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Jim Ellison, currently unbonded sentinel, scowled at the Captain of Major Crime.
Jim's last guide, Jack Pendergrast, had disappeared under mysterious circumstances nearly two years previously. IA was convinced that the man had taken the ransom money he was supposed to be delivering and absconded with it, leaving the kidnap victim to be killed by his captors when the ransom wasn't paid. The kidnapped Philip Brackley had never been seen again.
Jim had earned himself no friends by his insistence that the evidence was at best circumstantial; that Jack wouldn't have done that; that he was sure Jack was dead.
Simon Banks, alone of the PD senior officers and those in IA, did believe Jim - but then Simon was the only one with any experience of the sentinel/guide bond, the only one who could understand that either man would know if the other was dead, even if the link between them was fairly superficial rather than a full 'one won't survive without the other' bond - which was vanishingly rare. The last such bond Simon had heard of had been fully fifty years earlier.
Fortunately, the surface bond which was what most pairs had was strong enough to be efficient.
Simon's older brother had been a guide. He and his sentinel had died in an accident just after Simon graduated from police academy; but young though he had been, Simon remembered that Daryl had lived for a few hours after his sentinel died, and for those hours he had known - although nobody told him - that Bruce was dead.
So Simon was sure than when Jim said Jack was dead, he knew.
But a sentinel needed a guide if he was to work at full efficiency, and while he had been able to function surprisingly well on his own for the past two years, Simon was aware that Jim was zoning more and more frequently.
In other words, he needed a guide. If Simon himself had had the slightest ability that way... but he didn't.
"No, Simon," Jim protested when Simon raised the subject. I've already lost several guides - Bud Heydash when I was just a kid, Ron Sarris when he was killed in Peru... I've a feeling that one of the Chopek was my guide when I lived with them, though I don't remember my time there all that clearly. Finally Jack. Being my guide seems to be a death sentence. Well, maybe not the Chopek guide, he's not dead, but he might as well be; I'm not likely to meet up with him again. But I'm not prepared to cause the death of anyone else."
"Except yourself?" Simon asked dryly. "No, Jim, I mean it. Don't fight me on this. Either you find a new guide or you're on desk duty. Permanently."
"Simon - "
"I'm sorry, but I mean it. A sentinel needs a guide if he's to be fully efficient. You do know that, Jim." He knew from the look on Jim's face that he was right, and carried on. "Now there's a mixer at Rainier tonight, and I've put your name down for it; and Jim - you will attend it, and do your damnedest to find a compatible guide among the ones attending. Out of the hundred guides who'll be there, there's bound to be one you can work with."
"And if none of them wants a career in law enforcement?"
"Most guides will happily follow their sentinel's choice of career. You were lucky with two of your guides - they were already in the same line of work, and Jack certainly didn't realize he was a guide until he actually met you."
"I know, but... If someone else in the PD had the guide instinct, wouldn't he be the best guide for me? He'd already be doing what he wanted to do."
"I know, and we have four other sentinels who found their guides here... but it's no secret that Major Crime has an unbonded sentinel, and if anyone suspected that he might be a guide wouldn't you think he'd have tried to contact you?" Simon asked.
"It's also no secret that I'm a bad tempered, don't suffer fools gladly, hardass. What potential guide would willingly join with me? You assigned me to work with Jack, but would he have looked at me if you hadn't?"
"Don't put yourself down, Jim. That's the image you project, but it's not the real you. Now - you're going to that mixer tonight, and I'm going with you. You are not going to say anything to discourage a potential - "
"But isn't it only fair to warn one?"
"Then leave me to do the warning."
Jim's mouth tightened, his scowl intensifying, but he said nothing more.
Simon was right when he said there would be a hundred guides at the mixer - but there were only fourteen sentinels, several of them - though not all - accompanied by a friend.
Jim shook his mental head as he was shown to a seat.
The sentinels (and their friends, if they were accompanied) were scattered around the room; the guides circulated as if they had instructions to speak to each of the sentinels present. Jim found himself wondering if the other thirteen sentinels were as reluctant to attend as he was - though he did note that the two nearest him, while tense, did seem more... well, hopeful, than he was.
He assumed as discouraging an expression as he could, and noted that - at least to some degree - it was working. Many of the guides took one look at him and passed on quickly, without even trying to speak to him. The few who did excused themselves and moved on quickly when they heard the discouraging growl in his voice.
Suddenly, from several seats away, came the sound of raised voices.
There was movement as the two were led away.
Well, Jim reflected, at least this hasn't been a waste of time for those two.
But in fact they were only the first of several, and Jim was aware of a slight touch of jealousy. Perhaps, if he hadn't been so aggressively defensive, he could have been one of them.
But he knew - instinctively, he knew - that he needed a guide he couldn't intimidate. A guide who would fight back if - when - he was being unreasonable. And he had easily intimidated every one he had seen so far.
He glanced at Simon, and half smiled at the resigned look on his Captain's face.
"You're here to find a guide," Simon reminded him.
"Yes, but I want an equal partner, one who'll snap back at me when I snarl; this lot all look as if they'd burst into tears and run for their lives any time I was in a bad mood."
Simon made a face. "Okay, I take your point." He was watching the next guide to approach - one he had noticed speaking to some of the other sentinels before moving on. This one probably wouldn't stay anywhere near Jim either. He looked abysmally young; his hair was longer than Simon knew Jim would appreciate and he was wearing an earring. An earring, for crying out loud.
But much to his - and Jim's - surprise, the young guide - who, Simon thought, was probably still in his teens - paused, smiled, and crossed to stand in front of Jim, looking at him with an expression of total satisfaction on his face.
Jim's scowl deepened.
The guide's smile broadened. "Down, panther!" he chuckled. "You don't need to flex those impressive muscles."
Jim's jaw dropped. "Panther?" he whispered. He knew his panther, had seen him in Peru... but How could this youngster know...?
"Oh, I've met him a few times in my dreams," the youngster said. "He and my wolf are friends." He held out his hand. "Blair Sandburg."
Jim hesitated; Simon reached out and shook Blair's hand. The kid was young, certainly, but was it possible...?
Blair swung around, his hand still reaching out. Reluctantly, Jim took it and drew his breath in sharply at the spark of static electricity he experienced. "No," he whispered. "You're far too young... "
Blair's grin remained unaltered. "Not as young as you think," he said. "I'll be thirty in May."
Jim's jaw dropped. "You can't... "
"The Sandburg curse," he said wryly. "We all look far younger than we actually are. The women are happy with it, but for the men it's a real pain. Wouldn't be the first time I was carded and the barman refused to believe my driving licence was genuine. On the other hand, it makes people tend to underestimate me, and that can be useful at times. Believe me, I wouldn't be a handicap to you, Detective."
"You know that? That I'm a detective?"
Blair gave a gesture that took in almost the entire room. "Most of them don't bother with the background of the sentinels who sign up for a mixer; they don't see that it matters, because they'll follow their sentinel where he chooses to go. Some of them really are young, and really shouldn't be attending a mixer for older sentinels; though it's not impossible that one of them could form a link with an older sentinel. Me - I do check, because I like to know what I'd be... well, signing up for, although I recognize that I'd automatically follow where a compatible sentinel led me. I do know something of your history, Detective. I know about your time in Peru. I know about your success rate as a detective. But those things don't matter. I look at you and see my sentinel."
Jim looked at him for a moment, then - "My guide." He held out his hand again, and Blair took it. This time the spark was expected, and welcomed.
"My fifth guide," Jim said softly. "But my last; my true guide."
Blair smiled. "You'd better believe it. Now come on; you too, Captain. Let's get away from this cattle market, get the paperwork signed, then go off somewhere and get to know each other."
Jim's expression softened and he smiled. "Where would you suggest?"
"How about I just take the pair of you back to your loft, Jim, and leave you there?" Simon suggested. "Take the rest of the week off, and I'll see you on Monday, ready to get Sandburg signed up as your guide. And Sandburg?"
"How easy will it be for you to quit your present job?"
"Chancellor Edwards will be glad to see the back of me," Blair admitted, "even though it'll leave the anthropology department understaffed. She's expressed considerable annoyance that I didn't bond at any of the last four mixers I attended. But I knew I was waiting for the panther."
"Do we want to know why she'll be glad to see you go?" Jim asked.
"Clash of personalities," Blair said quietly.
Jim nodded, somehow understanding why his cheerful new guide would clash with his erstwhile boss. He had met Edwards once and been struck by her lack of humanity.
"You will have to go to the police academy for a few days," Simon told him, "but it's an abbreviated course set up for sentinels or guides who aren't already cops but bond with one of our people."
Blair nodded, then chuckled. "Naomi will have a fit."
"Naomi?" Jim asked.
"My Mom. When I tell her I've bonded with a pig. Well, tough. It's my life, and she raised me to be independent. Being bonded won't make me any less independent. Indeed, you'll need me to be independent if I'm to be an effective guide. From what I know of you, you don't want a guide who's afraid to disagree with you."
"When necessary," Jim pointed out.
"That goes without saying. There'll be a lot of times I agree with you. There'll be times I don't, but when I don't I'll tell you why." He turned and headed towards the door.
Jim and Simon glanced at each other and followed, the one surprisingly content, the other slightly apprehensive despite having pushed Jim into getting a guide.
Life with Sandburg was going to be far from boring.