Author’s Note: I started to write this over a year ago, not with any intention of making it into a finished story, but simply for my own amusement because I like to play with AU bonding scenarios. Somewhere along the way it developed into something more, so I impulsively signed it up for the Sentinel Big Bang. Life was manic, though, so I never finished it - instead I shelved it permanently (or so I thought). Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was messing about with stuff saved on my laptop, and unexpectedly wrote myself out of a corner. Even more unexpectedly, I managed to get the story finished. At that point I gave it to Gerri, who was owed a story from Moonridge, and I am now posting it here in the hope that it might entertain others.
Category: Slash, bonding AU. NC17
Warnings: Roll mouse across to see warning: contains references to domestic violence.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to PJChang for being an awesome cheerleader and beta! She stuck with this story from the minute we hooked up during the Big Bang, and has not stopped waving her pompoms since. Dedicated with huge thanks to Gerri, who donated to Moonridge in respect of this story. Gerri has generously waived her 30 day right to exclusivity, thereby allowing me to share this with others immediately. Some ideas in this story are gleaned with thanks from the inimitable Susan Foster and her GDP universe, as well as the wealth of similarly-themed fanfic by others. Also, I need to add a shout-out to Mab, whose fantastic story The Children of Cascade influenced some elements. Thanks to all for the inspiration.
And so, too, I speak of love: he who is held by it is held by the strongest of bonds, and yet the stress is pleasant. Moreover, he can sweetly bear all that happens to him. When one has found this bond, he looks for no other. ~ Meister Eckhart, 1260 – 1328
At the age of thirty eight, Jim Ellison suddenly developed a deep longing to be part of a bonded sentinel-guide pair. Having been a high-functioning unbonded sentinel for his entire adult life, he’d long assumed that the desire to bond had completely passed him by. Finding himself so unexpectedly on the market for an eligible guide, therefore, came as something of a surprise.
Over a period of months, desperately trying to scratch the persistent itch of awakened bond instinct, Jim hooked up with several different guides on a trial basis, all of whom similarly craved the deep, empathic connection which could only be experienced by bonded sentinels and guides. To Jim’s disappointment he found every single one of them to be unremarkable, and therefore was not inspired to make a permanent arrangement with any of them.
Blair Sandburg had been no exception.
Like many sentinels and guides in their position, Jim and Blair met through a matching service. Sandburg had been a pleasant enough guy, Jim had to admit, and definitely one of the better prospects among the guides he’d met. An intelligent, personable young man, energetic, good looking and full of easy confidence and wit, and Jim had warmed towards him considerably as their time of getting to know each other progressed. They’d hung out together, exploring a little of each others’ worlds, finding out what they had in common and what they didn’t.
Ultimately, despite the things they shared (a strong work ethic based in their respective careers, a love of basketball, an innate sense of fair play) Jim had been deterred by what he perceived as profound differences in outlook and lifestyle between them which, in his judgment, made them less than compatible as a lifelong match. An ex-military hardball and a peace-loving, neo-hippy witchdoctor punk? A workaholic police detective and a dedicated, ambitious academic? Jim just couldn’t see it working, long-term.
Those misgivings had caused Jim to keep himself a little aloof from Sandburg, despite their undeniable mutual attraction, and with some regret he’d rejected him as a serious contender to be his guide as soon as their month’s trial was up. They’d parted on good terms, having gotten along well, despite their differences. But neither of them had made any effort to keep in touch after they went their separate ways, and Jim had experienced no difficulty in putting Sandburg out of his mind before determinedly moving on.
Several months and three guides later, Jim was still searching. He’d failed to find what he was looking for, and was beginning to believe he’d never meet his one, true guide, despite a compulsive urge to keep trying. The main problem was that the guides who’d so far come forward were simply not living up to the perfect fantasy he had in his head so, feeling somewhat jaded and beginning to question whether his preferences were in any way realistic, he came to the conclusion that it was probably time to give up the hunt. He consoled himself with the knowledge that many sentinels and guides never bonded at all, and yet managed to live happy, fulfilled lives. Maybe if he ignored it, he told himself, the profound craving he felt for such a deep connection would just go away.
It was in that somewhat fatalistic state of mind that he found himself unexpectedly face-to-face with Blair Sandburg once more, in the corridor outside Homicide on the second floor of the PD. He smelled him, first – that same, tantalizing scent that he’d found so attractive about the unbonded guide months ago. Yet now the scent had changed, becoming deeper and richer, resonant of contentment. It seemed that Sandburg’s own search for a bond had come to a satisfactory end.
“Hey, Chief,” Jim greeted, as he approached. “I guess congratulations are in order?”
“Oh hey, Jim!” Sandburg reached out to shake Jim’s outstretched hand. He looked good, his skin glowing with health and eyes bright with joy. “Good to see you, man!” As their hands fell apart, Blair went on, “Yeah, I finally did it, I bonded. Can you believe it?” He chuffed a little laugh. “I’d almost given up hope, but then I met Dan and that was it: bam, holy grail time! Wild, huh? I ended up with a cop, after all.”
“I’m pleased for you,” Jim said sincerely, glad for Blair’s sake that he had found happiness. At the same time he forcefully suppressed the conflicting sensation of bitterness which unexpectedly ambushed him; a combination of envy that Sandburg had achieved what he still so desperately desired, and regret that it hadn’t worked out between the two of them all those months ago - especially since seeing him again was far more of a pleasure than Jim could have anticipated. “So,” he asked. “This guy, Dan. He works here, huh?”
“Yeah. My sentinel,” Blair paused, grinning. “Wow, I’ll never get tired of saying that. ‘My sentinel’! Isn’t it great? Anyway, my sentinel, Dan – that’s Detective Daniel Harper - he’s new here in Cascade. He transferred in from Oregon a couple of months ago, which is why we never found each other until now. He’s amazing, man. A human crime lab. Best solve record in his State before he came here.” Blair playfully punched Jim on the arm. “Hey, you were Cop of the Year, right? He’s gonna give you some competition in that area now he’s in town!” he said. “I gotta get you two together. You’ll love him.”
Actually, Jim hated him already. “I can’t wait,” he lied. Then he firmly steered the conversation away from the attributes of Mister Super Cop. “How are you gonna manage? You know, with your work at Rainier?” One of the reasons Jim hadn’t wanted to pursue a bond with Blair was the fact that they each had demanding – and entirely different – careers, which they were profoundly invested in. Jim hadn’t been able to see how they could realistically make it work without one or the other of them giving up something they loved to accommodate the other, since bonded sentinels and guides usually ended up spending most of their time together, traditionally by working in the same environment to enable them to better support each other.
“Oh man, get this!” Blair said, bouncing a little on his toes. “I put forward a proposal to do a long-term study of how sentinels, with their own distinct territorial delineations, manage to integrate into the hierarchical structure of a modern police department and guess what? It got accepted! Basically I get to follow Dan around for three years, and get paid for doing it. I’ll still be teaching part-time at Rainier as well, but you know, I’m used to putting in a lot of extra hours so that shouldn’t be a problem, and Dan is cool with that as long as I move in with him.” He gazed up at Jim, his eyes shining with happiness. “Isn’t it great how it all worked out?”
It pretty much sucked from where Jim was standing, because if things had gone differently months ago he could have been Blair’s case study instead of Dan. And worse, standing here talking to this undeniably desirable guide who was now forever lost to him, he couldn’t shake a terrifying suspicion that he’d made the biggest mistake of his life by not pursuing a deeper connection with Blair. No point in regrets, though, because they wouldn’t get him anywhere, not anymore, and certainly not with Blair. “Hey, that’s great,” was what Jim ended up saying. “I’m glad it all worked out for you, Chief. Really, I am.” And he at least had the good grace to mean it, because he truly was glad to see this likeable man so content.
“How about you?” Blair was asking him now, all wide-eyed concern. “You had any luck finding a guide yet?”
Jim shrugged, and at last a little of his disappointment made itself known. “I’m thinking about quitting,” he said. “I’m not getting anywhere. I guess, unlike you, I’m meant to be alone.”
“Oh, hey, don’t be so pessimistic!” Blair said, patting Jim on the shoulder consolingly. “You’re a really nice guy, Jim, and a fantastic sentinel. The right guide will come along, I’m sure. Probably when you least expect it.” He smiled. “Look what happened to me! It can happen to you, too. I’m sure of it. Don’t give up, man!”
Jim made a noncommittal response, not wanting to burst Blair’s bubble with any more negativity. Then, after politely agreeing to meet Blair and Dan sometime for coffee (which he had no intention of actually doing), Jim headed back up to his own department on the sixth floor, already certain that he’d be avoiding any unnecessary trips to the Homicide division for the foreseeable future.
A few days went by, during which Jim managed to successfully avoid Sandburg. He didn’t begrudge the guide his new-found happiness, but the last thing he wanted was for that happiness to be thrust right up in his face.
Rather reluctantly Jim decided to pay another visit to the Connect Center during his lunch break, where he browsed the database of available guides. The grouchy part of him, which had been to the fore since he’d bumped into Sandburg, was rather hoping there would be no one suitable, but there were in fact two guides who pinged him as possible prospects. After a moment’s hesitation he messaged both of them asking to meet up, then logged out and returned to work.
To his dismay, the first thing that he saw when he entered the bullpen was Sandburg, perched on the top of the previously vacant desk across from his own and talking animatedly to the guy seated in the chair behind it – a man who could only be Daniel Harper, Sandburg’s ‘perfect’ sentinel. Jim’s nostrils flared as he detected the distinctive scent of an intruder in his territory and, almost simultaneously, his reaction was mirrored on Harper’s face.
Sandburg’s chatter abruptly ceased – as did all other conversation in the bullpen - as the other sentinel stood to move out from behind the desk, he and Jim facing off to size each other up. They were of a height, Jim saw, and a similar build. Harper was a good eight or ten years younger than Jim, however; probably only a scant number of years older than Sandburg himself. A muscle man with a baby face, convinced of his own invulnerability, yet soft and untried in a way that Jim emphatically was not.
The impasse was broken by Sandburg, who maneuvered himself swiftly right in between the two of them. “Oh hey,” he said, clearly nervous but making an epic attempt to control it, “stand down, okay, guys? We’re all on the same side here.” He gestured between the two of them, making introductions. “Dan, this is Detective Jim Ellison. You remember, right? I told you about him. Jim, I’d like you to meet my sentinel, Detective Daniel Harper.”
“Ellison,” Harper greeted. He hadn’t thawed at all, a direct challenge in his eyes. But it was all just posturing, and Jim had no worries - this was his turf.
Jim consciously relaxed his posture just enough to show this upstart who was in control here, his lips turning up into a slow smile that was anything but friendly. “Harper,” he acknowledged sardonically. “Just visiting?”
“He’s here to stay,” another voice intruded. Jim had been so intent on the other sentinel he hadn’t heard his captain approach. “Ease off on the guard dog routine, detectives,” Captain Simon Banks continued as he moved into Jim’s line of sight, Sandburg backing meekly out of the way as he approached. “And that’s an order!”
Jim glared at Banks. “What do you mean, he’s here to stay?” he asked coldly.
“We’re a man down, Ellison,” Banks explained, non-too patiently. “Or hadn’t you noticed? It’s going to be months before Riley is fit to come back to work, assuming he ever will be fit to ride anything more than a desk. In the meantime Detective Harper is seconded to Major Crime.” He moved closer, his eyes boring into Jim’s. “Live with it, Detective!” he ordered.
But Jim was far from mollified. “Two sentinels in one department? You’re kidding me, right? That can’t work.”
“Make it work!” Banks barked. He looked pointedly at Harper, then back at Jim, clearly intending his order to be obeyed by them both. “Harper’s arrest record is almost as good as yours, Jim,” he went on. “He’s exactly the kind of detective we need in this department. Don’t give me any of that bullshit about how sentinels can’t work together – you’re men, not animals. Make an effort to behave like civilized human beings, and we’ll all get along just fine. You hear me, gentlemen?”
It was abundantly clear that Banks was not going to give an inch. “Yes sir,” Jim said obediently, just a moment before his rival echoed the promise.
But he hated it that, from now on, he and Harper would be breathing the same air.
Later that day, after a tense afternoon spent studiously ignoring Harper but all the while being hyper-aware of his presence, Jim was trying futilely to extract the candy bar that he’d paid for out of the goddamn faulty vending machine when a voice intruded. “Hey, man, you got a minute?”
Inwardly, he groaned. Sandburg was the last person he wanted to see right now – okay, actually the second last person. “Do I look like I’ve got a minute?” he demanded grouchily, not pausing in his attempts to prize the thing loose so it would fall properly into the tray.
A huge bang shook the machine then: Sandburg’s closed fist hitting it just above Jim’s head. As a result the errant candy fell immediately into Jim’s straining hand. Retrieving it gratefully he rose, and turned to look at Sandburg. The guide shrugged, grinning a little bashfully. “The one in the Anthro department at Rainier does the same thing,” he explained. “Back in the day, when I was a starving student down to my last dime, knowing just where to hit it meant the difference between eating and going hungry.”
“Riiiight,” Jim acknowledged. Then recovered his manners. “Thank you,” he added graciously.
“No problem.” Sandburg looked a little uncomfortable. “Hey,” he said, “I’m sorry about, you know, all of this. I can see that you’re feeling territorially threatened by Dan being here. For what it’s worth, I, uh, I agree with you. That the two of you in the same department is a bad idea.”
“I can handle it,” Jim declared firmly. He ripped open the wrapper and took a bite. He hated it when people assumed he couldn’t control himself, just because there was another sentinel around. He’d been unbonded for his entire life – if he hadn’t learned control by now, then he’d have no business being out in public, let alone holding down a job in law enforcement. He sure as hell could cope with one irritating asshole in his space without turning into King Kong every five minutes.
“Yeah, I know.” Blair smiled again, although he didn’t meet Jim’s eyes. “It’s, uh, it’s not you I’m worried about. It’s Dan, you know? Our bond is still so new, it’s hard for him to see me near another sentinel. So I’ve got to ask you a favor, all right? When he’s around, don’t speak to me unless you really have to. And definitely don’t touch me. If he smells your scent on me, it’ll really piss him off.”
Sandburg’s words cemented in Jim’s mind something that had happened earlier. Blair had accidentally brushed by him in the corridor, then moved on swiftly with lowered eyes and a muttered, “Excuse me,” and not long afterward Jim had heard Harper angrily berating his guide in the men’s room. “You don’t go anywhere near him, do you hear me, Blair? You’re mine. You’re fucking mine.” There had been the sound of water running, and Blair had made an unhappy noise, only to be told, “Hold still!” Jim had tuned out after that, discomforted by what he’d overheard, but grateful nevertheless for the brief respite during which Harper was out of his line of sight.
Now he focused more closely on Blair, scenting him surreptitiously, only to find that the smell of contentment which had pervaded him when they’d last bumped into each other was considerably diminished. There was a water stain on his sleeve and, if Jim focused in a little more closely, he could see that the skin on Blair’s wrist was red and abraded with the marks of rough handling, as though he’d been forcibly held in place. Concerned and a little shocked, Jim asked, “Hey, are you okay? Did he hurt you?”
“Oh man, no! No, I’m fine!” The denial was immediate and fervent. “It’s just a bonding thing, nothing to worry about. Like I said, this is new to us both, and we’re still working out the boundaries. It’s pretty difficult for a newly-bonded sentinel to see his guide around an unbonded sentinel. It’s an instinctual thing. He can’t help it.”
“Do you want me to speak to him about it?” Jim offered. “Tell him he’s got nothing to worry about?”
“Oh hey, no!” Blair said quickly. He grinned. “I mean, that’s my job, right? I’m the guide. I’m supposed to help him iron stuff like this out. It’s all part of the deal.” He shook his head. “In any case, he’d see any discussion about it as an encroachment on his territory - it’s best for you not to mention me to him at all. At least for now, until we’re more settled into the bond.”
“Whatever you say, Chief,” Jim agreed, but he didn’t feel happy about it. Harper had hurt his own guide, if he was reading the signs right, and that didn’t sit well with him; not at all. “You need my help in any way, Blair, you just ask, all right?” he was moved to say. “You and I may not have bonded, but I like to think we at least came out of our trial period as friends. If you need anything, anything at all, you come to me.”
Blair smiled again, bobbing his head. “Yeah,” he said bashfully. “You’re definitely a good friend, man. Thanks.” He cast a nervous glance over his shoulder, clearly feeling something through his bond, and Jim could sense it too – Dan was back in the building. “I better go,” he said.
Jim nodded, but didn’t answer – he didn’t want to give Harper (who he was sure would be listening in) any more ammunition to use against Blair.
But as the guide walked away, Jim had a very bad feeling about the whole thing.
Jim’s workload exploded not long after that, when an undercover case came up which kept him insanely busy and, for the most part, out of the bullpen for the next couple of weeks. The few, brief times he saw the sentinel-guide pair during that period, when he came in to attend meetings with Captain Banks and other involved parties, Sandburg and Harper were behaving like a pair of honeymooners, always in each others’ space, touching constantly, eyes only for each other.
Some people might have found it cute, but Jim thought it was over the top. If that was what the bond reduced you to, he told himself grouchily, then he was glad he still hadn’t had any luck finding a guide. It made it easier to swallow the fact that both of the guides he’d recently tried to make a connection with had turned him down before even giving him a chance to meet them face-to-face.
Wrapped up with Harper as he was whenever Jim passed through, Sandburg never once looked his way. It was as if Jim didn’t exist anymore in his world, despite their mutual profession of friendship. Jim understood that Blair and his sentinel needed space to deepen their bond, and that having another sentinel around at such an intense period in their partnership was not easy to deal with. But a bit of common courtesy wasn’t going to kill any of them, goddamn it.
It was only when he overheard some of his co-workers talking about it, that he realized Sandburg was doing the same thing to everyone else as well. “What is his problem? You know, that guide, Sandburg?” Henri Brown, a fellow Major Crime detective, was heard to say. “I’ve tried to be friendly, but the guy blanks me every time.”
His partner, Detective Rafe, agreed. “Yeah, I know, he’s been doing the same to me. Mind you,” he added. “He was friendly enough the first couple of days he was here, going on about what he does at Rainier and asking me about that art theft case we were working on. But you know what?” he lowered his voice, turning conspiratorial, “I heard that asshole, Harper, ripping him a new one. Seems Sandburg’s not supposed to talk to anyone but him. Since then, he’s kept his distance from everybody.”
That exchange left Jim worried. It was beginning to look as though Harper was exactly the kind of sentinel Jim hated – the kind he’d always vowed he’d never become himself. An asshole who boasted heightened possessiveness along with his heightened senses; a caveman in homo-sapien clothing.
What Sandburg saw in Harper, Jim had no idea. The Blair Sandburg Jim had gotten to know for that single, pleasant month they’d spent together had been a confident, self-sufficient guy, with strong opinions he wasn’t afraid to voice, and who seemed entirely unlikely to put up with possessive bullshit like this. Jim couldn’t imagine someone like him rolling over for a bully, even one to whom he was bonded.
As for Harper, Jim had been able to sense his antagonism every time they briefly crossed paths. When the other sentinel was not mooning over Blair or asserting what was looking more and more like ownership over him, he’d been glaring Jim’s way as though to warn him off. Jim had to force himself not to go over and inform Harper that, if he’d wanted to steal his guide, he’d have damn well done so months ago when he’d had the chance. But on the occasion that Blair had sought Jim out by the vending machine he’d specifically asked him not to intervene so, for his sake, Jim reluctantly continued to hold his peace.
The final straw came on the day the undercover gig ended. After a debriefing in Simon Banks’ office, Jim was on his way home when he saw Blair standing alone by Harper’s desk. He was staring off into space, an unhappy set to his mouth.
Jim couldn’t help but approach. “Hey,” he murmured. “How’re things going, Chief?”
Blair didn’t answer; he didn’t even look. But his hands tightened into fists and the muscles in his jaw bunched.
Jim tried again. “Look, I understand that you and Harper only bonded a few weeks ago, but don’t you think this, uh, not even looking at me thing is a little over the top?”
Blair didn’t say a word, although his eyes drifted to Jim’s face. The desperate pleading in them – his expression clearly imploring Jim to leave him alone - shook him to the core.
Hands raised, Jim backed away. “Okay,” he said. “I get the message. Sorry I spoke.”
A few minutes later, when Jim was back at his desk, Harper came back in the room. He walked straight over to Blair, who hadn’t moved from the spot.
Shamelessly, Jim ratcheted up his hearing to eavesdrop.
“Good boy,” Harper praised condescendingly, before turning on his tail. It seemed to Jim that this had been some kind of test – which Blair had apparently passed. Harper crooked his finger and, obediently, Blair followed him out of the bullpen, his head lowered as though he was ashamed or upset, staying in his sentinel’s shadow. They entered the elevator together, and Jim’s last sight of them was of Harper’s face glaring a clear warning back at him across the room, before the doors closed.
Vastly disturbed by the whole thing, Jim tore his attention away from the closed elevator doors and tried fruitlessly to put it out of his mind.
As he’d not had any time off in weeks, Jim took the weekend to regroup. It should have been two days of relaxation, and for the most part it was. But at regular intervals he was plagued by the memory of Harper’s overbearing behavior, coupled with the desperately unhappy expression he’d seen on Blair’s face. Those thoughts shattered his peace every time, along with the certain knowledge that that there was something very wrong indeed with the bond between Sandburg and Harper.
Jim went into work early on Monday, aiming to sit down at his desk with a mug of coffee and go through his backlog of emails before the place got busy. To his dismay the only other person in the bullpen when he arrived was Daniel Harper. Sandburg was nowhere to be seen.
Predictably, Harper glared at him the moment he walked in, so Jim decided it was past time they sorted this out. He was damned if he was going to let this idiot continue to look at him like he’d run over his dog, and he was determined to keep quiet no longer about the guy’s treatment of Blair. Jim sauntered over, therefore, studiously ignoring the waves of hostility which were aimed in his direction. “I’m going to get some coffee in the breakroom,” he announced. “How about you join me, sport? I think it’s time you and I had a talk, sentinel-to-sentinel.”
Harper looked briefly astonished, perhaps assuming that any interaction between them would be more likely to involve a fistfight than an offer of coffee, before his aggressive mask slipped back into place. “Sure,” he said shortly. “Why not?”
Jim waited until they were furnished with hot mugs. Then, after ensuring that the door was firmly closed between them and the rest of the department said, “Look, Harper. I’d be lying if I said I was pleased you were here, but we’re stuck with this situation, and we’ve gotta make the best of it. Let’s call a truce, huh? From what I hear, you’re a pretty good detective. We’re all just trying to get the job done, and that’s all I care about.” He stuck out his hand. “Let’s make a new start, huh?”
Harper looked down at Jim’s hand, making no effort to take it, then fixed his hostile stare back on Jim’s face. “Stay away from my guide,” he ordered coldly.
At that, Jim saw red. “I’ve not gone anywhere near your guide!” he said. “I’ve spoken to him two, maybe three times since you bonded, and that was only because we work in the same fucking building!” He held up his hands in exasperation. “What the hell do you want from me?”
“Truthfully?” Harper shook his head. “I want you as far away from Blair as possible.” He got up in Jim’s face. “I knew you wanted him the first minute you saw him. I know you want him now.”
Jim raised his hands and pushed Harper away. “If I wanted him, I’d have gotten him months ago, before he even knew you. But you know what? I was the one who ended it. Get a fucking grip, Harper.”
Harper, far from being mollified, demanded, “You ended what? What the hell are you talking about?”
Jim mentally kicked himself - he had assumed Blair had told Harper about their history, and he hoped he’d not just made the problem worse. “We had a month’s trial,” he admitted. “But nothing happened - we weren’t compatible, so it would never have worked. We separated, finito, end of story. No hard feelings on either side. Then he met you.” Jim was hoping that if this asshole understood Jim wasn’t a rival he might go easier on Blair, but he squirmed uncomfortably as he said the words. “He told me he knew you were the one right away. His one true sentinel. You won, sport. Fair and square. But truthfully? There was never any contest. Blair wants you, not me. He never wanted me.”
Harper, however, was stuck on a single track. “If he never wanted you, why wasn’t he the one to end it?”
“He never objected when I ended it, and we never had any contact again until he ended up here with you. What the hell more do you want?” Jim was really getting annoyed now – he liked Blair. Liked him possibly too much, considering that he’d had his chance with him and blown it, and he hated it that the sentinel he’d wound up stuck with was such a fucking tool. “If you want to know more than that you’ll have to ask him, because what he thinks is none of my goddamn business!”
“You can bet your ass I’ll ask him!” Harper retorted. “In the meantime, Ellison, you keep the hell away from him. Don’t speak to him, don’t even look at him. He’s mine.”
At that Jim got up in Harper’s face, but he kept his voice soft. “You know what, Harper?” he said. “Sandburg might be your guide, but he’s also his own man. You’d better remember that, or you’ll be in for a world of pain.”
“Are you threatening me?” Harper growled.
Jim smiled. “Threatening?” He shook his head. “No. Just a kindly word of advice, sentinel to sentinel. We got out of the dark ages a long time ago, Harper - the days when sentinels treated guides like property are long gone. Sandburg’s a modern guy. Who he chooses to talk to is up to him, not you.”
“He’s mine!” Harper insisted. “I treat my guide my way. You got a problem with that, you issue Challenge!”
Jim shrugged. “I’m not Challenging you for him,” he said, then added scathingly, glaring his disgust, “and what the hell do you think he is, anyway? A piece of meat? Welcome to the eve of the twenty first fucking century, Harper, where guides get an equal say in who they bond with. He’s not interested in me – he chose you, for some godforsaken reason. But you want to hold onto him? You want the two of you to be happy together? You need to trust him, and show him that you trust him. But if you carry on treating him like he’s nothing more than something you own, something to fight over? Then man, your bond isn’t worth the paper the contract’s written on.”
Harper went deadly silent, his face red with rage. Jim tensed, certain he’d need to defend himself against a physical attack any second now, but then Harper backed off. “You got one thing right,” he said coldly. “Blair chose me. You stay out of my face, Ellison. And stay out of my bond.”
After Harper stormed out, leaving the door swinging on its hinges behind him, Jim murmured to himself, “Well, that went well.”
Things calmed down between the two of them after that, although Jim had to admit it was largely because Sandburg didn’t show up at the PD, thus eliminating the primary trigger for Harper’s irrational jealousy. In Blair’s continued absence, however, Harper remained a belligerent asshole to all and sundry, demonstrating that his personality issues went far deeper than his bond.
Jim couldn’t help but wonder, as a week passed with no appearance by Blair, how someone as possessive as Harper was dealing with his guide retaining his career and only working at the PD when he could find the time. Harper definitely seemed to be the kind of sentinel who’d want Blair at his beck and call 24/7, regardless of what the guide himself wanted. Yet as the week neared its end and Sandburg still didn’t come in, Jim began to hope that what he’d said to Harper had registered, and that the other sentinel was finally making an effort to give him some space.
Still, despite the lessening of immediate tensions, Jim’s concern about Blair and the situation he’d found himself in continued to bother him. He liked Blair; he liked him a lot. He hated to see someone so free-spirited bonded to a controlling asshole like Harper, and he was truly worried about how Blair was coping. He knew it was none of his business, but he just couldn’t help it – the month they’d spent together had left him with extremely fond feelings about the guide, and Jim felt he truly deserved better than he’d ultimately gotten.
Another weekend came and went, and another week began with no reappearance by Blair. Jim was sufficiently concerned by his long absence to drop by Blair’s office at school, hoping to have a quiet word with him in private about how things were going. Jim had visited him there a couple of times during their month together, so he knew the way and also had some idea of the times he was most likely to be around. To his dismay, however, the office was locked up, and Blair’s nameplate had been replaced by someone else’s. Unpacked boxes seen through the glass indicated that a new occupant was in the process of moving in. Enquiries revealed that Blair had taken a sabbatical, and it was generally believed that he was planning to resign from his teaching position for good.
That was something that Jim had never envisaged – that the talented, dedicated professor would give up the career he loved, which he’d painstakingly built for himself through his own intelligence and hard work, when only a few weeks ago he was enthusing about how he’d been able to accommodate both his sentinel and his job. That it was purely at the whim of another, and not his own choice, Jim had very little doubt.
But despite all the free time Blair presumably now had to spend with his sentinel, he continued to stay away from the PD. It wasn’t even as though Harper wouldn’t have benefited from having Blair with him. Like Jim, he was busy with his own cases, and there was always the danger of sensory problems occurring in hazardous situations.
It came about shortly afterward that the two sentinels found themselves working on the same operation – a raid at a factory. While there, they were both negatively affected by a chemical spillage caused by gunfire, which set their eyes to streaming and their senses spiking all over the place. Once he’d recovered Jim had ruefully mentioned to his captain in passing how having a guide on-hand at times like this would be a big bonus, but Harper overheard and bit his head off once again. “I told you before, Ellison. My guide is none of your concern. Butt out!”
Simon Banks had seen red. Jim knew from a few isolated comments he’d made that Banks was far from oblivious to Harper’s antisocial behavior and tendency to think the world revolved around him, although so far he’d apparently allowed the guy some considerable slack, presumably because he was newly bonded. “Detective Harper, my office, one hour!” Banks now demanded, his patience clearly at an end. And with bad grace, Harper shut the hell up and headed off back to the PD in high dudgeon.
Banks had more to say to Jim after the asshole had beaten his hasty retreat. “Look, I admit that bringing Harper into the department wasn’t my smartest move. But between you and me, Jim, it wasn’t my choice.”
Jim frowned. “What do you mean?” he said.
Banks shrugged. “With Riley out on long-term sick leave, we needed someone to cover the shortfall. I asked for help, expecting to have my choice of candidates – experience in Major Crime is a feather in anyone’s cap, after all. But the Chief of Police insisted I take Harper. He’d already made himself unpopular in Homicide, even though he’d not been there more than a couple of weeks, and it turns out he’s come in with a history. Seems he’s well connected, though, and Chief Warren was adamant we give the guy a break.” He fixed Jim with his sincere gaze. “I’m sorry, Jim,” he said. “I told him that two sentinels together in the same department was a bad idea, but he wouldn’t listen.”
It was no revelation to Jim that the machinations of the higher-ups frequently ran contrary to the needs of cops on the ground like him, but what Banks had just said begged a question. “What do you mean, Harper has history?”
Banks shook his head. “It’s confidential, Jim,” he said. “I can’t tell you about anything I’ve seen in his personnel file. But,” he lowered his voice so that no one could possibly overhear, “It’s a matter of public record that he was bonded once before, and it ended badly. Just so you know.” Banks eyed him seriously. “I understand that you and Sandburg used to be friends. All I’m saying is, the kid might need a friend one of these days - Harper is bad news.” And with that, Simon turned on his heel and left.
Jim waited until later, when he was certain that Harper’s shift had ended, before he went back to the bullpen to do a little research on the good Detective Harper. It wasn’t difficult to find what he was seeking, now that Captain Banks had set him on the right track, and it was enough to fan his anxiety about Blair’s wellbeing into full flame.
Harper had, indeed, been bonded prior to Blair. According to the police report and other available documents he managed to lay his hands on, Harper’s first guide had died in an accident several months ago, his skull fractured by an impact with what the report described as a ‘blunt object’. Harper had been arrested at the scene and, after the discovery of additional injuries found on the guide’s body, had been charged with murder. The charges had been dropped after investigation, however, and subsequently Harper had put in for a transfer to Cascade, ostensibly to leave the bad memories behind.
A familiar, distinctive aroma, though now tinged with misery and stress, disturbed Jim from his reading. Blair had entered the bullpen and was walking across the room, heading straight toward Simon Banks’ office. He pulled up short at the door, however, his shoulders slumping in disappointment, when it became clear that the Captain had already left for the day.
After a brief sensory sweep to ensure that Harper was not around, Jim approached. “Hey,” he said. “I didn’t expect to see you here. Not on your own, anyway.”
Blair turned toward Jim, keeping his eyes averted, but that didn’t conceal the black eye he was sporting. “I, uh, I wanted to talk to Captain Banks,” he said tentatively. “I need to ask him to transfer Dan to another department.”
Jim gestured towards Blair’s bruised face. “What happened?” he asked.
Blair glanced at him, then looked away. “Nothing. I was just clumsy.”
“Right,” Jim said disbelievingly. “So, tell me, Chief. Dan’s previous guide. Was he ‘just clumsy’ too?”
Blair’s face had gone pale, his heart beating triple-time. “That was an accident,” he insisted faintly.
Jim reached out, his hand stirring the air just over Blair’s damaged skin. “An accident, like this?”
“Don’t,” Blair pleaded, pulling back. “If he… if he smells you on me….”
It was time for this pretence to end. “You can’t go on this way,” Jim insisted. “Blair, this is barbaric; it’s exactly the kind of thing sentinel and guide laws were brought in to stamp out. You’ve got to report him for assault.”
“I can’t.” Blair’s misery was plain, but he spoke assertively. “He’s my sentinel, Jim. This is my problem, all right? It’s my job to take care of this stuff. If… if it’s not working, it’s my fault. I just need to try harder.” He nodded, clearly having talked himself into believing the bullshit he was spewing. “That’s why I’m here, why I need Banks to split you two up. If I can get Dan away from you, give him a chance to function without another sentinel in the same territory, it’ll be okay.”
“Is that what he tells you?” Jim said, appalled. “That it’s your fault? Blair, listen to yourself. If this was a woman saying this, you’d be the first to tell her to file domestic abuse charges. Why is this situation different?”
“Well ‘A’, because I’m not a woman, and ‘B’ because this is not domestic abuse!” Suddenly Blair was livid, showing a little bit of the fire Jim recognized. “This is a sentinel-guide relationship, Jim. A bond. This stuff goes with the territory. If you ever manage to get someone to bond with you, then you’ll understand!”
That final shot was something of a low blow considering his glaring lack of success in that area, Jim felt. But when cornered it was normal for scared people to lash out, and it was clear to Jim that Blair was exactly that: frightened, cornered, and certain that there was nowhere he could turn to for help. Therefore rather than take offence, Jim tried reason. “Blair,” Jim he quietly, determined to get his point across, “don’t do this. Don’t let that asshole bully you into becoming something you’re not.”
Blair looked away, his lips set in a stubborn line, but Jim knew he was listening so he carried on. “I know you gave up your job for him. I’ve seen him humiliate you and treat you like he owns you. I know he’s forbidden you from talking to anyone apart from him, and I know he’s hurt you more than once, maybe a lot more. You deserve better than this, Chief. A lot better.”
“Jim.” Blair’s voice was quiet, patient, as though he was talking to an idiot. “Dan is my sentinel. A bond is for life; you know that. Even if we wanted a dissolution, Dan and I would be forced to take medication for the rest of our lives unless we both made new bonds. I can’t live like that, and I won’t do that to him. He was on severance drugs when we met, and the side effects made him really sick.” Blair’s voice cracked a little. “You know, it’s really none of your business, anyway,” he said. “You had your chance with me, and you threw me over without a second thought. Why are you so interested in what’s going on with me now? Are you jealous, because you don’t have a bond of your own?”
Jim almost smiled, at that. Blair would have made one hell of an interrogator – he was a master of derailing. Refusing to rise to the bait, Jim said simply, “I’m your friend, Blair. I care about you; simple as that. And you know what?” He moved closer, but didn’t touch. “I’m here for you, anytime you need me, day or night. Because if things carry on like this?” Jim caught and held Blair’s gaze, “You are gonna end up dead, just like Dan’s other guide. And I don’t want to see that happen to you.”
That, at last, seemed to break through Blair’s wounded belligerence. “Look,” Blair said, his eyes suspiciously bright. “I… I, uh. I value that you care about what happens to me more than I can say. But,” he took a deep breath. “I’ve got to try to fix this, all right? Dan and me, it’s still so new, and Dan is really messed up after what happened in Oregon. Not only that, him being here, working close to you, it’s put a lot of extra pressure on us when we’re only just starting out. And trust me, man. I know you two don’t get along, and I know this,” Blair waved his hand towards his own, bruised face, “has given you a bad impression of him. But he has a side that you haven’t seen, okay? Underneath he’s a really sweet, caring guy. He’s good to me, when he’s not hurting. If I can get Captain Banks to agree to a transfer, we can make a fresh start. Then everything will be okay.”
“I hope so,” Jim said, already certain that further attempts at reason were hopeless and that Blair was utterly in denial. “For your sake.”
“Yeah, well.” Sandburg looked awkward now. “I guess I’ll come back another time, when Simon’s here. I, uh, I’d better get back to Dan before he comes looking for me.” And with that Blair nodded farewell, and left the bullpen.
Hating every step which took the guide away from safety and closer to his abusive sentinel, Jim regretfully watched him go.
Jim didn’t know whether Blair managed to put in his transfer request to Captain Banks or not, but he turned up back in the bullpen two days later regardless, hovering silently at Harper’s shoulder, keeping himself aloof from everyone but his sentinel, just like before.
Rumor had it that Banks had asked Blair to accompany Harper on a more regular basis, because he believed that having him present might calm the volatile sentinel down. Rumors were also rife about why Blair had been absent during the past two weeks. Largely they centered around his fading black eye, and the speculation that he’d looked worse a week ago and had therefore been keeping out of sight until the bruises faded.
That possibility had occurred to Jim as well, and he didn’t like it one bit, especially as his enhanced vision had begun to involuntarily home in on Sandburg, seeking signs of injury. He found himself cataloging stiffness when the guide walked and, despite the long-sleeved shirts he wore and multiple layers which concealed his body at all times, no matter the warmth of his surroundings, he saw the unmistakable evidence of abrasions on his neck and around his wrists. The sight of it made Jim feel sick and helpless, especially when Blair caught him looking before hurriedly pulling his cuffs down to cover the evidence, and bowing his head as if in shame.
It was nothing to do with him, Jim knew. Not as a sentinel, because Blair was not his guide, and the law was very clear about the sanctity of a sentinel and guide bond. Not as a cop, because unless Blair reported Harper for abuse, any injuries he might suffer in private were outside Jim’s jurisdiction. But as a friend, as someone who cared about Blair far more than he could have imagined when they parted months ago, Jim felt that he had no choice but to make it his business.
Hoping to get some professional advice, Jim made an appointment with Rob Tansey, the sentinel-guide counselor he’d been assigned to when he’d first put himself on the Connect register. Once in and seated, he got straight to the point. “I have a friend, a guide, who is being abused by his sentinel.” He fixed Tansey with a forthright stare. “His name is Blair Sandburg, and the sentinel is Dan Harper.”
The counselor pursed his lips, steepling his fingers as he regarded Jim thoughtfully across the desk. “You and Blair spent a month together a while back, didn’t you?” he said. “But you chose not to bond.”
“Yes,” Jim confirmed shortly.
“You understand, Jim,” Tansey went on, “that I can’t discuss third parties with you, and that goes double in the case of my own former clients, like Blair and Dan. I’m here to support you personally during your transition into your own eventual bond, and that’s all.”
“This affects me personally,” Jim insisted. “I like Blair. I like him a lot. He’s in a bad situation, and he needs help.”
“Define ‘like’,” Tansey said.
“You and Blair went through a trial period, but separated by mutual agreement. Are you regretting that decision?”
“Damn right I’m regretting it! If I’d bonded with him instead of Harper, he wouldn’t be in the mess he’s in now!”
Another pause, then another question. “Tell me what you feel about Blair, Jim.”
“I told you, I like him.” Then Jim caught the therapist’s carefully guarded expression. “You think I want him for myself,” he accused, catching on.
“Do you want him?”
“If he was free, I’d be interested. As it is, it’s not an option.” Jim sighed in exasperation. “This is getting us nowhere. This has nothing to do with my feelings, and everything to do with a good man getting hurt.” He stood and leaned across the desk, forcing the counselor to look him right in the eye. “Blair is being abused,” he reiterated. “He was forced to give up a successful career that he’s spent his whole damned life building. Harper humiliates him in public, treats him like a dog. He beats him black and blue. You want me to go on?”
“Sit down, Jim,” the therapist said, not backing away one iota from Jim’s forceful gaze. A distant part of Jim admired his guts, knowing that he’d have to be plenty assertive, working with sentinels and guides as he did. After a moment, during which neither man backed down, Jim did as he was asked, his every move making it clear that he was not capitulating one little bit.
Once he was seated, Tansey said, “As I already told you, I can’t talk about the specifics of another client’s situation – to do so would break my professional code of ethics. I know you understand this, Jim, you work with confidential matters too. Everything you and I discuss in here is private, just as anything I might have discussed with Blair must remain between the two of us. I can’t even repeat to his own sentinel anything that Blair has said to me in confidence. You understand?”
“Okay, fine,” Jim said. “Talking won’t get us very far, anyway. What I need is to find a way to stop Harper from abusing Blair.”
“Jim,” Tansey said, “Dan and Blair’s right to privacy, as it pertains to their bond, is protected under equality law. There are strict penalties for violating that privacy, as I am sure you know.”
Frustrated, Jim butted in. “So what the hell do you expect me to do? I can’t watch him being hurt day after day and do nothing. Harper killed his previous guide – did you know that? He was cleared of murder, but I don’t believe lightning can’t strike twice. If this carries on, Blair will end up dead as well.”
“I can see you are serious, Jim. And believe me, I’m not taking what you are telling me lightly.”
“So, what can be done?” Jim pleaded again.
“Have you spoken to Blair about this?”
Jim nodded. “Yeah, the one time I managed to get near him. He thinks he’s to blame for Harper whaling on him, and he won’t press charges. I really wish he would because nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see that son of a bitch rotting in a jail cell.”
“Have you considered,” the therapist said, “that Blair’s situation is not what it looks like? Some sentinel-guide relationships can be physically intense, especially in the immediate post-bonding period. Blair is clearly interested in being bonded to a particular type of sentinel – he was interested in you as well, and you fit a similar profile to Sentinel Harper. You’re both physically larger than Blair, and have strong, dominant personalities. Maybe the signs you’ve seen, that you’ve interpreted as abuse, are indicative of the natural path that Blair wishes his bond to take.”
Disgusted, Jim stood. “I don’t need to listen to this.” He felt rage overtake him. “What century are we in? Yet you sit there, telling me he fucking wants it, and that effectively I’m no different from Harper.” He shook his head, utterly disgusted. “I’m out of here.”
“Jim, wait.” Tansey’s voice halted him momentarily and Jim paused, one hand on the door handle. “I hear your concerns,” Tansey said. “But I suspect they are unfounded – I think that even you would agree that you are not without bias where Blair is concerned, and I believe you may be misreading the signs because of that. Unless you are prepared to lay down Challenge for him, Blair’s bond really is none of your business.”
Utterly enraged, subduing an almost overwhelming urge to batter the therapist into a pulp, Jim strode out without a backward look.
In the days following his fruitless visit to the therapist’s office, forced to watch but not interfere with Blair’s continued subjugation by Harper, Jim found himself increasingly frustrated by the whole situation. Apart from laying down Challenge (an outdated, brutal battle for possession of a guide, thoroughly anachronistic in these modern times even if it was still protected by sentinel-guide equality legislation) there was little he could do unless Blair decided to press charges, and that certainly didn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.
Until fate took a turn, and in a moment of sheer impulse Jim found himself compelled to act in a way which went against everything he believed in.
It happened right in the centre of the bullpen. Jim was on his way to a meeting in Captain Banks’ office when Harper’s angry shout reached his ears: “You goddamn idiot!”
Jim turned, just in time to see Blair flinch. In the next moment Harper’s raised fist struck him on the side of the head, knocking him heavily to the floor.
Before he even was aware he’d moved, Jim had interposed himself between and gotten right up in Harper’s face. “That’s enough,” he snarled.
Harper snarled right back. “Get out of my way, Ellison. This is none of your business.”
“I’m making it my business,” Jim insisted. Glancing behind him, where Blair was still cowering on the floor, he asked, “Chief? You okay?”
Blair looked and sounded utterly defeated, this latest and most public humiliation being, so it seemed, the final straw. “I want a dissolution,” he declared, his voice harsh with misery, but not without a hint of steely determination, which Jim loved him for in that moment. He was clearly battered but, despite Harper’s best efforts, not broken. “It’s over, Dan. I’m sorry. I don’t want to be your guide anymore.”
“Over? The hell it is,” Harper growled. He made a move towards Blair but Jim easily blocked him. Ignoring his restraining hand Harper ordered, “On your feet, guide. We’re going to settle this at home.”
Captain Banks, who’d come out of his office after hearing the commotion, strode over. “You’re on the clock, Harper,” he said coldly. “You’re not going anywhere.” His voice took on a gentler tone when he addressed Blair. “You want to press charges, kid?” He indicated the cops and support staff standing round in the bullpen, all of them watching in shocked silence. “You got plenty of credible witnesses on your side.”
Blair levered himself painfully to his feet, keeping his eyes on Banks and not looking at Harper. “Yeah, I do,” he said quietly.
Jim smiled at Harper in cold satisfaction. “You’re under arrest, asshole,” he said, reaching out to grab him by the wrist. “You have the right to remain silent-”
But Harper twisted out of his grasp, and lunged toward Blair. “What you want doesn’t matter, guide. You’re mine! The only way you’ll get away from me is in a goddamned coffin!”
Jim could have easily subdued Harper, then. Could have read the guy his rights while slapping on the cuffs, before hauling him off to lockup. But a deeper sentinel instinct drove him to what he did next; an innate understanding that, for a backwards asshole like Harper, mired in outdated beliefs about the dominance of sentinels and the subjugation of guides, there was only one thing which would render Blair forever safe from his brutality.
“I issue Challenge,” Jim said, loudly and clearly. “The winner takes as Prize the guide, Blair Sandburg.”
“What the hell did you say?” Harper hissed.
“You heard me,” Jim said. “You too chicken to take me up on it, huh? Too scared of losing your guide to a better man?”
Harper’s lips peeled back in a snarl. Bingo, Jim had hit a nerve, exactly as he’d expected he would. “I accept,” Harper proclaimed. “Let all bear witness: I accept.”
Jim, as Challenger, got to pick the time and place. “The roof of this building, in one hour.”
As Challenged, Harper was accorded the choice of weapon. “All I’ll need is my own two hands,” he said, flexing his muscular arms. “Unarmed combat, no rules. And Ellison?” Harper looked him up and down disparagingly. “You ain’t got a chance in hell, old man.” He turned his head to glare at Blair. “Just you wait,” he threatened. “I’ll teach you who the hell you belong to just as soon as this is over.”
“That’s enough!” Captain Banks again stepped in. “Blair, go into my office, and stay there until it’s time for this thing to happen.” Tradition dictated that Blair, as Prize, remain safely in seclusion (and away from both sentinels) until the fight was concluded, and it seemed that Banks had appointed himself responsible for seeing that taken care of. “Gentlemen,” Banks went on, addressing the sentinels, “we will reconvene on the roof, in one hour. And Harper,” he cautioned, “whether you beat Ellison or not, your next port of call will be a cell. Because your arrest for assault is merely postponed.”
“We’re talking sentinel law here, Banks,” Harper said dismissively. “My attorney will be here soon, and I’m sure he’ll agree with me that my guide has no grounds to press any kind of charges against me. He’s fucking mine. It’s my right to discipline him under the terms of our contract, and there’s nothing he or anyone else can do about that.” And with one last, threatening glare at both Jim and Blair, he strode out of the bullpen, no doubt to call his lawyer.
The rules of Challenge meant that Jim could not address Blair directly until it was all over. There were no rules about speaking to him through a third party, however. “Tell Blair,” Jim said to Banks, fully aware of the fact that Blair could hear every word just fine, “to trust me. Harper won’t hurt him ever again. Tell him that, when I win – and I will win - I have no intention of Claiming him, because unlike that asshole, I am not a fucking caveman, and he’s not some fucking side of beef.” Breaking protocol Jim looked at Blair, who was watching him sorrowfully, obviously very distressed by the whole thing. “Tell him,” Jim said softly, keeping eye contact at him all the while, “it’s gonna be okay. Because when this is over, I’ll make sure he gets all the help he needs.”
Jim looked back at Banks, then. While Challenge was not always fought to the death in these modern times, as had usually been the case in the past, he had no intention of letting Harper get out of this alive, and that meant certain issues needed to be taken care of. “You’d better have medics on standby - Blair’ll need to be put on severance drugs the minute this is over.” With a last, meaningful nod at Blair, Jim turned on his heel and left.
Stripped to the waist, the two sentinels squared off on the roof less than an hour later.
The small group of observers to the battle consisted of Harper’s lawyer (who, in Jim’s opinion, was almost as obnoxious as his client), Simon Banks, Blair and two paramedics (the latter there to treat any injuries the combatants might sustain, but also to tend Blair should urgent severance treatment be required). Staff from Major Crime were standing sentry in the stairwell and on the floor below, guarding the roof against the hordes of PD staff who had flocked to the top floor of the building in the hope of catching a glimpse of this ancient rite in action. It was a rare occasion that Challenge came to pass in these more enlightened times, and when it did it usually attracted a lot of prurient attention. But Banks had limited access to those most directly involved in this scenario, for which Jim was extremely grateful. This whole thing was difficult enough without it being turned into a goddamn circus as well.
Blair was pale with misery, his gaze averted from what was happening. Jim was glad to see that Simon had taken a protective stance beside him, the big Captain’s arm hooked around his shoulders. Jim could hear Simon murmuring to Blair intermittently; simple words of encouragement and promises of safety. The fact that Blair didn’t have to endure watching this travesty unsupported made Jim very grateful indeed.
The signal was given for the fight to begin. Certain of his own prowess, Harper wasted no time at all before he charged Jim, bellowing out his fury as he barreled toward him.
The guy was fast and strong, but so was Jim. And unlike Harper, Jim was motivated by something far more important than brutal possessiveness. He neatly sidestepped, therefore, effortlessly evading Harper’s initial assault before making his own, the two of them trading blows and kicks after that which demonstrated to Jim that this would be no pushover – Harper and he were fairly evenly matched, when it came to skill and physical strength.
It wasn’t long, however, before Jim got the upper hand. Harper might be younger but Jim had the benefit of experience, which he employed now to devastating effect. After a flurry of blows, each one harder and more accurately placed than the last, Jim laid Harper out flat.
Harper pushed himself upright, glaring all the while. His nose was bleeding, and Jim pointed out, “First blood, sport.”
“Fuck you,” Harper sneered. Clearly hoping that a battle of words might help him score a point or two, Harper carried on throwing taunts as he got to his feet. “I don’t get you, Ellison. I heard what you said to Banks earlier. You go to all this trouble to lay down Challenge, but you don’t want to bond with the Prize when it’s done. What’s the matter, huh? You don’t want to soil yourself with my leavings?”
“You just don’t get it, do you?” Jim retorted. “Blair’s his own man. This Claiming shit went out with the ark – it’s up to him who he bonds with.”
“Yeah, and you keep forgetting, asshole - he bonded with me by his own goddamn choice. We’re perfect together - hell, he even likes it rough! You have no idea how many times he’s begged me to give it to him harder.” Harper glanced toward Blair who had averted his eyes, his face flushed as though with shame. Apparently amused by his reaction, Harper went on, “I guess I’d better show him, once and for all, who’s in charge when this is all over. I’ve been too easy on him by far.”
“Over my dead body,” Jim vowed.
“Yeah!” Harper grinned nastily. “You got that part right, at least!” Then, without further warning, he launched another furious attack.
But Jim was ready and waiting for him. While they’d traded words with each other he’d slowly backed up close to the edge of the roof, and when Harper lurched towards him Jim reached out to grab the other man’s flailing arm and haul him the rest of the way. All he had to do then was step aside and let go, allowing Harper’s unbalanced forward momentum to push him, quite literally, over the edge.
Jim was the only person on the roof actually able to hear the impact of Harper’s body on the sidewalk twelve storeys below, but no one could miss the cry of pure anguish and pain which Blair emitted as his bond with Harper was severed. Jim wanted nothing more than to go to him, but to touch him right now would initiate a bond between the two of them, and Jim absolutely refused to let that happen under these circumstances. Fighting every instinct he possessed, Jim forced himself to stay where he was as the paramedics bent over the stricken guide, one of them holding him steady while the other injected him with a sedative. Then Jim watched as they strapped Blair to a waiting gurney, before carrying him out of sight through the stairwell door.
By the time Jim got to the hospital Blair was settled in a room, a drip pumping him full of an initial, concentrated dose of the drugs he would need to be on for the rest of his life – or at least until he bonded again. Blair turned his head as Jim came in, his expression grief stricken and anguished.
Jim sat down beside him. “Are you okay?” he asked gently.
Blair was clearly very upset. He might have proclaimed his clear intent for a dissolution, but Jim was certain that he’d never intended it to happen through Harper’s sudden and violent death. His resilience shone through, however, and Jim admired him for it hugely. “I’ll be fine,” Blair answered with certainty. He nodded, clearly working hard to convince himself. “I just need to get through the first forty-eight hours on intravenous medication, the doc says. Then I’ll be able to get out of here.” He looked at Jim with concern. “How about you? Are you hurt?”
Jim had definitely had worse. “Just a few bruises, that’s all. Nothing major. You don’t have to worry about me,” he said.
Blair swallowed, his eyes wide with unhappiness. “I didn’t… I didn’t mean for him to die, Jim.” He bit back a sob. “I just wanted it to end, you know? I kind of seized the moment, because I knew if I didn’t say it in front of witnesses, he’d just beat me up and handcuff me to the bed again.”
Jim understood that there was not an ounce of hyperbole in the scenario Blair had just described. “I think you did the right thing,” he acknowledged. “And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry, Blair. I’m sorry you had to go through your bond being broken like that. But I’m not going to apologize for killing him. Even if he’d gone to jail – and he would – he’d have gotten out eventually, and you’d never have been safe from him. I couldn’t let that happen. Call it whatever you like – sentinel instinct, compulsion to protect a guide, the fact that the guy had it coming, whatever. But I knew he’d never leave you alone if I didn’t put an end to it right there and then.”
“It’s okay, man. I understand,” Blair said sadly. “And hey, if you’d beaten him but left him alive, he’d have hunted you down after the fight – it would have been totally against his code of honor to let you live after humiliating him like that. And he definitely wouldn’t have shown you any mercy, if he’d won. So, I… I know you only did what you had to do.” His eyes filled. “I can’t believe you issued Challenge for me, though. Putting yourself at risk like that. Man,” he said. “That’s… wow. No one ever went out on a limb like that for me before.”
“Hey,” Jim told him. “We’re friends, remember?”
Blair was wide open emotionally, the abrupt breaking of his bond rendering him especially vulnerable right now in the aftermath. “You did it, even though you don’t want to bond with me,” he said brokenly. He bit back a sob. “I’m sorry, Jim. I know you probably don’t want to hear this, but I wish I could be what you want. I wished it before, too, when we had our month’s trial, but I could tell you didn’t feel the same way. I guess I’m just not the right guide for you.”
Jim reached out and enfolded Blair’s hand in his own. “I always thought,” he said gently, “that when I found the guide I wanted to bond with, that it’d be, I don’t know, love at first sight, something like that. That I’d get that immediate bolt of lightning, you know? That instant sense that hey, he’s the one. But I never got that with you. That’s why I let you go - that and a whole bunch of other, trivial reasons that make no sense to me now. But you know what?” He squeezed Blair’s hand. “Ever since we met up again, I got something else. I got this slow, gradual realization that you’ve gotten right under my skin, right into my heart. And what I feel for you is more profound than anything I ever imagined.” He nodded, as Blair’s eyes widened. “Yeah, I do want you, Blair. I want you more than life.”
“Then why?” Blair begged. “Why didn’t you bond with me on the roof?”
“Because it wasn’t the right time,” Jim told him. “I didn’t want to do it because I’d Claimed you, or any of that archaic, possessive shit. If you and I bond, it’s got to be a meeting of equals right from the start. A true partnership, which we both enter into intentionally and of our own free will. And not only that, I think you’re going to need some time to deal with what you’ve been through before you’ll be ready to bond again.”
Still profoundly vulnerable, Blair asked, “So, it’s not because you’re disgusted with me, or… or anything like that? Because, man,” the tears he’d been struggling to hold back finally gave way, “I’m pretty disgusted with myself right now.”
“Oh, Chief. No. Just, no.” Jim gave in to the instinct he’d been keeping at bay for so long, and gathered Blair into his arms. “You’ve done nothing wrong, Blair,” he whispered, holding tight, rocking him, soothing him. “None of what happened to you is your fault. You made a commitment and tried your best, no matter how hard it was, to make it work. And when the time was right, you ended it, buddy. You told him so, right there in front of everyone. It took guts to do that, Blair. And I respect you for all of it.”
As Jim had rightly intuited, Blair needed space to heal before he would be ready to consider bonding again. Their mutual desire for each other was therefore put, by mutual consent, to one side, existing thereafter as an unspoken understanding which took second place to their friendship. Because when it came down to it, what Blair needed most of all right now was a friend.
So Jim did all the things a friend should do. He found Blair a new apartment (since he’d been forced to give up the lease on his old one to move in with Harper), and moved his stuff in for him so that it was ready for him to go to when he got out of the hospital. He made it clear that he would be there whenever Blair needed to talk (and was happier than he could say that Blair trusted him enough to take him up on that). But most of all they spent time simply hanging out together, learning about each other in easy, uncomplicated ways which had nothing to do with them being sentinel and guide, but simply two men who cared about each other and who enjoyed spending time in each other’s company.
The experience of being so comprehensively cowed by Dan Harper had profoundly messed with Blair’s sense of who he was. He knew, intellectually, that he was not to blame for what had happened to him. But no matter how he rationalized it, Jim knew that he sometimes felt as though he deserved the abuse Harper had subjected him to. It was if there was a part of him that believed it was his own shortcomings, his own twisted desires, which had inspired his sentinel to beat the shit out of him on a daily basis.
Jim was at pains to convince him otherwise, but ultimately it was up to Blair to find forgiveness for himself, as well as regain a measure of self-worth. Consequently he went for counseling, not (to Jim’s relief) with Tansey, but with a different therapist who specialized in treating survivors of abusive relationships. And with Jim’s full support he went back to work at Rainier, embracing once again the cherished career Dan Harper had forced him to relinquish.
As time went on, Jim increasingly longed to bond with Blair; to show him, through the strength of such a profound commitment, exactly how much he was valued. He knew that Blair wanted him as well; could perceive their growing connection in a million little gestures and touches and smiles. But Jim held back, leaving it to Blair to make the first move. When Blair was ready, when the time was right, he would say so. Of that, Jim had no doubt.
As Blair had explained to Jim on more than one occasion, the work he did as an anthropologist was not always a simple nine-to-five desk job. Thus the day came when Blair dropped the bombshell that he’d been selected to go on a prestigious expedition to Borneo.
“Yeah?” Jim encouraged. “Go for it, Chief. It sounds great.”
“I could be gone for a while,” Blair went on hesitantly.
Jim cocked his head. “How long is ‘a while’?”
Blair swallowed nervously. “Maybe… a year?”
Okay, Jim thought, his heart sinking. That was pretty long. Resigned, he asked, “You really want to do this thing, huh?”
Blair nodded, but he didn’t look happy. “Yeah. I think so.”
“You know you don’t need my permission, right?” Jim pointed out, guessing the source of Blair’s misgivings. “This is your life. Your career. If it’s important, if it means something to you, you should do it.”
“I know. I just…” Blair fumbled to express his concerns. “The thing is, I know I can’t ask you to wait for me, Jim. But…” he sighed sadly. “I can’t bear the thought of losing you if I go.”
“Who says you’re gonna lose me?” Jim shrugged. “I’m not looking for another guide, Blair, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ll miss you while you’re gone, but I’ll still be here when you get back.” His own insecurities surfaced, then. He was determined to be supportive, to give Blair as much time as he needed, but he wasn’t made of stone. “If you decide while you’re away that you want to move on and find a new sentinel, I admit I’ll be sad about that. But I’ll understand, and I’ll still be your friend.”
“Oh, man, that is so not going to happen,” Blair said emphatically. “I mean, I know we’ve been taking it slow, but I really do want to bond with you. I want that more than anything.” He smiled sadly. “But you said to me, back when I was in the hospital, that we needed to go into it as equals, and I absolutely agree with that. I guess the problem is, deep down, I still don’t feel worthy of being your equal - it’s like I’m not a whole person anymore. I’m hoping this expedition will help me out with that.”
Jim reached out, and took Blair’s hand. “You know, I haven’t pushed, because I understand that you need time and space to deal with what happened to you, and I guess a year in Borneo is going to give you both of those things. And as for me? Hey, I’ve waited nearly forty years for my guide. I guess I can wait a little longer.” He regarded Blair fondly. “Just so you know, I think you’re worth waiting for.”
Blair smiled, the sun peeking out from behind the troubled cloud in his eyes. “I really love you, you know?” he said.
Jim drew him into a hug. “Yeah, I know,” he said, holding Blair close. “I love you too, Chief.”
After Blair left, the empty weeks and months that followed passed, for Jim, with an interminable, aching slowness.
Blair had told Jim, before he set off for Borneo, that he felt as though some essential part of himself was missing. Now, with Blair gone from his sight, Jim found that he felt exactly the same way. It was as though the other, better half of him was entirely absent.
Jim’s intense craving for a bond had never gone away, although it had definitely been alleviated by Blair’s presence in his life. Now that Blair was out of the country, however, it came back full-force, tormenting him constantly with the desire to fix his senses on one person, to fill the void which existed in his heart and soul with the essence of another.
But there was only one man who could fill that void, and he wasn’t here. So, for now, Jim soldiered on alone, enduring day after frustrating day, working hard to keep control of his senses and his fluctuating moods, yet frequently exhausted and discouraged by the amount of effort it took just to keep breathing.
Blair kept in touch at the start by email and an occasional phone call, but as time went on, and communication became more difficult due to the remoteness of his location, he did so primarily by letter. Those longed-for missives – containing both humorous narrative about Blair’s adventures overseas and respectful commentary about the culture he was studying - brightened Jim’s mood for days at a stretch. The affectionate personal messages the letters also included, which reassured Jim of his place in Blair’s life, didn’t hurt either.
Eventually the time came, several months in, when Blair travelled deeper into the jungle, which meant he was out of touch even by post for a protracted period. Jim frequently daydreamed about being there with him at that time; about guarding the intrepid anthropologist’s back as he trekked through uncharted wilderness to make contact with long-lost tribes. Jim liked that idea; he liked it a lot. And he comforted himself with the knowledge that, once they bonded, such a scenario would most likely become a reality, because he had every intention of supporting Blair in his career, rather than demanding he give it up as Harper had done.
Then, unexpectedly, just over a month since he’d last received a letter from Blair, Jim got a phone call one afternoon at his desk. Blair’s beloved voice, longed for so desperately and for so long, filled him with immediate, desperate yearning. “I just got home,” Blair told him, to Jim’s surprise and delight (as he hadn’t expected Blair to come back for at least three more months). “I… I need to see you. I need to see you now.” Blair’s tone was harsh with exhaustion, and resonant with something far earthier. “Please?” he added, a little uncertainly, as though afraid Jim might refuse.
“I’ll be right there,” Jim told him. And without further ado, pausing only to tell his Captain that there was an emergency and he had to leave right away, he fled the bullpen in double-quick time and headed straight over to Blair’s apartment.
No sooner had he arrived at Blair’s door than it swung open. Jim found himself grabbed by the shirtfront and hauled inside, right into a demanding kiss which rocked his world. Blair’s taste, Blair’s aroma, overwhelmed Jim’s senses. The sensation of Blair’s lips and tongue moving over, against, inside Jim’s, felt like they belonged there; like the most perfect feeling in the universe. Jim and Blair had never kissed like this before – until they were ready to commit to a bond it had been necessary for them to maintain some semblance of distance, even if they’d not entirely shied away from affectionate touches. But now they had kissed, Jim never wanted it to end.
But something intruded on that endless moment of perfection. A sound or perhaps a smell; an intangible wrongness. Blair’s heart was thumping hard and fast, Jim noticed suddenly, not with arousal and desire, as he’d first thought, but with stress and desperation. At that realization Jim pulled out of Blair’s grasp and studied his friend. Blair was sweating, his pupils dilated and his eyes unfocused, as though he was high on something. “Blair,” Jim said urgently, reaching out to hold Blair’s head steady between his hands. “What’s going on?”
Blair licked lips which were wet and swollen from their kisses. “I lost my bag, crossing a river,” he said huskily. “My medication – the severance drugs – got swept away. The camp doctor tried to get some more for me, but it would have taken a week to ship it out to us, so I decided to trek out of the jungle and fly home instead. I was pretty much finished with my part of the study, anyway.”
So that was it – Blair was in withdrawal. “We better get you to the hospital,” Jim urged, letting him go and reaching into his pocket for his keys. “Come on, I’ll drive.”
“No!” Blair’s hand latched on once more to Jim’s shirt. “I don’t want to go back on the drugs, man!” He breathed deliberately, fighting to get himself under control. “That’s why I came home,” he declared after a moment, his voice tight with studied calmness. “I’m ready, Jim. I want to bond with you. And I don’t want to have to wait any longer to do it.”
“Chief, that’s not a good idea,” Jim said. “You need to be weaned off the medication in a controlled way, otherwise it’s going to be rough. You know that!”
“I’m more than halfway there, already! Come on, man,” Blair begged. “It’s been days since my last dose - a few more hours, that’s all it’ll take. I know it’ll get worse before it gets better, but if you’re with me, if you help me get through it, I’ll be fine. And then we can bond, and it’ll all be over.” His breath hitched, then, and he let go of Jim. “Unless you don’t want me anymore, of course,” he said, his determination morphed now into uncertainty. “I’m sorry, man. I should’ve asked you first.”
“Oh god, no, Chief! Of course I want you!” Jim pulled Blair close, easily detecting now in his slender frame the tremors he’d failed to notice earlier, during their incendiary kiss. “I’ve thought of nothing else but you, ever since you left. I just… I’m worried about you, that’s all. I don’t want you to suffer.” Coming off severance drugs in such an abrupt way was not an easy thing to do, as Jim well understood – he’d been reading up on such things, because he’d known that Blair would need to stop taking them at some point if they were ever to bond. But he’d certainly never envisaged him doing it the hard way, like this.
“I can take it,” Blair said, holding Jim tight and chuffing out a weak little laugh, which easily had as much self deprecation in it as humor. “I’m tougher than I look, you know.”
“I know you are, Chief,” Jim said, mildly exasperated. “You don’t have to prove anything to me.” He shifted so he could look down into Blair’s eyes. “You sure you want to go cold turkey like this?”
Blair nodded, his determination absolutely clear. “As long as I get you at the end of it,” he said, with certainty, “I’ve never been more ready for anything in my life!”
While Blair was still reasonably functional, Jim insisted that they go back to his loft apartment, because he had all the supplies there that they would need to ensure Blair’s comfort during the difficult time to come. And not only that, the place was far more private, with its sentinel-friendly soundproofing, than Blair’s small apartment - and privacy, during bonding, was something they both absolutely required.
Over the next few hours, Blair stoically endured the shakes and the cramps and the other, initial side-effects of coming off the medication. He was indeed, as Jim had long since observed, a tough little guy; able to face adversity with equanimity, so long as he wasn’t the target of pure, unmitigated cruelty (as had been the case in his first bond). That he had traveled alone halfway across the world, while in the early stages of withdrawal, absolutely attested to that fact.
It was only when his empathy began to kick back in that Blair truly found it difficult to cope. The consequence of a broken bond was that he could no longer regulate his natural ability to sense other people’s emotions, hence the suppressant drug he’d taken to force his guide-gift to dormancy. Bonding with a sentinel, of course, would give him that control back. But in the meantime, now that the drug was leaving his system, he began to experience intense and uncontrollable flashes of alien feeling, drawn from every living soul within a wide radius of his current location. It faded away completely at intervals, then surged wildly and unpredictably into full force before fading again, only to come back twice as intense the next time round.
The surges, so it seemed, were terrifying in their intensity, and during the intervals between each one Blair increasingly dreaded the next with an almost visceral fear. Yet for their bond to happen Blair needed to achieve a state where the intensity became constant. Only at that point, when his empathic channels were absolutely wide open, would Jim be able to enter his mind and join with him in a bond. But it was exactly that encroaching state of intense, uncontrollable vulnerability that Blair was most afraid of, and which he was instinctually struggling (however unsuccessfully) against.
“Don’t worry,” Jim murmured to him, when Blair was once more subjected to a frightening peak of severe disorientation. “I know what to do.” He’d read that a specific type of tactile contact between sentinel and guide at this stage of withdrawal could provide a palliative effect, so he intended to give it a try. Steering Blair to lie down on his bed, Jim decisively stripped him nude. He laid his hands upon him then, and began to slide them slowly and carefully over Blair’s flesh. Not hard enough to be a massage, but not soft enough to be ticklish or arousing. Instead a firm, decisive, reassuring pressure, gradually and methodically traversing every inch of his skin.
It definitely seemed to help. The surges of emotion continued to escalate and increase in duration, but Blair seemed more able to breathe through the worst of it now, pressing himself harder into the pressure of Jim’s hands when the extreme waves hit, and fixing his gaze, wild with apprehension but full of trust, unwaveringly on Jim’s face. “There you go,” Jim murmured to him, his hands continuing with their soothing motion, tactilely assuring Blair, even during the times he was too distracted to truly feel it, of his presence. “You’re doing great, Chief. It’ll soon be over. Not long now. Just relax. Trust me.”
The time eventually came when Blair’s eyes lost all comprehension. There were no more waves of emotion hitting him, now. Instead, Blair was completely lost in the maelstrom, the narcotics which had kept his empathic channels dormant having entirely lost their grip.
Jim stripped his own clothes off, then. He lay down full length, and blanketed Blair with his body. Framing Blair’s face with his hands, he closed his eyes and extended his mind into the depths. Hunting intently within the shapeless, disorientating commotion he effortlessly located his guide, then drew him out of the torrent to safety. And he knew, at that moment, that nothing would ever part them again. “Bond with me,” he pleaded.
“Gladly,” came the eager, fearless response. And suddenly Jim had a vision of himself as a panther, running full-tilt towards a gray, blue-eyed wolf. His paws and that of the other creature drummed frantically against the mossy ground as they drew close, their momentum accelerating as they neared, Jim’s heart leaping with unbounded joy at the proximity of the one he loved. Propelled by an impulse he only half understood, Jim leapt at the same instant the wolf did, both of them hurtling toward each other punishingly fast. They crashed together in mid-air and suddenly they were one, raw ecstasy washing over and through and within them, Blair’s thoughts and emotions and hopes and dreams laid bare and rendered utterly indistinguishable from Jim’s in that blinding, rapturous moment.
The ecstatic echo of their bonding continued to spiral toward a crescendo, arousing and inflaming and immersing them again and again in wave after wave of sharing, until they were explosively reborn together on the shore of the mundane world. Still euphoric from the merging of their minds they completed their bond with a joyous merging of flesh, loving each other relentlessly until they were both breathless, sated and spent.
In the aftermath they held each other tight, trading kisses, gentle touches and whispered promises of devotion right through the night. And they rejoiced in the sure knowledge that, from now on, their lives were entwined for evermore.
“Hey, Sandburg!” Seven floors above in the bullpen, Jim had been aware of Blair’s presence from the moment his guide had first entered the building a short while ago. It seemed, from what Jim could hear, that Blair had met Detective Henri Brown on his way up in the elevator. “Looking fine, my man!”
“Hey, Henri! How’s it going?” Blair greeted. “Oh, and hi, Rafe. Long time no see.”
“I hear you and Ellison bonded,” Rafe, Henri’s partner put in. “Oh, hey,” he sounded worried. “He won’t mind us talking to you, will he? I mean, I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
Jim could hear the smile in Blair’s voice when he answered. “Oh no, not at all! Jim’s nothing like, well, you know. Like Dan. He’s a really cool guy. He hates all that possessive shit.”
The elevator on the seventh floor pinged, then, and Jim looked up from the report he was writing as the doors opened and the three men stepped out. Blair was still talking animatedly to the two detectives. Henri, it seemed, had just asked about what Blair was doing at Rainier. “It’s really important to Jim that I keep up with my career,” Blair answered. “And because we need constant contact – it’s a sentinel/guide thing – he’s gonna come with me when I go on my next expedition. He’s pretty great about it all, really.”
“So, what happened about your project?” Rafe put in. “You know, the one you were doing here at the PD?”
“Oh, hey,” Blair said. “That’s the really neat thing. My research grant got renewed, and consequently I’m gonna be work-shadowing Jim for at least part of the time. Just,” he held his hands up, palms outwards, “as an observer, you understand. Strictly as an observer.”
Smiling ruefully at Blair’s vehement pacifism (they’d already discussed the possibility of him taking weapons training so he could back Jim up, and Blair had flatly refused) Jim stood as Blair’s gaze sought him across the room, the vibrancy of their bond making Jim’s heart beat faster as it drew them effortlessly together. “Hey, Teach,” Jim greeted, after Blair bade farewell to the two detectives and approached. “You have a good morning at school?”
Blair grinned. “The rest of the expedition team got back from Borneo in one piece, and my latest article got accepted for publication. It was a pretty good morning’s work, even if I do say so myself.” He punched Jim affectionately on the arm. “So, what’s on the agenda for this afternoon?”
Jim reached for his coat, then steered Blair back toward the elevator. “I’m thinking, we go get a couple of tube steaks for lunch, then we see what comes up. Could be a terrorist plot to take over the PD, or maybe a rogue CIA agent threatening to unleash biological warfare. Oh, or possibly bodyguard detail for some babe of a pop star. You never can tell in this job.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Blair was all wide-eyed incredulity as they stepped into the elevator. “I mean, I know this is Major Crime, the department which investigates the cases other departments run away screaming from. But none of that kind of stuff really happens in Cascade, does it?”
In answer, Jim just grinned, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Welcome to my world, Chief,” he said, as the elevator doors closed.
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