Like velvet
by Rhyo


Detective James Ellison walked down the dim institutional hallway, his footsteps echoing in the empty corridor and his anger building with every echo. The transition from military to civilian life was not going well, he knew. His temper was short, his new co-workers were mistrustful and his captain was wary. He was looking forward to venting his temper on the university quack that was trying to take advantage of his institutionalized mother.

Here, in the civilian world, no one had ever heard of Sentinels: the military made sure of that and the dampening drugs they supplied made it literally true -- there were no Sentinels outside of the military. His options had been simple -- stay in the military, be provided with another Guide-Medic and use his senses fully or take the dampening drugs the rest of his life, live with his senses turned down below the normal human threshold, so that he could function. His captain in the police department, Simon Banks, knew only that he had been involved with a special military branch; whatever Simon thought or suspected he kept to himself.

At the end of the corridor he stopped in the shadows just before the last room and watched without being seen by the two occupants. The room was cool and dim, the curtains only cracked open slightly, but he had no trouble adjusting his sight. His mother lay in the hospital bed, her hair a soft silver and her eyes the same cool, light blue as his own. She was thin and pale but she looked more aware than Jim remembered. A man stood by her bedside, talking as he took off a heavy backpack.

"They tell me you had a rough night, Grace -- I'm so sorry. I tried to get them to stop the drugs altogether, but the best I could do was to get them to taper down the dosages. But you look really good today, really clear. Are you feeling well today?"

Jim studied him carefully. So this was Blair Sandburg, the charlatan that had talked his brother into giving him access to Grace Ellison as a research subject. He was young, mid-twenties somewhere, with a square, compact build, smoky blue eyes and a friendly, open smile, but Jim was not charmed. He focused in and other impressions came to him; Sandburg's scent, reminiscent of the northern forests on a clear and windy day, the regular rhythm of his heart, the sound of air, entering and leaving his lungs...

He shook his head to clear it -- the dampening drugs should have made it impossible for him to scent Sandburg from this far away: or, he realized, to hear his heartbeat and even breaths so clearly. Yet he had.

Jim watched as his mother tilted her head and blinked at Sandburg, smiling tremulously.

"Oh, hey, I brought you a present, Grace." He picked up his pack from the floor and began sorting through the contents, his voice slightly muffled as he bent his head. "I have this friend who is an art major. She works with textiles and on the side she designs costumes for the Cascade Opera. They have this big Wagner thing coming up: you know, death, Sturm und Drang, epic heroes, all that heavy stuff. Anyway, the Death Maidens are all supposed to be wearing blue velvet costumes, and she's been getting samples of fabric in. Aha, here it is!" He put the pack down and unrolled a patchwork length of fabric and put it under her hands. "See, it's a scarf, made out of velvet pieces."

She made a soft, curious sound and stroked her fingertips cautiously across the fabric; lightly at first and then more firmly as the pleasant textures registered.

Sandburg watched her, smiling. "Yeah, doesn't that feel great?" He reached out a finger and trailed it over one of the blue squares. "Apparently there are different ways to make velvet, different techniques and different fibers and the problem is, even though all the fabric manufacturers are supposed to be using the same dye formula on each fabric, the color looks different on each one. Now, me, I can only see two or three different shades of blue in that sampler: Anna says that there are ten different fabrics there and I bet you can tell the differences between all of them, so I asked her to sew this patchwork scarf. There are two squares of each fabric in there -- can you match them up?"

Jim snarled and started to take a step forward: his mother, poor wretch that circumstance and over-active senses had reduced her to, was not a lab rat for this scrawny, long-haired college student's tests. He stopped cold when his mother lifted her eyes to meet Sandburg's and tried to speak to him. When she had been brought here, Jim had been ten years old, and in all the years since he had only seen her coherent enough to try to communicate with another person a half dozen times.

The words wouldn't form for her, but he seemed to understand her worry. "No, no, it's okay, just do it the way we practiced before. Use more than one sense, that way itís harder to get lost in them. You don't have to be afraid -- I'm here and I won't let it happen. Now let's both just take a deep breath and relax -- it's a beautiful afternoon, and we're safe and warm--"

That voice, as rich and textured as the velvet, smoothed over his ragged senses and Jim felt the tight muscles in his shoulders and neck relaxing. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, just as Sandburg had suggested, felt the tension flow away and his senses kick in and sharpen, dampening drug or not. In the military, his guide had always been a trained medic who used a variety of drugs and hypnosis tricks to help him control his senses. Sandburg was doing a better job with only soft words and they weren't even directed at him.

Jim's eyes snapped open: Sandburg was a natural Guide, something the military must have known existed but had never found.

"Okay, Grace, your eyes can see the difference in the shades of blue and the differences in the nap of the fabric. Your fingers can tell the different materials used to make the fabric and the change in texture. Use both senses, always back one up with the other, and take your time."

Jim watched them work their way through the test, his mother shyly pointing to squares and Sandburg smiling and encouraging her. She obviously understood his statements and questions and understood the point of the test and although she still couldn't speak, he understood her gestures and signs.

Footsteps in the hallway behind him pulled Jim's attention away and he watched a nurse walk down the corridor toward him. She gave him a curious glance and then passed him, leaning into the room. "Excuse me, it's time for Mrs. Ellison's physical therapy: you'll have to leave now, sir, the orderlies are on their way."

"Oh, right," Sandburg said. "Well, I guess I have to go now." He stood up and zipped his backpack shut, hefting it onto his shoulders. Grace made a distressed noise and held the fabric out to him, but he held both hands up. "No, no, the scarf is yours. I had Anna make it for you." He reached out and turned the scarf in her hands. "See? She even hand-stitched your name on it. There are the letters of your name. G-R-A-C-E."

She traced the silver threads that formed the letters of her name as he said them. He smiled at her again and touched her hand gently. "I'll be back tomorrow and I'll get here earlier, I promise." Grace held onto his hand and gestured with the other, pulling him toward her. Her face was serious and he frowned. "Is something wrong? What--"

He leaned down as she tugged at him and as he got closer, she reached up and gently ran a hand over his head, touching the long curls. She smiled and gave the top of his head a gentle pat.

"Okay," he laughed as she let go of him. "I'll take that as goodbye. I'll see you tomorrow," he said, stepping toward the door and the waiting nurse. "Be well, Grace, and remember what we worked on."

He was smiling as he stepped into hall, but stopped short as he saw Jim. He held up a hand. "Not here," he hissed fiercely, and dragged Jim toward the exit.

Jim let himself be dragged along, amused. Although he had come expressly to confront Sandburg and perhaps even throw him out bodily, everything had changed now that he had observed the gentle young man. No one -- including the military -- would lay a hand on the Guide again.

"Look, Detective Ellison, Stephen called me to let me know you were coming and that you were angry, but I don't want to have this conversation where Grace can hear it, it will just upset her, and---"

"Whoa, Chief, calm down. We do need to have a little talk. About Sentinels and Guides." Jim smiled at the stunned look on Sandburg's face. He looped an arm over his shoulder as they walked out of the stairwell and into the sunshine. Something told him that silence was not the Guide's natural state and he should enjoy it while it lasted.

~ finis ~

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