It was dusk, the forest covered by twilight hues as the sun was covered by the tree-line. Around him, others shifted nervously. For his part, Blair tried to calm his racing heart. They were all anxious and normally it would be a disaster to have so many empaths, so many potential Guides, collected together in such strenuous circumstances.
But on this night it was expected.
Blair fiddled briefly with his metal cuff, the harsh coolness a reminder of its binding power. He wouldn’t be able to read another’s emotions tonight if he tried his hardest. And that was, perhaps, the scariest part.
Still, he’d known when he’d come forward as an empath that this would be his eventual fate. Though his mother had warned him from a young age, urging him to keep his abilities under wraps, to never tell anyone… though she’d nearly disowned him when he’d made the choice at sixteen to let the world know who he really was... well Blair did not yet regret it.
Perhaps he would. It would depend on who caug If he was caught at all.
And that, Blair reasoned, was all he could hope for. If he could last the whole hunt, until dawn, without being caught. Claimed. Then he’d be free to continue on with his life.
He ignored the fact that few empaths ever made it all the way through the hunt. After all, where most empaths grew up sheltered, living cushioned lives in their family homes, Blair Sandburg had grown up traveling from country to country fending for himself in terrain sometimes much harsher than the dark forest that surrounded them.
Blair raised his face to the sky, breathing out through his nose. His hair had been pulled back so as to be out of the way and though his clothes had been mandated, cotton pants and a bare chest with only thin sandals as shoes, he felt as prepared as he could be. After all, he’d put off accepting his invitation for the annual Guide Hunt until his very last eligible year.
Twenty-nine years old and not yet bonded. Blair didn’t care that most of the others in the e far younger than him, one girl maybe even just legal. What he cared most about was his work and he’d finally been given his doctorate in anthropology. He wasn’t going to throw away his whole future for a Sentinel who may or may not let him ever leave the house again.
He would win this hunt. And then they would have to let him continue on, a free empath in a world of bonded Guides.
The gong rang loud in the still air. All at once, the waiting empaths jerked and then began to run.
Blair took off through the woods at a sprint. The empaths were all given a few minutes head start on the unbonded Sentinels, but while the empaths had suppression cuffs to block their gifts, the Sentinels still had their heightened senses. He would need every last second to get as far away from the rest as possible. Hopefully the Sentinels would decide to go for the easier prey.
He ignored, too, the fact that there were at least double the numbers of Sentinels as there were empaths. For some, he knew, this wo e their second, third, fourth hunt. It wasn’t uncommon for another Sentinel to tear into a rival and though they were all carefully being watched so that no serious injuries could occur, Sentinels had been and would continue to be knocked unconscious for the duration of a hunt only to wake up and be told they could try again next year.
It bothered Blair, somewhat, because he knew the bond was much more important for the Sentinel than it would be for him. For the Sentinel, the bond was control and balance and peace and while a bonded Guide would be secure, training and meditation could bring them just as much control as a bond could.
Of course, not many empaths bothered to learn control. They all accepted that they would be claimed and bonded.
He was far into the woods now, the trees dense and dark around him. Blair crossed his arms, feeling goose bumps rising over his bare chest. He’d been shaved as part of the preparation for the hunt and he missed his chest hair. At the vey least it could have helped keep him warm though the night.
There was a snap suddenly to his right and Blair took off. He didn’t dare look back to see if the sound had been caused by human or animal, he couldn’t risk it. The darkness was now a big hindrance to him and several times he tripped over shrubs and tree roots, but every time he got back up and kept running.
The forest was deadly silent, so much so that Blair thought he could hear his own footsteps echoing.
No, there was no echo. Someone was following him.
Blair pushed himself harder, sprinting through the trees. His arms and chest scraped against bark and branches and he knew that by morning he would be a crisscross network of scrapes, but for now he had to keep running.
Blair gasped as out of nowhere a hand materialized in the dusk and yanked him by the arm. He fell, his momentum catching with that of his captor’s. They both went down on the leaf-covered ground.
In moments, Blair was scrambling to his feet, but before he could begin sprinting away again he was being pinned by sharp nails in his arm. Blair cried out against the pain.
“Shush little pup,” a soft, female voice whispered in his ear. “I’ve got you. You’re mine now, aren’t you? My little Guide.”
Blair shook his head. “No, let me go.”
“I don’t think so,” the female laughed. She had twisted Blair’s arm behind him, such that he could neither move nor see her. “Such a pretty one, aren’t you?”
Blair shied away from his captor, but she was not deterred. A hot tongue licked his neck. “I don’t want you,” Blair said strongly.
“You will,” the Sentinel hissed. Her free hand grasped at the front of Blair’s pants. He winced, his cock soft and uninterested even as she attempted to work him beneath the cotton fabric.
“Please stop,” he begged. Tears were brimming in the corners of his eyes, but he ground his teeth so as not to let them fall. “Let me go.”
“Get off of him, Barnes,” another voice said. It was male, strong, and belongd to a large man that stepped up out of the shadows to challenge the female Sentinel.
Blair held his breath, his heart pounding in his chest so hard that he could hear it, never mind the two Sentinels.
Barnes, as the female Sentinel must be, growled low, but when she spoke her voice was sickeningly sweet. “Jim, darling, can’t you see I’m busy? This sweetheart has a bit of fire, you see. Needs a taming hand.”
“If he does it won’t be yours,” the male Sentinel, Jim, said. His eyes were bright blue, visible even in the rapidly growing darkness. “Step away from him.”
Barnes pushed Blair down and he went, his arm protesting the strain. He felt her shift, her nails detaching from his flesh. He tried to push himself up, but her foot was solid weight on his back.
Blair settled against the ground, getting ready for the chance to sprint away. He got it moments later as the male Sentinel growled and ran forward, dragging Barnes away from him. Blair was up in a flash, risking a quick glance behind him. He saw the two Sentinels rolling on the ground, but before a victor came out of the tussle he was off running.
The darkness was heavy and though his eyes had adjusted slightly, it wasn’t enough. Sentinels could easily see in full darkness and whoever won would be tracking him. He couldn’t afford to have a disadvantage.
Blair knew what he had to do. He stopped in a clearing, searching wildly around for the most suitable specimen. There, a large oak stretched high, with branches that thinned considerably as it reached towards the moon. Blair grabbed onto the lowest branch and pulled himself up.
As he climbed, he was reminded of the Korowai people with whom he studied with just a few years prior. They were a remarkable civilization of around three thousand people that lived in the forest of eastern Indonesia. Depending on an individual’s status in society, they would dwell in their tree homes either closer to or farther from the forest floor.
They had a few Sentinel and Guide airs whom dwelled at the very top branches, where they could survey all, and that was where Blair climbed now.
It was only when he his hands broke through a particularly small branch that he figured he’d climbed high enough. The Korowai people had taught him how to keep stable on even unstable tree limbs and so were any Sentinel to follow him he doubted they would make it so high up.
Blair settled with his back to the tree trunk and his eyes on the forest floor below. The tree was large enough to block the growth of other trees in its immediately vicinity and so Blair had a clear view of the ground, illuminated by the moon above.
A soft rustle was his only warning before the male Sentinel from before stepped from the bushes to the base of the tree and looked up at him with those clear blue eyes. “You’re safe.”
Blair paused and then nodded, knowing the Sentinel would be able to clearly see him. “Barnes?” he asked.
“Incapacitated,” the Sentinel, Jim he reminded himself, growled. “I would have her never participate in the Hunt again, but the handlers say that everyone gets their chance.”
“Why don’t you like her?” Blair asked, his scientific curiosity making its way through the small stab of panic that had spread the minute he’d seen the Sentinel approach. After all, Jim had yet to start climbing and he was large enough that he wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near where Blair perched.
“Alex Barnes has claimed four empaths during the Hunts,” Jim stated, his eyes now fixed off in the distance. Distaste was clear on his face, even from Blair’s height. “None have survived in her care.”
Blair gulped, his eyes closing of their own accord as he shivered. “Then I’m grateful,” he murmured. “To you for fighting her off.” After all, he would have had no recourse against the bond had she succeeded. Such was the way of Sentinels and Guides.
It was not a way Blair approved of, even if it did sometimes fascinate him from a purely observational standpoint.
Jim leaned against the base of the tree, his posture protective. He seemed at the ready to attack, and Blair frowned. “What are you doing?”
The Sentinel glanced at him briefly, and then turned his gaze back to the surroundings as if watching for danger. “You have nothing to fear from me,” he said clearly. “I would never take an unwilling empath. Nor do I like it when other Sentinels try to.”
“So you, what? You’ve done this before?” Blair asked.
Jim nodded slowly. “I’ve been a participant of the Hunt for ten years. I’ve seen… I’m a cop, usually, and some of things I see go on in these woods are worse then some of my cases. No one should be forced into this. It doesn’t make for healthy bonds, healthy relationships. I’ve seen empaths beaten and raped and Sentinels grown mad from their Guide’s distress but it’s as if they can’t make themselves stop.”
The Sentinel cut his flow of speech and Blair could tell from the tenseness of his posture that speaking so freely wasn’t common for him. His throat felt tight. “There’s always room for change,” he whispered.
“The handlers and bonded Sentinels won’t listen to me,” Jim said. “I’m not bonded. I tried once, to my ex-wife, but it didn’t stick. She wasn’t empathic enough.”
“I’m sorry,” Blair said honestly.
Jim shrugged. “It was for the best, anyway. But the others, they say that nothing can compare to a bond. That the Hunt is necessary.”
“Not the way it is,” Blair argued. “There’s… there has to be another way.”
“That’s what I said,” Jim laughed dryly. “But until I’m bonded my words fall on deaf ears.”
“So why don’t you?” Blair asked. “You said ten years, man, that’s a really long time to go without a bond.”
Jim sighed loudly. “I said I wouldn’t force a bond, and I won’t. But even though there have been some who have been willing… my Hunt nights are spent usually protecting those that aren’t. I can’t not. I can’t just bond to someone, all the while listening to someone else screaming for help.”
Blair felt stunned by the conviction and sadness in the Sentinel’s voice. Suddenly he had the overwhelming urge to get closer, to comfort this man. He dropped down a couple of branches carefully, so at least he could see Jim better. Jim didn’t make a move towards him and he felt more emboldened by it.
“So you protect them?” Blair prodded. “Until the night is over?”
“Not always,” Jim admitted. “Sometimes they want to bond, they just ran into the wrong Sentinel. I try to herd them towards others better suited. But a few just want their freedom.” He looked up at Blair. “I think you do.”
Blair huffed. “It’s not that I don’t want a true bond,” he admitted. “I just don’t want to lose my life. I just got my doctorate in anthropology. I know the stereotype for Guides and while I hate to stereotype, I do believe that they are sometimes based in fact. I couldn’t just stay at home all day waiting for my Sentinel to return.”
Jim’s face showed exactly what he thought of that idea. “While I appreciate the idea of keeping one’s Guide safe,” he began. “Having an empath by you in the middle of the field is just as important. You can’t protect you’re Guide if your dead.”
He sounded like he’d said just that before to pig-headed Sentinels and Blair felt a sort of kinship to the man. He didn’t quite know how to express that, though, so he settled for, “That’s admirable.”
“Not really,” Jim disagreed. “And I’m not the first, but there should be more of us.”
The silence stretched between them for a moment, until Blair felt obliged to ask. “And you’re never tempted? By the empaths you rescue, I mean.”
Jim’s eyes met his, the blue so striking that Blair found himself holding his breath. “Not usually,” the Sentinel murmured.
“But now?” Blair prodded, feeling daring.
Jim’s lips quirked and his lifted his chin. “You smell…” he turned away. “I was perhaps more selfish in getting you away from other Sentinels this time then I have been with empaths in the past.”
Blair let out an unsteady breath, his heartbeat racing. “Oh.”
“You don’t have to be frightened,” Jim assured. “I still would never force you, not even if you… call to me.”
Blair wondered if that call was always a two-way street. “So you’re a cop,” he said, to move the conversation along. Or maybe because he was just curious. “Where?”
“Cascade PD,” Jim answered.
“No shit, man!” Blair nearly fell from the tree he flailed so hard. “I work at Rainier.”
Jim looked at him, surprise on his face. “Really? Is that where you just graduated from?”
Blair nodded. “Well, my thesis was on a tribe in Peru, so I wasn’t in Cascade for most of the year, but yeah.”
“What tribe?” Jim asked. “I spent some time with the Chopec when I first came online.”
“That’s the way to do it,” Blair nodded. “Too many Sentinels never venture into the wild for training. But no I was studying the Bora.” He waved his hands. “They’re really fascinating. Unlike a lot of tribes, they don’t have one specific shaman. Instead, everyone can see the spirtual world. It’s all around them, see. So I was studying their genetic empathic abilities and everyone in the tribe is somewhat empathic. I was shocked when the lab tests came back. But there are no Sentinels. They learn to practice their gifts through mediation and the like.”
“Slow down Chief,” Jim laughed.
Blair felt himself blush and he shut his mouth. “Sorry. I get kind of talkative.”
“I don’t mind,” Jim said. “I like your voice, but at some point I’d like to be able to distinguish what you’re saying.”
“Really?” Blair asked. “I figured it’d bore you.”
Jim shook his head. “Like I said, I lived in Peru. The Chopec were friends with sectors of the Bora. It’s interesting to me.”
“Huh.” Blair dropped down another branch, so that he was within touching distance of Jim. Jim shifted so that they were facing each other, but he kept a reasonable distance between them. “So not just a mindless cop.”
Jim chuckled. “Not quite. I’m not saying I know much about the scientific mumbojumbo of your job, but if I can follow it I like it.”
“Cool,” Blair grinned. “I’m Blair, by the way. Dr. Blair Sandburg.” And didn’t that just feel good to say.
By the smile playing at Jim’s lips, he caught Blair’s simple joy. “Detective Jim Ellison.”
“Nice to meet you, Jim,” Blair said, holding out his hand.
Jim looked at it and winced. “You might not want to do that, Chief. My control is good, but not that good.”
“Oh,” Blair considered pulling his hand back, but something in him, the same part of him that came to front as he explored culture after culture, eating strange foods and climbing hundred-foot trees, and letting fire ants crawl over his body, and every other crazy thing he’d ever done, that part of him was saying take this leap of faith.
So he did. He jumped down to stand on the ground. “It’s okay,” he said.
Jim’s nostril’s flared and up close he was a hell of a lot bigger than Blair might have expected. It was… actually pretty arousing to think that this man, this Sentinel, could pick him up and throw him over his shoulder and not even break a sweat.
Jim was probably smelling his arousal. Blair wondered if he should be more embarrassed, but then the Sentinel reached forward and clasped one of his large hands over Blair and a full-body shiver ran through his body.
“Are you sure, Chief?” Jim asked softly.
“There are studies that suggest Sentinels and empaths both can sense higher compatibility,” Blair told him. “I trust my senses.”
Jim smiled. “Me too.”
“Just,” Blair hesitated, though he didn’t try to pull his hand back. “No matter what the government says, I won’t be a housewife or pet or whatever. I can’t.”
“I wouldn’t want you to be,” Jim stated. “We can figure it out, Blair, everything. I’m not unreasonable and you’re not the kind to roll over, I don’t think.”
“No,” Blair chuckled. “I’m not.”
Jim’s eyes crinkled in the corners. “Good.” He tugged Blair forward and Blair went, colliding softly with Jim’s chest.
Blair tilted his head up and then they were kissing. Blair’s hands came to grasp Jim’s shirt and one of Jim’s arms wrapped around him, landing with a hand to the middle of Blair’s back that pushed his closer and Blair was only to happy to go. The space between them was nonexistent and nothing else in the world mattered except that moment, that spark that said they were alive together.
Jim’s hand was on his cock and it was nothing like Barnes. It had his hips stuttering and his mind whirling and Blair whined into Jim’s mouth. Jim softened the kiss, his hand working in Blair’s pants for skin-on-skin contact.
The anthropological part of Blair’s mind was fascinated. The first stage of bonding was easier to solidify with orgasms, he knew, but already it was like he could feel Jim in the back of his mind… as if the hand that was now working him into oblivion was an effect of the bond, not a cause for it.
Blair reached down, cupping Jim’s cock to returned the favor, but Jim growled at him and he let go. The Sentinel lowered them both to the leaf-covered ground. Blair squirmed, a stick poking his back.
“Okay?” Jim asked.
“Yeah, yeah, give me a sec,” Blair shifted and the stick left. He breathed out. “I’m good.”
Jim smiled down at him and then they were kissing again, but if was less rushed, like they had time. He pulled back. “I want to do so many things with you.”
“Yeah,” Blair murmured. “Me too.”
Jim closed his eyes. “Not here,” he said. “Not where… I don’t want them to win, Blair. I want to take you on dates. Cheesy movies and romantic dinners. I want to make out on the couch like we’re teenagers.”
“We can,” Blair agreed. His heart was pounding in his chest and his erection continued to push up against his thin cotton shorts. “I’d really like that.”
“I want to take my time,” Jim stated lowly. “I wanted to bond when I can be sure we both really mean it.”
Blair opened his mouth to argue the point, except he realized he had no argument. Instead he nodded wordlessly.
Jim’s eyes were a bit sad. “Is that okay?”
“Yeah,” Blair said. He reached forward and pulled Jim down for one more kiss, before sitting up. Jim let him go. “It’s almost the end, isn’t it?”
Jim inclined his head.
Blair let out a quick breath. “Can you remember a number?”
“Yes,” Jim said.
Blair recited his phone number quickly. “When it’s all done, call me.”
“I will,” Jim promised.
And then the horn was sounding loudly all around them and Jim was closing his eyes against the pain and the handlers were coming with tranquilizers, because it was never easy to separate newly bonded Sentinels and Guides.
Blair wanted to tell them that it didn’t matter, that they weren’t really bonded yet, but before he could even open his mouth he was falling unconscious to the ground. His last image was of Jim reaching for him, his blue eyes so bright against the dawning sky.
Three Weeks Later
Blair scribbled a quick note on one of his student’s papers. Billy had some interesting ideas, but he needed to do quite a bit more research to support some of the things he claimed. Blair suggested office hours so they could talk about it, and then set the paper aside.
Being a full-time professor was a lot more tiring than he’d expected. Blair wondered if he could ever go back to teaching only part-time, but then he’d need to have a study going on and he hadn’t been interested in anything since the Hunt.
Most of his colleagues assumed by his silence that something tragic had happened in that forest, but their assumptions were likely far from the truth.
The truth was, Jim had never called. Blair had ever gone so far as to look him up and call the head of his department, but Captain Banks said that Jim was taking a short leave of absence and wouldn’t give Blair any more information.
Blair had to wonder if the connection he’d felt between them, the thing he’d thought was the start of a true bond, was just his own feelings getting in the way f logic.
There was a knock on his office door. “Come in,” Blair called. He looked up, expecting a student, only to see Jim standing in the door.
Blair blinked several times, the old saying speak of the devil and he shall appear popping into his head.
Jim cleared his throat, looking oddly nervous. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Blair said back. “Come in.”
Jim did, closing the door behind him. He sat in the chair in front of Blair’s desk, his massive form a contrast to the usual wily freshman that took up that seat. “I’m sorry I didn’t call.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” Blair said quickly, though his heart warmed a little anyway. “I understand if you… I mean it was the heat of the moment. You can’t be expected to have to follow up on it, if you don’t- that is-”
“Blair,” Jim cut him off. “I wanted to call. But for the first week or so the handlers kept me in lock up. It’s not often a Sentinel goes a decade without a bond. And then after that there was a case that…” he sighed. “Alex Barnes was a criminal. I’ve suspected for a while, but I didn’t know the extent by which she rang her trafficking.”
“Trafficking?” Blair asked, suddenly anxious.
“Empath trafficking,” Jim nodded. “I didn’t want you to get caught up in it, so I avoided you until we’d got her, but…” he smiled a bit bitterly. “She’s been behind bars for a few days and I almost called except I figured you wouldn’t appreciate it, so late.”
“Thank you for telling me,” Blair whispered. “I wanted you to call. A lot. So…”
Jim stood and came around the side of the desk before kneeling next to Blair’s chair. Blair watched him with wide eyes. “What do you say, Chief?” he asked. “Wanna go on a date with me. So I can make it up to you.”
“Only if you let me buy the popcorn,” Blair said, only half joking.
Jim’s smile then was as bright as his eyes. “Deal.”
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