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Doors of Their Assemblies, The

by Mice and Lady Jaguar

[Story Headers]

HOOVER BUILDING
A.D. WALTER SKINNER'S CONFERENCE ROOM
WASHINGTON, DC
MONDAY, 1:40 P.M.

Someone was kicking his ankle.

Doggett blinked back to awareness and refocused his eyes on the gun in front of him. Someone was speaking and it took a few seconds to realize that his name was being called.

"Agent Doggett?" A.D. Skinner sounded annoyed.

He shook his head to clear it. "Yes, sir?"

"If you're finished with the evidence, pass it back."

"Yes, sir." He sheepishly passed it to Scully, who favored him with a glare that could have crisped concrete at fifty paces. Judging from the scowls from the other agents in the room, he had been holding onto the gun for several minutes. Another one of those damned things Blair Sandburg called a 'zone-out.'

"Doggett, what's been going on here?" Skinner's hands were clasped on the table before him. He looked as annoyed as he sounded.

"Sorry, sir," he said. "I've been tired lately." He rubbed his face with one hand and looked back at Skinner.

"He's had a hard time getting over that virus," Scully added loyally.

"I'm fine, Scully. Just tired."

She shook her head. "You were hospitalized," she said quietly.

"Later," he said.

They both turned their attention back to the meeting. He'd deal with it later.


HOOVER BUILDING
X-FILES OFFICE
3:00 P.M.

"...and that's the third episode you've had today." Scully was doing her Doctor Scully, Medicine Woman impression again. Doggett listened as patiently as he could manage under the circumstances. "John Doggett, epilepsy is not some sort of crime, but those petit mal seizures you're having--"

He held up a hand. "It's not epilepsy. And I've already seen a doctor. I know what it is."

"Well?" She folded her arms and stared at him.

"I've got an appointment with Dr. Sandburg on Friday." It was a lie, but as soon as he got a little private time, he was going to call the anthropologist and arrange a meeting for the weekend. He would have preferred something earlier, but the government's leave policies were neither liberal nor generous and right now he had a bare nine days of "personal time" left.

"And what's his diagnosis?" Scully wasn't going to let this one go easily.

"Well, I don't really know the medical name for this." It was a weak half-truth, but if he'd mentioned any diagnosis, Scully would have been pinning him down about the details. "It's some sort of thing that affects the senses and concentration. It's just temporary. I'll get him to write it down so I can show it to you, okay? In the meantime, he said I needed to just take aspirin and be sure I get lots of sleep."

She nodded, not quite satisfied, and picked up the folder of case files. "I'll run these over to Records," she offered. "It's close to quitting time, anyway. Why don't you pack it in a little early and talk to that doctor. See if you can move the appointment up a bit."

"Thanks, Scully. Will do." She stared at him for a moment and then left. He listened to her as she walked down the corridor, entered the elevator, rode to the second floor, and walked down the hall towards Records. It was an effort to stop listening, but he forced himself. Sandburg had warned him that as the Sentinel senses got stronger, zone-outs became more of a problem. He pulled a set of earplugs from his pocket and put them in his ears, then put on his sunglasses. Maybe he could make it home without getting into a traffic accident.

By the time he got back home to Falls Church, he'd found himself the target of some guy's road rage because he'd zoned on the scent of coffee from a street-side cafe, and came out of it just in time to avoid a collision. The earplugs had helped with the sound but they didn't keep him from fixating on a blinking light, leaving him sitting at a stoplight for he had no idea how long.

Thank God he'd made it home in one piece. He was a road hazard. Damn this Sentinel shit anyway.

He spent a few minutes collecting himself, then pulled Sandburg's card from his wallet. With a sigh, he picked up the phone and dialed.

"Detective Sandburg."

Doggett swore at himself. These zone-outs were also making him forgetful. Cascade was on the west coast, and it was the middle of the day there. Sandburg would be sitting at his desk in Major Crimes, working on cases.

"Hey, Sandburg, it's John Doggett."

"Good to hear from you! Any new developments?" The response was smooth and friendly and gave away nothing. If there were listeners, they might have assumed that Sandburg was talking to a colleague or an informant.

Doggett took a breath before starting. "I need to come talk to you and Ellison. Some issues have come up, and I need some guidance."

There was a long pause. "Guidance issues, huh?" Sandburg's tone said that he knew exactly what was going on. Doggett squirmed.

"Uh... our schedules aren't really working out." Okay, that was a blatant lie. He'd hardly even spoken to Byers since they'd been back from that fiasco of a visit to Cascade. "It's been a couple weeks at least, I think." The admission embarrassed him. "Scully's been noticing the zone-outs. Well, the worst of 'em, anyway. There were three today while I was at work that she mentioned. I had a couple more on the way home. Deputy Director Kersh is on my division just looking for an excuse to shut us down, so screwing up like this isn't an option. I... I need some help with this."

"Yes, you do." The anthropologist had obviously mastered the art of Instant Guilt. He heard him whisper, "Jim, he's not working with Byers like we told him to. He wants to come out."

Ellison's voice responded quietly. "I told you he'd be stubborn about it. When does he want to come?"

"When can you get here?" Sandburg asked, speaking into the phone again.

"How's Friday sound? I can't get out of here any sooner. I don't have much leave time, so I need to do this on the weekend. I'm gonna try to get Friday off."

"Sure, that's fine. Jim and I have to testify on Friday, but it's okay. We'll work around it. Just let us know when we need to be at the airport, okay?"

Doggett nodded to no one in particular. "Yeah, I'll call you as soon as I've got the flight booked. Thanks, guys. I appreciate it."

"No problem. But John?"

"Yeah?"

There was annoyance in Sandburg's voice. "You and Byers both have to come. And don't give me that schedule shit. I know you're lying."

Damned Guides -- you couldn't put anything over on them. Doggett sighed and hung up. The rest of the week was going to be hell.

He took a few minutes to breathe before he called to make the flight arrangements. It had been a while since he'd flown on his own nickel, and the price of a ticket so close to the flight date made him want to wheeze. He ended up with a red-eye that put him in Cascade by 5:00 A.M. Friday morning. His wallet would be feeling that blow for a couple of months.


OFFICES OF THE LONE GUNMEN
TAKOMA PARK, MARYLAND
7:12 P.M.

"He hasn't returned any of my calls since we got back," Byers said into the phone, anger getting the better of him. "Why should I bother? He doesn't care, why should I?"

"I'm serious, John," Blair said. "This is critical. When he called, he reported that he'd zoned like three times today, just at work, and a couple more on the way home. He's going to get himself killed. God knows, he may not last the week at this rate."

Byers sighed and ran a hand through his hair. His stomach hurt. "I've offered, Blair, but I can't just show up on his doorstep and demand that he let me help him. Besides, I have a life. I have work to do; a newspaper to run. I don't have time for whatever game he's playing." He was finding it hard to control the exasperation in his voice.

Langly entered the living space from the stairs to the office. "What's up?"

Byers looked over at him. "It's Blair. Agent Doggett's going to Cascade, and Blair wants me to go out there too."

"You have to," Blair said.

Langly's eyes lit up and he grinned. "Cascade! Cool! I'll get packed up, and email Marconi--"

"We are not going to Cascade!" Byers snapped, as much at Blair as at Langly. "Doggett decided he wants to do this without my help, and I can't force it on him."

"He wouldn't be calling me if he didn't need you," Blair insisted. He sounded almost reasonable.

Langly tilted his head and looked at Byers. "Dude, you know what he was like in the hospital out there. I know he's been jerkin' you around, but, like, you can't just ignore this."

Byers waved one hand at Langly, trying to shoo him away. "I can't listen to both of you at once! Just shut up, Langly."

Blair played his trump card. "I'm going to make a reasonable guess, here, John. I'm going to guess you've been missing a lot of sleep recently, that you've gotten increasingly absentminded, to the point of wondering if you're coming down with early onset Alzheimer's, that you're jittery, and you've had at least two full-blown panic attacks. You've probably also had a couple of flashbacks to the time when Doggett was in the hospital -- and you don't know why."

"I don't want to talk about that." Having Blair lay it out like that made it even more evident how much trouble he'd been having lately. And then there were the nightmares. It had been a week since he'd gotten any decent sleep.

Langly was watching him, eyes glittering intently.

"And that's the next symptom: avoidance. Those, my man, are the classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and unless you guys get your act together it's going to get a lot worse for you. This is why it's so bad when the Sentinel and the Guide don't bond, or at least don't work together. Now, he's coming in Friday and that's enough time for you to get here, even if you have to drive. See you then." There was a soft click as Blair hung up.

Byers thumped the phone back into the recharger.

"Sandburg read you the riot act, huh?"

Byers turned away from him. "Leave me alone."

Langly's strong, thin hands were on his shoulders, pulling Byers back around to face him. "Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately, John? If you haven't, you should, 'cuz you look like shit. That, and you're makin' me insane. Nobody's seen you sleep in days and you're forgetting simple stuff. You asked me three times this morning if I'd done the column on the Pentagon Weather War technology, and three times I told you it was done and edited and sitting right there in the layout in front of you. It's a damned good thing nobody's sent you out to do any errands. You'd have wrapped the van around a phone pole or something."

"Bullshit."

Langly snorted. "You want me to get Fro and Jimmy for the 'tell me three times and it's true'? Dude, you're creeping us out. Somebody mentions Dogbert, you snap. Every time you left a phone call for him, you'd freak. It was like you flipped on his voice on the answering machine or something."

He heard the door locks opening. Jimmy and Frohike were back and it was time to get over this nonsense and back to the business of publishing. "There's too much to do. We have too much to--"

Langly waved away the protest. "That's bullshit! We've worked from the road before, remember? The stories on the tango-dancing smuggler, that grizzly poacher out in Vancouver, B.C.? Hey, the joys of modern technology mean never having to say you're stuck in the office."

"Look--"

Langly growled and leaned forward until their noses were almost touching. "No arguments, man. We're dragging your skinny narc ass to Cascade, if it takes tying you up and living on ramen noodles for six weeks, so shut up already."

"Cascade?" Jimmy's voice echoed from the stairwell. "Oh, cool! I wonder if we can get Jags tickets for the weekend?"

"Oh please," Frohike protested as he and Jimmy entered the warehouse's main room. "If we're going, I want some photos of the experimental borg tech at Rainier."

"Like Helton would let us through the door," Langly griped.

Jimmy hurried off toward his room. "I've gotta pack. When are we going?"

"Soon as we get our shit together," Langly said. "Byers an' Dogboy're gonna get this Sentinel thing worked out so we don't have to deal with 'em both acting like Zombies from Mars."

"Langly--!" Byers growled.

"About time!" Frohike started disconnecting his workstation laptop. "Cascade. I hear it's wet, but not bad this time of year. But we need to do the mailing first."

"Oh, we can do that in the van. I've got it all figured out already."

Frohike grinned. "Occasionally, you manage to justify your existence, Hairboy."

Langly stuck his tongue out at the scruffy older man. "Doohickey."

Frohike trotted to his room, chuckling. "High tech heaven, here I come."

"But--" Byers protested.

"Go pack something," Langly said, pushing Byers toward his bedroom door. "We can't take you anywhere dressed like that."

"But--"

Langly picked up the phone and waved a dismissive hand at Byers. "Move your ass! I got a phone call to make."

"Langly!"

Langly dialed quickly and waited. "Oh hey, Blair -- dude!" He paused and Byers watched Langly's end of the conversation helplessly. "Yeah, it's Ringo... Right, yeah... No... No... Well, yeah. Friday, probably." Langly nodded. "Sometime late morning, maybe early afternoon. If we drive straight through, we might get there earlier."

Byers glared at Langly, but was soundly ignored.

"Yeah, same place. Yeah... Great. If you guys got the room, that would like totally be awesome... One room, four beds, yeah. Tyee Teepee... 'Cuz it's cheap! Jeez. You think we actually got any filthy lucre?" Langly laughed. "Yeah, and fuck you, too."

Byers took a step toward Langly. "If you don't stop this insanity right now--"

"Hey, no problem, dude." Langly stopped Byers' advance with one flat palm in the center of his chest. "Yeah, yeah, I'll tell him... Later, man! Say hi to the big guy for me. Bye!"

Langly looked at him. "Blair says it's about fuckin' time."

"Langly, I'm going to kill you." Byers gave the idea some actual thought as he watched his friend. "Strangulation sounds about right." He wiggled his fingers experimentally and gave Langly a menacing glower.

"Come on, Byers, I know you've been itching to get more info on that new government-lookin' compound we found the satellite photos of, up in the Cascades near the Canadian border. Look at it as an opportunity to check out the story, see if there's anything to the rumors." Langly grinned. "Could be a great story for next issue..."

Byers crossed his arms and rolled his eyes with a sigh. He pinned a glare on Langly. "If we don't get the subscriptions mailed out in time because of this, I'm personally making you lick every last stamp we put on each one of those things when we finally do post them."

Langly bounced and rubbed his hands together. "I'm gonna go email Marconi!"


CASCADE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
CASCADE, WASHINGTON
FRIDAY, 5:20 A.M.

Cascade International Airport was just as noisy as he'd remembered. This time, at least, Doggett didn't have a migraine. Sandburg and Ellison were waiting for him at the baggage claim.

"Hey, John!" Sandburg waved and grinned as they approached.

"Sandburg," Doggett said, waving back without any real enthusiasm. "Ellison."

Ellison nodded and offered his hand. "Doggett. How are you?"

Doggett shook it and grabbed his bag from the carrousel as it came around. "Could be better," he grumbled. The truth was, he still felt lousy.

"So I heard." Ellison gestured toward the other end of the baggage claim area. "Truck's parked down that way."

"Did they feed you anything on the plane?" Sandburg asked.

"You've gotta be kidding." Doggett shouldered his bag. "These days all you get is a Coke and a smile in the cattle car."

"Let's get some breakfast then," Ellison said. "Blair and I have to be at the courthouse at seven to testify. There won't be enough time to drop you anywhere first. Do you mind?"

"Nah. Sounds okay to me," Doggett said. "Could use some sleep afterwards, though. Can't seem to relax on a plane lately."

"I know what you mean." Ellison led the way toward the exit. "All that noise and vibration, it's hard to tune out when Blair's not around."

"I don't want to talk about Byers," Doggett snapped. The last thing he wanted was another lecture from Jim 'Macho Cop' Ellison about cooperating with his Guide.

"Hey, hey, easy, man," Sandburg said.

"Sorry. I'm just feelin' a little edgy lately. I don't want to deal with that right now, okay? So, what's the case you guys are testifying on?"

"Criminal trespass," Ellison said.

"How'd that make the Major Crimes roster?" Doggett asked, surprised.

"And possession," Ellison added.

Doggett shook his head. "That makes more sense."

Sandburg chuckled. "The trespassers were part of a militia group. They were trying to drug one of the city reservoirs. LSD, if you can believe it. God, I mean, it's like something out of 'Reefer Madness.'"

"Who the hell would come up with a hare-brained scheme like that?" Doggett raised an eyebrow.

"They call themselves the Huxleyans," Ellison said. "Real weirdoes." He shrugged as he pulled the truck keys from his jacket pocket and opened the passenger door. "Toss your bag behind the seat."

Doggett slid his bag in and let Sandburg climb in before him. The guy was short enough; sitting in the middle wouldn't bother him much. "Huxleyans, eh? Mulder's mentioned them a couple of times, but I've never actually run into 'em. Apparently they've got a high weirdness factor. Somethin' about aliens. Mulder can't stay away from that crap." He shook his head. He'd seen some pretty strange stuff since he started with the X Files, but he still couldn't buy the whole alien thing that Mulder and Scully seemed so enamored of.

Ellison laughed. "Yeah, right. Aliens."

"Well, their little green buddies obviously can't protect them. Jim tracked the militia guys down like a bloodhound," Sandburg said, pride and excitement in his voice.

"Give it a rest, Chief. You know we can't tell that to the judge." Ellison started up the truck and put it into gear.

"Well, no, but it's still a great story." Sandburg launched into his tale as Ellison drove them toward downtown Cascade.


CASCADE COURTHOUSE
DOWNTOWN CASCADE
8:45 A.M.

"Thank you, Detective Ellison. You may step down. Next witness, please," the judge said.

Ellison stepped from the box and headed back to join Doggett and Sandburg in the gallery. "Let's get out of here," he said. "We're done with this for the day."

Sandburg, who had testified just prior to Ellison, nodded. Doggett stood with him and they exited the courtroom.

"Did you hear any of what the Huxleyans in the gallery were saying?" Ellison asked. He gestured toward several people in different kinds of uniforms, all wearing a winged eye insignia on their shoulders. "I was too busy testifying to listen, but I heard snippets that made me a little uneasy."

"They were too quiet," Sandburg said. "I didn't catch anything." He looked over at Doggett.

"I heard them mention Ellison's name a few times, but I didn't catch much of it. I wasn't able to focus too well. I didn't care for their tone of voice, though, from what I did hear. You're not exactly their favorite person right now." Doggett indicated a couple of Huxleyans that were following them toward the elevators. "In fact, I'd suggest you keep an eye on them."

Ellison nodded. "It's hard for an un-Guided Sentinel to get enough focus to follow a conversation through a lot of noise. Too complex, and you can get lost trying to pick stuff out."

"Can we please not go there," Doggett snapped.

"You came out here for help," Sandburg said, "and we'll help. You just may not like it very much."

"Wouldn't be the first time," Doggett muttered.

They entered the first elevator headed down, and Ellison's frigid glare kept their Huxleyan tail from entering with them.

Doggett leaned back against the cool wall of the elevator and closed his eyes, feeling its rumble through his body, and for the first time in weeks allowed himself to relax. He was in Cascade. There was a solution to his problem. He took a deep breath and let it out. Maybe Ellison was right -- maybe there was something soothing about being around Blair Sandburg. He glanced over at the smaller man, who stood staring intently at the door, bouncing impatiently. Then again, maybe not. The guy didn't seem that soothing.

When they stepped out into the street, he saw Byers and the other Gunmen on the steps of the courthouse, working their way through a crowd of pedestrians, and for a moment all he could do was focus on the slender, bearded man. Part of him welcomed the meeting; part of him dreaded it.

"Jeez, Sandburg," Doggett muttered. "You coulda warned me." His feet carried him across the crowded stairway toward his Guide. Byers spotted him and began hurrying in his direction as well, an uneasy look on his face, as though he wasn't sure how Doggett would react. And then they were standing together.

"Hello, John," Doggett said softly, and smiled.

Byers smiled, a little tentatively. "Hello."

A shout broke his focus, and he turned, startled. A crowd of protesters was standing on the sidewalk and steps, shouting and waving leaflets, wearing badges and uniforms and caps with the winged eye logo of the Huxleyans. They were an oddly dressed group; some in camo, others in khaki, some in black, and there were even a few in old-style Star Trek uniforms. Most passers-by glanced quickly and hurried away as though to avoid contact with them, but a few had stopped to listen and read the leaflets.

Above the traffic and the crowd noise, one of the Huxleyans shouted, "Alien patsy! Traitor!" and pointed at Ellison. A shout rose from the other militiamen and, for a moment, Doggett was sure the crowd was going to turn ugly.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Ellison said.

Doggett frowned. It sounded as though the Huxleyans suspected that Ellison was a SuperSoldier; a human engineered to the point of invincibility by extraterrestrial technology. He and Scully had never been able to crack the organization behind them, though they knew that someone -- not necessarily human -- was busy building a very destructive little army for unknown purposes.

He turned and glared at them, getting a harsh whiff of adrenaline, anger, and fear from the group. Ellison turned to them as well, Sandburg by his side, one hand on Ellison's arm in a protective gesture. Then he felt Byers' hand gently touch his back, providing a center for his enhanced senses. He focused on the Huxleyans.

The militiamen fell silent.

In less than a second, the eerie silence snapped, and the Huxleyans clumped, whispering urgently together. Doggett could see Ellison listening in, and he stared at the group, focusing his attention more tightly until he could catch snippets of the conversation above the noise.

"...Ellison, man, he's one of them..."

"...SuperSoldier, Sentinel, does it make a difference? They're just two names for the same governmentally overseen alien project..."

"...see? ...can't believe... Lone Gunmen are... sold out?..."

"... other guy, the one with Sandburg and Ellison ... he's one too..."

"...Guides, without them..."

"...move ...watching," one said, and the group turned to stare at the two Sentinels. Then the pack turned abruptly and scattered. He could feel Byers' hand on his shoulder again, then slowly took a deep breath and blinked back to ordinary awareness.

Byers, alert to the change in his posture, gently squeezed his shoulder. "Are you all right, John?"

"Yeah, I'm fine, thanks. I just caught part of it. Sounded pretty strange."

Ellison shook his head. "They're so far off in left field nobody would pay attention to them. I've got no idea what they're talking about with that alien thing they keep going on about, though."

"I do," Doggett said. He exchanged glances with Byers, then looked back at Ellison. "I'll explain later. It touches on a lot of the cases I work, and yeah, it's just as weird as this Sentinel stuff. Weirder, really." Shapeshifters. Black Oil. Nanocytes. Definitely weirder.

"Weird seems to be a way of life with you guys," Sandburg said, as the other Gunmen joined them.

"Weird doesn't even begin to cover it," Byers said, stepping away and letting his hand drop. Doggett felt his focus drifting again as sounds and smells became more intense. The feel of his shirt against his skin was irritating and he ran through the "dialing down" exercise. It worked much better standing next to Byers than it had when he was alone.

"I used to think the Sandburg Zone was out there, but I'm starting to think you guys have got him beat," Ellison said. He snorted and shook his head, a rueful grin on his face.

"Hey Blair, dude," Langly said, sticking a hand out at Sandburg. The two grinned and shook hands.

"Ringo!" Sandburg grinned and introduced Ellison to Frohike and Jimmy.

He shook hands with them warily. "Heard a lot about you," Ellison said carefully.

"All lies," Frohike said.

"Hey, it's great to meet the rest of the crew!" Sandburg smiled. "Okay, logistics here. We need to get started on this as soon as possible. Eight people at the loft would be too many. Way too much zone potential. Total over-stimulation. Let's get you checked in over at the motel. You guys and Jim can talk. Agent Doggett and I," he gave a meaningful look to Doggett, "will talk for a while and we'll get Byers later."

Doggett cringed mentally. Sandburg's 'talk' had an ominous ring to it.

"I don't know about that," Frohike started.

"Yeah, this is supposed to be about Dogbert and the Narc getting things straightened out. Shouldn't you be, like, working with both of 'em?" Langly ducked out of the way as Doggett swatted at his arm.

"Can you just lose the 'Dogbert' thing, Langly? It's annoying."

Frohike snorted. "His specialty."

"I thought that was electronic alarm noises," Ellison said, deadpan.

Doggett had come to Cascade hoping for time with Sandburg and Ellison together, lecture-free. It didn't look like that was going to happen.

"Look, guys, daylight's burning and we've got stuff to do before dinner," Sandburg announced, and gestured Doggett toward his classic Volvo.

Ellison whacked him on the shoulder. "Suck it up, soldier. You'll love it."

Yeah, right.


ELLISON-SANDBURG RESIDENCE
852 PROSPECT #307
5:10 P.M.

The evening sky was filled with purple, fuchsia, and salmon-colored clouds and the sun was a faint sliver of burnished gold on the horizon. The two Guides stood at the broad windows of the loft that opened onto the balcony and watched Doggett's rental car fade down the street into the twilight.

"Well, it's progress of some sort." Blair said quietly.

"You said we'd meet him in an hour." Byers glanced at his watch. "Are you sure an hour's long enough to let him unwind?"

"Not really. He probably needs a longer break from the bonding exercises. I don't think I've ever had another pair that took so long just getting comfortable with sitting close to each other. But Doggett did try. And you did well."

Byers shook his head. "I can't tell. I don't know what this is supposed to feel like."

"You did just fine. We're raised with such strict cultural taboos about touching. It's hard to get beyond it, but it's the only sensory input that can get through to a Sentinel who's in the deepest zones."

"That zone-out John had during the training unnerved me."

"It does the first few times you see it. But you handled it well, and like I said, it's something that takes practice. We'll do three sets tomorrow with longer breaks and then another two long ones on Sunday. By the time he catches his flight out, you should both be comfortable with each other and able to work as a bonded pair."

Byers stared at the sun. Only a tiny glimmer of gold was left. "I'm worried about how we'll work together when we get home. It's not like I'll be around him most of the time."

"Tomorrow will take care of itself," Blair said, rubbing his hands across his face. "By the way, I'm taking Monday off as well. I need to go over some shamanism stuff with you."

Byers made a face. The sun winked at them and vanished beyond the horizon. "I'm not dressing up like an Indian and banging on a drum."

Blair chuckled. "I'd really rather you didn't," he insisted with a tired grin. "It makes the bottom fall out of the local real estate market when there's some neoShaman wandering around and whacking on a drum at all hours of the night. This is the more practical stuff. But it can wait till Monday. Would you like some tea? We can watch something mind-bendingly dull on TV for awhile and take a break."

"Sounds good." Across the street there were shadows. He'd been watching them, trying to make out what they were. They moved and blended with the landscape, somehow both real and unreal. Blair puttered behind him, chattering away; he really didn't hear it. He made a noncommittal noise and watched carefully. The shadows faded.

Imagination, he told himself.

Blair touched his hand, handed him a mug of tea. "You see them?" he asked Byers.

"Huh?"

"Eh, maybe it's just me," Blair sighed. "I think there's a graffiti crew hanging around, looking to lay down some words. We cracked down on it recently, and after that there was a lot of protest paint showing up near the station and in the neighborhoods of anyone involved with the busts. Man, that was a total pain."

"How so?"

"The anthropologist side of me wanted to study them, the cop side of me wanted to bust them."

"And the cop side won," Byers guessed, sipping his tea.

"Yeah. So much for 'cultural relativism.'" Blair took a huge gulp of the tea. "The cop wins out a lot. Sometimes it bothers me."

"How so?

"Ethics. The 'do not interfere' versus the 'protect and serve.' I don't want to get into it." He sighed, swished the tea around in his mug and took another gulp. "Tell you what. Let's go make a beer run, then head over to the motel. A few brews'll do a lot to lighten everybody's mood and help get everyone, including that granite-headed Sentinel of yours, to relax." He took Byers' mug and ambled back to the kitchen.

Byers paused as a movement across the street caught his eye. The ghostly shadows were back, watching, waiting. He told himself it was fantasy and turned back into the apartment.


TYEE TEEPEE MOTEL
ROOM 208
7:04 P.M.

"Damn it, Sandburg, pick up the phone!"

Jim was angry and tense. He'd called Blair's and Byers' cell phones and neither had answered once since they'd called over an hour ago to say they were on their way. They still hadn't arrived. His lover could be unpredictable at times, but when it involved beer and eating at Harry's, he was usually on time.

"You think they might be stuck behind some traffic accident?" Doggett asked. He'd been pacing the room uneasily for the last ten minutes.

"They'd better not be," Jim growled. That was the last thing he needed. He and Doggett were getting on each other's nerves. It wasn't really anyone's fault, but Doggett's out-of-control vibe was unsettling. The man really needed Byers there with him, whether he wanted to accept it or not.

"Will you guys just shut up?" Both Sentinels winced at the bellow from Frohike. "There's something on the news about a kidnapping."

"Kidnapping?" Langly turned to the TV. "Damn, looks like a messy accident."

Jimmy nodded. "Oh, wow. That car's really wrecked. I hope nobody got hurt too bad."

Before Jim could check out the screen, his cell phone rang. "That had better be you, Sandburg, or--"

"Jim." Captain Banks' voice was strained.

"Simon? What's up?"

"I think you'd better get over to the impound yard. Sandburg's Volvo was one of the vehicles involved in a hit and run at 5th and Marion about an hour ago. He and some other guy were kidnapped."

"What?"

Everyone in the room turned to him.

Jim's heart skipped a beat, and Doggett was by his side in the space of that silence.

"They were the kidnapping victims?" Doggett asked, his voice tight.

"We'll be right there," Jim said. His anger blazed and it was getting hard to focus past the red haze of rage that was building inside him. Who the hell had kidnapped his partner this time? And why did they grab Byers with him?

"We're on top of it already, Jim," Banks said. "We've got a forensics team going over things right now. I knew you'd want to check it out too."

"When I find out who did this, I'm gonna rip their arms off." Jim snapped his cell phone closed and looked around at the motley group. "Okay, boys, we have to hit the road."


SOMEWHERE EAST OF CASCADE, WASHINGTON
7:30 PM

Blair moaned and struggled awake, his head pounding and his stomach lurching. There was noise around him, and a vague memory of something bad happening. He couldn't move.

Something fell across his mouth and nose, something with a strong medical smell. He tried to move away from it, but the fumes were too strong. As blackness overtook him, his last thought was, 'Chloroform.'


CASCADE POLICE DEPARTMENT
IMPOUND YARD
8:11 P.M.

A cold drizzle drifted across the rows of cars in the police impound yard. Jim turned up the collar of his jacket and returned his focus to the door handle of Blair's ancient Volvo. But it didn't matter how many times he or Forensics examined the car -- the kidnappers had left no real traces on it.

Doggett, with the help of Langly and Jimmy, was checking the kidnappers' car, which had been stolen from the long-term parking area at the airport. The owners of this vehicle were on a vacation cruise, and there'd be hell to pay at the airport when they found out their nice Crown Victoria was taken out of the parking garage for a joyride and needed a lot of expensive repairs.

Captain Simon Banks stood beside the Volvo, the cigar in his mouth chewed to shreds. The big black man tossed the soggy butt into a nearby garbage can. "Anything, Jim?"

Jim shook his head. "Not much more, no. Forensics did a good job." He leaned his head against the roof of Blair's sadly mangled Volvo and sighed. "Spraying the interior with insecticide pretty much destroyed any scent clues, too."

"They knew what you could do," Banks said.

"More than that, they knew how to stop him," Frohike said quietly. "That means they know a lot about Sentinels."

Jim's head snapped up. "Actually, they were saying something about SuperSoldiers. Doggett..." he looked toward the other car.

"He didn't tell you about them?"

"No, Frohike, he didn't. So why don't you fill us in."

Frohike wiped his glasses and shook his head. "It's better if Doggett does. We know a bit about them, but he's actually had a few run-ins with them." He started walking toward the other group, not looking to see if Banks and Jim were following.


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
CASCADE MOUNTAINS
WASHINGTON STATE
11 P.M.

It was drizzling, dark and cold, with a wind sweeping from the mountain ridges to snarl and tangle the trees that lined the high wire fence. The snap in the air hinted at snow to come. Byers stumbled, half-blinded and aching. He and Blair had been bruised in the car wreck, and his stomach was still queasy from the chemicals that had been used to knock them out. He wasn't sure how late it was, or how long they'd been traveling, but it had to have been a couple of hours, at least.

They had five captors; classic thug-types that Byers had mentally dubbed Goons One through Five, who treated them as though they were professional escape artists rather than a weedy-looking journalist and a short and somewhat eccentric professor. They had been thoroughly -- and rudely --searched, and their wrists were strapped with plastic riot cuff strips.

Blair staggered along beside him, off-balance, fighting for his footing as the guard's hand hauled him forward by his shirt collar. There was still a broad, dark smear of dried blood on his pale face from the collision earlier in the evening, and his hair was wild and tangled.

They hadn't been allowed to speak at all. His one protest at Blair's rough treatment had earned both of them slaps and a hard kick. He kept his mouth shut and his head down, trying to keep his footing as they were force-marched onto a gravel path and then hauled bodily into a large Quonset hut. Tinny, percussive music blared from speakers as they entered. They were jerked to a halt in front of a dais surrounded by people holding torches, who were chanting in a language Byers didn't recognize. They were dressed, incongruously, in old-style Star Trek uniforms bearing a winged eye on each shoulder. At least it was warm inside.

"I've got a bad feeling about this, Skippy," Blair muttered.

Goon Two shook him hard. "Shut up."

The wheezy music creaked into silence and a door behind the throne opened. A tall, muscular, red-haired man, strangely attired in a gaudy white robe decorated with marks that might have been foreign letters, strode into the room, followed by several attendants who were also in Trek uniforms --Redshirts. He was huge -- perhaps 6'5" tall, Byers thought, measuring him against the men who stood behind him. But it wasn't just the height and the robe that made him look so formidable. The man's shoulders were broad and he had the well-muscled physique of someone who worked out regularly with weights.

The red-haired man waved imperiously at his attendants and they scattered back into the crowd as he seated himself on the throne. He stared intently at Blair and Byers for a moment and then said something in a language that sounded similar to the ritual chanting. The music began again.

One of the people with the torches replied in the same language, then Byers and Blair were half-carried to the base of the dais. The red-haired man leaned forward, apparently sniffing the air. A moment passed, then he said something in the same language again, and looked Byers in the eyes.

Goon Two hauled Blair back a step or two as Goon Three shoved Byers to his knees in front of the man with the robe. Up close, he looked even larger.

"T'hy'la, thou hast come." He stood and gestured to the goon holding Byers.

Byers blinked. T'hy'la? Why on earth did that sound familiar? Goon Three suddenly grabbed his hair, forcing him to look into the muscle-bound man's face. Red-hair gestured, and a bleach-blond woman in a gold command shirt stepped forward.

She offered the man a sash. He looked down at Byers. "T'hy'la, give me your hands."

Byers stared angrily at him, determined to not play whatever game the man had going. Goon Three dug his fingers into Byers' shoulder, but he remained still. A kick to his lower back, however, convinced him that cooperation was probably the best option. He hesitantly raised his bound hands. The man grabbed them both in a single hand and looped the sash around Byers' wrists and his own.

Goldshirt chanted something incomprehensible over them, then sprinkled water on them both. Looking at each of them solemnly, she declared, "The bond has begun."

Bond? Oh, God. This was probably some perverted take on the Sentinel/Guide thing. Byers looked back at Blair, alarmed, but his head was pulled back to face the red-haired man. Red unwrapped the sash from his own hands, leaving it around Byers' wrists, then touched Byers' face.

At first, it was almost a caress, and it raised goosebumps all over Byers' body. He hated the intrusive, unwelcome touch, and gave the man a cold glare. Then the long fingers splayed across his face in a mockery of a Vulcan Mind Meld gesture. It was like Byers had stepped into some truly twisted science fiction convention.

"My mind to your mind. My thoughts to your thoughts," the man intoned, and the words and gestures triggered memory. T'hy'la was what Spock had said to Kirk in one of those Trek movies Langly was so into. Langly'd said it was proof that Kirk and Spock were "so doin' it," because it meant something like 'friend-brother-lover.' Cold apprehension crawled down Byers' spine.

The tinny music continued as the staring match dragged on. Several minutes later, the man's expression changed, and he looked out upon the assembly. "The bond is established," he announced. Byers hadn't felt a thing, unless he counted nausea, and disgust; emotions that weren't present in the bond he supposedly shared with Doggett.

Red took his hands from Byers' face and stepped back, looking at Goon Three, then back at Byers. "You are mine now, T'hy'la," he said, and then gestured at the Goon Squad. "Show them to their quarters."

With that, Byers was hauled to his feet and he and Blair were quick-marched through the compound toward a trap door. Narrow stairs descended to a maze of anonymous corridors, painted in the bland shade of beige the military seemed to prefer, decorated with doors painted in gunmetal gray. Their squad stopped in front of a door with a small viewing window and a slot at the bottom. The riot cuffs were cut from their wrists and they were escorted into the room. The squad left, locking the door behind them.

"Alone at last," Blair muttered.

"How's your head?" Byers asked, concerned.

"Only a flesh wound. But that was just... bizarre."

Byers leaned against a wall and took a deep breath. "Yeah. The last thing I would have expected is a Trek-style ceremony at a militia compound."

"No kidding. Beam me up, Scotty, there's no intelligent life down here. What a way to run a militia."

Byers rubbed his chafed wrists, scowling sourly. "You said it. The whole Vulcan Mind Meld thing, and a weird version of that ceremony they did on an episode where Spock got married, or didn't get married -- very creepy. I didn't pay much attention to the original series, but that guy probably has it memorized. Picard was more my style."

"Picard? He's just old," Blair grinned. "And stodgy. Now Chakotay..."

Byers laughed and stepped away from the wall, tucking his shirt neatly into his pants and straightening his tie as he glanced around the room. Their new quarters was a small room with a single bed and a tiny bathroom that had no door, painted in the same depressing beige as the corridor outside. The blankets looked used; faded markings showed they were military surplus. It wasn't really that different from any number of jail cells he'd inhabited for a night or two after particularly unfortunate funky poaching exercises.

"It's not exactly the Cascade Hilton, is it?" Blair said as he examined the blankets. "No fleas or lice, at least."

"Well, that's something," Byers said. "The Tyee Teepee is beginning to look positively palatial."

"That's the trouble with this whole kidnapping bit," Blair replied. "Nobody ever wants to hold you hostage in, say, the Presidential Suite at the Four Seasons in New York. I think I could stand to be held in the marble bathroom there for a couple of weeks. Oh yeah. Torture me with room service, baby!"

Byers chuckled softly despite his aches and rising bruises, then began assessing the situation. Solid-sounding metal door -- check. Hinges on the outside where he couldn't reach them -- check. There was a door handle inside, but it was welded solid to the door itself, and immobile. Check. Electronic access panel outside that would unlock the door only if you had the right kind of card to swipe -- check and checkmate. For now.

They were most likely being watched, as well. He didn't have time to begin a surveillance inventory before the sound of running water started behind him. He turned and saw Blair at the sink, stark naked, casually rinsing out his tee-shirt and underwear. "Um... what are you doing?"

"Just being practical," Blair replied. "I've been in this kind of situation before, and I hate waking up in the same dirty clothes for three days straight. I figured I'd do laundry while I had the chance."

"Laundry?"

"Well, the door's locked and nothing short of a bulldozer or a round of C-4 will get us out right now. I don't see dinner, and there's nothing on TV, even if we had one. So I figured I'd do the laundry." He twisted the tee-shirt, wringing the water out of it, and draped it over the edge of the basin to dry.

Byers told himself he wouldn't stare... and found himself staring anyway at the strong curve of the man's thighs, the arch of his buttocks, the shadowy outline of his testicles and penis as Blair lifted one leg to step into his jeans. Ellison was one lucky man. Oh yes. And Byers' libido was going to be badly out of control in about two seconds.

He turned hastily toward the door and began studying the corridor. Shadows were advancing and he could hear the distant echo of footsteps and voices. "Company," he said softly.

"Right on time. The bad guys never miss a cue."


TYEE TEEPEE MOTEL
ROOM 208
11:40 P.M.

"We have to do something," Jimmy insisted. "There must be some kind of Hucksee thing we can investigate."

"Huxley," Langly sighed. "But I agree. I think it's time for a funky poach."

"Great idea, but there's just one tiny problem with it --where do we go first?" Frohike responded.

"Watch and be amazed, Weedhopper," Langly said, grinning. He flipped his laptop open and typed furiously. "Doggett and Ellison said that the Huxleyans knew us by sight -- remember? Warned us to watch our backs? Well, I got to thinking that this meant they'd be subscribers to our paper. So I ran a check on our subscriber database and checked for ads from those subscribers."

Frohike looked suitably impressed. "And?"

"I got thirty possibles in the area."

Frohike rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "We don't have the manpower or equipment to monitor all of them."

"We don't need it." Langly looked smug. "Over the past year, five of the subscribers sent in ads for meetings. They gave GPS locations for 'em. I just grabbed those issues and looked at the meeting locations. They're all on private property, way out in the sticks. If you were gonna run a secret militia operation, you would run it from there, not from Chez de la Roach Motel here in the middle of Cascade."

"Shay what?" Jimmy's brow wrinkled.

"It was a joke, Gargantua," Langly deadpanned.

"Which one do we start with?" Frohike asked.

"Well, we got a place in the Hoh rainforest, and one way up north and one near the dam, one near the Oregon border, and the Hanford Resistance Compound base that's southwest of here. I figure the HRC is the one to try" Langly said. "They're the farthest away, but they had the most recent ad about a meeting next week. I double-checked the GPS coordinates and the Teraserver maps for that one and there's something big out there."

"Well, let's get started!" Jimmy started grabbing equipment.

"Can't yet," Frohike said. "Ellison and Doggett are due here any minute. They were about to kill each other over dinner. We've gotta at least try to do something to calm them down."

Langly nodded. "Yeah. Blair was teaching me to be this, like, backup Guide. He said it wouldn't be as good as a real Guide, but if we can get those two to sleep, we can get this taken care of. Maybe we can find the guys."

"We'll have to keep Ellison and Doggett out of the loop. The minute they find out that we have Huxleyans on our subscriber database, they'll be all over our private records. We can't betray our readers like that," Frohike said.

Jimmy nodded. "I'm worried about Blair and John. What if the Hucksees hurt them?"

"We'll just hope that, for now, they haven't. But it looks like we've got a plan," Frohike said, pulling the equipment from Jimmy's hands and putting it back on the table, "and we all need to sit tight and look innocent for the next hour. "


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
SATURDAY, 12:30 A.M.

Blair turned as the red-haired man in the white robe swept into the room, followed by a pair of heavily armed, muscle-bound Redshirts and a woman in a medical/science Blueshirt. It looked like casting call for a low budget Star Trek ripoff. A tall black woman in camos entered with them, accompanied by a young caucasian man wearing a studded leather collar.

Red snapped a command in Vulcan and another set of Redshirts entered with food and towels. Blueshirt started checking Byers' injuries, smoothing ointment over the scratches. Red studied them for a moment and then took a rather theatrical pose in the middle of the cell.

"My name is Sentinel Shal-lan Walter Woodrow Wilson," he announced.

"What's that all about?" Blair scowled, pitching his tone like a professor critiquing a badly written student paper.

Wilson stared at him, pointing a finger like a weapon. "You will only speak when spoken to, Guide, or I'll have you gagged. Your Sentinel will soon teach you manners." Then he wheeled abruptly and stalked over to Byers, splaying his long-fingered hands against the bearded man's face. Byers, startled, backed up. Wilson pressed forward, maneuvering him against the wall.

"You, T'hy'la, may call me 'Adun.' It means life partner," he said, his voice low and intimate. "We have no word describing the sacred bonds between Sentinel and Guide, so I have chosen 'adun' to symbolize all that we are and all that we shall be to each other." He bent closer to Byers and murmured, "Whether or not we shall become aishaplakai remains to be seen, but for now you are my T'hy'la and I am thy Adun."

Blair stepped closer. "Look, we're not what you think --whatever it is you think."

Wilson spun on his heel and slapped him. "Speak only when you're spoken to, Guide!" One of the Redshirts pointed a rifle at Blair, and he held up his hands. Getting shot wasn't going to solve anything.

"Wilson, tone it down or I'll withdraw my support," the woman said suddenly. "You're starting to cross the line. Nobody's supposed to rough up the Guides."

"Let me remind you, Tamara, that my methods worked on your Guide." The collared man flinched. There was a brief staring match between Tamara and Wilson, and he suddenly seemed to decide that it was bad policy to annoy her. "I stood up for you and got you a Guide of your own. We all agreed that the next one was for me."

"Judge Hammer has the final say," she replied.

Wilson gave her a cold little smile. "He does, until General Harmon says otherwise." He turned back to Byers, smiling. Byers stood frozen while Wilson's hands moved to cover his face in that Vulcan Mind Meld thing again. "My mind to your mind, T'hy'la. My thoughts to your thoughts... we are merging... we are becoming one."

Blair doubted that very much.

After a moment, Wilson stepped back and nodded toward Tamara. "The bond is strengthening," he declared, patting Byers' cheek. "My Guide and I will escort this one to Muster tomorrow, where he'll be assigned to his own Sentinel." He smiled fondly at Byers. "Soon, my T'hy'la, you'll learn what it is to be a True Guide to a True and Free Sentinel."

Tamara shook her head. "Jesus, Wilson, why can't you just speak English, like everybody else?"

He snorted at her and marched out, his robe flapping behind him. The woman followed, pausing to glance pityingly at the two Guides. The Starfleet guards were the last to leave, slamming the door behind them.

Byers looked thoroughly creeped out by the experience. Blair touched Byers' shoulder. "You okay?"

Byers nodded. "Yeah. I'm fine." Blair looked into his eyes and Byers smiled slightly. "Really. It takes more than a few role-playing games to bother me."

"Most role-playing games don't involve live ammo and bruises," Blair said, touching one of the bruises on Byers' face. "I'll admit I'm still not sure where he thinks he's going with this."

"I'm not entirely sure, either. I recognized T'hy'la --Langly says it means something like friend, brother, lover, life-mate in Vulcan." He grimaced. "I don't know what aishaplakai means, but I don't like the implications at all."

"I wonder if anyone but his own group knows." Blair handed Byers one of the plates.

"Probably the Vulcan Language Institute." Byers poked at the food. "I'm not sure I can eat right now."

"You should try anyway. We don't know when breakfast is served around here." There was a chance that their captors were going to use hunger against them as well, but there was no point worrying Byers. Blair picked up his own plate and started into the meal, and Byers followed suit. There was no place in the cell to put trash, so they shoved their plates through a flap under the door into the hallway when they were done, and washed their hands in the sink.

"C'mon. Sit down." Blair looked up at him and patted the bed. "I'm really exhausted, and I hurt everywhere. I know you must, too."

Byers sighed, then nodded and sat. "What do you think he'll do with us?" he asked.

Blair scooted over and leaned against him, smiling winsomely. "I don't know about you, but I could sure use a hug," he said and tucked his head against Byers' chest, whispering, "Play along, okay? I spotted a camera lens in the shower area already. I'm not sure what other devices they've got in this room, but if we pretend we're... uh... intimate, I think we can get away with a little plotting."

Byers hesitated for a second and smiled. "Yeah. A hug would help," he said, then slid his arms around Blair and pulled him gently onto the hard mattress of the bed. His eyes were solemn.

Blair reached up a hand to stroke his beard. "I don't mean to make you nervous," he whispered. "Nothing's going to happen. I'm just going to pretend to chew on your ear for a bit."

"Uh... it's okay, I don't mind."

The slender hands felt warm against his back, and there was none of the awkwardness of a first-timer. Somewhere, sometime, Byers had been with a male lover. It was an intriguing thought, that this shy and scholarly man had allowed someone into his personal space. He smiled, sliding his cheek against the crisp brush of Byers' beard, and whispered softly, "I don't know what Wilson's up to, but some of the phrases he was using make me think he's seen a copy of my Masters' thesis on Burton at some point."

Byers pulled back a little and frowned. "I thought that was destroyed?"

"No. All the copies of my Ph.D. dissertation were destroyed except for the one you saw. But my Masters' thesis in Sociocultural Anthro compared Burton's material on tribal societies with Steward's work on the same groups and their concepts of shamanic warriors. That led to the research on Sentinels."

"Oh." Byers nuzzled his hair. "Do you think he's the real thing -- a Sentinel?"

"No way," Blair whispered. "He had no idea about your emotional state, didn't catch things that Jim would have gotten in half a second, like your heartbeat and scent. He had to stand close to you to smell you, among other things. Believe me, this one's a loony. We'd both be in deep shit if he was a real Sentinel. Not that we aren't in deep shit anyway."

"And that woman? He said she had a Guide. The guy in the collar reacted when Wilson mentioned it."

"I'm not sure," Blair replied. "I didn't notice anything that would convince me either way. I doubt it though." He ran a gentle hand along Byers' side and felt his own body respond. He was stressed and tired, and a little creature comfort would have felt good about now. It would be so easy to let his hand drift lower, to explore the warmth of Byers' body. It would be wrong, but it would be... so simple. So sweet. His fingers twitched slightly.

"The loony thing is going to pose a few problems," Byers mused.

Blair forced himself to concentrate on the business at hand and not on his sudden impulse to start removing Byers' brown tie with his teeth. "Yeah. I don't like the way he was looking at either of us, or the sound of some of what he was saying. We have to get out of here soon -- wherever 'here' is."

"I'm fresh out of ideas right now, Kemosabe." Byers sighed.

"Yeah, Tonto, and the setup here isn't much help. Each of the Huxleyan compounds has its own rules. No telling what kind of government Weird-ass Wilson has set up, or how many people he has around him. His Star Trek thing, though -- maybe we can keep him talking about that, instead of trying stuff on us. You up on your Trek trivia?"

"Not really." Byers chuckled softly. "This should have happened to Langly. He lives and breathes Trek trivia."

"That's the trouble with the bad guys -- always kidnapping the wrong people. So, anyway, have you guys heard of this group before? Anyone in your subscribers, maybe?"

Byers straightened his tie with one hand and looked a little indignant. "Our subscribers have some unusual ideas, but they're not psychotic and delusional. Uh -- not usually, anyway. Not to an extreme degree." He paused. "Most of them, that is."

Blair grinned to himself. Byers was fun when he was backpedaling. "Most, huh?"

"Right. These guys are more your type anyway. So what do you know about them?"

"Well, they're not your average millennialist, Biblical gun-nut cult. They're a Leary and McKenna and Lilly and all that jazz gun-nut cult. They're into the whole 'cleansing the doors of perception' mystique. A strange combination of Blake and Lopophora williamsii and a bunch of Castaneda and Harner-derived pseudo-shamanism. Apparently they've got some fixation on the Space Brothers, too, but that's about all anyone knows about them."

"They think drugs expand the mind so you can detect aliens?"

"That seems to be about the size of it," Blair said. "McKenna would go on for hours about the machine elves in the mushrooms, man. But that's the twenty-five cent version."

"Sounds like something they'd skewer on MST3K. So they're a psychedelic saucer cult?"

"Not exactly," Blair said. "More like an anti-saucer cult. They believe the little green men exist, but they think the aliens are hell-bent on taking over the planet."

"Well, they've got that part right, at least," Byers muttered.

"What? Don't tell me you believe in space aliens."

"All right. I won't." Those gentle hands traced little circles on his shoulder blades and Blair began fantasizing that they were circling much lower. He hoped Byers wasn't aware of what this was doing to him.

"What kind of a world do you come from, John Byers?" he whispered teasingly.

"Believe me, you don't want to know. This Sentinel stuff? Nowhere near as weird as my life gets."

Blair chuckled and gave in to his baser impulses. He snared Byers' tie with his teeth and began worrying it loose. "Weird is as weird does, I suppose," he whispered.

"Hey!" Byers reached up to defend his clothing.

"It's okay," Blair whispered. "I'm just making it look good for the cameras. But I think you should know that you're currently holding the number one spot on my 'Guys Other Than Jim I Want to be Tied Up and Kidnapped With' list."

Byers laughed, and kissed him; a soft, chaste brush of lips on lips. "Feeling's mutual," he said.

Damn, that was nice. Byers had the most amazing eyes. Down, boy. "Camera."

"Mmm?"

"I spotted another one."

Byers didn't look. He nodded and placed a gentle kiss on Blair's cheek. "Okay."

Blair yawned. "And don't worry -- they'll find us. Sentinels are like that. Jim always comes for me, even if I've managed to rescue myself by the time he arrives."

"The guys are that way, too."

"With such good friends, how can we fail?" He yawned again. "Try to get some sleep. We both need some rest if we're going to stay sharp to deal with this. I need to meditate anyway, and see if I can do a spirit walk. Somebody out there must have some ideas on how to help us."

"Uh, right." Byers looked puzzled as he pulled a blanket up around them.

"But John?"

"Hmm?"

"You'll be a hell of a lot more comfortable sleeping if you take off the damned tie and your jacket. Brown, by the way, is so not your color."

A quiet chuckle, and Byers shed the coat and tie, then pulled the suit coat over their heads to block the overhead light. "Now, why didn't I think of that before?" Blair laughed softly.

The answer was a grin and a warm, enfolding hug. "Because I don't think they'll let us get away with this for long."


TYEE TEEPEE MOTEL
ROOM 208
1 A.M.

"...just listen to my voice, now. Try to relax and turn those dials down..." Langly intoned nasally.

Jim sighed to himself. Langly was trying hard to help him and Doggett get their senses under control. His intentions were honorable -- the twitchy hacker pointed out that a half-assed, half-trained assistant Guide was better than no Guide at all -- but it just wasn't working.

He could hear Doggett's heartbeat hammering in cadence with his own and smell the adrenaline rush from both of them. Apparently, a pair of Sentinels -- even friendly ones --could manage to enhance each other's stress simply by being near each other. He'd have to tell Blair, when they found him. Something for the field notes.

A bonded Sentinel/Guide pair could stand to be away from each other for a couple of weeks; perhaps even a couple of months under normal circumstances, unless there was a high stress situation. But the sad truth was Sentinels didn't handle stress well. Combine overloaded senses with adrenaline-fueled fight responses and high stress hormones and you could cause a collapse within a matter of days. He'd seen it happen before.

His hearing was starting to get out of control again. He heard the scrape of stubble on skin as Frohike rubbed his chin irritably, and the soft brush of cloth as Jimmy shifted in his chair.

"Breathe," Langly was saying, and he tried focusing on that instead.

His eardrums were shattered by a bad electronic version of "Lucy in the Sky." He lunged upward as Langly said cheerily, "Oh, hey -- Marconi!" into his cell phone.

Doggett was sitting on the edge of one of the other beds half-zoned, weaving a little and looking homicidal. Langly was chattering away obliviously. "Uh huh... Oh yeah... You know it, babe! Uh huh..."

Jim lurched forward, snatched the phone out of Langly's hands and said sweetly into the mouthpiece, "I'm so sorry, but Langly's been called away on an emergency. He'll get back with you tomorrow." He turned the phone off and stuffed it into his pocket. Langly looked like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming train. Jim gave him a hard stare.

Langly gulped. "Uh. So. Where were we?" he asked weakly.

Only a Sentinel could hear Frohike mutter, "In deep shit."


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
MAIN QUONSET HUT
6 A.M.

An ethnologist's best survival trait was the ability to blend in with the people and the culture being studied -- even at six A.M. in the middle of a drafty Quonset hut. Blair focused on that thought as he was escorted into the large hangar-like building in the center of the compound. His captors undoubtedly knew he was a police profiler, but he needed them to think of him as a harmless academic and not the kind of man who would pose a threat to anyone. Fortunately his mild-mannered scholar image was accessorized by the pair of muscular athletes who marched on either side of him -- that and the handcuffs on his wrists. Wilson and his goons weren't taking any chances.

To his right was Byers, similarly escorted. Trailing them was a man armed with a modified assault rifle, who waved it around like an extra in a Rambo movie; the sort of weapons-happy testosterone junkie who didn't have the words 'safety catch' anywhere in his vocabulary. As they reached the building, Rambo scuttled around in front of the group and opened the door, waving them through with his weapon.

The "throne room" was crowded with a lineup of individuals who looked like they were playing a weekend warrior fantasy game. Camouflage uniforms and face paint seemed to be the uniform of the day for most of them, but the weaponry was disturbingly real.

In front of them was the same throne from last night, but a heavy oak table had been dragged in front of it. Seated on the throne was a man who wore a judge's robe and a hooded hangman's mask. He was flanked by a pair of heavyset women who carried assault rifles and eyed the crowd with the cold detachment of professional executioners. They looked like they knew what a safety catch was for -- and how to turn said safety catch off.

A group to the right appeared to be playing a paramilitary Master/slave bondage game, featuring straps and rings and leashes and collars, with hand grenades as accessories. The woman, Tamara, was standing in front of the group, dressed in camos. Beside her stood a leashed and collared caucasian man, the one who'd been with her last night, who seemed to be both her pet and her Guide. Judging from their position near the "throne," the weapons, and their body language, this group had a higher status in the Huxleyan pecking order than Wilson's group.

He glanced around discreetly. There were others in the crowd who were dressed like Tamara's pet, and after a moment Blair realized that all the collared people were leashed to someone. Body language said that the one holding the leash was the dominant one and that the pairs were being regarded with some deference. So among the groups, these "Sentinels" and "Guides" had a lot of status... but there was no equality between the partners.

This was not good news. It implied some sort of "breaking" or "brainwashing program" -- and Byers, with his occasionally paranoid outlook, would be easier prey than a police profiler. Blair cursed silently. If the bonding had gone better between Doggett and Byers, then the new Guide would already have had some of the basic training in Shamanism that would make the him much less vulnerable. Now he was going to have to come up with a Great Idea, and at the same time, try to make sure that Byers didn't take any lasting psychological damage.

Next time, Blair decided, he was going to try an easier challenge... like bringing peace to the Middle East.

The judge rapped his gavel and the murmur of voices fell silent. A door opened and Wilson stalked in wearing his ceremonial robes, followed by a group of men dressed in jungle camo. Following Wilson and the Camo Commandos was a rather ordinary-looking man in a navy blue jogging suit who looked like a psychiatrist going for his morning constitutional. As they fell into place, the judge rapped again.

"Proceedings for custody of the Guides will begin," he announced. "Colonel Prather, you may speak first."

A man in desert camo stepped forward and stood before the judge. "I claim the Guides for the Taos Compound," he announced loudly.

The judge banged his gavel. "Proceed."


ELLISON-SANDBURG RESIDENCE
852 PROSPECT STREET #307
10 A.M.

Doggett leaned heavily against the kitchen counter. He could feel himself shaking, heart beating way too fast, and he hated it. "We need to do something, and we need to do it now," he insisted. Byers' kidnapping had affected him far more deeply than he'd ever thought it could. This was more than just a friend in trouble. It gnawed at his gut like something rabid.

Langly folded his arms and leaned against the refrigerator. "You heard Ellison. He said to wait here until he got back."

"Ellison and Banks can't do a thing about that compound out in the middle of wherever it is," Doggett snarled. "It's nowhere near their jurisdiction, and it'll be a week or more before they can get the County, State and Federal governments and the legal system to decide who goes to investigate and how they can do it. We don't have weeks. They could be dead by then." Byers, dead. That was a thought he didn't want to be having. It bothered him in ways he couldn't explain and didn't want to examine.

Frohike stood and stretched. "Doggett, you need to go lie down now and be sound asleep when Ellison comes back."

"Give me one good reason."

"Because," Frohike said pointedly, "you need an alibi. You need an alibi so lily white and pure that butter wouldn't melt in your mouth."

"What are you talking about?"

"There's ethics and then there's ethics, Agent Doggett," Frohike replied. "You, as a law enforcement agent, have to follow a lot of rules to make sure no laws are violated and no rights are trampled during your investigations. Now, journalists," he gestured at himself and the other Gunmen, "simply have an obligation to snoop, and some rights can be, um... circumvented if it's for the good of society."

"What are you suggesting?"

"I'm saying that you want to be here asleep like the good little agent you are while Langly and Jimmy and I do a little investigative reporting using methods you don't want to know about and equipment you don't want to hear about. And you need to be here, right by that phone, in case there's a quick tip from a certain informant of yours who needs to remain anonymous."

"I'm going with you," Doggett snapped, stalking forward.

Jimmy grinned and spread his hands. "Hey, there's nothing going on. We're just off hunting Bigfoot. You know how effusive that guy is. You might find him just about anywhere."

"Yeah," Langly grinned. "Like, I hear he's into all sorts of unusual places."


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
MAIN QUONSET HUT
NOON

Byers stifled a yawn. The hearing had been going on for hours and all that had been established was that twelve of the twenty Huxleyan compounds in the West had SuperSoldier/Sentinel development and training programs --they didn't seem to realize there was a difference -- and they all demanded Guides; particularly Guides with experience.

So far, the strongest arguments seemed to be Colonel/Shal-lan Wilson's "Finders Keepers" and Colonel Jogging Man's "I'm The Head Honcho's Favorite Sidekick."

Meanwhile, he and Blair had been stripped and poked and prodded and discussed as though they were bulls at a 4-H competition. It was only after Blair's shivering had become uncontrollable that they were allowed to dress again. He still looked cold. Byers wondered if he looked as exhausted and miserable as his friend did.

The gavel thundered, startling him. "Lunch recess," the judge announced. "We'll convene again at 3 P.M. local time."

Wilson started forward, but the women with the machine guns stepped in front of him, weapons ready. "They need to be fed," he protested.

"Yes, they do," the judge replied as he rose.

"I have food prepared for my Guide."

"Then you should feed your Guide," the judge said, his eyes glittering. "But neither of these men has been assigned to you as a Guide. They eat with me."

"But..."

"Yes, I had reports that you tried to pre-bond with the bearded Guide."

Wilson's face flushed angrily. "We acquired eighteen new Guides this quarter -- and all of them went to other compounds. I'm tired of seeing my unit short-changed by staff. We need Guides for our Sentinels!"

The room grew deathly silent. The judge said quietly, "As I recall, you have four Sentinels and you did have four Guides. Now I see just two Guides. What happened to your personal Guide, Wilson?"

"She transferred." The explanation was flat. Wilson stared at the judge, as if daring the man to challenge him.

"Really?"

The stillness in the room was the silence of a predator preparing an attack.

Wilson crossed his massive arms. "We had sixteen sightings near this facility in the past month. Without Sentinels, we don't know who those are and if they're a threat. We're near a major hub, and everyone relies on our accurate reports!"

"I'll take it under consideration. Meanwhile, you're dismissed. You and the rest can go eat whatever your cooks have prepared."

Wilson stiffened and glowered. The judge simply turned and marched out the door behind the dais. The two female guards pushed the Guides forward and they followed the black-robed figure down a long hallway and downstairs into another underground section of the compound.

Some of the hallways appeared to connect buildings. They were led past several intersections and into an area painted with a faded bile green color. The judge opened a door and led them into a large room with tables and chairs. The rest of the squad took seats; Byers, Blair and their guards joined the judge at the head table.

The judge removed his hood, and at that gesture, white-aproned servers appeared from the kitchen, carrying plates of food and silverware. The meal looked good, and Byers began to feel a small surge of hope -- until the moment that the waiters placed bowls of a sort of thick, cream-colored stew in front of the Guides and handed them spoons.

Byers glanced at his guard's meal; a plate of sliced beef with potatoes and corn. He prodded at his own stew, and a greenish object sank tiredly into the depths of the bowl. He hoped it was a vegetable.

He watched Blair, who was eating with quiet determination. Maybe fieldwork in Borneo or wherever gave you the ability to eat grubs, MREs, and whatever was put on the plate in front of you. He scooped his spoon into the stew and took a bite. The first mouthful was annoyingly bland.

"May I have the salt?" he asked the woman next to him.

That earned him a flat, cold stare. "No." Her tone implied that if he was wise, he would shut up and eat what was given to him. He blinked, looked down, and very quietly began eating his meal.


ELLISON AND SANDBURG'S LOFT
852 PROSPECT #307
12:35 PM

"Ellison? Jim?"

Someone was shaking his shoulder. Jim blinked. Doggett. Doggett was shaking his shoulder. He was lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling. "Did I zone?"

"Yeah." The FBI agent looked grim. "I thought you pulled out of it a couple of minutes ago, but you went back under. What happened? You've been staring at the front door for the past ten minutes."

He jerked his head around, looking toward the front door. "Yeah. I saw Jaguar. He was... flickering in and out like a bad TV picture."

"Jaguar?"

"Yeah. Jaguar."

"So, who's this Jaguar guy?" Doggett asked, his tone very carefully neutral.

Jim sighed heavily. "Let me guess. Blair didn't get to shamanism and totems with you yet, right?"

"You're makin' no sense here, Ellison. You wanna give it to me from the top?"

"God. Blair's so much better at this. Okay, for some reason -- and we don't know why -- Sentinels and Guides have some sort of spirit helpers."

"There is no way I'm going to buy into that."

"Just shut up, John, and let me finish, okay?" he growled. "They're these animal spirits, and they give you warnings and show you important things. My totem is a black jaguar. Blair's is a wolf. Different people get different spirits. We don't know why. Blair thinks it has something to do with a person's personality or natural talents."

Doggett's mouth was set in a hard line. "Go on."

"I look up and see Jaguar there, trying to show me something. Then he starts flickering in and out like a bad TV picture and I try to see what he's doing and that's when the zone-out hit." He glowered at Doggett. "And don't try to tell me it's my imagination. You'll see your own spirit soon enough. They're real. Sometimes they're more real than the rest of the world."

"So can you see mine?"

"No. Not really. Just sort of a shadow of the power. None of us will really see it until after you get stabilized." He froze. Jaguar was back, standing there beside the door. Beside him was the barest ghostly outline of Wolf. He charged toward the images as Jaguar pawed worriedly at the fading shape of Wolf, trying to scoop up the ghost image with one large, inky paw. He dimly heard Doggett asking what was wrong as he reached out to touch the spirit.

Wolf's eyes stared into his, pleading, asking something. "Blair," he whispered to it and reached into it, unnerved at the thought of what the tenuous shape might mean, trying to bring the spirit closer. "Blair."

It shimmered again and then faded. He grabbed at it and his fingers slammed against the door. Then it was gone, and Jaguar was gone as well.

"ELLISON!"

He flinched at the shout. Doggett's hands were on his shoulders and he was... on his knees in front of the door. "Blair.... " Cold knots of dread twisted his stomach.

"What's goin' on?" Doggett's voice was urgent.

"I don't know," he whispered. "I don't know."


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
MAIN QUONSET HUT
12:35 PM

Blair was exhausted. They'd had very little sleep since they were brought to the compound, they'd been fed goo that had the consistency and flavor of library paste, and now they were being made to stand as a group of some dozen teenagers was led in. He blinked, trying to clear the dizziness and fog from his mind. A shape flickered in front of him that could have been Jaguar, but it faded almost as soon as it appeared.

The judge stood behind a lectern decorated with the winged eye of the Huxleyans and addressed the crowd. "Today we shall confirm the new Guides and their Sentinels," he said, his voice broad and strong as he gestured toward the teenagers. Were they the kids of the older Huxleyans? It was hard to tell. They were anonymous, dressed in identical khaki uniforms, hair clipped in military buzz cuts. One appeared to be female, but other than differences in height and skin color, it was hard to tell one from another.

"Today you are called to be True Guides, and we call upon you to meditate on what it means to be a Guide. Sit and be still and think about the obligations of being a Guide. Being a Guide is a serious obligation; one not to be taken lightly."

Blair stifled a yawn as he listened. It wasn't a technique he used in training new Guides, but asking people to think about their responsibilities and listing them for the new trainee wasn't a bad idea. The judge was droning on, his voice powerful and compelling, speaking of social injustices and the need to protect people, mixing it in with patriotism and religion. The kids were listening, open-mouthed.

He looked around. Byers was listening, apparently fascinated. Blair frowned at him. If you stopped to analyze the sentences, the speech was trite and the words were overly-ponderous. So why did it sound so compelling -- and why was Byers mesmerized by it?

There was something very wrong with the situation. He focused his attention inward and let the words flow over him. Maybe he could do a minor spirit walk and touch Wolf. Once he could touch the spirit, then he could... could...

His heart hammered against his ribs. He couldn't remember what it was that he could do!

Shocked, he snapped his head up to stare at the judge and felt dizziness envelop him. Drugs: he and Byers had been drugged by something in the food or water. The judge had delayed this little farce of a ceremony just long enough for the drugs to start affecting them.

He took a deep breath and stared at the floor. A shadowy shape like a jaguar blinked at him with Jim's blue eyes and then vanished. He tried to recapture the image in his mind, but he kept losing focus. Meditation would help clear influence of the drugs, but he couldn't meditate. Maybe... breathing exercises? He took a slow, deep breath. Another wave of dizziness washed over him.


A LITTLE DIRT ROAD
SOMEWHERE IN WASHINGTON
5:00 P.M.

"Oh, Jesus. Another teeny road in the middle of nowhere," Langly whined. He raised his hands heavenward. "Why couldn't it be just off I-5? Or close to something edible? Why do we get another bugtrack in the middle of Bumfuck, Nowhere?"

"Look, this is the coast. It's a rainforest," Frohike snarled. "You don't get twenty lane highways in the middle of a rainforest."

"And why not?"

"Langly, just shut up! I'm tired of your whining."

"Frohike, we haven't slept in eighteen hours and we've seen every goddamned jerkwater rabbit trail in the whole state. Yes, I'm whining. I have a goddamn good reason to whine!"

"Look, fuckwit--"

Jimmy stuck his head between them. "Hey, guys. I'm sorry the other compounds didn't check out. Hey -- I know! The GPS map says we'll be near a campground in about six minutes and I can do a quick can of chili once we get stopped. Then we can call Agent Doggett and let him know where we are."

"Great. Right. Tell him we're lost in Outer Bugfuck Washington. Oh yeah."

"Well, it'll keep him from looking for us. I mean, those guys worry, and they're awfully twitchy. If he thinks we're safe, then we can go out and have a look at where the house of that Hucksee in Cascade is, and he won't worry about us."

"Thank you, Little Mary Sunshine. When I write the book about this gnarly road trip to every whacko compound in Washington, I'll be sure to mention your cheerful running commentary, your awesome culinary talents, and your amazingly helpful suggestions," Langly said sarcastically. He folded his long arms and sulked as Frohike downshifted the van and eased it over a tiger-trap sized rut in the road.

There was a rustle of cellophane and Jimmy played his trump card. "Hey, I got some ding-dongs here..." he smiled and held up a double package of chocolate cupcakes. "Want some?"

Langly lunged for them. "Oh, God! You're a lifesaver!" He ripped off the cellophane and began chewing enthusiastically with happy little moans.

Frohike turned to look at Jimmy. The jock winked, and handed him a chocolate cupcake. "Works every time," he whispered.


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
MAIN QUONSET HUT
6 PM

The judge's gavel pounded on the oak table, startling Byers from his fantasy about a good pasta dinner at Napoli's in Boston. The room fell silent and the assembled units came to attention.

"As of this date, the Guide known as Blair Sandburg will be remanded to Colonel Phoenix's care," the judge announced. There were some half-hearted cheers as the man in the jogging suit walked forward, smiling, to stand in front of the judge. Byers held his breath.

The gavel rapped again. "The Guide known as John Byers will be remanded to Colonel Wilson's care for retraining." There were shouts and cheering from the Trek crowd as Wilson, a leer on his face, came forward. Byers' stomach curdled.

The judge gaveled them into silence. "They will be given their additional inoculations and medical review and you may pick them up tomorrow morning, gentlemen. But I remind you, if you damage them permanently, they will be given to other compounds and your units will be censured and fined."

The judge's female guards nudged the two Guides and directed them out of the building. As the door closed behind them, Byers heard the judge say, "The general convocation of Western Group 18 will come to order."


ELLISON-SANDBURG RESIDENCE
852 PROSPECT #307
SUNDAY, 1 A.M.

"Am I keeping you awake?" It was a whisper, barely more than the sound of breath.

Jim sat up in bed with a sigh. "No. I can't sleep." He pulled on a tee-shirt and boxers and padded downstairs. Doggett was a shape by the window, tall and solid in the darkness. "It's hard to sleep without Blair." That was a minimalist understatement. The truth was, the whole world seemed empty without the sound of his lover's voice, without his vibrant energy, without the pad of his footsteps or the soft thudding of his heart. His scent still hung in the rooms, but somehow that just made their home feel lonelier and emptier than ever. He sat on the couch, staring at the darkness, feeling alone and defeated.

Doggett scrubbed his face with a hand. "I'm so tired. And..." he paused, gesturing.

"Lonely."

Doggett stared at him, nodded. "...lonely."

"It's... this ache," Jim said. "That's the connection; the bond. You don't notice it and then suddenly he goes out of your life and it's like there's this big hole there that you never knew about and it catches you unaware."

"Yeah. It's like that," Doggett whispered harshly.

"We'd call each other every night if we had to be apart. I... I miss his voice."

"I'd... listen to the messages he left," Doggett confessed after a long moment. "Just the sound of his voice... I didn't want him around but I had this compulsion to listen. And now... how do you miss someone you never even knew you wanted in your life?" He sat heavily on the other end of the couch, staring forlornly at the floor.

After a moment, Jim got up and returned with a pair of sleeping bags and a quilt from upstairs. Doggett looked at him curiously.

"I think we might manage a little rest if we camp out here in the living room," he said as he threw the quilt on the floor and spread the sleeping bags out on top of it. Maybe the touch of another body sleeping next to him, the close sounds and scents of another, might ease his stress -- or Doggett's. One or both of them might even manage a few hours of sleep.

The FBI agent quirked an eyebrow at him.

"Well, I'm not letting you sleep on Blair's side of the bed, and if you think I'm going to let you sleep on mine, you're crazy," he snapped, gesturing to the man. "Now lie down, will ya?"

He could see the pale flash of Doggett's teeth as he grinned in the darkness.


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
4:30 A.M.

Byers was startled out of his sleep by the creak of their cell door opening. Blair struggled upward, sleepily groping for his glasses, and was pinned against the wall by a fast-moving Redshirt. Byers was hauled upward by a rough hand on his collar and force marched out of the cell. Wilson was waiting in the hall, arms folded, a satisfied smirk on his face.

"Where are you taking me?" Byers asked.

"To my quarters, T'hy'la."

Byers wondered sourly what Wilson's idea of a morning routine for Guides was. With any luck, it would be something along the lines of memorizing a page of Vulcan. He doubted it.

Wilson's quarters were about the size of a room at the Tyee Teepee. Not bad for a barracks room, but not exactly the height of luxury. The place was set up like a little studio apartment, and there was a good deal of Trek memorabilia around. A bed was curtained off from the rest of the room, and covered with thick covers and pillows in dark colors. In one corner, a chin-up bar was hanging from the ceiling, bolted in.

The Redshirts parked themselves around the room, vaguely at attention, amused expressions on their faces.

"Now, T'hy'la," Wilson said, "we're going to work on our bond. I felt the crisis rising in me, and it was necessary that I bring you here. What the Sentinel needs, the Guide must provide."

"Crisis?" Byers edged away.

"I received the warning today," Wilson said, looking up toward the ceiling. "In my meditations I received the vision and knew it to be true, but there is more that needs to be learned and understood. The bond must be strengthened so that we may serve, T'hy'la. Fear not." Wilson moved suddenly, shoving Byers back into the wall near the chin-up bar.

He took a swing at the redhead, but Wilson was faster. His wrist was grabbed and twisted sharply in a complicated martial arts maneuver and he found himself on the floor, arm locked at an awkward, painful angle. Wilson twisted his head and spoke a few words in Vulcan to the Redshirts. Two of them set their beers aside and walked over to grab Byers. Another positioned himself near the door.

Byers was hauled to his feet and the guards released his arms, but there was no time to bolt. Wilson's fist bunched the fabric of his collar and he was lifted upward, off his feet, to dangle before the huge man. Wilson let him hang for a moment, suspended helplessly, nose-to-nose with his captor, then slammed him into the wall. "Never refuse me," he hissed. "You are a Guide. It's your duty to obey your Sentinel, your duty to serve your Adun."

Byers staggered, dazed, and Wilson grabbed his collar again. "I need to familiarize myself with your psychic signature," he said, and leaned in, sniffing at his neck. Byers pushed against him and had his head slammed back into the wall again. "You will be still, T'hy'la," the man said. Wilson released him then and his hands moved lower, brushing Byers' abdomen, then his hips.

Byers jerked away. "No!"

"Yes." Another command in Vulcan and the Redshirts were back, raising Byers' arms over his head. Wilson produced a pair of thick leather restraints from a pouch at his waist and locked them tightly around Byers' wrists, then secured them to the ends of the chin-up bar. The third man used a set of straps to secure Byers' ankles to recessed eyebolts in the floor. "Obedience is the key to control. Control is the key to all," Wilson intoned as he pulled a black leather collar from the same pouch and padlocked it around Byers' neck.

"You won't get away with this," Byers said, with more confidence than he felt. "They'll find us, you know."

Wilson stroked Byers' face, then suddenly grabbed his jaw, yanking hard. "You mean that Sentinel you were working with? I don't think so." He grinned and leaned in to kiss Byers. "By all reports, the FBI agent hasn't got control of his senses yet. You haven't bonded, and you can't with him. His katra is fouled. But you'll bond with me."

Byers jerked his head back, turning away. "I won't. Not with you."

Fingers stroked his face, trailed down his chest to his nipples. "You can't win, T'hy'la. Kro'el -- the Way -- is power. Kro'el is beauty. Kro'el is justice." He smiled coldly and pulled out a slim switchblade knife. "It's a harsh way, but in the end it's best." His fingers pressed and the slender blade shot upward with a snick.

"No." Byers' throat was tight. He could feel sweat starting to trickle from his armpits.

Wilson began methodically slicing Byers' shirt. His eyes were hooded, his expression almost ecstatic. Byers had seen that same expression once before, on the face of a serial killer as he described how he had killed his victims. "You will learn to serve me, T'hy'la, and you will take pleasure in it."

"No." It was the barest whisper of sound.

Wilson's mouth was on his neck, sucking. Byers' entire body clenched. "You'll bear my mark, and the world will know you belong to me." The knife kept moving, stripping cloth from his body. It wasn't long before he was naked in front of them, his clothing in shreds around him. He'd never felt so humiliated and outraged in his life.

"You will be my aishaplakai, or you will be my slave, Guide. Either way, you'll serve me." The words were a cold hiss in his ear. "To be my lover would be much, much more pleasant."

Cold with shock and anger, Byers could only stare, teeth bared. Wilson's hands moved steadily over his body now, touching his sides, his back, his ass with casual possessiveness as the man circled him. They moved between his legs, caressing his penis and testicles, and Byers' stomach heaved. He tried jerking his leg up to knee Wilson, but the bonds held firm and the disgusting intimacy continued.

"When you're ready, T'hy'la, I'll take you to my bed. We must be physically joined." The blade of the knife slid, cold, along Byers' throat and he suppressed a shudder. "As the bond strengthens, it becomes more sexual, more sensual. You'll be unable to refuse it." Wilson was nearly purring in his ear as he pressed the length of his body along Byers' back. "You'll want me. You'll beg for me. You'll take me into your body and cry my name in your pleasure. It will complete our bond, but we must be linked in our minds before that happens."

"Nggg..." Byers struggled against his touch, tasting bile.

"But to help me establish this link, I must mark you." Wilson smiled softly and flashed the switchblade up, then back.

Byers gritted his teeth against his scream as Wilson carved the design into the back of his shoulder.


ALLEYWAY
3600 BLOCK, BRANDON STREET
CASCADE, WASHINGTON
5 A.M.

Ellison braked smoothly, bringing his truck to a quick stop. "How many times have they started riots in your neck of the woods?" he asked Doggett.

The FBI agent shook his head. "There are times when I think a little therapeutic kneecapping might help." He looked toward the tableau at the wooden fence.

Langly, Bond, and Frohike were standing, hands raised, pinned by the searchlights of two squad cars. They were looking unusually cooperative, but this was due in part to the presence of Officer Will Hamilton and his K-9 companion, Ralph. The stocky German Shepherd was growling softly at Langly, eyeing the blond hacker with an expression that plainly said he was very suspicious of the man. Langly seemed to be holding his breath.

Next to them was a stocky man in a wife-beater tee-shirt, who was ranting at one of the other police officers and pointing to a Pit Bull. The dog lay on the ground, moaning piteously, pawing at its mouth and drooling.

Hamilton snapped an order to Ralph, who stared more intently at Langly's crotch. Langly tried to blend into the fence as Hamilton strolled over to the truck. "They say they belong to you," he said conversationally.

"Yeah," Ellison scowled. "What did they do?"

"Homeowner hears a noise near the garbage cans, thinks it's a raccoon. He and his dog go out to have a look, they find these three bozos. Homeowner says 'sic' and the dog charges and Blondie, there, sprays the dog with something that gives it fits. Blondie swears it's 'Nuit de Or' perfume. Homeowner -- who just conveniently happens to have a pistol -- takes potshots at them, and the big guy, Bond, tackles him. The wife calls us and runs out to defend her man and her dog. Blondie gives her a face full of that perfume, which needs to be on the controlled substances list or something. We got called in on it, and here we are."

"I... see."

"Assault by dog; assault by gawdawful cheap perfume. Blondie, there, swears the perfume was for a girlfriend. Mr. Trigger Happy swears the perfume is actually a secret weapon designed by the Federal government." Hamilton was trying hard not to laugh.

Frohike was looking toward the truck. He opened his mouth as though to say something and Ralph wheeled and snarled, displaying a long mouth full of very large, very white fangs. Frohike did his best to imitate a fencepost.

"Man, Ellison, you gotta get yourself a better class of skels," Hamilton grinned. "So who are those loons, anyway?"

"Informants," Ellison admitted. "Cuff 'em and get Green to haul them to the station in his squad car. Tell him we'll meet him there and take the Three Stooges off his hands. That'll give you time to cool the situation off and see if Mr. Trigger-Happy has a permit for his cute little pistol."

Hamilton nodded and waved cheerily as Ellison backed the truck up. Doggett was scowling at him.

"What's your beef, Doggett?"

"Just... wondering what's going on."

"Did you notice the homeowner?"

"Yeah."

"He was at the demonstration Friday morning, dressed in one of the camo uniforms with the winged eye on it. Care to speculate about what those clowns were doing, prowling around this particular back yard at this hour of the night?"

"I think," Doggett growled, "they were funky poaching. And I think they got lots of explainin' to do."


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
SANDBURG AND BYERS' CELL
5 A.M.

The door slid open. Byers, collared, bleeding, naked, and barely coherent, was escorted in and left on the bed. Blair, frozen in shock, barely heard the door shut and lock.

"Oh, God! John!" His stomach lurched. For a moment he dithered, then grabbed his tee-shirt from the sink where he'd left it drying. Soaking it with water, he began gently dabbing at his friend's bloodied form, trying to clean Byers up and see just how badly the man had been hurt.

A spasm shook Byers' body. "Blair?" he whispered, opening one eye briefly.

"Shh. You're safe." That, Blair knew, was a lie. At any second that brutal, psychotic sadist could come back for them, and Blair had no way of protecting his friend; his student. "Do you have enough strength to tell me what happened?"

"Star Trek... Bonding thing... Uh... pain and... something..." Byers mumbled as Blair pulled the thin blanket around him. Raw red marks on his wrists and ankles showed how he'd fought the restraints. On the back of one shoulder, Blair found an Enterprise insignia carved into his flesh. He swallowed, trying not to vomit. God -- he needed to find out if Byers had been raped, without further traumatizing his friend.

Blair lunged toward the door and pounded on it. The sound boomed down the hall. "MEDIC!" he bellowed. "Somebody get a medic in here!" He wheeled and snarled at the cameras and pointed vehemently toward the bed. He had a few other gestures he wanted to add, but that wouldn't bring help any faster.

There was a soft whimper from the bed and Blair turned his attention back to Byers. Was this the way they were training the teenaged Guides as well? He knelt by the bed and gently stroked the sweat-streaked hair.

There was a sound behind him and he turned as the door was unlocked. Two guards in khaki marched forward and grabbed his arms as Wilson's blue-shirted medic came in, carrying a medical kit. The guards pulled him out into the hall and he strained to see what was going on in the cell behind him.

"Don't worry about your friend," one guard said in a bored tone. "He'll be fine. Wilson's medic is top notch and we've never lost one yet."

Blair stared at him, open-mouthed.

The other guard nudged him forward. "Let's go, Guide. It's your turn for training."

Blair's stomach heaved.


ELLISON-SANDBURG RESIDENCE
852 PROSPECT STREET #307
11:30 A.M.

"...and if you goons ever try anything like that again," Jim snarled, "I'll personally see to it that you get locked up in some loony bin for the rest of your lives!"

The three Lone Gunmen blinked at him, looking innocent.

"Wagner's dog is fine, man," Langly whined. "So's his old lady. And he didn't have a permit for that gun."

"And all we did before that was make sure they weren't hiding Bigfoot in the compound," Jimmy said, sounding for all the world like he'd just been out for a walk in the park, officer.

"And you confiscated our cameras and the film with the pictures of some of the vehicles leaving the compound," Frohike added. "I assume you ran the license plates and checked for traffic tickets. So what happened?"

"Yeah, we got two of them on warrants. They lawyered up. Doggett and I questioned them both, but all we can tell is that they're lying about everything, that both of them know where other compounds are here in Washington, and one of them knows something about special training programs. But, short of injecting them with pentathol or using electroshock on them, that's all we've been able to get. And there was nothing useful in their cars," Jim admitted. It was back to square one, and he was too tired to figure out where square two was.

Frohike looked at his watch. "A shame. Well, it's been nice, Ellison, but we have to go back to the motel and check on Doggett. He's been gettin' a nap the past couple hours."

Jim stared, focusing on the man. Frohike was damned good at hiding his emotions; the sort who could fool a lie detector -- or a Sentinel. Langly and Jimmy, on the other hand, were open books, and the heart rate spikes and musk of adrenaline told him enough to know they had something more in mind than checking on the FBI agent. They'd used some pretty sophisticated listening equipment to check out the compound. What if they'd left some equally sophisticated recording equipment behind in another location? What if they'd managed to bug Wagner's house?

He took a deep breath and gambled on his intuition. "I want to know everything you hear on those recordings!" he snapped. "And I mean everything!"

Bingo! Frohike's heart rate spiked, and the others' heartbeats went into overdrive. Jim bared his teeth at them in an evil grin. "I expect my anonymous informants to be absolutely thorough. And if you get going now, you should be able to give me a report within four hours, right?"

He noted the trio of stunned nods.

"Then get going. I'm going to get my beauty rest."


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
ISOLATION ROOM
3 :00 P.M.

The door lock clanked loudly in the silence and booted feet marched away. Blair sat, tired, on the floor of the bare cell

His new Sentinel, Colonel "Jogging Man" Phoenix, apparently wasn't into psycho-torture, though he was into isolation and bland meals and forced marches and recordings of inspirational lectures by the judge. There was a low rumble of drums from the speaker -- some sort of military snare and bass drum marching cadence.

"Don't you guys have anything by some of the Senegal drummers? Babatunde Olatunji?" he said to no one in particular. "I really like Famoudou Konate, man. Some good djembe, or maybe tribal recordings. This stuff, it doesn't hold a candle to world fusion or tribal drumming." That was the trouble with society today: limited notions of cultural diversity. He sighed and stared at the door.

His eyes wouldn't focus. He squinted and shook his head violently.

Something was wrong with him, and it wasn't physical exhaustion. He reached out to touch the wall nearest him. The paint looked oddly pixilated, as though someone had taken a snapshot through a bad digital camera, blown the image to larger than life-sized and plastered it on the paint. His fingers looked odd against the background and when he stared at his hand, he could see the blood pulsing in the arteries across the back of it.

More drugs. They'd fed him psychoactive drugs. He wondered, briefly, what they'd given him.

The drum music had changed from military cadences to a more primitive tribal sound. The low thrum of the djembe echoed in the room, and he found himself tapping his feet to the beat, but it seemed off somehow.

Ah. That was it. There seemed to be words mixed in with the drumming. He resisted the pull, trying to hear the human voices that were blended with the Talking Drums.

"The old bond is shattered. The new bond is forming."

No. He curled into a ball, resisting the pull of the beat, but the drugs dragged him further into the trippy mental state. For the shaman, drums were more than just music --drums were the shaman's horse; a trance technique shamans used to get to the deepest layer of the Spirit Road. The voices of these drums kept gently urging him to ride their voices forward, believe the evil untruth: "The old bond is shattered. The new bond is forming."

No.

The door opened and he looked up, seeing shapes that flowed and rippled. Ah. People. The man in the jogging suit entered. "I am your Sentinel."

Phoenix held out a glass of water and it sparkled like diamonds. "Drink this. It's good for you." There was a shadow wrapped around the man like a ghostly aura.

"No," Blair said. The drums fell silent.

"Yes," said the man, and auras streamed and flowed from him, electric white and blue and the shadow within him glowed gold. "The old bond was evil. It enslaved you. I am your new Sentinel, come to set you free. Together we will rise from the ashes of slavery." He smiled gently and held out his hand, but his eyes were dark and filled with hunger and there was no spirit animal standing beside him.

"No," Blair said, and the drums began whispering again , but the embedded human voices were gone. Now there was just the pure thunder of the true Talking Drum, singing "Come away. Come away."

Phoenix knelt beside him. "Poor Guide. My poor Guide." His voice was sweet as music and raw as pain. "You have been wounded. I will heal you."

Blair looked deep into the eyes of that beautiful, horrible face and that evil, shadowing soul. He knew it for the thing that wanted him, Blair Sandburg; wanted him in a pure way, a sweet way, a terrible way -- wanted him in an all-devouring way.

No.

"No. Nono. Nonono." He made it a chant; a warrior song that he sang to himself. The rhythm of his denial matched the pulse of the drum.

The man touched his face, whispering "Yes."

Blair turned his face away and reached deep inside himself, pushing past the voices to reach for the shaman's horse, the galloping hoofbeats of everything and nothing, and let the thunder of the drums carry him away from consciousness. As he faded, he heard a single angry shout behind him.

"No!"

Yes.


SOMEWHERE IN THE WILDS OF WASHINGTON STATE 10 P.M.

The coffee was bad, but at least it wasn't heavy with one of those awful artificial flavors. Doggett sipped slowly, letting the warmth seep into him as the Gunmen's ancient microbus wheezed its way toward the Grand Coulee Dam. Ellison had apparently acquired a taste for the crap they served at the burger joint; he drank it without any qualms.

The interrogation of the Huxleyans proved to be a bust, and all anyone got from them was their made-up names, made-up ranks, and made-up serial numbers. It got tiresome to listen to them repeat the phrases like robots, claiming they were prisoners of war. Doggett remembered Beirut. Those yahoos wouldn't have lasted a minute in the real military.

The Gunmen had, indeed, left recording devices at the house on Brandon Street. The man who rented the house, Ervin Wagner, was particularly talkative. Among the tidbits the Gunmen gathered was the location of a Huxleyan unit called the Cave Compound, and the news that there was to be a "District 18 discussion meeting" there tonight. When the Gunmen gathered their snooping gear and announced they were going funky poaching, he and Ellison bullied their way into the expedition.

Now, they found themselves lurching through the Cascades in the pitch dark, along a road that was little more than a suggestion in that darkness, headed toward a series of GPS coordinates that Langly swore was the location of the mysterious Cave Compound.

Watching Ellison over the past couple of days, Doggett was starting to rethink his whole attitude about Guides. Ellison, despite all his training and experience, had zoned several times and it had been hard to bring him back. Very hard.

Doggett had not only been zoning on a regular basis, he'd been unable to feel anything at all for well over an hour yesterday -- his entire body had gone completely numb. That had frightened him. Ellison said he'd had the same thing happen to him before, had even gone deaf at one point from trying to reject his abilities. Ellison also told him that he had to stay calm and relaxed as best he could in order to get sensation back. It had been... difficult.

They passed a muddy logging road. Frohike eased the van into the scrub nearby and cut the engine. Langly climbed over them and slapped a yellow and red "abandoned vehicle" tag on the rear window. It wasn't much of a disguise, Doggett thought to himself, but it would serve for a few hours. He downed the rest of his coffee, shouldered the backpack Jimmy handed him, and stepped out into the night. Langly and Frohike were putting on night vision goggles.

"Car. Coming up behind us." That was Jimmy, keeping watch with the infrared field glasses. They scrambled into the trees and held their breath as the other vehicle rumbled out of the dark and swept past the van, headlights flaring briefly as it passed. Its headlights winked from the hillside a few moments later.

Ellison handed him a pair of night vision goggles as the drizzle started again. Doggett stared at them in disgust. "We're Sentinels. We don't need this. We can see in the dark."

"Correction, Grasshopper," Ellison said. "We're Sentinels without Guides in the middle of the woods. You turn your night vision up and what happens when a bright light gets turned on?"

"Oh," was all he could think of in response.

"We're Sentinels, but we don't have to be stupid Sentinels. Or dead ones." Ellison donned his own night vision goggles, tugged his jacket closed, and headed toward the logging road.


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
SANDBURG AND BYERS' CELL
MONDAY, 2:37 P.M.

Another day, another bland hallway, another bland door. Or maybe the same one again. Another escort of goons, too. Colonel Phoenix's men favored black. It made them look like over-aged, paramilitary Goths.

Blair forced himself to try breaking through the drug-fog hangover to pay attention to his surroundings, to note small marks that might distinguish this particular corridor from all the others around. An anonymous door was opened and the goon who was more-or-less supporting him shoved him into the room beyond and locked the door.

It was their original cell. Oh, good. He was back to square one, like Alice on the chessboard. Byers wasn't there, but on the bed were two paper plates with sandwiches. Were they both for him or was Byers going to be shoved in there soon? Was a new roommate going to be sent in? Were the sandwiches drugged?

He examined them cautiously: pimento cheese with mustard.

"Don't you guys know what this stuff does to your arteries?" He waved the sandwiches accusingly at the impartial eye of the monitor camera. Maybe they did, and that was the plan; to clog his arteries so he couldn't think. Or maybe one of their whacked-out nutritionists had done some sort of study and found that artificial cheezoid food substance supposedly enhanced Guide abilities.

It was a depressing thought.

He carefully split the sandwiches and set half of each on his own plate. If they were laced with drugs, he'd find out. If they were safe, he'd find that out, too. He picked up one of the paper cups and filled it with water from the sink. It was possible that whatever drug had ended up in his system had been in the water. If that was the case, Byers would be off somewhere, tripping around his own internal galaxy.

He could hear the drums again, interlaced with occasional whispered words. Phoenix really believed in his brainwashing and bad subliminal message technology. He needed to convince them somehow that this would work on both him and Byers; to play head games with the Huxleyans until Byers got out of his dangerous situation with that psycho, Wilson.

Until he could find a way to get both of them out of there.

He took a bite of the sandwich and chewed, thinking. He was an anthropologist, and a shaman. Shamans were the ultimate tricksters; the ones who could take your games and turn them into the Shaman's Game. He would turn this little game into something else, once he figured out what was going on and who the players trusted. There would be a thread somewhere that he could tug; a thread that would unravel the whole social fabric of the compound and leave them in a better position to escape.

He swished the water around in the paper cup and took a sip. A real power struggle was going on among the Huxleyans over who got Guides, so it was obvious they'd be kept alive for a while. The major players right now in the Guide Training Game were Phoenix and Wilson. But the judge had warned them both that if other 'Sentinels' proved more worthy, the Guides would be given to those compounds.

He made a wry face. Not enough information to make any further deductions. He'd just have to lie low and be semi-cooperative enough to keep him from being killed or hurt while looking for a way to get himself and Byers out, provided he could find the man. It was a pity that he couldn't send Wolf loping off to Jim's Jaguar with a map and compass, and directions saying, "Here we are." That would have solved things rather neatly, once he found out where "here" was. But the distance was too much, and the drugs and attempts at brainwashing seemed to be weakening his bond with Jim. It worried him deeply.

There was a face at the window of the cell and the sound of the door being unlocked. Blair picked up his cup and stepped toward the door. As it swung open, he threw the water into the guard's face and charged, knocking him into Byers, who fell against a second guard. He grabbed the first goon's arm and used an Aikido maneuver to throw him into the cell. The second one managed to get untangled from Byers and was lunging toward him. Bad move. Blair neatly sidestepped the charge and used the same technique to help the second man into the cell. He slammed the door and heard the bolts snick into the locked position.

Byers, wearing only a padlocked collar and a pair of boxer shorts about two sizes too big, was struggling to his feet. Blair helped him up. "Sorry, man. I know it's bad for you right now, but we've got to get out of here. They got that on camera and the bad guys'll be here any second."

Pale and shocky, Byers nodded gamely. "Lead on," he whispered. His lips were cracked and dry; he was showing a bunch of new bruises and fresh wounds. Thank whatever Gods might be that he wasn't handcuffed again.

Blair draped Byers' arm around his own shoulders and they hurried forward. Byers was limping badly. There were two intersecting corridors ahead, and if they could get past the first to the second, they might be able to hide in one of the rooms in the second corridor for awhile. There was no way they were going to be able to outrun everyone in the compound -- not in their current condition, and certainly not with Byers dressed as he was.

He could hear the thud of booted feet coming closer. There was no way they were going to make it to the corridors.

There was another anonymous door to their right, and Blair grabbed the doorknob and yanked. Locked. He tried the one on the left, which opened with a loud squeal. Too late; far too late. Around the corner trotted a squad of khaki-clad militants, and from the trapdoor at the far end of the corridor came a squad wearing urban camos.

Trapped.

He pulled Byers against the wall and positioned himself in front of his friend. One against fourteen. Maybe they'd take it out on him and leave Byers alone.

More boots, and this time it was Wilson's Redshirts, tailed by Washington and her 'Guide,' who came into view. Wilson's squad leader glared at the other two groups. "We'll take over now."

Oho. Conflicts of power in progress, Blair thought to himself. A lovely example of primate territorial display. He could certainly up the ante here.

He reached out a hand toward Washington. She was the one most likely to listen. "Please, get the judge," he pleaded. "We need protection." He stepped aside so they could all see Byers leaning against the wall nearly naked, pale and cold with shock. Cuts, bruises and blood patterned his body. He showed them Byers' bloody shoulder where Wilson had carved the Enterprise insignia into it.

Washington paled. "Sweet baby Jesus," she breathed. "That bastard Wilson's got no authority to treat his Guide this way. It's not part of the Program." Washington handed her 'Guide' his leash. "Andy, go get the judge. There's no way this man was willing when Wilson did this to him."

Andy hurried down the corridor.

"No true Sentinel would harm a Guide like this," Blair said, pointing at Byers' wounds.

There was a growl from the first group and someone said, "Colonel Loudin needs to see this."

"And Colonel Moksha," said the squad leader of the urban camo commandos. The tension in the crossroads grew.

It wouldn't do to be stuck in the middle of a firefight. Time to see about getting out of Dodge. Blair took refuge in numbers. "Please," he said to the khaki-wearing group, "could we be taken somewhere safe and have my friend's wounds tended to? He's cold and in shock, and he needs clothes and water and food. The judge will want to talk to him."

The khaki squad surrounded them. "They'll be in holding room three," the leader said.

"Our medic will be there shortly," the camo commander said.

The Redshirts milled in confusion until one suggested they go tell Wilson.

Blair nodded, satisfied, as they were led away. It was the Shaman's Game now.


TYEE TEEPEE MOTEL
ROOM 210
6:30 P.M.

Jim bit down hard on the antacid tablet, crushing it. Fake mint exploded on his tongue, blowing his focus entirely. He forced himself back to awareness at Doggett's touch and the sound of his voice. It was so damned hard without Blair there.

His jaw ached. He'd been grinding his teeth for days now, and had developed a massive headache and toothache from the stress. A full day's worth of the best monitoring on the compound had turned up exactly zero. Again. The meeting had come and gone, and they'd learned nothing new.

He tasted bile, felt the weariness of defeat.

Frohike had finally managed to convince him to leave the stakeout after the Gunmen put in some sort of electronic listening devices near the compound, but sleep was impossible. He'd shaved and showered, and went into the station at 0400, working the empty leads until there was nothing left and he was turning back over the old material again. Now he was back at the motel with Doggett, having come full circle.

He leaned forward, pressing his burning eyes into the palms of his hands, feeling a lump forming in his throat. Damn, he needed his partner. Things just got worse the longer they were separated. He heard Doggett sigh and begin pacing again.

"If those idiots don't get here in five minutes, I'm going to fry their asses," Doggett muttered as he twitched the curtain aside. They both jumped as the phone rang. Ellison reached it first.

"Do you still have that note we left you?" It was Langly, his voice tight and urgent. "Do you have it there with you?"

"Langly, what the hell is this about?"

"Do you have it?"

"What note? You want to tell me what this is all about?"

"DamndamnFUCKdamn! God, don't you cop-types ever check the mail before you meet up?"

"LANGLY!" Jim could almost hear the lanky blond flinch.

There was a pause, a scuffle, and then Frohike spoke. "We left a note for you in your mailbox. There's some stuff in our hotel room for you guys -- unless Doggett's lost the key."

"I have the key," Doggett said.

"He's got the key. Now what's this all about?"

"Wagner. Earlier today, he went to see his buddies at the coffee shop so he could whine about his treatment from the big, nasty cops and missing the meeting. While they were having a nice pity party, we bugged their cars--"

"You what?"

"You heard me. Investigative reporting. We recorded some nice evidence while we were tailing him--"

"You what?!"

"You know, Ellison, you're gonna give yourself a coronary if you keep that up."

"I'm gonna give you a coronary, Frohike, if you--"

"Just shut up, Ellison," Frohike said, his voice low and urgent. "Shut up and listen. We taped one side of this conversation and you guys really need to hear it. We left the tape in our room along with the little GPS unit. They're using GPS coordinates to give the locations of meeting places. I wrote down the numbers on a piece of paper. Get the paper, and get your butts out here. Call when you get in range." The phone went dead.

He could hear the pounding of Doggett's feet as the FBI agent ran for the other motel room. "Get the truck! I'll get the tape!"

By the time Jim got to his truck, Doggett was there, note, GPS and tape player in hand. They scrambled in and Jim roared the truck out of the parking lot, breaking a few speed limits on the way. Doggett punched the button on the tape player and turned the sound up to manageable levels.

The voice was unfamiliar; one side of a phone conversation. "Helly?... Yeah, it's Mescal. Uh huh... Yeah, I saw that... No, they changed the place. It's at 121.40 and... ah... 47.13. Got that?"

Doggett looked at the note. The numbers matched.

There was the sound of laughter. "Oh yeah, Phoenix. That yuppie asshole. Him and his cult deprogramming techniques. Hell, he was lucky to slip the lawsuit over that deprogramming thingy back in '98." Jim flicked his eyes toward the recorder and then focused on the road again. A light mist was falling. He could hear every fucking droplet hitting the truck. Focus -- he had to stay focused. There was another hoot of laughter from the tape recorder. "Oh yeah... Nah... He's a police profiler."

Jim went cold. They were talking about Blair.

"Breathe. Focus." That was Doggett, a hand on his shoulder. He took a gulp of air and nodded, negotiating a curve along the pass. The road was a dark, wet ribbon in the late evening light.

"Yeah... Hey, I saw the guy on TV last year after there was some sort of standoff that he helped solve. Yeah... He'll just eat Phoenix alive and spit him out... Yeah, heh. Serve him right. Can't wait to see that one."

Blair was alive, Ellison reminded himself -- at least for now.

The man's voice laughed again. "Nah. He should be easy... He's a publisher. Real pussy boy, if you know what I mean... Yeah, that Trekkie Wilson'll take him for a nice, hard ride." Ellison could hear Doggett's teeth grinding as his pulse went through the roof. He braked the truck, took a sharper bend, and looked at the map on the GPS. The location was still a couple of hours away. He looked over at Doggett, who was staring intently at the tape. It was still running.

"Stay with me, John," Jim said. Doggett shook off the incipient zone. Damn, this had been a bitch on both of them. He was still worried about how Wolf had faded before him the other night. "We'll find them. They'll be all right." He kept telling himself that. If he repeated it often enough, he might even start to believe it.

The man on the tape spoke abruptly. "No... Really? Using that shit on him? Huh. Well, yeah. That might work... dunno... I heard they used it on some of them Git-mo POWs and they had 'em all singing like canaries and eating out of their hands inside a week... Yeah, makes sense to use it on a cop. And if it fries his brain, what the hell -- he's just a pig, right? Oink oink! Oh, hey. Call you later, right? Oink oink!" Laughter, and silence, except for the tape hiss.

Jim's hands clenched the steering wheel.

Doggett turned it off. "That's the end of it," he said, strained but quiet. "If those coordinates pan out, I'll call Skinner and start getting the paperwork pushed through so we can do a raid ASAP."

"And pray the Three Stooges don't decide to go play heroes," Jim added.

"Amen to that."


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
MAIN GROUNDS
7:30 P.M.

Another meal of chicken and biscuits, another round of somewhat inept doctoring by a young militiawoman with bad technique and worse bedside manner, a little rest, and then it was time for another trial. The break had lasted long enough for the drugs to leave his system, and Byers, with the help of some pain meds and a good cleanup, looked a bit healthier.

Blair tiredly submitted his wrists for the standard handcuffing and then he and Byers were marched through another string of anonymous corridors by their khaki-clad protectors, back into the main yard of the compound. The sun had set over an hour ago, but the main yard was lit up enough to get a better sense of the scope of the place, and he looked around.

They were in the middle of a large field near a barn, a Quonset hut, and some sort of a ranch-style house. A sign on the barn announced "Derek's Deer Hunts." The logo, a heavily antlered buck viewed through rifle scope crosshairs, seemed to stare accusingly at the humans gathered in the wide grassy field. He could see another building marked "Feed" and a shed marked "Processing." Deer hunting here probably had all the thrill of shooting fish in a barrel.

The militia members were milling around in loosely-knit groups. Blair scanned the crowd, spotting Washington and the Kink Commandos off to his right. Each group seemed to have its own distinct uniform, from SWAT black to something that looked like it had been stolen from a gay musical revue about Canadian Mounties, but all of them bore the Huxleyan winged eye. It was a surreal scene, like something that had been hastily staged for theatric purposes. There was no logic to the types of uniforms or insignia, making it hard to judge who the major power players were.

Byers stood next to him, dressed in neon orange prison pajamas, his hair still damp from showering, feet bare, face pale. He looked miserable and vulnerable in the near freezing drizzle. Blair stared at the ground, thinking. There had to be some way to change things for their benefit.

Tinny music blared from a hidden speaker and the assembled units formed into orderly ranks. The door to the Quonset hut opened and an older man with shoulder-length white hair drawn into a ponytail, wearing a jungle camo uniform emerged with Wilson and his Redshirts in tow, and Phoenix and the SWAT Goths behind them. They stopped in front of Blair and Byers.

Khaki Squad's leader, a short, willowy black-haired woman, stepped forward and saluted. "General Harmon," she said crisply.

The white-haired man returned the salute. "Colonel Loudin," he acknowledged. "Status?"

"The Guides have been examined by the medics, treated and fed, and allowed to rest," she reported.

"Are they fit to resume duty?"

The Colonel hesitated briefly. "They need additional time," she said carefully.

"So do we all, Colonel, so do we all," the General said. He stared thoughtfully at Byers and Blair. "But we may not have that kind of luxury now."

"They won't survive this continued treatment," she added.

Washington stepped out of the crowd and stood beside Loudin. "With all due respect, sir," she said, "the conditioning these Guides are being subjected to has not followed Judge Hammer's recommendations. If Wilson and Phoenix continue like this, they'll die. These Guides' prior training and experience is invaluable, and essential to our success. They're known to have triggered Sentinels, and their ability to train others would put the Project ahead of schedule."

"I agree with Colonel Washington, Sir," Loudin said.

Harmon waved a hand dismissively. "Let's see just how they're progressing," he said. He stared speculatively at Byers, then waved Wilson forward. "Take him. Let's see how good you are."

Wilson grinned triumphantly. Byers straightened himself, clear blue eyes blank, his expression bleak. He looked like a man facing the gallows. Blair eased closer to him, his body barely touching his friend's.

"With all due respect, General, what the hell are you giving him to that psycho for? I thought everybody in the Program was supposed to be willing -- and there's no way he's willing!" Washington snapped. "We're here fighting for a cause, for human freedom from alien interference. That's why we started the Program in the first place! This kind of coercion is completely--"

"You're out of line, Colonel," the General said. "It's Wilson's right to show us his effectiveness through the trials. If you'll recall, you took three months to fully establish your bond with your Guide."

Wilson smiled, an ugly little sneer, grabbing her arm. "Back off, Uhura. You've got your Guide. It's my turn now and you have no right to interfere."

She spun, snarling like a leopard. "You call me Uhura one more time, Shal-lan, and I'm gonna bitch-slap your stupid cracker ass into next week." She shook his arm off as the General watched. "Tracking collars are one thing, but that slave shit you're playin' at is way over the top. You don't harm your Guide. They're too damned rare. You are one psycho fucking freak, and you don't deserve that man to be your Guide. We've all read his newspaper. He's on our side."

"He sold out," Wilson insisted. "He's a traitor to his species. He was working with that government-created Sentinel, that FBI agent. And he's mine now. Once I've turned him, he'll be working for the cause by my side... Uhura."

Washington lunged for Wilson.

Two of Wilson's Redshirts grabbed Washington by the arms. She twisted free in a quick move and slammed her palm against the throat of the first one. He went down, choking. Andy, her Guide, leapt in with more enthusiasm than style and punched the other one, starting a general melee.

The Kink Commandos unlimbered their automatic rifles, and the sound of safeties being thrown filled the air.

"You will all stand down immediately!" the General bellowed. The Khaki squad, obviously under his command, moved in to surround the combatants. The action froze and the fighters separated. "Washington, you and your squad are dismissed!"

"But--"

"That's an order, soldier." The tone was soft and deadly. Washington looked around at the faces of the others in the compound, nodded, and saluted smartly.

"Permission to depart for home base, sir!" she said. She had good control of her body language and her face, Blair noted. Her team shouldered their weapons and fell in behind her.

"Granted. Dismissed," the General said, and turned back toward Phoenix, Wilson, and the two Guides. Washington gave Byers a pitying look, then turned and marched out with her troops. The crowd parted briefly and then swept back in, leaving no trace of her presence.

"As you were!" the General snapped, and the crowd reformed into a vague semblance of order. "Bring the prisoner out!"

A squad of six guards appeared, escorting a handcuffed man before him. The guy looked about 40, Hispanic, and frightened. General Harmon smiled a sinister smile. "Well. Let's have our demonstration, then," he said. "You first, Wilson," Harmon said. "You say your abilities have grown since you've started bonding with your Guide. The prisoner hasn't divulged any information since his capture. Show us what you can do."

Wilson twisted his fingers in Byers' collar and pulled him sharply forward, unbalancing him. "Come, T'hy'la. It's time you began serving your species, and your Sentinel."

Byers jerked away and Wilson casually backhanded him. "Perhaps you don't realize how serious this is, T'hy'la," he said, and his voice was flat, hard and dangerous. "This man has betrayed us to the aliens. We need to know what he knows. Give me your mind, T'hy'la, or I'll give you your death."

There was a scatter of disturbed mutters from the assembly. Quite a few people glared at Wilson and more than one made aborted motions toward him. A sharp look from the General held them back.

Byers stared briefly and Blair held his breath. Then the bearded man lowered his head slightly and stepped forward. Wilson smiled again and led him to the prisoner's side.

"Give me your aid for my focus, T'hy'la." He closed his eyes and did the Vulcan Mind Meld gesture on the startled prisoner. "My mind to your mind. My thoughts to your thoughts. You will share what you know with us." Wilson leaned forward until his forehead touched the prisoner's. The man struggled briefly until one of the guards put him in a stranglehold.

Several minutes later, Wilson stepped away from the prisoner and looked at the General. "He has information about a nearby Mothership," Wilson said solemnly. "He's seen it. He's working for the aliens."

"Where?" Harmon said.

"I saw a lake," Wilson replied.

"There are half a dozen lakes nearby," Phoenix sneered. "He's making this up."

"Baker Lake," Wilson said.

"There was a sighting there last night," one of the Redshirts said, excited.

"How many aliens?" Harmon asked.

"At least a hundred," Wilson answered.

The prisoner blinked. "This guy's insane," he said, incredulous.

Phoenix took Blair by the shoulder and pulled him forward. "You're a fool, Wilson. You claim to be a Sentinel, yet you can't see what's right in front of your face."

Wilson laughed. "Prove me wrong, Phoenix," he said. He took a step back, tugging Byers with him.

Phoenix, still holding Blair by the shoulder, stared at the prisoner for what must have been well over a minute. With a sudden motion, he pulled his survival knife from his belt and stabbed the prisoner in the back of the neck and then leapt back quickly, yanking Blair with him.

The prisoner jerked, and a foul green gas began spraying from his body with a loud, obscene hiss. Blair gasped and gagged at the acrid stench that suddenly filled the air. The guards screamed and writhed as the substance enveloped them, and people scattered, backing hurriedly away from the corpse. Phoenix released Blair's collar and stood at the edge of the crowd, shouting something derogatory at Wilson.

Blair stood, frozen, watching in shock as the former prisoner started disintegrating.

Byers suddenly appeared at his side. He grabbed Blair's shirt with both cuffed hands and yanked him away from the fallen man as the strange hissing sound split the air. "Get back! The thing's toxic!"

Blair stared at Byers. "Oh, my God. What was that?"

"It's an alien, or one of the hybrid clones. Their blood's toxic to humans," Byers hissed into his ear. "It burns, takes your skin off -- and it kills. It can gel your blood. I've seen it before. Whatever's going on here, we are in serious trouble. We've got to get out of here. Now!"

People were looking at each other, stunned. They didn't notice Blair and Byers backing quickly away. It seemed their anti-alien propaganda had some astonishing and entirely unexpected basis in fact, but it was rapidly vanishing in a puddle of green ichor. The Redshirts stood in a cluster, muttering and staring at Wilson.

No one was watching them. Byers and Blair ran.


CAVE COMPOUND
NEAR GRAND COULEE, WASHINGTON
8 P.M.

Doggett leaned against a boulder, panting as Ellison slipped out of the darkness looking almost alien with his night vision equipment. The shadows were back, even with the goggles. Shapes, just shapes, but distracting. He really was losing his mind. He closed his eyes briefly, forcing his attention away from the zone-out.

Ellison put a firm hand on his shoulder. "Take it easy," the cop advised. "The altitude here is higher than you think, and you're gonna make yourself sick if you forget that."

"Never too sick to kick them from here to next Wednesday." He tried to make it a growl, but it sounded more like a wheeze. "I swear to God the Stooges are going to be the death of me yet."

Ellison grinned, chuckling. "Y'know, I said the same thing about Blair. They do kind of grow on you after awhile, though."

"Like barnac--" A shot echoed through the mountain ridges, followed by a scream.

"Langly!" Exhaustion forgotten, he charged toward the distant sound. He heard a second shot, and focused his hearing forward. Running feet, thrashing leaves, harsh panting grunts -- the Gunmen and several others were running through the night forest. He veered toward the sounds. Ellison sprinted ahead, a greenish ghost in the night vision goggles, moving confidently along the uneven, trackless slopes.

There was another shot and a Comanche-style war whoop, and the sounds of running feet and shouts grew closer. He saw Ellison freeze and slip behind a tree as a distant wavering glow became visible and resolved itself into the images of two people, hands linked, running. One was stumbling. A few seconds later he saw another pair of dots. One of this pair was weaving and he could hear uneven footsteps.

Ellison had drawn his gun.

The two men in the lead where running awkwardly, limbs flailing. One of them fell noisily and the other hauled him up, still linked by the hands. "Keep... going, I'll... wait... you take... goggles." That was Langly's voice, thin and wheezy. He sounded like he was having an asthma attack.

"No." A younger voice, one he didn't recognize, panting. "Both or none."

"Go. Please, man... get out..."

Doggett moved forward carefully, his ears focused on the sounds ahead. More crashing and stumbling and the four images converged.

He heard Jimmy Bond whisper quietly, "Shel, you help these guys to the van, okay? I'm gonna hide here and hit those goons with a rock. I'll be right behind you. Just get them out of here."

"No." That was Frohike.

"Look," Jimmy said, "Langly's gonna die if he doesn't get his inhaler, and Shel doesn't know where the van is. You're not in such good shape, either, Frohike. I'll be okay, but I need the three of you out of here."

"We never leave a man behind," Frohike snapped.

Doggett paused beside a tree some ten feet from the Gunmen. The last set of images had resolved to the figures of two men, one waving a rifle. They were about twenty yards away from the Gunmen, moving cautiously. He focused closer on their images; they seemed to have good night vision, though they weren't wearing goggles. One stumbled slightly and a branch snapped underfoot; a sound loud as gunfire.

"No time ... to run... Jimmy." Langly's head was turned toward their pursuers. "One... for all, guys."

Jimmy suddenly froze, then swung his arm in a powerful overhand motion; the star quarterback making the pass. There was a loud whock and one of the pursuers toppled.

Doggett stepped out from behind cover. "How about all against one?" He grinned, and he and Ellison charged forward as Jimmy's next rock took the second pursuer in the gut.


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
WILSON'S QUARTERS
10:13 P.M.

It had been a very bad day. After their second escape attempt, and the startling death of the alien -- or the clone, Byers still couldn't decide -- they'd been thrown into a new cell. It was tiny, without a sink or a toilet. There was no bed either, only a couple of blankets on the floor, and a bucket. No food, no water. Punishment for their escape attempts, no doubt. He wondered when it would be solitary confinement without even a blanket.

He'd been seeing shapes and shadows again, uncertain whether they were the result of drugs or just hallucinations induced by sleep deprivation, pain, and exhaustion.

Blair had been dragged away by Phoenix's men shortly afterward, and returned several hours later, looking much worse for wear. They'd taken his clothes away, and now he, too, was barefoot and wearing a set of neon orange pajamas.

They had obviously drugged him as well, for his eyes were wild and unfocused and his balance was precarious. There was a large bruise on his cheek, but he grinned cheerfully at Byers and showed off his brightly colored outfit.

"Hey, lookie! I've got county OR-annnge just like you! Man, that's so far out. Intense. You could hurt yourself on that stuff, you know!" He tugged at the brightly colored top and did a little pirouette before Byers caught him as he collapsed to the floor.

Byers had tried to rouse him, but Blair was limp and cold, and his efforts were interrupted by the appearance of Wilson's guards, who declared it was time for his next lesson. Their savage amusement left little doubt about what was on the menu for the rest of the day.

Now Byers was back in Wilson's quarters, naked again, hands bound behind him with rough rope that dug into his flesh. Time was blurred, irrelevant. He could have been there for an afternoon, or an hour, or an eternity. His only constants were pain, anger, and fear -- for himself, and for Blair.

"You realize you must be punished, T'hy'la," Wilson said. "I have no wish to harm you, no choice but to punish you. Your resistance to the bond and your escape attempts are intolerable."

Byers said nothing. He'd already been beaten bloody twice by the man.

Wilson picked up a long, thin switch from the coffee table before him. "Rattan," he said reflectively, "is a vicious material for canes." He bent it in his hands and let it spring back. "It's tough but flexible. It stings." He flicked his wrist and it slashed through the air, landing on the design Wilson had carved into him. Byers flinched and cut off a hiss.

"It can also cut a man open."

WHACK

The pain was too sharp and sudden to hold back the shout. Byers grit his teeth against the hot trail of blood, knowing he was in for another long, miserable session.

Wilson lectured him about the evils of his "perverse resistance," interspersed with savage blows at random intervals. Some of them tore screams from him. It wasn't long before Byers had broken into a sweat from the pain.

"You also know," Wilson reminded him, "that cooperation can bring rewards. You don't have to suffer like this, T'hy'la. Instead of pain, you could have the comfort of my arms, of my bed." He kissed Byers' mouth gently, licking at his closed lips. "The choice is yours."

"No."

Another cutting blow struck Byers, this one opening a gash on the back of one thigh. He could feel the trickle of blood as it inched toward his knee.

"You can end this. Give yourself to me. Open your mind to the bond, aishaplakai."

Byers shook his head, refusing. "No," he whispered again.

"Then the pain will be exquisite. Damage, but not enough to kill; pain without death. A fire you pass through to free your true nature as my Guide. I'll burn away your dross." And the rattan came down until he could no longer count the blows, until he fell to his knees, until his mind screamed at every swish of the cane and his body flinched at even the shadows; until there was nothing but endless agony.

And somewhere in there was a sweet voice that said, "Give yourself to me. I'll give you water. I know you're thirsty, T'hy'la. Your lips are cracked with it. I can soothe that ache. I can soothe all of your aches, answer all your desires."

Did he sob that "no"?

Wilson was kneeling next to him now, one hand caressing Byers softly, touching him in unwanted ways and places. He whispered in Byers' ear. "If you would only give up this foolish resistance, I could bathe and dress your wounds. You could have medicine for the pain. You don't want to feel this way, T'hy'la. I know you don't. I have no wish to see you suffer. You bring this on yourself. You could have comfort if you would just cooperate with me. Our bond and our joining could be so sweet."

"I'm not... your T'hy'la," Byers rasped, eyes closed as he tried to focus past the pain and the cold sweat dripping from his body. "My name... is John Byers... and I do not... belong to you, or... anyone else."

"Oh, no. You are mine," Wilson snarled. "I will have your obedience, your bond, and your body, my Guide, no matter what it takes. You'll be given adequate time to consider your options. Rest now. I have shown you the pleasure of pain. Later I will show you the rewards of duty."

Byers lay there for a long time, floating in and out of his body. Eventually, a cup was put to his lips, and he drank.


EASTERN EDGE
NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
TUESDAY, 1:15 A.M.

"'Once more into the breech, dear friends,'" Frohike quoted, as he took the high-powered night binoculars from Jimmy's backpack.

"Agent Doggett's going to be so mad," Jimmy said. "They told us to go straight back to the motel."

"Well, we did. We just took this stupid side trip to visit this lame deer farm Shel told us about, in the middle of the night, in the middle of Bumfuck, Nowhere," Langly groused. "God, can you believe that people pay good money to hunt something as tame as those stupid deer? You'd have more fun hunting cows."

"I think Detective Ellison's probably checking up on us, too." Jimmy wasn't quick to let go of his idea.

"Eh, they're busy with Shel, and trying to round up warrants for kidnapping so they can do a nice raid on that compound the kid was rescued from," Frohike said. "They're not going to notice we're missing for hours yet. And this place was on the way back to Cascade. Sorta."

"Yeah, 200 miles out of the way is 'sorta' on the way back to Cascade," Langly snorted.

"How many more do we have to check?"

Langly consulted his GPS unit. "We already checked six houses and three compounds. One more compound and five more houses left on my master list."

"Okay, so we'll watch here until noon and if nothing shows up, we go back to Cascade and start checking the other places out," Frohike said. He let his words trail into silence. They were all exhausted and even borrowing equipment from friends and Marconi, there was no way they could monitor every single compound in Washington.

Jimmy turned and put a hand on Frohike's shoulder. "No man left behind. We'll find them. Somehow."

"Yeah," Langly said bitterly. "It'd be nice if we found them before we were, like, dead of old age."

Frohike lowered his binoculars. "Jimmy, you take the first watch. Wake Langly at 4 A.M. Wake me up at 7 A.M."

"Why do I always get the sucky middle of the night watches?" Langly griped.

"Because that way you can sleep till noon."

"Oh."

"Meanwhile, Jimmy, find a good spot and watch the compound --and don't touch any of the sensitive recording equipment in the van!"


CASCADE POLICE DEPARTMENT
CAPTAIN BANKS' OFFICE
10:40 A.M.

Doggett's phone rang as he was dialing. Damn it. "Doggett."

"Hey, it's Frohike. Miss us?"

Miss -- they'd been gone? Doggett blinked, thinking furiously. They had gotten the kid, Shel, down from the mountain along with the two militia goons. Shel had been checked into the hospital for treatment, and babbled for a couple of hours about the Huxleyans and their Sentinel SuperSoldier program and how he'd been trained to be a Guide.

The goons had been invited to partake of police hospitality in the municipal holding cell. They tried to get a lawyer, but without money and local contacts, they ran straight into the bureaucratic legal maze. Justice would, of course, be done, but they were finding how hard it was to manipulate the system.

When they'd asked for a lawyer, Captain Banks had obligingly called the Public Defender's office -- and left a message on the voice mail system. So the Huxleyans sat, unable to pass messages to anyone, while the cops and the FBI got a nice earful about their operations from Shel.

"Hey, Doggett, you awake, there?" Frohike asked. He blinked, startled. When was the last time he'd seen the Lone Gunmen?

"Dammit, not now, Frohike!" he snarled. "I was just dialing Skinner--"

"Yes, now! We just saw Byers."

"Byers! You saw -- where are you?" His heart skipped a beat and his gut tightened. Byers was alive! An almost overwhelming wave of relief hit him, threatening to buckle his knees. He put a hand down and leaned on the Captain's desk. Ellison and Banks turned to him.

"We went to check out the site Shel described to us, and we turned up a live one. It's the location of one of those deer-farm hunting preserve things. It's been turned into a nice little training ground and the whole place is swarming with Huxleyans. It's out in the North Cascades, about three hours from the city. Byers is here, probably Sandburg too. Byers is in bad shape." Doggett could hear the stress and worry in Frohike's voice. Most of the relief he'd felt evaporated as quickly as it had appeared. There was a weight like a stone in his chest.

"How bad?" Ellison asked.

"How bad?" Doggett echoed, knowing Frohike wouldn't have heard it.

"Looks like he's been pretty badly beaten, and probably drugged as well. He was bleeding. His face was all bruised, one eye swollen shut. They had him in prison orange. He was barefoot, and they were dragging him from one building to another. It's fucking snowing out here. You need to get out here now."

"We're--"

Frohike was furious. "Damn it, Doggett, if you wanna be stupid and pig-headed about this, we can send you photos and video to get your head out of your ass. This is not the time to argue. You dawdle, and they may kill him before you get here! God knows what they've done to him already."

"I wasn't arguing, " Doggett snarled. Ripping the head off whoever had beaten his Guide would make him feel a lot better, he decided savagely.

"What's happening?" Banks said. "Who did that whacko friend of yours see?"

"Byers," Doggett said. "That location Shel gave us, it's a deer farm of some sort. They're holding Byers there, and maybe Sandburg."

Banks shoved his office door open and stormed out into the bullpen. "All right, everyone," he bellowed. Every head in the room turned. "Listen up: we've got the location! I want the warrants for this and I want God and everyone in on it --SWAT, the Feds, the State Patrol, the County, the K-9 units -- I want a raid on that place, and I want it yesterday!" Conner, I want you, Rafe and Brown to coordinate... "

Doggett didn't pay attention as Banks organized his men. "Frohike, how close did you see him?" He couldn't shake the thought of Byers, beaten bloody, disoriented, possibly dying. A hard chill ran through him. "Was he walking on his own?"

"More like they were dragging him along. Trust me, John, it wasn't good." He could hear Frohike's heart pounding through the phone.

"We're mobilizing the troops right now. You guys keep an eye on things, and for God's sake, stay out of sight. No playing hero, you got that? We don't need to be rescuing you three, too."

"We've gotta get--"

"Stay where you are, dammit. No raids, no funky poaching, no damned heroics! You just wait for us, you hear me? You go sneaking in there trying to get them out on your own and I'll hand you your ass on a sharp stick." No complications. Please, God, no complications.

"Right, okay," Frohike said, reluctantly. "See you in a few hours."

Ellison grabbed him by the shoulder as he broke the connection. "I thought you told me those geeks were back at the motel?"

Doggett shook his head. "I thought they were. Apparently, they've been doing stupid shit like this for years. Since Mulder first met them. Why any of 'em are still alive and walking around is beyond me."

"Simon," Ellison said, interrupting the Captain's tirade, "we're out of here."

Banks paused in his series of orders. "I'll meet you out there. Be careful, Jim."


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
SANDBURG AND BYERS' CELL
1 P.M.

Blair was pulled out of sleep, dragged to his feet and forced to stand, weaving and blinking in confusion. There were guards and several young 'Guides' in the cell, and one of the Guides was smiling at him and saying something about bathing and treatment. Byers was just being escorted in, dazed, more bruises on his face, one eye swollen completely closed. There were streaks of blood all over him, some soaking through his prison outfit, and they dumped him unceremoniously onto the blankets where Blair had just been lying.

How had he missed them coming in for Byers in the first place?

One of the Guides was tugging on his arm, saying something to him about how he and Byers would be put in with the new Guide group soon, and allowed privileges. Blair stared at the floor and tried to look drugged and subdued. This would be the part of the "thought reform" program where they give you new companions and start to make you feel loyal to your new buddies. That meant the "wear them down physically" phase was over. He wasn't sure how much more of that kind of treatment he or Byers could take. Now it would be "happy bonding experiences" and pressure to conform to 'Guide' standards.

He pushed his glasses up on his nose and blinked at the rooms in the corridors. Why did the Huxleyans need so many cells? Was there that much dissent?

The patterns on the wall reshaped themselves into demons and ghosts as they passed, indications that he was still tripping on some sort of psychoactive drug. A thick blue stripe on one wall turned itself into a frieze of fading jaguars and brightly colored wolves that danced and winked at him.

No. He was going to play the Shaman's Game, and not give in to the drugs. So if the next move was to program him, then he would de-program the Guides that cared for him. The bonding experience could work both ways -- something that their brainwashing consultant probably hadn't thought about.

He smiled weakly at the chatty Guide. "Lot of rooms. What are they for?"

"Oh, they're for some of the new Guides. When we're brought in from the streets, they keep us there till we get the drugs and stuff out of our systems. It's strange at first, until you get used to it. Other trainee-Guides were in here this weekend, but I bet you didn't see 'em. Most of them have gone to the other bases with their new Sentinels already."

"Really?" They must have been the kids who'd been the target of the judge's speech earlier.

"Yeah. This place gets big on the weekends. New Guides come in through the week and then on the weekends they get assigned to their units. Colonel Wilson does a lot of the pre-training work. The last of them just headed out an hour or so ago."

Oh God, Blair thought to himself. They were boosting their little army by taking in desperate street kids, giving them a safe place, and indoctrinating them into the Huxleyan way of thought. And since they were runaways, nobody would care --or even notice -- if they vanished. The woods near the compounds might be full of the graves of 'Guides' who had resisted the training.

Rage washed over him. Wilson and Phoenix were going to be fed to the justice system and he was going to personally make sure it happened. He glanced again at the Guide walking next to him. He needed to establish a bond to help these kids. Once he got out of there, the system would have to help put them back together again and undo what had been done to them.

Smile, look stoned, look friendly. Play the Game. "What's your name?"

"My Sentinel calls me Chookie."

"Chookie? Is it short for something? Do you like it better than your given name? I always hated mine."

"Yeah, I always thought Steve was kind of a dorky name." Chookie smiled at him. "But I like Chookie better. On the streets, I called myself Banner' but that didn't work."

"Banner. Huh. Yeah, but that kind of fits you, y'know?"

Names were power. Names told you a lot about a person. The fact that these kids would accept being called by stupid pet names revealed just how far they had been beaten down by society and the Huxleyans.

He turned to the other Guide, smiling, open, friendly. "So how long have you been here?" She grinned in response.

The Shaman was awake and playing the Game, and the name of the game was Topple the Empire.


EASTERN EDGE
NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
1:15P.M.

"Bogey, this is Bacall!"

Frohike snapped back a yelp and yanked the earphone out of his ear. "Damn it, Jimmy, don't shout!" he hissed into the tiny headset.

"Blair! I saw Blair!"

"Where?" Langly's voice, crisp and energized.

"Coming down around the feed building. There's a tunnel entrance there. They should be at the field now."

Frohike put the binoculars to his glasses and focused on the distant group. There was Blair Sandburg, brightly dressed in a prison jumpsuit, battered, but striding along as though he owned the entire compound and was there for just a visit.

He looked thin and exhausted, his eyes slightly glassy, and there was a bruise on his cheek. His face had a heavy shadow of beard stubble, but he was smiling and tossing his head energetically. The pack of youths accompanying him were smiling and nodding. Sandburg said something, waving his expressive hands, and the others laughed.

"Hang on, buddy, hang on," Frohike whispered to the distant figure. "We're comin' to get you soon."


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
UNDERGROUND ROOM
6:30 PM

"So then he wraps his arms around what he thinks is me --only it's like this fifty year old lady and she starts smacking him with her handbag." Gleeful whoops of laughter greeted Blair's much-embellished tale of taking Jim rollerblading for the first time.

Stories had power, and for the whole afternoon he had been telling the young Guides stories about what life was like with Sentinels -- real Sentinels and their Guides. They were funny, they were real, and they all hammered home the things he wanted them to learn: Sentinels and Guides were equal. Sentinels and Guides took care of each other. Sentinels and Guides cared for each other. After a few hours, the young Guides relaxed and began to laugh and talk about themselves. Blair's stories about Jim wove through the chatter, reinforcing his strongest point: Sentinels and Guides never abused each other or anyone else.

"But your new Sentinel will..." Columbia began. Blair stopped her by holding up his hand.

"There is no 'new Sentinel.'" He ached like hell, but he smiled, maintaining his game face. He ruffled her short hair affectionately. "My only Sentinel is Jim Ellison -- my lover, my best friend."

The door of the room slammed open, booming against the wall with a loud, echoing sound. The young Guides flinched as Phoenix appeared in the doorway, surrounded by his troops. He pointed an accusing finger at Blair. "You!" he screamed.

Blair rose quietly. "Do what you need to survive," he said softly to the terrified teenagers. "Jim will come for me. I'll be okay."

And then Phoenix was in front of him, striking his face, driving him to the ground. "You lie!" he bellowed at Blair. "You're filling their head with poison and lies!"

Blair looked up at him and said calmly, "No Sentinel treats his Guide like this."

A boot to the ribs drove the air from his lungs.


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
MAIN GROUNDS
7:30 P.M.

Setting up a militia compound on a deer ranch had seemed like a clever idea to someone. It had a lot of defensive advantages, including square miles of heavy forest and almost vertical landscape. A light snow drifted down, melting as it landed. It had taken the units nearly three hours to get into position, and now it was time for the action to begin.

The FBI agent in charge of the operations began speaking softly into a walkie-talkie as the Sentinels finished cutting the chain link fence. Dark shapes along the Quonset hut indicated that the SWAT teams were in position. Jim and Doggett slunk along the field, smelling humans, smelling the rot of shallow graves, smelling the stench of something acidic and unidentifiable, smelling blood.

And Byers. And Blair.

It was their blood.

Jim stared into the darkness, his eyes burning, gut tight with worry. Doggett was a quiet, tense presence beside him, alert. "Anything?"

And then he saw it; a wavering ghost of silvered gray, faint as fog against the building. He stiffened, moved forward. Doggett whispered questions, but he waved his hand at the man, focusing on the image of Blair's Wolf. It seemed to be standing on a segment of sidewalk, staring downward intently.

The two Sentinels skirted the outlying buildings, keeping out of direct light. There was movement toward the structure they had identified as the office, and then a bullhorn sounded. "Federal Agents! Put down your arms!" It had begun -- too soon; far too soon. The militia must have spotted some of the teams.

There was a chatter of weapons fire. Jim risked opening himself, taking advantage of sight and hearing as they ran forward to the spot where the ghostly creature stood. He hoped they'd both make it without zoning, or being stunned by the random explosion of a gas grenade, or a burst of automatic weapons fire.

"Get down!" Doggett tackled him and they both hit the ground as bullets flew over their heads, striking the earth far too close. Doggett rolled onto one side and took aim with his handgun, blowing out the shooter's left knee, and the militiaman fell, screaming. Then they were up again, darting quickly from cover to cover, until they reached the sidewalk. Wolf had been staring at the entry door for an underground bunker.

"They're in here," Jim said.

Doggett threw the door open, pistol in hand before him. "What are we waiting for?"


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
SANDBURG AND BYERS' CELL
8 P.M.

There was noise in the corridor. Byers looked up, feeling his gut clench. Who were they coming for this time? Blair, striped with blood and barely conscious, pawed weakly at the air. "Water?" he whispered.

"No water yet. I hear someone. Maybe it's the medic."

The door slammed open and Byers felt his heart sink. Phoenix strutted in, followed by a couple of his GothGoons. "How is he?" he asked, looking down at Blair.

"Not good," Byers said. He was barely holding on himself. Dizzy and weak from pain, lack of food, and thirst, he'd been seriously contemplating passing out.

Phoenix knelt beside Blair, looking closely at his face. Blair gave him a gentle smile and then closed his eyes. Phoenix bristled.

"Damn you, Sandburg, how dare you fuck with my head like that, how dare you try those tricks on my unit's Guides?" Blair opened his eyes again for a moment and simply smiled. Phoenix grabbed his collar and shook him. The smaller man's head wobbled limply; his eyes slipped closed and there was no reaction.

"Leave him alone! Damn you, he's hurt -- he's not even conscious!" Byers shouted angrily. The next thing he knew, one of the guards had yanked him to his feet. The cold pressure under his jaw told him a pistol had been shoved there. His heart slammed against his ribs.

"Listen, you little faggot," the GothGoon growled, "if I had my choice, you and all your kind would be splattered across the landscape. You so much as twitch and I'll blow your fuckin' head off, Wilson or no Wilson."

"Garvey!" Phoenix shouted. "Shut your mouth. Just keep him there, and keep your bigoted bullshit to yourself." He turned his attention back to Blair. "What the hell did you do to Chookie and the others?" Phoenix backhanded him across the face, dragging a sharp moan from him and bloodying his nose.

Blair's eyes opened, brilliant blue, his dotted black pupils stark in their depths. He smiled a terrifying, blissful smile. "Do? I did nothing. You were the one who broke the bonds you created in the first place, Phoenix. It's game and set and match." Still smiling, he closed his eyes again. His hands twitched against his chest and then were still, his face going slack. Byers held his breath, watching to see if his friend was still breathing.

Phoenix rose, still clutching Blair by the collar, and signaled his guards.

"Look at him," Byers said, mindful of the barrel of the pistol pressing under his chin. "He's still tripping. You're not going to influence him, not going to get any answers this way. He needs water and rest. He needs to have his wounds treated. He hasn't even been coherent since your men brought him back."

Garvey pistol-whipped him, and he fell to the ground, stunned, splitting his lip and driving a tooth into his tongue. The pain and the taste of blood in his mouth kept him focused, but he had to shake his head to clear it. He reached out and took Blair's hand. It was ice cold.

There were shadows in the room now and it felt as if they were brushing against him. He shivered and spat the blood from his mouth. His head had been hit too damned hard.

Everyone but Blair jerked alert at the sound of the bunker door slamming open.

"What the hell is that?" Phoenix snapped. He dropped Blair back on the blanket and shot to his feet. "Come on." He gestured to his men, and the three of them ran for the trapdoor, slamming the cell door behind them.

"Blair? Blair, can you hear me?" Byers cradled his friend carefully in his arms, stroking his face gently.

Blair's eyes fluttered open and focused on Byers. He gave a weak, bloody grin. "Hey there."

"Thank God," Byers whispered, voice cracking. "I was sure you were gone this time." Blair sat, weaving, and they held each other for a long moment, careful of their injuries. Then Blair groped in the blankets for his glasses. Byers handed them to him. "Something's happening. I think it's something big."

Blair's hands trembled as he put his glasses on. "Seems that way, doesn't it?" he said, his voice unnaturally calm and cheerful. "I hear screams. Shouts. Gunshots. Running feet." He wiped his nose on his sleeve, staining it red. There was a loud whump nearby, and the sound of more shouts and screaming. "And that, I think, was an explosion." He tilted his head for a moment then looked back at Byers. "Yep, definitely an explosion. I can almost smell the tear gas. Either World War III has started, or the cavalry showed up. I'm betting on the cavalry. World War III would be quieter." He chuckled suddenly, his eyes following shadows on the wall. "Hey, Big Guy," he whispered to the ghosts and the dreams. "'Bout time you showed up. I've been looking all over for you."

Byers jerked around at the sound of nearby gunfire, and Blair seemed to snap out of whatever drug trance he was in. He struggled to his knees and Byers slipped a steadying arm around him. "I hope you're right," he said, trying to draw strength from that hope. If the noise only signaled a firefight between the factions, things could get worse very quickly for them. Dying in the crossfire was the least of their worries. He had to start looking for another chance to escape, no matter what it cost them. They wouldn't survive another week of this kind of treatment.

Blair pushed his glasses up on his nose and blinked solemnly. "Okay. Now, listen. What usually happens next," he said with exaggerated precision, "is that one of the goons -- that would be the Huxleyans -- gets the bright idea that taking a hostage will be a Good Idea. That would be us. This is a Bad Idea. So we need a plan." He paused, panting, and then lunged to his feet. Byers rose with him and steadied him.

"Why don't you get back under the blankets, Blair," Byers suggested, pointing toward the rumpled and now bloody pile that served as their bed. "I'm okay. I'll try to lead them away if they come for us. I can outrun them." It was a lie and he knew it. He doubted he'd make it fifty feet, but Blair probably couldn't take any more physical stress, and he had to try.

"No. Let's do the Butch and whassisface thing." Blair lurched back toward the door, his arm waving for balance. "Bolivia, man. Let's go out in a hail of bullets."

Byers steered him back toward the blankets again, both of them staggering. "I don't think running out into the middle of a firefight is a good idea," he explained. "I'm allergic to bullets. Lead poisoning isn't really my idea of a great way to go."

Blair nodded owlishly. "Oh. Okay. So we hide behind the door and jump whoever comes in."

"What if it's Jim and John?"

Footsteps thundered down the hall. Blair gave him a stoned-out grin. "Oh yeah. Jump the Sentinel. Wooooonnnderful idea."


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
MAIN GROUNDS
8:20 P.M.

Jim stepped back as Byers tried to throw a blanket over his head. There was fresh blood on his face -- his lip was split and still bleeding. He was spattered with dried blood, one eye swollen shut, and his clothes were marked with it as well. Jim could smell terror on the man, but there was grim determination on his face.

"Hey, hey, it's us," Jim said, holding out empty hands.

Byers' eye widened as Doggett shoved his way through the door and wrapped his arms around the wounded, exhausted man, keeping him from falling on his face.

Jim pushed forward and saw Blair on the floor, struggling weakly with the blankets, and his focus slammed shut until his lover was the only thing that existed for him.

"Chief -- Oh god, Blair..."

He took Blair in his arms and cradled him. His lover was cold, so cold, and he smelled of blood and adrenaline, trembling in shock, exhaustion and pain. "Oh, Chief," he whispered. There was a small sound from Blair that could have been a whimper. He folded Blair closer to his chest, encompassing his Guide's short, compact frame with his entire being.

It was like merging. Jim could feel something in Blair reaching out to him, reaching into him. If their bodies could have melted into each other's, they would have. "Yes," he whispered, kissing the dark curls, "take what you need." And Blair's arms tightened around him and they sank into the bond until there was nothing in their reality but each other.

A few moments later, Blair stirred and looked around. Jim's eyes followed his. Doggett was kneeling on the floor with Byers cradled in his arms. The agent was rocking his shuddering Guide gently back and forth, both of them oblivious to the world. "It's okay, John, it's okay," he was whispering. "You're safe now; I've got you. You're gonna be okay." He stroked Byers' hair gently away from his face as a few silent tears streaked it.

Blair looked up at Jim. "Jags tickets... mine..." His voice was Sentinel-soft, his grin bright in spite of the blood and bruises and the heavy growth of stubble.

Jim chuckled. He could pick up the almost subliminal level of arousal in Doggett's scent as the man held Byers against him, and the way Doggett's breathing caught subtly. He remembered fighting those same feelings after he met Blair. It didn't, however, mean the apparently not-quite-entirely-straight agent was going to be throwing himself into bed with Byers any time soon. "Not yet," he whispered.

Blair reached out and touched Doggett's arm. Doggett looked up, startled.

"Need to go home," Blair said quietly.


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
MAIN GROUNDS
8:37 P.M.

The raid was going like clockwork, Jim thought. There hadn't been too many shots fired so far -- surprising for a raid on a heavily armed compound like this one. Tear gas was being deployed, and it appeared that there was a good bit of dissent among the ranks, though none of the prisoners were talking. Cascade's K-9 units were making a brilliant showing. Several shallow graves had been discovered along one of the perimeter fences, two of them very recent. That had sobered everyone.

There had been a number of injuries, but no law enforcement fatalities so far. All in all, it was an operation a former Special Ops officer like himself could be proud of.

Jim could see the shock in the faces of the Gunmen when they returned to the vehicles. Banks shouted for medics, and Frohike, Langly, and Jimmy crowded around, trying to help ease Byers and Blair down onto some blankets. At least the snow had stopped.

Langly had a hollow look of disbelief in his eyes. "Are they gonna be okay?"

"I think so," Doggett said. He looked up at Langly. "Keep an eye on him. Make sure he stays warm." He took off, and Jim listened as he ran to find the medics.

"The EMTs will take care of them, Langly," Frohike said. "They're gonna be all right." He handed Jim an extra blanket to wrap around Blair. Jimmy just watched, stunned. He looked like he wasn't sure who needed the most help, and couldn't decide who to go to.

Langly slid to the ground next to Byers and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "Oh damn, John. What did they do to you?"

Byers moaned, wincing as the other man touched him, then leaned into Langly.

"They're in shock," Jim said. "Dehydrated. Blair's been drugged very recently, and it looks to me like Byers has lost some blood. I don't think either of them is in serious danger, but Byers is flushed. He has a fever. Somebody should get him some water, right now." He remembered when Blair had been overdosed with Golden, and the days he'd spent in the hospital afterwards, detoxing. It had nearly killed his partner. He prayed it wouldn't be like that again.

Jimmy hurried away, calling for a water bottle.

"You can tell that from where you are?" Frohike asked.

"I was trained as a combat medic," Jim said. "I know what to look for. Doggett's on his way back with the medical unit." He knelt beside the Guides. "These collars have to come off."

"I can do it," Frohike said, starting at the collar on Byers. "That locksmith course was one of the best investments I ever made."

Jim was already working the lock on Blair's collar. It popped open with no real effort. He took the collar off and handed it to one of the uniforms, then Frohike handed the other one over. "Get those things out of my sight," Jim snarled.

The EMTs and Doggett arrived, and there was a swirl of activity around the Guides as Banks coordinated the Cascade PD contingent of the raid. The Gunmen were pushed back out of the way, and Doggett and Jim stepped back too. Jim could hear Doggett's pulse racing. He was agitated and angry, looking at everything but Byers.

"We need to find the guys that did this." He locked eyes with Jim, speaking so only Jim could hear.

Jim nodded. "We will. And he'll be all right."

"What do we do now?"

"You need to stay calm, focused."

"I'm calm." Doggett's voice was like ice but his eyes burned.

Jim stepped to stand next to Doggett and watched the medics working as he spoke. "When you were close to Byers, did you get a strong scent of someone else on him?"

Doggett closed his eyes and thought for a moment. Looking up at Jim, he nodded. "I'd know it anywhere. I'm gonna pound that bastard into the dirt." Jim could feel the cold fury in the other Sentinel. He understood the sentiment perfectly.

Jim turned to Banks. "Simon, Agent Doggett and I are going to continue the search."

Banks looked over at him, still shouting into a radio, and nodded. He waved them away, pausing from his orders long enough to say, "I'm gonna call in a MedEvac chopper for them. Good luck, Jim."

The few minutes he'd spent deep in his bond with his Guide had been enough to steady him, and he felt more focused than he had since the two had been taken. They were wounded, but safe. They'd be all right. One last deep breath that brought him Blair's scent -- mingled with that of the man who'd tried to take his Guide from him -- and he set off into the dark. Doggett trotted behind him, both of them at full alert as they moved through the continuing battle for the installation.

"He's this way," Doggett said, pointing.

Jim nodded. "We'll find them."

Doggett stayed low, scrambling through the underbrush, Jim close behind. It didn't take long to locate the hiding place; a grotto-like entrance built in the rock face of one of the hillsides. He could smell the hidden man's fear. It was the man whose scent had been on Blair.

The other man wasn't in the same bolthole, but he was nearby; he smelled of adrenaline, Byers' blood, and fear. He signaled to Doggett and pointed toward a small rocky slab that seemed to be another trap door. "Is that your perp?" he asked.

Doggett sniffed and growled low in his throat. He reached for the rock-like slab that concealed the opening and Jim put a hand on the agent's arm. "Wait," he said quietly, and pulled his radio from his belt. "Cascade PD Unit One, this is Ellison. I need a couple of K-9 units to come check this out. I think we've got two suspects cornered at this location."

"You're callin' in the dogs?" Doggett scowled. It was obvious he wanted them himself.

Jim smiled as he gave their location, all cherubic innocence. After a moment, he looked back up at Doggett. "Well, you know, I'm just guessing somebody went into those shelters. Only a dog could tell for sure. Those dogs are damned good at finding perps in hiding -- won a few medals in competition, in fact. And if some idiot just happens to get bitten by Ralph the Wonder Dog while trying to get away, well, damn, judge, the dog was just doing his duty. No police brutality. None at all."

"I'd rather kill the bastard with my bare hands." Doggett had a hint of grim, unbalanced hate in his eyes as the K-9 officers and their dogs came out of the darkness. Jim pointed to the rocky opening and the trap door and smiled savagely. The dogs' handlers grinned back, and gave a thumbs up.

"I know." Jim shook Doggett by the shoulder. "C'mon, John. We'd both rather do this ourselves, but that's not going to help Byers right now. He needs you more than you need to beat the shit out of the guy who hurt him. Let's go, we've got some people to look after." They turned and started walking back toward the waiting cluster of vehicles, Doggett turning to look behind them every few steps. Behind them were shouts and furious barking, then the sweet sound of frantic screaming. Doggett's face split with a dangerous grin.

They hurried back toward the staging area. Nope, judge, no police brutality going on around here. Maybe there'd been a little resisting arrest by some holdouts at the end of the raid, but there was no unusual use of force by the minions of the law.

No sir, not one little bit.


NORTH CASCADES COMPOUND
MAIN GROUNDS
8:55 P.M.

They walked on in silence for a few minutes. As they passed the gates of the deer farm and stepped into the staging area, Jim looked over at his companion. Doggett was scowling angrily at the ground again. "It's over," Jim said quietly. "What's happening in your head, John?"

"Nothing."

"Don't give me that shit. You know I can tell you're lying. You're still freaked out about Byers, aren't you?" He put a hand on Doggett's shoulder, but it was brushed off with a sharp motion.

"I don't want to talk about Byers. He should never have been involved. This would never have happened if Scully was my Guide," Doggett growled. "She's my partner, and she was trained for this kind of shit. She's the one who's supposed to be watching my back in the field. John --" he choked but shook it off, "--would never have gotten hurt if this stupid Sentinel shit hadn't happened. I would never have had to come back out here in the first place."

"I don't think you've got it yet, Einstein. You don't get to pick your Guide. They are who they are. If you just work on this, it can be good for both of you. You know the Brotherhood line -- every cop does. You don't let your partner down; you take care of him like a brother. From here on out, you've got a Guide as your partner, and whether or not he's civilian, or purple with blue tattoos, or whatever, you've got to work with him just like you do with your own partner at the Bureau."

"Listen--"

Jim didn't let him continue. "And the first thing you better get used to is treating your Guide as well as or better than you treat your partner at the FBI." With that, he turned and stalked away, heading for the staging area and his Guide.


He found Blair in the back seat of a squad car, leaning wearily against Byers. Both of them were wrapped in blankets and trembling with exhaustion. The other Gunmen stood vigil outside the car in the near-freezing cold, silent but watchful. "What happened to the MedEvac chopper Simon called?" he asked, reaching for Blair.

Blair, still half out of it, shook his head. "'S not that bad, Big Guy. Gave our seats t' some shot up officers."

Jim helped him gently out of the vehicle. His Guide's heartbeat was steady, if a little fast, but there was still the disturbing scent of blood and disinfectant on him. "Come on, Chief, let's get you guys away from here. You both need a hospital." The smaller man wobbled to his feet with a little help. Everything about Blair's movement only confirmed that he was still in a great deal of pain, despite the medications he'd been given -- he could feel it himself through their bond. "Easy now," Jim said, kissing his forehead.

Banks strode toward them from near the vehicles. "I'm driving you guys back to Cascade and leaving Taggart in charge here. Can't trust anybody else with you two assholes."

"Thanks, Simon," Jim said. He watched as Doggett helped Byers out of the car. It was, to say the least, an awkward moment between them. Neither spoke, but Doggett was gentle as he made sure Byers stayed wrapped in the blankets.

"Van's this way," Banks said, gesturing. He started for the nearby cluster of vehicles.

Jim followed him. "You still cold?" he asked, tightening his arm around Blair's waist protectively.

Blair nodded. "Yeah. Cold. Side effect of psychoactives dosage..." Jim could feel him shivering slightly and tugged the blankets up closer about Blair's shoulders.

He could hear Doggett moving slowly behind them, helping Byers stay upright. He had to give it to Byers; the guy was a lot tougher and more determined than he would ever have expected. Not unlike Blair, in fact.

When Banks opened the side door of the big passenger van, Jim stepped in and helped Blair up. He chose the back bench seat, then helped Blair settle in. He eased his wounded Guide down next to him.

Doggett looked in a moment later. He took the middle seat, right in front of them, helping Byers in, then kept a slight distance between them. Byers sat uncomfortably, still silent. Jim could hear his erratic pulse and breathing and knew his welts and open wounds were making it all the harder for him, since the pain meds hadn't really kicked in yet. He was in worse shape than Blair, despite the fact he hadn't been drugged as recently.

Banks slid into the driver's seat and, after the doors were all shut, they started off. It was going to take about three hours to get back home.

Jim yawned, sleepy with the end of his adrenaline rush, and worked his shoulders around to try to find a comfortable position for a nap. He heard a soft moan from Byers and looked forward.

Byers was still sitting alone, slumped into himself in the seat, his eyes closed, huddled into the blankets. He was shaking, and it didn't take a Sentinel to see how badly. Doggett just stared at the man, uncertainty clearly inscribed on his face. It didn't look like anything Jim had said to the Fed had gotten through. He poked the back of Doggett's seat with one foot, and Doggett looked back at him.

Sheesh. Had he really been this hard-headed? It was a wonder that Blair and the guys in Major Crimes hadn't shot him accidentally-on-purpose. He gave the FBI agent a hard stare and pulled Blair gently back against his chest, enveloping him in his arms. Blair curled into him with a quiet little groan and closed his eyes.

Doggett scowled.

"Wait," Jim mouthed silently, as Blair's body relaxed into his. He felt his lover's heartbeat become slower and steadier and could smell how Blair's scent changed as the stress eased from his body and he slipped into a peaceful sleep. He kissed the soft curls of his Guide, his lover, his second self, lying safe in his arms. Only then, when he could feel the healing starting, did he look back up.

He glanced at Byers, and then stared pointedly at Doggett. The contrast between the condition of the two Guides was staggering. "You owe him," Jim whispered, Sentinel-soft.

Doggett blinked. He nodded and settled himself against the side of the van, resting his back for support. He reached out and tugged gently at Byers' sleeve. Byers looked over at him. "C'mon," he said softly. "Lie down here on my lap. You need rest."

Byers hesitated, and Doggett squeezed his shoulder gently. Byers flinched in pain. "Sorry, John. I didn't mean to hurt you. Jim's going to kill me if I don't start taking care of my Guide. C'mere. I... I missed you."

It was as though the word Guide was magic; an acceptance and a kind of permission. The bearded man's shoulders sagged with relief and he slowly, carefully eased his body down until he could rest his head in his Sentinel's lap. Jim could hear the warm, whispery sounds of skin brushing against cloth as Doggett began gently rubbing Byers' shoulder.

There was a long, shuddering sigh. Doggett leaned down toward him, whispering, "I'm sorry, John, I'm so sorry I wasn't there sooner--"

"It's okay. You came." It was a benediction; a blessing.

Jim leaned back against the van's window and closed his eyes, smiling.

After a few minutes, Byers' scent shifted as Blair's had, body chemistry changing with his falling stress level. Like Blair, it wasn't long before Byers sank into sleep. He peered over at them again. Doggett's eyes stayed on his injured, sleeping Guide for a long time.

Jim shifted his partner slightly, pulling him to a more comfortable position, feeling his body respond to the pressure of his Guide's. God, it felt good to have his lover back in his arms, that pernicious emptiness filled again. He buried his face in the long, curly hair and inhaled deeply, feeling a lazy surge of arousal burning along his body. When he looked up, Doggett was staring at him. Apparently the FBI agent had noticed the change in his pheromones and wasn't sure what to make of it. Jim raised an eyebrow and smiled, then turned his attention back to the man in his arms.

The van lurched along the rutted road for a long time. A slight rise in Doggett's temperature, and a small, rough edge to his breathing caught Jim's attention through his focus on Blair. He sniffed discreetly and then grinned. Doggett's scent had changed. Getting just a tad bit aroused again, were we, Agent Doggett?

Doggett glanced over at Jim, a peculiar expression on his face. Oh, yeah. They both knew what was going on. Jim gave him a small nod, then returned his attention completely to his lover. Doggett would just have to cope with that one on his own.


TYEE TEEPEE MOTEL
ROOM 210
WEDNESDAY, 10 A.M.

Byers surfaced slowly, confused. He didn't recognize where he was, and his memories of how he'd gotten there were fuzzy at best. He knew he was in a motel room, and not in the tiny cell where he and Blair had passed several days of hell. A brief look to one side told him he wasn't in the motel room with the guys.

He was partly dressed in a pair of sweats. He didn't own any sweats. And there was... someone beside him. That startled him to full awareness, his heart pounding in alarm.

"Hey. It's okay." The quiet voice in his ear was Doggett. He turned his head and looked into the man's eyes. The previous night returned with unfortunate clarity.

Byers was lying under the covers, snuggled close to Doggett's body. Doggett himself was lying on top of the covers, wrapped in a blanket. Byers gave him a shy, slightly awkward smile, and Doggett returned it with an equal measure of discomfort.

"How you feelin', John?" Doggett's voice was soft and hesitant, and there was a look of concern in his eyes. He slipped an arm around Byers and held him for a long moment. It felt good; better than it should have. "The doc wasn't so sure last night about letting you go. They were considering keeping you for observation. We didn't get out of there until after 3 A.M."

"A lot of it's still vague." Byers still ached, but not nearly as much as he would have expected. "I'm... not that bad, I guess. Achy. Sore." He tried stretching a little. "Stiff. Still exhausted."

Doggett nodded. "Let me take a look at you, okay? Just lie there and rest. You don't need to be moving around much yet."

Byers nodded.

Doggett pulled the covers carefully away from him. Byers shivered slightly as the cooler air in the room struck his bare skin. When Doggett's hand met his flesh, he shivered again, but for an entirely different reason. His Sentinel's fingers were soft and terribly gentle as he moved them over the cuts and bruises on Byers' face and body. He fought the unexpected and awkward stirring of interest and need he felt, slamming the lid down hard on those feelings.

Doggett paused a moment and lay the palm of his hand over Byers' heart. "I missed you," he said quietly. After a moment, he whispered, "I... I can hear your heart beating," and withdrew his hand.

The admissions had an unnerving intimacy to them. Byers' heart pounded like the hooves of a racehorse, and he made a noncommittal sound. He was relieved when Doggett asked him to roll over onto his stomach.

The almost tender examination continued for a few more minutes. He closed his eyes and bit his lip, wondering if Doggett could tell that he was feeling the beginnings of arousal as his fingers curled and clenched at the sheet beneath him. He hoped not.

As far as he knew, Doggett was straight. This was the last thing either of them needed, and all it could ever do was complicate things to an impossible level. It would be just another reason for his Sentinel to reject him, to push him away, and despite all that had happened, he found he didn't want that. He wondered if it was some twisted psychosomatic reaction to being touched so gently by the man who had rescued him from Wilson and his terrifying, nauseating attentions. Byers wondered if he was having reactions generated by the obedience-centered abuse he'd been subjected to. The thought curdled his stomach.

"What's this?" Doggett asked, touching the slightly healed cuts on his shoulder.

"Wilson put it there," Byers whispered.

"Oh, God." Doggett took his hands from Byers' body and backed away slightly. "It's okay, John. I swear, I'm not gonna hurt you. You're safe with me, I promise."

Byers breathed a small sigh of relief. "Thanks."

One warm hand found his cheek, and he opened his eyes to Doggett's concerned face. "I don't want you to be afraid of me. Last night, you just... you needed..." Doggett didn't finish the sentence.

"I would never think you'd... um..." Byers sat up, pulling a blanket around his shoulders for the moment. "What about you?" he asked. "How are you doing? Your senses?"

Doggett sat next to him and crossed his legs. He was dressed in a pair of pajama bottoms and an old Marine Corps tee-shirt. "Better. I -- you know, I actually feel pretty good this morning." He closed his eyes for a moment and focused. "Everything seems steady. Under control."

"Good."

"I... I started feelin' better last night when you were close by. Everything's changing," Doggett whispered. "I don't know what to do now."

"We'll think of something," Byers said.

"I'm so damned sorry, John. I've been a total ass about this. I never thought you'd get hurt." The pain in Doggett's eyes was unmistakable. Byers just nodded.

"How hard to I have to try before you'll accept this? Accept me?"

Doggett flinched. "This is my fault. If I'd listened to them -- listened to you -- we'd never have ended up out here. I hate what this did to you."

It was a start. Byers was a lot calmer than he thought he would be. Touching some of his wounds, they felt more healed than they should. He was able to open his black eye. That should have taken another day or two. Was this part of the bond that Sandburg had talked about, he wondered? "You came for me," Byers said. "It makes up for a lot."

Doggett nodded. "From now on, I'm listening. I was supposed to protect you. I did a lousy job. I won't make that mistake again, I promise you that. You need me, I'm there."

"And how were you supposed to predict a kidnapping?" Byers asked. He felt lighter, like the air was a little more clear. "But I will say this -- you need to tell me what's going on with you, what's happening. You have to let me know when you need me, too."

"That's a hard thing to ask."

"I know." Byers looked into Doggett's light blue eyes. Doggett didn't look away.

"I'll do my best, okay?"

"So will I," Byers promised. The shadows were back, moving slowly around them. It was all strange, but... right. Reassuring. It felt like approval, and Byers sighed, relaxing a bit.

Doggett shifted his weight. "What the hell are we gonna tell Scully? When I get back to work, I mean."

"What are you going to tell Skinner?"

"I'm not so sure we should tell anybody."

Byers reached out cautiously and rested a hand on Doggett's knee. "But how are you going to hide this at work? You know Scully'll notice. If she thinks you've been having petit mal seizures, she's already figured out that something's happening. She's not blind, or stupid."

Doggett looked down at Byers' hand, then reached out and caressed the back of it briefly with his fingertips before drawing his own hand back. It burned where he'd touched, and Byers shoved back a wave of instinctive need. "We'll work something out," Doggett said.

Byers sighed to himself and moved his hand away. There was just too much going on beneath the surface. He wasn't sure how he felt, how he wanted to feel. "Maybe we can find some sort of technological solution," he suggested. "Some way to stay in closer touch while you're at work."

"What? Borging? Over my dead body!" Doggett's body language was as emphatic as his voice.

One thing about being a Guide was that you were very in tune with your Sentinel. You knew when you were on the losing end of an argument.

"I'm not suggesting anything that drastic."

"Listen, Byers, the guys are awake."

"How--"

Doggett smiled wryly. "I can hear 'em moving around next door. They've been up for a while now. Frohike and Langly are arguing about where to eat. Jimmy's in the shower. He's doing an Elvis imitation. 'Hound Dog.'"

Even knowing they were there, the senses still surprised him. "As long as he's not wearing the wig." Byers chuckled, then picked up the phone and dialed their room. Langly answered.

"'Morning." Langly's voice was a relief, a slice of something normal after his life had been turned on its head.

"Hi, Langly."

"Oh, hey, John. Uh, how... how are you? You okay?"

Byers nodded. "Yeah. I'm doing better, thanks."

"Dude, me and Fro, we're talking about where to brunch out. You and Dogbert wanna come?"

"I heard that, Langly," Doggett growled into the phone, and was rewarded by a startled gasp.

"Brunch sounds really, really good," Byers said. His stomach snarled at him, reminding him he hadn't eaten much in the last several days. "When do you want us ready?"

Doggett looked over at him and smiled.


ELLISON-SANDBURG RESIDENCE
852 PROSPECT STREET #307
11:50 A.M.

"Sleep okay, Chief?"

A hand moved slowly along the curve of Blair's jaw.

"Mmmm..." Blair didn't bother to open his eyes, but reached out and wrapped himself around the warm body of his lover. Solid. Strong. Yes. "Jim," he whispered. He nuzzled Jim's chest.

Lips touched his cheek, then trailed along to his ear and up into his hair. They sent tickling tremors down his spine.

"Mmmmmm."

Jim chuckled. "Glad you like it, Romeo."

Blair's body started to follow his mind into the day. God, he was sporting wood like crazy. Hard. Horny. He held his lover tighter and rubbed his groin against Jim's hairy thigh. "Mmmm. Jim. Wanna fuck you."

"You'd still hump a table leg, wouldn't you?" The words didn't conceal Jim's own erection.

Blair snorted and let his eyes slip open. "You're not a table." He thrust against Jim's leg again. "Much nicer than a table." A few more thrusts, and his cuts and bruises convinced him this was not going to be a happening thing. "Ow. Shit."

"Chief? You okay?" The aroused humor was gone, replaced with concern.

Blair growled. "Yeah, yeah, dammit. I just had my heart set on doing you, and all the achy places are giving me shit. Man, I hate it when that happens." It certainly wasn't the first time he'd been frustrated by injuries. He huffed and rolled gently onto his back.

Jim grinned. "Oh. Well, if that's all it is, I can suggest a compromise."

"Oh?" Blair arched an eyebrow at him.

"Mmmhm. Just lie right there, and I'll take care of everything." His eyes glittered with a truly frightening combination of lust and mischief.

Blair echoed his grin. "Whatever you're thinking, I love it already." He reached up and pulled his lover's face down, kissing him hard. He slipped his tongue between Jim's lips and shivered at the moan it produced. God, he'd missed this. Missed Jim -- his presence, his arms, the solid heat of his body in the night.

Curling up with Byers at night while they were prisoners had helped save his sanity, and God knew the man was a gentle, tempting armful, but Jim was the man Blair loved beyond all others. Friend, partner, lover, soul. He put it all into his kiss, tongues slick and moving, bodies tight together. He lost the capacity to breathe.

Panting, he drew back and looked at his lover. "About this... plan of yours..."

Jim said nothing, but started kissing his way down Blair's body. Hot, wet lips on his throat, and Blair's head arched back, begging for more. "Oh, yeah. Missed you. Need you."

Jim groaned and kissed harder, nipping gently now, sucking at Blair's needy flesh as he slipped to the base of his throat and the hollow there.

Blair didn't know if it was Jim groaning, or if it was his own voice. It didn't matter as Jim's teeth took the silver ring in his nipple and tugged gently. The sensation shot straight through him, making his hard shaft leap with clear, impeccable want. "Unnnh..." He held Jim's head to his chest as his lover suckled at his pierced nipple, teasing the other between strong fingers.

"Love you," Jim whispered. "Love to hear you like this." A nip, and Blair moaned again, deep in his chest, voice rumbling like the earthquake brewing within him.

Jim knew him, knew his body so well. Blair knew that every touch, every taste and scent of him had been catalogued and memorized by his beloved Sentinel, saved for moments like this. Gentle hands stroked him, carefully avoiding his wounds, yet drawing out incredible sensation. It drowned out the pain in his body, and he floated in it like a warm pool. He gasped.

"Yes," he hissed. His fingers moved through short, dark hair, unable to find purchase. He didn't care. The sensation of it brushing under his hands took him further from his pain, down into sensual pleasure.

Jim's hands slid down his body, caressing his hips, moving softly across his bruised abdomen. His lips and the scratch of his stubble followed.

"Suck me," Blair whispered. His hands trailed down Jim's face, thumbs caressing his cheeks. Jim kissed one thumb gently, sucking at it, and Blair gasped. "Ohhhh, yeah."

"Want you." Jim nipped his thumb. "Was going crazy without you. Need you in me."

Blair shuddered, his cock leaping at the words. "Up here," he said, tugging at Jim's hip.

Jim shifted himself, turning so that his hips were at Blair's head. He blew on the hot, sensitive head of Blair's shaft and Blair shivered from his bones, letting out a horny whimper. "Touch me," Jim said as he bent to lick at the dripping flesh. The touch of his tongue made Blair shout wordlessly.

With a rumble of pleasure, Blair ran his tongue down the length of Jim's shaft, from tip to balls, and Jim groaned. "Oh, God, Chief, yeah."

A moment later, they were sucking each other in deep, licking and swirling tongues around hard, thick shafts. They groaned and pulled at each other's hips, and Blair thrust into Jim's mouth, treasuring the wet heat. Jim shuddered and pulled Blair tight to his body.

"I thought I was going to lose you," Jim whispered.

Blair sucked hard, making Jim gasp, then replied, "Never. I'm yours, Big Guy. You're my life." He applied his tongue to Jim's balls, licking back toward his opening. Jim moaned again.

They shifted and rolled, and Blair lay atop Jim, caressing his strong thighs and nibbling at the tender flesh where thigh met groin.

"Mmm..."

"Turn up your touch," Blair said, running a finger slowly along the cleft of Jim's ass. His answering groan told Blair the Sentinel had done as he'd asked.

"Ohhh, God. Want you in me." Jim's cock jerked as Blair's finger moved softly back and forth over his opening, and Blair smiled. He blew on the pucker and Jim bit back a howl.

"You are so fucking hot," Blair whispered. "So hot. So mine."

When Jim swallowed his cock, Blair almost came. Holding back was an effort, but he wanted to be in Jim as much as Jim wanted him inside. "Shit, don't tease like that," he gasped, "if you want me to fuck you."

Jim pulled back and chuckled. "You're young. You'll get hard again."

"That's likely, but I'm not sure the rest of me would hold out for it. Now grab the lube for me, you sneaky bastard."

They laughed as their bodies moved together; Jim reached for the bedside drawer, while Blair played with his balls. A moment later, Blair was warming lube in his hand and nipping Jim's ass, beneath his lover again.

"Quit teasing and hurry up," Jim growled.

Blair slipped a lubed finger inside him, and Jim groaned loudly. "Tease? Me?" Blair snorted. He twisted his finger and Jim pushed back against it. "You'd better be good or this is all you're getting."

"Make me wait, and you won't be getting any for a week."

Blair grinned. "And who'd suffer most from that, horn-dog?"

"So speaks the man who humps table legs." Blair shoved another finger in and Jim yelped. "Oh, God!"

"Want more?"

Jim whimpered and nodded.

"Behave yourself!"

Jim started sucking Blair in earnest, hot, damp tongue moving along every delicate line and curve of his hardness. Blair moaned and lifted his hips, thrusting at the maddening mouth. The sensation shot through him, vibrating through their bond, and they both shook with the resonance of their mutual pleasure.

Blair slipped a third finger gently into his lover's body and Jim shivered, clutching Blair tight as he moaned. The sound echoed in Blair's body and he thrust once more, hard, into Jim's mouth.

He stroked Jim's cheek with his other hand. "Just let me play with you a little longer, then you can climb on top of me. Wanna feel my cock slipping into you."

That drew another moan from the big man, echoed again and again as Blair's fingers opened him. Blair licked at Jim's cock as he thrust slowly in and out, then sucked it hard as he withdrew his fingers. Jim lifted his head. "Ahhhhhhhh."

"Oh yeah, come here," Blair said, directing Jim's body to bring them face to face again. "On me, Jim. Sit on my cock. Wanna watch it slip into you."

They moaned together, kissing as Jim got to his knees, guiding Blair's shaft to his opening. Blair held Jim's cock and balls up so he could watch as his lover sank down on him. It felt so good; hot, tight, and so delicious. He forced himself to stillness, panting as Jim's weight joined them more and more deeply. He could feel Jim's pleasure and his keen need through their bond.

Unable to wait any longer, Blair thrust slowly up into Jim, caressing his lover's body with both hands. Jim groaned and wrapped his hands in Blair's hair, leaning down to breathe in his scent, to kiss and touch Blair's face with his tongue. His tongue touched Blair's eyelids lightly, warm breath on his face like the stroke of feathers, and Blair nearly wept as they moved together.

"Dial your touch up more," he whispered, and their deep, gentle dance grew more intense. Jim was gasping and moaning, rubbing his chest against Blair's. Blair kissed and sucked at Jim's neck, moving slow and careful in his lover's body. They trembled in each others' arms, and Blair could feel how close to the edge Jim was.

Jim's eyes were closed, his face a mask of ecstasy as he rode Blair's shaft. "Love you," he whispered, "Oh, God, need you, Blair."

"Take it," Blair moaned. "Ride me hard!"

Jim bucked on him, and Blair was in him to his balls, the tight muscles of Jim's opening dragging his orgasm from him as Jim rode him hard and fast. He shot into his lover, shouting his name, clinging to him with arms and legs, tears streaming down his face. He'd been afraid -- afraid of never being with Jim again, afraid he and Byers would die before they could escape or be found, afraid of anyone seeing his fear. The wave of passion sweeping through him cleansed him of it and he threw his head back again and shouted wordlessly.

Jim joined him in the brilliant depths of that passion, coming hard, his seed splashing between them, hot and sticky. Gasping, he found his breath and devoured Blair's mouth, ravaging with his tongue. The echoes of their ecstatic release reverberated between them, and they collapsed together, limbs tangled.

After a moment, Jim rolled and pulled Blair atop him. He gazed into Blair's face, a look of adoration in his eyes, and stroked Blair's cheek softly.

"Love you, Jim," he whispered, breathless.

Jim grinned.


HARRY'S SPORTS BAR AND GRILL
CASCADE, WASHINGTON
THURSDAY, 7:30 P.M.

"Twenty-five Huxleyans are sitting in cells today," Blair said, "keeping their lawyers busy and off the streets with appeals and motions and protestations of innocence and complaints of police brutality." He chuckled and hoped that at least some of them were going to be seeing the inside of a Federal prison for some time to come.

Byers nodded, looking pleased. "It looks like John's doing a lot better," he said. "He seems to have things pretty well under control, at least for the moment."

Blair watched Langly, Jimmy and Frohike trying their talents on the local pool sharks while the primal antler-dancing game of dominance between Jim and Doggett seemed to be playing itself out over a foosball game in a corner of the bar.

"There's something that puzzles me," Byers said, staring off at the Sentinels. "I've been healing more quickly than usual. It's... strange. It's only been a couple of days, but some of the bruises are entirely gone. Some of the cuts aren't even sore now. I'm not aching nearly as much as I usually do after I get the crap kicked out of me. John said the... the mark Wilson cut into my shoulder is healing fast." He touched his lip where he'd split it. There was no evidence of that wound.

"Yeah," Blair said. He smiled at Byers who was nursing a club soda. "You remember asking me what the Guides get out of this arrangement?"

Byers nodded.

"This is part of it."

Byers blinked. His reply was a whispered, astonished, "Oh."

Blair leaned against the vinyl of the seat back and sipped his beer. "You're acting like you've got something on your mind. Worried about the trip home?"

Byers toyed with his drink. "A bit. We didn't talk much about what happens when we get back. Did you and Jim put him up to getting the plane ticket for me?"

"Nope. That was his idea. Said he thought you deserved better than a four day road trip, after all you'd been through. When you get back -- well, Jim and I, we found that things were a bit awkward for a while at first. Having separate living quarters may work out in your case." It was a nice little obfuscation. It wouldn't help much when the pheromone-driven bonding imperative kicked in, but there was no point in spooking either Byers or Doggett with that bit of information at this point.

Byers looked up at him. "Tell me something, Blair. Phoenix accused you of turning his Guides against him, and you told him he defeated himself. We looked up his real name and found out he was a cult deprogrammer at one time, and knew how to get people to change their beliefs and attitudes."

Blair smiled mildly. "I know."

"Did you really turn the Guides against him?"

"Yes."

"How? How could anyone do that?"

"Ah, Grasshopper, you forget what Phoenix forgot: first and foremost, I'm an anthropologist. Phoenix trusted what he knew; methods of deprogramming and reprogramming people. But his theory was stuck in the June Cleaver era and he didn't move forward to the MTV generation." Byers looked at him blankly and he took pity on the man. "He was having the kids show me companionship to make me bond with them. He didn't think about it working both ways; that they would have some affection and trust for me if I started treating them as responsible and intelligent human beings instead of as objects of convenience."

"I don't see how that would cause a big change in just a day."

"When he discovered what I was doing, he did the most logical thing of all: he had the kids themselves punish me." Blair rolled the bottom of his mug against the table, making patterns of water. "It was a perfect strategy. It should have worked -- it would have worked on him. But these kids didn't grow up in the same culture he grew up in. When he gave that order, they obeyed it and hated him for it."

Byers looked horrified. "The kids were the ones who beat you?"

"Yes," Blair said quietly. "And I didn't resist. And that's when his team went from eighteen men with eighteen 'Guides' to eighteen men trying to deal with a pack of snarky teens with a propensity for running away. Teens who had already run away. Teens who were, in fact, very good at running away from adults and juvie homes."

"But how could you know it would work?"

"I did the one thing Phoenix and his men didn't do -- I listened to their stories. Most of them had been beaten. One told about seeing a friend beaten to death by druggies, another had his ribs broken when his stepfather found he was gay. On and on... a litany of abuse and their only hope of getting out alive was to run. So they were predisposed to run rather than to turn into the same kind of monsters who had hurt them in the first place.

Byers stared at him, open-mouthed.

"Phoenix had a perfect strategy for brainwashing people. It should have worked -- it would have worked on him. But these kids didn't grow up in the same culture he grew up in. When he gave that order, they obeyed it and hated him for it, and they deserted. Most had left the compound by the time the raid started. Game, set, and match."

"I... don't know what to say," Byers said finally.

"It's all about culture."

Byers smiled wryly and toyed with his glass rim. "Maybe I should take some anthropology courses."

Blair set down his mug and leaned forward. "Culture is a powerful force, John, but it's a changeable thing. You and Doggett, you're trying to form a new bond while you're stuck in your old cultures. That's part of where the conflict comes in. But our society isn't a rigid box and you're not some pre-programmed planarian, plodding along in a maze. Don't think about where your cultural identities clash. Start where they mesh. That's the place to start making your situation into something comfortable for both of you."

Byers closed his mouth and stared thoughtfully at Doggett. Blair smiled to himself. Maybe he should make Anthropology 101 a prerequisite for newly-bonded Guides and Sentinels.

The foosball game disintegrated into Doggett's whoops of joy, and gleeful finger-pointing and taunting. Blair could see Marco winding his way through the crowded room with a tray of food -- spaghetti and pizza for their table. The pool match broke up as the food passed by and the Gunmen trailed the waiter like a trio of scruffy alley cats, intent on edibles.

He drained the last of his beer and smiled across the table at Byers. It wasn't a perfect world, but it was as good as it got for now -- and that was perfectly fine with Blair Sandburg.

TBC...

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Fandom:  Lone Gunmen, Sentinel, X-Files
Title:  Doors of Their Assemblies, The
Series Name:  Doors of Perception 2
Author:  Mice and Lady Jaguar   [email]   [website]
Details:  Standalone  |  NC-17  |  203k  |  03/12/04
Pairings:  Doggett/Byers pre-slash, Jim/Blair, Byers/Blair UST
Summary:  When Sentinels collide. well, let's just say that two Guideless Sentinels are not happy company. Byers and Blair -- in trouble again, for the first time. Featuring technology, funky poaching, Feds, smut, cops, County Mounties, and K-9 unit Ralph the Wonder Dog. Oh, and happy endings. Must not forget happy endings. We're suckers for that happy ending thing. And smut. Did we mention socially unredeeming smut?
Notes:  Thanks to raven for Sentinel beta, CaroDee for godlike everything, SallyH for Gunmen beta, and the Usual Suspects in #LGM for running commentary through the whole thing.
Warnings: m/m, non-con but no rape, h/c, violence, angst, drama, humor.
Disclaimer/Other:  These yummy guys are actually owned by Fox and 1013, and by Pet Fly. If we owned them, they'd be having a hell of a lot more fun, and probably a lot more angst, too. Not to mention that thing about The Sentinel, XF, and the Lone Gunmen being cancelled. Can you say denial? We knew you could.
Archive: Basement, Lone Slasher, XFMU, LGM Fanfic Bunker, Glass Onion, FHSA, WWOMB, 852 Prospect, TSStoryfinders, all others ask.
Feedback: Feed me, Seymour!
Sequel to:  In Light Revealed

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