by Southy

© September 2005

Note: While the author intends for this story to contain original elements unique only to it, she would like to extend her acknowledgment and gratitude to all those many imaginative variations of the “sentinels are known” AU concept that have gone before.



“Sentinel, Protect.” 

Though Blair Sandburg kept his eyes ahead to the street he was walking along, he was very aware of the blond, long-haired, muscular man who fell into stride beside him. He knew Gunner was dilating his nostrils, extending his eyesight and hearing, and doing all the things sentinels were trained to do when they were given the Protect order. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t up to him to evaluate the sentinel’s performance; nor did he have anything to do with their training. He was here merely to pick up extra cash as a “stand in”, while the enrolled sentinels were put through their paces for their final exams.

Actually, he had another reason for being here that was important only to himself.

He knew enough about the training that, in his role as a sentinel employer, he wasn’t supposed to be concerned about any harm coming to him, or whether his sentinel was doing the job expected of him. That was supposed to go without saying when one paid the high price to hire one.

Like a pet guard dog, Blair thought with disgust. How could these strong, powerful men allow themselves to be treated like such obedient robots?

There was a ruckus behind Blair, then a low noise – almost a growl – from Gunner. Blair paused and turned. Gunner was using a martial arts move on a man – another getting paid to appear today – and twisting his arm up behind his back, forcing the man to his knees.

Blair was alarmed that the man was really being hurt. “Sentinel, Release!”

Gunner let the man go, but stood over him. “Do you wish him restrained, Mr. Sandburg?”

What had his script called for? “Yes. Handcuff him and take him to the authorities. I’ll be all right for the remaining block to my office.” Blair started to turn away, then remembered to say, “Meet me there.”

“Yes, sir.”

As Gunner began to cuff the man, Blair started walking back to the office building. As much as he despised these sentinel-gifted people turning themselves over to be trained as private security forces – like dogs – he had to admit that the idea of buying the services of one for himself had a certain appeal. He’d never have to worry that Tom Matthews was going to carry out his threat from six months ago.

“I’ll see you dead,” the ex-student had told him. “When you least expect it. I have lots of friends so it probably won’t even be me. But what I do know is that it’ll hurt – hurt bad – when it happens.”

Blair shivered as he kept walking. Irate students threatened teachers all the time. There was no reason to worry about this one.

Except, he had to admit, he was worried. Matthews had ice-cold eyes that told of a complete lack of conscience. The fact that he hadn’t acted yet didn’t mean that he wouldn’t. He could be extremely patient when it served his purposes.

If Blair had been wealthy enough to have a hired a long-term sentinel after the life-changing event that had happened to him a year and a half ago, the threat from Matthews wouldn’t have phased him.

Blair was so lost in his thoughts that it took a moment before he realized that the man in dark glasses, frowning at him from the upper floor of the building he’d just entered, was part of the exam. For a moment, he’d felt a shiver of memory. “Sentinel!” he called.

Was it true that Gunner could really hear him from nearly two blocks away?

The man in the building remained calm, but he began to approach Blair. 

Sweat broke out on Blair’s back. It’s only an act, he chanted to himself.

How fast could Gunner run? “Sentinel! Protect!” 

Other people in the building were looking at him strangely. Most wouldn’t know this was all a setup, but the security force had been prepped and surely wouldn’t intervene.

Blair couldn’t see the man in sunglasses anymore. He turned around in a circle, his heart pounding, even though he knew there was no true threat to his safety.

He couldn’t see Gunner either.

He tried to calm himself and mentally review the script in his mind. This was the final scheduled “incident”. Had he blown it for Gunner? Had he missed something in the instructions? Or was Gunner failing badly as a protector?

Suddenly, Gunner was walking calmly toward him, holding the man in glasses by the cuff of his jacket. “Is this the man who was a threat?” he asked.

“Yes,” Blair said, amazed. “How did you know?”

“He was watching you. I snuck in the building after you called and waited for him at the bottom of the stairs.”

Wow, they really did train these sentinels well. With such a bodyguard, Blair never would have been a victim all those months ago. “Good job, Sentinel. You may take him to the security desk and see what they want to do with him.”

Gunner nodded and took the man away.

Blair was now supposed to exit the building and his task was complete. He did just that.

“Thank you,” the woman who headed the tests said as he emerged into the sunshine. She shook his hand. “We appreciate your help. You can pick up your check from the payroll office at the end of this week.”

“Thanks,” Blair grinned, feeling relieved and proud. “Gunner seemed like he did great. He passed, didn’t he?”

“Sorry, but I wouldn’t have that information, and those in charge of the grading can’t discuss his scores with anyone except Gunner and those wishing to hire him.”

“Oh, right.” Blair felt foolish for asking. “Thanks,” he said with a wave, and headed for his Volvo.

If only he were wealthy and could afford to spend fifty grand a year to have Gunner protecting him from the likes of Matthews and….

He snorted as he wondered what caliber of sentinel a measly three or four hundred per year was likely to garner. Such sentinels were surely out there, perhaps hungry and desperate for any kind of work. The government liked to pretend that the Federal Sentinel Program assured that all “afflicted” sentinels had a right to a happy and healthy lifestyle by providing them with jobs, which were paid for by the high fees set for sentinel needed for personal protection, guard duty for property, or similar jobs. Some were also successful in regular occupations within society. 

As Blair got in his car, he told himself he was being fanciful. The chances of Matthews ever carrying out his threat were slim. To none.

He changed his tune two days later. A dead rat was delivered to his university office, wrapped in a pretty box. He hadn’t called the police when Matthews had threatened him, as there was nothing they could do about threats, especially such vaguely stated ones. The dead rat was taken seriously, but they were again without any viable leads. The “gift” was clean of any helpful forensics evidence, and a visit to Matthew’s apartment revealed, via a neighbor, that he had been on vacation in Europe the past ten days.

So, it had been one of friends. Which only made Blair more worried.

Blair hated the trepidation he felt all day, every day, no matter where he went. There was the feeling of being watched, of being studied. It was all in his head, he knew. Besides, it had taken six months for the dead rat to appear. Who knew how many more months it would be before another move was made.

At least, he thought with dark humor, he could have some relief from his paranoia while picking up his check at the Federal Sentinel Program building. Surely, no one would dare try anything there, with well-trained sentinels on the premises.

It took a while to find the correct floor and then the payroll office. He was instructed to take a number and wait in a crowded room with lots of chairs, until his number was called. He had 621. They were currently on 582.

Thankfully, he’d already suspected that something as simple as picking up his check from the government would take all afternoon, and he had adjusted his schedule accordingly. He could have had them mail it, but he needed the money too badly. All that was left in the refrigerator was some mayonnaise and molded cheese.

A trip to the men’s room was on the agenda. 

Well, damn. The one visible from the waiting area had an “out of order” sign on it, and no sign directing where else to go. He started down the hall, passing various offices. He came upon the elevators and decided to go one floor up.

Coming off the elevator, he could see a reception area behind the glass doors of the suite that seemed to take up the whole floor. A small but prominent booth was in the center. After Blair entered, the woman behind the booth looked puzzled and said, “Are you a sentinel here to sign up for the Program?”

Him? A big, strong, courageous sentinel who could beat the crap out of other people? What a joke. “No, I just need the men’s room. The one on the payroll floor is out of order.”

“There’s more than one on that floor.”

“Oh.” That explained why there weren’t others up here looking for relief.

“No problem,” she said pleasantly, then pointed behind her. “It’s down that hall, the last door on the left.”

“Thanks.” He moved off.

He passed by a couple of closed offices, and then passed one where the door was a ajar.

“I know I have the qualifications,” a man was saying – almost pleading. “How many sentinels do you get here who have had fifteen years in the army and a five-year stint with the Cascade PD? And earned honors in both?”

“Mr. Ellison,” another voice said, “with all due respect to your history, the Program has to consider your current situation. You have been released by the Cascade PD as unfit. The sentinels we train here must be of the highest standard in order to fulfill the duties assigned to them.”

Blair’s hand was resting on the door of the men’s room. He found himself intrigued, as he knew very little about sentinels.

Mr. Ellison said, “The PD has a checklist they go down. If you have something on the checklist, you don’t pass the physical. They won’t consider individual strengths that overcome whatever they check off. It’s like a conveyor belt. My ‘handicap’ has absolutely no effect on my ability to carry out my duties. It didn’t at the Cascade PD and it won’t here.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Ellison.”

“Come on,” Ellison persisted. “We both know that, government office or no, this all comes down to who does what for whom.” His voice hardened. “Whose ass does my tongue have to go up in order to get accepted into the Program?”

Blair quivered at Ellison’s brashness.

The reply was cool and controlled. “We’re finished, Mr. Ellison. Goodbye.”

“Motherfucking cocksuckers.”

Blair quickly ducked into the bathroom. He heard someone come out, then saw a man, about six-two, short brown hair, with a leather jacket, an attache case tucked under his arm, leaving down the hall.

Surely, it was Ellison. Rejected from the Sentinel Program. Apparently, rejected from the PD after working successfully there. Even a prior decorated military officer of some sort.

Ellison was moving past the reception area.

Blair followed, deciding that his bladder could wait.

What had he been thinking earlier this week? That he could maybe hire some homeless sentinel for a few hundred a year? This man didn’t look homeless by any means. But Blair suspected he would have come across as even more desperate to be in the Program if he hadn’t wanted to maintain his pride.

Now Ellison was waiting for the elevator while Blair was crossing the reception area of the Recruiting Office. Blair felt his heart pound. He would be caught up to Ellison before the elevator came. What would he say? 

Just as Blair exited out to the hall, Ellison suddenly turned on him. “Why are you following me?” he demanded harshly.

Blair saw the fury in his eyes. He stood, just outside the door, eight feet from Ellison and realized that a panic attack was coming on. He was suddenly back at the university, eighteen months ago, on a cold dark night when everything had changed. 

He wet his pants. Then he fainted.

Ellison stood there looking at the pale, scrawny, long-haired guy staring at him in mortal fear.

He had been following him, hadn’t he? He was sure of it. Footsteps with such a sense of purpose.

And here the kid looked like he was going to die of fright.

What the hell?

The odor of urine filled the air. And then the kid was collapsing.

Ellison dropped his attache and rushed to catch the guy before he hit the floor. He was aware of how bony he felt beneath his layer of clothes. His mind started rifling through possibilities. Epileptic seizure? 

The woman from the reception booth rushed out to the hall. “What happened? Shall I call an ambulance?”


Jim had the man resting back against his left arm, while his right arm took his pulse. Fast, but strong.

The young man opened his eyes.

Blair was aware of one thing: he was being held. The touch on his wrist was confident, the face of the man above him gentle and concerned.

He reached up and gripped the man’s leather jacket by the arm, wanting to show how much he appreciated this.

“Take it easy,” the man said. “The ambulance is on the way.” 

“No, please,” Blair managed. “I can’t afford it. I’m all right.”

His pants were wet. Oh, God. No, please, no. “No ambulance. Please.”

The face above him looked so… compassionate. Then it turned in a direction away from Blair and yelled, “Cancel the ambulance.”

Blair closed his eyes and whispered, “Thank you.”

“Are you epileptic?” the gentle voice continued.

“No. Flashback. Panic attack.”

He could see Ellison’s brow furrow. That was his name, right? There was no one else around. Obviously, he was wondering how he could have been the cause of a flashback.

His hand hurt from gripping Ellison’s arm. He should let go. But it felt so strong. So capable.

“My name’s Jim. What’s yours?”

“Blair. Blair Sandburg.”

“Is there someone I can call?”

“No, I’ll be fine. I recover fast.” That was sometimes true.

“Do you think you’re ready to stand? Your pulse is more normal.”

“Yeah.” Though he wished he could lie here, being held, a moment longer.

“All right, Blair, here we go. Easy does it.”

It felt as though he was being lifted. Was this what it would be like to have his own sentinel?

He was placed on his feet, Jim’s arm around his shoulders, while Blair kept his grip on the other arm.

Just then the elevator beeped. Oh, no. Blair didn’t want anyone to see him like this.

Jim placed his body fully in front of Blair.

A man walked off the elevator, then barely gave them a glance before moving on to the reception area.

Jim gently pushed Blair into the elevator. He turned to the buttons.

As Blair attempted to straighten, he got a glimpse of his jeans. There was a big wet spot on the front. Oh, God.

The elevator door closed but the elevator wasn’t moving.

“Why were you following me?”

Blair’s heart started to pound. Ellison’s voice still had a gentleness, but there was an edge to it now.

Blair abruptly released Jim’s jacket and crossed his arms, gripping them with his hands. He couldn’t meet Ellison’s eyes. “I-I was passing by the office – to the men’s room – when I overheard you talking. I guess they didn’t want you in the Program. I-I thought I might talk to you.” He quickly added, “But I don’t have any money and I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Talk to me about what?” Jim demanded calmly.

“I need protection,” Blair burst out. “Somebody threatened to kill me. But it’s probably an empty threat.”

“You’re scared. You know it isn’t empty.”

Okay, he was scared. He was always scared. Still, he liked to pretend sometimes that it didn’t show that much.

Who was he kidding? He’d pissed all over himself, he was so scared. Though that fear was different from his fear of Matthews.

Maybe he should just let Matthews kill him and this wretched life would all be over with.

Except Matthews said it would hurt. A lot.

“Is your car down in the lot?”

Blair nodded.

Jim pushed a button on the elevator. “Let’s head down there. We can talk some more.”

Blair wanted to believe that this was the day his life was going to turn around – for the better. But how could that be? “I can’t pay you,” he said again.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I have a lot of spare time these days.” Ellison’s voice held a grim irony. “For now, my priority is to get you safely home and make sure you’re all right.”

Ellison was going to take him home? Just like that?

He didn’t want Ellison to see his home. Especially since it didn’t even feel like a home. “No, you don’t need to do that.” He listened to the forced confidence in his own voice. “Just get me to my car and I can take myself home.” He finally made himself look up. “I’m fine now.”

Ellison’s expression was calculating, but still gentle. He snorted softly. “Sure you are. Don’t bother with that tough-guy act, Chief. If you passed out again behind the wheel and killed somebody, I’d be responsible.”

It was kind of Ellison to not mention how incongruous the big urine stain on his pants was while accusing him of trying to be a “tough guy”.

They emerged onto the first floor, Ellison striding ahead so that Blair could tuck in behind him, and hopefully most people entering wouldn’t notice that his crotch was wet.

He fantasized that Ellison was his hired sentinel, and that it would somehow make everything better.

They were at the parking lot. Ellison reached for Blair, taking a portion of his jacket between his fingertips. “Over here.”

Blair’s heart raced and he jerked his arm back. He stood frozen, thinking he should run.

Jim stood gazing at the wide eyes staring back him. All he had done was gently grasp Sandburg’s jacket. Sandburg had jerked his arm away, as though scalded.

He looked like he was preparing to run. Or throw up.

Jim slowly raised his hands. “Eeeeasy. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. I didn’t realize that touching you would bother you.” After all, the kid had had a death grip on his jacket when he’d been lying on the floor.

What was wrong with this guy?

Why was he getting involved?

Sandburg was trembling, but he jerked his head in the other direction. “My car is over here. I’d better go.”

“Please, let me drive you home. We can discuss what you need.”

Sandburg ran a shaky hand through his hair. “I already told you – I can’t pay you.”

“But you need help.”

The kid snorted. “Help always has a price tag attached.”

That was true enough. But it didn’t have to be. “There’s other ways of paying besides money.”

Sandburg gasped and turned – and then started running.

God, he hadn’t meant it like that.

Jim started after him, thinking he should just let this mental case go, but he wanted to apologize.

He kept his stride deliberately slow. He had no intention of catching up to Sandburg and then grabbing him – since that, too, was apparently off limits in this man’s world. “Sandburg, wait!”

Sandburg was at his car, and he swung around, stumbling backwards to the pavement. He held out his hands in a blocking gesture as Jim slowed before him. “I’ll yell for the cops! I’ll press charges.”

He looked so ridiculously impotent, sitting there on the ground with his hands up, a piss stain on his pants.

He was genuinely terrified.

Jim bent and rested his hands on his knees, hoping to appear less threatening. “I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry how it sounded. I just meant that maybe we could work something out – agreeable to both of us.” 

Sandburg didn’t move or reply, as though he couldn’t decide what to do next.

“Look,” Jim said with an amused snort, “you’ve got to realize how weird this is from my end. You say you need me for a bodyguard – and yet you’re scared to death of me.” Jim drew a breath. “Listen, pal, in order to get help, you’re going to have to trust somebody. Give me a chance here.”

He wondered again why he was even bothering. This was a major high-maintenance individual. And he wouldn’t be a source of income, anyway.

Sandburg closed his eyes and lowered his hands. Then he turned his back and drew his legs up to his body, wrapping his arms around his bent knees. His forehead lowered to his knees, his hair shielding his face.

After a long moment, he raggedly whispered, “I’m so tired. Tired of being afraid. Tired of trying to find reasons to keep going.”

Ah, damn. This guy looked too young to be having feelings like that.

He did indeed look tired. Exhausted. Incapable of making decisions for himself.

More quietly, Jim said, “Let me take you home. Someone can help you pick up your car later – or I can, if there’s no one else.”

Sandburg was silent and didn’t move.

Jim tried another enticement. “How about I take you to your place to change clothes, and then I’ll treat you to lunch and we’ll see if we can work something out to suit both our needs.”

“Thanks for being kind to me.”

The words were so soft that Jim wouldn’t have heard them if it wasn’t a sentinel.

Was kindness really so rare for this man? He seemed a likable enough guy. Decent looking. Just so damn skittish and scared.

Jim released a sigh. He had resisted his sentinel genes ever since they asserted themselves this past spring. He felt an automatic contrariness to everything anyone told him about what it meant to be a sentinel. But, dammit, he couldn’t deny the protective feeling that was already encompassing him, where this needful individual was concerned.

He wanted to believe that he’d feel protective under any circumstances toward a civilian whose life had been threatened. He had no way of knowing if that were true, for he could never again know what it meant to be “normal”.

The kid still hadn’t moved or responded.

“My truck is just over that way.” He gestured, though Sandburg wasn’t looking at him. “I’ll drive back over here and get you. All right?”

He took Sandburg’s silence to be agreement.

As he went to retrieve his SUV, he told himself that if Sandburg had run off in the meantime, then so be it. He was only going to put himself out so far.

Sandburg was still there, curled on in on himself. But when Jim drove up next to his car, the young man got to his feet and, with lowered head, got into the passenger seat, where Jim had placed a towel.

“Where do you live?” Jim asked, keeping his voice calm and quiet.

Sandburg’s gaze was still lowered. “Near Jefferson and Calloway.”

As Jim eased the truck forward, he was determined not to react. The apartments out that way were old and rundown, just one story, and usually with small buffet units.

“Are you employed?” he asked in a casual tone.

“I teach at Rainier University, where I’m a grad student.”

Jim was surprised. Young people who looked this down and out usually weren’t pursuing an advanced education. “Who is this person who threatened to kill you?”

“A former student. I flunked him.”

That could hardly be the whole story. “A death threat seems a rather extreme reaction.”

“He’s a psycho.”

“Did you report it to the police?”

“Not at the time. It scared me but I knew the cops couldn’t do anything if it was my word against his.” Sandburg finally looked up to gaze out the windshield. “Six months went by and I kept thinking maybe nothing was going to happen.” He swallowed loudly. “Then a dead rat was mailed to my office as a gift.” 

Jim watched Sandburg’s fist curl.

“I know it was him. I did call the cops but when they checked up on him, they found out he’d been in Europe the past ten days. He told me that he had friends that could take me out – and that it would hurt.” Sandburg’s voice trembled.

Jim felt he was finally starting to understand Blair’s skittishness. “When I spoke to you at the elevators, you thought I might be one of his friends?” After all, he’d probably come across rather harshly, since he was pissed off at being rejected by the Program. And he didn’t appreciate someone following him.

“No, no.” Sandburg waved his hands nervously. “If I’d thought that, I would have taken the fire escape down. There’s no way I would have come near you.”

Oh. Right. “Then, why did you, you know, have the panic attack?”

Silence. Then Blair said, “It’s this second building from the corner.”

Jim looked for a parking space. Yes, as he had feared, it was an old one-story building. The row of doors indicated that each individual apartment was very small.

They both got out of the truck. Blair turned toward him and didn’t quite meet his eye. “Please, wait here. I’ll just grab a super-quick shower.” He started up the sidewalk.

Jim felt reluctant to let this terrified man out of of sight. “Sandburg?” He waited until Blair paused and partially turned. “If someone’s after you, I need to see where you live. He probably knows where you live, too. I need to get an idea of how safe you are at home.”

Blair seemed frozen, at a loss as to what to do. 

More gently, Jim said, “I’ve been a police officer – a detective. I’ve seen all sorts of living situations.” He wasn’t sure if that was the assurance Sandburg needed.

Sandburg gulped, and then started walking. After just a few steps, he paused until Jim was beside him. He still seemed jittery as he unlocked the door that didn’t seem strong enough to withstand the determination of a small dog to get past it.

The smell of lead paint and decay greeted Jim’s ultra-sensitive nostrils. The scent of candles tried to cover the various food odors.

His ears picked up the sound of scurrying roaches.

It was indeed a buffet, the double bed with its thin mattress off to one side of the kitchen. There was virtually no living area., and the bathroom seemed little more than a closet, the smell of rust and mildew strong from the open door.

Blair pulled clothing from an ancient chest of drawers. Then he grabbed a towel – that was still damp from an earlier use – and headed to the tiny bathroom.


Blair turned and looked at Jim with tired eyes.

Jim indicated the apartment. “Can I look around? You know, get an idea of how someone could get in?”

Blair shrugged and nodded. Then he slipped into the bathroom and closed the door.

Jim mentally sighed as he realized that his presence was causing Blair to lock himself away in a bathroom barely large enough to hold a grown man – even a short grown man. Surely, Blair usually left the door open during his showers and other bathroom needs.

Jim felt only mildly guilty as he looked around the apartment, for he hadn’t been wholly truthful. He didn’t need to study various ways to get in, because it was so obvious. Anyone could break in the front door with minimal effort, and the one window over the kitchen sink wouldn’t take much pressure either.

What he really wanted was to do his own research and find out exactly who Sandburg was and why he was such a dichotomy. He moved toward the bed and found a small basket of various papers and documents. Some of the contents were magazines. Some looked like graded papers – all A’s. Then he found a diploma for Sandburg’s Master Degree in the field of anthropology.

Further digging revealed that some of the magazines contained articles written by Sandburg on various cultures, near and far. One article had a photo of Sandburg, with a bright smile and standing proudly with other students and a few members of some primitive-looking tribe.

Jim wasn’t finding answers – only more questions.

Granted, college students could be fairly poor, but how could someone as intelligent, articulate, and celebrated as Sandburg be living in such horrid conditions, and have the demeanor of one who’s life had already seen its best days?

Surely, a death threat wasn’t responsible for the man having become so downtrodden.

A part of Blair never wanted to come out of the shower, no matter how weak the spray and how claustrophobic he felt being in the tiny bathroom with the door closed.

Out there was a man who could probably snap his neck –one he had (sort of) invited into his home.

And Ellison seemed too eager to help.

What had he been thinking?

Maybe it was true what some said about sentinels. That it was in their nature to help the weak and the innocent. That’s why they were such naturals as body guards, security guards, and the like.

Still, they were human beings. Upon first meeting Ellison, Blair had collapsed and pissed his pants in raw fear. And then run away.

And yet Ellison was still here.

Blair fought back tears as the spray turned cold. He had to stop pushing people away. Especially those who were the most eager to help. 

Jim could protect him, if they could somehow work something out, though Blair had no idea how. Jim was big and strong and powerful. The very thing that Blair needed most right now.

Or was making himself vulnerable to that type of man the very thing he needed the least?

Jim made sure his back was turned when Sandburg emerged from the shower. The room was hardly big enough to dry off in, and he hoped Sandburg would take the opportunity to dry more thoroughly once he emerged.

Jim had reached one indisputable conclusion during his snooping. Looking out the kitchen window, his back still turned, he asked, “Do you have a lease?”

There were sounds of dressing. “It’s a month-to-month. Why?”

“This place is child’s play to break into. You’re a sitting duck. You can’t stay here. Besides, if I’m going to protect you, there has to be enough room for both of us.”

He listened to the stillness as Sandburg paused. Jim pressed, “I can’t protect you unless I’m with you constantly.”

He heard a breathlessness as Sandburg resumed dressing. “We haven’t agreed on anything yet. Besides, I can’t afford other digs.”

But Sandburg would love to move to somewhere better, safer, more livable. Jim was certain of it. “I’m just telling you that, if we agree to work together, you can’t keep living here.”

Sandburg actually sounded thoughtful, for once. “I don’t know what other options there are.”

Jim wondered how angry he’d be with himself later, when he was desperate to reclaim his privacy. “You can stay at my place. It’s located on the third floor. It’s clean. There’s plenty of room.”

He listened to Sandburg gulp as he shifted on the bed, probably to tie his shoes.

Then silence.

Jim turned around.

Blair was sitting on the bed, fully dressed, staring at the mattress.

Jim took a careful step forward and kept his voice as gentle as he could possibly make it. “Blair? I know this is all happening very fast. But I’m a professional when it comes to these things. I know what’s safe and what isn’t. I know you have no reason to trust me.” Jim slowly lowered himself to the floor beside the bed, trying to catch Sandburg’s eye. “But I also know you want and need help, and I’m willing to give it.”

Sandburg wouldn’t look at him, but he straightened and swallowed again, a pained expression overtaking his features. “I-I want to trust you. And it-it’s not that things are moving too fast.” He closed his eyes and choked out, “Something happened to me. It changed everything.”

Jim nodded, not daring to speak, hoping he could get this revelation behind them so he knew what he was dealing with. He wanted to reach out to Blair in comfort, but thought he’d better not. Instead he gently asked, “Can you tell me what happened?”

Blair kept his eyes closed and was very still. “The February before last, I was walking across campus at night. I had been at the library doing research, and my car was parked a few buildings away. I heard some guys behind me and didn’t think anything of it, because there’s always students around campus. My mind was on the paper I was writing.”

Blair went silent for a long moment. Then he said, “I suddenly noticed they seemed to be in a circle around me – six of them – and they were talking about me. Ethnic slurs and that sort of thing. I looked up and the one most directly in front of me was glaring at me.”

Jim realized that he might have had a similar look when he’d asked why Sandburg was following him as he’d waited for the elevator.

“I didn’t even know him. I didn’t know any of them. They were throwing out the slurs, and the next thing I know they’re on top of me, and I’m on the ground on my stomach and they’re pulling off my clothes….”

It was like a physical pain, watching the tears drip from beneath Sandburg’s closed eyes.

Blair drew a long, shaky breath. “It was like watching myself in a movie. I couldn’t believe it was happening. I didn’t know why it was happening. I just knew there was hate all around me and they were going to – ”

Jim shifted, on the verge of telling Blair to stop, but Sandburg continued, “I was completely naked and they were pulling my legs apart and one of them started to unzip his pants. Then there was some banging of trash cans, because some janitorial crew was trying to clear the alley next to the closest building. The guys suddenly scattered.” Now his voice hardened, “And I was left lying there, naked, my legs spread. I couldn’t move. And the janitorial guys found me. Like that.” Sandburg’s closed eyes squeezed tighter.

Jim was determined to remain calm and matter-of-fact. “Did you press charges?”

Blair’s eyes opened to stare at the mattress. “I didn’t even know who they were. Turned out, they’d done a lot worse things to other people, especially students, including murder. They were a white supremacy gang. There’s all kinds of trials they’re scheduled to appear in. If my attack ever even goes to trial – and there wouldn’t be any point if they get locked up for more serious crimes – it’ll be years.”

At least that awful gang was off the street, Jim thought.

More calmly, Blair said, “I’ve taken lots of psychology classes, done extra reading on PTSD and things like that. I understand all the natural reactions. The complete loss of personal safety. The fear of being touched – even affectionately.” He sniffed. “I’ve pushed everyone away from me, especially those who most wanted to help. I feel afraid all the time, even when I teach.”

“But you are teaching?” Jim pressed quietly.

Blair nodded. “But it’s all I can do to get by from one day to the next. I started seeing a good therapist – but she was expensive and I’m still making payments to her – and I felt things were getting better. But then she moved out of state and the threat was made against my life.” Blair was silent a moment, then murmured, “Some days I wish my life was over. I’m so tired of it all.” He suddenly looked up at Jim. “I’m a total loser. I’ve let that one incident take everything from me.”

Jim bristled. “Don’t ever call yourself that again. Ever. That’s the first step to believing in yourself again. I’m going to help you with the rest.” He tried a smile.

Blair’s brow furrowed. “Why do you want to help me? To even know me?”

Jim stood. It felt so natural to put his arm around Blair’s shoulders, but he restrained the impulse. “Let’s just say that I have a little bit of experience with being down and out. Having a responsibility, even if it isn’t in a paid capacity, will help me for the time being.”

Blair was looking up at him now, as though eager for the rest of the story.

Since Blair had revealed so much, Jim knew it was only fair that he do the same. “Come on, let’s get some lunch, and I’ll tell you what you need to know about me.”

How different Blair’s demeanor was, Jim realized, when his attention was focused away from himself. He seemed like a normal guy as Jim relayed his career history over lunch. Blair even looked Jim in the face.

“So,” Jim said with a sigh, wondering if he’d ever before revealed so much in a single conversation, “it was like I was this warped enigma. Nobody knew what to do with me. A sentinel whose senses didn’t appear until he was nearly in his forties is virtually unheard of, I guess. I didn’t have all those instincts that other sentinels have with how to live with their senses – how to prevent zone outs and such. People – especially my captain – tried to help, but ultimately things got political, and when the new commissioner took office, I received my letter of termination, due to my ‘condition.’”

Blair was shaking his head back and forth. “That so totally sucks. I can’t believe they can get away with treating a decorated employee like that.”

“They seemed to think I could walk into the Federal Sentinel Program and get trained and hired out like other sentinels. But the Program didn’t want me either, because they saw me as a bad apple, since the police department had dismissed me as ‘unfit’. It was a catch-22.”

Blair pushed away his clean plate. “I don’t know, Jim. I’m not sure that the Program would be good for you, anyway. I’ve helped during those training sessions for extra cash and – ” His eyes suddenly grew large.


“My paycheck!” Sandburg suddenly seemed to be in panic. “I was at the Program building to pick up my paycheck! Oh, God.” He brought his hands to his head. “I’ve got to have that money. I had a number but then I went up to the floor where you were to use the restroom.”

Jim wondered how a person could overact to every little thing. It had to be exhausting. He raised his hand over the table. “Settle down.”

“I can’t wait for them to mail it,” Blair said anxiously.

“We’ll go back. They’ll be open the rest of the afternoon. I’ll go with you. All right?”

Blair nodded and took a deep, deliberate breath.

To distract him, Jim said, “So, you’ve helped in the Sentinel program?” He resisted the urge to bristle.

“Only during the exam, because they need people acting as sentinel employers to put the sentinels through their paces. But Jim, those sentinels are like trained dogs. I mean, they’re really incredible, like when you say ‘Protect’ and they go into Protect mode. But I don’t see how a person with any dignity can let themselves be treated like that, no matter how much they’re paid.”

Jim was relieved. Maybe, despite their vast personality differences, he and Sandburg could find some common ground. Hesitantly, he said, “I admit that I’ve tried to avoid just about everything having to do learning more about what it means to be a sentinel. The first thing I found out is that people treat you differently. Anything they’ve read about sentinels in general is automatically their truth about you. They don’t allow for variations within individuals. Hence, nobody in the Department knowing what to do with me.”

Blair gazed at him for a long moment. “What did you mean about zone outs?”

It was an innocent question. And a subject Blair had a right to know about. “Sometimes, a sentinel can be focusing on one sense, and he gets ‘lost’ in it, so to speak. He needs a distraction – someone talking to him, or just grabbing him by the arm – to bring him out of it.” Jim shifted with discomfort. “I’ve had it happen to me a few times. I guess most sentinels learn when they’re in danger of a zone out, and they instinctively switch to a different sense.” He felt sheepish as he admitted, “I don’t have that instinct.”

Thoughtfully, Blair said, “So you need someone around you all the time.”

“Only if I’m using my senses.” Jim realized he was beating around an important topic. “Look, Chief, I need to be straight with you here. I can protect you and be a good bodyguard, because I have the military and police background. As a sentinel… I’m afraid you’re getting a pretty shoddy deal. I’m nothing like those hired types.”

Blair presented such a sincere smile that it made Jim smile back. Blair said, “I’m not paying fifty grand for you, either. Speaking of which….”

Jim held up a hand. “I’ve got some money put away. I can live on it until I figure out what to do for employment. You living with me isn’t going to increase expenses much, and it’s necessary if I’m going to protect you. In return, you can take care of keeping the apartment clean, doing laundry and dishes, and being considerate of my privacy. I’m used to living alone and I like peace and quiet. Do you cook?”

Blair nodded, “When I have the ingredients and a stove and oven that work.”

“All the better. I can pay for the groceries and you can cook dinner five nights a week. We can fend for ourselves for breakfast and lunch. Will that work for you?”

Blair lowered his gaze. Then he nodded.

Jim sighed inwardly. The skittish demeanor was back.

He drove Blair to pick up his paycheck. Now that Blair was his responsibility, he didn’t want him to take the Volvo and be driving alone. They went to the bank so Blair could cash his check, and then went back to his small apartment to get his things. Only a few boxes were needed.

Blair seemed introspective, so Jim put off his questions about the student who had threatened to kill Blair. That could come later. He did watch for evidence that they were being followed, which he highly doubted. Just the fact that Blair had moved – and it would take anyone watching a while to figure out where – would protect him for a while.

Blair had become increasingly uneasy as they drove to Jim’s place. Jim could understand how Blair’s world probably seemed turned upside down within a matter hours, but he had hoped the change would be considered a good one.

Maybe Sandburg was simply a man who found change difficult.

Finally, Jim pushed open the door to the loft and stood aside. 

Blair entered, and Jim realized he could detect trembling in the other man.

Jim indicated the pegs to the right of the door. “You can hang your jacket here and put your shoes beneath, if you want.”

Blair did and the shaking was more pronounced as he shed that layer of clothing.

Jim moved ahead of him. “There’s a little room here. There’s a futon that sleeps good.” He knew that because of the times an angry Carolyn had kicked him out of their bed. “I have some extra bedding. We can get a chest of drawers in the next few days, and maybe a little desk, if you’d like.”

Blair swallowed audibly and moved into the room. He stood before the futon and became still.

After a moment, Jim realized he could hear the frantic beating of Sandburg’s heart. He took a step closer and softly said, “Blair? Are you still afraid of me?” He didn’t understand why the man was here, if that were so. Or how Blair could be willing to have his back to him.

Blair’s shoulders slumped. “You’re so much stronger than I am,” he said in a strained voice. “Anything you wanted from me… I couldn’t stop you.”

That fear was there. So raw, so genuine. Yet, “You don’t believe I would do that. You wouldn’t be here.”

“I didn’t believe those six guys would do anything, either, when I heard them walking behind me.”

“Let’s clear up my side,” Jim said firmly. He didn’t know what else he could do, what other assurance he could offer. “I’m sorry for what I said in the parking lot today. Like I told you, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. I’ve been married… not that it worked out,” he added with a hint of wry humor. “There’s nothing I want from you. Except to help you.” 

More softly, he said, “I promise you, I’ll never touch you without asking your permission first, unless it’s to save your life. I’ll try not to startle you. If I get mad at you for some reason, I’ll try not to show it, but just tell you.”

Blair’s shoulders relaxed. “That’s more than fair,” he murmured. He slowly turned, his gaze still lowered even as he attempted to look up. “I’m sorry about everything today. My behavior. You’ve been a saint to put up with it and not walk away.” He grimaced. “I wish you could see the old me. I wasn’t always like this.”

“I’ll see the old you eventually. We’ll take care of this guy who’s trying to kill you, Sandburg. It may have given you a setback in your recovery from… the other thing… but you’ll bounce back.”

Blair nodded, though Jim didn’t think he believed it.

He remembered, so vividly, how Blair had clutched his arm, after he woke up from fainting. “Blair,” he said softly, “can I touch you?”

Blair hesitated and seemed puzzled. Then he nodded. 

Jim meant only to squeeze his shoulder. But Sandburg seemed to need so much more…

He wrapped his arms around him, pleasantly surprised that Blair let his head be pressed to Jim’s shoulder.

Jim rubbed slowly up and down Blair’s back, and was rewarded when Blair’s head grew heavier.

“I know how tired you are,” Jim whispered. “Let yourself rest a moment.” He kept the leisurely motion against Blair’s back. “We’ll get this situation figured out, and then you can have your life back.” 

Jim wasn’t prepared for the feelings that hit him when Blair’s hands wrapped around his waist, one reaching up to clutch the back of his shirt.

He realized he was cataloging the touch, noting how the fingers felt through the clothing, how Sandburg’s cheap aftershave smelled, how the strands of his hair whispered against his neck. The nervous breath that moved in and out.

He wanted, so much, to protect this man.

He grudgingly accepted that he was going to have to stop fighting these instincts. For instinct was the only explanation as to why he was so taken with Sandburg’s plight. Sure, he was one who had always wanted to help others. He’d just never wanted to get involved personally. If he weren’t a sentinel, he surely would have never invited Sandburg into his home, his refuge from the world.

“It’s going to be all right,” Jim said, relishing the sheer physical contact of their closeness.

“I’m actually starting to believe that.”


Finally, they parted, Jim giving Blair’s shoulder a final squeeze.

Blair looked bashful when he said, “Thanks… for that. It’s been so long since I’ve let anyone…..” He swallowed thickly, and then said with a snort, “I guess it’s sometimes easier to talk to strangers.”

Jim didn’t want him to feel self-conscious. “Yeah, I guess it is.” He turned away. “You’ve had a stressful day. I’ll get you some bedding and leave you to settle in.”

Blair lay awake later that night. He wished he could simply roll over and sleep, but it wasn’t going to happen in such an unfamiliar place.

He was in the home of a man so unlike himself. He couldn’t fathom Ellison’s willingness to help, sentinel or not, and to open his home to him when they were strangers to each other.

And then Ellison had hugged him. It had felt so good, so reassuring. It was as though somebody thought he was lovable. He knew, intellectually, that he was. But emotionally… that had been an elusive concept to grasp after what had happened to him.

He had felt a longing, earlier this week, for a sentinel to protect him. Now he had one, albeit a somewhat crippled one, per Jim’s own admission. He was surprised by how little that bothered him. Still, he wanted to go to the library tomorrow and check out some books on sentinels.

He couldn’t do that discreetly, he suddenly realized. Jim would be accompanying him. He hoped Jim wouldn’t be upset that Blair wanted to read up on sentinels, however general the information was. For that matter, he wondered what life would be like with Jim following him around. Would Jim guard him from inside the classroom or outside of it? Should he announce to everyone that Jim was “his sentinel”? He imagined himself feeling proud and strong for saying that. 

Blair mentally deflated. He should be able to walk proudly on his own two feet, without needing the presence of a sentinel to make him feel worthy.

The latter simply wasn’t going to happen – at least, not anytime soon. He wanted so much to believe Jim that he was on a track to getting better.

But would getting better – and taking care of Matthews – mean that he wouldn’t need Jim anymore? And then they would part ways?

That idea disturbed him. And not because he imagined himself being fearful once that threat on his life was removed.

He smiled inwardly when he recalled that Jim had given him a nickname. What had he called him a time or two? Chief?

Blair snorted with amusement at the idea of being a ‘chief’. Then he rolled over and curled onto his side. 

He hadn’t simply hired a pseudo sentinel in return for housework, he realized. He had made a new friend.

Feeling warm inside for the first time in a long time, he drifted into sleep.


Part Two

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