Stealing Home

by Author's notes: Thanks to Kimberly and Susanne for all their hours beta-ing.
Still, all the mistakes are mine.

"What?" I take a step back from Jim.

"You heard me, Sandburg. If you're so unhappy at the idea of being a cop then quit." Jim has that stony look that says this was not a discussion but I need to try anyway.

"No man, it's not like that. I want to be your partner. It's just the whole regimented thing is freaking me out and the gun thing..." I stop. Jim isn't listening and even without his keen auditory sense I can hear how feeble it all sounds.

Swinging one of the chairs around and taking a seat, Jim crosses his arms over the back. "Sandburg, I realize you're out of options. And I know I played a part in that. But your...your ambivalence about all this could get someone killed. It could get me killed. It could get you killed. I need a partner who is on board-one hundred percent. If you can't do that, well, then, you can't." Jim turns away from me, his body tense as if he's coiled to strike.

I knew my last test scores had been a disappointment. I don't know what went wrong. After all, if anyone knows how to study for a test it's me. I'd gone into those tests after two nights of stakeouts, so, yeah, I was kinda out of it. It's not like I hadn't been there before. No way should a little fatigue make me screw up a test. I've been living this job for three years.

I know. I know what Freud would say. I did it on purpose. I sabotaged it on purpose because I don't want to be a cop. I don't know. Could my subconscious so overrule my brain that it would put the wrong answers down? Because, damn it, I knew the answers. I knew them cold.

Okay, it's true, I have doubts. About me and my ability to do the cop thing. I mean, sure, I rode along for three years. I observed. I reacted. I thought. I got caught in the middle. But it was never my responsibility. I never had to make a call on a life and death thing. Or chose A over B and chose wrong and live with it. I never had to shoot to kill.

And the other guys at the Academy. Man, it's like being 14 again. The teasing I can take, even the hostility. God knows I'd dealt with those things in my life. It's the way they were men. All Alpha, all the time. The conversations alone were enough to make me run screaming from the Academy in search of a poetry reading. Frankly, I don't know how Jim endured and became the man he is. He had the military as well as the Academy to wade through. So who was I to balk? I tried to hide the discomfort but Jim knew me, he knew me better than Naomi, knew me better than anyone, and he saw through my act.

I figured he'd see it but ignore it and he probably would have too, except for the scores. The instructors were already leery of letting me in, being the acknowledged perpetrator of a fraud and all. When the last scores came back so low, well, they had to let Simon know what a poor risk I was, even if I could somehow manage to graduate. And Jim had heard. Heard and reacted. The men were gathered around the sleek oblong table. They referred to their notes and came to the matter of the guide.

"The low scores worked well."

"Yeah Robert, nice touch."

"Let's see if we can get the harassment going a little stronger."

"That's easy. It's like Lord of the Flies there. They'd just love a reason to gang up on Sandburg and cast him out."

"It has to look natural when he leaves Ellison."

"Oh, it'll look like he has every reason to leave."

"Hey Sandbottom! I saw your last scores on the firing range. What's the matter, 'fraid of a little noise?"

Tom was yelling and coming up on me in the hallway fast. Faces were turned toward me with contempt written all over them.

"You should of seen him., Cary. Shoot, flinch, miss. Shoot, flinch, miss. Better than watching the kiddie's at State Fair."

As Tom catches up to me, he shoves his elbow into my side with enough force to knock the air out of me and possibly crack a rib. "C'mon, Sandbottom, you'll be late for self defense."

Leaning against a locker, I try to catch my breath. Oh, God, I hate this macho shit. I can do this. I can do this. Time for a little fun in the house of dojo.
I'm better at this self-defense stuff than I would have thought. My size is actually an asset for a change. My low center of gravity gives me more power. Plus, the physics of the whole thing just makes sense to me. Using the other guy's momentum against him...it's what I usually did with my mouth and now my body was getting into the act.
We line up. Just my luck, Tom's my adversary. He came at me hard, with a look in his eye that said "Danger, Will Robinson." I watch as he feints left and kicks high, aiming for my chest. Dumb move. I grabbed his foot before he could connect and twist it, taking him down. I reach down to help him up and he slaps my hand away.

"Leave me the fuck alone."

He gets up with an exaggerated spring and crouches for his next move. As I stand there, my knees flexed, my hands up, I see the guy next to me lurch. He falls into me sideways and we go down. I feel his hand on my elbow and watch in amazement as he pushes it up and twists it. I yowl. He's popped my shoulder out of the joint. He's done it so fast no one could've seen the deliberateness of the act. Ironically, nobody would have cared about the deliberateness of the act. Still, it just looks like my dumb luck.

"Sandburg? What's the problem? You got an owie?" Hatch, our instructor, came toward me, trying unsuccessfully to hide a pleased expression.

"Here. Let me look at that." I try to edge away. I 'm feeling a burning pain that crowds out all coherent thought. Hatch reached down. My injury is obvious, but he takes my arm by the wrist and moves it back and forth. I scream. 'Oh God, let me pass out because otherwise I might start to cry and I really, really, don't want to cry,'

"Seems like you might have bruised yourself, Sandburg. Here, let me help you up." I press my arm to my side and shake my head. I try to get up on my knees but Tom comes up behind me and bumps me, sending me back to the mat. Hatch reaches down and grabs my arm and pulls me up and before I'm upright I get my wish. I pass out.

"Sandburg." Jim looks at me and shakes his head. He's come to the Urgent Care to retrieve me and now he's looking at me with my arm in a sling and he's shaking his head.

"What? This wasn't my fault, Jim. That guy, Cary..." I can't tell Jim it was done on purpose. He'd go all mother hen on me and confront the guy and then the nightmare would really begin. "Cary is just really good and he doesn't know his own strength." I hope Jim will assume the pain I'm in is the cause of the spike in my heart rate.

"Yeah, yeah...he's good. He's really good."

Jim looks at me and I have no trouble reading the implied sub-text. And you're not. Jim is really starting to have doubts about my ability to do this. To be competent as his partner. I'm starting to look like a deficit instead of an asset here. It was one thing for him to baby-sit an observer. Quite another to have your partner be a fuck up.

What's with Sandburg? I thought he wanted to be my partner. Thought he was okay with being a cop. But now...

Joyce had pointed out the downward spiral Blair seemed to be in and she interpreted it as his deep-seated resentment about losing his Ph.D. and reluctance to take up a life as a cop. She's a beauty with brains to match, a Profiler and just in town for a month long workshop. We'd met at Berdelli's and hit it off right away. It 's gonna hurt when she leaves, there's something special about her. But we still had two weeks and she 's the one bright spot in this month as I watch Blair blow his career as a cop. If he didn't make it... I never get much further than that in my thoughts. The possibility of Blair not joining me is unacceptable.
I 'm not going to kid myself. If Blair didn't make it as a cop he'll find some other career and whatever that is will take him away from the PD, from the loft, hell, probably from Cascade. He'd need to start fresh, in a new academic setting, doing what? Anything, the kid could do anything. Then why would he settle for being a cop? Because of me?

Arrogance.

Joyce had also pointed out the arrogance of thinking Sandburg could be happy as a cop just because he got to work with me. She was right. Blair wasn't cop material. He gave up his academic credibility to protect me and I just wanted to give him something back. Something to hold on to.

I guess it took someone from the outside, who wasn't as caught up in the emotional attachments, to see the folly of this plan. It helped that she was a Profiler. She understood what made people tick, what set them off and what brought them down. She was good and I wanted to kill her. She was only the messenger. So instead of killing her I took comfort in her lush, responsive body and tried to ignore the sound of my world falling apart.

I had known there would be a time when Blair would move on. It's the MO of everyone I've ever felt close to. I don't know how I'd let myself get so comfortable with Sandburg. I learned that was never a good idea. What was I thinking, letting him stay on past that first week, until years had passed? What's with me? It's not like I love him, well.... not like I love him like that. If I had any doubts about that, Joyce had put them to rest.

Jim drops me off and heads out to meet Joyce. I know I complain about his tendency to hover but I've got to admit I would've liked some company. His company. Since I started at the Academy my time with Jim seemed to keep shrinking. Joyce is part of it but even when he isn't with her, he seems to find a lot of ways to keep busy that don't involve me.

Glad to be home I dump my knapsack on the couch and take the sling off. Weird how you can be in such pain and then poof, they pop the bone back in and all's well. I 'm sore but grateful it's so easily fixed. Thinking about a long hot shower, I look through the mail. I'm surprised to see a letter from the University of Florida.

Ripping it open, I find it's from Professor Watkins expressing his condolences about my dissertation. Wow. Nobody has expressed anything about my dissertation. Not Jim, not Simon, and certainly not anyone from my former life as an academic. It was as if I'd had a stillborn child and no one wanted to add to my pain. But the pain's still there, unacknowledged, ungrieved, unwelcome. Whatever I feel about my old life has no place as I set about creating this new life. Maybe that's why I'd fucked up the test and why I couldn't shoot straight. Mom would have a field day with this.

Professor Watkins apparently was unswayed by my act of fraud and wanted me to come to Florida and take up a new dissertation there. Wow, again. That is an amazing endorsement and it makes me feel happier than I have in weeks. Somebody wants me. I put the letter down and look out over the city of Cascade. It's misting and there are storm clouds like an army to the north. It's early fall and already the chill has gotten in under my skin and permeated my bones. Florida. Hot sun, warm ocean, itsy bitsy bikinis...

I sigh, sounding pathetic to my own ears. I'll take the cold any day if it gives me my life with Jim.

It's late and I'm expecting to see Sandburg on the couch, flipping channels. The kid doesn't quite know what to do with himself since he doesn't have the perpetual paper to write or grade. He's not there and I'm surprised at my surprise. It's not like he doesn't have a life. Did have a life. I guess the women he normally dated came from the University. And the ones from the PD won't be looking at him again until he graduates. Can't remember the last time I saw Blair getting ready for a date. But he must have one tonight.
He left the loft neat for a change. If I think about it, it's actually been neat for a while. No books piled up, no papers scattered, no laptop humming away. There's a letter lying on the coffee table and I pick it up. To Mr. Blair Sandburg. I'm about to put it in his room, when I see it's from a university. Florida. A feeling of dread unfurls inside me. I read it and it confirms the feeling of dread. A job offer. A life offer. An option. Fuck.

When I get back from my run to the grocery store, I see Jim has returned from his date. He's sitting on the couch, my letter in his hands. "So Chief, when are you going?"

I just look at him and blink. "Going?"

"Yeah, when-are-you-going?" He says it real slow, like I speak a different language.

"I know how much this must mean to you and it's obvious police work is not in your blood."

He kind of sneers as he says that and his face mimics the contempt I've been seeing at the Academy. "Ah, yeah, well, I don't know..." I mean to say I don't know about the police work not being my thing. Cause I think it really could be my thing. As long as it's as Jim's partner.

But Jim hears the first part and jumps in. "If you need help with the expenses let me know." I feel like I've just been poleaxed. He can't wait for me to go. He'll spend money to be sure I leave. He must really be sure I can't handle the job, that I can't watch his back. But I have, for three years I've watched and done the paperwork, the stakeouts, the running, the jumping, the standing still.

"You think I should accept?" I can't help the way my voice squeaks at the end of that question.

"I think you should do what you're good at, Chief." He called me Chief again and I realize how much I've missed that word. What does it mean that for weeks he's only called me Sandburg and now, with my eminent departure at hand, he starts calling me Chief again? I think I've had enough psyche courses to figure that one out.

I can't really trust myself to talk and I turn toward my room. "Yeah, well, I'll call him tomorrow." That's as much as I can get out.

I don't know how to read Sandburg anymore. I suppose he thought he'd have to explain a lot more and he was stunned at my reaction. Still, he almost seemed hurt by my encouragement. I'll have to run that by Joyce and get her take on that. I stand up. It seems to take a lot of effort. The reality that Blair will be leaving hasn't hit yet but my body seems to understand the situation better than my mind does. I feel heavy and I sit back down. I'll walk up those stairs in a little while.

What would I do if I didn't have Joyce in my life right now? She meets me for breakfast and I spill out the details of Blair leaving. She listens intently and points out some things I missed. She reads Blair's lack of reaction to my reading his mail as proof he wanted me to. She sees great significance in this. She also sees my distress and gently rubs my back. Before I quite know we have a plan, we are back at her hotel room and she is helping me to forget.

"Jim? I've been thinking. I don't want to put any pressure on you, but I've come to love Cascade and I'm thinking of making a move here." She looks at me with her head cocked, her lips slightly swollen from our lovemaking. I kiss her and breathe the word yes into her mouth. She smiles. I'm grateful.

I didn't sleep much last night. Jim's doubts about my ability are eating away at me. In all the discussion of my aptitude for police work there's been one major piece missing. I'm Jim's Guide. I'm good at that at least. I have to admit though, Jim has done an amazing job of mastering his senses. There hasn't been a zone out in a long time. Perhaps even in this area I've outgrown my welcome. It hurts and I see once again why Naomi practices detachment and never stays long in any one place. It hurts and it hurts and it hurts to give up this place I made for myself. This life with Jim. Being an Anthropologist can't compare to that. It fed my mind, true. Made me excited, made me feel smart. It never made me feel at home, or anchored or loved. It never fed my soul.

I leave the loft at dawn.

Driving to Rainier, I park the car and think about everything. The life I had here for so many years, the life I have now with Jim. There's no way I'm giving up my life with Jim because a few bad test scores and a reluctance to shoot a gun. I'm going to fight to remain Jim's Guide. I'll just have to get serious about getting better at it. And Jim is going to have to be patient and have some faith. I am not cutting out.

The men sat in their high-backed chairs. "I thought you said it was practically a done deal."

"Hey, it is."

"Then why was Sandburg at the firing range at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning?"

"He was? Damnation. I thought he would've been home packing his suntan lotion."

"What next?"

"Keep Ellison distracted and absent. John, bump up the schedule." "You got it."

I smelled the gunpowder on Sandburg as soon as he walked in. My heart sped up. He seems to be walking all right. I scan him. He looks tired but there's no smell of blood. What kind of trouble had he gotten into that had him firing a hated firearm?

"What's up, Chief? Where've you been?"

"I was at the firing range, thought I could use the practice." He comes closer and I think for a minute that he's going to come in close for a hug. He hesitates, turns and makes for the kitchen. "Any coffee?"

"Why did you think you needed to practice shooting? Worried about lazy undergrads suffering heatstroke and coming after you when you're down in Florida?"

He laughs weakly and rummages for a cup. I see his hand's shaking. He grabs at a cup and knocks two others down. The china shatters and I recoil at the noise. Sandburg goes into his apology shtick.

"I'm sorry... Man, one of these was your favorite. Maybe I can glue it." He's picking up the pieces and trying to put it together on the floor.

"Forget it, Sandburg. It's just a cup. Now why-" The phone rings. It's Joyce and her car broke down. "I have to pick Joyce up, her car gave out on Highway 210. I don't know how soon I'll be back."

"Okay, I've got work to do anyway."

Blair seems preoccupied. I imagine the move is on his mind. I hesitate, wanting to know what he's thinking, but then I think about the distress in Joyce's voice and I know I have to get going.

Jim heads out to do the rescue thing with Joyce. Some fabulous sex ought to come out of this morning's work. Does that sound bitter? I'm glad for him, he's happier than he's been in a long time and it's all because of Joyce. But I can't help but feel in some ways she's taken my place. She's the one who's getting the rare conversation out of him...she's the one he is gifting with his brilliant smile, his casual affection. I'm on the outside looking in, once again.

Maybe he'll come back more relaxed and we'll actually be able to talk. I get the cups swept up and the coffee in me and set to work on absorbing more police protocol. The next thing I know it's 10:00. I pack up all the stuff and put it in my room. I've been making a point of keeping my mess away from Jim. I don't want to work his nerves and I figure the less of me around, the better.

It never used to feel like this. Sure, he'd growl about the house rules but he seemed to accept my presence with a light heart. Something changed though. It's like he's waiting for me to fuck up. I think that maybe it's the whole dissertation thing. He knows I didn't send it but he still feels betrayed by the exposure that came about because of me. I know I have a ways to go to get back his trust. It would help a lot if I would quit fucking up at the Academy.

Putting my sweats on, I head for the gym. I'm going to give this everything I've got.

I'm back by 2. Joyce was cool and calm when I picked her up along 210, but hot and bothered when we got to her hotel room. There must be something about a crisis that heightens all the sensations, because she was electric.

She wanted me to stay with her in that bed all day but I really wanted to check in with Sandburg and find out about the firing range visit.

As soon as I walk in the door I can tell he's gone. That's confirmed when I stick my head in his room. I'm stunned. He's left. I don't know how I could tell. The room's much the same. The bed's made, the books are in the bookcase. But nothing is out. No papers, no clothes. I look in the closet. It didn't take me long to realize it's all winter stuff. His knapsack and laptop are gone. Gone. He didn't say good-bye. How could he just leave and not say good-bye?

I get up to check the living room. He must have left a note. There it is, on the fridge. I pluck it off, almost too angry to focus on the words

. Dear Jim,
I'm sorry to leave in such a rush. I got a call from Professor Watkins and he lost his assistant for the summer dig and needed me to join him immediately. The plane is leaving tonight from Miami. I'll call you from there. I wish there had been time to talk before I had to go. There's so much I wanted to say. Thank you for giving me a home and your friendship. I'm sorry I let you down but I guess it just wasn't meant to be. Hey, this isn't the end, we'll still be in touch. Your friend, Blair
Just like that, he's gone? I knew he would leave, knew it, knew it, knew it, but I'm still unprepared for what this feels like. Like the air's been sucked out of the room. Like gravity has ceased to be a law. Like I am ten years old and my mother hasn't come home. Fuck. I will not go there.

I move into the living room and bring the telephone. I sit down. He said he'd call. I'll wait. The phone is ringing but it's far away. I realize I zoned out. The room has grown shadowy. I snatch the phone up.

"Blair?"

"No, love, it's just me." She virtually purrs as she says it.

"Hi Joyce, I'm waiting for a call from Blair."

"I gathered that when you said Blair. Where is he?"

"He went off to Mexico with that Professor I was telling you about."

"Just like that he leaves you?" She sounds horrified and to my shame I can feel tears forming at the back of my eyes.

"Yeah, well, it was a last- minute thing he couldn't pass up." I don't want her sympathy for some reason. "Want me to come and keep you company while you wait for his call?"

I consider the offer and come to the conclusion that I don't want company. "No, I have some things I need to get done. I'll call you tomorrow and we'll make plans."

"All right." There's an edge to her voice. "We'll talk tomorrow, Jim."

As I hang up, I check the time. It's 7. I'm hungry and thirsty and I need to take a leak. Just some of the things I should get done. I stay where I am. The phone rings. The room is dark now. Fuck. Another zone. The phone is right in my hand and I pick it up.

"Blair?"

"Just me, darling. I thought I could bring some take out over. I guess Blair hasn't called yet, huh?"

"No, not yet."

"This could be a long wait. I'll come over and keep you company."

She hangs up before I can protest. Damn.

Joyce arrives 20 minutes later. I've taken a leak and grabbed a beer. She looks great, her hair rumpled in a stylish mess, hers eyes sparkling with mischief. She sets the take out down and wraps her arms around me. I inhale her scent. It's a mix of feminine touches, some I can identify, some I can't.

It brings home how much I miss the smell of Blair. To someone else he would just smell well scrubbed and clean, maybe with an overlay of male sweat. To me there's so much more, something elemental. There's earth and wind and yeah I know how that sounds, like Naomi talking. New age baloney.

Before Blair, my senses made me feel like I might spin off the earth. Now his touch, his voice, his smell, all ground me. I need the way the air vibrates around him, like all the thoughts in his head are making the molecules around him dance. Sometimes I swear Sentinel eyesight allows me to see the molecules. His energy signature seems to guide me out of zones, even more than his voice.

Instead I have Joyce, doing her best to make me want her. My body did and we put on a good show for awhile. Then I gently pushed away from a kiss and say, "What did you bring?" I started unpacking the bag. Joyce looked a little miffed so I add, "I haven't eaten since this morning."

"Oh, poor baby."

"You mocking me?"

"Me. Mock you? Never." She pops a dumpling in my mouth and licks the soy sauce from my lips. "I'm here to keep you company, not mock." She emphasized the word mock by rubbing her hand on my crotch. "Joyce?" I pull her hand away. I'm not in the mood and it ought to be obvious, even to her. "Let's eat." The sooner we eat the sooner I can say I'm tired and going to bed. Which I do, with the predictable result.

"Jim, I've never stayed at the loft and now with Sandburg gone the timing couldn't be more perfect."

There's something about the way she calls Blair -Sandburg, which sets my teeth on edge. Like he's a perp she's got a file on. The idea that anything is perfect with Blair gone is ludicrous. She must of sensed that I was refusing the program because she gets all efficient and cleans up.

"I know you want to take your call in peace, so I'll just leave." She's pouts but I don't have the focus to soothe her, so I usher her to the door, kiss her goodnight and make noises about tomorrow. I go back to the couch and pull the phone on my lap. The next thing I know sun is streaming in the windows. No phone call. He said he'd call. I want to smash the phone against the wall but the famous Ellison control kicks in and I set it down carefully.

Taking a long shower, I use more hot water than I have in the three years Blair has lived here. Just one of the ways I've made space for him. Once I'm out, I start making phone calls. The University of Miami. Yes, they have a Professor Watkins. Yes, he just left for a dig. No, they can't get a hold of him for some time. No, they don't know if Blair Sandburg joined the dig at the last moment. They will be in a remote section of Mexico for the next trimester. Yes, they will pass along my message to a Blair Sandburg when they send information to the Professor. Fuck. He's totally out of reach unless I want to hop on a plane to Mexico. I consider it. I reject it. I'll just have to wait for Blair to find a phone or write a letter.

The guys at Major Crimes take Blair's defection hard.

"Can't believe he gave up on the Academy." H hasn't found anyone to tease since Blair left. "Yeah, I really thought he wanted to be part of the team." Joel looks at the pile of paperwork on my desk. "Things just aren't the same since he's gone."

Simon stands in his doorway. "Guys, let's call an end to this wake and get on with the day's work. Jim. My office." I follow Simon in and take a seat. He waves his coffee in my direction and I nod my head. "How are you doing with Sandburg gone?"

"You mean my senses?"

" I mean your senses and everything else."

"I'm fine Simon, my senses seem to have essentially shut down. I'm back to plain old Detective Ellison." "Hmm, the old part I can buy but somehow plain has never described your abilities, with or without your senses." Simon grimaces as he gets to the bottom of his cup.

"Who are you calling old?" I know my lines but my heart's not in the banter. I'm glad Simon accepts the loss of my senses so easily.

"And?"

"And what, sir?"

"And how are getting along without Sandburg the roommate? Sandburg, the friend?"

"I'm happy for him, Simon. He's following his dream of being an Anthropologist. Of course I miss him."

No way am I letting him or anyone else know how I really feel about the Blair-sized hole in my life.

"It's been two months with no word from Sandburg. I understand mail from a dig in remote Mexico might take awhile but by now something should have come." Joyce and I are driving to Berdelli's to celebrate her move to Cascade.

"Jim, mail from urban Mexico is incredibly erratic, let alone the wilds. He may not have even written right a way." Joyce leans over and kisses my ear. The first time she did that we nearly went off the road. I guess she liked the excitement because as often as I've told her not to do that while I'm driving, she still does. I've learned to dampen all my senses when I'm around her. Hell, I dampen them around everybody these days. With Blair gone they are only intermittently useful.

I'm bugged at the idea that Blair might not have written right away. How could he just up and leave me without...without what? A proper good-bye? There was no time. Discussing it with me? I told him to go. Nevertheless, I'm starting to get worried. Joyce notices I guess because she's coming at my ear again. That's the weird thing about Joyce. Whenever I talk about Blair she goes into sex kitten mode. I guess she feels jealous that my thoughts are on someone else .

"Yeah, well I'd just feel better if I knew he was doing okay."

"Of course he's doing okay. He's doing better than that. He's in heaven. He 's doing the work he studied all his life for." Joyce sounds sure and I want to take comfort in her confidence.

Dinner is great. Joyce is almost at her best in a candle lit restaurant, red wine in her hand, one naked foot on my leg, another FBI story unfolding. Almost. Later that night I have her at her best. That woman must have memorized the Kama Sutra. Every time we are together there is a new twist or turn. Or twist and turn. I've been spending more time at the gym. Partly because I miss Blair and partly because I need to add flexibility exercises to my routine in order to keep up with Joyce. It's almost made me a believer in Yoga.

Three days later a letter finally arrives. The envelope looks like it was mailed four years ago from Bosnia and I feel uneasy about that. There is something about looking at this fragile piece of paper; dirty, smudged, an edge ripped off, that makes me fear that Blair has somehow undergone the same trials. I rip it open and scan the page. He's all right. He's damn cheery even, blast him He's getting on the plane that will take him to-that part is smudged. Professor Watkins is delighted, blah, blah, blah. The handwriting is erratic, like they are going through turbulence. I bring the page to my nose, hoping for a whiff of Blair. I can't. The letter is two months old, for crying out loud. Of course I can't smell Blair. I smell someone else though and it sends a jolt through me.

Later that day I track down Marcel. He checks the letter with one of Blair's case notes. He takes his time and I'm surprised. I thought I was being paranoid and that Marcel would immediately put my fears to rest. Instead he brings out a magnifying glass. "This is very good. The pretend jostling is a nice touch, but it's not Blair's handwriting." Marcel looks up as I sag against the desk. "What? What's wrong?"

"Nothing, it's just someone playing a joke on Blair. We had a bet on it. I have another piece here. Can you check that and tell me if it's the same forger?" I give him Blair's good-bye note. This time he's much quicker. Not Blair.

"Thanks Marcel, I owe you one." I start to gather the notes and have a thought. "Oh, and if, for some strange reason, anyone asks you what we talked about-it was about a case. I'll never collect otherwise." Marcel winks.

The disquiet I felt before has mutated into terror. Someone has had Blair for two months and they went through a lot of trouble to keep me unaware. That spells conspiracy and money. I make for Simon's office, I need to run this by someone and right now it's a small group that I trust.

I awake to some serious head pain. Not an ache, not a throb, but a spike that enters through one side of my head and is trying to make its way out of the other. I try to open my eyes but the punishment for that is an escalation of the misery. I hear whimpering and wonder who else is suffering the same fate.

Then a voice from above says, "He's awake doctor." Someone's prying my eyelid open and there's another whimper and a light shines into the dark pain of my head. The light fractures the spiking agony, sending its shards into a thousand directions, multiplying the pain and I am no more.

When I next awake I can still feel the shards embedded in the walls of my brain. The sensation is like white noise, filling my mind with confusion and panic. The pain is less though, as if the light had punctured it and dispersed it.
I hear the whimpering again and then the same voice as before, saying, "He's awake."

"Eric? Can you hear me?" A firm voice, a hand shaking my shoulder, pain rattling inside my skull, the whimpering. I try to bat the hand away but I'm unable to move my arm up that high. Someone gripes my wrist.

"Eric? Open your eyes." The voice is insistent, the hand on my wrist presses on a point, a new pain shoots up my arm and I open my eyes.

"Good." The hand leaves my wrist and I look up to see the doctor peering at me, a stethoscope dangling around his neck. "How are you feeling?" His voice is kind. Involuntarily I look at down at the hand that had known so precisely where to press to send the pain. I look back at his face.

"I feel...head hurts."

"That's to be expected." He's leaning in again and I wish I had a way to dodge his scrutiny. "Expected?" My voice sounds wobbly and my throat's sore.

"Yes, you were hit by lightning yesterday. You had us worried." He's shining the light in my eyes again and looking satisfied. "But you look just fine now."

"Lightning?" I don't understand.

"Yes, freak accident. You were picnicking with the trainers when a sudden storm came up." "Anyone else hurt?"

"No, only you, Eric."

"Eric?" I still don't understand. "My name is Eric?"

Suddenly there is tension in the room and significant looks between the nurse and doctor.

"You don't remember your name?"

I think, hard. My name, what's my name? I dismiss Eric that's not it. What is it? As I think the pain shards in my head start to move. They press into the bones and I scream. And then I am no more.

"Eric? Eric? Wake up." The voice of the nurse, impatient. I cautiously open my eyes. The pain has ebbed. The nurse is standing next to my bed with a glass of water and I reach for it. She helps me drink and pats my face dry. "There. Feel better, now?"

I nod. "Yes, the pain is almost gone."

"Good, Dr. Albright is waiting to talk to you."

"Hello Eric. I heard you had quite the adventure." Dr. Albright is an elderly guy, not the doctor from before, trying hard to be folksy. There is something about him that belies the pose. Perhaps it's the harsh grooves around his mouth or the way he looks at me, like I am deficient.

"Y-yes." I hate the hesitation, weakness here seems dangerous. "I got hit by lightning."

"And you don't remember your name?" He prods.

"No. I don't remember." He doesn't seem too concerned.

"What do you remember?"

I think back, trying to picture the picnic. Nothing. I go back further. This morning, getting ready? Nothing. Last night, dinner...my parents, friends? Nothing. Oh god, there's nothing in my head, there is no information. I'm shaking from the effort to remember and the horror of the emptiness in my head. Dr. Albright is watching, waiting for me to find something to answer him with.

I shake my head. "I don't remember anything."

"Don't panic. This is normal and most likely temporary." Dr. Albright is writing notes now and he ignores me for a few moments while he finishes. "You get a good night's rest and I'll check in with you tomorrow." He's moving away. How can he act like this is nothing? He seems to assume I will react to this the way I would react to a broken arm...an inconvenience only.

"Wait! Where am I?" Nothing about this place seemed familiar.

"Eric, you are at The Center." He said that like he expected me to nod and say, oh yeah. "What's The Center?" I could do 20 questions if I had to.

"The Center is your home. Here we follow the path of the Tessuad."

"I don't understand. The Center? Where is my family?"

"You are Eric Kendall." I can tell the doctor is impatient. "You are at The Center and you are in service to The Good. We are your family. You were at the picnic with your trainers."

"Trainers? What am I training for?"

Dr. Albright is almost out the door but he comes back in and gives me a long look. "I told you. You are being trained in the path of redemption and transcendence. You were born with a gift." His face contorts on the word gift, and I could swear he wanted to say curse. "This gift comes with a responsibility and obligation to The Good."

"W-what is this gift?" I am afraid to ask but I need to know.

"You were born a Guide."

A Guide. There is something about that word that ricochets around my head, leaving bits of meaning in its wake. Dr. Albright smiles. "This will all become clear, Eric, you'll see. Get some sleep."

They leave. The door is ajar and I can hear them talking. "What will happen if he doesn't remember?" "He'll remember the training and that's all that's important."

I close my eyes and try and capture the word Guide and it's skittering meanings.

I fall asleep repeating the word over and over. The next day I still don't remember but the pain is better and they discharge me from the clinic.

It's a large complex and they escort me to my room. Small and orderly, a bed, desk, chair, lamp, bookshelf, books... They say I've lived here most my life and yet there is not much here to tell me who I am or who I was. I walk around the room, touching all the surfaces, hoping something will act as a trigger. There are no photos of me when I was growing up. One photo of a man, waving. A postcard from someone named Dan who vacationed in Ontario two years ago. No sports stuff, no journals, no checkbook, no photos of Mom and Dad, no keys, no magazines or newspapers. I feel like I've walked into the middle of a play and I have no idea what's going on or what my next lines are. My head holds a dull ache and I can feel where the lightning hit. I am missing a patch of hair and there are stitches. Can't believe it only knocked me out for a day.

As I am sitting on the side of the bed, a man pops his head in the door. "Hey sleepy head, can't be a layabout, even if you did just cheat death."

He's standing there with this hopeful grin on his open, freckled face. "Um, I don't mean to be rude but, who are you?" "Who am I? I can understand you forgetting your own name, but forgetting me? Your best friend? I'm crushed." He's smiling and I can't help it, I smile back.

"I'll take pity on you. I'm Mike Hauser." He comes in and takes the chair. "So you really can't remember anything?" "No, nothing."

Something of what I am feeling must have shown in my face because Mike's smile falters and he says, "Hey, it'll be all right. You're memory will be back in no time and in the meantime I'll show you the ropes." He jumps up. "First thing, one is never late for breakfast. Come on, Eric, shake a leg."

I rummage around in the drawers and pull out clothes that look like Mike's. They are exactly like Mike's. He sees my look. "Yup. That's the clothes that make us men. Or something like that. All the guides wear this." "How many Guides are there?"

"Right now there's ten of us in training. You've been here the longest. I'm the newbie. And then there's Truesdale and Geoffrey. Look out for them, they are a tad on the ambitious side."

Going into the bathroom to change, I look in the mirror. I don't know the face looking back at me. That alone almost propels me back out of the room but I'm curious. What do I look like? I'm in need of a shave. I have dark hair. It's short and is a jumble. I have blue eyes.

I shave and try to tame my hair into submission. I put on the blue T-shirt and black jeans. I take one last look, hoping recognition will flair but I all I see is a stranger staring back at me.

Mike's waiting for me as I walk out and he looks me up and down. "You're acceptable. Come on before all the grub is gone."

The cafeteria is packed but Mike and I sit at an almost empty table. There are two other men already halfway through breakfast. They look up, nod and go back to eating. Mike launches into a detailed description of the origin of the food served in the cafeteria and before I know it, I'm laughing. The two other Guides give me a look I can't quite interpret and leave.

"Of course that's when we get food."

"Huh?"

"Don't look so worried. We fast every Sunday. Sometimes more often. It's part of the training."

"Everyone fasts every Sunday?"

"No, no, not everyone. Just the guides."

"Oh. Why?"

"For purity, man. We need to cleanse our corporeal selves of all lust and dependence, including the lust for food." "There is no way to cleanse yourself of dependence on food, Mike."

"Well, maybe not, but it sure alters your consciousness." Mike looks oddly happy about fasting. I figure I'll find out what that's about when I experience it.

"What's next on the agenda?" I wish something would penetrate the fog of ignorance I'm stumbling through. Anything... a feeling, an understanding, a familiar scent or face...something to tell me that it won't always be like this.

"Now we go to Doctrine." He buses the table and picks up his satchel.

"Do I need anything?" I indicate his bag.

"Nah, you're ahead of me in the learning curve so you are beyond the book learning phase."

We enter a room. There are six men kneeling already and Mike immediately takes a place behind them and kneels. I start to ask about what is going on but he puts his finger to his lips and points to the space next to him. I join him in kneeling. I hear a noise behind me and I turn to see the two Guides who were in the cafeteria coming in. They glare at me and I take it I made a faux pas by turning to look at them. They take a position behind us and kneel. We stay that way until my knees are numb and then a woman robed in white enters and puts her hands above her head. Mike stands up and I follow.

She begins a chant. "We are the vessels of the Lord." Her hands come down. Mike kneels, I kneel. Mike and the two behind answer her. "Use us in service, oh Lord."

"We give you all that we are." Her hands are back in the air like a Price is Right point lady.

"We are nothing except to your purpose."

"Accept us and make us worthy, oh Lord."

None of it sounds familiar at first but by the end I can almost mumble along. I'm getting the hang of the rhythm and repetition. My head is starting to hurt and I feel the room do a lazy spin and fall forward on my face. A hand grabs my hair and yanks me up.

"You dare to defile the Doctrine?" It's one of the other Guides and he looks ready to do me bodily harm in the name of the lord.

"Truesdale!" The point lady speaks. "You know that Eric had an accident. His failure is not his fault. Let him go." He lets me go with enough momentum that my face bounces on the floor. I lie there, stunned, the pain in my head multiplying. Mike helps me up, glaring at Truesdale. He hands me a handkerchief to wipe at the blood trickling from my nose. I want to deck the guy but before I can even get my hands up, Mike is whispering in my ear, "No Eric. You don't want the trouble that will come down on your head."

"What about the trouble on his head?" The guy is just walking away

. "The Lord will serve him his dues." Mike looks like he believes this stuff.

"We need to get permission to get you to the clinic, wait here."

My nose and face hurt and I'm none to steady on my feet are but something tells me a trip to the clinic is not going to do me much good. I grab Mike before he can go after Ruth.

"Nah, I'll just go lie down."

He looks shocked. "You can't go lie down in the middle of the day. You have to have a certification to skip any part of the training. Go to the clinic, Eric."

"No, really, I'm all right." The doctor there had creeped me out and I don't want to see him again. "Go change then. The blood on your shirt is an abomination."

I look up at Mike, expecting to see a smile, a lifted eyebrow, something, anything, that would tell me he's kidding. He's not. I nod my head and go back to my room.

Walking down the corridor to my room, I push again at the blankness in my head. I try and remember walking these hallways before. Mike. Reciting The Doctrine. Waking up in my room. My mother's face. Everyone has a mother, right? I must, or must've at one point. What does she look like? There's nothing there, no image, no shape and worst of all, no feeling.

Changing, I rejoin the group in the library. We spend a quiet two hours studying testing procedures. A bell chimes and everyone stands up.

"Lunch time, Eric." Mike shelves the books he's had out and I follow his lead. As we walk towards the cafeteria I ask Mike if he knew my Mom.

"Your Mom? Why would you want to know about her?" Mike seems genuinely puzzled.

"I can't remember her. Can't remember my dad either. I feel like I should, you know? Have a face in my head or a feeling about them?"

"Eric, you hardly ever saw them. Hey, if there's anyone you should remember it's me."

"Come on Mike, you can't tell me you don't miss your parents and think about them."

Mike shakes his head. "Must be the lightning, Eric. You've never shown any interest in your family before. I don't think you've seen your mom but once in the last six years. And your dad...who knows about him? You never mentioned your dad."

After that first day, my life took on a relentless rhythm. Shower. Breakfast. Doctrine. Language class. I'm learning Russian. I don't seem to be much good at it, or the accident affected the part of brain that deals with speech acquisition. Then lunch. After, meditation then biofeedback. Those two to enhance my empathic abilities. That's another thing that I don't understand. I don't know what they mean by empathetic abilities. Hey, I know what empathy is, I just don't feel any. Maybe I did before the accident. Maybe I will when I meet a Sentinel.

The last part of the afternoon is spent in physical training and it's exhausting and ever changing. The theory is our Sentinels will be called on to do demanding tasks and we need to be able to keep up and keep them safe.

Every Sunday, we fast. Some weeks we fast three times. I don't know how they decide. The first day I asked about everything. Ruth put a stop to that. She called me into her office and explained that God must have a plan for me in my ignorance. Nothing like lightning is ever random, there fore I must accept God's decision to strip me of my memory. It seems profoundly counter-productive to train me all these years and then take it away. I say as much to Dr. Albright at my next check-up. He grips my wrist and applies the pressure I remember from before. Yes, the pain really was that bad, nothing wrong with that part of my memory.

"You doubt God's plan?"

"No." I can barely get the word out.

"That's what it sounded like to me." He takes the pressure off.

"No, of course I accept God's decision. I just wonder why no one will help me to understand the things I once knew." "We discussed that in Administrative Theology and decided that would be circumventing God's will."

I leave, my head's better but my arm is killing me and I know there is no way for me to regain my understanding of before. Curiously, I remember what I've read, papers I've written, and lectures I've heard. Knowledge must be stored in a different part of the brain than memory. That doesn't explain why I don't remember The Doctrine.

On fast days, we imbibe the waters of the Purification and then we chant the Doctrine for three hours. After that we retire to our rooms for meditation and study. I can see why Mike likes it. There is an otherworldly quality to the days we fast. Everything is simultaneously sharper and less sharp. The ritual seems to affect me more than the others. On the days of fast, I'm overwhelmed with love for the Good and determined to serve it with all my heart. For some reason, no matter how hard I try, I rarely get through a Purification day without fainting. They say it's because of the accident that I'm failing. Truesdale and Geoffrey take this personally and they continue to find fault with everything I do. I've memorized the Doctrine and I follow the path of redemption, but still they believe me unworthy.

Even with my weaknesses I'm still the alpha Guide. I don't know if I'm just more gifted or if because I started first I'm ahead of the rest of the class. It's not spoken of.

The fourth week after the accident we work on mountain climbing and it's discovered I have a fear of heights. Archie, the physical trainer, tries every meditation technique he can to help me overcome it. In the end my stubbornness to submit to the service of the Good results in discipline. On a day of fast I'm sent on the training field with Archie. Every time I falter he applies the rod of the Righteous. The third time the fire goes through me I seize up and only the ropes keep me from falling to the rocks below. When I come to, Archie is slapping my face.

"What in the name of damnation is wrong with you, boy? Never have I seen a willfullness like yours. I think we are going to have to take this to another level to break you of Lucifer's hold."

He hauls me to my feet and takes me to Mr. Spencer. He's the guy in charge of the whole Sentinel/guide program. He's a big man, well over 6'5" and built like a linebacker. Not the face of a man of vision or science but he face of a bouncer.

"I hear you're putting your fears ahead of our needs, Eric. That won't do." He thumps the desk in front of him and books slide off. "No, that won't do. It's rare for this to happen with someone this far along in the program. You seem to be failing a lot here and everyone around you is content to blame your accident. Well, not me." He leans across his desk. "You will submit to a body retraining. Once we have your body in submission, the spirit will follow." He gestures to Archie. "Take him to Mr. Smith."

I'm afraid but there is nowhere to run and no one to run to. Archie prods me and I get up. I'm lightheaded from Archie's attempts to break through my will and sway on my feet. Archie grabs me by my belt and keeps me upright.

"Let's go, the sooner we get started, the sooner you will be of some real use to the Good."

He takes me to a part of the complex I've never seen. The room we enter is not unlike my own room, except there are no books and there's a toilet in the corner. It's eerily hushed and Archie tells me to sit in the chair. I do, and he takes my wrist and fits it into a cuff that is attached to a chain in the wall. Then he leaves. It's very odd, the chain is long and I can go almost everywhere in the small room. I try the door and it's locked, so what's the point?

I lie down on the bed and an alarm sceams. The door is yanked open and someone I've never seen looks in and says, "Off the bed." I get off and in a bit the noise stops. At first I'm sure any moment someone will come in and beat me. I try and prepare myself for that. There is a clock on the desk, and I watch the minutes spin to hours. After several hours, I just wish someone would come in, even if they do hit me. I'm feeling antsy and my head feels like it's buzzing. The confusion, which is always just below the surface, is starting to bubble up. I pace up and down, the damn chain clanking and reminding me that I am stuck.

I hate that. I hate this. I hate the quietness and the feeling of being caged. I realize those feelings are with me even when I'm out of this room. Did I always mind the confines of service? I know I was born to do this, born to be this. Did the freak accident turn me into a freak, someone unfit to serve the Good? Who am I if I am not a guide? What meaning can my life have if I never unite with a Sentinel and submerse myself in the glory of the Good? At eight o'clock the alarm man finally does come in. He has a tray of food and he sets it down.

"When the light goes out, you can lie on the bed. My name is Mr. Smith. You are my charge for the next week." He leaves before I can ask him anything.

Dinner is the same plain food we always have. I'm always hungry these days, perhaps because we never really make up the lost calories of the fasting days.

After supper I feel calmer, and the calmness makes me aware of my exhaustion. The lights have not gone off so I lie down on the floor. I can do this, overcome my fear, fulfill my destiny. I fall asleep on the floor, never noticing when the lights finally do go off. I wake up to Mr. Smith's toe nudging me, "Kendall. Get up."

I push up off the floor and Mr. Smith indicates the chair. Breakfast is there and he leaves without another word. Thus begins my week of retraining. After breakfast, a voice comes over a speaker set in the ceiling. "Assume the position." I kneel. I recite the Doctrine with the disembodied voice.

 

"We are the vessels of the Lord.
You are the Lord.
It exists when you say it exists.
I worship it when you create it.
You are the Sky
You are the Land.
You are my Lord, I am not myself.
Everything dies without your rule.
Use us in service, oh Lord.
We give you all that we are.
We are nothing except to your purpose.
Accept us and make us worthy, oh Lord.
The path to your dominion is long, make us strong.
The path to your dominion is dark, give us your eyes.
With your ears, we hear all we need to listen to.
Provide us with the means to penetrate the dark evil...
 

There doesn't seem to be an end to the recitation. The muscles in my thighs are cramping and I find myself swaying back and forth, as I start to fall forward and catch myself, only to lean too far back and lose it that way.

The dream feels so real. I'm in a fountain and I'm drowning. I fight the hands that hold my head in the water but I can't get the leverage to get my face clear of the water that is entering my mouth and nose instead of air.

I wake up to water pouring down on me. It's Mr. Smith. He's dumped a bucket of water to bring me back. When he sees I am awake he says, "Assume the position." And waits awhile I struggle to my knees. The voice comes back from above and I begin the Doctrine again. At two o'clock the voice chants the final catechism. "Lord, you are our eyes, our ears, our taste, our touch. Show us your will that we might serve you in all your goodness and glory. Amen."

Mr. Smith comes in and indicates that I can rise. I try but my legs are useless, numb and leaden. Mr. Smith waits for awhile as I struggle and then loses his patience. He reaches down and hauls me up on the chair. "Lunch." He points to the tray he brought in and leaves. I'm too far gone to eat and I let myself slide down out of the chair back on to the floor. I lie there skimming back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness.

The dream comes back only now I'm dead and there is peace. I see men gathered around my body. One man is yelling and trying to keep me alive. I want to reach out to him and tell him he can stop now. I am dead and all is well. He looks up from his efforts and I see his face. His eyes are pleading, searching for life in me. I am stunned by the emotion I see in his eyes. How can he feel so much about my death? About me? I'm not worthy. Doesn't he know how far I am from redemption? How far I am from being of any use?

The dream ends when Mr. Smith comes back in. "You didn't eat your lunch."

I sit up and lean against the bed. "I'm not hungry."

"You have to eat." He seems agitated for the first time.

"Why?" I don't understand his concern.

"You just do. Now eat." I pull the plate on my lap and begin to eat. He nods, satisfied and leaves. I get up and dump it in the toilet and lie back down. The dream scares me but the face haunts me and I want to see it again. This time the dream is chaotic with animals morphing into people. I see a large cat become the man and I feel joy. I startle awake. Joy? Have I ever felt joy before? And why does the sight of this man who turns into a jungle cat give me my first taste? I can feel the power of the man/cat and it should repulse me. It is clearly not leashed to the use of the Good. The power is personal and predatory . Yet I can also feel the goodness in the man. Can that be? Can anyone not in service to the Good, be good? Not according to everything I know. Is Lucifer trying to seduce me with the image of a man who cares for me, and yet is not of the Good? I can see how cunning Lucifer is, how very well he knows our weaknesses. And how very weak am I, to be so affected by the look in a strange man's eyes.

I hear the door being unlocked and Mr. Smith enters. He picks up the plate and glass and as he's leaving he says, "You are to stand facing that wall." He points and waits. I get up and walk the few steps to the blank wall. He nods and leaves.

I don't understand. There is a terribleness to the silence and the weight of the cuff pulling at my arm and the isolation. But it's not punishment. It's discipline and discipline is good. They are leading me out of the darkness of my will, out of the smallness of my being, so that I may experience the greater Good.

Ruth, the lady in white, explained it this way: A bird has a birdbrain, small and limited. It's only glory is the gift of flight given to it by God. There is nothing the bird can do that has any value besides soaring in the open skies and praising the Lord for this gift with its melodies. Guides are like birds. We have only one gift that makes us of value to God. That is our capacity to unite with a Sentinel and in so doing, serve The Good.

I try and hold on to that thought as the hours tick by but my mind is still willful and continually sidetracks to the face. I study it, taking in the beauty of the sharp planes that contain the whole. He is older. Could this be my father, an image of him from when I was a child? My brother, perhaps? No one has told me I have a brother, but I might, except he doesn't look anything like me. Can't be a friend. I don't have friends, except for Mike.

After awhile I lean my head on the wall. I am exhausted from maintaining the same position and the emotional drain of the dream. When I realize what I have done the strength and cunning of my will appall me and I'm afraid I may never be worthy to guide.

I can't see the clock from where I'm standing and so can only gauge the passing of the hours by my growing thirst and the need to relieve my bladder. More time passes and there's no stopping it, I pee in my pants. As I feel the warm water running down my leg I feel the tears running down my cheeks. I control the things I must let go of and I cannot control the most basic physical disciplines. I am worthless, unsuited to the gift given me, truly lacking.

The door opens and Mr. Smith comes in, bringing dinner. He takes note of the wetness but says nothing, just puts the tray down and walks out.

I drink some water but hold myself back from quenching my thirst. I mustn't let my needs rule me. I eat some but decide it's time to curb the lust of hunger as well and toss the rest down the toilet.

Soon after, the lights go out and I undress and crawl into bed. My head is buzzing again and although I long for the oblivion of sleep, I am afraid that Lucifer will send the dream again and that I will be powerless against the terrible beauty of the man who holds my dead body in his arms like it is something of value.

I stay awake for a long time and finally meditate. As soon as I begin the familiar breathing I feel relaxed. Another face surfaces, this time a woman. She is beautiful and laughing and I think I love her. My mother, it must be... I try and capture a memory to go with the face but none come. Just her, laughing and the feeling I get as I watch her laugh. I fall asleep.

The next day is the same as before.

Out of fear of another accident, I've cut back my water intake. I offer the suffering to the Good. My appetite has dwindled and I think perhaps I've conquered that lust. Although I my body is weaker the spirit has grown stronger. Despite the lightheadedness I stay upright. There are no more accidents, no matter how long I'm at attention. These are small victories but I'm grateful.

The drone of the Doctrine is like a pulse in my head. I hold on to it, knowing that it will keep Lucifer at bay. I know my faith is far from perfect. I wish I knew if I had these doubts before the accident or because of the accident.

At night, the buzzing in my head grows louder. I think I'm awake but I dream. It's almost always the man. He seems to be a policeman as I dream of him pursuing criminals. The dreams are all very exciting. Probably because of my longing for a Sentinel, I've given this man Sentinel abilities and in my dreams I'm of use to him. I serve him as guide.

Each night I wait for the dreams to come and reveal an adventure. I know I should feel guilty. Perhaps I can't control my dreams but I shouldn't look forward to them with the anticipation that I do. And I do feel guilty in the morning. My guilt is what keeps me on my feet, what steadies my hand as I throw the food away.

At the end of the week I'm a mess. I haven't shaved or bathed. All the kneeling and standing has made my muscles ache and my body weary. Who would think that doing nothing could be so debilitating?

As I'm led back to my room, I can't wait to take a shower and be allowed to read, to think, to sit in a chair. Before any of that can happen, Archie appears. He's decked out for climbing and he's carrying equipment for me.

"Put this on." He hands me the harness. I struggle into it, the weight of it is unpleasant and I feel the fear edging back in.

"Let's go." I foll ow him out to the cliff we use for this exercise. It looks even higher than last week. I swallow and begin the ascent. I'm not very far up when a wave of dizziness hits. I scramble to keep my handhold and stop for a moment to try to get my head straight. "Hey Kendall, we ain't got all day."

"Yeah, just give me a minute." I don't want to do this. My will is fighting the Good every step of the way and I have to get a handle on it. I think of the Good and my need to be worthy. The fear squeezes my heart. I think about another week of retraining. My heart is beating so fast I think I might start to hyperventilate.

I think of the face. I imagine he's a Sentinel and he needs me to get to the top of this cliff. The fear is still there but by concentrating on the Sentinel I'm able to push it to the side and continue the climb. It takes us fifty-five minutes where it should have taken a half-hour. That has more to do with the havoc a week's confinement has played on my body than with fear.

I feel elation. With the help of my friend, for I can't just keep calling him the face, I've reached the top.

That night I'm clean again. The adrenaline rush of the climb has left me in an oddly relaxed state. The buzz in my head has settled down a bit. I'm trying to understand what happened. How did I make that climb? It was the image of the face, the face of my friend. My imaginary friend. I smile. I could name him, but that would make him more real and I already feel a terrible weight for letting him assume a position of trust inside my head. I know, according to the teachings, that there is every likelihood that this is a test, given by Lucifer. If it is a test, I've failed, because I've tried to let go of the face and I can't.

The next day I resume the normal routine and I've never felt such focus. The Doctrine's mysteries are unfolding for me. I understand so much more. I'm even remembering Russian and that gives me hope that other parts of my memory will come back. The image of my mother comes and goes but I've yet to have a true memory of us together. I work up the courage and ask Ruth about my parents. She purses her lips.

"I realize because of your accident, you don't remember much about The Center and how things are done here. You were brought to us when you were 13 years old. You...had been in some trouble and your mother was deeply concerned about you. She had taken you to be tested at one of our sites and your gift was revealed. You have been with us ever since. Your mother joined us also, but she serves the Good in other ways."

"Do I ever get to see her? And what about my father?"

"We know nothing about your father, Eric." That fact didn't seem to sit well with her. "Your mother is a woman of great energy and insight. Her bringing you to us was a both a gift of love to you and a gift to the Good."

"What kind of trouble?" What could I have done that was so bad that at 13 she just left me here?

"Eric." Ruth's face is in conflict. She is trying to convey sympathy but her distaste for my questions is clear. "We simply don't speak of the past. We dwell in the present and prepare for the future. That's all that's important. Now go join the others." I'm dismissed.

 

The men regroup. They darken the room and watch the video of the guide struggling up the cliff .

"He fought the training. His fear of heights was almost insurmountable."

"Mr. Smith can be relied on."

"He doesn't remember?"

"No."

"Any chance he will remember?"

"Between the month of brain washing and the drugs...not likely."

"He's adjusting to being here?"

"At first he surprised with how many questions he asked, but that's come to an end. He does still ask about his mother."

"Perhaps we should bring her in."

"Hmmm. Interesting idea. Yeah, that might help round out the illusion. I like that idea. Bring her in."

Mr. Mueller, the administrator, comes to my room. I'd been studying Russian and when I see him in the doorway, my heart skips a beat. I'm sure I've done something to get sent back to that room. But he's smiling and there's something about the unlikely nature of it that scares me almost as much as if he had been scowling.

"Eric, how are you feeling?" He's stepped into my room but stays right by the door.

This is typical here. The only ones who ever came close are the ones who want to hurt me. If no one ever touches here, why do I miss it so much? Can you miss what you've never had? Now I have Mr. Mueller in my room being pleasant and I didn't trust it.

"I'm fine."

"No headaches?"

"Sometimes."

"I heard you were asking about your mother."

That makes me sit up. He's phrased that like he means to tell me something.

"I can't remember her."

"Your mother had been in retreat but we had left a message about your accident and we just received word that she is on her way here now. We expect her tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" I must look goofy with the gigantic smile I have on my face but I didn't care. She was coming tomorrow. "Yes, well, get to sleep, I'm sure you'll have a lovely visit with your, er, um, Mom."

The morning goes quickly until just before lunch when everything slows into nightmare mode. I'm walking toward the cafeteria when I pass an open door that's normally closed and I'm hauled inside. Truesdale slaps a piece of tape over my mouth and I see Geoff off to the side.

"We can't mark the little prick. Wouldn't do to hurt teacher's little pet." That's Geoff.

"No but there's lots of fun we can have that is funny." True this time and he's giggling. They must be high on something, this kind of depravity is one of the Nation's greatest sins. I struggle, trying to get a solid kick in. True stays out of my range and hits me full in the face. For a moment, I think I might lose consciousness but the panic I feel at being at their mercy keeps me upright.

True reaches down and squeezes my balls, hard. White pain flares and I sag in Geoff's hold. Geoff throws me down on the floor. I hit, head first. I hit hard enough that my brains feel scrambled. I can't quite coordinate a defense. He pulls my arms behind me and tapes my wrists together. True puts a blindfold over my eyes.

After that I didn't know who was doing what. One had his foot on my back and the other one is pulling at my jeans. I can't believe this. We're in the middle of the center and these guys are trying to rape me. I'm really freaked out now. I have no leverage but I'm trying to get on my knees and push off when we hear a noise.

"What the hell is going on here?" Someone is in the room and there is the sound of fists connecting with bones and grunts of pain. Someone kicks me in the ribs and then I feel a body fall over me. They lie there on top of me and I can't breathe. I try and roll them off but I can't. Just when I am about to go into full panic from the lack of oxygen and the claustrophobia of having someone weighing me down, the body is lifted off of me.

I hear a voice I don't ever remember hearing before saying, "Are you all right, kid?" And the tenderness in his tone nearly makes me cry. He's taking off the blindfold and for a fleeting moment I expect to see the face in my dreams. But it's not him. The hope I had held for just a moment that the face was someone real was gone and in its place is an ache and an emptiness.

The man with the kind voice is a stranger to me. He's supporting my shoulders with an arm around me as he works the tape off my mouth.

"This is gonna hurt, sorry." He pulls and god, he's right, that hurts. He leans me forward and tries to undo my wrists but the tape is mangled, "I'm gonna need a knife to get this off."

Again his voice holds a tone of endearment utterly out of character with the strength in his face. I nod. Even though the tape is off my mouth, the idea of speaking seems impossible. He lifts me up onto my feet. He runs his hands up and down my body. It's an odd thing for someone to do. It's also an oddly familiar gesture.

"Just checking for injuries, pal." That doesn't make sense. His hands are skimming me, not poking and prodding me the way the doctor checks you out.

"What happened here?" Mr. Mueller is in the doorway, taking in the scene.

My new friend answers. "I was walking by when I saw these two-" He indicates True and Geoff, both out cold on the floor, "assaulting this one. Got a knife on you? This tape is stubborn."

I start to laugh. The idea that Mr. Mueller would have a knife on him seems like the funniest thing I ever heard. No one joins me in my laughter and I realize there is a hysterical edge to it. Before it can change to the crying I know is coming I try and break the gentle hold my friend has me in. I want to go back to my room. I don't want to cry in front of this guy. But he doesn't let go and I can't hold back the tears that turn to sobs. Rather than shaking me and telling me to get a grip, he holds me closer and pats my back.

"It's okay. Let it out, then you can be done with it." I am as undone by the sensation of being cared for as I am by the aftermath of almost being raped.

Mr. Mueller had gone off and now he comes back with a knife, freeing me. I pluck at the tape, trying to get the pieces off, hating the feel of the adhesive.

"Who are you?" Mr. Mueller is asking, his voice authoritative.

"Jason Rarick. I'm a Sentinel assigned here for training. I just got in."

"Ah, Mr. Rarick, right, we've been expecting you.

Mr. Rarick looks at me and says, "My name is Jason." He holds out his hand, a smile playing at his lips .

"Eric Kendall." I return the handshake and nod my head. For some reason further speech is still elusive. Jason clamps his hand on my shoulder.

"Your head needs looking at, junior, let's go." I let him lead me away, his touch on my shoulder foreign and welcome. I didn't need stitches and apart from some nasty bruises I'm fine. We leave the clinic. I'm feeling awkward and wishing we had met some other way.

This guy is a Sentinel. He's here for training and to find his guide. By all normal procedures that would be me. A guide is there to watch the Sentinel's back, to keep him safe, to guide him through peril. He saw me as helpless as a baby. There is no way he's going to want me as his guide.

At the clinic they told us to report to Mr. Spencer's office. We go in and he tells us to sit and we do. He leans on his desk and addresses himself to me. "Mind telling me what happened in that room, Kendall?" He's angry. "Two of my guides are in the clinic and I hear you have something to do with that." I can feel myself blush.

"Th-they grabbed me from the hall and-and..."

"You're telling me two of my guides waylaid you to that room?"

He's making it sound like I started this and I am so surprised I'm having a hard time finding words to explain. "Back off." Jason has stood up and he's leaning on the desk too, he's right in Spencer's face. "I was in that room. The kid was gagged, blindfolded, and had his wrists taped. I don't call that waylaid. I call that assaulted."

I don't know who is more surprised by Rarick's defense of me but Spencer is the first to pull back and break eye contact. "I can't believe this. These are good guides. They've been here since they were youngsters."

He looks me up and down. I can't help but wonder again, what I did as a boy to be brought to this place and whether that is why he thinks the worse of me. "Just why would they do that, Kendall?"

"I don't know, sir, I, ah...you know about my accident?" Spencer nods. "I don't have any memory from before. Perhaps they have always hated me."

Spencer looks thoughtful and says , "I'll check the records and see if there is any report of this sort of thing going on before." The look he gives me clearly conveys his opinion of me and it's not good.

"In the meantime it seems you skipped a stack of paperwork on your way in, Rarick and you need to hit administration and take care of it. Kendall, I believe your mother is waiting for you."

Man, I'd forgotten my mother was due in. My mom. What is my mom's name? I hadn't thought to ask. Well, I guess I'll just call her. That ought to work.

Rarick and I leave together. In the corridor, I point out the offices he needs to visit. "Have a good visit with your Mom, Eric." He cuffs my head. "And try and stay out of trouble for a while." He walks away chuckling and I feel a wave of deja vu.

Back in my room, I clean up and change my clothes. My face is a mess and I just know my Mom will freak. Will she think I caused the trouble, like Mr. Spencer did? Will she associate it with the trouble I was in before? I crawl into bed, a weight on my chest where there had been anticipation. Lying there I try and calm my racing heart. I try the deep breathing exercises.

A voice is calling my name and I realize I've fallen asleep despite my good intentions. There is a woman in front of me. She has a sweep of gray hair and kind green eyes. I have to bite back the disappointment when I don't recognize her. She is not the woman who laughed so sweetly in my dreams.

"Eric, Sweetie?" She is standing over me, smiling and there are tears in her eyes. I reach up to pull her into a hug but she steps back.

"I've been so worried about you ever since I heard about your accident! From the way they were talking I didn't think you would look quite so banged up." She's fluttering around, agitated and concerned. She gestures at my bandaged forehead, and continues, "Are you feeling all right?"

"I'm fine." I want to add the word Mom, but it sticks in my throat. It's one thing that I don't recognize her. It's another that she doesn't feel like my mom. I don't feel any of the feelings I had in my dream. But that's ridiculous. I can't hold my mom up to some dreamscape and expect her to fit in.

"Mom, where have you been?" For this half of my life-I want to add, but I contain myself.

"Sweetie, I would have been here sooner but I was in a very isolated part of Mexico and the telephone service is non-existent. I wish I had been here when you woke up."

"That's okay---Mom." Another wave of deja vu. Was my mother in the habit of apologizing for not being around? "What did you learn at the retreat?" I want to know what lures my mother so far away from me.

"Oh, Eric." She seems flustered at the question. I wonder if she works on top secret stuff that she can't share. "You know my pursuits have always bored you." She looks around the room and I wonder what has her so nervous.

"I can't remember your pursuits, Mom, so it will all be new and interesting to me."

"I was in this village where they have no mirrors. You would have loved it. The women-" She was interrupted by Jason coming in.

"Eric, how are you feeling?" He looks at me intently and I find myself blushing. He turns to my mother as if he's just seen her. I know he must have been aware of her from down the hall, if not on the other side of the building. Perhaps his senses were too unpredictable for him to extend. Or perhaps he was just being polite.

"Excuse me, you must be Eric's Mom. I heard you were coming to the Center." Jason sticks out his hand.

Mom looks star struck. She takes his hand eagerly. "You must be my son's Sentinel. I am so happy to meet you and so happy Eric is finally united."

"Mom, it's not a done deal. I mean, it's not even been discussed." I feel the heat in my cheeks and I know I'm blushing. I sure didn't want Jason thinking he's stuck with me. He might not want me after what happened this afternoon.

Jason gives me a penetrating look and then turns back to my mom. "Well, it may not be official but I don't have any doubt about how Eric and I will do as a team." He's charming my mom and something about the interplay bothers me. Is he hitting on her?

"Eric, you missed lunch. I got the cafeteria to save something for us. Come on, we've got a lot to talk about." He ruffles my hair.

"I'll let you boys get to know one another. I have some paperwork that needs doing."

At the second mention of the word paperwork, I get a funny twinge, like a tiny door cracking open. What? I've got a thing for paperwork? What paperwork? I study, I read I probably take tests...but no, it's the word paperwork. I can hear a voice in my head saying, "Don't forget we have a ton of paperwork to do, Chief." It's a voice I haven't heard here and no one's called me anything but Eric and Kendall and Sweetie, the last from my mother. Chief? Someone has a nickname for me. Chief. Wonder why Chief? Am I part Native? It has to be my imaginary friend. For the first time I think maybe he's not imaginary. I mean now he has a voice and he's given me a name.

There's silence. I look up and they are both looking at me. Did I miss something?

"You coming, kid?"

"Oh yeah. Mom, I'll see you tonight?"

"Oh course, Eric. I'll see you at dinner." She gathers up her bag and gives us a little wave. I swing my legs off the bed and as I stand up the room tilts, "Whoa."

"What is it Eric?" Jason moves in closer and puts his hand on my forehead. It feels so good to have touch I almost lean into it, but I manage to stop myself. "You don't have a fever."

"I'm feeling a little sore and really tired. I think I'll pass on lunch, I don't think my stomach could handle anything right now. It's almost dinner anyway. I just need to lie down." I hope I sound convincing. I know Jason could monitor my heartbeat and read me. I'm hoping he hasn't realized that, or he doesn't do it out of politeness.

Jason hesitates. Clearly he wants me to go but I lie back and he seems to accept that I'm worn out.

"Okay, kid. Take a nap. We'll chat at dinner." He leaves the room and I let out a sigh. I need to think. I close my eyes and start to catalog everything I know about this place and Sentinels.

It's been four weeks since I got the letter that alerted me that Blair had been taken. A total of over three months since he's been gone. It's all I can do to maintain some semblance of normality as I search frantically for any clue as to his whereabouts. After conferring with Simon and Joel we have come to the conclusion that Blair isn't dead. Whoever has taken him has gone to a lot of trouble to make me believe the fiction of his absence. Not only have they set it up but they were continuing to play it out. That indicated purpose. If Blair wasn't being used to threaten me or control me, then the next logical possibility was using him to control Naomi.

I've been in touch with her and she's oblivious to Blair's disappearance. She had received a letter from him telling her all about his new position with the university and his jaunt to Mexico. She's busy working in an Ashram in India. This didn't seem to involve her.

That left Blair being taken for Blair's value alone. And while I consider him intelligent, resourceful, and highly educated, the only thing he had that is unique to him is his knowledge of Sentinels. It's baffling that they haven't come for me. They either didn't know I was a Sentinel or they didn't need a Sentinel.

That left his value to someone as a Guide. Alex. I checked and she was still safely catatonic and secure. Someone like Alex. Someone like Alex with a lot of money and clout and a certain Miss Joyce Sunjata on their payroll. It had been her scent on Blair's letter.

In some ways this is the hardest thing I've ever done. Trying to maintain an image of unconcern and go about my life all the while every brain cell is screaming find Blair, find the Guide. My dates with Joyce are hell. She's going to slip up and when she does I'm going to right there. In the meantime I think I may be creating a split personality. Either that or I have one hell of a natural bent for acting. Thank God she doesn't question that I'm doing massive amounts of overtime.

After running her name and fingerprints we discovered that she was-indeed-Joyce Sunjata. She is a Profiler for the FBI. In fact, every last thing she had told me about herself checked out. She's very good. The people she works for are very good.

The first time I saw her after talking to Marcel was surreal. She's in front of me, lovely as ever, touching me, teasing me. I see my hands go to her throat. I'm squeezing and she's flailing around, trying to get my hands off her, turning blue. I shake my head and realize that I am holding her in a tender hug as she recounts her day. My rational brain kicked in and protected her while my irrational brain went ahead and murdered the only hope I have of finding Blair. That night she had every expectation that we would make love. The idea that I have been intimate with the person who took Blair away makes me sick to my stomach. To continue the travesty of intimacy seemed the worse kind of betrayal, and yet, to refuse her blatant invitation would be utterly out of character.

Huh. Some character. I know that an expert had maneuvered me. She had read my conflicting feelings about needing Blair in my life and played them like a maestro. There was no comfort in being so transparent to an enemy. No comfort in the fact that I let my fear about what it meant to need someone as much as I needed Blair lead me straight into her web.

I needed to stay close to her and track her every move. I had to stay in the role of the besotted and stupid suitor. Determination to play my part proved inadequate. I nearly lost it.

That first night as I was kissing her, I moved to her ear, darting my tongue in and nipping at her earlobe. I was sickened when I felt her heartbeat pick up. Next I kissed her neck. I could feel the pulse of her heart, the surge of air to her lungs. It was then that I bit her. Hard enough to draw blood. She yelped and pushed me away. That saved her life. I swear I was damn close to tearing her throat out. She thought I had simply gotten carried away and gave me a lecture about not being into rough. There was no way I could do this. I could not pretend at this level.

I apologized and returned to her embrace but I used my natural reaction to her to create a problem that just got worse each time we came together. She thought my sudden impotency was because I wanted it rough and she didn't. I let her think whatever she wanted. Soon, we just met for an occasional dinner. She never failed to ask about Blair. In between 'dates' I followed her.

We had considered tapping her phone and bugging her apartment but I wasn't willing to risk her finding them and taking off. Right now, she was our only link and it was imperative that she believe we're still in the dark. On two occasions I was able to hear her talking to someone about Blair and my continued ignorance. From what I heard, Blair seemed to be unaware and all right. They wanted him for something and as long as he was useful to him, he would stay alive.

Well aware that my phone was tapped and the apartment bugged I had taken to staying with Simon. The emptiness I felt in the loft had been kept at bay by my anger at Blair's decision to turn tail and run to the first warm option he had been offered. Now that I knew Blair had not left of his own accord, I found being in the loft nearly impossible.

I cursed my stupidity and I cursed my willingness to believe so easily that Blair would opt out. Fear-based response, yeah. Blair had nailed that one. Even knowing I had gotten to this point because of fear- based reactions I was still having a damn hard time reigning them in. Every day I fought the urge to hunt Joyce down and beat the truth out of her. She was a professional and I knew I would never find Blair that way.

I had run through all my contacts, exploring every remote possibility presented and so far nothing had panned out. My last desperate call had been to my father.

He was no fan of Blair's and the only way to enlist his cooperation had been to lay out the whole Sentinel/Guide relationship and the inherent dangers to me. Blair, he would have cut loose in a moment and hope that I would find a more presentable helpmate. It took some doing but I convinced him it was simply a matter of time before they came for me too. I didn't really believe that at this point, I only fervently hoped so. At least if they took me, I would see Blair again, and if I saw Blair then, well...anything was possible.

The threat to me galvanized my father. I didn't kid myself that it was affection motivating him. No, it was more like family honor. The idea that someone would take his son and make a science project out of him did not jive with the Ellison motto of Control, Always Maintain Control. Not to mention what they might do with Ellison DNA. With these threats riding shotgun in my father's brain he was a force to behold.

In two days he came up with the most credible information we had gotten so far. The organization's name was The Echelon, and a more covert ops would be hard to find. Even with the name it took my friend Daniel three days to discover anything at all that could point us in the direction of Blair. This worried me.

I have only contacted Daniel twice since serving with him in the Rangers. Both times he had the info I sought within an hour. That it had taken two days of Daniel's uncanny talent to unearth an identification told me a lot. What would it take to unearth Blair? Echelon was a unit of the Tessuad Nation, an organization dedicated to bringing down the ungodly, specifically, ungodly governments. They were believed to have been behind several mysterious poisonings, reported as food contamination. There was evidence that they had some of the finest assassins in the field.

As I waited for my father to do the near impossible, I continued my shadow dance with Joyce. I had tried to discreetly probe her weaknesses and found none. The woman was as protected inside and out, as an armadillo. She seemed to have been trained from birth for the role she played. In all the time I was with her, she never gave herself away by so much as a heartbeat.

This, along with the deepness of The Echelon's cover and pockets, terrified me. My God, look at what SLA, underfunded and fumbling around with theories they barely understood had been able to do with Patty Hearst. These people had created Joyce Sunjata. My greatest fear was that they were uncreating Sandburg.

As I lie here thinking about all I know I realize I know a lot more about Sentinels than they seem to teach here. I wonder about that. Did I do extra research? It seems unlikely that I would uncover anything that they weren't teaching. Yet, no one has talked about the potential of piggy backing the senses or the Sentinel's ability to catalog information for later identification.

And that woman, my mother...I guess being apart changes the bond you would feel...Maybe it's me, maybe I don't bond, or I'm such a bad person... I was a bad kid, so bad my Mom brought me here and left me...so maybe not that much has changed. And True and Geoff sure hate me, maybe with reason. Maybe I'm one of those sociopaths who don't have feelings because a normal person would have feelings about their mother, even if they couldn't remember her. And their best friend. Even if they couldn't remember him. I didn't though.

What do I feel? Mostly confusion. Fear. I want to go back to what I had before God sent the lightning to test me. From what I understand, before that I was good. I knew what I was doing. I had a friend, I studied, belonged. Now I am no good to anyone, not as a friend, not as a guide and man, I did so not belong.

I'm ashamed at how much I long to be embraced here. I know this physical plane has no real value, except to serve The Good and that our earthly desires are to be channeled to the higher state. No one here seems to crave touch, or tenderness, or human attachment. I do. Hey, but I did have feelings about my dream friend. Except, of course he's imaginary. So not a sociopath, an out and out psychopath. The one person I have feelings about and who seems to have feelings for me, is an illusion.

What about Jason? Yeah, at least with him I felt something. I felt intrigued and grateful. So maybe I wasn't a total lost cause, maybe I could form a bond. I had to be able to...I would never be an effective guide if I couldn't bond and if I couldn't guide, who would I be? What would I be?

Time to work on this bonding thing. I get up and go to the cafeteria. I hope Jason will about this afternoon. They are not sympathetic but accusatory looks. I don't see Jason or my mom and I want to turn and go back but I know that would be the very end of ever finding my place here again. I get in line. I can hear mutterings and make out a phrase or two... "Kicked out"... "Assigned the Sentinel"... "Asked for it."

I act as if I don't hear anything and pick out the first food I see. Blindly I head to the usual table. I'm almost there when someone sticks a foot out and trips me. I fall forward, my head glancing off the table and come to lie in the tapioca pudding. There's laughter and backslapping and I slowly push myself off the floor. The pudding is on my face and in my hair. I reach up to wipe it off and my hand comes away sticky with pudding and blood. Great. I so do not want to go see any doctor. I get up and although the room is a little hazy, I am able to walk, which I do, right out the door.

Back in my room I clean the gunk off my face and look at the damage. Not too long, not too deep, just bloody. There's a lump forming there and one of my headaches is returning. Ah, man, can anything else go wrong? I throw myself on the bed and ponder that question. An earthquake could happen, I feel my body shaking. I open my eyes to see Jason, his hand on my shoulder, concern in his gray eyes. "Hey, what happened, buddy?" He's looking at my head and starting to peel away the bloody towel.

"Owe." I must have fallen asleep because the blood has dried and the towel's sticking to my forehead.

"Hold on Eric, I'll have you unglued in a jiff." Jason goes into the bathroom and I hear the sound of running water. He returns with a washcloth and slowly soaks the towel away from the cut. "How did this happen?" He emphasizes the word this and I realize I must appear to be a walking disaster area.

"I, uh, tripped in the cafeteria." I'm torn between telling this slight obfuscation, which makes me appear clumsy and inept, and the truth, which makes me the laughingstock of the entire Center. Neither option appeals but I go with inept. "You tripped, eh?" He gives me a hard look and I belatedly remember a Sentinel's ability to detect lies. Great, add liar to inept.

"Well, I got tripped." I don't look at him. His eyes will reveal his contempt for someone so incapable of taking care of themselves and his fear that he might be stuck with someone like me to watch his back and keep him grounded. "Look at me Eric." His voice is commanding and I realize I don't really want to add cowardice to my list of failures. I look.

He looks stern and I wait to hear what he has to say. "We are not going to let them get away with this Eric." We. He said we. Odd the power of certain words. The gratitude I had felt before expands. I grab on to it, it's a feeling, a feeling that is other than confusion and fear. He'd said we, like we existed.

I look at him and he has to see the tears in my eyes, hear the hitch in my breathing. I expect him to move off the bed and put space between us. I still have pudding in my hair. I'm once again on the verge of tears. There's something about me that alienated people, as demonstrated by the pains everyone at the Center took to keep their distance. So when he dosen't move away but in fact, moves closer, I nearly push him away in a reflexive protective move. I don't and he continues to dab at the blood on my head.

"I don't think you need stitches but I'll see if I can hunt up some butterfly bandages. I'll be right back." At that he did get off the bed, moving away. I feel the conflicting emotions of relief and loss.

His scrutiny makes me uncomfortable and yet the removal of his attention leaves me bereft. I watch him leave the room and shiver from a kind of sensory overload. Jason, being so close, touching, looking at me, really looking...I have been so long without touch, without anyone seeing me that I almost can't bear it. I feel naked, exposed and frightened at what Jason will discover about me.

He comes back so quietly I don't realize he's in the room until he's reaching for my head. I jerk back before my mind registers it's Jason. "Hey, it's okay." He says it the way you'd talk to a spooked horse.

I hold still while he carefully pushes the edges together and places the bandage on the cut.

"There. You'll be good as new in no time, if we can just keep you upright for a while."

He's said the magic word again. He'd said we.

"Here, I brought you something to eat." He hands me a sandwich. He has a bottle of water too and he sets that on the table. "I'll let you eat and get some rest. Tomorrow will be a busy day, what with the contract signing." "Contract signing?" He can't be talking about that contract.

"Yeah, our contract. Tomorrow we sign on the dotted line. Sentinel/guide. United for Life." He comes back to the bed, put his fingers under my chin, and pushed my mouth closed.

"Unless you're not ready? Unless you don't want to?" He looks worried. A Sentinel, worried?

Entering into the contract is voluntary but no one's ever refused a Sentinel's request for union. I wasn't about to be the first. "Yes, of course I'm ready, of course, I want to."

He nods once, satisfied and says, "Good. Tomorrow then we sign. After that we take on the world." He leaves the room. For some reason I note how completely he fills the doorway as he passes through it. I'm gaining a formidable ally tomorrow. What will he gain?

I leave the sandwich untouched and take a shower. The Band-Aid came off but washing the pudding out of my hair is more important. Tomorrow I signed a lifelong contract with a Sentinel.

The least I can offer is pudding free hair.

As it turned out I'm not the only one with doubts about the appropriateness of me as Jason's guide. When Mr. Spencer hears that Jason has chosen me, he calls me in.

"Kendall, I hear that Jason Rarick has made a decision about who will guide him. I heard that he chose you." Mr. Spencer looks at me with narrowed eyes. I guess he thinks I cast a spell on Jason or something. As soon as I think that I wonder where that thought came from. You just don't joke about the Darkness.

"Um, yes, he said something to me about it last night."

"You don't really think this is a wise choice at this time, do you? I mean, perhaps before your accident...but now, well, you are hardly the best we have to offer in a guide."

I have to agree and yet I want this. I know that I am less than I was...less than some of the others...but already I feel the stirrings of the bonded relationship. No one would look out for him the way I would.

Still, what I want and what I feel are not important here.

I have to put Jason's well-being first

"I guess you have a point there, Mr. Spencer. I'm not good enough yet to be his guide."

For the first time Mr. Spencer looks pleased with me. "Your turn will come. Soon you'll be back on the path of Righteousness."

"I hope so." There are tears forming in the back of my eyes and I want to get out of here before any fall. I wonder again about who I was before the accident. Did I always cry this easily? Perhaps before the accident, this loss wouldn't feel as big. Right now it feels like something irreplaceable has been taken from me. Something that would have made this post-lightning world make sense. Yet to try and hold on to this would do Jason a serious disservice. He deserves so much more than what I have to offer.

"Go back to class, Kendall."

"Yes, sir." I leave his office, passing through the waiting room, where Jason lounges. He gives me one of his grins and a thumbs up and I manage to smile back.

I am late for Doctrine and something tells me even a note from Spencer won't change the punishment that comes with that sin. I kneel at the back and try and to pull myself together. My personal feelings have no place here. I kneel to submit all that I am to the service of the Good. It takes nearly the entire three hours to regain any sense of peace and acceptance of the decision.

At the end of Doctrine, Ruth dismisses everyone but me. I join her at the front of the room.

"You were late to Doctrine."

"Yes." I know better than to try and excuse my lateness. "I am deeply sorry"

"Goodness doesn't want your apology. It wants your service."

"Yes, I understand the need." This is part of the dogma. "I accept your will."

She sends me to Mr. Mueller. I wait in his office as she confers with him. He looks at me frowning. "Kendall, this is inexcusable. You will report to Mr. Smith immediately."

I hold back my groan. I don't think I can bear another week of retraining. There's something infinitely more terrible about going to Mr. Smith without an escort. That I must go of my own free will and submit...I wish there was a hand on my back, pushing me. I acknowledge to myself that it would simply feel good to have some human contact, even hostile human contact. But mostly it would feel better to have something to resist. Something to identify as the bringer of pain.

I am the bringer of pain. I do this to myself.

I reach the door of the room I occupied before. It doesn

't take long before Mr. Smith appears. "This is your second offense in less than a week. It calls for some serious measures to counter the stubbornness of your unholy soul."

I shiver at the lack of tone in his voice. The man is well suited to this job. There is no passion, no personal satisfaction in the disciplining. He fulfills the need for directing wayward souls. I am not just wayward, I am now unholy. My shivering increases. I don't know what it takes to reclaim an unholy soul. I wish I had protested that it was not my fault I was late. I want him to understand that my being late was not a willful act.

A voice in my head asks, what about the man in your dream? Your continued thoughts of him are a sin. He is not one of us, he is not of The Good and yet you give him great power. Greater power than The Good, for was it not his face that got you to the top of the cliff? "I understand the need, Mr. Smith." Perhaps another week in that room will break the hold that the man has over me.

Mr. Smith leads me away from the door and down the hall. He opens the door to a room that is dimly lit. There is a big metal room inside the room. It has a stairway leading up to a small door with a round window next to it. "Take your clothes off." He says this as if he is telling me to eat my peas.

I look at him, not daring to question but unprepared to get naked. Mr. Smith looks at me, waiting. I start to pull my T-shirt out and stop. I shake my head.

Mr. Smith comes close to me and grabs my hand. He applies pressure to the same point the doctor did, only harder and I gasp and fall to my knees. The pain radiating up my arm threatens to make my brain explode. "Take your clothes off or I will shift my grip just a half an inch and you won't have the use of your arm for weeks." He shoves me away and I land on my back. He stands over me, waiting for my compliance. He kicks me in the ribs and I yell and roll away. He's coming at me with his leg poised to kick again. I get up and take my shirt off. He takes it from me and neatly folds it. I take my jeans off and he folds those also. He looks at me and I don't know what is coming next but boxers won't stop it, so I take them off. He walks over to the wall and retrieves something and then motions to me to climb the stairs. I climb. He comes up behind me and places goggles over my eyes, and plugs in my ears.

He opens the door and I see that it is filled with water. It's a SDT. A sensory deprivation tank. I feel a wave of relief. I can do this. I slip into the water. It is body temperature and comfortable. I lie down in it and float. There is the sound of the door shutting close with a clank and the lights going off and I am alone. My initial euphoria that I wasn't about to be raped or tortured in some way deflates as I am left in this void.

For awhile I relax, almost sleeping. My ribs ache but there is a peacefulness that I think of as a manifestation The Good. I recite the Doctrine. I hope it will fill up my head and drown out my rebellious spirit. At the end of reciting the Doctrine a third time I think I have been in the tank for nine hours, maybe longer. Lucifer is a cunning foe and tries to lead me astray over and over. I often found myself drifting away from the recitation.

I'm hungry, as my talk with Mr. Spencer took place before breakfast. The real deprivation is water. I'm so thirsty I'm tempted to drink the salt water that surrounds me.

I know that hunger and thirst are powerful forces that exist to show me the emptiness of my life without The Good. The silence and lack of light are starting to weigh me down. Even though I realize it is counter to the whole point of this punishment, I pinch myself. I pull at my hair, I splash with my feet. I start to hum a song. The sound of my voice echoes eerily in my metal prison. For no reason at all I start to cry. I feel my mind crumbling and once again I am glad that Jason will not depend on me. Me, who falls apart because of nothing, just the lack of something.

At some point I fall asleep, waking when I hear the door being opened. Mr. Smith stands there. The light behind him gives him a glow. I feel a tendril of fear.

"Get out, Kendall." I struggle to my feet. My legs feel heavy and as if my nerve endings no longer have direct communication with my body. Once on my feet I almost topple over from the small wake my movement has made. I'm trembling, the shock of sound and sight and movement overwhelming me.

I make my way to the side of the tank and Mr. Smith puts the ladder down and I climb up. He steps aside and I go through the door. The light in the room, though dim, is blinding and I shut my eyes against it. This must be what it's like for Sentinels when their senses spike. Mr. Smith takes my hands away from my eyes and pushes me down the stairs.

He points to a room I hadn't noticed and says, "You can take care of things in there." It's a bathroom and there is a bathrobe hanging up. I put it on and savor not only the warmth but the texture. I drink from the faucet until I think I may walk out of this room with a waddle. Then I run the warm water over my hands, soaking up the heat. After I relieve myself, I hear Mr. Smith at the door.

"Get out here, Kendall." I leave the room of little delights and see that Mr. Smith has set up a table and chair. There is food there, a sandwich, an orange, milk. I sit down and eat almost without manners, afraid that there might be a time limit. When I'm done Mr. Smith puts out his hand. He wants the robe. I hug myself and then untie the belt and hand it over. He points to the tank and I make the ascent. He puts the earplugs in and watches as I resume the position. He stands there for a moment and then closes the door, shutting out the light and all sound.

I float, I begin The Doctrine but falter almost immediately. I want to thrash around in the water, make noise, feel a pillow under my head, have a conversation.

I see the face and I say, "Hello."

" Chief, where've you been?" My imaginary friend is talking to me. He sounds worried.

"I'm here with The Good."

"Then how come you don't look so good?" He asks, clearly a pragmatist.

"I have an unholy soul and must be led back to the path."

"You, Chief? Unholy? Who told you that crap?" Now he sounds angry. I'm not sure how to react to that. A part of me feels delighted at his defense. Mostly I feel afraid. In every sentence to me he shows me he is not one of us. I must try and convince him that our way is right. Perhaps he will join us if I do.

"You don't understand. I'm a guide and it's my destiny to serve."

"I know you're a Guide."

"How do you know?"

"Because you're my Guide." He sounds very sure of this blasphemy.

Now I am very afraid. Lucifer was seeking to seduce me. I had allowed him into my heart and now he taunted me with its desire.

"NO!" I scream" NO! NO!" I don't realize I that I haven't stop screaming until Mr. Smith yanks the door open and yells,

"SHUT UP!" I quiet.

"What in damnation is the matter with you?"

"B-bad dream." I want him to take me out, to banish Lucifer, but I am afraid to tell him what happened. As much as I fear Lucifer, the idea of losing the man is unbearable. I keep my mouth shut.

He stares down at me and I try to shield the man from his scrutiny as bizarre as that sounds. Mr. Smith finally leaves and I breathe a sigh of relief.

"That was close."

I yelp.

The man is back.

"What's your name?" I need a name and yet fear the naming. How close to lunacy am I ?

"I'm Jim."

Jim. A tension leaves me. The tension of holding the space where his name went empty. That space is filled now and I breathe in his name.

Jim.

"Tell me where you are Chief, so I can come get you."

"No." This time I whisper instead of scream. "No. If you come here they'll take you away from me. I'll lose you. Stay away." "Blair, I am coming to get you. Tell me where you are."

Blair? A spike of pain shoots through my head. He called me Blair. Oh God. He thinks I'm someone else. This has all been about someone else. It's not me he is looking for, not me who is his guide. I feel shame flood my body. Shame that I thought he was my friend, that I would allow Lucifer access to me if only I could be with him.

I begin The Doctrine. Far away I hear his voice, trying to reach me, trying to reestablish his hold on me but I recite and recite and recite and eventually his voice fades away and there is nothingness.

I wake to darkness and vertigo. I try to reach out to something that will steady me, tell me where I am. There is just warm silky water and nothingness. Am I born yet? I don't think the unborn ask that question.

I'm standing in the tank and I desperately want to be on dry land where sight and sound exist. I scrabble at the wall jumping, trying to reach a ledge, a foot hold, something. It's smooth as glass. I fall back over and over again and finally lie still in the water. Soon the little waves stop lapping and all is calm.

This was a zone out like none I'd ever experienced. The world had narrowed to one sound. I had heard Blair's heart beating. I heard it as if I were listening to it through a stethoscope, loud and echoey. I followed that sound, the bullpen fading away as I tracked it. Finally I knew Blair was before me though it was dark. I dialed up my sight and there he was, floating in water.

If not for the continuing comfort of the lub-dub of his heart, I would have freaked out right then. I never want to see Blair floating in water again, even if he is face up. It's dim, even with my eyes at max and the place he's in made no sense. Have I entered his dream? His nightmare, more likely. He shines pale and delicate in the dark water, his arms outstretched. He's naked and his sturdy frame looks fragile. He seems to see me, though I knew in this dark that was impossible.

"Hello." He says hello with no surprise in his voice, as if he expects me.

"Chief, where have you been?"

Now he looks surprised. His eyes seems to lose focus.

"I am here with The Good."

That didn't sound like Blair. "Then how come you don't look so good?" He is scaring me, the passivity I hear in his words, the submission to this godforsaken place.

"I have an unholy soul and must be lead back to the path."

Oh, man, they are fucking with his mind here. Drugs? Brainwashing? Cult tactics?

"You, Chief? Unholy? Who told you that crap?" I want to pull Blair out of this pit and surround him with light. I want to know who is doing this to Sandburg so I can reduce them to a bloody pulp.

"You don't understand. I am a guide and it's my destiny to serve." He's pleading with me to understand, as if this explains everything.

"I know you're a Guide."

"How do you know?" How do I know he's my Guide? What kind of question is that? Blair looks puzzled and I'm starting to wonder what floating in water does to you.

"Because you're my Guide." He has to know that. If he knows he is a Guide, whom else would he be a Guide to? Instead of reassuring him, a look of stark terror comes into his eyes.

"NO!" He screams." Nooooooooo!" The sound is awful in this enclosed space and I can't seem to dampen my hearing fast enough. He just won't stop.

"Chief, please, please, it's okay, shhh, shhh, take it easy." I can't get through to him. Because of the way his voice reverberates in this space I am unprepared for the man at the top of the tank, yelling, "SHUT UP!"

Blair quiets immediately. I can tell he is even more afraid of this man than he is of me.

"What in damnation is the matter with you?"

"B-bad dream." I can see that Blair is trying to back away from the man even though he is making no move to come down. The guy stares down for a minute and I think he's going to come down here. Sandburg must think he is too, because he's trying to stand up and back away. Finally the guy leaves and the door clangs shut.

"That was close."

He yelps. Oops, I guess he figured all that screaming would drive me away.

"What's your name?" Oh, Chief. Somehow I thought you'd always know me. I've been wiped out of your memory.

That complicates things and somehow makes me feel even lonelier, knowing I no longer exist for him. But I do exist for him, he's talking to me. I am simply unnamed and I can fix that.

"I'm Jim."

He visibly relaxes. My name must mean something to him and that gives me hope. "Tell me where you are Chief, so I can come get you."

"No." This time he whispers instead of screams. "No. If you come here they'll take you away from me. I'll lose you. Stay away." Blair has tensed up again, his fear hitting me like a force.

"Blair, I am coming to get you. Tell me where you are."

At the sound of his name he gasps and moans. I watch as he shuts down, as he shuts me out. He starts to recite some mumbo jumbo. "Blair! Blair! Come on, talk to me. Please, you're scaring me here." His chanting gets louder, he's drowning out my words. "Blair! Dammit. Don't do that. Listen to me. Come back to me, Blair."

Every once in awhile I can tell he hears me because he moans. I realize I am causing him pain but I can't just leave him. It's taken out of my hands when he leaves me by losing consciousness. As his voice fades, so do I and I find myself back at my desk. Simon is crouching at my knees, talking to me in his best imitation of Blair.

"Jim, Jim....come on back, Jim." I look at Simon and it's clear I've been out of it for awhile. "Glad you made it back." Simon lets sarcasm express his annoyance. I love Simon like a brother but right now, I'd like to deck him for being the one in front of me.

"I saw Sandburg."

"What? What the hell are you talking about Ellison, you've been sitting here for the last two hours."

"That long? I wonder if I was seeing him in real time then." I wish I had Sandburg here to discuss this with. He'd be formulating the possibilities in no time.

"Yeah, two very long hours. I just let you be, thinking you'd come out of it on your own but when you didn't...I really thought I'd lost you."

"I saw Blair. I was with him. He is in a metal room full of water, floating, I don't understand it, he doesn't know me. There was a man, he yelled at Sandburg and Blair was afraid. He doesn't look good, Simon." I know I'm rambling but I need to get this out, I need this to be real. Megan is standing next to my desk, listening.

"Metal room, full of water, floating...sounds like a Sensory Deprivation Tank."

"What in the world is he doing there?" Simon actually seems to believe in what I'm saying.

"I don't know, Simon. I don't know what the hell is going on." On the one hand I'm just grateful to have seen Blair and to know he's alive. On the other I feel an almost uncontainable rage that someone has taken him away from me. From us.

"Was there any clue as to where he was? Could Sandburg tell you anything?"

"No, there was nothing there and I don't know if Blair even knew himself where he was but he wouldn't tell me. He said to stay away, that they would take me away from him if I went there."

"Any idea what he meant by that?" It is a measure of the strain Simon has been under that he is taking what I say seriously.

"I have no idea, Simon. He was afraid and at one point, he was afraid for me, and yet he didn't know my name."

I'm exhausted. I'm going on very little sleep these days anyway and being in contact with Blair this way has left me wiped out. I want to go back, but I don't know how I got there.

"Go home, Ellison. Get some sleep. There's nothing you can do for the kid in the shape you're in."

For a change I don't argue.

I am nothing and nothing is me. I am blind and deaf, without sensation. I am the anti-Sentinel. I hear a sound, it's me, giggling. So not deaf.

I hear another sound, the door is being opened. I look up but instead of Mr. Smith, Jason stands there. He pauses and I can see he is adjusting his sight. "Eric! Are you alright?"

"Yes."

"I've been looking for you for three days. No one would tell me where you were, just that you were in training." I can hear him tugging at the ladder. "C'mon kid, climb out of there."

"Uh, no, I'd better wait for Mr. Smith." As much as I long to get out of this place, I don't dare. I can't bear the thought of what the next level of training would be.

"It's all right. I cleared it with Spencer." He's climbing down and waiting for me on the stairs.

"Trust me, kid. This place is giving me the heebie jeebies. Let's get out of here."

I put my feet underneath me but the water seems to have drained the strength out of my legs and I fall back. I push myself to the wall and gain my feet by leaning against it. I slowly wade to the ladder. It feels like I am walking through corn mush, the density of the water thick and gritty.

Jason waits patiently and holds out a hand to me. I grab it and he pulls me up onto the ladder and then climbs out ahead of me. I don't know how long I've been in here, how long it's been since Mr. Smith came and let me out, how long since Jim...I don't finish that thought. At the last step Jason reaches down and hauls me out into the room. I shut my eyes against the light and hold on tight to the rail. I can hear Jason reach the bottom of the steps. "It's okay Eric, really. I fixed everything."

Squinting down at him, I se he has the robe and he's holding it open, waiting for me to come down. I get halfway down when my legs give out and I tumble the rest of the way into Jason's arms.

He's rock steady. "Easy there, bucko." I'm helped into the robe and he gently pushes me toward the door. I'm not ready to go anywhere and I resist his push.

"C'mon Eric, I told you, I don't like this place. Let's go." Firmly he propels me out the door.

The lights burn my eyes and the sounds buffet me. I stop and turn towards the wall, ashamed of my weakness, ashamed of being dripping wet and in a robe as everyone scurries by, clothed and directed.

"Hey, now, Eric. It's just a little ways to your room. You can do that." His voice is warm and blankets me with his concern.

I put one foot in front of the other. It takes a while but eventually I'm back in my room. Although it's only been three days, I am struck again by how unfamiliar everything is. I hone in on my bed and fall in to it, hugging my pillow.

"How did you fix it?" I know Sentinels are the highest manifestation of The Good but they aren't God.

Jason sits in the chair, his elbows on his knees. "You never should have been there in the first place. For the love of all that is Good, I told them you were my guide. Nothing they had to say... heavens, nothing you have to say, would change my mind"

He stands up and comes over to the bed. I've started to shiver. I still feel naked though I have the robe tightly wrapped around me. He pulls out the blanket and covers me and crouches down beside the bed.

"Eric, you are my guide. This has always been true. I know this and I am the only one who can know it. Choosing a guide is not an administrative decision that comes out of evaluating the plus and minus columns. It is a decision made with the hand of God and it has been made." His eyes are gray and unfaltering and the strength of his belief is unshakable.

"I don't know why these people seem so intent on punishing you. When I realized that they had told you we wouldn't suit I went to find you and set you straight. You were nowhere to be found." He's up and pacing and all I can do is watch him and listen.

"I confronted Spencer and that man actually thought his decision should stand against mine. I couldn't believe they would keep you away from me. For a day and a half I searched this place and then decided that they must have moved you. I made some phone calls and put the pressure on Spencer."

"Thank you." There is so much more I want to say, need to say but right now I am too numb to formulate anything beyond thank you. Jason seems to understand because he comes back to me and pushes my hair to the side. "You need anything, Eric? Want to take a shower? Hungry?"

I shudder at the idea of water, even though I feel like I'm caked in salt. I'm too tired to be hungry and I shake my head no to both questions. Jason nods.

"You get some sleep and we'll talk later." He walks to the door and turns. "Sweet dreams, kid."

I lie there and go over all that happened, the magnitude of what Jason said just hitting me. I fix it in my head so that it will all be there when I wake up and fall asleep.

Jason stands in front of the room, fuming. "You shouldn't have kept him in that tank so long."

"We needed to break him."

"Break him? He's so broken he won't be any use to me."

"He will be just fine now. The final link to you has been locked into place."

"You think? Because I need him up and running in one week."

"In one week he will be fit and ready for your use."

"You're sure this kid is worth the trouble? I've had six guides, none of them made it past the second month."

"Yes, we know how hard you are on your guides but none had this one's natural abilities. He was able to take Ellison, who was clueless about his true abilities, from a two to an eight. Think what he will help you accomplish." "I'm a sixteen. Twice Ellison's ability."

"Yes, and twice as likely to zone out. You need Sandburg."

"Okay. This had better work. I hate playing this part."

"If you want Sandburg to function as your guide you will continue to play the part."

"For how long? How long to I have to coddle this guy?"

"Until he is in so deep he is just like you. Then the bond will be unbreakable."

 

A new era had dawned for me while I slept. I woke to find I was no longer required at Doctrine. I was issued an entire new wardrobe that included a tuxedo. I was moved to the wing that housed the Sentinel/Guide pairs and I began a conditioning program that near killed me. The three days I had spent in the tank had seriously undermined my muscles. Archie had been put in charge of my training. He might have had ambitions for the first day but he scales them back when he realizes what rough shape I was in. Even so I end the day spent and exhausted.

The good part of the intense fatigue is the lack of dreams. The man...Jim, stays away. Perhaps he realizes that he's looking for someone else. Perhaps he's found him. I can't help the pain that shoots through me at that thought.

The second day is better and progress is made in returning me to my normal fitness level. By the end of the week I can see that Archie is disappointed not to have moved me into Sentinel shape. I think it's just great that I'm able to stay awake past dinner. On the seventh day Jason came in to watch the self-defense work out. Half way through he takes over from Archie. He's quicker than Archie and it's all I can do to keep getting up.

"C'mon kid, you're going to have to do better than that if you want to keep up with me. Don't think, react!"

I try doing what he says. It's remarkably difficult for me to bypass my brain. After two hours he calls a halt. I'm soaking wet and having a hard time seeing through the sweat pouring down my face. He looks mildly shiny but otherwise shows no signs of exertion.

"That's enough for now, Eric. I want to do some grounding exercises, get a baseline going."

"Sure Jason, I'll just get dried off and we can get started."

Inducing a zone out on each sense I go methodically through the chi points, establishing a pressure, a tone of voice and an intensity scale that will pull him out. Jason needs a much higher level of intrusion to get him out of a zone than most Sentinels I have read about, and when he does come out, it tends to be violently. The first time he zones and I bring him out, he gives me a bloody nose. The second time, a black eye. After that, I learn to duck.

The next day Jason joins me again in the defense workout. For the first time I find myself able to do what Jason had said.... reacting with my body instead of thinking with my head. Twice I'm able to take Jason by surprise and lay him on the mat. I expect him to get angry but he instead he seems pleased.

"Excellent, I need a who can take care of himself and watch my back. Although be forewarned, you won't get me down again." His words were prophetic. A embarrassingly large part of the rest of the session is spent staring up at the ceiling.

Filing that bit of information away, I realize underestimation can be a powerful weapon. I can see I will need more than that to get along in Jason's world. His welfare is the culmination of my training, my gifts, my life.

The Tessuad has many enemies, for Lucifer was beyond cunning in his ability to recruit allies to battle The Good. I knew Jason and the other Sentinels led the fight against the corruption of The Good and it is a dangerous and sometimes bloody fight.

Jason declares me fit to guide and sets our departure for the next day. I'm pleased. Secretly I worried that when it came time for the real thing, I would fail. I kept those fears to myself. Jason had made it clear that he would accept no other and that meant I had to be what he needed me to be.

My mother had departed while I was still in the Tank. That left only Mike to say good-bye to. I went in search of him only to be told he had been transferred to another Center on the coast.

"He didn't leave a note or anything?"

The guide now occupying his room gives me a quizzical look. "Leave you a note? Why would he do that?"

"To say good-bye, to say..." I didn't know what he would have said, I just felt like a guy's best friend would say something. I walk back to my room trying to understand why I'm feeling so alone. I hadn't seen Mike since the day they put me in the Tank but I thought we were best friends, that he would be there for the send off into my new life. I turn a corner and plow into someone coming my way.

"Watch where you're going."

I freeze. It's Truesdale. They had told me they had kicked him out. What is he doing back here? I hastily step away from him and look up. He looks just as shocked.

"What are you doing here?" We say it almost simultaneously.

Truesdale looked abashed. "I, uh, they're letting me retrain."

"Retrain?

"Yeah." He looks at me defiantly. "You got a problem with that? Take it up with Mr. Spencer if you do." He shoves me aside and walks away.

They were letting Truesdale retrain? This went against all the teachings, against Doctrine. Unless they never believed me? Even if they didn't believe me, they had to have believed Jason. They had said they kicked him out, yet here he was. What is going on?

I decide not to say anything to Jason about my encounter with True. We were leaving tomorrow and there was enough on his mind. Our last night is a celebration. Everyone in The Center is there, although I didn't spot Truesdale anywhere. There weren't actually many faces I recognize. The subdued and thoughtful nature of Tessuad followers did not allow for hijinks but there's a real sense of happiness at the coming together of a new Sentinel/guide relationship. Ruth stands up and makes a toast. "The Good is well served by you Sentinel Rarick. Go to the glory! Your service praises the Lord!"

Many murmurs of "Here, here," and backslapping accompanied Ruth's toast. I felt a little left out that in all the festivities, no mention of the guide is ever made. Then I felt ashamed at such a selfish feeling. This is not about me. This is about the magnificence of the Sentinel. The abundance that God gave the Sentinel is the mandate for his position and his work.

Toward the end of the evening I could barely keep my eyes open. It isn't that late but it past the usual curfew for guides. Jason must have noticed because he came over to where I was sitting.

"You look beat, kid." He playfully taps my shoulder. I realize it is the only touch I'd had since the Tank except for blows during the workouts, which I didn't think counted.

I smile at him. "Great party, Jason."

"Yeah, well, I think the party's over for you, Eric. We have some serious traveling to do tomorrow. Go get some sleep." I feel like a kid banished from the big people's party. I want to stay and soak up the warm feelings, even if they aren't directed my way. Still, Jason is right. I'm tired and tomorrow we leave this place.

Jason lightly cuffs the back of my head and I give one last look around at the clusters of people and then walk away from the sound of conversation and laughter.

I'm halfway to my room, when I remember the plaque that I have been given, announcing I am an official guide. I go back to the party but just before I reach it, I'm struck by the lack of sound or noise. What's happened to make them stop talking and laughing? I approach the door quietly, not wanting to intrude if there's a crisis. The room's empty. Not a cup, a plate or plaque was left behind. I had only been gone ten minutes. How did they-why would they-end the party so abruptly?

I turn back toward the wing my room is in. I hadn't seen anyone walking my way when I was returning. They had all gone somewhere. Where? And to do what? I felt an uneasiness settling in. There were things going on that just didn't make sense.

Truesdale still being here. The party vanishing. Something else that I had shoved to the back of my mind. Oh. That Jason had searched for me for two days. There was no way a Sentinel of his brilliant abilities could not have located me sooner even in a metal tank. I had worked with Jason. I knew he possessed the most phenomenal range of senses that had ever been recorded. Why allow a perversion like True to remain? Why end a party so suddenly? And why lie about looking for me?

Going to my room I quietly close the door. Sinking down on the bed, I conjure up Jim. I know it's very bad of me but I'm freaked.

My eyes open. It's dark. I'd fallen asleep, still dressed.

"'Bout time you woke up."

I sat up, stifling a scream. Jim was sitting in my chair, watching me.

"How'd you get in here?" I can barely see him but there's no mistaking his presence for any other.

"I don't know exactly. I've been trying to get back to you for a couple of weeks with no luck. Then, all of a sudden, whammo, I'm in this room, looking at my friend."

"I'm your friend?" He doesn't look like someone who would friends with someone like me.

His face suddenly looks sad. "Yeah, Chief, we're friends. We're partners."

"Who do you think I am?"

"You're my Guide."

"No...that's not right, I'm Jason's guide."

I can't see much but I can tell that information comes as a blow.

"Jason, who?" He sounds angry.

"Jason Rarick."

"For how long Chief?" Now he sounds angry with me

. "Since the last time I saw you, since the Tank."

"You've been my Guide for three years."

"What are you talking about? Are you crazy?"

Jim laughs and I have to admit, even with his anger coating it, I like the sound of it.

"Well if I am, then you are. How else can you explain this meeting?"

I fall silent. He has a point. I'm talking to the devil himself and enjoying it. Either I'm mad or perverse. I start to recite The Doctrine.

"Hold up, Chief. We don't have much time. They have me in an altered state for the last eight hours and they'll be pulling me out any minute."

I increase the speed of my prayers.

Jim walks to my bed and looms over me.

I stutter to a stop. "Wha-what are you doing?"

"I'm just looking at you. God.... I've missed you. You look better than when I saw you before. I'm glad. You had me worried."

He looks glad. I realize how often people say," I'm worried", or, "I'm happy ' and the look on their faces don't match. I just stare up at the face, the one that has kept me company, has haunted me and know I don't want him to go. "Those bastards cut your hair."

His hand is coming toward me like he's going to touch me and I scoot to the corner of the bed.

"I had long hair?' What, I really think this is for real? As idiotic as this seems I flash on the dream where I first saw Jim. The one where he was holding my dead body and remember in that dream I did have long hair. Weird. "Yeah, Chief, long hair."

"I think you have me confused with someone else, this Blair."

"No, there's no confusing you with anyone else in the world. You are Blair. Blair Sandburg."

At the sound of that name a pain implodes in my head and I must have screamed 'cause I can see Jim wincing and putting his hands to his ears but I can't hear anything over the pain and then the pain is gone.

"Eric?" I can hear again. "Eric? My eyelid is lifted and I see a light coming at me. I try and bat it away but my wrist is caught. "J-" I almost say his name but stop myself just in time.

"Yes, Eric, what is it?"

"Jason?" I finish hoping they buy it.

"No, he's sleeping, as you should be. What happened?" I can see it's Dr. Albright again. "Ah, I don't know. I was sleeping....a dream, I don't exactly know."

"What was this dream about?" He's looking at me intensely and I wonder if he can guess. And if he guesses what he would do.

Quick, what was the dream about, what would make me scream?

"We were up on a mountain and Jason fell, I couldn't catch him and he fell and fell and fell ...I was so...." I hope it sounds convincing. "Well, that's understandable." He's lost interest and flips the chart close with a snap.

"You just go back to sleep, now, tomorrow will be here soon." Dr. Albright pats the blanket and gathers up the Security guard. When I'm sure they are gone I whisper, "Jim? Jim?" Nothing. He's gone I fall asleep hugging my pillow, watching the chair.

"Jim. Jim!" I can hear the fear in Simon's voice and I force myself to come up the rest of the way.

"Oh thank God. Jim you took ten years off my life." Simon is hovering, never a good sign.

"What happened?"

Dr. Hamilton has my wrist in his hand and is taking my pulse. "That's my question. What the hell happened?" He makes a note in a chart. "For over eight hours there's nothing, just normal brainwave activity for someone in the beta stage. Then the monitor shows the kind of brain activity that indicates you are awake but clearly you're not." Simon's picked up the chart and from the look on his face I can tell it means nothing to him.

"You're in that state for about a half hour and then, jeez, you had a convulsion or something. You arched up and put your hands over your ears and then went limp. Scared the daylights out of me."

"Oh man, it's not me who's had the convulsion. It's Sandburg. When I told him his name his pupil's pinpointed and he clutched his head and screamed."

Grabbing at the electrodes, I shove them in Hamilton's hands. "Get me back there!"

Hamilton takes them from me and puts them aside. "I can't risk putting you under again and in any case, it took us eight hours to make contact the first time. And..." He puts his hand on my chest to stop me from throttling him, "even if you could go back, you can't be of any help."

"Jim, they'll take care of him, he's valuable to them. He'll be all right."

Even though I've been in an induced sleep for over eight hours I'm exhausted. Meeting up with Blair like this wears me out in a way I've never experienced before. The last time I slept for twelve hours, a record, and still woke up dragging. Now I feel like I could sleep for twenty-four but I need to know Blair is all right.

"Just try. Please?"

Hamilton looks at Simon, who looks at me. He shakes his head and I know I have the go-ahead.

"All right. We'll give it a try, but if you don't connect in an hour, I'm pulling you out."

I'm just glad I'm being given a chance.

"Let's get the show on the road."

My head bobs forward and I jerk awake. No Jim. Tomorrow I leave this place and I don't know if Jim will be able to find me. Get a grip, Kendall. You're worried you might lose the Devil? You should be praying for deliverance, not trying to drop bread crumbs. Sighing, I lay down on the bed, my eyes still on the chair.

"Chief, come on Chief. Wake up!"

It's Jim. I scramble out of bed. I can't see him. "Where are you?"

"Here, by the closet." He moves closer, slowly, like he's afraid I'll scream again.

"I had to come back and make sure you're OK. What happened?"

He looks like he's the one who had the bomb go off in his head. His eyes look sunk in his face and his shoulders slump with fatigue. "I'm good, just one of my headaches....worse than usual but I'm okay now."

"That's was one hell of a headache. You had me worried, Chief."

"Jim? I leave here tomorrow. I don't know if I'll ever see you again but...Man, this is weird, you're the Devil or a ghost or the lightning is giving me hallucinations...but-thanks for coming back. I wanted to say good-bye."

"Where're you going?" Jim comes closer but is no more distinct.

"I don't know, guides follow their Sentinels and Jason leaves tomorrow."

"With you."

"With me."

"What will you do?"

"We do the Lord's work, we serve The Good."

"Soup Kitchens, Hospices, Red Cross, that kind of thing?"

I laugh, I can't help it, the picture of Jason serving soup is such a bad fit.

"I don't know what we do exactly." I know as Sentinel to the Tribe Tessuad, Jason patrols and protects, but The Tessuad Nation is scattered. I imagine we'll be on the move.

"Security?" That's a guess but it's all I have. I almost clamp my hand over my mouth as soon as I say even that much. Then I figure, if this is the Devil, he knows way more than I do about all this.

He frowns. "I don't like the sound of this, Chief."

"I'll find you and this time I'll find you for real. I'm getting real tired of this magical mystery tour you and I seem to be on."

"He's not supposed to be able to dream."

"Well, he did, he had a dream, a nightmare."

"What did he dream about? His past?"

"No, thank The Good. He dreamt about Rarick, falling off a mountain. Makes sense; Sandburg's afraid of heights."

"He must be building up a tolerance to the drugs. Increase the dosage."

"That could be dangerous, he's already at a high level."

"First he dreams, then he starts to get some memory back, and after that he's useless to us." "Okay, I'll give Rarick the new dosages in the morning."

"Good."

It's been one week since we left The Center.
The first few days away are especially hazy in my mind. There was a push to get to Texas and then we settled into a hotel. I can remember Jason pulling me into the bathroom. He had me anchor him, my hand on his back, as he looked out the window. Then, movement, noise. I kept my hand steady, talked Jason through and the next thing I knew we were on a plane, flying to Berlin. We stayed there for four days. I slept a lot, jet lag. I remember Jason trying to get me to stay awake, his sharp slaps to my face punctuated by shaking. I tried, I really tried, but I just couldn't seem to do it. On the third day I wake up, aching. As I start to dress I see bruises along the left side of my ribs and hip. They are a livid purple and I move like an old crippled man as I get out of bed. For the life of me I can't remember when or how I would have gotten them. What happened? Did I get into a fight? is Jason all right? My anxiety pushes me out of my room and I find Jason in the living room area having breakfast. He looks at me accusingly.

"Are you going to of any use today?" His gray eyes look icy in the early morning light.

"What happened? Are you all right?" I look Jason over carefully but he seems unscathed.

"I'm fine, no thanks to you. You've been asleep for two days, Eric Two days! Do you have any idea of the schedule I'm on? Do you have any idea what could happen to me if I'd zoned? I've put off everything waiting for you to get your beauty rest."

"Man, I'm sorry about the last few days, I don't know what happened." I can't understand the depth of the lethargy that held me.

Jason stands up and comes toward me. I try to reassure myself that a Sentinel has genetic imperatives to keep his guide safe. I don't feel safe right now. The look in Jason's eyes is telling me he's angry and frustrated. He grabs my arm in a tight grip.

"I don't care if you are dying of Ebola, you will attend me, you hear!" He shakes me and the guide in me finally kicks in. The Sentinel is scared and needs me to reassure him that he has a guide.

I put my hand over his and look at him. "I'm here, I'm not going anywhere. That won't happen again. It's okay." The look in his eyes fade and the Jason I know is back.

He lets go of my arm and steps back. "Good. Glad to hear it. Get yourself something to eat." He indicates the kitchenette.

I want to ask how I got so banged up if I was asleep the last two days but Jason is deep into study and I can tell my voice would not be welcome. I pour myself a cup of coffee and take a seat. He's studying a map and there are blueprints scattered on the coffee table. I know not to ask any questions.

He finally looks up, making a face. "You stink. Take a shower. Get cleaned up. We'll be leaving here in an hour." Three hours later we're in a office building. We're dressed like repairman and I'm carrying a heavy case full of tools. We get off on the sixteenth floor and Jason opens an office with a key. None of this makes any sense but Jason has been silent except for clipped instructions since this morning.

He takes the case and opens it. He begins removing pieces and as I watch a high powered rifle is assembled. "What's that for?" I know I should never question a Sentinel but I can't help asking. I don't understand and I need to know what's going on. Jason doesn't even look up but continues setting up. "Get over here."

I do as ordered. He picks up the rifle. "Anchor me."

I place my hand on his back. Looking out the window, all I see is a thousand office windows. I know Jason has his target as he sites. "Wait. What are you doing? Are you about to take a life?"

Jason puts the rifle down. I am expecting fury but he is calm as he says, "I am the Sentinel of The Tessuad Nation. I protect. You are my guide. You will obey me. You will obey me as you obey The Nation. Is that understood?" I really want clarification here. "You're going to kill someone?"

Now the fury is there, still in check. "I'm going to protect The Nation. I'm going to kill an enemy. You're going to help me."

"I can't. I can't help you kill someone." I feel frantic, my need to guide at war with what Jason is asking-no, ordering, me to do. Jason takes a deep breath, struggling to control his anger. "Kid, I know this comes as a shock. The man I am about to assassinate is responsible for the death of three of our prime leaders. He heads Level Nine, a group dedicated to wiping out The Tessuad Nation. By killing him, I will save lives. You understand?"

I nod, the urgency is palpable.
He picks up the rifle again and puts it on his shoulder. He looks at me and I put my hand on his back. We stand there, barely breathing and I shut my eyes as I hear the crack of the gun.

Jason turns away from the window There is no fear in his eyes, just quiet triumph. I know we could be as far as three miles away from the target and no one is going to be looking for us here.

He bows his head and recites, "Thank the Good. His will is done."

He looks at me and when I don't give the reply, his hand closes on my throat.

"What do you say, guide?" His grasp tightens. I can't breathe and in panic I try and dislodge his hand. He backhands me, the force of the blow frees me and sends me reeling into the wall. I slide down until I'm sitting on the floor. He comes after me.

"What do you say?"

"The Will be served." It comes out a raspy whisper.

"That's right. The Will be served." He reaches down and grabs me by my hair, pulling me up.

"Get this straight, guide. No more questions. You do what I say, when I say it. Then we might both get out alive." He pulls my hair hard enough that tears come to my eyes and then lets go. "Pack up and let's get out of here."

Jason phones the men who congregate in the room.

"I can't give him those higher doses."

"Calm down, Jason. Why not?"

"Because when I do he's fucking useless! All he does is sleep and nothing brings him around."

"Did you try the rod?"

"Yeah, electricity did nothing. Kicking did nothing. He even soiled the bed, he was so out of it." "This is a problem."

"I'll say. I need him up and running. You have to have something I can use."

"Jason, we'll get back to you tonight. In the meantime is he functioning?"

"Yeah, now that drugs have worn off, he's fine. I just hate surprises."

"Understood."

That night we are in Athens. On the plane I try and reconcile what happened. I helped Jason kill someone. Jason has shown me the files on this guy and hey, he deserved to die. In fact, if Jason let him live it would be a serious breach of his role as Sentinel.

Still, it eats away at me. The sound, the thought...we decided, we killed him. It seems to me that's taking God's place and should be blasphemous. I say as much to Jason. He comes toward me with a look I know and grabs the back of my neck. He forces me to my knees. "What did you say?" His voice is soft.

"I just wondered how we could justify killing someone."

The hand squeezes and he pushes my head to the floor. I feel his shoe on my neck.

"We don't decide, guide. The Council decides. We merely execute their decisions. Do you think you know enough theology to question the Council?"

"No, Sentinel." I have a hard time forming the words and they are muffled in the carpet.

He takes his foot away and I make a move to get up. His hand shoves me back down and he says, "You'll get up when I tell you to get up." I hear him move about the room. He is packing, getting ready for our move tomorrow. I stay on the floor for a long time when Jason orders me to my room and I hear him lock the door. I know it was wrong of me to question his actions, wrong not to recite the response. Did he lock the door because he is afraid I'll leave him?

I sit down on the bed and put my head in my hands. I think I've always wanted to be a guide. This is the one part of my life since the lightning that has made sense to me. But the idea of killing people, of hunting them down and being the cause of their death...no matter how evil they are, how much of a threat-I don't know if I can do this. I must. I've given my vow to Jason in contract. I could never leave Jason. I'm his guide, we're bonded. I may not understand exactly what he does but I do understand it is my life's work to help him make use of his senses to protect our people. He is a Sentinel serving the Good, therefore he is incapable of doing wrong. I wish for some comfort in that thought. None comes.

After a few hours I lie down and try to sleep. There has been something niggling at my brain all day, like a itch I can't scratch. I meditate, hoping it will float to the top. I see the face and realize that I had forgotten Jim. In all the hoopla of leaving and then the sleeping, the memory of him had disappeared. I feel a rush of joy that his face is back in my mind. Then fear at how easily I had forgotten.

I get up and write his name on a piece of paper. Jim. Make it real, make it stay. I can't carry a piece of paper with his name on it. Jason might find it. I don't know how I know, but I know that if Jason, or any of The Nation knew about Jim, it would be very bad. Jim. I need to put his name somewhere. Somewhere I can find it. Somewhere it can remind me if this happens again. I can't quite explain why the thought of forgetting Jim bothers me so. Perhaps because I've forgotten so much that every scrap in my head now has importance. I don't even know what Jim is. A memory, a demon, a test, or a psychotic break. I just know I don't feel as alone when he is with me. I feel greedy needing him when I have Jason, who, according to our beliefs, should take care of all my needs.

In the end I put aside my selfishness and don't write his name anywhere. I don't want Jim to come to their attention. And if I can't keep him in my head, well, maybe he doesn't belong there.

Jason unlocks the door in the morning without a word. I come out into the living room and he's finishing the packing. He opens up a box that is on the couch and removes a bracelet.

"Come here, Eric." I'm happy to hear my name once again.

He takes my hand and puts the bracelet on. It snaps shut, tight.

"It's too tight, Jason." I try moving it but it's firmly latched.

"You'll get used to it. It's a present from me to you. It's important to me that you never take it off." He smiles warmly at me as he says this and the Jason from The Center is back.

"Uh, okay...thanks." It's beautiful, silver, with intricate scroll work. I touch it and I'm surprised to feel warmth coming from the cool metal. "You finished packing?" He's scanning the room for even the remotest traces of our stay. "Good, let's saddle up and ride."

I don't know what city we're in. I've lost track. We seem to move almost randomly and then suddenly Jason will have a focus, a vibration of expectancy and vigilance and I'll know then we are close to killing someone.

The third time he sets up by a window, I start to shake. He tells me to anchor him but I'm trembling so hard it doesn't work. He takes out a small box and fiddles with the controls and suddenly a jolt goes through my arm. I swear I can feel it surge into my brain. The next thing I remember, we're back at the hotel and I'm lying on my bed.

Jason comes in with a wet washcloth and puts it on my head.

"What happened?" My words come out slurry, and I think maybe I've been drinking

. "Oh, Eric, don't tell me our little celebration has wiped out your memory of a perfect kill."

"Wha--?" I can hardly focus on him.

"It was one of the hardest set-ups I've ever faced, but with there, grounding me, supporting me, I was able to make the shot. She's dead." "She, we killed a woman?" I can't believe we killed a woman. I can't believe we celebrated.

"Eric, you read her file, you know the kind of torture she used against eight of our brothers. Don't tell me we have to go through all this again."

I shake my head. I don't want to go through all this again.

"We celebrated?" My voice is still shaking and I reach out to put my hand on Jason's arm. Before I latch on he stands up and says, "Let me get you some water."

I'm thirsty, I guess from drinking and gratefully gulp the water down.

"Glory be, we celebrated. It was a great victory for the Good. Well done, Eric!" And he raises his glass of water in a salute. I hastily scramble out of bed and barely make it to the bathroom before I'm heaving into the toilet. "Kid, you're going to have to learn to handle liquor better than that. Don't worry, I'm a great teacher.

I think that was about ten days ago. I don't know because the hangover never really left. My mind has been fuzzy. Twice more I've stood by a window, sure I'll be unable to control my trembling enough to give Jason the help he needs. Twice more, the jolt, the deed is done, we celebrate, and I can't remember.

The third time I wake up on the floor. Jason is standing there, nudging me with his toe. "I'm a great teacher but you are one lousy student, Eric." He laughs and my stomach pitches. I crawl to the bathroom and vomit, feeling no better at all when I'm finally through. I don't know why Jason is so pleased with me. Often I can barely carry on a conversation. Seems to me I can't be functioning very well as his guide. True, his pleasure with me comes and goes. There are times when the look in his eyes could frost an orange grove. I retreat as best I can at those times. And there are the times I fail him and he shows me the way. I hug myself as the memory of the last time sends a shudder through me. I still can't come to terms with the killings...although the files Jason shows me are detailed in the crimes against The Nation and the details make me almost as nauseous as the aftereffects of our celebrations. Finally I come to the conclusion that this is the Good we're talking about here. I must accept their wisdom in this as in all things and accept the part that has been assigned me.

Falling asleep, I try to remember a dream I once had. I'd like to have it again, but like all dreams it's skittish. As soon as I think I am drawing near, it bolts and I am left holding onto fragments. The longing is intense but it makes no sense to me that I'm unable to name what it is I long for.

"Jim, come on, wake up." Simon is shaking me. I wake and the dread and fear that have come to live with me intensifies. Simon starts to pull the electrodes off my head. Slapping his hand away I say, "I'll do that." I think Simon is coming to his limits on this. For the past month, I've slept, wired, ready to receive?....commune?...connect? with Sandburg but nothing comes of it. Simon hates this hocus pocus. To tell you the truth, I can't quite believe I'm as willing as I am to keep trying.

Before Sandburg, this sort of new age pseudo science irritated me. The people who believed in it irritated me. Now it's all I have to link me to Blair and I'm not letting go of it. Perhaps it's time to move back to the loft. What had started out as a short-term arrangement now had no end in sight. Simon's been patient but he's a practical man and this search for Blair ceased to be practical many weeks ago. Ceased to be practical, fruitful, or hopeful, but none of that matters. The search will go on.

"You take the first shower, I'll start breakfast." Saying that to Simon makes me hear the echoes of the many times I said that to Blair or Blair said it to me.

Why weren't we connecting? I refuse to believe that Blair is dead. There has to be something else blocking us. The station is subdued. Joel, H, Connor, and Brian have been doing all they can to help the search. There is little to do except trail Joyce. We take turns and it's tedious as hell. All of us are played out. Without the adrenaline rush of discovery there is little energy left.

The comfort of hope faded weeks ago, when I could no longer find Blair in my dreams. We all go forward because to stop is unacceptable. "Jim." Connor nods a greeting to me. I look at her for some sign of change but her slumped shoulders make it clear, there's no news. "Connor." I nod back and see her take the same inventory of me. She sighs and walks back to her desk.

Simon takes it easy on me, but I still get paid to work for the Cascade PD and I have cases to work. As I'm typing the report on a robbery that ended in murder, I see Rafe, agitated on the phone. I try and extend my hearing but that sense continues in its abandonment of me. Going the old fashioned route, I get up and walk to his desk. He looks up, a big smile on his face and I know he's found something. "Thanks, yeah, great, keep your thumb on that duo and let me know...right. Bye."

"What is it? You found something out? What?" Rafe's smile falters a bit but I can read he's still elated.

"I took a long shot and it's so long it may not add up but I got Douglas at IntelSecurity to create a program to track every Jason and Eric that were traveling together. I'd checked for Jason Rarick and that was a no go, then I thought to check this. So far he's come up with twenty-two pairs. None panned out until today. Today he hit the jackpot. A Jason Rogers has been travelling with a Eric Kendall for the past month. This pair has been hop-scotching all around Europe, never staying in one place for too long. I think we may have a way to track Blair."

I sit down, I can't believe we've finally gotten a break. "Where are they?"

"The last passport entry was into Geneva. So far no exit has been reported."

"Geneva? Can you call and get me a ticket?" I dig out a credit card. "I've got to collect my passport and grab a few things." Simon has to be told, I head to his door. He's standing there, arms folded. "I'm going, Simon." Simon shakes his head and moves back into his office without a word. I follow him in and wait to hear what he has to say.

"Jim, you just can't go running off to Geneva because 'maybe' Blair is there. Geneva's a big city and they speak, what? German, French, Swiss? A language you don't know and can't use to get your answers. Let's analyze the information coming in and see if we can start to understand what we're up against here."

Simon is making sense but I hate it. I can't describe what it feels like to be separated this long from Blair. I don't know if it feels the way it does because I'm worried, knowing someone is making use of him, maybe hurting him. Would I have these feelings if I still thought Blair was happily ogling the babes in Florida? No. It's worry. It's just worry "Simon, this as close as we've gotten. I have to follow up on it."

"Follow up on it. Follow up on it here and use your head. These people are smart and cagey and determined. We have two, no, make that three things going for us. One, we're on to Joyce. Two, we may have a way to track them as they move around and perhaps even anticipate where they will be."

"And three?"

"You're sporadic mystical interludes with Blair."

"What? I thought you didn't believe in that stuff, Simon."

"Hey, if 'Jason and Eric" do turn out to be Blair and his new Sentinel, then I guess I have to believe it, don't I? And right now I want to believe it because as you said, this is as close as we've gotten." Simon took his glasses off and pinched the bridge of his nose. I know he maintains a tough, professional stance at all costs and I know what those costs are. The man was worried and worn out. He put his glasses back on and said, "Dear Lord, let this pan out." "I'll hold off leaving until we analyze the pattern a little more, but when we know something, I'm on the next plane." "Right. Fine. Go see what more Rafe has. Let's call a meeting here in my office in two hours. We need all the brainpower we can get." In two hours, Douglas at IS had been able to create a map showing where Jason and Blair had been in the last month. It's impressive in its scope. "Man, they aren't sparing any expenses, are they?" Rafe is scrolling down the hotels they had stayed at. "Yeah, looks like Hairboy is living the good life."

I look at H. He thinks Blair is on vacation. Some of anger at what's been done leaks out and I grab H by the shoulder, my fingers digging in.

"Blair has been stripped of his identity, I don't think he'd agree with you about how good the life is he's leading." H's hand come up to mine in an attempt to get me to let go "Ow, Jim, come on, I'm sorry. Sometimes my mouth gets engaged before my brain. I was way out of line." I think H is actually blushing and I realize how I'm overreacting. My fingers relax and I withdraw my hand. H would sport a bruise there tomorrow.

"No, I'm sorry, I was out of line. I know you were just trying to lighten things up." H nods at my apology and we go back to studying the printouts.

"Is there a pattern here that can tell us what they are doing or where they might go next?" Simon's head for military maneuvers comes into play.

"There doesn't seem to be any pattern to where they go, it sure as hell isn't linear. They've back-tracked at least twice." Rafe has been studying the map.

The guy's a Sentinel and yet he's taken his Guide and left the tribe, unless the tribe is scattered all over Europe. "Joel, what have you got on the members of The Tessuad Nation? Do they have people in all these cities?" Taggert pages through the papers on the desk. "Not much here in way of population disbursement, but from what we know this group has members all over the world. So yeah, probably."

"Damn, this group is a phantasm. You almost would start to think God is on their side, the way they've been able to stay hidden and gain recruits." Simon is voicing a thought I've had but hearing it out loud gives it weight and reality and I really, really wish he hadn't said that.

"No group can be this well hidden. There is something very wrong with the intel we've been getting." Douglas has been flipping through screens so fast I start to wonder if he's really Clark Kent.

Douglas continues, "Nope, guys, much of what we've got here is a false." Douglas shakes his head, I think in admiration.

"These guys are the best, and I mean the very best, I've ever seen. From what I can tell, the whole thing is a racket, designed by some of those perverse minds behind Escabar. Remember them, back in the eighties? Very successful in their recruitment and in their ability to remake whole belief systems."

Douglas brings up a screen. "Look here. There's no church called The Tessuad Nation. There's no nation. It's just doctrine that can be used to convince gullible fools to dedicate their lives. It's like an elaborate shell game, very hard to tell which group believes and which group creates the beliefs."

Douglas runs his hands through his shaggy hair. He's quintessential geek morphed into professional consultant. "Take Joyce Sunjata. I don't know if she's a true believer or one of the puppet masters. What I do know is she's not really Joyce Sunjata."

"Whadya mean? We checked her out every which way from Sunday." Rafe was on that detail.

" Yup, every which way you checked up on her she came up clean.... computer search, in person interviews with grade school teachers, old boyfriends, FBI files, the works. Turns out, eight months ago, Joyce went on vacation. She'd won an ocean cruise and she went by herself. I think Joyce went and somebody else came back in her place."

"What makes you think that?" Simon is looking at Douglas's current screen and sees no hint of a switch.

"I got to thinking about Sunjata and the impossibility of hiding your moment of Attachment to a group like this. So I checked out her last year and when I saw the vacation, I checked on that. There was no contest. Her trip was paid with cash. The real Joyce, smart cookie though she probably was, fell for the 'You've won!' trick and went off to her death. Joyce number two with plastic surgery so expensive, even Liz couldn't afford it, steps into her shoes."

Oh, man, that actually makes sense. "I felt the surgery scars. I never asked her about them, didn't think it was the gentlemanly thing to do. Damn! How could I have missed that?" I'm start to pacing, thinking of all the times I've run my hands down her false and beautiful body. I'd like to have my hands on her now, right around her neck.

"Even her fingerprints checked. Douglas? How'd they work that?" Joel has a checklist going on the many ways we'd tried to crack Joyce two months ago.

"That was easy, they just hacked into the FBI and replaced the real with the false. But because we bought her identity, hook, line and sinker, we never pursued her fingerprints beyond the FBI. Her prints may be on file somewhere. I'm waiting for the query I sent out this morning."

"Another long shot."

"Yeah, sorry, unless she was convicted of something or in the military, it's unlikely." Douglas shrugs, he's thought this all through, "And let's face it, these guys have enough computer savvy that even if her prints had been on file, they aren't any longer."

He's right and it makes tracking down 'Jason and Eric' in Geneva that much more necessary.

"Bingo, exit visa issued earlier today...they're on they're way back to the States-to Cleveland, to be exact." Douglas throws down his pencil in satisfaction.

"What time? What time will they land?" I'm looking at my watch.

Douglas studies the screen. They land in an hour and a half."

"Dammit. There's no way to get there in time. Rafe, can you book me on the next flight out?" ""You got it."

I gather the files and start putting them away.

Simon comes back from his office. I hadn't even noticed he'd left.

"Okay, I contacted Captain Robbins in Cleveland. He's agreed to post some men at the airport."

I interrupt Simon. "Good men? Men who know how to blend in, stay hidden?" "Yes, Jim, Robbins is well aware of the delicacy of this operation and he assured me that he would have his best team on it."

"Good." Not good, not nearly good enough, but all we have. I need to get to Cleveland, I need to be in on this hunt. I get into Cleveland at 8:30 and I'm met by some of Robbin's team. Roy seems to be the senior member and he starts to fill me in. ""Jason and Eric" arrived at 2:10. They picked up their luggage and were met at the curb by a limousine. They went to a private estate in Woodbury Hills and have been there ever since."

Julio shows me pictures. My stomach clenches at the sight of Sandburg. He's walking behind the guy who must be Jason. He keeps his jacket wrapped tightly around him as if he's cold. I can't see his face very well because his head is bent. There's something not right about him and I zoom in on the picture, looking for infinitesimal details that will tell me what's up. There's darkness under Sandburg's eyes and a pinched look around his mouth, like he's in pain. Then I notice the arm. Actually, I can only see the wrist. He has a silver bracelet on and the wrist is red and swollen around it. I can make out by the shape of the sleeve that the arm is swollen also. Jesus, the kid's got an infection, take the damn bracelet off.

Jason is about my age, bigger than I am, built like an athlete, power evident in his stride . He's dressed in quiet elegance. Paying no attention to Blair trailing behind him, his focus seems to be on getting out of the airport. He has a handsome face, strong lines, Roman nose, thin patrician lips. It all screams aristocrat. An entitled man descended from a long line of entitled men. I want to rip his patrician lips right off his handsome face. I want him to look back and notice that Blair is in pain. That something is wrong with Blair.

Whoa, time out. If you'd taken a snapshot of Sandburg and me at any given moment, would it have looked like this? How many times did Sandburg get banged up and still follow me? How often did I look back? I, who was always so focused on answers and details. How many details did I miss about Blair?

Roy and Julio take me to Woodbury Hills. There's a van set-up four blocks away, with a view of the driveway. Simon was right, this team knows how to stay hidden. Not much is happening. There's a rear exit being watched. Harlan Nyberg, a local bigwig with ties to just about every organization known to the rich and powerful, owns the place. His money origins are murky, rumors about him, tasteful and hushed. Since Sandburg and Jason entered, there's been no activity.

I can hardly believe Sandburg is this close, he's a stroll away, in that mansion...sitting down, maybe eating dinner...the normalcy of those images makes me angry. Now that I know just where he is I want to know what the hell is Sandburg doing with them? It's not fair, I know. I know Sandburg's memory has been fucked with and they've filled his head with gibberish, but Blair's smart, way too smart to fall for this. I can't believe he couldn't have figured out some way to fool Jason. I know if he set his mind to it he'd be able to fool me. Of course to do that would require some resources, some freedom of movement, some place to go. None of which Sandburg has had.

The jet makes a smooth landing but still the soft bumping sends pain up my arm. I think something bit me. Maybe a spider. My arm has been getting worse for a week now. At first Jason dismissed it. The day I was so weak and dizzy I couldn't stand by his side, he took it seriously. He got me some antibiotics and they helped but the swelling hasn't gone down and the pain is worse. Finally, Jason decided I needed American doctors and we came back, landing in Cleveland.

The doctor has looks at my arm. He examines the bracelet. "How does this come off?" He's asking me, as Jason is in with Mr. Nyberg. "I don't know, it was a gift from Jason and I've never taken it off." I bite my lip as the doctor presses and probes at it, looking for a latch. "You never tried?" He's incredulous, it's clear to him there's a problem with the bracelet.

I shake my head. I know better than to tell him how I asked Jason to take it off when my arm started to ache and swell. Jason had flown into a rage, accusing me of betraying his friendship and our contract. It was apparent then that he saw the bracelet as being deeply symbolic of our union. He said if I ever asked again, he would kill me, knowing the devil had seized my soul and that I had become a threat to The Nation.

As crazy as that sounds I know Jason means it. I've come to realize that Jason belongs to The Tessuad Nation, body, mind and soul, in a way I can only aspire to. Enemies are the others. Waiters, sales clerks, hotel maids; are the others. Even me, his guide, united by contract and deed, am an other. I am like his rifle, a tool to be used for the Good, having no purpose or function beyond my usefulness to that end. It is a fact brought home to every day. At first I didn't realize my place.

I read and tried to share with Jason salient bits of knowledge that came my way. Tracking on his few interests, I attempted to share his enthusiasm for Byzantine triptychs and medieval architecture. He listened to me absentmindedly and then said I should confine my comments to things I actually knew something about and then added, "Which isn't much."

I knew I had led a sheltered life and my learning had been mainly confined to subjects making me useful to a Sentinel. I don't think I'm stupid but my brain does seem disorganized.

Every once in awhile I got a flash...it's hard to describe. It's like I would see something ordinary-families having a picnic or school children, and a whole system of looking at them would flood my brain. I would be thinking about cultural norms and rituals, cataloging in my head the details of one group in order to compare it with another. I had no idea where this came from but I knew better than to mention it to Jason.

It seemed like anytime I said or did anything unexpected, Jason freaked. I accepted this. That was the nature of what a Sentinel needed in a guide...someone who is steady and predictable. As time went on however, it became clear a guide must submit in all ways, allow the Sentinel total control or the Sentinel becomes violent and enraged.

At first I could not submit. I tried to assert myself. Sometimes Jason patiently explained why I couldn't go for a walk, or why eating at this time was a mistake. Sometimes he simply backhanded me and shoved me in my room. In any case, I soon learned that nothing could come of trying to separate from Jason. This was my life. I had almost decided to beg Jason to take the bracelet off, knowing he would kill me. Kind of a round about way to off oneself, I know. Then Jason made the decision to bring us back to the States. There was something about coming home that eased the ache inside me. I don't know why. I knew being home would change nothing.

Now the doctor was insisting the bracelet had to come off. I expected Jason to come barreling in at any moment and accuse the doctor of being in Lucifer's employ. Instead Jason came in and, after hearing the doctor's prognosis, calmly said he'd have someone come over who could remove it.

"He's running quite the fever. Make sure he takes the antibiotics and aspirin every four hours. If we can't get this infection under control, I'm going to have to admit him." Even the doc knows I'm not the one you talk to. Watching as Jason escorts him out, I wonder if he really will bring someone in who can get this bracelet off. I dread Jason's return. If I'm lucky, he'll hand me the pills and the water and then leave. If Jason is in a foul mood, he'll rant about the bracelet and once more go through the meaning of each symbol on the damn thing. He's done this three times and I swear he does it because he knows yanking my arm around to point at the each squiggle and line aggravates the pain I'm in. Jason doesn't come back and I wonder if I should take the pills myself. It's so hard to know what Jason wants sometimes. He gets angry when he has to do things for me and he gets angry when I do things for myself. I decide to wait on the pills. I'm already expecting some serious backlash from the bracelet thing, no use compounding it. I try and will myself to sleep but the pain keeps nudging me awake. At some point, I must have drifted off, because when I open my eyes, there's a man in my room. It's not Jason, the doc, or Nyberg. I should be worried but I don't have the energy for it. I watch him, waiting for him to say something, do something. He's looking around, studying the place and then he tunes in that I'm awake.

I smile, I'm so happy to see him Then my heart constricts, feeling my betrayal. My head starts to hurt and I grab it and squeeze, trying to stop the confusion. Have I betrayed Jim or Jason? Have I betrayed The Good by my happiness at seeing Jim? Certainly I betrayed Jim by so completely forgetting him. How can he still look at me with such affection, when it's clear I forgot all about him?

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I chant as I hold my head.

"Hey, Chief, whoa. What are you sorry about? It's okay, everything's going to be okay."

"I forgot about you." I look up, expecting to see anger. Instead he looks a little sad but there is nothing angry about him.

"It's okay, Chief. You really aren't yourself these days. What's wrong with your arm?"

"Hmm, don't know, some sort of infection, maybe a spider bite."

Jim studies my wrist and arm.

"It's not a bite."

"How can you tell?"

"I'm a Sentinel, remember? I looked at it. What's with this bracelet, Chief?"

"It was a gift from Jason. It's never supposed to be taken off."

"The bracelet is the problem. I can feel some heat coming off it, like it has an energy source. Take it off."

"I can't."

"Dammit, I know you think this Jason is the sun and the moon but the bracelet has to come off!" He's yelling and I'm afraid someone will hear him, I'm afraid he's going to try to pull the bracelet off.

Pulling my arm in, I cradle it to my chest.

"No, I can't..." Jim interrupts me. "I can't believe you feel such loyalty to this guy that you won't take his damn bracelet off your arm. What are you? His fucking girlfriend?"

I flinch at the anger pouring from Jim. I have to explain, make him understand...

"I'm not his f-fu-his girlfriend. I just can't get it off." I take my right arm in my left hand and extend it to Jim, so he can see there is no latch, no way to get it off.

Jim looks me in the eye and then drops his eyes down to the bracelet and studies it some more.

"I see." He turns away from me. "Sorry about that crack. What are they doing to get you well?" He's looking out the window. "I'm supposed to take these antibiotics." I point at the unopened bottle

"Then why haven't you?"

I don't know how to answer that, how to explain a guide's dependence on a Sentinel. I feel ashamed to admit to Jim how it is. I fudge. "I fell asleep before I could take one."

"Well, take one now, Chief. What else are they doing? You're in rough shape here."

"Someone is coming who can take the bracelet off."

"Good."

I'm having a hard time opening the bottle, my right hand is useless. Jim sees my struggle and comes forward, but drops his hands when he realizes he can't help. Hallucinations can so rarely open medicine bottles. I try for a bit and then lean back and drop the bottle. It's impossible. I'll have to wait for Jason to remember.

"Jim?"

"Yeah?" He's seen that it's no use.

"I'm sorry I forgot you." I'm having a hard time keeping my eyes open and I know this dream is going to end. I really don't want it to. I wish I could write Jim's name down, to make sure I don't forget it again. Too risky, even if I could. "It's okay, I never forgot you. I won't forget you."

"That's good, at least one of us is on top of things," I mumble as I fall asleep.

Waking up with a jerk I realize I'm back in the van with the stakeout team. They take my nap and abrupt awakening in stride. Why now?

Why could I connect with Sandburg now? Is it distance? Was he too far away in Europe? Or was it something else? "Anything happen while I slept?" I ask the one called Ajax.

"Yeah, a car with MD license plates left. Otherwise, it's been quiet."

I sure as hell can't tell these guys about my nocturnal visit with Sandburg. And even if I could, I didn't learn anything new...except someone would be arriving who can remove the bracelet. I think about how to use that bit of info. I don't think I can spend the night cooped up in this van. Seeing Sandburg so washed out and sick left me feeling restless. Anxious. He should have taken those pills. Why isn't somebody looking after him?

I wake up thirsty. I take in the room. "J-j-jim?" I whisper. It's silent. I clamp my good hand over my mouth. I can't believe I said his name. What if Jason heard me? I didn't really think Jason was expending any energy monitoring me with his senses but you never really knew what a Sentinel would tune into. I need to get up and get some water. I throw the covers off and sit up.

The room's shadows shift and move as dizziness sweeps over me. I wait it out and regain a sense of equilibrium, enough anyway, to push off the bed and look for the bathroom. I'm in the hallway when I hear Jason. I duck into the first room I see and stand in the darkened doorway. Jason is talking to Mr. Nyberg in a room further down the hall. "We have to move tonight." Jason is emphatic.

"What about the kid?"

"He'll be all right. I've never known a bigger wuss. That guy would let a hangnail stop him."

"The doctor said the infection is serious, you need to get that bracelet off."

"That's easier said than done, Harlan. The technology for that thing came from the council and they're the only ones who know how to get it off."

"Okay, we'll have to get them to send someone to meet you at the next safe house."

Jason snorts, "Some safe house this proved to be. I've got to go get Kendall up and moving."

I hear the sounds of them pushing back chairs and I scramble back to my room. I'm barely in bed when Jason comes in. There's no point pretending to be asleep.

I bolt upright as if startled awake and gasp, "Jason!" hoping he'll think my fast heartbeat is caused by my surprise. He seems to buy it, because he barely looks at me.

"Get dressed. We're leaving here tonight." Jason is pawing through my clothes, cramming them into the suitcase. Before I can stop myself, I ask, "Why?" As soon as the word is out of my mouth I know I'm going to regret it. "Why? Did the guide just ask the Sentinel, why?" He comes over to the bed and yanks the blankets off. He picks up my bad arm. He holds it gently but I start to shake anyway, waiting for him to hurt me.

"I thought I taught you better than that, Eric. I thought you were capable of learning and understanding. Now I'm beginning to wonder just how stupid you really are." He still holds my arm gently.

"I'm sorry... It's the fever, I didn't mean to question you. Please Jason, don't..." he doesn't let me finish begging. Jason jerks my arm and the pain floods my entire body. As I begin to pass out, I can't help but think I'm glad. Maybe we won't be able to leave if I'm unconscious. Maybe I'll see Jim again.

I drive aimlessly through the neighborhood. It feels good to be moving. I have a vague idea about getting to know the lay of the land and checking on the back entrance.

I don't see anyone that could be surveillance and I wonder if they are just so well hidden that I can't spot them. After all those years in black ops and then my own experience at stakeouts, I find that unlikely. No, dammit, they've been pulled off.

The anxiety I felt before is moving into full-blown panic. I finally found Sandburg and I could lose him in a moment. I'm in a strange city with no back up and no resources. I get my cell out to call Robbins but before I can begin to dial, I see the gate opening and a black car emerges. I can hear Sandburg's heartbeat. His breathing tells me he's unconscious, whether sleeping or knocked out, it's hard to tell. The car moves almost silently through the streets and I follow at a distance.

By keeping Sandburg's heartbeat in focus, I can track on them and stay well out of sight. I get my phone out to call in and then stop myself. Someone inside the PD called off the back street team. If I call, there's a good chance that the Jason will hear about that and I might lose this opportunity to stay close to Blair.

I put the phone away. The streets we travel become darker, the houses further apart. I keep the headlights off, as the moon is bright enough for me. We are headed into the country. I listen for conversation in the car. There are three of them; Blair, Jason and I assume the driver. There is no talk, the radio is tuned to a public station, the music of a string quartet the only sounds I can hear. We travel far enough that the radio station fades, replaced by country/western. "Turn that crap off." That must be Jason. I memorize his voice.

"Yessir." The driver.

I can tell that Sandburg is coming to, there's the sound of rustling and soft grunts. I wait to hear his voice, to hear him ask Jason what's going on. There's silence.

Finally I hear Blair, his voice raw, underpinned with pain. "Jason?" He sounds lost.

"What?" Jason's voice holds the same cold tone he used on the driver.

"Is there any water? I need to take the pill." Those are words I never expected to hear from Blair's mouth. A voluntary request for Western medication. He must feel terrible.

"Ah, for goodness sake, Eric, you were supposed to take that pill three hours ago." Jason's irritation permeates the car.

Come on, Blair, tell him you couldn't get the cap off.

"I fell asleep." I can tell Blair is lying. Jason should be able to tell, too.

"Well, I forgot to bring the damn pills with me. We'll get some more later."

There's silence again and then Blair's tentative voice asking, "Could I have some water anyway?"

"When we get to where we're going, Eric." He sounds like an impatient father with a whiny child. I'm tempted to speed up and ram my car into the back of theirs and retrieve my Guide that way.

There is the sound of Sandburg shifting a bit, his heart beating fast, pain or fear? Then silence once again. We've been traveling for three hours. I wish I'd thought to grab a map. I have no idea where we are in Ohio, or even if we're still in Ohio. I can't call the Cleveland PD but I can contact Cascade. I put in a call to Simon at his home. I know I'll be waking him up but I need someone to know what's going down.

"Banks, make it good." Simon sounds awake. What other disasters are stirring that would have him awake at this hour?

"Simon, it's me."

"Bout time, Ellison. Been on the phone with Robbins, seems there's some concern about your disappearing act."

"Simon, someone tipped off Jason. The exit team was off post. I was about to call it in when I saw a car leaving. We're been traveling north from Cleveland for about three hours."

"Damn. That explains a lot."

"There's a leak in that PD, Simon. What's your take on Robbins?"

"Hell. I don't know. This organization has a tentacle in every port. If you're that far out of Cleveland, he's ceased to be relevant. Should I call in the FBI? You know they're going to be interested once we out Sunjata."

"God, Simon, The feds are never a good idea. Let me see where they go...we'll call them in if there's no other way."

"I'm tempted to get on a plane myself at this point." Simon exhales in a certain way that tells me he's got a cigar at hand.

"I'm tempted to tell you to do it, too. It's bad enough to be trailing some terrorist without backup, but worse, knowing that if I blow it Sandburg is trapped."

"You won't blow it, Jim." I take comfort in his calm reassurance.

"I'll update you as soon as I can. Oh, Simon, if you can, will you find a map of Ohio? I have no idea where I am. I'll call you back."

"Right. I'll hunt one up right now."

"Thanks, Simon." I disconnect and face the darkness ahead of me. There's a small gasp, it can only be Blair. I wait. It amazes me, the power of Sandburg's voice in my life. It's just a voice for c'rist's sake. And now I wait to hear it again. Even in pain it soothes me. I know how selfish that sounds. Still, it's true. Blair, in pain and verbal is so much better than no Blair at all. There was just that small gasp and now nothing. I can tell Sandburg is conscious. It's not like him to suffer in silence. He likes to share... "We're almost there, sir."

"I can see that. Pull into that first garage."

I hang back and park the car a half mile away.

"Come on, Kendall, get the lead out."

I can hear Sandburg's breathing getting rougher as he makes his way out of the car.

"Move it, Eric, I want to get some sleep in before this night is over."

Still no words from Sandburg, just the sound of him shuffling along. I hear a door being unlocked and opened and then closed. The driver's asking about which room and I figure this is as good a time as any to get closer.

They each find a room with a bed. There is no conversation as such. At one point Sandburg asks about water and Jason tells him he's not his mommy. I hear Blair moving around the kitchen, opening doors, getting a glass, running water. He moves slowly and I can tell he's having trouble with his balance, the way he keeps bumping against things. Finally he heads to a room and falls into bed.

I wait for an hour to make sure they are in deep sleep and then jimmy the back door. The driver sleeps on the couch in the living room, Jason's upstairs and Blair's in the room behind the kitchen. He's lying face down on the bed. I can feel the heat radiating off him from here. He's in bad shape and I can't wait to get him out of here. I kneel down next to the bed and turn him over.

His fever is 104 and he's soaked in sweat. I don't have the time to wake him or get him into dry clothes. I spot his bag and take out a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. Reaching down and taking his good arm, I haul him over my shoulder. I hope he stays asleep along with the rest of the house. When I entered the house I could tell there was a white noise generator going upstairs. This guy is arrogant and I'm grateful.

The first hundred yards we're okay and then Blair starts to moan, he's coming to. I carry him behind a copse of trees and set him down. I whisper in his ear, "Chief, buddy? You all right?"

Sandburg goes stiff in my arms and then he tries to open his eyes.. "Jason?"

That hurts. His first thought, his first concern, is for Jason.

"No, it's me, it's Jim." Will he remember me this time around? Will he demand I take him back to Jason? I try to control the raw anger I feel about Blair guiding someone else. Blair would excuse it as a genetic imperative or a primitive knee jerk reaction. It's still wrong to feel the anger. It's not as if Blair made this choice voluntarily. Yet he seems to have a strong attachment to this Jason. I wonder if he would chose to leave? I'm not giving him a choice.

"J-jim?"

"Yeah, it's Jim, remember me?" I say it bitingly and immediately feel bad. The kid is sick and confused, his brain's been fucked with, and I'm getting sarcastic.

"Jim!" His eyes pop all the way open and he smiles. He touches my face and he frowns. "Oh God, you're real, you're here." He's trying to get up and look around. His heart is spiking and I can tell my being real has freaked him out. "We have to get out of here, Chief." I help him to his feet. He stands there, unsteady and I put my arm around him. He tenses up, like he's going to leave me and I start to panic at that thought. I grip him harder, expecting more resistance, when suddenly he relaxes and moves with me.

It takes us close to twenty minutes to get back to the car and by the end, Blair is only semi-conscious. I get him up into my arms and carry him the last two hundred yards. Getting to the car, I start to put him in the back seat and realize even that's too far away right now. I place him in the front seat and start to take his wet clothes off. His skin is clammy and it's hard to peel the grungy things off him. First the shirt. Man, this guy knows how to grow hair. I wipe the sweat off him as best I can and get the sweatshirt on then start on the pants. They're easier to get off, harder to get on. Finally I settle him in the front seat and go around to my side. For the last four minutes I've been hearing sounds in the house. They're coming awake and they'll discover Blair is missing any minute.

I resist the urge to gun the car and ease it off the side and onto the road. Slowly I accelerate, hoping Jason will not be casting his senses afield, hunting for Blair's escape route just yet. The guy must sleep like the dead, to have missed me coming into the house. I'm torn. I want to get Blair as far away as possible as fast as possible. On the other hand, we still have a head start and he won't be thinking beyond the car they came in. If I stay, I'll be able to hear what kind of resources they have for retrieving Sandburg. Pulling up, I can hear Jason in the bathroom. I let that sink in. Since Blair left my senses have been sporadic and in the last month, none existent. Now, even sick and unconscious, he's back to functioning as my Guide.

Jason moves into the kitchen and I wait. Nothing. What gives? Didn't he check for Blair's heart beat when he woke up? Hasn't he tried to check on Blair's fever yet? The guy's making coffee! I hear him yell, "Eric! Where the hell are you?" Silence. Finally, he's making use of his senses. When he does, I realize my mistake. If I can hear him, he can hear Blair's heart beat. I push the accelerator down and the car leaps down the road.

It's hot under the blankets. There are no blankets to throw off. The pain in my arm has gotten worse. I don't know Waking up I can't figure out where I am. I'm hot and I want to throw the blankets off. what's happening. "Jason?"

"What?"

Tuning into the gentle rocking motion, I realize I'm in the car with Jason. I try and scoot as far away as possible. Jason hates sickness. I think his feelings about it border on phobia. It must have come as a real blow when he realized how sick I get when I drink. I wonder why he insists on it after every execution. Let's face it, he hates to have me come too close even if I'm well, unless he's sighting down the end of a high powered rifle. I'm surprised I'm not up front with the driver.

I sit for a moment trying to get on top of the pain. I know no good can come of this, but I never did get any water and I'm thirsty. "Is there any water?" Maybe this will work. "I need to take the pill."

"Ah, for goodness sake, Eric, you were supposed to take that pill three hours ago." Jason's annoyed but I still have some hope.

"I fell asleep."

"Well, I forgot to bring the damn pills with me. We'll get some more later."

I wonder again at what rousted us from the estate. I'm not surprised Jason forgot the pills. It's the water I really want. I hesitate to ask, as there's no telling how Jason will react to my needing something.

"Could I have some water anyway?"

"When we get to where we're going, Eric." Jason's using his infinite patient tone with me. That one is much preferable to his rage, which I know, lurks under the surface.

I lean back and hope it isn't too far to where we are going. I drift. Aside from the misery, I'm as happy as I get these days. Jim's back. It baffles me that he bothers with me. Maybe he won't again, After all, I forgot him. He was okay with that, though. I hate to imagine the damage Jason would inflict if I ever forgot him. I wonder if seeing Jim is a sign that I'm as defective as Jason says I am. As if Jason knows what I'm thinking, he leans over and pushes against my arm. I can't help it, I gasp. Jason is waiting for me to say something. When I do he'll make sure it escalates until I'm begging for forgiveness. It's what he does when he's bored. I know enough to keep quiet, but I know that won't protect me for long.

"We're almost there, sir."

I'm saved by our arrival.

"I can see that. Pull into that first garage."

Jason slides out of the car. He looks back at me. I'm trying to figure out how to exit without more pain.

"Come on, Kendall, get the lead out."

Fearing that if I'm too slow, Jason will simply yank me out, I stumble clumsily out of the car. For a moment I see stars and think I may pass out. Hold it together, Eric.

"Move it, Eric, I want to get some sleep in before this night is over."

I follow Jason inside. It's an old farmhouse. Jason scouts around and comes back and assigns beds. Mine is the one by the kitchen.

"Jason, may I have some water?" It's one of those damned if you do and damned if you don't things. If I go and get myself water, Jason is liable to blow up and not let me have any until tomorrow, simply to prove that he is the giver of all things. If I ask, he's likely to blow up because I'm acting helpless.

"I'm not your mommy, Kendall. Get it yourself." I breathe a sigh of relief. Permission granted. I hunt up a glass and fill it. The water tastes like rust and iron and I drink it all down. I move to the room Jason pointed out and shuffle to the bed. I think about taking shoes off and then, blessed oblivion.

"Chief, buddy? You all right?" Wha? I'm outside. I think I just heard Jim ask if I was all right. I've never hallucinated me and Jim outside. It has to be Jason. Why would he ask if I'm all right? Oh God, he's thought up a new game and I don't know the rules to this one yet. There's always a nasty learning curve when Jason thinks up a new game to play with his guide.

I try and open my eyes. I need to see Jason and try and figure out the right response.

"Jason?"

"No, it's me, it's Jim." My eyes open and it is Jim.

"J-jim?" I can't believe he's back so soon.

"Yeah, it's Jim, remember me?" I'm on the ground and Jim has his arms around me. I can feel him. He's not a dream. "Jim!" I touch his face. It is rough and warm. He can't be here. Jason will kill him.

"Oh God, you're real, you're here." I have to get up, he has to get out of here.

"We have to get out of here, Chief." Jim echoes my thought. He helps me to my feet and I don't know if I'm going to be able to stay upright. Jim puts his arm around me and I almost push him away. I smell and I'm sweaty and he can't possibly want to be this close to me. He tightens his hold and I know we won't be able to get away if I don't accept his help. For a moment I consider bolting back to the house. Jim has no idea what he's up against and I could get him killed. Life in bondage to Jason would be better than knowing I was responsible for Jim's death. Looking Jim, I see the implacable hardness. If I bolt, he'll follow and we'll have even less of a chance.

We move out in silence. I'm glad Jim realizes some of the problems with escaping from a Sentinel. I don't know how far we have to go. Exhaustion is weighing me down. Just one more step, just one more step. Only the thought of Jason catching Jim keeps me going. Can't let that happen. After awhile I'm not really sure if I'm awake. Is this some terribly wonderful dream, or is this a wonderful, terrible dream? It's wonderful to know Jim is real and he's here, with me. It's terrible to know Jim is real and he's here with me and therefore Jason's prey. Jason never, ever misses. A branch cracks under foot and I almost collapse with the fear that Jim has been shot. There's no grunt of pain, no let up in our progress, so I guess not.

I don't know how long we walk, the fever has distorted time. I think perhaps it's hopeless. Jim doesn't have a car and there's no way we'll be able to outrun Jason. Suddenly I feel my legs swept under me. Jim's picked me up and he's carrying me. Now the despair is nearly overwhelming. He can't possible get to safety, carrying me. I hear the crunch of gravel and a car door being opened. There is a car. There is hope. I let go.

He's onto us. I can hear him swearing at the driver, "Fuck. He's gone." There's a moment of silence and I can see him in my mind's eye, cocking his head. "Someone's taken him. Bring the car around."

He's packing and muttering, some of which I catch. "I'll kill him. I'll kill that little freak. I don't care if he is the best, he's a dead man." Too soon they are on the road behind us. I call Simon. Thank God he answers right away. "Simon, I'm heading back east toward Cleveland. Do you know where I am?"

"Yeah Jim, you're near Bellevue, which is about 35 miles south of Sandusky."

"How soon's the next town?"

"You'll come up to Monroeville in about twenty miles. It's a blip, Jim, won't be any help there."

"I think I have just enough gas to get us to Cleveland." Jason can probably hear that but he'd figure that out in any case. "Go to Robbins. I'll alert him at the last minute. There's nobody else to go to. I'll be on the next plane out." "Thanks Simon." I'll feel a lot better when there's someone I can trust at hand.

Blair is still out. He looks so young with his hair shorn like that. He actually has ringlets and I idly play with one as I push the car to faster and faster speeds. His fever is close to 104 now. The hospital should be my destination, not the police station.

I feel Blair's breathing changing as he struggles to wake up. "J-jason?"

"No!" It comes out as a shout and Blair jerks away from my hand. He looks up at me and I have never seen him look at me like that. He lies very still and doesn't say anything. I hesitate to tell him it's Jim. There's no reason to let Jason know who exactly has his Guide. I assume he's aware of me and if he hears my name, he will be all the more prepared against us. I put my finger to my lips in the age-old quiet sign and Blair nods.

I put my hand under Sandburg shoulder and help him sit up Sweat has made his clothes wet and he's shaking. By my best estimation we are still 80 miles from Cleveland. I wish I had some water to offer him, his skin is getting that dry, gray look of dehydration. He leans against the door and watches me out of the corner of his eye. I really scared him back there, and his heart is only now starting to ease up a little. He says nothing, taking my shushing to heart.

"I'm sorry I yelled." Hey, even if Jason is listening this can't hurt. "I know you think Jason is your Sentinel and that it is your job to guide him. I know it's hard for you to be taken away." Maybe if Jason does hear that he'll think Sandburg didn't want to come. I listen to hear if he's listening to me. He is.

"Can't you go any faster? Kendall didn't go voluntarily. That's something at least. Maybe I can get a few more hits out of him before he falls apart completely. Who would take him from me? Who the fuck would want that pint sized pain in the ass? I can't even believe Ellison would want him back. And there's no fucking way Ellison or any of those bozo police dicks could have tracked us. No, there's a new player, but who?"

I think about that. How could he have been with Sandburg these last few months and hate him? I've never met anyone who didn't like Sandburg. It can be damn annoying the way women, children, dogs and everything in between responds to him.

So what's with this guy? Looking over at Sandburg I can see he's closed his eyes. He's about as far away from me as he can get in this small space. I guess living in close quarters with a guy who hates your guts would probably make you kind of sensitive. I reach over to pat Sandburg's arm. He flinches and his eyes fly open. He holds himself very still.

"Hey, sorry, didn't mean to startle you."

I hear Jason snort. "Startle Kendall? My God, breathing in his direction startles him. He's the world's most sensitive baby."

Okay, this is getting really weird. The guy is actually having a conversation with me. I know he doesn't know that but it's still weird. Who the hell is he talking about? The Blair Sandburg I know is sensitive about things, and bad things still have the capacity to surprise him but he's always been a trooper, no matter how alien and ugly the scenes he's been confronted with. What did they do to Sandburg? What have they turned him into? And what does Jason mean by hits? Is he talking about drugs?

I reach over to take Sandburg's arm. He cringes and his heart rate increases. He looks at me and slowly extends his hand. His trembling goes up a notch. He's afraid of me and what I'm going to do. I should never have yelled. I push the sleeve up and quickly scan the pale skin of his arm. No marks. I pull his sleeve back down, and pat his arm. Sandburg slowly retracts his arm as if he thinks I might still have plans for it.

I want to talk to Blair, reassure him, fill him in, but I can't with Mr. Big Ears tuned in. They've been steadily gaining on us the last three miles. Reaching back I haul my bag up front. I motion to Blair to open it and he does. I take out one of my shirts. "Put it on." Blair looks at me quizzically. He's well aware of Jason listening and clearly doesn't want to say anything that Jason can hear. "Go on, yours is soaked."

Sandburg starts to take the sweatshirt off. He can't without aggravating his arm and I hear a sibilant moan as he gets his arm out of the sleeve. I reach over to extract him from the heavy fabric. The paleness of his skin is in sharp contrast to dark hair on his chest. I can see his infected arm and it looks bad; the kid needs medical attention. Slowly he gets the shirt on, but he's unable to button it and I'm sorry I started this. I think I just wanted something of mine, something from the loft, from his old life, surrounding Blair. Now Blair looks more washed out and in more pain. The road has been blessedly empty but as the morning progresses, the traffic is building. I don't know if that will ultimately work for or against us. Jason's advancement on us has been steady...the rental car no match for the luxury vehicle the Tessuad has equipped Jason with. I've been listening to the sounds of a rifle being assembled. Jason is well equipped and the difficulty of finding shelter from him has just gotten more complicated.

The landscape changes from farm to suburb.

"I want them before they get to the city." Jason talking. "This traffic is making it harder to gain ground." The driver is being reasonable.

"I don't care if you have to drive over the cars in front of us, just make sure we overtake them in the next ten minutes." He can't be planning on shooting us from the car, they'd be too much chance of killing Sandburg. From the sound of his voice he is within a half a mile of us now. Sandburg has been watching my face as I listen and seems to understand that Jason is closing in, because his heartbeat is racing.

Where's a cop when you really need one? I can't believe no one has called in the two crazed drivers speeding along at ninety miles an hour. I'm afraid any call I make would only result in back up for Jason. So far he hasn't called anyone. He's either sure he'll be able to deal with us on his own or he hates to admit he lost his Guide.

Far behind us, I can see a black car weaving and passing cars. Freeing my gun, I place it on the seat. The showdown is eminent and I wish I could stash Sandburg somewhere safe. He's in no shape for this test of loyalty. He's given up on the buttons, so he's only half dressed, his eyes are dull and glazed from a combination of pain and fever. I don't even have an aspirin to offer him.

Way before I'm ready the black car is behind us. It moves into the other lane and begins to swerve, trying to force me off the road. I ease up on the accelerator, hoping to create a little space and a saner speed. The black car stays with me, the sound of metal tearing metal so loud, I have to fight to keep my hands on the wheel and not over my ears. Jason's Cadillac is heavier and it's inexorably moving us to the edge of the road. I spare a quick glance at Blair. He's braced himself but rather than fear, I see focus. There's no doubt he's guiding me in ways neither of us can quantify. The car lets us edge ahead and I accelerate. It's that old familiar nightmare of nowhere to run. I hear the sound of a rifle shot and the steering wheel jerks in my hand. Now the Cadillac moves in to finish the job. I open my window and grab the gun. We're going down together. I take careful aim and shoot at the driver. Even with the chaos of two cars entangled, I hit him. I fire again, the driver is not the problem here, and I'm gratified to hear Jason grunt in pain. His heart still beats strong and I know the battle has just begun.

I can see Jason is trying to control the Cadillac but even with his enhanced senses there's no way to stop the skid that propels our two cars into the trees that line the road. I'm just barely able to keep us from hitting a massive oak straight on, but then the car fishtails and our back end smacks into it with enough force to rattle my brain and leave bruises in unlikely places.

Blair's making sounds of distress and trying to get his seat belt undone. I help him with it and as soon as he's free, he's out the door and running to Jason's car. Shit. He's worried about that asshole who's trying to kill us. I'm almost as angry at Blair for his defection as I am at the freaking church that took him in the first place. I run after Blair and before he can get to the car, I spin him around.

"What the hell do you think you're doing, Sandburg?" I yell and his eyes go wide. He's in no shape to be standing there. Yet he is, his chest bare, the sweat gleaming on the dark hair that grows there, shaking from the cold and the heat of the fever, trying to reassure himself that Jason still lives.

At the sound of his name, he throws his hands over his ears and goes to his knees, moaning. My anger fades and all I want is to reach down and pull him up, hold him, soothe the pain away. I can't afford to with Jason still breathing. Leaving Blair on his knees, I run to the Caddy. I knew Jason was hit and the crash has temporarily knocked him out, but his heart is strong and I don't doubt for a minute that this guy is still a threat. I open the door and haul him out. His eyes are fluttering and he ineffectually tries to get my hands off of him.

I can tell, right then, the guy's no fighter. A marksman, buff, but not used to getting his hands dirty. I punch him in the face hard and then I punch him again and again. I don't care if Blair is watching or if this bothers him. I look over and Sandburg's no longer on his knees. He's collapsed in a heap but he's watching every move I make. I pull off Jason's belt and secure his arms.

The traffic has kept moving but I know the State Patrol will be here any moment. Nothing I tell them will make sense and by the time they get verification of my story, they'll have Blair in a hospital and me in jail. I can't protect Blair from a jail cell. With the Tessuad's influence they could have Blair released into their care before I'm out.

We have to get out of here. I run to the car, find my gun, and reholster it. I search my bag for the extra clips and a sweater and the phone. Moving back to Blair, I pull him up. He seems to going into shock. It takes more time than we have but I finally maneuver the sweater on to his shivering body. I take off my jacket and get that on him and then I steer him into the woods. He moves with me passively, looking back at Jason once, with a look I can't quite interpret. I'm tempted to transport Sandburg in a fireman's carry but I know how much that will hurt. For now, Blair is able to stay on his feet and we make some progress. When we're far enough into the woods to be hidden from the accident, I call Simon. I get his voice mail...he's in the air, on his way here. I leave him a message, telling him what happened, knowing he'll be able to connect with Robbins and find the accident site. I don't know what to tell him about where we are or where we'll be, so I just tell him I'll call him back. I debate calling Robbins. I don't have any reason not to trust him, but someone in his department is dirty and it feels like a mistake to expose our position.

We keep moving. I can hear the State Patrol trying to make sense of the scene. So far, there's no pursuit. I keep us on a parallel to the highway. Sandburg's breathing is getting raspier and only my arm around him keeps him upright. He hasn't said one word to me but now I hear him saying my name. I'm shocked at the thrill that goes through me. "Jim..." he gasps, "I can't...I'm sorry, I ..." and he folds in my arms.

Picking him up, I grunt under his weight. Blair may be on the short side but he's always been one solid, sturdy guy. He's still heavier than I'd like, considering I don't know how long I'm going to be carrying him, but these months have depleted him in some indefinable way. He's sick, that's part of it, it's more than that though. The energy signature that defined Blair and guided me has changed. At some fundamental level, those bastards have managed to change Blair. I look down into Blair's darkly handsome face and I ache for what's been taken. I shake myself, there isn't time to mourn. We have to keep moving.

The woods we are in seem to be about a mile wide, with highway on one side and a rural road on the other. I change our course, making for the other road. When we finally get there I scope it out, up and down. I can make out a dirt road leading off the byway we're on and I figure it's as good a place to head for as any other. As soon as we get to it, I can see it leads to a lake about a half-mile away. The whole area has the feel of summer cabin territory and in the month of March, it should be pretty deserted. I set Sandburg down on the ground and kneel next to him, trying to catch my breath and get some feeling back in my arms.

Still no sound of pursuit but I can't sit here wasting our lead-time. I get Sandburg back in my arms with some difficulty and set off toward the lake.

Blair's eyes are opening and when he realizes I'm carrying him, he immediately tries to stand up.

"You'll...hurt...yourself."

He can barely get the words out and he's in no condition to stand, let alone walk.

"You trying to tell me you think I'm outta shape?" I tease, but Blair looks stricken and ducks his head.

"Let me worry about that. Just take it easy. I'll have us someplace warm and we'll get you comfortable." Blair looks up at me in utter bafflement with those unexpectedly blue eyes.

"Okay, Chief?" He nods. As we move out, he's tense but after we've gone a few hundred yards and I'm not gasping for breath or falling down, he relaxes enough to lay his head back.

There's a cabin ahead and it would be easy enough to break in, but I decide to keep going, hoping for something further off the beaten track. A little way down the road I'm rewarded when I see an overgrown path that leads to a dilapidated cabin hunkered behind overgrown brush. Hard to spot unless you have enhanced vision and it's perfect for us.

The door is easily dealt with and soon we're inside. To my surprise, it hasn't been abandoned and there's a bed and a few blankets. It's clearly a rough stopping place, probably for hunters. There are candles and a some canned goods, bottled water and a propane stove. Finally, something is going our way.

Laying Blair down on the bed, I get the water. There are so many things he needs done but water is paramount. I hold the bottle for him and he gulps greedily, the water splashing down the front of his sweater. After he drinks one bottle, I get another and make him take it slow. Halfway through, he stops, the effort of drinking having exhausted him. I hunt around, thinking a hunting cabin might have some first aid and I'm rewarded when I find a small kit in one of the cabinets. There's Tylenol and I whoop when I see it. I prop Blair back up and put two pills in his mouth and give him water. Then I repeat the process.

Blair's skin is slick with sweat and I find a towel and start to get him dry, starting with his face and working on down. He watches me, a serious look on his face, confusion fighting with the comfort he seems to be taking in my care. When he's dry, I pull the blankets up. It's cool in the cabin but there's no way I can risk a fire. Blair's eyes are closing and in a few minutes, he's asleep.

Sitting on the floor, I lean against the bed, pulling the phone out. Thank God, Simon answers. I give him directions as best I can. Blair needs a hospital but if I had my way, we'd hop on a plane and head straight back to Cascade. I hate the feeling of being this exposed and dependant on strangers.

Settling back to wait for Simon to find us, I hope it's soon. Blair still has my jacket on and I'm freezing. I must have nodded off because I'm woken by the bed's vibrations. Blair is sleeping but shivering. His fever has come down a notch but it's still hovering around 103.

Pulling back the blanket, I turn Blair on his good side, facing the wall. I climb into bed and spoon around him, trying to convey some of my heat. Not that I have much myself. I replace the blankets, and take comfort in the feel of Blair's body next to mine. For so long he has been absent or untouchable and it feels like a miracle that I'm able to have contact, to feel skin and muscle and bone. I stroke his hair, something I'm often tempted to do but have never allowed myself. Blair reacts to my hand in his hair by relaxing, his body leans into mine, and the shivering abates. Leaning over him, being careful not to jostle his arm, I study this new Sandburg. I want to tell myself the old Sandburg is in there. The bouncy, irrepressible, talking all the time Sandburg. The one who is my friend, who is loyal to me, who is MY Guide. But there's a Sentinel out there who's staked out a piece of Sandburg; who's co-opted his loyalty and used my Guide for his purposes. And I don't know what that means. For me, or for Sandburg.

This time I stay awake, tracking on any one approaching. It's a little soon for The Tessuad to come after us but I'm not about to make the mistake of underestimating them.

Two hours have passed when I hear a car approaching. At first I think it's Simon but then I tune into the fact there are two cars and four people. I throw the covers off and pull Blair up and heft him into my arms. He moans but doesn't wake up. I make it to the door, when the cars pull up.

It's Simon. And Megan, Joel and Rafe. They all came.

"Jim!" They pile out of the car and rush to us, rush to Blair, "How is he?" Each one of them eager to see for themselves that he's back with us. Megan brushes the hair back from Blair's face. "Sandy?" Blair remains oblivious to the joyous reunion.

"His arm is infected and he needs antibiotics. His fever is at 103. He should be in a hospital but I don't trust anyone around here and there's a little problem of the bullets I put into Jason and the driver... Not to mention leaving the scene of an accident, after punching out the guy in the other car and leaving him tied up with his own belt ...all reasons that can be used to take me away from Blair."

I carry Sandburg to one of the cars as I tell them all this. Megan gets the map out and studies our options. "We can drive to Toledo and get on a plane there. If luck is with us, we should be back in Cascade by midnight." It's a plan and I'm so fucking happy to have my team around me, and Sandburg in my arms, I put off the worry about what next...I'll be able to defend Blair a lot better in my own city than here.

When I open my eyes, I know I'm back in the clinic. There's no mistaking that place for my room at the Center, or any of the many hotel rooms I've stayed in. I close my eyes as I'm in no hurry to be ministered to by Dr. Albright or any of the others. My arm aches, and I can feel that I have an IV in my other hand. I guess we finally made it back. I'm glad, being alone with Jason all the time has been lonely...and scary. Although there is no one at the Center I'm close to...and being at the Center was often lonely and scary, at least there will be a reprieve from the grim work Jason and I do.

I hear someone enter the room but I keep my eyes closed. There just doesn't seem to be any point in opening them. "Chief?"

My dream is back, Jim is here. I smile and then quickly stop. I can tell someone else is in the room and I can't let on about these waking dreams.

"Simon, Sandburg's awake."

At the sound of that name, my head fills with pain and I cry out and try to bring my hands to my head. Someone holds them down and I hear someone else calling for a nurse.

"Sorry, Chief, sorry, I should have figured that out before this."

Oh. God, I'm going mad. I can feel Jim's hands on my face, touching me, soothing me. How can I feel a dream? No one at the Center would touch me or offer comfort. I'm undone by the unexpectedness of it. I feel the tears and try to turn away from the gentle hands. I realize they must be Jim's hands holding me in place when I hear him say, "Open your eyes, Chief. Come on, do it for me."

I open my eyes, expecting to see Dr. Albright scowling at me and telling me to snap out of it. Instead, I see Jim. I reach up and touch his face and it feels real. "Jim?"

"Yeah, Chief, it's me." Jim's smiling at me. There's a big, black man behind Jim and he's smiling at me. Two people smiling at me. The black man leans towards me and I wait to see what he'll do to me.

He pats my knee and says, "Glad you're back with us, Sa-" Jim cuts him off. "Don't say his name, Simon, it sets off pain in his head."

I guess that's right. Every time Jim has called me by the name of his friend, my head feels like it's going to explode. Thank God that guy has a nickname, or Jim and I would never have managed a conversation.

"How did you..." I'm confused and a little scared. It really can't be all right that they are here at the Center. Someone's going to be punished for this.

"You have to go." I push at Jim, but it's like pushing at a statue. Jim's smile disappears and I miss it, but he's got to get out of here. "Go, before they come in." I'm looking around, glad that the nurse hasn't responded to the call. I look at Jim. He really doesn't understand. "They'll hurt you."

Jim's smile returns. "Shhh, it's all right. We got away. You're not with them. You're back with us in Cascade, in the hospital." Cascade, hospital? Oh, wow, that dream I had, about the car chase and Jim...that was real. He went to all that trouble, put himself in danger, to rescue his friend. But he got me instead. What will he do, what will he think, when he finds out I'm not who he thinks I am? And what will the Tessuad do to me when Jim figures out his mistake and sends me back? I shut my eyes. Okay, this can't last, but maybe I can have it for a few days. I fall asleep on that thought.

The doctor is a lot like the doctors at the Center, efficient, focused, impatient. He asks me what my name is and I tell him. He asks me if I'm sure and I don't know how to answer. If I say I am sure, will they send me back right away? If I say I'm not, will they be even angrier when they find out? I'm hesitating and the doctor comes towards me, I'm sure to take my wrist and help me to remember. Before he gets to me, Jim steps in, placing himself between the doctor and me.

The doctor doesn't seem to notice he just brushes past Jim and lifts one of my eyelids.

"So is that you're real name?"

"Yes." I see disappointment on Jim's face and I wait for the anger. Instead, he puts his arm around me. I know I don't deserve the arm but I'll take what I can get until it's all gone.

"And when I say," the doctor looks at his chart, "Blair Sa-" The pain in my head blots out the last part of the name. I hold onto my head so it stays on my neck and I'm vaguely aware of Jim and the doctor talking. That name really scares me, it has the power to take away Jim. No wonder I feel s much pain whenever I hear it.

Jim's hand is on my forehead, stroking my face, trying to ease the pain. The doctor waits impatiently. When I've stopped moaning, he continues. "You've had brain surgery, can you tell me anything about that?"

"Huh? I haven't had surgery. I was hit by lightning awhile back."

"Hmm. Is that right? I guess that's all for now." He flips his chart closed and gives Jim the look that says let's go talk. "I'm just going to talk to the doc. Will you be okay?"

I nod my head. I watch them leave and wonder if Jim will come back. One of these days will be the day he doesn't, the day he realizes his mistake and turns his attention to finding his real friend. How mad will he be that he wasted this much time on me, when his friend was somewhere else?

There's a white noise generator on the table next to me. Jim thinks of everything. Jason will be on the hunt for me. I can't imagine he'd find me in Cascade but clearly, Jim is taking no chances.

The guy named Rafe comes in and sits down. "You up for some cards?" He's uncomfortable around me. He probably realizes that Jim is deluding himself but he goes a long with it. Jim has great friends. They've all been in to see me and act happy that I'm here. I know that they are happy for Jim, who cares so much about B-I feel a twinge-the other guy...has his friend back. Some like Rafe, seem suspicious of me, others, like Megan, accept me without hesitation. I feel regret that they'll resent the trust they placed in me. I haven't lied, though, I never claimed to be the other guy and Jim is so sure....

Rafe deals. He has to tell me the rules. The other guy would know, but I've never played cards before. It's fun and after awhile, Rafe relaxes.

The doctor is waiting for me in his office. I hate to leave Blair, even in Rafe's hands, for very long. Okay, for any amount of time. The white noise generator that is hopefully protecting Blair from The Tessuad is also making it harder for me to track on his well being. I can do it but it takes a lot of focus and it's the kind of thing that goes so much better with Blair by my side. So while I want to hear what this guy has to say, I want to do it as fast as possible.

Normally Sandburg would be in on this, normally he would insist, but he's so far from normal, I don't think he even knows that's an option. So far, he seems to think leaving everything to me is the way it's done. As much as that alarms me, right now, I'm grateful. I really want to know what Blair's facing and I'm not sure Blair would be able to accept anything the doctor has to say, anyway. "Detective Ellison, I'm going to be brutally honest here. I don't know what they did to your partner. The surgery involved a very small part of the brain. Frankly, It is most likely the reason for your friend's amnesia, although, if I were going to set out to try to cause memory loss, that's not the site I would pick. His blood work is clear, but we'd only be able to trace what he'd been given recently. You were correct about the bracelet, it was used to deliver electrical shocks. The curious thing is how precisely it was placed. The nerve pathway the electricity traveled led to the part of the brain that governs cognizance. Why you would want to do that is beyond me." "What would that do to him?"

"We don't exactly know...we could put it back on and trigger it to find out..." The guy's serious and if he weren't the best authority on this stuff, I'd ditch him for someone with a pulse.

"You won't be putting that thing back on Sandburg." He has the good sense to back up.

"I didn't think so. Our best conjecture is that it scrambled Mr. Sandburg's brains. He'd be conscious and responsive but not cognitive of what was going on around him. It looks like he's been wearing it at least a month. The infection started right where the conductor probe penetrated his skin. I'd like to schedule surgery tomorrow."

"Surgery? What does he need surgery for?"

"We need answers here and I can't get them from the outside of his brain, I need to get inside. I need to do some exploratory work." This guy sounds like Sandburg describing a 700-year-old dig. He's all excited what was taken and what was left behind and it ain't going to happen.

"No way, Doc. Sandburg has had enough trauma for a lifetime. There is no way he's going to have exploratory brain surgery on top of everything else."

"Detective Ellison, I commend your unwilliness to subject Mr. Sandburg to more pain but he may never recover if we don't know what they did to him."

Sandburg never recover? Nah, that couldn't happen. Then I think about that. I want the old Sandburg back, I want the guy I know I can always count on back. Those bastards went into his brain and crossed wires and maybe Dr. Graves can go in and uncross them. Sandburg would want to be back, I know that.

Then I think about the man with Rafe, the one that's had his life turned upside down and emptied out and I know I just can't add one more day of pain to his life. Maybe later....if all else fails, but not tomorrow.

"No, no surgery. We'll talk in a few weeks." I get up to go.

"I think you're making a mistake, Detective." Dr. Graves is using his best intimidation techniques, including peering at me over his bifocals.

"Yeah. I know what you think." I walk out the door and back to Sandburg.

As I get closer I can make out their conversation.

"Geez, kid, at this rate you'll lose all your lunch money on Poker Night."

"Poker Night?"

"Yeah, once a month a bunch of us get together and play poker, you included."

"Oh."

Walking in I see Blair studying his cards, a frown on his face. I go behind him and see what the problem is. I take his hand and rearrange it and hand it back. Sandburg looks at what I did and then beams me one of his smiles. He slaps his cards down and says, "Gin!"

Rafe throws his cards down in disgust and says, "Did you have to come in just then and play tutor? I was just on the verge." Rafe scowls and shakes his fist at me and before I know what is happening, Sandburg launches himself at Rafe. They land on the floor in a heap.

Rafe yells, "Hey, get off of me!" but makes no real move to use his strength against Blair. I reach down and pull Sandburg up. "What's going on, Chief?" Sandburg has pulled his IV out and his face is red, I'm not sure if it's from anger or exertion.

"He...he was-" Sandburg looks back and forth between Rafe and me. His head falls forward and he mumbles, "I guess he wasn't."

"Wasn't what, Chief?" Maybe he does need brain surgery.

"I thought he was going to hit you." He says this very softly.

"Rafe? Hit me? As if he could." I laugh, hoping to defuse the tension. Rafe looks stunned.

"I would never hit Jim. I might want to hit Jim, but I never would." Rafe's attempt to make light of it, fails.

"I'm sorry I doubted your ability to take care of yourself, Sentinel. I'm sorry I tried to hurt your friend." Sandburg still hasn't looked up and he's shaking again.

Sentinel? Where did that come from?

"Rafe's not mad, Chief." I motion Rafe to go, but Sandburg tunes in and looks around me.

"I'm sorry, Rafe." His voice quavers. Rafe sees his distress and comes over.

"It's okay, you always were kind of protective of Jim."

The shaking actually gets worse and I pull Blair into a hug. He lets me but doesn't return the hold. I pat him on the back. "Don't worry, Chief, it takes awhile to know who the good guys are after what you've been through." At those words, Sandburg's arms tighten around me a ferocity that threatens to crack a rib.

I tilt Blair's head up. His eyes are red from holding back tears. He looks ashamed and worried. He looks exhausted. "Come on, let's get you back into bed." I tuck him back in and replace the IV.

I decide I need to talk to the doctor. The sooner I can get Blair home, the better.
Jim brings me to his home, the loft. He calls it our home. Bl-the other guy liv
ed here with him. Their home. It's nice. It's the first home I can ever remember being in....the first one since I was thirteen, I imagine. This room reminds me of a nomad's tent. How I know what a nomad's tent would look like is beyond me, but that's what comes to mind as I take in the colorful material and artifacts. It's smaller than my room at The Center and cozy.

I'm sitting on the bed, listening to Jim cook. A Sentinel cook! He won't let me help, wants me to rest. So I'm sitting on the bed, listening, smelling. It smells wonderful. Have I ever smelled food cooking? I don't think so. It's always been the cafeteria or room service. Jim looks into my room and I jump up. "Why aren't you laying down, Chief?" "Lay down? In the middle of the day?"

"Yeah, lay down, rest. You just got out of the hospital." He stands there, waiting, spatula in hand.

"Oh-kay. I lie down on the bed. Jim comes over and actually fluffs a pillow and hands it to me. I take it and he seems satisfied when I put the pillow under my head. "I'll wake you up when it's ready."

What kind of Sentinel is he? A guide's welfare beyond function is of no concern. That's the drill, anyway. I never thought that was right. Not that I think a Sentinel should care about his guide, I'm not trying to say that, but really, if you thought about it, in a primitive setting, a Sentinel would be quite dependant on his guide. If he zoned on a snake's coloring, he'd be snake food. He really would need his guide up and running at all times. Not like now, where they use you and put you in a room until the next time. So you'd think that genetically speaking, a Sentinel would be programmed to care about guides.

Perhaps Jim is genetically more of a throwback. Or maybe he just likes Bl-I gotta find a way to refer to that guy without the spike of pain that comes every time. Let's try B.S. Sounds kind of mean, wonder if he got teased all the time about that. But no pain. B, I'll just say B. So maybe he just likes B. and this is how Jim treats the people he likes. That makes more sense than a Sentinel looking out for a guide. I mull over the genetic implications as I fall asleep. I've been at Jim's for two days. My arm is just about healed and I don't think I've ever felt this good. Or eaten this much. When I told Jim I could only eat one serving because I couldn't let my body's desires rule me, he made my one serving huge. I don't eat it all of course, but I can't get over how good the food is. Faced with all this fruit and vegetables that crunch (I didn't know they could do that) and ice cream...how could anyone choose the path of redemption? Oh, no, it's another test and of course, I'm failing it. I need to center myself in goodness. I'll never be able to go back if I don't get a handle on all these desires that have been awakened in me.

And I have to go back. Once they find the real B there will be no place for me here. Besides....I want to stop myself from thinking about this, as I've stopped myself for two days, but I can't. Jason will come for me. He'll come to take me back and to be retrained, or, if he's decided I'm a threat, he'll kill me. He'll kill Jim. I need to get back to The Center and convince them that Jim made a mistake and he's not their enemy.

Jim's at work and Joel is here. Jim hasn't left before but something came up and now Joel is on the couch, watching TV while I'm supposed to be sleeping. How am I going to get back? I don't know where they are. I don't have any money. I walk out of my room yawning. "Just have to use the bathroom." Joel nods at me and goes back to CNN. I go to the bathroom and on the way back, I snag the remote phone. I call directory assistance and ask for The Tessuad Nation. They aren't listed. I ask for The Center. They have a fitness center and a gardening center and a Zen center but not my Center. What am I going to do? If I stay, I'll get Jim killed. Okay maybe I can't get back but I can just leave. The more distance I put between me and Jim, the safer he'll be.

Peeking out to the living room, I can see that Joel has fallen asleep. I guess this it. No, first, I have to write a good-bye.

"Whadya mean he's gone?" I can't believe it, Sandburg walked out again. Okay, not again. Technically he didn't walk out the first time. But this time he did. Joel hands me the note he found.

Dear Jim, I have to go back. I (bunch of sentences crossed out) I'm not Bl (now the handwriting goes haywire and I know the pain hit because he tried to write his name.) I'm not your friend. I'm sorry, I really wish I was. You'll find him, I know you will and he'll be happy you didn't stop looking. Thank you for sharing your home with me. I don't think anyone's ever given me as much as you have. Please stay away from windows until I can get back and tell them you made a mistake. I'll always remember you. Eric

I knew Sandburg wasn't remembering but I badly miscalculated the hold The Nation had on him. I reread the note. He thought explaining I had made a mistake would save my life. We had debated telling Blair what had happened. The department psychologist had said to wait.

Fuck. I should have O.K.'d the brain surgery, I should have told Blair what had happened and all the proof we had. He'd been sleeping a lot and then so mystified, I hadn't wanted to confuse him more. And now my mystified and confused friend was out in Cascade, searching for a way back into the organization that had mind-fucked him in the first place. I call Simon and he immediately puts out an APB on Sandburg.

Sandburg is picked up the next morning. It was a long cold night to be wandering the streets of Cascade. He didn't know where he was or where he was going. When I go to the station to pick him up, he's at my desk. The sight of him releases a knot of tension and pain in my chest and I take my first real breath since Joel told me Blair had left. Simon has put his coat around him and Rhonda brought him tea. He looks miserable; cold, lost, confused. He has his hands cupped around the tea and he's hunched over it like it's a little campfire. I go to him and he looks up at me. There's fear and shame in his eyes. He doesn't say anything, just puts the cup down, stands up, and takes Simon's coat off. "What the hell did you think you were doing, Chief?" I yell, I don't mean to yell, in fact, I distinctly told myself I wasn't going to yell. I can't help myself, I yell.

Blair jerks back and then freezes. His eyes are wide and he stands there, mute. Mute! I want to shake him. I want to make him talk, explain, obfuscate, lie, anything...just be Blair. Before I quite know what he's doing, Blair has dropped to his knees and is reciting some of that mumbo jumbo from The Center. He's shaking and his head is down, I can only make out the words because of my hearing.

He's saying, "For the Good, By the Good, Lead me to the Good, I am not worthy, take away my sins. I am for your use, body, mind and soul, I am nothing except what you make me. Forgive me, and help make me worthy." He's saying it over and over again, faster and faster, until all the words are running together in a litany of gibberish. I pull him up and the look in his eyes makes it clear he expects no mercy.

"You think I'm going to punish you?" I can't help the hurt and anger that's in my voice.

"No. You will discipline me." And from the way he says that I can tell that that's worse.

"Oh. Chief." I wrap my arms around him. He holds himself still with an effort, small tremors still rack his body. He doesn't relax, just waits. I can't bear what all this means, what had to be done to him to bring him to this state. I cup the back of his head and bring it down on my shoulder. Simon has sent everyone off on tasks and I'm glad to have some privacy as I search for a way to make Blair understand.

"I'm not Chief." Blair's voice is muffled as he makes his declaration onto my shoulder. He stands contained, refusing the hug.

"Okay, what do you want me to call you?"

"My name is Eric." I squeeze him tighter. "But I to be honest, I want you to call me Chief." "Huh? Run that by me again."

"I like you calling me Chief, but I'm not Blair Sannn-ahhh!" Blair collapses in the circle of my arms from the pain. Even has he groans he's trying to say his name, "Sannndburg." He says it, but the cost is high. His eyes have rolled back in his head and the shaking has mutated into convulsions.

"Call 911! Get an ambulance."

I'm in my room, correction, I'm in Bl-air's room. There-I managed to think his name. I feel the familiar pain but it's a dull echo of what it's been. Jim brought me back from the hospital. I can hear him talking to Simon, but I can't make out the words. I don't know why I felt like I had to say Bla-Blair's name. It just felt like a wall I had to punch through and now that I have I can breath a little easier.

They ran tests and threw theories around and eventually they let me go. A hypnotist is coming this afternoon. Jim's idea. He's says it's my idea, from before. So it's Blai-r's idea. Almost got it all out in one word that time. I'm lying on my bed and trying to memorize everything. The way the light looks, the smell of the loft, the sound of Jim's low voice and Simon's rumble.

I'm going to ask for ice cream bef ore the hypnotist comes. One more time before I go back. It's a good idea, the hypnotist. Jim says he will be able to lead me back and I'll remember. I won't remember what Jim wants me to remember but maybe I'll remember how it was before the lightning. Maybe I'll be a better guide with my memory back, maybe I'll be happy at The Center, when I remember always being there. A lot of maybes.

The hypnotist is a woman. She knows Blair and seems happy to meet me. The process of getting hypnotized feels a lot like meditation and I sink into it easily. The session lasts for three hours and when it's done, she says I'll remember everything we talked about and I do. Miriam starts out trying to guide me to my life before the lightning. She asks about my childhood and growing up, who my friends were, my pets, my Mom. I tell her what I know but no memories come. There is nothing in my head about any of that except Ruth's voice, filled with contempt, as she recounts how I came to be at The Center.

Then Miriam takes me back to my life at The Center. I tell her about waking up from being hit by lightning and relearning the routines, the Doctrine, the way things were. She asks about everything, my room, my friends, my daily life, the visit with my mother.

When I describe that meeting I hear Jim exclaim, "Those bastards!" and Simon shush him. Miriam guides me back down and we resume. For some reason I remember my odd reaction to the word paperwork and I tell her that. She asks about Jason.

I could have told her all that stuff without being hypnotized. But then she pressed for details and I told her about the tank and my visit with Jim. She made me go back to my first encounter with Jim and talking about that made me remember my first dream...the one when I'm dead and my hair is long. She asked about other dreams and I remembered the one I had about the woman who wasn't my mom. I'd forgotten that. There are other things I'd forgotten. Like why Jason couldn't find me and Truesdale being allowed back in and the party that disappeared. We stop there.

Sandburg's been under for over three hours. He's pale and sweating. I want to bomb that place. I want to watch that twisted, cold prison burn to the ground, with all the twisted, cold people inside. All of them that had a hand in taking Sandburg and set out to break him down. That was bad enough but that they wrapped it in religion, in goodness, and service...and bent every idea he had about himself and his worth to their purpose...

No, I'd kill each one separately, some slowly...I shake myself out of my reverie. I know I'm indulging myself because what Blair is describing is too hard for me to hear. But I have to hear, I can't leave him alone with this. He's been alone too much as it is. The hardest part is the flat, accepting way Blair speaks of what they did to him. He has bought into the belief system of Guides being of little value. He believes that his life's purpose is to serve those rat bastards. He accepts their authority over his body and soul.

I have to get away from this. It's unbearable. Better they had broken every bone in his body. That would be straightforward and fixable. This...I can barely hear Blair in this recounting. Eric Kendall is living his life. I get up. Miriam and Simon look at me and I motion that I'm leaving. They don't like it but they don't want to interrupt the session to argue with me and I get out of there as fast as I can.

When I come out of being hypnotized, Jim is gone. I expected that but I feel a wave of desolation sweep through me anyway. I try and ward it off with a little Doctrine, but I can only get a few sentences out before I'm crying. Simon comes over to me and I rub at my eyes to stop the tears before he can yell at me for being such a baby. He sits down and pulls me into a hug and says, "Hey, it's okay, that was a long session. These things are very stressful." He pats my pack and I'm so shocked I stop crying. I wonder where they'll take me until they can send me back to The Center. Maybe the police station.

"I'm okay, now. We can go."

Simon and Miriam exchange a look. "Go where?" Simon isn't standing up.

"Wherever I need to go before The Tessuad comes and gets me."

"What? Blair..."

I feel a twinge at the name but no spike of pain. Simon stops talking after he says that name, realizing his mistake. "You all right? No terrible pains in your head?" Simon is confusing me.

"No, I'm okay, really, we can go."

"Blair, this is great. I can say your name." I've made Simon happy.

"No, you can say Blair's name, but I agree, I'm really glad that my head stays in one piece."

"You're name is Blair Sandburg, kid and we're going to prove it to you."

Oh, man, I wish that was true. If that was true, Jim would be here, but he's not. I guess he heard enough to finally convince him.

"Thanks, Simon, but there was nothing in that session that indicated that I was Blair and you know it." "Don't contradict me, young man." Simon is glowering and I back up. How could I forget and argue with him? I wait for him to force me to the ground and show me the wrongness of my being.

He looks at me puzzled. Maybe he expects me to drop down on my own. I go to my knees and wait. I feel his hand on my neck and try to accept what's coming. Instead of pain, he grabs the back of my collar and hauls me to my feet. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Oh no, I did it wrong, I wasn't fast enough, something, what? What does he want me to do?

"I'm s-sorry. I-I was...I didn't mean to contradict you-I..." Simon is still holding me by my shirt when Jim blows in and pulls me away from Simon.

"What's going on here?" Jim's got an arm around me. He sees me as his guide so of course he doesn't want anyone else to discipline me. I shut my eyes and just wait. They'll sort it out and then Jim will...discipline me himself. I wish it were Simon who was going to mete out my instruction. Jim has been so good to me, I hate that I've disappointed him and forced him to show me the true way. Oh, Kendall, why can't you ever get it right?

The voices calm down, they seemed to have hashed out what to do with me. Jim takes me to Blair's room and sits me down on the bed. I keep my eyes closed. I don't want to know which method of training he'll pick. I don't want to see the contempt in his eyes that I always saw in Jason's when he had to waste his time on me. I feel his hands on my shoulders, pushing me down on the bed. Panic surges through me, I don't recognize this form and laying down feels more vulnerable. I open my eyes, I must risk the contempt in order to prepare myself for what's coming.

Jim is gazing down at me. He doesn't look angry or scornful, just puzzled, maybe worried. Oh, he doesn't know what would work best. I'm tempted to tell him which one affects me the most...but he might think I'm trying to fool him into giving me the easiest and get angry.

He drops down to his knees beside the bed. "Chief, what's going on here? Your heart is in overdrive. You're shaking, are you in pain?" No, but I will be.

"What?" Jim puts his hand on my forehead. "What are you talking about? Are you getting a headache?" Oops, I guess I said that out loud.
"No, I'm fine, please, Could you..." I'm about to ask him to get on with it. God, Kendall, will you ever quit questioning the way things go? He will get to it when he wants to and if he wants to play the game Jason did at the beginning, then that is the game that will be played. He'll act concerned and I'm supposed to relax and then he will punish, uh, discipline me.

"I await your discipline." Maybe that'll get him back on track.

"Discipline? For what?" He needs to know I understand my failure. "For contradicting Simon."

Jim sits on the bed next to me and puts his head in his hands. He's realizing that not only am I not his friend, but I'm a lousy guide. "What am I going to do with you, Sandburg?"

Huh? Hasn't he accepted the obvious yet?

I risk telling him the truth again. I'm due for instruction anyway. "Didn't that session make it clear to you that I'm Eric Kendall?"

"Dammit, Blair! The hypnosis only proved what sadists they were in their determination to make you over into something they could control and use."

He puts a hand out and shakes me, "You are Blair Sandburg and I can prove it."

He pulls out some IDs "See, this is your police observer ID and this is your TA ID and this is a copy of your driver's license." I look at them. Okay, I knew I looked like Blair Sandburg. That doesn't make me Blair Sandburg. I shake my head and say as gently as I can, "I only look like him, Jim."

"NO!" I freeze. I did it again. Why can't I keep my mouth shut? But he has to know. To be quiet is to make him think I agree with him and he'll just be angrier when he finds out he's been wrong about me.

"You are Blair Sandburg. You were taken from this loft five and a half months ago. A terrorist organization that masquerades as a religion kidnapped you. The Tessuad Nation. They did brain surgery on you and brainwashed you. I'll run your fingerprints for you, I'll get your dental charts. I'll prove to you that you are you!"

He's shaking me and then he seems to realize he's shaking me and he stops. I don't know what to say. The Tessuad Nation, terrorists? Kidnapped? It seems absurd and impossible and yet some things, not yet spoken of, make more sense, and other things make no sense of all. I try and think about The Center and the people and the life...all false? I can feel little doors in my head slamming shut and the pain edging back in. Can it be? Don't think about it. But...DON'T THINK ABOUT IT! The voice in my head is emphatic and shrill and the pain is fierce now. I bite my lip and try to hold my breathing at a steady rate.

Just then Miriam sticks her head in the door and says, "Guys, I've got to go. Simon is having the tape transcribed and I think when you read it over there will be a lot of information to help sort this out. We need to schedule another session...the whole time with Jason has to be gone through. Tomorrow?"

Jim stands up and says, "Yeah, same time?"

"Sure, see you then." Jim escorts her to the door and I grab my head and press, trying to beat back the pain. Jim comes back and sees me. He leaves the room and I'm glad. He's seen enough of me moaning and being useless. To my surprise, he comes back with a wet washcloth and pushes me back into the bed. He wipes my face and then places the cloth on my forehead. "What's going on, Sandburg?" Sandburg? Not Chief? Not Blair?

"I think it's just an affect of the hypnosis. I'll be all right."

"You look beat. How about taking a nap before dinner?" I nod my head. Code for, I have things to do and need you out of my way. That's all right. I understand that. There's so much I don't understand and as I try and sort through the things Jim told me, the voice comes back: THERE IS ONLY PAIN DOWN THAT PATHWAY. DEATH. JIM DEAD. NAOMI DEAD. Naomi? TURN AWAY, NOW. As predicted the pain comes, that terrible feeling of shattered glass in my brain and then worse, the fear...Jim dead, Naomi dead; because of me, because I couldn't contain myself, couldn't submit. I must submit, accept, serve. The pain eases a little as I stop struggling to understand. I chant a little Doctrine and I fall into darkness.

I called Naomi. She's been in India and oblivious all this time. That was fine when we knew nothing but now I need her here. I need her to reconnect with Blair and bring him back. She was shocked and angry at being left out of the loop. She'll be hell to deal with when she gets here and I don't care. I'd take on 100 Naomis if they could take away this scared, religious refugee with Sandburg's face and bring me back the real Blair.

He expected me to hurt him. To deliberately hurt him-for contradicting Simon. I almost did hurt him, I was so pissed that he thought I would do that. Yeah, I know, that's like a oxymoron or something. I know it's not me, it's what those fucking rat bastards made him believe was right. But that he expects no better from me...it's like he doesn't know me at all---and I find the idea of not being known by Blair...painful. Lonely. What is it that Sandburg gave me in knowing me? I need to think about that.

Naomi won't be here for days, maybe even longer. It's a long haul from where she's at and the arrangements are tricky. Maybe by the time she gets here, her baby boy will be back with us.

I'm cooking stir-fry tonight, Sandburg is unfailingly excited by vegetables. Some things haven't changed. He's also enraptured with ice cream. It's the only thing he's gotten up the nerve to ask for. As with everything I offer him, he'll only take a little bit, believing that anything that is good is evil in quantity.

While I'm cooking the memory of Sandburg in a different time comes back, when the age old argument about how much thyme is too much thyme raged. "Jim, man, come on, if you put in fresh herbs you won't need as much salt." "I like salt, Chief, it provides an important mineral."

"What, they've discovered sodium is a mineral now?"

"Not sodium, iodine. I always get the kind that has iodine in it. You can't get iodine in you diet any other way." Sandburg groans. "No one needs the vast amounts of iodine you must have floating in your system." "I don't know, Chief, there's every possibility they'll discover that iodine promotes better prostates, or longer life...I may end up the oldest living guy still able to pee."

Sandburg rolls his eyes and adds the thyme with a liberal hand....

What if that Blair doesn't come back? I stop chopping vegetables. He is back, dammit, just not all the way. Ten days ago you have given anything to have him in his room, returned and safe. Now you're carping because after everything Blair's been through, he's not 100%. I check in with Blair with my senses, he's breathing indicates he's sleeping. The session zapped him, big time and I decide to slow dinner's progress, and let him sleep.

A few hours later, Blair is still sleeping. I go in to wake him for dinner. His eyes are open but his breathing and heartbeat indicate he's asleep. I gently nudge him but nothing changes. I shake him a little harder. Nothing, his eyes remain fixed and fear takes the place of complacence and impatience.

What the hell is happening? I debate calling 911. Blair's vitals are all strong...If this isn't physical they might shove him onto the psychiatric ward where I won't be allowed to go. He cannot be placed somewhere I can't go. That's totally unacceptable. I grab the phone and dial Miriam. Maybe this is an off shoot of the hypnosis.
Thank God, she answers right away and can come back. She's a licensed psychologist as well as a hypnotist so maybe she'll be able to assess Blair's condition. He's curled up and even I can tell it's close to fetal. I climb into his bed behind him and pull him to me. I arrange him so he's sideways, with his face on my chest. I tug at the blanket and get that over him. Blair stays tight in his defensive posture. Rubbing his arm, I try to call him back, using the tone that always works when Blair uses it.

It takes awhile but eventually he starts to relax, his hands unclench, his knees unbend. I feel the flutter of eyelashes as his eyes close. I hold him to me tightly, my irritation at what or who he isn't replaced by the fear of losing what's left.
My hearing picks up Miriam's progress to the loft. I place Blair on the pillow and go out to let her in. She's breathless from the rush to get back. "Where is he?"

"In his room." I lead the way and she looks in on him. He looks misleadingly peaceful in his sleep. We go into the living room and I describe the way I found Blair. Her head goes down, her long, dark hair hiding her thinking process from me. She tilts her head and looks at me accusingly. "What did you say to him?"

"All I did was tell him that he is Blair Sandburg and I would prove it to him."

"That's all?" Her arms are folded.

I think back. "I did tell him he was kidnapped."

"And?"

"And that The Tessuad Nation were really terrorists and the religion was a sham."

"He needs to know this, we almost lost him when he decided he should go back to them, Miriam."

"Yes, he's confused and yes, there is some danger to him because of his confusion but that's nothing compared to the danger of tripping over some of the mental landmines those people put in place. Which is what I think happened here." "Do you think I...that telling him...hurt him?" So much for the truth shall set you free.

"I don't know. I'm going to wake him and then we'll see what state he's in."

She bends over Blair and calls softly to him. She calls him Eric and I can't help but think that's a step backward. Blair opens his eyes and immediately leaps off the bed. He looks back and forth between Miriam and me and it takes him a moment to place her.

"Eric, are you all right?"

"His name is Blair." Miriam shoots me a glare and I shut my mouth. Even I can tell I'm not being helpful right now. Blair's hand is on his head but he says, "I'm all right. Is it time for Doctrine?"

I look at Miriam hoping she knows how to respond to that. "Eric, you aren't at The Center anymore. You're safe here. Can you tell me what Jim said to you?"

Blair looks at me, and then at Miriam. "He said I'm Bl---air S-s-sandburg," the effort to get his name out drains all color from his face, but he pushes forward, "and th-that he could pr-prove it."

"Anything else?"

"No." That answer, short and sure.

"Nothing about The Tessuad Nation?"

"No."

"Eric, I want

to hypnotize you again, would that be all right?" I hate the way she talks to him, like he's not all there and is breakable.

"Yes."

"Good, let's sit down in the living room."

This time Miriam takes him through the last few hours. When she asks him what I said, he repeats what he told us before. She switches tactics and takes him down a little deeper and then tells him he is safe and home and that I'm safe and home. Then she asks, "What did Jim say to Blair?"

"He told him The Tessuad were terrorists."

"And when he told him that, what happened?"

"The pain came and the voice."

"What did the voice say?"

"Not to think about that."

"And if he thought about it?"

Then-ahhh..." Blair's face contorts with anguish.

"What, Blair? What did they tell Eric?"

"They'll kill Jim. They'll kill Naomi. I can't-I must-AHHHH...." It's like the back door that Miriam opened by talking to Blair has been slammed shut. He covers his ears, as if he's trying to block out the voices in his head. Miriam places her hand on Blair and quickly brings him back out. He's panting, close to hyperventilating and Miriam goes down on the floor, next to the couch and strokes his hair, murmuring soft reassurances. Blair gets more and more agitated, looking around. When he sees me, he reaches out and I move to the end of the couch and open my arms to him. He is up and inside my hug in a minute and I hold on, murmuring my own reassurances.

"Hey, I'm here, you're here. It's okay. Blair?" I push him away a little so I can look him in the eye and say, "They aren't going to kill me. They aren't going to kill Naomi. You can remember who you are and everything will be all right." Blair searches my face, looking for, what? Truth? Strength? Conviction? What ever it is he's looking for he seems to find it because he releases his breath and resumes the hug. After a while, he pushes away from me on his own and asks, "Who's Naomi?"

What do I tell him? I look to Miriam and she nods. "She's your Mom."

"My Mom?" Sandburg tilts his head considering that piece of information. "Does she work for The Tessuad?" I laugh, "No."

"Where is she?"

"She was in India but she should be back here in a few days." I get an idea and run upstairs. I go through the stack of photographs from just before Blair entered the Academy and find one. I take to Blair. He squints at the photo of his mom and him. It's the one where Blair is explaining something with his extravagant gestures and Naomi is looking impossibly young and happy. She's laughing. Going into Blair's room I find his spare pair of glasses and hand them to him. Absently he puts them on and touches Naomi's face with his fingers.

"My Mom..." He says it half as a question, half in wonder. "I saw her in dream, once." He looks up at me. "I saw you in a dream, too. She never came to visit me though."

"She didn't know you were missing. She was working in an Ashram in India and we never told her...we'd hoped we'd have you back home, safe and sound before she was came back."

"She has to stay there." Blair's voice is flat.

"She's coming here to see you."

"No. She has to stay there. She's safe there." He walks over to the phone and hands it to me. "Call, tell her to stay there." "Naomi won't stay, Chief, she won't listen to me."

"She won't listen to you? You're a Sentinel. She has to listen to you!" I keep forgetting that Sandburg is still mentally a Tessuad. "It doesn't work like that in the real world. Naomi doesn't know I'm a Sentinel and even if she did, she wouldn't listen to me." "Would she listen to me?" I don't think he can believe anyone would listen to him, but he's desperate to keep Naomi away so he'll try. "Yeah, maybe, if you can convince you're all right."

We spend close to three hours on the phone, tracking Naomi down and convincing her to stay put. I hate to say it, but it really wasn't that hard, once we convinced her that Blair was all right. My theory is she loves her son, but mainly in the abstract.

Details are way too distracting when your aim is spiritual enlightenment.

Blair is relieved that she decides to stay in India. I watched him as he talked to her. At some level he remembers her, adores her. His face lights up as he listens to her voice. When he gets off the phone, I ask him what he remembers about her.

"I remember the dream I had about her."

"Anything else?"

Shakes his head no.

"Not even her voice?"

"No."

Blair sits back down on the couch, puts his head in his hands.

"Headache?"

"No...yes, pretty much always but no, I'm fine. What are we going to do Jim? They'll come after you. Jason will want to kill you because you're a Sentinel who took his guide."

"Yeah, territorial imperative, hard at work."

"He could come here at any time, be miles away, shoot you on the balcony, at the station." Blair's up and pacing. "It's what he does. It's what...."Blair's voice slows and drops off, "it's what we do. Oh, God. I helped him kill people. I killed people." Blair's eyes have no focus, as he seems to be taking in the enormity of what he just said.

I suspected something like this because of the high-powered rifle and the odd nature of their European itinerary. I step into Blair's unseeing path and grab a hold of him. "Blair, you were brainwashed. Whatever you did with Jason was not of your free will. Listen..." But Blair is not listening. He's sobbing on my shoulder and if I didn't have a firm hold on him, he'd be on the floor.

The sobs that shake his body continue for twenty minutes. The harshness of the ragged sounds tears at me. Blair's soul is breaking under the knowledge of his actions. I know how Blair reveres life, embraces it, loves it so, that he's spent his life studying the different ways cultures support it. To have his gift used for destruction is a desecration. Eventually, Blair finally simply runs out; of tears, energy and the will to process the horror of what he's done. It's the way he was used but he isn't ready to recognize the difference.

Pushing him into the bathroom, I have him sit on the top of the closed toilet lid. I wipe the tears from his face with a cold washcloth. His expression is lax, he's limp with exhaustion.

I can't imagine doing this to...the old Blair...the real Blair? That Blair could fight his own battles, wipe his own tears...this Blair had been so thoroughly co-opted that he has no place left to him to call his own, no sanctuary at all. I must be his sanctuary. His sanctuary, his will, and his Guide. Just until he retrieves those things for himself. Which he will. Soon. But in the meantime, The Tessuad Nation has damaged him enough. At least with me, he ought to be safe. I pull Blair to his feet, he comes without resistance. He's loose, as if all his tears have washed away the last of his ability to fight. I nudge him up the stairs. Blair is exhausted, I'm exhausted, and he's in no shape to be alone.

Cut the crap Ellison, you're in no shape to be alone. Listening to Blair cry churned up memories of the nights I lay in bed casting out my senses, hoping for a glimpse of Blair in all the noise that surrounded me. Never finding a trace. Trying to squash the panic I felt living in a world without Blair. I never cried. Ellisons don't cry, no matter how much it hurts, how deep the wound. It's as if Blair cried for both of us. I feel the way I felt, long ago, when mom was still with us and I was just Jimmy, not an Ellison. I cried then. Don't know about what, just remember I cried, mom was there and it felt like this afterward.

We're in no shape to be alone and there's no need to be alone. We have each other, it's time we made use of that. I get Blair into one of my flannel shirts and into bed. He lies there, his eyes open, watching as I take my clothes off. He looks dazed but his eyes track me. There is apprehension in him, I can feel it, but also acceptance.

Crawling into bed next to him and I mimic his pose. We lie there, side by side. Blair is waiting for me to do something, and from the tension he radiates, he expects it to hurt. I roll on my side and pull the blankets up.

"Hey Blair?" He turns his eyes to me but doesn't move his head. I put my hand on his chest. I can hear his heart beating, a steady thump, but I need to feel it. It feels deceptively strong and whole. No words come to me, or more accurately, no words that are of any use, come to me. Never found words to be helpful. Blair, on the other hand, works magic with them. I start to rock Blair with the hand on his chest. Just a gentle little back and forth. Movement, action...my forte. When I first put my hand on his chest, Blair tensed. When I start to rock him, he resists the momentum for a beat and then allows it.

After a while, I watch as his eyes close, his long lashes coming to rest on his pale face. His breathing deepens, and he sleeps. "I know you don't remember me, us, the way we were friends. But we were. And we are." I whisper these words between us, knowing he can't hear. That's all right. I can hear and it needed to be said. I fall asleep, my hand on Blair's heart.

Waking up to midmorning sun, I open my eyes to see Blair awake, watching me. "Hey Chief. How're you doing?" Blair thinks about that. "You're asking me how I'm doing?" He finally asks.

"Yes."

"You really want to know?"

"Yes." I bite back any other comments, afraid they will sidetrack Blair.

"I'm thirsty."

"Hungry too, I bet." I swing out of bed. "We skipped dinner. Let's get breakfast going."

As we come downstairs, I can hear Simon getting off the elevator.

"Simon's here." Blair goes into his room and shuts the door. I'm not sure if he's worried about yesterday or just getting dressed.

I open the door as Simon's hand prepares to knock. He looks unsurprised and walks in. "How's Sandburg today?" I remember that Blair's thirsty and pour a glass of juice as I tell Simon about the fallout from the session. I knock on Blair's door and when he opens it, I hand him the glass. "Come out when you're ready." I say, figuring he can interpret ready however he needs to.

Simon has the transcript from yesterday and starts in on the information that might help us. "I've released Jason's name and the photos from the airport to the FBI and Interpol. Sunjata was picked up three days ago but the FBI says she's given them nothing so far. They wanted to interview Sandburg and I told them they could have a copy of the transcripts but that he was in no shape to be interviewed yet."

"Thanks, Simon." I look over the transcripts. It's a little easier to read than to listen to but not much. Okay, what do we know? They needed Blair to guide Jason. They have a large complex, well staffed. Either they have more Sentinels that would supposedly need Guides, or the whole Guide program thing was a sham to gull Blair. They seem to thrive on blinds within blinds, but maybe I'm grasping at that, rather than the implication that this organization has more Sentinels.

Jason is an assassin, Douglas has done an impressive job of coming up with the names of people mysteriously taken ill and subsequently dying. This one small piece to comfort Blair with. Evidently Jason didn't do the actual killing. He merely pumped a tranquilizer dart into the victim and a team on the scene did the rest.

"I don't think we need to put Blair under hypnosis again. We have all the cities they landed in and we have a damn good guess what the agenda was. I don't want to cause Blair any more distress and I don't want him remembering guiding Jason through a kill. At least what Blair would think of as a kill."

"It's not your call, Jim. We don't know what Blair saw, who they met with, what kind of secrets they were careless with. Miriam's good, you saw that yesterday."

"You didn't see Blair afterwards, Simon."

"I heard about it from, Miriam. If this were only my call, I might go along with you on this, but it's not. If we don't do it, the feds will and I'd like to retain some control here."

Okay, Simon's right but Blair's not even ready for breakfast, let alone a revisit to the recent past. I push past Simon and get the coffee going, hoping the smell will lure Blair out.

I'm on my second cup when I give up on subtle and go to Blair's room. I knock and Blair opens the door. He's dressed and he doesn't look at me. "Blair? Come on, breakfast's on."

"Jim," he looks at me now and the emptiness I see in his eyes is everything I feared. "I...I don't know how you can even stand to have me in your home, after what I've done-"

I stop Blair right there. "You didn't kill anyone, Chief. Hell, we know now Jason didn't even kill them. He tranquilized them. That bracelet you wore?" Blair's head comes up. "It was a device that when triggered, gave you an electric shock. It disrupted the part of your brain that has to do with cognizance, The doctor says you wouldn't have had any awareness of what you were doing."

Blair's looks at me with disbelief. "No, We celebrated after each kill. I got drunk." Blair turns away in shame. "They were dead and we celebrated." Blair whispers. I move to Blair and put my hand on his shoulder.

"Do you remember drinking?"

"No, but I always woke up with a hangover the next day and Jason would kid me about how bad I was at holding my liquor."

"I think the hangover you woke up with was an aftereffect of the bracelet, Blair. The hypnosis session this afternoon will tell us more, I think. Chief, they stole you, they stole your life and then they used you for their purpose." Blair sinks to the bed. I sit down next to him. "This is really my bed?" I laugh, I wasn't expecting that question. "Yeah, Chief, this is your bed, your books, your clothes, your stuff."

His hand is smoothing the blanket and his eyes are wandering around the room. "I own this stuff?"

"Yeah, you own this stuff." The concept seems to be as hard for him to grasp as the idea that he's not Eric Kendall. "Did you buy it for me?"

"No, you came fully equipped. You're working on your Ph.D. in Anthropology. You're a teacher."

"Me? I know enough to teach?" His voice rises high with surprise. I ruffle his hair.

"Chief, sometimes I think you know just about everything. Come on, let's eat breakfast."

The hypnosis session is another long one. I want to bolt, more than once, but I make myself stay and listen to all the ways Jason misused Blair. It's an insidious routine of deprivation and pain. The worst part for Blair would have been the isolation.

Blair describes his sleeping sickness and the first "kills." Miriam carefully takes him through his protests to the killing and Jason's reaction to them. Blair has little recall of the entire time he was in Europe. The electrical shocks alone were disorientating and then the infection set in. Listening to him describe, in his flat, matter of fact way, being sick and left alone, killed me. It makes no sense.

Jason as a Sentinel, should have felt the need to keep his Guide safe and well. Yet he seemed to be able to turn off the internal directive to protect his Guide. My God, not only did he not protect, he actively inflicted pain. As Blair described the various ways he was disciplined my stomach clenched. I could see that both Miriam and Simon had an equally hard time hearing what Blair had been put through. Blair recites it all in a matter of fact tone that speaks volumes about the depth of the programming The Tessuad used on Blair.

Miriam starts the countdown to bring Blair back and I sit on the coffee table waiting for Blair to come back to me. Listening to Blair talking about being Jason's Guide makes me feel agitated and there's a rage building I recognize from the time with Alex. I can't let that out.

Blair opens his eyes on the count of five. He looks at me expectantly. "Was I as much trouble for you?" he asks me, and my mouth drops open.

"Trouble? Hell, no Sandburg. Annoying, making me take tests every time I turned around, and then there were the messes you made..."

Blair's face had brightened at "Hell, no", but now fell...I forget he doesn't understand teasing anymore. I transfer to the couch and sit next to him. "Blair, just about everything I know about being a Sentinel and how to maximize my senses, I know because you taught me." Blair looks down at his hands. "You heard what happened, what I was like. Maybe before the lightning I knew something, was good at something but now I'm a liability for a Sentinel. The only way I was any use at all was by Jason disciplining me. That's why he had to use the bracelet." I'm wondering if the brain surgery or all he's been through has damaged his IQ. Why can't he get this? Why can't he see what they did? "You? A liability? What're you talking about? The whole reason they bothered with all this was because you're the best. Jason, on the other hand, is the worst excuse for a Sentinel I can imagine." Blair looks shocked.

"Jason's a sixteen. There's no one with greater senses."

I know this is the Tessuad's PR drivel but it still gets to me. Blair's loyal to this monster. I've heard Blair explain his thinking on the bond that forms between Sentinel and Guide and I never paid very close attention. Something is or something isn't, why dissect it? Blair and I had that bond and I sometimes I chafed at it, but I also depended on it. Now Blair seems to have formed a bond with Jason and I wonder what that does to ours. Is there an ours? I wonder again, if I'd given Blair a choice, would he have come with me freely? The rage is pushing at me. I tamp it down. I cannot let myself go there.

I look over Blair's shoulder to Miriam and Simon. She's packing up the tape recorder and getting ready to go. "Blair, these were long, difficult sessions and you're going to feel pretty wasted for awhile. Take it easy and I'll be back in touch." Miriam gives Blair a smile and Simon walks her to the door.

"Okay, what the hell is a sixteen?" This is the first I've heard of numbers in association with Sentinel abilities. "Sentinel's abilities range from a three to a sixteen. Most Sentinel's fall in the range of four to six. So you can see, Jason is extraordinary." "You've never mentioned this before, so I'm betting this is some more Tessuad nonsense. They told you that to convince you this guy was good and worth following. Chief, you're the sixteen. He's a fucking zero."

"No," Blair protests, "you don't understand, maybe I told it wrong..." Blair's hands are fluttering around as he tries to find a way to express himself. I grab them and hold them still.

"Chief? Reality check time. They kidnapped you. You were never hit with lightning. They brainwashed you and created Eric Kendall. Jason is merely a decent marksman, not a Sentinel god. Got that?" I say the last a little too forcefully, my anger edging in. "You are Blair Sandburg. You're the leading authority on Sentinels and most likely the only true Guide, anywhere. You're my partner, my Guide and you have never, ever, needed to be hurt to know what to do as a Guide."

Blair stands there, his hands tangled in mine, his eyes lost.

"You don't believe me, Blair?" I say it softly but I can't fully hide the exasperation I feel.

He starts to fall to his knees in a pre-conditioned response to the tone in my voice, a tone he must have heard often. I keep him upright by hanging onto his hands. "Believe me, Blair. Please believe me."

Blair shakes his head, the war waging in there almost visible. "I know you wouldn't lie to me but how do I...I mean Jason said-and I am...I know, I don't know-" Blair's babbling goes on for a bit and finally runs out without a single coherent sentence being said. I still have a hold of his hands and I let go, feeling a tiny spasm of loss as we disconnect.

"It will take time to sort through, and when your memory comes back it will all be clear."

I'm surprised when Blair shakes his head. "Won't come back. I can't feel anything in there. The place where the memories live? It's empty, man. I've tried meditating and you saw how Miriam tried. There's nothing in there. That avenue to enlightenment has been cut off." Blair's babbling again, only coherently this time and it's actually more frightening. Blair must have picked up my fear because his eyes go wide. I put a hand up to stop the spiral that's begun.

"Shhh. First things first. You, nap. I'll sort through the transcripts and you and I will fashion a plan. After you nap." Blair stands and I give him a little push towards his room. He takes a step and I realize he's obeying me. Obeying me. For all the times I've wished he would obey me and stay in the truck, or keep behind me, Sandburg obeying me is not a good thing. Not now anyway. "Do you want to sleep?" Hesitation, then, "No." He watches me to gauge my reaction to his rebellion.

"Okay, you take the first twenty pages and do the notes and I'll do the next twenty." I put the papers in two piles and sit down at the table. Blair takes a chair, his eyes never leaving my face.

Two hours later I have a legal pad scribbled with questions and observations. I look over at Blair and he's outlined his notes three different ways. Timeline, facts that can be verified and propaganda. The propaganda outline is by far the longest and most detailed. I may not be the brain that Sandburg is but sometimes I'm fucking brilliant. Blair is tackling this like he tackles everything he studies. With his precise, analytical, academic brain that is still clearly intact. The Tessuad don't stand a chance.

 

It's been a week since we started to pull apart the knowledge stored in my head. The part of my brain that I glimpsed before seems to be happily in charge and I'm grateful. This part of my brain looks at everything I know and everything that was done to me with detached excitement. It sorts and categorizes The Tessuad Nation's hierarchy, values, purposes, and social structure. As that part of my brain does its thing, another part of my brain has started to unravel each dangling thread, seeing the tactics that were used to keep me contained and off balance.

The upshot of this is that my body seems to have decided to relive its time away also. I'll be studying some of the reports Douglas has come up with and all of a sudden, my back will spasm and I feel caught. Paralyzed by the pain and an awareness of fear, I sit at the table, telling myself to breathe, to relax. I watch as the sweat drips off my forehead and splats on the reports and I wait. I waited like this before. Waited in pain for the pain to stop. Waited in pain for the pain to get worse. While voices droned, so low I never did made out a single word I could latch onto. I tried. I wanted something that would tell me why, something to fill my empty mind. There was nothing in there except memories of pain like this.

Sometimes the cramp would ease and I could breathe and think and get on with the work. Sometimes Jim would come in and see the problem and put his hand on the muscles that were twitching and freezing up. His hand would connect and I could feel the energy from it, energy and heat spreading across my back. I would close my eyes and imagine this sensation in the middle of that terrible emptiness. The muscles unclench and I can go back to studying. At night, predictably, nightmares come. Doors opened during the day are now wide open for the demons to use and they do. The first few nights I wake with Jim cradling me, calling for me to come back. After that I slept in Jim's bed and still woke cradled in his arms but at least he didn't have to make the dash downstairs.

Still can't get over that. Jim's willingness to touch me and have me close to him. Still find myself sidling away, worried that I will irritate him by my proximity. He just follows me until we are once again together.

The nightmares provide a few more clues. Jim's given me a hand held tape recorder and I use it, once the shaking has stopped, to record everything I can remember. One could almost say we have a routine.

I wake up with Jim's voice in my ear, reassuring me, pulling me away from the hands that seem to only want to hurt, to his hands that anchor me to his chest. Jim's taken to keeping a washcloth at hand as well as a glass of water and when he ascertains I'm awake he wipes the sweat away and hands me the glass of water. Then I recount everything I can remember. A lot of it is repetitious, the same images over and over again, but every once in awhile, there is a new snippet, a face, a name. We seize on those, collating it into the information we already have.

Today I'm going to the station. Jim assures me everyone wants to see me, but I find that hard to imagine. The trip there is spent studying the route we take, knowing I've been in this truck, on my way to the station, many times. Not one building or intersection seems familiar and you would think I would get used to that. I have not gotten used to it, still feel little fear tendrils, as once again, there is nothing to hold me in place.

The station is filled with people, most of whom seem to know Blair, er, me. They smile and I keep finding myself bumping into Jim's chest as I back away from their outstretched hands.

They pat me and say "Welcome Home" and I can't believe I know so many people. Eventually we get to Simon's office and as soon as we enter, my knees buckle and I go down. I hear Jim shout, "Blair!" and I want to reassure him but I feel like I'm falling down Alice's rabbit hole...or perhaps a different kind of passage, as it almost feels like being born. I remember this room.

"I remember this room." I finally say. Jim has pulled me into his arms and his face lights up with a smile. "That's great. What else do you remember?" Good question. Even remembering the room is not exactly a memory, more of a feeling, a recognition.

"I don't remember anything really, but I know this room. Why? Why do I know Simon's office? Why not the loft?" I feel kinda bad about that. Seems like the loft would hold more of my memories. Jim helps me off the floor and I take a chair.

"I'm not surprised it's my office you remember, Sandburg. After all, I'm your Captain." I look at Jim. Is Simon my boss? I stand up. Simon hadn't seemed mad that I sat in his presence, but if he's the authority here then I was way out of line. Jim looks up at me and tugs at my sleeve.

"I'm sorry I sat and," I gesture to the floor, "fell, and I don't know how to address you."

Simon, what do I call him? Looks at like I've grown a second head.

"You call me Simon, you should call me Captain Banks. And sit down, Sandburg." I've annoyed him and I hesitate to sit down but he glares at gestures at me with his cigar.

"Down."

"Okay, C-Captain Banks." I sit.

"Okay, the Feds have called a meeting for later today to consolidate our information. You brought the files? Good. I want you to bring Taggert, Brown and Rafe, up to date. Use interrogation room 3. I'll check in with you later." He waves his cigar again and orchestrates our departure.

The meeting with the FBI goes well and it astonishes just how much information there is. Looking at the pile of folders, I feel queasy. The room seems smaller, the air less oxygenated, the stacks of paper more ominous. I excuse myself and leave, making for the bathroom. Jim is right behind me and pushes the door open. "What is it? What's going on?" I get the water running cold and throw it on my face. "I'm okay, it just got a little claustrophobic in there."

"No." Jim stares at me in the mirror. "No, that's not it. I feel it too, and that's not it." He starts to pace and I wonder if he is feeling what I'm feeling. If he is, it affects him differently. He's antsy and nervous, the energy pouring off him in aggressive waves. I can barely stay standing, it feels like I'm drowning and one serious wave could take me out and take me down.

Jim notices that I guess because he stops his pacing and comes over. He studies my face in the mirror and then puts an arm around me, hugging me to his chest. It's much like waking from a nightmare but this time I can see Jim's face. There's so many emotions crossing it; worry, fear, love? Have I ever seen love? Would I know it? And a look I think might be possessiveness. The last one I do recognize, I saw it on Jason's face often enough. In Jason that emotion seemed to trigger a need to exercise control. To contain, repress, and discipline me. To hurt me and make clear to me my utter dependence on him. Thinking of all that, I instinctively jerk in Jim's arms. Jim just tightens his hold and puts his chin on my head. "It's all right, Blair."

Did he read my mind? I relax back against him and soak in the comfort he's offering. "Time for us to head home. They'll finish up and get us the final conclusions. Let's go."

That night, as Jim showers, I do my own pacing. I have to be ready. I think about Jason and what I know. In the morning, I gather the things that I might need and put them in my coat pockets.

We're scheduled to meet with Agents Kulig and Batten at the courthouse today. Jim's usual laid- back calm is gone. He's hyper-alert and the energy crackles around him as he gets ready. I keep my distance, knowing how everything is grating his nerves right now.

When we finally head out the rain is dense and cold and even the short dash to the truck leaves us soaked. The ride to the courthouse is made in silence, the heat pouring out yet barely putting a dent in the chill. Jim looks sideways at me. It's hard to tell what he's thinking. I know it's times like this that he wishes he had the old/real Blair back. I know from the all the evidence he's laid out for me, that I am Blair Sandburg. But I know from all the empty corners in my mind, that Blair is gone. I might as well be a stranger with his face.

As we approach the intersection near the courthouse it happens. A car runs a red light and smashes into the truck, sending us spinning into the oncoming traffic. Luckily the cars all able to swerve, but the Chevy maintains its speed, ramming us into a light post. Jim's head hits the steering wheel and his door buckles in from the impact with the post. I'm jerked in my seat belt with enough force to knock the wind out of me and leave bruises, but I stay conscious. I'm reaching over to check on Jim when my door is yanked open. Jason stands there, smiling. "Come on Eric, we have to hurry." He grabs my wrist with one hand and reaches over and undoes my seatbelt with the other. I look to Jim, he's dazed but coming to. He's in no shape to take on Jason and maybe, if I'm lucky, Jason will just take me and leave Jim alone. I go with Jason.

When I come to, I realize what deep trouble we're in. Blair's gone and I'm trapped in the truck. I was conscious enough to hear Jason's voice ordering Blair out of the truck and Blair going without protest. I try and sense which way they went but there's nothing. The seat belt is jammed and I'm helpless to follow them, even if I knew which way to go. A man leans in the door and assesses the situation. "I'll have you out of there in just a minute."

He climbs in the truck and tries to get the seat belt undone. He can't and he pulls out a knife and cuts through the strap that has me pinned. He helps me get out the passenger side. As soon as my feet hit the ground, I feel a whoosh of air. I turn and try and deflect the blow but the gun catches me on the side of my head. I'm stunned, he has an easy target for the next blow, and then I'm falling.

Jason shoves me into a waiting car. As soon as he gets in the backseat, he takes my chin in his hand and squeezes hard.

"Miss me, Eric?' He forces my head to go up and down in affirmation.

"Forgotten all you've been taught?" I try and shake my head no, but he holds my head still.

"I can see in your eyes how much you've forgotten. Given the faulty nature of your brain and what it takes to get through to you, that's a shame. We do have our work cut out for us, don't we, Eric?" He forces my head up and down again.

He's squeezing so hard, I'm afraid he'll shatter my jaw. He lets go and shoves me back against the seat.

"I'm afraid you may no longer be one of us. Until I can tell just how far the devil has gotten with you, I'm going to take some precautions." He pulls out handcuffs, only they are more like shackles, and snaps them on my wrists. They close with a sound of finality. He attaches the shackles to a chain embedded in the seat in front of me.

"There, relax, you're safely back with me and Ellison won't be able to kidnap you again." Jason leans back and closes his eyes. We're on the freeway and we'll be out of the city soon. I want to look back, I need to look back, but the shackles keep me facing forward. I realize that to look back is to give Jason more information than I want to. The less I allow my attachments to show, the safer Jim and everyone else will be. Once beyond the city limits, the car picked up speed. Jason seemed to be asleep and we were on our way back. Back. Oh, God, back.

 

I've been back at The Center for three days now. The general take seems to be I was kidnapped by Jim Ellison, and they're happy to have me back. I've been put back in the isolation room under the care of Mr. Smith. The routine is the same, hours of kneeling and reciting The Doctrine. I'm just glad I'm dry and that Jim's back in Cascade, safe. Jason ignores me, as he has since he we left Cascade. Of course, even before I deserted him he was angry with me, so in some ways not much has changed.

I'm trying to center myself and accept that I'm here and here to stay. I don't think Jim will find me this time. I haven't encountered him in my dreams and although I would do just about anything to see Jim again and get to say good-bye, the one thing I can do for him is to push him out of mind. I know Sentinels have no special mental abilities...no ESP, no telepathy and no mind reading-but it's uncanny how Jason can tell when I want something. I know he knows what I want, because he always makes sure I don't get it.

As a life lesson in the religion of the Tessuad, it couldn't be taught better. I have come a long way in training myself not to want, not to allow myself to desire. A long way but not all the way and living in Cascade has eroded so much of my progress. Even little things are much harder to accept. The chain that holds me in place. The lack of conversation and touch. The nightly purification ritual. That last one is not so little.

I guess I used to be a lot purer, because I never had to go through this before. Each night Mr. Smith comes in. The first night he cuts my hair. It'd gotten quite long, more like the Blair I saw in the photos. Mr. Smith must've been irritated about that, because he used a razor and sort of hacked away, cutting me a few times in the process. I don't know what it looks like, but it feels funny.

The next day is a day of fast. Because of the purification ritual, one day turns into two.

On the third day he leads me to a shower room I'd never seem before and makes me strip. He takes the chain the shackles were attached to and attaches that to a link in the wall. He hoses me down. The water's cold and it doesn't seem like it will ever end. Mr. Smith shuts the water off and starts to wash me. The cake of soap smells awful and Mr. Smith uses it everywhere. I'm embarrassed. This guy has his hands all over me, rubbing soap in the most private of places. Mr. Smith doesn't seem to think anything of it. He bends me this way and that, kicking my legs apart so he can gain access to everything. After awhile it hurts. I feel like I've been rubbed raw and I'm so cold the chain is rattling with my shivers. I have to be clean by now, but he doesn't stop. He washes my hair with the soap and it stings as it gets into the cuts and into my eyes.

I know I'm going to be away from Jason for awhile. There's no way they would use soap that smelled this bad if I was going to be with a Sentinel and his sensitive nose. Finally, the washing stops. Then the rinsing begins. Mr. Smith sluices the soap off and makes me bend over, rinsing the soap out of my hair. The water just keeps coming and I'm having a hard time breathing. I'm starting to inhale water and cough and sputter, when Mr. Smith turns it off. I stand there, naked and cold, the water dripping off me. Mr. Smith shoves my clothes at me and tells me to get dressed. It's almost impossible to get the jeans on over my damp legs but eventually I manage. Mr. Smith comes over and unlocks the shackles so I can put my shirt on and then puts them back. He leads me barefooted, back to the room. I can no longer kneel for more than a half hour at a time. Sometimes, I come to and Mr. Smith is yanking me back into place. Sometimes, I come to on my own and manage to get back on my knees. Since the shower, my throat is sore and The Doctrine comes out as a croak. It sounds awful and I tried to apologize to Mr. Smith for spoiling the beauty of The Doctrine with such sounds. He ignores me and puts lunch in place. It's a sandwich and milk. I long for some soup or tea, but I guess warm food and purification don't go together. I try to eat the sandwich, but it hurts too much to swallow, so I flush it away and drink the milk.

On the fourth day, Ruth comes in. I kneel before her and she leads me through Doctrine and then asks me questions. They are questions about faith and duty, and I remember all the right answers. Jim's voice keeps trying to intrude, to tell me how bogus all this is. I have to keep telling that voice to hush up. I know this is all a sham. But Eric needs to believe. He has a part to play and he won't be able to do it if Jim doesn't shut up. As the week goes on, the voice quiets down to a whisper and I'm glad. I need to concentrate, I need to get this right. The voice, dear as it is, is throwing me off.

On the fifth day, I try and rise for Doctrine and fall back into bed. My throat is on fire. The good news is, I'm warm. Warm for the first time since the shower. The bad news is, I can't seem to coordinate my legs to get me off the bed, let alone kneel. Mr. Smith is going to walk in and find me on the bed and think I'm slacking off. He'll doubt my sincerity. He'll question whether the purification has worked and we'll have to start all over. Worse, he'll believe I'm incapable of being purified.

I roll onto the floor. That's marginally better than being found on the bed. I lie there, trying to force the strength into my arms and legs. If I don't do this, they won't believe, and they'll have more reason to hate Jim, more reason to go after him. I push myself up and get on my knees. I sway there as if I'm kneeling in a strong wind. I whisper The Doctrine, my voice is gone.

I wake up in the clinic. I don't remember coming here. I'm in a bed, the shackles are gone. My throat aches and I'm back to being cold. I try to curl up, to conserve heat. I hear the door open and someone comes in.

It's Jim. He's looking down at me. "Jim." I manage to croak.

"Come on, Blair, we have to get out of here." I look up at him sleepily. It's so nice to see his face.

He nudges me. "Blair, come on, you want to go, don't you?" He looks worried.

"No, Jim, you go on without me. I'm staying here."

"WHAT?" Jim's face flushes with anger and I try and retreat in my bed. He pulls my blanket down but I catch his hand and stop him.

"Jason is my Sentinel. I'm where I belong. I know you need me, but I'm home now and I'm going to stay." I whisper all that and Jim leans in to listen.

"I can't believe you, Sandburg! I risk my butt to get you out and you say you want to stay? What about home? What about being an Anthropology professor? How can you give all that up?"

"It's not who I am. I'm Tessuad. I serve The Good." I can barely get the last sentence out. Jim throws up his hands. He jabs his finger at me to emphasize his words.

"Fine. You stay. Don't come crawling back to me. You made your bed and goddamn it, you're going to lie in it." He turns around and walks out the door without looking back.

I sigh, Damn, that was hard. Hard to say those words. I smile a little to myself. A Sentinel that has to lean in to catch a whisper? Please. And the voice was close, but off. I hope that little by-play satisfies all of them.

I sleep and wake and sleep some more. Sometimes when I'm awake, a nurse gives me something to drink. She doesn't say anything to me and I can't help but remember waking up in Cascade with Jim hovering. I bite that memory back. I can't allow myself to live both lives. I am no more Blair now than I was when I first woke up after the lightning. I am Eric Kendall and this is my life now.

Fuck! I can't believe how easily we were taken. I knew something was up, I knew Jason was in my city. All they had to do was go fishing and pluck us out of the pond called Cascade. I imagine it did Jason's ego a world of good to take Blair back so easily. Blair. I'm listening to him sleep.

The Tessuad have an almost childlike faith in white noise generators. They've kept me in this room from the time I got here. I can tell it's a large complex, with at least a few hundred people in it. It took me awhile to track down Blair's heartbeat. I fought the panic that hit me when I couldn't find it right away. I kept at it, using Blair's voice in my head to guide me through the different floors and all the possible heartbeats. Eventually I find it and I can hear Blair. I can't believe I'm happy to hear him reciting The Doctrine. His voice is low and I can hear the weariness in it. I have nothing better to do so I listen, enjoying radio-free Blair. Every once in awhile, Blair stops and a hear a thud. I wonder why he keeps dropping books. He always comes back to The Doctrine.

That sets a pattern and each day I wake, waiting to hear the drill. I can now recite right along with him, but I don't. No sense letting on the range of my hearing. I never hear conversation, just some guy giving orders. I can hear that Blair is chained. I hear as they butcher his hair, Blair's little gasps testifying to the ruthlessness.

On the third day I hear Blair taken out of his room. I can tell by the echo that Blair's being taken in to a washroom,. I hear the chains and Blair's clothes come off and then the chains back on. Blair's taking a shower. It goes on and on and on. I can hear Blair's breathing change and his heart rate jacks up. He's afraid. He doesn't say anything, he doesn't protest, but he can't breathe very well. I'm on the edge of my bed, willing breath into his body, when the water stops and he catches his breathe. I can hear his teeth chattering as he walks back to his room.

The next day I hear a woman. She says The Doctrine with Blair and then quizzes him. He seems to tell them what her what she wants to hear. I can't believe the crap she's laying out and Sandburg goes right along with it. Have they done something more to his brain? Have we lost all the ground we had gained? Come on Chief, don't listen to this. The shower's having lasting effects. Blair never really stops shivering, his teeth clicking together in a rigid staccato. I think he sleeps, but even then I swear, I can almost hear his bones rattling. One morning I hear him fall out of bed. He lies there for awhile and then gets up. I hear him whispering The Doctrine. It's not even time yet. His voice cuts in and out, like radio with bad reception and then cuts out all together. I hear him fall again and then silence. I want to shout at them to get help for Blair. It seems like hours but finally someone goes in and checks on him. I hear the gurney and know he's being taken care of.

I lie down on the bed, I'm wet with sweat and the tension makes me feel like I lived a year waiting for them to find Blair. They don't seem to be observing me. I can't detect any cameras or listening devices. They seem to have no interest in me at all. They bring in food three times a day, set it down, pick up the last meal and leave. Never any questions, never any answers. I don't know how long this will last. If they don't have any use for me, they won't keep me around for long. I fall asleep pondering different possible ways out.

Waking up, I hear Blair's voice. He's saying, "Jim." I look around my room wildly, wondering if Blair has found a way in or a way to meet in the way we used to. He's not here and I realize I'm hearing him in the clinic.

I hear a voice say, "Come on, Blair, we have to get out of here."

There's no answer. Then, "Blair, come on, you want to go, don't you?"

I wait to hear Blair's response.

Blair finally speaks, his voice, thick with drugs and sleep. "No, Jim, you go on without me. I'm staying here."

The other voice echoes my surprise. "WHAT?"

Blair whispers. I have to focus hard to catch what he's saying. "Jason is my Sentinel. I'm where I belong. I know you need me, but I'm home now and I'm going to stay."

He's home? This place is home? And he wants to stay?

"I can't believe you, Sandburg! I risk my butt to get you out and you say you want to stay? What about home? What about being an Anthropologist? How can you give all that up?" The voice is asking the very questions I want answers to and I wait to hear what Blair will say.

"It's not who I am. I'm Tessuad. I serve The Good." Blair rasps the words out, his voice sure, even in its weakness. "Fine. You stay. Don't come crawling back to me. You made your bed and goddamn it, you're going to lie in it." Who is this guy? Uh, Blair started by calling him Jim. So some sort of sick test to see if Blair is loyal. And evidently Blair is. I feel a painful squeezing in my chest. Blair, given a choice, has decided to stay here.

Every which way my mind turns there's pain. That Blair has bonded in such a way with Jason that he would stay here, being hurt, believing the horse manure they call a religion...That everything he and I had before...and had a beginning of again, has no value to him...that he'll go and help Jason assassinate people... Once again I find myself asking, who is this person? How could the real Blair be so buried? If I ever did find a way out, Blair would refuse me. But if I do find a way out, how can I leave Blair behind?

Leaving the clinic, I'm taken back to my old room. I guess I'm acceptably pure, pure enough to leave the attentions of Mr. Smith anyway. I'm still shaky from-I don't know what I had, no one told me. I shuffle over to the bed, needing to lie down, but remember just in time that isn't allowed. I sit down on the chair and put my head down on the desk. Everything happened so fast, I haven't had any time to think beyond taking the danger as far away from Jim as I could. What am I going to do? There isn't even the illusion that this life has purpose. I cannot go with Jason and help him kill people. I shudder at the thought of Jason and being back under his command. I have to find a way out. I know what that means.

Opening my eyes, I see Jim. Dream Jim? Fake Jim? Real Jim? He's leaning against the door and he's angry. Fake Jim. Though he sees I'm awake, he doesn't say anything. I figure I should play along. I lift up my head and say, "Why are you still here? It's dangerous for you." "It's more dangerous for you, Chief." Chief, oh, not fake Jim. Wait. Oh God, no. I jump up.

"You're not really here, are you? Tell me you're in Cascade." I walk over to him, to touch and can't. What a relief. Dream Jim.

"Sit down Sandburg, before you fall down." Dream Jim and he's really ticked with me. I fall back in the chair, when what I really want to do is crawl under the bed. I fight the stupid tears. Dream/Real Jim's anger leaves me stripped of the little piece of comfort I had held onto.

"First off, I am here. I'm down two floors and on the other side of this building. They took me when they got you." I cry out at that news. My worst fear. And nothing I did prevented it.

"Are you all right, did they hurt you? You haven't been with Mr. Smith have you?" I look him over, but he seems unscathed.

"I'm fine, they leave me alone. I don't know why they grabbed me, they don't seem to have plans for me." Jim walks around the room. "So, enjoying being Eric Kendall again?"

I don't know what to say, or even what he's asking. This is a Jim I've never seen before. Maybe I have hallucinated Nightmare Jim.

"N-n-nooo." I watch Jim as he stalks around the room. He's not looking at me. "We have to get you away from here, Jim."

"What about you, Sandburg?" The way he says Sandburg...was I wrong? Did he ever like Blair Sandburg? Why has he bothered with me, with tracking down Blair, when he seems to hold such hostility toward me? I remember all the nights I woke from a nightmare with Jim's arm around me, shushing me, calming me. Never did he seem angry that I'd interrupted another's night sleep. He must be mad that because of me, he was taken. Yeah, that would make anyone angry. I don't think an apology will dent that.

"You said yourself, they don't seem to have plans for you. Without me, you'd have a better chance to get away." "So you'll stay to give me a better chance?" There's a definite sneer in his voice.

Does he think I wouldn't be willing to do that? "Yes. I don't have your skills. Trying to get me out would only slow you down." "You are so full of it, Sandburg. You don't want to leave. You like being a Tessuad and living in fancy hotel suites. You want to be Jason's Guide. Probably can't wait to be reunited with that little prick."

I must've looked like the picture of stupidity at that moment, with my mouth hanging open and my hands reaching out. Mr. Spencer stood in the doorway, staring at me like I was mentally defective. Jim was gone from the room. "Eric, it's time for you to go before the Council." He gestures for me to go ahead of him and I do.

I've never been before the Council before. I've never heard of any guide being summoned there. We enter a large conference room. There are six men sitting around the table. Mr. Spencer places me in front of them and then leaves the room.

"Mr. Kendall, do you know why you've been called before us?" The man at the other end of the table is addressing me. "No, sir."

"You are a guide of the Nation. You are Jason's guide. Yet you left him injured, and went with a non-believer. Why is that?" He asks as if he is merely curious, while I know they have Jim somewhere in this place.

What to say that will make them more likely to let him go?

"There had been an accident. I was not fully conscious when he took me. I never would have left, never. Jim, the man who took me-" "The Sentinel that took you." The head guy interrupts to make it clear they know who and what they are talking about.

"Yes, the Sentinel, he...he thought I was his friend, he was confused, he confused me with his friend. It was just a mistake."

The man who leads the Council taps his fingers together, considering. "Who does he think you are?"

"He thinks I'm Blai-" I scream and fall to the floor, rolling my eyes to the top of my head. I listen to the commotion I'm causing and hope I can pull this off.
They take me back to my room and leave me, convinced I'm having the seizure they programmed. I lie there, knowing they'll back, wanting reassurance beyond my little performance. It takes about a half hour and then Mr. Spencer is back. I remember the way it felt when it happened before and so I make a great show of being wobbly and shaking. He takes me back to the room, all is the same.

"Feeling better, Mr. Kendall?"

I let my eyes stay unfocused and sway on my feet. "Yes, thank you, sir. I apologize for my-" I gesture to the floor, trying to convey embarrassment.

"That's quite all right, Mr. Kendall. Now, about Mr. Ellison and his ideas about your identity. Were you able to convince him he was wrong?"

Careful. "I tried. I think he was starting to have some doubts." What's the right answer? What will set Jim free? "And you, did you have doubts?"

"About?"

"Your identity."

"No, sir. It was confusing. I didn't understand, I still don't, but I always knew I was Eric Kendall."

"Good. I'm glad this little-adventure-didn't hurt your faith or your awareness of your duty."

"No sir, I'm very glad to be back and able to serve The Good."

"Jason is on leave right now. He'll be back in two weeks. During this time you will be retrained."

My shaking is for real and I swallow the bile that rises up in my throat.

"Do you understand?" He's looking at me, no doubt noting my reaction.

"Yes, sir. Thank you for giving me another chance." I bow my head in submission.

Mr. Spencer steps in close to me and ushers me out. I'm taken back, not to my room, but to the other room. My steps drag and falter the closer we get and Mr. Spencer pokes me in the back to get me to pick up speed.

I listen to Sandburg speaking to someone. The Council. Sandburg doesn't let on he knows I'm here. He says he would never have left Jason. My jaw tightens at that, enough to send a spike of pain and I force myself to relax and listen. They ask who I thought he was and I can hear Sandburg start to say his name, when he screams and I hear him fall. He was past that! What happened? Did they go in and muck with his brain again? I have to go and lay into him, nice work, Ellison. I listen, his heart beat is fine. A half-hour later the same voice from before is asking Blair if he feels better.

Blair says he never doubted he was Eric Kendall. Is that his answer in response to what they've done to him since he's been back, or can that be true?

When they tell Blair he is to be retrained, his heart starts to speed up. I hear his voice, shaky, say he's grateful for another chance. I hate Eric Kendall. He has my Guide locked up inside him and I want him back. I pace the room. It's a lot like the room Blair is in. I have to figure a way out of here, for me and for Blair. I don't care if I have to drag him out, kicking and screaming, he's coming with me. I pace for hours, gradually calming down. I need to act soon, there's no telling what they will decide to do with me or how much they will damage Sandburg's brain. I need that brain, I love that brain and I don't want The Tessuad messing with it any more than they already have.

Mr. Smith is in a rare mood. He's angry and that can't be good. Mr. Spencer left me Mr. Smith's office. The first thing Mr. Smith did was reattach the shackles.

"I don't know what I'm going to do with you boy. I have tried to be gentle. I have tried to kind. If those things worked with you, you wouldn't be here now, would you?"

I keep my head down.

"WOULD YOU?" He yells right in my face and I jump back and nod my head. "Look at me when I talk to you!" I look at him and wish I could back up some more.

"I know what doesn't work with you and now I'm going to figure out what does."

The look in his eyes threatens to make me wet my pants. It's as if he'd been leashed before and now he's torn free.

I realize after my pacing that I've lost track of Blair's heartbeat. When he thanked those bastards for another chance, I deliberately cut off my connection to Blair. I cast about, he's not in his room. It takes me a long time to find it and when I do I realize it's because it's so different. His heart's racing, skipping occasionally. He's under some serious stress. He gave them the answers they wanted, what now? I'm the one who has a right to put him under stress. I'm the one he refused, denied, rejected.

There are no voices and it's hard for me to hold on to the sound. Farther away than before? I switch focus and start doing what I should have been doing a lot more of, listening to every conversation until I find one that can help. I've listened to them on and off for the week I've been here. For the most part they are amazingly routine. What's for dinner, did you see the movie on TV last night, who won the football betting pool? Hard to believe these people are terrorists. No bomb making discussions, no fervent discussions of political systems, no bad foreign accents hissing instructions to someone.

I scan for a few hours and finally hear Blair's name. Well, his other name.

"The consensus on Kendall?"

"I don't trust him."

"He's never been trusted, Roger, that's not really the question. The question is-can he function as Jason's guide?"

"Oh, I don't think Ellison and those Cascade yahoos were able to put a dent in our creation."

"And you know Jason is perfectly capable of keeping control of Kendall, it's Ellison we have to worry about."

"So what do we do with him now? It was Jason's idea that he could come in handy to control Kendall if the identity had been broken."

"And it's not, he's intact and functional, at least for awhile."

"How long?"

"Until Jason gets carried away and does to Kendall what he did to the six before him."

"Kills him."

"Yes."

"Kendall's lasted longer than all six combined. This partnership works."

"Yes, but it may not survive Jason's anger at Kendall's defection."

"Jason's a practical man. He needs Kendall. He's never had this many 'kills.'

"I don't think Kendall will die a quick death. We'll make some more use out of him. Wouldn't want to be in his shoes when Jason gets back from his vacation with Joyce."

"They deserve time together, after all they've been through. That Jason is a lucky dog."

"From what I hear they're a matched set."

"People, back to the matter at hand."

"Try and convince Jason to go easy on Kendall. This has been an expensive undertaking and there're no other guides of Kendall's caliber out there."

"Yes, I'll talk to him but you know Jason. Now about Ellison."

"Can we use him? Do to him what we did to Sandburg?"

"Let me talk to D, Albright about that. I'm not sure he thinks it's feasible to retain the Sentinel abilities once the brain has been compromised"

"Check on that. If not surgery, what? Kill him?"

"Eventually. I want to watch Kendall a little longer, see how the retraining takes. We may need Ellison in the long run." "So. Meeting adjourned?"

 

Pacing in front of me, Mr. Smith eventually comes to the conclusion he doesn't like me looking at him, though he had ordered me to. He pushes me to my knees and bends my head. His agitation is entirely out of character. At one point he leaves the room. I stay where I am and wait. The waiting's bad, my imagination supplies one method after another. I know as bad as waiting is, it's heaven compared to what's coming.

Mr. Smith comes back after an hour or so and hauls me to my feet. He leads me, still shackled, to the room with the water tank in it. I console myself that it could be worse. It is worse.

Removing the shackles, Mr. Smith has me strip. He takes a weight that's used for weight lifting and threads a chain to, which he attaches to my chest. He has others that he chains to my ankles. He points to the steps and I climb, slowly, the weights making my ascent awkward. I can hear Mr. Smith behind me. I open the door, the dark hollow space smell of sweat, fear and salt.

Mr. Smith prods me and I climb down the ladder. I enter the water, grateful that it isn't cold, although the sticky, slick feel of the saltwater makes my stomach lurch. I lie down as before and immediately understand the torture I face. The weights pull me down. Keeping my head above water requires that I keep my arms moving in a swimming motion and even so I'm only half-successful. Mr. Smith sits down on the step and watches me. "You know I get no pleasure from this, doncha boy?" I can't see him but I'm strangely comforted by his presence. "The water is like The Tessuad Nation. It can hold you up, sustain you, or it can take you down." Oh my God, Mr. Smith is waxing philosophical.

"You fight it, fight the yoke that God wants fitted on you. Can't do that boy. You are either one of us and of us, or you are one of them. And if you are one of them, well, boy, you're going down." He falls silent and there's only the sound of my clumsy splashing and gasping as I go under, time and time again.

I don't know how long I've been here. There's a point when I can no longer feel my arms and only know they're moving by the sound of the splashing. Shortly after that I go down and there's no strength left to bring me back to the surface. In panic, I try to get my legs under me. I know I'll face punishment for that but at least I'd be alive to be punished. I'm close to inhaling water. Then I remember what I'm facing, helping Jason kill. I stop struggling. It's so very hard, harder than I would have thought, to allow myself to die this way. My breath runs out and I take in water. A hand shoves through the water and yanks me out. Immediately Mr. Smith begins pounding my back, forcing the water out of my lungs. When he sees I'm breathing, he pulls me to the ladder. I stand there, unable to lift my arms, barely able to stay upright.

"You may just have to stay here all night if you don't get your ass up the ladder." Mr. Smith nudges me but even that threat can't spur me upward.

Mr. Smith scrambles up. I stand there, leaning against the curved wall. My head hurts and my lungs are sore. I try and grasp the sides of the ladder and pull myself up. I can't. I hear Mr. Smith coming back down the ladder. He has the key to the chains and releases me. Then he pushes me backwards and I land in the water on my back.

"You'll spend the night here. Relax. You are sustained by the mercy of The Good. Sweet dreams, guide" What an ugly word when he says it. I listen as Mr. Smith's clanks up the ladder, the door opens, closes, and he walks away. I'm floating and I try to dampen my panic by telling myself that over and over. After I float for awhile without going under, I start to relax. I shut my eyes. Exhaustion feels like it's weighing me down but still I float. I came close to dying, had, in fact, decided to die. Why not turn on my stomach and put my face in the water? Why not finish what Mr. Smith interrupted?

I'm working on willing myself to do that, when I hear a voice. It's Jim, calling my name.

"Sandburg!" He must have been calling me for awhile, he sounds irritated. I open my eyes, but I can't see much in the murk.

"Yeah, Jim?" I answer. I feel too tired to even form words.

"You all right?" It's nice that Jim's asking, but he really does sound annoyed.

"I'm fine, jush-just floating here." Maybe Jim needs a good night's sleep.

"What did they do to you?"

"Put me-here."

"That's it?"

I'm too tired to say a sentence that would describe what Mr. Smith did, so I just say, "Uh, huh."

"Blair. we have to get out of here. Eventually Jason will kill you."

"Uh-huh."

"Uh-huh, we have to get out of here or uh-huh Jason will kill you?"

I don't think I can add to this conversation. I want to. I want to tell Jim to go, now, fast, far. I want to tell him I understand what Jason will do and if I'm cunning enough, or lucky, it will happen sooner than eventually. But uh-huh seems to be it for me.

"Sandburg!" Jim yells my name. I jerk and go under. The next few seconds are consumed with me flailing around, trying to use my nearly useless arms to get myself back to air. Jim is yelling and the words finally penetrate,"---stand up, dammit. Blair. Just stand up!"

I work that angle. No one part of me seems to want to coordinate with any other part. Jim is yelling the whole time and as I struggle, I laugh to myself. Drowned in three feet of water, now that's irony. It's not working, I manage to get my feet under me time and again, only to slip and go under. The initial energy surge that came with my panic has faded. I just can't seem to get upright. I hear Jim and he's screaming, "Not again. Not again." What?

"Blair, push to the side, use the wall, use the wall." I take that in through my salt water soaked brain and follow his instructions. Pushing off against the floor toward a wall, I hit one almost immediately. With that at my back, I'm able to stabilize and stand up. I stand, well, more like lean, and try to catch my breath. It takes a long time and several times I start to slide down, back into the water. Jim's talking but at first I can't really hear. It takes everything I have to haul air in and the noise I'm making fills my ears. When I do start to hear, I realize Jim is babbling.

"-oh, God, Blair, are you all right? Don't do this to me again. Come on, keep breathing, no, don't go back in the water, stay up, that's it...what's wrong with you? C'mon, Chief, get air in those lungs..."

I try to wave my hand at him to tell him I'm all right. I don't think it actually moves and I realize I'm going to have to talk. "s'kay, mm, 'kay. No worry, so'kay."

"You are not okay. You almost drowned in three feet of water. You can barely stand up and you can't move your arms. What did they do to you?"

"So 'kay, jussh tired. I gotta lie down." I carefully ease back down and resume floating. My muscles have started to spasm. I figured I was going down any minute and a controlled entry would be better than falling face first.
It's better lying down. I feel like a puddle of bones. I don't know what to do about Jim. I can't even reassure him properly. I try and summon the energy to talk and cajole. I say, "Jimmmm," and then I fall asleep.

"BLAIR!" I scream his name when I realize he actually can't seem to get his face out of the water. What the hell is the matter with him? It's only knee deep. He just can't do it and I watch in horror as he tries over and over again, gasping as his head breaks the surface and then disappears as he struggles.

"Stand up!" Isn't that obvious? Have they destroyed some vital part of Blair's brain that governs logic and self-preservation? I can't believe what I'm seeing. Blair is drowning-again, and I'm as helpless to stop it as I was before. As guilty of causing it as I was before. If I hadn't yelled his name in anger, he wouldn't have lost his balance in the water. God, what fitting and exquisite punishment for the sin of rage. Forced to watch Blair drown in a bathtub. He's heard me and he's trying to stand. He's like a new born colt, struggling to get his legs under him, but it's not working. "Use the wall, push over to the wall!" I yell it over and over again. He's right next to it and he hits it almost immediately. He slowly rises out of the water, the effort, clearly monumental. His chest is heaving in an effort to get air to his lungs. He's hunched over and looks like he could fall back in a second.

"-oh, God, Blair, are you all right? Don't do this to me again. Come on, keep breathing, no, don't go back in the water, stay up, that's it...what's wrong with you? C'mon, Chief, get air in those lungs..."

Blair lifts his head. He tries to lift an arm but it moves only an inch and then drops back down.
"s'kay, mm, 'kay. No worry, so'kay." He's mumbling, and I know he's exhausted and going into shock.

"You are not okay. You almost drowned in three feet of water. You can barely stand up and you can't move your arms. What did they do to you?" As I say it I'm appalled at how I sound; pissed.

"So 'kay, jussh tired. I gotta lie down." Blair's going back into the water and I have to bite back a scream. But where else is he going to go? He floats on his back and I can see he hurts, but I don't know what hurts or why it hurts. I hear his voice whisper my name and then he passes out.

I'm back in my room, where my body's been all along. When Blair lost consciousness, our connection was lost. I feel back along the thread of it and find Blair. His heart beats in the rhythm of sleep and I let it fill my head and lull me.

I startle awake and water washes over me, reminding me of where I am. I can hear Mr. Smith's tread on the metallic stairs. I try and move my arms. I'm able to make them leave the sides of my body and return. Thank God, I'll be able to get out of here.
Mr. Smith treats me to a shower again, this time with hot water and I do my own soaping. I'm grateful to be able to get the salt off. He has me get dressed and then he hands me my jacket. I'm puzzled. Aside from the climbing exercises and when I left with Jason, I've never gone outside. I take it and put it on, happy for the warmth.
Mr. Smith dons his jacket and we head for an exit. I don't like the idea of leaving the building while Jim's in it, but there isn't much I can do about it. Mr. Smith keys in a code and the door opens, then another.
It's midday, the winter sun's weak. There's a new layer of snow on the ground. Being inside for so long, it's easy to forget the outside world exists. Mr. Smith is behind me and he pushes at me indicating I'm to take the path that goes into the woods. We walk along for awhile, until we're well out of sight of the complex. The woods get denser the farther we walk. I feel like Hans and wish I had some breadcrumbs.
We reach a spot Mr. Smith seems to like because he stops. He opens the bag he brought and studies the contents. He pulls out a chain and loops it around a large oak tree. Next, he brings out the shackles and crooks his finger at me. I slowly move toward him. He's going to shackle me to this tree, way out here. That can't be good.

Mr. Smith isn't a big guy, nor is he a young guy. But he has the kind of wiry build that promises speed, and a look in his eyes that promises pain. I think about bolting, but after a week of purification and a day of retraining, I know I'd never last any distance. So I hold out my hands and feel the steel bands grip and hold me.

"Kendall, you're a guide, and on the whole they ain't too bright. I don't hold that against ya. I've got to get through your thick skull the way of things. I've tried. You know I've tried. You are here. X marks the spot. You are here until you figure out just how alone you really are without The Nation. You have got to learn to give yourself over and I'm hoping a little time alone will teach you the wisdom of that, the rightness of that." Mr. Smith checks that I'm secure and ends his speech. I want to tell him I do understand. But I keep my mouth shut. Talking has never gotten me anywhere. Mr. Smith walks off, never looking back once.

I'm tethered to this tree by a three-foot length of chain. I have my jacket but no hat and no gloves. I want to lie down and close my eyes but some random bit of knowledge tells me it would be better to move and stay warm. I jump up and down, my hands tucked as far into my sleeves as the shackles will allow. It's boring but I make myself keep doing it, until I realize I'm starting to sweat. Good? Bad? Won't the wind make me colder if I sweat? I stop and decide I can afford a little break. I sit down with my back to the tree and hunch down, trying to maintain the heat I built up. Aside from the cold, it's nice to be out, to breath fresh air, hear sounds not made by man or machine.

 

I sleep deeply and dreamlessly, waking to the sound of food being shoved into the room. It looks like breakfast but there's no telling if it's really morning. I get up and relieve myself and then retrieve the tray and put it on the desk. As I'm eating the bagel, I check in with Blair. They must've moved him, I can't find him. I finish swallowing and concentrate. The white noise filters are little barrier after a week of doing this. I methodically go through each floor, no Blair. I start again, anchoring myself to the lady in the cafeteria. I circle the entire building. Has Jason come back early and taken him? I start the circuit again, this time listening to the conversations. Nothing, nothing, nothing and then bingo, someone says the name Kendall.

"---knew he'd never last, why they made so much of him, I'll never understand."

A different voice, "You woulda thought he knew the secrets of the universe the way the way they treated him."

"Anyone know how he bought it?"

"Haven't heard how, just that he's dead, Maddie, at the clinic, who was seeing Smith, told me."

"She's hot, what did she see in Smith?"

"Ya got me. Maybe she's into pain"

"Hope that little freak went down hard at the end."

"From what I hear about Smith, it's always hard. Gotta go, can't be late."

"See you at class, Dick."

"Yeah, catch ya later."

"Blair bought it? Blair's dead? What the hell happened while I slept? I don't believe it. I sweep the compound again and then I do it again...Oh, God, Blair, where are you? Pacing up and back, I think back on Blair when I left him. He was breathing, he was sleeping, he was floating...could he have gotten unbalanced again? I should have made him stay leaning against the wall. I shoulda stayed with him, kept him awake. I shoulda....I cry out, I don't mean to, and find myself on my knees, biting my lip to stifle any of the other sounds that are trying to escape. I have to get out of here, I need to kill some people, and find Blair's body because goddamn it, they aren't going to keep him here any longer.

 

I think I've got this down now. I jump up and down until just before I start to sweat, then rest. Jump, rest. It works for awhile, until my rest gets out of hand and I wake, the cold paralyzing my body. Pushing against the tree, I manage to stand. After telling my body to jump several times and getting no response. I lift my feet and stamp them, trying to get feeling back in them. I'm shaking with the cold and thirsty. I move as far away from the tree as I can and scoop up some snow and eat it. It doesn't exactly quench my thirst but I take in more until my mouth feels as frozen as my hands.

I walk around in my small-allotted space and wonder how long Mr. Smith will leave me out here. It's getting dark and soon I doubt he will be able to find me. I don't know how cold it is, but I know it's cold enough to kill me if I fall asleep for very long. Keep moving, Blair. Just keep moving. My teeth are chattering so hard, I've accidentally bitten my lip and I try to hold my teeth together to prevent that from happening again but they are on autopilot. I don't think I knew that cold could hurt this much.

I think about what Mr. Smith said, about how alone I am without The Nation. I want to assert the counter argument that I have Jim, but after last night, I'm not sure I do. I felt his disappointment, anger and disgust with me. I guess those empathy classes work. Wish they hadn't.

Jim must hate being confined, and although he said they left him alone, there are all sorts of ways for a Sentinel to be tortured without anyone coming near. He's here and stuck because of his guide. I'm supposed to help, support, serve...instead, I've made him into a babysitter, put him in danger, taken him away from his real work, been the cause of his capture...and I can't even be the man I was, the man who might have been worth all this to him. The things that made up that man, his knowledge, his community, his memories, are all lost to me. Jim Ellison has ended up with an empty shell where once his friend stood and I can't fix that.

I'm just praying that once they feel I am retrained and worthy to take up my guide duties with Jason, they let him go. Please let him go. I hug myself tighter, the vision of Jim gone, gone from here, gone from my life, is a bleak wasteland. I sink back down to the ground, ignoring how much colder it makes me feel. It's snowing. Feels good to sit and listen, the wind is picking up, swirling the snow in little eddies. Very lovely to watch and I imagine I'm looking at it with sentinel vision, each snowflake different and proud of it, different and then coming together to lie to on the ground. Lie together, but so different, and yet the same, unless you have sentinel vision and I lean over a bit to see the snow closer and tilt right down on top of the cold white stuff. Good place to study, being so close. I flick my tongue out and capture a few in my mouth. I can see blood from my lip dripping into the white. Snow White with red lips. That's me, as the snow gently collects around me.

 

When it grows close to the time for the next meal to be served, I set the stage. I stick my finger down my throat and vomit. I bite through my lip, drawing blood, dial down my sense of smell and lie down on the floor in what I hope is a convincing sprawl. I wait, knowing they will come, knowing they've counted me out as any kind of threat. When the door opens, it's showtime. The guy sees me and steps in. I sweep his legs out from under him and before he hits the floor, I've knocked him out. I look and find his ID and pocket that. Then I secure him with the strips I ripped from the bed and place him in the bed, his face to the wall. I walk out of the room, listening.

I'm looking for an empty room like mine that someone has occupied. They had wisely left me unequipped to shave, and right now I stand out, with a week's worth of beard on my face. I find one and get busy in his bathroom. I look like one of the natives now, but I stop before going out. I need to find that miserable son of a bitch, Smith. I wish Jason weren't on leave because he'd be next. Beyond those two, I realize I have no way of knowing who caused Blair pain. This place is filled with innocent dupes and killing them won't bring me any satisfaction.

Listening, I scan until I hear Smith's name mentioned.

"Mr. Smith went down so sudden. Who would have thought?"

"What was his first name anyway?"

"I don't know, I never heard anything but Mr. Smith."

"You think Maddie called him Mr. Smith when they were in bed?"

"Ewww, I do not want to think about Mr. Smith in bed."

"I heard that's where he died."

"In bed alone, or with Maddie?"

"Maddie, of course, she's enough to give anyone a heart attack, even a tough old bird like Smith."

Damn, Smith is dead. My purpose for being here any longer has just shrunk. All my listening has told me approximately where the clinic is and I head in that direction. The place is circular but rather linear in that there are no hallways shooting off the main corridor and it doesn't take me long to find the clinic. I walk in a woman I think must be Maddie asks, "May I help you?"

She's like every high school boy's fantasy come to life. She bats her big, brown eyes at me and snaps her gum and I realize how right I got that.

"Hello." I deepen and soften my voice and watch as she licks her lips. This is going to be easier than I thought. "I was hoping to examine the body of Eric Kendall."

Her eyes widen. "Who?"

"Eric Kendall?"

"He didn't die in the clinic. Anyway, all bodies are immediately cremated, as a way to hurry our souls to The Good. Even if he had died here there wouldn't be any body to examine."

I must've gone as white as I felt because Maddie asks, "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, skipped lunch. Thank you." I leave and lean against the wall once I'm out. Blair cremated? No body to say good-bye to, no service, no matter that it would be bogus, just returned to ashes?"

I walk slowly away, the urgency to get out, flattened by the knowledge I wouldn't even have Blair's body with me. There's still getting out and bringing this whole place down, bringing Assassination Central to a halt. Heading to an exit, I slow when I see a guy ahead of me punching in the code. 679943. He exits and I follow. It's snowing and among other things, I'd like his coat, to use against the cold. He goes to the parking lot. There are a few people around in the dusk, but no one close and I come up fast behind him and bang his head into the car frame. I turn him around hold him up between the car and me and to any one observing we are just being unusually friendly. He's out, and I open the back car door and shove him inside. I get his coat off of him and his keys and wallet. I take off his belt and secure him. Equipped and mobile I head out of the parking lot.

I'm listening for an alarm being raised but all is calm when I hear it. I hear Blair's voice. It's faint and away from the building, in the woods. He's mumbling about differences and beauty and I don't know what else because I've stopped listening to the individual words and I've latched on to his heartbeat. Blair's alive and he's in these woods. The pounding of my own heart in my ears threatens to blot out Blair's and I force myself to calm down. I go into the woods at a jog, looking for any sign that this is the way Blair came.

The snow is acting as a buffer and I'm hearing Blair's heartbeat echoing. It's throwing me off and now I'm hearing sounds from the compound that indicates they realize I'm gone. I stop running and make myself breathe. Conjuring up Blair's voice in my head, I sort through the odd echo effect and zoom in Blair. He's no longer talking but I have his heartbeat in my head and that's all I need to find him.

He's a dark heap in the snow, an inch of it has accumulated on top of him, testifying to how long he's been out here. I lift him off the frozen ground, hearing the clank of chain. His face is red from the cold, but there is stark white around his eyes and mouth. His lip is torn, blood soaking the snow beneath him. Holding him to my chest, I tuck his hands in my coat and tilt his head to my chest.

"Blair, can you hear me?" There's no response and I hug him closer, pulling his jacket up around his ears. His hands are shackled and for the first time I realize he's anchored to the tree. I place his hands, cold and stiff under my armpit hoping to thaw them out. The cold metal makes me suck in a breath, as all my body warmth seems to flee. I look down at Blair. He's beautiful; reddened cheeks, chopped off hair, bloody lip not withstanding.

The search is on the compound and we're going to need to get up and moving. I'd driven away from the parking lot and pulled into the woods, enough away from the complex to not be immediately obvious. Any organized search would come across the car. I shifted around, still holding onto Blair and stand up, bringing him with me. I can see the chain goes around the tree, with a length that leads to Blair's shackled hands.

 

Laying Blair back down on the cold ground, I put my coat under his head The rock I find is heavy with an edge I'm hoping will do the job. Looking at Blair, so still, faintly blue, I flash back to his almost death and quickly let his quiet breathing fill my ears and reassure me. I gently lift him just a bit off the ground and drag him until the chain is taut. Finding another, flatter rock, I place it under a link, close to Blair's wrist. With my foot on the chain, I hold it steady and smash the rock down on it. I damage it but it holds and I smash it again, this time winning Blair's freedom .

I lift his head and give him a small shake. "Blair? Come on buddy, wake up." His eyelashes flutter and he leans into my hand.

"Not time yet. Five more." The words come out slow and slurred.

"No time to sleep, Blair. Wake up for me now, we have to get out of here." I pull on his waistband, straightening his legs under him and I feel relief when he shifts some of his weight to them.

"Let's try moving, okay Blair?"

"Okay." Blair obliges me by taking a step and with me holding onto him, we begin to move out of the woods. "Jim?"

"Yes?" I'm concentrating on guiding Blair's feet past the obstacles that litter the path.

"Where are we going?"

"Home."

"Me, too?" Blair sounds surprised and hopeful.

"Yeah, you too." We're getting close. There's the sound of doors opening, but we're just about to the car. We come out of the woods, the car's there and Jason stands, waiting. He's leaning against the car, casual, but I can hear his heart, it betrays the true state he's in.

"I wanted this to be between you and me, Ellison. I want to show you the power of a sixteen and pay you back for Ohio." Jason's attention is riveted on me, not looking at Blair at all. At the sound of Jason's voice, Blair's head's come up and I hear his heart starts to race.

"Kendall, get your butt over here." Jason still hasn't taken his eyes off of me as he orders Blair to his side. I can feel Blair looking at me but I stay focused on Jason.

Jason's face darkens as Blair hesitates and he says, "Do it now Kendall, or every second you wait will result in a day of discipline." Blair starts to separate from me and I tighten my hold.

"It's okay, Blair, he can't hurt you anymore." I can feel Blair trembling and I know he's cold but I wonder if it's all a reaction to Jason.

"Let him go, Ellison, he knows who his real master is and he can't wait to come to heel and lick my hand." Jason snaps his fingers. "Come here, boy."

It doesn't occur to me until it's too late that Blair would go and I'm not expecting it when he lurches away from me. He makes a shaky way to Jason's side, his hands still cuffed, but stuffed in one pocket, his head down. Jason grabs him by his hair and hauls him close. "Miss me, freak?" Blair's head comes up and his hands come out of his pocket. He throws something in Jason's face. Jason howls and lets go of Blair, who stumbles back to me. I leap over the front of the car and smash Jason with my legs. He goes down, hands still clawing at his eyes that are streaming tears.

I go after him, pulling him to his feet and punching him in the face. I want him down and out, dead if possible. I never want him near Blair again. I hit him again and again, watching as his nose breaks, his lip splits, his blood flows. Behind me I can hear Blair, babbling incoherently. I feel his hands on my arm, stopping the next blow and spin, about to smash his face, my rage untempered.

Just before my fist connects I see his wide, frightened eyes, and pull my punch. I can hear him now, he's pointing and saying, "They're coming!" I look back over my shoulder and three men are running full speed our way. Pushing Blair towards the car, I look down at Jason and wish I could finish this. I can't and I join Blair in the car.

I peel out of there. I reach over and fasten Blair in. His eyes still have that wide, shocky look to them. "What did you do? What was that?"

"Pep-peper. I threw pepper in his face." Blair is shaking so hard the words barely make it out. Can't tell if it's from cold or adrenaline.

"Smart." Blair is trying to pull something else out of his pocket.

"What's that?"

"Th-the white noise gen-generator from the loft." He manages to turn it on and my ears clog up.I sort through the noise and listen for Jason. He's still making noise and I'm sure he'll have to go in to wash his eyes out, buying us some time. Putting my hand on Blair's arm I say, "Good thinking. How the hell did you get this stuff?"

"I packed it the morning of the accident. I knew he was near and would come after you, knew it, he'd hate you being the same and, and he'd want to hurt, kill you...and then no differences just all the same and the beauty gone..." Blair's babbling, his eyes only half open and I realize it's hypothermia. I'm amazed he's been able to keep moving and use his brain at all, given the state he's in. I put the heater on full blast and direct the vents to Blair. He's starting to slump over and close his eyes. Sleep won't hurt him and I just adjust him so he's leaning against the window.

We have a bit of a head start and if Jason stays out of it, they won't be able to track us over every hill and dale. I don't actually know where we are, as I was brought to this place in a van with no windows. I check the gas and it's half full...there are a lot of reasons to ditch this car and find another way home.

The countryside is rural, the signs giving little away as to our location. Finally I spot a sign for a town that seems to promise enough population to allow us to find another car. Blair's stopped shivering and is asleep. I want to get us into an anonymous car and look him over, there's no telling what Smith did to him before abandoning him to the cold. Switching cars is relatively simple. The Chevy Impala is in prime condition and parked in a lot next to the gas station. The dark cloaks us as I hot wire the car and get the heat cranked up. I look in on Blair, he's leaning against the door, folded in on himself and asleep. I open the door slowly and catch Blair as he starts to fall out.

"Blair? Can you hear me?" Blair's head comes up. I put my hand on his cheek and rub my thumb under his eye.

"Wake up, Chief, come on."

Blair jerks out of my hand with a small yelp and comes awake. "Uh, uh, what?" I run my hand through his hair.

"Everything is okay, we're just switching cars. Think you can make it that far?"

"Yeah, sure." Blair swings his legs out and I move to give him room to stand. He has to use the door to pull himself up and he pauses. I look at him and he nods his head. He walks slowly and I take his arm and lead him to the other car, getting him strapped into place. He immediately curls up and puts his head down.

I leave a note, explaining who to contact and put some miles between us and the old car.

Checking the glove compartment, I find a map. It's of Michigan and I hope that means that's where we are. I look up the town we just passed, and yes, I now have a clue to where we are and where we are going. At the next town, I stop at a pay phone and call Simon. I give him all the info I can on the location of The Tessuad Nation. I keep an eye on Sandburg in the car as I tell Simon all I think will help the Feds nail these guys. He doesn't move and I wonder if I risk taking him to a hospital. I don't want to have answer a lot of questions and I'm a little leery of entering Blair into anyone's data bank at this point. The Nation's resources have proven to be deep and exhaustive. I just want to get Blair home.

Simon says he'll arrange tickets and I get back in the car knowing it won't be long before I get my wish.

I follow Jim in to the loft. It looks the same and feels like home. The cold winter light is barely penetrating the corners and it's easy to see a layer of dust over every surface. Jim's picking up the mail and sorting through it.

He looks back at me and says, "Sit down before you fall down." Yeah, I look that bad. All I've done since leaving The Nation's headquarters is sleep. I slept in the car, on the plane, at the hospital. I look over to the room Jim calls mine. I just want to lie down, but Jim said to sit, so I move over to the couch and sit. It's an effort to keep my eyes open but I don't want to be rude, and I struggle to stay awake. Jim's talking to me from the kitchen but he sounds so far away that I can't quite understand what he's saying. I shake my head to try and clear it and see stars. Jim must have tuned in that I'm not responding because he comes over to the couch and leans over me.

 

"Chief? Are you sleeping with your eyes open?"

"Is that what it's called?"

"I do believe so. Here, stretch out. There's time for a nap before dinner."

I feel Jim swinging my legs up on the couch and a blanket gets tucked under my chin. Jim's hand rifles through my hair.

Waking up, I realize I must have slept through the night on the couch. I lie in the comforting half-light of dawn and wonder what will happen next. Will I be allowed to stay here and be Jim's guide? It's an amazing thought, really...that this is where I might live and Jim is who I might guide. There is still my lack of memory. I am not his Blair now, and I don't think I ever will be.

Jason and the others are in custody but I heard Captain Banks complaining about how good their lawyers are and how much money they have to mount a defense. For now, they'll be too busy to come after Jim or me.
Jim's stuck with me. What's he going to do after all? He's not the kind of guy to throw me out on my own and yet I know I'm not what he wants or needs. I'd like to be all noble and walk away, freeing Jim of his obligations. I'd like to, but I have no idea how to.

My mother? Could I live with her? Intellectually, I know The Tessuad made up the story about me being so bad my mother gave me away yet it still feels like that. I can't ask her to give up the things that interest her and come take care of me. I'm an adult. Okay, I'm limited. How many people besides Jim and Jason need what I have to give? I feel tears gathering behind my eyes. I'm feeling sorry for myself and I'm feeling sorry for Jim.

 

I can hear that Blair's awake. That's a relief. I almost hauled him back to the hospital last night when I couldn't wake him. After all he's been through, his body just wants to shut down. If the hospital had its way, they would've kept him there.
He's not getting up and I wait, wondering if he'll fall back asleep. After I settled him on the couch for the night, I studied him. He, who is not Blair. In a little while we'll have to discuss the surgery that might restore his memory. For now though, I'm content to have this much of Blair back.

Blair's still lying there but I can hear the hitch in his breathing. Crying? I get out of bed and throw my robe on. What is it? Is he in pain? I get to the couch and Blair has his eyes shut tight, a wet line from eye to ear. "Blair?'

His eyes fly open and he looks embarrassed. "What is it? Do you hurt?" I run my hands down his body.

Blair shakes his head. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I need to earn a living but with my memory gone, I can't teach."

He couldn't teach anyway but I don't want to tell him that right now. Time enough later to let him know what brought us to t his pass. "Before you were taken, you were studying to be a police officer." I offer that to him tentatively.

"I was going to be a cop?" He's incredulous. "They were going to let me be a cop?"

"Yeah, Chief. You were going to be a cop. You would've made a great cop. Think you might want to go back to the Academy?" I'm not sure it's a good idea right now but Blair needs to know he has options.

He shakes his head and his head drops. I wait to hear his thinking. "I need to pay rent and food...and...I need to..." Blair's voice trails off as he says, "...be of some use."

"You are of some use. You're my Guide." I say that and wonder how that can be of any comfort after what Blair's been through.

I start over. "You started out as my Guide and I needed you for that purpose. Along the way you became my friend." I stop. There just isn't any way for Blair to know what that means to me.

"I don't make friends easily, Chief. Something happened to me. It's a long story, but the upshot is, I don't make friends at all. I know people. People know me." I pause.

"No, that's not right either. I don't really bother to know people and I don't let anyone know me. Until you stumbled into my life." That last sentence stops me. "Actually, I think I stumbled into your life, Sandburg, when I think about it." I laugh at my little joke but Blair is looking at me like I'm speaking Chinese so I press on.

"Did you know the first day we met, you saved my life?" I hold up my hand. "And not just because you gave me the first glimmer of hope that it wasn't madness claiming me. No, really. You physically saved my life."

Blair shakes his head, smiling a little in a way that makes me realize he can't conceive of such a thing.
"I was about to be hit by a truck. Coming right at me. You ran into the street and threw me down. The truck ran right over both of us." What a metaphor.

"If I hadn't been so stubborn, I might've realized the universe was trying to tell me something." I hold up my hand again. "Before you say anything, that's Naomi speak for, I shoulda known."

"Naomi speak?" Blair's lost. I feel the pain of not having the old Blair with me. I shove that aside. "Your Mom has a unique way of seeing things. You'll find out. She should be here soon."

"Anyway, what I'm trying to say...I'm trying to tell you-I don't understand it myself, so telling you is hard... I need you, not just as my Guide but...you're my family. You are my tribe. I don't know how or why that came to be but I know it's true. If you never get your memory back, hell, even if you forget me, or decide to leave for real, I will never forget you or stop needing you by my side." Did I say that right? Damn words. They slip and slide and only approximate what I'm trying to say.

Blair looks stunned. "I'm trying to say that what ever the essence of you is, it's still there and I still need it and it has nothing to do with what you do, or remember...it's..." ah, fuck, I'm just gonna have to say it and I feel like an idiot but... "It's your soul, I think. I think we're-as Connor would say-mates."

Blair watches me for a moment, as if expecting me to laugh and take it back and when I don't, a smile breaks over his face. He lights up with happiness...happiness that I gave him. I'm glad I made myself say it, pushed through the voice that said "Protect Jim Ellison" and brought down some of the barricades I've always loved.

"I don't know what comes next, Blair. We'll figure it out. You and me." I pull Blair to my chest and hold on. I can hear Blair trying to say something into my chest. I loosen my grip and Blair takes a big breath.

"Thanks Jim."

That's all, but he gives me another one of his smiles and leans back into the hug and it's enough.

     The End...of Part One

**********

I would love to hear your thoughts.
Calistaecho@hotmail.com

 

 

Site Map