Shady Dealings by Rogue

Shady Dealings - Rogue

James Ellison, one of the most powerful criminal lords of the felonious set, was afraid.

He hid his fear as he sat in on a meeting between the Lazar organization, the Kadama Yakuza contingent, the Carasco family, and a few of the other lesser known crime tribes trying to make a mark in Cascade.

Each of them had the cover of legal business practices to hide their illegal actions, but Ellison was by far one of the top fish. The only others who could match him were Carasco, Lazar and Kadama.

His senses were spiking again. He’d already been visited and examined by one of his doctors, but the man could find nothing wrong with him. However, the spikes continued, leaving him either in intense pain or locked in a gray haze when things overwhelmed him past the point that he could handle it.

Right now, it was his hearing. Everything was becoming louder, more sharply defined, and if he wasn’t imagining things, then he was hearing the heartbeats of everyone in the room. He shook his head sharply to try to snap himself out of it.

“Eh, Ellison? You don’t think we should make a hit on the Void, make examples out of the street rats?” Lazar said, raising an eyebrow.

Gathering his composure, James thought quickly and then said smoothly, “Not at all. I think we should get them to work for us.”

“How do you figure, Ellison?” Kadama asked calmly.

“They’re running meth labs, gentleman. And they have bikes. Those bikes are super fast mean machines and can go places where cars can’t. And the noise they make can be muffled if quiet is needed. Bikers don’t want much; simply good bikes and the money to keep those bikes - and their women - in comfortable style. Offer them certain things in return for help in running the meth and a percentage of the profits. Turn them into delivery boys and give them the bike parts and shops they need. Talk to them on terms they understand - biker terms - and you’ll have them eating out of our hands.”

The other crime lords were silent as they absorbed this, then began muttering agreement. Before too long, a plan was in place for contacting the Void and working out a deal, as well as avoiding the cops and taking care of a few other troublesome legal problems, and the meeting was adjourned.

Half an hour later, Ellison had returned to his mansion out in the quiet suburbs of Cascade. Lazar’s and Carasco’s homes were ten miles away from him, so that made any sort of immediate business dealings with them easy.

Sighing, he entered his home office, nodding to one of his bodyguards who stood by the double doors.

“Good evening, Mr. Ellison, sir,” the woman said.

“Good evening, Ms. Murphy. How has everything been tonight?”

“Quiet as a mouse, sir.”

“Very good.” He smiled at the beautiful, yet deadly, blonde woman. “Will you be available later tonight?”

She never blinked, never smiled. “Yes, sir.”

“Good. See you later, then.”

“Sir.”

Closing the door behind him, he settled into the chair behind his desk and breathed deeply and quietly for a few minutes as one of his old bodyguards had taught him to do, centering himself so that he could calm down and eventually, the sensory spike stopped altogether. When he was ready, he turned on his computer and downloaded his e-mail.

He read through a few, then stopped when he saw the note from his doctor.

Mr. Ellison,

I’ve run across something that, to me, sounds like a far-fetched idea, but by this point, I’d say you could use all the help you can get. One of the nurses at Cascade General let it slip to me last night that she’s friends with a young grad student and teaching assistant over at Rainier University. He’s a doctoral candidate in the field of anthropology and he has chosen a rather unique field of study. He wants to write his dissertation on something called a “sentinel” and it involves people with heightened senses. He has his nurse friend on the look out for such people and she’s supposed to give him a yell if she runs across any. I did not mention you, but got as much information on this young man as I could. His name is Blair Sandburg. He teaches Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, takes a few classes on Thursdays, and then has office hours on Fridays. If you want, I can arrange a meeting for the two of you. As I said, from a medical standpoint, I think this is a far-fetched idea, but I see it as the only course of help I can offer you. Let me know ASAP what you would like to do.

Sincerely,

R. McCoy

For the first time in a long time, James Ellison felt as though he had a glimmer of hope.

Quickly, he hit the reply function and typed back a reply to McCoy that, no thanks, he’d handle it on his own, but thanks for letting him know and to not be surprised if a bonus came his way sometime soon. After all, he did believe in helping his friends when they helped him.

Let’s see, he thought after he sent the mail. This is Thursday evening. Sandburg has office hours tomorrow. I believe sometime in the afternoon - say, four - will be perfect for a little “visit”.

Smiling coldly, Ellison jotted down the reminder in his desktop day planner and then set about taking care of other business.

****

At around four o’clock on Friday afternoon, Blair Sandburg looked up as he heard a knock on his office door. Well, technically, it wasn’t really an office, nor was it technically his. He had appropriated storage room number three as his office space, but the university let it slide since he seemed content in there and wasn’t clamoring for a much more elegant room than what he was currently using.

“May I help you?” he said to the large, beefy man standing in the doorway wearing a suit and a frown.

“You Blair Sandburg?”

“Yeah, that’s me. What do you want?” He wasn’t usually so blunt or rude sounding, but something about this guy was setting off all his alarms.

That feeling was doubled when another large beefy man in a suit joined the other as the first one entered the office.

“We’re from Ellison Enterprises. Our boss, Mr. James Ellison, would like to speak with you, sir. Now.”

“About?”

“We’re not at liberty to say, Mr. Sandburg. Would you please come with us?”

Apprehension coiling in his guts, Blair slowly shook his head as he tensed. “Sorry, guys, not right now. I have office hours and my students won’t appreciate it if I take an unscheduled trip.”

“That’s too bad, Mr. Sandburg, because you are coming with us, whether you like it or not.”

Blair paled as he realized that he was facing the all too likely threat of being kidnapped, for whatever reason. Knowing that he’d have a chance if he could just get to the door, he slowly got to his feet and reached for some of the books and papers on his desk. Then, with lightning speed, he threw them at the two men standing in front of his desk.

They automatically ducked, covering their faces, and Blair grabbed up his backpack and jumped on top of the desk and then vaulted over the two men, landing in a crouch by the door. Quickly, he ran from the room, knowing they were following him, but he wasn’t prepared for the tall blonde woman who stepped out of nowhere, blocking his path. Even as he shifted to go around her, he saw one foot lifting in a flash and then a blinding pain shattered his mind and he knew no more.

Allison Murphy looked down at the grad student she had dropped with a single roundhouse kick to the side of his head and then to the two other bodyguards coming down the hall. Frowning, she gestured at the office.

“Gary, go back in and straighten up any mess that was made. We want to give the impression he left on his own. Nate, pick him up and let’s go. Gary, we’ll be waiting at the curb for you,” she said calmly.

Nodding, knowing better than to hassle the lethal woman who was James Ellison’s most deadly enforcer, Gary and Nate did as she ordered.

Within minutes, the three of them and their captive, plus the chauffeur driving the small limo, were en route to Ellison’s mansion.

****

James Ellison was not pleased.

Glaring at Allison, he demanded coldly, “Was knocking him unconscious absolutely necessary, Ms. Murphy?”

She nodded. “It was, sir. He had eluded both Mr. Palmer and Mr. Turner. He is a fast sprinter; he almost got by me. I had one chance and I took it. He is neither permanently nor seriously damaged, Mr. Ellison. You know me better than that.”

His glare upped itself a notch, then suddenly he mellowed, laughing harshly. “That I do, Ms. Murphy. Very good. You can go. He has no weapons on him and I can handle it from here. I’ll call if I need you.”

She nodded again and withdrew from the room, shutting the door behind her and positioning herself in her usual spot beside the elegant wooden doors. She, too, considered it doubtful that the small, long-haired man could give her employer much grief and even if he did, James Ellison was once a Covert Ops Ranger in the US Army. He could dispatch the hippie punk with ease if he had to.

Inside the home office, James stood staring down at the curly- and long-haired lump sprawled out on his leather sofa, a tattered backpack laying on the floor beside it. The young man was undeniably beautiful in a bohemian sort of way. A white shirt covered with a multi-colored vest, worn jeans with holes in them, and ratty sneakers adorned the short, yet compact body. Sandburg obviously kept in well enough shape, even if he was too thin, or so Ellison thought.

Reaching down, he slid his fingers into the long auburn hair and sighed quietly with pleasure at the silky feel of the curls. Cautiously, he checked the side of Sandburg’s head and found a mild bump, but knew that the only thing the student would have to show for his encounter with Allison would be a nasty headache. The woman was simply too good at what she did to unnecessarily damage someone Ellison needed to make use of.

A soft moan alerted him and James withdrew his hand from the soft hair and straightened up, watching dispassionately as Sandburg slowly woke up. Finally, when blue eyes with long, thick black lashes blinked open, he said quietly, “Good, you’re awake.”

Startled, Blair flinched and rolled to his side, looking up with a worried expression.

And wondered why his heart gave an almost violent thump when he saw the unquestionably handsome man looking down at him so unemotionally.

“What… who are you? What happened, where am I, and why am I here?”

A humorless smile graced Ellison’s features and he said, “Good questions. Smart questions. I’ll answer them in a moment. Right now, would you like some water? I’d offer you something stronger to drink, but you took a nasty bump to the head and alcohol would not mix well with the headache you most likely have. Speaking of which, would you like aspirin to go with the water?”

“I… uh…” For a moment, Blair was going to refuse the offer, but then he realized just how badly his head did hurt, and winced. He had a feeling that it was going to be a while before he could brew the tea he usually made for a headache. Nodding slightly, he said, “Yes, please. Thanks, man.”

Again, that humorless smile, and then James turned away to go to the small bar he had installed along one wall. He removed a small chilled bottle of water and then went to his desk and removed the aspirin bottle he kept in one of the top drawers, then came back to the sofa, handing them both to the young man sitting there.

Carefully accepting them, Blair cracked the seal on the water bottle and then opened the aspirin bottle and shook out three. He swallowed them quickly, then handed the aspirin bottle back. It was taken back to the desk and put away.

Everything was silent for a long while as Blair stared at the water bottle he held clasped in his hands. Finally, he looked up and found the older man leaning casually against his desk. No, upon closer inspection, it only appeared that the other man was casual about this. But Blair could see the tension rippling in the muscles underneath the silk shirt the man wore over broad shoulders and an obviously powerful body.

“What’s going on, man? You’re Ellison, aren’t you?” he asked quietly.

James waited silently until the younger man began to fidget, then nodded. “Yes. I’m Ellison, CEO and CFO of Ellison Enterprises. I’m sorry about the bump on the head, but my associates must have informed you before then that it was imperative that I speak to you.”

“They didn’t say it was urgent; just that I would be going to see you, whether I liked it or not. Kinda freaked me out, man, so I took the ‘not’ option and ran. A headache was what I got for my trouble.”

“Hmm. I suppose I can understand why you would react that way. Unfortunately for you, I’m not that sorry about it. I gave the order and they carried it out. You were the one who pushed it too far. Now, shut up, kid. I didn’t have you brought here to argue semantics.”

“Then what am I here for? And where is here?”

“You don’t need to know where you are just yet. As for what you’re here for, it’s simple. I want you to tell me everything you know about sentinels.”

Sandburg blinked. “Sentinels? How did you hear about them?”

“Never mind. Tell me, what are they?”

“Well, you have to know some of it, to know about them. Sentinels are… well, here. Let me show you something.” Reaching down for his backpack, Blair pulled the bag into his lap and opened it, then reached in and extracted a thick tome. Leafing through it, he opened it to a picture of a warrior standing in tall grass, carrying a spear and looking around warily. He handed this book out to the older man. “Go ahead, take a look at it.”

Walking forward, James took the book and looked down at the picture of the ancient warrior and was a little surprised, but at the same time not, to feel a sort of connection with that long-dead warrior. “What is this?”

“Part of the monograph written by Sir Richard Burton - the explorer, not the actor. It’s over a hundred years old. Anyway, the idea goes something like this - in all tribal cultures every village had what Burton named a Sentinel. This was someone who patrolled the border.”

“You mean a scout.”

“No, no, no, more like a watchman. See, this sentinel would watch for approaching enemies, change in the weather, movement of game. Survival of the tribe depended on it.”

“Yeah, okay, I get it. What makes a person a sentinel?”

“They were chosen because of a genetic advantage. A sensory awareness that can be developed beyond normal humans. Now, these senses are honed by solitary time spent in the wild. At first, Burton’s monograph was disputed and now basically it’s forgotten. I mean, there are certain manifestations today of maybe one or two hyperactive senses, like taste and smell, people who work for coffee and perfume companies. Oh, and in Vietnam, the Army long-range recon units that had to-“

“-change their diet to fish and rice because a Cong scout could smell a Westerner by his waste. Right.” James closed the book and handed it back to the younger man.

“Right, right, exactly,” Blair said excitedly, taking the book carefully and tucking it reverently into his backpack. “I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of documented cases in my office of one or two hyperactive senses, but not one single subject with all five. Which really bites because that’s what I want to do my dissertation on. I want to study a sentinel, find out everything about a sentinel’s senses, how he or she operates, what they do with them, how strongly influenced they are by them. Oh, and there’s something else, called the zone out factor; that’s a real bitch to watch out for.”

“Zone out factor?”

“Yeah. It’s suggested in Burton’s research that when a sentinel is workin’ their deal, they get oblivious to the outside world. Sorta like the blinders are on. Usually, they had a partner along, someone to watch their back.”

“Hmm.”

“Yup. I think what triggered it would be concentrating too much on one sense. Like, say-“

“-something smells so intriguing that the sentinel would put everything he had into it to get the full depth of that scent. Or the sound that caught his ears. Or the fabric he’s touching. Or the food he’s tasting. Or the colors he’s seeing,” James interrupted softly.

“Yeah! Yeah, exactly-“ Blair said, excitedly, and then froze, his voice trailing off in a stuttered gulp.

He looked carefully at Ellison’s face, noticed the subtle intensity of the expression, and felt the blood drain from his face. “Oh, my God… you?”

James nodded. “Me.”

“Oh, God,” Blair whispered. A slow smile spread across his face. “Bam! Holy Grail time.”

A short, sharp bark of laughter escaped from the older man. “Not hardly, Chief. This is more like a living hell. And I want to know how to make it stop.”

“Stop?” Sandburg repeated blankly.

“Yeah, you know, as in: cease to exist. As in: make it go away. As in: I would like my life back to normal now.”

“But… why? With heightened senses, there’s so much you can do, so much you can know…”

“And then there is knowing too much, Sandburg!” James snapped. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to feel as though your head is being split apart when a dog whistle goes off? Supposedly inaudible to humans, yet I hear it with absolute clarity. Every single decibel. It hurts. Further more, I’m tired of my clothing causing me to itch and break out in rashes. Or, go to the other extreme. Cause so much pleasure that I go through a dozen pairs of pants a day because I can’t make it more than an hour without coming in them just from breathing! Food… that can be difficult at times, and smell…! You really don’t want to know. My house hasn’t been this clean in years. Neither have my offices. And sight! My God, the things I see! There are lots of things I have to do in my line of work and some of them I don’t want to see down to the cellular level, Sandburg! Now, what do I do to make it go away?”

Blair sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know, man. The best I can do is guide you through getting a handle on them, and even then I have to study how you work so I can gauge your accuracy with your senses. Find your limits. That means tests, which are bound to drive you right up a wall. Pardon me, Ellison, but you are a dangerous man, and that I know just from what I’ve been through and seen so far. I’m sure there’s more and I don’t want to know.”

James was silent for a moment, then smiled his humorless smile again. “That’s too bad, Chief, because in everything you just said, the gist I got was that control can be had, if not actual suppression of these damned senses. And you at least know how to get that to happen. So, until I get control of these things, you’re staying with me.”

“I’m what?”

“You heard me. I’ll have a room prepared for you. And, of course, you’ll have guards, but that’s a given. Your clothing and possessions will be picked up from your house as soon as I have the address and can send someone to get them-“

“Whoa. Whoa!” Blair leaped to his feet and stared hard at the man who had moved over to his desk, intent on lifting the phone to make an in-house call. When Ellison paused and looked at him, he said, “You don’t seriously mean what that sounds like, do you? That you’re going to hold me here against my will?”

The smile came again, but now it was colder and more lethal than ever. “You bet your ass I am, Chief. It’s too late now, but I suppose I should introduce myself. I’m James Ellison, business man by day, criminal overlord by night. Well, technically I’m a criminal any hour out of twenty-four, but you get my point.”

Blair’s jaw dropped as he gaped at the older man. Then he exploded into a flurry of action, scooping up his backpack and bolting for the wooden doors that led to escape. He gripped the knob tightly and flung it open, ready to bolt through...

…only to stumble backwards as he found himself looking down the barrel of a gun held securely in Allison Murphy’s grip.

She herded him back into the office, all the while keeping the gun trained on him, aimed squarely between his eyes.

“Stay,” she growled.

Blair’s throat clicked as he attempted to say something... and failed.

James smiled, mildly amused at the sight, and lifted the phone as he said, “You won’t be leaving, Mr. Sandburg. Allison, here, is my best enforcer, that’s true, but she is one of several. I have at least twenty in the household at all times, and more can be called on if I feel the need to. Don’t make me feel the need to, Sandburg.”

Blair found himself unable to tear his gaze away from the 9mm pointed directly at him. He was so stunned that he didn’t pay attention to the murmur of Ellison’s voice from somewhere behind him. All he could focus on was the gun and the threat it promised if he so much as breathed funny.

He flinched a moment later when a hand landed firmly on his shoulder. He was turned and another hand cupped his chin, lifting his face so that he could see Ellison looking down at him with that cool amusement that wasn’t really amusement.

“Your bodyguards will be here in a moment and a room has been prepared close to mine. You’ll find the accommodations quite comfortable, Sandburg, I promise. I didn’t work hard to get a lot of money just to buy off the clearance racks at K-Mart. I won’t need you for the next few hours, I think. I need to do some business and you need to get settled in-“

“Stop… stop talking as if… I’m staying for a visit. I’m not,” said Blair harshly, suddenly finding his voice.

“Visiting, or staying?” James murmured.

“Either.”

Again that cool smile. “No to the former, yes to the latter. You’re here now, Sandburg. And I’m not letting you go until I get what I want.”

“And when you have it? What then? An unmarked, back-alley grave for me?” the younger man whispered, paling.

“Well, we’ll just have to see, won’t we?” was the amused reply, and then he was released from that cool, competent grip. “Now, go with Mr. Palmer and Mr. Turner, here. They’ll take you to your room. Feel free to have a bath and get comfortable. I’m sure there’s a guest robe in there somewhere. Hell, take a nap if you want to. Or maybe you would like some dinner? It’s after eight in the evening, after all.”

Sandburg blinked. Was it really so late?

Seeing the look on his face, James grinned. “You were out for a bit. Ms. Murphy packs a wallop when she lets loose. Now, go with your new friends and play nice, everybody.” Reaching out, he turned Blair around and then lightly shoved him forward into Gary’s grip.

“Come on, shorty,” Gary said smoothly, and turned and began tugging the stunned young man out the door.

“Oh, Gary,” Ellison said, and the bodyguard paused. “Remember to take Mr. Sandburg’s cell phone and wallet from him. And anything else that he might make use out of. We don’t want him trying to take an unscheduled trip.”

“Yes, sir,” Palmer replied.

James motioned a dismissal and Gary and Nate left with Sandburg in tow.

Ellison looked at Allison and she looked back at him, then shrugged and holstered her weapon again beneath her jacket.

“Excitable young man, isn’t he?” she said calmly.

James laughed and nodded. “Yes. But he is exactly what I need right now. Once Gary and Nate have his wallet, I want his residence located and his stuff boxed up and brought here, except for any furniture. He’s going to be staying a while.”

“Yes, sir,” she agreed, again calmly.

James grinned and then gestured dismissal again. He watched her leave the office and shut the doors behind her, then moved to sit at his desk.

He opened the e-mail program, ready to compose a note to McCoy to thank him for his helpful reference, but he sat back and grinned for a moment, allowing himself to gloat. Yes, indeed, Sandburg was going to help him. And when he was done with the young man… well, all grad students needed money, especially if they were doctoral candidates. Possibly he could buy Sandburg’s silence. The thought of permanently silencing the hyper student struck a discordant note within his soul that had him frowning as he stared at his computer monitor.

Without realizing it, he slipped into a zone out as he gazed at the tiny little rainbows that the light inside the monitor refracted off the screen.

***

Blair paced in his room agitatedly. He’d been locked up for two hours, now, and so far he’d discovered no way to escape. There were no vents big enough for him to crawl through, Palmer and Turner stood outside his door on guard duty, and when he glanced out the window, he could see more guards patrolling a short swatch on the ground outside. He had no way to escape.

That fact was making him near crazy.

Man, when I get into trouble, I do it with style! he thought wildly. Captive of a crime lord sentinel… and I thought sentinels were supposed to be tribal guardians, working for the GOOD of a tribe! Man, was I off the mark with that one, or what?!

In the two hours since he’d been locked into the room, he had not done anything that Ellison had suggested. He hadn’t had dinner, hadn’t bathed, hadn’t gotten comfortable. He had examined the room, however, and grudgingly admitted that the criminal bastard had been telling the truth. His accommodations were luxurious enough to the point of decadence. Silk sheets, high quality wool and cotton blankets with a satin comforter folded neatly at the end of the bed, with plenty of pillows to nestle into. A deep dark blue carpet covered the floor and there was a writing desk positioned by the windows for maximum light. He even had a small, private balcony, although he refrained from going outside to use it. He didn’t want the guards to get nervous and accidentally blow him away. So that left the rest of the room. He had his own bathroom and a walk-in closet, and a bureau to stack more clothing in. The bed was high quality, brand name furniture - Mission, if he was any judge of good furniture - and the matching bedside tables to go with it. A lamp sat on one of them, and there was another lamp on the writing desk, but no overhead lighting at all.

This was a tasteful, elegant bedroom that was meant to be a cozy comfort to whoever stayed in it.

For Blair, it was a gilded cage that he was desperate to escape from.

Suddenly, the door was flung open and he whirled around to find Turner staring at him.

“You,” Nate growled. “Let’s go. The boss needs you.”

“He said he wasn’t going to need me-“

“The plan changed. Get your ass moving now or I’ll do it for you.”

With incentive like that, Blair moved.

He was quickly led back down to the home office that he’d been in before and was ushered through the doors.

Immediately, he saw what the problem was. Ellison had zoned.

“Yeah. I see,” he said.

“So? Do something!” Palmer said, shoving him forward.

He turned, defiant. “No.”

The two bodyguards bristled, pulling their guns from the holsters inside their jackets.

“What did you say?” Turner rumbled.

“I said, no. You can shoot me if you want to, but that won’t help him at all, will it? Dammit, do you think I’m actually going to bring him out of this? He’s a criminal! You’re all criminals! You should be in jail-“

Abruptly, he stopped talking. He dimly heard a thunk hit the wood paneling behind him, but it was the only sound that was involved in the sudden burn of fire across his thigh. Looking down, he saw a new tear in his jeans and as he watched, blood began seeping out of the shallow graze left by the projectile that had traveled over and slightly through him. Looking up and to the side, he saw the female bodyguard - Allison - leveling her gun on him again, an attachment added to it.

Silencer, he thought, shock numbing him for the moment.

“Don’t look so surprised,” she murmured. “You said we can shoot you. You didn’t say we had to kill you. There are lots of places you can be shot that won’t kill you, Mr. Sandburg. Would you like to find out where those places are?”

Blair shook his head “no”.

“Then help him.”

He trembled as he thought about it, then finally, wanting to live, he acquiesced and stumbled over to stand next to the inert man.

Given the way the older man’s eyes were staring fixedly at the monitor screen, now in sleeper mode, Blair guessed that Ellison had zoned on sight. Knowing that other senses needed to be stimulated, he reached out and laid a trembling hand on Ellison’s arm, beginning to stroke the muscular limb soothingly through the silk shirt the man was wearing. As he stroked, he began crooning in a low, calm voice.

“Okay, James. Time to come out of it, man. You’ve had a nap long enough. Follow my voice back. Locate it, lock onto it, and follow it back. It’s easy enough to do; you listen to people every day. It shouldn’t be that difficult to listen to me. And I mean listen, not just hearing me. Listen to me and follow me. I want you to wake up now, James.”

And, amazingly, he did.

“What the hell…?” came the irritated growl, a moment before blue eyes blinked furiously and then looked up at him, and he was shoved away instantly.

A startled cry of surprise and pain escaped him as he fell backwards in a rough sprawl on the wooden floor.

James tottered unsteadily to his feet as he blinked again and again, trying to get some moisture back into his eyes. “Dammit, not again!” he hissed. “Why did this happen so soon-“

Pausing, he sniffed, then sniffed again. Scenting blood, somehow knowing it was Sandburg’s, he slowly turned until he could see the younger man and looked down, his gaze roving over the trembling body until his eyes found the wound on Blair’s thigh.

“What happened?” he snarled, and moved to stand over the student.

“He was refusing to help you. I showed him the error of his ways,” Allison said quietly.

“Next time, check with me before you think about hurting him!” James yelled, startling her slightly, and the other two men more so. Then he turned his attention back to Sandburg.

“Chief, are you all right? Does it hurt much?” he asked quietly, bending down and reaching with his hands, intending to help the younger man to his feet.

Blair cringed backwards, shifting as he tried to scoot out of reach, but unable to do so as his thigh was jostled.

James stopped, astonished to find that he was hurt by Sandburg’s obvious fear of him.

Frowning, he roughly grabbed the younger man’s arms and hauled him up onto his feet. Even as Blair yelped with pain, James was again lifting so that the student was now cradled in his arms. He began walking for the door, actually stalking towards it, and he snapped over his shoulder, “Bring one of the bigger first aid kits up to his room. I’ll take care of him there.”

Allison moved off to collect the kit as Gary and Nate followed their boss and his charge out of the office and through the house, going up two flights of stairs and down the hallway into the wing that housed Blair's room, two doors away from James' own suite.

Entering swiftly, Ellison set the young man down beside the bed and growled, “Strip.”

Hastily, Blair obeyed, his shaking hands fumbling with buttons and zippers and shoelaces, right down to his boxers and T-shirt, shivering slightly.

And looked up to find James holding out the guest robe to him.

Blushing sheepishly, he took it and slipped it on.

Ellison pointed at the bed. “Sit.”

Blair sat.

Allison arrived with the kit and James took it from her. “Wait outside,” he announced tersely, and the three bodyguards left the room, shutting the door behind them.

Setting the kit on the bed next to Sandburg, the crime lord opened it and took out a bottle of antiseptic wash and a gauze pad. Reaching out, he twitched aside the right side of the robe where it covered the younger man’s leg, ignoring the small gasp and the aborted movement to pull it back into place.

“Hold still; this is going to hurt,” James growled as he soaked the gauze with the antiseptic wash.

Blair took a deep breath and braced himself.

Ellison firmly placed the pad over the wound and pressed down.

The grad student let out a strangled yowl, muffled in his throat as he squeezed his eyes shut tightly.

Scowling fiercely, James ignored Blair’s pain and continued to clean the wound.

When he was done with the antiseptic wash, he drew out a big tube of antibiotic ointment and lightly spread a glob of it along the length of the graze. Cleaning his fingers on the fabric of Blair’s robe, he then pulled out another gauze pad, this one smaller than the last, and self-adhesive. He gently fixed it over the wound and pressed the adhesive to Blair’s skin and waited as it sealed closed. When it was done, he cleaned up all the trash and tossed it in the trashcan that sat by the desk, then returned to close up the kit.

“You’re going to have a scar, but nothing permanently damaging. Don’t walk too fast or run for the next few days and you’ll be fine,” the older man said dispassionately.

Blinking away the tears stinging his eyes, Blair nodded quietly.

James stood silently, looking at the young man he’d had kidnapped and brought to his house, wondering why he was reacting to this kid when he’d never reacted to anyone else before. Finally, he said, “Ms. Murphy told me that you got your mark because you refused to help me.”

Again, Blair nodded.

“Why?”

“You’re a criminal,” Sandburg whispered.

“Yes, I am.”

“I shouldn’t help criminals.”

“But you did anyway.”

“They threatened me. She hurt me.”

James felt his body tense, but he ignored it. “I know they did. It’s one of the things I pay them very well to do.”

Blair flinched. “How can you be so calm about pain and death? About causing it?”

“Because it’s what I’m good at, Sandburg. It’s what they’re good at. Maybe, a long time ago, my life might have been different. But this is the way things are and I don’t have it in me to give a damn that what I’m doing is illegal or hurts others. It’s how I get rich and I do like money and the things it can buy. And if you think I’m going to quit now just because you have a problem with it, then think again.”

His expression miserable, Blair turned his face away.

His temper snapping, James reached out and buried one hand in Sandburg’s hair and yanked, using his other hand to grip that wide, stubbled jaw and turn the younger man’s face up.

Snarling down into that startled, pain-filled face, he said, “It’s time you faced facts, kid. You’re the only one who can help me and that is exactly what you are going to do! From now on, when I need your help, you will give it to me, or I will make you regret it like you have never regretted anything before! Do you understand me, Sandburg? You’re right; I am a very dangerous man. I know more about the human anatomy and how to seriously damage it than you would believe. I know where to make it hurt the most and how to make it last a long, long time. So do not ever play games with me, boy. You will not like what happens if you do.”

Trembling, Blair gathered as much composure as he could and hissed, “Back off, Capone. You mess with me and you’ll never figure out what’s up with you. I can help. I will help. Fine; but don’t pull your primitive throwback to a pre-civilized form of man shit with me!”

For a long moment, the two of them glared at each other and then James slowly relaxed, letting go of Blair with another one of those cool, humorless smiles.

“You’ve got balls, Sandburg, I’ll give you that. Fine. You toe the line, and we won’t have any problems, will we?” He lightly patted the younger man’s face with both hands, then stepped away. “Unless you’d like some dinner, get some sleep. It’s been a long and busy day for you, and it’s only going to get busier.”

Knowing he’d be unable to keep anything down if he ate now, Blair grit his teeth and shook his head. “I don’t want to eat.”

“Then get into bed and sleep. We’ll be having breakfast early tomorrow morning. Six o’clock.”

Blair nodded wearily and waited.

“Well? Go on,” James prompted.

The younger man glared at his “warden”. “I’ll wait until you’ve left the room, thank you.”

Another chill smile. “No. I want to make certain my little professor is tucked up nice and warm and on his way to Dream Land.”

Stubbornly, Blair shook his head and clutched the sides of the robe tighter together.

One eyebrow rose. “Shy, Sandburg? I never would have guessed. You don’t have to be. It’s not as though you have anything I haven’t seen before.”

“I don’t want to with you in the room.”

“And I’m not leaving until you’re in bed. Since you’re insisting on acting like a child, I’ll treat you like a child.”

So saying, James reached out and jerked Blair to his feet and swiftly undid the knot in the belt of the robe. When Blair tried to swing first one fist and then the other at him, he caught both wrists and then pulled them back behind Sandburg’s back. He held them both in one strong hand and, smiling coldly at the shaking young man, he began peeling the now open robe off Blair’s strong shoulders until the cloth puddled around the captive wrists.

Still smiling, James released Blair’s wrists and jerked the robe free of the smaller man’s arms and stepped away, leaving the younger man standing in his underwear and T-shirt.

Shivering from cold and the vulnerable sensation of being near naked, Blair nevertheless lifted his chin and met the other man’s gaze squarely as he said, “You’ve already taken my freedom from me. Do you have to do this, too?”

James Ellison was surprised to feel a spurt of shame skirl through him.

Hiding it, he said smoothly, “This could have been avoided if you hadn’t been so squeamish. Now, get into bed and I’ll leave you alone. Unless you’d rather I stay?”

Sighing tiredly, Blair turned and pulled the bed covers back and climbed up onto the mattress, sliding beneath the sheets and blankets. He froze when Ellison moved closer and blinked in surprise when the older man simply tucked the covers up beneath his chin and then stroked the hair back from his face.

The by now trademark chill smile in place, James looked down at the man in the soft bed. “Very good. Try to get some sleep. I’ll see you at breakfast tomorrow morning and we’ll establish what sort of tests you need to give me and when I can take them. You’ll be spending the day with me, so wear something comfortable.”

“I only have what I was wearing-“

“Before you wake up tomorrow, the rest of your stuff will have arrived. I’ll see you in the morning. Good night,” James said, and he turned away and left the bedroom, the door clicking shut behind him.

Blair lay trembling in the bed for a few moments before he rolled onto his stomach and buried his face in a pillow to muffle any sobs he might make as he let himself release all the fear and tension and pain he’d experienced since four o’clock in the afternoon.

Outside in the hallway, Ellison ignored the question Allison had just asked him and instead focused on his hearing. He frowned when he heard the muffled crying, but then shrugged mentally. There was nothing to be done for it. He needed Sandburg; the younger man was his, now.

Looking down at the touch on his arm, he found Allison staring up at him with faint concern. As soon as he looked at her, however, she went back to a neutral expression, her hand leaving his arm.

“Yes, Ms. Murphy?” he asked.

“Mr. Casey and Mr. Schroeder have gone over to Sandburg’s residence to collect his things. What story are we to give Buckner to explain to the Chancellor at Rainier?”

Nodding his thanks to Gary and Nate as they stationed themselves by the door, he handed the med-kit he’d been carrying to Allison and began walking down the hallway for the stairs. “Hmm. Tell him that Mr. Sandburg has experienced a serious brown out and has taken a sabbatical. Tell him he’ll need to take care of all the paperwork required and that someone will be by to clean out and collect everything from his office.”

“Very good, sir. Now, or in the morning?”

“Buckner usually works late. Call him now. I have to go take care of a few things. As soon as Sandburg’s things arrive, have the clothes and personal items brought up to his room and leave them for him to put away. He’ll want to do that himself. Put everything else in storage in the basement.”

“Yes, sir.”

He grinned that cold grin and lightly pinched her chin, then headed downstairs for the office while Allison moved to return the med-kit from where she’d taken it and to make the call to Buckner, a professor Mr. Ellison steadily did “business” with.

****

“Sandburg! Wake up!”

The grad student woke up to the jolting of a hand shaking him roughly. Growling irritably, he batted the hand away.

“I’m awake already!” he snapped. “What the hell do you want, man?”

Gary glared down at the long-haired hippie lying wrapped up tightly in the sheet and blankets. “You need to get up now. You have enough time to take a shower and get dressed before you meet with Mr. Ellison for breakfast.”

“No.”

With that emphatic statement, Blair turned over and burrowed beneath the covers with the intention of going back to sleep.

And found himself unceremoniously yanked out of the bed and tossed to the floor.

Yelping at the rug burn that roughened the palms of his hands and the left side of his face, Blair twisted and glared up at the tall, muscular man standing over him.

“It wasn’t a request,” the bodyguard said tightly. “Get your ass up and get it moving into that shower. Then get it dressed. Then we are going downstairs and you are having breakfast with Mr. Ellison. He has no problem with me bringing you down a little roughed up if you get pissy about it.”

Realizing that he was caught between a rock and a hard place, and not liking the idea of pain, Blair sighed and got up, untangling himself from the covers that had been dragged with him. He looked around and found that his stuff had indeed been brought back to the house and boxes full of his clothes were lined up by the closet.

“Your bathing supplies are in the bathroom already. Get going,” Gary rumbled.

Shooting a glare at the bodyguard, Blair snagged the robe that was lying draped over a nearby chair and covered himself as he went into the bathroom.

As Gary had said, his stuff was there. The shampoo and conditioner were lined up along the sink and the bath gel was sitting beside it, along with his shaving razor and shaving cream, toothpaste, toothbrush, hairbrush, and pick comb. Looking around, he gaped at the decadence of the bathroom. A very large tub, perfect for soaking in, with sliding glass doors and a showerhead on each of the three walls around the tub made for blissful bathing accommodations. The toilet was set at a discreet distance from the tub, and the sink was nearby with a vanity mirror and gold faucet and handles. A warming bar held towels and when Blair felt them, he discovered them to be sinfully soft, but thick enough to absorb a lot of moisture. There was even a complimentary hair dryer, like in high quality hotels, in case anyone needed to dry their hair.

Knowing he shouldn’t be happy about any of this, Blair still took guilty pleasure in shucking off the robe, T-shirt, and underwear before opening the linen closet to take out a washcloth. Gathering his bathing supplies, Blair opened the sliding door and stepped in to the tub, setting them in the shower caddies that were tucked into each corner, and then shut the door. He turned on the faucet and set the water to the temperature that he liked, then activated the showerheads. He moaned in delight as the hot water soaked him thoroughly, helping to dispel some of the aches and pains he had accumulated from yesterday’s activities.

A sharp sting of pain from his thigh made him wince and he stared down at the soaked gauze bandage that covered his wound. He would have to change it when he was done.

Sighing, he let himself wallow in the hot water for a bit longer, then quickly began bathing. He hurriedly soaped himself, rinsed, then shampooed and conditioned his hair. When all the residue was gone, he reluctantly shut off the water, and climbed out of the tub after sliding back the door. Grabbing a towel, he wrapped his hair in it, then used another to dry off. He draped it around his shoulders when he was done and propped his right foot up on the toilet lid. Carefully, wincing, he peeled away the gauze bandage and looked around.

He found antibiotic ointment and more gauze bandages in a drawer of the vanity near the sink. He used the ointment and applied another self-adhesive bandage, and then threw the trash away. When that was done, he unwrapped his hair and pick-combed it out, then brushed it back so that it would dry away from his face. He quickly brushed his teeth and then he pulled the robe back on and left the bathroom, leaving the towels lying scattered on the floor.

Not seeing Gary, but knowing instinctively that the bodyguard had to be outside the room, he quickly rooted through his boxes until he found his favorite old soft tee-shirt, his favorite old maroon V-neck sweater, and a pair of blue jeans that weren’t quite so ratty, as well as his black shit-stomper boots, some socks, and boxer briefs.

He pulled everything on, went back into the bathroom for a quick look at himself, and then went to open the bedroom door.

As he had suspected, Blair found Gary and Nate waiting for him.

Nate led the way down, Gary taking up the rear as they walked down the hallway and then down the stairs. They passed through an open foyer and then into a small dining room.

Ellison was already there, dressed comfortably in a light sweater and khaki pants and Italian leather boots. He looked at Blair, glanced at his watch, then gave his chill smile.

“Good. You’re only a minute or so late. I guess with that hair, I should have expected it. Thank you, Mr. Palmer, Mr. Turner. You can wait outside while Sandburg and I have breakfast.”

Nodding, the two bodyguards left the dining room, sliding the doors shut behind them.

James gestured at the table. “Take a seat. The maid will be in soon to take your order. Did you sleep well?”

“Why are you being so fucking polite?!” Blair snapped. “I’m a prisoner, not a guest!”

“One is the same as the other, Sandburg, except for a difference. That difference is in being treated cordially and being treated like shit. Which one would you prefer? If you’d rather not have breakfast and would like to be locked up in the basement, I can arrange that. Or would you rather eat and be comfortable? It’s up to you. But either way, you’re not leaving here.”

Blair fumed silently before grudgingly taking a seat at the table. He ignored the smug smile Ellison gave him.

“You’re going to have to let me go eventually,” he said. “I’m not just a student at Rainier, I’m a teaching assistant. My students will wonder where I am and report me missing.”

“Actually, they won’t. My friend, and sometimes associate, Professor Buckner, is taking care of that. You’re on sabbatical,” James informed him calmly, and opened the newspaper to the business section.

Sandburg, however, was totally stunned. “Hal?” he whispered.

James dipped his paper to look at the younger man with one raised eyebrow.

“Hal… is a crook? Works for you?”

“Not often. Only when I need something imported that would raise certain flags. Then it gets shipped in hidden inside artifacts that get sent to him. He delivers the goods and I slip him some extra money for his trouble. How else could he afford all those expensive toys I’m sure you’ve noticed him buying occasionally?”

Feeling betrayed by the knowledge that his advisor was an unethical professor who worked with criminals, Blair stared mutely down at the tablecloth.

Ellison sighed. “Don’t take it so hard, Sandburg. Everyone is a criminal, one way or another. Buckner simply likes his vices too much to be able to say ‘no’ to helping me. If it helps you any, he has nothing to do with the really nasty part of what happens sometimes, when people need to be made examples of.”

Blair shuddered. “You mean tortured and killed, don’t you?”

The cold smile appeared. “You really are brilliant, aren’t you, Chief?”

Sandburg gulped hard and refused to look at the other man.

They were silent for a moment and then there was a discreet knock on the door.

“Come in,” James called, and a maid stepped through.

“Good morning, sirs,” she said quietly.

“Good morning, Martha. Please take Mr. Sandburg’s breakfast order. I’ll have my usual.”

“Yes, sir.”

The student gave his “host” a curious look. “What is your usual?”

Ellison smirked at him. “Scrambled eggs, bacon, buttered toast, and coffee.”

Blair shot a dark look at the older man. “Heart attack central, man. Do you have anything other than artery cloggers for breakfast?”

“What would you like, sir?” Martha asked.

Oh, lady, if I could only tell you, he thought helplessly. Sighing, he said, “Do you have fruit?”

“Apples, oranges, grapes, bananas, plums, and pineapple,” she confirmed.

“Great. If I could have a couple of oranges, a couple of plums, some pineapple, and a banana, that’d be great. Oh, and milk to drink, if you have it,” he said quietly.

“We do. Would you prefer skim, 2%, or whole?”

“The 2%, please. Thanks, Martha.”

“Of course. Anything else, Mr. Ellison?”

“No, thank you, Martha.”

“Very good, sir.”

A moment later, she was gone.

James looked Blair up and down, then said, “Is that why you’re so skinny? Because you barely eat enough?”

“I eat plenty, man.”

“Rabbit food. Do you not eat meat? Or anything remotely fattening?”

“Occasionally, but I try not to. It adds up really quickly and sometimes I don’t have a chance to be very active,” Blair replied.

“Hmm.” Ellison was quiet a moment longer, then asked, “Did you change your bandage after your shower.”

Sandburg thought about simply saying “yes” and then looked at the older man calculatingly. “What does your nose tell you?”

The older man glared at him. “Get real, Sandburg. I can’t-“

“You can. You admitted as much to me yesterday. If you can do it involuntarily, then you can do it voluntarily. Concentrate on what your nose is telling you. See what you can get out of it.”

Glaring still, Ellison sighed grumpily. Finally, he closed his eyes, knowing they would merely cause a distraction, and focused on the scents surrounding him, aiming his face in Blair’s direction. He inhaled deeply, then suddenly sneezed.

When he got control of himself, he scowled at the younger man. “That bath gel isn’t worth shit, Sandburg. The shampoo and conditioner are fine, but that fruity gel has got to go. I’ll have natural soap supplied to your bathroom.”

“Fine. Anything else?”

Ellison was quiet for a moment, then nodded. “Yes. I smell fresh ointment and adhesive. You changed your bandage.”

“Of course I did. I’m not totally stupid,” Blair grumbled.

“I highly doubt that you’re anywhere near stupid,” James replied.

“If I’m so smart, I would’ve figured out a way out of this hellhole by now and reported you to the authorities so they can throw your ass in the slammer where it belongs!” Sandburg yelled as he jumped to his feet.

Before he could even blink, Ellison was on his feet as well and up in his face. Grabbing the fabric of Blair’s sweater, he forcefully propelled the younger man backwards until he was pressed up against a nearby wall, rising up on his toes as James’ snarling face got close to his.

“Now, you listen to me, you neo-hippie witchdoctor punk!” Ellison growled. “You are not leaving here and it’s about damn time you accepted that fact! You should make the best of it instead of making threats you have no hope of carrying out. I give you my word that when you’ve taught me everything I need to know, I will let you go free, with enough money to buy your damned doctorate three times over. The only thing I’ll ask in return is silence from you. But, if you can’t do that, then I will have to silence you permanently. Do we understand each other?”

Face pale, apprehensive, Blair nodded silently.

Ellison was silent as he looked hard at the other man as he stood with his body holding Blair’s up against the wall. Then, quietly, he slowly let Sandburg go, guiding him back down onto his feet and steadying him as he regained his balance.

“Good,” he murmured. “Now, while we have breakfast, think up some tests and we’ll see what we can do about me taking them.”

Walking back to his seat at the table on shaky legs, Blair muttered, “I don’t suppose it will be possible for me to use the research I get off you to get a doctoral thesis when we’re done.”

Sitting down and picking up the newspaper once again, James said, “We’ll see. Now hush. Want any of the paper?”

“Comics.”

“How did I know?” the criminal said wryly, but he fished the comics section out of the bulk of the newspaper and handed them over.

The two men read silently for a while and then a discreet knock sounded again.

“Come in,” James called.

The doors slid open and Martha entered, bearing a wheeled cart. Silently, she lifted a covered plate from the tray and set it before Ellison, then a rolled napkin containing silverware, and finally a silver pot of coffee and a surprisingly old and worn mug that was clearly not new or designed for impressing. Then she set a plate of fresh, washed fruit before Blair and a tall cool glass of milk. A napkin was set before him as well, but no silverware, as all of the fruit was clearly finger food.

He smiled his thanks at the maid and she smiled back, then silently left the room with the wheeled cart, the doors shut behind her by the bodyguards outside.

Happily, James lifted the cover off his plate and sniffed appreciatively of the scrambled eggs lightly covered with melted shredded cheddar. The three strips of bacon were crisp and drained of most of the grease and then patted down to absorb away even more of it, and the toast was golden brown and lightly buttered. All in all, he was definitely happy with his breakfast.

He tucked into it after unrolling the silverware and placing the napkin in his lap. He looked up a few moments later to find Blair nibbling half-heartedly on an orange slice.

“Eat up, Sandburg. The fruit is fresh and specially imported. If it makes you feel any better, it was obtained legally,” he sniped.

Immediately, Blair set the orange back down on the plate and looked away. “I’m not very hungry.”

“That’s too bad. But I really do insist that you eat. I can’t have you passing out from malnutrition.”

Sighing, Blair once again picked up the orange slice and began eating.

“Good. You’re learning.”

“It’s what I do best,” the younger man replied sarcastically.

“Let’s hope so,” was Ellison’s calm answer.

They ate silently, except for the older man’s simple reminder to devise some tests, and when they were done, they folded their napkins and placed them next to their plates.

“Alright, Sandburg. Have you had enough time to think up any tests?”

“A few basic ones. Anything more detailed will have to wait until I see how you handle these. And I need to find my laptop and a couple of notebooks. Design charts and so on. We can’t just leap into this; we have to go about it scientifically,” Blair said quietly.

“Fine. I’ll meet you in the library. All your clothing and school gear should be in your bedroom in one of the boxes. Go with Gary and Nate and get it, then come to the library. They’ll show you the way.”

With that, he left the dining room and Blair watched as he walked away. Finally, he looked up at his bodyguards and said, “I need to go to my room and get some stuff, then meet him in the library.”

They nodded and escorted him up.

After about twenty minutes of searching, leaving a lot of his things lying scattered around the room, he found what he was looking for and left the room. Gary and Nate took him downstairs and up towards the front of the house.

As they neared the front door, Blair saw that it was open at the moment, left that way by someone who had stepped outside for a moment, and the young man trembled hard at the glimpse of freedom. He knew he was a fast sprinter. If he caused a distraction, pushed hard against either or both of the other men, knocking them away….

A heavy hand landed on his shoulder and he flinched, then looked up to find Gary staring hard at him.

“Don’t even think about it, kid,” he growled.

He was led quickly to a side door on one side of the open foyer, but his eyes tracked back over his shoulder for one last glimpse at the front door… before Nate moved to block his view with his body.

Slumping a bit, feeling overwhelmed, he stepped into the library after Gary knocked and opened the door for him. It shut behind him and he found himself in a cozy, tastefully decorated room and Ellison sitting in a wingback armchair in one corner of the room.

That chill smile appeared and James gestured to the sofa. “Take a seat, get comfortable, then let me know what you’re thinking.”

Sandburg glared at the other man. “You really don’t want to know that, man, trust me.”

A wicked chuckle escaped from the older man. “It’s not too hard to guess, anyway. Sit.”

Blair sat and booted up his laptop, setting it on his lap and the notebooks and pen next to him on the sofa.

“Why do you have paper and pen if you have a laptop?” Ellison asked.

“The battery is almost dead and I lost the electric cord for it. The computer is so old it’s unreliable, anyway. In case this thing craps out, I can draw what I put in from memory.”

“I’ll make a note to pick up a better one for you.”

“It’s not-“

“It is. I’m gonna need you and your gear in top condition to help me get control. Now, can you tell me what sort of tests you’ve devised for me?”

Blair sighed and rubbed at his forehead. “Yeah. Simple tests at first. I’m going to have you drink from three different cups with an extremely minute trace of something else added to water. I’m going to have you taste it and try to figure out what that is. Um, smell. You’ve already done that one fairly well, so I’m going to have to come up with something else. Let’s see … hearing. There are lots of tests I can come up with for that one. Once I’ve figured out what your range is, I can work on getting you to work with it. Sight, lots of things with that one, too. Touch. Huh. Actually, we can try that one right now.”

The other man nodded. “Fine. Oh, by the way, since we’re going to be hanging out together a lot, you might as well call me Jim.”

Blair looked up at him. “Jim?”

“Yes?”

“Nothing. Just trying the name on for size.”

A flash of a true amused grin. “I’ll ignore that straight line you just handed me this time around.”

The younger man was surprised himself with a snort of laughter. “Fine. And my name is-“

“I know what your name is, Chief.”

A short, subtle statement that Jim Ellison would call Blair whatever he wanted to whenever he felt like it.

They were both quiet for a moment, then Jim prompted quietly, “The touch test?”

“Oh! Yeah. Okay. Come on over here and sit down next to me, man. This one should be simple if you were telling the truth about how sensitive you are.”

Jim glared as he got up and crossed over to sit on the sofa beside the younger man. “If? Are you calling me a liar, Sandburg?”

“You’re a criminal,” Blair shot back. “You cheat and steal, why shouldn’t you lie, too?”

“Not about something as freaky as this,” Jim growled. “Watch your mouth, kid. I don’t tolerate sass a lot of the time; I won’t take it from you.”

“That’s too bad, then, because that’s the way I am. If you don’t like it, then shoot me in the head now and have me shipped out of here.”

One hand lashed out and buried itself in Blair’s hair, gripping tightly as Jim yanked him forward so that their faces were mere centimeters from each other.

“Don’t tempt me, kid,” Ellison hissed. “I’m not in the best of moods right now and these senses only make me even more cranky, so do not tempt me!”

“I-I-If you d-do that,” Blair gasped, his eyes watery with pain from the grip on his hair, “then I w-won’t b-be able t-to help y-you.”

Jim tightened his grip, his face dark and angry. “Don’t dictate to me, boy. I can leave you in pain and still fully functional. I’m getting tired of you pushing the envelope. Stop it.”

Sighing, Blair closed his eyes, unwillingly surrendering.

The older man waited a moment longer, allowing his eyes to rake over the lovely picture of Blair with his head back, eyes closed and lips parted, his reluctance subtly thrilling. Finally, he released the younger man’s hair, unthreading his hand and sitting back, idly pulling away the long strands that clung to his fingers like a silken caress.

Shivering, Blair swallowed hard and opened his eyes, blinking for a few moments. Then he gathered up his laptop once again and tried to get his mind back on track.

“Touch,” Ellison prompted.

“Uh. Yeah. Okay,” the student whispered, licking his lips. He tapped out a few sentences on his keyboard, then said, “Close your eyes.”

With a suspicious expression, Jim did so.

Lips quirking in a sardonic grin, Blair said quietly, “I’m going to give you various items to touch, and I want you to tell me what fabrics or fibers are in them.”

“Fine.”

Reaching out, Blair picked up one of the crime lord’s hands, flinching when it was jerked out of his grasp. An instant later, the hand returned with a muttered “Sorry, wasn’t expecting it” and he sighed. Holding Jim’s hand palm up, he then placed his arm in it, the sleeve of his sweater pressing firmly against the man’s fingers.

Rubbing lightly, with a thoughtful frown on his face, Jim finally said, “It’s a blend of wool and cotton and polyester. Mostly wool; cotton is the second largest percentage of fibers, and finally, the polyester. But not a lot of it.”

“Right,” Blair agreed, withdrawing his arm to make notations on the document he was creating on his laptop. Glancing around, he saw a few figurines sitting on one of the shelves and he got up and crossed over to examine them. Knowing that Jim probably tracked him by hearing to where he was, he very, very carefully lifted up one of the figurines, hoping like hell the man couldn’t hear which one it was, because a guy like Jim would probably know which one it was with a few deductive reasoning skills.

He crossed back over and said, “Palm up.”

Jim lifted his hand and Blair settled the figurine in his palm.

After a moment, Jim said, “It’s one of the figurines from the third shelf. The one carved in cherry wood. And I can feel the warm spots from where you were touching it.”

“Good.” Blair reached out to take the figurine from the other man’s hand, and then was startled when Jim grasped his wrist carefully, keeping him from moving away.

Lifting the figurine from the student’s grasp, Jim set it aside, then held Blair’s hand with one of his as he traced his fingers over Blair’s fingers and palm.

“What are you doing?” Sandburg asked, confused.

“Testing. Shut up.”

Blair did, and waited.

Finally, Jim said, “Your middle and ring fingers were broken once, a long time ago. You have a scar on your palm, between the two big lines on your palm below the base of your index finger.”

Blair gasped. “It’s not even visible! You felt that?”

“Yeah. Hmm. Waitaminute… have you hit something recently with the heel of your hand?”

“Uh, yeah. Couple days ago I smacked a wall ‘cause I was frustrated over something. Why?”

“Well, you did a good job of it. I can feel a hairline fracture in the bone.”

“That’s impossible-“

“It’s been hurting, hasn’t it? Haven’t been able to put pressure on it, have you?”

“Yes and no,” Blair admitted.

“Hairline fracture. It’s not crippling, and unless you get your hand crushed in a vise, it’s not likely to develop further. Do you want to have it put in a cast anyway?”

“I can’t afford-“

“I can. Do you or don’t you?”

“No,” Blair said quietly. “Thanks anyway.”

Jim opened his eyes and looked up at the younger man. “Sure. Anytime.”

They stared at each other silently for a moment, then Blair cleared his throat and gently pulled away.

“Okay. You’ve passed on touch. Very sensitive there. I guess it’s a given that you don’t wear anything polyester, but just in case, don’t, alright?”

Ellison nodded.

Blair sat down and typed on his laptop, then sighed as he saved it just before the battery gave out. “Well, at least it saved,” he grumbled, and flipped the off switch, then picked up his notebook and pen. He quickly scrawled in the test results so he could keep on track, then looked at the man who was watching him intently. “We did smell already at the table. Safe to say that you passed there. Next up is taste. Can you get someone to go to the kitchen and fetch something for me? I doubt anyone’s gonna trust me with making something for you.”

Ellison raised an eyebrow. “You’re saying you would poison me?”

Blair hesitated, then bit his lip as he shook his head. “No. Sorely tempted, maybe, to purge you, but I wouldn’t try to kill you. Or do anything else.”

Jim smirked. “Fine. Go to the kitchen and get what you need, then come back.”

Blair looked at him for a long moment, then nodded. He set down the notebook and pen and got up, making his way to the library door. He opened it and walked through, then looked up at the two bodyguards. “Mr. Ellison is sending me to the kitchen to collect supplies I need. Show me where it is, please?”

Gary and Nate exchanged glances, then Nate nodded and gestured. “Follow me, kid.”

They walked down a hallway past the staircase, towards the back of the house. They entered the kitchen and Blair hunted until he found three mugs and the spices he wanted to try. Filling the mugs with water and a small amount of each spice, then nodded at Nate. “Ready.”

The bodyguard led the way back and opened the door for Blair. Once the student was through, he shut it again and resumed his position. Gary asked him what was going on and he shrugged his reply.

Inside the library, Blair walked up to the sofa and then sat down. He balanced the mugs carefully in his lap and then he said, “I want you to close your eyes so you can concentrate on this. Now, in each of the cups is water and a minute trace of another substance. Just identify the foreign matter.”

“Foreign matter,” Jim repeated sardonically.

“Completely consumable. You ready?”

“Yeah. Gimme.” Holding out his hand, Jim closed his eyes.

Blair handed him one of the mugs and waited until the older man got a grip, then let go. Jim lifted the mug to his mouth and sipped, then rolled the water around in his mouth before swallowing, licking his lips. “Salt.”

“Right.”

The second mug was exchanged for the first and Jim repeated the action of swallowing and tasting, then said, “Sugar.”

“Right again.”

Third mug and after a moment, Jim finally said, “Vanilla extract. What are you trying to do, bake a cake?”

“Not hardly. When I bake cakes, people know it.”

“That bad?”

“No, that good. Anyway, you passed the tests. Only thing left is sight and hearing.”

“I have a pair of binoculars in the desk that you can use. Take those and we’ll test my sight,” Jim offered.

Understanding that Jim meant for him to use the binoculars to verify whatever the sentinel saw, Blair nodded and waited for the older man to retrieve them, then followed Jim upstairs, the bodyguards trailing behind them. They entered what was clearly Ellison’s room; Jim led the way out onto the balcony outside his windows and they stood there, facing the backyard.

Blair lifted the binoculars and gazed out, then found that they weren’t too far from the Cascade Marina, maybe two miles at the most. He found a boat that was tilted away from them, the name of the boat written in fancy calligraphy on the stern. Keeping his gaze trained on it, he said, “There’s a boat in the marina, tilted away from us, about two miles away. Tell me the name on the side of it.”

Jim focused until he found the boat his teacher was talking about and after a moment, said, “The boat is green and white, and the name is Water Sprite. Is that the one you’re talking about?”

Blair pulled away the binoculars and gazed up at the other man in amazement. “That’s it exactly,” he said in hushed tones. “Jim, that’s just… astonishing. You really saw it. Did you know it was there already?”

Ellison shook his head. “I’ve never seen it before until now.”

Blair looked again and found that there was a man on board with a pet. He relayed this to Jim and said, “I want you to describe the man and his pet.”

Sighing, Jim focused his sight once more and finally said, “The man is tall, but elderly, so his shoulders are stooped. He’s wearing faded Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt and deck shoes, and his pet is a dark gray ferret.”

Sandburg nodded in satisfaction. “You got it. Come on, I need to enter this into the notes.”

“What about my hearing?”

“I need to get you into a lab for that, so I can test your range-“

“No. No labs.” Jim shook his head, his refusal adamant. “Think up some test or something that you can do here, but I will not go into a lab and be treated like some kind of rat.”

The look Blair gave him was eloquent in his opinion, but he said nothing, merely shrugged and nodded. Actually, there was one he could try, now that he thought about it.

As they stepped out into the hallway, the bodyguards right behind, he said, “Where’s the rest of my stuff? My clothing and school stuff was in my room, but I need my tape player and my music.”

“Down in the basement. Come on,” Jim replied, and led the way down.

Once downstairs, Blair sighed and thanked his lucky stars that the basement was clean and dry and apparently free of vermin. He rooted through the boxes, pleased that his things had at least been packed carefully, until he found what he was looking for.

Pulling out his tape player and walkman as well, he then grabbed the box containing his CD player and most of his music. “I’ll come back down and get the rest,” he muttered.

“Give whatever else you want taken up to Gary. He’ll carry it for you,” Jim instructed.

“What, and reduce his ability to be ‘helpful’ in case I decide to make a break for it?” Blair sneered.

The smile Ellison gave him was chillier than usual. “While I value Gary’s help, I don’t especially require it in order to keep you in line. He and Nate have been assigned to watch over you in the event I’m not around.”

Blair felt a chill race down his spine and he swallowed hard. Nodding, he picked up the box that held the rest of his music and handed it over to Gary, who stretched out his hands to take it.

With that, they headed back upstairs to the library and Blair settled down on the sofa. He rooted through his music until he found the tape he wanted and then cued it to the section he was looking for. He set the volume level down to just below one on the tape player and looked up at Jim. “Okay, this is a drum rhythm from an Afro-Celtic selection. I can’t hear it at the level it’s set at now. If you can, I want you to try to follow along as best as you can by tapping your hands to the rhythm on the desk or something. Okay?”

Jim sighed and went to sit at the chair behind his desk and then nodded. “Ready.”

Pressing the play button, Blair waited.

And was amazed as Jim’s hands began to effortlessly follow the complicated drum rhythm that he had chosen for the test.

He watched those strong, steady hands beat and thump and tap seamlessly, Jim’s body swaying with the rhythm, and he said softly, “You’re a drummer, aren’t you? It’s so obvious. Not many people can keep up a rhythm like that without having some knack for it….”

However, Jim didn’t respond to him. Blair looked harder and saw that his eyes were glazed over as he followed the drums. Quickly, he shut the tape off and watched as those hands faltered, a tiny frown of confusion playing across the otherwise blank face as the sentinel lost the rhythm that had zoned him.

Getting up, Blair walked over and put his hand on the other man’s shoulder and shook him as he said, “Jim, come on back, now. Test’s over, buddy. Come on, now, Jim. Come on, Jim! Jim!”

Suddenly, the older man snapped back to attention and he instinctively began to lash out at whoever was shaking him, but he checked the swing of his fist the instant the scent of Blair registered, along with the pounding of his heart.

Startled, he turned his blue eyes to an equally startled Blair, whose scent was becoming permeated with fear, and the sentinel shuddered. He got to his feet and gently clasped the shorter man’s shoulders, his eyes roving over the student to check for injuries. “Chief? You’re okay? I didn’t connect?”

Swallowing, Blair shook his head. “No,” he said quietly. “You didn’t. Almost, but you stopped. How?”

Jim sighed and let go. “How did I stop or how did I begin in the first place?”

“Answers to both would be nice.”

Jim gave a humorless chuckle. “Well, from beginning to end, the answers are: I was Black Ops in the Army up until I retired a few years ago, and I stopped because at the last second it registered to me that it was you, not some attacker.”

“Black Ops?” Sandburg repeated.

“I was a Ranger in the Army.”

“Oh, my God,” Blair whispered. Then he glared and snapped, “You served your country as a soldier, to fight and protect, and now you do this?!”

Jim returned the glare heatedly. “The idea of protect and serve is a crock of shit, Sandburg. The whole thing is nothing but lies, so don’t get your moral panties in a twist. Wanna know what was going on while I was fighting to save the world? I was being sold out by my own leaders. I was fighting to stop drugs from coming into the country and they set me up so that I made it easier to bring drugs in. When I tried to report them, I was tortured. They called it ‘re-civilizing’ me, but that’s an antiseptic way of saying ‘torture’. Then, when I found myself suddenly destitute, no money to my name and debts to pay off, I was offered the choice of working with them in order to recoup my losses. I had no choice; I took it. And I discovered that I was good at it. What I also discovered was that the level of corruption was higher than I expected and that it was everywhere. So there was really no point in going on a crusade, Sandburg. Everyone’s fucked, okay? It helps to remember that.”

Blair was silent for a long while and when Jim, who had glanced away out the windows to calm his temper, looked back at the younger man, he found Sandburg looking at him with pity and resignation.

It pissed him off.

Grabbing Blair by the arm, he marched him over to the sofa and threw him down. “Gather up all your crap and take it back to your room. Stay there and write down whatever little scientist notes you need to. Think of other things you can help me with. I have things to do. Stuff you don’t want to know about. And don’t ever think about telling me you’re sorry for me; I don’t want to hear it. I am what I am, Sandburg, and you’re going to accept me as such, or you’re going to be really sorry. Got it?”

Nodding wordlessly, Blair gathered together his notebook, pen, laptop, and music supplies, stacking everything together, and then headed for the library door.

Jim wrenched it open for him and barked, “Mr. Palmer, Mr. Turner, he’s going to be in his room for a while. Stay with him.”

Once Blair was out in the foyer, he slammed the door shut and turned away, struggling to shove his anger back down to more manageable levels. Finally succeeding, he took a deep breath and calmed himself.

Then he left the room to go into the downstairs office and settled behind the desk to get some work done, both legitimate and illegal.

Upstairs, Blair mechanically wrote down his observations and then, his mind a bit of a blank, he curled up on the bed and went to sleep, trying to find some escape from his current existence.

****

The two of them settled into a quasi-routine of sorts over the next few days.

Blair would be rousted out of bed to have breakfast with Ellison, then they would retire to the library in order to run tests on Jim’s senses and come up with control methods. The ones that Ellison liked best were the “dials”. Once the mental imagery and control were established, he spent many hours playing with those mental dials, discovering his range and strength; pleased to find both of them very high indeed.

As his control grew greater, his zone-outs became less frequent, but in only four days’ time, he knew he wasn’t completely out of the woods and so didn’t let his guard down very much unless he was in Blair’s presence.

One evening, as he headed for bed finally - maybe to sleep, maybe to burn off the last of his energy with Allison - he passed by Sandburg’s room and paused as he heard an odd, rhythmic chant and he opened the door silently and stepped inside, barely even nodding at the two bodyguards who stood outside the room.

“…Tishim… tishim veh echad… tishim veh shtayim… tishim veh shalosh… tishim veh arba… tishim veh chamesh… tishim veh shesh… tishim veh sheva… tishim veh shmoneh… tishim veh teisha… meh-ah!”

He watched as Blair finished the last of the sit-ups he’d assigned himself and paused for a moment to get his breath, and then the younger man flipped over into push-up position. He braced himself for a moment, then began, counting again in that unknown - at least, to Ellison it was - language.

“Echad… shtayim… shalosh… arba… chamesh… shesh… sheva… shmoneh… teisha… esser… echad-esreh… shtem-esreh… shlosh-esreh… arba-esreh… chamesh-esreh-“

“What are you counting in?” Jim asked conversationally.

Blair let out a strangled yelp and collapsed in a heap, only to roll over and sit up, spinning around to find Jim standing in the shadow-darkened room, since only a single lamp was lit at the moment.

He frowned fiercely. “Shit, Ellison!” he gasped. “Scare me half to death, why don’t you? Haven’t you ever heard of knocking?!”

The criminal sentinel walked forward and perched on the end of the bed, looking down at the still-panting student. Shrugging, he said, “It’s my house; I go where I please.”

“I’m accustomed to people with better manners,” Blair growled.

“You work at Rainier,” Jim pointed out. “Snooty professors, insolent students, and fellow TA’s who may or may not like you but kiss your ass on occasion to get something out of you before stabbing you in the back. Better mannered like that, you mean?”

The younger man scowled. “Did you want something in particular, or are you here only to taunt me about a life I’ll probably never have again?”

“I asked you a few minutes ago: what are you counting in? And now I have a couple of other questions for you. Such as: why are you working out? You didn’t strike me as the type of guy who does that kind of stuff. You might be skinny and short, Sandburg, but you got no muscle. And the other question is: why do you think you’ll never have the life of a student again?”

Blair looked at the criminal incredulously for a moment, then sighed and relaxed a bit. Sitting Indian-style with his legs crossed, he said, “I’m Jewish. I was counting in Hebrew. I was interrupted at fifteen; I’m trying to do a hundred push-ups to match the hundred sit-ups I just did. As for why I’m working out, I figure I’m going to need it around here, with all you muscle-men types. At least build up my endurance a little in case someone decides it’ll be fun to kick me around like an old soccer ball. As for my life, such as it is, that should be obvious. I know too much. You’re a criminal. And I won’t be bought off. When I’ve taught you all I can, you’re going to kill me and dump me in an unmarked grave somewhere; otherwise, I’m a liability to you.”

Jim frowned. “You have no idea what I’m planning to do with you. Unless you’re suddenly clairvoyant - an accurate clairvoyant - then shut up, because you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. There’s no use borrowing trouble, Sandburg; it only slows you down.”

“Different from when trouble borrows me, you mean?” Blair said with a pointed look at the older man.

Ellison grinned. “Yeah. Like that. And relax, kid. Nobody’s gonna kick the crap out of you just for the hell of it. They’ll resort to disciplinary measures only if you act up. It will be done quickly and efficiently, with minimal pain involved, unless you’re a masochist and really put up a fight. Then you can be beaten on all you like.”

Sandburg rolled his eyes with a sigh. “No, thank you,” he replied with mock-politeness. “Now, do you mind? I’d like to finish this workout so I can get some sleep sometime soon.”

“Go right ahead,” Jim countered, settling more firmly on the bed, crossing his arms. “Nobody’s stopping you.”

“Except you. You’re still here.”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“I don’t like an audience when I’m working out,” Blair said petulantly.

“That’s too bad. I want to see you finish this. I want to hear you counting in Hebrew. You have a great voice, Chief,” Jim said with exuberant cheerfulness and a suggestive leer. “Those words roll so smoothly off your… tongue.”

The younger man shivered at the insinuative tone and turned away. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

Suddenly, he felt the heat of a large mass behind him and he startled as Jim breathed in his ear, “Lots of things. You’re one of them. I want to see this, Chief. In fact, I’ll work with you. Here….”

Blair found himself moving in a daze as he was firmly positioned for push-ups once more and felt Jim arrange himself over him, legs splayed outside his so that their calves and thighs were clamped tightly together, the older man’s groin firm against his buttocks. Jim’s chest and stomach were pressed lightly to his back and shoulders, and long, muscular arms paralleled his own shorter ones, palms resting neatly on the floor. The sentinel had taken the time to remove his shirt, and was now in his pants, shoes, and tank-top.

Ellison’s mouth still at his ear, the sentinel said softly, “Start where you left off. Count in Hebrew. Let me hear you.”

Shuddering slightly, confused as to why he was allowing this, Blair automatically dropped down and went back up, Jim’s body following his effortlessly, as he began counting again where he’d left off, starting with sixteen.

“Shes-esreh… shva-esreh… smona-esreh… esreem… esreem veh echad… esreem veh shtayim… esreem veh shalosh… esreem veh arba… esreem veh chamesh… esreem veh shesh… esreem veh sheva… esreem veh shmoneh… esreem veh teisha… shloshim… shloshim veh echad-“

“What are we on now, Chief? Thirty?” Jim asked quietly, not even winded.

“Th-thirty… one… man,” Blair gasped as they paused for a moment.

“Ah. So, echad and so on, that’s one through nine, isn’t it? And the other words are meant to convey twenty-and-whatever, and then thirty-and-whatever, right?”

“Uh… huh.”

“Then I think,” Ellison breathed as he dropped his hips a bit to let his pelvis rest a little more heavily on Blair’s buttocks, “that I’ll count with you. So I can learn some of the language.” He lightly nipped at the ear near his mouth, grinning when Blair gasped. “If that’s all right with you.”

“Wh… whatever,” the younger man whimpered.

“Good. We stopped at thirty-one. Thirty is… shloshim, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Fine. Now, then, on thirty-two-“ And he pushed sharply with his hips as he pressed down on the smaller man with his torso.

“Shloshim veh shtayim,” they counted together, Blair almost breathless, Jim’s deep voice steady and firm. “Shloshim veh shalosh… shloshim veh arba… shloshim veh chamesh… shloshim veh shesh… shloshim veh sheva… shloshim veh shmoneh… shloshim veh teisha….”

“What’s next, Chief?” Jim panted gently, pausing them both for a moment. “What’s forty?”

“Arbaim,” Blair replied with a shiver.

“Ah. So, it will go arbaim, and then arbaim-veh-whatever?”

“Yeah.”

Jim smiled, knowing the younger man could feel his half-hard cock pressing against his tight buttocks through the cloth of both their pants. He rubbed lightly just for the sheer hell of it and bit back a sigh of pleasure, and grinned again as Blair went even more rigid beneath him. “And you want to do one-hundred of these?”

“Yes!” Blair snapped, slightly angry now and feeling trapped… and turned on. Not that he would even admit to it, he decided firmly, and pushed that thought out of his mind.

“Then we’d better get started,” Jim purred, and pushed again. “Arbaim…”

“Arbaim veh echad… arbaim veh shtayim… arbaim veh shalosh… arbaim veh arba… arbaim veh chamesh… arbaim veh shesh… arbaim veh sheva… arbaim veh shmoneh… arbaim veh teisha….”

“Good,” Jim growled, letting them pause again, feeling Blair’s arms quivering against his, the muscles of his shoulders tight against his pectorals. “Fifty?”

“Chamishim,” Blair said quickly.

“Alright, then. And… chamishim.”

“Chamishim veh echad,” they chanted, pushing and rising together. “Chamishim veh shtayim… chamishim veh shalosh… chamishim veh arba… chamishim veh chamesh… chamishim veh shesh… chamishim veh sheva… chamishim veh shmoneh… chamishim veh teisha….”

Again, the older man paused them. “Good, Chief,” he said huskily, breathing deeply of the scent of Blair sweat and musk beneath him. “Sixty?”

“Sheesheem,” Blair gasped, his arms quivering harder. “God, I don’t know if I can make it to one-hundred.”

“You can,” Ellison said firmly. “I know you can. I’m right here with you. Now… sheesheem,” and he pushed them into motion again.

“Sheesheem veh echad… sheesheem veh shtayim… sheesheem veh shalosh… sheesheem veh arba… sheesheem veh chamesh… sheesheem veh shesh… sheesheem veh sheva… sheesheem veh shmoneh… sheesheem veh teisha….”

Pause. “You’re doing good, Blair. Seventy?”

“Can’t…” the younger man gasped, sweat rolling down his face as he forced his elbows to lock so he wouldn’t collapse onto his face.

“Can,” Jim insisted. “Seventy?”

“No…”

“Yes. Seventy?”

“Do the other thirty tomorrow-“

“No. Seventy.”

Blair sighed. “Sheeveem,” he said softly.

Jim smiled. “Good. And… sheeveem,” and they were once again pushing up and down.

“Sheeveem veh echad… sheeveem veh shtayim… sheeveem veh shalosh… sheeveem veh arba… sheeveem veh chamesh… sheeveem veh shesh… sheeveem veh sheva… sheeveem veh shmoneh… sheeveem veh teisha….”

Jim braced himself on one arm and curled the other under Blair’s heaving chest as they paused again. He nuzzled his face against his teacher’s damp curls and murmured, “Almost done, Chief. Eighty?”

“Shmonim,” came the near breathless whimper.

“Okay. Get your breath back and then we’ll go again.”

After a few long minutes, Blair finally said, “Ready,” with steely determination.

The arm that had been helping him stay braced withdrew and he feared for a moment that his arms would finally give out and he would collapse, but he struggled and remained up in the push-up position, Jim’s hot and sweaty body blanketing him like living fire.

“Good, Chief. Now… Shmonim,” Jim said softly, and pushed them into motion.

“Shmonim veh echad,” they began, Blair chanting along mindlessly as he focused most of his brainpower on forcing his arms to flex and extend. “Shmonim veh shtayim… shmonim veh shalosh… shmonim veh arba… shmonim veh chamesh… shmonim veh shesh… shmonim veh sheva… shmonim veh shmoneh… shmonim veh teisha….”

“Ninety… is… tishim,” Blair gasped out, and kept going, knowing that if he stopped now, he’d never start again. “And one-hundred… is… meh-ah.”

“Tishim,” Jim intoned along with him. “Tishim veh echad… tishim veh shtayim… tishim veh shalosh… tishim veh arba… tishim veh chamesh… tishim veh shesh… tishim veh sheva… tishim veh shmoneh… tishim veh teisha-“

“Meh-ah!” they chorused together in a shout, and as Blair collapsed bonelessly to the floor to gasp like a dying fish, Jim rolled to the side so he wouldn’t suffocate the younger man, panting himself.

Long, long moments later, Jim sat up to look down at the younger man who lay where he’d fallen, but was no longer breathing hard. He smiled as his gaze raked over the sweat-dampened T-shirt and boxer shorts, his eyes lingering on well-formed buttocks.

“You’re going to be feeling this tomorrow,” he said conversationally.

“’M feelin’ it now,” Blair mumbled back, almost asleep already in his exhaustion.

Ellison chuckled and hauled himself to his feet. “I’m sure you are. But you’re really going to feel it tomorrow. So, tell you what, since I forced you to continue, I’ll grant you a privilege. You can sleep in tomorrow and I’ll have breakfast brought up here.”

A grateful grunt issued from the younger man’s mouth.

Jim laughed outright and he turned and made his way over to the bathroom, turning on the light. He pulled back one of the shower doors and started the water, then activated only one of the showerheads. Then he went back out and bent down, smoothly rolling Blair over onto his back.

Taking the younger man’s hands in a firm grip, he warned, “I’m going to pull you up, now. You’d better be ready to have your feet under you.”

Sighing wearily, Blair nodded and squeezed as firmly as he was able to with his fingers.

A swift tug and lift, and suddenly, Sandburg was upright. He swayed for a moment, catching himself against Jim’s chest, and he blinked blearily up at the other man. “Wanna go to bed,” he mumbled.

“Much as I’d like to,” Ellison teased wickedly, his sardonic, chill smile in place, “you, my friend, reek like a municipal landfill on a muggy day. You're going to shower off the sweat and then you can go to bed and sleep as late as you want to.”

Blair moaned a vague protest, but he allowed himself to be led to the bathroom. He was efficiently stripped and then helped into the shower, where the hot water revitalized him enough so that he could bathe himself, as well as shampoo and condition his hair.

When he was all rinsed off, he shut off the water and then climbed out of the tub, surprised to find Ellison still there, waiting with a towel. Too tired to argue, he stood still and let the sentinel dry him off.

“Want your hair dried tonight, or comb it out in the morning?” Jim asked calmly, as if he played nursemaid and hairdresser every day.

“Comb it out in the morning. Got detangler,” the younger man mumbled.

“Alright, then. Come on; into bed.”

Ellison led the younger man out after using another towel to relieve the long hair of most of the moisture. He’d turned down the bedcovers and now he pushed Blair down onto the mattress, waiting as the younger man dragged himself into his favorite spot, lying limply on his back.

The last thing Blair was aware of was the bedcovers being tucked up beneath his chin and Jim’s voice, as if from far away, murmuring, “Sleep tight, Chief,” and a vague sensation of warmth against his mouth, and then he was gone deep into sleep.

Jim slowly straightened up, staring down at the younger man, and realized he had done a very stupid thing. He had given his young teacher and possible lover a single goodnight kiss… and now discovered that one kiss was nowhere near enough.

He flicked his tongue over his own lips, capturing the slight hint of Blair’s taste that clung to them, and shuddered. Quickly, he turned and left the room after shutting off the lamp, pulling the door shut firmly behind him before stalking down the hallway towards his own room.

Stupid! he hissed mentally. Stupid! He’s dead to the world right now; he’d never feel a thing if I used him to get off. And I want him awake and aware when I take him. Damn! I should have known better!

Stomping into his own bathroom, he hurriedly stripped off his clothes and got into his own shower. He washed himself thoroughly and then stared down at his erection balefully. He vaguely thought about calling Allison up to take care of it, but he grimly acknowledged that she wouldn’t be enough for him that evening.

Gripping himself, he closed his eyes and focused on the memory of Blair’s lips; their warmth and soft fullness and the taste of that mouth, as he stroked himself fast and hard. It wasn’t long before he came powerfully, grunting as he spurted into his fist, then slumped against the tiled wall, gasping as the water rinsed him clean.

Shutting off the water, he climbed out and dried himself off, then brushed his teeth quickly. Feeling more exhausted than he had in a while, he stumbled over to his bed, crawled in completely naked, pulled the covers up, and was out before his head hit the pillow.

****

The next morning, Blair groaned as he managed to sit upright in bed. Ellison had been correct; he was really feeling it this morning.

God, my arms feel like burning hot lead that’s been attached to my shoulders, and my stomach like it’s been used as a punching bag! he moaned silently. At least my legs were already in relatively good shape and aren’t feeling it quite so badly.

He flinched a moment later when someone knocked on his door. Sighing, he closed his eyes and called out, “Yeah, come in!”

The door opened and Jim walked in, shutting the door behind him. He walked closer to the bed, carrying a breakfast tray, and he smirked coolly at the man lying propped up in bed. “Good morning. Feeling well?”

“Oh, bite me,” Blair growled. “You know I’m not!”

Ellison paused in the act of setting down the tray and raised an eyebrow. “You know, I was going to be nice and feed you myself, but if that’s your attitude…” and he turned as if to walk away.

“No!” Blair called out, and then blushed when Jim turned back. Gritting his teeth and stomping his pride down, he grumbled, “I’m sorry. I’m just… hurting. Please, can I have breakfast?”

“Much better,” Jim said with that trademark chill smile, and set the tray down on Blair’s lap, sitting beside him on the edge of the bed.

Blair sighed with pleasure at the heat emanating from the tray and blinked sleepily, then glanced down as Jim removed the cover from the tray.

“Waffles!” he gasped, surprised, and a grin flitted across his face.

“Mmm-hmmm. Blueberry, with strawberry and pecan syrup, and a touch of whip cream. Fat Free for yours, regular for me. In fact, yours are mostly ‘lite’ and fat free everything, since you seem to have such a problem with real food,” Jim commented. “Which is why I brought up orange slices too.”

“I do not have a problem with ‘real’ food,” Sandburg shot back instantly. “I just prefer to limit my caloric intake whenever I can. I have one of those body types that will run to fat if given the chance.”

“Like being healthy, do you?”

“That, and do you know how hard it is for fat people to get a date? Society is, like, way discriminating, man,” Blair muttered. “I have so many friends who’ve been passed over by way shallow people - which, I suppose, is a good thing - but c’mon, my friends are good people, just as fun and loving and compassionate as any other person - except you - and it’s not fair-“

“I take exception to that remark, Sandburg,” Jim said calmly, tucking a napkin up against Blair’s naked chest and then picking up the fork and knife on Blair’s plate and cutting off a wedge of waffle.

“I don’t know why,” Blair grumbled. “You admit that you make a living out of being a criminal - one who tortures and murders people. That is not what I would call loving and compassionate-mmph!”

“Shut up and chew, kid,” the older man said brusquely. He cut off a chunk of waffles from his own plate and chewed it slowly, enjoying the taste and the fact that he could enjoy it without zoning.

They spent the next few minutes eating quietly and then a knock sounded on the door. Both men looked over expectantly as it opened and Allison walked in.

“Sir, Mr. Lazar and his daughter are downstairs in your office,” she said without preamble. “They want to discuss something with you.”

Ellison nodded and got to his feet. “Thank you, Ms. Murphy. Has their comfort been seen to?”

“Coffee is on its way for Erika; Mr. Lazar insisted on bringing his own special water and tumbler.”

“Very good. Tell them I’ll be down in a minute.”

“Yes, sir.”

She left, and Jim turned to look down at his young teacher, only to find Blair glaring at him. He sighed. “What is it now?”

“Lazar. As in, the reputed criminal boss, Lazar?”

Jim flashed him a cold grin. “He lives only a few miles away, Chief. We’re on good terms with each other.”

Blair snorted. “Why am I not surprised?” He cast a shrewd glance at the older man. “I notice you didn’t say he was your friend.”

It was Jim’s turn to snort. “Chief, in the business world and the criminal world, it is very rare to find friends. The most there can ever be is a partnership, and people on good terms with each other. Nobody trusts anybody enough for something so transient as friendship. In this line of work, even friends will stab you in the back if it gains them something. So, no, I don’t have any true friends.”

“None?” the younger man asked softly. “None at all?”

“No. And I don’t plan to have any, either. I have no illusions about my life, Sandburg. I’m a businessman and a criminal. Some would say one is the same as the other. But mine is a life of emotional solitude, ruthlessness, thievery, and even murder. There’s no room for anything else.”

Staring up at the sentinel, who gazed back at him with an implacable expression, Blair felt a pang of sympathy and pity sweep through him for the older man. And the wish that Ellison’s life had been different. Knowing these thoughts would do him no good, he quickly dropped his eyes to the breakfast tray in his lap.

Jim was silent for a moment longer, then said quietly, “I’ll send someone up to collect the tray and bring you some aspirin. Try to get some sleep. If I can, I’ll join you for lunch.”

And with that, he was gone from the room.

Blair gave a tiny sigh and then grit his teeth, forcing his arms to lift and move the tray from his lap. A few moments later, a maid appeared with four aspirin in her palm. She helped him swallow them down by holding a glass of water to his lips, then whisked the tray away, closing the door behind her.

He struggled to lie flat again, panting with exertion as burning fire licked along his over-extended muscles and sore nerves. Finally, tired, and numb with what he recognized as hopelessness, he closed his eyes and went to sleep.

***

Jim walked down the hallway past Blair’s room, nodding to Gary and Nate as he did so. He focused his hearing on the young man inside the room and felt a skirl of satisfaction move through him; Sandburg was asleep again, getting some much needed rest.

As he headed downstairs, Jim tugged lightly at the maroon tie around his neck, situating it comfortably, his thoughts still on Sandburg.

I shouldn’t have insisted that he finish the one-hundred set, he thought irritably. We both knew his muscles were already taxed. But no, I wanted to feel him under me; wanted to use my power by forcing him to continue. Hmph. He’s going to be laid up for a few days.

Sighing quietly, he walked to his office, nodding at Allison to follow him in. She fell into step behind him and they went inside, the doors shutting behind them.

He pasted on a cordial smile as Lazar and his daughter rose from their seats in front of his desk. “Dominick; Erika. Good to see you both.”

“Hello, Jimmy!” Dominick laughed pleasantly, but Ellison could still see the sharp gaze the older man was lasering him with. “Sorry for the unannounced visit, my boy, but I wanted to share some news with you.”

Stepping back after shaking their hands, he settled behind his desk in his own chair, facing them. Sometimes, he felt like a Headmaster at a school with unruly students before him; or even vaguely like a feudal overlord. But it was a necessary display of power, and expected of him. They all knew it. In his territory, he was expected to do so, to show that he was confident of himself and his skills and his people. Otherwise, his power would be usurped at the earliest opportunity and his life would be snuffed out.

Raising a single eyebrow, Jim said pointedly, “So, Dominick. Talk.”

Nodding amiably, the older crime lord took a sip of his special Italian spring water and then got down to business. “You’ve been incommunicado for the last few days, Ellison. We’ve all been wondering what was wrong with you. Every time any of us has called, your Ms. Murphy has said that you were either busy or indisposed.”

“I was. I’m not at the moment. What are you here for?”

Dominick glanced to his daughter and the forceful young woman took the hint and spoke for him. “Do you remember the meeting last week, Ellison? About the Void?”

“Yes. What about them?”

“We’ve all agreed that your idea was sound and we’d like to implement it. However, the catch is that since you seem to know so much about bikes and how best to get the Void under our control, we want you to be the one to talk to them.”

“I see. And what am I going to be offering them?” Jim asked calmly, with a hint of insolence in his tone.

“You said yourself that they require only good mechanics, bike parts, bikes, and enough money to stay in booze, drugs, and to keep their women happy. You will offer a contribution from each of us. Senor Carasco and I will be offering weapons. Kadama has made the stipulation that his own products will be sold along with the Void’s, but in exchange, they will have free meals from his restaurants whenever they wish and he will supply whatever bike parts they require. The others have made contributions of free services from the best mechanics and bikes themselves. That leaves only you.”

Jim offered a chilling smile. “I guess that I am the one who will be offering them money.”

The other two nodded. “You’re the one among us who has the most of it. Set your own terms, but yes, we expect you to offer some up. You yourself said that they want money. That’s understandable. What we do, it’s not like we’re in it for altruistic motives,” Erika said disdainfully, and her father laughed. “We all want money. Offer them what you think is acceptable; offer them what the rest of us are supplying, and then get them to agree to our terms.”

“Which are?”

“Run the meth for us. Split some of the take. Draw the heat from the cops away from us. In return, we protect them and keep them in running shape. And let them know what a good deal they’re getting. Because if they turn us down and make life difficult for us all, we shall all be gunning for them. They won’t stand a chance between a half dozen powerful organizations.”

“And when the Void are destroyed? What’s to keep the cops from sniffing in our direction for clues?”

“There’s always another gang like the Void waiting in the wings,” Dominick replied firmly. “There will always be gangs like them around. We either make use of them, or we end up with yet another enemy to keep an eye on. More battles fought and more employees lost until finally the cops find a way in and bring us down.”

Jim was silent for a moment, regarding the two of them quietly and carefully. Finally, he smiled his trademark chill smile, and nodded. “Very good. Since you seem to understand the possibilities and so on… I’ll do it. Give me a few days to make my plans. Has everyone gathered together their offerings?”

The Lazars nodded.

“Excellent. Be waiting for my word. I’ll let you know when and where the meet will be.”

Dominick and Erika grinned and relaxed into their seats. The older man turned to his daughter and said, “See there, Erika? Didn’t I tell you he’d come through? Practical, that’s what he is!”

“Yes, Daddy, you did say that,” the young woman replied, patient as always with her father.

Dominick cast a shrewd glance between the two and then smiled as he said, “That’s what you need in a husband, girl. A man like our Jimmy, here. A man like him to run the business, keep things in line, and you can help him out a bit while maybe making some grandchildren for me, eh?”

Erika grit her teeth at this eternal, archaic argument between them. She wanted nothing more than to prove her intelligence and gumption, but her father was a male chauvinist in that he believed men ran the world and the women’s place was in the home, minding the heirs and keeping their husbands happy. This point of view nauseated her and they had already had several fights about it.

She glanced over at Ellison to find him staring hard at her. When their gazes met, the corners of his mouth lifted in a chill, sardonic smile, his icy blue eyes conveying that he knew exactly what she was thinking, and agreed with every sentiment. Undeniably, Ellison was a handsome man, but she knew that a merger between them would be a bad idea. They might marry, they might have sex, they might have children, but they would never have trust between them. And she would never have anything more than business, all the while fighting to have some independence of her own. Because though Ellison clearly agreed with her, he was still an Alpha Male, and would continue to be the one running things if he had anything to say about it.

Dominick, however, was unaware of this. He stood, gathering his things as he said, “Eh, Jimmy, would you care to go out to lunch with us? My treat.”

Jim dragged his gaze to the older man as he stood as well, and shook his head. “No, Dominick, thank you. I already have a lunch appointment today. Tomorrow, if that’s all right with you.”

“Fine, fine. Good seeing you, Jimmy. Try not to worry us anymore, will you? You went quiet, we started thinking something bad had happened.”

“Will do, Dominick. See you tomorrow.”

After the Lazars left, escorted out to the front door by Allison, Jim sat back down at his desk and sighed quietly as he rested his face in his hands, relishing the few moments of peace and quiet.

A few minutes later, he straightened up and turned to his computer, switching it on as he reached for the telephone.

He had work to do.

***

“Hey, Chief.”

Blair turned his gaze away from the window he’d been looking out of while lying in bed. He turned it towards the door to see Jim walking inside, shutting the door behind him, thinking idly that the man looked good dressed neatly in a tailored gray suit, white shirt, and maroon tie, before shutting those thoughts closed off.

Ellison walked up to the bed and stood beside it, looking down at the younger man. “Have lunch yet?”

Sandburg nodded. “The maid fed me vegetable beef soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.”

“No dessert?”

Blair’s face blushed slightly and the younger man glanced away.

Jim grinned. “Let me guess from your reaction. You didn’t ask for any dessert when the maid took your order. But you got one anyway. Apparently, the maid in question was feeling sorry for you and snuck you some dessert and coaxed you into eating it with a pretty smile and big eyes. That would mean the maid in question is none other than Karen Killian. Because of her initials, and the fact that she’s a sexy little blonde, we call her Kiki.”

Blair turned a mulish expression on him. “She told me to call her Karen, which should be a big enough clue that she prefers her real name,” he said hotly. Then he glanced away again as he mumbled, “She brought me a slice of chocolate cake.”

“Ah, yes. The cook’s name is Sebastian, and he’s a divine miracle in the kitchen. I bet it was his triple chocolate fudge cake that you had a slice of. I’ll have to remember to have a piece sent to the office while I’m working.”

“No,” Blair said immediately, and Jim raised an eyebrow at this. “Not without me there,” the younger man amended. “It’s too easy for you to zone on a treat that rich.”

“Why, Sandburg,” Jim said with his chill smile as he hitched up a pants leg and sat on the edge of the bed. “Are you actually concerned about me? I would have thought you’d use it as a prime opportunity.”

Blair let out a harsh bark of resentful laughter. “To do what, man? Make my big escape? I can barely make it to the bathroom and back without dying from the pain. Anything beyond that is impossible.”

“And if it were possible…?”

Sandburg glanced away, not wanting to reveal his inner thoughts.

Jim reached out and gripped his chin firmly, turning his face back to the sentinel-criminal’s.

“I do hope, for your sake, that your plan of action would be to stick around and help me, rather than trying to make a break for it. Because I would find you if you did manage to escape, and the results would be less than satisfying for you,” Ellison hissed quietly.

Blair jerked his chin free and glared at the older man silently.

Again, that chill smile graced Jim’s face and he said, “So long as we understand each other, Chief. So… can I get you anything? Something to read, your laptop maybe?”

Blair was silent for a moment, then said, “The laptop, please.”

Jim nodded and went to retrieve the new computer that he’d bought Blair the day after the first round of tests. It was state-of-the-art, loaded with everything except Internet or e-mail capabilities. If there was anything Sandburg wanted researched off the ‘net, Jim would do it himself. He didn’t want there to be a chance of the younger man contacting anyone and reporting him.

Walking back to the bed, he set it down on Blair’s lap, turned it on, and opened the lid, then positioned Blair’s arms carefully so the younger man could tap on the keyboard in only minor discomfort.

“There. Better?” the sentinel asked.

Sandburg nodded. “Yeah, man. Thanks.”

“Sure. I’ll be working for a while longer. Business deals to make, people to fleece, money to earn and/or steal. That sort of thing. I’ll stop by later and help you into a hot tub and when you’ve had a nice long soak, I’ll rub some liniment into your sore spots.” When Blair looked up at him warily, he couldn’t resist flashing a predatory smile and teasing, “And be sure to tell me where your sore spots are. Otherwise, I’ll have to test my sense of touch and go… searching.”

Blair’s eyes widened and a deep flush worked over his face and down his throat. Then he glared and looked down determinedly at his laptop screen, quickly opening the writing program. “You need to get laid,” he growled.

“I agree. However, you're not available at the moment,” Jim returned blandly.

The younger man lifted hot eyes full of outrage to the criminal. “I’m not available this time or any other!” he spat. “Not to you.”

Again, the chilling smile, and Ellison bent down so their faces were close to one another. “Sandburg, I could have you anytime and we both know it.”

Blair’s eyes widened again, his breath freezing in his throat. “You…” he whispered hoarsely. “You’d ra-“

“No,” Jim cut off harshly, glaring fiercely, before calming again. “No, I wouldn’t. But, then again, I wouldn’t have to. By the time I finished with you, you’d be so far out of your mind with pleasure, you’d be screaming at me to fuck you.”

“Only in your dreams,” Blair growled, hiding his relief that apparently, there was at least one area in which Ellison balked.

“Pleasant though they are, I could make them a reality. Don’t tempt me,” the older man shot back.

“Right. And how do I do that, exactly? I don’t know much else about you other than you’re an unscrupulous, morally corrupt villain who gets off on hurting and humiliating others, all because you’re an emotionally stunted, knuckle-dragging primate!”

Something hot and dangerous flashed in Jim’s eyes and then he dropped down to sit beside Sandburg as he reached out and gripped Blair’s shoulders hard, pushing him back into the pillows. He ignored the sharp cry of pain the younger man let out and brought his mouth down hard on the wet, open lips. He held the weakly struggling student pinned against the pillows as he thrust his tongue in again and again, tasting and stroking that smart mouth that sassed him relentlessly, nipping sharply on the full lower lip that crept into his thoughts nearly every minute.

Finally, when they were both panting and Blair had submitted to him, actually beginning to tentatively kiss back, Jim tore his mouth free and sat backwards, his hands still gripping the younger man’s shoulders tightly.

“Is that what you wanted?” Jim asked tightly, his ice blue eyes feral and cold. “Did that prove your point for you? Well, it’s your own fault. Be careful what you wish for, Sandburg, because you just might get it.”

Slowly releasing his grip on the younger man, he watched as Blair winced even as he trembled hard, his face pale and his eyes glassy. His anger mellowing some, Jim reached out and lightly palmed one of Blair’s cheeks, ignoring the other man’s flinch, and lifted Sandburg’s face so they could look into each other’s eyes.

“It doesn’t have to be like that, Chief,” he murmured softly. “It doesn’t have to be hard and harsh. Don’t provoke me, kid. Just… don’t do it.”

He bent closer and Blair closed his eyes with a cut-off whimper, afraid his mouth was about to be ravaged again. But instead, all he felt was the brush of moist, gentle lips across his forehead, and then Jim was gone. He didn’t open his eyes again until he heard the door open and shut.

Finally, after long moments of staring at the screen of the laptop that had, miraculously, remained perched on his lap, he slowly lifted his arms and positioned his hands to begin typing, not at all certain that what he was typing was anywhere near coherent.

****

The deal with the Void went through and soon all the criminals involved were getting richer and laughing as they thumbed their collective noses at the cops who were frustrated by their apparent inability to catch the Void and halt the new drug flow increase.

Blair eventually healed up enough to move around and he continued to coach Jim in how to use his senses and avoid zone-outs, writing down his findings.

One morning, a week after the push-up session, Jim was called on at his offices at Ellison Enterprises by a man he knew of only by word of mouth; an ex-CIA agent by the name of Lee Brackett. One who worked as a mercenary and a supplier of black market weapons, especially experimental ones.

Ellison remained seated behind his desk as Brackett - after being okayed by Ellison through his secretary outside - knocked discreetly on the door, then opened it and stepped in, shutting the door behind him. He stayed by the door and allowed Ellison the courtesy of giving him a quick once-over, one eyebrow raised sardonically, a smirk gracing the handsome face.

Jim took the opportunity and ranged his senses over the good-looking man, from the top of his head that was covered with thick, wavy, chocolatey-brown hair, down the long, lean muscular body, to the tip of his polished black boots. Deciding that the man was harmless enough for the moment, he stood and gave his trademarked chill smile. “Mr. Brackett.”

The ex-agent walked forward to stand before the desk and held out his hand. “Mr. Ellison. I see you’ve prospered during these years since you’ve left the Army.”

The two men shook hands, engaging in a brief pissing contest by seeing who had the firmer grip, and stalemated after a few moments. They released each other’s hands and Jim nodded shortly, his face expressionless. “I have, Mr. Brackett. Sit down, please. What can I do for you?”

“That’s an excellent question, Mr. Ellison,” Lee murmured as he sat down smoothly in one of the chairs opposite the desk. “I believe there’s quite a bit you can do for me.”

“Really. I would be interested in finding out what you think that is, Brackett,” Jim replied dryly.

“Absolutely. Let’s be frank, shall we? I know as much about you as you do about me. Probably more. You see, I know about your Sentinel abilities.”

Jim never twitched, his expression never changed, but his eyes became totally glacial as they bored into the slimmer man.

Lee gave a shark-toothed smile and continued. “I was the one who debriefed Captain Mathis after your rescue in Peru. He noted your odd behavior and described it to me. I kept my opinions to myself, but I never thought it was all that odd, really. See, not too long before it happened, I read a very interesting paper by a young undergrad. I read lots of things, but this was intriguing. It was an anthropological article about the concept of a mythical tribal guardian discovered by a long-dead explorer. This guardian had all five senses genetically enhanced beyond the norm of average humans. He was a great asset to the tribe. I found myself thinking of what I could do with a person such as that, and kept my eye on you and the author of the article. A Mr. Blair Sandburg. You wouldn’t believe how thrilled I was to discover that you two had finally met.”

“Get to the point,” Jim growled.

“Hmm. Yes, well. With your contacts, I’m sure you’ve heard about what happened over at Rainier. That someone stole a canister of pure Ebola Virus.”

“Let me guess: that was you.”

“Very astute of you. Yes, it was me. I took it for a reason.”

“A distraction for the cops and a method of coercion against me.”

Lee raised an eyebrow, marginally impressed, and nodded. “Very good.”

“Do not talk down to me as though I were some sort of intellectual dwarf, Brackett. You might currently hold all the cards in this little game that you are taking a very long time explaining about, but you will not treat me as if I am stupid. What do you want?” Ellison snapped.

“You’re going to help me commit a crime. You should be used to it by now, so I won’t have to worry about your morality getting in the way.”

“What makes you think I’ll help you with anything?”

“Because I have the Ebola Virus wired to an electrical charge. I can either trigger it once I’m safely out of the way, or it will go off after I set the timer. Being an airborne virus, most of the town in a five mile radius - including you - will be dead within minutes. Horribly dead. The rest will have a slow, lingering death over the next few weeks. And that’s not even counting the travelers who will carry the virus out of Cascade.”

Jim raised an eyebrow. “What makes you think I give a damn about Cascade? I can be packed up; my operatives and me shifted out of the way to a safety zone before anything can happen to us, even if you were to detonate the bomb and loose the virus right now.”

“Did I mention that the first casualty of the virus will be Mr. Sandburg? Seeing as how he is currently sitting very close to the canister at the moment since I removed him from his room at your mansion,” Lee said quietly.

Instinctual need to defend his guide sent Jim surging to his feet, ready to go over his desk if he had to in order to get to the man in front of him.

Instantly, Brackett was on his feet and aiming a gun that he had pulled smoothly from beneath his jacket at the sentinel.

“Stay right there, Jim,” the ex-agent warned. “I’ll shoot you if I have to, even if it will inconvenience me. Sandburg is unharmed at the moment; merely tied up. None of your people are even aware that he’s gone. It was ridiculously easy for me to slip in and escape with him.”

Jim trembled slightly in his need to hurt this interloper in front of him, but held himself in check.

“Good. You’re coming with me. I’m going to need your senses to get what I want.”

Now Jim smirked. “Ah, it seems I have the advantage again. I’m still getting used to these things and still need Sandburg to walk me through them to avoid zoning out. Looks as though you fumbled that ball, Hannibal.”

“Lector or the General?” Brackett asked conversationally, not deterred in the least.

“A bit of both, actually. After all, I might be a criminal, but it has never crossed my mind to mass-murder thousands of people.”

“What do you call your drug deal with the Void, then?”

“Business.”

“Well, this is business for me, too. Fine. You need Sandburg, then I’ll get Sandburg. We’ll meet you at La Cueva on Balleyette Street in one hour. Come alone, or you, your Guide, and this entire city will regret it.”

With that, Brackett re-holstered his weapon, turned on his heel, and left swiftly.

Jim heard him exit the office and go down in an elevator, then snarled and slammed his fists on the desktop. He did it twice more, then calmed down to a more manageable level before making calls and setting his plan into action.

***

One hour later found Jim driving down Balleyette Street in his own vehicle, a teal-colored F-150 truck. The limo was a useful tool, but there were times he wanted or needed to drive himself, and this was one of those times. He had also taken the time to change into a spare set of clothes; boots with heavy tread, jeans, a black cashmere turtleneck, and his favorite dark brown leather jacket. Hey, there was no reason not to be stylish while getting down and dirty.

As he parked in front of La Cueva, his mind replayed over the conversation he’d had with Kadama before leaving for the rendezvous.

“The cops were given a heads-up on who the Virus thief was from a vocal troublemaker over at Rainier. Some guy named Kelso,” the Japanese criminal said.

“He’s also ex-CIA,” Jim muttered. “He was wounded a few years ago in an operation and was resigned from active duty, but he quit altogether when it was hushed up because of a double-cross going on. He got pissed about it, climbed into his motorized high-horse, and rode on out to blow the whistle on his old department. He’s got plenty of people riled - surprised no one’s taken him out yet. It’d be easy, seeing as how he’s in a wheel chair.”

“Right, that’s the one. Anyway, he tipped the cops that it was this Brackett guy. Now the cops are swarming around some house they think is his, with what could be the canister and bomb.”

“It’s not. If I know Brackett, he’s not letting that canister out of his control.”

“Want me to tip them off and put the heat back on him?”

“Negative. That’ll have the heat on me as well and I can’t afford that. Having the cops distracted right now is both necessary and helpful. Besides, Brackett is a sneaky bastard who loves to play games of chance. He’s probably rigged the house with a hidden explosive that the cops will set off, but he’ll give the cops a sporting chance to get out before it goes.”

“Huh. I guess I can understand that. Just make sure you take care of the problem, Ellison. Both of them. I’ll have my people working on information over here.”

“Will do, Kadama. Over and out.”

Now, as he entered the Peruvian restaurant, he winced and attempted to find his dials so he could counteract the rush of information his senses of smell, sound, and sight were sending him.

And then everything stabilized as he felt hands on him that he recognized, heard the soothing murmur of a voice that was very familiar to him. He blinked his eyes open and looked down into the wide, worried blue eyes of Blair Sandburg.

Looking up, he found Brackett sitting at a table not five feet away, his gun trained on them casually, yet alertly.

Immediately, Jim swept Blair behind him, adopting an instinctual protective pose trying to shield his guide.

Brackett smirked. “As much as I find this primitive display amusing, we need to get this show on the road. We have two hours to get what I want, and then the electrical charge goes off and Cascade becomes a death town. But first….”

He drained his beer, got up, and walked over to stand in front of Ellison, his gun never wavering as he removed a hand-held bio-scanner from his inner jacket pocket.

The sentinel stood very still, his ice blue eyes staring lethally at the man in front of him, as Brackett swept the scanner quickly from head to toe before stepping back.

“Good, no wires. I was afraid you might actually be foolish enough to call in reinforcements.”

Jim sneered at him. “I can take you out whenever I feel like it, Brackett. Don’t get too cocky, thinking you’re safe. You know what I am; what I can do. Don’t forget it.”

Lee paused a moment before nodding, taking the warning to heart. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys, tossing them to Jim. “I’m parked out back; you drive, and I’ll sit behind Mr. Sandburg. And remember - the clock is ticking.”

His gaze even more lethal than before - some would have said that wasn’t possible - Jim nevertheless nodded and he shifted behind him to grab one of Blair’s arms and began walking for the back entrance, pulling the younger man with him. As they walked, he took the opportunity to ask quietly, “You okay, Chief?”

Blair nodded shakily. “Fine. Barely even bruised. Jim, what does this nutcase want? He said he has the Ebola Virus in a canister with a bomb on it and he’s going to turn it loose on Cascade if we don’t help him!”

“I don’t know what we’re after just yet, Sandburg. By keeping us in the dark, he’s one step ahead of us. But he’s telling the truth about the Virus.”

“Oh, God,” Blair whimpered, pushing back a few wayward curls as they emerged from the restaurant and headed for a black four-door. “That’s … man, that’s like the Black Plague on steroids, man!”

“Yes, it is,” agreed the man walking behind them. “Which is why we should hurry.”

The younger man shuddered hard as he stopped by the passenger side front door, which was already unlocked. He turned and fixed Brackett with a glare, who met his gaze calmly. “That’s what you had me sitting near?!”

Lee shrugged. “Yes. Now get in.”

“Chief,” Jim said impatiently as he began climbing in behind the steering wheel.

Sighing, Blair slid into the car and pulled the door shut, buckling his seatbelt as Brackett climbed in behind them.

Forty-five minutes later found them pulling up to the gate outside of an Army facility. The guard in the gatehouse came up to Blair’s open window, looking in at them skeptically. “May I see some identification, gentlemen?”

Jim glanced into the rearview mirror in time to see Brackett raising his gun, pointing it at the guard. “Chief!” he barked out.

Glancing behind him, Blair saw what prompted the outburst and he reacted on instinct, kicking his door open which knocked the guard backwards into the gatehouse, the impact of his head against the wood rendering him unconscious.

The three men scrambled out of the car and Blair placed his body between Lee and the guard. “No murder,” he growled warningly, and he glared at Jim, too.

Ellison nodded. “No murder. Not this time. He’s only doing his job.”

“Fine. You two get him into the gatehouse.”

As Jim and Blair worked to move the unconscious guard, Jim glanced back at Brackett and grumbled, “This one of your ‘overthrow the government’ scenarios?”

“Read my file, huh? How’d you get it - that traitorous bastard Kelso?”

“Said the pot to the kettle,” Ellison muttered sarcastically, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

Brackett glared at him. “The republic I swore allegiance to was overthrown years ago - we both know that the people in charge today are the traitors.”

“So you're a patriot out to save us all, huh?”

“You have no idea what your government’s up to.”

“I know more than you think. I just don’t give a shit. So far as I know, the government isn’t planning to kill off the population that makes them rich.”

Sandburg looked between the two men and finally said, “That brings up a good point. How are you going to save the American People - ordinary citizens, most of them, who have no idea what their government is up to - by killing them? Why are you punishing the totally clueless victims, man?”

Lee bared his teeth in a frustrated hiss before gesturing with his gun. “Enough chit-chat. Let’s go.”

They entered the compound through the gatehouse and hiked quickly up the road until they came to a bridge that crossed a small ravine with a stream below it. The bridge looked like an elongated checkerboard set.

“It’s a grid of electrically triggered mines surrounded by a charged fence. They change the pattern every 24 hours. Your sentinel abilities are the only way to get across without a map. I figure you should be able to tell the difference between active and dormant mines. These banks are also charged. There’s only one way in, one way out. And I’m sure that it’s unnecessary to remind you that unless I’m alive to turn off the timer, the virus blows. So I’d better get across safely.”

His anger surging up at this irritating reminder, Jim strong-armed Brackett aside as he growled, “Shut the hell up and let me do it, okay? You’re wasting time.”

“Fine. But you touch me again and your guide never needs a haircut again,” Lee snapped as he pressed the barrel of his gun against Blair’s temple, causing the younger man to go extremely pale and squeeze his eyes shut.

Before Jim could say anything, however, Sandburg got control of himself and snapped back, “All right, just let us work, man! Jeez.” Then he stepped over to the sentinel’s side and murmured quietly, “Okay, just remember our exercises. Focus and concentrate, okay? Turn it over and, please, stay out of your own way. You can do it, man.”

The larger man nodded and then focused on the tiles, his hearing dialed up. Finally, he found the distinction between the two different sounds and started across, Blair and Brackett following him.

They got halfway across before Jim zoned out.

Praying he wasn’t going to get them all blown up, Blair stretched across, leaving one foot on the dormant mine he had been standing on and sharing space with the one Jim was currently standing on as Ellison began to list to the side, staring vacantly at the bridge tiles.

“What’s happening?” Brackett asked.

“I thought you read my paper!” Sandburg snapped, frustrated. “This happens occasionally when he focuses too hard on one of his senses. When that happens, he loses control of the others. His brain stops receiving input from them. It’s called a zone-out.” He turned his attention to the other man as Brackett stepped closer and leaned over to support him, and began to stroke his arm through the leather jacket as he said urgently, “Come on, Jim. Come on. Breathe, man. Come on, come out of it.”

Feeling vaguely groggy, Jim felt his eyesight fade back in slowly and he blinked, clearing the last of the grayness of the zone away as he struggled upright again, feeling Blair’s hands bracing him around his ribs.

“That’s it,” Blair murmured. “That’s it, relax. Hey, watch your arms!”

“All right, okay,” Jim mumbled, steadying himself.

“You all right?” the younger man asked.

“Yeah.”

The sentinel shifted a bit, then froze when Blair stumbled because of it, his other foot swinging around and almost landing on an unspecified mine, checking the action at the last second.

“Whoa!” Blair gasped.

“Don’t move. It’s mined. Okay, give me a second here,” Ellison said, searching once again.

“Right.”

A moment later, Jim stepped over onto another square, but stretched his arm back to provide balance for his guide, his long legs and arms helping immeasurably. “Now step on my square … good.”

Once Blair had his balance back, Jim began picking his way across, knowing the other two were following, Sandburg occasionally reaching back to provide a source of steadiness for Brackett. He got to the last section of the bridge. The last three rows of squares were entirely mined, so he leaped over them to land on the safety grid behind them. He turned and gestured for them to come forward, and he stifled a flinch when Blair gathered himself and then leaped, just barely missing the last row as he caught the younger man around the waist and swung him around behind him.

A moment later, Brackett leaped over, his longer legs providing a better reach, and required only a steadying grip and tug on his arm from Jim.

“Not bad, Jim,” he said with a toothy grin.

“What next?” the sentinel growled, keeping his guide protectively behind him.

Brackett turned to the control box and inserted a key into the panel lock and then flicked a few switches before turning back to face his unwilling cohorts. “There. That activated the entire minefield with a systems override. There’s no safe path across the bridge. Now, you see that door on the building behind you? Move.”

Sighing, Jim and Blair turned and began walking towards the building that was half a football field’s length from them.

They walked up to the door that Brackett had indicated and Lee pointed at the combination lock.

“That’s a motion sensor. Any jiggling with the lock will set off the alarm. So you’d better get it right the first time.”

Sandburg glared at the criminal before sidling up to stand beside the sentinel again. “Okay, Jim. This time, instead of your ears, I suggest using your fingertips. Your sense of touch is about as powerful as your hearing, but your ears might get confused with the different clicks inside the tumbler, whereas your fingers won’t. Let your sense of touch tell you how to react to the tumbler.”

Ellison nodded. “Okay.” Dialing up his sense of touch, he got to work and within a matter of only a few minutes, had the door unlocked. He ignored Brackett’s patronizing smile and Blair’s sigh of relief, and opened the door.

The three of them stepped inside and found themselves in a hangar which housed some type of stealth jet inside.

“Gentlemen, the newest weapon in our country’s arsenal - the A.V.C.X.,” Brackett said proudly as they looked up at the jet.

“Where are we, Jim?” Blair asked quietly.

“This is a company skunk works - a secret development lab for the CIA,” Ellison replied just as quietly.

“That’s right,” Lee agreed. “And this is a one-of-a-kind prototype. Even Congress only suspects it exists and the classified surveillance technology on board is priceless on the black market.”

“The Air Force’ll be on your ass before you’re out of local airspace,” Jim reasoned logically.

“I’ll worry about that when it happens,” the ex-agent replied.

“What about the virus?”

“As soon as I’m airborne, I’ll defuse the detonator and set off a beacon so you can find it. I’ve always been a man of my word, Jim,” Brackett said as he moved towards the jet.

He had assumed that, in the large echoing space of the hangar, he’d be able to hear Ellison if he tried to make a move on him. He hadn’t been counting on the sentinel being able to move as silently as a cat.

Before he knew what was happening, he found himself stripped of his gun, his hands and arms bound tightly behind him, and a severe pain at the base of his skull. His dazed eyes glanced down to see Jim’s hand searching his inner jacket pockets.

“Ah-ha!” Ellison crowed triumphantly. He pulled out the transmitter that would locate and deactivate the virus canister’s bomb. He also pulled out the security override key Lee had used earlier.

“So… what does all this mean?!” Blair asked, frantic.

“It means we’re just in time.” Flipping on the transmitter, Jim’s eyes widened and he looked down at Brackett with reluctant admiration. “It’s in the trunk of your car? Brackett, you’ve got balls. Too bad they can’t help you now.” Wearing his chilling smile, Jim pressed the button and the transmitter light went from red to green, indicating the detonator had been defused. Then he glanced down and said, “I sure hope you were playing straight with us on this, because if this transmitter is a bogey, we’re all of us toast.”

Brackett shook his head. “It’s the real thing. Won’t go off now.”

“Good. Hmmm.” Jim cocked his head and then smiled again. “Company’s coming. We’ve got just enough time to get back to the bridge and defuse everything and get away before anyone’s the wiser.”

Lee began to struggle to his feet, but Jim knocked him down and reached into his own inner pocket and pulled on a pair of leather gloves.

“I didn’t say you were going with us, Brackett,” he said coldly.

“Jim, what are you doing?!” Blair screeched hysterically.

“Saving the world,” Ellison replied as he aimed Brackett’s gun at the man’s forehead.

“Don’t do this, Jim,” Lee said warningly. “I’ve got information. Lots of information that can make you a very rich man. Richer than what you are now and light years ahead of your competition.”

“Thanks for the offer, Lee, but there’s one thing you didn’t know about me. I’ve got that same information because I haven’t really left the Army. I’m a sleeper.”

Brackett’s eyes widened and he tensed his muscles, readying himself to twist out of the way.

He died before he could get any farther than that.

Blair hurriedly turned away, but not before he saw the blood spatter from the hole that appeared in Lee’s forehead, and he gagged. He didn’t have time to process this sight, however, because an instant later the gun clattered to the ground and a rough hand gripped his arm firmly.

“Let’s go,” Jim growled. “We’re only going to just make it.”

They ran out of the building, leaving the corpse and its gun behind, and raced over to the bridge. Jim inserted the key and flicked off all the switches, deactivating the bridge entirely, and they ran across after Jim removed and pocketed the key.

Hurrying, they ran up to the gate and through the gatehouse, past the still unconscious guard, and hurriedly climbed into Brackett’s car.

“Why are we taking this with us? Can’t we leave it for them to find?” Blair gasped as he settled into the passenger seat.

Jim shook his head. “One, we need speed in our escape. Hiding won’t work. Two, they might accidentally leak the Ebola if they find it. We can’t chance that. Three, this car will have not only fibers of Brackett’s hair and clothing, but ours as well. As soon as we’re safe, this car is going to be destroyed; burned to a crisp. The Ebola will be sent back to Rainier.”

They rocketed away from the facility, Jim grateful for the quiet hum of the car’s engine, and were soon far away and safe before the arriving security detachment could find them.

****

Hours later, Jim was relaxing in his small library with Kadama and Lazar, the three of them indulging in shot glasses of whiskey.

“The beauty of it was that Brackett never even planned on leaving local airspace,” Kadama said with a cold grin after taking a sip of his liquor. “Had one of his half-wits waiting for him on a small island out in the sound and a stolen helicopter. But we found the pilot about the same time you were taking care of Brackett; the pilot was still waiting for him. He spilled the entire story after some… persuasion.”

“So, Brackett figured the two of them could strip and destroy the plane, then disappear before the Air Force caught up with them,” Jim murmured, shaking his head. “Much as I hated that bastard, he was one clever scoundrel. It’s almost a shame I had to waste him, but he was too much of a loose canon. More of a liability than an asset.”

“Never would have worked. Trained agent like that, it would have taken hours, days, maybe months to get information out of him by coercion,” Lazar grunted. “It would have been the only way, but would take too long, and would probably still be half-truths and outright lies. Better off this way.” Then he glanced at Jim shrewdly. “You never did say why he was so interested in you.”

“Before I got out of the Army, I was a CIA liaison; it had to do with certain operational procedures I’m familiar with,” Jim lied smoothly.

The other two nodded, though Jim knew they were just barely buying it.

“So, what happened with the cops?” he asked calmly.

Kadama laughed coldly. “Those idiots. The bomb squad captain, Taggart, he tried to diffuse the bomb that they thought was the Virus canister. For some reason, that Forensics chief, Plummer, was in there with him. Anyway, they got out just in time. An inside source says Taggart disarmed the fake bomb, then a VCR activated and Brackett’s taped message warned them just in time. They and the rest of their SWAT team vacated the premises and ran to the police barricade just as the house blew up. My source says the Major Crime captain, Banks, turned the air blue with his volatile curses.”

“You were right, though,” Lazar added. “Kadama said you thought Brackett would have a decoy and plant a hidden one somewhere else, as well as giving the cops a chance to run. How did you know?”

“It’s part of how Brackett worked. According to his file, he loved to create complex games, but he believed in giving people enough rope either to hang themselves with or pull themselves out of the fire. Games of chance,” Ellison replied with a shrug.

Finally, after another drink, Lazar and Kadama left for the evening with another not-so-subtle hint from the Italian about his daughter and Jim getting together, and then they were gone.

Sighing tiredly, Ellison turned to find Allison standing at a discreet distance and he gave a tired smile. “I’m going to bed, Ms. Murphy. Kindly see to it that everything is locked up for the night.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied in a neutral tone, and waited until he had disappeared up the stairs before moving to do as he ordered.

Jim walked down the hallway, then paused in front of Blair’s door. He glanced at the bodyguards. “Is he awake?”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Ellison. Heard him moving around just a few minutes ago,” Nate replied.

“Thank you, Mr. Turner. I’ll just pop in for a second,” Jim said and he opened the door and stepped inside.

He found Blair doing sit-ups, counting under his breath, and grinned. “Thought you’d learned your lesson after the last time, Chief?” he called out.

Blair, who had actually heard the door open this time, didn’t even break rhythm, though he switched to counting silently in his mind. “I did. That’s why I’m only doing fifty of these and twenty-five push-ups,” he replied breathlessly. As he reached the last of the sit-ups, however, he stopped and grinned up at the older man ruefully as he added, “Although, I’m tired enough, I may just quit here for tonight.”

“I wouldn’t blame you; I’m exhausted myself. Why not take a hot shower and then head to bed?” Jim suggested as he perched on the end of the bed.

“Sounds like heaven. And you know what? I’m gonna be a total pig tomorrow morning. I’m gonna want waffles. No… pancakes. Hot pancakes topped with pats of butter, and slathered with strawberry and maple syrup. And a couple of hot croissants, and I want hot chocolate to wash it all down with.”

Jim’s eyebrows winged up and he grinned, for once not coldly, but truly amused and showing it. “You? Eat something so totally junkfood-ish?”

“Yeah,” Blair agreed as he got to his feet and stretched carefully, then lowered his arms. He frowned down at the floor as he said, “Being so close to death today… I want to - to have something so decadent. Just in case.”

“Just in case what?” Ellison asked softly.

The younger man lifted his eyes and met the sentinel’s steadily. “In case I’m no longer useful anytime soon.”

Jim scowled and opened his mouth to reply, but Sandburg shook his head and walked towards the bathroom.

“I’m going to go take a long, long hot shower and then I’m going to bed and I wanna sleep late, man. Goodnight,” Blair said quietly.

“Yeah,” Jim murmured, himself now frowning at the floor. “Goodnight, Sandburg.”

Just before the bathroom door closed, Ellison called out, “Hey, Chief?”

Blair stuck his head back around the doorjamb. “Yeah?”

“You did good today. I’m proud of you.”

Stunned, Blair blinked and nodded silently, then withdrew into the bathroom, the door shutting quietly behind him.

Sighing, Jim got up and left the bedroom, heading down the hall into his own, where he quickly shucked down to his boxers, stuffing his dirties in the hamper, and then crawled into bed, pulling the covers up over him and falling asleep almost instantly.

****

Time went by and Ellison continued to be a criminal and a legitimate businessman, and Blair continued to look for means to escape, while both sentinel and guide continued to work on Jim’s senses.

However, each display of increasing control did not bring joy, but dread, because Blair feared he was quickly approaching an unmarked grave somewhere once his usefulness was at an end.

Ellison knew the younger man was worried and Blair’s anxiety was playing on his nerves as he went about his daily and nightly business. He didn’t understand why he had this almost overwhelming need to keep the younger man safe and content; it was at odds with his usual indifferent, cold approach to the world and the people inhabiting it. Sandburg should have been just another useful tool to be discarded one way or another at the end of his service, but Jim feared there was no way he could do that. He’d have to come up with some pretense to keep the kid around; find some card to hold over the younger man. He didn’t trust Sandburg not to call the cops on him if he let him go and the thought of having him killed and dumped somewhere made him nauseous.

And then, all concerns were shunted aside when he met a hot blonde woman named Laura McCarthy at some sort of high-society party one evening. It was instant attraction and before the evening was out, Jim had brought her home and up to his bedroom, leaving just before the cops arrived due to a fire and the death of a security guard in the building across the street.

He and Laura were in bed, naked, kissing and groping when there was a quick knock on the door and it opened. Jim lifted his head and turned just enough to see Blair walking through.

“Okay, Jim, now that you’re back, we need to - oh, shit,” the younger man whispered as he took in the scene before him.

Ellison gave him an ice-cold glare and then found his attention drawn away from the student when Laura wrapped her legs around his hips and arched up against him. Shuddering, he leaned back down and began kissing her again as his fingers played between her legs, checking her readiness.

Sandburg gulped hard and left without another word, shutting the door firmly behind him.

Jim never even noticed as he slid into Laura and began rutting as though his life depended on it.

In his bedroom, Blair sat quietly on his own bed and struggled to get the image of a hot, horny, naked Jim Ellison out of his mind.

A couple more weeks passed and Jim continued to see Laura, fucking her every chance he could get. When Blair questioned him on it, he admitted that he only got that randy whenever he was within smelling distance of her or sniffed something she had touched. Something about her scent drove him wild. He cast a single baleful glance at his young teacher when Sandburg hypothesized that it was less the woman that was driving him to fuck her and more her pheromones that were doing it.

“I don’t care what’s causing it, Chief,” Jim snapped one evening as he paced the length of his downstairs home office. “It’s not like she means anything to me. She’s a convenient lay and I get to fuck whenever I want. She takes it, hot and willing, and it’s damn good.” With that, he flopped onto the leather sofa, leaned back, and closed his eyes on a ragged sigh. “Of course, I’m exhausted, but so what? I’ve been tired before.”

“Jim, this is just not right. I’ve got a bad feeling about this, man,” Blair said as he moved to stand in front of the older man.

Abruptly, Jim opened his eyes and he stared up at Blair. Then, with a quick, cold smile, he reached out and grabbed one of Blair’s wrists and tugged even as he twisted, until they lay along the length of the sofa with Blair atop him and held there by tightly wrapped arms.

“What’s the matter, Chief?” he purred tauntingly. “Jealous that somebody else is getting all the action? Just ‘cause I’m fucking her doesn’t mean I can’t fuck you, too.”

Sandburg glared down at the other man as he struggled to get loose. “Not hardly, Ellison.”

“Sure. Why not? Don’t swing that way?” Jim asked, one hand moving down to cup firm buttocks through soft, loose jeans.

“I suppose you do,” the younger man grumbled.

“I’m bisexual, yes. And you? If you think I’m not aware of the fact that occasionally I turn you on, especially when I get close…” Ellison whispered, leaning up a little and angling his head so he could align his mouth with Blair’s.

A moment before their lips could touch, Blair shoved himself free with almost frantic strength and got to his feet. He stared wildly down at the older man and snapped, “It doesn’t matter! I could never do that! Not with you! Not with a man who kills another in cold blood!” And he turned away, shivering as he wrapped his arms around himself.

Frowning, Jim sat up. “Does this have anything to do with your nightmares?”

Blair wouldn’t look back at him, but he couldn’t hide his surprise. “You knew about those?”

The older man snorted. “Sentinel senses, Chief, remember? Wasn’t like I could miss them. At least when I’ve been here. Yeah, I’ve heard. Sometimes you yell Brackett’s name. A lot of the time you yell mine. His death still bothering you?”

“I’ve never seen anyone get murdered in real life before,” Blair shot back.

“It wasn’t murder, Sandburg,” Ellison replied tersely. “It was a justifiable homicide.”

“Oh, is that the excuse you use to appease your conscience? And what was all that about being a sleeper?!”

Jim got to his feet and grabbed the younger man’s arm, whirling him around. He glared down into depression-darkened blue eyes and growled, “The sleeper thing was a lie. I said that to give him one last feeling of helplessness. I still have contacts, though, and so I’ve got all the information I need whenever I want it. And my conscience doesn’t need appeasing, kid. I don’t feel at all guilty about what I do, least of all what I did to that ratbag. Want to know why I did it?”

“Because you hated his guts,” Blair said immediately, not surprised that Jim had lied to Brackett.

“That was one reason, yes. He irritated me. Badly. Another reason is that he was a liability. To me, to this country, to the world. If I’d let him get captured, he would’ve been secreted away somewhere, but kept alive because unscrupulous governments - including our own - would have found a use for him. We never would have had a moment’s peace from him. And there would always have been the threat of him revealing my sentinel secret. I have no wish to spend the rest of my life in a lab as a human guinea pig, or forced into being a government-sanctioned assassin or whatever. I like my life as it is and I’m not willing to give it up.”

“Sure, why not? You get rich off of other peoples’ hard work, misery, and misfortune,” Blair responded sadly.

“Just like a lot of other people do, so don’t get on your high horse. You ought to know this by now, but you’re one of a dying breed. You’re an altruist and there aren’t many like you anymore. Even Mr. and Mrs. Joe Average are criminals in some way, out to better themselves at cost to others. Don’t go around thinking I’m the exception; I’m actually the norm. You are the exception. And you are also a reason why I executed Brackett.”

Blair jerked in the strong grip that held him, horrified.

“Yes,” Jim rumbled, pressing closer to the younger man. “Yes, I killed him because of what he’d done to you. He took you, threatened you, even bruised you a little. I won’t tolerate that from anyone. You’re mine, Chief. I don’t share. And I refuse to let anyone hurt you.”

The younger man looked up hopefully. “Does… does that mean… when I’m no longer useful, you won’t…?”

“Kill you? No.” Jim let his guide go with a ragged sigh and turned away. “No, I’m not going to kill you. Or have you killed. Or leave you comatose somewhere. I don’t know what I’m going to do with you just yet, but I swear, Chief, you won’t be harmed.”

Wisely, Blair remained silent as he watched the sentinel-criminal pace around his office.

Suddenly, the phone on the desk rang, startling them both into flinching. With a muffled curse, Jim got control of himself and walked over, picking it up on the third ring.

“Ellison!” he barked.

Blair watched as a moment later, his expression became cool and wary.

“Yes, Captain Banks, this is he. What can I do for you?” A moment later, Jim’s eyes went wide and he yelled, “What??!”

Blair continued to watch, as Jim’s expression became a thundercloud of fury as he rapped out a few sharp questions and finally said, “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Thank you.”

“Jim? What’s going on, man?”

Ellison glared down at the phone he’d just hung up, then glared up at the younger man. “I’ve been robbed,” he snarled viciously, and stalked out of his home office.

Jaw dropping open, stunned for a moment, Blair hurried after the sentinel, catching up as Jim shouted for Allison, Gary, and Nate.

Turning, Jim found Blair standing nearby and snapped, “Get your coat. You're coming with me, too.”

“Me?! How are you going to explain my presence?” Blair asked, even as he went to the downstairs closet to retrieve his favorite jacket.

“I’ll think of something. Now, come on.” With that, they were out the door and piling into the limo that was idling outside waiting, all five of them, and headed into Cascade.

***

“Mr. Ellison, good of you to come down,” Simon said, reaching out to shake hands with the business mogul.

“I could hardly stay home, could I?” Jim returned with a charming smile. “What do you have so far?”

“Well, the alarm was tripped, of course, but the thieves managed to get away before we got here. You’ll have to give one of my detectives an inventory of what was in the safe, but a brief summary…?”

“I had some loose gemstones in there worth two million total, along with a few bundles of cash amounting to one-hundred thousand dollars, and some personal papers.”

Simon whistled, then said, “Well, the papers they left, but everything else is gone. Were you insured?”

“Yes,” Jim growled through clenched teeth.

“Good. Make sure you get on that right away. Of course, we’ll do everything we can to find the thieves, but in the meantime-“

“Yes, in the meantime,” Jim interrupted. He walked over to the shattered window of his office, which was forty stories up, inspecting the glass and the casing. “How’d they get in?”

“Through the window, obviously, but as to how they did it, we’re not sure yet,” Simon muttered.

“Mmm.” Turning, he glanced at his escort and said, “I’m going to the roof to examine it. Captain Banks, you’re welcome to tag along.”

“Mr. Ellison, we’ve already had people up there-“

“I’m sure you have, but I would like to see for myself,” the sentinel said icily, and he strode out of the office past the occasional Forensics officer, with his associates and Captain Banks following.

They piled into the elevator and rode it up to the top floor, and then Jim led the way down the hallway to the stairwell and up to the door that opened onto the roof.

They all walked up to the edge and Blair gulped at the view, shivering as cold wind whipped around them.

Jim shot him a glance, then tapped his nose subtly to let him know that the sentinel had sensed something and wanted his help as he looked around.

Sighing quietly, Blair stepped closer and unobtrusively reached out to touch the older man, grounding him as he searched.

A few moments later, however, Ellison sighed and stepped back, acting as though he had found nothing.

“I told you it was a waste of time, Mr. Ellison,” Banks admonished lightly.

Jim gave the captain a hard look, then relented. “Yes, you did. I like to make certain myself, though. Being attentive to details is one of the reasons I’m so successful in business, Captain Banks. Thank you for your help.”

“It’s what the police do, Mr. Ellison. Now, can we go back downstairs? I’d like to have one of my detectives take a statement from you….”

“Certainly.”

They all left to go back down to the elevator, then headed down to the floor that held the Ellison Enterprises offices. As Simon moved away to get one of his detectives, Blair moved to stand next to the sentinel.

“What’d you find?” he asked so quietly, it was inaudible to his own ears.

Jim was silent for a moment, debating with himself, then leaned down and whispered, “I’ll tell you later, Chief.”

Then he straightened up and smiled charmingly at the approaching detective.

“Mr. Ellison, hi. I’m Detective Brian Rafe. If I could have a moment of your time so I can take your statement…”

“Certainly, Detective.”

The two men stepped off to the side to talk discreetly and the bodyguards and Blair stood out of the way, trying not to hinder the police’s progress.

Allison was too cool and calm to show any of her unease as she watched to proceedings carefully, although Gary and Nate were stiff with distaste and discomfiture. They did not like the police.

Blair was staring hard at the police and wondering if he might actually have the courage to approach the big police captain and tell the man what was really going on so he could escape Jim’s hold on him.

Slowly, he glanced around, and he met the eyes of his own two bodyguards and Allison’s. Three pairs of eyes sent him the silent message that they knew what he was thinking and promised untold pain and humiliation if he followed through with it.

Shuddering slightly, he raised his eyes again and found Jim staring at him. What shocked him was that those ice blue eyes also sent the message that he knew what Blair was thinking, but there was no promise of pain or retribution. Those blue eyes were understanding, but also seemed to the young guide to be asking him to stay. Not because of the trouble Ellison would be in, but because Jim needed him.

They locked gazes for a long moment and then Blair lowered his eyes as he nodded silently.

Relieved, Jim turned his attention back to the detective who never noticed it hadn’t been on him for a while anyway.

An hour and a half later, Jim and his associates returned home, Ellison carrying those personal papers that had been left behind by the thieves. As they climbed out of the limo, Jim made a mental note that he would have a bonus added into Jeff’s check this week. The chauffeur had responded promptly and respectfully to the emergency late night summons, even though it had rousted him out of bed. It was hardly the first time something like it had happened, but it had been the first in a while, and Jeff had done well. Jim didn’t mind rewarding him for that.

Everyone hung up their coats and jackets and then Jim headed into his office. After a few moments, Blair trailed along behind.

He watched as Jim stowed his papers in yet another wall safe before turning back to look at him.

They were both silent for a long moment and then Blair gestured vaguely behind him and mumbled, “I’m beat, man. Gonna go to bed, okay?”

He turned, but stopped when he heard the older man say, “Chief… Blair, wait.”

He turned back and looked up at the now much closer sentinel. “Yeah, man?”

“You didn’t run tonight. Didn’t call the heat on us.” Ice blue eyes burned with an inner fire as they stared down at him.

Blair shrugged irritatedly and glanced away. “Yeah, well. What was I gonna do? Get myself and everyone else killed? Hah, right.”

“You were still considering it, even though Ms. Murphy, Mr. Turner, and Mr. Palmer gave you silent warnings. I know they did. You were still thinking about it. But you decided against it after we traded looks. Why?” Jim asked softly.

“I… don’t know,” Blair whispered after a moment.

Ellison said nothing for a few minutes, then finally said, “Well, for whatever reason… thank you. I realize it was difficult for you to keep silent with such a prime opportunity.”

The younger man nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, it was.”

“Well. Time for bed. I’ll walk you up.”

Jim shut down his office for the evening and then led the way upstairs, Turner and Palmer following behind them, Allison dismissed for the evening.

As they stopped outside Blair’s bedroom door, Jim turned to the two bodyguards and said, “Gentlemen, thank you for your vigilance in guarding our young friend here, but I think you can take the night off. I don’t think he’s much of a flight risk anymore.” He sent a heated, meaningful glance to the younger man, who was gaping in shock.

“Sir, are you sure? He was thinkin’ about telling the cops tonight-“ Gary said hesitantly.

“Yes, he was. And he decided not to all on his own, without encouragement from any of us. I’m willing to take the chance on letting him go unguarded at night,” Jim replied.

“Okay, then. Thank you, sir,” Nate said quietly, thankful that they were finally getting relieved from this duty. They usually spent all day and most of the evening guarding the young man, finally going to bed early in the morning and then getting up while it was still early morning, netting about four to five hours’ sleep each night. They would be grateful for the chance to catch up on their rest.

They walked back towards the stairs and down, heading for the hall that housed the bodyguards’ quarters.

Blair silently looked up at Jim, gratitude shining from his eyes.

Silently, the older man bent down, slowly, letting Blair see his intent… and brushed a light, chaste kiss across full lips when Blair didn’t move away.

“You’re welcome,” Jim said softly. Reaching up, he lightly brushed a few curls back behind one of Blair’s ears and added, “You know… if you ever get lonely in the night, you can come to me.”

The younger man sighed and sadly shook his head, then whispered a soft “goodnight” before entering his room, shutting the door behind him.

Weary, frustrated, angry and aching, Jim stumbled down the hall to his own room, resigned to yet another evening of self-pleasure.

****

The next morning, Blair got up and went looking for Jim after showering and dressing, but was told that Ellison had gone into the city to oversee the restoration of his office and to contact his insurance company.

Left with nothing else to do, Blair puttered around a bit, digging out his books and papers and putting them into some semblance of order, then jotted down more notes in his laptop, then finally meditated for a bit, after which he did some more sit-ups and push-ups.

He waited anxiously for Jim to appear, or to at least call or something, but the sentinel never showed.

Finally, after having a silent dinner alone in his room, he had a hot bath and then went to bed, grumbling darkly about criminals in general, and one in particular, as he fell into a fitful sleep.

He woke up quickly, however, when he felt fingers brushing a few wisps of hair out of his eyes.

Gasping softly, his eyes snapped open to see a dark figure looming over him. He calmed, however, when Jim’s familiar deep voice said, “Easy, Chief, it’s just me. Sorry to wake you up.”

“Nah, s’okay,” the younger man mumbled as he struggled upright. He yawned and stretched, then blinked fuzzily at the dark shape that settled onto the bed. “What time ‘sit?”

“About three in the morning,” came the cool reply.

“You just getting home?”

“Yeah.”

Frowning, Blair leaned over to flick on the beside lamp as he muttered, “Man, you need to get some sleep, you know? What were you doing out so-“

And the words froze in his throat when he finally got a good look at Ellison.

Blood spattered the front of his gray T-shirt. Not a whole lot of it, but definitely noticeable amounts. There was some on his forearms and even on his jeans, and a bit on his face. He looked haggard and mean and vicious, his eyes cool blue and totally lethal.

Blair tried to say something, but it came out as a strangled whimper.

Jim glanced dispassionately at the gore staining him, then back at the younger man. “None of it’s mine,” he said casually, ignoring the flinch from Blair. “It was necessary. At least from my point of view. You’d probably disagree, but I’m too tired to give a damn right now.”

“What-“ the word came out in a hoarse whisper.

“Not ‘what’. That’s easy enough. ‘Who’. Well, that’s easy, too. Laura.”

Blair went even more pale. The woman Jim had been sleeping with so much recently? That Laura?

Seeing the confusion and horror in Sandburg’s eyes, Jim nodded, still calm, cool… detached. “Yeah, that Laura. See, I smelled her, Chief. Smelled that damned pheromone scent whatever thing at my office. It was her. Her and two others. Her ex-husband and his brother. Up on the roof, I found evidence of pitons and wire grooves, hidden in along the natural seams and cracks in the stone and metal to disguise recent usage. Didn’t mention it to Banks, of course. I had my own plans. For weeks now, I’ve known about Laura. She thought that just because I was fucking her, I would care too much about her. But, see, I research all the people I sleep with. To make certain I won’t be double-crossed.”

Jim sighed and then laughed humorlessly. “Happened this time. Anyway, her real name is Jane Cunningham. She and Bruce - the supposed ex-husband - never really got married. She just took his name. Anyway, Bruce and his brother were part of a circus trapeze and high-wire act. Their specialty - especially once Laura entered the picture - was to form themselves into a ball and smash through panes of industrial strength glass. That’s how they got into my office. She had learned about pyrotechnics from a boyfriend she’d run away from home with, and she’s the one who blew the safe.”

When Jim went silent, Blair swallowed his dry throat, heard the dull click, and whispered, “What happened?”

“Well, I knew where Laura was staying. I knew where Bruce and his brother were. I had them all rounded up. Guess what? I wasn’t the only one they pulled this trick on. They were getting ready to leave town with all their stolen loot. I had them brought to an abandoned warehouse.” Jim smiled coldly. “It took them a long time to stop screaming.”

Blair turned a delicate shade of green.

“The funny thing was, Laura tried to seduce me into letting her go, even maybe keeping her around. But I had prepared ahead. Rubbed some peppermint oil into my nostrils, so the pheromone thing didn’t have a chance to seep in. Also helped keep the smell of the blood from getting to me. She asked me to help her disappear. She was very surprised when I agreed and then held my gun on her. She asked me what I was doing and I told her: ‘I’m helping you disappear.’ Then I shot her. She and the others are being taken to the sewage plant where the incinerators are kept. They’ll be disposed of easily enough.”

Blair swallowed, trying to keep the bile down. “And the stuff they stole? All of it?”

“I took it all. See, the cops are going to be looking for it and if it shows up, they’ll be looking for bodies. If they find no bodies, but find the loot suddenly back, especially after I, a very wealthy man with lots of resources and ruthlessness, got robbed, they might start investigating me. Can’t have that. I’ll keep it, filter some of the jewels into the black market occasionally, hold onto some of it, and possibly find a way to get some of them back to some of the people who were robbed. Not a lot of them, though. Most of those people I can’t stand anyway.”

“Oh, my God,” Blair whispered, and hunched over as he fought the urge to retch.

Jim watched calmly and then said, “If it helps you to know any, they really didn’t have much done to them. They just had a low tolerance for pain. Rather odd, considering they were acrobats. Oh, well. Oh, and I took the time to wash my hands, so none of it would get on you. Wasn’t that thoughtful?”

Sandburg whimpered and then scrambled off the bed and ran for the bathroom.

He was still kneeling over the toilet, finally finished heaving, when he heard Jim say in that damnably neutral tone, “Sorry it grossed you out, Chief.”

Blair turned his head and saw the bigger man leaning casually in the doorway and anger burned through him. “How could you do that?!”

Something flickered in Jim’s eyes and then was gone before the younger man could identify it.

“Very easily,” Jim said absently. “You think they were my first execution-“

“Murder,” Blair spat.

Ellison shrugged. “Murder. I don’t care. They were hardly my first. They won’t be my last. They learned a lesson before they died: I’m not a man to trifle with. Laura found that out to her dismay.”

“You… you shot her.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that. If it makes you feel any better, she wasn’t tortured - much - before she died.”

“But… you and her… you were-“

“Fucking?” A brief sneer crossed Jim’s face. “That’s all it was, Chief. Animal fucking. There were no emotions involved. She thought that because I fucked her and she was a woman, she was safe. She thought that because she was beautiful and desirable, she was safe. She learned otherwise.”

Blair shuddered. “And you wonder why I say ‘no’ every time you try to get me into bed,” he hissed.

A chill smile flashed across the sentinel’s face. “You already know I won’t have you killed, or kill you myself, or damage you. Why not sleep with me? You’re already safe.”

“Safe is not what I’d call this. And I won’t sleep with you because I prefer there to be at least some sweet emotion between me and my bed partner. Whether as friends who like each other or as lovers, but not as a ‘business deal’!” Blair snapped, getting to his feet and flushing the toilet, then rinsing out his mouth.

Jim tracked his movements with cold eyes. “Your loss, Chief.” Then he moved directly behind the younger man and stared him in the eyes hard via their reflections in the mirror. “But mark my words: someday soon, you and I will end up in bed together.”

“Not damn likely,” Blair growled, lips skimming back from his teeth.

Finally, the numbness inside Jim shattered and his blue eyes sparked with inner emotion, his face hardening. He moved forward, trapping Blair against the sink, pressed tightly along the length of the younger man’s body. He watched Sandburg’s eyes go wide as he ground his hips and his thickening cock into the firm roundness of Blair’s buttocks.

“Think so, Chief? I can make you want it. I can have you begging for it. I can give you so much pleasure you’ll never want me to stop, ever,” Jim said softly, chillingly, even as brought his mouth to Blair’s ear. He lightly brushed it with his lips, then dipped his head to nibble at the corner of the broad jaw, then swiftly trailed his tongue down the side of Blair’s neck in one quick swipe.

Blair gasped, going rigid. He didn’t want to realize that Jim was deftly pushing his buttons, getting a reaction out of him. He didn’t want to want this cold, emotionless murderer and criminal.

Jim grinned darkly and then lightly sank his teeth into Blair’s neck even as he brought his arms up and around, flattening his palms over the other man’s chest, grinding the heels of his palms against the hardened nubs of Blair’s nipples. As he began to lightly hump against Blair’s ass, rubbing his erection against the firm mounds, he licked back up to Blair’s ear and breathed, “You like this. You want this. It feels so-o-o-o good, doesn’t it?” Then he took the earlobe between his teeth and gently tugged.

Blair whimpered, trying to fight the pleasure skirling through him, resisting the urge to rub his own hard cock against the solid surface of the sink vanity to obtain some relief.

Wrapping one arm around the younger man’s torso, pinning Blair’s arms to his side, Jim then pulled him back away from the sink and let one hand slide slowly down the student’s front until his palm rested right over the throbbing erection that tented Sandburg’s boxers.

He grinned coldly into the mirror, his own reflected gaze meeting Blair’s. “You want me to make you come? You can even fight me a little, if you want, if that’ll make it easier for you. That way you can say to yourself that you at least tried to resist. Or you can be honest and admit that you want me to bring you off. Think about it, Blair… wouldn’t you love to feel my mouth wrapped around your dick, sucking hard? So hot and wet… a warm, living sheath that will drink you dry and leave you feeling so boneless you’ll think your skeleton’s been liquefied. Want to fuck my mouth, Chief? Have me on my knees in front of you and let you shove it in and out of me?”

Blair shuddered hard and woodenly shook his head, his wide-eyed gaze never leaving Jim’s.

Again Ellison smiled coldly. “Ah. Maybe you’re so turned on that you want to be fucked, is that it? Are you so turned on, Blair, that I could put you on your hands and knees right here and now, pull your ass up, and take you? Better let me know now what it is that you want, Chief, or I’m going to do what I want.”

Sandburg licked his dry lips, watching Jim’s gaze go hot as he tracked the movement in the mirror, and finally he whispered, “I… I want you… to let go of me… and leave.”

Pressing a small kiss to Blair’s ear, Jim murmured, “Are you sure? I can feel the heat and urgency in your cock, Sandburg. It’s starting to get painful. You certain you don’t want me to take care of it for you?”

Blair nodded. “Yes, I’m certain. Please go. Please. This is… making me feel sick.”

A part of Jim was saddened at this, while another part was nowhere near surprised. Sighing, he pressed another kiss to Blair’s ear and then gently let him go.

“Will you be okay?” he asked reluctantly as he stepped towards the bathroom door.

Blair shrugged and looked down at the floor. “I can’t… can’t condone what you’ve done tonight. The thought of anybody dying in pain and fear like that… I just don’t know, Jim. It scares me,” he confessed helplessly. “It scares me to know that you’re capable of doing that to another human being, even to one you had such intimate relations with. There are times I know you as this courteous, gentle man. Other times, kind of playful. Other times, hard and dangerous. But you’re always cold, and now… now I know, for sure, that you’re heartless, too. And that saddens me.”

Jim closed his eyes for a moment, frowning. Finally, he opened them again and said, “I’m sorry you feel that way, Chief. But I’m not changing. I don’t have it in me to change. We’re both stuck with it, because I’m never letting you go.” He was silent for a few more moments, trying to think of something to say, then gave up and said curtly, “Goodnight.” A moment later, he was gone from Blair’s room entirely.

Outside in the hallway, Jim saw Allison walking down the hallway towards him. He raised one eyebrow and jerked his head towards his bedroom.

She nodded quietly and followed him down the hallway and into his room, the door shutting behind them. Allison never said anything, didn’t protest, when he picked her up and practically threw her onto the bed. She knew he needed it hard and fast tonight, so she merely pulled her skirt up around her waist, watching as he tore off his clothing and then came towards her.

As her boss loomed above her, his weight joining hers on the bed, she was quietly grateful that he always took care not to hurt her during this act, never taking her dry. She wished she could feel something for him, but she knew her emotional detachment was what made her a perfect bodyguard.

Then she stopped thinking as Ellison quickly pulled her panties off and then she felt his mouth on her, preparing her to receive him.

***

Down the hall, Blair carefully pulled off his boxers and tank-top and slowly climbed into the shower. He turned on the water, grateful for its warmth, and then hurriedly beat off, ignoring the stinging in his eyes. He shouted soundlessly with reluctant pleasure as he climaxed, wishing he could remove the image of Jim Ellison from his mind as he did so.

After rinsing off, he shut off the water and climbed out, toweling himself dry, then stumbled over to the bed and burrowed in, naked, falling asleep almost instantly.

****

Two more months went by and then, in the early coolness of autumn, Jim sat down to breakfast with Blair one morning and declared tiredly, “I need a vacation.”

Sandburg took a long look at his keeper and finally said, “Yes, you do. You look like the toilet paper that shit’s been wiped on.”

The older man made a face at him and sighed. “Thank you for that tasteless observation.”

Blair shrugged. “You want tasteful? Go mingle with high society. With me, you take what you get.”

Jim shot the younger man a dark glare, then sat back thoughtfully after taking a sip of hot, fragrant coffee. “You're in a chipper mood this morning,” he commented sarcastically.

Now it was Blair’s turn to grimace. “Didn’t sleep too well. I was thinking about things.”

“What things?”

“School. My doctorate candidacy - excuse me, former candidacy. Wondering if any of my students cared enough to search for me or any of my girlfriends.”

“According to Buckner, there were a few people who came looking around, but he explained that you were off on Sabbatical and couldn’t be reached. That you’d contact them if or when you felt like it.”

Blair sighed heavily. “Terrific. That’s just great. ‘If or when’. That really makes me sound like the sensitive and caring individual that I am.”

“Oh, cheer up, Sandburg. It’s not that bad.”

“Fuck off!”

The other man raised a sardonic eyebrow. “What was that about being caring and sensitive?”

Blair grumbled and turned his attention to his breakfast.

Jim chuckled lightly and let it go. A few moments later, however, he said, “Speaking of high society, though… what would you say to a couple of weeks in Paris?”

Sandburg’s head snapped up. “What?”

“Hello, genius! I’ve been saying I need a vacation, remember? So, how do you feel about a couple of weeks in Paris?” Jim snapped, exasperated.

Blair shook his head. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“No, I’m not. But if you don’t like Paris, how about Greece? Rome? Switzerland? Maybe somewhere in South America, since that’s your specialty in Anthropology.”

Blair shook his head again. “You don’t understand, do you?”

“Understand what?”

“Part of the reason you’re so exhausted and run down,” Blair explained, “is because ever since your senses came back on-line, you’ve been going with them non-stop. We’ve been testing them, pushing the limits; you’ve been using them constantly. Sentinels were not meant to live in the city, and while you're technically not right in the middle of it, you’re close enough to it that you still get the city sounds and the vibes from it. What you need for a vacation is to get away from all that. No city, no noise, just peace and quiet. Give yourself a chance to recharge.”

“And I suppose you know of a place where I can do that?” Jim grumbled.

Slowly, a smile spread across Blair’s face. “Yes, actually. I know of just the place. If you’ll trust me with a phone to make the arrangements, I’ll have a vacation set up for you in no time.”

Ellison stared at him for a long, long moment before he finally nodded assent.

Blair snickered and then went back to eating his breakfast, leaving Jim to wonder what the hell he’d gotten himself into.

****

“Uh, Jim? What’s with the clubs?”

Ellison looked over at his guide and flashed a chill smirk. Blair had made the plans for their “vacation” and had insisted that it remain a surprise and that it be just the two of them. After thinking about it for a bit, he had agreed to leave their bodyguards behind, much to the shock and displeasure of Allison, Gary, and Nate.

They had taken Jim’s F-150 and he had driven them eastward at Blair’s direction, finally stopping outside the limits of a small farming community. Now, as they stood on the grass beside the simple two-lane road, Jim pulled the bag of golf clubs from the back of his truck and began checking them over as he said, “I haven’t used these since I got them a few years ago. Figured I’d break them in on the links out here, put in a couple of rounds. Where’s the course?”

Blair sighed. “There is no golf course, Jim. This is, uh… this is a quiet contemplation sort of place.”

Jim paused, then slid the club he was holding back into the leather bag. “No golf, huh? So, when you said ‘retreat’, you meant more like a spa - massage; you know, mineral baths, that kind of thing?”

Blair shook his head. “No, I said ‘simple’. I probably even said ‘spartan’. Man, where you got the idea that I could afford a spa… in case it’s escaped your notice, I ‘work’ for room and board, man, not a paycheck.”

Jim frowned, ignoring that jab. “Sandburg, where are we going with this? What are we doing here?”

“I already explained it, remember? You admitted that you haven’t taken any time off in years; that your energy level is way down. Coupled with constantly using your sensory skills… I did some research and when you mentioned this, I remembered reading that tribal elders, they used to send their sentinels out once a year on a retreat to sharpen their senses.”

“In case it’s missed your notice, Junior, you’re not my elder.”

“No, but I am your guide, however temporary that may be, so that makes me responsible for your health.”

Jim’s eyes flashed, but he chose not to remind the younger man that he was never letting Blair go. He didn’t want to get into a raging fight with him at the moment.

“So, you’re talking about solitude,” he guessed aloud. “Long walks in the woods, primeval communing with nature… no civilization? That’s beautiful. I can deal with that.”

Blair gave a small grin as he watched Jim store the clubs in the truck again. “Right, right. Think of it as a place to get back to your spiritual roots.”

Ellison snorted as he moved to stand beside the younger man. “You know, if you’re roping me into some sort of new age community, workshop-type deal….”

Blair shook his head. “No, no, no. This is no new age workshop, Jim. This is… very, very traditional.”

Just then, an old school bus came rolling down the dirt road that led off away from the main road into town. The sign on the front of it read: ST. SEBASTIAN’S MONASTERY.

Jim looked at his guide incredulously, then turned his attention to the bus again as the door opened and an honest-to-God monk peered out at them.

With a genial smile, the monk gestured and called out, “Hop in, guys.”

Still in a state of disbelief, Jim absently took the leather duffel bag that Blair handed him and let himself be propelled aboard the bus, finding a seat near the middle of the vehicle. Blair sat in the seat in front of him and then the monk closed the door, reversed, turned, and sent the bus barreling back down the dirt road, after introducing himself as Brother Christopher.

After a while, Jim leaned over the seat and got Blair’s attention. “Okay, Chief, this whole monk thing they do - it’s an act, right? You know, like when you go to Caesar’s Palace; the guy in the toga taking your bags isn’t really a Roman.”

Christopher glanced back at them upon hearing this. “I’m afraid you may have been misled, Mr. Ellison. What exactly did, uh, Brother Blair tell you about our little ‘resort’?”

Jim pinned his suddenly blushing guide with a chill glare. “It’s more like what he didn’t tell me and allowed me to assume, Brother Christopher,” he retorted a little sharply.

Blair cringed and dropped his head, letting his hair fall forward to hide his face.

The older man let out a heavy sigh and sat back in his seat.

***

After pulling up in front of the monastery, all three men disembarked. Christopher moved to stand next to an elderly, mostly bald man who was also wearing a brown monk’s habit.

“Welcome to St. Sebastian’s, Brothers,” the other monk said pleasantly. “I hope your ride wasn’t too bumpy. We only send the bus out twice a month. Brother Christopher’s driving suffers from a lack of practice.”

Christopher grinned shyly and said, “He’s always kidding me about my driving.”

“Who’s kidding?” the other man retorted dryly, then grinned at Sandburg. “Nice to see you again, Blair.”

Blair grinned, then looked up at Jim. “Brother Jeremy. It’s a pleasure to be back. This is my… friend, Jim Ellison. Jim, this is Brother Jeremy, the abbot.”

Ellison reached out to shake hands, his “polite” persona in place. He idly noted the heavy gold ring the abbot wore as he said pleasantly, “It’s nice to meet you. But when Blair suggested a retreat, the last thing I was expecting was a monastery. No offense, gentlemen, but I was wondering when I could expect a ride back to my truck.”

“Tomorrow morning,” Jeremy replied coolly.

“I see.”

Blair nudged the other man a trifle nervously. “Don’t worry about it, man. This place has everything you’re going to need.”

“Really?” Jim glanced at the monks. “Do you have a satellite dish?” He could practically hear Blair rolling his eyes.

Christopher shook his head. “No.”

“Television?” This time, he ignored Blair’s tiny sigh.

“I’m afraid not.”

“Any scantily clad young women running about?” Jim could almost swear he heard Blair’s eyebrows winging up just before the younger man yelped, “Jim! What…?!”

The two monks looked at him strangely, then shook their heads.

Jim sighed. “Indoor plumbing?” he asked, then felt a chill when there was a long pause.

Then the two monks grinned playfully at him and he relaxed, abandoning his plans to shoot them dead and take the bus - and Blair - back to his truck.

“Scared you, didn’t we?” Jeremy teased, his eyes twinkling mischievously.

At that, they all began laughing. Jim mainly because he found a prankster-ish monk amusing, but he laughed, too.

Blair, who knew only the chill, sardonic laugh Ellison usually used, shivered at the rich, warm tones of honest amusement.

***

As they walked down a long hallway inside the monastery, Blair looked around, noting a few of the changes. “I see you got electricity.”

Jeremy nodded. “Actually, we just put in a generator. In fact, we’ve a single light bulb in every cell. We find it useful for reading at night.” He paused in the hallway and opened a door. “This is your cell.”

Noticing Jim’s expression as he walked past, Christopher said with a shy smile, “It’s, uh, what we call our rooms.”

As Blair moved to look out the windows and the two monks looked expectantly at Jim, who stood by the door, Jim’s cell phone rang.

He opened his jacket to retrieve it. As he did so, Jeremy and Christopher caught a glimpse of a gun handle sticking out of a holster, and traded an uneasy look between them.

“Ellison. Sharon, hello. I’m… out of town,” Jim told the sleek, sophisticated brunette on the other end of the line as he glanced at the monks before turning away. “Yes. Well… we’ll pick it up where we left off. Ah-ha. Sounds good. 7:00 it is. No, I can’t really talk… yes. Good-bye.” And with that, he hung up.

“Jim,” Blair said slowly, ignoring a flash of jealousy, “did you just make a date in a monastery?”

One elegant eyebrow went up and Jim flashed his cold smile. “She called me.”

Before either of them could say anything further, Jeremy, with a disapproving expression, reached over and plucked the cell phone from Jim’s hand. Seeing the quick, dangerous stare that Ellison gave him, the older man said calmly and firmly, “I’ll give this back to you when you leave here. There’s a phone in my office for emergency calls only. Cell phones are not permitted.” Then he glanced down at Jim’s jacket before adding, “I’ll also take your gun.”

The sentinel’s face went cold and hard. “No,” he said shortly. “I’m a prominent businessman. I need it for protection. I’m licensed to carry it.”

“I understand,” Jeremy replied. “However, guns are not necessary at St. Sebastian’s.”

Blair gestured at the sentinel. “Give him the gun, Jim. This is a monastery. It’s the last place on earth you’re gonna need one. C’mon, Jim… give it to him.”

The look Ellison seared him with promised that the sentinel would be giving somebody something. Blair tensed, then sighed in quiet relief when Jim simply handed over the gun and holster.

Jeremy nodded, then moved to the door. “Thank you. Brother Christopher.”

Christopher moved to the door as the abbot left. He paused, then looked up at Ellison shyly. “Excuse me. He’s… he’s really okay once you get to know him. It’s just, well, he hasn’t been out of here for 20 years. There’s really quite a story to it - a mystery, really.”

“Brother Christopher … are you coming?” Jeremy called out from the hallway.

Christopher sighed. “Okay. Well … uh, see ya later.”

Blair walked over to shut the door behind him. “Later, Brother.” Then he grinned up at Jim. “I love that - ‘Brother’. I love that! Jim, I swear to you that you’re going to really appreciate this place.”

The older man ignored his guide as he lay down on one of the beds after retrieving a walkman from his bag, putting on the earphones, and turning the radio on - loudly.

Blair sat down on the other bed with a sigh. “Vow of silence - you’re already getting into it.”

Suddenly, the door opened and Jeremy walked in. Blair watched as the abbot startled Jim by simply pulling the earphones off and taking the walkman away.

“No radios, either. Sorry,” Jeremy said brusquely, and left again.

At the combined puzzled/offended look that Jim gave him, Blair shrugged and said, “Maybe he’s a sentinel monk.”

Jim sighed and lay back down, staring up at the ceiling. “I cannot believe you brought us to a monastery.”

“Well, Jim, I said you needed to get away from city life to soothe your senses and recharge.”

“We could’ve gone camping for that. You, me… a tent,” Jim leered suggestively, then frowned. “But we didn’t. You brought us here. Why? Hoping the religious atmosphere will guilt me into repenting my numerous sins?”

“Are you saying there’s a chance?” Blair shot back, then sighed and shook his head. “Try to understand, Jim. This place is a favorite of mine. I regularly used to visit. Until you happened. Anyway, I thought the silence and peacefulness of the monastery would help you while I visited with a close friend.”

“Close friend, huh?” Jim grumbled. “Thought they didn’t allow women near monks?”

Blair shot the other man a dirty look as he lay back on his own bed to stare up at the ceiling. “He isn’t a woman, Ellison. Man, is sex all you ever think about?”

He flinched a moment later when the sentinel appeared abruptly, lying on top of him and pinning him down with a smile and blazing blue eyes.

“I do where you’re concerned, Chief,” Jim purred as he humped lightly, letting Blair, who had frozen, feel his hardening cock.

Sandburg’s eyes widened. “Jim-“ he gasped, before Ellison’s mouth came down on his, cutting him off.

Jim was patient, taking his time. He kissed Blair slowly, deeply; seducing him with light touches of tongue and the sweet brush of his lips, even as he thrust slowly and smoothly against the younger man, delighted when he felt Blair slowly respond to him.

However, Blair recognized the fact that he was being skillfully seduced and, even though it felt so good, he used the last of his willpower and strength to push Jim away hard, scrambling out from beneath the larger man.

Jim knelt on the bed and glared at his guide. “You liked it,” he growled. “I could feel it. Smell it. You wanted me to fuck you.”

Blair shuddered and backed away another step as he shook his head. “I… I can’t help that. My body responds to pleasurable sensations. But I don’t want to! I don’t want to with you.”

“Because you insist on an asinine thing like love?” Jim demanded. “Why can’t you just fuck, Sandburg? What’s wrong with fucking?”

“If it’s a murderer I’m fucking, there’s plenty wrong!” Blair snapped back.

The glower turned darker. “Wanna shout that a little louder, Sandburg? I don’t think they heard you clearly the first time!”

Cheeks tinting pink, Blair turned away as his mouth tightened.

Instantly, Jim was off the bed and standing very, very close behind his guide.

“That’s the last time I’ll let you get away with that, Chief,” he breathed into one ear. “If I catch you responding to me again, I’m going to give you the fucking of a lifetime.”

Blair shivered hard as the massive heat source behind him moved away, and he resolved to do his best not to give Jim any excuses to pounce on him.

***

Since Jim had kindly asked him to leave - “Get your ass outta the room, Sandburg, before I decide to ignore your orders and make use of it anyway!” - Blair decided to catch up with his close friend. Knowing where the older man was likely to be, Blair wandered down and out of the monastery, to the workshop located on the grounds.

He stepped inside and saw two monks at work, and grinned when one of them spotted him, squinted, and then flashed him a grin as he muttered, “Well, I’ll be….”

“Brother Marcus… hello,” Blair said warmly, stepping further inside.

“I remember you,” Marcus said teasingly as he turned away from his stained glass project. “The young man who promised to write to allow me to vicariously enjoy his exploits in the real world.”

Knowing he couldn’t tell Marcus why he hadn’t written in so long, Blair shrugged and said, “You know, time… gets by you sometimes.”

Marcus grinned and winked. “Well, I forgive you. But, then…”

“You have to!” Blair said at the same time Marcus said, “I have to!”

They laughed and stepped forward to hug each other and, as always, Blair felt wrapped up in total warmth and affection. After the stark emotional coldness of Ellison’s household, it felt like heaven to him. So much so, that he was reluctant to end the hug, but finally pulled away.

The older man looked at him with puzzled concern for a moment, then let it drop.

“You look good,” Blair said warmly.

“Because I am good,” Marcus replied sassily, then grinned. “I’ve missed our talks. Do you think we could have some time while you’re here to have a talk?”

“You can count on it, so long as you don’t mind me hanging around while you’re working.”

“Part of our work is sharing it. That’s why we welcome visitors.”

Suddenly, a bell began pealing from the tower of the monastery and the three men in the workshop looked up and around. Then the other monk began putting away tools as Marcus pulled off his apron.

“Dinner bell,” he said, tossing his apron aside. “Better hurry; there won’t be anything left.”

“Lead on,” Blair said with a grin, and he and Marcus walked out, the other monk following them.

As they approached the dinner hall, however, Jim walked up to join them and Marcus felt his blood freeze in his veins. He knew about Ellison’s clandestine criminal activities, and now, to see Blair turn to greet him….

“So, Blair, who’s your friend?” Jim asked as he found his guide and walked up to join him.

“This is that close friend I was telling you about earlier,” Blair said quietly, his eyes flashing warningly at his sentinel. “This is Brother Marcus. Brother, this is Jim Ellison, the friend I brought here so he could recuperate with peace and quiet from a hectic lifestyle.”

The two men reluctantly shook hands and Jim took the opportunity to scan the monk with his senses.

What he discovered made him pale with shock and his hand tighten spastically, causing Marcus to wince slightly.

Blair saw it and he broke their grip before peering at Jim intently. “Jim? What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

Ellison stared hard at his guide, searching for a sign that Blair already had a clue, but could find none. He glanced back at the monk who was watching them with a tiny scowl, and sighed as he shook his head. “I’m fine, Chief. Just a small headache that suddenly flashed through me. Sorry if I hurt you, Brother Marcus.” His tone was just polite enough to make it almost believable.

Blair glared at the sentinel, who shrugged infinitesimally.

Marcus sighed. “Yes, well… I’m fine. Hope you feel better soon, Brother Ellison. Might I suggest that you stick to… cleaner and healthier activities, so you don’t feel ill again quite so soon?”

Jim got the hint loud and clear, and wondered just how a monk knew about his criminal activities. He took the warning to heart and offered one of his own.

“Thanks, I’ll take it into consideration. It’s something that was passed down to me from my father. You know how it is, don’t you, Brother Marcus? How certain traits can be passed from father to son?”

Blair wondered why Marcus went suddenly pale, staring at Jim in shock before uttering, “Yes. Yes, I do. Uh, we’d better hurry before we’re too terribly late.”

As sentinel and guide followed the monk into the hall, Blair leaned over and whispered, “What was that all about, man?”

“Nothing, Chief,” Jim whispered back. “Just setting a few boundaries. Your pal, there, knows I’m a crook.”

Sandburg blinked, surprised, then stared curiously at Marcus, also wondering how a monk would know that.

They all sat down, with Jim seated at the foot of the table, Blair along the side to his left, Marcus sitting next to Blair. Everyone folded their hands and bowed their heads for prayer. When Jim planted his elbows on the table, Blair surreptitiously pushed them off, casting a quick, admonishing glance at him from under his eyelashes. Sighing, even though he thought Blair’s furtiveness was, well, cute, Jim did as he was silently bid.

“Dear Lord. We are blessed with the bounty we are about to receive and for the presence of our brothers, Blair Sandburg and James Ellison…” Jeremy began, then trailed away as a young monk by the name of Timothy came into the hall.

Timothy sat down at the empty place to the abbot’s right with a silent apology, and quickly assumed the position for prayer.

Jeremy sighed and continued. “And thank you for bringing them into our midst.” He then paused and looked up. “Brother James? Would you care to complete the benediction?”

Jim blinked, surprised. He hadn’t given a blessing for a meal since he’d been a child. “Uh… well, I, um…”

“It’s traditional to include one of our guests,” the abbot said with a tiny smile.

Jim glanced at Blair, who motioned silently for him to do it.

The sentinel sighed and shrugged. “All right, I’ll give it a shot.”

As they all assumed the pose for prayer, he began haltingly, “Thank you, Lord, um… um… for all that you do… and, uh, for the great chili. Amen.”

Even though every single person stared at him in silent bemusement, they all intoned, “Amen,” after him, then began picking up utensils.

Timothy felt his plate wobble and he lifted it to find his crucifix and beads, which he’d dropped earlier. He knew who’d found them and that person was letting him know he knew who’d dropped them where they shouldn’t have been. He swallowed hard, his face pale, and tucked his beads back into his belt before silently accepting the bowl of chili that was passed to him.

Christopher held up a carafe and asked Jim, “A little wine?”

Ellison nodded. “I hear you make that here.”

“Yes, we do,” Christopher replied as he passed it down to him.

“Want some bread?” Blair asked.

“Yeah. Thanks, Chief,” the sentinel said, accepting the breadbasket and passing the salad bowl over as he did so.

“Why do you call him ‘Chief’?” Marcus asked casually.

Jim glanced at his young guide, who was studiously stirring his chili, and then grinned coolly at Marcus. “Because he’s always telling me what to do, even if I am his boss.”

“Oh, so Brother Blair works for you?” Christopher asked. “I thought he was a student at Rainier.”

“He is. Or, he will be again,” Jim said casually. “I lured him away at a time when he was getting somewhat burnt out. Offered him a lucrative position where he can put his Anthropology skills to good use by helping me when making deals and working in South American countries and towns. He knows a lot about human cultures, especially South American ones, so his knowledge comes in very handy.”

Marcus’ expression said he didn’t believe a word of it.

Jim didn’t care.

Blair continued to stare at his chili bowl.

And Christopher glanced between the three of them and smiled slightly, sensing another mystery. He loved mysteries.

***

Much later, after dinner, in the soft light of twilight, Jim, Blair, and a few of the monks were playing basketball while the rest stood on the sidelines and watched.

Jim was captain of one team - naturally - while Blair was unanimously elected captain of the other team. It had surprised the sentinel at first, but when they’d started the game, he could see why. Blair was a natural on the court.

Now, however, as he moved around the court, Jim called out, “Nothing to it! Oh, we got the web on ‘D’. We got the web! That’s right, pass it off, Junior. I hear the fat lady! I hear the fat lady. Oh, nice rebound!”

“You ain’t got nothin’, though, Jim!” Blair teased, laughing, enjoying this playful side of the usually chill, business-like sentinel.

Jim made a face at him as one of his teammates passed him the ball. “It looks slippery, but he’s working on it. Come on, here we go. Here we go, here we go. Yeah, yeah! Oh, yeah! He’s racking them!”

Suddenly, a monk slipped through his guard and stole the ball from him.

Blair snickered at the offended and surprised expression on Jim’s face as the sentinel turned and chased after the monk, shouting, “Hey, come on! What about ‘thou shalt not steal’?!”

He was too late, though, to prevent Timothy from leaping up and slam-dunking the ball through the net. Jim sighed, shook his head, and snatched the ball back from the monk, who grinned playfully at him.

“Kids these days,” he muttered in mock-disgust, earning another grin from Timothy as the monk walked back down the court.

Blair walked up to stand next to him, grinning, and began poking him in the ribs as he said, “Better be careful, Jim. People might think you’re having a good time, man.”

Jim shrugged him off, grinning back, as he replied, “Yeah, well, it’s not too bad.”

“Gimme the ball, man,” the guide complained good-naturedly, reaching for the ball, only to have Jim twist away, playing a quick two-man game of Keep Away.

“How ‘bout a rematch? C’mon, a rematch!” Jim called out to the monks.

Timothy shook his head as he motioned to himself, then to the bell tower.

Marcus, who was playing on Blair’s team, grinned and said a trifle breathlessly, “We’re going to have to count Timothy out. He’s got to ring the bell for vespers.”

“Vespers?” Jim asked.

“Meaning the bell for twilight, to signal the end of the day, man,” Blair put in.

Ellison nodded, understanding, and then watched Timothy go into the tower as he said, “He’s a pretty quiet guy.”

Christopher spoke up. “He’s taken a vow of silence.”

“You guys actually do that?”

The short monk shrugged. “Oh, it’s standard every morning from four to six, but sometimes, as in Timothy’s case, we do it for up to two months. It’s, uh… it’s tough, but the effect can be quite cleansing.”

Jim looked skeptical for a minute, then shrugged and turned away. He scanned the crowd, having learned the monks’ names, and spotted one young man who looked athletic enough. “Anthony!” When the young monk pointed to himself, Jim grinned and nodded. “Come on out, baby. How ‘bout you?”

As Jim threw the ball to Anthony, he heard Blair hiss sub-vocally, “Don’t flirt with the monks, Jim!”, and he grinned.

Anthony, who was so startled he barely caught the ball, stepped onto the court a little nervously.

“Sorry, babe,” Jim said, hearing Blair’s strangled gurgle behind him. “Let’s see your jump shot. Come on.”

Giving up on his sentinel, Blair stepped up and encouraged the monk. “We know you got one, come on.”

“Nothin’ but cotton,” Jim agreed.

Anthony concentrated, gripped the ball, jumped up… and the ball sailed off at least five feet away from the basket. He gave a shame-faced glance to the others as another monk on the sideline chased the ball down and threw it back.

“All right, he’s on your team,” Jim murmured.

“What?” Blair grumbled, irritated. “Figures. Just like a-“

“Watch it, Junior.”

“Yeah, yeah….”

However, it wasn’t too much longer after they’d started the game, and the bell had finished ringing, that they all froze on the court when they heard a terrible rolling and thumping noise, followed by the sound of a huge thud as something hit bottom extremely hard.

“What was that?” one of the monks gasped.

“Check the bell tower, hurry!” another one called out.

They all ran for the doors, Blair grabbing Jim’s arm and towing him along as he hissed, “Oh, man, come on!”

Inside, at the bottom of the stairs, they found Timothy crumpled into a heap.

Blair kept the monks back by saying that Jim had medic training and so the sentinel checked the young man over. His hearing already told him that Timothy’s heart was stopped, but he checked for a pulse at his neck all the same. Not only did he not find one, but he felt the grind and crackle of broken bones. He sighed and stood up, turning to face the monks.

“What happened?” Jeremy asked, his face pale and strained.

“He’s dead,” Jim said quietly. “I’m sorry.”

And the strange thing was, he really was sorry. For all that he was usually cynical and emotionless about death and dying, he had liked the silent young monk with the infectious grin. As he felt Blair flinch beside him and saw the expressions of shock and grief on the faces of the monks surrounding them, he truly felt sad that Timothy had died and that the others had to feel this pain.

He placed his arm around Blair’s shoulders and gently assisted him outside. As the grieving young man slumped dejectedly against him, he held his guide comfortingly and watched as the monks began carefully gathering Timothy up to remove him to their chapel for funeral preparations.

He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something was bothering the sentinel. His mind kept playing with the few clues it had as they watched Timothy being born out of the tower and across the yard towards the chapel, his head and neck lolling in silent testament to the broken bones beneath the skin.

***

Later that evening, he and Blair sat with Jeremy in the office when Jim asked to speak with the abbot about something important.

“Excuse me, sir, but something doesn’t sit right, here,” Jim said quietly. “I mean, Timothy was young and athletic. You saw the way he moved on the basketball court today.”

Blair frowned and glanced over at his sentinel from where he sat. “Jim, don’t you think you’re reaching a little bit? I mean, this isn’t some back alley in Cascade.”

“I don’t understand. What are you saying?” Jeremy asked, confused.

“This might not have been an accident,” Jim said firmly.

“You’re saying this was a murder? Here at St. Sebastian’s? I don’t believe that,” the abbot snapped.

“Sir, I’m saying the death might be accidental. But with no witnesses, there’s got to be an investigation, if only for your protection.”

Blair gazed with hidden sadness at the older man. Jim sounded like a responsible and law-abiding citizen who was trying to do the right thing. And of the three of them in that office, only Jeremy had no clue as to what Jim really was.

“I’ll need to use your phone,” Jim was saying, and he leaned forward to pick up the receiver.

“Must you bring more outsiders here?” Jeremy sighed.

“Brother Jeremy, a man has died,” Blair chastised gently, surprised at the abbot’s attitude. “At the least, we’re obligated to report it.”

Jim set the receiver down firmly. “Your phone’s dead.”

Blair felt a chill go up his spine.

Jeremy shrugged and gestured at it. “It’s an old phone with old wires. It’s not the first time it’s been out of order.”

“That’s great. I’m going to need my cell phone and my gun, too. If something happens out here, I want to be able to protect myself and others.”

Jeremy glared, but finally unlocked a drawer and opened it. He stared down into it, then looked up, shocked.

“They’re gone. Your gun and phone - I put them in this drawer. It was locked.”

Blair and Jim traded glances and both men felt extremely uneasy at this revelation.

***

The two men walked silently into the chapel, where they’d gone after Jeremy had asked them to leave him alone so he could think for a while and pray.

Timothy was laid out in an open casket, wearing his monk’s habit as usual, but no shoes or other garments of any kind. Christopher was sitting up with him.

Jim walked up so he could examine the young monk. He glanced over at Christopher, who was hovering nearby. “You don’t have to stay.”

“I’m as anxious as you are to find out who killed him,” Christopher replied flatly.

“So you think he was murdered, too? Why?” Blair asked.

Christopher shrugged and glanced away. “Wherever mortals gather, there is evil. I don’t remember where I read that.”

Jim could feel Blair’s eyes boring into his back, and ignored the sensation as he fingered Timothy’s neck.

“It’s broken between the third and fourth cervical, which is consistent with a violent fall. Excuse me,” he murmured, pushing Christopher aside as he moved to look at Timothy’s feet. “I was right.”

He turned and walked away, Blair following quickly, as Christopher called after them, “What can you tell just by looking at his ankles?”

They ignored him and Jim snatched up a flashlight that was sitting on a nearby shelf as he went out the door. He led the way to the bell tower, Blair right behind him, and they headed up the stairs, Jim listening cautiously with his hearing. Determining that they were alone, he pushed the trap door up and open, then bent down and switched on the flashlight. He peered at the posts at the top of the stairs and then patted the top step. “Stand here, Chief.”

Blair walked past him to stand on the top step, his toes just brushing the edge.

Jim looked, measured, and nodded. “Yeah. Just what I thought. There’s a small hole on each side of the step. I can feel a little moisture in the sawdust here, which means it’s very recent.”

Blair crouched down to look for himself, ignoring Jim’s subtle sniff of his hair when it swung down between them.

“Probably a metal eyelet was screwed in on either side,” Jim continued after a moment, Blair’s scent deep in his nostrils. “Then a wire or a piece of monofilament was stretched across this step.”

“So that’s what made the cut on Timothy’s ankles.”

“Yep. He was murdered.”

Blair sighed and started to stand up, but overbalanced and began to lurch forward, his eyes going wide in startlement.

Jim caught the younger man by his ribs and instinctively pushed forward, body-checking his guide backward into the bell loft, stumbling and dropping down on top of him.

They both lay there, frozen, as they stared into each other’s eyes.

Then Blair gasped when Jim’s eyes suddenly blazed with heat and the older man reached out and gently kicked the trap door down, lowering it with one powerful leg so it wouldn’t make a huge noise when it thumped shut.

“Jim,” he said softly, “Jim, no. You can’t take advantage of an accident-“

“I told you earlier, Chief, that I wasn’t letting you get away with ‘no’ anymore. I’m beginning to think this isn’t an accident. I want you. You want me. Let’s make the most of it, Blair,” Jim replied just as softly.

“Jim…” Blair rumbled, pushing at strong, broad shoulders, and then turned his face away when Ellison’s head dipped, his mouth heading for Blair’s.

Instead, Jim’s mouth connected with his cheek. He heard the sentinel chuckle huskily and then felt Jim’s teeth latch onto the cord of his shoulder where it met his neck, through the opening of his collar, and his mind hazed out as strong white teeth nipped sharply and a hot wet mouth sucked strongly, bringing a pleasurable stinging to his skin that zipped along his nerves, roiling and rolling and - bing! bang! bing! - rocketing around through his nervous system like a pinball of pleasure until it slid home into his groin, making him shudder with hot lust.

He didn’t remember their first kiss; he simply became aware that at some point, after Jim had bitten him, their mouths had fused together and they were touching one another, stroking through clothes, even lifting clothing from their bodies. When he felt Jim’s thumb settle onto his unadorned nipple and rub firmly over the hot, tight little nub, he uttered a guttural moan and arched up, his tongue moving frantically in Jim’s mouth.

Jim chuckled, the sound muffled between them as he gloried in the response Blair was giving - finally, finally giving! - him. That first touch between them, when his lips had fastened onto Blair’s neck, had been damn near electrical, searing his skin with heat and lust, and he shuddered with the urgency ripping through his body. He had never wanted or needed anyone even a fraction as much as he needed Blair. He hated to need this young man, hated to need anyone, but right now, all he could think of was that it was good that he wasn’t alone in this want, this need. Because judging by the way Blair was arching up against him, his muscles tensed and pheromones pouring from his body in a veritable tsunami, Blair wanted and needed him with a passion equal to his own. As he pulled the jacket and flannel shirt and T-shirt from Blair’s body, his mouth streaking hotly down his guide’s chest to close around the pierced nipple, Jim realized that in spite of the circumstances, in spite of the less than ideal place that fate had provided, in spite of Blair’s protestations, they would fuck tonight; it was inevitable.

His mind shied away from the whisper of “making love” that echoed through his subconscious as he shrugged out of his own upper body clothing.

“Jim…” Blair said softly, his fingers clenching in muscular shoulders.

Jim licked at his tight nipples, first one, then the other, then tugged lightly at the ring in one nipple with his teeth, grinning when Blair whimpered and bucked frantically against him.

“No,” he moaned, but he did not push the older man away, his voice lacking any real conviction. It was said half-heartedly, as though he wanted to be convinced - as if he needed that final choice to be made for him.

“I want you,” Jim growled as he began tugging at Blair’s belt, before kneeling up to reach for the younger man’s sneakers. “I want you so bad. And I’m going to have you. Because you want me, too. I know just how much you want me. Don’t worry, baby, you’re going to get me. You’re going to get all of me.”

Blair shivered as his shoes were yanked off, Jim’s hands swiftly sliding up his legs to the fastenings of his jeans, totally ignoring his socks.

“The others…” he whispered.

“Can’t hear us; they’re praying in their cells.”

“They might come check on us…”

“They won’t,” Jim murmured, and leaned down to kiss Blair’s throat as he worked the jeans open and hooked his fingers in the waistband, tugging them past his hips, then grabbing the waistband of his boxers and carefully tugging those down as well. He straightened up and slid the clothing down and off Blair’s legs, tossing it all off into a corner. Quickly, he stood and removed the rest of his clothing, taking the time to remove something from his pants’ pocket, before settling down atop Blair again.

Jim nuzzled the pulse in Blair’s throat, humming as he felt the pounding there that sounded out like an urgent drum to him, the beat inciting him to take and stake his claim on his guide. He liked that Blair’s heart was beating so fast and hard. It was a perfect match to his own.

“Jim… they might….”

The sentinel leaned down and kissed the younger man deeply, lushly, seducing Blair with smooth, sweet strokes of tongue and tiny nips with even teeth, until his guide was panting and shivering and clutching him tightly.

“We… really… shouldn’t,” Blair moaned as Jim’s hips thrust smoothly against him, stroking their erections together. He leaned up and kissed the older man hotly, sliding kisses down along his jaw and then licking wetly up the side of the strong, corded neck. “I can’t believe how much I want you,” he whispered.

Jim rumbled with pleasure, his teeth flashing whitely as he smiled in the semi-darkness, and then slid his way down Blair’s body, mapping the smaller man with tongue, teeth, lips, and hands. Finally, he knelt between hairy, sturdy thighs, and breathed hotly on Blair’s straining, wet erection.

The younger man whimpered and his hands scrabbled at Jim’s head.

“Remember, Chief?” he whispered just loudly enough for his guide to hear him. “Remember what I said about taking you into my mouth, letting you fuck my face? My mouth is so hot and wet… it’ll wrap your dick tightly and you can shove in and out of me, and I’ll drink you dry until you’re totally drained and feeling so good. I can make it good for you, baby, just let me….”

“Jim! Please!” Blair cried out, his hips arching up before Jim pinned them back down.

Without another word, Jim began licking Blair’s cock, slicking it up, wetting it down, before opening just enough so that the firm, moist head could slide between his lips and into the hot, clingy interior of his mouth.

He heard Blair’s shout of pleasure and he lifted his head briefly. At Blair’s mournful sound, he smiled and petted his guide’s belly. “You have to be quiet, baby. Sound carries out here, remember? Gotta be quiet.”

“Not a sound,” Blair whispered, gulping in air.

“Not a sound,” Jim agreed, already lowering his head back down.

“Not a-“

Jim would have smiled if he could have, as Blair’s near silent litany suddenly strangled in a muffled yowl of pleasure as he began to suck hard. Then, sure that Blair would not make any noise that would draw undue attention, he relaxed enough to let his lips slide wetly up and down the shaft a few times before taking the well-proportioned dick further into his mouth, letting it slide into his throat, and then swallowing rhythmically.

Blair, for the most part, was well on his way to becoming nothing more than a mass of sizzling nerves. In his rare moments of lucidity, he thought about how much he wanted Jim. How badly he wanted the sentinel to bring him off and then to come into him, come inside him. He wanted to be taken and fucked to within an inch of his life. He felt a pang as he also realized he wanted to be loved, but knew that was an impossibility. For now, though, he would take what he could get. And he was getting someone who knew how to seduce, how to have really good sex. He was getting a beautiful man whose body was lean, the muscles hard and well-defined; his broad, powerful shoulders, his thick, steel-hard arms, smooth broad chest… beautiful. Totally fucking beautiful.

He could do worse. Even if Jim was a criminal, he was taking care to give him pleasure, to make it good for him.

Yeah, he could do worse than this if he really wanted to.

Now, as Jim’s mouth worked its hot, lusty magic on his sensitive dick, his eyes closed and he let his hips move minutely, working his shaft in and out of that hot, wet mouth. Jim’s strong hands closed over his hips as the older man pulled back slightly, and then he was being guided in a steady, lush rhythm by Jim himself, the sentinel helping him fuck his mouth so wonderfully.

It wasn’t long before he felt a rise of intense heat and power surge up from his balls and he grit his teeth and strained to hold back the bloodcurdling howl that wanted out. He restrained it until it was a high-pitched keen deep in his own throat as a rush of ecstasy traveled up from his balls and through his dick. Everything he was became focused on that one sensation and no others, his mind hazing out as his cock emptied its load in frantic, heavy spurts.

Jim pulled back when he felt Blair’s orgasm racing through his system and watched as copious amounts of semen spurted from the thick cock, splashing through the air and landing all over him and the younger man.

Grinning, he scooped it up and slathered it on his own throbbing erection, taking a quick taste and deciding he liked it. Then he spread the rest of it on the skin of Blair’s hidden pucker, massaging it carefully into the pulsing flesh. Then he leaned over to grab the tube he’d pulled from his pocket.

As he squirted lube onto his fingers, he thought briefly back to earlier in the day after he’d thrown Blair out of the room. He’d been in an agony of frustration and he’d done the noble thing by making Blair leave; otherwise, he would have taken the younger man anyway, and damn the consequences. Once Blair had left, however, he’d unpacked their bags and, at the last moment, had slipped the small tube of lubricant into his pants’ pocket, just in case. He had disregarded the idea of putting a condom in there for two reasons. One, he knew Blair’s last test had come back clean, as had his. Two, he didn’t want anything between them; he wanted his guide to take his seed, to have his living essence buried deep within the younger man so Blair would know he’d been claimed. He knew it for the ultimately primitive urge that it was and couldn’t care less about it. He wanted Blair to know he was Jim’s, and after tonight, he would.

Fingering the still insensate young man, Jim carefully worked the gel into Blair’s passage, stretching the opening carefully before moving deeper. He pulled his fingers out, lubed them again, and again slid them into Blair, working deeper still. He repeated this process a few times until his fingers were all the way inside up to his palm and Blair was beginning to rouse from his stupor.

Pulling his fingers free, Jim then slathered more lube on his cock and positioned himself between Blair’s legs, waiting.

When Sandburg finally looked up at him, he seemed confused for a few moments. Then, heat filled his eyes and he reached up to grip Jim’s shoulders even as he lifted his legs and settled them loosely around Jim’s waist, and he said deeply, huskily, “Yes. I want you in me. Yes.”

Groaning, Jim closed his eyes and pushed swiftly inside, breaching the barrier and sliding in just a few inches. He heard Blair’s soft gasp and felt him tense and forced himself - how, he didn’t know - to pause, letting his guide adjust. Finally, Blair relaxed and bucked upwards with his hips, inviting deeper penetration.

Jim gave it to him.

Blair moaned, deep in his throat, and then found his mouth occupied by Jim’s as the older man began to thrust in and out of him, in and out, striking deep inside him and pulling out swiftly, only to do it all over again. He couldn’t recall when he’d last been so excited by sex, by being taken by a man. He’d never been this wild for it. Every nerve in his body was jangling with pleasure the likes of which he hadn’t felt before; or, if he had, it had been too long since he’d last felt it. Each kiss to his mouth, each touch of Jim’s hands on his body or his hands on Jim’s body, each driving thrust into his ass that raked over his prostate and sent shards of ecstasy skittering up his spine and curling through his penis, was so explosively pleasurable that it bordered on unbelievable. It was astonishing pleasure, so close to being painful, and it filled him with the need to be as close to Jim as possible. He pulled Jim down onto him and arched up tightly against him even as he kissed harder and deeper into that gloriously sensual mouth. He felt the shudder in Jim’s body before the sentinel began moving harder, faster, answering his need, and some small part of him was amazed at the wildness of it all, of how he was so needful of having this man be a part of him, despite everything that Jim was. He let all his thoughts go and gave himself up to the fast and furious rutting frenzy of their mating, wanting to cry or make some kind of noise to express how good it felt to have Jim stroking so forcefully inside him.

And yet, because they had to be silent, it seemed to have some perverse effect on them. They both, within moments of each other, came hard. So hard they saw stars before their vision whited out and they could almost swear they felt their very bones dissolve in an eruption of intense heat and pleasure. Despite that, neither of them lost their erections. They stayed hard, stayed needy, and soon after they got their breath back, they shifted only long enough to change positions - front to back - and Jim took Blair again, from behind, humping into his guide in a desperation he had never felt before but did now. A desperate need to be so far inside Blair that he would never come out again as he reached around and stroked Blair’s cock swiftly and firmly, until he felt Blair shatter silently into another orgasm.

And he straightened up like a whiplash, bowing back, his groin wedded to Blair’s ass, his hands tightening harshly on slim hips as he thrust convulsively into the younger man, spurting his seed inside once more as he screamed his pleasure mutely to the heavens.

When he slid back from Blair, however, he not only discovered he was still hard, but Blair wasn’t finished with him yet. His guide whirled up and around and briskly pushed him over onto his back. He stared up in silent surprise and then rumbled low in his chest when Blair straddled him, held his dick steady, and swiftly sank down onto it with a tiny sigh of pleasure.

He held onto Blair’s hips, holding his young guide, his young lover, steady as Blair rode him with urgent haste and sinuous rhythm that he never would have believed was possible in such a short, compact body. Shuddering, he guided Blair’s hips as they raised and lowered, taking him deep inside and drawing him back out, and he lost himself in this glorious mating.

Blair looked down at the man he was taking inside himself for the third time in less than an hour, and felt so powerful and sexy and lustful that he wasn’t quite sure he was still himself. He knew he was going to be sore tomorrow, but for now, it didn’t matter a damn bit. Jim felt good inside him and even if he was damning himself for giving himself like this to a confirmed murderer and criminal, he didn’t care anymore, not right now. All he wanted was more of this mindless copulating, this rhythmic, hypnotic mating that gave him a pleasure beyond anything he’d ever felt.

His eyes locked on the shadowy, indistinct gaze of his sentinel, his lover, and he shuddered as he felt the ecstasy swell again. When one of Jim’s hands wrapped around his dick to stroke it while the other lifted to gently pinch and twist his pierced nipple, he locked his jaw against another scream and came for the fourth and final time that evening, his semen trickling out in weak spurts to puddle around their groins.

Jim let out a soft, nearly silent, startled gasp as his own cock was squeezed tightly, rhythmically, coaxing his own final orgasm out of him.

Blair slumped down atop his sentinel, who wrapped his arms feebly around his guide, holding him close as they both shivered through the final echoes of pleasure.

Finally, they rolled limply apart, their bodies sated for the moment. When they eventually managed to gain enough strength in their limbs, they got up and began reaching for their clothing.

“Is there a bathroom in this section of the building, so we can wash some of the smell off of us?” Jim asked quietly.

“Yeah. Down behind the stairs. Think it’ll be enough?” Blair asked, equally quietly.

“I’ll let you know. My nose knows, remember?” Jim said teasingly, and grinned when he got a small laugh out of his guide.

They dressed quickly and then opened the trap door again. Just before Jim started down, he turned to look at his partner and reached up to gently touch one flushed cheek as he asked softly, “Was it too awfully bad, Chief?”

Blair was silent for a moment before he replied, “I can’t reconcile what you do for a living. But, no, being with you… it wasn’t bad. Not at all.”

Jim sighed as he felt a strange, alien warmth explode subtly within his chest. His shoulders twitched, trying to shrug it away, but he simply smiled and patted Blair’s cheek. “Good; I’m glad. Now, let’s go get cleaned up, then talk to Jeremy before we get some sleep. We’re going to need it.”

Blair nodded and followed his sentinel down the stairs, his legs wobbling like a newborn giraffe’s as he shut the trap door behind him.

***

On to Part 2