Morphological Changes – Part 1
Fandom: 9-1-1, The Sentinel
Content Warning: NC-17
Warnings: Character Bashing, Child Abuse, Discussion – Murder, Explicit Sex, Hate Crimes, Homophobia, Racism, Violence – Canon – Level
Genres: Alternate Universe
Relationships: Eddie Diaz/Buck Buckley
Word Count: 80749
Author Note: I’ve changed Buck’s place of birth for…reasons. The character-bashing tag is for the Buckleys. For those that desire the heads-up, this is a sentinels are known universe and Daniel lives. The story was written for the April 2022 Rough Trade Challenge. Hope you enjoy the finished product.
Summary: Eddie Diaz survived his test under fire and was discharged from the Army with a gunshot wound, a Silver Star, and a designation of Persistent Enduring Latency. When his wife finds her sentinel and divorces him, he decides it’s time to change and build a new life for himself and his son. A new life that has everything he ever wanted, even a guide he can never have. Because if fire couldn’t bring him online, what will it take to reshape his soul?
“Morphological change—The change in form or shape of an area (e.g., the beach) involving the motion of sediment, e.g., as caused by a tsunami wave.” — https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/tsunami-terms
1992, New York City, New York
Guide Prime Randall Meyrick held onto his seat as the wind buffeted the helicopter on its descent as they approached the helipad for St Rita’s Hospital. Rand closed his eyes and fought back nausea from the constant bombardment, not of wind against the helicopter but of the frantic pulses sent out by the fear of an irrational mind. It hit him at least a mile out from the hospital and was the reason he had flown in, though he loathed the mode of transportation.
“Rand, prepare for landing.”
He opened his eyes to look on the face of his Sentinel and wife, June. Well, formally Jun Lei Meyrick, but Rand had mangled that into the nickname in their first meeting. Rand reached out and took her hand, sending a calming pulse down their bond to center her as the helicopter gave a slight bounce on landing. He focused on his shielding as people moved around him to open doors and lead him off the roof of this building and into the complex proper.
As they entered the elevator, he turned to the Sentinel and Guide pair that waited to escort them. “I would like someone to give me a reason why your teams have not located our distressed guide and moved them to a shielded site. You’ve been here over an hour.”
“Sir, we have located the guide. There are complications arranging a move. We are attempting to shield in place until accommodations can be made.” Guide Eloy Vazquez stiffened in response to the next wave of distress.
“Complications? Is the guide in surgery?” Rand asked as the elevator stopped, and there was a gentle ding before the doors opened.
June stepped out in front of him before allowing Rand to follow. Three more sentinels moved with her to form a blocking formation as they walked quickly down the hallway toward the source of the disturbance.
“We have a Level 3 empathic event that is verging on Level 4, and you’re excuse is complications and not exactly? I want someone to explain themselves.” Rand glared at the only guide present, who was looking a little pale as they moved.
They turned into a corridor, and Rand let his disapproval float on his surface shields for all to feel as he read the sign over the doors. “Maternity? You left a guide in labor in an unshielded maternity ward? Are you insane or just incompetent?”
“Sir, it’s not the parents who are online. It’s the baby. The mother is in labor.” Vazquez flinched as another wave of distress rocked them.
Rand threw out his shield to buffer his fellow guide and stopped. “Unborn?”
June grabbed his arm and pulled him forward as she exchanged micro-expressions with the other sentinels. “Guides rarely come online during childhood; when they do, they are primes. I’ve never heard of a guide online before birth.”
Increasing their pace, his sentinel allowed nothing to slow them down until they reached the door marked Labor and Delivery. The correct room was easily spotted by the three guides sitting on the floor, hands joined. Across from them, two security guards stood uneasily behind a man in a business suit. As they approached, the guides rose in unison, calmly forming a path for Rand and June to enter.
“Not more of them,” the man muttered before squaring his shoulders. “I don’t know who you are, but as I explained to your associates, we need everyone to exit the maternity ward. We don’t need your kind upsetting our patients. We are going to contact the police if you don’t move.”
“You are right.” June smiled with a deceptive agreement. “You don’t know who we are.”
Rand held back a grin at his wife’s composure in the face of the masculine posturing. Even though sentinels and guides came in all shapes and sizes, the public still equated sentinels with physical bulk. At 5’4”, she seemed a tiny, delicate flower that mundanes frequently mistook as the guide in their partnership. They so often forgot that sometimes the smallest things had the deadliest stings.
“Sentinel. Sentinel Prime Meyrick, to be precise. And you will stand aside and allow my guide to assess the situation, or I will move you.”
“I am Gordon Wordsworth, the Director of Hospital Administration, and it is my right to deny entry to anyone who is disrupting the safety and operation of this hospital.” He pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and started dialing. “I am calling the police now to have you removed. If you don’t cooperate, I will ensure you are arrested and charged.”
One of the sentinels on the response team snorted.
Another wave of distress coupled with terror washed through the building, and Rand heard calls of code blue over the hospital intercom. The tick from security showed even the mundanes were responding to the feelings without context, which made them unpredictable. Enough was enough.
“Under the Federal Sentinel and Guide Protection Act of 1986, it is my legal right as the Guide Prime of the State of New York to take control of any situation involving the health and safety of the people of New York during an Empathic Event. I have declared a Level 4 Empathic Event with an epicenter of this birthing room. As the Director of a Hospital, you should be aware that a Level 4 Event is one in which the event itself could lead to the loss of human life. The feelings of fear, pain, and irrational distress you are experiencing are that of the baby. It does not and cannot understand the process of birth. If you continue to interfere in the performance of my duties, I will have you broken long before the police arrive to arrest you. Now stand aside.” Rand took a step forward, leaving the sentinels present to create the opening for him to enter the room. “Cranston, with me. The rest of you spread out through the hospital and try to calm people down. Start with Emergency, ICU, and CCU.”
As the doors opened, he heard a sound half-way between a moan and a scream. The mother was in full labor with feet in the stirrups, and doctor ready to deliver.
“Who are you?” The doctor asked, glancing Rand’s way before dismissing him to turn back to his patient. “It doesn’t matter. Get out.”
“I’m afraid that’s not an option.” Rand stepped over to the sink to wash his hands and grab a mask.
“You can’t just come in here. It’s family only in the birthing rooms.” One of the nurses moved to block him. She was emoting irritation and fear.
Rand radiated calm. “I mean no harm. Someone in this room is in empathic distress. Since St Rita’s has no psy-sensitives on staff in this ward, I am left to deduce it is one of your patients.”
The mother glared at him from the bed, “You’re wrong. I’m not a guide.”
Rand smiled gently and nodded. “You are quite correct. You are not a guide, nor are you sensitive. Through elimination that leaves only the child.”
“It hasn’t even been born yet,” the doctor scoffed.
With a shrug, Rand moved over next to the mother. “With your permission, I would like to touch your stomach. Touch only, I assure you. If it is not your child, I will personally apologize and see that you are not bothered. If it is, you should know the child is radiating distress, and I would like the opportunity to calm it.”
“If I say no?” She hissed before moaning as another contraction hit her.
“Then I will expand my shields around you and the baby until it is born and I can check it independent of you.” He glanced from her to the medical staff. “Look at your doctor and nurses. They are on edge, upset, and forcing themselves to be calm. These are not normal nerves during a birth. They are being influenced by an outside stimulus triggering distress and anxiety. The feelings are irrational and detrimental to their reasoning. Let me help you; that will help them give you the best care possible.”
She breathed through the end of the contraction and then nodded once. “One touch, then you keep your hands to yourself.”
Rand carefully lay his hand low on her belly above the hard bulge of the baby. He opened his shields and let the chaos wash over and through him. Prime. He would know the mind of a prime anywhere. He pushed through the chaos with calm/hope/care/soothing and wrapped the baby’s mind in a warm blanket of pure acceptance. The fear bled away. In its place, he could sense discomfort and wrongness.
With a sudden blink, Rand moved his hand, feeling for the outline of the child.
“I said you could touch once!” The mother batted away his hand in anger.
The doctor and nurses looked dazed as the unseen bombardment was muffled. The doctor gave a little shake, blinked several times, and took a breath, “OK, as long as you don’t interfere, you can stay.”
“Doctor, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the baby’s head is in the birth canal,” Rand motioned toward her stomach.
The doctor seemed set to argue for a moment, then moved, “Margaret, I need to check on the baby. Try not to push.” There were some hands in places Rand preferred not to think about, then cursing, followed by requests for an ultrasound. The words breach, distress, and c-section flew by with barely a breath between.
Before he knew it, Rand was in the operating room, locking away his own queasiness during the miracle of birth so that he could contain the baby’s projections. He followed behind the nurses and doctor every step of the way as the baby was examined, cleaned, weighed, and measured. It was a miracle of life in the middle of chaos, and he cradled that innocent mind in safety throughout.
The mother was repeatedly assured the baby was healthy, which seemed her only concern. She didn’t ask even once to hold it and did not protest its removal from the operating room to the nursery. Rand shrugged it off as the trauma of the surgery after the exhaustion of labor.
June and Guide Cranston joined him at the Nursery window, looking at the newest member of their community. “Healthy lungs,” June said with a smile.
“That he has.” Rand gave his wife a light kiss, “I’m about to make a bit of a mess of things. I need the helicopter ready for transport to the Manhattan Intake Center. It has the best shielding available in New York and a full medical staff on site.”
“We’re taking the baby?” Cranston’s shocked question had Rand turning to face him.
“St Rita’s has only the minimum state-required shielding in the ER to contain emergency cases until they can be transported. They aren’t equipped to admit a guide in distress.” Rand motioned toward the infant. “This baby will need to be monitored 24/7 until natural shields form. Even then, he will require conservatorship during his childhood. He’s the youngest prime on record. It’s the community’s responsibility to protect and nurture him.”
Cranston nodded once and turned to head for his sentinel. “I’ll make the calls and get the ball rolling on Center conservatorship and transport. I leave it to you, mighty leader, to inform the parents and hospital.”
“Your guides are assholes, husband,” June murmured.
“And proud of it, wife,” was Rand’s automatic response.
“Don’t think you are hiding yourself from me, Guide. You’re already attached to him.”
“There is so much innocence in front of us, yet I feel I have touched an old soul walking amongst us once more.” He leaned forward so he could wrap his arms around her.
She leaned back, allowing him to take her weight as she ran a hand down his arm in a little bonding ritual they frequently indulged in public. “Some say that all primes are old souls bound to this plane to nurture the community and share their wisdom.”
“And do you feel wise, sentinel of mine?”
“My mother questioned my wisdom the day I met you, guide of mine. She is continually astonished by your ability to walk and breath.” Her impish grin was reflected in the glass. “You almost gave her a stroke when we were named New York Primes. She had insisted you would amount to nothing.”
“It is my mission in life. Protect my sentinel, protect my tribe, and give your mother a stroke.” He put his chin on her head and heaved a sigh. “No rest for the wicked.” The baby was finally left alone to sleep in contentment under the heating lamps. “So small and yet so powerful of a start. I feel like I am on a small boat feeling a tiny ripple that will grow into a massive wave ready to reshape our world.”
Sentinel Prime June Meyrick moved to answer the door just as Angeline Holston, Alpha Guide and Director of the Manhattan Intake Center, raised her hand to knock on the door of the guest suite presently occupied by the New York Prime pair.
“Has anyone ever told you how annoying it is when sentinels do that?” she huffed with a mock glare at June.
“Every day!” Rand called from the bedroom.
June smiled warmly at the guide, “He insists that since it’s after hours, he isn’t required to wear a suit.”
“Considering how hot that man looks in a good suit, it’s amazing he fights them so much.” Angeline moved to the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of water. “Is everything acceptable for your stay?”
“Yes, you are a perfect hostess, as always. Have you started the lists for conservators?” June moved to the chair so that she could put on her own sneakers, having changed while Rand was unpacking.
“We’ve started the process. It’s going to take at least a week to start interviews. And first, we need to assess the family for a good fit.” Angeline tapped a finger against the bottle. “The father has arrived with his older children. Phillip Buckley is his name. The children are Maddie and Daniel.”
“Three hours since he was notified. I’m somewhat surprised he wasn’t at the delivery. Has he given any reason yet? I admit, I was focused on transporting the baby without another Event and didn’t give much thought to the family.” June reached out to her guide as he passed her chair and allowed him to pull her to her feet.
“The daughter was in school while the son was undergoing treatment for leukemia.” Angeline grimaced, “I can’t fault him for seeing to his son’s medical first. But he is here now, incensed that his child was taken without consent. Karl is attempting to explain the situation to him. He is having trouble grasping that he will not be allowed near the baby until he calms down.”
Rand nodded and allowed her to lead the way. He worked hard not to preempt a Director’s authority in their own Center. Most Primes had multi-state territories, given the scarcity of their numbers. New York was one of the few states with a dedicated Prime Pairing. Regional Primes and US Primes ranked him, but only by degrees of power and his acceptance of the hierarchy.
“How old is he?” June asked softly.
“Seven. The daughter is eight.”
Rand felt the sorrow flow through his bond. June had lost her own twin at that age. In fact, it was the event that brought her online. “Conservators will need to be assessed for their ability to handle the stress of that kind of illness long-term.”
“It will certainly cut down on the list. We might need to create a revolving list for short-term placements,” Angeline suggested.
“Not good for an infant,” Rand dismissed the idea immediately. “Stability will be needed to build trust.”
They entered the offices, and even Rand could hear Phillip Buckley complaining loudly about the Center’s theft of his child. The children were sitting in the outer office, looking a little traumatized. Rand allowed a passive peace to radiate past his shields. It bathed the children in a sense of calm, allowing them to relax. The girl snuggled back into the sofa they were on while the boy looked right at Rand and gave a magical smile full of hope and love.
Rand hesitated before turning toward the children while waving the others on to the office without him. The boy interested him, and he wanted to get a feel for the children. He stepped around and sat on the coffee table in front of them.
“Hi. My name is Randall Meyrick. I’m the Guide Prime of the entire state of New York.”
“Wow. I’m Daniel, and this is my sister Maddie. Mommy and Daddy are very mad at you today,” Daniel whispered. He held out his hand to shake, and Rand took it while pushing a deep read on the boy.
“We’re not supposed to speak to strangers, and you can’t just shake a guide’s hand.” Maddie scowled and crossed her arms while Daniel shrugged.
Rand smiled at Maddie. “You are correct that it is normally poor manners to try to shake hands with a guide. But it’s ok if the guide accepts the offer to go ahead and shake.” He offered his hand to Maddie, and she huffed before shaking briefly. He sighed internally. The girl was mundane, but the boy was psy-sensitive. “Well, it must be an exciting day for the two of you. You don’t get a new little brother every day.”
“Can we see him?” Daniel asked.
Maddie pointed toward the office. “The mean man in there told Daddy we can’t see the baby.”
“You know what? You can see the baby. Your daddy is just upset that the baby was moved from the hospital where your mommy is, and we have to wait until he calms down so he won’t upset the baby.” Rand stood and motioned the children to go with him. Daniel followed immediately, but Maddie hesitated with a look toward the office. “Don’t worry. My sentinel will let your Dad know where you are, and he can join you as soon as they finish their meeting.”
He took them to the maternity/pediatrics area of the Center. They were fully equipped for sentinels and guides in labor. After a quick wash-up, he led them into the nursery. “Here he is.”
“Wow, Maddie…he’s so little.” Daniel’s eyes were practically glowing, and the baby opened his eyes as if to look back at him. “Can we hold him?”
Rand glanced toward the nurse, who smiled and motioned toward the rocker. “Why don’t the two of you sit in that chair, and we can get him out of the bassinet for you.”
It took a minute to get them situated before the nurse placed the baby gently into Daniel’s arms.
He watched, completely charmed, as the siblings bonded with their baby brother.
After several minutes Maddie’s face scrunched up in thought. “Why did you take him from Mom’s hospital?”
Rand knelt down to be on their level. “Your baby brother here is very special; did you know that?”
Daniel nodded, “Yeah. He’s my special baby. Mommy says he’s going to make me all better.”
Rand cocked his head to the side and looked between the baby and the boy. “How is he going to make you better?”
“The doctor says I need a bone marrow transplant, but nobody is a match for me. So Mommy and the doctors made a baby in the doctor’s office that matches me and put it in Mommy’s tummy to grow.”
Rand tasted bile and held back his response when the baby whimpered. He swallowed back and focused on calm. “I’m sure your Mom and Dad love you very much. And I’m certain they love this baby just as much, no matter why they decided to have him.”
Maddie agreed, “They do. They love us all, just in different ways.”
“Well, your brother is doubly special, then.”
Daniel looked up at Rand, “Mommy and Daddy said that since the baby was just for me, I could name him. So I want to name him Evan. I saw it in a baby name book. I liked Evander better because it means a good man, but Mommy and Daddy don’t allow nicknames, and Maddie says kids will pick on him if I name him Evander. I don’t want my brother picked on, so I think Evan is good. Then Maddie and me will know what it really means.”
“I think Evan is an excellent name. What about a middle name?”
“Middle name?” Daniel looked at Maddie.
She shook her head, “Mom and Dad don’t have middle names, and neither do we. I don’t think we do that.”
“That’s ok,” Rand assured them. “I think Evan Buckley is enough of a name for this little guy.”
“You said he’s doubly special. How can he be double special?” Maddie just stared as she redirected him.
“Well, Evan here is like me. He’s a very strong guide. That means we must be extra careful that people take good care of him.” Rand reached out and brushed the light hair back from the baby’s face. “He’s going to be very sensitive to when people are happy and when they are sad. If you are upset when you are holding him, then he might cry. And when Evan is sad or scared, you might feel sad or scared too. He doesn’t mean to do that; he just isn’t big enough to control it on his own.”
“But someday, he’s going to grow up and have his own sentinel that will protect him and never, ever leave him?” Daniel asked, excited.
“Exactly like that.”
Rand stood up when the door opened.
“Maddie, how could you allow someone to take off with Daniel that way?”
Rand pushed soothing calm toward the children and turned to face Phillip Buckley. “Mr. Buckley, it’s good to finally meet you. I apologize for how upsetting your day must have been. I should have waited for you to finish your meeting, but Daniel was so excited to see little Evan here that Maddie and I thought it best to go ahead and let him. Don’t they look so happy together?”
Phillip paused with his mouth open before snapping it shut and moved forward to place his hand lightly on Daniel’s shoulder.
“Look, Daddy! He’s perfect. Just like you said he’d be.” Daniel gave that golden grin as he beamed up at his father.
“Yes, he is perfect for you. You aren’t getting tired holding him like that, are you? You know you need to take it easy.”
“He’s not that heavy, Daddy. He’s little. And Maddie is holding half of him, too.”
Maddie chipped in, “I’ve got his bottom half, but I don’t want to change any diapers.”
“That is quite ok, Miss Buckley,” the nurse assured the child while most of the adults fought to hide a smile. “For now, that is my job.” She looked over at Phillip and added, “It’s almost time for his bottle. Do you know if Mrs. Buckley plans to breastfeed? There was no information on the transfer paperwork.”
He shook his head, “No. She doesn’t want to breastfeed. She doesn’t want to deal with the bother of that.”
“That’s fine. We have several formulas to work through to find the one he takes the best. Would you like to feed him this time?”
Phillip gave a sharp negative shake. “No, that’s fine. It’s probably best if you do it.”
“Can I feed Evan?” Maddie asked.
“No, Maddie. I think it’s best we let the nurse handle that when we leave.” He gave her a sharp look when she started to pout and then sighed in response to his look.
Angeline spoke from the door behind them, “Mr. Buckley, as I stated before, we have a guest suite available for your family so you can be close to young Evan while we arrange the conservatorship. If you would like, we can take the children there to rest. They are welcome to visit the baby any time.”
“No, we can’t stay. Look, I don’t like it, but I understand why you had to step in. Right now, I need to get back to my wife and make sure she’s resting. We can meet to work out the details as soon as she is released. For now, I need to focus on her and my son.” Phillip glanced toward Daniel with that statement. “Time to give the baby back to the nurse.” Phillip stepped back as the nurse moved forward.
“Daddy, can we come back tomorrow to hold Evan?” Daniel asked as he reluctantly relinquished his hold on the baby.
“We’ll see. First, we need to make sure Mommy is ok. Mommy really misses you when you’re away. And don’t forget, tomorrow Maddie has school, and you have your follow-up from treatment. We need you nice and rested, not tired from worrying about a baby.” He gently nudged the children toward the door without a backward glance.
Daniel broke away and hurried back to the nurse to reach up and touch Evan’s hand. “I’ll see you real soon, Evan. I love you.”
As the door closed, Rand ran a hand lightly over Evan’s head, testing the shields. He smiled briefly at the nurse and turned to leave.
They walked silently together until they reached the privacy of the Directors’ office.
“He didn’t even try to touch the baby,” Karl blurted out.
Angeline moved to take her sentinel’s hand. “No, he didn’t. His only concern was that the child was healthy. His focus was on the middle child.”
Rand sighed, “Daniel and Maddie shared that the baby was created by in vitro fertilization to be a bone marrow match for Daniel.” He shook his head at the question in June’s eyes. “Not in those words. Just that Evan was made at the doctor’s office so that he could give Daniel bone marrow.”
Karl shared, “We did learn that the Buckleys are originally from Pennsylvania. They moved to New York a year ago for a better treatment program for Daniel.”
“Right, a better treatment program. That wouldn’t happen to coincide with the fact that New York currently has the best fertility clinic in the nation and is one of only eleven states with a liberal waiver for under-aged sibling bone marrow donors, would it?” June leaned back and crossed her arms. “It’s going to suck royally when they discover that minor sentinels and guides are banned as living donors.”
Angeline shook her head sadly. “I want to say that what they did was awful, but then I think, what wouldn’t I do for one of my children? What wouldn’t I sacrifice if it could give one of them even a day’s more life?”
“There are no absolute answers to a question like this. They took a chance, and the last thing I want to do is be the one that has to look that little boy in the eye and tell him that it failed.” Rand sat back, tapping his finger on the desktop.
June stood and moved to wrap her arms around him in a hug. “I understand, but what can we do? Do we make an exception in this case? Then what about the next? We protect those of us who cannot protect themselves until they are able to make a reasoned choice on their own.”
“Exactly, until they are old enough to make that choice themselves,” Rand looked over his shoulder at his wife and grinned.
“I know that look, husband. You saw that child. He doesn’t have eighteen years to wait. I doubt he has one.”
“Right, he doesn’t have a year to go. I don’t know how old they thought the baby needed to be, but I doubt it was a year.” Rand looked around at everyone, “We can’t allow an underage guide to donate, but we can ask the community. I know very few sentinels and guides who are registered donors. We rarely donate blood outside our own community. I don’t even think that’s a conscious decision. Just the natural impulse to protect the Pride before the tribe.”
“You want to issue a request to the New York Prides to register as donors in the hope of a match?” Karl raised an eyebrow at the odds.
“No, I want to put out a nationwide appeal for donors to help the newest Prime Guide in the U.S.” Rand drew a circle on the table with his finger. “The Buckleys are about to be hit with what it means to be part of the Sentinel and Guide community. We will either pull together to save that boy or support the family through his illness.”
Summer 1993, New York City, New York
Rand watched out the window as the children ran through the gardens below. The Center’s annual 4th of July picnic was always well attended. He smiled as he watched Daniel Buckley chase after the other children in the game of freeze tag. It was hard to believe that this energetic, rosy-cheeked child was the same pale, sickly boy he had first met in this Center.
The call for donors had, thankfully, been a success. They were able to help several people across the U.S. who had been just as desperate as Daniel. His recovery was long but looked brighter every day as he regained his strength.
Hopefully, Daniel will live a full, healthy life. Perhaps young Evan will never have to know that he had been unable to fulfill the purpose for which he was born. That was all Rand ever wished for the children that had earned a special place in his heart.
He felt a single point of brooding anger approach. Unfortunately, Daniel’s good health had resulted in the current issue they were facing. The Buckleys had seesawed between anger at the Center for interference to ecstatic acceptance of the benefits of familial membership in the community.
The housing relocation to S&G-approved housing had met with resistance until the housing subsidy had been discussed. The medical assistance and available twenty-four-hour nursing care for Daniel had been gratefully accepted. Even the two live-in conservators/nannies found for Evan had met with grudging approval…at first.
The reports from the conservators agreed. Phillip’s energy was focused on his son and his wife to get them through the illness and this trying time. He would help with Evan when needed but was willing to quickly pass off his care to a conservator at the first indication that one of the others needed his assistance. Margaret, on the other hand, lacked even the barest maternal connection with her infant.
Evan cried whenever she was near, and she avoided his presence whenever possible. It didn’t help that the woman was psy-null. She was a blank slate on a passive scan. To an empath of Evan’s power, it must seem like being doused in cold water every time she touched him.
Lately, they had begun making plans without consulting the conservators and dismissing any of their concerns about the welfare of the young guide. The increasing hostility in the home resulted in a Level 2 Event and a possible charge of Guide Abuse against the Buckleys.
He listened to the sounds behind him while focusing on the children below. He couldn’t see a way out. This wasn’t how he had imagined the world when he met this family. He sighed when a throat cleared behind him and turned to take his seat at the conference table.
Rand allowed the lawyers for both sides to start with the usual inanities: Introductions, the situation at present, and the possible charges against the Buckleys. Rand kept his eye on Margaret. Even though he had trouble reading anything without touching her, her body language spoke volumes. She was incensed that they were even threatening her with charges.
“This is ridiculous.” She waved off her lawyer’s interruptions. “Evan didn’t have a single problem for months. How were we to know he would throw a tantrum in the middle of that trip? Frankly, the reaction everyone had is teaching him that he can get his way just by acting out.” Margaret pointed at Rand when she said it. “You all spoil him beyond belief. He needs to learn that what he wants isn’t all that important and to be thankful for what he’s given.”
“Mrs. Buckley, what you did was willfully leave the city without a conservator. And as Evan became overwhelmed when the press of emotions around him exceeded his ability to shield, you did not follow even one ounce of the training you’ve received. Instead, you punished him for disrupting your trip.” Rand glared the Buckley’s attorney to silence.
Darnell Staunton, lead attorney for the New York State Centers, tapped the page before him. “Let us be more exact than that. What you did, Mrs. Buckley, was willfully interfere with the Center’s legal conservatorship of a minor online guide. You placed that guide in a situation for which you have been made aware he cannot cope without a conservator, and then when he inevitably reacted as expected, you yelled at, physically shook, and struck the guide.”
The Buckley’s attorney held up his hand, “Now wait one moment. Let’s not overreact. She didn’t strike the child. She gave him a few swats on the bottom. Not even enough to leave a mark. Disciplining your child with a reasonable spanking is still legal in New York.”
June gave the man a stare like a viper, ready to strike. “Yes, spanking your child is allowable, even if it is barbaric. However, physical discipline against a minor sentinel or guide is not. It is abuse. And to be so abused when he could not reasonably control his reaction due to overload endangered the community. Two sentinels had to be sedated when they went feral in response to Evan’s fear and distress. If they had reached the Buckleys, there is every chance they would have killed her in defense of the guide.”
Phillip blanched and tried to reach out to take Margaret’s hand. “Look, that obviously wasn’t our intent. It’s just been so hard with Daniel’s illness. Now that he is getting better, it’s like we are just weighed down with another ill child.”
“Evan is not ill, Mr. Buckley. He is a guide. Yes, it will take him years to grow into his abilities, but we made it clear when he was born that conservatorship won’t end until his teens at the earliest.”
“If you had just allowed us to move back to Pennsylvania like we wanted, then you wouldn’t have to deal with any of this now,” Margaret insisted.
“As we have repeated for the last three months, the problem is not in your move to Pennsylvania. It is in the lack of S&G services in your chosen area. The nearest Center able to handle Evan’s needs is in Pittsburgh, over 220 miles from your home.”
“Philadelphia is only 95 miles, and it has an Intake Center,” Phillip pointed out.
“It has administration, medical, and initial intake. But there are no Primes in Pennsylvania. Proximity to a Prime will be required for training throughout his childhood. There are things an Alpha just can’t teach him,” Rand pointed out. “He waved his hand. Even so, we haven’t located conservators willing to relocate yet.”
Staunton cleared his throat. “This discussion is moot. I have heard nothing that has convinced me not to pursue Guide Abuse charges against Mrs. Buckley along with Negligent Endangerment and interference with a Guide Conservatorship against both the Buckleys.”
“There has to be something we can do to prevent these charges. My clients are willing to work with the Center. Maybe mandatory classes?” Their attorney was holding a hand out to demand his clients be quiet.
“Your clients show no sign that they are willing to place the needs of Evan Buckley before their own desires.” Staunton slammed the folder closed in exasperation.
“Evan, Evan, Evan. That’s all I hear. Face it, that’s all you care about. You people didn’t care about kids like Daniel until Evan was born. Well, he may not have donated himself, but at least he served his purpose. Our sweet little Daniel is alive and ready to live his life. And you people want to stand in his way.” Margaret glared at her husband and lawyer when they tried to interrupt her tirade. “If you care so much about that insignificant brat, then you can keep him. You keep him and let us take our family back to Pennsylvania. No charges against us, and we won’t protest custody with the courts. You wouldn’t want to ruin all the goodwill you’ve built by having the truth that you only cared about getting your hands on our child.”
The lawyer looked shocked, but Phillip looked resigned, while Rand could feel a hidden core of hope radiating from the man.
“You would sign away all of your parental rights to your own child?” June asked, her voice holding a hint of danger.
The two women squared off across the table with a cold stare. “If it would clear us of you people and free us from this burden, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
“Do it,” June ordered, her voice carrying the command of a Sentinel Prime. “Know this, Margaret Buckley, the moment you sign, you are excised from the Pride, from the Community, and from the Tribe. Seek not our protection, for it will be denied.”
The sentinels and guides in the room rocked back in shock.
“Good. I don’t want to see any of you people ever again.” She stood from the table and turned to go. “Phillip!”
Phillip gave only a moment’s indecision before hurrying after his wife.
Rand stared through the window of the Manhattan Intake Center Day Care. The three Buckley children were huddled together in the middle of the story time pillows, looking through the pictures in a book. Evan kept reaching back to pat Maddie and Daniel on the face as the two children tried to hold back tears.
“You want him, don’t you, husband?” June’s presence was an anchor in the waves.
“I was there when he was born. Touching that unborn mind was like finding a flame in the dark to light my way. I would never seek to take another’s child, but it feels like he was never theirs to start with.” Rand glanced over at his wife before turning back to watch the children. “Is it wrong to want him?”
“My one regret in life is that I cannot give you children of my body.” June held a finger against his lip when he turned to reassure her. “But I would gift you one hundred children of our spirit if that were your wish, husband.” She looked through the window with him. “It is not wrong to want him. I have not held him because I do not think I can let him go once I do. He will be ours in every way that matters. And, we will make sure he knows he has been loved since the moment of his birth.”
She sighed and then turned back to Rand. “They are downstairs signing the papers with the attorneys now. They’ve already shipped their belongings to Pennsylvania and will be out of the state before sundown.”
Maddie suddenly burst into tears, and Evan began to cry with her. Rand moved to the door and entered the room to calm Evan. Maddie’s tears turned to a sudden burst of anger, and she ran at Rand, pushing him back.
He held out a hand to stop June, who had raced into the room.
“You promised, but Mom was right. All you people do is steal babies. I hate you. I hate you all.” Maddie spun around and grabbed Evan for a hug and a kiss before running out of the room sobbing.
Daniel gave a big sigh and hugged Evan tightly. “She didn’t mean it. She’s just mad. Mom and Dad said we have to move back home now that I’m better. They said Evan wasn’t our brother anymore, and we aren’t allowed to talk about him ever again. They threw away all his pictures, and if people ask, we’re supposed to tell them that Maddie and me are the only kids. I don’t understand. Evan is my special baby brother.”
“Oh, Daniel, of course Evan is your special baby brother. No matter what your parents say, he will always be your brother. I promise I will make sure he knows who you are and never forgets.” Rand sighed and sat down next to Daniel so that he could wrap an arm around him. “Sometimes grown-ups make decisions that are hard to understand. All the adults decided that it was best for Evan if he lives where people know how to take care of him and teach him to be the best guide he can be. And you and Maddie should live where you can grow up to be happy and strong.”
“You promise he will be happy, even if I can’t see him ever again?” Daniel whispered.
“I promise you I will do everything I can to make sure he grows up to be happy, healthy, and a good man,” Rand promised.
June gracefully lowered herself onto a pillow on the other side of Daniel. She held out a business card to the boy. “Keep this card safe from your parents. They are angry right now and might not let you keep it. You can send letters to Evan at this address, and he will get them. When you are older and can go to the Hershey Pride House on your own, we can let Evan send you letters back.”
“He’s just a baby. He can’t send letters.”
“You’re not old enough to go anyplace on your own yet, either. I know it seems like it will be forever, but you are almost nine years old. In just seven years, you will be able to drive, and Evan will be old enough to write to you.” She smiled at him, “And when you are all grown up and graduate from High School, you can come and see him any time you want.”
Daniel wrinkled his face in thought. “How can I write him? Maddie’s friend Lucy was born with a different name, and the people who adopted her gave her a new name. I don’t want him to have a new name. I picked it out special just for him.”
Rand exchanged a look with June, and she smiled before turning back to Daniel. “I promise you that he will be Evan no matter what.”
“But what about Buckley? It’s the only thing we have left the same.”
Rand shook his head, “No, it’s not. You have the same blood and the same heart. Brotherhood is more than just a name.”
Daniel nodded, then gave Evan a hug and a kiss. “I love you, Evan, always and forever. You’re my brother no matter what.”
He handed Evan to June, and she didn’t hesitate to take the child in her arms. “When you write him, write to Evan Buckley Meyrick. I will never take away the name you gave him, Daniel. Pinky promise.”
She reached out and wrapped her pinky around Daniel’s. “It’s the most solemn promise two people can make to each other.”
He looked at their fingers and then smiled. Daniel turned to Rand and held out his finger, “Pinky promise?”
Rand blinked back tears as he locked his pinky with Daniel’s. “Pinky promise. You will always be welcome in our home and in our lives Daniel Buckley, brother of Evan. Sons of our spirits.”
July 2003, Washington, D.C.
Ten-year-old Evan Meyrick contemplated the series of ropes tied to the frame of his backyard swing set before checking the status of the kitten on the tree branch just three feet above the top of the swings. With a nod, he put on his empty backpack, took hold of the rope, and started climbing.
The rope was an easy climb, as was the transition to the top of the swings. The tricky part was standing on the swing set to reach the branch. Evan slowly stood on the rounded beam, adjusting his body to balance his weight, and with only a couple of bobbles, got a firm grip on the branch. He swung up and rested his belly across the branch before swinging a leg up and over to straddle it.
He shrugged off the backpack and unzipped it before placing it on the tree in front of him and scooping up the kitten. “Selina, you can’t keep climbing trees if you can’t climb down.”
The kitten emoted happiness and contentment. It started to knead its claws into Evan’s shirt and purr.
“Yes, you know I will always rescue you. It’s my job as a guide to protect my tribe. But you’ve got to learn to be more careful.”
A rough tongue licked Evan’s ear, and he pulled away.
“Oh, no. No trying to talk your way out of it, young lady. It’s time I finish this rescue.” Evan placed the unresisting kitten into the backpack and zipped it closed for the descent.
Carefully putting it on his back, he slid his legs around and blindly swung his feet back and forth until his shoes hit the top of the swing. He bobbled several times, trying to find his balance, and automatically sent a wave of calm to the kitten riding on his back. When he finally felt confident in his ability to stand, he released the branch one hand at a time before beginning the delicate maneuver of squatting down to reach the swings.
The kitten moved at an inopportune moment, and he felt his foot slip off the bar. He grabbed the bar as he fell and felt hands grip his legs from below. The familiar burst of surprise/fear/love embraced him, and Evan used the pause in gravity to grab onto the rope and finish his descent.
Evan turned the moment he touched the ground and was enveloped in his father’s arms. “Dad, I’m ok. Don’t squish Selina.”
“Son, what do you think you were doing?” Dad demanded. The pulses of relief/joy/love continued even though the man’s expression was stern.
“It was a rescue, Dad. Selina was frozen in terror in the tree after an epic tree-climbing accident, and I just had to rescue her. I’m not sure she would have survived until emergency services arrived.” Evan pointed up at the tree and then at the ropes. “Uncle Chris and Uncle Vin showed me all about climbing ropes when we went to the S&G SARs training center in Colorado last month.”
“Uncle Chris and Uncle Vin taught you, did they? And where was Uncle Ezra when this happened?”
“Uncle Ezra was reading his book by the lake. But he agreed I should learn so that someday I can save my sentinel from his own il…illconseed….”
“Yeah, ill-conceived plans.” Evan thought for a moment, “What does ill-conceived mean?”
“Poorly thought out.”
“Oh, I guess that’s why Uncle Vin threw that rag at Uncle Ezra.” Evan liked it when he could figure out why people’s words and feelings didn’t always match. Uncle Ezra was good about explaining that, even if he was hard to understand sometimes.
“Well, now that you’ve taken another year off my life, you might like to know that your brother is on the phone with your mother.”
Evan started to run but stopped and took off his backpack to shove at his father. “Selina needs food and water after her ordeal.” Then trusting his father to see to basic first aid, he ran into the house, calling out, “Moooooom! I wanna talk to Daniel!”
Mom was standing with the phone in hand, arms crossed as she stared down at the floor and tapped one foot. Evan followed her eyes, then huffed as he dropped to the floor and ripped off his shoes. He grabbed shoes and phone before running back to drop them by the door.
“Daniel! You called, and it isn’t even the weekend.” Evan continued with barely a breath, “Did you get my 4th of July Card? I took that picture all by myself at the Ranch in Colorado. I rode the horse all the way to the lake. And, you know what? We flew back to Pennsylvania. I’ve never been there before. There was some meeting that Mom and Dad had to do in Pittsburgh. I begged them to go see you in Hershey because I wanted to see where you and Maddie live, but Dad said it wasn’t a good idea.”
Laughter rang out over the line. “Whoa, calm down, little brother. Give a guy a chance to answer one question before asking five more. So, yes, I did get that card. I’m very proud of you for that picture. I want to get it blown up to put on my wall. Your Dad is right. It’s best that you avoid Hershey. There’s nothing there worth seeing, trust me.”
Evan sighed, “Yes, there is. You’re in Hershey, Daniel.”
“Cheer up, Little Brother. I sent you something from my own travels, and a little bird told me that it was delivered to your front door just a few minutes ago.”
Evan perked up and looked around the living room. “You sent me a present?”
“That I did.”
“Mooom, Daaad! Did I get a delivery?”
Mom was carrying a pitcher of iced lemonade and cups on a tray. Reserved amusement radiating. “No one has knocked on the door. You should check outside.”
Hurrying to the door, Evan threw it open and looked down, but the welcome mat was bare.
“Good situational awareness there, Evan.” Daniel’s voice wasn’t coming from the phone.
“Daniel?” There he was, leaning against a red convertible. A big smile filled his face, and Evan didn’t hesitate to run toward him. He felt Daniel’s arms slip around him and squeeze in a way that felt perfect. Love/joy/anticipation/acceptance/relief flooded him, and Evan held on to soak up this feeling he had been missing for so long.
Eventually, the intensity passed, and he released enough to look up without losing contact. “You’re really, really here.”
“I really, really am. We’ve got the rest of the summer before I start school to have some fun,” Daniel assured him.
Evan’s smile dropped a little. “You’re leaving after summer?”
“Well, that depends. See, I’m going to George Washington University in the fall. Normally they require freshmen to live on campus. But I’ve been told that S&G students and family can get a waiver for that to remain with their Pride. I can understand if you don’t want me around all the time. But Rand and June did offer to let me live in your guest room.”
Pure joy flowed out of Evan as he glamped onto his brother. He felt his father’s shields wrap around him, and he just let himself have the moment. “I never want you to leave, ever. Promise you will live here?”
Daniel reached out a hand, fist closed with his pinky finger held out. “Pinky swear.”
With the biggest grin, Evan reached out to hook his finger to Daniel’s, “Pinky swear.”
June 2009, Washington, D.C.
Rand Meyrick regretted the day he accepted the title of Guide Prime of the Eastern Seaboard. The move from New York State had been bittersweet since, even ten years later, he missed the daily interaction with his original Pride. Only a handful of his closest members were able to make the move with him.
Still, he and June had been aware for at least a year that no other Prime in the region could take the territory when Sandburg and Ellison retired as U.S. Primes. It was inevitable that Franklin and Jones would step into the U.S. role, forcing June and himself into the Eastern Seaboard position. Instinct drove them all to acknowledge the hierarchy. Only the bonding of a stronger Prime Pair would disrupt that process.
Well, not only bonding, as it turned out. The moment Primes Franklin and Jones died in that auto accident, June’s territory shifted. Rand accepted that where his sentinel goes, so does he. They were born to be a team, and he didn’t regret his responsibility to the community. It was the politics of the post that Rand hated so.
That, and the loss of freedom to take off on a whim. Rand watched as Daniel and Evan loaded the last of their gear into the back of Daniel’s cobalt-blue Volkswagen Tiguan. Rand checked his watch and decided to hell with it. His children would always be more important than any Senate committee meeting.
He looked at his boys as they prepared to leave and felt the sorrow of letting go again. Six years since his oldest had come back into their lives to stay, and they had been six incredible years. Daniel had grown into the exceptional and loving young man Rand had seen in a sickly eight-year-old so long ago.
He would be forever grateful that Daniel accepted their invitation into their home and family while he completed his education. But, complete it was, and he was ready to take that shiny new Master’s degree and ride off into the world.
June cocked her head to the side and then shook her head with a small smile. She shifted Evan’s camera bag off her shoulder. He would insist that it needs to go up front where he can get his hands on it. “Evan, sweetheart, Selina is calling from the tree again.”
Evan frowned, “She knows I’m leaving and has been acting out all week. I better go get her, or she’ll just stay up there and mope like she did last year.” Evan jogged back into the house with a shake of his head.
Rand watched him go and sighed again.
Daniel stepped around in front of him and moved in for a hug. “You know I’ll take good care of him. I promise we won’t have a repeat of the Boston Fiasco.”
Tightening the hug, Rand choked out a laugh. “Nothing could be worse than the Boston Fiasco.”
What a nightmare. The summer after Daniel moved in with them, Daniel begged permission to take Evan with him to surprise Maddie, who was studying for her nursing degree in Boston with her fiancé. Maddie had joined Daniel several times over the years on his frequent letters and calls to Evan, so they hadn’t seen the harm in allowing the two to take a road trip as long as the S&G pair that guarded Evan was with them.
The surprise turned horrifying when the boys burst in on Maddie’s fiancé, Doug Kendall, hitting Maddie. Somehow the chaos that followed ended with a stab wound for Daniel and a catatonic Mr. Kendall after he tried to choke Evan for interfering. The hospital and later the medical examiner was unable to determine if the cause of the catatonia was a result of the beating from the sentinel who rescued Evan or the cast iron pan that Maddie applied to the man’s head. The Centers had sealed their own report that it may have been Evan who had locked the man in his own head in self-defense. Since the man didn’t survive his injuries, it was determined that it was not in Evan’s best interest to explore the question.
The fun hadn’t stopped there. Boston police took Maddie in for questioning. This alerted Phillip and Margaret Buckley to the situation when Maddie contacted them for assistance with a lawyer.
The resulting confrontation between the Buckleys and their children left Maddie devastated, and Daniel prepared to commit matricide in defense of his little brother. If Rand could have spared Evan the first-hand experience of his birth parents’ hate for him, he would have.
The rage and vitriol they expressed at the sight of Evan was horrifying. Doubly so when they learned that Daniel had been living at the Meyrick home for the last year.
Daniel’s response to his mother’s ultimatum that he chose between his family and Evan ended with Daniel throwing the keys to his car at his father and informing him that they could keep every material possession they had ever given him. He would keep Evan.
Maddie was stuck forever in the middle. She couldn’t let go of her brothers and wasn’t ready to cut ties with her parents. She dreamed of reconciliation for her family and still harbored deep anger against the Sentinel and Guide Community for breaking them apart.
Rand put his hands on Daniel’s shoulders and pushed him back to look him in the eye. “I trust you completely to take care of your brother. Never doubt that. It’s just…my boys are leaving home.”
“Evan’ll only be away for the summer. Before you know it, you will be joining him for your vacation in Colorado.” Daniel shook his head, “He loves that place.”
“Don’t I know it. I’ve allowed Evan a month every summer at The Ranch since he was seven.”
“Then you can blame yourself that he’s convinced he will apply for a SARs team as soon as he finishes his education. You’re just lucky that June threatened Uncle Chris if he tries to offer him a job before he finishes his Masters.”
“The woman is serious about an education. Did you know that we bonded within minutes of meeting, but she refused to marry me until I went back to finish my Masters in S&G Affairs?”
Rand smiled at the thought and then let the smile drop. “It’s not about Evan. He will be back bellowing at the top of his lungs about that damn cat, sports, school, or whatever random fact has entered his head before I know it. But you will be gone. I’ve watched you mature into this incredible young man. I am so proud of what you have accomplished and the path you have chosen to walk.”
Daniel misted up in front of him, tears starting to flow.
“You are going to take those computers of yours and change the world. I already see the signs. In ten years, I bet there’s not an emergency dispatch center in the country that isn’t using the system you and your team are building. It’s a work of art in the making. It only saddens me that it is art that will be built on the other side of the country.”
“Hey, L.A. is just a plane away. Evan’s got all kinds of plans for how you guys can visit me there. And I already have tickets reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas to come home. It’s not goodbye. Never goodbye between family.”
“Right, just a maudlin old man.”
“You’re not old, Rand. Just slowly aging to perfection.”
“If you need anything out there, just give us a call. And I’ve already checked in with Prime Symes. He double-checked that your apartment complex is sentinel and guide housing.”
“That really isn’t necessary.”
“Not for you, but it is if Evan ever comes to stay with you.”
“Ok, fine. He’s a little mad he won’t get to see it this trip. I know he will try to talk me into taking him the whole way once we’re on the road.”
“No. I think a brothers-only road trip between here and Denver is enough. You can take your time getting there and see all the sights. Then stay at The Ranch for a week before you have to leave for L.A. to make your start date.”
“It will be fine. Besides, once I’m in L.A. I will be too busy to spend time with Evan at first. So, we will have fun and stop at every ridiculous tourist trap we see along the way. Probably make a few detours to some scenic overlooks that only Evan has read about in the encyclopedia memory of his, and take pictures right, left, and sideways. We will check in twice a day without fail until we reach Denver. And we will miss the two of you every step of the way, even though Evan sees this as his moment of brotherly freedom.”
Rand pulled Daniel in for another hug as they smiled through tears.
“Come On! Didn’t we have enough waterworks last night when we were packing?” Evan called out as he and June returned from the house. “We’re losing daylight here. You’re not losing a son, Dad; you’re gaining a guest room.”
Rand let go of Daniel and snagged Evan on his way by. “Obey your brother, don’t do anything impetuous, and have fun.” He hugged his son hard and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
“Way to ruin all the fun, Dad. Last time I checked, impetuous was fun.” Evan hugged him back. “Take care of Selina for me, and don’t worry about us.”
“It’s a father’s prerogative to worry.”
Daniel finished exchanging goodbyes with June, grabbed Evan in a headlock, and dragged him to the car. They were in it and pulling away while Evan waved frantically through the window.
June stepped over to link her arm with Rand’s as they watched the car disappear down the road. “Senator Graham called while I was in. They postponed the discussion about reintegrating the Sentinel Units throughout the military.”
Rand sighed, “They can’t have that conversation without us or the U.S. Primes present, and they know it.”
“I’m torn on signing off on it,” June murmured before humming a little marching tune as they returned to the house. “Assigning pairs to each unit possible is a prudent use of resources. But the request to include latents to the assignments is just manipulating the situation to bring more of them online.”
“Agreed.” Rand glanced back over his shoulder down the road. “You put an online guide in danger, and the likelihood that a latent sentinel comes online increases exponentially. They might reason the risk of them coming online feral is worth the trade-off of more online sentinels in service.”
They reached the door and stopped. “I think of them placing Evan in that situation, of people using him in such a way, and it makes me homicidal. But I am stuck with the realization that I can’t protect all of the guides I am responsible for in the same way I can protect my own son.”
June reached up and turned his head away from the road. “Husband, together we will give them what protection we can. And we will teach Evan to take up that burden when it is his time to take the place among us he was born to take. That’s all we can do, protect them, train them, then release them to make their way in the world. As long as we give them shelter to return to when they are in need, then we have done our duty to the tribe.”
2011, El Paso, Texas
Private First Class Eddie Diaz stood in the doorway, watching his mother rock her grandson as she fed him a bottle. Eddie was still blown away by the fact that he was a father. His fingers itched to take his son and hold tight, but he reminded himself that his leave was up and he needed to report for transport to his unit tonight.
Leaving little Christopher with his mother, Eddie returned to his bedroom to see his wife, Shannon, glaring at the clothes laid out to pack. He held back a sigh and started packing.
“I don’t know why you can’t stay longer.”
“Shan…let’s not do this. I don’t get to choose when I stay and when I go.” Eddie reached out to take her hand, but she pulled it back.
“They let you come home for the birth. Is it really asking so much to request more time? I know for a fact that some of the other fathers have been allowed to stay longer.”
“Let’s be honest.” Eddie hissed, lowering his voice. “There is no way in hell I would have been given leave if I wasn’t a latent Sentinel. The Army was hoping I would come online at the birth. That’s why the others are allowed bonding leave. As soon as they calm down, they will be shipped to a training center before they are returned to their duty stations.”
“Well, I’m sorry I’m not guide enough to bring you online.” She stood up and grabbed some socks from his drawer to throw onto the bed.
Eddie jumped over to the door and checked down the hall. “Can you keep it down? My father is in the living room.”
“Right, let’s worry about what dear old Dad thinks.” She leaned back against the dresser and crossed her arms. “What were you going to do if you suddenly came online. Do you expect Helena and Ramon to suddenly change their worldview? They will leave their church and embrace the S&G community.”
“Look, I know they can be difficult sometimes, but they mean well. Mom wants to help. And, if we suddenly came online, Dad would be ok with it. I mean, we’re already married, so it’s not like he would worry about same-sex couples in the family.” Eddie crossed the room to wrap his arms around her. “But, if the birth of our child didn’t bring us online, then I don’t think anything will. So there’s no reason to worry about it.”
“Right, so the reason you cover up your S&G insignia in all your photos for your family is that there’s nothing to worry about?” Shannon leaned her head against Eddie’s. “GI Bill, Education, VA loan programs, financial independence to move away from El Paso…all the reasons we agreed on enlistment. I can’t wait until your enlistment is up.”
“Just a few more years. Let Mom help and keep signing up for at least one or two classes a semester. We have a plan, and this is just step one.” Eddie kissed her. “Before you know it, we will be living the dream.”
“Dream, dream, dream.” Shannon leaned her forehead back against his. “I’m holding you to this, Soldier. You, me, Christopher, and a life out in the great big world. We’re going to show our son how life is supposed to be lived.”
Eddie hugged her again. “My promise to you and Christopher. We’re going to teach him how to embrace life.”
2015 Somewhere in Afghanistan
“Diaz, we’re on rotation again,” Sgt Birkman called out.
Eddie let his head fall back onto his bunk and sighed before forcing himself to get up and pull on his boots.
Wallace rolled over in his bunk. “Didn’t you guys just get off rotation?”
“Yeah. No rest for the wicked, I guess. Do you know where Hoffman ran off to?” Eddie stood up and reached for his vest and helmet.
“You didn’t hear? Hoffman was swapped out with another unbonded guide. The Army’s ongoing mission to trigger as many of you latent guys as possible has those poor unbonded suckers on a perpetual merry-go-round.” Wallace rolled back to look up at the ceiling and lay an arm over his eyes to block out the light.
“Damn, Hoffman was finally fitting in with the squad,” Eddie muttered. Some days he wished he hadn’t tested as a latent sentinel when he joined up. Eddie gave one last longing look at his bunk before heading out to catch up with the rest.
Then it was hurry up and wait. Eddie watched as Lieutenant Kerry approached, a new corporal following behind. He sighed when the Guide insignia became visible. Kerry said something to the guide and motioned toward Eddie before heading toward the tent where the captains were meeting.
Eddie just waited in the shade for the man to approach. He glanced at the others in the squad, who suddenly found another bit of shade to occupy away from this conversation. He contemplated throwing something at them but gave it up as too much work.
Waving the Corporal toward the seat across from him, Eddie introduced himself, “Diaz.”
“Hi. Dameon Balliford.” He looked uncomfortable. “Do you mind if I touch you to get a read?”
Eddie leveled the man a glare that could drill holes through him. “Army says jump, I jump. Army says fight, I fight. But the Army’s not allowed to touch with intent when it comes to my S&G state. I think you know that.”
Balliford gave a wry grin and leaned back. “I know it. Army says ask him. I gotta ask. That’s all I gotta do, so consider yourself asked if anyone says anything.”
“Good.” Eddie rolled his head to work out some of the kinks. “It’s not your fault, but you’re the sixth unbonded guide they’ve assigned to this squad in the last three months. It’s getting kind of ridiculous.”
Balliford laughed, “With all due respect, you did re-up. The Army is going to take that as a sign.”
Eddie stopped with the head rolling and stared at Balliford in confusion. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Latent sentinels rarely re-enlist. When one does, it’s usually a sign that they are on the verge of coming online and feel the imperative to protect the tribe. They will keep throwing us at you and putting you under fire until they can trigger you.” He shrugged at the look of incredulity Eddie gave him.
“I re-upped because my son was diagnosed with CP, and we need the medical care.” Eddie hung his head. “They’re going to get us killed.” He looked back up at the corporal. “I know unbonded guides are allowed to reject a posting. Why did you accept this one when you’ve got to know how many guides they’ve thrown at me?”
“Hell, Diaz, there’s not an unbonded guide in the service that doesn’t want to give you a try.”
“See, that just doesn’t make any sense. I’m just another latent sentinel. We’re a dime a dozen.”
Balliford shook his head in disbelief. “Man, you are practically guide catnip. Your aura resonates with power. You come online; I guarantee you’ll be an Alpha, minimum.”
“You can tell that kind of thing?”
“Trust me. Even those who have trouble seeing auras can read yours loud and clear.” Balliford leaned forward and rested his arms on his knees. “The Army has your potential listed in one of their files somewhere, so they won’t give up on you easily. And your record is known. Every Platoon you’re in has received commendation after commendation with a huge decrease in fatalities. You might not be online, but you’re protecting the guides and protecting the tribe on pure instinct.”
Eddie took several minutes in silence to let that sink in. There had always been an abnormal interest in him from the Brass. The kind of interest that made his skin crawl at times. This explanation beat any other he had heard. “Be honest with me here.” Eddie held Balliford’s eye. “Almost five years I’ve been in. What’s the likelihood that I will suddenly come online now?”
The guide shrugged without breaking eye contact. “That depends. If you are edging in that direction, then it will happen. But for someone with your potential power rating, if you don’t come online naturally, it usually takes a serious threat to your Guide to bring you online. That’s why they are rotating us after action. They are trying to search for your guide to make it happen.”
“And they think that because I re-upped that my guide must be in the Army.” Eddie groaned and took off his helmet to rub his head. “This is a nightmare.”
2015 Classified Location, Afghanistan
Glancing at Balliford, Eddie caught the quick motion of his head that meant he needed to follow. He nodded before wrapping the splint around Caney’s ankle and motioning for his team to lift Caney into the back of the transport vehicle. “Prop it up the best you can. It’s either a bad sprain or a hairline fracture. I’ll be right back. Let me know if you lose feeling in your toes.”
Eddie grabbed his gear and joined Daemon, who was making a beeline for the LT. He caught Daemon’s eye, and he just shrugged, “Issues.”
“Sir,” Eddie acknowledged Lt Kerry, who had joined the three squads out on patrol today.
“Status on Caney?” Kerry’s look was intense, and the man had the stance of someone preparing to charge into battle.
“He took a good tumble on the rocks. Minor bruises and scrapes, but the ankle has either a hairline fracture or a bad sprain.”
Kerry gave a sharp nod. “We’ve got a personnel transport about ten clicks south. One of the vehicles overturned. They are scrambling to get a medivac, but we can get there first. Need you ready to evaluate the injured.” He looked at Sgts Birkman and Winters, “Let’s load up and get moving.”
“Should I call for a medivac for Caney?” Birkman asked.
Kerry grimaced, then shook his head. “No time. They are going to route support there first. He’ll get a lift faster from the wreck if we head on in.” He turned toward his vehicle as he ordered, “Let’s move out.”
Eddie ran with Balliford back to the rearmost vehicle and hopped into the back. “Heading to assess a transport that rolled. Be on the lookout. Caney, go ahead and take some pain meds from your medipac. Lewis, you’re on Caney sitting duty. If we have to move fast, you’re his buddy to get him moving.”
Eddie kept his eyes and ears open as they traveled towards the transport. Mentally he was reviewing everything he had learned about treating blunt force trauma and crush injuries. There had been no information given on the number or types of injuries. He rolled his shoulders and adjusted in his seat a few times, an itch growing under his skin as he tried to imagine what he would be facing.
Movement to his side showed the men in the vehicle trading looks as they kept their attention focused on the landscape around them and the road behind them, trusting the vehicles in front to handle that direction.
They were about half a click out when he started rechecking his weapon, then bent down to double-check his boots. At the last moment, he reached over to Balliford and ripped off the velcroed Guide patch before removing his own Sentinel patch with the black crosshatch to indicate latent status.
“Diaz?” Daemon asked, surprise in his voice.
“Something doesn’t feel right about this,” Eddie murmured just as the vehicle came to a stop and the men started moving out. The first two squads took positions to cover them while Eddie’s squad moved in to assess the damage.
He moved quickly, assessing the injuries, triaging, and moving in on the ones that the mobile members of the transport caravan hadn’t moved yet. As he entered the vehicle, he noted that four of the six occupants were awake and mobile. Then he noted the guide patches. That itch under his skin became a fire in his gut that was expanding outward.
The first moved to the door to exit the vehicle and had barely cleared the door when a shot rang out, and the guide fell. The sound of returning fire drowned out the shouted orders from the LT and the Master Sargent.
Eddie slid out of the mangled door, keeping his body low and covered by the vehicle as he dragged the guide out of the line of fire and toward cover. Instinctively he knew that the insurgents didn’t have line of sight on the other side of the final vehicle. Not stopping until he was clear, he ripped open the vest to get to the bleeding wound. A pressure dressing was all he had time for before he headed back to the transport to get the remaining wounded.
He called out as he was crawling in and still swallowed hard when he was facing five weapons and praying none of them were trigger-happy. “We need to get you out of here. We’re sitting ducks. Everyone, guide patches off. Let’s not give them another target.”
“You think they shot Benson because he was a guide?” One of them asked, a hint of fear in his voice.
Eddie nodded sharply, “Yes. They had plenty of targets out there but didn’t fire until a guide exited the vehicle. Let’s not take a chance.”
An explosion rocked the vehicle, followed by screams.
“Patches off now! Move! Move! Stay low and head for the rocks on the northwest behind the third vehicle.” He looked over at Balliford, who had followed him in, “Help me move them,” Eddie said, pointing toward the unconscious guides.
He could hear someone calling for air support as he made his way back toward the rocks. Eddie tried to note the soldiers that were down from the explosion, which appeared to have been the second transport vehicle, and the enemy fire.
He assessed the visible injuries, and only the original gunshot wound appeared immediately life-threatening. Eddie left one of the mobile guides with instructions to apply pressure while the remaining prepared to defend their location. Then, with a deep breath, he headed back to grab another wounded.
The next several minutes were a jumble of running through gunfire, more explosions, and carrying soldier after soldier to their little space. He was pretty sure the LT or one of the Sergeants were yelling at him, but he couldn’t make out anything they were saying. One after another, they were losing their vehicles and still had not been able to take out the nest that had them pinned down.
He felt a bite on his shoulder but didn’t slow down to evaluate the damage. As he passed the vehicle he arrived in, another explosion knocked him to the ground. He spotted two men taking cover at the rear of the vehicle.
“Away from the vehicle!” Eddie ordered. He moved to drag his latest patient and saw one of the men, Private Caney, shaking his head.
“Can’t move!” Caney called out.
It was then Eddie noted that the other man was Private Lewis. He was lying flat, and Caney was pressing hard to the man’s groin.
“I’ll be back for you,” Eddie promised before dragging his current patient back to the others.
He was just about to head back when the fire in his gut bloomed once more. The impression of shifting rocks and movement seemed to vibrate against his skin, and he whipped his head around to look up the incline to the west of them. He grabbed his rifle and moved without hesitation.
Somewhere in the back of his brain, he registered the two guides following him, not two steps behind. A rightness followed that knowledge. A bone-deep knowing that this is the way things should be. Eddie led them around, out of sight of the action, and silently approached the two men who were setting up a sniper rifle above the protected outcropping he was using for the wounded.
Anger bloomed and, with it, the strongest desire he had ever felt to protect. Those soldiers were his. They were under his protection. The weight of the rifle felt wrong in his hands. Hands…that is what is needed here. Swinging the strap over his back, Eddie reached down to slowly draw his K-Bar from the sheath. The threat to his tribe must be eliminated.
He moved catlike behind the first man and, without warning, wrapped a hand around his face to cover his mouth as he sliced his throat. He turned toward the second, who was spinning with his weapon in hand. The sniper never finished that move, one of the guides having performed a similar maneuver to Eddie’s. A flash of anger at losing the kill was quickly overwritten with a burst of calm and the realization that this guide had just as much right to protect the tribe as he did.
Safety secured from this direction, Eddie headed back for the truck where Caney was looking desperate, and Lewis was unconscious, part of his lower leg mangled by shrapnel. He worked fast to secure a tourniquet knowing his only hope was to stop the blood loss. His two followers assisted him in moving the men before Eddie made the rounds to assess the remaining injured.
He paused, a sudden pressure building, and turned toward the North. Suddenly there was gunfire from above as their support arrived. In minutes there were choppers on the ground and others moving in.
Part of his brain cheered the save while the other part…the part that seemed oddly in charge was screaming: Strangers. Protect. Defend.
Eddie lifted his weapon and took aim at the approaching intruder. The world suddenly stilled. Another and then another tried to approach, and he threatened them all. He should know these people, but something was just wrong.
The part of him in control recognized one of the guides that had followed him to protect the tribe. This one was safety, brother in arms. The part that was Eddie recognized Balliford as he slowly approached Eddie’s side. He stepped behind Eddie, a hand on his shoulder. It felt so very right…and yet wrong.
Suddenly there was a pinch on his leg. He looked down to see the self-injection syringe being pulled from his thigh. Eddie tried to turn, but his legs felt leaden. The feeling raced up his body as his legs gave out, and the light started to fade.
The last thing he heard was Balliford’s voice saying, “Sleep sentinel. We have the watch.”
Sentinel Ward, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany
Eddie stared in disgust at the wheelchair sitting next to his bed. He absolutely hated the damned thing. Three weeks he had been stuck here, and they were debating two more before they released him to travel home. In addition to the gunshot wound to the shoulder he had vaguely been aware of, it seems he had also received two pieces of shrapnel during the explosions.
One of those to his lower leg. Honestly, the damage was minor, but the doctors had insisted on keeping weight off it. Just three more days before they would let him walk with a crutch. Frankly, he suspected that the real reason was they didn’t want to risk him re-injuring his shoulder if he lost his balance.
Eddie looked around at the private room in the Sentinel Ward. He should feel happy to have the privacy, but it was just a reminder of what he wasn’t and what he had lost. He glanced down at the folder on the hospital bed table in front of him. The folder that held what was left of his life.
First was the paperwork describing his Silver Star. He would rather forget about how he earned that. It was a tangled emotion bomb. Behind that was the medical prognosis. Full recovery expected, but looking forward to six to eight months of rehab to return to his pre-injury condition. Granted, at least he would get there. Then there was the S&G Status report: Persistent Enduring Latency.
Three weeks of continuous testing…from the moment he woke up strapped to a bed to prevent him from injuring himself and others, and there was nothing to show for it. Every report from the battlefield was that Eddie had been acting like he was an online sentinel. But every single damn test they had, and boy, did they have a lot of them, showed that he was 100% latent.
He honestly wasn’t sure what to think about it. According to the S&G people, he had every instinct of a sentinel, but he wasn’t online. They said a lot of mumbo jumbo about tribal sentinels in pre-industrial bullshit stuff, but what it came down to is he isn’t online, and there is no hope he will ever come completely online. The part of his brain that should be active is primed for it, but since he was front and center for such intense danger to so many guides, reacted to the threat like a sentinel but didn’t actually come online, it means he must be missing some component they haven’t yet identified that will allow him to ever come online.
There were mumbled platitudes about how the Science of Sentinels and Guides is still a growing field, and they are learning new things every day. How his issues may someday help other latent sentinels come online. Blah, blah, blah. Hell, there was even one theory that he was one of the unlucky bastards who would never come online without a perfect match and his died in infancy.
Eddie wasn’t sure how he really felt about the situation. Taken alone, it wasn’t necessarily a huge loss. When he thought about his father’s potential reaction if he had ever come online, then he had reason to be relieved. In the eyes of Ramon Diaz, it was a coin toss whether it was a greater sin to be a Sentinel or a homosexual.
The rest of that folder was filled with the Army’s response to those tests. Thank you for your service, but since you will never be a military sentinel and we can’t anticipate how you will react as a normal soldier, then we don’t want you anymore. We hereby give you a shiny medal and an honorable discharge. Have a nice life.
A light knock at the door, followed by someone opening it without waiting for his response, drew his attention away from the hated file and to a pair of familiar eyes.
“Diaz, looking good.”
“Tell me another lie, Balliford.” Eddie motioned toward the chair by his bed and leaned back, pushing away the bed table. “Don’t tell me they want more tests?” The doctors had tried all kinds of combinations of testing with the guides who had been with him during the attack. Seems it was common practice when a sentinel came online in the field to ship them back home for testing and training with the guide that was present. The hope being they’re a match.
Seven guides were present, and not a single one made a blip on Eddie’s radar. Eventually, all but Balliford had been released, either to the States or sent back into the field. Balliford being the exception since he was the de facto guide assigned to Eddie.
“Nah, I think Brass finally drew that line for you and ordered them to stop. Not saying they won’t try to talk you into one of their ongoing studies cause these guys are all about their case studies, but you should be in the clear.” Balliford slumped back into his seat.
“Good, I think I’ve hit my limit. If they throw one more thing at me, I swear I will throw it all back.” Eddie thumped his head back against the pillow.
Balliford nodded, “I hear they are debating when to ship you home. I got my own orders, so I’ll be shipping out to a new unit in the morning. I wanted a chance to say goodbye.”
“They really do move you people around.” Eddie shook his head. “It was great working with you. I think you’re the first guide to ever take the time to explain anything to me. I appreciate it, and I owe you one.”
Balliford shook his head. “Didn’t hurt me none to share. And I’m honored to know you. I’m well aware that if you hadn’t twigged on that situation and taken my patch, I might have been the first one shot. I figure you saved my life out there, so we’re even. No debts between friends.” He reached out a hand to Eddie.
Eddie took it and shook, “No debts between friends. Don’t be a stranger.”
Balliford gave him a smile before he turned to leave. As he was exiting the door, another man with the U.S. S&G Center symbol on his ID badge entered. It wasn’t anyone Eddie recognized.
“Staff Sergeant Eddie Diaz?” The man asked.
“Hello, I’m Felipe Ruiz with the S&G Center’s Legal Aid office. We finally got the paperwork in from the States. Now I assure you that this has already been before the judge, and we have made sure everything is properly filed with our offices and the court.” Ruiz reached into his satchel and pulled out a legal-sized manilla envelope.
“Excuse me, but what are you talking about. I don’t have anything for a judge to look at.” Eddie stared at the folder like it was a viper waiting to strike.
“It’s your divorce papers.”
“Divorce?” Eddie felt like his head was spinning. He must be in some twilight zone, or maybe he’s still on those tranquilizers that had him waking up loopy.
Ruiz’s head bobbed up and down. “Yes, sir. You don’t have to worry. The judge granted a no-fault divorce under Statute 874-3-B, Change in online or bonding status of latent sentinel or guide.”
Eddie shook his head and just stared at Ruiz. “That doesn’t make any sense. They proved my status hasn’t changed. I’m still latent, and I didn’t request a divorce from my wife. This is absolutely insane.”
“Of course, you didn’t file for the divorce. Your ex-wife filed after she came online and bonded with her sentinel.” The man said it as if speaking to a child, which was condescending as fuck.
Eddie might have responded in kind if his brain would just kick in. But nothing seemed to make sense. “When did she come online?”
Ruiz looked at Eddie strangely. He reached into his satchel and pulled out a legal pad. “I show that she came online when informed that you were injured in the line of duty. She was sequestered at the El Paso Sentinel and Guide Center for intake and training. There was a concern that she might be your guide, and she was placed on a transport with a conservator as soon as she was stable in the hope that it could assist you. Records show she met her sentinel at the Baltimore airport, and the two spent the next two weeks at the Baltimore Center before bonding. The Centers filed the standard no-fault divorce at her request.”
“Why wasn’t I informed about this. Aren’t they required to notify me that my wife wants a fucking divorce?”
“No one informed you about your wife’s change in status?” Ruiz suddenly looked pale. “At the time, you were in seclusion due to your injuries and status. I assumed you were kept abreast of the situation. Your parents hired a lawyer to represent your interests. I mean, the law is clear. She wasn’t online when you married, and now she is, so either of you could have requested and received a divorce without input from the other party.” He gently placed the folder down on the bed table and nudged it closer to Eddie.
Mouth dry and not sure how to speak, Eddie swallowed a few times without reaching for the file. “My…so…Chris…my son, Christopher…where is he.
”Your parents retained physical custody on your behalf. Guide Diaz will be joining her sentinel once her training is complete. His current position does not allow appropriate accommodations for your son’s physical needs.”
“So, she just left him? You’re telling me Shannon came online and just abandoned our son in favor of some stranger she met in an airport?” The anger bloomed in Eddie’s chest, and he embraced it.
“The nature of the Sentinel-Guide Bond is….”
“I don’t give a damn about their so-called bond. She is his mother, and she just abandoned him….” Eddie shoved back the table and threw off the covers. He grabbed the call button and pushed it five or six times. “Where are my clothes. I want to go home now. I don’t give a flying fuck how you make it happen, but I’m going to see my son.”
Los Angeles, CA
“Evan, I’m home!” Daniel called out as he entered the townhome he shared with his little brother. He threw his keys into the bowl by the front door, slipped off his shoes as he loosened his tie, and headed for his office to leave his laptop and bag.
His next stop was upstairs to get out of this suit. Thank god Synchronicity Systems only required business attire during high-level meetings with clients. He much preferred his normal wardrobe of jeans and t-shirts.
Daniel loved working for Synch-Syst and couldn’t imagine another place he could have come so far in so short a time. They were building integrated systems for first responders that had already been shown to reduce response time by 23% while getting the right responders to a given call. Considering the City of Los Angeles adopted the program just this last year, it was a huge win for the company. New contracts were pouring in around the nation.
When Daniel first enrolled in college, he had no clue what he wanted to do beyond work with computers. It was Evan’s yearly vacation in Colorado and first-hand observation of the premier SARs team in the U.S. that showed him that there was a much-needed gap to be filled. Evan’s firm declaration that this would be his life had given Daniel the impetus to solve the problems he could see so that Evan could be as safe as possible.
Granted, he was surprised when Evan graduated college and turned down his dream job in Colorado to follow Daniel to L.A. But he was pleased beyond belief to have his family with him here. Evan was living with him while attending the LAFD Fire Academy.
Daniel’s phone vibrated, and he checked a text from Maddie confirming she would be able to make it to Family Night on Sunday. They’ve been having their weekly get-together since Maddie followed him to L.A. a year after his move. Now it was time for the three siblings to reconnect.
When he reached the top of the stairs, he could hear the shower running, so he tapped out a rhythm on the door to let Evan know he was in before slipping into his own room. By the time he was changed and headed downstairs, the shower had cut off.
Daniel checked the kitchen and saw Evan already had dinner in the oven, so he plated up the salad and set the table. He turned to grab glasses from the cabinet when Evan came down, hair wet with form-fitting jeans and a blue t-shirt that had BUCK 2.0 in large lettering on the front.
“What the hell is that?” Daniel pointed at the shirt.
Evan looked down and grinned, “It’s great, isn’t it? Uncle Buck sent it to me. I love it.”
Evan moved over to the oven and slipped on the oven mitts before pulling out the Zucchini Pizza Casserole. “I told you there are like six Evans in my class at the Academy, right?”
“Come on, Danny. It took less than a week before that got beyond old. Every single one of us ended up using a middle name or a nickname. There was no way I was having them call me Buckley all the time, so it took two seconds for it to become Buck.” Evan grinned as he moved the casserole to the table and took a seat.
“Buck? Seriously?” Daniel sighed as he joined him at the table and handed over Evan’s drink. “Uncle Buck must be ecstatic. Do you think it’s going to stick?” Daniel couldn’t imagine calling his brother Buck.
Evan nodded his head with the biggest smile. “Hell, yes, it’s going to stick. The absolute best part of it is that anyone approaching me for S&G business will be asking for Evan Meyrick, but for Fire Department business, they are all calling me Buck Meyrick.”
Daniel figured it was probably a lost cause, so he would just have to deal with it. He could only blame himself for guilting June into keeping it as a part of his brother’s name. He dug into his salad, and they spent several minutes in companionable silence, eating.
When Evan had moved on to seconds of the casserole, Daniel leaned back and asked, “You only have a little time left. Have you received an offer from the LA SARs Teams?”
Evan paused with the fork halfway to his mouth and grimaced before lowering it to the plate and then spinning it around in his fingers. “Yeah, I’ve had a recruitment push from the teams.”
Taking a long drink while contemplating his brother’s body language, he set down the glass and wiped his mouth with the napkin. “Is there a problem with it? You’ve trained most of your life for the teams.”
“Yeah, and I love the work. I know I would be a good fit for them. They tend to recruit a lot of S&G teams and unbonded sentinels. They are always excited to add an unbonded guide. Hell, they would recruit me if I had half the training I do for heavy rescue.”
Evan shrugged, “Not so much a problem as a feeling. Some of the firehouse captains made the rounds to check out recruits. There was one I had a long talk with, Captain Nash out of the 118. There’s just something about him. He’s pretty Zen, and he puts out a strong paternal vibe. I get the feeling he really tries to understand his people. It just felt very natural to be around him.”
“You think he will try to recruit you?”
“Maybe, but people expect me to go to a SARs team, so not sure if he will try.”
“Do you want him to?”
“Is it right to want him to?”
“Hell, yes, Evan. Don’t make me kick your ass. You are more than just your S&G rating. The most important thing is that you are happy. You know Rand and June could care less what you do as long as you are happy doing it.” Daniel watched Evan play with his food for a moment. “What is this really about?”
“I’ve spent my whole life training for SARs, but now that I’m here, it feels like I need to be at the 118. There’s like this pull saying it’s important I be there.”
Daniel noted Evan was rubbing his chest as he said it in the way of newly online guides at the center. “There any sentinels at the 118?”
“No. No gifted there, as far as I know. Captain Nash is aware of my status and has worked with a lot of sentinels and guides. I get the feeling that he respects the gifts and bonds but doesn’t base his opinions about your potential just on that. It’s refreshing since so many see my guide status as the entirety of my existence.” Evan sighed, then shook his head and started digging back into his food.
“Well, don’t worry about it yet. You have to pass your exams and qualifications first. Not that I’m worried about you handling that. Focus on the exams, and you can wait to see who tries to recruit you after you are certified,” Daniel advised him before getting up to do the dishes. “Want to find a movie on the TV while I clean up?”
“Ummm…no, I’m meeting up with a couple of the guys. Should be home before midnight.” Evan quickly cleaned his plate and drank down the last of his water. “Don’t wait up.”
“Is this hanging out or meeting up, Evan Buckley Meyrick?”
“You seriously full-named me? You’re my brother, not my keeper, Daniel.” Buck waved a finger at Daniel. “No trying to shame me into staying home.”
“Not shaming. I just want you to be careful.”
“I’m an unbonded guide in my prime. It’s not uncommon for unbonded guides to seek sexual intimacy as a way to alleviate some of the stresses of our unbonded state. I’m not building a relationship here. Just getting a little relief in the most fun way possible. My partners are knowledgeable, consenting, and 100% on board with my goals. You gotta know that the last thing I could ever do is have that kind of intimacy with someone who wasn’t in it for the same. I would know if there was any deceit there.”
Daniel huffed, “I know, but I also know you can achieve that same state in other ways.”
“Yeah, I can. But hours of meditation aren’t as much fun. And trust me, my kind of exercise is a lot more fun than the Center’s official politically correct recommendation.” Buck grabbed his keys and leaned against the front door. “Are you sure this isn’t a little transference? Maybe you could do to get out for a little exercise of your own.” Evan raised and lowered his eyebrows at Daniel. “Maybe I should set you up with a friend or two.”
“Hey, I get plenty of exercise, thank you very much. I don’t need my baby brother trying to set me up.” Daniel put the last of the dishes in the dishwasher and started it. “Go on, have your little relief party. Call me if you’re staying out for the night. And, for god’s sake, take some protection with you.”
Evan reached into his pocket with a grin, “Uncle Buck sent me some of that, too. He found a company that makes sentinel-safe glow-in-the-dark ones.”
Daniel’s mouth was still hanging open as Evan closed and locked the door.”
2017, El Paso, Texas
Eddie took a deep breath and stepped out across the stage to shake hands with the Dean and accept the roll of paper. As he turned to leave, he looked out into the audience where the loudest cheering was originating and gave a wave to Christopher, who was sitting between Abuela and Adriana.
It took two years of pushing himself, but he finally finished a degree. Granted, Kinesiology wasn’t the direction he had originally planned when he contemplated leaving for college all those years ago, but it was a degree. And he could work on more schooling later if he decided it was for him.
It started with his rehab. He borrowed some books to study the why behind the what of his treatment. That branched out to how physical therapy was helping Christopher. When the therapist at the VA he had grudgingly seen for anger issues suggested he go back to school as part of his search for what he wanted to do with his life, it was the only thing he was interested in learning about.
Eddie returned to his seat and thought about how he got here. It had been two years of stress and fighting if he were honest. He arrived in El Paso from Germany in a wheelchair because he had thrown such a fit that they shipped him home immediately. Frankly, he hadn’t calmed down until his sister, Sophia, had personally brought Christopher to see him at the Army Medical Center. His mother refused because the sight of him in the hospital might upset Chris.
His family had to put up with a lot of his anger at first. Well, everyone except Christopher. That boy was his guiding light in the storm as he straightened himself out. It took a few months until he regained his mobility and stopped feeling so damned dependent on everyone.
Honestly, it was Christopher’s desire to speak to his mother that finally broke him out of it. Eddie had been too angry thinking about how she ran out on Chris to even contemplate having a civil conversation with Shannon. But when the only thing Chris wanted for his birthday was to speak to his mother, Eddie buried his own anger and reached out to make it happen.
That ended up as one of the first of an ongoing struggle against his parents, who he learned were blocking contact between them. Eddie came to find out they had been destroying any letters from Shannon and had blocked her email and phone on his account. They repeatedly insisted it was for his and Christopher’s protection.
When he spoke to Shannon, the real story emerged. When she got the call that Eddie was wounded and being shipped to Germany for a second round of surgeries, she was frantic to get to his side. She grabbed Christopher and made a beeline for the airport to get the first flight out when she came online.
El Paso Intake Center had released Christopher to his Grandparent’s care when the decision was made to move her to Germany to see Eddie. She and the Center honestly believed she must be his guide. The airport in Baltimore had a shielded area for Sentinels and Guides to rest on their layovers, so her conservator led her into the room to help her reinforce her shields for the international flight.
The moment she entered the room, it was like the strongest magnet in the world drew her right in toward the unbonded Sentinel, who was relaxing on a couch. The moment they touched, they just knew they were meant to be together. She held off bonding with him for five days until the emergency divorce papers were complete. She tried to speak to Eddie, but he was in seclusion. The Army promised that he would be informed and would be allowed to call as soon as he was authorized contact.
Her sentinel, Nicodemo Menendez, was a good man who loved children, but his job as a photojournalist kept him on the move. It was the kind of life she dreamed about, but not one that would work for Chris. She agonized over the custody arrangement. In the end, she honestly thought the best option was to give Eddie primary custody.
The alternative was to leave Chris with Nic’s Pride as a home base while they were on assignment. His brother was willing to take Chris in, but that would have placed Chris in Seattle with strangers.
In the end, their conversation ended in a better place. It was never her intent to leave Chris behind. Hell, when Eddie had flown home, Shannon had still been in the Baltimore Center for six weeks of mandatory training. So Eddie and Shannon were rebuilding their friendship, Shannon was back in touch with Chris, and the three of them Skyped at least once a week.
Everyone stood up around him, and Eddie jerked his attention back to the stage where the final comments were made. Then there was applause and cheers as they all congratulated each other. He allowed as much of that as he could before he escaped to find his family.
He searched the crowd but only had eyes for one person.
The BBQ/Graduation party was politely pleasant. The usual family banter and gossip. Food, family, and gossip were the entertainment of the day. Eddie tried to encourage Chris to play with his cousins, but every single time his mother would be there to redirect Chris to a different activity, often inside the house.
“Chris, the kids are leaving soon. Why don’t you go out and play?”
Christopher looked at the back door hopefully and smiled as he took his crutches from his father. Eddie held the door open to let him out as he reached it.
“Sweetheart, where are you going?”
“He’s going outside to play, Mom.” Eddie motioned Chris to continue. There was a moment of regret in his kid’s eyes that he never wanted to see as Chris hesitated.
“Eddie, the kids are playing out on the grass, and that’s not where Chris should be.”
Eddie smiled down at his son, “You go out there, and you play. You can come back in when they leave.” His chest bloomed in warmth at the joyous smile on his son’s face as he headed out the door. Eddie watched him clear the door, then shut it behind him and stood in the way of his mother.
“What are you thinking? He could get hurt.” Helena Diaz tried to move Eddie aside, but he refused to budge.
“Mom, it’s like this every single time I leave Chris here. He’s been inside all day, and the only activity he gets is walking around the house. He’s a kid, and he needs to play with his cousins.” It frustrated him to no end the way she treated Chris because it ate away at every action Eddie took to give his son independence.
A firm voice approaching from the living room caused Eddie to tense up, “I will bring him in. Edmundo, you need to apologize to your mother.”
Eddie shook his head, “No, not this time. I’m Chris’ father, and I’m the one to say when he can play and when he needs to come inside.”
“It’s not every day that I see my grandson graduate from college,” Abuela said softly as she moved to take a seat at the kitchen table, Tia Pepa just a step behind her. “I think it’s reasonable to give the children a few minutes outside while we visit in here. Sophia and Adriana can watch them.” In no way was that a suggestion.
The stare-off lasted about thirty seconds before Ramon and Helena joined Abuela and Pepa at the table. Once Eddie was certain no one was going to retrieve Chris, he joined them.
“So, Nieto, what are you planning with your fancy new degree?”
Ramon huffed and crossed his arms.
“I didn’t have a career in mind when I started studying it. I was just interested in learning more about my own rehab and then how to help Chris,” Eddie started.
“Yes, he wastes two years in a school learning something that is useless for work. It is like I am always saying, you are just drifting through life, Edmundo. How are you prepared to raise a child when you just keep making mistakes?”
“Mistakes? Name one mistake I’ve made.”
Ramon banged his hand down on the table and then pointed at Eddie, “You married that harlot.”
“Excuse me?” Eddie jerked back in shock.
“Ramon!” Abuela scolded her son.
“She ran off and fornicated with some stranger when she should have been here with her son,” Helena stated. She leaned forward and tapped a finger on the table. “She tried to run away with Christopher, and we are just lucky we stopped her before she disappeared with our grandson.” She tapped a second finger. “Then she ends up being one of those disgusting guides, lying to us the entire time. We had that sinful harlot in our house. We accepted her into our family. She lied to us, and the moment poor Eddie was injured, she ran away with another man…no, with one of those…things.”
Eddie pushed back from the table and stood up. “First of all, she is Christopher’s mother. I never want to hear the word harlot come out of your mouth in relation to her again. And if I ever hear that you have disparaged her in front of my son for any reason, I will make sure you never see him again.”
Helena jerked back, “You can’t do that.”
“He’s my son. Just watch me.” Eddie took a deep breath to calm his anger. “His mother didn’t abandon him. She came online and found her sentinel. She left her son in his grandparents’ care while she received training and eventually bonded with her sentinel. She made a hard decision that he would be better off in my care than in her new situation, but she takes every opportunity to let him know he is wanted and loved. So, unless you have something supportive to say about his mother, you can avoid the damn subject altogether.”
Ramon stood, “I will not be spoken to with such disrespect in my own house. You will apologize to your mother now.”
“Not this time.” Eddie stood tall and stared his father down. “You are wrong, and I won’t pretend otherwise.”
“This right here is just another example of how you are a failure as a father. That you would even consider allowing that filth to continue to taint our grandson.” Ramon pointed at Eddie, “That she had the gall to marry you in the church. We talked to the father, and he assured us you could get an annulment because of her lies and infidelity. Christopher has been purified, but you should never have allowed her contact with him. We are putting a stop to that immediately. What if that…that…sentinel of hers had spoken to him?”
Helena jumped in, “Your father is right. It’s better for everyone if you just sign custody over to us so that we can protect Christopher and make sure he is brought up right.”
Rage filled Eddie, and a burning in his gut began to rise. His hand reached for a knife that wasn’t there. He made a fist and forced himself not to move. “You dare threaten to take my child from me? He is my son. Mine to protect.”
“You are unstable.” Helena shook her head, “We know about the fighting club. We know about the therapy. You are stuck in a dead-end job with no prospects. Your father and I worry that she did some guide thing to you, and you’re damaged now.”
“Edmundo!” Ramon’s voice cracked like a whip. “She lied to you from the moment you met. There is no telling what else she’s done.”
“You are wrong. She never lied to me. I’ve always known she was a latent guide. And you know what? I’m a latent sentinel.” Eddie saw the look of horror on his mother’s face and the rage building on his father’s.
“Out! I want you out of this house. There is no way a son of mine could be one of those beasts.” Ramon was shaking hard enough; it looked like he was going to stroke.
Eddie spun around and marched to the living room to pick up Chris’ bag. He exited the front door before jogging around to the back and making a beeline for Christopher. “Come on, hijo. We’re leaving.” He picked up Chris and grabbed his crutches as he moved quickly toward his truck. “Wave goodbye to everyone.”
Chris waved as he loaded him into the truck and got him belted in his seat. The last look in the rear-view mirror was of his mother crying while his sisters and Aunt Pepa were arguing with his father.
Christopher had been quiet after they returned home. Seems parts of the argument were heard outside. It wasn’t clear how much the kids could understand, but Chris had heard his name several times. It took an hour to make him understand that the argument wasn’t his fault.
Eventually, he got him to sleep, which left Eddie wide awake on the couch, processing what had happened. Chris had been down for just over an hour when there was a knock at the door. Eddie tensed up and prepared for a fight if his parents followed him. They would get Chris over his dead body.
Eddie flipped on the porch light and looked through the window before he relaxed at the sight of Abuela, Pepa, and Adriana. Opening the door, he stood with a foot behind it to prevent them from pushing it open. “Chris is asleep. If you came to cause trouble….”
Adriana hissed like a scalded cat, “As if we would support those bigots.” She pushed against the door, “Let us in, Eddie. Abuela doesn’t need to be standing out here in this humidity.”
Stepping aside, he let them into the house and then looked outside before locking the door behind them.
Pepa patted him on the arm, “My brother is a moron, and that heifer he married has been leading him around by the balls since the day they met.”
“Pepa!” Abuela admonished her daughter.
“Please, mama, you were the one who said it to me first.”
Eddie bit back a chuckle. “Why are you here?”
“I never got an answer to my question. What are your plans for the future?” Abuela stared at him.
With a sigh, Eddie changed gears and decided to play along. “I’ve put in several applications for Fire Departments. I want to train to be a firefighter. I’ve been accepted at three fire academies with tentative job offers on the condition I graduate.”
“Where are these offers?”
“El Paso, Austin, and Los Angeles.”
Adriana nodded, “You need to take Los Angeles.”
“Mom and Dad are livid. I’m not sure that they are going to calm down this time. According to Sophia, they have been looking into getting custody of Chris.”
“Why didn’t Sophia tell me?”
“She thought you knew. She was under the impression that it was a contingency plan in case something happened to you. You know, so that Shannon wouldn’t take him away. She had no idea they were trying to take him from you.”
“I do not like this, and I do not know when my Ramon became like this. But Adriana is right. You need to come back to L.A. with us.” Abuela traded looks with Pepa, who nodded. “You can stay with me until you are on your feet, but we mustn’t give them a chance to make a move while you are in Texas.”
That itch was building under Eddie’s skin, the one that said, Pay attention. “Are you sure? I’ve got some in savings to handle a move and tide us over until I start bringing in money again. I don’t want to be a burden.”
“You are no burden. You are my grandson.” Abuela smiled at him. “I am glad you were considering California. It will be nice to have more family near.”
Pepa nodded, “Let us help you and Christopher. California can be a new start for both of you.”
Eddie glanced at his sister. She shrugged and then grinned, “Leave me the keys, and I will take care of getting this place packed up and shipped over. Do you want to sell it or keep it as a rental?”
The feeling in him started just the edge of a burn, and he took a long breath, “Sell it. I don’t think I can live here again.” And the burn turned to a light buzz in his gut that made him think it was El Paso where he wouldn’t be returning.
2018, Los Angeles, CA
Buck slid into the 118 just one step behind Hen. C Shift was packing away equipment while Hamilton was rerolling the hoses. The overall vibe in the engine bay was tired/happy/satisfied, so it must have been a good call-out overall. He raised his eyebrows at Imes.
Imes motioned toward Hamilton and just smirked, “Suckers bet.”
Buck shook his head and headed for the locker room to put his stuff away. He wasn’t the type to participate in the rampant betting that went on around the 118. Henrietta ‘Just call me Hen’ Wilson was the keeper of the books when it came to the constant stream of betting pools running around the firehouse. But C Shift had a habit of betting for duty assignments. Stupid bets for assignments.
As a Guide, it was frowned upon for Buck to participate in gambling. That applied more to games of chance than betting pools. It was more a PR and perception thing than anything else. Honestly, sentinels were more likely to cheat when playing cards. Though, as Uncle Ezra frequently told Buck, once you learn to read a person’s tell, it is almost impossible to ignore it in the spirit of “fairness.” And if they didn’t want to lose their money, they shouldn’t play against a sentinel or a guide.
By the time Buck was coming out, C Shift was cleaning up the last of their mess and just hovering those last few minutes they were on duty and praying not to get a callout. He joined up with Hen and Chimney, heads bowed over a piece of paper and whispering.
“Hey, guys. What’s up?” Buck swiveled his head around, counting who was present, “Bobby late?”
“No, Bobby’s talking to our new recruit. Just graduated from the Fire Academy.” Chimney looked at Buck and smirked, “Looks like you have competition. According to this, he beat about half your scores and set new records.”
Buck felt a bit of excitement about that. Buck loved a challenge and was looking forward to working alongside someone that might be able to keep up with him. So few came into this work with the level of training Buck had amassed. Having the premier S&G SARs team in the country as his personal mentors, and adopted uncles, was impossible to beat.
Glancing down at the page, Buck was pleased to note that this guy’s skill set would complement his own. No background, so no telling if there was any experience behind that, but if the basic skills were there, Buck could work with that.
“No name?” Hen asked, handing the page back to Chim.
“I’m lucky I got this much before Bobby caught me.”
Reaching out, Buck snatched the page away from Chimney and folded it over. “Bobby’s put a moratorium on betting about the new hires. He’s afraid it can be seen as harassment.”
“Come on, Dudley Doright, like you’ve never crossed a line? Sometimes you’re like some hyped-up boy scout.” Chimney tried to grab the page and missed as Buck held it up out of the man’s reach.
“I’m a hyped-up boy scout for agreeing with Bobby?” Buck snorted, “Going to have to do better than that if you want to throw out an offhand insult.”
Hen put her hand over her eyes when Chimney stilled, then got a look in his eye as if challenged. “You’re right. You are no boy scout and certainly no Dudley Doright. Those are both chaste, and you’re…well?”
“You’re trying to say something?”
“Well, I did notice that a woman picked you up after your last shift. Was she a friend, or just…friendly?”
Hen hit Chimney on the shoulder. “I can’t believe you.”
“It’s ok, Hen. I mean, it’s a little juvenile to try to slut shame me, but it’s not like I have anything to be ashamed of. You want to know if I went out and slept with the girl? The answer is yes. In fact, I slept with her and with her roommate. And let me tell you, that is one sentinel who isn’t afraid to ask for what he wants.” Buck raised one eyebrow and bit back a grin when Chimney’s mouth fell open.
“No, Hen. I mean, yeah, it’s none of his business. If he’s going to be jealous that I don’t have any trouble getting laid, that’s on him. But I don’t have to hide who I am or act like I don’t find comfort and stress relief in sex. My partners certainly weren’t ashamed of anything. I don’t lie or mislead anyone to get what I want,” Buck stared down Chimney, “unlike some I may name.”
“Are you trying to imply I would lie to get a date?” Chimney glared at Buck.
“Does the name Tatiana ring a bell?”
Hen stepped between them, “Alright you two, I’m going to cut you off right there. We are friends here, and we are not going to take this somewhere that would damage our friendship or our working relationship. Is that clear?”
Chimney held up his hands in surrender and took half a step back. Buck just shrugged and slouched back against the wall. Hen waited almost a minute before she relaxed and turned back around. They stood in silence, Buck trying to determine if he should be the one to change the subject. He hated the skitter along his shields that a tense atmosphere left behind. A sudden flash of appreciation/lust/excitement overtook him, and Buck looked around to see what had caused it.
Ignoring the words Chimney and Hen were speaking, he followed their gaze toward the locker room, where someone was shirtless and changing clothes. A feeling of desire was immediately overwhelmed by betrayal and anger.
Buck spun on his heel and headed for the stairs. He passed by members of A & C shifts, not bothering to acknowledge them, on his way to his target. “Captain Nash, I need to speak with you privately. Now.”
Not waiting for a reply, he headed for Bobby’s office and waited for the Captain to arrive.
Bobby entered the room and stopped to watch Buck pace before shutting and locking his door. “Hey, kid. I can see you’re upset. Something I can help with?”
“Yes. You can explain why you violated the terms of my employment contract,” Buck glared at Bobby. The man opened his mouth as he was shaking his head no, and Buck cut him off. “Don’t even try to talk your way around it. My contract is extremely clear on this point, and you just completely ignored it. What…did you think I wouldn’t protest?”
Bobby stayed frozen in place for a moment before taking a deep breath and obviously forcing himself to move. “First, Buck, you need to reel in that guide aura. I’m not going to talk to you if you are creating that kind of atmosphere in here.”
Buck realized his shields had thinned in his anger, and he took the time to pull it all in and check that he wasn’t letting his own emotion influence others around him. He watched Bobby walk around to take a seat at his desk and then made himself sit when Bobby motioned toward the chair.
“Better. Second, I have no idea what you’re talking about, Buck.”
Bobby’s honesty was like another presence in the office which meant the man believed he was telling the truth. And, if that was the case, then someone lied on their application.
“I’m talking about the unbonded sentinel you hired for our shift. My contract is clear that except in emergency situations, I must be consulted about any unbonded sentinels that I will be required to work with.” Buck watched Bobby’s reaction flash from mystified to realization to confusion.
“I’m aware of that stipulation. But, Buck, I haven’t hired any unbonded sentinels for my firehouse. Not that I wouldn’t appreciate the benefits of having a sentinel on staff, but they usually train as bonded pairs, and recruitment is fierce.”
“Really? And the new hire that starts today? If he didn’t list his status, then we have serious issues with lying on his employment records.”
Bobby shook his head and grimaced, “His name is Eddie Diaz, and he didn’t lie on his paperwork. He’s a latent sentinel. He’s not online, and his paperwork shows he will never come online. So he doesn’t count.”
Buck gave Bobby the stink-eye. “I think you will find that when it comes to sentinels and guides, latent counts. The man may not be online. Hell, he may never come online. But his aura screams sentinel, and there are some instincts on both sides that come into play in intense situations, no matter our online status. Bonding is the only thing that calms those drives.”
“I really don’t understand.” Bobby held up a hand, “I believe you. And I’m sorry I didn’t ask you about the situation first. It’s just his scores were phenomenal, and his skill set seemed to complement yours perfectly. You know I’ve been trying to find someone to partner you with on the heavy rescues. He’s the first I’ve come across that I thought could really support you out there.”
Buck took it in because, on scores alone, he had been thinking the same thing.
“Look, he’s done nothing wrong. If you need me to arrange a transfer for him, then I will because you’ve been here longer, and I value your work. But I would like it if you would take the time to meet him. Maybe give it a couple weeks’ trial to see if you can work with him?” Bobby looked so damn hopeful and reasonable.
With a long sigh, Buck nodded his head. “OK, I’ll withhold judgment. But I’m serious, Bobby. If I can’t work with him, then one of us will need to go.”
Bobby stood and led them out to where the shift was assembled. Buck took his place with them.
“Everyone, I would like to introduce you to our newest recruit, Firefighter Eddie Diaz. He recently graduated from the Academy with the second-highest marks recorded. He is certified in heavy rescue, so he will be working with Buck when that is needed. He is also a former Army Medic, so he brings a lot of skills to the team. I know everyone will make him feel welcome.”
Buck shifted, feeling like that last was directed at him.
“Check the duty roster for your assignments. Eddie, Lt Han will be in charge of Orientation and Training. I’ve got some calls to make, so I’ll be in my office. Oh, and Lowell, you will be Man Behind this shift.”
“Person Behind.” Jessi Lowell called out from where she was already working on the inventory checklist.
Buck laughed with the others, then headed over to start his own checklist on the engine and equipment. Most of the crew took the time to introduce themselves to Diaz, but Buck wanted to avoid that as long as possible.
He only made it to the third item on the list when the alarm rang out, and they were off and running. And running…and running…and running. The calls for heavy rescue were coming in all day. Like it or not, Buck was forced to work in close proximity with Diaz, and the man was good. Auto accident, window washer, fallen tree, and the list went on. The man did his job with grace, skill, and an energy that seemed to resonate along Buck’s shields as if it was doing the tango. It was disconcerting as hell. Buck had never felt anything like it.
Buck was just relieved when the shift was over, and he could return home to crash in his own bed and pretend the world didn’t exist. Twenty-four hours later, he was back for another round as intense as the first. The third shift kicked into a higher gear, with the rescues requiring them to be in sync and in constant contact. Diaz was nothing but professional and prepared the entire time.
He had never looked forward to his four days off with as much relief.
Buck continued to chop the vegetables as he listened to Maddie go on about the man who was busted when his two wives went into labor at the same time and ended up at the same hospital. He murmured sounds to encourage her to talk while he focused on the prep for the stir-fry.
A quick check of the clock showed that Daniel was late. His last text confirmed that he would pick up some heavy cream for Buck to make whipped topping for the Blueberry Shortcake. So, he knew his brother wasn’t held up at work.
Grabbing his phone, Buck sent a text to Daniel asking for an eta. The response of ten minutes had him flicking the switch to start the rice cooker while turning on the fire under the wok.
Maddie took the hint and started rummaging through the cabinets and setting the table.
Buck loved his sister, but there was always just an edge of tension when she was around. Sadly he would never have the same level of closeness with her that he shared with Daniel. After all, his brother had worked hard his whole life just to keep them connected.
The current rapport with Maddie was a work in progress, and Buck worked hard to build a relationship with her…well, to build and maintain relationships with both of them, actually. That’s why the weekly Sibling Supper was so important. Daniel started it when Maddie joined him in L.A. They brought Buck in on the gatherings when he moved here two years ago.
Once a week, with only a very rare exception, they got together. Even though he and Daniel lived together, it was so easy to get lost in their own bubble. This kept them connected.
He felt Daniel approaching before he made it to the door and just gave him a wave with his wok spatula when he entered. Maddie called out a hello as Daniel dropped off the grocery bag. Then he followed his nightly routine of locking up his laptop in his office and changing into something more comfortable.
Daniel made it downstairs as Maddie was pouring the wine and Buck finished plating the meal.
“This looks great, Evan,” Daniel said as he grabbed his fork. “So, did I miss anything?”
Buck shook his head no and reached for his glass of water.
“Well, Evan’s in a bit of a mood.” Maddie gave Daniel a look.
“What’s got you in a mood?“
“I’m not in a mood,” Buck stated evenly.
Daniel and Maddie traded looks and nodded.
Maddie gave Buck a calculating look, “He’s definitely in a mood. He’s barely said ten words to me.”
Buck wasn’t in a mood, but if this kept up, he could certainly get into one. “There is no mood.”
“Right.” Daniel gave him that look he had learned from Mom. “Fess up, little brother. Something has you off-kilter; what is it?”
Buck pushed away the amused/concerned vibe and picked up his glass of wine, letting the light refract through the crystal in the stem and splay across the table. He contemplated pushing them off vs. talking about his issue and was about ready to declare the subject off-limits.
Daniel sighed slightly and held up a fist, pinky finger out. “Sibling Supper rules. We help one another, support one another, and provide a sounding board for our troubles. Nothing spoken at Sibling Supper will leave Sibling Supper without consent of all present. Pinky Swear.”
Maddie hooked her finger onto Daniel’s and nodded, “Pinky Swear.”
Evan let out a long sigh and reached out to hook on his own. “Pinky Swear.”
“Come on, Ev.” Daniel cajoled as they released. “Something has been bugging you all week.”
“It’s the new hire.”
Daniel’s brow furrowed, “The latent sentinel? What’s he done?”
“Nothing. He’s done absolutely nothing.”
“You’re upset because your new coworker hasn’t done anything wrong?” Maddie looked between the two brothers with confusion written across her face. “I don’t get it.”
“You told Captain Nash you would give the guy a week or two. If you can’t stand to have him near you, then it’s probably better for everyone involved if you speak up sooner rather than later, Evan. The last thing I want is for you to be miserable at work. Sooner or later, that would bleed over everyone.”
Buck looked down at his plate and picked up a fork to stab a vegetable. “I’m giving him a chance. He hasn’t been intrusive on my shields. Has been respectful in keeping his distance. In fact, when he learned I was a guide, he doubled his casual distance from me, so I can’t complain in that respect.”
“Good,” Maddie said with a frown. “At least he’s not like that touchy-feely freak, Conners, when you were a probie. I was seriously ready to mace him when he followed you to my place.”
“Conners got sanctioned by the Center for his inappropriate behavior.” Buck took the time to chew and swallow before he continued. “I also got the Center to sanction the person who put him on our team while Lowell was on maternity. Conners talked them into it because he knows I have a track record for bringing latents online. It’s why I had the Center force the stipulation that I have final approval for unbonded sentinels and guides working with me.”
“I’ve worked with a few unbonded guides. Most of them end up working for the Centers after they finish school, but I’ve never seen any of them turn down the attention of a sentinel.” Maddie wrinkled her nose, “Sometimes it borders on inappropriate, but I’ve never seen a sentinel get as handsy with them as Conners tried to get with you.”
“Yeah, and I put him down for it. That bullshit is why people think unbonded guides are promiscuous. The Center has been battling that perception for a while. Guides, as a rule, are tactile. Our gifts are mental, but touch eases the way and gives comfort. The ability to focus on one mind instead of all of the minds around us provides a natural shielding that is relaxing.”
Maddie gave a mischievous grin, “Touch or sex?”
Buck glared at her, “I can get almost as much out of touch as I can out of sex. It’s more about the level of intimacy involved. With sex, you are completely focused on your partner to the exclusion of all else. It’s easy to let yourself go. Besides, it’s fun, and I enjoy it. I’m not going to deny myself just because the mundanes think I should be chaste and virtuous. Fuck that.”
Tapping his fork against the edge of the plate, Daniel cleared his throat. “So if this new guy isn’t being a touchy-feely dick, and he is minding his manners, then what’s the issue? Are you getting a bad vibe from him? Or is it his skills on the job?”
Buck flushed and picked up his wine glass to take a sip.
“Huh.” Daniel’s voice had a bit of a-ha in it. Why the fuck did he have to have a perceptive brother.
“What?” Maddie asked, leaning forward and placing her elbows on the table. “What did I miss?”
“The problem is his skills,” Daniel stated with a grin.
Maddie frowned, “Is there a problem with his training, Evan. If he’s endangering you on the job, then you need to do something about it immediately.”
“There is nothing wrong with his skills,” Buck insisted and held a hand out to stop Maddie from falling into a full rant. “So far, he has performed every rescue perfectly. His instincts are spot on, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. We barely have to talk to be on the same page out in the field.”
“OK, so I’m back to confused.” Maddie looked toward Daniel for help.
Daniel had a knowing grin on his face. “The problem, sister dear, is that our baby brother has a little kink.”
“Shut up.” Buck glared at Daniel, who only grinned larger.
Amusement started to build in Maddie’s eyes. “Tell me.”
“Baby brother just can’t resist…”
“…anyone who is extremely…”
Buck groaned because he was right, and it was mortifying to have his siblings staring at him that way.
Maddie looked all sympathetic, “Evan, you have a competence kink?” It was ruined by the burst of amused glee coming from the two of them.
“He’s good, ok. Really good. The way he handles the equipment. It’s all decisive and knowledgeable. He never hesitates when it’s time to make a move. And he can keep up with me, even on the difficult rescues. It’s just supremely…hot, alright. He’s completely hot. And it really sucks because I set up this whole passive-aggressive tone with him when he started. He’s completely respected it, and that’s kinda hot, too.” Buck pushed his plate out of the way and put his head down on his crossed arms.
The amusement tapered back into fondness. “You like him,” Daniel leaned around so he could put an arm across Buck’s shoulders to hug.
He felt Maddie wrap her arms around him from behind.
“Yeah, I kinda like him in spite of myself. I get the feeling he’s the kind of guy I could build a relationship with, and that is scary. Not that it matters; I think I shot myself in the foot with how I’ve been acting.” Buck took a deep breath and held it for a moment before letting it out. “I tried to talk to him last shift, but he was just polite and standoffish with me. He took the first opportunity to move away. So now, if I try to push it, then I’m going to be just as bad as Conners was pursuing me.”
“No, you won’t.” Maddie gave him a big hug, her head resting between his shoulder blades before she released and returned to her chair. “Though you do need to decide if you really want to pursue the guy and why. What if you suddenly meet your sentinel?”
Daniel shook his head. “Don’t worry about that. Just work on building a friendship first. Once you establish that, you can decide if you want to try something more. But have an honest conversation before you do because you have always been on board with bonding with a sentinel.”
“Yeah, I am.” Buck grabbed his water glass and finished it off. “I guess I just have to hope I get a chance to talk to the guy about something other than work.”
Maddie leaned back in her chair with a smile, “Well, if anyone is able to talk about almost any random subject, it’s you, Evan. All you need to do is wait for the right opening.”
Buck pushed off the girl, Ali Martin, who was trying to give him her number for the fourth time since they rescued her from the damaged hotel. The attraction/lust coming off her was disquieting. Especially since it was edged with shock and a tiny bit of hysteria. Nothing dangerous about it, physically or even mentally, really. Pretty much the standard transference you would expect from someone who had just faced several life-threatening situations in a short period of time. A hot bath, a good meal, and some sleep would cure most of it.
The problem is that sense of shock/hysteria was coming in from all quarters, and Buck was going to require some meditation time to come down off this. Climbing into the truck behind Eddie, who was radiating some serious back-off vibes toward Ali, Buck sat down and buckled in before allowing his passive aura to radiate a little calm.
The ride back to the station was made in silence, the signs of the quake along the route seemingly minor compared to the broken building they left behind. Buck hated the loss of life, but he knew from training and experience that there was no saving the victim against the window. The aftershock had sent him plummeting to the street below. It was all they could do just to keep themselves and Ali alive at that point, and he understood that.
But the echoes of so many lives cut short across the city were still buzzing against his shields with the grief of loved ones. The press of humanity was feeling particularly oppressive today. Buck pulled out his phone and checked the LA Center Emergency Outreach schedule. He noted the open locations where the Prides were taking up the slack running drop-in meditation sessions for any guides or sensitives who needed help balancing their shields or dealing with the negative energy in the city. They’d probably keep them open for a few days before directing people to the Center outreach offices again.
There was a sign-up for high-level guides to lead sessions, and Buck noted that he had already received a few texts asking when he could lead a session. He sent a message to Carla asking if one of the guides tomorrow mid-morning wouldn’t mind opening a space for him to take over. They had plenty of people tonight who could lead, no matter how many were asking for him specifically. Frankly, he was exhausted and needed several hours of sleep to recharge.
Luckily C Shift was already in and ready to take over, so Bobby released them as soon as they showered. Eddie rushed out while Buck was still trading texts with the Center. He made it outside to see Eddie staring at his truck which was blocked in by debris. Buck didn’t hesitate to offer the man a ride.
Buck thought that maybe this was a chance to get to know the man, but the ride was tense as fuck, and Eddie was bleeding stress and angst in a silent, focused package. Frankly, he was starting to regret offering the ride because he really didn’t need this after the day they had.
They reached the school Eddie’s son attended, and Eddie was out of the jeep before Buck could blink. He watched from the driver’s seat as Eddie ran toward a little boy who was smiling in excitement at his Dad. It was a smile that could melt hearts with curly hair that begged to be touched. But what drew Buck in was the aura that surrounded the boy. It held the warmth of a sunbeam wrapped in a rainbow.
Buck got out and approached the two, careful not to intrude. That aura was beguiling, and just standing here seemed to burn away all the worries of the day to leave you feeling happy and content.
“And there is someone here I want you to meet,” Eddie shifted on his knees and turned toward Buck. “This is my friend Buck. We work together at the Fire Station.”
“Buck, this is my son, Christopher.”
“Hi, Christopher. I’m really glad to meet you. I’m giving you and your Dad a ride home because his truck was stuck. I bet you had an exciting day at school.”
Chris nodded and smiled at Buck, “Some kids went home early, and some of us had to stay late. But we learned about earthquakes and safety.”
“I bet you were good at the safety part since your dad is a firefighter.” Buck walked close by the family, itching to reach out and touch the child.
Eddie looked relieved as they drove home and then invited Buck into the house when Christopher insisted Buck stay. The next couple hours were something special as the love Eddie felt for his son seemed to fill the house and formed a protective barrier between Christopher and the world. Love, sunshine, and rainbows. Buck wanted to bottle this feeling and carry it with him everywhere.
Once Christopher was in bed, safely asleep, Eddie offered Buck a beer and joined him in the living room. The man looked a little blissed out, just sitting still. “Thank you so much. Chris thinks you are about the best thing ever right now.”
Buck gave him a big smile, “I’m pretty sure Christopher is the best thing ever.”
“I sure feel that way.” Eddie leaned back and took a long drink. “Sometimes it’s rough being a single parent, but just one look at him, and I’ll never regret it.”
“His Mom’s out of the picture?”
“Yeah, divorced when she found her sentinel.” Eddie shrugged, not wanting to really go there.
Buck grimaced, “I’m sorry that happened.”
Eddie waved off the sentiment. “I’ve come to terms with it. She keeps in touch with Chris, but their career isn’t able to accommodate Chris’ needs.”
“So you don’t have anyone local to help?” Buck asked, then winced, “I don’t mean to be nosy or anything.”
“It’s ok.” Eddie leaned forward and placed his elbows on his knees. “My Abuela and Tia Pepa live in L.A. It’s one of the reasons I applied to the Fire Academy here. They help however they can, but Abuela is getting up there, and I worry about her not being able to handle Chris’ needs, especially as he gets older. I’ve been trying to figure out all of the programs available to help, but they are so confusing. His doctors and therapist and the school are all throwing things at me, but seriously it’s like the whole system sets you up to fail.”
Buck nodded, “I get it. I practically grew up in the Centers, and I’ve seen the bureaucratic nightmares that can be inflicted on people who just need some help. It’s expected that I do volunteer hours to keep my S&G Emergency Management Certifications, and you wouldn’t believe what people have to wade through sometimes before someone refers them to us.”
“Can I ask why you’re suddenly being so nice to me?” Eddie cocked his head to the side and looked at Buck. “Normally, you’re all business and standoffish. Everyone is constantly telling me how friendly and open you are, but I haven’t seen it until now.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. We kinda got off on the wrong foot, and it was completely not your fault.” Buck started peeling the label on the bottle. “See, I have an employment contract with the Fire Department that has some stipulations due to my guide status. One of them is that I have the final say regarding any unbonded sentinel or guide I work with outside an emergency situation. Bobby hired you without even mentioning it to me, and I was pissed when I found out. It was a misunderstanding. Bobby wasn’t aware that unbonded included latents as far as the contract goes.”
Eddie shook his head. “That doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not online.”
Buck nodded and waved with the bottle, “I know, it’s just that I’ve had some bad experiences with latent sentinels trying to insert themselves in my life in the hopes that proximity and false intimacy will bring them online.”
Eddie leaned back again, “OK, that I get. The Army just kept throwing guides at me, hoping to bring me online.”
“Oh, that sucks.” Buck made a face like he had a bad taste in his mouth. “My Dad hates that practice. The military treats sentinels like a commodity. They’re pretty careful with online sentinels. But latents they use up and spit out in the hopes of creating another online super-soldier. It’s kinda disgusting. But technically allowed if the online guide consents to the placement.”
Eddie gave a mirthless chuckle, “Trust me, they all consented.”
Buck shook his head, “Why didn’t you appeal to the Department of S&G Affairs.”
“I’m not online, so it doesn’t apply to me,” Eddie shrugged.
“No, that’s wrong.” Buck pointed at him. “You’re latent. That gives you the protection of the community.”
Eddie cocked his head to the side, trying to figure that out. “No one told me that.”
“The Center didn’t inform you when you were tested?” The look of surprise on Buck’s face was genuine.
“The Army tested me in Basic.”
A knowing look replaced the surprise. “Oh, well, they won’t tell you squat. But they’re not required since that’s basic S&G Studies in High School.”
Eddie huffed, “I didn’t take S&G Studies in school.”
“What? It’s a requirement to graduate in all 50 states.”
“Not in Texas. Texas allows parents to request a waiver. My parents are Orthodox HOS. My sisters and I were exempted on a religious waiver.”
Buck’s eyes popped open at that. “I’ve never met anyone who was Hands of Salvation before. Even non-orthodox are a little on the fringe of society these days. I’m surprised you consented to testing in the Army.”
“My ex-wife, Shannon, wasn’t HOS. We met our senior year of high school and attended Community College together. She was a latent guide at the time.” Eddie looked up at the ceiling and thought back, “We married…well, honestly, because married housing was better at the university we wanted to attend. But our financial aid fell through. I joined up for the education benefits, and we were thinking about the VA loan potential when we were ready to buy our first house.”
“I almost applied for a waiver at first when the S&G testing panel came up, but there was the big signing bonus and priority for training for sentinels and guides, so I let them test me.” He rolled his head to the side to look at Buck, “You could have knocked me over when I found out I was latent. I hid it from everyone but Shannon.”
Buck huffed, “With family that’s HOS I’m not surprised.”
Eddie nodded in agreement, “Chris came about on my first leave, and the pregnancy changed all our plans. But, I wouldn’t change it for anything ’cause it means I have Christopher.”
“Nah, He’s the best.” Buck smiled at the thought of the boy, then rolled the bottle between his hands before setting it down in front of him. “So, here’s the thing. As a latent, you are qualified to receive full Center support, training, and benefits. The Center only distinguishes between online, latents, and sensitives by degree. Obviously, a latent or sensitive sentinel doesn’t require the same level of support that an online one does, but you would be individually assessed so your specific needs are met.”
“I’ve heard you say sensitive before but aren’t those just people that see auras or can feel empathic bleeding?”
Buck laughed, “You mean emotive bleed-off. Well, those are guide-sensitive mundanes. But I meant sentinel-sensitive mundanes.” At Eddie’s look of confusion, Buck explained, “There are people who have one, two, or sometimes three senses heightened to sentinel levels. They are just as likely to experience sensory spikes as any sentinel. They don’t have zone-outs as a rule and lack a territorial imperative. But we assist with sense certification for employment.”
“How do you know they are sensitive and not just a faulty sentinel or guide?” Eddie asked, trying to understand.
“They have no link to the psionic plane.”
OK, now Eddie was just confused. “What?”
“The psionic plane is like the link that connects us. To each other, to our higher gifts, and to the energy of the world. I could seriously give you an entire dissertation on what it is, but just trust me when I say that sentinels and guides have a special relationship with the energy of the psionic plane.”
“Sounds a little out there to me.” This was the kind of mumbo jumbo that stopped Eddie every time he thought about getting more info.
“I suppose it does, but today when we were in that hotel, you reacted about five seconds before that aftershock hit. And several times, your responses were similar to a sentinel’s, but I can tell you’re not even edging at coming online.” Buck looked at him. “What it means is you have a profound link to the psionic plane that is trying to feed you the information your senses would give you if you were online. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve reacted that way before in extreme circumstances. The energy is trying to give you the boost that your body isn’t open to read.”
Eddie felt disappointment pool in his belly, “Well, this body is never going to be open, so what can the Center really do for me?”
Buck jiggled his leg and suddenly looked like he wanted to move. “A lot. Look, I’m scheduled to lead a meditation session tomorrow morning. Why don’t I pick you up and you and Chris go with me to the Center? I can introduce you to the best Center Services Consultant on the West Coast, and she can let you know what the Center has available to help the two of you. Then when I’m through, I can take you to the station to get your truck.”
“I don’t know…”
“Give it a chance. We have a lot of services available to you. As a latent sentinel in service to the tribe in emergency services, there are a lot of benefits they can offer. Carla Price is the one I want you to meet, and even if you don’t want to use anything else on offer, that woman knows the ins and outs of almost every program in the city for kids. She can get through all of that paperwork with you and figure out what you need. But, Eddie, the Center has a 24-hour drop-in service for the kids of sentinels and guides. He would qualify based on his mother’s online status alone. Secure 24-hour daycare that can handle keeping a child multiple days if needed in situations like today. There’s a full cafeteria and hospital wing onsite as part of the service. It’s worth checking in for that.”
Eddie felt a moment of hope, like Buck was offering him a lifeline. “I’d like to check that out. Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“Not at all. There’s so much I would love to show you. Let me introduce you to my world.” Buck’s voice seemed to offer so much more than just a ride and an introduction.
Eddie felt a yearning in his gut to reach out to the man.
Eddie waited nervously for Buck to arrive. He and Chris finished breakfast and were dressed before Buck called to let him know traffic was slowing him down. There were still a lot of roads that were blocked off for earthquake damage, so delays were to be expected.
He glanced out the window and saw Buck’s jeep pulling into the drive. The man looked a little tired and pinched in the eyes.
“Chris, it’s time to go,” Eddie called out as he grabbed their backpacks from the couch. Chris’ held a book and some activities to keep him occupied, while his own had folders of documents for himself and Chris. He honestly had no idea what was needed, but the possibility of assistance was burning through him.
When he called Abuela last night to check in on the family, she had been one hundred percent supportive of him grabbing hold of any resource available. He might not seek it for himself, but if Shannon’s status could open up options for Chris, then Eddie was all in.
“Dad, I’m waiting for you,” Chris called from the front door.
“Oh, you’re waiting for me, are you?”
Chris smiled, “I’m here first.”
Eddie laughed, “Can’t argue there.”
When they stepped out of the house, he could see Buck was just getting ready to leave the jeep. The way Buck’s entire body relaxed and his face bloomed out in joy when their eyes met was a relief. Eddie was worried Buck was helping out of some misplaced obligation.
This Buck was like night and day versus the one he worked with at the station. He couldn’t fault the man’s work. Professionally, he was a joy to work with. They were so in sync on the job that it sometimes felt like he was living a dream. Then the call would end, and suddenly there was this five-foot barrier around the man screaming Don’t Touch. But here he is, open and inviting. This was someone Eddie wanted to get to know.
Buck jumped out of the jeep and ran around to open the door. “Christopher, my man. Ready to go on a little adventure?”
“Yeah, Buck.” Chris raised his arms and allowed Buck to pick him up and get him into the jeep.
The ride to the Center was surreal, with Buck and Christopher carrying on a conversation that ranged from photography to bats to tarantulas. All of which Buck seemed to be unusually knowledgeable. Eddie just sat back and listened as his son seemed to come alive speaking to the man.
Christopher wasn’t shy at all. His outgoing personality would normally shine through, and he would frequently charm the adults around him. But with Buck, there seemed to be this connection that brought out the best of each. It was odd and yet immensely satisfying to see the man he regularly trusted with his life so easily slot into a place with his son.
The Los Angeles S&G Intake Center was spread out in a campus format. They drove through the entry gates and toward the main building. Instead of turning into the visitor parking, Buck turned and headed for the staff parking in the rear. Eddie watched as Buck pulled into a space in the front row labeled GP E.B. Meyrick.
“You have your own parking space?” Eddie let his eyebrow raise with the question.
Buck looked sheepish, “They insisted. It has to do with instinctive Pride Hierarchies and traditional roles in the community. The explanation can be kind of involved, so probably better to leave it be for now.” He slipped out and helped Chris out of the back.
Eddie shrugged and figured he could get an answer later if it really mattered. He grabbed the packs and then joined the two who were already walking toward the building.
“This place is huge, so make sure they use the golf cart if they want to take you on a tour.” Buck was telling Chris. “I have to work with some people who are still upset by the earthquake yesterday, but if there is time when I finish, I will show you my favorite places around here.”
Coming through the staff entrance, it was a bit of a maze as Buck led them through the halls. At every turn it was “Hi, Evan.” “Good to see you, Evan.” “Thank you for coming, Evan.” Everyone seemed to want his attention, and Buck knew them all by name.
They passed into another office space that was warm and inviting. There were tables and chairs mixed in with loveseats and armchairs. Along one side were smaller meeting rooms, and on the other side were offices with desks. There were several people filling out paperwork in the room when they entered. Buck smiled at them all and moved toward an office at the far end.
Buck knocked, then stuck his head in before he entered and motioned Eddie to follow. Eddie saw the woman behind the desk round it to wrap Buck in a huge hug.
“You, my friend, have some explaining to do. A little bird told me that you climbed into the fallen tower downtown yesterday.” She gave Buck a stare that rivaled the one Eddie’s Abuela could use to force everyone to confess their sins.
“Brick and Brack need to mind their own business.”
“And you need to stop repeating those nicknames you give everyone where people can hear you. Rick Jimenez and Dustin Brackman are my eyes and ears in this city, young man.” She gave Buck another hug. “That’s why I made sure they were assigned to help with search and rescue at that hotel. I knew it was in your area.”
Buck shook his head and stepped back, “That’s my Carla, always influencing resources in my City.”
“I don’t influence resources, sweetheart. I just influence Howard. I trust my husband and sentinel to do his job to the best of his ability. And if he decides as Center Resource Coordinator that Jimenez and Brackman are the best pair to give you backup, well, who am I to argue.” Carla gave a Cheshire grin and then turned away from Buck to look at Eddie.
“So, what have you brought me today?”
“Carla Price, I would like you to meet my good friend and work partner, Edmundo Diaz, and his son Christopher.” Buck turned to Eddie, “Eddie, Carla here is the best Center Services Consultant on the entire West Coast. Her sentinel, Howard, is the Center Resource Coordinator for L.A. and the surrounding region.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Guide Price.” Eddie nodded toward her.
“Please, it’s Carla.”
“Then Eddie and Chris.”
Carla smiled at Chris and then looked between Eddie and Buck before focusing on Buck.
Buck took a deep breath, “Long story short. Christopher’s mother came online and found her sentinel. They divorced, and Eddie has full custody. He recently moved to L.A. and wasn’t aware that they were eligible for Center benefits. They need everything you can get them, and since Eddie works with me at the firehouse and is a single parent….”
Carla held up a hand to stop him. “I get the picture, Evan. Why don’t you scoot on off to your meditation session so you’re not late. There are at least a hundred that showed up this morning and have been waiting for your brand of crazy. So you go on, and I’ll take care of the Diaz Duo.”
Buck gave Carla a kiss on the cheek and grinned as he high-fived Chris and took off out of the office.
Carla just shook her head with a smile and motioned Eddie to take a seat. He helped Chris into a chair before sitting on his own.
“So, first, let me pull up your information in our files. Which Center completed your testing?”
“I was tested in the Army. Shannon came online in El Paso and completed her training in Baltimore.” Eddie pulled his folders out of the backpack with Chris’ birth certificate and his divorce/custody papers.
Carla reviewed them and then typed for a while on the computer. “Well, good news, Christopher was registered during Shannon’s intake. The divorce and custody are attached to their files. We do have records for you from the Army. We’ll just need to do a bit of paperwork to fill in some blanks and complete your registration. The Army doesn’t bother with the entire process when it comes to latents, only with online. But we can get you squared away in no time.”
“I honestly don’t know much about the S&G community, so I didn’t know I could even register as a latent,” Eddie admitted.
“That’s ok, there is a lot of information available, and there are some introductory courses that are worthwhile, no matter your status. Those meet once a week for a month, so you can enroll if you are interested in the next session.” Carla glanced at the folder Eddie had with all of the recommended programs for Chris and immediately started sorting through them. “These you can throw out. Center benefits disqualify him. Why don’t we start with what the Center can do for you and Christopher and then decide where we need to go from there.”
“That sounds great. Frankly, I’m kinda floundering here.”
“First, as the child of an online Guide, Chris is eligible for full medical benefits. I see you are still paying off medical bills. I’m going to get you a meeting with the financial aid office. You were serving in theater as a sentinel, which means your family was eligible for benefits.”
“I’m latent. I was never serving as a sentinel.”
“They assigned a guide to you. Well, several guides. But the point is that the moment an online guide was issued orders to serve alongside you, they activated the portion of the military code for sentinels and guides. You were even getting the sentinel rate for your combat pay, though they probably didn’t tell you what that was.” Carla shook her head, “Just accept it. As far as we are concerned, you had all of the protections and benefits of an online sentinel while you served because that is what they were trying to force you to be. Financial aid will be able to walk you through all the paperwork so the Center can either pay off or contribute to those bills.”
“Wow. Thank you. I’ve done what I can to get those paid off as they come in, but I will take what help I can get.” Eddie drew in a breath, thinking about the resources this could free up.
“Now, we can go over all of his medical at a later date. You have the option of keeping your current doctors or transferring to a Center affiliated practice. I see that Chris’ specialist is already affiliated, so we will get you the paperwork for his office to coordinate billing. We will also assist you in getting your insurance through the LAFD integrated with your file here so billing can be properly handled.” She smiled at Eddie’s look. “Don’t you worry. I’ll have all kinds of paperwork for you to take home so you can go through this and make notes. I like to have a few meetings, so you have time to process and ask questions.”
“That’s good because this is a lot.”
“Yes, it is. The S&G Community is dedicated to protecting and serving our tribe. It’s the job of the Center to protect and serve our community. Now, let’s address what Buck was hinting at.” Carla smiled down at Chris, who returned her smile. “How attached are you to his school?”
“I’m not, really. There are a few schools I’m looking at that have programs that can help him. But those are private schools, and some of this,” Eddie motioned toward the stack of paperwork, “is for the scholarships and grants to get him in.”
“Good. I’m willing to bet that New Hope Academy, Bakersland, or Durand are on those lists.”
“New Hope and Durand, yes.”
“New Hope has some terrific programs, I will agree. But they also have a bit of a reputation for assisting children in accepting their limitations. Now, if that is what you are looking for, then they are a great match.”
Eddie shook his head firmly, “No. The last thing I want for Chris is for him to settle. It’s my job to open doors for him, not close them.” Eddie took a breath and then rubbed his hand through his hair. “What about Durand?”
“I’ve heard glowing reports about them. I will be honest and tell you that a lot of S&G parents enroll their children at Durand. The Center has a busing agreement with Durand for after-school care.” Carla reached into her desk and pulled out a brochure. “The L.A. Center has a 24-hour drop-in child care. It is open to children from birth to seventeen. For parents like yourself who work a non-traditional schedule, we can enroll Chris for extended stay. We have a number of overnight rooms that children in these situations are assigned to in a more permanent arrangement. Some are children whose parents work nights, so they regularly sleep here during the week and return home during the day. There are four kids assigned per room, and we have two live-in S&G pairs who swap the duty for overnight support.”
“With Durand and two other schools, we have busing between the school and the Center so that the children can keep their normal schedule. The Center Cafeteria handles meals, and the S&G Medical Center is on campus in case of an emergency.” Carla smiled at him and tapped his hand gently. “We are serious when it comes to the protection of our children.”
“Do you think we could get him into Durand?”
“Yes. We have an agreement with them to keep a certain number of spaces open, and we had a family transfer out of the Center to Seattle last week, so we can earmark one of the spaces from their children for Christopher.” She looked at Eddie and then stood up.
Carla walked around and then squatted down next to Chris. “I bet all this adult talk is just boring, isn’t it?”
Chris sighed and nodded, “Yeah.”
“Why don’t I show you around a little. There’s some great things to see here.”
“Buck said you had a golf cart.” Chris grinned, and Carla laughed.
“That we do. Let me make a call, and then I’ll take you to your ride.”
“Yes!” Chris cheered.
They walked out past the room that had even more people in it than before. When they hit the hallway, Eddie asked, “We’re not taking you away from your work, are we?”
Carla smiled warmly at Eddie, “Honey, you are my work. Not that I’m not glad to meet this little bundle of sunshine, but I assure you I’m doing exactly what I should be.”
“But all of those people…”
“They are all waiting for the housing authority to get here. They were displaced by the earthquake. We put most of them up in Center Housing for now, but they are searching for long-term alternatives or waiting to hear how long until they can return home.” She took Eddie’s arm and gently pulled him along, “I promise you they are all getting the help they need.”
Eddie followed her down the hall. He felt a solid bass beat through his shoes as they approached the end of the hall, and the doors opened into a large atrium. What looked to be almost two hundred people were dancing to the hypnotic beat. There was no choreography. It was just people letting go and moving their bodies with the music. In the center of the mass was Buck, leading them all. The energy coming off him seemed palpable.
Chris started bouncing on his toes along with them, and Eddie reached down to take one of his hands to steady him. The smile that earned him warmed Eddie’s heart, and he allowed himself a moment to do a little bobbing dance with his son.
Carla led them away when the tempo changed. Chris was giggling the entire way.
“Buck is great!”
“Yeah, buddy, he is.” Eddie looked at Carla, “What was that?”
“Guides sometimes need help releasing all of the negative energy after situations like yesterday. We’ll be running meditation sessions all week to help them. Either group sessions or one on one as they need.” Carla stated and then led them out the door to a path with a golf cart and attendant waiting.
“That didn’t look like any meditation I’ve ever seen.”
“That was pure Evan. He likes to try new things. His current fondness is meditation through dance. He says after a natural disaster, they often need to get rid of physical in addition to mental stress, so dance is a preferred method.” She shrugged, “It is popular when he offers a session.”
“It was fun!” Chris exclaimed from his seat.
“That it was.”
Carla took them for a ride around the Center. Sentinel and Guide training grounds, gym, swimming pool, etc. Eddie took note of the MMA sessions that were posted. He had participated in some competitions in El Paso and would welcome the challenge. There were classrooms and housing units. The cafeteria was full-service. There were several buildings they ignored, his latent status making their purpose moot.
They arrived at the final building, which, even inside the Center grounds, had another round of security and fences. A large playground with sports fields and picnic tables was visible within.
Inside the building, it was cheerful and welcoming. Happy children were engaged in several activities, either in groups or solo. There were zones set up for different functions, along with quieter alcoves to allow the children space. The staff was present for the kids but obviously willing to back off and allow them independence.
In fact, the staff that greeted them focused completely on Chris and his experience, letting Carla continue speaking to Eddie. He listened as they asked Chris his preferences on how to navigate and if he liked having help offered. Then they adapted to his wishes and proceeded to integrate him into the other kids. It was natural, caring, and completely inclusive.
Something in Eddie released and allowed him to relax. This place was safe. This was a place he could trust with his son.
“Daddy, this is great.”
Eddie knelt next to his son, “Would you like to be able to come here on the nights I have to work?”
Chris nodded his head. “They help with homework if we need it. Sometimes they have movie nights. And they have games and art and a library. We can check out books, but they have to stay at the Center. And, sometimes, they have parties. But most nights, they hang out and talk or read.”
“That sounds like fun.”
“Yeah.” Chris scratched his nose, then looked back, “Dad?”
“I don’t know what hang out means.”
Eddie chuckled, “It just means spend time with each other and have fun.”
“Oh. I like that.”
Carla stepped in, “I am so glad you and your father like Sanctuary. It’s what we call the Drop-In Center. Christopher, sweetheart, your Dad has some paperwork to sign to get you all set up to stay here when he’s working. So why don’t you go with my good friend Guide Rubin and he will help you pick out your room. Then we need you to draw a picture of your family to go on your wall.”
Eddie watched his son go, chattering with Rubin about the best rooms. He looked back to Carla, “I’m overwhelmed and so thankful that something finally seems to be going right. I’m a little afraid of what this is going to cost me, but whatever it is, I will make it happen because nothing is more important than his safety and happiness.”
“Come with me, Eddie. There’s an admin office right over here that we can use for this part.” They found some seats, and she logged into the computer. “Now, there are some general dues that everyone pays if they are employed, but it’s honestly minor. Most of our income comes from contracts, investments, etc. Even if you didn’t have a way to pay, you would still be eligible for services. We don’t penalize those who are unable to contribute since often those are our members most in need. Just accept that we aren’t giving you a handout. We are just giving you what you and your ex have already earned and what we expect you to earn in the future.”
“I’m not going to argue. Right now, I’m telling the part of me that wants to be prideful to shut up.” Eddie grinned when she laughed.
“I like that. Well, for this part, it’s pretty easy. We are going to get Chris registered for the service. I’m printing out a pretty long checklist so you can make sure to note his allergies, medications, diet, any specific needs or assistance he requires, emergency contacts, and authorized pick-up/drop-off individuals. Just all the normal daycare items. There is also a page there for all of his favorites like food, drinks, etc., and activities and movies.”
She handed over the pages as they came out of the printer. “I’ll get the application for Durand set up, but it will be a couple weeks before that can be processed as a transfer. Until then, do you have someone who can drive him to and from school?”
“Yes, I can make those arrangements.”
“Good, then we just need your signature on these forms, and we will get your photo IDs. Everything else we will have ready for you when you come back for your intake appointment with us.” She smiled at him. “It’s all in the handout. You just trust Carla to get you straightened out.”
Eddie took a deep breath as he reached for a pen.
“Relax, Eddie. I’m about to become one of your best friends.”