Forged In Fire

By Calista Echo

 

It seemed like all I'd done the last year and half was sleep. When Emil was dying, the sleep was involuntary; as the Sentinel hacks decided I was too distraught to be conscious and induced a coma to keep me sane.

                                                                                                      

When I was finally allowed to surface, I discovered Emil had been dead and buried for eight months. Learning that made me nearly as lost as when I'd hovered in that twilight place the coma put me in. Between my grief and the Taldec coming on, sleep became a sanctuary, and I sought its oblivion twelve, sometimes fourteen hours a day.

 

Then came Sandburg. Sandburg came. I liked the sound of that. Inspired, I reached over and began to rub the soft hair on his belly. His quiet snore veered off for a moment, then settled at a deeper pitch as I continued petting him.

 

I've never known anyone who fell asleep as quickly or slept as deeply as Sandburg. It's a gift he has.  I find myself waking early so I can enjoy these moments when he's still sleeping, when the bed is permeated with the scent of us and I can look on him as much as I like.

 

The shy snoring rumbled into a moan, and I lightened my touch, not wanting to break into his sleep. I rubbed my thumb over the star tattoo on the back of his hand which had finally stopped scabbing over. No bigger than a nickel, yet it wielded so much power.

 

Encircling his wrist with my thumb, I effectively obliterated the tattoo of the chain that he had on both his wrists and his ankles. At first I had thought Sandburg had tattooed himself out of defiance. Now that I knew him better, I realized it had to have been Merrick's work, fitting his idea of ownership, or hell, maybe just his perverse sense of fashion.

 

I tugged on his hand and pulled, rolling Sandburg on top of me. The snoring stopped as he squirmed around getting comfortable and when he finally settled down, he began nuzzling my neck, which shot a hot blast of lust across all my nerve endings. Threading my fingers through his hair, I massaged the muscles at the base of his neck and his body gently rocked against me as I kneaded away, like a boat docked in a gentle breeze.

 

I liked to feel his weight on me. I could now tell to the ounce how much he weighed and when he lost or gained. Currently he was gaining, and it pleased me. A healthy weight for him would be 150, maybe even 160. I'd be happy when we got him over 140.

 

My thoughts drifted to the people I'd put in place to help me bring my father down. After the fiasco with Mike, I'd been careful to do a background check on a few of my old Special Ops team before putting my trust in them.

Joe Underwood had been our team's physical infrastructure man, scoping out the target's weaknesses in their food, water and air supply. Underwood had married and had a son …a son who was showing signs of developing empathic gifts. When I explained, he came onboard.

 

Vanessa Delaney had been our financial infrastructure expert. She had the added value of exuding the kind of warm, maternal vibes that made a person want to curl up on her lap and babble secrets into her comforting bosom. Utilizing that talent, she was able to extract seemingly random and benign information from the target, enabling her to ferret out money hidden in bank accounts, real estate, security houses, and under mattresses.

 

I'd started out by asking her whether she thought the street rats had spread the epidemic.  Her response had been immediate and unequivocal. "Don't tell me you've become one of those idiots that've bought into that paranoia crap, Ellison. I thought you had a harder head than that."

 

"Well," I began, but before I could say what I really thought, she jumped up and stalked over to where I sat.

 

"I can't believe that normally intelligent people can be so gullible. It's fear mongering at its worst and anyone with half a brain should be able to see what that manipulative bastard of a governor is up to, but somehow he's managed to convince people that a small bunch of disenfranchised empaths are going to bring on the end of the world."  She'd ground to a halt and stared at me, then shook her head sadly and said, "I tell ya, Leiu, this isn't the kind of government I put my life on the line to protect."

 

I hired her on the spot.

 

I'd always had the more straightforward job of weapons and demolition, which was one of the reasons my father had so far been able to outflank me. I would never win against my father and the rest of his government henchmen by being a boy scout and coming at them straight on.

 

No, this was a mind game he played with the citizens of Washington, and his weapons were superstition and fear. If I wanted to win, I had to play the game his way. I had to break out a new deck of cards and stack it myself.

 

We arranged for my father’s confidential secretary to need a leave of absence, and Delaney's resume and winning personality got her on his staff. We'd padded her resume to include the tragic information that the flu had killed her lover and she blamed the epidemic on the street rats.

 

Sandburg wetly nuzzled my neck and I tilted my head to give him more skin to explore with his mouth, just barely stifling my groan. He wiggled and sighed and settled back down, allowing me to think again.

 

I had to find a way to stop my father, not just for Sandburg's sake but for all of the natural empaths sake. The flu had taken King George's son and it was being whispered that the King himself had been hospitalized. The secrecy surrounding His Majesty’s illness had led to all sorts of wild rumors, with the bookies placing the odds on his death at 5-3. The buzzards had already begun circling.

 

With his son dead, King George's successor was Lord Rowan Fairchild, who governed The Thirteen out east and was wildly popular. Single, dashing and handsome, he was the darling of the tabloids and glossies. He'd be easy to dismiss except for the fact that the man was brilliant, consistently creating budgets that worked, managing to keep The Thirteen in the black while still having some of the lowest crime rates in the entire nation as well as the highest student test scores.

 

With the ravages of the epidemic and the potential death of the King, the political landscape was on the verge of major changes.  The highly coveted role of Homeland Security Czar was the big prize that had caught the attention of the circling vultures. 

 

So far, my father had only been able to affect the lives of empaths in the Northwestern Triangle he governed. If he became Czar, he'd be able to cement fear and prejudice into laws and Sandburg—and all other natural empaths—would truly be on the way to becoming extinct. And I couldn't let that happen.

 

The snoring had stopped, though Sandburg slept on. I found myself missing that sound. It was a background hum that soothed me, grounded me, amused me. I twined one of Sandburg's curls around my finger and played with it as I thought some more about what remained to be done.

 

Underwood had been in place at the Governor's mansion for three weeks. To make that happen, we had arranged for the early retirement of the building engineer, and a boiler overflow problem that Joe just happened to understand like no other applicant. Between Underwood and Delaney, I had no doubt we would find a way to make my father reveal his lies.

 

 

***

 

Jim's knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel so tightly as we drove through the fog-shrouded streets of Cascade. The atmosphere outside the car was eerie, like no one lived on the planet anymore except us.  I half-expected to see the walking dead lurching in the rear view mirror. Coming on so close to the Epidemic, the thought wasn’t very amusing and I didn't share it with Jim. He had enough on his mind; now that things were back to normal, the pressure was on to solve the Franckle case.

 

As we pulled into the parking lot at Rainier, I was reassured when I saw signs of life -- students migrating from class to class, many in flocks, colorful in their springtime plumage. Gone were the long scarves, bulky down jackets and hats pulled low. Instead, despite the cool weather, the girls' skirts were short and flirty and the boys' pants drooped alarmingly low on their hips.

 

"Appleby had better be there," Jim muttered, still ticked that the Chancellor had ducked the interview yesterday.

 

"I wouldn’t put it past him to invent another crisis in order to skip out again."

 

Jim smiled grimly.  "If he's smart, he won't. Otherwise, he'll be seeing me in his home, and answering my questions in front of his wife."

 

The secretary, whose name, according to the info I’d collected, was Gillian Sanz, greeted Jim coolly, didn't greet me at all—and told us Appleby was due back in his office at any moment. Jim didn't sit, but moved to stare out the windows. I stood by the wall and tried to send calming vibes toward Jim’s stiff back while ignoring the glares Ms. Sanz kept sending my way. 

 

Fifteen minutes later, Appleby breezed in.  Seeing us, he adjusted his demeanor to convey affronted dignity and announced, "Detective Ellison, I have no idea what you think I can tell you that I haven’t already." Appleby opened the door to his office and motioned Jim in impatiently, but put his hand up when I followed. "You stay out here," he said, pointing to the outer office.

 

"My guide stays with me."

 

"This is my office, and I won't have him contaminating it."

 

I'd been hearing variations on this ever since the Governor's speech, but it still made me want to crawl under the carpet.

 

At first Jim had come close to physically assaulting the people who sought to keep me from him, but now he had a better grip on his reactions.  Pulling out a thick sheaf of papers, he handed them to Appleby. "If you want to register your stated preferences that no natural empaths be allowed in your office, you can fill out form 19-A. Of course, since you'll be trying to exclude a taxpaying citizen from university property, you risk losing federal funding."

 

Jim had a stack of forms he carried around. We'd created them ourselves. They ran ten pages and were filled with the most convoluted gobbly-gook we could throw together.  If anyone ever did fill the thing out, the pre-addressed envelope delivered it right to the Palisade. Jim said that way we'd at least know our enemies.

 

"Very well," Appleby conceded irritably. "Stay by the door," he instructed me, and then continued complaining to Jim. "I hope you can appreciate the chaos we’re experiencing here—I lost four of my faculty, nineteen students and three administrators to the flu. In the face of this tragedy, one woman’s death hardly seems worth the scrutiny—especially when you already have a confession."

 

Rather than defend his investigation, Jim simply shrugged and waited while Appleby poured himself a cup of coffee and got settled behind his desk.

 

Once he was seated, Appleby visibly relaxed, clearly feeling he was well fortified against Jim’s questions. But then his eyes narrowed and a line appeared between his eyes as Jim breeched his comfort zone, swinging his hip onto the edge of the mahogany desk and flipping open his notebook.

 

"I checked your phone logs; you made four calls to Sinclair the week before Miss Franckle was killed. That’s a lot of calls to someone you didn’t know socially. Mind telling me what the two of you had to talk about?"

 

Appleby leaned back in his chair. Jim put his hand on the desk and leaned in closer, causing the Chancellor to blink first. "Why don’t you take a seat, Detective?"

 

"I’m comfortable here, thank you."

 

"I’d prefer not to have to crane my neck when I speak to you."

 

"And I’d like you to answer to my question about the nature of the conversations you had with Sinclair that week."

 

"Have you asked *him?*" Appleby plucked a pen from the desk and clicked it several times, then seemed to catch himself and put it back down on the desk.

 

Jim removed himself from the desk. Appleby sat up straighter, ready to be back in charge, until Jim swung a chair around to straddle, resting his elbows on the back of it. "That doesn’t answer the question, Chancellor, but it does tell me something."

 

Appleby steepled his fingers and said sarcastically. "That sounds very Zen."

 

"I’d say it sounds very suspicious."

 

Appleby laughed, but the breath he used to produce it was shallow, revealing the nervousness underneath. "There was nothing in the least nefarious about my conversations with Professor Sinclair. We were speaking about the anthropology department’s annual budget, that’s all."

 

"At 11:00 at night? 12:35?  Four in the morning?  Somehow I don’t think so."

 

"Believe it or provide proof that I’m lying, Detective. Now if that’s all, I'm sure you can appreciate how busy I am dealing with the aftermath of the epidemic."

 

Jim stared thoughtfully at the Chancellor for a moment and the Chancellor stared back, appearing calm, but I easily picked up on his panic and I imagined that Jim was reading an accelerated heartbeat.

 

"Of course." Jim stood up. "I’ll let you know if I have any more questions."

 

"You do that, Detective," Appleby said, reaching for the phone, done with Jim and his questions.

 

Jim had nothing to say as we left the building, but as soon as we were outside, he exploded. "That smug bastard. He’s up to his ears in this. Discussing the budget at 4 in the morning, my ass."

 

"Yeah, he’s hiding something, but what? We haven't even found a money trail to follow."

 

"We have one advantage."

 

So far Jim’s senses hadn’t been all that much help, so I was curious to find out what he thought gave us an edge. "What's that?"

 

"We’re not nearly as stupid as he thinks we are." 

 

"Given his astonishing sense of superiority, it would be nearly impossible to be as stupid as he thinks we are." 

 

As we ambled toward the Anthropology department, the students gave us a wide berth, recognizing us as alien beings who had stumbled into their world. Once upon a time, this campus had been home to me, every square inch of it. Now, I was the profound other.

 

Burton Hall came into view. One of the oldest buildings on campus, it was a stately four storied building built of grey limestone. As soon as we walked through the massive front doors, Jim halted, frowning. The smell of mold permeated the old building and I could just imagine what else Jim was smelling.

 

"Dial it down," I urged, and could’ve kicked myself for stating the obvious, but Jim just gave me a curt nod, his mind clearly on something else.

 

"Where did you say they keep the artifacts that have been received here in the last few months?"

 

"The secretary told me there’s a storage room in the basement where everything is inventoried and held until it’s used in an exhibition or class." I pulled out my notebook and quickly paged through until I found the information. "Room 29, in the west wing."

 

Jim headed for the stairs and I followed, head down, studying the other information I’d gathered.

 

"Mr. Sandburg!"

 

I looked up at the sound of the dear and familiar voice. One of my old professors stood a few feet away, smiling. "So it really is you. I’d just about given up on ever seeing you again." Professor Eli Stoddard was in his usual uniform; tweed jacket, patched at the elbows, bow tie, and his ever-present unlit pipe clenched between his teeth.

 

He had his hand out. I hesitated, then remembered that he'd never been squeamish about touching me before. "Hello, Professor.  How've you been?" I asked, shaking his hand.

 

His blue eyes still twinkled, though the eyebrows above them had grown grayer and bushier. "Been good. About time you came back to finish what you started. Have you finally come to turn in your dissertation?"

 

I hesitated. Whenever Professor Stoddard had sensed any discouragement, he'd assumed the persona of a football cheerleader, urging me on with relentless enthusiasm. It would take so little to set him off.  I didn't want him to waste his energy on me, but I wasn't sure how to deflect him, and I didn't want to lie. "I sort of lost interest," I said, hedging.

 

That wasn’t exactly a lie—Merrick had rendered everything I’d cared about irrelevant and I hadn’t thought about my dissertation for years.

 

"You? Lose interest? Pull the other one, young man. Now tell me what you’ve been doing all these years."

 

Tell kindly Eli Stoddard what I’d been doing the last few years? No. Wasn't going to happen. I needed to put some distance between the professor and me. Backing up, I pointed toward Jim and said, "It’s been great running into you, Professor, but I’m here with my Sentinel and he’s working on a case, so I really must go."

 

Dr. Stoddard didn't look at Jim, just stared at me in shock, his face drained of all color. "Your…Sentinel? You’re a-a-street—" In his distress, Professor Stoddard almost stooped to using language he’d often referred to as disgusting gutter talk. He caught himself, swallowed, and rephrased the question. Lips tightly compressed around his pipe stem, he ground out the next words between his teeth. "You're an empath?"

 

I felt sick to realize he hadn’t known I was empathic, that I was, in fact, a street rat. It was deflating to find out the one person who had seemed comfortable with me despite my being a rat had simply not realized it. He’d always been the picture of the absent-minded professor—but still, I’d always thought it was obvious what I was. God knew everyone else seemed to be aware of it without any announcements.

 

I let out a long breath and answered his question. "I’m a guide—to a detective who’s here investigating the death of Katherine Franckle."

 

I nodded toward Jim and Stoddard turned around, lowered his glasses to study Jim carefully, then turned back to me. "Sinclair confessed. I don’t see any reason why you and your Sentinel—" his lip curled on the word "Sentinel"—his contempt for me spilling over to Jim—"need to come around here."

 

"There are some loose ends to cl—clear up," I stuttered, hammered by Stoddard's loathing. His acid emotions were seeping under my barriers, corroding them. As soon as he looked down, I felt his repugnance amplified and knew he'd seen the tattoo.

 

He stepped back, the powerful symbol doing its job of making me the loathsome “Other.”  I half expected him to wipe off the hand that had touched mine. I drew in a ragged breath, trying to stave off falling apart.

 

And then Jim was next to me, placing his arm around me. I could feel his anger thrumming close to the surface, and his arm felt hot and heavy across my shoulder.

Reluctantly, I made the introductions. "Jim, this is Professor Eli Stoddard.  Professor Stoddard, Detective James Ellison."

 

Professor Stoddard didn't seem to know what to say. Jim filled in the awkward silence by saying, "So Blair took one of your classes."

 

Stoddard took the pipe out his mouth and examined the bowl carefully, then tapped the tobacco down a little more tightly. "Mr. Sandburg actually took several of my classes, both as a graduate and undergraduate." Stoddard hesitated, and it was clear he didn't know how to think about me now that he knew. "He had a quick mind," he added, speaking of me in the past tense, as if I was no longer standing near him, as if I had died.

 

"Graduate student?" Jim looked down at me and I felt suspicion spark. "I thought you said you left school when you were 18, Sandburg." Jim’s arm around me grew heavier as his emotions darkened. Skepticism and distrust were rolling around inside him. Without any shields, I began to drown and my knees buckled.

 

Jim must’ve felt me start to sag as his arm went around my waist. I tried to answer him, but couldn’t get any words out.

 

Professor Stoddard did the explaining for me. "Mr. Sandburg was something of a prodigy, finishing his undergraduate work when he was sixteen, completing the course work for his masters a year and a half later. The dissertation was written, but never submitted."

 

Despite words that sounded like praise, his voice was hard and I felt his aversion crawling over my skin.

 

"You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you, Sandburg?" The sharp edge of Jim’s conflicted emotions cut through me, opening my barriers wider, allowing Stoddard’s bitter sense of betrayal to surge through me. My teeth started to chatter, and I clamped them together, trying to hold back the shakes I knew were coming.

 

Before that could happen, I felt Jim’s hand thread through my hair and we connected. Like a fire going out for lack of oxygen, my wildly flaring empathic synapses began to die down.  My shields were still wobbly, but high enough for me to block some of Stoddard's anger.

 

It seemed Jim’s facility for inventive bonding matched the extraordinary strength of his senses, making him far more evolved than any other Sentinel I’d come across in my research. 

 

"Sandburg." Jim called impatiently, and I realized I’d lost track of the present as my mind explored the ramifications of Jim’s new talent.

 

"Yeah?"

 

"You didn’t hear the question, did you?"

 

"Sorry, got distracted for a moment."

 

"I asked what happened to your paper?"

 

"I don’t know." I shrugged. "I used to store my stuff with Michael, but I have no idea where he is anymore. Anyway, he wouldn’t have kept my things after all these years."

 

"Michael? What’s his last name?"

 

"It doesn’t matter. That part of my life is over."

 

"It matters to me. I want to read it."

 

I nudged him in the ribs. "Give it up—it was stupid, written by a seventeen year old with big ideas. It’s just as well it got thrown out."

 

"Stupid? It was brilliant." Despite his disappointment, Professor Stoddard's past pride in me still shone through. "I hadn’t realized—that is, had I known—" He stopped, considering, then finally said, "I see now why you chose your topic." The pride had left his face, replaced by distaste, and even with my shields back in place, I felt sick knowing how he now saw me.

 

Jim glared at Dr. Stoddard. "You seem to have had a change of heart about Blair now that you know he's a wild empath. I hope you’re not one of those people who’ve been duped by the propaganda put out by sleazy magazine rags and corrupt government officials. There is no credible data that proves empaths are disease carriers, or that they have the power to influence people’s emotions. A scholar like yourself should know how easy it is to present a case built on faulty logic and manipulated statistics when pandering to people’s innate fears and prejudices."

 

Professor Stoddard actually huffed, affronted at Jim's implication. "Listen here, young man, I don't need to be lectured by you about my perceptions."

 

Jim remained calm, crossing his arms and asking in a mild voice I barely recognized, "Stings, doesn't it?" 

 

It wasn't the reaction Professor Stoddard had been expecting.  "Hmmm. Well…I must admit, I am shocked to learn that Mr. Sandburg hid his true nature from me. But perhaps I need to examine all that has contributed to my reaction." He turned toward me, and there was a hint of softening in his expression. "I hope you do finish that paper, Mr. Sandburg. You’re in a unique position to write it, I’d say. Good luck to you."

 

I watched him walk down the hall, and tried to swallow the lump in my throat. I’d always cherished his affection and unexpected acceptance of me. I should’ve realized he simply wasn’t paying attention.

 

"Come on, Chief," Jim said, turning me around and aiming me toward the stairs. "We’re on the clock."

 

"Right," I said, forcing myself to put my feelings about Stoddard aside and following Jim down to the storage room.

 

"So you were an anthropology major," Jim said, his voice oddly flat, and I remembered his reaction to my suggestion that drugs might have been a factor in Katherine Franckle’s death.

 

"No. My major was sociology, but I took one of Professor Stoddard’s anthropology classes as an undergraduate and a few more that had relevance to my dissertation."

 

"Which was?"

 

"Jim—really—it’s stupid. It’s history."

 

"Come on, I want to know."

 

I sighed, resigned to telling him, knowing he's never let it go. "The Role of the Natural Empath Post-Genetic Engineering".

 

Jim took it in stride. "Sounds interesting. What was your thesis?"

 

"Ah, Jim, it was a long time ago; I barely remember any of it."

 

"Yeah, right. You remember; quit stalling."

 

He was like a dog with a bone and he wouldn't rest until he'd chewed all the meat off of it. "All right," I said, giving in a little less than graciously.  "But it didn’t have a happy ending," I warned him.

 

He laughed. God, how I loved that sound. I loved it even when there was no humor in it, when it was bitter and cynical. But when he laughed for real, like now, it made my chest tighten.

 

"C’mon, Sandburg, don’t make me wheedle it out of you," Jim prodded.

 

I kind of liked the sound of that and almost asked what kind of wheedling he planned to employ when I realized I was drifting into dangerous territory.  We weren't the kind of lovers that teased and flirted and played word games.

 

I launched into the description of my thesis, starting with some background information. "Symbiont got into the gene manipulation game back in the 30's, saying they wanted to create a superior guide. They landed a huge government grant and set up shop, getting a bonanza of data from Nazi experiments—ignoring totally the ethics that stopped most scientists from building on such experiments. Six years after they started the program, the first Cultivateds were born, coming into maturity in 1960. It's ironic—the Sentinels back then were suspicious of what they called "lab rats." Wasn't many generations later that the Sentinel Board managed to get that turned around—making Sentinels suspicious of "street rats".

 

"How'd they do that?"

 

"By creating the mandatory training you went through. Prior to '62, Sentinels weren't thought to "need" training. They were "naturals".

 

Moving into the room, Jim walked over to the most primitive looking artifacts. "I hadn’t realized that—we all took it for granted that the Sentinel Academy had always been in place."

 

"They went to a lot of trouble to make the schools look established and ivy league. Used windows that were old and bubbled, imported antique wide-planked oak flooring, they even transplanted old growth trees—which cost a fortune."

 

I looked out the window, thinking about all the attention to detail the Symbiont Corporation had lavished on creating the illusion of a venerated institution.

 

"Hell, the Sentinel Board itself didn't come into existence until 1961 when Symbiont realized it had a problem and the government stepped in to protect its investment. It was really Symbiont's way of getting a hold of Sentinels while they were young and impressionable enough to accept the idea of a Cultivated being their guide. And it worked. In 1971, when that first group of "trained" Sentinels was ready to choose a guide, 42% chose a Cultivated. By 1978, 73% were choosing Cultivateds and now, it’s nearly 100%."

 

Jim turned his focus on me. "Are you saying Sentinels have been manipulated?"

 

"Uh, well, the word I used in my thesis was conditioned."

 

The textbooks had been filled with photos of Cultivateds airbrushed to look more like Guardian Angels than human beings. They were shown hovering over "their" Sentinel as he worked, a look of serene concentration on their faces. All staged, of course, as no Sentinel had yet to accept a Cultivated at the time the textbooks were created.

 

In the earlier books, natural empaths were depicted as well. They'd been photographed in dark clothing, hunched over, looking vaguely sinister as they guided a Sentinel. They seemed to cast exaggerated shadows and the text had made unsubstantiated statements like, "Some say the natural empath has failed to keep pace with the Sentinels' genetic enhancements." Or, "Some say the natural empath is too sensitive to do the job of grounding a powerful Sentinel."

 

Some say this, some say that….no one asked who had said what. No, that information got absorbed as gospel and soon it wasn't "Some say," it was, "It's well-known fact…." and the natural empath's doom was sealed. 

 

Jim had been silent, but now he looked at me and asked, "Hmmm. So what do natural empaths "do" now that they longer guide?"

 

I shivered as if someone had walked over my grave, and answered glumly. "Empaths might be useful in other occupations, but as Cultivateds gained favor, natural empaths lost it. And not just with Sentinels, but with the general public as well. People began to fear empaths that weren't blond, blue-eyed, and tall. Some empaths, who aren't super sensitive, pass using Noxy to manage fairly normal lives."

 

"And what happens to the super sensitive ones?"

 

I shrugged. "They try to isolate themselves, finding ways to work alone. But an empath —by definition—needs connection, and no amount of drugs or alcohol can make that need go away. Their suicide rate is sky high, as well as their rate of death from liver failure and they're three times as likely to die in a accident as the mundanes."

 

Jim stopped his scan and looked at me. "You're super sensitive. *You* need connection," he sounded like he'd only now surprised by that information.

 

Remembering what I'd done at times to get some connection—any connection, I flushed with shame and lowered my eyes. "All empaths need it," I said, knowing I sounded defensive.

 

"I get it."

 

I glanced up to see eyes that seemed warm rather than condemning, so maybe he did. But I didn't understand. I didn't understand the yawning hole inside me that craved communion with other souls so deeply that I'd been willing to consort with the devil.

 

Jim was making a slow circuit of the room when he stopped suddenly. The edge of a wooden box could be seen jutting out from behind the desk. Squatting down next to the desk, he pulled out the box and pried the lid off.  We peered inside at crumpled sections of newspaper.  Jim sifted through the wads of papers and fished out a well-worn leather bag. Reaching in, Jim pulled out what looked like a chess piece carved out of ivory. "What’s that look like to you?" he asked.

 

A true artist, someone who had captured the sleek muscles and power of a predator cat, had carved the piece. "A tiger. Or maybe a panther."

 

Jim held it up, staring at it. "A jaguar," he declared.

 

"Power, strength, and beauty."

 

"Huh?"

 

"That’s what the jaguar symbolizes."

 

"Oh." Reaching in again, Jim pulled out three more figures and set them down on the floor. Picking up one that had been carved out of ebony, he turned it around in his hand. "Wild dog?"

 

I took it out of Jim’s hands and studied it. "I’d say a wolf." On this piece, the artist had paid a great deal of attention to the expression, managing to imbue the animal with a sense of humor.

 

"Okay. What does the wolf represent?" Jim asked, as he took the figure back from me.

 

"Inner strength and instinct."

 

The third piece, also carved out of ebony, was unmistakable. Jim looked at me quizzically. "A squirrel?"

 

"Squirrels are a Native American symbol of trust." I remembered something else and laughed. "In fact, they’re considered the Sentinel of the home, warning their families of any dangers."

 

Handing me the last figure, Jim asked, "So what’s your theory on this one?"

 

The little figure was warm in my hand. "Well, it’s obviously a rabbit, and um, it could be a symbol for speed—or it could be a symbol of vulnerability—rabbits have no way to defend themselves."

 

"Odd group of animal totems, I’d say." Jim took the rabbit from me and put all the animals back in the bag. "I don't know what part these pieces played in Katherine's death, but I get the feeling they have significance. I'm going to log them in as evidence until we can do some research."

 

Underneath the leather bag were several books. Handing them to me, Jim stood up. My barriers unaccountably wobbled, and I shuddered. Jim’s emotions suddenly pressed in on me—frustration churned at the top and underneath I could feel notes of loneliness and sorrow. I tried to push his emotions out, tried to give him the privacy he expected and deserved and, after a moment, I was able to swing the door almost closed.                                                                     

 

Resolutely, I looked at the book on the top, stunned when I saw who the author was. Sir Richard Burton, the first explorer to describe a Sentinel and his special talents. This was an original monograph titled “First Footsteps in East Africa.” I'd never heard of it, which meant it had to be rare—and valuable.

My hands were shaking and I couldn't tell if it was because of the effort it was taking to maintain my shield, or my excitement at finding a Burton book I hadn't read. Before I could say anything, Jim spotted something on a shelf above my head. Pulling a piece of pottery down, he whistled.

 

"What?" It looked like a hundred other pieces of pottery to me.

 

"I don’t know—I just know. There’s something about this—"

 

I could tell by the way he tilted his head that he was zooming in on something. I kept my hand on the small of his back, and for the first time became aware of the energy being generated by his second chakra. It flowed into me, warming me, grounding me as I grounded Jim.

 

A piece of the puzzle fell in place as I realized my hand had steadied as my shields stabilized. This must be the way—or one of the ways—we affected a merge without penetration. It made such perfect sense—the second chakra generated sexual energy, the same energy we probably accessed during a merge using penetration without being aware of it.

 

It seemed ridiculous that I hadn't tuned into this before, but the sexual implications of the merge had always been taboo to talk about—to anyone. No one was to speak of the elephant standing in the middle of the living room.

 

Jim had moved on to another artifact and I watched him absently, my mind sifting through all the implications tumbling through my mind. One of the random facts I'd discovered in my research was that heterosexuality had been much more the norm in past generations of Sentinels. Now that fact didn't seem so random. I'd taken today's Sentinels' sexual orientation toward being fey'd and/or bi as a given, but perhaps something else was at work.

 

I got a jolt as the energy flow between us stuttered, bringing me out of my musings.

 

"Hello, Jim. Simon said I could find you here."

 

Carolyn Plummer stood in the doorway, briefcase in hand, her gaze fixed on Jim.

 

"Carolyn!" Sounding pleased, Jim handed me the pottery shard he’d been looking at. "What brings you here?"

 

Hefting her briefcase, Carolyn explained. "I got some results on Katherine Franckle's blood work I thought you would find interesting."

 

"You didn't need to bring me the paperwork—I trust you to give me the bottom line."

 

Carolyn smiled and walked over to the worktable in the middle of the room. Putting the briefcase on top of it, she snapped the locks and opened it with a flourish. Instead of paperwork, a small feast filled it. She started to unpack it, pulling out a tablecloth and napkins. A bottle of wine and two glasses followed, along with thick sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, grapes, pears and finally, chocolate cake.

 

I grabbed the book we’d found in the box, and announced, "I'll just go study this—er, log—out in the hallway while you two have lunch."

 

"Wait." Carolyn had something more to remove from her briefcase. She handed me a paper bag, saying, "I didn't forget you, Blair."

 

I took the lunch bag, shocked into speechlessness. Jim walked over to me and gently pushed my jaw up. "You mind?" He asked in shorthand and I'm afraid my mouth dropped opened again. He certainly didn't need to ask my permission.

 

"Heck, no, Jim. Enjoy your lunch with Miss Plummer. Give a yell if you need me." As if he would. Need me.

 

Out in the hallway, I moved away from the door to give them some privacy and sat down on the floor, staring at the Burton manuscript with its browned edges and battered cover. As stunned as I was that I'd never heard of this book, I was even more shocked that we had found it moldering in a basement. 

 

I tenderly opened the book, being careful with the fragile pages. I scanned quickly as Burton was a typical nineteenth century writer, ambling slowly to his subject with many stops along the way. He could be acerbically funny and sometimes brutally dismissive, but I had no time for his sightseeing now.

 

It took him a while to wind his way through city and jungle but finally, six chapters in, he described the Musulungu, a tribe in the Congo. Headed by the Chieftain, a role generally inherited, it mirrored countless other tribes I'd read about. But this tribe contained what Burton called a shaman, someone who served as the tribe's healer and spiritual leader.

 

That was unique, as I'd never read of any other references to a tribal holy "man" before. All the tribal spirituality I'd read about had centered around women, usually involving magical rituals.

 

Burton's next chapter described the "Watchman" and I realized I was reading of his first encounter with a Sentinel. I stopped reading, flipped back to the front of the book to check the date on the monograph, and saw that it had been written in 1848. This predated the other books I'd read by Burton and could well have been the first book he'd written.

 

He wrote of the unique relationship between the Sentinel and the Shaman, and it quickly became apparent that the Shaman acted as the Sentinel’s guide.  Accompanying the watchman as he roamed the tribe's territory, the Shaman kept him safe from the "evil that would strip a watchman's mind" -- in modern parlance, a zone.

 

Wow, the first guides had served more than Sentinels; they'd served the whole tribe, body and soul. They had belonged not to just one man, but to everyone in the tribe. Talk about belonging.

 

I put the book down, thinking hard. What if Symbiont had something to do with removing any references to shamans? It certainly would've contradicted the image they wanted to convey of empaths being evil and incompetent.

 

My theory evaporated when I read the next chapter and realized that Burton had to have had a screw loose when he wrote this book.  Burton claimed "watchmen" could see for eight miles, and hear almost as far.  They could tell the sex of a baby not yet born by touching the mother’s belly, smell water forty feet underground, predict storms a week out and warn of earthquakes. He even made the insane assertion that guides, or "shamans" were as powerful as watchman, albeit in a different way.

 

Maybe Burton had been delirious with malaria when he wrote the journal and ir had probably been repudiated, deemed a fanciful tale. Burton then realized he couldn't make such outlandish claims and retain any credibility, so he'd gone on to write books that stuck to the facts. That was probably why this book had never been referred to in any of the thousands of studies written about Sentinels.

 

Despite the fancifulness of Burton's ramblings, I kept reading.  And found something that had the ring of truth in it—at least for me, though I knew anyone else would've found it just as implausible as Burton’s other bizarre claims. The shaman had allowed Burton to observe a merge. He described how the Sentinel and shaman had sat facing one another, bringing their hands together, aligning their fingertips. They had stayed like that for a goodly part of an hour, then leaned forward until their foreheads touched. Twenty minutes passed and then, in unison, they sat up.

 

The shaman had informed Burton that after bonding they walked in new colors. Burton wrote he had interpreted that to mean that they had changed their clothes, but I knew what had been described was the change in their auras after the merge.

 

Before I could learn any more, the door opened and Carolyn emerged. She lingered in the doorway, saying something to Jim, then finally said a breathy "goodbye" and walked away from me down the hall. Jim poked his head out the door and watched her for a second, then turned toward me.

 

"Hey, you didn’t eat the lunch Carolyn made for you."

 

"I will; I just got up caught reading this book. It’s fascinating, Jim—"

 

Jim absently nodded, and I could tell his mind was back in the storage room, thinking through what it might yet reveal about Katherine Franckle’s death.  I closed the book and stood up, ready to get back to the present instead of dwelling in the past.

 

Meticulously canvassing the room from top to bottom, Jim found nothing that seemed out of place. "This is probably a dead end, Chief, but I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s something here, if only I could "see" it."

 

All that was left were the books that had been in the box. Opening one up, Jim scanned some pages, then stopped to read. "Listen to this: 'Much to the consternation of the tribal council, the Shaman—'"

 

Jim interrupted himself, scanning ahead. "It seems a shaman is a guide—" he said as an aside, then continued, "—of the Kikuyu Tribe refused to serve the Watchman, declaring he was not 'the one.' Despite the chaos that erupted with his refusal, nothing they said could change the shaman's mind. Three days later, Bintui, the Watchman, was discovered trying to force the daughter of Mussugna. The shaman’s decision to reject the Watchman was made clear and the tribe rejoiced."

 

Jim shut the book, shaking his head. "A guide refusing a Sentinel?"

 

I ducked down to see who’d written the book. Dr. Samuel White Baker, almost as well known as Burton for his explorations of Africa. "Weird. Burton mentioned a shaman that seemed to be a guide. Maybe it was a different kind of guide."

 

"Or a different kind of world back then."

 

Jim’s words sparked an idea and I took a look at the material in the boxes with a fresh eye. "Jim, every one of these books deal with Sentinels and guides, and all were written before 1920."

 

"So?"

 

"Well, I suspect they all describe a very different relationship between Sentinel and Guide than the one we know, (and take for granted) has been in place from the beginning."

 

Gathering up the books, Jim placed them all back in the box, adding the leather bag of animal totems on top, and replaced the lid. "We'll take the whole box in. Let the secretary know."

 

"Right."

 

The box ended up sitting on the coffee table for the next few days as our attention was diverted to the bombing at the Central Library.

 

When the weekend rolled around, Jim sent me off with Roberts to buy some new clothes at Icon's. The weather was warming up, and he thought it was time for the flannel to go. I was used to someone else calling the shots about what I wore—Merrick had paid meticulous attention to the clothes on my back—but never with my comfort in mind.

 

Merrick had been like a girl with a dolly, fussing over the details, demanding I change if what I wore didn't suit his mood, or clashed with what he was wearing, fluffing my hair out, or pulling it back into a ponytail. Clothes had been worn to please Merrick and I'd almost forgotten how to do my own choosing.

 

Roberts came over to where I was standing with a pile of clothes in my arms. Putting his hands on his hips, he struck a pose I was becoming quite familiar with. Shaking his head, he rifled through my choices. "Master Sandburg, really, we must get you to start thinking big."

 

"A large just hangs on me, Roberts," I said, teasing him.

 

"I don't mean—" Roberts stopped as he caught on, and shook his head. "You know exactly what I mean, young man. Four t-shirts, a pair of shorts, and a pair of sneakers do not add up to a summer wardrobe."

 

Pointing to the checkout counter that held six times the amount of clothes in my hands, he then reached out and took my pile.  Walking over, he added my modest selection to a pile that spread out over the entire counter. There were slacks, shorts and shirts, in fabrics of linen, seersucker, and cotton -- none of them see-through – along with sandals, raingear, and new underwear.  And even a baseball cap.

 

"There. Oh, Lord Ellison said you were to buy a pair of boots so you could ride the horses. Go to the shoe department and start trying some on."

 

"Boots? Riding? Are you sure?"

 

"Lord Ellison is sure, and that’s what matters. Now scoot so we can go to lunch."

 

I scooted, smiling at the idea of riding a horse and of going out to lunch with anyone other than my Sentinel. What a different world I lived in these days.

 

As I rounded the corner, someone stepped in front of me and I ran smack into a hard chest. Before I could back up and apologize, someone else came up behind me. "Hey," was all I managed to say before a cloth covered my nose and mouth. Chloroform. The last thing I saw was Roberts running toward me, a look of horror on his face.

 

***

 

Simon called me at home. "Jim," he said and paused. The dreaded pause. The pause that tells you you’re about to hear news you don’t want to hear. I held on tight to the phone, waiting for Simon to get the words out, words he didn’t want to say and words I didn’t want to hear.

 

"It’s Roberts. He was found confused and dazed in the alley behind Icon’s about ten minutes ago. Someone clobbered him good. He’s being transported to St. Andrew’s right now."

 

"But he’s conscious? What about Sandburg?"

 

"Sandburg? Your guide?"

 

"Yes, that Sandburg. They went there to buy him clothes."

 

"My God, Jim, do you think he could’ve been the one that hit Roberts?"

 

I closed my eyes and counted to six, unable to get to ten before I exploded. "Jesus, not you too, Simon!  After working with Blair all through the Epidemic, I can’t believe you’d believe he’d be capable of something like that!" 

 

He sputtered, "No, no, of course he wouldn’t. I don’t know why I asked that."

 

I did. Not even people who knew Sandburg were immune from looking at him through the distorted prism of propaganda.

 

"So no one’s seen Sandburg?"

 

"I don’t know, didn’t know he was missing. Harris and Melvoy will be radioing in as soon as Roberts is able to give a statement."

 

"I’m going to the hospital right now. Call someone at Icons and tell them to check the security tapes—I want to know if the cameras caught anything."

 

At the hospital, I was directed to an ER cubicle. Hunched over, Roberts sat dejectedly on the examining table, looking white and shaken, and alarmingly fragile. He got to his feet when he saw me, latching onto my arm and talking rapidly. "They took him, Lord Ellison—right in the middle of the swimwear department.  I tried to stop them, but some bloody villain hit me from behind."  

 

'Bloody villain?' It wasn't like Roberts to drop his coolly detached tone and swear, and it told me how deeply Sandburg had gotten under his skin.

 

"They were thugs, nothing but thugs," he sputtered, and I put a hand under his elbow and guided him to the chair. "They had no business being in Icons, I can tell you that," he continued. 

 

I nodded, letting him know I was listening to every word. As I sat down next to him, I took his shaking hand in mine.  "I need your help, Roberts. Can you tell me what the men who took Sandburg looked like?"

 

"It all happened so fast. I only got a glimpse of the two men who had Bl-Master Sandburg, before someone hit me from behind."

 

"I understand, and thank goodness you've a hard head. Think back. You said they stuck out at Icons—was it what they were wearing, their grooming?  What was it that made them so obviously not belong?"

 

"I don't know, I can't recall…." Roberts stumbled to his feet, too agitated to sit still. I jumped to my feet and put my arm around his shoulders.

 

"Take your time. Deep breath in; hold it.  Slowly let it go. That's it. Do it again." I walked Roberts through the breathing exercise that Sandburg often used with me when I couldn't seem to focus.  After a few minutes, Roberts seemed to calm. He began to speak and this time his voice was steady and sure.

 

"There were two men, both big. One young -- early twenties -- the other older, forty I’d say. Uh…" Roberts faltered for just a moment, then shook his head as if trying to focus his thoughts. "The young one had a gold tooth, the older one, a buzz cut and, I think, some kind of mole or beauty mark above his lip—on the right side."

 

It didn’t surprise me that even under duress, Roberts’ powers of observation hadn’t wavered. But it wasn't going to do us much good. Whoever had taken Blair had been hired help, and even if Roberts’ descriptions resulted in accurate police sketches, it wouldn’t tell us much about why Blair had been taken or by whom.

 

I sat in my study at three in the morning while an FBI team sat in the living room monitoring the phones. I knew little more than I had that afternoon. The feed from the garage disc outside of Icon’s had shown Blair unconscious, slung over the shoulder of the younger man. Four men, not two, had been in on the kidnapping, and they'd sped off in a nondescript car with what turned out to be stolen license plates.

 

Old and new case files had been summoned and studied. Roadblocks stopped forty vans of the same make that had taken Blair, without result.  Every conceivable surface had been dusted for fingerprints, revealing nothing of use. Snitches had been rounded up and interviewed—none reported any word on the street regarding Sandburg.

 

My father had called at some point. After making sympathetic noises, he asked if I'd considered whether Sandburg had set this up himself in order to escape. When that suggestion met with silence, he moved on, asking if I’d considered whether someone from Sandburg's past had taken him. "After all, Jimmy, he's been intimately involved with some very unsavory men. One of them may have had a score to settle, or maybe they just wanted another taste."

 

Roberts, dressed in his robe, came in, took one look at the phone smashed into pieces on the floor, and bent down to clean the mess.

 

"Leave it."

 

"M'lord—"

 

"I said, leave it. Tilda can come in later and deal with it. You should be resting."

 

"I've tried, but until we find Mr. Sandburg—"

 

"That could be awhile. And when we do and I bring him home, he'll need you. I'll need you. So, go. Take something, if necessary. I want you to sleep."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

The list of suspects had been short. My father, Merrick, or a wild card.

 

I called Delaney. "Can you talk?"

 

"Not now. Give me a half hour."

 

True to her word—which was why I’d trusted her enough to send her to work for my father—she called me precisely thirty minutes later.

 

"What do you know about Sandburg’s disappearance?"

 

"Just what the Governor rather gleefully told the staff—that he’s missing."

 

"Could my father have taken him?"

 

She didn’t answer. She wouldn’t until she had a chance to think it through. I waited, impatient, but knowing it would do no good to prod her. A full minute passed before she gave her opinion.

 

"As far as I can tell—and I can tell pretty far, as you know -- your father's official spending hasn't increased in any significant way…and I monitor the bottom line, not what the books say."

 

"What if he used his own money?"

 

"I've got my finger on his private accounts as well. Nothing new. But there were some odd expenditures in the last year…"

 

"I don't have time for that if it doesn't concern Sandburg's disappearance. Just keep close tabs on who he calls, sees, where he goes….You know—the works."

 

"I know my job, boss. Don't sweat it. I'll call if I get a glimmer."

 

"Thanks, Delaney."

 

That left Merrick. He'd closed the art gallery. His home on Summit Avenue was empty, and had been put up for sale. Maybe it was talking with Delaney that made me look at the problem from her angle. Calling up the tri-county records for newly registered titles, I hit pay dirt. Merrick Corp. had purchased property in Whatcom County and closed on the property a month ago. It was a starting place.

 

***

 

I opened my eyes, but nothing changed; there was only darkness, a vaguely familiar ache in my gut and a thirst that felt as if it could choke me. I sensed someone stir at my side, and a tall shape stood up. Leaning over me, the indistinct figure cupped the back of my head, lifting it up and putting a glass to my lips. I drank the water quickly, desperate to get as much in me as I could before it was taken away, but he let me finish it all.

 

Though I couldn't make out his features, his long blond hair reflected what little light was coming in from under the door.  A Cultivated. "What…why…." I found it hard forming the words to ask what had happened.

 

"It'll all become clear enough soon." He chuckled, and ruffled my hair. "You and chloroform aren't such a good mix, Blair baby."

 

"Blair baby" made the hair on the back of my neck rise. "Do it for me, Blair, baby….That's right, like that, Blair baby….Why do you make me do this to you, Blair baby…you know I hate it more than you do…."

 

Oh Jesus, no.

 

The next time I woke, Merrick was leaning over me. I tried to shove him hard, but the chloroform had done a number on me, and my shove was more like a weak pat.

 

Capturing my hand, Merrick asked hopefully, "You missed me, didn’t you?"  His emotions were pouring out, overwhelming me. The air thinned and even though I tried to pull in oxygen, I started gasping like a beached fish. As my eyes started to roll back in my head, I felt the prick of the needle and Noxy filled my veins.

 

"I came prepared,” Merrick said, rubbing my arm.

 

It took just a minute for it to reach my empathic pathways, cloaking me from the onslaught of Merrick’s feelings. My head lolled to the side, and as I stared at the face I hated and feared, coldness settled into my bones. "Why, Gavin? You discarded me. You have a Cultivated for a guide."

 

Merrick leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees, and spoke earnestly, "You've got it wrong, Blair; he's not my guide. You are; you've always been, you always will be. I should never have let myself get discouraged."

 

He slowly drew the sheet down. I was naked, and the cap was still on. He tapped it with his fingernail. "This caused me a little consternation, I can tell you. The manufacturer Fed Exed the key to me this morning."

 

He lifted the cap and unlocked it. It was a relief to have the weight off until he put his hands on my thighs, and pulled my legs apart. Protesting, I yelled, "Merrick—stop! I'm claimed by Lord Ellison."

 

Ignoring me completely, Merrick spread me wider, bent my knees up, then swung onto the bed, facing me. "I’ve missed seeing you like this. Exposed and ready." Lifting my balls, he fondled them, smiling. "I've had dreams about you like this." He coated his fingers with gel, and without preamble shoved two of them into me. My body bucked weakly at the assault, but even pain couldn't give me the power to effectively fight him.

 

As the fingers of one hand plunged in and out of me, he used the other to pump my cock. I stayed limp, his touch delivering nothing but pain. He grunted as he upped the force he was using, and my head began banging against the headboard with each thrust.  By the time he gave up, he was sweating and I was hoarse from screaming.

 

Reaching up, he patted my cheek with his sticky, bloodied fingers. "You really do react badly to chloroform. All that puking must've done something to you. Must remember never to use it on you again."

 

"Why?" My throat was too raw to allow more than a rasp. "Jim will find me, I'm claimed."

 

"Of course he’ll find you. He’s a Sentinel, after all, and a big, important detective to boot. It ought to be a snap for him, especially since I left a dandy trail of breadcrumbs for him to follow."

 

It was a trap and I was the cheese.

 

“Now just relax and this will soon be over. Go on, sleep, I’ll let you know when it’s time.” Merrick leaned over and kissed me. “Don’t worry, Blair baby, this is going to be painless, you’ll see.”

 

Painless. The moment Merrick left, I sat up, swallowing convulsively to keep from puking again. After a few minutes, I tried standing up. The world held steady and I tottered to the door I knew would be locked. It was.

 

The one window had bars on it, but I made my way to it anyway, my gait steadier, readjusting to the familiar pain in my ass. The window opened, and I shook the center bars out of frustration, expecting nothing. They were solid, but the concrete they were set in looked new. Starting from the left, I shook and pulled on each bar and when I got to the very last one, felt the tiniest movement.

 

I paused, trying to "feel" past the Noxy and pick up Merrick or the Cultivated's emotions in order to tell me what they were doing. Merrick's bled through, and I could tell he was in an alpha stage, nearly asleep. The Cultivated was a blank and I hoped that meant he was conked out.

 

Going back to work, I continued to jerk, twist and pull, grunting with the effort as it rewarded me with incremental movements. The night air was cool, but it wasn't long before I was sweating, my arms trembling with the effort. I stopped to rest and studied the room, looking for some tool I could use to help break away the mortar.

 

The room seemed stripped bare; holding only the bed, a chair and an empty closet. The shelf was high enough that I couldn't see all the way to the back, and I hauled the chair over and stood on it. The gods were with me—way at the back, a hanger had gotten lodged. Armed with a tool, I went back to the window and started excavating in earnest.

 

I yanked and scraped, pulled and chipped away at the mortar, and pretty soon the bar was loose enough for me to try something else. Bringing the chair over to the window, I sat in it and tried pushing at the bar with my feet, banging it as forcefully as I could and still remain quiet. On the third push, the bar popped out, falling to soft earth nearly silently.

 

Standing on the chair, I eased one leg over the sill and through the opening, then tried to squeeze through. It was tight, so tight that I thought for a moment I might be truly stuck; stuck only to be found in the morning by Merrick. Sucking my breath in, I pulled with all my might, feeling fabric and skin fray across my ribs as I got through. I held onto the bars, and slowly let myself down the side of the house until my feet touched the earth. Then I took off running.

 

Okay, a neutral observer might have said I took off shambling. But the important thing was I put distance between Merrick and myself. Unfortunately, the night was moonless and the countryside lacked streetlights. Nearly blind, only able to see a half a foot in front of me, I ran right into a tree. A tree that reached down and grabbed me. Where was I, in the land of the Ents?

 

"What have we here?"

 

It was the Cultivated—the fucking Construct was Merrick's watch dog and he had his fist in my hair. "Going somewhere?"

 

"Trying to," I answered, testing his hold. It was tight enough to bring tears to my eyes.

 

"If Merrick woke up and you were gone, he'd be so sad," he said mockingly.

 

"He'd get over it."

 

"That's the problem, he won't. He hasn't." The sadness I felt coming from him made me want to reach out to him, but the hand in my hair effectively nixed that impulse. Could he actually love Merrick? Maybe he'd just met him—there was a lot to love in Merrick if you didn't know him.

 

I tried again. "He has to; I'm claimed by Lord Ellison."

 

"Not for much longer, my pet." What was that in his voice? It sounded like triumph but felt like sorrow.

 

The Cultivated sounded rueful as he said, "Sandburg, you're gonna have to face reality. Merrick's in, Ellison's out."

 

Oh God, it was true then. Merrick planned on killing Jim. I swallowed the bile that had risen in my throat and took a deep breath.

 

Over my dead body.

 

"Can't you let me go? Forget you found me? Step in and guide Gavin?"

 

The Cultivated snorted rather inelegantly. "What la la land are you living in? Gavin would know."

 

"No. He won't. His abilities are touch and taste."

 

"Gavin would know, my pretty. I know he would, you know he would."

 

I wanted to argue, but the rigors of the day were catching up to me. Just before the darkness totally enclosed me, I heard him mutter, "What've you got that I don't have?"

 

***

 

When I woke, I was in an empty room, my wrist handcuffed to a pipe that ran along the wall. 

 

Merrick squatted next to me, glowering.  "You never did that before. No matter what happened between us, you never ran before." He sounded truly aggrieved.

 

I looked at the cuff, then tested it. Standard police issue, not a sex toy. I wasn't going anywhere. "We had a contract then. Now we don't."

 

"The hell we don't."

 

"We don't.  Gavin, get real. You discarded me. You broke it. I am no longer bound to you." It felt good to be able to talk like this to Gavin instead of being forced by the contract to act as his guide at all times.

 

"Fuck the contract. You're bound to me in ways that are bigger and more real than any piece of paper."

 

I sighed, knowing nothing I said would put a dent in his fevered desire to have me under his control again. I could live with that—what I couldn't and wouldn't live with was Merrick killing Jim. I didn't know his timetable but I doubted I had much time. I had to take myself out of the equation and hope Gavin would leave Jim alone.

 

I forced myself to visibly relax, to look confident. "I hate to break it to you, Gavin, but Jim and I completed the merge the very first time."

 

Merrick’s face darkened at the news and he sputtered, "You're lying. You're defective, a rat. No way did you merge with a class nine Sentinel, let alone on the first try."

 

I smiled, and it was a real smile, as I remembered that merge—the sweet sense of completion, of being embraced and accepted. My journey down memory lane was interrupted by the back of Merrick's hand. The force of the blow stunned me, but I shook my head and went to work.

 

"He's ten times the Sentinel you are, Gavin, and he wants me. There's no going back."

 

I blessed Merrick’s quick temper as the next blow smashed into my mouth.  My head snapped back, hitting the wall. Two more blows, and a black eye and cracked rib were added to my split lip. Dazed, I felt Merrick unlock the cuffs and pull me away from the wall.

 

The beating continued, and every time Merrick seemed to be slowing, I’d egg him on a little more. "Even if you kill Jim, I'll always be his guide—" That got me a hard kick to the ribs that took away my breath, so I was unable to say anything more for a while.

 

"I don't need to kill him, Blair," Merrick insisted. "He’s going to hand you over to me voluntarily. You’ll watch as he writes "discard" over your contract with a smile on his face."

 

"No, won’t happen," I panted

 

Merrick’s boot connected sharply with my hip.  I struggled to get back on my knees, knowing how Merrick hated it when I defied him.

 

"He won’t," I gasped, not wanting him to cool off, to consider what he was doing. "You’ll see; we’re bonded and that means something, something you never had—and will never have—with me."

 

I could feel his rage reaching a peak and I tried to help him over the edge by saying, "It was you who was defective, not me—" I could see he was close to losing it, to being unable to tell he had gone too far. Just one more well aimed blow would do it. I'd be dead and Jim wouldn't have a reason to walk into this trap.

 

But before he could finish the job, a voice called out, "Stop, Gavin! You’ll kill him." The Cultivated stood in the doorway, backlit by the bright light of day, the corona making him look like an angel.  I could only hope he was the angel of death.

 

Disappointingly, Merrick obeyed, stopping the kick that would’ve connected with my head.

 

Damn, not the angel of death. 

 

I tried to think of something more to say to get Merrick riled up enough again to come back at me, but I felt the aggression leaving Merrick and knew I'd lost my chance. Without hope, I no longer had the strength to stay on my hands and knees and I collapsed.

 

Merrick's harsh breathing slowly calmed and he muttered, "Damn. I didn't mean to…"

 

"No, of course you didn't," the angel said reassuringly.

 

Using his foot, Merrick rolled me onto my back and smiled down at me. "Blair, I want you to meet the reason James Ellison will discard you and hand you over to me with a song in his heart." He pulled the Cultivated close, and for the first time I saw the construct clearly. "I’d like to introduce you to Emil Simone, Lord Ellison's true guide."

 

A lot of people say the Cultivateds all look alike. They don't. They share some common features: height, fair coloring, blue eyes; so much so that I had often wondered if they killed the ones that came out lacking any of those qualities. Still, it was the style of the Cultivated that really made them blend together: their long straight hair, the way their movement seemed centered in their pelvis, the throaty way they talked as though their voices bypassed their diaphragm completely.

 

Nevertheless, there were discernable differences in their features.  And it was Emil standing before me; there was no mistaking his identity.  I'd seen his picture.

 

"You're dead," I stated, yet knowing he wasn't.

 

Emil just smiled.

 

Merrick ruffled his hair and said, "Emil is the picture of health. Which is more than I can say for you, bucko."

 

Emil gave Merrick a conspiratorial look. "Poor Jim will piss his pants when he sees me." That prospect seemed to please both of them.

 

I wanted to wipe the grins off their faces with my fists. "Why the hell haven't you told Jim you're alive?"

 

Emil gave a delicate shrug. "My, my, aren't we protective," he said mockingly.

Blair suspected he did that a lot, use the royal we. Had he done that with Jim? How had Jim put up with it?

 

"He’ll be here soon, Blair, and then all this will be over. Emil will be where he belongs and you’ll be right where you belong."

 

They left me there, confident I couldn't escape.  I lay on the floor as the sun went down and the night deepened, cold and desperately needing to piss. I slept or passed out, hard to say which, and woke when Emil shook my shoulder.

 

"Oh dear. We left you a little too long. You've gone and pissed yourself." He pulled me up, propping me against the wall. "Here, drink this," he said, handing me a cup, and I took it, not looking at him. It was warm; water laced with scotch and I hated the gratitude it made me feel.

 

"Thanks," I mumbled, as I handed it back. There was blood from my mouth on the cup and Emil wiped it off, then poured more "water" into it and handed it back.

 

"You trying to get me drunk?" I whispered.

 

"Might not be such a bad thing."

 

I drank it down and the heat of the alcohol seeped through me, making my muscles relax a little. Tilting my head back, I closed my eyes and fell asleep for a moment, but woke when I felt the water tipping into my mouth again. When he saw my eyes were open, Emil said, "So you like being Jim's guide."

 

I didn't want to have this conversation, but I was weary and the scotch was making the pain bearable, so I answered. "Yeah, I like being his guide."

 

Emil settled himself next to me, putting his back against the wall. "Aren't you bored?"

 

I closed my eyes. "I've never been bored with Jim."

 

"Is that so? How very odd. He's the dullest man on earth, aside from his lovely muscles."

 

My eyes snapped open and I painfully turned my head to look at Emil. "Dull? You think Jim is dull?" The sound of my outrage was muted by the necessity of whispering.

 

Emil nodded, and explained. "All he ever thinks about is criminals and their crimes. He reads the occasional novel, but never watches television unless it's sports.  Hates to wear a tie, or any occasion that calls for a tie; loathes the theater, the symphony and opera, and wouldn't know a de Koenig if it bit him in the ass."

 

The scotch was doing more than making the pain bearable, it was taking away my sense of judgment and I cringed when I heard myself answer, "What's not to love?"

 

"Jesus, you're easy. One needs more than work to make a life, you know."

 

"One needs work first, however. It's what builds the box all the goodies go in. Without the box, they lie scattered on the floor with no value at all." I had no idea where that had come from—but the lack of meaningful work while with Merrick had been nearly as painful as the physical assaults.

 

Emil snorted, unimpressed with my philosophy. "If you'd been a real guide to Gavin, you would've had meaningful work."

 

"Doing what? Helping him decide if a painting was a forgery? Grounding him as he tasted his Cabernet, so he could declare he tasted the blackberry hints and overlay of oak? I wasn't missing much, believe me."

 

"My, my, aren't you a snob. Just because it doesn't interest you, doesn't mean it isn't meaningful to some people."

 

I actually thought about that for a moment. "I guess…so you'd take that over making the world a safer place working by Jim's side?"

 

"Oh, please. Of course. Not that either one of us is going to get a vote."

 

"Yeah, if there's one thing you can count on, it's empaths not getting a vote."

 

We sighed in unison and fell silent. My head dropped down and I may have fallen into one of those micro-naps that happen when the body is too traumatized to stay alert any longer.

 

"You boys are mighty cozy."

 

At the sound of Merrick’s voice, my head shot up, a big mistake. The movement sent the pain skittering around my head, like a pinball searching for the big score. Nausea had kicked in from the scotch, and I swallowed hard, trying to keep myself from puking on Merrick’s shoes.

 

Emil stayed silent, but rose gracefully to his feet. Merrick knelt down and assessed the damage he’d done. "Hell of a black eye, sport." He rubbed his thumb over my lip and I groaned. "I’m afraid I smashed you in the mouth a little harder than I meant to. You won’t be sucking any dick for a while. Pity."

 

Tilting my head up, he stared at me, and I stared back. "So what did it feel like to bond?" I didn't  answer, not wishing to share one of the most intimate moment of my life. I tensed, expecting the blow that usually came with my silence.

 

Instead, Merrick stood up and moved in close to Emil. Sweeping a lock of Emil’s hair behind an ear, Merrick cupped Emil's face. Emil leaned in closer and closed his eyes, and I saw his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed hard.

 

Putting one hand behind Emil's neck, Merrick began to massage the muscles there. It didn’t take long for Emil to begin to melt, his body seeking more of Merrick’s touch. It was the one Sentinel ability that Merrick put to good use, enabling him to bring the most exquisite pleasure or pain to bear, depending on his inclination.

 

His eyes on me, Merrick began to undress Emil, who passively cooperated, seemingly mesmerized. I have to admit, the man was beautiful naked. Long and lean, golden, it was like looking at a masterpiece that lived and breathed. I knew what Merrick was doing; showing me what Jim would be seeing and doing as soon as he got Emil home.

 

His hands caressed Emil's flat stomach and Emil leaned back. "Isn’t he magnificent?" Merrick asked, rhetorically. "Can you imagine what it was like for Ellison to touch your hairy body after being used to this?" Merrick shuddered dramatically. His hand moved down, encircling Emil's cock, and unlike mine, it immediately grew hard. "See how he responds to my touch? How aroused he’s become without drugs?"

 

I could see that Merrick had become aroused as well. As one hand cupped Emil's genitals, he unbuckled his belt and unzipped his pants, pulled Emil close, and buried his face in Emil’s hair, groaning.

 

I closed my eyes then, not wanting to have this picture in my head after Emil left with Jim. Because it would be all too easy to imagine Jim in Merrick’s place, his face as ecstatic as Merrick's was, as he merged with his beloved Emil.

 

I must’ve passed out, because when I opened my eyes, they were dressed and in the next room arguing. Emil’s voice was raised as he said, "Now you know what I’ve been saying is true. I belong with you."

 

"Sorry, babe," Merrick said, actually sounding regretful. "I’m not giving up on Blair."

 

Through the doorway, I saw Emil step in close to Merrick and touch his face. "You deserve better than a rat. I’m yours if you’ll have me."

 

Merrick pushed Emil’s hand away, a scowl on his face. "Don’t be ridiculous. We had a plan, and I’m not about to bail on it now." Merrick stalked back into the room I was in.

 

Emil followed, still arguing. "Gavin, get real. You were hot for him, that’s all.  Lots of men get off on dirty sex—you just dressed up that need to look like a Sentinel/guide thing."

 

"Stop it! That's not the way it was—is."

 

Emil just shook his head, his long blond hair swinging freely around his head. Merrick seemed mesmerized by the sight, "You're volunteering to be my guide," he said, clearly perplexed by the offer.

 

Emil nodded.

 

"Come on, you’d leave an aristocrat, the son of the governor, for me? That makes no fucking sense."

 

Emil leaned against the wall, looking as beautiful and graceful in the dingy room as a wild animal stretched out in the sun. "It makes total fucking sense. You and I appreciate the same things, see the world the same way, understand one another. Jim's a Neanderthal. He'd rather drink a Bud than a cabernet, rather watch the Jags than hear Pavarotti sing, would chose a trip to the dentist over one to Symphony Hall. The man has no interest in a social life. I might as well’ve been bonded to an auto mechanic."

 

"You exaggerate. He's handsome, rich and a lord."

 

"He's a fucking goody two-shoes. Jim came to the dorms when I'd just turned 17. He took one look at me and had to have me. I was thrilled, of course, and the envy of all my mates. So what happens next? The very next day he enlists, taking me with him. Instead of a tuxedo and silk sheets, I'm wearing dungarees and sleeping on a cot. In a tent!"

 

Emil's outrage made me laugh, which hurt like hell.

 

Emil scowled at me. "You think that's funny? It's not funny."

 

I wiped the smile off my face and tried to look sympathetic. "Sorry. Go on."

 

Emil nodded and looked at Merrick as he continued his tale of woe. "I hated the army. Jimmy, as you might imagine, loved it. He was good at all that running, jumping, and shooting stuff. I sat in the tent, sweating and twiddling my thumbs. There was no one to talk to, the clothes were off the rack and made out of polyester, and the food—don’t get me started."

 

Emil pushed away from the wall. "I don't think Jimmy ever realized how much I loathed our time in the trenches. I never did forgive him for those four years, but do you think the big lug ever noticed?"

 

Taking Merrick’s hands in his, Emil confessed, "You know, I saw a picture of you once, in the newspaper, with your rat dressed up in a tuxedo. You were at an art opening, and everyone was there, all of Cascade's high society—hell, most of Washington's society. And there was a street rat, dressed in a two thousand dollar tuxedo, mingling with them. I hated him, hated that he was drinking champagne and listening to all the really important people talk, while Jim read some forensic report and I played FreeCell."

 

Emil moved his hands to Merrick's chest. "I thought you looked suave and sophisticated and handsome. I could see you had exquisite taste in everything." He leaned in and brushed his lips across Merrick's mouth, then pulled back and said, "Except guides. But that can be rectified."

 

I wanted to puke. I didn't know if it was the scotch on top of the beating or seeing Emil, the love of Jim's life, throwing himself at Merrick. God, those two deserved one another. But God didn't seem to be in the business of handing out just desserts. I lasted through the long open-mouthed kiss, the breathless, "Oh, Gavin," the sound of a zipper coming down, and then I was out.

 

***

 

Everything hurt—my ribs, back, and legs had all felt Merrick's fists and boots. My barriers were gone and I was picking up everything. Merrick and Emil and the guards were all broadcasting and I shook from the waves of emotion that pounded. I lay in a tight ball, pathetically trying to hide from the assault.

 

I felt Merrick coming toward me; beaming a mixture of triumph and regret, lust and hate, desire and revulsion. Then he was kneeling down next to me, pulling my arms away from my head. Carefully he pulled free a strand of hair that was matted to my forehead by blood.

 

"You're a godawful mess, Blair. I need to get you cleaned up before Ellison gets here…and he'll be here soon. We can't have you looking less than your best now, can we? It'll be an important moment for all of us; a telling moment."

 

He had a syringe of Noxy in his hand. He thumped a vein in my arm, then slid the needle in. The drug rolled over me, sealing me back up, and I was thankful to be released from feeling Merrick's rollercoaster emotions.

 

Pulling me to my feet, he handed me over to one of his men. "Clean him up. Wash his hair; get him dressed. In that sky blue shirt and the black jeans. His hair should be down." Merrick was back to playing with dolls.

 

The guy whose job it was to make me presentable was named Diego and he was a decent sort. Once in the shower, he leaned me against the tile, got me wet and efficiently soaped me up, being unexpectedly gentle when he bent me over and applied the soap to my bloodied backside. I clutched at him, the pain from my ribs almost as bad as the pain from Merrick's attempt to make me "ready".  I concentrated on watching the red water spiral down the drain. While I was tipped over his knee, Diego washed my hair, then pulled me upright and let the water rinse away the last of the soap and blood.

 

I had to lean against him as he dried me, unable to stand on my own. Finally, he dressed me, and by the time he was done, I was wet with sweat and shaking from the pain and effort. He mopped my face dry, then looped my arm over his shoulder and brought me into the living room, placing me in a wing-backed chair. Without a backward glance, he left me and I tilted my head back and shut my eyes.

 

I must've slept, because the next thing I knew, Merrick was in front of me, shaking me. "Wake up.  He's coming up the drive and you won't want to miss a moment, believe me." He buttoned my shirt and ran his hand through my hair, trying to make some order of it. "There, you look half-way presentable."

 

I heard a car pull up.  The door opened and then Jim came in with his hands up, one of Merrick’s men prodding him with a gun. I drank in the sight of him, knowing it would be the last time. He gave Merrick a cold, calculating look, then shifted his attention to me.

 

The coldness in his eyes left and he looked at me inquiringly. I gave him a thumbs up and a small smile and was stunned by the amount of affection in his eyes. I ducked my head , happiness spilling inside me. I might not be his guide any more, but I would hold on to that look in his eyes for the rest of my life.

 

Jim rounded on Merrick, causing the man behind him to cock his gun. Ignoring the sound, Jim snarled, "What kind of game are you playing, Merrick? Is it money you want?"

 

"Dear man," Merrick said, oozing unctuous concern. "It's well known you've been utterly bereft since you lost your guide, and I wanted to put things to right."

 

Poor Jim didn't know what he meant. He started to move towards me. "Blair," he said.

 

It was an…unexpected gift to hear him use my first name, and I think he knew. Then Merrick snapped his fingers, and like a magician conjuring up the big finale, Emil walked in from the other room.

 

I knew I should've closed my eyes—knew seeing the look on Jim's face when he saw Emil would haunt me for the rest of my short life, but I found I couldn't voluntarily give up a single moment of seeing Jim, no matter what the price.

 

I expected delight, exhilaration, wonder. Instead Jim looked dazed. "Emil, my god—it’s you."

 

Dressed in loose, white drawstring pants and an overly large open white shirt revealing his perfectly hairless chest, Emil looked like an ethereal spirit standing framed by the doorway. All that lacked was a fan blowing his hair back…I was a little surprised Merrick had missed that trick.

 

After a dramatic pause, Emil spoke, the humor in his voice a little forced. "It’s really me, Jimmy. Wanna pinch me?"

 

Jim's arms opened and Emil stepped into them. Over Jim's shoulder, he gave me a triumphant smile as Jim whispered, "Oh, God, Emil, I've missed you so."

 

Merrick's smile was forced and I could see that the sight of Emil in Jim's arms was not without pain for him.

Maybe because I'd always understood that Emil held Jim's heart, dead or not, it didn't hurt as much as I thought it would. It wasn't pain I was feeling, but anger.

 

Jim finally released Emil and stepped back. Merrick began talking. "Here's the deal, Lord Ellison. You may walk out that door with Emil and take him home. All you have to do is write, "Discarded" across the contract between you and Blair that I arranged to have taken from your safe, so everything will be official and legal. You'll give your word you won't take any action against me. I'll have Blair and you'll have Emil, and we'll both be happy."

 

Jim looked at me then, and I returned the look for just a second before putting my head down. I was a coward, I know, but it was bad enough he would choose Emil. I couldn't bear to have him read the despair in my eyes and still choose Emil. Because I knew whatever he saw in my eyes, he *would* still choose Emil.

 

I wanted to tell him that Emil didn't love him, never had loved him. That Emil wanted Merrick. But even if he believed me and chose me, I would've destroyed something infinitely precious to him and I couldn't do it.

 

"You expect me to leave Sandburg with you, knowing what you've done to him before?"

 

Merrick shrugged and stated reasonably, "Be practical. A man can't have two guides, Ellison.  One of these two must be discarded. It will certainly mean death for Sandburg if I don't take him, being a street rat and twice discarded.  And it will almost as surely mean death for Emil, as only one out of every 250 discards ever get reassigned. So you tell me, what are you going to do?"

 

I was surprised by Jim's silence. From the look on his face, Emil was surprised as well. In the script, there was no hesitation, no hint that Jim might weigh the choice given to him.

 

Every second Jim remained silent made my heart swell with love for the man. I knew he would still choose Emil, but that he thought at all about alternatives affirmed the bond we'd had, even if we'd only had it for a short while.

 

Emil broke the silence by pleading, "Jimmy, don't tell me you have to think about this. You wouldn't let me be taken to Bickering, would you?"

 

That seemed to bring Jim out of his fog. "No, Emil, of course I would never let you be taken to Bickering. Very well, Merrick, you have a deal."

 

Even though I’d known this was the way it had to end, I still felt sick as I watched Jim scrawl DISCARDED in red ink across the contract. He didn't look at me, and I was glad, as it left me free to look at him, to memorize him as well as I could. I watched as he lifted his arm and Emil slid in next to him.

 

I was noxied to my eyebrows and even so I could tell that no one in the room was particularly happy. For a moment, the three of them stood before me in the middle of the room, a frozen tableau -- Merrick’s eyes fixated on the arm that Jim had thrown around Emil, Emil staring at Merrick with a taunting smile on his face. And Jim with his head down, but everything about his stance telling me he wasn’t happy.

 

Then the scene came back to life, and Jim guided Emil towards the door. Merrick followed them and watched from the doorway until the sound of the car faded away.  Slowly, he moved back to me, and with a strained smile, knelt down next to my chair and patted my knee.  "There. It’s done. Didn't I tell you just how it would go?"

 

While his men began to gather up luggage and their equipment, Merrick stood and put on his jacket..  He then reached down to pull me to my feet. "Come on, time to go. While I'm sure Ellison and Emil are having a delightful reunion, it wouldn't be prudent to dally here."

 

In moments, Merrick and I were secured in the backseat of his car.  Three cars escorted us, one in front and two following behind. I don't know how long we drove, as I almost immediately fell into an exhausted sleep. But it was dark when the cars finally stopped.

 

Only the stars illuminated the night, and one light shone in the house before us. Merrick helped me out of the car and we moved very slowly, Merrick being unusually patient with me.

 

Settling me into a chair in the kitchen, he asked, "You hungry? You must be hungry. I'm starved." Susie Homemaker was a side of Merrick I’d never seen before.  In a few minutes he placed a bowl of hot soup before me. I'd slumped over and he straightened me up, putting a spoon in my hand before sitting down.

 

Gesturing with his spoon, he said, "Eat up, it’s lobster bisque, not that Campbell condensed crap." He dug into his soup with enthusiasm and I eased a spoonful between my swollen lips. 

 

When he finished eating, Merrick collected our bowls, mine nearly full, and put them in the sink. Ruffling my hair as he walked by, he said, "You look like shit, sweetheart. Come on and I'll get you ready for bed. God knows you need your beauty sleep at the best of times." 

 

"So we’re staying here?" The house had been modernized by someone who knew how to meld rusticity with sleek clean lines, but it was not at all the kind of house I expected Merrick to be comfortable in.

 

"I’m selling the house in town. This will do until we relocate to the house in Paraguachi."

 

Paraguachi—we were moving to the Carribbean. He was going to take me out of the country. I wouldn't be able to keep track on Jim through reports of his cases in the newspaper. Of all things, that came closest to breaking me, and I clutched the edge of the kitchen table, trying to hold on and keep it together.

 

When I didn't get up right away, Merrick came over and pulled me up. "I know it's been a rough few days. You'll feel better in a little while and then we'll complete the bond."

 

Guiding me into the bathroom, he watched as I tried to brush my teeth. My mouth was so sore and swollen, it was impossible and eventually Merrick took the toothbrush out my hand and said, "We'll do this tomorrow."

 

Sitting me down on the bed, Merrick undressed me, leaving my t-shirt and boxers in place. Swinging my legs up onto the bed, Merrick pulled the blankets up, smoothed my hair down and patted my cheek. "Tomorrow we’ll take a flight to New York. You need a serious overhaul, kiddo—hair, nails, clothes. Mickelo’s will take you in and make you presentable." 

 

He turned out the lights and I stared into the darkness, wondering how Jim and Emil were doing.

 

 

***

 

 

As I gunned the car down the long driveway, Emil scooted next to me and put his head on my shoulder, saying, "It's good to be finally going home."

 

Glancing at him, I noted how healthy he looked. The color was back in his cheeks; he'd gained back twenty pounds. No longer bald, his hair was as long and  beautiful as it had been before the illness.

 

"You're so beautiful, so alive," I said wistfully, thinking of all that had been lost.

 

Emil sighed. "Yeah, the last time you saw me—"

 

"—you were dying." The last time I'd seen him, he'd been in a hospice, surrounded by god-awful smells that nearly overwhelmed my control, and machines that made un-reassuring noise. Just a short hour before, I'd been in the coma the Sentinel doctors had induced to keep me from going insane as my beloved slowly died.

 

Brought out of the coma so I could say goodbye, I'd been disorientated and shaky as they led me down various halls to the small room where Emil lay looking as gaunt as the skeleton I knew he was destined to become, his eyes huge and pleading. Those eyes had haunted my dreams, beseeching me to find a way to make him well, something that even all my money, position and talent had been unable to provide.

 

"Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," Emil stated wryly.

 

Emil quoting Mark Twain… now I knew I'd stumbled into an alternate universe.

 

I pulled the car over into a copse of trees so it would be hidden from the road.

 

"What are you doing?"

 

"Waiting."

 

"For what? I want to go home."

 

"I'm waiting for Merrick to move so I can follow him."

 

"You gave your word you wouldn't interfere with him," Emil said, horrified.

 

I loved Emil, but he'd never been one to take things like ethics too seriously. I'd always excused that, blaming the Cultivated's narrow education.

 

Turning in my seat, I looked at him directly and gave him the news. "Merrick has my guide and I want him back, and my word means absolutely nothing when it's been extorted."

 

"Your guide?" Emil was stunned, horrified.

 

When I'd seen Emil alive, in front of me… something that had been frozen in me melted. Emil lived. He wasn't a corpse rotting in a grave, alone. He was in my arms, breathing in oxygen, exhaling carbon dioxide; his heart was thumping in his chest, strong and steady, and it was his voice saying my name.

 

Then, as I felt his long, lean body next to mine, the memory of another body intruded on the moment.  Sandburg's body, shorter and more compact, dense with muscles. He sat in the chair behind me, watching this, knowing what it meant.  And suddenly, Emil being in my arms didn't matter much.

 

I realized that at the scene of a crime, I needed to hear -- not Emil mocking me, saying, "What are you listening to, Jimmy? The Russian Philharmonic?' -- but Blair's hesitant lilt;  "Jim?" he’d say, looking up at me as if I knew all  possible answers.

 

I wanted to tell Sandburg what I was thinking, but I couldn't, not right then. There were too many men with guns. Even though I knew what I had to do, when the time came, I froze, unable to do it. And then I got a hold of myself and wrote "Discarded" across our contract, put my arm around Emil and led him out and away.

 

Emil drew me out of my reverie by using another one of his tactics. "What are you talking about? I'm your guide. Take me home," he demanded, tantrum in full deployment.

 

"Have you forgotten what I am?" I asked mildly. Feeling guilt about using my abilities to expose him made me gentle.

 

"What you are?" Emil hated rhetorical questions. "You're a fucking Sentinel—my Sentinel."

 

"Bingo. Give the man a prize. I am indeed a Sentinel, which means I have no trouble detecting the scent of semen on you, despite the liberal use of Frangipani soap."

 

Emil's anger collapsed and his complexion suddenly turned sickeningly white. "Jim, you have to understand—it's not like that—Gavin—he raped me."

 

"Emil…you're steeped in pheromones."

 

"Well of course I am, I'm finally back with you!"

 

"Nice try, but they've been fading ever since you got in the car with me."

 

The look Emil gave me was almost funny—mortified, chagrined, and ticked off , each emotion fighting for dominance, but when he spoke, he surprised me by switching to sincerity. "I love him, Jim."

 

That was not what I'd been expecting. "Love who? That sadist, Merrick?"

 

Emil turned away from me and looked out the window. "He's not a sadist. He's just been deeply frustrated and it brings out the worst in him."

 

I'd seen Sandburg, knew what Merrick had done to him, and hated waiting while Merrick was free to hurt Sandburg as I sat there twiddling my thumbs. "Sandburg carries scars from Merrick’s moments of feeling ‘frustrated.’ Hell, I got frustrated plenty of times with you; how would you have felt if I’d reacted like Merrick?"

 

Slowly turning to look at me, Emil smiled, a smile like none I'd ever seen on his face. "It might've done us a world of good, Jim. After all, Guides are meant to be subordinate. We crave someone in control, someone showing us an iron fist once in awhile. Someone dominating us, making their will felt."

 

Emil loved to shock, and especially loved to shock me, which didn't happen all that often, but he sure as hell managed it this time. "Whoa. Are you saying you would've welcomed me hitting you?"

 

Shrugging, Emil admitted, "Well, yeah, kinda. I don't know how many times I egged you on, Jimmy, trying to get you to react, to pin me down, to show me who was boss. Jesus, Jim, you have the fucking patience of a saint." He paused, then grinned. "And believe me, I've never been interested in saints."

 

"I loved you."

 

"You can love someone and hit them, if that's what they need," Emil said, sounding oh-so-reasonable. "You just never opened your eyes to see that's what I needed." Emil threw up his hands. "You took one look at me and cast me in the role of your guide, and expected me to follow the script. You never looked at me and saw me, dammit." Emil crossed his arms across his chest and stared straight ahead.

 

"Emil—"

 

He interrupted me before I could say more than his name. "It never occurred to you that the man you loved might not love you back—or the guide you chose might've needed a different kind of Sentinel. Because your kind never has to take in what the people around them are thinking and feeling."

 

"My kind?"

 

"Yes, your kind. Despite rejecting the trappings of aristocracy, and for all your belief in an egalitarian society, you make mighty big assumptions. You expect everyone around you to be motivated by the same straight and narrow ideas about justice and order and love. All neat, clean and tidy. No one around you would or should have other needs, darker needs, darker feelings…"

 

Gritting my teeth to keep from giving him what he said he wanted, a fist in the kisser, I tried to reason with him. "Nothing you're saying excuses Merrick from using and hurting Sandburg the way he has just because he couldn't bond."

 

Slumping down in his seat, Emil suddenly looked exhausted. "You don't know anything—you don't know how it was. Gavin went slumming to see Daniel Dubois' paintings—you've heard of him, of course."

 

At my shrug, Emil scowled. "Typical. Dubois is like the most up and coming modern realist out there, Jim. Anyway, this was years ago, before Gavin had made Dubois a name with collectors. He saw paintings Dubois had done of Blair. There were a lot—and quite a few of them were nudes. I've seen the paintings. They’re really quite exquisite. I can see why Gavin fixated on him, especially after what happened next."

 

When Emil didn't continue, I asked the obvious. "What happened next?"

 

Emil launched back into his story with enthusiasm. "Gavin came out of the apartment building, a painting of Blair under his arm, and ran smack dab into a street brawl. And who should pop up to save him? Why Blair himself, taking the blow that would have connected with Gavin's face. Then Blair hustled Gavin away from the fighting and to safety. Gavin immediately recognized that Blair was a street rat, which made it all the sweeter. Well, after that, Gavin spent $45,000 dollars to get Blair into his life."

 

Emil shook his head and sighed. "Poor Gavin. The only way he could accept his attraction to a street rat was to dress it up in destiny and play the Sentinel card. He should've wined and dined Blair, paid his tuition and rent and just fucked the boy. It would've all worked out much better. But no, Gavin had to keep telling himself it was all about bonding, until I think he went a little mad."

 

"You admit he's mad."

 

"We're all a little mad, Jim."

 

Maybe we were. I know I felt a little crazy right then. "I was told you died a day after our goodbye, but clearly I was misinformed. What happened? How did you end up with Merrick?"

 

"Finally, the $64,000 question."

 

I was getting a little tired of Emil's games. "You were dying, dead—I saw you, I've been to your grave every week since I was brought out of the coma. Yet here you are, the picture of health."

 

Emil nodded, acknowledging the obvious. "You can thank your father for that."

 

"He made you well?" Had my father found Emil and hooked him up with Merrick to get Sandburg out of my life? It had that Machiavellian touch my father loved so well.

 

"He arranged to make you think I had died."

 

While that shouldn't've come as a complete surprise, it did, and I felt like I'd been punched in the gut. "My father did what?"  While claims of my father’s treachery shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise, this did, and I felt like I'd been punched in the gut.

 

"Yeah, your dear old dad, the Governor himself, set you up to be guideless. There I was, a fucking miracle in the making, surprising everyone by responding to the treatment at the last minute. The doctors were quite euphoric. I was thrilled when your father came to visit. I thought it would be a matter of hours before he had you resurrected from the coma and we'd be reunited. Instead he told me the cold facts of life."

 

Emil slouched down in the seat. "The problem seemed to be that you'd fallen in love with me. Did you know your dad didn't like that you were a Sentinel? And he really didn't like that you were fey'd. But you in love with me—" Emil shuddered. "He said I was a big, fat leech sucking the blood out of you."

 

Emil sat up straight, assuming my father's posture and mimicked his voice. "’Jim is meant for great things, but to achieve those things, he must show the people he's one of them, not a freak in love with a test tube construct. He should marry, have children and assume the mantel of the governorship when I ascend move up. No one will accept him if you're his consort, and Jim will never let you go, so I'm afraid I have to do it for him. For his sake, I'm sure you understand.’"

 

"I tell you, Jimmy, I thought he was going to hand me a sword and ask me to commit honorable hair kari—or kill me himself right then and there. But instead, he waited until I was a little stronger and then had me moved to an island in the Caribbean."

 

Emil gave a small nod of acknowledgement. "That was good of him, you know. He *could've* just had me killed. Would've been simpler. Slowly I got better. My hair grew back; I got a tan. The island was beautiful; blue ocean, palm trees, white sand beaches. You know how much I love Hawaii. It was a little bit of heaven." Emil sighed.  "But it was lonesome. Your father could've stranded me on Martinique at least. They speak French there.  But no, he had to move me to a bloody island where they only speak Spanish."

 

"So how did you and Merrick hook up?"

 

Emil's expression turned dreamy. "I saw a stranger in Paraguachi—a very rare occurrence, let me tell you, and I followed him to the only posh club around, where I saw him playing tennis.

 

"When I heard him cursing in English, I was ecstatic and arranged to bump into him. He knew I was a Cultivated right away—something no one else on that island seemed aware of—and as an unbonded Sentinel, he was drawn to me. He couldn't understand what I was doing there, and for a long time I didn't tell him. But finally one night, after way too much champagne, I did. He asked a lot of questions, and I had hoped it meant he wanted to bond with me. Ha!" The laugh was a short, bitter bark.

 

Emil looked back, though we couldn't see the house. "All he wanted was a way to get his Blair back, and I was perfect for that purpose."

 

Across the field, I saw the van filled with my men flash its headlights twice, our signal if Merrick turned left instead of right. The walkie talkie came to life with a crackle and then Joel's voice saying, "They just pulled out. One car leading, two covering his back."

 

"Stay put; I'll tail them from a few miles away, and let you know where to go."

 

"A few miles away?" Emil scoffed. "What are you talking about? Your range is under a mile."

 

"Not anymore."

 

Emil slid down on the seat. "So that's why you're choosing Sandburg."

 

"No. It's interesting how he's affected my abilities, but it's not why."

 

Emil stayed silent for two minutes, then finally asked, "Then why?"

 

I was expecting that question, but even so, had no easy answer. Not for Emil, or even for myself. But I had to try to explain—I owed Emil that much.

 

"I don't know why. I don't even know if there is a why. There's just an is."

 

"Jesus, Jim, you sound like Clinton."

 

I laughed, knowing he was right. "Yeah, maybe, but I'm talking about something else. From the moment we merged, it was there. I didn't want it to be there. I fought it being there. But in the end, there it was. Unmovable. Uncaring of what I wanted. Unimpressed with my love and devotion to you."

 

"And what was "it"?" Emil asked, his curiosity overriding his sarcasm.

 

"It was the bond. Bigger, tighter, and harder than anything you and I ever experienced."

 

"Do you love him?"

 

"Love? The way I loved you?"

 

Emil nodded and I thought hard. I didn't love Sandburg the way I loved Emil. "No, I don't love him the way I loved you." I hoped he'd leave it at that.

 

He did, sinking even lower, smiling to himself.

 

And I left him with his thoughts, not willing to say out loud what I knew was true. I loved Sandburg, needed him, wanted him, hungered for him. I wanted to touch him, hold him, fuck him, wash him, feed him, hear his laughter, tuck him into bed at night and sleep through the night with him in my arms.

 

And as soon as I dealt with Merrick, I would do all those things with Sandburg, and to him. Do them, get a good’s night sleep, wake up and do them again.

 

As for Emil…I just didn’t know. I couldn’t discard him and risk Bickering, but I also couldn’t have two guides. I shoved that thorny question aside. First things, first, I had a guide to retrieve.

 

***

 

I was asleep, I don't know for how long, when the crash woke me . The house was still dark, but in just a moment, my eyes adjusted and I saw men moving in the shadows, guns drawn. And then Jim was in the room, crouching down beside me, his hand on my chest. 

 

"You all right, Chief?"

 

I nodded, unable to speak past the lump in my throat. He had on his Kevlar vest and a baseball cap turned backwards, and by the grim set of his mouth, he looked ready to take down anyone who got in his way.

 

He cocked his head, listening, his warm hand still on my chest, then said, "Just a minute, stay tight." He left me, moving swiftly out of the room. I followed, less swift, stumbling in my haste to watch his back.

 

There was a loud crash, glass breaking, a gunshot, shouting; Merrick's voice screaming, "We had a deal," and Emil yelling, "Don't hurt him!"

 

Jim silently moved through the chaos. Someone had Merrick in hand, and was hustling him toward the door. His face was red with rage as he tried to wrestle out of the arms that held him and get to Jim. I stood aside as they passed me, like a coward, trying to duck into the shadows to avoid Merrick.

 

As the man holding him swung him forward to get him through the kitchen door, Merrick caught sight of me. "YOU!" he screamed and lunged out of the hands holding him.  Latching onto me, his forearm came across my windpipe.  As he applied pressure, he ordered, "Stay away, all of you, or I'll crush his throat, and all these heroics will have been for naught."

 

My vision was quickly graying out, but I could see Jim's face, bone white and bearing an expression I'd never seen before. He was scared. His hands came up in surrender as he said, "Everyone, put your guns down." Merrick eased the pressure a bit and I was able to take a breath.

 

Merrick started to back away, dragging me with him, when Emil said from behind us, "Gavin, let him go."

 

At the sound of his name, Merrick increased the pressure again and I choked, feebly plucking at his arm to try and get him to loosen his hold again.

 

"Emil, back off!" Jim commanded.

 

Instead of obeying, Emil planted himself in front of Merrick and with one quick pull, yanked Merrick's arm away from my throat. As I stumbled away, Emil promptly took my place, and before anyone could get a shot off, he effectively shielded Merrick's body with his own.

 

Jim's arms came around me, holding me up. "You okay?" he asked, his voice low.

 

"Yeah, sorry, I should'nt've—"

 

"Save it for later, Chief," he whispered, as he turned his attention back to Merrick. "You're surrounded, Merrick, there's absolutely nowhere for you to go. You'll never touch my guide again."

 

"Never touch your guide?" Merrick laughed. "I'm touching him now," Merrick's one hand reached down and cupped Emil's balls as he said, "I've touched your guide quite a bit, and he seems to like it. Don't you, Emil?"

 

Before Emil could answer, Jim broke in. "I'm not talking about Emil. I'm talking about Blair."

 

"Blair?" Merrick's tone registered shock, and then turned derisive as he said, "You only bonded with him to save yourself from going mad, and you discarded him as soon as Emil showed his face. Everyone knows you love Emil and that Emil is your true guide—hell, even Blair knows that."

 

I didn't know what was going on, I didn't know what Jim was talking about, all I knew was that Jim had come for me and his arms were around me and he seemed to be in no hurry to let go. Which was good because if he had let go, I would've been lying on the floor at his feet.

 

"Emil, move away from Merrick."

 

"No. I'm not going to let you hurt him, Jim. We're gonna figure this out so we all get what we want. You get Blair, I get Merrick. You owe me that much, Jimmy."

 

"I'm afraid I don't see it that way. It'll be a cold day I hell when I let Merrick walk out that door with you. He's going to prison where he belongs."

 

"For what crime? Kidnapping a rat? Disciplining a rat? I've been reading the news, I know what the mood is in Cascade. At most he'll get a lecture and a fine. Hell, with the way things are going for street rats, Sandburg could end up in prison for seducing a poor defenseless Sentinel. You know I'm right. Let us go, Jim. You don't want me—so what's left for me in Cascade?"

 

Jim didn't want Emil? What had Emil been smoking? Of course Jim wanted Emil. He just was too honorable to want to see me trapped in Merrick's hell. Jim lowered me to the floor, leaning me against the chair, and stepped toward Merrick and Emil.

 

I didn't know what he was going to try to do, so I tried to get up again. I'd barely managed to get my feet under me when a hand came down on my shoulder. "Stay put." It was one of Jim's men.

 

"I have to—I need to…" I tried to make him understand, but my throat felt like it was on fire, and it was hard to talk.

 

"Stay down; let Ellison do what he's good at. Don't distract him now."

 

He was right, and I didn't really have the strength to get to my feet anyway. So I stayed crouched on the floor and watched.

 

Jim walked right up to Merrick and pulled Emil away. And we all saw the gun Merrick had in his fist, aimed right at Jim.

 

"You gonna shoot me? Here? In front of all these witnesses?"

 

"It would be worth it, just to wipe the superior look off your face. And knowing Blair would be put down, the way he should've been when I discarded him, would be icing on the cake."

 

"You're a vindictive, sadistic, puny excuse for a Sentinel, for a man—hell, for a human being. And I'm going to enjoy shoving that gun down your throat." Jim moved as he said that, but Emil moved quicker, and when the gun went off, Emil looked shocked, then slowly slid to the floor.

 

"Emil!" Merrick cried and threw the gun down. He started to kneel next to Emil, but Jim growled and his men grabbed Merrick and pulled him away.

 

"Oh, my God, what have I done? Emil?" Merrick wailed all the way to the car, then the door slammed shut and all I could hear was Jim whispering, "Emil? Can you hear me? You're going to be all right."

 

"The ambulance will be here in ten minutes, Jim."

 

"Get me some clean towels."

 

I couldn't see anything from where I lay sprawled, so I just listened to Jim's anguished cries for Emil to hang on, and someone muttering, "That's an awful lot of blood."

 

Finally the ambulance pulled up in a rush of sirens, and a paramedic team took over, shouting to one another about pulse rates and BP, IV's and blood types. They got Emil on the gurney, and one of them said to Jim, "He should be okay. He lost a lot of blood, but the bullet missed all his vital organs. Want to ride in the ambulance with us, Lord Ellison?"

 

Jim had Emil's blood all over his hands, and he looked stunned. "Ride with you?" He repeated, as if he couldn't understand the question. "No. Go on, I'll meet you there."

 

"As you wish, sir."

 

Jim looked down at his hands, then stumbled over to the sink and ran water over them. "Someone put my guide on the couch," he commanded. "Gently."

 

Hands reached under my arms and I was lifted up and guided to the couch. They started to lay me down, but I resisted, needing to stay conscious, hoping to help.

 

Jim came over to me, wiping his hands on a towel and sat down. "Jesus, I never expected that."

 

"Merrick pulling a gun?" My voice sounded grotesque.

 

"Emil putting himself between me and the gun. Emil hates guns."

 

"He was very brave."

 

"Brave? He was loco. When I get my hands on him…" Jim trailed off and I could see how spent he was. I didn't know what I could do, whether I could still offer him anything, if he'd be offended if I tried, but I couldn't hold back. Placing my hand in his, I aligned our fingers and placed my other hand on the back of his neck.

 

The merge began immediately. There was the sensation of warmth, of softness and safety, of being enclosed, and then, I think, we slept.

 

***

 

"They're sleeping."

 

"Yeah, whatdaya know; they just fell asleep."

 

"Is that what a merge looks like?"

 

"Can't be—Sentinels wouldn't be so secretive about it if that was all there was to it."

 

"Maybe they don't want anybody to know how un-mystical it is."

 

"Yeah, it takes some of the glamour out of it, hearing them snore."

 

"So what should we do?"

 

"Ellison said he planned to meet the ambulance at the hospital. Let's take them to the hospital."

 

"Should we wake them up?"

 

"Hell, no. They're in a merge. We'll just pick them up and put them in the car."

 

***

 

I came back aware as the car stopped in front of the hospital. "What the—?"

 

Sandburg was in my arms and one of my men was holding our right hands together. He explained, "We thought you were maybe in a merge and that this hand thing was part of it.  But we knew you said you planned on going to the hospital, so we brought you here."

 

Sandburg stirred and I cupped his cheek. Sleepy blue eyes looked at me and he smiled. "Better?" he whispered.

 

"Yeah. A lot better." I turned to the man who had kept our hands in contact. "What's your name?"

 

"Fidel, sir"

 

"You did good, Fidel. Now help me get my guide into the hospital."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

We untangled ourselves slowly. Though I was anxious to hear how Emil was doing, I didn't want to hurt Sandburg any more than he'd already been hurt.

 

Someone brought a gurney over to the car, and Fidel and I carefully lifted Sandburg up and got him settled on it. He didn't let go of my hand, and I held on as well. Two nurses came out and started gathering information.

 

"What happened?"

 

"He was beaten."

 

As she placed a cuff on Sandburg's arm and took his blood pressure, she noticed his tattoo. I heard her gasp and her heart starting beating faster. She quickly made a notation and took the cuff off.

 

"What's his BP?" I asked.

 

She looked at me, startled, then looked away quickly. "120 over 60," she said, and tried to flag down an orderly, then followed him when he didn't stop.

 

Sandburg just looked at me through the eye that hadn't swollen shut.

 

"Do you know anything about a Cultivated that was brought here a little while ago?" I asked the nurse that stayed behind.

 

"Gunshot wound?"

 

"Yes."

 

"He's in surgery. I'll check on him once we get this one into an examining room."

 

I knew Emil would be all right. I'd nearly zoned tracking the trajectory of the bullet. His vitals had been good considering he'd been shot. Baring some freak reaction, Emil would live to regale his mates with the story.

 

And I owed him one.

 

***

 

The news on Emil was as good as I expected. He was in recovery and would wake in an hour or so.  I stayed next to Sandburg, waiting for the doc to come in.

 

After twenty minutes a nurse brought in a gown and thrust it at Sandburg. "Put this on. The doctor will be in soon." I helped him get it on, horrified by the damage Merrick done to him. Livid, blackly purpled bruises that covered his entire torso, both hips and buttocks competed with the band of bruises around his throat.

 

Several times Sandburg had tried telling me he was fine and that I should go to Emil. I kept telling him to shut up. The sound of his voice told me his vocal chords had been compressed. Eventually even he was too exhausted to argue, and he fell into a light sleep. Just as I was ready to go out and drag the first doctor I saw into the cubicle, one came in, frowning down at his clipboard.

 

"This man is a rat," he announced, as if telling me something I didn't know.

 

I was out of my chair in less than a second, pushing the doc against the wall. "This man is a man—a natural empath, and my guide. Do you understand?"

 

He jerked his head in a nod and I slowly stepped back. Keeping one wary eye on me, he approached the bed, snapping on rubber gloves. "Somebody certainly did a number on him," he said, as he turned Sandburg's face to study his black eye.

 

"Nurse!" he called, and when she came hurrying in, asked, "Why hasn't this—man—been undressed? I can hardly examine him clothed."

 

She leaned in and said, "He's a rat, doctor, and, umm, uncapped."

 

The doctor turned outraged eyes towards me. "Did you know your rat is uncapped? I'm calling the Department of Hygiene immediately."

 

I stepped in front of him before he could leave the cubicle. "Like hell you are. Do you know what they would do to him? Do you really think he needs more punishment? What kind of healer are you? He's been kidnapped, beaten and the cap was removed against his will. Even fully fit, he doesn't have the power to do you any harm. Quit being a superstitious, medieval ninny, and be a doctor of modern medicine.  Or I will sue this hospital for every penny it's worth."

 

The doc harrumphed, but quit making noise about calling the department. Getting Sandburg undressed was trickier than it looked, as putting his arms above his head was excruciating. They ended up cutting the underwear off of him and when they did, I saw more of Merrick's handiwork.

 

Sandburg had remained nearly silent through the whole thing, his mouth shut tight against making any noise. Seeing my face, he reached out and touched my hand. "It looks worse—" he croaked out, swallowing hard.

 

"Cut the crap, Sandburg, and save your voice."

 

When the doctor touched his bruised rib caged, Sandburg hissed in pain. "Some cracked ribs, I'd say," the doctor pronounced.  He rolled Sandburg over, and I felt sick when I saw the bruising around his anus and a trail of dried blood.

 

I moved around the examining table and knelt down, bringing my face close to Sandburg's. His good eye was shut tight and I leaned in and kissed it. "It's going to be okay, Chief," I whispered.

 

"We'll need to get a rape kit in here."

 

"Don't bother. I know who did this."

 

"It's your call, but…"

 

"Just finish examining him, and get him something for the pain."

 

I turned back to Sandburg and said, "Jesus, he could've killed you."

 

Sandburg inexplicably blushed. "That was the plan." His voice was so rough I could barely understand him.

 

"That was the plan? What the hell kind of plan is that? Were you trying to get killed because you thought I’d give you to him?"

 

One blue eye looked at me. "Because I thought he was going to kill you…use me as bait," he whispered.  "I figured he wouldn't have any reason to kill you if I was dead." I needed to turn my hearing dial way up to make out the barely articulated words.

 

"Shhh, don't say another word," I begged.  I wanted to bang my head against the wall. When was the kid gonna learn his well-being was my well-being? "Oh, jeez, Sandburg, don't ever do that again. All right? That's the stupidest plan I ever heard." 

 

The nurse came in and stood by the doctor, syringe in hand. "I'm going to give him a shot to ease the pain."

 

As she did, I cupped his bruised cheek. "I would think by now you'd have a little faith in me."

 

Sandburg smiled wanly. "You, I have faith in. It's the rest of the world…" His raspy voice trailed off as whatever was in the syringe hit his bloodstream.

 

"Morphine," the doc explained. "He's in pretty bad shape. The blood indicates some tearing. I'll see how bad, and whether he'll need stitches."

 

They shooed me out of the room while they finished examining him. I sat right outside the room and waited. I told myself to go and check on Emil, but I couldn't seem to will myself to leave. Twenty minutes later the doc came out and sat down next to me, peeling off his gloves.

 

"How bad?"

 

"The tearing won't need stitches. But he's concussed, several times over, I suspect, and six of his ribs are cracked. Three teeth are loose enough that he might just lose them. There's a mean bruise over the left kidney—I'm having that x-rayed. His larynx is badly bruised, and he shouldn't talk for a week or so. He's going to be in a great deal of pain for a while. I'm having him admitted."

 

Leave Sandburg among people who recoiled from him? And without his one defense, his voice? No way. "X-ray the kidney, then I'm taking him home. I was a medic, and I'll hire nurses if necessary."

 

"Are you sure, Lord Ellison? He's going to be a great deal of work in the next week or so."

 

"I can handle that. Just finish up and write the prescriptions."

 

"As you wish," he said and heaved himself out of the chair. "I'm sorry about my initial reaction to your guide. It's been a long year."

 

"Don't I know it," I concurred, glad I hadn't had to damage the guy to make him see the light.

 

Almost two hours later Sandburg was discharged. I let them place him a wheelchair and push him to the curb, then took it from there.

 

I bent down and scooped him up—my small grunt belying the seeming ease of that action.

 

"Roberts!" Sandburg croaked delightedly upon seeing the manservant holding the car door open. "You all right?" he asked.

 

Roberts looked confused; perhaps because what Sandburg had said sounded like, "Get the lights."

 

"Roberts has recovered completely," I told Sandburg, hauling him toward the car.

 

"Are *you* all right, Master Sandburg?" Roberts' long face was anxious and solemn.

 

"Yes, I'm fine," he told Roberts and then addressed me. "I can walk, Jim, really."

 

I understood him, even though it sounded like he said, "I shine, I can squawk, swim, feel me."

 

"You can walk all you want tomorrow. But no more talking. I'll get you a pad of paper, maybe even a blackboard. Ya gotta rest your voice, Chief, comprende?"

 

That got me a nod, and I looked down to see his eyes were shutting. I shifted him up a bit and tightened my hold, then nodded toward Roberts. "Get the back seat open, I want to get Sandburg home."

 

                                                            +++

 

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