Floating On The Edge Of The World

Second Chance Story # Four

By Calista Echo [email protected]

We were sleeping, that curious sleep of mid-afternoon, where dreams always seem to be bigger, wilder-sadder, than the ones during the night. My health was returning; Sandburg's was deteriorating; and the air was thick with the humid smell of illness.

That dreamy state was broken when someone entered the room, their footsteps deliberately stealthy. A hand displace the air as it came toward me and without opening my eyes, I intercepted and twisted it to the right, hard. I was planning on breaking the wrist, and within a nanosecond of achieving that goal when Roberts' understated, "Ow," stopped me.

My fear that I may have hurt Roberts was quickly displaced by irritation. "Don't you know better by now than to sneak up on me?" I carefully felt the bones in his wrist for a break. When I reassured myself that there wasn't a fracture, I released it and crossed my arms, waiting for him to explain himself.

Rubbing his wrist, Roberts nodded, saying calmly, "Yes, sir, I do know not to, in ordinary circumstances, but I thought you should be aware that Mrs. Tupelo-in her hysteria-called your father. I just received word he will be here in twenty minutes."

"Shit." There was nothing my father liked better to come at me when I was weak.

"My thoughts exactly, sir."

I tried to think. "We have to get him out of here."

"Sir?"

"I'm talking about Blair. I'm in no shape to take on my father, and I'm afraid Mrs. Tupelo's given him just the ammunition he needs to haul Blair out of here and have him killed."

Roberts looked at me sharply and then at Sandburg lying in the center of the bed. "I'll take him to my room."

I sat up too quickly, and fell back when the floor rose up to meet me. Roberts lent me his hand, and this time I moved a little slower and when I sat up, I stayed up. "That won't be good enough-we're talking about my father, after all. I need him taken away from here, somewhere my father won't be able to get his hands on him."

"Nassau House, sir?"

"Hell, no." I tried to think, but my brain wasn't cooperating. "Call Mrs. Tupelo."

Roberts called her over the intercom and Mrs. T arrived at my bedside in record time.

"You wanted me, sir?" Her voice trembled and she looked at me as if she thought I was going to snap her neck. I tried to gauge her attitude toward Sandburg, but her face kept melting in the most alarming way.

"You called my father?"

She visibly swallowed and her words tripped out as she rushed to answer, "I did, sir, but only because I thought the rat-er, yer guide had tried tae-murder ye. Sir."

"And that's what you told him? That my guide had attempted to murder me?"

"Och, yes, well, I did."

"What else did you say to him?"

"I told him we had Mr. Sandburg well in hand, that his concerns had all been justified an' that when he had a moment, could he come out an' advise us."

Well in hand. They'd hauled him into the basement and locked him up like he was a rabid dog. All the affection I had for the woman couldn't combat my desire to feel her throat slowly being crushed between my hands.

I looked down at Sandburg, who was still sleeping despite the commotion. He was curled toward me, his hand stretched out as if he'd tried to find me but had given up. Leaning back against the headboard, I took his hand in mine as I tried to think.

I didn't like the idea of waking him, didn't like the idea of sending him away, but I didn't trust what my father would do-and if he called in men to do whatever that was-I'd have a damn hard time stopping them, given the shape I was in.

My father. Some great detective I had been. I'd missed his hidden motives in bringing Emil's things to me, his exhorting my staff to view Sandburg with alarm and hate…hadn't even thought through why he had sent Sandburg to Bickering without instructions when I was in the hospital…

Until I was coherent for more than twenty minutes at a time, I needed Sandburg hidden away from him.

Looking back up at Mrs. Tupelo, I narrowed my eyes, partly in anger, partly to try and make her face stay in focus. Everything was wavering in the room, as if I was viewing it from the heat of the desert. When I finally got her to stay still, I saw that she was staring at Sandburg, and her expression seemed to be one of worry, not fear.

"Mrs. Tupelo, you gave me your word and I'm holding you to it. You said you'd look after my guide and you will. You and Roberts need to find some place to keep him until I'm well enough to deal with my father."

"Sir, do ye really think that's the best idea-"

Her doubt was the last straw. "What I really want is for you to shut your mouth and take orders, understand?" The loudness of my voice brought Sandburg awake with a jerk. I brushed the hair out of his eyes. "Shh, take it easy, everything's all right."

He looked at me, his blue eyes fuzzy, then, as if he couldn't manage to keep them open, his eyes closed again and his breathing deepened back into sleep.

"You'll look after him, Mrs. Tupelo, you'll treat him with care and concern, because I hold you responsible for the danger he's in. Is that understood?"

She blinked rapidly a few times, then nodded, saying, "Aye, sir," meek as a lamb.

"Now get him out of here."

Roberts and Mrs. T maneuvered the boneless Sandburg up, and with one on each side supporting him, dragged him to the door.

"Roberts."

He looked over his shoulder at me. "Yes, sir?"

"In my top drawer, you'll find a kit with Noxy. Take it. He may need it if his barriers slip."

"As you wish, sir."

I flopped back on the pillows, exhausted. It was NOT as I wished, but it was the best I could do right then.

As soon as they were out of sight, a rush of heat swept through me, pulling me back into the fractured reality of the fever, and all I knew or understood was grief, like a sucking chest wound, as it burned in my brain.

+++

I tried to help, to get my legs to function so Roberts and Mrs. T wouldn't have to work so hard, but they were maddeningly useless. Even lifting my head was more than I could manage, and so I hung between them like a sack of potatoes as they struggled to get me down the backstairs.

At the foot of them, we paused and Roberts whispered, "Go ahead and make sure the coast is clear."

She moved away from my side and Roberts took my weight, saying, "How are you holding up?"

I roused myself enough to mumble, "As long as you're holding me up, I'm holding up."

"Just hold on a little longer."

Mrs. Tupelo came back and her arm came around me and we shuffled forward. "The coast is clear, but we'd best be hurrying. Atkins is due for his hourly raid on the refrigerator," she whispered.

When Roberts propped me against the Land Rover, I realized we were out in the garage.

"We made it this far, but what," Mrs. Tupelo was panting, "are we-gaun ta do now?"

Roberts was breathing in small gasps himself. "I honestly don't know. The Governor is sure to search the entire palisade looking for Mr. Sandburg. After all, he thinks-thanks to you-that his son is in mortal danger from his guide. I'm afraid Lord Ellison is right, the Governor would take advantage of his weakened state, perhaps even ordering Mr. Sandburg be put to sleep immediately."

"Oh, pish posh. Lord Ellison is sick, so of course he's overreacting, but you've no such excuse for being so dramatic. The Governor's a reasonable man who's just concerned about his son's safety. And rightfully so. He won't go against his son's wishes an' do anything tae Sandburg once I explain it was a mistake."

"Madam, when was the last time you had your eyes checked?"

"Whatever do ye mean?" She was shocked and affronted. "I donnae glasses, I've never needed glasses."

"You're blind, woman, to what's going on here-what is going on in this country."

"Me, blind?" Although she kept her voice pitched low, it was still a shriek. "It's yo an' Lord Ellison who've been bamboozled by this street scum. I know exactly what's going on here. This-this empath-comes along an' wi' his ability tae read minds, knows just what tae say tae get Lord Ellison an' everyone else tae dae what he wants. And if those rats cannae do it that way, they ferret out secrets an' use them against people. They all know exactly what people want tae hear. They knows how tae sexually arouse, an' they know all sorts o' ways tae satisfy that arousal an' that's how they make their way. They're perverts, the lot o' them-emotional vampires, an' it just sickens me that Lord Ellison is in the power o' one o' them."

Her venom was like a punch to the stomach and I curled into Roberts' side a little tighter. Mrs. T. wasn't saying anything I hadn't heard or read a hundred times, but that didn't inoculate me from the pain of hearing her say I was a perverted emotional vampire.

"You think Mr. Sandburg has the power here? Has power anywhere?" Roberts asked, sounding as baffled as I was by the idea.

"Of course he does," Mrs. T snapped, "why else would anyone choose the likes o' him, when they can have a beautiful Cultivated? Like Emil. Now there was a charming young man."

Roberts shifted me a little, and I could feel him nodding his head as he said, "There was something of the shiny, bright, new penny about Mr. Simone. But charming?"

Emil. I was curious about him, I'll admit it. I wanted to know what kind of man Jim loved, and maybe understand the Cultivateds a little more.

"Yes, charming. He had such a lovely smile an' such good advice about clothes an' colors an' such."

"Hmm," was all Roberts said in comment, the hmmm packed with his own ideas about Emil.

So Emil was good with the ladies, not so good with the butler. I certainly wasn't good with the ladies, at least not with Scottish ones. I wanted to ask her for a fresh start, tell her I could be charming, I could smile, give advice…but there were no fresh starts for street empaths.

I started to slide down the side of the door, but Roberts stopped my descent and pulled me in closer to him.

"We can't stand around here any longer. Help me get him in the car."

Mrs. Tupelo opened the door and Roberts guided me in, placing me face down on the back seat. "We have to think…"

They fell silent and I drifted in thought.

There'd been affection in Jim's eyes when I woke, but he'd said, "Get him out of here" and his voice had been-hard. He'd been-unhappy.

And what about that strange moment when I could've sworn I was feeling some of Jim's emotions, and we hadn't even been in a merge? Okay, yeah, I can always do that if I choose to, but this was different. These had been the emotions of a child. Boy Jim, not man Jim.

For the first time, I wish I'd been cultivated. Then I'd know what was going on, what this meant. It could be a normal phase among bonded pairs. Perhaps each meld was really that, us becoming one. But maybe it was bad, maybe my wild genetics were breaking us down, stripping us of our individual souls, merging us in a way that was wrong and perverse.

I tried pushing myself up, but as soon as I lifted my head a couple of inches, it exploded. I collapsed back down, and things faded out. After awhile, the rumble of their voices sorted itself out again and I heard Mrs. Tupelo saying, slowly, hesitantly, "Well, I might know a place."

"Yes?" Roberts asked. My barriers were eroding and I could feel the impatience behind his modulated voice.

"Aye. It's a place I keep for ma days off." She was embarrassed; I could almost feel the heat from her cheeks...

"You have a place for your days off? What on earth for?" Roberts' shock radiated out from him. Perhaps at the thought that anyone Scottish would spend money so wantonly.

Mrs. Tupelo made a huffing noise. "If ye must know, I've a gentleman friend an' we meet there every Tuesday an' Thursday." Satisfaction, affection, and she surprised me with the underlying lust she felt for her man.

"*You* have secret assignations twice a week? Why don't you meet at his oh-" he stopped speaking abruptly, paused, then said slowly, "he's married, isn't he?" Roberts voice dropped an octave, although I was the only one within earshot.

Mrs. T's voice actually got a little louder. "It's really no o' yer business an' I don't know why ye're lookin' at me like I'm suddenly one o' those tarts on MTV." A vision of the round, little woman done up in leather and high heels flashed through my mind making me miss what Roberts said, and I caught Mrs. T's response in the middle.

"- I've seen MTV. It's no as if I'm doin' it for pay. Nigel an' I hae been seeing each other for nine years."

"Nigel." Roberts paused and then it came to him and he snapped his fingers. "The head waiter at The Blue Horse."

"Aye. That's ma Nigel." Oh, she loved her Nigel.

"He flambés a mean cherries jubilee," Roberts said with admiration, then refocused, "but that's neither here nor there. Since you called the Governor, you're the one who needs to be here to greet him. Perhaps you'll be able to convince him that his son is safe and he'll leave. Then I can come right back with Mr. Sandburg and get him settled in his own bed. I don't like the way he looks, or how hot he feels."

Mrs. Tupelo's voice wavered for the first time as she asked, "Do ye really think we can pull this off?"

"We have to, it's a matter of Mr. Sandburg's life and Lord Ellison's sanity." Roberts paused, then said, "But buck up, Mrs. Tupelo. You've a talent for this; you've been leading a double life for years. I may just have to start calling you Mrs. Bond."

She giggled, a little weakly, I thought, and said, "Aye, I've many hidden talents. Many. So off ye go, I'll take care o' Lord Ellison's Da. Ye make sure Mr. Sandburg's hidden away."

In a moment, the car started and soon the soft whooshing noise lulled me back to sleep. I woke when Roberts once again pulled me up and, using the fireman's carry, hauled me out of the car and up the stairs to Mrs. Tupelo's hidden boudoir.

My head hurt, and every step Roberts took forced the pain deeper and deeper into my brain. I hadn't realized I was making any sounds until Roberts patted my butt gently and said, "There now, Mr. Sandburg, we're almost through the worst part. I'll have you tucked into bed in no time."

With care that was wasted on me, he lowered me to the bed. I flopped back, and Roberts swung my legs up onto the mattress. He didn't need to take my shoes off, since I had no shoes. Clothes were no problem for the same reason. The sheet I'd been wrapped in stayed around me, and Roberts added a blanket. I kept my eyes closed, too tired to open them.

"Mr. Sandburg?" Roberts shook my arm lightly.

"Hmmm?"

My head was lifted and a glass was placed against my lips. Opening my mouth, I drank the water greedily, my thirst surprising me. When it was empty, Roberts lowered my head back down. The bed shifted as he stood up and I reached out blindly, hoping for more water. Understanding fellow that he was, Roberts was soon back with another glass and we repeated our actions. Midway through the second glass, he placed some pills in my mouth, saying, "It's an analgesic, it will help you feel better." I swallowed them, spilling the water in my eagerness and making a mess.

He wiped my mouth and tucked my arms under the covers. "I must go now. You sleep and before you know it, Mrs. T or I will be back. There's a small galley kitchen here, and I've left a glass of water by the bed." He paused, as if he remembered something and asked, "Are your barriers all right?"

"Yes." They were good, solid from the merge with Jim just a few hours ago. "Thanks. Thanks for all your help."

"You're welcome. Rest. I'll see to..." His words faded away as I faded out.

+++

It was pitch black when I woke, and hot. The darkness and heat smothered my senses, isolating me in their prison. Hands holding me down me, crushingly heavy, hot breath on my face, I can't turn, I can't get away from them, I want to get away from them.

"Can't you keep him still?" A voice I'd never heard before.

"Even sick, Ellison's freakin' strong. Get over here and help me."

I threw myself against them, screaming, trying to break out, and realized I couldn't hear my voice. I had to get out of here, but now hands were holding me down and I knew it wouldn't be long before they strapped me into place. My fist smashed into something, making the hands release me and I was up, moving.

The euphoria I felt at breaking free lasted until I was tackled. The force of it drove the air out of my lungs, and made it easy for them to contain and lift me. Then the straps were put back into place and I could no longer move.

The leather burned on my skin, and I bucked wildly, but was helpless. A cloth soaked in acid was placed over me next, and I screamed into the soundless void, begging them to stop. I know I begged even though I couldn't hear my pleas for mercy.

Instead of mercy, my eyelids were pried open.

'Not my eyes! Not-no-please…' I begged, but the words never left my mouth. Thin blades of steel were thrust into each eyeball and I screamed without sound, without breath, impaled by hot agony.

Hard, white shards of light poured in and I was as blind as before, but now instead of darkness, there was only a haze of brightness.

Vaguely I made out an alien shape moving towards me, reaching for me-

I jerked away from the hands clamping my head steady, but still the grotesque thing kept coming.

+++

"It's the delirium, sir, he doesn't realize it's you."

"I can see that." The Governor's derisive tone made the doctor flinch. So tell me the truth. How bad is he?"

The doctor studied the chart, then looked up, saying, "I won't lie to you, Governor. This influenza strain came out of nowhere. You must be aware that the mortality is nearing 24 percent. That's bad enough, but I'm afraid it's worse for sentinels. The death rate for them is approaching sixty percent."

The man on the bed groaned and thrashed about weakly, the restraints keeping him from hurting himself.

"Does it affect their minds?" The Governor wore an oxygen mask. With the death count climbing into the tens of thousands, he had to take every precaution.

"I don't believe he's suffered any brain damage yet, but the longer his temp remains this high, the greater the risk of seizures. His senses are spiking erratically and our efforts to cool him down are agitating him." The doctor studied the man writing on the bed and said, " Frankly, sir, I'm worried."

Before the Governor could respond, his aide came in, tugging on his arm, and said urgently, "Sir, Gilbert called, you have to get back to the office. Over 600 died this morning and the bodies are piling up at the morgue. There's not enough undertakers or caskets or burial plots to keep up. They want to know what to do."

"Damn. All right." He leaned down and taking the rag out of the nurse's hand, tenderly wiped the sweat from his son's forehead. "Look after him." Addressing his aide, he barked, "And keep looking for that damn rat of his." Tossing the rag back to the nurse, he strode out of the room, and everyone left in it breathed a little easier.

+++

"Jim?"

The room was dark, and for a moment I thought maybe I was still in Jim's room, but then I realized nothing was right. For one thing it smelled like roses and lavender and for another, city lights were bleeding through lacy curtains. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw that the armchairs had doilies. Mrs. Tupelo's secret hideaway.

I felt sick, and sick of cataloging what hurt, so I just lay in my general misery, thinking about Seymour Glass and his theory about our ridiculous habit of naming things. Why did we have to know the sky was blue? Wouldn't it be the same if we called it green? So what if my throat was bleeding. If I didn't know that, wouldn't the pain be the same? Was I making any sense at all? Even though I'd been following my thinking rather closely, I was pretty sure that I wasn't.

Water? Water was good and it was around here someplace, but finding it seemed to be beyond me.

Pain is funny. I know pain, so I know how funny it can be. Sometimes, it's so bad, you pass out. And sometimes, it's so bad, you can't pass out. And when pain is bad, you almost always really hope you'll pass out. I didn't pass out. All night long I heard Mrs. Tupelo's little chiming clock trill on the hour, on the quarter hour, on the half hour, on the quarter hour and then on the hour again.

Some time during the night I started to sweat, which wasn't a good thing. There's a dictionary out there someplace that has to have in it, as an example of irony, dying of thirst while being soaking wet. I was hot enough to sweat, but cold enough that I was also shivering.

Contradictions. They were everywhere. I am large. I contain many contradictions. Who wrote that? I know, just give me a minute, I know...I give up, I don't know who wrote that.

I, too, contain contradictions. What was that Woody Allen joke? "The food is terrible here and the portions are so small." I hate my life, but I want to live. Want more of it, more of Jim.

And Jim. Contradictions just spill out of him. He chose me, but doesn't want me. But I don't take that personally. Even when we weren't merging, I felt grief shaping his every movement. He was like a man trying to swim through a murked up pond filled with seaweeds. He doesn't want me, but treats me better than anyone else has since my empathy kicked in.

Slowly the dark of night crept into gray, the streetlights winked off, and day appeared. But nobody else did. There was something about the daylight that helped me to quit feeling sorry for myself. I staggered out of bed, landing on the floor. It's what happens when you have a wet sheet wrapped around your legs. Before I could lapse back into self-pity, I told myself-sternly-that I was making progress.

Then I had to ask myself, just how stupid has years of concussions made you? Or is it brain damage that has you conversing with yourself as you lie on the floor-naked, thirsty and cold?

Which should I pick, stupid or brain-damaged?

Do I get a pick?

I *was* stupid if I didn't know by now that I don't get a pick. And hello, was that the pity thing making a comeback?

Oh, for crying out loud, just get the fuck up and find some water.

I got up, not one of my more graceful moments, and spotted the glass of water right next to the bed. I drank it all and was glad I was on my feet. It made it easier to get another glass of water. After my third, I needed the bathroom.

It was tiny, so tiny I think Mrs. T would have a damn difficult time accomplishing anything in it. It was a good thing for me, as having the walls so close together meant that one was always close by to put a hand on to steady myself. The room was pink, three or four shades of pink, with more lacy curtains. The extra rolls of toilet paper were entombed in crocheted covers in the shape of dolls. I've never understood that.

Using the bathroom faucet, I filled my glass up again and with care, made my way back to bed.

+++

"HAVE YOU FOUND HIM?" The Governor bellowed the question for the sixth time and I winced, my head throbbing from his constant bellowing.

One of his men, a strapping lad of six feet, shuffled forward and said meekly, "No, sir, he's not here, sir, we've looked everywhere, sir, twice, and scanned with the heat imager and nothing. Sir."

The Governor's angry eyes swung in my direction. "So, Mrs. Tupelo, you don't have any ideas at all where that street rat could be?"

"No, sir, no a clue." Once again I launched into the story Roberts and I had settled on. "Lord Ellison called in a man none of us had seen before and sent his gui-the rat-off wi' him."

Lord Ellison stared at me hard, an' I worried that he'd be able to tell I was lying. But his mind was telling him to trust the little gray-haired housekeeper an' I didnae think the man had the imagination tae doubt his eyes. After all, I was on his side, I'd called him in. I tried again to undo my foolishness. "Sir, I told ye I was wrong. The rat hadnae been trying tae harm your son."

"My dear woman," he said, taking one of my hands in his, "I'm sure you weren't mistaken. I knew it was just a matter of time and I was right. That scum my son rescued will be the death of him yet if I don't step in and protect him from this folly. You, madam, are a treasure, looking after Jim's welfare and alerting me so quickly."

His eyes were moist wi' gratitude an' I nearly blurted out the truth. Two things stopped me. The look I'd seen in Lord Ellison's eyes as he looked at his guide and the look in the Governor's eyes when he spoke of Mr. Sandburg. Doorways tae the soul, indeed.

I still believed that wild empaths were a no good lot, but I had tae admit that Lord Ellison had been ever so much better since this one had come intae his life an', after all, the boy hadn't really been trying tae kill his lordship. If I could only make the Governor see that, I was sure he would let Lord Ellison's guide be.

"Oh, yer ever so welcome, yer lordshop, sir, but believe me when I tell ya, the guide isn't so terrible. Ye can quit yer fretting."

Now Governor Ellison was a handsome man-maybe not quite so handsome as his son, but still, a fine looking gentleman, but when he heard ma words-words that were meant to be reassuring-his face turned ugly. I stepped back, frightened a bit.

"You have no idea all that street rats are capable of-nor what this genetic throwback has done in his past. He's not fit to shine my son's shoes, let alone merge with him. I will continue to "fret" as you call it, as long as my son is dependent on, and at the mercy of, that monstrosity of a guide."

The hand that had held mine so gently was now a fist being shaken at me. Perhaps he saw how alarming he was by the shock on ma face, because wi' an effort, he calmed himself an' gave me a little smile.

"Now, Mrs. Tupelo, I know you and I are on the same side, and I know I can count on you to keep Jimmy safe. So if you hear anything, think of anything that might give us a clue to the rat's whereabouts, I know you'll let me know."

I nodded, shaken by the man's charisma an' power an' frightened by the thought of what he'd dae if he knew we were hiding the rat from him. So I dinnae dare leave, but stayed put an' tried tae look innocent an' busy. Every time the Governor looked ma way, I shook wi' the fear that he could see right through me.

In the meantime, I had an entire household tae rearrange. There was food tae order and menus tae create, bedding tae air, cots tae unearth. Cook wasnae happy at being expected tae serve a small army wi' no notice.

No one was happy, as the men the Governor sent were rude an' bossy. Nobody except Tilda, one o'the maids. A houseful o' men was like a banquet tae her and even though I nagged her tae dae her work, she grazed at the entire table all day long.

Roberts came back an' whispered in ma ear that Mr. Sandburg was resting comfortably. "I don't know when he'll wake. One of us needs to be with him. Try to get away after dinner's served."

But after all were fed, Governor Ellison called the household staff together. Gathered in the foyer, we aw' looked up at the Governor, who stood halfway up the stairway. "One of you must know the identity of the man who took the rat away," he said, spreading his hands beseechingly. "I will personally reward anyone who can give me information that leads us to the rat's location." He paused, an' his eyes hardened. "Conversely, if I find that any of you are withholding information from me, I will make your life hell."

We all looked at him an' then at each other, an' shook our heads. Since he didnae actually exist, none had seen the mystery man, an' none could say where he might hae taken Mr. Sandburg.

The Governor took out his phone an', keeping his eyes fixed on us, hit a button, an' began talking. "The doctor and his team are here with Jim. He's sick as a dog with the flu." He stopped an' turned his back. "But there was no sign of trauma. We haven't found Sandburg. The housekeeper reports Jimmy sent his guide away with a man unknown to all of them. Do you have any idea who Jim would trust with his guide?"

He listened intently, then said, "Banks? I'll check him out. Anyone else?" He was silent for a moment, an' I could see he was frustrated wi' the person on the other end o'the line. "He has to be close to someone other than Banks. Think!"

Since he hadnae dismissed us, we all stood there listening wi' rapt attention. The Governor snapped the phone closed an' shouted, "Don't any of you have something to do? A floor to scrub? A pie to bake?" Waving us away, he watched as we scattered.

Hours later, an' much to our relief, the Governor was finally called away. He left six men, an' I've nae doubt that he would've left twenty if the city wasn't in the middle o' a crisis. The medical team also stayed, barring any o' us from Lord Ellison's room. I dinnae mind telling ye how ticked that made me, especially when I heard ma lordship yelling and moaning.

Roberts finally told them they could all go tae hell, but he was Lord Ellison's man and he needed tae be allowed in. They let him in; I think hoping he'd have better luck soothing Lord Ellison. When Roberts came out, his face was grim indeed.

It was after midnight then an' I couldnae think o' reason tae leave so late, so I planned tae leave in the morning.

But in the morning, the Governor sent more men wi' even more sophisticated equipment tae search for the guide an' added more men tae the original six tae act as guards.

Aw' that meant it was late in the day before I was able tae make ma leaving believable. Roberts had insisted I drive in tae town, park at the shopping mall, go in one door and out the opposite end, get on a bus that took me downtown, then go in the court building, out the back an' take a taxi tae ma rooms.

I thought he was being a ninny, thinking we needed tae act like spies on the telly, but when I drove ma usual five miles below the speed limit an' the car behind me never passed, I took his worries more seriously.

Cascade was eerie. The shopping mall was nearly deserted, wi' only a few stores open. Downtown was empty as well, except for the boxes piled in front o'the hospital. It made aw' the deaths seem real for the first time, an' I felt afraid. Not so much for myself, for I come from good hardy Lowland stock an' it would take more than a flu bug tae kill me. But for some reason, the flu was hitting sentinels especially hard, an' Lord Ellison seemed weaker today than he'd been yesterday.

By the time I got tae ma street, it was dark an' I knew I hadnae been followed. I paid off the taxi an' taking ma shopping bags, hurried tae ma flat. I didnae know what tae expect, for all I knew, the rat might hae decided this was his chance for freedom and run awa. A part o' me wouldna hae been sorry tae find him missing. But then I thought about Lord Ellison an' his command tae look after his guide an' I knew if the rat was gone, I'd hae tae go after him.

I opened the door tae darkness an' ma heart sank. He'd scampered off an' now I was in for it. Flipping on the wall switch, I let out a yelp when I saw he was still here. Lying sideways across ma bed, his head hanging at an odd angle, he looked like something dead.

"Mr. Sandburg?" I approached him an' bent down. His hair was damp wi' sweat an' I pushed it away from his face so I could see if he was breathing. He was an' I breathed a little easier. He didnae respond tae ma voice, but I kept talking anyway. Made it seem a little less weird.

"Come, now, Mr. Sandburg, ye cannae be comfortable that way." I'd been so afraid he was dead, I hadnae noticed he was naked. "And ye need to cover yerself." They said rats had no shame an' I could believe it. I shoved him over, so I could get the covers on him when I caught sight of his back.

There was a mottling of fading bruises an' then I noticed the marks. Skin puckered together. White thin lines. Scars that looked like he'd been professionally stitched an' scars that looked like he'd been hurt an' left without attention. There was almost nae order tae them, an' I knew, looking at them, that Lord Ellison had been right.

This hadna' been done in the name o' discipline, as punishment for something, an' it was something that had been done over an' over. There wasna' a man alive, no matter how stubborn, who'd risk that kind o' punishment twice. This had been done in anger, by someone who'd done it because he could, whatever Mr Sandburg had done tae make him angry. Or maybeit was something Mr Sandburg hadna' done? After aw', he was a rejected guide when Lord Ellison found him. Why had he been rejected? Lord Ellison was clearly satisfied wi' him, an' Lord Ellison can be a hard man tae please.

Lifting his head up, I got it back on the bed, then bit by bit, maneuvered him intae a more comfortable position on the bed an' covered him wi' the blanket. Then I went intae the kitchen an' put on the water for tea, noticing my hands were shaking. I stayed put an' waited for the water tae boil, not quite ready tae go back in an' face the young man in ma bed.

He moaned, an' I froze, hoping he'd go back tae sleep. There was silence an' I relaxed, but it wasn't long before he moaned again, quietly enough that I pretended I hadnae heard. But the third moan couldnae be ignored an' I pushed maself away from the counter.

Going back in, I bent down an' shook him. "Mr. Sandburg?" I sat down in the chair next to the bed an' felt his forehead. Not warm. Hot. Lord Ellison's fears had come tae fruition. He'd come down wi' the flu.

Well, I knew what was called for, and getting maself up, I went back intae the kitchen for ma tea. I needed the fortification. Then I got a bowl an' a rag, ran the cold water, an' drank my cuppa. It was going tae be a long night.

When I got back to the bedroom, I saw that he'd managed to toss the blanket aside. I set the bowl o' water down an' wrung the washcloth out, then wiped his forehead. At first he jerked his head away, an' then he wiggled closer. I steeled myself not tae pull away, but it was unnerving being so close tae one o' them.

Methodically, I began tae wipe the sweat and heat off him, telling maself he was a human being, after all, an' one of God's children, even if he was misbegotten. He had hair on his chest, an' it made me think about the articles I'd read that said street rats were not as evolved as the rest o' us an' therefore closer to their animal selves. That would explain the hair. It was fur.

I stifled a giggle at that thought an' petted the rat, murmuring, "Whatever am I going to do wi' you?"

I was shocked when the rat spoke, his voice barely above a whisper. "You could finish what you started and shoot me. End my misery." His eyes remained shut an' I could see by the lines around them an' the way he was clenching all his muscles that he was in pain.

It made me feel a little bad about thinking he was an animal. I patted his arm an' tried to explain. "Ach, now, you'll have tae forgive my impulsiveness. I didn't know yo, an' I believed Governor Ellison when he said yo meant tae dae his son harm."

"You don't know me now, so really, go ahead."

I was a little surprised that he could be so lighthearted about something like that. After all, I really had nearly shot him. "No, laddie, Lord Ellison would be ever so cross wi' me if I did such a thing."

"Oh. That's too bad." He seemed genuinely disappointed.

"We'll have you right as rain in no time, Mr. Sandburg."

"Blair."

"Mr.-"

"No, damn it." He seemed to be about three seconds from unconsciousness an' yet wanted tae argue about a name.

"Call me Blair. I'm sick, I'm might be dying, and the least you can do is call me by the name my mother gave me."

I decided it would be best tae humor him for now. "Ye aren't dying, but all right. I'll call ye Blair, if that will make ye happy."

His eyebrows rose an' he asked, "Happy?" Shaking his head, he smiled a little. "Oh, let's not shoot for the moon, Mrs. T." His words were softly slurred, and I believe he fell asleep as soon as he finished.

It proved tae be a long night. In the middle of it, I abandoned the water an' began using alcohol, which seemed tae bring his temp down a few degrees. A few times he came awake enough for me tae get aspirin an' water intae him.

Early in the morning, when it was still dark, I fell asleep in the chair an' woke a few hours later when Blair started tae stir. His agitation increased an' he began tae mutter. Random words at first. He called for Lord Ellison quite a bit.

And then, "No, Gavin, no. No!" said emphatically, but the fight went out o' him an' in the next moment he was begging, "Please, Gavin. I-can't, don't-don't-make me."

Suddenly his hand shot out, barely missing me, as he tried tae fight off 'Gavin". I caught his hand an' brought it down, saying, "Stop all this fussing, no one's going tae make ye do anything ye don't want tae do."

"Mom?"

Mom? He'd mentioned her before-the would be seamstress with the uneven stitches.

His hand glommed ontae mine and he asked for her again. "Mom?" Sounding to all the world like a bairn lost in the dark.

"Hmmm?" I answered as non-committedly as I could, no wishing tae lie tae him, but no wanting tae tell him he was alone.

"You're back. You came back for me." He brought ma hand tae his lips and kissed it. I let him, stunned tae see such joy in his face.

"It hurts," he whispered, as if telling her a secret.

"I know." I brushed the damp hair from his forehead wi' ma free hand.

"Will you-can-you stay?" He clutched at ma hand wi' desperation, an' it made ma heart ache a little tae think he craved his mum so.

I didnae want tae lie tae him, but I had tae say something. "I'm here now. "

"Can I go with you this time?"

How often did that mother o'his go off without him? I didnae know what tae say. He tugged on ma hand, wanting an answer an' I fell back on the mother's time honored response, saying, "We'll see."

"I want to go with you. I can hide it better now. Please let me stay with you."

What did that mean? Hide what? His empathic abilities? Did she stay away from him because he was what he was? As disgusted as I was by what I knew about wild empaths, I dinnae think it was right for a mother tae run away from her child and leave him tae find his own way.

"Sleep, Blair. You'll feel better in the morning."

He seemed tae accept that an' it eased him intae sleep, still holding ma hand. In a moment, his hand relaxed, releasing mine.

I had tae go; I couldnae stay. I'd said I was going tae town for an AA meeting. I'd be able tae blame the flu epidemic for ma night out, but only if I didnae make anyone look too hard for me in the morning.

I called Roberts. It was lucky for us that he had a private line, he was the only one o' who did. He answered before the first ring died out.

"Yes?" He sounded as if he had no idea who might be waking him up. At four in the morning, I couldnae imagine who he thought it could be except me.

I got right tae it. "He's very sick, tae sick to be left alone, but I cannae stay an' he cannae come back wi' me. Whit're we going tae dae?"

Finally he spoke, his voice low an' urgent. "We have to get someone who can stay with him."

"Aye, but who? Everyone's sick or taking care o' someone who's sick. There's no one tae call on."

"Give me a moment, I'll think of something."

I gave him a moment an' he came up wit' the most idiotic idea I'd ever heard.

"Could you ask Nigel?"

The man didn't know what he was asking. "Nigel? Are ye nuts? Nigel would never-I mean, he's a sweetheart, but he just wouldnae-not many would, ye know...and Nigel-well, that would be a very bad idea."

Handing the rat-er, Blair, who was as defenseless as a babe right now, intae Nigel's hands would be sheer folly. It was Nigel who'd made me aware o' the dangers o' wild empaths in the first place. He'd no be happy tae be asked tae baby sit one.

"I understand. There's one other option. I don't like it, but we don't have any other choice." Roberts paused, an' I could almost see him scraping his hands over his face. "At Nassau House, there was a guard who treated Mr. Sandburg quite decently. I'll call him. Perhaps he'd be willing to step into the breech."

That sounded fine tae me. "Good, I need tae be getting back before someone starts tae wonder about me."

Two hours later, as I was spooning chicken soup intae Blair, Roberts called back. "He'll do it. He'll be there in two hours."

"I have tae gae now. As soon as Bl-Mr. Sandburg falls asleep, I'm leaving."

"I'd feel better if you were there when David arrives."

"Mr. Sandburg will be fine. He's sleeping mostly anyway an' we mustn't arouse the Governor's suspicions. That would defeat all our efforts."

"You're probably right, but-well, there's nothing to be done about it."

When I turned back wi' another spoonful o'soup, Blair was sleeping, an' I wiped his mouth an' pulled the blanket up tae his chin.

"Sleep well, laddie. Ye'll be home in no time."

+++

I have him."

"Finally. What hole was he hiding in?"

"One of the usual rat haunts."

"It figures. Get him over here. I want to get this taken care of before my son recovers."

"Understood, I'll be there within the hour."

+++

Once again I was being moved on someone's shoulder, and it was hard to breathe when each step drove the air from my lungs. When we finally stopped moving, I was deposited rather haphazardly into a trunk of a car. Looking up, I saw with surprise that it was David, the polite Canadian.

"David?"

He didn't look at me as he said, "Hard as this may be to understand, Blair, this is gonna hurt me more than you."

Then he smiled as he shut the trunk.

+++

"Sandburg?" Why couldn't I feel him next to me? Where could he be?

"He ran." A face I didn't recognize came into focus. I dismissed it.

"Sandburg?" If only I could make my voice louder, he'd hear me and he'd come, but as hard as I tried, I couldn't raise it above a whisper.

The man I didn't know leaned down and shook me by the shoulders. "Your rat ran, Lord Ellison. He got away from the person you entrusted him with and he ran." The man was an idiot, knew nothing. Sandburg wouldn't run. He was here. Somewhere.

"Sandburg?"

He slapped my cheek, not hard. "You're not listening. He's gone. Skipped town, blew this pop stand, he's left the building. Got that, your lordship?"

I ignored him, turning away and called for my guide. "Sandburg!"

"I give up! He's the most stubborn man alive."

"I'll tell him. I'll tell him in a way he'll understand."

The mattress dipped as a man sat down on the side of the bed. He leaned over me and taking my chin between his thumb and forefinger, moved my head until I focused on him. "Sir? I have some bad news, I'm afraid. Your guide, Blair Sandburg, has been found."

When I smiled, the man tightened his hold until it hurt and said, "You're not listening, m'lord. I said I had *bad* news. He was found, dead, an hour ago. Stabbed to death. Do you understand? DO. YOU. UNDERSTAND?"

I stared at him, at his face, so sincere, and I nodded. He released me and got off of the bed.

"I really am so sorry, m'lord."

"Do you think he understood you? Because the Governor wants us to make sure he knows he no longer has a guide."

"It'll become clear to him when he gets a little better and his pet rat is nowhere to be found."

When the door closed, it got quiet again.

+++

Dead?

Sandburg?

Blair? Stabbed? Dead?

I had been cocooned by the fever, bound up in its hot arms, smothered by its heat. I'd gotten used to it, and had welcomed the feeling of being disconnected, of floating, of dying.

All that was ripped away when the words penetrated my heated sanctuary. Suddenly all my nerves reconnected, and as the waves of pain hit, I screamed and kept screaming, hoping to empty myself of the need to scream, but I never did.

My body had turned against me completely, stripped itself of every defense, allowing the world to batter against it. The noise shattered the bones in my skull, the smells made me gag until bile ran from my mouth, everything that touched me ate away at my skin, and when I closed my eyes, the retinas fused to my eyelids.

+++

"Do something!" His son's howling were loud even through the telephone, and terrible to hear.

"He's been like this ever since he was told Sandburg's dead. We've tried everything, including knocking him unconscious. He stops screaming, but it doesn't stop the pain."

"Jesus! You sentinel doctors are a bunch of quacks-no better than voodoo priests. I can't believe you haven't figured out some drugs that work on sentinels."

"A sentinel's physiology is very unique, sir, incredibly sophisticated. The greater the abilities, the more complex the neurology. And, Governor, your son is one of the most powerful sentinels we've ever known."

"Yes, he's amazing, unique, a stupendous scientific anomaly. And he's going to die because you can't find a way to save his life!"

"Look, if we had his guide, we'd have a chance. A merge would stabilize his senses and get his nerves re-sheathed. But without bonding, I'm sorry, but it doesn't look good."

"I'll send a virgin Cultivated over. Throw him in Jim's bed. My son's so out of it, he won't know and they'll bond, he'll get stabilized."

"Governor, if I thought it had even the smallest chance of working, I'd go ahead, despite the very iffy ethics involved. But Lord Ellison's body is in tune with his guide, this Sandburg, and only Sandburg can help him now."

With a heavy sigh, the Governor hung up the phone. Looking down at the man who lay sprawled at his feet, he scowled, and nudged him with his shoe. "Wake up, rat."

When his command failed, he walked over to the bar and poured himself a stiff drink. Lifting up the oxygen mask, he took a sip and grimaced, not at the taste of the very old Scotch he loved, but at the thought of what he had to do.

He'd had the perfect opportunity handed to him and he couldn't take advantage of it. To save his son's life, he had to allow his son to bond once again with Sandburg.

He consoled himself with the thought that there was still some chance that Jimmy would get stabilized and recover and that the rat would die of the flu. He took another sip, replaced his mask and picked up the ice bucket. Carrying it over to the unconscious man, he tipped it upside down, showering the street scum with ice and cold water.

The deviant jerked awake, his eyes opened wide in alarm, and he feebly tried to scramble away. William Ellison stepped on his hand, effectively pinning him, and said, "Don't be ridiculous."

The rat sank back to the carpet, groaning as William put more weight on the foot that trapped the cowering man's hand. "It's time that you and I came to an understanding." He paused, lifted his foot, then reaching down, and pulled the rat up by his hair, glad he was wearing latex gloves.

"You don't belong with my son. My God, your kind doesn't belong on this earth, and if I had my way, you'd all be exterminated."

The rat just looked at him with his big eyes, clutching his bruised hand to his chest. Naked, of course, he thought, ignoring the fact that the man had no choice in the matter.

"My son is meant for greatness and I'm not going to let his tendency to attach to his inferiors get in the way of his making an alliance with someone of consequence, someone who can enhance his position, not degrade it."

William looked at the man he held in his grip, revolted by the idea that his son touched such filth on a daily basis. "How Jim can stand to have you anywhere near him is beyond me." Shaking his head, he tossed the naked man down, and the rat landed hard on his back.

William looked down at his son's guide, wishing he could just grind the scum under his shoe instead of sending him back to the palisade. "You've been given a reprieve," he spat. "You say one word to Lord Ellison about this little detour, and not only will I make you sorry, I'll make your mother sorry-if it's possible to make her any sorrier than she already is-that you were ever born."

"My mo-mother? You know," the rat panted, "-my mother?"

"The lovely Naomi Sandburg. It would be a shame if she were to suffer a serious downturn in the quality of her life thanks to her mutant son." Turning his back on Sandburg, he took another long pull on his Scotch, and headed back to the bar. for the mole he'd so carefully put in place. "Castle!" He barked, calling for the mole he'd put into place.

The man he'd hired to befriend Sandburg at Nassau House strolled in. "What?"

He was altogether too cocky-William supposed that had to do with being Canadian and not under sovereign authority. He wasn't used to upstarts like Castle, but this one had had his use. Too bad nothing now would come of it.

Taking his oxygen mask off, William tossed it on the bar. "What?" He glared at the bounty hunter. "You will address me with respect, or you'll be spending your reward money on bail, young man."

Straightened up from his slouch, Castle gave a small salute. "Oh, yeah, sorry, guv. Right, sir."

William splashed more Scotch into the heavy crystal glass and then took a sip. "I'm afraid circumstances have reduced your fee."

Castle's placid face turned white, then flushed red, and he advanced on the Governor with hands fisted. "Circumstances? What circumstances? We had a deal. $20,000 dollars in exchange for Sandburg."

The stink of the rat made William anxious to get him out of the room. "Yes, well, right now he's not worth $20,000. I'm only willing to pay you $5,000.00, and I want you to deliver him back to my son."

Castle frowned, moving aggressively toward William. "Why have you changed your plans? You told me you wanted the rat put to sleep. Why are you giving him back?"

"Because my son's life depends upon it. Hopefully, there will be another opportunity. Now take this-this-" William walked back to the naked man in the middle of his floor, pulled back his foot and kicked him, his shoe connecting sharply with a bony hip. "-piece of shit back to the Palisade and dump him in my son's bed."

Sullenly, Castle bent down, put his hand under Sandburg's elbow, and pulled him up. "I'll take him to your son, but it'll cost you another $5,000.00."

William backed away from the rat, suddenly aware he wasn't wearing his mask. "Fine, just get him out of here. And stay in touch. I may be able to use you again."

Castle looped Sandburg's arm around his shoulders. He started to exit the room, then turned back and said, "I'll stay right by the phone, guv, waiting for your call."

The Governor ignored the sarcasm as he watched the two men leave with eyes narrowed.

+++

When David got me in the backseat of the car, he took my chin in his hand, lifted my head up and looked at my eyes. "Can you make it?"

I knew he meant were my barriers good enough and I didn't bother to answer him. My barriers were in miserable shape, befitting my miserable shape, and all I could do now was try to hold on until I got to Jim.

When I didn't answer, he took my arm and propped it up on his knee. Tapping a vein, he reached for the kit on the seat next to him. I jerked my arm away. "No! Can't-won't-" I tried to gather my thoughts to make him understand. "No Noxy. Need to…be able to…bond with Jim."

Frowning, he patted my arm and let it go. "Okay, hang on. I'll get you there as fast as I can."

He was as good as his word, driving so fast, I had a hard time staying on the seat. I knew the fever was addling my brain, but something was going on here. David had been emanating real concern when he asked me about my barriers and contrary to his relaxed attitude with the Governor, I could feel his anxiety and it was scraping away at my skin.

"Why? What?" Not the most coherently phrased questions, but he understood.

He looked up and met my eyes in the rearview mirror. "Look, we had a plan, but it's been blown for now. Just hang in with the sentinel and we'll work something else out."

"We?"

He ignored my question and I tried again. "What do you mean, 'we'?"

He glanced back in the mirror. My barriers were low enough that he was laid open like a book, but it might as well been written in Sanskrit, as his emotions were all over the map. The only thing I could pull out of the mess was regret and conflict, both of which might have been generated by the loss of the full payment he'd been expecting for delivering me.

"Don't ask, Blair. It's better if you know nothing."

For the rest of the ride, I stay hunched over, as every mile closer to the Palisade brought me closer to Jim's pain. As soon as we entered the long drive up to the house, the vibrations of pain swelled, filling my body and mind. I tried to take a deep breath, tried to find a way to control some of the agony, but all I could do was bite my lip to hold back my screams, afraid they would only add to Jim's pain.

The brakes screeched as we came to a stop with a jerk. The force of it threw me to the floor. When the door opened, I couldn't even look up, and David reached down and pulled me out. "Come on, Blair, you've got a sentinel to cozy up to. Let's get you in there." Taking my arm, he slung it around his shoulder, but I hung there, paralyzed by the pain I was feeling from Jim.

David gave up trying to help me walk and instead bent down and put me on his shoulder. He used his foot to knock on the door, kicking it. A moment later, it swung open.

"What in the world?"

David moved past the startled maid, making for the second floor and I heard shocked gasps as he trudged up the stairs with me slung over his back like a side of beef.

"Blair! -you-right?" Mrs. Tupelo speaking, but the words were cutting in and out as my brain tried to cope with the overwhelming pain-mine and Jim's. "The gov- called-said- David was bring- ye -an' ordered - men tae -."

"Mr. -, wha- hap-ed?" Roberts, I think.

"The Governor's men-showed-at the door-took-us. Governor-had-the doc-immediately told me to get Blair back to-his son as fast-could. Should I-him-?" David the hero explained.

The shuddering was getting worse, threatening to unbalance me, though David had a tight grip on my legs. Breathing had become nearly impossible and I could feel the darkness pressing in. Expecting to be tossed on the bed, I was surprised when many hands reached for me and I was placed gently next to Jim. Immediately, I curled around him, trying to ease the wild, shattering pain that had Jim in its thrall.

Placing my hand on his heart, I pressed against him. "Jim", I gasped, cupping his face in my hands. I had never initiated a bond, and I wasn't sure if I could- if I knew how, if the guide had the ability, if it was even allowed…

I had to do something. Jim was on his back, rigid and unresponsive, jaw clenched, neck muscles taut, hands fisted. The only sound was the whoosh of blood through veins, the dub dub of his heart pumping, the thin rattle of air wheezing in and out of his lungs.

Someone tried to push me onto my back and I resisted, fighting to stay close to Jim. I was lifted up and placed on top of him, and I held his face in my hands, wordlessly calling to him. My silent words echoed back and forth between us, having nowhere in his frozen landscape to land.

Vaguely I could hear someone saying my name, their urgency penetrating my fear. "Mr. Sandburg, spread your legs. I'm going to prepare you and then you and Lord Ellison must join together." Roberts' hands were on me and, impatiently, I endured them and did as he instructed. Everything about Jim was hard. Raising myself up, I took hold of his penis, getting it positioned, then lowered myself down until we were fully connected.

Reaching for his hand, I pried open his fist and aligned our fingers, and as soon as I did, a rush of warm energy began to flow. His pain ripped through me, like shards of glass shattered in a hurricane and I let it blast through me.

Deep breath in, and the acid flowed across me, as inexorable as lava. I bit down my cry and breathed in again, as deeply as I could, taking in the pain, the scouring heat, the desolation. Jim sighed and, like a miracle, his body began to relax.

The merge began, but I spun away from it, confused about what to do with the pain that I was drawing out of Jim. A panther's scream stopped me. Reluctantly I joined the merge, afraid of hurting Jim more, of bringing back to him what I had tried to take away.

+++

Minutes turned to hours, hours to days, and the days stretched into infinity. Pain poured into my body, replacing the blood in my veins, the marrow in my bones, seeping into my joints, invading my brain.

There's dying and then there's death. The dying hurts. But death wasn't bad. The pain fell away, the failures faded out. Guideless, I surged into a merge, that wonderful place where imagination and need fuse and power flows. Running so hard I nearly took flight, I reveled in the sense of rightness. Is this what it felt like to not need another in order to feel sane, whole?

I heard birds singing, the wind shaking the leaves, my footsteps thudding on the solid earth. And then I heard it. The sound of another running, his feet slapping the earth as he followed me. Close. I looked sideways to the left. Nothing.

To the right, Sandburg.

Sandburg.

"I thought you were dead." I didn't look at him as we continued running, the thud of our feet in unison sounding like a hum.

"I never was."

"I thought I was dead." I told him, feeling confused.

"You were dying, but not dead."

We ran, my breathing easy. I was disappointed that my feeling of wholeness had been an illusion. I'd felt whole because Sandburg had been with me.

"I thought I was whole without you."

He stayed silent for a moment, and then said, "I imagine that would feel good."

"Yeah," I admitted, "it did. But it seems I still need a guide."

Sandburg shrugged, and looked sideways at me. "You have one."

"Lucky me." I didn't bother to check my sarcasm. But my tickle of anger quickly faded and I found I was smiling, that I actually did feel lucky to have him by my side.

"So I wasn't dead?"

"You were only mostly dead." Sandburg informed me and I could hear the smile in his voice.

"And then you came back?"

"Yup."

"And now?"

"You're mostly alive."

As his words sung through my veins, I put a burst of speed on, and, to my delight, my feet left the ground. It wasn't exactly like flying, but it sure wasn't like running and I skimmed along for quite awhile, the trees a blur, the wind stinging my face. It was exhilaration like nothing I'd ever experienced, and it filled me with an emotion I couldn't name.

Flying along I suddenly realized that I'd left Sandburg behind.

That thought derailed the new physics I'd discovered, and my forward movement stuttered. Rolling into a tumble, I did a somersault, and came to a halt in a small cloud of dust. For a moment I sat stunned, trying to assimilate what had just happened, the way you try to go back into a dream and try to reconstruct it.

But I couldn't remember how I'd made it happen, couldn't remember what my arms or feet did when it was happening, all I remembered was what it had felt like, the absolute glory of breaking free from gravity, and I tucked that feeling away.

The walk back seemed to take a long time, and while still a good mile away from him, I spotted Sandburg walking along, looking unconcerned. For some reason that bugged me. It bugged me a lot. Stopping, I watched him. He had his head back and he was studying the sky. I looked up, but saw nothing, just clouds scudding by and a flock of birds swooping around on the air currents.

Then something on the ground caught his attention, and he stopped to study that, eventually squatting down on his heels. He picked up a stick and began to poke at the dirt. My irritation grew. Finally he left whatever had so fascinated him and continued walking.

His lack of urgency was disturbing. I realized I was used to having him within arm's length most of the time, used to his careful attention, used to his random observations, many of which weren't as random as they first seemed.

I thought he needed me, but he wasn't moving along like a man in need. When he was 200 yards away, he spotted me. His face lit up with a smile and he waved at me, then finally picked up his pace, loping toward me. Folding my arms across my chest, I waited.

He was still fifty feet away when he started talking. "How was it? Why'd you stop?"

"It was-" I started to blow him off, tell him it had been interesting and then drop it, but instead I found myself wanting to share it with him. "Amazing."

He grinned, motioning with his hands to tell me to keep talking, and said, "Yeah?"

"Yeah…" I tried to think of how to describe it. "It was like I was moving without conscious effort, like gravity had ruptured."

"How far off the ground did you get?"

"Not all that far, I sort of skimmed along, more interested in the forward movement than height."

"But could you've-you know-really flown, if you'd wanted?"

Could I have flown? It hadn't occurred to me and as I thought of it now, dread took hold. I'd never been afraid of heights, so it was baffling to feel smothered with this dark anxiety. "I don't know, Sandburg."

"Oh, man, we'll have to try and see if you can do it again and how high-"

I cut him off with a curt, "No."

"No? No? You're not going to explore-"

"No. Just drop it, Sandburg. I'm not interested in your tests to see just how high I can go, or how far, or how long."

The light of enthusiasm faded from his face. "Oh. Well. Okay."

He fell silent then, and we walked along slowly. My irritation with him slowly left, and I started to enjoy the day, the air, even the ground under my feet.

+++

Merge completed, I opened my eyes. The room was dimly lit and empty of my father's men and the medical team. I knew without looking down that the heavy weight on me was Sandburg. My chest was wet from his drooling, and he was sound asleep.

All signs that he was alive. Not lying in a pool of blood, eyes wide open, staring at nothing. I threaded my fingers through his hair, thought I could feel his brain humming and I realized how delighted I was to have my hands on him.

The bed was a rumpled mess, most of the pillows were on the floor, Sandburg was lying on my arm and I'd lost feeling in my fingers, but I felt no impulse to move. No longer in the grip of the fever, I reveled in being able to keep two sentences together in my head, and in the absence of pain.

And the heft, scent, and proximity of my guide.

Sandburg started to become aware, moving, trying to get comfortable perhaps. Our bodies were slick with sweat and he moved easily, his hip settling along my groin. I cupped his ass to steady him, and found I liked the feel of it my hand. Flesh and muscle curving under my fingers. My cock was trapped between our stomachs and my low groan was one of pleasure, as my dick woke to the heat and skin that was surrounding it.

It was not delirium, it was not the fever, it was pure hedonism, the pleasure of skin-to-skin contact and the weight of a man in my arms. It was feeling well after being sick, being fully awake after days of semi-consciousness, being at peace with my body instead of at war.

Placing my other hand on his ass, I rocked him an inch toward me, then pushed him back. Back and forth, back and forth, the rhythm slow and easy. A sensation of bright anticipation started to build and my hands tightened and released, tightened and released, like a cat kneading its resting place.

Sandburg's low moan told me he was gaining consciousness and I stilled, remembering how he'd tensed the time he woke to find me wrapped around him. His second moan was one of frustration and he began the rocking all over again. Coming out of my sensual haze, I was faced with a dilemma. My fever had broken, but Sandburg's was high, 103.7-high enough to mean he didn't know what he was doing.

"Sandburg?" I tried to bring the rocking to a halt, but he fought me, working to maintain the motion.

"Hmm?"

"Do you know what you're doing?"

He didn't answer me, but his mouth found my nipple, and he began to suck. I gently tried to tug him off, but he just increased his suction and returned to rocking. I let him, caught by the sexual whirlpool. I couldn't resist the pull, the strength of the centrifugal force Sandburg was creating with his heat, his smell, his moans, his mouth, his movements.

He was starting to rock harder and his moans were mixed with little cries of such exquisite anguish that I nearly threw him off. But I couldn't. It was too much, so much, so much more than I could ever remember and we weren't even fucking. He'd stopped sucking my nipple, and instead, laced his fingers behind my neck, pulling himself so close that his warm breath tickled my ear as he made little pants, and groans that eventually turned into words.

"Fu-fu-fuck me hard hard-hard." A small forlorn cry, then back to his chant. "Fuck me fuck me."

In one motion, I rolled him off of me and onto his back, ready to obey him, to give him what he needed and what I wanted.

His eyes were closed, his hands blindly reaching out and I had to ask. "Sandburg. Who am I?"

Slowly he opened his eyes, which looked dazed from lust or perhaps it was the fever. His hands fell back to his sides and his eyes opened wide. "Jim?"

I didn't like the question in his voice or the look of surprise on his face, but I kept my expression neutral, waiting for more clues to what was going on for him.

"Jim." He stated it this time, he had no doubts it was me, and then he closed his eyes tight, as if in pain and said, "Oh man, I'm sorry, I didn't realize-"

I stopped his words by putting my hand over his mouth. "Sandburg, do you want me to fuck you or not? I don't rape my guide."

At my words, his eyes opened again and his mouth moved against the palm of my hand, sending a jolt of hunger straight to my cock. I didn't take my hand away, but pressed down just a little harder, imagining it was my mouth. Sandburg's tongue tickled my palm and he arched up, pressing his groin against mine.

His body had said yes and I amswered it with my own, covering his mouth with mine. I didn't kiss him, just touched my lips to his.

He spread his legs and still lubed from the merge, I entered him easily, thrusting into him deeply. He lifted his hips so I could sink more fully into him and I obliged, physically merging us into one.

He groaned, moaning, "harder," and I did as he asked, then he demanded "faster," and I did as he commanded. There was no sensual byplay happening-no kissing, or stroking, or pinching, just urgent fucking. I needed to get to his core and he seemed to need that as well. It was hard, fast and over within three minutes.

Not even as a barely post-puberty adolescent had I come so hard or quickly and I would've felt much worse about that, except that Sandburg distracted me by crying out, "Oh FUCK!" as his ass tightened around my cock, and looking both ecstatic and agonized, he came. Long, hot, jets of come hit my stomach and he shuddered with the force of it.

I eased down next to him and gathered his sticky body close as he continued to shake with the aftereffects of his orgasm.

"jim," he murmured, but before I could respond, he continued. "jim, jim, jim, jim, jim."

I didn't know if it was the fucking or the fever that had made him so inarticulate, and I started to worry about his brain. "Blair."

The kid froze, then threw himself away from me, staring at me in confusion.

"What?" I asked. Jesus, despite all the 'Jim, Jim, Jim', hadn't he known it was me?

"You called me Blair."

"Yeah, that's your name."

"But you've never called me 'Blair'."

He was probably right. I hadn't kept track but it seemed like a strange thing to get all weirded out about. "So?"

"So I had a bet that you'd never call me 'Blair'."

I looked at him, frowning, not liking the sound of that. "A bet with whom?"

He did one of those double-takes, pulling his head back like I had just said the stupidest thing he'd ever heard. "With myself, of course-it's not like I have a bookie or something for this kind of bet." He added, in a very quiet voice, "Or anyone who would make a bet with me."

Yeah, I guess his life wasn't overflowing with friendships, or even acquaintances. "Well, then, congratulations, you won the bet."

Sitting up cross-legged on the bed, naked, hair flying wildly around his face, he looked like a wild, untamed thing-and that thought startled me. For the first time I saw him as a wild empath, not one breed to serve, and what Merrick had done in an attempt to break Sandburg.

Oblivious to my train of thought, Blair was shaking his head, still arguing about the betting thing. "No, I lost the bet. I bet that the word 'Blair' would never cross your lips." Those lips were pouting now and I wanted to feel them on me, back on my nipple, on my cock. I was immediately hard again.

Gathering my logic, I tried to run it by him one more time. "Yeah, okay, the you who bet I never would, lost, but the you who bet that I would, won."

He narrowed his eyes at me like he thought I was trying to trick him, and I felt bad about teasing him. He really wasn't in any shape for this, or anything else. "Come on, you need to rest." Reaching out, I took his arm and pulled him back under the covers. For the first time, I noticed his hand was swollen and bruised.

"What happened to your hand?"

He'd settled his head on my shoulder and already his eyes were closing. "Wha-?"

"Your hand, you hurt your hand."

He pulled his hand in closer to his chest and curled up tighter against me. "S'right. Not broken."

"Yeah, but-"

His snore cut off my demand for the details.

I held him a little tighter, my nose in his curls and inhaled, finding his scent underneath the smell of sickness that permeated him. I was sweaty and sticky and thirsty, but I didn't make a move, wanting only to hold onto what I had.

+++

I went in around midnight, the light from the bathroom illuminating the room. The big bed was mostly empty as the two men in it took up the space of only one and a half. Lord Ellison had his arms around Mr. Sandburg and I could see the outline of their legs tangled together.

Tiptoeing in, I picked up one of the blankets that had fallen on the floor and placed it over them. Lord Ellison's eyes opened, and they were clear of the awful pain and confusion that had haunted them for the past days.

"We need to get him cleaned up." His lordship gently detached Mr. Sandburg and rolled out of bed, " And I need a shower."

"Yes, sir. I'll get Mr. Sandburg tidied while you get clean."

He started to nod his head, then shook it no. "Come on, with your help, he'll be able to shower with me."

Moving toward the bed, I wondered when Lord Ellison had gotten so comfortable with being naked in front of me. The bed was a mess and the man in it was a mess. Together, we pulled his guide off the mattress, and I propped him against Lord Ellison's chest. He was out of it, asleep, and his lordship bent down and swung him into his arms, showing no sign of weakness from his illness, then strode into the bathroom.

The shower was big enough for two; it was actually big enough for eight, with six showerheads at various heights. I adjusted them, checked the temperature and left them in the steamy room.

I called Mrs. Tupelo and informed her the bed needed a complete change and to see that dinner was brought up in a half-hour.

+++

Sandburg woke when the water hit him. "Whoa," he sputtered and I turned him a little so the water wasn't hitting his face. Keeping one arm around him, I grabbed the soap and started in on his chest, fascinated by the way the hair on it swirled into designs.

"Jim. Jim. JIM!"

My eyes had been open, but suddenly they began receiving information again. "I zoned?"

"Yeah."

He had his head back looking at me, but didn't look freaked out, so I figured I hadn't been out of it for long. Taking up where I'd left off, I finished soaping his chest and moved down to his groin, being careful to attend to all the crevices. I was so intent on applying soap methodically that it was only Sandburg's moan that made me aware that he'd become hard and was panting raggedly.

Placing my knee between his legs, I pulled him toward me and rested his head back on my chest. Then I went to work on his backside and when I started getting the soap down his crack, he clutched my shoulders and surged forward.

Using his momentum, I lifted him up, holding him above my ready cock and slowly eased him down. Shudders vibrated through him as I filled his ass, creating an exquisitely tight sensation around my cock.

When I was completely inside him, he tried to raise himself up, but lacked the strength. Propping him against the wall, I held him up and began fucking him. He steadied himself with his hands around on my shoulders, panting encouragement. "Oh God, like that, yes, oh yes," his voice a ragged whisper.

With every thrust, his body melted against mine, bonelessly relaxed and it was good that he kept up his chant that told me he was enjoying himself, or I might have thought he'd fallen asleep.

I felt my orgasm moving through me and tried to head it off, to get more-more Sandburg-but once again found I had no control. It swept through me like a tsunami and I held tight to Blair, anchored in him, as wave after wave of pleasure cascaded over me.

When I could breathe again, I realized Blair hadn't come-and reaching down, I captured his cock and began pumping it. His hands around my neck tightened and he arched back, his mouth open in a silent scream as he came, nearly as powerfully as he had before.

He was still spurting spunk when he lost consciousness again, his head thumping hard onto my chest. Tuning in, I relaxed, it was sleep, nothing worse. I cradled him to my chest and snatched the shampoo, sliding down the shower stall to the floor. His head was lying against my chest, it was easy to get at the shampoo and begin the process of getting his hair clean.

Careful to shield his eyes, I worked up a good lather, and marveled at the difference between getting my hair clean and his. I reached up and adjusted one of the lower showerheads, keeping Sandburg's head tucked against my chest to shield his eyes and rinsed the shampoo out.

Then for a moment, I laid my head back and enjoyed the thick steamy heat and the weight of Sandburg's body sprawled on top of mine.

Between being sick for so long and having the first orgasms in over a year-two mind-blowing orgasms, I had a hell of a time getting Sandburg back to the bed.

The linens had been changed, courtesy of Mrs. Tupelo, I was sure, and at the foot of the bed two trays sat with covered dishes. From the delectable way it smelled, Cook had put together one of his masterpieces. Something with garlic, peppers, onions, wine, chicken, and heavy cream.

I settled Sandburg against the pillows, making sure his head was raised to ease his breathing. Keeping my eye on him, I dressed in old sweats and sat down to the first real food I'd had in a long time. Sandburg didn't move, but slept on peacefully. His temp had gone down to 102.3 and while his breathing was noisier than I liked, he seemed comfortable.

The food was as good as it smelled, and I ate slowly, savoring it in a way that had eluded me since Emil had gotten sick. And for the first time, the thought of Emil didn't hit me like a blow. Instead, I was infused with a warm feeling of peace.

Later, I climbed in next to Sandburg and pulled him into my arms. He came easily, squirming around until his leg was thrown over mine and his arm lay across my chest.

We slept.

++The End++

I wanted to say thank you, again, to all of you who have written encouraging me to keep writing this series. It helps to keep my ADD brain on task. Feedback of any make, brand or color, is welcome. [email protected]