Reading Time: 142 Minutes
Title: Love Comes Around
Author: Keira Marcos
Fandoms: 9-1-1, The Sentinel
Relationship: Evan “Buck” Buckley/Eddie Diaz, Background Maddie Buckley/Lou Ransone, Athena Grant/Bobby Nash
Genre: Fusion, Romance, Alternate Universe
Warnings: Explicit sex, explicit language, discussion-violence, character bashing
Word Count: 62,541
Author’s Note: Due to many changes, this is a deep AU with a different timeline. The deciding factor on that subject was Maddie Buckley coming online while in college and bonding with an Alpha Sentinel who took no shit from her parents and didn’t allow them to keep Evan. Buck is a bit softer, less reckless, and more confident in the love he has in his life because of the security Lou Ransone provided for Maddie and both of her brothers. I think Chimney Han is a loser and is canonically guilty of intimate fraud. He’s a disgusting womanizer in season 1 of the show.
Summary: Eddie Diaz comes online as a Sentinel in a combat zone. One feral combat drive, two bullet wounds, and a Silver Star later, he’s facing a Guide search in the civilian system after failing to make a match within the military ranks.
Evan Buckley has been online for a few years and recently found his calling as a firefighter. He didn’t expect to meet his Sentinel the very first time he’s selected in a search.
* * * *
Eddie rolled his shoulder, pushed aside the pain that skittered along his nerves, and took a deep breath as he pulled the keys from the ignition. His phone was vibrating where he’d tossed it in the passenger seat of the truck, his mother’s face lighting up the screen. Both of his parents were furious that he hadn’t come home to El Paso for medical leave, but the last thing he’d needed was that kind of stress plus his son lived in LA.
He took a deep breath, picked up the phone that had gone completely silent, and shoved it into his pocket as he left the truck. His mother had no sort of boundaries, evidenced by the fact that she’d called him after midnight. The whole thing was immensely frustrating, and he didn’t expect it to get any better. He knew, of course, that his mother was calling late in an attempt to catch him unaware and probably vulnerable so she could manipulate the shit out of him.
He opened the door to the back where Christopher, his four-year-old son, was dozing in his car seat. Eddie carefully released the five-point harness and picked him up. Chris slumped easily onto his good shoulder, and Eddie took a deep breath against his son’s curls. He reached into the truck and snagged Chris’ crutches and the small space-themed backpack the boy insisted on carrying everywhere.
Eddie had probably spent six months total with his son due to serving overseas, so the transition from FaceTime Dad to custodial parent had been an adjustment he wasn’t prepared for in any single way. But he’d barely been stateside three weeks when his ex-girlfriend had surprised him with a custody agreement. Though it was clear she wasn’t giving him a choice, Eddie hadn’t hesitated to accept the whole thing and hadn’t been all that surprised when Shannon had taken her terminally ill mother to Washington state, where the rest of their family was. He wasn’t sure they’d ever see Shannon again.
Shannon hadn’t contacted him at all since they’d met in a judge’s office to handle the legal issues. She’d given him the deed to the house that day. The house had belonged to her grandparents, and it had been one of the reasons she’d moved to LA when Eddie had been abruptly stationed overseas three years into his first tour of duty. She’d said that Chris deserved to stay in his home, and it had been updated to meet his needs. Eddie hadn’t been able to argue with any of that.
The doors to the Psionic Center opened before he had a chance to reach them.
“Sentinel,” one of the security guards said.
“Eddie Diaz,” Eddie said as he adjusted Chris’ weight. “I need…” He wet his lips.
“It’s clear what you need,” another voice said, and Eddie turned to find a woman dressed in scrubs headed his way. “Come, how long have you been in LA? Normally the Burton Foundation keeps us updated on newly activated Sentinels when they enter our territory.”
“I’m on medical leave from the Army,” Eddie said as he entered the building. The moment doors shut behind him, the anxious feeling he’d woken up with started to ease. “I…didn’t get a match in the DOD’s system.”
“Medical leave because you came online?” The woman questioned. “I’m Dr. Nadia Gates. You’re emoting all over the place and clearly in a great deal of pain. Care to tell me what’s going on with you physically?” She paused as she motioned him toward an elevator. “Or I can ask my Sentinel to epically violate your privacy in just a moment.”
Eddie laughed a little. “I have two bullet wounds. I haven’t taken any pain medication in three days because….” He took a deep breath against Chris’ hair, finding some small comfort in the scent of baby shampoo.
He hoped she did because he didn’t want to say it aloud in case his son wasn’t as asleep as he assumed. Eddie didn’t want Chris to think for a moment that he was suffering because of him. He hadn’t realized exactly how sensitive Chris was until his son had told him quietly that he hoped his mom would be happy now since she hadn’t ever been happy to be a mother. Eddie had been torn between fury and heartbreak over his son’s frank assessment of Shannon.
“The wounds are sealed,” Eddie said as an afterthought.
The elevator doors opened, revealing another woman in scrubs. “My Sentinel and wife, Dr. Ryley Sloan,” Nadia explained.
“Eddie Diaz,” Eddie said. “And this is Christopher.” He paused. “He has cerebral palsy.”
“Is he ill currently?” Dr. Sloan questioned. “Or have you come to us for yourself?”
“He’s not sick, but….” Eddie took a deep breath. “I need to have him evaluated by a Guide, and I’m…in a bit of trouble myself.” He flushed when both women stared pointedly at him. “I came online in a feral combat drive four weeks ago after a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. A week ago, my ex-girlfriend surrendered custody of our child to me and left. Chris told me earlier today that he hoped she would be happy now since she hated being a mother. An hour ago, he woke up screaming and…I….” Eddie took a deep breath. “He fell asleep on the way over here, but I think he was screaming because I was having a nightmare.”
“He’s a latent Guide,” Dr. Gates said and nodded. “May I?” She offered her hands.
Eddie hesitated so overtly that he was ashamed of himself because he’d come to the center for help, and he knew, instinctually, that he could trust his own kind more than he could trust anyone else on the whole damned planet. His fingers curled into Christopher’s T-shirt. “I….” He blinked back tears.
“Oh.” Dr. Gates said. “Okay, okay. Just…come with us? We’ll get you both in an isolation room and contact the Alpha pair attached to this center.”
“It’s the middle of the night,” Eddie protested hoarsely.
“Sentinel Diaz, Alpha Ransone would be furious to be allowed to sleep through the intake of a Sentinel in such overt distress,” Dr. Sloan said gently. “Will you let us take care of you? I realize you’ve not fully adjusted, and half of you is still in a combat zone. We can help you get all the way back here, all right?”
Eddie swallowed hard because that made sense. He did feel like he’d left half of himself bleeding out on the sand, surrounded by the people he’d killed to protect the members of his unit who had survived the crash. “Yeah, okay.”
Shortly, he was escorted into what amounted to a hotel suite. He put Christopher down on the bed in the smaller of the two bedrooms and sat down on the edge of it. “Latents can be really sensitive, right? I thought I wouldn’t have to worry….” He flushed because he’d stupidly assumed that his son’s disability meant he’d never come online and wouldn’t even present as latent.
“In urban environments, the roles of Sentinels and Guides vary to such a degree that a physical disability isn’t much of a deterrent,” Dr. Sloan said neutrally. “Does he have any cognitive delays?”
“Not that we’ve found,” Eddie murmured and carefully took his son’s glasses off. He put them on the nightstand and exhaled. “He’s met or exceeded all of his milestones on that front. He’s just four and can already read a few dozen words. Christopher uses full sentences and is articulate. He is probably a little too articulate for his age, but I’ve not really been around a lot of children his age, so I’m uncertain. He also speaks English and Spanish easily at the same level of proficiency. My abuela has been teaching him.”
“Would it help if I brought you a weapon?” Dr. Sloan questioned, and Eddie turned to stare at her in shock. “I mean, I won’t, but do you think it would help you?”
Eddie considered that his hand flexing as he imagined wrapping his fingers around the grip of a handgun. “I…no. I don’t think it would.”
“Good,” Dr. Sloan said. “That’s really good.” She cleared her throat. “Can you stand and walk away from your son? How much distance could you tolerate?”
He looked around the bedroom. “I…could probably leave the room as long as no one gets between him and me in the process.” Eddie stood and focused on Dr. Gates. “Why did you want to hold him?”
“Because you’re in agony, and I figured you could use the physical break from carrying him,” Nadia Gates said flatly. “Also, I would be able to discern his level of emotional distress thoroughly through physical contact.”
“I’ve been pushing the pain away,” Eddie admitted and blushed furiously when both women outright glared at him. “I know, but Christ, I couldn’t have driven safely if I hadn’t. I’ve never hurt like this before, so I can assume I’m having sensory spikes in the midst of everything else.”
“You could’ve called us, and we’d have come to you,” Nadia muttered, then inclined her head toward Christopher. “May I?”
“Yes, please. I don’t…if I’m hurting him…I don’t think….”
“You aren’t hurting him,” Sloan said. “Trust me. You are fundamentally incapable of harming your own child, Sentinel Diaz.”
“Call me Eddie, please.”
“Ryley then,” she said and motioned him toward the door. “Let’s go out into the living room area, and you can take off your shirt. I want to see these sealed wounds of yours.” She paused when he hesitated. “We can leave the door open.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why….” Eddie took a deep breath and let himself be led out of the room. He sat down in a chair at a small dining table. “I’ve spent most of his life overseas.”
“Sentinels are notoriously protective of children and most especially their own children,” Ryley said easily. “In civilian circumstances, a threat to a child is the leading cause of a Sentinel going feral. I’d straight-up murder someone to protect my child.”
Eddie noted, with some relief, that she hadn’t even blinked when she’d said it. Her certainty made him feel normal in his current circumstances. He took a deep breath and nodded before working his shirt over his head and putting it down on the table.
“I dislocated my left shoulder and took two bullets. Due to the fact that I came online as a Sentinel, they did remove the bullets. One from the left upper arm and another….” He touched the scar on his right thigh and rubbed it through his jeans. “Neither was life-threatening at the time. Both are fully sealed. I already said that…I…I’m obviously struggling.”
“I can smell that for myself,” Ryley admitted and stood. “Tell me about your pain levels.”
“Hit and miss. I woke up numb, which I was assured was normal considering the circumstances. I also suffered a Grade 1 concussion from the actual helicopter crash, so I had some headaches during the first week of recovery.” Eddie relaxed as much as he could as she started to prod and move his shoulder around. “The dislocation wasn’t so severe to have caused permanent injury, but I probably didn’t help it that I just kept going…after it happened. My CO had to tackle me when reinforcements arrived—she sedated me. I didn’t even know she was carrying a sedation kit. Though I should’ve realized she would. I was the only latent in her unit, but she’s a stickler for the details.”
Ryley nodded. “Good for her—brave, too. I’d hesitate to tackle a feral Sentinel.”
“I didn’t fight her,” Eddie said. “I’d have never hurt one of them. All I could think was that I had to keep them safe until help arrived.”
“I’ve been told that experienced military assets have a different experience in a feral state,” Ryley said. “That’s why they have a distinction between a feral episode and a feral combat drive.” She prodded his scar. “Is the thigh similar?”
“Yeah, I started seeing a physical therapist last week. She said the scar tissue is minimal, and I’ve been given some exercises to work on. I had to get a referral for a civilian since the closest base isn’t all that convenient, and childcare has been a problem. The Army wants to keep me.”
“Well, the DOD doesn’t like to part with Sentinels,” Ryley said reasonably. “Have you decided?”
“My ex-girlfriend signed over custody and surrendered all of her parental rights in the same document,” Eddie said roughly. “I can’t…leave my boy. Not again. Maybe not ever. He’ll probably need therapy due to my militant parenting.”
Ryley laughed. “You’ll calm down. The foundation can help smooth the way with the Army. How much longer do you have on your current enlistment?”
“Two years,” Eddie said. “A discharge wasn’t offered at all, you know. I know that coming online as a Sentinel or a Guide is considered a reason to sever without a fuss, but they clearly didn’t want to discuss it. Plus, I became a single parent in a matter of hours. I’d rather not have to endure a hard sell or an emotionally manipulative campaign about patriotism.”
“Well, you said you didn’t have a match in their system,” Ryley pointed out reasonably. “Which means your Guide is a civilian, and it’s rare for a civilian Guide to join the military to be with their Sentinel. That’s a calling as much as anything else.” She pulled out her cellphone, checked the screen, and nodded to herself. “Alpha Ransone is here.”
“That didn’t take long.”
“We purposefully chose this building due to its close proximity to the Alpha’s home,” Ryley said simply. “There are six prides in Los Angeles, and Alpha Ransone is not only the leader of the pride that runs the central Psionic Center for the city, but he’s also the Alpha Sentinel Prime for the Pacific West region. As such, our pride must be prepared to deal with a variety of emergencies and situations. Why did you pick this location?”
“You were the closest facility on Google maps,” Eddie said frankly and flushed when she laughed. “I know next to nothing about any of this. I have the minimal amount of training the Army offered me at enlistment, and that’s it. My parents put me in public school and refused all resources the Burton Foundation offered when I was a minor. They were livid when I joined the Army, and they’ve been berating me from El Paso for the last two weeks for being here instead of there. I have some training manuals from the DOD, and they expect me to report to Fort Irwin as soon as I’m cleared medically for evaluation and more training.”
“You haven’t told anyone you plan to sever officially,” Ryley said. “Well, you can hide behind the foundation’s skirt on that issue. We have lawyers coming out the wazoo. In fact, one of our Alpha’s brothers-in-law is the lawyer for his personal pride and handles the legal issues for the Burton Foundation in our region as a result.”
“How does pride membership get decided?”
“In some areas, merely geography,” Ryley said. “In a large city like LA, it’s a mixed bag. Strength, politics, bonds, and even family connections can come into play. Families are rarely separated if they are in close proximity. As a result, when Alpha Ransone bonded with his Guide, he took both of her brothers into his family and into his pride. The lawyer is a mundane, but that doesn’t matter.
“You don’t have a family pride, obviously, so you’ll probably end up folded into the pride of your Guide unless you find them offensive in some way. It happens. Instincts can be heavy handed. The Burton Foundation will conduct a nationwide search for a Guide on your behalf. The fact that you’ve stayed in LA means your Guide could be local.”
“I came here for my son,” Eddie said.
“Yes, but you could’ve easily left once you gained physical custody of him,” Ryley said. “Your parents certainly expected it. Sometimes Sentinels are compelled to move or travel to places where they have no roots at all, and often they find their Guides when they do.”
Eddie nodded and put his shirt back on when she offered it to him. “I’m not in agony.”
“You are definitely in agony,” Dr. Gates muttered as she gently closed the door behind her. “Your whole damn aura is radiating with it.” She flicked a hand at him with a frown. “Your son is a latent Guide, as you already know. He’s sensitive and empathetic, but not to a detrimental degree. I suspect he’ll come online when he’s needed as an adult.” She sat down at the table. “So, two bullets.”
“There is some lingering muscle pain,” Eddie admitted. “Made worse by the physical care my son requires. My ex…just didn’t care about any of that. When I first came here, I was startled and relieved that she offered me her guest room. Now, I know she was already preparing to leave. She left me our son, the house, and a custody agreement.
“I don’t know how to handle this situation. I’m worried about him being traumatized by her abandonment. I’m essentially a stranger to my own child. I spoke with him at least twice a week over the last two years. We tried when he was smaller, but he was easily distracted and didn’t engage.” He took a deep breath. “What about the screaming?”
“What were you dreaming about?” Dr. Gates questioned.
“Being shot down, the helicopter…we slammed into the ground.” Eddie wet his lips. “In the dream, I was struggling to get out of it and pull one of my team with me. I woke up because Chris was screaming. I asked him if he had a bad dream, and he said he didn’t know.”
“Since Christopher is latent, he wouldn’t have shared the dream with you,” Dr. Gates said gently. “At most, he was responding to your fear and desperation during the course of the dream. At his age, and because of his latency, Christopher won’t remember the emotions he’s exposed to when he’s asleep. When he’s awake, the psionic plane moves around him in such a fashion that the most he gets are wispy little brushes of other’s very strong emotions.”
“So, if he noticed that his mother…he said he hoped she’d be happy not being a mother,” Eddie explained. “She put on a good front, to me. Shannon never seemed all that stressed or concerned when we spoke on the phone. She used to joke that I was the perfect co-parent because I paid most of the bills and didn’t get in the way or leave a mess for her to clean up.”
“But?” Ryley questioned.
“How the hell could she not have been a stressed-out mess?” Eddie questioned roughly. “She worked full time as a nurse, used her mother for childcare, and was the primary parent for a physically disabled child.” He waved a hand in frustration. “Plus, my parents would breeze into town at least once a quarter to make her life hell. Last year, she started refusing visits on the grounds that they were verbally abusive to her. She threatened to involve a lawyer if they didn’t back off, so they did. I guess they didn’t want to have it documented in court that they were abusive.”
“Behaving habitually in such a fashion in front of a minor latent Guide could lead to severe legal ramifications even if the child doesn’t understand the context or the content of the conversation,” Ryley said. “You’ll want to monitor their interactions with your son if you allow them to visit going forward.”
“I haven’t told them that Shannon left because I know they’d have already invaded my house,” Eddie said roughly. “I can’t take anything but over-the-counter medication at this point. And I don’t want to let the pain surface if Christopher is likely to realize I’m hurting a lot.”
There was a sharp knock on the door, and Ryley stood. Eddie watched his fellow Sentinel cross the room and open the door to allow a man a bit taller than himself into the room.
“Alpha Louis Ransone, this is Eddie Diaz. US Army, online for four weeks.”
“Please stay seated, Sentinel Diaz,” Ransone said when Eddie started to leave the chair. “Tell me what you need.”
“I don’t know,” Eddie admitted. “I guess we should start with testing, right? I was told the DOD would forward my profile and blood work to the Burton Foundation, but no one has contacted me about that, so…I don’t know where it is in the process.”
“I can check on that and push it along if they’re dragging their feet,” Ryley said and left the table. “I’ll get that started now. It shouldn’t take more than a few hours as it’ll have been flagged for a civilian search since you’ve already exhausted their system. Did you get any matches?”
“Two, but they were….” Eddie made a face and averted his gaze.
“They were what?” Ransone questioned.
“The percentages were high, and it was clear I was expected to pick one of them. The first was eager to bond, and her sexual interest was overt. When I told her I had a four-year-old son, she said that was good because she didn’t like kids and wouldn’t be having any, so at least I wouldn’t expect her to breed. Being child-free is a reasonable choice, but there’s no way I’d have a Guide who didn’t like kids, for fuck’s sake. She was surprised by the rejection. The second was male, and the meeting went well despite the fact that I was in a hospital bed.
“I put the kid issue upfront, and he didn’t seem concerned about the prospect. I told him I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in the Army long-term. He was an officer and planned to make a career of it. He said our match wasn’t good enough for him to consider changing his plans, and I agreed.” Eddie shrugged. “I barely remember what they looked like at this point, which I think says a lot about the level of compatibility I had with either of them.”
“Granted,” Ransone said roughly. “Get some sleep, Sentinel Diaz. When you wake up, you’ll get a full health workup, and we’ll arrange for your physical therapist to visit you here. We’ll get you registered in the civilian system, and you’ll get a visit from the psychologist we have on staff.”
“Why a psychologist?” Eddie questioned. “The Army signed off on a mental health review shortly after I came home.”
“Sentinels aren’t prone to PTSD,” Ransone said. “They looked for that, confirmed that you won’t suffer any long-term mental damage from your traumatic onlining, and moved on. They didn’t include any information about your personality or preferences in the Guide search they did for you. The US government and, honestly, most governments around the world only use genetic testing to determine compatibility. That’s why you were presented with two choices that were fundamentally wrong for you.”
“Yeah, okay,” Eddie said. “I need a Guide who’ll…be a fit for me and my son, Alpha Ransone.”
Ransone’s face softened. “Of course you do.”
Evan Buckley was going to be late for work, and there was nothing for it. He’d gotten a phone call in the middle of the night and had ended up going to his brother-in-law’s house because his sister was due any day with their third child, and Lou hadn’t wanted to leave Maddie alone. Then he’d ended up agreeing to drop his niece, Sadie, off at school, which was in the opposite direction of the firehouse. He’d only been on the job for six months; fortunately, his captain was a fellow Guide and bonded to the Beta Sentinel of their pride.
Buck parked, dragged his bag out of the Jeep, and trotted into the 118 just seventeen minutes late. “Sorry! Sadie wanted her hair braided!”
Bobby laughed from where he was leaning on the railing. “I got a call from Lou this morning—heard they had a spot of trouble show up at the center around one this morning.”
“Yeah, poor guy,” Buck said as he darted off toward the locker room. “I don’t know the details, but it’s put me on the schedule for directed meditation tomorrow. Since all the staff are shifting around to take care of him.”
“Me, too,” Bobby called after him, and Buck laughed.
Bobby hated leading meditation classes and normally passed those off as much as he could to anyone else in the pride. He changed as quickly as he could and trotted up the stairs where the rest of the shift were congregated and waiting for food.
“Come roll the burritos,” Bobby ordered.
Buck washed his hands and started that work easily enough. “Lou didn’t come home at all, so I’m not sure how bad things are.”
“If it were bad, I’d have been called in to help with shielding,” Bobby pointed out reasonably. “They have three pairs in seclusion right now, which is a factor as well. It’s the lack of training and the surprise arrival that’s thrown everyone for a loop.”
Buck huffed. “It should be illegal for parents to deny their latent children training.”
“Free will’s a thing,” Chim called out from the sofa.
“So is felony child abuse,” Buck snarked back and raised an eyebrow when the older man huffed at him. “It’s abusive to leave latents unprepared for what could happen to them. There’s a reason why the suicide rate is so fucking high amongst newly online Guides who received zero damn training.” He returned his attention to his task when Bobby cleared his throat.
He didn’t regret going to the academy and coming to the 118 because Bobby didn’t have anyone from the pride on the job with him, and no one had been thrilled with that. But he wasn’t fond of Chimney Han. The man had set his teeth on edge from practically the start. He loved being a firefighter, and it felt like a profound calling for him. Meeting Bobby Nash when he’d come to LA for a Guide search had been sort of a turning point for Buck, who’d been meandering through life and relationships. Bobby had bonded with Athena Grant, who’d come online unexpectedly during a home invasion.
The bonding between Bobby and Athena eventually led to Athena’s divorce and the dissolution of Bobby’s domestic partnership. Bobby and Marcy had been best friends who’d chosen to have children together. The whole situation had been far more civilized than Buck would’ve thought possible. The best part, of course, had been the kids. The pride had gone from just four kids to eight, with just a single bond forming.
Buck was a sucker for kids, so he’d filled up his free time with the eight of them and not looked back as romantic relationships had started to really weigh on him empathically. He kept sex casual and never discussed that part of his life with anyone. He knew Maddie didn’t approve, but Lou understood. He started on the last of the breakfast burritos as Bobby removed a large pan of hashbrowns from the oven and added the last batch he’d made to it.
“Don’t forget you promised Brooke you’d show up for her game on Friday night,” Bobby said. “Harry wants to go, but May has a sleepover.”
“I put it on my schedule,” Buck said. “I can pick up Harry after I get Robbie from school. Then I’ll drop them both off at your house because Marcy has work. I mean, that’s the plan, but I’m on call for conservatorship duties all four days that we’re off. I told them all that I might get called away, and it would mean an early drop-off. They were cool about it.”
“I can’t decide if Buck’s Athena and Bobby’s kid or Marcy and Bobby’s kid,” Hen said off-hand from her place at the table.
“He’s my kid—got the court papers and a pair of in-laws who hate me to prove it.”
Buck looked over his shoulder and grinned at his brother-in-law. “Lou, hey. What’s up?”
“A timeshare, apparently,” Lou said and raised an eyebrow at Bobby, who just shrugged in response. “I’m going to have to pull you in, Evan.”
Buck frowned and turned to look at the Alpha wide-eyed. “What? Why? My last evals were perfect. I haven’t had an empathic spike in years.”
“Our intake from last night—we’ve run the blood work done by the DOD against our system. He’s got six matches, and all but one is en route.” Lou paused. “You’re the last to be notified. We’re in the psych eval stage with him, but all of his potential matches need to be prepped for meetings due to his circumstances, which I can’t discuss here.”
“I’ll call in a replacement,” Bobby said and patted Buck’s shoulder. “Relax, Buck.”
Buck blew out a breath and took a deep breath. “I’ve never had a match before—that’s all.”
“I had over a dozen before I finally matched with Athena,” Bobby said. “Marcy said I was picky, but you know it’s more than that.”
“Aren’t you little old not to have had at least one match?” Chim questioned in confusion.
“No, he isn’t,” Lou said and inclined his head toward the stairs when Buck didn’t start moving. “Evan’s just twenty-four, and he’s only been online for three years. Plenty of Guides much older have never had a match at all.”
Buck huffed a little but snagged a burrito from the pile and trotted off to change clothes again. “I just got dressed. I’ve been running around like crazy all morning, Lou.”
“You’re the one that got talked into a double French braid,” Lou called after him.
He was half dressed again when Lou entered the locker room eating a burrito. “I can meet you there, you know.”
“If I were going to let you drive, I’d have just called you,” Lou said reasonably and smiled when Buck groaned. “Maddie insisted, and she’s too pregnant to argue with.”
“Granted,” Buck said with a huff. “I’m surprised you’ve already run his search in the system.”
“The DOD responded to our request within thirty minutes,” Lou said. “The Army wants him bonded and back on duty within six months. They have no clue he intends to sever. I already have Daniel researching and preparing for the whole process.”
“They can’t make him stay,” Buck said roughly. “Right?”
“No, they can’t, but the military doesn’t like to part with soldiers of this man’s caliber. He came online in defense of his unit after a helicopter crash, killed over a dozen insurgents, took two bullets, and didn’t stop until his CO sedated him. They awarded him a Silver Star before the surgical glue wore off his wounds. He’s strong, brave, dedicated, and patriotic as hell. But what they didn’t account for is his immense paternal attachment. He has a four-year-old son. The moment the Sentinel in him imprinted on the boy, any chance the Army had of returning him to a war zone evaporated.”
“How’s the wife handling this?” Buck asked curiously as he tied his boots.
“No wife,” Lou said and finished off his burrito as he looked over his shoulder. “The rest can wait. You work with some nosy people.”
“Bobby collects them,” Buck said. “It’s a real problem. I tried to tell Athena about him, but she looked at me like I was crazy.”
“She knows what kind of Guide she bonded with,” Lou said in amusement. “Bobby Nash is a full-blown nest builder and has no shame for it. How else do you think he manages to get his ex-partner, his Sentinel’s ex-husband, and all four of their kids to sit down at the same table for dinner twice a month?”
“Michael brought a date last week,” Buck tattled as Lou guided him out of the locker room. “None of us like him. He’s an accountant, and Michael can do better. Bobby already told him about himself. Did you leave Asa with Maddie? Should we stop and get him? His terrible twos might be the death of us.”
“Your precious and amazing nephew is in the pride creche, and I’ll pick him up after I get you settled.”
“He’s a demon,” Buck said seriously. “I love him, of course. But he woke me up this morning by jumping on my chest. Sadie let him, which means she’s a die-hard enabler already. This isn’t going to go well. I hope this last one doesn’t take after them.”
“I blame the Buckley genetics,” Lou admitted and shrugged when Buck huffed. “You know what fresh hell you three came from.”
Buck laughed as he slid into the passenger seat. In truth, he really didn’t remember much about his parents despite the fact that he’d lived with them until he was twelve. He figured that spoke to how little they had to do with him. Lou had bonded with Maddie shortly after she came online and, once introduced to their parents, had turned around and sued them for custody of their third child. It had been quite a scandal since it had highlighted just how inattentive the local pride had been regarding the Buckley family.
Daniel had already been in law school at that point, but he’d come to LA as soon he’d graduated. None of them had anything to do with their biological parents, who’d eventually confessed to only having Evan to act as a bone marrow donor for Daniel. Maddie had known, but she’d never told either of her brothers for fear of hurting them with it.
Buck pulled his cellphone from his pocket and answered the FaceTime call from Maddie. “Hey.”
“Hey yourself,” Maddie said cheerfully. “I’m sorry I can’t be with you today, but everything will be fine. The process is very refined, and everyone involved will keep it professional and safe for you. It’s okay to be disappointed by the whole thing if it doesn’t work out. There is no guarantee that any of the six will be the one, so the Sentinel could have a very frustrating day. He’s already had to reject two guides from the military search. I’ve been reviewing his results as they’re put into the system since I can’t be there. Ryley thinks he’s sweet.”
Sweet didn’t sound half-bad unless one considered the source. “Ryley’s spirit animal is a honey badger.”
Maddie laughed, shifted slightly, and winced a little. “I know. Can you just imagine? But seriously—don’t stress about it and be yourself. If this guy isn’t a match for you, then there will be plenty of other opportunities for you. You’re a level six, after all.”
“Yeah, a level six who’s never gotten a single match before today,” Buck said. “Chimney acted like he was surprised by that information when I’ve discussed it in front of him at least twice. He just likes to dig at me whenever he can without getting in trouble. He’s been a real jerk since I told him off for trying to slut shame me. He has no idea how often I get laid. He just made assumptions based on my looks and because I’m a Guide. I know Bobby puts up with him because the previous captain for A shift was a complete bastard, but there’s gotta be a limit on it. His partner is getting ready to retire, but Hen’s doing the work for paramedic and is close to certification.
“I almost thanked her for taking one for the team even though I won’t have enough time on the job to do that certification for a while. It seemed like a looming threat because Guides are sort of prodded toward that path in the LAFD on the regular.”
Maddie sighed. “Did you want me to talk to Bobby?”
“No, I can handle myself,” Buck muttered. “Besides, Chim’s just jealous because I’m Bobby’s favorite. Plus, whenever I get hit on at a scene, he acts like it’s the worst thing that could possibly happen. Though, last week, when I threw away two phone numbers in front of him in the loft—he acted like I’d committed some kind of sin. But seriously, I’ve zero interest in badge and ladder groupies.” He slouched down in the seat as Lou parked. “We’re here. Thanks for the distraction.”
“You’re welcome. Also, Lou, I’m in labor.”
“What?” Lou demanded. “Maddie!”
“Relax, the contractions are thirty minutes apart,” she said huffily. “Just come home when you get Evan settled. I’ve got my bag ready by the door. I’ll call an ambulance if my water breaks before you get here.”
Buck grabbed his bag from the back seat and slid out of the truck, still holding his phone. “Consider me settled, for fuck’s sake. Go home immediately.” Lou just glared at him then backed out of the parking spot as soon as Buck shut the door. He focused on his sister. “Seriously. Dude.”
“Don’t call me dude,” Maddie ordered and laughed when Buck rolled his eyes. “Go in and surrender to the process. It’ll be fine, and your newest nephew will be perfectly okay in the meantime. I probably won’t even give birth until sometime tomorrow. Nothing feels urgent.”
“Tell Lou I’ll take Asa with me if I get to leave today…and if not me, then Daniel,” Buck said. “We’ll arrange Sadie’s pick up from school as well.”
“Bring them both home, please. They’ll be more comfortable with their own things,” Maddie said and winced. “Gah, contractions are awful.”
Buck checked his watch. “Maddie Buckley Ransone, you great big liar! That’s the second time you’ve made that face since this call started, and we haven’t even been talking for ten minutes. There’s no way your contractions are thirty minutes apart.”
“Oh.” She frowned and looked away from the phone briefly. “You’re right. Well, maybe it’ll be today then. Lou will text you.”
Buck blinked when the FaceTime call ended and frowned. “For fuck’s sake.” He fired off a text to Lou just in case Maddie neglected to tell him how close her contractions were and turned to face the building. A pair of security guards were staring at him from the lobby. He waved at them, and one of the men pushed through the doors and headed toward him.
“Everything okay, Guide Buckley?”
“Just been a day already,” Buck said. “Maddie’s in labor, so the Alpha’s going to be out of pocket for a while.” He grimaced as he focused on the doors. “Not a great time for her to pop out the newest menace to society the two of them have created. How’s everything going?”
“One Guide is flying in from Texas, and there’s another on a plane from New York. The others are driving. You’re the first to arrive, of course. The ones that are basically local are still an hour or more out in traffic.”
Buck let himself be herded into the building and relaxed as soon as he was behind the shut doors. There were heavily shielded areas in the place, but the entire construction was housed inside a Faraday cage, which provided a nice buffer. Normally, when he entered the resource center that existed as the central hub for the whole city, Buck would trot off to his workspace and get ready for whatever tasks he’d been assigned.
Before the academy, he’d worked for the Burton Foundation full-time as an instructor and Guide conservator. He’d been very good at the job, but it hadn’t been all that fulfilling. It certainly hadn’t come to be a calling for him, and that mattered a lot when it came to being online. Everything about being a first responder spoke to him on a fundamental level. He hoped that whomever his Sentinel turned out to be, that bonding wouldn’t be difficult to stay on the job. Pairs didn’t always work together, and that was something he was prepared for. But he did think he’d work better with a real partner, and no one but a Sentinel would ever be a genuine partner to him.
Nadia Gates was waiting for him in the central hall where large meetings were held when Lou felt the need to make himself clear to every single damn pride in LA. There were only 122 bonded pairs in LA, but the number of unbonded Guides was double that, depending on the time of the year. While genetic testing and psychological evaluation created better matches—sometimes an old-fashioned meet and greet yielded unexpected results, so Lou hosted those twice a year for the entire region.
“Hey,” Nadia said and yawned. “How are you?”
“Better than you, apparently. You look exhausted.” Buck put his bag down on a sofa and sat when she directed him. “Surely someone else could do my assessment so you can take a nap.”
“No, I want to handle yours,” Nadia said and sat down with a tablet. “You’re the easiest at any rate because you keep your evals current, and Lou made sure you had the best possible training from the very start.”
“Well, that’s because he thought my parents’ neglect of me would make me go dormant,” Buck said easily and shrugged when she scowled. “I’m not saying he would’ve gone anything less than hardcore on teaching me, but he started early and allowed no one to argue with him because of Margaret and Phillip. They didn’t love me and didn’t pretend to. I think I always knew, too. I don’t remember much about them anymore except that.”
“The psionic plane is doing you a favor,” Nadia said and tucked her legs up under her on the couch. “Let’s go over your basics. Just make sure there are no errors or need for updates. Twenty-four years old, 6’2, 172 pounds, no allergies, your certification for Conservatorship is still current, you can lead up to twenty Guides in directed meditation, associates degree in psionic management, and you’re working on a BS in fire science with online classes.”
“I’m pushing around 180 on weight right now,” Buck said. “I bulked a little leading up to the academy and put on muscle during strength training, so I could get the necessary certifications for urban SAR. Bobby wanted me to have all I could on deck when I graduated. I’m pursuing several more certifications on the side. Specifically, I’d like to get certified by FEMA for disaster management. It seems important.”
Nadia nodded. “Focus on it, then. I’ve never had my instincts lead me astray.”
“I recently passed the certification process for SARTECH II, which caught more attention than I wanted since I’m still probationary. The chief asked me if I wanted to move to a SAR heavy station, but I declined. Regardless, the rest of that is accurate. I’ve been throwing myself at education opportunities to avoid a relationship. When I can’t do that, I borrow kids and take them places.” Buck waved a hand when she laughed. “With Bobby and Athena in the pride—I’ve got eight to choose from, and I’m trying to recruit one of my co-worker’s kids to my posse, too. He’s great. Pretty soon, I’ll have enough for a strike force, then everyone at Dave & Buster’s will have to watch out.”
Nadia laughed. “You’re ridiculous.” She cleared her throat. “So, here’s the politics of the situation—this Sentinel is easily a level six and, in the right circumstances, could rise to the role of pride leader. He relaxed under Lou’s direction with no apparent hesitation, so I don’t think he’s got an overt Alpha instinct, but it could come to bear in the right circumstances. It’s very easy to see why the Army wants to keep him.
“In truth, Lou would rather not part with him either. The Sentinel owns a house right smack dab in the middle of our pride territory, which is about halfway between Lou and Athena. He’s positioned very well to act as the pride Enforcer, something we haven’t had since Booker went down in the line of duty two years ago.”
“You think Lou will prod him toward the LAPD?” Buck questioned and made a face.
“No, Lou will let the Sentinel make his own choices on that front. It’s important for an Enforcer to be comfortable and at ease with all of his own personal choices so he can focus his attention outward to protect our territory and the city as a whole. There are only two other Enforcers in LA, and for our size, that’s a problem.”
“The Guides coming from out of state…is Lou worried he’d follow one home, then?”
“I don’t think so,” Nadia admitted. “The Sentinel has some family here, and he clearly doesn’t have any interest in returning to his maternal family in El Paso. Now, to avoid the accusation of favoritism, which we knew could be a problem when it comes to your participation in the process, he won’t be told that you’re the Alpha’s brother-in-law. He’ll get basic information on all six Guides, but first names only in case he’s heard more than he realizes.”
“I wouldn’t accept a poor match, Nadia. Not even to make the pride stronger,” Buck said quietly. “Lou knows that. He’d also never ask that from anyone.”
“I agree, but there are others who wouldn’t know that and wouldn’t believe it without proof. As I said, the Army wants the man back, and he’s worried enough about it that he hasn’t outright told them he wants to sever. I think he’s planning to use his civilian Guide as the ultimate reason. The real reason is his son, but he’ll deflect any attention he can from that, and I don’t blame him.”
“No, I mean, I don’t blame him either. There are elements in the government who work to neutralize personal conflicts for online Sentinels, no matter how illegal and morally bankrupt that is. Are you telling all of the potentials that? Because you should. They’ll know they need to be prepared for whatever discussion that might come out of it.”
“Yes, of course.” Nadia cleared her throat and focused on the iPad. “You’re still identifying as pansexual? You were pretty fluid about it in the past, so this is just a verification.”
“Yeah, it’s the best fit,” Buck agreed and rubbed his knee as he considered the situation he could be facing. “Can I ask how he’s identified?”
Nadia wet her lips. “Demisexual, which I admit, was a first for me. Most Sentinels tend to identify as bisexual. With that on the table for him, he’ll probably not want to bond sexually, and it might not ever be anything more than a platonic relationship for him. Demisexuality is as much a spectrum as anything else. He did say that he didn’t need to be in love to feel sexual attraction, but it has taken time in the past for genuine desire to surface, even within deeply intimate friendships. That’s something for you to keep in mind as well. I know you want to build a family with your Sentinel, Evan, and if you match with this Sentinel, that might not be in the cards.”
“I can have one outside of the bond,” Buck said easily, but he hated the idea of it. He was exposed, much too often, to how great and rewarding a romantic relationship could be between Sentinel and Guide to want anything else for himself. “And I would. No worries on that front.”
“I can tell how much you don’t want that,” Nadia pointed out dryly.
“I mean, sure, it’s not ideal. If the match is great, then I can’t deny myself a bond,” Buck said easily. “Not even a platonic one. Demisexual isn’t a stumbling block, nor do I see it as a challenge of some sort. It isn’t a deal breather either. Hell, Nadia, a sexual and romantic relationship is never a guarantee between a Sentinel and Guide—not even a perfect match. He is what he is, and I can accept that.”
Her mouth quirked gently, and Buck leaned forward. “Well.”
“Well, what?” Buck questioned.
“All six of the Sentinel’s matches are over ninety-five percent. Do you want to know your percentage? Not everyone wants to know before a meeting.”
Buck considered that. “Will he be told?”
“He hasn’t decided what he wants on that front yet. He didn’t have a great experience in the Army since they threw both potentials at him while he was still in bed recovering from being shot twice in combat.” She focused once more on the tablet. “To confirm, you aren’t willing to join the military, correct?”
“No, I can’t imagine it,” Buck said. “The idea of having to hurt someone else even to defend myself is stomach turning. What’s my percentage?”
Buck felt the blood drain from his face. “But that’s…the highest percentage possible.”
“Since the Burton Foundation stopped declaring pairings perfect based merely on genetics and psionic impressions, it is the highest distinction offered,” Nadia agreed. “These days, they only acknowledge a perfect pairing after the fact. It’s a political game of sorts, but it also removed some of the pressure in the meet and greet process for many since the best matches have always been made when instinct and personality are taken into consideration.”
Buck nodded. “I’ll keep my expectations in check, Nadia. You said he had a child?”
“A four-year-old.” Nadia pressed her lips together. “He’s requested that all of the potentials be told this in advance, so don’t be offended. The child has cerebral palsy, and the Sentinel wants it to be clear that he’ll not tolerate any discussion of his son being put in a long-term care facility. The boy is also a latent Guide and has demonstrated empathic sensitivity. He told Lou that he needed a Guide that is right for him and his son.”
Buck was utterly charmed. “Well, you know I love kids. I hate that he’s worried about his son being…a problem for a potential Guide. Did that happen with the matches he had in the Army?”
“One was apparently child-free and told him she hated kids then was offended that he declined to bond with her,” Nadia said and shrugged when Buck gaped. “Right? Who just admits to a parent that they hate kids? Seriously? I wouldn’t even bang someone who hated kids.”
“Well, that’s because they surely have other horrible flaws they’re hiding,” Buck said and grinned when she laughed. “Listen, go take a nap. I’ll settle down in a meditation room and get myself sorted for the whole thing. How long will it take for it all to start?”
“We have another few hours before the one from New York lands. He’ll be the last. We’ll start meetings in the morning,” Nadia said and stood. “The others are…very close in the percentages, Buck.”
“Relax, Nadia, I don’t expect to be chosen my first go at this,” Buck said easily. “If he sticks around, making a new friend would be cool. Plus, maybe he’ll let me add his kid to my Dave & Buster’s campaign.”
“I’d like to know why I’m never invited,” Nadia muttered and frowned at him before stalking off, muttering under her breath about Buck’s favoritism.
Buck grabbed his bag and found an empty meditation room to claim, which he did through the registration system on his phone and settled down to get his head in the right place mentally. Of course, he’d barely gotten his shoes off before he got a text message.
Lou: Your sister gave birth in my brand-new car. They’re both fine. The car is a complete loss. I’ll never be able to sit in it again. We’re in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Buck gaped at his phone for a second in stunned silence. Then another message popped into place with a picture of Maddie holding a baby wrapped in what looked like the shirt Lou had been wearing when he’d picked Buck up at the station.
Lou: Zachery Booker Ransone. I didn’t like that car anyways.
Bobby: Don’t worry—they’re both in great shape. Your sister is a Spartan.
Buck took a deep breath, sent off replies, and set his phone aside. He needed to clear his head, and thinking about his sister giving birth in the backseat of a car wasn’t going to help with that. He stilled the urge to go to the creche in the building and check on the one nibling he had direct access to. Asa was just two, and at his birth, Maddie and Lou had declared they were done. A third pregnancy had been a surprise, but he knew that they were both happy to have another despite their plans.
There was a knock on the door.
Daniel stuck his head in. “She gave birth in the back of the fucking car.”
“I got a text,” Buck said in amusement. “Bobby took care of the transport. He says they’re both fine. You should probably go down there and pat Lou. He’s gotta be a wreck. I think he might have delivered the baby. Also, probably work on replacing his car since Lou will never be able to drive it again. Maddie would’ve lost blood…the smell will always linger.”
“Yeah, I’ll take care of everything,” Daniel said. “I heard about your potential match. I’m handling the Sentinel’s severance from the Army, so I spoke with him about an hour ago. He’s…great, actually. He is clearly stressed but doing his best for his kid. I won’t have to, but I would totally sue the shit out of the DOD for him.”
Buck grinned. “Good. I hope he gets a match today.”
Daniel paused and leaned on the door frame. “But you don’t think it will be you?”
“I’d love a bond, of course, but I’m not going to get worked up at this stage,” Buck said. “It wouldn’t be healthy for me, and the last thing I need to do is have some kind of blowout due to disappointment. Maddie and Lou have enough on their plate.”
“Speaking of, I’m taking Asa with me when I leave to pick up Sadie,” Daniel said and checked his watch. “I’ll take them both to visit so they can meet Zac, then we’ll stay at Lou’s to keep the stress low. Maddie says Sadie has been getting a little bent lately about the baby’s room.”
“She quizzed Lou for a half-hour about the safety of the crib,” Buck reported and grinned when Daniel laughed. “I don’t think he expected to father a near damn replica of himself. She went around the house and checked the childproof locks and tried to get Asa to break into things to see how secure it all really was. He managed to get two cabinets of chemicals open, which freaked Maddie out. So, I had to replace the child locks on all the lower cabinets as a result.”
Daniel nodded. “Okay, well. I’ll take care of the kids, and you focus on finding your chi.”
“I know exactly where my chi is,” Buck said in amusement and relaxed back on his hands when Daniel laughed and pulled the door shut behind him.
* * * *
Eddie looked up the tablet he’d been given and focused on his son, who was seated at the table with a coloring book and crayons. “Do you like the book Dr. Sloan brought you?”
“It’s nice,” Chris said. “I’m coloring the Hulk. Can we go home?”
Eddie stood from the couch and walked across the room to sit with Chris. “Maybe tomorrow.” He sat down. “I know it’s weird being here, but they’re helping me.”
“Do you have to get a Guide?”
“No,” Eddie murmured. “It would be nice, though. A Guide would be a partner for me—I’d help them, and they’d help me.”
“How does a Sentinel help a Guide?”
“Sentinels have a lot of psionic energy,” Eddie said and put the tablet down on the table. “We sort of throw it off without even trying, and if I were bonded, my Guide would be able to gather and use that energy to shield their mind from empathic impressions. It would make things easier for them. They’d also use that energy to shelter my senses, so I don’t have to work so hard to do it on my own.”
“That sounds nice.” Chris focused on his coloring with a frown.
“What’s going on, mijo?”
“What if they don’t want me?” Chris flushed. “Like Mommy.”
“I….” Eddie took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “I asked that Dr. Sloan help me find a Guide that would be the best choice for you and me, Chris. We’re a team, okay?”
“Even if that means no Guide?”
“Even then,” Eddie promised.
“I want you to have a partner,” Chris said wistfully. “I hope they like me, too.”
Eddie swallowed painfully and nodded. A soft knock on the door made him leave the table and the iPad behind. He opened it and found Ryley Sloan standing in the hallway. She inclined her head toward the hall, and he left the suite, pulling the door shut behind him.
“You heard that?”
“Yeah, it’s a one-way sound buffer, so we’ll know if you’re in trouble, but you aren’t bombarded by the sounds of the building being used as it’s meant to be used,” Ryley said. “All but one candidate is here, and none have expressed issues with you being a single parent. I think you need to do this in two stages.”
“You’ll meet with all six, and if any interest you—introduce them to your son before making a decision. If the answer is no, make sure your son believes it to be your choice and not the Guide’s,” Ryley said. “I think it’ll help you make the best possible decision for your family, Eddie. His mother’s abandonment is impacting him far more than he’s willing to speak to. I’ve asked Nadia to find a child psychologist that can help him, so you’ll get some recommendations shortly. In all honesty, you need a highly trained Guide with skills that exceed the established mandate.”
“Does any of the six meet that burden?” Eddie asked.
“Just one, and we can’t tell you which,” Ryley admitted. “I think any of them would seek out additional training, so no worries on that front. You just need to be prepared for a bit of a learning curve if it works out that way.”
“I’m willing to accept a decent match to ensure Chris, and I meet the right person.”
“I know you are, which is exactly why you won’t be told any specific details about the potentials education,” Ryley said. “We can’t allow you to suffer in a suboptimal bond because you want to place the right kind of person in your son’s life. Are you at all tempted to try to find a woman to be a mother to him?”
“No, and I think it would be a mistake to try at this point,” Eddie admitted roughly. “He’d see it as me trying to replace Shannon. Honestly, that sort of situation wouldn’t work out in anyone’s favor. He’s clearly very disappointed in the mother he had, and he hasn’t asked me to try to call her or anything. The last time I asked, he told me to leave her alone so she can finally be happy.”
“Jesus,” Ryley muttered and leaned on the wall. “It’s rude and awful, but I kind of want to go find her and smack the taste out of her mouth.”
Eddie snorted. “I understand the sentiment.” He leaned on the wall beside her. “You have a good bond.”
“Yeah, I do,” Ryley admitted. “We met before either of us registered with the foundation and bonded within hours. Honestly, we could hardly keep our hands off each other. I didn’t learn her full damn name until two days later when we signed in at the Bronx Psionics Center in New York.”
Eddie laughed. “Wow.” He cleared his throat. “Is that expected? Am I going to disappoint someone with…?” He took a deep breath. “I wouldn’t have a problem with the physical part; it just wouldn’t be emotionally satisfying.”
“No Guide would want that, Eddie,” Ryley said. “They’d be drenched in your psychological discomfort.”
“Oh.” Eddie winced. “Well, hell, I don’t know what to do with this.”
“All of the potentials will be prepped for a platonic bond. Even if you were just down to fuck, it wouldn’t mean that a sexual relationship is automatically on the table. No one should just assume they can go to bed with someone based on an established sexual preference.”
“Finding a life partner seems like it should be romantic,” Eddie admitted. “This feels very clinical and…I’m worried.”
“It’s fine to be worried. You’re potentially making a big decision. Bonds can be removed in extreme circumstances, but I’ve honestly never encountered a pair that wanted that. I’ve heard about it—mostly because of bonds formed in emergency situations.”
“That makes sense, I guess,” Eddie said. “It’ll be fine, right?”
“Right,” Ryley said with a grin. “I probably shouldn’t say, but one of the potentials…Eddie…we’re talking gold standard when it comes to being a Guide. Generous, thoughtful, profoundly empathetic, and just lovely inside and out. So, I feel good about your chances in this process.”
Eddie considered that and thought about the feeling of sweet calm that had sort of spread out over the facility a few hours before. “He arrived about three hours ago, right?” Her gaze widened. “It’s just…everything started to feel better around that time. Even the pain flare in my thigh that I’ve been battling all morning sort of calmed down.”
She exhaled sharply and seemed to consider her words. “That’s…telling.”
“Does it impact the schedule for tomorrow?”
“No, but it just highlights how impactful that particular Guide is. They used to work for us but sought out their calling last year.” She checked her watch. “Get some sleep, Eddie. We’ll start with breakfast tomorrow.”
“Well, the first was a breakfast meet, and it went fine, but the Guide reported afterward that it was definitely going to be a no,” Ryley said and leaned against the counter. “She didn’t elaborate as to why. The average interview time is about thirty minutes, and he doesn’t appear to be frustrated by the whole thing. He allowed his son to go to the creche to play around the lunch appointment, so they ate separately for the first time since their arrival.”
Buck glanced her way as he finished up the mashed potatoes he was making. He was the last interview of the day, and it was approaching the dinner hour, so he’d checked on the food list that the Sentinel had provided and put together dinner to keep himself busy. He knew that the Sentinel had already shared meals with two other candidates just to save time, so he didn’t think his plan would be a problem. Chicken fingers, corn, and mashed potatoes definitely felt like the man had let his four-year-old have a lot of input on the food choices, which was both amusing and sweet at the same.
“So, the first Guide ate with them both?”
“Oh, no.” Ryley shook her head. “He fed his son earlier and sequestered the boy in the bedroom for the meeting he took with the Guide. He’s meeting with Baxter Harrison right now.”
Buck nodded. “Baxter’s a great choice—strong, dedicated, and thoughtful. He’s easy on the eyes, too.”
“Boy is he,” Ryley said with a laugh. “The two from out of state have already left, so he’s not…being indecisive.”
“You think that’s about his son?”
“Certainly,” Ryley murmured. “He’s got the right to be picky as hell considering his history and his son’s emotional landscape. There are some issues…that you’ll find out when you speak with him. Just try to keep your own irritation at the situation appropriate.”
“What?” Buck questioned and turned to stare at the Sentinel in confusion.
“Gawd, Buck, I want to hunt that Sentinel’s ex-girlfriend for sport,” Ryley muttered and flushed when Buck gaped at her. “It’ll be different for you, I suppose, but she broke her son’s heart, and he’s trying so hard to be strong about it. He clearly doesn’t want to stress his dad out.”
* * * *
“Do you enjoy being a cop?” Eddie questioned as he rested back against his end of the couch. Out of all of the conversations he’d had over the course of the day with Guides, Baxter had proven to be the most pleasant experience.
“I love it.” Baxter rolled a bottle of water around in his hands. “It’s really all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ll take the sergeant’s exam next month, and I’ve been working my ass for it. I’ve passed all the practice tests I’ve done.” He flushed when Eddie grinned. “My direct supervisor is the Beta Sentinel for Alpha Ransone’s personal pride.”
“This isn’t your pride facility?” Eddie figured he should get a map of the city and figure out where the prides were.
“No, I live about an hour from here in traffic,” Baxter explained. “My commute to work is forty-five minutes on a good day. Regardless, I belong to a bigger pride formed on geography more than anything else. Alpha Ransone’s pride is smaller, built on family and deep personal connections. I can’t blame him—he’s got three small children. I heard the third was born yesterday in the back seat of his car.”
Eddie exhaled sharply. “I wondered why he wasn’t here when he’d been…intent on being involved when I first arrived.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said with a nod. “He’s normally hands-on in a very intense way. But I guess delivering his own kid put Lou off his stride.” He set aside the water. “I was told you were active-duty military but that you’re separating.”
“Yeah,” Eddie admitted with a frown. “I can’t say it was ever in my plans. When I first enlisted, I saw it as a career choice. Maybe if…” He looked toward the bedroom where he’d put Chris. “It doesn’t matter now.”
“I think we could make a great bond,” Baxter said carefully. “But you’re clearly hesitating on discussing it. I’m not put off by anything I read in the profile I was given. I like kids. I, honestly, wouldn’t mind a few. Your sexuality isn’t an obstacle for me. So, I guess I’m wondering what about me is making you hesitate?”
“I….” Eddie shook his head. “Would you expect your Sentinel to be on the job with you, Baxter?”
“Yeah, of course,” Baxter said in confusion. “I mean…would that be a problem? You’re a soldier.”
“Have you ever shot and killed someone?” Eddie questioned bluntly and watched the Guide’s cheeks darken. “I’m sorry to be blunt with this, but four weeks ago, I killed as many as fifteen people. I wasn’t given a number, but I remember at least that many.” Baxter’s mouth dropped open, and Eddie gestured to himself. “The Sentinel in me woke up in the worst sort of circumstances, and those sense memories will linger on me for the rest of my life. Despite my feral state, I still remember hearing one of them drown in his own blood because I put four bullets in his chest. Yes, I’m a soldier, but there is more than one reason why I’m leaving the Army. I can’t…intentionally put myself in those circumstances again. They were adults, of course, but I still killed other people’s children, Baxter. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over that.”
Baxter cleared his throat and rubbed fingers over damp eyes hastily. “I…Jesus.”
“I’m sorry.” Eddie shifted forward in alarm. “Should I call someone?”
Baxter shook his head. “No, I mean…I’m fine. You’re carrying a lot of grief, and it’s difficult to…. I hadn’t really opened myself up to you on that level until now.” He took a ragged breath and left the couch. “This is my tenth search, and I thought…the percentage was so high, and you’re…, God, frankly, you’re beautiful. I can’t give up my career, and I believe I need my Sentinel on the job with me. It feels like a profound calling, and we’re taught to accept those instinctual responses. The psionic plane is leading me to the place I need to be to best serve the tribe.”
“Ten?” Eddie frowned. “That’s a lot, right?”
“Some Guides search for decades and have these kinds of events several times a year,” Baxter said. “There are more of us than there are Sentinels, and that’s been the case since humans went largely urban.”
“I didn’t ask the percentages,” Eddie admitted. “Did you?”
“Yeah,” Baxter flushed and ran his fingers through dark brown hair. “We’re at ninety-seven, which is in the zone for a very strong bond. I think all of yours were in that range or higher. I talked to most of them yesterday.”
“Not all?” Eddie questioned.
“Well, the last one you’ll see today was sequestered most of the night and then spent the morning working in the meditation rooms,” Baxter said. “I attended a session with him before I isolated to get ready for this meeting.” He smiled then. “Maybe, he’ll be exactly what you need.”
Eddie took a deep breath because the other man’s disappointment was practically radiating off of him, and he didn’t know what to say or day to make it better. “I….”
“I’m fine,” Baxter said gently. “I promise.”
“What happens if this last one is a no as well?” Eddie questioned.
“I’ll agree to act as your Conservator until one of us gets a match,” Baxter said easily. “I think we could accomplish that easily enough, and while it won’t satisfy either of us in the long-term, it would give you room to fully recover from what happened to you overseas. Guides register every day in the United States, and the Burton Foundation does have international ties as well. They’ll expand the search at your request. Immigration for Guides is a well-honed process, and frankly, I’d move to the other side of the world for my ideal match. Sentinels don’t linger in the system, Eddie.”
“Is that because they are willing to accept situations I won’t?” Eddie questioned. “One of the female Guides from earlier felt like a good match, but she was put off immensely by my sexuality. She said she couldn’t imagine being bonded with a man who might not ever want her. I tried to explain to her that it isn’t that complicated. I just can’t go to bed with a stranger. I need to know my sex partners before I can trust them with my body enough to enjoy having sex with them. I know she was told before the meeting that I was demi, so her reaction during the discussion was off-putting. Maybe she thought I wasn’t being honest about it? Is it…really that far out there?”
Baxter grinned. “The last guy I took to bed gave me two different names, and both were a lie. I didn’t even call him on it.”
Eddie couldn’t help the horrified face he made.
“You’re adorable,” Baxter said with a laugh. “And gorgeous. I hate this. I’m gonna go buy and eat a whole pint of chocolate ice cream.”
Eddie resisted the urge to pat his face, which felt uncomfortably hot. “I like Cherry Garcia, myself.”
“Oh, finally, a deep, ugly flaw I can work with,” Baxter said and grinned when Eddie laughed. “Take some time to settle yourself before your last meeting. Maybe chat with your boy—he’s anxious.” He motioned toward the door. “Worried, maybe. I’m not great with little kid emotions. They’re more complicated than you’d think.”
“Thanks.” Eddie stood and sighed. “Also, if a Conservator situation is what I end up needing, then I’d like it to be you. I don’t want someone trying to…change my mind.”
“I get it. I wouldn’t either,” Baxter said and picked up his water.
Eddie walked him to the door and flicked the deadbolt on the door before heading into the bedroom, where Chris was sprawled on the bed watching TV. He dropped down on the bed beside him, and his son muted the television.
“That one wasn’t nice, either?”
“They’ve all been nice to me,” Eddie said and decided he’d rather not tell his son about the woman who was profoundly offended that he didn’t find her sexually attractive at first sight. Some things Chris didn’t need to know, ever. “It’s just being nice isn’t enough.”
“Maybe you’re bad at this,” Chris speculated and grinned when Eddie groaned. “I guess the Army didn’t teach you this stuff.” He leaned into him. “Daddy, can I tell you something?”
“You can tell me anything, mijo,” Eddie murmured. “I promise.”
“I knew you were coming home before Mommy said,” Chris whispered against Eddie’s T-shirt. “I knew for days. I should’ve asked to call you. Maybe you wouldn’t have gotten hurt.”
“Oh, no, baby, it’s not your fault,” Eddie said and pressed a quick kiss against Chris’ curls as his son cuddled close. “I promise. In the Army, I was given orders, and I had to follow them or else I’d get in trouble. I was ordered on that mission and what happened was just…what happened. My commanding officer didn’t know it was going to happen, and none of the team saw it coming either.”
“Okay.” Chris rested his chin on Eddie’s shoulder. “Does it hurt a lot to get shot?”
“I….” Eddie frowned. “I don’t want to lie to you, but I feel like this isn’t something you should worry about.”
“I’m gonna worry about you, Daddy,” Chris said huffily as he sat back and frowned at him.
Eddie laughed. “Yeah, it hurt. But it’s better now, and the muscles are healing. In a few weeks, it’ll be even better, and the scars will start to fade.”
“Were you scared?” Chris questioned.
“Yes.” Eddie wound a soft, light brown curl around his finger. “But I knew I had to do everything I could to come home to you.”
“Grandma told Mommy that you never loved her,” Chris said quietly. “And it made Mommy cry. Grandma makes Mommy cry a lot. Or she did. I haven’t seen them in months. Mommy said they were too much. Are they too much for you, too?”
“Honestly, kiddo, they’ve always been a lot,” Eddie said wryly, and Chris laughed. “But your mom and I talked about my parents and how they were really mean to her. I told her that I was fine with her cutting them off. You don’t have to see them if you don’t want to.”
“I know they love me,” Chris said. “But they aren’t nice to be around.” He paused. “They feel gross.”
“Can you…explain that?” Eddie questioned.
“Some people feel like…nice things, and others feel like…dark, ugly things,” Chris said and frowned. “Grandma and Abuelo feel like shadows. Mean shadows.”
Eddie had no idea what to fucking do with that, and it was infuriating. “Dr. Sloan would like you to talk to someone about your feelings. Would that be okay?”
“Yeah, I like to talk,” Chris said and smiled when Eddie laughed. “I’m hungry.”
“We’re getting food with this last meeting,” Eddie said. “Do you mind eating alone in here so I can just….”
“Get it over with?” Chris asked and laughed. “Daddy, that’s why you’re so bad at this! Gah. I should meet this last Guide with you.”
“Oh yeah?” Eddie questioned and realized that he wasn’t put off about Christopher meeting this last person with him.
Over the course of the day, he’d relaxed into the process, but Eddie hadn’t even been tempted to introduce Baxter to Chris, and he’d been the most attractive of anyone all day.
“You clearly need help,” Chris said earnestly. “I think I’ll be good at this!”
Eddie grinned. “You’re probably right.”
“I need to potty first, though,” Chris announced and started to scoot off the bed. “And wash my hands.”
He was very grateful that his son was fully potty trained because he could just imagine how terrible that situation would’ve been on his senses, which were spiking off and on despite his best efforts. It was clear from the training materials he’d already been given that the Army had only skimmed the surface on the whole thing. Eddie really resented his parents for not allowing him training when he was a child. The religious exemption people used to keep their kids from being influenced by the Burton Foundation had been proven over and over again to be profoundly detrimental.
“What are you thinkin’?” Chris questioned as Eddie handed him a small towel to dry his hands.
“I wish I’d gotten training for this Sentinel stuff when I turned eighteen. The Burton Foundation did contact me with an offer, but I joined the Army as soon as I graduated high school.”
“Why didn’t Grandma and Abuelo get you training?” Chris questioned. “That seems…wrong.”
“It is wrong,” Eddie murmured. “But they believe that Sentinels and Guides are….” He grimaced. “They don’t think they should exist and that God doesn’t approve.”
“That’s rude,” Chris muttered, and Eddie laughed. “I’m serious, Daddy, that’s very rude. We’re allowed to exist.”
We. Eddie considered that and recognized that, on some level, Chris understood his latency wasn’t permanent. Maybe potential Guides just knew whether or not they would come online. He’d never really thought about it one way or another. When he’d finally come back to himself and recognized what had happened to him, Eddie had made the decision not to tell his parents he’d come online until he was recovered and ready to defend himself. The fact that he even had to consider such a thing about his parents was disheartening.
He settled Chris down at the table and sent a text to Ryley, who was managing the whole process, telling her he was ready for his final meeting. Had anyone asked him how he’d feel to be reaching the end without a potential bond on the table, he’d have said he would be a nervous wreck. But he was actually stupidly calm, and he didn’t know if that was about him or about the steady, sweet presence of the Guide he’d yet to meet. The calmness blanketing the facility hadn’t lessened since he’d noted the person’s arrival the day before.
A soft knock on the door knocked Eddie loose from his musings, and he went to answer it. He flicked the deadbolt open and grasped the knob with trembling fingers. Eddie took a deep breath, glanced briefly at Chris then opened the door.
Eddie swallowed hard and exhaled slowly as he stared. He tried to speak, but the words were stuck in his throat. Guides were very attractive on an instinctual level to Sentinels, and he’d known this to be true long before he came online. But this was something else, and he was at a loss at how to explain it even to himself. He didn’t know much about the last Guide beyond that he preferred to be called Buck, had been online for three years, and he’d worked for the Burton Foundation for several years before deciding on a career path.
“Hi,” the Guide said with a grin and inclined his head.
I’ve missed you, Eddie thought and took a deep breath. “Hi.” He stepped back and laughed a little. “Come in.”
“I’ve been tasked with delivering….” Buck trailed off as his gaze settled on Christopher.
“Chris, this is Buck,” Eddie said as he shut the door. “If he hasn’t brought dinner, we can kick him out.”
Chris laughed, and Buck flushed.
“Yes, dinner,” Buck said and cleared his throat. He offered Eddie the tote. “I had some free time while I was waiting, so I spent it in the kitchen.”
“You cooked?” Eddie questioned because that was relieving.
He was already super tired of take-out. The staff had been incredibly kind and had made sure to take Christopher’s needs into account every single time they had to order out. His son had a sensitive stomach, and they were playing with fire when it came to a large amount of take-out.
“It’s not much,” Buck said easily. “I just picked some things from the list you guys provided.” He tucked his hands into his pockets and rocked a little on his feet. “I can come back after you eat?”
“I thought…you’d be eating with me,” Eddie admitted.
“Yeah, but…” Buck glanced toward Chris, who was fiddling with the placemat in front of him. “I was told not to expect an introduction.”
“Daddy’s bad at this,” Christopher announced. “So, I decided to help.”
“Please sit,” Eddie said and was relieved when Buck took a seat at the table. “This smells great.”
Buck focused on him and frowned. “You can smell it? That tote is designed to mask smells.”
Eddie considered that as he sat the tote down on the table. “I’ve been able to smell all of the food brought to us. They’ve used this tote or something similar every time. Is that a problem?”
“No, it just speaks to your sensitivity regarding the sense of smell,” Buck said easily. “And it might be…a bit of hypervigilance, which considering your circumstances isn’t unexpected.”
“Daddy was in a war,” Chris said, and it almost sounded innocent coming out of his son’s mouth.
Eddie focused on pulling out the containers. “Let’s not talk about that right now, mijo.”
“If I have to talk about stuff that I don’t want to….” Chris trailed off when Buck laughed, and he focused on the Guide. “What’s your job? Do you have a girlfriend or a boyfriend? Do you have kids?”
Eddie just grinned when Buck gaped briefly at Chris. He pulled out the serving utensils and took the tote to the counter then sat down.
“I’m a firefighter,” Buck said. “I’ve been on the job six months, but I love it.”
“It’s your calling,” Chris said excitedly. “I watched a video on YouTube about that.”
“Yes,” Buck agreed. “I was worried that I might not have a clearly defined one, but every day on the job makes it clearer that I’ve made the best possible choice for me. I don’t have a girlfriend or a boyfriend.” He glanced briefly at Eddie before continuing. “And I have no children of my own, but I regularly steal kids from other pride members in my ongoing campaign to dominate Dave & Buster’s. It’s going pretty well. I have two nephews and a niece.”
“Daddy, can Buck steal me to help with his invasion?” Chris questioned. “I like Dave & Buster’s.”
Eddie grinned. “Maybe. He might get better results if he steals me, too.”
“Noted,” Buck said in amusement and started to open the containers. “I went with a fried corn— a recipe that I learned from my captain, but we can send for the boiled corn that was made for the creche if it’s a problem.”
“I like fried corn,” Chris said. “Abuelita makes it a little spicy for me.”
“Well, I kept the chili out of it today,” Buck said easily. “In case your Dad can’t handle it.”
“What a rude thing to say about a Mexican,” Eddie said wryly and grinned when Buck’s eyes went wide slightly. “Water?”
“Yeah, that’d be great.”
Eddie retrieved three bottles of water from the fridge. They were sport bottles, which was for the best since Chris was at a stage where he didn’t want a cup with a lid, but honestly still needed one. Shannon had solved that problem by using flasks at home with straws in them. He hadn’t brought one with him when he’d fled his own house in the middle of the night.
“What’s your spirit animal, Buck?” Chris asked. “Can I meet her? I met Daddy’s cat when he first came home. She has pretty spots.” He paused. “And she’s big.”
Buck raised an eyebrow at Eddie.
“Jaguar,” Eddie said. “It was her emergence during the event that…well, I thought I might be going crazy until I saw her and recognized she was mine.”
“Ah, well, nothing makes an impression like a spirit animal emergence,” Buck said. “Mine’s an anaconda.”
Eddie barely managed to keep his mouth from dropping open. Guides were just as likely to have a predator spirit animal as a Sentinel, but an anaconda was aggressive as fuck and temperamental. He felt like that was the exact opposite of Buck.
“My mentor believes my spirit animal is a direct manifestation of my difficult childhood,” Buck explained carefully. “She’s very protective of me.”
Eddie nodded before he set about fixing Christopher’s plate. It was something he’d have to ask about later if Buck was willing to stick around for it. He didn’t know if throwing the Guide into the deep end on the kid front had been the best choice or not. He seemed comfortable with the situation.
“This is great,” Christopher said.
He had a chicken finger clenched in his fist, and Eddie wondered if he could convince his son to use a fork. The last time he’d tried, he’d met a lot of resistance as apparently chicken fingers were obviously finger food. Eddie shifted a spoon close to his son’s plate to remind him that neither the corn nor the mashed potatoes were finger food. He got a narrow-eyed look for his trouble, and across from him, Buck laughed.
“What’s an anaconda?” Chris asked.
“A very large snake,” Eddie said.
“Mina’s pretty big,” Buck conceded. “About fourteen feet long and a little over 200 pounds. I can lift her when she’s solid, but she rarely fully manifests. The last time it happened was due to a…physical altercation with a neighbor.”
Eddie filed that way to ask about later and started to eat. Frankly, it was the best food he’d had since he came online, and that probably shouldn’t have been the case because it was very simple stuff designed for a kid in mind. It was difficult not to just sort of stare at Buck because he was beautiful, and he was listening to Christopher talk about going to the zoo so intently. It was like they were having the most important conversation ever, which was charming. He wondered if the others would’ve responded so well to Christopher and thought perhaps Baxter would’ve.
Part of him had regretted that rejection almost immediately because maybe he could’ve worked his way toward carrying a badge and gun. But as he sat across from Buck and let himself wallow in the sweet comfort that seemed to radiate off the man, all of that regret just fluttered away. The knot of tension and worry that had been tangled in Eddie’s chest since he woke up in a field hospital gently unraveled, and Buck’s gaze snapped to his.
“What did you do in the Army?” Buck questioned when Christopher focused on another chicken finger.
“I was a combat medic,” Eddie said. “Which would sort of be between EMT and paramedic based on skills. I looked it up last week because I think maybe I’d go that route once I’m healed. I liked the work.” He cleared his throat. “I think I might need the work going forward.”
Buck nodded. “I can see how it might be a comfort of sorts, especially if you have positive memories attached to the experience as part of your service.” He pushed aside his plate, which hadn’t much of all on it to start. Eddie couldn’t help but frown. “Oh, I snacked all through meal prep. It takes a lot to maintain…this.” He gestured to himself. “And I worked out this morning.”
“Is that all for the job?”
“I specialize in heavy rescue,” Buck said easily. “Mostly urban, but I’m certified for wilderness as well. I’m seconded to one of the SAR units, which can be a lot of work. I was pulled in a month ago for a cliff rescue. I got to repel down the side; the view was amazing. The hiker that got stuck due to his own inflated ego, not so much.”
“Is it fun being a firefighter?” Chris questioned.
“Well, I do get to drive a ladder truck, and that’s pretty fun,” Buck said. “Sometimes, I even get to use the siren at the same time.”
Eddie laughed when Chris leaned forward because he knew what was coming.
“Can I ride in a firetruck?”
Buck grinned. “Well, maybe at least sit in it.” Chris nodded. “And we can pretend to slide down the fire pole. My captain doesn’t actually let us do it for real—the risks of injury are high on these things.”
“How many times have you slid down that pole when no one was looking?” Eddie asked.
Buck blushed and bit down on his bottom lip. “I follow the rules.”
“Sure,” Christopher said with a nod. “That’s exactly what you look like. A rule follower.”
“The sass is strong with this one,” Buck said with a grin.
“Who’s your favorite superhero?” Chris asked as he tackled his last chicken finger.
Chris made a face. “That’s not awful.”
Eddie laughed when Buck briefly pouted.
“I like Wonder Woman,” Chris said decisively. “She’s strong and nice. She doesn’t let anyone boss her around, not even that boy she liked.”
“I can’t argue with any of that,” Buck said easily. “Wonder Woman is amazing. In DC, she’s definitely one of my favorites. Though I prefer Superman—his origin story was really interesting to me when I was a kid.”
“In Marvel, I like Spiderman the best,” Chris announced decisively, and Buck made an exaggerated face of disgust.
Chris sighed and turned to Eddie as he pushed his empty plate forward a little. “We might be able to train him, Daddy.”
Buck laughed, eyes bright and shining like stars. Eddie had never seen someone so beautiful in his life, and it was honestly kind of bizarre for him.
Chris took that moment to yawn widely, so Eddie stood. “Time for bed, mijo.”
Chris huffed. “I’m not finished with the interview.”
“You are ten minutes past your bedtime as is,” Eddie said with a laugh and plucked his son up from his chair. “No use arguing, buddy. You’ll be passing out whether you want to or not.” He turned to Buck, who nodded. “Would you…stay?” Chris sighed dramatically but slumped against his shoulder in clear surrender.
“Good night, Chris,” Buck said with an amused smile.
Chris was practically asleep before Eddie finished putting on his pajamas, which was par for the kid’s course, and he was glad he’d tackled tooth brushing first. His son went full tilt then just slumped over wherever he was. Eddie found it to be one of the most interesting quirks of his son’s personality since he was clearly ignoring how tired he was until his body just decided it was done.
“He’s nice,” Chris murmured as he wiggled under the blanket.
“Yeah, he is,” Eddie admitted. “I think he might be my Guide. I have to ask some more questions before I make a decision. What do you think about it?”
“Abuelita says that a good man is…defined by his choices. Buck seems like he makes good choices,” Chris said around a yawn. “She said you’re a good man because you served in the Army. I heard her tell Abuelo that. He was complaining because you were away. Being a firefighter—that’s a special calling, Daddy.”
“You’ll have to show me that YouTube video you watched,” Eddie said. “What did it say about callings?”
“It said that modern urban Sentinels and Guides were shaped by personal callings. They make the world a better place. I think that’s nice.”
“Why is being a firefighter a special calling?”
“Some jobs make you hurt other people to keep everyone safe,” Chris said, and Eddie winced. “But firefighters just get to save as many people as they can…that’s their whole job, and that’s special.”
Eddie nodded as he adjusted the covers. “That is special. I think…maybe I would like to do that. I need to focus on it and figure out if that is where I’m being led.”
“The video said you’d know it was for you when you had enough information about it,” Chris said around a yawn. “So, maybe you can ask Buck some questions.” He pulled off his glasses and handed them to Eddie. “Buck feels like sunshine, Daddy.” He sighed. “And warm rain. It was nice.”
Shortly, Eddie closed the door to the smaller bedroom and found that Buck had shifted from the table to the kitchenette and was loading the dishwasher.
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“It’s not much,” Buck said easily as he tucked the last of it away and shut the door. “Not enough to even run a load at this point. I read a brief report on your son’s latency.”
“Why?” Eddie questioned.
“It was part of the information packet each Guide was given on you,” Buck explained. “Just a bit of a head’s up, but nothing overtly personal. He’s very empathetic. I think, and you’ll probably get an official recommendation on this front, that he should be enrolled in the Los Angeles Burton Academy when he starts school, which would cover him all the way through the eighth grade. The classes are small, and his disability would be accommodated without question or hassle. Moreover, because you’re an online Sentinel, he’d qualify for a full scholarship. If that’s deeply unappealing, then at the very least, he needs a private school environment with small classes.”
Eddie pulled another bottle of water from the fridge and grabbed a second when Buck wiggled his fingers in his direction. He passed the first bottle along. “I hadn’t thought about what I’d do about school. Going to public school was always going to be a problem due to staffing, funding, and accommodations.” He motioned toward the couch. “Can we sit?”
“Sure.” Buck followed him and shifted around immediately on the sofa to face him. “I don’t know if anyone has been blunt with you about this, but your son needs a therapist.”
Eddie exhaled sharply. “Dr. Sloan offered to get me a referral.”
“That’s SOP for the children of Sentinels and Guides who come online as you have. Normally because coming online changes the family dynamic significantly and can result in divorces and other messy interpersonal issues. That being said, his psionic profile is radiating with grief and….” Buck frowned and looked down at his hands briefly. “Rejection.”
“His mother just left,” Eddie said. “I woke up, and she was gone from the house. She’d signed the deed over to me and sent me a certified letter the next day with a custody agreement. We met in a judge’s office two days after that, and she signed over all of her rights. I’d only been in California for a week and could barely walk. My grandmother had to drive me to court.”
“Barely walk?” Buck questioned.
“I took a bullet in my right thigh,” Eddie said roughly. “A flesh wound, but I was having a hard time moderating my pain levels to the point where I had to use a wheelchair. The judge wasn’t kind to Shannon at all during the hearing. I think she…didn’t even care how callous her actions were.”
“So, both bullets in the leg? I was told you were shot twice.”
“No, right thigh and left arm,” Eddie explained and rolled his shoulder a little. “Dislocated shoulder, concussion, and a sprained wrist.” He paused. “I got the wrist sprain when my CO tackled me, apparently. I don’t remember much near the end.”
“Feral combat drives are supposed to be kind of rare,” Buck murmured. “You seem to have recovered well…except for the hypervigilance.”
“I’ve been trying hard to check myself,” Eddie admitted roughly. “But sometimes it’s difficult.” He took a long sip of water. “Chris told me that Shannon, my ex, hated being a mother and that he hoped she’d be happy wherever she went.”
“My parents couldn’t stand me,” Buck said, and Eddie couldn’t help the fact that his mouth dropped open. “They only had me because my older brother had cancer, and they needed a bone marrow donor. They did DNA testing in the womb and discovered that despite their best efforts during embryo creation that I had Sentinel-Guide genetics. My parents moved to a new city shortly before I was born and didn’t notify any of the local prides that they had one latent child and another potential on the way. When I was a year old, they found a doctor that would do a bone marrow transplant. My brother survived.”
“The Burton Foundation would’ve never allowed you to be used as a savior sibling, right?”
“They wouldn’t have had the legal right to stop it, but they’d have certainly made a big mess out of it. My parents are deeply invested in appearances and their reputation.” Buck shrugged. “My sister came online when I was twelve, and her Sentinel tolerated roughly ten minutes of their company before he exited their house, contacted the Burton Foundation, and sued for custody of me.”
Eddie blinked in surprise. “Seriously?”
“Yeah, seriously, he was only twenty-three years old but already presenting as an Alpha. My parents fought it, but that ended up being a mistake since it became clear during the process that they couldn’t stand me, barely tolerated my sister, and wished they’d only had their one normal child. And they were, honestly, disappointed in him for getting cancer and causing them so many problems.”
“There’s no contact, right?”
“No, none at all since I was twelve. They were sanctioned by the Burton Foundation for child neglect and endangerment. My sister’s Sentinel has acted as a shield for all three of us since the beginning.” Buck took a deep breath. “So, did you ask our percentage?”
“No, I didn’t ask for it at all. I know that everyone who was scheduled was at least ninety-five, and the Guide before you told me where he and I fell on that scale.”
“Baxter’s a great guy,” Buck said. “Strong, fierce in his protection of his pride and the tribe as a whole. It seemed like he’d be a great fit for a military man.”
Eddie nodded. “I can’t say I wasn’t tempted, and he agreed that we’d be a good match, but I can’t…work in law enforcement. I’m not sure I could ever fire a gun again. The thought of killing someone leaves me cold. I know that probably sounds incredible considering the body count I left behind me.”
“It doesn’t,” Buck said. “An Alpha Sentinel who serves the tribe at that level is…well, they’re sort of rare for a reason. I’m sure the military wishes it differently, but statistically speaking there are more Sentinels and Guides in civilian jobs. I suppose it doesn’t look like that, considering how much effort the DOD puts into recruiting and keeping Sentinels in service. But Alphas often have a larger scope—one that extends beyond the mandate of any civilized military organization.”
Eddie nodded and found himself relieved to have it explained in such a fashion because part of him was put off by how the thought of returning to the Army was so overwhelmingly horrible. “What’s our percentage?”
“Ninety-nine,” Buck said easily. “That’s most that the foundation will assign to a potential pairing these days. There was a time, decades ago, when we’d have been considered a perfect match. So perfect, in fact, that you’d have met me first and probably only me.”
Eddie didn’t think he would’ve had a problem with that. “Why did they change it?”
“Consent and personality compatibility,” Buck said easily. “The thing is that genetic testing doesn’t really take into account personal experiences, preferences, sexuality, and everything in between. In the past, concessions were rarely made for what an individual wanted for themselves. They were expected to conform and surrender to the bonding process without complaint. Fortunately, for the most part, it worked out for those pairings. But there were enough incidents with poor matches that the Burton Foundation started to delve more deeply into the matching mechanism to see what was missing and how to make it better.
“I’m not saying the former process was outright abusive, but it was a one-size-fits-all solution to an age-old problem, and that’s rarely the best choice to make.” Buck stared at him for a long moment, then smiled. “You were pretty stressed out when I arrived. I was wondering if maybe they’d pushed you through too many meetings in a single day.”
“They asked me. I figured it would be best to get through it all in one day so I could take Chris home. He misses his things, and he’s being good about it, but…he’s been through a lot, and I don’t want to make things worse.”
“Your son is comfortable but not particularly content,” Buck admitted. “I think he accepts what’s going on and hopes it’ll help you.”
“Were you sensitive before coming online?” Eddie questioned.
“If you’re asking me if I knew that my parents hated me—yeah, I knew. Their overt disdain for me caused my empathy to be reactive because, on some level, I considered them a threat. But, at the same time, I was deeply invested in earning some kind of love from them. It was a very toxic situation.”
Eddie nodded. “Chris told me that my parents feel like mean shadows to him. Can you put a mature spin to that?”
“Well.” Buck cleared his throat. “Jesus.” He set aside his water. “It’s…hard actually without speaking to him about it. It may be as simple as anger and their lack of care when it comes to moderating their own emotions. Some mundanes think they can’t control how they feel, so they don’t bother and just emote all over the place, no matter how inappropriate that is. But it could be….” He wet his lips.
“Say it, please. I need…to know what kind of threat my parents are.” Eddie looked down and found his hands shaking. He took in a ragged breath when Buck reached out and hooked his fingers around his.
“They may actively resent him for his latent status or his disability,” Buck said. “Did they have a good relationship with your ex-wife?”
“Ex-girlfriend,” Eddie corrected. “She refused to marry me—said that marrying a latent Sentinel was just asking for heartbreak. Regardless, they hate each other. Shannon cut them off months ago and hasn’t let them see Chris since because of verbal abuse. I don’t know if Chris witnessed a lot of it or even if just one incident was enough to send him over the edge. Shannon told me that he had a tantrum and screamed at her about my parents.
“Despite how she did it—I think Shannon left as quickly as she did because she knew that sticking around was only going to hurt him more in the long run. I hate the way it all went down, and I wish she’d let me figure out how to mitigate his emotional pain. I should’ve brought him here the day I woke up and found her gone.” Eddie looked down at their hands. “Have you ever been with a man?”
“Yeah, I’m pansexual,” Buck said easily. “Have you?”
“Yeah, the first was my best friend from high school,” Eddie murmured. “My father was furious when he found out, and there was no talking to him about it. He told me that it was bad enough that I’d been born a freak, but then I had to be a disgusting sinner on top of it.”
“Well, I can’t stand his ass,” Buck declared and grinned when Eddie laughed. “And your mother?”
“My mother is convinced that she’s right about everything and will go completely nuclear if someone disagrees with her or fails to follow her orders to the letter. She’s controlling, drowning in toxic masculinity, and a devout Catholic. They had me baptized yearly from birth until I was fourteen in their efforts to use God and religion to cure me. They think Sentinels and Guides are abominations. When they found out Chris was a latent Guide, they stopped trying to….” Eddie took a deep breath. “Prior to that, they were focused on getting custody of him because they didn’t think we had any right to parent our own child. They used his disability as a weapon against him and us. I think they’d still try to get custody of him, but the focus would be different.”
“Now, they’d focus on trying to suppress his abilities,” Buck said. “Well, the good news is that not a single court on this planet has ever taken a minor child from a healthy online Sentinel.”
“What if I go feral again? What if I ended up needing to be hospitalized?” Eddie questioned.
“Your paternal drive is immense, Eddie,” Buck said gently. “That’s why you can’t fathom staying in the Army and why the thought of killing again is so abhorrent to you. If you went feral again, it would certainly be over a child, which would be understandable. If you were hospitalized…well, that’s why you’ll want to be a part of a pride.”
“Every single one of those men was…someone’s baby once,” Eddie said hoarsely and blinked back tears. “Fuck.” He tried to stand, but Buck just laced their fingers together and held firm. “Sorry.” He rubbed his thumb gently against Buck’s skin.
“You never need to apologize for your grief, Eddie,” Buck said gently. “And you can grieve them—even if they were your enemy.” He paused. “Maybe especially because they were your enemies, and none of you had a great many choices left by the time you met in the same place.”
“I don’t remember all of it,” Eddie admitted. “Maybe that’s for the best.”
“Yeah,” Buck agreed. “The psionic plane will protect you, after a fashion. That’s represented in your spirit animal.” His gaze drifted slightly to the left, and Eddie watched his jaguar shimmer into place. “What’s her name?”
“Zoë,” Eddie said. “I gave her a couple of choices, and that’s the one that she seemed to approve of.” He focused on their hands. “A platonic bond is a big ask, right?”
“Well, it can get complicated,” Buck said. “Because I want a family—marriage, kids, the works. I’m not saying that it’s a deal-breaker if you can’t see yourself ever wanting that with me, but you’d have to be prepared to accept a spouse and kids in my life that you’d have no claim on.” He paused. “The kids would be the sticking point as most Sentinels get territorial over their Guide’s children.”
“I don’t have an answer for this,” Eddie admitted. “I feel like…I want you to be as close to me as possible, which would mean living in my house.” He flushed when Buck quirked an eyebrow at him. “Intellectually, I find you very attractive, and while we certainly can’t just decide that we’ll be anything more than friends…I wouldn’t want to go into a bond with us both having rejected the possibility.”
“I think most pairings start out this way,” Buck admitted. “I mean, the bond will encourage emotional intimacy, and that’s where you find sexual attraction, right?”
“It doesn’t have to be romantic love,” Eddie murmured. “I want that because I’ve never really had it as an adult. I loved Shannon as a friend and would’ve tried to have more with her if she hadn’t utterly rejected me because of my genetics. I was stupidly in love in high school, and the end of that relationship left me emotionally…destroyed for more than one way.”
“Your parents forced you to end it?”
Eddie shook his head and took a deep breath. “I was beyond giving a fuck what either one of them wanted, and being latent Sentinel protected me. They’d already used a religious exemption to keep me from being trained by the Burton Foundation, and I was sixteen. I could’ve legally separated from them at that point. Javier, my boyfriend, and his brother were putting some plastic up on the roof of the family home because of storm damage. Javier fell and was dead before an ambulance arrived. My parents were wretched about the whole thing and seemed to find my grief offensive.”
Buck nodded. “Was he a latent Guide?”
“Not that I know of,” Eddie murmured. “There didn’t appear to be any Sentinels or Guides in his family background on either side either. Because my parents did try to blame my attraction and feelings on what they called primitive instincts, and Javier’s parents had him tested.”
“How odd and ignorant,” Buck murmured. “We’re an evolutionary leap forward, not backward, and that has been widely known for generations.” He squeezed Eddie’s hand gently. “I’m very sorry that you lost him. I’ve had some romantic entanglements, but they’ve been few and far between because of my Guide status and frankly because of my family situation, which I should tell you the full measure of before you agree to a bond. I’ve never really been in love before.”
Eddie couldn’t think of a single thing that Buck could say that would dissuade him, so he just nodded.
“My brother-in-law is Louis Ransone, the Alpha Sentinel Prime of the Pacific West.” Buck paused and took a deep breath. “My name is Evan Buckley, by the way. My friends and family have been calling me Buck since I was about fourteen. You’d have met my brother, Daniel, yesterday since he’s handling your severance from the Army.”
Eddie considered all of that and found it wasn’t all that intimidating, which he figured spoke to his ignorance regarding Sentinel politics more than anything else. “Is your sister okay?”
“What?” Buck questioned.
“Your sister—I heard the Alpha’s Guide gave birth in the back seat of his car.”
“His brand new, less than a month-old car,” Buck said in amusement. “And yeah, Maddie and the new nibling are fine. They came home this morning, and they’re nesting. A new child triggers an instinctive retreat, so he’ll surface in a few days, and there will be a pride meeting where the newest baby will be introduced. All the Sentinels will do an imprint—so they’ll be able to find him if he were to ever be separated from us.”
Eddie considered that. “Would that happen for Christopher? A pride imprint?”
“Yes, of course. The children of a pride are precious no matter their age, status, or ability. In some ways, I’m still considered part of that group,” Buck admitted. “Since most of the adult Sentinels in Lou’s personal pride have been around since I was a kid. There are a few here and there that came online after I turned eighteen who don’t treat me like a kid, but they still did an imprint on me because of Lou’s attachment.”
“How many people are in your pride?”
“Ten bonded pairs, six unbonded Guides, one Sentinel who refuses to have a Guide search, and my brother Daniel who is mundane. The Beta pair are Bobby Nash and Athena Grant. Bobby’s former partner and Athena’s ex-husband are considered pride adjacent. There are nine children counting the birth of Zac last night. Chris would be the tenth,” Buck explained. “That being said, this facility is the central intake center for the city and the point of contact for the Burton Foundation for the state of California. That’s because of Lou’s status as the Alpha Sentinel Prime.”
“When did he become the Prime?” Eddie questioned.
“The day the previous Alpha Guide Prime retired,” Buck said. “And Maddie was determined to be his successor. Lou took on the role of Alpha Sentinel Prime of the Pacific West because of that.” He frowned a little. “Which is the other part of the conversation we need to have. Currently, Maddie’s second in the pride, the Beta Guide, is Bobby Nash. For the region, a different choice was made.”
“Only if I’m bonded,” Buck said. “Otherwise, we’d have to have a big regional meeting, and a successor would emerge. The thing is, the only reason Maddie was chosen as the Prime Guide for the region is that I was unbonded.”
Eddie exhaled slowly. “If she decides to step down—it goes to you.”
“Without question,” Buck admitted. “And there were plenty of people in the region who were deeply disappointed in my unbonded status, but that has to do with psionic plane management and anchoring. They would like to see me stand as the Prime within the next ten years, but honestly, I don’t want it, and Maddie knows that. Lou promised me two years ago that he won’t allow anyone to force the issue when I bond. But you certainly need to know that it’s looming in my future. Perhaps as much as twenty years from now—it’ll depend on Maddie’s ability to continue to anchor the region on the psionic plane.”
“But it could be less.”
“Yeah, of course.” Buck pressed his lips together briefly. “We can’t control what life throws at us.”
“I want….” Eddie trailed off and looked down at their hands. “I’ve never met anyone like you, and it makes me want things I haven’t wanted in a very long time. I’ve never had a true partner in my private life. Maybe I’ve never really let myself love the way I did when I was younger. I loved Shannon and enjoyed being with her. The pregnancy was an accident, and it brought home an ugly truth for me.”
“She wasn’t as serious about you as you were about her,” Buck said gently.
“Yeah, I saw a future with her, and she saw a love affair with a latent Sentinel that was never going anywhere serious. When she told me that she’d never marry me, my feelings for her just sort of withered away, and we broke up because I couldn’t bring myself to even kiss her after she said no.” Eddie cleared his throat. “That’s when I really started to think about my sexuality, you know. I didn’t date anyone for a couple of years after Javier died. My parents kept introducing me to girls they went to church with, and once, they even invited one over to the damn house.
“I joined the Army the day after I graduated high school. My parents were furious, but they couldn’t do a damn thing about it. Looking back on it, I was desperate for escape but also starving for affection, so I sort of threw myself at people, and most of them caught me because….” He shrugged.
“Well, plenty of people don’t mind having a beautiful person thrown in their lap,” Buck said easily. “That must have been a very confusing time for you.”
“Yeah, it was. I used sex to try to build connections, but it wasn’t working. Eventually, I figured out that I needed the emotional intimacy more than I needed sex, and when I gave myself time to get that, then the sex was just…exactly what it should be. Which was a relief because I was starting to think I was broken.”
“I used to tell people I was bi,” Buck confided. “Well, actually, I started out saying I was gay, then I meandered toward bisexual. But it took me a while to even admit that because I just didn’t want to deal with the assumptions about my sex life. I got slut-shamed just a few months ago merely because I’m a Guide. That asshole had no idea what my sex life is like, but he saw an unbonded Guide with my looks and leapt right to me being a slut.”
“Sounds like jealousy,” Eddie said.
“For some, yes, but there are people out there who just resent the fuck out of Sentinels and Guides for existing, and I’m not talking about the ones who hide behind religion.” Buck gently extracted his fingers and sat back. “This feels selfish of me because you have a lot on your plate, and I’m a full-time job, but I want you.”
“You do look like a full-time job,” Eddie admitted and grinned when Buck blushed. “But I really don’t want to let you go. Ever. And that’s definitely selfish. And if we can’t…get on the same page emotionally, I’ll do everything I possibly can to make it easy for you to find what you need outside of our bond.”
“Not to be arrogant, but I’m not worried about that part,” Buck confided. “I’ve been reliably informed that I’m easy to love.”
Eddie laughed and caught Buck’s hand again and took a deep breath. “Shut up.”
“Seriously, though.” Buck inclined his head and focused on their hands as Eddie let his thumb trail over the top of Buck’s hand. “A psionic bond can foster a false sense of intimacy, so we’ll have to be careful with that.”
“How can sharing an empathic bond create a false sense of intimacy?” Eddie questioned in confusion.
“For some pairings, it’s practically a tactical strike on their feelings,” Buck admitted. “The connection can be profound and overwhelming even without sex. I’ve never experienced it, of course, but I started training when I was thirteen years old. The bond between Sentinel and Guide is a psionic tether of sorts. You won’t be able to hide much from me, you know.”
“Would the same be true for me?” Eddie questioned.
“After a fashion, the longer we’re bonded, the more you’ll see me, and all that entails. I’ll be your shelter as much as you will become my shield. With that kind of relationship comes a knowing that is difficult to explain. But the intimacy it affords bonded pairs is priceless.”
It sounded like everything he’d ever wanted, and Eddie didn’t know how to say that. “How do we…start?”
“Let me text Ryley to let her know I need my bag,” Buck said and left the couch with a quick squeeze of Eddie’s hand. “Try to relax. I’m stupidly over-trained for this, so it’s going to be a walk in the park.”
“Can you explain that?” Eddie questioned as he watched Buck pull out his phone and send a text.
“Lou was afraid I’d go dormant due to my parent’s rejection,” Buck said. “And I was very sensitive—easily on par with Christopher, and it was a potential problem considering the depth of my parents’ disdain for my existence. They also went out of their way to avoid our community to hide my misery.”
Eddie stayed where he was when there was a knock on the door and watched Buck go answer it. A small duffel was passed through without discussion, and the door was quickly locked.
“Will you stay with us tonight?”
“Let’s see how the bonding goes first,” Buck said. “You might need some space afterward.”
“Because it will be intimate, and you could be so put off by it that you’d prefer that I not stay. It’s rare, but it happens. Though, in truth, it historically happened due to internalized homophobia. That’s not a problem for you, but you could have other emotional triggers you’re not even aware of because of how you came online and everything that has happened since then.”
Buck inclined his head toward the bedroom. “We should do this behind a locked door. No matter the level of actual intimacy, it would look…. Well, there’s no need to have to explain that to a four-year-old.”
Eddie nodded. “Makes sense.”
The bedroom felt different with Buck in it, but he let that weird thought drift away. Eddie closed the door and locked it behind them. The steady little thump of Christopher’s heart lingered in the back of his mind and was an immense comfort. He hadn’t been far from that sound since he’d come to LA and didn’t know how separation would go in the future. Eddie knew he couldn’t keep his son at his side twenty-four/seven and certainly wouldn’t try. He hoped there were some coping mechanisms available to manage that pending trauma.
“So, we start with the imprinting of your five external senses,” Buck said and put his bag down on the chair near the window. “No two human hearts sound exactly the same due to body shape, mass, age, and fitness. It is the most distinct sound you can imprint on any single person. You probably did it naturally with Chris and your ex-girlfriend within hours of being in the house.”
“Yeah, but I’m working to let Shannon go. I’m still searching for her when I wake up, and that’s a little bit like a slap in the face, daily.”
Buck winced. “Well, I can help you get rid of that after we bond. In fact, your imprint of me might replace her outright. You instinctually put her in the place of partner when you came to LA due to her relation to your son and because you were sharing a house.” He pulled his shirt over his head and dropped it on the bag.
Eddie was really proud of the fact that he kept his mouth closed. He’d seen plenty of men with Buck’s level of fitness in the Army, so he really shouldn’t be impressed with the sun-kissed skin and an inordinate amount of muscle on display.
Buck wet his lips, drawing attention to his gorgeous mouth. “I did some bulking before attending the academy, as I said. I….” He flushed and shrugged.
“You know you look great,” Eddie said wryly. “I can’t even explain myself right now or the staring because it’s not something I do.”
Buck laughed. “Let’s sit.” He motioned toward the bed and followed Eddie to sit on the end of it. He took off his sneakers but kept the socks. “You’re going to want to touch and…taste. That’s fine.”
“Taste,” Eddie repeated and huffed as his face heated to the point that it felt like he had a fever. “Is there a protocol for that?”
“There used to be an exaggerated process for platonic bonding that catered entirely to homophobic beliefs and the idea that a Guide should keep themselves pure for a Sentinel before and after bonding,” Buck explained as he folded his legs together into a loose Lotus position. “Just sit here in front of me.”
Eddie mirrored the position and tugged off the white T-shirt he’d been given to wear. He’d actually been given enough clothes for him and Christopher to last a week. He hadn’t bothered to ponder how they’d gotten the sizes exactly right for long because it had started to get weird. He tossed the shirt aside and flexed his shoulder as Buck’s gaze settled on the bullet wound high up on his left arm.
“You’ve got some residual pain,” Buck observed. “Is that sensory spike related or just the injury still healing?”
“Still healing and some spiking. They dug the bullets out,” Eddie said and shrugged when Buck winced. “It’s SOP for Sentinels serving in the military as they learned the hard way that leaving bullets in the body of a Sentinel can lead to immense sensory spikes and numbness. Our bodies just don’t respond well to foreign materials left inside.”
“No, I get that part,” Buck said. “But the word dug in relation to surgery isn’t a pleasant one. I suppose it’s accurate, though, if it was done in a field hospital.”
“It was, but there was a trauma surgeon on hand for it. The DOD doesn’t take those kinds of risks with Sentinels or Guides, and there were three pairs on the base where I was stationed. People covet assignments where Sentinels are assigned because it means better facilities, medical care, and rations. I was pretty pleased with the assignment, personally, since it meant I would be issued the best possible supplies for field medicine, and I was never shortchanged on anything, which can happen in regular assignments if the supply chain suffers from delays.”
“Sounds horrible,” Buck admitted. “But I’m glad you had good circumstances to be transported to after you came online.” He offered both of his hands, and Eddie took them quickly. “After your imprint, I’ll invite you into my psionic space, and unless we’re both really off base, a bond will form between us. The bond will be a tether between our minds and a psionic shelter for your senses, and my empathy will be created. This may eventually lead to you gathering sensory perceptions from me if we are in separate locations.”
“That’s…pretty cool,” Eddie murmured. “Why do I go first?”
“Opening up my empathy this way is…will be hard. I’ve not allowed anyone into my psionic space since I built my first shield.” His gaze drifted over Eddie’s face in frank inspection, and Eddie wondered what Buck was seeing. “You’ve locked your senses down to a large degree, which is good. You clearly took on board the minimal amount of training you received from the Army. In the spirit of full disclosure, you could operate on this level with very little intervention and no Guide indefinitely outside of extreme circumstances.”
Eddie couldn’t help the face he made. “I feel like I’m literally half of myself. Ryley said she thought I was still sort of stuck in combat. I don’t know if that’s completely accurate, but it felt true when she said it.”
Buck nodded. “Okay, then, let’s bring you home.” He squeezed Eddie’s fingers gently. “Are you using the dial system to level?”
“Yes, that’s what the Army taught me.” Eddie considered the phrasing. “Is it not the best choice?”
“It’s not the worst choice. They used to just to teach Sentinels a switch system which meant Sentinels basically just turned their senses off and on like a light. It worked for some, but not all. It also often caused sensory prolapse in unbonded Sentinels. But you’re an Alpha Sentinel, so I think a better sensory management system would be a series of psionic shields that you can manipulate at will. It would also allow me to do the same for you in an emergency situation. I can also create sense shelters within those shields so you can tuck them away into pockets. Eventually, the use of your advanced senses will be a background process of sorts. You won’t even need to concentrate on one to get what you need from your environment to work as a Sentinel.”
Buck smiled. “Just focus on me for a moment—the sight impression is the easiest to accomplish, and you’ll naturally create one for most of the people in your life. It will build and shift over time as well, due to the way bodies change over a lifetime.”
It didn’t feel necessary, which Eddie figured meant he’d already made a sight impression of Buck without even thinking about it. Maybe, honestly, from the first time he saw him.
“Ready for more?” Buck questioned.
Eddie nodded and exhaled slowly as Buck brought one of his hands up and pressed it firmly against his chest, just over his heart. The Guide’s skin was warm and soft, but the thud of his heartbeat against his palm was so alluring that Eddie’s hearing extended slowly outward until he could connect with the sound being made. He let himself stay with the sound, absorbing the cadence of Buck’s heartbeat until it felt like his own.
“What?” Buck questioned.
“Our heartbeats synced up,” Eddie murmured. “Is that…okay?”
“Not unexpected for an alpha,” Buck assured and let go of both of his hands. “Now, you can touch me any way you’d like—above the waist.”
Eddie cleared his throat and let his hands drop to his own thighs. “I…I really haven’t touched anyone in a while. I wasn’t interested in getting caught up in a fraternization violation, plus allowing those kinds of emotional attachments in theater is just a terrible idea.”
Buck nodded and relaxed back on his hands. “You’ve been taking care of yourself, right?” He quirked an eyebrow, and Eddie couldn’t help but laugh.
“Well, yeah,” Eddie said. “Sex with myself is always a go. It’s just I know I’m a little starved for affection—across the board. I’m kind of a needy bastard if I’m honest.”
“I’m not put off by that, and I’ve been accused of it myself,” Buck said. “After coming online, I started to outright crave physical contact with other people. Most mundanes assume that’s all about sex, but it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong—I absolutely adore fucking. I mean, I’d take it on as an actual hobby if I had the time. Are you worried this process is going to turn you on?”
“I know it is,” Eddie admitted. “At least physically, and you haven’t explained how we’re going to do taste, but I can’t imagine how that part isn’t going to be…a lot.”
“Well, the easiest method to get a full taste impression would be for you to kiss me,” Buck said reasonably. “Neck, hairline, and the mouth are the best choices.”
“Listen, and believe me when I say it, I am not remotely interested in having sex with you right now,” Buck said firmly. “Potential erections aside, you don’t want me, and that’s an immense turn-off for me intellectually. So, even if we both react physically, it’s not something to worry about. Jerking off in the shower before bed isn’t going to be a problem. I do me on the regular.”
“You are far more entertaining than you have any right to be,” Eddie said roughly as he cupped Buck’s face with one hand and rubbed his thumb over the most generous mouth he’d ever seen on a man. “I want to want you.” His fingers trembled briefly. “Nothing I’ve ever read about this whole thing came close to explaining it.”
“It’s individual,” Buck said hoarsely and pressed his face against Eddie’s hand. “Or at least that’s what I’ve been told. I’ve never come this close to a bond with a Sentinel. I’ve acted as a Conservator for other Guides before…but…this is entirely new.”
Eddie let both hands drift, fingers glancing over Buck’s skin and into soft curls. He pulled Buck closer, and the Guide shifted easily into his space as if it was no big deal at all. It felt like he’d made the biggest decision he’d ever make in his life, but what little bit of worry that he’d had left slipped away as he tucked his face against Buck’s neck and inhaled against his skin. Eddie shuddered when Buck cupped the back of his head, and with no real thought, he opened his mouth, lips brushing gently. He meant for it to be a quick thing, just a brief taste to settle that sense into place, but the moment his tongue met warm flesh everything narrowed, and the world disappeared.
“Easy,” Buck whispered, and a big warm hand settled on his back. “I’ve got you.”
Eddie wanted more, but speech was beyond him. He shifted, brushed his lips along Buck’s jawline then pressed their mouths together. He was allowed immediate entry and couldn’t help but groan at the intimate contact. The sensory input was like an explosion, but Buck kept the kiss gentle, soft. When he pulled away, Eddie wanted to protest but didn’t. He swallowed back his disappointment.
“It’s all right,” Buck murmured and cupped his face carefully. “The Sentinel in you wants things the man isn’t on board with. That kind of conflict is age-old amongst our kind for a variety of reasons.”
“Okay,” Eddie said hoarsely and shifted a bit to relieve the pressure on his aching erection. He’d never gotten so hard, so fast in his entire fucking life. “I’m fine.”
Buck laughed. “You liar.”
Eddie huffed. “This is the weirdest experience I’ve ever had.”
“I can accept that,” Buck murmured. “I’m going to start now—just relax as much as you can.”
There was a gentle push against his mind, and he didn’t even try to fight it. Eddie let his eyes fall shut as he was enveloped in the warmest, softest sensation he’d ever known. He surrendered to the safety of it, and distantly he heard Buck urge him to relax, so he did. Blue energy was swirling around them when he opened his eyes again, and he took in a deep, ragged breath as Buck carefully folded that energy around them like a blanket.
“This is us,” Buck murmured. “Our synergy—coming together as our kind have for thousands of years.”
The energy went wispy around them after a few moments, then sank into their skin. Eddie took a deep breath.
“Sunshine and warm rain.”
“What?” Buck questioned.
“That’s what Chris said you felt like—sunshine and warm rain.” He watched Buck blush. “It’s just…I understand what he meant now.” Eddie clenched his teeth briefly on his bottom lip, then he smiled. “It’s amazing.”
Eddie tucked the pair of shoes he’d found half under the couch into the closet in the entryway just as the doorbell rang. Buck had texted him to let him know that Alpha Ransone was on his way over, so he was expected, and the arrival hadn’t thrown him off. Buck was currently at the house he’d been sharing with several Guides from the pride, packing his things. Eddie had wanted to go with him but had been sent home as the house was strictly a Guide space, and not even bonded Sentinels were allowed entry.
He opened the door. “Alpha Ransone.” Eddie offered his hand, and the other Sentinel took it as he stepped into the house.
Eddie stilled as Ransone’s other hand settled on top of his, and Ransone nudged the door shut behind them. “I….”
“Just a moment,” the older man murmured and inclined his head as he stared. He gave a slow nod and released him. “I see the bond has settled very well. Call me Lou, please.”
“I can feel him from here,” Eddie confessed. “Is that weird? That’s probably weird.”
Lou laughed. “It’s not common, but certainly not weird. Evan is especially talented and has a territorial imperative of his own due to his standing in the region. You’ll share that imperative going forward. Dr. Sandburg believes that Evan will eventually become a spiritual anchor for the continent.”
“He didn’t mention meeting the Alpha Guide Prime of North America,” Eddie said and blew air out between his lips. “I feel like I’m in over my head.”
“Certainly,” Lou said cheerfully. “But the challenge will be good for you. Where is your son?”
“At my abuela’s—he has a standing playdate with her neighbor’s two children.” Eddie checked his watch. “Do I need to go get him?”
“No, but I want to make sure you bring him to the next pride meeting,” Lou said. “It’s important that all the adult Sentinels in the pride have sense imprints of our children. It keeps everyone calm in emergency situations. Daniel tells me that the DOD has voluntarily severed due to your bonding with a civilian Guide.”
Eddie nodded. “Yes, I got a phone call this morning. They were seriously…put out. It was weird. But I was told that bonding with Buck was basically an outrageous breach of conduct as far as they were concerned, and I should’ve contacted them and asked permission first. Which I know is illegal, and they didn’t say it exactly like that, but the implications were clear.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t get it.”
“There are about thirty Guides across the United States and Canada that enjoy protected status, policed by the Burton Foundation,” Lou said. “That status is determined by Dr. Sandburg, and no one is allowed to argue it. Buck is one of those Guides and has been since shortly after he came online. Such Guides are considered off-limits to the governments of both countries due to their role in the management of the psionic plane.”
“Water?” Eddie questioned as he wrapped his head around that, and Lou shook his head. “I don’t keep much else in the house, but I could make tea. Christopher has milk and sugar-free juice—his stomach is sensitive due to the CP, so we have to be careful about food.”
“I’d like a list of foods that he can’t tolerate and his favorites as well,” Lou said. “I’ll see that it’s given to everyone in the pride.”
Eddie filled his flask with filtered water from the fridge and screwed the lid back into place. “Why?”
“It’s the duty of the pride to provide for each other in times of crisis, personal or otherwise. Buck will make sure your house is prepared to receive any of the children in our pride if something comes up. In truth, you should’ve been warned in advance; the children follow him around constantly. You can expect every single of them to camp out in your guest room at least once a month. Well, except for the baby. Zac doesn’t have the language skills to demand equal time yet.”
“You’ll want to speak with Ryley Sloan about pride-approved doctors for your son and yourself. Your personal physical therapist isn’t someone any of us have worked with before, so there will be an evaluation to make sure they can meet all of your needs. Mundanes often don’t understand the role sensory spikes play in the physical recovery of a Sentinel, and that can be a problem when it comes to medical care.” Lou sat down at the table when Eddie motioned to it. “Do you know what an Enforcer does in a pride?”
Eddie hesitated but then shook his head. “No, I don’t. I’m not actually all that certain what anyone does within a pride.”
“As Alpha, it’s my duty to see to the protection of the tribe. That tribe is loosely defined by geography. My senses are primed to deal with the large-scale issues and conflicts—for instance, a gun can’t be discharged in my territory outside of the four gun ranges which I’ve worked to exclude in the area without getting my immediate attention.”
“And how big is your territory?”
“I cover LA with five other Sentinels. The line can blur a little depending on my location and status as the regional Alpha,” Lou said. “Regionally, I act as a resource manager for the Burton Foundation. My pride is also on call to specifically manage the response of other prides in the region when it comes to natural disasters, which can take on a life of their own. The Beta for my personal pride is Athena Grant. You already know that role is yours on a regional level due to Evan’s status.”
Eddie nodded. “I can handle whatever is expected of us both on that front.”
“Yes, I believe so as well,” Lou said. “As far as the role of Enforcer, that is yours in our personal territory.”
Eddie’s stomach tightened. “Will I be expected to kill for you?”
Lou blinked in surprise. “No. Enforcers keep the peace, protect the pride, and act as a touchstone for the others. An Enforcer and their Guide provides balance within a territory. If there came a point when our pride was not safe in LA, I would expect you to take all of our children and go to ground with them. That’s the role of an Enforcer—protection and peacekeeping. There are only two others in LA right now, so it’s been an issue. We lost our Enforcer last year in a drive-by shooting. Booker was a cop; he worked directly under Athena Grant. His Guide is inconsolable and could remain that way indefinitely. They were an ideal pairing.” He cleared his throat. “Much like you and Evan. Already your bond has created a well of comfort within the pride that I can’t really explain.”
Eddie figured that was entirely to do with Buck. “Really? Because I’ve been an antsy mess for the last two hours. Buck has called me twice and almost abandoned packing to come over here.”
Lou hummed under his breath. “That’s not pride-related, or Athena would be on the wall, so to speak.” He leaned forward slightly. “What would be the single biggest stressor for you right now? Your ex returning?”
“No, I don’t…” Eddie made a face. “Christ, my parents must be in LA. They were harassing my ex about coming to visit. I didn’t realize they were actually here already.” He stood up and rubbed his chest, and his phone started to vibrate in his pocket. “Also, I can’t even have a proper angst-fest without setting my Guide off. Is that going to level out?”
Lou laughed. “No.”
He fired off a text to Buck telling him that he was fine and got a frownie face emoji for his trouble. “He keeps sending me passive-aggressive emoji texts.”
“There’s nothing passive about Buck’s aggression when he’s provoked,” Lou said and checked his watch. “Which I admit takes a whole fucking lot. He’s always been a very easy-going person, so when he’s furious, there is cause to be concerned.”
Eddie nodded, but something had caught the edge of his hearing, and he focused on the sound without much thought. It was a sweet familiar sound, and as it grew closer, he recognized it. “My aunt is bringing Christopher home.”
“Yes, I was going to go get him and introduce Buck to my grandmother and aunt,” Eddie explained. “My parents must be on their way to Abuela’s house—she knows I don’t want them around Chris without me.” He rubbed his head in frustration as he listened to his tia’s car pull into the driveway. “My parents don’t know that Shannon is gone, and she banned them from the house months ago.”
“They are unaware of your ownership of the house?”
“No, and I’m not all that keen to…tell them anything, but I think it would just make things more stressful to try to keep any secrets from them.” Eddie left the kitchen, walked down the short hall to the front entrance, and opened the door as his son started up the ramp tucked against the house leading up the short porch. “Hey, mijo.”
Chris huffed. “Grandma and Abuelo showed up, Daddy, and ruined my whole day.”
Pepa offered him a tight smile as she came up the stairs with Christopher’s backpack. “They didn’t tell us they were going to come here—just showed up at Mamá’s house and acted like we were the problem for being upset about it based on what Mamá told me.”
Eddie took the backpack as Christopher huffed his way into the house with the most put-upon expression possible. “Did they say anything to him?”
“I was over at the neighbor’s house with him because of the big playroom they have. Mamá texted me, so I just put Christopher in my car and left without even speaking to Ramon. I don’t know if they’ve been told that Christopher was there, but I can expect they’ll be furious with me for leaving with him.” Her eyes widened as she looked over his shoulder. “Is that your…?”
“No.” Eddie laughed a little. “Alpha Louis Ransone, meet my aunt Josephina Diaz Padron.”
Lou stepped forward and offered his hand, and Pepa blushed. “Ma’am, it’s a pleasure.”
Pepa cleared her throat as he held her hand. “I…yes, I apologize. I recognize you now, Alpha Ransone.”
“Please call me Lou,” Ransone said with an easy smile and inhaled deeply. “Eddie, you’ll bring your aunt and grandmother to the pride meeting that’s being scheduled.”
Eddie nodded and was relieved by the offer. “Of course, sir.”
“Think about what I’ve said, and let me know if you’ll have a problem with it going forward. I feel like it’s the most natural role for you in the pride.” Lou stared at Pepa for a few more seconds, then nodded. “Thank you for keeping Eddie’s stress low as possible on this issue. He’s still in a delicate place despite the profound bond he’s been gifted with.” He inclined his head. “And if you stick around for about ten minutes, you can meet Evan. He’s on his way.”
“You can hear him?” Eddie questioned.
“No, just a knowing,” Lou said easily. “Evan is my family, and I always know where my family is in a general sort of way. He’s moving closer, which means he either finished packing his room at the Guide house, or he gave up packing because of your overt stress.” He focused on Eddie. “It is a skill you’ll develop for those you consider close family—your son, Guide, grandmother, and, of course, this beautiful lady.”
Pepa huffed. “You’re just all charm.”
“My wife would say differently,” Lou confided and slipped out the door. “I’ll let Athena know that your parents are here, and please don’t hesitate to reach out if you need help managing them or their behavior.”
“Thank you.” Eddie took a deep breath and shut the door as Ransone went down the stairs.
“Did they tell you they were coming here?” Pepa questioned.
“I’ve been ignoring mom’s calls for the last few days because I’ve been so stressed out and….” He trailed off and glanced toward the kitchen when he heard a distinct clack of a crutch hitting the floor.
He walked into the kitchen and found Christopher sitting at the table with one crutch propped against the table and the other on the floor. Eddie leaned down and picked up the crutch, then hooked it into place beside the other one on the edge of the table. “Mijo.”
“I don’t want to see them at all,” Chris said flatly. “They just feel mean, and I don’t like it.”
Eddie glanced toward Pepa, who looked alarmed and sat down at the table. “Can you think about that for a minute? And tell me if they feel mean or angry or sad?”
Chris frowned and twisted his fingers together as he thought about it. “I don’t…” He wet his lips. “I don’t think I understand, Daddy.”
“Okay,” Eddie said and ran his fingers through his son’s curls. “We’ll talk to Buck about it and work on it, okay? I want you to understand what you feel from others because it’ll help you.”
“How will it help me?” Chris asked.
“Wouldn’t it be better if you knew if your grandparents were mad or just disappointed?” Eddie questioned.
“I don’t know…because either way, they make me feel awful,” Chris exclaimed and waved his hands. “Abuelita and Tia Pepa make me feel warm and safe.”
Eddie sat down at the table. “You know my first sense memory of Abuela…she made me these cookies. When I think about them, I can smell the cinnamon in the air.”
“Snickerdoodles,” Pepa supplied and smiled when Eddie glanced her way. “Mamá’s favorite. She tries to make them everyone’s favorites.”
“Well, she succeeded with me,” Eddie confessed and grinned when Pepa laughed.
“I like her peanut butter shortbread best,” Chris declared but put his head down on the table. “Grandma and Abuelo made Mommy so unhappy.”
“I know,” Eddie said and took a deep breath as his senses were suddenly full of his Guide. “Buck’s here.” He stood and touched his son’s shoulder briefly. “We’ll figure this out, okay? You don’t have to see them if you don’t want to.”
“I want them to be nice.”
Eddie didn’t know if that was even possible. He had precious few good memories of his parents as they’d never hesitated to express their displeasure regarding his choices and general existence. He left Pepa in the kitchen with Christopher and went to see why his Guide was just sitting in his car in the driveway. He found Buck sitting in an older model Jeep, fingers tapping gently on the wheel.
Buck rolled down the window as he approached and turned off the engine. “Hey.”
“Why are you just sitting here?”
“Clearing out my head,” Buck said and pulled the keys from the ignition. “One of the Guides I lived with was a little…bent about me bonding. She was one of your potentials and couldn’t figure how or why I was the one because….” He flushed and shook his head. “She’s pretty convinced of her value and resents me for my place in the pride and in Lou’s life since I’m not his blood, and she is.”
“I had two female potentials yesterday,” Eddie said and leaned on the Jeep. “One was deeply offended that I didn’t immediately find her sexually attractive, and the other just seemed off to me. I can’t explain it. Neither were offensive to my senses. Do you want their names?”
“I already know their names,” Buck said in amusement. “The one that was offended about the sex thing is already back in New York. The other is the one I lived with, and she’s Lou’s first cousin. Her name is Emilie.” Eddie nodded. “Do you want to know why she put you off?”
“Yeah, that would be great,” Eddie said.
“To start, she doesn’t have a personal calling and doesn’t seem to have any interest in cultivating one. She works as a nurse and is very good at her job, but she’s a bit of a lazy ass on the Guide front because of her association with Lou. As a result, her aura can be discomforting to high-level Sentinels. She felt weird to you because of what she’s missing versus what she actually presented with.” Buck left the Jeep and went around to the back. “I have two crates and a TV that I’ll need a truck for. So just my clothes and grooming stuff today.”
Eddie grabbed one of the bags after Buck selected one and slung a backpack over his shoulder. He started to reach for the large black duffel that was left, but Buck waved him off.
“No, that stays in the Jeep. I keep an emergency kit for first response for when I’m off duty.” He shut the door, walked around the side, and took an LAFD bag out of the backseat. “I need to prep my work bag eventually, but I have two weeks off to start. Bobby is hoping I can come back on shift after that. Speaking of, the current Chief of the Fire Department contacted me to congratulate me on our bond.” He made a face. “And, of course, invited you to attend the academy free of charge. Should you be carrying that?”
“This side is fine, and my pain levels have been okay since I woke up. And I’m not opposed to joining the LAFD,” Eddie said. “I’d like to observe some of the training and maybe visit the station house.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Buck said and glanced toward the house. “Why is Chris here and upset?”
“My parents showed up at Abuela’s house, so my Tia Pepa snuck him back over here,” Eddie said roughly. “They didn’t have any contact, but he’s mad because they ruined his day with his friends. I mean, I left the isolation suite today so he could go over there.”
Buck nodded. “Well, let’s go handle this.”
“Which part?” Eddie questioned. “My upset kid, your unpacking, or my wretched parents.”
“Kid first,” Buck decided with a small smile. “He’ll be the easiest.”
Eddie didn’t know if that was true, but he was relieved by Buck’s confidence. He led Buck into the house, where they dumped all the bags on the sofa, and motioned him toward the hall that led to the kitchen. Chris was still seated at the table, staring pointedly at the wood surface.
“Buck, this is my tia, Josephina Padron,” Eddie said. “Pepa, this is Evan Buckley, my Guide. He prefers Buck.”
“Please call me Pepa. It’s lovely to meet you, Buck,” Josephina said and held out her hand to Buck.
Buck took the hand she offered in both of his, and her eyes widened slightly as he focused on her.
“Can I ask a question?”
“Of course, ma’am. It’s an honor to meet you,” Buck murmured.
“Your Alpha took my hand this way as well. Why?”
“For a Sentinel, it allows them to gather a surface imprint of several biological markers—touch, hearing, and sight specifically since most people go incredibly still under their attention,” Buck explained.
“What are you learning about me?” Pepa asked in amusement.
“Nothing so specific,” Buck said. “Psionic energy moves through us all, creating a certain kind of knowing of those we consider family helps us find them in cases of emergency. I’ll walk Eddie through imprints for both you and his grandmother as soon as possible. It will help him relax and heal. As to my gifts, being able to tell him honestly that you’re okay through a psionic connection of sorts is part of my duty to him and your family.”
Pepa stared for a moment. “It’s been generations since we’ve had an online Sentinel or Guide in the family. My brother was believed to be latent as a child but was eventually determined to be dormant as an adult. He’s never revealed the reason.”
“Emotional trauma is most often the culprit,” Buck said neutrally as he released her hand and focused on Christopher. “Hey, little man.”
“Hi Buck,” Chris said with a small smile.
Buck sat down at the table. “I heard you had a stressful afternoon.”
“Yeah.” Chris frowned and averted his gaze. Eddie’s stomach tightened because his son’s misery was fast becoming a hot button for him.
“I’ll go,” Pepa said. “We’ll run interference on Ramon and Helena as much as we can, but if you show up at Mamá’s, it’ll make things easier on you in the long run. They’re not going to go away, considering you haven’t seen them at all since they found out you were shot multiple times.”
“Maybe,” Eddie admitted. “Right now, they’re afraid to show up here because Shannon threatened to call the cops.”
Pepa shook her head. “They deserved it and more. Let me know if you boys need anything.”
Eddie sort of wanted to grab her hand and make her stay. She must have noticed it because she gave him a knowing look and left the kitchen. He made himself follow along behind her and lock the door. Since he had to be mature about it, he went back to the kitchen where his Guide and son were sitting. Neither of them was a source of stress, but he felt kind of overwhelmed to have them both close at hand again. Separating earlier in the day hadn’t been all that difficult until he’d driven several miles away from Buck and had to fight the urge to turn right back around.
Buck had responded by calling him and talking to him the whole trip home, which Eddie had only been mildly embarrassed by. Part of him was too relieved by the bond for anything else to matter on that front. Buck was still at the kitchen table when he returned, so he joined them.
“Did you want to hold my hand?” Buck questioned, and Christopher nodded, lips pressed tightly together.
Buck laid his arm out on the table and offered his hand palm up. Christopher wrapped both his hands around a few of the man’s fingers and hitched up his shoulders.
“Your connection to the psionic plane is difficult to manage when you’re latent. I used to have a hard time with it because some people think if they don’t express their emotions, it doesn’t matter how much they’re…reacting on the inside.” Buck explained. “Your sensitivity isn’t going to go away.”
“I know,” Christopher said with a frown, and his hands clenched tightly around Buck’s fingers. “Unless I go dormant.”
“Well, that’s not going to happen to you,” Buck said firmly.
“Abuelo said it would be best if I did,” Chris confessed and flushed brightly when Eddie lurched from the table with a curse. “Sorry.”
“No, mijo, it’s not your fault,” Eddie said hoarsely. “I…your abuelo is dormant. I don’t know the specifics, but he resented the fact that I remained latent. I can’t say he didn’t try to make me dormant…nothing overt that would’ve gotten him in trouble, but he used to say the same thing to me all the damned time.”
Buck’s hand had started to glow, and Christopher focused on the light blue swirl of psionic energy moving around their fingers. “Have you ever meditated, Chris?”
“No.” Chris laughed. “I’m too young, right? YouTube says that meditating is for people online anyways.”
“Well, none of that is true,” Buck said. “You can’t always trust YouTube to tell you the truth, okay? My sister taught me to meditate when I was around your age because I was having a hard time managing my own emotions. I’ve been doing it daily since she taught me.”
“I want to learn if it’ll help,” Chris said and glanced toward Eddie. “Do you meditate, Daddy?”
“I have a feeling I won’t be given much a choice going forward,” Eddie said wryly and ignored the amused look that Buck sent him. “We should probably put on some comfortable clothes, though.”
“Good idea,” Buck said. “Give me about a few minutes to get settled, and we can meet in the living room.”
* * * *
Buck lined up his bags next to the dresser in the room he’d been given in the Diaz household and quickly changed into the sweats and t-shirt he’d found. He changed his socks as well and tucked all of the clothes he’d worn for the trip over into a laundry bag. He’d have to go through the house and check all the chemicals and replace whatever wouldn’t be good for anyone in the household going forward. He snagged his phone as he left the room and walked through the house to the living room.
Christopher and Eddie were already back in the room, sitting facing each other on the floor. The boy was giggling softly at his father, and Eddie appeared to be enduring his son’s amusement with a great deal of goodwill. They were a charming pair, and Buck could acknowledge, at least to himself, that he was already stupidly invested. The bond he’d created with Eddie was lovely, and he felt good about their potential to build a relationship as long as they were able to overcome external pressures.
He joined them on the floor, and both father and son focused on him immediately. Buck noted that Christopher was pressing his fingers into his calf muscle absently. He stared for a moment, considered whether or not he should ask, but found he couldn’t ignore it.
“Is your leg hurting, Chris?”
“Just a cramp,” Chris said and shrugged. “I get them a lot.”
“What does your physical therapist say about them?” Buck questioned and shifted around so he could move the kid into a better position. He cupped the back of Chris’ leg with his left hand, and the muscle tightened. “This is pretty bad.” He glanced toward Eddie, who looked concerned. “What?”
“Shannon didn’t leave me any information about physical therapy for him,” he confessed, and his cheeks darkened. “Chris, do you have a physical therapist?”
Chris looked between them. “I went to see Miss Nadine every Monday until Mommy left. I missed last Monday, though. I’ve been trying to do my exercises in the morning by myself when I wake up like I’m supposed to.”
“Do you remember the name of the place where Miss Nadine worked?” Eddie questioned.
Chris frowned. “The building was white with a big blue sign.”
Buck almost laughed at the expression of appalled frustration that settled on his Sentinel’s face. Fortunately, he happened to know of a PT facility that had a big blue sign. “Did the therapy building have a pool?”
“Yeah, a huge one with an orange border.”
Buck nodded. “And a gym behind a shiny all-glass wall.”
“You’ve been there,” Chris said and wiggled his foot as Buck pressed gently on the muscle. “That feels better already.”
“I’ve done some work there in the past,” Buck murmured. “His Miss Nadine is Dr. Nadine Hudson of Hudson & Frost Physical Therapy & Rehab. It’s not a surprise that he was referred there—it’s a great rehab and PT facility for long-term injury or permanent disability. And Dr. Hudson is one of the best pediatric specialists in the city.” He paused. “There is another Nadine that is a physical therapist at an injury rehab center not far from the 118, but I think it’s probably Dr. Hudson.”
Eddie nodded. “Thanks. I need to get copies of his medical records. I don’t know where.…” He trailed off as he looked around the house. “She didn’t leave me anything…at least not that I’ve found. And never brought it up during the whole legal process. I should’ve asked. I feel like an idiot.”
“You had a lot going on.” Buck frowned and focused on the muscle that was jumping under his fingers. “We’ll want to transfer most of his care to pride-approved doctors, at any rate. If Nadine Hudson is his physical therapist, then she’s the best choice possible. We can ask her for some one-on-one time, and both get up to speed on exercises and the like that he should be doing going forward.” He focused on Chris, who was wiggling his toes a little as he used his thumb to work the muscle. “How’s this, Chris?”
“Tingly, are you using Guide stuff?”
“If by Guide stuff, you mean psionic energy, then yes,” Buck said with a grin. “We can do a lot of pain management with psionic energy, so Guides are often called to careers that would make use of those skills—physical and massage therapy both being on that list. I can find you a massage therapist in the future who is trained to do this for all of your major muscle groups.”
Eddie cleared his throat. “Is it a big ask…to request that you do that training?”
Buck watched his Sentinel flush. “No, not at all. It wouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks since I’d have to work around other duties. I’d never let anyone I didn’t trust use psionic energy on Chris, though.”
“I know,” Eddie assured. “It’s just…” He shrugged and averted his gaze.
Oh, Buck thought and wondered how much body pain his Sentinel was suppressing.
Buck exhaled slowly and focused on Chris, who was offering his other leg. He laughed and accepted the exchange. “I see your game, Superman.”
Chris grinned widely and shrugged as he leaned back on his hands. “It’s nice like after it feels when Miss Nadine uses the machine.”
“What machine?” Eddie questioned.
“The…sound machine,” Chris said and scrunched up his nose. “She uses it on my muscles to make them loose.”
“Ultrasound,” Buck supplied. “It’s a form of deep heat therapy for soft tissue. I had it on my leg last year when I had some ligament damage—a recreational climbing accident. Deep heat is very beneficial for stretching muscles and tendons and a great choice for him.”
Eddie’s shoulders relaxed as Buck held Christopher’s small, socked foot in the palm of his hand.
“Can you push into my hand as hard as you can?” Buck questioned and kept his face neutral as the boy did so. “We should work on some strength training. Do you have a resistance band?”
“I have two,” Chris said easily. “A yellow and a red one—they’re both Thera-bands. I have to use those with Mommy, though.”
“Well, we’ll talk to Miss Nadine about how to use them,” Buck said and noted that his Sentinel was doing a very good job of keeping his fury off his face, and Chris seemed to be utterly unaware of it. “How about a balance board?”
“Like my Kinderboard?” Chris questioned. “It’s in my closet. I have to use that with Mommy, too.”
Eddie pinched the bridge of his nose. “Are there any other things that you have to use with your mom?”
“I can’t go in the pool alone,” Chris said. “But Mommy didn’t open the pool like she said she would because it’s broken. Nana put the pool in for me last year for…low impact exercise.”
“That’s great,” Buck said. “We’ll check it out and get everything set up. It’ll be good for your dad, too.”
“My Nana is sick,” Chris continued. “She said goodbye to me and told me she was going to a better place.” He bent down on his bottom lip. “Does that mean she died?”
“Your grandma is visiting her family, mijo,” Eddie said quietly. “Because she’s very ill and wanted to say goodbye in person like she did with you.”
Chris nodded. “She said it wouldn’t hurt, and she would be with Grandpa, which would make her happy. Is it a happy place? Where you go when you die?”
“Yes,” Buck said quietly as it worked. “The psionic plane is a beautiful and very welcoming place—full of love, acceptance, and all the people that have gone before us.”
Chris nodded. “I’m glad she’ll be okay.” He wiggled his feet. “That feels much better.”
“Okay,” Buck said and shifted his position until he was sitting directly in front of both father and son. “When I worked for the Burton Foundation, one of the things I did every day was direct large meditation sessions. That means I would use my voice and psionic energy to lead others into a meditative state. In order to accomplish that, you need to surrender to the process.”
Chris nodded eagerly, but Eddie looked like Buck had asked him to do something utterly profane. Buck couldn’t help but laugh and rest back on his hands in a mirror of Christopher’s earlier position.
“How does that work?” Chris asked and adjusted his glasses. “Do we close our eyes?”
“Teacher’s pet,” Eddie muttered and grinned when his son laughed.
Buck eyed his Sentinel, pleased by how at ease he was despite all the stress of the situation unfolding around them. He didn’t think that Eddie’s parents were going to be anything less than a nightmare, but he intended to confront that situation head-on to prevent further emotional trauma for both Eddie and Christopher.
“Yes, close your eyes. It’ll allow you to settle your mind without visual distraction,” Buck murmured. “When we are in harmony with the psionic plane, our minds and bodies will be more attuned to it. Mental clarity allows us to deal with stress and emotional distress.” Chris nodded eagerly. “I’ve used this clarity in my own mind to moderate my connection to the psionic plane, Chris. And there, I created the bond your dad and I share.”
“Will I learn how to do that?”
“If and when you are called to be a Guide, I will make sure you are completely prepared for it,” Buck said. “We can’t say for certain if you’ll be called upon to work on behalf of the tribe.”
“Because of my CP?”
Buck ignored the slight flinch Eddie couldn’t suppress. “Oh, no, that doesn’t matter at all when it comes to the scope of the psionic plane. The Alpha Guide Prime of North America, from 1985 to 2008, was confined to a wheelchair due to injury. He came online as a Guide after he was wheelchair-bound because the tribe needed him. All latents have the potential to provide a service to the tribe that is unique to us, but sometimes we aren’t called upon because that special thing we can do is not needed. It isn’t a judgment of our worthiness. Instead, it is an indication that the world doesn’t need to ask such a sacrifice from us.”
Chris nodded. “Is it a big sacrifice?”
“There is no higher calling than to be a Sentinel or a Guide, as far as I’m concerned,” Buck said. “You’ll serve the tribe your whole life, Chris.” He smiled then. “But don’t worry about that right now—it’s many years away for you.”
“Or maybe never,” Chris said huffily.
“Even latents serve in their own way,” Buck said. “You’ll always be a part of your father’s pride, and you’ll eventually see what your role in that pride will be. Don’t stress about it. You’ve got plenty of more pressing things to worry about.”
Chris laughed and blew air out between his lips noisily. “Let’s go.” He clapped his hands excitedly and shut his eyes with as much aggressive agreement as a four-year-old could.
Buck swallowed down on his own amusement and shook his head. He’d rarely adored anyone so fast in his life as he did Christopher Diaz. He kept his voice soft as he carefully led them both straight into a deep meditative state. It wasn’t a surprise that the boy fell faster into the process than his father. Latent children innately trusted the psionic plane and the comfort it could provide.
His bond with Eddie deepened, and he encountered a series of hot spots in the man’s aura that spoke to pain flairs that he was managing through suppression. Experience told Buck that he’d probably have a hard time even getting over-the-counter pain medication into his Sentinel, so he crafted a sensory pocket within their bond and started to push the pain into it. It was a very short-term solution, but it would give the man a break. He felt Eddie’s relief wash over him as he worked and resolved to give the man a giant lecture about his behavior.
* * * *
“No, Shannon,” Eddie snapped and took a deep breath. “I haven’t had time to move my things into the goddamned master bedroom! I’m still healing and dealing with a deeply traumatized child who cries himself to sleep practically every single fucking night.”
“Eddie, I…I couldn’t stay.”
“I know, but the way you left was awful and abusive. If it weren’t for my abuela and Pepa, I’d have had to hire someone to take care of us both. I have one arm that I can consistently use without risk of further injury and severe pain flairs. My leg gives out on me once or twice a fucking day!” He pressed his free hand against his chest briefly, but Buck settled down on the couch beside him and took the hand in his own. “And I realize it’s not your job to take care of me, but I was in no position to take on the physical care of a four-year-old with mobility issues, and you didn’t care.”
“There’s a box on the dresser—it has all of the paperwork and a hard copy of Christopher’s medical records. There’s also an iPad mini in the box. I used it exclusively to log into various portals for his healthcare. The password is his birthday.” Shannon cleared her throat. “I’m not coming back—I can’t be what either of you want. If I’d stayed, you’d have…wanted to resume things, and that wasn’t going to happen, Eddie. I don’t care how long you plan to avoid being online or whatever. I’m not going to pretend like I’d matter at all to you if you found a compatibility Guide.”
“Shan.” Eddie frowned and rubbed his thumb along the top of Buck’s hand. “I had no intention of…doing that. I don’t feel that way about you anymore. I don’t mean to be hurtful, but it’s been years since I’ve considered taking you to bed. All of those feelings I had for you just sort of died when you told me that you were never going to take our relationship seriously.” Her breath hitched. “I did love you, and I thought of you as a friend, but there won’t ever come a day when I’ll feel have romantic feelings for you again. And I bonded with a Guide yesterday.”
“You…should’ve called me if you were going to do that. Chris shouldn’t be with you while you’re bonding with some stranger!”
“That’s none of your business,” Eddie said. “You signed off on all of your rights, Shannon, and the judge made it clear to you that there was no going back for you.” He swallowed hard when her breath hitched, and it became clear she was crying. “I guess you’re starting to regret what you did, and maybe you think someday down the road, you can come back.
“Well, you can’t. I’m sorry, but you need to stay away, or you run the risk of being accused of child abuse. I know you realize how sensitive Christopher is empathically, even as a latent. He knows you hated being his mother, and he’s been damaged by your abandonment. If you hadn’t given up your rights already, you’d probably be facing criminal charges.”
“I did the best I could!”
Eddie winced and pulled the phone back from his ear. With a glance toward the back of the house where he’d put Christopher down for a nap, he put the call on speaker as he listened to Christopher’s heartbeat gently as he slept. The meditation had done a lot to soothe his son, and he really appreciated how well Buck had handled the whole thing.
“I know you did, but the situation is what it is and your leaving in the middle of the night without even saying goodbye was just the final straw. I can’t let you change your mind—today or even years from now. It would be dangerous. I’ve been told that I have a very strong paternal drive, and if I go feral again, it’ll be in response to a threat against my own son or maybe even just children in general.”
“You’ve always been hypervigilant about children,” Shannon said. “Your parents have been texting me demanding a visit for the last two hours. I’ve been ignoring them. I’m going to change my number, Eddie. I’ll send you the new one in a few weeks, but don’t contact me unless you have no choice at all. I just can’t handle this, and I don’t deserve to feel this way when I was the one making all the sacrifices while you were off playing soldier.”
“Playing soldier?” Eddie questioned quietly. “I took a combat posting to create a medical trust for our son. I stayed in the Army and signed on for a second tour so he would have the best insurance I could provide. And you think I was playing?”
“No. I’m sorry. That was a terrible thing to say. I’m just upset. I should go.”
Eddie just slouched back on the couch as the call ended and blinked back tears of fury and frustration. “I’ve always tried to do the best I possibly could for Chris, Buck.”
“I hated serving overseas, but the combat pay…plus the housing allowance let me save a lot of money for his medical trust. She acts like I didn’t pay all the damn bills in this house—a house I couldn’t consider my home because we weren’t together anymore. In a few weeks, my insurance with the government will be gone, and I don’t have a backup plan.”
“Well, you have me,” Buck said reasonably. “And my Sentinel and his legal offspring can be added to the insurance plan I pay for with the LAFD. Don’t worry about it. Also, the Burton Foundation has an endowment that will help you if needed when it comes to taking care of Christopher. He’s a latent Guide, and you’re online. Seeing to your needs is one of the tenets of the organization.”
“I…” Eddie flushed and focused on his Guide. “Is that…are you sure about adding us to your insurance?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Buck questioned with a slight tilt of his head. “I’ve already asked for an appointment at HR to deal with it. Bonding qualifies as an event. Plus, I need to update all of my next of kin stuff. Daniel is preparing POA papers for us.”
“Power of attorney?” Eddie questioned. “You…. If you were hurt at work or in an accident, who would handle that right now?”
“Lou is first and has been since he gained custody of me years ago. He’ll still be on the list, of course. He should be on your list as well. But you would react badly in such a situation if you couldn’t make decisions, and he would take that into account no matter the legal documents in place.”
Eddie nodded because he figured that was true. “What sort of legal standing do we have as a bonded pair?”
“Less than a marriage, but more than a standard domestic partnership,” Buck explained. “Which will be explained to you when we register. Once registered, we are legally bound in several ways to such a degree that I would have more rights to your son than his mother due to her actions no matter what agreement she’s already signed.” He paused. “But we can wait on the registration until you’re more comfortable and truly trust me with it. It’s separate from the insurance thing at any rate.”
“And you trust me that much already?” Eddie questioned.
“I know you better than anyone has ever known you,” Buck said simply and released his hand gently. “Inside and out, and yeah, I trust the fuck out of you.”
Eddie laughed a little because it felt true for him as well, and he wondered if that was the false intimacy thing that he’d been warned about. “She said she left all of the medical records in a box on her dresser and figured I would’ve found it when I took over the master bedroom.”
Buck stood. “Let’s go check it out and get it organized. You’ll have to make some decisions about how to go forward, and you’ll be most comfortable with his care being handled by our own kind.”
Eddie was pretty certain that he should have at least a whole week to get used to being bonded and settling his Guide into his home and into his life. And yet, just three days in, he was on his way to deal with his parents. The choice to leave Christopher in the pride facility in the creche had been a lot easier than he’d expected. It helped that his son had been eager to meet other kids in the pride, and Sadie Ransone had trotted over the moment they entered and confiscated his son while assuring him that she’d take very good care of Chris while he was gone. Between the two Guides running the creche, which was used for three prides on their side of LA, and the security in the building, he felt good about it.
“The creche provides childcare twenty-four hours a day due to the high number of first responders who use it,” Buck said as he parked in front of his grandmother’s house. “But I believe Chris would be more comfortable with home care most of the time. I know a Guide—she’s a registered nurse but works in home health care these days. Her husband is a Sentinel and worked as a trauma surgeon for two decades until he was in a car accident that destroyed his motor control in his left hand. He has a small private practice now, but she’s not needed in his office often. They’ve been a part of Lou’s pride since he came to LA. She doesn’t currently have a steady client.”
“You trust her?”
“Yeah, and so does Lou. He’s asked her to stay with Maddie and the kids on occasion. She’s great with kids and profoundly gifted as a Guide. She’ll be able to learn the physical therapy techniques with me. She might already know a lot of it. Her name is Carla Price. I can arrange an introduction.”
“Sounds good,” Eddie murmured. “We’ll need someone when I start training, and you go back to work.” He exhaled gently. “Can I meet the people you work with before you go back to work?”
“Of course,” Buck said with a grin and focused on the house. “Well, I wish I was meeting your grandmother in better circumstances. I can’t say any of this is going to be pleasant.”
“It rarely has been,” Eddie admitted. “It was easier just to ignore them and what they said when I was younger, but I can’t allow that with Christopher. He told me that it didn’t really matter why they felt mean to him because it made him feel awful.”
“He’s right on that front,” Buck said. “I think Chris has been good about keeping all of this to himself until recently.”
“His mother leaving?” Eddie questioned, then frowned. “Me coming online?”
“You said he knew you were coming home,” Buck said. “The psionic plane has been deepening its connection with you and him for weeks, if not months. Well, more to the point, it’s been investing in you, and you’ve been reaching out for Chris despite the distance.”
“So, it’s my fault?” Eddie questioned and cleared his throat because his voice cracked.
“No, hey.” Buck reached out and took his hand. “It wasn’t a voluntary action on your part. The thing is that your parents were dangerous for Chris, and they have been for a while. I don’t think you came online because of the helicopter crash, Eddie. It was just…the tipping point, so to speak.”
“I was…oh.” Eddie nodded. “Yeah, okay. I got really focused on contacting him as often as possible over the last six months. I knew I was driving Shannon nuts, but she never declined the calls. It was normal for us to talk at least once a week, but near the end, it was daily. I couldn’t help myself and often would wake up from a dead sleep without an alarm to call him. It’s just…. I seemed to know when he was awake.”
“Sounds about right,” Buck agreed. “And when you came home?”
“I spent a week at Bethesda,” Eddie said. “Shannon offered to come to me, but I told her that I was fine. I didn’t tell my parents I was stateside at all until I was waiting at the airport to fly to LA. They thought I was in a hospital in Germany. My mother was furious that I wasn’t coming home to El Paso, and even more so when she realized that I’d been in the US for a while without telling her. But, hell, I couldn’t have handled that stress on top of everything else.”
“If I’m honest, I don’t think you’re ready now,” Buck said. “But they’re just going to stress you out with their demands and complete lack of empathy. How do you plan to introduce me?”
“As my Guide,” Eddie said roughly. “I’m so goddamned tired of their expectations, Buck. I’ll never be anything less than a failure as far as they’re concerned.”
Buck blew air out between his lips. “Did they hit you?”
“With a belt, sure.” Eddie shrugged when Buck stared at him in shock. “My pop didn’t believe in sparing the rod, so to speak. My mother favors manipulation in all of its forms. Silent treatment, tantrums, exaggerated hurt feelings, and the like. Everything you do that she disagrees with is a grave personal crime, and you must hate her to be so vicious as to have your own opinions.”
“Eddie, there are dozens of federal laws disallowing the physical punishment of latent Sentinels and Guides due to the damage it can cause,” Buck said quietly. “You can’t ever let them have unsupervised access to Christopher. I wouldn’t…I’d probably lose my shit, and I work hard to keep myself in check.”
“I get it, and I won’t. Shannon never allowed them that kind of access, and once our personal relationship imploded, she barely tolerated them at all. They reacted badly to the whole situation, but they always have. My parents expect to get exactly what they want when they want.”
“I’m relieved you aren’t a serial killer,” Buck muttered, and Eddie laughed. “Seriously, with that kind of upbringing, no one would blame you for going full Norman Bates.” He paused. “Well, you’d go to jail eventually, but that’s beside the point, and no one should go full Norman Bates.”
“Could someone come online with that kind of pathology?”
“Traditional wisdom would say no,” Buck said easily. “And as a community, we certainly want the general public to believe that such a thing is impossible. But there have been corner cases where a Sentinel or Guide has come online in…a state of insanity. Or coming online drove them insane. The situations were resolved quickly but there…consequences.”
Eddie sat still for a moment. “So, the thing about Blair Sandburg being murdered by an online Sentinel? It’s always been presented as more urban legend or morality tale than reality.”
“True, but I also heard that she basically went dormant the moment he died. The psionic plane passed judgment on her pretty much immediately, and it basically ravaged her. She ended up catatonic and died within a year. I read about that incident during Guide training because…Dr. Sandburg wrote an extensive essay on the experience and passed on the knowledge he gained to help other Guides try to survive such a situation. His Sentinel dragged him back into life, but…it was only possible because Dr. Sandburg clung to his mortal life with everything he had.
“He nearly burned himself out and could barely function as a Guide for months afterward.”
“You know how to cling to your body from the psionic plane?” Eddie questioned.
“Yes, but moreover, thanks to Dr. Sandburg and his own mentor, Dr. Kelso, the modern Guide is capable of using psionic energy to protect themselves and subdue a Sentinel attacking them at least temporarily. We have to be careful with it because abusing psionic energy is unforgivable, and the punishment is profound.”
“Who mentored you?” Eddie questioned and turned to stare at his abuela’s house as he waited for an answer. He’d kept his hearing to himself since they’d arrived because he didn’t want to hear whatever bullshit his parents were spewing.
“The former Alpha Guide Prime of Pacific West,” Buck said. “The pair retired when they felt like Lou was ready to ascend—his name is Thomas Holt, and his Sentinel is Mitchell.”
“I recognize those names,” Eddie said. “They were the prime pair for this region for decades, right?”
“Since the 1970s,” Buck agreed. “What can you hear?”
“I haven’t…” Eddie trailed off and let his hearing extend, pushing it along his sight to prevent it from expanding outward in a horrific fashion. It was one of the methods of control that the Army had taught him as a latent that had actually been easy to accomplish once he’d come online.
“Mamá, we’ve made this decision, and we won’t change our mind. Eddie is going to leave the Army and sue Shannon for custody of Christopher. Then they are both coming to El Paso.”
“You can’t make decisions for your grown son, Ramon!”
“Edmundo is going to do what we want whether he likes it or not, Isabel. He’ll need his family to recover and adjust to living outside of the military. We’re not going to allow him to get involved with that little bitch again. She’s keeping my baby from us!”
“Christopher isn’t your baby,” Isabel said evenly. “And there is nothing you can do to change that. You need to adjust your expectations, Helena, or you’re going to end up ruining your relationship with your son.”
“I’d be a better mother to Christopher than Shannon Whitt has ever managed to be!”
Eddie huffed and made a face as he retreated from the conversation. “I want to run away. Can we just go live in Australia?”
Buck laughed. “They have no power, okay? They can indulge in any sort of delusion they would like, and it won’t change a damn thing about your circumstances. They can’t make decisions for you ever again, Eddie. The Burton Foundation would ruin their lives for even trying. You’ve never, ever, been safer from your parents than you are right now in this moment, and that goes double for your son.”
Eddie leaned on the steering wheel and focused on his Guide. “I think you understand that better than I would like.”
“Despite how final the decision regarding my custody was,” Buck began. “There was a unique relief I can barely speak to surrounding my eighteenth birthday, and it amplified when I came online. I had faith in Lou and Maddie—I knew they’d do all they could to prevent me from going back to my parents, but you can’t really underestimate the power of genuine autonomy.”
Eddie nodded and pulled the keys from the ignition. “My parents think I’m going to go back to El Paso with them, and they’re going to demand I sue for custody of Christopher.”
“Well, the good thing is that they are totally in the dark about all the changes that have happened in your life. That means that the people who do know haven’t told them a damn thing, and you can trust them to have your back.”
“I know that Abuela and Tia Pepa are on my side,” Eddie said. “They’re both proud that I came online as well, and it’s overt. My parents are going to be appalled.”
“For several reasons, I’m sure,” Buck said. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Your parents shouldn’t be a source of trauma,” Eddie said lowly. “It’s obscene that they don’t get that.”
“Did you want me to figure out their motivations?” Buck questioned and made a motion with his hand. “Just dig in? Because I can. I don’t often do that to anyone, but if they’re a threat, we need to know.”
“Their motivations are plain as day,” Eddie said wearily. “They want to parent Christopher and will do anything to accomplish it. They wanted custody when he was born and tried to interfere with everything. Shannon left El Paso two weeks after giving birth because my mother kept trying to prevent her from breastfeeding. She insisted that he be bottle-fed.”
“Well, she couldn’t bond with a baby that she couldn’t feed,” Buck pointed out and shrugged. “It’s a big thing—right? Breast or bottle feeding a baby is a huge part of the beginning of life care. Maddie not only breastfeeds when she can, but she’s also outright saturated all of her children in her psionic energy. It’s one of the best ways of dealing with post-partum depression amongst female Guides because it provides a deep empathic connection with their children.
“The thing is, even as a latent, Christopher puts off these feel-good vibes. He’ll make friends easily, and they’ll be insanely loyal to him for no overt reason that they can name. It sounds like manipulation, but it’s not something a Guide can control.”
“It feels good to be around you,” Eddie admitted roughly. “There was an online Guide in my unit when I first went to Afghanistan—people gravitated toward him and clearly preferred his company more than anyone else. It was a real bummer when he was transferred out due to bonding.”
Buck laughed. “I can imagine the pouting.”
“There was some pouting,” Eddie admitted. “He was definitely the life of our party out there and kept morale up.” He huffed. “I don’t know why they thought I was ever going to come back to El Paso. My son is here, and so is my truck.”
“Look, Buck, a man’s truck is serious business.” He waved his hands around. “It’s the first thing I ever bought for myself, and it’s paid for.”
“It’s…pretty,” Buck said and grinned when Eddie turned to stare at him in horror. “For an overt penis extension.”
“I don’t need any sort of extension,” Eddie exclaimed and blushed furiously when Buck raised an eyebrow at him. “Shut up. Like I need to think about that while my mother tries to convince me she should get to mother my kid.”
“Objectively, that’s gross as hell.”
“Yeah.” Eddie sighed. “It really is.”
He shoved his keys into his pocket as he slid out of the truck and waited until Buck came around the front to stand with him before he engaged the locks and shut the door. Eddie took a deep breath, exhaled gently, and caught Buck’s hand in his own. He was beyond trying to pretend that he didn’t need the comfort that holding his Guide’s hand provided.
His grandmother opened the door before they were all the up the stairs, and Buck’s fingers clenched in his. She pulled the door shut behind her firmly.
“Abuela.” Eddie pressed a kiss to the cheek she offered. “This is Evan Buckley—he prefers Buck.”
Buck cleared his throat. “You didn’t tell anyone that your grandmother is a latent Guide, Eddie. That’s something…you really should’ve said.”
Eddie wet his lips. “I didn’t know. Abuela…why?”
“I never got the call,” Isabel said easily. “You’re the first in generations, Edmundo.” She patted his face. “Many generations. Seeing this for you is such an amazing thing. I think you know what’s going to happen once I let you in the house.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Just know—really know—that I’ve got your back, and Ramon doesn’t speak for anyone but himself. His resentment is a deep-seated thing, and I don’t think you’ve fully been exposed to it in the past. He moved his family to Texas and joined the Catholic Church to avoid scrutiny after he went dormant. And maybe that was part of his plan the whole time.”
“The state of Texas has baked some bullshit into their constitution regarding religion and the Burton Foundation,” Buck murmured. “It’s one of the worst states in the US when it comes to the rights of latent minors. It’s good that Christopher didn’t live there long enough for any sort of legal precedent to be set.”
Eddie took a deep breath as he watched Buck take his grandmother’s hand much the same way he had Pepa’s. The exchange was briefer, but it was clear they both came away with a different understanding of one another.
The door opened, and Eddie focused on his father.
“Who is this man? We have private family business to discuss, Edmundo,” Ramon said.
“This is my Guide,” Eddie said shortly and watched the color drain from his father’s face. “Before you say a single word, I need you to know that he’s the brother-in-law of the Alpha Sentinel Prime of the Pacific West and the Beta Guide Prime of the entire region, which means, in case it wasn’t clear, that two days ago I became the Beta Sentinel Prime of the Pacific West when we registered our bond.”
His father’s eyes darkened in fury. “No.”
“You literally have no say in this,” Eddie said as he allowed his grandmother to prod them both gently into the house.
He balked at being taken into the dining room because that was the place his mother had considered her domain in her own home and tended to treat the dining table like the place where all of her edicts were handed down and adhered to. Eddie pulled Buck toward the kitchen, and Abuela left them with a little nod. Shortly, his parents entered. His mother looked like she was about to vibrate out of her skin.
“You bonded with a stranger?” Helena demanded hotly, her cheeks dark with fury.
“I know my Guide better than I’ve ever known anyone, including you. And I know with absolute certainty that he has my back and will until the day we die,” Eddie said evenly and watched his mother’s eyes go wide with shock. “Not that it is any of your business. Mundanes haven’t had any sort of say in that process ever and for a very good reason.”
“Where’s Christopher?” Ramon demanded. “We’ve contacted a lawyer. We’re going to take him back to Texas with us. There is no way I’m leaving him with you or that bitch. This situation is obscene!”
Eddie leaned on the counter and stared at his father until the older man took a step back. Buck shifted until their shoulders pressed together and relaxed. “My son is in my custody, and there isn’t a court in this country that would allow you to take him from me. How you feel about that isn’t…relevant.”
“You’re going to end this bond and come back to Texas,” Helena interjected. “End of discussion. I don’t care what those people at the Burton Foundation told you about your so-called rights, Edmundo. Christopher is coming home with me.”
“The leading cause of feral Sentinel Homicide is child endangerment,” Buck said mildly, and Helena gasped in shock. “One of the reasons why no court in the country would consider taking a child from a healthy, online Sentinel is because it would be a blood bath. A justifiable blood bath because a genuinely feral Sentinel can’t be charged with any crime due to diminished capacity. Your son is an alpha in his own right, and his paternal imperative is so immense that he came online as a Sentinel not in defense of his own life but because of his son’s growing empathic distress. And they were over seven thousand miles apart at the time.”
“Shut up, you freak!” Helena hissed.
Eddie shifted closer to Buck, but all he could really discern from Buck was mild distaste. “Don’t speak to him that way.”
“The fact is that if both Eddie and Shannon were no longer viable guardians that the Burton Foundation would have the grounds to assume custody of Christopher and place him with a new family. He is incredibly sensitive empathically and cannot, for any reason, be left in the hands of a dormant Sentinel or his mentally ill mundane wife.” Buck’s gaze flicked to Ramon. “Not even the state of Texas would let you have custody of your grandson, Mr. Diaz, as it would be considered an overt act of child abuse due to your issues. As is, you’ll never be allowed unsupervised contact with him as a minor. He’ll need a Guide Conservator or me to create a psionic buffer between him and both of you.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me!” Ramon shouted and took a step toward Buck.
Eddie shifted between them and pressed his wounded shoulder gently against his Guide. “Watch it.” He frowned. “And frankly, there’s a lot wrong with you. Your blood pressure is too high, and your heart sounds weird.” Ramon glared at him. “Plus, you absolutely reek of alcohol.”
“I haven’t had a drink today,” Ramon muttered.
“No, but you’re sweating out yesterday’s binge,” Eddie said evenly and rubbed his nose. It didn’t do much to get rid of the scent. “It’s disgusting.”
“Addiction issues can make a Sentinel or Guide go dormant,” Buck explained. “Latents have to be careful with it. He’s probably been an alcoholic most of his adult life. Which is the best outcome for that situation that we could’ve gotten.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Helena demanded.
“Well, latent Sentinels don’t go dormant often, Mrs. Diaz. Some sort of profound trauma or pathology is usually to blame. I’m just grateful your husband isn’t an outright sociopath. You’re a malignant narcissist, which is deeply unpleasant, but your husband is just an addict. Both of those conditions can be managed to protect Christopher and Eddie, which is my only concern in this situation. Chris sees and feels mean shadows all around you both, and it makes him miserable and sad.”
Just an addict, Eddie thought and felt grief well in him in a horrific way.
“Though I am curious to know if your husband was dormant when you met him or if you decided you wanted him and manipulated him into an addiction to make him go dormant for your own purposes,” Buck said, and Eddie watched his mother’s face go utterly white. “It doesn’t matter at this point—his emotional investment in you and your happiness is practically an imperative, which is interesting to see in a dormant individual.”
“Get out of my head,” Helena hissed. “I’ll file charges!”
“For what?” Buck questioned. “I’ve just been gathering up all the disgusting emotions that you are throwing all over the place, Mrs. Diaz. It would be easy as hell to prove that I’ve not attempted to invade your mental space in any single fashion. No Guide would have to. I bet the prides in your area avoid you both like the plague. I’ve had more pleasant experiences in prison.”
“Why were you in prison?” Eddie asked and turned to stare at him because he couldn’t imagine Buck doing anything to get arrested.
“Warden had a heart attack,” Buck said in amusement. “We got dispatched for transport. Bobby picked me as part of the escort because of my size and online status—I can see a threat coming a mile away.” His gaze flicked to Ramon, who was staring at him. “I can also suss out an essentially impotent situation as well. You know you don’t have a legal leg to stand on and assumed you could bully Eddie and Shannon into compliance. It’s never going to happen. I’d have you both sanctioned by the International Sentinel & Guide Agency before you could blink if I thought you had any chance at getting custody of Christopher.”
“It’s none of your business!” Helena shouted.
“When I bonded with your son, I became Christopher’s third legal parent, Mrs. Diaz. I have more rights to your grandson right now than you ever had in your life. Because of your overt and dangerous personality disorder, your grandson would be placed with actual strangers in a private adoption before you’d be allowed to assume custody.”
Eddie relaxed as relief settled on his bones. Protecting his son felt like his primary purpose and having a Guide ready to go to the wall after just two days was a gift.
“How dare you do this, Edmundo! You had no right!” Helena shouted. “You can’t keep my baby from me!”
“Jesus Christ!” Eddie snapped. “Christopher is not your child. He never was your child and never will be. Do you realize how fucking insane that is? I literally put my dick in the woman that gave birth to him, and you’re trying to put yourself in her place!”
“You should’ve given him to me the moment he was born! I deserved to have him! I’m the best mother he could possibly have! No one loves him as much as I do.”
“You don’t love anyone,” Eddie retorted, and his mother reared back in shock. “It’s about ownership with you and control. All of your children are subject to your demands and abused if they don’t conform. You barely speak to Sophia because she didn’t do exactly what you wanted when she graduated college. Adriana gets your begrudging approval because she barely breathes without your permission. I joined the Army to escape you both—because getting killed for money on the opposite side of the goddamned planet was preferred to spending another day under your thumb.
“When I decided to come over here this morning, my goal was mitigating the circumstances and finding some way to pacify you. Now? I’m ready to set everything on fire and salt the earth afterward. You’re never going to see Christopher again. You can try to sue me, but I’ll ruin your lives. If you come at me from some illegal fashion, I won’t even try to avoid going feral, and everyone involved will be dead on the motherfucking floor before I’m done. Are we clear?”
“Yes, you’ve made yourself perfectly clear,” Helena sneered. “But I don’t care what you want, and I’ll find a lawyer who’ll help me do what needs to be done. You’re just a freak, Edmundo, and the only rights you have are the ones given to you. And they can be taken away! How much longer do you think the rest of us are going to tolerate your disgusting existence?”
“Get the hell out of my abuela’s house. She can’t stand the sight of you. You aren’t welcome here anymore.” His gaze flicked to his father. “In fact, neither of you are welcome to be within a hundred miles of Los Angeles going forward.”
“You can’t just—” Ramon began.
“Oh, I assure you, he can,” Buck interjected. “You’ll get a notification from the Alpha Sentinel Prime of the Pacific West detailing exactly what that means at your home in El Paso, which you should return to immediately. Every single pride within a hundred miles of us will also be notified of this edict and the reasons why. And they’ll be given the information required to identify you, if necessary. You won’t even be able to land at LAX without Eddie being notified within minutes of your arrival. This isn’t a negotiation. You’ve been determined to be a threat to the minor child of an Alpha Sentinel. This is for your own safety. Eddie’s response to you is already spreading out through our pride, and it will flood the psionic plane shortly. It will start impacting Sentinels outside of our pride, regionally. You need to leave right now.”
Thirty minutes after Eddie’s parents stormed out of the house, Eddie had slowly but surely migrated his way onto the couch with his abuela. Buck had watched his Sentinel essentially burrow against the older woman and wondered if either realized how much of the behavior was baked into their genetics. He figured Helena Diaz must have hated the way her son would’ve clearly preferred his paternal grandmother as a child.
Buck winced as he watched Isabel Diaz run her fingers through his Sentinel’s hair. He could tell Eddie all day long that his response to his parents was normal for the circumstances, but it didn’t change the guilt that the man was drowning in.
“I’ve always known I’d have to choose,” Isabel murmured. “The moment I held you, Edmundo, I knew you’d come online as a Sentinel. There was such a fierceness about you, even as an infant, that I cannot fully explain. Your parents never had any hope of subduing or controlling you. Even as a teenager, you exerted an immense amount of authority over your life, whether you knew it or not. Often Ramon would complain that you would disobey him, and no amount of discipline made you comply.”
“He tried to take a belt to me when I was sixteen,” Eddie murmured. “I took it from him and tossed it across the room. I told him if he wanted to hit me, he was going to have to come at me like a man because I wasn’t going to tolerate being whipped like a child again. I think that’s when he realized I could take him in a fight because he just glared at me and walked away.”
“That was about your Javier, was it not?” Isabel murmured.
“Yeah.” Eddie cleared his throat and slouched down on the sofa. “They both hated him. They’ve actually hated every single person I’ve ever gotten involved with—male or female.”
“You were right about that being an issue of control,” Buck said and stretched his legs a little as he sat down across from them. “Your father is deeply invested in keeping your mother happy, and her need for control is pathological.”
“I called him a weak once—weak and inferior. He thought I said it because he was dormant, but honestly, I always just pitied him for that. I told him that once, too, when he was telling me it was best if I suppressed and ignored everything to do with the psionic plane. I told him that I pitied him and that I never wanted to be anything like him. But his weakness has nothing to do with his dormancy and everything to do with my mother.”
“Ramon never wanted to be a Sentinel,” Isabel said. “I can’t say that he cultivated an addiction to accomplish dormancy or if Helena encouraged it. But Ramon found the idea of serving the tribe to be offensive. He said he deserved more than to be a servant of any sort and wasn’t going to allow primitive genetics to ruin his life. Then, he went out and got himself a rich, white trophy wife.”
Buck grinned when Eddie looked at her with an appalled expression. “Abuela.”
“He did!” Isabel exclaimed. “Then used her parents’ money to start a business in El Paso. They don’t even claim his family here, you’ve noticed.”
“I’ve noticed,” Eddie muttered. “It’s awful.” He rubbed his face and checked his watch. “We should go get Chris. I promised him it wouldn’t be but a couple of hours. And I want to…have a security system installed on the house. Plus, the doctor stuff.”
“What doctor stuff?” Isabel asked.
“I…Shannon left Chris’ medical records in her bedroom, and I hadn’t even gone in there,” Eddie said with a flush. “He’s already missed two physical therapy appointments. I need to call and make apologies and probably pay some fees.”
“Shannon never allowed Pepa or I to help her with those things,” Isabel said. “I think there were several…different kinds. I don’t think she trusted me to keep it to myself and didn’t want your parents to know anything about his care.”
“He has a pediatrician, a neurologist, a physical therapist, an optometrist, and he had a consult with an occupational therapist last year,” Eddie said. “We went through everything last night but need to make phone calls to update records, and I’ll probably have to provide proof of legal custody. It’s a lot.”
“Well, let me know how I can help,” Isabel said. “And I’ll keep notes about any communications I receive from Ramon.”
“There will be a pride imprint,” Buck said. “Lou would like you and Pepa to attend the meeting. We’ll get an introduction to the new baby, and Christopher will be imprinted as part of the pride. Eddie will also take imprints of all of the children to solidify his role as the Enforcer for the pride.” He cleared his throat when her eyes went wide. “It will also mark him as the Senior Enforcer for the whole city since Lou is basically the chieftain on a local level. In the summer, we’ll have to attend a regional meeting, and our place as the Beta pair for the Pacific West will become official. As is, every single pride in our regional territory has been notified of my change of status. They’ll have received a brief bio on Eddie already.”
“And this is why Ramon and Helena’s behavior is so dangerous.”
“Yes, because if Eddie goes feral in the role of Enforcer, he could take dozens of Sentinels with him, and considering his training, it would probably translate into some sort of hybrid combat drive. I have no idea what that would look like in an urban environment,” Buck admitted. “And I don’t want to know. So, I’ll work hard to mitigate the circumstances with your son. And I’m sorry he’s no longer welcome to visit you here. If you wish to have visit him, we’ll pay for your travel.”
Eddie nodded his agreement even as Isabel made a disgusted face.
“I can’t stand Helena. I’ve never visited her house once in all the years they’ve been married.”
“Mom always acted like you couldn’t afford it, and you were too stubborn to let them pay,” Eddie and shrugged when she scowled at him.