wrinkled. He wished he'd had the presence of mind to take a shower and change before he'd gone to bed.

He opened his eyes slowly, brow furrowing first in puzzlement, then alarm when he looked up and saw a skylight instead of a ceiling.

"Hey, there," a strong but gentle voice said quietly. "Shh - it's okay. You're safe. I'm a friend."

He wasn't prepared to take that at face value at all. The alarm he felt jumped straight into terror.

Jim had enjoyed watching the stranger sleep. He'd not been able to get far from him; he was hovering like an anxious mother. Simon had been incredulous, exasperated, and even somewhat amused, all at pretty much the same time, as he'd watched his friend putter and fuss over this worrisome stranger who'd abruptly entered their lives.

Whoever it was had no identification, no surprise there. He'd tried to take his fingerprints, but Jim had growled at him and told him to knock it off. Simon did, but not before noting that the man didn't have hands of a laborer, rather the fairly typical body of most men anymore, those of someone who worked inside and played outside.

So he threw up his own hands and consigned them to their fate, promising takeout when he got things wrapped up at the station. Sure enough, when he returned, he hadn't missed anything. Jim was still perched near the bed, seemingly perfectly content to sit there and watch the young vagabond sleep.

He'd had to bring Jim's plate up to him, he wouldn't even go downstairs long enough for that. Simon chuckled as he shrugged into his coat late that night. "I'll be back in the morning!" he called as he left, expecting and receiving no answer.

Next morning, he tiptoed upstairs. Jim looked sleepy but alert enough to mark his presence. He abstractly accepted the steaming cup of takeout coffee and danish that Simon handed him, with a nod and a smile. He inclined his head toward the bundle in the bed that was beginning to shift around a bit.

"I think he's finally waking up," Jim reported.

Simon nodded. "Good. I'll be downstairs, guarding the silver."

Jim snorted. "You do that."

Sure enough, the figure in the bed continued to stir, finally pushing the covers back and beginning to blink and look around.

Jim spoke to him, trying to reassure him. The result wasn't what he wanted, though. To his dismay, the man bolted upright, pushing himself away from Jim as far as he could get.

Jim held up his hands. "Whoa there, Chief. I'm a friend. I'm not gonna hurt you, okay?"

The man ignored him, cast about him wildly, and leapt to his feet right there on the bed. Jim moved to block him from the stairs. "Stop it. Settle down!" He spoke a little sharply, hoping it would work. Instead, the stranger looked towards the balcony, glanced down to gauge the distance, and to Jim's disbelief, lunged towards it, obviously getting ready to jump off of it to the area downstairs.

Jim lunged himself, grabbing the man just as he pushed away from the railing. They slammed back down onto the bed together, and for the next wild few seconds, they wrestled frantically. The stranger squirmed and fought with the desperation of blind panic, and Jim was trying not to hurt him, just trying to restrain him. Despite the adrenaline-enhanced strength, the smaller, slighter man was losing the battle to Jim's superior size and weight. When it became obvious the stranger was pinned and helpless, he suddenly went limp. Jim released him cautiously, waiting to see what he'd do next.

Suddenly, a wave of fear and pain slammed into Jim's brain, paralyzing him, causing him to collapse beside the stranger onto the bed. He was dimly aware that the stranger had taken advantage of his incapacitation to lurch to his own feet and wobble down the stairs. Simon rushed to Jim's side, little homeless bum be damned.

The front door slammed, Jim blinked stunned eyes open. "What the hell did he do to you?" demanded Simon.

"Never mind," Jim answered. "We gotta go after him, Simon. In his condition he's not gonna get a block away from here." He gritted his teeth against the pain in his head and let Simon haul him to his feet.

Jim was right. After he'd managed to get out of the apartment, Blair had been hit with a headache of such massive intensity, he wanted to do nothing more than curl up and die. But he blindly groped on, down the stairs, out into the sunlight, which struck him even harder. He reeled like a drunk, banging into cars, the side of the building, the pain ratcheting higher as people on the street drew near. He'd staggered maybe a dozen steps, no more, when he stumbled over something and went down. A concerned voice called to him, a hand touched him, and he overloaded on the Samaritan's feelings of concern tinged with caution. The pain reached a climax, and he blacked out.

He came around when Jim's hand settled onto his shoulder. He was still hurting far too badly to register that he actually found his touch to be soothing, not painful. Blair began shivering from shock, and the stranger patted his shoulder and said something he couldn't understand.

He was vaguely aware of being hoisted to his feet and supported, noting that they were headed right back to the apartment he'd escaped from. He tried to protest, tried to resist, but he couldn't speak, couldn't force himself to move contrary to their plans.

Once back inside the apartment, Jim decided to try to get him cleaned up a little bit while he was still on his feet. He entered the bathroom, hollered for Simon to bring some extra towels and clean clothes, turned on the water, and hesitated. He shrugged, then, and propped the stranger against the wall, and kept a careful eye on him for any signs of wobbling as Jim stripped down to his boxers.

His charge was still unresponsive, barely conscious, obviously at the end of his rope. Jim tugged his clothes off, revealing a fit, nice looking body. He'd missed some meals lately, but had taken pretty good care of himself prior to that.

Jim guided him into the shower and followed him. The stranger seemed to appreciate the opportunity to get clean, and to love the water, turned to face it, opened his mouth to rinse it, gradually relaxing and seeming in less pain by the second. Oddly, he seemed unconcerned about having someone else in the shower with him, in contrast to his panic earlier. Jim wanted to think it was because he projected such a powerful aura of trust, but suspected, in truth, the poor guy was just past the point of being able to care what happened. Blue eyes briefly opened and met his own. "Thanks, man," a pleasant voice whispered, "I know I was reeking. Sorry."

Jim smiled. "No problem. I'm Jim, by the way. You got a name?"

The eyes were already getting hazy again, slipping closed. "Blair," he sighed.

Jim shook him a tiny bit. "Stay with me a second, Blair. You've had a rough time lately, looks like. Is there anyone I need to call for you?"

The brow furrowed. "No - I don't - no. Thanks -"

And he was out on his feet once again. Jim went as quickly and thoroughly as he could, scrubbing and rinsing his charge from top to toe, shaking his head in bemusement at his charge's substantial mop of hair.

Eventually, he guided him out again and dried him quickly, then settled him on the toilet while he finished drying and combing out his hair. The kid seemed sound asleep.

Simon knocked on the door. "Do you want a hand or should I go get you a marriage license?" Jim opened the door and glared at him.

Between them, they got the compliant man dressed and moved out to the living room couch. Simon went to brew some coffee and scramble some eggs.

Jim went back to his fascinated contemplation of his unexpected find.

It wasn't too long Blair woke up again, wincing and holding a hand to his throbbing head, halfway expecting to find he was bleeding out of his ears, it hurt so badly. Then he pushed his hair back and looked around the place. Clean, neat, masculine. Nice. He pushed himself upright, swayed, laid back down.

"Hey, let me help next time, okay?" He looked blearily up at the two men towering over him, not sure which of the pair had spoken. He accepted the assistance in sitting up, as well as the cup of coffee, with sincere thanks, but then remembered; this wasn't where he ought to be.

"I gotta get home," he managed, in a raspy, strained voice. He blew on his coffee, took a deep sip. And another.

Simon bit back a sarcastic reply, still relatively sure that this man was homeless. Jim exchanged a glance with him, and unexpectedly went to one knee before Blair. "I'm Jim, in case you don't remember. I'm a detective with Cascade PD. This is Simon, he's my captain. Here's my ID." He flipped open his badge.

Blair took it from him soberly and scrutinized it briefly. He handed it back, finally. "Sorry," he said with a little laugh. "Can't really see it, left my glasses at home."

"At home?" snorted Simon before he could help it.

A cool, appraising pair of blue eyes snapped up, captured his. Simon felt a little uncomfortable. "Yeah," Blair answered. "I do actually have one." He extended a hand. "Doctor Blair Sandburg. Professor of Anthropology, over at Rainier."

Simon dubiously shook the proffered hand. "Out on a field study?"

The eyes darkened and dropped, missing the sharp look that passed from Jim to Simon. "Not exactly," came the reluctant reply. "It's...been a rough couple of weeks. Last night was the icing on the cake. I got mugged, lost my keys and wallet."

"It was no wonder, considering where you were," Jim prompted him gently.

Blair smiled bleakly. "Yeah, true. I was looking for some peace and quiet, believe it or not. It's better down there; I was trying to get away from people. Odd for an anthropologist, I know."

"Not so odd for an unbonded guide who's frightened, overloaded, and in pain, though, is it?" asked Jim, in that same mild tone.

Blair sucked in a sharp breath and just like that, the look of panic was back in the lines of his body, in his face. "I'm not. I'm not a guide, I swear to God I'm not." He swallowed, his eyes huge, terrified. "Cops. You're cops. You can't do this. You can't turn me in to them. To the GDP. I'm telling you, hand on a bible; I'm not a guide. I'm a professor. I've got a life, a, a *vot*ing record, I'm just having a bad couple of weeks, like I said."

He paused, eyes nervously jagging from Jim to Simon to the door. Jim frowned thoughtfully. Raised his hands in a way he hoped looked reassuring. "We're not turning you in to anybody. We're only trying to help you here, pal. Look. Short story is this. We went down to the waterfront to check out a murder victim, came across you, brought you home. The end. What you do is up to you, but I have to be honest with you, if you aren't some kind of unbonded guide, whether you admit it or not, I'm the King of England."

Sandburg didn't look up; he was worrying at a loose edge on his thumbnail. "I can't be. There's just no way." There was a very short pause. "What makes you think I am, anyway?"

Simon and Jim exchanged another glance, deciding to be completely honest. "Because I'm an unbonded sentinel, Blair. That's how I could tell. And I hope I don't have to warn you what a risk you're running, wandering around like this. You're a magnet for anybody that needs to bond, and some of them might not be very nice people. Some of them would try to force it on you."

"Jesus Christ," Blair muttered, nervously pulling the coverlet tighter around his shoulders. "This can't be happening. It can't."

Simon had to ask. "Weren't you tested when you were a kid?"

"No. My mom wouldn't allow it. Didn't believe in that kind of establishmentarianism. We stayed on the move, not just to keep that from happening, but for other issues, too. The freedom to live the way we wanted."

And look where that free-spirited irresponsibility has gotten you now, Simon thought, itching to say it aloud. Damned near dead is all.

"I don't know what to do," Blair said quietly. "No freaking idea." He shuddered all over, laid down again. "Can I just stay here for a few minutes? Then I really do need to get home, see if I've been cleaned out yet."

"Sure, no problem," replied Jim easily.

When the kid was asleep, Simon pulled Jim's arm. "We need to talk, Jim." Jim stood, with obvious reluctance, and followed Simon into the kitchen. He crossed his arms and waited.

"What do you intend to do with this kid?"

"What do you think I intend to do with him?"

Simon eyed him narrowly. "What happened to 'death before dishonor' and all that talk about injustice? Convenience?"

"No, Simon, not at all. I believe that, more than ever. I mean look at him. He's a wreck. Scared out of his mind and on the run, going from a respected member of the community to public enemy number one because of a genetic twist of fate he had no control over or choice about. He didn't drink and drive and kill someone. He's not selling drugs. But he's in trouble, all the same. I mean, it sounds like he honestly actually hasn't had any kind of training or ever been through any GDP stuff at all. Can you imagine what would happen if he got sent there now? He's the epitome of everything we've been arguing against, Simon. The exception. He's everything society and the GDP says a guide can't be, can't do. But you know what else he is, Simon? He's an unbonded guide who I think will die if he doesn't, very soon. And he can either choose to do that, or choose to bond. Period. And if he chooses to bond, I'd frankly like to have him. Because, damn it, I know it sounds arrogant, but he deserves to be with someone who would appreciate him, treat him like a human being, not a dog. Someone like me. And maybe if he goes along with it, maybe I deserve a chance to live, too."

Simon was silent a long time. "I don't like this, Jim. I know I'm preaching to the choir, but I don't like any part of it. I hate it for you both. But I...I'll give it a chance. I'll reserve judgment on this supposed professor. If his story actually pans out, which I tell you I seriously doubt, then we'll see. But if this is some GDP stunt, if he's trying to trick you into bonding, posing as an innocent to hook you, I'll rip his damned head off."

Jim smiled tightly. "You'll have to wait in line."

On the couch, Blair pondered the conversation he'd just overheard, and felt the first faint stirrings of hope. It didn't sound like these two had any more use for the GDP than he did. And if he was a guide, dear God forbid, maybe, just maybe, there was an alternative to the death he'd begun to think might actually represent a better choice for him, a better end than living as a guide. And maybe that alternative was named Jim Ellison. He deliberately sat up, stretching and groaning, making enough noise they couldn't miss it. "Guys, I can't tell you how much I appreciate the help. Seriously. I'm okay, now, I'm gonna take off."

Jim was in front of him again, taking his arm. "Look. It's Saturday. I'm off today. Let me at least take you home, check things out. They got your keys and your address, you know."

Blair started to disagree, and then remembered what Jim had said about unbonded sentinels. He shivered internally. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to have a giant badass like Jim for an escort for a little while. He found himself nodding. "Thanks. I'd appreciate it. Say, how about I treat you both to supper tonight? I mean, we'd have to eat in at my place, but I'm not a bad cook at all."

"Sound good to me," Jim immediately agreed, but Simon begged off, because he already had plans for the evening. And if some of those plans included a background check on one supposed Doctor Blair Sandburg, what of it?

Jim stopped short when he followed Blair into the apartment, right in the middle of his lecture about the dangers of hiding spare keys in such an obvious location as Blair had. He stared, swiveling in a slow circle, taking it all in. The apartment was decorated with a startlingly cheerful cacophony of oddly meshing samples of cultures both ancient and modern, from all over the world. Jim expected to find it clashing and unattractive, but instead found it interesting and well presented. He liked it in spite of himself.

Blair watched him, his depression palatable. "I've spent my life accumulating these objects, treasuring them. Every one of them tells a story. Now, if it does turn out that I'm a guide, I'll lose them all. It's so unfair, man. I can't get my mind to wrap around the fact that there are actually laws - laws! restricting how many pairs of underwear I can own and what they can look like. I can't keep my books, can't keep my job, can't go to conferences, hell, I can't even go to the store to grab something to eat if I want. I frankly don't see the point of living at all, Jim."

Jim put a hand on his shoulder. "Maybe," he said, and cleared his throat, "maybe someone needs to take a stand."

Blair looked him in the eye, his gaze measuring, thoughtful. "Maybe someone does."

He started to show Jim through the rest of the apartment, when Jim suddenly grabbed his arm and pulled him back. He was frowning, taking deep, slow breaths through his nose. Scenting something. Before Blair could ask him what was wrong, Jim raised an eyebrow and gave him a challenging look. "You didn't tell me you had a roommate, Sandburg."

Blair was lost. "What are you talking about? I don't have a roommate."


"Cleaning service. But they don't come much in the summer."

Jim frowned. "Someone was in here. So someone did break in, like we were afraid of."

"How do you know that?"

"I can smell them."

Trailing Jim as he moved towards Blair's bedroom, Blair muttered unhappily, "Fee-fi-fo-fum..."

Jim stopped at Blair's laundry hamper in the bedroom. He picked up a shirt, sniffed at it. Blair crinkled his nose in dismay. "What the heck are you doing, Jim?"

Jim looked at him soberly. "Whoever it was that came in here did the same thing, Blair. Tell me. Is anything missing that you can see?"

Blair riffled through the clothes quickly. "Umm, I don't know. Wait. Yeah. My Jags t-shirt is missing. Gross, man! I worked out in that shirt. You mean you think they stole it or something? Who the hell would break into my apartment and steal a dirty shirt?"

Jim paused in his painstaking perusal of Blair's apartment. "I'll tell you who. Another unbonded sentinel." He circled around behind Blair. "I'll tell you what probably happened. He found your wallet and your keys, somewhere down at the pier. God knows why he was prowling around down there, wasn't there passing out sandwiches to the homeless, that's for sure. But he found them, and your scent was all over them. He could tell, same as I could, that you're an unbonded guide. So now, he's hunting you. Stalking you. He knows what you look like. He knows where you live, and he's been in here. And you're lucky as hell we found you before he did. And you're damned lucky you didn't come home alone, I guarantee he was watching the place when you got here. If I hadn't been with you, he would have come right in here and -" Jim grabbed Blair into a chokehold and pulled him against himself hard. Blair flailed wildly, cursing, to no avail.

Jim dropped him again, not even breathing faster. In contrast, Blair collapsed onto the bed, gasping for breath. Jim knelt beside him. Blair wouldn't look at him. "Blair. I know this is all too much. It's overwhelming. You don't want to accept any of it. But you've got to. You've got to get very serious about this, get your act together. One false step, just one," and he stabbed a finger in the air, drawing Blair's attention involuntarily, "and it's over for you. If this guy doesn't get you, someone else or the authorities will." Jim paused for a moment, letting that soak in. "You haven't got the skills to protect yourself," Jim continued gently. "Not from a sentinel determined to bond with you. It can be forced."

Blair tried to find his voice. "Are you telling me -" he swallowed. "Are you going to -"

Jim laughed grimly. "No. I'm not going to do anything like that. I' option. I'm serious. The decision is yours. If you come to me freely, I'd seriously consider it, I'll be honest with you. You're the first guide I've ever met that doesn't give me the creeps. You're smart, do your own thinking, and I think we're very compatible. And above all else, you haven't been ruined by that damned institution like all the other guides. But it has to be your decision. Whatever you do, I swear, I'll support you, protect you. Even if it kills me."

"Will it? Kill you if I don't?" whispered Blair.

Jim blanched, and then firmly met Blair's eyes. "Yeah. Probably. I've gone about as far without a guide as I can. I think you're the first, best, and only chance I'll ever have to find one. But at the same time, I understand your perspective, too. And it sucks. It's unfair."

Blair started shaking. "I'm scared," he finally whispered. "I'm so scared." And he didn't protest at all when Jim wrapped his arms around him and held him.

"I know," Jim said, "I know."

Simon entered the apartment, looked around and grimaced, shaded his eyes. "God, Jim, how can you stand all this?"

Jim smiled brightly. "I kind of like it."

"Of course you do," Simon muttered under his breath.

"There's plenty of stroganoff left if you're hungry," Blair invited.

Simon raised a thoughtful eyebrow at Jim. Jim shrugged. "Kid can cook," he said.

"I'm so sure you're a good judge of that," Simon muttered again, very quietly.

Jim briefed him on their day as Blair dished up Simon's plate. He only mentioned the intruder in passing, but Simon stopped him. "Did they get some prints?"

Jim shook his head. "We didn't call."

Simon reached for his cell phone.

"What are you doing?" asked Blair, frowning.

"I'm calling this in, of course. Someone broke into your apartment, I don't know why Jim didn't -"

"No!" Blair bolted forward and pushed Simon's arm down. "Please don't call them, Simon. Just let it go, okay? If I file a report, it'll call attention to me. I don't want any attention, trust me!"

"Kid's right, Simon," Jim chimed in from his comfortable perch on the lone kitchen stool. "We catch this guy, he shoots off his mouth, it won't take the GDP five minutes to put it together and be dragging Blair away, all nice and legal. Not exactly the kind of outcome we're looking for, here."

Simon obviously was not pleased, but he went along with it. Blair, though, watched him closely, pale and nervous, for the rest of the evening.

Jim refused to even consider leaving when Simon bid them good night. Simon expected as much. Jim trailed him while Blair remained out on his balcony, lost in his own grim thoughts.

"What did you find out?" Jim asked.

Simon shrugged, took a long pull on his cigar. "Surprisingly enough, he seems to check out. He really is a professor, pretty well respected. No record. Only thing that's peculiar is that he started at Rainier when he was only sixteen. On his own. Only child, raised by his mother, no father listed on any documentation. Had a birth certificate and passport records, not much else. Lived overseas a lot. Home schooled. Straight A's once he got up here, a Professor Eli Stoddard made him his protg, took him along on expeditions, sponsored him right into his doctorate and position at the University."

"How did he get into Rainier without a record of being tested?"

"Slipped under the radar, apparently. His mom probably just lied and filled out the form and signed it. I guess it's so unusual for someone to dodge the tests that nobody questioned it."

"Or someone looked the other way," Jim surmised quietly. "Might happen more often than we think."

Simon nodded, agreeing. "His mom was probably smarter than she pretended to be. She raised a pretty smart kid."

"Why Simon," Jim teased, "should I be picking out china patterns for you and Blair?"

Simon casually flipped him off and strode off into the night.

Blair was being hunted. He ran down the darkened streets, trying to get home, to safety. If he could get home, he could lock the doors, hide. Keep the lights out; no one would know he was there. A clatter of garbage cans off to his right caused him to veer away, glance behind him. Nothing but shadows and nameless dread. He reached the front door of his building, keyed in the security code with shaking fingers. "Come on, come on," he begged. The light flashed red. In his haste, he'd keyed it in wrong. It took forever for him to re-enter it, to wait again. When the green light glowed, he wrenched the door open, slammed it shut behind him.

He slumped, then, panting. Something hit the door on the other side. He jumped away from the door, stumbling. Stairs or elevator? He wrenched the door open, looked up into looming darkness. No. He felt sweat run down his neck as he waited for the elevator.

He jabbed the button repeatedly, and started shifting his keys, looking for the right one. He squeezed through the doors as soon as they opened enough, and rushed to get his apartment door unlocked. He slammed the door shut, locked it, and leaned against it, panting for several minutes.

His legs were shaking, but he forced himself over to the living room window, peered outside. Nothing but darkness.

He felt limp with relief.

He tossed his keys onto his coffee table, and went into his bedroom. Strong arms grabbed him from behind, lifted him off his feet. He started to scream, a hand clamped over his mouth. He was hurled onto the bed, a heavy weight slammed down on him, pinned him. He fought, but something was being wrapped around him, pinning his arms to his sides, immobilizing his legs. Hands clenched his head firmly, and a presence began slowly, painfully, forcing its way into his mind.

He screamed.

And woke up.

"Jim. I understand your reluctance to leave Dr. Sandburg. I do. But you have to give that deposition in the Randall case or he walks. Do you understand that? Hell, bring Sandburg to the station with you. Stash him in my office if you want, I don't care. He'll be safe here."

Jim frowned at the phone. Frowned at Blair, who was eyeing him but pretending he wasn't. "We'll be there at nine," he finally said, and broke the connection.

Blair was tearing a piece of toast into small pieces. There were lines on his face, shadows in his eyes that weren't there the day before. Jim could well imagine the kind of dreams he'd had the night before, heard him up pacing the floor, flipping through TV channels, clicking the keys of his computer. Neither of them had slept very much nor very well.

"I'll be fine right here, Jim. I won't go anywhere."

"He has a key, remember?"

Sandburg blinked. "Your place, then."

"I don't want you by yourself. Simon says you can stay in his office."

"Great. A babysitter."

"No," said Jim with exaggerated patience, "a guard. Look. I'm not leaving you alone. Period."

"You look, Jim. I haven't exactly been myself lately. I can't get within ten yards of people without a meltdown. How am I supposed to go into a police station? We're talking serious negative vibes here, man." He shuddered.

Jim bit back a sarcastic reply and thought it over, resting his chin on folded hands. Sandburg had a point.

"Jim. I have an idea. I have an office on campus. A nice office. It's summer; the campus is a lot slower. The Anthro Department is, too, most people are out on studies. Take me to campus; I'll lock myself in my office. There's a secretary in case of emergencies, I'll tell her I'm not taking any appointments. Okay?"

"You won't budge from that office?"

Blair solemnly raised his right hand. "Swear."

And he hadn't meant to, had no intention of setting one foot out of his office. He was fairly busy, even, working on what he supposed would be the last article he ever submitted for publication.

But when the fire alarm sounded, he was faced with a difficult choice. Take the chance that it wasn't a hoax and risk his life, or break his pledge to Jim.

He glanced out his window. It was too far to jump without risking real injury. He sighed, unlocked and opened his door, stuck his head out in the hallway, and looked carefully. It seemed safe enough.

He started down the hall, cautious, jumpy. A voice called his name, and he had to stop. "Hello, Eli," he said as normally as he could manage. Eli came up to him. A wave of deep affection and concern enveloped him, spun him around inside. His stomach began to churn, his head to twist. Eli was saying something, taking his arm, frowning. Blair tried to smile reassuringly, hoped it wasn't as sickly as he feared, and resolutely walked out of the building with his well-meaning escort. They joined the small group from the building who were chatting about the alarm, and Blair hoped Eli didn't notice that he didn't join in the conversation or come too close to anyone else.

Whoa. When had he sat down? He was on a bench, Eli leaning in close, hand on his shoulder now. He took a couple of deep breaths. "I'm sorry, Eli, what did you say?"

Eli was frowning, deeply concerned. "Blair, I said you look ill. Are you having a flair up from that bug you caught in New Guinea? Have you seen the doctor?"

"I'm fine, Eli. I think last semester and last night's dinner are both catching up with me at the same time is all."

Eli chuckled and squeezed his shoulder before letting it go. "All right. Speaking of, don't forget Marjorie and I expect you for dinner Thursday night. I promise not to make you sicker. Seriously, though, if you aren't better tomorrow, you'll see a doctor?"

Blair assured him that he would. Then, thankfully, the all clear sounded and they began to make their way back inside. Blair was getting buffeted on all sides from an increasing variety of emotion, irritation, boredom, and impatience. He realized abruptly that he was going to be sick. He turned to Eli, promised to join him in his office in a few minutes, and veered off to the bathroom on the first floor. He just did make it, and thankfully the room was empty, as he hoped.

Blair leaned on the wall after washing his face and rinsing his mouth. The chill wall felt good through the thin fabric of his shirt, and it was so blissfully empty in here, in contrast to the chaos outside. He pushed off the wall, needing to get back to Eli's office, not wanting to press his luck. He was trying to decide whether to go for broke and tell Eli everything when the door opened and a stranger walked slowly into the room. Blair felt him staring and swallowed hard, feeling a flush creep over his face. It wasn't the first time he'd been hit with the sensation of someone else's lust, but never this hard, and never from a complete stranger. And here he was, in a deserted bathroom. He needed to get the hell out of here, right now. He didn't look up, wouldn't make eye contact. He stepped aside, waiting until the stranger had gone by before reaching for the door to leave, chiding himself for his over-reaction.

He shouldn't have turned his back.

Simon thought Jim was either going to have a heart attack or shoot someone, he was so upset. He'd never seen Jim lose it so completely as he had when they'd gone to the University to pick up Blair, and he'd been gone. No one had seen him since the fire alarm. Then Jim had gone into that bathroom, and Simon had known from his face when he came reeling out again that the worst had happened.

He was still pacing like a wild man in Blair's office when Simon tried to get through to him again. "Jim. If you don't settle down, I'm calling your doctor." The threat hadn't worked the first six times he'd tried it, but for whatever reason, this time he stopped and glared at Simon. Folded his arms.

"Jim. Let's get you home. There's nothing more we can do here, nothing more we can do for Blair. It's over."

"No! We have to find him, Simon. We have to go look for him."

Simon closed his eyes in despair. "Jim. It's too late. It's been four hours already. Do you really think this bastard is going to wait?"

The big shoulders sagged in defeat. Then to Simon's utter dismay, Jim's eyes filled with tears. Simon felt something rip deep inside himself. Jim just stared blankly at him, and Simon knew, this was it. Jim's life was over.

Simon swallowed hard. "I - I guess it won't hurt, though, to maybe try. For a few hours."

Jim shook his head in denial even as he pretended to agree. "Yeah. I guess."

Blair twisted, trying to break the cuffs or to slip a hand free. At this point, though, his wrists were so swollen, it hurt so badly, it was really just a token effort. He watched the man who had abducted him approach the bed once again.

The man was smiling, he looked like he'd just showered and shaved, enjoyed a nice breakfast and was ready for a day at work. Blair's suspicion was correct.

"I have to leave," he said. He laughed at Blair's look of obvious relief, then his face hardened. "Don't get your hopes up. I'll be back at lunch to pick up where we left off."

Blair swallowed. Tried not to let his fear show. He had somehow managed to keep the man who called himself Gary Hodges from claiming him, from forming a bond with him, but he didn't know how. And since he didn't know how, he had no idea whether he could keep fending him off. All he knew was that the attempts hurt more, drained more from him each time, and that he was getting weaker. But he tried for bravado, all the same.

"Good," he croaked. "I got nothing better to do than watch you make a fool of yourself. Any time, pal."

Hodges' face darkened, and he backhanded his captive. He reached for the roll of tape on the shelf above the bed, tore off a generous strip. He slapped it over Blair's mouth a lot harder than he needed to. "Shut your goddamn mouth. Like I said yesterday, couple of days tied to that bed, no food, no water, you'll be a different man, my friend." He leaned closer, grabbed Blair's chin. Fingers dug in painfully as he hissed, "A far different man."

He released his grip and left.

Blair tried to slow his galloping heart rate, calm himself, conscious that his breathing was now restricted. He felt blood seep out of his nose, willed it to stop quickly.

Hodges slowly ate his supper, quietly pleased with how studiously Blair ignored him. It couldn't have been easy; he could hear Blair's stomach growling. He took a deep pull from his beer.

"Thirsty?" He waited a moment, pretending he didn't know Blair couldn't speak with tape over his mouth. "No? Okay, fine. I'm thirsty, though. It's a hot day, sure enough. Glad you haven't been hot." He'd taken off all of Blair's clothes but his boxers, but with the air turned off, even that bit of clothing was damp with sweat, and the rest of Blair's body bore a sheen that spoke of his discomfort.

"Well." He put the bottle down and burped. "Let's get started, shall we?"

Blair's chest immediately began to rise and fall a little faster. "I'm tired of you looking at me," Hodges said, and reached for the tape. "Come to think of it, I think I'll put some earplugs in you, too. Kind of...make things more interesting, don't ya know. You'll never know when to expect me. Kind of a...sensory deprivation thing. Pay you back for depriving me of my sensory needs. Yeah."

Blair was saying something, but the tape muffled it.

Hodges finished and yanked on a handful of hair. "We got to do something about this stuff," he said, ignoring the fact that Blair could no longer hear him.

Then he settled slowly, purposefully onto the bed. Blair began to shiver, made more muffled noises, arched away from him, from his touch. Hodges smiled. He was a patient man.

Blair didn't think he could take any more. Discomfort from the slightest touch had become magnified beyond anything he'd ever experienced, and every time Hodges did, with his nasty clammy spider fingers greedily touching him anywhere, everywhere he damned well wanted to, every time they started creeping up over his face, his heart would be slamming, sick tide of panic washing over him again, churning, drowning him.

He shook his head violently, trying to dislodge Hodges' grip, his protests muffled by the gag. He couldn't see anything, hear anything, he had no idea any more how much time had passed, whether it was day or night. He'd tried to keep track, but had failed.

He arched and screamed silently as the hands took their purposeful grip on his head again. Dear God, please not again. But there was no reprieve. Pain slashed through his head as Hodges' unwelcome efforts to bond began once more. He jerked, trying to get away. Hodges stayed right with him.

The presence ripped at him. He screamed into the tape over his mouth.

Hodges' voice taunted him, though he could no longer hear it with his ears. If you fight, it hurts. Relax. The more you fight, the more it hurts. You can't stop this from happening. I don't care, either way. You're mine now, to do with whatever I please. I can kill you, the law won't touch me. I can rape you. I can do anything to you I want. All you can do is submit, sooner or later. We can do this as easy or as hard as you want. But either way, you belong to me.

He summoned up the last bits of his strength, reached deep inside himself, gathered up all his fear and pain, and somehow launched it at Hodges, like he'd done every time the man had attacked him.

As he had before, Hodges cursed and released his grip, shaking out his hands like they stung, and backed away from him. And as he had every time before, he took his rage and frustration out on the defenseless man before him. But he went further this time, torturing Blair by squeezing his nose, making it impossible for him to breathe at all.

Blair bucked, yanked wildly on the restraints, ignoring the damage and pain, frantic, terrified, and helpless.

Then, for the first time since this all started, when Hodges finally tired of his sadistic torture, when Blair was as sure as he could be that Hodges had given up and left again for awhile, he allowed himself the luxury of tears.

Once he'd committed to the search, Jim didn't give up. He drove them both past the point of exhaustion. They grabbed catnaps when they were nearly dropping, bought sandwiches and water when their bodies forced them to. They prowled every inch of Cascade, looking for that elusive, life-saving scent. And somehow, mid-morning of the third day of their search, Jim found it.

There was no search warrant; there was no neat plan. Simon drew his weapon and covered Jim as he kicked in the door.

He would not go into the bedroom that Jim ran to, not until Jim called him, in a guttural, wounded voice. He braced himself and followed his friend inside.

Sandburg was there. And he was alive. And that was enough for the moment. Simon closed his eyes momentarily in jubilant gratitude.

But it was replaced all too soon by sympathy and fear for the victim. "Dear God," he whispered, briefly taking in the bruises, signs of abuse, the blood and sweat-dampened sheet, and the calculated humiliation and torture of the near nudity, restraints, and tape.

Sandburg was tense, all too aware of their presence, yet obviously unable to identify who was in the room with him. His breathing had quickened, he was shying away from them as best he could with the limited play in the cuffs and ropes. Simon looked closer. The restraints had cut into flesh, and the tissue had swollen. Simon swore softly. It would hurt like hell, getting it all off of him.

Jim had knelt by the bed, trying to reassure him, but when he laid a gentle hand on Blair's chest, the reaction was violent. Jim jerked his hand back like he'd been burned.

"Jim. Jim! Is he bonded?"

There was no response. Jim started to shake. Simon didn't know if it was relief, grief, or shock. "Snap out of it, Jim. You can't do this right now. We have to help the kid. Jim?"

There was no reply. Simon gently shouldered Jim out of the way, and tentatively reached out for Blair, who was trying to yell, still pulling against his bonds, chest heaving erratically.

Simon grimly pulled the tape from Sandburg's eyes. There was a brief glimpse of blue before they squeezed shut, grimaced against the daylight. He removed the earplugs next, and started talking to him, trying to soothe him, trying to get through. The convulsing began to ease. He took the tape off Sandburg's mouth, turned away, deliberately focusing on Sandburg's hands as Sandburg took in a deep, sobbing breath.

"That goddamned son of a bitch," growled a voice behind him as Simon unwound the restraints from Sandburg's wrists as gently as he could. Simon finally identified the source of Jim's shaking. It was fury.

Sandburg hissed in pain as Simon laid his hands down on the mattress. He'd been tied like this for a long time, obviously, probably the entire time he'd been here, and he couldn't even move his arms from where Simon put them.

Jim bent over Sandburg as Simon began working on his feet, carefully gathered the young man into his arms as he began to sob in earnest.

"We've got to get him out of here, right now," warned Simon. Jim nodded. "You think he can walk?" Jim shook his head, bent closer to Sandburg a moment, whispering, then lifted him. Sandburg threw back his head and made a strangled sound of pain through gritted teeth.

Simon reached for a blanket, wrapped it around Blair. And they got the hell out.

Jim and Blair settled into the back seat. "Hospital," Jim said.

Simon drove. "You know we can't do that," he replied. "We're taking him to your place and patching him up the best we can. If we have to, we can ask Dan Wolf to come over. You know he'll help us."

Jim silently assented. Blair was like a dead weight in his arms. And he didn't say a word.

Simon waited as long as he could. "What about - " he couldn't finish it. Jim didn't say anything. Simon glanced in the rearview mirror, his hopes sinking.

There was a proud gleam in Jim's eye. "No. No bond. I don't know how he did it, Simon, but he held him off. Somehow -" he couldn't say anything else, but his smile was a thing of beauty.

Sandburg had withdrawn completely by the time they settled him onto the couch. He still hadn't spoken, and since accepting and draining a half empty water bottle Simon offered him in the car, he hadn't reacted to anything they'd said, asked, or done.

He had curled tightly around one of the cushions from the couch, and shivered, as tears ran steadily from eyes that stared at nothing. Jim knelt beside the couch, tried to talk to him, tried to draw one of his arms out to try to start cleaning the wounds, but Blair only shook harder, buried his hand deeper beneath himself.

"Simon," called Jim quietly, "I think you better call Dan. I think I'm in over my head, here. Or maybe Blair is. I dunno which."

"Both," Simon said, taking out his phone. He reached Jim's physician quickly, and gave him the barest of details, so the man would have some idea of what supplies to bring.

Then they waited anxiously for his arrival. Dan's natural empathy took over as soon as he laid eyes on his shivering patient. "Oh, my friend. Look at you. What the hell did he do to you, Blair?" He kept up the soothing patter as he eased in close to his patient, eventually beginning to stroke Blair very lightly, on his head, on his shoulder and arm. In a few minutes, Blair had begun responding slightly, still not verbally, but tracking the doctor visually, and relaxing visibly.

Dan remained squatting beside Blair, with one hand on his shoulder as he looked up to talk to Jim and Simon. "Okay. Obviously he's in shock, a lot of it. He's had a bad time. Psychic shock to a guide, especially an unbonded one, can kill them very easily. Blair here is a very, very strong young man. You say he fought off a forced bond attempt over a period of several days?" At the other men's nods, Dan looked back down at Blair and smiled approvingly. Blair looked up at him soberly. "Very impressive, my young friend. But still, it has taken its toll on you, hasn't it? It's time for you to rest. Do you trust Jim and Simon?" There was a pause, and then, a little nod. "Good. They are very good men, I've known them for many years. They will protect you. You must rest. Do you understand?" Another nod.

"Good. Very good. I'm going to give you a shot, Blair. Something to help you sleep." Blair's brow furrowed. "I must take care of your wrists and ankles, too. It will be easier to do this while you sleep. The shot is merely a light sedative; you must rest to get better. You must allow your spirit to heal. Do you not feel how it cries out in pain and weariness?" Blair nodded solemnly. "I promise you. I have nothing but honest intentions for you. I will take care of you if you allow it." Blair nodded again.

The doctor leaned closer, whispered in Blair's ear. Blair closed his eyes, shook his head. "Good," Dan Wolf said. "I'm glad he did not do that to you." The doctor leaned back, reached for one of his bags, never taking his hand off of Blair's shoulder. "All right then. You will not dream with this sedative. When you wake, you will feel much better. And I will come back to see you again in the morning."

Blair wasn't the only one who was exhausted. Jim had finally allowed himself to leave his silent vigil alongside the couch, and trod heavily up the stairs to his bed. Simon had left with Dan, promising to return in the morning as well.

Still, Jim woke the moment Blair did, deep in the night. He absently tracked Blair as he padded quietly, first to the bathroom, then to the kitchen for something to drink. He listened to the young man toss restlessly for a while. He was about to get up and go downstairs when he heard a stair creak slightly under Blair's foot. He heard Blair freeze for a long moment, then draw in a deeper breath, take another step. Another long pause. And another step.

Finally, Jim could see him silhouetted against the dim light from downstairs, a dull white gleam from the bandages contrasting against his skin. The young man stood still and silent for a long moment, then put his pillow on the floor, and knelt down, obviously about to lie down on the floor beside Jim's bed.

Jim sat up. Blair did too, stammering an apology, gathering up his bedding, getting ready to leave. "Don't go," Jim said. "I don't want to spend the rest of the night in the armchair, and I can't sleep very well myself if you're too far away. Come lie down."

"Nah," Blair said. "I'm being stupid."

"No," Jim said bluntly, "you're scared shitless. And if being here can make it better for you, then that's okay. But it won't be okay if you don't let me help you. If you're more comfortable if you're close to me, I'm more comfortable. So come on. I'm tired as hell and I'm just not up for an intellectual debate about it, Chief."

Blair settled in beside him with a sigh.

"How you feeling?"

"Better. The headache's a lot better. I'm really sore though. My wrists and stuff hurt. Shoulders are stiff. Everywhere. Having to be in one position like that for so long, it got to where it hurt so much, it was all I could think about. It about drove me insane."

"Roll over on your stomach. I'll rub your shoulders."

Blair hesitated. "You sure?"

Jim nudged him in reply.

"I really liked the doctor," Blair said absently, relaxing under Jim's touch.

"Dan? Yeah, he's good people. We go way back. He saved my life when my senses manifested a few years ago. He's got real ability, too, I think he was right on the line for guides. He always jokes that if he hadn't had a bad cold and sneezed all over the examiner the day he got tested he would have gotten snagged. Either way, he has a lot of experience helping out sentinels and guides, and even better, he'll protect us."

"Huhhhh," said Blair, nearly asleep, was distracted, trying to understand why Jim's touch felt so good when other people's was such torture. He fell asleep before reaching a satisfactory answer. Jim smiled and kept rubbing, enjoying the opportunity to help him, to be near him. Before long, he slipped off into sleep, too.

The bonding urge sang to him, called him, sweet need beckoning. He opened his eyes; saw Blair reclined against the pillows, watching him. He smiled sleepily and placed a hand on Blair's shoulder, basking in the very comfortable buzz the guide was unconsciously projecting. He opened himself up, just a tiny bit, projecting his own warm comfort and support back along the same path towards Blair. Blair's eyes widened in puzzlement as it hit, then relaxed in wonder and pleasure. After a few minutes of obvious enjoyment, he unexpectedly sighed, closed his eyes and tilted his head back a bit, in the classic posture of a guide ready to bond. Jim swallowed hard, pretty damned sure Blair didn't know what he was doing and that he would be completely mortified if he did.

With difficulty and outright reluctance, he pulled back before it was too late, before he completely lost himself in his future guide, unwilling to take further advantage of Blair's navet.

Blair sat up and looked at him. "What in the world was that?"

"Sorry," Jim said, not really sorry at all. "Got a little carried away."

Blair's eyes were blue and clear. "Were we like - starting to bond almost? Can it be like that? Really? Without the, you know, pain and stuff?"

Jim clamped his jaw and shook his head. "It's not supposed to hurt, Blair. It's supposed to be like this, only a lot better. I'm sorry that bastard hurt you."

"Holy shit, Jim. That Wow."

And from that moment there was a change in Blair, his eyes began to follow Jim speculatively around the room, there was a growing tension that wasn't there before. And Jim began having more trouble forcing himself to keep a safe distance from him.

Dan Wolf came as promised. He spent most of the morning there, getting to know his newest patient better, as he explained, so he could help him in the future more efficiently. He gave him a very thorough exam, tsking over each sign of trauma and stress, rebandaged him, then settled in comfortably close to him on the couch and proceeded to ask Blair a great many questions about his life. The curious Jim didn't even pretend he wasn't listening, as he sat in a nearby chair absorbing every bit of information Dr. Wolf coaxed out of Blair, and suspected that the doctor had learned as much from what he said as well as what he didn't. This suspicion seemed to bear out when the doctor suggested that Blair might have some questions he could help him with.

Blair looked down, seemed a little embarrassed. The doctor noted it, and gave Jim a pointed look, easing it with a smile when Jim got the message, climbed to his feet and excused himself to go pick up a few things from the store. He had every confidence in Dan's ability to protect Blair, if it became necessary.

As Dr. Wolf had thought, Blair had many questions about guides and sentinels, the process of bonding, what to actually expect and to do, even, wistfully, whether he was absolutely sure that Blair was one. Dr. Wolf regretfully had to assure him that he definitely was. Blair seemed a little crestfallen after that. Dr. Wolf waited patiently, sure that there was more.

"What about - I mean, is Jim going to expect- " Blair sighed. "Hodges made it pretty clear that there's a sexual component to all this. That, well, basically -" he broke off again, unable to finish. The tears caught him completely off guard, but didn't seem to trouble Dr. Wolf at all.

"For someone of Hodges' unfortunate ilk," Dr. Wolf said easily, "there always is such a thing. And it would never be intended to be pleasant for the guide, no. But there are non-sentinels for whom this is the case as well, of course. We are speaking of someone who never should have been gifted in such a way as with sentinel abilities."

"What about Jim?" he managed.

Dr. Wolf shrugged. "I think you are learning the kind of person he is. Does he strike you as being a brutal rapist?"

Blair shook his head sharply.

"It is not his nature, you are correct. As to whether your relationship will be sexual, one never knows, actually, until the moment of bonding. Sometimes it is, sometimes it is not. There is no way to tell. But I will tell you this, I know Jim Ellison very well. If a sexual relationship is not something you both are comfortable with, there will not be one. Period."

Blair felt tons of pressure and fear lift away. He smiled and nodded. "Thank you so much, Dr. Wolf. I'm really lucky Jim has you for a doctor."

"I'm your doctor now, too," Dr. Wolf reminded him, "and my name is Dan. I'm glad I could help you. Now, you started telling me about this very interesting native culture down in Peru you studied a few years ago..."

Dan stayed long enough to have lunch with them, and then issued Blair several bottles of vitamins, antibiotics, and a mild pain reliever, all specifically designed for guides. He finished with a stern lecture about rest and proper nutrition that was absorbed by both Jim and Blair, and then he bid the pair farewell, smiling to himself, thanking all the gods of wayward guides and sentinels that against all odds these two had met.

Jim walked him to the elevator, sensing there were things Dan wanted to say privately to him, as well. His surmise was correct. As soon as they were a few steps away from the door, Dan signaled him to a halt. He carefully checked around for other people, then spoke.

"Jim, I know that you know he needs to bond and that he'll die if he doesn't, but he's a lot closer than you may be aware. He's got maybe a week left, at the very most."

Jim blanched. "No, I had no idea he had so little time. God, Dan." He raked a hand through his hair. "A week? That isn't nearly enough time. He's nowhere near ready. He's only now starting to accept he's a guide at all, he's not ready to commit to me or anyone else." He shook his head.

"He may not be ready mentally, but his body isn't going to wait. I'm sorry. But I thought you should know. And there's something you need to do, too."

Jim raised an eyebrow, still shaken and upset.

"You need to start preparing yourself to be able to receive his gift, if he chooses you as his sentinel."

Jim shrugged. "Okay. I don't see the problem there."

"Jim." Dan had to stop and smile. "I'm glad that you've finally found a guide you can live with, but you couldn't bond with him right now if he came and begged you."

Jim's face changed with awareness. "The dampeners?"

"Yes. Need I remind you that you're taking four times the normal dose, just to be able to function? You need to start cutting down, right now. Every day you have to cut back more. I want you off of them in four days, Jim. You have to, in order to be able to build a proper bond. But it won't be easy, we both know that."

Jim's eyes were bleak. "It'll be hell is what it'll be, Dan."

Dan smiled tightly. "I pity anyone having to spend time around either of you for the next few days, Jim. It won't be fun for anyone. But I promise you the result will be worth it."

Jim stared at him bleakly. "If any of us survive, that is."

Dan laughed. "I'll be back in the morning. I wouldn't miss this for all the tea in China, my friend. This will be one for that book I'm going to write some day."

Shortly after Dan left, Simon arrived, running later than he'd expected, he said, due to developments that concerned Blair. "Gary Hodges has filed a complaint with the GDP. He claims the guide with whom he was in the process of bonding left his residence without permission. It's a very serious charge, as you know. So now there's an alert and arrest warrant out for Dr. Sandburg. I'm sorry. He's being considered rogue and dangerous."

"What?" hissed Blair. "We weren't bonding, for God's sake! And anyway, he's the one that kidnapped me! I want to press charges against him!"

"Sure," Simon said, hating to have to do this to the young man. "Your word against a sentinel, you know what will happen? Blair, I know you're still fighting this guide thing, but I have to warn you, out there in the real world, you are not who you were yesterday. You are now considered and will be treated like a guide. It doesn't matter if you like it or not. It doesn't matter if you believe it or not. Even if there weren't a warrant for your arrest, you would have all the rights and privileges under the law that a guide does. Which are squat."

"Wait a minute. I don't get why this is all about me. He has to know good and well what actually happened, why isn't he going after Jim, too? Why isn't there an arrest warrant out for him?" Jim and Simon both stared at him for a moment, puzzled. "Hel-lo, you know, the other sentinel involved here?"

Jim had to think for a long moment. It was rare to have to explain things about the very secretive sentinel/guide world to someone outside of the loop. "Things just aren't done that way, Chief. Sentinels are, well, they're pretty much above the law, where it pertains to sentinel stuff. Going in and getting you out of there didn't actually violate any law. He's taken an unusual step, I'll admit, by claiming that you ran on your own, but usually what goes on between sentinels and guides is not public information. What I did was just a matter of a more powerful sentinel sort of stealing a guide out from under a competitor."

Blair started nodding. "Yeah, yeah. I remember reading about it now. All's fair, except for the guide, that is."

"That's right, Blair, it's *un*fair and it's bullshit." said Jim. He turned to Simon. "Can you do anything?"

Simon spread his hands. "Without giving us away? How do you propose I do that? Why would the Captain of Major Crimes have any interest in a GDP affair? I might be able to make a few very discreet phone calls, but that's it. I'm up to my neck in this as much as you two are, because as of now, I'm putting seventeen years on the force on the line by aiding and abetting a felon. Actually I'm in past my neck. At least you have the excuse of being a sentinel needing to bond, Jim. Since I wouldn't have that defense, I could very well wind up in prison. For a very long time."

"Don't come back here, Simon," Jim immediately said. The pair began arguing, predictably enough, and Sandburg felt strange, isolated and not at all comfortable with the thought of his problems putting Simon at risk, too.

He wandered off, lost in thought, while Simon and Jim continued to bellow at each other. He flipped on the television. To his shock and dismay, there was his own Rainier publicity photo, right there on the local news channel, with a running script at the bottom of the screen detailing the violations he was accused of, his supposedly dangerous status and the steps to take if he was spotted. No mention was made, ironically, of his position at the University where they'd obtained the photo.

Jim and Simon came over, studied it grimly. "Look," Simon finally said. "You two, stay right here. Don't either of you set one foot out of this place until we figure out what do to with you. Got it?" He strode over to the windows, yanked down the shades. "I'm going to go make those calls. I'll be back when I can."

The unbearably miserable days began to creep by. Tormented by memories of his kidnapping and confinement, fears about his future, and rapidly deteriorating both physically and mentally, Blair was a mess. He was jumpy as hell, barely eating, hardly sleeping, and taking on a dull, hollow-eyed look. On day one, he made the front page of the newspaper. As expected, he'd been utterly vilified, condemned as a sneak and a liar, a monster masquerading as a normal human there in their very midst. He was somewhat heartened, though, to note that the University had absolutely no official comment about the matter, they had somehow managed to fend off the pressure to join the effort to pillory him. But there was also no doubt that they were getting all kinds of calls about harboring a criminal like him, exposing their precious children to his evil, twisted presence.

He was glad he had his computer with him, he went right to work that same day. He wrote up every detail of his experiences thus far, included everything but Jim's name and where he was hiding, and e-mailed it out to all of his friends and colleagues. He promised to try to stay in contact, but warned them it would likely prove difficult in the short term. He revisited some of the sites he'd researched before, posting his story on the public message boards. He got the word out every way he could via his computer, even sending the information to the media, locally as well as nationally, having little hope that anyone would actually care to pursue the story and take up his cause, but still, he felt far better for having made the effort.

Probably the hardest reality he had to face was the evening of the first day, when the news featured GDP officers tossing his apartment, searching for clues about his life and whereabouts. It was at that point Blair realized that his life would never be the same. He stared at the images of his belongings, his treasured artifacts, being handled carelessly by these strangers, to hear about his 'bizarre' home and 'deviant' lifestyle. It left him shaken, utterly miserable.

He looked over at Jim. "I'll never see any of it again, will I?" Jim was staring, too, seeming as incredulous and nearly as upset as Blair was.

"Maybe. I don't know. It depends on - " and stopped himself, wincing, glad he had refrained from adding that the usual practice was for the sentinel to sell the guide's belongings and pocket the proceeds, in the rare instance they had anything of value at the time of bonding. Fortunately Sandburg was too absorbed in his own thoughts to notice Jim hadn't finished his statement.

"This is almost the worst part of it, Jim. Everything I had told a story, you know? It was stuff I collected all my life. It means a lot to me. And, and, it's not trash to be yanked off the wall to be handled and thrown around like they're doing. God, and all my books..." He stared at the screen, mourning.

Finally, he couldn't stand it any longer. He talked Jim into loaning his cell phone. Promised to keep it short. "Eli? It's Blair. Yeah, yeah. I'm fine. But I can't talk long. Did you get my e-mail? Good. Man, I'm so sorry I've brought this down on you and the department. No, I swear, I didn't know. And I didn't hide anything. No. Just a few vague things over the years, like I said. That was it. Yeah. Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's what was wrong with me the other day. Yeah, me too. Look, there is something you can do, actually. A huge favor. Look. Can you see if you can save some of the stuff that's in my apartment? Yeah, I saw them trashing it, too. No. I can't believe it, either. You will? Ah, man, thank you so much, Eli. Look. I gotta go. Take care of yourself. I'll be in touch when I can. Yeah. Me too, Eli. Bye."

Simon came that night, warned them that the net was tightening. There hadn't been such an intense manhunt as this in anyone's memory, all branches of law enforcement had been pressed into service by the power of the GDP. The other men could see how much it hurt Blair to hear that Cascade's citizens were being warned to be careful, take precautions until he was apprehended, that some parents were keeping their children home from school. All travel avenues were closed off, and the ominous black uniforms of the GDP swarmed everywhere.

While watching a broadcast of a weeping, overwrought mother who said she was terrified of the thought of the rogue breaking into her house and assaulting her and her young children, Blair was nearly ready to call the emergency number and turn himself in. This could not be allowed to continue much longer. He'd begun to come to terms with the apparent reality that he was, despite himself, a guide. So now what the hell was he going to do? His options were limited. Try to keep hiding? For how long? Run? He'd get nowhere. Suicide? He'd thought about that, found he didn't have the stomach for it he'd thought he did. So about all he could do at this point was to let himself die, bond with Jim, or surrender to the authorities.

Letting himself die seemed about on par with suicide. And again, he'd found he had more zest for living, when it came down to it, than he'd thought. Still, he wondered what he would have done had Jim not found him. Without him as a potential sentinel, if his alternative was, say, Hodges...he shuddered.

Was turning himself in a reasonable option? He wasn't stupid. He had a pretty damned good idea what would be in store for him if he did. Institutionalization, correction, and with his new reputation, there was no way he'd ever be assigned to a sentinel. He'd vanish into the system, disappear forever. The only question would be how long he'd survive, how much torture he would have to endure before he died.

So should he bond with Jim? Why not? He was a good and honorable man, one who seemed far different than any other of the sentinels out there. He didn't think he could possibly do any better than Jim. And it would be doing Jim a favor as well; it would save his life every bit as much as his own. Okay, he thought, I'll do it. But immediately, images of Hodges' terrifying assault began to replay in his mind, followed up by his anguish over his loss of freedom and self-determination, as well as the horror stories of sentinels and their guides.

Then he had another unpleasant thought. What would happen to Jim if he were bound to a so-called rogue guide? The media would have a field day with it. And what would it be like to try to go to the police station with him every day? The mere thought of the hostility and hatred he would have to endure was frightening. Would Jim's career even survive an association like this? Would he be forced from the job he seemed to love? He needed to know, right now.

He came up behind Simon and Jim. "Simon. I -" he swallowed hard. "If I do bond, you know, with Jim, I just was wondering what kind of backlash there would be for him. What would happen?"

Simon glowered at him. It had been a stressful few days for him, too, and he was in no mood for puzzles. "What the hell are you talking about, Sandburg?"

Blair looked him square in the eye. "Jim's a cop. I'm public enemy number one. What would that do to his life, his career? I just want to know."

To his chagrin, Jim began to laugh softly and shake his head. Simon gave him a long sideways look, then turned to Blair and put his hand on Blair's shoulder. Blair didn't see what was so funny. Simon hooked a thumb toward Jim. "As you can see from his lack of concern, this isn't really anything for you to worry about. If anything, Jim will garner more respect, more machismo, if you will, from 'conquering' such a wild maverick and bringing him under control. All those who don't know any better will be impressed with such an accomplishment. He'll be the 'tough guy'."

Blair shook his head. "I guess I should have expected that sort of sub-cultural response. It makes a lot of sense if you think about it." He turned away, lost again in disgust for the whole process, and in despair for his future.

Dan Wolf considered himself to be a most unflappable person. But he'd never been through anything that had challenged that opinion like these past few days, with this situation. He had been stretched to his professional and personal limits as he worked to keep Jim and Blair in one piece mentally, and both functioning yet separated physically.

Coming off the dampeners had meant a release of the tight control held over Jim's hyper-developed senses. They were still curbed to an extent, for without bonding they never would become fully functioning, but still he was prone to unpredictable spikes and dips that could be both painful and dangerous. Without careful monitoring, he could even end up in a zone, which was potentially fatal to any bonded sentinel, even riskier for one without a guide to bring him back out of it. There was really nothing to do but ride out the sensations, for the precise control and self-management, as well as a true measure of his abilities, would not be achieved until he was bonded.

Dan hadn't left his side, had worked to compensate, bring things back under control. The problem was, quite often as soon as they'd get one sense regulated, another would go out of whack.

And as Jim had been taking the dampeners for so long, it had been a long time since he'd had to deal this much unpredictability and discomfort. One moment he would be fine, able to sustain a conversation, the next cringing with his hands over his ears because someone in the street slammed a car door.

His emotions, then, formed a comet's tail that followed his sensory spikes. They became as jagged, as spastic, and as unpredictable as his senses. One moment, he was polite, the next, irritable or sarcastic, as he became blinded by pain or too dizzy to stand up.

They had modified everything they could; reduced sensory input the best of their ability. Every appliance, TV, radio, even the toaster, were at times not only turned off, but unplugged. No one wore shoes. Everyone wore neutral colors, and no scents of any kind. Whenever Jim complained about odor, which was frequently, the offender went and cleaned up as quietly as they could. Eating was a challenge. Bland food was best, trouble was, Jim didn't like bland food. And even the most innocuous ingredient, like water, could and often did render something completely inedible. Conversely, he nearly zoned on a few grains of salt spilled on the counter that he couldn't resist tasting.

Touch was one of the worst areas. They had to put bed sheets on the couch for him to be able to sit on it, his clothes tormented his skin and had to come off, he scratched his arm bloody when a strand of someone's hair fell onto his arm. He kept compulsively checking for fleas and ants, swearing he felt them crawling on him, biting him.

All this was bad enough by itself, but unfortunately, Sandburg's presence made it all much worse. It was completely unthinkable to allow an unbonded guide anywhere near a sentinel going through dampener withdrawal, but they had no alternative. They could not allow Blair to leave the apartment to go anywhere else. And Jim wouldn't have permitted it if they'd tried.

As Jim's senses were gradually released from their tight constriction, he couldn't help but react to the fact that there was an unbonded guide in his territory. And he wanted him. His eyes followed Blair everywhere he went, and after the first day or so, he couldn't bear for him to be out of sight at all. Which of course made it difficult for Blair to tend to any sort of personal function he would have preferred to keep private. Merely being in the same room with Jim as he watched Blair change his shirt was enough to make Dan feel like some sort of voyeur. Seeing Jim's eyes narrow, his head shift to the side like a bird, tilting it as he snuffed the air to gather Blair's scent...and then, usually, he would be on his feet and headed toward his prey. And it would be Dan's unpleasant task to try to get through to him again, to gently block and redirect him.

Oranges tended to be pretty effective; waving one under his nose would usually be enough to snap him out of it. But he was well aware that he was lucky Jim knew and liked him as much as he did; otherwise Jim might have just as easily punched his lights out and stepped on his body on his way to get to Blair.

And Blair wasn't helping much either. His body was being pulled to Jim, more powerfully than his ability to resist. And he wasn't distracted by unpredictable surges of his senses. About all he knew was that he was about to crawl out of his skin, and the only thing that made him feel any better was being near Jim. Unfortunately, any touching between the two of them had to be absolutely forbidden; it would have triggered an unsuccessful bonding attempt that Dan didn't dare allow.

Blair was compelled to remain near Jim by a primitive force he didn't understand or try to fight. He was driven by a desire to help, even if he wasn't sure how. Every time Jim endured another sensory spike, Blair's pulse rate jumped, and his body flooded with adrenaline. It was hard for him to keep a safe distance, but Dan insisted.

However, Dan was careful to include him in the process of Jim's care, conducting a crash course in Guiding 101, he said. All day as he tended to Jim, he explained things to Blair, making sure the distressed young man kept a careful distance. Blair spent most of the day watching and listening. Dan talked him through the process of helping overloaded sentinels, as well as a great deal of background about the nature of the relationship. But when things got really bad with Jim, Blair's eyes would widen in alarm and fear and he would leap to his feet and pace restlessly, his anxiety palatable.

He was also still trying to deal with the Hodges assault. He dreamt of it every time he fell asleep, would wake crying out for Jim, vivid memories tearing at him. Dan would then have to restrain Jim from responding to the distressed guide's call, as Simon would hurriedly step up to try to reassure and help Blair, provide the comfort Blair badly needed, as Simon tried to ignore the threatening glare from Jim's jealous eyes.

It hurt Simon deeply to see the pair, especially Jim, suffering like this. And he somehow knew, deep inside, that there was no turning back. If for some reason this didn't work out, if the two didn't bond when Jim was ready, Jim was going to die right along with Blair. And the fear that something was going to go wrong twisted Simon's guts into knots. He didn't even want to think about a future without Jim.

But as Simon observed Blair, as the other man paced restlessly at the perimeter set by Dan or sat for hours, watching Jim, seeming as worried about Jim as Simon was, as he seemed unable to get more than a few paces away from Jim before pure anguish would contort his features and turn him right around again, Simon had to feel a bit better, a glimmer of hope. He sincerely doubted Blair was even aware of his actions, or how far this emerging guide was from the man he'd been only a week before. He had to grudgingly admit that he was beginning to feel that Jim would end up with someone who would support him, fulfill him, and enable him to be the awesome sentinel that his potential suggested. If they survived getting Jim off the damned drugs, that was.

Fortunately, there was help. When things would get simply impossible, when the misery in Jim's eyes would begin to slip toward something darker and more dangerous, Dan would insist on temporary sedation, just enough for Jim's body and mind to rest a little, to reset. Jim always agreed, reluctantly, but with the full knowledge that it gave his friends a break as much as it did him; the process was exhausting and taking a tremendous toll on all of them.

The loft was relatively quiet at the moment, deep in the night after the third day of Jim's withdrawal. At the moment, Jim was wearing earplugs, a sleeping mask, and a pair of old well-washed boxers. The welts his clothes had raised earlier had finally subsided. But he tossed fitfully on the bed, still uncomfortable.

Blair glanced around. Jim was supposed to be sleeping. Dan had made sure he was before going downstairs to grab a nap himself. He'd had his hands full with Jim and was about to drop. Simon had reluctantly gone home, another night on the couch would be the end of him, he'd declared. Jim moaned, turned over again, and jerked his pillows out from under himself and impatiently threw them across the room. A few muttered curses later, and the sleeping mask and earplugs followed, thumping against the wall and dropping to the floor beside Blair. Blair shifted uneasily, stood up, took a few hesitant steps toward the bed. No. He had to stay away from Jim. He should go wake up Dan. He forced himself to turn, took a few steps towards the stairs, then froze; somehow unable to make himself move any farther away. He made a sound of distress, unable to decide what to do. Dan was so tired. Surely Blair could fill in, help Jim out just this one time. Jim groaned again, and Blair's mind was made up. He moved decisively to his side, sat on the edge of the bed.

"Shhh," he said, reaching out, touching Jim's arm. Jim felt miserably hot; Blair could feel the faint bumps still remaining from the hives. "Damn it," he whispered, distressed. He tried to soothe him by lightly stroking him.

Jim abruptly shifted, reached out, grabbed Blair's forearms. Blair caught his breath. Jim opened his eyes. "Blair," he whispered. "Help me." He closed his eyes and groaned again. "Please."

Blair felt the situation begin to melt out of his control. He felt his resolve, the stern warnings, everything keeping him from Jim sliding away, leaving nothing but the two of them and the incredible sense of calm warmth flooding, spreading between the two of them like it had in bed the other morning. He closed his eyes, shook his head. He fought the lassitude taking hold, but he also craved it, had to have more of it. Before he could stop himself, he was leaning over Jim, then touching him as Jim sat up, on his arms, his neck and face, and he felt his pulse quicken. He began to shiver as Jim's arms went around him. Then Jim was lying back down, taking Blair with him. Jim rolled them over, and then nuzzled his neck, breathing deep, nudging at him to allow freer access. Blair let his head roll to the side, unable to resist. His hands slid over Jim's skin, caressing, learning each bump and curve. Jim's face loomed over his, so close he felt the puffs of air as he spoke. "Blair. Are you ready? Do you want to do this now?" He swallowed, couldn't speak. Yes, he thought. God, yes. He felt Jim's breath. He felt Jim's hands grip his arms, hard. He felt something else hard, too, what must have been Jim's erection, pressing against his thigh. He groaned, then, shifting a little, hard himself and ready to do something about it.

Surely they could do this. Surely they didn't need to wait any longer. He was ready, willing and able. He opened his mouth to agree to it, but Jim filled his mouth with his tongue instead. It swirled slowly, lazily, around his mouth, filling him with Jim's taste, body, presence. He grabbed Jim's head with both hands, keeping him there. He pushed his own tongue against Jim's and then they feasted hungrily on each other.

He tentatively opened up and reached out for Jim's mind, too, wanting to taste it as well. But something was wrong. Jim's thoughts, his emotions were jagged, changing and spiking and subsiding, almost like they were firing at random. He had no control over them, any more than he had control over his senses. For Blair, it was like trying to get comfortable on a bed full of broken glass. And it was starting to hurt. Little knives of pain were beginning to cut, to stab at him. He broke off the kiss, wincing, shaken.

He stared up at Jim, panting. It still hurt, more by the second. Jim was oblivious, reached to kiss him again. "No!" Blair shoved him away and sat up. Jim sat up too, dark emotion moving into his face, a growl rumbling through his chest. "Jim," Blair tried again. "We have to wait. Another day or so. Dan said we have to wait till you're totally off the drugs. We can't do this. We can't bond right now, the drugs are interfering! Can't you feel it, too? Please tell me you understand, Jim."

Jim was shaking. Struggling to gain control of himself. He jerked his head up and down. Then pain twisted his face. "Get the hell away from me," he gasped, and he shoved Blair away as hard as he could. Blair fell off the bed, and scuttled away.

"Jim," he said plaintively, when he could speak again, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I - I God. I was trying to help. Trying to make it better. I didn't know." He clamped his mouth shut again. God. He wanted to die. He had made things even worse for Jim, who had turned so he didn't have to look at him.

He doubted now whether either of them would survive, and knew that Jim would die hating him.

They sat in silence for several more long minutes, then with a sigh, Jim rolled over, stared at him. Blair stared back, trying to convey his apology.

Finally, Jim spoke. "Do me a favor?" His voice was hoarse.

Too full of lingering emotion to speak, Blair just shrugged. Maybe.

"Go get my gun. I'm too full of shame to live."

Blair stared at him for a moment, then smiled a little.

"I guess this is why Dan told us to wait, huh."

"Yeah, I think maybe so," Blair answered.

Jim frowned. "I'm sorry. I hope I didn't hurt you. Or ruin things. Or remind you of that bastard."

Blair had to laugh softly. "Ah, no. I'd have to say you don't have much in common with him. And no, I'm not hurt. Not physically, I mean. I'm kind of going out of my mind, though."

"So you're not mad at me?"

"Of course not. A little frustrated, maybe. But not at you, at having to wait. Why would I be mad at you? I thought you were probably mad at me, since it was a lot more my fault. I was sort of involved, too."

"Do you still want to be...involved?"

"Do you?"

Jim waggled his eyebrows at him.

Blair chuckled again. "I think neither of us has much choice about that, or any of this anymore for that matter, but that it's not the worst thing that can happen. You know what I mean?"

"So if all is forgiven, can I have my pillows back?"

"Yeah. One of them. I'll keep the other. The floor isn't all that comfy."

Jim patted his bed. "Please?"

Blair hesitated. "I don't think that's a great idea."

"It really helps having you closer. Don't touch me, just, be closer? Please?"

Blair shook his head. "Yeah, all right. Keep your hands and your everything else to yourself, though, buster."

He moved to the bed. It was a lot more comfortable on the bed, within the gravity well of Jim's warmth, but not so close as to get pulled in again. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back on the wall.

"So was the kissing part okay?"

He smiled. Didn't open his eyes. "Not sure. Need more data. Can't jump to conclusions, you know. I'm a scientist."

Jim snorted. "You know a lot of you smart ass anthropologists never come home. The natives eat them."

"Ah, that's a gross exaggeration. Happens now and then, sure, but not nearly as often people think. Take for instance the legend of the infamous Martin expedition..." Jim smiled, let Sandburg's voice sooth him to sleep.

This was it. D-Day. Decision Day. Do or Die Day. The day he and Jim could bond, or, or well, not. Sandburg was unsettled, nervous, and so profoundly sad he could hardly draw breath. If he went forward, all he was, all he had been, would be lost. Gone. It would be like dying, getting married, and being born to a completely uncertain new life, all at the same time. And part of him hated being the one with the final word in the matter. Jim had pledged to leave the decision up to him, and while Blair appreciated it more than he could say, it also meant that there as a voluntary aspect to this that as he understood it, was not customary. And it put the responsibility for his own future on his own shoulders.

It was an unusual responsibility, but this was an unusual situation. He was no bred-to-serve guide who had been waiting their whole life for their sentinel in shining armor to come make them whole. He was whole. And now he'd be...something else entirely.

Jim was upstairs with Dan. Which was nice. He felt vaguely guilty about this, didn't want Jim seeing him grieving.

Simon came and sat near him. Blair ignored him. Kept staring at his now-frozen bank accounts on his computer. Everything had been shut down or was in stasis, not his anymore, but being held, being kept for his future owner.

There. That's what it came down to. He would have an owner. Like a dog. Would he be a good doggie? Maybe Jim would give him treats. Build him a doghouse.

Simon reached over, nudged his computer closed. "Staring at it won't change anything, Sandburg."

Sandburg stared at him bleakly. "I don't want to die," was what finally came out. Simon looked a little startled, like he'd stepped into a shallow-looking puddle only sink into it up to his knees, but then nodded, resolved and ready to listen. Blair went on. "I really don't. And I don't want Jim to die. I'm happy that I can help him. From what I've seen this past week, he seems like a good man."

Simon nodded. "He is."

Blair nodded, too. "It's just that...he'll still be a good man, Simon, when we do this." He looked down, then whispered, "But I'm a good man, too." He looked up sharply, as if expecting Simon to want to disagree, but instead saw only compassionate understanding. "Not a great man, but a good one. I did good work; I was a good teacher, a good researcher, a good person. But after we do this, I - I disappear." he swallowed. "I won't be anything anymore. Nothing. A non-entity. But I'll still be alive to know it. To feel it. To watch the world and my friends go on without me, to slowly forget about me."

He squeezed his hands together between his knees, hard, letting the pain leach away some of the urge to throw back his head and wail for the life he was losing. "No more teaching. I'm going to miss that. I'll miss who I was. I don't think I'll always be able to hide that from Jim. I'll never resent Jim for losing my life like this, but I'm afraid there'll be some days when I'm really, really mad at the world. And maybe even jealous of him."

"Well," said Simon, "as happy as I am to see Jim live, it'll still be hard for me to watch the two of you bond and have a closer relationship, to see someone else take my spot at Jim's side. We've been through hell together, and now I'm going to be the odd man out. I would die for him in a second. It'll be harder to do this. So I'll be doing my own share of trying to hide my feelings sometimes."

Blair shook his head. "I think when Jim commits to someone, it's forever, Simon. So I think you two will do better than you think."

Simon shrugged. "We'll see. And I am sorry that this has happened to you. I do understand a little bit about involuntary servitude, it might help you to read some literature about it. You know, accounts of how slaves were able to hang on to bits of themselves in the roughest of situations. It might help. I mean, even though you're choosing to do this, you really didn't have any choice at all."

Sandburg nodded. He appreciated so much that Simon wasn't minimizing what this meant to him. He really seemed to get it. Simon went on. "And you know Jim is going to be different than any other sentinel you could have gotten. He's going to let you keep anything you want to keep, have anything, do anything you want."

"As long as it's secret. Not taken outside these walls. And it'll still be his name on all of it. And on me. I won't be Blair Sandburg anymore. I won't have any name other than Guide Ellison."

Simon shrugged again. "You'll still have it better than all those other poor bastards. And I imagine he'll be allowed a lot of leeway for you if he expresses it as his own desire. You know he'll never make you cut your hair. And in spite of what the laws say, you'll still get to dress in your...colorful manner. After all, a guide doesn't do anything without their sentinel's permission, and who can say anything if he allows it? Nobody. They just never imagined a sentinel like Jim, any more than they did a guide like you. I have a feeling the world will never be the same."

Blair smiled a tiny bit, then. "A chance to change the world? Can't ask for more than that, man."

Then the time had come. First Dan, then Simon, had wished them well and excused themselves, promising to come again when they received their phone call. The farewell between Simon and Jim was as difficult and emotional as expected, but Simon carefully refrained from alluding to his earlier discussion with Blair. "Simon," Jim said, after they'd chatted quietly for a few minutes, grasping his friend's shoulder, "You got me to here. If it hadn't been for you, I would have died years ago. And you've been there for me every day since then, holding me together with nothing but your own sheer will power sometimes. I owe you my life and my sanity. And I know it hasn't been easy. I know I've been a total miserable asshole most of the time, and I'm sorry."

Simon smiled unflinchingly. "That's bullshit, Jim. Even as hard a time as you've had, you've still done your job. You've been there for me, through thick and thin, and it hasn't been all bad. Not at all. From one miserable bastard to another. Just...get this done, okay? Get back to work. And," he sighed, "I hate to say it, but the kid seems like okay people. Good luck with things. Because I also think Blair's going to have a hard time with all this, some days. Let me know if I can help?"

Jim nodded wordlessly and pulled Simon into a bear hug.

When they were gone, Blair felt an irrational urge to run after them, to make them come back and stay a little longer. And when he glanced at Jim, pacing nervously, he was amused to see he seemed to feel the same way. "Well," Blair finally said, breaking the silence, "Here we are. What shall we do?"

Jim glanced his way. Smirked. "Yeah, I'm a little nervous, too. We're kind of out of excuses, aren't we?"

Blair shrugged. "There's no reason to rush anything, Jim, " deliberately ignoring the fact that they were actually both at the end of a pretty tight schedule.

Jim nodded and finally sat down. "True. And I wanted us to talk about some stuff first, anyway." Blair nodded. "After we bond, we're going to have to go public pretty quickly so they can call off the manhunt. It's going to be pretty intense for a few days, probably. We need to be ready for that. Simon can help us get a press conference set up, and can ease our way back to work at the station. And the GDP will probably scream and yell for a while, since you haven't been through their so-called training. You're not registered with them, so there may be an attempt to make you take some classes or something. You'll definitely have to go through processing, they're going to insist on taking your prints and a DNA sample, for example. There'll be a lot of paperwork, and maybe some questioning about how you evaded the system for so long. If your mom needs to go to ground, you need to let her know." Blair shook his head. Already taken care of. "But I'll be there, for all of it. And my family has a pretty good law firm; they really shouldn't make things too hard for us. As a sentinel, I have a lot of legal leeway. I'll be able to extend that protection to you. After we're bonded, that is."

Blair nodded soberly. He believed Jim's good intentions, but a cloud of doubt chilled his soul. He felt a vulnerability now that hadn't been there a week ago, an awareness that confidence in a certain lifestyle could be ripped away in a heartbeat. He hoped for both their sakes that Jim never experienced that. And he wondered if he would ever, ever regain a life without fear.

Jim seemed to pick up on his thoughts. "Hey," he said gently. He moved closer to Blair on the couch, reached out, idly picking up and fingering the ends of Sandburg's long hair. Sandburg both welcomed and tried to ignore the nice little buzz he was now close enough to pick up from Jim. Jim went on, before they got too distracted. "These past few days have served as a very painful reminder. Of not having any control over what's going on with your body and being scared to death, having to trust someone for help. And just having you nearby made it better. I was grateful." Blair looked away, throat suddenly tight. Jim went on. "Whatever you need to help adjust to this new life, you got it. I'll help you any way I can. I understand more than anyone else can, the necessity that's thrown us together. And I don't care what the law says, what people think, I see us as equals. I'm not into domination and control. Like I told you the day we met, my intentions are honorable." He swallowed. "Actually I feel almost as vulnerable as you must. It's hard for me to take this step, to admit I can't live anymore without someone else to help me. I'm scared of zoning. I'm scared of just...letting go."

"Yeah," Blair said hoarsely, "I can totally understand all of that. But I promise you, too. I swear you can trust me. I'll help you any way I can. I guess it's gonna have to be you and me against the world, sometimes, and that I think I really have lucked out by getting you. All I really want is maybe a reminder now and then that my life has value to someone." He smiled, more pain in it than happiness. "And you've already gone a long way to reassure me, like way above and beyond, man. I appreciate that. I mean...I've seen the alternative, you know?" He swallowed, glanced up at Jim. Jim nodded.

Blair drew in another breath. The air seemed thicker. Jim's hand dropped to his shoulder, and just like that, he felt heat bloom in his face, throat and chest, his gut and his groin. Jim's fingers brushed his throat, rested against his jugular, and he began to feel that comfortable buzzing feeling grow stronger, and now, finally, he was ready and willing to follow it deeper, see what happened. He shifted a little on the couch, so he could fully face Jim. Jim's eyes looked a little cloudy, unfocussed. It's starting, Blair thought. He closed his eyes, pushed back all the fear and regret, and concentrated on clearing his mind, willing himself open to only the positive.

"Goddamn it," muttered Jim the second time someone knocked on the door. "Somebody's about to get their neck wrung."

Blair picked up a couch cushion and buried his face in it. He wanted to scream in frustration. Just when he'd thought nothing else could possibly go wrong, some jerk was at the door, ruining their concentration, their fragile beginning.

Jim sighed heavily. "Might as well go see who it is. Then I'll wash the blood off and we can hopefully get back to it. Be right back." He stood and started for the door. The knock came again, this time hard enough to rattle the door on the hinges.

"Open up! GDP!"

Blair's heart froze momentarily, then hit full gallop. He leaped to his feet, the panic on his face mirroring that on Jim's. Damn it! A few more hours, and they would have been home free. Now everything was off. He was in more danger than he'd been in yet, save in Hodges' clutches.

Jim slashed his hand through the air in front of his throat. Blair nodded. No talking. It was a good thing Jim was still thinking, because he was on the verge of losing it.

Jim grabbed his arms, gripped hard, trying to will him to calm down. Fear and fury had replaced the bonding glaze in his eyes from just moments before. Blair asked him what the hell they were going to do, in the quietest whisper he could manage. Jim shook his head, looking uncertain. His eyes flicked around the loft, upstairs, toward the balcony, the bathroom. He finally settled on the small storage room under the stairs, and pushed Blair into the room, closing the door to it with a very quiet snick. The loud knocking continued. Blair cowered back against the far wall, heart hammering, emotions exaggerated both by the feeling of panic and the interrupted bonding process. Still, he could clearly hear the conversation at the front door.

The two GDP officers stared dispassionately at Jim. "We apologize for the intrusion, Sentinel Ellison. But we are here to execute a search warrant for a rogue guide." He held up a picture. "Have you seen this fugitive?"

Jim leaned casually against his doorframe, stomach churning, manner deliberately relaxed. "I'm an unbonded sentinel. If I did have an unbonded guide in here, it would be nobody's business but my own."

The officers remained respectful, but Jim's response had piqued their interest a bit. "Ordinarily, you would be correct, of course. But this is an unusual case. The guide has been claimed by Sentinel Hodges, and he reports that the guide left his residence during the bonding process."

Jim shrugged. "So?"

"Sentinel Hodges requested and received a court order to apprehend and return the guide to him when found. He reported that the bonding process was nearly complete and says the guide would be unable to complete a bond with any other sentinel. Since in this case he has obtained the court order, it supercedes the usual procedure in this situation. We are simply pursuing all possibilities, and this warrant allows us to enter your residence and search for the guide, and if found, detain him until such time as he will be returned to Sentinel Hodges. Please step aside, Sentinel Ellison."

Jim was having more and more trouble retaining his composure. This was beyond bad. This was an unprecedented maneuver. His mind worked furiously. He would have to file a counter claim to get him back. Immediately, before Blair was turned over to Hodges. The problem was that Blair would be detained at GDP headquarters, and Jim had no doubt as to how unpleasant things would be while he was there. At the very least, he would be forced to take the drugs that rendered guides defenseless, that lowered their ability to fend off assaults to their minds, abused both physically and mentally, and paraded in front of the cameras to slake the media's thirst for more of this sensational story. But worse yet, if Jim refused to allow the search, to permit them from taking Blair, he himself would likely be placed under arrest as well; something that would limit his ability to help Blair as well as delay his counter claim. He decided to take things one step at a time, to allow the search and then call his father, Simon, and Dan in that order, and pray that both he and Blair could endure the separation intact. Finally, reluctantly, he stepped aside and allowed the men to enter.

The GDP officers were on full alert, sensing they were on the verge of success after their long hunt. As soon as they stepped into the apartment, one was calling for additional officers to assist, as well as a transport vehicle.

Jim leaned more heavily on his doorframe, trying to hide the fact that he could barely stand, fighting down the primitive urge to attack these who had dared interrupt and interfere with his bonding. He wanted to run into the apartment and throw himself in front of the door to the storage room, but one of the GDP goons was already there, drawing his weapon as he did, one specifically designed to stun and incapacitate guides. Expecting to hear Blair's voice in protest any moment, he could no longer keep still. He pushed away from his support and crossed the room, ready to do whatever he deemed necessary to ensure Blair's safety. But instead, he watched the officers look speculatively around the empty room, at the door which led to the fire escape, at each other, then Jim.

Jim bit back a whoop of delight at the kid's cleverness and pluck. He settled for an unconcerned shrug, picked up the newspaper from the kitchen counter, and plopped down on the couch to pretend to read it, the move made just in time, as his knees gave out on him.

He would never be able to remember any details of his panicked flight from Jim's apartment, only the emotions and sensations. It was only that panic at the thought of being apprehended by the GDP that enabled him to override the need for Jim that was tearing at him. But with every step, the misery and dizziness and difficulty escalated, as he did his best to look unobtrusive to the people on the street.

He'd wanted to run blindly, but held himself back, knowing that nothing could have drawn more attention. So he worked hard to disguise his weaving, wobbly steps as a casual saunter. He could hear the sirens, now, back toward Jim's place, and shrank into the darkness of a closed shop's entrance as a helicopter passed slowly overhead. He fought the impulse to watch it as it receded.

The only place he could go that he could be certain Jim would know to follow, and where he had any chance at all to hide, would be back to the warehouse district. It was a decision he didn't even have to think about, he just headed that way instinctively. He sagged in relief when he reached the darkness of the warehouse's cool interior, gasping to catch his breath. He had discarded his earlier caution as soon as he was out of the residential and business districts, and broken into a staggering run to get to the promise of safety. He glanced around, somewhat relieved. Now all he had to do was to find a deep, dark, quiet corner. And wait.

"Going somewhere, Sweetheart?" A hand grabbed him by the throat and slammed him against the wall. Stunned by the surprise, the physical force, as well as the dark emotions now battering him, he froze, momentarily unable to move. He fought to keep from showing the despair he felt as he recognized the face leering at him.

Hodges pulled him forward, slammed him against the wall again. His legs suddenly weakened, but Hodges shoved harder, keeping him upright. Sandburg started to choke, and belatedly grabbed Hodges' arm with both hands, twisting, fighting to break the grip. It didn't work. Spots danced before his eyes, there was a roaring sensation in his ears, and he felt his struggles weaken as his attacker's eyes gleamed in triumph. Finally, his hands slipped away and fell to his sides.

Hodges pressed against him. "I knew if I was patient, you'd have to come back here," he gloated. With his other hand, Hodges ripped open Sandburg's shirt and stripped it back, pulling it down his arms, twisting and tangling his hands in the fabric, making a sort of rough restraint, ordinarily not something that would have held him very long, but effective enough in this case.

The pressure was suddenly released. Sandburg fell heavily, and his body twisted as he whooped for breath. Hodges followed him down, pinning him full length. The pain in his arms and shoulders, trapped under the weight of both men, was staggering. He tried to scream, but with Hodges' weight on his chest, couldn't draw a full breath to do it. He squirmed, trying to dislodge the man, but couldn't do that, either.

Hodges' mind began to press urgently, almost frantically, into Blair's, causing stabs of pain throughout his head. As if that wasn't enough, Blair felt his attacker's open mouth moving over his body, searching, biting down on his nipple hard enough to bring forth a gasping cry, involuntary tears. He then had to endure the disgusting sensation of Hodges' tongue as it ran up the side of his neck, as he sucked and bit at Sandburg's throat. Hodges began to thrust his lower body against his victim's, even as he continued to attempt to force his way into Sandburg's mind.

Blair fought to keep him at bay, even as his body slipped, betrayed him, as it began to respond to the bonding chemicals Hodges was releasing. His skin began to tingle, he felt himself begin to shiver. His body knew only that he had begun the bonding process earlier, been interrupted, now here was an opportunity to continue, to live. And God help him, Hodges easily sensed his body's response, and it only encouraged him.

He felt his pants being unfastened, felt the chill as skin touched the damp, disintegrating cement. He fought harder, bucking, but it only made Hodges gasp in approval and thrust even harder in response.

He felt a moment of relief, no more, when the excruciating pressure on his arms eased as Hodges flipped him onto his stomach. But it didn't compensate for the terror he now felt, as Hodges told him in sick detail exactly what he planned to do before he was finished. As Blair cursed and kept trying to break free, Hodges ran one hand up and down Blair's back, over and between his buttocks, and gripped the back of Sandburg's neck with his other hand, pinning his face down on the ground.

Blair heard the rustle of fabric, but it proved too difficult for Hodges to get his own pants open one-handed. Hodges grabbed his hair, lifted his head, and banged it down hard. "Don't you goddamned move," he said, his frustration and urgency clear.

Blair thought frantically. Then inspiration struck. Surely Hodges wasn't that egotistical? but he'd damned well better pray he was. He let his body slump, quit fighting. Tried to look as submissive and inviting as possible. "Okay, all right," he replied. "Just...hurry up, okay? Please?"

As Blair had successfully predicted, Hodges hesitated, then his ego bought Sandburg's apparent surrender. "About time you learned your fucking place, guide," he grunted. Blair held his breath, waiting for Hodges to release him completely, to get up to his knees, then quick as a snake, Blair flipped his body over and kicked out blindly, up and out as hard as he possibly could.

And he hit the target, dead center. Hodges howled in disbelief, rage and pain, and doubled up on the ground. Blair sat up, yanked one of his arms free, staggered to his feet, got his pants up again, and started stumbling away from the cursing, writhing Hodges.

His voice followed Blair as he fled. "How far you think you're gonna get, you little shit? You got nowhere to hide. You'll be crawling back out of wherever you go, begging for help, soon enough. And I've had it with you, the GDP can fucking have you first, straighten you out. Show you your goddamned place!"

The pain in his head was blinding now. Two interrupted bond starts with his body in terminal stage had caught up with him. Three buildings over from where he'd escaped from Hodges was as far as he was ever going to get. He curled a hand into a fist and hit the ground in impotent fury at his body's inability to go any farther. And then his body answered him; in a way he'd never forget.

Simon, armed with a flashlight as well as his weapon this time, approached the furthest end of perhaps the dirtiest, most rundown warehouses on the block. Why it hadn't burned down long ago, getting rid of a titanic eyesore, was a mystery to him. He glanced involuntarily in the direction Jim had chosen to search, pulled out his phone and dialed.

"Yeah, Simon, I'm okay." And Jim hung up. Simon frowned. Jim was anything but okay. He had been shocked and dismayed to receive Jim's frantic phone call as soon as the goddamned GDP had left the loft. Convinced that the GDP would tail them as they left the loft, he refused to allow Simon to come over to pick him up, not wanting to implicate him further, and had ordered him to go look for the kid instead. Jim would shake them and join Simon in the search as soon as he was able.

Jim had caught up with him about an hour and a half later, shook his head in disappointment that Simon had not yet succeeded, and headed off on his own to increase their search area. Simon had been worried about him; he looked terrible, was weaving slightly, like he was wavering on the edge of an abyss, barely able to keep his senses tamped down. Hence the frequent phone checks. And he hadn't even dared to voice his fear that they weren't even looking in the right place for Sandburg, but Jim had insisted on coming down here.

He resumed his search, calling Blair's name quietly, listening, peering around every corner, under every box. It seemed to be taking forever, and his heart had galloped each of the three times he'd turned up some homeless unfortunate who was not his goal. And none of them had taken kindly to the intrusion.

Finally, in the darkest corner of this latest building, his efforts were rewarded. "Hey there," he said soothingly to the huddled form. "It's all right, Blair. It's Simon."

He ran his flashlight over the young man, and frowned. The kid had a bleeding cut by one eye, his shirt hung open, and he was breathing heavily. "Hey, Simon," Blair managed.

"What happened?" Simon asked, reaching out.

"N-no," Blair said, scuttling back a little further. "Don't touch me, man. I'm all right, but don't do that. I can't han-" his voice broke off. Simon watched in horror as the young man's body tensed, back arching, face tightening into a pained grimace, caught up in what looked like a massive cramp. He held the stiff posture without moving, without taking a breath, for about twenty very long seconds, Simon guessed, before abruptly going limp and sobbing for breath again.

"Sweet Jesus," Simon whispered.

"Yeah," Blair answered.

"When did it start?"

"Dunno. It's hap-happened may-maybe 10-12 times now. Not fun."

Both men unfortunately recognized what was happening, thanks to Dan's instruction. Blair was dying, his need to bond coupled with the interrupted bond process had triggered this response. His body had progressed too far to stop, and unless the bonding was resumed and completed in the next few hours, he would suffer miserably until his body wore itself out and shut itself down. Forever. Bondus Interruptus, Blair had jokingly called it the other day, but there was nothing funny about it now.

He grabbed his phone and called Jim.

He had to wait helplessly, watching Blair twist through another cramp as they waited. Simon knew Jim was getting close when Blair froze and looked up, then shoved himself to his feet somehow, pushed by Simon, and broke into a stumbling run towards the center of the warehouse.

Then he saw Jim running too, full speed towards Blair. They reached each other; Blair flung his arms around Jim's neck. Jim pulled him completely up off the floor, buried his face in Blair's neck. They clung to each other like they'd been apart for years.

Simon started heading their way. Blair reached up, said something in Jim's ear. Simon didn't know what it was, but it made Jim groan and his knees buckle, and he sank to the floor, still holding Blair.

Then Simon was running. "No, no, oh no, you two don't! No way, not here. Stop it right now!" He stopped beside them, whapped Jim on the back of the head.

Jim glared up at him, furious at the interruption. Growled something unintelligible and swiped a hand in his direction. "You do this here," Simon snapped, "and the GDP will get you. Again! You know that. You'll wait. I'm getting the car. We're going to my place. Then I don't give a damn what you two do, as long as my house is still standing when you're done. So you hold your horses. I mean it!"

And he knew, even as pissed as Jim was, that he would.

They were waiting just out of sight when he pulled up at the entrance, then Jim was supporting Blair into the car, following after him. Simon floored it as soon as the door shut.

Blair cramped up several more times as Simon sped home. Jim held him, crooning to him, rocking him. Simon couldn't tell whether it helped or not, but he felt better that someone was trying to do *some*thing. "Hodges has been at him again," Jim reported. "His scent's all over him, there are choke bruises on his throat, that must have been what pushed Blair into terminal stage."

"I knew somebody'd roughed him up before I got there, but there was no sign of them anywhere. Blair must have kicked his ass," Simon said, satisfaction in his voice.

The door to Simon's guest bedroom closed. Jim locked it, then gave it a long stare, like he was tempted to shove the dresser in front of it.

Then he turned his attention to Blair, who stood quietly in the middle of the room. The cramps had eased off as they'd gotten closer to Simon's house, presumably in response to Jim's presence, and both men were grateful for the reprieve. He searched Blair's eyes, and finally saw them clear of all doubt and fear. He was ready.

He moved towards him, feeling the tendrils begin to spark and entwine from each to the other. Blair stood his ground and held his eye. He raised his head slightly and shifted, to slip off his ruined shirt, dropping it, forgotten, to the floor. Jim stepped up to him, squinting a little in concentration as he began to touch Blair, to inspect, to imprint.

His nose wrinkled. He took the guide by the hand and drew him into the adjoining bathroom. The scent of the other sentinel, the usurper, must be washed away.

The guide understood, and allowed him to do so.

Jim wiped the washcloth across Blair's face with infinite gentleness, dabbed away the blood, inspected the wound. Blair closed his eyes, leaned into his touch. Jim dipped the cloth, twisted out the excess water, tilted Blair's head back with a finger to his chin, continued his work. Gentle fingers touched the stark bruises around his throat, something very much like a growl rumbled through Jim's chest. They didn't speak. Jim slowly moved down Blair's body, cleansed his chest, then arms, careful and unhurried as he removed the bandages and cleaned the lingering wounds at his wrists, then gently turned him and did the same for his back.

He turned him to the front again, and hesitated, his hands on the waistband to Blair's jeans. Blair touched his hand, stopping him, and walked back into the bedroom. Jim followed, mesmerized by the connection dancing between them. Blair slipped off his shoes, sat to pull off his socks, and remained seated on the bed, shaking back his hair a little as he looked up at Jim.

Jim just stood, looking back. This was Blair's moment to control, not his. Blair scooted back until he was propped up against the headboard, curled his legs underneath himself, then patted the spot in front of him. Jim toed his own shoes off, and sat where Blair showed him.

There was a brief silence, and then Blair spoke. "We'll start with sight. Focus on me, Jim. Make me your focal point, your grounding. Imprint me with your sight, and establish the baseline. Then let go, let it run out, then pull everything back very slowly to a three. And hold it there."

Jim closed his eyes, took in a deep breath, released it slowly. Blair could clearly see the fear in him now, even as he put his hands on Blair's face, to settle himself.

"Let yourself go, Jim. Trust me. I'll catch you, keep you from going too far. I'll bring you back. Trust me." The beginning threads of their bond were tightening, now, strong enough for Jim to feel Blair's confidence in his words.

Jim nodded. "It's hard, though. I'll try, but I've never let go. Not completely." He sighed.

Blair smiled. "Start by trying to unclench your jaw. You're going to break a tooth." Jim smiled back a little bit, and looked in his eyes, to try to draw the courage to try, and between one moment and the next, easier than anything he'd ever done in his life, he was gone. He let go of everything and dove into the welcoming, warm blue depths of Blair's eyes. He didn't care about anything, not about zoning, not about the worries of the future, or the pain of the past. All that existed for him was the swirling, infinite depths in the beauty of Blair's eyes. He felt bands between himself and Blair snapping into place, solidifying. He floated endlessly, blissfully, until, reluctantly, he became aware of Blair calling for him to return. He took his time, but he did.

"We've got to work on the speed," was Blair's only comment, but his smile tempered it. Jim stared around himself in amazement. He'd never imagined seeing with such clarity, such detail. Blair prompted him, testing his ability to control input levels, which Jim proved able to do with ease. He could have played all day, just looking at Blair and around the room, zooming in, pulling out again, but Blair cleared his throat eventually.

"Let's work on hearing, now. Same procedure. Make me your focal point. Imprint the sound of the breaths I take, my heartbeat. Find the baseline and ground yourself. Set it at three when you're finished."

Jim took some slow breaths, closed his eyes, tilted his head a little. Blair's breathing was easy enough to hear, the slow, steady whoosh comforted and supported Jim. He concentrated harder to hear the heartbeat, more, closer, and then suddenly, there it was. More connections between sentinel and guide flared to life and latched, forming deep bonds. He launched himself into Blair's life beat, then, as he had with sight, going deeper, listening past the surface, comparing the different sounds that Blair's blood made in his different vessels. He delighted in it; his hearing was like the greatest toy ever, with an infinity of games to play. All too soon, though, once again, the heartbeat sped up noticeably and there was a gentle but insistent tapping on his cheek.

He opened his eyes, mock frowning at his partner's indulgent smile. He needed little help in testing his control, moving his range easily.

Touch was next, and it was as delightful as the first two, with Blair as his focus, as his fingers explored and he lost himself in the differing sensations and textures of Blair's skin. Scent followed more quickly, because when touch began, the exercise had taken a sensual turn that was impossible to hide from Jim. He had felt Blair's skin flush as his arousal began to increase, though he was careful to remain perfectly still. Jim let himself soar, get high on the scent of Blair's pheromones, musky, earthy overtones becoming a stronger counterbalance to the usual light ginger.

And as more of the bonding ties were established between them, it became more impossible to disguise from each other what they were feeling. And with scent finally secured and tested, there was no need for Blair to name the next and final sense for Jim to experience.

They stared at each other, then Jim tugged his guide down flat, then laid beside him, propping himself on his elbows. He leaned over Blair, stroked his tongue across Blair's lips lightly, paused, and then kissed him. Blair opened his mouth, and Jim's tongue dipped inside, even as the final threads wove into place between them. The both felt the moment the bond was fully established, and each felt their own and the other's sense of wonder, of strength, protection, support and comfort. Blair moaned, and threw an arm around Jim's neck, pulling him closer.

Intimacy and arousal swirled through them, and Jim reveled in Blair's lush offerings. The bond sang and supported them, pushed them on toward each other.

Blair reached down and pulled Jim's shirt up and off, then rolled the two of them over, so he could do a little sensory exploration of his own on Jim. Jim shivered as he felt Blair's mouth and fingers slowly explore his body, and when he'd edged too close to the edge of climax merely from the sensation of Blair rubbing the front of his jeans with one hand as he sucked Jim's nipple, Jim rolled away from him, off the bed and onto his feet.

He unfastened his jeans and pulled them off, feeling comfortable and free, the rightness of this reassuring him, as their bond pulsated and pulled between them. He felt Blair's appreciation and excitement and he wriggled out of his pants too, waiting for Jim to return. A quick exploration of the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, and Jim was back, kneeling between Blair's legs, pulling Blair up to him for another long nuzzle and suck session at his throat, another endless kiss full of Blair's breath and broken off words and wet heat and the intoxicating textures within his mouth. Blair's arms were around his neck, one of his legs prowling, slowly rubbing up and down one of Jim's, twining, feeling, anything to increase the contact between them, slowly moving his lower body up and down, offering, luring, begging, heavy, full penis nudging Jim's.

Jim started to let go. Blair bit his tongue gently and sucked, curving his fingers into Jim's skull. Jim complied at first, then chuckled and pulled away, returning immediately to Blair's throat, latching on and placing a love bite that had Blair moaning, pressing up against Jim, offering himself, tilting his head back so far it had to have hurt a little.

Jim eventually released Blair, to let him lie back down. Jim lubricated his index finger, as Blair watched, his eyes darkening and his breathing becoming faster. Jim deliberately avoided trying to distract Blair by kissing or touching him anywhere but where he was now pushing, working, sliding in and out, slowly, slowly, as Blair breathed faster, sweat began to glow, and the bond throbbed.

Jim added his middle finger, after lubricating it as deliberately, as openly as he had with the first. Blair turned his head away and looked up at the ceiling as Jim started, gritting his teeth at first, but then beginning to move a little, rocking gently, beginning to breath in sync to the rhythm of Jim's fingers.

When they got to three fingers, Blair was panting, and Jim couldn't keep his other hand off Blair anymore. He slowly began rubbing Blair's erection, up and down, nice and slow, adding moisture from the tip as it emerged, following the same thrust that Blair's body was maintaining. Jim reached down and licked at Blair's balls, rewarded by feeling as much as hearing Blair's heartbeat surge as he sucked at them gently. Blair was sweating freely now, chest huffing up and down, his eyes getting a little wild.

Jim pulled his fingers out, spread Blair's legs a little more, and handed the tube to Blair. Blair took it, squirted some in his hand, and as deliberately as Jim had, reached down and slowly, thoroughly, coated Jim's erection. Jim groaned and dropped forward, catching himself on his arms, and remained balanced over Blair on his hands and knees as Blair continued the intoxicating exercise. Blair finally drew his hand away, but Jim remained as he was, watching Blair.

Blair put more of the gel on his hand, then spread it on his own erection, taking his sweet time at it like he'd done with Jim, catching his lower lip in his teeth as his breath hissed in and out and his hand moved languidly, and Jim watched. Then he reached over with his free hand, caught Jim's, and replaced his hand with Jim's. He arched up and gurgled Jim's name when Jim began to stroke him, easily, with his warm big hand.

Then Jim knelt upright again, touched himself, moved snugly up against Blair, and began to push inside. Blair's breath hitched, and he reached over his head, gripped the headboard. Jim pushed harder as Blair's body arched upward, toward him, and he couldn't resist the impulse to lick at the dark damp hair on Blair's stomach and chest, to suck at the hardened nipples. Then he continued his shove, recede, shove, recede motion until finally, he was in all the way, Blair was blinking away tears, and the bond was blazing.

He stroked Blair's erection, rocked forward, pulled back. Rocked, pulled. Blair let out a strangled cry, "Oh, God, Jim," and he froze, poised over Blair, in Blair, every molecule in his body carved from the hardest granite, and he wondered if he'd hurt him. But it didn't sound like pain, and he knew then, from the bond, that it wasn't, it was simply Blair's awe and enjoyment, not merely from his own perspective, but that he was getting every sensation, every drop of pleasure that Jim was experiencing, from his view, too. And it was mind-blowing.

He rocked a little more quickly now, stroked Blair's erection, then Blair's hand joined his and they brought Blair to orgasm together, he felt it building, building, even as Blair did, then the moment was on them and it was roaring through them both and it was like a bolt of lightning through his brain, and every circuit seemed to blow itself out, and he came slowly, slowly, back to himself, and he was still working towards his own orgasm, thrusting himself into Blair harder and faster, as Blair panted jaggedly and cried out his name and he blew out air as he moved into Blair and drew breath in as he pulled out, and then the wave of his own orgasm caught up with him and with Blair again, spilling them together, joining them, completing them in every possible way.

The intensity of the bond did not fade as their bodies gradually calmed and sorted into more normalized rhythms. They remained acutely aware of each other's feelings and thoughts, and they relaxed slowly against each other, mouthing ancient promises between sentinel and guide, promises of protection, of comfort, of trust and guidance, sealing their fate and lives. Forever.

End Fate's Fallout by KC:

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