Second Chance Series:

What Comes Together

 

It was cold and a thin layer of ice seemed to coat everything. With each footstep, a sharp aching crack would sound, and the sound would ping off the sides of his brain, echoing and finally fading, replaced with the sound of the next footstep and then the next, until his head felt cold and brittle and filled with sound of things breaking off.

The air had ice particles in it and with each breath his lungs were torn by their sharp edges. Everywhere the light shattered, dancing crazily off windows, cars, frozen puddles, searing his peripheral vision until all he could see was the tunnel he was walking through.

Go. Go to the Shelter. Just pick one and the madness and pain will be over.

The first thing he noticed was the smell. The air exchange system was working overtime, but could not quite rid the place of the stink of human waste, blood and fear. The holding cells were little more than cages, really. But then they were temporary. Each one contained a cot, a guide and nothing more. The walls hummed with the blotting frequency used to keep all emotional stimuli outside. Only extreme circumstances would bring a sentinel to this den of discards.

Lord James Ellison, Detective First Class, was in an extreme circumstance. Emil had died over nine months ago after a short and brutal battle with tuberculosis. In the last month of his guide's illness, Ellison had been sedated and kept unconscious, only revived at the very end to say goodbye to his nearly comatose guide. After that, more sedation. Every few weeks, he'd been awakened, tested, then put back under when it was clear he was not yet in any shape to cope with Taldec.

In the end, he'd lost nearly a year of his life to Emil's death. He'd been conscious now for a hellish six weeks. They had insisted he choose another guide immediately, but he hadn't been able to, wouldn't consider it. For him, no time at all had passed since Emil had been alive, laughing, his mate. He couldn't bear the idea of another stepping into his beloved's place, even if it meant the Taldec madness would claim him. And the madness was claiming him, day by day. His senses were either pitiful or microscopically and excruciatingly tuned in.

Fitzgerald finally took pity and told him about the Bickering Shelter, where guides who had been rejected or damaged somehow, were placed. Most of the guides who walked into the Bickering Shelter never left. They were deemed unfit to cohabitate and put to sleep. A small percentage had skills rare enough to warrant a partial lobotomy and castration to prevent their passing along their defectiveness. When they had been sterilized in mind and body, they were issued to the people who needed the skills they possessed. A very rare few would escape those fates and be picked by another sentinel.

A sentinel low on funds, or so abusive no Cultivated would allow the bond.

A guide from here would simply be a tool to keep the madness away and that's all Ellison wanted. Never again would he give his heart and sanity to another. He didn't want to choose a guide, it implied a relationship, a relationship he didn't plan on having.

If it had been up to him, he would have had Fitzgerald choose one, but the medic had insisted that a bond would never work in those circumstances.

Word had spread quickly through the shelter that a sentinel was looking for a guide, and not any sentinel, but Lord Ellison. The guides stood at the bars of their cells hopefully, some calling to him softly in a coaxing voice, others, more daring, reached out and tried to touch him.

Only one guide paid no attention and that was because he was fast asleep on his cot. When Ellison reached the end of the row and saw him, he turned to Lansing and pointed. "That's the one."

Soft groans of disappointment and mutterings about his choice were made. He ignored them.

The Commandant frowned and looked concerned. "You want 29? Are you sure, sir? There's a very nice Cultivated in the next row."

"I'm sure."

"But, sir, he's a wild empath—" Lansing's voice dropped, "—a rat, bred on the streets."

"I'm sure."

"He's not even awake. Don't you to listen to hear if you find his voice pleasing, or his scent tolerable?"

"No. I don't want his voice to please me and I don't ever want to smell him. Now wake him up and let's get this over with."

Lansing shook his head at the folly, but did as he was told. Extending the tazer, he lightly zapped the sleeping man, who predictably screamed and fell off the cot, then scrambled to his feet.

Lansing pressed the button on the small console he carried and the cell door opened with a beep. The guide knew the drill and stumbled out into the corridor.

"He hasn't been here long," Lansing explained. "His sentinel liked ornamentation, as you can see, and if he tested as a keeper, he was scheduled to have his hair removed and the tattoos lasered off later this week. We can, of course, do that immediately if you decide you want him."

Ellison looked with distaste at the guide. The man had dark unruly hair that hung to his shoulders. More hair could be seen on his chest. A chain tattoo marked both wrists. What kind of Sentinel would put up with such visual disorder?

"No, leave him just as he is."

It would be all the easier to keep his distance.

The guide was swaying on his feet.

"What's wrong with him?"

Lansing moved behind the guide and prodded him forward. "As I said, he just got here. I haven't yet been told the history of this one. He may be entirely unsuitable for a sentinel of your status."

Being a highborn as well as a sentinel had always meant he was entitled to the best. Emil had been the best, the finest guide of his generation. Fair-haired, with an ethereal beauty that made him seem to glow, he was magical. His voice had been like honey, and his touch like velvet. Making love to Emil had been like being wrapped in a fur-lined cocoon, all his senses cosseted, soothed. Emil had been his height, and their bodies had been in sync from the moment they were brought together. They fit, like two pieces of a puzzle.

If one had ordered up Emil's complete opposite, the creature in front of him would've been delivered.

"He's perfect. If he needs retraining, I'll have retrained. Have him washed and purged. Make sure he's deloused. Call me when he's ready. I expect to see him by tonight, understood?"

"Yes, my lord. Of course. To your exact specifications. Do you wish any markings or jewelry attached to him?"

The last thing Ellison wanted was to try and make this pig's ear into a silk-lined purse. "No. I want him just as he is, but cleaned, deloused and purged. Have I made myself clear?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Good." And without a backward glance at his new guide, Ellison walked away.

_______________________

"He was somebody else's guide for almost six years, Jim, and they placed him at the shelter for a reason. There's something very flawed about him, or he wouldn't be in that place. You won't be able to use him."

His father's voice sounded very far away. That was nice.

"Oh, he'll be of use to me." He'd get what he needed from 29.

"The Council won't be pleased about this. You know that. They won't want the likes of him around." Jim covered his ears, which were ringing from his father's shouting.

"You don't have to yell at me, Father, or worry about the guide being around. He won't be. He won't be attending any functions. I don't plan on dating the man, he isn't going to be my new best friend. Relax." His hands were shaking again and Jim gripped the glass with both of them, then tossed back the clear liquid, needing the rush of ice cold gin down his throat.

The look of disbelief on his father's face told Jim he still needed to be convinced.

"Look, I'll take him out, we'll try a few things, if he functions, fine, if he doesn't, I'll go back and choose another." No need for his father to know just how close he was cutting it.

Jim whistled for Nietzsche and the old dog slowly rose to his feet and lumbered toward him.

"Why waste your time, Jimmy?" His father's was using his weasel voice again, the one he'd used to have Jim put under sedation

Because he's perfect.

But he wouldn't say that out loud. His father would see too far into his soul if he said that-and then he'd be sent to the clinic for more grief therapy. They'd make him find someone suitable, a virgin. They'd expect him to fall in love again. And he wasn't about to do that.

Jim smiled as Nietzsche lay down at his feet and immediately rolled on his back. He began to rub the hound's belly, then looked up at his pacing father and realized he hadn't yet convinced his father. "I know this one is---unconventional-but as soon as I saw him, I knew I had to have him." Let his father interpret that anyway he wanted to. Let him think that the bond had called to him.

William Ellison, Lord of Cascade, shook his head in dismay. "The fates have a horrible sense of humor, then. Very well, if he is your choice, we'll all learn to live with it. Will he move into Decatur?"

The thought of that twisted Jim's stomach. That man, that disheveled excuse for a guide, live in the same place he'd shared with Emil?

"No, God, no. He'll never set foot in the Palisade. I can hardly even bear to be there. I've closed it up and given the staff the month off. I'll find another place, in town. He'll stay at the shelter in any case. I'll just take him when I'm working."

"You still grieve."

Jim didn't even try to deny it. "Yes, of course." He turned away from his father's scrutiny, sick of everyone studying him, feeling pity, looking for signs of the madness.

"Some day you won't be."

Yeah and someday I'll sprout wings and fly.

Let his father have his fantasy. "That's what they tell me."

"And then you'll be stuck with this Sandburg."

"And?"

"And you'll be stuck, don't you see?" William's voice rose to a pitch that sent a shaft of pain through Jim's head..

"No, I don't see. Yes, if—when—I fall in love again, that person will have to tolerate my bond with Sandburg. It won't be hard. It'll be obvious what his place is in my life."

"But Jim, choose a virgin, choose someone lovely, and there's every chance you'll fall in love with him, as you did with Emil. Daniels told me about a young Cultivated who's just had his debut. Let me arrange a meeting."

"Thank you, but no. You know love happens less than 30% of the time in the sentinel/guide pairing." Every word he said pounded in Jim's head "I'm not looking for love or even companionship with this guide. Just someone to ground me and keep me sane. I've been considering marriage.."

William's head shot up at that last sentence, a smile of hope on his face. "Really? I had no idea you harbored any bisexual genes, they don't show up in your chart."

"Well, it won't be a marriage based on lust, certainly, but thankfully I have other criteria for my choice of mate. I want children."

"You should, you have seventeen."

"Donor children are not heirs."

"I suppose if you do find love, at least she or he won't feel jealous."

Jim's smile was small and tight as he said, "Sandburg isn't the kind to stir those kind of emotions," then tossed back the last of the gin and stood. Nietzsche scrambled to get to his feet as well.

His father sighed and said, "Very well. Try this "experiment". At least with one like him, you can put him aside without any fuss if he doesn't work out."

Thank God, his father understood.

___________________________

They'd brought him to this room, this white tiled room, and turned on the hoses. He was blasted with cold water from three sides, until there was only white and water and no air. He sank to his knees, unable to keep his balance in the force of the water. Soon he was on his hands and knees, his head hanging down, trying to find some small patch of air to pull into his lungs. Abruptly, the water stopped and his chest heaved as he tried to get oxygen back into his body.

There was the clack clack clack of shoes on the tiles, then his head was lifted up by a hand in his hair.

"Can you hear me, Guide 29?" It was a woman's voice. He started to nod his head, but the hand held it still, and so he said "yes" only it came out as "ssss" and barely a whisper at that.

"Good. We expect your cooperation. You will obey the first time you are told to do something. Do you understand?"

"ssss" dribbled from his mouth, his swollen lips unable to form the actual word. A giant of a man picked him up and set him on his feet, and for the first time saw the woman of the clacking shoes. She was tiny, less than five feet tall, with flaming red hair that spiked up like flames and her shirt was a blur of shocking pink. He wondered why redheads always wore pink? Was red hair an indicator of color blindness?

A tall thin man approached wearing only a pair of rubber gloves and a scowl on his face. He towered over the woman, who seemed oblivious to that and to the scowl.

"He's going to need to be capped."

"Marco, he's been given Halyconic. He's hardly going to-"

He crossed his arms and looked at Blair suspiciously. "I want him capped. You read his chart. I am 100% het, lady and I don't have to put up with guide yoo-hoos. Especially from a discard."

Raising her eyes to the ceiling in exasperation, she sighed. "Very well." She motioned to her assistant. "Get the cap."

She waited impatiently while Saul fetched a metal contraption and brought it to her. Stepping close to Blair, she reached down and grabbed his genitals. Blair instinctively tried to back away, but was stopped by the wall of man holding him up. Her hands were cold and the metal cuff she wrapped around his balls, colder. She snapped the tube over his cock with practiced ease. It pushed it downward at an awkward angle. Then a chain was placed around his hips and locked. Finally the cuff was attached to the chain and pulled up. It was cold, hard and almost immediately uncomfortable.

She stepped back and surveyed her handiwork. "There. He can't make eyes at you now, Marco, so get to work. I need him groomed by 8. Can you finish by then?"

Marco walked around Blair, studying him, a frown on his face. "No electrolysis? Can I at least shave this fur off his chest?"

"Just his face. Lord Ellison said the rest stays."

"Ugh. Well, it will save time. But the man just cries out to be civilized. I can't believe someone like Merrick actually liked him like this."

She was cupping his ass and Blair tried not to react. "Yeah, there's no accounting for taste, is there?' Her hands roved, and she raked her fingernails across his chest, smiling when he shivered. "Call me when he's done."

Marco saluted and said with a grin, "Aye, aye, mon capitain. As you wish." Then turned back to Blair, taking his chin in his hand and turning his face left and then right. "God, I had no idea anyone of this coloring had survived in the guide pool. I've never seen one like this. Have you Gregory?"

The one with the beefy arms holding him up answered. "Never. But he's a rat, they breed all kinds on the street."

Blair was glad he was pumped with the Halyconic. He knew just what emotions he'd be feeling if he wasn't totally tamped down and he didn't have the strength to handle the fear and loathing his birth status created.

"Getting him presentable would be difficult enough if I had the usual three days. Five hours? This is going to be brutal. Saul, go out and get me an espresso. No, make it a soy latte. Gregory, hang him up again. We'll start with the purge and move on from there. I swear that woman thinks I'm a miracle worker."

It took hours and when they were finished with him, Blair hung limply in the restraints. Released, he fell to the floor, too weak to stand, where he shook as if he had palsy. The cold and the thorough cleansing had taken the last of his control.

The clacking noise signaled the return of the flaming woman..

"You're done?"

"Yup. He's been deloused and he's squeaky clean, inside and out."

"Excellent. Get him in the chair."

Hands pulled at him, urging him up and Blair tried to get his body to cooperate, but ended up back on the floor.

"Gregory, get over here and help Marco get 29 where he belongs."

Gregory picked him up and threw him into the chair as if he weighed no more than a rag doll.

The clack clack of her sharp shoes signaled her approach. Putting one knee on the seat next to him, she leaned in, nearly straddling his lap and ran her fingers through his hair. "He is most unusual. I don't believe I've ever seen hair on a man's chest or past his collar before." She hummed a little as she trailed her hand down his face, to his chest and then to his belly. She emanated heat and Blair leaned into it, but jerked back when she flicked her fingernails at the metal contraption fastened to his cock.

"He's shaking." She lifted her head to look him in the face. "His lips are blue" She trailed her finger over his trembling lips. "Saul, fetch me a jumpsuit." She placed a hand on his forehead and frowned. "My God, these guides are fragile. It's a miracle any of them make it."

Marco came back with the clothes. "Yeah, well, guides like this one have maybe a thirty, forty year life expectancy."

"You don't say. Why is Ellison even bothering?" She shook her head. "Lord save us from Sentinels and aristocrats, the fools. Get him dressed."

Marco cleared his throat and said, "I'd rather cut his hair first, it'd be easier."

29 was still shaking and the blue tinge was more distinct.

"Alright, a little more cold isn't going to kill him. But make it fast, we're on a deadline."

Marco fussed with his supplies. "Someone's gonna have to hold him up. I can't cut his hair when he's slumped over like that."

She snapped her fingers and Saul stepped forward.

"Get the leather straps and anchor him. While Marco works on the hair, see to his nails-fingers and toenails." She started to turn away and then swung back. "Oh, and cream his lips, Ellison won't like those cracks."

It took longer than she would've liked, but eventually he was clean and groomed and dressed. The tremors continued and he hadn't regained consciousness.

"Put him in the box and crank up the heat. Lord Ellison will be here in less than an hour and I want 29 as presentable as we can make him."

They dragged the discard down the corridor to the incubator, used for guides who were ill or in distress. Smaller than the cage they lived in, padded, with reinforced sides that had intensely focused blotting capacity, all in all, a lovely retreat. 29 was lowered into it and the lid put back in place. She adjusted the thermostat.

"All right, boys. Keep on eye on him and call me when his lordship arrives."

_______________________

Jim waited impatiently for the guide to be brought to him. Commandant Lansing was still trying to dissuade him, and the drone of his voice seesawed through Jim's head.

"What's taking so long?" He had no idea what the man had been saying, but it brought a moment of quiet as Lansing sputtered at being interrupted.

He carefully aligned his pen holder into a right angle with the desk blotter. "He'll be here soon. Have you looked at his file?" He thrust the thick dossier at him.

Pushing it away, Jim said, "No. I'll read it later."

"It might be wise to know what you're getting. It's not too late to change your mind." Lansing pushed back across the broad desk.

Jim narrowed his eyes at him. "I know exactly what I'm getting. A discarded guide." Before he could say more, two men came in dragging Sandburg between him, with a small woman following close behind. Jim stepped forward and raised the guide's head. 29's eyes fluttered in an effort to open, but couldn't manage it.

"What happened? Why is he unconscious?"

The woman reached out as if to touch his hand and he quickly jerked it away. Her hair hurt his eyes. "Tell me."

Thwarted from touching Ellison, the woman contented herself with running her fingers through the unconscious guide's hair. "Well, Lord Ellison, this kind of detail work is normally done over a three day period. You wanted him tonight, so we detailed him in five hours. 29 isn't all that strong and I'm afraid the stress of being cleaned and readied plumb wore him out."

"He's sick" Jim turned away from Sandburg, horrified that he might be ill.

"No, no," she said reassuringly, "just tired, that's all. He's a street rat, nothing like the guides you've known. A little more erratic in their responses. Usually they aren't discovered until puberty and by then, their rapport talents are a little on the wild side. Makes them just a little more sensitive, a little more reactive to everything. Changes in climate, emotions, impulses, commands, stimuli…Not having the benefit of the tamping drugs early in life, they usually develop interesting ways to cope…and I do mean interesting."

He'd never been around guides like 29. His people chose the cultivated guides, men who had been breed and trained since infancy to serve a sentinel, to please them, make them comfortable. Most of the Cultivateds came from Symbiont Systems, as had Emil, and had a long list of talents.

"He'll be all right?" Jim hadn't been allowed to be near Emil once he became ill. That was policy, a sentinel's health was never risked. He'd fought the policy in a rage until they'd finally sedated him. Now this guide was ill, but no way in hell was he going to risk being separated from Sandburg.

"Oh yeah, nothing a long night's sleep won't cure. Just take him home and put him to bed."

Jim hadn't planned on that. He'd planned on establishing the ground rules, signing a contract, getting the initial bond over with and then bringing him back to the shelter. Sandburg was breathing heavily, and Jim could feel heat coming off him.

He wasn't just worn out, he was really sick.

29 could die and then he'd have to go back and chose again. He didn't think he's last long enough. The madness was closing in.

"Put him in my car." He held out his hand for the file and Lansing gave it to him.

____________________

They'd thrown the guide in the back, and he lay face down and unmoving on the leather seat. Jim peeled out of the parking lot and sped into the evening traffic. Instinctively he made for home, seeking higher ground. He calmed a bit as the bright lights and noise of the city were left behind and he entered quiet countryside. There were no sounds except the heavy breathing from the man in back, but the temperature in the car rose a full degree from the heat he was giving off. Steadily he made his up the canyon and when Decater came into view, he let out a long breath.

When he reached the outer gates, he punched in the code and started to tell Roberts to meet him at the front door, then remembered that the staff was gone for the month. He drove half a mile until he reached the courtyard and parked on the lawn next to the front door.

Pressing another set of codes, he waited for the front door to swing open, then pulled Sandburg from the back seat. He was limp and damp with sweat, making him unpleasant to touch. Gritting his teeth, he carried Sandburg straight upstairs and nearly entered his bedroom. He stopped, shocked that he had come so close to placing another man in his bed, the bed he'd shared with Emil. Backing away, he carried his guide to Roberts' austere room, and placed Sandburg on the bed.

He didn't like how still the guide was, or the way he looked faintly blue, or the sheen of sweat that covered him. He didn't like anything at all about this guide except how much he didn't remind him of Emil.

Call a doctor? But there was every chance they'd take Sandburg away, declare him unfit to guide, and put him to sleep. Then his father would see how far the Taldec had infiltrated and he'd pluck a virgin guide from Symbiont and throw him into his bed and before you could say "You want fries with that?" he'd be bonded.

To someone blond and tall and beautiful who wasn't Emil. And he'd would go truly mad then, faced with Emil's doppelganger for the rest of his life.

No, this dark, hairy, tattooed, short, thin non-cultivated guide would do just fine.

To make sure his father didn't interfere, he had to get the contract signed and the merge accomplished. Once that was done, he'd have some rights to what happened to Sandburg and no one but he could declare him unfit or have him discarded.

Jim sat down next to the bed and lightly tapped Sandburg's cheek. "Hey you, wake up." 29 turned his face away and Jim tapped the other cheek, urging, "Come on now, open your eyes."

No response.

He slapped the cheek again, a little harder. "29, wake up!" The guide didn't move.

Damn it, he needed the guide's name on the contract before they merged. He needed both the contract signed and the bond completed before he called a doctor.

This time he slapped the guide hard and yelled, "Wake the fuck up!"

Sandburg's eyes shot open and immediately he struggled to sit up, but Jim stopped him with a hand to his chest.

"Good, you're awake, you can sign the contract." Thrusting the pen at him, Jim commanded, "Sign here."

The guide looked at him, his gaze focused and intent, but didn't sign.

Great, the guide was illiterate. His father would love that "Do you know how to sign your name?" He spoke slowly and carefully pronounced each word, unsure of what this guide understood.

"Yes," His voice was a whisper, and Jim was surprised to hear annoyance in it. Sandburg took the pen with shaking hands, but still hesitated.

What was he holding out for? Whatever it was, he could forget it. He knew Sandburg didn't have a choice and Sandburg should know it too and quit playing games. "Sign it."

Bloodshot eyes looked at him steadily and then Sandburg asked, "Are you sure you want to do this, that you want me as your guide?"

Now even the guide was questioning his decision? He sure as hell wasn't going to defend it to a discard. Jim pushed the paper closer to him. "Do you know what will happen to you if you don't sign?"

29 dropped his eyes and said, "They'll kill me."

Such drama. "They put you to sleep."

Sandburg lifted his eyes and Jim was surprised by the fury he saw in them. Jabbing the pen at Jim, he said, "You put rabid dogs to sleep. People you kill. It's called murder. And I am human, having the damn bad luck to be an empath hasn't changed that."

The brave speech was undercut by a coughing fit, and taking the shaking pen out of his hand, Jim waited impatiently for it to end.

"Whatever, Sandburg. You don't sign, you cease to exist. This lifetime is over. Do you want to sign or should I drive you back to Bickering?" He offered the pen.

Sandburg held his gaze for another moment, then took the pen and signed his name.

Jim took the paper, read it, then looked at Sandburg. "Blair? Your first name is Blair? What kind of a name is that?"

"I don't expect you'll ever use it, so what difference does it make?"

Folding the contract carefully in two, Jim nodded. "You have a point, but what kind of parents name a boy, Blair?" He shook his head at the stupidity of that. His vision blurred, reminding him that were on a schedule. "Get undressed, I want to initiate the bond tonight."

Sandburg looked nonplussed at his request. "There might be a problem with that." he ventured, pulling the zipper on the black jumpsuit down slowly.

"What? You have a headache? Somewhere else to be?" Jim's voice dropped the temperature in the room a few degrees and Sandburg froze at the sound of it.

"Uh, no, but…"

"But what?" Jim took over with the zipper and pulled it all the way down. His eyes narrowed when he saw that something was attached to his guide's anatomy.

"What the hell is that?"

Sandburg looked down as if trying to understand it himself. "They called it a cap. I think it's a sort of chastity belt." His voice was getting rougher.

"A chastity belt? Why would they place a chastity device on you? What were you doing?"

Sandburg blushed and hastily said, "Nothing. I wasn't doing anything."

"Are you a slut, Sandburg? Tell me the truth, now, because if I know, I can put some safeguards in place and we can still have a working relationship. If you lie and I find out later, I'll have no choice but to discard you-and two strikes means no third chances."

Sandburg's blush deepened. "I didn't do anything, it was just a het in full phobe mode."

"Yeah? That's it?'

"Yes, that's it, but…" Sandburg swallowed and hesitated before continuing.

"But? I knew there was a but in here someplace. But….?" Jim prodded.

His eyes pleading for understanding, Sandburg tried to explain. "My former Sentinel liked….I mean, he was into…he liked me to-" It was no use, he just couldn't bring himself to say it.

"He was kinky and he liked kinky shit and you did kinky shit." Jim translated, expecting that kind of thing with a street guide.

Sandburg dropped his eyes and nodded.

"You did it because you were told you to or because you wanted to?"

"Told to-forced to. I never-" He stopped protesting rather abruptly.

But they were on a schedule and he'd deal with that later." Okay then, get out of your clothes."

Sandburg rolled off the bed, nearly ending up on the floor, but Jim caught him and helped him stand. He shrugged out the suit then stood silently, looking ridiculous and uncomfortable with the metal contraption around his dick..

Jim tried to keep his hands steady as he studied the lock on the chain. Bending down, he looked at the apparatus and tried twisting it. 29 screamed as his knees buckled and Jim grabbed him to keep him upright. Fresh sweat appeared on a face that had managed to lose even more color.

"Sorry, wasn't thinking. No key?'

The guide shook his head. "No pockets in the jumpsuit to put one in, either. I guess they forgot."

"Forgot?" He realized he was still holding the guide up and he shoved him away. "Is this their idea of a joke? Were you in on it?"

29 didn't answer, just stood there saying nothing and suddenly his nakedness and silence enraged Jim. How dare he? Did he have any idea?

"Answer me! Is this your idea of a fucking joke?" It came out just the way Drill Sergeant MacEnroe used to sound when he asked his questions and Sandburg responded by falling to his knees.

Without looking up, he began to try and explain, "I don't know, I don't know how their minds work, and the Halyconic makes it impossible for me to read anyone, so I don't- I can't-I didn't-it's not funny to me-"

Oh, bloody hell, a babbler.

He wanted to kick the man kneeling at his feet, mostly for being on his knees and acting like Jim was going to kick him. The only time Emil went to his knees was when…Jim stopped that thought, he couldn't afford that memory right now. Sandburg still knelt with his head down, hands at his side, swaying as he waited for Jim to discipline him.

"Get off the floor, 29." He tempered his voice. This was no way to start a bond. "I shouldn't have yelled. it's just that I've been a year without a guide and I need-" He stopped the rest of the sentence, he didn't need to explain himself, he just needed to get the initial merge over with.

Sandburg was trying to get up, but somehow had ended up on all fours, looking up at Jim. "A year? Why aren't you dead?" he asked, and then passed out.

"Shit." Jim looked at the guide sprawled on the floor in front of him. "Just what I need."

It was a short distance from floor to bed. Jim got his unconscious guide settled, then looked at "Blair Sandburg". The man had hair covering his chest, dark and thick. Jim reached down and touched it. It was soft and not entirely displeasing. Emil had been as sleek as a seal, as were most men. There was the odor of decay in the room and Jim turned 29 over, spotting the long open cut on his back.

The cleansing had blasted it open and it was red and raw. Despite the cleansing, he had no trouble smelling the bacteria that was already building up again. 29's buttocks and back were discolored in a spectrum ranging from yellow to almost black and Jim could feel the variation in heat. Faint and not so faint scars crisscrossed his back in random fashion.

"Jesus." Jim put his hand over his eyes and let a long breath out. The shaking was getting worse and he knew if he didn't merge soon he'd be too far gone into the Taldec madness to make the connection. And if they didn't connect, they'd both be dead.

He stood up, putting a hand to the wall to steady himself.

I need a wire cutter. Workshop downstairs.

He ran down the two flights of stairs and searched the workshop that seemed equipped for every possible repair. Jim tore through the room looking for a bolt cutter, finally finding one in the back cabinet.

Racing back upstairs, he found Sandburg still lying on the bed just as he'd left him. Cutting the chain took was easy enough and then Jim pushed him on his back. The shakes were getting worse now, and he forced himself to concentrate in order to get the device off Sandburg. When he was done, Sandburg's cock was free, but dark and swollen with bruising.

And then time stopped. The madness surrounded and held him.

Fighting free, he came back to find himself on his knees by the bed, like a child saying his bedtime prayers. If I die before I wake…

How long?

Too Long.

The guide was still. Almost as if dead. He put a finger to the tattooed wrist and felt the pulse of blood. Lifting the wrist up, the image of the chain disintegrated into thousands of dots and he lost himself in them, in the sound of blood, in the small sighs of breath, in the warmth coming off the guide.

He couldn't remember the thought that had come before the last. Heat chased cold chased heat through his body. He shook and dropped the wrist.

Wake him.

What? Say it again. Tell me.

He listened, but heard nothing.

He needed to have the guide awake. "Guide." A light slap did nothing, a slightly harder one elicited a moan. The sound unexpectedly made him respond, his cock hardening.

"29!"

Name, he has a name.

"Sandburg! It's do or die time here. Wake up!" This slap forced his head to snap back and 29's eyes fluttered open. Taking the guide's face in his hands, he said, "My time's running out." The blue eyes were open but unfocused.

There was a ritual for first time. Sentinel and guide faced one another, touching hands, letting their auras begin to blend. It could take hours. They needed to start.

The guide lay naked before him, his legs carelessly open, watching him. He's no shy virgin, not like Emil had been when they'd first merged.

Jim remembered how Emil had covered himself with his hands the first time and for a long time after the first time. For a moment, he closed his eyes and indulged in remembering the way his love had looked with his long blond hair spread out around him, gazing at him shyly.

"You're dying." The guide's voice was weak but strong enough to make him lose the cherished image. The grief that never eased rushed over him, making him dizzy.

Dying.

Not for the first time, he wondered why he fought it. It was where Emil was, after all.

"There's no time left, just do it." The rough urgency in Sandburg's voice had no shyness in it. It matched the man who was dark and wanton and it called to him. With a snarl, he lunged for the guide, hungry and furious. Blue eyes looked up at him without fear, lifting his chin in challenge.

That small defiant gesture broke all his control and he swung himself over the guide's body, straddling his hips.

Have you forgotten?

He'd almost forgotten.

Groping for the prepared syringe, he took his guide's wrist, pulled it toward him and with precision, inserted the needle into the blue ribbon of blood.

Almost immediately the guide cried out, his body bucking, his eyes wide and unseeing. Without ceremony, the sentinel flipped the guide on his stomach, snatching the tube and biting the top off with his teeth. Pulling the discolored cheeks apart, he haphazardly squirted lube in the crack. Then positioning his cock at the dark portal of his sanity, he plunged in.

And stilled, waiting. The guide was also still, his breath coming in harsh pants, his muscles fortress tight. Holding his weight off the guide with one hand, he stroked the sweat-slicked back with the other, his fingers mapping skin and sinew, needing to know every inch of 29. Everywhere there were scars. Some healed, others still building layers, they formed an abstract of pain and ownership. He traced them carefully, as if by following them he would arrive home.

Suddenly the guide reared back, taking him in deeper.

Oh, God, home.

And then the guide was pulling away and he couldn't let that happen. He grabbed his hips and pulled him back. Again and again the guide pulled away and was brought back, the merge taking hold. With each stroke layers were formed. Not of love, or respect or even sweet understanding. Just need and need met, need and need met.

The guide panted, but the sound gave no hint as to whether he felt pleasure or pain. Awkwardly Jim reached for his hand and brought their fingertips together. There was a surge and it jolted his senses, flooding them with his guide.

He could taste him; salt, chlorophyll, metal, licorice. Feel the excess water in the membranes of his lungs and feel each breath transformed from oxygen to carbon dioxide. The intake chambers of his heart lub-dubbed and the outtake chambers dub-dubbed in quick syncopation and he matched his strokes to it.

With every movement, the madness retreated as the newborn bond took hold. There was a moment of perfect clarity when the merge was completed and his senses snapped back into perfect focus. He cried out, sealing the bond with his release and as he fell forward he heard his guide moan and do the same.

__________________________

He had been claimed and Blair Sandburg shook his head at the wonder of it. In six years, Gavin Merrick had not been able to finalize the bond and had blamed Blair bitterly for the failure. Blamed and punished. And then one hellish day Merrick finally lost interest in trying. By the end of that fateful day, Blair was in the hospital. A week later, when he was conscious, he was informed that his contract had been rescinded and he was taken to the shelter.

And now he'd been claimed, by Lord Ellison no less. He was safe. His days would be taken up with work and not the games Merrick devised.

Eyes shut, mouth open, Ellison snored softly, his large hand still covering Blair's, who brought it to his mouth, and kissed each knuckle.

When the freeing med had first hit, he thought for sure he'd die. The sentinel's emotions were impossibly naked from being left unchanneled for over a year. Grief had seeped right down to his bones, choking off all other possibilities except rage.

Rage, razor-sharp, had flayed Blair, tearing him into pieces, fracturing him until he thought there was no hope of bringing sentinel and guide together. Desperately, he pushed back on the cock impaling him and was immediately burned by the caustic emotions surging through the sentinel. Pulling away, he was dragged back, forced to take the sentinel and his pain into himself. Over and over he sought to escape the pain and over and over again the sentinel brought him back to share it.

Like a tidal wave, grief and rage washed over him, drowning him in sorrow. He fought to surface, to breath, to break free, but the waves just got bigger, sucking him under.

Merrick had told him he was broken, useless, unfit to guide and he should have accepted that, should have died when Merrick killed him, but he'd been arrogant, he'd fought to live and now that arrogance was going to kill him and perhaps take a sentinel down as well. The undertow was pulling him deeper and just when he despaired of ever taking another breath, strong fingers grasped his hand, pulling his head above the water.

When their fingertips touched, a flash of electricity sparked through him and he found himself on land. A small clearing surrounded by overgrown vines and weeds. There was ground here, a place to dig in. He did, searching and finding something other than the grief and rage. Hints of loyalty, humor, determination…and love, gossamer as insect winds and perhaps just as fragile.

The hope that those things still had some power to counter the grief and rage emboldened him to take Ellison all the way to his core. And to his amazement and then joy, the bond began to take hold, growing until there was completion. The ache had gone away, a pain that had been so constant; he couldn't remember when it had started.

Yes, he could. He'd felt it the first time he and Merrick had tried and failed to merge. The absence of that pain allowed him to relax for the first time in nearly six years.

Ellison was draped over his back, heavy, making it hard to breathe but he had no desire to crawl out from under him. He wanted to stay here as long as possible, as long as he was allowed.

_______________________________

He was dreaming; Emil was alive, asleep, and Jim lay between his long legs. He felt euphoric, as he often did after merging with Emil, as he often did after they had made love. Which had this been, merge or love? He couldn't tell, but that was the nature of dreams and it didn't matter. Nothing mattered, except the living, breathing man beneath him. He hugged Emil, who moaned raggedly, the rough sound coming from the usually reserved Emil making him hard.

He wanted to hear Emil moan some more Rolling to his side, he pulled Emil against him and reaching around, grasped his cock. It was slippery with come and lube. Dreams were good. It didn't take long before Emil was breathing in harsh pants, moaning. It was like finally hearing a melody that had eluded and haunted him for years.

"More, love," he cajoled and pumped the hard shaft faster and bringing a finger to tease Emil's hole. "Do you like that?" Every ragged groan of desire made him harder, and he thrust his finger into Emil's body, over and over. "Tell me what you want." He whispered, enjoying Emil's frantic movements as he tried to bring himself off.

A dark, harsh voice begged, "Please, oh-oh, god, so good, please, let me-"

Jim shoved the man away from him, withdrawing his hands. That wasn't Emil's voice. He opened his eyes. It wasn't Emil. It was the other-29. Jim twisted away, heartache creating fury. Sandburg's moans had stopped and his eyes were open, looking confused.

Oh, God, the bond had taken and this was now his guide. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Sandburg pushed himself up on his elbows. "Me? What am I doing? You were the one doing the doing."

Jim pushed him away and got up, wiping a hand across his mouth.

"Get dressed."

Sandburg looked shocked, but got up and fumbled for his clothes.

Jesus, his dream was a nightmare. How could he have confused Sandburg with Emil? Touched him like that. There was no excuse, none, even if he'd been asleep.

How could he have touched that as if it were Emil?

He kept his back to the-his-guide, not wanting to see him naked. "I'm taking a shower. Wash up at the sink."

Left in the room, Blair dropped to his knees, stunned by the disgust and anger he'd felt from Jim. What had he done wrong? How could he fix it? First he had to get up, get washed, eat, obey. Getting to his feet was hard, he wasn't altogether healed and it made him weak. How much time had he been in this state since he had been taken by Merrick to be his guide? It felt like it was all he'd known, pain and damage and recovering from damage. Would it be different with Ellison?

Not if he didn't get up and washed and dressed.

He was ready when Ellison came out and stood immediately.

Ellison toweled his hair and avoided looking at "his" guide. "Let's get some things straight. Call me Jim when we're alone." In the shower, he'd worked it out. The madness had been too close, it had made the merge wild, stirring up forgotten feelings, creating new ones. That was all. There would be no more confusion.

____________________________

Rafe stared in shock when Detective Ellison entered the bullpen. No one had ever expected to see him back again. The word was out that he'd refused a new guide and the madness was claiming him. But here he was, looking good, acting like he hadn't been gone for a year. He had a suspect in tow behind him, that guy really worked fast. But the guy wasn't in handcuffs, Ellison was getting sloppy.

The Captain came out, smiling big. His fair-haired boy was back, all hail the prodigal son. Rafe watched the way Banks smiled and fawned over Ellison and scowled.

"Jim! I didn't know you were coming in today until I got the call you were downstairs filling out paperwork for the new guide."

Jesus, that was his new guide? Oh, how the mighty fall.

The scowl faded as Rafe worked to keep from laughing. Jesus Christ, where had he found this one, the discount bin at a salvage yard? Shuddering, he contemplated the new guide. He was dressed like a scarecrow, with holes in his jeans that hung too low off his skinny ass, and a tattered flannel shirt, topped by a vest that looked like it had been handmade.

Too bad Emil wasn't here to see this. They could've shared a good laugh. Emil had understood style the way none of these bozos did. He'd taught Rafe how to tie a Windsor knot, introduced him to an amazing Chinese tailor that Rafe still used, brought him 400 count Egyptian cotton for his shirts. Sighing, Rafe still had a hard time believing Emil was really gone.

Ellison was actually smiling as he talked to the captain. "Yeah, well, I was ready to be back weeks ago." With his thumb, he gestured to the man behind him. "This is Sandburg, my guide."

No "Sandburg, meet Captain Banks" followed. So that's the way it was. Well, could you blame Ellison? To have had Emil Simone as his guide, as his partner, and now have this-this bargain basement version attached to him, well, he'd want to make the guide as invisible as possible, too.

"Your chair, Sandburg." The scarecrow sat down as ordered, shrugging off a backpack. He didn't seem bothered by the way Ellison was treating him. He had a smile on his face and was looking around with curiosity. Rafe was caught off guard by that and had to admit Sandburg had a certain comeliness in an earthy, throwback kind of way.

All of a sudden Ellison shot him a look and Rafe ducked his head down, pretending to study the papers in his hand.

Could Ellison be into down and dirty all of a sudden? Wouldn't that be a kick?

Nah, you might pick up one like this for a night's fun, you'd never shackle yourself for life to it. So what was the deal?

He'd just have to wait for the scuttlebutt to spread through the precinct. Someone was bound to get the scoop sooner or later.

____________________

The emotional hum in the room was bearable and Blair sank back in "his" chair. So Lord Ellison was Detective Ellison. Sentinels were often in law enforcement, so he shouldn't have been so surprised. True, few highborns did this kind of work, but Ellison had the sort of physicality that wouldn't take to desk work.

Merrick had been an art dealer and had no real need to use his abilities, so it had always baffled Blair why the man had paid so much money to have him taken from the streets and trained. Sure, he needed a guide to keep the Taldec away, but that was all he needed in a guide. He could've gotten one on the cheap. It had been Blair's lousy luck that Merrick had spotted him on the street and decided he was the "one". Three weeks later, Blair had been driven into a dead end by the trackers and his life as a free man was over.

And then the final irony. The merge had never been completed. At first, Merrick had been patient. They'd tried different rituals, oils, positions. Merrick had gotten him drunk, made him take mescaline and LSD, even pumped Opti into him---but the drug that enhanced rapport had driven him screaming into a coma for a week.

Nothing had brought them closer to bonding and after awhile, Merrick stopped trying. That was when his life had become hell. But that was over now. The merge had been successful, he was bonded to Ellison. Things were looking up.

_________________________

Jim sat down at his desk. After a year, it felt strange to be back, to be back without Emil by his side. Sandburg had turned on the computer and Jim began looking up the status of his old cases. Out of the seventeen that had been open when he left, only three had been closed. If he and Emil had been working, at least ten would've been filed away by now.

Sighing, he set to work, rereading them and then sorting them into a priority queue. Hitting the print button, he looked up to see three hours had passed. Sandburg had remained quiet all morning and Jim was glad he hadn't inadvertently picked a chatterer. Then he saw the reason for so much silence. The kid was fast asleep, slumped over to the side.

From this angle, the sun hit him in a way that made him look almost gaunt. Sandburg needed to add a few pounds. Maybe he was one of those vegetarians who believed in organic everything and purity above all else. Wouldn't that just take the cake?

Now that he was really looking at Sandburg, he became aware of him. A shimmer of heat made him realize the kid still had a fever. They'd stop at the pharmacy when they went to lunch and get some antibiotic salve for his back. He'd have to make an appointment and get Sandburg into the dentist, get the cavities filled. And buy the kid a Wonderburger with the works.

As for his clothes…they were awful. Emil's tailor could-Jim squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn't believe he'd considered using Chang's skills to dress Sandburg. What a waste that would be. Jim looked sideways at the sleeping man.

Who cares what he looks like. It doesn't matter.

"Hey, Sandburg, wake up. It's time for lunch."

As soon as the kid opened his eyes, Jim knew something was wrong. Before Sandburg was fully awake, he was cupping his guide's face with both hands. "What is it?"

His eyes were open, but unfocused. "I don't know, getting strong images of men with guns and they're emanating the Other vibes-"

Jim interrupted. "Other vibes? What the hell does that mean?"

Sandburg swallowed. "Means they're not one of you, that they're clearly in enemy territory." He was talking as if he was in a trance state and it was spooking the hell out of Jim.

"How many?"

His eyes shut, then opened. "Dunno exactly, a group, scattered. Some below us, some above, on the roof."

Taking a deep breath, Jim listened. There were so many voices, so many conversations, it would take him hours to listen and sort through the building. He switched to scent, but metal and gun oil were normal in a police station. Jim stood up and commanded, "Stay here." He didn't say anything to anyone, as he left the room.

Who knew how good Sandburg's empathy was? This could be a wild goose chase, brought on by his fever and unfamiliarity with cops. He could be sensing anything, anyone. Before he said something and exposed them both to ridicule, he would check it out.

_____________________________

Rafe watched as Ellison left his desk. He was on the move. The man could go for coffee and make it look like he was on a special ops mission. Rafe looked over at the new guide. He was watching Ellison's retreating back with fear in his eyes. Uh-oh, trouble on the honeymoon already. It looked like the guide was going to follow, try to patch things up.

Good luck, kid. You'd do better to let Ellison cool down. Emil always had.

And it had worked-Ellison always came crawling back to Emil with an apology.

Sure enough, the new guide got up, looking around like someone could tell him what to do.

Sorry kid, none of us know how to make Ellison a happy man. The one who did is gone, or you wouldn't be here.

Rafe considered stopping him, giving him the lay of the land, but decided that would spoil the fun. Let the new guide set off some Ellison fireworks, it would be nice to see someone besides himself tick the Sentinel off.

___________________________

Like war drums, the hate pounded in his head. Blair could feel their determination, their need to kill. Why here, why a police station, who were they after? Jim was out there, checking it out, not entirely trusting Blair's report and he could hardly be blamed for that. Blair looked around for a friendly face or someone who was open to him, but everyone was deep into reports and leads and shut off to him.

Moving away from Jim's desk, he maneuvered around the maze of desks and when he got to the hall, stopped and tried to feel which direction Jim had taken. The drum of hate was close and starting to make him dizzy and he put his hand on the wall to steady himself. Jim was ahead, maybe three doors down and he broke into a clumsy run, holding onto the wall to stay upright.

He slowed his momentum as he got close to the door, and peeked through the crack. Jim stood behind the desk, hands up, with a non-descript man aiming a gun at his head. He threw himself inside, trusting Jim had sensed him and would take advantage of his entrance. Jim didn't disappoint, moving as soon as Blair entered, ducking sideways, bringing his long leg up in an arc and hitting the guy high in his chest.

He smashed into the file cabinet behind him and Jim was on him, jerking the gun out of his hands and throwing it to the floor. Blair picked it up gingerly, not knowing whether it was cocked and ready to go off.

"Three just got off the elevator, and they're heading for Major Crime," he informed Jim.

"Yeah, I know. What about the guys on the roof?"

Blair tried, but the hate from the men on the floor was pressing in on him, overwhelming everything else.

He shook his head, worried.

"Okay, stay here, and I mean it, you don't even know how to handle a gun."

Blair wanted to protest, to say he could be some kind of help, but Jim was already moving away, crouched low, his gun out, focused on taking down who knew how many men.

___________________________

Sandburg had done well, he had to admit, but he was a civilian, without any familiarity for the level of violence that happened in a cop's life. It had shocked Emil, too and even after eight years and countless self-defense and firearm classes, Emil had kept his distance from the nitty gritty of Jim's life as much as possible. And that had suited Jim fine, he didn't need to worry about his guide when he was in the thick of something going down.

Sandburg had looked shaken by his first encounter and Jim knew he'd do as told.

Ahead he could hear the intruders shouting, "Get down!" And the rat-a-tat of a Uzi, spraying bullets in the air.

Bursting in with one gun would be pointless and he backed away and right into someone. Whirling around, he had the gun cocked and aimed before he realized it was Sandburg. He lowered his gun. and hissed, "What the hell are you doing, Sandburg? I told you to stay put."

"You need back-up and right now I'm it."

He was shaking, for cris'sakes, what kind of back up did he think he could provide? The kid was complicating things, he didn't have time to convince Sandburg he wasn't a help. Behind him was the janitor's closet and Jim opened it and shoved Sandburg in. "Shhhh. Don't argue with me. Stay here. You come out and you'll have more to worry about than ten guys with guns."

He closed the door on Sandburg's shocked face. Listening, he heard a familiar voice. "I want Ellison. I know he's here."

"He left ten minutes ago, Kincaid." Simon was doing his best to project honesty, but Jim doubted Kincaid would buy it.

"I would know if he'd left the building and he hasn't. Staffer, hand me the bullhorn."

Jim braced himself for the amplification.

"Detective Ellison," Kincaid's voice was loud and smug. "or should I say, Lord Jim. I know you can hear me. Come out of hiding now and I won't kill your Captain. Cower in your hole and he'll die and then I'll take out your co-workers one by one."

"Don't do it, Jim!" Simon yelled, and he heard the sharp smack of a fist striking flesh and bone.

"Do it, Jim!" Kincaid yelled, laughing.

Jim set his gun down and walked into the bullpen.

___________________________

Blair heard the bullhorn summoning Jim and knew without a doubt that the sentinel would respond. Okay, okay, there had to something he could do. He turned on the light and took inventory of the closet. Cleaning supplies, brooms, rags, garbage bags. Blair hunted through the cleaning solvents. Ammonia might be useful, what else? He moved the paper towels aside and smiled. "Bingo." A half full bottle of whiskey, some janitor's secret stash. Things were looking up.

Stuffing the bottle, the ammonia and the rags, in his backpack, Blair turned off the light and slowly opened the door. He started to make for the back stairs when he saw Jim's gun on the ground. He crept down the hall and picked it up, stuck it in his waistband and hoped he'd be able to figure out how to use it when the time came.

_________________________________

The first blow knocked the air out of him, the second and third landed square on his kidneys. The fourth slammed into his face, cracking his cheekbone and rattling his brain hard enough that he had no idea where the next twenty blows hit. By the time they stopped, he was only barely conscious, held up two of Kincaid's goons, a small pool of blood forming under him from his split lip and bloody nose.

"Nice work, boys."

Kincaid always did like a fixed fight.

"So did you come all this way to beat up one of my men?" Banks asked, his arms crossed.

"Well it just so happens that I did. I came to do that and to get Kurt Dagwood out of lockup"

"Why the hell didn't you just post bail?"

"And miss out on all this fun? And I happen to know, bail would be denied. My men should have him out by now and as soon as he gets here, we'll take Jim and leave you all in peace."

"What's your beef with Jim?"

"That's personal, isn't it Jimmy?"

Jim tiredly lifted his battered face. "He was try-gonna t'kill 'Mil. Shot t'protect," he said, his voice a wet slur.

"Jim, you killed my brother to protect your fey'd lover." Kincaid spit in Jim's face. "You're a mutant and you think because you're an aristo and a Sentinel that that makes it just hunky dory. Fey'ds like you sicken me, Jim and I'm going to do the world a favor. Make sure you don't spread your sick genetics around any more than you have."

Turning away, he started issuing orders. "Take him to the roof. Peterson, set the charges around the perimeter of Major Crime. Any of you make a move to leave this room, and the motion detector will set off the explosives. Say goodbye to Detective Ellison, the next time you see him, he'll be just a bunch of pieces for you to identify."

Jim was dragged out and the explosives placed as the rest of the men backed out of the room.

______________________________

Dumped in the helicopter, like so much garbage. Jim tried to stay away from the comfort of unconsciousness. The pain wavered between manageable and excruciating as his senses swung in an erratic arc. Emil's voice guiding him was a faint memory, too faint to have any power left.

And then another voice pushed through the haze of pain and the noise of the blades beating the air. "Jim, small slow breaths. That's it. Now with each breath, bring the pain down. Release the pain, control the breath, let it out slow. The pain is receding, it's dot on the horizon, now take a slow cleansing breath and steady now, release it."

It was Sandburg, his voice, but that made no sense. He was back in the closet. And in any case they hadn't even worked together yet, Sandburg had never said these words to him, so why was he hearing it now and why was it working?

The helicopter lurched upwards, stuttered, then kept climbing. Several times it took a sudden dip, then righted itself.

Jim shook his head and tried to think. His hands were cuffed, but his legs were free. He could tell there were only four on board; the pilot, Kincaid, one of his goons and Jim. If he could take them by surprise, he might have a chance yet.

Kincaid was on the radio, communicating with the other helicopter, when suddenly the helicopter took a sudden plunge. "Fuck, what the hell's happening?"

"Don't worry, man, it was just a small wind shear. I'll get under it."

His senses were wacko, even if the pain had lessened. The pilot sounded just like Sandburg.

The helicopter dipped again, then swung crazily to the right, throwing Jim against the frame. There were more alarming drops and then the pilot that sounded just like Sandburg yelled, "Something's wrong with the engine, we're going down, hold on!"

Jim had no idea how far it was to the ground, so he was surprised when they hit only moments later, then bounced and hit again, one side of the helicopter smashing into something, shattering glass into the cabin. The man next to Kincaid was closest to the side that was crushed and his screams competed with the noise of metal thudding into wood.

Kincaid's knees added a few more bruises, but being farthest from the impact and on the floor protected him from the worst.

Shoving himself upright, he saw that Kincaid was dazed and bleeding from cuts on his face and chest, but already he was becoming more alert.

"You okay?" It was Sandburg and he was tugging at him at the same time he was ripping his headphones off. "We gotta go, I have no idea if the other chopper is close." As Jim struggled to get up, Sandburg reached back and started searching Kincaid's pockets.

"Got it!" Triumphantly, he dangled a set of keys. Kincaid's eyes opened fully and he lunged for Sandburg's throat.

Jim yelled, "What're you doing, Sandburg? Get -out- now!" He smashed his cuffed fists into Kincaid's jaw, and relaxed a fraction when the man completely lost consciousness.

Sandburg swung his feet around and shattered the window next to him. Taking off his coat, he laid it across the jagged glass and wiggled out, dropping six feet to the ground. "Hurry!"

Jim grabbed Kincaid's gun and the Uzi and threw them out the window, then clumsily worked his larger body through the frame. Sandburg grabbed a hold of his legs and eased him to the ground.

"Let's get those off." Sandburg's face was bloody from a dozen cuts and he wiped blood out of his eyes so he could fit the key in the lock. It didn't help that his hands were shaking, but it was only a moment before Jim was free.

They were in a field, and the skyscrapers of Cascade could be seen in the distance. They hadn't traveled far. Jim took a step and braced his ribs. Sandburg had already scooped up the guns. Opening his backpack, he pulled out Jim's gun and handed it to him. Then he placed Kincaid's inside and slung the Uzi over his shoulder.

"Chopper c'ming." There was nothing to be seen in the sky..

"Come on, let's get out of here." Sandburg pulled Jim's arm over his shoulder and pulled him along making for the copse of trees at the far end of the field. The ominous sound of the 'chopper kept growing, filling the air with its vibrations and making Sandburg try to speed their steps. Jim's legs refused to cooperate, and Sandburg was forced to drag Jim along. They had barely made it to the edge of the tree line when the helicopter touched down behind them.

Stumbling into the cool shade, they collapsed against a tree, panting raggedly. "How many?" Sandburg asked.

Jim lifted his head and focused. "Five- they pulling 'caid out."

Sandburg put his hand on Jim's shoulder. "Have they spotted us?"

Jim shook his head.

'Okay, take a breath-not deep. As you breathe out, let the pain ease out with it. That's it. Take another, let the pain go." His voice droned on, instructing, and Jim let it lead him out of the broken agony of his body.

In a minute he was able to say, "Better move or we won't have a chance."

Sandburg nodded, picked up his backpack and the Uzi and guided Jim's arm around his shoulder once again. Behind them, he could hear Kincaid shouting. It would be obvious which way they would go. Jim pulled Sandburg down to a crouch and guided them to the left, so that they were running parallel, moving closer to where the second helicopter had landed, but still hidden by the trees.

Then he pointed ahead and they moved deeper into the forest. Leaning against a tree, he kept his arm around his guide and studied the scene before him. Kincaid was standing, his voice broadcasting his rage as he ordered his men after Jim.

Soon only Kincaid and one other stood in the clearing.

"We gotta make our move." The pain was bad, but manageable, if he could just override the dizziness and exhaustion that wanted to capsize him. He took the Uzi from Sandburg's shoulder and pushed away from him. "You. Stay. Here. I'll call when it's safe." He took a moment to look his guide in the eye. "I mean it. You understand me?"

Sandburg nodded, wiping more blood away from his eyes.

Staying low, he kept close to the trees until the last moment, then burst out, spraying bullets, disappointed when Kincaid cried out and clutched his arm. Jim would've liked it better if it was his head he was clutching.

His cohort aimed a Mac-5 at him, but Jim was already falling, rolling and shooting, hitting him in both legs.

"Sandburg!" Without looking to see if his guide was coming, he ran towards the helicopter. An explosion ripped through the trees setting some on fire. Men screamed and Jim whirled, running full speed back to where he'd left his guide. He skidded to a halt when he saw Sandburg burst out of the smoke, heading his way. For a moment, his vision blurred. He shook his head, clearing it and turned back to the chopper.

Flinging himself into the pilot seat, he flipped the switches to get the bird started as Sandburg hauled himself into the seat next to him. The lift off was considerably smoother than the one Sandburg had managed and the field quickly faded from sight.

Every part of Jim's body wanted to come back online and be heard now that they were free of Kincaid. Sandburg's hand lightly touched his back, then settled there, rubbing circles. "Easy, Jim, relax your muscles, don't let the pain back in."

His muscles obeyed, but his head ached and it was hard to tell whether it is from all the knocks or trying to figure out how the hell Sandburg had managed to take over and fly a helicopter. And why he'd done that. And why the hell he hadn't stayed put when he'd been told to.

For now he kept his questions to himself and navigated their way back to Cascade.

____________________________

Setting the helicopter down gently on the roof of the police station, he gave a sigh of relief as the noise of the blades dimmed and then stopped. He closed his eyes and put his head in his hands.

He felt the chopper shift as Sandburg opened the door and got out and then his door was being opened. Cracking an eye open, he saw Sandburg standing there, bloody and worried. "Jim? Should I go get help?"

"No, just give me a minute." The nausea was bad and he knew if he vomited, he could do some real damage with his broken rib.

Sandburg stayed put, a first and waited as asked, leaning against the machine.

"What exploded back there?"

"I-well, they saw you and they were starting to head back, so I used the stuff from the janitor's closet to make a Molotov cocktail and I lobed it in front of them to slow them down."

"Oh." Jim thought about that for a moment.

"And just how the hell did you-I mean do you even know how to-fly a helicopter?"

Sandburg blinked and looked away and then back at him. "Well, I don't exactly-I mean I'm not any good at-you see, I know you told me to stay put and all, but-"

Jim didn't want to hear how Sandburg had come to the decision to disobey and follow him right now. Trying to make sense of that and figure out what to do about it would have to wait for another time. "Cut to the chase, Sandburg, when did you learn to fly helicopters?"

"Well, the pilot filled me in."

The nausea was easing and Jim thought he could move, but he had to hear this.

"The pilot? The pilot "filled you in"? Explain that."

"I had your gun and I told him-" Sandburg was blushing, what the hell? "I told him I'd shoot his kneecaps off if he didn't tell me how to fly it. So he kind of gave me a crash course." Sandburg chuckled weakly. "A real crash course as it turns out. I think he left some things out, but then we didn't have all that much time."

"The guy told you how to fly this thing and you just hopped in and did it?"

Sandburg nodded, stopping his slide down the helicopter by clutching the door frame. "I've always been a quick learner."

Jim pushed himself out of the pilot's seat and stepped down to the ground gingerly. Sandburg took his arm to steady him and Jim let him, pulling his guide close and holding him up just as he was held up.

___________________________________

The hospital was a kaleidoscope of noise and light, corroding his control. A doctor hovered over him. "He either needs to merge or a hefty shot of Halyconic."

"His sentinel is in no shape to merge, so shoot him up. Then stitch him up. He's fighting some infection, and could use some IV therapy for that and some nutrition into him, but nothing can be done without Lord Ellison's o.k."

"Jim's in surgery."

He tried to get up, but was stopped by the restraints they'd put him in to keep him from his sentinel. There was glass still in some of the cuts and moving his head sent a hundred new messages of misery through his body. "Will he be-?"

They didn't hear him. They moved away, the doctor speaking, the nurse taking notes.

He tried again, louder. "Will Lord Ellison be-"

A woman burst into the room. "The Governor's here! He wants to talk to you about his son right away!" Her squeal of excitement sent a shaft of pain through Blair's head and he fell back with a groan.

"Get him cleaned up and let me know as soon as Ellison is out of surgery."

The doctor left and the first nurse methodically put on her rubber gloves, then picked up the syringe and bottle. Blair wanted to beg her to hurry, but knew she would move no faster because he asked.

Eventually she was satisfied with the dose and lack of bubbles and she found a vein in his arm. The Halyconic washed through him, numbing his ability to connect with the world outside of himself, the world of light and noise, anger and fear. It did nothing for the pain of the cuts and she didn't bother with novacane, but went to work plucking out pieces of glass and stitching his skin back together.

Later, the doctor came back in and complimented her handiwork. "The Governor says Lord Ellison doesn't keep his guide with him, and told me to have him sent to the shelter. They'll be here in a few minutes to pick him up."

"No, I need to stay, please let me stay with him."

The nurse was unstrapping the leather bands and didn't answer his plea. He tried again. "Have you heard anything about Jim-Lord Ellison? Is he all right?"

She pulled him up so that he was sitting on the edge of the gurney. Reaching out, he touched her arm to plead for any information, but she shook him off, scowling, and he was glad the Halyconic kept him from feeling the full blast of her scorn.

Turning to an orderly, she said, "Get him out of here-he can wait in the lobby."

Quickly and inexorably, he was taken farther and farther away from his sentinel, until he was being led back to his cell at the shelter.

"Look who's back."

"Didn't make the cut, huh, hairboy?"

"Lord Ellison didn't like slumming after all."

"I'll tell you straight, if he'd picked me, you would've never seen me again. No sir, that would have been one satisfied sentinel."

"Hey, guard, how soon will his lordship be back to choose again?"

The other discards kept up their taunts, but none of them had any impact. They had bonded. He was Lord Ellison's guide. No one could take that away.

Even the guard thought he'd been sent back. "Home sweet home, little rat, for as long as you have a home. You know, I knew you wouldn't work out. The bets in the pool were running 10 to one. I can't believe Lord Ellison chose you in the first place. We have perfectly good Cultivateds waiting to be given a second chance and he goes and he picks you." Shaking his head, he pushed Blair in and closed the door.

Lowering himself to the cot, he pulled the blanket around his shoulders and leaned against the bars. Between the Halyconic and the blotting, his mind floated free of all the emotional agitation that he knew swirled around him. But he couldn't stop the shaking and he couldn't stop the fear from inside that something had gone wrong during surgery.

______________________________

Governor Ellison made sure his son made it through the removal of his spleen without incident. He had his own team of physicians monitor the surgery, the drugs prescribed, the character of the nurses and orderlies who would be attending his son and the quality of the food. Then he waited impatiently for his son to regain consciousness.

He'd dismissed his secretary two hours ago and she'd taken the console with her. Now he sat, drumming his fingers, his eyes never leaving his son's lax face. The leather recliner was comfortable enough, and the wine was a fine vintage, but he still hated every minute Jim remained unconscious. If he could have, he would have forbidden Jim to be a police officer. But he'd tried that before and Jim had reacted by joining the army.

Being a detective was bad enough, but when Jim had been a Ranger, it had been worse. And in the end, public service as an officer would serve him well when he moved into civil service. Which couldn't be too soon for William Ellison.

In the meantime, there was the problem of the new guide. Emil had been perfect for Jim, he'd seen to that. A fine specimen of a man, tall and clean-limbed. He'd known how to dress, his manners were top drawer, he'd appreciated fine art, music and wine and the man had been able to converse congenially on topics ranging from the weather to city politics.

He and Jim had made a stunning couple and a damn fine sentinel/guide team. Then Emil had become ill and Jim had lost it. Sure, Emil was a peach of a guy, but nobody should be as attached as Jim had been. He'd ordered his son sedated as much to keep him from making scenes as to keep him from being infected with the tuberculosis. In retrospect, not a very good idea. Jim wasn't able to grieve while still bonded and when he'd been brought back to consciousness after Emil's death, it was clear he was already close to the madness. Worse, he was unwilling to consider another guide.

And when Jim had finally understood the direness of the situation, what did he go and do? Choose a guide from the streets. It was unheard of that someone of his standing would lower himself to a street guide. William shuddered, thinking about what this meant.

His one hope had been Fitzgerald's information that the discard was unable to bond. He'd hoped Jim would try and the guide would fail and Jim would come to his senses. But according to Captain Banks, Jim had introduced the rat as his new guide this morning. And tonight he was in a hospital bed. Well, it almost served him right. Stubborn, pigheaded man.

_____________________________

Waking was hell as usual. Before he even got close to opening his eyes, he knew where he was and what that meant. He fought complete consciousness for a few minutes, and instead floated in the weird non-time of dreams, where Emil still lived. Then he remembered Sandburg and cursed the memory, for it meant Emil was dead.

Slowly he opened his eyes, knowing exactly what he would see. A nurse sat to one side knitting, her eyes on the monitor. His father on the other side, a newspaper in hand, a glass of wine at his elbow. He was in the Ellison suite at Cascade General. It was paneled in wood, and behind the polished teak, the walls were lined with the most current and expensive blotting technology to keep him free of external stimuli. The floor was oak parquet, patterned after the Grand Hall in the Louvre. It made his head ache to look at it. For all the money lavished on the room, he was always miserable in it. But of course, that went without saying.

Across the room was the bed Emil had used and Jim instinctively looked over to it, expecting to see Sandburg. It was empty. Where was he? Emil had always been here, waiting for Jim. Where the hell was Sandburg?

"Where-" His mouth felt like the Sahara after a windstorm.

Both the nurse and his father jumped up at the sound of his voice. "Jimmy! You're awake!"

Why did his father always say that when he came to?

The nurse was scribbling on his chart and pushing the button to summon the doctor.

He tried again. "Where-"

"Don't try to talk Jim, you just had your spleen removed. Here, take a sip of water."

His father held the straw to his mouth and Jim gratefully drew the warm water into his parched mouth.

"Better?"

"Where's Sandburg?"

"Sandburg?" His father looked surprised at the question, and Jim's stomach twisted.

"Yes- my- guide." Despite the water, it was still difficult to form words and the effort exhausted him. But he fought unconsciousness and waited to hear where Sandburg was.

"I sent him back to the shelter. You said you didn't want him at the Palisade and I certainly didn't want him at the Governor's mansion."

"Why isn't-he-here?"

"Here? Why would you want him here? You can't merge in your state, you certainly can't work, what good would he be?"

"Is-he-all right?" Despite his best efforts, he knew he was going under.

"He's fine, a few cuts. They'll take good care of him, don't worry."

"He saved my life." The shock of that hadn't yet settled.

"Saved your life?" His father actually sputtered. "Nonsense. Inconceivable."

"Yeah," Jim paused, almost too tired to go on, but needing his father to know, "I know, but he did. He's the reason I'm alive, he took over the helicopter."

Laying a warm hand on Jim's forehead, he gazed down with concern, as if he feared a head injury had done some undiscovered damage. "Jimmy, come on, you don't expect me to believe a man like that has any idea of how to pilot a helicopter."

"He's a fast learner." A smile tugged at his lips, for some reason that was funny.

"Well, I don't believe it, but if he did, it was only because he knew if you were dead, he was dead. Self-interest is a mighty powerful motivator."

That thought hadn't occurred to Jim, but now that his father said it, it made sense. Somehow that made him feel better. He could understand self-preservation far easier than he could understand a guide disobeying his Sentinel, not once, but twice as well as risking his life.

"I hope you aren't projecting qualities onto this Sandburg that aren't there…"

His father's voice droned on as he faded away, slipping back into the dark.

_______________________________

"We bonded!" Blair said for the fourth time, and leaned on the counter, strangely exhausted. He was hot now, after being unbearably cold, and the sweat was making his clothes stick to him.

"I got nothing here that says you and Ellison bonded. I got nothing here at all. As far as I know, you're a discard twice over." Captain Fitzgerald bit down on his cigar and regarded Blair from under heavy eyelids. "You know what that means?"

"Yes." Blair hung his head, weary from trying to get information about Jim or make anyone understand.

"So look, I've got you scheduled to be put to sleep this afternoon. But if you're willing to provide some value, I'll keep you alive for a few days. What do you say?"

Blair's head snapped up. "You can't kill me! I have a sentinel, he has to be contacted."

"According to my records, you got squat, kid. Take the offer or leave it."

Swallowing hard, Blair tried to think past the fog that he'd been in since they'd brought him back here. If he died so soon after the merge, Jim would die. There was no way he'd be able to clear himself of their bond and re-bond in time to stop the madness.

If he "provided value" he'd maybe stay alive long enough for Jim to come and get him. But if providing value meant what he thought it meant, would Jim even care if he was still alive? Would he want him after that?

But what choice did he have? Alive was alive, dead was dead.

"I'll take the deal," he said numbly.

"What was that? Look at me and speak up."

He lifted his head and spoke slowly and clearly. "I'll take the deal."

"That fine. A wise decision. Miss Hannigan!" He shouted into the intercom. "Come here immediately. I have a clean-up for you."

Blair staggered back from the counter and over to the wooden bench that lined the wall. Even though he hadn't been given permission, he sat down, putting his head in his hands. He didn't know if he could survive another cleansing. Then he realized it would take some time, maybe enough time for them to find out he really was bonded. He'd make it through whatever came his way.

_______________________

The next time Jim became aware, there was daylight in the room and a different nurse was sitting in attendance, working an electronic game with great, silent enthusiasm. That told him his father couldn't be in the room and he relaxed a bit. The pain was being nicely taken care of by whatever they had dripping into his veins and he was glad to have a moment to think. His father's decision to send Sandburg back to the shelter was logical, but for some reason it bothered him.

He knew a merge was out of the question, though he ached for it. There wasn't much use Sandburg could be, but perversely, Jim still found himself longing to see him. Of course he wanted to see him, it was built in, a sentinel needing to see that his guide was all right.

So why did it feel like he'd just sullied Emil's memory with the desire to see Sandburg?

That feeling of betrayal squashed all desire to ask that Sandburg be brought to him and he spent the morning having blood drawn and his stitches examined and being asked a hundred times how he was feeling. It was enough to make a grown man scream and at 6:00 he did, ordering the staff to give him some privacy.

As soon as they closed the door behind them, he threw back the covers and got out of bed. One of the blessings of being a sentinel-and it didn't hurt to have the fine genetics of the Ellison s flowing in him either-was the extraordinary pace of healing he enjoyed. His scar pulled some as he stood, but he dismissed the pain as inconsequential, as pain always was, once you knew you'd live.

Pulling out the IV line, he got briefly caught up watching his blood congeal before shaking himself out of it. Freshly cleaned and pressed clothes hung in the closet, along with a pair of soft Corinthian leather shoes, shined to brilliance. Dressed, he ducked out the door, grateful that the Ellison suite was located at the quiet end of a quiet corridor.

He took the back stairs and came out into hot bright sunshine, blinking furiously as his eyes struggled to adjust. Hailing a cab didn't take long and as he settled back, he ordered, "149th and Howard."

He told himself that Sandburg was ugly enough already, somebody had to make sure the stitches in his face were done with finesse.

Bickering Shelter was in the far northern outskirts of the city, a rambling complex in the heart of the warehouse district. It looked-governmental, and Jim viewed its brutish exterior with distaste. It had been his plan to keep Sandburg here at night, but he certainly didn't want to make this trip everyday. Well, he could send the limo, he supposed.

Entering the building, he rapidly adjusted his eyes to the dim light. He wondered how non-sentinels dealt with seeing anything clearly in the murk. As a cost saving measure, it was ludicrous. As a way to create a depressing and foreboding atmosphere, it was an astounding success.

Stepping into the front office, he waited for a beat. When the man still hadn't looked up, he cleared his throat. Still the man kept his head down, entering numbers into a ledger.

"Excuse me." He said, in a deceptively mild tone. No reaction at all.

"Sergeant!" He rapped out with military emphasis.

Now the head shot up, the eyes grew wide with alarm and the man jumped to his feet, saluting. "Sir!"

"I want my guide."

"Y-your guide, sir?"

"Yes, my guide, Sandburg. Number 29."

"But sir-" The Sergeant looked stricken and fear sizzled through Jim.

"What the hell do you mean, but?"

"We had no record that he was your guide-that the bond had succeeded. When he was brought back here, unannounced so to speak, well we just assumed-"

"You just assumed? You just assumed what?"

"That you had discarded him, sir. He was scheduled to be put to sleep at 4:00."

All the air left Jim's lungs and he sank into the chair. Sandburg had been killed three hours ago? He was too late. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something gray flash by and then an eerie howl split the quiet. No one else seemed to notice, but the as the reverberations from it settled, Jim knew it wasn't possible that Sandburg was dead. He would feel it, he would know. His head whipped up.

"I want to see the body. Now."

The man nodded and inched his way around Jim. "This way, sir."

____________________________________

He thought maybe the cleansing would kill him despite his vow to survive it. And wouldn't that be ironic.

But it didn't and he was soon naked and shivering in a large room surrounded by three men all looking warm in their clothes.

"I say, I think he should have had electrolysis or something. I've never seen anyone this hairy before. It'll be like fucking an animal."

"Electrolysis would have taken a full day and I didn't want to wait. Besides, Merrick found something he liked, look at all the trouble he took to pluck this one from the crowd."

"Merrick's discard, eh? This is a nice bit of luck. I heard he was a tasty treat." Coming forward, he cupped Blair's genitals. "Nice and hefty."

Blair turned his head away and tried to shut them out, but the Halyconic was wearing thin. Jim could still send someone, or call and ask, and then they'd know he belonged to Lord Ellison and they'd stop. They would, they'd have to. He pushed all doubt from his mind.

"Bit of a Frankenstein now, isn't he, with all those cuts and bruises. Did they try to do some plastic surgery on him?" Blair's head was tilted up and turned toward the light so they could study his face better and he closed his eyes against their scrutiny.

The waves of dizziness and cold were getting worse and he locked his knees in an effort to remain standing. He'd accepted the deal. They were touching him now and that made it harder to block it all out. He heard a belt being unbuckled and then pulled out. That meant at least one of them got off on pain.

Merrick had had a lot of chums like these men, and once Merrick's frustration with him had reached a certain point, he'd amused himself by being generous with his guide. Who wasn't his guide.

But usually he'd been high when he was shared, shot through with some drug cocktail Merrick wanted to try out. Sometimes that meant the sharing was bearable, fogged in and detached as he was, his body limp and receptive to anything they wanted to do to him.

Sometimes it had made it all the more agonizing as the drug made him hyper-aware of every touch, every probe, every stroke, and every slurred insult sputtered into his ear.

But the worst were the drugs that made him welcome their touch, made him eagerly open his mouth and suck, made him squirm, made him beg for them to use him harder, faster, again.

Merrick had watched it all and Blair could still him lounging in the chair, naked, stroking himself, egging the men on. When they had finished and lay panting and sated on the floor, and if Blair were still conscious, Merrick would order Blair to crawl to him. Then he would reach down and pet Blair and often he fell asleep with his head in Merrick's lap, exhausted and sick, grateful it was over.

With those memories and the weakness assaulting him, he fell to his knees.

"See here, he's awfully eager. Shameless slut. That takes some of the fun out of it."

Oh, if only I could take some of the fun out of it.

With that thought, he fainted, much to the gathered men's shock and dismay.

______________________________

The damn Sergeant had led him on a wild goose chase. First the morgue, then the room where the euthanasia was done, and now Sandburg's cell. Just when he thought he'd have to search the place from top to bottom, he saw him, heard three heartbeats, knew his guide lived and nearly expressed his relief. Containing it, he watched as two men dragged his naked guide toward him..

The relief he felt was tempered by his anger with the careless way they were handling his guide. In four long steps, he was in front of them and in the dim light, he must have been quite the surprise, because they shrieked and dropped Sandburg.

"Idiots. Pick him up. Why is he naked? He's shivering. Is this how you treat my guide? I could sue you for every penny you could earn in this lifetime or the next."

"Yes, your lordship, sir." They hurried to pick the guide up. His nose was bleeding from its impact with the floor. They started to drag him forward, to place him in the cell.

"No, stop right there. If you think I'm going to trust you bozos to look after my guide, you're stupider than I thought."

But he wasn't in any shape to pick Sandburg up and carry him out of here.

"Take me to the Commandant's apartment." When they looked at him blankly, he yelled, "NOW!" They started to turn away to lead him and Jim sighed. "Pick him up. Gently. No, not like that, up into your arms. Good. Now, take me there."

The Commandant's apartment was spacious and softly lit. Jim's feet sank into the plush carpeting, and he led the way through the living area and back to the bedroom.

"Pull the covers down and lay him down."

"But, sir-"

"What's your name?"

The guard clearly didn't want to say, but Jim waited and finally he blurted, "Collins, sir."

"All right, Collins, cooperate with me and I won't break your arms the way I'd like." The look on Jim's face made the man gulp and nod his head.

"Yes, sir."

Sandburg was put in the bed and Jim pulled the covers up over his shivering form.

"Bring me a warm washcloth. And another blanket. And you, your name."

This one didn't hesitate. "Green, sir."

"Go find some clothes, for my guide, Green. And while you're at it, get some hot tea, with lots of honey."

When he was handed the washcloth, he carefully wiped the blood from Sandburg's face, then studied the cuts. Two had been quite deep and needed stitches, which made it look like he had black insects on his eyebrow and jaw. He was reassured to see the stitches were small and neat and would heal nicely.

On top of the black stitches and the purple bruising, his guide was leeched of color, so pale and transparent, Jim thought with a little extra focus he'd be able to see right to the bones in his face. He had to get some pounds packed on the kid. Get him out in the sun.

He sniffed and caught a whiff of ketene coming from Sandburg. "Has my guide been fed?"

"Fed?" The two guards looked at each other as if they hadn't understood the question.

Jim turned his full attention on them. They swallowed and stepped back.

"Well, he was scheduled to be put to sleep so there really wasn't any point." Green explained.

No point? Red flooded his vision, and he punched Green in the mouth, and was satisfied when he felt the impact loosen some teeth.

He turned to Collins. "You, get some food brought up here." The sight of his guide lying so still disturbed him and it also called to him, making the ache grow and deepen. "And tell Commandant Lansing I'm going to be using his apartment for awhile."

"But, sir-"

"Tell Lansing if he has a problem with that he can take it up with me tomorrow. Now get going."

When the room was finally cleared, Jim turned back to Sandburg. Pushing his unkempt hair away from his face, he stared at his new guide, searching his face for clues that might explain who this Blair Sandburg was. It had drama, this face, strong bone structure, the mysterious darkness, lush lips.

Sandburg's shivering had turned to outright shaking. Jim checked the bathroom and wasn't surprised to see a whirlpool sized to fit four. Reaching over, he turned the water full on, then returned to his guide. Slapping his face lightly, he said, "Sandburg, come on, wake up. I can't carry you, so you have to wake up." Sandburg moaned and tried to turn away from him. He pulled Sandburg back, "Come on, Blair." Weird name. Still no response.

When Collins came back with a tray full of food, Jim directed him to put it on the bed. "Lift my guide up and carry him in there." He led the way into the bathroom that was thick with steam. Testing the water, he stripping off his shirt, and looked down at the incision. It was healed well enough and he finished undressing, stepping into the warm swirling water. He motioned to Collins who still held Sandburg.

"Give him to me." The guard placed Sandburg in his arms and Jim adjusted him so his body was submerged in the steaming water. "Wait out there until I call you and close the door on your way out."

When the door closed, Jim leaned back into the fitted plastic and sighed. Sandburg lay cradled in his arms and slowly his shaking eased and then stopped. For a long time they lay together, Jim's tension seeping away as Sandburg's body absorbed the heat.

The need to merge was becoming overwhelming. He needed to feel Sandburg's warm, live body around him, needed to pulse his life into his guide's and mingle their lifeforces. The water made it easy to maneuver Sandburg until he was lying on top of Jim. Carefully he positioned them for a merge.

"Sandburg, wake up, would you?" He buried his nose in the crook of Sandburg's neck, inhaling the scent. "Come on, merge with me," he cajoled.

Sandburg responded with a small moan and Jim clutched him tighter, his hands brushing across taut nipples. Another moan. He took that as a yes. Centering himself, he grasped his guide's hips and pulled him against his hard shaft.

"No!" His guide was struggling against him, trying to break free. "He'll come, you'll see. You can't do this!"

What the hell, was Sandburg denying the bond, expecting Merrick to come back for him?

Well, too bad, there was no going back, they'd merged and Sandburg was his now. Jim let the panicked man scramble to the other side of the tub. His eyes were glassy and unfocused and Jim wasn't sure he was actually awake.

"I know I said I would, but I can't!" There it was. The street rat had no honor. He would deny the bond even though he'd signed the contract and merged.

He reached over and grabbed Sandburg's wrist, pulling him in close. "No, I won't make you, Sandburg, " he snarled. "you can go right back on the discard heap if that suits you." There was a strange howl, distant and mournful and Jim wondered what dogs were doing in the shelter.

Sandburg's eyes seemed to come into focus. "Jim?" Reaching up, he touched Jim's face. "You came."

"Yeah, I'm here." The kid was confusing as hell, but there was no denying that his touch was soothing, so Jim didn't swat his hand away but just allowed Sandburg to pat his face. Soon the pats changed to strokes, as Sandburg's fingertips traced his eyebrows, cheekbones with intense purpose.

After awhile, Jim felt boneless, his body and mind both afloat. Sandburg was on top of him and he thought the guide might have fallen asleep until he said, "I'm warm," sounding surprised.

Thinking about it, it did seem like Sandburg had been shivering just about continuously since Jim had acquired him.

"Hot tubs will do that to you." Jim reached over and turned on the hot water faucet and steam began to rise from the water, making the room pleasantly hazy.

Sandburg ignored the sarcasm. "You all right?"

"Would I be in a hot tub with you if I weren't?"

"Oh. Yeah. Good point."

It was time to get some things straightened out. "Look Sandburg, do you want to be my guide or not?"

Sandburg's silence seemed to answer the question and with controlled fury, Jim turned the water off and started to get out.

Before he could escape, Sandburg grabbed his arm and turned Jim back to face him. "Do I want to be your guide?" He sounded shocked. "Oh, man, of course I want that." He pulled on Jim and Jim let himself be pulled. "Why would you even ask that question? We're bonded-" Sandburg's eyes widened with fear. "Unless you've changed your mind-oh God, have you changed your mind?"

The kid sounded totally freaked out at the idea of dissolving the bond and a small part of Jim felt very satisfied that Sandburg was worried that he might be discarded once again.

But despite that, he found himself pulling his guide in close and murmuring, "No, kid, I haven't changed my mind." Sandburg's body relaxed, molding itself to Jim's, which reawakened the restless need.

"I want to merge."

"Here?" Sandburg asked sleepily, his lips brushing Jim's nipples as he said the word.

"Yeah, here." Jim lifted Sandburg off of his chest and looked him in the eye. "Why not? You have a problem with that?'

The kid's sleepiness fled and he said, "No, man, this works. Whatever you want."

Jim nodded. It's what he wanted. Narrowing his eyes, he asked, "Do you need Opti?"

Sandburg shook his head, hair flying around his face, spraying water. "No, my last shot of Halyconic was in the hospital, so it's pretty much worn away."

"Good." Sandburg straddled him and when they were aligned, he pushed down, slowly opening to Jim, taking him in.

When Jim felt himself encased, he sighed and leaned his head back. Reaching down, Sandburg took both his hands and placed their fingertips together.

The electrical charge surged through him, through them, racing along his nerves, sealing them from the battering of information they'd been taking in for far too long without a guide's shielding.

It was like being swaddled, a warm tightness wrapped around his being, squeezing him, reassuring and protecting him and he relaxed into it. A few minutes later he felt his guide's head on his chest and he put his arms around him, feeling his heart thump slowly, his soft breath against his skin, the silky tickle of his hair on his mouth.

The merge went on and on, and slowly something heavy settled in Jim's chest. Sorrow, utterly unlike his own. Not grief, not loss. But emptiness all the same, more infinite than he thought he could bear.

How had Sandburg survived for so long with this vast barrenness inside? He felt himself expanding, and his cock grew thicker and harder as he tried to fill the hole in Sandburg, the deepest, darkest hole he'd ever imagined.

It was hard to say how long they stayed fused, but the water had grown cold before Jim finally felt ready to continue. He lifted Sandburg's head from his chest and gazed into dazzling blue eyes. Holding that gaze, he thrust hard making Sandburg cry out, and arch back. Again and again he sought out the deepest places in his guide's body, and with each probe felt Sandburg give way, allowing him in. Hands fluttered around his shoulders, and incoherent sounds of need and despair filled the room.

"Don't.. Shh, it's all right." For several heartbeats they teetered on the edge and then Jim wrapped his arms around Blair's thin body and begged, "Merge!"

And Sandburg did, joining Jim in the final union of body, mind and soul with a cry of his own.

Much later he became aware that they had separated and he was shaking from the cold.

"Collins!"

He didn't have to repeat himself as the door opened and Collins poked his head in. "Sir, you wanted me?"

"Get in here."

Sandburg had fallen asleep. "Get a towel, get several." Collins pulled a stack of thick white towels from the shelf.

"Now pull Sandburg out and dry him off. Gently." Collins reached into the spa and positioned his arms beneath Sandburg's neck and knees and lifted him out, placing him on the towels he'd spread on the bathroom floor. Jim watched to make sure he was being careful, then slowly climbed out, realizing he no longer had to fight the pain. There was no pain. His movements were fluid, and he felt a calm balance he couldn't remember experiencing in a long time.

Snatching one of the thick towels from the warming rack, he wrapped it around his waist.

"Carry him back to the bed. Get a heating pad, hot water bottle, electric blanket. I want every thing this place has."

Collins hurried to comply. It was almost painful to watch someone else touch his guide, hold him, carry him and Jim tamped back the urge to yank Sandburg away. He couldn't do it himself right now, he had to let another tend to Sandburg, but he didn't like it. Nor did he like the way Collins was openly studying Sandburg, eyes traveling from his face, to his chest and down to his beautiful cock.

"Get out."

Collins looked up. eyes wide with surprise and then looked back at Sandburg as if he couldn't help himself.

"Get out." He'd physically throw the man out if he spent even one more second with his eyes on his guide.

Collins backed away from the bed slowly. "Yes, sir."

The light was fading as the evening moved into night. The shadows were soothing, the merge had replenished him and the madness was just a faint echo.

"Sandburg."

He was deeply asleep and Jim cupped his face, feeling the faint beginnings of his beard growing. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he let himself see Blair Sandburg. The man was sick and had been sick for some time. There was something frighteningly insubstantial about him. His body had been battling infections with too little nutrients. But that hadn't stopped him from following Jim, from hijacking a helicopter from terrorists, from completing the merge.

Was this what all street guides were like? Tenacious, stubborn, headstrong, disobedient? Or had he just gotten lucky?

Sandburg's eyes opened and he startled, jerking out of Jim's grasp. "Wha-?"

All that fear in someone so reckless. The echoes of the merge reverberated in his chest. The vastness of sorrow, could it ever be filled?

That was a question for psychiatrists and philosophers. Neither of which described him. The question he could answer was how to fill the vastness of Sandburg's empty stomach.

"Relax, chief, it's time for dinner. I have a nice selection of fruit here, along with cheese, bread, salami." He pointed to the tray heaped with food on the side of the bed. "What looks good?"

Sandburg's tongue came out, like a mouse looking for his cheese and Jim didn't wait for him to choose, but stacked the bread, salami and cheese together and put it in his hand. When Sandburg hesitated, he asked, "Should I take the salami off? Are you one of those vegans?"

Sandburg snatched the sandwich and turned his body slightly away, as if he was afraid Jim would take it back. When he had a mouthful half swallowed, he said, "No way, man, a vegan won't even eat bread if it's been made with dairy, they're fanatics." He took a bite and his eyes grew wide with pleasure. "This is great. All it needs is a little mustard."

Jim built himself a sandwich and took a bite and sighed. "Yeah, Sandburg, that's all we need, just a little mustard."

The End