Debutante Ball

Debutante Ball Banner

Title: Debutante Ball
Author: Ellywinkle
Fandom: Magnificent 7 Sentinel Fusion

Warnings: Violence – graphic, Attempted Non-consensual bonding, Discussion Dubious Consent, Discussion Suicide, Discussion Drug Use
Genres: Alternate Universe, Angst, Fusion, Pre-slash
Relationships: Ezra Standish/Vin Tanner
Word Count: 20,781

Author Note:  Credit to MOG for the ATF AU of the Magnificent Seven TV show. The non-consensual bonding is physically aggressive but not sexual. The discussion warnings are due to the main character being touch sensitive and based on impressions.

Summary:  An auto accident brings ATF Agent Ezra Standish online as a guide and he finds himself maliciously thrown into a guide hunt without any training. No matter his circumstances the rules say once you’re in you have to participate. But the only rules Ezra Standish plays by are poker and survival.

– – – –

Chapter 1

Ezra Standish awoke to a sharp pain on the side of his head as he was jostled around. There was too much light and sound and motion….too much…everything. With a sudden jerk, he felt tight restraints holding him to a seat. He was in a vehicle. A vehicle that was no longer moving.

“Last stop, everybody out!” a deep voice called. He heard bodies moving around him, the sounds of seatbelts being unlatched, and the vehicle jostled as each unseen body stepped off. Ezra knew he should open his eyes, but he was lost to pain and nausea and…was that…disgust?

“Hey, that means you too buddy.” The voice called again, moving closer before dropping to say under his breath, “Why you guys want to go on a bender the night before a hunt is beyond me. Ready or not it’s time you get up and get your gear.”

The next several minutes were disorienting. Hands unlatching seatbelt, the sensation of being pulled to a standing position, and then suddenly he found himself standing in a small field next to a track as the taillights of the vehicles disappeared through the trees ahead. It was that darkness just before daybreak when outlines are visible, and Ezra was certain the impending light promised a bright and miserable day. Trying to get his bearings he turned toward the sounds on his right side to see approximately thirty men and women dividing and adjusting backpacks. They were dressed alike, as he realized he was himself. Militaristic gear. A few were already moving toward the trees.

Oh, Lord. He couldn’t remember. How did he get here? Is he undercover in some survivalist group? Keep it together Ezra and figure it out…think…what do you remember? His head hurt. He tried to reach up and felt the pain in his shoulder and chest. Looking down at his arm to check the time he saw that his watch had been replaced with a blue wristband. Blue? He examined it closer and saw Standish written on the band. So not undercover. Taking a deep breath, he realized some of the discomforts was at his waist as well. He pulled up the bottom of the shirt to reveal bruising as if from a seatbelt.

In a flash, it came back. The Faulks case. Joint case with the FBI. Ezra undercover made contact with the Bureau’s inside man, had to blow his cover during the bust to draw suspicion from their man but the bust went down smooth. Faulks was yelling death threats at Ezra, so Chris agreed to send him to a bureau safe house until the task force finished mopping up the remainder of Faulks’ men. Agent Rooks, who looked younger than Mr. Dunne and Buck insisted on calling “Rookie,” was driving him to the safe house when a semi had a blowout and swerved into traffic. He remembered screaming metal, and voices, and fear. A lot of fear, and pain, and worry, and touching, and heat, and cold, an oh so frightening darkness, and…

“Hey, man. Calm down. Your shields are toast, and that is no way to start a Hunt. The way you’re shouting right now is going to call every Sentinel on the Preserve to us. Lock those shields down tight. You know the drill. They have to rely completely on their senses to track us.”

He opened his eyes to see a young man of middle eastern descent crouching in front of him. Somehow he was now kneeling on the ground. How did that happen? Then it registered, “Sentinels?”

“Yes, we have another 2 hours tops before the Sentinels start the Hunt. We need to get moving. You ready to shield yourself now?” The man looked him up and down and didn’t seem to like what he was seeing.

“I don’t understand.” Then it hit him. Hunt, Sentinels, shields, a blue Guide armband. Only Guides were allowed to wear blue armbands to identify them to emergency personnel and law enforcement officers.

Another individual, small, female, brown hair and dark brown eyes stepped forward. “Hi, I’m Shanika. I’m an EMT. Do you mind if I touch you?” He started to shake his head and then stopped himself and just nodded slightly. Her touch was warm, green, concern..worry…fear…determination…. He broke away breathing hard. “Ok, it’s ok. I won’t do that again.” She looked at the man who first approached him. “Al, he’s in Breakthrough.”

Several voices surrounded Ezra and he realized he was slipping that he did not notice them approaching. “Quiet, please, I beg you.” The silence was instant, as was a wave of worry that was not his own. Taking a breath to calm himself he looked back to the two in front of him. “My good sir and madam, I apologize immensely, but I lack knowledge of the situation in which I now find myself and would appreciate any assistance you may provide in explaining my current predicament.”

The one she called Al grimaced then replied, “In the simplest terms, you are a guide, this is the Rocky Mountain Sentinel Guide Center Preserve, and today is the beginning of the yearly Mountain Zone Guide Hunt.”

Shanika continued as Ezra was slowly shaking his head in disagreement, “You appear to be ok but the primary cause of your headache is that you are in the first stages of Empathic Breakthrough. Your brain is opening channels to allow you control of your empathy. You shouldn’t be here. You need at least six months of training before you can be certified for a Hunt. You shouldn’t be allowed near an unbonded sentinel until you at least have control of your shields. Someone screwed up bad. At this point, you aren’t even competent to sign the register.”

A spark of anger went through Ezra as his eyes blazed slightly, “I assure you, madam, I signed nothing. I don’t even know how I got out here. My last memory is of an auto accident.”

“Lystorican,” Shanika stated as Ezra looked askance at her. “Guides in distress in an ER are given Lystorican as a blocker and then transferred to a Sentinel Guide Center as soon as they are identified. It causes short-term memory loss, but trust me it’s better than remembering everything in a Hospital, especially if you are touch sensitive.”

An athletic man to Ezra’s left spoke up, “We don’t have time for this. Figure out the hows and whys later. You need shields, and you need them yesterday. You’re in the Hunt. No matter how you got here, the rules say you are in until sunset on day three or until all of the sentinels leave the preserve.”

“Since there is not much information provided to the public about this Hunt, please explain.” Ezra knows one thing if there are ways around the rules he will find them.

“Not much to it. They’re the hunter; we’re the prey. We split up and lead them on a good chase, and they track us down using their senses. In theory, they’re searching for the scent and trail of the guide that most appeals to their senses. We give them a good run so that only the ones who are a good match find us. The first four sentinels who find you and keep you are allowed to court you exclusively for the next year.”

“Excuse me?!” Ezra’s voice took a derisive tone, “Court? What am I a debutante at a ball filling up my dance card?” What if I do not choose to participate in this courting ritual?”

Shanika responded, “If they catch you, you don’t have a choice. It’s the sentinel’s choice if they want to court. You have to allow the courting period, but that doesn’t mean you have to bond with them. You spend the next year working with each of the sentinels to see if you’re compatible. At the end of the year, you choose one, or you try again. We’re only required to participate in one hunt every three years until we find at least a working partnership.”

The athlete cut in again, “That’s if he doesn’t cause a Hunt frenzy from the start. Is anyone here certified in guide training? He needs Shields 101 now. I don’t know about anyone else but I’m looking for my sentinel, and he’s going to be catnip to them if he doesn’t get that under control.”

Al waved them off, “He is correct. I’m certified and working on my doctorate in sentinel guide studies. Everyone else go. It will be easier on him if we are alone and you need as much distance from him as possible to leave untainted trails for the sentinels.”

In just a few minutes all but Shanika had disappeared into the nearby forest. “Shanika you should go as well.”

“One moment. Here.” She handed Ezra a small packet of Tylenol from her pack and picked up his canteen. “I put mine in your bag.” She waved him off as Ezra opened his mouth to speak. “No, you are going to need them. And Tylenol is approved to treat stress headaches during Breakthrough.” Shanika grimaced like she was arguing with herself before she finally sighed. “Good luck.” And with one last knowing look at Al she slipped into the woods.

“I really don’t understand. What did he mean about catnip?” Ezra asked in a wooden voice.

Al sighed, “He is right that we don’t have much time, but you need to understand. Right now you are in Breakthrough. Your mental gifts are not under your control. Without shielding, you are letting everything in. It can become overwhelming, and we frequently lose new guides who do not realize what they are experiencing is not their own feelings. Shielding allows you to block that input and protect your mind.”

Ezra furrowed his brow in confusion. “So I am receiving and broadcasting these feelings?”

“Not exactly,” Al took a deep breath while thinking of how to explain this. “Fantasy writers tell stories of guides who can broadcast waves of emotion at people, but that is just misinterpreted ramblings from old diaries of guides and myths before a more scientific understanding of the gifts prevailed.” He shook his head. “I apologize, the professor in me… You can’t make someone feel something. You can, however, allow a resonance of your own emotion to surface and affect those around you. They are not forced to feel what you do, but it’s why guides are seen to be calming. We are trained to remain a calming influence for our sentinels.”

Looking into Ezra’s eyes to ensure he had his full attention, Al continued, “There is one caveat to this. That resonance you emit unshielded can be picked up by sentinels. It is around you, and you leave impressions of it on objects. Since they perceive the world through their senses, their brains will interpret it as sense data. It will be an overwhelmingly positive experience, the best thing they’ve ever smelled, silky soft fabric against skin, the most pleasing song they have ever heard, an irresistible taste and they will seek it out. Some can’t help but seek it out. It’s part of why you are supposed to be sequestered until your shields are steady.”

Ezra’s throat tightened as he roughly said, “catnip.”

Al nodded agreement, “Not every sentinel has ironclad control. It’s why most of them want a guide. Sometimes when on a hunt they start moving purely on instinct and in the heat of the moment there have been some forced bondings. The Sentinel Council will insist that the one year courting period be maintained no matter how the bonding occurred so you could find yourself bonded to a sentinel you detest for a year before they entertain breaking the bond. The sentinel can claim that your lack of shields was an invitation to him or her. No guide would like it, but the council is run by sentinels who believe they have the right to make such decisions. That’s why we need to focus on shields. No sentinel is strong enough to break through steady shields.”

“Why only sentinels on this council? Do they not allow guides a voice?” Ezra was ramping up to a full on rant, and it looked like Al could see it.

“Historical writings indicate guides and sentinels were equals, but something happened, and our abilities have been reducing over time. Many theorize that with modern civilization there is less of a need and strong sentinels and guides are no longer able to survive. Few of the guides here today can do much more than help center a sentinel. When it comes to our abilities, I must, unfortunately, agree that we are just not their equals anymore.” Al looked pensively down at the ground he was sitting on and sighed. “Equal or not, you still need protection.”

“OK, I will endeavor to put my overwhelming concerns aside at this time. Pray please instruct me on the construction of shields.” Ezra moved gingerly from kneeling to sitting on the ground with Al.

“First, construction is a misnomer of sorts. Forget every movie you’ve ever seen about guides. The special effects showing someone encased in a glowing bubble is completely inaccurate. A shield is just a focus object. An image you can put between you and the world. You need to be able to focus firmly and clearly on one thing to the exclusion of all others. This allows you to block out extraneous stimuli because you only have room to focus on one thing at a time.”

“If I am only focused on one thing then how can one function?”

“Eventually you will learn to split your focus without losing the shield. And, once bonded a portion of your mind is permanently focused on your sentinel so that you are naturally protected. But, that is a seminar we just don’t have time for at this point. It’s criminal that you are out here without training. Trust me when I say that you will learn everything in the future, but for now you need to find a focus object that you can hold onto even in your sleep. It can be anything. An object, person, place, pet, or anything that can take your complete focus. Once you have it firmly in your mind slowly slip all your focus into it until you stop sensing any external input. Keep the image and allow yourself to engage all of your senses as if it is here with you. I will monitor you.”

Ezra doesn’t know how long it takes as there are long periods of frustration and much additional coaching by Al, but he eventually settles on the image of his great great grandfather’s pocket watch. How it looks, how it feels in his hand, the gold smooth with age, the slight tick tick of the hands moving, the EPS engraved on the cover, and slowly he stops feeling the “tone” of the surrounding environment.

“Good.” Al smiled, “You are a quick study.”

Ezra felt a moment’s relief. “That’s all there is to it?”

“No.” Ezra dropped his head and rolled it. “That is only the beginning. But it is the only lesson we have time for.” Al looked around nervously. “The sentinels will be released for their hunt soon. The focus you have selected will work, but you need much more practice to hold that focus while active. By the rules, we are forbidden to stay together, but I do not feel right leaving you.”

Ezra realized that Al was giving up his chances on this hunt to help him. “You should go. If you are trying to avoid them…” Al grinned, and Ezra stopped.

“Most guides want to find their sentinel. Once you finish breakthrough and receive training, you will find that you crave the stabilizing influence sentinels can offer. However, at this time I just want a good match for the next year. Your government is to cancel my student visa before I can finish my doctorate. A sentinel match will guarantee me residency status until I finish.”

Ezra bowed his head slightly, “Well I am most appreciative of your superlative assistance in my time of need. I do not want to interfere further in your just cause, but if you could just explain a bit more about this Hunt business. The gentleman earlier indicated that this debacle lasts three days?” Al nodded his agreement. “What happens if no sentinel has found you within three days?”

Al frowned slightly, “If no sentinel finds your trail appealing to track, or you are not located by a sentinel by sunset on our third day then the moderators on the Hunt will use the tracker in your bracelet to find you and bring you in. They also use the tracker to make sure you don’t accidentally go out of the bounds of the Preserve for your protection.”

Ezra considered this carefully. “Are there consequences to a sentinel not finding you?”

“No,” Al assured him quickly. “It just means you don’t have a good match in this group. When you are ready again, you can sign up for another hunt. Or, wait until you are required to try again in three years. But I caution you. The feel of your mind is amazing up close, and this is only the beginning of your breakthrough. Do not imagine that you will make it through the Hunt without a match. Accept that and work solely on protecting your mind from unintentional bonding.”

“Thank you,” Ezra stated with true gratitude. Realizing that he had limited time to take action he spoke swiftly to move this along. “Really my good man I must insist you get moving for your own good. You don’t want a sentinel to pass you by because he thinks you are not trying.” Al opened his mouth to protest. “No, I really must insist.” Ezra smiled an innocent smile letting his dimples show in a way that had harvested him a hundred cookies in kitchens around the world as a small boy. “I assure you I will not overdo this. I hear the river over yonder and plan to seek a good place to make camp while I work on my shields. I am sure that if I am found by a sentinel, I will do what I must to persevere and once back I can dispute my involvement in this event. After all, it is not the end of the world.”

With some uncertainty, Al nodded as he stood and buckled on his pack. He insisted on helping Ezra do the same, careful not to make skin to skin contact. He pulled a map of the preserve out of the outer pockets of the pack and handing Ezra’s to him he encouraged, “Just take it easy, work on keeping your focus, and if a sentinel finds you keep calm, keep on your focus, and don’t let them intimidate you.” He took one last uncertain look at Ezra’s calm grin, nodded, and said, “Good luck.”

“And the same to you good sir.” Ezra held his position until he lost sight of Al then turned resolutely toward the sound of the river. Shifting the pack slightly to relieve pressure on his bruises he flipped the map to his current location showing the river as it moved toward the easternmost border of the preserve. He didn’t know who set him up in this travesty, but Ezra refused to play by their rules. He has three days to avoid the sentinels and regain his freedom. And if there is one thing Ezra Standish knows its that if he is to succeed, he must play to his strengths. He took a deep breath, “Courage, Ezra” he whispered to himself and started out. Plans quickly morphed and rearranged in his mind with every step.

Chapter 2

Chris Larabee slowly placed the handset onto the receiver of his desk phone before picking up the thermos holding the last cold dregs of his coffee and throwing it against the wall. He stood and marched to his office door, slamming it open as he yelled out, “Tanner, get your scrawny ass in here!” He turned and stalked back to his chair without waiting for a reply.

In the outer office there was a moment of silence before Buck Wilmington, explosives expert among their merry little ATF team, leaned back and a slow grin spread on his face, “Well Junior, what have you been up to now?”

Vin Tanner, team sniper, and weapons expert, stood slowly, “Ain’t done nothin’….lately.”

The other members of the team grinned at that. Vin picked up a candy bar from his desk and turned toward the office.

“Now Tanner!” Larabee yelled from within.

“You’d think that since you’re both sentinels, he’d know he doesn’t have to yell for you to hear that, don’t ya think?” Asked JD Dunne, team computer systems and electronics guru.

The last two members of the team present, Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez, smiled broadly at each other before Nathan leaned back and remarked, “You’d think that you’d learn by now that Chris can hear all those comments you’re making JD.”

JD blushed slightly before saying under his breath, “Well, you’d still think he’d know.”

Buck laughed out loud as the voice from the office yelled, “He does know, but obviously Tanner is deaf! Move it, Tanner!”

Vin moved into the office while unwrapping his Snickers bar. “What’s up Cowboy? Need me to get the door?”

“No time Vin. Got a call from Travis. The Center is coming down on him for not requiring sentinels to keep up with check-in and Hunt guidelines. Threatened to pull our field certification if we don’t go for check up and participate in the Hunt.”

“That’s bullshit, Chris. Hunt starts just after dawn. We’ve already been up half the night logging evidence from the Faust bust.”

“You think I didn’t explain that?” Chris growled. “Travis said he tried everything but when they asked he had to admit there were no active cases that would be impacted by the two of us being absent for three days.”

Vin threw down his wrapper and pointed to the case file on Chris’s desk, “Not impacted? There are still five of Faust’s guys unaccounted for, and Ezra is stuck in a safe house until we find them.”

Chris sighed as he stood back up to start packing his bag. Lately, he’d been getting twitchy when Ezra was undercover too long. Vin had been pacing the office floors like a big cat before the bust. “I don’t like leaving him in the FBI’s hands any longer than we have to, but he’s safe. He’s probably out cold right now in a nice soft bed which is more than we’re going to get.”

He brushed past Vin as he moved to the bullpen. “Everyone listen up. Per Assistant Director Travis, Vin and I have to go to the Center for medical certification and to participate in the Hunt. Buck, you’re in charge for the next three days. Finish the evidence log, then everyone needs to go home and get some sleep. Starting tomorrow, Buck will coordinate with the Bureau to locate the last of Faust’s men. They have point so try not to start a range war Buck.”

“Me? I’m not the one around here that’s always stepping on toes Ol’ Dog. I think we’ll have a nice calm productive weekend here while the two of you are out there sleeping on the cold ground and chasing guides through the forest.” Buck’s smile only grew larger as he leaned far back in his chair and put his feet on the desk.

Chris snarled, and Vin stomped to his desk to pick up his bag. “Now Brother Vin,” Josiah said with a twinkle in his eyes and a growing grin. “This could be your opportunity to finally meet your soulmate. Your one true guide. Maybe someone with auburn hair and green eyes, and a nice figure. I just hope she doesn’t feel threatened by your long curly hair.”

The men burst out into laughter as Vin slammed shut his desk drawer and headed for the elevator. Chris started to follow before turning back to the room. “Have your fun now but first thing tomorrow you’re back on target. Just remember, while you’re all going home to sleep, Ezra is stuck at a safe house with the bureau boys, and we aren’t allowed to see him until this mess is cleaned up.” The grins faded as the elevator doors closed.

Buck sighed and stood up to get the files from everyone. “Alright, one last check and then let’s call it a day guys. Ezra’s counting on us to free him.”

– – – –

They drove in silence to the Rocky Mountain Sentinel Guide Training and Rehabilitation Center in the foothills. Unlike the Community Outreach, Assistance, and Coaching Halls throughout the city, the RM Center handled all of the administrative and initial training of newly online sentinels and guides in Colorado and the surrounding Rocky Mountain states. Once they were able to interact with society without detrimental effect, then they could transition back home with continued classes and seminars at the COACH locations. Eventually, quarterly wellness sessions were recommended, and a Guide Hunt required every three years to prove that a sentinel was well adjusted and actively seeking a stabilizing influence.

Chris felt like kicking himself. If he just attended his quarterly sessions he could have talked his way out of a Hunt. Sarah had been Chris’s guide of record even though she refused to bond. Logically he knows she wasn’t a good match for his sentinel, but she was a perfect match for the man, and she was all he ever wanted. Usually he could play the widower card and slip through. They had given him a lot of leeway in the five years since the murder of his wife and son. But when the Center leadership decides to butt in, there’s no way around it if he wants to keep his team. At this point they’re the only family he has left, and he’s willing to bend…somewhat.

High and mighty Mike Phillips, Director on high of the RM Center may feel like he can lord it over Chris that he was selected as the top sentinel in the region but Chris’s give a fuck died long before that asshat was awarded the position. It’s not like anyone in their right mind would think Chris was Director material. But, when the last Director stepped down Chris and Sarah were approached to complete their bonding so they could take the position. Sarah was adamantly opposed, and Chris was secretly relieved. Unfortunately, that left only Phillips in the running with the backing to lead the region. And here he is having to cow-tow to that idiot just to keep his field status.

“You choke that steering wheel any more, and this truck might just try to buck Cowboy,” Vin said with a mischievous grin.

“Don’t call me cowboy, ya scrawny-assed Texan,” Chris growled back good-naturedly. He glanced over at Vin in his sprawl against the passenger door. “How can you be so relaxed?”

“Ain’t nuthin to do about it now. It’s my own fault for avoidin’ it since I started with the ATF. Time to take my lickin’ and get on with life.” Vin shrugged again when Chris looked unbelievably at him.

“Why did you avoid COACH?” Chris asked.

“Awe, Chris. You know me and classrooms don’t get along. They only let bonded pairs teach the classes. The sentinels want to test you on your control, and the guides want to be sure that you are well balanced. All that get in touch with your feelin’s stuff just ain’t my way.” Vin squirmed a little, “and they always wanna touch. Ain’t right for a bonded guide to touch an unbonded sentinel.” A slight shudder, “Ain’t decent.”

“You know most sentinels like the attention of a guide, bonded or not. It’s supposed to be calming, ” Chris remarked.

“The Elders woulda never allowed it when I’s a kid. And the whole Hunt is just wrong.”

Chris glanced over at Vin’s frown. “I thought the Hunt was taken from tribal traditions.” It was a statement with just a hint of question. Chris knew Vin didn’t approve but had never gotten a good explanation.

Vin sighed, “A guide has just as much right to hunt a sentinel as the sentinel does the guide. In the old days, a guide woulda been free to travel from tribe to tribe to find his sentinel. Once he found one he felt was a match, then he’d approach the Elders of the tribe to request a Hunt. If the sentinel wanted it and the Elders approved, the Guide would give the Sentinel a token. Something with their scent on it. Then the guide was given from sunrise to sunrise to run. As soon as the sun broke over the horizon, the sentinel would hunt their guide to prove his worth and show they were a good match. Once he caught his guide, he’d formally request permission to court. The tribe would give them a year and a day to get to know one another and bond. Some bonded quick, some slow, but ya had to be ready to enter the bond a full partner.”

“Really. The sentinel would just wait around for a guide to show up?”

“Can’t protect the tribe if you’re not there Chris. The elders made sure other tribes knew they had a sentinel. Word gets around. But it’s the guide’s place to leave his tribe and follow the spirits to his new tribe. If a guide can’t walk the spirits then how can you trust him with your tribe?” Vin said as if it was obvious. “The way the Centers do the Hunt, it’s like the guide is just a tool instead of a partner. Ain’t right.”

“Now Vin. I may not like that we’re forced to hunt, but guides have choices. It’s always the guide’s choice whether or not you bond.” Chris said wistfully.

“Right, they have all the choice in the world. The right to say no after a year of bein’ forced to entertain some sentinel they’d never choose on their own.”

Chris grimaced. Many sentinels didn’t approve of the Hunt for just that reason. The sentinel in Chris growled at the thought of someone forcing a guide. It was uncomfortable thinking that the council leadership practically endorsed it for the good of the sentinels. After all, a bonded guide is a happy guide was the saying all young sentinels learned.

Chris thought about the rest of what Vin had been saying. “Do you really believe all that mystical fantasy BS about spirits Vin?” Chris asked. “You know they’ve proven scientifically that they don’t exist. Sweat-house hallucinations, drugs, illness…”

Vin cut him off, “The spirits do exist Chris. Real as me sitting here with you. The day my mama died in that car wreck the biggest mountain lion you ever did see looked right into my soul and led me straight to my granddaddy. Five years old through three miles of Pine trees ta a cabin I’d never seen.” Vin looked out the side window, “I know we’re taught not to believe, but my granddaddy had stories passed down from his grandfather of sentinels and guides who walked the world with the spirits by ‘em. Sentinels who could track a man across the territories in a storm with their guide right beside them. The guides back then weren’t these lil’ wiltin’ flowers. They had power. They could calm a room or start a riot with a whispered word. They could sense truth as well as any sentinel, and some stories say they could get into a man’s mind and control what he saw.”

“That sounds downright terrifying to me Vin.”

“No, Chris. Amazin’ is what it is.” Vin lowered his voice wistfully, “A sentinel with a guide like that could have a true bond. An everlastin’, soul-deep connection with their perfect matchin’ guide. It’s what I’s wished for when I’s a lil’un.”

They traveled some distance in silent contemplation when Vin suddenly sat upright. “Hey, pull over at the truck stop there.” Vin pointed at the next exit.

“We’re almost to the Center. Can’t you hold it that long?”

“I want to pick up some supplies. I’m outta jerky and really need some twinkies.”

“You don’t need that crap.” Chris grimaced.

Blue eyes in a suddenly young looking face beseeched him, “Come on Chris. You know they’re gonna stick us with that sentinel approved ration crap. Three days on that and I’ll be ready to forget the guides and just hunt game in the preserve.”

Chris grinned as he pulled into the exit lane, “If the center wants you to hunt guides they should just fill their packs with junk food. You would zero right in on that.”

“Well, least I’d know which ones have good taste.”

– – – –

Chris and Vin entered the RM Center through the main sentinel entrance while following the check-in lines. This night only bonded pairs staffed the desk to avoid undue influence on the sentinels. Both were immediately waived through to the sentinel medical wing to complete an impromptu physical, and he didn’t know if he was getting grumpy on his own behalf or Vin’s. Vin was always sensitive to unknown people touching him.

Chris endured the standard lecture about proper care of his senses and maintaining regular medical appointments. But they did note that he was noticeably more stable than the last time he was checked just over two years ago. Finally, he joined Vin in the locker room where the stragglers were changing into Center approved Hunt clothing and gear. After lacing his boots, he placed his gun and badge into the lockbox at the top of the locker and slid the provided key onto the dog tag style ID and panic button he was issued with his gear and pulled them over his head.

He looked up to see Vin standing in the doorway waiting for him. “Best get it started Chris.”

Grimacing Chris followed Vin into the Meeting Hall for the briefing. And of course, there was Phillips. Impeccably dressed with his mouse of a guide wilting in the chair behind him as if trying to blend into the furniture. Looking around he could see that there were at least two hundred and fifty sentinels in the room. Phillips stepped up to the podium before flipping on the mic. What an ass, like the entire room isn’t full of sentinels that could hear him if he whispered.

“Greetings my fellow sentinels to the Rocky Mountain Guide Hunt. For those of you I have not met in person, I am Michael Phillips, the director of the Rocky Mountain Sentinel Guide Training and Rehabilitation Center. I am honored to host so many of my brethren as you seek that which we all deserve, a well-matched guide. As you know the hunt will begin at one hour after dawn and end at sunset on Sunday. Once a guide has been selected by the maximum number of sentinels then you can return to one of the Center checkpoints on your map to file your claim. The Center will then take charge of the guide to schedule an equal division of time for the next year.

Vin shifted restlessly next to Chris and traded a look that clearly stated “See what I mean Chris. It ain’t right.” Chris nodded because there was no changing anything at this point and returned his gaze to the jerk on the stage.

“I know you are all excited to get started so I just want to share that we were able to obtain one hundred and twenty-three guides, so you have a plentiful choice. Now every year we always have at least one challenge fight when a guide has too many potential matches. I would prefer that everyone seek to remain civilized. If you feel you must challenge, let’s wait until we are at a checkpoint so appropriate safety gear and medical attention are available. Let’s not propagate the public perception of the dangerous Neanderthal.”

Phillips smiled condescendingly at the crowd and said, “Don’t be concerned if your chosen guide seems a little nervous at first. Remember a bonded guide is a happy guide. They all want to bond, and it’s your place to determine if you are a good match. As you leave this room, all sentinels who have completed a Hunt within the last year will be allowed to check the scent samples collected from our guides to determine if you want to participate today. Everyone else will move on to pick up your packs and await your release signal. We have approximately one hour. Enjoy your weekend and Good Hunting.”

Chris felt Vin shift as he murmured, “think he missed his callin’ as a used car salesman.” There were several chuckles around them. They waited until most of the room had cleared before standing to join the end of the queue.

“Well, Christopher Larabee. I see you finally are learning to follow the orders of your betters.” The vein in Chris’ forehead started to throb as he turned toward Phillips.

“Well, Mikey. Orders are orders, even when a whiny child has to throw a tantrum to get someone to listen to him.”

Phillips smile tightened, “I am just doing my duty for the welfare of the sentinels under my control.”

“Please, you can barely control your bladder.” Chris taunted. “Trust me, the sentinels in this region are not yours to command. That takes leadership you don’t have. If you were leading, then you wouldn’t have to force anyone to participate in the stupid Hunt.”

“Force or not, you are here on my say so. Watch yourself, Larabee. Maybe I’ll decide that you have to go to every hunt until you find a guide. After all, for the good of the tribe, I can determine you are unstable without a guide.”

Guide Emily Stiller-Phillips hesitantly cleared her throat. Mike Phillips kept staring down Larabee as he said in a put-upon voice, “Yes Emmy?”

“Uh, Rico….um, Guide Martins-Lassiter said they need these two for the final gear check.”

“Guide Martins-Lassiter said?” His voice was condescending.

“Oh, Sentinel Lassiter is performing the final gear check, and per Guide Martins-Lassiter his sentinel is requesting them.” Phillips guide looked embarrassed to be taken to task in front of the two sentinels.

“Well, you better run along Chris. Don’t want to keep your fellow sentinels waiting do you?” Phillips smirked as if he had won this round.

As Chris turned to march out of the room, Vin stepped toward the guide who was still staring down towards her feet. Chris paused to be sure Vin wasn’t about to get into trouble.

Vin bowed slightly toward the guide before speaking, “I thank ya kindly for your service. I honor the Guide. May your bond be a true partnership of equals. One where you are proud to accept your sentinel’s protection and your Sentinel proud to follow your wisdom.” She watched him thoughtfully as he grinned adorably and turned to follow Chris out of the room. As he left the room, Chris saw the angry glare Phillips directed at Vin’s back.

– – – –

The sentinels waited for their signal to go, leaving in groups along separate trails. The guides had been driven to several different drop points along the various trails which were marked on their maps. Sentinels would move out to each drop point and determine if there were any scents worth tracking. If not, move on to the next point.

As far as Chris was concerned it was just an excuse to send them on a hike. Waiting for the doors to open he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. When several sentinels glared at him, he just stared them down and lit one up. Vin snickered at his antics. It only resulted in a large portion of the room moving away from him.

Finally, the alarm sounded and the doors opened. Sentinels moved out along their assigned trail. Chris took one last drag on the cigarette before dropping it to crush under his boot. He nodded at Vin, and they started out together.

An hour later they had passed by the first two drop points and were approaching the third when they noticed a slight commotion ahead. Several sentinels were trying to scent an area of ground at the same time. A couple growled as they moved closer to a section of grass that appeared to have been flattened. Someone had sat here for a period of time.

Close enough to pick up scent, Chris started to analyze what he was smelling. Something here was familiar. Vin suddenly jerked back. “Ezra.” Chris spun to look at Vin like he was crazy. Vin glared at him, “Don’t go lookin’ at me that way. That’s Ezra. You know his scent same as me. Tell me it’s not him.”

Chris shook his head confused. “It can’t be. He’s no guide. Twelve hours ago he was standing right beside you. I think we’d have noticed if he suddenly became a guide. He’s in a safe house right now, not out traipsing through the woods.”

“I don’t know how or why, but I been usin’ my senses to track Ez for two years now. The senses don’t lie. There’s no way in hell he should be out here. He’s in trouble. I can feel it in my bones. He’s in trouble and needs our help.” Vin stood up tightening his pack’s strap. He looked Chris in the eye. “Believe, don’t believe. I don’t give a damn. I’m gonna find’em.”

Chapter 3

Ezra paused to pull out his map and compass to get his bearings. He’d traveled for the last two hours cross-country and should be intersecting with the river again when it changed direction toward the southern border of the preserve. He deduced that it was foolish to follow the river as he had learned from Mr. Tanner over the years that a river’s path is not always the most direct route.

Since he was not in the best shape to evade sentinels on the run, his best option was to mask his scent and find a suitable place to hide. The map indicated that there were some small caves upstream to the river’s tributary in this direction. If he was being honest with himself, he had wasted a good half hour feeling sorry for himself while trying to determine a course of action.

Yes, according to the map he would be close to the border here. Ezra pocketed the map and returned to the path. He ached now, but there was no time to stop. His only real concern the throbbing headache. At its worst, he would focus on his grandfather’s pocket watch again, and it would disappear. But, Al was correct, he could not focus and hike at the same time. Since the headache was significantly reduced during his focus, he determined he must be shielding correctly and tried to force himself to stop frequently for this purpose. It would do no good to hike if he was “broadcasting” to the very sentinels he was determined to avoid.

Ezra made the final turn on his path and spotted the river once more. Ahead he could just make out the landmarks he needed to find the caves. It may be futile, but a Standish never gives up.

At the river, he removed his pack and moved forward between the boulders to refill his canteen. Moving stiffly, he took his time to ensure he did not accidentally fall in, though he did contemplate soaking his head in the ice cold water. He still had a couple more hours before he could take another Tylenol and what a sad state of affairs that he was looking forward to that as a highlight of this day.

Canteen full he capped it and stood to move back to his pack, and froze. “Ezra Standish,” a voice from his past spoke mockingly.

“Agent Samuel Leach.” Ezra measured the distance between himself and his pack. “I am amazed to find you so far from your Atlanta roots. I was under the impression that you already had a guide. What was his name? Emil?”

“He’s gone, thanks to you. After you screwed over the division, he took the first opportunity to run. No one wanted to be painted with the same brush as a dirty cop. Don’t know who you paid off to weasel your way out of charges Standish.”

“I paid no one off. I was innocent and cleared of all charges. The only ones persecuted in that office were the ones on the take and those covering for them.” Ezra responded coldly. Would he forever have to live with the taint of IA’s inept investigation?

“Sure. Right. Innocent. Bullshit. IA’s never come right out and cleared you. Just that no longer a person of interest crap. A lot of good men have lost their careers because of you. And no one wants to work with sentinels and guides who couldn’t see what was dirty in their own office.” Leach took a step forward, and Ezra tried to move to the side, but a boulder blocked that path.

“Well, I no longer am associated with the FBI; therefore I have no influence into the behaviors of those around you. I left Atlanta behind. Perhaps you should seek to do the same.”

“Perhaps I should haul you back to Atlanta with me so our friends can give you a taste of home Standish.” Leach moved so quickly Ezra barely registered it, and he was on top of him, pulling him into a wrist lock behind his back with his chest against the boulder. He leaned in and said, “When Walters told us you were out here we couldn’t believe it. No way slime like you could be a guide. You’re corrupt, and we won’t let you taint the image of real guides. We’re only lucky someone who knew what you really are was volunteering at Guide check-in for this Hunt when you were hauled into the Center.”

“I refuse. You have to know there is no way in hell I will entertain even the concept of a bond with someone such as yourself.” Ezra quieted himself knowing he needed to focus on breaking the hold.

“Shit, Standish. I don’t give a damn what you want. I’m the sentinel, so I’m the only one with a say. I promise you I’ll find every moment of this entertaining. Don’t worry though, I have no plans whatsoever of keeping a bond with slime like you. But I’ll pull your ass back to Atlanta until IA wises up and crucifies you. Me and the boys want front row seats to watch you go down.”

Ezra forced the panic down. He was never going back to Atlanta. The feeling of being hated with a target on his back. The call for help with no backup. A shot from behind. Bleeding out in an alley. Weeks of recovery time alone. Then the lifeline Chris had offered him with the ATF. Vin at his side encouraging him to accept.

“Come on Standish. Open up and let me in. I know you don’t have the training to keep me out. You think you can shield against me? No way in hell. Let me in.” Shit, he was trying to bond. Instinctively he recognized what the sentinel was attempting.

With an otherworldly weight to his voice that promised more than just threatened he ordered, “Go to hell. Let me go or so help me I will do everything in my power to ensure you never try bonding again.” Ezra knew that his shoulder was close to dislocating, but he ignored the sensation and focused everything he had on that image of his great-great grandfather’s watch. He could take physical abuse. Ezra had a lifetime of practice. But, by whatever he might still hold holy, he was not allowing this cretin into his mind.

“I would think by now someone like you would know it’ll hurt more if you fight back.” Leach taunted.

Suddenly Ezra reached back to grab his own wrist and while pressing down to relieve pressure kicked back and struck the sentinel’s knee. That one moment of release allowed him to break the hold and spin back to fight. Unfortunately, Leach recovered a moment faster and slammed him back against the rock. Leaches body on top of his pinning him in place. And then an arm across his throat restricting air.

“You little cock-sucking bastard,” Leach growled into his face.

Clawing at the arm, Ezra felt his eyesight dim. In the distance, he heard the sound of a large cat’s growl. Strangely everything darkened to a blue with blue eyes staring out at him. Eyes that oddly reminded him of Vin and yet not. These eyes were harder with a lifetime of trials behind them. Then an enraged voice said, “Ya no good cowardly bag of five-day-old pig shit. I get my hands on ya I’s gonna slit ya from bollocks to belly then hang ya by your innards over a buzzard’s nest.” The eyes turned and looked deep into Ezra’s with a fierce determination. “Ain’t never met no Standish that’d just give in an take it. Now’s not the time to be all fancified and civilized. It’s ur life ya’s fightin’ for. Time to put’em down like a ol’ mad dog.”

Ezra stared up and could see the rage in Leach’s eyes had moved beyond any rational thought. He’d seen Chris like this once. Feral Vin had called it when the perps they were after tried shooting through a bus full of children to get away. He could feel through his skin that Leach didn’t see him as a guide. Shifting his body to the side as if to gain leverage on the rock, he focused the last energy he had to slam his knee up into the sentinel’s groin. Again and again, until he released the hold on Ezra’s neck.

Though his lungs were begging for air and he still had dark rings in his vision, he didn’t let it stop his momentum. He grabbed the sentinels wrists that were hovering in front of him and twisted to the side bringing them down and away. Then in one fluid move sharply brought his elbow into his attacker’s face, breaking his nose. Ezra stepped back and spun kicking Leach on the side the head before he lost his balance falling to the ground.

Struggling to get up he located his opponent unconscious on the ground before him. He wanted to stop and cry. He wanted to run. He wanted to murder the bastard and all of the others out there that were with him. Instead, he let his adrenaline lead him forward to the pack to pull out some rope.

The knots were overdone and horrific, and frankly, he’s not sure he wasn’t cutting off circulation, but he just couldn’t bring himself to care. Once he had him tied up, he shifted Leach into something close to the recovery position then backed off dragging his pack with him.

What the hell is this? Survivor: Guide Hunt Edition? Is he stuck in some bizarre reality tv show? And blue eyes talking to him? He’s losing it. No. No…he’s finding it. Where is that map? Ezra pulled the map out of his pocket and studied his location. Oh yes, here he is. It’s time to vote himself off this island.

First things first. Get rid of that damn tracker. Ezra pawed his way through the pack for something to use to pick the lock finding a safety pin in the repair kit. He made quick work of it and soon had the wristband off. Now leave it here so they know he’s gone? Or…reaching back into the tiny first aid kit in one pocket he found sterile gloves. Ezra stuffed the band carefully into the glove, added a few pebbles for weight, and blew up the glove into a small balloon. With a glance at his unconscious companion, he moved back to the river and tossed it in, taking a moment to ensure it was swept away with the current.

Without a second look at the downed man, Ezra shoved items back into the backpack, put it on, and headed eastward to the preserve border. At the edge he stopped and looked down at the rock face below. It was only about 50 feet down, but in his current shape, Ezra wasn’t sure he could make it.

He sat down and pulled out rations and water, eating while examining the map. He’s desperate, not suicidal. He realized he was a little under a quarter mile from the rest stop below. He started walking in that direction until he could see that the rock face had a better climbing surface and was maybe only 35 feet. Without giving himself time to think about it he dropped his bag over the edge and watched it fall.

It was sometime after 1pm when he made it into the rest area. He meticulously cleaned the scrapes on his hands with soap and water then changed into a clean shirt from his pack. He tied a strip of cloth around his neck to cover the bruising and decided that it was as good as he could get.

Ezra looked over the people who were stopped in the parking lot. He casually approached a few until he located a young couple with a Metro State parking tag in the windshield. Making sure his body language was open and inviting and oh so tired looking he spun his tale of lost hiker separated from his group wanting to get back to Denver and his car, his internal mantra repeating over and over “trust me.” In no time at all, he was enjoying a cold bottle of water, a bag of potato chips, and the comfort of air conditioning in the back seat of the Ford Taurus while in his hand he held onto the ghostly image of an old pocket watch.

– – – –

Chapter 4

Chris and Vin had been following Ezra’s trail for a while, and there was something odd. They kept meeting up with sentinels that were crisscrossing over the trail as they seemed to find and lose it. It was damned confusing. Vin speculated that if Ezra is in Breakthrough, then he was probably leaving a staticky signal that was over stimulating the sentinels. That didn’t make sense because neither Vin nor himself were overly influenced.

“Well Chris, what we smell is Ez, clear and simple. Ain’t no tryin’ to figure it out like they are. Easy to follow when ya know what your lookin’ for.” Vin grinned.

They rounded a bend in the path and stopped. Ahead was a man down and tied up. As they neared, Tanner growled. “Vin?”

“He stinks a’Ezra’s fear and pain.” While Chris moved to examine the unconscious sentinel, Vin prowled the area. “There’s a fight. There’s some blood spray on the boulder and ground over yonder. Probably from the broken nose. And the ground’s torn up some. I’d say from a fight. Over here Ez was crawlin’ and draggin’ somethin’. If I hadta guess, I’d say his pack. Let’s go, Chris.”

Vin put his pack on as he turned to leave. Chris stopped him, “Wait a damn minute Vin. We can’t leave a man down out here. Besides, I want to know what the hell was going on.”

“Ez is still out there, and now we know he’s in trouble. I told ya I felt it. In my bones, I felt it. So you can come with me or just get the hell outta my way. I’m gonna find him, Chris.” Vin stared him down with a resolute certainty that made Chris shiver. “I have to.”

Chris backed off. He could see the strain in Vin’s eye and realized that it wouldn’t take much for Vin to slip into a Hunt frenzy. “OK, Vin. I got it. You have to go. Be careful. Find him and keep him safe. I’ll call for Center support and go back to find out what the hell Ezra’s doing out here. You find him you hit your panic button so we can pull the two of you outta here. OK?” With a bare nod, Vin left.

Turning back he pulled his own ID tags out of his shirt and hit the panic button to call for emergency help. ATVs approached about 20 minutes later, and he soon found himself riding back to the Center.

While the doctors were checking the unconscious man, Chris showered and changed into his own clothes. He also took a moment to intimidate some lackey into opening Vin’s locker before striding out to get answers. He was stopped as he tried to enter the Hunt Command Center but pushed his way inside anyway.

Phillips soon appeared, “Larabee. It’s against the rules for participants to be in here.”

“I really give a rats ass about your rules right now. I need information. Ezra Standish, how did he get into the Hunt?”

Phillips frowned at him. “I don’t recognize a Sentinel by that name.”

“Guide,” Chris corrected. “You have a guide in this Hunt by the name of Ezra Standish, and I want to know how he got into the hunt.”

With a roll of his eyes, Phillips responded, “I suppose like every other guide, he volunteered, or he was at his mandatory participation cycle. It’s none of your business how the center determines who may participate Larabee.”

“Well, I’m making it my business because as of yesterday Ezra Standish wasn’t a guide.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” He turned toward a man at a computer console and gestured. “Frank, pull up the file on Guide Standish.”

The file projected onto the main screen. Phillips gestured again. “As you can see you are mistaken. He was a late registrant yesterday. He completed his initial training at the Atlanta Center in February; therefore he is fully able to make a choice to participate.”

Chris jabbed a finger at the date on the screen and said, “that record is bullshit. The man hasn’t been in Atlanta in two years and on February 6th he was sacked out on my couch with a broken ankle. He wasn’t a guide then, and he wasn’t a guide yesterday afternoon. Who created that record?”

Phillips moved Frank out of the way and typed a moment before ordering, “I want Doctor Chang in here now.” He turned back to Chris. “This is an internal matter for the Center and none of your concern. You need to return to the Hunt now, or I will be forced to use my authority as Director to recommend you be pulled from field duty.”

“Well, see, Standish is one of my men. And as at this moment, he should be in a safe house under protection, what we have is a matter under my jurisdiction. Try an stop me, and you’ll find that even you can be arrested for obstruction of justice.” The staring match ended when Dr. Chang arrived.

“Doctor, we need information regarding a patient that arrived yesterday. Do you recall Guide Standish?” Phillips motioned to the screen.

“Yes. Standish. He was transported from Swedish Medical last night. He was part of that large accident on the 25. They didn’t know he was a guide until he woke up in the ER. Per protocols, they administered a dose of Lystorican. His injuries were minor, so they transported him here. A scan determined the accident brought him online. We completed intake and moved him to the guide isolation ward.”

“Are you certain of that? Did you personally escort him to isolation?” Phillips asked.

Chang started to look a little confused. “Well, no. Not personally. We had that last-minute influx of Guides for the Hunt. I just ordered him moved. He was practically asleep, and there were plenty of volunteers. Is there a problem?”

“Well, doc. Seeing how someone put him into the hunt this morning, I would say yeah, there’s a problem. Who were the volunteers?” Chris looked between Phillips and the Doctor.

“Um, last night? That was the group from Atlanta. They were with that sentinel that was brought in earlier with the broken nose and ruptured testicles.” The men in the room shifted. “He’s in surgery now. They decided not to wait even though his readings are strange.”

“Strange how?”

“We haven’t determined the reason, but the brain scan shows a sentinel in the early stages of dormancy.” Several people jerked around to look at the doctor. “We will know more when he wakes up.”

Chris turned back to Phillips. “Let’s get the Atlanta volunteers in here. I think I have some questions for them.”

An hour later Chris was ready to strangle someone, and he wasn’t too picky about where to start. The pair from the Atlanta FBI didn’t even try to hide their guilt. Chris looked down at the floor to rein in his temper. “So Walters how about you explain to us how Standish ended up in the Preserve for a Hunt instead of in an ISO room?”

“The last thing that slime deserves is to be pampered in an ISO room. It’s disgusting that he could even be considered a guide.” Sentinel Walters spewed. “You may not care Larabee, but we all know he’s a dirty cop. The entire Division’s reputation is trashed. Good men and women are being penalized, and he paid someone off to walk away from it all. IA will figure it out sooner or later. The boys and I just figured we’d make sure he’s close by when the time comes so we can watch him go down.”

Chris’ glare was like a physical object in the room, “You need to deal with the fact that not a single one of you morons could tell your own leadership was corrupt. Instead of taking it and learning from your mistakes you assholes put a guide in breakthrough into a hunt. I don’t care who the hell he is or what you think he’s done, that’s unforgivable. How many know he’s out there.”

Walters stubbornly refused to answer, but eventually, Abrams-Walters answered. “Agents Leach, Rodriguez, Benson, and Masters.” When he stopped Chris just continued glaring at him until he began speaking again. “We told them which drop point he was set for so that all four could claim him.”

“Nothing you can do about it now Larabee,” Walters stated with a smirk. “Rules are the rules after all. Once our boys claim him, he’ll be going back to Atlanta. You lose.”

Chris grinned, “Lose is right. Leach is in surgery. One testicle down, one more to go. He’ll be singing soprano.” Then his look hardened, “If the other three touch Standish I will personally make sure they’re lined up next to him in the choir.”

Chris turned to Phillips who was passive aggressive behind him. “I want Standish out now. We have a credible threat to him. I know you have a way to track him. Where is he?”

Phillips sighed then turned back to the Command Center. “Frank, activate Guide Standish’s bracelet.”

Several minutes later they watched the screen where the locator was moving at a steady pace along the map. “There he is. Following the river toward the Southern border of the preserve.”

Chris snorted as Phillips ordered search and rescue to pick him up. Chris just shook his head. Vin had headed away from the river. “Well Larabee, we have this all in hand now. We can keep him in protective custody here just as easy as you can. However, since there is a hunt, we’ll have to see if any sentinels legitimately want to claim him. No matter how he was entered, he is in the Hunt.”

The ringing of his phone prevented his response. “Larabee,” he answered the unknown number.

“Our boy’s off the reservation and headed for home,” was all Vin said.

“Where.”

“The good stop on the East side. The one with the skittles.”

“On my way.”

Chris gave one last look at Phillips before he turned and walked out the door.

– – – –

The return trip to Denver was made in uncomfortable silence. Vin remained focused, and it worried Chris. Chris had called the team demanding answers and hoped to god above that they had some by the time they got to the office. Once there, however, Vin headed to his Jeep. “Vin,” Chris called out. “Be careful.” Vin nodded, and Chris watched him drive away before heading up to their floor.

“Answers. Now.” Chris barked as soon as he exited the elevator.

Buck sighed before replying, “Well hell Chris. Those sorry SOBs with the Bureau didn’t even know their man hadn’t made it to the safe house until we told them. Nate was able to track them to Swedish.”

Nathan took over, “Semi rolled and caused a sixteen car pileup on I-25. Three fatalities on scene. One later in surgery. According to witnesses Agent Rooks swung his car to the side a moment before it happened and took the hit on the driver’s side which probably saved both their lives. Rooks spent most of the night in surgery, and he’s in ICU now, but he’s doing real good. According to ER records Ezra was brought in unconscious but barely injured. He woke up in the ER, and all hell broke loose. The on-duty sentinel/guide pair for trauma came in and declared him a guide. They drugged him with Sweet Bliss and called the Center for transport.”

JD looked up, “Sweet Bliss?”

Nathan shrugged. “It’s what EMTs call Lystorican, the empathic blocker they give guides in distress. They go from screaming to calm in moments. Unfortunately, it works a little like a roofie. Compliant and later they rarely remember the time their drugged. Honestly, though a guide in empathic distress doesn’t want to remember.”

Josiah picked up from there, “We followed through on the accident, and there’s no sign of foul play. The semi had a blowout on the cab and lost control. Just Ezra’s poor luck to be in the middle of it.” He looked around. “Vin didn’t come back with you.”

Chris grimaced and looked at the guys. Hunt was sentinel business, and it didn’t feel right talking about it behind Vin’s back, but the guys needed to know just in case. “Vin took off to find Ezra. He is…driven to find him. Just…be careful if we have to meet up with him.”

Most looked confused, but Josiah’s confusion cleared quickly. “He thinks Ezra’s his guide?”

Waggling his hand in a maybe sign he responded, “I think Vin has the control not to enter a Hunt frenzy, but I don’t want to push him. And yes, Vin thinks Ezra is a highly compatible match.”

“Highly?…But I thought…” JD started.

Buck quickly cut him off, “What have I told you about watching that sentinel movie crap. Perfect matches for sentinels and guides are fairy tales. I’ve known enough of them over the years. They just look for a good match.”

“Just get back to work and track down any leads on where Ez might go. Get a unit to watch his townhome in case he heads there. I’ll be in my office calling Travis and yelling at the Bureau.”

An hour and a half of headache-filled calls and chewing a couple tums had him lying on his couch trying to catch an hour or two of sleep. There was a knock on the door a moment before Buck and Josiah entered.

“Hate to be the bearer of bad news ol’ friend, but it’s official. Josiah’s got the latest from an informant.” Buck motioned Josiah.

“It seems our friend Faust is doing more than just shouting threats. Word is circulating that his men are under orders to kill Ezra before Faust’s arraignment Monday or there will be contracts out on his own men.”

“Shit.”

– – – –

Chapter 5

It took three tries for Ezra to unlock the gas station restroom. Pale and shaking, he had barely made it here from the bus stop. Inside the graffiti-filled walls, he quickly locked the door behind him. What in the hell had he been thinking when he got on that bus. Though he abhorred public transportation, he was frequently required to use it when undercover, but this was a new level of Hades. The press of humanity against him after he had to abandon the seats. And then to grab the bars. When Al had mentioned touch sensitive, he thought it meant people. But objects overwhelmed him. Thoughts, feelings, emotions…and..it..just..wouldn’t..stop. He leaned back against the door…

“Come on baby I just need a fix. Let me blow you. I’ll make it good.” He jerked his head forward away from the door…

“Can’t drive drunk. Six fucking beers ain’t drunk. I’ll show that bitch…” He pulled his hand off the wall.

“Please…no, no, no, no, no…please don’t be positive. I can’t be pregnant. Daddy will kill me. My life’s over. I can’t go home…” Ezra rushed over to the toilet before throwing up what little he had in his system. He was on the floor next to the toilet curled into a small ball when he heard boots walking across the floor. He opened his eyes to stare at old-fashioned boots and a floor all tinted blue.

A rich southern voice spoke softly, “Son, you need to keep a firm grasp on who you are and not allow input from external sources. Breath in and focus on only your own thoughts and feelings. Breath out and let go of those that are not your own. You can do it, son… Again… Remain cognizant of your identity above all others… Just focus… If you need something to hold onto, perhaps you could hold onto my watch.” A hand wearing a ruby ring and a gold band slipped a pocket watch into his hand. Ezra clinched his hand around it and felt his thumb rub against the EPS engraved on the surface. He looked up for his benefactor and found himself alone once more in the restroom, his hand empty.

He gave himself several minutes of silence then stood and rinsed his mouth. He was so tired, but just a quarter mile from his next goal. It was getting late, and he needed to secure safe lodgings for the night. He walked toward the downtown library where he could obtain free access to the internet. He was passing a bench on his way to the front door when he felt himself jerk to a stop on instinct.

“Well Ez, fancy meetin’ you here.”

He glanced around trying to hide his nerves, positive that the sentinel had noticed by the tightening of his jaw. “Mr. Tanner, what a surprise. I would love to stay and chat but…”

“Ez. Don’t. Ya don’t gotta run from me. I ain’t never hurt ya, and I won’t start now.”

“I’m quite sure I do not know of what you may be speaking.”

“Bullshit Ez. Did he hurt ya?” Vin’s eyes narrowed while looking him over. “You’re movin’ awful stiff-like.”

“I am fine Mr. Tanner. If you have some preconceived notion that you will haul me back to that hellhole, then I can assure you that you are mistaken. I refuse.”

“To hell with them. I ain’t ever gonna force ya to do anything ya don’t want. They broke the trust. No way I’m allowin’ them ta get their hands on ya without your consent. I’m not here for them. I’m here for you. I got your back. I wanna help.”

“I’m…”

“Trust me, Ez. Give me a chance, and I promise you’ll never regret it. Let me help ya, and I promise I’ll follow your lead.”

Stalling, Ezra asked, “How did you find me.”

Vin grinned. “You’re good. I remembered ya kept that stash at the Y downtown. Tried there first cause that’s a change of clothes and easy cash. From there I’s able to follow ya to Union Station. Found the locker ya had there. Then the trail to Cherry Creek. Lost ya after that. But see, that’s the difference ‘tween trackin’ and huntin’. A tracker follows a trail. But see, a hunter, well he’s gotta think like his prey. So when I knew you were hittin’ up your hidey-holes for ID and cash, I asked myself what would Ez do? And well, I know you like those swanky hotels downtown, so I figured you were headed back here. And I remember ya tellin’ me that the way to stay unremembered when undercover is ta not stand out. So…ya’s gonna need a reservation to check in all natural-like. This is the closest place to downtown with free computers and internet. It was what you call it…a calculated risk. I took a chance.”

Ezra smiled in spite of himself. Vin always looked so young and innocent when he was like this. He took a deep breath before slowly letting it out and decided to chance it. After all, Chris Larabee’s offer might have been a lifeline when he needed one, but it was Vin’s smile and easy going acceptance that convinced him to give the team a try. He nodded his agreement to Vin who smiled broadly.

“Good. I picked up that Jones ID we created last time Travis made us work with DEA. The one ya said to keep on tap in case I ever need a fallback. I already made a reservation at the Brown Palace. Ya said it had some of the best room-service in town. It’s close enough for the boys ta get ta us if we need help, but not the kinda place most people will be lookin’ for ya.”

Ezra stared at Vin amazed. “That is superlative.” He looked Vin up and down and frowned. “You, however, are hardly dressed to enter a hotel of that standing.”

Vin looked down at the fatigues and sighed. “I suppose I should look the part.” He looked at Ezra with a bit of amused contemplation. “More important, I think you’re gonna need a little help. What we need is a foolproof disguise ta get ya in without anyone trackin’ ya. Especially if sentinels come by.”

“What do you have in mind?”

Vin grinned as he dialed his phone without answering Ezra. “Carlos, it’s Vin. I need your help, emergency-like. Be there in 10.” Hanging up he was already walking toward the parking lot. “Well come on Ez, it’s rude ta keep a man waitin’ when he’s gonna help ya.”

– – – –

“Absolutely not! I refuse. I assure you, Mr. Tanner, if this is some kind of infantile joke at my expense I will see to it that you pay.”

“Now Ez. It’s perfect. Carlos knows all about this makeup, don’t ya Carlos?”

Carlos stood back watching the explosion. “Now Vincent, you can’t spring this on a boy without a little warning.”

Vin stuck his tongue out at Carlos and turned back to Ezra. “Ez, just be reasonable about this. People are lookin’ for ya. So we need ta sneak ya in so’s they don’t even notice. What is less noticeable than a man and his wife checkin’ into a hotel?”

“Dress or no dress, there is no way I can pass as a woman.”

“Carlos, help me out here.”

“I assure you that I have everything you need right here. When I finish with you, your own mother will believe she birthed a girl.”

“See Ez. Dress ya up right, so all theys see is a girl. Splash ya with that stinky perfume stuff and no sentinel around’ll be able to smell anything. It’s not for long. Just until we’re secure in that room.”

He hated it, mainly because he had to reluctantly agree that Vin had a point. He nodded and then backed away quickly when Carlos moved forward. Vin spoke up. “He’s touch-sensitive Carlos. Like your Aunt Beatriz.” Carlos nodded. “Ez, while Carlos works his magic I’m gonna go next door to pick up some regular clothes for the two of us. Carlos’s husband Ben owns it so I can be back in a moment if ya need me. Just shout out, and I’ll be listenin’.”

“Make sure Ben gets you a sports jacket you heathen. And tell him I said to give you the keys to the Cadi. You can’t check into the Brown Palace in that POS Jeep.” Carlos turned back to the pensive look on Ezra’s face. “Vin’s a good man. Helped us a lot when we had a little gang trouble a while back. Helped us keep custody of my niece when my sister died.”

“Yes. He’s the kind of man I’m learning to trust.”

– – – –

It was just after 7pm when Mr. and Mrs. Kevin Jones checked into the Brown Palace Hotel. His dark blue sports jacket an excellent compliment to the lacy blue sweater wrapped around the lavender sundress that fell to her ankles. The coordinated sun hat flopped down obscuring her features as she waited patiently next to the baggage for her husband to complete check-in.

The bellhop noted that she was a lovely vision from afar but unfortunately had indulged in a bit too much perfume up close. In no time at all, he was taking them to one of their premier suites. He checked discreetly and noted that the champaign and steak dinner had just been delivered, along with the chocolate covered strawberries. Ah, newlyweds. Well, at least they were good tippers. As he left, he grinned when he saw the do not disturb sign on the door. Well, that’s the last they’ll see of them until checkout.

– – – –

“Newlyweds Mr. Tanner?” Ezra asked indignantly as he pulled the hat and wig from his head.

“Well, it worked, didn’t it? Everyone out there is certain you’re a girl. And no one will think twice about why we’re not leavin’ the room.” He looked around the room and whistled. “I didn’t know rooms were this fancy.”

“I assure you, rooms are not. This is a suite. How do you hope to justify this to Director Travis on your expense report?”

“Well, seein’ as how the FBI is supposed ta be puttin’ ya up in a safe house. And, seein’ as how it’s on account of those FBI slimes that you aren’t safely in the Center. Well, I figure we just send the bill ta the bureau and let’em pay it.”

Ezra smiled, “A well thought out plan. In that case, we must be sure to avail ourselves of the extensive room service menu.” With Ezra in a bathrobe, they ate quietly, Ezra with little appetite. The steak was a bit heavy for his stomach. Vin encouraged him to eat the carrots and roasted potatoes but didn’t press when he stopped and announced his need for a bath.

– – – –

Vin realized that Ezra had entered the bathroom almost 20 minutes ago and there was still no sound of running water. Ezra was sitting on the floor moving his fingers as if holding something. “Ez. Ya OK here? Thought ya wanted a good soak in that large tub?”

A wet sob alarmed him. “I don’t know that I will ever be able to bathe again. You have no idea the debauchery that has occurred here. How can I live like this?”

“You’ll learn. You’re stronger than anyone I know, and ya won’t let this beat ya. I won’t let ya quit. And, well, I guess you’ll be takin’ a lot more showers for a while.” Vin grinned slightly. “Let me help ya up and for god’s sake wash that stinky perfume off.”

“You chose it, Mr. Tanner.”

“Didn’t choose it. I said ain’t no sentinel alive would choose to stay on the same block with that.”

One nice hot shower later Ezra was waning but avoiding the bed. Vin realized the problem. He searched the closet and came back with a plastic-wrapped cloth that he immediately pulled out to show a luxurious silky spread. He stripped the upper bedding and spread the fabric over the bottom sheet. Repeating the maneuver with pillowcases. “Sentinel safe bedding supplies in case a sentinel is having a reaction. I promise you won’t pick up anything through that.”

Vin sat in the dim light left from the bathroom nite light and watched Ezra fall into a deep exhausted sleep. After a while, he lay down on top of the covers and whispered as he dropped off to sleep, “Is it me? Am I the one your searchin’ for?”

– – – –

Chapter 6

Ezra woke slowly, a little disoriented at first before the events of the previous day came back to him. He was sore but relaxed, and his headache was gone. He heard Vin in the shower and realized that he smelled coffee and breakfast. On the bedside table was a glass of water and a bottle of Tylenol. Smiling at the thoughtfulness, he took two and then deciding that a robe over his pajamas was sufficient went in search of coffee. He frowned at the thick as tar concoction in the coffee maker.

“That’s mine. There’s a thermos of the fancy stuff on the table for ya.”

He turned to see Vin in only a pair of jeans that snuggly fit his hips, vigorously drying his hair with a towel. One large drop of water slowly slid down his chest toward his navel. He didn’t realize how long he had been staring until he raised his gaze and caught the edge of Vin’s amused grin. Blushing he turned back to the table. “A continental breakfast. Thank you, Mr. Tanner.”

“Figured ya wouldn’t be upta anything heavy.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you. Will you join me?”

“I ate earlier, but I’ll have one of them rolls with my coffee.”

They chatted about the food while Ezra kept trying to distract himself from Vin’s half-dressed state and just knew the man did it on purpose. “I’ve always wondered why you let your hair grow so long? Most sentinels I’ve seen prefer a military cut.”

“Army forced me to get buzzed when I was in, but it was distractin’. Never zoned on sight or sound, but the feelin’ of sumthin’ crawlin’ on my hair…this long it all just blends in, and I don’t feel every single hair like that.”

The mention of Army reminded Ezra of the fatigues Vin wore yesterday. “You were in the Hunt.”

Vin frowned and nodded his head. “Center forced me an’ Chris in last moment. We’re both overdue on attendin’, and I guess they got a bug up their butt an decided to make sumthin’ of it. But don’t you worry none. Hunt ends I won’t tell ‘em I found ya unlessin ya want me to. Your body, your mind, your choice. Even if honestly I wanna claim ya, it has ta be your choice.”

Ezra swallowed hard. “Thank you. Though, I am frankly surprised, Vin. I was under the impression that you and Christopher did not desire guides.”

“Can’t speak for Chris. You’re probably right there. He don’t want no one ta take Sarah’s place. But me, I always dreamed of my guide findin’ me. I want…no…I need it ta be in the old way. I need ta know the spirits brought him ta me. That I’m the one he wants. I need ta be chosen by a guide, a true guide. A perfect match for my soul; a full partner that can stand with me through the wind and the storm and come out the other end stronger as one. That guide I want with my whole bein’.”

Ezra’s mouth quirked slightly while his eyes moistened. “You Mr. Tanner are a romantic.” He smiled softly as Vin blushed. “What did you mean when you said ‘the spirits brought him’?”

“My grandaddy tol’ me stories of the old times when I’s just a lil un. He tol’ me of the blue land where Guides travel to learn from the spirits.”

Ezra paled. “Blue?”

“Yeah. He tol’ me how spirit animals would travel from the blue land to lead a sentinel or guide that was willin’ when needed. An’ how sentinels could travel to the blue when a vision was powerful. But guides, the blue land’s their land. It’s where their real power lives. Sumthin happened though, and sentinels and guides lost their way to the blue. Without it, we’re wastin’ away. Guides are barely able to feel now. And none of em even believes in the blue anymore. But it ain’t just a fairy tale. I know its true. It’s out there waitin’ for us. For someone to find the way back.”

“Was it just animals in the blue land?” Ezra asked tentatively.

“Nah, the animals are spirit guides. They’re a part a ya. Your connection. But grandaddy said there were others there. Teachers, ancestors, those with messages ya need ta hear. Ya just gotta accept their help and they’ll come. But we stopped believin’.”

Ezra suddenly stood up and moved to the tray to refill his coffee, hands trembling. “Have you spoken to Mr. Larabee yet about the status of the case?” He asked, changing the subject.

“Naw. I turned off my phone when I’s trackin’ ya.”

“Well, I would like to know about the young agent I was with. My memory is not clear, but I am certain he was injured.”

Vin nodded. “We can find out. Heard tell it was a pretty bad accident. Maybe it made the news.” Looking in the small drawer in the coffee table Vin located the tv remote and turned it on. Instead of the local channel, CNN was playing with a picture of Denver on the screen.

The picture of Denver merged with the anchor who began. “We are still following this breaking story out of Denver, Colorado. I am Gary White with the CNN anchor desk and as many of our watchers know this weekend is the annual Guide Hunt for the Rocky Mountain Region. The US is divided into four zones with evenly spaced Hunts so that sentinels and guides that might otherwise never meet have an opportunity to find a match. Specifics of the Hunt are a carefully guarded secret of the Worldwide Centers for Sentinel and Guide Training.”

The picture changed to recorded images of Sentinels prowling up and down streets. People were moving out of their way as they went in and out of storefronts sometimes pausing and suddenly changing direction. The pictures multiplied as the images showed locations all around the Denver Metropolitan Area.

“The cause is unknown, but Sentinels in the area have been behaving abnormally since sometime yesterday afternoon. Not only that but reports indicate that sentinels and guides have been traveling into the area. We have no idea what might be triggering these actions. In Denver, we have correspondent Mary Travis with more to report.”

“Hi, Gary. Anxiety is high since as of last night the only communication out of the Rocky Mountain Center is a request that we all remain calm. Citizens are questioning if Center Leadership understands what is happening here. People on the street are frankly, afraid.”

Footage rolls of Mary Travis questioning witnesses to sentinel behavior:

“Look all I was doing was minding my own business when this sentinel came and ripped my backpack out of my hand. I found that fair and square by the dumpster outside the Y. There’s no reason to act like that.”

“They’ve been in and out of the Public library all day. The Library does not discriminate and is open to everyone. But we do ask that visitors do not become a disruptive influence. All of our patrons have the right to access our facilities in peace.”

“Swedish Medical Center is proud of our reputation as a cutting-edge trauma center. We ask sentinels who are visiting to please be respectful of the needs of our patients and their families.”

“No, seriously man. They’re a menace. Look at them. My customers are afraid to come in. And do they order coffee or anything when they’re here? No. I’d close, but I’m afraid some of them would try to break in.”

The picture returned to Mary. Gary asked, “It sounds like things are tense?”

“It is Gary. But there is some positive news. Reports have been coming in from all over the city of Sentinels and Guides coming online in record numbers. We have…”

“Hold on Mary, we have to break into your report with a special report. We are about to hear from Michael Phillips, Director of the Rocky Mountain Sentinel Guide Training and Rehabilitation Center.”

The screen flashed over to a conference room set up with a podium with the S&G symbol prominently displayed on the wall. Several reporters and cameras were in the room. Mike Phillips stepped up.

“I want to thank all of you for your patience with the unique situation here. I assure you no one in the Denver or Rocky Mountain area is in any danger from my fellow Sentinels. We have determined the cause for the current activity and are working hard to contain it.” He smiled, and Ezra could swear he saw an image of a used car salesman. “Guide Hunts are sacred for Sentinels and this weekend has been no different. Unfortunately, we have extenuating circumstances that have brought us outside the protected Preserve.”

He smiled at the cameras again and nodded to the side. Behind him, a large picture of Ezra was projected on the screen. “The picture behind me is of Ezra Standish. He is a federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives assigned to Team 7 based in Denver. He is a Guide and a participant in this year’s Hunt. Sometime yesterday we believe he became disoriented in the preserve and somehow made it back to Denver. We are of course worried about him and actively searching. At this point, we can not be sure of his medical condition.”

A written physical description was running under the picture. “As everyone knows sentinels are very protective of guides. The sentinels in Denver are being drawn there by a guide in distress. We ask everyone to cooperate with them. We also ask that if you spot Guide Standish, you do not approach him for your own safety unless it appears his condition is life-threatening. We do not want the public to be placed in a position where they are between a sentinel and the guide. If you do spot him, please contact The Rocky Mountain Center or one of your local COACH locations for immediate assistance.” He smiled again and stepped out of the room, leaving the large picture of Ezra on the screen.

“We have just heard from Director Mike Phillips of the Rocky Mountain Sentinel Center.” The image returned to Gary White. “He has explained that the activity we have been reporting on is due to a possibly injured guide in the Denver area. Do we have that picture? This man, Guide Ezra Standish with the Denver ATF is believed to be injured and missing in the Denver Metro Area. We are trying to get more information regarding Guide Standish to you as soon as possible.”

Vin turned off the tv while staring in horror at Ezra. “I can’t believe that asshole just did that. Ez, you ok? Come on Ez. I know it’s bad, but ya gotta realize with ya bein a guide things woulda changed anyway.”

“No Mr. Tanner, I think it is you who fails to realize the enormity of this situation. This is not about things changing, it’s my entire existence that has been called into question. My career is over. The one strength I brought to this team is now worthless. Who gave them the right to eradicate my life? They broadcast my visage across national television. How many criminals that I led to incarceration are now aware of my location and identity? Is the public safety taken into consideration when next I enter a public venue? The god-damned sentinel-entitled moronic Center leadership provided my information to the media.”

“I get it, Ez, I do understand. I wanna rip his head off. I’d stop this if I could but the train has left the station pard, and there’s no callin’ it back.”

“I am officially screwed over. All because some genetic flaw within me decided to inflict this upon my person.”

“Now hold it right there! Bein’ a guide ain’t a flaw. It’s a part of your soul. It’s just one parta what makes ya the amazin’ person I’ve grown to know these last two years. It’s a gift.”

“Gift? Curse!”

Vin looked earnestly at Ezra, begging him to understand, “No, it’s a gift. To sentinels like me, you’re a gift to be cherished. You’ve seen me and Chris when we zone out or are in sensory distress. When it feels like a breeze across your skin is sandpaper, and the buzzin’ of a fly becomes a jet engine. The fear of loosin’ yourself in a moment where you’re helpless as a newborn babe.”

Ezra rocked back, hugging himself, “You seem to have no problem functioning. For goodness sake, I have become a whimpering child at the slightest touch of another human being.”

“It won’t always be that way, Ez. I don’t know anyone stronger than you when it comes to controllin’ yourself. You’ll learn and adapt. You’re not alone in this.”

Standing up straight Ezra shouted, “Oh really! Because of this, because of them, I’m cast out from everything I’ve known, and I’m not alone? What have I got?”

Vin moved to stand in front of him as he retorted, “Ya got me ya damn ornery mule-headed Sonafabitch! Ya got me and I ain’t goin’ anywhere.” He took a deep breath, “I don’t got enough words in me to ever make your head believe I mean it. But, it’s not sumthin’ ya need to hear, it’s sumthin ya need to feel.” Gently he reached out and pulled Ezra’s hand against his bare chest, “in here.”

Concern, hope, determination, trust, faith, awe, affection, lo…something Ezra wasn’t ready to examine, all wrapped in a blanket that meant safety…that meant Vin.

Ezra slowly pulled his hand back, his gaze never leaving Vin’s earnest eyes. He stared at him as some small piece of himself began accepting what he felt. He cleared his throat and said, “I would appreciate it in the future if you would avoid referring to my mother in such a manner. Even if the statement may hold some modicum of truth.” Vin’s eyes widened suddenly before he started to giggle and Ezra smiled.

“I better call Chris and find out what’s happenin’.”

– – – –

Chapter 7

Chris hung up his phone with relief and the desire to strangle Vin for not checking in last night. He walked into the outer office and jerked his head to the side, then entered the conference room. Flipping the switch for the white noise generator, Chris took a seat. The faces joining him were tired, angry, and a bit shell-shocked, he felt the same.

“This is not to go beyond this room. Vin found Ezra, they’re safe.”

The relief of that statement was a wave through the room before they all tried to speak at once. Chris spoke over them, “Vin has them in a room at the Brown Palace. If you need to talk about it out there, Vin and Ezra are at camp.”

Buck asked, “Which of us are going over there to back them up?”

“No one is” Chris shook his head. “The fewer people in and out the better right now. I told Vin to keep them locked up tight. The only things in or out of that room are room service trays.” The men weren’t pleased, but they all nodded their agreement.

“How is Ezra taking this? Does he know about the news reports?” Josiah asked concerned.

“According to Vin Ez threw a first-class hissy fit. He hasn’t come to terms with being a guide and now all this bullshit. I warned them about the threat from Faust’s guys, but I don’t know if Ezra registered it. Vin did though, by all the growling.”

“Did ya tell him about the sentinels breaking into his home or that his dry cleaner is banning him, or?” JD started.

Buck shoved his chair with a foot to stop him, “Right, because that is so much more important than
his cover blown and the people who want to kill him.” Buck shook his head, and JD looked sheepish.

“Chris, Ez was in a pretty bad accident two days ago. I’d feel better if I could check him over.” Nathan stated. He’d been a field medic in the army, and the bureau supported him keeping his EMT certification. With this team, it came in handy on too many occasions.

“No. I’ll let you call from my office, but Vin says other than some bruising he seems OK. Now Travis’ office has been fielding questions about Ezra’s employment from the media, so if anyone contacts you then it’s no comment and call the main office. Don’t let them rile you up to get a comment.”

“I just can’t believe they broadcast his picture like that, Chris. Don’t the Center people care they just painted a target on him?”

“Trust me. I’ll be dealing with the Center when this is over. I feel bad enough as is. That mess isn’t about Ez, it’s about me and Phillips. He knows Ez is mine. He’s using him to screw me over, and he’s grasping at straws to save face.”

“Do ya think it’s like he said. That they’re searching for Ez because he’s injured?”

“Well JD, it’s obvious they’re searching for Ezra. But it’s not about him being injured or disoriented. Man’s slippery as an eel. Was able to disable his tracker and find a way back to the city where he is now holed up in a comfortable hotel room. I have no idea what’s making them act this way but I’m not bonded, and I don’t feel the urge to stalk the man’s favorite coffee shop.”

“Anyway, the FBI’s hauling Faust’s attorney in for questioning soon. They got proof he passed the order from Faust to kill Ezra. They’ll call us if they get anything from him.”

– – – –

It was half-past seven when Team 7 went storming down the stairs of the federal build with every other available agent. Chris was listening to the ringing as he desperately tried to call Vin. Relief flooded him when Vin finally picked up. “Vin, the lawyer squealed, there’s no time. Faust’s men know where you are. We’re on our way. You need to get outta that room and hide.”

– – – –

“Ez!” Vin yelled as he ran into the bedroom, tearing through Ezra’s bag for clothes. Ezra sat up in the bed where he had been resting only to have Vin throw clothes at him. “Faust’s men are on the way. May be here already. We gotta go.”

Ezra pulled on the jeans, t-shirt, and shoes. He paused briefly to strap on the ankle holster and backup weapon he had picked up yesterday then grabbed his wallet, ready to follow Vin who was already checking the hall.

They were in the empty stairwell and moving down when Vin cocked his head to the side and paused. “Gunfire in our room. Two silencers.” They moved again, faster. As they came out of the stairwell to the sound of ballroom music playing through the atrium, Vin jerked Ezra back. “Freddie Davidson.”

“Damn. Faust’s muscle. Not the brightest bulb in the box but loyal and singleminded. Do you sense any of the others?”

Vin started to shake his head then stopped when Ezra hesitantly lay his hand on Vin’s arm, allowing him to stretch his senses around him. Without line of sight he needed an alternative, he ruled out sound with the music playing so loudly and focused on the smell of gun oil. Ezra could feel him stretching his senses and could almost follow with him knowing before he spoke that he could smell the two men coming down the stairwell behind them, and the other three spread between the three exits to the main floor below.

They slipped to the side and behind a column as two men Ezra recognized as Emilio and Gonzalo Murillo exited the stairwell, walked to the edge, and motioned a negative at Davidson. When they moved away, Vin and Ezra tried to make their way toward the service stairs. Ezra did a double-take when he read the sign near the elevator announcing the Denver Debutante Ball that was in progress on the main floor below. “The Universe is a comedian Mr. Tanner, and I am the butt of its joke.”

They exited on the first floor, near an office and slipped in to await an opening to move again, crouching down close to the floor. Vin cocked his head to the side, “sirens coming. Back-up’s about here…Oh Shit! They’re gonna…”

Gunfire and screaming came from the atrium when Davidson and his crew pushed several of the dancers into an alcove as hostages while waving automatic weapons at the crowd.

Screaming mixed with a sudden wave of overwhelming fear and Ezra fell back from his crouch against the wall. Curling inward he tried to grab hold of his own mind. To his side, he felt Vin’s steadiness, determination, and concern. But in front of him, there was a single glimpse of complete and total calm in the storm that raged. He reached out for that feeling and pulled…and there was sudden quiet. He opened his eyes to find himself seated in a wooden chair beside some swinging doors with a sign slightly overhead that read “Saloon.” Everything tinted with a calm blue.

– – – –

“Well congratulations son, it does appear that you have finally placed your foot upon the path. Welcome to my superlative emporium of fine dining and entertainment.” A gentleman dressed in a rich brocade vest with a velvety red jacket, gold cuff-links, and a black flat-topped western style hat was tying the reigns of his horse to the hitching post outside the saloon. He removed his hat as he approached and with a small dimpled grin asked, “do you mind if I join you here?”

“Be my guest. Do you mind if I inquire where here is? I’m quite sure I was just in a very precarious situation.” Ezra inquired.

“Don’t trouble your mind. I assure you we have all the time we need to get acquainted.”

“Acquainted?”

“Yes, where are my manners? Mother would be appalled. Ezra Phineas Standish, at your service,” He reached out his hand to shake. “And you are Ezra Phillip Standish. It is so good to know the blood runs true and my descendants have inherited my superior good looks.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I am your great-great grandsire. Though, I do believe I’ve aged quite well.” The gentleman grinned broadly.

“Where are we?” Ezra looked up and down the blue tinted street of what appeared to be an old west ghost town.

“Do you refer to the current locale or the plain of existence you are visiting?” At Ezra’s silence, he shook his head. “Perhaps I should start with our locale. That is a tale that begins with my past and involves your possible future.”

He reached out and picked up a bottle of whiskey that had not been there before and poured in the two glasses beside it before continuing. “My childhood was not one of innocence. My mother loved my father. Of that I am certain. But she cursed the day he came online. She blamed all sentinels for father’s death at his sentinel’s side. She taught me that I could never trust a sentinel. Mother had a less than maternal demeanor, and my childhood as I said was less than idyllic. I was at her tender mercies on those occasions she chose to burden herself with my presence and was unable to reliably part ways until I found myself conscripted into service.”

“After the unpleasantness between the states, I was quite frankly broken. I traveled extensively across our country, I was searching for something, rarely staying more than a few days in any location before moving on restlessly. It was not until I reached this little hamlet that I finally stopped. Here I discovered five of the best friends a man could ever have, though I barely understood the concept at the time. I admit that I was hesitant as they were sentinels and guides. I almost left, but there was a sixth. One I felt drawn to. Deep inside I knew I had been searching for him this whole time and he is why I stayed.

I kept to the edge of the band, never fully committing myself lest I find my welcome retracted. I was with them all of two years, and I relaxed my guard.” He sighed and looked down at a fox that had appeared curled up at his feet. “When it happened, I was unprepared for the choice I was asked to make.”

“Choice?” Ezra asked.

“I came online as a guide. Like my father before me. Like Standishs have been doing for generations. For most it happens slowly, a natural progression. But for a few of us, it is dynamite in a jar…sharp, painful, and powerful. I suddenly found myself here…well not here per say…speaking to a tribal shaman to whom I had been providing aide when he had died in my hands moments before.”

He rubbed a hand across his face and then reached into his jacket, pulling out a deck of cards that he began to shuffle. “He explained to me that among guides he was a First. What we called an Alpha, though I had not heard of one since the war. Because of the power, they wield there are never many of them. But they keep the link open between the spirit realm and the physical world. War, illness, disaster had whittled them down, and now he was the last. Those with the potential were still children or too damaged to come online. And then there was me.”

“I was given the chance to claim that power for myself. There was my sentinel waiting for me to acknowledge that I had found him. But in the two years, I had known him I had still failed to learn one lesson…trust. I didn’t trust myself with that kind of power. And I didn’t trust my sentinel not to reject me. In my fear, I turned away and did not understand the consequences of my actions.”

He stopped shuffling and looked Ezra right in the eye, “When I returned to our physical world, the door between here and there closed…for everyone.”

Ezra cocked his head slightly, “Obviously the door did not remain closed. Here we are.”

“Call it an extraordinary confluence of events, the fates deciding to give us a second chance, or perhaps the universe has a perverse sense of humor.”

He grinned suddenly and looked down at the fox who was now staring at Ezra. “I would like to introduce you to my good friend, Ace. He’s cunning, ruthless, mischievous, intelligent, and immensely stubborn. You see he’s been waiting 140 years for a Standish to find a Tanner.”

He laughed heartily at the expression on Ezra’s face and turned back to shuffling his cards once more.

Ezra continued to stare at the Fox. “You want me to be some super powerful guide? Do you really believe one person can hold that power without corruption?”

“You have faced corruption and triumphed. That is a test you have already passed. But you fail to understand. You would only be the first to hold open the door. There are many of our brethren waiting out there ready to take on the mantle. You do not see them because an Alpha guide can only come online when a connection with the Spirit exists.” He frowned and added, “But yours is the first life that will change.”

“So I accept this and my life will suddenly be perfect? You expect me to believe that?” Ezra questioned incredulously.

The man before him had the sudden sharp look of a hardened gambler, “I expect you to use that intellect with which you have been gifted to not ask asinine questions. Life will have joys, tribulations, and times you feel like you are being whipped raw. All choices have consequences. A good man seeks to make the best of the situation in the most honorable way open to him. But realize the one thing I did not, if you can trust your Mr. Tanner you will never walk that path alone.”

“If I make this choice, how will I know what to do?”

“You will first deal with this minor obstacle in your way, and then you will see to it that our sentinels and guides are returned to the correct path. The knowledge you will need is but waiting for you to accept it. Our time here is not unlimited. Events on the physical plain are soon to take hold once more.” He downed the rest of the shot and picked up his hat from the table.

Ezra watched him stand then asked, “So you’re saying I need to suck it up and play the cards I’m dealt?”

A slow, soft chuckle sounded before he responded, “Hell no son. A good poker player knows that you don’t play the cards, you play the players. And a Standish is always an exceptional poker player.” There was the neighing of a horse in the distance. He whistled and his horse untied his reigns before walking over to the gambler. “About time for you to ante up Ezra P Standish.” He put his hat back on and turned as if to leave before pausing. “When you know your opponent is afraid, what do you do?” He mounted the horse, and Ezra found himself back in the hotel.

“Play to their fears,” Ezra whispered as Vin looked at him oddly.

– – – –

Chapter 8

Ezra listened for several minutes as Davidson, and his men shouted orders at the people in the atrium. He was also yelling at the law enforcement that was above and at the doors to the hotel. Vin kept a running commentary and was able to get a quiet call out to Chris to apprise him of their situation. There was no line of sight to Davidson’s position for any of the snipers and too many hostages to take a chance. To make things worse, there was a camera crew above Ezra and Vin’s location that was continuing to broadcast since their own exits were blocked.

“I want Standish here in 10 minutes, or I’m gonna start executing these pretty little girls! Do you hear me, Standish! I know you’re still in the building!”

Ezra took the phone from Vin to speak to Chris. “Chris, I know Davidson. The man’s a cold-blooded killer, but he’s loyal. Faust gave him a deadline that is quickly approaching, and he will die to make it happen. The others would rather take a chance at being shot down here than wait for Faust to have them executed. I promise you that you will not be able to talk them down.”

He returned the phone to Vin and moved to the door. Closing his eyes, he instinctively reached out for the minds of the men. Their minds were filled with depraved images of wants and fears that started to engulf…suddenly Vin was there. That security he had never known existed instantly returned his control, and he could focus on them one by one. Throughout his career Ezra had held almost every model of firearm made, but his knowledge paled next to Vin’s. Once he linked to Vin’s awed mind it was a simple matter of shared muscle memory, the feel of the weapons in hand, a flick of a finger to turn on a small switch and a reinforced command to leave it alone before he withdrew.

“Five minutes Standish. Which of these pretty little faces should we blow away first?”

Ezra stood and reached for the door as Vin grabbed his arm. He turned to face Vin and asked, “Do you trust me?”

“With my heart and soul Ez. With my life,” Vin answered without hesitation.

“I realized something, Vin. I have been searching for something my entire life. I thought it was friends, family, home, acceptance…but it wasn’t. All this time I was searching for you. And I trust you to walk my path beside me.” With a smile of pure joy, Vin reached out and opened the door.

– – – –

Chris was listening to every word Davidson shouted while pacing outside the room. The clock was counting down while the teams coordinated with SWAT and local law enforcement on scene. They were preparing to take them down, knowing some of the hostages might die, only waiting for the rest of the men to move into position. This was going to be horrific, and that damned camera was still filming while the crew took cover on the floor. Suddenly he heard a voice he knew too well call out from the atrium, and he froze. He was going to kill him, no them. No way that slick conman talked his way around Vin. They were in it together to make him old and grey before his time.

“Hiding behind these children?” Ezra’s voice called out. “All of this just to get to me? I am impressed that Faust let you live this long if this is the extent of your planning capacity.”

“There you are Fed. Get over here.”

“Do you truly believe you will leave this room in anything less than ten pieces if you kill those young ladies or me? There are at least 15 sentinels outside these doors, and I am sure you have been unable to overlook the fact that I am a guide.”

Davidson sneered, “They won’t let those freaks in here when we have all these hostages.”

Ezra scoffed, “They won’t have to LET them in, they will break down the doors the moment you try to harm me. But do you truly believe THEY are the danger here? Does it look to you like the sentinel at my side is concerned about MY safety? The cards are right in front of you yet you fail to understand the hand you are playing.”

“I understand just fine Standish. I hold all the cards here.” Davidson said confidently.

“But you obviously don’t understand the rules of the game my good man.” Chris heard Ezra reply.

Oh shit, was that cocky? Did Standish really just sound cocky? He took a chance, piggybacking his sight onto his hearing. What the hell was Ezra doing? Wait…did the little bastard just smirk?!

“Enough of your bullshit Standish. Down on your knees where you belong. I wanna see you begging for your life before I shoot you.”

“I kneel for no one and the only begging you will hear is your own Davidson.”

Chris could see Davidson move the gun from the hostage’s head to point it at Ezra and started to move a moment before an order to breach was given, knowing he would be too late.

“Go to Hell Standish!” Davidson yelled as the gun straightened over Ezra’s chest and his finger tightened over the trigger.

“I’ve been there, let me give you a view.” Davidson and his men began to scream.

– – – –

Fire, the gun was on fire. The skin on his hand melting and the burning. He dropped the gun and tried to beat the fire out but everywhere he touched the fire spread. His pants, shirt, oh god his hair! And the pain!

Get them off, get them off! They’re everywhere crawling on his back, on his face, under his clothes. Oh, God! They were under his SKIN! Get them off.

What happened to the lights? I can’s see. No. Where is everyone? Why is it so quiet? I can’t hear you.

You’re trying to kill me? I’m your brother, and you were going to turn on me? Please, Gonzalo, don’t kill me. Why are you turning on me now? Not the knife…please not the knife.

Oh God, I’m in a coffin. “Let me out! I’m alive in here!” No…that’s dirt hitting the lid. They’re burying me. No…no…NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

– – – –

As men swarmed the atrium in tactical gear, most came up short as they saw the gunmen beating at their own bodies, rolling on the floor, stumbling around the room, or in one case frozen in place. The only thing in common was the horrific soul-wrenching, non-stop screaming.

Chris moved quickly with his team to shield Standish and Tanner while watching as teams of law enforcement had to wrestle the screaming men to the floor and restrain them. They soon had things under control, and luckily there were only bruising, a few small lacerations, and quite a bit of shock among the hostages and witnesses.

“What the hell were you thinking coming out here like this?” Chris growled at Standish.

“Now cowboy Ez had everything under control.” Vin started.

“And you! Don’t have the sense God gave a stump. How could you let him take a risk like that?”

“I assure you, Mr. Larabee, there was absolutely no risk to the hostages or myself and Mr. Tanner. I took every precaution to ensure our safety before confronting the hostiles.”

“Precautions!?!” Chris yelled.

Buck who had been speaking to the situation commander came back shaking his head. “Those boys are plum loco, Chris. Every single one of them had their safeties on.”

“Oh shit, incoming Chris” Vin stated.

Chris turned to see Mike Phillips stride into the hotel with five sentinel/guide pairs at his back. He glanced at the restrained men, who were being strapped to gurneys while alternating between whimpers and screams, with distaste as he passed. Chris, Vin and the team stepped forward between Phillips and Ezra, forcing them to stop.

“What do you think you’re doing here Phillips?” Chris asked.

Phillips moved a slight bit, so he was facing in the direction of the camera still broadcasting on the level above them and stated loud enough to be heard across the atrium. “Larabee. You and your men can move aside. As the Director of The Rocky Mountain Sentinel Guide Training and Rehabilitation Center, it is my right to take possession of Guide Standish. We are of course concerned for his welfare and the welfare of our greater Denver community.”

“Possession?” Ezra pushed his way past his team to give a Larabee-level glare at Phillips. “I am not an object over which there is ownership. How dare you act as if I am merely baggage for you to claim.”

“I understand that you are under a lot of stress at this time Guide Standish but I must insist that you show proper respect.” Phillips chided him. Chris grimaced and firmly stepped aside to let Ezra loose on this idiot.

“You sir are a supercilious twit with delusions of grandeur that far outstrip your diminutive abilities. I have accepted the fact that I am a guide, but I refuse to accept the levels to which our people have fallen if they willingly allow you to take a position so far above your proper place in our society.” Guide Emily Stiller-Phillips grabbed her sentinel to keep him from reaching toward Standish and frowned when he angrily threw off her hand. “A Guide is not some pet you leash. A Guide is an equal partner you respect.”

“You will follow the orders of your betters Standish,” Phillips growled before ordering the sentinels with him to grab the insulting guide.

Chris barked out a laugh. “Hell Phillips, Standish can’t follow orders to save his own life.”

The sentinels hesitated as their guides started rocking back and forth in place. Suddenly a fox appeared several feet away from them, glowing with an otherworldly power and the guides began keening.

Phillips was ignoring his own guide’s distress. He tried to move forward to grasp Ezra. Chris wanted to move back between them, but he felt like his feet were frozen to the floor, and he was unable to move. Every sentinel in the room was similarly afflicted.

“I understand now. There are some callings greater than the individual, but the potential for good far outweighs any trivial fears I might face. Mister Phillips, the sentinels, and guides of this region require strong leadership in order to navigate the path before us, and those are skills you sir are sorely lacking. I am a Guide, a full partner in life and power and I refuse to be marginalized. The door to that power is once more open for any who are willing to choose it.” Then Ezra turned to face the Fox and smiled broadly. “I am ready to accept your invitation.”

Chris watched the fox yip excitedly before leaping toward Ezra and in a flash disappeared. For a moment it was like time stood still, then that same light flashed outward in an explosive wave pushing everyone backward. Chris opened his eyes with a feeling like he had suddenly awakened from a long sleep to discover he had a new sense he didn’t realize he had been desperately missing. Standing in front of him was the largest black wolf he had ever seen.

“I knew you were real,” Vin’s awed voice came from beside him. He looked over to see Vin reach out with a carefree childish wonder to touch the huge Mountain Lion that sat beside him. All around them animals appeared next to sentinels and guides and flashes were seen as some of the animals merged with guides. Buck bumped him as the ghostly barely-there form of a hound dog tried to hump Buck’s leg, and Chris heard the Wolf snort. Shaking his head, he noticed all the members of his team had the ghostly animals, almost but not quite solid.

A high pitched squeal drew his attention toward Phillips who had been knocked to the floor with the energy blast. He was crab-walking backward trying to avoid a blue-tinted skunk that was determinedly following him while his guide gently stroked the great horned owl that rested on her arm. Chris burst out laughing as his wolf barked mockingly.

– – – –

Team 7 was seated at a table in the hotel bar to get Ezra out of public view until things were quieter outside to move him. A waiter had left them with a round of cherry cokes at Vin’s request.

Nathan entered and sat down at the table with the rest, “I don’t know what you did to those guys, but they were still screaming their heads off when they hauled them away.”

Ezra grinned, “Well, to paraphrase the great President Roosevelt, the only thing to fear is fear itself.”

“What I don’t understand is why all those critters showed up around us,” Buck stated questioningly.

“I suppose it means that you possess potential. It only remains to be seen if you accept or reject it.”

JD practically vibrated, “You mean we could be sentinels?”

“Or guides” Vin corrected.

JD smiled. “This is so cool!”

Vin reached over to pluck the cherry out of Ezra’s drink. “So Ez, does this mean I can court ya?” And he popped the cherry into his mouth.

“On one condition Mr. Tanner.” Vin raised an eyebrow as he started to swallow. “Next time you wear the dress.” As Vin choked and spluttered red-faced, Ezra, for the first time in weeks laughed.

2 Comments:

  1. I enjoyed this very much!

  2. Brilliant!

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