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Conflict of Interest

Chapter Text

After three years living in the Peruvian jungle it was easy, Blair had found, to get lost in the fantasy. To squint at the sunlight shining through the leaves of the jungle canopy and convince himself that the rainforests of La Montaña were actually, in some sense, home.

On the outside, blue eyes notwithstanding, Blair was every inch a Chopec Shaman. In the beginning he had reveled in the assimilation of indigenous culture, as well as his subsequent adoption of a role of high authority in the tribe. It was, in a way, the ultimate fieldwork experience for an anthropologist like him: participant observation to the nth degree. Heavy on the participant part, though, and far, far less on the observation front.

And man, that had never been clearer than today.

“Look, Chief,” Jim was saying. “This is not some game we’re playing here! This is the hand we were dealt, and we have got to do it right!”

Sighing the sigh of the long-suffering, Blair looked pointedly at his partner. His lover. His sentinel. “You think I don’t know that, Jim?”

Jim was pissed. Even without the anger, frustration and sheer sense of helplessness that flowed through their emotional link, Blair could see it clearly in Jim’s clenched jaw and bunched fists, just as he could see the fear. Fear for him. And Blair had no choice but to understand the root of that fear. “Look,” he tried, attempting to banish it by explaining himself better, hating to see the man he loved beyond life showing his greatest vulnerability. “What Llallawa did, it was just stupid, not criminal. This… penalty, it’s… given his psychological issues, it’s out of proportion, okay? Don’t tell me there are no shades of grey in this.”

“Blair.” Jim’s voice was quiet suddenly, his whole bearing gravid with meaning. “Stop it. Stop projecting yourself onto him. This is not the same as what happened to you, and you know it.”

The present shimmered out of existence, transformed for a millionth of a second into a bitter memory of pain, fear, humiliation and hopelessness: a memory that was transformed in Blair’s next breath to utter fury. “Fuck you, man!” Blair yelled. And without a second thought he turned and fled, needing more than anything to get away from Jim’s goddamn all-knowing assessment of him before he gave in to an urge to let his anger have its head.

Especially because, when all was said and done, Jim was absolutely right.

***

Despite his rage, which morphed almost immediately into a blend of embarrassment and shame, Blair didn’t go far. To do so would be to hurt Jim still further, since his sentinel had never completely gotten over his conviction that bad shit happened to Blair when they were apart. And in his heart, no matter how fucked up Blair felt over this situation, he knew that Jim hated this whole deal as much as him.

The difference, of course, was that Jim had the guts to witness it, and he didn’t.

Blair consequently stayed close to the village, trying to put out of his mind what was going to happen. As an attempt at meditation - his habitual refuge from stress and fear - he catalogued in his mind the plants which grew there, attributing to them the Quechua names and uses he’d learned painstakingly under Incacha’s tuition.

Incacha, he absolutely knew, would be disgusted with him right now.

Firmly dismissing the additional rush of shame at that thought, Blair gave up on meditation and instead lost himself in a conscious search for quinua, with its importance as a curative for fever, and the plentiful chonta, a staple of the Chopec diet. And not far away was uña huasca, also called ‘cat’s claw’ or ‘sentinel leaf’, the most precious medicinal plant of all in this region with its myriad of vital uses. Deciding to make at least a practical use of his time out he took out his knife, and began to harvest handfuls of the latter to replenish his own stock, which was running low.

Then he paused - mid cut - when it began, his self-appointed task forgotten, the sounds he had hoped to avoid hearing drifting over clearly from the direction of the village.

Dropping his knife Blair crouched into a ball, hands over his ears in a desperate attempt to block out the screams, not certain if they were Llallawa’s or the ones in his head.

***

It was late when Blair crept back into the hut he shared with Jim. The Sentinel had, of course, heard him coming and was on his feet facing the door when Blair came in, his face expressionless. Blair doubted that Jim had been unaware of his location and physical state for even the briefest of intervals during his absence.

There was no defense for what Blair had done, he knew. He had absolutely shirked his duty as Shaman in neglecting to witness tribal justice and deal with its aftermath.

Llallawa had stolen from his neighbor; not for the first time. Jim, in his capacity as the tribe’s Sentinel, had judged him guilty, easily reading the lie in Llallawa’s body. The penalty decreed by the tribal elders for the repeated offense – since the previous traditional methods of censure had not deterred him - had been a public whipping.

The sentence had been carried out hours earlier, while Blair had skulked in the jungle. And now, as Blair stood pondering his own cowardice in the doorway of their hut, it was Jim who broke the tense silence between them. “Llallawa’s okay, Chief. He’s pretty sore, but he bore it well.”

The words caused a hard ball of rage and revulsion to coil in Blair’s gut: he knew all about bearing such things well. Moving past Jim without looking at him, he began to gather his medical supplies. “Is he in his hut?” he asked tersely.

Blair felt Jim move up close behind him. “Yeah, but leave him be, huh? He’s fine. I tended him afterwards.” Because you weren’t here, Blair heard clearly, whether Jim intended it or not.

Disregarding Jim’s plea, Blair just carried on gathering what he needed. Behind him he heard Jim sigh and move away. And when Blair exited a short while later, he didn’t even glance the Sentinel’s way.

But even though he’d erected a solid wall impeding any linkage through their Bond, he could sense Jim’s inner turmoil as well as he could feel his own.

***

It was late when Blair crawled into bed beside Jim, the grasses that stuffed their thin mattress rustling as he lay back onto it.

Knowing that his partner was awake Blair whispered into the darkness, “You really think that what they did to Llallawa is going to cure him? He has an impulse control disorder, Jim. He’s not a criminal.”

“Not my call, Chief.” Jim’s voice was patient, despite everything. “This is the tribe’s way, you know that.”

“Yeah.” Blair should know. He was the damned Shaman, however unworthy he was of that title. “But it sucks, man.”

They lay in silence for a couple of minutes, the link they shared through their Bond strengthening with physical proximity and their returning ease with each other. After a moment, Jim asked, “Is he okay?”

Blair shrugged, the movement making the mattress crinkle under his shoulders, the bitterness he felt creeping into his answer. “He’s no worse off than I ever was. And,” he added, allowing this one thing, “I didn’t need to touch him. You did a good job.”

Jim didn’t answer out loud but, to Blair’s intense shame, a rush of profound love and sorrow emanated from Jim, directed at him.

God, Blair berated himself silently. He was so fucking inadequate. No way was this easy for Jim, considering what he’d seen Blair get put through, and Blair had left him to deal with it alone. Leaning up on one elbow, Blair moved closer, his shame close to the surface. “I’m sorry,” he said.

A hand – tender, caressing, endlessly healing – touched his cheek. “For what?” Jim whispered.

Blair caught the hand, and kissed it. “Being a flake,” he said. “Not doing my job. I should have been here, with you.”

“I figure you’re allowed to be a flake once in a while. You have good reason.” Strong arms came out of the dark, pulling Blair close to the warm, silky bulk of Jim’s chest. “I love you,” Jim murmured, tangible emotion behind the words emphasizing their truth.

Blair relaxed into the embrace with a sigh, shamelessly soaking up the comfort. “I love you too, man. But you deserve better.”

Jim’s soft lips touched Blair’s forehead in a kiss and, once again, Blair marveled at how gentle Jim always was with him. That knowledge, that certainty, awed him afresh now, despite his self-doubt. “I already have the best,” Jim said softly, his lips moving against Blair’s skin. “You’re the strongest man I know.”

“Not always.” Blair wished it wasn’t so dark, so he could see Jim’s face, and the look of devotion he knew would be there – even if he didn’t feel he deserved it right now.

In answer, a wash of love - soothing, calming, affirming – drifted over and into him, the Bond they shared allowing Blair no room to doubt Jim’s admiration of him. And, relaxing into it gratefully, surrounded by his sentinel’s strong arms and secure in the knowledge that, no matter what, they had each other, Blair at last allowed himself to pass into the haven of sleep.

Chapter Text

As usual, Sentinel and Shaman were up before dawn, trekking out to patrol the boundaries of the village. They ate as they went - flatbread and foraged fruit - operating in silence as Jim opened his senses wide to the elements.

Blair loved to watch his sentinel like this. Jim was so intense and yet so vulnerable. Entirely dependent upon his guide to keep him focused and his senses keen, as well as for the protection Blair’s sharp-tipped spear provided at his back while his attention far-traveled deep into the rainforest.

Blair hefted his spear easily, reveling in its secure weight and the certainty that he was more than prepared to use it in the defense of both of them should he have need to. Guides in Chopec culture were warriors, too: one of the many differences between here and the world they had left behind. Back there guides were effectively emasculated, their claws clipped. It made sentinels unnecessarily vulnerable to deny them a strong partner who could protect them, Blair knew. That knowledge never ceased to make him angry.

Jim made a distressed sound, deep in his throat, picking up Blair’s momentary bitterness through their emotional link. “Easy,” Blair murmured, putting out a soothing hand to Jim and hastily schooling his thoughts and feelings to tranquility. “It’s nothing. All is well.”

Jim subsided, his concentration maintained thanks to Blair’s sure touch and effortless guidance. And they continued on, moving deeper into the trees.

They did this every day, this patrol; sometimes more than once, and for several hours at a stretch. It was what they were, their primary vocation for being here: to protect the tribe from approaching enemies and track the movement of game. They could be out here for hours, following a scent or a sound, operating as a flawless team and totally in synch with each other.

Blair loved it with a passion. Just the two of them together, doing what they were both born to do. Two halves of a whole, inextricably bonded into a single entity. Just like every time that they did this, a tranquil mood descended upon Blair that was almost meditative; the two of them silently flowing together, Jim lost in sensory input, placing himself entirely in Blair’s hands, and Blair hyper-aware of Jim’s every need.

Gradually, though, Blair began to feel restless, their usually flawless rapport marred as unease gradually began to infuse their link. Jim paused, scenting the air, his brows drawn in concentration. “What is it? Blair asked quietly. Under his hand, he felt the muscles in Jim’s shoulder bunch with tension.

“Something’s wrong.” Jim’s eyes were distant, his focus far off in a place Blair could not perceive.

“Which sense? Filter it down, man,” Blair directed.

Obediently, Jim went still as he narrowed his focus. “I smell… oil, exhaust fumes. Sweat. I hear…” Blair held his breath as Jim fought to extend his senses. “I hear machinery, men. Noise, like… like trees being felled.” Jim swallowed, his eyes going wide. He looked at Blair with horror. “Oh god, Chief,” he said. “They’re speaking English. They’re American.”

“What?” Blair’s heart pounded in shock. “Who are they?”

But Jim was already moving. “Come on. We’ve got to get closer.”

“Are you nuts?” Blair’s protest was token, as he was already following at Jim’s heels. “What if they see us?”

“We can’t let them,” Jim said flatly. “But the tribe has to know what they’re up against. This is why we’re here, Chief.”

In all conscience, Blair could not argue with that. After all, he’d already shirked his duty once in the past twenty-four hours, so he was not about to do it again right now, no matter the risk. But he knew as well as Jim did that if they were seen, and if word found its way back to the wrong ears that a non-native sentinel and guide team had been spotted in this particular remote area of Peruvian jungle (the very area where James Ellison had once gone missing in action for eighteen months), then it wouldn’t take long for the authorities to put the pieces together and come after them.

Jim led the way toward the disturbance only he could sense, Blair staying close behind his sentinel. After about twenty minutes of stealthy approach, Blair could hear the cacophonous sounds too and, while part of him marveled at the acuity of Jim’s senses to have detected and identified these sounds from so far away, a larger part of him was filled with dread that they would be spotted.

He needn’t have worried. Jim gestured him to halt while they were still some way off, and Blair instinctively moved in to provide guidance while Jim extended his senses through the trees, his sentinel vision enabling him to utilize gaps in the foliage to watch what was going on from deep cover. As Jim crouched motionless, monitoring and processing what was going on in the distance, Blair couldn’t help but listen to the noises which were audible to him. He could hear the clamor of shouting voices over the screech of machinery and the throb of engines, but he couldn’t make out anything that was being said.

After a few minutes Jim silently motioned for him to back off, and Blair now took point, expertly retracing their path while Jim brought up the rear. During their three years in the jungle, Blair had become a more than adept guide in every sense of the word. And, since the principal danger right now was behind them, it made perfect sense for Jim, with his enhanced senses, to watch their backs.

It wouldn’t have been allowed back home, though. There, guides always walked three feet behind their sentinels. No exceptions.

As they got further away from the forest’s interlopers, heading back toward the village, Blair turned, meaning to ask Jim what he’d sensed. But the closed look on the Sentinel’s face halted him, as well as the fact that Jim’s emotions were locked up behind an impenetrable barrier which Blair could not access even peripherally, despite their link.

Not good news, then, Blair deduced with a sinking heart.

***

The moment they reached the village, adrenaline raced through Blair as Jim let out a shout. “Nishu prisisaqmi!” Activity paused for one second while the cry of emergency registered, then all hell broke loose.

The Chopec were well practiced at responding to threats and danger at a moment’s notice. Within very short order, the whole village was mobilized. Women gathered together the children, the old and infirm to get them under shelter, while the tribe’s warriors relinquished tools to take up weapons, moving to defensive positions around the perimeter. And, in the center of the village, the Elders gathered to hear what their Sentinel and Shaman had to say.

Jim wasted no time. In flawless Quechua – which both Sentinel and Shaman spoke as fluently as if it was their native tongue after all this time - he told them, “Invaders are tearing down the forest a few miles south of here. They’re moving this way. We must move the tribe to a place of safety immediately.”

“No!” Nina protested, full of belligerence and fire, as he often was. “We must fight them! Why should we run?”

A ripple of agreement went through the gathering, their faces hard. But Jim shook his head. “Not this time. These men are too strong, too well armed. We can’t hope to win.”

“Explain, Enqueri,” Tamaya demanded, silencing the angry murmurs of the others, the air of authority he carried defining his high standing in this gathering.

Jim glanced aside at Blair, his expression grave, before looking back at the Elders. “These men are from our homeland – mine and Blair’s. They’re cutting down trees, making a road, and they’re heading straight for us. They have a powerful chief; a rich chief. They have armed men, with guns, guarding them; many guards. They have the power to wipe out every man, woman and child of the Chopec if we make a stand. We can’t possibly win.”

“How far away?”

Jim shrugged. “Five days at most, before their machines get here. Much sooner than that before their scouts find us. We have to leave right away.”

In the ensuing silence, Blair had to ask. “Jim, who the hell are they?”

Jim’s eyes, when he met Blair’s, were bleak. “It’s an oil company. I recognize the logo.”

Their link remained impenetrable, but something desperate in Jim’s bearing registered deep within Blair, nevertheless. “What are you not telling me?” he demanded, determined not to be treated with kid gloves, no matter what. He had to know, damn it!

Jim took a deep breath. “The company is called Cyclops Oil.”

It took a second, but then Blair recognized the name. “Oh my god.” This was about as bad as it could get. “They’re from Cascade!” It was their hometown; the place they’d fled from three years ago.

Jim could spare him no more than a nod before Tamaya spoke again. “Then we will do as you advise, Enqueri. We will move out of their path. But,” his eyes blazed with fury, “it will not end there. We will talk again, once the tribe is safe.”

Jim and Blair nodded their assent and, as the general order was given, joined in the mobilization effort. And Blair tried hard to still the pessimistic terror, deep in his gut, that this heralded the beginning of the end for them both.

The Chopec were a peaceful people. Most of the various branches of the tribe which inhabited the La Montaña area were related by ties of blood and tradition, and other than occasional disputes of a personal nature, intra-tribal warfare was practically unheard of.

The remoteness and inaccessibility of this particular region meant that danger from the outside was usually minimal. But the guerrilla war that had been waged in Peru the past few years had occasionally encroached, particularly during the time several years ago that Jim Ellison had initially lived with the tribe. The Chopec had proven back then to be fierce and deadly adversaries when their way of life was threatened, showing no mercy to enemy outsiders.

The Chopec were a rainforest tribe. They lived and breathed their environment, utilizing its natural bounty to their advantage, as well as nurturing it reverently in a symbiotic give and take between man and earth. They could move through it at will, blending into its foliage as if they were one with it. They were its true sons and daughters.

The outsiders who now threatened that natural equilibrium could not be more different.

As the part of the tribe they lived with now moved through the forest, seeking shelter, Blair listened as Jim told him in an undertone what he’d learned about the activities of Cyclops Oil. “They’ve already killed. Their weapons had been fired repeatedly; I could smell cordite. I could smell blood in the trees behind them; a lot of blood. Corpses starting to decompose. Some of their clothes reeked of it, as if they’d touched the bodies. There was what sounded like a backhoe at work a mile or so further back. I think they were digging a mass grave.”

“Who died?” Blair demanded, his usual admiration at just how acute Jim’s senses were subsumed by horror at what he had sensed.

Blair waited a moment until Jim dragged his awareness back from where he had fixed it on their perimeter, which he was intermittently scanning to monitor the safety of the tribe as they moved. After a few moments the Sentinel turned to meet Blair’s eyes, his grim expression confirmation of Blair’s horrified suspicion. “They’re coming from Araypallpa,” Jim said softly. “By the direction they’re traveling, I’d say their road passed right through the village.”

“Oh, man.” It was the village they’d lived in when they first arrived in La Montaña; the same village which had taken Jim in years before. The village where Blair had come into his own as Shaman, tutored by Incacha.

There was nothing left to say. As Jim pushed his awareness back out, doing everything he could to get the tribe to safety without incident, Blair remained by his side, subsuming his own grief and anger to support his sentinel in doing the job they were both born to do.

Chapter Text

Several hours later the tribe made camp. They chose a plateau bounded on one side by a steep cliff, and the other by dense foliage and a sheer drop down to the river.

Blair watched, steadfast by his side, as Ellison prowled the perimeter of the camp, before giving the location his approval. This was a good place, Blair could see. Defensible, and with a natural acoustic - thanks to the cliff at their backs - which would magnify the sound of approaching intruders to Jim’s hyper-sensitive ears, while the dense foliage would muffle the sounds of occupation to anyone passing by.

All hands were put to work creating sleeping spaces, cooking areas and latrines. Sentinel and Shaman stayed apart to maintain their vigil, even after guards were set around the perimeter. The threat - although less acute now they had moved - was still very real.

It was as twilight neared that approaching movement was detected. But, after Jim had raised a brief, initial alarm, it became clear from the way their visitors moved through the landscape that whoever approached was Chopec.

Both Jim and Blair stood shoulder to shoulder with their adopted Chopec brethren to watch out for the new arrivals. In the vanguard were warriors – many of them wounded - followed by a pitiful band of refugees. And the Sentinel and Shaman of Araypallpa - Quauhtli and Incacha – were at the rear, guarding the backs of the survivors.

Once again, all hands were mobilized, this time to lend aid to the exhausted and injured travelers. And as he rushed forward to tend to some of the wounded, Blair watched as Ellison and Quauhtli exchanged a look of grim understanding over the heads of the crowd.

***

Darkness had long since fallen when the Elders – including those few who had survived the rout of the other village - met.

Incacha related what had happened. “The water was poisoned, and many people got sick before Quauhtli smelled that it was contaminated. We did not realize outsiders had done it, or we would have stayed to fight. Instead, we went to find a clean source.” He looked devastated at the admission; a Sentinel and Shaman’s first duty was to protect the tribe, and they hadn’t been there when it was attacked.

“You couldn’t have known.” Jim’s voice was quiet; compassionate.

“I should have known! I am Shaman!” Incacha, it seemed, was unwilling to accept comfort, although his own Sentinel placed a steadying hand on his knee. But Quauhtli looked every bit as devastated as Incacha himself.

Incacha carried on. “The two of us had to travel many miles to find what we sought. Those men,” he indicated some of the warriors who had survived, “came with us. Together, we were to carry back enough clean water to replenish our emergency supplies, then move the tribe to the new location we found.” He shook his head miserably. “We were too late. By the time we returned the village had been destroyed. Those who survived had fled into the trees.”

Quauhtli took up the tale. “We tried to fight,” he said bitterly, “but it was no use. Their weapons are powerful, and they have no honor. We are lucky that any of our people escaped with their lives.”

Incacha’s face was filled with angry satisfaction. “We took one of them. And we learned from him what we needed to know before we killed him.” He pulled out a piece of paper, and held it out to Ellison. “This is the Chief of the Great Eye.”

Ellison took it, then showed it to Blair. It was a newspaper clipping, showing a photograph of Gerard Spalding, the president of Cyclops Oil. Wordlessly, Blair passed it on.

The Elders handed around the clipping, their faces hard. Once they had all seen it, Nina spoke. “If we cannot stop these men from poisoning the land and killing our people, then their Chief must be captured. He must be brought before us and forced to atone for his crimes.” Murmurs of agreement went around the fire-lit circle.

“That’s not possible.” Blair had been quiet up until now, still reeling from the upheaval they had all suffered. “This man – this Gerard Spalding – he is far away from here. There is no way we can capture him.”

“He is in your homeland, yes?” Incacha pointed out.

Blair glanced at Jim warily before he answered, his eyes wide. “Yes.”

“Then you and Enqueri will go there and capture him,” Incacha declared. “Meanwhile our two villages will merge, and Quauhtli and I will guard the tribe until you return.”

Incacha’s suggestion sent a ripple of mutual shock through their link. “Impossible,” Jim said flatly. “We’re exiled from our homeland. If we return, we will both be captured. Blair will be taken from me, and our Bond will be broken. We can’t go home.” He turned angry eyes on Incacha, who looked back impassively. “You know this!” he hissed.

“Many of our people have been killed, in defense of what is ours!” Tamaya, usually the voice of moderation in this gathering, spoke up harshly. “All of us – every last one of us – will do what we must to defend – and avenge - our land and our people. If you are truly of the Chopec, then you and Quosi will do the same – otherwise, you are no longer of the tribe.” He looked around at the assembled. “I say Enqueri and Quosi should return to their homeland. They should capture this Gerard Spalding, and bring him here to face justice, or die trying. Who agrees with me?”

Jim and Blair could only watch in stunned silence as every last man present – including Incacha and Quauhtli – voted in the affirmative. And in the flickering firelight, Blair turned his head to meet the equally shocked eyes of his Sentinel.

The commotion soon died down into an expectant hush. It was odd, mused Blair, as peace descended, that he felt a strange sense of relief. He’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop for so long that, now it had happened, he found himself able to breathe again. And he had to wonder just how much his pulling away from the observance of ritual yesterday had been an omen, as well as the actions of a man who needed to stop running from the past.

Jim, he could sense, through the roiling emotions which permeated their link, was devastated. Full of despair and rage and fear, most of it on Blair’s behalf.

God, Blair thought, with a swell of awe. He loved Jim so much.

Blair reached out a hand to lay it on Jim’s forearm, feeling the bunch of muscle and the tremor of strong emotion beneath his palm. And then he turned to face the gathering of elders. “We’ll do it,” he asserted, his voice strong and sure.

Beside him, Jim made a choked noise, his muscles flexing even tighter as though he wanted to punch out the world. Which, Blair supposed, he probably did.

Blair turned his head again to look his Sentinel in the eye. “Hey,” he said gently, lapsing into English. “We have to do this, man. We have no choice.”

Jim’s face was as hard as granite; an unscalable cliff of stone. His eyes drifted aside to focus momentarily on Blair’s neck, where the tracking tattoo remained as a permanent, livid reminder of why going back was impossible. “We can’t,” he said flatly.

Stubborn Sentinel, Blair thought to himself.

Into Jim's intractability, Blair carried on, implacable. “How can we not?” The gathering had gone still around them, collectively holding its breath while their Sentinel and Shaman conversed in their own, alien tongue. “You said it yourself, Jim. This is the hand we were dealt.”

“If I take you back, they’ll take you from me and you’ll die.” Jim’s grief pushed its way through the glacier, condensing in the humid jungle air. “How can you ask that of me?”

Blair found himself grinning wryly, despite the gravity of the situation. “It’s not all about me, man,” he pointed out. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve been put on America’s Most Wanted list yourself, you know? But,” he became serious again, “we need to find a way to do this. These people,” he indicated the elders of the tribe, sitting silently watching, “they need us. They’re being decimated. How many have already been lost, huh? How many more will be killed? What about the land, their way of life?” He shook the arm he held slightly. “They’re being slaughtered, wiped out, by our people, Jim. They’re not equipped to fight it. If we don’t help them, then who will?”

“They’re not our people!” Jim was emphatically not referring to the Chopec. “They brutalized you, Sandburg. Tried to take away everything that you are; tried to make me treat you like a slave. Their way of life is not ours!”

“Jim.” Blair kept his voice soft, striving for understanding. “We are the only ones who can do this. Otherwise the Chopec, their land and everything that makes them unique will be lost forever.”

“So, what are you saying, Chief?” Jim was scathing. “You expect us to just head back to Cascade, huh? Just walk in there, evade the sniffers, and capture Spalding? Then wander out again, like it's just a walk in the park, to bring the guy back here? Piece of cake, huh.”

“Get real, man!” Jim was being blind and dense now, and suddenly Blair was pissed. “Of course not! What do you take me for, huh? An idiot?”

Jim looked away, his face thunderous.

Into his angry silence, Blair carried on relentlessly. “That’s what the Chopec would do, if we weren’t here to help them, and they’d fail, man. Because Chopec ways, and Chopec laws, and Chopec vengeance have no place in Cascade. But you and me?” He gripped Jim’s arm tight, forcing his attention, giving no quarter. “We have ways we can fight this thing, ways the tribe,” he indicated their rapt audience, “don’t understand. We have access to information, ways of spreading news, contacts, the whole shebang. Chances are, we can do it – and we can win - without ever setting foot back in the U.S. We’re almost in the twenty-first century, man. Technology is our friend.”

At last Jim got it, and his angry expression started to morph into thoughtfulness. “We use the internet and make some calls, and drop the dime to environmental groups and the media about what Cyclops Oil are doing here.”

Blair smiled. “Exactly!”

Jim, though, still didn’t look happy. “And what happens after, huh? When journalists come here to cover the destruction, and the Chopec come to the attention of every news channel in the world, what then?”

Blair shook his head. “It’ll be a nine-day wonder. They’ll be left alone, eventually. But they will be protected. Cyclops Oil are clearly violating numerous international laws, here. Environmental, human rights and otherwise. Once they’re stopped? The publicity will ensure that they never get away with it again, and the Chopec will be left in peace.”

Jim still didn’t look convinced. And he had another objection to lay on the table. “And how long do you think you and I will be able to stay out of the spotlight, huh? Because even if we manage to do all this without revealing our identities, where are we gonna go afterward? Because if you’re right, and the Chopec manage to fade back into obscurity, then there’s no problem and we can come back here. But what if you’re wrong? What if they don’t get left alone? What then? Because I’m telling you, Chief, this is the end of the line. You and I have nowhere else to go.”

There were no guarantees to his plan, Blair fully understood. Hell, as a former anthropologist Blair well understood the lure a tribe like the Chopec could have in certain quarters, especially the academic community, even if the press eventually tired of the topic.

But the fact was, this plan was all that he’d got. “What can I say?” He opened his arms in surrender. “You got any better ideas, man, I’m all ears.”

Jim glanced at the surrounding Elders, their faces reflecting the trust they had in their non-native Sentinel and Shaman. After a moment, he nodded sadly at Blair. “We don’t have a choice.” he acknowledged. “We’ll do it your way.”

Blair reached out and clasped Jim on the shoulder, a wealth of emotion in the gesture. Then turning to the assembly, he switched back into Quechua. “We will stop this destruction,” he said. “Enqueri and I will travel to the heart of the Great Eye, and destroy its power.” And as the Elders nodded their approval he hoped fervently that Jim and he would be able to salvage some peace for themselves when this mess was resolved.

How feasible that could ever be, he had no idea.

***

Adaptable and semi-nomadic as the Chopec were, routine established itself in short order despite the all-pervading grief over the loss of so many kinfolk from the neighboring village. By the time the meeting of Elders concluded, therefore, the camp was well on its way to settling down for the night.

The two Sentinels had confirmed that the danger posed by the intruders was currently minimal, as the road construction crew was moving in a direction which did not intercept this new camp. A mere skeleton crew of warriors, therefore, was assigned to patrol during the dark hours. Quauhtli and Jim took up positions of watchfulness, their territorial imperative as Sentinels making it impossible for them to relax their vigilance in the wake of such an atrocity.

Blair sighed as he watched Jim, who had moved away swiftly when the meeting had ended. The Sentinel was standing tall and still at the periphery of their makeshift camp; a shadowy, motionless guardian, his inner disquiet evident only by the thrumming angry emotions which permeated their link. At least, mused Blair ruefully, he was able to feel it. He’d fully expected Jim to completely shut him out.

Blair joined Incacha for a while, attending to those who were distressed or injured and bringing comfort and treating hurts, doing his duty as Shaman. That done, he finally went over to join Jim, moving silently so as not to disturb those who were sleeping nearby, confident that Jim would not be startled by his stealthy approach. “Hey,” he whispered.

“Go get some sleep,” Jim ordered, his voice tightly controlled. “We leave at first light.”

Blair bit down on an impulse to insist that Jim do the same, because for a sentinel in this situation there was no point in even suggesting such a thing. But he didn’t do what Jim ordered, either. Instead, Blair hunkered down at Jim’s feet, following the Sentinel’s gaze blindly into the blackness of the forest.

After a moment, Jim sighed, the sound long-suffering, and Blair couldn’t help but grin when he heard the other man move. Leaves rustled as he sat down, and Blair fell back from his haunches as arms came around him. Stretching out his legs comfortably, Blair leaned back and relaxed, sheltered, now, in the warm curve of Jim’s body. Neither of them spoke, there was no need.

Jim’s vigilance reasserted itself, grounded in his guide as he was. And, together, they settled in to guard the tribe throughout the night.

Chapter Text

When morning came there were no elaborate farewells. Nodding shortly to Quauhtli, tacitly handing the other Sentinel the watch and entrusting him with the tribe’s safety in that understated gesture, Jim led the way off into the forest, Blair following in his wake.

Blair was tired, his movements clumsier than at any time since he’d become accustomed to forest living, his over-wound body betraying his anger and grief at the massacre the tribe had suffered even as, out of necessity, he buried it deep. He’d stayed up with Jim all night, refusing to sleep even when Jim had offered to act as a living pillow, determined not to leave his sentinel alone in the eye of the storm.

“So,” Blair ventured breathlessly, when they’d been on the move for a couple of hours. “Are we going where I think we’re going?”

Jim spared him a glance. “Leguia’s place,” he confirmed shortly.

“Right, right.” Blair stumbled and, automatically, Jim reached out a hand to steady him. “That’s perfect,” Blair carried on. “He has everything: internet access, contacts we could use, the works, right?”

“He also has good security,” Jim pointed out, letting Blair go as soon as he had righted himself. “We don’t want any of our communications traced.”

“Right.” There was silence a moment, then in a voice that attempted to be casual, trying to mask his sudden, desperate longing, Blair said, “And you know, if security is that tight, I have contacts back home too who could be useful. I mean, my mom is an environmental activist, as well as the other stuff she does, and she knows people-”

“Blair.” The word pulled them both up short. “You know that’s impossible.”

Blair blinked. “Look,” he said earnestly. “If it comes down to it, we have to use everything we’ve got. This is for the tribe, man! Their survival depends on us. We have got to put them first! And that means using all the resources we have at our disposal, no matter the risk to us.”

“I’m sorry, Blair,” Jim said, his voice suddenly gentle. “We can do anything but that. Contacting your mom is not an option. It’s too risky, for us and for her.”

A variety of emotions cascaded through Blair – anger, stubbornness, and resentment being chief among them, settling rapidly into hurt resignation and despair. “Whatever,” Blair said peevishly, knowing Jim was right, knowing that he was being irrational, hating himself for being just that selfish and weak that he’d let his own desires surface at a time like this. Pushing past Jim’s solid, dependable bulk, he declared firmly, “My turn to take point.”

***

Anger had become pretty much a way of life for Blair, ever since he’d been entrusted to the tender mercies of Guide World. Back then he’d learned the hard way to suppress it, to bury it deep inside where no one could perceive it. To do otherwise was to invite even greater suffering, and Blair was far too stubborn to give the sadistic bastards that much satisfaction.

But, no matter what pains he’d taken to hide it, it was clear right from the start that it wasn’t ever hidden from Jim. Jim had said as much: it was the presence of that anger, the defiance in his eyes, that had made the sentinel choose Blair right at the start.

Since they’d gone to live with the Chopec, Blair had found it harder and harder to keep the anger buried. Sometimes he even reveled in it, taking it out into the light to turn it this way and that and examine every shining, diamond-hard facet. In some ways, his ready acknowledgment and acceptance of the inner rage he carried made exile easier to bear. It reminded him daily why he was here, cut off forever from a life denied to him because of an accident of birth and his own stupidity.

So many layers of pain, loss, injustice and betrayal. Such intense pessimism, knowing that, despite all the good work done by the guide network, nothing had changed and likely would never change in Blair’s lifetime.

Blair had never wanted to be a bonded guide. To be reduced to the legal and social status of sub-human and made a slave to a sentinel had been his worst nightmare. A fate worse than death; the faceless monster which endlessly stalked the unlucky few, like him, who had the misfortune to be born with the guide gland in their head.

He’d taken it seriously, that threat. All of those like him, who lived their entire lives hiding in plain sight, absolutely had to. But he’d been reckless as well, his resentment at the unfairness of the world tempting him almost to flaunt it. He’d gotten arrogant and complacent, and had taken risks he never should have taken. No rogue guide older than an infant had ever been detected, and Blair had had absolutely no reason to believe it would ever happen to him. He’d been careful, for the most part, just as he’d always been taught, and just as he taught the guide kids at Rainier (similarly hiding their true nature) who he mentored. But he’d always been a bit of a risk taker, someone who got a kick out of taking perverse chances. And ultimately he’d taken, so it seemed, one chance too many.

Blair well remembered the single occasion he was certain had been his downfall. Guides could sometimes sense other guides, and so it had been stupid in the extreme for Blair to go to the party in the full knowledge that a bonded pair would be there. The sentinel, returning from a tour in the army, was brother to Emily, the girl Blair was dating at the time. And Blair, as Emily’s boyfriend, had been invited to the homecoming of the triumphant warrior.

The most stupid part was not that Blair had gone to the party, but that he’d done so without taking a dose of Antidux, a mild (and illegal) dux suppressant taken by guides-in-hiding to prevent the risk of detectable pre-Bond secretions. He’d been a little complacent around that time about taking it, resentful about the need to continue to put an unnatural substance in his body day after day. He’d thought that missing a couple of doses wouldn’t do him any harm.

How wrong he’d been.

Blair had recklessly brazened the whole thing out, even sharing a beer and a laugh with good old Pete, Emily’s sentinel brother, certain of his own invulnerability. Until the moment, that was, that Pete’s guide (no name, they never had a name) had raised his eyes – lowered obediently right up until that moment – to look straight at Blair, the challenge and recognition in their depths clear as day. And Blair had instantly known, with the clarity of epiphany, that he’d been made.

He’d tried to flee after that, of course. His cousin Robbie, in whom he’d confided, had helped speed Blair’s passage, giving him money and making arrangements for him to hire a car under an assumed name. In the end it had all been for naught. Blair had been apprehended by the Detectors at the Canadian border, his former life snuffed out as effectively as a candle in the path of a hurricane.

What had happened after that had been nothing more than a living death, until Jim had breathed life back into Blair’s battered body and soul. Closer to breaking point when he’d been hired out as a rental than he’d ever allowed Jim to suspect, Blair had gravitated toward the sentinel as though he was the sun, basking in the glow of Jim’s incredible tenderness after so many months without succor or hope. Suddenly, the Bond was all Blair wanted, and the one thing he could not, under any circumstances, have. But they’d both hurtled toward it anyway, inexorably merging their lives forever in the aftermath of yet one more episode of humiliation, pain and despair.

Blair felt ultimately responsible for what had happened, and for all that came after. He’d possessed such a terrible, aching need for Jim by then. His vulnerability had called to Jim in turn, so that in the end he hadn’t given the man any kind of choice at all.

“I don’t regret it, Blair.” Jim’s voice startled Blair from his reverie, Blair’s turmoil easily transmitting to him through their link, and Blair stopped in his tracks, closing his eyes as Jim’s arms came around him from behind. “I don’t regret any of it, and I don’t blame you for any of it,” Jim went on, the sentinel’s breath on his ear making Blair shiver in response. “You’re everything to me. I can’t imagine my life without you in it. I don’t want to.”

And Blair could feel the truth of it: through their link, there was no room for doubt.

Bolstered once again by Jim’s belief in him, Blair nodded, his unquiet emotions receding as once more he unearthed the core of strength he carried deep inside. “I’m sorry,” he said, needing to make it clear, needing Jim to understand that he wasn’t always going to be like this. “I get crazy sometimes. I’m not angry with you, just... everyone else, I guess.” He sighed, the echoes of his own pain subsumed in bitterness and grief for a different reason, reminding him why they were here. “They killed the fucking tribe, man. They’re killing the land. How could they do that?”

“I don’t know,” Jim breathed, validating Blair’s feelings with the strength of his own. “But they’ll pay for it. I promise you that.” Then, letting go, Jim moved away, getting right back to business. “My turn to take point,” he said, as he moved ahead through the trees. And, instinctually falling back on the comforting, well-established patterns of their partnership, Blair fell in behind, capably watching for threats from the rear as they progressed.

***

Travelling largely by nightfall in the more populated areas, keeping by long-standing habit away from outsiders, they reached the locality where Leguia lived a handful of days later. They got as close as they dared to Leguia’s residence, then hunkered down for a couple of hours to bide their time until it got dark. Leguia’s estate was private enough, but not so deserted that two white men approaching in daylight, dressed as Chopec warriors and carrying spears, would fail to attract notice.

As they crouched there Blair rested one hand on Jim’s back to keep him focused as the sentinel extended his senses toward the house, whispering instructions to him all the while.

“Is Leguia there?” he asked eventually.

After a moment, Jim shook his head. “I can’t tell. There’s something....” he sighed in frustration. “It’s like there’s some kind of block. I can’t hear anything clearly.” He shook himself in apparent discomfort. “Something is interfering with my senses.”

“Identify it and filter it out,” Blair instructed, leading Jim through the steps necessary to do so, his voice a quiet murmur, the two of them in perfect synch. Not for the first time, Blair considered that if everyone in the world could be a bonded sentinel or guide then there would be no more need for drugs, tobacco, alcohol or even sex, because all those things paled in comparison next to the intense sense of almost orgasmic well-being that a deep, working rapport with your bonded partner engendered.

They worked together for a while, and finally Jim got it. Mouth set in a frown, he revealed, “There’s a white noise generator. More than one, in fact. They’re interfering with each other, out of synch, filling in all the spaces in-between. That’s why I couldn’t tell what they were, at first.”

“Shit.” That could mean only one thing: white noise was commonly used to block sentinels from engaging in surveillance. “Do you think he knew we were coming?”

“It looks as though someone did.” Jim shook his head. “I don’t like this.”

“Maybe he’s worried about being watched by, you know, someone with an axe to grind? Someone who has a sentinel on staff? It might not be you he’s guarding against.” Blair shrugged, trying to explore a less sinister interpretation.  “You said it yourself before, man. Leguia has made plenty of enemies over the years. It doesn’t have to be about us.”

Jim shook his head, his mouth set in a hard line. “Too many coincidences, Chief. Cyclops Oil are from Cascade, for god’s sake. They travel to a remote area of Peruvian rainforest, to butcher the tribe you and I live with. Now Leguia’s using white noise so we can’t hear what’s going on in his house.”

“So what are you saying? That it’s a trap?” Blair’s latent fury, always simmering under the surface these days, broke free. “That Cyclops Oil murdered the tribe and tore down the forest, just to flush us out?” To his dismay, Blair found he was shaking.

Jim didn’t offer comfort, which Blair was grateful for because there was no way he wanted to be comforted right at this moment, full of suspicious grief and rage and fear as he was. “I’m saying,” Jim said quietly, his voice deadly earnest, “if that was the case, then they probably knew we’d come here.”

Blair berated himself silently. He’d known, goddamn it. He’d known that their days of living free had been numbered; he’d just found it all too easy to deceive himself into thinking it could go on forever.  “We need to get the hell out of here.” he said.

But Jim shook his head. “It’s already too late,” he murmured, his voice breaking a little. “I’m sorry, Chief.”

Blair heard it, then. The unmistakable noises of movement closing in on them from behind, and a simultaneous commotion from the direction of Leguia’s house. Blair closed his eyes briefly in despair, then looked at Jim, meeting his gaze unflinchingly. Reaching out, he palmed his sentinel’s cheek gently, pouring all the love he felt for this man through their deep link, gladly accepting the love and strength Jim sent back in return.

Then, without another word, they rose together and moved to stand back-to-back, spears held ready for battle.

There was no way either of them were being taken without a fight.

Chapter Text

Armed men swiftly surrounded them, rapid-fire chatter in Spanish coming from several directions at once such that, in his adrenaline-fueled focus on impeding battle, Blair failed to discern meaning other than ‘intruder’ and ‘security’ and ‘armed’. Back to back with Jim, his heart beating triple-time, all Blair knew was that this was it, the end.

Fuck them all. Blair would make sure he took at least two or three of them with him before he died.

A man stepped forward, a familiar face; Blair couldn’t remember his name, but knew him as one of Leguia’s retinue. “Put down your weapons,” the man demanded in fluent, accented English.

“You first,” Jim retorted, eyeing the guns which were levelled at them from all directions.

The man’s eyes narrowed. “You are Ellison, yes? Carlos’ old buddy. Carlos will be pleased to see you. He will not be pleased, however, if you continue to threaten us.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Jim said. “Tell Carlos to ask nicely. In person.”

The man’s eyes narrowed. But then he raised a hand to his mouth and as his lips moved Blair realized that he was speaking into a device. Blair glanced quizzically at Jim, whose stance of alert threat had relaxed infinitesimally. Jim nodded, confirming Blair’s assumption, before murmuring, “It’s Leguia. He’s coming out.”

The stand-off continued for a few moments longer, until movement at the front of the house caught Blair’s eye. A figure approached, white suited, tall; the uneven scars Leguia bore on his tanned cheeks a reminder of the past he shared with Jim, and of his obligation to the man who had saved his life. “Ellison,” Leguia greeted them as he neared. He motioned at the armed men surrounding them, who immediately lowered their weapons, then looked back at the two of them. “There is no need for those,” he said, gesturing toward their spears. “My men will not harm you.” He smiled. “Welcome back, gentlemen.”

“Carlos,” Jim greeted. He lowered his spear, resting the butt of it on the ground, and Blair followed his lead although he continued to eyeball the men surrounding them suspiciously as Jim addressed Leguia. “What the hell is going on?”

Leguia shrugged. “I think you have been away far too long, if you are surprised that my property is well defended. But of course as soon as Emiliano recognized you he called me, and of course here I am. It is good to see you, my friend.”

“Likewise,” Jim said, but he remained aloof, the tension thrumming through him easily transferring itself to Blair and adding to his own. “But you didn’t answer my question.” Jim nodded pointedly at the men who stood around in hostile silence. “You expecting company? Besides us?”

But Leguia’s smile did not abate, nor did he answer the question. “Come,” he beckoned. “We will talk inside.” And turning his back on them, he strode away towards the house. The men surrounding them parted to let them through and, after a moment during which they exchanged a long look, Jim and Blair followed.

***

Blair was thrumming with anxiety by the time they stepped over the threshold, which was guarded by more unsmiling men who watched them closely as they entered. Leguia paused to speak briefly to one of his domestic staff (eavesdropping shamelessly, Blair heard something about food and a room), after which they followed Leguia into his study. Blair glanced around as the door closed behind them, leaving the three of them alone. Leguia’s inner sanctum seemed to Blair to be like the man himself: richly furnished without being ostentatious, and with the likelihood of dire secrets concealed within its depths.

Jim easily sensed Blair’s mood. “Easy, Chief,” he murmured. “Take a breath.” Nodding shortly, Blair attempted to do what Jim advised, steadying his breathing and trying consciously to let go of physical tension born of imminent fight or flight. He wanted to believe they were safe but he had never liked Leguia and trusted him even less, despite Jim’s inexplicable friendship with the man.

Leguia, Blair was well aware, didn’t think much of him in return. After one dismissive glance he had fixed his gaze on Jim, something in his expression (Blair uncharitably considered to himself) not very far from hero-worship.

“What’s going on, Carlos?” Jim asked, once the door was closed and the three of them were alone.

Leguia smiled. “Not everything is about you, Ellison,” he said. “I have my own concerns right now. These have resulted, as you have seen, in a need for increased security here in my home and in my various holdings.”

“And the white noise?” Blair demanded. “What about that, huh?”

Leguia glanced at him. “It is a private matter,” he said. He looked back at Jim. “You are not the only sentinel in the world, Ellison.”

“He’s the only sentinel in this room,” Blair retorted. “So how about this, huh? If we’re safe here, and you’re not trying to hide something from us, how about you switch it off?”

Leguia barely spared Blair a glance. “Do you trust me, Ellison?” he asked, his eyes fixed on Jim.

There was silence for a moment, then Jim nodded. “Yes.”

Blair had to stifle an urge to punch something. “Jim, what the hell?”

But Jim held up a hand in a pacifying gesture. “Carlos is my friend, Chief,” he said. “It’s okay.”

“I thought,” Leguia noted, watching their exchange, “that when you left here you were going to find a cure for your guide’s great trauma. But I see he is just as unwell.”

Blair gawped at him; Leguia’s words were not coming from any place of concern, that was for sure.  But before he could respond, Jim huffed a laugh. “Carlos, I love you. But if you don’t stop baiting Blair, I’ll throw you through the fucking window.”

Leguia’s face broke into a grin, and he threw his head back in laughter. “Dios mio, Ellison. That is rich.”

“I’ll do it. You know I will.” Jim was smiling too; but Blair could easily discern the edge to Jim’s humor. He wasn’t playing; not completely. Blair straightened up a little, reassured that despite Jim’s bizarre attachment to this asshole, he was still in Blair’s corner. “And stop changing the subject,” Jim went on. “I’ve been here before, more than once. I know you take security seriously. But I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Leguia’s laughter had died away, although a grin still played on his lips. “My business interests, as no doubt you are aware, are extensive and occasionally involve risk.” He shrugged. “Times change, and I must adapt. I have a new business partner, whose need for privacy is acute. I am happy to facilitate.”

“Anything I can do to help?” Jim asked.

“I appreciate the offer, my friend. But no, this is something I have under control. All will be well.” He smiled again: a shark’s grin, to Blair’s less-than-sympathetic eyes.  “And now, a question from me. What brings you back here? You have not travelled many days for a trivial reason, I assume.”

“No,” Jim said, all humor fled. “Not trivial at all.” And Blair listened, feeling his grief and anger rise once again as Jim gave him a brief precis of the desecration of the forest and the massacre of the Chopec.

“And now,” Leguia surmised, as Jim concluded, “You have come to ask for help, yes?”

“Yes,” Jim confirmed. He glanced at Blair, then back at Leguia. “We thought, if there was a way to publicize what is happening, make it a big news story, then maybe we could put a stop to it.”

Leguia pursed his lips, nodding. After a moment’s thoughtful silence he said, “I see the sense in that. I will think on it, Ellison. We shall discuss this further. But right now, I am sure you are tired after your long journey. My people are preparing a room for you; it is the same one you were in before.  Go there, rest, bathe. I will have food sent in. Sleep as long as you wish. Tomorrow morning I will supply you with clothes,” he pointedly eyed their tribal attire and the spears they still held as he spoke, “and put my barber at your disposal. My physician too. After that, we will talk about what can be done to put right this terrible wrong.” As he spoke he rose and opened the door, indicating for them to pass through it.

“Just tell me one thing first,” Jim said, pausing on the threshold. “The oil company. Of all the places in the world they could be from, they’re based in Cascade. It can’t be coincidence that they’re here.”

“Like I said, my friend,” Leguia answered. “Not everything is about you.” But for the first time since they’d arrived he looked troubled. “Rest assured I will look into it. I am not pleased that my country is being ravaged in such a way by a foreign corporation.” He indicated with his arm that they should progress through the door. “Take this night to rest and recover from your long trek. Tomorrow I will answer all your questions and tell you what has occurred in your absence. Have trust in me, you are safe here.”

Jim nodded and took Blair by the arm, steering him toward the big staircase in the hall. But before they set foot on the first step he turned around and stopped. After casting his eyes around the expanse of the hallway, he looked pointedly at Leguia. “We need privacy,” he said simply.

Leguia nodded shortly. “You shall have it.”

Jim regarded Leguia silently for a long moment. As the seconds ticked by Blair stirred a little in his grasp, his heart beginning to pound faster and faster as he wondered worriedly whether Jim had zoned. Zones had been such a rare occurrence during Jim’s time in the jungle that Blair had hardly ever had to guide him out of one. But Jim interrupted Blair’s increasingly frantic train of thought by once again addressing Leguia. “Thank you, Carlos,” he said, seemingly satisfied with whatever he had sensed. “See you tomorrow.” Then he steered Blair to walk beside him up the stairs.

“What was that all about?” Blair asked in a murmur.

“Not here,” Jim answered shortly, and Blair subsided.

Once in the room that had been provided to them Jim held up a hand for quiet, and methodically scanned it with his senses. He found two cameras - one in the bathroom, one in the bedroom - and three listening devices. He ripped them all out and showed them to Blair before putting them in the sink in the bathroom and covering them in water from the faucet.

“Privacy, huh?” Blair said scornfully.

Jim shrugged.  “I don’t know if those things were actually operational. I trust Carlos to keep his word, mostly. But I’m not taking the chance that one of his staff might go against orders and get curious about what sentinels and guides get up to in their private time.”

“Did that happen when we were here before?” Blair hated the thought. “Were they watching us like that, with hidden cameras?”

Jim shook his head. “Not in this room, no. But from what I sensed in the rest of this place just now, every room and hallway we passed through has been fitted with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment. Carlos always had some, but he’s gone way overboard since we were last here. Most of the stuff, like those things,” he waved toward the bathroom where the disabled devices were submerged, “is brand new. With that and the white noise, there’s something going on here, something that’s gotten him spooked enough to monitor every square inch of space.”

“Oh, man.” Blair looked at Jim worriedly. “Can you hear anything from downstairs?”

Jim frowned, trying, but shook his head. “The white noise generators are still on. It’s really dense, I can’t get through it.”

Blair had a bad feeling about this whole situation. “Are you sure we’re safe here? Maybe we should leave.”

“We’re as safe here as anywhere, Chief,” Jim said pragmatically. “And we need Carlos’ help to protect the tribe. We might as well do as he says and make ourselves comfortable in the meantime. What other choice do we have?”

None at all, Blair understood. Their single other sanctuary was under threat from an oil company, and they had nowhere else to go.

As they relaxed together in the huge bathtub a short while later, Jim’s eyes closed and an expression of sensuous bliss on his face as the hot water lapped around him, Blair found it hard to entirely let go of his watchfulness. Which was how it should be, of course: while the sentinel rested, the guide kept watch. But it was a long time since they had been able to take advantage of such luxury, and despite his need to stand sentry Blair felt much of his tension ebb away along with Jim’s as the minutes passed.

They toweled each other dry and, wrapped in soft bathrobes, made their way to the bed. A knock at the door heralded, as Jim’s sensory sweep confirmed before he opened it, the arrival of food. Thus it was, clean and sated and reclining on a bed softer than anything Blair could remember for a very long time, so accustomed was he to sleeping in the jungle, that one thing led to another, and soon he and Jim were making out lazily.

They’d never had anything like this in their time together; not really. A soft bed, and the leisure to explore and arouse each other in relative safety, such as it was. A pang of grief hit Blair at the thought, even in the midst of their passion, a sense of loss at what could never be, and Jim instantly responded, soothing him wordlessly in shared understanding. They were so in-tune with each other, it took Blair’s breath away.

Blair had never foreseen that a Bond could be like this, back in the days when he’d worked so hard to keep his nature hidden while striving to do the same for others. He’d never imagined that it could be such an intense, affirming merging of souls. Momentary grief assuaged Blair immersed himself in the ecstasy of their mutual bliss, embracing Jim through their deep link with everything that he was.

Afterward, sated in more ways than one, they lay together in peace, resting and sleeping turn and turnabout as was their habit in times of danger.

Chapter Text

The next morning, as Leguia had promised, Blair and Jim were supplied with regular clothes and the services of various members of Leguia’s staff.

The house physician, after checking them both over, declared them to be in good health, and Blair availed himself of a haircut, his long curls shaped and trimmed to just above his shoulders. He was reluctant to lose more of it than that; he still wanted, despite their current estrangement from the Chopec, to retain something of the tribe. And he couldn’t help but regard his long hair as an act of resistance; a passive-aggressive means of sticking it to the bastards at Guide World who had shaved his head as a way to de-humanize him.

After that they found themselves in Leguia’s study once more, sipping iced tea in the late morning. And at last they related in detail what had happened in the jungle, and outlined their ideas to get the news out there that Cyclops Oil were butchering the Chopec and destroying the land.

Leguia was thoughtful after they finished. “I can help you, of course. And I will do so. I have many means at my disposal. I will find out why Cyclops Oil are here, and what they hope to gain. I will make sure to thwart it. Rest assured I will deal with it personally. Your tribe will be safe, and you need never be linked with it.” He went on to outline how he would draw in contacts to engage in industrial espionage, engineer the deployment of environmental groups and international media, and pull in favors from government contacts. He really did have friends in high places, and Blair grew more and more confident that Leguia had not only the ways and means but also the will to halt the destruction.

Relieved beyond measure that they’d achieved what they came here to do, Blair glanced at Jim a little anxiously nevertheless. He’d not really gotten beyond thinking about enlisting Leguia’s aid, and now they had it he and Jim would have to decide on their next move. Going back to the Chopec, while the tribe were in the public eye, was not an option. And Blair didn’t think it would be a good idea for them to stay here for very long, either.

It seemed Jim’s thoughts were running along similar lines. “Carlos, I hate to ask any more of you. But Blair and I, we’ll need to disappear. I was thinking maybe head south to Chile, or possibly Brazil. If you have any contacts, anyone you know who might be able to help us…”

“I will ensure your safety,” Leguia said shortly. “But first I must tell you of developments in your country which I am certain will influence the direction you take. There have been many changes while you were gone,” Leguia said. “Some of it will not be easy for you to hear.”

“I’m listening,” Jim said. At the same time, he pushed at Blair through their link; a warning: be calm, let me handle this. Keep your cool. Blair nodded, taking a couple of deep breaths. Whatever this was, Jim sensed somehow that it might be rough, and needed Blair to keep it together for both their sakes. Blair was a little ashamed that he was so volatile lately that Jim felt the need to admonish him in this way, but the rush of reassurance and pride that followed from Jim soothed him instantly.

Blair sat up a little straighter, bolstered once more by his sentinel’s strength and compassion. He could deal with this, whatever it was. He would.

The whole exchange between the two of them had lasted only seconds, and Leguia was already speaking. “After you left, another guide in Cascade, another adult rogue, was taken by the Detectors.”

Okay, that was bad. That was mega-bad.

“Who?” Jim demanded.

Leguia looked at Jim for a long moment, and Blair imagined that something passed between them. But he forgot all about their odd interaction when Leguia continued, and Blair couldn’t believe his ears. “The rogue is a man called Robert Carter.”

Goddamn it, Robbie! Blair’s cousin, and Naomi’s second in command in the Cascade branch of the guide network. “Oh, no.” There had been no love lost between Blair and Robbie, especially after what happened the last time that they met, but Blair wouldn’t have wished what he’d gone through on anyone. “Is he okay? What happened to him?”

“He was tried, convicted, and admitted to a secure training facility, much as you were.” The thought made Blair go cold. “Crucially, under questioning, it appears that he revealed certain information to the authorities, and the existence of a large underground network of rogue guides was revealed. As a result, many hidden guides have been rounded up and detained. You and Carter,” Leguia, said to Blair, “are no longer the only adult rogues detected; hundreds have now been captured all over the Pacific Northwest. There have also been active Detector operations across the whole United States, because the authorities have reason to believe that similar rogue networks exist elsewhere.”

This was Blair’s worst nightmare. The thought of so many people - whole families and kids Blair had helped through the network and hundreds, maybe thousands of others - being put into places like Guide World and tortured in the name of ‘training’ filled him with grief and impotent horror. As for Robbie, he fucking betrayed them! Blair didn’t even remember getting to his feet, his heart pounding. “My mom! What about my mom? Naomi Sandburg?” Impatiently, needing to know, Blair added, “She went by ‘Naomi Skye’ outside the network.”

“The leader of the group?” Leguia shrugged. “I understand that she does not actually possess guide gifts herself. She was detained for a time, but the situation has changed so drastically since this all first came to light that she, along with a large number of other non-guide conspirators have been set free. She is speaking out all over the media, in any case.”

Jim stood also and placed a hand on Blair’s shoulder. “Chief, easy. Let’s hear the rest of it. Come on, sit down.”

Blair shrugged him off. A cold, determined detachment was replacing his initial panic. “They let her go? Why would they let her go? She was in charge, man. Why wouldn’t they throw the book at her?”

“Like I said, a lot has changed. The volume of confiscations means that the laws related to guides have been thrown into sharp relief, and there have been unprecedented consequences. This has been a major news story all over the world; a huge, global scandal. The authorities are no longer able to maintain the fundamental fiction which dictates their actions: guides are not, after all, sub-normal. Guides are, in fact, capable of living completely normal lives without close supervision, as hundreds of people who are now in custody have proven.”

“You said there are big consequences,” Jim said. His hand was back on Blair’s arm, an anchor in the shifting sea.  “Like what?”

“For a start, it appears the system has been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cases,” Leguia said. “There was not sufficient room in training facilities for all the guides they caught. New institutions have had to be established. While guides are currently detained in those places, public opinion has very much turned against the idea of slavery for guides - and make no mistake, it is now openly being called slavery. The captive rogues are from all walks of life, and people have woken up to the fact that they have been living quite happily alongside guides, who are perfectly normal people, all of their lives. Training in the new institutions has been suspended, as any attempt to harm the captive guides would be likely to result in public censure.”

Leguia looked back at Blair. “I believe the shift in public opinion is in large part due to your mother’s work with the media.” He waved a hand, indicating the two of them. “You, Ellison, and Blair Sandburg, have become something of the cause celébrè, the focal point of a movement which has overtaken not only the United States, but everywhere in the world where guides and sentinels are subject to restrictive laws. Naomi has used your story of mistreatment, and your subsequent flight from the country, as her rallying call. Everyone knows your names, your faces, and your tragic story of a true Bond thwarted by uncaring authorities. People are wearing tee-shirts with your faces on them. That’s how big this is.”

“Jesus.” Jim was shaking his head. He looked at Blair, the implications clear. “We’ll never be able to disappear after this.”

Blair nodded grimly. Nowhere to run, not anymore. What a clusterfuck.

Leguia, it seemed had more to say. “Shortly after you fled you became a wanted man, Ellison. While there is sympathy for you as a sentinel who has simply acted to reclaim his bonded guide, there is also the associated matter of the disappearance and suspected murder of four men.”

Blair knew instantly who Leguia was referring to. He’d been completely out of it at the time, but Jim had told him what happened. “Gavaghan, right? And the medic and guard from Guide World? But who’s the fourth?”

“The fourth was Howard Phillips,” Leguia said. “Another guard from Guide World.”

That didn’t clarify anything for Blair, but it seemed Jim understood who Leguia meant. “He wasn’t in the van. He should have been, but you found someone to take his place.”

“True,” Leguia agreed. “Yet he is presumed dead, like the others, as he disappeared at the same time, and has not been seen since.”

“However many there were,” Blair put in, “Jim didn’t kill any of them. It was one of your men, wasn’t it? You had them shot.”

“Jim did not object,” Leguia said quietly. “Am I right, Ellison?”

“Damn straight.” Jim’s mouth was set in a thin line. “Chief, if Carlos hadn’t ordered it, I’d have killed Gavaghan myself, no question. For what he did to you, he deserved it.”

The quiet conviction in Jim’s voice was almost out of place for someone talking so reasonably about murder. But for a sentinel like Jim the urge to protect and avenge his bonded guide was innate and unquestionable, as Blair had become well aware. Blair took a deep breath, then looked back at Leguia.  “My mom’s been all over the media, you said.” Longing filled him, a sense of desperate urgency. “Have you seen any of it? Is she okay?”

Leguia stood, and moved over to the desk. “I suspected you would wish to see it. This is a video of one of her most influential speeches. It has been shown everywhere: every major channel, in your country and around the world.” A flick of a switch caused blinds to come down over the windows, and a large-screen TV was revealed as the wood-paneled wall opened to reveal it. Leguia walked across, a video tape in his hand, which he slid into the front of a VCR situated underneath the screen.

The tape began, and Blair’s breath caught in his throat. There was his mom; his beautiful mom. Naomi was standing at a podium; the sign behind her indicated - god! - she was at his old alma mater, Rainier University, and it was weird beyond belief to see the two enormous posters, one of Jim and one of himself, flanking the university crest. Even more surprising were the people sitting at the table on the stage to Naomi’s left: his mentor, Eli Stoddart was there! Plus Chancellor Edwards and Hal Buckner, his former adviser, along with Sidney Oldham, the Head of Anthropology, and an older man he didn’t recognize…

It was Jim’s turn to gasp. “Jesus,” he murmured. “That’s my old man!”

“Your dad?” Blair’s attention was caught by Jim’s astonishment.

“Yeah.” Jim shrugged, answering Blair’s unspoken question. “You got me, Chief. He and I haven’t spoken for years. We don’t exactly see eye-to-eye.”

It seemed there was no end to today’s surprises.

Blair’s attention was drawn abruptly back to the screen, when Naomi started to speak. “Guides are not monsters,” she was saying. “Guides are people, just like you and me. They are your neighbors, they are your friends. They are the kids your kids go to school with, the buddies who they play with. Guides work with you, they laugh with you, they cry with you, and sometimes they love you. What right does anyone have to deprive them of their lives, their freedom?

“Sometimes, guides are your children. My child, my son Blair, is a guide.”

Blair felt Jim’s hand cover his own, and he grasped it back. Hard.

On the screen, Naomi carried on speaking, the emotion in her voice vivid and clear. “My son, my beautiful Blair, was a gifted anthropologist. He was twenty-five years old when he was taken. He had already made a difference in the lives of so many - not just the young guides, the guides in hiding that he mentored, but all the regular kids he taught here at Rainier as well. His students adored Blair - he was young, and cool, and kind, and funny, and a fantastic teacher.” Blair could see, as she said this, all his old colleagues nodding their heads in agreement.

Naomi continued: “Blair was a scholar here, at Rainier University, and was highly regarded and respected by his peers and his supervisors, many of whom stand here with me today. He published academic papers, and had been offered a publishing contract for his first book. He had almost completed a PhD, and was on the verge of being offered tenure. He was doing important research; research that would have made a difference. And yet despite this, despite all that he was, all that he still had to give, because of an accident of genetics he was ripped brutally away from his life.”

“For the crime of daring to live a normal, productive life, Blair was punished with unprecedented cruelty.” Naomi’s voice broke a little, and Blair began to find it hard to breathe. Jim’s hand in his was a vital lifeline. “Blair was tortured and broken,” Naomi said. “He was made to kneel, to abase himself, naked and without dignity. He was beaten if he so much as blinked out of turn, and forced to accept whippings without a sound. He was psychologically terrorized, so that eventually he could not even say his own name. They use words like ‘detected’, ‘confiscated’, and ‘rental’ to describe what happened to my son and to people like him. He is no longer, in their eyes, a person, but a ‘thing’, something to be conditioned, something to be used, something not quite human. And in the end he was denied even the solace of a Bond, simply for asserting his own right to humanity.

“You tell me - all of you here, you tell me. Is that fair? Is that just?”

Blair couldn’t do it; he couldn’t listen to any more. Grief exploded out of him and, sobbing in painful gasps, he turned into the strong arms that enfolded him.

***

“Hey.” Jim’s soft voice drifted over to Blair like balm on a wound when he entered the darkened bedroom late that night.

“Hey, yourself,” Blair answered, his voice hoarse. He was lying on the bed; he’d been here all day, ever since his meltdown in Leguia’s study.

“You hungry?” Jim asked. His voice was still soft; careful. Blair was grateful for it; he still felt like he might shatter at any moment, even hours later. He pondered Jim’s question, and his stomach rumbled. “I could eat,” he ventured, after a moment.

Jim had a brief conversation on the phone; Blair assumed he was asking for food to be brought up. Then he came over and lay down on the bed beside Blair. “Hey,” Jim murmured again, moving close, one hand smoothing soothingly over Blair’s shoulder and back. Their mouths found each other by blind instinct, and they kissed gently. There was no passion in it, just comfort. That was all Blair could handle right now and, of course, Jim could tell.

After a while Blair asked softly, “Where’ve you been?” Jim had been here with him most of the day, keeping watch over Blair’s shattered nerves as he shook and cried off and on and sometimes dozed fitfully, but the last time Blair woke, what felt like a couple of hours ago, he’d been gone.

“Talking to Leguia,” Jim said. His hand stroked Blair’s back cautiously, like he was a skittish wild thing to be gentled and tamed. “There’s… a lot going on. Stuff you don’t know about yet,” he said.

 “Give me the gist of it.”

“Not now,” Jim insisted. “You’ve got enough on your plate, huh? Just… relax. Take some time. I’ve got it all covered.”

“Hm.” Uncharacteristically Blair gave in, which was a measure of how off-balance he felt. But there was one thing he needed to know. He remembered they’d discussed it before the bombshell, but what happened next had overshadowed it all. “What about the Chopec? Leguia agreed to help us didn’t he? I didn’t imagine that?”

“Yeah,” Jim confirmed, “he agreed. He’s got some really good ideas about how to take it forward.”

Something in Jim’s tone bothered Blair. Reaching out through their link, Blair found a barrier keeping him out. “Jim?” he queried. Jim only tended to do that when he was protecting Blair from something, like if he was pissed off and didn’t want Blair to feel the backlash. “What’s going on?”

“It’s fine, Chief. I just… I’m feeling some pretty strong emotions right now. It’s not anything to do with you. Don’t sweat it.”

“Oh.” Blair blinked. “Are you okay? I mean, this has gotta be hard on you too.”

Jim pulled Blair into his arms. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me, Blair. Right now, I just want to focus on you, okay? Give me this one night to take care of you.” A tap at the door heralded the arrival of food, and Jim went to deal with it.

Blair let it go, feeling a little too vulnerable to push. But somehow he couldn’t shake a gut feeling that something - other than the obvious - was seriously wrong.

Chapter Text

The next morning over breakfast, Jim told him about some of the other stuff he’d learned when he’d been downstairs with Leguia, and at last Blair thought he’d worked out what had Jim so wound up. “Your dad spoke too? At the same press conference as my mom?”

“Yeah, he did.” Jim pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, as though he had a headache. Blair longed to send him some comfort, but Jim was still shutting him out of their link, much to his chagrin. “He said a lot of stuff. Personal stuff, things that make me think… well, he’s not angry at me anymore, I guess. It seems he and your mom have teamed up. Together they’re determined to change the world and, I guess, use us as the poster children for freedom.”

“Oh, man.” This whole thing about his dad had to be a big shock for Jim.

“There’s more,” Jim said. “Your mom and her supporters have been busy. They took your case before the Supreme Court, and the part of your sentence that prohibited you from bonding was quashed. They said that you should never have been denied the opportunity in the first place because it breached the Eighth Amendment. Our Bond is not only recognized now, it’s constitutionally protected. And because you now have a legal Bond, your sentence for being rogue has been set aside.”

“Whoa.” That was a lot to take in. “That’s huge, right? I mean, that’s an acknowledgment that guides have human rights. The Constitution never applied to us before.” Jesus, Blair felt like he was on a rollercoaster. “That means we could go home, right? If our Bond is legal, they can’t touch us.”

“It’s not as easy as that, Chief. I’m still wanted for murder, remember.”

“Shit.”

Jim looked like he was about to say more, but he closed his mouth when Leguia walked in and over to the breakfast buffet. “Good morning, my friends,” Leguia said. He turned to look at Blair; unaccustomedly jovial today, it seemed. “You are feeling better, yes?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Blair said shortly. “Thanks,” he added, making an attempt at politeness, even though he really couldn’t stand the guy.

Another man came in, then, and headed over to join Leguia at the buffet. That was strange; Leguia’s staff usually ate elsewhere. A houseguest then, Blair surmised or, with a flash of insight, more likely the new business partner Leguia had mentioned. Once their plates were filled Leguia and his guest came to sit at the table. The man was tall, like Jim, and good looking in a rakish kind of way. He smiled at Blair. “Hi,” he said. “You must be Jim’s guide.” He was American.

“I am forgetting my manners,” Leguia put in. He turned to the man. “You already know Ellison, of course.” He turned back to Blair. “Blair Sandburg, this is Lee Brackett.” Leguia looked over at Jim. “I trust you have informed your guide of our plans?”

Beside Blair, Jim was so still it was as if he’d turned to stone. Then he rose abruptly. “Come with me, Chief,” he demanded. And as if he was drawn on a leash, Blair got up and followed him out of the room, every nerve screaming danger, danger.

***

Blair followed on Jim’s heels down the hall and out the door. “Jim, what the hell,” Blair muttered, then shouted, “Jim! Hey, Jim!” They were heading away from the house, toward the main gate.

Jim didn’t stop, but his voice carried back to Blair. “I need you to see this, Chief. I need you to know what we’re up against so you don’t try anything stupid.”

There was a guard on the gate, and he turned, pointing his firearm at them both.

“Stop there,” the guy said, and Jim stopped, hands raised. “No further, or I’ll shoot.”

“What the hell?” Blair backed up, hands raised also, his heart racing. Out of the corner of his eye he could see movement, and he glanced in that direction. More guards, not all of them recognizably Leguia’s, but all of them armed and getting closer.

Blair looked back at Jim, whose expression was weirdly calm in the face of this threat. “I’m sorry, Chief,” Jim said.

Blair’s heart was pounding double-time. “Jim, what the hell’s going on?” Aside from the day before yesterday, during their precipitous arrival out of the jungle, they’d never been threatened by Leguia’s men. They’d certainly never been forbidden from leaving the grounds before. This had to be connected with the guy in the house, Leguia’s guest, he just knew it. “Who the hell is that guy?” he demanded. “Him, back there? Brackett?”

“Not here,” Jim said shortly. Taking Blair by the arm, he turned them both and they went back inside. No one tried to stop them or follow them, but Jim didn’t cease hurrying them along until they were back upstairs in their room.

Once inside, Jim paced backwards and forward, like a tiger in a trap. “Jim,” Blair said desperately. “I’m freaking out here, man. What the hell is this all about? What’s going on?”

Jim stopped, and took some deep breaths. Blair recognized it as a technique he’d shown Jim for dealing with stress and overstretched senses. Blair kept quiet, waiting for him to calm down, and trying to do so himself. Eventually Jim answered the question. “That guy downstairs,” he said, in a tightly controlled voice, “Leguia’s friend, is called Lee Brackett. He’s an ex-CIA agent. I knew him when I was in the military. He’s not here by accident, he’s here because of us. Because of me. He remembered from years ago about my friendship with Carlos, put two-and-two together, and made his way here. He’s been holding out here for months, hoping we’d show up. He’s not with the agency anymore, he’s freelance now. He’s a bounty hunter, and he intends to claim the bounty on my head for killing those men.”

“Oh my god.” So all of this, Leguia’s assurances of safety, the promises of help, were all a lie, and their initial suspicion of a trap had been perfectly correct. “We’ve gotta get out of here.”

“No.”

“What do you mean, no?” Blair was shaking, fight or flight kicking in with a vengeance.

“It’s not possible. Those guards out there? We’ll be shot if we try to leave the compound. Brackett doesn’t really care if he takes me back dead or alive, public opinion be damned.”

“Jim…” Black spots danced in front of Blair’s eyes. “Oh my god.” He felt Jim steer him into a chair and press his head down between his knees. Blair fought the pressure and sat up. “I’m not going to faint. Get off of me.” When Jim complied, he took some deep breaths, willing the panic to subside. “What are we going to do, man?” he asked, looking up at Jim. Even he could clearly hear the tremor in his voice.

Jim looked away, focused on the wall, the ceiling, then the floor - anywhere but Blair. “I’m not going to fight it,” he said. “I’m going back to Cascade with Brackett.”

Blair thought he must have heard wrong. “What?” When Jim didn’t answer Blair said incredulously, “You can’t do that, man. We’ll find a way to get out of here. There’s gotta be a way past those guards.”

Jim didn’t bother repeating himself. “Blair, listen,” Jim said, his voice adopting a reasonable tone that Blair just couldn’t buy, under the circumstances. “All those guides who were betrayed, who were captured after we left? The kids you mentored, and all the others? If I go back and get my name cleared - and I will, because there is no evidence I committed murder, it’s all circumstantial - I can help them. I can. The fact is, what happened to us has already had a big impact, and things back there are nothing like they were. Imagine how much more could be achieved if one of us was actually there to tell our story first-hand?”

Everything was moving too fast for Blair. “So what, you’re just going to let Brackett slap the cuffs on, and you’re going to meekly go to jail for murder because you want to change the world? I don’t think so. And anyway, why do you keep saying ‘I’? What about me?”

Jim swallowed, looking anywhere but at Blair. “You’ll stay here with Leguia.”

“What?” Blair was abruptly on his feet. “No fucking way.”

“Blair, you don’t have a choice!” Jim was shouting now, right up in Blair’s face. “I don’t have a choice! Don’t you get it? It’s over. This whole little interlude, here in Peru, is done. It’s time for me to go back and put things right. I have to put things right. I have to do this, Blair.”

“Jim, none of this makes sense!” Blair grasped Jim by the shoulders. “None of it! I get why you want to go home and help. I want that too, man! Hell, I was helping rogue guides before you even knew we existed! And you know how much I miss my mom. But I don’t want it to happen like this! I don’t understand why you would even consider going along with this!”

 “It’s complicated.”

“I’m a smart guy,” Blair said, a little bitterly. “Hey, like my mom said on that tape, I almost got a PhD. Try me.”

Jim took some more deep breaths, showing clearly how much this whole thing pained him, then dropped the bombshell. “Brackett is a sentinel, and Leguia is his guide. They bonded before we arrived.”

“What?” That was the last thing Blair expected to hear. “Leguia’s not a guide!”

“Chief,” Jim said wearily, “Why do you think you hate him so much?”

“Because he’s an asshole, that’s why!” Blair said. “A lying, duplicitous asshole!”

“Chief,” Jim said. “Think about it. You’ve never been able to stand him. You especially can’t stand him being anywhere near me.”

“He’s a guide?” Blair took an incredulous moment to consider it, then light dawned. “Oh my god, he’s been taking Antidux. All this time, he’s been hiding it.” Something else made sense, then. He’d wanted to punch Leguia out ever since they’d arrived and even though he’d disliked him before, Blair had never felt quite as much antipathy as he had this past couple of days. Now that he analyzed it, it reminded him of certain non-suppressed guides he’d met in the past who’d rubbed him up the wrong way without even speaking; something to do with positive and negative duxomone levels. It seemed clear that now Leguia was no longer taking a suppressant, they were pretty much literally poles apart hormonally. Blair glared at Jim. “Did you know?”

“No. I found out last night. But now that I do know, it makes sense of a lot of things.”

“Oh man. Like your fucking protective instincts being in overdrive every time you see him, and the way you carried him through miles of jungle that time before you came online.” Blair eyed Jim narrowly. “Hey, if you’re jealous of him getting together with Brackett…”

“Just stop it right there. No way.” Jim’s emphatic denial halted that train of thought in its tracks.

Letting that go (and resentfully acknowledging how unnecessarily peevish the suggestion had been, no matter how freaked out he was), Blair demanded, “So, was Leguia in on this from the start?”

Jim shook his head. “The way he tells it, when Brackett turned up here and made his intentions toward me plain, Carlos planned to kill him. He locked Brackett and his men up, but somewhere along the way he ended up feeling the pull of the Bond. They both did. He freed Brackett, they bonded, and now Leguia wants to make his sentinel happy by giving him what he wants - me.”

It seemed, then, that Brackett had been here the whole time, hiding his presence behind the white noise. “So?” Blair was livid. “How does that translate to that asshole throwing away years of friendship, where you two saved each other’s asses over and over, to stab you in the back like this? Don’t you matter to him at all? And hey, if he’s such a good friend, why doesn’t he just kill Brackett like he first intended?” At Jim’s withering look, Blair amended it to, “Okay, okay, he’s bonded. He loves his sentinel. So why doesn’t he use his guide-whiles to talk Brackett out of it, or bribe him, or something? Hell, he’s rich enough to pay Brackett the bounty three times over. He’s gotta have plenty of influence over him now they’re paired.”

“I guess he offered him money, but Brackett said no. It’s me he wants, and it’s me he’s going to get.”

“And Leguia is down with that? He’s just going to hand you over?” Blair headed toward the door. “I’ll kill that asshole.”

“No.” Jim caught Blair by the arm, swung him around. “You won’t.” He took a deep breath. “Listen,” he said. “This is the important part. Listen to me Chief, and hear what I’m saying.  In return for going along with this, Leguia has promised to pull out all the stops and save the Chopec. He can do it, Chief. He can really do it. He has the means and the contacts, the money, the influence… all of it. The Chopec will be safe if I let Brackett take me back. They’ll be able to live in peace. But if I escape, if we escape, he won’t help us.”

“Jesus.” Blair shook his head. “I thought Leguia was your friend. You told me he’d do anything for you! And hey, he seemed genuinely keen to help the tribe yesterday, and even I believed it meant something to him. All that ‘foreign corporation raping my country’ shit.” Blair snorted in disgust. “Seems he’s got his price too, huh?”

“Everybody’s got their price, Chief.”

That had a strange ring to it. Impulsively, Blair asked, “So, what’s your price, Jim? I mean, what do you get out of this? Tell me so I can understand.”

Jim took a breath, then smiled at Blair, a sad smile. “If I do this, I get a chance to save the tribe,” he said gently. “That’s all I want. Both tribes - the Chopec, and our tribe, our people, in Cascade.” Jim took hold of Blair by the shoulders, maintaining eye contact. “Hundreds of people have been rounded up in Cascade, and thousands more across the U.S. They’re still locked away. Some of them have gone through the same stuff you did. More of them still might. I can’t let that happen.”

“Jim-” Blair began.

But Jim stopped him. “They’re going to need people to fight for them, Chief. People like me, and people like you, along with your mom and my dad. As soon as I get my name cleared I’ll bring you back home to live with me legally, and then we’ll be able to work together to make sure what happened to you never happens to anyone else ever again. And Chief,” Jim added, his voice gone soft. “Given everything that’s happened, with our names and faces out there all over the goddamn world, we really don’t have any other choice but to come out of hiding and face this thing.”

He leaned forward then, and kissed Blair on the forehead, before pulling him close.

It felt like farewell.

That would happen over Blair’s dead body.

Chapter Text

Blair was so viscerally angry about the whole situation he spent most of the day giving Jim the cold shoulder while he considered a way forward. For his part Jim seemed to think that their discussion was over, and that Blair had just accepted it. He didn’t yet realize how wrong he was about that.

Even though Blair’s instincts screamed against it, Jim insisted that they both make an appearance for dinner.  “Look, I already told you. I’m not going to fight this. Leguia has…” Jim paused, “He’s given me his word that he’ll put things right with the tribe. We’ve made a deal, I believe him, and I’m not going to make any trouble. We might as well be civil until it’s time for me to leave.”

“You believe him? After what he’s done to you?”

“Chief,” Jim said warningly. “Please. Don’t make this more difficult than it already is.”

Blair bristled at that; he wasn’t the one turning Jim over to a fucking bounty hunter, was he? Once again, he was forced to question the bizarre loyalty Jim persisted in showing to the Peruvian businessman. He thought he understood Jim pretty well, but in this one matter it felt like he didn’t know him at all. “Okay man,” he conceded. “But none of this is my choice. Don’t expect me to play nice.” He ignored the distressed look that Jim gave him, because he wasn’t down with this stupid situation at all, goddamn it.

They were ushered into the dining room with all due courtesy by the staff on duty. Leguia and Brackett were already seated, and Leguia beckoned them in. “Ellison, Blair. Come, sit. Sit down.”

Leguia and Brackett engaged in small talk with each other while the food was served, but both Jim and Blair sat in silence. As soon as the staff withdrew, closing the door behind them, Blair glared at Leguia. “So,” he said, ignoring Jim’s cautionary hand on his arm. “You’re a guide. How about that, huh?”

Leguia grinned widely. “Ha, yes. It is like we are brothers, you and I. What would your Detectors make of that, I wonder? All those times I have travelled in and out of your country, conducting my business there. No one ever suspected, not for one moment.”

You’re no brother of mine, Blair thought to himself. “So, you hid it all these years. Even in the military.”

“In Peru, we do not restrict guides as you Estadounidense do. However some professions are… frowned upon for people like us. I chose early on to be a soldier. It was necessary to conceal my nature to do so.”

“I guess, with your wealth, you had no problems getting hold of suppressant drugs?” Blair laughed without humor. “Man, that stuff cost me half my salary. Sometimes I couldn’t afford to eat.”

“Then you did well to stay hidden so long. As for myself, it helps that contradux preparations are a cornerstone of our family pharmaceutical business. Very few Leguias ever bonded; we decided long ago to manufacture our own supply. Over time we became the major supplier not only in Peru but in many other countries through our holdings worldwide. It is probable that the medication you used to take was manufactured in our labs.” He rested a hand on Brackett’s, who turned his palm to enclose Leguia’s fingers in a clear display of affection. “It is rare for us to enter into a Bond, in my family. We require rare sentinels, you see. Not many would be compatible. I am happy to have found mine.”

Blair wanted to vomit. “Yeah, how about that. Congratulations.”

It was meant entirely sarcastically, but Leguia inclined his head nevertheless, seemingly without irony. “Thank you,” he said.

Something else dawned on Blair, then. “Holy shit, I just realized! Your name, ‘Leguia’. It means ‘guide’! That’s wild. Talk about hiding in plain sight!”

Leguia saluted Blair with his glass, a smile on his lips. “I’ve always found my family name somewhat darkly humorous.”

It made a weird kind of sense to Blair. “It’s like people called ‘Mason’ who are descended from an ancestral stonemason in antiquity, I guess. It makes sense especially if the guide gift goes back generations in your family to a time when titular names began to be passed down to descendants as family names…” He paused suddenly, annoyed with himself for making such inane small talk, conscious that, apart from he and Leguia, there was pretty much dead silence from the other two men around the table.

Brackett had been watching their interaction measuringly, his hand still held in Leguia’s. “Ain’t it nice, Jim,” he said into Blair’s sudden silence, speaking up at last, “that our guides are getting along so well?”

“I’m ecstatic,” Jim said, and Blair was slightly mollified by the fact that Jim’s warmer feelings clearly didn’t extend to Brackett.

“You know, I’m surprised you didn’t take Carlos as your guide yourself. You being great friends, and all,” Brackett said, a hint of challenge in his voice.

Jim laughed dismissively.  “I guess it’s up to Carlos who he makes a play for,” he said. “He never made a play for me. And if he had - I wouldn’t have been interested. No offense,” he added, looking at Leguia. “I wasn’t even online back then, and by the time that happened I didn’t want to bond with anyone.”

“No offense taken, my friend,” Leguia responded, a glint in his eye. Watching the byplay, Blair found himself getting more and more annoyed at Jim’s apparent need to be nice to this asshole.

“And yet,” Brackett went on, “You did bond, Jim.” His eyes raked over Blair. “And with this sweet little thing, too.”

That was enough. “Cut it out,” Blair said. “I’m sitting right here. Don’t talk about me like I’m some fucking object.”

“I agree,” Leguia said, a surprising source of support. “Do not insult my guests, Lee.”

A brief cloud came across Brackett’s face when Leguia spoke, but he acquiesced. He doesn’t like it, Blair thought. He doesn’t like being spoken to like that by his guide. His eyes met Leguia’s, and the man nodded, as if he knew what Blair was thinking. Holy shit, Brackett, Blair thought. You stupid fuck. Leguia will eat you alive.

It was only after dessert was cleared away that the matter at hand, the elephant in the room, came to the fore. “So, Jim,” Brackett said, all politeness now, after Leguia’s admonishment earlier. “Let’s get down to business. We fly from Lima tomorrow afternoon. We’ll leave Carlos’ house at noon, and be back in Cascade in time for your arraignment on Friday. The good old Department of Corrections will be waiting, all ready to receive.”

Blair didn’t hesitate. “Over my dead body.”

“Chief,” Jim warned.

But Leguia held up a hand. “No, it is all right.” He addressed Blair. “I have provided Ellison with certain assurances for the price of his cooperation in this matter.” Beside him, Jim had gone still as a statue. “We have made a deal, he and I. And both of us are committed to honoring it.”

Blair snorted. “A deal made under duress is no deal at all.”

“I assure you, Ellison has come to this decision of his own free will.” Leguia looked at Jim. “Is that not right, my friend?”

Jim nodded. “I told you, Chief. I want to do this. I’m not going to change my mind.”

Blair nodded, looking at Jim in disgust, and then looked back at Leguia. “Then you’d better book me onto the flight as well.”

“Chief,” Jim warned. “We’ve been over this.”

“No,” Blair said. “You’ve been over this. Not me.”

Jim pushed his chair away from the table and stood. “That’s enough. We’ll discuss this upstairs,” he said shortly.

Blair shrugged, but he didn’t move from his seat. Instead he stared at Jim challengingly, daring him to treat Blair as anything less than an equal. After an exasperated moment Jim left the room, clearly expecting Blair to follow.

Blair stayed put. He met Leguia’s eyes across the table. “Book another seat on the plane for me.” With heroic restraint, he omitted adding the word: asshole.

Leguia smiled. “I have already made arrangements for your return to Cascade. I assumed you would choose to remain at your sentinel’s side, despite his protestations to the contrary. This is entirely your decision, of course. You are not regarded as a fugitive in your own right, merely as an adjunct to your sentinel. There is no bounty for Lee to collect on you.”

There was no way in hell Blair would stay behind with this jerk. “I won’t change my mind,” he said. He took a deep breath, drawing on every ounce of resolve he possessed. He turned to look at Brackett. “I’m guessing things haven’t changed so much that I’ll be allowed to roam around free without my sentinel, huh?” When Brackett shook his head in the negative, he asked, “Will they put me in jail with Jim?”

 “They’ve got somewhere else waiting for you,” Brackett said. “A guide center.”

“Oh. Right.” Guide World, then, or somewhere like it. He looked at Leguia. “You said things have changed in those places. I hope you’re right.”

Leguia shrugged. “They have indicated that your confinement will not be punitive, but simply for your welfare while Ellison is incarcerated.”

Blair felt shaky just thinking about what potentially awaited him, but since Jim was apparently determined to do this stupid thing he was committed to going along for the ride. “You know, if Jim gets hurt, or if he ends up convicted of murder, I’ll never forgive you for this,” Blair said. “In fact, screw that. I won’t forgive you anyway. I thought you were his friend.” Restraint was lacking this time. “You asshole!”

Leguia was giving him a withering look. “This is Ellison’s own choice,” he said. “He has made his decision - and his reasons - quite clear. Do you really think, if he wasn’t willing to submit to Lee’s authority, that he wouldn’t find a way to escape? You underestimate him, if so. James Ellison is a remarkable man.” Beside Leguia, Brackett shifted uncomfortably when his guide’s lauding of Jim’s abilities unexpectedly cast shade on his own.

Blair was intrigued once again by the subtle indications that Leguia and Brackett might not have an easy future ahead of them in their Bond, but there was something else he’d been wondering about. “I’m surprised you’re so ready to hand Jim over. Aren’t you worried he’ll implicate you?”

“I am not concerned about that,” Leguia said. “I have ensured that Ellison will have access to an excellent legal team who will not only secure his release, but also keep my name out of it. I have complete confidence in the outcome.”

“All lawyered-up on your dime, huh? Neat,” Blair said. “You’d better make sure they do a good job, otherwise Jim might drop the dime on you anyway.” Jim had indicated no such thing, of course, but Blair wasn’t passing up the opportunity to score a point. He focused on Brackett. “So why are you so keen to collect the bounty on Jim, when your guide is rich enough to give you anything you want? Legal help, of the kind he’s talking about, doesn’t come cheap, but it’s small change to him.”

Brackett lounged back in his seat, nonchalantly using a toothpick. “Ever hear of professional pride, Mister Sandburg?” he said. “Not everything is about money. Being the man responsible for bringing in the notorious James Ellison is going to be sweet enough all by itself.”

Suddenly, Blair didn’t want to be here anymore, in this room with these two psychos; instead, he wanted Jim desperately. He stood and moved away from the table, but before leaving he looked back at Leguia, “Please. Carlos. I am asking you… okay, I am begging you. Please help the Chopec like you promised. Do your best for them. They don’t deserve what’s happening to them, and they desperately need help. It’s really hard for me to walk away like this unless I can be certain they’re in good hands.”

Leguia frowned. “Of course. That is not in question. I already said I would help. In fact, I have already set things in motion. Keep an eye on the news when you return. I think you will be pleased.”

Blair stared hard, wishing he could knock Leguia on his ass, then turned and left the room.

Upstairs, Jim was pacing like a trapped animal. “I told you,” he said angrily, when Blair entered their bedroom. He’d clearly listened in - the white noise that had initially masked Brackett’s presence must have vanished. “You are not going back to Cascade. You are staying right here, with Leguia, where you will be safe. That is my final word.”

Holding Jim’s eyes, Blair sank to his knees. He heard the breath catch in Jim’s throat as he lowered his head, hands crossed in the small of his back, adopting the perfect posture of a submissive guide.

“Stop it,” Jim hissed, his voice full of anguish. “Damn you, Blair. Get up!”

Blair lifted his head and looked back at Jim. He held out his hands in entreaty. “Are you sure? I mean this is what you want, right? Me on my knees, doing what you tell me? Being a good little guide?”

“You know it’s not what I want!” Jim’s voice was hoarse with pain.

“You could have fooled me,” Blair said. “Because right now, Jim, it looks a hell of a lot like you’re making all of the decisions about our future, and you’re giving me no say in it at all!”

“There’s no other decision to make!”

“Yeah, right, like you can’t decide to walk away from this thing? Leguia, just now, he hinted that you were capable of doing exactly that. Brackett didn’t like it when he said it, but your good pal Carlos has a high opinion of your ability to change the stakes.”

“I already told you. I told him too. I need to do this.”

“To save the tribe, I know. The tribe here, and the tribe there. I get it Jim, I do. I want the same thing.”

“Then why are you doing this?”

“Because you and me, we’re a team. We’re partners, a pairing. Sentinel and Guide. I’m coming with you, Jim. We do this together, or we don’t do this at all.”

Jim let loose a groan of frustration. “I just want you safe!”

“And I want you safe too, all right?” Blair got up off his knees, and came over to stand in front of Jim. “It’s not just you, man. Anyway,” he grinned. “Maybe, after all this time living with the Chopec, I think ‘safe’ is overrated.”

“Blair, please.” Jim’s voice broke. “This is not something to joke about! You go back there, they’ll take you away from me and lock you up until this thing is over. I can’t let you do that. I don’t know what they’ll do to you, Chief. I can’t send you back to that, not again. I can’t do it. I can’t let you do it.”

“It’s not your call,” Blair said firmly. “If you are voluntarily putting yourself in custody, a whole continent away from here, then I’m doing it too. Because you are not going anywhere without me.”

“What if they beat you?” Jim’s face reflected his stark terror. “What if they make you stay on your knees, hurt you like they did before? What then? Because I can’t save you from that if I’m in jail.”

A frisson of horror rushed through Blair; a sense-memory of pain and humiliation. But he firmly quenched it. “You said it yourself, and Leguia said it too. Everything has changed - no one approves of slavery for guides anymore. It’s not like it used to be, right? And even if it is, I can handle it, man. I’ve handled it before.”

***

Jim eventually lost the argument, as Blair knew he would, but he didn’t do so without insisting to Leguia that further assurances of Blair’s safety must be obtained. These were forthcoming later that night with a promise, obtained via Leguia’s lawyer, that should Jim be cleared of the murder charge then Blair would be immediately freed to join him as his bonded guide. But despite this news, at no point did Jim seem reassured.

It didn’t help that Leguia’s lawyer was going to be waiting back in Cascade to accompany Jim to detention, but no such advocate would be waiting to go with Blair to the training facility. Jim railed about that fact angrily. “Apparently it’s because you have no individual rights. You’re nothing more than a fucking chattel to the powers that be. They’re just going to lock you up until I’m able to claim ownership.”

Blair shrugged. “So what else is new, man.”

Jim whirled, taking Blair by the shoulders, and Blair felt himself shaken a little. “How can you act like this, after what they put you through? Like it’s no big deal?” Jim hissed.

Blair determinedly shrugged Jim’s hands away. “I already told you why. I’m not changing my mind,” he said firmly. If Jim was going to do this stupid thing, he wasn’t going to do it alone. If the legal representation provided to Jim was as good as Leguia had assured them it would be, then they’d just have to spend a little time apart until Jim was cleared and they were both freed. And Blair was determined to hang on to the hope, no matter how much it terrified him, that things in guide facilities were not as bad as they used to be.

He refused to contemplate any other possibility.

They bonded late that night, more out of necessity at their impending separation than desire. Their coupling was physically demanding and intense, but despite their rapport Jim maintained a barrier on his emotions, only allowing Blair far enough in to feel his turmoil, but not the detail.

Blair figured he deserved it - Jim was truly, profoundly pissed off at him.

That undercurrent of anger persisted throughout the next morning as they prepared to leave, such that it felt at times like the air fizzled and crackled between them.

No matter their ongoing disagreement, practical matters needed to be dealt with. They’d emerged from the jungle with nothing but their tribal clothes and spears, so Leguia provided them both with basic necessities for their trip: a change of clothes, underwear, shoes, shaving kits, toiletries. As they ate, dressed and packed Jim wouldn’t even meet Blair’s eyes, holding himself aloof, and sheer stubbornness made Blair do the same.

All too soon, Brackett sought them out. “Time to go,” he said.

Ellison stood and faced him, holding out his wrists. “You gonna cuff me, Brackett?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary, do you, Jim? You’re not going to run out on me, are you?”

Jim shrugged. “It’s your funeral if I do.”

Blair nudged him. “Jim, come on. You said this was your choice, remember?” He looked at Brackett. “He’s not gonna run. And neither am I.”

Blair dozed off, despite himself, in the car on the way to the airport. It was a two-hour drive to Lima, where their plane awaited. Jim sat bolt upright beside him for the whole journey, his shoulder rigid against Blair’s. That small contact was the only comfort Blair was granted. The miles seemed to shorten far too quickly, and before he knew it they had reached the airport. Rubbing sleep out of his eyes Blair allowed himself to be ushered through the departure terminal in a daze. They were waved through security, and in short order they were walking up the steps and on the plane. Blair blinked in surprise as they boarded - no scheduled flight, this. It was a private jet, with a sumptuous interior. “Is this Leguia’s?” Blair murmured to Jim, and Jim nodded shortly.

“Buckle up, boys. It’s going to be a long flight,” Brackett told them. “Might as well get some shut-eye if you can.” Outside, it was already sunset - the next time they saw sunlight, Blair thought grimly, would be in Cascade. As they fastened their seatbelts Brackett’s armed guards, who had followed them in the car behind, came onboard and strapped themselves in as well. Blair eyed them warily; so many high-velocity weapons in a confined metal box, shortly to be cruising at more than thirty thousand feet, made him nervous.

Beside him Jim had reclined his seat, eyes closed, apparently already asleep even as they taxied out to the runway. He had closed himself off from Blair so completely that not even a hint of what he was feeling could be detected through their link. Blair shivered, feeling a little sick and adrift, his heart beating triple-time. He must have made an involuntary sound, or maybe he’d communicated his distress in some other way that only a sentinel could perceive. Whatever the case, in the next moment Jim’s hand was grasping his.

They didn’t talk, they just dozed on and off. But they gripped each other tight throughout almost the entire twelve-hour flight.

Chapter Text

When they landed in Cascade rainclouds were just clearing to the east, the tarmac still wet from a recent downpour. As soon as the plane came to a halt at the terminal and the pilot cut the engine, Brackett made his way over. He had a set of cuffs in his hand. “Sorry about this, Jimbo,” he said. “It’s a matter of professional appearances. What kind of bounty hunter would I be, huh, if I gave you up to the marshals with your hands free?”

Jim’s face looked hard and angry, but he stood and passively held out his wrists all the same.

Blair stood too. His stomach was in knots, anxiety barely keeping him just the right side of panic. One look at Jim revealed that he was struggling too. Slipping into guide mode, Blair rested a hand on his shoulder. “Hey,” he said. “I’m here. Just breathe deep and slow, all right?”

“I know the drill, Chief,” Jim said shortly. “And for the record, my major fucking problem is that you’re here.”

Blair nodded. He knew that, of course. Jim hadn’t let him forget it this whole trip, having given him the silent cold shoulder the whole way. “You could be less of an asshole about it, man,” he said.

Jim met his eyes finally. “I love you, Chief,” he said. “But you’re a stubborn son of a bitch.” He turned, finally, looked Blair full-on. “Come here,” he said, hooking his cuffed arms awkwardly over Blair’s head.

The hug was uncomfortable and restricted due to the cuffs, but to Blair it was everything he needed. He clung hard to Jim, pressing his mouth to Jim’s neck and breathing hard, trying not to give in the tsunami of emotion he was feeling. But as much as he just wanted to savor Jim’s embrace practicalities had to be addressed, no matter how painful. “Jim, remember all the relaxation stuff we’ve worked on,” Blair murmured. “Use your breathing and ask for help when you need it; don’t leave it until things get bad. They’ve gotta provide you with a service guide, at the very least.”

“You’re the only guide I want or need,” Jim said. The words forced Blair’s sense of impotent despair to the fore. “But I’ll do whatever I have to do to get through this and get you back.” Jim held Blair even tighter. “Keep breathing, Chief. Whatever happens, however long this takes, hold onto who you are and what we’ve got. Keep reminding yourself that we won’t be apart forever.”

“Time to go,” Brackett said behind Blair, and after one final, breath-stealing squeeze, Jim lifted his bound hands away. They made eye contact for a long moment, then Jim looked at Brackett. “Lead on, Sport,” he said.

As they walked down the steps onto the tarmac, Blair could hear something; a huge crowd somewhere in the distance, and what sounded like drumming and chanting. He tried to remember if there was a sports stadium somewhere near the airport, but couldn’t place one in his mental map of Cascade.

Inside the terminal the cops were waiting, a big crowd of them, some in uniform, some not. Brackett led Jim forward, Blair on his other side, one hand on the sentinel’s shoulder; he was not letting go of Jim until he absolutely had to. Three men came forward - a couple of US Marshals and a plain-clothes cop - and Brackett presented his prize to them. “Gentlemen, this is Sentinel James Ellison.”

“I know who it is,” said the guy not in uniform, a big guy, African American and strangely familiar. With a jolt, Blair recognized him: Jim’s former Captain at the P.D., Simon Banks. “How you doing, Jim?” Banks asked, unsmiling; very serious.

“I’m good, sir,” Jim answered.

A woman interposed herself, then. Tall, wearing a business suit and an air of authority. “Sentinel Ellison,” she greeted Jim, holding out a hand which Jim shook awkwardly with his cuffed hands. “I’m Marta Fletcher, your attorney.” She moved into position flanking Jim and addressed the police captain. “My client has nothing more to say at this time,” she said.

Banks nodded, clearly knowing the drill. He gave Jim a measuring look, then his eyes roved over Blair for a long moment, before dismissing him, just as he always had. “We’ll take it from here,” he said to Brackett.

Jim turned his head to look at Blair. “It’s gonna be okay, Chief. You can let go now, okay?”

Blair realized that he was holding Jim’s shirt in a death grip. With an effort he released his cramped fingers and let go. “Jim,” he said, a little desperately, and once more Jim’s cuffed arms came around him in a bruising hug.

“I love you,” Jim murmured.

Blair just held on and breathed. Then his breath caught, and held, as Jim released him and moved away. With one last nod Jim turned his back.

Watching Jim walk away in custody a moment later was, Blair thought, the hardest thing he’d ever had to do. Until, that was, a couple of men stepped towards him, wearing the unmistakable white uniform of Guide Corps, padded restraints dangling from their belts.

“No.” He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t breathe.

“Guide Ellison?” The words meant nothing to Blair except pain and humiliation. “Everything’s going to be fine, Guide. We’re going to take good care of you.” His legs gave way, a red haze over his vision, and he fought the hands that reached out for him, scrabbling backwards, crying out wordlessly, needing out, needing out… until instinct took over. Blind, conditioned, self-preservation. Blair moved to his knees, hands behind his back, adopting the submissive guide posture without conscious thought, his vision elsewhere, another place, another time, dread all he knew.

“Let me through, goddamn it! Simon, for god’s sake, uncuff me. Just for a minute. I’m not going anywhere, come on, guys.” Then suddenly Jim was there, his arms around Blair, his beloved scent in Blair’s nostrils. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you, Chief. Come on, breathe for me. That’s it.” Blair felt himself rocked, held, all the while their link blazing open, blazing between them, full of love and compassion and safety, oh god, safety…

It seemed to take a while, but Blair was finally coming back to himself. Reality came clear. Oh man, he’d lost it. He’d freaked out and sunk to his knees, right there in the airport, in front of Brackett and all the cops and… in front of them, the ones from the facility, the people who were here to take him back. An involuntary sound of pure fear escaped him then, his heart racing, and Jim shushed him, soothed him. “It’s okay, Blair,” he was whispering. “It’s okay. I’ve got you. You’re safe. You’re safe.” Then, over his shoulder, “Get back, damn it! Haven’t you people done enough? Give me a minute longer here.”

Gradually Blair’s breathing steadied. He risked opening his eyes, to find that he was no longer on his knees but slumped against Jim, his head cradled against Jim’s shoulder, and the world was no longer spinning. “Jim?” he ventured, in a hoarse whisper.

Jim shushed him again, his hold slackening only a little. “Take it easy,” he said. “Give yourself a minute. I got you.”

“I’m sorry.” Blair had been so certain he could do this. That he could be strong for Jim and face his own brand of incarceration with equanimity. They didn’t hurt guides anymore, he’d been assured of that. He wasn’t going to jail, like Jim: a place full of muggers and thieves and too much noise and stench and mayhem for a sentinel to handle. What the hell did he have to freak out about? “I let you down, man.”

“Don’t be stupid.” Jim squeezed him tight. “You have never, not once, not ever, let me down.” Jim looked up, spoke again to someone behind Blair, someone he couldn’t see. “Okay, you can come over. But don’t touch him, and I’m staying right here.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” The voice, unfamiliar, belonged to a man who came and crouched down in Blair’s line of sight. “Hey,” he said softly to Blair, holding his gaze. If he was with the Corps, he wasn’t wearing a uniform. “Hello, Blair.”

Blair, not ‘Guide Ellison’ or ‘Guide 96-234’, as he’d been called in the past, in the bad old days.

The guy was still speaking. “I’m Doctor Wolf; Dan Wolf. You can call me Dan. I’m a therapist at Haven. I work with guides like you, who’ve been in hiding most of their lives.”

“You mean rogues,” Blair’s voice was hoarse, as though he’d been screaming. Maybe he had; he didn’t remember.

The guy - Dan Wolf - shrugged. “Well, that’s what people used to say, but we don’t use that word at Haven. It’s a little depersonalizing, don’t you think?”

That was an understatement, for sure. His anxiety was easing, held in Jim’s arms like this, and Blair met Jim’s eyes in a moment of silent questioning. Jim nodded back at him encouragingly before holding him a little tighter and glaring back at Dan Wolf, his expression a mix of wariness and barely concealed threat. Jim’s protectiveness gave him courage. “I’m sorry I freaked out,” Blair said to Wolf.

Wolf shrugged. “Hey, it’s understandable.” He smiled, his expression unexpectedly kind, and Blair dared to study him a little more closely. He had warm, brown eyes, and the high cheekbones that spoke of Native heritage, with long, dark hair tied back in a ponytail. He wore a tweed jacket and his white shirt was a little crumpled and open at the collar, revealing a variety of fetishes on leather thongs around his neck. He certainly didn’t look anything like a regular Guide Corps employee.

“You’re a doctor?” Blair asked daringly. The Corps didn’t usually encourage questions from their charges, but the guy had asked Blair to call him by his first name so this encounter was already way outside the box.

“Yes,” Wolf confirmed. “A psychologist, actually. Cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, all that good stuff. I specialize in treating PTSD, and have a lot of experience working with sentinels and guides who’ve been in active combat. I understand you know quite a bit about psychology yourself?”

His manner was friendly enough, but Blair was disconcerted - not for the first time - by how little of his life (and in this case, his educational history) was private when it came to people with authority over guides. “From both sides of the equation, I guess you could say,” he answered. Held in Jim’s arms like this, it was easy to say something marginally challenging. Later… maybe not so much.

But Dan Wolf just smiled. “I hear that,” he said. His expression became more serious. “I read your file, Blair. I know that you were put through a terrible time, and that it is really, really hard for you to trust people who work for Guide Corps. But I’m asking you to do that. I’m asking you to trust me. And in return, I promise, cross my heart, that no one at Haven will hurt you. Not in any way.”

It seemed ridiculous under the circumstances but there seemed to be something trustworthy about this guy, something that made Blair want to believe him, but he needed a second opinion from someone who could really tell if he was on the level. Blair glanced at Jim questioningly and, having easily gotten the message, Jim studied Wolf intently. After a moment he nodded. “He seems like he means it,” he said. Then he gave Wolf a dark look. “He’d better.”

Wolf didn’t seem fazed by Jim’s attitude. “Blair, I know you really don’t want to let Jim go,” Wolf went on. “You and your sentinel have a really strong Bond, I can see that.”

“But I’ve got to, right?” Blair felt a frisson of terror, and Jim’s hands moved on him, soothing him. He nodded, breathing hard, firming up his resolve. This was his choice. He’d known full well, when he made the decision to come back here, exactly what would happen. Time to grow a backbone and face reality. “I know. I understand. I’m ready.”  He turned to look into Jim’s eyes, a long look. Jim looked devastated by this whole thing. “It’s okay, Jim,” he said. “I’m fine now. I’m sorry I scared you.”

In answer, Jim pulled him into a crushing hug. For a second they both allowed their link to blaze fully between them, touching each other in places deep inside that no one else could ever touch. They pulled back, gazing at each other, Blair knowing absolutely that Jim’s fear matched his own: they were both terrified that this might be the last time they would see each other. Then Jim rose, lending a hand to Blair to help him to his feet.

They were holding hands, still trying to work up the courage to let go, when Doctor Wolf spoke again. “Hey,” he said. “You’ll see each other soon. Next Friday will come round real quick.” As Blair looked at him in surprise he added, “We’ve made arrangements for the two of you to spend one night a week together to bond.”

If that was true, it was far more than either of them had hoped. “How…” Blair was almost afraid to question it in case he’d heard wrong, hyper-aware that Jim had gone statue-still as though he was holding his breath; hardly daring, like Blair, to believe. “How is that possible?”

“It’s a legal obligation, so it’s something we have to guarantee. We’ll transport you to the jail every Friday, Blair, and bring you back the following morning. No one is going to interfere with the health of your Bond, I can absolutely assure you. We’ll provide you both with additional support in-between times when you need it.”

Meeting Jim’s eyes again, Blair didn’t know what to say. “I guess… I’ll see you in a few days, man,” he managed hoarsely. Jim nodded, seemingly every bit as stunned as he was. Blair took a few conscious breaths, then let his hold on Jim slacken and fall away. He forced himself to step away, and looked Dan Wolf in the eye. “Okay,” he said. “I’m ready.”

Wolf took his arm and the cops swooped in swiftly. Blair stood beside the doctor and watched as Jim’s cuffs were refastened, Jim’s eyes locked on his all the while. Briefly, Jim caught Wolf’s eye. “If anyone hurts him…” the words tailed off, but the threat was clear. The next moment Jim looked back at Blair again, a long look, a wealth of emotion in his eyes. Then he turned and was led away, Marta Fletcher by his side and the large group of cops surrounding him and hiding him from view.

Brackett, who Blair had lost track of in the commotion, appeared in front of him. “I guess this is goodbye, Mister Sandburg,” he said. “I’ll give your regards to Carlos. He’ll be pleased to hear you’re back where you’re supposed to be, all safe and sound.”

Blair glared, biting back a scathing retort he would have had no problem uttering if he hadn’t been in the custody of Guide Corps. Brackett moved away, and the white uniforms stepped over. “We need to move now, Doc,” one of them said; a bald man, big and muscled, with a no-nonsense manner. Blair shivered slightly. Someone not to cross. “Word’s out to the crowd already that the plane landed.”

“Come on,” Wolf said to Blair, his steadying hand on Blair’s arm. His voice was kind. “Time to go.”

Chapter Text

The larger of the two guards made a move towards Blair, but halted when Wolf looked sharply at him. “Put those away,” he said, and Blair shuddered, seeing the restraints he was reaching for. “Blair’s cooperating voluntarily, aren’t you, Blair?”

It seemed to be a rhetorical question, so Blair didn’t answer. Instead he attempted to radiate compliance, keeping his eyes lowered respectfully, like an obedient guide was supposed to do.

“Is the car ready to roll?” The other guard, an older man with white hair, asked, looking at his colleague. He looked non-threatening, but sometimes they were the worst.

“Yeah, but not if we don’t hurry.” Muscle-Man again. “They’re beginning to move round the building. Airport security is on it but they’re under pressure.”

None of the discussion made sense to Blair. All he knew was that he was being led away, back to the place of his nightmares, and that every step took him further from Jim.

As he was ushered out of the building the sirens of emergency vehicles could be heard - some close, some further away - and the crowd noise Blair had heard earlier was louder now. Someone was shouting a rhythmic chant through a bullhorn. Their voice was muffled and distorted, and it sounded weirdly like: Jim and Blair! It’s not fair! Blair shook his head at the bizarre conceit of his imaginings, although of course he was totally down with the sentiment.

A sedan was waiting, the windows blackened. Dan Wolf urged him into the back seat and followed him in to sit alongside. The two Corp men climbed into the front: the white-haired guy in the driver’s side, and Muscle-Man riding shotgun. Blair swallowed. He’d gotten over the worst of his panic attack, but this was all bringing back some seriously bad memories.

“Hey, Blair?” Blair turned his head to look at the doctor, who had apparently picked up on his nervousness. “It’s gonna be okay, all right? Trust me on this.”

Blair nodded, but kept his peace. What was the point? Nothing about this was okay, and he felt zero urge to pretend otherwise.

The car pulled out and moved slowly round the building, and at that moment it became clear to Blair exactly what was going on.

There was a crowd in front of the terminal building - a vast multitude of hundreds, maybe thousands of people. They were chanting and banging stuff - drums, pots, pans. It reminded Blair of the environmental protests his mom had taken him to when he was a kid.

This was evidently not about the environment, however, but something a whole lot more personal.

Jim and Blair! It’s not fair! - he hadn’t imagined it after all - wasn’t just being chanted through a bullhorn and echoed by the crowd, it was everywhere, on banners and boards held aloft by the protestors. Other signs bore the legend: Guide World, Underworld! superimposed over what looked like a painting of demons with flaming whips. And still more surreal: posters of himself and of Jim: dozens and dozens of them. Posters depicting balls and chains and other trappings of slavery. A sign proclaiming: SAVE Guides, with the words SLAVE Guides struck out. And so many, many more…

Travelling at a snail’s pace they managed to get by the crowd and head toward a service exit at the side of the airport without anyone hassling them, other than the odd protester forcing them to slow almost to a standstill as they crossed the path of the vehicle heading for the main group. Blair guessed that the blackout windows meant that no one could see who was inside, otherwise he had a horrified suspicion that they’d draw a lot more notice. But it seemed there was an alternative attraction to draw the crowd’s rabid attention, in any case: another group of vehicles currently making its way slowly out through the main entrance, a convoy of cop cars, armored vehicles and cops in riot gear on foot holding the crowd back so they could make their way through. Protesters were shouting at the motorcade, including several who had broken through the police line to bang with their fists on the side of the big armored van at its center, which Blair guessed Jim was traveling in. Blair fervently hoped his sentinel was dialing down his hearing.

“Hey, Paul?” The doc’s voice addressing the driver startled Blair out of his rapt study of the protest. “Close the screen, huh? I need some privacy back here to talk to my patient.” The next minute a glass barrier slid into place between the back seat and the front. “I guess this will all come as a surprise to you,” Wolf said, as soon as they couldn’t be overheard. “I don’t know how much you’ve heard, but you and your sentinel, you’re celebrities now. You’ve got a lot of people rooting for you.”

Blair looked at him, wide eyed with what he’d seen. “I don’t get it,” he said. “I mean I… I found out, just a couple days ago, that my mom has been on the news and that things had changed but,” he shook his head, looking back at the crowd that they were finally leaving behind, “I never thought it would be quite like this.”

“You’ve been out of touch for a while, huh?” Wolf asked. When Blair nodded, he went on, “There’s a lot going on. A lot of talk happening out there about how guides are being treated. No one wants it to continue the way it did before.”

“But you still keep us locked up,” Blair said. “This place you’re taking me to, Haven. That’s what it’s for, isn’t it? A guide training facility? I was in Guide World before,” Blair couldn’t suppress a shudder as a shiver of fear. “I know what those places are like.”

“Haven isn’t like Guide World,” Wolf insisted. “That place got closed down, and about time, if you ask me. We don’t put people like you through punitive training anymore. See those crowds out there?” Wolf waved vaguely toward the window. “They won’t stand for it. And there are millions more just like them.” Blair followed Wolf’s gaze, watching as the people and placards were left behind. The car turned the corner and very soon they were on the freeway, speeding away.

Despite Wolf’s assurances, Blair wasn’t entirely convinced about what awaited him. “What’s so different about the place we’re going to?”

“Haven? It’s one of several new facilities set up specifically for clandestine guides. Hundreds came into the system three years ago, and there was nowhere for them to go, so Haven was one of several places re-purposed specifically to house them. It used to be a secure psychiatric unit.”

“A secure unit?” Despite his vulnerability in this situation, Blair couldn’t hide his scorn. “Huh, doesn’t sound like much has changed. We’re still infantilized and treated like prisoners.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Wolf conceded. “But not for much longer, I think. Things are changing, and it’s only a matter of time until the Supreme Court overturns the laws restricting guide rights. At the very least I expect we’ll close down when that happens, and our residents will gain back their freedom.”

“You don’t sound worried about that,” Blair said. “Doesn’t that mean you’ll be out of a job?”

“I’m a therapist,” Wolf said. “I went into this field to help people. I don’t see how incarcerating guides is helping anyone.”

“So, why do you do it?”

Wolf smiled. “Those protestors back there, Blair? They’re not the only ones in your corner. It’s just that some of us choose to try to make things better from the inside.”

Blair allowed his gaze to drift out of the window once more, his heart sinking at every mile that took him further from Jim. He wanted to believe what Dan Wolf had said, and trust in the man’s sincerity. But it was so very, very hard.

***

Haven proved to be several miles outside the city limits in a rural location. It was easy to see when they were getting close: the road leading up to the gate was lined with more protestors; not as many as had been at the airport, but a noisy crowd nevertheless. No one could see into the vehicle they were travelling in, but it seemed they had easily guessed who was inside anyway as several of them broke ranks. Blair started, wide eyed, as they banged on the windows and the roof of the car, which was forced to slow to a snail’s pace, shouting demands that Blair be let go, before being dragged away by the cops who lined the route.

Haven’s status as a de-facto prison - no matter what Dan Wolf had claimed about its so-called softer qualities - was starkly clear, as soon as they reached the gates. High walls, razor wire, and armed guards on the gate who peered closely and suspiciously at everyone in the vehicle through lowered windows before waving them through. Blair shuddered at the scrutiny and kept his eyes lowered, reverting to passive obedience by memories of painful conditioning that had oh-so-easily come right to the fore.

Next, there was the matter of getting out of the car and into the building. Electronic doors slid aside to admit them, and after that Blair’s whole attention was focused on the process of going through security without freaking out. His heart was beating triple-time and a sick sensation of terror coiled in his gut, Wolf’s restraining hand on his arm an incongruous but tangible comfort.

To his relief he was accorded semi-privacy - a screen - as he was forced to change into the one-piece orange jumpsuit that was apparently de rigueur for inmates in this place, and the metal detector and body scanner were familiar indignities. He swallowed heavily as he submitted to a pat-down, offering no resistance. The only unexpected part was that Dan Wolf stood beside him the entire time, talking him softly through it. “We take security very seriously here,” he said. “This is just a safety precaution, we all have to go through it. It’ll be my turn next.”

Sure enough, finished with Blair, the guard turned his attention to Wolf. “Hey Doc,” he said, as he started patting the doctor down. “How’s things in the big city?”

“Big crowd at the airport,” Wolf said. “Lot of folks out today. A few thousand, I’d say.”

“I bet. Big day for the cause, huh?” The guy finished and looked at Blair, who hurriedly averted his eyes, wondering if he should kneel, but hesitated as no order had been given. “Welcome to Haven, Guide Ellison,” the guy said, not unkindly. “You have any problems, you talk to the Doc, here. He’s one of the good ones.” The guard addressed Wolf again. “You’re good to go.”

“Thank you,” Wolf said. He motioned to Blair to come along, and a moment later they were both buzzed through another electronic door. “Guard Johnson there,” he offered in a quiet voice, “He’s a nice guy. Not anyone to be afraid of, Blair. None of the guards here will hurt you, and in case you were wondering, you don’t have to kneel to anyone.”

Inside, Blair’s first impression of the interior was that it was very clean, and very bright. He immediately hated it: Guide World had been the same, a sterile veneer concealing what could only be described as hell.

They’d lost the two guards who’d accompanied them from the airport when they’d gone through initial security, so it was just he and Dan Wolf who progressed further into the building.

After Doctor Wolf used a card to buzz them through a final security gate, there was just the final indignity of a medical exam to submit to before Blair could be deemed fully admitted to the facility. For this Blair was handed over to a medic, Doctor Georgiou, who while professional and impersonal was not at all harsh or inappropriate, and Doc Wolf stayed in the room throughout most of it. Blair stoically endured it, hating the whole experience, although truthfully Georgiou treated him a million times more humanely than he’d ever been treated at Guide World.

One surprising part was that he was given a full eye test, the first he’d had since before he was outed as a guide. “I’ll get your prescription filled and your glasses should be here by the middle of next week,” Georgiou told him.

Surprised and little overwhelmed, Blair murmured, “Thanks.” If it happened, it really would be great to be able to read again - assuming they were permitted to read in this place - without squinting. He’d kind of forgotten what it was like.

Once the medical was over Doctor Wolf escorted Blair out of the medical center and into the facility proper, and Blair got his first sight of his fellow inmates.

Chapter Text

Brightly lit rooms off to each side were filled with groups of men of all ages, all dressed in the same one-piece overalls that Blair had been issued with. They could be seen variously playing pool, playing cards, just sitting around reading or standing and talking quietly. And around the periphery a large number of unsmiling white-uniformed guards hovered, ominously overseeing the whole thing.

In the corridor itself, a few young guys were standing around in a group and watching him approach. “It’s him,” he heard one of them say, then: “That’s Blair Sandburg!” As he and Doctor Wolf got nearer the young man who’d spoken stepped forward. “Professor Sandburg?” he asked, a little tentatively. “Do you remember me?”

Still overwhelmed by this whole experience, it took Blair a moment to gather his wits. Then he got it. “Todd?” This was one of the kids, the young guides, who he’d mentored at Rainier. Todd had been newly out of high school back then, a freshman. Blair wondered if he’d even managed to graduate before he was taken. “Todd Bennett?”

“Yeah!” The kid smiled. “Oh man,” he said. “It’s good to see you. I never thought I’d see you again!” Todd stepped forward and held out his arms, a new-found maturity in the gesture which the young man Blair had once known had not yet possessed. Blair stepped forward and returned the embrace, then pulled back. “Are you okay?” he asked Todd cautiously, then glanced nervously at the nearest guards, who were watching their reunion dispassionately.

“Yeah,” Todd answered. “I’m fine. I just… I miss my mom, you know? And my sister. They’re in another facility. My dad, he’s not a guide, so he’s still free. He comes to visit.” He stopped, looking a little emotional. “It’s really good to see you, man. You look a lot better than I expected. Everyone heard what happened to you.”

Blair glanced at Dan Wolf, who was standing unobtrusively by, showing no inclination to put a stop to their reunion. It seemed, unlike at Guide World where guides were forbidden to speak to each other, that fraternization was permitted at Haven. “Have they hurt you?” Blair dared to ask in a semi-whisper, looking back at Todd.

Todd shook his head. “No.” He shrugged. “One or two of the guys, the ones they rounded up first, went through a couple of weeks training when they were first caught. I was one of the lucky ones, they never got around to me. Most of us didn’t even get the guide tattoo,” he said, causing Blair to reflexively touch the tracking tattoo emblazoned on his own neck. “And once they moved us in here it all stopped.”

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Blair said. “I can’t tell you how glad. I’m really sorry this happened to you.” He had a lump in his throat… Jesus. He was an emotional wreck today. Stiffening his spine, determined to get his equilibrium back and prevent further embarrassment, he glanced at Dan Wolf, wondering what was going to happen next.

Wolf smiled at him encouragingly, then addressed the young man at Blair’s side. “Hey Todd? Blair’s gonna be sleeping in room 118, how about you show him where it is, help him get settled in? Maybe show him around?”

Todd nodded. “Sure thing, Doc,” he said. And taking Blair’s arm, he proceeded to do exactly that.

***

After showing Blair where his cell was - it contained a bunk, a sink and a toilet just like a regular prison cell, and there were locks on the outside, so in no way was it just a ‘room’ - Todd gave him a brief tour of the facilities they had access to. “We’re allowed to pretty much do what we want, as long as we stay ‘calm’.” Todd laughed shortly, but it wasn’t with much humor. “They don’t like us getting too obviously angry or upset. That’s when the guards step in.”

Casting a wary eye at the pair of Guide Corps guards who had followed them at a discreet distance ever since Dan Wolf had left them alone, Blair asked, “What happens then?”

Todd shrugged. “They intervene. Sometimes we get punished.” Todd apparently heard Blair’s shocked intake of breath and added, “Not beaten, or anything like that. If it’s just your regular breakdown - and it happens to pretty much all of us from time to time, man, because it sucks being in here - then the Doc gets called in. If we get pissed off, and show it? It becomes a disciplinary matter and we find ourselves in solitary. As an added bonus some people also get a personal visit from the Warden to tell us how much we fucked up.”

“Did that ever happen to you?” Blair asked. Both their voices had dropped almost to a whisper.

“I’ve spent time with the Doc,” Todd said. “He’s okay, we’ve lucked out with him. But the Warden? No. I’ve managed to avoid losing my temper badly enough to rate his personal attention, but some of the other guys have talked about their run-ins with him. He’s old-school Guide Corps, and there’s a rumor that he used to be a guide trainer. He definitely doesn’t see us as human, man. His hands are pretty much tied these days, no one’s allowed to beat us, not even him. But it’s obvious that he’d love to if he could.”

They continued on their tour, Todd pointing out landmarks as they went. “There’s the library. And the gym. That way leads to the yard; we all get mandated time outside to do sports and other exercise. I guess they like us to burn off as much energy as possible to prevent us from kicking off. If you like basketball there’s an indoor court and one outside as well. Do you play?”

Blair nodded. “Yeah, I played a little college ball for Rainier. A long time ago now, though.”

Todd smiled. “Hey, great. We’ll definitely do that, then. Anyway,” Todd went on, pausing at a door, “this is the dayroom. A lot of people spend time in here, reading and just hanging out. We have video games next door, a pool room and movies to watch across the hall. No T.V, though. We’re not allowed to watch the news, or get newspapers or the internet, or anything like that.”

“What? Why not?”

Todd shrugged. “They say it’s better for us to get our news direct from the Warden rather than through rumors in the media. Not that he ever tells us anything, and when he does he puts his own spin on it. If you ask me, its censorship, and it pisses us all off. At least we get to find out some of what’s going on outside on visiting day - for the past year or so we’ve been allowed to have visitors once a month. That’s when I get to see my dad.”

“Do they monitor our conversations?” Blair asked in an undertone, glancing nervously at the ever-present guards. “Or control what we can speak about?”

“Not really,” Todd said. “For all I know they might have bugged the visitor room, but I’ve not seen any sign of it. They never intervene or make us stop talking about stuff, anyway, so long as we do it quietly and don’t get over-excited.” He nodded toward the high corner. “There’s CCTV everywhere, though. And the guards watch us all the time.”

Blair had already spotted the cameras; he’d expected it, in a place like this. “What about your mom? You said she’s in another place, one for women, right?”

“Yeah, and my sister too. We’re allowed to write letters to each other, but that’s as far as it goes. The Doc arranged for me to talk to my mom on the phone once, when I was having a hard time, but it’s never happened again.” Todd looked sad. “I haven’t seen her or Sarah the whole time I’ve been here.”

“How long have you been here?” Blair asked.

“Nearly three years, now.”

Blair did the math. The round-up of rogues, which had separated Todd from his family, must have happened just a few months after he and Jim had fled to Peru. “That’s a long time to be apart,” Blair said, with sympathy.

“Yeah. It sucks, man. But everyone’s pretty much resigned to being stuck in here now, at least for the time being. Word is we’ll get out eventually, and most of us can deal with it so long as that actually happens. There was a lot of anger at first. We spent a lot of time in lockdown until things calmed down, but it’s improved a lot since they brought in Doc Wolf last year. We hardly see the Warden now, DeFranco, unless we screw up. He stays out of sight apart from Sundays at chapel, I guess he still holds the service to remind us he’s the boss.” Todd pushed open the door and they stepped into the dayroom.

It was a strange set-up, that was for sure. Blair had been wondering, ever since he’d met Dan Wolf, exactly what was the man’s role here. “Doctor Wolf told me he’s a therapist,” he said. “But it sounds like he does a lot more than that.”

Todd shrugged. “Go figure. He’s not in charge, the Warden sets the rules, but it sure seems like he has a big say in how the place is run. He’s even overruled DeFranco a couple of times that I know of.” Todd said, leading Blair across the room to a bank of couches. Heads were turning as they crossed the room; interest in the new arrival. “It’s more like a residential care home than a prison since the Doc came. We’ve been treated a lot better this past few months and that’s all down to the Doc. Word is he was brought in because there was a lot of outrage on the outside, and he’s here to make sure that we’re treated right.”

Todd and Blair sat down, and one or two of the other inmates drifted over to join them, the ever-present Guide Corps guards watching, but not intervening. It seemed that everyone was well aware who the newcomer in their midst was, several men shaking Blair’s hand and introducing themselves. “I couldn’t believe it when we heard you were being brought here,” one younger guy – who’d introduced himself as Dylan Bomer - said quietly. “We all heard you’d gotten clean away overseas,” He cast a wary sideways glance at the guards as he spoke. “What happened? What made you come back?”

“It’s complicated,” Blair said. “I had to come back with my sentinel. With Jim,” he said. As he spoke, he saw the expressions around him harden. “Some people died when he got me away from Guide World. They’ve accused him of murder, but he didn’t do it. Jim wants to clear his name so we can live together back here in Cascade.”

There was a long pause, then one of the men said outright what they all seemed to be thinking. “It sucks, being locked up in this place. But it’s got to be better than being at a sentinel’s beck and call. At least, now you’re away from him, no one’s going to force you to your fucking knees.”

“Oh, hey, no. No, man. It’s not like that with me and Jim,” Blair insisted. But the men around him didn’t look like they were buying it.

An older guy, who had said his name was Karl Kramer, spoke up. “I can’t imagine being bonded to one of those freaks,” he said. “How can you stand it?”

Blair could see that some of these guys - okay, it looked like pretty much all of them from their nods of agreement - had completely bought the party line of the network: that bonding was a betrayal of the principles of freedom they all held dear. “I… understand what you’re saying,” Blair said. “I used to feel the exact same way. But then I met Jim and…” Blair paused, trying to find the words to explain in the face of their clear disapproval. “It’s not like you think, not at all, with him. He’s really good to me.”

“Yeah, well, you can fucking keep it,” Kramer said. “And you know what, Sandburg? I’d keep your fond feelings for your slaver to yourself in here. You see these guys?” he said, waving an arm around to take in the room. “All of these guys, all of us? We’ve been locked up in here for three fucking years, all because your precious cavemen are god’s gift and we’re the dirt on their shoes. You might be brainwashed, but we’re not. So you’d better shut the fuck up about what a great time you’re having in your Bond.”

“Okay,” Blair said. “I hear you.” He understood the point and understood the vehemence.

But he knew, as none of these men could, that his Bond was nothing like they imagined.

***

Blair took a shower and went alone back to his cell after the evening meal, needing space to process the events of the past twenty-four hours. He was missing Jim terribly and it had become abundantly clear that there was no sympathy to be had on that score from anyone here. After their initial friendly greetings he’d been given the cold shoulder by lot of the men, which had left him in no doubt about what they thought of his Bond to Jim. All in all, it was not exactly an auspicious start.

He was lying on his bunk, leafing unseeingly through a paperback novel he’d taken from a shelf in the dayroom, when Wolf knocked at his open door and came in.

“It’ll be lockdown soon,” Wolf said, once he’d stepped inside. “I just wanted to check on you first, see how you’re settling in.”

“We get locked in, huh,” Blair acknowledged, sitting up to speak to his visitor. He wasn’t surprised by that revelation but, like the rest of it, it totally sucked.

Wolf nodded. “Yes, it’s part of the routine here. Are you going to be okay with that? You won’t be able to leave your room between ten o’clock tonight and seven-thirty in the morning. But if you have any problems in the night, see that alarm over there?” He pointed to a red button in the corner. “Press that, and one of the guards will attend to you right away.”

Blair had absolutely no intention of summoning a Guide Corps guard to his cell in the middle of the night, no matter the reason.

“Adjusting to all of this has got to be hard on you,” Wolf went on. “You’ve had a tough day, huh?”

“It’s been tough on Jim too,” Blair said. A rush of sudden longing made him shiver with its intensity. “I… I just really wish I could be there with him, instead of in here.”

“I know,” Wolf said softly. “I understand.”

“He was in court today,” Blair said, and Wolf nodded. “I wish I could find out how it went. And how he’s doing.”

“I assumed you’d want to know, so I already made a call,” Wolf said. “Jim’s fine, Blair. He’s been remanded to jail pending trial. He’s being housed in a specialist sentinel wing, to make it easy on his senses. Apparently he’s settled in and is in good spirits. I asked my contact there to pass on a message that you arrived here safely and all is well.”

Blair let go a breath. “Thanks,” he said. “I really appreciate it. And hey, did you mean what you said? That Jim and I will be allowed to bond?” Blair still didn’t quite believe it.

“Yes,” Wolf confirmed. “Every Friday. You and Jim will spend the night together in complete privacy. In-between he’ll have access to a service guide.” A buzzer sounded, and he rose. “Time for lockdown. Take it easy, Blair. Remember to press the call button if you need anything.” He went out, leaving Blair alone.

A few moments later, Blair’s cell door clanged shut, and not long after that the light went out, leaving Blair alone to read his book by the dim nightlight over the bed.

Blair barely spared the book a glance as he threw it resentfully at the locked door.

Chapter Text

Blair hardly slept that night. Hyper-aware of being locked in, he kept jerking awake in a panic on the very edge of sleep, heart racing. He missed Jim desperately; in all the months and years since they bonded this was the first time they had ever slept apart, with the exception of those terrible few days when Blair had been returned to Guide World. The loss of Jim’s arms around him and lack of their ever-present subliminal link felt like an aching wound.

By morning he was exhausted and anxious, and the last thing he wanted was to eat breakfast, but he got in line anyway, going dully through the motions. No one talked to Blair, which was fine by him; he wasn’t up to conversation anyway. It was only when he sat down and looked around that he realized that his fellow guides were actively avoiding him, all of them taking seats as far away from Blair as they could get, leaving him alone at one end of a long table.

All except for Todd, that was, who placed his breakfast tray down opposite Blair and sat down, glaring at the others pointedly. “Hey, what the hell is wrong with you?” he demanded, before angrily sitting down. “I’m sorry, Blair,” he said. “Some of these guys are real jerks.”

“It’s okay,” Blair said. He knew why, of course, after the comments he’d received yesterday. “I understand why they’re avoiding me. They see me as a sell-out.”

“Yeah, well,” Todd grumbled. “It’s not like you had any choice about what happened to you.” He didn’t modify his volume, and Blair could see one or two of the men shifting uncomfortably out of the corner of his eye. A moment or two later one of them got up, his tray in his hands - an elderly African American man - and came to sit down beside Blair.

As he got seated the man said, “I’m sorry, son. I think, in here, we sometimes forget our manners.” He held out a hand, and Blair shook it. “Seb Buckingham. I’m the oldest kid on the block. Seventy-seven years a rogue, and proud of it.” He paused. “No offense,” he said.

“None taken,” Blair said graciously. “I, uh, know,” he said, glancing back at the main group at the far end of the table, “that I’ve disappointed a few people. I wouldn’t blame you if you felt the same way.”

“It’s like your friend here said,” Seb answered, tearing apart a bread roll. “You ain’t had a choice. You are what you are, you got caught, and a sentinel claimed you. None of it was your doing. I don’t hold it against you.” And that said, he popped a chunk of bread in his mouth, chewing it nonchalantly.

Blair nodded, but he couldn’t help but think these two guys, who were so obviously giving him the benefit of the doubt, were letting him off easy. The genes he’d been born with might not have been a choice, nor was getting caught. But his Bond to Jim? He chose that, even if he hadn’t fully understood at the time that he was doing so.

Given the chance for a do-over, he’d choose the exact same thing again.

***

Breakfast was soon over. As Blair followed the lead of the other men, taking his tray to the clean-up point and preparing to exit the food hall, he was shocked into immobility before he reached the door when a white-uniformed guard approached him. He stood still and lowered his eyes rapidly, an unthinking reflex beaten into him long ago. His knees twitched, no matter that he’d been instructed that he didn’t have to kneel, but before he could drop down to the floor the guard spoke. “Guide Ellison, Warden DeFranco has asked to see you. Please come with me.” He gestured with one hand toward the doorway; an inclusive, courteous request.

Thrown by the unexpected politeness - these guys didn’t usually, in his experience, ask - Blair meekly nodded his assent. Hard lessons had been instilled in him in the bad old days: you didn’t verbally respond without permission.

The guard - ‘Jones’ it said on his name badge - ushered Blair, without laying hands on him, out of the door.

Blair’s nervousness did not abate one iota, despite Jones omitting to manhandle him and his walking speed considerately matched to Blair’s own (rather than making him walk three feet behind) as they progressed through the corridors, went through a security gate, and entered another corridor. Blair kept his eyes on the floor as they progressed, hyper-aware of other Corps personnel in this part of the facility regarding them as they passed.

Eventually they reached a door with the legend ‘Warden’ emblazoned on the name plate. Jones knocked, opened the door then held it open, motioning Blair to pass through.

Inside, a large, well-groomed man in a spotless Guide Corps officer’s tunic was sitting behind a desk, writing. The office smelled of furniture polish and had an imposing stillness; a sense of impending threat. This scenario was all too familiar, and Blair actively bit down on rising stress. As he was brought to stand before the desk Warden DeFranco looked up at Blair as he approached, and Blair immediately lowered his eyes submissively and fought with every bit of his willpower to resist falling to his knees. Dan Wolf had said he didn’t have to, right? He silently panicked for a few seconds, terrified that he’d gotten it wrong.

“At ease, Guide,” DeFranco said sharply, apparently sensing Blair’s dilemma. “This isn’t Guide World, so stay on your feet.”

From lowered eyes Blair became aware that DeFranco was silently regarding him. Blair waited. And waited. When the silence had lengthened to an uncomfortable degree Blair dared to glance up, only to meet the Warden’s unblinking stare. Discomforted, he lowered his eyes again quickly.

That was apparently the wrong thing to do. “Look at me and pay attention!” the Warden barked.

Heart racing, recognizing this as the game that it was but no less intimidated for understanding it, Blair did as he was told.

With Blair’s full attention on him, DeFranco began his spiel. “Welcome to Haven. We are a specialist facility for late-discovered clandestine guides. We pride ourselves on being a safe and nurturing environment for males who are transitioning into full guidehood as adults.”

Another silent moment ensued, The Warden glaring at him unblinkingly, during which Blair was left in no doubt that DeFranco was not in any way well-disposed towards him.

At last, DeFranco spoke again. “The first thing you need to realize,” he said, departing from what Blair suspected had been a script he had been (resentfully) obliged to recite, “is that I don’t have an opinion about guide rights. I’m here for one reason, and one reason only: to enforce the law that says clandestine guides must be kept in detention.” The way he enunciated clandestine absolutely implied rogue. “Any and all touchy-feely shit will be dealt with by Doctor Wolf. You have any issues, you report to him. Are we clear?” Impatiently, he added, “You may answer.”

 “Yes, sir,” Blair said, ashamed of the frightened squeak his voice had become.

DeFranco nodded, seemingly satisfied by Blair’s cowed response. “Let me get something else straight,” he said. “Doctor Wolf may have given you the impression that you are some kind of ‘special’ case. That because you have benefitted from a degree of publicity, you merit a privileged position.” He paused, scrutinizing Blair coldly. “I can assure you that is entirely incorrect,” he said. “As far as I am concerned, you are exactly the same as every other guide at Haven. You will receive no special privileges. You break the rules, and I will ensure that you are punished, just like every other resident here. The only concession you will get, the only difference, is that you are bonded, and the law says you must be permitted to see your sentinel once a week. That’s it, that is the extent of it. Nothing else. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Blair said.

“Keep these things in mind, don’t cause any trouble, and your time here will be a whole lot easier.”

Blair swallowed, his mouth dry. He had every intention of keeping his head down and staying out of trouble - he simply wanted to bide his time until he could be with Jim. I can get through this, he told himself firmly. This is nothing like it was before.

“One more thing,” the Warden said.  “Your hair. It’s a distraction.”

At that weird observation, Blair didn’t know how to respond. His hair? What the hell? Startled out of rekindled, conditioned obedience he raised a hand to his head, realizing as DeFranco continued speaking that something about the length of it had been found offensive. “Make an appointment via the infirmary to get it cut. Or at the very least, tie it back.”

It seemed to Blair to be a ridiculous thing to make an issue out of. It also seemed to be a challenge, a petty way of DeFranco asserting his authority when, so it appeared, he’d been ordered to treat Blair and the other guides with kid gloves.

DeFranco appeared to be waiting for a response, so Blair found his voice. “I’ll tie it back,” he conceded, boldly deciding to take the lesser of two authoritarian options. These bastards had shaved his head once, and he certainly wasn’t about to let them do it again voluntarily. Belatedly he added, “Sir.”

DeFranco glared at him unblinking, then reached into a tray on his desk and removed something small. He held out his hand to Blair. “Make sure you do,” he said.

Hesitantly, Blair reached out and took the offering. It was an elastic band.

Then DeFranco gestured toward the door. “Dismissed,” he said curtly, before looking back at the papers on his desk.

Keen to get out of there as quickly as possible, Blair obediently followed Guard Jones out of the room.

***

Blair wasn’t sure what to do with himself after that, and so the morning dragged slowly. He sat in the day room for a while, looking unseeingly at a random book he’d gotten from the library, but his thoughts were far away, circling round and round like a condor seeking a safe place to land. Longing for Jim, worry for Jim. Fear for the Chopec, and desperate hope that Leguia would keep up his half of the bargain and help them. No one approached him, not even Todd; it seemed his ‘leave me alone’ vibes must have been pretty strong.

Lunchtime came and went. Blair wasn’t hungry, in fact he felt a little sick, but he went through the motions of getting in line before sitting down with a tray of food. Todd came to sit with him again, as well as Seb Buckingham and some of the younger guys that Todd hung out with, and their mumbled conversation was like white noise, so distracted was Blair by his own thoughts. After a few attempts to include him in conversation they thankfully left him alone.

He thought, later in the day, which he’d gotten through in a kind of daze, that this must be what culture shock felt like. Not that he was any stranger to that, of course; he’d had to adapt to living among the Chopec, after all. But that whole time had felt, by contrast, intensely real, whereas here, in this place with white walls where most of the occupants were studiously avoiding him, he questioned whether he really existed at all. His sense of displacement was just that strong.

It was early evening when a white-clad guard approached and oh-so-politely told him that Doctor Wolf would like to see him. Heart pounding, still half-terrified that something bad was going to happen every time a guard singled him out, Blair followed and found himself escorted to the facility’s medical center.

It was not to a treatment room that he was taken, but to Doctor Wolf’s private office. The contrast between the cozy room - warmly lit by a couple of lamps, filled with framed pictures, lined with books and with colorful throws adorning the furniture - and the white, sterile corridors of the facility was striking. As Blair came in and was urged to sit by Dan Wolf, he took what felt like his first deep breath of the day and blinkingly emerged into the present.

“How are you settling in?” Wolf asked. The Doc was standing by his desk, his hands busy preparing tea in a mud-colored earthenware teapot, two cups at the ready. His manner once more put Blair at ease. There was something incongruously genuine about him; something that Blair was increasingly warming to.

Vaguely pondering the strangeness of his instinct to trust this man, despite the fact that he held a position of high authority in a guide facility, Blair replied, “I’m fine, thanks.” But he wasn’t okay; not really, and decided impulsively not to hide it. “It’s just… it’s all bringing back some bad memories, to tell you the truth.”

Wolf was nodding, looking sympathetic. “After what happened to you in the past, it can’t be easy.” He’d poured tea into the two cups as he spoke, and now he lifted both of them, offering one to Blair as he came over. As Blair took it he said, “Fennel with chamomile. It’s nice and calming.” He saluted Blair with his own cup before taking a sip and sitting down in a comfortable chair close to Blair. “I like to drink it at the end of a long day.”

“Thank you,” Blair said. He took a sip; the tea was hot and aromatic, sweetened with a little honey. He cradled the hot cup in his hands, feeling a little more substantial.

“I know it might take time for you to believe it,” Wolf told him as he went to sit down. “But you’re safe here, Blair. No one’s going to hurt you. I want you to trust me on that.”

Blair nodded, hearing the words but not yet convinced. Warden DeFranco hadn’t hurt him or even said anything truly threatening, but Blair had gotten the strong impression that he was the type who would if he got the opportunity. He’d learned to sense such things the hard way, and Todd had said as much, in any case. “Do you know how Jim’s doing?” he asked, changing the subject, his desperate need to hear something, anything, about his sentinel rising up in him once more like a tide.

“I called the jail and spoke to his case worker a couple of hours ago,” Wolf said. “He’s doing fine. A guide came in this afternoon to help him recalibrate, so he’s not in any crisis. It’s just a matter now of biding his time until the trial - and of course until he bonds with you next Friday.”

Blair nodded, his own aching need to bond suddenly more obvious to him than ever. “Jim didn’t do it,” he said impulsively. “It won’t get as far as a trial. He’s… he’s got a good lawyer. She’s gonna straighten it all out.” At least Blair hoped that Leguia’s opinion of her had been accurate, and that Marta Fletcher was every bit as good as he’d insisted.

“I hope you’re right,” Wolf answered. Then he looked at Blair quizzically. “You don’t look well, Blair.”

“It’s just taking time for me to adjust to being here. I’m fine, really.”

Wolf had pursed his lips. “Any nausea? Maybe a pervading sense of unreality?”

“Man, you’re good,” Blair laughed a little. “All of the above.”

Dan nodded. “Blair, did you take Antidux when you were younger?”

Blair’s heart sped up at the question; Antidux was illegal, so it felt strange to admit taking it to someone who worked for Guide Corps. “Yeah, I did. Like everyone else here, I assume.”

Dan didn’t look surprised or shocked by Blair’s confession. “That probably explains the way you’re feeling,” he said. He went over to a bookcase and, after searching for a moment, declare, “Ah, here it is.” He pulled out a thin volume and, walking over, handed it to Blair.

Blair looked down at the book in his hand. It was an academic journal, published by Oxford University Press. “Journal of Guide Medicine,” Blair read out loud. He’d heard of this periodical in the past; it had been on the banned publications list the network had gotten hold of. The authorities in the US didn’t approve of research into guides that deviated from the party line, and took great pains to suppress it. He wondered how Wolf had gotten hold of it.

“You can take it away with you to read, if you like,” Wolf said, further confounding him. “The pertinent article is the one by Doctor Franz Voigt. It’s a comparative study. Voigt looked at bonded guides raised in captivity in the U.S., who are never exposed to Antidux, as well as bonded guides from a variety of cultures in South America, where pre-bonding dux suppressants are commonly ingested. His findings show that the second group had a vastly decreased ability to regulate their production of duxomone post-bonding, resulting in escalating secretions in cases where bond-partners were absent.”

“So,” Blair said, trying to puzzle through the medical jargon, “Antidux damages the guide gland, causing it to become overactive after bonding kicks it into gear?” Blair was dismayed by the implications. “Everyone in here will have taken Antidux at some point. We all did, it was the way we stayed hidden. Are you telling me that if any of the guys in here bond, their duxomone levels will just keep rising?”

“Yes, that’s it, exactly,” Dan agreed. “Voigt proved that Antidux consumption impedes natural development of the guide gland, ultimately compromising the mechanism that regulates duxomone levels. Without regular bonding with their sentinels, who draw off excess dux secretions though the Bond, they will need to take full-strength dux suppressants when regular contact is not an option, and also for the rest of their lives if their sentinel pre-deceases them.”

“And if they don’t, that could be really dangerous, right?”

“Yes. Probably fatal, ultimately.” Wolf looked at Blair pointedly. “This is not just an abstract theory in your case. I believe you need suppressants right now, Blair.”

“Oh, man.” It was the last thing Blair wanted. He’d spent years attempting to hide his true nature by putting unnatural chemicals in his body, and he’d always resented the need to do so. He didn’t want to do it again now, especially if it was true that the Antidux he’d taken in the past had caused serious damage to his guide gland. But if what the Doc had told him was correct, it could be a really bad idea not to. “Are you sure?”

“I’ll test your duxomone levels to confirm it, but I suspect it’s the case. You’re quite unique, Blair. What you have to understand is we’ve never seen this condition first-hand in the United States before. You’re the first guide here who ever bonded after taking Antidux; that we know of, anyway.” He indicated the journal in Blair’s hand. “All the other cases we’re aware of happened overseas, in cultures where pre-bond suppressants are commonly ingested.”

That made sense, Blair reluctantly conceded.  “Okay,” he answered, feeling almost like he’d been given a terminal diagnosis. “I guess, if what you’re saying is right, then I have no choice.”

They sipped at their tea, the comforting ordinariness of it lulling Blair to a semblance of calm, despite the momentous bombshell that had just been dropped. It made him feel able to risk indulging his curiosity so he ventured, after a moment, “Um, Dan?” He felt a little nervous about using Doctor Wolf’s first name, despite the guy having invited him to. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” Dan agreed.

“What exactly is your role here? The guys, the other guides, they said you were only brought in last year, and that you changed a lot of things.”

Dan shrugged. “It’s like I told you yesterday, Blair. I was brought in to manage the general counselling and mental health provision here.”

“And because there was political pressure? You know, to demonstrate that the captured guides were being treated humanely?”

“That’s part of it,” Dan allowed. “But I’m not here just for show, Blair. I genuinely want to help.”

Blair nodded. He was inclined to believe in the man’s sincerity, difficult though that was for someone as hurt by the system as him. Dan Wolf was a high-ranking official in a guide facility, and Blair should have felt the exact opposite, but the man’s demeanor just radiated calm. “I met the Warden today. He said I should speak to you if I have any problems. Not him.”

Dan had clearly gotten the underlying question - who’s in charge, you or DeFranco? “He’s right about that. I’m the pastoral care supervisor, so most things to do with the day-to-day wellbeing of our residents are in my area. I work, within the boundaries that Guide Corps has set, to make sure our daily routine operates in such a way that people are treated with dignity and compassion. Warden DeFranco works within his own set of boundaries.”

Blair found himself reading a lot between the lines. “I’m guessing you and the Warden, you’re not always in accord, huh?”

 “We don’t always agree about everything, no, but I’m good at talking him round,” Dan admitted. “Don’t tell him I said so, though. I find it helps to make him believe it was all his idea in the first place.”

Blair absolutely wouldn’t dare. “So, what kind of stuff do you do? You know, day-to-day.”

“I provide counselling and support, through my team, for all our residents. I was recruited primarily because of my specialism. I told you that I used to work with combat pairings, treating PTSD?” When Blair nodded, he went on, “There are some men here who were treated harshly, just as you were, for a little while when they were first brought into custody. It’s left them with scars, so my specialist help was needed for them. The most severely affected is Robert Carter, the second adult after yourself to be caught. He went through a full punitive training regime.”

“Oh my god,” Blair said, surprised. “Robbie? He’s here?”

“Yes. I understand you and he know each other?”

Blair nodded. “Yeah, he’s my cousin.” At Dan’s raised eyebrow he clarified, “Not by blood. His mom - I called her Aunt Willow - was my mom’s best friend since I was small, they were almost like sisters, so it figured that Robbie and me saw ourselves as cousins. When Robbie’s mom died, Naomi - that’s my mom - raised him. He lived with us since we were both fifteen.” Blair swallowed, a little shell-shocked to learn his cousin was here. “Is he okay?” he asked.

“He’s pretty messed up,” Dan said. “Panic attacks, chronic anxiety, self-harm.” He flashed a rueful smile at Blair. “You know all about that kind of thing, I’m sure.” He paused. “Poor guy. He’s not well enough to join the main population, which is maybe not such a bad thing. A lot of people here hold him responsible for the situation they’re in, since he’s the one who revealed the existence of the guide network.” He looked at Blair. “You could visit with him, if you like, once you’ve settled in? I think it might be good for him to see a familiar face, especially someone who understands what he’s been through.”

Blair wasn’t too sure about that. “I’ll think about it,” he said. Robbie had been hurt in ways Blair understood all too well, but he’d caused a catastrophe for so many people, which could not be easily dismissed. And he’d hit Jim with a crop at their last meeting, which still filled Blair with rage every time he thought about it. He needed to process his feelings about Robbie before he’d be able to even consider seeing him again.

“You don’t have to decide now,” Dan said. “But there is another thing I wanted to talk to you about. You’ve gone through a difficult time yourself this past few years, and I’m guessing that you have your own scars. You’ve already admitted as much. I think it might be helpful for you to have some counselling sessions, if you wish?”

Blair had gone tense at the suggestion. “I…I don’t know if I can talk about it,” he said. “A lot of it, I’ve never even talked to Jim about.”

“You don’t have to talk, not if you don’t want to. It can just be a quiet time for you to spend out of regular facility life, if you want. Just an hour, maybe once or twice a week, just to get some breathing space.”

Blair took a deep breath. “I’ll think about it,” he said, but he didn’t feel eager to take up the offer. It wasn’t therapy he needed; just his sentinel.

But his answer seemed to satisfy. “I’ll be here when you’re ready,” Dan Wolf said. “You only have to ask. Now,” he said, putting down his empty cup, “Let’s call by the infirmary and get you tested, and give you those drugs.”

Chapter Text

Sunday dawned, and with it Blair’s sense of dislocation had reached epic proportions. He’d spent a sleepless night reading through the journal Dan Wolf had leant to him, his stomach upset and his skin itching like he was in the middle of the world’s worst allergic reaction. He wasn’t sure whether his physical symptoms were due to dismay at what he’d learned, or the onset of the condition itself.

As Blair’s bonded sentinel, the more time Jim spent away from his guide placed him at constant risk of developing Post Separation Overload, or P.S.O., a potentially dangerous condition in sentinels caused by being deprived of exposure to their guide’s duxomone secretions. It was now clear that Blair was equally at risk of his own, guide-specific separation-induced malady. The only natural way to alleviate both conditions was for the two of them to have constant exposure to each other, and that was of course forbidden. He therefore found himself raging constantly at the uncaring and inhumane authorities that were currently keeping he and his sentinel apart.

Blair skipped breakfast, not feeling able to face the white walls and the echoing voices in the food hall. His longing for Jim was intense, a constant ache in his gut. Finally recognizing that he really had no choice, in the absence of the living, breathing presence of his sentinel, he downed two of the small white pills that Dan Wolf had given him. He’d ended up being stubbornly reluctant to take them last night, resentful in the extreme of the combination of circumstances that had apparently forced him to need them.

General hubbub out in the corridor alerted Blair to breakfast being over and his fellow inmates returning. Todd put his head round the door a few moments later. “Hey,” he said. “Are you okay?”

Blair sat up on his bunk and nodded. He didn’t feel a whole lot better; the suppressants clearly hadn’t kicked in yet. “I’m fine,” he lied.

“Because you look like shit, man,” Todd said. “Do you need to go to the infirmary?”

“No, I’m okay. Really, Todd. I’m just…” he sighed, almost thinking better of admitting it, but as Todd was pretty much the only other inmate in this place who hadn’t seemed disgusted by the idea, decided just to say it: “It’s just really tough to be away from Jim.”

Todd nodded. “Hey, I’m sure it is.” Through the open doorway behind Todd Blair could see men moving down the corridor, all heading in one direction, and Todd looked briefly over his shoulder, following Blair’s gaze. “If you’re not sick enough to go to the infirmary,” he said, turning back to address Blair again, “and man, you look it, then you need to come to chapel.”

That was the last thing Blair needed right now. “Chapel isn’t really my thing.”

Todd nodded. “Not mine either, man. But it’s compulsory, whether you’re religious or not, no matter what faith you subscribe to, and the Warden will know if you’re there or not: they take a register. It’s pretty much the only time we get to see DeFranco. It’s the one time each week he gets to show us he’s the boss.” Todd shrugged. “You don’t come along, without a certified medical excuse, then he’ll be on your case.”

Accepting defeat, and perversely curious to see in what ways DeFranco would flex his muscles, Blair nodded and rose. “Lead on, man,” he said.

***

The next hour had Blair convinced that whatever concessions Dan Wolf might have managed to get DeFranco to grant in terms of creating a less oppressive regime, this was where the Warden had drawn his red line.

It was a service in the religious sense in name only. After they all filed in, their names ticked off at the door, the facility’s chaplain led some half-hearted prayers. The rest of the time was made up of DeFranco laying out his behavioral expectations, and reading out a series of notices and edicts.

“Compulsory yard time has been extended,” DeFranco barked; the latest of a dozen-or-so announcements. “New schedules will be posted and every guide will commit to a minimum of seven hours of external exercise per week from now on. No exceptions unless there is a valid, certificated medical reason. Failure will result in demerits.”

“The following guides have been cleared to receive visitors eight days from now,” he went on. “Andretti, Austin, Bennett, Brown…” Blair’s attention drifted until he heard his own name (or rather Jim’s, since he was apparently his sentinel’s property): “Ellison, Fox…” Thrown for a loop - did the Warden say ‘visitors’? Did it mean he was actually scheduled to receive a visitor, or the listed names were just people who were eligible under the convoluted privilege scheme? If the former, who was coming to see him? His heart pounded fast, suddenly. Jim! But it wouldn’t be Jim, would it? Jim was in jail, and if he’d been released Blair would have been released too. Who, then? Maybe his mom?

The Warden had reached the end of his list. “All those named, on your feet,” he ordered. And, along with the fifty or so men who were on the list, Blair stood. “This is advanced warning,” the Warden said. “You want to receive your visitors, you toe the line. You’re all on notice that any rule breaking in the interim will result in the loss of this particular privilege in the first instance.” He paused, letting the threat sink in. Then: “Sit down!” he barked.

Jeez, this guy was enjoying his power trip, for sure. Blair glanced at Dan Wolf, who was sitting to the left of where the Warden was standing. How much had he curtailed DeFranco’s authoritarianism, Blair wondered? It occurred to Blair that this ridiculous performance was probably the only real chance the guy got to stamp his authority on everyone, such was the over-the-top melodrama of it all.

As the hour drew to an end, much to Blair’s relief as he was feeling increasingly unwell, it seemed the Warden had one more bit of petty bullying to deliver. “Guide Ellison,” he barked. “On your feet!”

Startled - had he broken some rule he was unaware of? - Blair did as he was told. A desperate glance in the direction of Dan Wolf resulted in a frown and an encouraging nod, which at least helped Blair to breathe as he stood there, his hands clenched into tight fists and his heart beating erratically at being singled out in front of the whole congregation.

After a pause, presumably for effect, the Warden spoke again. “Attention, all of you! This is Guide Ellison, formerly known as Guide 96-234. He is our newest resident, and a bonded guide. His sentinel is currently incarcerated. This means Guide Ellison, like yourselves, is a ward of Guide Corps.”

Long-standing habit forced Blair to keep still and keep his eyes down as the Warden spoke, but he felt heat rise in his face at being singled out like this. Which, he supposed, was the whole point. “I’m certain you’ve heard of Sentinel Ellison and his guide,” DeFranco was saying. “Your visitors may have mentioned them to you. You may have heard rumors about their activities, and maybe you’ve even thought of them as some kind of object of admiration. I’m here to put you on notice: that shit won’t fly in here!”

The Warden was pacing slowly through the room, looking at everyone in the face as he spoke, pressing the point. “This guide’s sentinel is accused of taking the lives of four good men of Guide Corps. Of course, Guide Ellison, here, is not responsible for his sentinel’s crime. But neither is he someone to look up to, or to admire, or to put on any kind of goddamn fucking pedestal. I don’t care what your visitors tell you! I don’t care whatever rumors reach your ears! If any of you gets the idea that Guide Ellison is any kind of role model, or if you treat him as special in any way, you’ll be losing privileges so fast that you’ll be in solitary for months at a time!”

He stopped pacing and there was silence for a long moment. Then he barked, “Are we clear?”

Hardly breathing and flushed with shame and an urge to hide so acute it made him shiver, it was impossible to miss the unanimous response: “Yes, sir!”

***

Somehow Blair made it back to his cell, avoiding the eyes of everyone else as they streamed back through the corridors, sensing that they were pointedly ignoring him in turn. His stomach churned, and he felt flushed, shaky and sick.

The urge to vomit had become acute by the time he reached his cell, and he stumbled over to the toilet in the corner as soon as he got there. A while later he finally stopped throwing up and sat back against the wall, pressing one hand against his aching stomach which was cramping like crazy. He’d caught a bug, or it was simply stress, he told himself firmly as he leaned back against the wall. A mixture of Bond-stress and good old everyday stress. He’d get over it soon. He always did. Shit. And with that thought he leaned back over the bowl for another bout.

A little while later, with nothing left to throw up, he leaned back against the wall and started to analyze this morning’s experience. He understood full well what that had all been about, back at the chapel. Ritual humiliation had been a big part of Blair’s training, and it seemed the Warden’s diatribe had brought some of those feelings back. At least, he thought with dark humor, he’d not been made to stand there naked. DeFranco was a fucking amateur compared to the trainers he’d had at Guide World.

Blair jumped when someone entered his cell; having Guide World so vividly on his mind had fine-tuned his startle reflex, it seemed. “Easy Blair.” It was Dan Wolf, who came over to crouch down close-by. “It’s only me. Everything’s okay.”

Blair licked his dry lips and focused on Dan’s face, which was creased in concern.

The figure standing behind Dan zoomed into focus too. “Is he okay, Doc?” Todd asked worriedly.

“Are you?” Dan asked, his eyes on Blair’s face.

“Yeah,” Blair said, a little hoarsely. “I think it might be something I ate. Like my pride.” As an attempt at humor it was pretty lame, he knew, but he was gratified when Todd chuckled weakly.

Dan raised a hand, asking, “May I?” When Blair nodded, the doctor’s cool palm brushed the air close to the front of his head. “No temperature. Your pulse is a little elevated. Think you can move over to the bunk?” At Blair’s unspoken assent Dan addressed Todd. “Can you help me get him up?”

It was only once he was lying back on the bed, having managed to drink some water and feeling a little bit more clearheaded, that Blair realized that Dan had gauged his temperature and pulse with nothing more than a hand hovering over his forehead. “Are you a sentinel?” he asked.

Dan had pulled over a chair and was sitting beside the bed. “Not a full sentinel,” he answered. “Not enough to qualify tagging that appellation onto my name, anyway. I have enhanced touch and hearing. Taste and smell are up just a little, but not enough for me to detect dux secretions, so I’ll never be able to bond.” He shook his head ruefully. “Sight’s in the normal human range, if you call being longsighted normal. I need glasses to read, these days.”

It explained a lot. Blair had been drawn to trust this man ever since they’d met, despite the circumstances. In general, Blair believed, sentinels weren’t the problem, so much as the institutions around them which dictated their behavior. He’d found this to be the case back in the bad old days at Guide World, where he’d had to work with training sentinels to develop his guidance skills. Guides, Blair had found from his own (occasionally bitter) experience, could tell the good ones from the bad ones. It seemed Dan Wolf had come out on the right side of the equation.

Todd was hovering nervously. “Are you okay?” he asked, looking down at Blair from where he was standing at the foot of the bed. “You scared me, man. I tried to give you some privacy, but you seemed really sick so I got worried and went to get the Doc.”

Blair smiled reassuringly at Todd. “Hey, don’t worry. I’m okay,” he said. “Thanks, man.” Then, remembering DeFranco’s tacit warning that no one should treat him as ‘special’, he said, “You know, maybe you shouldn’t be seen in here with me, huh? The Warden said-”

“Forget it,” Todd said. “The Warden won’t do shit.”

Dan was nodding in agreement. “It’s okay, Blair. Nothing’s going to happen to Todd if he talks to you. Trust me on that.”

“I do trust you,” Blair said. “But…” Shit, he was starting to feel tearful, humiliation rising up in him once more. What the hell? Get a fucking grip, Blair, he told himself desperately.

Dan instantly did him a kindness. “Todd, would you mind stepping out for a little while? I need to check Blair over, make sure he’s okay.”

“Sure thing, Doc,” Todd said. Then, softly to Blair, “Hey, take it easy, man. I’ll come back to see how you are in a while.”

Blair heard Todd leave, felt the displaced air as the door was partially closed behind him. He didn’t watch, having placed one hand over his eyes to fight against a sudden tide of emotion which had taken him by surprise with its intensity. God damn it, what the hell was wrong with him? He was stronger than this, he’d proved that time and time again. He worked to steady his breaths, conscious all the time of the quiet, reassuring presence at his side.

Finally he mastered himself. Feeling more than a little ashamed of his own weakness he dared to look at Dan, who was sitting quietly beside him. Without a word Dan handed him a bunch of Kleenex, which he took gratefully. “Thanks,” Blair said. He wiped his eyes and blew his nose.

“I’m sorry about what happened back there at the service,” Dan said, when Blair was done. “I didn’t know the Warden was going to do that.”

“It’s okay,” Blair said. “I get it. I’m an anthropologist. I understand about ritual displays of authority. It took me by surprise, is all. I just need to get used to being here. Learn the rules. Then I won’t get blindsided. I’ve dealt with much worse and managed not to break down all over the place.” He huffed out an embarrassed laugh. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.”

“I hear that,” said Dan. “Sometimes, the feelings associated with past trauma can come back in unexpected ways. It’s understandable that you’re finding it hard to adjust to. How are you feeling now?”

Blair was determined to get on top of this stupid reaction, and decided after a quick inventory that he was over the worst. “A little shaky, but I’m okay. I don’t feel sick anymore, at least.”

Dan’s hand hovered over Blair’s forehead again, not touching, just hovering. “I don’t think you have a virus or anything like that,” he said. “Did you take your Duxulin last night?”

“No. I, uh, took some this morning, just before the service. Hopefully I still managed to metabolize some of it before I vomited.”

“Ah.” Dan was nodding. “Nausea is a common symptom of bond-stress. When the drugs have had a chance to get into your system you should start to feel a little better. Maybe take an additional pill now, just to be on the safe side?” When Blair nodded reluctantly, he pointed out, “You would have been better to take a dose last night, before things got this bad.”

“Yeah,” Blair said. “I get that, now. I learned my lesson there, Doc.” He sat up, and was relieved to discover that he no longer felt half as bad as he had a few minutes ago. “You know, I’m a little better already. I guess the drugs are starting to kick in after all.” He did a more in-depth self-examination, and came up with something surprising. “I’m hungry, strange as it sounds. I skipped breakfast.”

Dan looked at his wristwatch. “It’ll be lunch in an hour,” he said. “Think you can hold out until then?” When Blair nodded in response he smiled, and stood. “If you need anything, you know where to find me. I’m on call all day, so don’t hesitate.” And with that, he left Blair blissfully alone.

Blair managed to make it out of his room to eat a little at lunchtime. Despite what he’d said his appetite was still lacking, but a little food in his stomach definitely helped get him past the final remnants of nausea, which was thankfully abating now the dux suppressant had started to work.

Todd, as always, welcomed Blair warmly to the dinner hall, but the frostiness of many of the others was very much in evidence. The worst of it seemed to be coming from Karl Kramer and a few of his buddies, who frequently cast hostile glares in his direction from across the room. Blair ignored it as best he could, but their passive-aggressive antagonism wore at him as day drifted into evening, and didn’t do anything to help his lingering sense of displacement.

Chapter Text

By the time Monday came around, and the start of Blair’s fourth day at the facility, he was feeling stir-crazy.

It had quickly become apparent that each day was structured in the exact same way. Each morning they were woken at 7.30 am, and lights-out was at 10.00 pm. Meals - which were uniformly bland and uninspiring - were taken at the same times each day, and nothing much happened in-between.

Now that Blair’s initial bond-stress had been taken care of, thanks to a second dose of the drugs, he was feeling a lot better physically. But his improved levels of energy had absolutely nowhere to go, leaving him wired and restless. It didn’t help that he was also plagued by constant, unfocused anxiety, which caused him to hide out in his room for much of the day, not feeling able to deal with either the increasingly hostile stares of the other men or the ever-present scrutiny of the guards.

Monday night came and went, his sleep fitful and plagued by nightmares, making him even antsier. Desperate to find some relief he forced himself, on Tuesday morning, to relinquish inertia and finally go to the gym. There, pushing himself hard, he relentlessly trained for a couple of hours, desperate to burn off some of his nervous energy. And later, at Todd’s urging, he made his way to the basketball court, but even shooting some hoops with Todd and a few of the younger guys (at least those few who didn’t seem to mind being seen with him) didn’t fully rid Blair of his restlessness.

This tedious incarceration where every move was monitored and constrained was hard for everyone, of course. All of the men here had been dragged out of their normal lives where they’d been, like Blair, fully-realized human adults with careers and families and futures, only to find themselves stripped of freedom and personhood and trapped in this sterile parody of existence.

In Blair’s case, he had become accustomed to acting with complete autonomy over the past three years. In Peru he’d held a position of high office in the tribe: as Shaman he was respected and deferred to, even by Jim.

But now all that seemed very far away indeed. Haven reminded him far too acutely of Guide World, for all its lack of violent discipline. The white walls, the white uniforms, the pressure to moderate behavior and the general air of discontent continually frayed his nerves, such that vivid memories of fear and shame were never far from the surface. All of it, combined with the hostility which continued to be shown him by so many of the other men, made Blair feel off-balance and fearful; constant anxiety an ache in his gut.

The white-uniformed guards were ever-present, not intervening except when tempers flared, which they invariably did from time-to-time between men who had been cooped up too long. And the interventions themselves betrayed, to Blair’s eyes, the overwhelmingly contemptuous opinion that the authorities had of guides.

The first such instance that Blair witnessed took place after dinner on Tuesday evening. Resigned to the fact that he was going to be here indefinitely, and feeling a little more resilient after a day of physical exercise, Blair decided that building some bridges with his fellow inmates might make this scenario a whole lot less difficult to handle. Thus it was that, book in hand, he took a seat in the big dayroom after dinner, determined to mingle (however frostily it might be received) with the other men.

The muted hubbub of conversation had lulled when he first walked in, but picked up again gradually after he took a seat pointedly close to some of the more hostile of his peers. He focused on his own novel, not really taking in the words, before nodding at the book his neighbor was reading. “Hey, that’s a good read, man. You read any of his other stuff?”

The guy didn’t answer, but Karl Kramer, who was sitting across from Blair, did. “If he wanted your opinion he’d have asked for it.”

Jeez, this guy really had a hate-on for him, thought Blair. Attempting a conciliatory tone, Blair held up both hands. “Hey, relax, man. I don’t want to make any trouble, okay? We’re all in this together, all right? Let’s just try to get along.” He held out a hand. “How about we start over, huh? Come on.”

Kramer didn’t look inclined to play nice, but Blair didn’t get a chance to find out whether he was going to accept the handshake as raised voices from the other side of the room intruded. An argument had started over by the door. Blair didn’t see what had precipitated it, but it was instantly clear from the shouted threats and body language that the two men involved were going to come to blows.

Around Blair the room had gone silent, and to his surprise no one went over either to intervene or even watch, which seemed strange considering the tense undercurrents in this claustrophobic environment, with everyone on a hair-trigger. When one guy started to push the other aggressively Blair made to stand, meaning to try to calm the situation down before it escalated further, but a firm hand on his arm halted him from rising. The guy next to him, who he’d tried to draw into conversation about his book, had grabbed hold of him. “Shut up and sit down,” he instructed in a low voice.

“But-”

“Keep out of it,” the guy insisted, his voice still quiet. His hand on Blair’s arm was like iron.

In the next moment Blair understood why. White-uniformed guards suddenly flooded the room, far more (it seemed) than the situation warranted. In a matter of moments the two men were surrounded and obscured from view. One of them cried out, as if in pain, then shouted, “Get off of me!” before being ordered to comply and subsiding into silence.

Wide-eyed, his heart pounding in dread, Blair glanced around at the other men sitting around him. None of them were looking at the affray, their eyes lowered, and none of them met each other’s eyes. Instead they either looked at the floor or at the books in their hands, not one of them moving a muscle or uttering a sound.

Blair glanced back towards the activity in the room. Both men could now clearly be seen, as the majority of the guards had stepped away to move into position around the room instead. So much for guides never being forced to their knees in here, Blair thought scathingly, as he watched what was happening. Both men were facing away from Blair, kneeling with their heads down and their arms bound behind them, while a guard affixed more restraints to their ankles. Blair watched as they were each hauled upright by a guard on either side, and escorted with shuffling steps out of the door. Neither of them looked like they wanted to fight anymore; instead they appeared completely cowed and went entirely without resistance.

After they had exited more guards entered and moved into position around the room, until there were so many surrounding Blair and the other seated guides that it was immediately apparent as a pointed show of strength. Blair swallowed, lowering his own eyes and freezing to immobility. There was an unmistakably oppressive air of expectation, and in the next moment Blair found out why.

“Guides, on your feet!” The stentorian bellow as the Warden entered the room could not be ignored and, to a man, all of the seated guides in the room obeyed, Blair along with them.

Once everyone was standing, the Warden progressed through the room. “We have been here before, in this disappointing position, so this will come as no surprise. I will not tolerate aggressive, un-guidely behavior in this facility!”

Blair froze when the Warden’s steps brought him close to where he was standing. DeFranco’s next words were clearly expressed with him in mind. “For the sake of those of you new to Haven, let me make the situation completely clear. Whenever a guide transgresses appropriate behavioral standards, you will all, every single one of you, be punished. As of this moment,” The Warden said into the nervous stillness, “you are on enhanced lockdown until Thursday at zero seven hundred hours. During this time you will not leave your rooms to eat. You will not leave your rooms to shower or shit or shoot the breeze. You will use the time in lockdown to reflect on appropriate conduct for guides, and you will emerge having learned that lesson.” He paused to let that sink in, before barking an order to the guards to escort them all to their cells.

Single file, escorted by the guards, they filed passively out of the room; no one talking, no one making eye contact. Drawn along with them, Blair ended up inside his cell and the door clanged shut immediately. A moment later the lights went out.

It was only just after eight o’clock in the evening; this was going to be a very long night

Chapter Text

Enhanced lockdown, Blair understood from DeFranco’s announcement, meant that in addition to being packed off to bed early like naughty kids in the immediate aftermath, all of the guides in the facility were to remain locked in their cells throughout the entirety of the following day and night.

Blair was surprised that the first night they got locked in he actually managed to get a good solid sleep for the first time since he’d arrived. It was a measure of his exhaustion, he supposed, that he could do so under these stressful circumstances, and also a sign that the suppressant medication he’d taken was finally working. And sleeping through the night had certainly made part of the time in lockdown go by quicker, which was a relief.

The restorative effects of sleep deserted him quickly in the grim reality of morning, when he was forced to face the prospect of being confined within the four walls of his cell for a whole day and night. His resentful reverie was only interrupted by the arrival of a breakfast tray, slid through a hinged slot which had been momentarily unlocked at the bottom of the door.

Blair was thankful that he’d visited the library yesterday and picked out a handful of books, because otherwise he had no idea how he’d have passed the time as the first few hours dragged by. The morning progressed, the time crawling along at a snail’s pace, only punctuated at midday by the arrival of a lunch tray that he wasn’t hungry enough to eat, having burned off zero energy during the morning.

He had a lot of time to think during the rest of the interminable day, and at intervals found himself uncomfortably preoccupied about what might be happening to the two men who had been hauled away after their fight. They had presumably been put in solitary, and Todd had told Blair a little of what that entailed: that they would spend several days in isolation, and receive a personal visit from the Warden. But he’d also said that no one got hurt, so Blair had to hope that the worst that could happen was time out and a dressing down. Blair couldn’t help but be concerned for their welfare, nevertheless. The memories of his own punishment sessions at the hands of Guide Corps were far too vivid and fresh.

During the afternoon Blair found himself up and pacing, bored of reading, his restlessness at this interminable forced immobility and confinement overwhelming in the extreme. Accustomed to spending every day out in the open with the entire jungle at his disposal, claustrophobia threatened to kick in, and as the day went on it was all he could do to restrain himself from banging on the door and demanding to be set free. His rational mind won out, and determined to overcome his increasing urge to panic he sank into a loose lotus position and engaged in conscious breathing, falling back on meditation techniques learned at his mother’s knee which had sustained him through many hard times in his life.

It helped, just as it had when he’d been in Guide World enduring day after nightmarish day of torment.  Well, it helped until Guide World came to mind, anyway. Goddamn it. Blair sighed, thrown out of his meditation breathing hard, his hands clenched into fists.

Thinking about Guide World - which he usually tried not to do - reminded him that his cousin was here somewhere in the facility. Poor, brutalized Robbie, who had caved under torture and betrayed the network. Blair hadn’t given any thought, since Dan had made the suggestion, to actually going to visit Robbie. But in the midst of enduring this infuriating period of isolation of his own, with bad associations far too much to the fore, Blair couldn’t help but think about what life might be like for his cousin. Locked up like this every single day for the past three years, alone with his thoughts, and with nothing to distract him from memories of his ordeal. It had to be hell. To his surprise Blair found himself seriously considering going to see him, if the offer was still open.

Dinner eventually arrived, and evening finally fell after an interminable day. Blair was startled when the door was unexpectedly unlocked close to lights-out, but breathed easier to see that it was just Dan Wolf who entered, and not the authoritarian figures of his nightmares. As the door closed again with a clang behind him, Dan asked, “How are you, Blair?”

“I’m okay,” Blair said, sitting up on the bed and swinging his legs around. He waved his hand, indicating his surroundings. “But this whole thing sucks.”

Dan smiled ruefully, as he pulled over the cell’s single chair and sat down. “Yes, I know what you mean.”

“Is everyone else okay?”

“So I’ve been assured.” Then he added, “I don’t normally make house calls like this during lockdown unless there is an emergency, but you’re under medical supervision at the moment so I needed to see you and make sure you’re coping okay.”

“Thanks,” Blair told him. “I’m fine. Just, you know,” frustration rose in him once more, “I hate being locked in like this.”

“I hear that,” Dan said sympathetically. “Everything will be back to normal tomorrow.”

Huh, normal, thought Blair. Nothing about this place was normal. “Does this happen a lot? Everyone getting thrown into lockdown, I mean?”

“Not so much these days,” Dan said. “Things are generally pretty calm around here, but every so often stress bubbles to the surface and boils over, as you saw.”

Blair sighed, his frustration coming to the fore. “So why punish all of us? No one else was kicking off, just those two guys. It doesn’t seem exactly fair.”

“It’s felt that a period of immediate isolation after a violent incident will prevent additional flashpoints from occurring,” Dan told him. “It’s meant to calm everyone down.”

“Well, I’m not feeling all that calm,” said Blair resentfully. “I doubt anyone else is, either.”

Dan looked apologetic. “Some things are beyond my authority to influence,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, man,” Blair said. The ball was clearly in the Warden’s court, on this occasion. “Hey, those two guys who were fighting, what happened to them?”

“They’ll spend several days in solitary.”

“In their own cells, like this?”

“No, in a different part of the facility.”

“Todd told me that there are punishment cells somewhere, is that where they are?”

“The isolation cells are no different from these ones, they’re just segregated from the rest of the facility.” Dan had clearly perceived his trepidation. “Don’t worry, Blair. They won’t be harmed. After a few day’s cooling off period, as long as they agree not to continue their animosity toward each other, they’ll both be free to rejoin the main group.”

“Huh, right,” Blair said. He was only slightly reassured; he’d only truly believe they were okay after he saw them again.

“How are you feeling more generally?” Dan asked. “You’re looking a lot better since I last saw you. Did you stop taking your suppressants today, like we discussed?” He had recommended that Blair only take them in the early part of the week, to allow a couple of days for the drug to leave his system before bonding.

“I’m fine, and yeah,” Blair agreed. “I took one dose last night, then nothing today. I don’t want anything to interfere when I go to see Jim.” Blair’s pulse sped at the thought, his stomach flipping over in excitement. Two more sleeps, just two more sleeps! Friday was just around the corner. Blair’s longing for Jim hadn’t abated, despite his hormones being under better control. “Have you heard…?” he began.

Dan understood what he was asking. “Yes, I checked, and Jim is just fine.”

Blair nodded. “You’d tell me, right? If he wasn’t?”

“I promise,” Dan said sincerely. “But he’s in good hands, Blair. There are sentinel specialists at the jail who are keeping an eye on him to head off any problems he might have. Frankly, both you and he have a lot of attention on you right now. It’s in the best interests of everyone that you are both well looked after.”

Blair had almost forgotten about the chaos happening in the wider world, such was the insular nature of his life so far in Haven. “So,” Blair said, “We get out of lockdown tomorrow morning, right?” When Dan nodded he went on, “I’ve been thinking about my cousin, Robbie. And I thought maybe I’d like to visit him, like you suggested. It can’t be easy for him, never seeing anyone apart from medical staff and guards, right? Maybe…” Blair paused. “Maybe it would help him.”

Dan nodded. “I think that’d be a good thing,” he said. “Come see me in my office tomorrow, just after lunch. I’ll let you know if he’s well enough then for a visit.”

Dan took his leave shortly afterwards, and lights-out put paid to any more reading. Once darkness fell Blair lay awake for a long time, remembering the last time he’d seen Robbie.

On that occasion his cousin had taken a crop to Jim, and afterwards Blair had tried to kill him.

Chapter Text

“Before we go in, there’s a few things you should know,” Dan Wolf said to Blair the following afternoon. “He’s lost a lot of weight; he has some issues with food that we’re working on. And we’ve had to keep his head shaved, because once it started to grow back he tended to pull it out in clumps. You may find his appearance a little shocking.” Dan looked very serious. “And another thing, try to not to say anything that might upset him. He’s incredibly fragile.”

“I promise.” Blair felt more jittery about this than he expected. “But he’s okay about this, right? He knows I’m coming to see him?”

“I told him you wanted to visit him, but it’s hard to tell how much of it he understood.”

“Oh, right.” Blair wondered what exactly he was letting himself in for. None of this sounded like the Robbie that he knew. His erstwhile cousin had always been self-assured, tough-minded and had a chip on his shoulder the size of a small redwood. He’d never, ever (discounting a short period of time immediately after his mom died) been anything even close to ‘fragile’.

Dan led Blair away from the infirmary and down a corridor into a separate wing of the facility. Two white-clad guards were sitting in the corridor, and they nodded at Dan Wolf as he approached the door of a locked cell. Blair lowered his eyes reflexively as their gazes swept over him too.

Dan unlocked the cell and he and Blair entered. “Hey, Robert.” Dan’s voice was gentle, as if to a child. “I’ve got a visitor for you. How about that? Remember, I told you earlier? You want to take a look and see who it is?”

The cell was much like Blair’s own. The single, bald figure it contained was sitting hunched against the wall on the narrow bed, knees drawn up and arms crossed protectively across his chest. Robbie turned his head toward them as they came in, and Blair gasped at the changes in his cousin. His face was gaunt, just like the rest of him. And his eyes, which didn’t seem focused, were haunted and fearful. “Who is it?” he asked, sounding pitifully scared.

“Hey,” Blair said gently, stepping closer. “Robbie? Hey man, it’s me, Blair.”

Robbie looked away toward the wall he was leaning on, hunching further in on himself. “No, no, no, no,” he muttered. “Blair is gone. He’s gone.” In the next moment Robbie covered his face with his hands and started to cry.

Appalled, Blair looked at Dan, who was regarding Robbie with obvious compassion. “Easy, Rob,” Dan soothed. “Just breathe, like I showed you.” Dan sat down on the bed and massaged a thin shoulder, the bones showing clearly through the thin material of Robbie’s orange jump suit. “That’s it, just breathe. You’re doing fine.”

“Robbie?” Blair whispered. When Dan nodded, encouraging him to keep talking, he came a little closer and crouched down, trying to appear non-threatening. “Robbie, hey. I know you’ve had a bad time, man. But you’re safe now, okay? And…” Blair reached out, daring to put a hand on Robbie’s arm. The man was shaking. “You’re not alone. I’m here now. You and me, huh, we’re in this together, right? I want to help.”

Robbie was mouthing words, saying something unintelligible behind his hands. Blair focused and managed to make it out. “Please, no. I can’t, I can’t. I’m sorry, so sorry…”

Blair’s heart broke for him. He knew. He knew what Robbie had been through. He’d lived it. And he’d hardly admitted, even to himself, how close he’d come to breaking and telling his interrogators everything, just to make them stop. With the power of epiphany, he knew that this could have been him. He could have easily been a broken wreck, like Robbie, wracked with guilt and fear and stuck in a never-ending cycle of despair.

“It’s gonna be okay, Robbie,” Blair insisted, his voice soft but imbued with absolute conviction. He and Robbie had never seen eye-to-eye, but none of that mattered any more. Compassion flooded through Blair, and a sense of utter determination. “I’m gonna help you through this, and everything’s gonna get better. I promise you, Robbie. I promise.”

Robbie just carried on weeping.

***

Blair’s shock and dismay at the state his cousin was in stayed with him for the rest of the day. He’d had no idea how profoundly affected he would be by Robbie’s plight. Part of him had wanted to go in there all guns blazing, berating Robbie mercilessly. Robbie had been an asshole to Blair all through their childhood and beyond. He’d betrayed the network and beaten Blair’s sentinel, goddamn it. But every last scrap of Blair’s anger had fled as soon as he’d seen the terrible mockery of life that Robbie had been reduced to.

It had brought his own dark memories close to the surface, too. Things he’d buried deep were suddenly right there in his mind’s eye, haunting his every move, filling him with remembered dread.

It seemed his preoccupation had not gone unnoticed when Todd came to sit with him in the day room that evening. “Hey Blair, are you okay? You look really down.”

“Oh, hey. Yeah, I’m fine, Todd. Really, it’s nothing. It’s just…” he lowered his voice, aware of all the other men sitting nearby, and the likelihood that there would be little sympathy from any of them. “I went to see Robbie Carter today.”

“Oh, man. Why? I mean, I heard you two are related or something. But what in the world would make you want to go see him?”

“It’s hard to explain,” Blair said. “It’s just… Robbie went through something similar to me. I thought, maybe, I could help him.”

Unfortunately, Blair’s words had not gone unnoticed. “What the hell?” The speaker was Dylan Bomer, who Blair had met on his first day here. “All of this is his goddamn fault! Why would you want to help him?”

Blair couldn’t fault the assessment of what Robbie had done, but now he’d become acquainted with the reality he couldn’t let that lie. “You have no idea what he went through. I do.” Around them, conversations were stopping, ears straining to overhear what they were saying. “They broke him. He didn’t know what he was saying.”

Some of the other guys had drifted over, and taken seats on the couch near to Bomer. They didn’t look happy. Dylan Bomer was still glaring at Blair. “You didn’t break. You went through the exact same shit, and you told them nothing.” The guy huffed a laugh. “Hell, if they’d gotten me, instead of him, I swear to god, I’d have said nothing, because I knew what was at stake. But because of that asshole, we’re all stuck in here for maybe the rest of our fucking lives.”

Conversation paused, then. A couple of guards had moved so that they were within earshot, drawn by the angry words and angrier expressions, even though Dylan had kept his voice low. After a few minutes, during which they all focused on the books they had in their hands, and a couple of guys started an innocuous, quiet conversation about a movie they’d watched, the guards moved away again.

As soon as they had gone out of earshot a middle-aged guy, who had taken a seat next to Dylan, spoke up, his voice a mere murmur, belying the painful content of his words. “My mom - Christ, she is sixty-nine years old! - was taken to one of the female facilities. She spent her whole life teaching school, helping out in the church, and looking after her family. She didn’t even get a chance to properly grieve her husband, my dad, who died just three days before we were taken. We never even got to bury him because of that asshole Carter.”

The horror of this whole situation, of whole families being torn apart because of what Robert did, couldn’t be denied. “I’m sorry,” Blair said. “About your Dad. And about what happened to you and your mom.”

“Yeah,” the guy said. “We’re all fucking sorry. It doesn’t change a thing.”

“There’s one thing I still want to know,” another put in; a buddy of Kramer’s called Joe who’d steered clear from Blair until now. “That guy, Carter. Who the hell informed on him? Because whoever did that, they started this whole ball rolling. No one would have known nothing about the rest of us if they hadn’t’ve caught him first.”

Blair hadn’t even considered how Robbie had come to lose his liberty. “Someone betrayed him?”

“Yeah,” Todd spoke up. “That’s what it said on the news. They received ‘intelligence’.”

“It makes you look over your shoulder all the time,” Joe continued. “Was it one of us? Or someone outside the network? Did someone get immunity for it, and now they’re running around free as a bird while we’re in here?” He shook his head. “A lot of us think it was Naomi, playing a long game. Using us as sacrificial goats to overturn the laws.”

“No way.” Blair wasn’t standing for that. “Naomi put her heart and soul into the network. She would never, ever put kids - or any of you - at risk.”

Even as he spoke, another possibility was asserting itself. What if Naomi did it as a means of getting rid of her second-in-command, who she clearly hadn’t trusted? The two of them had been in a power battle for almost as long as Blair could remember. But no sooner did Blair think it than he dismissed it. Robbie had been in possession of far too much dangerous information: there was no way Naomi would have risked handing him over to people who might make him divulge it.

She’d have just pulled out a gun and shot him.

***

Blair took himself off to his cell after that, needing some space from the constant, underlying volatility in the dayroom. It didn’t seem that the enforced downtime they’d all had to endure had done anything to reduce pent-up tension among the inmates, and it seemed likely to Blair that further flashpoints would occur sooner rather than later.

He was reading, luxuriating in the improved vision lent to him by the new glasses which he’d been presented with today, when a tentative knock on his door roused him from his reverie. “Hey,” said Todd. “Mind if I come in?”

“Hey, yeah, take a seat, man,” Blair said, indicating the chair, putting down his book. “Are you okay?”

Todd looked a little uncomfortable as he sat down. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” He smiled, but seemed nervous. “I uh, hope you don’t mind. But I wanted to ask you something. Something personal. It’s not something I could talk about out there.”

Wanting to help - Todd had consistently stood up for Blair since he’d arrived here, and Blair regarded him as a friend - he smiled encouragingly. “Hey, man, of course. No problem. What do you want to know?”

“What’s it like, being bonded?” Todd asked.                                          

Blair blinked; that had come out of left-field. “It’s… it’s good. Really good,” he said lamely.

Todd grinned a little. “Well yeah, probably the sex part is, huh? But what about the rest of it? Kneeling and walking behind and all that shit?”

“It’s not like that with Jim and me,” Blair insisted. “We’re equal partners. The way the law makes people do it here, the way guides are subjugated… well, it’s not supposed to be like that.” He smiled, remembering the police guide he’d met back in the day - Dave - and his sentinel Benny Ramirez. “It’s not even like that behind closed doors for a lot of pairings, even some of the more conservative ones.”

“I’ve always wondered,” Todd said. “I mean, despite all that stuff they make you do, sentinels and guides always seem… kind of devoted.”

“Well, the Bond makes you really close. You can feel a lot of each other’s emotions. It makes sense that pairings look out for each other; it’s a lot better when your bond-partner is happy and secure, because it makes you feel happy and secure, too.”

Todd looked wistful. “It must be strange. You know, having someone that close to you. In your head all the time, I mean. Hearing your thoughts.”

Blair shot Todd a look. Maybe he imagined it, but he thought there was more than a hint of longing in Todd’s voice. “It’s not exactly like that. We’re both still individuals, we can block each other out. Most of the time, we keep our thoughts to ourselves. But sometimes, when he lets me, I can feel what he feels, and he can feel it too. It happens mostly when I’m guiding him and he’s working his senses, or when we just want to be really close to each other. It’s magical. And knowing that he’s there, that he’s always in my corner no matter what… it’s the most amazing thing.”

Todd nodded. “I heard bonding, when you actually bond, you know, in bed. That it’s…” Todd swallowed. “Incredible.”

“Oh yeah,” Blair agreed. “Transcendent.” He looked at Todd. “And you know,” he added carefully, “If what everyone says is right, and the laws are changing, things are probably going to get a lot better for bonded pairs.” When Todd didn’t answer, Blair cut to the chase. “Todd, is it something you’ve thought about doing? Bonding with someone?”

Todd looked a little guilty. “We’re not supposed to even consider it. You know, in the network. But… I guess the network is pretty much done.” He shrugged. “I’d kinda like to think about it.”

Blair blinked. “Todd, have you met someone?”

Todd looked miserable. “Yeah, I guess I have. We were friends at Rainier before I got taken, back when I was taking Antidux, so she didn’t know I was a guide then. She does now, of course. Her name is Tania, she graduated medical school last year. She’s been to see me a handful of times since I’ve been in here.”

“Are you still in touch?” Blair asked.

“Not now, no,” Todd said. He looked close to tears. “She stopped visiting, it got too intense, and I’m only allowed to get letters from my close family. I guess, since I stopped taking Anti-D, we both felt the pull of the Bond, huh? It’s too hard to be in the same room and not be able to touch each other the way we want to. She’s asked me to bond with her when they let me out of here.” He raised sad eyes to Blair. “I said yes.”

“Todd, that’s great! But it’s not so great that you’re separated. If the two of you want to bond, why don’t you just request it? With things the way that they are, with all the changes going on and so much public scrutiny, the authorities would have to seriously consider it. If they say yes, you could get out of here, man!”

“We talked about that,” Todd admitted. “But… we decided to wait. Until this thing is all figured out. I mean, they’ve gotta change the law soon, huh? And let us go? Then we can just go and do it in our own time.” He looked at Blair. “You have no idea what it’s like out there, man. Tania told me the media know the name of everyone in here. You can bet your ass that if I get permission to bond nothing about it will be private. And that’s not what either of us wants.”

“Oh, man,” Blair said. His heart went out to Todd; he knew how hard it could be. One of his unhappiest memories was of the time when he and Jim had been forced to deny the pull of the bond between them. It had been sheer torture.

Todd looked at Blair in entreaty. “Please don’t tell anyone else. They’ll all think I’m a traitor.”

Oh, the poor kid. “Todd, I promise you, I won’t say a word. But on two conditions.”

“What?” Todd looked stricken.

“That you do not ever let anyone make you feel guilty about wanting it. The urge to bond is a natural desire for sentinels and guides, no matter what anyone tells you. And secondly, that you accept my congratulations, man! Hey, good for you!”

Todd smiled, a little lopsided and watery, looking unutterably relieved that someone understood. “I guess I can do that,” he said.

Chapter Text

Blair slept fitfully that night, his dreams - during the few times he achieved actual sleep - full of Jim.

At last Friday morning dawned, and Blair emerged from his cell ready to count down the hours - mere hours! - until he could be reunited with his sentinel. He got through the interminable day by treating the time as though it was a preparatory ritual; making sure he ate, taking a long shower, meditating. None of it managed to rid him, however, of the nervous energy and excitement which consumed him.

Dan Wolf personally drove Blair to the jail right after dinner. Blair had expected at least the same level of supervision as when he’d arrived, with Corps guards coming along on the trip to keep an eye on him, but that wasn’t the case. When asked outright about it while they were on the road, Dan just replied, “I’m taking you to see your sentinel. You’re not going to run out on me if I’m doing that, are you?” He subtly didn’t mention the tracking tattoo, which Blair bore on his neck, meaning escape was a futile exercise anyway.

Blair had no intention of running anywhere, in any case. He was sitting this out for as long as it took to get Jim’s name cleared and the two of them free.

Going through security procedures when they reached the jail was exactly as awful as Blair had anticipated. But he submitted to the pat-downs and screening without undue trauma, and was even okay with Dan leaving him there under the temporary jurisdiction of the jail. Blair was a lot steadier than he’d been a week ago, and he was on his way to spend time with Jim. For that, he’d put up with anything.

Finally, he was through.

Dan had told him that the jail had set aside a private space for the two of them to be used as a secure bonding area. It seemed, from what Dan had told him on the trip over, that the media spotlight had stepped up another notch since he and Jim had set foot on U.S. soil, and the justice system (as well as Haven, Blair surmised), was not prepared to open itself to accusations of discrimination or unfair treatment of these two extremely high-profile prisoners. Therefore the word on high was that their needs as a captive sentinel and guide pair absolutely must be met.

Blair was informed that Jim had already been moved to the bonding room, and in short order, accompanied by a guard, he was on his way there too. He felt something welling up inside him as he got nearer and nearer to Jim; a mixture of anxiety/need/worry and all kinds of other things he couldn’t even quantify but which squirmed and coiled in the pit of his belly.

Finally the guard halted outside a locked door. Another guard was standing outside. At a nod from the guard accompanying Blair the second man peered through the spyhole into the cell, and seemingly satisfied by what he observed, he unlocked the door.

Blair didn’t even hesitate.

“Chief!” Blair barely registered Jim’s cry as he bolted inside, or the desperate tone of it; all of his senses were wrapped up in the feel of strong arms around him, and a hard chest, and the smell - god the smell! - of Jim’s familiar odor and the fact that they were already straining, straining hard against each other, and he didn’t even know if the guards had shut the door or care if they were watching through the spyhole because there was not enough of this, he just couldn’t get enough, couldn’t get close enough…

Their link flared between them, igniting into vivid Technicolor as the ecstasy of the Bond hit them both at the same moment. Love you love you love you, Blair’s mind called out to Jim, and Jim’s cried back to him in turn, need you need you love youAhhhhhh!

When Blair came back to himself he was lying half on top of Jim on the floor of the cell; they hadn’t even made it onto the incongruously placed queen-sized bed which filled almost the entire space. And not only that, Blair realized, as he half sat up, neither of them had even made it out of their - suddenly quite sticky - clothes. He blew a loose strand of hair out of his face as Jim’s eyes opened, then burst out laughing at the look of profound bliss on the sentinel’s face. After a moment, Jim joined in, lying helpless under Blair’s weight but showing no inclination whatsoever to move.

When Blair’s guffaws finally died away he pushed himself upright and stood up, then held a hand down to Jim. Jim took it and allowed Blair to haul him up. Then, with pretty much nowhere else to move to, they both got on the bed together and moved into each other’s arms.

“Hey,” Blair said softly, cupping Jim’s face in one hand. Jim was looking at him with a look of adoration Blair was sure matched his own. “Are you okay?”

“I am now.” Jim leaned in and kissed Blair; a soft, gentle kiss, but Blair could tell that passion was not far behind; they had a lot of time to make up for. When the kiss ended, Jim whispered, “I’ve had a bitch of a headache this past few days. My senses have been out of whack. I got some help to try to alleviate it but… it didn’t, not really. Not like this. Not like you.”

“I told you, huh?” Blair said. “I told you that you needed me to come back here with you.”

“Yeah, I know…. But…”

“Stop it,” Blair said. “I’m here, you need me, I need you. That’s all there is to it, man.” He paused, deciding not to lay out the whole depressing deal, not right now, not wanting Jim to worry. Instead he gave just the gist. “I’ve needed some help too. I’m taking dux suppressants; just a small amount to help me through the week when I can’t see you. But there’s no substitute,” he said, leaning in and stealing a kiss, “for this.”

Jim smiled a little sadly when they moved apart again, possibly picking up Blair’s ambient dismay about his damaged guide gland despite his attempt to mask it. “Are you really okay?” he asked. “I’ve been this close to punching walls all week, worrying about what was happening to you.”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Blair reassured him firmly. “The place they’ve put me, it’s not like Guide World. We’re treated okay, mostly. Well, if you can call being incarcerated and our every move monitored being treated okay.” Blair paused for a moment to think back on the week he’d spent there, with the frustration and anguish of men torn from their families and their impotence to do anything about it. “It’s a really weird place. We get locked in our cells at night, but during the day we can mix with hardly any restrictions. We’ve got access to a gym, and books and games, and get to spend time outside. Boredom is probably the worst part about it. And the surveillance; the guards, they’re always there, watching. But they don’t bother us unless someone loses their cool, and no one gets beaten, even then. The worst that happens is we get put on lockdown.”

Jim looked profoundly relieved. “Thank god. I don’t know how I’d handle it if they were hurting you.”

“They’re really not, Jim. You don’t have to worry about me, okay? Just put yourself first. Everything’s gonna get straightened out in time, and meanwhile just remember I’m safe.” Now it was Blair’s turn to get a little reassurance in return. “So, what’s it like in here? Are you being treated all right?”

“Yeah, like a prince.” Jim said. “I haven’t mixed with the regular prisoners at all - this part of the jail is purpose-built for sentinels. White noise generators and low intensity lighting, plus I get to do my own laundry detail with sentinel-friendly products. I’m the only sentinel in here right now, so I’m getting one-on-one personal service. And before you ask, they’ve not harmed or threatened me in any way.”

“Good. That’s good, Jim.” Blair had long been aware that sentinels in custody tended to get treated reasonably carefully, because even the criminal ones were regarded as having intrinsic worth. But it was a relief to see it in practice in Jim’s case. “Though I’m not sure I like the idea of you being kept in isolation.” A little over one day of the same for Blair this week had nearly had him climbing the walls.

“I can handle it,” Jim said. “It’s better than the alternative, believe me. Forget about me being a sentinel, I’m an ex-cop. They don’t much like my kind in the general population. But more importantly,” he pulled Blair close, “I put up with it, and I get this - you - once a week. For this, I can handle anything.”

They held each other for a long while, their link thrumming between them. Jim seemed more guarded than usual, though, his deeper thoughts shuttered. Not such a surprise, given the situation they were in, Blair thought. Jim was bound to be a bit self-protective, as well as unwilling to upset Blair with any darker emotions he might have. “So what went on last week, you know, in court?” Blair eventually asked, hoping that talking through some of their problems might help Jim relax a little. “I was really hoping they’d let you out on bail.”

“It’s complicated,” Jim said. “I pleaded not guilty. My lawyer argued that I should be released pending trial, but the judge ruled against it. Seems even on bail I wouldn’t be allowed to take custody of you, not until they drop the charges or I’m acquitted, so some ‘expert’ advised the court that I’d go berserk and try to rescue you.”

“Oh, man.” Blair said. “So, if I hadn’t come back with you, and gotten myself stuck in Haven, they might have let you go?”

“Don’t sweat it, Chief.” Jim said. “I doubt they’d have done that. Gavaghan’s brother and the family of one of the others were in court. They’d almost certainly have raised a strong objection, so I doubt the judge would have granted bail even if you weren’t in the equation.”

Blair shuddered, hearing Gavaghan’s name, and Jim held him tight for a moment. “But will he? Let you out eventually, I mean?”

“My lawyer is putting together my defense, but she’s also working behind the scenes to try to get the charges dismissed before it goes to trial. They never did recover the bodies, so there’s no physical evidence linking me to their deaths. Our story right now is that I have no idea who killed those men, and got you away without hurting anyone.”

“So the prosecution case is all circumstantial like we thought, huh?”

“Pretty much. The problem we have is convincing the D.A. to drop the charges, and right now he’s not budging. If it doesn’t go our way Marta’s considering whether it might be best to change my plea to guilty to avoid a trial, and let the new laws mitigate my sentence when the Supreme Court gives its ruling.”

“How can that affect your case? It pre-dates any new law that might get passed.”

“Marta thinks, because of everything that’s gone on, that I could get treated as a special case. She wants to argue that our Bond should have been legal from the start, that what happened to you after we bonded was illegal, and that I was just following my natural instincts to get you back.”

“But that could take time, right? You could be in here for months until the legal stuff gets worked out.” Blair didn’t like the thought of that at all, it could mean they might be separated for a lot longer than they’d hoped. “And what would the sentence be, in that case? You could still get sent to prison.”

“I told you it wouldn’t be simple,” Jim said. “She thinks they might let me serve my sentence outside of custody, maybe do some kind of community service wearing an electronic tag, but there are no guarantees.”

“I guess just telling them Leguia did it is out of the question, huh?”

“You know it is,” Jim said. “Don’t even go there, Chief.”

That brought up a whole other raft of questions. “Has Leguia done it, do you think? Helped the Chopec, like he promised?”

“You’ve not seen the news?” Jim asked.

“No. We’re completely isolated at Haven. No TV, no newspapers, no internet, nothing. Apparently it’s to keep us calm.” Blair laughed humorlessly. “It’s driving me nuts.”

Jim grimaced in sympathy, before giving Blair a precis of what had happened. “It all blew up in the media right after we got back, so Leguia didn’t waste any time. The head of Cyclops Oil, Gerard Spalding, stood down earlier this week, and it looks like he’ll be prosecuted - along with the company and the multi-national corporation that controls it - for breaking a wide range of environmental laws. Not only that, the U.N. are putting pressure on the government because what Cyclops did is in breach of numerous international treaties. It’s a huge, worldwide scandal. It’s about the only thing knocking sentinel and guide issues off the top slot right now.”

“Whoa. When Leguia said he would deal with it he really meant it, huh?”

“You got it.”

“There’s something else you should know,” Jim added after a moment. He paused, and Blair sensed that a bigger revelation was coming. “You know how we thought the whole thing was too coincidental? That a company mining in that specific region turned out to be from Cascade? Well it seems that they had a connection there, after all. Lee Brackett was in charge of their operations in Peru.”

Blair sat up at that, aghast. “You mean it really was about flushing us out?”

Jim sat too, and faced him across the bed. “It looks like it, yeah.”

Rage boiled up in Blair. “That… that fucking asshole! I’ll go back there, when this is done, and I’ll kill him! He murdered the tribe!”

“You won’t have to,” Jim said shortly, stopping Blair’s tirade. “He’s already dead.”

“What?”

“Apparently after his role in Cyclops Oil came to light, an international warrant was issued for his arrest. But his body was found a few days later, just a couple of miles from Leguia’s estate. He was murdered, and it wasn’t an easy death. It looks like he was burned alive.”

“Oh my god.” The implications were clear. “I hate to say it, Jim. I know Leguia’s your friend, weird as that still is from my perspective. But if whoever killed Brackett found out about their Bond, he might be dead as well.”

“I wondered about that myself,” Jim said. “I asked my attorney yesterday whether Carlos was okay, and she said he was fine.”

“His sentinel just died, and he’s ‘fine’?”

“It’s possible she’s just repeating what she’s been told to say,” Jim pointed out. “Whatever the case, he’s still paying my legal fees. And she said he would be visiting Cascade on business sometime in the next few weeks.”

“I guess we’ll find out the truth if he does, huh?” Blair said.

“Maybe,” Jim agreed. “Although he’s not the type to give much away. We might never know what really happened.”

“Huh,” said Blair. “Hey, maybe they were both in on this whole thing from the start.”

Jim clearly didn’t agree. “No, I’m sure Carlos wasn’t involved. Remember when we thought it might be a trap, when we first got to his place? I watched his reactions really carefully. I could sense that he was genuinely surprised and angry when we first told him about what happened to the Chopec, and he was sincere every time it came up after that. And, let’s say I somehow misread what my senses were telling me, if he was involved, why would he do what we wanted and turn the whole thing into a public scandal? It doesn’t make sense that he was part of it too.”

Blair’s mind was working overtime. “Do you think…? I mean, it sounds crazy, but what if Brackett being part of what Cyclops did really pissed Leguia off. Leguia was his guide, right? He couldn’t have anything to do with what happened to him, could he?”

Jim was clearly as disturbed as Blair about the whole idea. “I don’t know. If it was anyone else, I’d say no. But this is Carlos we’re talking about.” He shivered once sharply, as though gripped by a chill. “Even if he got past his protective instincts somehow, I can’t see him doing it like that. A quick, clean execution is more his style.”

Blair was horrified by the thought, but it wasn’t impossible. “Personality disorders are as statistically likely in guides as in everybody else,” he pointed out. “Leguia always struck me as a sociopath. If any guide was capable of murdering his sentinel, it’d be him.”

They lay down together and held each other in uneasy silence for a while, both equally disturbed by the dark path their thoughts had taken. “So you’re allowed to watch the news, right?” Blair eventually asked, moving on to other matters. When Jim nodded, he went on, “So, what are they saying out there about us? And hey, did you see the crowd at the airport? That was crazy, man.”

“I couldn’t see them,” Jim said. “I heard them.” He shook his head wonderingly. “I get two or three hours of indoor recreation time in the evening, and I’ve got the TV room to myself right now before I get locked down for the night. I watched the KCDE News channel a couple of days ago. You know, that midweek current affairs show with Don Hass as the lead anchor? And that woman, the reporter who used to host True Crime?”

“Oh, yeah.” Blair remembered it well. “Wendy Hawthorn, right?”

“Yeah, that’s her. It’s crazy,” Jim continued. “The entire show was focused on us, like they’re obsessed or something. There was even film of us getting off the plane last week. It was poor quality, like it was taken from a long distance away.”

“Paparazzi, huh?” Blair said. “That’s wild.”

Jim nodded. “It looks like it. They also showed clips of the press conference your mom and my dad gave, and apparently people are demanding you and I make some kind of public appearance to prove we’re alive and well. Marta Fletcher wants to take them up on it, but the Warden here said no. She’s pushing for it, though.”

“God.” Blair put his head in his hands. “This is all too much, man.” He felt Jim’s hand on his, and allowed the sentinel to draw it away from his face. Meeting his partner’s eyes, Blair squeezed Jim’s hand back. Their eyes met, and Blair’s breath halted at the look of devotion on Jim’s face.

By mutual, unspoken need they leaned in toward each other and kissed, their lips soft against each other; exploratory. After a moment Blair pulled back slightly to look at his sentinel. He palmed Jim’s cheek tenderly, a wash of love so intense and profound racing through him that in that moment he understood one basic truth: nothing else mattered, not right now. The cares they had to face and live with, the big griefs and the little griefs and all their anger and fear. All that existed, right now, for far too fleeting a time, was the two of them. The rest of it could wait.

They let go of each other only long enough to strip out of their jumpsuits. Jim watched Blair all the while, a tiny, appropriative smile on his lips and a bigger one in his eyes, and Blair knew he probably bore a similar expression. When they came together again, this time with nothing in-between them, something profound shifted and Blair gasped out loud when Jim’s shuttered thoughts opened to let him in. The wave of love/longing/lust which enveloped him was almost more than he could bear, but he took it anyway and gave it back with interest.

Blair couldn’t restrain himself any longer; he had dreamt of this, and he wanted it so badly. With a cry he pushed Jim over onto his back and crawled over him, his hands mapping Jim’s flawless skin with possessive intent. Drifting in a sea of need and desire he prepared Jim to take him, his hands sure and determined, only vaguely registering consciously that supplies were somehow to hand. Then sinking deep into Jim’s body, loving the tightness and the heat and the feel of Jim’s hands holding him in place and his beautiful eyes on Blair all the while, he shoved in hard, making Jim gasp. Then he moved, slow at first, gradually establishing a rhythm, moving faster and faster, their knowledge of each other’s passion laid bare such that he shifted slightly and pushed into the right spot, that place that made Jim arch his back with pleasure, keeping that angle and doing it time and time again, watching Jim’s mouth twist with sensation, until they peaked absolutely in concert as Blair brought them both to shuddering completion, their Bond thrumming between them.

But to Blair even that perfect summit of ecstasy was not yet enough; it would never be enough.

A predatory grin on his face, Jim clearly felt the same way. He rolled them over, Blair’s cock reluctantly slipping free of his body, and went to work with his mouth and hands until Blair’s entire body existed as nothing more than a raw, exposed nerve, the almost-pain of it softened only by the soothing embrace of their Bond. Hardly aware by then of who or where he was, Blair cried out at the blunt intrusion that followed, Jim relentlessly stretching him, forcing him to take it, knowing only that if the concept of home existed for one such as him, then with this act he had found it.

It was everything he’d ever wanted and everything he’d ever want. Blair lost himself in the perfection of their union, Jim his beginning and his end, until they peaked again, their emotions cascading around and over them, tumultuous and joyful and vastly profound. Shaking in Jim’s arms in the aftermath, Bair felt ripped open and reborn whole, and Jim’s mind cried out to him even as he thought it: me too, me too, me too.

For a little while they rested, before need overwhelmed them both again.

***

After bonding and making love for what felt like hours they drifted peacefully through the rest of the night, holding each other and dozing on and off. At waking moments Blair felt such a sense of peace and contentment at being here, sated and wrapped in Jim’s arms, that he could almost forget they were in a locked prison cell with guards right outside the door.

He did not forget for one moment, however, that their time together was short, and that tomorrow morning he would be forced to leave Jim behind and be taken back to Haven. He therefore refused to allow himself to sink into anything close to true sleep. Every moment he spent this night was precious, and to be savored.

As the night wore on Jim’s sleep deepened, and Blair watched over him, his tenderness toward Jim at such a vulnerable time profound. He suspected that his sentinel had not managed to get any proper rest for a long time; maybe not since before they had left the Chopec. Despite Jim’s protestations that he was okay, Blair knew that his senses had to be overwhelmed by the stress of his predicament, no matter how sentinel-friendly this place was supposed to be. Guarding Jim’s sleep just as assiduously as he had in the rainforest, therefore, Blair settled in to watch for danger in the night, holding his sentinel protectively in his arms.

Chapter Text

The light of early morning was filtering into the cell through the high, barred window by the time that Jim stirred. “Hey,” he said softly, and Blair smiled happily at the welcome in his voice and hands. They kissed, long and leisurely, and once more heat built between them. “Jim, do we have time?” Blair asked, unwilling to stop but afraid they would get interrupted and be unable to finish what they’d started.

But Jim shushed him. “It’s early yet. They won’t come for a while.” Trusting his sentinel, who could perceive what he could not, Blair relaxed and gave himself over to Jim’s hands, groaning and gasping as Jim brought both of them skillfully to the brink and over it together in yet one more ecstatic merging of love and Bond.

They held each other for a little while longer in the aftermath, but both of them knew it had to end. Regretfully they rose and took turns using the toilet and washing up at the sink, before dressing in their jumpsuits. Blair pulled a face at his, crusted now with the evidence of their first, impulsive coupling yesterday, but Jim grinned at him. “You’ll survive, Chief,” he said. “It’ll remind you of what we did all the way back.” And after that, Blair didn’t mind quite so much.

As they sat fully clothed on the bed, waiting for the guards to come and take Blair away, they talked some more. Blair told Jim his discovery about Dan Wolf’s heightened senses. “Could you tell?” he asked. “That he’s a sentinel, I mean.”

Jim frowned. “No, not really. Maybe, now I think about it, but not like I can tell that Benny Ramirez is a sentinel. I could sense he was truthful, and I believed that he had no intention of letting you be hurt.”

“Well, he’s not a full sentinel, I guess. He hasn’t got all the senses. He’s a nice guy, though.” Blair shook his head, still a little bemused by his reaction to the guy pretty much everyone at Haven affectionally called ‘the Doc’. “It sounds ridiculous but I feel safe around him.”

Jim squeezed him tight for a second. “I’m glad you’ve got someone looking out for you.”

“Me too,” agreed Blair. “And oh, hey, I forgot to tell you. You remember my cousin, Robbie? You know, Naomi’s second in command?”

Jim had gone very still. “Yeah, I remember.”

After their single, explosive meeting, Jim had good reason to dislike Robbie, Blair well understood. “He’s at Haven. He’s kept apart from the rest of us, but I’m allowed to visit with him. I went to see him yesterday.”

Jim didn’t answer, but Blair felt him withdraw from the emotional link they’d maintained all through their bonding. “Hey, Jim, come on,” Blair said, hating that Jim had shut him out, but fully understanding why. “I know you’re angry about what Robbie did to you that time, and I am too. But… you should see him. He’s not like he used to be. He’s… broken.” A lump came into Blair’s throat. “He was hurt really badly when he got caught. Maybe worse than I was. He’s no threat to you or me now, or anyone else. Not anymore.”

“He betrayed you,” Jim said coldly. He paused, then added, “All of you.”

“Yeah, I know. And a lot of people are pissed at him for that, Jim. And I’m angry as well; what he did, it’s fucked up a lot of lives. But Jim, I can’t help it. I can’t hate him, not now. He’s really damaged, man.” His voice dropped almost to a whisper. “And I realized something, now I’ve spent some time with him. It could have been me, in his place.” he said. “I was this close to breaking.” He swallowed, maintaining composure with force of will. “It could easily have been me who betrayed the network. How can I judge him, knowing that?”

“But it wasn’t you,” Jim insisted. “It was him.”

“I know. But I can’t blame him, Jim.” Blair reiterated. “He’s pitiful. It’s like he experiences life as one never-ending flashback, and he’s terrified of everything. You should see him. Dan Wolf is trying to help, but….” Blair sighed. “He said Robbie might not get a lot better than he is now. It’s possible he’ll need to be institutionalized for the rest of his life, no matter what happens to the rest of us.”

“I don’t understand why you’re wasting pity on that asshole,” Jim said angrily. “He hates you. He hates your mom. That time he beat me with a crop, I had to stop you from killing him.”

Surprised at Jim’s vehemence, Blair looked at him. Jim’s jaw was clenched, his hands balled up into fists. “Hey, come on,” Blair said soothingly, running a hand across Jim’s tense shoulders. “I know he hurt you, and I hate that he did that. I’m still angry about it. But it was a long time ago, and we survived it, didn’t we? I punched him out at the time, so it’s not like he got away with it completely unscathed. And if anyone tried to hurt you now, no matter who they were, I’m sure I’d react the same way. But… I guess you’d have to see him to understand. I’m sure you’d pity him too, if you saw what he’s like now.”

A couple of guards came to collect Blair a short while after that, so they didn’t discuss it further. But Blair was disappointed that, despite the intense closeness of their bonding the night before, Jim kept him firmly closed out of their link as they parted.

***

Blair had missed breakfast by the time he arrived back at Haven on Saturday morning, but Dan Wolf had brought him an apple and a pastry to eat on the way back when he’d picked him up. It was a thoughtful gesture Blair had not expected, as was Dan’s apparent understanding that Blair was not comfortable making small talk in the immediate aftermath of leaving Jim. Consequently Dan had left him alone with his thoughts for the entire journey.

Blair drifted through the rest of Saturday in a post-bonding haze, keeping to himself in his cell apart from leaving it to eat, his contentment not disturbed even by the unfriendly attitude exhibited by some of his peers during his forays into the food hall. And he slept well that night, his dreams full of his sentinel.

Once again the weekly service in the chapel on Sunday morning was a clear demonstration of the limits of DeFranco’s authority, and how much and how little he was able to push those limits. To Blair it was now obvious that DeFranco’s more extravagant threats were so much hot air, constrained as he was by the huge amount of public interest in the welfare of captive guides. His hands were tied, and so the most substantial power-plays he could come up with were the institution of petty penalties for transgressing ‘appropriate guide behavior’, that not even the guards seemed inclined to police too assiduously.

At last, DeFranco read out the names of guides who were approved to receive visitors tomorrow. Blair’s name was still on the list, although it was notably shorter than it had been last week (presumably due to people breaking some petty rule and thereby losing the privilege). Blair still had no idea who was scheduled to visit him, and he made a note to ask Dan about it later, if he got the chance.

The rest of Sunday drifted to a close, Blair still somewhat blissed-out from bonding, spending the time alone with his thoughts. He kept remembering at frequent intervals the slow, inexorable slide of his cock into Jim’s body, and feeling the ghostly residue of Jim’s hands on him, in him and around him. He was still thinking about it when the lights went out, and the memories followed him once again into his dreams.

Chapter Text

By the time Monday came around Blair’s post-bonding bliss had worn off, the four walls closing in once more and reigniting his simmering anxiety. It was depressing to wake once again to his bare cell, facing yet another day in this sterile, volatile hellhole, with five more frustrating days to go before he could spend time with Jim again.

With those grouchy thoughts in mind, Blair went for breakfast. Todd was already seated and flashed him a warm smile across the room, so Blair went over to join him after he’d picked up his breakfast tray, realizing that he hadn’t spoken to his friend since Friday. Mindful of the secret Todd had shared with him when they’d last talked (as there were too many ears around), he simply gave his friend a meaningful grin. “Hey, how you’re doing, Todd?”

“I’m fine,” Todd said. He raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “So, is everything okay with you?”

Blair intuited that Todd meant all kind of things with that seemingly innocuous question, up to and including: did you enjoy bonding with your sentinel? But of course it would not be politick to openly acknowledge such things in this environment, where everyone else apart from Todd apparently believed Blair to be a traitor to guide-kind. “Yeah, thanks,” Blair said simply, acknowledging it all but betraying nothing. “Everything’s good.”

Breakfast was soon over, but for some reason after depositing his tray Todd sat back down instead of filing out with the rest. When Blair queried why, Todd said, “It’s visiting day, man. Hey,” he crooked a brow, “You’re on the list too, aren’t you?”

Blair had completely forgotten. “Yeah, I guess I am. What happens? Do they collect us from here?”

Todd nodded, motioning Blair to sit down. “We go in groups alphabetically, and until they call us we wait here.” He looked around, mentally assessing who was present, then back at Blair. “You and I should be in the first group, I think. They take ten at a time. We only get half an hour, so whoever it is, make the time count.” He smiled. “It’ll probably be my dad,” he said. A shadow crossed his face. “I’m always pleased to see him but… you know, I wish it could be... well, you know.”

Blair nodded sympathetically, wishing the exact same thing for himself.

Sure enough, both Todd’s name and Blair’s were called a few minutes later and, escorted by several guards, they went along with a further eight men out of the dinner hall. They went through a security gate, and Blair submitted with only the slightest anxiety to the usual pat-downs. More pressingly than anything he was consumed with curiosity: who the hell had come to visit him?

That question was answered very soon afterward when he was ushered into a bright room filled with small tables, each with two seats facing each other, all of them filled with expectant looking people in civilian clothes.

All but one, that was, where a beautiful, brightly-dressed woman was standing waiting for him. “Ma?” he said, hardly daring to believe what he was seeing.

“Oh, sweetie,” Naomi said. Then she turned and glared at the guard standing next to her, who had apparently been trying to get her to sit down. “I have been X-Rayed, scanned and molested by the thug at the front door. I clearly am not carrying drugs, weapons or any form of contraband. I have not seen my son for three years, and I would dearly love to give him a hug. So just this once, your stupid rules can go to hell.” She strode over to Blair then, and enveloped him in her arms.

“Ma,” Blair said. He could hardly speak, and also could not stop grinning at her actions as he hugged her back. Naomi was one in a million.

Naomi pulled back after a moment, and gazed at Blair. She had tears rolling down her cheeks, despite her huge grin, and Blair realized to his chagrin that he was in pretty much the same state. “My beautiful Blair,” she said. “I can hardly believe it. For so long, I thought I’d never get you back.”

“Okay, that’s enough. Sit down,” the guard demanded, clearly having had his fill of orders being violated. “Both of you. Otherwise this visit is over.”

Blair and Naomi shared one last squeeze, both of them grinning at each other, and then they complied. Apparently satisfied, though watching them both suspiciously as he did so, the guard moved away.

Reaching across the table, Naomi grasped Blair’s hands in hers. “Are you okay? Are they treating you all right?”

“I’m fine, Naomi.”

“And what about Jim, have they let you see him?”

“I saw him at the jail yesterday. I stayed overnight with him on Friday so we could bond. They’re letting us bond once a week. He’s doing okay as well.”

Naomi smiled, her expression so full of love for him it took Blair’s breath away. “Is Jim good to you?” she asked.

Blair smiled. “He’s amazing. Ma, I love him. He’s everything to me. And he loves me, too.”

“I could tell,” Naomi said. “When I met him, in the bunker. That he would die for you. It’s the only reason I let him take you,” she said.

Blair nodded, too overwhelmed to answer.

Naomi stroked her thumbs over his hands gently, which she still held in hers, then threw her hands up before reaching for a tissue from a box on the table between them (it seemed emotional reunions were not unknown - or unplanned for - in this place). “Look at me, I’m a mess.” She blew her nose and dabbed at her eyes.

Grinning, Blair followed suit. He wasn’t in much better shape. Once they’d both calmed somewhat, Blair reached out and they joined hands again.

“I’ve been working with Bill,” Naomi said after a few moments. “Bill Ellison, Jim’s father.”

“Yeah, I heard.” Blair swallowed. “I saw the speech you gave. At Rainier.”

Naomi smiled at Blair, her eyes full of love for him. “Oh, sweetie. Things are going to change, you hold onto that. We’re going to make it happen, Bill and I. Don’t for one minute feel like you’re alone in here, Blair. We’re working hard for you on the outside. For you, Jim and for everyone else. Stay strong, and believe me. We’ll get you out of this place.”

“I believe you, Ma.”

There was so much to talk about, so much to say, that they chattered back and forth for a while. None of it was earth-shattering stuff, but it allowed them to bask in their reconnection, to enjoy, however incongruous that was in these circumstances, each other’s company.

Eventually, when they hit a pause in their chatter, Blair asked, “Did you know Robbie was here? In Haven?”

Naomi’s face hardened. “That son of a bitch. Yes, I know.”

“Ma, come on,” Blair said. “You know what they did to him. He’s really messed up. Blame the asshole who handed him in. Do you know who it was?”

Naomi’s mouth pressed into a line. “I’ve tried to find out, Blair. Believe me. But I still don’t know.”

“Maybe Robbie was just careless,” Blair said. “Like I was. Maybe he let his guard down in the wrong place, with the wrong people.”

“Oh, sweetie. You weren’t careless.” She stroked Blair’s hand. “You don’t know, do you? Who informed on you? You have no idea.”

“It was a bonded guide I met. I’m sure of it. I let my dosage of Antidux lapse, and he made me. It was my own stupid fault.”

Naomi was watching him sadly. “That’s not what happened, Blair,” she said.

Blair was surprised by Naomi’s conviction; he’d been certain it had gone down that way. “What do you know that I don’t?”

“There’s no easy way to say this,” she said. “When I found out…” Blair jumped as she banged on the table, taken aback by her sudden fury, and he looked nervously at the guards who had started toward them, before halting, although a couple of them were now watching closely. “Damn! I’m still so goddamn angry about it,” Naomi continued, but she at least moderated her tone so that the guards backed off again. “I wish I’d known sooner, so I could have killed the bastard myself before it was too late.” She looked Blair in the eye, holding his hand tight. “It was Robbie, Blair. He’s the one who betrayed you.”

Blair’s mouth had gone dry. “How do you know?”

“A couple of weeks after you left with Jim I had someone hack into your arrest record at the police department. I wanted to make sure there was nothing in it they could use to find you. It contained the name of the person who informed on you.”

“Oh my god.” Blair was stunned. “It was Robbie? He did it? How could he? I mean,” Blair shook his head, considering the implications, “I know he didn’t like me a whole lot. But I never knew he hated me enough to out me.” And as Blair thought it through, more was coming clear. “Oh man, how could he risk the network like that? He knew how much knowledge I had! I could have told them everything!”

“But you didn’t tell them, Blair. You stayed strong. And in the end…”

“Yeah, I get it.” In the end, Robbie had been the one to engage in the great betrayal. “Man, I can hardly believe it. I trusted him. You’re sure?” When Naomi nodded, he asked, “So, who the hell betrayed Robbie? I mean,” he shook his head incredulously, “He was stupid enough to give them his name when he handed me over, right? I’d assume they’d just made the connection, except everyone seems certain that someone handed him in.”

“I don’t know.” Naomi was watching him miserably. “A few people suggested it might have been you, that maybe you’d been caught and interrogated after you disappeared with Jim, but I stamped down on that kind of talk immediately. I monitored the Detector’s communication channels closely after you left, and was certain you’d gotten away.”

“It wasn’t me,” Blair said firmly. “I’d never do that. And I hate to say it, but some people here actually think you did it.” Blair watched as Naomi’s expression turned to shock. “I told them it was impossible, that there’s no way you’d even consider it. But I didn’t know until now that you actually had a motive.”

“I didn’t do it,” Naomi said, looking him straight in the eye, and Blair instantly believed her. “I would never risk people’s lives like that; never.” She took a deep breath, clearly rattled by the suggestion. “And actually, I didn’t have motive. By the time I found out that Robbie was the one who betrayed you he’d already been taken, although we didn’t know it yet. He disappeared one morning, not long after you left, and no one knew where he was for nearly a month. Then all hell broke loose and one-by-one we were all arrested.”

“So, who do you think gave him up to the Detectors? I mean, you’ve got to have some suspicions, right?”

“I don’t know. I wish I did.” She sighed. “I’ve gone over and over it. Hardly anyone knew that Robbie was a guide. He rarely needed to take Antidux because his gland was underactive, and in any case he hid it so well. Even so, at first I thought it must have been someone in the network with a grudge against him. But then I couldn’t think of a single person who would put everything we’ve worked for at risk, just to hurt him. After that, I started to think it had to be someone from outside the network; someone who’d guessed that Robbie was a guide, had reason to hate him, and didn’t care about the consequences to the rest of us.”

“Can’t you do the hacking thing again? Look at Robbie’s file?”

Naomi shook her head. “My computer expert, Lilian, you remember her? She was taken in the purge. She’s in Williamson House with some of the other guide women.”

“So… what we need is someone with an inside track at the police department.” Blair looked at Naomi in excitement. “Jim! Jim will help! He still has friends there. There’s gotta be someone who’ll do it - all they have to do is take a look at Robbie’s file. Maybe Sentinel Ramirez… he helped Jim get me out of Guide World.”

Naomi looked thoughtful. “It would do no harm for you to ask, I suppose.” Her face hardened. “I want the son of a bitch who did this, Blair. Not for Robbie’s sake, but because I want justice for all the guides and their families who have been harmed because of it. There may eventually be a positive outcome, with big changes in the way guides are treated, but I never wanted it to happen this way. I need this bastard.”

***

News got around pretty quickly that Naomi had come to visit Blair. He was accosted shortly after visiting time was over in the dayroom, predictably by Kramer and a whole bunch of others. “I hope that bitch apologized for what she did to us,” was Kramer’s opening shot.

It seemed Kramer had fully bought into the rumor that Naomi was responsible for Robbie’s capture and the subsequent uncovering of the network. “Hey,” Blair retorted angrily. “Naomi didn’t do anything to you. Don’t talk about my mother that way!”

“You gonna do something about it, momma’s boy?” Kramer sneered.

“And end up in solitary? I don’t think so, asshole!” He might have offered a more measured response, wary as he was of attracting negative attention from the guards, but he was still reeling from the revelation Naomi had made: that Robbie had been responsible for his own betrayal and the subsequent torture he’d suffered at Guide World.

Although they’d spoken in an undertone, a flash of white in the periphery of Blair’s vision heralded the inevitable approach of guards, altered no doubt by subliminal cues that something other than sweetness and light was going on in this corner of the room. As one they separated, Kramer going one way and Blair going the other.

As soon as the guards lost interest and drifted off elsewhere Kramer approached once more, this time without backup, no doubt to make his antagonism less obvious. “So what did momma have to say, huh? She still out there telling everyone how great bonding is?”

“Get real.” Blair’s voice was no less scathing in tone, for all that he was forced to keep his voice down and his expression neutral. “Like I’m going to tell you anything she said. I had a private conversation with my mom. It’s none of your business what it was about.”

“You know what? You and her, you’re as bad as each other,” Kramer said. “Fucking traitors, both of you. You’re not one of us, Sandburg. Not any more, not since you tied yourself to a fucking caveman, and neither is she.” With that he turned and walked away.

In his wake Blair swallowed hard, fists clenched. He tried to stifle an almost overwhelming urge to follow and beat the shit out of that stupid asshole Kramer, feeling more exposed and vulnerable than ever in this goddamn place. In the absence of being able to vent his anger right now on his lying, traitorous bastard of a cousin, who’d made this whole situation possible in the first place, Kramer would have been a more than acceptable substitute.

Chapter Text

After yet another sleepless night, Robbie’s betrayal and Kramer’s antagonism playing over and over in his mind and preventing any hope of relaxation, Blair found himself on Tuesday morning beginning to feel the initial effects of bond-stress yet again: nausea, shakiness and a developing sense of unreality. In the aftermath of the visit from his mom and his deep hurt and anger towards Robbie, confusingly mixed up with pity that he didn’t want to feel - goddamn it! - Blair wished more than ever that he was with Jim right now.

Bonded sentinels and guides were not meant to spend so much time apart, and Blair railed inwardly against the pitiless system that now conspired to make them do so. His own struggles with bond-stress were just one part of it; he was worried about Jim too. As a sentinel undergoing prolonged separation from his guide, Jim was at risk of developing Post Separation Overload. The service guide Jim had access to would help keep it under control, and of course their weekly bond was the most effective preventative available to them right now. But the longer this situation went on - especially if Jim was anywhere near as stressed as Blair was - the long-term health risks to both of them would continue to increase incrementally.

The whole situation filled Blair with aching need and helpless rage, which was made worse by the fact that he couldn’t, at all costs, show his deep, deep anger and frustration in this goddamn place because it would no doubt be judged ‘un-guidely’ and probably land him in solitary.

His mood wasn’t helped when he was summoned to see Warden DeFranco straight after breakfast. Predictably the request threw him into yet another tailspin of anxiety. As soon as he was standing before the Warden’s desk, DeFranco got to the point. “It seems your notoriety is catching up with you, Guide Ellison,” he said. “You’re going to appear on live TV tonight to tell everyone how well we’re looking after you.”

Blair blinked, his surprise making him forget where he was for a second. “What, you mean like, an interview?”

DeFranco glared at him. “Is that how you’re supposed to address me, Guide?”

Blair swallowed. Despite DeFranco’s wings apparently being clipped, he still scared the shit out of Blair. “I apologize, sir.”

“Better,” DeFranco said. “Yes, an interview. In it you will be asked how you are being treated here at Haven. You are to tell them the following. One: you are being well treated, you are well fed, have access to medical care, and you are allowed to fraternize with other guides. Two: you have attended your first mandated bonding session with your sentinel and this will happen every week as per our legal obligations. Three: you have received a visit from your mother. You may answer additional, unconnected questions, unless directed otherwise by me in which case you will refrain from doing so. However you will not, under any circumstances, answer questions about any other guide in this facility. And you will not ask any questions. Is this clear?”

“Yes, sir,” said Blair. What the hell?

“You will discuss this with no one in this facility. You will behave normally for the rest of the day. You will retire to your room after dinner, and at approximately eight o’clock, you will be escorted from your room to a room where a live video link will have been set up. The interview will commence shortly afterward. Is this all clear?”

“Yes, sir,” said Blair.

“Any questions?” the Warden asked.

“Yes, sir. Just one.” Blair licked his lips, his mouth had gone dry. “What channel is this going out on?”

“KCDE News. Anything else?”

“No, sir.”

“Dismissed,” DeFranco barked.

Holy shit, thought Blair. If it’s that Don Hass show, Jim will probably be watching.

***

As soon as he arrived back in his cell Blair took the dose of dux suppressant he’d been supplied with, any fantasies he’d fleetingly entertained about trying to get by without it until his next visit to see Jim banished. He’d had an entirely predictable attack of the shakes right after he returned from seeing the Warden, and knew it would only get worse. He didn’t want to appear on T.V., knowing it was possible that Jim would see him, looking like a stoner coming down off a two-day bender.

Time crawled for the rest of the day, and despite Todd’s friendly overtures and surreptitious looks of concern, Blair didn’t have it in him to make small talk. Instead he avoided contact and chose to spend most of the day alone in his room, feeling jittery about the whole idea of what he’d been instructed to do and the stricture laid upon him to keep it secret.

Eventually, as eight o’clock approached, Blair sat anxiously on the edge of his bunk, waiting, unable to relax.

Even though he was expecting it, Blair started when his door was pushed open to admit a guard. His heart raced and his mouth went dry when he was motioned out of his room, other guards moving in to flank him. He had too many bad memories of being escorted through corridors like this to make this break in routine a comfortable experience.

Blair was escorted through security and toward the staff offices. Once there he was steered past the familiar Warden’s office and round a corner, then into a large meeting room which had been transformed by the tables and chairs having been stacked back out of the way. A section of the room was brightly lit by what appeared to be portable studio lighting on stands illuminating a single chair, which had been placed against a portable backdrop on a metal frame bearing the logo and lettering of ‘KDCE NEWS’.

“Guide Ellison!” The Warden had approached and his curt demand for attention drew Blair’s eyes instantly away from the incongruously-placed portable TV studio that had been set up in this space.

“Yes, sir,” Blair acknowledged.

Seemingly satisfied with his obedient response, the Warden indicated the person who had approached with him, a middle-aged man with tousled greying hair. “This is Rick Larimer from KCDE. He will instruct you what to do.”

Larimer seemingly had no intention of standing on ceremony. He held out a hand to Blair, his gaze direct. “Guide Ellison, I’m very pleased to meet you. I’m the Producer. May I call you Blair?”

“Uh, sure,” Blair agreed. “Please do.”

Larimer glanced at DeFranco with a frown before looking back at Blair, and Blair got the clear impression that he would have preferred to talk to Blair alone, but had clearly been thwarted in his request. “Thanks very much for agreeing to appear on the show, Blair. There are a lot of people out there who are anxious to hear what you have to say. I understand you may be a little nervous, but I’m going to try to make this as easy for you as I can, okay?”

Larimer put out a hand to steer Blair toward the chair, and the Warden moved along with them, a malevolent, looming shadow at his side. “Now, you just need to sit here, and look into the camera right in front of you,” Larimer said, indicating the man behind the camera, a young guy who gave Blair a wave and a small smile. “That’s Jeff, he’s our camera operator tonight, and over there is our sound technician, Romero. He’s gonna set up your microphone in just a minute. I’m going to stand over there, just to one side of the monitor, and I’ll give you your cues. You’ll be able to see our studio presenters in the monitor, so you know who you’re chatting with, okay? So you can look at that when they’re talking, otherwise when answering questions it’d be great if you can look straight into the camera.”

“Yeah, I got it,” Blair said. He sat where indicated, and took a breath. “This is going out live, huh?”

“Yes, it is,” Larimer confirmed. He glanced at his watch. “We’ve got just under ten minutes before we go on-air, so sit here and try to relax, okay? Just watch for my cue, I’ll do a countdown when we’re ready to go live to the studio.” He smiled reassuringly. “Just answer the questions as best you can. Don and Wendy are very nice, very professional.”

Blair nodded, taking a few deep breaths and trying to relax. Holy shit, he thought. Don and Wendy. It was that Don Hass show. The lights were bright and hot in his face, and he felt sweat break out on his brow.

Another guy approached, Romero the sound guy, who efficiently fitted Blair with a lapel mic and an earpiece and did a series of sound checks. That done, all Blair had to do was wait for his cue.

The Warden, who had stayed at his side throughout, leaned in towards him then. In an undertone he murmured, “Remember what I told you, Guide. You’re being well looked after here, and we want the world to know it. If they ask you anything inappropriate I’ll let you know. Don’t cross any lines.” With that he withdrew to a position close to Larimer and put on some headphones, standing where Blair could not help but see him. Heart pounding, Blair ran over in his head the strictures he’d had placed on him this morning: we’re well treated. I’m allowed to bond. I’m allowed to see my mom. Don’t talk about anyone else. This whole thing seemed to him, sitting here in the spotlight, like a minefield.

At last the wait was over. “Okay, here we go guys,” Larimer said. “Three… two… one…”

The monitor sprang to life, showing a man and woman in a studio sitting behind a desk facing forward. “Welcome back to ‘Cascade Today’, brought to you by KCDE News. I’m Don Hass,” the male presenter said, his voice audible through Blair’s earpiece.

The other presenter added, “And I’m Wendy Hawthorn.”

Don Hass spoke again. “Tonight we’re presenting a special report on the escalating guide crisis, and we’re going live now to the Haven Guide Facility in Cascade to speak to Guide Ellison, formerly known as Blair Sandburg. Good evening, Guide Ellison, and thanks for joining us tonight.”

“Uh, hello.” Blair swallowed, after a glance at Larimer elicited a nod and a gesture indicating he should respond. Man, this whole thing was too weird for words. “Uh, thanks for asking. And you can call me Blair, I prefer that.” He’d fought hard for the right to bear his own name, damn it. He wasn’t having that stripped from him on live TV.

On the TV monitor, Blair saw Don Hass nodding along. “Thank you, Blair. And of course, as we’ve heard previously on this show, a given name is something that guides have customarily been denied in favour of a number when brought into the system, which I understand is what happened to you. And bonded guides, of course, customarily take the name of their sentinel. Would you consider using ‘Blair’, instead of your guide name, an act of resistance?”

“I’d consider it my right as a human being,” Blair said simply.

“I hear that, Blair.” Hass moved onto his next question. “Blair, you and your sentinel arrived back in the US a little over a week ago, but this is the first time either of you have been seen in public. We asked the Justice Department to allow Sentinel Ellison to appear on the show, but our request was denied, so we’re grateful that Guide Corps have allowed you to talk to us tonight. Since you returned to Cascade a lot of people have been concerned about your welfare. Can you tell us how things have been going for you at the Haven Guide Facility?”

Hyper-aware of Warden DeFranco’s looming presence, Blair carefully followed the instructions he’d been given to the letter. “I’m fine,” he said. “We’re… well taken care of here. We’re provided with medical attention when we need it and access to counselling, and there’s a gym, books to read. Movies. We get three meals a day and we’re allowed to socialise with each other.” Blair ran abruptly out of vaguely positive yet lame things to say, and really, really wanted to tell Don Hass how much it sucked, but he was sure he wouldn’t get away with it. “I’m not being mistreated. I just wish I could be with Jim instead.”

“For the sake of our viewers, ‘Jim’ is Sentinel Ellison, who you’re bonded to, correct?” When Blair nodded he went on, “Some people might be puzzled by the lack of formality there; it’s unusual for a guide to call his sentinel by his first name. But of course you’re not exactly a regular pairing. Just like all pairs, though, you and your sentinel do need to bond regularly, and we’ve been told that you’ve been permitted to do so this past week. Can you tell us a little about that? And is Sentinel Ellison okay?”

“He’s fine,” Blair said. “I saw him a few days ago, and yes, we were able to bond. I’ve been told we’re legally entitled to do so once a week. I’m scheduled to see him again on Friday.”

“Some commentators have said that killing those men when Sentinel Ellison reclaimed you from Guide World was the natural response of a bonded sentinel when his guide was in danger. Do you agree with that assessment?”

“I, uh, don’t think I should comment on that, apart from to say that Jim’s innocent. He didn’t kill anybody.”

“Thanks for that answer, Blair,” Don said. “It’s good to hear your take on what I’m sure is going to be the trial of the century. I’m going to hand you over to Wendy, now. Wendy, what would you like to ask Guide Ellison?”

“Hello, Blair, and thanks for coming on the show tonight,” Wendy said. “Your mother Naomi is a frequent guest on Cascade Today, and I understand that she came to see you earlier this week. Can you tell us how it felt to be in touch with her again? I know it was a long time since you last saw each other.”

“It was three years since I last saw her, yeah. And it was great. My mom is a special person.”

Wendy was nodding, looking sympathetic. “Your mom has talked a lot about her leadership of the guide network, and she also told us that you were her second in command until you were caught. Can you tell us a little about the aims of the network, and your role back then?”

Blair glanced nervously at the Warden, but his lack of cue led Blair to believe this was not a forbidden topic. It seemed that the bulk of this information was already out there, anyway; these people were just looking for soundbites. “The network’s aim was to keep guides out of the system, and empower them to live normal lives. As for my role, being second in command to Naomi basically meant stepping in to deputise as director of the organisation if she needed it, but I rarely had to do that. Mainly I worked as pastoral care supervisor at Rainier University. That meant being a mentor to kids who attended college. Guide kids.”

“What did that work entail?”

Blair shrugged. “Basically just watching out for them, and being available to give them help and guidance with a small G. It can be a stressful time, even if you’re not a guide, to make the transition from high school to college full-time. Some of the kids were living away from their support network for the first time, so as well as providing the same kind of support any kid might need, I would help them with strategies for keeping their secret hidden, where to get masking drugs, that kind of thing.”

“I see. And for the benefit of our viewers who might not understand, can you explain what you mean by ‘masking drugs’?”

“It’s a substance called ‘Antidux’.”  It looked like some Guide 101 was in order, otherwise Blair realised that his explanation could easily make guides sound like junkies to the uninitiated. “People born with guide potential have a gland in their frontal lobe which isn’t present in regular people. It has the potential to secrete a hormone called duxomone which enables guides and sentinels to bond with each other. Full, active duxomone production can only be triggered by a Bond, but even in unbonded guides the inactive gland leaks a little, and even a tiny amount of duxomone can be detected by other guides. Antidux prevents accidental secretions, and kept us undetectable.”

“And of course that is one of the ways that the network remained successfully hidden for so long, Don,” Wendy said, speaking directly to her co-presenter for a moment, filling in some background for their viewers. “Clandestine guides typically take masking drugs like Antidux all their lives. It’s very effective, which is why it was such a long time before any mature guides were detected.” After Don’s acknowledgment Wendy continued, “In fact, you were the first adult guide to be detected, weren’t you, Blair? We’ve heard quite a bit about what happened to you after that, and it sounds harrowing. Is your experience at Guide World something that stays with you, even now?”

This was a topic Blair really didn’t want to get into. “I had a difficult time there, yeah. And I admit, it still gives me nightmares, sometimes. But I’m okay, I survived it, and having Jim in my life has made all the difference.”

“I’m glad to hear that you’re doing okay now, Blair. And going back to your mentoring work with so-called ‘rogue’ guides at Rainier, we’ve heard that one of those kids, Todd Bennett, is there with you at Haven. How is Todd doing right now?”

Out of the corner of his eye Blair saw a definite shake of the head from the direction of the Warden, and remembered immediately that this was a banned topic. “I, uh, really can’t say. I’m not allowed to talk about the others here with me.”

Wendy frowned. “Is there anything else you’ve been instructed not to discuss, Blair?”

Oh boy. The Warden shifted again in Blair’s peripheral vision, his warning clear, and Blair evaded the question, smiling in what he hoped was a disarming way. “No offense, Wendy, but I’ve actually told you quite a lot here about myself and my past that I’ve never discussed openly before. The fact is, I’d be breaching confidentiality if I talked about anyone else at Haven without their consent. It’s as simple as that.”

“I understand, Blair,” Wendy acknowledged, “and we do appreciate that. I’ll hand you back to Don, now. Any final questions for Blair, Don?”

“Just a couple,” Don said. “Blair, would you mind telling us where you and Sentinel Ellison have been for the past three years, and what you’ve been doing?”

“We’ve been out of the country,” Blair prevaricated. He had no idea whether their link to the Chopec had been revealed, and didn’t want to take the risk of more scrutiny being heaped upon the tribe from news-hungry reporters. “As for what we’ve been doing, we’ve been settling into our Bond.”

“I have a brief follow-up question, if I may,” Don Hass continued. “It’s been suggested that you and Sentinel Ellison may have developed an unconventional dynamic due to the fact that you’d already lived an independent adult life before becoming his guide. Do you regard your sentinel and yourself as equals?”

“We are equals!” Blair insisted.

“I hear that loud and clear, Blair. But let me play devil’s advocate for a moment, here. There are some who say, even now, that guides should never be permitted to live regular lives because they are genetically incapable of independence. What would you like to say to those people?”

“I’d say that they’re dead wrong. I’m living proof of that, and so are all the other people who’ve been detained at Haven and in other places like it.”

“Thank you, Blair, we really appreciate you talking to us this evening.” The interview was clearly over. “This is KCDE News. I’m Don Hass,”

“And I’m Wendy Hawthorn.”

“In this special edition of Cascade Today, part of our ongoing series about the guide crisis, we’ve just been hearing from former clandestine guide Blair Sandburg, known as Guide Ellison, live by video-link from the Haven Guide Facility in Cascade. After this break we’ll be asking the question: ‘Can unbonded guides really live independent lives?’ Discussing this here in our studio will be former guide trainer Patrick Downton, Dr Frank Yavari from Rainer University’s Educational Science department-“

The live feed went black. “It’s a wrap,” Rick Larimer said. He walked over and smiled at Blair, as Romero swooped in to divest him of mic and earpiece. “Thanks, Blair, you took to that like a pro.” He held out his hand for another handshake, and Blair stood to take it. “Good job.”

The Warden made sure to cut their contact short. “We’re done here,” he said, and motioned for the guards to approach. Blair didn’t dare to look at DeFranco, a little scared that he might have transgressed some unknown rule by giving such forthright responses. He nodded a brief farewell to Larimer, and passively accompanied the guards as they escorted him out of the hall, through the deserted corridor and back to his cell.

Chapter Text

Blair’s sleep that night was filled with nightmares. He kept jerking awake at intervals, certain there were others in his cell; white-uniformed figures, regarding him dispassionately, unmoved by his pain and despair.

Kneel. Full obeisance. Be silent! The voice he hated and feared the most, barking orders, was still ringing in his ears when he woke for the final time, eyes wide and questing around the empty cell in the early light of morning, as though Gavaghan was really here.

He’s dead, he thought to himself, before sitting up and trying desperately to calm his racing heart. Dead. Then he said it out loud: “He’s dead. He’s dead. He’ll never hurt me again.” The words had more power that way, especially when in his trainer’s grasp he’d been so thoroughly beaten and terrorized into silence.

He filed out for breakfast and took a seat near to Todd. The younger man greeted him carefully and, observing his wariness, Blair felt a little guilty about shutting him out yesterday. The poor kid had no idea what had been going on, and probably thought Blair was being a complete asshole, especially after trusting him with his big confession the day before.

“Hey,” Blair asked carefully. “You feel like shooting a few hoops one-on-one after we eat?”

He felt like an even bigger heel when he saw an expression of sheer relief on Todd’s face. “Yeah, yeah, I’d like that, man. Let’s do it.”

They had the basketball court to themselves (apart from the ever-present guards standing silently at the periphery), which suited Blair fine since he felt he needed to apologize and didn’t really want an audience. “I’m sorry, man,” he said after they’d engaged in an energetic game for a few minutes, during a moment when the nearest guards observing them had backed off a little. He bounced the ball then darted forward, dodging his friend’s attempts to block him. “I wasn’t shutting you out yesterday on purpose, I swear. It’s just that I had a lot on my mind.” Blair shot, missed, and the ball bounced off the backboard. “Damn.”

Todd retrieved it, and Blair moved into a defensive position. “It’s okay,” Todd said. “I figured something was wrong. I just…” he tried to move past Blair and thwarted, backed off, seeking an opening. “I was a little worried that I’d said something. You know,” he eyed the nearby guards warily, “to piss you off. About… that thing I told you about.” He took a shot, and scored.

Taking control of the ball, Blair shook his head. “I’m fully behind you on that, man. I swear. It wasn’t anything to do with you, not at all. It’s just…” he dodged left, then right, then left and leapt. Slam dunk! Or as close as he could get to it, he was no Orvelle Wallace in the height department, but at least he scored. Todd - younger and, to Blair’s chagrin, faster, was winning. “Something happened.”

Todd retrieved the ball. “You want to talk about it?” he asked.

Blair glanced at the guards, one of whom was almost back in earshot. “Maybe later,” he said quietly. “Not here.”

“You got it,” Todd acknowledged, then he darted past Blair again, easily scoring yet another basket.

Grinning ruefully, Blair tried to put their intimidating watchers out of his mind and take back the game.

***

It was early afternoon before Blair got the opportunity to confide in Todd. He’d gone back to his room after lunch and was lying on his bunk staring at the ceiling, wondering if Jim had seen the show last night and what he’d thought about it, when Todd knocked at his door.

Blair sat up and beckoned him in, and Todd took a seat next to him on the bed. “Hey,” Todd said. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah, thanks.” Blair said.

“So… the thing that’s been bothering you,” Todd said. “Is it something to do with you being hauled away by the guards twice yesterday?”

Blair nodded, then proceeded to briefly tell him in an undertone what had happened the day before. “I guess I kept to myself yesterday because the Warden ordered me not to tell anyone, and I was scared I might let something slip.” He glanced warily at the half-open door; there was no one there (and there were no visible signs that their conversations were being electronically monitored in their cells) but Blair still felt jittery. “To tell you the truth, I’m a little scared to tell you this much.”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Todd said. “No one’s gonna know you’ve talked to me about it, right? You can trust me to keep it quiet. And anyway, it’s done now, it’s out there, and people are going to hear about it eventually whether you say anything or not.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Blair conceded. “I’m overreacting, huh? I guess… DeFranco is pretty intimidating.”

“His bark is worse than his bite, man,” Todd insisted. “He can’t do anything to hurt you.”

“Yeah, I know.” But despite Todd’s assurance, the guy still made Blair feel unsettled, and going against his direct order to confide in Todd about the interview couldn’t help but worry him. Like Todd had once pointed out, DeFranco was old-school Guide Corps. He reminded Blair all too well of the kind of people who’d hurt him so badly in the past.

“So, what kind of things did they ask you?”

“You were right about one thing,” Blair said. “They know all our names in here. They asked about you by name at one point, because we’d known each other at Rainier.”

“Really?” Todd said. “What did they say?”

“They just asked how you are. I wasn’t allowed to answer, DeFranco ordered me not to talk about anyone else in here.”

“Wow, okay. Man, I wonder if Tania was watching. And my dad.” He paused for a moment, clearly moved by that thought. “So, what else did they say?”

Blair gave him a precis of the questions and his responses. “They were pretty nice, really. It kind of felt like they were on our side.”

“Apparently a lot of people are,” Todd said. “My dad told me, when he came in on Monday, that things are really hotting up out there since you and your sentinel came back. Protests, petitions, that kind of thing. You’re a celebrity, man. I’m not surprised they wanted to talk to you.”

“It’s kind of surprising that DeFranco allowed it,” said Blair. The whole thing still seemed strange.

But Todd didn’t think so. “Like my dad told me, this place is right in the public eye right now. Apparently there are protesters out at the front all the time, and more arrive every day. I figure DeFranco thought that letting everyone see you were okay might calm things down.”

Blair could understand that, but the whole thing had a huge sense of unreality about it. It was hard, in this tedious, introverted environment, to truly comprehend that petty rules ended at the gate and they were living in the eye of a storm.

***

The day wore on, and Blair’s jitters stayed with him right through to lockdown. He kept waiting for another summons to DeFranco’s presence to arrive, terrified that he might have transgressed some unwritten rule in the interview and that he would at some point be called to account. The summons never came, however, his tension only rising as the threat failed to materialize.

Trying and failing to lose himself in meditation Blair sighed, unable to rid himself of his constant anxiety. It wasn’t bond-stress at this point, he was certain, as the suppressant drugs he’d taken were still active in his system. This was stress of a far more mundane kind: it had simply been a hell of a week. Seeing Naomi, the interview, the continued hostility of Kramer and his buddies and the information he’d received about Robbie had all combined to throw him into an emotional tailspin.

Once again nightmares disturbed his sleep, and through the endless darkness he lost count of how many times he partially woke, still paralyzed with the heaviness of sleep, terror clawing at his throat. 

***

It was maybe that his demons were so close to the surface, or possibly that his desperate desire for answers was driving him crazy, but after lunch the next day he impulsively went to find Dan Wolf to ask if he could visit Robbie.

Dan was busy when he got there, so Blair was instructed to take a seat in a waiting area, a solitary guard standing by. Blair tried to ignore the flash of white out of the corner of his eye, focusing instead on his folded hands, but his heart started to pound and his mouth went dry.

The color of Guide Corps uniforms, he decided in a sudden flash of insight, was one of the things triggering his constant anxiety. Back then, at Guide World, he’d never looked at them directly, just perceived them as something malevolent lurking at the edges of his permanently downturned vision, just waiting to pounce - which they had done frequently. Feeling contrary about the whole thing he deliberately lifted his head and looked right at the guard. The guy wasn’t even watching him, instead he was staring off into the distance looking bored. He was in older middle-age, a little flabby, not all that tall. He certainly didn’t look dangerous.

Huh, thought Blair. Maybe that was the answer, maybe he should look his nightmares right in the face more often. That way they might not seem so scary.

“Blair,” he jumped as Dan Wolf’s voice broke into the silence. Dan smiled at him reassuringly. “Please come in.”

Blair followed Dan through the open door into the treatment room, and after initial greetings got straight to the point. “I was wondering if I could go to see Robbie again?”

Dan nodded, looking thoughtful. “You know, I think that’d be a good thing. He seemed to have a breakthrough last week after you went to visit. He’s certainly been a lot more lucid.” He looked at Blair. “Would you like to see him now?”

A little while later Dan let him into Robbie’s cell. “I think it’d be good for the two of you to talk without me present this time,” he said before Blair went inside, “seeing as how Robert seems to respond so well to you. Just knock when you’re ready to leave and one of the guards on duty will let you out and escort you back to your block. If anything happens that you can’t handle, you can have them call me and I’ll come right away.”

Robbie was sitting on the bed when Blair got inside, just like last week, his legs up and cradled against his chest by stick-thin arms. His feet were bare, and his head had been newly shaved. He reminded Blair of a mummified cadaver, curled up like a fetus in an archaeological grave.

“Hey, Robbie,” Blair said softly, and Robbie went still, waiting (so Blair imagined) for the pain that never came. “I heard you were a little better. How’re you doing today?”

Robbie’s voice, when it came, was a whisper. “Scared.”

“You don’t need to be scared of me.” Despite the simmering anger that plagued him, he truly did pity this man. “Hey, let’s get you more comfortable, huh? You’ll feel better after that.”

Blair spent a little while then maneuvering Robbie into a less contorted position. His cousin seemed cold so he found some socks and pulled them over Robbie’s icy feet, and wrapped a blanket around his bony shoulders.

Robbie was breathing easier, seemingly less rigid, by the time Blair sat down on the bed close by. “Better?” he asked.

Robbie nodded, his eyes huge and sad in his thin face. He was making eye contact today, and certainly seemed a lot more present than he had last week.

Blair offered him a smile, but it was an effort, considering what he intended to discuss. “Hey, guess who came to see me?”

“Who?”

“Naomi.”

Robbie hid his face in his hands.

But Blair wasn’t going to be thwarted. “She told me some things. And I don’t want you to feel scared, or upset. But I need you to listen to this. I know, Rob. I know what you did. I know you handed me over to the Detectors.”

Robbie started to cry. “Sorry,” he said. “Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry…”

“Yeah. I’m glad you’re sorry. Because you know what? I’m really fucking hurt and angry about what you did.”

Robbie kept crying in big gulps, barely coherent apologies mingled in. It was painful to listen to, but Blair was determined to have his say. “Robbie, I need you to calm down and tell me why you did it, man. I need to know. Hey, hey!” he said sharply, willing Robbie to look at him. “Calm down, all right? You’ve got to face up to what you did, otherwise you’re never going to get past this. And neither will I, and I really, really want to.”

Robbie eventually stopped crying, and as he made an effort to get his breathing under control, Blair handed him a handful of tissues and patted him on the shoulder encouragingly. “Hey, that’s it. There you go. Just keep breathing, nice and steady. You’re doing good.”

“Why are you being nice to me?” Robbie asked eventually, the unexpected lucidity Dan had mentioned evident for the first time since Blair had been reunited with his cousin. “I know you hate me.”

“Strange as it may sound, I don’t actually hate you.” Robbie cast him a disbelieving look, so Blair added, “I’m really pissed off, though. And I’m not going to let you off the hook, Robbie. I need you to tell me why you did it. You owe me that much.”

Robbie’s tears were flowing again. “I don’t really know why. I… I’ve forgotten a lot.”

“I know your head’s messed up, but I don’t really believe that. You must have had a reason, right? What you did, it wasn’t a little thing. It was something you planned, something you gave thought to, and it was a vicious, petty and stupid thing. It hurt me, really badly, and it put the entire network at risk.”

Robbie closed his eyes, and Blair thought for a long time that he wasn’t going to get any answers at all. But eventually Robbie opened his eyes again and fixed them on Blair, naked vulnerability in their depths. “I guess I thought you had it all,” he admitted in a small voice. “I was jealous. You had your mom, you were respected, you’d gotten your life all together. I wanted to have what you had, to be more than I was. I thought if you were out of the way I could have all those things. But I know the truth, now. I’m pretty much nothing, man. I always was.”

Blair sighed hugely. He’d guessed the reason, of course; he’d just wanted to hear Robbie admit it. “I’ve gotta tell you, Robbie. I am really angry and fucking dismayed about what you did to me. I’m not going to pretend otherwise. You are a stupid, selfish bastard! But in a weird way, I have you to thank for my Bond with Jim. And the other weird part?” Blair fought against a rising tide of emotion. “I look at you now, and I see myself. I know what you went through, so I know it wasn’t your fault that you betrayed the network. I know, because I came so close - so close - to doing exactly the same thing when they did it to me.” He paused swallowing hard, the horror he - and Robbie - had endured closer to the surface that it had been for some time. “You’re not the only one with demons, my brother,” he said.

Robbie was watching Blair sadly. Tears welled up again, but he somehow kept it together. “You’re the only one who understands, and I… I don’t deserve it.”

“Yeah, well,” Blair said. “Hardly anyone gets what they deserve. I certainly didn’t, huh? What they did to me at Guide World was a cruel and unusual penalty for being the object of your envy.”

Robbie shifted on the bed, arms crossing over his chest protectively. “I never intended them to actually catch you,” he said in a small voice. “I thought, after you left in that rental car, that you had plenty of time to get over the border. I just hoped, if they knew you were a guide, that you wouldn’t be able to come back.”

“You wanted me gone that much?” A fresh wave of resentment flooded through Blair, despite the slight comfort it accorded him to hear that his torture had not actually been Robbie’s goal. “You’re a fucking asshole, Robbie.”

“I know.” Robbie curled in tightly on himself once more, crying again. “I’m sorry, Blair. I never wanted them to hurt you, I swear. I’m just a total fuck-up, man.”

Blair waited a few moments until Robbie seemed less emotional, then said, “I need to ask you a question, Robbie. Do you have any idea who informed on you? Did you tell anyone you were a guide, or let anything slip to someone outside the network?”

“I don’t think so.” Robbie sniffed hard, and Blair handed him another tissue. After taking it cautiously, wiping his eyes and blowing his nose Robbie added, “I was always careful. I’m not even much of a guide, my dux secretions are really low. Most people in the network just assumed I was ungifted, and I didn’t correct them.” Blair gave him some space, while he pondered the question further. Eventually Robbie said, in a voice filled with shame, “I think the cops might have figured it out. I gave them my real name when I turned you in. I think they just put two-and-two together.” He teared up again. “Honestly? I think it was just karma.”

“Karma doesn’t work that way,” Blair said. “You have to die first before the universe rewards or punishes you for your deeds.” The very second that the words left his mouth Blair realized it was an insensitive thing to say to someone in Robbie’s fragile emotional state. “Oh, hey. Not that I’m advocating that, I’m not! You’re gonna get through this, Robbie. You’ll survive it. Things will get better!”

“It’s okay,” Robbie said. “I’m not going planning to die, not yet. Not while I’m still waiting.” He smiled for the first time, though it was more of a grimace, twisted and ragged, as though his facial muscles were incapable of forming a happy expression. “Someone’s coming for me, Blair. Someone’s coming.” Robbie had a faraway look in his eye, gazing off with his huge, sad eyes, into some far distant place that only he could see. “I see him, out there. He’s looking for me. Maybe I’m just crazy. But I really wish he’d hurry up and get here.”

It was as if a switch had been flipped, Robbie lurching from lucidity to his inner fantasy world between one breath and the next. Blair stayed just a little while longer, but Robbie seemed hardly aware he was there, instead staring off into some distant dream.

Eventually, sighing regretfully, Blair left Robbie to the comfort of his imagination. God knows, he couldn’t begrudge him that.

Chapter Text

By the time Friday arrived, Blair could not have been more ready to see Jim; he was so over the emotional roller coaster of this week. Attempts to meditate and relax as the long day wore on were spectacularly unsuccessful, therefore he was thrumming like a man on speed by the time Dan Wolf came to escort him to the prison after dinner. His skin itched like he had hives, and he felt feverish, irritable and achy.

Once again, Dan Wolf drove him there personally. “I don’t mind,” he said, when Blair queried that he might have better things to do with his time. “It gets me out of the facility for a while.”

“Don’t you get any time off?” Blair asked. “You seem to be around day and night.”

“The job comes with accommodation,” Dan said. “I have a small apartment in the staff block. About twenty of us live there; most of us have relocated here from out of the area and haven’t gotten around to finding anything permanent yet.” He smiled. “I get out from time to time, but I don’t mind being on-call during evenings and weekends. It’s easier for me than the other therapeutic staff who don’t live on site, especially the ones with their own families.”

“What about vacation time?” Blair asked. “I mean, you’ve gotta get completely away sometimes, huh?”

Dan shrugged. “I’m saving up my vacation days.” He grinned. “I plan to take a long trip when this is all over.”

“You’re that sure it will be? All over, I mean.”

He looked directly at Blair. “As sure as I’m sitting here, Blair. You need to stay positive. It’ll happen sooner rather than later.”

Dan had driven out of the staff exit at Haven to avoid the permanent crowd of protesters stationed at the main gate, but it seemed when they reached the jail that Jim had his own gathering of civilly disobedient supporters. Huge crowds thronged the space out at the front of the jail, more of the same kind of banners being waved amidst the massed protesters that he’d seen at the airport, the sound of chanting loud and strident.

They had no choice but to run the gauntlet, Dan driving his vehicle through a narrow channel kept clear by the hundreds of police officers in riot gear holding the crowd at bay, cameras pointed in their direction from every angle.

Eventually they were within the gate and the process of admitting Blair to the jail began. At last Blair was allowed through security and into the jail, where Dan left him with a promise to return to pick him up tomorrow. The inevitable pat-down felt more intrusive today, and Blair wanted to scream at the sensation of hands pressing up and down and between his legs and all over his body. He managed to hold it together, though. He was scared that if he made any objection, or showed himself to be in any way volatile, they might delay him from seeing Jim, and that absolutely could not happen.

Finally, finally! It was over, and he was being escorted to the bonding cell. Every step on the way was a torment, but Blair silently talked himself through it. Every step taken was a step closer to his goal, he told himself firmly. One foot in front of the other, keep breathing, keep moving.

At least they reached the bonding cell, and Blair needed no urging to go inside.

“Blair.” There was a world of longing in that single word. Crushed in Jim’s tight embrace, Blair allowed his thoughts to range out to his partner, gratified in the extreme when Jim shared his own equally desperate need through their empathic link.

They at least made it to the bed and managed to remove their clothes this time before coming together in a desperate tussle, wrestling and pushing at each other to get close and closer still. There was a mindless, primitive edge to it all, with no time to spare for subtlety or tenderness. Instead they squirmed and rubbed against each other, fingers digging deep into flesh, their touches electric and ruthless and thrilling. Blair cried out - or Jim did, he wasn’t sure where he ended and Jim began - when somehow the right touch was achieved and sustained, fingers gripping and sliding, urging them faster and faster in a fight to the bitter end. And when that end came, it felt like dying.

Blair came back to himself slowly, wrapped in Jim’s arms, still thrumming with almost agonized sensation. “How much longer,” Blair asked breathlessly, “can we go on like this?” His voice broke. “It’s too much, Jim. I don’t want every time I’m with you to be this way.” Their bonding in Peru hadn’t always involved sex, and certainly not the kind of mindless, helpless rutting they were engaging in now. Back then, the constant, warm vitality of their Bond had cocooned them in its embrace even as they went about their daily business, and their lovemaking had been beautiful, tender and affectionate, serving not only to cement their Bond but also to affirm their love for each other. Now, spending most of the week apart, every reunion felt like they were leaping from a precipice.

Jim soothed him with hands turned gentle, not speaking, his love for Blair overwhelming their link in lieu of words. Blair clutched at him in turn, the feeling of Jim’s arms a safe haven that was all too fragile. How could he continue to endure this for just one night a week, then walk out of the door yet again to leave it all behind for six more lonely, desperate days?

Knowing and understanding Blair’s unhappiness as no one else could, Jim drew him into a gentle kiss. Then, gazing at Blair with a soft smile he urged him to turn around onto his side, facing away, with Jim spooned up behind him. Immobilized by a leg which Jim flung over to hold him in place, his head pillowed on Jim’s arm which held him close, Blair sighed when Jim’s other hand reached around to encircle his cock loosely, caressing him slowly, bringing him slowly to the edge of arousal, hardly moving. Blair sighed and relaxed, feeling his heart pound even as his stress drained away. This was the position they’d been in when they bonded for the very first time; the same position Jim had used with Blair at other times, when he’d been hurt or upset.

Just like those other times, Jim’s touch and care was an act of healing. Blair sighed, again and again as he fought the urge to move, giving himself over entirely into Jim’s hands, the closeness of their Bond enveloping him in safety and Jim’s love washing through him like a tide. If he shifted, trying to increase friction, trying to participate, Jim’s hand slackened and paused, holding him still. When he permitted himself to surrender, letting his muscles slacken and leaning back against Jim bonelessly, feeling Jim’s hard cock pushing up against him, he was rewarded with pressure and rhythm, precisely calculated by sentinel fingers, bringing him incrementally to ecstasy. The incentive to remain still was strong, and his full compliance was quickly established.

Jim played with him for what felt like hours, the heat from their close proximity and the maddeningly slow, gentle strokes making Blair sigh again and again. Blair’s world narrowed to Jim’s breaths in his ear, the sentinel’s hard body holding and supporting him in place, the heat, the sweat and the inexorable, gentle touches. At long last, gradual and relentless melting heat spread from his belly to his toes before igniting a spark that zig-zagged up his spine to the roots of his hair, his breath suspended in a bright burst of ecstatic communion in which Jim joined him, their mutual ecstasy indivisible.

This time their Bond felt not like death, but rebirth.

***

When Blair eventually opened his eyes, what felt like a very long time later, the first thing he saw was Jim watching him, a look of indulgence on his face. Blair smiled and reached out tentatively with his thoughts, unutterably pleased to find their link still open, Jim’s emotions soft and loving and a little bit melancholy.

“Hey,” he murmured. “You okay?”

Blair really loved the way the corner of Jim’s eyes crinkled when he smiled.  “I’m good, Chief,” he said softly. “I love watching you like this.”

Blair smiled back, feeling loved and in-love. He stretched luxuriously before leaning in to kiss Jim, teasing his mouth with his tongue before moving in for more. Pulling back a little he gazed at Jim, knowing that his expression was every bit as adoring as his sentinel’s. Then he frowned, his waking mind registering that it was lighter than it should be in the cell. He cast a look behind him at the window and yes, it was getting light. “Oh shit,” he said miserably. “Did we sleep all night?”

Jim soothed him, stroking a hand through Blair’s hair. “You did,” he confessed.

“Oh man.” Blair was horrified. This time together - what little of it they were allowed - was precious, and he’d wasted almost all of it pushing out the zees. “Jim, I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Jim said firmly. “I figured you needed it. And I loved being here, with you. Holding you. Watching over you.” He leaned in and unselfconsciously sniffed Blair’s neck. “Having your scent here, all around me. It was bliss.” He pulled Blair close again. “We’ve got maybe another half hour. We can lie here for a few more minutes.”

Blair, though, felt devastated. “There’s so much more I wanted to do with you,” he said.

Jim chuckled, but it was a rueful little sound. “Whoa, easy, Tiger!”

“Not just that,” Blair said grouchily. “So much happened this week, Jim. So much I wanted to talk to you about. And I didn’t even get a chance to ask how things have been for you. Are you any nearer to getting out of here?”

“I’ve been fine,” Jim said. “Things are progressing with my case. There’s still no trial date set, but Marta says that’s not a bad thing, she believes the DA is stalling because the evidence is flimsy. My senses have been fine; seeing you last week was a great restorative. And I watched your TV show, Colbert. You did great.”

Blair pulled back to look at him, at that. “You saw it?”

“Yeah.” Jim’s eyes sparkled with pride. “I think you made a big impression, they keep showing clips of you over and over. You came across really well.” He stroked Blair’s cheek. “I heard that you saw your mom. I know how much you wanted that, Chief.”

Blair’s eyes filled, and he gratefully sank back into Jim’s embrace, basking in his sentinel’s love for as long as he could. Which, it turned out, wasn’t long at all. “We’d better get ready,” Jim said, only a couple of minutes later. “I can hear them talking about coming to get us.” and regretfully they pulled apart.

After a quick wash, sitting next to Jim and waiting fully dressed on the bed for the guards to come and get him, Blair remembered something he’d meant to ask. “Hey Jim, my mom and me were talking about what happened to Robbie. You know, how he got caught.”

Jim tensed next to him, and his presence in their link, which had been so strong during this whole visit, retreated. Blair suspected he knew why: Jim had only negative thoughts about Robbie, and no doubt he didn’t want to share them with Blair, especially after their disagreement last week.

Generously turning a blind eye to his protective retreat, Blair continued. “She has no idea who handed Robbie over to the Detectors, and neither do I. I asked Robbie about it, but he didn’t know either.”

“It was probably an anonymous tip,” Jim pointed out. “Your cousin didn’t exactly inspire loyalty. It could have been anyone that he’d pissed off. Maybe one of his subordinates in the network.”

“Yeah, we both assumed that. It had to be someone who knew he was a guide, right? But Jim,” he continued, “I was wondering if you could ask one of your buddies at the PD to look at his file? You know, and see if it has any info? It’s really hard not knowing who it was. I mean, if it was someone in the network, which is likely, they screwed things up for a lot of people. It was a really stupid and dangerous thing to do.”

But Jim shook his head. “I can’t do that, Chief. Simon is the only one I’m in contact with, and he’d never agree to it.”

“Okay, maybe not Captain Banks, but I was wondering if you could maybe ask Sentinel Ramirez. I mean he helped you before, right? He’s good at getting hold of confidential records.”

“I’m not in touch with him right now,” Jim said. “So no can do. Sorry, Chief.”

The guards arrived a moment after that, so they didn’t get a chance to discuss it further. And feeling like his heart might break at the prospect of another week’s separation, Blair kept his eyes on Jim, who likewise watched him longingly all the while until the door closed between them.

Chapter Text

Blair wasn’t prepared for the level of shock he felt when he discovered that Dan Wolf hadn’t arrived to take him back to Haven, but two unsmiling Guide Corps guards instead.

He was escorted swiftly outside, a guard flanking him on either side. They didn’t cuff him, each of them instead holding one of Blair’s arms in a firm grip that he viscerally understood to be restraint. Instead of a regular car he was put in the back of a prison van, one of the guards climbing in to accompany him inside and the other presumably, after the door had clanged shut, going up front to sit with the driver.

Blair kept his eyes down, keeping still and trying not to draw notice for the entire journey. Attempting to rationalize the change in routine, he suspected that the van was a more secure means of getting him past the protestors outside the jail (and also those at Haven), but that didn’t explain why Dan wasn’t here as he’d promised.

After a while, sitting silently and alone with his increasingly stressed thoughts, he started to get scared that it might not be Haven he was being taken back to, but some other place instead.

When the van stopped and the back doors opened, Blair was relieved to see that his paranoia had been unfounded. They had, indeed, arrived back at Haven, and not at some terrifying punitive facility of his imaginings. And as he was steered inside and through security, he wryly pondered the weirdness of actually being relieved to arrive back in this hellhole.

His relief did not last long, because it was very quickly apparent that something was seriously amiss. Once inside he was steered through corridors inhabited by multiple guards - but not a single one of his fellow inmates - and led straight to the dayroom where he was urged through the door and curtly ordered to stay inside.

He swiftly discovered why the corridors had been empty. The room was full beyond capacity, apparently containing within its walls every single guide in the facility. All of the seats were occupied, and other inmates were standing or sitting on the floor, talking in hushed tones, sitting staring into the distance or standing huddled silently together in corners.

“Blair!” Todd had spotted him, and Blair watched as his young friend made his way over.

“What’s going on?” Blair asked.

Todd’s eyes were red, as though he’d been crying. “Mack Cronin was found dead in his cell,” he answered in a horrified whisper. “They’re saying he hanged himself during the night.”

“Oh no,” said Blair, his heart aching. “Come here.” He drew Todd into a hug. Mack had been an older man, widowed and in late middle-age, who’d always seemed a little lost. Blair hadn’t really spoken to him, but he’d heard that (along with Mack) his only daughter had been rounded up in the purge, and the poor guy had struggled to cope without being able to see her for so long.

As he and Todd pulled apart Blair glanced around the room. Everyone was in a state of shock, it seemed. Seb Buckingham was sitting mournfully with some of his elderly friends, tears in his eyes, and a couple of the younger kids, friends of Todd’s, were sitting together on the floor, backs against the wall, their faces pinched with unhappiness. Nearby Karl Kramer was pacing, his face thunderous. As Blair watched Kramer caught sight of him, and strode over. “Your fucking cousin did this,” he snarled. “Fucking Rob Carter. I know you’ve been going to see him, all cozy-like. You tell him from me, he’s got Cronin’s blood on his hands. And if I ever lay hands on him-”

Blair faced up to him. “Hey, give it a rest! Look around you!” Blair indicated the two upset young men, and at Todd who had blanched at Kramer’s angry tone. “This is not the time. Get a grip!”

“Don’t you tell me what to do!” Kramer advanced on Blair threateningly. “You fucking waste of space. Look at you,” he sneered, pushing Blair with force. “Getting your rocks off being dominated by a caveman. Carter’s not the only fucking traitor in your family, you freak!”

Others had come forward, friends of Kramer’s, their expressions equally furious. Blair was aware vaguely of Todd speaking in a conciliatory tone: “Hey, come on, guys. You don’t want to do this…” before Kramer seized the collar of Blair’s jumpsuit, his other hand curving into a fist. Others moved in swiftly beside him, unmistakable violence in the air when everyone in the room started talking at once, voices raised and strident with unleashed anger.

A flash of white and voices shouting orders - the inevitable arrival of guards to break up what was promising to become a riot rather than a fight - caused a rush of sudden, visceral terror to race through Blair. Looking back later, Blair was never entirely sure what specifically had triggered his reaction. But something about the whole scenario – physical threat in a situation of already heightened emotions, awareness that there was nowhere to run, the white, sterile walls and the sudden appearance of the white uniforms from his nightmares – threw him backwards in time and hard-learned self-preservation overtook his conscious mind, tearing him out of Kramer’s grasp and forcing him to his knees.

Angry, raised voices and several cries like men in pain shocked him partially out of semi-fugue sometime later, but a glimpse of white out of the corner of his eye didn’t do anything to help bring him back to the here-and-now. Instead Blair kept his head lowered, his eyes averted. Comprehension was coming back slowly, he could hear barked orders - not aimed at him - to settle down, stay where you are, and a commotion of other voices, sounding upset, angry, scared.

Blair jumped a little before freezing in place, as a figure got right in his vision and crouched in front of him. "Hey, Blair?" the man said. Blair recognized the voice suddenly, it was Dan Wolf. "Are you back with me? Do you know where you are?"

Blair tried to lick his lips, but his mouth had gone dry as a bone. He pondered the question for a moment, then remembering that he was permitted to speak said hoarsely, "Haven." The act of speech brought him back to himself a little further, and he glanced around. A dense group of guards were busy attaching leg shackles to several men on their knees, Kramer amongst them, his hands already cuffed behind his back. Kramer wasn’t looking in his direction, but the set of his shoulders betrayed impotent rage. The rest of the guides had apparently been corralled across the room, many of them straining to get a glimpse of what was going on past the human wall of Guide Corps officers who were keeping them contained.

Drawing Blair’s attention back to him, Dan asked, "Do you think you can stand?"

Blair nodded and made to do so, achieving it only with the help of Dan’s steadying hands. Blair felt strange and disconnected, and wondered absently why he wasn’t in restraints, too. He was hardly aware of walking and being shepherded out of the room, drifting on autopilot, conforming to what was required to keep him alive, just as he’d been forced to do for so very long.

When they eventually halted before a pair of swing doors, which he absently recognized as the entrance to the medical suite, Blair came back to himself suddenly and tried to pull away from Dan’s restraining in arm in sudden panic. He’d broken the rules, hadn’t he? They weren’t allowed to fight. He was going to get punished. Sometimes, they didn’t whip you: sometimes they did other things.

“Hey, hey!” Dan said, his voice soft in the face of Blair’s sudden terror. “It’s okay, Blair. Trust me. Remember my promise, huh? No one will hurt you. Remember where you are, Blair. Put yourself in the here and now. Everything’s okay.”

Listening desperately to Dan Wolf’s voice, holding onto it like a lifeline, Blair managed to calm down just enough to allow himself to be led inside. Haven, he told himself firmly. I’m at Haven. They don’t hurt you here. They were in the infirmary now, and the doctor was leading him to one of the treatment rooms. Once inside Dan tried to encourage him to get up on the bed, but Blair pulled away again, his heart racing, his hands clutching tight to his own arms in self-protective dread, memories of what they could do here, what had been done to him, overwhelming him. “No,” he groaned out. “No, please…”

“It’s okay, it’s no problem,” Dan said quickly, and turning him around steered Blair over to a chair into which (it proving to be far less ominous) he urged him to sit. After Blair did so, breathing hard, the other man crouched in front of him again, forcing eye contact. “Breathe steady, Blair. Try not to hyperventilate. Come on, watch me. In… and out. And in…”

Gradually, under the doctor’s tutelage, Blair got himself a little more under control. He was aware of someone coming in, a heavyset man in a white coat, and his eyes widened desperately, silently begging for reassurance. “It’s okay,” Dan obliged. “This is Nurse Thomas, he’s just going to check you out, make sure your blood pressure is okay, that kind of thing. I’m going to stay right here with you, so you just focus on me, okay?”

Blair nodded, submitting to the nurse’s attentions tensely but passively, trying desperately to stay still when all he wanted to do was run.

The familiar regime of a simple medical once-over - pulse, temperature, blood pressure cuff inflating on his arm - helped calm Blair somewhat, so that by the time it was over and the nurse had left Blair had started to think again instead of simply reacting. There’d been a fight, he understood. Or at least Kramer and the others had been angry and spoiling for one, and he had been the target of their ire. But for some reason Blair had been brought here, while he assumed Kramer and the others had been put in solitary.

Sensing, perhaps, that he was steadier Dan stood, leaving him only for a second to grab hold of a chair. He returned swiftly, placing it down in front of Blair and taking a seat on it facing him. “Just keep breathing steady,” he reiterated. “Everything’s going to be fine.”

Presently, Blair found his voice. “What happened to Kramer?”

“He and three of the others have been put in isolation.”

“Why not me as well?”

“You’re not at fault,” Dan answered. “The guards could clearly see you were not the aggressor. And after they called me I medically assessed you, and decided you needed treatment, not punishment. Don’t worry, Blair. Nothing’s going to happen to you.”

A rush of reactive terror once more flowed through Blair, but he breathed through it. He was okay; no one was going to hurt him. Dan had given him a promise. But he wished he didn’t feel so goddamn vulnerable. “I want Jim.” The words, unbidden, erupted from some deep-seated place in Blair, and even to his own ears he sounded like a child.

“I know, Blair. I understand.”

“But I can’t, can I? I can’t see him. Not for another week.”

“I’m sorry, Blair,” Dan said, sounding like he genuinely meant it. “I argued that you needed more frequent contact, back when we found out that you were coming here, but once a week was the bottom line as far as the Justice Department was concerned. But hey, only six more days until you see him again, right? Hold onto that. In the meantime, would it help if I tried to get permission for you to talk to Jim on the phone?  I’ll make the case that this is an emergency.”

Blair’s heart leapt at the thought, but despite his urge to say yes, he knew it would be a bad idea. “No, forget it. I don’t want Jim to know I freaked out. If he thinks I’m not coping, it’ll stress him out too much. He worries enough as it is.”

“Okay. But if you change your mind, let me know. Meanwhile I’m going to make sure it’s there as an option if you need it, okay?”

Blair nodded. Humiliation was beginning to creep in now his panic was receding. “I don’t know what got into me back there.”

“It’s been a difficult day,” Dan said sympathetically. “A lot of sad, angry emotions in that room. As a bonded guide, with fully functioning gifts, you’re perhaps more likely to pick up on that kind of thing than most people.”

“I thought that was proven to be a myth. You know, that we can empathically detect emotions with anyone but our bonded sentinel?”

“Well, you’re right that most of it’s been scientifically debunked, even though it’s still been used in recent times as a justification for the way guides have been treated. All that crap about how you guys are going around eavesdropping on people’s thoughts, for example. But I’ve seen enough to convince me that high-functioning guides tend to be more generally tuned-in than most.” Dan smiled. “But whether that’s true or not, you’ve been through a lot, Blair. It’s understandable that you’re going to react to situations that trigger bad memories, especially when there are so many reminders around you of the abuse you suffered.”

Blair looked at Dan in surprise. “You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone involved in Guide Corps call what they did to me abuse.”

“I’m a therapist, Blair. I deal with the truth, because shading it, using euphemistic words, just perpetuates the problem.”

“Thank you. I mean it. I think I really needed to hear someone say that.” Blair had a lump in his throat; Jesus, he was going to fucking lose it again. “I’m not usually this emotional, you know? I was fine until I came back here. I’d been fine for a long time. I… I just really miss Jim. All these years, since we got out of Cascade, we’ve never been apart, not for any length of time. It’s a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.”

“The offer of the phone call still stands, Blair.”

“No, no. I mean, I’d love to hear his voice, but…” Blair sniffed. “I can’t do that to him. He didn’t want me to come back to Cascade in the first place. If he knew I was struggling with it, I don’t know how he’d react. Being in jail, separated from me, it’s hard enough on him as it is.”

At that, Dan Wolf let it lie, and Blair worked on suppressing his intermittent panic. Eventually he was calm enough to consent to lie down in an adjacent room and, at the Doc’s urging, rest a little. With Blair’s agreement Dan administered a mild sedative, which didn’t allay all of Blair’s anxiety but distanced it enough that it ceased to be a pressing problem. After that Blair remained in the infirmary for the rest of the day.

Blair was grateful for the down-time; he was not in any hurry to face everyone again after falling to his fucking knees in front of them all. If he’d been seen as an outsider before, what would they think of him now?

As the day wore on, Dan Wolf coming and going at intervals (he had the aftermath of a suicide to deal with, so Blair was far from his only concern), Blair dozed on and off in the narrow infirmary bed, the sedative only partially taking the edge of looming feelings of shame and humiliation that hovered under the surface. He half-woke once, hearing what sounded like DeFranco’s voice raised in anger interspersed with Dan Wolf’s more measured tones, but he wasn’t sure whether he’d dreamt it or not.

Dan Wolf reappeared in the early evening, carrying a tray of food. “You haven’t eaten today, have you? You’ll feel better, I’m sure, if you do.” As Blair half-heartedly obliged Dan stayed to chat with him a little, and Blair was relieved to hear that on this occasion there had not been any facility-wide lockdown to punish the uninvolved for the fracas in the dayroom.

According to Dan, that was a concession on the part of the Warden because of Mack Cronin’s death. “A lot of people are upset,” Dan told Blair. “They don’t need to be locked up alone at a time like this.” He paused, then changed the subject. “Blair, I want you to remain here in the infirmary tonight. I’m going to be staying around, so I’ll be able to keep an eye on you. You can go back to the main wing tomorrow after chapel is over.”

Blair still felt a little shaky, and of course his embarrassment knew no bounds, but he didn’t think the suggestion was warranted. “I’m feeling a lot better,” he said. “You’ve got better things to do than babysit me, I’m sure. I’m fine to go back.”

“I’m afraid that’s not an option,” Dan said. “I’m sorry.”

It seemed a little out of character for Dan to press the point; he usually seemed pretty good at respecting the boundaries of Blair’s anxiety. With a flash of insight, Blair asked, “Was the Warden here earlier?”

Dan looked unhappy. “Yes, and I’m sorry if you overheard any of our discussion, Blair. I tried to steer him away so none of it would distress you, but there wasn’t an opportunity to do so.”

“What did he say?”

“It’s nothing for you to worry about. We had a difference of opinion, but it all got straightened out. What we agreed, however, is that you’ll stay here overnight, and all being well, I’ll certify you as fit in the morning and let you go back to the regular wing.”

Blair could guess what had happened. “He wanted to lock me up in solitary, right?”

“It’s not going to happen,” Dan insisted, and Blair could easily read the confirmation of his suspicions in what he pointedly didn’t say.

Blair finished eating a little while later and settled down for the night, but he didn’t get much sleep. The Warden clearly wanted to see him punished, and Blair was terrified that, thwarted by Dan pulling medical rank, he might find alternative ways to do it.

Lying awake in the dark of night Blair focused desperately on the imagined sensation of Jim’s phantom arms around him, aching for his sentinel to take him away from this place, and dreading what the morning might bring.

Chapter Text

Blair was finally allowed to leave the infirmary late on Sunday morning, after Dan returned from chapel and signed off on his discharge. After being escorted personally by the Doc back to his cell, he lay on his bunk for much of the day, the thought of going out to face any of the others in the dayroom or the gym or any of the other communal spaces far too intimidating to contemplate.

As the day wore on he realized he couldn’t stay hidden in his room forever. He needed to eat, for one thing, and the constant, tense inaction certainly wasn’t making him feel any better. In the late afternoon, therefore, girding his loins stoically, he made his way to the hall for dinner.

If he’d been unpopular before, it certainly seemed that today things had gotten a lot worse. Heads turned to look at him, expressions almost uniformly unfriendly, as he entered the hall. And when he sat down with his food at one of the long tables all of the men sitting there rose as one, moving to different seats at other tables and leaving him there alone.

It didn’t take a genius to work out that Kramer and the others being locked up in solitary, while he had received personal care in the infirmary and released, might be viewed by some as preferential treatment. It didn’t matter that he’d not been the aggressor, or that Dan had judged him medically unfit. Usually all participants in a fight got punished, whether they were the perpetrator or not. For the first time, Blair considered that having the Doc as a staunch advocate might not be doing him any favors with his peers.

Forcing himself to eat and remain impassive in the face of so much overt hostility, Blair looked around the room, seeking his one, sympathetic friend in this place. When he located Todd he was surprised to see him sitting with some of Kramer’s friends. The younger man wasn’t looking in Blair’s direction, and he appeared to be desperately unhappy. As Blair watched Todd briefly turned his head to look him in the eye, shaking his head once. Then the man sitting next to him nudged him hard and he hastily looked away.

Damn. Todd, it seemed, had been coerced into steering clear of him.

Abruptly, Blair wasn’t hungry anymore. He rose and took his tray over to the clean-up area, tipping his uneaten dinner in the trash and stacking the dishes. Then he turned around and, cheeks burning with humiliation, knowing all eyes were upon him, he started to walk the gauntlet toward the door.

Before he reached it, a guy - one of Kramer’s friends, that he knew as Matt Douglas - blocked his way.

Blair looked at him. “Excuse me,” he said, and made to go around.

But Douglas sidestepped into his path and Blair halted again. He could feel the eyes of the room upon him, and flashes of white at the edge of his vision informed him that multiple guards were standing at the periphery of the room, alert to the multiple stress points that it contained.

Breathing hard, understanding that there was going to be trouble here whether he wanted it or not, Blair met Douglas’ eyes, determined not to show any weakness.

After a moment Douglas spoke. “Your fucking ‘poor me’ routine won’t wash in here.” Douglas pulled down his collar revealing a guide tattoo like Blair’s own. “You see that? I got put through that farce they call training too, but you don’t see me running off to the Doc all traumatized. You pathetic coward.” He raised both hands and pushed Blair hard.

Breathing hard, the taunt making him see red, Blair didn’t respond. Douglas pushed him again, his lips quirking into something closer to a sneer than a laugh. Then again.

At the periphery of his vision, a white wall of Guide Corp uniforms could be seen moving toward them, closing in.

Suddenly something clicked inside Blair. He was tired, goddamn it. Tired of being in this fucking place, tired of the constant stress, tired of assholes like this one who thought they could push him around. With a cry he launched himself at Douglas, swinging at him with all his strength, and was gratified by the fact that he got in one good punch before the guards swooped in and forced him to his knees.

“Keep still!” One of the guards barked, as Blair struggled. Long-held conditioning forced him to obey, and as he subsided to resentful passivity he was aware of the other man likewise kneeling next to him. As Blair’s arms were restrained behind his back and his ankles were shackled he glanced at Matt Douglas. The asshole was grinning at his buddies across the room, who were grinning smugly back, and Blair understood instantly that this had been an ambush. Douglas had sacrificed his own liberty to make sure Blair got what they all believed was coming to him.

Blair had never considered himself a stupid man, but right at this moment he realized what a total fucking idiot he’d been to give them what they wanted.

The punishment cells, Blair finally learned, after the guards hustled him out of the main block and into this part of the facility, were in the same part of Haven where Robbie was being detained. As Dan Wolf had intimated they were the same as regular cells, with the exception that they were bare of any comforts. A single, thin blanket lay on the bed, and there was a total lack of personal items, books or anything else to relieve what he expected to be a long, frustrating sojourn.

Forced to kneel in the center of the cell, Blair was efficiently relieved of his shackles and cuffs then left there alone, the cell door clanging shut after the guards exited. He stood up and sat on the bed morosely, pondering the prospect of the next few days with a leery eye.

This really did suck.

***

Solitary was every bit as awful as Blair had imagined. There was only so much meditation he could manage to do in these stressful circumstances, and what little exercise he could engage in within this confined space went nowhere near taking the edge off his pent-up excess of nervous energy.

Two little white pills had been delivered along with breakfast on Monday morning: Blair’s now regular dose of Duxulin. At least the Doc was on his case, Blair thought, making sure that bond-stress didn’t floor him even in these trying circumstances.

At last on Monday evening, after more than twenty-four monotonous and stress-filled hours that Blair had spent both anticipating and dreading it, Warden DeFranco made his appearance.

Blair had just slid his dinner tray back through the hinged flap under the door, at the curt demand of a guard outside the cell, and retired back to his bunk to continue to contemplate the universe and his misdeeds in tedious silence, when the door opened without warning.

A rush of adrenaline and dread had Blair on his feet in seconds, but that impulse was quickly allayed by the barked command, “Guide, on your knees!”

Obeying without thought, his conditioned responses still on a hair trigger even after all this time, Blair kept his eyes down as the Warden’s shiny shoes came into his line of sight. It wasn’t any surprise to Blair that the Warden stood there looking down at him for a long, silent moment. DeFranco evidently enjoyed utilizing anticipation as a tool to intimidate. It didn’t work as well as he assumed; not now that Blair had worked out his game plan.

“It’s a shame,” DeFranco said eventually, “to waste such impeccable training. I can see that Pat Gavaghan did a good job on you. Some of his finest work, you might say. Articles have been written about the methods he used, he was a true innovator.”

Invoking Blair’s tormenter had clearly been designed to shock him, and of course it worked. Blair’s heart raced erratically in remembered fear, but his deeper training held and he strove to give no outward sign. Instead he kept breathlessly still, heart pounding, as the Warden slowly walked around him, his back twitching with the sense memory of whippings when DeFranco was out of view behind him, Blair not entirely reassured by the lack of a crop in the Warden’s hand. DeFranco kept moving, continuing right around, clearly scrutinizing him from every angle, before his feet came back into view in front of Blair again. “Did you know that I used to be a trainer myself?” he asked.

It was clearly a rhetorical question with a capital ‘R’, so Blair kept silent and maintained his posture. But apparently he’d transgressed anyway, as DeFranco seemed happy to point out. “You tensed up, just then. You’re trembling just a little. If I was training you, you’d be punished for that. I’d require total obedience.”

Blair wanted to move so desperately, wanted to show this asshole that Gavaghan’s training - his abuse - hadn’t worked on him half as well as DeFranco thought it had, and that this guy hadn’t got a hope in hell of succeeding where Gavaghan failed. But other instincts, imperative ones, screamed at him to ride it out, endure, obey, be still.

That latter voice, right now, was infinitely louder.

The Warden stood in his line of sight for a while longer, not speaking, and Blair knew that he was being measured for any further signs of weakness, or perhaps a spark of rebellion. Sinking automatically into a familiar, terrible calmness, he perversely gave DeFranco neither.

“You surprise me,” DeFranco said, after his extended perusal. “Your training has held far better than I expected. I wondered how much of it you’d retained. Pat was a master of his trade, that’s for sure.” It seemed, however that despite the Warden’s apparent satisfaction at his form, his endurance was also to be tested. “Stay there, just like that,” DeFranco said. “The guards will be watching. There will be penalties for failure.” And with that he turned and exited from the cell, the door clanging shut behind him.

Blair didn’t move. This was easy; he’d been kept for hours at a time, sometimes days, in this posture. He was a fucking expert at it.

Screw you, he thought. Stuff your ‘penalties for failure’ where the sun don’t shine, you creep.

***

Lost in a deep, inner place, a familiar, timeless refuge from screaming muscles and tense anticipation, Blair came back to himself a long time later when a noise intruded. Head still bowed, pondering the recent passage of time, he registered that it was light in his cell after a long period of preceding darkness, and that a breakfast tray had just been pushed through the hatch at the bottom of the door.

Don’t move, he told himself firmly, despite the reflexive gurgle of his stomach. It’s a ruse to make you fail. Be still.

Sinking back into his introspective safe-space was difficult now that he’d gotten disturbed, his bodily discomforts making themselves known. He couldn’t feel his knees anymore, he was cold (though not as much as he’d been the many times he’d been forced to do this naked), and his neck hurt from the posture, head inclined forward, that he’d maintained all through the night. He longed to lift his head, to roll it on his neck and shrug his shoulders, but by breathing carefully through his mouth and out through his nose he managed, by dint of long-practice, to subdue the urge.

The guards were watching, just as the Warden had told him they would. They had watched him all night. Blair had vaguely registered his cell door opening a couple of times in the dark hours, followed by whispered conversations before the watchers eventually exited once more. They were probably watching now through the spy-hole, and he wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of seeing him weaken. He’d endured this for a long time already, and he wasn’t going to move now. Be still.

Blair had almost retreated back to an obstinate blankness of mind when he was startled out of it by the sound of the door opening. Don’t move, he told himself firmly. Again, the mantra he’d used so many, many times, throughout the long night and many other occasions like this in the past. Be still.

Someone had entered the cell, and Blair listened for cues, not even twitching a muscle. There was a long pause, then, “Get that out of here,” DeFranco’s voice said curtly. Interpreting the sound he heard after that - something plastic and flat sliding across the floor, perhaps propelled by a disdainful foot - Blair surmised he meant the breakfast tray.

I knew it was a trap, Blair thought. He had no intention of letting me eat.

The Warden’s shoes came into view. Such shiny shoes, Blair thought to himself. This guy’s a complete control freak. The thought made him want to giggle, but of course he didn’t.

“Guide, look at me,” DeFranco said curtly. Blair immediately obeyed, his neck muscles screaming as he lifted his head, and focused on the Warden’s face, which was flushed and sweating. For some reason DeFranco looked horrified as well as angry. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Following your orders, sir,” Blair said. Waiting for me to fail, were you? Sorry to disappoint you, asshole.

“Get up,” The Warden demanded.

Blair tried, he really did, but his legs had gone dead a long time ago. Watching him floundering, the Warden shouted, “Guards!” When a couple of them entered, he ordered angrily, “Help him to his bunk.”

Blair allowed himself to be lifted, not resisting at all when he was deposited - not un-gently - on the bed. Fixing his eyes on the ceiling he pondered the surprising efficacy of using passivity and obedience as a weapon.

He was aware of the Warden standing there, glaring down at him, but couldn’t find the energy to care. He closed his eyes and a moment later he heard footsteps heading toward the door, which slammed shut with an angry clang leaving him alone in silence.

Blair allowed a smile of satisfaction to breach his external impassivity. Touché, he thought. I can take anything you throw at me, you bastard.

***

He must have slept after that because it was almost dark outside the high-barred window of his cell when he opened his eyes, and the stark electric light had been switched on. Dan Wolf was sitting on a chair beside him. “Hey,” Blair said, focusing on the other man’s face. “I thought you didn’t do house calls in solitary.”

“I don’t, usually,” Dan looked very serious. “Blair, are you okay? I heard what happened.”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Blair sat up, his aching muscles protesting just a little. He felt like he’d run a marathon, and he was ravenously hungry. To his relief, his nose informed him that a hot meal had been delivered while he slept; he could see the tray over by the door. “I let Matt Douglas get to me. I should have just let it go, but he was spoiling for a fight. I think I’d have ended up in here even if I hadn’t hit him.”

“That’s not what I meant, Blair,” Dan said. “I’m talking about what the Warden did.”

Blair blinked. “You mean making me stay on my knees?”

“Yes,” Dan confirmed. Then added, sounding angry for the first time since Blair had met him, “Blair, he’s not allowed to do that. Punitive training methods are illegal now, not just forbidden by the Corps. It should never have happened.”

“He didn’t exactly give me a choice,” Blair said.

“I know. And that’s why he’s been suspended, effective immediately.”

“What?” To say he was shocked and surprised would be an understatement. “But… how did anyone even know about it?”

“There was a complaint from the guards who were on duty last night. As soon as they got off-shift they reported DeFranco for abuse.”

“Oh, man.” Now that was a surprise. “So, is that it? Is he gone for good?”

“There will be a hearing, and he’ll probably be dismissed from the Corps. He may even be prosecuted. One thing is for sure, he’ll never be put in charge of a guide facility ever again.”

“Wow.” Things really had changed. Stress positions had been Gavaghan’s stock in trade; what DeFranco had made Blair do was not even one of the difficult ones.

“Blair,” Dan sounded very serious. “In view of what happened, I’ve been given approval to sign you out of here right now and into the infirmary. You can finish up your punishment detail under medical supervision.”

It was a tempting thought, but it was exactly what had gotten Blair into this mess in the first place. “Hey, no, honestly. I’d rather just sit it out here. People already resent me for not going to solitary along with the others on Sunday; I’m unpopular enough without it happening again.” He tried to reassure Dan that he meant it. “What happened last night, well yeah, it wasn’t pleasant. But I’ve gone through a lot worse, you know? I’m okay. I’m not having flashbacks or anything. I’d rather stay here.”

Dan tried to change his mind, but when Blair wouldn’t budge he reluctantly agreed. “If you’re sure,” he said. “But if you need any help there are a couple of guards outside, both of them are good men. One of them will come get me if you call. And Blair, I want you to be absolutely assured: nothing like that will happen again. DeFranco won’t be coming back.”