So Maybe, Tomorrow I'll Find My Way Home

I stretched, and bumped my head on the headboard. I'd never realized Roberts' bed was so much shorter than mine. Sandburg would fit into it nicely. No, I'd give him the guest suite. He'd have more room and its location on the other side of the house meant he wouldn't crowd me.

Sandburg's breathing was even, his heartbeat slow, and I relaxed, not quite ready to get out of bed. I'd woken him twice to check his eyes and ask the questions. Barely conscious, he mumbled his name, the date and the correct number of fingers, the second time batting my hand away, saying he'd know if there was a problem.

Now the black of night was giving way to the gray of dawn, and I couldn't help but feel that maybe that described my life as well.

With that thought, I got out of bed and quickly dressed. Looking in on Sandburg on my way downstairs, I got visual confirmation of what my senses had told me. My guide was asleep. He was listing to one side, so I went in, gently pushed him back into the center of the pillows and pulled the quilt up to his neck.

Then I headed for the kitchen and coffee and a few moments of quiet before the servants got busy. Thanks to the timer, the coffee was already perking, and I inhaled the smell of caffeine as I got a mug out. There was bread raising in a bowl, adding the heady scent of yeast into the air. I looked out the expansive picture windows that faced the meadow where the horses grazed.

Schimmel, the pale stallion I'd given Emil, was prancing about, wide awake and looking for fun, though it was only dawn. Except for the dawn part, that would've described Emil as well. Emil liked his sleep. He especially liked to sleep in the morning.

The horse was a beauty, tall and broad with a proud head. I'd searched a long time for the right horse. One that could easily handle Emil's height and had Emil's sense of style. Schimmel and he had been a perfect fit.

A magnificent horseman, Emil looked like poetry in motion when he had ridden flat out, heedless of the risk. Often I'd needed to turn away, unable to watch Emil soar above a hurdle, fear making my gut ache.

I forced myself to walk away from the window and the memory of Emil alive, vibrant and carefree. Pouring myself another cup of coffee, I wandered toward the front of the house and into the study.

Emil had always griped that it wasn't a study, but a satellite police station. True, my computer was more powerful than the one I worked with at the station, and I'd managed to create an impressive network of law enforcement professionals who believed in cooperating with one another out from under the eye of captains and court systems. My "library" consisted of books on forensics, psychology, law books, court cases, maps and Plat documents, murder mysteries, and stacks of actual court reports on all my cases that had gone to trial, crudely bound.

The corner that Emil had claimed was closest to the fireplace. His laptop was still on his desk, open to the last FreeCell game he'd been intent on beating. That's pretty much all he used it for, that, and keeping in touch with his litter mates.

They were as close knit as a family, constantly phoning or emailing one another with the latest news about planned vacations, the great meal they'd had the night before, the surprise birthday party being planned or the latest heartbreak being endured. Emil got more mail than the rest of the household combined.

His taste in reading material ran towards oversized coffee table books filled with illustrations. Fashion, design, art, horses, and magic all had their own sections.

The console was blinking, indicating I had a message waiting and I hit the play button. My father's image filled the wall.

"Hello, son. I trust your staff has put the Palisade back in order. Dr. Nicosia says you're planning on reporting back to work on Monday. I wish you'd reconsider. Take some more time off. You're getting older and that was a hell of a beating you took." My father's head ducked down and when he raised it, he was smiling. "I was going through some old discs and came across this one. Thought you'd like to see it."

The screen went dark and then Emil filled it. I staggered back, shocked at the life size image of him, laughing, eyes flashing with mischief. Emil was walking backwards, talking to the camera, his blond hair gently blowing in the wind as he cajoled me to come away with him. Automatically I stepped forward, trying to touch his hair and only managing to touch the cold screen.

His voice filled the room, his speech cadence as dear and familiar as a lullaby. "I really think we should go. It would do us such good to get away. And Hawaii is beautiful in October. Come on, let's get out of this dreary weather for a week or two." He smiled, and it was a dazzling smile. I felt myself growing hard at the sight of it and stumbled back to sit on the couch.

My voice, disembodied, as I was the one filming, came on. "Emil, you know I'm right in the middle of -watch your step there-" My hand reached out and snagged Emil's shirt sleeve, steadying him. What I wouldn't give to be able to do that one simple thing again. Touch Emil, steady Emil.

He looked beautiful in the late autumn sunlight, the lengthening orange spectrum making the shadows on his face look mysterious.

"I know, Jim, but Rafe says he'll take it over till you get back. You've been in the middle of this one for two months. We need a break."

"I know it's been a long one and tough on you. I'll think about it, okay? No promises."

Emil's face broke into his slow smile and he leaned in past the camera. He'd kissed me, and I had stopped filming, my hands too busy to hold a camera. We'd gone to Hawaii the next week. We hadn't known then what was lurking just around the corner for us and I felt grateful that we'd had that time together.

The disc went black and my father never came back on. I pressed the palms of my hands to my eyes, trying to keep tears from falling, pissed that they were still so close to the surface.

I'm the one who should've died young. I was the one who chased bad guys, threw myself at speeding cars and went toe-to-toe with terrorists. It would've been better if I'd died. Better that than this. Trying to scrape together a reason to keep going, using the services of a street rat. Hell, a discarded street rat.

Suddenly, the idea of Sandburg living in the house I'd shared with Emil seemed tawdry and ugly and I wondered how I'd ever considered it. Sitting on the couch, my coffee growing cold in my hands, I held back the tears ruthlessly, until my throat felt raw with the effort.

Quick footsteps in the kitchen warned me that Mrs. Tupelo was coming. I placed the cup on the side table carefully, feeling like precision was the only thing that would keep me from losing it altogether.

She bustled in with the energy and cheeriness of the morning person. "Good morning, Lord Ellison. Why, it's dark as a tomb in here," she chirped, sweeping by me to open the drapes. The sun had gained strength and I closed my eyes against the intense light.

Mrs. T swished by me again, then suddenly halted, saying, "My, aren't you the early bird this morning. Shouldn't you be sleeping in after your terrible ordeal?"

I couldn't bear her fussing this morning so I summoned a smile for the tiny Scots woman scrutinizing me, hoping she'd just leave me alone. "I'm fine, Mrs. T. Right as rain, good as gold, fit as a fiddle."

"Oh, aye, anyone can see yer all that, all right," she said, placing her hands on her hips.

"Are you giving me lip, Mrs. T?" I tried to growl, but it came out clearly as a laugh.

"As if anyone could, and isn't that a damn shame." Reaching down, she took my coffee cup and frowned. "Stone cold. I'll get you a nice warm cuppa." As she reached the doorway, she turned back, asking, "About that person upstairs-your new guide…."

"His name is Blair Sandburg."

His breathing had changed, he was waking up.

"Are you sure you should-that he's the right…" She faltered and then let her question dangle in the air.

"Right what?"

As his feet hit the floor, he groaned, but the shuffling sound told me he could walk on his own. I turned my attention back to Mrs. Tupelo.

"Well, it's just-that he looks so-dark, so rough."

"He's not."

She walked back to me and whispered, "But he's a street rat," as if she didn't want the neighbors to overhear her.

Gritting my teeth, I answered evenly. "Yes, he's from the street."

"Why, I was just reading about how those street rats can read people's minds, learning things they have no business learning, then blackmail the victim, forcing them to have wild animalistic sex with them. And it doesn't stop there, I read about how one rat-"

"Mrs. Tupelo!" My shout stopped the flow of her ridiculous accusations, but only for a second. She simply took in a deep breath and started right back up again.

"-and, let's not forget, he came from the pound-that place where they put the bad apples."

I told myself she'd been with me for years, she was getting older, she was really a good person…

"And Fannie DuPont, from the Randall estate, you know her, she helped serve dinner at the birthday party you gave your Da last year, said they found one of those rats had been living on the estate, killing rabbits and sleeping in one of the out buildings, for months before they caught him."

It was if she couldn't hear me. I'd never seen this side of her before; her fears made her like a pitbull. Once they get their teeth sunk into something, it's nearly impossible to get them to release it. "Are you sure, Lord Ellison, that this is what's best? He might have failed the other sentinel or-or-brought home strange men, or hurt his sentinel in some way." She leveled her eyes at me and challenged, "Do you even know why he was discarded?"

Standing up, I avoided her question of why and instead cut to the chase. "It's irrelevant. I can assure you that he didn't hurt his sentinel. In fact, it was quite the opposite; Sandburg's last sentinel hurt him."

Her jaw was still locked on Sandburg as evil incarnate and she batted away my defense easily, pulling out one of the well-loved myths about sentinels and guides.

"Well, I'm quite sure you can bet he had it coming. It's part of a sentinel's code or genetics or something to protect the guide. That just proves my point."

It always amazed me how eagerly the public ate up the propaganda the Sentinel Board shoveled out. They loved to read about the "bond" between sentinels and guides and the "mutual respect" and all the sentimental bs about one true guide for each sentinel and that no sentinel would ever harm their guide.

I'd seen more than a few guides after their sentinels had disciplined them right into a hospital bed. A sentinel could do anything to his guide, as long as he was convinced it was for the guide's good. They used twisted rationales and trumped up offences to justify their brutality and only rarely was their authority challenged by the Sentinel Board.

"That's a bunch of crap, spread around to reassure people that sentinels aren't abusing people they have total control over."

Her look of disbelief told me that the magazines she was so fond of-The Star, Cascade Inquirer, The Black Box, and Revelations, had more credibility than anything I said. I threw up my hands, disgusted with her gullibility. It almost made me want to change my mind again and move Sandburg in just so she could see he wasn't an ogre.

Turning my back on her, I walked over to the bay window. Schimmel was in view, tossing his head, as if to remind me why I needed to keep Sandburg far from here.

I didn't turn around to look at her when I spoke. "Never mind. Just be assured he won't hurt me. And he won't hurt anyone here, because he won't be here."

Speaking to my back, Mrs. Tupelo hesitantly said, "Roberts informed me last night that you planned to move him in."

"There's been a change in plans. Sandburg will be returning to Nassau House this morning."

A big smile was gracing her round face when I turned around.

"Ach, I didn't get nary a wink of sleep last night, fretting about that man living under the same roof with us. I'm so glad you changed your mind, sir," she said, nodding her head enthusiastically at my decision.

At least one of us would be able to sleep at night.

****

Sandburg shuffled into the kitchen a half hour later. The shuffling was to be expected after the new layer of abuse he'd taken the night before, but I'd expected him to look less exhausted after a night's sleep, not more. He was wearing a clean pair of jeans and the work shirt I'd laid out for him and his hair was damp, dark curls framing his face. Between that and the unexpectedly heavy morning beard, he couldn't've been less like the sight that used to greet me in the morning.

"Um, my clothes were gone, and these were on the chair. I assumed for me?"

I glanced up from the newspaper. "Yeah," I confirmed, then went back to reading about the lack of progress in the Kimball case. My case. One of the ones abandoned by me when Emil got sick. Still open after a year and the media found it fascinating, damn them. It was a very cold trail by now, but as soon as I got back to the office I planned to dig into in again.

Sandburg hadn't moved and I found myself irritated at having to play host. "There're cups in the first cupboard there. Help yourself to some coffee." The promise of caffeine got him moving and I leaned back, watching him. Reaching for the mug caused a grimace, but he snagged one and gingerly poured the hot liquid into it.

"You piss okay this morning?" He looked pretty rough, the dark shadows under his eyes almost black. The stitches looked like there were spiders crawling on his face, and though his cheeks were dark with his morning's beard, he looked sickly white under it.

Sandburg grimaced. "You weren't kidding about that. Man, how can taking a leak hurt so much?"

I was surprised I hadn't heard screaming. "Any blood?"

Shaking his head, he grabbed the back of the chair and pulled it out, then sat down with all the grace of an 80-year old man. Taking a sip of coffee, he smiled appreciatively. "Good coffee."

"Emil insisted on the best machine, the best beans, even a water filtration system." Fuck. What had made me say those things? I took a sip of coffee and waited for him to ask who Emil was.

I'd actually given this some thought and had decided I wasn't going to speak of Emil to Sandburg. I didn't want to talk to anyone about Emil, especially not to the street rat who had taken his place.

And so what do I do? I mention Emil. Now Sandburg would ask me questions and there was no way in hell I was going to answer a single one. He didn't need to know and we were on a strictly need-to-know basis. I didn't want to know anymore about him than I needed to and he wasn't going to learn anything about me he didn't need to know.

But Sandburg surprised me. He didn't ask, just sipped his coffee and watched the horses. After awhile, he set the cup down and brought his attention back to me. "What happens next?"

He'd been really out of it last night, probably didn't even remember anything we'd said. "Roberts will be taking you back to Nassau House after you eat something. The door's been fixed and I'll have a key, so there should be no more trouble."

Sandburg's face went blank, a first, I believe. I couldn't tell if he'd remembered our conversation last night or not. He was hiding his reaction from me and I let him, not bothering to check his heart rate or any of the other vitals that would tell me his real feelings. I didn't want to know them, and in fact, I was grateful he was doing such a good job of keeping them in check.

"Okay." His tone held no resentment, but he wasn't looking at me. Instead, he seemed to be studying the room carefully. Finally he turned his attention back and said, "I can go right now. They'll be serving lunch soon, so I don't need breakfast."

"Great." I couldn't wait to get him out of here. "I'll let Roberts know you're ready to go."

Just when I thought it was going to be simple, I saw his face change. God, he was easy to read. He'd sucked in a breath and was balanced there, wanting to ask a question and I just knew he was screwing up the courage to ask to stay.

Damn.

I stood up, hoping to quash his question before it got asked. Found myself almost to the door, then realized what I was doing and stopped my flight. If he asked, I'd say no. Simple as that.

The breath and the question finally came out. "Could I get my clothes before I go?"

His clothes? What was he was talking about. "Roberts went to Nassau House last night and was told you didn't have any other clothes."

He looked away, a faint blush starting. "No, I didn't-- I don't, but I had the clothes I was wearing last night."

I snorted. "Those? They were ready for the scrap heap. I told Roberts to deal with them. I'll have new clothes delivered to your room. What are you? A medium, 15 collar? 30x32?"

Sandburg looked oddly defeated, but agreed. "Sure, those sizes sound right."

Emil would've been horrified if I'd ever said I was picking out so much as a handkerchief for him. He despaired at my lack of 'sartorial' flair.

"JIM!" He'd rant. "You do not wear white socks with black pants. And why do you insist on that crappy material? You need something that has drape, something to show off your fabulous legs."

We'd had that argument a lot. Well, it wasn't exactly an argument, more like I'd endured that particular tirade a lot. I'd worn the white socks just to bug him. And because I liked them. And because I liked Emil's rantings. Loved to hear his impassioned diatribes on-whatever.

"What is it, kid? You want to pick out your own clothes? I can have Roberts take you to Icon's and you can shop."

"No, no, that won't be necessary, whatever you want-whatever you think is best will be fine."

No rantings from Sandburg. Just as well.

"Then what, Sandburg? You look like your prom date stood you up."

His pale face diffused with color, like a sunrise. "It's just that--I was kinda fond of…my mother made it for me and I-" His mother made him clothes? Oh, the vest, yeah, that had had a certain homemade quality to it.

"That vest? You want the vest?" It was like pulling teeth to get it out of him.

Sandburg nodded, and I sighed. Finally. Reaching over, I pushed the intercom.

"Yes, sir?"

"What did you do with Sandburg's vest?"

"His vest, sir?"

"Yes, his vest, the thing he was wearing last night. I told you to take care of it." What I had really meant was trash it, but maybe Roberts would be able to dig it out of the garbage. "Can you bring it here?"

"I gave it to Mrs. Tupelo; I'll check with her."

Sandburg looked amazingly relieved to hear he'd be getting his vest back and I shook my head at the weird things people got attached to.

"Why are you so keen about a vest that's seen better days, Sandburg? Don't tell me you're superstitious and it's your lucky vest or something."

He shook his head and said, "no," rather ruefully. "Hardly lucky. I was wearing it when Merrick caught me. And when he decided to discard me, he had me dressed in the clothes I'd been wearing when he acquired me. He thought it was fitting that I go out the same way I came in."

"*Had* you dressed?"

He quickly looked away, took a visible breath and said, "Well, I wasn't in any shape to do it myself."

I was sorry I'd asked. I really didn't want to know what had gone on between Sandburg and Merrick. And yet, in the next breath I was asking another question. "Why did Merrick discard you?"

Sandburg's face went blank, then his mouth opened in shock. "Haven't you read my file?"

"No, Sandburg, I haven't read your file." The kid closed his mouth, and seemed to be working out what to tell me. "Never mind-I don't need-or want-to know."

He ignored my retraction. "We were never able to bond," he said, scowling at me. "You were that close to Taldec and you didn't check my file before you chose me?" His voice had gone up a notch in outrage.

I didn't have the time or energy to deal with attitude right now. "What's your problem, Sandburg?"

"What if we hadn't been able to bond? You would've gone mad, you were only hours away from it." Abruptly, he stood up. "How could you take that kind of chance? What were you thinking?"

The outrage in his voice was almost comical, but I didn't laugh. "What are you beefing about? It all worked out. What if I had read it and didn't take a chance? You'd be dead. Remember that, Sandburg? So don't go yelling at me because I didn't read your file."

The kid shut up, but it didn't last. The outrage was gone, replaced by fear. "But I- there's other stuff in there, things you should probably know about."

I sighed, suddenly limp with exhaustion. "No kid, there's nothing in there I need to know about. We had that conversation, remember? The one where you assured me you weren't a slut? That's all I need to know."

My God, the kid had a stare a puppy would envy. That kind of hopefulness hadn't been a part of my life for a long time, and I didn't know what to say in the face of it. This really wasn't the day I wanted to deal with this kind of shit. I just wanted to go lie down in a dark room and sleep. Sleep until it was dark again.

Mrs. Tupelo bustled in, the vest held out before her like it was a snake. "I don't know why you wanted this mended, Lord Ellison. It's virtually falling--" she stopped talking when she saw Sandburg and backed up like she'd spotted a snake. "Oh, excuse me, I didn't realize--"

"Mrs. Tupelo, this is my guide, Blair Sandburg. Sandburg, this is my housekeeper, Mrs. Tupelo." Any good the coffee had done to making Sandburg feel better must've been short-lived, as suddenly he'd gone pale and lines of pain became visible around his eyes.

Sandburg had stood up as soon as she entered the room and now held out his hand. "Nice to me--meet you," he stuttered, ducking his head.

Mrs. T simply stared at him, her eyes hard. Instead of shaking his hand, she thrust the vest into it, then backed away. "This must be yours. I mended the ripped pocket and the lining, but several of the patches are tattered and need replacing."

He looked down at the vest tenderly. "Thank you. I know it's a bit decrepit, but my mo-mother made it for me and I'm k-kind of sentimental about it."

"Your mother?" The shock in her voice indicated she couldn't quite believe that Sandburg had been birthed and not spawned.

Sandburg looked down at the vest he was now clutching to his vest. "Yeah, I think it's the only thing she ever sewed." His fondness for her came through loud and clear.

"Oh." Mrs. Tupelo didn't seem to know what to say, which, as far as I knew, had never happened before. She edged backward, as if she was afraid to turn her back. "Will that be all, sir?" But was gone before I could say 'yes'.

I was staring at her hastily retreating back and almost wasn't quick enough to catch Sandburg before he dropped to the floor. He was conscious, but pale as milk and shaking.

"Your barriers?"

"Kind of shot," he admitted weakly.

"Why didn't you say something?" I hoped he didn't expect me to mind read when he needed something as basic as bonding. I pulled him up and eased him into the chair.

"I guess I didn't realize they were that low until your housekeeper came in."

This was unexpected. Emil almost never 'needed' to bond. I suppose it was his superior genetics. He liked to tease me when the need came on to me. I'd get pissed and he'd laugh. "Jimmy needs it, Jimmy needs it bad," he'd singsong, dancing around, his long hair swinging freely.

He liked to get me angry. His pupils would dilate, his respiration would increase and even his smell changed. And then we'd bond and the relief would make me forget the games and the anger and just feel immensely grateful to the man who could put me back together.

Putting my hand under Sandburg's hair, I massaged the tight muscles in his neck. For three beats he stayed tense, then suddenly the tension eased and there was something about that-I don't know-something about being able to affect Sandburg so easily, that sent a flash of emotion through me. I hadn't felt that emotion in a long time and I tried to place it as I kneaded the muscles in Sandburg's shoulders. Happy. I think that's what happiness felt like. But it had just been a flash and now I wasn't sure.

"Come on, we'll bond before you go back." I reached down, pulling him out of the chair. He didn't resist, and I led him upstairs to my room. It was the first time we were bonding without the catalyst of some sort of crisis and it felt awkward-weird in fact.

Sandburg started to undress, his motions slow and uncoordinated. So uncoordinated he hadn't managed to get a single button undone. Looking up at me, he held out a hand to show me it was shaking. "I'm nervous, I don't know why."

"We're not teenagers about to lose our virginity, Sandburg. Here, Let me do it." I pushed his hands aside and quickly took care of his shirt, looked at his eyes, which weren't focusing on anything, and proceeded to unbutton and unzip his pants. I left it to him to actually get them off and quickly stripped down. Sitting on the bed, I watched him, waited for him. He had one pant leg off, but was teetering as he tried to get the other one off and I stood back up, picked him up and put in the bed. Then I finished the job and shook my head at how frequently he needed me to undress him.

"Thanks, Jim," he mumbled and I wondered if he'd fall asleep before we got this done.

Lying down next to him, I placed my hand on his stomach, noting it was still too concave, and let the fall and rise of it calm me in some weird way. Sandburg calmed as well, his breathing slowing.

His body was foreign, surprising. I encircled the tattoo around his wrist with my thumb and forefinger. I liked the bones in his wrists, they were dense and strong. Why had he gotten them tattooed with chains? Was he trying to make a statement about being a guide? What a stupid waste of pain. As I recalled, he'd tattooed his ankles the same way. I hope he'd outgrown the need to make political statements with his body. I had no desire to spend the rest of my life looking at a tattoo on his forehead.

A small snore told me he had fallen asleep. A body can only absorb just so much trauma and his had hit its limit. "Ah, Sandburg, the little engine that could finally ran out of steam." With the ease of longtime practice, I prepared us both and eased into him from behind. It felt like I was sinking, not falling, just sinking down, and it was an amazing feeling.

Sandburg let out a long breath and woke enough to pull my arm around his chest, placing his hand against mine. The surge was a warm rush of gentle heat that turned into the damp warmth of the jungle. Overhead, the sun was blocked by the layers of broad leaves, and the earth beneath my bare feet was soft with ancient loam.

I began to run, slowly at first. Letting my muscles warm up and as they did, stretching out my stride. The trees on either side of me blurred as I ran faster and faster, a passage magically opening before me in the dense underbrush. I became aware of the soft thud of feet behind me and quickened my pace until I felt as if I were flying. There was silence behind me now, but I was too exhilarated to slow. And then the soft footfalls penetrated my haze of elation.

I glanced back and saw only a shadow. I dodged to the left and the shadow flitted left as well. My legs were beginning to tire, my lungs heaved with the effort to draw enough air, and I stumbled. Before my face could smack into the jungle floor, Sandburg appeared from the right, latching unto me, pulling me forward. With his help I kept both my footing and momentum and we were soon running side by side, flat out, his shorter stride keeping pace with me effortlessly. I don't know how long we ran, but the shadow faded away and we ended in a clearing, bright sunlight quickly drying the sweat from our bodies.

Without discussing it, we ambled over to a banyan tree and stretched out, our hands pillowing our heads. Birds swooped overhead, brightly plumaged and chatty, their voices raucous as they scolded and nagged. It wasn't peaceful in the least and yet I quickly fell asleep.

When I woke, I wasn't in the jungle, but in my bed, curled around Sandburg. The light in the room told me it was now afternoon. I didn't know about Sandburg, but I felt a hell of a lot better.

"Sandburg? You awake?" I could've just checked, but Emil had found it rude when I used my senses to inform me about him.

"Ask me, Jim, say, 'Are you cold, Emil?' rather than hand me a jacket. Ask where I'd like to eat, instead of announcing my stomach's making endgame sounds."

Sandburg jerked awake and made a small sound of distress, tensing. I realized I still had my arm around him. An arm, a leg, hell, I was plastered against him. Hmm, he was one of those. Sighing, I rolled onto my back.

Rolling onto *his* back, he then kept going until he was on his side and facing me. There was nothing in his face that clued me into why he'd reacted like that to my arm being around him. Okay, my arm and all the rest of me.

There was a lot I didn't know about non-cultivated guides. Were any het? Was he? Not that it mattered, I wasn't going to be having sex with him. But as a guide, he had to be used to the close proximity of a male body. So….was this why he'd been discarded? He was phobic? I couldn't recall that he'd been shy before-in fact, quite the opposite-he'd been casual about his nakedness.

"How're you feeling?"

"Better. Barriers are back up. I'm good to go."

Time to get him back to Nassau House. Time for him to go…I wanted him to go, and I wanted him where I could keep an eye on him.

"Roberts will take you back. You need anything? Want anything? Books? Music? Discs?"

He started to shake his head, then shot me a look that said he wanted to read me. I backed up, as if distance could block him. I never had to wonder if Emil was reading me, he never did. He respected me too much to bypass good manners. Sandburg looked away, then threw off the sheet and got up. Maybe he could tell I wasn't keen on his using his empathy on me, or maybe he read me and knew I was pissed off.

Finally, he spit out the question. "Would it be all right if I borrowed some books?" He reached for his shirt and his hands were steady.

"Sure, Sandburg, I don't make an offer if I don't mean it." The kid needed to know who I was without his tricks.

His head was down as he pulled on his socks, and his hair blocked his face when he looked up, but I thought there were tears in his eyes. Over books? Had I aligned myself with some four-eyed bookworm who would trail me with his nose in some volume?

Nah, I'd seen him in action against Kincaid, he'd do all right. Not that he'd ever see action like that again. In the nine years Emil and I had been together, he'd never once come close to flying bullets. A few times he'd been with me when fights had broken out, but he'd known the drill and had quickly ducked out of harm's way.

"Um, how many can I take?"

I'd lost track of our conversation and it took me a moment to figure out what he was referring to. "Oh, as many as you want. They're in the study." He was starting to button his shirt, his fingers nimble now that his barriers had been restored. "I've got some things I need to do. When you're ready, ring for Roberts and he'll take you back."

"Okay. Uh, Jim?"

I was almost out the door and I turned back, impatient, ready to get away-out.

"When will I see you next?"

"Geez, Sandburg, I don't know. What are we, dating? Should I send flowers?"

He turned away, but I could see his face was red. Yeah, heart beat up. Man he was sensitive. It surprised me, he'd been raised on the streets, he should've lost the ability to blush a long time ago.

"Take it easy, kid. I go back to work in a few days and you need to rest so you'll able to keep up."

"Right." The blush faded, leaving him looking washed out and pale. Emil had looked like that when he started to get to sick. But Sandburg wasn't sick. Sandburg wasn't Emil. And Sandburg needed to get back to Nassau House.

He was still standing in the doorway of the bedroom when I left.

***

Mr. Sandburg rang for me and I knew it was time to take him back to that place. Lord Ellison had sent me there last night to retrieve his belonging. I'd expected a suitcase, but the man at the desk said the guide, well, he actually said, 'the fucking scum street rat' had brought nothing with him except the clothes he was wearing.

Now Lord Ellison had changed his mind. He had decided his guide should continue to live in the residence.

It was a tacky modern brick building with no soul, tarted up to look like a rich man's club. I knew all about Cultivateds, of course. Emil Simone had lived with Lord Ellison for seven years. But it still shocked me to see so many in one place. I had not realized how much they shared genetics. Had I met them on the street, I would've mistook every one for Mr. Simone.

Mr. Sandburg met me in the driveway, books stacked precariously to his chin.

"I'll take those." I reached to unburden him.

Looking alarmed, he stepped back. "Jim-er, Lord Ellison said I could borrow these."

"Of course, sir, I'll place them in the car."

"Oh. Yeah. Okay."

He handed me half of his stack, then nodded his willingness to go. When I opened the back door for him, he shook his head and asked, "Do you mind if I sit in front? I've never much liked sitting in the backseat."

"As you wish." I shut the back door and opened the front. He slid in and buckled up. The drive to Nassau House took us thirty minutes and he was silent the entire way, studying the countryside.

When we reached the residence, he jumped out without waiting for me and got the books out. Awkwardly he held them with one hand, and held out his other. I shook it.

"Thanks, Roberts."

"You're welcome. Here, let me take some of those. I'll walk you in."

"Because you want to, or because you've been told to?" The note of bitterness in his voice came as a surprise.

"Mr. Sandburg--"

"Call me Blair."

I wasn't about to let him bring the informality of the streets into our relationship. "I'm afraid that wouldn't be proper, sir."

"What did you call Emil?"

Of course he would want to know about his predecessor. I wasn't sure what to say to the boy, what Lord Ellison would want me to say. I knew what I wanted to say, but it wasn't my place. "Mr. Simone."

"Oh." He stood there and I waited for the next question, because it was obvious there would be a next question.

"How long have you worked for Lord Ellison?"

Not the question I was anticipating. "Twelve years."

Nodding, he looked thoughtful, but didn't say anything else, just walked toward the door. I followed, and we left the late afternoon sunlight and entered the dim lobby. There was a man at the reception desk and Mr. Sandburg approached him. "Blair Sandburg," he said, as if their narrowed eyes and thinned lips didn't tell him they were perfectly aware of who he was.

The receptionist sniffed and looked down as if studying something of immense importance. He studied it for a good three minutes as we waited. I considered speaking up, but I didn't think I'd be doing Mr. Sandburg any favors. Finally the man pushed a button and spoke the intercom. "Bosey, the rat's back. Can you escort him to his hole?"

Sandburg ignored him, but I found I didn't have his forbearance. "Mr.-," I stared down at his nameplate, "-Bixby, you may not be aware that Mr. Sandburg is the claimed guide of Lord James Ellison. As such, he is to be treated with every respect."

Mr. Bixby scowled, pressed the intercom again and said, "Amend that Bos, *Mr*. Sandburg is here, please show him to his accommodations." He looked at me, a smirk on his face and said, "There. We wouldn't want to hurt the wittle guide's feelings now, would we?"

Mr. Sandburg kept shifting his weight from foot to foot, his face blank. "Forget it, Roberts, sticks and stones…"

I didn't buy his nonchalance, but if that was the way he wanted to play it, fine. The one named Bosey had arrived, looking like steroids had been injected into his neck from birth.

"This him?" He jerked a thumb towards Mr. Sandburg.

"Yes, that's Lord Ellison's guide. The one who lives in the former supply closet," Mr. Bixby said, informing his co-worker.

"Yeah, I've heard of him. Come on, rat, let's go." He took Lord Ellison's guide by the elbow and pulled him forward.

Mr. Sandburg looked back at me and said, "Thanks, Roberts," then let himself be led away.

I stayed and watched until he got on the elevator. A group of Cultivateds were passing through the lobby on their way to work out, if their attire and gym bags were any indication. All of them tall, beautifully lithe, some wearing their long hair tied back, others letting it be loose. They chatted amiably among themselves and moved with the grace of sleek, well-fed cats, though of course, none carried an once of fat. Their ethereal beauty gave them an angelic glow.

Poor Mr. Sandburg. Up against a standard that no naturally born man could attain, up against Lord Ellison's deep attachment to Emil Simone. And up against Governor Ellison's deep distrust.

Despite what Lord Ellison's father had told the staff when he called us back, I thought the lad had merit. Mrs. Tupelo was convinced he'd just as soon kill us all in our sleep and steal the silver to boot as look at us, but despite his dark coloring and wild upbringing, I thought he was quite civilized.

***

The door was good as new. I stepped inside and my 'escort' closed it, the sound of the lock engaging was sharp and definitive. Putting my stack of books down on the desk, I spotted the heater in the corner, flipped the switch and watched as it hummed into life. The glow was comforting and made the room seem almost cozy.

Last night Jim had decided that I could stay, but something had changed between that moment and the light of day. And I'd known somehow it was Emil as soon as Jim said his name. It was surprising how much emotion could be packed into one four-letter word. Affection, longing, grief, devotion, love…

I didn't need to ask who Emil was-it was obvious he'd been Jim's guide and lover. I understood that.

Well, I understood it in theory. I'd never been loved or loved anyone the way Jim and Emil seemed to have loved one another.

I couldn't imagine what that would feel like. It was amazing enough to have successfully bonded with Jim. What must it've been like for Emil to have that *and* love? That *and* sex? Lucky guy.

But it had left Jim-broken. He wore pain like a suit of armor. But instead of protecting him from injury, it kept all healing at bay. Every once in awhile he lifted the visor and, for a tiny moment, sunshine and warmth and even me were allowed in, and then 'wham' the visor slammed back into place.

The sound of it being slammed down this morning had been loud and emphatic.

The overhead light was undoing the homey atmosphere my little heater was working so hard to project and I snapped it off, turning on the lamp by the bed instead. Then I settled down to study the books I'd borrowed from Jim. He had a fantastic library on criminal law, forensics and case studies and I was looking forward to understanding what Jim's work was all about. And what I could do to be of use.

***

Monday seemed to take forever to come. I felt fine, fully recovered, and I was anxious to get back to work. At seven, I picked up Sandburg from Nassau House. He was wearing the new jeans and his vest. I made a mental note to have Roberts take him out to shop after work. Sandburg had said he didn't care what he wore, but he wasn't a child, he should pick out the clothes he was going to wear.

The cuts on his face were almost healed, but he was moving in a way that told me he was still sore as hell. "Did you get any breakfast?"

"Yeah, the food's great here."

"Good."

The temperature had dropped and there was a light layer of frost covering the ground. I tossed Sandburg the jacket I'd brought along and he caught it.

"For me?"

"Who else would it be for? In case you haven't noticed, it's getting colder. A vest just won't cut it for the winter." The car was just ahead, I beeped it open and we piled in.

Sandburg shrugged the jacket on and pulled it close, doing a little hop as he did. He grinned at me. "So what are you working on today?"

"A cold case from a year ago. I need to re-interview a few people, see if I can jump start it."

As we drove toward downtown I noticed that the car was making a little, funny sound and I concentrated until I pinpointed the problem. The timing belt was slipping just a bit. Sandburg looked at me, but rather than making a joke about my absorption, he asked, "Car sound off?"

"Yeah, timing belt."

He nodded like he knew what I meant and surprised me by saying, "I could fix that."

"Yeah? You know cars?"

"Some. Enough to fix a timing belt."

I don't know why I was so surprised. I'd known lots of people who fixed their own cars. Guys in the military, cops…but I knew of no guides who could drive, let alone have an acquaintance with the inner workings of a car. The thought of Emil bending down to look under a hood at an engine was ludicrous. "I've got people for that." No guide of mine was going work on a car.

Sandburg still had his jacket wrapped tightly around him, I turned on the heat, noticing he needed a haircut and I'd forgotten that his teeth had cavities. One thing at a time. "Today, during lunch, Roberts will take you shopping."

He was looking out the window, and my statement made him oddly tense. Finally he asked, "So what kind of clothes do you want me to buy?"

"Warm clothes, underwear, socks, shoes. Oh, and something for the occasional formal event."

Sandburg looked like he was going to turn me down, but he didn't, and I was glad. I didn't want to have to remind him that he needed other clothes and that it was up to me to provide for him. I knew it and he knew it and it didn't need to be said.

I reminded myself that he wasn't like Emil; he'd once lived on his own, made his own decisions, bought his own clothes…fixed cars. And who knew what else.

From what I'd heard, once street rats'-er, naturally born empaths'- hormones hit a certain level, they 'bloomed'. And once they bloomed, they were on a downward slide towards-what had Mrs. Tupelo said?-oh yeah, moral turpitude. According to her-and to be fair, most of the population-street rats bloomed and immediately lost all sense of honor, decency, and ethics.

They degenerated into addicts and whores, thieving and sleeping around, doing whatever they had to do in order to buy the drugs they used to shield themselves. I don't know what Sandburg had done to get through that time, and I didn't want to know. People did what they had to do to survive. It was as simple as that. Sandburg no longer needed to do whatever he had done, so he wouldn't do it anymore. He had me.

"Formal as in black tie?"

"Nah, I avoid any function that makes me wear a monkey suit. A suit will do."

He looked over at me, and in the watery light of early morning, the bruising on his face looked like shadows. When he saw that me looking back, he dropped his eyes and said, "All right."

Traffic was a bitch and for the twenty minutes it took me to navigate to work, we were silent. Walter was waiting when I drove up and quickly sprinted to my door, opening it and putting his hand out for the keys. "I'm going out for lunch, so don't park it in the back."

"Righty-O, sir." He snapped his hand in the salute he always gave me, no matter how often I told him not to.

Sandburg was already waiting on the curb and he fell in behind me as I headed up to Major Crimes. First, I stopped in the office to pick up the credentials I needed for Sandburg.

Sergeant Poole looked up and sneered-he didn't like detectives, aristos, or sentinels, so I won the trifeca with him-and I couldn't tell if was just me or if Sandburg was on his list, too.

It wasn't like Sandburg looked so out of place, just that he looked like someone who would only be in a police station involuntarily. More than one person looked down to see if he was cuffed.

Ignoring their stares, I just kept moving. Sandburg seemed a little twitchy at all the attention, but people would soon get used to him. No one ever got used to Emil, he made sure of that. The man had been born to turn heads and accepted the attention he got happily.

In the crowded elevator, Sandburg stood behind me, so close he was pressing into my back. Everyone stood in typical elevator custom, facing forward, but their eyes were slanted to study us and I could actually feel Sandburg shrinking back. This wouldn't do. Sure, he was a out of his element, but he had to pull it together, act like -not like Emil, he'd never be able to pull that off- but like a man.

He stayed right behind me the whole way to my desk and if I'd stopped abruptly, he would've run right into me. I was planning the talk we were going to have about personal boundaries when I turned around and really looked at him. White as a sheet and sweating.

"Are you sick?" I thought he would've been recovered by now, despite the set-back on Friday, but he was an empath, and maybe they were all susceptible to getting sick. Somehow I'd expected a natural empath to be a little more hardy.

"No, just-"

He flinched as if he'd been slapped and belatedly I realized what the problem was. Looking around, I spotted Mrs. Ruben glaring at him. Jackson, the maintenance guy was on a ladder, changing a light bulb, and his body language screamed animosity. Several other faces were set in varying degrees of loathing and disgust.

I zeroed in on each of Sandburg's tormentors, memorizing their faces. By the haste with which they stepped back and looked away, I knew they'd received my message loud and clear: Mess with Sandburg and have me on your ass.

I stood there for another moment until everyone's focus had shifted to the work at hand before turning back to my guide. On his knees, he was hanging onto the edge of the desk in an attempt to stay upright and I immediately dropped to my knees as well, taking his head in my hands.

His moans were nearly sub-vocal and the tremors fine enough to go unnoticed by anyone without sentinel vision, but anyone could see the kid was in pain. "Come on." I helped him to his feet and put my arm around his waist, pulling him toward Bank's empty office, and once in, locked the door.

The Captain wouldn't be happy to be locked out of his office, but he'd be even unhappier if he came in as we were bonding. Easing Sandburg to the floor, I started to take my belt off.

"No, Jim, we can't, not here."

"You want to get a hotel room?" Of course Banks' office was an awkward place to do this, but I sure as hell didn't want to leave and come back. I nearly told him it was this or nothing, but then I stopped myself. There had been a few times - mostly after scanning a complex crime scene, or filtering noise to follow a lengthy conversation - when I had needed to bond, and Emil had been…less than enthused. He'd done it, of course. Just as I was about to, like it was an assigned chore. That wasn't right. I started to tell Sandburg that we could go to a hotel room, but before I got any words out, he was holding a shaky hand out to me.

"I c--can use th-this." He had a hypo and I knew it contained, Noxy, the street version of Halyconic.

"Where the hell did you get that?" I didn't think, I was angry, he was carrying around a syringe filled with an illegal drug that would render him useless to me if I needed to bond. But I should've been thinking, because I knew his barriers were already in smithereens and he had no defense against my anger.

His eyes widened and then rolled back in his head as he fell backwards, the syringe rolling away from his lax fingers.

"Oh, fuck." He was going down hard and I wasn't entirely sure what to do. Back in school they'd covered guide overload, but Emil had never come close and now I couldn't remember exactly what to do. Laying down next to Sandburg, I gathered him in my arms and placed his head on my chest.

I had vague memories of Dr. Washington's lecture and I put my hand on Sandburg's skull, then tried to connect. I could feel the blood vessels under my fingers and I imagined following them into his brain, like a swimmer going with the current, and in a moment, an instant, really, I felt him.

I could feel him falling away, away from his own mind that was filled with raw pain from the psychic assault and my careless anger. I dove after him, determined to halt his descent and bring him back, bring him out. Perhaps because he was spinning away in pain and I was falling in purpose, I was able to snag him quickly and yanked him close to me, containing him, shielding him.

It was a merge, but different from any other I'd ever experienced. There were no images, no landscapes. His mind was filled with the emotions of all the people he'd encountered this morning. The attendant at the residence. Walter. The people on the elevator. The ones we'd passed in the hall. Mrs. Ruben, Jackson, Rafe, Detective Miller…fear, disgust, amusement, revulsion, malice, and hate had worn away whatever barrier he'd had in place at the beginning of the day.

His empathic byways had been flooded with these corrosive emotions and like acid, they'd burned away his barriers and left him as vulnerable as a babe. I held on and actually felt his barriers rebuilding, bit by bit. During the rebuilding, I heard the door rattle a few time and Simon's voice yelling, but I held on, held on to Sandburg until I felt the last piece fall into place.

"Jim?"

He sounded disorientated and I hugged him tighter. "Yeah?"

His head moved on my chest, tilting to look up at me. "What happened?"

Brushing the hair out of his eyes, I told him, "Your barriers couldn't handle all the garbage that got thrown at them."

"I had a meltdown?" He shuddered and I knew just what he was feeling. I'd come damn close to the mother of all zones when Emil was sick and they'd taken him away from me. I'd searched every hospital for him. At the third one, I'd gone down, deep into a zone. When I finally snapped out of it, I knew just how close I'd been to being lost in my mind forever. Unfortunately, so did my doctor, who had immediately ordered me sedated and had kept me sedated until Emil was deep in a coma and near death.

"Yeah, but you're fine now."

"How--?…Did you use-"

"That crap you had?"

He jerked, his eyes snapping shut. With the link still open between us, I might as well've kicked him. I clamped down on my reckless emoting. "Sorry, kid, didn't mean you to feel that."

Emil must've had barriers of steel, as my anger and moods had never fazed him in the least. With Sandburg, I was really going to have to watch myself. As soon as I felt Sandburg stiffen, I knew he'd read my irritation. Jesus, was I going to have to censor every thought and emotion?

Sandburg was shaking his head and I felt him leaving the link, leaving me, though he still lay in my arms. For a few seconds, I could still feel him and then I couldn't. He was out, or he'd pushed me out, I don't know exactly how it worked. But we were separate again and I nearly shoved my way back in, but didn't.

"I didn't need to use the Noxy. We linked and it was enough to bring you out and get your barriers up."

The door was rattling again and Sandburg rolled away from me, getting to his feet. I followed, moving to the door and unlocked it. Simon stood in the doorway, pissed as hell. I glanced at Sandburg, but other than looking worried, he seemed to be holding up fine.

"What the hell is going on, Ellison? I don't appreciate being locked out of my office for forty-five minutes." He made a beeline for his coffee, and I knew it was caffeine withdrawal as much as inconvenience that had him so ticked off.

"It was a sentinel thing. I needed to bond, and there was nowhere else to go."

Simon was stirring his coffee and staring at me like I'd grown another head. "You never needed to bond in the bullpen before. Hell, you told me we didn't need the bonding suite and I could use it for another interrogation room. What's the deal?" One sip of his coffee and his shoulders had relaxed a fraction. He fixed his glare on Sandburg, clearly earmarking him as the new element, and frowned.

"I was without a guide for nine months, sir. That's what happened. Look, I'm sorry I took over your office, but I had no choice. And yes, I will need a bonding suite. I have no idea how often I'll need to bond before I stabilize again."

Sandburg's mouth was open, and I wondered how the hell he'd survived on the streets if he couldn't dissemble any better than this. Thank goodness Simon's attention was on me, so he missed the neon sign over Sandburg's head with the arrow that pointed down blinking, "It's me, I'm the problem!"

"How the hell am I supposed to clear space for a bonding suite?" Before I could point out that every workplace that employed a sentinel had to have one, he punched the intercom.

"Rhoda? Call Matheson and have him revert interrogation room seven back into a bonding suite. By tomorrow." He looked up, one eyebrow raised and asked in a deceptively mild voice that I didn't fall for, "So do you think you'll need my office again today?"

"Hard to say, Captain, but you'll know if I do."

He glared and I shrugged, and Sandburg finally closed his mouth.

"I think I'll get to work now," I announced, latching onto Sandburg's sleeve and towing him out of the room.

Once we were back at the desk, Sandburg leaned toward me and said, "Thanks for taking the heat."

I rummaged through my files, looking for the one on Davies. "You call that heat? That was a mild tropical breeze. We would've both had singed eyebrows if the captain had really been throwing heat."

Sandburg eyed Simon's office door warily, then moved his chair quickly behind mine. It was weird. After a usual merge, I felt relaxed, my nerves cocooned, resealed. My head got clear - it was like I'd inhaled straight oxygen. But after this merge-this "mind" merge, it was like I had echoes of Sandburg in my head. Nothing specific, nothing I could draw a bead on-just the shadowy imprint of him-like heat images seen through thermal binoculars.

And that was weird enough, but what was even weirder - it didn't feel creepy. To tell the truth, I didn't mind it.

The rest of the morning went well enough, everyone keeping their distance, and I was able to read over the reports on the cases I'd had before Emil's illness. As I finished one, Sandburg would pick it up and read it, I suppose out of sheer boredom. About the time I realized I was getting hungry, Roberts appeared at my desk, on time as usual.

I looked over to Sandburg, who was reading the last report, and said, "Roberts is here to take you shopping. Roberts, be sure Sandburg gets something to eat while you're out. Take as long as you need, I'll be back at my desk after two."

As soon as they were gone, I called Carolyn. "You ready?"

"I'll meet you at the front door, we can walk to the restaurant."

She was waiting for me, looking cool and contained. Her short hair made her look boyish and young, but the way she leaned against the wall with her arms crossed spoke of competence and power. I liked that about her, the many faces of Carolyn. I'd been serious when I told my father I was considering marriage. I did like kids. Carolyn had beauty and brains and balls. Great attributes in a mother. In a wife.

*** Icon's was having their semi-annual sale and the place was teeming with people on their lunch break. I guided Mr. Sandburg to the second floor men's department. Turning slowly, he surveyed the options.

"Do you have the list?"

"The list, sir?"

"Yeah, the list of what clothes, colors, and styles, Lord Ellison wants me to wear."

"Lord Ellison isn't really a list person." I thought about that and amended my statement. "Well, he is a list person, but not about something like this. He simply instructed me to get you a new wardrobe."

"No list?"

He seemed worried by the lack of a list.

"Well, what kind of colors does he like - fabrics - styles --? What do you think he'd want me to wear?"

"Lord Ellison would want you to choose what you're comfortable in."

He frowned and made a tentative move toward one of the racks, then turned back and asked, "What kind of clothes did Emil wear?"

Ah, Mr. Sandburg, you're in over your head here, barking up the wrong tree, as the Americans like to say. Not only was Emil in a league of his own when it came to clothes, Lord Ellison would not be happy to see his new guide garbed in the style of his lost guide.

"Mr. Sandburg, please, just chose what you like. Pick the colors and fabrics that suit you. Lord Ellison doesn't care what you wear. He didn't care what Mr. Simone wore."

The look on his face said he found that hard to believe, but he began shopping. Jeans, two flannel shirts, boxers, socks, a pair of sneakers. It was a abysmally small pile of clothes and already it was after two. I'd studied the merchandise as I waited, so I knew what was available. Starting with slacks, I held up two pairs of corduroys and asked, "Green or brown?"

"Green…. unless you think the brown-"

I cut him off, holding up two pairs of jeans. "Button up or boot leg?"

"I have a pair-"

"You'll need more than one. Which? Or both?"

"Button-up."

Two sweatshirts. "Rainier University or plain?"

Here he hesitated, then said, "Plain."

In twenty minutes we were done with the basics. The salesperson who had been trailing us, totaled the sale and I put it on Lord Ellison's account, instructing them to have it delivered to Nassau House. Then I led the way to the fourth floor, where they would fit Mr. Sandburg for a suit.

This department was quite austere compared to the one we'd been in. I steered Mr. Sandburg to the leather couch and, stepping aside, ordered lunch. While we waited, I had Mr. Sandburg peruse the fabric books. Having a fairly good idea of his taste by now, I quickly eliminated the pinstripes, but left in the plaids and tweeds.

Lunch was delicious; sea bass, risotto, spinach salad and as we ate, the different suits were modeled by a succession of handsome young men. By the time we were done eating, Mr. Sandburg had chosen a single-breasted suit in navy worsted. His fitting took a half an hour, but as we moved on to the shoe department, I noticed that my young charge was lagging.

"Are you feeling all right, Mr. Sandburg?"

He hurried to catch up and said reassuringly, "I'm fine, just a bit tired-not used to shopping."

"I find it quite exhausting myself. I don't understand how anyone can do it for recreation. We're almost done. Shoes, shirt and tie are all that's left."

"Do you think he'll be pleased?" There was something of the puppy in this young man.

"Lord Ellison?" I don't think he realized I was teasing him as he answered in all earnestness.

"Yeah, do you think he'll like what we picked out?"

He really wanted to know, and it seemed like such a silly question, that I'm afraid I answered it with exaggerated solemnity. "No, I'm afraid your choices won't please him at all."

I regretted my flip response immediately. His face drained of what little color lunch had restored. and he actually swayed. Putting a hand out to steady him, I hastened to explain. "He'll be neither pleased nor displeased, because he doesn't care what you wear. As long as you're warm and dry, Lord Ellison will be happy."

For a moment he closed his eyes, then opened them and cocked his head, saying, "Oh. Then that bright yellow Gor-tex was a good choice."

I thought he was entirely serious until I caught the very slight curve of his lips. "A very fine choice, indeed," I agreed.

***

After we pulled up to Nassau House, Jim turned to me. "How're your barriers?"

"I'm all right."

"Okay, you should be fine inside with the blot on. I'll see you tomorrow."

"I'll be ready." Jim put the car in drive and I realized he wasn't getting out of the car. "Aren't you going to take me in?"

He have me a quick glance and I caught the smile on his face. "I think you can manage to find the door on your own, Sandburg."

"Yeah," I laughed, but couldn't quite hide my shock. I hadn't been unescorted outside in six years, even for five feet, let alone the fifty that spread between the car and the entrance. "Um, thanks for all the clothes. And the haircut."

Given Jim's short hair, I'd expected that he'd want the same for me and had dreaded the apointment. But once again, I'd been surprised that Jim really didn't care and had left it up to me. Consequently, my hair was no longer a wild, unruly mess, but it was still long.

After I got out of the car, I shrugged out of his jacket and handed it to him through the window. "And the loan of your coat."

"You're welcome. See you in the morning."

I nodded and watched him drive away. He didn't even look back. For just a moment, I stood still, looking around at the world without having a watchdog at my side. Taking a deep breath, I walked to door at my own pace, relishing each step. All too soon I was opening the door and entering my pris-home.

Two security guys were lounging at the desk, watching me as I came in. It occurred to me that I had no idea how much freedom Cultivateds were given, or if they routinely walked in the door unescorted.

Approaching the desk, I announced, "Blair Sandburg checking in."

"You wanna take him, or should I?" The one who's nametag read Halliday asked the other.

"I don't want him." That one's tag declared he was Burns.

Halliday stood up slowly, and craned his head, first to one side, then to the other. The sound of his neck cracking was a hell of a sound, but then his neck was the size of a small tree stump. "I'll take him."

He led the way to the elevator, his overdeveloped muscles making him lumber along like a black bear. I didn't recognize either Halliday or Burns as part of the daring crew that had cornered me and taught me the folly of running naked through the halls.

When we reached my door, he used the remote and unlocked it for me. As soon as I stepped inside the dark room, it shut and locked. I had the impulse to throw myself against it, maybe even pound my fists, but I shoved the impulse aside. It would've been wasted energy. Not only would the door remain locked, but no one would've been in the least disturbed by my tantrum.

Flipping on the light, I was greeted by chaos. Paper was ripped and scattered around and all the new clothes were in heaped in a pile in the middle of the floor. The room smelled of piss and it had either been done by one guy with an elephant's bladder or a bunch of guys.

Sitting down on the bed, I took a deep, cleansing breath, searching for the calm my mother had tried so hard to teach me. And then I cursed the bastards, calling them every dirty name I knew in four languages. What the hell was I supposed to tell Jim? Maybe he'd take it in stride, but maybe not and how many incidents would he need before he realized the hassles I created outweighed my usefulness?

I'd been exhausted when I walked in, but now a surge of rage energized me. Using the shower, I washed what I could, wringing out the water and draping the wet clothes around the room. When I was done, still angry, I tried to shake it off by pacing, but that got me nowhere. It had never gotten me anywhere.

As a kid, Naomi had been beside herself trying to find a way to help me channel my anger-my "negative energies" as she deemed my reaction to kids who called me "puny, runt, bastard, nerd, loser, four-eyes, geek," and other sundry names. She preached detachment, not aggression. It took me a long, long time to learn detachment, but the aggression still lurked just beneath the surface.

Detachment was a great thing, and far more responsible for my sanity than the meditation and yoga my mother had pushed on me. It was my shield, my sanctuary, and my prison. But it had failed me today in the bullpen. I don't know why, my barriers had been a little low, but nothing I couldn't've handled before.

The bond with Jim had given me more than I'd ever hoped for, but it had eroded something, too. Today at Major Crimes, I'd been hit from all sides by emotions I normally had no trouble deflecting. But then I didn't usually have a whole roomful of people thinking that I was worse than the gum on their shoes.

Merrick had given me a supply of street suppression, and that had gotten me through fine. Of course, it wasn't that much of a challenge. The people in Merrick's circle thought I was a novelty, a freak, but harmless and insignificant. Consequently, the quality of their animosity was way too low to bother me much.

The sound of the dumb-waiter was a welcome break in my quest for a way to discharge my fury, but when I opened the door, it was empty. Great. This day just got better and better.

***

Things didn't improve the next morning. The dumb-waiter arrived empty, the clothes were still wet and Jim would be expecting to see me wearing something besides what I'd had on the last five days. One of the Henleys was almost dry, and I put that on. Jeans were jeans, I figured, and wore the ones I'd had on yesterday.

At seven, I heard the door unlock and one of my escorts stood in the hall. I gathered by the smirk on his face that he'd either been in on the piss party or been told all about it. "Been doing a little laundry?" he asked, trying for bland, but landing square in obnoxious.

A small war ensued inside me as I fought back the urge to deck him. No good would come of it, just more pain, and if he and his buddies really incapacitated me, Jim would be out the use of his guide. So I bit my tongue, nodded, and followed him down to the lobby, which was filled with Cultivateds awaiting their sentinels.

As if I'd been formally announced, they all turned to look at me. Whispers sprung up as they confirmed among themselves that a street rat was indeed in their midst. I'll give them credit, they didn't scatter in panic, just discreetly repositioned themselves so I had a wide path to the door. Jim was waiting for me in the car and it seemed some arrangement had been made, because the guard stopped at the door and allowed me to leave on my own.

I walked to the car with as much nonchalance as I could summon, and opened the door. I wasn't even all the way in when Jim wrinkled his nose and shot me a look.

"What gives, Sandburg?"

I'd held a forlorn hope that the multiple washings and rinsings would do the job, but I wasn't surprised to be busted. It had been that kind of night and that kind of day and Jim was that good.

"Uh, well, when I got back last night, my clothes-you, know, sort of like an initiation rite-someone had…" By the look on his face I could tell that Jim was way ahead of me, but oddly, he didn't say anything, just sat there.

"I'll talk to someone tonight and get everything washed," I assured him, but that didn't stop him from getting out of the car.

"Jim, I can handle this!" I called out, but his long strides had already taken him to the door. I scrambled after him, unnerved by the speed at which he was moving. By the time I got through the throng of guides, Jim was nowhere to be seen. The guys manning the desk were looking a bit pale and shook, so I surmised Hurricane Ellison had blown by them and was seeking higher ground to devastate.

I waited. The Cultivateds were being picked up, one by one, and the lobby was almost empty. I could feel the guards' self-satisfied delight with my damp shirt and was only slightly mollified by the trace of fear I felt underlying it.

In an effort to calm myself, I turned away and watched as sentinels pulled up and Cultivateds waved to the diminishing group and sauntered to the waiting cars. Two of them were close enough to overhear.

"Look at that bovine. My god, his wife is huge."

"It's called being pregnant, Antoine. With twins, no less. But my, she's certainly determined to squeeze Marcel out." They moved closer to the window to study the scene. "Look at how cramped Marcel is in the backseat."

"Wait until there are two baby seats back there."

"Baby seats? That's the least of his worries. Wait until he has to sit with screaming-thing number one, and puking-thing number two. Poor Marcel."

One of them stepped back and shook his head. "That'll be me in a year, just wait. Donnie's really getting serious about Marie."

"No, no, no, Jean-Luc. Donnie's a love 'im and leave 'im guy. You'll be back in the penthouse within six months."

Jean-Luc wasn't convinced. "Thanks for the support, Antoine, but it was Marie who convinced him to move me out in the first place and I don't think she'll rest until she has a ring on her finger. His head shot up and his mood brightened." Oh! There's Donnie, now, gotta fly. See you tonight."

The Cultivateds emotions, even in distress, were surprisingly light…easy. I could see how soothing it would be for a sentinel to be around them. On the surface, they were being bitchy, but the vibe belied that, very odd, but it made a certain sense. Part of the genetics of a Cultivated guide would be eliminating any tendency to strong emotions like anger. Guides were supposed to act as a grounding force, a prism, through which a sentinel was able to focus their gifts. A guide who was prone to anger would muddy the prism-and add stress to the sentinel.

I had to let my anger go. I took a breath and slowly released it, but I still wanted to smack the smug smiles right off the faces of the guards who hadn't stopped watching me as I waited for Jim. I realized my hands were tightly fisted, and I shook them out. At this rate, Jim would come back, pick up my rampaging emotions, and leave me here.

+++

I left Blair in the car and headed for Gregorian's office, taking the steps two at a time, but slowed before I got there. I had reason to be angry-guards who were supposed to be protecting my property had, instead, damaged it. But I was more than angry. I was enraged. I knew that if I made contact with Gregorian now, I might not be able to control myself.

I'd been taught about sentinels and guides. The imperative to protect, the territorialism, the way the bond made you feel whole, connected. I'd had that with Emil and damned if I was going to let the love I'd felt for him be reduced to a matter of genetics and coded behavior and transferred to the next guy in line.

Of course, I'd protect Sandburg. Just as I'd protect Roberts or Mrs. Tupelo. But there was no way I was going to let myself get caught up in him as if we'd bonded naturally, the way I had with Emil.

So some guys pissed on his new clothes. Sandburg would live. I'd let Gregorian know what had happened and that if it happened again, I'd be having my own piss party at his house.

A few deep breaths and the rage ebbed back to manageable anger. I found Gregorian, drinking his Chai tea and reading the newspaper in the library. I put my hand on his shoulder, and leaning in close, like we were guys who understood one another, laid it out for him. He made all the appropriate sounds of outrage, but there was no hiding the hum of satisfaction coming off him. He'd known about it and it had pleased him.

I just barely managed to keep my hold on his neck loose and casual rather than lethal. Making him understand my unhappiness didn't take long and after he quit choking, he apologized and vowed his cooperation. I headed back to Sandburg. The whole time I'd been talking to the toad, I'd been feeling itchy. Not the crawly itch that warned of trouble, just itchy.

Sandburg was standing in the now empty lobby as I came off the elevator, looking like the kid whose parent forgot to pick him up from school. He was turned toward me, and I wondered if he'd been in that exact position since I left, or if he'd picked up on me empathically. I don't know why, but both possibilities bothered me. His eyes widened in question and I shrugged. I didn't pause and he fell into step with me, swinging into the car.

I was surprised by the silence, the comfort of it, the apparent lack of need on Sandburg's to know how I handled it. At normal, the scent of urine was undetectable, so I dialed down.

This morning, our arrival in the bull-pen stirred less interest, though I still caught a few people glaring at Sandburg. We settled in and got busy, Sandburg commandeering the computer after he saw the speed of my hunt and peck method.

"Just tell me what you need, Jim, and I'll look it up and get the information for you."

I was skeptical, but then I fired off a list of people, dates, buildings, last known addresses, common MOs and his fingers flew over the keyboard.

"I didn't realize data entry was one of your skills, Sandburg."

Never taking his eyes off the screen, he answered. "I haven't keyboarded in years, but I guess it's like a bicycle."

In a few moments, he was handing me the first pages which grew to a large stack by the end of the day. It wasn't until we were leaving the building that I realized he'd printed out a copy of everything for himself.

"What do you want with all those?" I asked, pointing to the papers he was methodically putting into some order that wasn't apparent to me.

His head shot up and he asked, "Oh. Maybe I shoulda asked. Can I take these back to Nassau and study them?"

"What for?" There wasn't anything really interesting about this case. The victim hadn't been rich, or famous or even particularly attractive. I couldn't imagine why Sandburg would want to spend an evening going over clinical forensic findings and grisly autopsy reports.

"To help me understand what you do and what you're looking for so I can help you use your senses."

"That's not necessary and I don't need your help to use my senses."

For a moment Sandburg actually looked confused, then asked, "Well, okay, it may not be necessary, but would you *mind* if I read them?"

"Naw. Go ahead, but don't be surprised if it puts you to sleep."

"Thanks."

I had to admit Sandburg was quick to catch on. By Wednesday, he no longer needed me directing his research. By Friday, he was surprising me with information on angles that hadn't occurred to me.

That Saturday, Carolyn and I had a date. Well, calling it a date was stretching it bit. We met at the club. Both of us were running the track. We fell into step and did a few laps and then she said, "Wanna race the next mile?"

I'd barely nodded my head when she sprinted ahead of me. When I caught up to her she gave me sidelong glance, smiled and upped her speed again. I let her outpace me until she was a good sixty feet ahead, then put on a burst of speed and passed her. She had good stamina and a competitive streak so wide it looked like she'd give herself a heart attack before she'd admit defeat. So I slowed down after a lap just enough to let her keep up and we finished together.

After our friendly combat, it just seemed natural to ask her out for a drink.

Three weeks later, I'd closed two cases, gotten a bit more used to having Sandburg being around, had six dates with Carolyn and finally been cleared for active duty.

+++

The first Monday in December started off with a bang when a professor at Rainier killed his T.A. Homicide said it was routine, a basic lovers' quarrel turned lethal. But it turned out that the chief of police knew the victim's father and he'd been implored to put "his best man" on the case.

It could be argued that nearly a year in hibernation had weakened my claim on that title, but between my record and my parentage, I still looked good on paper. When Simon told me on Tuesday that he was putting me on the case because of Chief Manheim's buddy buddy relationship with the Franckles, I protested. "This is stupid. The homicide dicks are perfectly capable and they say it's open and shut."

Simon chomped down hard on his cigar, his irritation with being forced to baby-sit homicide's case spilling over on me. "You draw a paycheck from the city, Ellison?" He didn't wait for my reply; he'd built up too much momentum. "And was there are point in time when I was in a coma and you got promoted over my head?" This time he paused, his artic glare penetrating my bones.

I shook my head.

"So that means if I tell you to scrub the men's john with a toothbrush, you get on your hands and knees and scrub. Correct, detective?" His voice rose to a bellow, vibrating the windows in his office. "So which way would you like to spend your afternoon?"

"I'll get right on the homicide, sir." I gave him a little salute and picked up the file.

He ignored the salute and sat down, looking relaxed. "Get out of here and look into this and write up your report."

Sandburg was waiting by the door, looking anxious.

"Come on, we have work to do." I kept moving and he fell in behind me.

"You don't seem too bothered by the captain's dressing down." A hint of surprise and admiration colored his voice.

"Yeah, well, he's just a big ol' pussycat."

"With big ol' teeth the better to chew your ass out with."

"You've noticed that, eh? The Cap just needed to let off a little steam and I gave him a reason. Saves the women and children from being traumatized."

"You ticked him off on purpose?" Sandburg didn't bother to hide his admiration-or maybe it was just his disbelief that I would be that stupid-at my daring ways.

I hadn't, but I wasn't about to tell Sandburg that. So I kept my mouth shut and lengthened my stride. Sandburg shut up and concentrated on keeping up.

I interviewed Sinclair in lock-up, looked over the confession, examined the body at the morgue, checked out the scene and was expected to put a Sentinel stamp of approval on the whole thing.

But as soon as I got started, I didn't like the looks of it. Sinclair turns himself in, confessing he'd killed his T.A. the day before. Sure enough, the police find Katherine Franckle dead in her apartment. The autopsy confirms she'd been dead a day, strangled. Sinclair says he loved her, had gone to plead his case, and when she turned him down, he lost it and strangled her. I needed to look into this a little deeper.

So Wednesday, I picked up Sandburg and headed to the campus to check out Sinclair's office and to keep an appointment with Chancellor Appleby.

It was early, but there were plenty of kids in transit, some moving purposefully, others in the zombie trance of the late night party animal forced into an early morning class.

Sinclair's office was still swathed in yellow police tape. I ducked under it and surveyed the room. It was a mess, but in a very particular way that spoke of an underlying order that probably only Sinclair understood. The bookcases seemed haphazardly arranged and the books were interspersed with pottery and naked statues of both women and men. Focusing in on some of the titles, I saw that Sinclair's library had a section dedicated to the sexual practices of primitive cultures. Stacks of blue books were lined up, each with a post-it note bearing a date on top.

"Can you smell anything?"

I'd forgotten Sandburg was there. "Smell anything? Like what?"

"Like a particular cologne or perfume, maybe."

"We know who did it, Sandburg. Sinclair confessed." I didn't tell him there was something about the whole thing that bothered me.

"Yeah, I know, but…"

"I know how to do my job, this isn't exactly my first crime scene, kid."

I scanned each bookcase and as I did, scented the air. Tobacco smoke clung to the upholstery, permeating everything in the room, making it hard to smell anything else. Because of Sandburg's challenge, I pushed it and caught an undercurrent of mildew, probably from some of the books, and then, very faintly, I detected a melody of personal scents. Ivory soap, a hair product with alcohol, a man's deodorant-Menan's,

I thought and having sorted through those threads, another scent presented itself-one of those ridiculously expensive designer colognes-and suddenly I could hear Emil in my head correcting me, "Not cologne, Jim-scent. And it's totally delicious. Come on, Jim, find the spot on my body I dabbed it on."

I'd known where he'd dabbed it immediately and seconds after that I was nuzzling the nest of hair that surrounded his cock. It was a scent I would never forget and it was in this room.

"-im, Jim, come on, man, snap out of it. Can you hear my voice?"

Sandburg was running his hand up and down my arm, and suddenly my nose was filled with *his* scent. There was the impersonal odor of industrial soap, and his sweat was tinged with fear. I pushed him away, sickened by it. "I hear you. Just sorting through the sensory information." I didn't look at him, trying to regain the sound of Emil's voice in my head, but it was gone and I turned back to business.

I'd seen all I needed to and checking my watch, I saw that it was nearly time for my appointment with Appleby. His office was in one of the new buildings, perched on the top floor that would give him a spectacular view.

The secretary informed me that the Chancellor was running late and asked if we could wait. She offered us caffeine in every form but chocolate. "Coffee, thanks. Black." Sandburg said nothing, just stood against the wall. "Sandburg? Want something?"

He was studying his shoelaces and shook his head no. Which was weird because he never passed up coffee. Or anything that could be ingested. I countermanded his choice and said, "Bring him a coffee as well, cream, some sugar." That's how he'd doctored his coffee at my house.

I shifted in my seat to address Sandburg directly and said, "Relax, it's bound to be awhile." Nodding, he went to his knees. For two seconds I just looked at him in shock. "Just what the hell do you think you're doing, Sandburg? Making a confession?"

He kept his head down and his hair made an effective screen. "We're in the Chancellor's office, Lord Ellison," he whispered, as if that explained anything.

Lord Ellison? Since when did he use Lord Ellison when we were alone? "Yeah, I know where we are, Sandburg. Did you get a memo saying that the Chancellor had been elevated to a demi-god? Because I didn't get that memo." I couldn't believe he'd embarrass me like this. I tugged on his sleeve, pointed to the chair next to me and he slowly rose and sat down.

"Care to explain that little performance, Sandburg?"

His head was still down, hiding his expression, so I reached over and tucked the curtain of hair behind his ear. His cheeks were pink and he still didn't look at me, but started to answer. "Protocol calls for a guide, street guides anyway, to kneel next to the sentinel whenever we're in public."

I flashed back to a few years ago. There'd been a case down in Seattle. Seemingly out of nowhere, a street gang had morphed into a highly effective crime syndicate. They were smart, ruthless, ambitious and surprisingly tough to crack. Known as the Aldos, they had consisted of eight "families."

After six months of preparation, I'd been positioned to take part in one of the high level meetings of the eight clan chiefs. Ushered into the isolated warehouse under the pretence of being the spokesperson for a family in Las Vegas, I was presented to the eight men who ran the Aldos. They sat at a massive table in a semi-circle. A man kneeled next to each one, and it didn't take me long to realize that although they looked nothing like the guides I knew, they were indeed guides and that every one of the eight chiefs of the Aldos was a sentinel.

The Aldo clan chiefs were a surprisingly motley clue. Unlike most gangs which consist of one ethnic group, this was a mixed lot of mutts. Nevertheless, they had some things in common. Hard eyes, hard mouths, hard bodies…some ignored the men at their feet, some absently petted them, a few had their hands fisted in the hair of their guides, and when they occasionally yanked the guide's head back, I saw eyes so hopeless there was no room for despair.

All hell had broken loose about an hour into the meeting and by the end of the day, five of the Aldo chiefs were dead, the other three were under arrest and I was in the hospital.

I don't know what had happened to the Aldo guides in the end. They hadn't been indicted.

Coming back to the present, I asked, "Did Merrick make you kneel?"

A faint tinge of pink bloomed again on each cheek. "Sometimes. Well…often. Depended on…" he trailed off.

"Depended on what?"

He stared out the window. "There were a lot of variables. Where we were, who we were with, his relative status…the presence of other guides….his mood…how much he'd been drinking…"

Good thing the kid was an empath, you'd have to be to figure out rules that changed on a whim. Still…"So how did you know?"

"I always knelt. And if Merrick didn't like it, he pulled me up. It was better than guessing wrong." He shifted in the chair as if remembering what happened when he guessed wrong.

"Is there a manual out there that explains this stuff? Sets down the rules?"

Shaking his head, he smiled, but it was a very small smile for Sandburg, and said, "Yeah, it's called "The Joys of Guide Ownership" or-"How To Make The Most Of Your Genetics". You can find it at Sentinels R Us."

That hit a little too close to home and my face must've shown my discomfort, because Sandburg immediately put his hand on my arm and started to say something. Before he could, Appleby summoned us into his office and we entered the inner sanctum. It was like a set out of Hollywood. Walls lined with bookcases, busts of dead people, a massive teak desk, behind which, the Chancellor stood. Tidy. We shook hands and I could see that Appleby was a man who was enjoying the height of his power. He had the eyes of a politician, simultaneously congenial and shrewd.

"Detective Ellison, a pleasure to meet you." His eyes slid to Sandburg, dismissed him and came back to me. "I've played golf with your father. He's got quite the handicap."

"So I've heard." By my count, my father must've had about 373 golf partners in the last five years and they were all impressed with his game. I doubt he'd ever hit under 100.I sat down and motioned to Sandburg to take the seat next to me.

"I don't know what you think I can add to your report on Professor Sinclair. There had been no sign of instability before the day he killed Kit-Katherine Franckle-no way the University could have anticipated the man would become unhinged." First things first, cover your ass.

I nodded like all that made sense and added the appeasement, "Often there is no sign." Looking down, I paged through my notebook industriously. "According to my notes, Sinclair was tenured and taught anthropology."

Appleby swiveled in his chair so he could catch a view of the campus. "Yes, he'd been here for twenty-five years."

I gave a low whistle. "Twenty-five years… He must've been a hell of a teacher."

The chair swung back in my direction. "His evals were notable, but I'd say his real talent was grant writing."

The way his mouth tightened as he gave his grudging praise told me a lot. "Did you know him well? Socialize?"

"Not well. I saw him at the usual faculty meetings, chats, fund-raisers. Not socially."

"Did you know Katherine Franckle?"

Heart beat up. Small eye twitch. His grip on the arm of the chair tightened. And something else…

"No, I had never met the young lady."

"Had you heard any rumors about the two of them?"

I couldn't tell if the look on his face was distaste over gossip or the thought of a professor and a TA being in bed together. "No, but then I'm not in the habit of tracking on my faculty's personal lives."

"You never saw them together?"

"I may have, I don't remember. I don't see the point in these questions, Detective. What difference does my knowledge or more accurately, my lack of knowledge of Sinclair, make?"

His irritation was standard and classic and I returned his glare with a bland look of sympathy. "It's just routine. It seems pretty open and shut, but I still have to cover all the ground." I got up and held my hand out. "Thank you for your time, Chancellor. I may be back if any other questions occurs to me."

He released a long breath and then offered his hand, saying, "Of course. And give my regards to your father."

I shook his hand, nodding and gave the expected reply. "I'll do that."

+++

As soon as we were outside, Sandburg bounced in front of me and declared, "He's lying."

"I know it and he knows it, but how do you know it?" I'd picked up Appleby' increased heartbeat when I asked about whether he had known Katherine Franckle.

"He started to call her Kit, and as he did, there was a surge of lust."

I'd detected the pheromones, but not having a file on Appleby, thought it could've been set off by me or even Sandburg, so I was pleased that Sandburg had pinned his reaction to the victim. "Yeah, this whole thing feels off. Sinclair wakes up one day and kills his T.A. No one saw it coming. She's a beauty with limited brains, he's a balding, overweight father of three, and has athlete's foot. Was he obsessed, madly in love? Were they having an affair? No one saw any indication of it, but-"

Sandburg's hand on my sleeve interrupted me. "And then there's the way she was killed."

I'd been thinking aloud, not really expecting Sandburg would bother to listen. "Strangled."

"Yeah, throttled. With bare hands. I don't see Sinclair as the bare hands type of killer."

Sandburg's hands punctuated his words and I grabbed them to get them out my face. How the hell did he know anything about the theory of matching MO's to personality types? "What makes you think that?"

He tugged his hands free. "A guy like that-if he had decided ahead of time to kill her-would've bought a gun, or if he decided in the heat of the moment, he would've run her down with a car. He's not a tough guy, not a guy who has faith in his bare hands. He would've wanted to do this from a distance. I just don't see this guy using his hands that way."

He made a good case. "So tell me, Sandburg, did a detective badge fall out of your cereal box this morning?"

The perpetual motion machine froze for a moment and he lifted his eyes to look at me. It was tempting to scowl, but I couldn't pull it off and Sandburg's face lit up as he caught on to my teasing.

"You know those only come in Cracker Jack boxes," he said, as he whapped my chest with the back of his hand. "I read your DeLargo book on the criminal mind. He's really quite eloquent about the emotional meanings behind the different methods of murder."

Absently, I rubbed my chest, then tugged on one of Sandburg's curls and asked, "So explain why Sinclair confessed."

His blue eyes sparkled with excitement as he looked up at me and prodded. "You said it felt off, remember?"

"Well, I've been wrong before."

Sandburg shook his head and said, "Not often, I bet. Your whole life you've been having hunches that got backed up by sensory information. You know what you know. When you think something's off, it's off."

I didn't need Sandburg's affirmation, but damn if I didn't find myself smiling anyway. "So what is it you think I know?" I didn't try to curb my sarcasm, but Sandburg ignored it and rose to the challenge enthusiastically, spinning out his theory.

"You don't buy Sinclair as the lovesick killer because you didn't detect any pheromones when you interviewed him. Bet you didn't smell any adrenaline either."

The kid was right, but until he said it, I hadn't formed the words around my impression. I'd just known in my gut that Sinclair wasn't a killer.

Putting up his hand, he stuck up one finger. "So either Sinclair killed for reasons other than love," the middle finger came up to illustrate his second hypothesis, "or to protect someone else."

I'd been thinking those same lines. I started walking and Sandburg fell in next to me. "When we get back, I'll check into Sinclair's family and finances a little deeper."

The wind had kicked up and the sun scuttled behind the clouds. I estimated the wind chill effect had turned a moderate 34 degree day into a less hospitable 22 degree day. Adjusting my baseball cap, I looked down at Sandburg. His hair was ruffled into disorder by the steady wind, but he seemed to be oblivious to the sudden drop in temperature.

"The anthropology department might be another place to look at more closely." He looked up at me and I frowned back at him, shaking my head.

"The homicide dicks already interviewed everyone. No one had noticed Sinclair and Franckle being particularly close."

Not to be discouraged, Sandburg plunged ahead. "Yeah, but has anyone looked into the department itself, its finances and who else was close to either Sinclair or Franckle? Maybe see if either had been on any recent expeditions out of the country?"

I stopped and stepped in front of him, my back to the wind. "What're you getting at here, Sandburg?"

Spreading his hands out, as if to indicate an infinite amount of choices, he enumerated a few. "Smuggling. Drugs. Fake artifacts."

Folding my arms against my chest, I looked over Sandburg's head, studying the campus. Clumps of students surged together crossing the street, while a few lone professors carrying briefcases and looking suitably distracted, hurried to class, driven more by the cold than fear of being late, I thought. "What makes you think this might be about drugs and smuggling?"

Sandburg glanced behind his back to see what I was looking at. When nothing struck him as interesting, he turned his attention back to me. "It occurred to me that an anthropology department would be an ideal place to get something organized going. Lots of reasons to go to countries where drugs are grown, lots of reasons to have things shipped in from those countries."

It was a tidy little package he'd wrapped up for me. "Yeah, right, it just occurred to you…" I didn't try to hide my skepticism. I suppose it made sense that he'd have this kind of knowledge-he'd had to have contacts to get his supply of suppressants, probably heard about the college set-up, probably knew a lot about the drug traffic in Cascade, but I didn't like his disingenuous "It occurred to me…." I wanted him to be upfront. Easy to read.

We finished the walk to the car and the ride back to Major Crimes in silence.

+++

I knew I should've just kept my mouth shut. But Jim hadn't seemed to mind my theories at first. As soon as I told him my theory about the anthropology department and drugs, he went cold on me and I knew he was assuming that because I had used to stay sane, I'd been into drugs. But other than the Noxy, I'd never used on the street.

And if Jim had thought about it, he should've known that I wouldn't've. Hell, the last thing I wanted was to heighten what I was feeling. And sedation is almost as bad, relaxing you, leaving you open to any random flood of emotion.

But I couldn't exactly claim total innocence. Merrick had found a number of pharmaceuticals which affected me in ways that had amused him. And his friends. It had started when he was searching for some elixir that would promote a bond between us. Breaking down my barriers was easy and what he liked to do and see done to me was agonizing, but it didn't help us to bond. Merrick had been convinced there was some other kind of barrier in me-and that if he could shatter it, I would be his.

Jim would find out some day. Find out everything. Too many of Merrick's buddies had seen me, taken part in his experiments. One of them would be bound to draw Jim aside and fill him in.

And he was strong enough now to discard me and choose another guide without risking the Taldec.

There was a chance Jim would understand. He knew a guide has no right to refuse his sentinel. It was the deal we made, or in my case, the deal that was made for me. But ironclad, nevertheless.

Guides, for their service, and their bodies and sometimes their souls….were given shielding and a place to live. Food, clothes. Beyond that, it's left to a sentinel's discretion. Some are generous. Some begrudge the expense and resent needing-anything-let alone a guide. Others embodied the adage, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

And let's not forget that the sentinel gets a shielding of a sorts, in return, and sanity and focus, only I hadn't been able to give those things to Merrick. So he'd found other uses for me.

But my failure had left both of us raw and exposed, with drugs as our only shield. Had Merrick been a full sentinel, he wouldn't have been able to outrun the Taldec for six years. It was the sentinel paradigm. The stronger you were-the stronger your abilities were-the more you needed the bond.

That was one of the things that baffled me about Jim. His abilities were extraordinary. At crime scenes, he continually amazed me by what he could see, smell and hear…and the information he had collected with his tongue had made my stomach turn more than once.

But aside from needing to bond a few times after checking out a crime scene, Jim never turned to me. I'm the one who needed to bond. Which made me think he rarely used his sentinel gifts outside of work. That kind of control-over curiosity and senses-was unheard of.

For lunch, we hit Wonderburger and I was starving by then. Jim ordered and I tried not to wolf down my hamburger and fries.

+++

For a skinny guy, Sandburg could really put the food away. As usual, he ate everything on his plate, including the limp lettuce, and then pointed at my plate, at the stray french fry, and my pickle covered with mustard and ask, "You gonna eat that?" When I looked at him like he was nuts, he explained, "Don't want it to go to waste. My mom always told me there were children starving in New Hampshire."

"New Hampshire?" Where did his mother get New Hampshire from? Wasn't it always India?

"Yeah, my mom believed in pointing out it wasn't only third world children who went hungry."

"She sounds-different." Weird.

Sandburg stopped the progress of the french fry to his mouth as he smiled and answered, "She is. Very."

"Where is she now?" I could've bitten my tongue as soon as I asked the question. What the hell made me ask that? What did I care where she was?

Putting the french fry down, Sandburg took a sip of his milkshake. When he put that down, he looked out the window. He wasn't being evasive, exactly, but he sure was taking his time answering a simple question. Finally he looked at me and shrugged. "I don't really know. After Merrick took me, I had no way to keep in touch with her."

As annoying as Emil's mates could be, especially in a group, it never occurred to me to keep him away from them. "Did she live in Cascade?"

The last french fry had been eaten and Sandburg started to tidy the table. "No. I mean, she did, for awhile. We did. But when I got old enough to want to stay, she left Cascade and went back to traveling. She's kind of restless and needs to see new things, meet new people. Learn new things…" He concentrated on gathering the stray crumbs and salt grains into a tidy pile.

The wistfulness in his voice made me ask, "How old were you when she abandoned you?'

His head shot up and he was already shaking it in the negative. "No, no, it wasn't like that. She always came back. I was in school and I liked the school, so she arranged for me to stay. With some people. And she did come back."

I rephrased my question. "So how old were you when she left and you stayed?"

I wasn't expecting the flash of anger in his eyes. He held my gaze with a look that was close to defiance. That would have to be nipped in the bud. He was my guide and would answer any question I asked, and honestly, or he'd be damn sorry he hadn't.

The silence lasted another beat and about the time I thought he was going to make me explain the ways things worked, he answered me. Honestly, if grudgingly. "Eleven."

Eleven… She must've been some flake. "So how often did she come back and see you?" When he didn't answer, I added, "usually."

I kept my voice neutral. Hell, I could manage to stay neutral talking to killers who still had blood on their hands; I'd reign in my contempt for his mother if it made it easier for the kid to talk about it.

His teeth ground together as he gritted them before answering. I suppressed my smile of satisfaction and waited to learn more about his upbringing. "The first time she was gone almost a year-" I think my bland expression must've slipped, because he hurried on to say, "but that's because she didn't have the money to get back. After that, she usually came back at the winter break and to be with me during summer vacation."

Not all that different, really, from the boarding school routine I was shoved into when I was ten. "So she came back for Christmas?"

His eyes popped open in surprise. "Christmas? No. We're Jewish."

"So for Hanukah?"

That made him smile, but it was a rueful smile. "Uh, no. We weren't Jewish like that. Just Jewish enough to find Christmas a secular hoax perpetuated by the merchant class to line their pockets and keep people perpetually in debt. My mom was-is-kind of anti-holiday."

"Not a big Fourth of July fan, eh?"

He gave me his "duh" look, as in, what do you think? "Uh, no. She believed it was barbaric to reproduce the sight and sound of death and carnage for entertainment and put it to music. Sousa was not on her play list." He stacked our plates and put the silverware on top, then moved on to separating the crumbs from the salt.

I caught the eye of our waitress and when she came over, ordered another round of french fries, then went back to Naomi Sandburg's take on holidays.

"Birthdays?"

Sandburg leaned back, a small smile on his face. "Well, you know, she just wasn't into manufactured events. Not a believer in calendars and clocks. Every once in awhile she'd just make a special dinner and tell me how glad she was that I'd been born. Then she'd sing Happy Birthday."

Now that, I admitted, sounded nice. No stupid presents and trumped up excitement. No clowns that were creepy instead of funny and magicians who couldn't fool a three-year old. No adults sipping their martinis from the sidelines and gossiping about who was cheating, who'd had an abortion, who was broke, who wanted a divorce…

The french fries arrived and I brought my attention back to Sandburg, who abandoned his landscaping project and dug into the massive pile with enthusiasm.

"So how did you get along with your foster family?"

His eyes left mine and dropped down, telling me I wasn't going to like the answer. "Well, it wasn't exactly a family." He was looking at me and I watched him working out how to explain-how to make me understand-the situation he'd been in. Finally he plunged ahead and said simply, "They were more like a group of friends."

"A commune," I said flatly. She'd left an eleven-year old kid-her eleven-year old kid-with a bunch of pot smoking, vegetable eating, sun worshippers who probably swapped partners and cleaned the house in the nude.

Sandburg laughed as if I'd spoken out loud. "Nothing as philosophical as a commune. They were just a bunch of friends that lived in the same house."

"How long did you live with these-friends?" I thought maybe he'd finally gotten enough to eat when he started dragging a french fry through the ketchup and using it to make designs on his plate.

"Till I was 14." His eyes remained on his plate, studying where he wanted to go with his design.

"Your mom decide to come back then?"

He shook his head, keeping it down, still concentrating on his art. "No," and when he didn't say anything more, I almost told him to forget it, I didn't need to know.

But finally, he raised his eyes and I recognized the challenge in them as well as pain. "I hit puberty and the empathy kicked in. They didn't like having me around any more. I made them uncomfortable. Empaths make most people uncomfortable."

Hell, puberty alone made most people uncomfortable, let alone having a teenager around who's able to tune into all the stuff people try to hide. "Yeah," I tipped my head back against the plastic cushion, thinking about how people reacted to mutants, "sentinels aren't too popular as roommates either."

Shock mixed with a little outrage flitted across Sandburg's face, and he shook his head, saying, "Not the same, man, and you know it."

He had a point. Sentinels were, at least, given respect. "Maybe not. But no one likes knowing there's someone around who can hear every whispered secret, who can tell if you're lying, or who's on the rag…" This time I looked away. People hadn't been happy to see me coming since I'd been declared. I shifted back to Sandburg's story. "So where'd you live after that?"

He'd resumed creating art and with a flourish, finished his ketchup painting, popping the french fry into his mouth. "Here and there." He was going for nonchalance, but his voice cracked, ruining the effect.

"Here and there…you mean you lived on the street." I'd seen enough fourteen-year olds hanging around the mean part of town to know what that meant. "So you-what? Turned tricks, shoplifted, sold drugs to get by?" I tuned into him, heartbeat, respiration, pupil dilation-and waited for his answer.

I gotta give the kid credit, his heart rate stayed even and he looked at me steadily. "No. My mom sent me enough money each month to get by. And the people I'd been with-they felt kinda bad about asking me to leave-so they were always good for a few bucks or a meal if I ran short."

Sandburg was dipping his fingers into the ketchup now, bringing his red smeared fingers to his mouth and licking them clean. It was vaguely disturbing in more than a few ways. "During the day I was in class and at night I stayed in the library until it closed. And it was easy to sneak into the dorms and use the showers."

"Dorms?"

"At Rainier."

"What were you doing at Rainier?"

"I told you," he said, exasperated. "I was going to school."

The University at fourteen? I didn't believe it, but his heart rate was telling me that either he was a heck of a liar or he had indeed gone to college when he was fourteen..

I raised an eyebrow and Sandburg shrugged. "Hey, I told you I was a fast learner. I graduated early and got accepted." He made it sound like there was nothing to it.

"How long did you go there?"

He finished the dregs of the malt with an ugly slurp. Sighing, he put the glass down and said, "I think I might burst."

"How long did you attend Rainier?" I repeated.

Slouching down, he resumed the conversation. "Till I was eighteen. After that you have to come up with tuition."

There was lingering disappointment in his eyes and I didn't get it. I hated school. Hated college. Okay, hated college less, but I was still delighted to get out. I thought about the kid in my quantum physics class. Geeky seventeen-year old whose arms and legs looked too long for his body and who'd doodled through the whole class out of boredom. A class I'd had to work my tail off in just to earn a B. That could've been how Sandburg was, back then. Though thinking about it, I couldn't imagine the geek in my class surviving if he'd had the misfortune to be born a street rat.

"So did your mom know you were living "here and there"?"

For the first time his heart spiked. "No. I told her they let me live in the dorms." The lie still bothered him because he hurried on to justify it, saying, " I really liked my classes and I wanted to stay."

"I get it. Just seems like you had to grow up kind of fast."

"Everyone I know grew up fast."

He was right, of course.

+++

Jim found a desk with a computer and directed me to start looking into Sinclair's finances. The afternoon passed quickly, although in the end I didn't have much luck uncovering anything unexpected. Jim called it a day at six and drove me home. He was humming, so I assumed he'd uncovered something. I didn't ask.

Once again he dropped me off and drove away, letting me walk in on my own time. He had no idea what it meant to me, to have the two minutes and a fifty foot stroll to myself. How could he? His own life was limitless, unfettered except for his intermittent need to bond, and he had that covered.

The days were getting shorter and already it was dark. I looked up at the sky and saw the brightest stars peeping through the light pollution. All too soon I'd come to the end of my walk and was opening the door, stepping back into my fetters. The lobby was full of Cultivateds heading to the dining room. They looked me up and down and then once again parted, creating a path for me.

I started to say, "Sandburg," but I refused to reduce myself to just 'Sandburg'. Although I had to admit, it was a step up from "29".

"Blair Sandburg," I announced and then waited. This time it was ten minutes before the guard called for an escort. It didn't bother me to wait. I thought about the Sinclair case and listened to the conversations around me.

"Ce qui elles donnent Sebastian?" ("What did they give Sebastian?")

"Ambiant. Il l'a dit lept comme un bébé." ("Ambient. He said h slept like a baby.")

"Je voudrais une partie de cela." ("I'd like some of that.")

"Je n'ai pas su que vous avez eu l'insomnie." ("I didn't know you had insomnia.")

"Je pas , je voudrais juste une partie de cela." ("I don't, I'd just like some of that.")

Those voices faded, as others came in loud and clear.

"He wants to go sailing. Sailing. I can't swim, I get seasick and bored out of my mind."

Another admitted, "Joseph wants me to take classes."

"What kind of classes?" His friend sounded horrified.

"Any kind. He doesn't care, he said. Take physics, he says, or German, or Tarot or aerobics. Just take something." His voice dropped and he asked, "Do you think he's getting bored with me?"

"Bored with you? Never." They clustered close to him, stroking his arm, reassuring him he was a fine and scintillating fellow, (though of course, they didn't use those words exactly) and soon drifted towards dinner.

Smells from the dining room wafted into the lobby. They were having roast beef and my stomach rumbled. I sternly told it to knock it off-hadn't I filled it past capacity at lunch? But that had been five hours ago and my stomach wanted something more than memories.

The escort showed up, another one I'd never seen, but definitely of the same gene pool as all the others. Nearly as broad as he was tall, with a nice layering of fat over well-developed muscles, he put a heavy hand on my shoulder and it felt like a ten pound weight. "Let's go, Ratty." His fingers dug into the muscle along the top of my shoulder and I moved, hoping he'd ease up. He didn't.

We left the jumble of voices, the warm light and the delicious scent of dinner and moved into the cool, dim corridors. By the time we reached the elevator, I'd lost feeling in my fingers. He reached across me and punched six, then punched me, hitting me in ribs that hadn't finished healing from the last time.

Smashed against the elevator door, I was pinned in place by his hand around the back of my neck. Three more blows followed and then the 'ding' announced we'd made it to the sixth floor. The doors opened and I stumbled out, my assailant simultaneously holding me up and dragging me along.

When we arrived at my door, he pressed me against the wall, his knee in the small of my back, as he pushed the button to unlock it. Then spinning me around, he lifted me up as if I were a five-year old child and he was my dear uncle. I was limp, just barely conscious, unable to focus as I hung in the air, my feet off the ground. He shook me hard and I swear I felt bones rubbing together. My scream was feeble and he ignored it.

"I know your kind, rat," he growled. "You're all sneaky little whores who use God's gifts to pervert men, preying on their weaknesses. I'll be watching you. You so much as wink at anyone in this place and I'll make this encounter feel like a gentle massage."

He tossed me into my room and I landed on the floor in a heap. Afraid that he would continue the beating, I tried to get on my hands and knees, but had barely lifted my head off the ground when I heard the door close and lock.

Sinking back down to the floor, I didn't move, knowing I was as comfortable as I was likely to be anywhere. I stayed down until my need to piss overwhelmed my desire to avoid more pain.

Getting to the bathroom was a series of ups and downs, ups and downs, tedious and exhausting. I made it, but urinating was a bitch, one of his fists had connected with my kidney, the one that had gotten pummeled before. My scream echoed in the tiny room. Collapsing on the floor, the cool tile on my overheated face was comforting.

I awoke to find myself still on the bathroom floor. The sink made a good crutch and I pulled myself up and stared at myself in the mirror. I looked green in the florescent light, but there were no new marks, he'd been careful about that. The morning's piss was less painful and I stifled my cry by biting my lip. Shambling toward the bed, I saw that it was six. Jim would be picking me up in a forty-five minutes.

Veering away from the temptation of pillows and with as much speed as I could manage, I undressed and got in the shower. The water felt good and I added more heat into the mix. By the time I finished, I was clean, my muscles had loosened up and I felt almost capable of movement.

My clothes had been laundered and I got dressed with slow clumsiness, hoping nothing happened today that would require me to break into a run. I was ready when the door opened and a new escort stood in the door.

"Come on, time waits for no man," He beckoned me out, and I followed.

"Busy night?"

I looked around, but there was no one in the hallway besides me. He was talking to me? "Not busy, exactly."

"You're walking like you either got lucky or…" He was talking to me. And there was nothing in the tone of his voice, or his aura, that suggested anything but casual friendliness.

"I -um…" I had no idea what to say to him. I hadn't had a casual conversation in six years.

The elevator doors opened to the lobby and he led me toward the front door. "They said to stay with you until your sentinel arrived. My name's David, by the way." He paused, looking at me expectantly and then said, "This is the point where you say, 'Hello, David, my name is'…."

I blinked a few times, and then blurted out, "Blair." What planet did this guy hale from? "Uh, didn't they brief you about me?"

"Yeah, you're Lord Ellison's guide." David was fishing around in his pocket and finally came up with a pack of gum. Pulling out two sticks, he handed me one. " I gather you're different than the others here. Something called a street rat."

I shrugged and raised my eyebrow. "And…?" Come on, drop the shoe already.

David popped the gum in his mouth and got it going. "Look, I know all that means something to everyone here, but I'm from Canada. It'll take me a little longer than a twenty minute orientation to absorb all the nuances of who's up and who's down in this place. And longer than that to make me care."

I realized my mouth was hanging open when David reached over and pushed my chin up.

"How did you ever get hired?"

He grinned and it was infectious, but I didn't let myself respond. "I needed a job and I know how to play along. This gig pays well, and for some reason they had a urgent need for security guards here."

Jim's car pulled up and David opened the door, "See you later."

I kept my eyes on him as I exited, and said nothing. Too stunned to say a word, to tell the truth.

+++

He got in the car, moving like he'd slept all wrong, a look of shocked incredulity on his face.

"What?"

"That guard…" he gestured vaguely to the residence.

I slowed the car. "That guard did what?" I was getting damned tired of these guards and the shit they kept dumping on my guide.

"He talked to me."

I stopped the car and turned to look at him. "And what did he threaten you with?"

Sandburg shook his head. "No, Jim, he talked to me. Told me his name."

"Told you his name, did he?" I started the car.

"Yeah, Jim, he told me his name. David."

"Well, that *is* exciting news."

He leaned back, smiling. "For me it is, Jim."

I didn't like anything about this, didn't trust the guy, didn't like that it meant so much to Sandburg. "Did you-you know-check him out empathetically?"

His head whipped around to look at me, shocked. "No! Jeez, you don't think I routinely check-I don't, I mean, if my barriers are low, I can't help but pick up people's-"

I placed my hand on his arm and squeezed it-bringing his protests to a stop. "Okay, I hear you. I just thought, you know, a guy you never met acts friendly in a place that doesn't exactly bring that out in people and I just thought maybe you'd do it instinctively-out of self-defense."

"You're suspicious of him! You don't think anyone would just want to talk to me. But he's Canadian," he said, as if that explained everything.

"Sandburg, come on. You've lived in the real world long."

His outraged expression faded and his shoulders drooped. He looked away from me and out the window. "Yeah, I guess you're right. I should've realized that, it would be just like-" He shook his head, dismayed. "Man, you'd think I'd know by now-"

I hadn't liked his enthusiasm for his new chum, but I liked his disillusionment less. "Look, Sandburg, I'm paid to be suspicious. I don't know if he's up to no good, he might be a great guy, and lots of people would just want to talk to you."

Sandburg lifted his head off the window and from the corner of my eye, I saw his mouth quirk."Gee, thanks for the pep talk, Wally."

Laughing, I punched him in the arm and he gave me a rueful smile.

"Well, gee, Beav, what's a big brother for anyway?"

We got right to work, but by midmorning I could tell that Sandburg was coming down with something. He was pale, sweaty, and visibly trembling as he typed. A cup of coffee and a donut helped. I wondered if he needed vitamins.

I urged him to lie down, but he insisted on researching the custom records of the Cascade International Airport. It surprised me that he wanted to *and* that he knew how to. The morning passed quickly and quietly.

I had sandwiches delivered and from the way Sandburg wolfed his down, I should have tripled the order, instead of just doubling it. His amazing appetite wasn't affected by whatever he was coming down with. By mid-afternoon, his eyes kept closing and his head kept dipping down.

"Am I keeping you up?"

His head jerked up and he smiled ruefully. "I wish you were, I can't seem to keep my eyes open."

"Use the Bonding Suite. Go lie down."

He turned his sleepy eyes toward me and I could tell the wheels had seriously slowed in his head. Finally he acceded. "Okay. Just for a few minutes." I didn't like the way he was moving, slow and with none of his usual grace and zip. I watched him he make his way through the bull-pen, taking a circuitous route that avoided the people who seemed to find him the most objectionable.

Sandburg's few minutes turned into a few hours. I found him face down, drooling into the mattress. His flannel shirt had hitched up and there was a new bruise over the almost faded old bruise in the region of his kidneys. I pushed his shirt a little higher and saw other fresh bruises. And despite his healthy appetite, he actually looked thinner.

I sat down on the edge of the platform and nudged him.

"Hrummff?'

"Wake up."

"Drufffle."

"Sandburg, wake up." I rolled him over and his face twisted with pain, his eyes opening in alarm.

"Oh. Hi, Jim. What time is it?" He brought his hand up and scrubbed at his eyes, eyes that looked washed out, unfocused.

"What happened to you?"

A huge yawn split his face. "I'm fighting a cold." Heart beat up.

"The cold seems to be winning. It left bruises." I pointed to his exposed torso.

His eyelids dropped down and hid his eyes. He braced his ribs with his hand, and I wondered at the discipline that had kept him from doing that all day. It's instinctive, but he'd fought that instinct to keep the beating hidden from me.

"Why?"

"Some guard was unhappy about-"

I cut him off. "No, why didn't you tell me?"

Heartbeat, which had slowed, sped up again. "You don't need the hassle-"

"Hassle? Someone beats my guide, I don't call that a hassle. I call it assault."

"It was just a random event, it'll all die out soon, you'll see. But if you step in, it'll just take longer."

"It could go like that, or they could decide they had nothing to fear and keep coming back at you." I took his hand and pulled him up. He looked ready to argue and I put up my hand. "Let me think about what I want to do about this, Sandburg."

"Yeah, sure. Where're you taking Carolyn tonight?"

He was using the classic distract and disarm tactic and I let him for the moment.

"You know, usually we're casual, but tonight, I thought I'd take her some place where they have tablecloths."

"Getting serious about her?"

I liked her. She was a big healthy girl and when she smiled, it reached her eyes. Her head didn't seem to be filled with romantic ideas about love and marriage. I liked the way her mind worked, with quick precision, definite, and she had drive, a need to excel.

Still, for all of that, I would rather be spending the evening working out, or watching the Jags. I liked her, but I didn't feel anything for her, and there was none of the coiled anticipation I'd felt every time I'd been away from Emil and knew I would be seeing him soon.

"Serious? I dunno. I like her."

Sandburg was leaning into me, and I realized I'd been idly rubbing his back. He was nearly back asleep.

He roused himself to ask, "Why don't you take her to the Jags game tonight? They're playing against the Wizards, should be good."

I pushed him away. "Did you just read me?" I hadn't felt anything and it pissed me off to think he just dipped in at will to check me out.

He inched away from me. "Hey, chill, man. I didn't read you." He might not have read me before, but his body had registered my anger and he was beginning to shake.

"Barriers low?"

He wrapped arms around his stomach and lied. "Not bad. I'll be fine once I'm in for the night. It can wait till the morning."

Putting my hand in his hair, I tugged him close and laid us back. There really wasn't time for this, but a few minutes would boost him beyond the fragile point. I felt the pulse of his blood through his head and I eased in. Each beat of his heart send a shiver through me. Dub-dub. Dub-dub, like a drum, communicating, each beat gaining weight, strength, filling my head. For a while, we shivered together, then the warmth spread. I'd known he'd needed this; I hadn't realized how much I needed it as well.

Some time later I jerked to awareness, and checked my watch. I had less than an hour to get Sandburg back and pick up Carolyn. Not for the first time, I reconsidered moving him to the Palisade. "Sandburg, we gotta get moving."

This time when he opened his eyes, they were clear and focused. I broke my personal best getting him to the Nassau House, and he had the door open practically before the car stopped.

He called out, "Hope the evening goes well," as I sped away and I heard the amusement in his voice, even as it faded away.

By the time I got home, washed up and changed, the choice for dinner had been made. It had to be casual, as I hadn't had time to get myself buffed to the kind of shine The Blue Horse or Palmer's required. I took her to Lucia's.

The table by the window was free and we settled in amiably, as if we'd been going out to dinner for years.

"You look a little stressed tonight. A break in the Sinclair case?" She had dressed simply, and I realized she would've looked comfortable at Illio's or a sports bar.

"No, still looking for the smoking gun."

She had this way of cocking her head and waiting, like a sparrow watching for crumbs to fall. She did it now and I obliged.

"Sandburg," I paused, unwilling to say he had needed to bond and equally reluctant to say that I had.

As if she understood I didn't want to continue that sentence, she let it drop and asked instead, "So how's he working out?"

That was a perfectly innocuous sentence, but I felt a twinge of irritation that she'd spoken of him like he was a car I was test driving. "He's working out fine. I'm stable, I'm focused, he's useful."

"Useful, eh? In a way beyond grounding you?" Her voice had a catty edge to it, providing the real question, which was, 'are you screwing him?' Her smile was brittle, and then, fine detective that I was, I got it. She was jealous.

My irritation vanished. It was hard enough on her dating someone who was known to be fey'd, but a bonded sentinel added a whole 'nother layer of insecurities into the mix.

The public was perpetually curious about *how* sentinels and guides bonded, and we, in turn, were as closed mouthed on the subject as Masons. It had taken them long enough to accept the whole concept of two humans being so dependant upon one another that they needed to stay in close proximity and touch in ways that made them uncomfortable. If they really knew…

So I bit back my impulse to say "Down, girl," and instead admitted, "He's better than I ever expected, to tell you the truth."

"And just what did you expect when you flaunted convention and chose a street rat?" Her voice was flat when she said street rat. She was merely describing, not insulting, and I let it pass.

"Not much, just enough. Mainly, I wasn't prepared to replace Emil. Choosing Sandburg was as far from replacing Emil as I could go and still hang on to my sanity."

She took a sip of wine and savored it. "And he's done more than that for you."

"Yes." Let her think what she would, I wasn't about to explain what I didn't yet understand.

"Keeping him at the Nassau works for you?"

I broke off a piece of French bread and tried to remember if I'd ever discussed Sandburg's living arrangements with her, as I dabbed the bread in olive oil. "It has its disadvantages."

"Like?"

Like he gets the shit kicked out of him on random occasions. "Picking him up and dropping him off adds over an hour to my day."

She nodded, tearing off her own piece of bread. "Hire someone to do it."

It was an excellent, practical piece of advice. The waiter appeared and we ordered and our conversation moved on to other things. Her childhood in Vermont, the Jags' chances at winning the championship, which city got the title of worst weather: Cascade or Seattle. We were in agreement on that one. Cascade.

Our date ended with me taking her home, where she arranged her body against the door in a seductive pose in anticipation of being kissed. I placed my hand on her cheek and enjoyed the softness of her skin, then leaned in and kissed her forehead. Not what she'd been expecting. Her eyes snapped open in disbelief, but before she could say anything, I placed my finger on her lips and said, "I don't want to rush this. Thank you for a lovely evening."

+++

Sandburg was hunched over the computer when I got in late the next morning. He didn't look up from the screen when I sat down, his eyes scanning some customs document. "Morning, Jim."

I waved a hand vaguely at him in greeting, my mind on other things. My father had shown up on my doorstep this morning with four boxes of Emil's "things" that Emil had had with him at the hospice. For some reason he'd wanted me to open them right then.

"I forgot Emil had me take them from the hospice for safekeeping. Found them when I was looking for some tax info. I knew you'd want to see whatever's in them right away."

I know the look on my face must have conveyed my shock as my father looked contrite and said, "I'm sorry I didn't remember sooner."

It wasn't that. What the hell was he doing here with this stuff at seven in the morning? "I can't believe you brought them over yourself. Why didn't you just send Digby with them?"

"Do you know how old Digby is? He just turned 72. He sleeps until ten in morning. Besides, Emil was part of the family, I wanted to hand them over to you personally."

Since when had my father considered Emil "family"? Well, maybe family the way his dog Nietzsche was.

He'd had no objection to Emil as my guide, in fact, he'd congratulated me on my choice. All Cultivateds were attractive-but Emil had been stunning- when he entered a room, everyone knew he was there. But when we became lovers, my father's attitude cooled considerably. To him, this was a bit like sleeping with the pool boy. If you were going to do it, you did it quietly, in a cabana on the lunch hour. You didn't live with them and work with them and bring them along to Sunday supper.

Sentinels were a mixed lot. Most were bi, a few were fey'd, and fewer still were hets. My father had hoped I'd be one of the few, hopefully het, but he would've settled for bi. It was that whole progeny thing.

Sentinels and guides often fell in love. Sometimes it was good and lasted. Often it cooled and each settled into a comfortable working arrangement. Sometimes only the sentinel's feelings cooled and then the guide either accepted the change or, if he fussed too long and too hard, got discarded. A guide losing interest changed nothing

My father had his pocket knife out and was ripping the first box open.

"Dad, look, I appreciate this, but I don't have time right now. I'll look at all this tonight."

"You don't have time? You don't have to be to the precinct until eight."

"I have to pick up Sandburg first."

"You mean that-"

I interrupted him. "I mean my guide."

"Send Roberts to fetch him. It's ridiculous that you have to leave home forty-five minutes early to pick up that…"

My glare kept him from finishing his sentence. He clamped his mouth shut and opened the box, pulling out some books. He started to open the one on top and I snatched it away from him.

"What?" He asked, looking put out.

"Those are Emil's journals and private."

"*You'll* read them." I didn't know why this was so important to him and I really wasn't sure I would, but I reassured him anyway. "Privately."

Harrumphing his displeasure, he put the stack of books in my hands. "Let's see what else is in here."

"Dad," I was beyond exasperated. "Tonight, all right? I'm off to work now."

"That's all right, Jim, I'll unpack them for you."

Sighing, I punched the intercom. Roberts calm voice answered. "Yes, sir?"

"Go pick up Sandburg and drop him off at the police station."

"Yes, sir. What shall I tell him?"

"Just tell him something came up and I'm coming in a little late."

"Very good, sir."

For the next hour, my father and I emptied the boxes, exposing random bits of Emil's life. Besides the journals, there were playbills from the theater, framed photos, old cameras, an old dried up set of oil paints, a stamp collection, the Jag's cap I'd given him, and a jewelry box. Inside, right on top, was the ring I'd given him the night I finally convinced him to take a chance with me.

I picked it up, remembering how I'd agonized over what to give him, and when I saw this ring, gold band with a finely cut emerald diamond, I'd known it was Emil. Once he put it on, he'd never taken it off.

"Emil's ring. You pick that out, or did he?"

"I did."

"Good quality diamond, how many carets?"

"16." I answered absently, staring at it. On Emil's hand it had been beautiful, catching the light, warm and solid. Now in the palm of my hand, it might as well have come out of a Cracker Jack box. It looked big, tacky…I set it back in the jewelry box and closed the lid.

Looking up, I realized two hours had passed. "Now, I really am late. Jesus, I can't believe it's nine thirty already. I have to go, dad."

This time he didn't fight leaving, but got up and nodded. "I'm late, too. But then I'm the boss, so I'm allowed to be late." He clamped a hand on my shoulder and pulled me in close, walking with me to the door.

"Want me to come back tonight, son?" Since when had my father gone into the hand holding business?

"No, dad, that won't be necessary, I'll be fine."

"All right. But I'll be home tonight if-"

"I'll keep that in mind. Now, I really have to get going." I watched him walk to his car. He was talking on his phone before his driver had the door open for him. I'm not sure why I did it, but I sharpened my hearing and heard him saying, "….went well. All we can do is keep-" and the then the door slammed shut, sounding like a bomb going off and I stumbled back, uselessly clamping my hands over my ears.

When my head quit pounding, I remembered that that was why I didn't do that unless I had a damn good reason. The headache that started then was still with me as I sat down next to Sandburg. "Find anything promising?"

He tapped the screen. "Yeah, I think maybe I have. In July, Sinclair signed for one shipment from Bolivia. In August, four, in October seven. All were ritualistic vessels from the eighteenth century. You would think they were preparing for some exhibit, or perhaps for a class, but I checked the university museum, and there's been no pottery installations, nor did Sinclair teach any classes that involved South American rituals."

He looked at me, one eyebrow raised, asking my opinion. I shrugged, it was obvious, but that didn't mean it was right. "Drugs."

"Maybe it was formed into the shape of the bowls, painted to look authentic, shipped in."

The kid was good at this. "That's one possibility. Now to prove that has something to do with Katherine's death."

"Well, first thing is to find those bowls or jars or whatever they are and have them analyzed."

"I'll get Simon moving on a search warrant."

Nodding, he went back to studying the screen and I studied him. Perhaps it was the bluish light of the screen, but his face had shadows I was starting to learn meant his barriers were low. I started to ask him if he needed to bond, then changed my mind.

"I-need to bond." It would've been hard for me to say that if it had been actually true. I never liked to declare my weakness. But since it wasn't true, I found it easy to say the words.

Sandburg looked startled. "You need to bond?"

When I nodded, he slowly got up. "Why? How have you been using your senses since last night?" As soon as he asked the question, he blushed. I grinned, realizing he thought I'd used my senses while making love to Carolyn. I let him think that.

As we walked to the bonding suite, I realized I rarely used my senses outside of work. I'd been young when my senses kicked in, and I'd used them naturally then. That changed when I was seven. I'd listened in on one of my parents' fights and it had been-ugly. They were in their wing, and thought they had privacy, I'm sure. My father said a lot of things I didn't understand. But I did understand enough that when Sally found me I was sobbing in the closet.

My mother had coaxed the reason out of me and my father had known immediately the implications. He had not been happy. Sentinels were a fine calling for the general population, but for a member of the aristocracy, it was-an embarrassment. It didn't help that my abilities became known because I'd been eavesdropping.

At that time, my father was already in line to govern, and he sure didn't want a child hearing his business. I don't remember any more what was said, all I know is, after that, I never allowed myself access to my heightened senses unless I was in class and it was required. I can't say I never used my senses for my own private use, but it was rare. Emil had been as horrified as my father at the idea that I could invade his privacy at will.

Sandburg, of course, didn't have the luxury of being horrified. In fact, he seemed to be under the impression that sentinels were "on" 24/7. With that in mind, and given that I'm a full sentinel, he'd been shocked at how rarely I needed to bond.

Unlocking the door, I stepped in with Sandburg behind me. He visibly shuddered and I frowned. The "Bonding Suite" was little more than an interrogation room with a platform in it. It was grim, chilly, the overhead lighting stark and brutal, the better to put the fear of God into perps. But none of that explained the way Sandburg collapsed face first onto the mattress.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

"Can-can-can't you fe-feel it?" He stammered out through clenched teeth.

"Feel what?"

"All th--the fear, all the pa-pain."

"You're afraid? In pain? What happened?" I knelt down and ran my hands down his torso.

"No-not me. Ever-everyone whose ev-ever been in he-here."

I dropped my hand, stunned by the implications. "You're reading the emotions from people who've been here in the past?"

"Ye-yes."

I rolled him onto his back. Eyes closed tight, he was biting his lip and the shuddering had turned into violent shaking. "Are you able to do this because your barriers are so low?"

He shook his head, saying, "I don't know-this has never-hap-happened before."

"Hold on," I urged, as I climbed on to the platform and positioned myself behind him. Pulling up the heavy blanket, I wrapped my arms around him and tugged him in close. In a few moments, his body temp rose two degrees, but the shaking didn't ease. I put my hand in his hair, cupping his skull, and took a deep breath. I could feel the blood flowing, the pulse of his heart through my fingers and we began to merge.

I had a sense of being pulled down, as if caught in a whirlpool. I held tight to Sandburg, afraid the force would rip him out of my arms, which a tiny part of my brain recognized as ridiculous.

There was the feeling of solid ground and then it hit me. The fear and pain Blair had been talking about. I staggered back from the force of it, and then fell to my knees. Before my strength deserted me entirely, I pulled Sandburg back, retreating from the emotional onslaught. Slowly we left it behind, finding a space that was clear of terror, regrets, shame, pity and heartache.

Now that we were free of the room's ghosts, I concentrated on my guide. His barriers were dangerously low. I never should have sent him to work alone. There was still a lot of antagonism towards him in the station. I could feel the pounding he'd taken coming in. The disgust, the contempt, the distrust. People had learned to keep their feeling to themselves when we came in together, but Sandburg alone was open season.

We lay together and as the merge deepened, we began to breath in tandem. Our hearts slowed and beat in concert. We were on an isthmus, surrounded by water. The wind was fierce, whipping the sea into frothy whitecaps. Like an oasis shimmering before us, the land ahead was lush, a hundred greens melded into one peaceful landscape. Behind us, the land faded into fog, making it impossible to see any landmarks.

The narrow piece of land that linked the two seemed endless, but keeping my eyes on the beckoning refuge, I began the long trek. Sandburg alternated between skipping ahead and lagging behind, and I realized he had no idea how to pace himself.

My own fatigue was growing, but as we drew close to the end of the isthmus, I put on some speed. It was a mistake, as I'd only covered two hundred yards before the ground beneath me fell away. My ankle twisted and lurching sideways, I was pitched down the steep hill.

Behind me, I heard Sandburg yelling my name and before I lost consciousness, I was vaguely aware of his body tumbling down the hill alongside mine.

I opened my eyes and saw, not rocks and water, but gray cement walls. Despite the trauma within the merge, we'd managed to bond, and I could feel that Sandburg's barriers were back firmly in place.

I knew he was back with me when he tensed, then relaxed. "You okay?" His hand covered mine and squeezed it.

"Yeah, I'm fine. What about you?"

"Good." His voice wasn't nearly as strong as I would've liked.

"What about the room-the emotions?"

He curled his body in slightly, then said, "Manageable."

"Just barely." I corrected. Weirdly, I could feel him smile.

"Let's get back to work." As soon as I said that, I felt his stomach rumble. I focused in on the sound and realized I could hear all sorts of things going on inside him. Fluids moving, chemical reactions, red blood cells being formed, bits of him being renewed, bits of him dying. Placing my hand on his abdomen, I could sense how empty it was, and that his kidneys were still bruised. For the first time, I noticed he smelled funny.

Off.

I moved away and before he could take that as a signal to get up, I rolled him onto his back.

The smile on his face faded as I studied him. My first thought was he'd taken something, was high. But there was no sign of that-his eyes and heartbeat were normal, and I believe I would have sensed something like that in the merge.

"What?" His voice and face said he had no clue what I was looking for. There was no alarm, no sudden realization that the jig was up.

I figured out what I was wrong. "You smell funny. You're in ketosis."

"What? I took a shower. I washed my hair. As far as I know, I didn't walk in anything or spill anything."

I knew the kid was eating, I'd watched him eat twice as much as I did at lunch. But for some reason he wasn't absorbing calories. Emil had smelled like this at the end.

Sandburg kept asking me what I was talking about, but I waved at him to be quiet and taking out my cell phone, called Roberts.

"Yes, sir?"

"Call Dr. Dixon and tell him I'm bringing my guide in for tests."

"Yes, sir. What time shall I tell Dr. Dixon you'll be in?"

I looked at watch. It was 12:30. "Tell him I'll be in at 1:30."

"Very good, sir. Might I ask, is Mr. Sandburg all right? Is it the flu that's going around"

"I don't think so, his symptoms suggest other things, but I'm going to find out"

Sandburg's face was now blank and I felt a wave of irritation that he was hiding his reactions from me. Wisely, he'd stopped questioning me, and got off the platform, then waited for me to unlock the door. I didn't bother going back to my desk.

I know it was irrational. There had been at least four occasions when Sandburg should've seen a doctor and I hadn't taken him. And now he smelled funny and I was rushing him there as if he was bleeding to death.

Well, maybe it was irrational, but I'd known all those other times what was wrong with him. Been able to measure his vital signs, check for internal injuries, gauge the extent of the damage. Today I had no way to get a bead on what his fucking cells were up to. All I knew was that they were up to something and it wasn't good.

The clinic waiting room was packed with people sneezing and hacking. Several people sat on the floor. Dixon's nurse met me at the door and escorted me into Dixon's office. "It's just a zoo, Lord Ellison. Dr. Dixon said you could wait here while he looked your guide over. He should be free in just a minute."

I pointed to a chair and Sandburg sank into it. I was too wound up to sit, so I paced around reading and rereading Dixon's diplomas, poking at the model of a spine he had on his desk and barely holding myself back from rifling his drawers.

It took longer than a few minutes, but eventually Dixon came in, his manner hearty and cordial. "Lord Ellison! What a pleasure to see you. Your man said you were concerned about the new guide." He gestured toward Sandburg and asked, "What seems to be the matter with him? He doesn't look like he's caught the flu bug."

I cut to the chase, anxious to find out what was wrong. "He's in ketosis."

Dixon studied Sandburg more closely, pursing his lips, then reached out and took Sandburg's wrist.

"His pulse is 59."

Dixon pulled out his thermogun and I added, "It's normal for him, he's generally a little cool. 97.6."

Dixon peered over his glasses at me in irritation. "All right, let's get some tests going." He motioned Sandburg to follow and Sandburg reluctantly did, his eyes never leaving mine. I had nothing to say that would reassure him.

"How long?" I called after Dixon and he turned around and said, "I don't know. Maybe a few hours. I'll bump him ahead, but the lab's a little backed up as you can see. Look, you don't have to stay, I'll call you."

"I'll stay." I sat down in Dixon's comfortable chair and listened to their footsteps click along the linoleum floor.

Dixon began questioning Sandburg. "You're considerably underweight, how's your appetite?"

"It's fine."

"Do you take drugs?"

"No." The question didn't surprise him and there was no outrage in his voice.

"No?" The doc didn't sound convinced. "Do you have trouble sleeping?"

"I sleep six, seven hours."

The sound of a curtain swishing open told me they'd reached the examining cubicle.

"Strip and get on the table, face down."

I listened to the sounds of Sandburg undressing. Dixon didn't bother to leave the room and when I heard his sharp intake of breath I knew he'd seem Sandburg's damaged body..

"You-someone's-" Dixon's sentence just trailed off. "Lord Ellison must find you quite a handful to discipline you so-thoroughly."

"No!-it wasn't Lord Ellison." Sandburg groaned and I realized that Dixon must have been touching a tender spot.

"Some of these bruises are quite recent."

"A misunderstanding with some guards. Not Ji-Lord Ellison."

"So who-um-left these scars?"

Sandburg was silent while my mind was screaming Gavin Fucking Merrick did this. My hands were in fists and I was halfway to the door before I stopped myself. What the hell did I think I was going to do in there? Sinking down into the chair, I put my head in my hands and forced air into my lungs. Why the hell was I reacting so strongly to information I already knew?

The first night we'd bonded, I'd seen Merrick's handiwork. Guides got beaten on occasion, and I'd seen the brutal aftermath of sentinels out of control, but I'd never seen anything that approached torture until Sandburg.

The sound of a pen scratching across paper grated on my nerves and made me come back to the present. "What was used here? A whip? A belt?" There was an underlying tone in Dixon's voice that I couldn't quite put my finger on, but it bothered me. "The scars on your ribs were made by third degree burns."

"I guess so."

A barely audible groan told me Dixon was continuing his survey of Sandburg's body "One of your ribs is cracked."

"It's healing."

There was a pause and then Dixon asked, "Are you cold?"

"Yeah, can I get dressed now?"

Even I could hear his teeth chattering. Dixon ignored his request.

"Lack of body fat makes you more sensitive to the cold. Spread your legs." The sound of rubber snapping told me Dixon had put on gloves.

"What?" The sound of Sandburg's fear sent a jolt through me and once again I was on my feet headed for the examining room.

"I want to check your prostate before you urinate."

I stopped at the door and went back and sat down.

I heard Sandburg's soft grunt of discomfort, but I ignored that. Even a guide who was used regularly would find a rubber-clad finger probing him uncomfortable.

"Hmmm, cant your hips a bit." Small sounds of discomfort were mixed in with Sandburg's ragged breathing. "There's scarring. From the looks of it, you were worked over pretty good. Any complications from it?"

"No," was Sandburg's terse reply and then he sighed. I imagined Dixon had finally finished examining the past damage and removed his finger.

"All right, get up. Take this and give my nurse a urine sample Leave the cup in the niche there, then wait for me."

I eased my focus away from Sandburg and Dixon, knowing there wouldn't be much to listen to for awhile. I'd called Simon on my way here and informed him I would be gone for the rest of the afternoon. Now I placed a call to the man who had done some work at the Palisade and told him what I needed done at CPD. "By tomorrow."

"Sorry, guv, can't be done that fast."

"Hire enough men to get it done that fast."

"Not about manpower. The taping has to dry, the primer has to dry, can't do anything about the floor until the paint's been put on and dried."

"Use a blower. A heater, whatever."

"Well if you're willing to go all out like that, I can have it done in 36 with a full crew on. Gonna be pricey."

"Do it and send me the bill."

"You got it, your lordship."

I hung up and rubbed at my temples. The headache that had been a background ache was now making its move into the big time. My eyes hurt, and I closed them, shutting out the light for a few moments.

I must've dozed off because I startled awake when Dixon came in. It was close to an hour later. "So what did you find out?"

"His blood sugar's low, his electrolytes are off and yes, he's in ketosis."

"Why? What is it? Cancer?"

Dixon smiled reassuringly and said, "No, he's just not eating enough."

"Not eating enough? You should see him, he eats like a horse. Did you check him for a tapeworm?"

The doc laughed at that and said, "There's nothing wrong with him that more calories won't cure. One meal a day is not enough in the long run."

"One meal a day? What the hell are you talking about?' I made a grab for the clipboard, but Dixon clutched it to his chest and frowned at me. "Tell me what's going on."

Dixon relaxed a fraction and said, "When I told your guide that I was going to have him admitted to the hospital to run more comprehensive tests in order to discover the reason for his unexplained weight loss, he told me it wasn't inexplicable, that he only ate lunch."

Only lunch? I pushed past Dixon and headed back to where Sandburg was stashed.

Sitting on the examining table, legs pulled up to his chest and his arms wrapped around them, head tucked down, he was shaking with cold. His clothes were nowhere in sight. When I walked in, he looked up, then looked away, embarrassed. Taking off my jacket, I put it around his shoulders and gave him a little shake. "Where the hell did they put your clothes?" I growled softly in his ear.

A shake of his head was the only reply he seemed able to make. Leaning in, I put my arms around him and pulled him close to my chest, then started to rub his back vigorously, hoping to get some heat generated. When I heard someone passing by in the hallway, I yelled, "Get Sandburg's clothes in here and a heated blanket."

Dixon came in a moment later. "I'm sorry, Lord Ellison, I got caught up in tracking on your guide's blood work and completely forgot I'd left him in here without his clothes." He looked down at the file and said, "The tox screen looks good, and while his blood sugar is low, I don't think there's anything wrong with him that a few good meals won't cure."

"His clothes?"

For the first time Dixon looked directly at Sandburg. "Oh. Yes. Diane should be in with them any moment."

Diane came in on cue, carrying both Sandburg's clothes and a blanket.

"About time." The blanket was ridiculously thin, but it had been heated and I put it around Sandburg's shoulders." I want a copy of Sandburg's records before I leave," I said, as I put Sandburg's socks on feet that felt like ice.

"Why? I told you, everything's fine."

Sandburg cooperated as I got one leg in his pants and then the other. "It'll save me the trouble of having his records transferred." Holding onto the waistband, I guided Sandburg off the table. I could feel his tremors as he gripped my shoulders and I quickly got the pants zipped and buttoned and moved onto to getting him into his shirt. Neither Diane nor Dixon bothered to help and I was glad we'd merged just hours before. Even I could feel their distaste-but couldn't quite make out whether it was directed toward Sandburg or the sight of me dressing him.

"You're unhappy with his care?" Dixon was incredulous.

"You call letting a man with low blood sugar freeze in your office for hours, care?" I nudged Sandburg and he obligingly raised his arms so I could pull his T-shirt on.

"Well, I hardly call that neglectful-he's a street rat, after all. My God, look at him-" Dixon was gestured carelessly at Sandburg, then finally looked at my face. He dropped his hand and backed away, saying, "I did-didn't realize you were fo-fond of him, m'lord, I'm sorry-but how would I know? I mean, who wou-would think you would actually ca-care…" he was still sputtering as he backed out of the room.

Blair's hand on my arm stopped me from following him out and telling the little weasel exactly how he should've known as I rearranged the bones in his face. My anger cooled as I considered Dixon's words. Was I fond of Sandburg? As soon as I asked myself the question, the next logical one popped up. What difference did that make? Fond or not, he was my guide and I expected him to be treated with respect and care.

Sandburg's hand was still on my arm, and where it touched my skin I could feel a warm, sort of buzz, like electricity humming. I realized I felt it whenever our skin made contact, but now the electrical hum, instead of the steady flow that I usually felt, was stuttering just a bit.

Picking up his shirt, I handed it to him and he put it on, but I could see it would take him ten minutes to get the buttons done and I knocked his fumbling fingers away and quickly finished the job. His sweater was still turned inside out and I left it, shoving it over his head and pulling his arms through the sleeves.

When he was finally dressed, he was panting slightly and his face was flushed. Looking down at him, I wondered how I had missed the weight loss. Maybe because he wears three layers of shirts most of the time. Maybe because I generally had no need to look at him. He was usually behind me or next to me. I thought about it, realizing I actually made it a practice not to look at him. I'd have to think about that, but now I had a different mystery to get to the bottom of.

"What's this one meal a day about?" I looked at him and he looked away again, shuffled his feet, sighed, and looked back at me. It was a little ritualistic dance I called "Sandburg Considers Prevaricating" that I was getting way too familiar with.

"I-um-didn't want to tell you…because I didn't want-I didn't want to bother you-I mean, a guide shouldn't be such a hassle-you've had to step in several times already and really, this would blow over eventually..." He trailed off, shifting his weight, fidgeting and I stayed silent, waiting to hear what it was he hadn't wanted to tell me.

"Uh, a little while ago, they stopped sending up meals."

"A little while ago? How little?"

Again, his eyes slid away and I could almost see the little wheel turning in his head, as he debated how to minimize this, but finally he sighed and said, "The day you bought me all those clothes."

I calculated ."Jesus, Sandburg! That was almost three weeks ago. How long did you plan on getting by on a donut and lunch?"

At my shout, he'd stepped back, his hands up. "It was always a big lunch."

I didn't say anything as I tried to grapple with my anger. My anger at Gregorian wasn't hard to file under "To Be Dealt With" but I was nearly as angry at Sandburg. Ever since I'd discovered the bruises, I'd known I couldn't trust Sandburg. He didn't seem to understand how vital his well-being was to me and now it was crystal clear how unreliable he was about looking after himself.

I took him back to Nassau House, but instead of dropping him off, I double parked and went in. Sandburg had taken my silence as a warning to keep his mouth shut and he hadn't said a word since we left the clinic.

"Go to your room; I'll pick you up tomorrow morning at the usual time."

Nodding, he moved toward the sign-in desk. I left him there and went to deal with Gregorian. Sandburg would be eating well from here on out; but Gregorian might be taking all his meals in liquid form for awhile.

***

Oh, man, Jim was *so* pissed. His anger pulsed through barriers that were barely functioning, thanks to the beating they'd taken at the doctor's office.

I ran into the doctor's attitude a lot, but usually I wasn't naked and forced to bend over. Hatred and fear I could cope with. Loathing and disgust were harder. But utter indifference, being treated as if I wasn't there, as if I were deaf, dumb and blind and without nerve endings, was the most brutal. It was if my barriers got freeze-dried then shattered into a million pieces.

As soon as we got in the car, I clamped my mouth shut to stop them from chattering and tried to contain myself. The last thing Jim needed right now was me begging him to bond. He was *so* not in the mood for a merge.

I guess I should have told him. But I didn't want-I don't want-him to have to keep rescuing me. He'll never keep me as his guide if I'm constantly at the top of his to do list.

He's getting serious about Carolyn. They'll probably get married and start a family. Between work and his soon-to be-expanding home life, he'll want-need-a guide who's low maintenance.

I held on, and Jim kept his eyes on the road. When we got to Nassau House, he stopped the car and I got out, but this time he escorted me in. As soon as we walked through the doors, he said, "Go to your room; I'll pick you up tomorrow morning at the usual time," and waited until I made it to the check-in desk before striding toward Gregorian's office.

Bixby was on and I got a full frontal assault of his hate. It seared right through me and I had to put my hand down on the desk to steady myself. Bixby swept it off, snarling, "You don't *ever* touch the desk, rat." Denied the support, I went down, hitting my head on the edge of the desk.

I don't remember anything after that until I woke up in the infirmary. Right away I could tell I'd been shot full of Halyconic. I was floating in a chemical cocoon. It was nothing like the aftermath of a bond, when my barriers were back up and strong, but it was a hell of lot better than being raw and exposed.

My head hurt and I put my hand up, feeling the neat butterfly bandage over my left eyebrow. I could just imagine how Jim was going to feel about this. The light came on and I shut my eyes against the pain that caused.

Someone came in, his footsteps loud on the tile floor. He said nothing, skipping the kind of preliminaries he would've used with anyone else. He came over to where I lay and lifting up my eyelids so he could check each pupil. The light from the flashlight lanced through my head, but my instinct to turn away was stopped by the hand in my hair that kept me in place.

"What's your name?"

"Sandburg." I didn't have the energy to say 'Blair'.

"Where are you?"

I wasn't actually sure I hadn't been moved, but I said, "Nassau House." That seemed like the right answer, as he turned off the flashlight he was using.

As he moved away, I realized how cold I was. "Could I have another blanket?" I didn't really expect him to respond, but he did, opening up a closet and bringing me one of the blankets from the stack in there. He shook it out and placed it over me, then left, snapping off the light just before he closed the door.

Curling up, I ducked my head under the blankets and soon warmed up. I wasn't looking forward to tomorrow. The night in the infirmary would be reported to Jim. I don't know if it was the Halyconic or the knock on my head, but I didn't feel up to thinking about how I was going to explain this.

Tomorrow would come soon enough and then I'd know how deep a hole I was in.

++++

By the time I got done with Gregorian, his smug confidence had been replaced with the knowledge that not only was he out of a job, but he would be facing charges of negligence and abuse. I left him still maintaining he had nothing to do with withholding food from my guide. I considered taking Sandburg with me, but he'd been settled in for an hour and might already be asleep. Tomorrow was soon enough.

The headache that had been lurking all day had grown into a raging presence, making me put on my sunglasses to shield my eyes from the florescent lights in the hallway. Post dinner seemed to be a quiet time at Nassau House and I was grateful not to meet up with any Emil look-alikes.

The drive home was hellish. The headache pressed on my eyes, making it a bitch to focus and every pair of oncoming lights stabbed through them. All I could do was grip the steering wheel and keep moving.

I screeched to a halt in from of the Palisade and for a moment, let myself close my eyes. Getting out of the car, I held onto the door, willing my legs to hold my weight, Every step made my bones ache. Roberts came to the door, took one look at me and shut his mouth on his usual evening pleasantries.

Mrs. Tupelo came breezing in from the back of the house, and her normally pleasant Scots accent grated in my ears. "Oh, there you are Lord Ellison. I made a nice bouillabaisse tonight, with Red Snapper and Shrimp and some lovely Cod I got fresh at the market. And then I made-"

I cut her off. "I'm not feeling well, and won't be eating anything tonight."

I might as well announced I planned on giving birth soon. The shock on Mrs. Tupelo's face was almost humorous, but the way I felt didn't allow me to find anything funny in the moment.

"What is it? Were you hurt? Are you coming down with something?" Her eyes narrowed and she looked at me suspiciously. "It's that guide, isn't it? He did something to you."

Even turning my head hurt, but I turned it and replied. "You seem to think Sandburg has infinite powers, but I assure you, he can't bring on flood, create zombies, or force me to catch the flu. It's everywhere."

She had the grace to blush and hurried to say, "I'll bring you some nice, chicken broth after you get settled in, sir. And some tea and aspirin."

"I've got aspirin upstairs; I'll be fine. I just need some quiet."

Mrs. Tupelo started to say something, but Roberts, bless him, gestured for her to be quiet and she stopped. The upstairs seemed miles away; lifting my foot was a chore. Roberts miraculously appeared next to me and, putting his arm around my waist, gave me the support I needed to make the climb.

With his usual cool efficiency, he soon had aspirin in me and my robe on me. Turning down the bed, he asked, "Can I get you anything else?"

"No, I'll be fine. I just need a good's night sleep." I debated telling him that I planned to move Sandburg in tomorrow, but decided I needed to gather the staff together and inform everyone at once and put their fears to rest. I'd deal with it in the morning.

I fell asleep immediately, but woke several hours later. The house was silent and I checked the clock. Three. My throat hurt, my head hurt, the bones in my body seemed poorly joined together. Roberts had thoughtfully left more aspirin and water next to the bed, and I gulped down four.

Unable to sleep, I got up and started prowling around the guest wing. It was seldom used. Hell, it was almost never used, as I wasn't big on having guests. Occasionally, Emil had invited some of his mates over for a weekend.

Although it was furnished, my steps echoed through it as I walked through, making it feel abandoned. The heat was off and it was cold on this side of the house. Everything was clean and dust free, Mrs. Tupelo made sure of that.

It had all the personality of a model showroom, with tasteful choices in draperies and rugs, colors that harmonized, paintings that disappeared into the walls. Not really all that much different from my side of the house. Except it was warmer there.

Before-when Emil had been alive-he house had been lively. The walls throughout the Palisade had all been done in different colors-oranges and reds in the public rooms, cool blues and mossy greens in our room. The windows had been covered in sweeping, drapes, some striped, some abstract, some sheared, some even polka-dotted. The rugs on the floor had all looked like Klee and Mondrian paintings, bold and abstract and as colorful as a crayon box. Emil's eye for design had made it all work.

After Emil died and I was still under sedation, my father had come in and had it all redone. Afraid it would remind me too much of Emil, he had explained, unmoved by my anger.

The first time I walked in after Emil's death, I had thought for a moment that the Madness had already claimed me. The rooms and space that had been my home were now entirely foreign to me. It was if Emil's energy and spirit had been exorcised. The vibrant colors had been replaced with beige and charcoal tones, the rugs were now tasteful Persians, the windows now were mostly shuttered. I'd wandered around, hoping for just a hint of Emil and had finally found it in the study.

It was the one place I hadn't allowed Emil to "decorate" and I guess my father didn't see all the ways Emil had still managed to imprint himself, so it had been left untouched.

But I could still see Emil in his choice of books, the postcards from his mates on their vacations that were propped here and there around his desk, in the severely modern but oddly comfortable desk chair he'd insisted on, even in the way the room had smelled faintly of that expensive scent he loved so much. That's where I'd slept the first weeks after…holding on to the last remnants of Emil, of us, in this new world where neither still existed.

Here, upstairs, no traces had been left to remind or comfort.

I entered one of the guest bedrooms and bounced on the bed lightly. It was a good mattress. The room was large and airy…and cold. But the view was nice; you could see the river from this room. It needed something to warm it up. Maybe a different color on the walls. Maybe wallpaper. Emil would've known immediately what it needed. Laying back against the pillows, I tried to remember the noise and laughter that had filled these rooms when Emil had had his sleep-overs. I couldn't hear anything above the deafening emptiness.

Tomorrow Sandburg would fill these rooms. That thought or the aspirin finally kicking in, eased the pain in my head and I wandered back to my own bed, falling asleep almost immediately.

+++

Mrs. Tupelo put the phone down, her lips pursed into a thin line of distaste. Nassau House had called to say that the rat person had hit his head and was possibly concussed.

Served him right, she hoped his head ached something fierce. Well, she wasn't about to wake his lordship up to tell him about it. The poor man needed his rest and there was nothing he could do about it, now, was there?

+++

In the morning, I awoke, feeling not better, but infinitely worse and knew I was in for the full misery. My temp was up, my head and face ached, and now a cough had been added to the mix. Pressing the intercom button, I called for Roberts. My butler couldn't have been far, because he was almost immediately in the doorway, asking, "What do you need, sir?"

A coughing fit stopped me from answering and Roberts pulled me into a sitting position. He pressed the intercom and ordered Mrs. Tupelo to bring up some hot tea and cough medicine.

As soon as I could talk, I started to fill Roberts in. "Get him settled in the guest wing. Be sure he eats. I want three meals a day brought to him. Fill the refrigerator with juice, fruit and snacks. Until I'm better and can speak with the staff, tell him he's to stay in the guest wing. I don't want him anywhere near me-he doesn't need to catch this on top of everything else. You understand?"

Roberts nodded, and as always, I knew he could be counted on. "Should I call the doctor for you, sir?"

I leaned back against the pillows, feeling washed out and exhausted. "No. I'll be fine. Just see to Sandburg. I want him out of that place as soon as possible."

"As you wish, sir."

I think I fell asleep before he was out of the room and stayed asleep until late afternoon, when a coughing fit woke me again.

I staggered into the bathroom and pissed, avoiding the mirror. For a moment I considered a shower, but had no confidence in my ability to stand long enough for it to do any good. Making my way back to bed, I had a fervent desire to be put out of my misery. Where were all the psycho snipers when you really needed them?

I gulped down a few slugs of cough syrup, swallowed four aspirin and chased it all down with a few sips of cold tea. Getting back under the covers required more stamina and dexterity than I had and I finally gave up before I was more than half-covered. Didn't matter, I fell asleep immediately.

+++

In the morning, a different attendant came in, checked my eyes and told me to get dressed. I swore when I saw what time it was; Jim would be out in front in five minutes. I got up quickly and just as quickly, sat back down again. Between my head and a too few calories, I was dizzy and lightheaded.

Moving more cautiously, I got dressed and waited and when no one appeared to escort me to the lobby, I started to get worried. This was not the morning I wanted to keep Jim waiting, or force him to come find me. At 7:10, I started to pound on the door, yelling that I needed to get to work.

No one responded and thumping the door and yelling was adding nausea to the dizziness. I stopped, and moved back to the bed, sitting on the edge of it. When no one came by 8, I knew what that meant, and crawled back into bed. I left my shoes on; I knew when someone finally came they wouldn't want to wait for me to put them back on. And in any case, it was all over. They'd be coming to escort me back to Bickering. Jim had finally realized that I was too much trouble.

The Halyconic was wearing thin, and even with the Blot on, I could feel how open I was. When someone finally came in at ten, I was too far gone to open my eyes or ask what was happening. Hands pulled me into a sitting position and I was steadied against someone's chest as a needle slid into my arm. It took just a few moments before the drug took effect and I realized whoever was holding me was emanating mild concern rather than the disgust I was used to.

It had to be Jim, he'd come, and that meant that maybe he wasn't ready to discard me.

When the drug did its work of knitting my barriers into some semblance of protection, I opened my eyes to see that it wasn't Jim, but David, the clueless Canadian, who held me.

Jim hadn't come and I was still headed for Bickering. It was strange that they were bothering with the Halyconic, but maybe Jim had told them to do it. He could be very kind, really.

"Better now?" David's voice was low and soothing.

I'm afraid that between my headache and despair, all I could do was nod. David pulled me to my feet and held on to me.

"It's time to go, Blair. I'm sorry we won't get to know one another better, but at least you'll be out of this dump."

I nodded again and shuffled toward the door, ready to get this over with. David kept his arm around me and didn't seem to mind the venomous looks that were shot his way as he guided me to the front door.

I was surprised to see Roberts waiting there.

"Mr. Sandburg, what's happened to your head?" he asked, coming forward and taking me out of David's hands.

David answered. "I called Lord Ellison and left a message last night. Blair fell and hit his head on the desk. Just a very mild concussion. He'll be sleepy for awhile and his head will ache, but he'll be fine. Did they bring down his belongings?"

"Yes, everything's in the car." Roberts opened the back door and guided me in, then closed it gently. I leaned against the window and watched him shake David's hand cordially and in a moment, he slide into the front seat, and started the car.

"Are you comfortable, Mr. Sandburg; warm enough?"

"Yes, thank you." I was miserable, but there was nothing Roberts could do to ease any of the things plaguing me. It was warm in the car and the suspension was so good it felt like we were floating along. I tried to keep my eyes open, to take in the last of the world I would ever see, but I soon found myself dozing.

When I opened my eyes, I was surprised to see we were at Jim's house. "Wha'?" I asked, well, grunted, really.

"We're home. Lord Ellison isn't feeling well, but he said to move you into the guest wing and make you comfortable."

"Jim's not well? What's wrong? What did the doctor say? Does he need to bond?"

Roberts said soothingly, "Don't worry, it's just a cold."

"Oh." I was confused. Why had I been brought here? It would make sense if Jim needed to bond, but he didn't, so why? Maybe he was worried he'd need to merge before he felt well enough to go out and choose a new guide.

I followed Roberts up the stairs, taking a left instead of the right that would've taken me to the rooms I'd been in before. I looked back toward Jim's room, but the Halyconic blocked me from being able to get a read on him. Roberts was talking and I started listening.

"This is the guest wing. You'll be in this bedroom. The bathroom's attached and as well as the Media room."

The bedroom was huge, with a king-sized bed, a writing desk and chair, and a whole seating area by the windows. I didn't have the energy to look into the other rooms, so I hovered close to the first chair I saw, hoping Roberts would tell me it was all right to sit down.

"If you don't mind my saying, you're looking a little worse for wear. Come on, into bed. Mrs. Tupelo will bring lunch up in just a few minutes."

"Bed?"

Roberts had already turned the bed down. He came over to where I was standing and took my arm, guiding me it. After he sat me down, he knelt and took my shoes off, then swung my legs onto the bed and pulled the covers over me.

"Just press the intercom if you need anything." Roberts walked over to the drapes and tugged them close, shutting out the bright morning light. Then he padded silently across the carpet and out the door, shutting it behind him.

+++

The flu had invaded every part of my body and as the fight wore on, my fever climbed. People came in and out, lifting my head up, poring hot and cold things down my throat, wiping the sweat away. I floated, encapsulated in pain, without the strength to lift my head.

Roberts had assured me that Sandburg was here and eating. I was very clear that they weren't to allow him in this room. He was way too malnourished to stave off the infection, and I didn't want him going through what I was going through or worse. People died of the flu every year.

+++

It felt wrong to be laying in bed in the middle of the day and I told myself that I would just lie here for a few minutes and then get up. Good intentions had little power against the pull of sleep and I didn't wake up until Mrs. Tupelo shook me. It was a very light shake, and when I opened my eyes, she was standing three feet away with a frown on her face.

"You're awake. Finally." she announced, as if I wouldn't know. "Lord Ellison said you were to eat every last bite and if you're still hungry, I'm to bring more." The frown deepened and I was very grateful the Halyconic was still in my system, as even without empathy, I could feel her disgust and fear.

"Thank you."

Picking up the tray, she brought it to the bed and placed it over my legs, then as quickly as she was able, backed away from me, folding her arms across her formidable chest. I wondered what she thought I was capable of-what she'd been told and believed about street rats.

I tried to look as harmless as possible, but her frown never wavered. "You may have Lord Ellison and Roberts fooled by your meek and mild act, but I know what you're about. I've heard all about your kind and the many ways you hide your true intentions, so don't think I won't be watching you." Spinning on her heel, she marched out of the room and there was the distinct sound of the door being locked.

Maybe the Halyconic was already wearing off, or maybe it was the concussion, but her speech saddened me and in some strange way, made me wonder if she was right. Certainly the meek and mild part was an act. One learned in the first few months with Merrick. Without it, he would've killed me, as any sign of resistance to his command over me made him ballistic.

So okay, I wasn't by nature meek and mild, or even harmless, but that didn't mean I was waiting until everyone in the house went to bed in order to slaughter them as they slept. I might be an incompetent guide, but I wasn't the devil she seemed to think me.

The delicious smell of the soup finally broke through my thoughts and I pulled the tray closer. It not only smelled delicious, it was heavenly, some kind of fish chowder, the likes of which I'd never eaten before. The bread was still warm and so fresh, it had to have just been baked. I tried to eat it slowly and savor every spoonful, but my hunger overrode my hedonism and I wolfed it down.

When I was done, I pushed the tray away and fell asleep sitting up. Sometime during my nap, someone came in and removed the tray and covered me, because I woke to find myself lying on my side, nestled in the blankets. The room was nearly dark, so it had to be late afternoon. I got up and walked on jellied legs to the bathroom.

It was spacious, with glass blocks making up one whole wall and a Jacuzzi on the other. My stuff had been unpacked and after I took care of business, I brushed my teeth and lathered my face. Taking care not to miss any places, shaving took awhile, and I was still in the bathroom when I heard and then felt, Mrs. Tupelo enter. The Halyconic had worn off and I was blasted with the unadulterated anxiety and revulsion she was feeling at coming into my room.

"Mr. Sandburg?" she called.

"In the bathroom." I clutched the sink, and tried to take a deep breath, but my diaphragm was paralyzed by her toxic emotions.

"Oh. Well, I've put your dinner on the bed."

I wanted to ask how Jim was, but I could barely breath, let alone speak. The door closed, and I sank to the tiled floor. Now that the last of my chemical protection was gone, all sorts of emotions started to become clear.

I could still pick up Mrs. Tupelo's anger that she had to come into my room and bring me food. I realized the whole house fairly reeked with anxiety. Something was very wrong; Jim….I tried to find him, and when I did, I struggled to stand up. His emotions were chaotic, but he was afraid and in pain and I had to get to him.

The door was locked and I rattled it pointlessly for a few seconds, then went hunting, opening every drawer, looking under the bed, searching the closet for something I could use. Finally I noticed the plant in the corner was staked and looking at it closer, saw that they had used wire. Carefully, I unwound it, pleased that it was a heavy enough gauge to be useful.

Using each end, I slipped it into the lock, twisting one end to the right and the other up, gratified that I still had my touch. The tumblers fell into place and I opened the door. The hallway was empty and quiet. I could "feel" Jim in his room, and I could tell he was alone. Staying away from the balustrade, I hugged the wall and made my way to him.

He was lying in bed, pale, his face damp with sweat. "Jim!" I rushed to his side. He didn't stir and I placed a hand on his forehead. He would've been able to tell me, to the exact decimal, what his temperature was, but I didn't need to have precise numbers to tell me it was high.

It shook me to my core to see Jim-someone who radiated such strength and vitality-looking so weak and sick. There was a damp washcloth on the table next to the bed and I used it to gently wipe the sweat off his face. He moaned, "more," and I ran the cool cloth down his neck to his chest, then did it again. He moaned again, and I cupped his face, fighting the urge to place my lips on his forehead. "Jim, can you hear me? What do you need?"

His eyes fluttered and he lifted a hand toward his face and covered my hand. "You have to go," he croaked, and at the same time there was a scream. A sharp whack between my shoulder blades made me lurch into Jim and he weakly pushed me away. I looked back to see Mrs. Tupelo, her pleasant face red with rage, as she swung the umbrella toward me, whacking me in head this time.

"Atkins, get in here, he's trying to kill Lord Ellison!" She was hysterical and continued to beat at me while I tried to get back to Jim.

Two men rushed into the room and one tackled me, driving the air from my lungs as I hit the floor. My need to see to Jim was so great that I did what I had long ago given up doing. I fought back, placing my foot on my attacker's chest and shoving him back. I got to my knees and as I reached for Jim, he snarled, "Get him out of here."

Someone grabbed me by my hair and yanked me back, dragging me towards the door. "Jim!" He never opened his eyes.

"I came in here and that-that beast-had his hands around his lordship's throat and was squeezing the very life out of him." Mrs. Tupelo looked at me with outrage. The hand in my hair tightened, bringing tears to my eyes and Jim never looked over to me.

I struggled to get free of the hands holding me. "No, no, I wasn't-I wouldn't-I was just-" my words were cut off as I was pulled to my feet by my hair. If my barriers had been in better shape, I'm sure I would've been able to make them understand, but it was hard to talk-even to think-taking in their savage emotions.

Mrs. Tupelo's back blocked my view of Jim; she was bent over him, smoothing back his hair and saying, "There, there, everything's fine, your lordship, I'll take care of everything; you just sleep."

I heard Jim say, in a voice that was frighteningly weak, "Get him out of here," again, and Mrs. Tupelo called over her shoulder, her voice low and savage, "Take him as far away from his lordship as you can, then call Governor Ellison and tell him to come immediately."

The man who had pulled me up, transferred his grip from my hair to my arm, yanking it behind my back so far it was close to the breaking point. Pushing me ahead of him, he propelled me down two flights of stairs and into the basement. The man who had followed close behind opened a door into a storage room and shoved me in. There was furniture and sports equipment, skis, an artificial Christmas tree and a pile of boxes,

"No telling what he could use in here. Better secure him until we can get this stuff cleared out and get a lock on the door." The bigger of the two pushed me into a chair and held me there, while his partner hunted around for some rope. My arms were pulled back and tied to the chair. "That ought to hold him for awhile."

I could feel their anger, it made my skin burn, like something caustic had been spilled all over me and I started to shake uncontrollably.

"We could do his lordship a favor and just scag him. Probably get a reward from the Governor if we did."

"Tempting. But if Lord El wanted this rat dead, he has a hundred ways to do it, including just sending him to the pound. I wouldn't want to guess wrong and have him pissed at me."

"But we'd make his father one happy man."

"True, but a fat lot of good that would do us if we were dead."

Methodically, they emptied the room, until the chair, with me secured to it, was the only thing in it. One of them cut the ropes away, freeing me and said, "Stand up." I did as I was told and he took the chair, closing the door.

I listened as they drilled and affixed a lock to the outside. The room was cold and dark and I lowered myself to the floor. All I could hear was Jim saying, "Get him out of here." Get him out of here. Get him out of here. Get him out of here. Get him out of here. Get him out of here. Get him out of here…

+++

Sandburg had been in my room, or maybe it been a dream. As soon as I'd felt his cool hands on my face, I'd felt better and contrary to all my good intentions, I didn't tell him to leave. I wanted him to crawl into bed with me, touch me with his cool fingers, talk to me.

But Mrs. Tupelo had come in and I remembered how contagious this flu was and I told her to take him back to his room. There had been noise and commotion, but I couldn't make sense of any of it and soon it was quiet again.

I was sleeping, I think, or maybe awake, when suddenly Emil appeared, floating on the ceiling, right above my head, looking relaxed and at home. "Jimmy," he said.

"Don't call me Jimmy." I never liked being called Jimmy.

"Is Jimmy in a bad mood? Now don't get all ornery on me just because you're sick. I'm dead and you don't see me being all pissy. Death trumps sick."

He had a point.

"Why won't you let a doctor check you out.?"

"I don't need a doctor, I don't like doctors, I don't want a doctor."

Emil snorted and the force of it dislodged him from the ceiling. "What are you all of a sudden, a Christian Scientist? Should I start praying for you?"

"The flu will run its course and I'll be fine."

"Look, if you won't do it for yourself, do it for your little guide."

"What does he have to do with this?"

"I looked in on him. Odd choice, mon ami. What were you thinking? Not your type at all."

"He's perfect."

"Perfect? That-that-" he wagged his finger at me, shocked beyond words.

"He is perfect. He's nothing like you."

He clutched at his heart, and said in outrage, "You're saying that someone who's nothing like me is perfect?"

Of course, Emil would hear it that way. "Wanted someone who wouldn't remind me of you." I muttered..

"Well, you got that in spades with him. But I'm still hurt…"

I squeezed my eyes shut at his words. "I couldn't bear to have someone around me who would remind me you were gone."

"Jimmy, Jimmy, I'm here now."

"No. You're not." I opened my eyes, too hungry for the sight of him to keep them shut for long.

"Oh, Jimmy, come on, tears? I thought you were a big boy." As he said that, he floated down closer until he was hovering just above me. I lifted my hand toward him, trying to touch his face, but of course, there was no sensation of touching. I put my hands over my eyes and moaned, "I'm really do need a doctor, I'm having a conversation with my hallucination."

I felt a breath of air on my face and lowered my hands. Emil was only an inch away; we might have been lying together. I didn't try to touch him again, but kept my eyes on his face.

He wagged his finger, chastising me. "You never did believe in what you couldn't touch, shoot, or eat," he said, as he bobbed in the air current. "But I'm real, as real as any engineered being ever gets to be. And you want to know the reason I'm real?" His ranting had propelled him upwards and he bumped against one corner of the ceiling, then bounced off it, headed for the opposite corner, like a spectral game of Pong. It didn't distract him from his lecture.

"The reason I'm real, Jimmy," he paused, and used his pause to good effect, making me eager to learn what had made him real. "… is because you loved me."

My throat was raw and all I could do was whisper. "I do love you." He smiled, so I know he heard me.

Using his toe, he pushed off the ceiling and lazily descended again. "I know. I really do know. Nothing can take that away, so quit worrying about a dead man and take care of that very live, poor bastard who's got my job now."

"Blair?"

"Blair? That's his name?" Emil shouted with laughter. "How about that? Blair." I could see him rolling the name around in his mind, just like the way he used to test out a new wine. Evidently he liked the taste of Blair's name because he smiled and said, "Yeah, I'm talking about Blair."

"He's not complaining."

"Like complaining ever made things better for a guide."

It was my turn to snort. "As I recall, you complained plenty."

"That was different." He spun around in a lazy circle, his legs crossed at his ankles, like he was break dancing upside down.

"You were a guide, he's a guide, what's the difference?"

He stopped his spin and flung his arms out dramatically. "I was loved, you ninny. That makes all the difference in the world. Now call the doctor. Blair needs you well."

And with that last piece of advice, he faded and even using all my sentinel abilities, I could no longer detect any sign of him. Hallucinations were so damn difficult to command. "Emil?"

The ceiling remained clear. "Please?"

My fever was topping 104, so delirium was certainly the likely explanation, but despite that, I watched the ceiling for a long time, hoping, until I drifted asleep.

The next time I woke, my fever was down to 101.2 and my head was considerably clearer. Despite that, I still checked the ceiling, then leaned over and punched the intercom button. Mrs. Tupelo answered. immediately.

"Where's Roberts?"

"Uh, um, well, he's…"

"Spill it, Mrs. T."

"You aren't going to like this, sir, but he decided it was necessary that a doctor come, and he went to fetch him here."

I sighed, then said, "All right. Have you taken care of Sandburg?"

"Oh, yes, sir, he's been taken care of."

I disconnected and sank back against the pillows. "There. It's done, a doctor is coming. Are you happy now?"

Emil stayed maddeningly silent and absent.

I woke again when Roberts and the doctor breezed in an hour or so later.

"It's snowing?" I asked, feeling the cold surrounding them.

"Yes, sir. This is Dr. Schumacher. He's the head of viral infections at St. John's." Roberts anxiousness at bringing the doctor here against my expressed wishes bled through his attempt to make civilized introductions. Had Emil not appeared, I would've been yelling loud enough to burst an eardrum; but now I meekly allowed the doctor to examine me.

As the stethoscope was placed on my chest, I turned to Roberts and said, "I think Sandburg came in and I think all hell broke loose. Mrs. Tupelo's taken care of him, but I want you to check in on him and see if he's showing any sign of catching this miserable illness."

"Very well, sir, I'll look in on him right away."

Schumacher brought an thermogun and I realized then he wasn't a doctor who ever treated sentinels. "That's unnecessary, I can tell you my temp."

He raised a bushy eyebrow and leaned in to insert it. Batting it away, I said, "It's 102.4. It's been as high as 104.3."

"104.3 is very high for an adult. Are you sure?"

"I'm a class A sentinel, doc, certified to the eighth level. Do you know what that means?"

"Not really, but I take it that you are capable of calibrating body temperature that precisely."

"Yeah, it's a great party trick."

"What have you been taking to bring your temp down?"

"Aspirin, but it hasn't been working."

"Have you had any seizures, delirium?"

"No seizures-" I'd certainly drifted in and out of a confused state, but I wasn't going to characterize Emil as part of a delirium. "Kind of out of it, maybe a little delirious at times."

The doctor fussed around, poking and listening, which was ridiculous, since it was obvious that it was the flu. And sure enough, five minutes later, he announced, "Well, it's definitely the flu."

"And…?"

"Normally I'd prescribe Zanamivir. It would make you more comfortable and perhaps hasten your recovery, but because you're a sentinel, that's out of the question. All you can do is rest, drink plenty of fluids and wait it out."

Looking up at the ceiling, I mouthed, 'Told you so.' The ceiling was not moved and remained empty of Emil.

The doctor packed up and patted my arm paternally as he left, saying, "If your fever spikes to 104 again, have someone give you an alcohol rub. It's either that or pour some ice in the tub and climb in. Understand?"

"Yes."

After the doctor had gone, I realized that Roberts had been gone a long time. When more than a half-hour went by, I pushed the covers off and started to get up. My feet had barely touched the floor when Roberts appeared, carrying Sandburg.

"What happened?" I stood up quickly, and the blood rushed to my head. I staggered, grabbing the wall to steady myself.

"Sir, there was a misunderstanding and I'm afraid…" Sandburg was limp, eyes closed, and my fear made it impossible for me to focus in on his vitals signs. Roberts' expression was grim and for a moment the room darkened as I confronted the possibility that Sandburg was dead.

"Is he…?" I fell back, sitting down on the bed, hard. "Bring him to me."

Roberts complied, and as he came closer, I saw that Sandburg's chest was rising and falling, easing my most immediate fears.

"I think his barriers are entirely gone, sir. I know you're worried about his catching the flu, but I believe he either needs to bond or get a shot of Halyconic." Roberts and Sandburg seemed to be swaying back and forth as the room spun lazily to the right.

"Put him in the bed." Roberts gingerly laid him down, and starting at the top of his head, I checked him out. He had bruises and a lump just above his eyebrow and a butterfly bandage that covered a gash that hadn't been there before. Aside from that, there were no obvious signs of injury but his feet were bare, cold and dirty. "Where are his shoes?" How the hell had this happened in the guest wing?

Looking uncharacteristically furious, Roberts said, "I don't know what happened, no one's being clear, but I found him in the basement. Evidently Mercer and Atkins put him there on Mrs. Tupelo's orders. She thinks he tried to kill you."

"Kill me?" I knew I'd been out of it, but what the hell had I missed? "I think I'd know if Sandburg had tried to kill me. After we get him settled, find out what the hell they're talking about."

I got him under the blankets and Roberts disappeared into the bathroom. I got in next to Sandburg and pulled him close to me, trying to keep my face averted; trying not to breathe in his face.

Roberts bustled out with a heating pad and plugged it in. "Shall I help you get him undressed?"

For a moment, I considered bonding in that peculiarly mental way we'd found, but I wasn't all that sure that would work when we were both so out of it. I tried to help, and got a few buttons undone, but found that I could neither focus my eyes very well, nor command my fingers to do anything that complicated. Roberts had him naked and back under the blankets in record time.

Opening the bedside table drawer, he found the lube, opened it and handed it to me. I believe I blushed, though I'm not sure Roberts would've been able to tell with my face already flushed with fever. I hadn't realized that Roberts knew how sentinels and guides bonded.

Of course, I knew he was well aware of the fact that Emil and I were lovers. That had always been completely out in the open. But the bonding rituals, steeped as they had always been in secrecy, were another matter entirely. But evidently not a secret from Roberts.

Just as Roberts was leaving the room, Mrs. Tupelo appeared. "SIR!" She yelled so loud that Sandburg startled in my arms and his shivering intensified. "What is that-animal-doing in here? He tried to kill you!"

I didn't know what the hell she was talking about, but what I did know was that she was causing Sandburg a great deal of pain. "Get out!"

For a moment, it looked as if she would defy me and if she had, it would have been her last day in my household. But Roberts took her by the arm and pulled her away, ignoring her loud protests and demands that he get that rat away from his lordship.

"Shhh," I murmured, stroking Sandburg's arm, trembling myself. "Come on, let's connect and we'll both feel better."

He didn't say anything, and his eyes remained shut, but he spread his legs to give me better access and I prepared him as best I could in my uncoordinated state. Then I slipped in, and just feeling his warm, live body surrounding me, steadied me. I took his hand and aligned our fingers, pulled him as close to my chest as I could, and closed my eyes.

Bit by bit the shaking slaked off and a little while later, he relaxed against me completely. Our breathing sought a common rhythm, and soon our hearts beat in tandem as well.

I was underwater, and the lack of gravity made me feel free. Swimming along lazily, in no hurry, I suddenly saw the shadow that seemed to show up in all of our merges, from the corner of my eye. As soon as I turned my head, it disappeared as it had before. Ahead there was a colorful school of clownfish, and I swam toward them. Something brushed against my side and I looked down to see Sandburg swimming alongside me.

The clownfish ignored us and we swam in out of their formation, pointing out the ones that were particularly outlandish. After awhile, we headed up and broke the surface of the water. The sea was calm and, without needing to speak, we turned as one onto our backs and floated. Between the warmth of the sun and the effortless way the water held me up, I relaxed completely.

Without warning, Sandburg suddenly disappeared, jerked under the water by some unseen force. I dived after him, shocked at how fast he was he was moving away from me. I kicked as hard as I could, trying to catch up, but he was always just a hand's length away from me and then it was an arm's length, and then six feet and then I could no longer see him.

I screamed his name, but like space, no one can hear you underwater. Bolting awake, I heard the echoes of my scream and felt Sandburg's hand on my chest. "Easy, Jim. It's all right, just a rough merge, probably because of your fever."

I was panting, sweat dripping down my face, and before I could answer Sandburg, Mrs. Tupelo appeared in the doorway, one of my guns in both hands, the safety off, the barrel aimed unwaveringly at Sandburg's head.

"Get away from him, you filthy rat." Her voice rose hysterically, "Move, or I'll blow your brains out and don't think I won't."

I've had a gun held on me dozens of time, by men who would just as soon kill me as swat a fly, but I had never been as afraid as I was then. I knew she was intent on killing Sandburg. Jerking Blair's head down, I rolled over him, covering his body with my own and rolled us to the floor on the other side of the bed.

Mrs. Tupelo screamed in frustration. "Get away from, m'lord. He's a murdering rat, just like your father said. I don't care what Roberts says, I know what I saw. He almost killed you a few hours ago, and just now you I heard you scream his name and there was no mistaking the fear I heard."

I didn't bother to answer, concentrating instead on the man under me. Sandburg's eyes were wide, not with fear, but shock. "No, oh God no, Jim, you have to believe me, I wasn't trying to hurt you…."

Tangled up in the blankets, sprawled between the bed and the wall, we were in our own world. "I know, Chief." And just like that, the tension oozed out of his body as he realized I had no doubts about him.

My body pulsed with fevered heat, wrapping me in a languid haze, despite the danger. On the other side of the bed, a madwoman held a gun and begged me to get away from "that street rat", the street rat that I was lying on top of so comfortably.

It was different, being this close to him when we weren't about to merge, merging or just coming out of a merge. Propping myself on my elbows to take some of my weight off his body, I studied my street rat. His pupils had eclipsed the blue of his eyes in the shadow of the bed, making them look black. It made me realize for the first time that I actually liked his darkness; the way his hair framed his face, shadowed his cheeks and covered his chest.

A shout broke my concentration.

"Mrs. Tupelo! Just what do you think you're doing?" Roberts' outraged voice told me the cavalry had arrived, but I didn't roll off Sandburg.

"Don't you dare! Get away from me!" My normally mild-mannered housekeeper screamed. The sound of the gun dropping signaled the end of the danger to Sandburg and I lifted my head above the bed to see Roberts holding on to the diminutive Scotswoman, who had her eye on the fallen gun.

"Stop it!. The guide was not hurting his lordship. Lord Ellison is fine, aren't you, sir?" he called to me, as he maintained his grip on the struggling woman in his arms.

Mrs. Tupelo's face was red with rage and exertion, her tidy bun had come undone and her gray hair was loose, making her look like a witch. The air crackled with her malevolence toward Sandburg.

I stood up, then reached down and gave my hand to Sandburg, pulling him up and nudging him to get into bed. Mrs. Tupelo's sharp intake of breath at the sight of him sounded like a snake hissing and I stopped fussing with the blankets and strode toward the threat to my guide.

She continued to spew out her lies with utter conviction, "I saw him, I tell you. His hands were around your throat and he was squeezing the very life out of you." She clucked sympathetically and added, "And you so sick you couldn't defend yourself."

I stalked closer to her until we were only a foot apart. "I may be sick, but do I look incapable of defending myself?"

Her head tilted all the way back as she looked me up and down, blushing, and finally quit trying to break Roberts' hold on her as she seemed to come to her senses. "Well, noooo, sir, you seem able enough to take care of yourself, I see that now…"

"Do you see any bruises? Marks of any kind?"

Squinting her eyes, she studied my throat. "I… no….I don't, but-"

"His hands were on my face, not my throat."

"Oh," she said, in the tiniest voice I'd ever heard from her. "But just now you screamed his name-"

"We were in a merge." I wasn't about to voice my terror at losing Sandburg out loud.

"Oh." She stood on her tiptoes, trying to see around me, to see Sandburg.

I put my hands on my hips and kept her view blocked. "Mrs. Tupelo, you've been with me a long time, and because of that, I'll try to put this incident to rest, but if you can't accept Sandburg's presence here, you'll have to find employment elsewhere. Do you understand me?"

She gasped and said, "Oh no, sir, I don't want to leave you. Don't make me leave, sir." She let out a long suffering sigh and then grudgingly said, "If you're sure he won't-that he's-that we're safe with him here, sir, I'll-" She looked away from me, staring out the window as she finished her sentence without enthusiasm. "do my best to accept him here."

I said nothing and eventually she looked away from the window and back at me, revealing the struggle she was in….confusion dominated, as resentment and fear fought understanding and acceptance. I watched dispassionately as she worked to settle her mind. If I thought a hint of threat remained, she would be packed and out of this house in an hour.

"Your best had better be very good indeed, Mrs. Tupelo. I don't know why you feel so much animosity towards my guide, but that will change. Now. You pointed a loaded gun at my guide; for that alone I should have you arrested along with dismissed. You may not approve of my choice, but Sandburg *is* my chosen and I trust you've been around sentinels long enough to understand the significance of that."

Once again, she tried to look at Sandburg and this time I stepped aside, letting her. I don't know what she saw-my eyes never left her face-but the stubborn look in her eye flickered brightly and then faded.

Taking in a big breath, bosom heaving, she looked away from the man in my bed to me, nodded decisively and declared, "Very well, sir. I understand. You can count on me to look after your guide, Lord Ellison." There was no hesitation in her voice this time and I relaxed, knowing she was as good as her word.

Roberts released his grip on her and bent over to pick up the gun. His hair was ruffled, but aside from that, he looked neatly composed.

"Thank you, Roberts, for your timely arrival and assistance."

Roberts nodding, looked at me worriedly. "I'm sorry I didn't realize sooner that she had taken your father's words so seriously, sir."

Ah, yes. Somewhere in all of the action, Mrs. T had quoted my father as saying that Sandburg was a murdering street rat. My father and I were due for a long talk.

"My father spoke to the staff about Sandburg?"

Mrs. Tupelo answered. "When the Governor called us back, he explained everything."

"Explained everything?"

Roberts looked at Sandburg and then back at me, as if he didn't want to speak in front of my guide.

"Spill it." I didn't suppose my father had said anything to the staff that Sandburg hadn't already heard at some point.

"He-ahem-" Roberts was now carefully not looking at Sandburg, "-told us that it was easy to see by Mr. Sandburg's dark coloring that he was genetically of a lower order, and that it was well established that street rats were prone to violence and sexual impulses-often of an unsavory nature. He was quite sure you would be discarding Mr. Sandburg as soon as you stabilized and that we all we're to look out for you in the meantime."

Mrs. Tupelo was nodding her head vigorously. "He said you were in the early stages of the Madness when you picked out the discard and that you regretted it almost immediately. He said you had assured him that you would get rid of this-*guide*- and choose someone suitable, as soon as you were better." She looked at Sandburg and I could see her confusion as she weighed my words against my father's.

Sandburg's heart sped up. I felt it, not heard it, felt it like a pulse in my own body, beating in a counter rhythm to my heartbeat, like someone pounding at the door. Without thought, I opened it and Sandburg tumbled in.

Roberts and Mrs. Tupelo waited patiently for me to respond, but I was busy embracing Sandburg, though we were four feet apart and not touching. He was in my head, or I was in his-I don't know, it was so unexpected, so new, I couldn't quite sort out what was happening.

It was if I had suddenly become empathetic, feeling Sandburg's roiling emotions. His panic, and his struggle to control it. A feeling of being stripped naked, exposed and the helplessness of having nowhere to hide. The flicker of dignity that somehow managed to stay alive as the wave of shame washed over us…

…the terror of coming out of a zone, exposed and defenseless …hearing my father telling my mother that he wished he'd never married her-that it was her fault their son was a genetic throwback…and the sound of flesh hitting flesh as she'd slapped him…and then the sound again, only harder, again and again and her cries to stop…and all I could do was cover my ears and wait for it to end…

… naked and bleeding, a man crouched over me-no, not me-Sandburg-touching him, burning need making me-him- respond, arch up, low words of encouragement, a terrible ache…deep hunger and nothing, nothing fills it….

…crying and my father shakes him-no-I'm seven-he's telling me to stop, it serves me right, sneaking around, listening…screaming I'm a freak, a mutant…a rat, a filthy street rat whose mother should've been sterilized, never been allowed to breed…. and a hand strokes my arm, while his voice whispers…"that's it Jim, follow me out, stay with me…please, Jim, and it's the fear I hear in his voice that makes me snap out of it….

…and suddenly I'm back in my room, Mrs. Tupelo looking angry and shocked, Sandburg plastered to my back, which is inexplicably wet, and has one arm around me, the other moving up and down my arm.

"I zoned?"

I felt Sandburg's head against my back as he nodded.

Mrs. Tupelo was nodding as well, her face set in a clear message of 'I-told-you-so', "You most certainly did, Lord Ellison. That kind of thing never happened when Mr. Simone was attending you." Through the odd mental link we'd established, I felt how her disgust ripped at Sandburg's barriers. Behind me, he trembled, her assault blasting his meager defenses away.

I swung around to face Sandburg and pulled him close to my chest, hoping my back might provide some protection.

With an unladylike snort, she said, "Your father said this would happen, that street rats are awfully good at using their sexually perverse ways to influence people. Look at him, naked as a jaybird, pressing his body up against you. Can't you see how he's uses his sluttish ways to entrap you?"

Sandburg stiffened and tried to push me away, shaking his head in denial, but I refused to release him. "That's enough." I snapped. "Your ignorance is appalling. Roberts, get her out of here and see what you can do about educating her. If she can't understand the nature of a sentinel/guide relationship, she has no business working here."

Through my new empathic power, I could tell that Roberts' emotions were blessedly free of any ugliness, his demeanor of calm acceptance evidently being an authentic reflection of his true attitude.

"Yes, sir. I believe I can make Mrs. Tupelo aware of quite a few things and that she's more than capable of grasping the facts, sir."

"Do it."

As they left, I guided Sandburg back to bed, got in first, then positioned him on top of me, covering us with the blankets. We were soon warm. The link remained open, but the flow of images had stopped. I was surprised at how normal it felt to have access to another's mind.

My fingertips grazed familiar scars as I ran my hand down Sandburg's back…layers of traumatized flesh knit back together…Merrick did this…

… I hear an echo of leather slicing through air, feel sparks of pain exploding as skin is ripped open, blood oozing out, and the sound again, just a fraction of a second before the strike, telling me what's to come, and then again…my skin ruptures as I scream words, useless words…vertigo traps me, taking away all my markers and I can't tell which way is up and which down, can't tell which direction to crawl to find safety, and then I hear the sharp whine of the whip, and my body knows what's coming, it tenses, as if that will protect, but it doesn't, nothing does…. I'm trapped in the red heat of agony….

…whispers, my name, pleading, talking to me and I follow the thread of huskered words, grasping each one like a rock, slowly pulling myself out of the darkness…to find my hand on Sandburg's wet cheek…

"Jim," he sighed my name, knowing I'd come back to him.

"Yeah." The link still pulsed but had narrowed, giving me the sense of being connected without the flow of information and memories. "Just what the hell was that?" I asked, too relaxed to put any heat in my words.

Sandburg's head was heavy on my chest, the weight of it making me anchored, a feeling I welcomed.

"Beats me, Jim. We're into Twilight Zone territory here."

"How-" I started to ask, and then realized I knew the answer, could tell how well his barriers were in place.

"Yeah, they're up."

We were breathing in tandem again, our diaphragms rising and falling in slow synchronization. The warmth I felt was from the small furnace lying on top of me and not from fever, and sleep crept up on us, pulling us into its embrace.

++End++

 to be continued…..

 

 

I welcome feedback of any kind, but especially urge you to let me know if you feel like I got something wrong or went in the wrong direction.
[email protected]