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Summary: Blair Sandburg is in prison, convicted of a crime he did not commit. Three and a half years into his sentence he meets a criminal defence attorney called Jim Ellison, who offers to take his case to appeal - for a price.

Author's Note: This is a 'sentinels and guides are known' bonding AU, minus the slavery (although there are civil rights issues for both sentinels and guides). It was previously posted in parts to [livejournal.com profile] sentinel_thurs, with each part following the challenge prompt for that week. This version has been edited and slightly re-written.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to everyone who read and commented on the story as it was being serialised at [livejournal.com profile] sentinel_thurs. Thanks especially to [livejournal.com profile] laurie_ky, whose inciteful comments helped shape the final product (one of the greatest advantages of writing by WIP ;-)).

Rating: NC-17

Warnings: Child abuse, rape, murder






Sentinel Justice
By Fluterbev

August 2007




Blair started in surprise as his cell door was unexpectedly unlocked; the echoing bangs and rasps of the mechanism being disengaged dragging him, heart pounding, out of the fantasy world of his book and back into dreary reality.

As the door opened Blair breathed deeply, mastering his reaction with force of will. It was still several hours before his scheduled hour in the exercise yard and, apart from meals being slid through the hatch under the door at intervals, that was the only part of each long, interminable day of his incarceration that he generally had any human contact.

This solitary confinement, tedious and lonely as it was, was for his own protection, he was forced to acknowledge. The few nightmare months he’d spent in the general wing with the regular prisoners had ensured that he understood that fact very well.

“Sandburg,” the guard revealed in the doorway barked. It was Rosenbaum – the one whose hard shell had never once cracked in front of Blair the whole time he’d been in here. “On your feet.”

Putting down his book carefully, Blair stood. “What’s going on, man?” he asked. He couldn’t help the little nervous jump in his voice – breaks in his routine scared him like nothing else, because they usually heralded something bad.

More than a few times, they had resulted in something very bad indeed.

He was totally unprepared for what Rosenbaum said next, therefore. “You have a visitor.”

Blair blinked. “I have a what?” No one, in the three years, five months and fifteen days that Blair had been in prison, had ever visited him. “Who?”

“You’ll find out soon enough.” Rosenbaum, as ever, was unmoved by Blair’s obvious shock. “Get out here, now!”

As Blair scrambled to obey, submitting to being frisked and holding out his hands passively for the cuffs, his mind whirred in confusion.

Who in the world would visit him?

***

Blair’s confusion was not at all lessened when a complete stranger - a tall, striking-looking man, dressed in a tailor-made suit and carrying a briefcase – walked into the interview room.

The man sat down opposite, piercing blue eyes in an otherwise unexpressive face fixing themselves on Blair. “Jim Ellison,” the man announced, holding out a hand to shake. “I’m a criminal defense attorney.”

“Blair Sandburg,” Blair said, holding out his own hand as far as the cuff – now secured to the table – would allow, to take the other man’s hand in his own. He laughed, a little nervously. “But I guess you already know that, huh?” He released the other’s dry, firm grip almost reluctantly. It had been a long time since anyone had touched him in any way but violently or intrusively, and something about the simple act of shaking hands – even with both of his own restrained – touched him in an oddly profound way.

It was just one more indication, he acknowledged sadly, that life would never be the same for him again.

“I know a lot of things,” Ellison responded, as their hands drifted apart, his eyes intent on Blair’s face. “But there’s one thing I’m still not a hundred per cent sure about. One thing I need you to tell me, face to face, so I can be certain.”

“And that is?” Blair prompted, squirming a little uncomfortably under that focused stare.

Ellison smiled, his austere face softening imperceptivity, though his gaze remained fixed on Blair. “I want to know,” he said, “if you did it.”

Blair’s heart sank. “What does it matter?” He looked away; his entire being urging him to flee, run, hide. He longed suddenly for the seclusion, the safety, of his cell. “I was convicted by a jury,” he went on, refusing to look at Ellison. “As far as the law is concerned, I’m guilty, man.” He swallowed, a hard lump of bitterness he’d thought buried forever rising to the surface nevertheless. “So yeah, I guess I did it.”

Despite Blair’s refusal to look at him, Ellison’s quiet voice pressed the point, his soft tone merciless. “You pleaded not guilty, yet you raised no defense at your trial,” he pointed out. “Why was that?”

A tiny spark of something – perhaps a ghost of the man he once was – caused Blair to look back at the lawyer. Determined suddenly to meet Ellison stare for stare, despite feeling a lot like a rodent caught in the mesmerizing gaze of a snake, he said coldly, “You said you know a lot. If you know so much, man, then you know why.” Blair laughed, the sound totally devoid of happiness. “Hell, I’m a guide – worse than that, I’m a guide who evaded the draft, which they inevitably discovered after I was arrested. My word was meaningless after that. There is no way, after staying in the closet so long – after hiding what I am for my whole life, and refusing to enlist – that they’d find me anything other than guilty. No defense lawyer, no matter how good, could have gotten me through that.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Ellison pointed out. “I know the verdict. I’ve studied the trial transcript, talked to the witnesses and looked at the evidence. What I want to know is what you have to say.” To Blair’s astonishment Ellison reached out to catch one of Blair’s cuffed hands in his own. His grip was oddly comforting and, perversely, Blair savored it; his own touch-starved hand lapping up the sensation. “Did you do it, Chief?”

Caught in that intent gaze, and held in Ellison’s secure grasp, Blair’s determination melted away. “No,” he gasped out, lost and needy in a way he’d thought was beyond him, after all these years. “I didn’t do it.”

Ellison cocked his head a moment, as if listening. Then he smiled, his eyes crinkling. “I believe you,” he said simply. “And I’m going to get you out of here. There’s enough evidence to take your case to appeal - and I’m certain, if you take me on as your attorney, that we can win.”

“Why?” Bitterness rose to the surface. This was all a lie – it had to be. There was no hope for someone like him – Blair couldn’t afford to hope, not ever. “Why the hell should you believe me, when no one else does?”

“Do you honestly think,” Ellison responded patiently - his eyes frighteningly kind and his hand still holding Blair’s firmly - the touch a conflict of comfort and hope and despair - “that you are the only one who’s ever been in the closet?”

And then, suddenly, Blair got it. Ellison was a sentinel.

That’s why Ellison needed Blair to say it, and why he’d held on to his hand – so he could gauge the veracity of Blair’s words with his senses. That also explained, no doubt, Blair’s instinctive desire to cling back to the hand which held his in such an incongruously comforting way, despite them never having met before today - the strong, genetic urge for tactile contact between sentinel and guide.

Not only that; if Ellison was in the closet like Blair, as he had implied, then that meant that he was an unregistered sentinel. One who, perhaps, had gotten to a time in his life where he desperately needed a guide to help him to maintain control, but who had never been willing to sign away his life the way sentinels and guides were expected to do, by enlisting in the military.

That was something Blair understood very well.

But his time in prison, if it had taught Blair anything at all, had shown him that what appeared to be altruism rarely proved to be that in actuality. “What’s the payoff?” he demanded, already guessing what the answer might be. “I mean, you’re not doing this for nothing, right?”

“You’re a smart guy, Sandburg.” Ellison released Blair’s hand, leaving him feeling oddly bereft in its wake. “You and I, we have something in common. Something we both need, but which is almost impossible to get unless you sell your soul to Uncle Sam. You want out of here – and I can give you that. And I need…” he pointedly left the sentence unfinished.

Blair swallowed. Bonding was something he’d never wanted, the associated compulsory enlisting into the military for sentinels and guides something he’d spoken out against his entire life. He’d always regarded it as little more than legalized slavery. A life sentence; no better than jail.

But Blair was in jail already, his life effectively over. He truly had nothing left to lose – and what Ellison was offering, if Blair had understood him correctly, was bonding without the trappings – the legality of which was, admittedly, questionable; but hey, he’d at least have a lawyer on his side.

Blair met Ellison’s gaze resignedly. “I accept your terms,” he said.

Ellison nodded, a satisfied smile on his face. He stood, towering over Blair – an imposing figure, this lawyer-sentinel. “I’ll be in touch,” he said. “Keep your chin up, Chief.” And with that, he picked up his briefcase, went through the door and was gone.

Left shaken and reeling in his wake, Blair waited to be taken back to his cell, his cuffed hands trembling with terrified hope.

***

Walking cuffed into the packed courtroom to take his place beside Ellison, and seeing the various expressions – disgust, anger, sheer hate – on the faces of those who had turned to watch his entrance, Blair felt like a deer caught in the headlights; or perhaps more accurately a deer caught in the predatory gaze of a hungry pack of wolves, who wanted nothing more than to tear out his throat. Cringing under their regard, he longed right now for nothing more than to be back in his cell – hidden away from public view; hiding in turn from a world which loathed and vilified him.

The moment he’d emerged from the prison van to be hustled in here, albeit through a side entrance to avoid the bulk of the waiting press and the potential threat posed by the massive crowd, he had been blinded by the flashes of the one or two tenacious photographers who had found their way back there anyway. The guards who had transported him from the prison were no-nonsense guys, professional, just doing their job. It was not for particular care of Blair that they hustled him inside quickly and away from the vultures outside, but rather that they were competent and took pride in their work.

“Thanks, guys,” Blair was moved to say anyway, as they deposited him in the cell he was obliged to wait in until it was time to go into the courtroom. He was neither surprised nor disappointed not to get an answer. But hey, praise where it was due. They’d treated him more humanely than most, and that was something he truly appreciated.

Now, as Blair approached the table where he was to sit for the duration of his re-trial, Ellison stood to greet him, his cool gaze fixed on Blair’s face. Once their eyes met, Blair couldn’t look away; feeling himself drawn to the immaculately groomed lawyer like a fish on a pole - hooked by the lure of the sentinel who was his only advocate in the world.

Ellison put out a hand to guide Blair to his seat, the touch burning Blair through his suit like a brand. “Hey, Chief,” Ellison greeted softly, as Blair sat down. “You doing okay?

Blair could only nod nervously, hyper-aware of the sentinel’s touch. As if he knew that, Ellison kept his hand there once they were both seated; a heavy, hot weight, anchoring Blair relentlessly to the present.

Things moved fast after that, once the court was in session. The case for the prosecution was short and succinct – there was nothing additional or different from Blair’s last appearance, when he’d been found guilty of Emily Bullock’s rape and murder - which had been, effectively, an open and shut case, since he had not attempted to defend himself.

Blair knew that Ellison was appalled that he had given up so easily. But Blair recognized that, at the time, he’d not been anywhere close to his right mind, injured and in deep shock as he’d been. He’d seen a lawyer, sure; one who had been assigned to him by the State. But even she had believed him guilty, so in the end, frightened and hurting and just desperate for it all to be over, Blair had decided it wasn’t worth it. He was going to do the time anyway, if what everyone said was right – so what was the point of fighting it? Plus, there was perhaps some sense, deep down, that he deserved to be punished. Emily Bullock had been violated and killed right there beside him, and he hadn’t done a thing to stop it – no matter that he had hardly been in a position to do so at the time.

This time, just like the last, the prosecution did not even bother to call Blair to the stand, letting the evidence they presented and his lack of defense at the first trial stand for itself as an admission of guilt. And Blair’s heart sank at the feeling of déjà vu he experienced during their summing up, dreading deep down that this was all just a waste of time, and that rehashing it like this would change nothing.

But today proved to be entirely different. Once the lawyer for the prosecution concluded, Blair watched, mesmerized, as Ellison presented the case for his defense - and what a virtuoso performance it was.

The guy was a master at his craft – imposing and eloquent, with a knife-edge intellect which he knew exactly how to stick in and twist. Ellison’s sardonic smile and biting sarcasm exposed every flaw in procedure, and every bit of institutional prejudice that Blair, as an unregistered guide, had been subjected to.

Blair was portrayed as a hard-working, ethical young man, without a single blemish on his character, apart from one simple thing – the fact that he was a guide in hiding, for which he had been condemned right at the start. The lawyer called in expert witnesses who cast damning doubt on the forensic evidence which formed the core of the prosecution’s case, thoroughly discrediting the lax methods of the officers who had omitted to properly investigate the crime scene, just as soon as they discovered that the semi-conscious man beside the body of the dead girl was an unregistered guide.

When Blair finally took the stand to give his own testimony, Ellison led him through his recollection of events methodically, pushing firmly when he had to, his voice soft but his methods very, very thorough. There was hardly a sound in the packed courtroom as Blair answered Ellison’s often painful questions, feeling oddly as he focused on the face of his attorney that there was no one here but the two of them, lost together in a battle for Blair’s soul. Blair had to stop frequently, especially when Ellison touched upon what he’d witnessed at the murder scene, and what he’d gone through there himself. And on two occasions the judge actually asked him, in an incongruously kind voice, if he would like to take a recess. But Blair ploughed on regardless, desperate to get this over with once and for all.

The prosecution had no questions for him, and Blair wondered if that was a good thing or a bad thing. He was inclined to believe the latter, because the former was simply unthinkable – optimism was a dangerous emotion, in circumstances like these.

The worst part of the whole ordeal was the inevitable wait while the jury deliberated. The last time, Blair remembered, it hadn’t taken long at all, which had proved to be a very bad sign indeed. Now, locked up alone once more back in the holding cell, Blair sweated and fidgeted, wishing they’d just get it over with and take him back to prison. Because no matter what, he could not allow himself to hope. He truly wished this whole nightmare was just over, so that he could retreat back to his familiar cell. At least in there, no-one looked at him with hate in their eyes, because with the exception of the expressionless guards who took him out once a day for his hour of exercise, no-one ever looked at him at all.

He was called back into the courtroom after just twenty minutes – which was only half the time it had taken the first jury to reach a verdict. Trembling, Blair took his place next to Ellison, starting when the attorney’s hand landed on his shoulder. “Easy, Chief,” Ellison murmured, squeezing reassuringly. “It’s gonna be okay.” But Blair failed to find comfort in the touch – a touch which, in just a few more moments, could be denied him forever.

The touch remained, nevertheless, as the jury filed back in; Ellison holding Blair firmly in his steadying grasp. His hand only fell away when Blair stood, shaking, to hear his fate.

Then Ellison’s hand returned, securing him like a lifeline, when Blair sat back down in utter shock after being found not guilty - his sentence quashed. It stayed there, holding him together when the judge apologized to him sincerely for the gross miscarriage of justice he had suffered. It kept him anchored while the judge went on to call, in the strongest possible terms, for an urgent inquiry into discriminatory police practices, which had led to an innocent victim being wrongfully convicted for the sin of being a guide who had found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

By the time they exited the court by the front door, the hundreds of cameras that greeted them flashing dissonantly in an eerie counterpoint to the electrical storm which was moving in overhead, the firm grip on his shoulder was the only thing keeping Blair from dissolving into a million, fractured pieces.

***

The storm was in full flight by the time that they finally reached sanctuary, blessedly away from the crowds and the reporters and the huge, terrifyingly open sky.

Ellison’s apartment building was in a converted warehouse, a high-ceilinged loft apartment on the top floor of the complex. Passively allowing himself to be led inside, Blair tried to subdue a sense of intense loss as Ellison’s hand fell away so he could take off his coat. The other man’s almost constant touch had become a craving; awaking a frightening, desperate need in Blair that he could barely control.

Ellison was back in seconds, though; his hands divesting Blair of his suit jacket, deft fingers brushing Blair’s skin with an almost electrical current as he began to unbutton Blair’s shirt. “You denied yourself this,” Ellison murmured, his predatory face, beautiful, like an alabaster god, illuminated in intermittent flashes of lightning.

“I had no choice.” Blair was lost, consumed with need and want, shaking as, button by button, his body was revealed. “I couldn’t… I…”

Ellison moved nearer, now the shirt was undone, his hands sliding under it and around Blair’s waist, making him gasp with indescribable sensation as skin met skin. “You need this,” Ellison whispered, pulling Blair close, his crisp shirt rasping against Blair’s bare chest. A mouth, hot, wet, possessive, pressed against Blair’s throat.

“I didn’t… I was….” Words caught in his throat.

But Ellison seemed to understand. Holding Blair tightly against him, his mouth forcing bone-deep shudders from Blair as it moved against his ear and his hands like hot irons where they pressed against his back, he said, “You had to hide it. Hide that you were a guide. To subdue your own needs, to allow you to stay free.”

“Yes,” Blair whimpered. Guides needed touch – craved it, thrived from it. It was essential to their well-being; as vital as air, or water. Blair had always endeavored to control his own natural urges, using meditation and herbal suppressants to subdue it. It was a total myth that unbonded guides could not control themselves; most of the ones who had avoided the draft, like Blair, were absolutely forced to, to avoid detection.

It wasn’t just detection that guides were afraid of – it was the prejudice they inevitably faced. Negative assumptions tended to be made about the need of guides for touch. Unbonded guides were sometimes promiscuous, which laid them open to charges of perversion, as well as a common assumption that guides were sexual predators - although in reality, it was often guides themselves who were preyed upon, their involuntary responses to tactile stimulation making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

That was the reason, of course, that Blair’s guilt had immediately been assumed. An unbonded guide – a pervert by nature – found beside the dead body of a violated child. What else was anyone supposed to think? The evidence that he had been violated too while he’d been unconscious had been dismissed without a second thought. He was a guide, and that was enough to make him guilty, in most people’s eyes.

Ellison moved back, the withdrawal of his touch making Blair shudder with want. But Blair held himself still, watching in tense anticipation as Ellison unbuttoned his own shirt, the hard, muscular topography of his chest standing out in relief as flashes lit the loft; the thunder rolling overhead not quite drowning out the throbbing pulse which echoed so urgently through Blair.

Once his shirt was off, Ellison’s hands moved down to his pants and paused there, his eyes asking a question – leaving Blair certain that this was not a man who would take what Blair was not willing to give. In answer, Blair reached down and unzipped his own pants; the two of them moving after that in concert to undress completely.

It only took a few seconds. Then Ellison pressed up against Blair once again, the shock of full body skin-to-skin contact making Blair cry out convulsively. It was too much… not enough... too much… it had been so long…

“They tried to take this from you,” Ellison told him, holding him through it, his skin, his voice - his understanding - balm to a body and soul severely in need. “What they did, locking you up alone, was cruel in the extreme. This is who you are, Blair. This is what you are. You need this. And now, you’ve got it. You’ve got me.”

Helpless in Ellison’s embrace, shuddering with almost unbearable sensation, Blair gasped, knowing now why bonding was the answer. This touch – a sentinel’s touch – was nothing like the sexual encounters he’d sought in the past, the ones he’d allowed himself when the meditation and the drugs were just not enough. This, instead, was everything and more; cream instead of buttermilk, platinum instead of silver.

He was barely aware of them moving, heading together up a flight of stairs to an open-plan bedroom to fall together onto a wide, soft bed. All he knew was Ellison’s skin and his firm, deft touch, as he gave Blair what he needed, what he’d been deprived of not just for the past four years, but for his entire life.

Blair cried out over and over, lost in ecstatic sensation, straining to be even closer. “Please… please…” he begged. He didn’t know what he was asking for, but Ellison held him through it, pressing him to the bed, his strength more than enough to hold Blair together, even as he felt himself flying apart.

It lasted for hours, that desperate craving to be touched and held and just – god – to have Ellison right there; breaking him apart and putting him back together time and time again. And all the way through it, the sentinel stayed with him, soothing, comforting; giving him what he needed, and taking back for himself what Blair freely offered.

By end of it, they were no longer attorney and ex-con; no longer just Ellison and Sandburg.

They were Jim and Blair; lovers.

Sentinel and guide; bonded for life.

***

Laying his briefcase on the table beside the door and hanging up his coat, Jim cast his senses around the airy loft apartment, seeking his roommate. He located him in the small bedroom under the stairs, reading a book as usual, if the sound of pages turning was anything to go by.

Jim sighed. It was nearly four months now since Blair had been freed. Despite the fact that they had shared Jim’s bed upstairs from day one – bonding by mutual consent immediately, with Blair so desperate for the comfort of touch that neither of them could wait - Blair still tended to retreat to that small, confined place when Jim was not around.

He’d left prison, but prison had still not entirely left him.

Blair was sprawled across the small futon. He looked up as Jim entered the room, startlingly blue eyes blinking owlishly from behind round-framed glasses as he surfaced from whatever weighty tome he had been lost in. “Hey,” Blair said huskily in greeting, his voice still a little hoarse from three years of disuse spent in solitary confinement, as Jim sank down beside him. “Have a good day?”

Jim leaned down to kiss Blair, breathing deeply of the guide scent he craved so much. As he did so, he felt the stress of hours in court evaporate and disappear, replaced by a rush of tenderness and love which this wounded, brave young man always inspired in him. “I won the case,” he said, pulling way from Blair’s soft, luscious mouth after a few delicious, restorative moments. “Reynolds caved under cross-examination, and Brody went home a free man.”

“You always win,” Blair said admiringly, one hand reaching up to stroke Jim’s face tenderly, his own love for Jim clear in his eyes and touch.

Truthfully, he was right – Jim had never yet lost a case. There were certain advantages to being a sentinel and practicing criminal law – there was never any doubt who was guilty and who was innocent. It was simply a matter, after that was established, of making sure the right avenues were pursued, the right questions asked and the right evidence presented.

What a waste, Jim thought bitterly, that most sentinels had been forced to use their skills to fight wars, when so many other worthwhile things – careers in law, health and a variety of other professions - could be pursued with their senses instead.

At least he’d managed to evade the draft and remain free to pursue his chosen career, no matter that he’d been forced to hide his true nature until now. Thankfully, hiding was no longer an issue. Changes in the law had recently come into force which removed the legal compulsion for sentinels and guides to enlist in the military – changes that he had been influential in getting put into place himself. Both Blair and he were now free to live openly as sentinel and guide, without having to constantly look over their shoulders for fear of being picked up and shipped off to boot camp.

Catching Blair’s hand in his own, Jim rose, and pulled his partner up with him. “Did you go out today?” he asked, hoping that Blair had managed to do so. Blair still suffered from various after-effects of his incarceration, and being outside or alone with strangers was not always easy for him.

But today, it seemed, had been a good day. Blair’s eyes sparkled. “I went over to Rainier, man. Professor Stoddard said I can start back on my anthropology degree as soon as I’m ready.”

“That’s great, Chief!” Jim was truly delighted – going back to school and reclaiming what was rightfully his, could only be good for Blair, after all that he had had taken from him.

But Blair looked nervous instead of pleased. “Um, I told him no.”

Jim wasn’t sure he heard right. “What? Why did you do that?”

“I, uh, decided on a change of direction. Hey,” Blair said, when Jim moved to interrupt. “Hear me out, man. Okay?” When Jim nodded, he carried on. “I’m your guide, right? I need to be with you, Jim. Sentinels and guides, they are meant to work together. But that’s not all.”

Blair looked at Jim earnestly. “Being in prison – it changed me, Jim. I’m not who I was back when I was an anthropologist. I can’t go back – because that is just not me any more. I need to move forward. And what I want – what I desperately need – is to make sure no one else ever goes through what I went through.”

Jim could see where this was going, but he needed to hear Blair say it. “So, what have you decided?”

“So I, uh, I transferred to the law department. The new semester starts next week.” Blair grinned. “As part of my studies, I’m gonna be looking for a little work experience at some point down the line. You, uh, you wouldn’t know of a good law firm, which might have an opening for a rookie, would you?”

Jim smiled, feeling something absolutely right click into place. Days like today, where the sights and sounds and smells of a crowded court room were only cured when he got home to his guide could, if Blair joined him in partnership, become a thing of the past. And Blair – well, Jim was sure he’d make a damned fine lawyer. Together, they could be an unbeatable team, championing the rights of sentinels and guides from within a system that still discriminated against them. The law might have changed, but there was still plenty of prejudice around.

Jim reached out, and drew Blair towards him. “I could ask around,” he teased, cupping his guide’s ass. “I might even be interested myself. It would depend on what the rookie could offer by way of incentives.”

Blair licked his lips in clear invitation. “I could think of a few things,” he said suggestively, his own hands wandering in kind. “Maybe I could, uh, give you a practical demonstration. Like, say, now?”

“That would be acceptable, I guess,” Jim conceded generously.

A little while later, Jim looked lovingly at the sated, relaxed guide in his bed, all the fear and horror of the last few years of Blair's life erased in the security of his sentinel’s arms.

Jim pressed a loving kiss to Blair’s brow. “You’re hired,” he whispered. He closed his eyes, snuggling close. “And now, the defense rests.”

“Oh, man,” Blair groaned. “You did not just say that!”


***

This room was smaller than his cell, Blair considered, as he peered around in the dim light. A different shape, of course – made for a different purpose.

He was still in the process of learning all of the closet’s detail, still memorizing its dimensions and contents. By contrast, it hadn’t taken him half as long to learn his cell intimately – if he closed his eyes, he could still clearly see every single flaw in the paintwork, the cracked surface of the sink, and the scratched initials of previous occupants in the window frame. Except during lights-out, the cell hadn’t been dim; unlike this place, which was illuminated only by the crack of light seeping in under the door. For fourteen hours of every day, his cell had been filled with harsh electric light, starkly revealing every fissure in the walls, every crack. It was no wonder that, despite having left it, he still knew its every feature almost better than he knew his own name.

Outside the door of his current bolt hole, he could hear the raised voice of the man he had run from; the big police captain, who had come, no doubt, to take him back. The man’s shouted words were muffled and indistinct, but the anger in them was clear. Relegating the sound to the back of his mind, Blair focused instead on minutiae. He noted that the mop and bucket had been used recently - it had been moved from its usual position, the smell of wet floor cleaner mingling with the fusty smell of disuse. Other than that one change, it was clear that nothing else had been touched in here since Blair’s last visit.

Blair felt some considerable satisfaction in having discovered such a secure, private place in the midst of the busy campus. Only he, it seemed, and an unknown nocturnal janitor, appeared to be aware of its existence. It was a skill Blair prided himself on - ever since his first few months in prison, he’d gotten good at finding secret hiding places.

It was just a shame that this one was destined to be so short lived.

Blair’s mind drifted inevitably back to his former residence. Absently, he wondered if, once he was put back in there, he’d be given the same, familiar cell, or if some other poor shmuck had been incarcerated in it now. He shuddered at the possibility that he might have to do another stint among the general prison population. He’d almost been killed the last time, both the crime he’d been convicted of and his outing as an un-enlisted guide making him a target; and his peaceable nature and lack of stature had ensured that he was an easy target, at that.

Hearing heavy footsteps pass close by the door, Blair shuddered. Time was almost up, he understood. He knew he should go out there and face the music, but he wanted to savor his last few moments of freedom, such as they were. And, despite everything he’d gone through, Blair had to admit that the big man who’d been waiting for him as he walked out of his lecture, flashing his badge and asking Blair to accompany him to the station, had scared the living crap out of him – when just a few short months ago, he’d been kept in his place by guys like that every single day of his life, and had simply accepted it as his due.

Blair knew that since he’d been living under Jim’s protection he’d gotten soft. And cons, like him, could never, ever afford to that. What the hell had he been thinking, to deceive himself into believing he was safe? Goddamn it, what a pathetic idiot he’d been.

He’d been trying hard, as he crouched here in the semi-dark, not to think about Jim and everything he’d be leaving behind but, suddenly, inadvertently, it was too late. And now that Jim had entered his thoughts, distracting Blair from contemplation of his dark future and his safe focus on the exact position and number of items stored on the metal shelves beside him, Blair’s heart twisted in sorrow, his eyes tearing up helplessly. “Jim,” he whispered, his throat tight, and his heart aching; rocking backwards and forwards with the pain of his loss. “Oh, Jim….”

As if his words had conjured his sentinel, Blair heard Jim’s voice raised above the other sounds outside the door. “God damn it, Banks!” Jim was shouting. “You don’t approach him other than through me, all right? I told you that on the phone. Haven’t you people persecuted him enough?”

The footsteps he’d heard, which had initially moved away, were returning; getting closer to his hiding place. Then they stopped, right outside the door, and Blair jammed a fist in his mouth to stifle the frightened sounds his body seemed to want desperately to make.

Past his own panting breaths, Blair heard the police captain – Banks – talking to Jim, his tone professional and measured. “Mr. Ellison,” he was saying, “You have my apology. The last thing I wanted to do was to scare that kid – I just want to arrange a time for him to give a statement. Since Mr. Sandburg’s acquittal, the Emily Bullock murder case has been reopened and passed to my department. We still have a killer on the loose – and your client may be the only person who can help us catch him.”

“You should have thought of asking him those questions four years ago,” Jim said angrily, “instead of scapegoating an innocent man and letting the real killer go free. And, like I said, you want to talk to Blair, you go through me, end of story. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find my guide.” Jim stressed the last word, rubbing their bond in Banks’ face like a badge of pride.

The door opened suddenly, flooding the tiny closet with light from the hallway, and Blair shrank back into his oasis of darkness, a whimper escaping despite his best efforts to stuff it back down inside. “Hey, hey…” Jim’s voice was soft and, to Blair’s relief, he closed the closet door, blocking out the intrusive gaze of the police captain, before he came to crouch in front of Blair. “I’m here, Chief,” he said softly, and Blair felt his shoulders caught in a steady, reassuring grip. “You got a bad scare there, huh?”

Blair’s voice sounded small, his fortitude crumbling like mortar under fire now that his sentinel was here to take charge. “I thought he wanted to arrest me,” he confessed. A tear escaped, as Blair peered up through the gloom at his savior; his protector. “I don’t want to go back there, Jim.”

“Not going to happen, buddy,” Jim said. He shifted position, and Bair felt himself pulled close, Jim’s crisp, immaculate shirt wilting under his tears. “He’s here because they’ve reopened the case,” Jim told him, his words rumbling reassuringly through the cotton weave next to Blair’s cheek. “Finally, they’re looking for Emily Bullock’s real killer. Banks wants to talk to you about that day; to see if there’s anything you remember that might help. That’s all, Blair. You’re not a suspect – not any more. You were exonerated, remember?”

Unbidden in Blair’s mind rose images he had tried so very hard, for nearly four years to forget – yet they never left him, not really. Images of a brutalized young child, and blood, confusion and terror. “I never saw his face,” Blair said miserably. “All I can remember is something hitting me, then waking up next to… next to…” He choked on the words, remembered horror stopping his voice.

“Shh, shh, it’s okay, Blair,” Jim murmured, and Blair felt himself rocked. “You don’t need to say any more. It’s over.”

“But I do need to!” Blair pushed himself away from Jim, and squinted through the gloom at the other man’s face. “And it’s not over, Jim! Because he’s still out there. For all I know,” Blair’s voice dropped to a whisper with dread of it, “he could have done it again. He could be about to do it again. And man, if there’s any chance – any chance at all – that I can help them to stop him from hurting another kid like… like he hurt Emily then… man. I’ve gotta do it.” Blair huffed a sad laugh. “I mean, I’m training to be a lawyer, right? I have to do the right thing, or I’m going into the wrong profession.”

Jim was smiling tenderly at him. “I never for a moment assumed you wouldn’t help with the enquiry, Blair,” Jim said. “And I’m proud of you for that, Chief. It’s nothing less than I’d expect of you.” A hand cupped Blair’s cheek gently, and Blair leaned into it, craving Jim’s touch as he always did. “It’s just… I don’t expect you to do it right now, okay? You’ve had enough stress for today. Let’s go home, regroup, and if you’re feeling up to it we’ll both go in to see Banks tomorrow. Together. All right?”

Suddenly, Blair was exhausted. “All right,” he agreed. He smiled sadly up at Jim, feeling more than a little embarrassed in the aftermath. “I’m sorry I freaked out. I guess… I guess I still have some baggage.”

“Don’t ever apologize for reacting to what happened to you,” Jim told him emphatically. “No one could go through what you went through, and come out unscathed. People like him,” Jim motioned toward the door, the other side of which Captain Banks was waiting, “just have to accept that. End of story.”

“Okay,” Blair agreed. And, accepting Jim’s helping hand, he stood, and the two of them stepped over toward the door.

Leaving his hidey-hole and going back out into the big, bad world wasn’t half so scary, Blair discovered, with Jim's arm laying heavy across his shoulders, pressing him protectively close to his sentinel's side. Drawing strength from the contact, Blair made himself meet the curious eyes of Captain Banks, who was watching them with interest as they emerged. Maybe, Blair supposed, he’d never seen a sentinel/guide pair up close before. Not a lot of people, outside the military, had.

Banks spoke first. “Mr. Sandburg,” he said softly. “I apologize for startling you. That was not my intent.”

Blair nodded, feeling the heat of Jim’s body spread through him like sunlight, bathing the cold, dark places within with life-giving warmth. “Jim told me why you’re here,” Blair said. His panic had evaporated, held in safety by his sentinel as he was, and he maintained eye contact with the imposing police captain determinedly. “I want to help, if I can.”

“Thank you,” Banks said graciously. Then he moved his gaze to Jim. “I’ll wait for your call, Mr. Ellison,” he said. Then with a further quizzical look at them both, he turned and strode off down the corridor.

Cocooned by Jim’s presence, Blair allowed himself to be led away in the opposite direction; heading home to bond and reaffirm their connection.

Behind them, the closet door closed with a snick.

***

Jim Ellison had many regrets about things that he’d done in his life. But right at the top of the list was that he had been utterly unable to do anything to save Blair from the horrors that three and a half years of prison had wrought.

At the time of Emily Bullock’s murder Jim had been out of the country, ostensibly on vacation in Europe, but in actuality gathering information which would help him in the concerted campaign that was being waged to abolish the compulsory draft for sentinels and guides. He’d still been in the closet, then; brazenly concealing his sentinel nature in plain sight as he worked tirelessly on behalf of sentinels and guides who had been forced into the military, as well as those politicians whose manifesto was to change the law.

When Blair had been arrested, Jim had watched the moral panic erupt on CNN, riveted to the T.V. in appalled fascination in his Parisian hotel room. He’d picked up without any effort the prejudicial nuances in the reporting of Blair’s arrest and subsequent incarceration; in particular, the explicit undercurrent that guides – and by extension, sentinels - were unclean, immoral and dangerous. And he’d observed as parade of politicians, experts and academics were wheeled out in front of the media for weeks afterward, to reaffirm the message that the only way such dangerous individuals could be controlled was in a military setting.

To sum it up, the whole case had been sensationalized in the worst way, then hijacked politically by those opposed to the repeal of the draft. Subsequently, the whole thing had set back the Abolitionist campaign that Jim had been working for by years.

As he followed coverage of the case avidly, Jim strongly felt almost from the start that Blair was most likely innocent. The guy hadn’t even availed of proper legal representation, and there were rumors among Jim’s fellow Abolitionists about medical and forensic evidence that had been suppressed at his trial – rumors which Jim found, upon investigation, to be very easy to substantiate. But unfortunately, if Jim had launched an appeal on Sandburg’s behalf before they achieved abolition of the draft, as an outted guide he would basically have been transferred from one prison to another – straight into the military, and into an involuntary bond.

So Jim had felt forced to wait; biding his time, campaigning hard alongside his colleagues for the right of sentinels and guides to remain free. Three and a half more years passed, until finally the Abolitionists achieved their goal. And on the very day the draft law had been repealed, he’d passed up the celebrations which were taking place in campaign headquarters to visit Blair Sandburg in prison instead, to find out once and for all if the guy was truly worth saving.

Jim had never honestly meant to make bonding a condition of taking the case. Having confirmed that Blair was innocent, he would have done it for nothing, simply because it was the right thing to do.

True enough, Jim’s control slipped at times. Sentinels needed guides to help them focus, to soothe senses frazzled by an overload of sensory input. Like guides, sentinels were genetically disposed to crave touch – although unlike guides, who could find comfort to various degrees in physical affection from non-sentinels, sentinels needed the touch of guides specifically, as well as their distinctive scent, the sounds they made, the taste exuded by the glands under their skin – a whole package which non-guides could not, by their different physiology, fulfill. Jim had frequently scratched that essential itch with guides who, like himself, were in hiding – men and women who had been able to give Jim the stability he needed to get by, but who were not disposed to bond permanently.

Jim had never felt any urge to bond for life with any of the guides he met casually through the underground network. But, when he walked into that prison interview room, something about Blair Sandburg and the desperate need he radiated spoke to Jim profoundly. And before he knew it, Jim had made the offer of a permanent bond, and Blair - perhaps seeing no other way out, or (so Jim hoped) equally drawn to him - had accepted.

Now, several months after he’d managed to free his guide from the unjust incarceration he’d suffered, Jim still felt guilty, no matter how irrational it was under the circumstances, that he’d had to leave Blair in prison for so long. Because it was clear that, despite all the progress his guide had made since his release, the effects and repercussions of his ordeal would be with him forever.

***

Placing a reassuring hand on Blair’s shoulder as they progressed through the lobby of Cascade’s central police headquarters, heading toward the elevator which would take them up to Major Crime to meet Captain Banks, Jim assessed for threat the curious glances which were thrown their way, monitoring the whispered words of those who recognized the high-profile sentinel and guide pair in their midst.

There were still those who believed Blair guilty, Jim knew, as he cast around his senses protectively, using them to steer clear of potential trouble by drawing a net of distance and safety around them; all of it to protect Blair from accidentally overhearing something that might hurt him. For some, Blair’s public exoneration was not enough. They needed someone to blame for Emily Bullock’s murder; someone to hate for the terrible atrocity that had been committed on a child who’d had everything to live for, but whose life had been extinguished so brutally. In the absence of the real perpetrator, Blair was still the closest thing they’d got to a target.

As for Jim, he’d heard the snide comments a million times, whispered just out of normal earshot – ‘no smoke without fire’ seemed to be a commonly expressed opinion. He also knew that Blair had been confronted directly on occasion; refused service, asked to leave, shunned and sometimes even physically threatened. But that all tended to happen when Jim wasn’t with him. Here, with his sentinel at his side, Blair’s detractors kept to the sidelines, intimidated by the aggressive, knowing looks Jim cast their way, and muttering like the cowards they were behind their hands.

Blair, Jim had to admit, as they waited for the elevator to reach the ground floor so they could board it, was holding up well, despite his freak-out of the previous day and the obvious bad associations this building held for him. He was deceptively strong, Jim had discovered. Resilient, assertive and determined. Not overly large or muscled in physical stature, he’d survived prison by virtue of his wits and courage, and was now busy surviving freedom in the same way.

The elevator reached the ground floor and emptied. Jim steered Blair on board, and held the doors for a moment - then pressed the button for floor six when it became clear that the other people who’d been waiting behind them for the elevator were not willing to share the car with them.

Jim made a disgusted noise at that, as the doors closed.

“Hey, man,” Blair’s voice was soft. “Don’t let it get to you.”

Jim was not appeased. “Bastards,” he ground out angrily.

Thankfully, the elevator made it all the way up to the sixth floor without stopping, which was just as well, because Jim’s patience with bigoted fools who were afraid of sharing space with a sentinel and guide – the latter of whom was an innocent victim of that exact same bigotry - had already run out in the lobby.

As the doors opened at Major Crime, it appeared that Banks had been informed of their arrival, since he was waiting for them right outside. Jim endured the pleasantries the captain accorded them as he steered them toward an interview room, adopting like a shield his own familiar, shark-toothed persona. He was good at this; good at hiding his anger and resentment behind a professional façade.

***

Blair knew that Jim was angry and upset at the shunning they’d encountered downstairs, despite the confidence he’d affected as soon as they’d exited the elevator on the sixth floor.

Since coming out as a sentinel several months ago, Jim had been faced, on a more or less daily basis, by hostility directed his way simply because of what he was. Jim was used to dealing with conflict – as an attorney, it was part of the job. But the unreasoning, mindless distrust he was now experiencing daily, simply because of an accident of genetics, was not something he was finding easy to take in his stride.

Blair understood that feeling very well; although, in his case, he’d had almost four years, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, to come to terms with it.

Hoping to help, he laid a hand on Jim’s arm as they followed Captain Banks down the corridor. He felt the hard muscles under his hand bunch, then relax. Jim let out a small sigh, almost inaudibly letting out some of his tension. “Thanks, Chief,” he murmured; and Blair marveled once again at how amazing it was that someone like him was able to soothe the frazzled nerves and senses of such an incredibly strong individual with nothing more than his presence.

Once they were inside the door of the room he’d led them to, Banks left them alone for a moment, promising to return with coffee. And, for the first time, Blair tore his attention away from his sentinel, and peered around at their surroundings.

It was the same room; unless, perhaps, interrogation rooms – or interview rooms, as Banks had euphemistically called this one - were all identical. The table and chairs in the centre, the wall which concealed a one-way mirror, and an almost imperceptible miasma of despair.

As if he was watching a movie, an action replay of the past, Blair saw himself, sitting handcuffed, red-eyed and shaking at the table. He’d not slept for over a day, had not eaten. Blood still stained his clothes – some of it Emily’s, but most of it his. He was terrified, exhausted, wild-eyed with shock and horror.

Opposite him were the two cops who’d questioned him, their faces twisted by blind, unreasoning hatred. And beside him the attorney he’d been granted. “Mister Sandburg,” she was telling him, her impeccably made-up face betraying disgust only in the slight curl at the corners of her ruby-red lips. “I can enter you a plea of guilty right now, and this will all be over. But if you continue to insist on a plea of not guilty, I can’t help you…”

I can’t help you. And no-one had helped him. No one.

No one until Jim.

Jim’s voice overlaid the voice of the attorney who haunted his memory. “Hey, Chief? You okay?”

“Yeah.” Blair took a deep breath, still eyeing the tableau, frozen in time, before him. “Just a few ghosts, man.” He turned to look at Jim – his light, his life, his future. “Let’s get this done with, huh?”

Jim nodded, his eyes searching Blair’s questioningly. One long-fingered, manicured hand reached out, to palm Blair’s face gently, and Blair basked in the touch like a flower turning toward the sun.

Then, determinedly, Blair moved away, and toward the table. Ignoring the phantoms, he sat down - the present asserting dominion over the past. And he was aware of Jim sinking into the seat beside him – his strength, his compassion and his belief in Blair exorcising the shadowy, nightmarish figures as nothing else could.

Banks came back a few moments later, and sat down across from them to begin the interview. “Mister Sandburg,” he said. “Shall we get started?”

Blair met the captain’s eyes unflinchingly across the table. “What do you need to know?” he asked.

***

When Jim asked Banks why it was that Blair’s interview had been conducted by the Captain himself rather than the detectives who were re-investigating Emily’s murder, he was reassured by the answer. “I’m not proud of the fact,” Banks had said, “that an innocent man went to jail because of mistakes made by this department. I want to ensure that Mister Sandburg is not put through any unnecessary pain during this investigation, and the best way I can do that is to take direct responsibility for liaising with him myself.”

Banks was sincere, Jim could sense. He even seemed to have taken a liking of sorts to Blair; treating him with not just professional courtesy, but also with unmistakable kindness throughout the difficult process of Blair’s recounting. But there was an additional undercurrent to their interaction as well which, as an attorney, Jim was absolutely not oblivious to – he had no doubt that Banks was being leaned on politically from above and pressured to deliver, both with regard to the murder case itself and the sensitivity with which the police department dealt with sentinels and guides.

Jim knew full well that there had been a huge shake-up following Blair’s acquittal. Police departments across the State had been subjected to a thorough review, and heads had rolled - with dismissals, early retirements and re-assignments taking place across the board. Sensitivity training had become compulsory for all serving officers, and the police academy had revamped its curriculum to raise awareness among its cadets of sentinel and guide issues - particularly essential now that sentinel and guides could live openly as civilians (and therefore under police jurisdiction) because of the abolition of the draft. It was during this time that Banks had taken over as the Captain of Major Crime in Cascade. He was widely touted as a forward thinking, scrupulously fair-minded man, with zero sympathy for prejudice of all kinds.

Despite his outward friendliness, though, Banks was playing his cards close to his chest; and something about what he carefully didn’t mention made Jim suspect that there was more to the Emily Bullock case than they were being told. The level of manpower that had been drafted in seemed out of proportion, somehow, to a re-opened murder case four years down the line.

Sadly, his suspicions proved to be true.

***

Blair’s racing heartbeat and muttered, “Oh no,” brought Jim down the stairs and into the living room in double-quick time. His guide was staring at the T.V. screen in horror.

The body was found in the same area of the dock where, almost four years ago, Emily Bullock was murdered. Police are not confirming that there is a link with the Bullock case, but sources say that two further unsolved child murders in Seattle have a number of similarities…”

“It’s him.” Blair turned despairing eyes toward Jim. “It’s him, isn’t it?” He looked shocked and haunted.

“Chief, we don’t know that.”

Blair seemed about to retort, but both of their attentions were grabbed when they heard a familiar name. “Captain Banks,” a reporter was demanding, a microphone thrust in the police captain’s face. “You interviewed Blair Sandburg recently. Is he a suspect in this latest murder?”

We have a number of leads which are being followed up as part of the investigation,” Banks deflected firmly, his face impassive. “I can’t comment on who might or might not be regarded as a suspect at this time.”

“Goddamn it, Banks!” Jim could have strangled the guy for his politico-speak non-answer. “All you had to say was no!”

Jim continued to watch with horror, as the anchorman came back on the screen, the hollow-eyed mug shot which had been taken of Blair after his arrest displayed up in the corner of the screen. “Blair Sandburg, who concealed his guide status to avoid the draft, was acquitted during a retrial of Emily Bullock’s murder, after spending more than three years as a convicted killer in Starkville Penitentiary. The case received worldwide attention, and sparked changes in the law…” The T.V. screen went dead, the silence in its wake deafening.

Blair threw the remote onto the couch, and turned. Without a word, he headed toward the small bedroom under the stairs – his bolt hole when things got to be too much.

When Jim moved to follow, however, Blair paused in the doorway to look back, his eyes huge and dark in a pale, still face. “Leave me alone; please, man. And I need you not to listen in.” He paused, looking at Jim pleadingly. “Okay, Jim?”

It was almost too much to ask, of a sentinel whose guide was in agony. But Jim understood, despite his baser instincts – privacy was something Blair needed, a right that he was relearning after being deprived of it for so long. Wanting nothing more than to wrap him in his arms right now, to take him upstairs and bond with him until all of this was obliterated by their need for each other, Jim nodded. “Okay,” he murmured. “You gonna be all right?”

Blair smiled sadly. “Ask me later,” he said. And retreating into his haven, he closed the door between them.

***

Jim wasted no time. While Blair fought his demons in the security of the small bedroom, he got straight on the phone to the police department to contact Banks. As Blair’s attorney, he could not allow any assertions in the media – even assertions by omission – that Blair might not be innocent. They had enough shit to deal with as it was.

But Banks, damn the man, was not available. After leaving a message for the captain to call him back, Jim called his own secretary to dictate a formal letter of complaint – he would have gone into the office to do it, but he didn’t want to leave Blair alone right now. His grievance was stated clearly and concisely - he would sue, unless Banks stated publicly that Blair was in no way being treated as a suspect.

He’d nearly concluded the call when he was disturbed by a knock at the door. Extending his senses a little, he almost growled at who he found there.

It was Banks.

“Sandra,” he said to the woman on the phone, “I’ll call you back.” Terminating the connection, Jim opened the door, and went straight on the offensive. “What the hell would it have cost you, huh, to just tell that reporter that Blair is not a suspect?”

“May I come in?” Banks asked mildly, unfazed by Jim’s aggression.

With bad grace, Jim motioned him inside – he wasn’t at all happy about it, but the alternative was conducting their business out in the hall, within earshot of their neighbors; and that was definitely not an option.

Blair emerged from his room as Banks entered the apartment. “Simon,” he greeted. “Thanks for coming over, man.”

“No problem, Blair,” Banks replied, his demeanor softening.

Jim looked between them both incredulously. “What, you’re on first name terms, now?” He glared at Blair. “What the hell is this, Chief?”

Blair looked discomforted – as well he might, since he’d clearly been keeping secrets from his sentinel. “We’ve, uh, met for coffee a couple of times since I gave my statement. Simon – Captain Banks – and I have been discussing ways to help me remember more of what happened.”

Jim turned back to Banks. “I warned you. No contact with him other than through me. What part of that don’t you understand?” Jim was livid. “I’ll be filing a harassment suit, right alongside the one for defamation of character, if you don’t get the hell out of here right now, and keep the hell away from him!”

“Jim!” Blair was in his face suddenly. “Calm down, all right?” Hands, like rain on a forest fire, clutched at his arms, dousing the brightest flames of his anger with their restorative touch. Softly, Blair told him, “He’s here because I invited him.”

Well, that explained why Blair hadn’t wanted him to listen in – rather than falling to pieces behind the closed bedroom door, as Jim had assumed, he’d been calling Banks instead. “Why?”

“I suggested to Blair when we last met,” Banks answered, “that hypnosis might help him to remember. He’s our only witness, but his memory of the incident, as you know, is almost non-existent. There’s a chance that, under hypnosis, he might recall more details. He might even be able to identify Emily’s murderer.” He looked at Blair, “As well as the murderer of the two kids in Seattle, and Aaron Wright, the boy we just found.”

“It’s the same guy, then,” Blair said, a catch in his voice.

Banks nodded. “It looks like it. And, just so you know, you’re not a suspect. You were still in prison when the kids in Seattle were killed, and there is no doubt that the same person killed Aaron. No doubt at all.”

Blair nodded. “Thanks for telling me,” he said. “And I… I’ve decided. That’s why I called you over, man. The hypnosis – I’ll do it.”

Jim didn’t like where this was going. “Chief, there’s probably a good reason you don’t remember a lot of what happened. You were put through hell; probably saw things that your mind just couldn’t handle. I’m not sure that unlocking those memories is a good idea.”

Blair turned back to look at him, his expression sad, maybe a little scared. But there was a determined set to his mouth, and a reservoir of strength in his light-colored eyes that brooked no argument. “Jim,” he said. “This is not about me, man.”

And of course, he was right. Kids were dying, and the man responsible had to be stopped. Accepting defeat, Jim enveloped Blair in his arms. “Okay,” he agreed miserably.

“Just be there for me, all right?” Blair clutched him back tightly, dread obvious in the tenseness of his body.

Jim nodded against Blair’s hair, his eyes closed, hating that his guide was going to be put through yet more pain. “Always,” he promised.

***

It was a beautiful day. Since he’d moved into the nearby warehouse district, Blair enjoyed walking down here by the docks, looking at the big cargo ships and fishing boats, and seeing which far-off places they came from. It was endlessly interesting; a little slice of the world that an anthropologist like him couldn’t help but be drawn to.

Today there was a big container ship in from Russia, and among the fishing boats there was even one from Norway and another from England. He wondered what in the world had inspired them to come this far.

Names, Blair. What are they called?

Oh, right. Names, yeah, he could do that. The Russian ship was the Nekrasov, from the port of Dudinka. The Norwegian boat was Aksel, out of Narvik. There was also the Harriet from Portsmouth, the Rising Tide from Vancouver…

As Blair made note of the names, a cloud passed across the sun, the ensuing breeze and slight chill making him shiver. It was as if someone had walked across his grave. Around him, the hustle and bustle of the docks continued unabated, but Blair felt odd all of a sudden; as though he didn’t belong. His stomach was in knots, and he had a sudden urge to run. It made no sense.

You’re safe, Blair. Nothing can hurt you.

The odd feeling retreated a little as Blair continued to walk along the dock. He shook himself a little - that had been weird. But in the next instant the sun came out again, and all was fine. Glancing at his watch, Blair saw that it was time to head back – he was meeting some friends this afternoon, and if he didn’t get back to his car now, he was going to be late.

What time is it, Blair? Where are you going?

It was 12.16 pm. Man, he really needed to get moving. He was meeting the others - a bunch of people from the Anthro Society - just before 1.00 up at the Rainier campus, before heading off to see a movie with them at the community arts centre. It was Saturday, and the traffic was probably going to be heavy by now.

He turned away from the waterfront to walk down between a couple of buildings, intending to head back via a shortcut out of the docks to his car.

Which buildings?

Oh, right. The one on his right was the old Varfleet shipping offices. The one on the left was a derelict warehouse – he couldn’t make out the faded name painted on the brickwork.

Blair continued on. It was dingy down here, and trash had piled up in the corners. Cardboard boxes, crates, various debris. Stuff that was not out of place down a deserted alleyway on a busy dock.

Then Blair stopped dead, his feeling of dread returning. In the middle of his path was something that did look totally out of context – a shoe. A young woman or girl’s shoe.

Blair stood riveted, unable to tear his eyes from the dreadful object. He couldn’t do this. He wanted to be back on the dock, in the bright sunlight. Or somewhere else; anywhere else. He just couldn’t…

It’s all right, Blair. You’re not alone – you’re safe. Nothing can hurt you.

That wasn’t true. It could hurt him, Blair knew it. It could hurt him, and it would.

He heard it, then. A long, gurgling, terrified scream, coming from the open doorway on his left. With leaden steps he moved toward the sound, then stopped, frozen in his tracks.

Immobile on the threshold, unable to move into the terrifying blackness waiting within, he suddenly wanted Jim with every frightened breath, every beat of his pounding heart. But Jim wasn’t here – he didn’t belong here, in this time, with Blair.

Jim is with you, Blair. He’s right beside you, holding you, protecting you. Go through the door, Blair.

No, he couldn’t. He just couldn’t.

Go through, Blair. Go inside.

Like a puppet, jerked along by an invisible string, Blair moved in through the entrance, dread making every step an ordeal. And then he was in, and he saw it – the awful tableau that his subconscious had managed to bury for all this time.

She was still alive. Emily, his mind supplied. It was Emily, revealed in a thin stream of sunlight which descended from a high window, and illuminated her face like an angel. She turned pleading eyes toward him, pinned as she was under the man’s bulk. “Help,” she whimpered, a child’s voice. “Please, help me…”

As if in a dream, Blair heard his own voice; horrorstruck, angry and so goddamned innocent of all that was to come. “What the hell? Hey, get away from her, man!”

The man lifted his head. Blair couldn’t see him clearly – he occupied the shadows surrounding Emily, a creature of darkness. “Make me,” he said.

His voice, Blair. Tell me about his voice.

What’s to tell? Two words, two simple words. Not enough to tell if he had an accent, or if he was young, or old; not when the words were twisted into a monster’s growl by Blair’s remembered horror.

Dream-Blair moved closer – and now Blair understood that this was exactly that; a dream, a memory. His mind, too frightened to face it, had retreated a little, unable to live in the moment any longer and experience this as if it was really happening now. That separation emboldened him; made him stronger. He’d never remembered this much before, and he would survive this. He would.

You’re doing great, Blair. Tell me what happened next.

“I went closer. I wanted to pull him off her, you know? But he... he hit me with something as soon as I got close. I didn’t see it. It stung like crazy, man. My legs just… just collapsed under me. I couldn’t breathe. I think he hit me again after that, maybe knocked me over the head with something – I passed out.”

“It sounds like he had a tazer.” That was Jim – Jim was here. Thank god. Blair could have wept with relief.

“Blair,” that was the other voice, the one he’d barely noticed, but who had been there with him throughout, nevertheless. A safe voice. “I need you to go deeper again. Go deep, Blair. You’re safe, we’ve got you. But you've got to go back…”

Blair came back to himself in the warehouse. There was a weight holding him down, hands clawing at his clothes. “No…” he protested weakly.

“Shut up.” The blow which followed made him taste blood, his ears ringing.

Blair couldn’t move, limp as a rag doll as his pants were unfastened and pulled off. Squinting against the darkness, Blair tried to see where he was, what was happening. For an instant, the sunbeam which still illuminated the face of the child beside him – now gone still and slack – fell upon the face of the man who rose over him, before he dipped his head and disappeared back into shadow. A second after that, another blow robbed Blair of consciousness.

Back up, Blair. Go back to that moment when you can see him. Hold it in your mind; look at his face.

Like a movie rewinding, Blair watched as the man’s face moved back into the sunlight, then stopped; freeze frame.

Time stood still.

Look at him - see every detail.

Nondescript brown hair, cut short. A beard, close trimmed, reddish in color. Pale grey eyes, with a greenish-tint. Pale skin. A small jagged scar, under his right eye. Mid-thirties, perhaps. Lean, on the way to gaunt. Frighteningly ordinary, when by rights he should have looked like a monster.

Remember him, Blair.

Note was taken, the man's face duly committed to memory.

Now, come back to us.

Blair pulled abruptly out of the past and back into the present, letting go his held breath in a shaky rush. He turned despairing eyes toward his sentinel, who had been here with him all along; holding him, supporting him. At his other side sat Dan Wolf, the hypnotherapist they’d come to see. Behind Dan, Simon Banks stood watching, a grim expression on his face.

Jim spoke, his voice rough with emotion. “Hey, Chief?” he asked. “Do you remember what he looked like?”

Blair nodded, still seeing the man’s face, like a snapshot in his mind’s eye. He doubted that he’d ever be able to forget it again. “Yeah,” he whispered, his mouth dry. “I remember.”

“I’ll ask the artist to come in. Best to get it down right away, while it’s still fresh in your mind,” Simon said gruffly, leaning forward to pat him awkwardly on the arm. “You did good, Blair.”

Jim’s arm tightened around him, and Blair leaned into his warmth, soaking up the comfort shamelessly. And his attacker’s face, twisted by lust and bathed in sunlight, loomed bright and clear in his memory; frozen in time, like a fly in amber.

***

Blair never talked about his time in prison.

Jim knew the obvious stuff, of course. He had learned, back when he’d taken on the case, that Blair had initially been incarcerated among the general prison population. A hefty proportion of the six months he’d been there had been spent in the prison infirmary; as well as a month in Cascade General, chained to a hospital bed as he recuperated from major surgery. Upon his return to prison after that, Blair had been put in solitary confinement, and had remained there for the next three years.

It wasn’t hard to extrapolate what, exactly, had happened to him in Starkville, therefore. Not hard at all.

The worst part of it was that, when the topic came up between them, Blair tended to shrug the whole thing off, as though it was of no consequence. “I survived, man,” he would say. “That’s all that matters.” Then he’d look at Jim, his eyes full of sorrow; deflecting attention from himself, as he tended to do. “Emily didn’t. Compared to her, and those other kids, I was lucky.”

Lucky. That was not exactly the word that Jim would have used.

Blair never talked about his time in prison, but he didn’t have to. His body told the tale in the scars it bore. And there were nights he woke up screaming, reaching out in desperation from terror filled dreams, crying and begging for them to stop.

***

Despite having always being cautious and selective about his sexual partners – a necessity for a guide in hiding - Blair had always enjoyed sex, during the rare times he’d allowed himself to indulge. He loved to feel the slide of skin-on-skin, slippery with sweat and passion, along with the panting, desperate reaching for mutual nirvana. But most of all, he adored the feeling of being that close to another human being – physical and emotional intimacy were craved by guides with all that they were.

Blair liked to think that he’d always been a considerate lover, cherishing the people he’d slept with and giving them everything that he had to give. And it had been nice. Tender, gentle loving with women (and it had always been women – he’d never felt safe putting himself in such a vulnerable position with men) that he’d first grown to care about as friends – because with a stranger, the risk that his secret might be betrayed was far too great. He’d always been careful, focusing on the pleasure of his partner and holding back his own heightened responses as much as he could. And he must have been successful at doing so, because no-one he had slept with consensually had ever suspected that he was a guide.

But none of it had ever made him feel anything like he did with Jim. He’d never truly understood how powerful sexual bonding could be between a sentinel and guide, until he’d experienced it himself. And now that he had his own sentinel, he couldn’t imagine ever turning back, or ever again being satisfied with the monochrome, two-dimensional loving he’d indulged in back in the past.

Jim was a take-charge kinda guy, as he’d proved the very first time they’d bonded. He usually swept in and swamped Blair with sensation, pressing him down with the impressive strength of his body while Blair shuddered and trembled through his caresses. Jim knew exactly how to prolong his pleasure, it seemed; unerringly using his senses to interpret and manipulate Blair’s responses, and allowing his guide free rein - in the security of his sentinel’s restraining embrace - to fully experience and express the overwhelming pleasure he was driven to. And, considerate lover that he was, Blair enjoyed turning the tables, dissolving Jim’s strong frame into a boneless, keening mass in turn. A sentinel’s senses, Blair had to conclude, were every bit as much of a delicious tool to tantalize a lover with as a guide’s heightened sensuality.

It was often Jim’s voice, urging him on in the midst of almost unbearable sensation, which drove Blair to completion. As Blair writhed, groaning out his need helplessly under Jim’s merciless hands, Jim would whisper silkily in his ear: “C’mon, Chief. C’mon. Go with it. Give it to me.” And tuned to the pitch of that voice like a harp string, Blair would resonate with the deep vibrancy of it, the moment too perfect, too unendurable to prolong for even one more second without breaking.

In the aftermath, Jim always held him; safe and secure. And for all the shattering perfection of the crescendo, those quiet, tender moments were the ones that Blair truly lived for.

***

Jim smiled, his face buried in a mass of fragrant curls. Blair was boneless in his arms, utterly wiped out by their bonding. Equally sated, the sight, sounds, smells, taste and feel of his partner’s ecstasy having driven him just a moment ago to his own orgasm, Jim sighed happily. There was nowhere in the world he would he would rather be right now than here.

Blair shifted a little, obviously settling in to get comfortable for the long haul – which was utterly fine by Jim. As Jim watched, one perfectly proportioned hand lifted, to languorously scratch at Blair’s nose, hidden away under all that hair. Jim intercepted it as, task completed, it began its descent, bringing it instead to his lips for a kiss. Blair’s skin tasted of sweat and sex and Blair. A sappy grin on his face, Jim decided it was his favorite flavor.

Lacing his fingers with Blair’s, Jim studied the hand he held. Blair had nice hands, he decided. Masculine, square, deft. Blair’s skin was smooth and healthy, betraying his relative youth. Turning Blair’s hand over, Jim noted a scar he’d seen many times before, though not up close – an ugly, raised mass on the inside of his wrist. Blair didn’t usually permit this kind of scrutiny – he preferred not to bring reminders of his ordeal to their bed, and tended to shy away from letting Jim see his scars at other times. But he was drifting, half-asleep as he basked in the afterglow, so Jim took advantage. Curious as to the origins of this injury, he zoomed in his vision to look at it more closely.

It looked like a series of parallel knife wounds, Jim decided. From the direction of the cuts, self-inflicted; although too shallow to be intentionally life-threatening. The scars were jagged and uneven, as though the knife used had been fairly blunt. Jim winced, frowning. It must have hurt like hell. Why the hell would Blair have done that to himself?

Zooming in closer, Jim noted a blue pigment under the minute bits of the skin that had not been shredded by the knife. And then he got it. There was a tattoo under this mess – a crude, blue-ink tattoo. These scars were the result of an attempt to obliterate it.

Blair stirred, turning his head to look at Jim. He frowned when he saw what Jim was looking at, and pulled his hand away. “Don’t do that, man,” he said.

“What was it?” Jim persisted, his voice soft. “The tattoo?”

For a moment, he was sure that Blair wouldn’t answer. The other man moved out of Jim’s embrace and turned his back, sitting on the edge of the bed as if at any moment he would flee, and Jim felt unutterably sad that, in this matter, Blair still did not feel able to confide in him.

But Blair surprised him, as he often did. “It happened on my second day in prison,” he confessed; his voice calm, but his heart pounding double-time. “They told me it was something everybody did – and hey, I got it, man. I was an anthropologist, after all. It was a rite of passage; a mark of belonging to the tribe.” He huffed a miserable little laugh, his back hunching as he curled in on himself. “They all had tattoos. Some of them – the lifers - even tattooed their faces, you know? So I went along with it, assuming that it would help me blend in. Not that they gave me much of a choice.”

Blair fell silent, so Jim prompted, “What happened?”

Blair shrugged. “There were four of them. Three of them held me down while the other did the tattoo. When I saw what it was they were putting on me, I tried to put a stop to it, but I hadn’t got a chance. It was four on one, and I’m not exactly Mister Muscle.”

“What did it say?” Jim asked. He got up as he spoke, and moved to sit next to Blair on the edge of the bed.

“What do you think it said?” Blair said bitterly. “You know what I was convicted of, what they thought I did. They marked me, man, so everybody would know. So that everybody would think I’d…that I was…”

He choked on the words, and Jim gathered him in.

They sat like that for a while, holding each other. Eventually Blair pulled away. He turned his wrist over, and ran a finger over the bumpy scar. “I did this when I was in solitary,” he admitted. “I just… I just wanted it gone.”

“It must have hurt,” Jim noted.

Blair smiled a little ruefully. “Yeah, it did.” He covered the scar with his palm. “It’s ugly, huh?”

Jim shook his head. He reached for Blair’s arm and raised it to his mouth, touching his lips to the unsightly ridges. “Nothing about you is ugly, Chief,” he said.

Blair grinned, suddenly; proving Jim right – he was achingly beautiful when he smiled. “You’re so full of shit, Ellison!” Then, in the next moment, Jim found himself swamped by an armful of Blair as he was pushed back down onto the bed. His guide’s smiling face, perfect and full of love, loomed over him; promising payback.

Squirming happily under the warm weight pressing him down to the bed, Jim submitted without a struggle, already achingly aroused at the thought of what was to come.

But deep inside, he nursed his anger and grief at what Blair had endured. And he made himself a promise: there would be payback of another kind, just as soon as the bastard who’d hurt his guide was caught.

***

Gluttony was a sin, or so they said. The man grinned, taking another dripping bite of the half-pound Wonderburger he held, ketchup oozing out and spattering like blood on the front of his shirt. Yeah, like he cared. There were far greater sins, and he’d indulged in all of them. And he was not done with it yet.

On the T.V. screen before him, the camera lingered on the face of a young, long-haired man, as he exited the Cascade central police precinct. His expression intrigued the watcher. Surprised; perhaps wary – just like he remembered. And proud – oh the pride in that face couldn’t be denied. Even when he was afraid, that one kept it together; held himself with dignity.

It was one of the things that made him desirable, and lingered in the memory.

Taking a swig of his beer as he lay in glorious sloth on the couch, the man watched the footage on the screen avidly. The lawyer, he decided, would need to be dealt with first. He was hovering protectively over the kid, reacting with anger to the reporters that swooped in to surround the pair of them; his physical presence intimidating and words cutting. Yes, he’d need to be dealt with. The other one would be easy to subdue, just so long as his legal bulldog was elsewhere; preferably dead.

After all, he’d subdued him before. And oh, the sweet memory.

If he’d known at the time that the boy was a guide, he’d never have knocked him out before fucking him. Guides were wanton and sensual - hell, everybody knew that. Touch them just right, and they’d dance for you; making you feel like the biggest fucking stud in the world. This time, therefore, he wanted to do it properly – sliding in between those slim, muscular thighs, hearing him moan, making the boy feel things he didn’t want to feel.

Making him want it.

The man squirmed, lost in a haze of lust. Yeah, this was going to be good.

On the screen, the lawyer was hustling the guide away, a proprietary hand on the small of his back. Watching their interaction enviously, the man imagined himself in the lawyer’s place. Touching the boy possessively like that, then taking him home and greedily lapping up all that he had to give.

The man wanted it so much, he hungered for it.

An artist’s rendering appeared on the screen, and the man grinned at the likeness. It was pretty close to how he looked, he had to admit; the kid had a damned good memory. He probably should have killed him at the time, he wryly acknowledged as he drained his beer, to avoid shit like this.

He’d meant to kill him, of course; it was just bad luck that he’d been disturbed before he’d gotten the chance. But Lady Luck had turned out to be on his side after all – the boy had been blamed in his place, and the irony of that still made him laugh out loud. So despite that drawing being flashed about all over the news, he still believed that his luck would hold. He was luck personified, after all.

And what the heck – the fact that the kid was still alive meant that he’d get another shot at him; which was great, because he didn’t usually get to plow the same field twice. And remembering the sweetness of the boy’s immobile body, and imagining that same body squirming underneath him, crying out, wanting it, wanting more, wanting him

Soon, he promised himself fervently, cramming what was left of the Wonderburger into his mouth. He moved his hand down to his crotch, rubbing urgently at the desperate ache beneath his ratty sweatpants before sliding his hand inside. Oh yeah, soon. As he worked himself, a picture of the guide’s face, frozen in exquisite agony, rose up in his mind. And in the next second his body convulsed, fireworks going off behind his eyelids and his toes curling in rapture. “Yeah,” he panted as he came. “Oh, yeah!”

After wiping his soiled hand on the cushions, he reached for another beer and cracked the tab. He took a swig of it, and nodded.

It would definitely have to be soon.

***

Blair followed in Jim’s wake through the impressive house. “This is my father’s study,” Jim was telling him, indicating a door on the right, through which a massive antique desk and book-lined walls could be seen. “Whenever Stephen and I got called in there when we were kids, boy, we knew we were in trouble.”

Feeling uncomfortable and more than a little bit out of his depth at the conspicuous wealth of it all, Blair asked, “Your dad knows we’re here, right? I mean, he doesn’t mind that you brought me here?”

Jim gave him a sideways look. “Yeah, he knows. He suggested it, actually. I told him I wanted to do something nice for you, to celebrate our anniversary, and he offered us the run of this house for the weekend.”

“Oh.” Blair shrugged. “Okay.”

Jim frowned. “What’s wrong, Chief? I mean, I thought you’d enjoy it – a chance to get away, just the two of us. This place is really private and secure, and the facilities are great. There’s a swimming pool, a hot tub; hell, even a basketball court.”

“No, no! Jim, it’s really nice, man. It’s just…” Blair hesitated. “It’s just, you don’t talk much about your past, and I only met your dad once. He didn’t seem all that… thrilled that we got together. It seems strange to be here, in his space. That’s all.”

Jim looked away for a moment, a pained expression crossing his face. “It wasn’t you, Blair, that bothered him. It’s the whole sentinel thing. He spent so many years denying what I was, making me deny it, that it came as a bit of a shock to him when he found out that I’d finally bonded, and was living openly as a sentinel. I guess meeting my guide finally convinced him that things had changed for good, and that he’d just have to adjust.”

That made sense, Blair supposed, of the cold shoulder he’d gotten a few weeks ago when he’d visited Jim at the office, and encountered William Ellison for the first time. The guy had been frostily polite, and had not wasted any time in excusing himself from Blair’s company. Blair had assumed it was because of the usual stuff – he was no stranger to people being uncomfortable around him, or even downright rude on occasion. He’d gotten used to taking it in his stride, for the most part.

Jim was moving on through the spacious hallway, and Blair followed him through a couple of doors and into a big, modern kitchen. Wanting to know more – wishing for Jim to open up just a little bit about the things that, after a year, Blair still didn’t really know about him - he ventured, “So, your dad is the reason, huh, that you went underground?”

“Yeah, at first.” Jim moved over to the counter, and lifted an open bottle of white wine out of a bucket of ice. Neatly pouring it into two gleaming cut-crystal glasses, he elaborated, “Sentinels run in the family, Chief. My uncle James – my dad’s older brother – was a sentinel too. He was drafted, and he got killed overseas on active service before I was born. I guess my dad didn’t want to lose me the same way.” Jim came over, and handed a glass to Blair, before leaning back casually against the kitchen island beside them. “He told me, right from being a kid, that to remain free, I had to hide what I was.”

“So you did.” Blair took a sip of wine. It was delicious, and probably far more expensive than any he’d tasted back in the pre-Jim days. Hell, or ever.

“So I did,” Jim agreed, sniffing delicately at his own wine before sampling it. “To be honest, he didn’t give me a whole lot of choice - I spent my entire childhood being forced to hide the fact that I had heightened senses. And when I got old enough to go my own way, I carried on hiding it, and he kept on pushing me to keep it a secret. I grew up, went to law school, became an attorney; all of which he approved of. Then I started to specialize in sentinel and guide law, and he went ape.” Jim smiled ruefully. “He thought I was taking too many chances; especially when I started working for the movement to abolish the draft, and taking on high-profile cases like yours. He was convinced I would be found out and get drafted. Eventually we had a big argument, and went our separate ways. That day you bumped into him at the office was the first time we’d seen each other in years.”

“Wow.” That was more than Blair had ever heard Jim say about his father in the whole year since they’d been bonded. “I guess the sentinel gene slipped by your brother, huh?”

“Yeah, Stephen is disgustingly normal.” Jim grinned, taking the sting out of his words. “The next time he’s home from Europe, I’ll introduce you.”

“That’d be good.” Blair had spoken to Stephen briefly on the phone, on a couple of occasions that he’d called when Jim had been out. He’d seemed pretty nice.

“I guess,” Jim said, putting his glass down on the counter, “that my dad actually made my life what it is. If he hadn’t made me keep my secret from day one - and man, he was really tough on me when I slipped up – I’d never have remained free, and I wouldn’t be the man I am now.” He smiled softly at Blair. “Worst of all, I’d never have met you.”

The consequences of that didn’t bear thinking about. “Then we both owe him our thanks,” Blair said fervently. Memories – of their emotional first bonding exactly one year ago, and the nightmare that came before – rose up in him, making his voice husky with emotion. “I guess he saved both of us, man.” Lifting his glass, Blair saluted Jim’s absent father. “To our savior.”

“Our savior,” Jim murmured, lifting his glass and joining Blair in the toast.

***

Now that they were one year into their bond, things were going great; on the surface, at least. Blair had successfully completed the first semester of his law degree, and was adjusting well to freedom generally. The movement for the liberalization of sentinel and guide laws, which Jim still devoted much of his time to, had achieved a number of notable successes. Despite the fact they still had a long way to go on all fronts, there were certainly many things to be celebrated.

But a dark cloud constantly hovered over them, nevertheless. It bothered Jim more than he could say that, despite the artist’s impression of the murderer that had been circulated several months ago, Blair’s attacker – and the murderer of four children - was still on the loose.

Jim had spoken to Captain Banks about it, of course. Frequently, and in the strongest possible terms. Banks, to be fair, was doing his best. Unable to divulge actual details, he had let enough slip to reassure Jim that the case was still priority number one in his department. More to the point, Banks treated Blair with kindness and respect, which was more than most people did. Blair and Simon – as Jim’s guide persisted in calling him – continued to meet for coffee on occasion, the two of them having struck up an incongruous friendship. Jim was even beginning to like the man himself, and suspected that the feeling was mutual; but they were both far too professional to admit it.

But the lack of progress was worrying. The guy who had raped and killed four children, as well as hurting Blair so badly, was still out there. Despite the fact that there had been no further murders either in Seattle or Cascade, there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t strike again.

Sentinel that he was, it made Jim wary. He constantly monitored their surroundings, and hated to let Blair out of his sight – no matter how much that was necessary for them both to pursue their lives. It didn’t help that, since the release of the artists impression, the press had been dogging their footsteps again. There were always too many strangers on the periphery, watching their every move, and that made it hard for Jim to accurately assess levels of threat. Banks’ assurance that the psychological profile of the killer did not indicate he would be likely to target Blair, did not reassure Jim in the slightest.

That was why, on the first anniversary of both Blair’s freedom and their initial bonding, he’d brought Blair here, to his father’s house – so that they could relax far from prying eyes, secure from the amorphous sense of threat which constantly preyed on Jim’s nerves. The house was bordered by a high electric fence, and the high-tech security system was second to none.

Not that Jim planned to rely on electronic security alone. Despite intending for this to be down-time for both of them, his senses still roamed free at intervals, patrolling their surroundings, watching for anything – or anyone – that should not be there.

***

This, Blair had to concede, was sheer bliss.

A hard jet pounded aching shoulder muscles as he lounged back in the hot tub, his legs tangled with Jim’s, who was sitting across from him. The sentinel had a look of unabashed amusement on his face, as he watched Blair writhe in sensual ecstasy in the bubbling water.

“Oh, man!” Blair groaned happily, for what had to be the millionth time, his skin tingling with sensation and his muscles being pummeled into languid heaven. “Oh man, that feels so good!”

“You don’t say, Chief,” Jim put in dryly, grinning.

Blair closed his eyes and let out a long, convulsive sigh, relaxing totally into the sensation. He was vaguely aware of Jim moving, his legs disentangling from Blair’s. A moment later, a big, hard, wet body blanketed him, pressing him back even further against the jets.

“I take it back,” Blair gasped, as he felt Jim’s tongue lick his neck, and his hands get busy in other places. “That wasn’t bliss. This is bliss!”

***

The feeling of Blair in his arms, his skin still water-soft and his body profoundly relaxed after their bonding in the heat, the steam and the bubbles, was the best thing that Jim could imagine.

“It’s really good to be here, man,” Blair murmured, his voice rumbling deeply through Jim’s body. The two of them were curled up together on a king-sized bed, loosely wrapped in soft terrycloth bathrobes; the downy comforter a springy, hedonistic delight underneath them. “And… it’s good that your dad is okay with this. With us. I…” he hesitated. “I’d really like to see him again, you know? To say hi, properly. As long as doesn’t mind that.”

“He’d like to see you, too,” Jim assured him, stroking through the still-damp hairs which curled softly down the centre of Blair’s breastbone. “That day he met you – well, it was a big thing, him getting back in touch with me like that. He wasn’t in the best frame of mind when you came in. He was just startled, is all.”

“Yeah,” Blair agreed. “I understand.”

Curious – after all, Blair had been hedging around the subject for as long as he’d known him – Jim asked, “You ever going to talk about your family, Chief? I mean, you told me that you were raised by your mom, and that you’ve been looking after yourself since you were sixteen. But you’ve never said more than that.” Jim had also learned that no one had visited Blair when he was in prison, so either his mother was dead, or they were estranged.

Blair stiffened momentarily in his arms, his pulse jumping. But perhaps the all-pervading sense of safety that surrounded them after bonding loosened his tongue, despite whatever unhappy memories this line of inquiry was bringing up. “My mom was a guide,” he admitted. “I don’t know who my father is.”

Ah, so Blair’s mother was dead, then; and that explained why he’d never mentioned his father. “Was, Chief?”

There was a long pause. Then, “Is, I guess. Maybe.” Blair swallowed. “She was drafted, just after I went to Rainier. Someone must have gotten suspicious and informed on her. From what her friends told me, it was a trap – she thought the guy she was going to meet was a sentinel who needed a temporary bond, but he was an undercover army recruiter. I… we’ve had no contact since they took her away. I have no idea where she is now, or if she’s dead or alive.”

“Oh, Chief.” No wonder Blair never mentioned her – this had to be a source of enormous grief. But it begged a question. “How come no one came looking for you, after she was taken? They must have found out she had a son.”

Blair laughed. “Hey, man, Naomi was totally anti-establishment. She made sure, as soon as I was born, that there was nothing legally tying us together, so that if either of us was ever caught, the other would have a chance of staying free. Sure, if they’d ever gotten suspicious enough to bring me in for a DNA test, then they’d have known I was hers, and that I was a guide too. But she was smart and careful, and she knew people who could forge documents really, really well.” There was a note of pride in his voice. “She raised me to be independent, and encouraged me to think for myself. And she absolutely taught me everything I needed to know about how to get by as an unregistered guide. She was amazing, man.”

There was something defeatist about Blair’s persistent use of the word ‘was’, which bothered Jim deeply – it was as though Blair had already long-since accepted that his mom was dead, when she might very well still be alive. “You know,” Jim said carefully, “I could find out where she is - even military guides are entitled to legal representation. And in any case, there’s a bill coming up before Congress soon. If the new law goes through, as we expect, all former rogue sentinels and guides who have been punitively drafted will be given the option to retire on a pension. If your mom is still alive, and if her sentinel is willing to make the move too, she could be free inside a year. She’s gonna need a good lawyer to help her make the transition, as well as someone to turn to on the outside.”

It was a few moments before Jim realized that Blair was silently crying.

***

The watcher outside the gates eyed the impenetrable defenses which surrounded his quarry, and frowned. He’d have to spring the trap another day, it seemed.

At least finding more bait wouldn’t be a problem.

***

The child’s body was found two blocks from Jim’s father’s house, by a real estate agent who was showing a prospective buyer around the empty property. Needless to say, the sale was aborted before it had even begun.

Despite the initial claims of the profiler who was working with the police department, even Captain Banks understood that it was a message.

***

Jim’s first fear was that Blair would immediately be suspected, since the time of death was confirmed to coincide with the time they’d spent alone together in William Ellison’s house. “He was with me the entire time,” he told Banks forcefully, when the captain paid them a visit at the loft. “I have CCTV footage to prove it – he never set foot outside my father’s property for two days.”

“He’s not a suspect, Ellison,” Banks shot back, equally forcefully. “How many times do I need to tell you that, huh?” Then, more softly, “How’s he doing?”

“How do you think?” Ellison wiped a tired hand over his face. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Banks – this is not an indication of guilt, not in any way.” He took a deep breath and exhaled, trying to let some of his anger and fear out with it. “He feels responsible,” he finally said. “He’s already got cracked notions about Emily, as you know – he feels he should have done more, should have saved her, no matter how irrational that is. If this guy is following Blair around, taunting him with more child deaths – well, do the math. He’s not thinking all that rationally right now.”

“It seems pretty rational to me.” It was a measure of how upset Jim was, that he hadn’t heard Blair come up behind him. “I mean, it’s obvious that it’s not exactly a coincidence. Hi, Simon,” Blair added, as he moved around Jim, his hand resting lightly on Jim’s arm and soothing the sentinel’s frazzled nerves with the touch, despite his own obvious inner turmoil - which was evident in his gaunt, unshaven face and shadowed, haunted eyes.

“No, it’s not a coincidence,” Simon confirmed. “That’s the reason I’m here, Blair. The guy’s game plan has changed – it seems he may be fixated on you. I want you to consider going into a safe house.”

“No,” Blair said firmly.

Jim looked at Blair incredulously. “What do you mean, ‘no’? Chief, this guy is dangerous!”

Blair looked at him witheringly. “You think I don’t know that, man?”

Simon interrupted the furious staring contest that had suddenly resulted between sentinel and guide. “Blair, please, think about this option very carefully before you dismiss it. If this guy comes after you, and we now have good reason to believe that he might, I can’t guarantee your safety unless you are in protective custody.”

“I won’t do it.”

Furious with his guide’s intransigence, when hiding him away from danger was exactly what his primal instincts were urging him to do, Jim pleaded, “Blair, look…”

“No, you look!” Blair’s inner core – which Jim had long since discovered was comprised of thoroughly unbreakable material – came to the fore. “I spent more than three years in prison already because of this sicko. I am not about to get locked up again!” He looked at Simon. “You said it, man - protective custody. Couches, carpets and cable T.V. are a whole lot nicer than a ten-by-eight cell, I admit. But I’d still be confined – trapped. I’m not gonna do that again. Not voluntarily.”

Recognizing the futility of argument, no matter how much he disagreed with Blair’s stance, Jim turned away, defeated. He felt drained, suddenly, as well as terrified that he would screw up, that he’d miss something – just like he’d missed the fact that the killer had been in the neighborhood, and had murdered a child just a short distance away from where they’d been.

Mostly, he was desperately afraid that Blair would end up paying the price for his failure.

Blair was there in front of him suddenly, both hands palming Jim’s cheeks. “Hey, hey!” he said softly, his eyes searching Jim’s. “I know you’re doing your best to look out for me, and I know you’re totally at the end of your rope with the constant vigilance, man – don’t think for a second that I haven’t noticed you doing it. I know you’re scared something’s gonna go wrong. But we’ll get through this, I promise. All right?”

Jim was awed that their connection was so strong, that Blair had picked up his insecurity about his own shortcomings. Still, he had no excuse. “Chief, I’m your sentinel. I’m supposed to protect you. How the hell can you trust me, when I let him get so close?” He looked at Blair pleadingly. “If we go into a safe house…”

“No, I won’t do that.” Blair turned back to Banks. “Simon, there’s an alternative, right? I mean, if you’re willing to go to the expense of putting me in a safe house, then you could spare someone to keep an eye on us, right? Because Jim’s an awesome sentinel, but he’s pretty exhausted right now. He needs a break – he can’t be on duty twenty-four hours a day, no matter how much he thinks he’s supposed to be Superman.”

“I’ll assign a protective detail,” Banks agreed. “You’re our only witness, Blair. We’ll do our best to make sure you’re kept safe.”

“Good.” Blair held Jim’s eyes. “We’re gonna be fine, okay?”

“Okay,” Jim agreed tiredly.

He just wished he believed it.

***

Life resumed its usual pattern and days, then weeks, passed – uneventful, despite the constant, churning anxiety which plagued them both. Apart from the constant police presence which shadowed Blair everywhere, things quickly settled back into what passed for a normal routine, with Jim tied up again with his legal work, and Blair diligently pursuing his degree.

It was hard at first for Jim to relinquish Blair’s safety into other hands, by trusting the cops who were assigned to protect him to do it. But in the end, he was forced to concede that he had to, if they were both to continue to fulfill their responsibilities and get on with their lives.

Besides, Blair had made it very clear to Jim right from the start that he really didn’t have much of a choice.

The excruciating limbo they found themselves in made Jim hold off in his search for Blair’s mother, for the time being, at least. Blair’s emotional reaction to Jim’s offer to find her and become her advocate had convinced him that locating her was something his guide desperately needed, even if they might ultimately learn that she was dead. But on the off-chance that she was still alive, it would be far safer not to link her to Blair at the present time, considering it was quite likely that a crazed murderer was stalking him.

Frustrated at the apparent lack of progress in the case, Jim found himself spending a lot of time thinking about it himself. From what he’d learned from Banks the police investigation, not surprisingly, was centered in and around Cascade and Seattle - the two cities where the murders had occurred. The assumption was that the perpetrator had ties to both cities, perhaps through family or work. But, oddly, the artist’s impression – which was still being widely distributed in the media - had garnered no suspects, which seemed strange to Jim. If the guy had connections in both cities, then surely someone would have recognized him by now?

So, during the times Jim’s mind was not already fully occupied with his latest legal case or with monitoring their surroundings, his mind constantly returned to the questions raised by the murders. Why did no one recognize the guy in the drawing? Why were the cases so spread out, time-wise, and why Cascade and Seattle? What was the significance, if any, of the diverse locations - a warehouse, a school playground, an empty house - in which the bodies had been found?

Determined to understand, Jim kept an eye out for anything, anything at all, which might provide an answer.

When the eureka moment finally presented itself, he couldn’t believe how obvious it was.

***

Blair was in a hurry, as always. He was supposed to be at a lecture right now, but he’d gotten distracted in the library – he often tended to lose track of time when engrossed in reading something interesting.

As he dashed across the campus, not having time to wait for his ever-present police minders to catch up with him – and not really even registering that he couldn’t see them anyway - his cell phone rang. Scrabbling in the bottom of his rucksack to find it, he brought it to his ear. “Hello?”

Silence greeted him.

Assuming a bad signal, Blair was about to hang up, when a frightened child’s voice whimpered in his ear, “I want my mommy.”

The next voice was emphatically not a child. “Hello, Blair.”

Blair’s breath froze in his throat; the world falling away into nightmare as the trap closed around him.

***

Jim could have kicked himself. All these fucking weeks – all these years – and no one had seen it until now. And in the end, it had not been his tireless internet searches or personal enquiries which had revealed the nature of the beast.

It had been a simple international news round-up on CNN, which he had put on to watch in his office while he ate his lunch.

Rushing into Banks’ office without knocking, he got straight down to business. “The guy’s a sailor. He’s been doing this for at least the past five years – killing kids in ports all over the world. A kid was found raped and murdered in Liverpool, England three weeks ago – the second case there in the past three years. I got suspicious when I heard about it, because it sounded so similar to the cases here. I did some research. Rising Tide, from Vancouver, was in dock there at the time.”

Banks blinked. “Should I know that name? It sounds familiar.”

Jim nodded. “It’s one of the ships Blair mentioned seeing when he was under hypnosis – it was here in Cascade the day that Emily was murdered. According to what I found out, it was also here when Aaron and Carrie were killed, and it frequently docks in Seattle.”

“Shit.” Banks looked dumbstruck.

Jim carried on, determined to provide as much evidence as he could. “There’s more – the same thing happened in Veracruz, Mexico- three unsolved child murders in that city over a five-year period. It turns out that Rising Tide makes periodic trade runs to that port. Searching the ‘net, I found numerous reports of similar unsolved cases in different ports around the world – all of them ones that the company which owns Rising Tide has links with.”

Banks’ face had gone still. “Take a seat, Jim,” he said ominously. He picked up the phone, and pressed speed dial. “Rhonda,” he said into the phone. “Get on to the Harbor Master at Cascade Dock, stat. I need to know if the Rising Tide from Vancouver is in port right now.”

Jim’s heart skipped a beat. “Simon?” he queried.

As he put down the phone, Banks confirmed his worst fear. “We have a missing child on our hands. Seems he was abducted this morning, from a kids’ playground about two miles east of Cascade dock.”

“Oh, god.” Jim was horror struck, his mind rushing immediately to his guide. He pulled out his cell phone, and pressed speed-dial to contact Blair.

As Jim waited anxiously for Blair to pick up, the phone ringing hollowly in his ear, Banks’ desk-phone rang. “She’s there,” Banks confirmed shortly, nodding to Jim’s unspoken query. “Okay, Rhonda. Tell Rafe that I want SWAT mobilized, and every available officer ready to move in at my command. Get Dispatch to put out a general call for all units in the field to move in and establish a perimeter around the dock – no one gets in or out. Our target is the Canadian ship, the Rising Tide.” He stood, strapping on his gun. “Let’s move, Ellison!”

In Jim’s hand, Blair’s distant cell phone continued to ring, unanswered.

***

The area was unbelievably ordinary; the kind of place where Neighborhood Watch ruled the roost and women baked cookies for their kids to take to school. It reminded Blair eerily of one of the places he and Naomi had lived when he was growing up, back before the dark times had ripped them apart.

Then, unlike now, he had lived in innocence of the darkness at the heart of all things.

Don’t call the cops, the guy had said, or I’ll kill the kid. And even worse: I know where your fancy lawyer is right now – I’m watching him, pointing a gun right at him. Contact him, and he’ll be dead before the call ends.

It could have been a bluff, but Blair didn’t want to take that chance. Ultimately, he didn’t have a choice. No choice at all.

As he approached the house, moving through a nightmarish world where the laughter of children playing formed a dissonant counterpoint to the dread which consumed him, a fatalistic realization overwhelmed him. This was how it was, he knew deep in his soul. How it was meant to be, how it was supposed to end. The rest of it – the past year of love and light and healing – had never been meant to last. He’d known it, deep down, all along – ever since that moment that Emily’s pleading eyes had begged him for help, and he’d fallen short of the task.

Like ghosts, the faces of Emily and the other children who had been murdered danced around him, mocking him for his inadequacy and cowardice. And the realization that he’d lived with for the past several months almost choked him – that those other children might have lived if only he’d fought to prove his innocence right at the start, instead of languishing hopelessly in jail and hiding subsequently in Jim’s shadow, while the monster continued to run amok.

Following the directions he’d been given, his steps leaden with dread and self-recrimination, Blair moved around the house to the back door, which he found unlocked. He turned the handle and walked inside, into a bright, clean kitchen.

“Hello Blair,” the monster said amiably; a gun in one hand, and the other tangled in the hair of the terrified child who cowered at his feet.

***

Blair’s cell phone was found, abandoned, close to the parking lot behind the Rainier law faculty building - beside the bodies of the two policemen who’d been sent to guard him. Jim’s senses led him unerringly to it and them, zooming in on the distant ringing tone while its ghostly echo rang unanswered in the phone he held against his ear, his nostrils overwhelmed with the reek of blood and gunpowder.

Jim held on to the phone – the symbol of his broken lifeline with Blair – even as the first cops arrived to secure the scene.

Banks drew up a short while later, and zeroed in on the sentinel. “We secured the boat,” he said shortly. “All but four of the crew were on board. Our suspect is one of the ones missing – the ship’s cook, Justin Powers.” Simon frowned at the two phones Jim held. “What’s that?”

“Blair’s phone.” Jim looked at Banks, feeling the thunder of fear and anger rippling through him. “The bastard’s got him.”

Banks didn’t question Jim’s transgression in disturbing evidence at a crime scene. “We’ll find him,” he promised. “Powers crossed the line a long time ago, killing children in my town. Now he’s killed two of my men and kidnapped another kid, as well as Blair - who, in case you hadn’t realized it, is someone I regard as a friend. But thanks to you, we now know who he is. It ends here, Jim.”

Jim’s attention was only partly on what Captain Banks was saying. Breathing in deeply and analyzing the smells he encountered, he pointed at a vacant parking space. “Blair’s car was here,” he announced. “Powers didn’t physically take him – Blair drove off alone.”

“So where did he go, and why?” Banks prompted.

“The guy called him,” Jim deduced, looking down at the phone. Sure enough, the last call received had been at 11.31 a.m., the number withheld. “He threatened him somehow. Maybe used the kid’s safety to get his attention.” Jim moved, back toward the secluded area taped off and surrounded by a crowd of forensics personnel and cops. “He told Blair to go over there, made him look at the bodies. Convinced him that he was serious.” Jim moved back into the main parking lot, a rank yet familiar smell assailing him. He pointed at the grass verge bordering the area. “Blair threw up over there,” he indicated. “He was upset; terrified. I can still smell it.”

“Why’d Blair leave the phone by the bodies?” Banks’ matter-of-fact acceptance of what Jim was telling him was a balm to his desperation.

Jim looked at the phone in his hand. “Maybe the guy told him to,” he posited, although even as the words left his mouth he suspected otherwise.

Which left another reason.

Pressing the keypad again, Jim scrolled through the options. Instinct leading him to Blair’s text messages, he found a saved draft. He looked at Banks. “There’s an address,” he said. “Blair never sent the message – just saved it, and left it here for us to find.”

Looking grim, Banks studied the phone that Jim handed to him, then turned to bark out orders to his detectives. As they scrambled to their cars, he turned back to Jim. “Let’s roll,” he said.

***

There was a lot of stuff that Blair had never told Jim about his time in prison - things that, no matter what happened, he desperately hoped Jim would never find out. Things to do with how he’d managed to stay alive during those first few nightmare months, when the only thing he’d had of value to use in exchange for his life had been his body and his skill at giving pleasure.

He’d survived it then, and he’d survive it now.

“Man, you’re good at that.” The monster fastened his pants, and patted Blair condescendingly on the head.

Blair was kneeling at the man’s feet, hands bound cruelly tight behind his back; the foul residue in his mouth and the despair in his heart making it a gargantuan effort to maintain the deception. “I’ll do whatever you want,” Blair promised, looking up at his repulsive attacker through hooded eyes. “I’m a guide, man,” he said silkily, perpetuating the stereotype and the erroneous assumptions of this asshole for all he was worth. “I can make you feel better than you ever felt before.”

“Later,” the guy said shortly. “I’ll finish eating first, then have some nice fresh boy meat, before I get back to you.”

“No!” The threat to the child, who was currently locked in a closet blessedly out of sight of what had just occurred, horrified Blair. Mastering himself with an effort, he rubbed his cheek against the guy’s leg, the touch a sultry promise. “Why settle for that, man, when I can give you everything that you need?”

“You’re a horny little thing, ain’t you?” the monster – who was all the more horrific for being so very ordinary - laughed. “So it’s true what they say, huh? Guides just can’t get enough?”

“It’s all true,” Blair lied, his voice seductive; desperate, despite his revulsion that this time the child would not be touched, no matter what he had to do to keep it that way. “I’ll prove it, if you’ll let me.” He stayed on his knees, fervently resisting the urge to vomit. He had to put his own feelings about this to one side – the important thing was to keep the kid safe until help arrived. And it would arrive - Blair held to that hope with everything that he was.

He just hoped that Jim would never find out what he’d had to do to ensure that this sicko left the little kid alone.

Blair watched as the man sat back down at the kitchen table and crammed the half-eaten burger that was there into his mouth; and he kept a wary eye on the gun, which was just in reach of the guy’s hand. That was the biggest problem – the guy was armed and clearly more than willing to use his firearm to lethal effect, as he’d proved by his cold blooded killing of the two cops who had been guarding Blair. It was as if human life was totally meaningless to him next to his own gratification – he’d clearly stop at nothing to get his sexual kicks.

Despite the obvious danger he posed, however, Blair found it amazing how the clear light of day had revealed the demon he remembered to be little more than this incredibly nondescript man. The guy wasn’t any taller than Blair – and he was certainly no giant. He was average height, average weight, average build, with un-striking features – no wonder no one had recognized him from the drawing.

But it was impossible to ignore the fact that the nondescript package hid a truly dangerous person who made it his life’s work to rape children; as well as adults - like Blair - who he first ensured were not in a position where they could fight back. And who then discarded them like meaningless trash, once he’d finished, before moving on to the next target.

Blair took some consolation in the fact that, by maintaining this current fiction of willingness, he seemed to have thrown the guy for a considerable loop - which at least gave Blair hope that he might leave the little boy alone, and that Blair himself might come out of this alive, if not unmolested.

In terms of the latter, it was too late for that now. Too late by far.

But he would get through this, Blair told himself firmly, no matter what he had to do. He’d survived far worse in prison, from guys who could easily eat this idiot for breakfast.

***

The order had gone out for a silent approach. Officers moved in to furtively evacuate other residents from the immediate area, SWAT snipers took their positions and Banks and his team got into place to surround the building.

The address that Blair had given them was in a quiet, suburban neighborhood, the house a furnished rental property which was currently between lettings. The people living in the adjacent houses it seemed, had assumed that the man they’d seen going in and out earlier with a small child in tow had been the new tenant.

Sticking to Banks like glue until told otherwise, Jim’s eyes constantly drifted to the car parked in the driveway - Blair’s car.

As if sensing Jim’s inner turmoil, Simon put a steadying hand on Jim’s shoulder. “We’ve got a hostage negotiator on the way – he’ll be here in just a few minutes,” he murmured. “But before he arrives, I want to ask you something, Jim. You’re a sentinel. You’re uniquely placed to find out what we’re dealing with, here. I understand this is difficult for you, with Blair involved. But if you could tell me what’s going on in there, or even if Blair and the kid are still alive-“

“I’ll do it,” Jim interrupted firmly.

Simon’s face was all grim sympathy. “You might not hear anything you’d like, Jim - you know what we’re dealing with, here. I want to be sure that you understand that before you agree. You’re under no obligation to do this.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Jim had never been more certain of anything – except, perhaps, Blair’s innocence. “Just… if you could keep your hand on me, ground me. I’m not used to listening over long distances. I know you’re not a guide, but it might help…”

“I’d be honored,” Simon said, squeezing Jim’s shoulder.

Something oddly wistful in his tone made Jim look at him quizzically; but there was no time to explore it further. Closing his eyes, he allowed his awareness to drift toward the house, seeking for the rhythmic evidence of life that sentinels tended to latch on to most easily. He found it in the shape of a single heartbeat, galloping with the quickness of childhood and accompanied by frightened sobs. “The kid is somewhere in the house by himself,” he murmured to Simon. “The sound is muffled, somehow, like he’s in a small space. A closet.”

“That’s good, Jim,” he heard Simon say softly. “Go on.” The sensation of his hand on Jim’s arm was a solid, dependable presence.

Seeking again, desperately looking for the one thing he truly wanted to find, Jim latched on to the other sounds in the house, and zeroed in. Another heartbeat, well-known and beloved, racing every bit as fast as it had back in the courtroom during Blair’s retrial; and a second one, also beating out a speedy rhythm.

There were other sounds, too. Disgusting sounds.

Horrified and unable to turn away, Jim listened.

***

“That’s it, little guide. You get me good and wet.”

Please, Blair thought, trying desperately not to gag. Please, just do it. Get it over with.

Ketchup-covered fingers tangled in Blair’s hair, forcing his head to stay still despite the brutal assault on his mouth. “Yeah, just there. Just there…”

Oh god. Oh god, just let it be over, please….

“That’s it, that’s it. Get me nice and wet and hard and then…”

I can do this I can do this…

“And then I’ll go get the boy, yeah. You make me nice and hard, little guide, so I can be ready for him. Oh yeah…”

No, no, no, no! Blair froze, horrified. That was not what was supposed to happen! He was supposed to keep the guy’s interest. To keep the little boy safe, until the cops arrived.

Blair’s sudden resistance didn’t go unnoticed. The guy pulled away, and cuffed Blair smartingly, making his ear ring with the force of the impact. “What the hell did you stop for, huh?”

Blair had to keep trying – he had to. This guy couldn’t be allowed to hurt the little boy – he just couldn’t. He straightened up with an effort – the blow had made him dizzy. “You don’t need the kid, man. Not when you’ve got me.” Blair’s voice shook, hoarse with misery and disgust; which he desperately hoped the guy would mistake for lust. “I’ll make it good for you, I promise.”

“Jealous, huh?” The guy laughed, this time ruffling Blair’s hair. “I got plenty of staying power, little guide - you don’t have to worry about that. Soon as I’m done with him, I’ll get right back to you.” Fingers tightened cruelly in Blair’s hair as he was once more seized and held in place. “Now suck me, damn it!”

Having no choice but to obey, Blair opened his mouth. But even as he submitted, a stark realization crystallized within him - unless the cops got here right now, the guy would do whatever he wanted to Blair, then go after the kid anyway.

Looking up at the panting monster who towered above him - eyes closed in rapture and burger grease staining the corners of his repulsive mouth while he growled out obscenities - Blair made a decision. Rape was only possible, after all, if you had the tools for the job.

Mustering all the anger, despair and sheer determination at his disposal, seeing in this hideous creature an echo of every single asshole who had hurt him in this way, Blair inched his head forward to take the man in deep, then bit down hard.

***

Jim didn’t hesitate. Ignoring the horrified cry of “Ellison!” which burst out of Banks, he sprinted towards the house, sure of only one thing: he was going to kill Blair’s abuser. He was going to kill him not just for what he’d done today, but also for turning what should have been the best years of Blair’s life into a living nightmare.

But most of all, he was going to kill him for making Blair believe that, in this desperate situation, he had no choice but to offer himself in the place of another.

The strangled, agonized howl that filled his eardrums made him sprint even faster. He didn’t register at all, as he rounded the back of the house, that it was not Blair who made the sound.

***

Sheer, bloody-minded determination was the only thing which kept Blair’s jaws clamped shut, for endless moment after endless moment, as his mouth flooded with the foulest, most disgusting filth he could ever imagine.

He barely registered it when a flailing, ferocious blow finally unlatched him. He came to himself a few blank seconds later, vomiting violently, his stomach rebelling against the unimaginably putrid matter which threatened to choke him.

***

Bursting in the door with a recklessness borne of sheer desperation, Jim allowed himself no more than one second to take in the sight before him.

Blair, hands tied behind his back, huddled over on his knees in a retching, miserable heap, his face totally obscured by blood.

Sparing his guide no more than that single glance, Jim’s instincts screamed at him to remove the threat before providing solace. His attention latched onto the only other occupant of the room - who was currently squirming on the floor in a fetal position, an unearthly keening emitting from his throat.

In two strides, Jim was upon him. Seizing the animal by the throat, he hoisted him aloft and slammed him hard against the wall; his cold, hard need for vengeance lending him inhuman strength.

As agonized eyes lifted to his, Jim smiled; feeling absolutely no mercy in his heart. “Say goodnight, asshole,” he growled.

***

Simon Banks was not having a good day.

First of all, an innocent child had been abducted in his city, by someone who was quite probably a serial rapist and murderer of children all over the globe. Then, a little while later, two of his best uniformed officers had been murdered, and the man they were supposed to be guarding – a man with whom Simon had struck up an unlikely friendship – had been taken by that very same killer as well.

Next, Jim Ellison’s totally amateur sleuthing had cracked the mystery of the child killings, despite months of solid, dedicated police work – which was humiliating to a man in Simon’s position, to say the least. On the plus side, it had meant that they now knew who their perp was and where to find him; but that was the only good thing that had happened so far during this whole goddamned, endless, disastrous day.

In breach of regular police procedure - although in line with what he’d thought to be his better judgment (as a police captain who had been appointed by virtue of his sensitivity in such matters) - Simon had brought Jim Ellison along with him during the operation to free Blair and the abducted child from the killer’s clutches. With what he understood about sentinels and guides, he’d felt he’d been doing the right thing in giving Jim the opportunity to be right there on the scene, ready to give comfort to his guide as soon as they got him free.

But, just a moment ago, Jim Ellison had hared off without warning, in a vigilante attempt to free his guide from Powers’ clutches – a foolhardy act which could end up putting Blair, the kidnapped little boy and the whole goddamned lot of them in jeopardy.

Allowing himself no more than one second of outraged surprise to consider how much worse things could possibly get, Simon sprang to his feet to follow after; bellowing orders to his officers as he went, and motioning for two of his men to follow him.

Moving stealthily around the back of the house, weapon at the ready, Simon edged cautiously around to where the back door was swinging open. Peering warily around the doorframe he took in what he saw inside, then stepped back and holstered his weapon. “Stay back,” he ordered the two officers who were tailing him. “Don’t let anyone inside here until I tell you.” And with that, he went into the house.

The scene in the kitchen was like something out of a horror movie.

Blair was alive and conscious, though clearly hurt. He was a bloodied, disheveled mess, his eyes wild as he struggled weakly against the ropes which bound him; the floor in front of him slippery and foul with blood and vomit. Wishing nothing more than to get him some immediate aid and find the child who was, presumably, still locked up somewhere in the house, Simon nevertheless understood the urgency of dealing with Ellison first.

If he failed to do that effectively, the sentinel would likely be the next one of the pair to be sentenced to jail-time for murder.

More blood led away from Blair across the floor to where Ellison was holding a white-faced man – who Simon immediately recognized as their suspect, Justin Powers – up against the wall. The guy’s pants were down around his ankles, blood trailing down his legs to pool on the floor between his feet, and his lips were turning blue from the death grip that Ellison maintained around his neck.

Simon moved to stand just off to the side, so that he was well within Ellison’s peripheral vision. “Jim,” he tried, first. Then, more firmly, “Ellison!”

The coldest eyes Simon had ever seen turned his way. “What?” Ellison demanded, not releasing his grip one iota. The guy he held seemed to have already passed out.

“Stand down, sentinel,” Banks ordered. “I’ll take it from here.”

Ellison shook his head. “He deserves to die for what he’s done,” he asserted, his voice pitched to the utter calm of intense rage.

“Yes, he does,” Banks agreed. “But not like this.”

Ellison didn’t back down. “This is justice, Simon. Sentinel justice.”

Banks held his gaze. “You and I, Counselor,” he said. “We’re men of the law. We may often find ourselves on opposing sides of an issue but, in this, you and I stand together. This man absolutely needs to pay for what he’s done.” He moved closer, determined to make the sentinel hear him, “But this,” he said, “is not the way.”

“He raped and killed children!” Ellison’s fury and grief was obvious now. “He took away the past four years of Blair’s life.” His voice broke. “He hurt him so badly, Simon. You have no idea!”

“And he’ll be punished for all of that - you have my word.” Simon softened his voice, willing Ellison to believe him. God knew, he meant it. “Trust me, Jim. Please.”

Ellison held Simon’s gaze for an endless moment; then looked back at the man he held, intense hate and revulsion in his expression. Slowly, disgustedly, he released his grip, allowing Powers’ senseless body to slump to the floor.

As Ellison stood looking down at the unconscious man, breathing hard in reaction, Banks laid a hand on his shoulder. “Sentinel,” he said softly. “See to your guide. He needs you now.” And he watched in relief as Ellison’s vengeful meltdown was aborted, and the sentinel moved away to do exactly that.

***

All Blair could think, as Jim approached him, was, “He’ll know. Everyone will know.” He’d tried to spit it out; to expel the gory evidence of where his mouth had been and what he’d done, but there was too much blood, too much filth. It was inside him, that ugliness. It had always been inside him, ever since the very first time.

But now, it was obvious on the outside too.

In prison it had ceased to matter, once he’d gotten used to it. It was a way of life in there; part of the necessary price he paid for life and limb. After the initial emotional meltdown he’d gone through, he’d eventually gotten pragmatic about it. Accept it, or die; simple as that. Excel at it, and they might not even beat you.

But he wasn’t in prison any more and, out here, those rules did not apply. Out here, there was a name for people like him; a name which was incompatible with lover and guide and friend.

“Hey.” Jim’s voice was so gentle that Blair could hardly stand it. His hands were gentle too, as they untangled with sentinel-precision the clumsily knotted clothesline which bound Blair’s achingly numb wrists behind him; Jim continuing to talk softly as he worked. “Easy, Chief. It’s all over. Everything’s gonna be all right.”

Blair didn’t dare look at Jim’s face. Instead he kept his head down as he was freed, his mouth fixed open in a horrified, nauseated grimace, unable to make even one sound.

Things got a little blurry, after that; the painful blows to the head Blair had taken and the adrenaline rollercoaster he’d been riding lending the world a distant fuzziness which was not entirely unwelcome, under the circumstances. Maneuvered passively onto a gurney, Jim a constant, solid presence by his side, Blair only surfaced out of his odd stupor when he heard Jim speaking to Simon, as the paramedics bustled around making him ready to be transported.

“Most of it’s not his blood,” Jim was saying.

“I did wonder,” he heard Simon reply. “If that’s the case, then it’s pretty clear, from the state of both of them, what happened here.”

Mortified – although he’d honestly known that he wouldn’t be able to conceal what he’d done, as soon as he’d made the decision to fight back - Blair welcomed the blank almost-consciousness which enveloped him once again, as though it was a beloved friend.

He came to awareness once more, just a few moments later, when the gurney he was on was being wheeled out toward the ambulance. As they neared a patrol car against which several police officers were leaning, he heard one of them say to the others, “I’ve never seen anything like it, man. The guy’s dick was damn near bitten clean off!” As the gurney was wheeled past the cops, several curious faces turned to watch them go by; Blair acutely aware all the while of the telltale blood which surrounded his mouth.

His face burning in humiliation, Blair closed his eyes and turned away, wishing desperately for the sanctuary of oblivion once more. At the same moment, Jim’s fingers reflexively clenched on his arm; and Blair had no idea whether the gesture was one of support or anger.

***

When Simon Banks arrived at the hospital later, ostensibly to be on hand during the transfer of Justin Powers from the operating room (where re-attachment surgery was being attempted) to a guarded, private ward, he took a brief detour to E.R.. There, he found Jim Ellison engaged in a heated debate with a doctor.

As Simon approached, he heard Jim say, “Look, I understand what you’re saying. But this situation is totally different. He’s a guide – my guide – and I understand exactly what he needs. So either you get me someone here who understands sentinel and guide medicine, or you go get me the forms to sign. Because I am going to take him home, whether you advise it or not.”

The doctor was not happy, Simon could see. “If you insist, then I have no choice. Unless, of course, I decide to have him involuntarily committed for a psych assessment – which, believe me, Mister Ellison, I am this close to doing, given his current level of responsiveness.”

Ellison laughed shortly. “Don’t even think about trying to fight me with that one, pal. Blair’s case doesn’t come close to meeting the criteria for a civil commitment, and you and I both know it. You so much as wave an E.P form in his general direction and, speaking as Blair’s attorney, I’ll be more than happy to see both you and your employer in court.”

The doctor was holding up both hands in surrender, even before Ellison had finished speaking – the legal threat was more than enough to remove the last of his resistance. But the guy did make one final proviso. “At least get him some counseling. I’ll give you a list of recommendations along with the AMA form.”

Ellison nodded shortly. “I’ll make sure he gets whatever help he needs. No argument there.”

As the doctor moved away, Ellison turned round, and spotted Simon. “Oh, hey. Captain.” He ran a weary hand over his face. “You been there long?”

“Not long.” Simon nodded in the direction the doctor went. “He giving you some trouble?”

“They don’t want me to take Blair home.” Ellison snorted. “Idiots. Not one of them knows anything about sentinels and guides. What Blair needs now….” Ellison’s eyes went distant. “What we need – we’ve got to be together, Simon. Not to go into too much detail, but…”

“You need to bond. I understand,” Simon said.

Ellison looked at him quizzically. “How come you know so much?”

Simon shrugged, the old pain making itself felt. “My eldest brother was a guide,” he said simply. “He died on active service in Vietnam. I guess I spent most of my life asking why he was taken from us, and learning what I could about people like him.”

“Oh, god, Simon.” Ellison looked thunderstruck. “I’m so sorry.”

“It was a long time ago,” Simon deflected; firmly suppressing the familiar pain with the practicalities of the present, as was his habit. “How’s Blair doing?”

Ellison took a deep breath. “He hasn’t spoken. Not a word. He seems… lost, somewhere inside. Like he’s not really even here.” Ellison looked at Simon despairingly. “He won’t even look at me, Simon.”

“Get him ready to go home,” Simon directed. “I’ll see if I can hurry up the doctor with those forms.”

Ellison nodded. But before he turned to go, he said haltingly, “Simon… thanks. I mean it. You… you’re a good friend. To both of us.”

Simon clapped him on the shoulder, then turned away to chase down the doctor.

Nothing more needed to be said.

***

Simon took charge of the logistics of getting them out of the hospital with a self-assured competence that freed Jim to give all his attention to Blair. Throughout it all – the discharge procedures, the wheelchair ride to the exit and the trip in the car - Blair remained distant and uncommunicative, still lost in some place the two of them could not follow; making Jim feel utterly desperate to get them safely home.

Simon – who had offered to drive them home, since both their cars were still at the crime scene - dropped them off at the front of their building. After bidding farewell to Blair (who didn’t acknowledge it at all) and exhorting Jim to call should he need anything, he drove off immediately; wasting no time in leaving Jim alone to tend to his guide. His unspoken understanding that they needed to be together right now, without anyone else present, increased Jim’s already swelling respect for the man tenfold.

As Blair shuffled into the loft, dressed in a clean set of hospital scrubs, it seemed oddly incongruous to Jim, considering what he’d been through, that there were so few visible reminders of his ordeal.

Despite being knocked around by his captor, as evidenced by the swelling lump concealed under his hair, Blair’s features were largely unmarked. There were still traces of dried blood in his hair; but the rest of it had been cleaned away from his face and body by the medical staff who’d examined him earlier. At Jim’s urging he’d also brushed his teeth and rinsed out his mouth before leaving the E.R.; his movements automatic and expression distant, apart from a faint, persistent grimace as he’d spat into the stainless steel bowl that Jim had held for him.

Now they’d gotten home, Blair was still following directions like an automaton, and keeping his gaze averted from Jim. He had not spoken one word since his rescue, neither to Jim nor to anybody else. And his face remained expressionless, as though nothing that happened could touch him in any way; although that was contradicted by the desperate, lost look that periodically flickered in his eyes.

Jim recognized that haunted, hopeless expression, and Blair’s inability to articulate his shock and pain. He had seen it before – when he’d first brought Blair back here, on the day of his retrial. Back then, instinct had driven him to act immediately, when reason had demanded he wait until Blair had gotten over the shock of being freed. But instinct had won, and he’d felt compelled to bond with Blair almost as soon as the traumatized, frightened young man had gotten in the door.

Instinct was also driving him now.

Moving to stand in front of Blair, Jim put out a hand to palm his guide’s cheek, hoping to stir Blair out of the dark place, and lead him back into the light. But, just before his hand made contact, Blair grimaced as if in agony and flinched away, turning his head aside. “Don’t,” he whispered harshly, his voice cracked with pain.

Jim recoiled in shock. Blair had never once refused his touch, in all the time they’d spent together – in fact, he tended to welcome it openly, isolated and needy as he’d been for so long. Guides required tactile contact, almost more than sentinels, and Blair was no exception.

But Blair had been hurt today; perhaps more than Jim could ever know. And reason suggested that touching was something that a man hurt in the way that Blair had been hurt, emphatically did not need.

Then instinct reared its head again; and Jim dismissed reason altogether.

***

Blair felt unclean, inside and out; the taste, stench and phantom feel of teeth sinking into flesh replaying on an endless loop and consuming his senses. His constant replay of that exquisitely vile moment was frequently supplanted by the memory of other times that his mouth had been similarly put to use; although the blood he’d tasted on those occasions had always been his own.

He was aware enough to know that he was home now, in the loft; and somehow, that seemed very wrong. He was filthy and debased – he did not belong here, sullying the purity of Jim’s home and Jim’s love. So when Jim had reached out a moment ago to touch him with tenderness, Blair had rebuffed him. And in the aftermath of that, Blair closed his eyes in shame and misery, wanting nothing more than to die.

But, after an anguished pause, a persistent hand reached for his, nevertheless; and clean, cool fingers closed around his own. Passively, eyes still closed, Blair allowed himself to be led, his resistance already at its limit after uttering that one, terrible word. And besides, Blair had often found that there was sanctuary in submission; it was, after all, the way he’d survived so long.

A door opened, and Blair felt himself steered into another space – the whirr of the familiar fan clearly whispering bathroom. As his momentum stilled, the hand which led him falling away, Blair found solace once again in that familiar blank, quiet space in his mind, from where he could perceive what was happening, but where it could not touch him.

Hands were at work, divesting him of the scrub-top he was wearing in calm, efficient movements. His shoes were untied and removed, and Blair shivered as his elasticated pants were slipped down, each leg raised and lowered as they were removed completely, along with his socks, leaving him nude. The hands left him, and he heard the rustle of cloth, the slide of a zipper. The slap of bare feet across tiles heralded the splash and trickle of water. After that, Blair found himself led again, his feet lifting one after the other over the rim of the shower cubicle in familiar reflex.

He surfaced from his stupor abruptly, as the powerful spray of warm water made contact, drawing in a panicked gasp of air. Strong arms steadied him and surrounded him, pulling him backward to lean against a big, hard, equally naked body; the overwhelming sensation of wet skin-on-wet skin banishing his odd detachment altogether.

“Jim,” he gasped, frightened at the intensity of it.

“Shh,” Jim admonished, gentling Blair with his hands. “Just relax. I’ve got you.”

“I’m dirty.” Blair clutched at Jim’s forearms where they encircled his belly, feeling tears start, his control lost.

“Then I’ll get you clean,” Jim murmured. And he proceeded to do exactly that, his hands reaching for soap then moving over every inch of skin with a gentleness and a thoroughness that only a sentinel could offer to his guide.

As Jim’s hands moved across his body, cleaning and comforting in equal measure, Blair wanted to tell him, through an almost continuous stream of tears, that he was dirty on the inside, as well. But somewhere along the line - perhaps as Jim’s fingers moved on to massage shampoo into his scalp and through every single strand of hair - the healing touch of Jim’s hands seemed to have touched something deep within as well. So that, by the time Blair’s squeaky-clean hair had been thoroughly rinsed, and Jim began to tenderly wash the rivulets of tears from his face, he found he could look at last into Jim’s eyes without fear, and see himself reflected there.

And he found that what he saw really was not so broken or worthless after all.

***

Later that night, with Blair’s nude, sweet-smelling body blanketing him in their bed, Jim listened as Blair told him, for the very first time, of what he’d endured in prison. And when Blair finally slept, secure in his arms, he stayed awake late into the night, listening to his guide breathe and allowing his own silent tears to fall.

***

Savoring the bite and burning aftertaste of whisky, Simon Banks twirled the glass he held in his hand, contemplating its amber depths.

It held no answers, though. He’d learned, through bitter experience, that nothing truly did.

Two of his men gunned down in cold blood. Two fine officers – one a twenty year veteran, the other a rookie only two years out of the academy – murdered simply because they were in between a pervert and his target.

Taking another sip of the scotch – an expensive, imported Speyside malt – Simon reveled in the burn as it slid down his throat, which was tight with emotion that he would not allow himself to let loose. Two families were in mourning tonight. Gerry Bryant’s widow had not wept, her eyes instead full of a terrible, resigned understanding, as though she’d lived her life dreading, yet expecting, the moment her husband would be killed in the line of duty. She’d thanked him for telling her, and asked if he was doing okay. Jesus.

The family of Rick Springfield could not have reacted more differently. His mother had all but collapsed, overwhelmed with grief at the loss of her only son. She’d raised him alone, so her neighbor – who had been called in to help comfort the distraught woman - told Simon. Framed photographs all over the tidy, modest house had borne testament to the pride Martha Springfield had in him; snaps of the boy at various stages of childhood; college graduation photos, photos of the proud mother standing beside her incongruously young looking son in his police uniform.

Simon drained the glass, willing the lump in his throat to subside. He took off his glasses, and rubbed eyes scratchy with exhaustion and distress.

Unbidden came a memory – his own mother, equally devastated by grief. His father, stony faced and dry eyed, thanking the uniformed man who’d come to tell them that Simon’s eighteen year old brother had been killed in action, just one week after being bonded to a sentinel and deployed in Vietnam.

Aching with remembered pain, Simon reached for the bottle, and refilled his glass.

***

Jim woke alone in bed, to early morning sunlight filtering in through the high windows and the aroma of coffee. It was so like the start of any normal day, that it took a few moments for the memories to come rushing back. When they did, Jim rose, heart pounding, to look over the rail and down into the apartment.

Blair was moving around quietly in the kitchen, apparently preparing breakfast, his back to Jim and a robe cinched tightly around his slim waist. His hair was wet, as if he’d just gotten out of the shower.

Pulling on his own robe, Jim headed down the stairs. Watching Blair closely as he approached, he noted the slight tremor in his guide’s hands and the deliberate way he moved, as if he was uncomfortable in his own skin.

Playing along – if Blair needed the illusion of normality to help him cope, then that was fine by him – Jim poured himself some coffee. “Hey,” he said softly. “What are you making?”

“Scrambled eggs.” Blair’s voice was hoarse. “Be ready in ten, if you want to grab a quick shower first.”

“Okay.” Jim took a sip of coffee and, after a speculative look at Blair, who kept his back obstinately turned to Jim, took his mug and headed off toward the bathroom.

The act continued right through breakfast; Blair making an obvious effort to eat everything on his plate, and to talk of inconsequential things as though yesterday had never happened – despite the fact that he never once looked at Jim. But as he rose from the table, the empty plate he was carrying toward the sink slipped through his fingers and smashed to pieces on the floor. “Damn it!” Blair exclaimed, his hands shaking as he stood looking down, paralyzed, at the destruction. “Fuck!”

“It’s okay.” Jim wasn’t even aware of moving, only that in the next moment he had pulled Blair into a hard embrace. “It’s just a plate, Chief. It doesn’t matter.”

Blair was shaking. “It’s broken,” he said redundantly. “I broke it, Jim.” And a moment later, he was sobbing as if his world had come to an end.

Holding on tight, Jim desperately hoped that the plate was the only thing that was broken.

***

“I feel raw; like I’ve been cut open,” Blair explained later, once the storm had passed. The two of them were stretched out full-length on the couch, Blair enveloped in the comforting sanctuary of Jim’s arms. “It’s like… it’s like I’ve lanced a boil, and all this… stuff is oozing out. I mean,” he laughed, self deprecatingly, “I don’t make a habit of this, you know? I usually manage to keep it pretty much together. I’ve had to.”

Jim’s voice rumbled through the broad chest next to Blair’s ear – a comforting, soothing sound. “You have to give yourself time to heal, Chief. You went through a terrible thing yesterday, and you went through terrible stuff in prison. For a guy who has been keeping that inside for so long, you’re doing pretty good.”

Blair didn’t feel like he was, not right now, but he recognized the essential truth of what Jim was saying, nevertheless. “I’m a survivor, right? I can get through this.” Blair took a breath, and the next time he said it, he sounded even to himself as though he meant it. “I can get through this.”

“Yeah.” Blair felt himself squeezed tighter for a moment, the arms which held him so lovingly his haven from everything that might hurt him. “You can. We can.”

Since his late night confession to Jim, memories he’d tried hard to suppress kept ambushing Blair; reminding him of the depths he’d had to stoop to - in prison, as well as yesterday - to survive. But the ritualistic, thorough cleansing that Jim had subjected him to had stripped away much of his self-loathing, leaving him scrubbed clean and reborn – allowing him to pour out, under cover of darkness and safe within the protection of his sentinel – the poison he carried deep within. Despite a resulting sense of raw vulnerability and a lingering feeling of uncleanliness, Blair had to concede that it was difficult to keep on hating himself when Jim’s whole body had told him – and continued to tell him - how precious he was, and how much he was treasured.

Pulling out of Jim’s embrace to look up into his partner’s eyes, Blair was surprised to see tears silently flowing down his face. “Hey,” he said, devastated by the sadness in Jim’s expression. “What is it?”

“It’s just…” Jim put out a hand to stroke Blair’s hair. “I wish so much that you’d never been hurt, Chief. What you went through…”

“Hey,” Blair said gently. “Look on the bright side, man. No pain, no gain, right? If it had never happened, I’d never have met you.”

“We might have met through the network.” Jim was stubbornly implacable.

Blair shook his head. “I never went near the network, remember? After my mom was taken, I didn’t trust them at all. You’re the first – the only – sentinel I’ve ever bonded with. And you know what, man? I don’t regret a minute of it.” Blair shrugged. “Yeah, okay, I’d rather some of it never happened, sure – especially the part where people actually died. But no matter how awful the stuff that happened to me was, it brought us together, man. How can I ever regret that?”

“I love you so much.” Jim pulled Blair close again. “You’re the strongest man I’ve ever met, Blair.”

Holding Jim back tightly, Blair didn’t feel all that strong; not right now. But he knew that, in the meantime, there was more than enough strength in his sentinel’s muscular, gentle frame for him to share.

***

There was a well known saying about sentinels and guides: sex doesn’t lead to bonding, but bonding leads to sex. It was often said with a wink and a nudge, just out of regular earshot, whenever people saw him and Blair together and recognized them for what they were. Jim, of course, had no trouble hearing the poisonous mutters, and fought a constant inner battle with his urge to punch the worst offenders out.

There were a lot of popular myths about sentinels and guides, most of which were just that – myths. Guides were uncontrollable sex monsters, sentinels were unable to subdue their primal urges, and other stereotypical crap. It was all just one more way of keeping sentinels and guides in their place, by portraying them as less than human and no better than beasts – all the better to justify the continued violation of their civil rights.

Ironically enough, however, considering it was often recited as a slur, there was more than a sliver of truth in the old proverb about sex and bonding.

Jim had been far from a virgin when he’d first met Blair. He’d had various sexual relationships, just like any normal, red-blooded man, which had nothing at all to do with bonding. And he’d also engaged in any number of bonding sessions – most of which had led, almost invariably, to sex.

It was really not all that surprising - bonding, after all, was an intensely sensual and intimate act. More than a little primal by nature, dominance and submission played an integral role (whether or not the protagonists were turned on by that in regular sex), because the sensations were often so intense for guides that they frequently expressed a desire to be physically restrained to allow them to fully and freely participate in the experience. And restraining a guide to inflict unimaginable pleasure upon them, was a hugely tantalizing sensory concept to any sentinel.

For a sentinel, bonding involved learning a guide’s body intimately. Focusing the senses on the fine detail – the sights, sounds, smells, taste and feel of a guide in rapture. The pay off for such an intensive sensory workout, for a sentinel, was finely tuned senses and a sense of well being, which would keep them grounded and in control until the next time they needed a bonding session.

For the guide, the experience was even more profound. Craving touch as they did, most guides held back during regular sex, keeping themselves detached; unable to fully let go for fear of overwhelming their partner with their heightened responses. But in a sentinel’s embrace, there was no need to hold back. Sentinels wanted – in fact, required – guides to express themselves during the bond, without reservation. In the heat of the bond, each sentinel provided a secure place for their guide to give vent to his or her natural urges; holding them immobile with the strength of their body as the guide shuddered and cried out at being touched and cherished in such an overwhelming way.

Understandably, given what bonding entailed, it was normal for a guide to get turned on during the bond to the point of orgasm. When that happened, as it invariably did, the sentinel would usually not be far behind.

Bonding was infinitely better than regular sex, Jim had to admit. Far, far better, especially with Blair – because for them as lovers and life-partners, there was no division between the place where bonding ended and sex began. In that sense it was utterly unlike a bond of convenience, such as the emotionless encounters Jim had previously sought with other guides through the network.

Jim had worried that there would be a distance between them now, after everything Blair had been through. That Blair would feel too inhibited, too afraid, to fully submit to Jim’s caresses in the bond.

He could not have been more wrong.

Jim could hear/see/feel Blair’s rapid pulse, his blood surging; and sense the tight, rushing heat of his groin. Blair was close – so close. It was not unheard of for him to come multiple times during the bond, which was just what Jim aimed to make him do this time.

It was not as if it was all just for his guide’s benefit, after all. Jim desperately needed to do this to him, just as much as Blair needed to have it done.

“Jim… Jim,” Blair moaned, over and over, his blue eyes wide and unfocused. He was squirming deliciously, fighting but not really fighting Jim’s tight hold on his crossed wrists, as the sentinel’s other hand relentlessly explored his inner thighs, parted and held apart by the weight of Jim’s legs and lower body. “Please… please….”

Blair was a sensual feast, laid out beneath Jim like this. Desperate, needy, vulnerable. He smelled of sweat, clean skin and arousal, and the sounds he made were the only music Jim ever wanted to hear. He tasted delicious and heady; intoxicating and a little risqué, like some exotic cocktail. The soft hairs on his inner thighs tantalized Jim, drawing the sentinel’s hand inexorably toward the place where they met, the contrast of the coarser hairs against Jim’s hyper-sensitized skin delightful in the extreme.

Blair’s struggles and pleading were desperate now, and so Jim judged him ready for release. All it took was one unyielding, decisive grasp of Blair’s balls, the heel of Jim’s hand pressing firmly against his penis, and he convulsed; Jim’s mouth descending hard onto Blair’s to swallow his animalistic cries.

Afterward, Jim pressed Blair’s hips down against the bed to hold him still as he lapped up his delicious essence, his senses singing. Then he started his guide once again on the long, slow, relentless burn; his own delayed release made all the more sweet by anticipation.

***

“I think you killed me.”

Jim grinned, feeling sated, relaxed and more than a little smug. Blair hadn’t spoken for more than an hour; hadn’t even moved. “You’re welcome, Chief,” he said happily. “Any time.”

Blair chuckled weakly. “Yeah, well time is exactly what I need, man, before I’ll be fit for anything!”

They were dozing, replete and snuggled together, when the phone jarred Jim awake. “Ellison,” he muttered as he sleepily answered the call.

“Jim, it’s me.”

“Simon.” Jim was instantly awake, Blair watching him from eyes no longer heavy lidded with contentment, but hooded with wariness.

“How’s Blair doing?”

“He’s… doing okay. Much better,” Jim answered lamely.

“Look, I hate to do this,” Simon went on. “But I need to get statements from both you and Blair. Is he up to coming into the station? Or would you prefer it if I came over there?”

Jim relayed the query to Blair, who said decisively, “We’ll go to see him. Okay, Jim?”

Jim looked at him questioningly. “Why? Chief, are you sure you’re up to that?”

Blair nodded. “I’m sure. I just… I don’t want to talk to him about it here, all right? This is my safe place.”

Blair’s resolve was clear, but Jim understood it wouldn’t be a walk in the park, nevertheless. “We’ll be there in a couple of hours,” he informed Simon, before ending the call. Then he took Blair’s hand. “I’ll be with you,” he said. “I won’t leave your side for a second.”

Blair nodded. “Thanks,” he said thickly, the tears back in his voice.

Wordlessly, Jim gathered him in.

***

Justin Powers, so Simon assured them both after they’d given their statements, would be going away for a very long time.

As they sat in the police captain’s office, Blair listened impassively while Simon outlined Powers’ likely future. “It’s complex, legally,” he told them, meeting Jim’s eyes in shared understanding. “He will most certainly be tried in the State of Washington for his crimes, but there are a lot of other places wanting their pound of flesh too, including at least three other countries. The scale of what he did… well, it’s huge. One thing is for certain - he’ll never be freed. And the death penalty is a very real possibility.”

Jim hoped that the latter would not come to pass – but not out of any care for the man’s life. What he’d most like to see was the bastard being made to live in the same circumstances that Blair had been forced to live – as a convicted child molester and murderer, in among the regular prison population. But it was out of his hands, and he had to trust that justice – regular justice – would take its course. “I’m just glad,” he said to Simon, “that he’s been caught. What happens now doesn’t matter, as long as it’s over.”

“Yeah, it is. And that’s mostly down to you, Counselor,” Simon said. He grinned wryly. “You did some pretty good detective work on this case, Jim. You ever thought about becoming a cop?”

Jim grinned back, gratefully acknowledging the very real respect behind Simon’s joshing. “I think I’ll stay this side of the fence, Captain. Thanks, anyway.”

Simon rose, picking up the coffee pot to refill Jim’s mug. “Powers will be moved to prison in the next couple of days, to await trial. Right now, the guy is still in the hospital under armed guard. I’ll be happier when he’s finally under lock and key, but essentially it’s all over. A lot of people will be breathing easier tonight.”

“Is he…” Blair swallowed, his hand shaking slightly as the captain topped up his coffee. “I mean will he…”

Simon, it seemed, understood what Blair was trying to ask. “He’ll never be able to rape anyone else, Blair. Thanks to you.”

Blair ducked his head, his hair hiding his expression. But Jim could feel Blair’s contradictory emotions as if they were his own.

Allowing Blair space to pull himself together, Jim asked, “Simon, the little boy. Is he okay?”

Simon nodded. “The guy scared the hell out of him, but apart from that he was unharmed. Again, Blair,” he said turning to Jim’s guide, who lifted pained eyes to look at Banks, “that’s down to you. If you hadn’t done what you did, keeping him distracted and away from the kid – well, I doubt things would have ended so well.”

Blair, it seemed, had no answer for that. But the glance he threw Jim’s way convinced the sentinel of one thing; that finally, it was over, and Blair’s healing – and their lives together as a bonded pair - could truly begin.

***

Life resumed its normal cadence, and Blair fought with his demons just as hard as he ever had, doggedly wrestling into submission the repercussions of everything that had happened. The new semester began, and Blair went back to school, where he threw himself wholeheartedly into his studies; determined to successfully earn his place in the law firm at Jim’s side.

Jim, as always, was his rock, his light and his everything.

As time went on, and things settled down into a comfortable rhythm of work, home and bonding, Blair didn’t think life could ever get any better than this, or that Jim could possibly give him more than he already had.

He was wrong.

***

It had been a long week, but at last it was Friday evening. Hefting his heavy bag of books – and man, he’d thought his backpack had been heavy back when he’d studied anthropology, but legal textbooks were something else – Blair wasn’t really concentrating on anything, as he unlocked the loft door, other than the two days off from school ahead.

There were voices inside. Jim, it seemed, had visitors, and Blair’s heart sank just a little. He’d been hoping for a little private time, just him and his sentinel. It was still an effort, sometimes, for Blair to be around other people, especially strangers, and he lived for the quiet moments he and Jim spent together at the weekend. Their Friday evenings, in particular, tended to be sacrosanct, and he’d been looking forward to this all day.

Moving inside, he schooled his features with an effort from disappointment to forced brightness. “Hey, Jim,” he greeted, as the other man appeared before him.

The sentinel had an unfathomable expression on his face, which made Blair’s heart skip a beat. “Hey Chief,” Jim replied, pulling Blair into a tight hug.

Sinking into the embrace, Blair turned his head and glanced toward the couch, where he could see the back of two heads. Their visitors were sitting close together - two women, by the looks of it. He didn’t recognize them from this angle, but something about this whole situation was making him feel really uncomfortable. “What’s going on, man?” Blair asked nervously.

“Everything’s fine, Blair,” Jim assured him. Blair felt himself squeezed tight. “There’s someone over here who’d really like to see you.”

Blair pushed himself away, to meet Jim’s eyes. Something – a feeling, a realization – was creeping its way through him. “Jim?” he queried plaintively.

Jim just nodded, his eyes full of love. “It’s okay, Chief,” he said. “Go on.”

As if in a dream, Blair walked toward the couch. As he rounded the front of it, the two people sitting there turned to look at him. Two women, both with hair shorn military-short. One of them tall, muscular, unfamiliar.

The other…

“Oh god,” Blair said, as brown eyes, set in a still-beautiful elfin face, drank in his approach; her expression – joy, sorrow, trepidation – the mirror of his own emotions.

“Mom,” he whispered.

He never knew afterwards who moved first, or how long they stood there, wrapped in each other’s arms. He barely registered when their two sentinels – his and Naomi’s – came over to bolster them up, wrapping their guides in an encircling perimeter of safety and love.

But he would never forget the words she spoke – the first thing she said to him, after all the long, painful years of separation. “I love you, Blair,” she told him. “I’m back now. And I’m not going away, sweetie. Not ever again.”



The End



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Sentinel Justice

Date: 2007-08-13 09:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pookies-angel.livejournal.com
All I can say is wow, that was wonderful. You are truly talented. Thanks so much for sharing this story.
Bev

Re: Sentinel Justice

Date: 2007-08-14 07:53 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
From one Bev to another, thank you so much for your lovely comments! I am delighted you enjoyed the story :-)

Date: 2007-08-13 10:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] gillyp.livejournal.com
Oh honey, you've surpassed yourself. This has been a wonderful story start to finish; I've cherished every chapter and yearned for more. And that ending - totally unexpected and perfect.

Wonderful, blissful, delicious - as always. (o:

Date: 2007-08-14 07:54 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
::basks in shameless ego fondling:: ;-)

Thank you so much, Gilly. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, and that the ending worked for you. I had a lot of fun writing this story :-)

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From: [identity profile] gillyp.livejournal.com - Date: 2007-08-14 09:07 am (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2007-08-14 12:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] klgrem.livejournal.com
What a very satisfying ending. You did a fantastic job with this story. I absolutely loved every bit of it. Thanks for sharing it.

Date: 2007-08-16 09:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
I'm really glad you enjoyed it! Thanks once again for your lovely comments :-)

Date: 2007-08-14 04:52 pm (UTC)
ext_9267: (blair bubble)
From: [identity profile] aerianya.livejournal.com
Wow, just amazing. I'm so glad you write for this fandom.
Thank you.*sigh

Date: 2007-08-16 09:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thank you so much! :-)

Date: 2007-08-15 12:09 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] marizilda.livejournal.com
Hi : >
I loooooved to read, a lot good, really a lot good: >
Will Have a continuation?
Congratulations, you are great writer!

Thanks
bye
Mari : >

Date: 2007-08-16 09:40 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thanks for reading and commenting - I'm very pleased you liked it!

I have no particular plans for a continuation, but it is possible that may change :-)

Date: 2007-08-15 03:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] evilshelly.livejournal.com
This was a very enjoyable read. Thank you so much for sharing!

Date: 2007-08-16 09:41 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
You're welcome! Thanks very much for reading and commenting :-)

Really Beautiful

Date: 2007-08-18 12:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] leeesa22.livejournal.com
That was an amazing story. I enjoyed it completely. Great Work.

Leeesa

Re: Really Beautiful

Date: 2007-08-20 12:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thank you! I'm really pleased you liked it :-)

Date: 2007-08-19 07:42 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] laurie-ky.livejournal.com
I wanted to re-read this story in one go-through. Whatever changes you made were done so smoothly that I couldn't tell from the original chapters.
Sentinel Justice - getting Blair out of prison; making sure he wasn't re-charged with any of the new child murders; charging in to save Blair and wanting to just take the bad guy out. Of course, Blair pretty much saved himself because just like in canon, he thinks so fast on his feet. Blair was such a wonderful combination of vulnerable,submissive,determined and strong. The baptism scene in the shower was so symbolic and effective as a ritual for Blair, something concrete that in his self-dazed state allowed him to feel clean of the guilt(not that it was rational guilt)that he felt for the sexual abuse he suffered in prison and with the killer. And having the killer be a sailor was brilliant, it explained so much of why the crimes were sporadic in Cascade. I made a note to myself to always remember Cascade is a port town.
Very much enjoyed this story and commenting,(thanks for the special notice in the introduction, it made me smile).
Laurie

Date: 2007-08-20 12:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Mostly, I rearranged some of the earlier parts, and omitted or rewrote some of the introductory paraghraphs of each section, to make them work better in terms of the timeline. As you probably recall, when I started this, it was meant to be a single snippet, rather than a long story. Then I got drawn in, and bits of backstory got written in susbequent snippets - not necessarily in order (and often in response to some of the comments ::wink wink::). I needed to make it make sense as a continuous story, rather than a series of disconnected scenes, which leaps around time-wise. I'm still not sure I completely managed it, but I think the changes have probably helped make it a bit more coherent!

I tend to see Blair in any universe as a mixture of all those things you mention (although the submissive aspect varies, depending on the idea I am playing with at the time). Some things, however, seem to me to be universal in his character - his bravery, his emotional vulnerability, and his strength when anything he loves is threatened. I'm glad you found him believable in this :-)

Cascade the port city - oh yes, a very handy thing. I will look forward to whatever ideas that sparks in you!

Finally, I enjoyed very much writing this story, and a big part of my enjoyment was derived from the chats we had while it was being written in the comments. I like the way you think - you're very good at teasing out ideas (as well as very nicely poiting out where there might be a plot hole or a need for further clarification). Thanks so much for your enthusiastic engagement with it - as ego fondles go, it was one of the best ;-)

(no subject)

From: [identity profile] laurie-ky.livejournal.com - Date: 2007-08-21 01:32 am (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2007-08-19 11:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] doodlebugdreams.livejournal.com
any chance of a sequel love? I loved it!

Date: 2007-08-20 12:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
I don't plan to write a sequel as such, although I may play with this universe some more in the odd snippet. Really glad you like it, though! ::hugs::

Date: 2007-09-22 04:34 pm (UTC)
spikedluv: (jim&blair_collide_gilkurtis)
From: [personal profile] spikedluv
Wonderful story! I love AUs and bonding, so this hit a couple of my buttons. I love how Jim and Blair met, the idea of Jim as an attorney and Blair choosing to go to law school, and the changes in Blair as he got used to being out of prison, though it made me tear up that he felt dirty by what had been done to him and I loved how Jim cleansed him. Jim returning Naomi to Blair was a nice bonus.

Date: 2007-10-01 02:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Hey there! Sorry for the delay in replying - I only just noticed this :-)

I'm really glad you liked it! Thanks so much for the feedback :-)

Date: 2007-12-15 11:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] runriggers.livejournal.com
Can I fall down and worship at your feet? I'm writing this through a blur of tears ..... this is unbelievable ... you have such a way with words!! Such a powerful story!!!

Date: 2007-12-16 01:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Gosh, that is praise indeed. I am utterly thrilled you liked it, and that it touched you in that way. Thanks so much for your comment!

(no subject)

From: [identity profile] runriggers.livejournal.com - Date: 2007-12-16 08:53 pm (UTC) - Expand

(no subject)

From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com - Date: 2007-12-17 08:14 pm (UTC) - Expand

(no subject)

From: [identity profile] runriggers.livejournal.com - Date: 2007-12-17 10:40 pm (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2008-05-08 08:28 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kuepo.livejournal.com
Hello--
I just discovered your stories a few days ago, and they've been doing absolutely horrible things to my productivity! :) I love the way you write Jim and Blair. Your AU's are just so fabulously detailed and yet very true to character-- some of the best I've ever read. I have the biggest, sappiest grin on my face right now...thank you so much for sharing these wonderful stories!

Date: 2008-05-11 08:05 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Hello there! Thanks so much for your very kind feedback - I share your big, sappy grin! I am so pleased you've enjoyed reading my stories :-)

Date: 2008-11-16 03:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] the-legion2012.livejournal.com
this story is lovely and full of awesome. i saw it recced somewhere and i'm really glad i surfed over to read it. thanks for keeping jim/blair alive.

Date: 2008-12-13 08:55 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Hello there! Thanks so much for your lovely comment! :-)

Date: 2009-07-13 09:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] devo79.livejournal.com
I've read this before but don't think I commented.
So this is me commenting and saying that I really like this and that it's well written :)

Date: 2009-07-18 06:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thank you! That's nice to hear :-)

Date: 2009-10-23 10:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] phoenix-run.livejournal.com
I just happened to find this fic, I think through the LJ version of tsstoryfinders and I have to say this story really moved me. I loved this version of Jim who not only could use his intelligence to help Blair, as becoming the lawyer but to see the primal side when he was going to kill the pedophile. I also liked Blair as well, his vulnerability is something I hate reading about depending upon the story, but in this, that weakness was also his strength. It made the whole thing so much more believable in that Blair did what he had to, but still suffered so greatly for it.

All in all a fabulous story.

Date: 2009-10-23 11:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Hey, thanks! I'm pleased you liked it, and it's nice you told me so :-)

Date: 2010-01-05 06:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jukebox-csi.livejournal.com
That was truly wonderful! It was so moving, engaging, and I was very near to tears at the final scene reuniting mother and son. Thank you so much for sharing your amazing talent for storytelling!

Date: 2010-01-06 02:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Hey there, thanks so much for your very kind words. It is very nice to know that it moved you!

Date: 2010-01-27 10:24 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] gillianinoz.livejournal.com
Brilliant story! I love Bonding stories and you made this story chilingly realistic an believable. Wonderful Jim and Blair too!

Thanks so much for sharing. :-)

Date: 2010-01-28 07:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thank you! Nice to hear that you liked it :-)

Date: 2010-03-01 09:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] stoneygirl77.livejournal.com
This was a wonderful bonding story. I could feel the loss and pain that Blair felt through all of the horrible things he endured but then I loved the healing that came from the beautiful bond he had with Jim.

Date: 2010-03-01 01:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Hey Deb, thanks so much for your lovely comment! It's lovely to know that you enjoyed it :-)

Date: 2010-04-08 06:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] max3b1.livejournal.com
thank you, really enjoyed this one

Date: 2010-04-13 01:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Thank you! That's really nice of you to say :-)

Date: 2010-07-18 09:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] skeptic7.livejournal.com
I read this some time ago, but reread it again just now. Its a wonderful AU which explains William Ellison much more kindly than found in canon. I like Jim Ellison as a lawyer and can see him using his Sentinel abilities with his clients. Blair is a wonderful person here and its great that he is recovering from all the years of Blair bashing and hiding.

Date: 2010-07-22 07:06 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Hey there, thanks for your nice comments. I'm very pleased that you liked it :-)

Date: 2010-08-17 11:17 pm (UTC)
ext_1155: (TS - Jim Blair sometimes the slash write)
From: [identity profile] raine-wynd.livejournal.com
As one of the mods for the Sentinel Fic Finders LJ comm, I wind up reading, well...everything that's ever requested in that community so I can tag the posts properly. This is one of the stories that makes you, as an author, stand out in my head in that sea of fic. Great AU, and I really love the way you took the sentinel/guides known and bonding tropes and put a very warm, realistic spin on both.

Date: 2010-08-17 11:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
Oh wow, thank you so much for this amazing compliment. To be honest, I don't regard this story as one of my better ones, although I did get a lot out of writing it and I know from reader reactions that there are people who like it (which illustrates the fact that I am not the best judge of my own work, which is one reason I hesitate to self-rec). But I must say I am knocked out by your comment here. Thank you so much for this ♥

Date: 2011-03-28 01:22 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] duonoaikouka.livejournal.com
Oh goodness... Even after a year and a half after reading this the first time, it still hits me right in the gut. :) I am an absolute whore when it comes to "Sentinals are known" AUs, and yours always seem to stand above the piles. Your world is vivid, your characters real, and the emotional journey you take your readers on leaves them breathless.

I'm a big fan of your Blair and Jim characterizations. They're strong characters with complex emotions and yet they can still be incredibly loving. I think I have to agree with other commentators in how much I love your Blair. For all the trauma you put him through (dang, how does he survive us Blair-whumpers, eh? :D), his strong sense of justice and self shines through.

Your world-building prowess are something else, as well. A world where Sentinels and Guides are forcibly taken into military service and the world view of them that is definitely not nice made for a rich background to place this murder/mystery storyline. You held me breathless with anticipation all throughout the story with no places that I had to slog through to get to the good stuff. A very nice skill. :)

Thanks for sharing this world with us; it's an incredible addition to the "Sentinels are known" AUs out there. I'm glad I found it. :)

Date: 2011-08-27 06:01 am (UTC)
deathjunke: (Default)
From: [personal profile] deathjunke
This was magnificent!
I loved the way you tied everything together from the draft and the docking ships to the discrimination and even Naomi.

Jim now that you've introduced me to the idea, really would be one hell of a lawyer. Also I think it was really cool how you showed how Blair had changed from his time in prison (switching majors, his habit of finding security in small places even his relations with other people) it was really realistic and a great touch of character development.

I think my favorite part of this story was the new look at William Ellison. Usually he is depicted as the villainous overbearing father or just an old man trying to make ammends. It was refreshing to see him cast in the light of an unsung hero of sorts.

Thank you for sharing your story it was a pleasure to read.

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