Imperfections

John and Rodney

St. Louis

By Dasha

It wasn't that the guides before John had been impatient. About half of them--all of the ones Rodney had had to fire--had been patient enough, but they'd been patronizing about it, as though Rodney were some kind of damaged child. John wasn't impatient, but he wasn't sweetly, gently patient, either. He just didn't seem to be in a hurry. It was weird.

Also--John found Rodney funny. Not in the way the guides who had quit had found Rodney funny. Polite and solemn and humorless, they had laughed inwardly with a frustrated contempt that Rodney glimpsed now and then right before they quit. John laughed out loud at Rodney's sarcastic editorials. He smirked at Rodney's scathing criticism of an impractical building or a badly-designed bit of roadway. Rodney didn't mean it to be *funny*, it was all true, what he said, every word, and the incompetence and stupidity did, really did, piss him off. But when John laughed, Rodney laughed, too.

Right before she quit, Kate, the last guide Rodney had had before John, had explained very reasonably, "The trouble with guides is that they respect and value other people."

"Well, they have to, to be guides," Rodney had interrupted impatiently.

"They don't understand or like people who *don't*," she said gently. "Lots of sentinels aren't good with people. But usually they care; they go into law enforcement or search and rescue or medicine. Or they're friendly, upbeat people who keep quality control in ice cream. You're not just bad with people. You treat them like things. You really don't care. And guides...for us, for a lot of us, unrelenting contempt for humankind is kind of a deal-breaker."

She'd been honest and competent and Rodney had felt safe with her. He threw a tantrum when she quit and crossed the agency that sent her off his list.

Turnover wasted time and screwed up Rodney's work. Which was important and very lucrative. Worse, high guide turnover was something sentinels were supposed to avoid. Inconsistency was a health hazard, as though Rodney didn't have enough of those already.

He doubled the incentive he added to the firm's pay package to twenty thousand dollars. Chances were the next guide wouldn't be particularly competent, but it was clear that Rodney wouldn't be able to keep competent, and something was better than nothing.

He had to pick Sheppard up at the airport; there wasn't a guide for hire in St. Louis who hadn't worked for Rodney already. "We're leaving day after tomorrow for Tampa. You can stay in my guest room until then. You can find something else after we get back. The nicest long-term suites are about half a mile from here."

"So you prefer the guide not to live in?"

"I've never tried it." Actually, he couldn't imagine anything more convenient and reassuring than having his guide *right there* all the time, but everyone so far had gotten enough togetherness from sharing hotel suites when they were on the road.

John was quiet and tidy and his smell wasn't offensive. He spent the first evening reading Rodney's medical history. He didn't smell freaked out or scared when he finished, which Rodney suspected was a sign that he just wasn't very bright, but he set the file aside and said, "How fast? When things start to go sour, how quickly do things get critical?"

"Fast. About two minutes."

John nodded seriously. "What's the first sign?"

"The what-?" Rodney asked blankly.

"The first sign. How do you know it's starting?"

"I get chain hives. I turn colors. I stop breathing."

"They start as chain hives?"

Rodney frowned. "I guess. I think. Usually."

John considered him thoughtfully for a moment, then changed the topic to Rodney's diet and schedule. He was reassuringly thorough.

The next day Rodney took John with him to the office. For a while, he'd had guides who had some training in art or engineering who'd been involved in the work. At a pretty pathetic level, admittedly, but they'd been able to follow the projects and be sort of useful. Rodney had gone through those in the first year. For the two years following, they'd only been useful for getting coffee and sitting in the corner of Rodney's office. Kate had read psych journals. Aiden had read mysteries. Jonas had been writing a novel.

John spent most of the morning in the hallway just outside of Rodney's office looking at the models on display. He'd tried to spend it standing at Rodney's left shoulder, but Rodney had put a quick stop to that. "Don't hover. I won't zone, not on blueprints." So John had gone away. He had a very long attention span; every time Rodney glanced out the door, he was staring thoughtfully, walking in slow circles. At lunch time, when Rodney came to collect him, he was staring at an airport remodel from a job in the Midwest. "What do you think?" Rodney asked.

"It's...pretty," John said. "Yours?"

Rodney snorted. "I kept it from falling down, but I didn't decide what it would look like."

"Glad to hear it," John said, leaning down so that his face was hidden by the tiny model tram and whispering at the edge of Rodney's hearing, "That....looks really inefficient."

Rodney glanced around, made sure nobody was close, and whispered back, "An utter disaster. The traffic tie-ups are legendary. And the tram is a piece of crap."

John didn't smile, except for his eyes. "So how--?"

"Full partner," Rodney whispered in his ear. "And the roof leaks--don't look at me, I wasn't on materials--a complete nightmare."

One of the secretaries walked past, and John straightened and said, "Which of these are yours?"

"Hmmm. That one, that one, that one, and...that one."

John pointed at a post-modern school with unnecessarily long corridors, a swooping facade, and hardly any windows. "You're eclectic."

"Please. I don't decide what they look like. I just keep them from falling down. I'm a structural engineer, not some flaky architect."

John looked thoughtfully into his eyes. "Bitter much?"

Rodney spun on his heel and fled. "Hungry? Or not?"

The next day they flew to Florida. Rodney hated flying, but since he hated almost everything else, it was just another inconvenience he put up with. The wait, the crowd, the cramped seating--the only bright spot was the food, bland and undemanding, and completely predictable in its general badness.

Without being asked, John opened up the doors dividing the adjoining rooms and stripped Rodney's bed. He asked before opening Rodney's suitcase and pulling out the soft, organically cleaned sheets and buckwheat hull pillow. "Where's your air purifier?"

"Other suitcase."

"Get it out and plug it in. I won't let you touch the sheets, but your own equipment is harmless. You're not two, McKay."

Irritated, though he knew he had no right to be ("guides are not valets"), Rodney started unpacking: air purifier, coffee maker, white noise generator, bottled water.

"Do you need to rest?" John asked. "Or do you want head out to the building?"

The site they were inspecting was a sports complex going up for the university. John was like a five year old--he liked the big trucks, the exposed girders, the scaffolding. He goofed around in the hardhat. He shadowed Rodney's footsteps, almost close enough to be annoying. But not quite. He didn't ask stupid questions while Rodney was tapping on walls and humming against girders.

That first afternoon, Rodney got further than he had expected. He didn't remember much but the work afterward. He took notes all through dinner, returned to the room and, exhausted, flopped onto the bed and fell asleep. They went back the next day. This was less productive; the local contractor was there, as well as the architect heading the design team. They talked continually and asked stupid questions. They both had swelled senses of self-importance, possibly in compensation for their lack of sense of humor. They were both watching Rodney with badly concealed resentment and worry. Even John seemed affected. He got very quiet after the first hour. He was also standing closer.

At about ten thirty that morning, while Rodney was tapping the concrete walls of what would be a locker room, he didn't hear John trying to get his attention. Eyes closed, listening to the dim vibration, trying to decide if the wall would, indeed, keep out the leach of wet soil, he pushed John away.

"McKay. Seriously. Come with me now."

Rodney blinked. He blinked again. "What? Why? Where?" Zoning. He'd been zoning, obviously. John was being overprotective or something. Well, fine. He felt thick and a little unsteady, actually.

John prodded him up into the temporary elevator, and on ground level, practically dragged him out into the thick, humid Florida morning. He pulled the small backpack Rodney always carried from his shoulder and said, "Sit down."

"Uh. What, here? No, that's a--what is that? It's a pallet of concrete, I'm not sitting here--"

"It's covered in plastic. Sit down." Shepard shoved him.

"Hey--!"

Sheppard grabbed Rodney's arm and shoved it into his field of vision. "Look," he said.

"At what? Oh...." The hives were raised and pale, coming out in light pink and getting darker by the second. Now that he was noticing his arm, Rodney realized that John's grip burned. His cloths felt like sandpaper, but no, that wasn't right. The clothing was fine. His skin was just tender. "Oh, god," Rodney said. His face was hot. His *hair* hurt. "Oh, god."

"I take it we have a problem? Hey, stop. Rodney. It's okay."

"Um, it's not. In case you haven't noticed." Even as Rodney watched, the darkening hives were coming out in thin lines, red circles nesting together in a ring, like the outline of a string of beads. Oh, god. It itched.

"Yes, it is. Whatever it was, we've got you away from it. We caught it early. You are going to be fine." He dug around in the back pack, produced the little plastic box that held Rodney's emergency kit.

"Do you know how to use that?" Rodney could, but he was starting to shake. He really didn't want to have to give the injection series himself.

"No, I didn't check the procedures when I took the assignment." Irked and sarcastic, he sounded a little like the way Rodney felt when someone implied that he didn't know how to judge the tensile strength of materials. For the first time, it occurred to him that it was conceivably possible that out there, somewhere, there was a guide who was as good at guiding as Rodney was at engineering. "I never took a class in sentinel medicine or first aid. I'm pretty much an idiot anyway." He undid Rodney's shirt and shoved it down enough to bare the shoulder. Holding the first syringe in his teeth, he grabbed a pinch of flesh, swabbed it with icy vinegar, dried with a sterile pad, and inserted the first needle.

You couldn't give a sentinel adrenaline; somehow their bodies knew it wasn't their own. This made dealing with allergies very problematic. The first shot was a micro-dose of cortisone. That would be enough to corral Rodney's immune system, provided shots two and three were antihistamines that he was currently tolerating as long as he got the heavy-duty stimulant in shot number four.

It seemed to take forever. The last two were large doses that took their time going in. "Hurry," Rodney hissed. His tongue was thick and heavy. Oh, damn. He swallowed experimentally; there was the lump in his throat, not messing up his breathing yet, but it felt large and hard, like a rock in his gullet. Damn.

"Rodney? How are you doing?" Gently, John pulled the shirt back into place, one hand still rubbing the back of Rodney's arm.

"I'm having a potentially fatal reaction--to something I--didn't even notice I was exposed to--how the hell do you think--" The sentence was loud and fast, but not as loud or fast as Rodney would have liked because he couldn't get his breath. Maybe this was it. Maybe this was the time the kit didn't work. Maybe--

"Rodney, I need a body check."

"What, now? I'm a little busy here--"

"Yes, now. I need to know if I need to call an ambulance. How. Are. You. Doing."

Rodney's brain locked up. Every other guide had twigged pretty quickly to the fact that Rodney was completely useless when he was panicking. It wasn't like he was concealing it. Hell, it was very clear in his chart. There weren't enough words for stupid to describe John Sheppard--

John put his hand flat on Rodney's chest. "Close your eyes. Exhale slowly. All the way. Now, please."

Thrown and confused, Rodney complied.

"Slowly. Slowly. Okay. Okay." He took Rodney's arm and turned it over. The skin didn't hurt where he touched it. The chain hives had darkened to maroon, but were starting to fade. The swelling was down. "You're good. I think we've got it."

Rodney swallowed. The swallow felt...normal? didn't it? He tried again, daring to be hopeful.

"I'm going to take you back to the hotel."

Rodney was almost inclined to stay and work. He felt pretty good all things considered. And wherever he was, he wasn't going to feel *actually* good again today, so he might as well work. But his employers paid for a concentrating sentinel. John found a construction worker to take a message down to Rodney's colleagues and then they left.

The seven minute trip to the hotel was the first time John had driven. It was a shocking introduction to just how frightening his driving was. After the third minute, Rodney buried his face in his hands and didn't look again until they were parked.

"This is the third episode you've had here," John said as they got out of the car.

"Your driving is scary. Do you even have a license? And this is Florida. There's probably citrus pollen in the air."

"Florida is not that hard to avoid."

Rodney sighed. "It happens everywhere. If it isn't one thing, it's another. I'm not going to lock myself in my house..." At John's hard look, he added, "Anyway, I tried that. It didn't work."

"How often does it happen with those two present?"

"The general contractor? First time. Edwards?" Rodney paused. His memory was not as fast as it usually was. "He's been there for about half the ones in meetings back home." He caught John's look--the man was remarkably easy to read, even as little attention as Rodney paid to other people--and added, "He got the list. He knows what personal care products to avoid."

"Right. And the list is perfect, complete, and unchanging. And nobody ever invents new perfumes. And he never blows it off and says 'what the hell, it can't really be that dangerous.' Right?"

Rodney opened and shut his mouth.

Sheppard took Rodney's key and opened his door. "You don't go into unventilated areas with them again. You can't keep doing this. Even at these doses, cortisone will screw up your bones and your immune system. You can't keep doing this."

Rodney flopped down onto the bed. "I'm not worried about the hormones for the same reason I'm not worried about retirement savings. Sooner or later my metabolism will disassemble one of the shots on the same day whatever moron is working the ER makes a mistake, and I'll die. There's another kit in my suitcase. Would you mind replacing the one in the backpack?"

Usually, when Rodney didn't do this himself, he watched when someone else did it. This time, though, the stimulant wasn't quite up to defeating the sedating affects of the antihistamines, and he fell asleep.

He woke to late afternoon sunlight and John Sheppard sitting on the room's other bed reading one of Rodney's design journals. "Hi," he said.

Rodney felt unbalanced and not prepared. Although--what was he supposed to be prepared for? "Hmm?" he said.

"Hungry?"

"Starving," Rodney said. "Sushi." And then, "Damn."

"We can do sushi," John said kindly.

"The only sushi worth eating is in the mall." Double damn. Rodney didn't get sushi at home. He didn't believe in eating raw fish more than a thousand miles from a coast. But: Mall. Crowds. Noise. Stupid acoustics. Recycled air. Funny lights. In America, sometimes people at perfume counters squirted poison at you, although there were laws coming up to make that illegal.

"How badly do you want the sushi?" Rodney, still feeling thick and fuzzy, blinked at him numbly, and John sighed. "You're right. Okay? We can't keep you in a padded closet forever. So if you really want the sushi, we'll find a way to cope. I assume you've been there before. Any really urgent hazards?"

Rodney sat up and felt around for his shoes. Apparently they were doing this. "If we go in north of the Gap, we can skip the candle store that always smells like motor oil."

It turned out that going to the mall with John was actually *fun*. Rodney had never quite gotten out of the habit of making fun of the ugly furniture for sale at 'Madeline's' or the pathetic sentimentalism of the portrait studio, or the really ugly shoes (and how could you screw up men's shoes) on sale practically everywhere these days, but he had managed to quiet it down. Guides tended to give him dark looks when he openly mocked people.

John thought the colors of women's clothing that spring were outright scary. He thought the guy manning the desk at the computer store looked *just like* Bela Lagosi. He thought that there was no reason, ever, for a lamp to be shaped like a pineapple. It took only two minutes to reach the restaurant from the door north of the Gap, but by the end of that two minutes, Rodney was both stunned and breathless from laughing. John was pitiless and had an eye for the absurd.

It was half an hour later, when Rodney was about to take a bite out of the most perfect slice of tuna *ever* that he noticed what he should have noticed....hours ago. He put down the fish. "How did you know?"

John, swishing his tempura shrimp in the sauce, said, "Know what?"

Rodney put down the chopsticks. He locked his hands together and sat very still as he said, "You knew I was sick before I did."

"You were scratching."

"That can't be it. I was scratching? I scratch all the time. Sometimes. You've seen me scratch. You knew from that?"

"You were scratching differently. And then your voice sounded...different. When you talked."

"That's it?" And Rodney wasn't sure if he should be delighted or horrified. Maybe John was really, really, really good at observing the subtle. Maybe he'd just gotten lucky.

"I wasn't sure, but I thought better safe than sorry. You'd been in a functional zone for an hour anyway. Even if all you'd needed was a break...."

"I was scratching and talking funny. I don't know if I can use that. I mean, what will I tell the next guide, 'watch out if I scratch differently and talk funny?'"

"Next guide?" John asked. "Your client file didn't say you wanted a limited-term temp."

"Oh, I don't. But you'll leave. Everybody does. My record is eleven months." Rodney smiled sadly. "I hope it's amicable. I like you. You're not a total moron."

"Wow. I can't imagine why anybody would ever quit." But he looked amused not contemptuous, so Rodney didn't bother to defend himself.

After dinner they stopped by 'Sharper Image' and played with all the cool, new toys. They goofed off like teenagers until the management gave them dirty looks. "Movie?" John asked.

Rodney wanted to. He knew he'd never make it. "Tired," he said. "The near-death thing uses up a lot of energy."

Back at the hotel, Rodney found John waiting when he came out of the shower. "What?" Rodney said tiredly. "You know, the connecting door is in case I get into trouble, not so that you can chat all night."

"I'd like a body check before you get into bed. It's been a rough day."

Pretending patience--after all, this was the best guide he'd had in a long time, better than Kate, even, and he didn't want to chase him off in a hurry--Rodney closed his eyes for a moment and said, "I'm fine."

John looked at him narrowly. "You know, I've only been at this for a couple of years, but I'm pretty sure there's more to it than that."

Changing the subject, Rodney said, "Got a late start, didn't you? You look about my age."

"I was a pilot first," John said. "An accident messed up my balance. I can't ride a merry-go-round with out Dramamine now. Guide school came after."

Rodney sat down on the bed. "Oh. My. God," he said. "That explains it, doesn't it? Your driving! You're damaged somehow and you don't process spacial--"

"Hey, hey, hey," Sheppard said, getting progressively louder. "One, I drive just the same before as after. Two, my driving is *fine* thank you very much. And three, does being really insulting usually work for you, or am I just an exception?"

There was a short, unhappy silence. Embarrassed, really wishing how he knew how to be kind, Rodney said, "So, guide school was your second choice."

He shrugged. "It was an aptitude thing. I...miss flying. I mean, really flying, not that misery yesterday. But I like the work. There's nothing wrong with that. Being a guide." He smiled thinly. "Lie down," he said. "It's late," although it wasn't. "Let's do a quick check and get some sleep." He turned out the light. The room was still clearly visible to sentinel eyes, but the harsh edges were gone.

Annoyed and slightly embarrassed, but not seeing any way out, Rodney closed his eyes. "I'm fine," he said.

"What's your heart rate?"

"I don't know," Rodney said.

"Estimate it. Not everybody's time sense is perfect."

Rodney's eyes popped open. "My time sense is fine. I just don't notice my heart unless something's wrong."

Seriousness and frowning were never things Rodney liked to see in a guide. "Look, if I'm not noticing it, I'm fine. If something's wrong, it's all fast and loud and...not noticing is better." Much better. By a lot. Really.

John sat down on the bed and laid his hand on Rodney's chest. Rodney, used to filtering out his own body, wasn't used to the sudden closeness of this strange and new body at all. John was warm. And wet. And moving. Solid but supple and filled with motion. Rodney couldn't feel his own heart, but through the contact he could feel John's.

"Your heart's fine, Rodney," John said, his voice low and calm. "It's not your enemy. It's your center. It's your fulcrum. Your balance point. It's even and steady. You're okay." John increased the pressure just slightly, and suddenly Rodney could feel his own pulse reflected back through John's body. The twin rhythms resonated through the contact at Rodney's chest and in their hips where they brushed together. They were beating at about the same speed, but not on a single cycle. It felt like music.

John was right. Rodney's heart was fine.

"The next thing is to relax and let it slow down a little. Will you do that for me?"

"I'll double it," Rodney whispered, "the incentive. I'll have to sell some stocks, but that won't be a problem. I've got the assets."

"What are you talking about? And stop changing the subject."

"I'll do anything. Just stay. Please."

John thought about that. "I'm not planning on leaving."

"No efficiency hotel room," Rodney said. "Buy a house. Or, hey, just stay with me."

Sheppard reached out, generally brushed Rodney's hair with his free hand. "How about we prove we can make it through the first week?" he coaxed gently. "We start trying to make this work by making it work *right now*. Focus on this moment. Is this a bad moment, Rodney? It's not. You're okay. This moment is okay. Be right here in it with me. Slow your breathing, and your heart rate will follow."

The next day they went back to the site. Rodney finished the entire survey even though John made him take twice as many breaks as usual. Also--John wouldn't let anybody approach Rodney physically. He was never allowed in an enclosed space (even if it was large) with either construction workers or colleagues. Edwards threw up his hands and said, "My God, McKay, you've found someone even more paranoid than you are."

Although it was kind of weird and Rodney wasn't used to a guide who took so much of his autonomy, he had smiled icily and said, "Yeah. Who knew?"

And that was another thing. Sheppard was completely unmovable. He refused to be intimidated by either logic or mockery. When Rodney flat out refused to comply, John had answered, "Read the contract. You can fire me, but you can't overrule me. You're taking a break." Even Rodney's raw, "I've been living with this body for twenty-seven years, I think I know it a lot better than you do after, what is it, four days?" was only met with, "You are screwing it up. So far this year, you're averaging three point seven episodes a *month*, and that is up sixty-three percent over this time last year. You cannot keep doing this."

"Do you think I don't know that? Do you think I don't know--and nothing makes a difference. I've changed my diet, all my personal care products three times, I moved--And it doesn't--every change, things get worse--" And then he was upset, and had to let Sheppard lead him out into daylight and sit him down on a pallet of pavers.

"Rodney. The coping mechanism you've been using to survive is to ignore your body. Because noticing it, paying attention...that would have led to a continuous state of perfectly justified panic. I get that. Too much. Too scary. Too totally out of control. So the shortcut is just to ignore it all. But the coping mechanism you've been using to survive, it's killing you now. You don't feel your own warning signals. All your attention is intellectual. Nothing is visceral. You're barely in your body at all. You eat on a schedule because you don't ever check to see if you're hungry."

"And you know this after four days," Rodney said sourly. John just looked at him, and Rodney found himself giving in: "I can't pay attention to myself. I always feel like my chest is tight and my skin itches and I have a headache. I always think I smell lemons. I have no idea when the problem is real, and if I pay attention...the reaction is real, whether I've been exposed to anything or not."

John opened his mouth to speak. Rodney said quickly, "Please don't tell me it's all in my head. I really don't need to hear that. My parents have been telling me it's all in my head since I was four. That may be true, but it doesn't *help*"

Sheppard nodded calmly. "I won't tell you that," he said "I won't tell you, you have to pay attention to your body either. That's...not something we can fix quickly. But for right now, you're going to have to let me pay attention to your body for you. You have to. You have to let me do it, and you have to trust me, or you are going to die."

"I guess I've got nothing to lose," Rodney whispered. But he couldn't stop himself from thinking--hoping, even, though he knew that was going too far--that maybe John loved sentinels they way Rodney loved buildings. And maybe John could read Rodney's body the way Rodney could tell when a wall wasn't plumb or how much snow a roof could support or when concrete wasn't curing right.

Weirdly, though they'd taken many more breaks than Rodney usually did, they still managed to finish the entire inspection that day. It wasn't clear how goofing off had made him more efficient, but they changed the reservations and flew home a day early.

The two days following a site visit, Rodney always worked at home writing up the report. The notes he took never made any sense to anyone else, and it took a while to turn them into a language normal people could understand. Here, too, he was forced to take extravagant breaks. These included cooking meals from scratch. "Look," Rodney said reasonably. "My diet is fine. Sandwiches are a perfectly adequate--"

"It's not the content of the meal," John said. "It's the cooking. You like cooking. It calms you down."

Rodney stopped stirring the marinade he was making and turned around. "I'm not sure I like that. Being manipulated. I mean, the old days of "Rodney, you ass, will you just shut up and relax," lacked something. I admit that. But mind games...."

John rolled his eyes. "I'm not playing a mind game. I didn't trick you. And if you had asked, I'd have told you the truth. I did tell you the truth."

"Whatever. I know you mean well." Rodney dropped the sliced chicken into the marinade and stirred it around. "But the whole relaxing thing, it's bull. Relaxing doesn't make any difference. And all of the nattering about relaxing, that's just irritating."

John didn't answer. Rodney washed his hands and the spoon. When he turned and looked, John was still watching him. "What?" Rodney asked.

"Don't take this the wrong way. But I'm not sure you've ever been relaxed."

"I relax!" Rodney protested, affronted. "I read. I watch TV. I...sleep."

John smirked and rolled his eyes. "I've seen you sleep. And you get barely enough--"

"I average seven and a half hours of sleep a night."

John opened his mouth to argue and then shut it again and said reasonably, "You're continually on the verge of panic or exhaustion or both. If you're not calm, you can't take control of your physiology and you don't have any reserves of strength to deal with emergencies. You're frequently angry, in a hurry--"

"Well, I'm sort of on a clock, here."

"I'd rather you weren't," John said. "If it's any consolation, it's probably not your fault. You're Canadian. Everybody knows they don't teach Canadian sentinels shit. You never learned the really useful techniques."

Rodney would have liked to defend himself. He wasn't sure how. He suspected John might have a point. And it was kind of embarrassing.

"Look, the relaxing thing, that's not negotiable. In that you *will* learn to relax, and you'll get good at it, although I'm flexible about how. But the point is, you can fire me, but you can't get out of it otherwise."

Rodney knew he was being backed into a corner. He didn't like it. In principle. Looking at John....

He gave in.

The first day back at the hoffice, Mal brought Rodney a set of blueprints and hovered at Rodney's shoulder as he looked at them. A theater for Dallas-Fort Worth. Like everything Malcolm brought him, it was completely over the top. Vaguely deco, impossibly balanced, gaudy...pointlessly extravagant and completely inefficient. There wasn't one straight line in the entire plan. And, oh look, a three storey glass curtain wall.

"Can you make it work, Rodney?"

Rodney suppressed his sigh. "Don't I always?"

Malcolm patted his shoulder and left. John came over to look. "Well," he said. "That looks...challenging."

Rodney smiled sourly. "I won't be bored, no. It's just...not very meaningful." Vapid, he didn't say. Impressive, but empty. And inefficient. And tacky. But Rodney could keep it from collapsing under its own impossible weight. And all that glass...would be challenging.

At the office, Rodney spent the next week forcing himself to work on Mal's latest horror and revising the plans for an ornamental tower for a fairground in Nebraska. John spent his days in the corner of Rodney's office reading up on sentinel medicine. Rodney didn't look too closely at the journals and accordion folded print-outs and pale Xeroxes. He didn't know what John was researching. He didn't want to know if John understood what he was reading...or if it was new material or something he was reading so that Rodney would see and be reassured by the idea of a competent guide.

Rodney wondered if he was paranoid.

He wondered if it was working. He couldn't tell if he felt reassured or not.

John let Rodney work at home on Saturday, but demanded they have a picnic lunch in the park on Sunday. That was about as bad as you'd think it would be; buggy and damp and dirty. The sun was too bright and the sunscreen was itchy. Rodney was a poor sport (because who wanted to do this again?) but not mean about it (because he didn't want John to feel his efforts were unappreciated, even though they were sadly misguided. Picnics? Please.)

And there was another thing. He wanted body checks three times a day: at lunch, after work, and before bed. He didn't ask for anything complicated, like bladder pressure or blood pressure or exact temperature. He didn't pull out extravagant biofeedback equipment. He wanted Rodney's heart rate and a checklist of physical discomforts. Rodney tried bluffing. John used his watch and two gentle fingers at Rodney's wrist to check his answer.

On Monday, Edwards brought in a packet of paperwork from Florida. He claimed it didn't make any sense. Rodney had barely taken a look when John seized his hands and pushed the chair back from the desk.

Confused, Rodney tried to push him away.

"Stop," John's voice was firm and certain. "Stop. Let it go. Come with me. Now."

"What? Hey--" But he gave in to strong hands and found himself swiftly swept into the tiny corporate kitchen. John shoved Rodney up against the sink and washed his hands.

"What's wrong?" Rodney asked.

John hesitated, which was chilling because it was unusual. "You're reacting to something."

"Really?" Rodney squeaked.

The water was cold. Now that Rodney knew, the skin on his hands seemed to be burning under the chill.

From behind, John hugged him. "Hush. Relax. You're going to be fine."

"You're just saying that. You don't know that."

"You're hyperventilating. Rodney, you need to slow down--"

"I can't breathe--"

"Relax. You're still all right."

"The kit," Rodney wheezed, and damn, he was wheezing. Through the water he could see the read mottling creep up his arms. They didn't itch, they hurt, and Rodney was watching the hives come up.

"We've caught it early. We might be able to head it off. You might not need--"

"Help me." Panicking, Rodney pushed back, and struggled free of John's hands. You did not combat a systemic allergic reaction with *cold water*. Rodney could hear his heart now. It was like thundering hooves in his ear, a frantic gallop. Stumbling, Rodney started toward the door.

"Where are you going?" John's voice was hard and calm, and Rodney hated him.

"My bag," he gasped over his shoulder.

"I've got it." He had it. John reached into the bag and produced an emergency kit.

"Please," Rodney said.

"Yeah. Come here." John set the kit on the room's tiny break table and popped the lid.

"Please."

"Yes. Yes. It's all right. Sit here. It's all right."

"I'll do it," Rodney began.

"I'll do it. I'll be faster. It's all right."

John's hands were cold. The swap was colder. The shots burned.

John tossed the spent syringes into the garbage and rubbed the back of Rodney's arm to sooth away the ache four injections left. It *hurt*. More than it should, which meant pain perception was off track. Rodney pressed his hands to his burning face and waited for the shot to work. There was nothing else to do, not until it was clear one way or the other.

The rubbing at his arm was getting annoying. Rodney seized the hand and brought it around so he could smell it. John smelled distressed. "Are you pissed at me or just disappointed?" Rodney whispered.

"Neither." He went over to close the door they'd left open in their rush. "I panicked."

Rodney snorted weakly. "You panicked?"

"Yeah. I'm more afraid of the drugs than the allergies. But you're really not ready to take control of your body. You're really not ready." He sighed. "I'm sorry, Rodney. I'm so sorry. I tried to head it off and.... We're just not there yet. I'm sorry."

Rodney looked away. "I know you wouldn't--I don't know why I freaked. I shouldn't have." Not trusting a guide, that was serious. Rodney had had lots of different fights with guides. The I-don't-trust-you fights were by far the most brutal.

"Don't apologize for that. It takes time to build that kind of relationship. To reach the point where we could face down something that scary. We're not there yet, and it'll take a while."

A fat tear slid down Rodney's face. "My eyes are watering," he said, hoping John wouldn't hear the tremor in his voice.

"Common symptom of allergies."

John took him home. Rodney was sleepy and numb and didn't argue.

When he woke on the couch, John handed him a milkshake and some aspirin and said, "You have to get off the Florida project. There's a contaminant on the site or in the contracting office."

Rodney thought about that. "Are you sure?"

"Would you like to test it? I asked Myrtle to collect the documents and vacuum your desk, but I could give you a set to play with."

Rodney shivered. "No." But if he couldn't do his job....

John sat down next to him. "Do you feel like a walk? Or do you want a shower?"

Rodney didn't have energy for either, but it turned out that the mention of a shower wasn't so much an offer as a politely phrased order. After the shower, John fed him left over meatloaf and potatoes, put bad scifi on the VCR and settled on the couch beside Rodney.

Rodney fell asleep against his shoulder. He realized the next morning that when John had woken him and led him to bed he hadn't asked for a body check.

Maybe that wasn't a bad sign. Maybe John was just cutting Rodney a break because it had been a bad day and they were both tired. But maybe he'd just given up and decided Rodney couldn't be taught.

Normally, John would ask at 11:45, when Rodney broke for lunch. If he didn't ask today, well, maybe it would slip his mind, except John never seemed to forget anything important. So if he didn't ask, he was silently admitting that Rodney couldn't--

At 11:40, Rodney saved his file, closed autoCAD, and focused on the charming analog clock on his desk. It took him three tries, but when John set aside the textbook he was reading and asked Rodney if he was ready to take a break, Rodney answered, "One-thirteen."

John frowned slightly. "Eleven-forty-five."

"No, my heart rate."

"Oh." John sighed. "Let's work on that."

It wasn't a response Rodney understood. "Work on that?"

"Nothing difficult. Relax, although that's kind of the point."

"Um, what?" Rodney was thoroughly confused.

John pulled up a chair and sat very close. "Are you upset or worried about something?"

"Um, no," Rodney said, wondering if this was a trick question.

"Are you mad at anybody?"

Rodney glanced at Mal's disastrous theater. "Not particularly."

"Okay. That's good. That's good. You're tense, but there's no specific reason."

"Oh. Yes," Rodney said. "My usual generalized frenzy."

"Let it go. Okay? Just relax. You don't need to protect yourself. Or be particularly alert. You're just sitting in your office. It's safe. There's no one here who will hurt you."

Rodney was a little surprised. How had they gotten from Rodney beating John to the pre-lunch body check, to an exercise to 'fix' something? Had John thought Rodney was complaining about the high number?

"You're safe here."

"You won't hurt me," Rodney whispered.

"No. You're safe." He slid warm fingers around Rodney's wrist. "Slow your breathing down, okay? Just relax." Rodney tried to comply, but a few minutes later, John squeezed his wrist gently and said, "You're not breathing right."

"Oh, please. Like I've never heard that before."

John rubbed his free hand against Rodney's belly. "Breath so that my hand moves. Push me out."

"Look, you're not the first person to do this, okay? Nobody has been able to teach me to relax. It's just not happening."

"So, don't try to relax. Just breathe properly, and sit here with me. You don't have to do anything. You can't do it wrong. Just be here with me. A little rest."

Rodney was annoyed and a little embarrassed, but he wanted to appear willing even if he couldn't manage to appear competent. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the feel of pushing against John's hand with his stomach. The silence seemed to go on for a very long time, but when John said, "Rodney, tell me your heart rate," Rodney opened his eyes to see that it was only eleven forty-nine.

Rodney watched the sweep of the second hand, trying not to lose count of the subtle internal shakings that marked his heart beat. "Ninety-three," he said at last.

John grinned, and the smile seemed to go right to Rodney's core. Sadly, the approval wasn't deserved. "Are you kidding? Even I know that ninety-three isn't a good number. Nothing. And that was the best I can do--"

"Shhh. Enough. You dropped it by seventeen percent. Besides which, this is the first time it's been below one hundred without you being sedated."

"I can't--"

"You can. You did. And with practice, it you will be able to do better."

Rodney laughed at that. Not on purpose. It was an ugly sound.

John withdrew his hands. Glanced down. Took a deep breath. "Look," he said. "I'm not asking you to change your personality. Or even your outlook. I know it must seem like guides are always telling you what to do, how to be, but all I am asking is for you to learn a *skill.* Some techniques. It's not a big deal."

"It's not possible," Rodney answered, and there was venom in his voice. "I can't do it. I know my limitations."

"And--what? Accept them?" he blinked. "Wait. Genius. Right. I bet everything you tried, you got the first time. Am I right? I am right. You never really had to really work at anything. You never learned to fail."

"I fail just fine," Rodney said stiffly. "There are a lot of things I can't do."

"And so you give up."

"Don't you dare--" Rodney began. And then, "I've been trying for days."

"And you've made progress. You've gotten better. But it's not enough. Not for you. You're used to picking things up at once. The first time. No problem. What you did today was pretty good. It'll be better tomorrow. Pretty soon, you'll be ready to move on to harder things. But not if you give up."

Rodney stiffened, lifting his chin slightly. "And what will it take for you to give up?" It didn't come out the way Rodney had intended. Or perhaps he hadn't realized what he'd intended until he'd said it. Rodney really wished he could take the words back.

John pinned Rodney with his eyes, and Rodney wished *harder* that he could take the words back. John said, "You'll have to fire me."

"Oh," Rodney said. "Um. Okay."

"Okay, then. We've worked on this enough for now. What did we bring for lunch?" Rodney had packed meatloaf sandwiches. They ate them in the park across the street. John liked to get Rodney out of the building on at least one break a day, and Rodney had given up arguing about it.

Over the next few days, Rodney was as cooperative as he knew how to be. He managed to get his heart rate down into the eighties once. John insisted Rodney keep cooking, but he did the shopping, which meant Rodney didn't have to deal with supermarkets, so it seemed an even trade. They rented videos, but Rodney never saw the end of the second movie; he fell asleep each night with his head tilted sideways so that it rested on John's shoulder.

Thursday night Rodney fell asleep during "Cat People," which was no loss. He woke up with his head in John's lap and John's fingers fluffing through his hair. Rodney opened his eyes. The movie was over and the room was dark. John smiled as Rodney stirred.

"Sorry," Rodney muttered, knowing he should move, really not wanting to. "Did it again."

The smile got bigger. "No biggie. You're adorable when you're asleep." He sighed and looked away. "Maybe I shouldn't have said that."

Rodney thought about that. "Why not?" he asked. He was suspected that nobody had ever called him adorable before. He wasn't sure-- since it was a novel experience--but he was disposed toward liking it.

"It happens, sometimes. Sentinels and guides get involved. But it's not always a good thing. Being too emotionally....Sometimes it gets codependent or manipulative."

Right. How could he forget? "I'm not real good at having friends. We can...We could count on me screwing it up." He tried to sound amused.

John sighed. "It's not you I'm worried about. You're fine. But I'm...I'm already making mistakes because when you're in trouble I get scared."

Rodney thought about that. "You're still the best guide. I mean, I'm not condoning slacking off. But. You know. Nobody's perfect anyway." Rodney swallowed. "The best ever."

John leaned down so that their temples brushed together. John's smell was strong this way. It was a wonderful smell, and powerful. Rodney wanted more.

"Have you ever been in love?" John asked. It was the soft voice he used to ask Rodney about his medical history.

"No, I don't believe in love. It's all brain chemistry and pheromones and *hormones*. It's a biological illusion that keeps us perpetuating the species." He reconsidered what John might be asking. "I've had plenty of sex. In college, a lot of people were curious about what sex with a sentinel would be like."

"So you've had a lot of experience, some of it very bad."

"Heh. Yeah. What about you? Have you ever....with a client before?" Rodney wasn't sure if 'yes' or 'no' would be the better answer. Maybe John had a thing for sentinels....which would be unflattering, definitely, but maybe not a bad thing. Maybe.

"Partner. And no, I haven't. And I never thought I would."

Rodney thought about that. He thought about how gentle John was and how he didn't get upset when Rodney was sick. Maybe the 'attraction' was being needed so damn badly. Guides liked to be needed. "Have you ever been partnered with a fragile sentinel before?"

"My probationary year I worked at the hospice in St. Johnsbury."

"Oh." That was one of the places where sentinels went to die. Actually, this answered a lot of questions (such as How was John so damn fast at injections? and Why didn't he ever seem shocked at Rodney's problems?), but it didn't explain the most important question, which was, Why did John like him, especially considering that Rodney wasn't charming or friendly and wasn't trying to be likable? "So. Why me?"

"I honestly don't know. I don't know. They taught us to know our own feelings, to face them, not to repress or deny or pretend to ourselves...but I don't know why you. I just know that it's more personal than it's ever been for me before."

Rodney thought about that. It should make him nervous, a guide admitting a limit to his understanding of a situation. It didn't. Rodney also thought about John's hand, which was resting on Rodney's belly. He could feel the warm palm through his shirt. The meaty under-thumb part was a weight. The light resting of fingers was like a caress. It seemed more *real* than, well, a lot of things. Than anything. Yes, more real, more solid, more three dimensional than anything else. Yes, the rest of the world was like a 2d autoCAD drawing, and the only thing that was actually concrete was John's hand. And Rodney's belly where he was being touched. That was real and getting more so by the second--

"Why me?" John asked, his voice interrupting the incipient zone.

"You're smart. And funny. And you're not mean and small and weak inside."

"I'm a good guide," John said softly. "I'm perceptive and very patient."

"I like you." He waited, but John didn't answer that, so he clearly didn't understand. "I don't like people. People are the least likable thing about the world. But I like you."

"Oh."

They spent the night on the couch like that. Probably, Rodney thought, because neither one of them wanted to separate and neither wanted to suggest spending the night in the same bed. But that was okay, because even though the couch wasn't nearly as comfortable as Rodney's mattress, being relaxed and sleeping soundly seemed to make up for that.

As they were getting ready for work, John announced that while Rodney could work on Saturday if he wanted, on Sunday they were going to Six Flags.

"Ugh. Why?"

John rolled his eyes. "It's *fun*." He grinned. "It's fun with *rides*."

Rodney frowned. "You can't ride rides."

John shrugged. "I wasn't kidding about the Dramamine. But you'll have to drive."

"You know," Rodney began, trying for casual, "There is this really good theme park in Florida. I would take you, if you let me go--"

"We're not going to the Tampa site again."

"John. Look. I have to do my job."

"Give me three weeks without an episode and we'll talk about it. But not now."

Rodney was confused. He wasn't sure if he should be frustrated or pissed or...something. "All of a sudden it's like I've got a parent who gives a shit or something. I mean, this is like having curfew again or having to ask if I can borrow the car. Am I twelve? John, I cannot live my life without risk. There is nothing, for me, that isn't dangerous."

John's face was weirdly neutral. He said, "That is true. But I think you've gotten so overwhelmed by living with that risk that you can't do a rational risk-assessment anymore. You can't separate out the very dangerous and the mildly dangerous--"

"There is no mildly dangerous: dead is dead--"

"There you go. The only times I've seen you sick have been when you were standing in or in contact with items from the Tampa arena, and we are going to stay away from that at least until your body has had a chance to settle down. Right now, your immune system has a hair-trigger response. I'm not going to take that chance."

Rodney didn't know what to say. Other guides had tried to boss him around, but they'd been idiots, and John wasn't. Also--most of the guides he'd had had been easy to intimidate. Yelling wouldn't change John's mind. Throwing a tantrum was out, and that didn't leave Rodney with any options he understood.

Rodney turned away and concentrated on assembling the lunch bags.

On Saturday, Rodney tried to work. He couldn't concentrate, though. Every time John shifted position or turned a page or took a drink of water, Rodney's senses zeroed in on him and wouldn't let go. Rodney was sure he could hear John's heartbeat from half-way across the room. And Rodney just didn't have hearing that good.

He turned on the stereo.

That didn't help. Unable to hear John, he started smelling him. He smelled...good.

Rodney forced his attention back to the model taking shape on his computer screen and tried to remember what he'd been doing. Other guides had only rarely been a distraction before, and only because they were irritating. Not because Rodney was imagining their body heat.

Sighing, Rodney closed the program without saving his changes (because they were crap) and joined John on the couch.

John closed his book and smiled. "Want to go jogging?"

Rodney laughed. "You're kidding."

"The exercise would be good for you."

His eyes were eager and affectionate and his scent was nearly irresistible. "A walk would be nice," he said.

Rodney hadn't been sure if John was serious, but the next day he found himself at a theme park walking slowly around a ferris wheel trying to decide if it was solid enough to consider riding.

"You don't have to get on if you don't want to," John said reasonably. It was the first thing he'd said in twenty minutes. He had (yes, really) taken a pill for nausea and it had shifted his brain into a lower gear.

"If you think I'm letting *you* get on something that isn't safe, you can...just stop thinking and obey orders. Start by shutting up." Rodney closed his eyes and listened for vibrations. Unfortunately, he didn't hear anything horrifying. As far as Rodney could tell, the ferris wheel would be fine for several months even if it got no maintenance in the mean time. He wished he could lie, but he couldn't, not about engineering. "All right. Fine."

They were in line for twenty minutes. Rodney passed the time by listing other fun things they could be doing. John just smiled.

Rodney had assumed that being two stories in the air in a rocking, moving cart would be scary. And it was. But despite the fact that his eyes were telling him that he was a lot higher and a lot more open than he wanted to be, he knew the mechanism was stable. He wasn't actually in danger. He *knew* that. He could see and hear and very nearly taste that. Rodney had spent too much of his life terrified because there was something to really be afraid *of* to waste energy being afraid of something that wouldn't kill him, so he settled down and pretended to enjoy it.

John whooped and cheered and pointed at things they could see in the distance. It was sort of cute, in a juvenile way. Magnanimously, Rodney did not point out that he could see much, *much* better than John. When they got off, John couldn't walk in a straight line. Also, he was tripping over his feet. He wrapped his hand around Rodney's upper arm and let him lead. "Find us a roller coaster," he said.

Rodney stopped so shortly that John nearly fell. "You're doing this on purpose," he accused. "You're--you're making yourself all vulnerable. You're trusting me so I'll trust you back."

"Well, yeah, but you're missing the point. I already do trust you."

There was a wooden roller coaster. It was solid. It wasn't making any terrifying noises. Loud noises, oh, it was amazingly expressive. But it wasn't going to collapse, and it was the least flashy with regard to content (no corkscrew turns or flipping upside down) so Rodney led them over to the line.

"So what kind of theme parks do they have in Canada?"

"I never paid much attention."

"Oh, come on, even if you never went, you must have at least wanted to."

Rodney wondered how much of this he wanted to talk about. Or rather, how much of this he wanted to talk about right now. "I was pretty sick. As a kid." He snuck a glance sideways. John was waiting calmly. "Sentinels don't run in my family. My parents didn't know what to do with me. Even when they tried, they did everything wrong."

They reached the head of the line, then, and Rodney was spared having to go into more detail by climbing into the cart.

It was a dreadful mistake. As soon as the cart began to move, Rodney could feel the movement throughout the entire structure; the low thrum of vibrating wood, the sweet call of steel, god, oh, god, it was music, it was huge, it was in Rodney's body, it was--

moving so fast--

Even with his eyes open, Rodney could see the shape of the truss in his mind. The movement of the track as they passed over it was--should be horrifying, Rodney realized dimly--but wasn't because each sway-- he predicted it a moment before it happened, and even when the shift was on the order of a couple of feet, it felt perfectly natural.

Sang. It sang. Wood sang.

The height, the drop, Rodney was dimly aware of both. Neither was nearly as important as the symphony of vibration, hundreds of feet of coiling song, bigger, brighter, more powerful than Rodney had expected.

And then the song was gone and the silence was deafening and there was John, shaking Rodney by the shoulders and whispering, "Breathe, breathe, I'm sorry, it's over, breathe--"

Rodney leaped to his feat, stumbling out of the car and brushing past a couple of shocked and worried-looking attendants. John was right behind him, chattering about--something, Rodney couldn't focus on the words.

There were steps. Wooden steps. Not many, but they vibrated up his legs, made his heart shake in sympathy.

And then John's hands were there. Solid. Calming. They quelled the vibration, spread silence everywhere they touched, pushed Rodney down onto a bench. John half fell to his knees in the grass. "Look at me, let me see your eyes," and these words made sense. Well, they were *nonsense* but they were words at least.

Rodney blinked. "Uhg," he said.

"Rodney? Are you okay?"

Rodney swallowed. John pushed a bottle of water into his hands, helped him lift it and drink. Rodney tasted the traces of salt and sulfur compounds in the water; he didn't usually. He pushed the bottle away. "Well that worked," he muttered irritably.

John frowned. "What? Rodney? Are you with me?"

Rodney took a deep breath. "If the point of this was to get me to pay attention to my body, it worked. All right? I'm....way more in my body then--damn. Damn."

John took the water, gently squeezed Rodney's hands. "Hey? I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to do anything. It was just supposed to be fun. That's all."

Rodney leaned forward, wished he were one of those sentinels who could tell what people were thinking and when they were fuzzing the truth. "For fun. So this is what? Fun therapy? How is that supposed to work? No. Really. How is this supposed to work? I can't get anything out of it if I don't know what to do."

John sat back on his heels. "Will you stop over thinking this? This isn't a trust exercise. It's not Fun Therapy. It's just...." he stopped abruptly.

"Just what?" The ground was steady under Rodney's feet. The memory of the full body song was fading. "Well?"

"Well, I guess it was sort of a date. It was the best thing to do I could think of. I thought you'd enjoy it."

"Oh." Sort of a date. Which was an ulterior motive, but not one that Rodney's other guides had ever had. Huh. Rodney laughed weakly. "How's it going?"

"I'm thinking we should go hiking next time, actually." He sighed. "That wasn't fear, was it? You were....you perceive *things*--"

"Engineering," Rodney whispered. "Structure." Things, yes, built things. "A wooden roller coaster. I had no idea...."

"Do you want to go home?"

"No. I'm fine. A little hungry maybe."

They found an ugly little food kiosk (crude construction that was mostly cement block and particle board) where John bought himself a couple of hotdogs and some nachos (possibly made of particle board as well). Rodney, horrified, pulled a thermos of apple juice and bag of homemade granola out of his backpack. "You're kidding about eating that, right?"

"No. Want some?"

"Thanks. No."

"I bet you could tell what it's made of." He offered up an uneaten hotdog."

"Very funny. I promise you don't want to know." He offered the bag of granola. "Real food?"

John grinned and plucked a raisin. "Iron. Yum."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "You know, most guides have a basic understanding of nutrition."

"How are you feeling? You okay?"

"Yeah. It wasn't bad. Just. Extreme. Actually, it was kind of like sex. Except without the socially awkward part. Well, until the end there when you panicked."

John leaned forward. "What was it like? What did you feel?"

"It was--I can't." He couldn't. There weren't words. "It was like going to the symphony."

"What's that like?"

Rodney shook his head.

"Is it good?"

"I've always wanted to see the Acropolis," Rodney said. "That's too long in a plane, I couldn't do it. And sentinel medical care in Greece, forget it. But seeing the Acropolis, that would be the best thing in the world. The symphony is the second best thing."

John gave Rodney a very soft look and said, "Okay, next time the symphony."

After lunch they took a walk to let their stomachs settle while Rodney picked another roller coaster. All the rest were steel, but that was fine. Rodney wouldn't be ready to ride a wooden one again for days. If ever. He stopped, finally, before a short ride with a double loop in it.

"Are you sure? It flips upside down."

"It's sturdy and it obeys all physical laws. Yes, I'm sure. It's perfectly safe."

The line was half an hour. The ride was fantastic. Rodney was dizzy and exhilarated as he stumbled off the housing, staggered off the path and threw up his healthy lunch. "We have to go to Florida!" he announced.

John patted his back and handed him the water. "Rinse. And there are plenty of other places to go. King's Island--"

Rodney swished and spit. "No. John. The numbers from Tampa don't add up. I need to go look at it all myself."

"No. Not for a while, anyway. Something about the Tampa site is setting you off--"

"Yes, and given that the numbers don't add up, do you really think that is an accident?" Full body vertigo had given him a wonderful mental clarity. Somewhere at the top of the second loop, a bunch of tiny, meaningless discrepancies had coalesced into a brilliant certainty. "They know I'll catch them if I spend too much time looking."

"Rodney...you're talking about attempted murder. The courts--it's very serious, screwing with a sentinel on purpose. The risk if you're caught--"

"Yeah, and there's a lot of risk attached to--whatever they're doing. Cutting corners? Embezzlement? Sabotage?"

"Sabotage?"

"Don't say I'm paranoid. Come on. We have to go in to the office. I need to look at the progress reports again."

John made Rodney wear gloves and a face mask to look at the paperwork on the Tampa coliseum. After a couple of hours, John made him stop to eat some sesame crackers and coffee. "Leave it here," Rodney said, and John pushed his chair back from the desk, saying, "You are not going to eat while playing with fedexes from Florida go into the kitchen and wash your hands."

Almost as soon as Rodney got back to work, John was clamoring for attention again. He planted himself behind Rodney and tapped his shoulder persistently. "What?" Rodney grunted, absently wishing for a guide that didn't take his job so seriously.

"It's time to go home."

"It's barely seven O'clock," Rodney said grumpily.

"It's close to ten. And should I be worried about your time sense being all screwed up?"

"It's...What?" It was almost ten. Rodney looked helplessly at the stack of reports and receipts and blueprints before him. "I still haven't found it."

"You can try again tomorrow. It will still be here."

Rodney hesitated, almost reaching to rub his eyes with his gloved hands.

"You'll be here tomorrow, too, Rodney. Let's go home." He leaned down and wrapped his arms around Rodney's shoulders. "Tomorrow, Sweetheart."

Rodney allowed John to strip off the gloves and safety mask and send him to the bathroom to wash before going home.

Irritatingly, it turned out John was right. Exhaustion was swamping Rodney before they even made it to the car. John made him eat a banana on the way home, though Rodney would really rather have slept. When they got to Rodney's condo, John made him shower, though Rodney felt like just dropping onto the bed and passing out.

When Rodney came out of the shower--clean and warm and damp and stumbling with profound tiredness--John was waiting. He was also clean and damp. He was watching Rodney with patient eyes that promised careful relaxation and a body check.

Rodney tossed his towel onto the hamper and fell forward onto the bed. "No, please," he whined. "Look, just, here, lie down here." He held out his hands.

John, still in his bathrobe, shoved the covers down, out from under Rodney, and then nestled in beside him under the sheet. "Is this all right?"

"Yes, fine. Wonderful. Shut up and go to sleep." He shoved John sideways so that he was lying on his back and wiggled so that his head was on John's shoulder. "Good. Go to sleep."

Miraculously, wonderfully, John's hands came up around him.

Rodney woke with his face pressed to the back of John's neck. He was holding on tightly. John was asleep. Rodney felt very good. Better than he had for a long time. He was getting better sleep than he'd been used to. He felt...strangely relaxed. Tranquil. Comfortable in his skin--which, he realized, didn't itch. At all. No sparse headache, either. No weight in his chest. No tenderness in his joints. Good, he felt good. John--

Nothing in Rodney's life had prepared him for this, for John Sheppard. Rodney had had competent guides before. Competence...wasn't enough. Wasn't even the right question. Happiness, maybe. Or love.

Which made no sense. Unless Rodney was just so happy, he wasn't noticing his endless weaknesses any more. He had never met anyone this wonderful. This funny. This open. This strong--

John stirred in Rodney's arms. "Hey," he whispered. "It's okay. I'm right here. Easy."

Rodney realized he was holding John so tightly he couldn't breathe. He eased up. "Sorry."

"I've been thinking. If you go to Florida and they know you're coming...they'll have time to get ready."

"Are we going? I need to go."

"Yeah. Yeah...you have some vacation time stocked up. We could say we're taking a trip up to Vermont, to a doctor I know associated with the clinic. For an evaluation."

"Ah," Rodney said, smiling, "but really we'd be going to Florida for a surprise site inspection. You're devious. I like that." He liked it a lot. He liked it so much he found himself nuzzling the back of John's neck.

John turned in Rodney's arms. "We'd go to Florida *after* Vermont."

"What?--no. No."

"Rodney, he's good, amazing." Rodney tried to pull away, but gentle hands held him still. "If there's something you're not getting that you need. Or something we need to be doing differently. Rodney, I need to know."

"No, look, I've been 'evaluated.' It takes all day, they run all kinds of tests. And then they tell me I need to relax. Which is stupid because I *can't*."

"He's a friend of mine. He's gentle, Rodney. And he's good. If anybody can help you...." Light hands smoothed Rodney's hair, brushed against his cheek. "And afterwards, we'll go to Florida."

"Bastard," Rodney whispered.

"Give me a chance, Rodney, please. Let me try everything."

Rodney rolled away. "Fine," he said, getting up and fleeing blindly toward the bathroom, "Whatever."

John was nice, but completely intractable. Rodney...was unsure. Maybe he should feel patronized. Maybe. Maybe--what? He didn't know.

During the day Monday and Tuesday, Rodney worked on Mal's curtain wall. In the evenings, after everyone left, he and John worked on the coliseum. As far as the glass design went, 'working' was code for zoning on pieces of paper as he tried to come up with a workable design. Rodney could think of five ways to actually do it, but all of them offended his sense of efficiency. John sat quietly in the corner amusing himself with something or other. On Tuesday, he sat down with the office manager and worked out Rodney's schedule so that he could disappear for a few days on a medical vacation. "All set," he said as he came back. "We leave a week from today."

Rodney looked up from the blank paper. "You got an appointment already? Lucky me." He glanced down at the paper. It had a series of thin, horizontal lines on it. He didn't remember drawing them.

"Getting anywhere?"

Rodney sighed. "No." He turned the page upside down. It didn't stimulate a brilliant idea.

"Did you do that free-hand?" John asked.

"Genius," Rodney muttered, wadding the paper into a ball. "I can draw a straight line. Wheee."

"Look, you obviously don't like the project. Are you sure you *can*--"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "This isn't art. It's engineering. I don't have to *like* anything."

"So what's the problem?"

"They're not doing it because it's the best design for their purpose. It's not about acoustics or light or even mood. They're doing this because it's expensive and flashy and pointless and they're making a statement about having wealth to waste on extravagance." Rodney stood up. "I need more paper," he said.

It felt good to stretch his legs, he thought as he walked to the supply room. Maybe John had a point about breaks. Away from the white noise generator in his office, though, he could hear things he didn't want to. Two of the senior partners were arguing. In the little kitchen, one of the junior associates (male, Blake? Baker?) was trying to convince one of the other junior associates (female, Wallis? Willis?) that, yes, he really was a feminist and was completely sympathetic to the barriers faced by women even in this day and age. Somewhere Rodney couldn't locate, the office manager was saying, "Yes, he's gorgeous, but there's no point in getting to like him. Rodney McKay has chased nice guides off before. This one won't last six months."

One of the secretaries answered her. "Oh, I don't know. This one seems to like him."

Rodney tripped over his feet because he'd stopped paying attention to the location of the floor. He turned around and headed back the way he'd come, practically running. He didn't stop until he was standing directly over John. John looked up. "I've never worked with a sentinel in an office job before. I'm thinking of learning to knit."

"Do you like me?" Rodney asked, though John had told him so. He couldn't get his mind around the answer. He didn't understand. He couldn't--

The scent that rose suddenly was a much better answer than words. It went straight to Rodney's hindbrain. It clouded his thinking and his speech center and turned his body to water.

His eyes were still seeing John, who was near and solid and looking up at him. John smiled. "No," he said. "I think maybe 'like' isn't the word."

Rodney leaned down and kissed him. It was the Parthenon, Rodney thought. He began to shake.

John caught Rodney as he fell, eased him to his knees, kissing all the while. "Wonderful, wonderful," John muttered between kisses. Or perhaps it was just telepathy directly to Rodney's mind.

Rodney pulled back, gasping. "Home. We have to go home."

John blinked. He looked remarkably alert and present. He patted Rodney's cheek. "Right. You're sick. I need to take you home."

Rodney's jaw dropped. "I'm not sick. You need to take me home so I can lick you all over."

John laughed. "I think Jane doesn't need to know that."

Rodney was dimly aware that he was zoned, and it wasn't the sort of zone that let him function. It wasn't useful, like listening to girders or getting lost in mathematics. "Are you going to stop making that smell?" Rodney managed to ask. John was taking off Rodney's clothes, because Rodney couldn't properly command his fingers.

"It's a brain chemistry thing. I can't control it. Hormones and pheromones. You don't believe in it." John tossed Rodney's undershirt across the room and laid a trail of kisses across his back. "You'll start to habituate to the scent in a few days. Eventually, I won't make it as strong anyway."

The thought *hurt* with an almost physical pain. "Because you'll stop loving me?"

"No, because....Actually, I think we don't know yet. It just does. Maybe my brain will get used to loving you." The scent had changed Rodney's skin somehow. John's hands sliding over Rodney's shoulders, belly--it felt impossibly good, sweet, dizzying....

Skin wasn't supposed to feel good. Rodney normally only noticed it when it itched or burned or felt raw. It was hard to think--or remember back past this one moment--but possibly, these last few days, possibly Rodney's skin hadn't been a problem.

"Rodney, you have to tell me what to do, what you need here."

"You're supposed to know," Rodney mumbled. "Guide."

"Yeah. And the book says you shouldn't be doing this with anybody you've known less then six weeks. Your body hasn't acclimated to mine. I should be--I might be--an irritant or something."

Rodney realized he was struggling with John's shirt. He just couldn't get passed it. Or around it. Or into it. He seized and ripped, and there at last was skin. Rodney ran his tongue over the sweet, warm expanse. It tasted better than it smelled. "What idiot wrote the book?" he said, words muffled against warm skin.

John's lips were on Rodney's neck. The tip of his tongue teased just behind Rodney's left ear. An irritant or something? Maybe, but-- Normally, the ideal of somebody else's spit on him would have been a little ugly, yeah, but no, no, this was wonderful, John's warmth, John's damp, John's hands spreading a fire of pleasure everywhere.

"I would have waited," John was whispering. "I was going to. I could have."

"Shut up, shut up." Need was very nearly pain now, very nearly unbearable. Rodney had never been so overwhelmed, so out of control without being very close to dying. He should be terrified-- "Touch me. Please, please."

He didn't lose consciousness. He wasn't sure afterwards--dazed, emptied, exhausted, consumed--what he'd been conscious *of*, but he hadn't passed out. He sort of remembered a fire in his veins. And thinking that his body was melting. And begging. He had begged out loud. "We have to do it again," he said thickly.

He heard John's smile. "Safe bet that we will...."

"No, I mean--I wasn't paying attention properly the first time. I can't remember, I couldn't process it," Rodney shut his mouth, belatedly hearing how stupid he sounded.

"Practice," John teased gently. He reached out and pulled up the sheet, but Rodney shoved it away as soon as it touched him. He was a little cold, but unlike John's skin, the sheet wasn't soft and warm. He shifted so that more of him was on John and not on the utter waste of very expensive and hypoallergenicly cleaned sheet.

"Huh," Rodney said after a while.

"What?" John asked, smoothing his hair.

"I should be really upset right now." Rodney felt tired, but not sleepy. And not unhappy or worried at all.

A soft smile against the top of Rodney's head. "Yeah. I can see where really good sex could be upsetting."

"We're involved now," Rodney said heavily. "And I'm...not easy to get along with. I could hurt your feelings tomorrow and you could, you know, get mad and wash my sheets in Tide or something."

"Believe it or not, I do have some impulse control."

"You could leave me. Or die tomorrow. I don't know how I could go back to the way things were before. Maybe I couldn't. That should scare the shit out of me."

"I'm not going to die tomorrow."

"You can't promise that."

John shifted under him, sighing. "No, I can't. I can't promise. But, really, it's not likely, is it? I'm not sick. You'd know. One of the fringe benefits of being a guide; cancer or high blood pressure or something can't sneak up on you."

"Freak accident," Rodney said. "A meteor could drop on you tomorrow. Squish."

"Right? And who will be standing right next to me when it hits? If I die tomorrow in a freak accident, one in a million chance, lightening strike, who could have guessed--you will probably not have to worry about outliving me, Rodney. To be really blunt."

Rodney laughed despite himself. But part of what he was laughing at was his own profound and unexpected betrayal. "Oh, my god. I can't protect myself from you at all. I trust you. I'd let you do anything. I don't even mind the meteor idea. I've lost my mind."

John held him tightly. "Yeah. We sort of need to talk about that." He paused. "There are things I need to know. About the way you protect yourself. Your medical file starts eleven years ago when you started college in Ohio. I really need to know about, well, before. Don't you think?"

"You want to know about my trust issues. I've had this conversation before."

"Not with me," John coaxed.

Rodney was very quickly getting more grounded then he wanted to be. He lifted his head and met John's gaze solemnly. "You're thinking I was abused or something. It wasn't like that. My parents weren't cruel. They were just really ignorant."

John waited quietly. Rodney considered pulling away and wrapping himself in the rough sheet. Instead he said, "I came on line just before I turned seven. Apparently, before that, I was an okay kid. Picky, you know. But smart and friendly. Cute."

"And then you changed."

"I got cranky. I stopped eating. And sleeping. I cried for no reason. I got stupid."

That last was the hardest part to say out loud, and John, naturally, picked it up. "How did you get stupid?"

"I was put into remedial math and reading. I couldn't, um, make out the characters on the page."

"Ah," John said.

"I didn't get the sentinel diagnosis until I was ten. A doctor asked me a lot of questions about what I was hearing and seeing and explained that my brain was different....And that was a huge help. Once I realized that the words were disappearing because my perception was switching levels, I just, I got a hold of it and made my perception pay attention."

"That's impressive," John whispered. "Learning to alter focus without a guide."

"I know that now."

"What about your health?"

"They didn't understand. I'm not making excuses. They were stupid and shortsighted. But it wasn't malicious. It's hard, taking care of a sentinel."

John didn't say anything.

"Bleach," Rodney whispered. "Ammonia. Bug spray. Fabric softener. Air fresheners." Rodney could feel himself tensing. He pushed his face into John's shoulder and tried to relax his muscles.

John coaxed gently, "Neurological symptoms?"

"No. Respiratory, mainly. Worst in the winter, when we kept all the windows shut. Sometimes it felt like I was drowning. I couldn't cough enough...."

"It's all right," John said gently. "We can talk about this later."

Rodney never wanted to talk about this again. Best to be done. "When I was in high school, I started cleaning things myself. I figured out what was safe. And the library had some books. I did the laundry. I spent as much time away from home as I could. I tried not to think about it."

"And it got better," John whispered.

"It got a lot better. Except in my senior year, I was...the doctor said I had Michelson's"

John went very still. His scent turned a little sour. And yes, okay, a dozen years later that was gratifying, because Rodney's parents had never smelled this upset. They hadn't understood where Michelson's came from or what it meant, so they'd never really believed that it was dangerous or miserable. "It's not in your file."

"Michelson's is usually an environmental disorder. Allergic toxemia. I changed environments."

"Better research links Michelson's to stress. It's not usual, though, to find college as the less stressful environment."

"They weren't guides. They weren't even good parents. But they weren't deliberately cruel."

"You're trying to forgive them," John said.

"Bernice--that was about five guides back--said that unresolved anger causes elevated cortisol. But I'm not a very forgiving person."

"Don't worry about it," John whispered. "It's not worth the effort. I certainly won't be forgiving them very soon."

"Forget them," Rodney agreed thinly.

"Tell me something I can use. When did the episodes start?"

"In the beginning. When I was seven or eight. It was just really bad itching at first, though. Chain welts and burning. It didn't get life-threatening until my second year in college. I was on a practicum in Pittsburg. It wasn't very clean."

John was quiet for a long time. Finally he said, "I can't promise that I won't ever make mistakes, but Sweetheart, I'm not ignorant. And I'm not so lazy or so selfish or so disinterested that," he stopped suddenly, working his jaw silently and breathing through his nose.

Rodney closed his eyes. "John, sentinels were never meant to live in cities. Even if my parents had done better, they, uh, they could never have done *enough*. I know you're going to do your best, but--"

"No, no. You know how much of this is attitude. Do not sabotage us before we even get started." Then, more softly, "Please."

"We'll do it your way," Rodney whispered. "And I've never said that to anybody, ever, so consider yourself special." He was caving completely, he knew that. And he knew that the reason he didn't normally cave was that it wasn't *safe*. All his independence and self reliance and distrust seemed to have evaporated. Probably, this wouldn't end well....

Rodney spent the rest of the week in a happy haze he blamed on plentiful and delightful sex. Aside from the sex, he supposed he had a good week. On Thursday morning he sat bolt upright at four am knowing how to cut twenty percent of the weight of Malcolm's curtain wall, and at the same time make the lattice nearly invisible. He worked from home that day, dressed in a torn tee-shirt and boxers and fed peanut butter on whole wheat sandwiches every few hours by John. By the time John made him stop for dinner, he had a basic plan ready for Malcolm's input (by 'input,' Rodney meant 'humble awe').

He didn't make as much progress on the stadium, unless by progress he included a long list of things that *didn't* appear to be the problem. In the happy haze of post-coital bliss, though, Rodney couldn't find it in himself to be frustrated about that.

He even almost managed to ignore the out of town trip that loomed closer on the horizon every day. The air travel, he could handle that. Not always pleasant (frequently not pleasant) but predictable and not horrible. After that, though, was a doctor visit. John tried to be reassuring, saying things like, "It won't take as long as you think," and "Dr. Beckett doesn't do a lot of invasive testing," and "He has really good ideas." John was expecting that his miracle worker would come up with something useful. Rodney liked John hopeful. He wasn't looking forward to the likelihood of the miracle worker bursting that bubble.

And then they were moving on to Florida. The site in Tampa hadn't been very good for Rodney lately. Maybe--even probably--no one was actually deliberately exposing Rodney to anything. Probably, the site was fine and nobody was trying to keep him from noticing something untoward. Probably. Really.

But John didn't think so. And even if nothing deliberate was being done--surely, nobody was really trying to poison him--Rodney had had a lot of trouble at the site and with documents from the general contractor. Accident or not, there might be something dangerous there.

Really, though, all that was easy not to think about when the distraction of John's smell and taste and warmth was so lovely. Rodney managed to push it out of his mind right up until the moment when they pulled the rental car into the large parking area in front of a large stone farmhouse of no particular genera. "This doesn't look like the hospice," Rodney said suspiciously.

"No. Sam keeps an office in town. He sees a number of out-patients. It's less stressful to do it here."

The parking area wasn't paved. The door was...just an old house door. When they walked in...there was a small wooden entry area that opened into a former parlor that had been transformed into a small, overly quaint waiting room. "I'm impressed with the state of the art facility," Rodney muttered pointedly.

A short, middle aged man came out of one of the doors opening into the waiting room. The little man grinned at John and walked right forward and hugged him in a way that showed absolutely no respect for John's personal space or dignity. "I thought you were done with Vermont, Johnny-boy."

"Wait, Al. Next time I'll get you to come visit me." He grinned and stepped back. "Rodney, this is Al Calavicci, Sam's guide."

"Nice to meet you," Rodney said, offering his hand mainly so that Al would step away from John (and really, this jealous streak Rodney was discovering wasn't nice). "I was just admiring your office park."

And then a sentinel stepped into the hall behind them and Rodney's jealous streak entered completely new territory. This new sentinel--my god, the doctor?--was beautiful. An open, cheerful face was made completely unforgivable by a thick head of *bouncy* hair, a firm jaw, and eyes that were actually--god damn it--pretty.

John slid an arm around Rodney's waist. "It won't be so bad. Really. He's the best. He'll help us."

The beautiful sentinel stepped forward and held out his hand. "I'm Dr. Beckett, but we aren't very formal here. You can call me 'Sam' if I can call you 'Rodney.'"

"Sure, fine, whatever," Rodney said.

It was like no examining room Rodney had ever seen. It was clean, he'd concede that. The tile floor had been scrubbed with vinegar and rinsed thoroughly within the last day. There were cotton rugs on the floor, though. Clean, as far as Rodney could tell, but his sense of smell wasn't far beyond the normal. The walls were old fashioned plaster and lathe. The plaster was tinted, so there was no paint. It was an awful lot of trouble to go to for a clinic, even more expensive than the usually non-reactive wallboard you usually saw in health care facilities meant for sentinels. There was a window with cotton curtains rather than blinds. There was no exam table, but rather a chaise lounge draped in silk.

It was very unprofessional. Possibly flakey, but more likely just patronizing. Good old "Sam" was trying to make his patients feel at ease. Rodney snapped his fingers and held his hand out for the little paper gown.

"What?" John asked.

"I'm not going to ask you to change, Rodney," Sam said.

Rodney rolled his eyes at John. "So you're not even going to examine me?"

"Eventually. But first we should talk. And the hospital gown isn't to make things convenient for you. It's to make things convenient for me. I'm not in a hurry." He smiled. "Have a seat."

He didn't point to the chairs, so Rodney sat on the chaise. Sam sat beside him. "The model I'm using--"

"Just get started. I don't need to understand whatever voodoo you're using." At John's dark look he added, "Please."

Sam, apparently unfazed, stood up. "Extend your arms, no, to the sides. Thank you." He touched Rodney's shoulders lightly, with just the tips of his fingers. "Right handed. Blood pressure a little higher than we'd like. You're a little dehydrated."

"I don't like to drink when I fly. I hate using the bathroom on the plane."

"Rodney I have to ask you a question before this goes any further. Do you want John here for this, or would you rather he wait outside?"

Rodney's mouth dropped open in outrage. For a doctor to even try to examine a sentinel without his guide present was a violation of the most basic standards of patient rights.

John dropped a hand onto Rodney's thigh. "No," he said softly. "He's not trying to separate us. He's afraid there may be some things you're uncomfortable talking about in front of me."

"*You* decide if he's here or not," Sam said.

"Of course he's here. If you think I'm going to let some strange quack touch me--"

"Is it a problem for strange people to touch you?" the doctor asked, his hand hovering over Rodney's arm.

"Most sentinels think so," Rodney snapped.

"Rodney?" John asked very quietly. "Think about the question. Do you have a problem with people touching you?"

Rodney opened his mouth and stumbled as he realized that he hadn't given any thought to it, didn't know the answer, couldn't . "No. No, people don't touch me. It's not a problem."

"The idea of touching?"

"No, touching is okay."

"What about doctors? Are we a problem?"

His hand was hovering over Rodney's arm still. He realized that it was a very polite question. Not medically useful, per se, but kindly meant, obviously. "No. I'm not fond of tests, but doctors...aren't a problem."

The hand floated down, adjusted Rodney's position so that one arm was up and one was down, and the pretty sentinel's gentle hand rested lightly on Rodney's arm. "Is there any particular profession that is a problem--?"

"Why are you asking these questions? Shouldn't you be asking me something useful, like 'what are my sensitivities?' or 'am I taking any medication?' or something?"

He leaned over Rodney and whispered, "I've already read your file. How about I ask you questions I don't already know the answers to?"

"Fine."

"In the last year, you've had over a dozen severe reactions with no identifiable trigger."

Rodney lifted his chin slightly. "Are you saying I'm imagining it?"

Unfortunately, the doctor didn't take offence and leave in a huff. "I'm asking if you have a suspicion you can't prove."

"John thinks someone I work with is trying to...keep me from costing them a lot of money."

"By deliberately exposing you to things that will make you sick."

"Yes."

"John thinks. You don't?"

Rodney sighed. "I really don't see any point in looking for a complicated answer here. The simple answer works fine. There is no safe environment. You can't control all the factors."

"You want to, though. Control all the factors."

"I've tried it. It doesn't work. My body--" Rodney stopped and looked away.

"What about your body?"

Rodney didn't answer.

Sam switched arms. "Why are you here?"

"John asked me to come."

"And you're putting up with being pawed by a quack because John asked you to?" Harsh words, still so gently asked.

"John loves me," Rodney said, because it was the answer he had to think least about.

"Who else loves you?"

Rodney flinched against the light hand on his arm, and suddenly he realized what was happening. He was being given a psych exam. Unlike the standard session, though, Rodney wasn't permitted to simply answer the questions and play the verbal games. Dr. Beckett was asking Rodney questions and reading the answers off Rodney's body. It didn't matter what Rodney wanted to say, or what he wanted to keep secret.

Even as Rodney accepted the discovery, the doctor confirmed it. "You don't have to tell me. Let's talk about something else. How are you sleeping?"

"I get enough sleep."

When it was over Rodney looked at his watch. Twenty minutes. Just twenty minutes.

It was the longest twenty minutes of his life, including the time he was in an ambulance stuck behind a seven car pile-up trying to breathe through a tube down his throat because the antihistamines hadn't worked. He'd been sedated then. And nobody had been asking him questions about his parents.

When it was over, John moved to sit on the lounger beside him and put an arm around Rodney's shoulders. "What do you think?"

"I think you're right," Sam said, backing off from them and going to stand by the window. "He's not hysterical."

Rodney frowned at John. "Why are you not happy to hear this?" he asked irritably.

"He means you're fragile, Rodney."

"You already knew that," he snarled.

"I was really hoping I was wrong," John whispered. "If this was about your control or stress, or trauma there would be a lot more we could do."

"John," Sam said sharply. "There is plenty you can do."

"I want you to use the shortcuts, Sam."

The doctor nodded. "Rodney, the shortcuts involve subliminal reprogramming to block your physiological response to anxiety and tension. It'll take some of the stress off your body."

"So--what? You want to hypnotize me?" Rodney glanced at John anxiously. He really hoped John wouldn't ask for that. It was more autonomy than he wanted to give up. By a lot.

"No. You'll be aware the whole time. I'll just stand here holding your hand and talking to you."

"Rodney. Your brain can moderate the way your body responds to environmental insults. And Sam is very good at helping with this."

So Sam pulled up a chair and held Rodney's hand, coaxing him to talk about things he enjoyed, things that were terrible, things that were relaxing. And then it was over. Apparently. The doctor went to a sink in the corner and washed his hands as though he'd completed a real examination. "I was hoping you'd stay for lunch. Al made ham salad. Actually, it's tofu, but it's better than actual ham."

When the little clinic was about a mile behind them, Rodney said, "At least tell me it was a congenial break-up. The man just treated me. If he's still mad at you because you slept around on him or dumped him or something, I'm really screwed here."

"There wasn't a break-up. We were never committed. Or even exclusive. It wasn't about that."

Rodney's mouth went dry. "Is-is that how you prefer things?"

John thought for a moment. "It was good at the time. It was a couple of years ago. I was very uptight then. I was still carrying a lot of Air Force baggage."

"Because you couldn't do what you really wanted to do?" Rodney asked carefully.

"What? Oh, you mean flying? No. By the time I moved up here for my practicum I loved being a guide. I was really into the whole thing. No. I...started my guide training in Virginia, at the federal guide school. They had a weird approach to things. It gave me some bad habits, in the way I thought about things. Not just sentinels, my relationships with other people."

"Oh."

"Rodney, don't worry about it. When I was seeing Sam, he was seeing two other people and getting his deepest emotional needs met by his guide. He doesn't have any jealousy to vent on you. Anyway, if we hadn't been friends, I could never have gotten you an appointment so quickly."

John had made reservations at a "sentinel friendly" bed and breakfast outside of town. "It's still early," Rodney said as he set the suitcase on the dresser. "We could have made it to Tampa tonight."

"Right," John said. "Because what I really want is to rush you back and forth across the country until you collapse from exhaustion." He glanced at Rodney narrowly. "I know you hate the idea of being in Vermont. You think it's where sentinels come to die. They come here because it's a very nice place. And a lot of them go home healthy." He came over and slid an arm around Rodney's waist. "We'll go for a walk, enjoy having hills and trees. You'll learn to like it."

"Why would I want to learn to like it?"

John shrugged. "Because you're coming back in three months for a check-up?"

"Oh." Rodney pulled free of John's hands and sat down on the bed. "Tell me about these 'short cuts.' What do they do?"

John came over and took Rodney's left hand. He pressed gently into the dent between the joints of the first and second fingers. "What do you feel?"

"Your finger's touching me?" Rodney laughed, "Do you want me to estimate foot-pounds or something? Because I can."

"Not 'what does your hand feel?' 'how do you feel?'"

"Kind of silly, actually." Rodney blinked. "Really relaxed."

"That's what a shortcut is. He installed some new habits."

The feeling of wellbeing faded abruptly. Rodney snatched his hand away. "He gave you control over my mind? He did. He gave you control over my mind."

"You can do it, too. If you touch the cues. And if you fight it, you can override the cue. And it will all extinguish in a couple of months anyway."

"They why--"

John sat heavily on the bed and buried his face in his hands. "Because this past year you've been having life-threatening emergencies almost once a week. Because you're habituating to the drugs, which means we have to change the kit again soon, and that's dangerous. Because you're carrying too much damn cortisone in your system, and that's not safe either, and it's screwing up your immune system. Because it's going to take *time* for you to learn the best ways to short-circuit an episode yourself, and they're not easy. And in the mean time--"

"In the mean time, you need a way to make sure I don't drop dead. The short term solution. I get it."

"The long-term solutions are coming."

"What will the long-term solutions be?"

"You learn to be aware of the dangerous parts of your environment. Right now, you ignore the things that might hurt you--"

"Because I project!"

"Right. But that means you don't notice and remove yourself from dangerous situations. And that's the easy part. The hard part is going to be separating your emotional state from your physiological responses. And direct your 'involuntary' nervous system. Anybody can learn to do this, by the way, but it takes years."

Rodney looked at John, who was apparently ready to invest years into a very sketchy project. "I guess there's not much, um, job security in working for a fragile sentinel."

"There's no point in looking for guarantees about anything. But I guess you could say I have a personal investment in keeping you alive."

"Yeah. Okay."

"Come outside with me. Let's take a walk. Relax a bit, we've got air travel again tomorrow."

It was raining when the plane landed in Tampa. There was a line for the rental car. Road construction narrowed the lane heading out of the airport.

Rodney would have been grumpy and stressed, but he'd spent the entire flight asleep, cuddled against John's shoulder. John had smelled very good, and his strong heart had drowned out the whine of the engines.

So when John offered to head straight to the hotel and put off the construction site until tomorrow, Rodney waved his hand negligently and opted for getting right to work. He felt fine. The rain had eased off to a drizzle.

The parking area was graveled, but the work site itself was full of churned mud. Rodney picked his way through the sandy, sloshy muck and was grateful that he hadn't worn his good shoes. As it was, his sneakers would never be the same.

They circled around to the west entrance, since most of the activity was on the south side. Rodney wasn't concealing his presence, but the longer he could put off being noticed, the more time he'd have to work uninterrupted.

"You know," John said, "We don't have to hurry, here. We could take the rest of today off. See a movie? Go out for sushi?"

"You don't have to be dry to be an engineer." At the chain link fence the sandy mud gave way to a churned clay. It splashed a little as they walked, clinging in spots to the hems of their pants. Yuck. And the smell--

Rodney jumped back, tripped over John, found himself clinging to the fence to keep from falling. He tried to think how to get around the fence, how to run *away* to evade the smell. His stomach heaved and knotted, and in a wash of acid, the chicken he'd had on the plane spilled out onto the mud.

"Rodney? What's wrong?"

Rodney pushed harder, his guts trying to squeeze out every last gram of bile. Emptied, though, he gasped and that was a mistake. His mouth and nose flooded with an oily mist. His stomach heaved again.

"Easy. All right." John's arms took Rodney's weight. "Easy, let's get you down."

John meant to lower Rodney onto the ground, to set him in that mud. Panicked, Rodney lurched toward the opening in the fence, choking, "No, god, run--"

Somehow, John got Rodney back in the car. He didn't ask any questions, he just put distance between them and the site. When they were about a mile away, he pulled into a Burger King parking lot and dug around for the map included by the rental company. "Do I need to be looking for a hospital?"

Rodney opened his door and leaned out, sucking in cool, damp air.

John came around and squatted beside Rodney's knees. "Talk to me, Sweetheart," John said softly. He was carrying the backpack. He checked Rodney's arms and eyes and then offered him a bottle of water. "What happened?"

Rodney rinsed and spit, carefully not splashing John, who was very close. "Well, the good news is, nobody's trying to poison me."

"Okay. That's good news. I, ah, think there's bad news though? I mean the turning green and puking is kind of a hint."

Rodney looked down at his sneakers. He toed them off and let them drop to the blacktop.

"Rodney?" John coaxed. "I've never actually seen anybody turn green before. I thought it was a euphemism. Can you understand what I'm saying?"

"We just built our stadium on a toxic waste site." Rodney laughed weakly. "They've spent, oh, four or five million dollars already. Crap. I think we're about to be fired. Because, really, who is going to employ a sentinel who didn't notice a gigantic, honking, toxic waste dump?"

"We have to get a sample tested," John said. "Try to figure out what long term exposure might have done to you. Fuck, Rodney. I'd almost rather somebody'd been lacing the coffee with lemon peel."

"I was never here more than a couple of days at a time. You don't think--"

Before the panicked thought could form, John took Rodney's left hand and pushed his thumb into the joint between the first and second knuckles. Sighing, Rodney leaned forward and rested his forehead on John's shoulder. "I probably could have smelled it all along, if I'd been paying attention. Even *I* would fire me."

"Your PhD is in engineering, not human ecology or chemistry. You were hired to keep the building from falling down." He brightened suddenly. "Anyway, you're about to become a famous corporate whistle-blower. Whoever sold the property to the city is probably in for a big law suit."

"Lovely," Rodney grunted. "Take off your shoes."

"What?"

"Your shoes. We're both covered in mud. I'd toss my pants right now, but I don't know how we'd check into the hotel half-naked."

John hugged him hard, nearly spilling the water. He was making the smell that meant Rodney was on his mind. In a good way. He planted a kiss on Rodney's temple and then freed himself and removed his shoes. Tidily, he dropped both his own and Rodney's in the garbage can outside the drive-through.

In the hotel room, John washed his hands and swiftly changed the sheets. Rodney, who had gone straight to the shower, toppled naked and steaming onto the bed. Probably he should be panicking and counting up all the hours he'd spent exposed to whatever was in the ground in the construction site. 'Three hundred and twelve' his brain whispered, but Rodney was too exhausted to get worked up about it. It hadn't been all the same, anyway: inside the basement with the air stagnant, that had probably been the worst. But the day he'd looked at the site *before* they'd ripped the ground open with backhoes had probably been perfectly safe. Anyway, he didn't know what the exposure was *to*. What did he know about biohazards?

John came out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel and asked, "Am I clean enough?"

"You're fine," Rodney said. And, "That was quick."

John answered too casually, "I missed you," and sat on the bed. Casually (still) he laid a hand on Rodney's chest. "You're pretty calm about all this."

"It's a little late to be panicking now. Anyway, I feel like crap from throwing up."

John disappeared and returned a moment later with a piece of crystallized ginger. "Here, suck on this, and I'll order up some dinner."

After John called room service, he dug Rodney's dayplanner out of the backpack and called Wayne Edwards. "We've just come from the Tampa site," he said into the phone. "I know, but we were in the neighborhood. I talked Rodney into Disney." He paused. "There's a problem. Rodney thinks the site is contaminated."

"'Rodney thinks,'" Rodney growled.

John patted Rodney on the head quellingly. "No, he's not sure what it is."

"It's not petrochemical," Rodney muttered. "Did the government ever test nerve gas there?"

"Whatever it is, there's a lot of it....Yes, it definitely needs to be looked at by a professional, but we didn't know what the procedure was. Do we talk to the owner before or after we have an analysis in hand?" Rodney could hear the strain in Edwards' voice as he answered, but he didn't bother to try to make out the words. "Right. Yeah....I wish we had more details....You're welcome."

"You know," Rodney said as John hung up. "I don't pay you nearly enough."

John laughed and stretched out beside him. "You can make it up in trade later."

Rodney laughed. He'd been thinking, maybe, of buying John a car. He rolled over and laid his head on John's shoulder. "I still haven't figured out what was wrong with the site."

"Well, you're not going back. It may not matter anyway. Depending what kind of cesspool the project is sitting on it may never get finished."

Rodney closed his eyes so that he wouldn't see John's face and said, "This is my fault, you know. I really should have noticed sooner...."

"Well. It would have been better for everyone if you had identified the problem sooner. But it wasn't what you were hired for. And you didn't miss it because you were careless. You were just...Look, the best estimate right now is the senses of a healthy human can take in something like four billion bites of information per second. The limitation is what the brain can process. *I* can process about two thousand bites a second. You can probably handle--oh, fifty thousand? Eighty thousand? But only if you're, you know, okay."

"Only eighty thousand?" Rodney felt faintly insulted.

"I'm guessing. Anyway, we'll test you again in a few months. We can probably get your scores up."

"My scores are respectable. And anyway--oh. You're teasing me. Well, stop it. And wake me up when the food comes." Rodney turned his face into John's shoulder and fell asleep.