Hush, Little Baby... by Katef

Hush, Little Baby... - Katef

Part 1: New Mexico, April:

Hitching his battered backpack a little higher on his narrow shoulders, Blair Sandburg stepped off the school bus and began the long trek back up the narrow dirt road to his tiny cabin on the outskirts of the self-styled Reverend Jeremiah Pickering’s ‘Commune of Spiritual Equilibrium’.

Although not really interested in the Commune’s activities, since children weren’t welcome at the Main House, he did wonder occasionally what his Mom, Naomi, found to do there, but assumed that it would be simply a variation on a theme explored so many times over the preceding years.

He accepted the fact that his evergreen Hippie Mom was constantly on the lookout for new experiences and ‘true love’ wherever she could find it, and he was well-used to being uprooted on a regular basis to follow her in her quest for the ultimate goal of inner peace and love, wherever it took them, and totally unconcerned as to in which country the much-desired Nirvana should exist.

Shaking his head a little sadly at the thought, he knew that, even at the tender age of nearly twelve years old, such a goal was unrealistic, and he only wished Naomi would reach the same conclusion and decide to settle them both at long last in something resembling a real home.

Smiling ruefully to himself, he shook his head in reluctant acceptance of the unlikeliness of such a happening, and concentrated instead on the homework assignments he had been set.

In a peripatetic lifestyle, Blair found a constant in education, being extremely bright for his age, and eager to learn; using it as a buffer against the inevitable bullying and ridicule he was subjected to on a regular basis by his classmates, who sneered at his appearance and ‘weirdo’ Mom. Also, at any new school, since he was usually fast-tracked due to his brilliance; always testing out years ahead of his actual age; he had to contend with the jealousy of older, larger and less bright kids who frequently either tried to make his life a misery, or attempted to pick his brains by pushing him to do their assignments for them.

Just occasionally he would meet up with a sympathetic individual with whom he could form a real friendship, but, also inevitably, Naomi would up sticks in search of pastures new, so he was always leaving these few precious friends behind.

Shaking off such depressing thoughts in favour of happily contemplating the necessary research and probable format of the history and archaeology projects he had chosen, he was completely unaware of the greedy eyes which tracked his progress...........

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Meanwhile, up in the main house, Naomi and a group of fellow devotees were just completing a meditation session under the watchful eyes of Reverend Pickering.

Stretching her arms luxuriously over her head, Naomi relaxed and smiled serenely at her companions, gracefully uncoiling her slender and agile figure from the easy full lotus position in which she had been settled.

Accepting a helping hand from her beloved Jeremiah, she met his burning gaze with a seductive one of her own, glad to be singled out from the group for his individual attention on this occasion, knowing that her companions wouldn’t take offence, since the Reverend shared his time and passionate beliefs with all of them in turn.

Eagerly following the self-proclaimed guru to his private rooms, she knew that he would spend time helping her to ‘find herself’, offering physical and mental stimulation along with the inevitable drug-induced altered consciousness necessary for enlightenment, sure that this time she was on the right road to full spiritual understanding.

As she walked, she thought briefly of her son, wondering what he was up to, but, as usual, she dismissed any tinge of worry on his behalf, certain that he was completely capable of looking after himself, having brought him up to be independent from a very early age.

After all, hadn’t Jeremiah provided him with a delightful cabin some little distance from the main house, as he had with other devotees’ children?

Yes, she loved Blair in her own way, and had done her best to offer him a life of experience and travel, calling him a ‘child of the World’, and blissfully unaware that her gentle son longed for stability and a real home.

He was undoubtedly beautiful. Slender, small for his age, with the most amazing big blue eyes and dark auburn curls, she was both proud and a tiny bit jealous of her offspring.

Although she knew she was extremely attractive, and had no problem in forming attachments wherever she went, just occasionally she would discover that her new boyfriend would look at Blair with more than a little interest, which had happened in their most recent temporary home in a settlement in Goa.

She had thoroughly enjoyed the community’s relaxed and productive lifestyle and uplifting spiritual aura, and Blair had settled in well at first, quickly picking up the language and enjoying the learning experience, only to find that her latest partner had made a move on her son, which, truth be told, wasn’t the first time it had happened.

Furiously confronting the man, she had swiftly packed up their meagre belongings and fled back to the States, having heard about Reverend Pickering from a like-minded friend, and determined to explore a new avenue to peace and tranquillity.

Her wandering attention was quickly curbed at Jeremiah’s gentle enquiry.

“Naomi, my dear, is something troubling you? If there is anything you would like to tell me, I shall be only too pleased to listen and offer my advice and guidance.”

Falling completely under the influence of the mellifluous tones, Naomi smiled radiantly up at her latest hero, and replied, “It’s nothing, Jeremiah, but thank you for asking. I just had a thought that I haven’t seen Blair in a few days, but I’m sure he’s just fine. I’m so looking forward to our private therapy session.....” She took his offered hand, smiling winsomely and unaware of the swift grimace that crossed the Reverend’s features at her words.

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Unbeknownst to either Naomi or Blair, or, indeed, to any of the commune’s members, Reverend Pickering had a lucrative sideline far removed from his apparent desire to offer guidance and spiritual healing to his disciples. It was also the reason why the presence of children was actively encouraged, but kept out of sight – and intentionally, out of mind.

Some years previously, the then Joshua Parkinson, a successful senior sales representative for a well-known chain-store group, had discovered that his secret lust for young bodies was shared by many like-minded adults.

Having embraced the cult of the internet, he had been able to indulge his dark passion for studying pornographic and paedophile websites, finally growing bold enough to try to contact other addicts with a view to sampling such goods in the flesh.

On finding that it was easier than he had thought to enjoy and sell on the occasional child offering, usually picked up as unwanted or untraceable runaways at airports and rail yards, he determined to set up his own procurement site with the help of a nationwide network of ‘friends’, and was now a founder member of a select and very well-protected group of paedophiles, acting as a ‘talent spotter’ for the trafficking ring which procured fresh meat for discerning buyers.

Acting on the suggestion of one of his internet cronies, Joshua resigned from his job and changed his name to the Reverend Jeremiah Pickering, buying the isolated property in New Mexico with the money earned from the lucrative peddling of kidnapped children.

Setting himself up as a ‘spiritual healer’ had been easy, with word-of-mouth recommendation as well as a clever website, and he soon found himself in a position to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle financed by the generosity of his moonstruck followers, and also making a tidy profit on the side every time he provided a suitable child for his wealthier clients, whose number included politicians, doctors, successful businessmen and even members of the judiciary.

When he had been approached by Naomi, he had been only too pleased to discover that the attractive and gullible woman was accompanied by a deliciously tender morsel in the shape of her son Blair, at the sight of whom Jeremiah had instantly reacted in lust, needing all his self-control not to drool overtly at the vision before him.

Reluctantly realising that it would be far more lucrative to sell on the lovely child even if it meant he had to force himself to abstain from sampling the goods himself, Jeremiah gladly offered his home and services to his new disciple, along with a cosy cabin for her child, and alerted his network of prospective purchasers of his most recent find.

After a suitable space of time for the pair to settle in to their new lifestyle, during which Jeremiah and his fellow ‘spotters’ kept careful watch over Blair’s comings and goings, the moment arrived when Jeremiah deemed it propitious to complete the snatch and spirit the boy away to his eagerly expectant buyer.

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Back on the dirt track, and lost in contemplation of the upcoming homework assignments, Blair took little notice of the sound of a vehicle approaching from behind him, even though such occurrences were fairly rare on this isolated stretch of private road, assuming that it was one of the infrequent deliveries made to the main house.

Barely glancing up as the large van pulled up alongside him, he yelped in surprise when a beefy arm reached out from the open side door, gripping him around the waist, backpack and all, and dragging him into the dark interior.

Before he could utter another word, a sharp prick in his neck like a bee sting robbed him of consciousness, and he knew no more until he awoke many hours later and many miles away, lying naked and restrained on a thin pallet to begin a training regimen designed to strip him of his identity and personality as completely as of his clothing and meagre possessions.

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It was to be several more days before Naomi had the presence of mind to wonder why Blair hadn’t been to the house to collect produce and check whether she had errands for him to run in the nearby township.

Reluctantly prevailed upon to check out the cabin on her behalf, Reverend Pickering reported back with wholly convincing horror and concern that there was no trace of the boy, and that he appeared to have departed without leaving any message or clue as to where he had gone.

Deeply distrustful of the ‘pigs’ due to many unpleasant clashes in her past as a protestor and activist, Naomi was easily persuaded to forgo approaching the normal authorities in the search for her missing son, using the more clandestine but ultimately unsuccessful routes provided by her friends and acquaintances.

Eventually convinced that Blair was temporarily lost to her, but unwilling to believe that any harm had come to him, she comforted herself with the misguided belief that he had gone off ‘in search of himself’ as she herself had done, and that he would come back to her when he was ready, secure in her knowledge that she had done her best to prepare him for a life of independence and self-discovery.

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3 Years later, Cascade PD Briefing Room:

Detective Jim Ellison rubbed his forehead, trying vainly to alleviate the growing headache which threatened to distract him from the discussion going on around him.

As a fairly recent recruit to Cascade PD’s Vice unit, this was one of the biggest and potentially distressing cases he had been involved in thus far, although there was no way he wanted to be excluded from playing his part in shutting down a particularly virulent high profile but previously unassailable internet paedophile ring.

Controlling his spiking sense of hearing only with an enormous conscious effort, he tried to concentrate on his Captain’s words even as his headache threatened to grow to truly unbearable levels.

He was ruefully aware that he would get little sympathy from most of those present, because, even though they knew he was a true Sentinel: i.e. possessed of all five enhanced senses, mundane generally had little real understanding of or interest in what this normal genetic variation entailed.

Happy to utilise such gifted individuals in military or police departments, as well as other services for the good of the public, those in authority generally failed to consider the down-side of over-using heightened senses, which frequently manifested in sensory spikes, violent headaches and even the potentially lethal zone-outs, where some individuals concentrated so deeply on one sense that they could literally shut down, often in the most dangerous of circumstances.

If confronted with a problem, most would simply trot out the usual advice to ‘go get a Guide’; even though the role of said Guides was even less understood or appreciated.

It was simply ‘common knowledge’ that bonding with a Guide helped ground the Sentinel, who would then be free to use his or her talents much more effectively without the danger of zoning.

Never having met a suitable candidate for a Guide of his own, or even had much desire to bind himself permanently to another such person, up until now Jim had preferred to soldier on alone regardless, controlling his senses with increasing difficulty as time progressed.

However, he had recently reached the reluctant conclusion that he couldn’t stand to stay in Vice for much longer, finding it almost as much of a strain as his military career had turned out to be, for many similar reasons, mostly bound up with his severe physical responses to particularly gruesome and stressful situations.

Although no coward himself, he was aware that his idiosyncratic reactions were growing more and more uncontrollable, and, more importantly, even more likely to endanger his fellow officers under fire.

Ruefully considering that perhaps even a transfer to the Major Crimes Unit might be too much for him to tolerate, he found his mind wandering along the lines of seeking a job as a Forest Ranger or some such, where he could serve and protect out in the wilderness, far away from the unrelenting sights, sounds and smells of civilisation!

Forcing himself to concentrate on the present, he turned his attention to the front of the room where the Captain of the Vice Unit, Captain Sullivan, was introducing his fellow Captain from MCU, Simon Banks, whose department would be working with Vice as well as with the FBI in this instance to try and finally nail the exclusive, but elusive paedophile ring.

Gazing fixedly at the tall, dark-skinned African American Captain, Jim listened grimly to what the man had to say.

“Ladies and gentlemen. I know that this is one of the biggest combined operations we have organised for some years, but I know that all of you will agree with me that a successful outcome has the potential to save a lot of young lives. I also know that the Vice unit has been working hard to crack the operation for some time, and I have absolutely no wish to belittle your efforts, gentlemen. It’s simply that we are now in possession of additional information imparted to MCU by an anonymous, but normally reliable source, such that a tangible lead is now a real possibility. Since the ring is known to have members throughout the country, in many states, we also have FBI involvement...” Here he had to pause at the several groans of disgust from the floor, even as he offered a tiny, sardonic grin of his own in sympathy.

“Anyway,” he continued, “we appear to finally have a chance to track down one of the original members of the gang, and possibly catch him in the act of ‘training’ some of these unfortunate kids for selling on. Hopefully we will also gain enough information to go after other members, and perhaps even shut the ring down completely. Our source has fingered a brother and sister living in the depths of Cascade’s National Forest, who maintain an isolated homestead under almost ‘survivalist’ conditions, and we need someone with particular skills to enable us to spy on them undetected.”

Here he turned to deliberately lock gazes with Jim, who raised a quizzical eyebrow whilst maintaining an otherwise poker face.

Banks paused for a moment while he concentrated on the seemingly relaxed and self-contained figure sprawled almost insolently across from him.

Taking in the classically handsome face with ice blue eyes, tall, buff physique apparent even while seated, he also recognised the tiny signs of stress and pain around eyes and mouth probably undetectable to anyone other than one such as himself who was aware of Sentinel problems, particularly in those with no bonded Guide.

Knowing that the man had shown an interest in applying for a position in his department, Banks thought to himself that, even though he liked what he had heard of Ellison’s success rate so far, he would bide his time and keep his own council until he saw firsthand how the Sentinel acted in the field.

Getting his thoughts quickly back on track, he addressed Jim directly.

“Detective Ellison. I am aware of your gifts in terms of heightened senses, and also of your reputation as a field operative both in the Rangers and with the PD. We need you to maintain a strict surveillance on this pair, although it will mean a couple of pretty uncomfortable days’ bivouacking in the forest, which I’m sure won’t be a problem for you in itself. What may turn out to be more problematical however is the effect such isolation and concentrated effort could have on you as regards your senses. Do you think you’ll be up to coping with the situation?” He kept up his level and appraising stare, hoping that the man wouldn’t let him down.

Jaw clenched in barely-controlled irritation at the comment, Jim suddenly realised that Banks was genuinely concerned for him, at least in so far as it impinged on the success of the upcoming operation, and responded with reluctant admiration for the man’s sensitivity.

“Yes, Captain. I can do it. No problem!”

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Cascade National Forest:

A mere two days later found Jim driving alone to a carefully selected vantage point in the thick woodland overlooking the small but well-camouflaged settlement where the suspected perpetrators lived.

Far enough away to avoid the farmstead’s high quality security systems, he settled down to begin his surveillance using the wire attached to his jacket simply as a means to relay his information to his backup located some distance away.

As he got into a comfortable position, he was able to zero in on the dimly lit kitchen window, barely visible to the normal eye in the cold pre-dawn murk.

Frowning in consternation, he was bemused and then horrified to note the appearance of a young boy.

Solemn-faced and hunched over in what appeared to be habitual nervousness, Blair, for that was who it was, moved carefully and quietly about the kitchen doing his allotted chores, cleaning and preparing meals for his so-called ‘foster parents’.

Jim found himself completely enthralled at the sight, grinding his teeth in frustration as he continued his observation as the day progressed.

Although always ready and willing to rescue unfortunates in similar circumstances, he found himself desperate to snatch this particular boy away from his captivity and take him back to his home turf – and where the Hell did that notion come from?

He was certain that he had never before had the urge to actually care for a particular victim himself. Why was that?

Later he would believe that it was his subconscious instinctive need to protect his future Guide, but at the time he was completely unable to rationalise his automatic responses or his compulsion to protect the boy at all costs.

Physically, the boy appeared to be about twelve or thirteen in Jim’s initial estimation, even though he was actually just turned fifteen.

Unruly curls falling over his face in a deliberate attempt to hide from whomever entered the kitchen; he hunched his thin shoulders in cringing submission as he meekly carried out his tasks.

Almost growling in anger, Jim continued to watch, wanting – no, NEEDING – to study the boy minutely, certain within his own mind that the kid was beautiful, and finally rewarded when the boy briefly glanced up in relief as the heavy-set man hovering over him left the room.

Jim found himself enthralled by the glimpse of enormous blue eyes fringed with obscenely long, thick dark lashes.

The pale, thin face was almost too pretty for a boy, having high-cheekbones, a neat, tip-tilted nose and the most lushly inviting lips Jim had ever seen in years on anyone of either sex.

However, the brief glimpse also revealed a deep sadness and fearful shadows lurking in the blue depths, while the boy chewed his lower lip in what appeared to be a nervous habitual response.

Although Jim could easily detect a film of moisture in the gorgeous eyes, no tears fell as, with a deep sigh of resignation, the youngster turned back to the stove to continue cooking the family’s breakfast.

From his vantage point, Jim also noted the shabby clothing covering the thin frame.

The kid seemed to be wearing nothing on his lower body but an ancient pair of jeans, faded and torn, and too short by several inches, suggesting that the boy had long outgrown them.

The fact that they obviously still fastened up around the skinny waist was testament to the lack of meat on the slight frame, whilst his upper body was draped with an old and faded over-large knit sweater; its wide neckline hanging off over one thin shoulder, and the sleeves rolled up several times to free expressive hands and thin forearms to perform their tasks.

Jim found himself mesmerised by the long, elegant neck even as he made a conscious decision that there was something so compelling about this scruffy scrap of humanity that he was determined to do his utmost not only to rescue the boy, but also to take a positive stance in securing for him a safe and productive future; one in which he had every intention of playing a major role.

His final observation regarding the boy’s apparel was almost enough to make him leap to his feet in helpless fury as he noted the length of sturdy chain attached to ankle cuffs; long enough to allow restricted movement around the confines of the kitchen and immediate locality of the house, but plainly intended as an effective hobble against any attempt to escape!

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Realising that the boy was going to be occupied for some time, Jim reluctantly dragged his attention back to the other occupants of the farmhouse, concentrating on their activities, and desperate to gather enough evidence - and soon! – in order to shut down their obscene business and rescue the boy, whose safety was rapidly getting to be of paramount importance to the Sentinel.

Tracking the big man he had identified as one Nathaniel Barker; joint owner of the property with his sister, Rebecca, he followed the suspect’s progress to a locked ground floor office-cum-den, where his enhanced sight enabled him to watch and record the man’s log-in to an expensive and top-of-the-range PC.

Carefully noting and repeating every movement and keystroke for the benefit of his backup, Jim was gratified to find that he was able to confirm every password and URL the perp used in order to access the paedophile webpage, and begin his ‘chat’ with other users.

Maintaining his coldly professional and efficient demeanour only with a concentrated effort, Jim repeated word-for-word the content of the ‘chat’ that followed, refusing to let his emotions interfere with the case.

He learned that apparently Nate was expecting another ‘consignment’ of fresh goods in need of ‘ripening’ and ‘storage’ – (read ‘training’ and ‘captivity’) to be delivered the following day, and already paid for in advance by select prospective purchasers.

The consignment consisted of three items, of which Jim had no difficulty in discerning that two were boys – (described as ‘bucks’) and one was a girl - (‘doe’).

Nate’s correspondent was ‘sure that Nate could produce a final product up to his usual high standards!’

The chat page ended with arranging a drop-off (delivery time) at the usual ‘pick-up point’ but with no additional coordinates or tell-tale location mentioned.

Frustrated at the lack of specific information regarding the delivery, Jim was forced to advise his fellow officers that they would have to tail Nate when he left in the morning in order to catch him in the act, so to speak.

At that point, he was assured that a ‘tail’ would be set up immediately to follow the perp the instant that he left his property the next morning.

Once Nate had logged off, he locked up the office and returned to the kitchen, where his hard-faced sister ‘Miz Becca’ had arrived, and was overseeing Blair’s breakfast preparations; arms akimbo and frown fixed firmly in place.

Jim clenched his jaw as he witnessed the bitch snapping irritably at the boy, shoving him aside as he placed their meals on the table.

Sinking to his knees beside Nate’s chair, head down and hands clasped between his thighs, the boy waited meekly for them to begin to eat.

Over the next few minutes, Jim was forced to witness what was apparently the normal procedure, grinding his teeth in fury and frustration at his current impotence.

The hulking, mouth-breathing ‘being’, who Jim had catalogued as ‘thug’, aka Nate, ate with gusto, but occasionally passing morsels of food or crusts to the boy to take from his hands.

Once brother and sister had finished their meals, they scraped the left-overs onto one plate and placed it on the floor for Blair to finish, almost as if he were a pet dog.

Once the meal was done, Blair carefully rose to his feet and moved to the sink unit to begin the washing up, trying to avoid contact with his ‘foster parents’, and keeping his eyes averted.

Having dealt with the clean-up, the boy shuffled out after Nate to begin his outside chores which today entailed feeding the pigs and chickens and tending the vegetable patch.

Jim was quick to note the minute change in the boy’s demeanour once Nate had temporarily left the vicinity.

For a handful of precious moments, the boy relaxed infinitesimally, freed from the scrutiny of his captors, but unable to take advantage of the oversight due to the ever-present hobbles.

For the remainder of the day, Jim remained in place, snatching occasional drinks and only moving from his position when he needed to find a tree!

Having assured Captain Sullivan that he was prepared to maintain his watch, despite Sullivan’s insistence that he snatched a couple of hours’ sleep while two other officers covered for him, it was around midnight when all was quiet in the house, and the two other officers crept up to his hidey-hole.

Reluctantly accepting that Sullivan needed him fully alert and functioning the following morning, and desperately fighting off the headache from Hell due to having kept his senses at high alert over such an extended period, Jim accepted the inevitable and agreed to grab a few hours of necessary sleep.

Despite his apparent submission, however, he was grimly aware that a Guide could have made the effort so much easier with touch and support, so it was with no little aggravation that he handed over the watch to two of his fellow officers, who promised that their technology would be at least sufficient to cover the night watch.

Desperately needing to believe that his colleagues’ assertions were true, Jim rolled himself up in the sleeping bag in his bivouac tent and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep almost as his head hit the pillow, thus missing the soft sounds which would have alerted him to Nate’s stealthy approach to the small cot where Blair lay, to force himself on the boy as was his wont, and not hearing the muffled sobs which followed the bastard’s stealthy but smugly satisfied departure to his own bed.....!

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Huddled on the lumpy mattress in the understairs cubby-hole that served as his bedroom, Blair lay still for long moments, muffling his sobs with his battered and grubby pillow, and waiting until he was sure that Nate was back in his own room.

Shakily sitting up on his pallet, he moved furtively by the meagre light of the small nightlight left burning in the kitchen – not for his benefit, to be sure, but to aid Nate during his nocturnal forays.

Blair stiffly pulled the threadbare, oversized shirt – one of Nate’s cast-offs which served as his night attire – up and off his trembling body, and crept silently to the pitcher of water and chipped china basin on his rickety nightstand, which comprised his normal bathing facilities.

Dipping a piece of fairly clean rag into the cold water, he cleaned himself up as best he could, careful not to inflict further damage on his already sore anus and buttocks, and biting down on his lower lip against the hiss of pain which threatened to escape as he washed the tender areas.

Cleanup done, he carefully pulled the ancient shirt back on, and lay down on his pallet, automatically adjusting his position to accommodate both his sore areas and the ever-present hobble around his ankles.

Staring up at the low ceiling above his head, he thought back over the last couple of years – actually almost three now – since his capture, unable to prevent the vicious memories assailing him as he lay in the near-darkness, hurting yet again and feeling as if his very soul was coated with an evil slime which he would never be able to wash away.

Despite desperate efforts to recall happier times with which to lull himself to sleep, as usual his troubled thoughts turned inevitably to the moment of his capture and the hell his life had become since then.

He was able to recall vividly the day he was snatched; how he had enjoyed school, blessedly free from bullying for once, and able to submerge himself in his favourite subjects of cultural anthropology and archaeology. Happy with the homework assignments he had been set, he knew he had been concentrating on those when he was grabbed, and remembered his terror and shock right up to the point where the powerful sedative had been injected into his neck – the ‘bee sting’ of his last conscious thought.

With silent tears leaking from the corners of his eyes, he remembered again how he had finally awoken, disorientated, naked and nauseous on a pallet very like this one, in a bare, windowless room he would later find out was the basement of this very farmhouse, owned by the couple he now knew – and loathed - as Uncle Nate and Miz Becca.

No longer bothering to try and derail his morbid train of thought, knowing that the effort was always futile, he resigned himself to replay the sequence of events following his waking, and recalled once again finding himself not alone in the cold room.

With a sigh which was part sorrow, part sympathy, he reminisced about the two other boys who had been in the same room, also naked and chained to their pallets by a cuff around an ankle.

As he had struggled to raise his aching head, the older and taller boy – a handsome African American of around eleven or twelve years with graceful, athletic limbs but a truculent attitude, had sneered

“Hey, white boy! What your name, huh? You know what they be goin’ to do with you, huh? Gonna make you real nice an’ quiet so’s you c’n keep your new Daddy happy. Not goin’ to happen to this boy, tho’! I’m not havin’ any pervy Daddy feelin’ me up! Bet you won’t be able to fight ‘em, though. You look real girly.”

Fighting his headache and swallowing hard against the bile threatening to spill from his mouth, Blair had croaked, “M m m my name’s Blair. I don’t know wh wh what you mean. Where are we?”

Instinctively knowing that the other boy’s natural aggression was being fuelled by fear, he didn’t want to alienate the other so soon.

“Blair, huh? Wos right! You are a girly! But it don’t matter. You’ll get another name anyhow. My real name’s Clyde, ‘n his is Liam,” he nodded at the third boy on the pallet furthest away from Blair.

Carefully raising his head to look across at the other boy, he saw a small, delicately built child of around six to seven years old. The pale face was angelically pretty, with a Cupid’s bow mouth, large blue eyes – very like his own if he did but know it – and surrounded by white-blonde curls.

Smiling tentatively at the boy, Blair said gently, “Hi, Liam. Are you OK?”

As the solemn gaze turned towards him, he noted the emptiness in the youngster’s eyes, even as Clyde explained, “He don’t say nothin’ now. Talked a blue streak when we got here a couple weeks ago, but he’s given up on it now. I reckon his new Daddy’s comin’ to fetch him soon.”

Before Blair could respond, however, the door flew open and two big men entered, one of whom marched over to Clyde.

The man he now knew as Uncle Nate had slapped Clyde hard across the face, snarling, “You shut your mouth, black bitch! If you don’t learn your manners soon, you’ll get what’s coming to you! I don’t need mouthy kids upsetting my buyers!”

Turning his back on the boy, who lay snivelling on his pallet, cradling his sore cheek in his hand, the man turned to address his companion.

In a much more moderated tone he said, “Here you are, Charles. Isn’t he gorgeous?” He indicated Liam. “Fully trained and amenable, and just waiting for your approval.”

“Indeed he is,” agreed the other man. “But what about him? Is he also for sale?” He leered at Blair, who cowered back on his own pallet.

“In due course, I expect, but he only arrived last night, and has yet to be assessed. If and when he’s ready, I’ll put him in the catalogue. But for now, are you happy with your purchase?” He looked back from Liam to his companion.

“Surely, Mr Barker. You’ve always done right by me so far, so I have no reason to believe this precious one will be anything but perfect for as long as I want him. Good retail value also, I dare say. But I should be very interested in the progress of your new boy,” he added, with a sidelong glance at Blair.

“Why certainly, my friend,” replied Nate with a smirk. “But we’ll just have to see how he responds. Sometimes the most promising ones turn out to be duds.” He turned to glare at Clyde.

Less than ten minutes later, deal apparently completed, Liam was led out of the room on a short leash, and that was the last Blair ever heard of him.

The next day, Clyde also disappeared, but Blair always believed that his removal was of a more permanent nature.

Although he never had any tangible proof, over the coming years several such belligerent and intractable kids seemed to be spirited away, never to return, which worked extremely successfully as a deterrent to Blair whenever he had the notion to rebel.

As for Blair himself, it turned out that Nate had had a serious case of possessive lust from the outset as far as he was concerned, so had never put Blair on the open market.

Paying what was probably over the odds to the syndicate for the privilege, for better or worse Nate had decided to keep Blair to himself, training him to suit his particular needs, and prepared to hold on to him for as long as his interest lasted or Blair outgrew his pre-pubescent attraction.

Renamed Benny, Blair had had little time to ponder on Clyde’s fate, or even Liam’s for some time, as he was sucked into a brutal training regime that occupied all his attention for the next few weeks, and set him up as Nate’s child fuck-toy and house-slave for the foreseeable future.

As Blair turned onto his side, hoping for the onset of desperately needed sleep, one further series of memories assaulted him.

A few months into his captivity, and having worked hard to please his new ‘Daddy’ and allay his suspicions, Blair finally saw an opportunity for escape.

Toiling in the vegetable garden, his demeanour suggesting that he was completely cowed and obedient, he was left unattended for a few vital moments, and took the chance to run for the nearby forest cover.

However, his bid for freedom was short-lived, thanks to unseen trip wires and alarms strung across the farmstead’s boundary, and he was easily recaptured by a furious Uncle Nate and Miz Becca.

He still cringed at the memory of the violent spanking and thrashing he had received from both of them, and he was aware that his back, buttocks and thighs still bore the scars from Nate’s heavy leather belt even after all this time.

The injuries had been so severe that Blair had been unable to rise from his pallet for several days, nursed dispassionately but reluctantly by Miz Becca as necessary.

The hobble became a permanent fixture immediately after, and he had never again flirted with the idea of escape.

--------------------

Cascade Forest, following morning:

After a few hours of much needed sleep, Jim awoke, feeling refreshed and eager to get on with the coming operation.

Joining his colleagues, he immediately asked for an update on the activity in the target’s farmhouse.

Confidently assuring him that everything had been quiet, since they had been unable to detect the nocturnal abuse due to their surveillance equipment being simply not sensitive enough to make such minute observations, Jim had to be satisfied that nothing drastic had happened, such as comings and goings between buildings and any loud altercations or phone calls.

Resuming his watch after bidding goodbye to the other officers, Jim settled down once more, needing to advise the waiting team the moment Nate left the building to collect his ‘consignment’.

Eyes drawn as if by a magnet to the kitchen window, Jim inhaled sharply at the vision of the young boy, moving somewhat tentatively this morning, going about the business of preparing breakfast.

He was deeply concerned at the obvious stiffness in the boy’s actions, and the occasional glimpse of red-rimmed and puffy eyes as he wiped at his face with a grubby sleeve.

However, his attention was immediately distracted by the sound of a telephone ringing, so he dialled up his hearing to listen in to something that made his blood feel as if it was freezing in his veins.

As Nate picked up the handset in his office, Jim was easily able to hear an unidentified caller telling Nate of the upcoming trap.

Even as the furious and terrified man leapt to his feet, Jim was relaying his information to the operation HQ.

Maintaining his observation of the frantic perp, Jim heard him calling out to Miz Becca to hide the files in the underfloor strongbox, and to delete all records from the PC.

Even as he repeated the man’s instructions to his colleagues, he homed in on Nate’s next words where he grated out that he was ‘going to get rid of the other evidence!’

Ignoring the wire as unimportant for the time being, Jim leapt to his feet as he saw Nate grab Blair and haul him out of the kitchen, forcing him to stumble along as fast as the constricting hobble would allow.

Racing down from his lookout post and skirting around the property boundary, Jim knew instinctively what Nate had in mind, and had already noted the gun clasped in the thug’s free hand.

Below him, Blair staggered alongside Nate, stride compromised by the hobbles and whimpering out loud at the cruel hand gripping the scruff of his ancient sweater, also trapping a handful of curls.

Vainly trying to use his hands to relieve the pressure as the material bunched up under his armpits, Blair struggled to prevent Nate’s cruel grip from pulling out handfuls of hair from his aching scalp.

Thrusting into the encroaching forest edge, Jim increased his speed as he tracked the pair brushing through the undergrowth, spurred on by the boy’s increasingly frantic pleas.

“No, please sir! Please! I promise I won’t tell! Please don’t kill me! Please, Uncle Nate! Please! I’ll be good – I’ll hide, I will! I’ll keep out of sight! I won’t tell....!”

“Shut up, Benny!” snarled the thug in response. “Just ‘cos you’re the best bit of tail I’ve enjoyed in years don’t mean I can afford to let you live. I can’t have you betray me ‘n Becca. You’re evidence, kid, and I don’t need no adverse testimony. No live witnesses! You’ll go down with the rest, Benny, but for you, I’ll make it quick, OK? Behave yourself and you won’t suffer!”

Putting on a superhuman burst of speed, Jim reached the treeline and swiftly but silently closed the gap between him and his prey.

Flattening himself behind a large pine trunk, gun at the ready, he forced himself to peer carefully around his shelter as the pair halted before a narrow, deep but well-camouflaged gorge in the thickly wooded area in front of him.

Hearing the rushing of a fast stream far below, he knew instinctively that this was the prospective end of the line for the terrified boy.

Even as Nate yanked the sobbing kid toward the lip of the chasm, he slid quickly around the side of the tree and took careful aim.

Not wanting the perp to throw the boy down the gorge whether by accident or design at the sight of his weapon, he knew he had only one chance, and he took it.

“Cascade PD! Freeze!”

Nearly jumping out of his skin in shock, Nate swung around to face his challenger, still gripping Blair tightly by the scruff, and wavering indecisively for a fraction too long between covering the cop or the boy with his semi-auto Beretta.

That moment of indecision cost him his life as Jim, with no compunction or mercy whatsoever, shot him cleanly between the eyes, moving forwards towards the boy even as his captor flew backwards, eyes already frozen in furious surprise as he fell flat on his back, the instinctive death grip on Blair yanking him back also to fall onto the corpse, screaming in terror and shocked almost beyond belief and sanity.

Jim closed the distance between them, gun still at the ready even though he had heard the downed man’s heart cease to beat, and the smell of urine and faeces released in extremis testified to the departure of the spirit.

Approaching close enough to kick the Beretta away, he turned his full attention on the sobbing boy, the need to comfort and protect far exceeding anything he’d ever felt before under any similar circumstances.

As for Blair, after long moments almost frozen in shock, he finally batted at the hand still clutching at him in its death grip, fighting to disentangle his hair and sweater even as he whimpered wordlessly in utter horror.

Shoving his way clear of the corpse, he scrabbled frantically away on hands and knees to pull himself into a tiny ball next to a moss-covered rock pile much too near to the lip of the chasm for Jim’s peace of mind.

Desperately trying to make himself one with the landscape, Blair rocked back and forth in panic as he clutched the back of his head, fingers clawed in stress and forehead pressed against his updrawn knees.

Keeping his movements slow and restrained, Jim put away his service pistol and closed in on the trembling bundle, murmuring softly in an attempt to calm the frantic rocking and whimpering.

Once close enough to touch the boy, Jim reached out a steadying hand to grip a narrow shoulder, only for the kid to screech in terror, throwing himself away from the intruding touch and only prevented from tumbling down into the gorge by Jim’s swift reactions.

Horrified at the boy’s terrified response, Jim quickly reached out, grabbing the thin figure before it could teeter over the lip, and wrapping his powerful arms around Blair’s waist, hauling him close, the boy’s back to his chest.

Pinning the flailing arms to the kid’s sides in his encircling grasp, Jim swung them both around and away from the ravine’s edge.

Holding tightly as the sobbing youngster screamed and writhed in his hold, frantically kicking legs nailing his shins more than once, he tried to get through to his wriggling captive by murmuring softly

“Whoa there, steady, kiddo! No one’s going to hurt you! Come on, now, quiet down!”

However, as the boy’s struggles grew even more panicked, he resorted to barking out a command in his most authoritarian military tone.

“ENOUGH! Be STILL! STOP THAT right NOW!”

The effect was instantaneous as his weeping captive went limp in his grasp, although still shaking noticeably in deep distress.

Continuing much more gently, Jim said, “OK now, kiddo. Listen up. I’m not going to hurt you, and I’ll put you down if you promise to keep still and not try to escape. You can’t run far with that hobble on you anyhow. You going to behave?”

At the tiny nod of acquiescence, accompanied by several loud snuffles, he gently released his hold and lowered the boy to his feet, where he stood meekly, head down and quickly trying to wipe his face clean of snot and tears with the sleeve of his filthy sweater.

Carefully moving around in front of the kid, Jim reached out and gently raised the downcast face with a finger under Blair’s chin, saddened by the instinctive flinch the action engendered and dismayed as the boy whimpered, pleading softly, “Please Mister. Please d d don’t hurt me! I can be really good, Sir, I p p promise! I I’ve been well-trained, Sir!”

“Hey now, none of that, little one! I’m not here to hurt you, Benny. Look, my name’s Jim. I’m a detective with Cascade PD. We’re here to take down that bastard and his sister,” he continued, jerking his chin towards the spread-eagled corpse.

“You’re safe now, Benny. I’m going to make sure of it!” he finished with conviction.

For long moments, huge, red-rimmed blue eyes held his, then the boy sighed deeply and relaxed a little.

“Blair. Not Benny. My real name’s Blair,” he whispered, before continuing more strongly. “I never wanted to be called Benny......” He dropped his head again, waiting with shoulders slumped in submission for the punishment he was sure he would receive for his small act of defiance.

Heart going out to the despondent youngster, Jim carefully reached out and grasped a thin upper arm while he fished out his gold shield with the other hand.

“Here, Blair,” he said gently, flipping open the leather case. “Take a look. I’ve no intention of hurting you. Do you believe me?” he finished, desperately needing the boy’s approval even if he didn’t really understand why.

Raising his eyes again to meet Jim’s, and totally unaware of the impression his tear-streaked and dirt-smeared little face was having on the big detective, he sniffled again, wondering if he dare believe that after all this time a man really could want to help rather than abuse him.

As the adrenalin rush faded, and shuddering weariness rapidly threatened to overtake his weakened body, he gave up the struggle and made his choice, trusting that the detective would at least not hurt him immediately.

Decision made, he gave himself up to his exhaustion and swayed forward, knees buckling as he dropped soundlessly into Jim’s waiting arms.

As for Jim, he had spotted immediately the instant a blossoming of fragile hope appeared in the dark blue orbs, and was ready and willing to scoop up the skinny body, tucking the lolling curly head into his shoulder, and, with a final angry glance back at Nate’s cooling corpse, turned back towards the farmstead, carrying his precious burden and suddenly aware that his senses had never felt better......!

----------------------------

Part 2: “Don’t You Cry….”

As Jim strode into the farmyard, clutching his armful of sleeping Guide, even if neither of them truly realised it then, he looked around at the other officers and Forensic personnel who swarmed purposefully around the yard and in the house and surrounding outbuildings.

Spotting Captains Sullivan and Banks who were just emerging from the farmhouse deep in conversation, and preceding the sullen and handcuffed Rebecca Barker, he marched up to them to offer a succinct report.

“Captain, Sir,” he began, nodding to each in turn and assuming his best military stance. “I have to report the death of Nathaniel Barker. I was forced to use extreme prejudice in order to prevent his murdering this boy.” He glanced down at the curly head nestled beneath his chin.

“The body is approximately a quarter of a mile up beyond the treeline,” he continued coldly, indicating the direction from whence he had come. “But it would probably be a good idea to take cadaver dogs and a Forensic team up there also. I left the body beside a deep but narrow natural ravine, and I’m pretty sure you’ll find the bodies of his other victims down there.”

Ignoring the horrified gasp from the woman behind them, Captain Sullivan met Jim’s gaze with a hard but sympathetic look of his own.

“Alright, Ellison. I’ll be needing your report ASAP and your weapon also until IA finish up their report, but I, for one, doubt they’ll find the shoot anything but righteous. Pity the bastard’s not going to be able to give us anything though. Whatever! I’ll get a team up there right now, and suggest you hand that boy over to the paramedics to check over before we decide what to do with him.”

And he nodded decisively, half turning to speak to Simon Banks when he was somewhat taken aback as his detective responded.

“Sir! Permission to take the boy to Cascade ER, Sir! I think he’s in need of medical assistance, and is a likely material witness. I should like to be assigned as his official guard, Sir!”

Head tilted to one side, Captain Sullivan regarded his officer with a frowning gaze.

“I understand your wish to protect ‘Sentinel’, but could it be that your request is fuelled by something else? And no, I’m certainly not suggesting you have any ill intentions towards the lad. I just want to make an informed decision.”

For a second, Jim was thrown into confusion, and turned his head away for a second in frowning contemplation.

Finally deciding that honesty was the best policy with his Captain, he replied, “I don’t know Sir. I can’t give you a definitive answer when I don’t understand myself where this compulsion is coming from. I only know that I have to protect this kid, and I am prepared to that to the best of my ability. Permission to proceed, Sir?”

Pausing a few moments longer, and noting the minute nod of approval from Simon Banks, Sullivan sighed before saying, “OK, Ellison. Take the boy, and keep a watch on him. You’re right – he will be a material witness if he can be persuaded to speak, so he should have round-the-clock protection. But where we’ll put him once he’s discharged, well, we’ll have to see.”

Realising that this was as good as he was going to get for now, Jim replied, “Thank you, sir. I’ll go right away.” Nodding to his superior officers, he strode off towards the ambulance, reluctantly handing over his charge to their care, but insistent that he would be accompanying the boy to ER.

------------------------

Cascade General Hospital:

Several hours later found Jim sitting quietly beside the bed in a private room where the boy continued to sleep heavily.

Having slept through the initial examination in the ER, and all the way through the process of his admission to the private room, Blair seemed to have been overtaken by an exhaustion so deep, both physical and mental, that he had finally given in to his body’s needs, and, perhaps subconsciously knowing that he was in safe hands, let himself sink into the healing depths.

Initially worried by the boy’s torpor, Jim had eventually realised that there were no worrying indications in the lad’s vital signs, and so concentrated merely on cataloguing the youngster’s breathing and heartbeat, hoping that when he awoke, Blair would be much calmer and more able to cope with the previous hours’ events and the fact that he was now free.

However, shaking his head at the naivety of the concept, he grinned sardonically to himself as he pictured a much more realistic sequence of events.

At the very least, Jim could envisage some serious counselling in the kid’s future!

What he did know, to the depths of his soul, was that there was no way he could give up this boy without a fight, and that he wanted to be there all the way during the youngster’s recovery and rehabilitation.

Yes, the lad was beautiful, but Jim had no intention of compounding a wrong by forcing himself on such a tender soul.

He hated paedophiles to the depth of his being, believing that their ghastly predilection for juvenile flesh took no account of the mental and physical damage meted out on their immature bodies and souls.

OK, he had no problem with homosexual love, - although he kept that quiet within the department - but only between consenting adults, and definitely NOT including the use of minors.

Sighing again at his train of thought, he was only marginally surprised when Captain Sullivan poked his head round the door and indicated that he wanted to speak.

Knowing that he would be able to hear the moment Blair started to awaken; Jim slipped quietly from his seat and followed his superior officer to the chairs in the nearby waiting area.

Keeping his voice low, Sullivan first enquired as to Blair’s condition.

Appreciating his Captain’s concern, Jim explained what the duty doctor had been persuaded to tell him, having been advised of the boy’s presently unidentified status and his probable importance as a potential police witness.

Blair was apparently older than his slight stature indicated, being closer to fifteen or sixteen years of age rather than the twelve or thirteen Jim had first taken him for.

Jim had realised immediately that ironically this could actually be regarded as a good thing as far as Blair was concerned, since he knew that paedophiles tended to lose interest in their young prey once maturity set in, often either selling the kids on cheaply to brothels or ‘disposing’ of them like unwanted pets.

As to the boy’s physical condition, the doctor had confirmed that scarring and damage to the rectum confirmed an active and not necessarily consensual sex life, while poorly healed scars and welts on his back, buttocks and legs suggested more than one severe thrashing, most likely with a strap or belt.

Blood and semen samples had been taken to test for STDs and the abuser’s DNA, but preliminary results showed that there had been only one abuser, which, Jim hoped, meant that Blair might have been spared the fear of disease, or, in particular, AIDS.

However, only time would confirm that one way or the other, so Jim would just live in hope until he found out for sure.

On top of everything else, the kid was malnourished and borderline dehydrated, so would be kept in overnight at least until the doctor was satisfied that his vitals were stable.

Winding down on his report, Jim looked inquisitively at Sullivan, wondering what the man would make of his next suggestion, once the briefing progressed beyond basics.

Nodding occasionally as he listened to his detective’s report, Sullivan looked appraisingly at the man, knowing that Ellison had something more to tell him, but instinctively knowing that it would have to wait until he had brought his man up to speed on the case so far.

“OK, Jim,” he began, “hopefully the kid’ll have escaped the worst of the STDs, and I’ll let the doctors here know the moment Barker’s autopsy has been completed, and send the samples over ASAP. If they’re correct, and Barker’s is the only semen sample, then he should be in the clear as Barker’s tests up until now have all been negative according to his family doctor’s reports. As to what he’ll be able to tell us is another matter, but I do have good news on that front thanks to your superior hearing. After your last report, we knew to look out for Barker’s PC, and also for the contents of a strongbox, which it turns out ‘Miz Becca’ was in the process of trying to destroy when our team arrived. Virtually all the paperwork remains intact, as does the PC, which has been handed over to the Forensics guys to demolish, so we’re hopeful that there’ll be plenty of info regarding the internet ring despite Barker’s demise. I should also tell you that we found a lot of pretty sick stuff in the farm’s basement. It’s pretty certain that your boy will have been well-used to the goings-on in that hell-hole, so his testimony could carry a lot of weight not just in the conviction of Rebecca Barker, but possibly shed some light onto some of the clients. But by far the worst thing so far, and again, thanks to your heads-up to the search team, I can tell you that there are indeed the remains of an unknown number of child victims in the ravine.”

Here he paused to run a hand over his face in a scrubbing motion, as if to try and wash himself clean of the taint of what he had to report.

Sighing deeply, he met Jim’s gaze again before continuing, “Unfortunately, the fissure is so difficult to access, and the stream at the base is pretty fast-flowing, that it’ll be some time before all possible remains are recovered. And as far as ID-ing them – well, all I can say is that it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever get them all. Anyhow, I’m giving you the OK to keep watch on the kid for now, and once he wakes up, we’ll be able to do more about locating his family if he still has one, and putting him in a safe house for the immediate future.”

Frowning in concentration, Jim replied, “Um, as to that, sir, I formally request to take the kid back home with me for protection.”

Continuing hastily before his Captain could butt in, Jim said earnestly, “I really think he’ll be safer at the loft, sir. I’ll be there with him, and I’m not boasting when I say that my security and surveillance beats anything electronic that the PD has at present, although back-up would be much appreciated when I need to rest. And I think I need to look after him, sir. I think he’s my Guide...” he tailed off, concerned at his superior’s possible reaction, but unrepentant at stating his case.

Inhaling deeply at the declaration, and frowning in consternation at his detective’s assertion, Sullivan took a long moment to think things through before responding, during which time Jim felt like he would explode with nervous anticipation.

Finally the Captain spoke, although he was by no means certain that he was making the right decision. “OK, Jim. I get your point, and, if it turns out that the kid is your Guide, we’ll have to take this further due to his very young age. I trust you not to hurt him. I know you’re a man of considerable integrity, which is why you’ve been so successful in my department. I’ve always known that I could trust you not to succumb to any sort of temptation. But others will doubt your intentions – but you undoubtedly realise that already.”

When Jim nodded in rueful agreement, he continued.

“Well, suppose I agree for now. What about long-term, once the threat to him as a protected witness is over? Are you certain you want to deal with an adolescent if he has no other family to claim him? Because I think you may well be biting off more than you can chew, Jim. We’re not talking about a stable and well-adjusted kid here.”

He knew he shouldn’t have been surprised at Jim’s determined response, but was still unsure whether to be relieved or worried when he heard, “It won’t be a problem, sir. I realise what I’m saying, and I realise this isn’t going to be easy. God knows I never thought I’d want a Guide even if I found the right one, and I sure as hell wasn’t counting on him being an abused teenager. But now it’s happened, and I want him, sir. I’ve never wanted to protect anyone more, and, as I said, I think I need him. My senses have never felt so comfortable! As to whether he needs me is a different matter, and one I’ll face up to when the time comes. But in the meantime, I want to try, sir. I need to know!”

Convinced by the depth of Ellison’s conviction, Sullivan nodded slowly.

“OK, Jim. But let’s take it a day at a time. I’ll agree to your taking him home to the loft when he’s discharged, and I’ll also agree to your acting as his full-time protection. But once the threat has gone, we’ll have to see. Agreed?”

Smiling for the first time in genuine appreciation of the partial concession, Jim replied, “Agreed, sir. And thanks for your understanding!”

Smiling sardonically in his turn as he stood up to leave, Sullivan replied, “Don’t thank me yet Jim!” With a half-salute, he turned and strode off down the corridor, leaving Jim both elated and terrified at what he might have let himself in for....!

-----------------------

The following morning found Jim slumped uncomfortably in his bedside chair, having finally been forced to give in to his weariness from the past forty eight hours’ intense concentration.

Despite the fact he’d managed to grab a couple of hours sleep the previous night, the soporific effect of the boy’s gentle breaths and steady heartbeat had had such a soothing impact on the Sentinel that he had succumbed to the temptation of enjoying some real relaxation.

However, instinctively knowing that he needed to wake – and now! – he raised his head and stared at the occupant of the bed beside him.

Blair was awake and gazing at him, eyes wide and plainly torn between curiosity and nervousness, and chewing on his lower lip as Jim had seen him do whilst observing him at the farm.

Keeping his responses calm and friendly, Jim smiled slowly and murmured, “Good morning, Chief. Did you sleep well? You were out for quite a while, kiddo, so you must have needed it, huh?”

When Blair failed to respond, except for a tiny nod which could have been of acquiescence or simple greeting, he continued, “So, how do you feel, Chief? You should be getting some proper breakfast soon, and I guess the doc will be in to get rid of that IV and to check if you’re good to go. Now, don’t worry....” he added hastily, when the boy’s eyes widened in fear. “You won’t be going back to that place, little one – no way! You’re free now, and whatever happens, you won’t suffer like that ever again if I have anything to say about it! You were only kept in here overnight because the doc wanted to make sure you were OK, and well enough to go to a new home. You OK with that so far?”

He waited patiently, knowing that it was a heck of a lot of information for the youngster to take in immediately, and that he could hardly expect a quick and informed reply.

After what felt like an age, Blair licked his dry lips only to cough a little, throat too dry for now for him to speak clearly.

Jim quickly filled a paper cup with the iced water from the jug on the nightstand, and placed a straw in it so the kid could take a few much-needed sips, after which Blair sank back against his pillows, gazing at the big detective as if he was either some sort of aberration, or perhaps the hero of his most cherished dreams!

A few minutes later, he felt able to try again, so, licking his lips once again he said softly, “Am I really free Sir? I don’t have to go back to Miz Becca?”

Receiving a nod and smile from Jim, he frowned and looked away for a moment before continuing a little nervously, “Is Momma coming for me? She was in New Mexico, but she probably won’t be there now. She travels a lot.......” His voice tailed off miserably.

Answering honestly, Jim replied gently, “I couldn’t say, Chief. We’ll try to track her down for you if you can give us details, though. When was the last time you saw her?” He had to forcibly clamp down on his indignation at the kid’s tentative response.

“I don’t really know, Sir. We...we were staying at the Reverend Pickering’s commune, and Mom was up in the big house. I had to stay in a cabin, so I didn’t see her that often. I know it was just before my birthday though, so it must have been in April....”

“Which birthday was that, Chief? What year?” asked Jim with a gentleness he wouldn’t have credited himself with possessing.

Eyes huge and troubled, Blair replied, “Um, it would have been my twelfth birthday Sir. Three years ago, I think......?”

Then he dropped his eyes and stared at his hands, which were clasped tightly and resting on the top of the thin hospital blanket.

“OK, Chief. That’ll give us something to work with. What’s her full name?” Jim asked neutrally, but already feeling that he hated the woman without even knowing her, and unhappy with himself for the gut reaction.

“Um, Naomi. Naomi Sandburg, Sir,” said the boy quietly.

“OK, good, Chief. Don’t sweat it. I’m sure we can do something with that.” Jim reached over to squeeze the nervous hands in reassurance, even though deep down he recognised an entirely selfish desire to keep the kid for himself, ditzy mother notwithstanding!

Just then, a nurse came in, carrying a tray of food.

“Good morning, Blair!” she said cheerfully.

“I’ve brought you some breakfast, and you should eat as much as you can before Doctor Stevens arrives, so he’ll feel happy about letting you get out of here. But before that, I’ll get rid of that nasty IV for you.....” She bustled around, placing the tray on the bedside table and reaching for Blair’s hand.

With far more sympathy and gentleness than Jim would have credited her with, she carefully swabbed the back of the small hand and withdrew the IV port, quickly taping the tiny wound and patting Blair’s pale cheek in a friendly manner.

“Well done, Blair! Not even a flinch! You’re a brave boy, son! Now, enjoy your breakfast.” She bustled out again like a whirlwind, leaving both Jim and Blair gazing after her in bemusement.

“I think it might be a good idea to do as she says,” said Jim with a rueful grin. “But I’m not sure hospital food can actually be thought of as edible!”

However, as he placed the wheeled trolley in front of Blair, he was saddened to see the kid’s eyes open wide in appreciation, and could have kicked himself for his insensitivity when he recalled the meager scraps he had seen the boy reduced to eating during his captivity.

Sitting back in his chair, he settled for giving his charge a small smile and nod of encouragement as Blair fell upon the bland food with gusto.

------------------

Shortly after, once Blair had cleaned his plate and was sitting back feeling an unaccustomed lassitude on account of a full tummy, Dr Stevens entered the room, and smiled genially at both Blair and his large protector.

“Good morning, Blair! And Detective Ellison! I hope you both had a comfortable night? I’m pleased to see your empty plate, Blair. At least someone appreciates our hospital food!” He laughed at his own poor joke, even as his sharp eyes catalogued his young patient’s condition and responses.

“Nurse Jennings says that your vital signs are back at a satisfactory level, young man, so, since you’ve obviously eaten a decent meal, I think you’ll be good to go. Now...” he continued, well aware of the widening eyes and nervous intake of breath. “I know that Detective Ellison here will be keeping a careful watch on you, so you shouldn’t worry, son. I’ve known Jim here for some time now, and I know he can be trusted, OK?”

Pausing until he received a tiny nod from his patient, he closed the distance to the bed and sat down carefully, smiling reassuringly as he said, “I just want to do a quick check, son, so if you want Jim to leave?”

“N N no. S’OK,” whispered Blair, blushing pink to his hairline in embarrassment. “He can stay if he wants......”

Smiling himself, Jim murmured, “Anything you want, Chief. Should I sit over here?” He sat back down in his previous seat at Blair’s slight nod.

“That’d be fine, Detective,” confirmed the Doctor, as he said more quietly, “just keep talking to him, alright? Give him something else to concentrate on....”

As he opened the back of Blair’s hospital gown, Blair stiffened in fright. Even as his heart clenched in sympathy, Jim smiled at the boy, and took the freely offered hand in his large, warm one, stroking the bony knuckles and squeezing gently as the doctor’s touch moved lower.

“Hey there, Chief. Doing well. Won’t be long, then we’re blowing this pop stand, what say?”

And he was more than relieved when Blair relaxed slightly and offered a tiny smile as he squeezed the big detective’s hand in response.

Raising his other hand to gently card the unruly curls, Jim was ecstatic when the kid closed his eyes in bliss and leant into his touch, smiling softly at the comforting action.

Heart breaking, Jim realised that this was probably the first gentle touch the boy had had in three years, and he felt his eyes well up with unexpected tears at the thought.

Right then, he knew that Blair was his; his to care for and his to protect; and nothing and no one was going to part them.

-----------------------------

Shortly after, Doctor Stevens completed his examination, and patted Blair’s shoulder, tucking the thin blanket back around the slender body.

“Well done, son! All finished, and I’m glad to say I think there’s nothing stopping you from being discharged. I’ll just explain to Detective Ellison what else needs to be done to get you all better, OK?”

Although Blair would have preferred to have received the information firsthand, he was too nervous to insist, so he nodded and looked down at his hands once again, concentrating instead on the wonderful warmth he had felt when the big policeman had stroked his hair.

It was nothing like the greedy pawing of Uncle Nate, being much more like what he recalled of his mother’s gentle, if infrequent, touch, and he fervently hoped it wouldn’t be the last time he felt such comfort.

Suitably distracted by his thoughts, he tuned out the conversation taking place on the other side of the room.

Taking Jim’s arm, Doctor Stevens led him away from the boy’s bedside before saying, “Well, Jim, I have to say that young Blair is healing much faster than I expected, given that he was so recently abused and his general condition is so compromised. There’s a lot of rectal swelling, and a lot of old scarring, but no recent tears, so he should continue to heal well. As long as he remains free and clear of STDs, it’s looking very promising for a full recovery. However, I’ll be prescribing an antiseptic ointment, which also contains a mild analgesic, to be applied at least twice a day until all the swelling has gone down. Are you going to be able to help with that?”

“Yes, Doc. I was a trained medic in the Rangers, and I’m OK to do what’s necessary as long as Blair is happy with that. What I don’t want to do is upset him any more than can be helped.”

“I think he trusts you way more than anyone else at this time, Jim. I don’t think his physical rehabilitation will be in doubt in your care, but as to his mental state...well, let’s just say that that is where the problems are likely to crop up. I can see a fair amount of counselling on the horizon. Will you be able to deal with that?”

“Whatever it takes, Doc; whatever it takes!” replied Jim with conviction, and Doctor Stevens was content with that.

------------------------------

A couple of hours later saw Blair sitting in the regulation wheelchair and waiting nervously for Jim to take him to his new ‘home’, according to the big detective.

Jim had collected the prescription for the antiseptic cream, and a list of instructions and suggestions to help build up his charge’s undernourished frame.

Having arranged to make a return appointment to see Dr Stevens for a check-up in two weeks’ time, Jim and Blair were given leave to ‘get the hell out of Dodge!’ as Jim jokingly put it.

The kindly nurse who had been looking after him during his stay had found him a set of scrubs to replace his tattered rags of clothing which had been bagged for evidence, and had also procured some slipper socks and an extra blanket to wrap around him against the chill of a Cascade Spring morning.

Cocooned in the cosy material, he looked fragile and vulnerable, and far younger than his age, and Nurse Jennings felt the need to see him leave safely in the company of his large protector before going off duty herself.

Offering to do the honours as regards wheeling her patient down to the hospital entrance, she kept up a stream of inconsequential chatter to divert Blair’s attention while Jim quickly retrieved his Expedition from the parking lot and drove up to the doors to collect his charge.

Pulling up within minutes, Jim jumped out of the vehicle and opened the passenger door before crossing to the waiting pair to help Blair out of the chair and into the car.

Smiling gratefully at the nurse, he steadied the kid as he stood a little shakily, carefully wrapping the slight frame in his own warm jacket to replace the blanket.

“OK, kiddo? Are you ready for the off?” he said with a smile, even though his own insides felt like jelly at the thought of what he was willingly letting himself in for.

Knowing that he had no choice but to accept responsibility for this waif, he just wanted to get on with settling the boy into the loft as quickly as possible, after which the future could take care of itself.

Nodding submissively, but hugging the jacket gratefully around his too-thin body, Blair allowed himself to be helped into the detective’s car, but remembered to offer a smile of thanks to the kindly nurse who waved him off.

----------------------

Home, Sweet Home:

During the short trip back to Jim’s apartment on 852 Prospect, Blair gazed around him in open interest, seeming to forget his nervousness temporarily as he took in the new sights.

Leaving him alone to enjoy the brief journey, Jim concentrated on his driving whilst contemplating how he was going to deal with the next few days, and mentally ticking off what he needed to do to get Blair comfortable at the loft.

He intended to let the boy have the small room beneath the stairs which at present was used for storage.

Nodding decisively to himself, he thought that, with most of his junk transferred to the basement storage area, Blair could use the futon bed as a temporary measure until Jim could get to a furniture store and pick up some cheap bedroom stuff and perhaps a small desk and shelving, because he was certain that Blair would want to go back to school as soon as he could.

Once the kid had had a decent night’s sleep, he also intended to take him shopping to get some new clothes, because he had literally nothing except the set of scrubs, and Jim’s own clothes would swamp him!

After that they would just play it by ear, as Jim wanted to go to the PD to help with the ongoing investigation, and Blair would need to give his statement to IA as regards the shooting, as well as, hopefully being able to provide a significant amount of information about the Barker’s operation.

He had absolutely no intention of pressurising the youngster, though. The poor kid was traumatised enough without some heavy-handed detective leaning on him to recount what would undoubtedly be very painful memories.

Arriving at Prospect, Jim pulled into his usual parking spot, and turned to the small figure beside him, who had suddenly realised that he was about to experience yet another drastic change in circumstances, and huddled down in his seat, fighting the urge to panic.

“Hey, hey, Chief! It’s OK. We’re at my place, OK? Let’s get out and introduce you to your new home, OK?”

Gently reaching over to grasp a small hand, he pulled the boy towards him a little as he smiled into the wide, frightened blue eyes.

“It’s OK,” he repeated.

“Come on now, and let’s get you upstairs and warm. It’s still too cold to be sitting around in the car, and I for one can’t wait to get the fire going.”

As he continued to speak, he released Blair’s hand, and climbed out of the vehicle, moving around to the passenger door to help the youngster out.

As Blair clutched Jim’s jacket tighter around him, Jim threw a comforting arm around his shoulders and guided him through the entrance to 852 and towards an ancient elevator which for once was working, if somewhat slowly!

A short while later Jim opened the door of #307, and ushered his new Guide into the loft.

Blair stopped dead for a moment, taking in the high ceilings and immaculate, if Spartan interior, his interest piqued again despite his fear.

However, seconds later, Jim heard the rapid increase in the boy’s heartbeat and smelled the sudden surge of incipient nausea as Blair gasped, “P P please, Sir! Bathroom?”

Quickly taking hold of a thin upper arm, Jim hurried the now heaving youngster over to the bathroom, where Blair collapsed to his knees in front of the commode and violently rid himself of everything he had eaten at the hospital.

Long moments later Blair was reduced to dry heaves, while Jim gently wiped his sweaty and tearful face with a damp cloth and rubbed his back with soothing circles.

Finally able to sit back on his haunches, Blair whispered, “I’m so sorry, Sir. I I didn’t meant to. It just hit me suddenly.......” ahe tailed off miserably, certain that the big cop was going to be really mad at him, and sure that the offer of a home would now be withdrawn.

He was completely taken aback when Jim simply grinned at him, and pulling the small body into a comforting one-armed hug said, “No problem, kiddo! I’m thinking it’s probably a combination of pretty awful hospital food and my driving! Or then, it could simply be your tummy reacting to being overfull for the first time in months, am I right? Either way, it’s not your fault Chief.”

Gently pushing the slight figure away from him so he could look into the rather wet eyes whilst keeping his hands on the thin shoulders he continued, “How about you have a nice soak in the tub, Chief? I’ll get you another sweater to wear with your scrub pants, and some socks and underwear. There’s towels here on the rail, and a new toothbrush in the cupboard here,” he said, showing Blair the necessary items.

“Let’s get the tub filled for you, and then I’ll leave you to enjoy your bath. Oh, and soap and shampoo are in the caddy there. Take as long as you want, little one.” He started to run the water as Blair watched him in startled bewilderment, barely able to comprehend that not only was Jim not mad at him, but was allowing him to indulge in the luxury of a real bath such as he hadn’t had in years.

Eyes filling with tears, he sniffled loudly, and then, when Jim turned back to him to see what was wrong, he threw his arms around the big man, burying his face in the broad chest and praying that he wouldn’t get punished for his spontaneous action.

Far from punishment, he sobbed in relief and joy when the powerful arms surrounded him and pulled him into a real, full body hug and a large and gentle hand tangled in his hair, soothing and massaging his scalp so that he almost purred in contentment.

They stayed that way until Jim had to release his armful of Guide in order to turn off the water.

Having tested its temperature, he grinned again at the now dry-eyed but still emotional youngster, who was regarding him with something uncomfortably like hero worship.

Feeling rather uncomfortable himself at the blatant adoration in the wide blue gaze, Jim coughed a little self-consciously and said, “OK, then, kiddo. I’ll leave you to enjoy your soak, and go get your room sorted out once I’ve got you some clean clothes. Like I said, no hurry. Take all the time you need.”

And he beat a hasty retreat before the boy could respond further.

Watching the closed bathroom door for a few seconds, still half wondering if this was a dream and he was going to wake up in his filthy cubby-hole at Uncle Nate’s farm, Blair shook himself, and, peeling off the scrubs and slipper socks, dipped a toe in the tub to find the water a perfect temperature – hot enough to luxuriate in without threatening to take his skin off!

Sinking up to his neck in the suds Jim had had the forethought to add to the bathwater, he closed his eyes, daring to believe Jim’s assertion that he could take his time and relax for a while before washing his hair and soaping his body with proper shower gel and shampoo and not the occasional piece of the coarse household soap Miz Becca had thrown at him when he was getting too ripe.

--------------------------

Meanwhile, having dug out a pair of his smallest boxers, a pair of thick woollen socks and a warm sweatshirt that had shrunk in the wash, Jim was satisfied the kid would be comfortable enough for now and that the scrub pants would do until they could shop for jeans and sweats tomorrow.

He also pulled out a large tee for Blair to sleep in, and brought everything downstairs from his bedroom on the mezzanine floor.

Turning his attention to the small room under the stairs, and subconsciously monitoring his Guide’s vital signs – an action that was already automatic – he began moving boxes and a few bits of exercise equipment out of the space ready to be taken down to the basement.

Clearing enough space to be able to pull out the futon, he fetched sheets, pillows and a warm comforter and made up the small bed.

Satisfied with his preparations for now, and knowing that he and Blair could do more tomorrow to make the small space more homely, he sat on the sofa in front of the brightly glowing fire, listening to the soft splashing and sighs of contentment coming from the bathroom, and smiling to himself as he relaxed into the sofa cushions.

--------------------------

Having finished bathing and reluctantly deciding he had to move on account of the water growing too cool for comfort, Blair climbed out of the tub after leaving the water to drain and wrapped himself in one of the warm and fluffy towels hanging on the heated towel rail.

Rubbing his curls briskly with another towel, Blair suddenly paused, the thought having occurred to him that Jim must surely be expecting something in exchange for all his kindnesses thus far.

Swallowing hard, and feeling as if his heart was sinking to his boots, his training told him just what that reward must entail and what he had to do.

But surely this time would be different? Surely Jim wouldn’t hurt him like Uncle Nate did, just for his own sick pleasure?

He could do this, he really could. He could show the big detective that he really appreciated everything the man had done for him, and then perhaps Jim really would let him stay........!

Swallowing hard, he crept out of the bathroom, ignoring for now the pile of fresh clothes Jim had placed by the door, and, clutching the towel around his waist, made his way over to where Jim appeared to be dozing.

Sinking to his knees even as Jim opened puzzled eyes, he quickly leant forward, grasping the detective’s head, and clumsily sealing his mouth to Jim’s.

As kisses went, it was awkward and unsatisfactory, but lasted long enough for Jim to catalogue the softness of the boy’s lips, and momentarily losing himself in the intoxicating taste of his Guide-to-be.

However, reality returned just in time before he could lose himself completely in the boy’s addictive scent and flavour, and he pushed Blair away before he could take this any further.

Breathing hard, and sorrowfully noting the kid’s devastated expression and embarrassed blush, he shook himself before saying, “No, Chief! I don’t want this! Now, please don’t get me wrong, baby, because I think you’re a very beautiful young man. Really! But this isn’t how I want it to be, little one. Yes, I care for you, Blair. And I want to do everything I can to provide you with a decent home and a proper future. But I don’t want to take advantage while you’re so young and vulnerable, little one. You’ve been abused so much in the last few years, and I have no intention of adding to that.”

Cupping the boy’s face in his hands, desperate to wipe away the mortification written large on the expressive features, he continued, trying to convey his sincerity, “I want to keep you with me, Blair. I want to give you every chance of a decent life. But not because you feel you need to pay me back with sexual favours, baby.”

Pulling the unresisting body onto his lap he kissed Blair’s temple before continuing, “I want us to be together, little one, but I need to explain why. And if at a later date – when you’re old enough to make an informed and legal decision – we do decide to get together sexually, then so be it, and I’ll welcome the day, kid, I swear! But I won’t force you, Blair. And you shouldn’t feel that it’s the only way you can repay me. Just your being here helps me so much, kid.” He smiled ruefully at the wary but inquisitive expression on Blair’s face.

Cuddling the small body close, and gently stroking Blair’s soft cheek with his fingers he said, “Let’s get you dressed and cosy, and then I want to tell you a story, little one. A story about Sentinels and Guides......”

-----------------------

A short while later, warmly wrapped in his mismatched but comfy clothes and hugging a mug of chicken soup in his hands, Blair sat beside Jim on the sofa before the cheerful fire.

Savouring the soup which seemed to sit well in his still faintly queasy tummy, he leaned into the bigger man’s side, snuggled within the encircling arm around his shoulders and feeling happier and safer than he could ever recall, even before his kidnapping.

Smiling down at the curly head resting beneath his chin, Jim waited a while longer until most of the soup had been finished, then said, “OK, Chief, are you ready to hear my story now? I think - well, hope – that things will begin to make sense to you once you’ve heard what I have to say.”

As Blair sat back and looked up at him, face alight with curiosity and totally innocent of the effect his bright-eyed gaze was having on the older man, Jim swallowed hard against a lump of emotion in his throat when the boy replied quietly but earnestly, “Yes please, Sir...um...Jim. I’d like to hear everything!” He fixed Jim with an expression of eager anticipation and interest which remained in place throughout the telling.

When Jim finally wound down his explanation, Blair remained silent for some time, staring down at his intertwined fingers and chewing his lip in unconscious concentration as he worked through everything he had been told, and assimilated the pertinent information and what it would mean to him, and, by extension, to Jim as one of these amazing Sentinels.

Finally getting his thoughts into some sort of order, he looked shyly up at Jim again, peeking up guilelessly from beneath his long lashes, honestly unaware that to the Sentinel, he looked good enough to eat!

However, Jim controlled himself with a concentrated effort, and waited with as much patience as he could muster for the boy to speak, hoping against hope that he hadn’t frightened him off with his description of the importance of what having a Guide meant to a working Sentinel.

“So I could be one of these Guides, Sir?” Blair murmured tentatively, hoping in his turn that he hadn’t misunderstood. “I I mean, would I be able to do all those things for you, like helping you control your senses?”

“You already do, little one,” replied Jim with a grin.

“As soon as I saw you at the farm, I felt that I had to find out more about you. You made a real impact on me, although I didn’t realise quite why just then. But when I saw Barker dragging you away, I knew right then I had to save you at all costs, and once I had you in my arms, my senses became clearer and more easy to manage than I think I can ever recall. And that was even before I consciously thought about you being a Guide. I’m sure now, though, Chief, and I hope you believe me when I say I want you to stay with me.....”

Looking away again for a moment, Blair swallowed hard then turned to face Jim again, and the older man was in awe of the youngster’s courage as he made his reply even as the effort needed to control his anxiety showed clearly both in his face and in his body’s tension.

“I’d like to stay with you, Jim. I’m not sure how good I’ll be at guiding you, but I’d like to try. It’s just that I’m afraid of letting you down. You’ve been so good to me, even though I don’t deserve it.....”

“Now there you’d be wrong, Chief,” responded Jim, his total sincerity clearly indicated in both voice and expression. “I don’t think there’s any chance of you letting me down, at least knowingly, and, if you choose to stay with me, you’ll get all the help and training you need to work with me. And you do deserve everything I can do for you, little one. You should never have been subjected to the horrors you’ve had to live through, and I just want to try and put that right. I can tell you right now that you’re a good soul, and you deserve to have someone love you unconditionally – and that someone should be me!”

Smiling down at the worried little face, he held his arms out, and was both pleased and relieved when Blair went into them immediately, returning his hug and relaxing against him with a depth of trust he hadn’t expected to see manifest itself yet, if ever, considering the terrible treatment to which his Guide had been subjected.

And what comfort there was in being able to say that! His Guide! At long last........!

------------------------

Part 3: Tears, Trials and Trust:

The next few days proved to be a steep learning curve for both the Sentinel and his newly-minted Guide as they explored their relationship at the same time as trying to deal with the looming presence of the ongoing investigation.

For Jim, it was a period during which he found himself forced to confront emotions often long-buried, which sometimes shocked him to the core.

Brought up in an atmosphere of filial confrontation and sibling rivalry by his stern businessman of a father following the premature death of his mother, he had fought his way free of the family firm and made his own way in the military, spurning the so-called comforts of a comfortable but loveless home, and generally contented with his choice.

However, after joining the PD following his discharge on medical grounds, he had found it increasingly difficult to deal with the ramifications of spiking senses until Fate had presented him with this endearing, if damaged specimen of a Guide.

Now he found himself calling upon unfamiliar instincts of possession and protection, inherent in the nature of a Sentinel, but determinedly avoided up until now by the obstinate detective.

But how could he not love this boy, so badly hurt by the worst kind of paedophile scum, but yet so willing to trust him after so short an acquaintance?

Sure, sometimes he grew irritated by the youngster’s nervousness and natural tendency for servility even though he well knew it was due to years of conditioning in the worst of circumstances.

On the other hand, he genuinely respected Blair’s core of determined courage, and his willingness to help his Sentinel in whatever way he could, plainly worshipping the ground his saviour walked on, and trying so hard to be whatever Jim wanted him to be.

The appreciative and decent core of the Sentinel could not but respond to this overt trust, and Jim found himself more and more willing to cherish and nurture his young Guide with every passing day.

------------------------

For Blair, the period was even more complex as he tried to come to terms with the drastic changes in his short life so far, and his deeply-felt belief that he had been shown his true destination and discovered a real reason for being and for surviving his captivity.

He truly adored Jim, and his gratitude knew no bounds when he thought of what the detective had rescued him from.

Jim fed, clothed and cared for him in a way even Naomi had been unable or unwilling to do, and his implicit trust in the man allowed him to accept Jim to perform even the most intimate tasks such as applying the antiseptic cream to his tender private parts.

Certainly, he wasn’t naive enough to consider the big man to be perfect, but for all his tender years, he was well-versed in the character of dominant males, and understood that in Jim’s case, any show of irritation was not so much directed at him personally as to the strange and unexpected circumstances under which they found themselves.

Not that that prevented him from dissolving into tears at the most inopportune moments, much to his chagrin, but at least Jim seemed to understand where he was coming from, and never belittled him, especially in front of others.

As the Sentinel gently coaxed him to talk and share his innermost fears, he found himself gradually able to confront his own demons even as he learned to appreciate Jim’s own reticence when it came to baring his soul.

After all, why should he, at a mere fifteen years of age, be considered mature enough to deal with his Sentinel’s deepest secrets?

And if that came over as insecurity or unselfishness on his part, then so be it. He reckoned at his deepest level that he had years, all being well, in which to remedy the situation and become as helpful and supportive for Jim as the Sentinel was for him right now.

And he finally had a place to stay which he dared to think of as a real home.

The object of his deepest desire seemed to be within his grasp, freely offered by the big detective, and initially for no other reason than that they seemed to have been destined to meet as Sentinel and Guide, together forever and mutually loving and supporting for as long as they both should live.

-------------------------------

The day after Jim had brought Blair home to the loft saw the pair taking a quick trip to a nearby mall in order to purchase some clothes and other necessities for the young Guide.

Having enjoyed his first decent night’s sleep in years in his new little bedroom beneath Jim’s, Blair was both endearingly excited at the novelty of the outing and understandably a little nervous at the possibility that he was being watched.

However, he had every trust in his Sentinel’s capabilities in detecting potential bad guys, and had witnessed firsthand his ability in action, so he turned his attention to the unaccustomed joys of shopping even though he was reluctant to accept all the items Jim cheerfully insisted on buying for him.

Stopping first to get the youngster a decent pair of shoes, as he had had no option but to venture out in two pairs of thick socks, Jim’s shoes being way too big for him, he now fairly bounced along in what was probably the best pair of sneakers he’d ever worn in his life.

Happy to allow the kid to choose clothing from the sales sections of the stores, knowing that he was uncomfortable with Jim spending more than necessary, Jim still grinned in delight at witnessing Blair’s real pleasure in everything he was given.

Completely oblivious to the amused glances cast in his direction, he beamed at Jim in appreciation, and gazed around him in innocent delight, happy to help carry several bags of clothing and toiletries until he stopped dead at the sight of a large bookstore located at the end of the mall.

Eyes wide with amazement and no small amount of longing, he bit his lip in anxiety as he contemplated if he had the nerve to ask Jim if he could go in.

He was suddenly overwhelmed with an enormous sense of loss, having had no opportunity to even look at a book during his captivity, let alone study or attend school, and he felt close to tears as the realisation that he had lost three years of learning hit him hard.

“Hey, kiddo, why so sad?” asked Jim, wrapping a comforting arm around suddenly trembling shoulders.

“I’m sorry, Jim,” his small companion replied sorrowfully, swallowing hard against the incipient tears. “I just realised that I I haven’t r r r read a book or even a newspaper in three years. I loved to study before, but they w w wouldn’t let me..... Miz Becca even threw my glasses away....”

“Aw, Chief! That’s just too bad!”

Jim commiserated with the youngster, feeling a deep rage at the bastards who had deprived his Guide so.

“Come on then, let’s go in and find you a few books, OK? I love to read myself, and I can’t imagine being in a situation where I was banned from doing so. Tell you what, they have a decent coffee bar in the shop, so we’ll take a good look around, then grab a drink and a snack, OK?”

And he steered the smaller figure towards the bookstore entrance, aware that the kid was gazing from the storefront to him and back, his young face suffused with joy and deep gratitude.

---------------------

If Jim had thought his young Guide was excited before in the clothes stores, it was nothing to what he now witnessed as Blair wandered from bookshelf to bookshelf, carefully stroking the volumes with something akin to worship, and taking down one after the other to flip through the pages, lost in contemplation.

Resigning himself to a long stay, Jim merely nodded amiably at Blair’s unspoken request for more time, allowing the youngster the opportunity to indulge himself in what was undoubtedly one of his real passions.

Using his senses to monitor the boy’s physical responses and ever-changing facial expressions, Jim found himself able to deduce accurately which volumes held the most interest for his Guide, so he quietly followed in Blair’s wake, surreptitiously picking out a few choice examples with which to treat his small companion.

Glancing at the books as he retrieved them, he was interested to see that they were nearly all factual volumes, and mostly archaeology and anthropology texts.

He already realised that Blair was an extremely intelligent young man, and his choice of reading matter seemed to bear that out.

Finally deciding that he had enough items for now, and knowing only too well that Blair would be upset if Jim should spend even more on him for this first time out, he made his way to the checkout where he paid for his books while still keeping a watchful eye on his Guide, not wanting to let the boy out of his sight.

Closing the distance between them, he tapped Blair on the shoulder to attract his attention, and led him up to the coffee bar, keeping a straight face only with difficulty as he ordered drinks and muffins for them both.

As they took their seats, with Blair about to thank him for his treat, Jim placed the bag of books beside the youngster, saying with feigned insouciance, “Thought you might like those as a start, Junior......” but he got no further as he was suddenly hit by an armful of excited and adoring Guide.

Not caring at the scene they were providing for the other patrons in the coffee shop, Blair said over and over again, “Thank you, Jim! Oh thank you! I can’t believe it! Thank you, thank you!!”

And Jim simply hugged him back, saying, “You’re more than welcome, kiddo!” before gently prising the smaller body off his lap so they could recover their composure somewhat.

Subsiding somewhat reluctantly into his seat, Blair still grinned widely at his Sentinel, almost overwhelmed by his gratitude and love for this man.

With an almost superhuman effort, he refrained from pulling out all his books there and then, wanting to savour the moment once they got back to the loft, and content for now to sip his mocha and nibble at the large chocolate muffin before him, basking in the companionship he felt with the big detective.

Genuinely interested in Blair’s choice of subjects, Jim asked his Guide where his love of anthropology had come from, and was more than impressed when Blair began to explain about his peripatetic lifestyle before his kidnapping, happily regaling Jim with stories and memories of places visited and the many cultures he had experienced.

Keeping his thoughts to himself about the suitability of such a lifestyle for one so young, Jim enquired about Blair’s educational opportunities and was not surprised when the boy blushingly told him of how he had always been fast-tracked at school, joining classes where his peers were at least a year older than him.

Face decidedly less happy and animated, Blair admitted that it had been hard to be uprooted from school after school, always the smallest, youngest and brightest in the class, and suffering because of it with bullying and teasing, along with outright jealousy.

Although he would never have admitted it, as he realised Jim probably wouldn’t approve of what he heard, he knew in his heart of hearts that many of his problems could be laid at his Mom’s door, although he loved her nonetheless.

Sensing that Blair was growing despondent with resurging memories, Jim changed the subject a little, and suggested that they drop in at the nearby eye specialists on the way back to the car so Blair could get his eyes tested and order a decent pair of spectacles, although he fully intended to buy Blair a cheap pair of reading glasses to tide him over until his prescription ones were ready.

Enthusiasm back with a bounce, Blair nodded in happy agreement, and, finishing up the last of their coffees and muffins, they gathered up all the shopping and left the bookstore, Blair clutching the precious book bag to his chest even as he carried several others in his other hand.

----------------------

Later that afternoon, having visited the optician and ordered a pair of attractive wire-framed spectacles for Blair, Sentinel and Guide unpacked all their purchases, and Jim showed Blair where he could store his clothes for now, having cleared enough draw space in an old dresser which they had placed in the small understairs bedroom as a temporary measure.

Since the small room still lacked a desk or bookshelves, Blair stacked his precious volumes on top of a large cardboard box for the time being, smiling in appreciation as he stroked the glossy covers.

Once the unpacking and sorting was done, Jim prepared a simple but delicious dinner of steak, baked potatoes and salad, which had Blair’s mouth watering before the food even made it to the table.

When the meal was placed before him, Blair ate with relish, and also with care, not wanting to overface himself and make himself sick like the previous day. He also refrained from mentioning that his mother had been a vegan, so would hardly have approved of her son indulging in such a repast, but after living off scraps for three years, Blair certainly wasn’t about to turn down such a banquet!

Having eaten as much as he could safely manage, and cleanup done, he shyly asked Jim if he could get his books out, and was overjoyed when Jim cheerfully agreed, handing over the reading glasses before settling himself down with a beer to watch a basketball game on the TV, senses more settled and comfortable than he could ever have imagined.........

------------------------

After a day of such unadulterated pleasure and relative tranquillity, it was inevitable that the following day should provide a reality check in the form of a visit to the PD for the pair.

Captain Sullivan had allowed his detective an extra day to get his charge, (or prospective Guide, as his man claimed) settled into the loft, but then had no option but to call them both in to make the appropriate statements to the relevant units so that the operation could progress.

With a much quieter and introspective Guide seated in his passenger seat, Jim drove to the PD keeping his thoughts to himself and allowing Blair some space.

Once there, he took Blair up to the third floor where the Vice Unit was situated, and, nodding occasionally to his fellow detectives in greeting, guided a silent and shy Blair across the bullpen to Captain Sullivan’s office to announce their arrival.

Seated across from his commanding officer, Jim had no problem with pulling Blair close enough for him to wrap an arm about the thin shoulders in support, even as he asked how the case was progressing.

As it turned out, the pair was to learn that huge strides had already been made, thanks to the cooperation (for once) of the various law enforcement agencies involved, a certain amount of luck in the form of acute Sentinel senses and information received from there, and the fact that Nathaniel Barker had been worried to the point of paranoia of being exposed as a paedophile, and thus had kept detailed secret records of his contacts, purchases and fellow network cronies such that if he got fingered, he would take them all down with him!

Despite her best efforts, his sister had been unable to destroy the paper records in the strongbox, or adequately wipe his PC’s hard drive, given the lack of warning before the raid, so the Forensic Computer geeks had had a field day tracking and tracing his emails, websites and contacts, building up a detailed dossier of a nationwide ring of ‘talent spotters’, trainers and wealthy clients, all of whom could now be pursued and prosecuted by the FBI.

In one sense, the paper records were much more distressing, as they consisted mainly of the heartless and inhuman cataloguing of the child victims who had passed through ‘Uncle Nate’s’ hands.

Reduced to clinical details of approximate age, type, colouring and likely ‘talent’, the entries were enough to sicken even the most jaded of Vice detectives, especially those few designated as ‘unusable, therefore disposable’, for those most certainly were the poor souls who ended their pitiful lives in the bottom of the ravine.

In the light of such evidence, a nationwide operation was now in train, which would hopefully destroy the whole network, although no one was naive enough to think that it was anything more than the tip of the iceberg, however many so-called ‘respectable’ figures were involved.

The nature of the beast ensured that there would always be a new group of perverts to create more such rings, such that the whole sick set-up would reappear in a different guise again and again for as long as adults lusted after juvenile flesh.

With the availability of such a huge amount of unprecedented evidence, Captain Sullivan was of the opinion that Blair would probably be spared the trauma of appearing as a witness for the wider operation: for which Jim was truly grateful.

However, he might well be called in the case of Rebecca Barker, who would most likely be tried as an accomplice for aiding and abetting her brother in concealing his perversion, but whom the prosecution would prefer to implicate in the actual abuse and torture of the child victims, especially as they had Blair’s testimony as a long-term captive.

He would also be required to make a short statement to IA purely in order to help clear Jim of the fatal shooting of Barker, but Sullivan had no doubt that the hearing was a mere formality, and that Jim would quickly be reinstated.

The only fly in the ointment so far was that the source of the leaked information as regards the raid on the Barker’s farm was still unknown, although it was feared that it came from someone within the PD itself.

Since Jim was the only one who had actually heard the call come in, it was possible that he could eventually recognise the informant’s voice should he hear it again, but despite scouring the incoming call records, there were no leads as regards the caller’s location or identity as he appeared to have used an untraceable and GPS-free cell phone.

It was undoubtedly the one facet that tainted an otherwise successful operation, and left the majority of those involved feeling betrayed and sickened.

--------------------

As regards the IA investigation, Sullivan’s assertion proved to be correct, although the actual process of giving his statement was less than pleasant for Blair, who was forced to relive the dreadful events of the episode, and ended up in tears in the arms of his Sentinel, who burst in uninvited as the session drew to a close, IA procedure be damned!

A few days later, a final piece of evidence was uncovered, which proved to be just as traumatic for the youngster, even though there was an element of closure in it.

A trawl through Barker’s records had thrown up the name of one Joshua Parkinson, aka the Reverend Jeremiah Pickering, self-styled guru and spiritual healer, and apparently a founder member of the paedophile ring.

White with shock at the revelation of the name, Blair had confirmed that this was the man with whom he and his mother had been staying at the time of his capture, so that it was an apparently indisputable fact that Pickering had set him up for kidnapping.

What needed to be clarified, however, was whether Naomi had been aware of the man’s intentions, and, if not, what she had done to track down and rescue her only son.

Without confronting the woman herself, there was no way of knowing, especially as she had long moved on from the New Mexico commune, and no one there either knew or cared to reveal where she had gone.

The upshot of the revelation was that Blair temporarily withdrew into himself, unable to cope with the premise that his mother had willingly abandoned him, if not actively aiding and abetting in his kidnap.

It was several days before the gentle support and counselling of both his Sentinel and the PD’s official Psychiatrist – a caring woman particularly suited to dealing with traumatised young people - broke through his defences and enabled him to work through his grief.

On the day when he had broken down and wept in Jim’s arms back in the loft, Jim made him a heart-felt and sincere vow that he would never abandon the youngster, and that he would cherish his Guide for as long as he lived.

Sniffling and red-eyed in his arms, Blair had gazed up at him, trust and love blossoming in the blue depths as he said, “I love you, Jim. I’ll always love you. Please never let me go.....”

And Jim swore again that it would never happen.

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Epilogue:

On a warm late summer’s day, rare enough in Cascade to be sure, Jim and Blair lay relaxed and contented in the park near their apartment on Prospect, having grasped the opportunity of taking a picnic and enjoying some well-deserved down time.

Having eaten their fill, Blair now lay alongside Jim, nose buried as usual in one of his anthropology tomes, and providing a comforting and grounding presence for his Sentinel, who sat with his back propped against the trunk of a large oak tree, relaxing and thoroughly enjoying the chance to contemplate his Guide and consider the developments in their lives thus far.

Revelling in the warm pressure of his Guide against his leg, who was, as always, happy to be in close contact with his Sentinel, he studied the downturned face, knowing that, also as always, Blair was oblivious to his admiring gaze and was concentrating his full attention on the contents of his book until such time as Jim would need him.

Smiling to himself, Jim lost himself in his thoughts and allowed himself to drift back over the last few weeks since this complex bundle of energy had come into his life.

He could easily recall the results of Blair’s check-up with Dr Stevens, a mere two weeks after he had taken the boy home with him to the loft.

Dr Stevens had proclaimed himself more than satisfied with Blair’s progress thus far, confirming that there was no sign of STDs, and that Nathaniel Barker had been free from AIDS, so that Blair should have no worries on that score.

True, there was still considerable scarring around his rectum from the frequent rapes, and he would never be entirely free from the marks on his back and buttocks from various beatings, but all-in-all, thanks to the good food, medical care and healthy lifestyle provided by Jim, he was well on his way to recovery.

Jim was aware that Blair had to make up for growing and development time lost during his captivity due to his severely restricted diet and constant abuse, but he was already showing signs of physical maturity in traces of facial and body hair and Dr Stevens suggested that he would probably grow a couple more inches, even though he was never likely to be more than 5’6” to 5’7” tall.

Mentally his Guide was also much improved, having been helped by regular weekly sessions with the PD’s resident psychiatrist and support from Jim himself.

He was gradually coming to terms with his abuse, and, although still prone to anxiety attacks on occasion, and bouts of insecurity, his natural bounce and zest for life and learning was becoming more obvious every day.

This state of affairs was undoubtedly aided immensely by the fact that Jim had filed for, and swiftly received permission to legally adopt Blair himself.

The fact that he had claimed Blair as his Guide had weighed heavily in their favour, so that Blair was now able to claim all the benefits and grants he was entitled to as a working Guide, and thus lessening the financial burden he believed that his presence placed on Jim’s shoulders – even though Jim maintained that he never saw it as such anyway!

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As for Jim himself, he considered that his own lot had improved beyond measure.

Although the wrap up of the paedophile operation was still ongoing in several states, for Jim it turned out to be his swan song in regards working with the Vice Unit.

Although he respected Captain Sullivan, his sense of responsibility towards his new Guide had expedited his transfer to the Major Crimes Unit, where he now worked for Captain Simon Banks.

Having already learned of the man’s success in managing this elite unit even after a relatively short time after taking command, he had liked what he had seen of Banks during the combined operation, especially as the man had much more sympathy and tact than often encountered in superior officers when it came to working with a Sentinel and Guide pair.

Indeed, Banks made no secret of the fact that he appreciated the benefits of utilising these gifted individuals, and was much more prepared to accept the occasional downside due to spiking senses, which, in Jim’s case, were a pretty rare occurrence now, thanks to the grounding provided by his new Guide.

This attitude also made it much easier for Blair to be accepted in the MCU bullpen, where he would spend part of the day to be on hand to ground Jim as needed – although he was, of course, far too young to be able to work in the field yet.

In fact, he was fast becoming something of a favourite mascot among Jim’s colleagues, his sweet nature and endearing honesty winning over all but the most jaded characters.

As for his guiding ability, he seemed to instinctively know what Jim required even without training, although that was well under way now, what with on-the-job experience and having been accepted into an elite school, where he would commence studying in the Fall.

Jim was proud of his Guide’s achievement, knowing that the school was well-regarded in academic circles as well as providing specific Guide training and studies, and Blair was throwing himself enthusiastically into his preliminary coursework.

Despite the enforced hiatus in his education due to his captivity, Jim was convinced that, as he had always been ahead in his studies in terms of his actual age anyway, it wouldn’t be long until his Guide was ‘fast-tracking’ again as usual!

Smiling down on his small companion, he reflected on what an attractive picture he made, spectacles sliding down his neat nose, and sunlight catching the auburn highlights in his unruly curls.

Abruptly needing to touch the tempting locks, Jim ran a gentle hand over Blair’s scalp, unsurprised when the smiling face peered up inquisitively at him in response.

“Hey, Jim, what do you need?” he said, voice already taking on the deeper tones of adulthood, and sounding as appealing as smooth, dark chocolate to his besotted partner.

“Nothing in particular, baby,” replied Jim.

“Just enjoying the view, partner!”

As Blair grinned in delight and pushed himself up to sit alongside his bigger companion, easily accepting the arm casually draped around his shoulders to pull him in close to his Sentinel’s side, Jim also considered with no little satisfaction the progress made in their personal relationship.

Although still nervous under some circumstances, Blair never baulked at Jim’s touch, rather revelling in the casual pats, hugs and cuddles his Sentinel was wont to give him.

Jim had considered that such ‘touchy-feely’ behaviour might be a Sentinel-Guide thing, but even if that was the case, it certainly suited them as a Jim-Blair thing also, and he was content with that.

He sometimes thought about the future, when the day came that Blair was old enough and informed enough to make a decision as to whether they should take their relationship to the next stage, becoming a partnership in every sense of the word, but he always came to the same conclusion.

What they had together right now was already far better than anything he could have possibly envisaged when he first caught sight of the battered youngster in the Barker’s kitchen, so even if it never progressed further, they were both content, and life was good.....

The End.

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