Intellectually, Blair knew that there had been a time in his life when he hadn’t always been afraid. He found it hard to fully connect with the memory of it, though. To remember the emotions he’d felt back then, before he’d come online as a guide: happiness, a sense of normality and a terrible, innocent complacency that had entirely failed to prepare him for what was to come.
Five years of slavery had erased everything but the dim, distant memory of that younger, almost unrecognizable Blair. They didn’t call it slavery, of course, but that’s exactly what it was. Not that Blair ever let anyone hear his assessment of what it truly meant to be a guide. He’d been foolish enough to express his opinion once, and the memory of what had happened to him in the aftermath had taught him, quite categorically, never to betray his true feelings about the inherent inequality of sentinel-guide bonds and their place in society ever again.
The fear was always there, but Blair had taught himself not to show it. That hard-won ability – to hide behind an impenetrable mask - was serving him even more acutely right at this moment as he stood, shivering in the too-cool room, waiting for a new sentinel to choose him for their guide.
The lessons Blair had learned, instilled in him during interminable classes at the Sentinel-Guide Institute and enforced since by every sentinel who’d had authority over him, served him now. He drew on his ability to feign a constant state of calmness, for his heart to beat slow and steady, and for no more than a residual trace of nervous sweat to cool on his body. That was his best hope, that the sentinels who glanced his way found nothing remarkable or interesting enough for their senses to latch onto and capture their attention.
Blair was confident that it would work. There were so many other guides in this room who, he figured, would be far more attractive to a sentinel on the hunt. The ones who had not yet mastered indifference in their bearing, as well as those who were eager and needy, having bought into the great lie that they would meet their mythical, perfect soul-mate and live happily ever after.
Blair was emphatically not amongst them, not anymore. Having experienced the true reality he was in no hurry to do it again, even though the alternative - to remain under the direct jurisdiction of the Sentinel-Guide Institute until he bonded - was not exactly a palatable option either. But Blair had long-since learned to make the best of a bad situation. He really, when it came down to it, didn’t have any other choice.
It seemed, at any rate, to be working. Even with his eyes cast downwards (because making eye contact with a sentinel in this situation would be the absolute kiss of death) Blair could sense the questing gazes of sentinels rest on him only briefly, before sliding away to seek a more enticing option.
Blair had become a good observer. He’d learned to be hyper-aware of his surroundings at all times, even while embracing the appearance of inattention. It was one of the many survival traits he regarded as an essential tool in the kit-bag of a guide. In some ways, he suspected that his skill at observation had become even better than a sentinel's, inspired by self-preservation as it was, because unlike a sentinel there was no danger that he would become distracted into a zone by some pretty, shiny thing.
Thus it was that Blair, alone of all those in this room, became aware of the danger right before it happened. The sentinels prowling back and forth were, after all, too entranced by the variety of tasty morsels on offer to notice anything else, their senses entirely wrapped up in sampling the allure of the guides lined up for them to choose from.
All except one sentinel: the single, aloof man who, unlike the others, had so far betrayed not one ounce of interest in any of the guides arrayed for the taking. Blair had gradually become more and more aware of him, as he stood apart at the edges of the large room, his expression closed-off and resentful as though (like Blair) he wanted no part of the proceedings, and begrudged being forced to attend.
Observing the man surreptitiously over a long period of time, Blair could not help but notice the exact moment he slipped into a zone. Blair never knew what it was that made his gaze move upward; maybe an alteration in tone of the monotonous hum of the fan whirring overhead, or some sort of sixth-sense that guides, like him, were fabled to be gifted with. But look up, he did. And that meant he perceived the exact second that the fan tipped and came loose from its moorings, before starting to fall.
Blair didn’t see what happened next, he was too busy sprinting across the room, barrelling with all his might into the insensible sentinel, who was standing immobile right underneath the falling fan. As Blair’s hands made contact with the man, the sentinel’s eyes widened in sudden shock as he was jarred explosively out of his zone. Blair’s momentum carried them both forward so that they fell heavily together, hitting the floor hard, safely out of the path of the whirring blades.
Well, not completely out of their path, as Blair agonisingly discovered a split-second later, when a spinning hotwire of agony blazed through his leg from thigh to ankle.
Recoiling with shock and pain, Blair turned his head and found himself looking deep into a pair of astonished blue eyes. And he was instantly lost, caught in the inexorable, mutual lure of the bond, in a profound way that was nothing like the travesty of pseudo-bonding he had experienced before. In that millisecond Blair felt himself known, just as he knew the sentinel in turn. And for the first time during the five, interminable years since he’d come online as a guide, Blair actually believed that he might have a future, after all.
The sentinel, it seemed, was not entirely unhappy with their precipitous connection either. Blair felt a hand wrap around the back of his neck, and he was pulled forward into a protective embrace. “Easy, Chief,” a pleasant, reassuring voice told him, rumbling comfortingly through the muscular chest Blair was resting against. “You got pretty badly cut up, there. Let’s get you taken care of huh?”
Over the next little while, as Blair was transported to the hospital and the deep gash that had laid open the length of his left leg treated, he learned that he had inadvertently bonded to a police detective called Jim Ellison, newly online, and as innocent of the ways of sentinels and guides as a newborn.
The sentinel told him this by means of a distraction while Blair endured being stuck with needles, before he was sedated and whisked away into an operating room to be painstakingly stitched up. Blair learned more, too, once he’d recovered somewhat from the surgery and been checked into a room. “I never wanted to be a sentinel, and I didn’t want to bond,” Jim confessed, as he sat stolidly by Blair’s bedside. “I’m opposed to the laws that force us into this stuff, and I had no intention of coercing a guide to be at my beck and call.”
Blair absolutely understood where Jim was coming from. “Bonding is not something any of us choose. Either it just happens, like it did with us, or we’re forced into it. It totally sucks, man.”
Jim smiled wryly, at that. “Yeah, it does.” Then he shook himself a little, like a dog shedding water. “It’s such an odd sensation. I can feel that you hate this whole sentinel and guide gig too, but at the same time, you’re kind of okay with this thing between us. Am I reading your mind? This is the weirdest thing.”
Blair was clearly the more experienced of the two of them in sentinel-guide matters, which was a new state of affairs for him. For the past five years he’d been the one painstakingly – and sometimes painfully – tutored, rather than the one to do the tutoring. “It’s not telepathy, as such,” he clarified. “You have a heightened awareness of me, because of our bond. You can learn to filter out the input, just like you can with your other senses, so that you don’t get constantly distracted by how I’m feeling.”
“Does it go both ways?” Jim asked.
“To a degree,” Blair confirmed. “It’s not as acute for me, because I don’t have heightened senses. It’s more of an empathic thing, with guides. I can’t read your body language with the acuity that you can read mine, but in some circumstances I’ll be able to pick up on your emotions, especially if they’re particularly strong.” He swallowed, a little nervously. “I... I’d know if I’d pissed you off. If there was something I needed to be worried about.”
Jim’s gaze was unblinkingly direct. “So, what can you pick up now?”
Blair’s heart jumped with nerves, but at the same time he was oddly unafraid to be sharing this with Jim. “I can tell I’m in no danger from you,” he said, with certainty.
Jim nodded. His gaze drifted down to Blair’s wrist, which he gently enclosed with his fingers, exploring the circumference. Blair knew what he was feeling there. His wrists were faintly scarred with the marks left by restraints, not easily evident to regular eyes but clearly discernible by a sentinel.
“You’ve had reason to be worried before,” Jim noted. There was no censure in his voice; just sympathy and regret.
Bair nodded. He didn’t want to talk about it, though. Not yet, it was too soon. It would take a while for the evidence of Jim’s lack of bad intentions toward him to mesh with his own natural instinct toward distrust and self-preservation, even with their obvious rapport.
But it seemed that Jim intended to fill the silence anyway. “I could tell, just from looking at you,” he said, “that you didn’t want to bond. It made you stand out from the others. You were the only guide there today who didn’t want it.” He shook his head in wonder, apparently still caught up in the miraculous nature of his insight about Blair. “It made me want to give you that. To turn my back on you, when I really wanted to step closer. I was on my way out, when I zoned.”
It was disturbing to Blair that his very indifference had proved to be a lure, after all. And something about this whole situation, the series of coincidences that had led them into a bond, made Blair suspicious that something more than fate might have brought them together. He totally believed that those in charge of the Sentinel-Guide Institute were not above elaborate, dirty tricks if they thought it would get a seemingly unbondable guide and a late-onset, rookie sentinel off their books.
“What did you zone on?” Blair asked, curious whether Jim could shed any light on what had made him stand right there, underneath the fan, at the very moment it fell.
Jim shrugged. “I don’t know. I think, maybe a sound? I can’t quite grasp it.”
“I can help you remember,” Blair suggested.
Jim smiled again, a gentle smile. “I know,” he said. “But we don’t need to do it right now. You should rest,” he said. “You lost a lot of blood, and you’re exhausted.”
Blair couldn’t argue with that; Jim’s perception of his energy levels was absolutely spot-on. But the last thing Blair wanted to do was to sleep here, in the hospital. He never felt safe in places like this. He’d been in them too often during the past five years, and hated knowing that strangers might touch him as he slept.
But Jim apparently understood, even if Blair didn’t feel comfortable voicing his discomfort out loud. “I’ll keep watch over you,” Jim said. “No one will touch you, apart from me. Not without your consent.” He frowned, obviously troubled by how that sounded. “I won’t touch you without your consent either, Chief. That’s not how this is going to go, not between us.” He meant it, too. Blair could tell.
“Okay,” Blair agreed, exhaustion beginning to overwhelm him now that he was able to place his safety – for the first time in forever – in someone else’s hands, without fear. “Just for a little while, though,” he conceded, his eyes closing. “Don’t let me sleep too long, man.” He caught himself at that, his heart pounding. Issuing orders to one’s sentinel was rarely a good idea.
But Jim was apparently not offended by it. “Just rest,” he urged softly, his fingers enfolding Blair’s. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
For once, as he slipped into sleep with his hand held safe in the reassuring grasp of his sentinel, Blair found himself able to believe it.