Second Chance Series # 5

Kick Back

I woke to Roberts' raised voice in the hall saying, "I'm sorry, but you can't just go barging into Lord Ellison's bedroom unannounced."

Sandburg was sprawled next to me, one arm across my chest. With a start, I remembered last night and sat up, throwing his arm off of me. What the hell had I been thinking, fucking a street rat? I had no time to think about what I'd been thinking, as Roberts was still out in the hall trying to stall someone.

"I must insist you wait downstairs."

He and my unknown and unwanted visitor were a couple of feet closer to my door and it occurred to me that it might be my father. Reaching for my gun, I stopped midway when I caught a whiff of perfume.

I got out of bed and Sandburg stirred, his eyes half opening. "Carolyn's here. I'm going to chat with her downstairs."

Sandburg nodded drowsily and sank back into sleep. I would've liked to have gotten dressed, but knowing Carolyn, there was every chance she'd manage to get around Roberts and through the door before I could get my feet into my trousers. I was in no mood to explain Sandburg in my bed, so I threw on my robe and stepped into the hallway.

Roberts was doing his best to contain Carolyn, but she was chest-to-chest with him and adamant. "I know Lord Ellison's still recovering but I need to see how he is for myself. Now please, get out of my way."

I coughed and they turned, both looking relieved but, I imagined, for different reasons.

Carolyn slid by Roberts, who raised one eyebrow, gave me a small bow, turned and fled down the hall. Carolyn's eyes opened wide and she exclaimed, "Jim! My God, you're so pale-and you must've lost ten pounds. Should you be out of bed?"

Annoyed that I *was* out of bed, but not about to let her tuck me back in, I reassured her. "I'm just fine -- aside from starving. I was just coming down to see what Mrs.Tupelo could whip up for breakfast. Care to join me?"

For just a second she pressed against me and it seemed as if she might actually try to force me back into my room. But when I didn't budge, she smiled brightly and hooked her arm through mine, saying, "I'd love to."

I realized I really was starving and feeling better than I had in a very long time. The kitchen looked bright despite the grayness of the morning, and my housekeeper looked up from her crossword puzzle with a smile. Then, seeing a stranger, she hastily stood up.

"Mrs. Tupelo, this is Miss Carolyn Plummer."

"How do you do, miss?" Mrs. T said, bobbing a small curtsey.

"I'm quite well now that I have Jim-er-Lord Ellison in hand." Carolyn looked up at me apologetically.

"We're quite informal in this household," I reassured her, patting the arm she'd looped through mine, and wondered at the oddly domestic scene we were playing out.

"You're looking much better this morning, sir," Mrs. T said. "And how is Mr. Sandburg this morning?"

"Sandburg's still sleeping. His fever's down."

"Ach, that's good news."

When I didn't say anything more, she looked at Carolyn, then back at me and asked, "So what can I do for you, sir?"

"We'll have two of your famous breakfast specials."

Beaming, Mrs. Tupelo wagged her finger at me. "That'll put the bloom back in yer cheeks."

Smiling, I said, "We'll have our coffee on the terrace." I led Carolyn outside to the back of the house where one of the gardens framed a spectacular view of the valley.

Geese were making a racket as they took off from the surface of Lake Appleton, honking instructions back and forth. Mist rose from the valley floor, obscuring the base of Mount Rainier and making it look much like a Japanese painting.

"Oh, Jim, what an exquisite view." Shielding her eyes with her hand, Carolyn studied the land. "How much of this is yours?"

"350 acres - my land butts right up against the Rainier preserve."

"It'll make a fine playground for - your children." Her cheeks grew pink and she looked away. I admired her pert nose and the way she tried to act embarrassed, but didn't rise to the bait.

Roberts came out with a tray laden with coffee, cream and sugar and before we'd managed to drink a half a cup, Mrs. Tupelo appeared, plopping plates of softly scrambled eggs with cheese, crisp bacon, and waffles dripping with real butter and maple sugar down in front of us.

"Oh my, Mrs. Tupelo-if I ate here regularly we'd have to have a chat about cholesterol and trans-fats."

As Mrs. Tupelo straightened up, she looked Carolyn up and down. "Oh, my goodness lassie, I think a little cushioning on those bones would do you a world of good."

Carolyn frowned, but before she could ask if my housekeeper was implying she had a skinny ass, I took the last plate out of Mrs. Tupelo's hands and winked. "Thank you, Mrs. T. This is just what the doctor ordered. I'll let you know if we need seconds."

"If?" Hands on her hips, Mrs. T corrected me. "When. You need a little plumping up yourself, Lord Ellison," she said, as she bustled away.

I dug in while Carolyn played with her eggs. "Jim," she began, her big brown eyes shimmering, "I've been out of my mind with worry about you and no one would tell me a thing. You really need to let your people know that I'm to be kept informed about your welfare."

The sun broke through the fog, making her eyes suddenly sparkle. In a land filled with death, she glowed with health, her strength reminding me why I had considered making her my wife.

I reached for her plate and asked, "Aren't you going to eat your bacon?"

She pushed it in my direction, leaned back and crossed her arms. "I guess if you survived the flu, the nitrates in the bacon won't be likely to kill you." She looked like she wished they would and I knew I should say something about her place here and in my life. Before I could begin the complex job of sorting that out, she changed the subject.

"How's Sandburg?" She didn't actually sound concerned, but there was no hostility in her voice. In lieu of affection, I'd take neutrality.

"The flu hit him hard." My stomach tightened involuntarily as the thought of losing Sandburg flashed through my *brain.

"The flu either hits you hard or kills you, so I guess that means he got lucky."

Her forensic mind was another reason I liked Carolyn. I found her ability to sum up a situation without sentimentality refreshing in a woman.

"I doubt the words luck and Sandburg have ever been in the same sentence before." I finished off her bacon and started in on her eggs.

"Don't be ridiculous - or so modest." Leaning forward, she put her elbows on the table and said earnestly, "Instead of being put to sleep, he got you as his sentinel. That's a lifetime's worth of luck for a street rat "

Luck. What a quicksilver word that was. Had I been lucky to have Emil for those six years or unlucky to have lost him so soon? Or both? "I suppose it's how you look at it," I said, thinking about how she would feel if every choice had been taken from her, including what work she would be allowed to do and who she was to fuck.

She looked at me through lowered eyelashes. "If I got to spend the amount of time he gets to spend with you, I'd think I'd won the lottery."

I snorted, breaking the mood she'd worked so hard to create and said, "If you had to put up with what Sandburg puts up with, you'd be cursing me with every breath."

"Is that what he does? Curse you?" she asked, her eyes flashing at the thought Sandburg might not love being at my beck and call.

"Curse me? Sandburg?" It might be good if he had that in him; Emil had certainly never held back and it was oddly one of the things I missed. "No. But believe me, Carolyn-having been raised with the expectation of the full rights and freedoms bestowed upon everyone but empaths, you would not take kindly to being shackled to me."

I took another bite of waffle, then pointed my fork at her. "You'd be expected to give up everything - work, family, friends, lovers, and obey me, serve me - hell, submit to me in every way. And if you displeased me, I could discard you - which in essence would mean signing your death warrant."

Instead of being properly appalled, she smiled. "Sounds like marriage - all except the death part-and, let's face it, plenty of men do discard their wives, some lethally."

I'm afraid my mouth dropped open in shock. Thankfully I'd just finished swallowing my last bite. "Jesus, Carolyn, whose marriages have you been up close and personal with?" I sat back, enjoying the sound of her laugh. "Seriously, I suppose there are some marriages that are so dysfunctional that they bear similarities to the sentinel/guide relationship - but even in those, at least the wife got to choose her husband. If it's a mistake…" I shrugged. "Well, at least it's her mistake."

Carolyn fell silent, and looked past me, her eyes thoughtful. Finally she looked back at me and said, "I won't pretend that I fully understand the sentinel/guide relationship. And I won't pretend I understand why you chose Sandburg - or why you keep him. But I do understand that you're loyal and understand commitment-two things I admire in a man. So I want you to know I'm fully supportive of Sandburg in your life. And I hope my place in your life continues."

Leaning forward, she took my hand in both of hers and gazed into my eyes. "I believe we'd do very well together and could build a family to be proud of."

Even though I'd entered into my flirtation with her a few months ago with those exact thoughts in mind, it jolted me to hear that agenda stated so baldly. Or maybe it wasn't the bluntness, but the fact that Carolyn was stating it out loud.

Uncomfortable, I hedged. "Why Miss Carolyn, is that a proposal?" Using an atrocious Southern accent, hoping to either charm her into dropping the subject or piss her off enough to leave.

Instead, she batted her eyes at me and then slowly stood up. Propping one slim hip on the table, she leaned down, bringing her face so close to mine, I could see my stunned expression in her eyes. "I do believe it is, Lord Ellison," she said and kissed me.

We'd kissed before, but they had been tentative explorations. This was a kiss full of promise, with a new element added. For the first time I could sense her pheromones kicking in. She made small sounds in her throat and her hands came up to frame my face. Putting my hands on hers, I pulled them away, and turned my head, breaking the kiss.

"Carolyn…"

She looked dazed and her lips remained parted.

"I'm sorry - but I don't think I can do this."

She blinked and her eyes snapped back into focus. Then she slapped me, hard enough to snap my head back. "You don't think you can kiss me? What am I, a dog?" Her voice rose high enough that if she'd been a different kind of woman, I would've called it hysterical.

She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand in a classic gesture of disgust and asked me, "Just what the hell has this courtship been about, Jimmy?"

I'd forgotten what a temper she had - it had been awhile since I'd seen her in action. I rubbed my jaw, and could tell at least one tooth was loosened and let my own temper loose a bit. "I'm fey'd for Christ's sake, I've always been fey'd. You know that, so don't act so shocked," I snarled.

She leaned in again until her face was just a few inches from mine. I braced myself, not sure if another slap or another kiss was coming and not sure which I welcomed less.

"I know what you are, Ellison. The question is, what more you might be," she challenged, in a voice still husky with desire.

Feeling suddenly exhausted and in no mood to fend off a woman in heat, I leaned back and shook my head. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I don't believe I'm about to mutate into what you're looking for. I'm interested in a family, in children - in a wife - maybe - but not a lover."

For a moment her eyes narrowed and I figured I was about to be assaulted again. She surprised me by getting up and throwing herself back into the chair. Sticking her long legs out, she jammed her hands into her pockets and sighed dramatically, "Oh, hell, James."

I waited, but all she did was tilt her head back and stare at the sky. When she finally looked at me, she was smiling, though the smile wasn't reflected in her eyes. "I want the same things you want. Children, family, a home. Someone I can count on. Someone to take care of. A husband. I had hoped that if I aroused a physical attachment in you, you'd be happier with me, but I can live without that. If you can."

My mouth hurt, my head ached, and all I really wanted was to crawl back into bed with Sandburg, but suddenly I was in the middle of negotiating a marriage contract. "Carolyn, I'm in no shape to discuss this right now. If I ever decide to marry, you're at the top of the list. Hell, you are the list. But I'm not making any decisions of that nature right now, so I'm afraid we're going to need to bring this little breakfast meeting to an end."

For just a millisecond, I thought I saw amidst the mix of anger, and sadness, defeat colored with fear. Then she laughed, and I wondered just what the hell was going on.

Standing up quickly, she thrust her hand at me and when I shook it, she said, "That's what I like about you Ellison, you're always a straight shooter. My timing stinks. You'll have to excuse that - it's just - I thought I might lose you when you were so sick and - it made me realize my feelings for you had changed - grown deeper."

"I appreciate that…and I'll tell Roberts to keep you informed from now on." The silence that followed quickly became awkward, so I asked, "Has the flu spread in Cascade?"

Her mouth tightened and she looked grim. "It's bad, Jim. Despite the early curfew and shutting down the schools and malls, the hospitals have had to turn away thousands. They're using the high school gym for a triage unit and the army base has begun taking in the overflow from the hospital. There's no hope of a vaccine and no drug has been found to change the course of the illness."

We'd known this day was coming for years, with scientists warning of the reality we now faced. And yet, those in charge of public health had put their collective heads in the sand and simply hoped for the best.

"To tell you the truth, I'm feeling a little guilty taking this time off to check on you. I'm glad you're feeling better because we really need you back."

"Yeah, well, better is relative." I stood up slowly, feeling the after-effects of a week of fever and flu. Carolyn put her hand under my elbow and I stepped - okay - tottered away from her, frowning. "I can stand on my own, just give me a little room."

Rolling her eyes, she said, "Oh, honestly, Jim. You're allowed help, you know. It doesn't make you less of a man."

"Thank you for your permission, as well as your reassurance about the state of my manhood." All the help I wanted was upstairs snoring in my bed and I was anxious to get to it.

Carolyn had been in the police department long enough to be immune to sarcasm "You're welcome, ya big baby," she said, as she put her arm around me and guided me inside.

+++

I lay tangled in Jim, my leg over his hips, my arm flung across his chest and my nose buried in his armpit. I was having one of those dreams where you're sure you're awake, but a part of your mind recognizes that you're not in any reality you've ever encountered before.

It was a good dream and very real-there was the comfort of being next to Jim's body, the lovely absence of pain, the clean sheets, and the feeling of being home.

I often had good dreams, and, to tell you the truth, I kind of preferred the nightmares. I found the-walking-along-a-beach, spending-the-day-in-the-library, or listening-to-my mom's-latest-adventures dreams more brutal, since I knew my life would never contain those things again.

Much better to be in the grip of a nightmare in which Merrick was attempting to force the bond, with all the pain and terror that caused, and instead, wake to find myself blessedly alone in bed.

This was one of the nicest dreams I'd ever had. I could even smell Jim, his profoundly male, slightly-stale-from-sleep scent, and hear the sound of his deep, relaxed breathing, as well as feel the hardness of his erection.

In my dream, we'd made love - on the bed, in the shower. Jim had wanted me and, oh God, how I'd wanted him. I'd wanted him for such a long time - I think perhaps since the first time he'd smiled at me. It had been an absent smile, a little distracted, but it had been directed right at me. And I'd felt a funny little frisson of pride that I had made that smile break out of the grief and profound sadness that perpetually gripped him.

For being such a smart guy, I sure had stupid dreams. Stupid, pointless, painful dreams. The man was deep into grieving his lost love - his beautiful, perfect lost love. And even if he hadn't been - or if someday he finally emerged from his grief-I would never be the one he'd want to fuck.

After loving the angelic purity of Emil, I was the last person he'd want to be sexual with - in fact, it was a freaking miracle he'd ever chosen and managed a bond with me. Having gotten one miracle, I knew I shouldn't be greedy and dream of another, but my subconscious mind didn't seem to buy into that logic and continued to spin its little fantasy.

Jim shifted, and his hand dropped down to my ass, which he lightly stroked. I bit down on my lip to stifle my moan, then remembered that it was a dream and allowed it. His touch deepened, his thumbs digging into the gluteus maximus muscle, sending shockwaves through my body. I groaned louder and Dream Jim didn't laugh, but pulled me closer, his warm breath next to my ear. I was hard and, dream or not, a little freaked at what his reaction would be when he realized that.

Jim wasn't reacting to my erection, just continued to knead my ass, his movements shifting me back and forth on his thigh. It was too much, I was going to come, and I stiffened in his hold, trying to stop the motion. Maybe if I woke him up - "Uh, Jim…"

"Yeah, Chief?" He didn't sound sleepy. Or angry or surprised. But then it was my dream, and he was my Jim.

"I'm - -" I groaned, coherency a lost skill at the moment.

"You have a problem, Sandburg?" He sounded utterly baffled.

Desperately I forced the words out of my brain and into my mouth. "I'm going to - I'll make a mess if you don't - oh, God, Jim, you have to stop."

To my relief and profound disappointment, he did stop, leaning back so he could look at my face. "You gonna heave?"

Of course my Dream Jim was dense, that was the only kind of Jim who would've allowed me to rub my hard-on against his leg. "Not heave - come." I pulled away; so far gone I knew just being close to him could set me off.

Instead of letting me leave the bed, Jim reached down and took my cock in his hand. I moaned, a pitiful sound of need mixed with hope.

"Go ahead, Chief, come."

I knew as soon as I was on the cusp he'd pull me back, but I couldn't stop the wave of sensation that was sweeping through me. Rather than derailing me, Jim urged me on, his hand firm as he pumped faster. "Come on, kid, let go."

Having his strong hand wrapped around my cock was bliss, but it was his voice, low, and rough with arousal, that did it. Screaming his name as my body convulsed, I spewed come all over his pristine sheets. The orgasm seemed to go on and on, as if my body had a lifetime of desire to express. Jim held me as I thrashed about in his arms, my cries finally fading away as I finished. I slumped back, panting, weak from the force of my explosion.

I woke with a start, and realized two things simultaneously. It had been a dream, and Jim was no longer in the bed. I could feel the stickiness on my stomach and with a groan, I threw myself on my back, putting my arm over my eyes, wanting to hide.

Comforting myself with the knowledge that Jim hadn't been in bed when I came, I told myself to let it go and get up. Reluctantly I obeyed, swinging my legs out of bed. Despite the hours of sleep I'd just gotten, I felt spent and exhausted.

No light penetrated the thick drapes in Jim's room. Squinting at the clock, I saw that it was 9,15. Only opening the drapes would tell me what part of the day I was in, and holding onto the furniture, I made my way to the windows, flinging the drapes aside. Light poured in, making me stumble back and cover my eyes until they adjusted to the glare. Slowly I shambled to the bathroom, where the mirrors that lined the walls told me more than I wanted to know.

I looked like road kill. My two-day beard made me look dark and dirty, my hair was wild on one side, flat on the other, my eyes were bloodshot and the shadows under them added to the overall effect of a rat that belonged on the street.

Showering was more work than pleasure, as my left hand was virtually useless for anything requiring any kind of motor skills. Though black and blue, I couldn't remember what I'd done to it. It made getting my hair combed through take close to twenty minutes.

Shoving the lank but untangled strands behind my ears, I shaved, brushed my teeth, and used the mouthwash I found. My reflection in the mirror only reported minor improvements. Instead of dark, I was white as a fish belly and about as pleasant to look at.

The clothes I'd worn were nowhere to be seen, so wearing a towel, I went down the hall to the guest wing and the room I'd been told was mine. I found my clothes hanging in the closet and dressed, clumsily getting my jeans zipped, but unable to do much one-handedly with the buttons on my shirt.

Feeling the irrational claustrophobia I felt in the house whenever Jim wasn't near, I was drawn to the window. Mount Rainer looked mysterious in the shrouded fog, and geese were honking noisily as they angled toward the lake. Down below on the terrace, Jim and Carolyn were eating breakfast in the pale sunshine. Or at least Jim was. Carolyn leaned back in her chair and as I watched, Jim raided her plate, stealing her bacon. She gestured at him irritably, but he didn't relinquish his prize. They clearly fit together - both long and lean, with strong bones defining their faces and elegant grace in every movement. They made what is called a handsome couple.

I sank down on the window seat and continued to watch them. Jim suddenly laughed and I felt a stab of jealousy that Carolyn had been able to transform the usually intense and serious expression Jim wore into this one of relaxed joy. Then I forgot the jealousy as I lost myself watching the way his eyes sparkled and his mouth quirked into a smile full of secrets.

Suddenly my barriers dipped. I hastily worked to resurrect them, but not before I got a glimpse of Carolyn's emotions. Shaken, I backed away from the window, shocked that I had lost control and shocked by what I had sensed.

I'd only taken in one moment, filled with a chaotic swirl of hunger, fear, desire, purpose and lust. In that wild mix, one thing had been lacking. There had been a little exasperated affection, but not love. How the hell could she not love Jim?

I quickly dressed, avoiding the window. On the way back to Jim's room I got fresh sheets out of the linen closet. Changing the bed finished me off, so I lay down to wait for him - or for some word as to what I was supposed to do - and where I was supposed to be.

++++

Detaching myself from Carolyn in the foyer, I waited until the door closed behind her before starting up the stairs. By the time I got to the top, I was sweating and only by hanging on to the rail was I able to stay on my feet. When I heard her car start up, I put my head against the wall, trying to recoup, then shuffled back to the bedroom where I found Sandburg lying on top of the bed, his shirt unbuttoned.

He'd shaved and he looked pale, blue shadows under his eyes and in the hollow of his cheeks making him look - dead. For a second my heart stopped beating and I stood frozen, unable to go to him, afraid.

My senses weren't, and they sought him out - catching the sound of his heart beating, seeing the small movements of his chest rising and falling with each breath. I let the sound of his heart fill my head, the steady dub-dub calming me and then calling to me.

I don't remember moving or getting into bed with him. I don't remember taking his clothes off or getting naked myself or rolling him onto my chest, lining his heart up with mine. I don't remember entwining my fingers in his hair to anchor him to me, or pulling the blankets up over us. I just remember sinking into peace, so profound it cradled me like the mother I barely remembered.

++++

"So, what're you hungry for this morning?" Jim asked, his voice muffled as he rummaged through the refrigerator. Before I could answer, Mrs. Tupelo came in, stopping when she caught sight of me. I backed away, prepared to duck any flying objects she might hurl my way.

"Are ye ah right, laddie?" She sounded concerned and the expression on her face matched, which seemed odd, considering how much she hated me and my kind.

Through my fractured memories of being away, I remembered Mrs. Tupelo coming into that pink nightmare, talking, and the unexpected note of tenderness in her voice just before fading out. That memory surprised me, so I thought harder and caught a flash of the Canadian guy -David -hiding in my mind. I saw him hovering over me, smiling. How weird was that?

The next memory that surfaced was of being thrown down in front of the Governor, who told me how wrong I was to exist, his voice thick with hate and disgust…and then stupidly trying to crawl away from him. And being stopped by his foot crushing my hand…

Coming back to the present, I found I was cradling my hand against my chest as it throbbed with memories. Mrs. Tupelo was reaching toward me and I jerked back, afraid of what I would feel inside her.

Jim must've noticed, because he quickly put himself between us, blocking her from my view. Putting his hands on my shoulders, he shook me lightly. "Sandburg!" His voice wasn't loud, but it was urgent, and I looked up at him, trying to focus. "What's the matter?"

"Low blood sugar," I mumbled, looking away.

The snort declared his disbelief. "Blood sugar? Give me a break. And what's with your hand?" He pulled it towards him and studied the bruise that covered the back of it and wrist. "Looks like a footprint to me. Mind telling me who did this?"

Yeah, I minded. I so did not want to tell him I'd been crawling naked on his father's floor like a cockroach looking for cover when his father put a halt to my flight by stepping on it. He'd said something to me, something about his plans for Jim and something about my mother, and something about not telling…just the hazy memory of it made me feel creepy, though I couldn't quite nail down the actual words.

I took a chance and lied, knowing there could be hell to pay. "I was pretty out of it, Jim. I don't know how it happened."

Jim raised his eyebrow but let it pass. Releasing my hand, he walked over to the coffeepot. I sat down and watched him pour two cups; glad he was willing to drop the subject.

"So, back to my original question. What're you hungry for this morning?"

Mrs. T popped back into my line of sight, startling me. "Aye, lad, what would ya like for breakfast? Lord Ellison already had his earlier this morning, but he looks like he could have another," she said, sounding so - so - friendly, I found myself staring at her, looking for any sign she'd been replaced by a twin sister, or an alien, or that I had been. "Blair, lad? You must be hungry. Tell me what sounds good to you," she coaxed.

The memories that had leeched back had taken away my appetite and this Mrs. Tupelo was freaking me out a little bit. "Anything will be fine."

"There's a mighty big difference 'tween wantin' a bowl o' oatmeal or wantin' bacon and eggs, young man," Mrs. T informed me. "So narrow down that anythin' to somethin'."

"Oatmeal." Between the painfully real dream, and the way my hand was aching, all I wanted to do was take some aspirin and crawl back into bed to sleep for awhile.

"Oatmeal? You want oatmeal?" Jim came closer, staring at me and shook his head. "Oatmeal is for babies, Sandburg. You need protein. Mrs. T, I think one of your famous omelets is called for. And meat. He needs meat. Whatever you have."

Mrs. Tupelo swung open the refrigerator and putting her hands on her hips, studied the contents. "You're in luck. We have meat. As if there's ever been a day when there hasn't been meat in here."

She began emptying the shelves. Eggs, butter, bacon, sausage, strawberries, raspberries, cheese and a huge honking steak were piled on the counter. "You boys go take it easy while I whip this breakfast together."

We left her shoving her sleeves up and preparing to whisk everything into something edible. I felt bile rise up and staggered after Jim, who had headed for the study. I found him at the computer, the blue light from the screen revealing his eyebrows knitted together and a frown on his face.

"What is it?" I asked, collapsing on the leather couch.

"The epidemic has spread; 32 percent of the population has come down with it. The hospitals and morgues are overwhelmed, turning the sick and dead away. Bodies are piling up in the streets."

"Jesus. 32 percent? What's the death rate?"

"It's standing at 3.6 percent, with some parts of the country hit harder."

I felt my mouth drop open. "3.6 percent? My God, the Bubonic Plague didn't have as high a mortality rate."

"This one has the same m.o. as the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. It's hitting the young and healthy hardest. Some people who come down with it in the morning are dead by nightfall." Jim's mouth was set in a grim line. "We're gonna have to go in, the whole city is shut down and under martial law."

____________________

I looked around the almost empty bullpen. The few cops that were there were on their way out-no one was doing any paperwork these days. Henry was at his desk, head pillowed on his arms, dead asleep. The coffee pot was empty, the donut girl had gone AWOL weeks ago and even the vending machine cupboards were barren. If you wanted my opinion, the Avian Flu Epidemic sucked. Big time.

Ellison walked in, rat in tow. He looked a tad pale, but otherwise remarkably fit for a man we'd been told was at death's door just a few days ago. The man had nine lives. His rat, on the other hand, looked like a badly dressed, underfed perp. In other words, just like his old self.

"Rafe!" Ellison's hearty greeting didn't disturb Henry's nap. "Glad to see you're still standing."

Glad to see me? As if. Ellison had never had the time of day for me - and had never liked me to give the time of day to Emil. Not that Emil ever let that stop him. It had always amused me that, though technically Emil, as his guide, was under Ellison's thumb, in truth, Jim was the one tightly wound around Emil's finger.

"Where's Banks?"

"God knows. If you hang around long enough, he'll show up."

"Fill me in-what's it like out there?"

I didn't feel like being a public announcement board, but I suppose someone had to fill him in, and I seemed to be the only one conscious. "The curfew's been moved up an hour - again. It's now seven. No public meetings of any kind - but that news flash doesn't seem to have reached the looters - they're still out in full force. It's a war zone out there. Stores stripped bare, some burned out, most boarded up. The National Guard has a heavily armed team around-the-clock at every grocery store that's still open. For further updates and assignments, check the bulletin board - it's updated at two."

Ellison gave me his famous tight-lipped smile and curt nod for my effort. And after that, the duo swung into action like Batman and Robin, helping subdue mobs, making sure food, water and what little medicine there was got delivered to every section of the city each day. The trucks were often attacked and though we tried to travel in convoys, as often as not we were on our own. Just walking on the street was risky, people were desperate and you never knew what was going to jump out of the woodwork at you.

It never ended - there was never enough personnel to cover all that needed to be done. Poor Jim. None of us were particularly well-suited to playing the undertaker-except perhaps the forensic people, who still seemed interested in how long a body had been dead. But for a sentinel it was ten times as gross. Bodies were just hauled into the street and left, and some had been seriously overripe before they were tossed out. The stench was bad enough for me, and my sense of smell was lousy, thanks to a gloriously misspent youth.

Ellison, the poor lug, struggled to keep his sense of smell dialed down, but we often saw him bent over, gagging, his rat next to him, whispering in his ear, hand on Ellison's back to steady him. Emil would've been useless in a situation like this, I had to admit. Death and chaos and puke had so not been his thing.

Up until this throwback of a plague, none of us had actually had to work with Ellison's rat, but as our ranks got smaller and smaller we no longer had a choice. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be - Sandburg was no Emil, but he wasn't dull-witted and every once in a while he pulled a rabbit out of his hat.

Ellison had just trotted off to meet the National Guard Captain and fill him in. On that day we were so short of personnel even Carolyn Plummer had been drafted. Henry was still among the standing, thank God, and the three of us, plus Sandburg, were left guarding a truck filled with army rations.

Of course, the rat hadn't been issued a gun, so he was essentially useless. In our defense, it had been quiet for several hours. Exhaustion slowed our reactions and made us stupid, and we were expecting the National Guard to show up any minute. I tell you that to explain how we got caught like three rookies on a milk run.

A mob suddenly appeared from around the corner. Okay, maybe calling them a mob elevated them a bit much. It was more of a raggedy gang of teenage boys - but they outnumbered us three to one, since we didn't count Sandburg.

They were looking for anything they could find - money, food, water, trouble. Heads down, hands in their pockets where they surely had their fingers wrapped around knives, guns, brass knuckles…whatever they'd managed to loot and scrounge.

From the look on their faces, we were a surprise to them as well. For just a moment we all hung in suspense. Before H and I could spring into action and die a stupid death, Carolyn shoved the rat toward them, saying, "You're good with people, Sandburg. Go make peace with that bunch."

I had to admire the dame. We had a betting pool going on whether she'd snag herself a titled husband and this was a bold move on her part. Getting Ellison's guide killed would certainly create more space for her in his life, but I wouldn't want to be in Carolyn's shoes if Ellison ever found out the part she played.

Sandburg stumbled forward from Carolyn's sharp little nudge, but got his balance and surprised me by walking toward them instead of scrambling back to the dubious safety of the three of us. He started talking to them as if he was hailing old friends.

He waved at them like they're old chums and said, conversationally, "You guys hungry? Cause we have forty boxes that have to be moved and Henry here threw his shoulder out. If you could give us a hand, we'd make sure you got fed and had something to take home as well."

It was totally lame. Guys like them were looking for cathartic action and a feeling of power in a world turned upside down - not food. Hunger was just the pitch they sold to each other to get the self-righteous juices flowing before they banged heads. Then they grabbed whatever they could from the trucks and took it home to mommy.

But weirdly, it didn't go down that way. They nodded and smiled and one of them asked if they could get something to eat first. Sandburg said sure and dug out our rations plus the hamper Roberts had sent and quickly handed out all the contents.

The boys fell on it like bears on a beehive and when they had scarfed down the last double chocolate brownie, they went to work, moving far more than forty boxes. Jim took the loss of his lunch and dinner better than I did - I'd really been looking forward to digging into Mrs. Tupelo's Southern-fried chicken.

Still, better to lose a few chicken legs than get a shiv in the chest.

++++

Sandburg proved to be more than capable - just ask Rafe and Carolyn how he'd managed to tame a roving gang of starving boys who would've just as soon shot them all as blink. He didn't complain, though I could see how battered he was by all the violent emotions that swirled everywhere. There was never time during the day to merge, but his exhaustion meant he could only maintain his barriers for a few hours at a time.

Despite my aversion to Noxy, I scored some on the street and several times a day had to shoot a teetering Sandburg up with it. I didn't want to do it, but there was no way I could function without him by my side and no way to keep him on his feet except to pump him full of that shit.

Most nights we slept at the station, in the Bonding Suite. Every morning Roberts showed up, bringing fresh coffee, food, clean clothes. Mrs. Tupelo made enough to feed the station, which made us sought after, overcoming the inclinations of even the most hardened haters of street rats.

Every day we encountered a world jam-packed with anguish, rage, despair, grief…and fear. People fell ill on their way to work and were dead by the afternoon. Unlike most illnesses, this flu killed the young more often than the old, the healthy as often as the chronically ill.

Most of us were able to draw up our defenses, shutting down that part of ourselves that was sensitive to suffering. Sandburg didn't have that luxury - not even with the Noxy in him. I could see he was in danger of drowning in the dark swirl of emotions that surrounded us and I didn't know what I could do for him if it took him down.

Now, after more than 940,000 deaths -12,568 in Washington - 6,050 in Cascade - the plague was finally lifting. There had been no reports of new cases in over a week and the city was starting to come back to life. No longer were the streets deserted, deliveries were being made again and shops were open. I had hopes we'd get to sleep in our own bed tonight. . Paperwork had reared its ugly head again, and I was just finishing my report when Simon came into the bullpen. Exhaustion softened the look of exasperation he habitually wore into something almost approachable and he growled, "Listen up, people. Governor Ellison just announced he'll give a press conference in five minutes. I've been told watching it is mandatory."

The muted clicking of computers being keyed ended, as anxious voices filled the room. Jerry, the maintenance man, pushed a TV into the center of the room. Everyone stood up to gather around it, even though they could all have easily watched and listened from their desks.

Sandburg didn't get up, staying sprawled in his chair and I wasn't sure if it was because his barriers were down or because he was simply too tired to get to his feet. The need to merge pulsed between us, like an ache deep in the bone.

The TV flickered to life revealing an empty podium with the flag of America as well as Cascade's royal crest serving as a backdrop. The voice of the announcer, telling us the Governor would be here soon to address his people, sounded grave and subdued. The tension mounted with each moment of delay and I didn't doubt that my father meant for that reaction to make whatever he had to say all the more dramatic.

Finally my father entered the room with quick energetic steps, the camera following him lovingly. He looked taller to me, and I focused in on his shoes. Lifts. That was new. He wore the official sash across his chest, and looked particularly patrician. Stepping to the podium, he put his arms on either side of it and leaned toward the cameras, staring at us with sympathetic eyes. "My dear citizens," he began, and his talent for making each person feel as if he spoke only to them was in evidence.

"I know each and every one of you has suffered in the last six weeks. It's been a time of chaos and upheaval, uncertainty and fear. You've lost family and friends to the Avian Epidemic of 2006. I've lost beloved ones as well. My dear uncle died last week and my own son, James, came close to death as well. Many of my closest friends and colleagues succumbed to this devilish illness." He paused gazing at the reporters in front of him, making all of us feel as though he were looking straight at us.

"The worst is past now, thank God, and soon things will be back to normal - if one can say living with this kind of devastating loss is normal. This was a wily epidemic, cleverly evading every medical trap we set for it. It was impervious to antivirals and antibiotics, easily sidestepping every known drug. It struck without rhyme or reason, often taking the healthiest down, while leaving the infirm alive."

I saw Joel bow his head, and knew he was reliving the death of his nephew, a strapping lad of sixteen who had been a hell of an end receiver. I think that was what frightened people the most, the almost random way it cut down lives, like a tornado that uproots three houses in a row, leaves one standing and then takes out another two.

My attention snapped back to what my father was saying, when I heard, "Many of you have noted that the flu seemed to bypass street rats entirely." Everyone's heads swiveled away from the T.V. to look at Sandburg. The hostility, which had been all but erased as we worked together against the chaos outside, was back in full force and Sandburg visibly flinched.

What a piece of work my father was. He was exploiting the superstitious fears that had gripped the city. Rumors had been circulating wildly on the street, people convincing one another that something unnatural was behind the epidemic. No one wanted to believe modern medicine couldn't combat what was, after all, usually a simple variation on the flu.

Churches were full, preachers stood on street corners declaring the end of the world, and graffiti appeared everywhere, illiterate scrawlings declaring that street rats carried the plague while being immune. This was insane, as Sandburg had nearly died of it.

"I have a research team researching into whether street rats have immunity to this disease." My father looked as if the possibility was an affront to God. "The team is also working to determine if the rats are carriers. As this may not be the only disease they potentially carry, I've decided to take drastic actions."

Amazing how my father was able to go from "researching whether" to essentially announcing they were indeed carriers of this and God knew what else.

Muttering broke out in the bullpen and vicious looks were directed at Sandburg. For the past month, Sandburg had been as much a part of the Cascade P.D. as anyone in this room, working side-by-side with nearly every man and woman in this room And now they were gobbling down my father's lies with a spoon. It shocked me how easily people who had been trained to be skeptical could fall for my father's fear-mongering. They looked at Sandburg like he'd suddenly grown a forked tail and it made me furious.

Stepping in front of Sandburg, I set them straight. "What the hell is the matter with you people? Have you suddenly become mindless? You all know Sandburg got the flu - he came as close to dying from it as I did. And you know that even if we hadn't been in the middle of dealing with a plague, there hasn't been enough time to have done any credible research on the wild empath population. This is bogus, people, and you're all good enough detectives to know that."

A few people nodded, so I continued. "You know how long it takes to get that kind of information. We've had nothing but chaos this last month. Do you really think anyone's been available to carefully canvas the city and collect data, let alone analyze it?"

Heads shook, and murmurs of outrage started to hum. I didn't kid myself they were outraged on Sandburg's behalf - police hated to be played, and the people in that room recognized that was exactly what my father was doing.

My father hadn't finished. I tuned back in to hear him say, "So that's why I've decided to institute a new policy. From now on, all street rats will be publicly identified by a star tattooed on their hands. This will make identifying them and rounding them up easier."

There was a collective gasp and the expressions on the faces that turned toward Sandburg were now mostly sympathetic. I heard murmurs about the legality of such a thing and what this would mean, but I shut that out as I listened to the rest of my father's plan.

"Due to their frightening ability to read minds and sexually exploit people, I'm also requiring all street rats be capped when in public. Some of you more sheltered citizens might not know what that means. Specific information about this will be published in tomorrow's newspaper, but the upshot is, from now on there will be no possibility of a normal person being unsuspectingly taken advantage of by one of these rats. There will be spot checks and any rat found without a cap will be arrested and appropriately punished."

Several ways of killing my father flitted through my mind but this was no time to give it serious thought. Sandburg looked white and his eyes were glassy. He was ready to collapse. While my father continued to expound on the evils of street rats and what he planned to do, I pulled Sandburg up, wrapped my arm around his waist, and guided him out of the bullpen, toward the bonding suite.

Sandburg didn't speak at all as we made our way, and I concentrated on getting us to sanctuary as fast as possible. Kicking the door open, I placed Sandburg on the bed and locked the door, taking my first deep breath since I heard my father utter the words "street rat".

Sandburg's eyes were shut. I wasted no time, climbing onto the platform next to him and took his hand. As soon as our fingers touched, the merge began. It felt like being sucked down a drain, plummeting down a sluice of rage and fear.

My rage, his fear. And then it was my fear and his rage. We ping-ponged back and forth, the momentum at first fierce, but eventually it eased, slowing, until finally we landed on a stretch of white beach.

On our backs, we watched the gulls wheeling around the sky, bitching at each other as they hunted. Despite the noise, and my father's vicious words still echoing in my head, it was peaceful here with Sandburg by my side. His arms were behind his head as he studied the clouds, unconcerned.

I joined him, putting my hands behind my head as well and tried to see what he was looking at. "You know," I said conversationally, "I've never really been able to *see* anything in clouds. Except baby butts. I've noticed that sometimes clouds look just like giant baby butts."

Sandburg turned toward me and smiled. "Yeah, baby butt clouds, also known as altocumulus. They show up in the morning when it's humid and often mean a thunderstorm will hit in the afternoon."

"How the hell do you know such random things, Chief?"

Sandburg looked back up at the clouds, but his gaze lacked focus now. "If there's one thing life's taught me, nothing's random, Jim."

I could've argued with that, and I would've, if we hadn't been in a merge. Here, that kind of argument just didn't seem worth bothering with. My eyes drifted closed and I let the hot sun and warm sand sandwich me, relaxing me into a state I'd forgotten about. Time coasted in that state, until I found myself feeling restless.

The first thing I sought when I opened my eyes was Sandburg. He no longer looked so pale and worn out. His olive skin glistened with a light sheen of sweat and the tension, which he'd vibrated with for weeks as we dealt with the epidemic, was gone.

Rolling in close to him, I licked the side of his neck, tasting the salty essence of Blair and wanting more. Obligingly, he stretched his neck, giving me access. There was something about his languid submission to my desire - his willingness to open to me - that shattered my restraint. I pounced on him, wishing he had clothes on I could tear off, and began to explore every inch of him with my tongue. Tension returned to his body almost immediately, but it was a different kind of tension.

When I began nuzzling the hair around his cock, I had the satisfaction of hearing a beautifully long-drawn-out moan from him. I loved the damp earthy smell of him and the tang of his sweat and realized that we were going to make love - in a merge. As far as I knew, that didn't happen, never had happened - or never had been recorded as having happened.

But that seemed to be us, Trailblazers with a capital T, and did we ever blaze a trail on that hot imaginary beach, fusing soul and body, wrapping ourselves in each other and effectively shutting out the world.

Time stopped for us. We pulsed in unison, sighed in unison, murmured incoherent sounds of satisfaction at the same time and eased from merge into sleep, which was broken when I heard Simon's voice outside the door.

"I don't care how long they've been in there, I will not disturb their merge. If you're on a tight schedule, then you'll just have to come back, because there's no way you're getting into that room."

"Captain Banks." It was a voice I didn't recognize; a voice that didn't find Captain Simon Banks in the least intimidating. "I'm not sure you understand who or what you're dealing with. We're here on the Governor's authority to take Sandburg in for marking. Despite Lord Ellison's relation to the Governor, he was quite firm that Sandburg was to be marked today."

"Even Governor Ellison doesn't have the authority to interrupt a merge. So either you park it and wait, or plan on doing this tomorrow."

Heavy sigh, and then, "Very well, we'll wait."

"Suit yourself."

Sandburg stirred in my arms and I looked down at him. Still asleep, the bluish shadows under his eyes testified to his exhaustion. Pressing my lips to his forehead, I pulled him in closer, calmed by having him safely in my arms, knowing he was receiving what he needed - my shielding, release, sleep and comfort. Soon he'd wake up hungry and thirsty and we'd have to re-enter the world.

But not yet.

I listened to my father's men talking, as I lay awake.

"The Governor made it clear that he wanted Sandburg delivered to the mansion by 5 - and it's already 5:45."

"Yeah, but what are we going to do? The law says no one is allowed to breech the sentinel/guide merge."

"Well, if there was a fire, they'd have to come out."

"True."

Silence.

"Are you thinking of setting the building on fire?"

A weak chuckle, then, "Nah, but we could make some smoke, yell fire and break the door in."

"Yeah, that could be a feasible plan," the second voice was laconic in its agreement, "but you do know Detective Ellison was in Special Ops, right?"

"No kidding?"

"No kidding. You aren't from around here, are you?"

"Transferred from Ohio two months ago."

"Well, that explains it."

"So you really think he's dangerous?"

"Ellison? Nah, he's a pussycat."

"A Special Ops pussycat? Riiight. I think I'll just wait."

There was no way I was going to let Sandburg be "marked" as a street rat. I had to get us past the two thugs waiting in the hall. Rolling away from Sandburg, I moved to the far corner and dialed the number that only my brother and I knew.

He picked up right away and I knew he'd been waiting to hear from me. "Hello, Jimmy. How are you? I must commend the Police Department on how well they've handled themselves during this chaotic time."

My hand tightened on the phone and I forced myself to keep a lid on my temper. "How am I?" I said, repeating his inane question. "I'm pissed. What the hell do you think you're doing? You know damn well wild empaths had nothing to do with the spread of the epidemic."

"I do not know damn well anything," he huffed. "As Governor, it is my sworn duty to protect the citizens of Washington. I had plenty of good reasons to order rats identified and contained."

"That's crap. The only reason you're doing this is to lay off the responsibility for a public health failure onto someone other than your government. That, and to make my life with Sandburg just that much more difficult."

"Jim, please. You've heard the rumors, seen the signs. The people need to make this someone's fault and they have. They're the ones who are pointing the finger at street rats. I'm just trying to protect rats by stepping in and allaying their fears. You know how volatile the mob mentality can be."

"Protect them? Don't think I don't see your handiwork in all of that-I wouldn't put it past you to have written the graffiti yourself."

My dig didn't faze him in the least. He chuckled and said, "You're getting very creative in your conspiracy theories. Look, even before the outbreak, people were uncomfortable around rats. They felt invaded, naked. Everyone is on edge right now and I'm going to do everything I can to make the people feel a little safer, a little more secure."

My father had risen to power in some part because of his smooth talking ability. Before I had tumbled onto to my father's agenda regarding Sandburg, I probably would've bought his reasoning. I might not've agreed, but I would've judged him to be sincere.

"I think you'll agree that even if it makes some kind of good public policy to mark wild empaths, Sandburg, being mine and contained, does not need to be marked." I waited for him to find a way to make my reasonable request unreasonable.

He didn't fail me. "Jimmy!" He exclaimed in mock outrage. "You shock me. You'd actually use your position to get your rat exempted? After all the speeches you've made to me about the misuse of power by the aristocracy?"

I unclenched my jaw and said, "Call me a hypocrite then, but I want him exempted."

My father sighed dramatically. "I would love to accommodate you, but I'm afraid I can't do that, son. It would undermine my authority."

The gloves were off. "Undermine your authority? Bullshit. If anything, giving your sons privileges has always been an exercise to show off your authority. What would be undermined is your vendetta against Sandburg."

Another chuckle, sounding a little forced this time. "My, my, you certainly think I spend a great deal of time thinking about your rat and plotting against him. That's called paranoia, Jim and you should have yours checked."

"Paranoid? I think my lack of paranoia might've been the problem up till now. Call your men off. I'll bring Sandburg in tomorrow for the tattoo."

"You're asking for special treatment for your rat? You, who insisted on public school, who refused the service exemption, who pays his taxes?"

"The special part of this treatment is the way you've singled Sandburg out. I hardly think you have men all over this city poised to tattoo every known street rat. If you don't pull your men off, I'll -"

"You'll what, Jimmy? What will you do?" He was egging me on, daring me to lose control and show just how little power I had in this situation.

It made me want to beat the shit out of him, but as satisfying as that might be, it would only make my father stronger. "I will find a way to make you regret this."

"Are you threatening me?"

"Yes," I said and snapped the phone shut, wishing there was a way to divorce my father. Sandburg still slept so I started making calls. One to Joel, another to an old army buddy, then Roberts, and the last to Danielle, my lawyer, then lay back down on the platform, curved my body around Sandburg and slept.

A commotion woke me and I listened with some satisfaction as Joel arrested one of my father's men for three overdue parking tickets and the other for being behind on his child support payments. Things got noisy enough to wake Sandburg, but he still had one foot in exhausted sleep and did no more than nuzzle my neck as if trying to dig in a little deeper for his hibernation.

Reluctantly I roused him enough to get him on his feet and out of the building, bundling him into the Rover. He was asleep even before I snapped the seat belt across his chest. I headed east instead of west, knowing my father would've sent men to my home. His determination to handicap Sandburg was one more piece of a puzzle that was taking shape, but had yet to become clear.

Driving through the dark, hitting patches of fog as we neared the ocean, I planned my counter-offensive. Sandburg might not have any rights, but I did. I'd stopped at the money kiosk a block from Major Crimes and withdrawn four thousand. I didn't put it past my father to have my account frozen or track me by my credit cards.

Roberts would've secured the cash I kept on hand at the Palisade and Danielle would make sure my assets stayed protected. I had never shared the extent of my investments with anyone. It was bad enough in my line of work that I was a peer and endowed with the Ellison portion. If my actual wealth were known, resentment would totally choke my efficiency and I'd lose all credibility.

I never told my father - or Emil. I knew it would've pleased both of them, but I knew neither one would've kept it to themselves. They had shared that in common - the need to make me into something more than a police detective - the need to elevate me above the job and the people I worked with.

I recognized that need in them, but totally disagreed with it. It was the one area of my life where I'd never allowed Emil to have his way. Now, it meant my father had no idea of my resources, which meant he'd be unable to cut them off.

The darkness was shifting to a muted gray when we pulled up to Callahan's cabin. Mike and I had been in boot camp together, green boys determined to become something more than privileged rich kids and utterly clueless about what lay ahead of us.

It's not hard to break a boy and re-form him into a man capable of killing - not hard on the men doing it, but for the boy….

Callahan and I had had a lot in common. He was also from a privileged family and had found that confining in ways no one had understood. I did. From the beginning, we were outsiders, our speech and manners giving away our status.

The other men in the unit had viewed us as interlopers - rich thrill-seekers and were sure our stupidity would get them killed. They set out to instruct us in the ways of the real world. It was a brutal education, but effective, as testified by the fact that both Mike and I were still alive.

Sandburg became aware, slowly lifting his head to gaze out at the beach that was shrouded in gray mist. "I always liked the ocean," he said, turning his clouded blue eyes in my direction. "Is this your hideout?"

Leaning over, I ruffled his hair, happy to have his company after too many hours without it. "Yeah, it belongs to an old friend of mine. We can lay low here for a few days while I straighten things out."

The look he gave me told me he thought it was doubtful I'd be able to "straighten" things out, but he just smiled and opened his door. As soon as he got out, he sat down and removed his shoes, wiggling his feet in the sand that had yet to be warmed by the sun.

"Feel good?" I hated to go barefoot in the sand, but Sandburg looked delighted and *sighed, "Oh yeah."

"I'm going in to see what Mike has stashed in the cabin that can be whipped into breakfast."

Sandburg immediately stood up, ready to follow me.

"Hey, I can manage breakfast, go enjoy the beach." The look on Sandburg's face was both sweet and terrible. Shock, longing and fear all appeared and disappeared almost faster than I could read. The shock and longing, I understood, the fear I didn't.

"What?"

"You mean it?"

I understood why he asked the question, but understanding didn't stop the anger from surging through me. I was angry he had to ask that question at all to anybody - and angry that he'd asked it of me. "What? You think I'm some sort of sadist that takes pleasure in offering you what you want and then denying it to you?"

He flinched and his face drained of color and I knew he'd taken two hits, one verbal, the other empathically. "Oh man, I didn't mean it like that," he sputtered, staggering through the cold sand toward me. "I just - it's just - it never usually - it's been awhile -"

"Shut up, Sandburg and go for a walk. It's okay. I'll have breakfast ready in twenty, so be back then."

I could see him starting to form the question "really?" but he bit it back with a grin. I watched him head toward the pounding surf and felt the urge to call him back. I didn't like seeing his back as he traveled to some pleasure away from me. Instead I climbed the short steps to the deck and entered Mike's code into the lockbox.

The door swung open on one big room, comfortable, with leather sofas and chairs, dark woodwork, stairs leading to a loft upstairs, while in the eastern corner, a small kitchen shone brightly as the rising sun beamed in through two large windows.

I crossed to it and started opening cabinet doors, pleased to find it well equipped with cans of soup, tuna, vegetables and beans, powdered eggs, and milk, as well as pasta, crackers and rice, flour and sugar. We wouldn't need to go into town at all, and I was grateful for the Boy Scout in Mike.

I opened a few of his cans, combining one of spinach with the cream of potato soup and a few squirts of Velveeta cheese. Crumbling saltines, I browned them in butter, and when I heard Sandburg returning, spread the mix over soup and put it under the broiler until the soup bubbled, bringing it out just as Sandburg walked in the door.

"That was - it was - man, the sun coming up, the air, the sounds…" His ramblings faded out as he sniffed the air, his stomach gurgling in response to the stimuli. Then dropping his shoes, he bee-lined for the table. "This smells great, Jim."

"It's just cans of stuff mixed together, Chief." The water had started to boil and I poured it into two mugs, plopping a few teabags into each one. Sandburg sat down and I joined him, dishing out the soup or stew or whatever I'd made into the bowls and we dug in.

"You're a surprisingly good cook. Did you learn this doing KP duty or something?" Sandburg mumbled between mouthfuls.

"KP only taught me to peel a spud and scrub a pot. This is called cooking with a can opener."

"Don't be so modest, this is great."

"My grandmother had a saying, 'Hunger's the best cook'."

"Your grandmother, huh?" Sandburg helped himself to a second bowl, his actions pleasing me more than his words. "Your mom's mom?"

"Yeah." I hadn't thought about the tiny woman who'd left our lives when my mother did for many years. "For some reason she was called UmDum."

"UmDum? Does that mean 'grandmother' in some exotic language?"

"I don't know - no one would ever tell me why she was called UmDum - all the grown ups seemed sworn to secrecy. It became a game, like Rumplestilskin, but no one ever got it right." Sandburg started gathering up the bowls and silverware and transferring them to the sink, then set to work making a sudsy puddle to wash them in. "UmDum," he said, rolling it around on his tongue like a fine wine. "For being so odd, it strikes a bell with me. Give me a sec…" He looked out the window, his eyes unfocused as he washed and rinsed the bowls.

I carried the mugs over from the table, handing Sandburg his. Sandburg stopped washing the dishes and leaned against the counter, taking the mug from me. "Oh, hey, I've got it. It's from Snow White - The Dwarves' Song."

"Got what? What song? What are you talking about?"

He put his mug down and started to sing, splashing in the dishwater.

"Step up to the tub It ain't no disgrace Just pull up your sleeves And get up in place Then scoop up the water And rub it on your face An' go blud-dle-ud-dle-ud-dle Ud-dle-um-dum"

It was a ridiculous stretch to think that's where her name had come from, but I had to admire his recall. Sandburg's voice was pleasant, light and clear and for a moment I could "see" him - see who he'd been before Merrick, before his empathy had turned his life into a prison. I turned away, feeling depressed in the midst of his gaiety.

"Jim?" Sandburg had stopped singing and now sounded worried. I pushed aside the weird mood that had enveloped me and turning back, said, "UmDum was like all of four feet tall, so maybe you're onto something, Sandburg." Picking up a dishcloth, I started drying the dishes Sandburg had washed.

Sandburg smiled happily, as if his theory had actually been proven, humming the tune as he went back to washing the dishes. Outside the windows, the light was rapidly shifting from dusk to dark and when we had the kitchen restored to order, I suggested we check out the stars.

Stepping outside, we were immediately swallowed up by the vastness of the night, the puny light from the cabin fading away as soon as we'd taken five steps. Above us, there arced an infinite number of stars, all pulsing with millennium-old light.

Sandburg was being uncharacteristically silent, and I opened my pupils a bit to let in more light. He was staring up at the sky, his mouth hanging open and looking like he'd never seen stars before.

"Jim…" His voice was hushed and almost breathless. "Jim…it's so - so vast."

"Haven't you ever seen stars before?" He must have, we'd been out at night on plenty of occasions.

"Not stars like these. I knew light pollution cut down what I saw in Cascade, but I had no idea - had never imagined…"

"Don't tell me you've never been away from a city."

His head dropped and he looked at me a little sheepishly. "I've never been out of Cascade, man."

"You said your mom traveled. Didn't she ever take you with her? Didn't you ever get out into the country?"

Sandburg shook his head, then tilted it back to gaze up at the stars some more. "Wow…I just never imagined the sky was so full."

We stood in companionable silence for a long time, each of us thinking the kind of philosophical thoughts the night sky inspires, until the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. "Come on, Chief. It's been a long day."

"Guys at school would get all excited about going camping on the weekends and I never got what the appeal was. I'd slept outside on the ground plenty of times and thought it was highly overrated. I had no idea I was missing this." He stopped looking up and looked at me. "This would make sleeping on the ground worth it."

"Lucky for us, we get this and a comfy bed. Come on, we have a lot of sleep to catch up on."

Upstairs, the bed was big and made up and we crawled in, settling against one another and falling asleep almost immediately.

Waking to the feel of a cold gun muzzle pressed against my forehead, I opened my eyes and saw it was held by my old army pal. The gun was on me but Mike's attention was squarely on Sandburg, who was awake and holding himself very still.

"Mike?"

"Yeah, Jim?" Mike's voice was friendly, but neither the gun nor his eyes wavered.

"What do you think you're doing?"

Mike looked directly at me then, and I saw something like madness in his eyes.

"We go way back, don't we Jim?"

I nodded warily and he continued, the friendliness in his voice gone now. "I thought I knew you. Understood you. That we shared the same moral values. So imagine my surprise when I got a call from the Governor informing me that the reason you'd asked to use my cabin was so you could hide your rat to keep him from being properly labeled."

The shadows shifted and I became aware of men standing behind Mike, men I didn't know.

"Moral values, Mike? You sold me out to my father. Why? For money?" Next to me, Sandburg stayed quiet and still, but under the covers, he tapped my hand, telling me I was off the mark.

"Money?" Mike looked genuinely horrified. "You think I'd be motivated by money?" Mike's shock at my accusation caused him to lower the gun, but he quickly brought it back up again when he saw me tense.

"If not money, why did you betray me?"

"Me betray you?" Mike steeped closer, putting the gun back in my face. "That's a good one coming from you. You're the one betraying all of us by putting your rat above the law."

Mike blew out a long breath. "I had a daughter, Jim. Della Marie. Do you have children?"

"As a matter-"

Mike interrupted me to answer. "No, of course you don't-you're fey'd. You wouldn't know what I was talking about."

I did have children. Not children I knew, or lived with, but my offspring nevertheless. And I'd checked on every one of them. All were still living.

"She was four years old last month. Smart as a whip." His smile came and went quickly. "Della could've powered the city of New York with her energy. She was up first thing in every morning, too curious to sleep. She had to see what adventure the day would bring. And on April 23rd, the fucking flu came to play. Seven hours. That's all it took to wipe out her life. And there was nothing I could do, nothing anyone could do."

The gun wavered again as Mike fought to bring his emotions under control. Sandburg gripped my hand tightly and I knew Mike's pain was overwhelming his barriers.

"There's a word for a child without parents, but no word for parents without a child. I'm not a father anymore. How can that have been taken away from me in the span of seven short hours?"

"I'm so sorry, Mike. And I won't insult you by pretending I understand your loss. But you're wrong. Wild empaths didn't cause the epidemic. My father is lying-there's been no research done on the flu and wild empaths. It's his way of making people feel like something's being done to make them safer."

My words had no affect on Mike at all; he didn't even bother to look at me, instead keeping his eyes on Sandburg, his expression contemptuous. "I always knew you were fey'd, Jim, but I never thought you'd stoop to fucking a rat's ass."

Stupidly I reacted, launching myself at Mike's throat. The blankets hampered me, and Mike had no trouble putting a stop to my attack, simply stepping forward and smacking me on the side of the head with his gun. The force of it threw me against the headboard and Sandburg immediately put his hand on my chest to prevent me from following up with any more idiotic moves.

Mike motioned to the men and they moved to flank him. "You're weak, Jim - dependant on him and his kind, so it's understandable you can't see what they are. They're mutants - freaks - and they carry death just like rats carried the black plague."

Mike stepped back, keeping the gun trained on me, and nodded. I knew I only had one chance and I was grateful we'd gone to bed in our boxer shorts and t-shirts. It wasn't much in the way of armor, but it was better than being naked.

As the men moved toward the bed, I rolled on top of Sandburg, then rolled again, landing on the floor. I put my hand on Sandburg's chest to make it clear he was to stay down, then scrambled to my feet, the gun I'd retrieved from under the bed in my hands.

The bullet barely missed me, skimming my left ear before thudding in the wall behind me. Before I could react, Sandburg was up, hands in the air and moving around the bed, stumbling toward Mike and his men.

"Sandburg!"

He didn't look at me, but addressed Mike. "Don't hurt Jim - it's sentinel instinct to protect the guide. I'll go with you - just - don't - don't hurt Jim." He was shaking so hard from his blown barriers he could barely get the words out.

"Shut up!" Mike snarled, keeping his eyes and the gun fixed on me. "Throw the gun over here or I'll do you a favor and shoot the rat." There was no doubting his threat - or his belief that it would be a favor. I tossed the gun toward him.

As soon as Sandburg was close enough, Mike grabbed him by the back of his neck and shoved him toward his men.

Coldness swept through me as I heard Mike say, "Take care of him." I started to move, the gun unimportant, but before I could clear the bed, Mike swung the gun towards Sandburg. "Just give me an excuse," he said so tonelessly, I knew he meant it.

I froze in place and watched as they dragged Sandburg down the steps.

"He'll be fine, a tattoo never killed anyone. It's you I'm worried about. This isn't right, you know, you're attachment to one of them. It proves what they've been saying about his kind and the power they exert. You really need to get rid of him and get yourself a Cultivated."

I ignored him, my attention riveted on what was happening downstairs. Sandburg's breathing was heavy and harsh, but he made no other sound.

"I'd try not to shake so hard, rat, it'll spoil the pretty star." A moment later, "He's really freaked out. Hold his hand flat against the table, Joe."

It wasn't long before one of the men said, "There. Finished. Put ointment on it, and don't pick at it when it starts to scab."

Mike's attention on me held steady, and all I could do was wait for this to be over.

"Hold him while I get him capped." The thought of their hands being on my guide hurt and I closed my eyes. There was no sound of struggle, just metal clanking and a small grunt of pain. "Nice and snug."

The same voice called upstairs. "We're done."

"Good. Take him outside; handcuff him to Ellison's car. I'll be down in a moment." Mike threw a pair of handcuffs across the bed and said, "Put 'em on. Handcuff yourself to the bed frame."

I hesitated and Mike frowned. "Do as I say or I'll let your father's men have a little fun with the rat."

I picked them up and did as he had ordered. Mike dangled the key and said, "Don't worry; I'll give this to your rat. Of course, he might take the opportunity to bolt and leave you here, but that's the kind of risk you took when you chose one of them as your guide."

"You're wrong, Mike - this is wrong."

The sound Mike made was part laugh, part snort. "We're gonna have to agree to disagree on this, Jim. I think it's a small price to pay for a little security."

"Especially since the empaths are the ones paying for it."

"Yeah, what a shame," Mike said without regret, and with a careless wave, turned and headed down the steps.

I yanked futilely on the handcuffs, then looked around for something to use in picking the lock. There was nothing in arm's reach, no drawer to open, nothing lying about. I heard tires spinning on the gravel road as the car sped away.

"Sandburg!" I yelled, knowing it was unlikely he'd be able to hear me, then realized if I calmed down, I'd be able to hear him. And I did. I heard muttering, "Fuck, fuck, fuck," followed by the sound of metal against metal as he jerked at the handcuffs. It seemed Mike had reneged on his promise and left us to figure out how to get free on our own.

"Jim? You listening? Of course you're listening. They dropped the key just out of reach, but if I just -" he stopped talking, and the jerking started up again, this time more systematically. A few moments later, he stopped, and the only sound I heard was his breathing, which hitched at odd intervals.

One last sound of metal on metal, then, "Okay, I'll be there in just a minute." And a minute later he was pounding up the stairs, then he was in my arms. "Are you all right? He didn't - you're okay? How's your head?" He gently pushed the hair away from my temple to look at the bruise Mike's blow at left.

"I'm fine, it's you-" The smell of blood made me stop and push him away so I could look at him. He still wore his T-shirt, but the boxers were gone, and the metal cap apparatus looked uncomfortable, pulling his cock down. Blood dripped from his wrist and he visibly shook - his barriers had been shot to hell.

"You shouldn't've done that," I said, pushing him to sit down on the bed, "I would've gotten the lock picked eventually."

Kneeling down, I pulled off my T-shirt and wrapped it around his wrist, then looked carefully at the cap encasing his penis, noting the lock. Sandburg handed me the key, then his head dropped down on my back and he sighed. Being as gentle as possible, I removed it, and kissed the tip of his cock.

"They hurt you?" I whispered.

I felt his head move across my back as he shook his head. "No, well, no more than they had to."

Standing up, I gently pushed Sandburg onto his back. "C'mon, Chief, we need to merge right now," I said, lying down next to him. He rolled onto his side and I put my arm around him.

"Good idea," he said, his words slurred. He clumsily put his hand out in my general direction and I caught it, bringing our fingertips together. They heated and I could feel the power sputtering between us, then catch and flare. We were suddenly no longer in the cabin, but in our own world, and we were one. It was what I called a seamless merge - no landscape, no words spoken, no action, just warmth and healing.

I woke from it naturally; no gun pressed to my head, just Sandburg nuzzled against one nipple, his warm breath against my skin making me shiver. I threaded my fingers through his hair and gently rubbed his head.

"Jim," he murmured, his lips searing my skin with moist, velvet heat. I ignored the way he made me ache and reached down, bringing his hand up. I started to unwrap the T-shirt from his wrist, but stopped when I realized the blood had dried and the fabric was stuck to his skin.

"I wish you'd waited for me instead of maiming yourself. How're you feeling?"

"Gooooood," he drawled, butting his head against my chest, as if it was a pillow he was trying to make more comfortable.

"I just bet." A month of nothing but work and death, topped off by being forcibly capped and tattooed. But his shaking had stopped and I could tell his barriers were back in place.

"I need to clean your wrist, Chief."

"Yeah…" he agreed, rubbing his cheek against my chest, his voice dreamy. His lips latched onto my nipple and he began to slowly suck as his hips thrust against me. His cock was hard and he groaned, his voice low, raw, and it broke over me, filling me with need. Shocked, I stiffened, wondering if Sandburg knew what he was doing - knew what he was doing to me.

Could he be using his empathy to draw me in? What else could explain my sexual response to him, the way I was feeling right now - the way I'd felt when I'd fucked him so many weeks ago. Maybe it wasn't a myth, but real, this power to seduce. Just as I was ready to swing onto that bandwagon and beat Sandburg to a pulp for his manipulations, I forced myself to be honest.

Sandburg wasn't emanating anything except need. Maybe it was a sentinel/guide thing we were caught in. Maybe all sentinels found themselves aroused by their guides and nobody ever talked about it. After all, it was taboo to even speak about the way we merged - no one wanted people to think it was a sexual relationship. Love matches like the one Emil and I had had were rare - or at least, generally kept secret.

I wasn't about to enter into a relationship like that with Sandburg, but that didn't mean I couldn't help him out. Where else did he have to go to get off?

Rolling over, I reached across my squirming guide and opened the nightstand, finding moisturizer as I'd hoped. Liberally squeezing some out on my hand, I captured his cock and, in a few efficient moments, coated it. He made guttural sounds as I did this - expected sounds of pleasure, underlined with unexpected sounds of pain, and I levered myself up on my elbow to look at him. Eyes shut, his face was nearly still in intense concentration and there was something about that that called to me, pulling me back into his need, making it my need.

Lying back down, I pulled him onto his side and pushed one knee up so I could get access to his hole. I pushed two fingers into him and he opened to me, his hips immediately started pumping against my hand, trying to push me deeper and deeper inside. His eyes remained closed and I wondered again how aware he was of what we were doing.

"Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me…" he chanted, but although I was hard and breathing heavily, I didn't want to hurry, oddly content to make this time last as long as possible. Clutching at my shoulder, he rode my hand, panting raggedly and gyrating against me.

"Please," he moaned, "oh God, please, get on with it," he rasped out. I relented, shifting him on top of me, took hold of his hips and lifted him up, then in one swift movement, impaled him, claiming him. And then I set to fucking him.

I found myself sinking into all the sensations - the rhythmic pounding, the sound of my balls slapping against his ass, his moans and trembling cries of ecstasy, the way the breath left my body when I grunted, thrusting deeply into him, trying to reach his core, the sensation of his heated channel wrapped around my hard cock, the feel of his cock, hard and solid against my belly, sliding up and down each time I plunged into him.

The sudden tension in his body told me when Sandburg was about to come, and I let myself join him, our yells filling the air as we melted into one. He collapsed onto my chest and we sprawled together, our arms and legs flung wide.

I slept deeply, so deeply I didn't feel him move off of me. When I woke, he was sitting in a chair he'd positioned right next to the bed, his elbows on his thighs, his head in his hands. When he realized I was awake, his head shot up. He looked terrible - his skin was white, his eyes red and he was visibly trembling.

Alarmed, I threw back the covers and reached for his hand, asking, "What is it? Are you ill?" He didn't answer, just looked stunned, and I grabbed my gun from the bed stand and stood up, listening. "Have they come back?"

Staring at the gun in my hand, he shook his head. "No, no, we're alone." Transferring his eyes from the gun to my face, he looked - bleak. "I have to tell you something. I - I - didn't mean to - I was sleeping - dreaming - and I-." He looked down at his hands. "I had a wet dream and I came." He looked back up at me and swallowed hard. "Against you."

"Sandburg -" I started, meaning to set him straight, but he blurted out, "It's worse than that, Jim. I was - it was you, I was dreaming about you, about making love with you when I came."

I carefully set the gun down and said, "I know."

"You know?" His shock was almost comical, but my confusion kept me from laughing. He thought it had been a dream - and he'd called what we'd just done making love.

"I wasn't sleeping, Sandburg. I was wide awake and I fucked you. I thought - if I'd realized - look - I'm sorry, I didn't mean - I mean, even though you were sleeping, it was still consensual, right?"

He looked dazed and for a moment I feared he was going to tell me it hadn't been, but then he was nodding his head, saying, "Oh, yeah, I consented - well, I would've consented - I wanted it…I've had dreams like that before, of making - " He stopped himself from saying love and changed it to, "- of fucking with you." He looked down at his limp cock and back at me. "And I've come then, too, only you weren't in the bed with me."

Jesus, what a mess. "Was one of those times in a shower?"

His eyes widened, filling with guilt. "Yeah," he said slowly, "how'd you know?"

"Because it wasn't a dream. A month ago, right after you were returned to me, we - I fucked you. But I thought you were conscious - I mean, Jesus, Sandburg -," I turned away from him and ran my hands through my hair, angry, furious, really - at myself mostly. "- you seemed conscious, you said yes."

Turning back, I wasn't surprised to see Sandburg looking stunned. I braced myself for his anger, but the stunned look dissolved into one of shy happiness. "You - you wanted to - to touch me? Make - have sex with me?"

"Well, yeah, Sandburg. Why not?" As soon as I asked the question, my brain flooded with the answer. Because he's not Emil. Because he's dark and hairy. Because it complicated everything. Because I shouldn't find a street rat attractive. So why? Did my dick just overrule all the rules of attraction and opt for immediate gratification?

I was staring at him, trying to work out how it had come about, when I realized I liked looking at him. All the things that should've bothered me - the things that were so different from Emil - his overt masculinity, the darkness, the hair, even his muscle density and Adam's apple - all pleased me. As I looked at him, I realized he was beautiful - at least to me. Not beautiful the way Emil had been, of course, but I actually found that satisfying, like having a treasure all to myself.

"Yeah, Chief, I wanted to touch you. Fuck you." What I didn't want to do was talk about it. It wasn't love, it was a guy thing, or maybe a sentinel/guide thing, and I really didn't want to spend time dissecting it. So before Sandburg moved out of the stunned phase and into his inquisitive stage, I grabbed my pants and said, "I'm going for a walk. We'll head back in an hour or so. Okay?'

"Okay."

I didn't try to analyze the smile on Sandburg's face or the tone of his voice, just accepted his okay as my exit line and headed out.

++++++

I sat on one of the flat rocks that jutted out aggressively toward the water, watching as the waves threw themselves up on shore, only to be dragged back into the ocean. Getting the cap on was proving harder than I would've thought. It was like the simple cap they'd put on me back at Bickering. There was a belt, padded, sort of, and the stainless steel contraption that would encase my cock and two chains that went down the back - I thought, but maybe they did something else.

"What the hell are you doing?"

I didn't look around, I could feel Jim's anger pressing against my back. Going for levity, I said, "What genius designed this thing? At this rate, you'll have to accompany me every time I use the bathroom."

Levity didn't work.

"No," Jim said, his voice final.

"Then I'm gonna have a problem, because this thing is built like Fort Knox. With me on the outside."

"You're not gonna have a problem, because you're not going to wear that thing."

I turned around then, shading my eyes as I looked up at him. His face was set and I didn't know if I'd be able to make him see that we had no choice. "Your father's gone way out of his way to make sure I'm with the program - he's gonna have me checked the first time I appear in public, and if I'm not capped, he'll -" I shuddered at the thought of being back in his hands - "I don't know what he'll do, but I know it won't be pleasant."

For a long minute he didn't say anything, just stared out at the horizon. Then with a sigh, he sat down next to me and put his hand out. "Let me look at that thing."

I handed it over without comment.

He studied it, seeing the problem immediately. "This lock is set up so there's no way the wearer can manipulate it. And there's no reason for it to be so heavy. They could've made this out of a lightweight polymer, but instead, the sadists opted for the heaviest metal they could find." Holding it up, he shook his head as he turned it around, examining it. "Despite the padding, you know this thing's going to chafe like hell. Jesus, this makes your cock someone else's property, forcing you to be dependant on whoever holds the key."

"Yeah, well it was designed to be a chastity belt - if the wearer could get in and out of it on his own, it would defeat the purpose. What I don't understand is how your father thinks this will protect anyone - what does he think, that an empath's cock is a magic laser gun, shooting sexual energy at the hapless mundanes?"

That got a small smile out of Jim. "Nice image, Sandburg. When we get back, I'll find a better designed one - and if I can't find one, I'll have one made to order."

I looked down at my naked genitals and stood up. "Go ahead and put the saddle on, Jim. Let's get it over with."

"You making this easy for me?"

I shrugged. "No reason to both be miserable."

He didn't return my smile as he stood up as well. "You do that a lot, you know," he said, as he set the metal band around my waist, then closed the contraption around my cock and locked it.

I sucked in a breath, the metal was oddly cold. "Do what?" I asked absently, wondering if they'd found some mysterious new alloy to use for this thing. One that never warmed up.

"Hide things."

I felt as if I the wind had been knocked out of me and found I couldn't speak for a moment. I shook my head, and when I had a breath, said, "No - you're wrong. I don't hide things…it'd be stupid to try to hide things from you."

He resettled the band around my waist and the weight of the cap pulled my cock down. I hardly noticed as my mind was racing with the implications of his questions.

"You try to hide things from Merrick?" Jim asked, almost casually.

Why was he asking about Merrick? He'd asked it as if he didn't care what the answer was, but I wasn't fooled. I didn't know why he was asking, but I knew there were no safe answers, only hidden spots of quicksand ready to take me down.

I hedged by answering somewhat truthfully. "Only in the first few months."

Jim raised an eyebrow. "Because after that -?"

To buy some time and feel less exposed, I reached for my pants. "He didn't have enhanced sight or hearing, only touch and taste, but all he had to do was place his hand on my chest to know whether I was - lying - or hiding something." I tried to be nonchalant, but even I could hear the tremor in my voice. My hands were shaking as I tried to get my clothes untangled.

Jim took my pants out of my hands, shook them out, then handed them back. "So after the first few months, you stopped lying and hiding things?"

His tone was mild, but I didn't trust it. I stood up and put my pants on before I answered. "I couldn't help trying to hide stuff from him, but it wasn't anything important."

"Couldn't help it?" The disbelief in his voice scratched at my barriers. "What kind of not important stuff did you hide from him?"

I so did not like where this conversation was going. "Like my response to an attractive woman," I said, giving him an easy one first.

He waited, and having no idea what had set him off or how close he was tracking my responses, I knew I couldn't risk a lie. "And I hid - tried to hide - my - revulsion when he would -" I fumbled, feeling sick at the thought of saying the things Merrick did to me out loud. "- force me to -"

"Stop." Jim stood up. "I shouldn't've asked," he said, as he pulled me in close, wrapping long arms around me.

"I don't hide things from you, Jim." I mumbled into his broad chest.

"Yes, you do."

My head shot up at his calm declaration, hitting his chin.

"Ow." He looked down at me with a slight smile on his face. "You've been in the habit of hiding all sorts of things from me. And I was surprisingly clueless for a hotshot detective." Panic made me reach out and try to read him. There was no surge of anger from him, only regret, but his words were terrifying nevertheless.

What had he discovered? What was he talking about? "There's stuff in my files - but I tried to tell you about that - I told you to read it - I wasn't hiding that from you -" I babbled, searching his face for signs of revulsion.

Jim rested his forehead against mine. "I'm not talking about your past, Chief."

"Then what? What are you talking about?"

He surprised me by taking my face in his hands, his touch gentle. "You've hidden all sorts of things from me - when you were in pain, when you were starving, when you needed to bond -"

I felt weak with relief. "Oh, that stuff. I didn't hide it. I just didn't want to bother you with it."

His hands left my face, landing on my shoulders and he pushed me to arm's length. "That stuff…Jesus, that stuff - what can I say? I had my head up my ass."

Solemnly, he tucked some hair behind my right ear, then turned away from me, looking out at the endless horizon. It felt like the sun suddenly going behind a cloud and I wanted to grab him and spin him around so he was facing me again, so the sun would shine again.

"It's true I chose you because I could keep you at a distance," he paused, his back stiff, closing himself off from me. "And used you - the way I would use a phone or a hammer. Use it and forget about it until the next time I need it."

Slowly he turned away from the sea and back to me, and his eyes were blue and distant. "I never considered what life was like for you, even when the evidence was right in front of me. I don't know what I was thinking - I wasn't thinking - I wasn't paying attention - and when I did notice something, I blew it off, refused to look at it."

Grabbing his arm, I spun him around so he was facing me. "Jim, it's the culture we live in…the ones on top - in the glow…never consider what it's like for those in the shadows. It's part myopia, part protecting the status quo, part lack of imagination -"

"- part laziness -" Jim said, interrupting.

"Yeah, well, some of that, too. And in your case, add in grief and impending madness. Emil had been dead almost a year, but for you, only a few weeks had passed. You were still in shock. I was lucky you even gave me a chance -"

"Shut up, Chief," he said flatly. "Quit making excuses for me. I was a dick."

"Yeah, but you were a depressed, grief-stricken dick," I said, correcting him.

He caught my head in the crook of his elbow, pulling me close and rubbed his knuckles across my head, giving me my first noogie. "Thank you for those qualifiers." His tone *had lightened, though I could still feel a dark weight around him.

I escaped his hold and punched him in the arm. "You're welcome. Hey, speaking of places to hide your head, did you know that during buffalo stampedes, the baby buffalos would try to hide under these little shrub bushes? They'd just barely be able to get their heads ducked down, their rumps would be up in air, but to them it felt like a safe place to be."

"Are you making some sort of comparison here?"

"Comparisons? Heck, no. Just sharing a little known fact." He stepped back to look at the cap. "Now where do you think these chains go?"

+++

Sandburg had called it. As soon as we walked into Major Crimes, four men wearing new, crisply pressed brown uniforms approached us, and the tall man in the lead swung open a badge. "Detective Ellison? I'm Captain Juan de Marco with the Washington Department of Hygiene and Security. We're here to check that your rat is properly capped."

Reaching for the badge, I said, "I want to examine -" but before I could finish my demand, two of them grabbed my arms, yanking them behind my back.

"We won't tolerate any interference from you, Detective Ellison. My men will make sure we have unhindered access to your guide."

I sagged in the arms that held me and tried to feint left, but these guys were pros and ready for me. A fist smashed into the side of my face, hard enough to stun me, as the other guy used a tazor baton, digging it into my ribs and activating it, sending the world into a crazy spin.

Dimly, I heard Joel yelling a protest and someone calling for Simon, but before a full-fledged melee could break out, Sandburg yelled, "That's enough! Stop!"

The tazor had scrambled all the electrical impulses my brain uses to control my muscles, rendering me as lethal as a newborn babe. The arms that held me tightened, which was just as well, as they kept me from falling to the floor.

Through watering eyes, I watched as Sandburg unzipped his jeans and pulled them down. The silver metal of the cap drew everyone's eyes to his genitals, but Sandburg stood straight, his attention on DeMarco.

When DeMarco just stared and said nothing, Sandburg stupidly decided to pipe up. "See? The world is perfectly safe from me. Can I get dressed now?"

"Not so fast," DeMarco said, snapping latex gloves on as he approached Sandburg. "Lift it up."

Taking a step backwards, Sandburg looked around the room - and I couldn't tell if he was embarrassed or looking for back-up. "Lift it up?"

DeMarco closed the gap between them in one long step and backhanded Sandburg hard enough to snap his head back. His jeans dropping around down to his ankles.

The effects of the tazor hadn't worn off, but my muscles twitched in reaction to my anger and the guy on my left jabbed the taser into my side again. My last coherent thought as the electricity surged through my body was that he'd upped the voltage, using an illegally high charge. I flailed around despite the hands holding me as my blood sugar turned to lactic acid and flooded my muscles.

I was useless, unable to even hold my head up, but then someone did the hard work for me and grabbed my hair, pulling my head back so I could watch as Sandburg was held and his capped cock was roughly twisted this way and studied from every angle. Sandburg's eyes watered, but he said nothing, and when it became clear they weren't going to get a reaction out of him, Captain DeMarco barked, "He's secure," and stepped away, motioning to Sandburg that he could put his jeans back on.

Sandburg reached down and slowly pulled them up, his eyes wary. DeMarco's only move was to strip the gloves off and toss them in the garbage can, looking as if he'd just handled the worst kind of filth imaginable.

He waved a negligent hand in my direction and his men let go of me. I fell to the floor like a sack of potatoes, unable to coordinate my hands to break my fall.

"You can expect random checks of your rat at any time, Detective Ellison. If he's found uncapped, he will be removed and sent to Bickering for remedial education on the importance of hygiene and obeying the law. You, Lord Ellison will have a fine of $75.00 levied against you."

All I could do was lie there on the floor and watch as DeMarco's brilliantly shined boots moved away from me, and the equally well-shined boots of his men fell in behind him. There was bile in my throat threatening to choke me. Sandburg was next to me in a second, kneeling by my side. "Jim? How bad is it?"

"Bad?" I grunted. It was plenty bad. My father had declared war and won the first battle, and I could just see the smirk on his face.

Sandburg was talking, but not to me. Arms pulled me off the floor that suddenly seemed like the softest bed compared to what it felt like to be moved.

"You got him, Joel?"

"…yeah. Henry, careful…"

Upright, my arm was lifted and placed around Taggart's broad shoulders and my shirt lifted up. Sandburg gasped at what he saw, but didn't touch me.

"…didn't have to hit him…musta been at least 600,000 volts…his whole left side is already black." The shirt fluttered down and I closed my eyes, trying to shut out the jumble of sounds.

"Can you carry -?" I dimly heard, and suddenly I was horizontal, and being moved.

"…the bonding suite…careful….don't jostle him…"

I made an inarticulate noise and Sandburg immediately brought the parade to a halt.

"…turn him…" he said, guiding my head to the side and then down. I puked, my body convulsing with the need to purge as I spewed out the contents of my stomach.

"…good, that's good, you'll feel better soon…" Sandburg whispered, as the journey continued, ending when I was finally placed on the platform.

"…some towels, cold water…"

The door closed. The overhead light shut off as the ambient light flickered to life. His fingers slid through my hair, giving me something else to concentrate on as the effects of the tazor eased up. The world slowly halted its erratic spinning and my mind started to clear.

For just a moment, I allowed myself to lie in Sandburg's arms and soak my senses in him - the sound of his heart beating steadily, the oxygen going into his lungs and being exchanged with carbon dioxide, the smell of him, slightly acrid from adrenaline, and the feel of his skin on mine. Despite the disorientation I'd suffered, I felt no need to bond. It was as if regular bonding with Sandburg had inoculated me to some extent.

From the very first merge, I'd known that the bond Sandburg and I forged was different from anything Emil and I had shared. They were wilder, deeper, more disturbing. Instead of a peaceful cocooning, I'd been plunged into a maelstrom of emotion, both Sandburg's and mine. I'd thought, what could you expect with a street rat, a wild empath, a genetic throwback? Certainly not the refined sensibilities of a Cultivated, not the sweet entwining of spirits Emil and I had shared.

That explanation had lasted as long as I could deny how the merges with Sandburg affected me - which wasn't long. It was if the grounding he gave me made my senses able to take flight. I saw further, heard more, was able to calibrate to an unheard of level the information my senses gave me. There was no denying that the bond Sandburg offered me was superior to what I'd had with Emil or to any bond I'd ever heard described.

Not only was our bond unique, but we'd found a way to merge without being naked, without penetration. It defied all the known facts about the Sentinel/Guide symbiosis, all the understanding I had of the lore, history, and training that had been drilled into my head as soon as my mutation became apparent and my education begun.

There was power here - power between us, unexpected power, and I just had to find the way to use it against my father. The injunction I'd sought had been denied, and my lawyer had hastily drawn up papers to file a lawsuit, but that would take time, time my father would use against me, would use to break Sandburg and I apart.

"We need to get going," I said, pulling away from Sandburg. "I don't want my father to say we're ineffective as a team."

Sandburg nodded, unfolding his body off the bed. He wavered for just a second, but I looked closer and saw the small tremors he was trying to repress. I reached for his hand and pressed mine against his. The floor dropped away and we fell straight down, like an elevator without brakes, until we hit the ground, hard. Sandburg lay sprawled on his back in the dirt, stunned, and I crawled over to him, covering his body with mine. Resting my forehead on his, I commanded, "Open to me."

For a fraction of a second he hesitated, and I didn't, pushing past the barrier he'd erected. He stumbled back, looking around for something, but before he could find it, I had my hands on his face and forced him to look at me. Again he defied me, his eyes sliding away and I moved his head so he had no other choice but to look but to look me in the eye.

So he did, and for a moment I saw what I expected to see, Sandburg, apart from me, distant and removed. I think I may have growled, and Sandburg's eyes blinked shut. When he opened them, he was right there, next to me, his eyes locked on mine, the desolation deep and clear.

As if I'd been pole-axed, the air left my lungs, and I shoved him away. Instead of moving away from me, Sandburg rolled toward me, grabbed the front of my shirt and held me close. "I'm sorry, Jim, I can't help it - but I'll try, I'll try harder -"

"Try to do what, Chief?" My voice was thick and harsh as I fought to breath past the pain in my chest.

"Try not to…" Bleakly, he looked up at me, struggling to find the words that would describe just what he would try harder not to do. "Hide," he said simply.

I tried to pull away from him, but he held on. Twisting his hand, I forced him to release me. "Look, everyone needs some space."

Instead of relaxing, Sandburg looked even more stricken. "No, no - I don't. I'm the one whose wrong - this - closeness - it's what we are - it's how it's supposed to work and I don't know why I let anything get in the way."

"You have a fucking right to some privacy."

Sandburg laughed without amusement. "No. I don't. Haven't you read the fine print in the contract?"

"Screw the contract, this is between you and me, Chief." I desperately wanted to pull Sandburg close to me, but I was in the middle of declaring he had a right to space, so I walked over to a rock and sat down.

"Haven't you read some of the theories about wild empaths- what made them so unsuitable as guides?"

"No, I haven't. Go ahead, Professor. Enlighten me."

"Have you even read the contract we signed?" He started to pace up and down in front of me, running his fingers through his hair, something he tended to do when he was agitated or exasperated. I was guessing both were at work here.

"All of it?" The thing was a half an inch thick.

"Yeah, all of it, especially the last paragraphs."

"If you remember, at the time I wasn't in any shape to read any of it, and after, I didn't care. It was a done deal. I take it you've read it from start to finish?"

"Yeah…" he started, then shook his head in denial. "No. But the pertinent parts have been read to me."

"Let me guess. By Merrick?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, so just what does the fine print say?"

He stopped his pacing and narrowed his eyes as he called up the passage. "A claimed wild empath under contract has no right to an inner life separate from his Sentinel. His life has one purpose. He is to serve his Sentinel with mind, body and soul."

"Mind, body and soul? Why not your blood while we're at it?"

Sandburg ignored my sarcasm, continuing his lecture. "That was one of the reasons the Sentinel Board turned to clones. They said wild empaths were too willful to fully give themselves over - and without that complete surrender, sentinels were much too vulnerable. So the board started taking our DNA and reworking it, creating creatures whose very existence hinged upon their relationship to a sentinel."

Sandburg ran his hands through his hair. "You really should have chosen another Cultivated to be your guide. I try, and I'll try harder, but sometimes my will gets the better of me."

"I don't think it gets the better of you - I think it's what makes you better." I paused, thinking about the day I walked through the doors of Bickering, all the guides but one reaching out to me. "You know, I thought I chose you because I didn't want to be reminded of Emil."

Sandburg nodded, knowing how well he filled that bill.

I closed the distance between us and touched his face, running my thumbs across his cheeks, feeling the bristles of beard starting to emerge, something I'd never felt on Emil.

"But now I think there was more at work."

Sandburg jerked away from me, "You think I manipulated you. Used my amazing empathic sexual powers to lure you to me," he said, and there was no humor at all in his voice.

"Hell, no. I wasn't at all sexually attracted to you. No, I'm saying I think it was fate."

"Fate?" Sandburg's tone matched his look and both said he thought I was delirious.

"Yeah, Darwin. Destiny. We came together for a reason."

"You were within inches of going mad. Insanity made you chose me."

"Yeah, well, maybe I wasn't completely working with a full deck, but that doesn't mean it's not fate."

Shaking his head, Sandburg put his hand on my shoulder and said in a voice full of sympathy, "I know you want - need - to make sense of your decision to take me as your guide, especially when it's costing you so much. And I'm not gonna say I'd like it, but I would understand if you decided to discard me." He paused, his head down, then looked me straight in the eye and said, "I really think you should consider it. I will never be the kind of guide to you a Cultivated could be - and you deserve better than a street rat."

"Sandburg," I started, exasperated that he couldn't hear what I was saying, when the sound of gunfire brought us abruptly out of the merge. Cocking my head, I listened.

"I got him!" Rafe announced and then an unknown voice screamed, "You ain't got nothin' asshole!" There was the sound of flesh smacking flesh and then H yelling, "Hang onto him," the sound of cuffs clicking and then, "Damn it, Rafe," H huffed, "sometimes I think you ain't got the sense you were born with."

"How was I to know he'd pull a gun? He was pulled in as a witness, not a perp."

"Jesus, Rafe…" H continued his harangue and I tuned him out.

When Sandburg saw me relax, he asked, "What was it?"

I turned my attention back to him, not liking the weariness I saw in his face. Our merge had not been completed and like water going down a drain, I could see Sandburg was losing his barriers rapidly.

"Stupidity - it was just stupidity," I said, pulling him close to me, lying back down. Positioning him on top of me, I settled his head on my chest, then placed my hand against his.

It was the weirdest merge yet. A rush of speed and then we shuddered to a stop, like a freight train being stopped by the emergency brake. I held onto Sandburg, not liking the way we were being jerked around.

Finally, we were at rest and I waited, but no landscape emerged, nothing happened. There was just the sensation of Sandburg in my arms, his heart gently thumping against my sternum, his breathing even, tickling the curve of my neck, his hand limp in mine. All of which I knew to be reality.

Which made absolutely no fucking sense.

I started to ask Sandburg what he thought was going on, when I heard his breathing roughen and then morph into snoring. He was sleeping. In a merge.

For a moment I fumed, like a girl set for prom but escorted to White Castle instead, and then I let Sandburg's uneven lullaby put me to sleep as well.

TBC

Let me know what you're thinking-I love comments, all sorts. 

Calista Echo [email protected]