I'm just starting to realize I'm ADD, (I call it Adult Sudden Onslaught ADD), and what that means is-- I'm a beta's nightmare.

ADD folk are *so* not good at following directions, though I really, really tried. So, many, many thanks to the beta team of Pam, ShayAlyce, Sheila, and Carodee, who pointed out the lack of commas and the extra commas, and all the other ways my syntax was wonky. Not to mention all the holes they found that needed mending.

And my deep gratitude to Sharakh, who always manages to bring a better story out of me, always inspires me to dig in a little deeper, and Brook, who keeps me going.

Even more than in most cases, all remaining mistakes are mine.

And thanks to Susan for hosting my stories, and especially to her sister, Eileen, for doing all the work of getting them posted and  creating and maintaining the site.

 

 

                                     Second Chance Series

                                    New Geography

The wall came up suddenly out of nowhere and Blair hit it hard, bouncing off, landing in the filth of the alley. Before he could scramble to his feet, the heavy net hit him, trapping him. Boots kicked, connecting with his ribs and his back and his stomach, and all he could do was keep his arms around his head and hope they didn't bash his skull in.

"Okay, boys, that's enough payback for the chase he gave you."  The voice was cultured, calm, but  possessive intent radiated from the man, a cold focus that Blair recognized as sentinel.

Someone was giggling. "He weren't expecting to run into that wall. Did y'all get a look at the look on his face when he done smacked right into it?" Gleeful satisfaction, with a definite overlay of maliciousness. Blair just barely managed to curl away before the boot hit him again.

"Yeah, Dibbo, like total shock. As soon as he hit that sucker, he knew we had him. Trapped like the rat he is." This one wasn't gleeful, just satisfied.

"It took you long enough. You're supposed to be the best, and yet for three weeks he had you looking like a bunch of amateurs." Pride, the sentinel was proud of them. No…the sentinel was proud of Blair.

"Yeah, well, he knows his way around." Grudging admiration, my, my.

"Well, of course he knows his way around, you moron. He's a street rat. That's why I paid you so well to acquire him." The sentinel's scathing words seemed to shut them up.

They lifted off the net and it became a little easier to breathe. Blair stayed curled in a ball, panting,  trying to minimize the pain in his ribs, and waited, knowing that unless a miracle happened, he *was* trapped, just like the man said. After years of being afraid of this moment, he kind of welcomed it, glad to have hope killed at last. It was the hope of outrunning his genetics, of having love and a family that had gnawed at him, tantalizing him like a mirage shimmering in a desert.

Through his blurry vision, he saw several pairs of boots shift and make way for a pair of elegant leather shoes, still clean and shiny, despite the dirt and garbage that filled the alley. It was the sentinel that had been hunting him for the last three weeks. He could feel the man's intense focus assessing him, penetrating him, asserting ownership over him. He'd felt it at a distance and it had helped him to know when to run.

A hand in his hair moved his head so that he was looking up. Blair swallowed, shocked. It was Gavin Merrick, the art dealer. Lean, his blond hair almost white, his blues eyes almost bleached of color, he smiled and said,  "Hello, guide." 

Blair instinctively tried to jerk away at those words, but the hand tightened and held him steady.

"No,  I'm afraid your running days are over, rat. You're mine now."

I'm afraid your running days are over.

He ran harder, faster.

You're mine now.

He tried to fight it, tried to fight becoming…

Landing on the hard floor woke him and he lay there stunned for a moment, trying to clear his brain of the fear fogging it. Slowly the dream faded and the reality of now gained substance.

The brown-stained industrial carpet under his head meant he wasn't in any of Merrick's houses. He became aware of the thrum of the blotting filter and remembered where he was.

Nassau House. One of Symbiont's residential buildings. Jim had arranged for him to room here, though normally a street guide would be kept at Bickering, claimed or not.

His neighbors were Cultivateds who were either awaiting placement or housed here by a married sentinel. Very few wives allowed guides to share a home with them.

The director hadn't wanted him here, of course, but Jim had insisted.  Maybe 'insisted' wasn't exactly accurate. Jim had used the arrogance that came so naturally to the aristos and a look that clearly said "death threat" as he backed Gregorian into a corner and closed the deal.

"Very well, Lord Ellison, your guide can stay." Gregorian had said, capitulating with ill grace. "But we'll keep his clothes. We can't have him wandering around disturbing the Cultivateds, now, can we?" His voice had held the oily tones Blair had heard so often when he'd been with Merrick, as people tried to jockey for position in his entourage.

Jim had agreed. Blair should've been used to being naked by now, but there was something creepy about the cameras watching him all the time without adding nakedness into the picture. And it was cold. The thermostat couldn't be set any higher than sixty-two. Cheap bastards.

It'd been a day and a night and Jim would come soon he thought—okay, he hoped. He had no idea when Ellison would need to bond. Every sentinel was different and much depended on how often they used their senses.

They hadn't given him any Halyconic, but the walls hummed with a strong blotting frequency, so he was insulated from—What, he didn't know; he couldn't feel anything. He'd only seen two people in the whole place and that was when he'd been processed; Gregorian and the fellow who had escorted him to his room, waited for him to take his clothes off, and taken them. Otherwise, he might as well have been alone in the building, in the world.

Experiencing empathy was often overwhelming, but after thirty-six hours of being cocooned and alone, he thought he would have preferred being overwhelmed to this sense of being buried alive. The clanking of the dumb-waiter told him it was time for breakfast and he slowly picked himself off  the floor.

At Nassau House, food was served on a sterling tray covered by a silver dome, and Blair felt rather Bogartish as he lifted it to reveal breakfast. Waffles dripping with butter and syrup, scrambled eggs, toast and sausages, a carafe of hot coffee and a glass of orange juice.

Carrying the tray to his bed, he pulled the covers over his head to make a tent and dug into the food, amazed at how the Cultivateds lived. At this rate, he'd get fat. There was still a lot of food on his plate when he realized he wasn't hungry anymore. Carefully stacking up the dishes, he returned the tray to the hole in the wall.

Though the blotting kept him from being aware of others, it did nothing to blot his need to bond, which was growing with each passing hour. He'd always heard that bonding acted as a sort of sealant, returning and containing the sentinel's senses to a comfortable zone. No one had ever told him that once an empath bonded, he'd need it as well, like a junkie overdue for a fix.

Getting out of bed, he forced himself to ignore the camera and began his yoga exercises.  By Vajrasana, he lost his concentration and gave up. Despite the cold and the camera, he started to pace, arms wrapped around his middle, his movements growing more agitated as he realized nothing could stop the pressure inside, a restless ache he'd never known before.

When it became unbearable, he took a shower and, turning on the cold water, let it pound him, numb him, until, for a brief amount of time, he felt nothing. Being released from the longing was bliss and he stood under the cold spray and just forgot.

Forgot where he was and what he was. Forgot all he'd once hoped for and all he'd lost. Forgot the terrible last years of Merrick's unpredictable temper, the fear that seemed to have become a part of him, as constant as his heart beating. Forgot Jim, with blues eyes that could warm Blair one minute and freeze him dead the next. Forgot the sweet balm of the merge and the heavenly peace that had come with it.

The bliss of forgetting was shattered when he was roughly yanked him off the shower floor, away from the cold cascade of water and its curtain of oblivion.

One cheek was lightly slapped, then the other, and he opened his eyes to see Jim's blue eyes blazing with anger. "What the hell were you doing, Sandburg? Didn't you hear me?"

He shook his head. "No," he tried to say, but even knowing what he was trying to say, he couldn't understand the slurred sound that came out of his mouth.

Muttering, Jim knelt down and Blair was being shaken, and then realized Jim was drying him off. Then Jim was standing and Blair was being pulled up to stand next to him. His knees refused to lock; he felt sick and boneless, the shaking making his teeth ache. He could feel the warmth Jim's body was generating and he turned to it, wanting to get closer to the heat.  His empathic byways were flooding him with information and he couldn't sort through it, couldn't read Jim at all.

Before he could get close to the blessed heat, Jim was leaning down, and then the next thing he knew, he was back on the bed, looking up at a sentinel in full fury. Instinctively he started to pull his knees up--then he remembered and slowly straightened his legs back down, placed his hands by his side and waited. The faucet dripped, the walls hummed and Blair waited.

Open, naked, he waited for the blows to fall; for Jim to work out his anger, for the bad part to be over, so the good part could begin. He closed his eyes, wishing Jim would hurry up, wondering why the hell Jim was holding back. Blair cracked one eye and was surprised to see--instead of Jim's hands forming into fists and striking him—his hands were unbuttoning his shirt. Blair sighed with relief as Jim took it off, draping it on the back of the chair. Then Jim sat down on the chair, and Blair watched as he untied his shoes and toed them off,  removed his socks and rolled them up, and then tucked them into the shoes.

Blair groaned, and Jim looked over at him and winked. At least Blair thought he winked. Could he really have winked? Maybe he was dreaming. Yeah, that was it. He was dreaming and in his dream, Jim winked at him.

Jim took a tube of lubrication out his pocket and carefully placed it on the desk. Then he unzipped his pants, took them off, shaking the wrinkles out, carefully folded them, and placed them squarely on the chair. Finally, gloriously naked, Jim climbed on the bed and straddled Blair's hips, pining him, his eyes never leaving Blair's face.

Blair liked this dream, liked the sight of Jim's broad chest hovering over him, the feeling of Jim's weight on him, the way Jim was staring into his eyes. Then Jim reached over and took the lube from the desk and applied it to himself and Blair knew it wasn't a dream. No way would he ever dream that up.

Jim's gel-coated fingers wrapped around his penis, steadying him. Jim's eyes were closed as he slowly eased himself down until he was snug against Blair. The feeling of being encased, of being inside someone shocked Blair. The feeling of being inside Jim thrilled him.

Shakily, Blair put his hands up and Jim met them, aligning their fingertips together. The merge began with a warm surge of power. That simple touch sent life energy flowing from one to another, pulling each of them into a maelstrom of sensory information and need…

The merge sucked Blair down, then spun him into a wall of dark emotions. Rage, fear, lust, bewilderment and grief were mixed together in a potent brew. The force of them hit him hard, tearing at him, demanding something from him.

Were all sentinels like this? Why had no one told him that each merge was like a small death?

He felt pieces of himself ripped from their lifetime moorings as his Sentinel's pain expanded inside him, filling him, drowning him. What did he have to give to such pain? He had nothing, he was nothing, and he felt himself being swept away. He howled in pain and despair.

A roar answered him and, instead of the obliteration he'd expected, he felt himself embraced, held steady by the sentinel against the chaos of the merge. He relaxed as the fusion healed ragged nerve endings and eased the terrible nakedness his gift demanded.

Jim entered into the merge like a panther on the hunt, looking for the spoor of his mate. There was no sign of Emil, though he cast his senses far and wide, roaring his disappointment and pain when he failed to find any hint of his beloved. He raced along, determined to get  back to his love, to all he'd ever known of love, to Emil.

All that he found was new territory, new smells, new sounds, a different landscape with a different guide inhabiting it. His impulse was to turn away, deny the bond, and run until he found his true guide. But when he tried to turn away, he was unable to move. He was forced to go forward.

Furious, he lashed out, heedless of what he tore, of  what he threatened. But though he fought to escape the new land he was in, he couldn't. It held him fast with its own gravity. When he finally stopped fighting to get out, he looked around and realized there was lushness here, green life, abundance, warm sun along with dry gullies, sharp rock outcroppings, and steep inclines.

The terrain called to him, demanding he emigrate. For now, he settled for burrowing into the haven his guide offered.

***

With a deep sigh, Jim pulled away from his sleeping guide and sat on the edge of the bed. Now that the merge was complete, he was cold. Sandburg was asleep, and he pulled the blanket up to cover him. Most Cultivateds ran warm. Emil had hated the heat and kept the thermometer set at sixty-five, winter and summer. Jim had gotten used to wearing sweaters and turtlenecks and using a heated mattress pad on his side of the bed.

Merging had never been like this with Emil. It had been easy, like slipping into a warm bath. Merging with Sandburg was like taking a plunge and falling hundreds of feet into an icy lake. It was a miracle that, through all that intensity, any kind of peace was found, but it was.

He explored Sandburg's face-- the wide forehead, the finely shaped brows, the rough texture of his cheeks where his beard was emerging. Running his hand through the hair on Sandburg's chest, he cataloged the texture, the odd sensation of touching skin through hair. His ribs were sharply evident and his stomach concaved. Jim's fingers traced the defined ridges, imagining the heart and lungs that were protected by the cage of bones beneath his skin. The hair on his chest trickled down, softer on his belly, then blossomed around the base of his penis.

For the first time, he wondered how old Sandburg was. His body smelled like earth and licorice, and Jim leaned down to lick him, to see if that's what he tasted like.

What the hell am I doing?

Scrambling away, he stared at the sleeping man who was now his guide. This was Sandburg. Number 29. A Discard. A street rat.

Jim had entered the bond to stay sane; Sandburg, to stay alive. It was an arrangement-- simple, practical.

His quickly dressed. Even under the blanket, Sandburg shivered, and Jim looked around for more blankets, finding none. The urge to go, to leave this small, cold, ugly room was strong and he gave into it.

He'd search out Gregorian and arrange for the door to be fixed and have some extra blankets sent up.

***

Cold and cold and cold and cold. Pulling his knees towards his chest, he tried to generate a pocket of warmth beneath him. He'd been dreaming of the time before, of being free, loving women, having friends. It was rare he allowed himself to go back, either in memory or dream. To remember what he'd been before was to open the dark hole that had no end. Better to let go, to become what this life required, to submit to the fate of being a guide and all that meant.

"Blair, honey, we're leaving tomorrow, so pack your bag tonight."

"Can't we stay?"

"You know what it's like when we stay too long. The Sheffields are dear, but it's time we moved on. Best to detach with love."

"But I like Mr. S; he's been showing me how to tune a carburetor and Mrs. S told me if we stayed I could go to school; and I've been working with Casper on rolling over; he's almost got it and…"

"Blair, shhh. You know it's time. Don't make it harder by arguing with me."

And the few times they had stayed anywhere longer than a month had been hell as people began having expectations, making demands, asking questions and wanting answers.

Being alone spared them all those messy entanglements, the ugliness of disappointing people, of failing to give them what they wanted. They were a world unto themselves, with strict border patrols and few visas issued.

But then the empathy began to emerge and suddenly Blair's world got turned inside out. The general public's vision of an empath was wildly and intentionally distorted. They were told that empaths were mind readers and it wasn't surprising that believing this, they were happy to see guides collected and quarantined, stripped of their rights and left to the mercies of sentinels.

For Blair, it was as if he'd discovered color after being blind, suddenly being able to hear after being deaf. The information was there, but his ability to understand it wasn't. Cultivateds never faced that problem, guided from infancy through the fruition of their empathic gifts. Street rats... died of overdoses and suicides or became expensive whores. Or, eventually, they figured it out. 

And eventually Blair figured it out, got a handle on it, learned to read the information, found the drugs that helped him manage.

But it wasn't mind reading, or anything close. It was more like having someone speak to you in an unknown language, with not a single word making sense, and yet somehow understanding exactly what they needed.

Even with the drugs, it was a terrible existence for Blair, buffeted between a voyeuristic intimacy and detached loneliness. No sentinel with real talent or money would want a street rat. They preferred the "Cake-Eaters", the Cultivateds. Of course they did. A cake eater was trained, taught all there was to know about sentinels and guiding. No one bothered to teach anything to the random genetic freaks on the street. Blair only knew what he'd heard and what he'd read at the library.

Naomi had urged him to consider submitting to the Sentinel Board, but he couldn't bear to be a breeder. It meant having sex with women until they got pregnant, then being shut out of his child's life. He wouldn't even have been able to pick his own child out from a Cultivated nursery. Symbiont manipulated the genes of the donor breeders in utero,  keeping the bits of DNA that ensured empathy, grafting in genes to replace all ethnic heritages in order to create the tall, blond, blue-eyed guides so favored by sentinels.

And in any case, the day would come when they decided his sperm was no longer prime enough and he would be sterilized and left once again to fend for himself.

Merrick had taken every rotten choice he'd had and replaced them with no choice at all.

The day he lost control of his life had been an ordinary day, with no hint that everything was about to change. It had been one of those summer days when just breathing made you sweat and the gnat, mosquito and fly population seemed to have tripled. People were either in the street, sitting on their stoops, or hanging out their windows trying to catch a breeze.

It was on that day that an art dealer had agreed to come into the neighborhood and look at his friend Daniel's paintings. Blair had been hanging around, waiting to take Danny out for a drink afterward. It was a coin toss as to whether they would be drinking in despair or celebration. And then a ruckus broke out, probably started by the usual careless insult or stolen kiss. Guys were pushing one another, the women were screaming insults, the music got cranked up, and people poured out of their apartments to watch the show..

Gavin Merrick had just left Daniel and had made it to the street, two of Daniel's smaller paintings under his arm, when the first punch was thrown. It had been as if the crowd was just waiting for that signal, and all hell erupted as the heat of the day fueled the heat of battle.

Knowing how important it was to Daniel that his paintings make it to a legitimate art gallery, Blair had thrown himself in front of a punch that would have flattened Merrick. He'd twisted and ducked, but the blow still stunned him. Before the guy could go after Merrick again, he swung the bewildered art dealer towards the alley, pushed him, and yelled, "Go! It'll get you to Sheridan Avenue."

Merrick had looked confused, but he'd sprinted down the alleyway, the paintings safely under his arm, one of them a nude Daniel had painted of Blair. He'd thought nothing of it and then, a few days later he felt the first prick of awareness that someone was watching him, assessing him. Scanning the street had revealed nothing out of the ordinary, but the day after, a van had pulled up and two men had tried to shove him inside.

Using every dirty trick he'd learned living on the streets, he managed to get away. The feeling of being observed grew and, twice more he just barely avoided traps. The empathy had finally been good for something: He could feel the sentinel watching, wanting; could feel the man's malicious intent. The very thing the man wanted him for kept Blair free of him. Until he ran into a wall that hadn't been there the day before and the net caught him.

He'd been shocked when he looked up and discovered that Merrick was the sentinel who'd been hunting him. At Daniel's, he'd had no warning that the man was a sentinel. Why would a man like Merrick bother with him? He was a street rat, good for raw genetics, whoring and, if he were lucky, being a guide to some down on-his luck sentinel--one with small talents and no money.

Merrick had the money. His talent was of a more modest nature--taste and touch--talents that had little practical value, but tended to create sybarites. To this day, it made no sense to Blair that Merrick had gone to the trouble to hunt him down.

But there wasn't much about Merrick that did make sense to Blair, even after being with him for six years.

He didn't want to think about Merrick, or dream about him, but as usual, Merrick didn't care what he didn't want…

"You'll take it." Merrick held the pill out.

Mouth shut, he shook his head.

Merrick moved in closer, shoving the pill into his hand. "The doc says it might help, so open your fucking mouth and take it."

Blair starred down at the plain, white, oblong pill, wondering what this one would make him see, make him feel. Carefully, he set it down on the table and faced Merrick, trying to make him understand. "He was wrong about getting drunk and the LSD and the Peyote. None of that helped."

There was a new look in the bleached blues eyes that were drilling into him and Blair struggled to understand the emotions he was picking up from the sentinel. The anger, which had been steadily building over the past year, was an easy  read. Frustration, need…yes, he understood those. When he finally named the elusive emotion emanating from Merrick, he closed his eyes lest Merrick see the shock in them. Lust. Gavin Merrick wanted to fuck him.

He opened his eyes when he felt Merrick's hand in his hair and then tears came to them as Merrick tightened his fist, pulling Blair to him. Inches away from Merrick's face, Blair could see the dilated pupils, and the faint sheen of sweat.

Was this new, or had Blair completely the signs?

There were theories that sentinels were drawn to the guide that was made for them. Blair had always dismissed that as bunk…as lame as the story told to adopted children--the one about how the parents pick the kid out specially, how they 'know' that the baby they adopted was the one they were meant to adopt--when everyone knew they just got the next available one in line. But after Merrick had taken him from the streets, Blair had found himself wanting to believe in that.

What a dope he'd been to believe that fate had been involved. The guy had just wanted to jump his bones. Except that he hadn't--hadn't even tried in the three years they'd been trying to merge. Blair realized he didn't know if Merrick was fey'd, straight or bi. But it was true that Merrick spent as many evenings with a beautiful man, as a beautiful woman. Still, whether male or female, the people on Merrick's arm--chatting, laughing, looking up at him adoringly-- had always been stunningly gorgeous. Merrick had the pick of the litter, why would he want the runt?

Merrick pulled him so close their lips nearly met, then shoved him away. "Well, something better help. I paid a hell of a lot of money for you and I plan on getting my pound of flesh…one way or the other, Blair, baby."

The push had sent Blair staggering back to the table. Staring at the pill, he looked up to see Merrick already unbuttoning his shirt. Maybe this pill *would* work; maybe this time they would finally manage the merge. They had to bond or there was no telling what Merrick would do.  

Popping the pill in his mouth, he swallowed it down with a swig of water and started to undress. He had his shirt off and his pants unzipped when the drug hit him, making him double over in pain. His body was on fire. Through a red haze, he saw Merrick coming towards him, and he screamed, staggering away. "Run! Fire! There's fire everywhere!"

But Merrick ignored his warning and kept coming, catching him and shoving him down on the bed. Blair only realized he was still screaming when Merrick slapped him hard to stun him and snarled, "Shut up, or  I'll gag you."

Merrick finished getting his pants off and Blair did his best to keep from screaming as he watched the fire eating away the drapes and making its way towards the bed.

Everywhere there was fire and, as Merrick entered him, the flames turn into little creatures-- little fire creatures, with their mouths wide open, hungry, wanting to devour him. He must've started to scream again because Merrick grabbed his shoulders, shook him, and yelled, "Stop it!"

Merrick brought their hands together, but, as usual, noting happened. The burning pain grew more intense and Blair was forced to break contact as his body convulsed. The last thing he remembered were the fire people swarming over him, invading his mouth and ears, consuming him from the inside out.

 He awoke in pain from the drug's merciless rampage through his body to hear Merrick saying bitterly, "Nothing works with him, doc. He's fucking defective. Who ever heard of an empath that can't bond?"

"It happens, Gavin. Lord knows, you've tried everything."

Merrick realized he was awake and looked down at him, his eyes cold, so cold; it was freezing cold, and he tried to burrow deeper into the bed, to find some warmth, some cover.

"You refuse to merge with me," he accused, leaning down and putting his hand on Blair's chest.

His lungs felt hot, the pressure of Merrick's hand was making it hard to breathe. "No! I'm not refusing--I --I don't know why it's not working," he managed to wheeze out.

Merrick eased up and sat down on the side of the bed, petting Blair's sweaty hair, but his eyes stayed cold. "Things are going to change, Blair."

Lifting the blanket,  Merrick stared at him as if he'd never really seen Blair naked before, then took Blair's genitals in his hand and began to fondle him.

Blair tried to squirm away, but Merrick's hold was firm. Firm and warm, so warm….

Panicking, Blair begged,  "No! Gavin, no, please. I'm not into men, I'm straight."

Merrick's lips twisted into a mockery of a smile as he said, "Were straight. You know a guide will never have any relationship except with his sentinel. You'll either be fey'd or celibate for the rest of your life."

The hand on his cock was seductively sure in its movements.

Panting, Blair said, "Celibate…I chose celibate."

Merrick sped his movements, his eyes darkening. Leaning in closer, he whispered, "You choose nothing, Sandburg." He leaned back, his movements becoming lazy, but never stopping. "I choose and I chose you, Blair baby, and I'll have you. I've finally accepted that bonding will never work, but there are other ways for me to get my money's worth."

Much to his dismay, Blair's body didn't much care that it was a man's hand fondling him. It reacted to touch and friction, becoming hard and his brain was flooded with a vortex of sensations.

Now the smile on Merrick's face was real, making his eyes warm up enough so that Blair could see the blue. "You see? You shouldn't have pigeonholed yourself. To paraphrase some poet, 'You are large, you contain many contradictions'." Keeping one hand on Blair, Merrick unzipped his pants with the other, releasing his engorged penis.

It looked huge up close and hard. Merrick guided it to Blair's mouth and nudged his closed lips with it. "Open sesame, Blair."

When Blair kept it shut, Merrick turned his attention back to Blair's cock, stroking it faster, bringing him to the very cusp of an orgasm. He was so close, so close to going over the edge…then Merrick stopped. Helplessly, Blair's hips bucked, trying to regain the sensations, but Merrick shook his head.

"Open your fucking mouth, or I'll keep you hanging here all night."

For three years, as they'd attempted to bond, he hadn't been allowed to touch himself. He'd almost forgotten what it felt like to be touched, to feel himself ratchet towards an orgasm, to feel  pressure so great he thought he would die if he weren't allowed to come.

Merrick's hand had  reminded him of what it had felt like to feel silken, intoxicating tension, to feel strung out, knowing relief was just within reach. He opened his mouth and took the head of his cock in. Merrick shoved it in deeper. He'd choked, then started to gag, but Merrick just kept his rhythm going,  thrusting in and out, moaning a strange mixture of endearments and filth, then, with a triumphant yell, came. Hot sperm filled his mouth as Merrick withdrew his limp cock. Blair turned away and spit the cum out of his mouth, disgusted by it. It was a deal with the devil and he didn't want it.

Laughing, Merrick said, "It'll get easier, baby. Oooh, you lost your interest. Luckily for you, I know just what to do to remedy the situation." Merrick dabbed his fingers in the pool of cum by Blair's head and coated Blair's limp penis.

It didn't stay limp long. Blair tried everything to retreat from the sensual onslaught, but Merrick had a lifetime of using his talent of touch to understand flesh. He knew and understood places on Blair's body that had been undiscovered until now. There was no resisting the sensual siren call of touch and soon Blair was bucking into Merrick's hand, desperately gasping for breath, hating the sounds that were coming out of his mouth.

When he finally came, it was with the force of three years of going without. It overwhelmed him, sweeping him into a moment of oblivion, like a boat tumbling over Niagara, and he fell to the rocks, splintering into a million pieces.

***

The merge with Jim had been intense, exhausting and had knocked Blair out. As he slowly  became aware again, he realized that his cock was being stroked.

Oh God, no.

Please not this…not Jim.

But who else could it be? What else could it be? He finally read your files, he knows you've been Merrick's whore, and now he wants some.

No, he isn't like that.

Well, hello. It's no secret he's fey'd. Everyone knows that.

But he wouldn't just take. He'd ask. He would.

Well, he didn't, because there's a hand on you, making you hard, and there isn't anyone else here.

Opening his eyes, Blair cried out. Jim messing with him while he slept was bad, what he saw was worse.

"G-Ga—gavin, what are you doing here?" he croaked.

Blair had never seen Merrick look the way he did now, wild-eyed, disheveled and he knew something was very wrong with him.

"I'm here to reclaim my guide. I'm here to take you home."

Blair's eyes grew wide in disbelief and he reached down and put his hand on Merrick's wrist, stopping his hand. "I'm not your guide. I never was. And in case you forgot, you discarded me."

Merrick shook his head. "That was a mistake. I always planned to come back and get you after you'd seen what life held for a discard. I never thought--I mean, what were the odds? But Ellison had to swoop in. Well, too bad for the lord detective, because I'm the one who found you. You're mine. I found you. I taught you. I made you."

Blair had seen Merrick so angry he couldn't speak, so angry, he broke the exquisite nymph worth $300,000, so angry, he'd nearly killed Blair before one of his men managed to pull him away. But he'd never looked crazy until today.

Merrick's hand tightened until all Blair knew was agony. The pain was familiar and the response to it had been programmed, but Blair fought the pain and the programming. Digging his thumb into a nerve in Merrick's wrist, Blair pressed as hard as he could.

Letting go with a curse, Merrick immediately grabbed Blair by the throat. "You little shit." His hands squeezed until Blair's vision started to fade out. "You know better than that, baby. You know you don't ever, ever try to stop me."

With his last bit of consciousness, Blair's fingers scrabbled for Merrick's balls and when he reached them, he squeezed with the last of his strength.

Howling, Merrick let go and fell back.

Scrambling off the bed, Blair bolted from the room…

***

Gregorian proved to be elusive. Everyone Jim encountered insisted he was in the building, but after a half-hour's search, he still hadn't found the man. Damn it, he had a dinner date tonight he didn't want to miss. Taking the elevator to the nineteenth floor, he  walked the hall, stopping at any room that had more than one heartbeat in it.

By the time he got to Blair's floor, it was nearly time for him to be at the restaurant and still no one had seen the man or could tell him where to find him.

As far as he could tell, the whole floor was deserted. Checking his watch, he swore and dug out his cell phone. "Simon, I'm running late."

Pulling the phone away from his ear, he listened to Simon express his displeasure.

"Yeah, I know, I know. But I'm at the Guide residence and I need to find the guy in charge."

Simon had views on that as well.

"Look, I'll be there in twenty minutes. Order us a bottle of Château Latour-a'-Pomerol, the Loch-Fyne oysters, and the Kobe Rib-Eye, rare…yes, of course I'm paying."

Simon continued to bitch and Jim tuned him out as he entered Blair's room. Jim absently shut the phone on Simon's querulous voice when he realized the room was empty.

No heartbeat. No sounds at all.

His guide had taken off. He'd fucking taken off.

Clenching his teeth, he forced his anger down, knowing he needed a clear head to track Sandburg. Taking a deep breath, he was shocked when he picked up another man's smell, thick with aggression, tainted by lust. And then the smell of Sandburg's fear hit him.

He zeroed in on the bed, seeing a short strand of blond hair. Cultivateds all kept their hair long. Of course the majority of the population had blond hair. But this strand was nearly white. Glancing up, Jim caught sight of the camera tucked in the corner and growled.

Where the hell were those bozos? They should've had security down here the minute anyone but Jim entered the room. He'd deal with them later, first he had to find Sandburg. Which proved to be easy. As soon as he left the room, he spotted Sandburg being prodded ahead of Gregorian and two guards down the long hallway. His guide's hands were cuffed behind his back and he was limping.

Gregorian had a smug look on his face, and when he spotted Jim, he called out, "I knew this would happen. I told you this would happen." He shoved Sandburg spitefully and his naked guide went to his knees.

In three long strides, Jim was at Sandburg's side, helping him to his feet. He was shaking, either from cold or the aftermath of whatever happened. Sandburg kept his head down, not looking up or acknowledging him.

Gregorian looked at Sandburg with narrowed eyes. "It's a well known fact that guides from the street are wild, with no sense of honor. A signed contract wouldn't stop him from running at the first opportunity."

"Give me the key." Jim held out his hand and Gregorian handed it over with a smirk.

Ignoring the man, Jim unlocked the metal cuffs, feeling the blooming heat of bruises across Sandburg's backside.

"I can't have street filth running naked through my halls. I expect you to discipline him severely for this."

"I see you already started to discipline him." He pointed to the boot print on Sandburg's hip.

Gregorian nodded his head. "Of course he had to be subdued, but I wouldn't presume to actually discipline without your permission. If you'd like to give it…?"

"Over my dead body," Jim said absently, cupping Sandburg's chin and raising his head. Handprints were visible around his throat. Another bruise was emerging on his cheekbone. "I want Sandburg's room surveillance. I'll meet you there and we can discuss appropriate punishments."

Gregorian beamed at Jim. "Very good. I'll be in my office in ten minutes," he called over his shoulder as he hurried away.

"Come on, Chief, let's get this straightened out."

Shock was too mild a word for what Blair was feeling at Jim's words. He'd braced himself for Jim's anger and was in no way prepared to hear Jim's mild tone. Numbly, he nodded and let Jim shepard him back into the room. "Jim, I didn't run. I—"

"I know, Sandburg. Who was it? Who had their hands around your neck? Who hit you?"

"You know?"  Of course he knows, you idiot, he's a sentinel, the real thing.

"Yeah, Sandburg, they didn't make me a detective because I found the badge in a box of Cracker Jack." Jim softened the sarcasm by taking his arm guiding him down the hallway to Gregorian's office.

"Yeah, of course." Now came the part where he needed to tell Jim about Merrick, but he found it impossible to get the words out.

"Answer me. I'll see it on the disc in a minute."

The camera. Everything had been recorded and Jim would see and hear it in a minute.

The only warm place on his body was the small patch of skin under Jim's hand. Blair concentrated on that as he said, "It was Gavin Merrick."

"Merrick? The art dealer?"

"Yeah. The art dealer--the one who discarded me." Blair looked up to see what Jim's reaction was to that news. There wasn't much reaction at all. Jim just looked thoughtful.

Jim was remembering Emil pointing out a picture of Merrick at an art opening--the major Picasso showing a few years back, which all the aristos and big money guys had flocked to. Emil had been sitting on Jim's desk, legs crossed, studying the social pages, checking out what he'd missed.

Something had made him laugh, and Jim had looked over to see what Emil found so amusing. It was a picture of  Merrick drinking champagne.

"Where's Rafe? Why is he always late? I can't wait to show him this. What was Gavin Merrick thinking, dressing up a rat guide in a tuxedo? Might as well put a monkey in one. Look, the guide barely reaches Merrick's shoulders. Ahh, still…" Emil held the paper out to Jim. "You can see how hard the little rat tried, with his hair slicked back and a tasteful silver stud in his ear. Poor thing. You just can't turn a rat's ass into a silk purse."

Jim had glanced over and seen a blurry picture of a dark-haired man in a severe tuxedo standing closely to a tall, handsome man who exuded ease and power. In contrast, the shorter man looked uncomfortable, but, Jim thought, no less elegant.

Spotting Dolensky coming in, Emil had called him over. "Rafe, come here. You have to see this."

They'd spent a good ten minutes dissecting the image until Jim growled, "If you gave your crimes even a tenth of that kind of attention, Dolensky, your solve rate would skyrocket." And he'd been pleased when the natty detective blushed and retreated to his desk. That guy got on his nerves.

So, that had been Sandburg. And Merrick had come here, had invaded Sandburg's room after discarding him. Jim was calm, holding his reactions in some secret place within him until he had what he needed to go after the man who had broken the most sacred rule within the sentinel community.

Gregorian's office door was open and he waved them in,  pulling out a chair for Jim in front of the monitor. With a shake of his head, Jim refused it and said, "Play the disc."

"I keyed it to when your guide awoke this morning." He pressed the button on the remote and the screen lit up showing Sandburg still asleep, then suddenly on the floor.

Jim glanced at Sandburg, who said sheepishly, "I fell out of bed."

Taking the remote from the administrator, Jim quickly moved the disc forward at x32. He slowed it down, curious, when he saw Sandburg begin to twist his body this and that way.

"Yoga," Sandburg supplied. 

Jim nodded, but didn't speed up the disc. Instead he moved to block Gregorian's view and watched Sandburg stretch and move, studying his body. Ribs and hipbones too prominent, stomach too concave, but there was good muscle definition and the bones in his wrists were strong and well formed. Sandburg bent down and placed his forehead on the floor, then, seemingly without effort, raised his legs in the air and did a headstand.

How'd he do that? Why would he want to?

When Sandburg rolled back down after a few minutes and stood up, Jim pushed it ahead at x16, past his dramatic entrance and the two of them merging. He stopped the disc when they pulled apart. Sandburg continued to sleep for several minutes and Jim found his breath slowing in sync with Sandburg's. Calmed, he waited for Merrick to make his entrance.

The blurry face from the newspaper was in sharp focus, poised on Sandburg's threshold, and when he saw Sandburg alone and asleep, an unholy look of joy lit his face. Jim watched him approach Sandburg, and his predatory movements told Jim all he needed to know.

"Uh, Lord Ellison, I can't see," Gregorian whined.

Jim glanced back. "You'll see when I want you to see." Sandburg was standing with his eyes closed. "Sandburg, sit down." When he hesitated, Jim pointed to the chair he'd refused earlier and repeated, "Sit."

Turning back to the  monitor, he watched Merrick manhandling Sandburg. The kid looked scared and his face was etched with pain. Merrick's smirk was shattered when Sandburg applied pressure to a nerve in Merrick's wrist. Before Sandburg could get away, Merrick shifted his hands so they encircled Sandburg's throat and started to strangle him.

Knowing his guide had survived and was safely sitting in the chair behind him did little to calm Jim's fury. Merrick had invaded his guide's room and laid his hands on what was his. Taking a slow, deep breath, he pushed aside the other feelings that were roiling around inside him and turned back to Gregorian. The urge to feel his fists smacking into flesh was nearly overwhelming, but Jim worked to keep it in check.

"After this I'll be having all discs of Sandburg picked up at the end of the day."

"That's highly irregular." Gregorian said, starting to stand. Jim stepped in close, keeping him in his seat, and stared down at the administrator.

"Highly irregular?" Jim repeated, as if the man had said the earth was flat.

Gregorian flinched at Jim's icy tone, but maintained, "That's not how it's done here."

"So tell me, Mr. Gregorian, just what is the purpose of your surveillance cameras? To provide amusement for bored guards?"

"No, of course not." Gregorian huffed. "How dare you suggest such a thing!" The administrator's face was nearly purple with outrage. "Nassau House is renowned for the care and protection it gives Cultivateds." Jim tensed, and Gregorian hastily amended his sentence. "To guides."

"No one kept my 'guide' safe." Jim growled, moving out of the way so Gregorian could see Merrick with his hands around Sandburg's neck.

The administrator stared in shock, his mouth opening, but no words coming out. "I…this…no, I…" He looked at Sandburg, his eyes widening in dismay. Even without sentinel vision, the bruises around Sandburg's neck were obvious.

Sandburg watched the monitor without expression. He sat there, naked, bruised and disheveled, looking surprisingly…at ease…like being naked, bruised and disheveled was a state he was used to, or one that simply didn't faze him. Jim didn't know whether to admire his guide's comfort level or be appalled that he could sit naked and not seek to cover himself. 

Gregorian sputtered, "This should never have had happened--how did this happen?" The man looked sincerely aghast. "My apologies, Lord Ellison. Rest assured, the guards on duty will be looking for a new job tomorrow."

"That's hardly adequate. I'll be looking into their bank accounts in the morning, " Jim stated.

Gregorian's hand flew to his mouth as the implication hit him. "You mean you think they were bribed?"

"Look, Gregorian, you're the one who pointed out all the security features this place has, including the state of the art cameras you were so proud of. Of course they were bribed, you idiot. I expect you to do complete background checks on all the other guards."

"Now see here, Lord Ellison, I really don't think we should have to go to all this trouble for one street ra--guide."

Jim folded his arms across his chest. "I think you do. And I think all the other sentinels will agree with me when I tell them about how easily the security here was corrupted."

Gregorian admitted defeat with a deep sigh. "Very well, I'll see to it."

"Good. And Sandburg is to be given his clothes back. And I want a heater placed in his room. And I need my own key to the building and to his room."

Gregorian nodded, all fight gone from him.

"Can the door be fixed tonight?"

Gregorian looked stricken. "Tonight? It's Sunday. I don't have anyone who can fix that door tonight--the jamb's been ripped out." 

"Then he'll need another room."

"There are no other rooms. Hell--I mean heck--we had to convert a supply closet to fit your guide in, if you remember."

Jim remembered. "Then he'll have to room with one of the others for the night."

"No, no. I'm sorry Lord Ellison, but no one shares a room at Nassau house. It's one of  the cardinal rules. The sentinels whose guides live here would never stand for that arrangement."

Jim started to argue, then stopped when he realized he wouldn't have stood for someone like Sandburg bunking with Emil either. "Fine. Sandburg, you'll come back to the Palisade for tonight." 

It was clear no answer was required of him. Standing up, he waited for Jim or Gregorian to notice that he needed clothes. His ribs and back ached from the pounding the guards had given him when they'd been gleefully convinced they'd caught a runaway guide, but he stopped himself from bracing his ribs.

He wanted clothes, he wanted water, he wanted to lie down and just fade out, but he had to stand around and wait for Jim to finish beating his chest.

"Get his clothes."

Gregorian looked relieved. It wouldn't've surprised Blair if Jim had insisted that Gregorian take him home for the night and tuck him into bed. The administrator picked up the receiver, but Jim gave him one of the many looks Blair had become acquainted with in his short tenure as Jim's guide.

The guy should really look into getting a patent on this one, Blair thought.  The look in Jim's eyes, the lowered eyebrows, the thinned lips and aggressive stance all clearly proclaimed, 'Not good enough, not by a long shot', and he'd mixed it with another of his looks, the 'If you screw up, I get cranky and if I get cranky, somebody gets hurt look.' The lethal messages were decoded in a thrice by Gregorian, who hastily left the safety of his desk in search of Blair's clothes.

Jim watched him leave with a grim look of satisfaction on his face, then turned the grim look, minus the satisfaction in Blair's direction. Frowning, he reached out to steady Blair. "Sit down. You look like a stiff wind could knock you over."

Blair wanted to shake his head, declare he was fine and with some dignity, wait for his clothes to show up. But when he started to shake his head, the room spun and, without even a stiff breeze to blame, he went down.

Jim dropped to the floor maybe a millisecond behind him, but instead of being sprawled in a heap like Blair, he crouched gracefully next to him. "Jesus, kid. What happened?"  Jim's hands did a slow sweep of his body, pausing when he came to Blair's ribs. "One cracked," he announced and then Blair felt his feather light touch on his  back. "You took a kidney punch. Your next piss is gonna hurt like hell." His cool fingers traveled up Blair's spine, then paused again when they encountered the lump next to his left ear. "Probably got a mild concussion. Feel nauseous?"

At this point, all Blair was feeling was a new kind of pain--one that came from the exquisite sensations Jim's fingers created as he touched his body. It over road the other pain like a shot of novacane.

"A little, but mostly I'm thirsty."

Jim gently moved Blair until his head rested in Jim's lap. Blair squinted to shut out the glare of the overhead light. Jim's fingers were lightly moving over his face, leaving a trail of heat and comfort. Somehow Jim managed to look beautiful even underneath a cold florescent light. His look was one of concentration, yet Blair knew the sentinel had already learned all he needed to know about his injuries. He's touching me because he wants to. Or has to. Is it part of being bonded? He felt like he was a desert and Jim's hands were rain, soaking into him.

He must have dosed off because all of a sudden, Jim had a bottle of water in his hand and was lifting Blair's head up. "Here, take a sip."

Blair took a gulp and then another, guzzling the water so fast it spilled all over him.

"Slow down, Chief. There's more."

But he didn't slow down until the bottle was empty and his chest and Jim's pants were soaked..

"Gregorian brought your clothes. They're filthy, but they'll serve to get you ho--to Decatur."

Jim pushed him up, helped him to his feet, and handed him his clothes. They weren't really filthy. It was just good, clean dirt ground into his jeans and a little blood on his vest.

Dressing took longer than he would've liked, with Jim holding his pants for him like he was a three- year old and Gregorian watching, his condescension for Blair vibrating in the air all around him. When Blair put his vest on, he felt the usual rush of comfort he always got wearing it. Naomi had made it during a rare arts and crafts phase of her life. He'd had it on the day he'd been caught. It had been taken away from him, replaced with silk shirts and tailored suits.

On the day Merrick sent him to the hospital for the last time, he'd gotten it back.

He'd been naked and half-conscious as the medics lifted him onto the gurney. Merrick had come out of his library with Blair's old clothes and the contract they'd signed. Scrawled across it in red ink, was the word 'Discarded' in Merrick's dramatic handwriting, and the date.

The medics had accepted his clothes and contract with about as much enthusiasm as they'd have had for handling toxic waste. The disgust Blair felt from them had made the pain he was in a welcome distraction.

Merrick's rage at Blair wasn't quite spent, despite the damage he'd done.  Blair had no doubt he would have continued the beating if the EMT's hadn't been there. "You'll leave here with what you had when you came and no more," Merrick screamed, his voice scalding and raw. "I clothed you, fed you, educated you, exposed you to art, music, literature. You met the most talented, richest, smartest, funniest people this planet has created because of me and what do you do? You hold back. You have damned little to offer, Blair, and what little you have, you withheld. Hell, you're not even a good lay."

And, Blair had to admit, that was all true. Merrick had been generous; elegant clothes in the most exquisite fabrics, the kind of food and wine he hadn't known existed, and, best of all, books. And he'd been in the room with some very talented, wealthy, intelligent, and entertaining people, thanks to Merrick. And he had held back, not from bonding, no, but from ever letting Merrick in. The man could make him beg for touch, but he'd never been able to make Blair love him.

Blair fingered the ragged edges of the vest as Jim nudged him towards the door. "I'll be in touch tomorrow. Send me the bill for the door," he told Gregorian as they left his office.

Walking down the hallway, Blair put his hand on the wall. It was either that or pitch forward. The nausea Jim had asked about was starting to peak, and Blair's one desire was to get outside and puke without having the golden Cultivateds as an audience.

Jim's hand under his elbow helped keep him upright and moving forward. As soon as they were out the door, Blair turned left, dropped to his knees and began heaving. Every spasm shot pain through his ribs and head, but his body was on a relentless course of purging and there was nothing to be done about it. Even when he had nothing left, the spasms continued and he would have pitched forward, right into the mess, if Jim hadn't caught him and hauled him back from it.

"Take it easy, kid, I've had a lot of these knocks. It'll stop soon and then you'll just have one hell of a headache and want to sleep.

Blair wanted to tell him he knew all about concussions, that he'd had a lot of these knocks himself, but being curled up in a ball, gagging, stopped their moment of sharing. His stomached empty, he continued to heave helplessly, and, after a moment, Jim bent down and picked him up. Not over his shoulder, but like a baby, in his arms. And of course four of the tall blond guides had their eyes glued to the windows, watching it all happen.

Jim placed him in the car and even buckled him in, but Blair was beyond caring. Putting his head back, he closed his eyes and tried to block out the pain, then snapped them open and looked at Jim as he got in the car. Sure enough, he was looking green himself and Blair reached out and touched his arm.

"What? Did you forget something?" Jim sounded more distracted than irritated.

"I know the smell is getting to you. Put your head out the window. Take a deep breath…. Release it slowly to the count of five, slowly bringing your sense of smell down with each count."

Jim opened the window and the cool, fresh air felt great.

"Five…Four...It's coming down. Three…easy now. Two…you're getting there. One."

Slowly, Jim pulled his head back into the car. His face had relaxed and Blair knew he'd successfully brought his sense of smell down.

"Thanks, Chief. Now close your eyes. The curves on the way up to Decatur will be hell on your stomach if your eyes are open."

Blair obeyed and let the sound of the powerful engine lull some of the tension from his battered body. Jim kept the window open and soon he fell asleep.

As Jim turned into the driveway, he was glad his father had called the house staff back. Pushing the code on the remote, he waited impatiently for the gate to swing open, then gunned it, making the car leap forward and speed down the long drive to his brightly lit home. Blair had begun shivering about halfway to Decatur and Jim had closed the window and turned on the heat. But Sandburg was still shaking and a sheen of sweat covered his face.

By the time he pulled up to the front door, Roberts was standing on the front steps. Jim opened his door and ran around to the other side and got his guide out.

"Do you need my help?" Roberts asked, reaching to take Sandburg out of Jim's arms.

"No, I've got him." He carried Sandburg in, and then hesitated. Roberts was back, so he couldn't use his room. He headed for the guest wing, then stopped, disturbed. It was too far from his own room. He stood for a moment in indecision, then took Sandburg to his room and laid him on the bed, putting a pillow under his head. Sandburg's eyes were shutting, then opening, only to shut again. Roberts had followed them up and stood in the open doorway. "The new guide, sir?"

"Yeah."

"May I ask what happened?"

Jim looked up at Roberts and wondered if he was actually curious or just being polite, it was always so hard to tell with the man. "Uh, he ran into some trouble. He'll be all right, just a mild concussion and a cracked rib."

"Oh, I see. Shall I call the doctor? 

There was a time when Jim would've called a doctor. He'd summoned Dr. Dima on a regular basis for Emil. But that was before doctors had taken Emil away.

"No…at least not yet. Help me get him undressed."

The task of divesting Sandburg of his clothing didn't take long. Getting his shirt off caused Sandburg to moan and try to keep his arms close to his ribs, but, with a little coaxing, they soon had him stripped. The bruises along Sandburg's ribs had flared into color and his throat bore the bruises Merrick's hands had made. The stitches and fading bruises on his face added their testimony to the kind of week Sandburg had been having. Roberts said nothing; and that was just one of the many reasons Jim had insisted on an English butler and paid him so handsomely.

"Let's get him washed up and into bed."

Roberts padded silently to the bathroom and Jim soon heard the sound of running water. Pulling the quilt over Sandburg, he tucked it in even though he knew as soon as Roberts came with the towels, the blanket would have to come off again.

Jim leaned back in the chair and tiredly rubbed his face. Merrick had to be dealt with. Instinctively he wanted to kill the man, of course--any sentinel would. An assault on one's guide was, in many ways, a greater violation than an assault on one's mate. Jim pushed that instinct aside. He didn't have that kind of relationship with Sandburg. Didn't need to get caught up in the whole "my" guide thing. Of course he'd protect him, but there was no need to go on a rampage. He'd file a formal complaint and make sure Nassau House followed through on upgrading their security screening.

Roberts returned with the soap, a stack of washcloths and two bowls of water, which he placed on the nightstand. "Is there anything else I can do?"

Jim didn't look up as he pulled the quilt back. "Bring me aspirin and water. A lot of water. And ask Mrs. Tupelo to brew some tea."

"Yes, sir."

"And a flashlight."

Pulling back the quilt, Jim wrung out one of the washcloths and wiped Sandburg's face .He rinsed the washcloth out, then methodically wiped the broad, hairy chest, trying to remove all traces of vomit. Taking another washcloth, he dampened it and started in on Sandburg's arms.

"Sir?" Roberts was back with a tray, which had bottled water, aspirin, tea, bandages, and a flashlight.

"Thanks. Take his clothes and get rid of them, will you?"

"Yes, sir.

Jim turned his attention back to washing Sandburg who moaned, a long-drawn out sound of what could have been either pleasure or pain. Unwilling to hurt his guide, even in the name of cleanliness, he stopped. Dialing up his sense of smell a notch, then another, he decided Sandburg was clean enough until tomorrow, when he could take a shower.

 Lightly shaking the thin shoulder under his hand, he said, "Hey, Chief, wake up." When Sandburg didn't immediately respond, he shook him again, this time a little harder and was relieved when his blue eyes fluttered opened.

 Sandburg looked around in a daze, and said, "Wha? What?"

"Stand down, Chief, it's all right. Just wanted to make sure you were okay."

"Yeah, I'm good," he said sleepily and his eyes started to close again.

"Hang on a minute, don't go back to sleep just yet."

Sandburg obediently opened his eyes wide, but Jim wasn't at all convinced he was seeing anything.

"Before you go back to sleep, I want you to get the aspirin into you." Putting his hand behind Sandburg's head, he lifted it up. "Come on,  open up." Placing three tablets in his guide's mouth, he brought the water to the kid's lips and watched as Sandburg took a swallow, washing the pills down. Sighing, he relaxed against Jim's hand, but Jim wasn't finished yet. He brought the warm tea to Sandburg's mouth. "Take a sip"

Sandburg opened his mouth and Jim tipped a sip in, waited for him to swallow, then tipped some more in. When the cup was empty, he lowered Sandburg's head back to the pillow. The confusion in Sandburg's eyes was making Jim uncomfortable and he reached over and pushed a wet strand of hair away from Sandburg's face.

"What's your name?"

Sandburg looked alarmed at the question, but hesitantly answered, "Blair Sandburg."

"What day is it?"

At that question, Sandburg relaxed. He knew the drill. "Friday."

"You know where you are?"

"The palisade, your bedroom."

Jim nodded. "Good. You have a concussion, but you're coherent. Still feeling sick?"

Sandburg shook his head.

"Thirsty?" Jim didn't wait for a reply, but handed Sandburg the water.

After drinking it all, Sandburg handed it back. "Thanks."

Jim had noticed the trembling in the kid's hands when he held the glass. Getting up, he went to the closet and got another blanket, spreading it over Sandburg, then sat down again. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask Sandburg about Merrick, but then he realized he didn't want to know. The less he knew about Sandburg's past life, the better. All he needed to know about the kid was whether he could do the job of guiding him. And so far, the answer was 'yes'.

Still, Merrick could pose a real problem if he persisted. Try as he might, Jim couldn't quite shake the desire to go and have a chat with the fancy schmancy art dealer who had left Sandburg's body so scarred and now had come back for more. Jesus, the man deserved to feel just some of the pain he'd meted out to Sandburg. And Jim knew just how to give him some of that pain.

The problem was, Jim knew once he started to shove some of Merrick's own medicine down his throat, he wouldn't be able to stop.

Better to just make sure Merrick never came near Sandburg again.

The kid was asleep again, his dark hair wild against the pillow. Safe. Yawning, Jim's eyes wandered around his room. This had been their room--the room that had been a retreat for Emil and him, where he could cast aside his roles of sentinel, lord, and detective and just be the guy who loved Emil, who made love to Emil.

Made love in this bed…their bed…the one that Sandburg now slept in. It wasn't right.

But the idea of Sandburg being anywhere else right now wasn't right, either. As he struggled to reconcile his warring emotions, his cell phone rang.

"Ellison."

Simon's voice boomed over the tinny speaker." Where the hell are you, Jim? I just had a marvelous dinner, as per your instructions, damn near drank the entire bottle of wine, and am looking at a bill for $2347.89."

Jim winced. "Yeah, well, something came up."

"Something with that rat of yours?"

"Don't call him that, sir." The sir was bitten out, but Simon didn't seem to notice.

"Don't tell me you're growing fond of him?" His captain chuckled, evidently amused at the idea.

Jim counted to three, then said, "Fondness has nothing to do with it, Simon, Sandburg's my guide now, and if you respect me, you won't call him a rat."

"All right, fine. I won't call him a rat."  Simon sounded disappointed.

"I'll call the restaurant and have the bill put on my card."

"Yeah, well, leave a good tip. I hate to be thought of as a cheap tipper."

Jim flipped the phone closed and stared at it. Fond. He wasn't 'fond' of Sandburg. He felt responsible, for cris'sakes. The kid was dependent on him now to take care of him and keep him safe.

Sandburg was awake and looking at him, eyelids slowly drooping, then quickly opening again as he tried to stay awake.

Jim shook his head and said mournfully, "I can't leave you anywhere without you finding trouble."

Sandburg grinned, having read correctly that it was a joke. "Yeah, seems that way."

"What am I going to do with you?"

He read Jim correctly again, because he remained silent at the rhetorical question.

"Well?" Jim changed his mind about the rhetorical and realized he wanted to hear if Sandburg had any ideas. His guide just shrugged expressively and Jim narrowed his eyes at him. Sandburg raised one eyebrow and Jim sat back and said, "Oh no. No. Not gonna happen, Sandburg."

Sandburg's smile was smaller, but still there as he offered, "It would be more efficient."

"Efficient?"

"Yeah. Well, I'd be right where you last put me and ready to go when you got a call, and you probably get a lot of calls in the middle of the night, so think what a drag it would be to have to come and fetch me and then hit the crime scene, but if I was here, you'd just have to holler and I'd be on deck, so to speak."

"Did you breath at all during that sentence?" Jim folded his arms over his chest, scowling at the man lying in his bed.

The last sentence seemed to have taxed what was left of Sandburg's strength because his eyes drifted shut again.

Reaching over, Jim buzzed the intercom and spoke to Roberts. "Go to Symbiont's Guide residence on Halston and get Sandburg's belongings. Tell them he won't be coming back."

Roberts voice came over the line. "Very good, sir."

"Oh, and call Illio's and pay Simon's bill."

"As you wish, sir. Will that be all?"

"Yes."

Jim reconsidered, then pushed the button again.

"Sir?"

"I want to stay close to Sandburg tonight, so I'll be using your room. Bunk in the guest wing."

"Yes, sir." Roberts' usually unflappable voice held a hint of surprise. "I'll have Mrs. Tupelo arrange to have my bedding changed."

"Fine." He clicked off, then thought of something, and clicked the intercom on again. "Roberts? You still there?"

"Of course, sir."

"I haven't eaten. Have the cook put something together for me."

"Right away, sir."

"And Roberts…?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Tell him to make enough for two

"I'll let him know, sir."

 

TBC