fluterbev_fic: (Conforming to Requirements)
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Navigation: This story is posted in two parts. Part 1 is on this page; Part 2 is here.

Summary: A novel length AU set in a parallel world, where Sentinels are prized members of society and Guides are second class citizens. Sentinel Ellison doesn’t want to Bond, and his unconventional, temporary Guide is not allowed to.

Author's Note: This epic story emerged out of a snippet I wrote for the very first challenge at [livejournal.com profile] sentinelsecrets. Once I decided to expand the story, posting it in installments as a work-in-progress in my personal journal, it totally gathered a momentum of its own. It ended up consuming around three months of my life, during which (apart from one brief hiatus when I freaked out at the amount of attention it was getting *g*) I wrote and posted a minimum of 1000 words per day until it was done. I lived and breathed this story during that time, and got to know so many fantastic people who accompanied me on the journey - it was a massive rollercoaster ride and an absolutely unforgettable experience.

Art: Lorraine B has produced some fabulous artwork for this story: a manip, and a painting.

Acknowledgements: A huge thank you to everyone who read the first draft as it emerged on my personal LJ, and gave me such wonderful, enthusiastic encouragement all the way along, as well as specific snippets of information. Many of you influenced the twists and turns of this story with your comments and advice. My gratitude goes to my beta team: [livejournal.com profile] fingers,[livejournal.com profile] rhianne, [livejournal.com profile] lyn_t and [livejournal.com profile] starwatcher307, who went through it with a fine tooth comb in the aftermath. Very special thanks to Lorraine Brevig, who produced the fabulous artwork for this story which is shown in the accompanying icon.

Rating: NC-17 for explicit m/m sex and violence.



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Nominee: Original Character







Conforming to Requirements

By Fluterbev

January 2005




CHAPTER 1

Jim Ellison hated Guides.

He hated their sycophantic, ‘Yes-Sentinel, no-Sentinel, three-bags-full-Sentinel’ ways, and their inability to think for themselves. If he wanted a fucking lap dog, it would be just as easy to pick one up from the pound. Cheaper to feed, too.

Fidgeting in the uncomfortable, molded plastic chair, he glared up at a poster on the waiting room wall, and its depiction of a dentally-perfect Sentinel and Guide pair, apparently frolicking happily together, the vacuous Guide’s hand placed just-so on the unctuous Sentinel’s back. ‘Sentinels, Realize your Full Potential!’ the lettering screamed. ‘Get a Guide Today!’

Glancing at his watch again, Ellison wanted nothing more than to Get the Hell Out. If the garish advertisement had been selling that message instead – well he’d be totally down with that.

After what seemed to be an eternity in this synthetic, pre-hell limbo, the door opened, and a matching, plastic receptionist beckoned him, an insincere smile plastered on her doll-like face. “Sentinel Ellison? Mister Reynolds will see you now.” He was escorted into an office, where the salesman seated behind the desk rose to greet him, an arm extended. As they shook hands and exchanged banal pleasantries, the receptionist disappeared, closing the door behind her.

As soon as both men were seated, Reynolds began his sales pitch. “Sentinel, I understand you are a police detective. We have a number of excellent Guides ripe for Bonding who I’m sure will be perfect for your needs…”

“No,” Ellison cut him off. “I don’t want to Bond. I just want to hire one.”

Reynolds frowned. “Sentinel, the communication I received from Captain Banks on your behalf was quite explicit. I am instructed to supply you with a suitable Guide from our law enforcement stock…”

As Reynolds spoke, Ellison thought back to what had happened in the Captain’s office two days ago. “That’s it!” Simon had yelled. “You have zoned once too often. You will get yourself a Guide, Detective, or surrender your badge and gun right now and get the hell off the force!”

The sense memory of Simon’s thundering voice still made him wince. And the following morning the arrival of a formal written reprimand had made it official – if he wanted to keep his job, Ellison had no choice but to obtain a Guide. But whatever the consequences, he was determined that it was going to be on his terms. “My orders are to work with a Guide,” he stated tersely, breaking into Reynolds’s inane patter. “Not to ‘marry’ one.”

Reynolds was frowning disapprovingly. “Sentinel, our police issue Bond Guides are of the highest quality. You won’t be disappointed – ”

“Listen.” Ellison’s voice was quiet and controlled, but the menace within it was unmistakable, and it silenced Reynolds’s protests immediately. “I want to hire one. Now you can either supply me with what I need, or I take my business to ‘Guides-R-Us’. Your choice, Sport.”

Reynolds smiled, revealing capped teeth as false as his amiable salesman demeanor. “Of course, Sentinel,” he conceded. “If you can wait just a moment, I’ll see what we have in stock.”

A short while later, Ellison peered through a one-way mirror into a stark, brightly lit room. “He doesn’t look like much,” he remarked.

Reynolds seemed uncomfortable. “We only maintain a small stable of Rental Guides. At present, this is the only one available, as the others are all out on assignment. He is, I can assure you, fully trained.”

Something in Reynolds’s voice suggested a different story, but Ellison decided not to question it. Instead, he studied the young man sitting on the room’s only piece of furniture – a straight-backed chair. “How old is he?” he asked. Seated in the classic waiting posture of lowered eyes, both feet flat on the floor and hands open on his thighs, the Guide was thin, his hair cropped close to his skull above expressionless, fine boned features. He didn’t look to be much more than a kid.

“He’s twenty-six years old.” Reynolds kept his eyes on the Guide, not looking at Ellison. “He’s been with us a year.”

Ellison looked at Reynolds. “A year? Where was he before that?”

Reynolds swallowed. “He was living as a citizen.”

“He was rogue up to then?” Ellison snorted. “Give me a break. That’s impossible.” Guides were identified at birth, and trained their whole lives to serve one purpose – to Bond with Sentinels. Everybody knew that. Rogues were practically unheard of, and their liberty never lasted long; certainly not beyond infancy. Parents who attempted to conceal their children’s nature from the authorities attracted the full weight of the law, and for most it simply wasn’t worth the risk.

Reynolds shook his head. “He’s by far the oldest Guide ever to evade the Detectors. It has been a… challenge to train him. But he is proof positive that our methods here at Guide World are the best. He is now fully compliant, and capable of being an adequate short-term Guide.”

Ellison looked closely, extending his sight out to the Guide. The man seemed relaxed, his posture by-the-book perfect; except for the jaw clenched in either resentment or fear, visible to Sentinel sight, but not to Reynolds. “What experience does he have in the field?” Ellison asked.

Reynolds shook his head. “Actually, Sentinel, this will be his first assignment. As I said, he is – unfortunately – the only Rental Guide we have available right now. But he should adequately meet your needs, if treated with a firm hand. However, if you would prefer to consider our more experienced Bond Guides instead, I have some who are eminently suitable – ”

Breaking all the rules of Guide comportment, the man in the chair suddenly lifted his head, and wide, defiant eyes glared angrily towards the mirror, finding their echo in Ellison’s soul.

“No, that won’t be necessary,” Ellison interrupted, captivated by the rebellious cerulean glower that could not possibly see him through the one-way glass. Not a lapdog at all, this one. The Sentinel grinned, as a sense of something falling into place, something beginning, enveloped him.

“He’s perfect,” he stated. “I’ll take him.”


***


Opening the door to his apartment, Ellison stepped inside, the almost silent pad of the Guide’s feet audible as he followed exactly three feet behind – close enough to touch, should the Sentinel need to be grounded, but far enough away not to step on his master’s heels. Absolutely per the regulations.

Once inside, Ellison took his time shucking his coat and hanging it up, then locking the door behind him. Then he turned and looked at his new acquisition.

The Guide had fallen to his knees in the center of the floor, head down, eyes lowered submissively. His entire posture radiated compliance, as had his demeanor during the journey from Guide World, with no sign in evidence of the momentary hint of defiance that Ellison had earlier witnessed.

Ellison picked up the bag of accessories and clothes that had been supplied and, walking over, stood for a moment, towering over the kneeling man. Then with a thud, he dropped the bag on the floor right in front of him. The Guide flinched minutely, but otherwise didn’t move.

“I don’t want or need a Guide,” Ellison stated matter-of-factly to the bowed head before him. “The only reason you’re here, is because my boss gave me no choice. Get a Guide, or lose your job.”

Ellison crouched down, and unzipped the bag. He pulled out the evil looking disciplinary crop that lay within, and registered an infinitesimal tensing of the Guide’s muscles as he held it in both hands. Ellison stood again, then without warning, he brought the crop down forcefully across his knee, breaking it in half with a snap.

As the two halves fell to the floor, the Guide, against all the rules, glanced up in shock, and their eyes met for a split second before he resumed his submissive posture. Ellison smiled grimly, nodding. That got your attention, he thought. Aloud he said, “Listen up. When we are out in the field, you do what I tell you, when I tell you. You will be a model Guide, following the rules to the letter. You fail to do that, or embarrass me in any way, you won’t get beaten – that’s not my style. I’ll just send you back and get a replacement. You understand me?”

The Guide moistened his lips before replying, as though his mouth had gone dry. But when he spoke his voice was strong. “Yes, Sentinel,” he said. His voice was deep, resonant. Ellison realized that, despite himself, he liked it.

“Get up,” Ellison ordered, and the Guide rose to his feet. “Look at me.” The Guide did as he was told, and Ellison was pleased to see that although the man looked slightly rattled, he was more than capable of meeting the Sentinel’s eyes. “Good,” Ellison acknowledged, then pointed towards the splintered wood on the floor. “Now, get rid of this mess, and go and sit down.”

The Guide swallowed; two aspects of his conditioning quite obviously at war within. Guides were not allowed to sit in the presence of a Sentinel. But Guides were expected to obey their Sentinel without question. Breaking either rule could result in a beating or worse.

Ellison watched as the Guide’s eyes strayed to the broken pieces of the crop. Inwardly, Ellison willed the man to understand what was going on, and to take a chance. To show some of the intelligence and guts it must have taken to conceal his Guide abilities for so long.

He was not disappointed. The Guide gave him a measuring look. Then he swooped down and retrieved the two pieces of the crop from the floor. There was a trashcan beside the door and, moving deliberately, the Guide walked over and dropped the pieces in. He took a deep breath, and glanced once more at Ellison. Then, when the Sentinel didn’t react, the Guide walked steadily to the kitchen table, pulled out a chair, and sat down.

Outwardly, the Guide appeared cool and calm. But Ellison could see the sweat beading at his hairline, and smell the sour stink of fear as he wondered if he had overstepped the bounds. Moving over to stand in front of the seated man, the Sentinel noticed with satisfaction that the Guide managed to restrain a flinch as he approached. He breathed an inward sigh of relief. It looked like he had chosen well.

Ellison pulled out another chair, and sat down across from the Guide. “Guide,” he said softly, “Look at me. This is important.”

The Guide looked up, and Ellison carried on in the same soft voice; steel underneath the velvet. “When we’re here, in private and off-duty,” he said, “I want you to pull back on the Guide crap. I want to relax here, to leave my work behind. I can’t do that if you’re kneeling at my feet, and concentrating on being obedient. Oh, I know other Sentinels like that shit. But not me. Not in my home.”

The Guide was relaxing slightly, his tenseness easing at Ellison’s words. Satisfied he was getting through, Ellison continued, “That’s not to say there won’t be rules. There will be. There will be times I need peace and quiet, and I’ll expect you to be unobtrusive. I need order, so you’ll have to keep the place clean and tidy. I know there are Guide responsibilities you have, that you’re trained for, to make this place Sentinel-friendly. I expect you to excel at them. But I don’t want you flinching when I come near, or too intimidated to talk to me or even to sit on the furniture. I fucking hate that stuff, and I won’t put up with it.”

The Guide swallowed. “Sentinel,” he ventured, “can I ask a question?”

Ellison shook his head. “Don’t ask if you can ask me, unless we’re in public. Just ask.”

“Okay.” The Guide nodded, looking uncomfortable, but his voice was steady all the same. “Why did you choose me? I mean, you could have had a police Guide. You could Bond with whichever Guide you want, someone trained in your field. I’m just a reject, man. A rental.”

Ellison understood what was behind the question, and it wasn’t just that the Guide was concerned about his suitability to Guide a police officer. “Don’t worry,” Ellison stated. “It wasn’t because I felt ‘the pull of the Bond’ the instant I saw you. I didn’t take one look and think you were the perfect soulmate for me.” He leaned forward, holding the Guide’s attention. “The truth is, I don’t want to Bond. Never have, never will. With someone like you, a rental, there’s no chance of that, right? And I’m guessing the authorities would never allow it anyway, even if I was drawn to you. Which I’m not,” he added emphatically. “And,” he went on, “I’ve got to assume that someone like you, who was on the run for so long, the last thing you’re gonna want is to Bond. This way it works out for both of us, huh?”

The Guide nodded, looking thoughtful. “Yeah.”

“But understand this,” Ellison said seriously. “This is a trial period. If it doesn’t work out with you, I’ll just send you back and get another rental. You follow?”

The Guide was smart. Ellison was sure that he knew where the grass was greener. Twenty-four hours a day, three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year of close supervision, training and discipline at Guide World; or living more-or-less like a human being with a Sentinel who didn’t want to Bond, and who wouldn’t beat him. Perhaps not exactly how he had once envisaged his life turning out, to be sure, but infinitely better than the alternative.

The Guide nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I understand. I’ll try not to let you down.”

“Good,” Ellison acknowledged. “Come on then,” he said, rising. “I’ll show you your room.”


***


CHAPTER 2

Ellison stared at the file before him on his desk.

Case Number: 96000234
Name: Sandburg, Blair J.
Gender: M
DOB: 05/24/69
Arresting Officer: Peterson, Frank B. (Lt.)
Department: Sentinel/Guide Matters

He had managed to pull some strings to get hold of it, obtaining the Guide’s name from a records’ clerk who remembered the case well. After all, it was an exceptional circumstance – that a Guide had managed to retain his liberty right into his mid-twenties. The name ‘Sandburg’, it turned out, was pretty infamous around certain sections of the PD.

The Guide himself had, disappointingly, been unable to volunteer any information about his past. When asked last night for a name, he’d stated, “I have no name. I’m just Guide 96-234.”

Annoyed with the answer, Ellison had pressed the issue, and the Guide had fallen to his knees. “Please,” he had begged through clenched teeth. “Please, Sentinel, don’t make me say it. I’m not allowed.” The fear stench had returned, and Jim had let the matter lie. But he’d watched the Guide carefully for the rest of the evening, as he vacillated between compliance with the Sentinel’s express orders as to how he should behave in Ellison’s home, and his no-doubt brutal Guide conditioning to perfect subservience.

It had been a tense evening and, in the end, Ellison had impatiently sent the Guide to bed, weary of watching him resist the urge to constantly fall to his knees, and the intense internal war the Guide obviously fought each time he sat down on a chair or the couch. But at the same time, he had silently applauded the courage and willpower it must have taken to manage even that. As an ex-covert operative, Ellison was well aware of the effects of continual brainwashing on a human being. It seemed that this Guide, while undoubtedly conditioned into obedience and observance of the rules, had not been completely broken during the process. And it made Ellison believe that, should he keep the Guide with him, he was in for some interesting times in the weeks ahead.

Sandburg, as Ellison now knew he was called, was presently undergoing the obligatory physical which would hopefully certify him fit to be a police Guide. And in his absence, Ellison intended to indulge his intense curiosity about the enigma he had rented.

Opening the file, he was first of all faced with a photograph, and it took a moment to register that it depicted the same man as the practically shaven-headed Guide he had brought into his home. The young man in the five-by-four snapshot was grinning, caught in a moment of movement, long chestnut curls whipping around a fine boned-face with startling blue eyes. There were earrings in one ear and, thinking back, Ellison realized he had seen but not consciously registered the holes which were still in Sandburg’s left earlobe. The man in the photograph was dressed in a brightly colored ethnic waistcoat, and was wearing at least two pieces of leather thonged jewelry around his neck. Ellison smiled at the sight. Ah Chief, he thought with amusement. You always did stand out from the crowd.

Opening the report, he began to read. The first few pages were background notes. Sandburg, it seemed, had been a doctoral candidate at Rainier University at the time of being apprehended. His academic record was attached as an appendix, and Ellison turned to it, curious. He whistled in disbelief. The kid had apparently been a prodigy, doing so well at school that he had entered college at the age of sixteen, where he aced his examinations. He had obtained first class honors in his bachelors’ degree, had a distinction at masters’ level, and had been close to finishing his Ph.D. No wonder the authorities were pissed – Guides were widely declared to be educationally subnormal.

Turning back to Sandburg’s record, he was not surprised, given his obvious academic achievements, to see that Sandburg had been appointed as a Teaching Fellow, and had been on the verge of obtaining tenure, subject to completing his dissertation satisfactorily.

That, of course, had all ended when Sandburg had been caught. It seemed that some malicious soul had discovered the Guide’s secret and turned him in. Sandburg had been attempting to flee town – and no doubt the country – when he'd been apprehended. He had been sentenced to be detained for life, and forced to undergo compulsory Guide re-training. Guide World, as an authorized re-training agent, had taken him on. And it would have been particularly brutal training in his case. Part punishment, part conditioning. Designed to break Sandburg of all he had been before, because intelligence and independent thought were undesirable traits in a Guide.

Ellison snickered derisively. The trainers at Guide World were kidding themselves if they thought someone like Sandburg could ever be put through their mincer and come out the other side as regular Guide. It was unlikely, given his background and apparent sheer determination, that Sandburg would ever be completely broken of his past. Still, it made him an interesting challenge for Jim Ellison to take on – except that the Sentinel was just as contrary as it appeared Sandburg was when it came to conforming to societal norms. Ellison was more likely to encourage the Guide to go against his training rather than adhere to it, as he had already begun to do. In many ways, it seemed, they were a good match for each other.

He turned to the part of the report detailing Sandburg’s testing scores as a Guide. He was no surprised to read that his infantile test reports had somehow been forged. The concealment of Sandburg’s abilities would have started early, as all citizens were tested at birth for the existence of Guide traits. Sandburg, it appeared, had been born at home, thus avoiding the compulsory hospital tests. No father’s name was listed on the birth certificate, and his mother was stated to be deceased.

He turned the page, finding the section that gave Sandburg’s test results from when he was taken into custody. And did a double take. Sandburg was a ten, all across the board – the highest score that a Guide could achieve.

It begged a question, and Ellison found that he wanted the answer. Picking up the phone, he dialed the number for Guide World, giving his name and asking for Reynolds. The moment Reynolds took the call, Ellison wasted no time on niceties. “The Guide I rented. He’s a ten in every category. Why the hell is he a rental?”

Reynolds was unfazed by Ellison’s abruptness. “I take it you have looked into his background, Sentinel?

“Call it my natural curiosity. I am a Detective, Reynolds. So what’s the deal with my Guide? Is it because he was rogue?”

You’ve answered your own question,” Reynolds answered. “Even if we manage to train Guide 96-234 to the full specifications of a Bond Guide, he will not be permitted to Bond. The courts instructed, when he was given over into our custody, that he remain un-Bonded for life. It is part of the punishment for his crime.

Ellison shook his head. “Isn’t that pretty barbaric? What happens if he and a Sentinel are drawn to each other?”

I hope you’re not talking about yourself, Sentinel Ellison,” Reynolds remarked. “Because if you are feeling the pull of the Bond to 96-234, we will be obliged to retrieve him.

He wasn’t. He hoped. “No, I’m not,” Ellison stated. “I just want all the facts. So in that case, you would retrieve him. Then what?”

Then he would receive further retraining until he is deemed ready to be hired out again. And if it happens too often on rental assignments, he will be withdrawn from our rental stock and kept in isolation for the rest of his life.

It was the way life was for Guides. It was the way it had always been, and Ellison usually didn’t give it a second thought. So why did the callous disregard of Sandburg’s skills and experience bother him so much? But Ellison kept his feelings on the matter out of his voice as he wrapped up the call. “Thank you.”

No problem, Sentinel Ellison. But a word of warning.” The underlying threat in Reynolds’s voice was undeniable. “I strongly urge you not to get too close to this Guide. Treat him as what he is – a tool to enable you to do your job. I advise no longer than a six month term as per the contract you signed – don’t try to extend the period, or you could find yourself getting too attached. Remember, also, that too much kindness while he is in your custody would be an unkindness. Guide 96-234 will never Bond, and as soon as you turn him in, he will be forcibly re-trained before his next assignment. Don’t let him think life could be better for him than that.

“I’ll take it under advisement,” Ellison agreed, but felt cold inside as he concluded the call.

A nagging sense of wrongness about the whole situation plagued him for the next while, as he got on with paperwork. He had been confined to a desk, and it would be up to his Captain, Simon Banks, to certify him fit to go back out into the field now that he had a Guide.

The tedious typing of reports was interrupted by the appearance of said Captain. Simon strode into the bullpen and, before he even paused to take off his coat, he beckoned the Sentinel, his face grim. “Ellison, my office. Now.” Ellison rose and, accompanied by a nagging flashback of being summoned to see the headmaster after breaking a school window with a football, followed in Banks’s wake.

No sooner was the door closed than Banks turned on him. “I told you to get a Guide, Ellison. Not a reject!”

Ellison glared back, unwilling to give an inch on this matter. “I got a Guide. No one said anything about Bonding. I will not Bond, not now, not ever. End of story. You can’t accept that, then I’ll hand in my badge and gun right now. sir,” he added almost as an afterthought.

“Cut the crap about resigning, Ellison, and listen to me!” Banks was furious. “The Guide you’ve rented – who I’ve just seen down in medical – is nothing but a scrawny kid who doesn’t know a homicide from a robbery! He’s a rental, goddamnit! He’s had no police training at all. What the hell makes you think he’s a suitable Guide for a police detective?”

Ellison found himself feeling oddly resentful of Banks’s assessment of Sandburg. “There’s a hell of a lot more to him than that, sir,” he stated. “I believe he’s more than capable of Guiding me.”

“He’d sure as hell better be!” Banks shook his head. “Look, Jim,” his voice softened, “I just don’t get it. This kid may be able to help keep you from zoning in the short term, even without law enforcement expertise, but what about the future? Without a Bond, you know your life expectancy is limited. You’ve been zoning more and more this past year. What happens when your rental Guide has gone back, and you zone when no Guide is around, and can’t get out of it on your own? I’m worried about you, Jim. I don’t mind admitting it.”

The Captain’s concern was touching; but it didn’t change Jim’s mind one iota. “I’ve told you before, Simon. I can’t stand the idea of chaining my life to some mindless cretin. I like my privacy, and I don’t want to be somebody’s jailer twenty-four-seven.” He smiled “I’d rather live fast and die young.”

“Yeah, well, forgive me if I fail to understand. If it bugs me that my friend won’t take this one step he needs to keep him alive. You know what the life expectancy of Sentinels who are un-Bonded is – I don’t need to quote you the statistics.”

“I know.” This was old ground; they were never going to agree. Ellison knew that Simon’s anger was due to concern; and no doubt he was feeling peeved that he hadn’t managed to force the Sentinel into a Bond by making it official. “I understand the risks, Simon. It’s my choice.”

“Hmph.” Simon had apparently recognized that to continue to argue was useless. He sat down behind his desk and waved Ellison to a seat. “Well, at least you have a Guide now, even if it is only a temporary arrangement. You’re sure he’ll be able to do what you need?”

Ellison sank down into a chair. He nodded. “Yeah, he scored high on all the required elements. Voice and touch are the main things – I’d say as a ten in both he is more than capable of de-zoning me.”

“Well that’s something, at least,” Simon admitted. “He looks young, though. What, eighteen? Nineteen?”

“Twenty-six. With a lot of life experience.” Simon’s eyes widened as Ellison updated him as to the contents of Sandburg’s file.

By the end, Simon was nodding. “I remember the case. They kept it out of the press, in case it inspired more rogues. But the gossip was rife around here. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it.”

Ellison shrugged. “I don’t pay much attention to gossip.”

Simon looked thoughtful, then glanced out into the Bullpen. “Looks like your Guide is back, Detective.”

Ellison rose and looked out. Sandburg was just sinking to his knees beside the detective’s desk, his head lowered submissively as he settled himself in to wait for the return of his Sentinel.

Behind him, Simon said, “I hope you know what you’re doing, taking this rogue on as a Guide.”

“It’s only for six months,” Ellison answered absently. But his attention was on the Guide. Something about Sandburg’s posture bothered him, although technically his stance was by the book.

Apparently understanding that Ellison now needed to be elsewhere, Simon dismissed him. “Go on. Get out of here. See to your Guide.”

“Yes, sir," Ellison acknowledged. And he left the room without a backward glance.

Sandburg didn’t look up at Ellison’s approach, apparently having taken the warning about being a model Guide when out in public to heart. Ellison stopped in front of him. “Guide, look at me,” he ordered, and Sandburg’s head came up. His face was closed off, emotionless. “How did it go?” Ellison asked.

In answer, Sandburg held out the envelope he had been holding in his hand. It was addressed to the Detective. As Ellison took it, and moved to sit down, the Guide’s head lowered again, as he resumed his submissive posture.

Ellison ripped open the envelope and unfolded the report. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that Sandburg had been cleared for duty. Reading further, he took in the detail. The Guide, it appeared, was generally healthy. He was, however, underweight for his height, and had a stomach ulcer, which was ‘stress related’. A prescription for medication was being supplied to treat it. Ellison wasn’t surprised – the kid was most definitely under stress.

Then he got to the final paragraph. “What the hell?” The report detailed that the Guide had ‘lesions to the upper torso (posterior and anterior), buttocks and thighs, consistent with discipline administered by a regulation crop. Sentinel Ellison is advised not to discipline the Guide further in this manner for at least forty-eight hours, to prevent permanent scarring or more serious injury.’

Shit! How the hell could the doctor believe that he had beaten the Guide? Standing to tower over the kneeling man once again, Ellison demanded, “Guide, look at me!” As the Guide’s head came up, Ellison asked, “Did you tell them I’d beaten you?”

The voice was barely audible. “No, Sentinel.”

“Then why the hell did they think I had? Why didn’t you tell them it happened before you came home with me?”

The Guide swallowed. His hands were shaking minutely in the face of the Sentinel’s obvious fury. But he managed to find his voice, nevertheless. “They didn’t ask.”

Ellison blinked. They didn’t ask. Of course not. Did a vet ask a dog who had kicked it? Guides were no more than animals, after all.

Shit.

Ellison’s anger and embarrassment evaporated. The Guide was hurting. He needed to be taken care of. “Guide,” he said, “Stand up.” Awkwardly, Sandburg stood, and Ellison cursed himself for not noticing before that he was in pain. “Follow me,” he ordered, keeping his face impassive with an effort. “We’re going home.”

Turning, the Sentinel exited the bullpen; the Guide following submissively in his wake, the regulation three feet behind.


***


CHAPTER 3

Entering his apartment with the Guide following behind him for the second day in a row, Ellison was more than a little pissed off when Sandburg sank once again to his knees, apparently disregarding Ellison’s order of the day before. Annoyance, therefore, clouded his voice. “Hey! I thought I told you not to pull this shit when we’re in here. Get up, damn you!”

The Guide jerkily got to his feet as if scalded. He seemed to be fighting for composure, and the foul fear stink that kept emanating from him had made an unwelcome reappearance.

Ellison sighed in frustration. Maybe this wasn’t going to work after all. As a rogue Guide, Sandburg was carrying baggage that regular Guides did not. Guides generally knew no other life other than that of obedience and servitude, and there was, in those cases, no conflict between a Sentinel’s needs and the Guide’s own, if the propaganda was to be believed. This guy, on the other hand, had lived a full and productive life before he had been identified as a Guide, and that life had been ripped away from him. Settling him into his temporary role as Ellison’s Guide was unlikely to be straightforward, and Ellison had been naïve in the extreme to ever imagine that it could be.

Reynolds’s words of earlier came back to him – ‘Too much kindness while he is in your custody would be an unkindness’. He’d thought giving Sandburg this space, where he could forget about kneeling and being subservient, would be a benevolence on his part. But instead, all he had done so far was confuse the Guide’s conditioning, making him feel adrift and afraid.

It had been the spark of life – of independence – in the Guide, that had attracted Ellison to Sandburg. But right now, during these early days, the Guide needed to have more structure, and more explicit rules. Otherwise he was never going to feel safe. And Ellison needed that – for his home, his loft to be a safe place for both of them.

“Hey,” he said more gently, “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. I told you that. Remember?”

The Guide glanced up, his eyes dark with distress. “Please,” he whispered. “I don’t know what to do. I keep screwing up. Please don’t send me back.”

Ellison shook his head. “You’ve done nothing wrong. I won’t send you back for not understanding the rules. It’s my place to make things clearer. You’re not at fault here. Okay?”

The Guide nodded unhappily. “Can I ask...?” he began, and when Ellison nodded, he went on, “At the police station. You were angry when I gave you my medical report. Did I do something wrong?”

The kid seemed so vulnerable, so unsure. Somewhat incongruously, given his impatience with Guides in general, Ellison ached for him – something about the way those huge blue eyes in that thin, youthful face pleaded with him twisted him up inside. Ellison shook his head. “No. I’m not angry with you.” He shrugged. “A little confused, actually,” he confided. “This is all new to me too. I’ve never had a Guide before. I may screw up too, occasionally. You’ll have to be patient with me.”

That confession elicited the tiniest hint of a smile. “Okay.”

The Guide was calmer now, the fear stink having receded. And now the Sentinel became aware of other odors on the Guide – antiseptic and a lingering residue of latex from his medical examination. It reminded him of why they had come home. Deciding to deal with it straight away, Ellison directed, “Take your shirt off, Chief.”

A momentary look of panic crossed the face of the Guide, his heart rate jumping. But then he settled down, taking a deep breath. Yes, Jim thought. That’s it. I won’t hurt you. Come on, Chief. Get with the program. After a few seconds, Sandburg nodded nervously, and fingers that shook began to do as Ellison had asked. Satisfied, Ellison went to the bathroom, and pulled out supplies from the first-aid box he thought he might need. As an afterthought, he set the bath running, and grabbed his own terrycloth robe from the back of the door. When he came back out, he was pleased to see that Sandburg had undressed from the waist up, and had resisted the urge to kneel. He was not pleased, however, to see the evil looking weals that crisscrossed the Guide’s chest.

Crossing over to the kitchen table, Ellison said over his shoulder, “Take a seat over here. I want to check your injuries out. Then you can take a bath and relax a little.” He didn’t look as Sandburg obliged, focusing instead on laying out his medical kit. When he turned round, he registered that Sandburg was shivering, his arms wrapped around himself and, without hesitation, Ellison moved over to the thermostat and turned the heating up.

The Guide remained compliant and placid as Ellison’s hands drifted over his skin, using his sensitive Sentinel touch to check out the angry red marks. He caught the Guide giving him a quizzical look from under lowered lashes, and answered the unspoken question. “I had some medical training when I was in the army.” He turned his attention back to the lashes on the Guide’s skin. “These are not too deep,” he remarked. “The skin isn’t broken. I think they’ll heal by themselves if left alone.” Looking more closely, he could see how the marks overlaid other, older marks. This was not, by a long shot, the first lashing Sandburg had received, nor was it the most severe.

Moving away from the Guide, he said, “Take off your pants, and put this on.” He handed Sandburg the robe. “I just want to check out the rest of your injuries. Then you can take your bath.” He left Sandburg momentarily, to adjust the bath water. When he came back, the Guide was wearing the robe, clutching it around himself like a shield. Keeping his movements impersonal, Ellison directed him to stand and hold the robe up. Crouching down, he made a cursory examination of Sandburg’s thighs and buttocks. The weals on his thighs were the most severe, and undoubtedly painful on the tender skin there, but again, he judged them likely to heal if left to themselves.

Before standing, he pulled the bunched-up robe out of Sandburg’s hands, and pulled it down, covering up his backside. Then he rose and led the way to the bathroom. “Follow me,” he said, and the Guide fell into step behind.

Once inside, Ellison tested the bathwater, and shut off the faucet. “Right Chief,” he directed. “Get in.”

The Guide’s nervousness seemed to be abating, as this time he didn’t hesitate to do the Sentinel’s bidding. He winced as the hot water made contact with the weals on his legs, but sank into the water anyway and, after a moment, the pinched look of pain on his face began to ease and he relaxed back into the soothing water.

Drawn by an instinct older than time, the Sentinel moved closer and kneeled by the tub. He placed a hand on the Guide’s chest, feeling the strong heartbeat beneath the wet, warm skin. “I know we can’t Bond,” he said softly when startled eyes looked up at him. Ellison smiled reassuringly. “Neither of us want that anyway. But I need to know you. To learn you. I need you to trust me, to let me do this. I promise I won’t hurt you.”

The Guide swallowed, his eyes dark. But he nodded, to Ellison’s great satisfaction. “Yes Sentinel. I… I won’t fight you.”

Ellison frowned at the answer. Why should the Guide even think about fighting him? Physical touch between a Sentinel and Guide was part of the deal; a vital way for the Sentinel to ground his senses in the Guide. It felt right to Ellison to do this, to touch Sandburg, especially if the other man was to Guide him effectively. If his conditioning had made the Guide nervous of this essential act, then those blockheads at Guide World had done far more harm than good with their so-called ‘re-training’. What Ellison needed to do should be pleasurable to a Guide, comforting, not something frightening to submit to.

But there were ways of making even a Guide as skittish as this one relax. The hand that was resting on the Guide’s chest had begun a hypnotic rubbing motion, and it seemed that Sandburg’s nerves were calming a little, as his eyes began to look heavy-lidded. “That’s it,” Ellison breathed. “Relax. Everything is fine. Nothing to be afraid of.”

His other hand reached out and passed over the short, bristly hair on the Guide’s head, sliding down behind Sandburg’s neck where his fingers began to knead the tense muscles there. Sandburg let out a sigh, his eyelids drifting closed, and Ellison almost purred in satisfaction at that display of trust.

As soon as he judged Sandburg sufficiently at ease, Ellison’s hands began to move, sliding over the wet skin, mapping hairs, capillaries and the disturbingly high number of scars both visible and invisible. The touch was light, sensual rather than sexual, although he was finding as he progressed that his instinctive sexual urge towards this particular Guide was surprisingly strong. He ruthlessly pushed his own autonomic response to the Guide to one side, for that way lay danger. Sex between un-Bonded Sentinels and Guides almost always led to the Bond; and that could never happen between them.

That’s not to say that sexual relief for either of them would be out of the question during their time together, Ellison knew; just that they would have to avoid simultaneous satisfaction. The minds of Sentinels and Guides tended to open themselves to each other during mutual orgasm, creating the appropriate conditions for Bonding. It would be foolish in the extreme for him to put them in a position where that would be possible, no matter how much either of them might grow to want it.

Sandburg, it seemed, was not immune to the eroticism of this act of mapping either. As Ellison’s hands drifted up the Guide’s legs, feeling and learning the strong muscles and sinews beneath the skin, his breathy sighs got more frequent, and his involuntary erection bobbed in the water. It became too enticing a sight to ignore after a while, and Sandburg gasped when the Sentinel’s strong hand closed around it.

“Hush,” Ellison urged softly, wanting desperately to give this gift to the Guide, to show him that a Sentinel’s touch could bring pleasure instead of pain. “It’s all right,” he breathed. “Just relax.” Feeling the play of impossibly soft skin over solid strength, the Sentinel used his sense of touch to find the perfect stroke, the most sensitive pressure points. It didn’t take long. The Guide arched his back, crying out as he came, semen splattering his chest in huge convulsive spurts, his eyes closed, his breathing ragged.

Sandburg was boneless in the aftermath, almost asleep as Ellison cleaned him off. The Sentinel then continued to map the Guide’s pliant body, using the buoyancy the water lent him to raise Sandburg up in the water, enabling him to have access to his underside. And soon, at long last, he was done.

He put out a hand, and laid it gently on the dozing Guide’s cheek. “Hey,” he said. Dazed blue eyes opened and fixed on him, the pupils dilated. “Time to get out, Chief.” He took the Guide’s hands and hauled him upright, wrapping him in a towel and helping him to step out. Ellison dried him off and helped him don the robe. The Guide was trembling with exhaustion by the time Ellison had deposited him on the couch and covered him with the blanket that was on the back of it.

The Guide still seemed a little out of it, as he absentmindedly drank the soup Ellison brought to him shortly afterwards. The Sentinel let him be, allowing him peace to process his reaction to what had happened. The experience had, much to the Sentinel’s satisfaction, at the very least rid Sandburg of the nervous tension he had exhibited ever since Ellison had brought him home.

At last, Ellison urged him to use the bathroom, and Sandburg did as he was told without complaint. When he emerged, Ellison was waiting to lead him into the small bedroom under the stairs, which he had allocated to the Guide.

The sob that burst forth, as the Sentinel tucked the quilt up to the Guide’s ears, took Ellison by surprise. “Chief?” he queried, as another sob broke free, tears rolling down Sandburg’s cheek to pool on the pillow. “What is it?”

Sandburg sniffed, trying to get himself under control. “It’s just…” he began, then faltered. He tried again. “It’s just that you’re so gentle, man. It’s been so long since anyone… It usually hurts, when people touch me. It’s usually when I’m getting punished.”

Ellison put out a hand, and stroked his cheek. “I told you, I won’t hurt you.”

Sandburg nodded. “I know. I know that now.”

“Good.” Ellison’s hand moved to the short hair, his touch soothing. “Close your eyes. Relax. Everything’s all right.”

“Okay.” The Guide did as Ellison asked, and the Sentinel kept up the soothing touch, his hand lightly moving across the other man’s head in gentle strokes. Eyes closed, the Guide spoke again, his voice dreamy on the edge of sleep. “I read about Sentinels like you, so kind, so gentle. Not here, though. In tribes far away, in the jungle… ” His voice trailed off, and ended on a breathy almost-snore as, mid-sentence, he finally succumbed to the lure of sleep. Satisfied that all was at last well with the Guide, Ellison placed a gentle kiss on his head, and left the room.

Later, lying sleepless in his own bed, Ellison pondered Sandburg’s dream-like words. The Guide’s ramblings on the edge of sleep had reminded him of something he hadn’t thought about in a long time. Something that, now he thought about it, made sense of a lot of his feelings about Sentinel and Guide relationships.

Several years ago, as a result of a covert ops mission gone wrong, Ellison had found himself stranded in the Peruvian jungle, the sole survivor of the mission. He had been taken in by a local tribe – the Chopec – and had lived among them for eighteen months until he’d been finally rescued and brought home.

While he was there, he had seen many strange things. The Chopec way of life was so different from life in Cascade in so many ways, the culture so foreign, that it had taken him a long time to adjust. Chopec attitudes to sex, procreation, life and death had by turns shocked and amazed the stranded man, until he was forced to learn to think totally outside the framework of his own culture.

So many differences, that one specific thing in particular had been swamped amidst his memories of the experience. One thing that now had particular relevance to his own life.

The Chopec tribe he had lived with had counted a native Sentinel as being one of their number. And that Sentinel had been paired with a Guide.

But the Guide had not been a subservient lackey, groveling at the feet of the Sentinel. Oh no. The two had stood side by side, equals, sharing the responsibility and the burden of their respective callings. There had been other times, when one had of necessity led, and the other had followed. And at those times, the Guide, not the Sentinel, had usually been the one in charge.

The Bonded pair had been lovers too, he remembered, demonstrably affectionate in a totally unselfconscious way. Remembering the natural eroticism of their kisses, displayed for all the tribe to see, Ellison found himself thinking of the silky wetness of Sandburg’s skin earlier, and the soft sighing sounds he had made as the Sentinel had stroked him helplessly to completion.

His own loins stirred and, reaching down, he took hold of himself, pumping rhythmically; seeing in his mind’s eye a pink tongue moistening lips, and hearing the breathy moans and lapping waves of bath water as the Guide was driven to distraction by his touch. His own breath came quicker as he neared the edge, then, tumbling over it, he moaned as the world whited out, Sandburg climaxing once again in his memory.

The two of them, in his imagination, sharing the orgasm that in life they could never be permitted to share.

But as he drifted off to sleep, he held a dream Sandburg in his arms, and they lived in a world where they could stand together as equals.

CHAPTER 4

Ellison had been fully cleared to start back on full duty at work the next day, and so the morning found Sentinel and Guide back at the PD.

Glancing at Sandburg, kneeling motionless beside his desk, Ellison made a mental note to purchase a cushion of some kind for the Guide to use in the bullpen. He saw no reason why Sandburg should spend his time at work being unnecessarily uncomfortable.

His attention was drawn from his surreptitious perusal of the Guide when Captain Banks strode over. “Detective,” he acknowledged. “You have a minute? I have a case I need you to take a look at.”

“Sure.” Ellison rose, and snapped his fingers in Sandburg’s direction. The Sentinel followed Simon into his office, knowing without looking that the Guide had obediently fallen in behind.

The Guide kneeled silently, unobtrusively, at the Sentinel’s feet, as Ellison and Simon discussed the case. “It’s a homicide, Jim. The body is still at the scene, pending your Sentinel sweep.” He turned to the coffeepot as he spoke, pouring himself a mug. “The M.O. is the same as two murders in Seattle during the past year, and before that a double homicide in a little town up near the Canadian border.” He gestured towards Jim with the coffeepot, wordlessly offering some to the detective, who declined with a gesture.

The Guide was ignored.

Ellison remarked as the Captain sat back down, “So we’re talking serial killer here, sir. And the possibility of a second murder. What do the deaths have in common?”

Banks shrugged. “All women, all aged between seventeen to thirty-four, if this latest case proves to fit the same pattern. All strangled first, then stabbed through the heart while still alive. A single thrust, with a long pointed weapon, like a bayonet or stiletto.”

“Any connection between the victims?”

“Not so far as we can tell.”

Ellison rose. “Right. I’m on it, sir.” He moved towards the door, the Guide rising and following in his wake; but Simon halted him. “Detective, send your Guide out for a moment.” Simon didn’t even glance at Ellison’s silent shadow.

Ellison looked momentarily at Sandburg. The Guide’s face was carefully schooled to blandness, not reacting to the Captain’s dismissive words, just as an obedient Guide was supposed to behave. But a flush of embarrassment stained his cheeks, nevertheless. Ellison was once again reminded of how, up to a year ago, this man had been a successful academic, almost a tenured professor.

But nothing Jim said or did would change the fact that Sandburg’s independence was a thing of the past. He was sympathetic, but could not afford to let it show too much. He addressed Sandburg directly. “Guide, go wait for me by my desk.”

Obediently, Sandburg obliged, sinking to his knees back out in the bullpen beside Ellison’s desk, and Ellison closed the door between them.

Once they were alone, Banks got straight to the point. “Jim, I’ve been giving this some thought. I’m not happy that your Guide is a notorious rogue, no matter how well trained he appears to be.”

Ellison’s hackles rose. “Look, Simon, I don’t give a damn what you think! I already told you, I won’t Bond.”

“I know that, Jim. Just hear me out. Okay?” When Ellison nodded, Banks went on, “Look, I respect your decision. I don’t like it, but I know I’ll never change your mind.” He sighed. “What I wanted to say is, I spoke to the manager of the Federal Guide Facility earlier. They have three loaner Guides available, all of whom were previously Bonded, but their Sentinels are dead. They’re all experienced in investigative work, and have proven themselves in the field. I pulled some strings, got you an appointment. I want you to ditch the rogue, and go over there later.”

“No.”

“Jim…” Simon protested.

“I said no, Simon!” Ellison’s voice was uncompromising.

Simon fixed him with a hard stare. “Detective,” he said coldly. “What the hell is going on with you? What is it with this kid?”

Ellison scrubbed a hand over his face. In his mind’s eye, he saw Sandburg in the bath, letting go of his fear and trusting Ellison to take care of him. Sandburg crying afterwards, because he had been treated with unexpected gentleness.

How the hell could he explain to Simon that being with Sandburg like that felt right, even without a Bond? That despite having been with the Guide for a little less than forty-eight hours, he had undoubtedly formed an inexplicable attachment to him, and felt a profound level of protectiveness?

But there was always the possibility of an appeal to Simon’s better nature to get the Captain off his back. His friend, his boss, was nothing if not an honorable man. And Guide or not, Sandburg was a human being whose plight was, Ellison believed, capable of touching him even through the wall of his professional detachment.

“If I send him back now,” Ellison said starkly, “he’ll be kept on his knees for twelve hours a day. He’ll be beaten if he so much as twitches a muscle at the wrong time. They call it ‘re-training’, Simon. It’s what happens to Guides who stray from the path; or those, like him, who were never on it. He may have screwed up, broken the law, whatever. But I believe he deserves this opportunity. This one chance to be a Guide, to do what he was born to do. I only have him for six months, sir. Six months, then he goes back to that for the rest of his life, apart from the times other Sentinels hire him out. Let me give him this break, huh? What harm can it do? And I promise you, Simon, as soon as the contract is up, I’ll consider taking on one of your Fed Guides.”

Simon’s face remained impassive as he considered Ellison’s words. Then he nodded. “All right, Detective,” he conceded, clearly understanding from Ellison’s impassioned plea that he had no chance of winning this argument. “We’ll play it your way for now – as long as he does what he’s here to do. But I’m warning you,” his face was grim, “I’ve heard whispers around the place. Word has gotten around that your new Guide is the same Sandburg who evaded the Detectors for all those years. There are a lot of people waiting to see you – and him – screw up.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Jim said, unsurprised at the news. Word traveled fast in a place like this. And he knew that he was not a popular guy around the PD, even with the other Sentinels among his brothers and sisters in blue.

Like Sandburg, he had always swum against the tide.


***


The discussion with Simon had not helped Ellison’s mood, which had been, at best, turbulent since he had been forced to acknowledge his uncharacteristic feelings towards the Guide. It was with a curtly barked, “Follow me, Guide,” therefore, that he beckoned Sandburg to follow him into the elevator.

Sandburg followed obediently, outwardly calm. But his heart pounded faster after a brief glance at Ellison’s thunderous features and, to the Sentinel’s dismay, the fear stench that he was beginning to despise once again breezed into his nostrils.

Ellison immediately felt contrite. He had a job to do, sure enough; and he had made it clear to the Guide what was expected of him at work in terms of their interaction with each other. The Sentinel had a stressful job, and was not the most patient person in the world – therefore he wouldn’t always have the leisure when working to be considerate of the Guide’s emotional well being. But he really had hoped after last night that they were past this fear thing.

At least, for the moment, they were alone and unobserved. Ellison was unable to resist, therefore, putting out a hand and resting it on the back of the Guide’s neck, in a wordless gesture of comfort. And he was pleased when the Guide did not flinch. Instead Sandburg leaned into the Sentinel’s touch, the fear smell dissipating immediately. And Ellison felt his equilibrium being restored at the trust that was granted him.

As the elevator reached the basement level, Ellison’s hand fell away, and he felt strangely bereft of the warmth of the Guide’s skin. Then it was back to business, the Guide following submissively behind through the parking garage to Ellison’s truck.
They rode in silence to the crime scene. Then, as they at last parked up outside the suburban house with its horrors hidden inside, Ellison turned to Sandburg. “Okay,” he said. “Listen up, Chief. When we’re inside, you step where I step. Touch nothing. Stay present, and keep me grounded; keep me from zoning. I assume you know the drill.”

“Yes, Sentinel,” the Guide agreed. His voice was strong, confident, as though the brief touch Ellison had granted him had shored him up somehow. Satisfied that the Guide was back on track, Ellison opened the door and got out, the footfalls of the Guide falling into step behind him as though he had always belonged there.

It was just as well the Guide had gotten himself together, because once inside the house, Ellison had no attention to spare for him, as he concentrated entirely on the job at hand. The Guide faded away from his conscious awareness, as the Sentinel minutely examined the residue of the murder, bringing all his senses into play.

It was said that the definition of a competent Guide was one who grounded a Sentinel, preventing him from zoning. The definition of an excellent Guide, on the other hand, was a Guide who faded into the background when a Sentinel was using his senses. The Sentinel would only be aware of that Guide’s voice and touch on a visceral level, never a conscious one. It was further said that the most talented Guides were so in tune with their Sentinel’s needs, that the Sentinel could operate flawlessly; moving seamlessly between sight, touch, smell, hearing and taste without ever experiencing a break in concentration until the job was done.

But Ellison didn’t ponder any of that now, because his entire being was focused on one single-minded activity – the gathering and interpretation of evidence. And if a rich-toned voice and confident hand Guided him in pursuit of his goal, he never consciously registered it.

It was a considerable time later when Ellison finally allowed his hyper-senses to recede somewhat. It was like emerging from a trance, and he blinked, his vision blurred until a soft voice directed in his ear, “Dial it back. Steady breaths.”

He obeyed without thought, then started as a white clad forensic technician appeared before him. “That about wraps it up, Detective,” the woman said. “Good job. Looks like we have a break.”

Ellison nodded, thinking back momentarily to the prints, fibers and smells he had uncovered. “Good. I’ll let you get on with it.”

She smiled back. “Nothing to do but the cleanup. But plenty to go on, thanks to you. Hopefully it’ll be what we need to catch the sadistic son of a bitch.”

As she walked away, calling orders to the crime scene investigators, Ellison turned his head to look at the Guide, who was standing behind him, a hand still on the Sentinel’s arm. As their eyes met, the Guide pulled away, moving the regulation three feet behind and to one side. His face was white, and Ellison wondered how long they’d been at it. He remembered a little guiltily that Sandburg needed to take a further dose of medication for his stomach ulcer, and wondered briefly if that was why he was looking a little queasy.

They moved out, and it wasn’t until they were halfway back to the PD in the truck that the significance of what had occurred struck Ellison.

He hadn’t zoned. He hadn’t experienced any problems with his senses at all. He had delved into the physical evidence with a precision and level of concentration he had never, even in his wildest dreams, experienced before. And the Guide, Sandburg, had been responsible.

No wonder he was a classified as a ten.


***


A soon as they were back in the bullpen, Ellison handed Sandburg two pills and a bottle of water as he knelt beside the desk. “Take these, Chief,” he directed. “You’ll feel better soon.”

The Guide acquiesced without a word, placing the half-empty bottle back on the desk, and bowing his head back down. He still looked a little green around the gills and, as a flash of insight struck him, Ellison felt like kicking himself. The kid had less experience than a rookie and he’d just been dragged for the first time to the scene of a brutal murder. He had been forced to experience it in all its gory glory, while the Sentinel had gone through the process of dissecting the scene with his senses. No wonder he looked ill.

“Hey,” Ellison said softly. “Guide. Look at me.” Bleary eyes drifted up to focus on the Sentinel’s face. “You did great, Chief.” Ellison said. “Amazing. I’ve never functioned like that before. Not ever.”

The nauseous expression faded somewhat at the unaccustomed compliment, to be gradually replaced by a shy look of pleasure. “Really?” the Guide asked a little uncertainly.

Ellison nodded. “Really.” He put out a hand, and rubbed a tense shoulder. “You feel sick again, you take deep breaths through your nose and out through the mouth. You can get through it. Drink as much water as you need – I’ll leave the bottle there, and you let me know if you want more.”

Sandburg nodded. He looked a little better already, lapping up the Sentinel’s praise and concern as though starved for it.

Which he most probably was.

They resumed their positions, the Guide kneeling in the ‘at rest’ position, his thighs resting back on his calves, and his head lowered submissively; and Ellison concentrating on the report he was writing. Every so often, Ellison’s hand snaked out, and ran comfortingly and possessively over Sandburg’s bowed head and shoulders, in the unconscious mannerism of a Bonded Sentinel and his Guide.

And they were both unaware of the concerned brown eyes, worriedly watching their interaction from the window of the Captain’s office.


***


CHAPTER 5

Ellison was scheduled to take the next day off, although he usually waived such absences when he was in the middle of an investigation. But his Sentinel sweep of the crime scene yesterday had been so productive, that he decided to stay home anyway. He’d left junior officers conducting interviews of potential witnesses and the dead woman’s contacts, and it would take at least a day for the forensic team to process their own findings as well as his. He was in any case just a phone call away should anything urgent come up.

It was time, at any rate, for the Guide make a start on Sentinelizing Ellison’s home environment, using his specialist training to minimize the risk of zones and sensory spikes in Ellison’s off-duty surroundings. Sandburg spent the morning, therefore, going through cleaning products, toiletries and foodstuffs that Ellison kept in the loft, working out what to discard and what to keep, and what the replacements should be.

Ellison was both amused and gratified to watch his Guide in action. Sandburg appeared to have put his nervousness here in the loft to one side since the night in the bath, barely hesitating when sitting down on a chair, and increasingly unafraid to voice his thoughts and opinions. The Sentinel lapped up his voice as though it were nectar, enjoying the rich, warm tones and the feeling of contentment the Guide’s presence elicited.

Eventually, Sandburg approached him, a list in his hand. His face was open and unguarded, Ellison saw with pleasure. Trusting. “Sentinel?” Sandburg ventured, only a little hesitantly, passing Ellison the piece of paper. “Uh, this is what needs to be bought. I’m sorry…” He looked a little worried. “It’s quite a lot.”

In answer, Ellison dug his truck keys out of his pocket, and threw them to Sandburg. The Guide caught them in both hands, his look wary.

When he didn’t say anything, his eyes fixed on the Sentinel’s face, Ellison prompted, “You do know how to drive, don’t you? You have a license?” When Sandburg nodded, he went on, “Go on. Get out of here. Get the stuff.” He reached into his pocket, and pulled out his wallet, removing a handful of bills. He held them out to the Guide. “Take this. Will it be enough?”

“Uh…” The Guide appeared almost dumbstruck as he took the money, and the list that the Sentinel passed him back at the same time. “Yeah. Yeah, it should be.” He didn’t move.

“Chief,” Ellison queried. “What’s wrong?”

The Guide looked down at the keys on his hand, then back up. Apparently coming to some accommodation within, he smiled a little self-consciously. “Nothing’s wrong, man,” he said. “Nothing at all.” He swallowed. “It’s just… it’s a long time, you know? Since I was allowed anywhere on my own.”

“Well, don’t make it even longer.” Ellison nodded towards the door. “Go on. Get going.”

Sandburg nodded. His smile blossomed, his eyes sparkling with gratitude at the Sentinel’s apparent trust and confidence in him. Then, bouncing on his toes a little, he headed towards the door. He had a hand on the handle, when Ellison stopped him. “Wait,” he ordered.

The Guide’s heart pounded, and a hint of the fear smell seeped forth, as though he was afraid Ellison’s offer had been a trick. Ellison stepped over to stand close behind him. “No,” he murmured reassuringly, his hands coming out to stroke over the head and shoulders of the motionless Guide. “It’s okay. I just need to touch you. Just for a moment. Then you can go.” Ellison didn’t question the odd instinct that compelled him to do this, to run his hands over the silky skin and cropped hair of the Guide, and breathe in his essential odor.

The Guide’s odor had changed now, as he submitted to this, relaxing under the Sentinel’s soothing touch. The fear evaporated, and a gradual, spicy, musky tang overlaid the natural smells of sweat and skin. A smell the Sentinel recognized instantly as arousal. Leaning his head in to the juncture of the Guide’s neck and shoulder, the Sentinel touched his nose and mouth to the skin there, and breathed deep, the resulting overwhelming scent creating a coiling sensation deep in his own belly. The Guide shuddered under his hands, his breath quickening.

Then, Ellison stepped back, breaking contact. “Go on,” he said softly. “Go. Hurry back.”

The Guide twisted the door handle with shaking fingers, and stepped out. The Sentinel’s last glimpse of him was of moist parted lips and eyes dark with sexual excitement, briefly meeting his own, before the door closed between them. And Ellison smiled in satisfaction as he adjusted his suddenly too tight jeans.

The sound of the truck had just died away when Ellison became aware that he had a visitor. He had been so focused on listening to Sandburg drive off that he hadn’t noticed that someone had entered his building and made their way up in the elevator to the third floor. The knock at the door, therefore, caught him oddly by surprise.

He opened the door to find Simon Banks on the threshold. “Jim,” his boss greeted. “Can I come in?”

“Sure.” Ellison stepped aside to let the Captain in, then closed the door and followed. Moving past Banks into the kitchen, he offered, “Coffee?”

“Thanks.” Banks took off his coat and draped it over a kitchen chair. Then he sat down and looked around. “Where’s your Guide?” he asked.

Ellison finished pouring the second cup and brought them both over to the table. “He’s out shopping. Getting Sentinel-friendly supplies.”

Simon looked incredulous. “On his own? Jim, is that wise? He’s a felon, for Christ’s sakes! What if he absconds?”

Ellison took a sip. “He won’t,” he said with certainty.

“What makes you so sure?”

Ellison placed his cup down on the table. “Well, for one thing,” he said, remembering the Guide shuddering with arousal at a simple touch a few moments ago, “he wants to come back. He knows he’s safe here, and he needs me as much as I need him. And for another,” he grimaced. “He has a tattoo on his neck. The ink is made of a substance sensitive to the tracking devices that Detectors use. If he ever goes on the run, he's instantly retrievable.”

“Oh. I see.” It was clear that Banks had not known about that aspect of Guide control. “Is that usual?”

Ellison nodded, lifting his cup again. “Yep,” he said. “All Guides have it done as soon as they’re confiscated.”

Banks took a gulp of coffee, then changed the subject. “I read Serena Chang’s report about yesterday, Jim,” Banks said, referring to the forensics officer in charge of the crime scene. “She said you were amazing. That working with the Guide allowed you to do stuff she’d never seen a Sentinel do before. According to her, what you managed to uncover could provide the break we need to solve this case, and stop the son of a bitch from striking again.”

Ellison shrugged. “Sandburg is good,” he remarked. “I told you he’s a ten. It shows when he works. I’ve never managed control like that before.”

Simon put his cup down, and folded his hands on the table. “Jim,” he confided. “I’ll be honest. When I saw you and Sandburg yesterday in the bullpen, I had my doubts. I was close to contacting Guide World, and asking them to recall him. You seem, well, overly obsessed with him, with touching him.”

At the Captain’s words, Ellison tensed. “It’s part of what we do, what we are, Simon. Part of a normal Sentinel and Guide relationship. Nothing for you to be concerned about.”

“Part of a normal Bonded Sentinel and Guide relationship, Jim,” the Captain stressed. “And you are not, nor will you ever be, Bonded to Sandburg. I’m worried that you’re not aware of the distinction.”

Ellison smiled coldly. “I know what I’m doing, sir.”

Banks stared back at him. “I hope that you do, Ellison.” He lifted his cup again. “What I wanted to say to you is, after reading Chang’s report, I’m willing to give your temporary Guide the benefit of the doubt. You – and he – did good work yesterday.”

The threat of separation receding, Ellison thawed a little. “Thank you, sir.”

Simon rose, put his coat back on. “I have to go.” He fixed a serious expression on the seated Sentinel. “Take care, Jim,” he said, the underlying warning in the farewell obvious.

“I will,” Jim answered, knowing full well what Banks meant.

But as the Captain left, he smiled smugly. Sandburg was his, Bonded or not. The Captain didn’t understand – couldn’t understand – the realities of Sentinel/Guide interaction.

And he ruthlessly thrust away his own unwelcome doubts – about the wisdom of indulging excessively in Sandburg’s addictive presence, when a Bond between them would never be possible.


***


Ellison never had any doubts that Sandburg would come back. But as the time passed, he found himself getting more and more impatient at the Guide’s continued absence.

Sitting at the kitchen table, his empty coffee mug in his hand, the Sentinel’s glances ranged constantly from the clock in the kitchen to the door, and back again. And again. And again. Finally wearied of moving his head between the two as if he was watching a tennis match, Ellison rose, and began to pace. Back and forth. Back and forth. Prowling. Waiting.

It really wasn’t all that long a wait in terms of what Sandburg had gone to do; but it felt like an eternity to the Sentinel. A barely audible voice in the back of his mind suggested that this was not normal, this unexplained anxiousness. That his longing for Sandburg to return right now was weirdly irrational. But he squelched it ruthlessly, telling himself he was merely worried about the Guide. That Sandburg had never, since he'd been confiscated, been out in public on his own. That any number of things could happen to him. He just wanted to know the Guide was safe; that was all.

Sandburg had only been gone a little over two hours when Ellison finally heard what he had been anxiously listening for – the sound of his own truck’s engine turning into Prospect. And he heaved a sigh of relief, as some of the tension drained out of him. He tracked the truck as it came nearer, finally parking in front of the building.

He listened as Sandburg got out of the truck, and heard the rustle of bags as the Guide hefted his purchases into his arms. As Sandburg began to climb the stairs – forsaking the elevator for some reason – Ellison honed in on the Guide’s respiration and heartbeat, wanting to assure himself that the Guide was all right. He frowned when he found them far more elevated than they ought to be, even for someone who had decided to take the stairs.

His hackles rose.

Sandburg was on the final flight now. Then, momentarily, he was approaching the door. Ellison waited until the Guide was right outside. Then, abruptly, he flung it open, expecting to see him in distress.

Only to be greeted by a rosy-cheeked, grinning Sandburg, flushed with what could only be described as happiness.

The smile on Sandburg’s face faltered a little in surprise as the door opened swiftly right in front of him, making him jump; then something in the Sentinel’s face caused it to die altogether. Sandburg licked his lips nervously. “Sentinel?” he queried. He looked as though he might fall to his knees at any moment.

Ellison stood aside. “Come inside, Guide,” he said, his voice toneless. As Sandburg passed him, head lowered, Ellison reached out and took the bags from him, turning to put them on the kitchen counter. Behind him, he heard Sandburg taking off his coat and hanging it up, then the ominous imminent creaking of his joints. “Don’t kneel,” Ellison ordered, halting the nervous gesture without looking.

Ellison began to open the bags, taking out the contents and placing them on the counter. The mechanical action was helping him to recover his balance, calming his anger. And with the return of equilibrium came reason. What the hell was wrong with him, he asked himself? Where the hell had the almost overwhelming urge to drag Sandburg inside and run his hands all over him come from? This desperate, devastating need to know that Sandburg was safe? The Guide had only gone to the mall, for Christ’s sakes. The worst that could have happened to him there was getting the wrong change.

But other things could have happened, his inner pessimist claimed in disagreement. Sandburg could have gotten mugged. He could have crashed the truck.

He could have been taken away from Ellison.

Ellison took several deep breaths, subduing those thoughts. Sandburg was here. He was okay. He was – by all appearances – more than okay. Until Ellison had scared him half to death, that is.

What the hell had he been thinking?

He put down the last bottle – some kind of natural fabric softener, he absently noted – and turned around. The Guide was standing motionless in the middle of the floor, his head lowered. He looked thoroughly miserable, any cheerfulness he might have been feeling, after his first two hours of liberty in over a year, completely obliterated by the Sentinel’s bizarre attitude.

Ellison felt like a complete heel.

In two strides, the Sentinel had moved over to him. Before Sandburg had a chance to react, the Sentinel had wrapped the Guide’s rigid body in his arms. “I’m sorry,” he whispered into the Guide’s sparse hair, his hands rubbing gently over Sandburg’s back. “I didn’t mean to scare you, or upset you. It’s just, I… I was worried.” He laughed, once, self-consciously. “I can’t even explain it to myself,” he admitted. “But I… I guess I missed you. I got scared of what might have happened to you.”

The Guide’s voice was muffled. “I tried to be quick. I’m sorry I…”

But Ellison shushed him. “No. No, it’s not your fault. Not your fault.”

They stood like that for a while, the Sentinel’s darker emotions being gradually subsumed by contentment. It felt so right to hold Sandburg like this. So natural. The smaller man’s arms crept daringly up after a moment or two, to sneak tentatively around Ellison’s waist and, delighted, Ellison murmured into his ear in approval. “That’s right. Everything’s okay. Relax.” Sandburg sighed, his tension evaporating, as he pulled the Sentinel closer. And absently, Ellison wondered who was actually comforting whom, his own worries soothed to oblivion in the circle of the Guide’s arms.

After a while, Ellison felt settled enough to remark, “I take it you had a good time while you were out.”

The Guide nodded against his shoulder. “It was the first time I did that in so long. No one cared I was a Guide. I was just a guy out shopping. I never believed I’d get to feel like that again.”

“I’m sorry,” Ellison admitted suddenly, wanting the Guide to know how he felt. “I’m sorry this happened to you – that you had to give up your life like this.”

Sandburg sounded wistful. “I always knew it might happen some day.” He shrugged, the movement impeded by Ellison’s embrace. “I was living on borrowed time. I’m still amazed that I got away with it for so long.”

“You’re a pretty amazing guy,” Ellison said.

Sandburg pushed gently away, so he could look up at Ellison’s face. His eyes were dark, mystery in their depths. “You’re pretty amazing yourself,” he murmured, the deep vibrant tones going straight to Ellison’s groin. “I’ve never met a Sentinel like you. So gentle. So caring.” A tip of a tongue snaked out, fleetingly moistened full lips. “So beautiful,” he added in a husky whisper.

There was unmistakable hunger in Sandburg’s voice, in his eyes, Ellison saw. A hunger the equal of his own. Sandburg held his gaze, fearless in the Sentinel’s arms, equal to the challenge.

Equal to him.

They moved at the same moment, hungry lips latching onto hungry lips. Feasting from each other’s strength, dueling. First one and then the other, dominant one moment, submissive the next, the boundaries blurred; the likely outcome a draw.

Ellison trembled suddenly, as a firm, assertive hand pressed hard against his trapped erection. “Hush,” whispered that liquid voice in his ear, and he shuddered as fragrant breath moistly caressed his neck and cheek. “Let me.” Another hand joined the first, and fumbled with the buttons of his fly, popping them open one by one, nudging his hardness joltingly with each movement, making him pant helplessly. Ellison kept his own hands around the shoulders of the Guide, leaning on him, afraid he would fall if he let go. But the Guide buoyed him up, his shoulders bearing Ellison’s shuddering weight without apparent effort.

A hand, hot as fire, reached into the front of Ellison’s open jeans, and he nearly collapsed then and there, despite the Guide’s unflagging support. The Sentinel’s breath became ragged, an almost unbearable tension of anticipation stretching the moment out to eternity. And finally, at long, long last, strong fingers closed around his cock, squeezing rhythmically. Confident blue eyes looked up into his face, judging his reactions. Measuring him, seeing somehow deep into his soul, laying him bare. And feeling himself begin to fall into their depths as the merciless hand drew sensation after sensation from him, he forgot how to breathe altogether.

It was all too much suddenly. Ellison’s nerves were screaming, on fire, as he hurtled downwards into the fiery blue chasm, tumbling and spinning in a cascade of ecstasy. His senses merged together then exploded outwards, as he lost all sense of where he was, all sense of time.

All sense of who he was.

Gradually he became aware of a voice soothing him, talking in fond tones, bringing him back to himself. “C’mon, Sentinel. Come back,” it was urging. “It’s okay. You’re okay. You were amazing, man. That was incredible.” The voice promised safety, and he followed it blindly. To his amazement, once his wits began to return, he was actually still standing, although his knees trembled with weakness, still leaning heavily on Sandburg.

“Hey, man.” Sandburg was smiling, his eyes alight with happiness. “Welcome back.”

It took a couple of tries before Ellison could find his voice. “Uh,” he attempted. “Wuh… Whoa. That was…” He paused, taking a deep breath, unable to find the words. He settled for, “Oh god, Chief.”

Sandburg chuckled, snorting endearingly at the end of it. “Well, not exactly god, man. Just me.”

Getting his legs back under him at last, Ellison straightened up. He looked down at himself – his jeans open, his deflated dick still poking out. He laughed a little at the sight, then peeked back at Sandburg, who was looking, it had to be said, quite insufferably smug.

Ellison grinned predatorily. He knew one sure way to wipe that look off the Guide’s face. Payback was a bitch – except for when it wasn’t.

Moving swiftly, he latched on to Sandburg’s shirtfront, and before the other man realized what was happening, the Sentinel had backed him up hard against the wall. “Listen, you neo-hippie witch-doctor punk,” Ellison snarled, inspiration lending inventiveness to his vocabulary. “Don’t think for one minute you’re gonna to get away with what you just did unscathed.”

Sandburg had looked, for a moment, shocked and a little scared. But he was learning quickly that Ellison was not someone to fear, no matter what he said or did. “Hey, Joe Friday,” he threw back daringly. “Relax, okay? Sheesh, you do a man a favor, and get thrown up against a wall! It’s mmmph…” He was cut off forcefully as Ellison’s mouth descended hard upon his, kissing him relentlessly to silence.

As soon as he was sure that he had Sandburg’s full attention, Ellison pulled away, letting him get his breath. The Guide’s pupils were huge, the tiniest ring of blue surrounding them as he panted for air. Ellison smiled in satisfaction. Then he ordered softly, “Watch.”

Ellison felt the dazed gaze of the other man upon him, as he sank to his knees. Hands, every bit as competent as the Guide’s, unzipped Sandburg’s pants, and in one forceful stroke, which almost brought Sandburg down to his knees as well, pants and boxers were yanked down around thighs, baring his secret places to the Sentinel’s determined gaze.

Beautiful, Ellison thought admiringly. Sandburg was beautiful. Leaning against the wall, panting and hot, his gorgeous eyes dark with passion, his perfect cock hard and dripping and all his.

Christ, he had it bad.

Leaning in towards his target, he glanced up for a second, and their eyes met in perfect understanding, Sandburg’s desire for Ellison to touch him in this way like a tangible thing. Then the Sentinel swooped in, and Sandburg’s taste exploded in his mouth, his unique aroma – strongest in this delicious place – enveloping Ellison like a drug.

The Guide, it seemed, was impossibly aroused, on a hair trigger. As Ellison sucked, his tongue massaging insistently, he lifted one hand to cup Sandburg’s heavy balls possessively, and that was all it took to send the Guide over the edge. Ellison’s mouth flooded with burning essence of Sandburg, as the Guide convulsed and cried out explosively – “Ah… ah… ah…” – sliding down the wall, falling finally into Ellison’s waiting arms as the last drop was drained from him, utterly unable to keep his legs beneath him.

Something about that latter fact gave Ellison enormous satisfaction.

Holding the lethargic Guide in his arms in the aftermath, uncaring of the hard floor beneath him, Ellison was consumed suddenly with affection. Tipping up the Guide’s chin, he kissed him softly, lovingly. “Sandburg,” he whispered.

The Guide tensed, his eyes snapping open. “Say it again,” he pleaded.

Ellison kissed him again. “Sandburg,” he said softly, watching the blue eyes turn liquid. “Blair.”

And he crushed Blair to his chest as tears fell; the lost soul found, the nameless Guide nameless no longer.


***


A little while later, Sentinel and Guide sat side by side on the couch. Ellison’s arm was across Sandburg’s shoulders, and they were leaning into each other as though they couldn’t get close enough.

Sandburg was trying to explain why hearing the Sentinel speak his name had affected him so much. “I was told to forget it. That it never should have been mine in the first place. It was one of the first things they took away from me.” He shuddered. “I’m not sure I can even say it myself anymore without still feeling what they did.” The Sentinel’s arm pulled him protectively closer for a moment, and Sandburg turned to look at him, his eyes shining. “You gave it back to me, man.”

Ellison smiled fondly. “Well, I could hardly call you 96-234 in the heat of passion, now could I?”

Sandburg snickered. “The heat of passion, huh?” Then he turned serious again. “I seem to remember it happened way after the heat of passion.”

“Speak for yourself, Chief.” Ellison fell back on gentle banter, not wanting too much seriousness to disrupt the cozy comfort of the afterglow. “Some of us have a little more stamina. I was feeling passionate when I said it. Could have gone again,” he declared suggestively, “if I hadn’t gotten distracted.” Sandburg had cried for a while in Jim’s arms afterwards, moved profoundly by the fact that the Sentinel had recognized him as a human being with a name. The need to give comfort had, at the time, cast all erotic thoughts temporarily out of Ellison’s mind.

“Yeah, well.” The Guide stretched up, and kissed Ellison softly beside his mouth. “That’s not how I remember it.” He pulled away, gazing into the Sentinel’s eyes. “Thank you,” he said.

“Ah, memory on the fritz now as well,” Jim teased, trying to lighten Sandburg’s mood. “How old did you say you were? A little senior moment coming on, huh, Chief?”

“Hey!” Sandburg poked Ellison in the ribs, rising to the bait at last. “You’re the old man in this partnership, Jim.” He faltered, suddenly realizing what he had said. “I mean, Sentinel,” he corrected himself.

Ellison lifted a hand, and touched him briefly on the cheek. “Hey, it’s okay. I think the least we can do, after what we just did to each other, is be on first name terms, huh? At least when we’re alone.” He smiled, loving hearing his name spoken in that compelling voice. “Say my name again.”

Sandburg looked uncomfortable. Using a Sentinel’s first name was emphatically against his training. But he complied anyway. “Okay. ‘Jim’.”

“Good.” Ellison grinned, pleased that Sandburg was comfortable enough with him to do it, despite the painful lessons he had been forced to learn. “Me Jim, you Blair.”

Sandburg couldn’t seem to resist it, the Sentinel leaving himself wide open. “Oh man, you really are a throwback to a pre-civilized breed of man!” He squirmed as the Sentinel grabbed him in revenge, Ellison’s fingers unerringly finding his most ticklish places. “Hey! Stop it! That tickles! Ahhhh… Jim! Okay, stop! Jim! You Tarzan, me…” Sandburg subsided, laughing helplessly, as the deadly assault escalated.

“You Cheetah, is that it?” Ellison finished for him, tickling furiously. “That was the chimp’s name, right?”

“Okay, okay!” Sandburg was breathless. “Me Cheetah! I give! Stop! Uncle!”

Judging at last that he had tortured the Guide enough, Ellison backed off, and generously allowed Sandburg to catch his breath. Then, taking in the other man’s flushed face and sparkling eyes, he lowered his mouth once again to the lips which pouted at him so temptingly, unable to resist.


***


CHAPTER 6

Ellison and Sandburg returned to the PD the next day.

At work, all was as it should be. Ellison consulted with the team working on the serial murder case, and reviewed the evidence that had been collected both by forensic and Sentinel methods. Sandburg followed him around silently, his posture and behavior impeccable, kneeling at the Sentinel’s feet unobtrusively when not required.

But all the time, Ellison was hyper-aware of the Guide’s presence, and was constantly assailed by vivid sense memories of hot breath and sweat on silky skin. The Guide was an ever-present distraction, despite his obedience, and Ellison knew, from the salty tang of pheromones which periodically emanated from the kneeling man, that Sandburg’s desire matched his own.

Yesterday, it had been all Ellison could do to remove his hands and mouth from Sandburg long enough to eat or use the bathroom or sleep. Sandburg had been similarly insatiable, welcoming Ellison’s attentions, and initiating their sexual play at least as often as the Sentinel. And in between their intense bouts of lovemaking, they had held each other close, talking at length, revealing profound aspects of themselves to each other that they had both long kept buried. Trusting each other implicitly.

Ellison had kept control sufficiently to ensure that they did not, at any point, climax together. And he had drawn the line at both of them spending the night together in the same bed, in case he might be tempted to take their physical activities to another level.

God knows, he’d wanted to. He still did. And he both longed for and dreaded the end of the day, when they could go home and start again.

Because he was not sure he would be able to control himself half as well this time.


***


It was approaching five o’clock when Ellison felt the familiar itchy tingling that indicated the arrival of another Sentinel in the vicinity. Looking up, he watched as the elevator moved up the floors, knowing instinctively that another like him was on it. It stopped at the sixth floor, the doors opened, and a tall man stepped out, trailed by another man following exactly three feet behind.

Ellison stood, and Sandburg stirred, but froze when Ellison tossed a brusque, “Stay there Guide,” his way.

Leaving the Guide by his desk, Ellison moved forward to greet the newcomer. “Ramirez,” he said.

The other Sentinel paused, his Guide sinking swiftly to his knees behind him. “Ellison,” he responded. Then he smiled. “How are you, man?” He put out a hand, and Ellison took it, shaking it warmly.
“I’m good. What brings you to Major Crime? Not enough work in Vice, huh?”

“You bring me here, as a matter of fact,” Ramirez said.

His smile was still warm, but Ellison sensed an undercurrent in his words. “Let me guess,” he said dryly. “Simon called you. Right?”

Ramirez chuckled. “Right. We need to talk, my friend.”

Ellison glanced back to where Sandburg knelt beside his desk, then turned and went over to him. He ran a hand over the Guide’s head, and Sandburg shivered. “I need to go out for a while,” Ellison told him. “I won’t be long. The other Guide will stay with you.” His voice lowered. “Will you be all right?”

Sandburg’s voice was barely audible – for Ellison’s ears only – although the other Sentinel could probably hear him too. Sandburg must have realized that, as he kept his reply formal. “I’ll be fine, Sentinel.” The warm tones made Ellison’s breath quicken.

“Okay.” A further caress of the bowed head, and Ellison reluctantly pulled his hand away and rejoined Ramirez. The visiting Sentinel clicked his fingers, and his own Guide stood and moved over to Sandburg, dropping gracefully to his knees beside Ellison’s Guide, his posture absolutely faultless.

Ellison watched; and thought covetously that he far preferred Sandburg’s slightly less perfect stance. Then Ramirez’s Guide disappeared from his vision, eclipsed by the sun that was Sandburg. And taking a final longing look, Ellison turned away at last. “This way,” he said, ushering Ramirez in the direction of the interview rooms.

“Let me guess,” Ramirez said the instant they were alone. “It’s like he’s a drug. No matter what you do, you can’t get enough of him. You want to touch him all the time. You think he’s the most beautiful, most perfect human being you have ever seen. His smell and taste intoxicate you, and his skin is the softest skin you have ever touched. His eyes are pearls of limpid blue, brown, green or whatever they are, and his voice makes you instantly hard…”

“All right, already!” Ellison was grinning. “Stop!” He cocked his head. “Are you saying I’m in love? Because I’m not gonna argue.”

Ramirez didn’t smile. “Not love. Nothing even half as mundane as that.” He shook his head. “Can’t you see it, Jim? You’re feeling the pull of the Bond.”

Ellison shook his head as his gut clenched. He didn’t want to hear this. Ramirez was wrong. He had to be. “No. No way, Benny. Look, Sandburg is a great kid…”

“Oh, so he even has a name now?”

“He always did!” Ellison exploded back, his urge to stand up for Sandburg overwhelming. “He was a goddamned professor until last year. Benny, you have no idea…”

Ramirez stood. “Jim,” he said, his quiet, assertive voice silencing Ellison’s rant. “Listen to yourself. Look inside yourself a moment. Stop lying to yourself! You’ve had lovers before. You’ve been around Guides before. Can you honestly tell me that you have ever felt this strongly for any of them? For anyone else, at any other time in your life?”

Ellison blinked. “No,” he said. “Of course I haven’t. But it doesn’t mean my feelings for Sandburg aren’t real.”

Ramirez nodded. “Of course they’re real Jim. They are probably the most real feelings you will ever experience.” He put out both hands, placed them on Ellison’s shoulders. “How long have you known this Guide?” he asked, gently.

Ellison frowned. “Three days,” he admitted.

Ramirez spoke softly, shaking him slightly. “Tell me, Jim,” he asked. “Do you think that feeling like this after you’ve known him for just three days, that feeling like you’ll die if you don’t touch him and experience him over and over with all your senses, is just plain old love?” Ramirez’s hands squeezed, then dropped. “Because I’m telling you, my friend, you are very, very wrong. You are a Sentinel. He is a Guide. And you are feeling what every Sentinel who has ever Bonded has felt when the pull was upon them. Something very like love, but far, far stronger. Believe me, I know. I’ve been exactly where you are.”

Ellison shook his head, a chill overtaking him. “No,” he whispered.
But Ramirez nodded. “Yes.”

Ellison felt suddenly like he could not get enough air into his lungs. This couldn’t be happening – Ramirez had to be wrong. Ellison honestly cared for the kid – didn’t he? His feelings for Sandburg were not all about sex, and surely not simply derived from an involuntary surge of Sentinel hormones. He respected Sandburg’s intelligence, his courage. He didn’t want the Guide hurt, and hated that he had been. He wanted him to be happy.

And he wanted to be with him, inside and out, never letting him go. Two bodies, one soul.

He wanted to Bond.

Stricken, having no choice but to accept the truth, no matter how much he didn’t want to face it, he looked pleadingly at Ramirez. He rubbed a hand over his face, and then fixed miserable eyes back on his friend. “Benny, he… he isn’t permitted to Bond.”

“I know.” Ramirez patted Ellison on the shoulder, then moved away and perched himself on the corner of the room’s table. “I know all about that particular Guide, Ellison. I’ve read his file. That’s why I came here, to talk to you.”

This was a nightmare. Desperately, Ellison pleaded, “What the hell am I gonna do?”

“There’s only one thing you can do.” Ramirez’s tone was not unsympathetic, but his words left no room for compromise. “You have to send him back.”

And hearing Ramirez’s advice like a death knell, Ellison knew in his heart that there was no other rational decision to make.


***


Rational thought was, however, despite Ramirez’s urging, something that was eluding the Sentinel. Intellectually he knew that Sandburg had to be returned to Guide World, and preferably before his six month contract was up. No question. Keeping him around, with the pull of the Bond between them, was sheer madness. A disaster waiting to happen.

But how could Ellison even consider sending Sandburg back to that place? To a life where he would be confined for the rest of his days, his every breath monitored, his movement prescribed down to the slightest twitch of muscle, only to be beaten whenever his humanity asserted itself and he got it wrong? His only hope of respite being further occasional periods of assignment to Sentinels, not all of whom might be inclined to treat him anything like as gently as Ellison had?

He tried to explain that to his friend, but Ramirez was unmoved. “Jim, he’s a Guide. A rogue Guide. He broke the law, in a pretty spectacular way, I might add. He’s been sentenced to be detained for life without the opportunity to Bond. You’re an officer of the law, Jim. You have to respect that.” Ellison paced, prowling the room as Ramirez spoke; every word a dagger in his heart. “There is no way he will ever have his sentence commuted,” Ramirez went on, ignoring Ellison’s agitation. “No chance of parole – no matter how much you want him. If he was a murderer or a rapist, you wouldn’t have any problem with the way he was being treated. Hell, until he came along, the fact that Guides are human too didn’t even register with you. Suddenly, you’re all for Guide-rights.”

Jim was ashamed to admit that was true. Before Sandburg, he had viewed Guides mostly as a necessary evil, an annoyance. Sycophantic fools, little better than animals, fully deserving of their low standing in society, because they were sub-human, and incapable of independent living. The only exception he had ever previously seen had been the Chopec Guide, and Chopec culture had been so alien it hadn’t occurred to him to imagine that ‘civilized’ Guides could be just as capable.

But all that aside, he just couldn’t accept that what he felt for Sandburg wasn’t, in some sense, love. “Look, Benny,” he protested. “I really care for him. This is not just some… some uncontrollable primal urge, okay? I’m in control.” He tried to put conviction he didn’t feel in his words. “I can pull back, stop touching him. It’s not too late.”

Ramirez shook his head. “Jesus, man. Listen to yourself. You’re like a junkie. You know you shouldn’t have it, but you can’t bring yourself to completely give it up. Why do that to yourself, huh? Why keep that temptation there in front of you, twenty-four seven?” He rose, moving to intercept the other’s pacing, but Ellison ignored him, simply changing direction, too agitated to stand still. Ramirez carried on regardless. “You have to let it go. Let him go, now. Cold turkey, man, from this moment on. That’s the only way to do this. Hell, if you really can’t do it, let me do it for you. I’ll go out there and get him, and take him back to Guide World right now. You won’t even have to see him again.”

In two strides, Ellison was in the other Sentinel’s face. “Don’t you touch him!” he snarled. “Don’t you fucking go near him!”

Ramirez pushed him away. “Get a grip, Ellison!”

But Ellison’s anger was roused. “I mean it, Benny! I’ll handle this. I’ll handle it my way. Get off my back! This is my life, goddamn it. My problem. None of your goddamn business!”

“It’s not just your life, Jim.” Ramirez was unrepentant. “It’s that Guide’s life too. Why don’t you think about that for a moment, huh? You know what will happen to him, don’t you, if you ignore my advice and keep him around, then find yourself unable to control these urges you have?”

Ellison moved away. Then he turned back to Ramirez. “If I Bond with him,” he guessed, “it’s over. Right? They can’t separate us then. It’ll be too late.”

“Wrong.” Ramirez moved to stand right in front of the other Sentinel. “If you Bond, Ellison, that young man in there,” he pointed towards the closed door, “will be taken back into custody. He’ll be strapped down to an operating table, and the part of his brain that produces the Guide hormone will be burned out with a laser.”

“Jesus.” Ellison gripped the edge of the table as he felt the world sway.

Ramirez carried on, merciless. “The Bond will be dissolved, because without that hormone, you and he won’t be able to connect. His memory will most likely be affected, because that’s a frequent side effect of that particular treatment. He’ll then be transferred from the Guide facility to jail, since he won’t have that essential element which makes him a Guide anymore. And then he’ll live out his life as some muscle man’s bitch. And you know what, Ellison? There won’t be a goddamn thing you can do to stop it.”

Ellison felt ill. Jesus. He’d known that Guide laws were draconian, but he’d never imagined anything as bad as this. Why the hell hadn’t he researched it, instead of going into this so blind? The thought of Sandburg, sensual, intelligent, courageous Sandburg, being subjected to the barbarism that Ramirez described, made him sick to his stomach.

But worst of all, he was thoroughly ashamed to admit that despite the dreadful risk to Sandburg – the man he loved more than life, however much Ramirez told him it wasn’t love – he still wasn’t prepared to let the Guide go just yet.

He took a deep breath, making up his mind. “I’ll keep him with me for one more month,” he said, the words ashes in his mouth. “Then I’ll terminate his contract and return him to the facility. If I disrupt the investigation now, by giving him up, we may lose our only chance of catching the killer I’m chasing before he strikes again.” He couldn’t look at Ramirez, unwilling to deal with the censure or pity he might see on the other Sentinel’s face. “In the meantime,” he continued, “I’ll keep my distance from him. No unnecessary touching, no sex. I won’t put him in that kind of danger.”

A hand fell on his shoulder, and squeezed. “I can’t pretend that I think it’s an ideal solution,” Ramirez admitted. “I believe it would be safer for both of you if you were to give him up now. But I understand your reasoning. I know about the case you’re working on, and Simon told me that the Guide has been instrumental in evidence gathering so far.”

Ellison nodded, a lump in his throat.

Ramirez continued. “A month should be manageable. As long as you keep your distance, and treat him no better than you would any other Guide, you should get through it. It won’t be easy, though. The temptation will still be there. But you’re strong, Ellison. You always were. You need to use that strength now.”

Ellison didn’t answer, seeing in his memory the image of his perfect, beautiful Guide, head thrown back in ecstasy. And he watched as the image shattered into a million pieces.

There was little else to say. Ramirez left and, sitting alone in the empty interview room in the aftermath of the other Sentinel’s bombshell, Ellison thought back over the last few years, and pondered how he had gotten into the situation he now found himself in.

While Ellison had displayed some Sentinel traits as a child, it was only after he had returned from his time among the Chopec in Peru that his Sentinel gifts had come fully on-line.

He had been a reluctant Sentinel from the start, hating that his emerging talents limited his choice of career. Sentinels were obliged by law to work solely in roles that emphasized their protector and guardian instincts – the police force, the fire service, search and rescue, and other professions of that ilk. The fact that he would have chosen to make the transition from the army to being a police officer anyway, even if he had not become a Sentinel, did not lessen his resentment.

In part, that was one reason Ellison had resisted Bonding with a Guide. He might have been given no choice about his job, but he did have a choice about who to spend the rest of his life with – and he had pointblank refused to spend it with a halfwit kneeling at his feet, until the issue had been forced. He had been fully aware – and accepted – that the decision to eschew a Guide might eventually cost him his life in a fatal zone.

Ellison’s prejudice against Guides was a prejudice shared by many. Very few questioned the popular belief that Guides were somehow less than human. Government propaganda encouraged that viewpoint, lauding Sentinels as almost godlike beings, valiantly performing vital societal roles. The same propaganda reduced Guides to flawed tools essential for each Sentinel’s use. Guides, it was declared, were confiscated for their own good, because they were not capable of looking after themselves. This way they could be given the chance to live productive lives, serving the needs of the priceless Sentinels who were the epitome of humanity.

Sandburg – clever, cunning Sandburg – had made a mockery of it all, showing it for the cynical lie it was, evading the Detectors far into adulthood and thumbing his nose at those who declared Guides to be imbeciles. For that crime, he was now paying a severe price, and the true circumstances of his full and productive life prior to confiscation had been the subject of a monumental media blackout.

Ellison seethed at himself. He had buried his head in the sand, and his lack of knowledge had gotten them both in this position. Never having wanted or expected to get a Guide, his knowledge about the realities of Bonding was patchy, because he had simply never wanted to know. If he’d only read up a little more, he chided himself now, instead of being a stubborn jerk and assuming he knew it all, he would have realized the danger immediately, and acted with more caution.

That was the trouble, he pondered regretfully, with knowledge gleaned from hearsay and rumor. From what he’d heard, he’d always assumed that the fabled ‘pull of the Bond’ would be more dramatic. That he would know the second it happened, like love at first sight or being hit in the face by a two-by-four. Not this. This gradual slide, this bloodless coup of his emotions. This fantastically natural duality of contentment and need.
But one thing Ellison desperately needed to know, was exactly how instrumental Sandburg had been in making this situation go as far as it had.

Sandburg was smart as well as devious and, Ellison was certain, desperate. How much of his enthusiasm for Ellison’s body, the Sentinel wondered cynically, had been the Guide’s own natural pull towards a Bond, and how much had been a clever ploy to use the Sentinel as some kind of sick method of suicide?

Sandburg was well aware that he had nothing but a miserable future ahead of him. He would also, Ellison was sure, have been made fully cognizant of the consequences of Bonding. And Ellison could see how brain surgery, loss of memory and incarceration in a prison – where fresh meat like him would be dead inside a week – might be an alluring prospect for a man with no hope.

But yet another part of him shook its head in disgust that he could imagine, even for a second, that Sandburg would use him in that way. That the devotion in Sandburg’s eyes when he looked at the Sentinel was false, or that his whispered declarations of adoration had been fabricated. That Sandburg’s apparent desire for his jailor – a Sentinel who was part of the very establishment that had robbed him of his liberty – could have sprung from any ulterior motive.

Well, it didn’t really matter now either way, thought Ellison bitterly. Because that aspect of their lives was over. In one month, Sandburg would return to a life of incarceration and discipline. And Ellison would be alone again, the prospect of a fatal zone creeping ever nearer.

Hardening his heart, he went out into the bullpen to get the Guide and take him home.

CHAPTER 7

The journey home was conducted in silence, and Ellison was aware of the quizzical looks sent his way by the Guide from under lowered lashes. He felt dead inside, his body forming a tense barrier against the lure of the Guide’s presence. I know what you are now, he thought coldly – towards the Guide or the feeling, he was not sure. I know what this is, and I’m not falling for it anymore.

They walked up to the loft, Ellison too wound up to use the elevator. The Guide followed behind, a picture of obedience. But as soon as the door closed behind them, he moved to lay a hand on the Sentinel’s arm. “Jim…” he began.

“Don’t touch me!” Ellison slapped the hand away, and the Guide’s eyes widened in shock at the uncharacteristic gesture and the fury in Ellison’s voice. But he didn’t fall to his knees, or even flinch, and something inside Ellison applauded that display of trust and courage, despite himself.

Instead, the Guide studied him carefully, his incredible eyes locked on Ellison’s face. “What happened?” he asked, the voice temptation itself. “Jim?”

Ellison had to know. God help him, he had to. “Was it all a ploy, huh?” he demanded. “Manipulate the Sentinel? Get me all good and hot and ready to Bond?”

The Guide frowned. “Jim,” he said, “what are you talking about, man?”

“I’m wondering,” the Sentinel said, his voice harsh with grief and anger, “if you ever really cared about me. If I was ever anything more than a means to an end to you. If this Bonding behavior between us was ever about us at all, or just your clever plan to get out of the hell your life has become.”

The Guide at last looked upset. “Bonding?” he said. “What are you talking about? We’ve… we’re not Bonding. We’re just…” His breathing quickened, and he looked away. “Oh god,” he said faintly. “Oh man…” He buried his face in his hands, and reflexively sank to his knees. “What have I done?” he gasped.

The Sentinel forced himself to stillness, but his every fiber screamed that he go to the Guide and comfort him. It’s not real, he reminded himself ruthlessly, resisting the temptation. It’s just hormones, pheromones, whatever. Coldly, he said, “I want an answer, Guide.”

The tone, and the impersonal words, forced the distressed Guide into a response driven into him by pain and fear. He lowered his hands, crossing them behind his back, and straightened his torso. His head lowered, he answered in a hoarse voice, “Sentinel, I… I didn’t realize that what we’ve been doing is Bonding. I swear to you, I thought it was… that we were…” He faltered, glanced up at Ellison with a devastated expression. “Jim, man. I… I don’t know how to Bond – I swear to you.” When the Sentinel didn’t answer, Sandburg pleaded, “Use your senses on me, man, if you don’t believe me. You’ll know if I’m lying.” He blinked, once, twice, as though forcing back tears. “I’m not lying,” he added in a small voice. “Please, Sentinel. You can tell, right?”

“What do you mean,” the Sentinel demanded, “that you don’t know how to Bond?” Taking the Guide’s advice, he extended his senses slightly, looking for signs of deception in the answer. For sweat beading at the hairline, for a hitch in the heartbeat.

“They never taught me anything about it,” the Guide answered. “I’m not allowed to Bond, not ever. All I know about it is what I heard before… before I was caught.” He swallowed, looking down at the floor. “‘The Sentinel forcefully subdues the Guide, and takes him sexually, forcing him to submit. The Sentinel drives the link into the Guide’s mind, possessing him body and soul.’” He looked up at Ellison again, miserably. “I never thought for one second you’d do that to me. That’s… that’s just not you, man. This… whatever we have going on, it’s nothing like that. Nothing like it at all.” He shifted, and held up his hands pleadingly. “How can it be Bonding?”

There was no lie in him, Ellison saw now, with a clarity that made him ashamed. Sandburg was as innocent as he was in all of this. A victim of his own and Ellison’s ignorance and need. And Ellison knew that ultimately, he was the one at fault. He was the Sentinel, the one with the responsibility. But ultimately, if this had been permitted to carry on to its logical conclusion, Sandburg would have been the one to pay the price.

God, what had he done?

He moved over to the Guide and took his hands in his own. “Get up,” he said gently, and Sandburg stood, relief flooding his face. Ellison pulled him into his arms. “I’m sorry,” he muttered into the Guide’s hair, allowing himself to breathe deep one last time the wonderful aroma he found there. “I’m so sorry.” Then, gently, feeling as though he was ripping his own heart out of his chest, he pushed Sandburg away, taking a step back so they were no longer in contact. He looked down into the adoring blue eyes, the most wonderful eyes he had ever seen, no matter the reason why. “We have to stop,” he said, the words ripped from him as though under torture. “We can’t do this anymore.”

The Guide watched him, and nodded, his sorrow and understanding clear. “I know,” he whispered.

“We have a month, at most,” Ellison continued, “just until the serial murder case is wrapped up. I… I need you for that.” He looked away, focusing on the far wall over Sandburg’s head, unable to handle the devastation that would undoubtedly be creeping over the Guide’s face. “Then I have to send you back. I… I’m sorry I can’t keep you here until the end of the contract. It would be too risky.”

“I understand, Jim.” The Guide’s voice surprised him with its strength, as Sandburg had ever surprised and delighted him. “It’s all right, man.” The Guide paused, and Ellison’s eyes were drawn back to his face. Sandburg looked sad, a little wistful. But accepting, nevertheless. “You’ve shown me such kindness,” he went on softly. “I… I’ll never forget it, what you’ve done for me. I’ll remember it always, when things get difficult.” A hand lifted towards the Sentinel then fell away without touching. “Don’t feel bad, Jim. We always knew it would end someday, right?”

Ellison nodded, moved deeply by Sandburg’s dignified acceptance and courage. “Right,” he breathed.

Then the Sentinel looked off into the distance, seeing through a mist, unable to watch as his whole world smiled sorrowfully at him and walked bravely away; leaving him empty and alone.


***


Things were fundamentally different for Sentinel and Guide after that, now that the impending Bond between them had come to light.

One immediate change was that Ellison decided to revoke the ban on Guide behavior in his home, and Sandburg went along with the Sentinel’s directive without complaint. It served the purpose of defining and maintaining a more rigid boundary between them, and Ellison sorely needed boundaries if he was to resist the lure of the Bond.

Falling back into his conditioning seemed, oddly enough, to comfort Sandburg – or the Guide, as Ellison ruthlessly reminded himself to think of him now. Encouraging the Guide to follow those instincts was, Ellison reasoned, a kindness of a sort. It would help him adjust to being back in captivity, making the impending transition easier for him to bear.

There was no such comfort for the Sentinel. The Guide’s proximity was a constant torture; an ever present itch that could not be scratched. Lying awake in his bed at nights, he fought desperately not to extend his senses down to the room below – seeing in his memory the Guide flushed with arousal, eyes alight with trust and longing. He ached to hold Sandburg in his arms again, to feel the other man’s lips and hands as they wrung sensation from him in devastating ways, and to force Sandburg to surrender to his own shuddering pleasure.

As the first roller-coaster week of their partnership drew to a close and the next one came and went, Ellison attempted to bury his turbulent emotions and illicit longing by keeping busy. The investigation into the serial murder case dominated his caseload, and additional, deeply buried evidence was uncovered – largely due to Sandburg’s prodigious ability as a Guide.

The only time Sandburg was now permitted any physical contact with the Sentinel was when they were in rapport, as he Guided Ellison in using his senses – and the Sentinel achieved an incredible degree of control under that Guidance. A suspect had at last been identified, had been put under surveillance; and a raid of his home was planned to take place at the end of the current week. Ellison fervently believed that they were about to get their man – and was under no illusions as to who had actually made that possible.

At work, as well as at home, the Guide’s behavior remained impeccable. Not even the trainers at Guide World, Ellison ruminated, would have been able to find fault with him. He appeared self-contained and calm at all times, speaking only when spoken to, his heartbeat steady as he knelt and avoided eye contact. And he often looked wistfully distant, a faint smile on his face, as though his mind wandered among happier times.

The Sentinel began to wonder if the passionate, needy man of his memory had ever really existed at all. And he had to admit that he felt jealous of, and upset by, the Guide’s apparently easy acceptance of all of this. He wondered cynically how Sandburg had been able to let go so quickly of his desire for Jim, speculating that perhaps those feelings hadn’t really existed in the first place, and that his suspicions about the other man’s motives might have been correct after all.


***


The Guide was in his bedroom one morning, on one of Ellison's rare days off from the PD, when a knock at the door surprised the Sentinel.

Ellison’s senses were set low, explaining why he hadn’t heard anyone enter the building and approach the door. The Sentinel had been using his senses less and less since the decision to relinquish the Guide had been made, because he needed to get used to the prospect of being without Guidance. Soon enough, once Sandburg was here no longer, it would be dangerous to use them very much at all – unless he decided to get another Guide.

Over his dead body, he was determined. He only wanted one Guide. There would be no more for him after this.

As he opened the door, a suited man flashed an I.D. at him. “Guide World, Trainer Gavaghan,” he said. “May I come in, Sentinel Ellison?”

He stood aside. “Be my guest.”

“Nice place,” Gavaghan remarked, as he stepped inside. Then he looked back at Ellison, who had closed the door and come to stand nearby. “Is the Guide here?”

“Maybe.” Something about this stranger raised Ellison’s hackles. “Why? My contract is still good for five and a half months.”

The man smiled. “Not getting too fond of him, I hope.” At Ellison’s unsmiling face, he clarified, “I’m here to do an in-service assessment. This is Guide 96-234’s first assignment. I just want to make sure he’s performing adequately, and that you’re satisfied with him. It’s standard procedure with rentals. Not that anything about this particular Guide is standard, as I’m sure you’ve already worked out.”

“You don’t say.” There was no humor in Ellison’s retort.

“Mind if I sit down?” Without waiting for an answer, Gavaghan installed himself in a chair at the kitchen table, and began to pull papers out of his briefcase. He laid them on the tabletop. “I just have a few questions for you first, Sentinel. Let’s get the paperwork out of the way, before I examine the Guide.”

“Whatever,” Ellison said. He pulled out a chair, and sat across from Gavaghan. “What do you want to know?”

The questions were culled from a standard questionnaire, and concerned such incongruous topics as the Guide’s diet, bodily functions and level of obedience. Most of the required answers were a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The impersonality of it made Ellison feel disturbingly like they were discussing a piece of equipment or livestock.

Which, he guessed, Sandburg was, in the eyes of this creep.

Ellison found himself getting more and more irate as Gavaghan went on, particularly as some of the questions seemed overly intrusive to the Sentinel. “Have you heard him masturbate? Or sensed evidence that he may have?” Gavaghan peered at him over his glasses, pen poised to tick the appropriate box.

It was the latest in a series of questions that Ellison found objectionable. “None of your damn business!” he retorted. What the hell kind of question was that?

Gavaghan put his pen down and regarded the Sentinel with exaggerated patience. “Sentinel,” he explained, “rental Guides are expected to demonstrate restraint and obedience, even when on assignment. Self-gratification is not permitted under the rules. I just need to know if he has been following them. Please, Sentinel, answer the question.”

Ellison was acutely aware that not cooperating with this idiot could result in Sandburg’s contract being revoked prematurely, so he had no choice but to answer. He might have committed himself to relinquishing the Guide early, but this guy didn’t know that, and no way was he ready to let him go right now. He fixed Gavaghan with his coldest stare. “Then that’d be a no,” he stated. Unless you count us doing each other, he silently added.

“Excellent.” Gavaghan picked up his pen again, and ticked the box, then continued with his squirm-worthy interrogation.

At last they got to the section about Sandburg’s professional performance, and Ellison was happy to report the Guide’s prowess in the field. “He’s incredible. I know he’s a ten, but I never realized what a difference that made before. It’s like my senses are seamless. I don’t have to strain at all.”

Gavaghan was nodding. “Yes, he did test high. It somewhat offset his other limitations.”

Ellison frowned. “Limitations?” he queried.

“Well, you know, of course,” said Gavaghan, “that he was rogue for twenty-five years.” He guffawed. “Can you believe it? Thought he was going to be a college professor.” He shook his head. “It took me a while to get that notion out of his head. Stubborn little bastard.”

Ellison’s innards had turned to ice. “It took you a while?” he asked dangerously.

“Well,” Gavaghan replied, “as his assigned trainer, I was responsible for breaking him. It’s what I do, Sentinel. I take on problem cases.” He chuckled self-importantly. “Training 96-234 was, I have to say, the most challenging task I have ever taken on in my entire career. It took a while. But in the end I achieved what I was assured was impossible. It earned me a promotion – I’m now a senior field operative, as you can see. But I’ve remained as the executive trainer in charge of this particular Guide. With his background, he requires a higher level of supervision than most.”

Ellison was watching Gavaghan incredulously, as he talked proudly about how he had destroyed Sandburg’s life. The desire to put his hands around the scumbag’s neck and squeeze the life out of him was almost overwhelming. “Okay,” Gavaghan said, unaware of the murderous impulses running through Ellison behind his stony mask, “Where’s the Guide? I need to put him through his paces, then we’re done here.”

Through gritted teeth, Ellison said, “I’ll get him.” Leaving Gavaghan in the kitchen, he opened the door of the Guide’s bedroom, and walked in.

And pulled up short at what he found there.

The Guide was sitting on the floor, crouched into a ball with his hands over his head, rocking slightly. The stench of fear, which had always hovered around him at odd moments, had flooded the room with its potency. “Jesus, Chief,” Ellison breathed, then closed the door behind him. The familiar sound of the trainer’s voice had evidently penetrated into the Guide’s sanctuary. He moved over, and sat down beside Sandburg. “Chief,” he whispered, trying to get his attention.

The Guide lifted his head, and looked up at him, his expression hopeless. “Has he come to take me back?” he asked bleakly.

Ellison’s heart twisted. “No,” he assured. “No, just he’s here to test you. Some kind of exam, to make sure you’re doing okay. That’s all, Chief. Then he’s leaving. It’s not time to go yet.”

Sandburg nodded. “Right. Right. Okay.” He swallowed, still nodding. “I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.” He seemed to be psyching himself up. Then he looked at Ellison again. “Okay,” he said. “I’m ready.” He looked anything but, his face pale and his eyes red rimmed.

The Sentinel couldn’t help it. He placed a hand on Sandburg’s shoulder and squeezed. A spark, like electricity, passed between them, and both of them shivered. Disturbed by the emotions coursing through him, Ellison dropped his hand away again. “Chief, he won’t hurt you,” he said, wanting more than anything to wrap Sandburg in his arms and hide him. “I won’t let him.”

Sandburg gave him a look that clearly pitied him for his ignorance, his eyes filled with so much pain, so much fear.

And such desperate courage.

Another deep breath, and Sandburg pushed himself upright. He walked towards the door, his steps leaden. But before he moved to open it, he turned. “Funny,” he said bitterly, “I can take whatever he throws at me. But what really bothers me, man, is that you’re gonna see it. You’ll see what I really am now. What he made of me.” He made a sound that was part laugh, part sob. “But I guess that’s a good thing in a way. Because you really won’t want me after this.”

A last, desolate look, then Sandburg went out of the door, leaving Ellison on the floor; the Sentinel’s posture an unconscious echo of the position Sandburg had been in just a moment ago.

When Ellison went out into the kitchen, Sandburg had folded neatly to his knees at Gavaghan’s feet, his face blank. The trainer was holding a wicked looking crop in his hand as he looked down at the Guide. He glanced up as the Sentinel reappeared. “Well, at least he’s not forgotten his manners. Have you, Guide?” He flicked the crop in Sandburg’s direction, and smiled as the Guide flinched. “Oh, bad,” he chastised. “Very bad. We’re forgetting our control. No moving unless I tell you. Shirt off, Guide.”

In two seconds flat, Ellison had the motherfucker up against the wall, the crop pressed across his throat a mere fraction of a distance away from crushing his windpipe. “You touch him with this thing, and I’ll ram it up your ass!” the Sentinel snarled.

Amazingly, Gavaghan smiled. “An extraordinary level of protectiveness is a precursor of Bonding.” His voice was a little hoarse, impeded by the restraint, but he seemed utterly calm and unafraid. “Are you feeling the pull of the Bond to this Guide, Sentinel? Because, you know, if you are, I can’t leave him here any longer.”

Ellison stared into the merciless, knowing eyes of the trainer as a sense of powerlessness flooded through him. And with sudden clarity he saw what was happening here, and what, god help him, had to happen.

Ellison had to allow this. He had to permit this sorry excuse for a man to humiliate and hurt his Guide right here in front of him, and he could not afford to object or intervene – because if he demonstrated at all that he felt the pull of the Bond by trying to stop it, Sandburg would be ripped away from him immediately, without any chance of appeal. Gavaghan had the law on his side, and Ellison wouldn’t have a hope in hell of preventing it, or of ever getting him out of there again.

And what was more, a realization that was mind-blowingly earth-shattering came to Ellison at that same moment, with the clarity of epiphany.

He was never going to let Blair Sandburg go.

He stepped back. “I apologize,” he said, his mask in place. “I’ve grown fond of the Guide – I don’t enjoy seeing him hurt. But I don’t want to Bond with him. That’s why I got a rental.” He put the crop back into Gavaghan’s hands, acutely aware of the miasma of despair his words had caused in Sandburg, who was still kneeling motionless behind him. “Do what you have to do.”

But as he watched impassively while Gavaghan relentlessly put the Guide through his paces, he was screaming inside.


***


CHAPTER 8

Remaining on the sidelines while Sandburg was in the hands of his trainer was, without doubt, the hardest thing Ellison had ever done in his life. At last, the reality of life for a Guide, as well as Sandburg’s future prospects, were being made clear to him – driven home in petty, inhuman demands and rigid, brutal discipline.

“Kneel, Guide, knees apart,” the trainer commanded. And a flick of the crop emphasized the point – not hard enough to mark the skin, but intended to sting. “Head down, balance.”

Stripped of his clothes, Sandburg had been required to alter position, adopt poses difficult to hold, and hold them without movement. He had been made to kneel, to walk, to jog. To stand motionless, the crop a ticklish threat on his naked stomach. The trainer was parading him, Ellison realized, like a show animal. ‘Putting him through his paces,’ he had called it – a brutal euphemism for utterly dehumanizing the most extraordinary man Ellison had ever met.

Sandburg bore it all with a terrible, silent dignity, never once looking at Ellison. His lessons had evidently been hard in the learning, and he showed now exactly how well he had been forced to absorb them. He followed Gavaghan’s orders to the letter, concentrating on being obedient, striving to comply; accepting the bite of the crop stoically when he got it wrong. A few times, he flinched at its sting, and it was applied harder in punishment, leaving red marks in its wake.

Watching Sandburg’s tragic courage as he endured this humiliating and painful hell, Ellison’s calm façade never crumbled. But every lash that was applied on the Guide’s tender skin engraved itself in agony on Ellison’s raging soul.

Just as each one brought Gavaghan nearer to the death that Ellison intended for him.

Gavaghan’s death, Ellison vowed fervently, would not be easy. And the condemned man would be made to understand, before it was over, exactly why he had to die. The Sentinel would make sure of that, just as he would ensure that Sandburg’s suffering would be turned back on the trainer tenfold before his life was ended.

Ellison seethed with fury, nursing his hatred, allowing it to smolder deep within him, feeding it, nurturing it. That he would have his revenge was the only thing that warmed him, as pieces of his soul gradually splintered; icy, jagged shards stabbing him mercilessly while he helplessly watched Sandburg submit to Gavaghan’s demands. And he welcomed the pain, wishing, more than anything, that he could spare Sandburg by taking his pain into himself as well.

And delivering it back to Gavaghan, right now, in the form of a bullet to the brain.

It seemed to go on forever; an interminable, unendurable nightmare. But finally the trainer wound down to a halt. The naked Guide was on his knees in the middle of the floor. He looked dazed, waiting for his next instruction; but Gavaghan turned away from him to face the Sentinel. The trainer was breathing hard with exertion, as he said, “Obedience and discipline, Sentinel. The key to Guide management. Never let him forget for a moment what he is. This one,” he flicked Sandburg desultorily with the crop, “needs to be reminded more than most.” He addressed the Guide. “Full obeisance,” he snapped, and Sandburg immediately fell forward, his hands stretching out, his head falling to rest on his outstretched arms, his knees still bent beneath him.

Gavaghan tapped the Guide’s bowed back with the crop. “This is an effective punishment position,” he said. “I advise you to remember it.” Without warning, he sliced the crop across Sandburg’s exposed back, once, twice, three times. Sandburg bore it without sound, although his hands clenched into fists as livid lines appeared on his pale skin.

Gavaghan turned from him again, and approached Ellison. He held out the crop. “Your turn,” he said, watching the Sentinel’s reaction intently.

“What?” Ellison exploded incredulously.

“Your turn,” Gavaghan repeated. “I need to observe you as you discipline the Guide. It’s for my report,” he added.

Ellison made no move to take the crop. “He’s done nothing wrong.”

“Sentinel,” Gavaghan explained, his eyes hard. “If you fail to pass this part of the assessment, my report will state that you are showing Bonding tendencies, and the Guide will be confiscated. Now I know you don’t want that to happen. You’ve said yourself he’s been useful to your work. But if you won’t do this, I’ll have no choice but to assume you are feeling the pull. So far, you have done very little to convince me otherwise.”

“I told you.” Ellison’s voice was dangerously soft. “I don’t want to Bond.”

“Then prove it.” The hand, holding the crop towards him, filled the Sentinel’s vision. Forcing himself to look past it into the hard eyes of the trainer, Ellison felt as though his world was ending.

If he lost Sandburg now, his Guide would live like this forever.

He had no choice.

He put out his hand.

He took the crop.

“Good,” Gavaghan said quietly, satisfaction in his tone. “Now, use it.”

Ellison walked over to where the Guide still crouched in full obeisance on the floor. Not caring what Gavaghan might think of the gesture, he bent down, and laid a hand on the Guide’s head, feeling the deep tremors in his body that were not visible to the trainer’s eye. “I’m sorry, Chief,” he whispered, a weight of anguish in his words. “I’m so sorry.”

The Guide shuddered under his hand as he spoke and, not wanting to prolong the anticipation any longer for a man who had endured enough fear to last a lifetime, Jim quickly rose and brought the crop down across Sandburg’s back. The Guide cried out, as though the pain was far worse than that he had already suffered; but Ellison had used his senses to ensure that the blow was not hard enough to do more than sting.

The trainer came over. “Silence, Guide!” he tersely ordered. Then he looked at Ellison. “Again. Harder this time, Sentinel. I need to be sure you can do it properly.”

The look Ellison gave Gavaghan would have killed him on the spot if loathing and fury could be given tangible form. Desperate to get this over with, and this monster out of his home, he hit Sandburg again, his heart breaking. He was only able to increase the strength of the blow by imagining that it was Gavaghan’s face under the whip.

The Guide was breathing hard, his shivering more easily visible now, but he did not cry out this time as the crop made contact. Gavaghan nodded. “Good. One more, Sentinel,” he ordered. “Last time.”

Ellison raised his arm once more, and as he watched it at its apex, then followed its inexorable descent, he felt as though the limb did not belong to him. As the crop made contact once more, the sound of wood meeting flesh and the resulting pained, hitching breath from his Guide suddenly jarred him out of his odd detachment.

It was the most sickening sound Ellison had ever heard.

As Ellison stood there, in shocked immobility at what he had just done, Gavaghan nodded and moved away, presumably to finish writing his notes and pack up his stuff. Ellison, however, only had eyes for Sandburg. He took in the five livid welts and one faint red line marring the silky skin of the kneeling man’s back. Realizing suddenly that the crop which had made those marks was still in his hand, he was overwhelmed with horror. He cast the despicable thing as far away from him as he could, and it hit the wall with a crack and bounced to the floor, where it lay like a snake.

He wished he could send his arm after it.

Gavaghan came back over a moment later, briefcase in hand. “We’re done, Sentinel,” he said. “You pass; so does he. I’ll be back in a month to do a further assessment, unless you need help with any training issues in the meantime.” Ellison didn’t answer, his eyes fixed on the trembling man on the floor. “I’ll see myself out,” Gavaghan said, apparently not fazed by Ellison’s attitude. As the trainer’s footsteps receded, Ellison pulled himself together sufficiently to follow. No sooner had Gavaghan gone out of the door and closed it behind him, than the Sentinel turned the key, locked the deadbolt and slipped on the chain.

No way was that evil bastard getting back in here.

In two long strides he was back at Sandburg’s side. “Chief, he whispered, as he crouched down beside him, still afraid to touch. “It’s all right. He’s gone. It’s over.”

Sandburg didn’t stir or answer and Ellison managed to put out a tentative hand. Sandburg’s naked skin was icy cold. “Oh god,” Ellison breathed. “C’mon. Get up.”

Sandburg straightened, kneeling upright, but kept his eyes on the ground, still apparently in obedient-Guide mode. Ellison got a careful arm around him, mindful of his back. “Stand up,” he said and, using the prescribed movements, Sandburg shakily obeyed, his face totally expressionless. But the whole experience had taken its toll, and Ellison caught him when he stumbled the instant he found his feet.

Sandburg made no sound, simply trying instead to get his legs back under him, unmindful of Ellison’s support. His pupils, Ellison saw at a glance, were dilated, and he was chilled to the bone.

Sandburg desperately needed to feel safe, Ellison decided, and to get warmed up. It only took a moment for him to determine what to do. He urged the somnambulant Guide to move in stumbling steps to the stairs then, realizing there was no way Sandburg would be able to climb up them in this state, Ellison hoisted him over one shoulder in a fireman’s carry. He laboriously carried the unresisting man up to his own room, and carefully laid him down on the bed. Sandburg didn’t look at him, his eyes still glazed and fixed in some inner place.

It took only a moment or two longer for Ellison to pull back the quilt, and maneuver the Guide’s naked form inside, positioning him on his side to avoid pressure on the painful places on his back. Then, after removing all but his own boxers, Ellison slid in beside him under the covers, hoping the skin-to-skin contact would help warm Sandburg up quicker. Sliding up close, he hooked an arm around the Guide’s chilled body, resting a hand on the lightly furred chest over Sandburg’s sluggish heart, as he spooned up behind him and pulled him close.

Sandburg didn’t acknowledge Ellison’s embrace at all and, guilt-ridden as he was, the Sentinel was terrified by the Guide’s unresponsive state. All those months in Gavaghan’s hands, Sandburg hadn’t broken, despite the boasts that the trainer had made. But maybe this latest indignity – and the fact that Ellison himself had beaten Blair – had perhaps been too much to bear.

Ellison knew he would never forgive himself for what he’d done. But he’d been given no choice. And, God help him, he would rather see Sandburg dead than taken from him to live out the rest of his life like that.

At long last, the body in Ellison’s arms started to shiver, his body temperature rising in the warmth of the bed. Wanting Sandburg to understand that he was safe, and that Ellison wouldn’t hurt him any more, the Sentinel whispered constantly. “I’m sorry,” he said, over and over. He whispered other things – “It’s all right now.” And, “Hang in there. I’ve got you.” And even, desperately, several times, “I love you.” But it had only been when he’d breathed, “Blair, oh Blair…” that the Guide had finally shuddered and come back to himself, breathing hard and clinging tightly to the arms that encircled him from behind. The sour smells of pain and despair were overlaid at last by the bitter tang of tears as he wept in Ellison’s arms, validated once more by the utterance of his name.

Ellison wrapped himself more tightly around the Guide, and he cursed the fact that this man’s tears had all too often been an outcome of their physical closeness. But he realized, all the same, that this was a gift of sorts. Sandburg was granting him unprecedented trust, despite how much Ellison had hurt him, in letting go of his pain like this. Because no matter how many times he had seen Sandburg cry, it had always been in response to tenderness. The Guide, it seemed, could endure pain and humiliation with courage and dignity, but it was the caring that Ellison showed him that always utterly did him in.

Sandburg’s sobs tailed off after a short while, but the two of them remained entwined, spooned up together, Ellison’s leg hooked around the uppermost leg of Sandburg’s as he held him firmly in his arms in the now stifling heat of the bed. The smell of Sandburg’s body was different now, the salinity being superseded by a musky hotness, stirring an answering need in Ellison. It was the Guide who first vocalized what he wanted. “Touch me,” he begged hoarsely. “Please, Jim. Touch me.”

Ellison’s lips pressed to the side of Sandburg’s neck, tasting the salty rivulets of sweat and tears which had pooled there. He suckled on the spot, softly at first, then harder; and Sandburg groaned, pressing his body back into Ellison needily. Sweat puddled between them, the heat of their combined bodies under the comforter now like a furnace, and Sandburg’s back slipped against Ellison’s damp chest. Ellison vaguely considered that the sweat must sting where the skin was broken, but the undulation of the Guide’s hips against his own throbbing groin did not hint at pain – just of want.

Slowly, firmly, Ellison slid a hand down Sandburg’s chest, and the other man’s breathing quickened as it traversed his flat stomach, continuing relentlessly down to the top of one muscular thigh, then across to cup his balls. Sandburg gasped and bucked in his hold, but the leg Ellison had hooked over his leg from behind kept him in place, pinioned against the Sentinel’s body. “Shhh,” the Sentinel admonished. “Relax.” He waited a moment, his hand squeezing Sandburg’s sac gently, undulating like a cat’s paw, and Sandburg subsided against him, breathing hard.

“Please,” Sandburg begged again, his voice deep with longing and, in answer, Ellison moved his hand again, to take the Guide’s hot length in his palm. Sandburg was panting, held immobile, his own hands gripping Ellison’s forearms helplessly as Ellison began to pump him in slow strokes, using his sense of touch to apply pressure in the most sensitive places. The Guide’s panting sighs, the overwhelming heat in their stifling cocoon, and the ripe tang of sweat and sex, overwhelmed Ellison and, intoxicated, he moved rhythmically in turn against his lover’s ass, only the thin material of his boxers preventing him from pressing his dick further into the crevice.

Every reflexive movement of Sandburg’s body as Ellison pleasured him vibrated through his own. The heat, the sweat, the heady haze of arousal; the sounds his lover made as he brought him relentlessly closer to the edge, and the almost too sensitive rub of cotton dividing his crotch from Sandburg’s hidden place as he ground against him, combined in an unparalleled, breathtaking eroticism.

Ellison’s nerve endings were on fire, his nostrils full of the essential essence of Sandburg. Of Blair. His hand was moving faster now, pumping hard, and Blair’s hips rubbed in rhythm against his cotton-covered erection in an almost unendurable dance.

Moving in perfect synchronization, poised on a precipice together, it took one word to send them over. “Blair,” Ellison breathed into his lover’s ear and, crying out convulsively, Blair came, his seed flooding like lava over Ellison’s hand. And, leaping off into the abyss a second behind, the world tilted in a riot of color and sound as Ellison joined him in consummate ecstasy.


***


CHAPTER 9

Waking some time later, Ellison grimaced at the sticky rankness of his body. Oblivious beside him, Blair slept on, sprawled bonelessly across the bed; one leg thrown outside the covers, his steady breathing a slightly adenoidal rasp.
Something momentous had occurred, Ellison realized immediately and, unwilling to face it just yet even in the privacy of his thoughts, he slid noiselessly out of bed and went downstairs. Hitting the shower, he scrubbed away the residue of sweat and sex, keeping his mind carefully blank.

Clean at last and wrapped in a robe, he moved out into the living room. There was a chill in the air and, still ignoring the weird feeling in his gut, he moved over to the fireplace. The Guide would be cold, he reasoned, his mind shying away from the reason why, as he opened the front of the woodstove and began to build the fire. The Guide needed to be kept warm.

Satisfied at last with the fire’s construction, he lit it with a match, and watched as it caught, curling in wisps of smoke and colored flame. He sat back, and was about to close the stove front when, unbidden his eyes slid past the fireplace, to zero in on a spot by the far wall – where a venomous object, poisonous and abhorrent, lay taunting him with its very existence.

His breath stopped.

He looked down at his hand, and then back at the thing. And a vision of a pale back, criss-crossed by red stripes which he had made, came vividly back to him.

Without conscious thought, he moved. Launching himself at the evil object, he snatched it up and, venting his rage, fear and mindless, overwhelming guilt in a wordless roar, he brought it down on the floor thwack; the kitchen counter thwack, and finally the top of the woodstove thwack; beating it again and again against the unyielding hard surface until his hand blistered and the thing finally cracked; one broken piece skittering across the floor towards the stairs.

To come to a stop at the bare feet of the wide-eyed, shocked Guide.

With a jolt, sanity returned to the Sentinel. Breathing heavily, he stared aghast at Sandburg. Blair was wrapped in a sheet from the bed, clutching it around himself as though for protection, his expression frozen.

Ellison cursed himself. What the hell had he been thinking, to lose it like that? For Sandburg to have seen him mindlessly and violently cracking the whip after what the Sentinel had done to him just a couple of hours ago?

Looking miserably into Blair’s pale face, Ellison waited for the first hint of fear to manifest in the deep blue eyes – fear of him. And he knew that seeing that fear – and the destruction of the trust he had painstakingly built between them – would break his heart.

After a tense, eternal moment, the Guide swallowed, and looked down at the jagged remains of the crop at his feet. Bending down, still clutching the sheet around him with one hand, he picked it up and, watching Ellison all the while, walked calmly towards him.

Immobile, Ellison couldn’t watch, as he felt the Guide’s sure fingers untangle his own stiff digits from the handle of the crop that he still held. Taking it from him, the Guide turned away. He moved over to the fireplace and, bending down, fed both pieces into the front of the still open stove and swung the door closed.

Then, turning, Sandburg came back over and arms, strong, warm and assertive, came around him. “It’s all right, Jim,” that compelling voice said. “It’s not your fault.” And, freed by the Guide’s forgiveness and incomparable strength, Ellison’s own arms rose to encircle him in turn, pulling the sheet tighter around him as he did so, as though to protect and conceal him from the world.

They stood there, taking strength from each other in silence for a moment. Then Sandburg spoke. “You want to know what freaked me out, man?” His voice was a deep rumble against Ellison’s chest. “Before you hit me, you said you were sorry. I thought you meant that you weren’t going to do it. That you were saying you couldn’t go through with it, and you were going to let him take me back. I was so fucking relieved when you hit me, man, I guess I lost it for a little while. No big deal. But Jim,” his voice cracked. “I hate that it hurt you like this. You had no choice, man. You did the right thing. It’s not your fault, and honestly, I’m just so grateful you didn’t let him take me away yet.”

“I hurt you.” Ellison’s pain was unmistakable. “I broke my promise.”

“Bullshit!” Sandburg pushed him away roughly, staring into Ellison’s face and forcing eye contact, his rebuttal emphatic. “You call that hurting? Man, that was nothing. A few taps, that’s all. I know what being hurt is like, and that wasn’t it.”

Ellison knew that Sandburg was downplaying the situation outrageously. Blair had been hurt. He’d been practically catatonic when Ellison had taken him up the stairs. But looking into Sandburg’s eyes, he saw the implacable resolve. The almost inconceivable strength contained in the smaller man’s wiry frame. And he was awed once again by Blair’s endurance and courage.

Moved beyond words, he put out a hand and tenderly cupped the beard-rough side of Sandburg’s face. And, like a mirror image, Blair reached out and cupped his own in an identical gesture.

And something massive clicked into place between them. A sense of coming home. Of belonging. Of the ultimate connection.

Of the Bond.

They both realized it at the same moment, and sprang apart in shock. “What the hell?” Ellison began, but as he spoke, his thoughts were dragged relentlessly back to what had taken place earlier, in his bed. To a memory of need, heat and mutual ecstasy. “What have I done?” he asked, horrorstruck. “What the hell have I done?” All he had intended to do was to take care of Sandburg. To comfort him, to let him know he was not alone. At what point had he ceased to think about consequences? At what point had he lost control?

Sandburg looked equally thunderstruck. “We’re Bonded,” he stated, rather unnecessarily. “Oh man. Oh man, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry Jim. I know you didn’t want that with me.” Then the import struck him. “Oh god,” he said faintly. “We’re fucked. I’m dead.”

“Don’t say that!” Ellison towered over him suddenly. “Don’t even think it.” This was a hiccup in his half-formed plan, simply an obstacle. He had already decided, the moment Gavaghan had touched his Guide with the crop, that he intended to Bond with Blair. It had just happened too soon, that was all. He had been hoping they would be far away from here before they actually did it.

But Blair, not knowing of Ellison’s decision, was white-faced and downcast. Ellison’s heart twisted at the sight, and getting himself rapidly back together, he pulled Blair into his arms again. “Listen to me,” he said. “It’s going to be okay. I wanted this. I want you. Never think that I don’t.”

“What are we gonna do, man?” Sandburg’s bravado had evaporated, and his voice shook. He was clearly aware of the penalty he faced for inadvertently Bonding, no matter that it was actually Ellison’s fault.

Ellison pushed him gently away, holding him at arm’s length, and looking into his eyes earnestly. “I’m not letting you go,” he said, enunciating the words carefully, willing Sandburg to hear him. “And I’m not letting that bastard touch you ever again. I decided that even before I Bonded with you. We’re leaving, Chief. There are places we can go, people who can help us. I want us to be together. I don’t want you ever to have to kneel again. Not to me. Not to anybody.”

Sandburg closed his eyes a moment. When he opened them, they were full of pain. “You’re forgetting one thing, man,” he said. He lifted his hand, and pointed to the purple circle with its inner ‘G’ emblazoned on his neck. “If I go on the run with you, they’ll track me. They’ll find me.” He shook his head. “They’ll find both of us.”

Ellison closed his eyes in despair, cursing himself as a damned fool. Between the desperate need to claim Blair as his own, and his half-formed plan for escape, he had forgotten entirely about the tracking tattoo. With that on Sandburg’s neck, it would only be a matter of time after they went AWOL before the Detectors caught up with them.

How could he have been so stupid? His negligence and impetuosity had sentenced them both to death – because he knew that he would kill Sandburg himself before he would ever allow those bastards to dissect his brain. And his own life would last no more than one second longer than his Guide’s if it came down to that.

Lost in black thoughts and self-recrimination, he didn’t realize that Sandburg was still speaking until the Guide got up in his face. “Jim! Jim, come on, man, listen to me! I said I know some people who can help.”

Ellison shook himself. “What? What are you saying?”

“Jim,” Sandburg smiled sadly. “Do you honestly believe that I’m the first Guide to remain free into adulthood?” He shook his head. “Get real, man. I’m just the first one they caught.”


***


The vibrancy of the Bond thrummed between them, cocooning them like a heartbeat heard from inside a mother’s womb. It manifested in a profound awareness of each other’s proximity; an empathic mutual understanding of each other's deepest emotions. Basking in its glow, Ellison wondered incredulously how it was ever possible for Sentinels to treat Guides like they didn’t matter. It made absolutely no sense to him at all.

But then, very little about what was expected of Sentinels and Guides ever had, as far as he was concerned. In his own way, he was as much of a rebel as Sandburg.

Wounds had been tended, and comfort given and received. Now, wrapped in the illusion of security the Bond lent them, Sentinel and Guide were huddled together on the couch in the late afternoon gloom, Ellison’s arm around Sandburg, the fire a bright, living warmth at their feet, both of them knowing that just beyond the circle of their fire, predators stalked, waiting to pounce.

“I never told anyone outside our organization about this before,” Blair was saying. “There are a lot of people – good people, innocent people – who could be hurt if this knowledge got into the wrong hands.” He turned guileless blue eyes on the man at his side. “That’s how much I trust you. I know you. I know you won’t use this against us.”

“I’ll never hurt you,” Ellison said, but winced as the words came out, knowing he had done just that.

But Blair had no patience with that line of thought. A hard fist dug Ellison sharply in the side. “Quit it, man. We’ve dealt with that.” The touch gentled, became a caress, and Ellison pulled him closer. Then Blair sighed, staring into the flames burning inside the stove. “Our scientists have been working,” he disclosed, “on finding a way to neutralize the ink in the Guide tattoos. To make it inert, so it doesn’t register on the Detector’s instruments. I don’t know if they managed it yet, so it’s a long shot. But a year ago, they were close.”

A thought occurred to Ellison, and he frowned. “Chief,” he asked. “Can you tell me something? The week before last, you went out of here on your own in the truck. Why did you come back? I mean, you have this network, right? This way to neutralize the tattoo? Why didn’t you go to them the minute you got your chance?”

Sandburg didn’t answer for a moment, still staring into the flames. Then, his voice wistful, he said, “We have a rule. Once you’re caught, you’re on your own. You’re dead, as far as they’re concerned. If you meet any of them afterwards, they’ll shun you, and you have to do the same to them.”

“Jesus.” It sounded harsh, but Ellison, with his army experience of underground movements, could see why it made sense. “So that you don’t expose them, right? You go to them in crisis, or show any recognition of them, you drag the Detectors right to their doorstep.”

Sandburg nodded. “Right.”

“So if they won’t help you after you’re caught,” Ellison quizzed, “what do they do?”

“We… They,” Sandburg corrected himself, “help Guides remain free. They help parents with Guide children to evade the tests, and they arrange for them to get false documentation. They provide support for them all through their lives.” Sandburg shrugged. “Aside from my regular duties, my role at Rainier was to provide pastoral care for the kids there who have gone through our program.”

Ellison smiled at him fondly, feeling an incredible surge of pride for the resourcefulness of this man. “I knew. I knew the moment I first saw you that you were special. You’re incredible, Chief. Managing to do that all these years.”

“Incredible.” Sandburg snorted. He shook his head in disgust. “I’m just a monumental fuck-up, man. I made a huge mistake, a massive error of judgment. I trusted the wrong people, and I was betrayed. I put everything we worked for, for generations, in jeopardy.” He turned to Ellison again, his expression earnest. “You know what the first thing was that the cops asked me, when I was caught? If I knew if there were any others.”

“You didn’t tell them?” It was a rhetorical question, as the existence of a network of rogue Guides was still, as far as Ellison knew, a secret.

Blair shook his head. “No way, man. I’d never do that. Never.” And looking at his determined face, Ellison was certain that not only had Sandburg refused to betray the other Guides; he never would. No matter what was done to him.

Which made the fact he was trusting Ellison now all the more poignant.

But there were issues raised by what Sandburg had said which made Ellison doubt their chances of getting aid. “Chief,” Ellison said, “If you’re ‘dead’ to them, as you say, what makes you think they’ll help you now?”

Blair took a deep breath. “Two reasons,” he said. “One, I’m not on the run yet. We go to them now, there’s no one on my tail. I can persuade them the risk of my exposing them is minimal.”

“And two?” Sandburg didn’t answer. His eyes were hooded. “Chief?” Ellison prompted softly.

“The person who heads up the local group,” Sandburg admitted, looking back into the dancing flames, “is someone close to me.”

“Who?” Ellison asked, curious.

A weight of sorrow transmitted through the Bond, and Ellison understood without words the profound loss that his Guide had suffered. He hardly needed the confirmation of Blair’s voice to tell him who he had been forced to leave behind forever.

But Blair answered all the same, his voice breaking with the confession he’d never previously been able to make. “She’s my mom,” he said simply.

Then he leaned gratefully into his Sentinel’s embrace, absorbing the compassion and sympathy which Ellison sent back to him along their link, the firelight a gentle warmth keeping the darkness – and its monsters – at bay.

For now.

CHAPTER 10

They agreed that, whatever they both felt about it, outside the loft nothing could change. Between now and when they attempted to put their escape plan into action, Blair would continue to follow the rules of Guide behavior, and Ellison would refrain from showing him too much consideration. The existence of the Bond – or any overly fond feelings between them – could not be hinted at in any way.

Ellison had surprised himself with the veracity of his negative emotions where Guide behavior was concerned. He was, after all, a man of his time and, prior to Sandburg coming into his life, he hadn’t given much thought to the injustices that Guides suffered. Guides simply were. They were seen but not heard, a vaguely sub-human aspect of society; genetically programmed only to serve Sentinels.

He realized now that his endeavor to ignore Guides had been an attempt to avoid facing the truth – that the situation had such a sense of wrongness about it, he had been afraid to go there. And he understood that, in large part, his experience among the Chopec, where the Guide was called ‘Shaman’, had influenced his thinking. The Chopec Shaman had been one of the leaders of the tribe. All had deferred to him, including his Sentinel.

He had broached the topic with Blair. And Sandburg, fount of wisdom that he was, had dissected the issues swiftly. “Jim, you’ve been living an illusion all your life. You’re not free either, man.”

“What do you mean?” Jim thought he knew the answer, but he wanted to hear Sandburg’s take on it. The take of a man who had managed to avoid mainstream indoctrination.

Sandburg didn’t disappoint. “Sentinels are taught from birth that they’re special. That they have qualities essential to society. Look at you, man. You went into the military. I know your gifts weren’t on line then, but what made you decide to go that route? You knew you had Sentinel tendencies when you signed up.”

Ellison nodded. “My old man,” he said. “He pushed me into it.” He shrugged. “At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do.”

“Precisely,” Sandburg nodded. “Then you went on-line, and you had no choice. The police or nothing, right?”

“Right.”

“And next,” Sandburg went on, “You’re forced to get a Guide, even though you never wanted to Bond. It wasn’t your decision, was it?”

“No.”

“So you get a Guide. Me. And you have to make me kneel, and treat me like I’m a slave. Does that feel right to you?”

“You know it doesn’t.”

“Jim,” Sandburg said gently, “How right do you think it feels to other Sentinels?”

Ellison shook his head. “I never thought about it, Chief. I always just assumed I was out of step with the rest of them. Because of coming on-line late, I guess, and my time in South America.”

“Wrong.” Sandburg was emphatic. “You’re not the first Sentinel to buck the trend, although very few ever question it publicly. If I were you, I’d ask yourself what people like your friend Ramirez get up to in the privacy of their own homes. His Guide feels as strongly about him as I do about you, and it’s not because he gets beaten to a pulp every night.”

Remembering the time he had left Blair and Ramirez’s Guide alone together in the bullpen, Ellison wondered what exactly it was that they had said to each other.

He decided to throw this knowledgeable man a curveball, to get his take on the wider issues. “Chief,” he said, “why are we forced to live like this?”

Sandburg looked away. “I believe I know why. But you might not like the answer, man.”

“Try me.”

“Okay.” Sandburg paused, gathering his thoughts, then looked up. “The government is scared shitless of Guides,” he said. “By reducing them to the status of ‘things’, they eliminate the threat.”

Ellison looked at him with interest. “What threat?”

“Sentinels are a force to be reckoned with, man,” Sandburg stated. “Whoever controls the Sentinels, has the power.”

“You’re saying Guides have the potential to control Sentinels?”

Sandburg looked a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Jim. I probably shouldn’t be saying this to you.”

But Ellison wanted more. “No, it’s all right. Go on, Chief. This had occurred to me as well. I just want to hear you say it.”

“Okay.” The Guide nodded, taking strength from Ellison’s matter-of-fact attitude. “When a Sentinel does his thing,” he went on, “he is totally at the mercy of his Guide. He loses all sense of the outside world, and totally focuses on the sensory input of what he’s doing. Now, our research shows, that Guides commonly have a higher than average I.Q. And the last thing the powers-that-be want is a cohesive group of intelligent Guides, who have an axe to grind with the status quo, with the power of their Sentinels at their fingertips.”

“So,” Ellison said, drawing Sandburg’s scenario to its logical conclusion, “They make laws which keep Guides downtrodden and uneducated, and prevent them banding together. Under the thumbs of Sentinels.”

“Right.”

“So why do Sentinels buy it? I mean, I never questioned this until I met you.”

Sandburg snorted. “Don’t sell yourself short, Jim. You knew way before I came along that this whole situation stinks.” He looked anxiously at the Sentinel. “Look, don’t take this the wrong way, okay?”

“I won’t.”

“Okay. Sentinels are naturally disposed to follow orders. They perform well in areas where there is a well-defined system of rank. They are genetically amenable to being ‘Guided’ by their Guides, in every sense of the word. In other words, they tend to do what they’re told when they are operating within a clear hierarchy. Now the government would far rather see Guides wiped out altogether, but they can’t do that because without Guides, Sentinels can’t realize their full potential, and they have a limited life span. So they do the next best thing.”

Jim got it. “They make Sentinels into jailers. And Sentinels go along with it because they tend to do as they’re told.”

“Exactly. The government gets to harness the power of Sentinels, and keep Guides in their place. And the whole system is supported by a popular mythology and cultural hegemony which convinces everybody – including most Guides themselves – that they are inferior beings who deserve to be kept in captivity.”

Ellison was silent as he digested what had been said and, after a moment, Sandburg touched him. “Hey,” he ventured. “I’m sorry, okay? I know that’s all hard to hear. I’m…” He swallowed nervously. “I’m sorry if I offended you. I didn’t mean to make you sound like you have no mind of your own or anything. You’re amazing, man; even to let yourself question your conditioning this much.”

Feeling Sandburg’s worry as if it was his own, Ellison still couldn’t answer. Instead, he drew him close, knowing deep in his gut which of them was actually the amazing one.


***


Both of them were hyper-aware of the clock counting down towards the day that Blair would have to be returned to Guide World. Ellison was due back at the PD the next day, so, deciding that there was no time to lose, he got on the phone that same evening. His time in covert operations had left him with a number of contacts who owed him their lives, and who would provide the aid he asked for, no questions asked. A few well-placed code words set the ball rolling. He would be contacted as soon as the message had been passed on to the appropriate personnel.

As Sandburg had pointed out, there was also the matter of the Guide tracking tattoo to contend with. Therefore, they left the loft soon after Ellison had concluded his call, to make contact with the Guide network.

Sandburg was nervous, and it was making Ellison twitchy. Sitting in the passenger seat of the truck as they progressed towards Rainier University, the Guide’s leg bounced repeatedly, until Ellison put a heavy hand on his knee. “Hey, Chief. Settle down, huh?”

Sandburg took a deep breath, still vibrating with tension. “Sorry, man,” he said breathlessly, holding his leg still with an effort under Ellison’s touch. But the uneasy motion transferred itself to one hand, which he started absently rubbing his sternum with as though he had indigestion.

That damned ulcer, thought Ellison. It was healing up pretty well, Sandburg having almost finished his course of medication; but his current anxiety was obviously causing some further discomfort. “Look, trust me, huh?” Ellison said, squeezing Sandburg’s knee reassuringly. “It’s gonna be okay.”

Sandburg’s voice was quiet, but audible to the Sentinel nevertheless. “It’s not you I don’t trust.”

Further conversation was halted as they arrived at their destination. Parking the truck in a vacant lot, they progressed on foot into the pedestrian area. This part of town, close to Rainier, was popular with students and arty types, with its plethora of shops selling ethnic clothes and jewelry, its small independent galleries and bohemian cafes, and trendy bars with seating on the sidewalk. Following for once behind Blair, Ellison kept an eye out for potential trouble among the early evening revelers and diners, but no one paid them any heed. They were just two more oddballs in a non-conformist’s paradise.

Blair led them unerringly to the door of what proclaimed itself in garish mock-Celtic lettering to be a vegetarian restaurant. He stopped in front of the entrance, and turned to Ellison. “Look, let me do the talking, all right? This isn’t going to be easy, man. I need to know you’ll let me deal with whatever happens. And Jim…” He put out a hand, and squeezed the Sentinel’s arm briefly. “Whatever they say to me, please, don’t react. They’re… they’re not gonna be too happy to see me, okay? Just take it easy.”

“Chief…” Ellison began, disturbed by Blair’s obvious apprehension.

But Sandburg cut him off. “Look, man. This is my territory, all right? I know how to talk to them. How to make them hear what we have to say. Please, Jim, trust me to handle this. All of it. All right?”

Blair looked so earnest; his eyes pale in the reflection from the neon sign above his head. He also, oddly, seemed more scared than at any time since Ellison had known him, his anxiety transferring across their Bond to infect Ellison. That fact disturbed Ellison deeply – because he could not imagine what was worse about the Guide network than the authorities who had stolen his liberty and hurt him so much. And that incongruity made him want to grab his Guide and run.

But underneath Sandburg’s fear, he could also sense the resolve in the man. And he understood absolutely that Blair had to face whatever demons were plaguing him in this place.

Because if he did not, then they were both as good as dead.

Ellison nodded, and put out a hand, touching Blair’s face tenderly. “We do this your way,” he said seriously. “No question – I trust you. But Chief,” he moved his hand around the back of Sandburg’s neck, massaging the taut muscles there as he spoke. “I won’t let them hurt you,” he said, his tone emphatic. “That’s not up for debate.”

Blair let out his breath in a sigh. He crooked a faint smile, as he leaned into Ellison’s touch. “They won’t hurt me, Jim.” He shrugged. “Not physically, anyway.”

“No. Ellison’s tone brooked no argument. “They won’t.” He dropped his hand, and waved Blair towards the door. “After you, partner.” And he followed as his Guide opened the door and moved into the building.

The restaurant was lit by votive candles in colorful holders on each table. Sandburg led them to a table in a corner, and they both picked up a menu. After a moment, a young woman with a piercing in her nose, wearing a tie-dyed apron and purple Doc Martins below her patched jeans, approached. Ellison wryly thought back to the pictures he had seen of Sandburg before his capture, when he had once sported a retro look not too dissimilar to this one.

Without looking closely at them, she readied her pad and asked, “Anything to drink before you order?”

“Um, no thanks,” Blair answered, his voice low enough not to carry. “But I was wondering if you have any tongue on the menu.”

Ellison looked at him quizzically – this was, after all, a vegetarian diner, and tongue was an unusual menu choice even in restaurants that did serve meat. But a split second later he realized that it was a code word. The waitress’s reaction would have clued him in anyway, even if he had not made the connection. She inhaled sharply, and looked at Sandburg properly. “Blair?” she breathed in question.

“I need to see her, Tami,” Blair stated.

Tami looked around nervously, her eyes drifting over Ellison for a moment. Then, “Wait here,” she directed, and walking across the room unhurriedly, she disappeared through a door marked ‘Private’.

Blair’s fingers drummed on the table as they waited for her to return, and reaching across, Ellison captured the fidgeting hand in his own. He held on, not caring who saw. “Hey,” he said gently. “Relax.”

The only answer he got was a faint squeeze of his fingers in return, Sandburg’s attention being focused on the door through which Tami had disappeared.

It no doubt seemed an interminable wait to the Guide, but in actuality it was less than five minutes before the door opened again, and the waitress came back over. She looked composed, but her eyes were hard. “We may have what you’re looking for.” She cast an eye over their hands, still clasped on the tabletop, and fixing an unmistakably hostile expression on Ellison, she said to both of them, “If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you.”

They rose and followed after Tami, Sandburg going first and Ellison close behind, despite the instinct that screamed at him to take point. As they went through the door, the Sentinel was aware, at the last moment, of three, no four heartbeats - heartbeats that were fast with excitement or fear.

It was all the warning he had of the ambush that awaited them.


***


CHAPTER 11

The unmistakable barrel of a gun pressed hard into Ellison’s temple, and he raised his arms in surrender. Behind him, he heard the door close – Tami, he surmised. But he had eyes only for his Guide, who had been grabbed by two men and shoved up against the wall. A third man moved in towards Sandburg menacingly, and Ellison tensed, his body reacting to the threat to his Guide. But a cold voice said at his side – the man who was holding the gun – “Don’t move, or I’ll blow your brains out.”

Deducing the gunman as someone who meant business, Ellison subsided. He ignored the hand frisking him for weapons and relieving him of his gun, and focused ahead on what was happening with Sandburg. “You little shit,” the man in Blair’s face was saying, one hand pulling down the Guide’s shirt to bare the tattoo at his throat. “What the hell are you thinking, coming back here? What the hell were you offered to betray us, huh?”

Sandburg’s voice was rough, hampered by the arms restraining him or his own strong emotion. “Robbie, it’s not like that, man. Look just let me talk to Naomi, okay? I’ll explain everything to her…”

“No fucking chance,” Robbie snarled. “I’m Second now. You deal with me.” Then he snapped at the others, “Bring him.” He glanced Ellison’s way, a look full of hate. “And that too,” he added, then turned away dismissing Ellison entirely, as Sandburg’s captors hauled him off down the corridor. Ellison didn’t need the gunman’s prompt – “Get moving,” – to inspire him to follow. No way did he intend to get separated from Sandburg in this place.

The inside of this building was big, spreading, by the look of it, into the buildings on either side, the innocuous looking cafe facade giving no clue as to what was actually inside. It was also partly subterranean, which Ellison discovered when they were prodded through a hidden trapdoor inside a storeroom. After they had all passed through the opening – all except for Tami, that was, who remained behind – he heard noises above them, as though the door was being concealed underneath shelves and boxes, and realized there could be no escape that way, even if he got the drop on these goons.

Still trusting Sandburg to take the lead, Ellison gave no resistance. The fact that his Guide obviously knew at least one of these men had been the only thing which had prevented him from pulling his gun on them the minute he and Sandburg had walked into ambush. That, and his promise to give Sandburg the space he needed to run this show. He would let Sandburg have his chance. But he didn’t like this at all; he didn’t like any of it.

The steps went down, two, three flights. The building was bigger underground, Ellison realized, than above it. They reached a locked door, and Robbie spoke into an intercom. “It’s me. Code Haze.”

A pause, then a disembodied voice crackled, “How many?”

“Two. Blair Sandburg,” he spoke the name like an insult, “And one caveman.”

“Shit!” the voice exclaimed. The door buzzed, and opened, and they were prodded through. To come face to face with two women and a man, all holding guns on them. Ellison’s heart sank. One gunman, he had a chance of overpowering. These odds, though, he didn’t like.

One of the women spoke. “Robbie, were they followed?”

“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “Assume this is a lockdown until we find out.”

Sandburg spoke. “Robbie, I tried to tell you, man, there’s no one chasing us. No one knows we’re he -” He was cut off abruptly when Robbie backhanded him savagely across the face.

Ellison was not aware he had lurched forward until several pairs of arms grabbed him, and the gun jabbed hard in the side of his head. “Don’t. Fucking. Move,” the gunman ordered, enunciating the words slowly and precisely. Immobile in the face of that threat, he could only watch as Blair dabbed at his bleeding lip, looking at Robbie angrily. It was the lack of fear in his face that made Ellison breathe easier in the next moment.

“Don’t be an asshole, Robbie,” Sandburg ground out through clenched teeth. “We’re not here to hurt you, man, or betray the network. I just need to talk to Naomi. That’s all.”

“You lost any right,” Robbie said, “to talk to her or any of us the minute you were stupid enough to get caught.” He shook his head, a mirthless laugh escaping his lips. “I always knew you weren’t up to the job. The only reason you were ever appointed Second was because you were her son. Guess you just proved me right, huh?”

Sandburg was undeterred. “We all make mistakes, man. I’m paying for mine. Don’t make one yourself – just tell her I’m here, huh?” When Robbie didn’t answer, Sandburg opened his arms unthreateningly. “What, you want me to beg?”

“On your knees, huh, Blair? You like it down there?” Robbie’s sarcastic gaze traveled over Ellison. “I see it didn’t take you long to go over to the other side. You like being pushed around, huh? He uncovered your secret kink?”

Ellison had heard enough. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said coldly, watching with satisfaction the look of unease that passed across the faces of their captors.

But Robbie recovered quickly. He nodded towards Ellison, not acknowledging him directly. “Him, I’ll enjoy dealing with. As for you,” he looked back at Blair, “you know the rules. You should never have come back here. You can’t be allowed to leave. It’s over, cousin.”

Sandburg snorted incredulously. “What, you’re gonna kill us? You don’t have the guts, cousin, even if you’re brainless enough to think it’s a solution. Jim’s a cop, man. You kill him, he’ll be missed. You think they won’t find you if he dies? And so what if you’re Second now? It’s up to Naomi what happens to us, not you. So why don’t you quit showing us all how tough you are and go get the boss, huh?”

Robbie’s face was red, either with anger or embarrassment. One of the women, who had been watching their exchange with troubled eyes, said, “He’s right, Rob. We gotta ask her what to do.”

Sandburg was watching his cousin carefully. He spoke again, earnestly. “Robbie, c’mon man. Please. We’re not here to hurt you or the network. I swear. Just get her. Please?”

Robbie was saved from losing face when the decision was taken out of his hands. Focused on the tableau before him, Ellison had not noticed the approach of another woman until she spoke up from behind him. “Blair?” came the voice, querulous, questioning. “Sweetie?”

Blair’s eyes focused on a spot past Ellison’s shoulder, the pain in his face naked. “Mom,” he whispered. Ellison could hear his heart beating triple time.

Sandburg’s mother came into view, a tall, willowy redhead, her deceptively youthful face as fine boned and expressive as her son’s. Her arms were open and, as if drawn by some invisible force, Blair drifted into them, burying his face in her shoulder. The rest of them watched, no one speaking, no one moving, as though they had all been turned to stone.


***


It was Sandburg’s mother who pulled away first. Holding her son at arm’s length, she said, in a voice heavy with emotion, “Look at you.” One long fingered hand stroked over Sandburg’s head, the cropped hair having grown back into a suggestion of curl during the time he had been with Ellison. “Your beautiful hair,” she said remorsefully. “All gone.”

Blair’s gaze was fixed on her as though no one else existed, his eyes dark with sorrow or longing, mute. She touched the cut on his lip gently, then fixed her gaze on Blair’s cousin. “Robert,” she demanded. “What is this?”

“He’s got the tattoo, Naomi,” Robbie declared belligerently, as though that explained his brutality. “He’s putting us all in danger.”

Naomi stared at Robbie without answering, and the Second held her gaze defiantly. But he was the one, Ellison noted with amusement, to look away first. And the Sentinel found himself in the next moment, wanting to know more about this woman, who had raised Blair to be so strong and gentle, and who was evidently capable of cowing Blair’s obnoxious cousin – and running a highly illegal underground organization – with little more than the force of her personality.

The second Robbie lost their battle of wills, Naomi looked back at Blair. “Is what he said true?” she asked, her voice soft.

Blair nodded, and his eyes drifted to Ellison. Noticing the direction of his gaze, Naomi moved away from Blair, her hand outstretched. Her momentum parted the others like Moses parting the Red Sea, her shawl billowing out behind her. Ellison’s own hand rose to grasp hers – as though she, rather than he, had animated it – and he found her grip firm, her fingers dry and soft in his hold. “Naomi Sandburg,” she said in greeting. “Although that’s not the name I go by outside these walls. And you are?”

“Jim Ellison,” he said. Then, in a fit of recklessness, confirmed what they had all assumed. “I’m Blair’s Sentinel.”

Her face was unreadable, her voice unfailingly polite. “I rather thought that you were,” she said. Without letting go of Ellison’s hand, she looked over her shoulder at her son. “Sweetie,” she beckoned. “Come here.”

As though pulled along by a tether, Sandburg moved closer, into Naomi’s summoning one-armed embrace. Her other hand was still in Ellison’s, and now Blair reached towards the Sentinel as well, his hand grasping Ellison’s free hand, forming a circle of the three of them. Sentinel and Guide exchanged a look as their connection surged between them, their mutual devotion clear.

It was clear, apparently, to Naomi as well. “There is a powerful energy between you,” she said. “You’re Bonded, yes?”

“Yes,” breathed Blair, lowering his eyes as if ashamed, and Ellison’s breath caught at the turbulent emotions behind the admission. He realized suddenly and graphically that their Bond was the antithesis of everything Blair had been in this place.

But Naomi was not, at least for the moment, judging them for it. “Blair,” she asked gently, “Are you happy?”

Blair lifted his gaze, glancing first at Ellison, and then at his mother. “I want to be with Jim,” he said, avoiding, Ellison realized sadly, answering the question in the affirmative. “But we’re in trouble, Naomi. We need help.”

Naomi just nodded, watching him carefully. She turned her gaze on Ellison. “Are you good to him?” she asked pointedly.

Ellison felt, he thought a little wryly, like he was being sized up before taking his date to the prom. But the question, he knew, was serious. This woman, after all, held the power of their life or death in her hands. “I try to be,” he answered honestly, knowing instinctively that she would see through any attempt at shading the truth. “But the way things are, it’s not always possible.”

She nodded again, biting her lip thoughtfully. Then coming to a decision, she said, “I need to talk to Blair. Alone, Mister Ellison. Robert will provide you with hospitality in the meantime.”

Ellison understood that mother and son needed time alone with each other. But he still didn’t like the idea of being separated from Blair down here. It seemed that Blair had similar objections. “Mom,” his Guide protested, “C’mon, let Jim…”

But Naomi cut him off. “Hush, sweetie,” she said firmly. “There are things you and I need to discuss, things that can’t be said in front of an outsider, no matter who he is.” Ignoring the look Ellison exchanged with Blair, she moved away from them. “Robert, be a dear and take Mister Ellison to the conference room. Get him food and drink. I’ll be there in a while.” She looked around at the others, giving orders in the same reasonable tone. “Sebastian, fetch something for Blair and I to eat. We’ll be in the small meeting room. Paul, Daniel, Carol, go with Robert…”

Ellison tuned the rest of what she said out, having eyes only for Blair, whose hand he still held. “Will you be all right?” he asked quietly.

Blair seemed a little shellshocked. “Yeah,” he breathed. Then he looked worriedly at Ellison. “It’ll be okay, Jim.” He sounded as though he was trying to convince himself, as well as the Sentinel. “I’ll be fine. My mom would never let anyone hurt me, man. She’ll listen to what I have to say. But, listen, okay? Don’t let Robbie provoke you. No matter what he says or does, keep your cool. All right, Jim?”

The Sentinel pulled him close, the proximity of the others no deterrent to his need to touch, to reassure. “Don’t worry about me,” he said into his Guide’s hair, as Blair’s arms came around his waist in turn. “Just talk to your mom. Everything will be fine.”

“Right.” Blair nodded, and Ellison felt the movement against his chest. “Okay.”

They held each other a moment longer, until Ellison became aware that Naomi had finished issuing directions to her staff, a number of whom had already disappeared to go about their appointed tasks. Looking up, he caught her speculative gaze as she watched the two of them together. “Sweetie?” she prompted, and Blair reluctantly moved out of Ellison’s arms and turned towards her. “Time to go,” she said softly.

A final worried glance at Ellison, and Blair was moving away from him at Naomi’s side. As the two of them disappeared round the corner, trailed by one of the women, Robbie stepped into view, smiling predatorily at Ellison. “Mister Ellison,” he said derisively, in a parody of Naomi’s reasonable tone. “Let’s get to know each other better, shall we?”

Robbie nodded at the three remaining people in the corridor – two men and one woman, all armed. The four of them fell in around Ellison, and herded him off in the opposite direction to the one that Naomi and Blair had taken, their expressions hostile. Robbie went first, the other two men on either side of the Sentinel, and the woman’s gun poking into Ellison’s back.

As they marched along, Ellison glared at Robbie’s back, remembering how this man had hit his Guide. And he fantasized about putting his hands around the bastard’s neck and squeezing.


***


CHAPTER 12

This farce was a perversion of Guide training, cooked up by Robbie’s skewed imagination and his ignorant prejudice.

The reality, Ellison knew from what he had seen Blair go through, was much worse. Robbie’s imagination wasn’t anywhere near as extreme.

The moment they’d entered the conference room, Ellison had been forced, at a barked order from Robbie and a meaningful prod from one of the guys who had a gun trained on him, to kneel. The woman had produced a training crop from somewhere, like the one Ellison had earlier been forced to use on Blair, and now Robbie was brandishing it in the Sentinel’s face. “I’m going to ask you a few questions, Sentinel,” Robbie spat, the word a curse. “And if I don’t like the answers, I’m going to show you what this feels like.” The crop stroked gently across Ellison’s cheek, and he stared at Robbie impassively, forcing himself not to react.

Then jerked as a line of fire opened his cheek from the corner of his eye to his jaw. He hadn’t even seen the blow coming.

Ellison’s hands had sprung up reflexively, but halted when Robbie barked, “Hands down! Behind your back! Assume the ‘Guide’ position, scum!”

His face stinging, and what felt like blood dripping down his collar, Ellison ground out through gritted teeth, “Enjoy that, did you?”

“Oh yeah.” Robbie was smiling predatorily, a picture of calm menace. “I did.” But beneath his cool facade the man’s heart raced, and a hint of fear soured his scent.

Ellison smiled coldly at this evidence that Robbie was not as tough as he pretended. The presence of his henchmen clearly lent him bravado he wouldn’t otherwise have, and Ellison determined to use that knowledge to his advantage. But he had other matters on his mind, which concerned him far more at this moment. Reaching out his hearing beyond the immediate vicinity, he homed in on his Guide’s voice. He found it quickly, attuned to Blair as he was. “You don’t understand, Naomi,” Blair was saying. “It’s not like that…” A click, a hiss, and Sandburg’s voice disappeared behind a wall of white noise.
Drawing his attention back to his surroundings, Ellison scowled at the grinning man, one of the gunmen, who moved to place the white noise generator, which had interrupted his eavesdropping, on the table. Robbie’s voice drew his gaze back. “What goes on outside this room is private. Just like what goes on in here is up to me.” The crop returned; a clear caressing threat on his wounded cheek. “Understand?”

Ellison smiled coldly, taking satisfaction in the fact that he was clearly less discomfited than Robbie was. Using all his innate intimidatory skill, he fixed unblinking eyes on his opponent. “Looks like this is the only place you have any say, Robbie. Out of Naomi’s sight, huh?”

“Shut up.” Robbie was not amused. Then, “Let’s get down to business.” He circled the kneeling Sentinel, the crop tapping his open palm menacingly while the others looked on, guns pointed at Ellison. “Does Blair have to do this? Do you make him kneel?”

Ellison declined to answer the inane question, but Robbie carried on as if he had. “Of course you do. All Guides have to kneel, don’t they? Is he obedient?” The crop flicked out, touched the back of Ellison’s neck. Robbie was behind him now. “Does he do what you tell him? He never used to, you know. He was always a wild card. Always out for himself. Reckless. I’m not surprised he got caught.”

Ellison remained silent as Robbie completed his circle and moved around to the front again. He seemed to be getting off on this power trip, on having a Sentinel on his knees at his feet, judging by the flush of excitement on his cheeks. In view of that, Robbie’s monologue took a predictable turn. “Is he a good fuck? Does he beg for it, huh?”

Ellison didn’t react. But Robbie carried on anyway, trying to discomfort him with crudity. “I always suspected Blair batted for the other team, you know?” he chuckled nastily. “I mean, yeah, okay, he went out of his way to prove what a man he was before he was caught. He had every woman here at one time or another, right, Carol?”

Ellison glanced at the one woman in the room, and saw her blush. Clearly, she was not comfortable with what was being said, but she kept her peace, gun held steadily on Ellison, although her eyes were averted.

Another weakness. Another bit of ammunition for the Sentinel.

Robbie was still speaking. “He had every woman, that is, except for Naomi.” He laughed nastily. “But then, for all I know, her too. They always were close. Far too close, if you know what I mean.”

Minute changes in stance gave away the discomfort of the others in the room at Robbie’s slander of Naomi. There was clearly more going on here than the baiting of a Sentinel. This was not, Ellison intuited, the first time Robbie had expressed disdain for the network’s leader or her son. And his stance was not popular.

Robbie carried on, unaware of, or ignoring, the unspoken disapproval of his comrades. “It’s like he tried too hard to prove his manhood, you know? Protested too much. And he was always so damned pretty. And now he brings you here, breaking all the rules, like you’re the love of his life or something. How screwed up is that?” Robbie laughed nastily. “Must make you feel pretty good, huh? Having a pretty thing like him at your feet, all ready to fuck. So, does my little cousin enjoy, you know, the perverted stuff? He get off on it when you tie him up?”

Ellison smiled icily, as a realization took shape within him. “What’s the matter? You jealous?”

Robbie colored instantly. “Shut up.”

But Ellison had it now, an elusive recognition that had crystallized within him. Robbie’s voice repulsed him, and it was not the invective he had spewed which made it so. It was the tone, the Guide tone. The wrong Guide. Not his Guide. “What is it, Guide?” he said, knowing instinctively how to hit the other man where it hurt. “You wishing you were the one who got caught instead of Blair? You got a secret yearning to submit to the Bond?”

Robbie snarled and lurched forward, and his fist crashed into Ellison’s face. The blow was not unexpected, and the Sentinel simply rolled with the punch like a tree in the wind, mostly unscathed, although his cut cheek stung at the impact.

But the others were all talking at once suddenly, as though Robbie’s impulsive act had freed them from their stupor. “C’mon, man!” One of the gunmen was up in Robbie’s face, while the other divided his attention between the altercation and Ellison. “Get a grip, all right?” the gunman continued.

Carol was glaring at Robbie with naked dislike. “Daniel’s right, Rob. You are out of order. Blair’s one of us, man. Don’t talk about him that way.”

“Yeah, just shut the fuck up, Robbie.” The other man waded in, his eyes still darting between Robbie and Ellison. “This isn’t about you, man.”

“Hey, Paul, you shut the fuck up! That asshole stopped being one of us the minute he was taken!” Robbie’s face was twisted with fury or humiliation. “He’s Bonded to this freak! How the hell does that make him still one of us?”

Daniel was shaking his head. “Get your head out of your ass, you idiot. You bad mouth Blair or Naomi one more time, and I swear…”

The door opened suddenly, interrupting whatever Daniel was going to say, and another woman burst in. Ellison recognized her from the corridor, as the one who had followed Naomi and Blair. She was red in the face as though she had run here. Fixing a murderous stare on Ellison, she lurched forward. “You bastard!” she said furiously, fighting the confining arms of one of the men – Paul – who had halted her forward momentum. “You sick bastard!”

“Lillian, hey, easy!” The man holding her seemed to have a battle on his hands as she fought to move towards Ellison. “What’s going on?”

She subsided, panting, but continued to glare at Ellison, her hatred tangible. “He whipped Blair. He fucking whipped Blair!”

She had their attention now, and Ellison’s heart sank. “Lil,” Robbie directed, abruptly back in command. “Tell me what happened.”

She was breathing hard, as though holding back tears. “Naomi got the medic to look at Blair. He’s covered in scars, man, and some of them are real new. Like today new. Blair said he,” she nodded towards the Sentinel, “did it.”

As one, all five of their heads turned to look at Ellison, matching looks of hatred on their faces.

Except for Robbie, that is. He smiled in what could only be interpreted as cold satisfaction. “I think it’s time,” he said, “to give this Sentinel a taste of his own medicine.”

And as if they were under the influence of a hive mind, all five of them moved simultaneously towards Ellison, murder on their faces.


***


CHAPTER 13

In a matter of seconds Ellison was surrounded, three guns leveled at him from point blank range. “Strip,” Robbie ordered.

“Fuck you,” Ellison sneered, although he knew his resistance was token. These people were absolutely intent – however mistakenly – on avenging Blair. Mob rule was in play, and the Sentinel was hopelessly outnumbered.

A cold ring of metal at his temple reiterated the threat. “Strip,” Robbie commanded again, “or Cousin Blair will be looking for a new Sentinel.”

He had no doubt that he would be shot if he refused. The confident hand holding the gun at his head didn’t waver, and he recognized it as belonging to Daniel, the man who he had earlier assessed as a serious threat the moment they had been accosted. Daniel would suffer no pangs of conscience, he was sure, at killing him. He was less sure about the ability of the other two who were armed to actually shoot him, but it only took one fatal bullet to kill a man.

It was more the danger to Blair than himself, however, that persuaded him to comply. If he went along with this, he told himself, probably the worst they would do to him would be to beat him. But if he was killed, Blair would be left alone. And no way would he allow his Guide to be left unprotected. If Blair could bear the pain and humiliation of a beating, so could he. And maybe, just maybe, he deserved it for what he’d done to Blair earlier, no matter how unwillingly.

But even if he was going to go along with this, he wasn’t going to give these bastards the satisfaction of seeing him cowed. Smiling, holding Robbie’s eyes, he shrugged out of his jacket and began to undo his shirt. He licked his lips suggestively. Robbie flushed and averted his gaze, much to the Sentinel’s amusement.

None of them spoke as he let the shirt slide off of his shoulders and pulled his white vest over his head. He let it drop to the floor, and smiled sardonically at Robbie, whose face was flushed. Robbie glared at him. “Everything,” he said.

Still affecting nonchalance he didn’t feel, Ellison bent down to undo his shoes and pulled them off, followed by his socks. He put a hand on his zipper, and pulled it down gradually, enjoying the way Robbie’s eyes flickered down to watch, almost against his will. Pants were pulled down, equally as slowly, and removed. And as Ellison hooked his thumbs under the waistline of his boxers and slid them down his thighs, he could smell the unmistakable rush of pheromones from more than one direction in the room. Without his Guide here, he couldn’t say for certain where the smell originated. But he would have laid odds that the bulk of it came from Robbie.

He stepped out of the boxers and pushed them away with his foot, then stood proudly, ignoring the fluttering feeling of exposure in his gut. Looking at Robbie’s red face, he taunted recklessly, “Like what you see, Guide?”

A momentary flash of some indefinable emotion passed over Robbie’s face before he mastered himself. “Well, holy shit,” he sneered, his voice only a tiny bit strained. He looked at Ellison’s groin, and pointed, remarking sarcastically to the room at large, “So Sentinels aren’t superhuman after all!”

The two women in the room exchanged a glance, eyebrows raised, while the men laughed nastily. Robbie looked back at him triumphantly, smug after scoring a point, no matter how juvenile it had been. But Ellison could see the truth in his eyes.

It wasn’t only Sentinels, it seemed, who were capable of yearning for the Bond.

It gave Ellison great satisfaction, therefore, when Robbie looked away first. But his satisfaction was short lived. “Get him over the table,” Robbie ordered. Ellison’s arms were grabbed, and he was propelled towards the long conference table in the middle of the room and pushed over it face down. “Stretch your arms out. Hold the far edge.” As Ellison obeyed, hating the sick feeling that came over him at being exposed and vulnerable like this, Robbie added, “You let go or move for any reason, and my friend here will blow your brains out. You understand?”

Ellison was capable of being a cool customer, though, even now when his guts had turned to water at the prospect of what was going to happen. “Just get on with it, asshole,” he said coldly, no hint of nervousness in his voice. He was hyper aware of the cold air from the air conditioning blowing over his back and exposed buttocks, the hard wood grain beneath him, and the edge of the table pressing uncomfortably into his naked groin. And he had a brief moment of time to wonder how Blair had survived such constant humiliation before the first blow fell across his back.

It stung a little, but it wasn’t that bad. Perversely, Ellison taunted, “That the best you can do, Guide?” It was not the most sensible thing to say under the circumstances and, unfortunately, it inspired Robbie’s next swing. This time, it hurt. It hurt a lot. So did the next, and the next. Clenching his teeth, Ellison refused to utter a sound as the blows rained down, the full force of Robbie’s arm behind them, across his exposed back and buttocks.

After taking several hits, Ellison began to lose control of his sense of touch, which he had turned down to just under normal before this began. Without his Guide there, his control was tenuous at best, and this level of sensation was about as far from ideal as an Un-Guided Sentinel could get. Another blow and his dial went spinning wildly out of control, forcing a strangled cry from his lips as the pain overwhelmed him. For a moment he zoned, his entire awareness embroiled in the fiery agony within which he was consumed.

It took the sound of his Guide’s voice to bring him back out of that agonizing hell. But it was not Blair’s usual soothing tones that he heard when he surfaced to awareness, as the pain receded.

“You fucking asshole!” The fury in the familiar voice took Ellison aback. He realized, as sense returned, that he was still lying flat out on the table, his fingers cramped in a painful grip on the far edge. “What the hell did you think you were doing?” Blair was shouting. “You don’t EVER touch him!”

Cautiously, Ellison turned his head, relaxing the death grip he had on the table as he moved. He found himself unregarded, everyone in the room watching with shocked expressions as the theatre was played out before their eyes. Robbie was on the floor, blood pouring out of his nose. He was holding his stomach as though it hurt and, though conscious, appeared to be stunned.

No one anticipated Blair’s next move, not even Ellison, attuned as he was to his Guide. Blair whirled and, before anyone knew what had happened, he had Carol’s gun in his hand, and he leveled it at Robbie’s bowed head. “Give me one good reason,” he said, “not to kill you right now.”

Robbie lifted pain filled eyes. “He hurt you,” he pleaded, his eyes darting to Naomi – who appeared to be equally as stunned as everybody else – as if looking for support. “He whipped you. Lillian told us. We just wanted to pay him back…”

“Wrong answer.” Blair’s voice was uncompromising. “You want him. You want him for yourself.”

Ellison pushed himself upright, flexing his back as he did. Sore, but not unbearable. Extending his awareness, he touched his Guide’s emotions, and almost recoiled at what he sensed there.

Possessiveness. Jealousy. Incandescent rage. And the image of his rival lying dead at his feet.

Ellison was ignored as he got down from the table, and moved over to stand behind Blair, his nakedness and discomfort forgotten. “Chief,” he said evenly. “It’s okay. I’m okay.”

Blair didn’t look at him, his eyes fixed on the man cowering on the floor. “He wants you,” Blair said again.

“He can’t have me,” Ellison said simply, moving into Blair’s field of vision. “He won’t get me. I’m yours.”

Blair’s eyes lifted to look at him. There was something not quite sane in his gaze, something merciless that Ellison had seen only once before in the eyes of the Chopec Guide that he'd known. A touch of wildness, of the jungle. “You’re mine,” the Guide stated, the words a challenge.

Ellison nodded. “Yours,” he reiterated. He felt it when the primal emotions, which had been holding Blair in their thrall, began to recede, and he smiled encouragement, having eyes only for his Guide. The room could have been empty for all he cared. “That’s it, Blair,” he murmured. “Come back to me.” His hand came out and closed around the gun gripped in his Guide’s hand. “Give me the gun, Blair. It’s okay.” He glanced disdainfully at the other Guide, who was watching them warily, as blood dripped down his face. “He’s not worth it. It’s not worth having his death on your conscience.”

Blair took a sharp breath as something shifted within him, his eyes widening as he relinquished the weapon. “Jim?” he asked, a little bewilderedly, and Ellison put his other hand around Sandburg’s neck and pulled him in.

“It’s all right, Chief,” he murmured into his Guide’s hair. “Everything’s okay now.”

Behind him, Ellison heard Naomi’s voice as she snapped out of her inertia and started to clear the room. But he mostly ignored the sudden flurry of noise and movement, contenting himself instead with holding his Guide, filling his senses with Sandburg’s essential scent. And he smiled, feeling with satisfaction the grip of the gun he now held in his hand. He was armed once more, a force to be reckoned with. If they were dished any more shit, he had no compunction about shooting his way out of here with his Guide in tow.

Blair’s disorientation passed quickly, and pushing himself away, he lifted pained eyes to Ellison’s face. “Oh man,” he said, “Are you all right?”

Ellison smiled at him reassuringly, then grimaced a little as he flexed his muscles experimentally. “I’m just a little sore, Chief. It’s not bad,” he said. Blair looked crestfallen, however, so he added, “Hey, you’ve had worse, tough guy. I can handle it.”

Blair wasn’t mollified. “Yeah, well, I’m not a Sentinel, man. With an extra strong sense of touch.”

Ellison shrugged. “I dialed down. It wasn’t too bad.”

“You zoned, Jim!” Despite his apparent lapse into the Twilight Zone, Sandburg had, it seemed, been paying attention. “You zoned on the pain.” He looked hurt, his emotions tinged with guilt, as though the fact that Ellison had zoned was somehow a personal failure.

Ellison rubbed Sandburg’s shoulder. “I’m okay,” he said again. “Let it go, Chief, huh? We’ve got other stuff to deal with right now.”

Another voice intruded – the medic who had come in and had been tending to Robbie’s injuries while Sentinel and Guide had been reconnecting. “How about you let me take a look at your back, Sentinel?”

In a thrice, Blair interposed himself in between. “Don’t touch him,” he snarled, the chilling feral tone back in his voice. Their link throbbed once again with rage.

Moving swiftly, Ellison hooked an arm around his Guide’s chest from behind, pulling him back into his chest and holding him tightly. The medic – an elderly man who appeared utterly unthreatening – backed off, a shocked expression on his face and both hands in the air. “Easy, Blair,” the Sentinel soothed. “It’s okay.”

Blair was rigid in his hold, but gradually the coiled tension in his muscles unwound. Feeling the strange, possessive emotions within his Guide subside once again, Ellison patted him on the shoulder and moved away, trying to keep his own disquiet about Blair’s odd behavior under wraps. The last thing his Guide needed right now was to be infected by the Sentinel’s worry about him. Ellison supposed that what was going on was some strange Bonding thing – they had, after all, only Bonded earlier that day. But he didn’t have enough knowledge to know whether or not the antagonism Blair was exhibiting was something that all Bonded Guides did when their Sentinels were threatened. He had always believed, up to now, that Guides were incapable of aggression.

Yet another Government-sponsored myth debunked, he supposed.

Moving to the discarded pile of clothes, Ellison began to dress, wincing a little as the friction of the cloth abraded his skin. Ruthlessly he dialed down his sense of touch, latching onto his Guide’s presence to help him with the fine-tuning and, unsurprisingly, it worked like a dream.

Once he had his discomfort under control, Ellison looked around surreptitiously as he dressed, assessing the immediate level of threat in the room. All of the conspicuously armed personnel had left, leaving just himself, his Guide, Naomi, Robbie and the medic. The Sentinel swapped the gun he held from hand to hand, as he pulled on his shirt, having no intention to relinquish it even for a second.

He watched as the medic helped the sullen faced Robbie up from the floor. The two of them then headed towards the door, the medic supporting Robbie’s weight as he went. At no point did Robbie even glance the Sentinel’s way – wary of further retribution from Blair, no doubt. His Guide had certainly done a number on the asshole, Ellison thought with shameless satisfaction and no little amount of pride.

Blair kept himself in between Ellison and his rogue Guide cousin until Robbie and the medic exited, an impenetrable barrier shielding the Sentinel from the man who had hurt him. He only stood down when the door had closed behind them.

CHAPTER 14

Naomi was perched on the edge of the conference table, her shawl spread out behind her like a train, the unmistakable queen-bee in this convoluted hive. She watched them quizzically as Blair turned and came to Ellison’s side. Ellison lifted an arm and beckoned him in and, side by side, arms round each other’s waists, they faced her, waiting for the decree which would condemn or liberate them.

Naomi looked at Ellison. “I’m sorry, Mister Ellison. What Robert did to you was without my sanction.”

Ellison saw an opening for a bit of payback. “He hates you, you know. He wants to take your place.”

She smiled. “I’m well aware of Robert’s feelings toward me. He’s always been ambitious.”

Blair spoke up incredulously. “Then why the hell did you make him Second, Naomi?”

She smiled at him. “Use your head, Blair. I’m sure you can work it out. Or perhaps you can, Mister Ellison?”

Ellison nodded. “It’s Jim. Call me Jim. And yeah. Keep your friends close…”

“And your enemies closer,” Naomi finished. “Very good, Jim. Robert is in possession of some very dangerous knowledge should he decide to work against the network in a misguided attempt to get at me. This way, he gets what he wants – an illusion of power. And I get to keep him in check. Well,” she added, sounding a little embarrassed, “most of the time, anyway.”

She slid gracefully off the table, and moved towards the door. “Why don’t you both take a seat,” she said over her shoulder. “I’ll just order some refreshments.” Ellison watched her as she opened the door and spoke to whoever was outside, intrigued by the way she could make an order sound like a suggestion. He was in no doubt, however, despite her polite friendliness, that refusal wasn’t an option.

He tucked the gun he still held into the empty holster at the small of his back, and he and Blair sat down, pulling their chairs close together. Under the table, their hands found each other as if of their own volition. Naomi returned and took a seat across from them, and folded her hands in front of her on the table. She was watching them carefully, noting their body language, and the whole scenario reminded Ellison uncomfortably of the interview he had had to pass to join Cascade PD. After a moment, she said, “Blair has told me his view of the situation. Before I make a decision about what to do with you both, I need to hear what you have to say, Jim. I was originally intending to talk to you alone, but I suspect from what I’ve seen that would be a bad idea.”

Blair bristled, and Ellison soothed him again. “Easy, Chief.” Feeling Blair was holding onto his rational self by a thread, the Sentinel looked back at Naomi warningly. “We’re a package deal, Naomi. Don’t push him on this.”

“I can speak for myself, man!” Blair’s possessive feelings had backed off only a little, but he at least seemed present as he angrily interrupted the Sentinel, glaring at Naomi. “I trusted you that he wouldn’t be hurt. No way are you taking him out of my sight again, Naomi! We stay together. That’s it.”

“Of course, sweetie,” Naomi agreed easily. “No one here will try and separate you again. I give you my word.”

It seemed to mollify Blair, as he relaxed once again. Then, abruptly finding himself the object of intense scrutiny by the two of them said, “What? Why are you both looking at me like that?”

Ellison simply squeezed his hand, afraid of another spike of aggression in his oddly volatile Guide if he said anything, but Naomi answered without any apparent similar misgivings. “Blair, do you realize what you’ve been doing?”

Blair looked honestly puzzled. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Remember,” she elaborated, “when we used to talk about the primal elements of the Sentinel/Guide Bond? None of us had ever seen it in action, but Morales had that theory. He wrote a paper on it. You remember, sweetie?”

Blair was thinking. “Oh, yeah,” he said remembering, “Morales – the guy from Mexico, right? The one who wrote about Guides as aggressors. It was on the banned publications list.” He frowned then the light dawned, and he looked warily at Jim. “Oh man. I thought I was just pissed. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? I went primal.”

Jim didn’t want to be having this conversation right now. What he wanted was to get his Guide as far away from here as possible, so they could deal with all of this in private. “It’s okay, Chief,” he said soothingly. “Don’t worry about it.”

Blair grinned suddenly. “Hey man, I’m not ‘worried’. This is amazing! God, if only I had time to study this. I mean, I’m the first Guide in living history with the academic ability to document this phenomenon from the inside. Well,” he added, “in this country anyway. I mean -”

“Blair.” Jim’s interruption was gentle. “That’s not why we’re here.”

“Oh.” Blair halted. “Right.” He nodded. “You’re right.”

Naomi was smiling at them both. “You really are quite a team.” She looked at Ellison. “Jim, I’m intrigued. I’ve been around a few Sentinels. I’ve never before seen one who is quite so lenient with his Guide in public as you are with my son. And yet earlier, you hit Blair. With a crop, so I’m told. Perhaps you’d care to explain why?” Blair looked like he was about to protest the question, but a meaningful look from Naomi made him subside.

Ellison chose his words carefully. For all her charm, the sting in Naomi’s tail was very apparent. “If I hadn’t done it, Blair would have been taken back to Guide World. I couldn’t let that happen. I can’t let him live like that anymore, Naomi.”

She pursed her lips, glancing at her son, who kept quiet, although Ellison could feel him chafing with the need to speak. “I’m well aware, Jim, of what my son went through in that place. I have contacts who have kept me informed since he disappeared. I know he was sentenced to remain un-Bonded, and I also know what the penalty for Bonding is, should it be discovered that he has done so. What I want to know is, if you really are as concerned for his welfare as you say you are, what were you thinking of when you went and Bonded with him? Did you know what could happen to him? And if you did, how could you risk him in that way?”

Ellison bowed his head. He heard Sandburg appeal briefly, “Mom, please…” before some gesture from Naomi must have silenced him.

Keeping his eyes lowered, Ellison admitted, “I didn’t intend for it to happen when it did. I honestly don’t know how it happened – I’d been careful up to then not to put either of us at risk of Bonding. But he was hurt. He was distressed. He needed me. I guess instinct took over.” He looked up, meeting Naomi’s amber eyes. “It was my fault. I know I’ve put him at serious risk. I know I should regret it. But I don’t. God help me, Naomi, I want him. I never wanted anything in my life like I want him. So I can’t even say I’m sorry.”

“Jim.” Blair’s emotion filled voice drew the Sentinel’s eyes inexorably towards his Guide. Blair was looking at him with such a mixture of love and pain that it took his breath away. “It wasn’t just you,” Blair said, his voice a little choked. “You know I felt it too, don’t you? The pull? It’s not just Sentinels who feel it, man, it’s Guides too. You didn’t force me to Bond – I wanted it as much as you did.” He swallowed. “I still want it. I want you. So I’m not sorry either.”

Like two halves of a whole, they came together, Naomi’s presence be damned. Ellison held Blair, and Blair held him back just as fiercely. Neither of them was aware of the door opening and a person entering to set a tray on the table, and then retreating again. Instead, the Bond thrummed between them, the enormity of their need for each other bouncing back and forth in a vibrant feedback loop, overwhelming them with its escalating intensity.

Gradually, the tide of overwhelming connection reached its peak then slowly receded. As it ebbed, they separated to gaze into each other’s eyes, something fundamental in both of them calmed by the intensity of the experience. Ellison still felt connected; feeling Blair’s delight as his own. “Wow,” Blair said, awed. “Who needs sex, man!” Then he laughed at Ellison’s clear discomfiture at the vocalizing of something so personal in front of Blair’s mother.

When they finally managed to tear their eyes away from each other, Naomi was calmly pouring coffee. She looked amused. “I take it your Bond is recent,” she stated.

“Today,” Blair confirmed happily.

She looked at him, astounded. “Then what are you doing out? You should be home, cementing your Bond! No wonder you went primal, Blair.”

Ellison spoke up. “We don’t have a lot of time, Naomi. We had to move fast.”

Naomi nodded. “Of course.” She frowned as she pushed the coffee cups towards them. “Blair explained to me what you both want to do. You want to run away, so you can live out the rest of your lives as you see fit. You need my help to neutralize the tattoo.” She sighed, taking a sip of her coffee and regarding them both over the rim. “Do you know how many times I’ve been asked to help free a Guide who was taken? Someone else’s child, who was tattooed and forced to live like an animal?”

Blair spoke up. “Mom, it’s different this time.”

“Of course it’s different!” she snapped. “It’s you this time. My son. If I help you, what do I say to all the others I refused to help? What kind of hypocrite does that make me, Blair?”

Blair had no answer, his own guilt about that very issue clear. But Ellison spoke up. “Naomi,” he said softly. “You said you knew what would happen to Blair if it gets out that he’s Bonded. Well, the fact is, he has Bonded. We have, at most, a week before we get found out. Now I’m with him on this. This isn’t some child Guide with no chance of escape. Blair has me. I have the means to get him out of this mess. But I can’t do it unless you help.”

“We have rules, Jim,” Naomi answered firmly. “We have them for a reason. The work we do here is important. Vital, even. But for this network, many people who today live normal lives would never have gone to school, never had careers, never married, and certainly would never have had children of their own. They would have lived their entire lives as slaves, never knowing their own names, their own families, or one moment of freedom.”

“I understand that -” Jim began.

But Naomi cut him off. “Look, the point I’m making is that we operate to our strengths. We do good work here, but some things are beyond us. The network has never been about liberation, only prevention. It is the one thing we can do where we have a chance of making a real difference. The moment we start trying to free Guides, we risk bringing the Detectors down on ourselves. And then all that work, all that hope we bring to people, will be lost forever. I can’t risk that.”

“What are you saying? Are you saying no?” Blair was upset, and trying not to show it.

“No,” Naomi said, “I’m not saying ‘no’. I’m saying I need to think about it. There’s more at stake here than just you, sweetie.” Her tone softened, alert to his distress. “You’re my son, and I love you. But I have a responsibility to the network. You know that.”

Ellison shook his head impatiently. “We don’t have time to wait for your decision, Naomi. We need to know now – will you help us or not?” The gun was a welcome weight at the small of his back – if she said no, and tried to contain them here or have them killed, he would shoot her and anyone else who got in his way. The fact that she was Blair’s mother paled into insignificance next to his need to protect his Guide.

The three of them sat silently, at a tense impasse, the whir of the air conditioning and the buzz of the white noise generator the only sounds in the room. Blair looked at the floor, his despair a tangible thing, certain his mother would turn them down. Jim watched Naomi, as she chewed on a fingernail thoughtfully, his reflexes on high alert.

Like Blair, Ellison was certain Naomi was going to refuse. She was, after all, the leader of an underground movement. To someone like her, the good of the many had to outweigh the good of the few, especially when innocent lives were at stake – or so he had learned from his experience in war zones.

The family angle, on the other hand, was another matter entirely, and totally outside his experience. Blair’s relatives were utterly unlike any family he had before encountered. He'd thought his own was fairly dysfunctional – he had cut off contact with his father and brother due to a petty dispute in his youth, and had practically no memory of his own mother, who had deserted her husband and children when he had been a very young child.

The Sandburg clan, on the other hand, consisted of a matriarch – Naomi – hiding her subversive power and influence behind a hippie dippy exterior as false as the vegetarian restaurant facade. Her son – Blair – was a notorious convicted rogue Guide, previously her second in command, bred to a life of subterfuge and peril. And her nephew – Robbie – was a Guide in denial, yearning for the Bond; hiding his secret desire behind a jealous bully exterior.

It was a miracle, all in all, that Blair had turned out as well as he had.

She had to say no, Ellison knew, as he waited for her to pronounce judgment. It was the only logical outcome. To do otherwise would be to lose face, to prove that her heart ruled her head. The inconceivable consequence of putting Blair’s welfare before the network’s rules would present an opening for that idiot Robbie to step into the breach. Surely, Ellison thought, she would not allow that to happen. She was far too savvy for that.

Naomi took a breath and exhaled, lifting troubled eyes to the two of them. “Okay,” she said. “I’ve made my decision.”

Ellison tightened his hand on the weapon, tensing in readiness for a firefight.

Naomi looked Blair in the eye, her expression grave. “I’ll do it,” she said.

It took a moment before her unexpected words registered with Ellison, but Blair murmured, “Thank you,” his voice choked with emotion.

She was still all business, the concerned mother subsumed. “On one condition,” she said firmly. “You never, ever, come back here again. We sever all contact, here and now. If you break that condition, you won’t be allowed to leave here alive a second time.” She turned her eyes from Blair to Ellison. “Either of you,” she added.

Ellison nodded, seeing the sense in that, but feeling Blair’s chaotic mixture of relief and grief as if it was his own. Blair seemed lost for words, so the Sentinel asked the question they both needed to hear. “What happens next?”

Naomi didn’t move, but a movement of her shoulder indicated she had pressed something, a concealed button perhaps, underneath the table. The door opened and the medic walked in, eyeing Sentinel and Guide warily as he stepped over to Naomi. He held out a plastic Ziploc bag to her, and she took it from him and placed it on the table. “This is a patch,” she said. “You adhere it over the tattoo. It temporarily disrupts the signal emitted by the ink, making it undetectable to a Sniffer.”

Blair winced at the name commonly given to the biometric trackers used by Detectors to keep track of Guides. Ellison patted his leg in solidarity, as his Guide found his voice. “Temporarily?”

The medic spoke up. “It’s a prototype. We’re still working on making it permanent. We’re some way away from achieving it yet.”

“How temporary is it?” Ellison asked.

The medic shrugged. “I can’t say for sure. The effects lasted two, three hours on our test subjects." He looked at Blair. "You’ll be the first living Guide to test it. Up to now, we’ve only had cadavers to work with.”

Sentinel and Guide exchanged a skeptical glance. It was a frighteningly narrow window. It might give them enough time to escape the immediate vicinity, if Ellison’s contacts came through with the aid they needed, but the lack of permanency would mean they would always be in danger of being tracked.

It was a good thing the ultimate destination Ellison had in mind was about as far away from modern civilization as anyone could get.


***


CHAPTER 15

It was nearly one o’clock in the morning when Ellison and his Guide arrived back at the loft apartment.

Ellison had been witness to a grueling emotional leave-taking, as Blair and Naomi had said farewell to each other for the very last time. He had tried not to listen in, to give Blair the privacy he needed; but it had been impossible to ignore the grief seeping out of Blair and into himself through their Bond. Hard though it had been for Blair to lose contact with his mother the first time, it seemed that this last farewell was all the more painful for its absolute finality.

Blair had remained silent all the way back home, staring without apparently seeing out of the window of the truck, and Ellison had let him be. Despite allowing him that latitude, however, Ellison couldn’t help but worry about his Guide’s state of mind.

It had been an intense few hours of physical and emotional extremes for both of them, and for Blair in particular. Gavaghan’s visit that morning, their inadvertent Bond, and the hasty assembling and implementation of their escape plan, had been the mere tip of today’s iceberg. And to cap it all, Blair had found and lost his mother for the final time.

All in all, it had been a pretty shitty day.

Conscious of appearances in their immediate neighborhood, despite the fact that no-one seemed to be around at this time of night, Ellison forced himself to walk ahead into the building, Blair following the regulation distance behind. Too full of nervous energy to wait for the elevator, the Sentinel started up the stairs, his Guide a dogged presence at his heels. And it wasn’t until they were through the door and it was locked behind them that he allowed himself to look at the other man.

Sandburg’s expression was unreadable, even if his turbulent feelings were an open book along the link they shared. “Chief,” Jim ventured, moving towards him, and Blair lifted eyes devoid of any emotion. Ellison opened his arms, offering comfort but, to his surprise, Blair moved back a step.

The Guide’s voice was steady. “Jim, Robbie hit you pretty hard, man. Will you let me look? I need…” He swallowed, a hint of the primitive emotions he had displayed earlier seeping out, “I need to make sure you’re okay.” The imperative nature of his request resonated through Ellison. “I need to, Jim.”

Custom be damned – Ellison acted purely on instinct, on the fundamental rightness of submitting to the Guide’s imperative drive to examine him. “Yes,” he agreed. Almost without conscious thought, he began to shed his clothes, unflinching under the gaze of his Guide. Blair watched him disrobe with measuring eyes, saying nothing.

As soon as Ellison was undressed, he turned his back to Blair. His Guide moved closer, and he shivered when Blair’s breath stirred his skin. “Are you in pain?” Blair asked, the primality banked a little in view of Ellison’s compliance.

“I’m dialed down,” Ellison replied. “But it isn’t bad, Chief.”

“I want…” Again, Blair seemed to have trouble finding the words, rationality at war with instinct, “I need to wash him off of you.”

Ellison nodded. It was an impulse he was familiar with, having felt it himself on more than one occasion with regard to Blair. Without another word, he moved toward the bathroom, his Guide in tow.

Taking Blair’s silence as approval, Ellison proceeded to start up the shower and get in. Squirting out a handful of the hypo-allergenic shower gel that Sandburg had bought, he began to wash his chest and arms vigorously, soaping off the stench of the network headquarters and all that had gone on there. After only a moment, Sandburg shed his own clothes and slipped in behind him. It was a tight squeeze, and Ellison found his body reacting as his Guide’s wet skin slid against his own each time Blair reached around Ellison to get a handful of soap.

Blair’s soft hands traced the pattern of marks on Ellison’s back, washing this injured part of him gently, and the Sentinel shivered despite the soapy, warm water cascading over him. It didn’t hurt, but the water trickling, his involuntary arousal and the almost unendurable gentleness of Blair’s hands combined to make him hypersensitive to the sensations, despite his dial still being set low. He shuddered again, and in response, Blair moved closer, his hands sliding around Ellison’s waist from behind, the roughness of the Guide’s cheek slightly abrading the skin between Ellison’s shoulder blades as Blair held him close in a hug for a moment.

Then Blair pulled away, and Ellison felt the hands move lower, washing his ass just as gently. Lower, and his thighs were tenderly cleaned. Lower still, and the backs of his legs were washed, then each one lifted and his feet attended to in turn. Blair’s touch in this latter place was firm, as if he knew that the ticklish sensation on his Sentinel’s feet was almost too much for Ellison to bear, and Blair finished up quickly, as if to spare him discomfort.

Ellison was a little disappointed when Blair paid no attention to his burgeoning erection, and instead moved out of the shower, leaving Ellison to finish cleaning himself off. The loss of Blair’s body heat at his back, and the rush of cooler air as the cubicle door opened and closed chilled the Sentinel a little, so he finished quickly, turning off the water. As he stepped out, he saw that Blair was already mostly dry and wrapped in a towel around his waist.

Reaching for a towel himself, Ellison began to dry himself vigorously. While he did, Blair reached up to the shelf on the wall, and grabbed a bottle he’d put there the day he had gone shopping for Sentinel-friendly products. Ellison had no idea what was in it. Without looking at him, Blair said, “Come upstairs when you’re done, man. I have some stuff here that’ll help you relax.” Without another word, his Guide headed out the door; leaving the Sentinel with a bemused expression on his face at his Guide’s tenacity.

When Ellison finally got to the top of the stairs, he found that Blair had laid clean towels across the bed, and was warming something – massage oil, Ellison decided – between his hands. The lighting was subdued, the single lamp providing just enough illumination with his sight set at normal levels to see Blair’s nervousness. “Hey,” Ellison said, hoping to reassure him that he hadn’t overstepped the bounds. “Where do you want me?”

Blair smiled for the first time in what seemed like an eternity. “Just lie on your front, man,” he said. “Get comfortable. This stuff should help with some of the bruising and help your skin to heal.”

As Ellison complied, arranging pillows under himself to find the most comfortable position, he asked, “What about you, Chief? You want me to do you afterwards? You’re probably sore as well.” He had tended Blair’s back earlier, after the abuse perpetrated by Gavaghan, and – god help him – himself; but was worried that Blair might still be in pain and simply good at hiding it.

“I’m fine.” Blair’s flat rebuttal brooked no argument, and Ellison was reluctant to push. It seemed, in any case, important to allow Blair autonomy over his own body. God knows, he had been denied that basic human right over and over since his capture. And having had a taste of the sort of vulnerability his Guide was accustomed to, when Ellison himself had been helpless in Robbie’s hands, it seemed all the more essential that he accord Sandburg as much control as possible.

Blair’s hands were firm on his tense muscles, massaging with skill and confidence. When they drifted over areas that were sore, the touch gentled as the oil was eased over bruises and contusions. Ellison couldn’t help but relax under his Guide’s ministrations, the aroma of chamomile and lavender in the oil soothing his sensitive nose as Blair’s hands soothed his hurts. He allowed his sense of touch to drift back to normal, letting go the control he had been forced to maintain, now that he was safe in the care of his Guide.

Blair’s muscular thighs straddled Ellison’s hips as he worked, and the Sentinel gradually became distracted from his residual discomfort when he registered that Blair had not gotten dressed after the shower; instead having simply cast his towel aside to work on him nude. At the realization, and as the tension of the day finally evaporated, it became replaced by tension of a different kind, the scent of the aromatic oil being enhanced by the musky scent of arousal.

An image came to Ellison through their Bond, even as he registered his own hunger for the man whose hands were working him over so competently, hands that had now drifted down to knead and caress his ass. An image of his own body, laid out like a feast, overlaid with want, need, desire.

Lust.

A shifting of weight, and he felt his partner’s lips press hard against the small of his back, the slight roughness of stubble against his sensitive skin making him shiver. Blair’s exhaled breath, on skin now faintly wet from the kiss, stirred the nerves in his back to squirming sensitivity, but Blair’s thighs confined him and he couldn’t evade – didn’t want to evade – the sensual torture. The maddening breath drifted lower, inexorably, the hands on his ass a possessive force, holding him steady as Blair’s mouth descended yet again, to begin a trail of kisses leading steadily downwards.

Ellison gasped, held in his Guide’s unyielding grasp as he felt his buttocks squeezed and parted, and hot breath stirring his core before the relentless lips descended.

Sensation exploded. It was like nothing he’d ever felt before, this assault on his most secret place. He cried out, helpless; his Guide’s lust, his Guide’s love for him, consuming his mind even as his center was consumed so voraciously. Blair was everywhere; in his head, in his body, in his heart, and the Sentinel no longer knew where he finished and his Guide began, feeling Blair’s fundamental desire for him as if it was his own. Lost in a plethora of sensation, loved completely, he surrendered utterly and came explosively, his senses overwhelmed in a barrage of hot, wet, slippery possession.

He came back to awareness slowly, lying bonelessly on his front, his Guide’s velvet words in his ear. “Easy, Jim. That’s it. Just relax.” Blair’s lust was apparently unassuaged; his voice precipitous with desire, and slippery pressure at Ellison’s asshole heralded a finger pushing into him, its passage eased by saliva and oil.

A tiny voice inside Ellison set up a token protest, as soon as he realized what it was that Blair wanted to do. But it was a voice crying in the wilderness. This was his Guide – his Guide whose care for him was absolute. He could feel Blair’s concern for his wellbeing inside of himself, their Bond allowing no room for doubt or fear. Secure in the knowledge that Blair would never, ever hurt him, he sighed and relaxed, his muscles willingly permitting entry. “Good,” crooned Blair approvingly. “That’s good.”

More pressure, a wider, thicker invasion as another slippery finger joined the first, and Blair murmured delighted praise for his compliance. It didn’t hurt, Ellison realized wonderingly. In fact, the odd stretching sensation felt right in a way that nothing else ever had. This was his Guide, his lover. The other half of his soul.

For this man, he would do anything.

Relaxing even more, Ellison let go his breath with a sigh, feeling his own arousal re-ignite as Blair’s fingers found and manipulated sensitive places inside of him that he hadn’t even known existed. He sighed again in resignation a moment later, when the skillful fingers withdrew. But he knew, as Blair urged him to move a little and slipped a pillow beneath his hips, that he would soon be filled again. And that knowledge contented him as nothing else ever had.

Ellison lay docile as Blair shifted position to kneel between his legs, and accepted wholeheartedly, when it came, the inexorable push of Blair’s cock into his body. He opened himself completely, lifting his hips to meet the invader, welcoming his Guide in. And as Blair finally slid home, their minds merged as well – Ellison seeing through Blair’s eyes as his Guide began to move, feeling what Blair was feeling as Ellison’s hips rose to meet each thrust; a strange juxtaposition of Blair’s sensations and his own magnifying their combined arousal tenfold, as they ascended together towards the peak.

And after a lifetime of overwhelming sensation, when at last they breathlessly reached the inevitable summit, they leapt as one, hand in hand, to plummet ecstatically together over the precipice. And at that timeless moment, Ellison was Blair, and Blair was him; Sentinel and Guide, lovers, soulmates.

Bonded to each other for all eternity.


***


CHAPTER 16

It was still dark when Ellison finally surfaced to awareness, but he sensed, in the presence of subtle clues not actually requiring enhanced senses, that it was close to dawn. His Guide was pressed close to his side, curled in on himself in sleep. Their Bond was quiescent, its presence evident in an indefinable contentment resonant of Blair’s dreams.

He took a moment to look down at the man curled at his side. In sleep, Blair’s youth shone through: in the luster of his unlined skin and the richness of thick dark hair growing out into a luxuriant crop of curl. His mouth was slightly open as he breathed, giving him a vulnerable appearance, and Ellison was awed suddenly by the responsibility that display of naked trust laid upon him.

He literally held Blair’s life in his hands.

Ruthlessly suppressing thoughts of their peril, he forced himself instead to focus on the moment. To capture the warmth and safety of their togetherness in a freeze-frame of memory, to be brought out and treasured in the difficult times to come, whatever the outcome might be.

Gazing on his lover’s sleeping face, he studied the lashes resting heavily on lax cheeks, and the shadow of beard-rough skin, one of Blair’s open-fingered hands lying beside his cheek in unguarded repose. Tenderness overwhelmed Ellison suddenly, and he lifted his own hand, to gently smooth it over the soft curls on his Guide’s head. Blair made a sighing sound of pleasure, and burrowed closer to him, blindly seeking the Sentinel in his sleep. And Ellison almost wept at the instinctual display of need.

Instinct. There was that word again. How much of this overwhelming tenderness he felt for Blair, Ellison wondered, was instinct? The primal attraction of Sentinel for Guide? And how much of it was simply the love of one human being for another?

Still gazing at Blair, he tried to turn off for a moment the rose-colored glasses – the Sentinel vision – with which he normally saw his Guide. To find out what Jim Ellison felt about Blair Sandburg. Jim Ellison – the man, not the Sentinel.

Looking at Blair objectively, he could see that his lover was beautiful; no matter which way you viewed it. There was no denying Blair’s masculinity, in the strength of his musculature and the hair curling on his chest. But those masculine features were combined with an almost androgynous symmetry, a perfection of form that softened the masculine edge without detracting from it. No wonder, Ellison considered wryly, that that jealous bastard Robbie had made a quip about Blair’s previous success with women. He suspected, given his lover’s assertiveness in bed, that there was more than a grain of truth behind Robbie’s maliciousness. And more than a hint of sour grapes, as, compared with Blair, the guy was definitely no Adonis.

The fact that Blair was a man, and that Ellison had never previously had a male lover was not something Ellison felt any urge to question. Some things just were. Even before his senses came fully on-line, back in the days when all his sexual partners had been female, he had never felt any discomfort with the notion of having sex with another man. It was part of the genetic makeup of Sentinels and Guides, and an inseparable part of who he was – something that both the Sentinel and the man who made up James Ellison had in common. He guessed that Blair, as a latent Guide, had felt the same way, despite his alleged past female conquests.

Still trying to view Blair dispassionately, Ellison thought back to those factors which had led to him choosing Blair as his temporary Guide in the first place.

The second he had seen the slight young Guide shift his posture from the approved position, to glare through the one way glass at him with angry eyes, he had wanted to know more about this intriguing man. In that second, he had seen someone who was intelligent enough to conform to the requirements of his jailers – insofar as it kept him alive and whole – and yet at the same time strong enough to hold onto his sense of self despite all he had been put through. Those qualities had both impressed and intrigued Ellison.

Everything he had learned about Blair since had only added to his initial impression. It pleased him very much that his Guide had a real past, rather than the usual lifelong brainwashing in captivity that Guides were subjected to. During their time together, he had seen Blair handle himself with incredible dignity and courage in situations that would have broken lesser men, and he had experienced firsthand the compassionate and passionate nature which was so much a part of Blair Sandburg.

Blair stirred beside him, beginning to wake, and Ellison’s tenderness was renewed. What inspired it, he wondered? This overwhelming admiration and protectiveness? Was it instinct, or love?

He smiled, accepting the obvious. There was no separation.

Beautiful blue eyes, soft from sleep, were regarding him moistly, Ellison’s strong emotions affecting Blair profoundly across their Bond. Ellison kissed Blair gently on the forehead. “Hey,” he murmured in greeting.

Blair swallowed. “Thank you,” he said, his voice a little hoarse. “I can feel… oh man. I… I’m not sure I deserve it, but man, you make me feel…”

Ellison silenced him with another kiss, this time on the lips. “You deserve it. And more.”

Blair blinked slowly, his eyes all pupil in the half-light. “I love you,” he whispered.

Ellison nodded, pulling him close. “I know.”


***


Ellison was toweling his hair after a shower a little while afterwards when his cell phone rang. Without glancing at the number on the display, he answered it. “Ellison.”

Mister Ellison,” came the voice; a familiar male voice he couldn’t immediately place. “The goods you ordered are in stock, but I am unclear what size and color you need. Could you call in later today to finalize your order?

A second was all it took. A memory of South American jungle, gunfire, and himself performing triage on a critically wounded man wearing camouflage gear in the middle of hell. Playing along with the ruse, although he was certain after a brief Sentinel sweep that their conversation was secure and private, he answered, “Sure. Tell me where and when.”

The same place as last time. Shall we say, eleven o’clock this morning?

Starbucks, then. The last time had been just after Ellison’s return from Peru. “I’ll be there.” He paused briefly. “I’m relieved that my credit is still good.”

Your credit has no limit. Some debts, like mine to you, can never be repaid.

There was a lot Ellison wanted to say to that, but it could wait. “I’ll see you at eleven.”

Yes. Goodbye for now, Mister Ellison.

As he placed the phone down, Blair came downstairs, buttoning his shirt. “Everything okay, man?” he asked.

Ellison moved over to him. “It’s happening, Chief,” he said. “I have a meeting later about getting out of here. It’s gonna be okay.”

Blair took a deep breath, then smiled. “That’s great!” His relief was tangible. “When is it going down?”

Ellison shook his head. “It’s safer if you don’t ask, Chief.”

“Gotcha.” Blair studied him a moment, then lifted a hand and traced the cut on Ellison’s cheek where Robbie had hit him. “Man, this looks bad.”

Ellison shrugged, and captured the hand. “It’s fine,” he said. Bringing Blair’s hand to his lips, he kissed it. “I’ll tell Simon I walked into a door.”

“Jim…” Blair began in protest at Ellison’s flippancy.

But Jim kissed him on the lips briefly, silencing him. “Don’t worry,” he said, aiming for reassurance. “I’ll take care of everything.”

But he had apparently missed the mark. “Jim,” Blair said, something dangerous in his eyes. “Don’t patronize me, man.”

Ellison blinked. “Chief, that’s not what I meant.”

Blair lowered his eyes, then looked back at Ellison contritely. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m not usually this touchy.”

Remembering Blair’s primal behavior of the previous day, Ellison suspected he understood the main reason for Blair’s edginess. He patted him on the shoulder reassuringly. “You’ve been through a lot, Chief. It’s understandable.” He nodded towards the kitchen. “Let’s get some breakfast. Nearly time for work, buddy.”

Blair smiled. “Okay, man.” But as he moved away, Ellison watched him worriedly, hoping he would be able to help Blair keep a lid on his touchiness when they were out in public. They were so close to their plan coming to fruition – but if their Bond was unmasked because of a change of behavior on the part of either himself or Blair, it would all be over.


***


No sooner had they arrived at Ellison’s desk in the PD, than Simon Banks bellowed from his office. “Ellison!”

“Stay here,” Ellison murmured to his kneeling Guide, then went to do his Captain’s bidding.

“Coffee?” Banks asked as Ellison entered the office and closed the door behind him.

“Thanks.” Ellison took the cup, and sat down. “You’re in early,” he remarked to the Captain, inhaling the steaming aroma. It was just after seven-thirty and, while Ellison customarily liked to start the day early, Banks usually arrived a little later.

“I have a meeting with the Mayor,” Banks declared, his tone oddly jovial for such an early start. “Thought I’d call in here first, sort out a few things.”

Ellison didn’t have to be a Sentinel to hear words that were loaded. “Things?” he prompted, suspiciously.

But Banks didn’t seem to be in a hurry to clarify. Instead he indicated Ellison’s cut and bruised cheek. “What the hell happened to you?”

Ellison shrugged. “I was doing a bit of carpentry on my day off. Damned wood flew up into my face.”

Banks winced. “Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.” As he spoke, Banks’s eyes drifted out into the bullpen and back, as though he was waiting for someone.

“It did.” Ellison followed his gaze. Blair was still kneeling, out by his desk. All seemed well, but an itchy feeling was beginning to plague the Sentinel. “Simon,” he said, taking the bull by the horns. “What the hell is this all about?”

Banks smiled disingenuously. “What, can’t I invite my best Detective in for coffee?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Ellison replied, more certain than ever that something was afoot, and that he wasn’t going to like it. “Can you?”

A movement out in the bullpen caught his eye and, at the same time, the prickle of awareness that had been bothering him blossomed into full fruition as the elevator opened and two figures stepped off, heading straight towards Simon’s office.

Ramirez and his Guide.

Ellison stood as they entered, and looked accusingly at Banks. Something inside him desperately wanted to go to his Guide right now, something which was a gut deep reaction to the presence of the other Sentinel; but to do so would only raise suspicion they couldn’t afford, so he forced himself to let it be. Instead, he demanded, “What’s going on, Captain?”

Ramirez had closed the door, his Guide an unobtrusive kneeling figure at his feet. He answered in Banks’s stead. “Captain Banks has called me in to consult on your serial murder case, Jim.”

“No. No way.” It was unheard of for two Sentinels to work a case together.

“Jim, hear us out!” Banks had moved in. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but I think you can help each other. Benny and his Guide have been a pair, working law enforcement, for years now. They have experience you can learn from. I think you and your rogue would benefit from having them around.”

Ellison looked at Banks coldly. “If you have a problem with the way I’ve worked this case, Captain, you should have told me, instead of commending me for the good work that I – that we – have done so far. But as it is, I don’t think this is about the case at all.” When no one answered the accusation, he turned to Ramirez. “You told him,” he accused angrily. “You told him I was feeling the pull. This is about taking Blair away from me, isn’t it?”

“Jim…” Banks began.

But Ramirez held up a hand to stop him. “So what if I did?” he said. “Captain Banks called me in to consult with him on a personnel matter. I gave him a full report of our meeting, Jim, as asked. I told him you were having trouble with boundaries. I’m just here to help you, man, that’s all. We’re on the same side, here.”

Through gritted teeth, Ellison snarled, “I don’t need your help.”

Ramirez didn’t back down. “I think that you do.” The older Sentinel locked eyes with Ellison.

“Gentlemen, please,” Banks interjected, trying to break the glaring impasse that the two Sentinels were engaged in. When politeness didn’t work, he fell back on good old intimidation. “Detectives!” he barked. “Sit down!”

Reluctantly, Ellison tore his eyes away from his adversary, and moved to do Banks’s bidding, as did Ramirez. Once they were both seated, Banks perched on the edge of his desk facing them, using the increased height the position lent him to maintain dominance of the proceedings. “Let’s get one thing straight,” he stated, no room for compromise in his voice. “Who is the Captain here?”

Correctly interpreting that it was a rhetorical question, neither Ellison nor Ramirez answered, so Banks carried on, looking at Ellison as he spoke. “I believe,” he said, “and on the basis of expert advice that I have received, that it would be beneficial for Detective Ramirez to work with you, Detective Ellison, on this case in the capacity of a consultant. Therefore he will do so.” He chuckled in false mirth. “Now I don’t know what it was that gave you the impression that Major Crime was a democracy, Ellison, so let me clarify.” All traces of humor disappeared. “It is not. It is a dictatorship, and I am currently the dictator. What I say goes.” He leaned forward, his eyes boring into Ellison. “Is that clear?”

“Perfectly clear, Captain,” Ellison conceded, but internally he was fighting a monumental struggle. If there had previously been a danger that his Bond with Blair might be discovered, it was now increased tenfold, with another Sentinel and Guide dogging their steps.

“Good.” Banks looked at his watch. “I’m glad you see things my way, Detective. Now, I have a meeting with the Mayor.” He stood, and ushered them out. “Carry on, Detectives.”


***


Ellison had never been so relieved that Blair was so well trained, despite what that training had cost him. The Guide maintained his discipline, following Guide behavior to the letter, and not allowing any of his trepidation or curiosity about Ramirez’s presence to show. But Ellison felt his churning thoughts and emotions through their Bond nevertheless; and Blair’s formless worry ate away at him, adding to his own.

Keeping a professional detachment in the face of his own resentment and anger at Ramirez’s involvement, Ellison brought the other Sentinel up to speed on the case, and they kept the two Guides busy, fetching paperwork and evidence for the Sentinels to peruse.

A sense of time passing nagged at Ellison and, glancing at the clock, he saw it was a quarter to eleven. He needed to go soon, if he was to be on time to meet his contact. Glancing at his Guide, who was currently kneeling beside Ramirez’s Guide talking to him quietly, he realized that he would not be able to bring Blair with him. Such matters were best discussed in private, and the less Blair knew, the safer they would all be if their plans fell through.

Making the decision reluctantly, he turned to Ramirez. “Look, Benny, I have a private matter I have to deal with. Will you take care of Blair for me while I’m gone? I won’t be long.”

Ramirez looked at him oddly. “I thought you didn’t trust me with him.”
“Are you going to give me any reason not to trust you? I mean, he’ll be here when I get back, right?”

Ramirez nodded. “Until the end of the case, Jim, he stays with you, like we agreed. He’ll be safe with me – I give you my word.” He glanced over at the two Guides. “Dave seems to like him, anyway,” he said indulgently.

Ellison glanced at him in disbelief. “I thought you disapproved of names for Guides.”

Ramirez snorted. “There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Jim. Dave and I Bonded when he was sixteen years old. I was twenty. It seemed stupid to call him by a number, so he chose that name himself. He got it from some TV program he liked.” He looked back at Ellison. “You seem surprised.”

“I am, I guess,” Ellison admitted. “You seem pretty strict with him.”

“It’s what’s expected,” Ramirez said with a shrug. “But I do care for my Guide, Jim. And I do understand what you’re going through. Blair seems like a good kid, despite everything.”

In the face of that admission, and Ramirez’s obvious sympathy, Ellison flirted briefly with the idea of confessing about their Bond to Ramirez. Maybe the other Sentinel would empathize, would help them.

But just as quickly, he dismissed the thought. Ramirez was a police officer. If he got even a hint of their Bond, it was all over.

“Okay,” Ellison said, making up his mind. He stood up. “I’ll leave him in your hands.” He stared pointedly at the other Sentinel. “Look after him.”

Ramirez nodded, and Ellison moved over to Blair. As he came close, the two Guides stopped their conversation, and lowered their heads submissively. Ellison reached out, and ran a hand over Blair’s head, feeling the unspoken question in his Guide’s mind. Projecting reassurance back at Blair, he said aloud, “I’m leaving you with Sentinel Ramirez for a little while. I have an appointment.” He put a slight stress on the word, and felt Blair’s understanding. “Will you be okay, Chief?” he asked.

“I’ll be fine, Sentinel.” His eyes lifted, making brief contact, and Ellison felt a wrench at the thought of walking out without him. But he made himself turn to head towards the elevator.

But just before the doors closed, Ellison cast a meaningful look at Ramirez. A clear threat should anything happen to his Guide in his absence. And, as the barrier closed between them, Ramirez nodded his head in understanding.

CHAPTER 17

Ellison was a couple of minutes late arriving at Starbucks, so he was unsurprised to see that his contact had already arrived. Carlos Leguia had always been, in any case, a punctual man. It was one of the distinctive aspects of his character that had kept him alive in difficult circumstances during the time that Jim had known him.

All except for one occasion.

Leguia looked up as Ellison approached, a broad smile suffusing his swarthy features. “Ellison!” he exclaimed, as though their running into each other was an accident. Standing, he thrust out a hand, which Ellison shook warmly.

“Carlos, good to see you,” Ellison offered, just as warmly. “You’re looking well.”

Leguia waved him to the seat opposite. “Thanks to you, my friend. Always, thanks to you.”

Ellison shrugged off the effusive flattery. “Forget it. I told you before, Carlos. You would have done the same for me.”

“But you did it for me, my friend. And that is what counts.” Leguia slid a cup across to Ellison as he seated himself. “Double espresso,” he said. “Still your caffeine of choice, yes?”

Ellison smiled warmly at his friend as he took the cup. “Yes.”

Leguia gestured around as he took a sip of his drink. “So here I am, drinking mocha latte in Cascade once again with you. Something, at one time, I thought I would never do again. You made this possible, Ellison. I’m in your debt. Whatever you want, ask, and it is yours.”

Ellison shook his head. “You know,” he said, “that I never intended to take you up on your offer. I never wanted payment. That’s not what any of it was about.”

“I know that,” Leguia conceded sincerely. “To you, you simply did your job. But to me, Ellison, to me, you saved not only my life, but my sanity.” Leguia looked earnestly into Ellison’s eyes, the faint scars running in pale lines over his face standing out against his dark complexion. “Another day;” he went on, “no, another hour in that camp and I would have lost my mind. I couldn’t stand the pain any longer, Ellison. I’d reached my limits; lost my faith. You showed up in the nick of time, like an avenging angel. Then, when you carried me across the jungle, tending my wounds as you went, cleaning up my shit and wiping my tears, you gave me back my belief in humanity. I can never repay you for what you did.”

Embarrassed by the other man’s heartfelt assessment of him, Ellison nevertheless was moved by Leguia’s words. “Whatever, Carlos, I’m pleased to see you. And I’m happy to see you doing well.”

Leguia winced a little. “Oh, I still hurt a little, in cold and wet weather.” He grinned. “One reason I don’t visit Cascade all that often. I need to go back for more plastic surgery soon, but that will be in LA. I prefer the sun!”

They both laughed a little, the intensity of their interaction defused by recourse to small talk about the weather. Then Ellison sobered. “Carlos,” he said. “My situation is desperate. Otherwise I would never ask for your help.”

Leguia nodded, all seriousness. “I told you before,” he said again. “Ask, and it is yours.”

“This may be too much.”

Leguia smiled. “There is no such situation. Try me,” he said.

Ellison took a sip of coffee, then placed the cup down. Folding both hands before him on the table, he looked into Leguia’s eyes. “I am a Sentinel,” he said. “My senses came on-line after I was rescued from Peru.”

Leguia nodded. “I am not surprised, it makes sense. You are a protector, after all. To myself, in fact, it is what I call you,” he admitted, with a rueful chuckle. “My ‘blessed protector’. From an old Chinese proverb.” He shrugged. “Whatever. But I can see how it must be so that you are a Sentinel.”

“Yeah, well,” Ellison said. “It’s what I am.” He took a deep breath. “And yesterday, I Bonded to a Guide.”

“Congratulations,” Leguia said sincerely.

“Thank you.”

When the pause after Ellison had spoken went on for a few uneasy moments, Leguia ventured, “So, I am guessing that this aid you require, it is to do with this Guide, yes?”

Ellison nodded. “You guess right.”

“This Guide, he is unsuitable?”

Ellison shook his head. “Just the opposite. More than suitable, at least as far as he and I are concerned. But our Bond is illegal. My Guide is… unique. He was rogue until last year. He was a professor at Rainier until he was confiscated. He’s not a regular Guide, and he’s not allowed to Bond. It’s part of his sentence for being rogue.”

“If that is the case, how is it that you are together?”

“I rented him. I never intended to Bond with anyone, until he came along. Something… bad happened. And we ended up Bonding by accident.” Ellison shrugged. “I don’t regret it. But now we’re in trouble.”

Leguia was looking thoughtful. “You say it is illegal, this Bond. What will happen if you get found out?”

“They’ll hurt him. Probably kill him. But whatever happens, I only have him for a short while longer before he’s recalled.” Ellison’s voice became impassioned, his desperation clear. “And I can’t let him go back to that, Carlos. His life there is brutal. I can’t let them take him away from me.”

Leguia was regarding him thoughtfully, chewing on his bottom lip. After a moment, he stated, “You want me to get you away. You and your Guide.”

“Yes.” Ellison looked across the room, his eyes unfocused on the distance, dreading Leguia’s refusal. “I know that what I’m asking is a lot. The penalty of getting caught, for you as well as us, the risks… It’s dangerous. But Carlos,” his voice reduced to a whisper, “you’re my only hope. Our only hope.”

A hand reached over and enveloped his where it rested on the tabletop. Looking back at the other man, he saw Leguia’s brown eyes watching him with compassion. “Once,” Leguia said quietly, “you were my only hope. This, I will do. For you, my friend. For you.”

Despite the lump in his throat, Ellison found his voice. “Thank you.”


***


As he ascended towards the sixth floor of the PD in the elevator, Ellison was breathing a little easier. Carlos would come through for them – the Sentinel had no doubt. The details still had to be worked out; arrangements for something like this took time and organization. It wouldn’t happen overnight. But it would happen.

Assuming nothing went down in the meantime to disrupt their plans.

Lost in thought, he failed to extend his senses ahead into the bullpen. So the sight that met his eyes when the elevator doors opened took him completely by surprise.

Uniforms, SWAT, detectives; all donning Kevlar and readying weapons in a pre-battle frenzy.

And no sign of Ramirez or the two Guides.

“What the hell…” Ellison said as the elevator doors closed behind him. The last time he had seen this much activity in the bullpen, it had been in preparation for the bust of the century – taking down an arsonist who had killed four people and destroyed property in two States. There was nothing else that big planned to go down, as far as he knew at the moment.

Nothing, that is except, for his own case – the serial murders.

As if on cue, Simon Banks appeared in his office doorway. “Ellison!” he bellowed. “Get in here!”

Striding through the melee, Ellison anxiously cast his senses around, seeking his Guide. Their Bond kicked in as he approached Simon’s office and, to his surprise, Blair was projecting satisfaction, happiness, busyness; an emphatically positive set of emotions. That fact reduced the Sentinel’s anxiety levels considerably, but it still failed to adequately prepare him for what he found when he entered the Captain’s office.

Blair, sitting at Simon’s computer, sipping coffee. Dave, hovering over him, watching the screen, both of them acting like regular citizens. Ramirez, unconcerned at either Guide’s breach of etiquette, perusing a file at the meeting table in the center of the office.

Ellison felt like he had entered some weird, alternate reality.

Ramirez looked up as Ellison and Simon entered. “Jim,” he greeted.

Cued by Ramirez’s acknowledgement of Ellison’s presence, both Guides stopped what they were doing – Dave dropping to his knees, and Blair sliding off the chair to do the same. Looking at the two Guides quizzically, Ellison directed his query to Ramirez and Simon. “What the hell is going on?”

Ramirez stood and looked over to the Guides. “Carry on with what you were doing,” he directed, and Dave stood up obediently. Blair, however, simply glanced expectantly at Ellison, looking to his own Sentinel for a cue.

Ellison nodded, meeting Blair’s hopeful gaze. “Do as he says,” he confirmed and, with a small smile of gratitude, Blair maneuvered himself back into the chair, turning once again to the PC.

Banks was watching the interaction between Sentinels and Guides, an unreadable expression on his face. He turned to Ellison. “It seems,” he said, “that your Guide has certain expertise which has blown your case wide open, Ellison. Detective Ramirez, here, is convinced that your Guide knows what he’s talking about. Not only that, but they’ve both managed to convince me. The raid on our suspect is going down in one hour.”

The raid had been scheduled to take place in two days’ time, in accord with the pattern that Ellison had determined, which linked the previous killings in Clayton Falls and Seattle. In both of the previous sets of double murders, the first victim had been killed on the night of the full moon, and the second victim had been killed exactly sixteen days later. It had been the only consistency discovered. It was hoped that apprehending the suspect on Friday would catch him, effectively, in the act, in possession of incriminating evidence, and averting the second murder before it happened.

“What expertise?” Ellison asked, aware of Blair’s attention to their conversation, despite his Guide appearing to be engrossed once again in the computer screen.

Ramirez stepped in. “Why don’t you ask him yourself?” He gestured at Blair, who had turned just his head to look at them. “Guide, come over here a minute.”

After a glance at Ellison for approval, Blair did just that, sinking to his knees at Ellison’s feet. But Ellison leant over and urged him up. “Take a seat, Chief,” he said, daring Ramirez and Simon with a glance to make something of it. But they said nothing; instead merely sitting down themselves. As soon as Blair was seated, Ellison pulled over a chair and sat in front of his Guide. “Blair?” he prompted.

Blair looked at him. “You know I used to be an anthropologist, right?”

Ellison nodded. “Yeah.”

“Well,” Blair carried on, “Sentinel Ramirez allowed me to look over the file on this guy, the suspect, Maxwell Crane. And I realized that he used to live in Irian Jaya, in Papua New Guinea. He used to be married to a woman from there, in fact.” Blair shrugged. “Whatever. But the thing is, he worked as a tour guide, taking tourists on anthropology tours into the jungle.”

Jim shook his head in puzzlement. “What has that got to do with the murders?”

“It’s like this,” Blair said. “There are tribes of native people there, the Kombai. They’re a fascinating phenomenon, Jim. They live in houses hundreds of feet in the air, high up in the trees…” Sensing Ellison’s impatience for him to get to the point, he got back to the matter in hand. “The thing is, there is one particular tribe there, which has a legend. It goes like this.”

Blair’s voice took on the hypnotic cadence of a storyteller, unintentionally captivating his audience. “A warrior returning home from battle was plagued by a demon from deep in the jungle. It plagued him for ten days and ten nights, obscuring his path and causing him to go round and round in circles. He could not find his way home, no matter how hard he tried. Game ran from his spear, and evaded his traps, so that he became weak with hunger. Water that he tried to drink was fouled, tasting like the blood of his enemies, so that he suffered greatly from thirst.

“Eventually, on the eleventh day, weak and dying from hunger and thirst, and longing for his home, he stumbled upon a clearing. And in the clearing was a shaman.

“Now the shaman told him he had been cursed in the battle with his enemies. That the demon which tormented him was a lalého, an evil spirit which would never relent until he was dead. That the warrior would never find his way home, would never eat again, never drink again, and that he would eventually waste away and die in agony far from his loved ones.”

Unaware of the spell he had cast over his listeners, Blair continued to weave his tale. “The warrior asked for help from the shaman. And in reply, the shaman told him there was only one way to make the evil spirit relent. The warrior must perform a series of offerings to it, to appease its dark soul. The first offering should be made immediately. The shaman would provide the sacrifice, since the curse prevented the warrior from catching game. This first sacrifice would allow the warrior to return home at last, but in order to prevent the demon from returning to torture him once its hunger was slaked, the ritual had to be performed again at a series of intervals.

“Sixteen days after the first sacrifice, the warrior was to go alone into the jungle, and kill a pig when the moon was dawning with new light.” Blair paused, looking around the room. Encouraged by the rapt faces of the others, he carried on, “After five moons had passed, the ritual had to be repeated again, with the first sacrifice on the night of the next full moon, and the second sacrifice falling again sixteen days later, when the light was just beginning to return after the dark of the moon.”

“Chief,” Ellison interrupted. “I got the sixteen day intervals. That’s why the raid is planned for two days time – exactly sixteen days after the first murder. It follows the same pattern as the other two sets of murders. It was the only similarity between the cases we could find, remember?”

“Jim,” Ramirez, interjected. “Just listen to him. There’s more.”

Blair shot Ramirez a grateful look, and Ellison nodded for him to continue. “The thing is,” Blair went on, “The warrior was doomed to perform the ritual until the end of his days, without end, if he was to prevent the demon from coming back to torment him again. The shaman told him that there was only one way to break the cycle and finish it. On the third repetition of the ritual, he would have to trick the demon, to free himself and bring his ordeal to an end.”

Blair took a breath and, as he did, Ellison considered wistfully that he was seeing a glimpse of this man as he must once have been – the gifted professor, captivating students with his words. But he cast the sad thought to the back of his mind as Blair carried on with his recitation. “The third ritual,” he said, “had to take place after six moons had passed. The first sacrifice, as before, was to take place on the night of the full moon. But the second sacrifice, Jim, the second, should be performed exactly fourteen days later – not sixteen – on the night the moon was hidden in the darkness, to conceal the deed from the demon. The night of the new moon. The demon would not then perceive the killing, and two days later it would find the carcass and devour the spoiled meat. The carrion would poison it, and render it senseless. The warrior did as the shaman told him, and so two days after his final sacrifice, he emerged from hiding when the demon fell, to hack off its head, killing it and finally freeing himself from the curse.”

The silence after Blair finished his tale was deafening. Breaking the spell reluctantly, his voice sounding outlandishly loud in the quiet room, Ellison said, “Okay, I get that Crane lived in New Guinea. Apart from that, what makes you think that these murders and this legend are connected?”

“Because,” said Blair, “I heard it from him.” He pointed towards the file Ramirez had been reading. “From Maxwell Crane. Only when I last saw him, he went by the name of Pearson. Trent Pearson.” He shrugged. “I spent a summer in Irian Jaya, just before I started my Masters’ degree. I was there on an anthropology expedition. He was the one who took me and the others into the jungle.”

Tearing his eyes away from Blair’s earnest face, Ellison looked at the others. Ramirez and Simon were regarding him, their faces serious. “Well,” said Simon, “It works for me. We’re mobilized, Jim. ETA to departure…” he glanced at his watch, “thirty-four minutes.” He looked back at Jim. “You weren’t here, Detective. But it’s your case. Did we make the right call?”

Ellison looked back at Blair, whose open expression wasn’t the only giveaway to his emotions. He could feel Blair’s desperate need for approval – his approval – through their Bond. Allowing his pride in Blair’s intelligence and resourcefulness to transfer back across to his Guide, he confirmed, “Yeah, Simon. We’re good.” Looking back at Blair, he added, “Good work, Chief.”

Blair positively glowed with happiness. “Thanks, man.”


***


CHAPTER 18

The significance of what he had done seemed to have escaped Blair. Maybe it was that Ellison hadn’t made the threat they faced sufficiently clear to him, hoping to spare his Guide the worry. But Blair’s well-meaning detective work had effectively signed their death warrant as Sentinel and Guide – because the only reason Ramirez was with them, was to ensure that Ellison relinquished his Guide the moment the bust had been made.

While Ellison donned his Kevlar vest, he could hear Sandburg across the room, chatting quietly to Ramirez’s Guide, quiet pleasure in his voice. “I knew, man, that there was something familiar about the sequence,” he was saying. “But Dave, it wasn’t until your Sentinel allowed me to look at the file, and I realized I knew that guy, that it clicked into place. If we’d waited another two days, the next victim would already be dead.”

Why the hell, Ellison berated himself for the thousandth time, hadn’t he been the one to allow Sandburg access to the documentation on the case? If he had, then maybe they wouldn’t be in this mess. There was no way that Carlos Leguia could make the arrangements for their escape on notice as short as this – he had indicated it would be a couple of days, which would have fitted in with their original time scale. As it stood, Ramirez would insist on Blair going back to Guide World later tonight. Going on the run would avail them nothing, if they couldn’t get out of town right away, because the tattoo patch was only good for a couple of hours. The Detectors would be on their heels within hours unless they were in the air heading out of the country.

There was only one thing he could do right now. He could hope that Benny’s apparent compassion for his own Guide, and the respect he had demonstrated for Blair’s knowledge and experience, would facilitate an appeal to his better nature.

Ramirez walked past, wearing Kevlar himself, and Ellison halted him. “Benny,” he said. “Can I have a word?”

Ramirez nodded. “Sure,” he said. “What is it, Jim?”

Ellison gestured out into the bullpen. “Not here,” he said. “Somewhere private.”

Ramirez called across to his own Guide. “Hey, Dave. I’m heading out for a minute to talk to Ellison. Help Blair on with his vest, would you?” His Guide nodded an acknowledgement, and Blair looked over quizzically. But Ellison could do no more than spare him a glance before Ramirez ushered him out. “Come on,” he said. “We don’t have long.”

The frenzied activity in the bullpen had given way to an air of tense anticipation, the team Simon had hastily assembled standing around talking in groups while waiting for the order to head out. Ellison nodded at several of them, approving of their quick response, and more than a few called out bullshit born of battle-ready bravado to him and Ramirez as they passed.

The break-room was an oasis of quiet in the eye of the storm. It was as private a place as they would get right now. Wasting no time on pleasantries, Ellison looked Ramirez in the eye. “Benny,” he said. “I’m begging you. Give me one more night with Blair. I swear I’ll let him go back tomorrow. But just give me one more night.”

Ramirez’s face was expressionless. “Captain Banks has ordered that I oversee Blair’s removal back to Guide World as soon as the suspect is in custody, Jim.”

That was no surprise, to be sure. But hearing it spoken filled Ellison’s gut with ice. His internal devastation must have shown on his face as well, because Ramirez laid a hand on his arm. “Look, Jim,” he said gently. “I know you care for Blair. And I’ve got to admit he’s a great kid. He’d make a great police Guide, if circumstances were different. But the fact is, they’re not. I’m under orders, and I take my role as a law enforcement officer very seriously. I have no choice.”

Maybe it was time to try a different tack. God knows, Ellison wouldn’t give up until he had tried every way of getting through to Ramirez he could think of. “Look,” he said. “I’m not asking this for me, Benny. I’m asking for him.” Ellison fixed the other Sentinel with an earnest gaze. “He put himself forward to solve this case, Benny. Because of him, some woman will live instead of die tonight. Now you send him back to Guide World, and he’ll be restrained, beaten, treated like less than an animal until he’s rented out again. Does that seem fair to you? That his reward for saving a life is incarceration right afterwards?”

“Jim,” Ramirez said, “it’s going to happen whether you or I like it or not. He’s a rogue. You know what his sentence is.”

“It’s going to happen, I know,” Ellison said, his voice scarcely above a whisper. “So let’s give him one more night of peace, huh? One more night. Where’s the harm in that?”

Ramirez took a deep breath, looking off into space. Ellison knew he had him when he looked back and said, “What the hell am I going to tell Simon, Jim?”

Ellison smiled, his relief profound. “You’ll think of something,” he said.

“Yeah, right,” Ramirez snorted, as if unconvinced. Then he froze, listening to the distance, and Ellison’s hearing extended as well. “Two minutes, people,” they heard Simon announce.

The Sentinels exchanged a look, and headed out without another word to collect their Guides.


***


Driving in his truck towards the location of their suspect a short while later, Ellison’s mind was racing. They had one night’s grace, if all went to plan. The question was, would it be long enough for Leguia to arrange transport out for them?

“Chief,” he said to his Guide, who was sitting nervously beside him, looking pale against the black of the Kevlar vest he wore. “Open the glove box, will you? Get the white noise generator out.”

Blair complied without question, and Ellison snapped open his cell phone one handed as he steered the truck, pressing speed dial as he did. “Turn it on, Chief,” he directed, and Blair flicked the switch just as the numbers were dialed.

No way could Ellison risk the chance of Ramirez overhearing this conversation. If the other Sentinel did try to listen, but came up against the white noise barrier, hopefully he would just assume that Ellison wanted a private moment with Blair before his first – and last – major bust.

Leguia,” came the voice.

“Carlos, I need help,” Ellison said.

A pause. “You’re taking a risk,” Leguia said. “I can’t guarantee this line is secure.

“I have no choice, Carlos. Listen up,” Ellison said, moving the phone into the crook of his shoulder and neck as he turned the steering wheel hard left. “We need out tonight; early tomorrow at the latest.”

I don’t know if that will be possible. The wheels are in motion, but these things take time,” Leguia said.

“Look, Carlos, I’m desperate here. The situation is critical.”

Leave it with me. I will do the best I can. No promises, but I will try. I’ll be in touch, Ellison.

“That’s all I ask. Thanks, Carlos.” Ellison rang off, and shot a look at Blair.

Blair was breathing shallowly, fear souring his scent. “What’s going on, man?” he demanded, stress evident in his voice. “You’ve closed yourself off from me ever since you went off with Ramirez before. I can’t feel what’s going on with you! And what was that call about? Jim, man, I gotta know!”

“Chief,” Ellison said forcefully, “don’t ask.” Blair didn’t answer, and Ellison looked at him again. Sandburg’s eyes were wide, his body tense. “Hey,” Ellison said gently. “Trust me, Blair. Okay?”

After a moment, Blair took a breath and looked away, visibly trying to make himself relax. “I do,” he said.

“Good.” Ellison gestured towards the white-noise generator. “You can turn that thing off now.”

Blair did as he was asked, and placed it back in the glove compartment. After a moment, he spoke again, bringing his focus back to the matter at hand, no doubt to help keep his fears at bay. “What I don’t understand,” he asked, “is why this raid still has to happen, Jim. I mean, we have the forensic evidence, right? And now we have the stuff I told you about as well – the ritual, Crane’s real name, Irian Jaya, all of that. Why don’t you just pull the guy in? Faced with that, he’s got to confess.”

“The forensic evidence is pretty weak, Chief. On its own, it’s not enough to secure a conviction,” Ellison said. He glanced at Blair; his Guide wasn’t going to like this. “The rest of it – you’re a Guide, Blair. First off, we can’t arrest him on the word of a Guide, and second, your testimony wouldn’t stand up in court unless we have real physical evidence to back it up. Our best chance is to catch the guy getting ready to do it, with incriminating evidence in his possession.”

“Oh.”

Ellison glanced at him again, and reached out a hand to enfold Blair’s. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, man,” Blair said. Ellison hated hearing the weariness in his voice. “I’m used to it.”

There really was no answer to that.

They were almost there, when Banks’s voice came over the radio. “Our suspect is on the move,” he said. “All units, proceed north toward Union and Seaward. Proceed with caution. Suspect is driving a late model Ford Expedition…

Ellison swung the truck around, following Simon’s order immediately as the Captain’s disembodied voice continued to give out directions, and Blair gripped the handle above the doorframe as the centrifugal force forced him to keel over. “Sorry,” Ellison threw across at him, as he straightened the wheel.

“No problem,” Blair rejoined, pulling himself upright by brute force. As soon as he was able to let go, he patted the dashboard approvingly. “This baby has some sweet moves, man.”

“Oh yeah.” Jim grinned in pride.

Shame he’d have to leave ‘this baby’ behind when they got out of Dodge. But he was taking what was really important, and that was what counted.


***


To Ellison’s dismay, there were two heartbeats in the abandoned warehouse – one belonging to the man calling himself Maxwell Crane, and the other belonging to a woman who constantly cried and begged to be let go.

From their vantage point a short distance away, both Ramirez and Ellison kept their senses tuned on the building, leaving Banks to ream out the surveillance team for, quite obviously, screwing up big time. Until this moment, no one had known that Crane had already selected and abducted his latest victim.

Blair’s hand on Ellison’s back, and his Guide’s barely perceptible crooning voice in his ear, allowed the Sentinel to fine tune his senses to an incredible level of accuracy. It was almost as if he was in the warehouse with Crane and the woman he was terrorizing. The sick bastard was apparently waiting for nightfall before he killed her, going by his audible ravings about hiding from the ‘demon’ in the darkness. It seemed that Blair’s deductions had been absolutely on the ball.

They had more than enough evidence to bring in their perp right now. The problem was that this was now a hostage situation rather than a straightforward arrest. It was crucial that the team move cautiously from here on in, if they were to have a chance of getting the un-named woman out alive.

The woman’s screams for help were becoming frantic. There was pain in the sound, suggesting that she was being confined in a way that hurt. Both Ellison and Ramirez winced before looking at each other urgently. “We have to get in there now,” Ellison said, and Ramirez nodded his agreement.

It took all of two minutes to get Captain Banks’s approval. And, shortly after that, with SWAT and the rest of the team in place around the building, the two Sentinels – followed closely by their Guides – made their way stealthily towards the killer’s lair.


***


“Stay behind me, Chief,” Ellison shot back over his shoulder as they entered the warehouse. A hand on his back was the only response, Blair having slipped back into obedient-Guide mode the moment they had emerged from the truck.

Ramirez had gone around the back of the building, while Ellison had entered the front. It was standard operating procedure for a Sentinel to take point in an operation like this. A Sentinel’s extraordinary senses ensured that hazards could be identified and neutralized before the bulk of the team went in, thus minimizing the danger of injury and loss of life to his colleagues. It was an effective strategy when it worked, and the involvement of two Sentinels in this operation should, in theory, ensure even greater success.

The moment Ellison and Sandburg had entered the building, the voice of Crane’s victim had become audible to normal senses; and Ellison could sense Blair’s flinch every time she screamed. The Sentinel ached to comfort his Guide – Blair wasn’t used to this, and was also under phenomenal pressure right now with their impending escape – but until this operation was over, there would be little opportunity to offer reassurance. Even then, time would be of the essence. The best the Sentinel could hope for was to get this over with as quickly as possible, so they could get back to the loft to pack up what they were going to need when they were on the run. Despite Leguia’s misgivings, he had faith that his friend would come through for them.

Once they were finally in the air, there would be time for the two of them to re-connect.

They were getting close to the epicenter of activity. Senses extended, his Guide’s rapport ensuring extreme sensory effectiveness, Ellison moved upstairs towards the dilapidated office space where Crane and his victim appeared to be located. Motioning Blair to stay put, he emerged stealthily, gun drawn. He was aware of Ramirez advancing towards the far entrance to the room, the layout allowing them both to spring their ambush simultaneously from two different directions. Ellison smiled confidently – this bust was going to be a cinch.

The sight that met his eyes inside the room filled him with pity and rage, although he swiftly pushed the distracting emotions aside to deal with later. A terrified young woman, no more than twenty years old, was chained up against the far wall, her arms extended high above her head. She was whimpering in despair, eyes wide with fear as she watched her tormentor move about the room. Her captor – Trent Pearson, AKA Maxwell Crane – was watching her raptly as he moved to and fro, prowling his territory restlessly. He did not appear to have noticed the approach of the two Sentinels, who, attuned to each other’s whereabouts, moved in simultaneously, their Guides following at their backs. The Sentinels closed on Crane rapidly, intent upon their quarry.

Neither of them realized their danger until it was too late.

No sooner were all four of them inside the room, than agonizing pain blasted Ellison without warning; a deafening, blinding, overwhelming assault, which spiraled him immediately into oblivion.

CHAPTER 19

Sheer agony. That was the first thing Ellison knew, when he swam laboriously back to consciousness. The pain encompassed him, wrapping him in an iron maiden’s exquisite embrace.

Gradually, far too slowly, the agonizing hell receded, and his hearing finally kicked back in. He grasped at the sounds around him desperately, trying to anchor himself and pull himself out of the mire that kept him immobilized. Recognizing the buzz of voices, he strained to understand the meaning of the words; but none of it made sense. “I knew it would fall into my trap,” someone was saying. An unfamiliar voice, a man. “I knew Daraha’s mistake was waiting for darkness. The third sacrifice can be averted this time, because I have him now. I have them both – the lalého and his kin. I can end it forever.”

The next voice soothed through Ellison like a healing balm, clearing his mind like sunlight through mist. “You’re wrong, Trent. These men are not lalého. They’re Sentinels.”

“Yes, they are!” The shout made Ellison wince. “They fell when the light touched them, just as it was prophesied! Now, they will die in my fire, and the curse will be broken forever. Not just my curse, but yours as well. Can’t you see?”

“Trent,” came the soothing voice again – Blair. “If you do this, if you set that bomb off, they won’t be the only ones who’ll die. We’ll all die, man. You, me, my friends. And this innocent girl, the girl you said you wanted to spare. You’ll kill us all, man.”

Marveling that his Guide could manage such a calm tone, when his heart seemed about to pound right out of its chest, Ellison moved cautiously, trying not to give away the fact that he had woken. He was still lying on the floor, but his arms and legs were bound tightly. The dryness of his mouth was largely due to the cloth stuffed in it as a gag. Opening his eyes, he saw that Maxwell Crane was standing in between him and Blair, his back to the Sentinel; his posture indicating that he was armed and pointing his weapon at Blair. “Your deaths, and mine,” Crane was saying, “are regrettable. But our sacrifice is necessary, if it will rid the world of the lalého.”

His Guide was standing by the far wall, hands raised in an unthreatening pose. He appeared unhurt, though pale. Behind him on the floor, freed of her restraints, the girl crouched, hiding in his shadow, weeping softly. “Look, said Blair, “this is not the way to get rid of the demon, okay? It won’t work. You’re going about it all the wrong way.”

Raising his head, Ellison saw Dave slumped by the wall to one side of him, holding his head in one hand. Ramirez’s Guide was bleeding from a gash on the temple, his other hand resting on the bound and unconscious form of Ramirez, who was trussed up just the same as Ellison. Dave’s eyes rose to Ellison’s fearfully, and Ellison nodded encouragement back at him.

Crane was speaking again as Ellison looked back over. “What do you mean, the wrong way?” he snorted incredulously. “What do you know?”

Blair’s voice didn’t waver. “I know everything,” he asserted, his pale eyes fixed on Crane. To Ellison’s astute vision Blair looked scared to death, but combined with the intensity with which he was regarding Maxwell Crane, his fear gave him an air of something otherworldly. “I am Pengajar.”

“You… Shaman?” breathed Crane. Then he shook his head. “No. No, that can’t be right. I would have seen it. I would have seen that you’d be here.”

“It wasn’t given to you to see,” Blair asserted simply.

Itching for a gun in his hand, unable to move or speak and still groggy from whatever had hit him, Ellison had no choice but to watch Blair spin his magic web, and hope beyond hope that his Guide knew what he was doing. He didn’t dare to reach out to him through their Bond, in case it distracted Blair from whatever he had planned. And Blair certainly seemed to have caught Crane’s attention. “What should I do?” Crane pleaded. “Tell me what to do.”

Outside, Ellison could hear Banks give the order to move in. He had no idea how much time had passed since the four of them had entered the warehouse, but they had certainly been in here far longer than was expected. Frantically, he cast his eyes around, looking for the communicators he and Ramirez had been wearing, to no avail. Blair had said there was a bomb. Banks had to be warned, or they could all die, not just those of them in this room.

Crane was oblivious to the activity outside, enthralled by Blair’s compelling deception. “You have to let the false lalého and his brother go,” Blair was telling him. “If the false lalého is here when the real demon comes, he won’t fall into your trap.”

Crane pondered for a second. Then nodded. “I will need bait,” he said. Behind Blair, the terrified girl still sobbed pitifully.

Blair smiled grimly. “Let the others go,” he said. “I will be your bait.”


***


Ellison had no idea how much time was left before the bomb Crane had placed would explode. He had no way of knowing if it had been set to go off at a certain time, or if Crane had a remote detonator in his possession. Whatever the case, the approaching posse had begun to make their way stealthily into the building. The situation, therefore, was now ultra critical.

Blair’s words to Crane had chilled Ellison to the bone. The very suggestion of his Guide offering himself up for sacrifice had almost endowed the Sentinel with the feral strength to break out of the ropes confining him.

Almost.

But the rational cop inside of Ellison had forced him to stay put, and he silently applauded Blair’s brilliant manipulation of Crane’s psychosis. To get the rest of them – including the two bound Sentinels – out of here, Crane would most likely be forced to untie the rope confining their legs, at the very least. It was possible he might untie their hands as well, if it looked like they both needed to be carried out. And that would be all that Ellison would need to take him down.

Blair stayed in place, using his body to shield the traumatized girl who had been intended as Crane’s next victim. He glanced once at Ellison as Crane began to turn away, and the eyes of Sentinel and Guide met for a split second in shared understanding before Ellison closed his eyes. And as Crane walked over towards him, Ellison was feigning unconsciousness, keeping on high alert and ready to move the second he got his chance.

Keeping careful tabs on Crane’s movement, Ellison was aware of the man walking around his prone body, and the sound of the fabric of Crane’s trousers bunching as he squatted by Ramirez and Dave. More sound, as the unconscious Sentinel was untied – feet, and as he had hoped, hands. “You,” said Crane, apparently addressing Dave, “can take this one, and go.”

“I can’t lift him by myself.” Ellison realized absently that he either hadn’t heard or hadn’t paid attention to Dave’s voice before now. “Blair? Please help me.”

“No,” Crane’s voice interjected, forestalling whatever movement Blair had made. “Not you. Her.”

More movement. Panting and grunting; the sound of something heavy being moved. Ellison could see in his mind’s eye the exhausted girl and Dave hoisting the arms of the insensible Sentinel over their shoulders, and dragging him out between them, bowed under his weight. The noise of their retreat disappeared off into the huge building, and Ellison knew the moment the threesome were sighted by the approaching cops when he heard Banks call out, “Hold your fire! It’s Ramirez.” Ellison hoped fervently that Dave would have the presence of mind to tell Banks about the bomb, and urge him to pull everyone as far back as he could.

At last, Ellison heard Crane move again, and could feel a slight disturbance of the air as the guy crouched beside him. To his shock, he felt the barrel of the gun Crane was carrying touch the side of his face in a terrible caress. “What,” Crane mused, “are we going to do with you?”

“Let him go, man,” Blair said, his voice shaking. “You promised, remember? If the lalého comes, he can’t find this false lalého here. He won’t fall for it if he’s here, man. Let him go, all right?””

“Are you really Pengajar?” asked Crane suddenly. “Because, you see, I have to be sure. I’ve been planning this a really long time, and I can’t risk being wrong.”

Ellison heard Blair swallow. “Yeah,” he lied flatly. “I’m Pengajar.”

“See,” Crane said, the gun still stroking Ellison’s face obscenely, “If you are Pengajar, the great shaman, you can’t be the sacrifice. You have to supply the sacrifice.” He laughed shortly. “I guess you did.”

Ellison could feel Blair’s shock all the way across the room at Crane’s words. So when his Guide found his voice, he managed to impress Ellison all the more with his quick thinking. “That’s true, man, I did. I was just testing you before.”

“So,” Crane stopped stroking, the gun a steady threat at Ellison’s temple, “let’s do it.”

“Not like that!” Blair was still holding it together, much to Ellison’s relief, but his firm rebuttal of Crane’s threat was tinged with panic, nevertheless. “If he’s going to be the sacrifice,” he said urgently, “you have to do it right. Do it like the others, like it’s always been done. You can’t use the gun, man. You have to tie him like the girl was tied, up against the wall.” Blair faltered, but steadied himself. “Do it right, Trent, or you’ll fail, and the lalého will win.”

The pressure of the gun disappeared, and Ellison wanted to cheer at Blair’s ability to get to the heart of Crane’s fantasy and influence him. “You’re right,” Crane said. “Of course. You know about these things.”

Hands touched Ellison, untying first his ankles, then… oh thank god, then his wrists. Both of Crane’s hands were engaged in the unraveling of knots, the gun placed down on the ground beside him as he worked.

The last knot confining the Sentinel’s hands came free.

Ellison moved.

His legs swung out, catching the kneeling man off balance. A single chop to the neck crushed his windpipe. And in one final, fluid maneuver, Ellison snatched the gun off the floor and put Trent Pearson, who called himself Maxwell Crane, out of his misery.

It was so easy, it would have been an anticlimax – if only Ellison hadn’t heard the detonator in the corpse’s pocket get depressed the moment the body hit the floor.

“Bomb!” Ellison yelled. “Run!” He sprang towards Blair and, grabbing his shocked Guide by the shirt-front, hauled him bodily towards the door. Blair didn’t need to be told twice – he moved fast.

No time to wonder how long the delay was; no time for anything. Just time to run, and run, and run.

Spurred on by adrenaline and fear, expecting at any moment to be blown sky high, they made the exit (Ellison found out later) in exactly twenty-nine seconds.

One second later, the bomb went off.


Continued in part 2

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