Elizabeth looked up from the insurance form she was filling out and found Blair hovering in the doorway.
"Hey," she said, smiling at the unmistakable glow coming off him. "How's it going?"
"Great!" he said, smiling back at her, goofy with happiness. "It's going really, really well."
"I'm glad to hear it."
It had been two days since Jim had asked to borrow the candles, and something important had definitely happened between the two of them, something beyond mind-blowing sex, which she suspected had also occurred. Some subtle shift had taken place. There was an even greater connection between them, a new sense of solidity, an even stronger partnership. She should have suspected. The vagaries of Sentinel senses were never accidents. However bizarre the problems were, they always led to some greater understanding, an improved ability to carry out the responsibilities of Sentinel and Guide. She had never seen Jim and Blair look happier or seem stronger together.
"I just wanted to thank you for everything," Blair said.
Elizabeth shook her head. "I had absolutely nothing to do with it. You and Jim did all the work. I'm just happy to see the results."
"You should never underestimate what you do for other Sentinels and Guides. You gave us a safe, protected place and the help we needed to figure things out. I'm really grateful."
"It was my pleasure. After all that you and Jim have done for us, it's nice to be able to repay you. Plus, it's just been fun having you around. I'm going to miss you."
Blair nodded. "Yeah, me too. It feels like family, being here, with so many Sentinels and Guides around."
"That's how it always seems to me too. I feel lucky to have this experience."
"As much as I hate to go, I'm afraid Jim and I both need to head back to Cascade. Simon's been really understanding about all this, but you've met him. He's not exactly made of patience."
Elizabeth grinned, remembering the gruff police captain struggling to deal with all the Sentinel craziness. "I understand. I'm sure you guys are anxious to get back to your normal lives," she said.
Jim materialized in the doorway, winding an arm around Blair's waist. "There you are," he said to his partner. "I've been looking for you. I was able to get us two seats on the last flight out to Cascade tonight."
"That's great, babe. I was just thanking Elizabeth for helping us out."
"Yeah, I wanted to thank you too. I'm sorry we just kind of descended on you with all our problems, but I really appreciate your helping us get a handle on it."
"I told Blair before that I really had nothing to do with it. I mean, it seems I was totally off base about the cause of the...er, difficulty."
Jim blushed slightly, and Elizabeth knew he was remembering all the intimate details he'd shared with her about his sex life, probably regretting it. "You and Sam both got me thinking. I don't think I would have figured it out without your prompting. Or it would have taken a lot longer. Thank you for being such a good friend."
"I've been so glad to have you guys around. My daughter just loves you both, and I can't tell you how much that means to a mother. And the whole Clare and Elena situation is greatly improved. I definitely owe you one for that. I don't know how you guys did it."
"We didn't do anything," Jim and Blair both said at the same time and then they laughed.
"Well, I think we can definitely see that the proper Sentinel/Guide harmony has been restored," Elizabeth teased them. "And whether you know it or not, you did a lot for Clare and Elena. They're opening up to each other in a way they never have before. They still have a long way to go, but they don't seem to hate one another anymore. That's progress."
"They're good kids," Jim said.
"Yeah," Blair agreed. "They're gonna be fine. They just need to grow into the whole thing. It'll happen in its own good time."
"I was hoping..."
"What?" Blair asked.
"Are you guys packed? Do you have a minute?" Elizabeth asked, a little hesitantly. She had been planning to write and ask them this, but now that they were here, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
"Jim?" Blair asked.
"The flight's not until eight. We've got plenty of time."
"Please," Elizabeth said, motioning them toward the chairs in front of her desk, and they both sat down. "Since Carla was born, Sam and I have been trying to decide who to ask to be her guardian in case something happens to us. We've talked about it a lot. Okay, so actually we've fought like crazy people about it. We've considered various family members. We've gone back and forth on it. We've just never been able to agree. I have to admit that I keep changing my mind. I'm driving Sam nuts, although he's trying to be patient about it. I just...there's no one I've felt really comfortable with to raise my daughter. There's no one I trust to understand Carla's special needs as a young Sentinel and to be able to help her."
"I can understand that," Blair said. "I mean, from what you said, your parents were happier ignoring your Sentinel senses and even to let you pretend you were never kidnapped as a child. I can see why you wouldn't want that for your own daughter."
Jim nodded. "There's nothing worse, except being out-and-out labeled a freak.
Elizabeth watched Blair reach for his hand, and she knew Jim was speaking from personal experience. That only further bolstered her decision. Deep inside her, she knew she'd made the right choice, and she hoped they'd agree with her.
"I wasn't exaggerating before when I said how much you've done for Clare and Elena. Sam and I have both marveled over it. I mean, neither of us could get Clare to say more than three words to us at a time, and she seeks you out to talk, Jim. It's really amazing."
Jim grinned. "Well, we're definitely alike, Clare and me. Stubborn, impossible, bad tempered."
"Don't forget grouchy, inflexible, defensive..." Blair added.
"Hey!" Jim protested in mock seriousness, elbowing his Guide playfully.
"Just helping you out, big guy."
"Well thanks, but you can stop helping me now, Darwin," Jim said, sounding serious, but Elizabeth could see from the light in his eye that he was actually playing.
Blair arched an eyebrow at him and smiled. "No problem. It's always a pleasure to lend a hand."
Jim rolled his eyes at his lover. "Anyway, Clare and I understand each other. That makes it easier for me to help her."
"She's a very good person, beneath all her hurt. Now that she and Elena are beginning to bond, hopefully some of that hurt will start to heal," Blair said.
Elizabeth leaned forward, elbows on the desk, hands under her chin. "I think you're right, and the two of you have been instrumental in making that happen. It's not just coincidence. There's a lot more to it than that. You guys have a real calling. I've seen it in the way you relate to Carla, as well as to Elena and Clare. I truly believe you have a place working with the children of the tribe, a natural facility for helping born Sentinels and their Guides deal with their special challenges. It's your role in the tribe, like mine is to help newly formed Sentinels, those who gain their abilities later in life, manage their senses until they find their Guides. The two of you have a lot to give, a lot of compassion and understanding, as well as valuable knowledge about Sentinels and technical skills in using the senses. I think you're meant to be teachers. The young of our tribe could learn a lot from you. Sam and I would love you to be a part of our daughter's life. In fact, we'd like to ask you to be Carla's guardians in the event that something happens to us."
She watched the full impact of her words and her request register on both their faces. They were extremely surprised, which she had, of course, expected. They were also hesitant, uncertain, even a little fearful, but not outright opposed to the idea. She felt both relieved and encouraged.
"I know I laid a lot of heavy stuff on you," she said.
"You're not kidding," Blair said.
"I'm really honored, Elizabeth, but shouldn't it be a member of your family?" Jim asked.
Elizabeth nodded. "Yes, but Sam and I realized we'd been thinking about family in the wrong sense. That's why we could never come to any kind of agreement. It's not our family of origin, but our Sentinel family we want to entrust our daughter to. When we started talking about you guys as possible guardians, that's the first time it felt right, to both of us."
"Wow," Blair said, looking stunned.
"Yeah," Jim agreed.
Elizabeth held up a hand. "I know. It's too much to take in at once. I know you'll need some time to think about it. I don't want to push you. If it's not something you can agree to, we completely understand, no hard feelings. We'd just feel really comfortable putting the two of you in our will, so I had to ask. No pressure, I swear. I just hope you'll think it over."
Jim and Blair turned to look at each other, and she knew there was communication in that exchanged glance.
"We'll definitely give it a lot of serious thought, Elizabeth. Like you said, it is a big responsibility. We wouldn't want to take it on lightly. But we really are extremely honored that you'd think of us. We know how important this is, and it touches us that you'd think we were the best people for the job. Thank you," Blair said, his face solemn and kind.
"Your and Sam's friendship means a lot to us, and we care about your daughter. We just need some time to think it over," Jim added.
She smiled at them. "Please, take all the time you need. I really appreciate your considering it. And like I said, if the answer's no, we'll completely understand. But I have to admit, I hope it's yes."
Marta appeared in the doorway. "Dr. Knowlton?" she said tentatively, not wanting to interrupt.
"I'm sorry to bother you, but there's a package for you just delivered. It's marked urgent."
Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. "I wasn't expecting anything," she said, taking the flat manila envelope from her housekeeper. "Thanks, Marta."
"You're welcome, Dr. Knowlton," she said, on her way out, returning to the kitchen.
Elizabeth took the letter opener out of the desk drawer, sliding it along the flap of the envelope. "Sorry, you guys. Let me just see what this is. Sometimes I get parole board documents sent over here that need an immediate signature."
She slid out a single sheet of paper, typed, with a short note. She began to read, and everything stopped: her heart, her breathing, time itself. Her vision darkened around the edges, and she felt like she was sliding into a nightmare, populated with ghosts from the past, angry, vengeful ghosts that would not rest.
In a single second, her entire sense of her life altered. Every ounce of security that she'd managed to rebuild since the horror of the warehouse disappeared in an instant. All her confidence in the future shattered. Danger! Danger! That panicked thought formed a feedback loop in her head. The dead hadn't stayed dead. The battle she thought she'd won was beginning all over again. Her most dangerous adversary had returned. There was no way she could protect her family, defend herself, keep the other Sentinels and Guides safe.
Oh, my God! She's back.
It took a while, although she could not tell exactly how long, for the sensation of hands shaking her to register in her panic-fogged brain. Then she could hear words. "Come on, Beth. It's okay, honey. Come back to me. Please, sweetheart, whatever it is, you have to tell me. Come on."
It was Sam's voice, leading her back. Jim and Blair must have gone to get him when she zoned.
"I'm okay," she said, shakily, not at all certain it was true.
"What happened?" her husband asked.
She frowned, concentrating, exerting her will, pulling herself back together. She still felt disoriented. It must have been a bad zone. Sam was kneeling by her chair, his hand on her arm, and Blair was standing on the other side of her, watching her with concern. She could tell Jim had his Sentinel senses trained on her, monitoring her vital signs, aware of her agitation.
"The letter," she said.
"I should have just disposed of you when I had the opportunity. You were never very cooperative. But at least now I'll get the chance to finish what I started. Come to Pier 17 at 2:00 this afternoon. Come alone or the others will suffer. You know what I mean," Jim read aloud. "Well, it's obviously a threat. Do you have any idea who might have sent it?" he asked, slipping into detective mode.
Elizabeth nodded, the cold fear taking her over. "Yes," she managed to say. "Alex Barnes."
She watched her words reverberate through all three men. She felt Blair freeze beside her. Sam stared up at her, disbelievingly. Jim clenched his jaw, and his eyes grew hard and opaque.
"She's dead, sweetheart," Sam assured her.
She shook her head. "No."
"But we saw her go over the side of the ravine that day," Jim argued.
"They never recovered the body," Blair said, his voice dull and expressionless from shock.
Jim went to him and put an arm around his shoulder. "You know how it is up in the mountains, Chief. There are flash floods in those gullies all the time. By the time we finished getting all the Sentinels out of the warehouse and came back for the body, a torrent of water was rushing down that ravine. It washed away the body."
"That's what we thought. Maybe we were wrong," Blair said, shivering, and Jim pulled him closer.
"She sent me this," Elizabeth, picking up the sheet of paper.
"What makes you say that?" Sam asked gently, trying to understand.
"It has things in it only Alex would know, that I never told anyone else. When we were alone in the clearing, just before Jim got there, she said things to me. They're in here, word for word."
"Someone else could have..." Sam began to suggest.
"No!" Elizabeth said, clutching his arm. "There is no one else. I never told anyone what she said, not Jim or Blair, not the police, not even you. I've never told a soul. I've never written it down anywhere. I've never communicated it in any way. The only two people who could possibly know are me and Alex."
"Maybe it's just a coincidence," Sam said, throwing out one last ditch possibility.
"There's not that much coincidence in the world. There are three sentences in there that are word-for-word what she said to me. She's back, and she's coming after us again. I have to stop her this time. I can't let anything happen to the other Sentinels, not like last time. I have to protect my tribe."
Sam rubbed her arm. "I know you're upset, but please try to calm down, Beth. We need to think it over and decide on the best way to handle this."
"Sam's right," Jim said. "Whoever this is, we have to deal with them."
Elizabeth shook her head. "There's nothing to decide. She wants me to meet her down at the pier, and I'm going."
"No way!" Sam said passionately.
"It's not a good idea, Elizabeth," Jim said.
"It's my responsibility. Because of me, she was able to hurt us. Because of me, two Sentinels died."
"It wasn't your fault," Blair said softly.
"Even if it wasn't, I can't let it happen again. It would kill me," she said. "I have to do what she says. I have to meet her."
Jim nodded. "All right, but you're not going alone."
"But it says..."
"Trust me on this, Elizabeth. You need help. If it's Alex Barnes, it's going to take both of us to take her down, just like it did last time."
"You're not leaving me out of this," Blair said.
Blair set his jaw. "No way, man. That bitch drowned me. She hit me on the head and held me under the water until I was dead. If she's still alive, I need to be there. I need to be part of this. Otherwise, I'll never have another moment's peace."
"And there's no way you're going without me. I wasn't with you the last time you needed me, and I'll be damned if I'm not there this time," Sam said.
"Sam, I don't want..."
"In this one and only instance, I don't care what you want, Beth. You're not walking into danger, not meeting up with the woman who almost destroyed you without me there by your side. It's just not going to happen, so there's no point in arguing about it."
Elizabeth and Jim exchanged glances, understanding there was nothing they could to do to budge their Guides. "All right," Jim said. "We all go then. But we need to formulate a strategy and make sure we all know what we're doing. If it is Alex Barnes, there's no predicting what she'll do. As crazy as she is, she's still a Sentinel, and we won't have any advantage over her."
"Do you have a plan, Jim?" Sam asked.
Jim frowned, looking thoughtful. "Yeah. Gather around. I'll lay it out."
"Let's do it, big guy," Blair said, moving to Jim's side.
"I know the area," Elizabeth volunteered. "I can draw you a map."
"Great," Jim said, pushing a piece of paper and a pen toward her.
She quickly roughed in a sketch of the pier and the surrounding vicinity.
"Okay, everybody, listen up," Jim said, taking Elizabeth's hand-drawn map, marking it up, showing them all where they'd be.
They all followed along carefully, taking in every detail, memorizing the plan that would once again pit them against their worst nightmare.
She watched them race out of the house and climb into Dr. Knowlton's car. It was so very easy. There were all so wonderfully predictable with their ferocious need to protect the tribe. Dr. Knowlton, especially, was so easy to manipulate with her unending guilt over the lost Sentinels and her terrible fear of the aberrant ones. In their panic, they had not considered what, or who, they were leaving unguarded. Her young Sentinel was inside, and soon she would have her for her very own.
There was only one person left standing in her way, only one serious impediment, the housekeeper, and she would be easy to distract. She had followed the woman home one night. She had spied on her for several days, and she knew this woman's vulnerabilities, as well as she knew the doctor's. It would only take a quick phone call.
She dialed the number and waited for an answer. "Good afternoon, Knowlton-Crawford residence," the housekeeper said in her accented English.
"May I please speak with Senora Marta Alvarez?"
"Speaking. How may I help you?"
"Ma'am, I'm calling from San Francisco General Hospital. Your grandson has been admitted with a broken arm and a rather serious concussion from an accident on the playground at his school. We were unable to reach his mother, and you're the next person listed on the emergency form."
"Madre de Dios! How is Roberto? Is he all right?"
"He's stable for the time being, but we need you to come down and fill out consent forms, in case we need to prescribe further medical treatment."
"I have a baby here to watch. Her parents just went out. I don't know when they'll come back. I guess I could bring her with me."
"No, ma'am, I wouldn't advise that. We're dealing with a serious outbreak of the Hong Kong flu, and the waiting room is about the last place for an infant right now."
"I don't know what to do then. I can't leave her."
"I understand the difficulty, but isn't there anyone else who could look after the child for a few hours? Or perhaps you know how we can get in touch with Roberto's mother? It's imperative that someone come down here as soon as possible in case there are complications."
"Complications? I thought you said he was going to be all right."
She smiled, hearing the panic in the housekeeper's voice, knowing she was very close now.
"Yes, ma'am. For the time being, your grandson's condition has stabilized, but unfortunately, head injuries are unpredictable. We really need someone down here in case anything happens. Roberto's pretty scared, as you can imagine. He's been asking for you and his mother."
"Alma, my daughter, is out of town on business."
"Is there no one you could call, nobody who could watch the baby for just a few hours?"
She could hear Marta hesitating on the other end of the line. "No one I could call, but there are two girls here...yes, I suppose for a few hours it would be okay. I'll be right down. Por favor, I don't remember which hospital you said."
"San Francisco General. Come to the main desk in the ER and ask for Nurse Taylor."
She could hear the housekeeper slowly repeating that information, probably as she wrote it down.
"Thank you so much, Senora Taylor. Thank you for looking after my grandson."
"It's my pleasure, Senora Alvarez. I'll see you soon."
She hung up the cell phone and waited. It was only a few minutes before the housekeeper hurried out the front door, forgetting to lock it in her haste. Marta walked quickly down the block and around the corner, toward the bus stop.
She waited until the other woman was completely out of sight. There had been a small part of her that had expected something to go wrong, even though it was such a foolproof plan. Now, she sneered at that doubting part of herself. If it weren't meant to be, it wouldn't have been so easy. I'm supposed to do this. I'm supposed to guide this Sentinel.
She crossed the street, walking slowly and normally, trying not to arouse the neighbors' suspicion. She climbed the steps to the front door and slipped in as silently as possible. She headed for the staircase and went up to the second floor and then the third. At the top of the last flight of stairs, she came to a long hallway.
So close now.
She knew what she had come for was behind the last door at the end of the corridor. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to rein in her runaway heart beat, trying to tamp down her excitement, so she could think clearly. She was only yards away from her saving grace, the only person who could give her a second chance to lead a meaningful life, one filled with purpose, another opportunity to be fully and gloriously alive.
She took a step forward and felt the future opening up before her.
Where the hell is she?
Elizabeth paced back and forth along the pier. The note had said 2:00. It was now half an hour past that, and still Alex Barnes had not shown up.
She's playing with me. She could be watching from hundreds of yards away, and I'd never know. She could have a gun. She could have me in her sights right now.
She viciously pushed those thoughts away. I can't get distracted. I can't afford to be scared. She's not the only Sentinel here. My senses are as strong as hers, probably stronger, and Jim's watching my back. Between the two of us, we'd sense her. Wouldn't we? Oh God, I hope so.
"Beth, it's been half an hour already. If she was coming, she'd already be here. Let's call this off and go home." She picked up Sam's voice with her Sentinel hearing. He and Blair were hiding behind a kiosk a little ways down from the pier, a place where they had a good vantage, in case Alex or anyone else showed up.
Elizabeth shook her head, knowing they would see her with their binoculars. She wasn't ready to give up just yet. If Alex was out there, she had to make every effort to catch her.
"Elizabeth, I've scanned the entire area, and I see no trace of her. I don't sense anything either, nothing like when I ran up against her in the past. Do you feel anything?" Jim asked, from his distant hiding place.
"Are you saying we should give up?" she asked.
"Maybe it was a prank," he suggested.
"I don't see how that's possible. There was too much information in the note that could only have come from Alex. Besides, what would anyone have to gain from this?"
"I don't know. Maybe somebody out there just wants to upset you, wants to mess with your mind. Maybe it's a revenge thing. Is there anyone pissed off at you? A former patient, maybe?"
"I can't think of anyone, at least no one who would do something like this. Sure, there are some cons who might want to get even with me for recommending against their parole, but I'm pretty sure they would have picked a more direct method than this. What's the point of dragging us all out here on a wild goose chase? What does that accomplish?" she wondered.
Suddenly the answer flashed across her mind. "Oh, my God!" she cried.
"Elizabeth? What? Do you see Alex?"
"No," she said frantically. "Come back to the car. Get Sam and Blair. I just realized what this is all about. It was never about meeting us here. It was about getting us away from the house."
"Oh, no! Oh God, okay, I'm on my way," Jim said.
Elizabeth began running back to the car, and she could see Jim, Blair and Sam all rushing toward her from the opposite direction. The expressions on all their faces were bleak, and she knew Jim must have clued them in. She ran faster, panic spreading through her, her mind locked on only one thought.
Dear God, please, don't let anything happen to our children.
They looked like deer caught in headlights. That was her thought as she stood in the doorway to the nursery, holding the gun on the two teenage girls, young Sentinel and Guide. She'd caught them trying to get the baby, the one she'd come for, to make their escape from the house.
The young Sentinel must have sensed me. She smiled to herself and realized it probably looked menacing and a little deranged. Somehow, that pleased her. She wanted them to be afraid of her. She wanted them to tremble, these girls who had the most awe-inspiring secrets of the cosmos at their fingertips and didn't even appreciate it.
The fair-haired girl, the young Sentinel, looked miserable, probably blaming herself for not realizing there was danger sooner. Ah well, young one, too bad. You failed. This precious little girl is mine now, and there's nothing you can do about it.
The dark-haired girl, the young Guide, was holding the child, clutching her to her chest. "What do you want?" she asked, in a terrified voice.
"I want what you're holding," she said, training the gun on Elena. "Put her down, please."
The Guide shook her head. "I can't do that. I can't let you hurt her."
She glared at them both. "Don't be stupid. I have no intention of hurting her. I'm here to help. She needs a Guide."
The girls exchanged a look, and the dark-haired girl spoke, "It's not time for that yet. She needs her parents. She's just a baby."
"Her parents owe me, at least her mother does. Because of her, I lost my Sentinel. Now I want another. This little one is mine."
She could see the confusion in both their faces. They didn't know the story. She bet there was a great deal they'd never been told.
"They must not have wanted you to know," she said, her voice low and insidious. "They were hiding it from you. They probably thought you were too young to hear what can happen to a Sentinel if anyone finds out about you. They didn't want to scare you."
She watched both girls' faces very closely and saw the telltale signs of emotional struggle. She could tell they didn't want to believe her. They trusted the doctor and didn't want to think she'd withhold anything from them. But there was a part of them that also knew she might have, if the doctor had thought it was for their own good.
"Someone broke into Dr. Knowlton's office and stole her notes on the Sentinels she'd helped. They kidnapped all of them and held them in an abandoned warehouse out in the middle of nowhere. They were chained and drugged, and the kidnappers performed mind control experiments on them, trying to turn them into zombies who would murder on command. Two of the Sentinels died, including my husband."
The young Sentinel shook her head. "That can't be true."
She arched one eyebrow at the girl mockingly. "Isn't it now? Ask Dr. Knowlton. She was there. She was one of the Sentinels they tortured, only she had the good fortune to survive. She was much luckier than my poor husband."
The Guide tightened her hold on the baby. "That still doesn't make what you're doing right, even if what you say is true. It's not like Dr. Knowlton meant for it to happen. She was as much a victim as your husband."
Rage rocked through her, and she pointed the gun in the girl's direction. "Yes! But she didn't die, did she? Her Guide still has her in his life, safe and sound and alive. What do I have? Nothing. Nothing, but the knowledge of what might have been. There's nobody who can understand that. The other Guide who lost his Sentinel killed himself. He couldn't endure this hell. So here I am, all alone and suffering. You have no idea what that's like!" she screamed.
The two girls huddled closer, scared speechless, watching her with large, terrified eyes. She shook her head. Now, the two of them were banding together. Now, they were working as a team, looking to one another for comfort and help, the way Sentinels and Guides were supposed to. Well, it was too late. She'd already realized she didn't have to be alone, the only Guide bereft of her Sentinel. She had it in her power to add to that sorrowful sorority. And how much more agonizing it would be for this young Guide, because her Sentinel would die defending her.
The thought made her smile, and both girls recoiled at the sight of her malicious glee. Oh, young ones, if you only knew what I have in store for you. But very soon, you will. Very soon, indeed, your hell will begin.
She stepped closer and pointed the gun at the baby's back. "Put her down, or I'll shoot her and then kill both of you."
The Guide instinctively pulled the infant closer.
"It doesn't have to end badly," she said, waving the gun at them. "Put the baby down, and everyone lives. If you don't, everyone dies. It's a simple choice."
The Guide looked to her Sentinel, and the blond girl nodded.
"All right," the Guide said. "Don't shoot. See? I'm putting her down."
The dark-haired girl carefully settled the child back into her crib, just as she'd known she would. These instincts are so predictable. She couldn't help laughing out loud at the thought, and both teenagers jumped, completely rattled.
"That's fine," she told them. "Now step away from the crib." They complied. "Stop there," she said, maneuvering them away from the infant, so she wouldn't accidentally be hit by a stray bullet.
"I've watched you girls for days now," she said. "You've been incredibly stupid to resist each other. There's nothing more amazing than the connection between Sentinel and Guide. But now, you'll never know what it means to be a Guide," she told Elena, pointing the gun at her chest. "You'll never know what it means to experience the love of your Sentinel, to complete the bond by joining your bodies and minds and souls."
Both girls gasped, and she smiled at their expressions of astonishment.
"They didn't tell you that either, did they? But it's true. Sentinels and Guides are always lovers. Have you met any besides yourselves who aren't?"
She watched the realization form on both their faces. The young Sentinel looked especially stricken. "Doesn't it appeal to you? The notion of touching her that way, making love to her. Does it disgust you?" she asked the Sentinel, toying with her.
The girl didn't answer; she just stared back at her helplessly.
"Ah, well, it doesn't really matter. You're not going to get the chance to find out if you would have liked it. They took away my future with my Sentinel. Now I'm going to take away their future."
She turned her attention back to the young Guide. The gun was already aimed at her. She slowly pulled the trigger, giving the Sentinel time to sense what she was doing and act. The gun went off with a bright flash from the muzzle. The young Sentinel leaped in front of her Guide just in time, shielding her with her own body.
"No!" the Guide screamed.
Her young Sentinel's body jerked as the bullet hit her, knocking her back, sending her crumpling to the ground. The Guide wailed in agony, falling to the floor beside her Sentinel, pulling the bleeding girl into her arms.
She watched the two of them huddled on the floor, the injured Sentinel silent and dazed with pain, the grief-stricken Guide rocking her, crying out in anguish. She breathed a sigh of relief. Now she wasn't alone anymore. Now someone else understood. She walked calmly to the crib and picked up the infant who immediately began to shriek. She wrapped the little girl in her baby blanket, trying to calm and soothe her so she'd stop crying as she headed for the door.
"Why?" the young Guide screamed, her face already wet and swollen with tears as she sobbed hysterically.
"Misery loves company," she explained. "Welcome to hell, little girl."
Jim knew something was terribly wrong as they rounded the corner onto Elizabeth and Sam's block. It was less actual information from his senses than instinct. He didn't know exactly what yet, but something was definitely going on.
By the time they'd pulled up to the house, he could make out one pulse, strong but rapid. It was one of the girls, and she was scared. He scanned the house for other signs of life. There was only one other set of vitals, and the pulse was sluggish and erratic. Shit! Somebody's hurt. And where the hell is everybody else? There should be two other sets of life signs.
All four of them jumped out of the car and raced up the stairs. He saw that Elizabeth had also done a sensory sweep of the house and had come to the same conclusionssomebody injured, two people missing. Sam took out his keys, but the door wasn't locked. Jim moved to the front of the group, taking the lead, in case the perp was still inside.
They quietly crept into the house and did a sweep of the ground floor, finding nothing but a note from Marta stuck to the refrigerator, informing them that her grandson had been taken to the hospital and that she'd left Carla in the care of Clare and Elena. That explains one missing person. Jim thought, as he headed for the stairs.
The second floor was also clear, and the four of them headed for the third. Sobs could plainly be heard now. It was Elena, and it was coming from the nursery. All four of them hurried down the hall and into the room. Collectively, they all cried out at what they found.
The crib was empty; Carla was nowhere to be seen. Elena was crouched on the floor, holding Clare in her arms, rocking her, trying to comfort the injured girl. Tears streamed down Elena's young face, blood soaked her shirt. Clare's eyes were half closed, and she was very pale. She lay listlessly in her Guide's arms, and Jim could hear a faint gurgling in her breathing. He rushed to her side, and Blair moved to help Elena.
"Are you hurt?" Blair asked the young Guide.
She shook her head. "Ju-Ju-sst, Cl-a-re," she managed to say, between sobs.
Sam pulled out his cell phone and called for an ambulance. Jim took the young Sentinel into his arms, to assess the extent of her injuries.
"Apply pressure to the wound to stop the bleeding," Elizabeth instructed, and he pressed his hand firmly against Clare's shoulder. She moaned at the pain, protesting against it.
"Just hold on," Jim told her. "We're here now. We're going to take care of you. I promise."
Blair knelt on the floor beside Elena and put his arms around her, trying to calm her down.
Elizabeth hovered over them. "Sweetheart, I know you're upset," she said. "But I really need your help. Can you tell me what happened? Where's Carla?"
The girl was still crying, but she did manage to say, "Marta asked us to watch her while she went to the hospital to be with her grandson. Carla was taking a nap, so we came upstairs to check on her. We were heading up the steps when Clare heard the front door open, and she didn't recognize the heart beat."
"You're doing really good, Elena," Blair encouraged her, rubbing her back soothingly.
"We got afraid," Elena said. "So we ran up here, and we were going to take Carla and get out of the house. But...I don't know...I guess she must have heard us, because suddenly there she was, standing in the door. And she...she had...a gun. She pointed it at us."
The girl broke down and started sobbing again. Blair hugged her closer, and Elizabeth handed her some tissues.
"The ambulance is on its way," Sam told them.
"Is Clare going to be all right" Elena asked, tremulously.
"I don't think the bullet damaged any major organs, but she's lost a lot of blood. We need to get her to the hospital," Elizabeth told her.
"It's all my fault," Elena said.
"No, sweetheart, all the blame belongs to whoever did this. Can you try and tell us the rest of what happened?" she asked.
"The woman...she wanted Carla. She said that her Sentinel had died, and now she wanted another one. We tried to tell her that Carla's only a baby, and she doesn't need a Guide yet. But she wouldn't listen. She was really angry at us, like she hated me and Clare. I don't know why. Anyway, I was holding Carla, and she made me put her down. She said if I did she wouldn't hurt anybody, but if I didn't, she'd shoot us all. But when I put Carla down, the woman pointed the gun at me and said she was going to kill me, that I'd never get to know what it was like to be a Guide. She kept smiling, like it made her really happy that she was going to hurt me. She had the gun pointed right at me, and she pulled the trigger. But Clare jumped in front of me, and she got shot instead. Oh God, she was just falling, and there was blood all over the place and I kept screaming and screaming. And the woman didn't care. She just picked Carla up and started to leave. So I screamed at her, that I wanted to know why she'd done this. And she said that misery loves company, and now there was another Guide who knew what it was like to lose a Sentinel. Then she left."
Jim watched Elizabeth's face during Elena's painful recitation. All the blood had drained out of it.
"Was this woman in her forties, with short dark hair, going grey, medium height, brown eyes?" Elizabeth asked the girl.
Elena nodded. "Yeah. Do you know her?"
Elizabeth stood up and began to pace. "It has to be Vivien."
"But why would she do this?" Sam asked.
"Who's Vivien?" Blair asked them.
"She was a Guide. Her Sentinel was one of the ones who died at the warehouse," Elizabeth explained. "This is all about revenge. I tried to talk to her after it happened, but she never would respond. She blamed me. That's why she came here. That's why she took Carla."
"She said you owed her another Sentinel," Elena said.
"She's crazy," Sam said. "She knows Carla isn't her Sentinel."
Elena nodded. "She is disturbed, Dr. Knowlton. She had this look in her eyes..." the girl trailed off, shivering.
Clare moaned and grabbed for Jim's shirt.
"Sshh, it's all right," he told her. "I've got you. You're going to be all right. Help is on the way."
"She was going to shoot...Elena," the girl struggled to say. "Couldn't let that happen. Protect the Guide. Kept going through my head." Clare started to cry. "I don't even know what that means."
Jim rocked her, stroking her hair. "Try not to talk. It's okay. We'll talk about it when you're better, I promise. Rest now."
Clare closed her eyes again, and Jim felt her drift into unconsciousness.
"The ambulance is coming," Elizabeth said. "I hear the sirens."
"I'll go down and meet the paramedics," Sam said.
"I'm sorry we let her take Carla," Elena said, through hiccupy sobs. "We really did try to stop her. I swear."
Elizabeth brushed the hair out of her face and wiped the tears away. "I know you did, Elena. It's not your fault in any way. You were both very brave."
"She was just so mad, at all of us."
Elizabeth nodded, and Jim could see her blaming herself, for Clare getting shot, for Elena witnessing it, for Carla being kidnapped.
"It's no one's fault, but the person who did it," Jim said firmly.
The EMTs rushed into the room and moved them all away from Clare. Jim was reluctant to let her go, but he didn't want to stand in the way of medical treatment. The paramedics briefly examined the girl and then moved her onto the gurney.
"We're taking her to St. Vincent's hospital. It's the closest one. You can meet us there," one of the EMTs told them.
"We have to go after Vivien and get Carla back," Sam said, beginning to sound frantic. "Before it's too late."
Jim looked down into Clare's pale, drained face. He had never felt so torn in his life. "I don't think I can leave her," he finally said.
Elizabeth put a hand on his arm. "Somebody needs to stay with her and take care of Elena."
"But I'm the cop here, Elizabeth," he said.
"Yes, but I'm the psychiatrist. If Vivien is disturbed, I may be able to reach her," Elizabeth said.
"If she's got Carla, our best chance is definitely trying to reason with her," Blair said. "We can't risk a shootout."
"And Clare needs you," Elizabeth said to Jim. "You're the one she trusts."
"I'm going to go with Sam and Elizabeth," Blair told his partner. "Maybe I can reach this woman, Guide to Guide."
"Be careful," Jim whispered to his lover.
Blair squeezed his hand. "I will. Don't worry."
"How are we ever going to find her?" Sam asked.
"Actually, I have an idea about that. It's somewhere she used to go with Dale, her Sentinel, when they first found each other. I just have this feeling it's where she is, where she has Carla."
"We'll find them," Sam said, trying to reassure his wife and himself.
She reached for his hand. "God, I hope so. I just want my baby back. I want this whole nightmare to be over."
What have I done?
That sickening thought pounded through Vivien's head, as she sat on the bus with the kidnapped baby, not even certain where she was going. She searched herself for any small sign of the irresistible pulse, the voice that had been guiding her, but it was gone now. Everything had turned to chaos. Carla was still screaming her head off, and the rest of the passengers kept glaring at her, obviously wondering why she couldn't get her child to stop crying.
Because she's not mine. She never was. Oh, God!
She tried everything to soothe the shrieking infant. She held her on her shoulder and rubbed her back, rocked her gently back and forth in her arms, sang to her very softly, even jingled a set of keys for her, the old standby she'd learned baby sitting, something that worked when all else failedbut not in this case. Carla just kept on wailing, and Vivien understood it for the sign that it was. This Sentinel was not hers to guide. The doubting voice had been right all along. She should never have come back here.
Misery loves company.
It made her cringe. She'd been so cruel to those girls, those children, and in all her life, she'd never had a malicious bone in her body. She'd never hurt anyone. She'd never even considered it, that's how anathema violence had been to her. It felt almost as if she'd been possessed by some kind of evil spirit these past few days. Now that the strange, unnatural, overpowering rage had passed, she was deeply appalled by what she'd done. She couldn't even quite believe it.
She fidgeted in her seat, resettling the baby, trying to make her more comfortable. As she moved, she could feel the cool, heavy weight of the gun in her pocket. Her mind flashed unbidden on an image of the young Sentinel reeling backwards, her blood suddenly everywhere, the look of amazed horror on her face, her Guide's obvious anguish. Oh, my God! Oh, my God! I did that. I shot her. Oh, my God!
Vivien's eyes darted wildly around the bus. She had the sick sensation that people would just know somehow what she'd done, but no one betrayed the least sign of interest in her, except for an occasional irritated glance because of Carla's crying. Still, she couldn't quite shake the terribly unnerving feeling that had taken her over. She held the infant closer, tighter in her arms, trying to draw solace from the innocent sweet baby scent, the little girl's comforting warmth. But Carla only cried louder.
She knows. She knows what I've done, what I've become, and that's why she doesn't want me holding her. It's God's judgment against me, and I deserve it.
The bus pulled over to the curb and picked up more passengers. She looked out the window, trying to gauge her surroundings, trying to figure out where they were. The area seemed strangely familiar. Yes, she recognized it, and suddenly, everything became clear. She could see where it was all leading, where it had always been leading. She knew where to go, a place where Dr. Knowlton would think to look for her. Somehow, she just sensed this was how it was supposed to unfold. This whole thing had never been about getting away with the baby Sentinel. It had been about being found, about new beginnings and final stands.
It had been about finding peace, at last.
Blair climbed out of the back seat of the car and followed Sam and Elizabeth through the park, to the Japanese tea garden. The couple were holding hands, trying to steady one another, but Blair could tell by their grim expressions just how worried they were about their daughter, as any parents would be. He hurried alongside them, and they all headed down the path toward the open, wooden structure where Elizabeth believed Vivien would be.
Elizabeth stopped suddenly in her tracks, a look of intense concentration crossing her face, an expression Blair recognized all too well. "She's in there," she said. "And Carla's with her. She's crying," Elizabeth said, a sob in her voice, and she broke into a run.
"Beth! Wait!" Sam screamed, tearing off after her. "She's dangerous!"
"Guys! Hang on!" Blair called, also starting to run.
By the time they reached the tea garden, they were all a little winded. They grouped together by the entrance, catching their breath, and that's when they saw Vivien, at the other end of the building, slightly in the shadows, the only other person there, holding the baby in her arms.
"Carla!" Elizabeth called to her child, and the baby finally stopped crying, her screams subsiding into little sobs, comforted by the presence of her parents.
"I knew you'd come," Vivien said to them.
"I don't know why you've done this, Vivien. But please, none of this is Carla's fault. Please give her back to us. We're her parents. She needs us," Elizabeth said.
"I wanted another Sentinel. They took mine. I couldn't go back to the way it was before. I just couldn't, now that I know the difference."
"But you know what Sentinels and Guides are to one another. Carla's just a baby. You know she's not your Sentinel," Elizabeth argued.
Vivien's temper flared. "You don't know everything about Sentinels, Dr. Knowlton. You're not the final authority."
Elizabeth nodded. "You're right," she said gently. "I certainly don't know everything. I never meant to imply that I did. But I do know this for sure. Carla is not your Sentinel. She needs to grow up before she takes a Guide."
Vivien didn't seem entirely appeased by this. "You didn't know they would come looking for Sentinels. You didn't know what could happen if people found out."
Blair could see tears in Elizabeth's eyes. Sam's gaze was fastened on his daughter, every muscle in his body tense, as if he were just waiting to spring, to grab Carla away from the unbalanced woman who held her.
"You're right, Vivien. I had no idea what might happen. I never imagined anything so awful could happen to us. I'm sorry," Elizabeth said, her voice shaking and sad.
"That's not good enough!" Vivien screamed. "I lost my Sentinel! I'm all alone. Nobody understands that."
"Is that why you shot Clare? So Elena would know what it's like?" Elizabeth asked.
Vivien nodded absently, becoming increasingly disoriented. "I know it seems so...but it made sense at the time. I swear it did. The voice was inside me, the Guide instinct, and it showed me the way. But then afterwards, I wasn't so sure. It seemed so wrong...and I was so sorry."
"You should be sorry," Sam said, the anger evident in his voice. "You punished Clare, Elena and Carla for what you think we did to you. They're children. How could you? How dare you? They didn't deserve any of this."
"I had to teach them a lesson," Vivien said, very softly, frowning, as if she were just beginning to understand something.
"You bitch!" Sam cursed.
"What do you mean, Vivien?" Elizabeth asked.
"I kept trying to figure it out. I couldn't understand. But then, something drew me here, and I thought it was to bond with a new Sentinel. I was just going to ask you for one at first. But then, I kept getting angrier and angrier. By the time I was standing there in the nursery with that young Sentinel and Guide, I was furious. I saw them there, with everything ahead of them, everything to live for, and I just pointed the gun and pulled the trigger. The Sentinel did what Sentinels are supposed to do; she protected the Guide. And then I knew, then I understood why I was still alive when my Sentinel was dead, because I had that lesson to teach her."
Blair just stared at her, not knowing what to say. Elizabeth and Sam were similarly dumbstruck.
"Is the young Sentinel going to be all right?" Vivien asked.
"We don't know for sure, but I think so. The bullet hit her in the shoulder. I don't think there's any major damage, and we found her before she bled too much."
"Is her Guide with her?" the woman asked.
Sam nodded. "Yes. She went to the hospital with her."
"It worked then," Vivien said. "They're together, the way they should be, and now I'm finally finished.
Elizabeth's eyes grew wide. "Vivien, no, please," she begged.
"Ever since Dale died, I wanted to, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Finally, I realized there must be one last thing I needed to do, some reason I couldn't leave. On my way over here, I finally realized that this was it, getting this young Sentinel and Guide together, even though it was in such a brutal way. It reminded me of something I heard in church once. The minister said that Judas was as much a part of God's plan as the rest of the disciples, as Jesus himself. I always kind of resisted that. I mean, Judas was the betrayer. How could God have intended him to do something so awful? But now I understand."
"Please don't," Elizabeth pleaded.
"Hasn't there already been enough suffering, enough loss?" Sam asked.
"The worst loss is to be without your Sentinel," Vivien told him. "I pray you never have to go through that. There is no greater pain."
"You don't have to die or try to go back to how things were before you found your Sentinel," Blair suggested. "You could be a teacher. You could find a more constructive way to help young Sentinels and Guides, to show them how to bond."
He drew Vivien's attention, and she looked him over carefully, as if she were soaking in important information about him, an expression on her face that was almost a smile. "Somehow I think that's yours to do, not mine," she said. "Besides, I'm tired. And I'm finished. Now I can go, and that's what I want, to be reunited with my Sentinel."
She lay Carla down on the wooden floor and stepped back from her. She smiled at them all sadly. "It was so foolish of me to ever believe I could find another Sentinel. There's only one, ever, one Sentinel for each Guide, always and forever. I just kind of lost sight of that for a while..."
"I'm sorry, Vivien. I'm so, so sorry about what happened to Dale," Elizabeth said, crying. "That's what I wanted to tell you all those times I called and you wouldn't speak to me. If I could undo it, I swear I would. But it doesn't mean you have to die, too. Please, please don't hurt yourself."
Vivien shook her head. "You don't understand. I'm not hurting myself. I'm freeing myself. I had the right idea all along. I just didn't quite understand it fully. But now I do, and now I'm truly starting over."
Elizabeth took a step toward her. "Please, let me help you."
Vivien reached a hand into her pocket and pulled out a gun. Blair presumed it was the same one she'd used to shoot Clare. This time, she pointed it at Elizabeth.
"Stay back, Dr. Knowlton. I can't let you interfere."
"Please don't, Vivien."
"I forgive you," Vivien told her. "It was never really your fault in the first place, but I forgive you anyway, just so you'll know, just so you can forgive yourself. This is my choice. No one else is to blame for it. It's what's meant to be. I can see that so clearly now. Take care of your daughter. She's so beautiful, so perfect. She's going to be a fine Sentinel when she grows up. Protect your Guide. I can see how much he loves you. Thank you for trying. Thank you for caring. Good-bye."
Vivien brought the gun up to her temple, and it went off with a loud, shattering bang.
"NOOOOOO!!!" Elizabeth screamed.
"Oh my God!" Sam said.
Blair was speechless.
Vivien's body crumpled to the floor. Perhaps it was the surreality of the moment, of the entire day, but it seemed to happen in slow motion, gently, gracefully, a feather falling lightly to the earth. But that didn't erase any of its horror. One moment, she was standing there in front of them, warm and alive, and the next, she was lying on the cold ground, the life drained out of her, her eyes wide and staring.
Elizabeth rushed forward and grabbed up Carla. The baby began crying again, but out of relief this time, so happy to be safe in her mother's arms once more. Sam hugged them both tightly to him, tears in his eyes, clinging to his family with all his strength.
Blair knelt by Vivien's lifeless body, and he felt something clench inside him, the beginning of a profound sorrow. He did not know if what she had said was right or not, whether her seemingly insane actions had actually been the mysterious Sentinel imperative working in its own unfathomable way or if they had been the product of an unremitting grief that had festered until it turned out upon the world with a vengeance. In some way, it did not matter. She was a Guide. He was a Guide. They were kindred, and he mourned her.
He sat there for a long moment, saying a silent prayer for her, and then he reached over and closed her eyes, for the last time.
"Good-bye," he told her, a woman he hadn't really known, that now he would never know, who was still a part of him anyway.
He looked up and found Sam and Elizabeth watching him, his own feelings mirrored in their eyes.
"Are you ready?" Sam asked him softly, the sadness in his voice deep and rough.
Blair nodded. "Yes," he said. "Let's go home."
The next day at the hospital reminded Jim of the many times he and Blair had seen the inside of a Cascade medical facility, one partner waiting by the bedside of the other or both of them recuperating together. They'd been fortunate so far. Every time, they'd managed to walk away, eventually, still in one piece, more or less, both of them, together.
Now that same lucky star shone down on Clare and Elena.
It amazed Jim the difference a single day could make. Yesterday, he'd been truly afraid for Clare's life. Today, she was sitting up in bed, smiling, a little wanly perhaps, but smiling just the same, as Elena chattered away at her, keeping her company, working hard to cheer her up.
The injury had not proven especially serious after all, mostly a matter of stopping the bleeding and preventing infection. They'd bandaged her shoulder and put her arm in a sling. Late last night, they'd moved her to a private room, and the doctors had declared her officially out of danger.
And now she was smiling, even though he could tell she was still in pain. She had been a Sentinel all her life, and somewhere along the line had figured out for herself the trick of controlling her senses with dials. She was working at it now, trying to keep the pain manageable. They'd all been giving her adviceJim, Elizabeth, Blair, Samoverwhelming the poor young Sentinel until she'd finally turned to Elena and asked for her help and only her help. Jim had never seen such a blinding smile on anyone's face as Elena began happily, enthusiastically coaching her Sentinel on how to ease the discomfort.
Clare followed her Guide's instructions, and her expression turned to sheer amazement. "Hey, it works better when Elena talks me through it," she announced.
All the adults in the room, with the exception perhaps of Marta who did not quite understand why the doctors didn't just give the girl a shot for her pain, grinned so goofily at one another that it was nearly a TV sitcom moment.
"Miss Clare looks like she's doing much better today," Marta observed.
"She certainly does," Sam agreed.
"A positive attitude always helps. It's good that you have your friend to lift your spirits, hey, little one?" the housekeeper said.
Clare smiled and nodded. "That's so true."
Elena had refused to leave Clare's side the entire time she'd been in the hospital, sleeping on one of the hard, plastic couches in the waiting room. The uncomfortable accommodations didn't seem to have fazed her one bit though; she was just as chipper and energetic as ever. Jim only wished he'd fared half so well, his shoulders tied in knots and a kink in his back so stubborn it would take a good, long, hard massage from his Guide to work it out.
"Elizabeth?" Clare said, a little haltingly.
Elizabeth went to stand by her bedside, brushing the hair out of her face. "Yes, sweetheart?"
Clare stared down at her own hands. "Um...I just wanted to say how sorry I am that I didn't protect Carla. I tried. I really did. But that lady...she got away...and I couldn't..."
Elizabeth hugged the girl as best she could without jostling her shoulder. "Clare, you have absolutely nothing to be sorry for. I wanted to thank you last night for all you did for Carla, but you were already asleep. Nobody could possibly have looked out for my daughter more selflessly than you and Elena did, and I'm very, very grateful. Thank you so much."
Clare still looked distressed. "We shouldn't have believed her, that lady, I mean. She said she wouldn't hurt us if we put Carla down, but she lied. I mean, of course she would lie to get us to do what she wanted. Like, duh. I guess we were kind of stupid. She really fooled us."
Marta sighed and her face twisted with guilt. "You're not the only ones she fooled, Miss Clare. I should never have left the house. I should never have left you and Miss Elena alone for that awful woman to..." she broke off, unable to finish the thought.
"No," Elizabeth said, shaking her head. "I won't have you all blaming yourselves. It's no one's fault but Vivien's. She outsmarted us all. I mean, she had me convinced that the person I most feared was back from the dead. If I hadn't gone tearing off after ghosts, no one of this would have happened."
Sam put an arm around his wife's shoulders. "It's no one's fault but Vivien's, remember?"
Elizabeth nodded, but Jim could tell that she still felt responsible. He was pretty sure this was just par for the Sentinel course, a part of the instincts, feeling at fault when your protection failed, even when you'd done everything humanly possible.
"So you're not mad at me?" Clare asked Elizabeth.
Elizabeth shook her head decisively, determined to get Clare to believe her. "Of course not! Why would I possibly be mad at you?" she asked. "You tried to save my little girl. You were very brave, both of you, and I'm very, very proud of you."
Clare looked up at her, surprised. "You're proud of me?"
Elizabeth smiled at her. "Yes. Of course. You're both my heroes."
Clare broke into a huge smile. "Hey, Elena, we're heroes. Cool, huh?
"The coolest," Elena agreed, also very pleased.
"Um...Elizabeth?" Clare asked. "Could I..."
"What?" she asked the girl.
"Could I hold Carla?"
Everyone in the room froze for a moment, amazed by the request. Clare liked to watch Carla, but she'd been very reticent about actually playing with her or picking her up.
"Of course you can," Elizabeth told her.
Sam handed Elizabeth the baby, and she settled her into the crook of Clare's good arm.
Clare held Carla very carefully, a little awkwardly with the injury and her lack of experience, but she smiled while she rocked the little girl and talked baby talk to her.
"She likes you," Elizabeth told her.
Clare looked pleased. "Does she really?" she asked.
"Most definitely," Sam assured her. "If she didn't, she'd be screaming her head off. Trust me on this."
"She cried the whole time that lady was holding her," Clare said, the guilt and sadness returning to her face.
Elizabeth put a hand on her shoulder. "But she's safe now, no harm done. And you're safe and Elena's safe. It all worked out okay in the end, and everything's going to be fine now."
Clare nodded and handed Carla back to her. "Thanks for letting me hold her."
"You're welcome. Since you're her protector now, you can hold her anytime you want. I'm sure she'll like that."
"Elizabeth?" Clare said.
"I know I haven't always been easy to deal with, but...I really do appreciate your helping me and stuff and taking care of me. Thank you," she said, in an extremely small voice.
Elizabeth got tears in her eyes. "I love you," she told her.
"Love you too," Clare whispered.
Elizabeth kissed her on the forehead. "We're going to take Carla home now, but we'll be back a little later on. I talked to the doctor, and hopefully, they'll release you tomorrow or the next day."
"That's great!" Elena said.
"Elena, do you want to come home for a little while and maybe get some sleep?" Elizabeth asked.
She shook her head. "I'm staying with Clare."
"At least come down to the cafeteria and get something to eat," Blair insisted. "Jim says you haven't had anything since lunchtime yesterday."
Elena hesitated, looking to Clare. "I don't know..."
"It's okay," Clare assured her. "We don't want you checking into the hospital with malnutrition just as I'm checking out."
"I'll stay with Clare," Jim promised.
"And I'll keep you company while you eat, Elena," Blair offered and turned to his partner. "I'll be back in a few, big guy."
He smiled at his lover. "Okay, Chief."
"You guys want me to come back for you later?" Sam asked. "You can call me, and I'll come pick you up."
Jim looked over at Blair, who said, "No, that's okay, man. I think Jim and I are going to walk. We'd kind of like to take one last pass through the city before we have to leave."
Sam smiled at them, seeming to understand that they needed the time alone together to sort out all that they'd been through. "Okay then," he said. "We'll see you back at the house."
Marta hugged Elena and kissed Clare on the top of her head. "Good-bye Miss Clare. Feel better. See you later, Miss Elena."
"Good-bye, Marta," Elena said.
"Bye and thanks," Clare said.
"Good-bye, sweetie," Elizabeth said to Clare. "I'll see you later. And Elena, I want you to come home for dinner."
"Ahhh," the girl protested.
Elizabeth shook her head, effectively cutting off debate, a thoroughly mother-like gesture. "I know I won't be able to talk you out of sleeping here again tonight. Fortunately, I've got a few friends on staff, and I talked them into letting you stay in the room with Clare."
Elena bounced up and down excitedly. "Yeah! That's great."
"But there's one condition. You come home and eat a proper dinner and try to get a little sleep before we bring you back. I doubt you'll get a good night's rest folded up in a chair beside Clare's bed."
"Well..." Elena said.
"I'll be here while you're at home," Elizabeth said. "We're not going to leave Clare alone."
"I guess, if I have to," Elena finally conceded.
"Yes, you have to," Elizabeth said. "So I'll see you later. Now go get something to eat with Blair before you faint," she said, hugging the girl affectionately.
"Yes, Mom," Elena said, playfully.
Elizabeth shook her head and smiled.
The group finished saying their good-byes, and Sam, Elizabeth, Carla and Marta headed off for the car. Blair slung an arm around Elena's shoulders and led her away, in search of lunch. Jim sat down beside Clare's bed.
"You know, you don't have to stay with me if you don't want to," Clare said. "You must be hungry too, and you'd probably like to be with Blair."
"This is exactly where I want to be, so I'm afraid you're stuck with me, kid," Jim said.
Clare couldn't help smiling. "Well, I guess I'll have to put up with you then."
"Hey!" Jim said, playfully, swatting her lightly on her good arm.
"Thank you for staying with me last night," she said, suddenly turning serious. "I was...well, I guess I was really kind of scared."
Jim watched her face carefully, and he knew that had been very hard to admit. "We all get scared sometimes, Clare. It's only human."
Clare nodded. "Yeah, I guess," she said and then hesitated. "Jim, can I ask you something?"
"That lady who took Carla and...shot me? She said something." Her face clouded over, and she looked very troubled.
"What did she say, Clare?"
"She said that Sentinels and Guides are always lovers. Is that true? I mean, she asked me if I'd ever known any pair who weren't, other than me and Elena, and I don't. Elizabeth and Sam are married. That crazy lady was married to her Sentinel. And you and Blair are together. So was she right? Do Sentinels and Guides always end up...well, you know?"
Fury at Vivien once again tore through him. That crazy, fucking, sadistic bitch! It had been hard enough for Clare to accept her Guide without having to worry about becoming involved in a same sex relationship, without feeling pressured to do something she clearly wasn't yet ready for. He and Blair had been together as Sentinel and Guide three years before they'd finally made love together. They'd enjoyed the luxury of timetime to learn to trust and depend on one another, to fall in love, without feeling like it was some kind of requirement, without any fore-knowledge that would have only freaked them out.
Vivien had effectively stolen that away from Clare and Elena, and he cursed her for it, the way he cursed her for hurting Clare, for making her Guide suffer, for stealing away Carla, for terrorizing Sam and Elizabeth, for making him think, even for a second, that Alex Barnes was still alive, on the loose, in the same city as his Blair.
Clare stared at him, begging for an answer.
"The bond between Sentinel and Guide is very complicated," he finally said, very carefully. "It grows and changes over time. And yes, Sentinels and Guides do complete their connection by taking each other as partners, in every sense of the word. But it's all in its own good time. You don't just skip to that part. There's no need to rush anything. Right now, you should concentrate on getting to know your Guide, on learning to work together as a team. That's what's important. The other stuff will come later, when you're ready, when the feelings are there, when you want it."
Clare looked distinctly miserable. "What if I can't do it?"
"If someone had told me what my relationship with Blair would become way back at the beginning when I first met him, I would have said the same thing. I would have said no way, never gonna happen. That's why Vivien should never have told you. That's why Elizabeth never would have. Because it makes something that will just happen on its own, naturally and beautifully, into something tense and weird and upsetting. And you shouldn't have to worry about any of that before you get to it. Don't let what Vivien told you poison your feelings for your Guide. Don't shut Elena out, because you're afraid of where your relationship is headed."
"No, I won't," Clare said, carefully thinking it over. "It's just...I've never even done that with a boy. I don't know anything. I don't feel ready. The whole things makes me so...I don't know, nervous, I guess. Completely wigged out is more like it." She blushed ferociously.
"You don't have to do anything you're not ready for. When it comes to love, you should never do anything you don't really want," he told her. "I know it's hard, but try not to think about it. Pretend Vivien never told you. Don't put any pressure on yourself or on Elena. Just let it unfold the way it should. There's no more amazing feeling than to bond with your Guide. When you're ready, it will be a wonderful experience. I promise you."
She let out her breath and seemed a little calmer. "Okay, I'm going to try to do that. I don't think it's going to be easy, exactly. But I...I care about Elena, and I don't want to lose her. So I'm going to try not to think about the...well, you know and just concentrate on being Sentinel and Guide."
"Good girl," he said, smiling.
"Thanks, Jim," she said.
He put a gentle, comforting hand on her head. "Anytime."
He could hear Blair and Elena coming down the hall, chattering away to each other a mile a minute. A moment later, they pushed open the door to Clare's room and stepped inside.
"Hey," Elena said to Clare, bouncing over to the bed.
Clare smiled. "Hey."
Blair looked at him significantly, as if to say it was time to leave the young Sentinel and Guide alone. "Um...do you two mind if we..." Blair asked them.
"Oh no, you guys, go ahead. I'll stay with Clare, and Elizabeth's coming back later," Elena said.
"Okay, if you're sure, then we're going to take off. We'll see you later. Feel better, Clare," Blair said. "Come on, big guy."
"You're sure you'll be all right?" Jim asked the young Sentinel.
She nodded. "I'm fine. Really, Jim. But thanks for staying with me," she said.
"Okay, but I'll come back tomorrow to see how you're doing, all right?" Jim said.
Clare smiled. "Okay."
"See you guys later," Elena said and waved as they left the room.
Jim slung his arm around Blair's shoulder. "You ready for that walk now, Chief?"
Blair leaned into him. "You better believe it."
They followed the signs to the exit and went out into the bright sunshine of mid-afternoon. It had been very foggy earlier that morning, but the sun had burned it all off. The sky was now cloudless and brilliant blue. They began walking in the direction of Sam and Elizabeth's house, strolling along, enjoying the weather, in no particular hurry.
Jim reached for Blair's hand. It was such a simple pleasure to walk down the street entwined with his lover, but he hardly ever indulged in it, too conscious of all the stares it elicited in Cascade, a big city with a small town attitude. He could never help feeling that open displays of affection put them in danger, a foolish risk to his cop's brain, flying in the face of his Sentinel instincts. But here in San Francisco, the sight of two men obviously in love with each other was such an normal part of the landscape that no one gave them a second thought. He found it amazing that being ordinary could feel like such a luxury.
"We should come here sometime on vacation," Blair said, apparently having the same thoughts about the city's openness.
Jim nodded. "Sounds good, Chief."
They lapsed into comfortable silence, swinging their hands a little as they walked along together.
"What's on your mind?" Blair finally asked him.
"Vivien told her and Elena about Sentinels and Guides, that it's always a sexual relationship."
Blair nodded. "Yeah, Elena told me. I take it that Clare was upset by that."
"She's seventeen years old, Chief. She's just figuring out her sexuality. This certainly confuses things."
"Yeah, I can see how it would. Do you think it will get in their way?"
"I hope not. I don't think it will. It just would have been so much better if they could have figured it out when they were ready, more like we did."
"Well, let's hope they would have been a little quicker on the uptake than we were, big guy," Blair said, grinning wickedly.
Jim elbowed him lightly. "Okay, so maybe we were a little dense."
"I always knew I loved you. I just didn't quite put it all together until...well, you know."
"Yeah," Jim said softly. "I know."
"I think Elena took it better," Blair said, steering the conversation away from painful memories. "She'd already been having feelings for Clare, the bonding instinct, you know."
"Well, that's good at least."
Blair nodded. "I really think they'll be fine."
"I hope so," Jim said.
They walked on, and Jim stole a glance at his Guide, who looked distracted.
"Okay, Chief, now it's your turn. Penny for your thoughts."
He watched Blair's face light up with a smile. "Hey, man, I've practically got my doctorate in the bag. These babies must be worth at least a couple of bucks by now."
"Smart ass," Jim said, elbowing him playfully. "But seriously, you look like you're chewing on something. What's on your mind?"
"I was just thinking about something Vivien said before she killed herself."
Jim put an arm around his Guide. "Don't let her get to you."
Blair shook his head. "No, I'm not, exactly. I mean, I can't help but feel some kind of...grief, I guess. She was a Guide, and now she's gone. Now matter what she did, I can't help but feel..."
"Diminished?" Jim suggested.
Blair nodded. "Yeah, man. How'd you know?"
"That's how I felt back at that warehouse when I found out that two of the Sentinels had died, like I'd lost members of my family, even though I'd never met them."
Blair regarded his lover closely for a moment and said softly, "Yeah, I remember how hard that hit you. That's how it was for me today. I guess it's some kind of tribal connection. A member of the tribe dies, and we feel that loss, even if we never knew them personally, even if they made screwed up choices as horrible as Vivien's."
They both walked on, thinking that over.
"So what did Vivien say that's prompted all this reflection?"
"Actually, it was interesting. She said that something had drawn her back to San Francisco, and then this runaway anger came over her and that's what led to shooting Clare. She said that it was part of the Sentinel plan, for getting Clare and Elena together, to get Clare to trust her Guide, kind of like that garbage truck did for us way back when."
"Vivien was a crazy bitch, Chief. Losing her Sentinel warped her. How could shooting an innocent seventeen year old girl be part of anybody's plan, for any reason?"
"I know. I know. I didn't quite buy it either. But Clare wasn't really hurt. She's going to be fine, and she has finally accepted Elena as her Guide. In whatever bizarre, even brutal way, Vivien succeeded. She brought them together."
Jim wasn't entirely convinced, but he simply asked, "So where are you going with all this?"
"I've been thinking about how it might relate to us."
He shook his head and smiled. "You know, Chief, no matter how long I'm with you, I don't think I'll ever really understand how that twisted, brilliant brain of yours works."
"I'm serious about this, man."
"Okay, Darwin, so tell me then. How does it relate to us?"
"Do you know what the word progeny really means, Jim? It's not necessarily one's own children. It's simply those who follow after."
"I'm sorry, Chief, but you kind of lost me. What does that have to do with Vivien or us?"
"What if we were led here for a reason? What if we really do have a role in the tribe, to work with the children, like Elizabeth suggested?"
"You mean, that whole...sex thing wasn't an accident? It happened so we'd come here, at this time, to meet Clare and Elena, for you to run up against Vivien, to hear what she had to say?"
"Yeah. I mean, what if Elizabeth wasn't entirely off base with her theory? What if this whole episode of Sentinel weirdness was about both our relationship to one another and our role in the tribe? What if you really were longing for children? Only of course it's not possible for us to have kids of our own in this life, so that longing led us to a place where we would find other children, the children of the tribe, children who need our help."
Jim stopped for a moment, pulling his lover around to face him, staring deeply into his eyes, searching for something. He brushed the curls back from Blair's face, and it suddenly reminded him of their son, who looked so much like them both, the child of their spirits, who would be born someday, in some future life, when he could also be the child of their bodies. He remembered how it had been to hold Carla, how complete and content he'd felt. He flashed on Clare's face, young and full of wonder, when he'd taught her how to piggyback her senses.
He nodded. "Maybe you're right, Chief. So what do we do about it?"
Blair furrowed his brow, pondering that. "I think we should do what Elizabeth does. Nothing. Just embrace our role in the tribe and wait for it to come to us."
Jim grinned at his lover and hugged him impulsively, fiercely. "Nothing, huh, Chief? I'm pretty sure I can do that."
Blair returned the embrace, but said, "Okay, Jim, now who's being the smart ass?"
Jim pulled back, still smiling, brushing his fingers through his lover's hair. "Okay, okay, guilty as charged. So we wait?"
Blair nodded. "I think so."
"Then that's what we'll do."
"There's something else too, Jim."
"I'd like us to agree to be Carla's guardians in case anything happens to Sam and Elizabeth. It's something I really want to do...well, you know, if you do."
Jim fell silent, thinking it over. "Yes, Chief," he finally said. "I think...I'd like that."
Blair broke into a smile and squeezed his hand. "That's just great, man. I'm so glad."
"Yeah, me too. It just feels right somehow. I think Elizabeth is right. The Sentinel family is the important one."
"Let's tell them when we get back to the house, okay?"
A few moments passed. "Um, Jim?"
"There's one more thing I'd like."
Jim laughed and put his arm around his lover's shoulders, pulling him close. "So tell me, Chief, what do you want?"
"When we get back to the loft, I want to make love again, you inside me, in our bed."
Jim balked. "I don't know, Blair."
"We need it."
"I don't know if I'm ready. When I think about the last time, how I hurt you..."
"That's why it's important that we do this. We need to put all that behind us. It won't be truly over as long as you're afraid to take me. It's supposed to be an equal partnership, remember?"
"You continually amaze me."
"When we get home, I'll have to work on living up to that reputation." He winked at his Sentinel.
Jim shook his head, chuckling. "You better watch out, Chief. I'm going to hold you to that."
"You damn well better. So does this mean you will? Make love to me again, I mean."
Jim took a moment to consider his lover's request. "Yes," he said at last, his voice husky. "I've missed you, missed loving you like that."
Blair held his gaze, his blue eyes smoldering. "Me too."
"Thank you, Chief."
"For not giving up on me."
Blair smiled at him tenderly. "That was never an option."
Jim hugged him to his side, and they continued on, arms twined around each other's waists.
"Maybe I'll send Clare and Elena copies of the Rainier catalog."
Jim rolled his eyes.
"What?" Blair asked, innocently.
"Do nothing, huh, Chief? Let it come to us?"
"Well, yeah, you know...I'm just trying to be helpful here. Elena's really interested in anthro, and we've got a great department, if I do say so myself. Plus, Rainier's known for its strong, broad liberal arts program, so there should be something to interest Clare. It can be really confusing trying to pick a college out of all the possibilities out there. If I can shed a little light, well, you know, I'm happy to help."
Jim hugged him closer. "It's okay, Chief. Breathe. Face it, you're meddling, but it's good meddling. Send them the catalogs. It's a good idea. It would be great to have Clare and Elena in Cascade."
"I think so too," Blair said and then he frowned. "You know, Jim, helping young Sentinels isn't always going to be smooth sailing. Think about what Elizabeth was going through with Clare and Elena. I just need to make sure you really want to do this before we start down this road. I don't want to push you into anything. I want you to really know what you're getting yourself into."
Jim nodded. "I appreciate that, Chief. But what this last little Sentinel escapade has taught me is that I can handle anything, as long as I have you beside me."
Blair stared at him, blinking. "I think that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me."
"If that's true, I definitely need to improve in the sweet nothings department."
The corner of Blair's mouth twitched with amusement. "I'm going to remember you said that."
"And remind me of it every time I'm a grouchy asshole."
"Then I'll have to work on being a kinder, gentler Jim Ellison," he said, smiling, and then turned more serious. "I've come to realize I never tell you the most important things, but I'm really going to try to change that. You deserve everything I can give you. You saved me. You've made me so happy. You complete me, Blair, and I really do love you so much."
He took his Guide into his arms, kissing him deeply, entirely unconcerned about who might see, feeling the most free, the most safe, the most connected he ever had in his life.
Blair returned his kiss with enthusiasm, trembling with need and tenderness. "Love you too, man. Love you forever."