Disclaimer: See home page.

Background: This AU story takes place in modern day Cascade where sentinels and guides are known and highly respected. It's also a world where the institution of slavery was never abolished and is considered a normal part of everyday life.

Summary: Detective Jim Ellison unexpectedly finds himself the owner of an abused, but very unique, slave who has a major impact on his life.

Author's Notes: If this story is received well (I know that some people may not like this particular universe), it may become the first story in what will be known as the Slave Driver Series. So naturally I'm anxious to hear any and all comments and opinions on both the story itself and the possibility of a series based in this Alternate Universe. I would like to thank my beta, Lyn, for all her hard work in fixing all my mistakes and typos. This story certainly kept her busy . I'd also like to thank her sister, Annie, who read the betaed version and sent me some suggestions about a few scenes. Thanks to both of them for all their help. Since I naturally made many changes after receiving their input, blame me for any errors you might find.


A New Challenge
by
Linda3

celticpryde1@insightbb.com

 

Prologue

Jacob Sandburg stood with his hands clasped behind his back, gazing through the window of his home office as the sun set behind the well-maintained grounds of his estate. Like most men in this commerce-driven world, he had worked hard, invested well and had planned on leaving his children well established in both name and credit. To die and leave one's family in debt was the worst possible stigma a man could inflict upon them. Now he was facing that very real possibility himself. His grown sons' credit ratings would drop to almost nil as they struggled to maintain their own finances while having to pay off the inherited debt. His beautiful wife and daughter would be quietly ostracized by their peers for having a husband and father who was not able to handle his fiscal responsibilities as expected. The once proud and very creditworthy name of Sandburg would become synonymous with failure. The shame of that failure would follow his children and grandchildren. Tears pricked Jacob's dark blue eyes. He simply could not allow his family to endure such a humiliating legacy because of him.

With a sad sigh he turned from the window and sat behind the large antique desk that dominated the room. A school textbook was lying on top. His eldest daughter-in-law had visited that morning with the grandchildren; one of them must have left it behind. Idly picking it up, Jacob switched on the green-shaded banker's lamp, then almost dropped the book when he saw the title:

The History of Slavery
Elementary School Edition
Issued by:
The U.S. Department of Slave Management
Washington, D.C.

Then, almost against his will, he opened the government issued textbook and started reading.

... Since the beginning of recorded history, the victors of war have taken those of the losing side captive, as slaves. Besides acquiring cheap laborers, this allowed the winners to rebuild their resources, in both material and personnel, while ensuring that there would be no repercussions from the defeated forces.

Jacob skimmed through the book, stopping at random pages. He felt as though he had a duty to remind himself of the rarely thought-about plight of slaves.

... During the early 1500s the British government, after defeating yet another small country and enslaving its people, realized that a great deal of its after war capital was being spent on the upkeep of its newly acquired slaves, hampering the refilling of its war depleted treasury. A new way of maintaining a steady supply of slaves was needed. This eventually led to the idea of aggressively breeding slaves rather than continuing to obtain them as acquisitions of war. So instead, after an enemy was defeated, the biggest and strongest among the conquered were taken as breeders, as well as workers, while the rest of the population was merely subjected to live under British rule. This new system of producing slaves by breeding the best of any newly conquered people was soon adopted worldwide.

... By the late 1600s slave uprisings had increased significantly. By breeding the larger, stronger slaves it was discovered too late that this was producing slaves who were increasingly more difficult to control. After a series of international incidents in which slaves turned on their masters and killed them, it was decided that something had to be done.

In 1693 the British Institute of Slavery (BIS) was formed to address the issue. They concluded that since breeding had produced the problem, selective breeding could also solve it. The reverse of the previous ideas about the best way to breed slaves took effect. Now it was primarily the smaller and more docile slaves who were chosen for reproduction. Since there was still a need for strong manual laborers, larger slaves were bred with either more docile or less intelligent ones to ensure that their strength remained but not the will or intelligence to use that strength against their masters. The many different ethnic backgrounds of slaves became blended together as they were now matched according to their desired physical and mental characteristics, not their racial makeup. Once again the rest of the world rushed to follow England's lead in the new controlled breeding of slaves.

The strategy worked. Within three generations virtually all slave rebellions stopped. The selectively bred slave was easily controllable and thought of nothing except how to serve his or her master. In 1865 the United States created the Department of Slave Management (DSM) to oversee all issues pertaining to slaves and slave ownership. Soon, almost every other developed country had also created its own similar agency.

Jacob couldn't read any more. Besides, he was just putting off the inevitable. Reaching into his pocket he removed a gold key ring and picked out a small key. Fitting it into the lock of the top drawer of his desk, he turned it and slid the drawer open. There was only one folder within and he pulled it out and placed it on the desktop. Carefully, he removed the one piece of paper it contained and laid it on top of the folder.

The sheet of paper lying there, at first glance, looked innocuous enough. A standard contract, written in the usual legalese. A simple transfer of ownership of one of his many possessions from himself to another party. So simple. So unthinkable.

It was time.

Time. Time was his enemy here. If only he had had more of it, he would have been able to resolve this grave situation in his usual way, arrange another business deal or borrow the money. His lines of credit and credit ratings were impeccable; under any other circumstances he would have no problem securing the funds he needed. Except for that one devastating, irreversible doctor's diagnosis, which meant that he didn't have the time to arrange and follow through on another deal nor would he have the time to pay off a new loan. And that would have left him dying and owing a very large sum of money to his creditors, instead of to a personal friend, as he did now. He had, foolishly, he now realized, cashed in his life insurance policy, thinking he could re-instate it from his share of the coming profits. This meant that the still sterling Sandburg credit rating had now become the most important inheritance he would be able to leave to his family, his one way of assuring their and their children's futures; it had to be preserved at all costs.

His mind turned back to what had started all this in the first place. The business venture that he had invested in had been risky, to be sure, but he had studied all the angles very carefully and decided that the payoff would be more than worth the risks. Because it was not a rock solid investment, he had bypassed his usual avenues for procuring the funds needed and had, instead, used some of his own money, but had borrowed the bulk of the financing from his good friend and neighbor, Dr. Eli Stoddard. Eli was the head of the Anthropology Department at Rainier University. He had had a very successful career as an anthropologist, heading several newsworthy expeditions and writing many best selling books about his exploits, before settling down at the University. His estate bordered the Sandburg's and the two families had spent many pleasant hours visiting each other's homes.

Jacob and Eli had discussed the deal at length, with his friend deciding to invest in it with him by contributing the main portion of the needed financial backing. He had promised Eli a larger than usual percentage of the profits, in return for his show of good faith.

The arrangements were made, contracts signed. The deal was done. Everything was going according to schedule. It was looking to be very profitable for everyone involved. Then the unexpected typhoon had struck out at sea. It was the wrong time of year for such violent weather, making it the one thing no one had predicted. All three cargo ships were lost, their shipments never recovered. Because this had been a privately funded arrangement, and they thought that every possible problem had been covered, they had decided to chance forgoing the exorbitant cost of purchasing the insurance that public lenders would have insisted on before agreeing to back such a venture. Jacob's share of the loss was certainly a financial setback but he had enough personal assets plus other business dealings to be able to absorb most of the blow. What he didn't have was the capital to pay back Eli for his original investment plus the additional profits he had personally guaranteed to him, no matter what the final outcome of the venture. Even though it was a privately arranged loan, it was still a publicly known debt as he did, by law, have to declare where he had received the funding for the failed project. If he died owing this debt to Eli, his family would still be ruined.

In the end there was only one solution. The first few times he proposed it to his friend, Eli had protested vigorously. He had stated that he would rather lose the money than do what was suggested. Finally, Jacob was able to convince him that it was the only honorable way to resolve the issue. When he told his wife what he had to do, she had to be sedated and had taken to her bed. His sons were naturally horrified, but, being businessmen themselves now, understood why it had to be done. When he finally, tearfully, told his beloved Naomi, she had cried for his pain but never wavered in her determination to do her duty to her family.

Now all that was left was his signature on the contract.

Knowing he was just looking for any excuse to delay what he had to do, Jacob picked up the discarded textbook again, this time thumbing through to the back pages.

... Today's slaves are a combination of carefully controlled breeding and conditioning. They are genetically engineered to be a faithful servant to their master. The genetic factors are reinforced with education. All U.S. slaves receive five years of schooling starting at age seven. This schooling is done at special, DSM run Slave Schools. Besides learning the basics in reading, writing and mathematics, a large part of each school day is used to educate the young slaves in proper slave/freeborn etiquette, and in their lifelong duties and obligations as slaves. The teachers constantly reinforce one main lesson to their students: that a happy, well content slave is one who lives to serve their master.

To disobey or, even worse, raise a hand or speak out against a master will not only bring swift punishment, but also will cause the slave to be shunned by the other slaves as well. To be shunned is the worse experience slaves can endure since it leaves them totally alone. No other slave will speak to or have any type of contact with a shunned peer. Only the slave's master can end a shunning. However, thanks to the years of controlled breeding plus early childhood schooling, the slaves of today rarely have thoughts other than being a loyal and obedient servant and, therefore, punishments are rare.

... When a slave reaches five years of age, the DSM injects a small microchip into the left side of the neck. It remains there for life. All pertinent information is contained in the chip: slave's name, current master's name, mother's name, father's name, date of birth, place of birth, master's name at birth and a complete medical history, including blood type and allergies. Each time there is any change in the information, such as when the slave is sold or becomes injured or ill, the microchip is updated. When a slave reaches puberty, an implant is injected under the skin of the upper left arm. This implant contains a long-lasting contraceptive that keeps the slave sterile. It is replaced semi-annually. When a master decides to breed the slave, the implant is removed. Both males and females receive the implant. This keeps all breeding under the strict control of the masters. All subsequent births are registered with the Department of Slave Management.

Throwing the primer across the room, Jacob slumped back in his chair, covering his face with his hands. God, why did he ever pick up that stupid book in the first place? No more procrastination. He had to do what was best for his family and his descendants. Picking up his pen, his eyes scanned the paper in front of him.

There was no precedent for what he was doing; it was totally unheard of. In fact, his lawyer had to have his assistants search through several law books in order to find the proper wording for the document. He read over the words. So impersonal and precise. But then nothing could accurately describe the magnitude of what he was about to do. With a heavy hand, and an even heavier heart, he signed his name and sealed the deal. As tears flowed down his face, he already mourned the loss of his only daughter, whom he had just now sold into slavery.


Naomi rubbed her swollen belly. It wouldn't be long now. The doctor had told her she was having a boy. Master Eli—even after two years it was still sometimes hard to think of him as Master instead of the childhood honorific of Uncle—had promised her that she could name him. True to his word to her father, he had been very good to her. When Father's attorney had brought her here, contact in hand, she didn't know what to expect. But, when Master Eli gave the lawyer the signed affidavit stating that her father's debt was now paid in full, she knew she was doing the right thing. Father had already sold all but the bare minimum number of slaves necessary to run the family estate to finance the disastrous business deal. If he had sold the estate, after the ships sank, to pay the debt, Mother would have been forced to leave the house she had moved into as a young, new bride. The home where she had lived and raised her four children for almost forty years. And, of course, Father's reputation in the business world would have been irreparably damaged.

It wasn't so bad here. She had her own room in the main house and, because of her upbringing, took over the duties as hostess, whenever there was company, 'Aunt' Agnes having passed away a few years before she arrived. When she wasn't playing hostess she was Master's personal assistant. The brilliant anthropologist was helpless when it came to budgets and doing the books. His wife had always handled that, and since Naomi had been attending business school prior to being sold, it just seemed natural for her to step in and take over the task for him. With the Stoddard children all grown and living in various parts of the country, Master Eli almost seemed to think of her as another daughter and treated her accordingly. All in all, it really wasn't that bad a life. Except that she had loved to travel, she and her mother had done so extensively while she was growing up, and now she couldn't even leave the estate without permission. She now knew how the bird in the gilded cage felt.

Everyone had been shocked when it was discovered she was pregnant. It took a while before someone finally figured out how it happened. As is the custom, whenever company stayed over and there was an unattached male in the party, she was offered to him as a companion for the night. Just as Bradley, the male butler, was offered to any single female guest. She didn't mind. Even though she was just under 20 years old when she first arrived, she hadn't exactly been a blushing virgin. Master Eli's guests were well bred, intelligent and usually entertaining. They always treated her well.

Someone eventually remembered that Naomi was freeborn, meaning she had never received the contraceptive implant. It was just plain luck that the pregnancy hadn't happened sooner. Counting back to the time she would have conceived, it was found to have been during the very busy Christmas season. There had been numerous parties, some University related, some with Eli's wide circle of personal friends and business acquaintances. Many of the guests stayed all night. Even when there weren't parties, people were always dropping by, most staying late and spending the night. Almost everyone brought an extra friend or relative along. Naomi's, Bradley's and many other slaves' services had been used too many times to count or to remember who stayed with any one guest on any one night. In the end it was determined that it would be virtually impossible to figure out who the father could be. Her child would be the first known baby to have Unknown listed as the father on their DSM birth registration.

She was leaning towards Blair for her son's first name. It was her mother's maiden name. Even though slaves weren't usually given second names, his would be Jacob. She knew her family would never publicly acknowledge the child as a Sandburg, but at least this way she could provide her son with a small link connecting him with the grandmother he would never know and the grandfather whose funeral, as a slave, she was not permitted to attend.


23 Years Later, Present Time

Detective Jim Ellison looked around as he and Captain Joel Taggart walked through the Renaissance Market. It was modeled and named after the open-air markets of the renaissance period. He hadn't been here since he and his brother, Stevie, used to come with their father when the elder Ellison was either buying or selling household slaves. The market hadn't changed all that much. There was still the constant flow of people as they headed back and forth from one venue to another, while vendors tried to sell them various wares as they passed by their stands. As a rule, crowds irritated him and he avoided them whenever possible. He reminded himself that he was just here to help Joel; he could ignore anything that wasn't pertinent to their mission.

It looked like the slave traders, the market's main business, were still located at the very back of the sprawling grounds. Between the entrance and the slave areas was a wide mixture of tents, open stalls and booths hawking everything from food to almost any type of goods and entertainment imaginable. Since the market was only open on weekends and many of the vendors rotated their schedules, even those who weren't interested in slaves often came to see what was new, adding to the overall festive air. As they passed one of the food booths, Jim's stomach suddenly growled, reminding him that he had skipped breakfast that morning and it was now just past lunchtime. Walking in the brisk wintry air was only fueling his hunger. Joel apparently had heard it, too, as he laughed.

"How 'bout we stop for lunch on our way back out? I could stand to eat something myself. Think this'll take long?"

Jim shook his head. "It shouldn't. You pretty much already know what you're looking for. Once you settle on a price, it's just a matter of getting the paperwork done."

Now Joel shook his head. "It's kind of ironic when you think about it. Back when the kids were little and we really could have used the help, I couldn't afford a slave, not on a patrolman's salary. Now that they're all grown and living on their own, I'm finally getting around to getting one." He sighed. "But Margaret really loves that big old house and doesn't want to give it up. With her arthritis getting worse though, not to mention all the times she babysits the grandkids, she really needs someone to help her out. Even so, I still had to talk her into it." He looked over at his fellow detective. "That's why I really appreciate you coming with me, Jim. I need someone who is at least familiar with dealing with the traders. They'd see me coming a mile away."

"Well, the fine art of negotiation was one thing my father drilled into me and my brother when we were growing up. Even if I didn't go into any of the family businesses, it did come in handy when I bought the loft and my car. I'm glad to help out."

By now they had reached the slave traders' tents. There were seven tents in all but only five were presently open for business. Each tent was anywhere from 10 to 20 feet long and roughly 10 feet wide. The entire front could be rolled up and tied. During the week, or whenever a tent wasn't being used, this flap was lowered and secured, protecting the interior. That is where the similarities ended.

The tents were all in various degrees of condition. The best one had wooden flooring in it. On top of the floor was a long table with several chairs around it for the slaves on display to sit on. A smaller table in the back of the tent held a large water cooler and several cups. Two heaters, one set at each end of the tent, helped keep the cool weather at bay. A large ceiling fan hung down from the top, its moderately spinning blades keeping the heater-warmed air circulating. The other tents ranged from straw covered flooring to bare earth, all of them with chairs and stools and a bucket of water with either a few mugs nearby or just a ladle sticking out. A few of the tents, mainly the ones with straw covering the floor, had at least one metal fire barrel going, usually with a screen on top to catch any loose sparks. Each tent held from ten to fifteen adult slaves, both male and female. Beside each large tent was a smaller trader's tent, used to complete the transaction with the customer after a slave had been sold. In front of each large tent was either a trader or an assistant who tried to entice passers-by to come over and check out their merchandise.

Jim went directly to the tent with the wooden floor. This was the trader his father always used. Bates' slaves usually sold for more than the other vendors' but his reputation was top-notch and he stood behind every slave he sold. Carleton Bates was the third generation to run the family-owned business, and from the looks of the younger man standing with him, his son was going to be the fourth.

"Mr. Bates?"

The older man turned around to face his prospective customers. "Yes? How can I help you gentlemen today?" He looked back and forth between the two men in front of him, his gaze lingering on Jim with a faintly puzzled expression on his face.

"I'm Detective Ellison with the Cascade PD and this is Captain Taggart. Joel here is looking to buy his first slave. I told him you were the best in the business."

The older slave trader nodded. "Thank you for that recommendation, Detective, but even though you look somewhat familiar, I don't recall our doing any business together. I make it a point to remember all my customers." He looked closer at Jim, his eyes widening in recognition. "Of course. James Ellison. Of the—"

"Yeah." Jim quickly cut him off before he could finish his sentence, hoping none of the other people milling around had heard.

Carleton Bates had been dealing with people long enough to know when to change tactics. "My, you've grown since you were last here. So, how is your father? I haven't seen him in a while so I'll assume that the last couple of slaves I sold to him are working out to his satisfaction."

"He's good. And he's never had a problem with anyone he's bought from you. Which is why I brought my friend here." Jim was relieved to find a way to turn the attention away from himself and back onto Joel.

Realizing that he'd been ignoring his actual customer, Carleton hurried to make amends. But then again, one did not ignore an Ellison either. "Ah, Captain, my apologies for my rudeness. But James' father and I go way back. The last time I saw Detective Ellison, he and his brother were here with their father. But that was many years ago. What can I do for you today?"

Joel wasn't insulted or surprised by the businessman's deferential treatment towards his friend. He was, after all, one of the few people at the station who knew Jim's true background. Besides, he figured that their association would probably work to his advantage during the negotiations.

"Well, I'm looking for a young girl. Preferably one with stamina." His grandkids could wear anybody out.

Even though Carleton never physically moved, he gave the impression of drawing himself up and narrowing his eyes. "A young girl, you say?" Having spent his whole life in the slave business, the seasoned trader knew it wasn't all that unusual for some men, and women, to want to acquire a slave for more prurient reasons. This often happened when people reached middle age. It wasn't illegal, as long as it wasn't a child being bought; after all, masters could do virtually anything they wanted to with their slaves. And while many of the other traders had no problem selling a slave to someone knowing their intent, he had a sterling reputation in the business and had no intention of sullying the Bates' name with such dealings.

Once again Joel found himself explaining his reasons for wanting to purchase his first slave. "When Margaret, my wife, and I first got married I was just out of the Academy. The kids came along faster than we'd intended, and before we knew it we had five of them. As much as we would have loved to have been able to afford a slave or two back then, it just wasn't feasible. When I got promoted to Lieutenant, I was finally able to buy us a bigger house, which also kept our finances rather tight. But by then, the kids were all old enough to pretty much take care of themselves and each other, so we didn't really even consider needing anyone. Now they're all grown and out on their own, with the oldest two having kids of their own and another expecting her first in a few months. My wife loves that house and it is nice to have the extra bedrooms when any of the kids or grandkids stay over for a visit. Unfortunately, Margaret has arthritis in her hands and it's just getting harder and harder for her to do all the things she used to be able to. We talked it over and she finally admitted that she could use some help."

Carleton nodded. "If you don't mind my asking, why a young girl? And the need for stamina?"

"Well, it probably doesn't need to be a 'young' young girl or even a girl at all. It's just that it's a two story house and the washer and dryer are in the basement. She'll have to carry the laundry from the basement to the upstairs bedrooms. Wash all the windows. Move the furniture while cleaning. Do the grocery shopping. Things like that. As for stamina," Joel smiled, "I love my grandkids to death but they're so young and full of energy. It wears a body out just watching them go. She'll have to be able to keep up with them when they visit, which is sometimes for a few days at a time while their parents are on business trips. Do you think you have someone who can handle all that?"

A discreet glance at Jim, who nodded, backing up Joel's story, seemed to be all the confirmation the slave trader needed. He seemed to relax as he called out to his son. "Jonathan. Check the database for everyone under 35, with domestic and nanny experience." The younger Bates nodded and disappeared into the smaller tent. Carleton Bates turned back to his customer.

"Actually, Captain, your situation is fairly common. Although it's not unusual for retired couples to eventually end up here buying their first slave, I can see why, with your wife's arthritis, you both decided to do so now. Believe me, once she gets used to having the slave around, she'll be delighted to have the time to do the things she enjoys doing, especially spending more time with those grandchildren."

The relieved look on Joel's face told Jim that that was exactly what he needed to hear. Mr. Bates certainly knew his business. Which explained why his father only used this trader.

A minute later Jonathan Bates returned and handed his father a sheet of paper. After quickly looking it over, Carleton looked back up.

"I have several who should do nicely. Domestic slaves are the most commonly requested so I always have several in stock. Now I don't have all of these listed here with me today, so if you don't find someone suitable right now, I can call and have some others brought over in no time. Let's go check out the ones who are here, shall we?" He turned and handed the paper back to his son. "The names with an asterisk beside them means that they're here. Have them come forward."

The four men walked over until they were standing directly in front of the center of the large tent. As Jonathan called each of the seven names listed, either a young man or woman separated themselves from the others and came forward until they were standing at the edge of the wooden floor, in front of the men. Joel nodded to Jim. This was one reason he had asked his friend to come with him.

After looking over all of the slaves carefully, Jim sent the two men back. Margaret would probably be more comfortable with a female in the house. He then pointed to one of the remaining women and shook his head. She just looked too frail for the job. When Jonathan waved his hand, she rejoined the others, her face not reflecting any emotion at not having been picked.

Jim addressed the remaining slaves directly. "If you can read, raise your hand." Even though all slaves were taught to read as children, not all owners encouraged them to keep up with it. It wasn't unusual to find grown slaves who could barely read or do more than the most basic math. Only two of the remaining four women raised their hand. The other two were sent back. Jim asked the last two candidates several questions, mainly pertaining to household duties, and asked what they would do in various situations, many involving children. When he finished he turned back to Joel, indicating one slave with a tilt of his head.

"I'd go with this one. She can read and seems more experienced with children than the other one."

Carleton was impressed with the selection process. James may not have been around the slave market for many years, but he certainly remembered the lessons his father had taught him and his brother about how to choose a slave. He had definitely picked the best of the lot. The police captain was nodding his head, apparently agreeing with James' choice. Good. He'd give them a break on the price. The captain might either need another slave later or know someone else who did. Word of mouth was the best advertising there was, and it was free. Plus, if James was now back in Cascade, he would probably need a few household slaves himself.

After a few minutes of almost disappointingly tame negotiations, Mandy had a new master. Carleton sent the young girl back into the larger tent to fetch her bag of belongings while he, Jonathan and Joel entered the smaller tent to finalize the sale and update Mandy's microchip. Having watched his father complete this procedure several times before, Jim opted to wander around a bit until they were ready to leave.

As he passed by the other trader's tents, Jim took note of how the condition of the tent often reflected the condition of the slaves sitting within. None of them, though, looked abused, mainly because physical punishment, while not unheard of, was rarely ever needed nowadays. While none came close to the level of the Bates' tent, the better ones at least had straw on the ground and fire barrels to keep the inhabitants warm. These slaves all looked about average, with a wide range of sizes and ages. The worst tents were nothing but bare dirt. These were the slaves who had been previously overworked or were well past their prime. A few even had physical deformities. Seeing the competition, it was no wonder his father only dealt with Bates.

Jim noticed a crowd gathering at one of the better tents. Curious, he ambled over to see what was going on. As he made his way towards the front of the growing throng of people, he saw that one end of the large tent had been curtained off from the rest. Closer now to the front, he could see that only a thin layer of straw covered the ground in the closed off section and a spike with a circle on top had been pounded into the dirt. A metal chain was attached to the circle and ran about two feet until it reached the object of everyone's attention.

Sitting on the ground was a young man dressed in the typical male slave outfit of a long sleeved, white tunic shirt and white pants. He was sitting Indian style with his hands clasped together in front of his legs, his feet tucked under his legs so they weren't visible. Jim assumed he was also wearing the usual white, canvas slip on shoes worn by both male and female slaves. Even though the metal chain disappeared under one leg, Jim knew it ended in a padded leather cuff that locked around the ankle. Every slave owner was required to have at least one set of these cuffs, but they were usually just left hanging in the basement or garage. This was the first time he had ever actually seen someone wearing one. Because he had his head slightly bowed and his eyes closed, it was hard to determine the slave's age; he looked to be anywhere from late teens to mid twenties. Besides being segregated from the other slaves and chained, there was a large assistant standing just off to the side of the tent, his muscled arms crossed in front of his chest, watching him like a hawk, almost as though daring him to try to run. It struck Jim as overkill. Or showmanship.

The slave's dark, curly hair, which hung more than halfway down his back, was damp and his clothes didn't fit quite right. The sleeves came almost to his fingers and the pants bunched around his feet a bit as if there was too much material. The impression Jim got was that he had just been washed and given the first set of clothes available to put on before being put on display. Except, unlike all the other slaves, he wasn't wearing a jacket and was visibly shivering. Something about the whole situation seemed wrong. It seemed obvious that this slave was being mistreated somehow and Jim wanted to know why.


Ronald Coleman looked over the large crowd of potential customers and smiled to himself. This was going even better than he had hoped. When he first bought the troublesome slave from Albert Decker, he had had cuts and bruises all over and could barely walk from the last whipping. He knew he wouldn't be able to sell him until the boy was more presentable. That meant lost money during the time he had to wait, not to mention feeding and providing for him. A point he used to his advantage to drive the buying price down even more. Decker was so anxious to be rid of him that he was practically willing to give him away. Decker was a fool. As soon as he heard the boy's background, he knew immediately what a rare prize he was. While waiting for the slave to heal enough to sell, he asked around until he had the full story, scarcely believing the goldmine that had fallen into his lap. Let Carleton Bates brag about how high quality all his slaves were, he had something that every slave trader would give his eyeteeth for. And he intended to take full advantage of it. He had discreetly put the word out among Cascade's elite that he had something very special and unique for sale and today was sale day.

Ah, yes. Nothing like something a little different to draw a nice crowd, a mix of the market's usual customers along with his specially invited guests. And having a slave set apart from the others, chained and guarded was certainly different. Not that the boy would be able to run very fast, or very far, even if he could get away. No, the chain and Gus, his assistant, were mainly there to do exactly what they doing, make people very curious about this new slave that had just been brought out at the Coleman tent. He was sure the other traders were fuming as their customers were being lured away to see what was so interesting over here. A few more minutes should do it.


Joel, with Mandy in tow, left the Bates' small tent and looked around for Jim. Spying the crowd gathering in front of one of the other tents, he instinctively knew that that was where Jim would be. He turned and headed in that direction, his newest acquisition dutifully following behind him.


Feeling a tug on his arm, Jim reluctantly pulled his attention away from Coleman's new exhibition and turned to find Joel and Mandy standing beside him.

"What's going on, Jim?"

Even as he answered, Jim felt his eyes being drawn back to the figure huddled on the straw in front of him. "I'm not sure. Coleman just brought this one out. Something about way he's being treated doesn't seem right to me, but I can't figure out why."

As soon as Jim started speaking, the slave in question lifted his head and opened his eyes, staring unerringly right at him. Jim found himself locking gazes with the bluest eyes he'd ever seen. For a few seconds they projected abject pain and misery, and Jim would have sworn they were begging him for help. Then they blinked a few times and closed again as the curly head once again turned downward. Moving his head caused some of the slave's long hair to hang down on both sides of his gaunt face, partially obscuring it. Jim shivered once, his skin felt tingly, as if a surge of electricity had gone through him.

It took a few seconds before Jim could think again, the depth of emotion he had just seen shocked him to his core. Then he heard it. The unmistakable thumping of a heartbeat. But that was impossible. As a Level Three sentinel, he could only hear heartbeats when he concentrated. Except for his family, those he could hear more easily. As a Three, he didn't even rate a guide. So there was no way he should be hearing any heartbeats right now. A small gasp of surprise escaped when he realized that the sound was coming from the curly headed slave. He then became aware of Joel talking to him. He'd forgotten all about his friend.

"Jim? Hey, Jim. You all right?"

Jim nodded, but before he could explain what was happening, Ronald Coleman stepped up onto a wooden platform that had been placed between the small and large tents and started speaking.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I'd like to thank everyone for coming out here today. I'm quite sure you won't be disappointed. I see you've all noticed the latest acquisition to the usual fine line of slaves available through Coleman Traders. As you can see, this slave is being handled much differently than the others. That, ladies and gentlemen, is because what you see before you is something very rare and exotic. Something that hasn't been seen for at least a couple hundred years and will probably never be seen again." He paused as the crowd started to murmur among themselves. When a young, male voice called out, "He don't look so special to me", Coleman just smiled.

"True, he might look ordinary enough, but, young man, looks can be very deceiving. What you're looking at, friends, is the only known slave in existence now, and for the past several generations, whose parents were freeborn citizens."

There was a collective shocked gasp from the crowd. Everyone knew that ever since the 1700's, slaves had been carefully bred only with other slaves to ensure that only the most desirable traits were passed on to the next generation. Every new slave was registered with the DSM. What this trader had just proposed wasn't possible. The same young voice called out again, "That's impossible."

Far from being annoyed at the heckler, this was exactly the reaction Coleman had anticipated. No one would dream of leaving now, not until they heard him out. Then, when the people here today told others about what they had seen and heard—and they would talk, of that he had no doubts—his reputation and business would profit handsomely from the resulting publicity.

"Almost, but not totally impossible. Let me tell you this slave's very unique story. As some of you may recall, about 20 odd years ago, a businessman named Jacob Sandburg found himself in the unenviable position of learning that he was dying while owing a large sum of money to a friend who had backed him in an, unfortunately, failed business venture. With no time left to obtain the funds needed to repay the debt, he was forced to use his last resource. He sold his only daughter, named Naomi, to his friend, Dr. Eli Stoddard, in exchange of the monies owed."

Ronald waited as most of the crowd nodded their heads. Even those who didn't actually remember the incident personally had certainly heard about it. Jacob Sandburg was still being held up as the epitome of the consummate businessman for the sacrifice he made. Even though, right after it became nationally known what he had done, the government immediately passed the strictly enforced Sandburg Law, which made it illegal to sell one's children for any reason. It was feared that other people might be tempted to use Jacob Sandburg's desperate measure as a quick way to get out of a large debt or as a way of obtaining revenue. No other freeborn person had been sold since Naomi.

"Naomi lived in the estate's main house and acted as hostess in place of the late Mrs. Stoddard. She was also, of course, a companion for any overnight guests. Everything went well for about two years, then, unexpectedly, Naomi became pregnant."

This time a female voice called out. "How can a slave get pregnant?"

"Ordinarily they can't, because of the implants. But remember, Naomi was freeborn. She never received the implants, and apparently that little oversight never occurred to anyone. Since it turned out that she had gotten pregnant sometime during the busy Christmas social season, to this day, no one knows for sure which of the Professor's many male guests is the father. The general consensus is that he is probably an intelligent, well-educated academic, since that is the type of person Dr. Stoddard usually associated with, both professionally and personally. So you see, friends, due to a series of chance circumstances that will never be repeated again, a slave was conceived between two originally freeborn citizens."

Ever the showman, Ronald again paused to let the crowd mull over what he had just told them. He'd give them a minute to let the magnitude of the situation sink in before continuing the story.

Joel leaned in closer to Jim. "I remember when Sandburg did that. It was all everyone talked about for weeks."

Jim nodded. "Yeah, me too." Even though he'd just been eleven at the time, he also remembered everyone talking about it. His mother had wondered how the poor girl's mother was handling losing her daughter like that. His father increased his business dealings with Sandburg's company, which, in turn, raised its stock value. He'd heard that when Jacob Sandburg died shortly afterward, his family inherited well.

"So what happened?" Another voice from the crowd broke into Jim's thoughts. He found himself wanting to know, too.

Ronald had to stop himself from pointing to the still growing group and yelling "Gotcha!" He had the crowd right in the palm of his hand. Wanting to rub his hands together with glee, he settled for continuing the unusual tale.

"Well, Naomi gave birth to a baby boy. He was named Blair."

Jim now had a name for the focus of his attention. Blair. Except for the continued shivering, the young man hadn't moved since looking up at him earlier. Even his heartbeat had remained steady. Whoa. Stunned at himself, Jim realized that he had been unconsciously monitoring the slave's heartbeat. Only his desire to hear more of Coleman's story kept Jim from examining this phenomenon more closely.

"Dr. Stoddard allowed Naomi to raise the child herself in the main house. They say he took quite a shine to the boy. With his own children grown and spread out all over, he apparently treated him more like a grandson than a slave. When he was small, he had the run of the house. When he got older, of the whole estate, allowed to come and go as he pleased. Blair, because of his unique parentage, turned out to be quite bright. The professor was delighted to have someone to pass his knowledge onto and so he educated the boy himself. I was told that the two of them would spend hours almost every day in the old man's study, poring over textbooks, artifacts and whatever else the doctor brought in from the University. He even took him off the estate to museums and exhibits. Blair was never sent to a Slave School. But, according to Dr. Stoddard himself, he has the equivalent of at least a college education." Despite the new gasps from his now captive audience, Coleman decided not to pause while telling the story anymore. It was time to wrap this part up and get to the main event. Namely, seeing how much money he could get for the reason he was wearing out his voice.

"Tragically, Dr. Stoddard died about a year ago. His children decided to sell off everything from the estate, including the slaves. Blair was bought by the owner of a large estate in one of the outlying provinces. Unfortunately, having spent his entire life being spoiled and doted on by his mother and the professor, Blair had no real concept of what being a slave actually entailed. He did not adapt well to going from a life of leisure and books to being expected to work. He argued with the Overseers. Tried to tell the estate's managers how to do their jobs. Refused to do his work the way he was told to do it, insisting that his way was better. He even tried to get the other slaves to join him in his malicious behavior. Of course, none of them ever did. The new owner, who has asked to remain anonymous, eventually brought in a special handler to try to break the boy of his disruptive ways. But even now, after almost a year of 'corrective action' and 'behavioral adjustments', he's still only about halfway broken."

The crowd was too shocked to even respond. A willful, disobedient slave was practically unheard of, especially one with ongoing disobedience.

"Now I'm sure many of you are wondering why I would divulge all this negative information about a slave I'm trying to sell. A few reasons. First off, I'm an honest trader. I don't want to sell a slave and then have the buyer come back with any complaints or thinking I was trying to hide something from them." Or file a complaint with the trade board. "Second, I think that with the right master, he can be broken. His last owner just gave up too soon. But keep in mind, given his rarity, even with the extra work involved, he will still make an excellent investment for the shrewd buyer. Once he's been properly broken, just think of the breeding possibilities alone. Not only can he produce valuable new slaves for your own stock, but once word about him gets around, his stud fees will recoup his buying price in no time. Everyone will want at least one offspring from the only slave in existence with pure freeborn blood in his veins. Not to mention the prestige and bragging rights of the lucky person who will eventually be able to claim ownership of this exotic creature. Think about it." He looked out over the largest group ever to be at his tent at one time. "Due to the number of people here, the slave will be auctioned off, rather than sold privately. I'll be back shortly and we'll get started."

"Hey! Whatever happened to Naomi?"

Coleman paused in the act of turning towards the smaller tent. He really needed some water before the bidding wars started. But this was a legitimate question that only added to the already unusual story.

"I'm glad you asked. Naomi's fate makes this story even more intriguing. On the morning she was to be sent to her new owner, Naomi was found dead in her bed. Some say that she died of grief over Dr. Stoddard's passing. Others said she died from a broken heart at being separated from her precious son. But another theory is that she actually took her own life rather than to belong to another master. How and why she died will probably always remain a mystery." He looked down at his watch. It was getting late. "The auction will start in about 15 minutes." This time he managed to make it all the way into his tent.


Despite the growing noise level all around him as people whipped out their cell phones, checking on their accounts and lines of credit, Jim was only aware of one sound. The steady heartbeat he'd been monitoring had suddenly spiked then remained uncomfortably fast while Coleman talked about what had happened to Naomi. Looking closely, he could see that on top of the shivering, the thin shoulders were now also shaking and Blair was blinking rapidly, trying to keep the tears pooling in his eyes from falling.

"Oh my God."

"Jim, what's wrong?" Joel looked around but didn't see anything out of place.

"He didn't know."

"Who? Who didn't know what?"

"Blair. He didn't know what happened to Naomi, to his mother, until just now. He didn't know she was dead."

Joel looked at the slave. He still hadn't moved. "How do you know that?"

"Can't you see it? He's shaking and trying hard not to cry in front of everyone. And his heart rate spiked and is still pounding."

Joel looked closer at the young slave but couldn't tell any difference between how Blair looked now and a few minutes ago. But then, he wasn't a sentinel. "If you say so." He glanced around at the milling crowd. "You plan on staying for the auction?"

"Yeah. I want to make sure he's all right. That he goes to a good person." Jim wasn't aware of Joel's eyebrows rising up in surprise.

Jim's attention had been drawn to a conversation going on about twenty-five feet away. Even though there were several noisy people between him and the two men speaking, he could hear what they were saying as easily as if he were standing right next to them.

"I want that slave. I don't care what it takes, even if I have to outbid every person in Cascade, I want him."

"Don't worry, Mr. Beckworth. I called the bank; they're transferring the funds to your personal account right now. No one should be able to outbid you."

"Good. Now, once he's at the estate, the first thing I want done is to get all that hair cut off. He looks like a damn girl. Then we'll get to work breaking him in properly. No slave of mine is going to get away with that sort of insolent behavior. Find out what the last owner's handler did to discipline him, then double it. I plan on showing him off at the next mill owners' meeting and I expect a perfectly behaved, obedient slave by then."

"I'll take care of everything, Mr. Beckworth."

Beckworth, huh? Jim frowned. No way was that man getting hold of Blair. Not even aware of his growing proprietary feelings towards a slave he had never laid eyes on until twenty minutes ago, the uneasy sentinel settled in to wait for the start of the auction.

True to his word, fifteen minutes after leaving, Ronald Coleman returned, prepared to sell his prize to the highest bidder. The excitement running through the crowd was almost palpable. He stepped back onto the wooden platform and stood behind a podium he had ignored earlier. Banging a gavel a few times, he got everyone's attention.

"All right, ladies and gentlemen, we're ready to start. The starting bid on this truly once-in-a-lifetime investment is twenty-five thousand dollars. Do I hear twenty-five thousand?"

Almost immediately came a cry from the crowd. "25,000."

"I have 25,000. Who'll give me 25,500?"

A different voice this time. "25-5."

"I have 25-5. Do I hear 30,000?"

"30."

And so it went. Gradually, as the price continued to climb, more and more potential buyers dropped out.

"I have 94,500. Do I hear 95?" Coleman looked at the last person left bidding against Charles Beckworth. When the man shook his head, it looked like Beckworth's would be the winning bid. He banged his gavel. "94,500 going once." He paused and hit the small wooden hammer again. "Going twice—"

"One hundred thousand dollars."

The new voice submitting his first bid had every pair of eyes present turning towards him. Four pair in particular. Joel's, wide with surprise. Coleman's, bright with anticipation. Blair's, with just a hint of hope. And Beckworth's, dark with annoyance. Beckworth found his voice first.

"Look here, sir. Before we get into a bidding war that you can't possibly win, and which will only drive the price up even higher, do you have any idea who I am? I am Charles Beckworth of Beckworth Mills. I own several lumberyards, including the largest in the state. I can stand here and outbid you all afternoon; but why put both of us through that? Why don't you just withdraw your bid now and we can all get on with this?"

Jim would have liked nothing more than to smack the arrogant look off the short, squat man's face but he had a much better way to take him down a couple of notches. "I've heard of you and your mills, Mr. Beckworth. My family has purchased a great deal of lumber from you for both personal and business reasons."

"Oh?" Beckworth's eyes narrowed. Was this man a legitimate customer, or was he just bluffing, thinking he'd back down if he thought so? "I'm afraid I didn't catch the name."

"Then allow me to introduce myself. I'm James Ellison..." Jim drew himself up to his full height, which was several inches taller than his competition. "... First Heir to the House of Ellison."

Beckworth visibly blanched. The crowd gasped as one, including Joel. But the police captain was shocked for a different reason. If Jim was willing to reveal his House status, something he never thought he'd see the detective do voluntarily, then his friend was deadly serious about buying this slave. Beckworth didn't stand a chance.

But Charles Beckworth didn't get to be where he was today by giving up easily. He tried one, last desperate gambit. "I've dealt with William Ellison and his son, Steven, many times. I've never seen you before."

Jim just smiled. "I've been out of the country for several years." The smile turned almost predatory as he leaned over his opposition. "But now I'm back." If people took that to mean that he was probably overseeing Ellison Industries' many overseas businesses, instead of serving in the military as he had been before joining the police department, well, that was their mistake.

Ronald Coleman was almost beside himself. At first annoyed at the interruption of his auction, he now almost had to pinch himself to believe this new turn of events. Never did he dream that he might sell the slave to a member of the House of Ellison. And not just any member but the mysterious First Heir! As he had expected, none of the Ellison's had shown up today, even though he had sent them an invitation to his special auction. Wait until Carleton Bates heard about this. He was always pointing out that he was the exclusive slave trader to the House of Ellison. Ha! Not anymore. But first he had to actually finalize the sale. He banged the gavel a few times.

"Gentlemen. If you please. The last bid is for 100,000 from Mr. Ellison. Do I hear a counter bid?"

After looking longingly at his missed opportunity, then at Jim, Beckworth sadly shook his head. The House of Ellison could buy and sell him several times over. He'd never win a bidding war, plus it was just plain foolhardy to possibly make an enemy of an Ellison.

The gavel came down again. "Going once for 100,000." Bang. "Going twice." Bang. "Sold to James Ellison, First Heir of the House of Ellison, for one hundred thousand dollars. Congratulations, sir, on a fine purchase. If you'll come with me, we can conclude our business in my tent." Coleman looked over at his assistant, Gus, and spoke in a low voice. "Make sure the slave is ready to go by the time we come out." He turned once again to the crowd. "This concludes today's special auction. Thank you all for coming. Please feel free to look over the other fine slaves that are still available for sale. My assistant will be here to answer any questions you may have." Seeing that Gus was already preparing Blair, he stepped down from the platform and ushered Jim into the smaller tent.

Just before entering the tent, Jim looked over and saw that Blair was now standing, the ankle cuff removed and tossed somewhere in the straw. He swayed slightly until the assistant roughly grabbed his arm and held him steady.

The slave's new owner's eyes narrowed at the unnecessarily rough treatment but knowing that Joel would watch out for him until he returned, he followed Coleman into the dealer's tent.

Joel approached the front of the larger tent, stopping in front of Blair and Gus. He spoke to Coleman's assistant. "I'm with James Ellison. Blair can stay with me until he's finished." He turned to the smaller man. He looked pale and shaky. "You okay, Blair?"

Blair swallowed and nodded. Almost immediately, Gus tightened his grip on the upper arm he was still holding and used his free hand to grab Blair's hair, pulling his head back. He ignored the cry of pain as he growled, "When your master, or any citizen, speaks to you, you answer properly. You hear me, slave?"

Before Blair could respond or Joel could react, Gus was knocked away and found his neck gripped by what felt like an iron band. The band turned out to be James Ellison's hand. Looking up, he found himself staring into a pair of the coldest eyes he had ever seen.

"How dare you touch my slave like that? You were told to get him ready for me, nothing else." The hand tightened slightly. "If you ever come near him again, I will..." Jim appeared to be thinking, then smiled a malicious smile. "... I'll have your credit rating reduced to zero. And you know I can do that." The look of horror on the other man's face was enough to satisfy his initial rage at hearing Blair cry out. Loosening his grip, Jim gave the thoroughly chastised man a shove backwards, not caring as he stumbled a few steps before regaining his balance. His only concern now was for the young man standing beside him, the long hair hiding the face of the bowed head.

"Did he hurt you?"

Blair looked up and started to shake his head then stopped and answered softly. "No, Master."

On hearing Blair's voice for the first time, Jim felt something uncoil deep within him. He shuddered briefly at the strange feeling then ignored it as he glanced over at Joel who nodded, agreeing with Blair's assessment of his condition. "Okay. You stay here with Joel and Mandy until I get back." He glared over at Gus who was standing well away, still rubbing his throat. "He won't come near you again." Turning to Joel, he asked, "You mind keeping an eye on him for a few more minutes? I'm almost finished with Coleman, then we can leave."

"No problem, Jim. Go finish up, we'll be fine. Just hurry. We were supposed to have gotten lunch right after I finished, remember?"

Jim grinned at his obviously hungry friend. "I remember. Shouldn't be more than a few more minutes." With a last look at Blair, he re-entered the tent to conclude his business with the trader.

"So, Blair, do you have everything?" Joel had noticed that Mandy carried a large cloth bag slung across one shoulder to the opposite hip.

"Um." Blair looked towards the back of the area where he had been sitting. A dark colored, well-worn, nylon backpack was barely visible in the dirty straw.

"Mandy, please go get Blair's bag and bring it here."

The girl quickly fetched the pack. She eyed the backpack as she handed it to Blair. "This is real nice. Most of us only gots this kind of bag." She held out her own cloth bag to show him, frowning when she didn't get a response.

A frown also creased Joel's face as he watched Blair arch his back slightly and wince when he placed one strap of his pack over his shoulder and carefully settled the bag on his back. He made a mental note to mention it to Jim later.

A few minutes later Jim joined them, glad to see that everyone looked ready to leave. Jim and Joel turned and headed back towards the main market area, with Blair and Mandy falling in behind them. The remaining crowd of people moved back as they passed.

"You know, Jim, everything that happened here today is going to be all over Cascade in no time. You've pretty much outed yourself as the First Heir of your House. What on earth ever possessed you to do that?" The middle-aged police captain was well aware that the younger detective tried very hard to maintain a low profile. Only a select few knew that he was the eldest son of William Ellison. The William Ellison, Elder of the House of Ellison, CEO of the worldwide Ellison Industries, one of the founding members of the Board of Western States and Chairman of the elite Northwest Sector Counsel. As one of the premier Houses in the country, there wasn't a group, club or organization in the whole Northwest Sector, and especially in the state of Washington, that the Ellisons weren't involved in somehow. And now Jim had just made his title and position public knowledge.

"I heard what Beckworth had planned for Blair. He said he was determined to break him. He was going to double the discipline measures of his last owner's handler so he could show him off at some kind of meeting. You know what that would mean. I just couldn't let that happen to him."

"So you bought him yourself?"

"Yeah. I don't know why, but it just felt... right."

"So, now that you have him, what are you going to do with him?"

Jim threw a half glance over his shoulder as he walked, then shrugged. "Hell if I know. This was the last thing I was expecting to do today."


When the group reached the food vendors, they stopped. Jim and Joel looked around.

"Anything in particular you in the mood for?"

Joel led the way over to a stall selling large turkey drumsticks. They were a market specialty. "I could go for one of these right now. Sound good to you, Jim?"

Jim sniffed. Something didn't smell quite right. "Yeah, but not here." He sniffed again. "Something doesn't smell right. Let's try that one over there." He turned and headed for another turkey leg vendor across the way. Sniffing again, he smiled. "Yeah. Definitely better."

Joel shrugged. He couldn't tell any difference but it didn't matter to him where they ate, just as long as they did so soon. Settling the two slaves under a nearby tree, the two new owners went to buy them all food. After placing the food-laden trays on the picnic table located beside the tree, Jim and Joel each brought their respective slave a plate containing a large turkey leg and a roll and something to drink. Jim noticed that Blair was sitting a little ways away from Mandy. He was also sitting up very straight and stiff, whereas Mandy was loose and relaxed. She took her food from Joel and started right in. Blair, on the other hand, looked almost shocked when Jim tried to hand him the disposable plate and cup. He made no move to take them. Jim held them out closer to him.

"Here, take this. It tastes better hot."

Blair just looked at him. "For me, Master?"

"Of course for you. Did you think we were going to eat and not get you anything?"

The stunned look on the slave's face said that that was exactly what he'd expected.

Jim frowned. He'd have to find out just how badly Blair had been treated by his last master. The poor kid actually expected not to be fed. "Now, Blair. I'd like to eat my lunch, too."

Slowly two sleeve-covered hands reached up and took the offered food and drink. "Thank you, Master."

As Jim ate, he occasionally glanced over at Blair. The quiet young man sat slightly hunched over as he ate and continuously looked around, as if he expected someone to try to take his food away. He ate every scrap on his plate and Jim was sure he could have easily eaten another plateful as well.

A short time later, while Jim and Joel talked as they finished their drinks, Mandy's whining voice interrupted their conversation.

"Master. Blair won't talk to me."

Joel turned to answer. "Well, maybe he doesn't feel like talking right now."

"But slaves always talk to each other."

"I'm not allowed." The soft voice sounded sad.

"Why not, Blair?"

Dark blue eyes looked downward. "I've been shunned."

"Shunned!" Mandy practically squealed as she scooted further away from her fellow slave. She looked up at her new owner. "Master. I swear. I didn' know. I wouldn't a talked to him if I'd a known." Talking to a shunned slave was a punishable offense.

"It's all right, Mandy. I know you didn't. We didn't know, either."

Jim was confused. Usually only a master could shun a slave. Coleman had indicated to him that Blair had been with him for at least a short while before being auctioned off today. As a trader he was only considered to be the temporary owner, not the master, of his slaves. That title would be for the person who bought them from him, who would then be the slave's owner and master. So just how long had Blair not been allowed any contact with anyone else? A friend's father once had to shun a disruptive slave. By the end of the weeklong shunning, the large man was almost in tears from the lack of companionship with the other slaves.

"Blair. How long have you been shunned?"

Blair's brow furrowed in concentration as he mentally calculated the time since the shunning was initiated. "About... nine months."

"Nine months!" That was beyond cruel. "Why so long?"

Blair felt very uncomfortable talking about where he had been living prior to today's auction. But a direct question had been asked, and as a slave he had no choice but to answer. He kept his eyes on his now clasped hands and his voice soft. "Mr. Shaw said that I was a bad influence on the other slaves. That part of his job was to make sure that I didn't try to spread my willfulness to anyone else. He said that since I was refusing to learn my place and kept trying to cause trouble, he was going to make sure that the only creatures I had to talk to were the horses. He told Master Decker that part of my 'retraining' should be to have me shunned until he thought I was 'cured' and for me to live in the barn, away from everyone else. After I left Master Decker's, Mr. Coleman decided to keep the shunning in effect, saying I wouldn't be given the chance to corrupt any of his stock." Blair hung his head low, looking worried that his new master would now regret buying such a troublesome slave. As soon as he had laid eyes on the larger man, without even knowing why, he had prayed to every deity he knew about that this man would be the person who would buy him.

With a slight start, Jim realized that this was the first time Blair had said more than three words at a time. A few things struck him right away. One, that Blair could obviously talk when he wanted to, and could talk well. He didn't use the usual bad grammar associated with slaves; in fact he came across as Coleman had said, intelligent and well educated. Second, was that this Mr. Shaw, whom he assumed to be the 'handler' Coleman had mentioned, was a cruel man and Blair's retraining, as he called it, probably involved a lot more than just being separated from the other slaves. He'd have to check into that later because he definitely didn't like what he was hearing so far.

"It's all right, Blair. I don't care what this Mr. Shaw or anyone else thought; I don't work like that. As of right now, consider your shunning over. Permanently."

The relief and gratitude in the young slave's face and voice was almost heartbreaking to witness. "Thank you, Master."

Jim stood up. "Okay. If everybody's done, let's get going."

After throwing their trash away, the four headed across the open grounds for the entrance and the parking lot just beyond. They were crossing the parking lot, nearing the spot where Joel had parked his sedan, when Mandy's voice called out.

"Master. Blair's not stayin' with us."

Jim whirled around, not believing that Blair would try to run. Not only was Blair not running, he could barely walk. Trailing several feet behind the rest of them, he was limping badly but obviously trying to keep up. He was also biting his lower lip, his white face a mask of pain.

Of the three of them, Jim reached him first. "What's wrong, Blair?"

"N-nothing, M-Master. I'mmm all r-right." The heavy breathing and hitch in his voice belied his words.

Leaning the hurting slave against the nearest car, Jim tilted the trembling chin up until they were looking directly at each other. "Blair, don't lie to me. Don't ever lie to me. Now, what's the matter?"

"S-sorry, Master. It-it hurts."

"What hurts?"

Lifting his right leg slightly, Blair leaned forward, not even seeming to notice when his backpack slid off his shoulder and onto the ground. Grabbing the baggy pant leg just above the ankle, he pulled it up.

"Good God."

"Ewww."

"What the hell?"

Encircling Blair's ankle was a bloody, oozing red ring. It hadn't been a padded cuff around his ankle earlier but a metal manacle. And from the looks of it, today wasn't the first time he'd been wearing it. That explained the baggy pants. It hid his ankle from the crowd, and from him, until now.

"Jesus, Blair. Who did that to you?"

Blair slowly let the pant leg fall back down again but he kept his weight off his leg as he straightened back up. He once again dropped his eyes before speaking. "M-Mr. Shaw did it. It was to make sure I couldn't leave the barn. I was chained up near the back. I could tend the horses and get into the tack room but the chain didn't reach all the way to the barn doors. Then Mr. Coleman thought it'd be a good idea to keep it on until I was sold. Gus took it off and hid it under the straw as soon as you won the auction."

Before Jim could respond, Joel leaned in close. "Check his back. I think there's something wrong there, too. It looked like it hurt when he put his backpack on earlier."

Jim nodded. "Turn around, Blair. I need to check out your back."

Reluctantly, Blair slowly hopped around on his left leg until he was leaning against the car's driver's side window, his back facing outward. He tilted his head down, his hair hiding his face. He didn't move as his new master moved the long strands out of the way then lifted up his shirt.

Neither Jim nor Joel said a word at first as they stared at the numerous thin lines that criss-crossed the entire bare back, starting from the shoulders on downward. Some looked fairly old, already fading to white. Others, however, were a lot more recent. These were still red, some inflamed, many with bruises surrounding them. The normally even-tempered, forgiving Joel found his voice first.

"Dammit, Jim. I don't care what they say he did. Nobody deserves to be treated like this. I'm ready to go back there right now and arrest Coleman, then this Shaw guy and that idiot Decker who hired him, on assault charges."

Jim slowly lowered the shirt, covering up the evidence of brutality. "I wish we could, Joel, but it wouldn't do any good. We both know that the charges won't stick. It isn't against the law to discipline a slave. Even to this extent. Now I know why Coleman kept repeating that I needed to understand that the slave had to be controlled and that the contract states that he was being sold 'As Is'. The important thing right now is to get him to a doctor and get him totally checked out. There's no telling what else they did to him in the name of 'discipline'." He helped Blair turn back around. Deliberately gentling his voice, he asked, "Is there anything else I should know about?" Everyone watched as Blair hesitated then raised his bent arms so that the extra long sleeves fell to his elbows. Both arms were bruised but even worse, both wrists were extremely red and raw.

"He tied my wrists to the stall wall whenever he whipped me."


Jim sat with Blair in the small but well-appointed exam room. Blair had already changed into the usual open-backed exam gown and was sitting lengthwise on the small, padded exam table, keeping the injured leg stretched out in front of him. A nurse had already done an initial assessment of his injuries. A short time after that a tech had scanned his microchip, drawn blood and taken his vital signs then assured them that the doctor would be with them very soon. Knowing that his mother's charitable organization, The Grace Ellison Foundation, was a major contributor to the small, private clinic, a quick phone call to tell them that they were coming had smoothed the check-in procedure immensely. Normally Jim hated using his family's name like that, but by the time they'd helped him to Joel's car, Blair couldn't even walk and Jim had felt a low-grade fever that was starting to rise. He could also smell the infection. No way was Blair going to sit around waiting until all the citizens were seen first before being treated. If a little name dropping got his slave seen right away, so be it. Besides, as Joel had already pointed out earlier, he was pretty much outed now anyway, might as well take advantage of it. Not to mention he didn't want Joel to have sit out in the waiting room any longer than necessary, waiting to drive them home when they finished here.

A few minutes later the doctor came in. He looked young, which was probably why he was working the weekend shift, but the clinic had a reputation of hiring good doctors so Jim decided withhold judgment for now.

The doctor began donning a pair of gloves as he started speaking. "Good afternoon, Mr. Ellison. I'm Dr. Morrison. I was just speaking with the nurse and she says that among other things we have a badly infected ankle here. Let's have a look, shall we?" Turning to Blair, he addressed him as he would a child. "Now, Blair, I'm a doctor and I'm going look at and touch your sore leg. It might hurt a bit but I'll try to be as quick as I can, okay?"

Blair glanced over at Jim who nodded, indicating that it was all right for him to speak directly to the doctor.

"I think it's going to hurt a lot. I've been examining it myself while we were waiting. It looks like the infection is spreading. I'm guessing I'll probably need some antibiotics. But, you're the doctor."

The look of shock on the doctor's face was priceless. Jim started smirking then tried to cover it by pretending he was coughing. Even in pain, Blair apparently didn't like being talked down to. Dr. Morrison finally managed to regain his composure.

"Not exactly your typical slave, is he?"

Since that seemed to be a rhetorical question, Jim decided it didn't require an answer. He was pleased to see that the doctor was doing a thorough exam of Blair's ankle and not holding the previous comments against him. A few times he heard Blair gasp slightly but he knew there was no way to examine the wound without causing some pain. Finally Dr. Morrison straightened back up.

"Blair's assessment was pretty accurate. If it had gone untreated much longer it could have gotten really ugly. After we treat it here today, it'll still need to be cleaned daily, some antibiotic ointment put on it and kept wrapped. Now, let's see the rest of it. Blair, hold out your wrists, please." The doctor looked over each wrist thoroughly. "These are different. They look more like bad rope burns." He looked up at Blair who just nodded, his former bravado now gone. "Okay, same thing as the ankle. Keep them clean and wrapped. They should heal up just fine." He paused for a second. "I need to exam your back now. I'm going to uncover you from the waist up." Walking around to the side of the small exam table, he stood just behind Blair and reached up, untying the bow at his neck. As the gown dropped down, Blair pulled his arms out, so all the material was pooled around his waist. He shivered slightly as the cool air hit his torso.

Once again the bruises, in various sizes and stages of healing, that covered Blair's chest, abdomen and sides, were revealed. Jim had gotten his first full look at them when Blair changed into the gown. They, along with his other injuries, gave silent testimony to the abuse the young slave had been subjected to at the hands of his handler. Coleman had told Jim that Shaw actually made his living breaking wild horses for ranchers but had agreed to try his methods to 'break' the unruly slave. While the prolonged isolation and ongoing physical and mental torment had succeeded in making Blair frightened and subdued, his intelligence and education couldn't be beaten out of him. His comments to the doctor showed that there was a somewhat offbeat sense of humor still hiding in there, too. Jim was sure that the 'old' Blair, the way he must have been when he lived with Dr. Stoddard, was still in there somewhere and he wanted to find and draw out that person out. A sharp hiss coming from Blair jerked Jim out of his musings.

Blair was sitting rigidly upright, his back slightly arched, the gown around his waist tightly grasped in two white knuckled fists. It was a thin-lipped doctor who gently patted him on the shoulder. "It's okay, Blair, I'm finished." He turned to Jim. "Some of the newer whip marks are fairly deep. They'll need to be opened, cleaned, then stitched closed to prevent scaring. I'm going to prescribe a fairly strong antibiotic that should take care of all the infections. I can also give you enough ointment and dressings to last until his next follow-up appointment, which should be in about two weeks."

The doctor walked back to the foot of the exam table, shaking his head. "I've never seen anything like this before. We get slaves in here who are sick or have had an accident, but this is deliberate, ongoing abuse. I understand that you just bought him today. If you like, I can give you copies of my report that you can take with you to use as a legitimate basis to return him. I can't believe someone would even try to sell a slave in this condition."

As soon as the doctor mentioned returning him to Coleman, Blair's heart rate jumped.

Jim stood up. "Yes, I would like a complete report on Blair's condition today."

There was a small gasp from the exam table that only Jim heard, as well as an increase in the already too rapid heartbeat. "But I'm not returning him. I'm keeping him."

Jim heard the soft sigh of relief from Blair when he realized he wasn't going to be returned. He glanced at Blair and saw the tensed muscles begin to relax as he was reassured that he was safe.

Although Jim was pleased to hear Blair's heart rate begin to slow down, he continued talking to the doctor. "Unfortunately, I can't do anything to the people who actually did this. What I can do though, is file an official grievance with the Slave Traders Association. Coleman sold a slave whose physical condition he deliberately kept hidden. Even selling him As Is doesn't cover him when he never gave the prospective buyers a chance to find out anything about Blair's physical condition beforehand. Hopefully, going after him will make other traders think twice about buying or selling an abused slave. So, I'll need your report to be as detailed as possible."

Dr. Morrison tapped his index finger against his upper lip. "In addition to the main injuries, he has substantial bruising from the neck down and is running a slight fever. And even though he couldn't stand on a scale, he is obviously malnourished. Since you are going to keep him, one of the best things you can do to speed his recovery will be to see that he eats regularly and gains some weight. I'll treat his injuries first and then, while he's getting dressed, I'll get that report for you and we'll update his chip."

Thirty minutes, later a stitched, bandaged and dressed Blair sat on the exam table. Jim had insisted that a topical analgesic be applied to the wounds before any treatment was given. The look of gratitude on the younger man's face when the request had been voiced had been almost heartbreaking to both Jim and the nurse. The doctor had also given his patient an oral painkiller, telling Jim it was stronger and would last longer than the one applied to the injuries. As a result, Blair was looking much calmer than when they first got to the clinic. While waiting for the doctor to return with the paperwork, the detective was leafing through a year old magazine he had found in the room.

"Master?"

Jim looked up. "Yes, Blair?"

"Thank you."

"For what?"

"For not returning me to Mr. Coleman when you found out how much trouble I'm going to be. It would have been bad enough going back to him but I was afraid that then Mr. Coleman would send me back to Master Decker and... and Mr. Shaw. I don't think I could have stood going back there."

Jim got up and walked over until he was standing beside the table. "Blair, you're with me now. If I didn't want you, I wouldn't have bought you. And changing a few bandages is no trouble. I've done it before. Everything's going to be all right. Okay?"

"Yes, Master." It was small and tenuous but it was the first hint of a smile Jim had seen on the young man and it made him feel good knowing his words had put it there. He decided he wanted to see it more often.


Jim opened the front door and ushered Blair into his new home. For someone with Jim's background, most people might have thought that the dwelling was small and rather barren. But this place fit even a low level sentinel perfectly. As soon as he had seen the open, spacious design, the view from the third floor balcony and especially the upstairs loft within the apartment, from which he could survey his entire domain, he had immediately felt comfortable. The other places he had looked at might have been bigger and had more luxuries, but none seemed to feel as right as this one. This place also fit better with his trying to maintain a low profile with his follow police officers. No one questioned how he could afford to live here on a detective's salary. Of course only a select few knew that he had actually bought the entire building. He kept the same building manager but at least this way he had some control over any new tenants and, if he later decided to expand the loft into the apartment next door, there wouldn't be any problems.

He watched as Blair slowly made his way inside. With his ankle treated and wrapped, not to mention a healthy dose of painkillers, the earlier limp was less pronounced and the pinched look had left his face. Blair walked a few feet past the door then stopped, his eyes darting around. Even though it shouldn't matter, Jim wanted Blair to approve of the place.

It took Jim a minute to realize that Blair hadn't stopped just to check out the place, but because he didn't know where to go. He was waiting to be told what to do. Coming up beside the still slave, Jim reached up and tugged on the strap of his backpack.

"Here. Give me that."

For a second Blair stiffened, his hand grabbing the strap he was holding even more tightly. Then he slowly released it and took off the bag, silently handing it over to his new master.

Jim deliberately kept his voice soft. "Blair." He made sure he had the smaller man's attention. "I'm not taking it away from you. I'm just putting it over here, out of the way." So saying, he walked over to where a rack of metal hooks was attached to the wall, beside the front door. Another of Jim's jackets was hanging on one hook and a pair of well-worn boots sat on the floor underneath. He carefully placed the backpack on the floor near the boots and started removing the jacket he was wearing. "It's yours, Blair, you can get it any time you want. I'm just putting it here for now." After hanging up his coat, he returned to where the younger man was still standing, both of them now facing into the loft again.

"Okay. I can pretty much give you the whole tour from here." He jerked his thumb towards their right. "That's the kitchen. Straight down that hallway is the bathroom. That big table is considered the dining room and we're practically standing in the living room here on the left. Upstairs is my bedroom. Oh, and through those big windows over there is the balcony. It has a nice view of the bay."

Placing his hand on Blair's shoulder, he urged him further into the room. "Feel free to look around. I'm going to use the bathroom, then I think some dinner would be a good idea." He was taking Dr. Morrison's words to heart about putting some weight back onto Blair's too thin frame.

When Jim returned to the living room, Blair was nowhere to be seen.

"Blair?"

The curly head popped up from inside the refrigerator. He'd been hidden by the kitchen island. "In here, Master."

"What are you doing in there?"

The young slave looked confused. "You said you wanted dinner. I was trying to find..." He waved his hand around.

It was hard not to look annoyed. It would be logical for a slave to assume that he was expected to make the meal.

"Not tonight, Chief. Tomorrow we'll sit down and figure out what your duties here will be. Besides..." Jim grinned, "... I think you'll find it pretty hard to find enough food in there to make a decent dinner. I don't eat here much. Usually I'll grab a donut and coffee on the way to work then have WonderBurger for lunch. If I'm going to be here at night, I'll either pick up something on the way home or order in. Although, since you're going to be living here now, I guess I'll have to start buying more real food."

"Donuts, fast food and delivery? Do you have any idea how unhealthy that is? It's all fat and cholesterol and—" Blair's eyes widened as he obviously realized what he was saying. He immediately hung his head. "I'm sorry, Master. It's not my place to comment on your choice of food. I await your punishment."

Jim sighed. Although technically he was right, it wasn't a slave's place to comment on what the master ate, he didn't want that type of relationship with Blair. "Blair, you're not going to be punished just for having an opinion. I want you to speak up if you feel something is important. For right now, though, I want you to follow doctor's orders and take it easy with your ankle. Go sit on the couch."

The limp, though definitely better now, was still there. As were the dark circles standing out against a too pale complexion. The poor kid's exhausted. Remembering the way he guarded his food at lunch, Jim mentally added, probably hungry too. He frowned at the way Blair sat on the edge of the sofa cushion. Something wasn't right. Ignoring the weak protests, Jim set about rearranging the smaller man's position. He sat him up lengthwise on the long couch, placing a sofa pillow under the injured ankle. Stepping back, he looked down. Better, but not good enough. He added another pillow behind the still tender back and covered the now compliant man with the afghan from the back of the couch. This time he smiled as he checked out his handiwork. Much better.

"Okay, now we need food. Any preferences? I've got menus from practically every place in Cascade that delivers. I usually go for pizza or Chinese myself."

When he didn't get an answer, Jim looked down at the uncomprehending face looking back at him. He felt like slapping himself. As if slaves ever ordered out for themselves or were invited to join in when their owners did. From what he'd been able to put together so far, he doubted if Blair even got enough regular food in the last year, never mind any delivery food. "Don't worry about it, Chief. I'll take care of it."

Chief? Blair mused over the new name. At Master Eli's he had never been called by anything other than his given name. For the past nine months he had rarely heard his own name but names he had been called he didn't care to remember. 'Chief' implied someone of a higher rank. Was Master making fun of him? But he hadn't sounded sarcastic when he said it.

Crossing over to the kitchen, Jim opened the drawer where he kept his stash of delivery menus, missing Blair's puzzled expression. He decided to go with what would be easiest. Remembering Blair's earlier comments about unhealthy food, he called out, "I'll bet you like vegetables, right?" Getting an affirmative nod, he smiled as he reached for the phone.

When he returned to the living room, Jim sat on the other, smaller couch and reached for the TV remote on the coffee table. "I ordered a large pizza, half veggie and half meat combo. I got a large bottle of soda, too. They promised delivery in 45 minutes." Turning on the TV, he slowly flipped through the channels while keeping a close eye on the other man. When the Discovery channel came on with a documentary about ancient civilizations, he watched as Blair sat up just a bit straighter and his pupils dilated. Placing the remote down, he leaned back. "This looks interesting." Not something he would normally pick to watch but he wanted Blair to relax and, hopefully, start to feel at home here. Forty minutes later Jim lifted up his head and sniffed. "Pizza's here." He looked down at his watch. "And on time, too."

Immediately Blair pulled the blanket back and started to get up.

"Whoa, Chief. Where do you think you're going?"

Blair looked at him as if the answer should be obvious. "To get the door."

Jim waved him back down. "Just stay put. I'll get it. I have to pay the guy anyway."

A minute later, just as there was a knock on the door, Blair spoke up again. "Master?"

As Jim stood and pulled out his wallet, he answered. "Yes, Blair?"

"May I please use your bathroom?"

"Blair, you don't have to ask. Use it whenever you want. Need some help getting up?" Ignoring the second knock, he helped Blair get up and made sure he was walking steadily before answering the door himself.

By the time Blair returned there was a plate with a large slice of pizza, a paper napkin and a glass of soda on the coffee table next to where he'd been sitting, along with the two vials of pills they had gotten at the clinic. Knowing better than to protest, he stayed silent as Jim helped him back into his nest on the couch.

Jim watched in amusement as Blair picked up his plate and stared at the triangle of food sitting on it. "Ever eat pizza before?"

Blair shook his head. "I know what it is, I've seen it before, but I've never eaten it myself. My-my mother is... was... really into eating healthy. She mainly had us eat organic or at least all-natural food. It drove Daisy, the cook, crazy." Cautiously he picked up the odd shaped food, trying to mimic the way Jim was easily eating his piece. After almost dropping it once, he finally managed to take a bite. Eyes widening at the new tastes, he turned to Jim. "It's very good, Master. Thank you for allowing me to have some."

"I'm glad you're enjoying it." It was hard not to sigh again. What did Blair think? That he was going to eat pizza in front of him and give him what? A bowl of gruel? Or even worse, nothing?

Just as with lunch at the Market, that was probably exactly what he was thinking. Whatever had been done to Blair during the past year had led him to expect to be habitually treated badly and to be severely punished for any small transgression. And apparently not given nearly enough to eat. But how could anyone do that to him? Something about Blair was different; something called out to Jim that this person must be taken care of and protected at all times. This feeling was much stronger than the usual Master/Slave relationship. Ever since he could remember, his family had had a house slave named Sally. She practically raised him and his brother. When he was around twelve his mother had mentioned selling her and getting a younger person. Both he and Stevie had cried and begged until she relented and just bought another slave to help Sally. He hadn't felt this way towards a slave since then. And even back then he hadn't felt the need to look out for and care for Sally like he did for Blair, a slave he barely knew. Something niggled at the back of his mind but he couldn't quite grasp it. Looking over, he saw that Blair had almost finished his slice of pizza.

"When you finish that, you need to take your antibiotic. Then you can have some more. I want you to eat as much of your half as you can. And drink your soda too, you need to stay hydrated."

"Yes, Master."

A short time later, after the pizza was eaten and the remnants cleared away, Jim sat up and stretched. He'd been up early, running errands, before Joel had picked him up to go to the Renaissance Market with him. That outing had obviously ended up taking a lot longer than originally planned. Then the unexpected trip to the clinic on top of that made for one long, tiring day. He looked over at Blair. There was no telling what he had been through even before the auction. The day's events were showing on him even more. Even though he was trying hard not to show it, the younger man could barely keep his eyes open.

"Why don't we call it a day, Chief? I, uh, don't have any place ready for you to sleep tonight so why don't you just camp out here and we'll see what we can do to get you fixed up tomorrow. I guess we'll go grocery shopping tomorrow, too."

"Yes, Master. And thank you."

Jim looked puzzled. "For what?"

"For the food and for allowing me to sleep on your couch."

"Blair, it's my responsibility to feed you, and no, it won't be pizza every night. And where else would you sleep?"

"The floor."

It was the matter of fact way it was said that got to Jim. "There'll be no sleeping on the floor. You'll sleep there until I figure something else out. I'm going to get some sheets and fix up the couch then head upstairs. I'll give you one of my T-shirts to wear tonight, too. It should be loose enough not to get twisted around on your back when you're sleeping. If you want anything else tonight, just help yourself."

"Yes, Master."


Jim wasn't sure what had woken him up. Then he heard a noise coming from downstairs. Someone was in the loft. Pulling his service piece from under the other pillow, he slowly got out of bed and made his way to the stairs, quietly going down the first two. The dimly lit area below seemed to gradually get brighter until he could easily see the whole living room. Another small noise drew his attention to the large sofa. From his high perch he could make out the form curled up on the cushions. Blair. Relaxing as memory returned, he stiffened again when he realized what he was hearing. Blair was crying into a pillow. Jim froze, not sure what to do. Was he unhappy about being here with him? Was he in pain? Just as he decided to go down and find out what was wrong, he heard a softly sobbed, "Mama."

That stopped him. Blair had just found out that afternoon that his mother was dead. That she had been dead for a year now. And he found out while on display in front of a group of strangers, chained to the ground, waiting to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Jim recalled how hard Blair had worked to hide his reaction at hearing the news. Then he had suppressed his emotions for the rest of the day. Hopefully, it was because he felt safe here that he was finally allowing his feelings to come out.

Jim turned and silently returned to his bed, giving the grieving young man some privacy to mourn in peace.


The next morning Blair awoke with a start. Oh God. Did he oversleep again? If the horses weren't fed before Mr. Shaw arrived, he was in for another beating. Wait a minute. Since when did he have pillows? Sitting up quickly, he looked around, his heart rate starting to slow down as the events of the day before slowly made their way through his still foggy brain.

"Blair? You okay?"

On hearing his name, Blair immediately jumped up, only to cry out in pain, as his leg buckled, the injured ankle not able to support the sudden weight. Before he could fall, strong hands were holding him up then sitting him down on the couch behind him.

"Jesus, Blair. What were you trying to do? The doctor said for you to take it easy, not go jumping around. Are you all right? Let me see it."

He could only watch as his new owner picked up his foot and gently probed around the now throbbing ankle. He hadn't even started his first full day here and he'd already made his new master angry. Maybe Master Decker and Mr. Shaw were right. Maybe he was worthless and only fit for punishment. As soon as Master realized that, he would probably return him to Mr. Coleman who would return him to Master Decker who would then have Mr. Shaw continue with his 'training'. They would put that manacle back on his ankle and chain him up in the barn again. He would be totally isolated from everyone else, not allowed to see or talk to anyone. Mr. Shaw would again beat him with that stick of his almost every day. If he was lucky, he'd be fed once a day. Unbidden memories surfaced as he saw himself tied to the wall of the empty horse stall as the whip lashed across his back over and over again. He couldn't go back there. He wouldn't. He'd rather die first. Suddenly there wasn't enough air in the room. His head began to spin then his vision started graying out.

"Blair? You with me, kid?" Slowly blinking his eyes open, Blair was aware of someone calling his name. He realized he was laying full length on the couch and something soft and cool was across his forehead. Master was sitting on the coffee table beside him, looking worried. Lifting one hand to his forehead, he could feel a damp cloth.

"Blair?"

"Master? I... what...?"

"I'm not sure. I was checking your ankle and suddenly you turned white as a ghost and started to keel over. I didn't know I was moving it that much. I don't think you actually lost consciousness. More like you were just out of it for a few minutes. After you eat breakfast, you can take the pain pills with your antibiotic. Can you sit up? I went to the bakery downstairs while you were still asleep and got us some donuts and muffins and orange juice. We really need to do some grocery shopping today." As he was talking, Jim was slowly helping Blair sit up. When he got the younger man situated against the back cushions, Jim sat back on the coffee table again. "How do you feel? You up to eating something?"

"I'm all right, Master. I'm sorry to keep causing you problems. I'll try not to be any more trouble, I swear." Just please, please don't send me back.

"Blair, I've already told you, you're no trouble. Now, you ready to eat?" Jim made a mental note to try not to chastise his slave. The abuse Blair suffered previously seemed to have left him with almost no self-esteem. That would have to change. Seeing that Blair was looking better, he got up and crossed over into the kitchen. There, he proceeded to open the box with the pastries he'd bought earlier, and carried it and a few plates and napkins back out to the living room.

"You start on these. I'll be right back." Returning to the kitchen, he pocketed the two medicine vials and grabbed two glasses and the carton of orange juice, then headed back into the other room.

While setting everything down on the coffee table, Jim noticed that none of the food had been touched.

"What's wrong? Don't you like any of these? We can go out for breakfast. It's just that you can't take your pills till you eat something."

Blair was sitting with his hands folded in his lap, eyeing the box hungrily. He shook his head. "No, Master. I was waiting until you took what you wanted. After you're finished, I'll eat whatever you allow me to have."

Biting down a sharp reply—after all, it wasn't Blair's fault he'd been taught to believe that he was only entitled to leftovers—Jim picked out two donuts and a muffin. Putting his selections on his plate, he opened the carton and started poring two glasses of juice. "Now, you take whatever you want. Go on." He watched as Blair hesitantly chose one muffin and one donut. "Remember, Chief, you can always have seconds, too." Both men sat back and began eating.

Finally breakfast was over, Jim being secretly pleased because he had talked Blair into eating another muffin, and meds taken. Jim cleaned and put the medicated ointment on Blair's injuries before rewrapping them, then returned the supplies to the bathroom.

Back in the living room again, Jim looked at the set of ill-fitting, wrinkled clothes Blair had put back on. "Do you have any other clothes with you, Chief?" At Blair's embarrassed look and negative headshake, Jim frowned. "Okay, then one of the first orders of business today is to get you some new clothes, then we'll go food shopping. But since today is Sunday, most stores aren't open yet. Right now I want to check out the spare room here and see what we need to do about fixing it up for you. I gotta warn you, it's pretty small, not much more than a big closet, but it's the only room available." As he talked Jim was heading towards a long curtain set at an angle in the hallway across from the kitchen. The room behind the curtain was directly beneath Jim's room. Pulling aside the curtain, he flipped on the light.

Both men stepped just inside the doorway. Several boxes of various sizes were strewn across the room, smaller ones stacked on top of larger ones. A futon in its upright couch position was against a far wall. A floor lamp stood in one corner. A small dresser was against another wall with more boxes on top of it. Intermixed with the boxes was a rolled up rug and other obviously unused odds and ends. Jim grimaced as he scratched the back of his neck.

"Well, it's not too bad. A buddy of mine was going to stay here for a while when his wife kicked him out. He brought some stuff over and started to fix it up then they got back together. He said I could keep the furniture and whatever else he left and I've just been using the room for storage since then. Once we get the boxes out, we can see what's usable and what we'll need to make it livable."

Jim watched as Blair started walking around the small room. He checked out the closet then looked out of the glass window on the wooden door on the far wall.

"Master, this door goes outside and there are fire escape stairs out there."

"So? You planning on leaving or something?"

Blair whirled around. "No, Master, no. I'd never... I-I wouldn't... I just didn't know if you remembered them being there."

"I knew. So there's no problem then, right?"

Blair looked confused for a minute, then a small, shy smile formed. "Right." He trusts me. After hearing for almost a year that he couldn't be trusted not to run away, as if he even physically could, it was unbelievably gratifying to hear someone say they trusted him, no questions asked. He vowed then and there to never give his new master any reason to regret that trust.

"All right." Jim's voice broke into his thoughts. "The futon opens up into a bed. I already know what's in most of these boxes. Nothing you could use in here. I'll start taking those downstairs while you look around and decide how much of this stuff you want to keep. While I'm down in the storage area, I'll look around and see if there's anything there that might be useful." He point to a few boxes that had 'S. F.' written on them. "Sammy left those. See if there's anything in them you want, too. Once we're done, we'll have a better idea of what we'll still need to get to make this into a decent bedroom."

For the next couple hours both men worked at their tasks. The one time Blair tried to lift a heavy box, the look of pain on his face had Jim rushing to take it from him and declare that he was not to do anything more strenuous than going through everything and deciding what he wanted to keep. In the end Blair had elected to keep the dresser, rug and floor lamp. Sammy's boxes had yielded a set of bed linens and blankets he had intended to use on the futon as well as a clock radio still in its original packaging. Another box had a few sets of plastic hangers, some with clips on them for hanging pants, along with other miscellaneous odds and ends. Nothing else in the boxes proved to be very useful. Blair hung the hangers in the closet, then piled the linen and clock radio on the futon. Once the boxes were gone, Jim swept the floor while Blair ran a dust cloth over every surface. They opened the futon out into a bed out and laid out the rug beside it.

Jim left the room to return the broom and dustpan to the kitchen. When he returned he was holding a small notepad and pen. He started taking inventory. "You have a good start here. Oh, downstairs in Mr. O'Donnell's storage area, I saw a bookcase and a small table that I thought you could use as a desk. I stopped and asked him about them and he said I could have them. They're both in good shape, just need to be cleaned up a bit. I'll bring them up after we get the rest of the room squared away." He looked around and started writing. "You still need pillows, a nightstand and a lamp to put on it. Hmmm, curtains for the outside window, and what say we get rid of this curtain in the doorway and put in some real doors. Since there's not much room in here we could put some shelves on the wall if you want. Anything else you can think of?"

When Blair just shook his head Jim started to feel bad. He knew that the room wasn't much. "Look, Blair, I know that it's small but I'm sure we can make it work."

Blair shook his head again. "No, Master, it's just the opposite. I've spent most of the last year living in a barn, with horses. All I had to sleep on was a pile of hay and an old, scratchy horse blanket. I wasn't allowed to have anything. I never thought that I would ever have something this nice. I'd have been happy sleeping in here even as a storage room. To me, this room is... is... almost too much."

Even though Blair seemed slightly embarrassed by his admission, Jim couldn't help but feel pleased that the young man liked the room. It was important that Blair feel comfortable here, and with him. "Well, since that's settled, let's get cracking. First off, you need some clothes, then we'll get the stuff for your room and last we'll go grocery shopping on the way home. Good thing I have an SUV. We'll take turns getting washed up, then we'll leave." Jim left, leaving Blair still looking around his room.


Jim led Blair through the outer door that led directly into the Men's section of the upscale department store. He preferred entering stores right from the parking lot, thus avoiding having to walk through the mall itself. Not familiar with the layout of this particular store, he looked around. Joel had assured him that they carried slave clothing here since he had called them and asked about it before he bought Mandy. Now he just had to figure out where. To his left, he saw a man with an artificial white carnation in his lapel talking to a young woman. Both had on store nametags. White flowers meant managers and managers knew where things were. When the woman left, Jim approached the man before he could walk away.

"Excuse me."

The man turned and looked at Jim. He got the feeling he was being instantly appraised.

"Yes, sir, how can I help you?"

"I was told you sell clothes for slaves here. Where would they be?"

"For male slaves, that would be upstairs, on the second floor. In the far left corner, behind luggage. For females, there is a section in the back of one of the women's clothing departments."

Both out of sight from most of the real customers. Jim thanked the man and watched as he walked away. Turning around again, he saw that Blair was no longer behind him. Then he heard a terse sounding voice.

"Put that down."

Looking across the aisle, Jim saw Blair standing next to a table of neatly folded sweaters, holding one up with both hands. An annoyed looking salesman had just walked up to the table followed by another, younger man. The younger man spoke first.

"Leave him alone, Chad. He's not hurting anything."

"Oh yeah? I just folded these sweaters, now he's messing them all up. It's not like he's actually going to buy anything." He turned to a chastened looking Blair and held out his hand. "C'mon, slave, hand it over."

Just as Blair was starting to give over the sweater, he felt a hand on his shoulder and a now familiar voice come from behind. "There you are, Chief. You find anything you like, yet? Let's see that." Coming around, Jim gently took the sweater from Blair's hands and held it up. "Yeah. Nice design. How 'bout we start with this?" He turned to the two salesmen. "Would you excuse us for a minute?"

Watching until the two men were out of listening range, Jim turned to Blair, still keeping his voice low. "You like these clothes, Blair?"

Blair kept his head down but let his eyes scan around. They were standing in the Young Men's Department, these were mainly trendy clothes sold to high school and college-aged men. When Master Eli had taken him to Rainier, this is what most of the students had been wearing. He often wished he could dress like that but knew it would never happen. Letting his eyes drop again, he nodded.

"Have you ever worn... regular clothes?" Jim had never seen a slave wear anything but the traditional whites. Boys and men wore a tunic type shirt and pants while girls and women usually wore a mid calf length dress. Some male slaves also wore a short, solid colored open vest if they worked in a store or other business. Females usually had a full length, solid colored apron covering their dress and a matching kerchief to keep their hair off their face. The business' name was sometimes embroidered on the vest or apron. The tunics, pants and dresses came in a wide variety of styles but were always white. They made slaves very easy to identify.

The curly head shook back and forth. "Master Eli never made my mother wear the whites. She always wore her own clothes. But everyone else wore them. He let her add her own special touches to mine so I always did kind of stand out. Except whenever he took me off the estate with him, then I had to wear just a basic slave outfit."

"Would you rather wear regular clothes now or would you be more comfortable wearing the whites?"

Blair's head jerked up. "W-what?" He stared at Jim. "Y-you'd let me wear clothes like these instead of the whites? All the time?"

Jim shrugged. "Sure. Why not? That is, if you'd be comfortable wearing them."

"Then... I'd like to wear... regular clothes. If it's all right with you, Master."

"Good choice. 'Cause you know I'll bet whites must be hell to keep clean. Come on." Jim dropped the sweater on the table and started walking away.

Still trying to wrap his mind around the idea that his master was actually going to buy and let him wear regular, free citizen clothes, Blair numbly followed Jim over to the check out stand, where the two salesmen had retreated. He barely heard Jim's announcement.

"All right, gentlemen. We're going to need a lot of stuff and I don't want to be here all day getting it." He tilted his head towards Blair. "He needs some of everything, from underwear on out."

"Slave clothes are upstairs. Behind luggage." Chad went back to shuffling some papers around as if Jim and Blair were already gone.

Jim was beginning to get seriously annoyed at the salesman's demeanor but managed to keep his temper in check. Blair wanted these clothes and he was going to get them. "Nooo. We're going to buy what we need here. I'm not familiar with the clothes in this department so we'll need some help."

The younger man, whose nametag read 'John', smiled and nodded, as if selling a slave clothes was something he did every day. "We can do that."

Chad, on the other hand, didn't look at all happy about waiting on a slave. "Do you already have an account with us?" He seemed to be hoping that if Jim didn't have an account with the store, he might decide to shop elsewhere rather than having to open one now.

Jim silently sighed. No, I thought we'd just steal everything. Okay, another comeuppance seemed in order. What the hell, he was already 'outed', as Joel so kindly put it, anyway. He pasted on a smile. "No, I don't have one. But I'm sure my family has an account here." There was a House account established for virtually every business and store in the northwest sector and beyond.

Poising his fingers over the terminal's keyboard Chad looked directly at Jim. "I'll have to verify the account and that you're an authorized user on it. Do you have the account number?"

"Well, I don't have the account number with me, but it would be under the name of Ellison, House of Ellison, to be exact."

The way Chad froze for a moment before he began typing was most satisfying. "Under authorized users, look for James, First Heir. That would be me." Jim was already pulling his IndentiCard out of his wallet. "Did you find the account, yet, Chad?"

"Yes, sir."

"Am I listed on it?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Here's my card. Verify my identity so we can get started. We have other things to do today, too." Jim pressed his thumb onto the small, square sensor pad located near the bottom right corner of the card then handed the card to Chad who inserted it into the special slot on the terminal. The thumbprint would remain for 15 seconds before fading away, long enough for the computer to read it and verify that his thumbprint matched with the information encoded into the card. The invention of the thumbprint card had virtually eliminated the problem of identity theft and provided an easy and foolproof means of identification.

By now a small group had gathered. It didn't take long for word to spread that a high-ranking member of the House of Ellison was in the store. The same manger that Jim had talked to earlier appeared again, being much more solicitous this time around.

"Is everything all right, Mr. Ellison?"

Now Jim knew why his father rarely went out in public. "Everything's fine. We were just finishing up here and about to start shopping."

The manager smiled, looking pleased. "Good. Chad is our Men's Department's senior sales associate. I'm sure he can assist you with all your needs while you're here." Chad stood up straighter and looked a bit smug.

Jim shook his head. "Not Chad. I don't like his attitude. We want John to help us, don't we, Chief?" Not waiting to see the reaction to his announcement, Jim turned and started walking. "Let's go. We might as well start with the basics."

The next two hours were the most fun Jim had had in quite a while. Blair and John were close in age and it turned out that John only worked at the store part time. He was also a fulltime student at Rainer University, working on his degree in Sociology. They hit it off almost right away. Once John determined the type of clothes Blair preferred, Jim was treated to a continuous one-man fashion show.

Blair had a very different idea of style than the rather conservative detective but Jim had no plans to try to force his preferences on him. The only thing he insisted on was that, in addition to the mostly casual jeans, pants and shirts Blair picked out, they also included some dress pants, shirts, at least two ties and a sport coat. At one point he noticed Blair lovingly fingering a multi-colored vest hanging on a rack, then he dropped his hand and followed John into the fitting room. While Blair was changing into another outfit, Jim found one of the vests in Blair's size and handed it to John to add to the large pile they had already accumulated. Before Blair even started trying on any clothes, the pile of merchandise sitting at their personally designated register included a couple of sets of sweats, a few multi-packs of boxers and t-shirts, several pairs of socks in various colors and patterns, a thick robe and one black and one brown belt. Each Blair-approved article of clothing added to its size.

After the clothes came shoes, the final result being a pair of rugged, all weather hiking boots, two pairs of top-of-the line sneakers, a pair of loafers and one pair of black dress shoes. Since Blair had to wear Jim's other, oversized jacket when they left the loft, a trip to the coat department soon yielded a leather jacket, a lightweight, lined jacket and a long trench coat. Then a pair of warm leather gloves, a knit cap and two scarves. And, just because he felt like it, Jim added a wallet and a new leather backpack to replace the worn out nylon one Blair had been using.

When they were finally finished and ready to pay, Jim had Blair pick out a complete outfit, including shoes. These items were rung up first and the tickets removed so Blair could change while John continued ringing up the rest of the sale. The newly dressed slave soon returned wearing jeans, a long sleeved t-shirt covered by a plaid flannel shirt, brown belt and the hiking boots. He had gotten a rubber band from John and had pulled his long hair back into a ponytail that reached almost to his waist. Jim held out the leather jacket to him. By the time Blair had changed and returned, everything was bagged and ready to go. Finding out from John that the salespeople here worked on commission explained why Chad was off to one side, silently fuming as he watched the growing tally. Jim smiled when John told him that this sale alone would probably cover most of his basic bills next month. It took Jim, Blair and John to carry all the bags to the car. Once there, Jim took John's card and promised to ask for him if he or Blair should need anything else.

A quick stop at Home Depot was next. Jim had Blair help pick out some shelves and a set of French doors to be delivered and installed within the next few days. Once Blair got over the surprise of actually being allowed to choose the styles he wanted for the room, Jim was amused to watch as he debated the merits of the various types of doors and shelves. Dressed in his new clothes and as well spoken as he was, the salesman never dreamed he was dealing with a slave, which seemed to put Blair more at ease. Jim decided he liked seeing this more outgoing side of the younger man.

Next on the agenda was Wal-Mart. There they picked out a ready-to-assemble nightstand and a lamp as well as a pair of curtains, two regular pillows and a few assorted throw pillows for the bed. Then they headed for the personal care section to get Blair stocked up on personal hygiene items. After getting the basics, a razor and shaving cream, toothbrush, comb and brush, Blair surprised Jim by having him smell the different soaps, shampoos, conditioners and deodorants and pick the ones he thought were the least offensive. He didn't see what difference it made but went along because it was the first time Blair had initiated any action between them.

As they loaded the bags into the back of the SUV, Jim noted the stiff way Blair held himself, then saw the more prominent limp as he walked up towards the passenger door to get in the vehicle. How long had he been in pain? Glancing down at his watch, he berated himself for not noticing how late it had gotten. It was nearly dinnertime and they had completely skipped lunch. Blair was way past due for both his antibiotic and his pain pills. That also meant it'd been far too long since he'd last eaten, too. He, on the other hand, had never enjoyed himself so much spending money before. He now understood why some women liked to shop; it could actually be fun under the right circumstances. But that was no excuse. Blair was his responsibility; he was the one who had lost track of the time and now the poor kid was hurting and hungry because of it. There was nothing to eat at home so the answer was obvious. Pulling out of the parking lot, he offered what he hoped would be a peace offering, even though Blair gave no indication of being upset.

"It's getting late. How about we skip grocery shopping today and go get something to eat? We can go home afterwards and just take it easy for the rest of the night."

The look of relief was plain on Blair's face but he just nodded.

"Any preferences?"

The blank look he got in response once again reminded Jim of Blair's status. He answered his own question. "There's a pretty good restaurant just a few blocks from here. Let's try that." Blair deserved to go someplace better than fast food.

Pulling into the family style eatery, Jim knew he'd made a good choice. It was casual enough that their jeans and shirts wouldn't be given a second glance. Since it also catered to families, the wait staff was trained to be friendly and helpful. It would be less intimidating to Blair than a fancy restaurant.

Entering the building, Jim immediately noticed the swinging door to the right. The door had a large window in it and a sign above it identifying it as the Slave Room. This was where slaves ate and/or waited while their owners dined in the main dining area. Long tables with benches and plastic tablecloths were the usual furniture. If the slave was permitted to eat, the meal was added to the owner's bill. No matter how elegant the restaurant, the slaves' fare rarely rose above the level of hamburgers and spaghetti. Jim remembered as a child dining out with his family, at much fancier places than this, and never thinking twice about it when their slaves were sent off until they were finished. Now he couldn't conceive of Blair eating in such a room. So when Blair made to move off towards the swinging door, Jim reached down and discreetly grabbed the leather jacket's sleeve near the cuff. He held on to it as he walked to the Hostess podium, forcing Blair to walk with him.

A slightly harried looking young woman smiled at them. "Two?" At Jim's nod she asked, "Smoking or non-smoking?"

"Non-smoking."

She looked down at the restaurant's floor plan on her podium. "We've had an unexpected large party just show up. If you'll wait over there, we'll be with you shortly. It shouldn't be more than a few more minutes."

Jim remembered seeing a church bus in the parking lot and figured that was probably the large party. He smiled at the woman. "No problem." After giving the Hostess his name, deliberately not mentioning his House connections, he steered the still silent Blair to the nearby alcove that had been set up with a few benches and chairs. He was relieved to see that they were the only ones there as they took their seats on one of the benches.

Almost immediately Blair leaned towards Jim and whispered. "Master. I can't eat in here."

Jim just looked at him calmly. "Why not?"

Wide blue eyes stared back at him as if he'd lost his mind. "I'm not allowed. If I get caught..." There was no mistaking the real fear in the slave's voice. Considering the last year, Jim could understand Blair's terror of even being accused of doing anything wrong. He had to calm him down before he drew anyone's attention towards them.

"First off, Blair, you're with me. Nothing's going to happen to you while I'm around. Ever. Second, the way you're dressed, you'll actually attract less attention in here than in there, with the other slaves. Besides, I don't want to eat alone. They always stick single people at the worst tables, usually in the back, by the kitchen. You can do this. You talked to the guy at Home Depot and he never had a clue he was talking to a slave. You can read the menu, right?" At Blair's nod, he continued. "All right, then. Piece of cake. If there's anything you're not sure about, just ask me. Okay?" He could order Blair to do this but he wanted it to be his decision.

Blair nodded slowly. "All right, Master. If you're sure."

Jim gave the still nervous younger man a big smile. "Good. One more thing, though. If we're gonna pull this off, you can't keep calling me 'Master'. Kind of gives everything away, if you know what I mean."

"Then what should I call you?" Calling his master by just his first name was unthinkable. 'Mr. Ellison' didn't seem right either. "How about 'Sir'? It's still respectful, commonplace enough not to cause any attention and doesn't give any indication about our relationship."

That suggestion earned him another smile. "Perfect. In fact, try to think of it more as a name than a title. I like that idea even better."

Before Blair could respond to the odd comment, a few more people entered the waiting area and they had to drop the conversation.

Soon they were seated with menus. Jim had asked the waitress to bring two glasses of water right away. After bringing the water, she left to let them look over the dinner selections. Jim pulled the two pill vials out of his shirt pocket. Since they would be eating in a few minutes, he gave Blair the antibiotic and one pain pill, enough to alleviate the worst of the pain but not enough to make him groggy. Blair still looked very uncomfortable; he needed to remain clear headed.

"So, you decide on anything yet?" Jim noticed that Blair was holding the menu very close; in fact it looked like he was subconsciously trying to hide behind it.

"Um, maybe the grilled cheese sandwich. If that's all right with you, Mm—Sir."

No, it wasn't all right. Grilled cheese was okay for lunch but Blair needed a full dinner. Looking over the menu, Jim noticed it was also among the least expensive items listed. He turned to the waitress. "Give us another minute, all right?" Once she left, he look directly at the younger man. "Blair. I want you to order what you really want. Don't even look at how much it costs. That's not a problem, believe me."

"But you've already spent so much money on me today."

"And I enjoyed every minute of it. I haven't had such a relaxing day in ages. Think of this dinner as just the end to a great day. Now I want you to either try something new or something you've had before, but haven't had in a while. And if it'll make you feel any better, this place doesn't even come close to being expensive. I've eaten in restaurants where the appetizer alone costs more than what both of our dinners will end up being."

Looking somewhat mollified, Blair looked over the menu with a renewed interest. "Yes, Sir. If that's what you want."

Hiding behind his own menu, Jim grinned to himself. Yeah, kid, that's what I want.

The rest of dinner went well, especially once Blair relaxed a bit more. It was partly due to the pain pill, but also with the surprised realization that nobody was paying any attention to him, never mind about to accuse him of being a slave trying to pass as a free citizen.

Jim felt good that dinner was going so well. He told Blair that he didn't remember the food here tasting as good as it did tonight. In fact, he even agreed when Blair suggested he try to figure out the subtle spices and flavorings used in his food, almost making a game out of it. He also used the dinner as an opportunity to explain to Blair about his duties as a police detective and how he might be called in at all hours if something major were to happen. When Blair almost slipped by starting to say Master, then quickly switched to Sir, in front of the waitress, Jim covered for him by saying the speech therapy classes were really helping with his speech impediment. Then laughed out loud when Blair turned bright red when the older woman tsked and told him he sounded just fine.

When they got home, Jim insisted on carrying most of the purchases upstairs, only allowing Blair to carry a few of the lighter bags. Together they made up the futon, placing all the new pillows on it, but decided to wait until the following night to put the nightstand together.

While Jim relaxed in the living room, Blair started putting his new clothes away. When he got to the vest Jim had added, he carried it out of his room.

"Master. The store made a mistake. Somehow this vest got put in with my clothes. You have to take it back and get a refund of your money."

Jim lowered the newspaper he was reading. "It's no mistake. It was supposed to be included." At Blair's puzzled expression, Jim continued. "I saw you eyeing it. From the way you were touching it and how your heart rate went up, I figured you really liked it. So I added it while you were in the fitting room."

Blair's expression changed from puzzled to shocked. "Y-you bought it for me just because you thought I wanted it?"

"Well, I certainly didn't buy it for me." The detective frowned. "But if I was wrong and you really don't want it we can—"

"NO!" Blair hugged the colorful garment to his chest. "I want it, Master. Please."

"It's okay, Blair. If you want it, it's yours. Case closed." Blair's reaction seemed a bit overblown but Jim decided to ignore it. "And I thought we agreed you were going to call me Sir instead of Master."

The confused look returned. "But I thought that was just while we were in the restaurant. Did you mean to use it like all the time? From now on?" He'd never heard of a slave using any term other than Master when speaking or referring to their male owner. Female owners were always referred to as Miss or Ma'am.

Jim found himself relaxing as Blair's heart rate slowed down now that he knew he could keep the vest. He wasn't even aware until now that he had tensed up as soon as Blair had gotten upset. "I think that would be for the best." He grinned. "That way, when we're out somewhere like that again you won't keep sounding like you still have that speech impediment. Besides, when I hear someone say Master I think they're talking about my father. So, no more Master, right?"

"Yes, Sir. I mean no, Sir. I mean—"

Jim held up his hand as he laughed. "I know what you mean. Anyway, I have to be at work early tomorrow so I'm heading off to bed. Were you planning on staying up much longer?"

"I wanted to get all the new clothes put away so they wouldn't wrinkle too badly." The hesitant tone of voice made it obvious he was asking permission rather than stating a fact.

"Good idea. Just don't overdo it. You can always finish tomorrow." Leaving the couch, Jim made his usual rounds of securing the loft for the night then, after exchanging 'Good Nights' with Blair, headed towards the bathroom. Blair went back to his room.

Settling in bed, Jim could hear the comforting sounds of Blair moving around in his room, deciding how to arrange the closet and dresser. With a newfound, but pleasant, feeling that everything was as it should be, the tired but content sentinel drifted off to sleep.


The next morning Blair woke up slowly. He was lying in a bed, a real bed, in his own room. He let his eyes wander around the small area. It wasn't just a dream, he really was here, in Master Ellison's house, and not still in Master Decker's barn. Feeling almost weak with relief, he hugged one of his new pillows as his mind wandered back over the last two weeks.


Blair sat up, wondering at the noise that had woken him up. As the barn lights came on, he saw Mr. Shaw come bursting into the barn, looking angrier than usual. He was carrying the dreaded, cane-like stick and swaying as he crossed the floor. The young slave's stomach tightened in fear. This wasn't good. It was the middle of the night; Mr. Shaw rarely ever came to the barn this late. He quickly stood up and waited as his handler approached.

"You God damn ungrateful little bastard." Shaw's words were slurred and his eyes not quite focused. "I had a good thing goin' here. All ya had to do was stay in here and jus' do what I tol' ya to do. And keep your big trap shut. But nooo, when Decker comes in this morning, you had to go and tell him all about how ya went and rearranged everything and how you thought the horses should be taken care of. Now he's decided that maybe I ain't doing such a good job of breaking you after all. That he don't want to waste no more time and money on you. So I get my walking papers and you, ya little shit, you're gonna get what ya deserve."

Blair tried to back up as the much larger man staggered up to him, a drunken rage in his eyes. He thought that when Master Decker had visited the barn earlier that day, he'd be pleased with the changes he had made in the stalls and the tack room. Being in the barn 24/7 there was little to occupy his mind; he wasn't used to being bored. So, when he wasn't taking care of the horses, he had first worked on figuring out a better way to stock the horse stalls. Pleased with results, not to mention happy to finally have something creative to do, he next worked on totally redoing the tack room to make more efficient use of the existing shelving as well as the arrangement of the equipment and supplies. He had also noted during his months of confinement how the horses reacted to changes in their diet and routine. When Master Decker had come to inspect the horses that morning, he had passed on what he thought were useful and helpful suggestions on their care and feeding. Too late now, he realized that his input had not been appreciated. He'd been told repeatedly that part of his problem was thinking that his way of doing things was better than anyone else's. Now he had taken it upon himself to change things around in the barn and told Master Decker how his horses should be fed and exercised. Worst of all, he had said all that in front of the head trainer. God, wouldn't he ever learn his place?

Shaw grabbed Blair by front of his shirt with one big, beefy hand and raised the big stick up high with the other. Before the terrified slave could even react to the foul stench of stale alcohol on the man's breath, the beating began.

Curled up in ball, frail arms covering his head in meek protection, Blair wasn't aware of anything except the pain of each heavy blow as it found its mark. Eventually he realized that he wasn't being hit any more. Instead, he found, to his horror, that one wrist had already been tightly tied to the top slat of the empty horse stall and Shaw was just finishing tying the other. His shirt was gone. He knew what was coming, and no amount of begging or pleading was going to stop it. Mr. Shaw's other favorite disciplinary tool, the thin leather horsewhip, was already lying in the straw.

The first lash caused him to arch his back but he managed not to cry out. When the third one laid open his already bruised skin, he screamed. As the whipping continued, his tears fell freely, and he no longer tried to hide his pain. His back was raw, blood also running down his arms from his wrists where the rough ropes had chafed away the skin. Throughout the entire whipping Blair could hear Shaw talking, but couldn't make out what he was saying or if he was talking to him or to himself. Finally, his tortured body couldn't take anymore and he mercifully passed out.

Blair slowly came back to consciousness. Not hearing any sounds nearby, he cautiously opened his eyes. He was surprised to find himself, not in the barn as he expected, but lying on his stomach on his old cot in the male slave quarters, where he had lived for the first few months after arriving at the estate. When he tried to move, his whole body erupted in pain and he couldn't help the low moan that escaped. Immediately there was a hand on his head.

"Shhh, Blair. Don' try to move yet."

He recognized that voice. "Donny?" Donny had been his bunkmate. He'd been helping the older slave, along with a few others, with their reading skills until he had been removed from the slave quarters.

"Yeah, it's me."

"Wha—?"

"What happened? Well, from what I heard tell, Master went to the barn lookin' fer Mr. Shaw. He found him passed out drunk inna empty horse stall and you hangin' there bleedin' and passed out yerself. They had this big fight and Master threw Mr. Shaw offa the estate. They brung you in here and I been takin' care a ya ever since. That was two days ago."

Due to the pain, Blair could only nod, relieved that his ordeal was finally over. Now that Mr. Shaw was gone, maybe he could live here again. If he never saw the inside of a barn again, it would still be too soon.


Blair looked down at the bed pillow he was still hugging tightly, surprised to see that it was wet. He carefully sat up and wiped his face with the heels of his hands. Remembering was almost as bad as being there again.

Getting up slowly, he left his small room and walked into the living room, staring at the front door. There was a lock on it. No one could just come bursting in anytime they wanted. He was safe here. Master Ellison wasn't anything like Master Decker. He didn't even want to be called Master, not even Master Jim or James. Calling an owner by Master and his first name—as Master Eli had permitted him and his mother to do—was the most familiar a slave could ever dare hope to get, and even that was pretty rare. No, his master wanted to be called Sir. And he had said to even think of that more as of a name than as a title. Very odd. Thinking back, everything about how he came to be here, now, was odd. Mama had always said that the only way to overcome your demons was to confront them head on. He could do that here.

Even though he would have preferred to sit in his usual half-lotus meditating position, his injuries wouldn't allow it right now. So Blair settled for lying stomach down on the sofa, a pillow under his head. He closed his eyes and let his mind wander back, picking up his memories where he had left off, determined to banish any power they might have over him.


For the next few days Donny stayed by Blair's side and tended to his needs. He caught Blair up on all the estate gossip, including Decker's growing frustration whenever Shaw told him that Blair still needed more training. Apparently, Shaw had been trying to milk his cushy job for as long as possible.

Almost a week after his beating and whipping, Donny came in with another, younger, slave. He didn't look happy. The older slave's voice lowered as he leaned close. "I think yer leavin' today. Master said, get you up and washed and dressed."

Just the thought of moving was still scary. With Donny and the other slave's help, Blair managed to take care of his basic needs and get dressed. It hurt just as badly as he thought it would. The other slave had already left to inform Decker that Blair was up and dressed. Donny sat beside Blair on the bunk.

"Ya know I can't talk to ya outside. Nobody can. Yer still shunned. I'm only allowed to talk to ya in here. I sure hope yer goin' to a better place. We was all real sad to see what happened to ya. The others said to tell ya 'thanks' fer helpin' 'em with their readin' an' all."

Blair tried to smile, even though everything hurt. "Tell them I was glad to do it. And I hope they keep up with it, even after I'm gone."

Soon Donny's helper returned with a large male slave who Blair recognized as Max. Donny whispered something to his helper then he and Max got Blair off the bed. They had to tighten their grip as Blair swayed, unable stand on his own at first. Once he was stable enough to walk, they helped him outside to a waiting pickup truck. The truck was being driven by one of the estate Overseers. Max lowered the tailgate and took a small stepstool from the truck bed and placed it on the ground. He carefully helped Blair step onto the stool then into the bed of the truck. Moving around was made even more awkward since the iron manacle was still locked onto his ankle and the chain, the length of which had been cut from the original 15 feet down to about two feet, was wrapped around his leg. A pallet had been made up and Blair sank down on it, grateful for the cushioning. Max climb into the truck with Blair and Donny handed him the stool and closed the tailgate. Just before the truck took off, Donny took something from his helper and handed it to Max.

The truck stopped in front of the main house with the engine running and Albert Decker soon emerged. He looked over at the two slaves in the back of the truck, then walked up to the passenger door and opened it. "Any problems?" When the driver shook his head, Decker nodded and climbed into the seat. "Let's go." With that, the truck headed towards the estate's main entrance then turned onto the road that would eventually take them to Cascade.

Just before the truck left the estate, Max gave Blair the backpack Donny had handed to him. It contained the few possessions he had brought with him from Master Eli's estate. His former bunkmate had kept it safe for him all this time. The large slave indicated that Blair should lie down. He then covered him tightly with a blanket and wrapped one around himself. Besides the cab of the truck, it was all the protection they would have from the wind and any flying debris once the truck hit the main highway.

A few hours later they reached the back entrance to a large building signed Coleman Traders. Max helped the stiff, sore, and now cold, Blair from the truck and into the building. Once inside, Decker met with Ronald Coleman and arranged for the sale of the troublesome, headstrong slave. Glad to finally be rid of him, and that worthless Shaw, Decker headed back home. Coleman turned Blair over to his assistant, Gus, with orders to keep this one away from the other slaves.

For the next several days Blair had been kept in a separate area, away from the common slave area. He could only watch the other slaves as they ate and talked together, keeping each other company. He knew they had been told he was shunned and talking to him would be grounds for punishment. Every day Gus would check his injuries, cleaning them with rubbing alcohol, then make him get up and walk around.

Blair was woken up early one morning and told to get into a long, enclosed trailer along with most of the other slaves. He just managed to grab his backpack before being herded into the trailer. After a long, silent ride, they arrived at the back half of the slave traders' section of the Fairgrounds. They were behind a long tent, which sat beside another smaller one. The other slaves entered the large tent though a flap in the back. Blair was chained to the ground behind the tents. He could hear Mr. Coleman talking to customers about the slaves being offered for sale. Occasionally he and a customer would go into the smaller tent.

Later Gus unchained him and took him to a shower area where he was ordered to take a quick lukewarm shower, and given a new set of slightly too large clothes to put on afterwards. The water stung his back and wrists, but at least the large clothes were loose and didn't cling to his wounds. Gus opened the flap to the large tent but a curtain of some kind had been set up, once again separating him from the other slaves. A round ring had been set into the ground. He was told to sit about two feet away from the ring. While Gus attached his chain to the ring, he told Blair that he was to stay there and not move or say anything to anybody, or he'd live to regret it. His clothes were arranged to hide the manacle around his ankle, and his raw wrists. He was warned not to let anything show.

After the assistant left, Blair lowered his head and tried to put himself in a meditative state. His mother had taught him how to meditate and he often thought that was the only thing that kept him sane during those long, lonely months locked away in the barn. He didn't look up when he heard the curtain in front of him being pulled back, putting him on display. He couldn't reach the full meditative state he wanted, but it was enough that he could ignore the people crowding around, talking to each other about him.

Suddenly one voice broke through above all the others. It was a deep, male voice and Blair felt himself drawn to it. He had an overwhelming compulsion to see the person it belonged to. Daring to look up, he found a pair of intense light blue eyes staring straight back into his. The man projected a strong aura of protection and safety that seemed to include him in it too. For a few seconds he allowed his emotions to surface and felt something he hadn't felt for a long, long time: hope. But the man's expression never changed and he gave no indication that he saw Blair as anything than just another slave up for sale. Oddly saddened by the man's refusal to acknowledge him further, Blair lowered his head again.

A few seconds later Mr. Coleman began speaking and Blair had to sit and listen as his life story was told to a group of gawking strangers, one of whom would most likely end up owning him. He barely paid any attention to what was going on around him until he heard someone ask about Naomi. No one had ever told him what had happened to her, who her new owner was, where she was living. Now he would finally know. Dead? B-but she couldn't be dead. For almost a year now. Oh God. The dream of someday finding her again had been his sole reason to endure everything he'd been put through since the day he'd been sold. He blinked a few times then squeezed his eyes tightly shut, refusing to let the tears building up fall. He would not lose it in front of these people. Wasn't he already providing enough entertainment for them?

The blue-eyed man was speaking again. Blair believed that the man somehow knew what he was going through. It didn't sound like pity, but as if this perfect stranger actually cared about him. Blair kept his head down and allowed the unexplainable sensations of security and protection he felt coming from this person wash over him. He clung to those feelings, using them to keep himself together.

The bidding was almost over; soon he would have a new master. The person who seemed to be outbidding everyone else reminded him too much of Master Decker. Blair tried hard not to panic. The one voice he had desperately wanted to hear the most had never even offered up one bid. It took every meditation trick he knew not to show his disappointment and, even more difficult, his rapidly growing terror of being sold to yet another cruel master.

Wait!

Blair jerked his head up.

A new bid had just been offered. It was for even more than was necessary to counter the last offer. And... Yes! It was from the same man Blair had felt so strangely connected to. A new, small flame of hope started to flicker in his chest.

Almost immediately the flame started to die when the first bidder practically demanded that the new bid be thrown out. At first it seemed that the stranger was going to give in. This Beckworth person was obviously very rich and very powerful; it was a rare person who could stand up to him.

But apparently the new bidder was one of those few.

Blair had been sure his own jaw matched everyone else's when his would-be savior finally revealed himself to be none other than the often wondered about, but never seen, James Ellison, First Heir to The House of Ellison.

Beckworth had tried one last gambit but the inevitable conclusion was that he had to concede defeat. No one ever went up against an Ellison financially and even hoped to win.

Blair felt numb. He was being bought by the First Heir to The House of Ellison??? Why? Why would someone who probably already owned a mansion full of perfect slaves want someone like him? Despite his earlier feelings, he suddenly wasn't so sure if he was going to be better off or worse off than he was before.

The auction was quickly concluded and Blair now belonged to the man with whom he was still feeling that strange sense of connection. His head was still spinning from the sudden turn of events. He barely noticed the pain when Gus quickly removed the iron shackle he'd worn for so long and hid the manacle under the straw. When Gus pulled his hair, yanking back his head, everyone seemed amazed at how quickly his new master responded. Even though the look he gave Gus would probably freeze water, when he looked at him, asking if he was all right, there was only genuine concern in his eyes. When Blair answered, he could sense a barely noticeable shift of some kind occurring within the larger man. His eyes became more focused, even though his whole body seemed to relax slightly. His previously authoritative voice was surprisingly gentle when he told him to wait with his friend until he was finished. Blair's earlier misgivings began to fade. There was definitely something happening between the two of them. He could feel it and he was sure the other man felt it too.

The slave knew at that moment that he had found the only person since Master Eli that he would willingly belong to.


Blair opened his eyes, almost surprised to find himself still on the couch instead of back at Mr. Coleman's tent. The memories were so vivid, it was hard to release them. But as disturbing as those days were, everything since then had been the total opposite.

Since that first meeting, Master Ellison had been nothing but kind to him. He seemed outraged at what Mr. Shaw had done, and even took him to a doctor. Let him eat pizza. Gave up his storage room him so he could have it. Unbelievably, he even gave him the choice of either wearing regular clothes or the standard slave whites. Bought him more new things in one day than he'd ever owned in his entire life. Let him, no insisted, that he eat with him in a restaurant, as if he were a real citizen. Then he helped him fix up 'his' room.

So much had happened to him in the last two weeks that he still had a hard time grasping everything. But now it was time to officially start his new life.

Getting up, Blair hesitantly looked towards his room. Master hadn't said that he wasn't allowed to leave it when he wasn't home. Wandering into the kitchen, he spied the two medicine vials and a note with his name on it. The large, neat handwriting seemed to fit the man who wrote it. After squinting his eyes and moving the piece of paper forwards and backwards a few times, he finally got it to where it was at least legible.

Blair,

You were sleeping when I left and I didn't want to wake you. My work and cell phone numbers are listed below. Don't forget to take your pills. I should be back between 6 and 7 tonight. I'll pick up some groceries on the way home. Take it easy and don't try to do too much.

Work—555-6721, Cell Phone—555-2035

It wasn't signed, but then, it didn't have to be.

Putting down the note, Blair picked up one of the medicine vials. No matter how much he squinted and moved the bottle around, he couldn't get the tiny, blurry printing to get any clearer. The other one wasn't any better. He knew that he was supposed to take two of the pain pills and one of the antibiotic, he just didn't know how often and, even more important, he couldn't tell which was which. He was hurting all over right now, especially his back. Deciding to play it safe, he shook out one of each into his hand. At least taking one pain pill would dull the pain so it wasn't so bad. Finding a glass, he filled it from the sink and swallowed the pills.

Medication taken care of, Blair looked around the kitchen. It was spotlessly clean with everything arranged in a very neat and organized manner. Opening the cabinets, drawers and refrigerator, he saw that everything in them was also neatly arranged. Master apparently liked things organized. That was something he would have to remember. He was getting hungry but he didn't dare touch what little food there was without permission.

Leaving the kitchen, he wandered into the living room, walking around, checking out what was now his new home. The furniture was plain but well made and comfortable. The television and stereo system both looked like top of the line models but he was surprised to find almost no personal touches anywhere. No knick-knacks or pictures or anything to give him any glimpses into the man to whom he now belonged. The walls were bare. Master Ellison must not have been living here very long. Spotting the stairs, Blair glanced up. That was Master's bedroom. Maybe he was supposed to make the bed and clean up the room as part of his duties. He climbed the stairs and entered the upper loft. It was strange to be in a room with no door, and one wall, the one that looked out over the main living area, that was only a rather frail-looking railing. He made it a point to stay well away from the railing. This room, like the others, was almost spartanly furnished and so clean you could eat off the floor. The bed was already made and there didn't seem to be anything out of order. There wasn't anything he could do to make it any neater. Turning around, he headed back down the stairs. That left only the bathroom. Naturally, it was also spotless. It was hard to believe that anyone had ever used it. Looking at the shiny white tub, Blair became acutely aware of how long it'd been since he had a real shower and, even more important, since he'd thoroughly washed his hair. Just thinking about it made his scalp start to itch. He wondered how his new master, with his sensitive nose, could even stand to be around him.

Decision made, Blair headed back to his room and gathered up the Wal-Mart bag containing the sentinel-approved bath products, as well as the other new personal care items, carrying them back to the bathroom. He turned on the shower and adjusted the temperature. Quickly shedding his clothes and bandages, he climbed into the tub and let the hot water flow over him. Ahhh. Heaven. His long hair protected his back, keeping the water from hitting it directly. After a few minutes of luxuriating at actually being in a hot shower, he started washing. The worst wounds, on his back, ankle and wrists stung when the soap touched them, but the feeling of finally being really clean overrode the pain.

He now faced the daunting problem of how to wash his hair. It was much longer than he'd ever worn it before and a lot longer than he wanted it to be. But he hadn't had anyone to cut it for him, or even the means to cut it himself, for almost a year now. Maybe there would be some other slaves in the building and one of them might be willing to do it for him. For today he decided the best way to go would be to wash it in sections, starting from the bottom and working his way up to the top.

It took a while but finally his hair was washed and conditioned. Reluctantly, he turned off the water and stepped out. Facing the tub again, he bent over at the waist and flipped his hair over his head. With the long strands hanging down over the tub he squeezed out as much water as he could. Leaning over like this was killing his back, but it was the only way he could think of to reach all of the hair and get out the excess water. Standing back up, he grabbed a towel, and quickly dried himself off, then wrapped the towel around his waist. Getting another towel he bent over again and used it to soak as much of the remaining moisture in his hair as possible. Wrapping the used towel around his head, he carefully stood upright. Most of his hair came through the top of the towel and hung down over it but it kept it up and off his now seriously aching back. Since there was no way he could bear to rub a towel across the still healing whip marks, it would have to air dry.

He had kept the bathroom door partially open and was now pleased to see that the mirror over the sink hadn't totally steamed up. His whiskers weren't too bad. Mr. Shaw had made him shave every few days, using only cold water and a usually dull razor. And Mr. Coleman had insisted he be clean-shaven for the auction. But now, as fast as his facial hair grew, he was starting to feel scruffy again. Hoping that the steam from the hot shower had already softened his beard, he ran some more hot water in the sink and wet his face. Taking his brand new razor and shaving cream out of the bag of toiletries, Blair stared at them for a moment. In the year he had lived at Master Decker's, he had never had anything new, something that was just for him. In the very short time he'd been with Master Ellison, no, 'Sir,' better get used to that, he was given more new things than he'd ever owned before. A few shakes of his head brought him back to the task at hand. He quickly finished shaving. Opening the new toothbrush and toothpaste, he gave his teeth the longest brushing they'd ever had.

As he stepped back from the mirror, Blair breathed out a sigh of relief. He hadn't felt this totally clean in ages. Returning to his room, he kept out the same jeans he had worn the day before but picked different shirts, socks and boxers and quickly got dressed. He still couldn't get over the fact that he was wearing free citizens' clothes. Back in the bathroom again, he hung up his used towels and frowned. They didn't look nearly as good as they had before he started but he didn't know what else to do with them. Glancing into the tub, he was horrified at the amount of hair he saw there. Mounds of long, dark, curly hairs were clogging the drain. For a moment he panicked, not sure what to do. Then, grimacing the whole time, he reached in and started pulling out the clog. Well, at least it's clean hair. Except now he was standing here with a large, dripping mass of wet hair. There was too much for the small, bathroom-sized wastebasket. With a sigh, he quickly carried the mess down the hall and threw it into the kitchen trashcan.

That problem taken care of, Blair returned to the bathroom and looked at all the stuff scattered around the sink and in the shower. His shampoo, conditioner, razor, shaving cream, deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste were taking up a lot of room. Should he take it all back to his room or leave it there? Owners and slaves usually didn't use the same bathroom. He and his mother shared the one separating their bedrooms in Master Eli's house. He gathered up and carried everything back to his room using the same bag he'd brought them in with. Better to be safe than sorry.

Once everything was put away, he grabbed his new wide-tooth comb and headed back into the living room. Settling himself on the couch he turned on the TV and starting flipping through the channels, hoping to find something to watch while he spent the next hour or so detangling and combing out his hair. Daytime talk shows were usually good for a bit of entertaining people-watching. Finding one that looked promising, he put down the remote and got to work on his hair.

It took one whole talk show and most of a home improvement show before Blair's hair was finally finished. The upside was that now, thanks to the home improvement show, he had a few ideas he could try out in his room. Unfortunately, with all that constant hand and arm movement working out all those tangles, his wrists and back were really killing him. Worst of all, watching all those food commercials kept reminding him how hungry he was. Although, as queasy as his stomach had started feeling back in the bathroom right after his shower, eating probably wouldn't be such a good idea right now anyway.

A quick glance outside told him it was now late afternoon. Master wouldn't be back for at least a few more hours. Blair swapped out his comb for the TV remote and again tried to find something interesting to watch. Although he had watched some TV with Master Eli, it was usually something educational on The Discovery or History channels. He stared in amazement as two participants on yet another talk show started physically attacking each other until a large baldheaded man dressed in black separated them. And the audience seemed to be cheering them on. Fascinated, he sat back and watched.

Unfortunately, as distracting as the television shows were, they weren't enough to stop him from feeling his badly aching body. He hurt all over. Finally, unable to even sit comfortably any longer, Blair went back into the kitchen and picked up the two medicine bottles again. Holding one in each hand, he took turns squinting at each vial as he moved them around trying to once again read the tiny print. It was still useless. No matter how he held them, the letters just remained nothing but blurry squiggles. He really needed two pain pills. Sighing, he opened both of them and shook out two pills from each one. It was the only way to be sure.

It didn't take long before the first wave of nausea sent him running into the bathroom.


Jim blew out a breath of relief as the building's on-again/off-again elevator started to rise. Walking up two flights of stairs loaded down with several heavy bags of groceries would not have been fun. At least this way, though, he only had to make one trip from the truck to the loft. Thank God for plastic grocery bags with handles.

Arriving at the door, he realized that the only way to open it would entail putting down at least one handful of bags. So he did the next best thing. He kicked the bottom of the door a few times to get Blair's attention so he could open it for him. Then he kicked it again. Listening closely, he found Blair's heartbeat at the back of the loft, in the bathroom. Great. Grumbling to himself about the kid's timing, he reluctantly let go of the bags in his right hand and dug out his keys. Getting the door unlocked, he held it open with one shoulder while he tossed the keys into the basket on the small table by the door and managed to pick up all the bags he had put down. Finally wrangling all the bags onto a counter in the kitchen, he stopped for a few seconds to catch his breath then called out to Blair.

"Hey, Blair! I'm home. Come on out and see what I got."

As he started to unload of the first grocery bag, Jim noticed that the note and prescription vials had been moved. Good. That meant Blair had read it and took his medicine. So where was he? Just as he was about to call out again, the unmistakable smell of vomit assaulted his nose. What the—? Dropping a loaf of bread, he hurried back to the bathroom.

The sight that greeted Jim left him motionless for a moment. Blair, fully dressed except for shoes, was sitting on the floor, sprawled against the front of the bathtub. One arm was stretched across the edge of the tub with Blair's head resting on it, his long hair falling across his face, covering it. His other arm was wrapped around his stomach. The smell coming from the toilet almost made Jim gag. As he stood there, a low moan came from beneath the now clean and shiny strands of hair. That sound spurred Jim into action.

The first thing he did was to flush the toilet. Then he knelt down and carefully moved the hair away from Blair's face and put one hand across his forehead. The young slave's skin was a pasty white and felt cold and clammy.

"Hey, Chief. What's going on?"

Blair startled at the sound. His eyes flew open to reveal dull, pained filled blue orbs. "Master? You're home?" He tried to sit up straighter. "I'm sorry. I-I—"

Jim held him down with one hand firmly holding onto a thin shoulder. "Hey. Hey. It's all right. Slow down. Take it easy. Just tell me what happened. Are you all right?"

Blair's eyes widened as he tightened his arm around his stomach as the nausea stated rolling upwards again. "I'm gonna—I'm gonna—"

"It's all right." Jim helped Blair once again lean over the toilet and knelt behind him, holding his hair back, even though all the slave managed was barely more than several rounds of dry heaves. Exhausted, Blair fell back with another small moan, not seeming to notice that he was leaning against his master, practically sitting in his lap. He was barely aware of the arm that came across his chest, holding him in place or the hand that gently pressed against his forehead until his head was resting on a strong shoulder. He just knew that, at least for the moment, he felt marginally human again. A small sigh escaped.

"You feeling any better now?"

Blair nodded. "Little. Stomach hurts and my throat's sore."

They sat on the floor like that for a few more minutes, until Jim was reasonably sure that Blair wasn't going to get nauseous again.

"Think you can sit up by yourself for a minute?"

"Yeah."

Jim eased himself from behind Blair and leaned him back against the tub. He returned a few seconds later with a glass of water and a wet washcloth. He had Blair rinse out his mouth a few times, spitting the water into the toilet, then sip the rest of the water. After flushing the mess away, he wiped the still pale and sweaty face, noting how Blair closed his eyes and relaxed under his ministrations. After putting the glass and cloth on the sink, he knelt down beside Blair again.

"Okay, Chief. You ready to get out of here?"

At Blair's nod, he helped the smaller man up and held him until he was steady. Keeping one arm around the slim shoulders, he guided him down the hallway.

"Let's go into the living room. That way I can keep an eye on you while I finish putting the groceries away."

Blair was situated much as he had been on his first night, stretched out on the couch with pillows behind his back and the afghan covering him, but this time with a bottle of water to help ease the pain of his raw throat. Once he was sure Blair was comfortable, Jim returned to the kitchen and resumed emptying the grocery bags. "After I get these put away, I'll fix you something light to eat. It'll help settle your stomach. How does some soup and crackers sound?"

Blair kept his head down. "Whatever you say, Master."

Even though Blair was obviously embarrassed at having been found in the bathroom, throwing up, Jim was determined to find out the reason why. He figured that a little distance would make things easier so he continued working in the kitchen while he talked.

"So, what happened? When did you start getting sick?"

Blair swallowed another sip of water. It really did make his throat feel better. "Earlier this afternoon. I was watching T.V. when it just hit me." He looked up with a fearful, guilty look on his face.

"Blair, it's okay for you to watch T.V. while you're here alone. Now, what else did you do today?"

Relieved that he wasn't in trouble, Blair relaxed a bit as he answered. "Um. After I got up this morning, I went into the kitchen and saw your note. I tried to read the pill bottles but I couldn't, so I took one of each pill. Then I looked all around in here to see if I could figure out what I'm supposed to do. Everything's so neat; I couldn't find anything that needed cleaning. After that I decided I really needed a shower. It ended up being a lot harder than I'd figured to wash my hair. After I cleaned up the bathroom, I came out here to comb out my hair. That took a long time, too. By the time I finished, my arms and wrists and back were really hurting. I tried to read the medicine bottles again so I could figure out which were the pain pills, but I still couldn't, so I took two of each to make sure I took enough. I was watching T.V. again when suddenly I started feeling really nauseous; I just made it into the bathroom. It seemed like every time I tried to get up, I got sick again."

By that time Jim had gotten the groceries put away and was starting on the soup. "Okay. First off, your main job right now is to heal up. Don't worry about what else you're supposed to be doing. We'll deal with that later, when you're better. Second, what did you mean by you couldn't read the medicine bottles? I know you can read. You even said you read my note. And if you couldn't read them, how did you know how far apart to take the pills?"

"I can read. But when I tried to read the bottles, the words were all blurry. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make them out. The first time I just took one of each. The second time I knew I needed two of the pain pills so I took two of each."

Jim shook his head, amazed at Blair's ignorance about taking medication. "How much did you eat today?" Each bottle had a little yellow label warning that the contents had to be taken with food.

Startled by the seemingly unrelated question, Blair's eyes widened again. "Nothing, Master. I swear. You didn't give me permission to touch any of your food, so I didn't. You can check and see, everything you left is still there." Memories of the beating Mr. Shaw gave him the one time he ate a candy bar someone had left in the barn were still strong. After that incident, he wasn't even allowed to touch the food brought to him until Mr. Shaw gave him permission. Which usually only came after the food had grown cold and unappetizing.

Startled by Blair's reaction to his question, Jim looked closely at his newly acquired slave. Blair was still too pale, although the color was slowly returning to his face. His voice was also bit hoarse from the raw throat. No doubt his stomach muscles hurt, too. But what really bothered Jim was that not only had Blair not eaten anything all day, but that he was terrified that Jim would think that he had.

Leaving the soup on low to simmer, Jim picked up the newspaper he had bought with the groceries and walked over to Blair. He sat on the coffee table next to the younger man. "The soup'll be ready in a few minutes." He made sure he had Blair's attention. "But for right now, let's get something perfectly clear. You can eat anything you want whenever you want." When Blair just continued to stare at him, Jim rephrased his statement. "All right, let me put it this way. You have my permission to eat or drink anything you want, anytime you want, whether I'm around or not. You don't even have to ask. You are not to go a whole day without eating again. Especially when you're taking any kind of medication. That's why you got sick. Taking a double dose of the antibiotic, plus the pain pills, on an empty stomach is definitely not the way to go. So, do we understand each other about this eating thing?"

At Blair's small nod, Jim relaxed and gentled his voice to address the other problem. "Good. Glad we got that settled. Now, about you not being able to read the medicine bottles."

"I tried, Master. I really did. I just couldn't."

"I know you did, Chief." He handed Blair the newspaper. "I want you to read the main headline for me."

After looking at Jim for a few seconds, Blair dropped his eyes to the paper and read the large headline. Jim smiled and then pointed to a somewhat smaller, bold print sentence that sat above one of the news stories. "Good. Now read that one." He watched as Blair squinted his eyes slightly as he read the smaller print. "Okay. Now read the first paragraph of the story." Blair had to squint even harder and move the paper forwards and backwards to be able to read the smaller type. When he finished, Jim pointed to the caption under one of the pictures on the page. "Read this." No matter how much Blair squinted and moved the paper, the words wouldn't come into focus. He finally looked up in defeat. "I can't. I can't make out the words." Jim gently took the paper out of Blair's hands and sat back.

"Is that what the writing on the medicine bottles looked like?"

"Yes."

"Well, I'd say you need glasses, Chief. I don't know if you'll need them all the time but definitely for reading." He got up and headed back towards the kitchen. "I'll take some time off tomorrow. The mall has one of those 'glasses in an hour' places. We'll get you fixed right up." Jim was silently fuming. After being forced in live in a probably inadequately lit barn for almost a year, it was no wonder Blair's eyes were bad. He may have even needed glasses while living with Professor Stoddard, but it was doubtful if anyone ever bothered to check.

Blair was stunned. "You're-you're going to get me glasses?"

Jim looked up from where he was ladling the soup into two bowls, a serious expression on his face. "Yes, I am. What happened here today could have been a lot worse if it had been a different kind of medication, say for instance, a powerful muscle relaxant or something. I won't risk you getting sick or hurt because you couldn't read a label or directions on something." He relaxed his stance and his expression. "Okay, you ready for some soup now?"

Knowing the discussion was over, but warmed by the sentiment his master had just shown towards him, Blair gave the larger man a small but grateful smile. "Yes, Master. I guess I could eat."


The next morning, Jim got Blair up before he left for work. After tending to Blair's injuries, which he realized he had forgotten to do the night before, he made sure the slave ate a decent breakfast. While giving Blair his pills, he showed him how he had color-coded the two prescription bottles. Using colored markers, he had drawn a big red dot on one lid and a big green one on the other. Red for pain pills and green for the antibiotic. "Just in case something comes up and I can't get away before you need to take them again. I also set the alarm on one of my old watches for when the next dose is due so you'll be sure to take it at the right time." Handing Blair the watch, he noticed how the younger man wouldn't meet his eyes as he slowly took it and strapped it on his wrist. "Hey, this is more for my peace of mind than anything else. Besides, you should have your glasses later today and then all of this won't matter any more. Right?"

"Yes, Master."

Swallowing a sigh, Jim plunged onward. "And enough of this 'Master' stuff. We already agreed that you weren't going to use that anymore. I didn't say anything last night because you weren't feeling good, but you need to get used to using 'Sir' from now on. Especially at the mall today. Speaking of which, my plan is to leave work around noon and come get you. I'll take the rest of the day off so we won't be rushed or anything. We can even eat lunch there, too. I'll call you right before I leave so you'll know I'm coming." He eyed Blair, who was still in his new sleeping attire of sweatpants and a t-shirt. "I expect you to be ready when I get here."

"I will be, Sir." Damn, but that was going to be hard to get used to saying all the time, especially in public.

"Good. I'd better get going. I'm sure Simon'll expect at least some work out of me this morning since I'm leaving early."

Jim headed for the door and took his jacket off the rack. He turned back around. "I want you to take it easy today. Just relax and watch T.V. or something until it's time to go. I'll call you later." He knew he was procrastinating but was reluctant to leave. Finding Blair in the bathroom like that the night before had set off a, hitherto unknown, but now very large, overprotective streak in him. He'd done everything he could think of to make sure Blair would be all right until he returned, but still, leaving him alone just felt wrong. His instincts were screaming at him to stay. But he had a job to do; people were counting on him. Not to mention it would be hard enough to ask for half a day off if he showed up late to begin with. Putting on his jacket, he opened the door, determined to make himself go through it. "I'll see you in a few hours. Bye." Not giving Blair a chance to say anything, he stepped through the door and pulled it closed behind him, using that same momentum to turn and quickly walk down the hallway to the elevator.

Blair stared at the closed door for a few seconds before turning his eyes downward to look at his watch-covered wrist. The differences between his current home and his last one were mind boggling.

Getting up from the table, Blair carried the dirty dishes to the kitchen sink. Today Master, no, Sir, he mentally corrected, had left all the breakfast dishes so he at least could do something to start feeling like he was earning his keep.

Dishes done and the kitchen clean, Blair looked around for anything else he could do. Taking the pain pills on time really made a difference in how he felt. A quick check of the upstairs bedroom showed that it didn't need any further attention. No point in cleaning the bathroom until he was finished in it. Grabbing the bag from his room, he entered the bathroom. Again, it looked as if it had never been used. Sighing, he removed what he needed and got himself ready to face the day. He already knew that the small room wouldn't look as good when he finished.

Not taking a shower and having to wash his hair cut his morning ablutions down considerably. Returning to his room, he picked an outfit. He was soon dressed with his hair combed and pulled back. Now all he had to do was wait. At least he was allowed to watch TV.

A few hours later Blair was so engrossed in a show that the sudden, loud ringing of the phone startled him. He stared at it, not sure what to do. He'd never answered the phone at Master Eli's; that was one of house slave's jobs. And of course there was no phone in the barn. Sir said he would be calling and probably expected him to answer it. But what if it wasn't Sir? What if it was someone calling for his master? Each ring seemed to get louder and more impatient sounding. Cautiously reaching out his hand, Blair gingerly picked up the handset and raised it to his ear.

"Uh. Master Ellison's house. Can I help you?"

"Blair? Is anything wrong? What took you so long to answer?" Worry and impatience colored the detective's voice.

"I-I didn't know if I was supposed to answer it, in case it wasn't you. And I wasn't sure what to say." Worry and uncertainly colored the slave's reply.

There was a slight pause before Jim spoke again. "Haven't you ever answered a phone before?"

"No."

Another brief pause. "Oh. Okay. Listen, I'm leaving the station now and should be home in about 20 to 30 minutes. Are you ready to go?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Good. I've got the rest of the day off so we can eat lunch at the mall while we're there. And Blair?"

"Yes, Sir?"

"It's okay about the phone. You did fine. I'll be there soon."

"Yes, Sir."

Jim hung up but left his hand on the handset. Blair had never answered a phone before. It made him wonder what other everyday things he had never experienced. The impression he'd gotten so far was that Blair, while receiving a great education, was kept fairly secluded at his first home, with only occasional educational trips off the estate with Prof. Stoddard. From there he went to almost a solid year of isolation, living in a barn. No wonder Blair was so nervous about almost everything he did, always afraid of doing anything wrong—almost everything was new to him. So apparently he was going to be the one to show the kid how the world worked while at the same time trying to raise his badly damaged self-esteem.

Jim grinned as he grabbed his jacket off the back of his chair. Let the lessons begin.


Following Jim through the Riverside Mall's main doors, Blair couldn't help constantly looking around. It was so big and spacious. His mother had told him about shopping malls, but to actually be in one was much different. The mall was two levels high, and filled with every type of store imaginable. The only other place where he'd seen this many people at one time had been on the Rainier campus with Master Eli.

As two pretty, young women passed by, one of them smiled at him. Blair stopped and turned his head, slack jawed, as he watched them as they continued down the mall. A citizen had not only acknowledged him, she had smiled at him, too!

Jim, sensing that Blair was no longer behind him, turned around just in time to see the younger man do his stunned statue imitation. Smiling to himself, he reached out and grabbed a leather-covered arm.

"Come on, Romeo. You can check out the ladies later."

The tug on his sleeve pulled Blair out of his stupor. Excited dark blue eyes lit up as he fell into step beside Jim. His hands began waving around as he starting speaking.

"Sir? Do you see this place? It's like a... a microcosm of society all contained in one place. The people in here seem to cross all economic and class levels yet everyone has no problem relating to each other. The common bond of obtaining material goods seems to transcend the usual sociological differences. Don't you think so, Sir?"

It was hard for Jim to hide his amusement at the suddenly animated, intellectual Blair. Not knowing exactly where the vision care business was located, he'd been forced to use the mall's front entrance. But watching Blair's reactions to the mall was making this a rather entertaining walk. This had to be how he was when he lived with Professor Stoddard. "Sure, Chief. It's the first thing I think of when I come to the mall." He pointed towards a side corridor. "C'mon, I think the eye place is down this way."


Once she determined that he was a new patient, the woman behind the counter at OptiEyes Eye Care Center handed Blair a clipboard full of forms and a pen. Sitting beside Jim, he looked at the paperwork. "How do they expect me to fill all these out if the main reason I'm here is because I need glasses to read?"

Jim chuckled. "Good point." Reaching over, he took the clipboard out of Blair's hands. "It might be easier if I fill them out anyway since I know more of the information they need." He looked down and started reading. "First name. Blair." After filling in the line he continued. "Hmmm. Middle name."

"Jacob."

"Jacob?" Most slaves didn't have a second name.

"Jacob."

He wrote down the name. Oh boy. "Last name."

Jim scowled at the form. This was even trickier because technically slaves didn't have last names, much like pets. Owners used their own last name as the slave's surname on all official forms and documents concerning their slaves. Using his last name would imply that they were possibly related. Then they'd either have to starting lying every time they filled out any type of paperwork and say they were related or would have to constantly explain that they weren't. This, in turn, could raise some suspicions about their true relationship. He didn't want anyone questioning Blair about how he was dressed or why he wasn't sitting in the back of the room, waiting until all the freeborn patients were finished before getting his eyes examined.

"Sandburg."

Jim looked over, raising an eyebrow. "What?"

"My last name is Sandburg. Same as my mother's. She always told me that my name is Blair Jacob Sandburg." There was just a hint of defiance in the younger man's voice, almost as if daring anyone to say anything different.

"Okay. Good. That actually makes things easier." Jim resumed writing. "Blair Jacob Sandburg it is. Now, address. 852 Prospect Ave, Apartment 307, Cascade."

Blair tapped the address with his finger. "Could you write that down for me? And the home phone number? I already have your work and cell numbers from the note you left." He shrugged. "Just seems like something I should know."

Jim just wanted to get the paperwork done as quickly as possible. "Okay, but not right now. Let's get this finished so you can get your eyes checked out."

After that it didn't take long to finish and hand the completed forms back in. The receptionist suggested they look at frames while they waited.

The sheer number of choices nearly overwhelmed both men. Blair had virtually no experience in choosing things for himself and Jim, being a sentinel, had never needed glasses. When it became obvious that neither one of them had a clue about picking out frames, a female employee offered her assistance. After much trial and error, and a lot of laughing at how Blair looked in some of the styles, everyone agreed on a nice pair of small wire frames. Once they had Blair's prescription, they would grind and put in the lenses.

When Blair's name was called, Jim accompanied him back into the examination room. The doctor looked as if he were going to object to the extra person but after seeing the larger man's determined face and his patient's nervous one, he relented.

Having discovered that most of his patient's anxiety was due to never having had his eyes examined before, the doctor made it a point to explain each step of the procedure as he went. As Blair calmed down, Jim found himself also becoming more relaxed and watching the whole process with interest. He found it interesting, and even a bit amusing, that he could easily read the smallest line on every eye chart the doctor showed Blair, though the office was kept fairly dark most of the time.

Finally the exam was over and the office lights turned back on.

"Well, Mr. Sandburg, you definitely need glasses for reading. I also strongly recommend that you wear them while driving or during any other detail-oriented activity. Many of my far-sighted patients, such as yourself, wear their glasses almost all the time. Since you've never worn glasses before, give yourself some time to adjust to wearing them. After a few days, you'll discover for yourself when you need to wear them and when you don't. So, do you have any questions about anything?"

After a quick glance over at Jim, who just nodded, Blair turned back to the eye doctor. "What do you mean by far-sighted? Is that bad?"

Slightly taken aback that someone his patient's age didn't know the difference between near-sighted and far-sighted, the doctor launched into a simple explanation of the most common types of eye problems. Walking over to a rack on the wall holding several pamphlets, he selected a few and gave them to Blair to read, telling him that if he had any more questions after reading them, he'd be happy to answer them for him. Jim decided he liked this doctor's attitude and that he would now be Blair's regular eye doctor.

Back in the main room again, the same woman who helped them pick out the frames now put them on Blair and took a series of measurements. After going over all the different options for the various types of lenses, Jim ordered two pair of glasses with almost every extra available as well as a pair of prescription sunglasses. They were told that the glasses would be ready in about two to three hours since the eye center was a bit backlogged at the moment and they were getting two pairs plus sunglasses made. After paying for all three pairs, Jim and Blair left saying they'd be back later to pick them up.

Next on the agenda was lunch. As they walked towards the food court, Blair spied a hair salon. Unconsciously his feet stopped moving as he looked through the large glass window and watched the activity inside. He couldn't help thinking about yesterday and the long, painful ordeal it had been just to wash and comb out his hair. The thought of having to go through that every time he took a shower was depressing. A small sigh escaped as he thought about how nice it would be to have a professional hair stylist cut his hair. A small tap on his upper arm had him looking up at Jim, embarrassed to have stopped.

"Do you want to get your hair cut, Chief?" Personally Jim thought Blair's hair was way too long, but had already decided that if that's how Blair wanted it, he wasn't going to say anything.

"No, Sir. I mean, yes, Sir, but I'm going to see if there's another slave in our building who would be willing to cut it for me. I'm sorry I stopped, Sir." He started to turn away but a tug on his arm stopped him.

"We've got plenty of time. Let's go see how soon we can get you an appointment." Spreading one hand across the back of the surprised slave's head, Jim practically had to push him through the door.

Blair spent most of the twenty-minute wait poring over hairstyle books and magazines, amazed that people could walk in and pick out a new hairstyle whenever they chose. He would laughingly show some of the more outlandish ones to Jim. But when Jim tapped his finger on a picture of male model with a stylish, but very short haircut, Blair's heart sank. He didn't want all his hair cut off. But nothing belonged to him, not even his hair. He slowly closed the book. The loud, laughing voice changed to barely audible. "Yes, Master."

The sudden change in Blair's demeanor startled Jim. The thin shoulders slumped and all the previous joy left the young slave's eyes, replaced by a resigned, almost defeated look. It was when he closed the book and called him 'Master' that Jim realized what had happened.

"Hey. I didn't mean you had to get your hair cut like that. That was just another option. Forget the books. You get your hair cut any way, any length you want. I mean it, Blair. It's your hair, you do whatever you want with it."

Blair's eyes slowly turned back upwards. "You-you mean that, Ma—" He quickly looked around, apparently forgetting he had already slipped once. Fortunately it was the middle of a weekday afternoon and they were the only ones currently waiting. "Sir?"

Jim sighed to himself. With Blair, it was one step forward, two back. "Yeah, Chief, I really mean it. When it comes to personal stuff like this, you call your own shots."

Any answer apart from a grateful smile was cut off when Blair's name was called.

After getting her newest customer settled in the chair with a large plastic cloth covering him, the stylist, who identified herself as Maggie, spent a few minutes oooing and ahhing over his long, thick mane. When she finally asked him what he wanted done to it today, Blair glanced over at Jim. Relaxing at the grin and thumbs up he got in return, he settled back and told her exactly how he wanted his hair cut.

Almost 45 minutes later, Blair was turned with his back to the large wall mirror, looking in a smaller hand mirror, checking out the back of his head. Maggie was standing beside him.

"So. What do you think?"

Blair tilted his head from side to side as he continued looking into the mirror. "It definitely feels lighter."

The stylist laughed as she looked down at the mounds of hair around the chair and her feet. "I'll bet. What about the length? I can take some more off it you want."

"No. No, this is just what I wanted. Thanks."

"Okay then, I guess we're done." Turning the chair around again, Maggie smiled as she removed and shook out the cape draped around Blair. "Personally, I think this length brings out those beautiful blue eyes of yours a lot more. Now to keep it this length and to prevent split ends, you'll probably need to come back and see me about once a month or so to get it trimmed, depending on how fast your hair grows."

Blair blushed slightly at the flirtatious comments, but he just nodded in response. The only way he could get it trimmed regularly would be to find another slave to do it for him. No way would Master bring him back here every month just so he could get his hair cut. Not to mention having to pay for it, too. But for now he would enjoy it. He shook his head, delighting in feeling his hair move freely for the first time in months.

Getting out of the chair, he turned to show his master his new haircut only to see... an empty chair. His next breath seemed to freeze in his chest.

It couldn't be.

What happened? Did Master just leave him here?

Over his wildly pounding heart, he could just barely make out Maggie telling him how much he had to pay for the haircut.

Pay? With what? Now everyone was going to find out that he wasn't a real person after all, only a slave.

Oh God. He was going to be punished for trying to pass himself off as a citizen. His head was spinning. What was going to happen to him now? Was he going to be arrested? Put in jail? Sold off to a new master?

From somewhere behind him, he heard voices talking. Then he was gently pushed down into a chair and a glass of water was in his hand. His hand was shaking so badly that water sloshed over the rim, then the glass was gone.

How long before they came and took him away? Propping his elbows on his knees he lowered his face into his hands, barely aware of the flurry of activity going on around him. Waiting for the inevitable.

It took several seconds before Blair registered the arm across his shoulders and the now easily recognizable voice that was just starting to break through his growing panic.

"C'mon, Blair. You're scaring everyone here. Talk to me. What's wrong, buddy?"

Blair slowly raised his head and turned to see the face he thought he'd never see again.

"S-Sir? You came back."

"Well, of course I did. A lady was getting a perm and the smell from the chemicals was getting to me. I had to get some fresh air. I was browsing around in the bookstore and didn't realize how long I'd been gone. You didn't think that I just deserted you here, did you?" The trembling shoulders and look on Blair's face told Jim that that was exactly what the younger man had thought. One step forward, two back. "You sit here for a minute while I settle everything, up then we can go get some lunch. I'll be right back." With a final pat on Blair's shoulder, Jim moved away.

After paying for Blair's haircut, to which he added a very generous tip, Jim collected his much calmer, though now very embarrassed, slave.

Neither man spoke as they walked to the mall's Food Court and picked out their respective lunches. Any other time Blair would have been delighted at the daunting task of choosing what to eat, but still shook up by what he thought had happened to him at the hair salon, his heart wasn't in it. He followed Jim up to a food counter and, after his master had ordered a burger meal, he selected a plain garden salad for himself.

Jim led them to an empty section of table and chairs, then selected a table in the farthest corner, assuring them as much privacy as possible in such a public place. Taking the chair across the small table from Blair, he divided up their food. Just as he was about to take his first bite, he noticed that Blair was sitting with his hands in his lap and his head bowed low. He made no move to touch his food. Even though Blair couldn't see him, Jim indicated the untouched food with his own burger.

"Blair. Eat."

Immediately, a still slightly shaking hand came out and picked up the plastic fork, spearing a bite of lettuce. It was dutifully chewed and swallowed. After the second bite was eaten, Jim started in own his own meal.

A few minutes later, Jim couldn't stand watching Blair mechanically eat his food. The heavy silence weighed on him.

"Look, Blair, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be gone for so long. It wasn't until I suddenly heard your heart start pounding that I looked at my watch and saw how late it was. Then I heard them asking you what was wrong and realized what was going on. I got back as soon as I could. Are you okay now?"

Looking up, Blair quickly swallowed the bite he was eating. "Yes, Sir. I just... I looked over and you weren't there and, for whatever reason, I thought you'd left me there. All I could think of was that I was going to be punished for trying to pass as a free citizen. I guess I panicked a little."

Jim held his thumb and index finger a short distance apart. "Yeah. Maybe just a little." That got him a small, embarrassed grin. "Blair, do you remember what I told you in the restaurant the other night?" Getting a puzzled look then a head shake, he continued. "I told you that you were with me now and that I wouldn't let anything happen to you. I meant it then and I mean it now. I know you've been through some really bad stuff but I promise you, that's all over with now. I'm sure I'll make some mistakes, like today, but I'm going to do my best to take good care of you. Understand?"

The soft reply reached across the table. "Yes, Sir. And I promise to do my best for you, too." The rest was barely muttered out loud. "As soon as I figure out what that's supposed to be."

"Later, Chief. When you're better." Reaching out a hand, Jim patted the curls that now just brushed past Blair's shoulders. "Hair looks good. I was thinking something a bit shorter, myself. But if that's what you want, that's all that matters."

"Yes, Sir. This is what I want."

"Okay then. Let's finish eating, then maybe kill some time doing a little window shopping until it's time to pick up your glasses."

Blair looked puzzled. "You want to buy some windows?"

"What?" Jim chuckled when he realized what Blair thought he meant. "No. No. Window shopping means just looking at things, usually through the store's big display windows, instead of actually buying anything." The look on the other man's face was priceless. "Never mind. You'll see."

After an hour of learning the fine art of window shopping, and another half hour spent at OptiEyes, Blair walked out of the vision care store still awed by how much better he could now see everything. Once all three pairs of glasses had been adjusted for a perfect fit, the clerk had handed him a card with several paragraphs written in progressively smaller type. Blair was amazed at now being able to read even the smallest print. Jim knew just the place to take him to celebrate his new found talent.

Just as Jim suspected, Blair's eyes grew large when, instead of leaving the mall after finishing at OptiEyes, he turned and headed into the large bookstore located on their level. "I was looking at a book in here when you finished at the hair place. I might as well pick it up while we're still here. Look around for anything that might interest you, too." He figured that anyone who was educated by a university professor had to miss not having any interesting books to read. His own taste in books mostly tended to run towards either military or law enforcement. Blair's 'kid in a candy store' expression proved that he was right. "Take your time, there's no rush. I'll find you when I'm done."

After finding his book and looking around himself for about 20 more minutes, Jim was ready to leave. He found Blair in the Reference and Research section, sitting on the floor with a small stack of books in front of him. On each side of that stack was a slightly smaller one and he was holding a book in each hand. A look of total indecision was on his face.

"Finding everything all right?"

Blair looked up, startled. "I can't decide which one to pick. They each have different types of information that I want to review." He indicated one of the smaller stacks of books. "These are some of the books that Master Eli used when I helped him with his research and these..." He pointed to the other small stack, "... came out since then so they probably have some new data in them. The ones in the middle are good general reference books to have on hand." He sighed. "I just can't decide which one would be the best to use to get the most information."

When Blair first looked up, Jim was also startled. Cleaned up, in his new clothes, haircut and glasses, Blair looked nothing like the shivering, frightened slave he first saw on the auction block. If it wasn't for the familiar sounding heartbeat, Jim almost wouldn't be able to recognize him as the same person. Sitting among the stacks of books, he now looked exactly what he had been trained since birth to be—a scholar. And a scholar should have books. Lots of books.

"Welll, how about if you pick out a few to take home now and we'll have the rest sent to the loft? And what about a good set of encyclopedias? Wouldn't hurt to have one of those around. While you're picking out which books to take now, I'll find out which is the best set available and have them order it. And if you think of any other books you want, get those, too." Jim had to smile at the look on the younger man's face. "Close your mouth, Chief. You look like you're catching flies. I'll meet you back here in a few minutes."

By the time Jim led a strangely silent Blair out of the bookstore, besides his one book, he carried the books that Blair had picked out as well as several notebooks and pens. He had noticed that two of the books were pertaining directly to sentinels; the others were general anthropology or research type books. While it pleased him that his slave had an interest in sentinels, at the same time, Jim hoped that Blair wouldn't be too disappointed when he found out that he was only a Level Three. While he didn't hide the fact that he was a sentinel, they had never really talked about it either. A thick, hard covered dictionary and a thesaurus completed the take-home inventory. The clerk had placed the plastic bags containing everything in a doubled up shopping bag to be sure Jim could carry the load to his car. The rest of Blair's books were to be delivered within a few days and the set of encyclopedias ordered, to be sent directly to the loft.

Once home again Jim decided that the first order of business was to get the bookcase and table up from the basement and into the new bedroom. Even though Blair had taken his antibiotic and pain pills at lunch, Jim refused to let him help carry either piece of furniture, only allowing him to clean them up once they were placed in the room. Then it was time to tackle putting the nightstand together.

With Blair reading the directions and Jim doing most of the manual labor, a new nightstand soon joined the futon, bookcase and table/desk in helping to transform the former storage space into a bedroom. Blair stood back, a bemused smile on his face, as Jim painstakingly arranged each piece of furniture. Only when everything was perfectly aligned to his exacting standards, did the sentinel allow Blair to place the clock radio and lamp on the nightstand and plug them in. While Jim busied himself setting the time on the clock, Blair pulled his old backpack from the closet and laid it on the futon. He reached inside and slowly pulled out something flat, heavily wrapped in paper. Tenderly unwrapping the paper, he looked at the object for a several seconds then lovingly placed the picture frame next to the clock.

Jim looked at the image of a happy, smiling Blair, albeit a few years younger. His hair was about the same length it was now and, although he was obviously wearing slave whites, his shirt was covered with a multicolored vest, similar to the one he had coveted in the department store. Next to Blair was a vivacious looking red-haired woman dressed in a colorful blouse. Even though both of them were sitting behind a table and were only visible from the waist up, the woman seemed to be taller than Blair. She had one arm around his shoulders and was also smiling. Sitting on the table in front of them was a white frosted cake glowing with lit candles.

"Your mother?"

He heard Blair swallow before nodding. "It was my 20th birthday. Master Eli took the picture. He died just before I turned twenty-one and then... well, you know. It's the only picture I have of her. One of the other slaves at Master Decker's kept my backpack safe for me after I was sent to the barn. He gave it to me as I was leaving for Mr. Coleman's place."

"She's very pretty."

"Yeah. She is... was." Blair turned away from the picture, and very slowly and carefully returned the worn backpack to the closet.

Sensing that Blair wasn't ready yet to talk about his mother, Jim also turned away from the nightstand and spotted the shopping bag from the bookstore sitting in the doorway of the room. His stomach chose that moment to remind him that lunch had been several hours ago.

"Why don't you put away your things from the bookstore while I go fix us up something for dinner? You can even start deciding how you want to organize the bookcase with the other books once they get here."

Pleased to see Blair relax when he realized that he wasn't going to be pushed to talk, Jim left to start cooking.

Dinner was a simple but filling meal of pork chops, rice and green beans. Blair decided not to think about how much fat and cholesterol was in each chop. He was hungry and they smelled soo good. Jim noted that while Blair didn't ask for seconds, he did eat every bite when he refilled his plate. And he had never seen anyone enjoy a slice of store bought pie so much before. After dinner, they did the dishes together, Blair drying to avoid getting his wrist bandages wet. Jim spent some time that evening watching TV while Blair sat nearby, his nose buried in one of his new books. Occasionally he would come up for air long enough to look over at Jim or stare off into space for a few minutes, then write something in one of the notebooks. It was the most content and relaxed the younger man had looked since Jim had first seen him.

When it came time to turn in, Blair showered; Jim carefully applied the ointment, then rewrapped the wounds, relieved to see that all of them were healing nicely, though Blair still flinched a bit when his ankle was manipulated or a particularly tender whip mark was touched. Jim had found that by having him take his shower, then treating the wounds, at night meant that Blair didn't have to worry about it in the morning and assured the detective plenty of hot water for his morning shower. Shortly after the last bandage was in place, Blair gathered up his books, bid Jim goodnight and headed off to his room for the night. The detective noted that, even though Blair's ankle was still healing, his limp was a lot less noticeable, unless he was tired or had been on his feet for too long. Relieved that the young slave was physically recovering so well from the abuse he has suffered, Jim headed off to bed himself.

Blair climbed into bed and reluctantly removed his glasses, placing them in their case before putting them on the nightstand. Propping himself up on the pillows, he reached over and picked up the picture frame. For a minute he just looked at the images, slowly tracing one finger around his mother. Then he spoke, his voice barely a whisper.

"Hi, Mama. Look where I am. I'm not in the barn anymore. I'm in my own room. It's a nice room, Mama; I really like it. And look, Master Ellison bought me clothes and glasses and books. And even gave me his own watch to wear. Except that I'm not supposed to call him Master, he wants me to call him Sir. Did you ever hear of such a thing? Me neither. I miss you, Mama, so much. But I think I'm gonna be all right here, so now you don't have to worry about me anymore. Good night, Mama. I love you."

Upstairs Jim heard the sound of the picture being put back and the click of the lamp being turned off. He listened until he was sure Blair had made himself comfortable and was drifting off to sleep. The young slave's words had touched him deeply and he added his own personal vow to Naomi Sandburg to keep a close watch over her son in her stead. Secure in the knowledge that all was right in his world for the night, the sentinel also drifted off to sleep.


The next several days were relatively uneventful. Except for Blair's panicked call to Jim at work when the Home Depot installers arrived with the shelves and doors. Jim calmly told him to let them in and to show them where he wanted the shelves put up. That night Blair proudly showed off the new additions to his room. He seemed especially pleased with the French doors he had picked out himself. Two days later Jim came home to find Blair in his room happily putting away the newly arrived shipment that the bookstore had delivered. The bottom shelf of the bookcase was kept empty, waiting for the yet-to-arrive set of encyclopedias. Fortunately the bookstore order had included more notebooks with the reference books; Jim had noticed that Blair was rapidly filling up the ones he already had. The dictionary and thesaurus were sitting upright on the back edge of the desk, alongside the slightly chipped Cascade PD mug he had given Blair to use as a pencil holder. The new stack of notebooks sat there, too. Jim had to smile. Blair looked totally in his element handling the books. In fact, he was already thinking in terms of a getting him another bookcase so he could add even more to his collection. And maybe a real desk, with drawers.

The return trip to the doctor to have Blair's injuries checked proved to be rather entertaining. Much to Jim's amusement, Dr. Morrison scanned Blair's chip twice, at first not believing that this was the same slave he had treated just two weeks prior. Once the exam was over, he declared that Blair was healing much better than he had expected and that the slave could stop the oral antibiotics when the current prescription ran out. When he had his patient stand on the scale, the doctor stated that while he was still underweight, seeing the difference from the last time, he was sure that Blair would soon be up to his normal weight. If he had any comments about the slave's clothes or the fact that he referred to his owner as 'Sir' and not 'Master', he wisely kept them to himself. Dr. Morrison told Jim to keep using the ointment and bandages as usual for the next week, but only on the worst wounds. Unless there was a problem, he wouldn't need to see Blair again for another four weeks. As they left, Jim scheduled the next appointment at the front desk.


After one month of living together, the two men had settled into a comfortable routine. It turned out that Blair was a pretty good cook, having learned the basics from Eli Stoddard's kitchen staff while living at his first master's house. When Jim arrived home from work after a long, tiring day, a hot dinner was waiting for him. While they ate, Jim would tell Blair about his day and whatever cases he was currently investigating. After eating, they would share clean-up duties. The detective was surprised, and secretly pleased, at his slave's interest in police work and, in particular, his own cases. He was also surprised at the intelligent and often insightful questions coming from someone with no previous law enforcement background.

Evenings usually found Jim relaxing by reading the paper and watching TV. Blair joined him in the living room, although, often as not, even as he avidly watched whatever was on, the former scholar was busy poring over one his of books and always writing away in a notebook. Watching television was still a new treat to the young slave, so Jim tried to pick a wide variety of programs, occasionally letting him choose what they watched. Sometimes Blair seemed to ignore the TV. After noticing this happening a few times, Jim asked if he wasn't interested in the program. When Blair hesitantly replied that he couldn't hear it, the older man sheepishly raised the volume, not even aware of how low it had been. Blair had just grinned, then dropping his head, he quickly made some new notes in his notebook. As Blair became more comfortable speaking freely around him, the younger man's apt and often amusing comments during various shows reminded Jim of his slave's unique and well rounded education, while also showing off a rather quirky sense of humor.

Jim, like many red-blooded American males, was heavily into sports. Whenever he had the time, usually on weekends, he would find different types of sporting events on TV. He tried to explain the nuances of each one to Blair as they watched. The detective watched just about everything: ballgames, fishing, golf, even bowling. The young slave soon assumed that his master expected him to become well versed in every sport they watched. On their subsequent trips to the mall bookstore, he passed over his personally favored books, and instead picked out ones on the different types of contests Jim seemed interested in, trying to memorize their history as well as all the confusing rules. It didn't take long for Jim to realize that Blair wasn't enjoying himself when they watched sports on TV. He was trying too hard to memorize every player, every move and every rule, as if he were going to be tested on them later. The treasured reference books and notebooks were gone, replaced by a book on whatever sport they were watching. Once he identified the problem, Jim gently explained to Blair that watching sports was supposed to be fun, that he didn't expect someone who had never been exposed to this type of entertainment before to understand everything about all the different types of games all at once. And that, although the books contained a lot of useful information, the best way to learn was to watch and ask questions. With the pressure off of him, between the books he had already read and his own sharp mind, it didn't take long for Blair to grasp the basics, then the more subtle details, of virtually every type of sport that they watched. Basketball quickly became his favorite and he was soon an ardent Jaguars fan.

As Blair continued to heal physically and the weather turned nicer, Jim enjoyed taking him out and exposing him to culturally based, as well as just for fun, places not usually experienced by slaves. He started with few trips to the mall to help Blair become more comfortable being around other people again, especially free citizens. And if each trip always seemed to end with a visit to the bookstore and a few more books to add to Blair's second, larger bookcase, so what?

As Jim had expected, the city's expansive museum was a big hit, as was the art gallery, with souvenirs from each place gracing the new shelves in Blair's room.

Shortly after Blair made his newfound fondness for basketball known, Jim got them tickets to a Jags home game. He had as much fun watching Blair at the slave's first live game as he did watching the players. They both left the arena sporting brand new official Jags baseball caps.

Blair's excitement at actually seeing many of the animals he had only seen on TV or in books made the trip to the zoo enjoyable for both of them. Jim helped by pointing out the shyer animals that seemed to be trying to hide from all the prying eyes on them. When they later visited the small petting zoo, it was harder for Jim to tell who was enjoying petting and feeding the tamer, more domestic animals more—Blair or the children there.

Even though Blair had watched some TV before, he had never been to a movie theatre. Jim picked a new action flick he'd wanted to see anyway to remedy that situation. He sprang for popcorn, soda and candy, which were new treats for Blair. Afterwards, they stopped for ice cream, which had the young slave relishing his first banana split.

One of the most touching moments for Jim came when they were in the large main branch of the Cascade Public Library. Blair was thrilled just to be there but when Jim took him to the central desk and announced that Mr. Blair Sandburg needed a library card, the look on the smaller man's face made the drive over more than worth it. A short time later Blair was reverently holding a card with his name and his picture on it that stated he was now authorized to check out books from any public library in the city. For one scary moment, Jim thought that Blair was going hug him right there in front of everyone, but instead he took out his wallet and reverently placed the new card in it. Jim noticed that the only other thing in there was one of his Cascade PD business cards that he had given to him earlier.

Despite all the exciting places he'd been, it turned out that Blair's favorite place of all was a small park just a few blocks from the loft. After spending almost a year locked away in a barn, having the freedom to walk around outside, able to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature, was just the balm the young slave's tortured soul needed. It was here that Blair was most at peace. Jim was glad that it was early spring. That meant they had several more months of nice weather ahead of them before the returning colder temperatures would limit how often they could enjoy being outdoors. Watching Blair's absolute delight in something as simple walking through the trees or feeding the ducks in the lake never failed to soothe Jim's own soul and bring a smile to his face. He knew he and Blair would be spending a lot of time here.

As they sat in the living room one night, not doing anything out of the ordinary, Jim realized that, gradually, over the past several weeks the loft had become a place he now looked forward to returning to after being away instead of just a place to eat and sleep. It had become—home. He glanced over at the person he had never planned on having in his life but now couldn't imagine not having around. While their legal status was that of master and slave, that was far from how he felt. It was hard to put into words exactly what he felt towards Blair. Just being around the younger man made him feel calmer, more relaxed and at ease with himself and everyone around him. Although the doctor had recently given Blair a clean bill of health and his wounds were now almost entirely healed, when Blair hurt, he hurt, and he knew he would do anything to stop Blair from hurting. Just thinking about how he had first found the young slave, chained to the ground in Coleman's tent, and the abuse he had suffered, brought out that new, but very large, protective streak in him. Blair belonged with him now, and not just as a slave, and God help anybody who tried to hurt him or take him away.

Almost as if he knew Jim was thinking about him, Blair raised his eyes from the book he was reading and smiled at him, then resumed reading. Blair and his books. Jim smiled to himself. He had already taken Blair to the local branch of the library twice since getting him the card. He was like a kid in a candy store. If books made Blair happy, he saw no reason why the kid shouldn't have as many as he could fit in his backpack. It was amazing at first how fast he went through them, until Jim realized that Blair was home all day with not much else to do. He felt a bit guilty about that, but at the same time, he didn't know what he could do about it. Besides, he worried less about Blair while at work, knowing that he was safe at home. Blair seemed happy enough and that was good enough for now.

Jim's attention was drawn back to the TV. They'd been watching the evening news and there was a picture of the Renaissance Market behind the anchorwoman. When he noticed Blair leaning forward, straining to hear the newscast, he guiltily turned up the volume.

"... taken Health Inspectors several weeks but the source of the numerous outbreaks of food poisonings around the city has finally been traced to some of the food stands located at the Renaissance Market. Edward Turner is standing by live at the Market with the story. Ed?"

The TV picture changed from the anchorwoman sitting behind the desk to a man standing outside holding a microphone with the station's news logo on it.

"Thank you, Tina. I'm standing in front of Friar Tuck's, one of the food vendors here at the Renaissance Market that specializes in the large turkey legs, which are a Market staple. About two months ago, doctors and hospitals began seeing an alarming increase in the number of what they first suspected were food poisoning cases. The Health Department was called in to investigate. Because almost all of the victims had visited here prior to getting sick, the Renaissance Market vendors were considered the most likely source of the outbreaks, but they were ultimately given a clean bill of health. It wasn't until a Level Six sentinel and guide pair was added to the investigation that the culprit was discovered. It turns out that there was a new, and until now, unknown parasite found in the meat that some of the vendors were using. Many of the vendors had recently signed up with a new meat supply company that, it turned out, was buying cheap, ungraded beef and poultry from less than reputable sources. The parasite is virtually odorless and tasteless and apparently not always killed by cooking. According to the Health Department, the meat company, All Good Meats, has been closed down and all the tainted meat recovered."

"Well that's a relief. So how was the tainted meat finally discovered?"

"As I said, the parasite is virtually undetectable, at least to most people. The original inspection was done by Level Four sentinels. In most cases, they can find food contaminants very easily. But this time, it wasn't until the Level Six sentinel was brought in that the new parasite was finally discovered. Fortunately, it turns out that All Good Meats is, or rather, was, a new company in the area and so far had only supplied the contaminated meat to the Renaissance Market vendors. The Health Department has now re-issued a complete clean bill of health to all the food vendors here and has also issued a news bulletin to assure everyone that it is perfectly safe to once again enjoy all the good food available here at Cascade's popular Renaissance Market." The reporter lifted a large turkey leg to his mouth and took a bite. Brandishing the leg, he looked directly at the camera again. "Back to you, Tina."

"Thank you, Ed. And thank goodness for that Level Six sentinel. Coming up after the break, up to the minute weather with..."

Jim clicked off the TV. Something about the news story was bothering him but he couldn't quite figure out what it was.

Blair's soft voice broke into his thoughts. "Just think, Sir, if it hadn't been for you, we would have gotten sick, too."

"What?"

"Don't you remember? The day you bought me. We stopped to eat on the way out. Your friend wanted to eat at one turkey leg vendor but you said it didn't smell right, so we went to a different one. You said that one smelled okay. If we had eaten at the first place, we would have gotten sick too, just like all those other people. Good thing we had a high level sentinel with us. It's just too bad you didn't know about the contaminated meat back then. It would have stopped a lot of other people from getting sick."

For a moment Jim was too surprised to speak. He did remember the incident. Although he'd never hidden the fact that he was a sentinel from Blair, he'd never been very overt about it either. As a Level Three, there wasn't a whole lot he could do anyway. It wasn't that he didn't use his senses. Even at a low level they came in handy for things like monitoring a suspect's vital signs to determine if he wasn't being entirely truthful or seeing and hearing things that other non-sentinel cops sometimes missed. But for the most part he relied more on instinct and training than on his senses. So what was all this Blair was saying about him being a high level sentinel? "Blair, that thing with the bad meat must have been a fluke or a coincidence or something. I've had all the mandatory Sentinel Center tests and I've always been rated a Level Three. That's all."

Blair stared at him wide-eyed then shook his head. He held up both index fingers. "Wait one minute. I want to show you something." Then he disappeared into his room.

When Blair returned, he had his notebooks with him. Sitting down beside Jim, he opened the first one and turned a few pages. "I've been keeping notes, Sir. Everything pertaining to your sentinel abilities starting from day one." He pointed to the page. "Here's the first time you made a reference to hearing my heartbeat, right after Mr. Coleman told everyone what happened to my... my mother." Blair swallowed then seemed to give himself an internal shake as he continued. "I heard you tell your friend that you could hear my heart rate spike. Later, after the auction, you told him that you'd heard what the other bidder had planned for me. At that time, he was standing a pretty good distance away with several people talking in between you two, but you apparently heard every word. Then, of course, you smelled the contaminated meat that even a trained Level Four didn't detect, and you weren't even looking for a problem. That night you smelled the pizza, probably as soon as it entered the building. And that was only the first day."

Blair turned towards a stunned Jim. "Now there are a lot of my own personal observations and comments in here that we can go over later, and of course everything that happened before I got the notebooks I had to write from memory so I might have even forgotten a few things." He turned back to the notebook, turning pages and later switching notebooks as he talked. As a silent Jim just listened, Blair began cataloguing time after time when he'd used overly heightened senses, often without even realizing it. Most were from direct observations at home and during all their various outings. Things such as Jim not realizing that Blair couldn't hear the TV because he had the volume set so low. Smelling what the neighbor's were making for dinner. Realizing Blair's situation at the beauty salon. Hearing what people were whispering to each other across the spacious library. Spotting small, well-camouflaged animals hiding in the bushes at the zoo. Finding the 'secret' ingredients Blair used when cooking. Others were incidents Jim had told Blair about, usually pertaining to his job. Reading a license plate number from over a block away. Hearing a suspect's conversation from outside the building they were watching. 'Reading' what was on a notepad by feeling the impressions left behind. Knowing what flavor coffee his captain was brewing in his office as soon as he stepped into the bullpen. With each new notebook, the number of examples grew.

When he finished with the last notebook, Blair began stacking them together, placing them on his lap. "So you see, Sir, there's just no way you're only a Level Three. Based on what I've personally observed or what you've told me, and comparing that with the standard criteria for sentinels, I figured you to be a Five or maybe even a Six. That incident with the tainted meat just proves that I was right. A Three?" He shook his head. "Whatever were they thinking when they tested you?" Blair looked up, his face totally serious. "Sir. You need to demand to be retested. Either something was very wrong last time or your senses have changed since then."

Jim didn't know what to say. The evidence was all right there, in Blair's neat, precise handwriting. There was no denying that each incident he described actually happened. So that was what Blair had been writing in his notebooks almost every night, recording and researching his observations about him. But how could it be possible that he had been using his senses at such a high level and not even been aware of it? Even as he asked himself that, another, unrelated question popped into his mind.

"Blair? Why were you doing all this? What made you even want to keep track of my sentinel abilities?"

Immediately Blair dropped his eyes. "I'm sorry, Sir. I didn't mean to invade your privacy or anything. If it bothers you, I won't do it any more."

"No. I'm not upset. In fact, if this turns out to be right, I'll be grateful to you for bringing it to my attention. I'm just wondering why you started doing this in the first place."

Visibly relieved, Blair raised his eyes to meet Jim's. "Master Eli."

Professor Stoddard had been dead for over a year now. "What does he have to do with any of this?"

A small smile appeared as Blair answered. "Master Eli was a great anthropologist. One of the major leaders in the field. He was disappointed when none of his children followed in his footsteps. When I showed an interest, I guess he was happy to have a willing student to pass his knowledge on to. Even if it was only a slave. He not only taught me out of textbooks, he took me to exhibits and museums and when I was old enough even let me sit in on some of his lectures and seminars at Rainier. I loved everything about anthropology and soaked it up like a sponge. He also taught me about the abstract parts of being an anthropologist. Things like doing research and being a good observer and taking meticulous notes. He often said that observing without interfering and detailed documentation were the hallmarks of a good anthropologist." The smile was replaced by a sad, wistful look. "Even though we both knew that I could never actually be an anthropologist, he enjoyed teaching me and I just loved learning everything about the field."

Jim felt a pang of regret himself for the all those years of learning going to waste. "Well, at least you both got something out of it. Not to belittle what you've just told me, but I still don't see what any of this has to do with me."

The smile returned. "Although anthropology was always Master's first love, he had a fascination, an obsession almost, with sentinels." At Jim's raised eyebrows he continued. "You see Master Eli's younger sister, Miss Ellena, is a Level Five sentinel. He told me that from the time he was a young boy, he'd wanted to know why, since he and his sister had the exact same genetic heritage, she was a sentinel and he had no heightened senses at all. So, during his numerous expeditions around the world, Master would document any sentinel and guide pairs he came in contact with. He also kept notes on any pertinent information about sentinels he came across while researching other current or ancient civilizations. While he was still an active anthropologist, he didn't have much time to divulge in his sentinel studies, so he mainly just kept notes. Lots of notes. By the time I came along and was old enough for him to start teaching, he had retired from fieldwork and was the head of Anthropology at Rainier. He now had the time and resources to actively pursue his sentinel interests."

Blair paused. Seeing that he still had Jim's full attention, he pushed on. "When I got old enough, I kind of became his research assistant. It was a great way for me to use the skills he was teaching me as an anthropologist. I helped organize all the notes he had collected over the years. Sometimes he would drop me off at the campus library to do research when he went in to work. I was present when he interviewed several sentinels and sometimes sentinel/guide pairs. Because of his reputation as a leading anthropologist and his position at the University, he was allowed access to The Sentinel Center and a lot of sentinel research material not usually available to the public. He, actually we, because he usually took me with him to the Center, were even allowed to watch some sentinels being tested and saw some newly bonded sentinel and guide pairs learning how to interact with each other. All this was as close to anthropological fieldwork as I was going to get and I found all of it as fascinating as Master Eli did.

"Although he never did figure out why some people are sentinels and others in the same family aren't, Master Eli did publish several well received papers on different aspects of sentinels, including one on how sentinels are tested and rated. I worked with him on all the papers, even helping write some parts of the papers themselves. Master said I was a natural at researching and writing. Looks like I also ended up becoming as passionate about sentinels as he was."

Blair looked down then back up again, a slightly embarrassed look on his face. "I guess finding myself actually living with a sentinel, I just fell back into the old habit of keeping notes and started documenting your abilities. I know it's not like I could ever really do anything with them. And I know I should have asked you for permission first, but it just seemed so natural that I didn't even think about it." His head dropped as he began to nervously run one index finger along the edge of the top book. "I'll destroy the notebooks if you want."

Damn. Blair really did know what he was talking about. Jim scratched the back of his neck. Hell. He probably knew more about sentinels than he did. "Hey." Jim waited until the bowed head lifted up and Blair was looking at him again. "I already said that I wasn't upset. In fact, to be honest, I'm a bit flattered. No one's ever been interested enough in me to actually take notes before. If you're that sure about this, then I'll get retested. I'll call the Center tomorrow and arrange it."

The sun came out on Blair's face. "Oh, I'm sure, Sir. Very sure." And just as suddenly the radiance faded. "Uh. What are you going to tell them? You know, about why you want to be retested? You aren't going to tell them that I—that a slave—was keeping track of you and your abilities, are you?"

Actually, Jim actually would have been proud to let everyone know it was Blair who, by using proven, scientific documentation, had discovered the sudden surge in his senses, even before he himself became aware of it. But the unease in the eyes looking back at him was enough quell that train of thought. Not to mention the negative reaction he'd get if he said he wanted to be retested because a slave suggested it. "I'll just say that I've noticed a sudden change in my senses. Matter of fact, Simon, as well as a few of the other detectives at the station have recently commented to me about how much more I seem to be noticing lately, too. That should be enough to warrant being tested."

Blair blew out a sigh of relief as his whole body relaxed. The full watt smile was back. "This is so cool. I wonder what your new official rating will be."

Jim couldn't help but wonder the same thing.


Even though he'd only been in The Sentinel Center's Director's office for ten minutes, the long wait for the test results was wearing on Jim's nerves. He'd finished the last round of tests over two hours ago; it'd never taken this long to get the results before. He knew even as he was taking the tests that his senses were higher than ever before, now he just needed the official accreditation and to find out his new Level rating. Being called in here from the main waiting area meant that the results were in and would be brought to them shortly.

"Detective Ellison."

Jim stopped pacing around the office and returned to one of the two comfortable chairs in front of the large desk that dominated the room. He turned his attention back towards the older man sitting there. He'd almost forgotten that the director was even there.

After years of dealing with nervous sentinels, Director Robert Michaels knew how to keep his voice smooth and neutral. "I know that waiting is hard. But when a sentinel asks to be retested, each test is gone over very carefully. The Ratings Committee knows how important this is to the sentinel making the request and wants to be certain of its findings before announcing the results." Michaels clasped his hands together on the desk and leaned forward. "But I feel that I do have to warn you, we get sentinels requesting retesting all the time. The vast majority of them test out at the same level, most having just had a temporary spike of some kind leading them to believe that their rating had changed. A few occasionally do test out at one level, sometimes two, higher. Any greater increase than that is very rare. Especially for someone your age who has been at the same level for so many years." He raised his hand to stop the protest he saw forming on the sentinel's face. "I'm not saying it's not possible. I just don't want you to get your hopes up too high when the odds are against you. We always hope for the best, of course, but we also want you to be prepared in case it doesn't work out the way you hope it will."

But it will this time. Jim had every faith in Blair's findings, somehow trusting them even more than the all equipment and experience here at the Center. Before he could voice his opinion, two members of the Ratings Committee entered the room, their faces careful not to reveal anything. One handed a folder to Director Michaels then stood back as it was opened and the contents read.

Jim watched as the other man read the results. The white noise generators built into the building kept him from listening to the man's heartbeat or respirations but he couldn't help but notice as his eyes grew wider as he continued reading. Turning to the next page, he quickly scanned to the bottom, his eyebrows almost getting lost in his hairline. When, instead of speaking, he just turned a questioning look to the Committee member who had handed him the folder, it was everything Jim could do to keep from reaching out and grabbing the paperwork himself.

"We verified the results three times. That's what took so long. There's no question that this is correct." He looked over at his partner who just nodded, agreeing with the conclusion.

"Would someone mind telling me what's going on?"

Director Michaels turned back towards Jim, a definite smile on his face. "Let me be the first to congratulate you, Sentinel Detective Ellison. You've just made Sentinel Center history."

Sentinel Detective Ellison? Only detectives with a Level Five rating or above were given that title. So Blair was right after all. But what did he mean by...

"What do you mean by Sentinel Center history?"

The Director was beaming and the two Ratings Committee members were now openly smiling as well. "Sentinel Ellison, you are the first sentinel whose rating has ever jumped from a Three to an Eight. And after some more precise testing, which is only used for the highest rated sentinels, Eight through Ten, it might even go higher."

Jim sat back in his chair as his breath left him in a loud whoosh. He figured his lower jaw was hanging somewhere around mid-chest. Eight? Eight? And possibly higher? Eights and above were considered the rarest of sentinels. The Elites. He had to open and close his mouth twice before anything came out. "How?"

"How could this happen? Well, other than the virtual impossibility of all your previous tests having been wrong, the only other way that a low level sentinel can jump at least two levels is if they finally meet their true guide. It would have to be an equally strong guide. Only the presence of the true guide can bring out the previously latent, stronger senses. Even with that, in the entire recorded history of sentinels, there has never been a jump of this size at one time." He leaned back and studied his new sensation. "Now then. What new people did you come in contact with around the same time you started noticing your increased senses? A new girlfriend, perhaps? Anyone new at work?"

No one immediately came to mind except... "I, uh... I bought a slave not too long ago."

Michaels waved his hand dismissively. "That's nice but slaves can't be guides. It's not possible."

Although Jim had never seen a slave act as a guide, he'd never thought about it before either. "Why not?"

The second Committee member spoke up. "It's been tried several times over the past 100 or so years and always failed. Modern genetic testing finally determined that the empathic genes needed to be a guide were entirely bred out of slaves, probably several generations ago."

"Oh." He guessed it made sense. At least as much as anything else was making sense right now.

The Director spoke up again. "Now, I know that all this is probably a shock and a surprise to you, I know it is to me, but the important thing right now is to locate this guide. The fact that you haven't been overwhelmed yet means that it's somebody you come into contact with regularly. His or her presence is grounding you right now, but that won't last forever. You're going to need to bond soon and start getting some hands-on guidance to get a handle on and be able to use these new, heightened senses." He looked at the small calendar sitting on his desk. "Today is Friday, use the weekend to try to figure out who it could be. We'll need you back here first thing Monday morning to do the next level of testing. I'll clear it with your captain. If you don't bring your guide with you, then, once we get your exact rating, we'll arrange to have someone from the Guide Guild sent over to help you, at least while you're working. Until we can find you a permanent guide."

Jim's head was spinning as he tried to absorb everything being said to him. "If I don't already know who my guide is, how will I figure it out?"

"Well. It'll be someone fairly new to you but who you already feel very comfortable around. Someone you find yourself wanting to be around. You'll probably feel inexplicable protective feelings for this person, too. You'll feel good just being around them. And, if this goes the way it should, that person will also want to be around you, even if they don't know why yet. Sounds like a latent guide to me, so it could be anyone. A recently transferred police officer or even a new janitor. Think about any new businesses you might have started going to, like a different grocery store or coffee shop. Try to think of anyone new you've been in contact with on a regular basis. Now that you know what you're looking for, I think you'll be more aware of this person next time you see him or her."

Standing up, he stuck his hand out to Jim. "Congratulations, again, Sentinel Detective Ellison. We'll see you bright and early Monday morning. Hopefully with your guide."

Knowing a dismissal when he saw one, Jim also stood up and shook the Director's hand. "Thank you, sir. I'll be here Monday." Nodding to the two Committee members, he turned and left the office, his only thought at the moment was to get home and tell Blair the news.

He had barely started driving away from the Center when Jim realized that he really needed to go to the station. Simon knew that he was being retested this morning and was probably waiting to go over the results with him. Besides, getting tested was no excuse for missing the rest of the workday.

His new sentinel rating and status would also mean a change in his detective rank as well. He would now be a Sentinel Detective. Beyond a Sentinel Detective. As an Eight or higher, he would now officially be an Elite Sentinel Detective. There was going to be a lot of paperwork in someone's future to make all the changes. Still wishing he could talk to Blair, at the next light, he turned his car in the direction of the PD.

As he entered the bullpen, Jim became aware of things he hadn't noticed before. People talking across the room, the almost silent hum of the computers, the swish of the janitor's mop at the end of the hallway. Lowering himself into his chair, he tested his senses by carefully focusing his hearing outward. Two detectives in the break room were making plans for tonight. So Casey and Murphy have a thing going on. Interesting. The sudden ringing of a nearby phone abruptly jarred him back. He shook his head as his ears continued to ring even after someone answered the phone. Okay. So there is definitely a downside to all this. Before he could think about it any more, Simon opened his office door and motioned him inside. Guess he got the call from Director Michaels.

Seated in his usual spot, in one of the chairs set in front of the Major Crime's captain's desk, Jim took a big whiff of the flavored coffee he held. Sipping it, he closed his eyes as all the subtle flavors rolled over his tongue. Coffee never tasted this good before. His eyes flew open when what sounded suspiciously like a snort reached his ears. Simon had a definite smirk on his face as he watched him.

"Enjoying the coffee, Jim? I can leave if you'd like to be alone with it for a few minutes." Grinning at the glare he received in return, Simon's expression changed to a slightly more sober one. "Seriously, though, how are you dealing with all this? How are your senses right now?"

After swallowing another sip, Jim reluctantly placed the coffee mug on Simon's desk, then sat back in his chair and crossed one ankle over the opposite knee. "To tell you the truth, I think I'm still a bit numb. I mean this morning I woke up a Level Three and now, just a few hours later, I'm at least an Eight." He shook his head. "I know you're not a sentinel, Simon, but believe me, that's a lot to take in."

"I'm sure it is. I've already notified Human Resources of your status change. They'll start the paperwork and can add in your official rating after the tests on Monday." Simon shuffled some papers around, then placed a 1/4 inch thick booklet on top. "Now, about your guide." He tapped the cover of the book. "As you know, regulations state that it is preferred that a Sentinel Detective use a guide, especially in the field. At your new level, it's mandatory to have one at all times while working. Do you have a guide or are you going to use the Guide Guild?"

Jim shook his head. He was familiar with the regulations. The higher a sentinel's rating, the greater the senses, but with each higher rating came the greater risk of a sensory spike or even worse, zoning. There was no question that having heightened senses was a double-edged sword. "Director Michaels and I talked about that. He feels that I had to have come in contact with my true guide, that's why my senses have become so heightened. He said for me to try to figure out who he or she is by Monday. If I can't, then they'll provide a temporary working one from the Guild. If I don't find my guide within a reasonable amount of time, the Guild will match me up with a suitable, permanent one."

"Are you okay with this?"

Jim shrugged. "There's not much choice. Bonding with one's true guide is always the preferred way to go. But sometimes that's just not possible. When that happens, the Guild steps in and tries for the best possible match."

Simon looked pensive. "So, do you have any ideas on who your guide might be?"

"Not really. Michaels gave me some pointers to help me figure it out. I just hope I do by Monday. I never liked those snooty, know-it-all Guild guides."

Leaning back, Simon nodded. "Okay then. Since you can't work alone right now, use the rest of today to catch up on your paperwork. Maybe you can even scout around and see if you recognize your guide here at the station." He gave his detective a pointed look. "But absolutely no going anywhere outside the building by yourself. Not even lunch. Go with someone or better yet, order in." Waiting until he got a nod of agreement, he relaxed his expression. "Take the weekend off and do whatever it is you have to do. After your tests on Monday, we'll see where we stand and take it from there."

Recognizing another dismissal, Jim stood up. "Okay." He turned towards the door only to stop and turn back around when he heard Simon call his name.

"Don't let all this get to you too much. Just keep in mind that you were already a good detective before today, once you get a guide and a little training, you'll just be an even better one. I, for one, am looking forward to having an Elite Sentinel Detective on my team."

Hearing his captain's words brought a small, slightly relieved smile to Jim's face. It was nice to know that his change in status wouldn't mean that he'd only be thought of as just a walking forensics lab. "Thanks, Simon." At Simon's 'go on' wave he left the office, feeling a bit more at ease about everything.


Leaning against the wall of the building's old cranky elevator, Jim wished it would move at least a little faster. His head was killing him and all he wanted was to take some aspirin and lie down someplace dark and quiet.

After leaving Simon's office, he'd spent the rest of the day testing his new senses, while at the same time, surreptitiously checking out almost everyone in the station, trying to see if he felt any type of 'guide' vibes from anyone. By the end of the day, all he'd gotten for his efforts was a huge headache, made tolerable only when he finally managed to turn everything down. He had planned on stopping at a few places on the way home, just to see if anyone 'clicked', and maybe pick up some take-out for dinner, but couldn't bear the thought of facing anyone else.

As soon as he opened the loft's door he realized that lying down wasn't going to be an option. Blair was in the kitchen cooking up something that, even with his senses turned down, smelled delicious. One look at the eager, inquisitive face reminded him that he had forgotten all about the person who had convinced him to get re-tested in the first place.

Jim watched Blair's face change from open and enthusiastic to puzzled to uncertain. Whatever greeting the younger man was going to utter died as he bit his lower lip, waiting for his master to speak first.

"Smells good in here, Chief. What're you making?"

Blair's whole body seemed to relax as he answered. "Chili. The cook at Master Eli's showed me how to make it. I had to change a few of the ingredients to accommodate your senses but it should still be pretty good. Speaking of your senses..." The inquisitive look was back in full force.

"Let me wash up. We can talk while we eat."

While in the bathroom, Jim downed a few aspirins and splashed some cold water on his face, even though his headache was already starting to fade. Feeling better, he returned to the kitchen to find Blair ladling chili into two bowls. The dining room table was already set for two with a bottle of beer at one place setting and a glass of milk at the other, as well as a box of crackers. Blair looked up as Jim approached the kitchen.

"Go ahead and sit down, Sir. I'll bring the bowls to the table." Blair's anticipation was almost palpable.

Once seated, Jim examined the bowl in front of him. The thought of eating a spoonful of five-alarm chili made him very nervous. On the other hand, Blair had said that he had taken his senses into consideration when he made it. But at what level? His old Level Three? As if reading his mind, Blair spoke up.

"It's very mild, with just a tiny bit of chili powder. No hot peppers. I figured if you tolerate this well, then I can gradually add more powder and spices until we find out what works best for you." He looked so hopeful that Jim just didn't have the heart to not at least try it. Scooping up a small spoonful, he toasted Blair with it then cautiously put it in his mouth. Ground beef, tomatoes, onions, red beans and, as Blair had said, just a hint of chili powder. Not bad at all. He grinned and nodded at the chef as he swallowed.

"See? Told ya."

After both men had been eating for a few minutes Blair couldn't contain himself any longer. He'd spent the entire day on pins and needles, waiting until he could find out how the re-testing had gone. "So. Sir. How'd it go today? The tests? What'd they say?" He was practically vibrating with anticipation.

Jim was feeling much better now than when he first got home. So much so that he decided to tease Blair a little. Turning his face downward as he took another bite of chili, he kept his voice deliberately neutral. "Well, the tests were pretty thorough. They tested everything. Then it seemed like forever before the results came back. But that was because the Ratings Committee went over everything three times before releasing the final results." He picked up the beer bottle and took a long slow swallow.

Across the table Blair felt like throttling his master. Since using physical force was out of the question, that only left using his voice. "And? And? Did they give you a new rating?"

"Yes. But not to a Level Six like you thought."

"Oh." Blair seemed to deflate. Almost immediately he made an effort to hide his disappointment. "Well, I guess any increase is a good thing. Right? So what level are you now?"

Seeing the devastated look on Blair's face, Jim decided to stop playing around. "Actually, Chief, you were more than right. I tested out much higher than a Three. I've been rated as an Eight."

There was stunned silence from across the table. Jim filled in the void by adding, "I have to go back for more tests on Monday. The tests I took today can only rate up to an Eight. They think I might even go higher."

"Higher?" It came out more of a squeak than a word. After swallowing a few times and taking in and slowly releasing a deep breath, Blair managed to sound somewhat normal again. "All right, Sir. I need details. Tell me everything that happened, everything everyone said. Don't leave out anything. Wait! Don't start yet." Blair jumped up and ran to his room, returning to his seat a minute later with several blank sheets of paper and a pen. He poised the pen over the top sheet and looked up. "Okay. Now."

Barely suppressing a grin at seeing Blair in full academic mode, Jim proceeded to tell the eager slave everything that had happened, starting from when he arrived at the Sentinel Center and ending when he got home. Except for asking a few questions, Blair never looked up, his pen fairly flying across the pages as he documented Jim's accounting of his day. He finally sat back, tossing the pen onto the table. "Wow. This is incredible, Sir. No wonder they verified your results three times. Now, of course, the most important thing is to find your guide. As rare as Elite sentinels are, Elite guides are even rarer. That's why this probably hasn't happened sooner. You needed to be in contact with your true guide to bring out your senses' full abilities."

Jim raised his eyebrows. "So you're saying if I never came across this guide, my senses would have stayed at a Level Three?"

"That's how it usually works. It takes a guide of as close to the level of the sentinel as possible for the pair to work well together. If the sentinel is much stronger than the guide, then the guide can't handle it or the sentinel. Equal levels naturally work best. That's why so few sentinels reach the Elite level, there aren't enough Elite guides around to bring them out."

"So why didn't I notice this big jump in my senses as soon as I came across this person? You'd think I'd notice going from a Three to an Eight."

Blair thought for a minute. "It was probably a gradual increase. It would have been too overwhelming to just suddenly..." He clapped his hands together, "... 'Bang! Go from a low level to an Elite just like that. Since it was gradual, and you weren't in the habit of using your senses a lot anyway, you didn't really notice the changes. Which probably also means you had repeated contact with this person as your senses were increasing. That would explain why you haven't zoned or had any other problems. Yet."

Jim didn't like where this conversation was going. "And if I don't find this person?"

"Not good. At the Elite level, you're a lot more sensitive than other sentinels. Your guide will have to be able to almost immediately know when your senses are going out of control and then be able to get you back online. A non-Elite guide will have a hard time bringing you out of a deep zone. And since you'll be using your senses a lot more now, your chances of zoning will go way up, too. Just being in contact with him or her is working for now, but it won't last. You'll need to bond soon in order to keep your elevated senses under control."

Jim sighed. "That's what Michaels said, too. But how do I find this person? Because if I don't, it looks like I'm royally screwed."

"There's always the Guide Guild. Maybe they'll have a guide strong enough for you. A strong Seven might work if you aren't rated any higher than a Nine. It won't be the same as bonding with your true guide, of course, but..." Blair shrugged.

He watched, alarmed, as Jim sagged back in his chair, an air of defeat surrounding him. Guilt stole over the young slave as he realized just how bleak a picture he had inadvertently painted of his master's future.

"Don't worry, Sir. We'll find him or her." Blair sounded determined enough for both of them. "We'll just use proven scientific methods. Figure out where you've been, who you've been around since this started. Eliminate those who don't fit the profile and eventually we'll have our person." He tapped a finger on his upper lip a few times, eager to start putting things right. "We know it started around the time of the auction so we'll use that as our start date." Pulling out a new sheet of paper, he wrote 'Auction' on the middle of the top line. He then slid the paper across the table to Jim. "Write down anyone new you came across that day that you may have also come in contact with more than once since then. Then keep going. Think of any place new you've been to at least a few times or places that you go to regularly that may have hired new people shortly before the auction. Even if it seems irrational, write it down. We can always eliminate. We should end up with a list of places with new people that you've come into contact with more than once since then. Then we can check out those people." He stood up, feeling the need to be doing something productive. "I'll clean up while you write."

Jim stared at the paper in front of him. This was pretty much what Director Michaels had suggested doing but at least doing it this way meant he didn't have to actually go to every place he knew just to check out the people. After the headache he got just checking out the PD, this seemed like a much better way to go. But at least he had eliminated most of the PD already. Reaching across the table, he snagged Blair's pen and started trying to remember who he had come in contact with starting around the time of the auction.

By the time Blair was finished in the kitchen, Jim had finished his list. Such as it was. He never realized that he was in such a rut. Gas at the same gas station every week. Groceries always from the same store. Take-out from the same few places. Same movie theatre every time. Even when he went out after work with the guys, they always went to the same bar. The only time he seemed to break out of his routine was when he was with Blair. Who was now standing beside him, hand out, waiting to look over the list.

Jim watched as Blair nodded as he read. "Pretty short list, isn't it? I never realized how limited my choices of places where I go is."

Now Blair shook his head. "No, this is pretty typical." At Jim's look, he continued. "Sentinels like structure. Routine. It's easier on the senses when you know what to expect. Remember, most zoning and spikes occur from something unexpected happening. And a sentinel without a guide, even a low level one, would be even more inclined to stick with known places." He grinned. "Besides, a short list makes our work a lot easier than a long one."

"I guess that makes sense. I never really thought about it before."

"But now you have me to help you. At least until we find your guide."

Jim wasn't sure but he could have sworn that the light in Blair's eyes dimmed a bit at that last sentence. Before he could think any more about it, Blair turned away. Gathering up the other papers from the table, the younger man headed towards his room.

"I guess I'll go work on this. I want to go over it again some more before adding it to my other notes." He stopped and turned around. "Unless you need me for anything else tonight?" Unlike with his other masters, he sometimes almost forgot his place as a slave. Which was something that could get him into real trouble someday if he wasn't careful.

"No, you go do whatever you need to do. I'm just going watch some TV for now."

"Okay. Goodnight, Sir."

"Goodnight, Blair."

Jim watched as Blair disappeared into his room, then settled himself on the sofa. He picked up the remote but didn't turn on the set. Something was niggling at the back of his mind but he couldn't quite figure out what it was. Something about that whole conversation with Blair. He mentally shrugged. Oh well, if it was important it'd come to him eventually. He pointed the remote and clicked until he found an old movie, then settled in to watch.


"Okay, that's the third one." Blair hoped he sounded neutral as he crossed off another place. They had checked out three of the businesses on Jim's list and no one had even remotely blipped on the sentinel's radar. The manager at each place had confirmed that no employees had been hired or left since the time of the auction. They'd been driving all over town, staying at each location until Jim was sure he hadn't missed anyone. He didn't want to say anything, but he was getting tired and hungry.

"So where to next?"

Blair looked at the list again. "WonderBurger. The one near the loft."

Jim started the truck. "Perfect. What say we go ahead and eat while we're there? I don't know about you but I'm ready for some lunch."

"Sounds good to me." It was true. Right now, even fast food sounded good. Not that he would have disagreed with wherever his master wanted to eat.

The restaurant was fairly busy so Jim used the time they stood in line to focus on the employees. First those working the front counter then the ones in the back, cooking the food. Nothing. He'd talk to the manager about any other employees after they ate.

Even though Blair questioned Jim about his impressions while they ate, he didn't seem all that disappointed to learn that, once again, no one gave off any special vibes. As they were finishing up and getting ready to leave, Blair went back to the counter to refill his iced tea. With three places down, they still had three more to go.

Jim watched him as he started to gather up their trash. He couldn't help but feel proud of how far the young slave had come since they first started passing him off as a free citizen. While Blair still wasn't totally comfortable with the charade, no one had yet ever questioned his presence when they were out in public.

After talking with the restaurant manager and verifying that he hadn't missed anyone, Jim led the way through the glass doors and out into the parking lot. Once again there had been no new employees hired in the last few months. He really didn't want to check out any more places or people. It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon and he could think of a lot better things he and Blair could be doing than driving around town testing perfect strangers to see if he reacted to any of them.

Just as they exited the building, Blair stopped and tugged on Jim's sleeve. "Uh. You know, Sir, after drinking all that tea, it'd probably be a good idea for me to use the restroom before we head out again."

"Okay. I'll go start up the truck. But don't take all day. I want to get to the next place." And get this over with while there's still some daylight left. Something about being out searching for a guide just didn't feel right, even though he knew how important it was to find him or her. Turning away, he didn't see the hurt look on Blair's face when he mentioned that he was impatient to keep looking.

Sitting in the idling truck, Jim adjusted the air conditioning so it would be cool in the cab by the time they left. Even though he had to park on the far side of the lot, he had managed to back the truck under the only shaded spot available so he now had a clear view of the door Blair would use. A truck similar to his caught his attention as it pulled into a space across from the door he was watching. It was the same make and model but older and the exterior was fairly beat up. Judging by the ladders, buckets and other work paraphernalia in the bed, Jim figured it belonged to house painters. Three men looking to be in their mid twenties got out, and looking at their white, paint spattered clothes, the sentinel confirmed his guess. His attention was diverted from the painters by Blair's heartbeat. The young slave had his refilled tea in one hand and was holding the door open for a mother pushing a stroller through with one hand while holding another small child's hand with her other hand. After they had safely entered the building, Blair turned and started walking into the parking lot looking around for the truck. With his attention distracted, Jim watched as Blair walked right into the painters, bumping one of them and dropping his full paper cup of tea onto a paint-covered leg and shoe.

"Hey! Watch where you're going. Look what you did!"

Blair stared in horror at the now soaked work boot and pant cuff, and at the remaining iced tea now forming a river across the asphalt. He felt a shove on his shoulder and looked up into a large angry face.

"What? You're not even gonna to say anything?"

"Leave him alone, Benny. Maybe he's a retard or something."

The third man joined in. "Yeah. C'mon, I'm hungry and thanks to that long line at the ATM, we've only got 30 minutes left for lunch."

As soon Jim saw Blair being shoved, he moved. For the first time in his life he felt the strongest instinct known to sentinels overtake him. Protect The Guide!

He was out of the truck and halfway across the parking lot before he even realized that he had opened the door. Only seeing Blair's stricken face calmed him down enough so that when he reached the group he could behave rationally again.

"There you are, Blair. Everything all right here?"

Benny spoke up first. "No, everything is not all right. This idiot drops a whole drink on me then won't even apologize."

Jim pulled out his wallet and held up three twenty-dollar bills. "I think this should cover any..." He glanced down at the well-worn work clothes "... damage and buy all of you lunch today. What do you say? We can all just go our separate ways now. No real harm done."

Snatching the money out Jim's hand, Benny stuffed the bills in his own pocket. "Sure. Fine. Whatever. You just might want to keep a closer eye on your retard there." Still grumbling, he turned and left with the two other painters in tow.

That taken care of, the sentinel turned to make sure his guide was all right.

His guide?

Jim literally stopped breathing as suddenly everything fell into place.

Oh.

My.

God.

His heart was beating a wild tattoo in his chest as he forced himself to inhale again. Blair was his guide. His true guide. Not some stranger he might have just happened to have run across one day. He knew, all the way to the very core of his being, that it was true. His search was over. It made so much sense he was surprised that neither one of them had figured it out earlier. It also explained everything. Such as why he had been so drawn to Blair from the moment he laid eyes on him. And why he didn't, couldn't, think of Blair as just another slave. Even how he had made the transition from a Level Three to an Eight so effortlessly. The total rightness of it all filled his soul. The sheer joy of it all filled his heart.

Jim couldn't wait to get home to tell Blair what he had discovered. News this wonderful was way too important to reveal while standing in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant. Besides, knowing how an excited Blair would probably react to this new, radical change in their lives, it would definitely be better to be in a private place when he dropped this little bombshell on him. The sooner he told his guide, Jim couldn't help but smile at the word, the sooner they could start making plans for their new future.

The now hyped-up sentinel turned around and started towards the truck. "C'mon. Let's go home. We have some things to talk about."

In his excitement over his revelation, Jim never noticed how quiet Blair had been the whole time he'd been thinking. How he'd been standing uncharacteristically still with his head hanging down.

For the first time since the auction, Blair followed his master with a sinking heart. This time he had really done it. He had almost blown everything. His clumsiness could have gotten his master in real trouble if his slave status had come out and he'd cost him a lot of money, too. Now Sir, no, he was sure it would now be Master once again, was so angry he didn't even want to continue the search for his guide. He couldn't help but remember what had happened every time Mr. Shaw had said they were going to have a "talk". The now trembling slave dreaded even thinking about what his punishment would be this time.

The ride home was made in silence, each man lost in his own thoughts. It wasn't until they were riding up in the elevator that Jim noticed Blair's unusually quiet demeanor. A quick scan of his vitals signs showed a faster than normal heart rate and somewhat rapid, shallow breaths. That wasn't too surprising. Blair still wasn't comfortable talking to citizens under the best of circumstances, the run-in with that idiot had undoubtedly left him a bit shaken. But he was sure that his news would make his guide, God, he already loved the sound of that phrase, forget all about the incident in the parking lot.

Entering the loft first, Jim hung up his coat then went to the refrigerator. He could hear Blair hanging up his coat as he grabbed a beer and uncapped a bottle of water. Turning back around, he was somewhat surprised to see Blair just standing in the middle of the living room with his eyes downcast. Even accounting for what had happened, something wasn't right.

Holding out the bottle of water, Jim frowned when Blair made no attempt to take it. Instead, the younger man remained motionless except for a now noticeable trembling.

"What's the matter, Chief? You're not still upset about that moron in the parking lot, are you? It was a simple accident, the guy totally overreacted. Besides, it's over and done with now. Forget about it." He held out the water bottle again. "Here. Drink some of this. You're looking a little pale there."

Blair slowly lifted his hand and took the bottle. Now was not the time to disobey even the simplest order. "Yes, Master." He raised the bottle and took a sip of water, lowering his eyes again as he lowered his arm.

Master?

"Okay, Blair. What's going on here? When did we go back to Master and why do you look like you're scared to death?"

When Blair raised his eyes to answer, he was surprised to see, not anger and disgust in his master's eyes, but confusion and concern. The words just tumbled out. "I-I spilled tea on a citizen. He could have found out that I'm really just a slave and demanded that I be punished and then you could have gotten in trouble, too, because of my dressing and acting like a free citizen. So you had to pay him a lot of money so he wouldn't find out." The troubled blue eyes lowered again even as Blair straightened his back and squared his shoulders. "I'm sorry that my clumsiness caused you problems, Master, and I'm ready to accept my punishment."

Watching Blair's automatic response to having committed an offense to his Master, even if he was the only one who saw it that way, made Jim realize that maybe his expectations had been too high. He shouldn't have expected that the relatively short amount of time that Blair had been living here would have enabled him to overcome a lifetime of slavery conditioning. He had to make Blair understand how he saw their personal relationship before they could even begin to go forward as sentinel and guide.

"Blair, I think we need to talk. Let's sit down."

Jim led Blair to the couch and sat down beside him, half turning so he was facing the younger man. "First thing we need to do is to clear up any misunderstanding about what happened in the parking lot. That guy was an idiot. It was an accident, plain and simple. You did nothing wrong. It's not worth worrying about. Got it? It's no big deal."

"But, Sir."

Jim was relieved to note that they were at least back to 'Sir' as Blair took a deep breath and let it out.

"What if one time I really do something wrong and everyone finds out what we've been doing? Won't you get in trouble? Would they take me away from you? I-I..." The curly head bent down and Jim had to notch his hearing up a bit to catch the next few words. "I don't want to belong to anyone else."

"And you never will."

The conviction of the sentinel's answer caused Blair's head to jerk back up.

"I mean it, Blair. No one will ever separate you from me. I give you my word."

Okay then. Now was as good a time as any to start the main discussion. "I felt the connection between us as soon as I saw you at the auction, but I didn't know what was going on then. Buying you just felt right and I've never regretted it for a minute. To me, you were never 'just a slave', and by the way, I don't want to ever hear you refer to yourself that way again. I don't even think of us in terms of 'master' and 'slave'. I want everyone to see you the way I do, as an intelligent young man with a lot to offer. Maybe I pushed you a little too fast and a little too hard into passing as a citizen but I know how slaves are seen and treated and I just couldn't stand to see you treated like that. If I made you do things that you weren't ready for, I'm sorry. But I'm not sorry about the way I feel and that's not going to change." Especially now.

A surprised Blair just sat there wide-eyed. "I-I... don't know what to say." A small, shy smile formed. "Thank you, Sir. I'll try really hard not to disappoint or embarrass you. I'm just always so afraid that I'll do something wrong and when the authorities find out what I've been doing, they'll take me away." The unspoken "from you" hung in the air.

"Like I said, never gonna happen. Remember, your dressing up was my idea, not yours. And by law, the master is responsible for slaves' actions. So no matter what happens, you'll never be blamed. And it's my right to dress you any way I see fit; I guess it's just never occurred to anyone to have their slaves wear anything other than the traditional whites. Besides, you've been doing great. No one has even once ever questioned who you are or what you were doing."

"What about today? That was close."

"Not really." Jim grinned. "That idiot may have thought that you were mentally challenged but he thought you were a mentally challenged citizen. People have very set ideas when it comes to how a slave should look and talk and act. Since you don't come close to any of that, it never enters anyone mind that you could possibly be anything other than what you present yourself as—an intelligent, well-spoken person. Probably college educated. So just relax, be yourself and everything will be all right."

Blair sat back, looking a bit more at ease. "Okay, Sir. If you say so."

Jim smiled. "I say so." Now it was his turn to take a deep breath. "There's something else we have to talk about. I wanted to be sure you understood how I see our relationship before I tackled this subject."

"Sounds important."

"It is." Suddenly feeling nervous, Jim stood up and walked a few steps away. He turned back around and ran a hand through his hair. "I don't know how else to say it, so here it is. I figured out who my true guide is. We don't have to look any more."

A series of emotions flittered over Blair's face so quickly it was hard to keep up with them. It ended with what Jim called his 'brave face'. Although his mouth was turned up in a semblance of a smile, his real emotion was hidden behind it. This time it was an overall aura of sadness.

"You found your true guide? That's great, Sir. Now the two of you can officially hook up and start learning how to be a real sentinel and guide team. Before you know it, you'll be bonded. I hope it's someone you already get along with since you'll be spending so much time together." It was Blair's turn to stand up. "Well, I guess you'll want to get going. You know, tell whoever it is the good news and start making plans. Will you be back for dinner? Of course not, you'll want to have dinner with your guide. What was I thinking?" He picked up his water bottle and Jim's beer bottle and headed towards the kitchen.

"Blair."

Blair stopped and turned back around.

"We're not done talking yet and I really would like my beer back."

"What?" Looking down, Blair noticed that the beer bottle he was holding hadn't even been opened yet. "Oh. Sorry, Sir. I just figured you'd be leaving now. You know, off to see your... guide... and all." He handed over the dark brown bottle and watched as Jim crossed over to the couch and sat down, lifting his legs onto the coffee table with his ankles crossed. Jim then opened the bottle and took a long drink, sighing in contentment when finished.

"You're right. My guide and I do have a lot to discuss. This is going to be a big change for both of us. So the sooner you sit down, the sooner we can get started."

"Huh?" Blair just knew he was missing something really important here but his brain didn't seem to firing on all cylinders right at the moment. Why would a sentinel want to talk to him when his guide was out there somewhere?

Jim sighed and sat up, putting his feet on the floor. Okay, so subtle wasn't going to work here. He'd thrown a lot at Blair in the last few minutes without giving him time to process any of it. And here comes the biggie. "I finally figured it out in the parking lot. It was so obvious, I don't know why neither one of us ever figured it out earlier. But once I realized who it was, it all made perfect sense." He looked directly at Blair. "Blair, you are my true guide. I know this as well as I know that I'm a sentinel. And nothing that anyone can say or do will change that fact."

The sofa cushion sank as Blair dropped heavily onto it. He didn't think a sentinel would joke about something this serious but what his master had just proposed was impossible. "Sir. I-I don't mean to contradict you or anything, but what you just said isn't possible. As much as I would love for it to be true, it's been known for years that slaves can't be guides. It's a proven fact that any empathetic gene was bred out of all slaves at least a few generations ago. Even the director of the Sentinel Center told you that, and you have to figure that with all the money and resources that the Center has, and the years of research that they did, that the scientists there would know for sure whether or not a slave could ever be used as a guide."

A small grin appeared on the sentinel's face. "That may be true for ordinary slaves but as we both well know, you are far from ordinary. You seem to be forgetting your own heritage." He aimed his beer bottle forward. "Remember, you weren't bred from slave stock so you don't carry any slave genes in you at all. What you do have are the genes from two free born citizens. I'm sure that during your years with Professor Stoddard, if your mother had any guide genes in her family, it would have come out. So that leaves the unknown factor, your father. I can almost guarantee you that if he's ever found and tested, it would turn out that either he himself is a guide or that there are guides in his family. And you, my little guide, have obviously inherited those genes." Jim placed the bottle on the coffee and sat back with his arms crossed across his chest. "So, what do you think of my theory? Plausible?"

Scratching the back of his neck, Blair looked down towards the floor. "I guess it is possible, theoretically speaking, of course." He looked back up, directly at Jim. "But what makes you think that I inherited any of these supposed guide genes. That I'm a guide? That I'm your guide."

Jim met Blair's gaze and held it. "A couple of reasons. One, you've been interested in sentinels since you were a boy. You told me that you became as obsessed as Professor Stoddard. A passing interest would have faded away. Two, one of the things that guides do is keep tabs on their sentinels. Every guide I've ever known has done it; it's some kind of instinctual thing, I guess. You started doing that with me almost from the day we met. You have notebooks full of stuff, why else would you be doing that? Three, there has been a special connection between us since day one. I feel it and I know you do too. There's no way you can say that what we have is anywhere near a normal master/slave relationship. It never has been. And four, what happened earlier today. When that guy shoved you, one thought entered my mind. Not protect Blair or protect your slave. But Protect The Guide. Even though I knew you weren't in any real danger, for a few seconds, I could have really hurt him just for touching you like that. I guess it took that incident for my head to finally realize what my heart already knew. You, Blair Jacob Sandburg are James Joseph Ellison's one true guide. Now and forever. Any more questions?"

For one of the few times in his life, Blair was at a loss for words. Everything he had just heard was true. It had all just felt so natural, so right, that he never thought twice about any of it. And if his being in danger, albeit only slightly, was enough to bring out the Blessed Protector instinct in a sentinel, well, that pretty much made it a lock. A sentinel will naturally protect almost anyone in need, but the BP level is reserved strictly for the guide. Wow. He was a guide. Even better, he was Sir's guide.

But what did he really know about being a guide? He had no training whatsoever. It was one thing to run a few tests on a low level sentinel but now they were talking about an Elite sentinel. They required very special handling from Elite level guides. He was way out of his league here. As if he even had a league to begin with. An Elite sentinel was a rare and precious thing. The best of the best. Nobody would ever allow an untrained slave to even pretend to be an Elite's guide. But if he really was Sir's true guide, everything was worse now than before. An Elite sentinel didn't work well with other guides. Since it took his true guide to bring him online, it was usually that guide, and only that guide, the Elite sentinel could bear to be around on a full-time basis. What a mess. Because of him, Sir, instead of being a content Level Three was now going to be a miserable Elite, forced to work with one, or more likely, multiple guides that he almost certainly would have a hard time being around. And he couldn't see any way to fix it.

"Ya know..." The sentinel's voice broke into the new guide's thoughts. "I was kind of hoping you'd be a bit more, I don't know... happy... or... something... about all this. Instead you look like someone just took your puppy away. Are you really that upset about finding out that you're my guide?"

"No! No. It's not that. It's just that I never expected to be anyone's guide, never mind one to an Elite sentinel." Blair jumped up and started pacing in front of the couch. "I don't know how to be a guide. What if I do something wrong? What if you get hurt because I don't know what I'm doing?" He stopped and faced Jim. "Wouldn't you be better off with a trained Guild guide?" Even as he said the words, the thought of his sentinel being with another guide hurt him deeply. He was already feeling possessive and was ready to fight any guide who tried to take his rightful place beside his sentinel. But he also only wanted what was best for the sentinel—and he wasn't it. It was an intense internal conflict the likes of which he had never felt before.

Jim understood Blair's dilemma. He was the newly discovered Elite sentinel. People would go out of their way to make things easy for him. Blair, on the other hand, was a slave with no guide training other than what he had picked up as Professor Stoddard's unofficial, and unaccredited, assistant. To be suddenly told that he was now expected to be the guide to an Elite sentinel had to be overwhelming.

"Blair. Calm down. Let's think this out logically." That got his guide's attention as the pacing stopped and Blair stood in front of him. "You've been guiding me since day one, we just didn't know it at the time. My transition from a Level Three to an Elite went so smoothly, neither one of us even realized what was happening. And that was only because you were instinctively guiding me through it, keeping me grounded and keeping my growing senses in line. Granted, you don't have all the training and book knowledge of the Guild guides but you can learn all that. What you do have are all the natural, God given instincts and intrinsic powers that all guides are born with. You have all the abilities that make guides—guides."

"Even if everything you said is true," Blair held up his hand to stop the protest he saw forming, "and, yes, I believe it is too, nobody is going to let a slave be a guide. You said so yourself. The second the Sentinel Center finds out about me, I'll be gone and you'll be stuck with a bunch of Guild guides who don't know anything about you. It's not right." He tapped his chest a few times. "I'm your guide, not them. I should be with you. Not some uppity Guild guides who get assigned to you until you can't work with them any more. It's not right."

Jim smiled to himself watching Blair's growing indignation at his assumption of not being allowed to be his guide. Not that he planned to let anyone else take his place, of course, but it was almost comforting watching Blair's possessive guide instincts come online. Knowing that Blair wanted this too.

"No, it's not. Look, we both have a lot to learn. You about being a guide and me about being an Elite sentinel. I'm sure this isn't the first time a new guide has come online with no formal training so we'll just wait and see what the Sentinel Center does in cases like this. I'm sure that I'm in for a world of testing and training myself." Standing up, Jim walked over to Blair and put his hands on the smaller man's shoulders, waiting until he had full eye contact. "Listen to me. Everything will work out. On Monday, we'll go to the Center and tell them everything. Then it'll be up to them to decide how they want to handle it. Believe me, having a new Elite sentinel and guide pair will be their first priority. Any other details can be worked out later."

"Even the fact that I'm a slave?"

"As far as I'm concerned, that's not even an issue. It hasn't been since the day we met. And now that relationship will be a far distant second to our sentinel/guide relationship. Everyone else will just have to get used to it, if we even tell them. Once we come out as an official pair, I don't see why anyone has to know your background. The only person at the station who has ever met you is Joel and I trust him completely. So, until we talk to the people at the Center, there's no point in worrying about anything. Right?"

Blair nodded, feeling some of the tension leaving his body. "Right, Sir. So what do we do now?"

Jim lightly clapped the thin shoulders once then went back to the sofa, sat down and picked up his nearly empty beer bottle. "The first thing that has to happen is that you need to stop calling me Sir and start getting used to calling me Jim."

"What! Sir. I can't do that!"

"Trust me, Blair, you have to. I've heard guides call their sentinels many things, especially when they're pissed off at them, but 'Sir' is not one of them. Sentinels have the senses and get most of the attention, but after a certain level, they can't function without guides and they both know it. For their part, guides have an inborn need to guide, to be with a sentinel. This mutual need for each other makes it one of the most equal partnerships there is. So if a guide were to constantly refer to his sentinel as Sir, well, it would certainly call attention to them and make people wonder what was going on. We're going to be under enough scrutiny, especially at first, so we shouldn't do anything that would call even more attention to ourselves." Lifting the bottle to his lips, he finished the remaining liquid then grinned. "But don't worry, you have the rest of today and all day tomorrow to get used to it. As for me, I need another beer." As he passed a still silent Blair on his way to the kitchen, Jim turned towards him. "You want one?"

This time Blair's mouth dropped open. "A beer? Me?"

"Close your mouth and yes, you. Starting Monday, Blair, your life is going to change in ways you probably can't even imagine. I'm guessing that the Center won't want to disclose your status as a slave, at least not until they think people are ready to accept the idea. And that won't be any time soon. That means that for all intents and purposes, you'll be thought of and treated as a free citizen and a high ranking guide. Which means that you'll be expected to interact with other citizens as an equal. A reaction like that to a simple invitation to have a beer will be seen as a bit over the top, not to mention a little odd. Most American males start drinking beer in their teens, by the time they graduate high school, it's almost second nature." Jim stopped and held up one hand. "No, you don't have to drink if you don't want to. In fact you don't have to do anything you're not comfortable doing. You just have to watch your reactions to what people say around and to you. A simple 'No thanks' will do. And I'll always be there to back you up, no matter what."

Jim walked over to his seemingly overwhelmed guide and again placed both hands lightly on the smaller man's shoulders. "Look, Blair. I know that today has been a real shocker. In fact it's been one shock after the other. But if anyone can handle all this, it's you. Once you have a chance to sit down and process everything, you'll see that it all makes perfect sense. And I promise, you won't be alone, we're in this together, all the way." Stepping back Jim turned and headed back towards the kitchen. "So, how 'bout that beer?"

There was a slight pause then a quiet "No, thanks" reached him. Jim was about to insist, if for no other reason than to watch Blair's reaction to his first beer, but he realized just how hard those two words must have been to say. Grinning to himself, he didn't stop his trek to the refrigerator, just threw out a casual "Okay, no problem. You want anything else?"

"Uh, no. I think I'll go to my room now and meditate for a while. If that's all right."

Turning around with his cold prize in one hand, Jim snagged a bag of chips off the counter with the other as he headed back into the living room and made himself comfortable on the couch. "Blair, as of this afternoon, you don't have to ask permission for anything anymore. You're free to do whatever you want. Well, within legal limits of course. It certainly wouldn't look good for the newest Elite detective's guide to get himself arrested for anything. But other than that, you're pretty much free to do as you please. Uh, except that the loft rules still apply. Yeah, those are definitely still in force. Okay, except for those two things, you're good. Well, maybe... No, no I think that's it for now." Jim was nodding to himself as he picked up the TV remote.

There was a hint of a smile in Blair's voice as he answered. "Well, if you're sure that's everything, Sir, I'll be in my room."

He had barely taken two steps when he heard, "Wait!"

The command halted Blair in his tracks. Hesitantly, he turned back around.

Jim was shaking his index finger in the air. "I knew there had to be at least one more thing. What's with this 'Sir' business? You already know the new rule about that. Right?"

Blair dropped his eyes. "About that. I... I don't know if I can do that. Calling a master by just his first name goes against everything I've ever been taught. Even Master Eli wouldn't let me go that far and he was about as tolerate as you could get. As for everyone else I've dealt with..." A small shudder went through the slender frame. He raised his eyes just enough to look partway through his lashes and nervously rubbed one hand over the knuckles of the other one. "Maybe we can come up with something else?"

The hopeful tone tore at Jim but he knew that it had to be done this way if Blair was to be fully accepted as his guide. A nickname or something might work some of the time but when things got serious, and in his line of work that was inevitable, nothing but hearing his own name spoken by the guide would work. A sentinel needed his guide to be focused on him and the job, not worrying about trivial things like names. Inspiration struck. Of course! How obvious.

"Blair, I understand that with everything you've been through, it's hard to go against your training. So I do understand why you would find it so difficult to call your master by his first name. Buut... how about calling your sentinel by his given name? I'll bet no one ever told you that you couldn't do that. I doubt if the subject ever came up. Am I right?"

The way Blair's head jerked up, eyes and mouth wide open, told Jim he'd struck paydirt. "Close your mouth, again, Chief. I've already seen your carp imitation, and frankly, I'm not impressed. So I take it you never thought about it this way, huh? I told you that the sentinel/guide relationship supercedes any other relationship so as long as you remember that you're talking to your sentinel, and try to forget all that master stuff, you should be okay." Settling back, Jim pointed the forgotten remote at the TV and hit the power button. "Now if you don't mind, I actually have the rest of a rare Saturday afternoon off and I plan to kick back and find a game to watch. You can join me or go meditate, your choice. But later we're going out to dinner to celebrate. Hmmm. A nice steakhouse." He pointed the remote at Blair. "And I don't want to hear anything about red meat and cholesterol. I'm having a juicy steak with mushrooms and onions. And a loaded baked potato. And a nice bottle of wine. Yeah."

"People will think we're on a date." A rarely seen gleam was twinkling out of Blair's eyes.

Jim hit the mute button on the remote then waved it in the air. "So what? This is our night. Tonight it's steak and potatoes and wine. Next time you can treat, when you get your first paycheck. Then you can pick the place."

"Uh... paycheck? Did I miss something somewhere? Are slaves getting paid now? Hey, do we get a union and everything?"

"Funny. No, slaves don't get paid, kinda defeats the whole purpose of slavery to pay them. But guides do get paid. In your case, since you're a detective's guide, you'll be paid by the police department. Being a brand new guide and having no police experience, you won't exactly be at the top of the pay scale, but being an Elite guide and working with an Elite sentinel should definitely be worth something extra. I guess they'll tell you all about that when you fill out your paperwork at the station. Or we can ask about it at the Center on Monday."

Blair had that look that said he had so many questions circling his brain he couldn't decide which to ask first. If Jim wanted any peace at all between now and dinner he had to make a stand.

"Listen up. We have all day tomorrow to talk about anything you want. Sentinels and guides, the Center, getting paid, opening a bank account or whatever else that overworked brain of yours can come up with. But right now I'm going to watch a game and you can go do that hoo-doo voo-doo that you do so well when you need to mull over something. Later we're going to have a nice dinner and relax and enjoy ourselves. Comprende?"

"But what about—"

"Tomorrow."

"Okay, what if—"

"Tomorrow."

A large sigh emanated from where Blair was standing. From the corner of his eye, Jim could see his guide purse his lips in frustration. It was an effort not to smile.

"Fine. I guess I'll be in my room. Call me when you're ready to go?"

Jim made it a point to stare straight ahead at the still silent TV. "Not a problem."

Blair turned and headed for his room. Just before entering he turned back around. "Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"Uh. Nothing. Never mind."

The new guide entered his room and shut the door. A few seconds later Jim could faintly hear Blair's meditation music even though it was obvious he was wearing his headphones. He smiled. 'Nothing' huh? He was sure Blair was testing to see his reaction to being called by his first name by someone who up till now was only known as his slave. Apparently his nonchalant response passed the test.

Picking up the remote again, Jim just held it in his hand. He was determined to keep tonight light and casual. But he had no doubts that tomorrow would be one long question and answer session. If fact, Blair was probably in there writing down all sorts of questions in his notebook right now. But that was all right. He would answer everything he could to the best of his ability. What questions he couldn't answer they would save for the Sentinel Center. He was glad they had decided to leave the question about revealing Blair's slave status up to them. He chuckled to himself. The Center had no idea what was in store for them come Monday. They were about to encounter the most unusual guide they would probably ever have in their facility. Records and stereotypes were about to be broken. And he would be there the whole time to make sure his guide was treated fairly and decently, although he hoped that the excitement of a new Elite sentinel and guide pair would overshadow Blair's rather unique status as a slave.

No matter what though, starting Monday, life as he and Blair knew it was never going to be the same again. Aiming the remote at the TV, Jim unmuted the sound and switched channels until he found a basketball game in progress. He slouched down and ignored his own house rule about feet on the coffee table as he made himself comfortable. A night off, a beer, a ballgame and a guide, life just didn't get any better than this. Let tomorrow and all the other tomorrows come, with his guide by his side, he felt more than ready to face any challenges that might be out there. A quick audio check into the small bedroom revealed more meditation music and the scratching of a pen over paper. At least for tonight, all was right in Cascade's newest Elite sentinel's world.

~ End ~


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Page last updated 9/27/07.