The Reluctant Guide by Natalie L

The Reluctant Guide - Natalie L

They stood at the graveside, watching silently as the coffin was lowered into the Earth.

Simon wrapped an arm around the drooping shoulders of his best detective. Jim was taking the loss of his Guide harder than most of the Sentinels Simon knew. Jim and Spencer had been inseparable. The Captain suspected that the bond between the two men had gone deeper than a mere working relationship. Jim never talked about it, but his face always shone with such love when the subject of his Guide came up. The loss had been devastating.

Four days earlier, Jim had been involved in a case of illegal gun runners. He was undercover, without Spencer at side, when a deal he had been brokering with another gang went bad. Never far from his Sentinel's side, even when Jim ordered him to stay away, Spencer had once again broken protocol and run into the fray trying to protect the man he loved. He tackled the Sentinel, bringing Jim to the ground and taking the rain of bullets meant for the detective.

Sirens surrounded them as the police moved in to arrest the gun lords, but Jim was only conscious of the smell of his lover's blood and the weight of Spencer's dying body pressing him into the pavement.

An ambulance rushed the Guide to the nearest hospital, but Spencer had lost too much blood. Too many internal organs had been ruptured beyond repair. Jim stood at the bedside, holding his lover's hand as he listened to the beloved heartbeat grow slower and slower until it finally ceased.

Since that hour, that minute, that very second, Jim had been inconsolable. Simon placed his detective on bereavement leave, allowing Jim the time he needed to lay Spencer's body to rest and come to terms with his loss.

But in the days since his Guide's death, Jim had shown no sign of improvement; no sign that there was a light waiting at the end of the long, dark tunnel.

"Take as long as you need, Jim," Simon told him softly, guiding the Sentinel away from the grave and back to the limo that had brought them here. "Your job will be waiting for you when you get back."

*********

Four weeks later, Simon showed up on Jim's doorstep, having not seen his friend since the day of the funeral.

The man who opened the door of 852 Prospect, #307, held no resemblance to the man Simon remembered. Jim's face was drawn, his eyes pinched with pain, his skin a ghastly gray hue. He looked as though he hadn't eaten properly in the past month. The normally tidy loft was a mess of abandoned newspapers, magazines, beer bottles, and take-out food containers.

"Good God, Jim!" Simon exclaimed as he walked into the apartment. "What the hell have you been up to for the past four weeks? This isn't like you!"

"Come in, Simon," Jim said, following his boss over to the couch. "Can I get you a beer?"

Simon looked at the coffee table strewn with empty bottles, a pizza box, and sandwich wrappers. "Uh, no thanks." He brushed some crumbs from the sofa and sat down, patting the cushion next to him. "Jim, we need to talk."

"You said I could have all the time I needed," Jim reminded the Captain, circling the furniture before settling down. "I'm not ready to come back."

"Will you ever be?" Simon asked softly. "Jim, I know that you and Spencer were close -"

"Stop right there," Jim cautioned. "You have no idea -"

Simon shook his head sadly. "Oh, but I think I do. I know that Spencer was more to you than just a Guide. It was obvious the way you two looked at each other, the way your face glowed every time you'd talk about him. You can't replace that kind of love, that devotion, but Jim... if you're going to come back to work, you need to get another Guide."

"I can't, Simon. I don't want to," Jim replied. "I'm not even sure if I want to come back to work."

"You think you can continue to live like this?" Simon gestured around the great room. "This isn't living. This isn't honoring Spencer's memory. Do you really think he'd want to see you like this?"

Jim's head was bowed as he answered, "He'd kick my butt."

"Hell yes, he would!" Simon agreed. "I'm not suggesting that any Guide you find could ever take Spencer's place in your heart, but he - or she - could still act as your watch-mate, guide your senses, keep you from zoning. You're a Sentinel, damn it! You can't work without a Guide!"

"I don't know, Simon," Jim spoke slowly, considering his friend's proposal.

Simon's voice softened and he changed the angle of his approach. "We need you, Jim. You were my best detective, my best team -" He suddenly realized the effect his last words had on the broken man sitting next to him. "I'm sorry, Jim; but you're wasting away here, wasting your talent, while the criminals of Cascade run free."

"I'm not the only detective in Major Crime, Simon," Jim reminded his Captain.

Simon shook his head. "No, you're not; but you were the best. We need you; I need you back. But you're going to have to have a Guide."

Jim looked up, his blue eyes dull and lifeless. "I don't even know where to begin. Spencer and I grew up together. We were destined to be together practically from the day we were born. How do I go about finding a Guide now?"

"There are finder services," Simon said. "I've done some research, and there's a Center for Guides who have lost their Sentinels. Perhaps that would be a good place to start."

"Put a broken Sentinel together with a broken Guide, is that it?" Jim asked. He shook his head. "I'm not so sure that's a great idea."

"You need a Guide. You're not looking for a relationship," Simon pointed out. "What better place? The Guides there won't be any more enthusiastic about it than you, but most need employment and a place of their own to live. Beggars can't be choosers."

"I suppose," Jim reluctantly agreed.

"Go take a shower and get dressed," Simon ordered. "I'll wait."

"Now?!?" Jim looked aghast at his friend. "I'm not ready. I need to think about this."

"For another fucking month?" Simon fumed. "No way, Jim. Go - take a shower and get dressed. I'm taking you down to the Center."

*********

"This isn't going anywhere, Simon," Jim complained, as the ninth Guide he'd interviewed left the room. "Can't we please just go home now?"

Simon looked up at the administrator, who had just entered the room. "Are there any other Guides we could interview today?"

The man shook his head. "Those were the only ones we have at the moment. You can come back in a few days. We have a constant turnover of residents here. I'm sure that we'd eventually be able to find you a match."

Jim stood and put on his coat, gesturing for Simon to do the same. "Thank you very much for your time." He turned to Simon. "Let's go."

Reluctantly, Simon followed Jim out of the residence. As they walked down the path back toward their car, they passed a bench situated under an ancient oak. A huddled figure sat there, quietly watching their progress toward the street.

"Hold on a minute, Simon," Jim said. Something about the figure drew Jim over to the bench. The man seated there was dressed in rags, an old, moth-eaten coat pulled around the remains of a torn and stained T-shirt. Holes in the knees of the man's jeans went beyond the "fashionable" and straight to "homeless". Matted tangles of dark brown hair covered most of the filthy face.

Jim kneeled in front of the figure and spoke softly. "My name is Jim, and I'm a Sentinel looking for a Guide." He waited for a response, but when he got none, he tried again. "Are you a Guide?"

The question made the man lift his head, and Jim found himself looking into the most intense blue eyes he had ever encountered. He felt slightly light-headed as those eyes locked with his, unwavering, and a soft voice answered, "Yes."

"Come on, Jim," said Simon, disgusted by the filthy man his detective had engaged in conversation. "We'll come back another day and try again."

"You go, Simon," Jim answered, never taking his eyes away from the steady gaze of the Guide. "I'll be fine. I can call a cab."

"You sure?" Simon sounded skeptical, but this was the most focused he'd seen Jim in over a month.

"Yeah, go on." With those words, Jim turned his attention back to the man on the bench, ignoring his Captain. Simon walked away with a reluctant shrug, wondering what was going to become of Jim Ellison.

Jim reached out to brush the matted locks of hair away from the man's face. "What are you doing here? Why aren't you inside with the others?"

"I don't belong here," the Guide answered. "I don't want to be here."

"Neither did I," Jim admitted. "Tell me your name?" he pleaded, finding his hand, which had so recently brushed the hair from the man's face, caress the dirt-streaked cheek.

"Blair."

"I'm Jim."

"Yes, I know. You told me," Blair reminded him. "You're a Sentinel in search of a Guide."

"I think I may have found one," Jim replied softly.

Blair shook his head. "No, you haven't. I mean," he corrected, "you have, but I'm not the Guide for you."

"Why not?" Jim found himself inextricably drawn to this stranger. He wanted nothing more than to take Blair home with him and get to know him better. He didn't want to leave... not now.

"I-I just lost my Sentinel," Blair explained. "I'm not ready."

Jim took in the ragged look of the Guide, realizing that if he'd had a Sentinel recently, he wouldn't look so tattered and filthy. "How long ago?"

Blair's eyes grew misty with thought. "I can't remember. Yesterday... a year ago... five..."

"Years?" Jim asked, incredulous.

Blair shrugged.

"Where have you been living?"

"Here and there," Blair answered. "Wherever I could get a hand-out."

"You've been living on the streets," Jim stated flatly, "for five years."

Blair shrugged.

Jim stood up and reached out to grasp an elbow. "Get up, you're coming home with me. At the very least you can get a hot meal and a chance to clean up."

*********

Blair surveyed the loft, noting the spaciousness of the room and the sparse, but tasteful, furniture. Overlooking the trashed state of the room, he tried for a compliment, "Nice place!"

"It's not much, but it suffices for me," Jim said, ushering the Guide inside. "Here, let me take your coat," he offered, slipping the ragged cloth jacket from the thin shoulders and hanging it on a hook by the door. He then walked across the hardwood floor to the back of the apartment, gesturing for Blair to follow. "The bathroom is in here. Why don't you take a shower while I fix us something for lunch? There are towels, soap, shampoo... and you can wear my robe when you're finished. We'll get you some clean clothes later; how does that sound?"

Blair walked into the bathroom, then turned around to look at his benefactor. "Thank you. You didn't have to do this, you know."

"I know. I wanted to." Jim backed out of the small bathroom and closed the door. You have no idea how much I wanted to, he thought as he headed into the kitchen. As he began to look through the pantry and refrigerator for luncheon ideas, his senses were tuned to the bathroom and the man inside. Spencer, forgive me. How could I know that I'd find another man that I could want as much as I wanted you? There's something about this one... something that draws me to him. I can't help myself. God, Spencer, tell me what to do.

Live your life. Be happy. The response came into Jim's mind accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of warmth and love; and for the first time since Spencer's death, Jim felt that he just might have a chance at happiness again after all.

The sound of water pounding in the shower became all that Jim could hear. He walked softly from the kitchen back to the bathroom and opened the door. Steam and the smell of soap and shampoo assaulted him, and Jim froze in admiration of the silhouette behind the shower curtain. Bending over, he collected the filthy rags that had been Blair's clothes and stuffed them into a garbage bag he'd brought in with him. No way was his Guide ever going to wear these things again. He'd find Blair clothing from his own wardrobe, until they were able to go out shopping for something more appropriate.

He returned to the kitchen and shoved the bag of old clothes into the garbage. After washing his hands, he proceeded to put together a couple of roast beef sandwiches that would be accompanied by the beef and barley soup he had heating on the stove. Fresh coffee was brewing for after lunch to compliment the pastries Simon had brought over to try and entice the Sentinel to eat. Suddenly, Jim's appetite had returned and he looked forward to eating again.

While he waited for Blair to come out of the bathroom, Jim began to tidy up the great room. Dusting and sweeping would have to wait, but the garbage that littered the tables and couches was quickly picked up and thrown away. He put a CD of gentle jazz on the stereo, realizing as he did that he was trying to set up a romantic atmosphere to woo the reluctant Guide.

The sound of a door opening made Jim lift his head and turn in time to see Blair exit the bathroom surrounded by a cloud of steam. The Guide seemed even smaller now, barefoot and dressed only in Jim's oversized robe. His hair, hanging down past his shoulders, was still damp, curling in neat ringlets that had taken considerable time to untangle. His face was scrubbed clean and Jim noted how terribly young Blair appeared. Young and vulnerable. But there was strength there, too. The Guide no longer slumped; he stood his full five-foot-eight-inches with his thin shoulders squared, ready to take on the Sentinel if needed.

"Lunch is ready, are you hungry?" Jim asked, heading over to where the food waited on the dining table.

"Yes, thank you." Blair's voice was quiet as he sat at the table and picked up his sandwich.

Jim sat across the table and studied the Guide as he ate. Finally, he could no longer stand the silence. "It must feel good to get cleaned up."

"Um-hm," Blair agreed around a mouthful of sandwich.

Jim waited, but Blair didn't volunteer any more information. "Not very talkative are you?"

Blair looked up, his eyes glittering with mirth. "If only Daniel could hear you say that!" He went back to his meal, trying the soup and murmuring his approval.

"Was Daniel your Sentinel?" A nod of his head was Blair's only answer. "You must have been very close," Jim continued. "Spencer, my Guide, and I were... very close. We were more than Sentinel and Guide, we were lovers. I miss him terribly."

"Sorry." Blair stopped eating long enough to look up and convey his genuine sympathy with his eyes.

"Did you have that kind of a relationship with Daniel?" Jim prodded.

"It doesn't matter if I did or not. Daniel's gone and I'm alone," Blair said, pushing away from the table, leaving his lunch only half finished.

"You don't have to be," Jim insisted, getting up to follow the Guide. He came up behind Blair and placed his hands on the bony shoulders, pulling the small body against his own. "I interviewed nine Guides today. All of them wanted a Sentinel, but none of them felt right for me. And then I met you."

Blair twisted in Jim's grasp and looked up into the pale blue of the Sentinel's intense eyes. "It doesn't matter what you feel," he said coldly. "It doesn't matter what I feel. My days of being a Guide are over. I can't - I won't - go through that again."

"He must have meant everything to you," Jim said softly, feeling the strong emotions emanating from the Guide like the ocean's surf banging against the shore.

"He was my other half," Blair said, tears brimming at the memory. "He completed me, and now I'm no longer whole."

Jim guided Blair over to the long couch and sat him down, settling next to him. Blair scooted away, leaving a gap of personal space between the two men. "How did it happen? How did you lose Daniel?" Jim asked.

Blair adjusted the robe, pulling it tighter around him. "Cancer. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor and he was dead six weeks later. I didn't even have time to prepare, to get used to the idea of losing him! The executors of his estate came in and took everything; left me nothing. His sister always hated me; she wanted me out of his life - out of his bed. She got her wish. All I have left now are the memories."

"You'll always have those," Jim assured him. "Nothing can take that away."

"I wish someone could take away the memory of his death!" Blair spat, turning his back on Jim and scrubbing hard at his eyes.

"What year did he die?"

"Nineteen ninety."

"That was over five years ago!" Jim declared.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Blair replied. "The wound in my heart is just as fresh as the day he left me."

Jim reached out and gathered the Guide into his arms. Thoughts of Spencer and the hole in his own heart washed over him, and their tears mingled, falling damply onto Jim's shirt. Slowly, the warmth of the man in his arms penetrated Jim's thoughts. It shouldn't, but it did - it felt right. This man, this Guide - Blair - felt right, and Jim wanted him more than he could remember wanting anything in his life. His cock strained in his jeans and Jim felt the ache of need rise up in him for the first time in weeks. His hand parted the folds of the robe and reached in to gather Blair's lax cock into his fingers.

Startled, Blair pulled back and Jim let go, but the damage had been done. Blair retreated to the corner of the couch, curling up on himself, trying to hide the unwelcome tenting of the robe where his rebellious cock was swelling to fullness from the warm touch of the Sentinel.

"You shouldn't have done that," Blair accused.

"I'm sorry. I'm truly sorry. I-I..." Jim stuttered to a halt. Dragging his eyes from the bulge in the robe up to Blair's eyes, he tried again. "I didn't mean to. I-I didn't realize what I was doing until it was done. God, I'm sorry. Please forgive me. Give me another chance."

"I haven't given you a first chance," Blair reminded him. "You brought me here so that I could clean up and have something to eat. I've done that, and now I'm ready to leave. Where are my clothes?"

"I threw them out," Jim answered truthfully. "They weren't anything more than rags."

"They were all I had," Blair growled.

"Let me take you shopping," Jim suggested. "Let me buy you a shirt and jeans and some fresh underwear to replace what I threw out."

"I do not want to be indebted to you," Blair spat. "I'd rather walk out of here naked!"

"No! No!" Jim waved his hands frantically as Blair stood up. "I've got some sweats that might fit. They shrunk in the wash and I can't wear them anymore. You wouldn't owe me anything!" he added.

Blair folded his arms over his chest and pursed his lips, thinking. "All right. It'd be damn cold in the park at night if I was naked."

"Not to mention you'd be picked up for indecent exposure," Jim added, grinning. "I'm a cop. I'd come arrest you myself."

"I bet you would!" Blair's voice was gruff, but there was a tiny sparkle of laughter in his eyes.

"Follow me." Jim headed for the stairs to the loft bedroom. Blair looked up the flight and seeing the bed at the top, froze with his foot on the first step. Noticing the Guide's hesitation, Jim stopped to assure him, "I won't try anything, and I'm not trying to get you in my bed."

"Uh-huh," Blair confirmed skeptically as he climbed the stairs. By the time he reached the top, Jim had already laid out the sweats, some underwear, and a pair of socks.

"I kept your shoes," he explained. "I figured that everything else could run a little big, but shoes..."

"Thanks," Blair said, starting to open the robe to get dressed, and then turning a pointed look at Jim. "Privacy?"

"Consider it your payment, to have the clothes free and clear of any obligation," Jim countered.

Blair shrugged and then let the robe drop. In the brief seconds as he reached for the clothing, he was gloriously naked and exposed to Jim's admiring stare. His cock still stood out straight and full, trembling with arousal as Blair stared defiantly back at the Sentinel. "This what you wanted?" he asked, waving a hand over his bare chest and cock.

Jim blinked and sighed, taking in a deep breath of the heady perfume roiling off the Guide. "Oh, yes," he whispered.

"Well, I'm glad you're satisfied, because it's all you're going to get." Blair pulled on the underwear, then the sweats and socks, and turned to head downstairs. He found his shoes on the floor beneath his coat. Once he was fully dressed, he turned to Jim, one hand firmly on the doorknob. "Thanks again for the food and clothes, and a chance to have a shower. I hope you find your Guide someday."

The door opened and closed, and Blair was gone. Jim followed the Guide's progress down the hall and out of the building with his senses. Then, leaning heavily against the door, he sighed. "I've already found him."

*********

The next morning, Jim showed up in the bull pen of the Major Crime Unit. Passing his old desk, still sitting empty even after four weeks of absence, he made his way straight to the Captain's office and knocked on the door.

"Come!" The command was curt and to the point. Jim entered and stood in front of Simon's desk until the Captain acknowledged his presence. "So, are you back or is this just a social visit?"

"We need to talk," Jim said, pulling up a chair and making himself comfortable.

"Coffee?" asked Simon, lifting the pot from the warming plate. Jim nodded and Simon poured a mug for his detective. "So, what is it that we need to discuss?"

"I'd like to come back to work," Jim said, jumping straight to the point.

"Wonderful! You found yourself a Guide, then?" Simon's smile stretched ear to ear.

Jim took a sip of his coffee and considered what he was going to say. "Yes... and no. I found a Guide!" he said quickly, when Simon reacted to the negative by rising from his chair. "It's just that he doesn't want to be my Guide."

"Come again?" Simon asked. "You found yourself a Guide, but he doesn't want the job?"

"That sums it up pretty well," Jim agreed.

Simon shook his head. "That's the same as not having a Guide, Jim. How do you expect to come back to work without a watch-mate?"

"I just need some time to change his mind," Jim countered. "I could do desk work, paperwork, until I convince Blair that he wants to be my Guide."

"And what's his objection now?"

"He lost his Sentinel, like I lost Spencer," Jim explained. "They were close, like we were. He doesn't think he's ready to consider another alliance. He's afraid of getting hurt again."

"Given your line of work, I'd say he's pretty wise if those are his reasons. The chances that he might lose you or you might lose him are pretty high."

"I know, Simon, but there's something when I touch him. A spark, a chemical attraction. I know he feels it too, he just doesn't want to commit again." Jim knew he sounded as though he were begging. He was; he was begging for another chance at this particular Guide, but in order to convince Blair, Jim had to get his own life back in order again, and the way to do that was to get back to work. "What do you say, Simon? Can I come back, get back into a routine again?"

Simon heaved a sigh. "How do you feel about filing?"

*********

Winters were hard in Cascade; rain, often snow, and always cold temperatures made being outside for any length of time a miserable proposition. Every night after work and sometimes in the mornings before going in, Jim Ellison made the rounds of the local shelters and soup kitchens, hoping to find the Guide he knew only as 'Blair'. Over a month had passed since he'd last seen the young man, and the frigid February winds made him worried about Blair's welfare.

He had just completed his rounds, again with no good fortune. Snow was starting to fall and Jim pulled the collar of his coat up tighter around his neck as he headed across the parking lot to the front door of the building that housed his third floor apartment.

A faint sound caused Jim to pause with his hand on the doorknob. He turned his head, trying to locate the sound. To his right, around the building... he stopped near the dumpsters and listened again. th-thump th-thump A steady rhythm he recognized, only it was slower than it should be. A heartbeat. He circled the dumpsters and spotted a pile of flattened cardboard boxes that someone had left out for recycling. Here, he caught a tenuous scent, one he recognized from those few glorious hours over a month ago.

Digging through the boxes, he found the huddled form of a man shivering as his only protection was taken away. Jim squatted down and reached out to take an elbow and help the man up. Blair stood on unsteady legs, swaying as though he were drunk, although Jim couldn't smell any scent of alcohol.

"Blair! Blair, are you all right?" Jim found himself with his arms filled with the Guide as Blair's balance abandoned him and he fell into the strong grasp of his protector. Blair mumbled something that even Sentinel ears couldn't distinguish. Recognizing the early signs of hypothermia, Jim quickly swept Blair up in his arms and carried him into the building.

Punching the button for the elevator, Jim waited anxiously. He could hear Blair's labored breathing as he swore to the old transport to move faster. Finally, the door to the small car opened, and Jim stepped inside carrying his precious burden. He punched the button for the third floor and counted the seconds as the elevator ground its way upward. When the door opened, Jim all but ran down the hall to the door of #307. He had to put his burden down as he fished the key from his pocket and unlocked the apartment. Kicking the door open, he picked Blair up once more and carried him over to the couch, laying him on the cushions. He stripped Blair of his wet clothing and then pulled an afghan from the back of the couch and wrapped it around the shivering man before going to find more blankets in his linen closet.

Once he had Blair sufficiently bundled, Jim went to the kitchen to prepare some warm compresses. He wet three small hand towels, wrung out the excess water, and put them in the microwave until they were just warm. He wrapped one around Blair's neck, placed one over his chest, and one over his groin, trying to raise the Guide's core temperature. He wrapped more blankets around the shivering body, and then went upstairs to fetch a dry set of sweats for Blair to wear. Laying the clothing on the arm of the couch, Jim returned to the kitchen to fix Blair a warm drink.

Coffee was out, as the stimulant would just exacerbate the effects of the cold. Jim found a bottle of Gatorade and poured some into a mug to heat in the microwave. The electrolytes in the drink would help with any dehydration and the warmth would help raise Blair's internal temperature. He brought the mug back to the couch and tried to sit Blair up. The chilled Guide grasped the warm porcelain like a lifeline and inhaled the steam, but he was unable or unwilling to take a sip. Jim could feel Blair's weight shift against him, and he grabbed for the mug before Blair could let it slip from unconscious fingers. Setting the mug on the end table, he reached for the cell phone he'd left there earlier in the day and dialed 9-1-1.

"9-1-1. What is your emergency?"

"I need an ambulance sent to 852 Prospect Avenue, Number 307," Jim related with amazing calm.

"Is the patient still breathing?"

"Yes," Jim answered, his frustration beginning to build. "He's hypothermic and just passed out. I've got him bundled and warm, but I haven't been able to get him to eat or drink anything. Just get the bus here as quickly as possible!"

"An ambulance is on the way, sir," the 9-1-1 operator told Jim. "Please stay on the line until they arrive."

Jim had had enough of dealing with the operator; he set the phone on the table and forgot about it. His concentration was now on the unconscious Guide leaning heavily against him. He opened his senses to listen to Blair's breathing and heart rate, keeping a close monitor on the hypothermic man until the ambulance arrived.

In the distance, Jim could hear the sirens coming closer. He lowered Blair onto the cushions and was waiting at the door when the paramedics arrived with a stretcher. The fretting Sentinel could barely keep out of the way as the EMTs did their vitals' check and prepared Blair for transport. He grabbed the dry clothes he had laid out for Blair and followed the men down the hall and into the elevator. They reached the ambulance before Jim was told that there wasn't room for him to ride along. Sprinting across the parking lot to his truck, Jim put out the portable light and turned on his siren as he prepared to follow the ambulance to the hospital.

Once at the emergency room, Jim was shunted to the waiting area, unable to be with Blair as the doctors did their exam. He filled out the requisite paperwork, listing himself as Sentinel and Blair as his Guide. When he had finished, he went looking for Blair, allowing no one to get in his way.

Jim worked to filter out the hospital smells - he hated hospitals, always had - to locate the one scent for which he was looking. He found it in Trauma Room 2 and burst through the door to stand at Blair's side.

"I'm sorry, but only family can be here," the doctor said, shouldering Jim out of the way.

"I'm a Sentinel; he's my Guide," Jim said curtly, coming back to stand next to the bed.

The doctor nodded. "I apologize, Sentinel. Your Guide is suffering from hypothermia and dehydration. His core temperature is 95.4 degrees Fahrenheit; what we call 'Stage One' hypothermia. We have him breathing warmed oxygen and are running warmed saline solution through his IV. Right now, the most important thing is to get his core temperature raised back to normal. Since his case is mild, he should be feeling better by morning. It's a good thing you found him and got him here as quickly as you did. What happened?"

"Blair and I are newly bonded," Jim explained, stretching the truth so that he wouldn't be separated from the Guide. "I got worried when he didn't come home on time and went looking. I guess he must have gotten lost."

"Hmmm..." The doctor wasn't fully convinced by the weak explanation, but when Jim produced his police badge and ID, he let any question he might have drop. "We'll want to keep him here overnight," he continued. "We need to monitor his temperature and fluid levels. You may stay with him during that time, if you wish. I've put a mild sedative in the IV, so he should sleep through the night."

"Thank you, doctor." Jim pulled up a chair and settled himself next to the bed. The doctor finished writing his notes and turned, leaving Jim alone with Blair at last. He slipped his hands beneath the blankets to grasp one cold hand of his Guide and settled in to keep his vigil.

*********

The following morning, a nurse came in to check Blair's vitals and replace the IV bag. She walked over to the window and opened the blinds, letting in a wash of pale sunlight through cloudy skies. Jim stirred and opened his eyes, lifting his head from where it had rested on the bed next to Blair.

"Good morning, Mr. Ellison," the nurse greeted him.

"Good morning," Jim replied automatically. "How is Blair doing?"

"His temperature has returned to normal and his stats look good," the nurse answered. "The doctor should be by within the next two hours. He can answer any questions that you have. In the meantime, there's a menu in the night stand if you'd like to order yourself some breakfast. The cafeteria can have someone bring the food to the room, or you can take a break and go downstairs to eat. When Blair wakes up, he can order whatever he wants. His diet is unrestricted and he's likely to be hungry."

"Thank you," Jim said, smiling at the nurse as she turned to leave. He dug the menu out of the drawer and placed an order for pancakes and eggs, along with a cup of coffee to get his day started. As he waited for the order to arrive, he did a sensory sweep of his Guide, wanting to assess Blair's condition for himself. Satisfied that everything seemed fine, he settled back to continue waiting.

*********

Jim had only taken a few bites of his pancakes, when he heard a mumbled greeting.

"'Mornin', Jim." Blue eyes, still a bit heavy from the drugged sleep, looked steadily at the Sentinel.

Jim quickly put his breakfast aside and reached for Blair's hand. "Blair! How are you doing? How do you feel?"

"Tired, so tired...." Blair's eyes drooped shut, then flew open again as the Guide struggled to stay awake. "What happened? Where am I?"

"You're in the hospital," Jim answered. "I found you outside my apartment building last night. You were hypothermic and dehydrated. What the hell were you thinking? Why were you there?"

"Oh God..." Blair reached up with his free hand to rub his forehead. "I'm sorry. The last thing I meant to do was put you out."

"You didn't 'put me out'," Jim assured the Guide, "but I do want to know what happened."

"Since Daniel's death, I've been out on the street," Blair explained. "During the warm weather, it's not a problem, but in winter... I usually eat at the soup kitchens and find a place to flop in one of the heated shelters. But last night, all the shelters were full and they were turning people away. I didn't know where to go, so I thought about coming to you."

"Why didn't you?" Jim asked, his voice tense with anxiety. "You know I'd do anything for you. I've tried my best to make it clear that I want you for my Guide."

"That's why," Blair answered softly. "You want me, and I-I'm still not sure.... I didn't want to encroach on your hospitality when I didn't know if I could reciprocate your feelings. It wouldn't be fair to you. So I found some boxes out in back of your building and built myself a shelter. I thought it would be enough for just one night...." His voice trailed off and he let his eyes close to hold back the tears that threatened to fall.

"When the doctors release you from here, you're coming home with me," Jim said softly, stroking some long tendrils of hair away from Blair's face. "I don't give a damn if you're ready to commit to me or not. I'm going to see to it that you have a warm place to sleep and plenty to eat, at least until you make a decision - one way or the other."

"I-I couldn't," Blair said, shaking his head. "You don't owe me anything and I can't afford to become indebted to you."

"No strings," Jim promised. "No debt. Your 'payment' to me will be my peace of mind that you're not out there freezing and starving. I've barely touched this," he continued, putting the tray of food on Blair's lap, "and I don't seem to have an appetite. You eat it; the calories will boost your metabolism and help to warm you up."

"I'm already warm enough..." Blair looked at Jim, then at the tray of tempting food. Hunger won out over his hesitation, and soon he was busily cleaning the plate. When he was done, Jim took the tray back and set it on a side table.

"Look," Jim said, "I have something important I have to tell you." Blair stared at the Sentinel and then nodded for Jim to continue. "I told the doctors and staff that I'm your Sentinel, that you're my Guide. It's the only way they would allow me to stay the night with you," he explained. "I need for you to play along, or they're going to boot me out of here. Once you're released, we'll do things your way, I promise, but for now... please?"

"You lied so that you could stay with me?" Blair's face was a mask of incredulity.

Jim nodded. "Please?"

"Yeah, okay," Blair agreed. "I really don't want you to have to leave," he admitted.

They had barely completed their brief conspiracy talk when a nurse entered the room and crossed over to Blair's bed.

"Well, I see you're finally awake," the nurse's cheery voice lit up the room. "Are you hungry? What would you like for breakfast?"

"Nothing, thank you; I've already eaten." Blair glanced over at Jim with a guilty look, and the Sentinel nodded slightly. "When can I go home?"

The nurse busied herself checking Blair's monitors and changing the IV bag. "The doctor should be in to see you soon. He'll be able to let you know when you can be released."

"Thanks." Blair waited for the nurse to leave before heaving a big sigh. "I want out of here so bad! I really hate hospitals!"

"Why?" Jim asked, curious. "They're not the best places to have to be, but they're not so bad, either."

"They are when you see the inside of them too often," Blair said cryptically.

Jim turned his curious gaze on the Guide. "What do you mean?"

Blair sighed again and smiled a rueful grin. "Daniel always said I was a trouble magnet," he explained. "I'd be on the receiving end of hospitals three or four times a year, at least."

"What kind of work did Daniel do?"

"He was military - covert ops," Blair answered. "We'd go on all sorts of crazy missions together. I kind of liked it, though. I'm an anthropologist," he explained, "and it gave me a chance to visit and interact with a lot of native people in isolated areas."

"I used to be an Army Ranger, covert ops too," Jim said, grinning now that he'd found some common ground with his potential Guide. "When I got out, I turned my experience over to the Cascade Police Department and became a detective in the Major Crime Unit."

"Then you don't want me as your Guide," Blair assured him. "I'd get shot my first week on the job."

"Not if I'm doing my job, you wouldn't," Jim insisted.

Their conversation was cut short by the arrival of the doctor who checked Blair's chart and then gave him a cursory exam.

"How are you feeling this morning?" the doctor asked.

"Much better," Blair answered.

"I can't see any reason to keep you here any longer, in that case," the doctor said, smiling at his patient. "Your body temperature is back to normal and there are no other symptoms to treat. I'll have a nurse bring in the release papers for your Sentinel to sign, and you'll be out of here within the hour."

Blair did a slight double-take at the doctor's reference to 'his Sentinel', but he quickly remembered Jim's cover story. "Thanks, Doctor. It'll be good to get out of here."

*********

Blair had only the baggy sweats that Jim had brought to the hospital with him the night before. He pulled on the over-sized clothes and allowed Jim to toss a blanket over his shoulders in lieu of a coat.

As they drove toward home, Jim eyed the baggy clothing with distaste. "This just won't do," he said suddenly, flipping his turn signal and turning into the parking lot of a large mall. "We're going to get you some clothes that fit."

"No! Jim, no. I can't afford it, and I can't be having you buying me gifts." Blair looked genuinely distressed as Jim found a parking spot near the entrance to Sears.

"We're getting you one set of clothes and some underwear," Jim insisted. "You need them. You can pay me back whenever you're able. I don't care; but I can't have you running around Cascade looking like that."

"There's nothing wrong with what I'm wearing!" Blair countered, frustrated.

"The clothes don't fit. Now, get out of the car." Jim got out of the truck and walked around to the passenger side. He opened the truck's door and waited patiently until Blair finally shrugged and climbed out.

After an hour of protesting and trying on the clothes that were shoved at him by the persistent Sentinel, Blair finally walked out of the mall wearing a new pair of jeans, a red Henley shirt, a warm leather coat, and a new pair of Nikes. Jim carried the bag that contained the open packages of undershirts, briefs, and socks.

"You shouldn't have," Blair continued to protest. "You spent almost two hundred dollars on all this stuff. I don't know how I'll ever earn enough money to pay you back."

"At least you look presentable enough to go on a job interview now." Jim tossed the bag of extras behind the passenger seat and held the door open for Blair, who climbed into the truck, still grousing about how much Jim had spent.

Ignoring the young man's bellyaching, Jim drove over to the Rainier University campus and led the way into a spacious cafeteria with windows that looked out on the grassy quad. He bought sandwiches and drinks for them both, and then settled down at a window with a view of the campus. "I like to people-watch," Jim commented, biting into his sandwich. "The University always seems to have something interesting going on."

"Tell me about it," Blair said, grinning. "I got my doctorate in Anthropology, specifically Sentinel Studies, here. It feels like I spent half my life on this campus."

"You have a Ph.D.?" The revelation was enough to make Jim stop eating.

"Daniel thought it would be good for me. He found me while I was working here as a grad student, trying to get my dissertation finished. I jumped at the chance to have a real, live Sentinel to study and Daniel was happy enough to think about having a Guide with credentials." Blair smiled at the memory. "He was so proud the day I graduated with honors and got my degree. I thought he was going to burst with pride."

"It's not every Sentinel that's lucky enough to get an educated Guide," Jim commented. "I don't blame him for being proud of you."

"Fat lot of good it's done me," Blair grumbled around a bite of his sandwich. "He's dead, and I'm homeless. No one wants to hire a Guide except another Sentinel. Once a Guide, only a Guide, as the saying goes."

"And you're not ready for another Sentinel?"

Blair glanced up guiltily, before taking a sip of his juice and turning his attention to the students hurrying through the winter cold to their next class. "Don't get me wrong." Blair finally turned his attention back to Jim. "You've been great. If I were ready for another Sentinel, any Sentinel, I'd want to be with you. It's just... I haven't even considered the possibility in the past five years and now here you show up all of a sudden, wanting me so badly and I just... I don't know... I don't feel ready and it's killing me."

"Killing you?" Jim tried to keep the tone of his voice only mildly interested.

"You've been so good to me," Blair explained. "You're a great guy, and probably a terrific Sentinel too - good at your job and all -" He hesitated. "I don't know what's holding me back," Blair finally confessed. "There's just something missing, and without that piece, I can't agree to be your Guide."

Jim nodded. "I understand... I think. I'm willing to give you time. Like I said, you're going to stay with me, at least until spring when the weather turns warm enough for you to be outside again. If you haven't decided by then to stay with me, you'll be free to go. No strings."

"I appreciate it, I really do. And I'll find some way to repay you," Blair promised.

*********

It had been a long and eventful day, and by nightfall, Blair's seemingly boundless energy had finally run out.

"You're welcome to sleep upstairs with me," Jim offered. "Just sleep, I promise."

"Thanks, Jim, but I think I'd be more comfortable down here on the couch. It's not that I don't trust you, but -"

"You're not ready; I understand." Jim went upstairs to fetch sheets and blankets for the couch, as well as a couple of pillows. "I have it on good authority that this couch is quite comfortable for sleeping."

"You know that from your own experience?" The playful twinkle in Blair's eyes made Jim smile.

"Well, even the best of partnerships can have its rough spots," Jim admitted. "Once or twice I was banished to the couch."

Blair laughed. "At least you're honest." He grabbed one end of the sheet Jim was holding and helped to cover the cushions of the couch. He fluffed the pillows and looked at the pile of blankets Jim had brought downstairs. "I'm not going to be cold tonight, that's for sure," he chuckled.

"Not if I can help it," Jim countered. "Now, get to bed and let me get you tucked in."

"Yes, Mom," Blair said with a hint of playful sarcasm. He lay down on the couch and let Jim cover him in the mountain of blankets.

"If you need anything, let me know," Jim said, turning out the light as he headed for the stairs to his loft bedroom. "Anything. Any time."

"Good night, Jim." Blair secretly smiled, warmed by the Sentinel's concern and 'mother hen' actions. Closing his eyes, he quickly fell soundly asleep.

He found himself in a blue-tinted jungle. The vegetation was dense and the humidity high. He was stalking through the underbrush on four padded feet, his gray and white fur bristling with tension. He stopped as he heard a sound ahead of him. Frozen in place, he watched as a huge black cat moved gracefully into the clearing before him. The faint hint of spots beneath the ebony fur marked the cat as a jaguar - a rare melanistic variety.

Blair watched as the cat moved forward silently, golden eyes intent on his wolfen form. As the cat neared, Blair could hear a distinctive purr rumbling from its chest. Despite the fact that he knew that jaguars, like other big cats in real life, could not purr, Blair found the sound unmistakably soothing. He was relaxed and ready as the jaguar reached his hiding place, not even flinching as the cat lifted a huge paw to drape over his shoulders, pushing him to the ground.

It was then he heard the noise - a rustling of the branches on the other side of the clearing. Blair watched as a jackal crept forward, snarling and salivating, ready for a fight. Blair's fur bristled and he snarled in return, only to be pushed back down by a black paw. The jaguar roared its challenge and leaped forward, fighting to the death to protect its mate. Blair watched as fang met flesh and bone. The scent of blood tinged the air and a sudden urge to assist his protector came over him. Wolf joined jaguar in the fight, and soon the jackal was nothing more than a bloody lump of fur in the middle of the clearing. The jaguar led the wolf back to the relative safety of the underbrush and began a thorough inspection, grooming away all signs of the combat. There was blood on the jaguar's shoulder, and the wolf licked the wound clean.

With the conflict over and both animals content that the other was well, they curled together on the soft floor of the jungle and slept.

Blair's eyes flew open. The dark of the apartment surrounded him, only the soft glow from the city lights warmed the blackness. The dream still fresh in his mind, Blair found himself climbing the stairs to Jim's bedroom and crawling under the blankets to spoon his backside against the Sentinel. An arm immediately wrapped around his shoulders, a leg pinned his legs to the bed. Feeling safe and protected, Blair was able to drift back to sleep.

*********

As the morning sun rose to bathe the room with light, Blair slowly became conscious of the warm arms surrounding him. He could feel the Sentinel's intense gaze boring into his back.

"'Morning," Blair greeted the Sentinel, rolling over so that he was facing Jim. When his overture was met with silence, Blair continued, chewing on his lower lip as he struggled to find the right words. "You're probably wondering what I'm doing here... in your bed."

"Mmmm," was Jim's noncommittal answer.

"Well, I..." Blair hesitated, then plunged on. "Last night, I had a dream. I dreamt of a blue jungle, and I was there, but I was a wolf. Then this black jaguar appeared. It protected me from an attacking jackal. We fought it off together, but the jaguar was wounded. Even so, it tended to my needs first, making sure that I was okay before letting me tend to the bite on its shoulder. Then we lay together." He paused and studied Jim's face for any sign that the Sentinel understood what he was saying. "You were the jaguar, Jim. Those were our animal spirits. Haven't you ever seen the jaguar before?"

Jim shook his head. "No, never. Spencer never mentioned anything about spirit animals. I don't know what you're talking about."

"The animals represent us on the spirit plane," Blair explained, his excitement growing. "They guide us, protect us, lead us in the right direction."

"Okayyyy..." Jim drawled the word.

"That's it, Jim! They came to me last night to tell me that I was meant to be your Guide, that you are my Protector."

"And that's why you're here now?" Jim felt a glimmer of hope spark in the pit of his stomach.

"Yeah, man, you got it!" Blair's face was flush with excitement and Jim could smell the arousal wafting through the air.

"You'll be my Guide?"

"Yes!"

"And how does that make you feel... about Daniel? You haven't been able to let go of his memory for five years." Jim reached out to brush away a stray tendril of hair that had fallen across Blair's left cheek. His hand lingered, drinking in the warmth of Blair's skin.

"Daniel never meant for me to be alone," Blair replied, understanding dawning on him as he spoke. "He never would have wanted me out on the streets, without protection, without - love." He leaned forward until his lips met Jim's and the two men locked in a passionate kiss.

Jim's mouth trailed down Blair's throat to suck briefly at the prominent Adam's apple before moving down to lick at the two hard nubs of Blair's nipples. His hands stroked the furred chest, reveling in the feel, the taste, the sight of the muscular body flushed with arousal. As Jim's mouth found the leaking head of Blair's cock, the Guide cried out and arched his back, fighting to hold off the orgasm that surged through him at his Sentinel's touch.

"Oh God, Jim...!" Blair's fists knotted in the sheets as Jim's hand cupped his testicles, rubbing a thumb across the furred sac, squeezing gently.

Jim's mouth engulfed the pulsing cock of his Guide and, as his throat filled with Blair's seed, he heard the jaguar roar with approval.

....A New Beginning...

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Acknowledgments: Many thanks go out to Marion, Kaelana, and Bee for the beta of this story. And to Corinne for the fantastic artwork.