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Stopgap Measures

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Technically, Henry didn’t need a Guide. He’d gotten along for most of his life without a Guide. He’d learned to cope, better than most lone Sentinels.

However, he couldn’t deny that he’d been so much better with Abigail.

When she’d left, he’d fallen into a hole he’d barely been able to climb out of. Forty years with a Guide as his loving partner had changed that status quo, and now? Now he was just as sharp, but damned if he could keep himself in the present. His previous coping mechanisms were very slow to return in any strength.

He didn’t regret his fine-tuned ability to notice things. He could focus on and pick up tiny details with all his heightened senses and centuries of experience, but each little detail was a string to the past. He was too easily pulled into it, leaving him standing there staring, helpless.

Abe tried to help. He’d seen his mother managing his father his whole life, and though he didn’t have either a Guide or a Sentinel’s senses, he knew what to do. A gentle touch on the arm, a soft word, sometimes the humming of a song to bring Henry out of it. A cup of coffee waved under his nose worked well if he was all-consumed and his senses needed jogging back into the present.

Without the deeper connection, it was a weak patch over a gaping hole. Abe tried, but he could only do so much.

The connection with Abigail had been a surprise, and Henry knew he’d not find something like that again. It might have been part of why he loved her so deeply, part of how she understood him so well, though he suspected she would have loved him just as much even without a Sentinel-Guide connection.

In the past decade the fugues had gotten worse. Henry was going to have to admit soon that it was a problem. A man on guard couldn’t afford to leave himself zoned out and vulnerable in unexpected situations. He kept his scarves close, gently scented with Abigail’s perfume—what little he had left of it, just a touch—to ground him. It helped on most days, but those days were fewer; her influence was fading along with her perfume.

It didn’t matter, he told himself again and again. It suited him fine, the way he was. Absent-minded he might be, but he was smart, fast, and adaptable enough to rise to any challenge.

The easy connection to the past wasn’t all inconvenience. The nights he sat with an old dress of Abigail’s in his hand, rubbing the cloth between his fingers and pressing it to his face, falling into his memories so deeply he might be there with her again, were his best moments these days.

After the morning Abe found Henry in his laboratory in his clothes from the night before, asleep in his chair because his mind and body were exhausted from the hours-long uninterrupted fugue, Henry made sure to never let it happen anywhere but behind the closed door of his bedroom.

Abe always knew anyway, could see it in the pale cast of Henry’s face, but this way he never said anything.

***

Henry stood outside on the street marvelling at the building stonework, at the minute pebbling in the mortar, at the streaks of basalt in the granite. He was spiralling downward fast, and struggling against his senses did nothing. The scent of Abigail’s perfume was too faint to make a difference.

“Henry? Hey, Henry. You coming?”

Jo’s words swung like a baseball bat through his fugue, tore the shutters from his mind and brought the bright world into focus.

Henry started violently. He immediately clamped down on that reaction and straightened his scarf and collar, trying to cover his alarm.

A Sentinel, especially a strong one, left alone too long with only overclocked senses for company, became inwardly focused as a coping mechanism. It was more common in older Sentinels, the ones who’d never bonded, or never had family members to care for them as they aged. It was the only clue to Henry’s age that he couldn’t hide, but most people took it as a sign he was exceptionally gifted—or burdened, depending on their point of view.

They weren’t wrong. They just didn’t know it was because he had two hundred years being subjected to those overactive senses, along with two hundred years of sense memories to reinforce all his naturally strong talents.

There were times when the past swelled up so strongly he could barely see the world in front of him. The bricks pressing through the soles of his shoes on an old street, a flash of white cloth fluttering from a window, the apples under the sunshine in front of a bodega, and suddenly the 1890s again; as though the rolling of carts and call of stall grocers, the scream of children in the streets, and the flap of fresh laundry, all were so vivid and bright as to be real.

Henry was useless under the weight of it all.

Jo cocked her head to the side, a puzzled smile on her face, as Henry fidgeted and avoided her gaze. When he didn’t recover immediately, she stopped smiling and took a step towards him.

“Are you alright?” she asked, scanning him over.

Jo was entirely too perceptive. Not that it was hard to see how rattled he was.

She’d called him—a proper Guide’s call—and Henry responded like she’d hooked him and reeled him in on a line. Just like Abigail had done all those years ago, when they’d stood over a tiny infant, him barely in the present amongst all the insanity. With the gentle words, “Are you a doctor?” she’d called him to her, focused him. He’d come, unable to do aught else.

“Yes, of course. Fine, just… considering the architecture. Classic style.”

She wasn’t buying it, but he adopted an aloof and unconcerned attitude and she backed off.

Like Henry and Abigail, Jo and Sean had been a bonded Sentinel-Guide pair as well as husband and wife. Romance was not an expected nor standard part of Sentinel-Guide relationships, but those that did bond as well as fall in love formed a tight-knit pair that could become so inwardly focused as to be self-destructive in their isolation. Jo obviously had reflexes built up through years with her husband, and the loss had hit her hard in a number of ways.

She was artful in the way she used her talents, as natural as breathing. She was never coercive when interviewing suspects and witnesses, her keen empathy so sharp and insightful that very little slipped past her. A good Guide always saw the lies and barriers people built around themselves; whether they could read what they meant or not was another thing, but they saw them with clarity like they were physical walls around a person.

Knowing there was a secret was half the battle, and the rest was finding out how to unlock it.

He doubted she’d meant anything by it, merely an added push to her words to see if she could knock her wayward Sentinel friend back into line, and nothing more. She couldn’t possibly know how effective it was.

Jo was a good detective, and a skilled Guide, and Henry had too many secrets.

Henry trailed after her into the building like a contented dog on a leash, responding to her conversation on autopilot. Near her, he felt quiet and focused. No wonder he liked working with her so very much. He had instantly trusted her, and now it all made sense. He could easily bond to her, if he let himself get close enough—which he certainly couldn’t. His barriers had been hard won, and distance was much safer than testing their strength. A bond with Jo was as good as handing her a key to the lockbox with all his secrets.

They made it to the second floor where a corpse was laid out, and keen Sentinel senses were hardly required to discern the overripe smell of a body several days dead. Henry snapped on blue gloves and set about his work.

There was no reason he couldn’t enjoy being near Jo. Her influence was light and considerate and admittedly helpful, and they made a very good team. Unless he was mistaken, he suspected she was even sharper thanks to his unintentional response to her call. He didn’t mean to call out to her, but in his excitement it escaped him.

It happened with Guides and Sentinels working in partnership. Hardly unexpected. He only had to be careful about keeping an appropriate distance.

***

Jo drove him home later that night, and he wasn’t ready to let go of the peace of her company yet. His mind, normally such a chaotic place, was quiet. She was an island in the storm of his thoughts.

On a whim, he invited her in for dinner. It meant tolerating the awkward questions that she inevitably asked about him and Abraham, but it was worth it.

He was certain that Guides never knew the effect they had on Sentinels. The way the literature described it, and from what Abigail told him, it was the opposite for Guides—when feeling the call of a Sentinel, the world was a brighter place. Guides always had a keen perception of people and their inner workings, each action and motivation as easy to navigate as a roadmap, but rarely was anything in the world as real as the people around them.

To them, a Sentinel was like fire against a dim backdrop, and a connection made the world flare to life along with their partner. In return, a calm and present Sentinel. Two halves of a coin found balance in shared traits.

But in balance, in connection, there was risk. It was the Guides who manipulated their skills, who fed off the call of desperate Sentinels in search of peace and relief from their overwrought senses, and took advantage—they terrified him. He’d been there too many times to risk letting that happen again. Abigail was an anomaly. He’d been so lucky that she’d accepted him on so many levels, and been worthy of his faith and trust. Henry might crave a Guide’s influence, but he feared the power they had over him.

But Jo—he didn’t mind Jo. She didn’t push, she didn’t bully or take, she was just…there. She was considerate and gentle.

Jo had quiet patience that fairly oozed from her. Henry wasn’t a patient man, even though he’d learned a fairly good semblance of it. With Jo, however, he could slow down the racing of his mind, and life took on a languid quality.

Sometimes, anyway. When he let himself run with his boundless enthusiasm, he trampled all over that quiet nature of hers, his own call luring her along into the loud, bright Sentinel perspective. His dinnertime conversation bubbled over with his excitement to relate story after story, and she laughed and waved her hands, telling him to take a breath.

The teasing demand made him laugh joyfully and sit back in his seat to breathe as she asked, putting himself in check.

He’d not meant to extend himself thus and call out to her. The Sentinel-Guide neurological reflex was instinctive; no one could completely control it. They all learned how to moderate themselves as the traits developed through puberty. One could keep it to a whisper underlying interactions rather than a rude shout, but it required conscientious self-awareness and practiced calm.

He’d gotten carried away, and the flush of Jo’s cheeks and the shine in her eyes gave away her heightened perception of the lights, the food, the soft spring wind on her skin, of Henry and Abe here with her. Henry took a sip of wine as he winked at her over the rim of his glass, and she shook her head with a fond smile.

He put his glass down and caught Abe watching him, eyebrow raised. He didn’t dignify it with a response. Instead he picked up a basket of bread and offered it to Jo.

By the end of the night, he didn’t want her to leave. He felt more present than he had in decades as he showed her to the door, both of them full of wine and laughter. Henry ran through the evening again in his head as he came back upstairs to the apartment.

“You zoned out, or just daydreaming about pretty detectives?”

Abe had his hands on his hips, childishly gleeful. Abe revelled in Henry’s vulnerability and weaknesses, ever so eager to remind Henry at each opportunity that he was, for all his years, only human.

“She is indeed beautiful. However, we are colleagues, nothing more.”

“Right, right. Colleagues.”

“My life is complicated enough. I’m not looking to complicate it further.”

“Oh, I dunno. Seems like the detective here has a simplifying effect on your life.”

As always, what Abe lacked in subtlety he made up for in perception—he’d seen perfectly well the influence Jo held over him when she exerted it, even when it was just a whisper.

Little wonder; Abe had grown up knowing Henry as a grounded, stable, bonded Sentinel. Only in the last thirty years had he been forced to put up with Henry and his removed, absent-minded mania and melancholy. Henry might be able to hide his inner workings from most of the world, but Abe knew him far too well to have it slide past.

“Goodnight, Abe,” he said with emphasis.

“‘Night, Henry.”

Henry left Abe to his puttering and went to ready himself for bed.

***

As the months passed, he let himself be swayed by Jo far too much. It was dangerous, and he knew it.

When he found himself sitting at his desk, fountain pen poised a half-inch above the paper in useless repose, entertaining scenarios where she knew about his immortality and it was no longer a secret between them, he knew that he was in far over his head.

Her cleverness, her centred way of looking at the world, her authoritative calm, her good humour, were all the counterweights to his weaknesses; his flighty nature, his hubris and single-mindedness, his fear. She was as true a partner as he’d had in a long time, and it went far beyond a work partnership.

What would it be like to roll over, to give in to that constant nagging pull at the back of his brain that begged to reach out to her, to completely embrace her call? Would she be surprised to know how completely she’d harnessed him, how much energy it took to keep from kneeling at her feet and letting her have complete control of him if she wished it? It terrified him how much he wanted that.

He couldn’t. He could never; his hesitation and deception would be a constant irritant between them, and if she pushed even the slightest bit he would confess all.

Still, it was a pleasant dream. His head on her knee, her fingers gliding through his hair, his mind calm as she spoke to him. Their nervous systems would settle into sympathetic harmony, his senses heightening hers, her senses calming his. Bonding could be a beautiful equilibrium.

After Nora, after the doctors, Henry had feared how easily he lost himself, how easily he fell when a Guide pushed. With Abigail, he’d relearned that bonding could be built on trust and equality, rather than a state of subjugation and surrender, but his natural ability to find that balance point had been irreparably damaged. Abigail had been a patient partner who helped him find his centre once again, but all he’d done was become dependent on her. The last thirty years had been spent clawing his way back to his own status quo, away from any Guides, away from doctors, away from friends—anyone who could threaten him.

He’d set himself a lot of rules and guidelines for his own good, but Jo was creeping over all the lines inch by inch. He hadn’t realized how far he’d let her in until she was already there.

And so, he found himself daydreaming about bonds, about friendship, about honesty and trust. Sometimes he was sure he felt her calming influence even when she wasn’t there, like a phantom hand soothing his spinning mind.

The idea of someone he could trust who knew everything about him was as intoxicating as it was frightening.