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Gerard was pretty sure he’d heard the same tinkly recording of Fur Elise at least fifteen times now. The assistant had promised to put him through to one of Representative Albert’s staffers, but he was starting to doubt her sincerity. He picked up his notes to read them one last time, and fumbled, dropping the page to the floor.

Of course, that was the moment when the line picked up. “Brandon Doan speaking.”

“Hi! Hello. Um. This is Gerard Way.” Gerard scrambled for his notes, too flustered to even remember how to begin. “I called – I mean, I sent a proposal, earlier this week, concerning Sentinel and Guide law, and I’m calling to follow up-”

“Yes, Mr Way,” Brandon interrupted, sounding slightly bored. “I have read your letter. I know you’d like to discuss this matter in person with Ms Albert-”

“I would!” Gerard said. “I can travel to DC whenever it would suit her, so long as I have enough notice to arrange the time off work-”

“Yes, well, unfortunately she will not be able to meet with you.”

“Oh,” Gerard said, deflating. He glanced back down at his notes and decided that there was no point in backing down now. “I really think this is an issue that needs to be looked into. I have a petition-”

“Yes, a petition with barely two thousand signatures. Ms Albert has a great many demands on her time, I’m sure you understand.”

“I’ve also reviewed a number of studies done both here and overseas, and the results-”

“Yes, Mr Way, I’ve read your proposal as I said. Now, the most prominent of these articles are by this Sandburg person – he’s a Guide himself, isn’t he?”

“Well... so?”

“So, he could hardly be considered an objective authority on this topic, could he?”

“But-”

“This is a divisive issue, and Ms Albert is reluctant to take a stance that would alienate a large proportion of the electorate, or allow her to be painted as un-American.”

“Treating Guides like people is un-American?”

“Taking a flippant stance on national security is. Mr Way, do you realise you’re talking about changing the way the entire American military functions? Did you really expect Ms Albert to be on board with this?”

Gerard slumped, feeling defeated. “She backed that bill last year, you know, the one about new anti-domestic violence laws,” he said in a small voice. “I heard she got death threats over it, but that didn’t stop her.”

“That was quite a different matter. Look,” Brandon said, his tone softening, “Whatever problem you’re having with G-TAC or the SRB, you’ll have much better luck going through the proper channels rather than trying to appeal to a congressperson. There’s really nothing we can do for you.”

“But-”

“Goodbye, Mr Way.”

Brandon hung up. Gerard sat and listened to the dial tone, feeling incredibly frustrated. Brandon had completely missed the point. There were no ‘proper channels’ for handling the problems Gerard was worried about, because Sentinels were given complete rights to treat their Guides however they liked. And it was only a divisive issue because most people didn’t really understand what was going on, but Gerard’s research had yielded a wealth of evidence that the way things worked in America was far from the ideal. He’d managed to convince nearly three thousand people, (well over two thousand, thank you very much) of the importance of reforming Sentinel and Guide law, and with publicity and the support of a congresswoman, they could have reached even more.

Gerard sighed and picked up the phone again, dialling a different number.

“Hello?”

“Frank. Susan Albert doesn’t want to meet with me. Her assistant pretty much shot me down in flames.”

“What?” Frank demanded, his voice instantly changing from mellow to pissed. “That’s bullshit! Did you send her the petitions?”

“Yeah, yeah, but I don’t think there were enough names to impress her.”

“We’ve spent every weekend for a month walking around collecting those signatures...”

“Well, I got the impression they would have been impressed by twenty-five thousand, but twenty-five hundred didn’t cut it. They seemed completely clueless. The guy I talked to said that if I had a problem with G-TAC I should go through the ‘proper channels’.”

“What proper channels?” Frank demanded. “Did you ask him that?”

“He hung up.”

“Fucker.”

“Yeah.” Gerard sighed again and made a conscious effort to cheer up and think about something else. “So, how’s Ray doing?”

Frank sighed in a manner that suggested this was not a welcome question.

“What?”

“We had a fight. Well, sort of. Not really. It’s hard to fight with Ray, but I think I pissed him off somehow.”

“Really? Ray’s a pretty relaxed guy.”

Frank snickered. “No, he’s not.”

Gerard thought about it. “No, I suppose not,” he agreed. “What happened?”

“He said the other day that he’d like to get his pilot’s licence, and I guess – maybe he felt like I didn’t like the idea or something.”

“Did you say that?”

“No, I said I thought it was a great idea. I don’t know why... I said I’d help, and I said maybe he should teach me some of what he knows about plane engines. Because, you know,” Frank said, with the air of someone warming to their subject, “it would make a hell of a lot more sense for Ray to pilot for just about any mission the FBI might give us. Surveillance? I’m more likely to see things on the ground if I’m not thinking about flying. Transport? If I’m not piloting I can pay more attention to what everyone else is doing. And sometimes I can hear a noise in the engine but I’m never sure if it’s a problem or not, so I have to try to describe it to Ray and he has to try to figure out what it is... it just really inefficient. And Ray would probably be a great pilot; he did the aptitude test once, you know? And he wouldn’t tell me what he got, so I think maybe he did better than me.”

Gerard took a minute to digest that. “You said all that?” he asked.

“Well, no,” Frank said. “Just the part about helping him and learning some engine maintenance stuff. Then he sort of got pissy and left the room. That was two days ago.”

“And he’s been mad at you since then?”

“I don’t know. I guess so. He’s been... polite. You know, civil.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to put Ray on? Maybe he’ll open up to me a bit more.”

“I would, but he’s out getting a haircut.”

“A what? Shit, Frank, do you need me to come over?”

“No? It’s fine, Gerard. It’ll be fine, I’m just trying to give him some space. How’s Mikey?”

“Mikey’s great, he was supposed to be home a while ago but he was looking for new jeans and I think he got sidetracked...”

***

Mikey wandered around the supermarket feeling a little lost. This wasn’t where he and Gerard usually got their groceries, but he’d been in Newark when he’d remembered that they were out of milk. Now he was inside Mikey felt like burritos would make a good dinner, but the store was strangely laid out and he couldn’t find the tortillas. He’d been wandering around for a good ten minutes.

He turned down yet another aisle, and recognised the dark-haired guy standing up the other end as someone he’d already passed several times. Mikey made his way down the aisle, keeping a sharp eye out for tortillas as he walked. He neared the other guy and they exchanged the awkward nod of two people who were forced to be in the same confined space together but didn’t really have a reason to speak.

Except then the guy did speak. “Can’t find something?”

Mikey looked around, startled. “Huh?”

The dark-haired guy was putting a bag of flour into his cart. He checked it off on a list and glanced at Mikey from the corner of his eye. “You look a bit lost.”

“Uh, yeah. I’m trying to find tortillas.”

The guy nodded back the way Mikey had come. “You passed them, just back there,” he said, pointing. “But they’re right down the bottom.”

“Oh, thank God,” Mikey said. He hurried back up the aisle and grabbed the tortillas. When he glanced back towards the dark-haired man, he’d moved further along and was choosing a jar of coffee beans.

“Thanks,” Mikey said, walking back towards him. “I’ve been wandering around for ages. My brother’s going to think I’ve been abducted by aliens or something. Anyway, I’m Mikey.”

“Pete,” he answered with a smile. “It’s no problem, I know how it is. Sentinels, right?” He pointed down into the cart. “Unscented soap, because the scented kind gives him headaches, but he likes the sort with moisturiser in it and there’s only one brand that does that unscented. I don’t know what I’d do if they stopped making that. Anti-dandruff shampoo, but it can’t be the kind with tar in it, and I still haven’t found a toothpaste brand that doesn’t make him sick after a few months. You know what I’m talking about, right?” Pete glanced over at Mikey. “I mean... you’re a Guide, right? I can usually tell.”

“Uh, yeah,” Mikey said doubtfully. Gerard didn’t really have opinions about what bodywash he used, unless Mikey counted ‘do I have to?’ which he rarely did.

“Cool,” Pete said happily, falling into step beside Mikey. “You don’t usually come here, do you? I haven’t seen you before.”

“I live in Belleville,” Mikey explained. “I was out this way anyway, and there’s a few things we need at home.”

“Yeah,” Pete said easily. “Huh. They’ve changed the packaging,” he said, picking up a box of crackers. “This little cartoon dude looks kind of stoned.”

He did. Mikey snickered. They chatted for a while as they slowly travelled around the aisles. Mikey didn’t need anything else but he was enjoying talking to Pete, and Pete seemed happy to talk. After three aisles, though, Pete noticed that Mikey hadn’t put anything else in his basket.

“Shit, don’t you need to go?” he asked, looking worried. Mikey started to reassure him, but Pete added, “What’s the time?” He answered his own question, checking his watch. “Christ. I’m going to be so fucking late.” He gripped his shopping cart and strode down the aisle, with Mikey tagging along behind.

“Are you okay?” Mikey asked.

“Fine. I just need to hurry up.”

“Can I help? What else do you need?” Mikey regretted that their conversation was going to be cut short; he’d been building up to asking for Pete’s phone number.

“It’s fine, I’ve got everything now. See you round, Mikey.”

***

Although his attempt to reach out to Susan Albert had failed abysmally, Gerard tried to keep his spirits up. There were plenty of other things he could do to try to get changes made to the way Guides were treated. There were other politicians out there, more newspapers to write to. Eventually someone would listen.

Tonight, though, Gerard had decided to take a break from worrying about it. Lindsey had come over to have dinner and watch a movie, and through some less-than-subtle hinting, Gerard had convinced Mikey to go out for a few hours. He’d said he was planning to go to Newark and maybe go to a club, but Gerard suspected that by ‘club’ he meant ‘supermarket’. Mikey didn’t have many Guide friends, aside from Ray; Gerard hoped this Pete turned into one, but he suspected Mikey was interested in something more, and that wasn’t likely to work out.

He and Lindsey were just putting dinner in the oven – it was a pretty low-key date, really – when the phone rang. Gerard dried off his hands and grabbed it.

“Hello?”

“Hello, I’d like to speak to Gerard Way?”

“Uh, speaking. Who is this?”

“Mr Way, this is Susan Albert.”

Gerard quickly pulled out a kitchen chair to sit down on. “Oh... hi. Hello! I wasn’t really expecting you to call.”

“I know. I’m sorry to bother you right at dinner time, but...”

“No, no, not at all!” Gerard babbled. He glanced over at Lindsey, who was giving him a quizzical look. He flapped his hands at her but she only seemed more confused.

“I had some questions about your proposal. These articles you enclosed about the treatment of Guides by Sentinels and G-TAC, how much truth is there to them?”

Gerard caught Lindsey’s eye across the kitchen bench and made an apologetic face. It looked like their date night had been slightly derailed, but this opportunity was too important to pass up. “It’s... they’re all true,” he answered. He heard Susan suck in a deep breath on the other end of the line. “It’s hard to get data, because there’s no mechanism for Guides to report most forms of abuse, and it’s easy for the worst Sentinels to keep their Guides isolated. Those articles only talk about the cases that could be identified, but we suspect that there’s a lot more that goes unreported.”

“Oh,” Susan said quietly. “Is it, is it...” Her voice shook and she trailed off, and Gerard abruptly realised why she must have called.

“Who is it?” Gerard asked, finally putting two and two together. “You know someone who’s just been identified as a Guide.”

“My daughter,” she confirmed. “She just started her junior year, and they did the testing. I never knew much about what Sentinels and Guides do, but when the results came back I had a closer look at your proposal...”

She was sounding more and more upset as she talked, and Gerard found himself trying to reassure her. “Those articles focus on the worst cases,” he said, “because those are the ones that get noticed. When I said there’s a lot more unreported abuse, it tends to be much less extreme than that.”

“But it’s very common?” Susan asked.

“Well... yes,” Gerard had to admit. “The problem is there’s no protection for Guides paired with abusive Sentinels. They can request to be assigned to someone else, but sometimes the process doesn’t happen quickly enough, and Sentinels who hurt their Guides don’t face any real repercussions, so nothing’s changing.”

“Okay,” Susan said, sounding a little steadier. “I wondered if that part of your letter was really – it seems impossible that that’s allowed to happen. I tried to get information from some G-TAC executives, but they changed the subject every time I brought it up, which I found rather suspicious.”

“G-TAC essentially condones the abuse, but it wouldn’t look good for them to admit it so they have to dodge around the topic,” Gerard agreed. “They’d rather people – ordinary people –assume that everything which happens between a bonded pair is just mysterious Sentinel-Guide stuff which has nothing to do with them. Of course they’ll give the run-around to anyone who doesn’t accept that.”

“That’s what I thought,” Susan said. “I would have called you during the day, but the G-TAC manager I was talking to said he’d stop by my office tomorrow with some more information, and I wanted to hear what you had to say first.” Gerard could hear paper rustling on the other end of the phone line. “Are there other Sentinels and Guides that you know of who would be willing to talk about their experiences? Confidentially, if that helps? The more stories we can bring to the public’s attention, the better our chances of changing things. And to be honest, I’d like confirmation that this is really as endemic a problem as you say.”

“I understand,” said Gerard. “And, sure... I know at least one pair that would talk to you. Maybe others, but I’ll have to talk to them. It might be hard, because we – Sentinels and Guides – are still under the oversight of the SRB and G-TAC. A lot of the ones I know might be afraid of repercussions if they speak up publicly.”

“I can imagine. Can we set up a meeting sometime next week to talk about this in person?”

Lindsey had been listening to Gerard’s end of the conversation with widening eyes. Gerard waved to her and held up both thumbs, and she smiled.

***

Since he’d first met Pete at the supermarket, Mikey had made a point of going back there several times a week to see if he could meet him again. It was faintly stalkerish behaviour, but it hadn’t been hard for Mikey to justify it to himself. He’d never served in the military himself, but Ray had told him how in the Air Force Guides would take care of each other. He’d never have traded Gerard for anything, but sometimes he felt like he was missing out on that. Ray was the only other Guide he even saw regularly.

He hadn’t run into Pete again and he was starting to question the wisdom of looking for him, but he turned into the dairy aisle to see a familiar hoodie and head of curly dark hair.

“Hey,” Mikey said, walking up to Pete and giving him his best smile. Pete heard him and jumped, looking around with a startled expression. Mikey caught a glimpse of a yellowing bruise over his eye and cheek before Pete turned away again.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Oh, hey. It’s you,” said Pete. “Mikey, right? I’m fine. Fine. You startled me, is all.”

“Sorry,” Mikey said, trying to look Pete over without being too obvious about it. Pete was standing side on to Mikey now, like he was trying to hide the left side of his face, but Mikey had got a good look nonetheless. The black eye was clearly several days old, but still noticeable.

“Shopping again? You know, I always think we’re set for a month, and then we run out of, like...” Pete reached out and grabbed a bottle of cream. “Cream, you know? This stuff. Goes bad at the drop of a hat. And, you know, maybe you don’t realise right away? Like, you can’t always tell. But Sentinels, they can tell.”

“Yeah,” Mikey said, picking up the nearest thing which turned out to be a tub of margarine. They didn’t use margarine at home because Gerard hated the taste, but Mikey put it in his basket anyway. “We’re out of the extra-soft toilet paper.” That at least was true. Pete nodded and they fell into step beside one another.

They chatted for a few minutes, but Pete clearly had something on his mind. He asked Mikey a lot of questions, but didn’t really seem to listen to the answers.

At some point Pete said, “Why’d you come back to this supermarket? I thought you said you didn’t live around here,” and Mikey had to awkwardly explain that he was hoping to run into Pete again.

“Oh, right,” Pete said, completely serious for once. “Well, you know, I was happy to see you again, but I’m not looking for, like, a boyfriend or anything.”

“I know,” Mikey said, not without a twinge of regret. “I have a girlfriend,” he added reassuringly. That was not entirely true, but he hoped it would set Pete’s mind at ease.

Pete’s eyebrows drew together. “Then what do you want?” he asked.

“A friend?” Mikey answered with a shrug. Pete raised his eyebrows doubtfully but didn’t say anything. Mikey was glad; Pete needed a friend. “Okay,” Mikey said, feeling like that was settled. “So you want to hear about my day? You’ll never eat out again.”

Pete looked interested, so Mikey launched into the story, about a salmonella outbreak at a restaurant in the city. He was just up to the most disgusting part when they came back around to the front of the store and Mikey saw someone he recognised. “Mr Rye?” he asked without thinking. Rye was his G-TAC caseworker, and two G-TAC trainers were with him. Mikey gulped.

“Michael Way,” said the caseworker, pulling out his badge and flashing it like Mikey didn’t know who he was, “you need to come with me.”

“What? Why?” Mikey demanded.

“We have a warrant to take you in to G-TAC custody. Are you going to come quietly?” Rye held up the warrant but Mikey didn’t really bother to look at it. He glanced over at Pete instead. He was standing a couple of steps back, looking on helplessly.

“What is this about?”

“You need to come with us.”

Mikey looked at Pete again and drew a breath to ask... something. He wasn’t sure what he wanted Pete to do, or what he could do. Pete didn’t have Mikey’s home number, and asking anything of him would bring him to the caseworker’s attention, which they didn’t want. Mikey looked into Pete’s wide, frightened eyes and tried to plaster a reassuring smile onto his face.

Pete couldn’t help him.

“It’s okay,” Mikey said. He turned back around. “It’s okay, I’m coming.” Even though he hadn’t put up any resistance at all, one of the trainers cuffed his hands together and led him away. Mikey looked back one last time when they reached the door. Pete hadn’t moved.

***

The night with Lindsey had sort of got back on track once Gerard got off the phone with Susan, except that he was far too excited to focus on anything for more than half a minute.

“-if we can get support from more representatives, really get a platform together to make this work, it’ll be so much easier to get heard. No one reads an article about, like, ‘Random New Jersey Sentinel Whines about G-TAC’, but imagine if it’s, like, “Congresswoman Albert Speaks Out Against Guide Abuse’...”

Gerard caught Lindsey’s eye and realised she was giving him the mildly amused, fondly exasperated look he was used to. “Sorry,” he said. “We were going to watch a movie, weren’t we?”

“You’re lucky I love you for your activism,” Lindsey said, smiling.

“I’m incredibly lucky,” Gerard agreed at once, taking her hand. She leaned in to kiss him and Gerard closed his eyes, running a lock of Lindsey’s hair through his fingers.

“That’s something else!” he said abruptly, breaking the kiss. “Imagine how much easier it will be to convince people that Sentinels and Guides don’t have to operate the way they do here! The research is out there, but the people doing it get branded as outliers purely because of the topic. If the field could be granted a bit of legitimacy...”

Gerard could tell Lindsey was laughing at him again, but he was too happy to mind. He almost didn’t hear the phone ringing over her laughter and his own babbling. “Hello?” he said, scrambling to pick it up.

“Mr Way, this is Adam Rye.”

That settled Gerard’s mood very quickly indeed. “Adam! What’s – what’s up?”

“I’m calling to inform you that your Guide was taken into G-TAC custody at half-past six tonight.”

What?” Gerard exploded. He glanced at the clock; it was nearly half-past eight. “Why? What? Where is he?” He exchanged glances with Lindsey; she mouthed ‘what?’ at him, and he shook his head.

“Guide Way was brought in for emergency training with authorisation from myself and the regional director. He’s being held at a G-TAC training facility.”

“That’s ridiculous, Mikey hasn’t done anything...”

“That’s true of course, but we can’t say the same for you, can we, Gerard?”

“What?”

“You should be careful who you talk to, and what you say to them. Some people might form the impression you’re not managing your Guide correctly.”

“This is about Congresswoman Albert, isn’t it?” Gerard said, finally getting a grasp on what was going on.

“I see she’s already called you,” Adam said after a pause.

“Yeah, she did, so you’re too late!” Gerard snapped. “This intimidation isn’t going to work.”

“Well, that’s a shame.”

“Yeah, it sucks that your guilty little secrets are about to come pouring out.”

“I meant for Mikey. No, I think what you need to do is call Albert back and convince her you were wrong about everything.”

“Okay,” Gerard said, thinking quickly. If he could just convince Adam to release Mikey, he could work everything else out later. “I’ll call her, and you’ll let Mikey go?”

“Mikey will be released after a day’s training, like I said.”

“No. If you want me to call Albert, you let him go right now.”

“Mr Way, what you need to understand is that we have the upper hand here, and Mikey’s condition once he’s released will depend entirely on how cooperative you are.”

“You can’t do that!” Gerard exclaimed. “We’re bonded!”

“G-TAC has authorisation to separate bonded Sentinel-Guide pairs to carry out necessary training for periods under twenty-four hours. We’re required to inform you, but you may not appeal the decisions of G-TAC staff. Your Guide will be returned to you tomorrow.”

“That’s...” Gerard tried to think through his panic. He wasn’t going to get anywhere talking to Adam. “I demand to speak to your supervisor.”

“Mr Norton is not available. You can call tomorrow during office hours.”

Of course he wasn’t fucking available. Of course Gerard would have to call tomorrow, they’d fucking planned it that way, hadn’t they? “I want-” Gerard began, but he heard the click of the phone hanging up. He gazed at Lindsey, horrified.

“What’s going on?” she asked, gripping the couch cushion underneath her with white-knuckled fingers.

“They took Mikey!”

“They what?”

Gerard took a shuddery breath. “G-TAC took him in,” he managed. “For emergency training. Because they know Susan Albert is listening to me and they’re trying to force me to stop!”

“That’s...” Lindsey looked stumped for words bad enough to describe what was happening. Or maybe that was just Gerard projecting. Whatever the case, she settled for, “really illegal. They can’t possibly expect to get away with that!”

Gerard shook his head. “I could call the cops or something, but... it would be my word against G-TAC’s. They’d assume I was just pissed and lying to get my own way. ” He grabbed a handful of hair and tugged. “Fuck. What can we do, what am I going to do?” He started to walk, but with no sense of purpose he only made a tight circuit of the room, looking for something to inspire a solution.

“There must be someone we can call.”

“Adam told me he had authorisation from his regional director, so we’d have to go over his head, and I don’t even know who that would be or how to get in touch with them. And even if I did, I don’t think he’d pay any attention to me.” Gerard switched directions and nearly tripped over the couch. “Shit, shit, shit.”

“What if... I mean, Susan Albert was just on the phone...”

Gerard paused. “Rye pretty much said they’d hurt Mikey if I don’t cooperate. Susan wouldn’t be able to force them to do anything. She could make a big stink, but G-TAC would still be able to hold Mikey for twenty-four hours, and they’d be really pissed off.” He sagged. “There’s no way to get Mikey out of there.” No legal way, at least.

Lindsey grabbed him and wrapped him in a hug. Gerard let out a sob and she said, “Shhh. Here, take a tissue.” He hadn’t even realised he was crying. “Maybe Frank and Ray can suggest something?”

“Maybe,” Gerard said, but without much hope.

Frank’s thoughts on the matter were heated. “Fuck those fucking fuckers, what the fuck? That’s fucking bullshit. They can’t fucking do this!”

“They said they can keep him for twenty-four hours, Frank. I don’t know what they’re doing to him, but I think he’s scared.”

Frank swore some more, but Gerard could make out Ray’s voice over Frank’s.

“Ray says you need to try to stay calm and keep out of trouble so you can be there when Mikey gets out,” Frank said, “but I say, fuck that. I’m behind you, and G-TAC has nothing on Bosnia. Those assholes won’t ever know what hit ‘em. We can be at your house in fifteen minutes.”

That made Gerard laugh a little. “Don’t do that,” he said. “Don’t get into trouble on my account. I’m going to go, see if I can get in touch with someone who can do something.”

Gerard hung up the phone. “Did they know someone else you could call?” Lindsey asked.

“No,” Gerard said, giving her a sideways glance. “Linds, maybe you should head home. I know you want to help,” he added quickly when she began to argue, “but there’s nothing you can do, and I know you need to work tomorrow. I’m going to go to the training centre and see what they’ll tell me, but you should go home. I’ll call you to let you know Mikey’s okay.”

Lindsey stared at Gerard for several long seconds, and he waited with bated breath to see if she’d listen. He didn’t want to involve her in what he had planned.

“I’ll wait here in case anyone calls,” she said at last. “It’s a long shot, but if they do, you don’t want to miss it.”

“Great!” Gerard agreed eagerly. “We – I – should be back in an hour or two. It’s not that far away.”

***

The G-TAC workers took Mikey to the training centre, and once there they marched him into a small medical bay. They removed the cuffs but both trainers remained close just in case Mikey started to have any ideas about making a run for it. A doctor glanced at him and ordered him to strip down to his underwear.

“What’s going on?” Mikey asked without moving. He’d already asked at least five times in the car and been ignored each time, but he hoped that if he persisted he’d eventually get an answer.

“Strip,” said one of the guards, repeating the doctor’s order. Mikey swallowed. He was getting pretty worried, but he couldn’t show that he was intimidated. Maybe if he could keep demanding answers, he could force the trainers to realise he wasn’t just a thing they could push around.

“What is this about?” he asked again. The closest trainer moved in and hit him across the face with the back of his fist. Mikey gasped and stumbled into the other trainer, who shoved him upright again. Mikey felt around his mouth with his tongue. He couldn’t taste blood, but the inside of his cheek felt numb where it had been mashed against his teeth.

“You don’t ask questions,” said the trainer. “Strip.”

“What’s this about?”

The trainer hit him again, harder this time. Mikey saw dark spots in front of his eyes and he could definitely taste blood. “A well trained Guide speaks when spoken to, and follows orders promptly,” he said. “Strip.”

Mikey was scared to keep pushing. Gerard talked about non-violent resistance all the time, about Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, but hearing about it was different to living it. In books, those people had eventually succeeded in what they were trying to do and they were loved for it, and somehow that was supposed to make all the suffering worthwhile. In reality, it looked like non-violent resistance was going to hurt. A lot. “What’s this about?” Mikey asked, voice shaking so badly that he could barely get the words out.

This time, the trainer unhooked a truncheon from his belt and struck Mikey in the midsection with it. Mikey doubled over, gasping for breath, but the other trainer was right behind him, dragging him back to his feet. The trainer in front of him held the truncheon in Mikey’s line of vision, one hand on the handle, the other cupping the end, and he waited for Mikey’s breathing to become regular.

“Strip.”

***

The training centre was in Hoboken. The thirty minute drive felt excruciatingly slow. Gerard had to resist the urge to honk at every driver who insisted on doing inconvenient things like stopping for red lights and following the speed limit.

The training centre was in a primarily industrial suburb, set a good way back from the road behind a tall cyclone wire fence. Gerard looked at the building for a likely entry. He knew it was unlikely that any personnel at the centre would come out to talk to him, and he wasn’t going to waste time trying to get their attention. He was going in. He was going to get Mikey, and then... well, he was a bit vague on what they’d do next, but it was the first step that was really important anyway. Besides, once he had Mikey safe, he’d be able to think more easily and figure out what to do.

Gerard pushed his hearing, but was wary of overdoing it. He couldn’t afford to fall into a zone when he was here by himself with no one to bring him out of it. He couldn’t find any trace of Mikey, but it was a large building, crowded with rooms full of what he assumed were sleeping Guides. Mikey could be on the other side of the building or in the basement, where Gerard’s senses couldn’t reach. He’d be able to get a better idea once he was inside.

The fence wasn’t too difficult. Gerard was no athlete, but even he could scale a wire fence. There was a strand of barbed wire across the top, but nothing too elaborate. He threw his coat over it and it kept him from getting scratched. He dropped to the ground and froze, realising at the last second that there might be a motion sensor or some other security system.

No alarms sounded. Gerard relaxed for a second, but the sound of a car turning into the street made him tense again. He ran for the shadows of the building’s walls until the car had passed. The roar of the engine made his head ache, and Gerard realised his hearing was close to spiking, out of control due to his fears for Mikey. He dialled his hearing down forcefully; the last thing he needed right now was a sensory spike. Then he crept around the corner out of sight of the street.

There was no one around. Gerard breathed out, his nerves easing slightly. G-TAC didn’t seem to have much of a security system in place at all, luckily for him. He picked up a rock as he walked, and kept his eyes open for a good target. A large window came into view and Gerard crept up to peer through it. He thought it was a cafeteria; he could make out tables and chairs inside. The lights were off and he couldn’t hear anyone, so he decided this was as good a room as any to break into.

The rock hit with a loud thud, and a crack appeared running from the top right corner to the middle of the pane down the bottom, but it didn’t shatter like Gerard had imagined. He grabbed the rock and threw it again.

This time, the window broke into several large pieces. Gerard stepped over the shards which had fallen to the ground and wrapped his coat sleeves over his hands to pull out the glass which remained in the window frame. His eyes were finally adjusting to the dark, and he could make out tables and chairs inside. That was all Gerard saw before the beam of a flashlight shone in his eyes, blinding him.

“Alright, bud, I think that’s just about far enough.”

***

Mikey’s resistance didn’t last too long once the truncheon came out. The doctor looked him over and pronounced him fit – for what, Mikey wasn’t sure. The trainers took him down into the facility’s basement to a small concrete room. Mikey had never seen anything like this the other times he’d been to the training centre. It was like a dungeon.

The trainer didn’t stay with him the whole time; occasionally he’d leave Mikey alone for short periods. As far as Mikey could tell, this was to allow time for the anticipation to build, but so far they hadn’t hurt him too badly. As long as he did what they said and didn’t say anything except for ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ they didn’t hit him.

“You really should have been brought in for individual training when you bonded, but your caseworker was reluctant because of your age,” the trainer mused. “It’s a shame; it’s clear the combined training you and your Sentinel underwent didn’t do enough to correct the... problems that have developed in your working relationship.”

It was tempting to argue with that. Mikey and Gerard had been summoned to this very training centre not long after they’d bonded. They’d given Gerard a list of rules he was supposed to make sure Mikey followed; he’d taken them home and ceremonially lit them on fire in the basement. Mom had been pissed about the smoky smell stinking up the house, but it had been a welcome gesture. If Gerard could hear what this trainer was saying, he’d be outraged.

“Let’s try to figure out how much work there is to do, Guide. Can you identify how you’ve failed your Sentinel?”

“Gerard...” Mikey began, but the trainer hit him in the side. Mikey leaned over and clutched his ribs, and the trainer shook his head at him.

“Don’t call your Sentinel by his first name, that shows lack of respect.”

“He’s my brother!”

The trainer hit him again. “Don’t talk back. Your Sentinel is your Sentinel first, regardless of any other relationship you may have.”

Mikey decided not to argue with that absence of logic. “I’m a good Guide,” he said instead, voice wavering uncertainly.

He expected the trainer to hit him again – if nothing else, the trainer had already made it clear that he considered Mikey a terrible Guide, and Mikey was pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to be contradicting him – but instead the trainer just gave a brief nod.

“Right,” he said, voice insincere, “you’re such a good Guide that your Sentinel relies on alcohol to compensate for your shortcomings.”

That cut like a knife. “He hasn’t had a drink in over a year!” Mikey protested.

“Oh, well then! I stand corrected,” the trainer said sarcastically. “Clearly you’re a capable enough Guide that your Sentinel is merely a recovering alcoholic.”

“That’s not fa-” The trainer knocked the wind out of his lungs with another blow.

“I can see you need G-TAC’s help, not just to see how to correct your faults, but to understand what they are in the first place. So-”

The trainer was interrupted when the door of the cell swung open. Another trainer came in, and they talked to one another in low voices. Mikey couldn’t make out what they were saying, except for the moment when his trainer said “He tried to what?” and looked in Mikey’s direction.

“I was actually hoping not to have to do this,” Mikey’s trainer said once the other trainer was gone. Funny, Mikey thought as the trainer grabbed his arms and shoved him towards the wall, it didn’t sound like he was terribly upset about whatever he was about to do. “It’s not up to me, though. Really, it was your Sentinel who made this choice.” He got Mikey facing the wall and cuffed his wrists to it, tightening the chains so he couldn’t move. Mikey didn’t try all that hard to break free; he might have, if he’d known what was coming.

“You probably understand now why I wish you’d had more training at a younger age,” Mikey heard the trainer say. He craned his head around to look over his shoulder tried to see what the trainer was doing. They’d made him leave his glasses behind back in the medical bay, though, and all he could see was a blurry shape picking up some sort of strap. “Unfortunately, we have to be far more severe when things are allowed to progress to this point.”

***

Getting arrested sucked all of the ass. The cops who had picked him up kept firing questions at him which Gerard, distracted by his fears for Mikey, only half heard. Trying to break into G-TAC’s training centre definitely couldn’t be considered cooperation. Gerard hadn’t worried about that at the time, had been so sure that he’d get Mikey out and then everything would somehow be fine.

Once at the station he was fingerprinted and photographed. He told the arresting officer that he’d very much like to have a state appointed attorney present while he was questioned, and they let him use the phone.

Lindsey was not pleased to hear what had happened.

“I can’t believe this! You complete idiot! Oh God, and Mikey...”

“I know, I know!” Gerard cried out. He blinked back tears; he had no right to cry when it was Mikey who was suffering for his impulsiveness. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

“I should have known you were going to do something stupid. I should never have let you go off by yourself.”

After that, Gerard’s time was up, so he had to say goodbye and be escorted to a cell. With a police officer on either side, he was led to a narrow hallway which contained three cells.

The first thing he noticed was the smell. A stench of mingled blood, sweat and piss assaulted his nostrils, with faint undertones of vomit and shit. He wondered for a second how the others could stand it, then realised they probably couldn’t smell it as keenly as he could. He retched and gagged, swaying in the grip of the two police officers as the smell made him dizzy.

“Get moving,” said the cop on his right. “Are you drunk? Jesus.”

“I’m not drunk,” Gerard managed. “It stinks in here.”

“Sorry, princess, it’s the maid’s day off.”

Ignoring that, Gerard said, “I need my Guide.” If he had sensory problems or any other issue as a result of being separated from Mikey, G-TAC would be required to hand him over. Gerard would deliberately zone if it meant getting Mikey away from them.

“Should have thought of that before you broke the law, shouldn’t you?” asked the cop as he swung open a cell door and shoved Gerard inside.

***

They left him alone for a while after the beating. Mikey would have been glad of it, if he’d been in any frame of mind to feel glad about anything.

The trainer came back eventually, of course. He freed Mikey’s hands with the same cool detachment he’d used when wielding the strap. Mikey scrubbed one hand over his face quickly, but waited for the trainer’s order to turn around.

“This is for your own good, you know,” the trainer said in a conversational tone. “Guides are happiest when the natural order is observed. And your Sentinel will benefit too.”

When Mikey tried to imagine living the way the trainer was saying he and Gerard should, he couldn’t understand how it would make either of them happy.

What if he was wrong, though? What if Gerard was suffering for his kindness? There had been hard times over the past years where Gerard had struggled with depression and alcoholism, and Mikey had done his best to support Gerard through it, but what if he was unknowingly the cause? Maybe G-TAC’s intervention would come as a relief to Gerard, someone stepping in to do what he was too soft-hearted to do.

Mikey didn’t know what to think about that. Gerard had always encouraged him to live his own life and to say what he thought. He’d always supported Mikey in anything he wanted to do, even when it inconvenienced Gerard. But maybe that was just Gerard being kind. Maybe Mikey really had been hurting him and making him miserable by being the way that he was. Maybe G-TAC’s intervention would come as a relief to Gerard.

“Now earlier, we were talking about your areas in need of improvement,” the trainer said, and Mikey tried to concentrate through the pain.

***

Being separated from Mikey was really taking its toll, especially combined with the anxiety Gerard felt about what was happening to him. His sense of smell was spiking, and he was keeping it under control through force of willpower because he didn’t want to deal with the stink of his own vomit on top of everything else. But that wasn’t the only stimuli bothering him; the fluorescent lights buzzed and the harsh light they shed was giving Gerard a headache. Gerard thought if he played his cards right, he could send himself into a zone, and then they’d have no choice but to bring him Mikey. A Sentinel couldn’t be separated from his Guide; it was illegal.

Of course, if he zoned he’d be defenceless if the other inmates in the cell decided to do something to him, but they’d all kept their distance so far. Besides, Gerard thought recklessly, if they hurt him that too might force G-TAC to release Mikey so he could come to Gerard’s side.

With that in mind, Gerard closed his eyes and put the smell out of his mind, letting his ears fill with the soft electronic buzzing noise made by the lights. Going into a zone deliberately like this could almost be kind of pleasant. The faint rhythmic buzz he’d been aware of all along could be broken down like the different instruments of a band. There was a high pitched buzz, so fast it sounded almost like a whine. There was a low part that ticked away steadily like a drummer in 4/4 time. There was a slightly hollow buzz that was high pitched for two beats and slightly lower pitched for two beats, over and over. If Gerard really listened he could make out a crackle that intensified whenever the guitarist – because apparently he was really committed to this band metaphor – became higher in pitch.

There was a hand on his arm, which made it harder to pay attention to the sounds. That was annoying; Gerard couldn’t remember what it was but there was some reason why he wanted to keep listening. He tried to shake the hand off, but the movement broke him out of the trance completely.

“Huh?” he asked, looking up. He shrank back when he realised one of the other inmates was leaning over him, his hand still on Gerard’s arm. The other guy immediately took his hand back and sat back down.

“You alright?” he asked. “You’ve been staring into space for like, an hour and a half.”

“I was?” Gerard asked, glancing out into the empty corridor. “And no one noticed?”

“No, just me. Cops don’t give a shit so long as you’re not making a fuss.”

“I had a zone,” Gerard said, shifting closer to the edge of the cell. “I need my Guide. Hey!” he called, trying to get the attention of the nearest police officer. “Hey! I need some help!”

“They don’t care,” the other guy repeated. “They’ll just ignore you. Watch. Hey!” he called as a cop made his way up the corridor. “Hey, my asthma inhaler was taken when I got brought in, you think I could get that back? Maybe? No?” The cop walked past without even looking their way. “Jackass,” the guy muttered.

“They’re supposed to...” Gerard said weakly.

“Yeah, well, fuck supposed to.” The other guy settled back against the other wall and went silent. Gerard followed his lead.

***

“...attend to my Sentinel’s comfort first and foremost,” Mikey recited. He coughed hoarsely; he’d been given nothing to eat or drink since he’d been brought in, and he thought it had to be close to morning.

“What else?” the trainer wanted to know. Mikey panicked; he couldn’t remember anything else. He’d got the part about unthinking obedience and the part about complete deference all the time and the part about never, ever helping himself to a glass of water or a crust of bread if his Sentinel needed a foot rub or something. What else was there?

Mikey’s mind raced, but it was pointless. He might have had a better chance of remembering things if they’d let him get some rest, given him something to eat and stopped hitting him all the time. That would make it far easier to concentrate, surely. If they really wanted Mikey to learn all this stuff so he could be a better Guide for Gerard, he didn’t understand why they were making it so difficult.

He took too long. His failure was acknowledge with the strike of the trainer’s truncheon and the clucking of his tongue. “Gracefully accepting punishment. You have a bit of trouble with that last one, don’t you?” He swung the truncheon in Mikey’s direction, stopping just short. Mikey flinched away reflexively, and the trainer shook his head.

“You think you know better than me, or your Sentinel, whether you deserve to be punished or not,” the trainer said thoughtfully. “But that’s not your decision, Way. It’s your Sentinel’s decision. And disputing your Sentinel’s decisions might be the most unfortunate of all the bad habits you’ve developed.”

Mikey thought it might have been easier to deal with if the trainer had yelled at him. If he’d sounded angry, the violence might have made a little bit of sense. As it was the trainer just sounded calm, as though everything that was happening was completely normal and completely right. As though Mikey’s pain was just a necessary side-effect of all his various failures.

“Why don’t you tell me, Way, when do you deserve to be punished?”

“When I... mess up? Sir?” Mikey guessed, unable to find the words for a more eloquent answer.

The trainer hit him. “No. Try again.”

“When I make a mistake?” Mikey ventured hopefully. Apparently, that was wrong, too. “When I’m, um, lax in my duties,” he tried, a little desperately. He felt sort of hopeful about that answer, though, it seemed like a good one.

Not good enough to satisfy the trainer, though. “No,” he said, swinging the truncheon. “You’re not thinking. Try again.”

“I don’t know!” Mikey admitted. “I don’t know, sir. I’m sorry. Please tell me the answer, sir.” He felt tears in his eyes and tried to wish them away. He’d been holding himself together pretty well up until now, but it was all starting to be too much. If Gerard was here, he’d tell Mikey the answer. He wouldn’t be angry that Mikey didn’t know. The trainer would probably think that that was more disobedience, Mikey wishing for someone who would be more tolerant of his faults rather than working to fix them.

“You deserve to be punished when your Sentinel says that you do,” the trainer said simply, punctuating his answer with blows. “So, when he does, what are you going to say?”

***

Activity in the police station picked up when morning came, and Gerard waited impatiently for news of what was going to happen to him. Police officers came to remove the other cell inmates for questioning or bail hearings or whatever else, but they left Gerard behind each time. Finally, close to midday, the cell empty except for Gerard, someone came for him.

“You’re extremely lucky, Mr Way,” the police officer drawled. “G-TAC has decided not to press charges against you for trespassing and vandalism. And since the chances of convicting a Sentinel for trying to break into a facility holding his Guide are almost nil, you can go free.” He screwed up his face in disgust at this evidence of special treatment.

Gerard could admit that he was relieved, but it wasn’t nearly as important as the urgent question of what had happened to Mikey. Outside the police station, he found a payphone and called Lindsey at work.

“They let me go,” he said, “and they’re not pressing charges.”

“It would serve you right if they did, you idiot,” Lindsey snapped. Then she sniffled a little. “I was so worried about you.”

“I’m fine,” Gerard said impatiently. “It’s Mikey I’m worried about. You didn’t hear anything more last night?”

“No, nothing.”

“I’m going over there.”

“For what?” Lindsey demanded. “You’ve already been arrested once, do you really want to push your luck again?”

“I can’t just leave him in there!”

“Gerard,” Lindsey said in her most reasonable voice, “It’s almost noon now, they have to let Mikey go by five...”

“What are you saying, I should just wait it out?” Gerard asked, disbelieving.

Lindsey was quiet for a second, obviously reluctant to answer. “If you keep making trouble, doesn’t that just give them more of an excuse to take it out on Mikey?” she asked.

The mere suggestion made Gerard snarl. “I’m going to call them,” he said. “I won’t go over there,” he promised, when Lindsey began to argue. “I’ll wait until they say it’s okay. But I’m not going to let them forget that Mikey’s got a really pissed off Sentinel looking out for him.”

***

The sound of the door swinging open jolted Mikey out of a light doze. He blinked and tried to focus on the trainer, but without his glasses he was just a blurry shape until he got closer.

“Here,” the trainer said, holding something out. “Take this.”

It was a bottle of water. Mikey wanted it desperately, but he was reluctant to reach for it. It just seemed too good to be true.

“Well? Hurry up!” the trainer snapped. Mikey twitched and grabbed the bottle. “Drink that,” said the trainer. “Not too fast, mind you. If you puke on the floor, you can mop it up yourself.”

Mikey tried to follow the trainer’s instructions, even though he was so thirsty it was hard to think of anything else. “It’s time for you to go back to your Sentinel,” the trainer said, and through heroic self-control Mikey managed not to weep with relief. “You’re going to tell him that you don’t want to come back, aren’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” Mikey agreed quickly.

“And you’re going to remember what we talked about, aren’t you? You’re going to do better?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” The trainer stood back and looked at him for a minute. “You know, it’s polite to say thank you when someone helps you.”

“Thank you, sir,” Mikey said quickly, before realising that the trainer wasn’t just referring to the water. Just as well, Mikey reflected, or he might not have been able to make himself say it. God only knew what the trainer would have done then.

“Good.” The trainer dropped a pile of clothing in front of him. “Get dressed.”

***

Gerard had driven back to the training centre as soon as he was given the word. When he arrived, they made him wait for at least twenty minutes before bringing Mikey out. He wasn’t sure why; whether that was just how much time they needed to make everything ready or if it was a subtle reminder of who exactly had all the power in this situation.

They brought Mikey out eventually, sandwiched between two trainers who gripped his arms. There was a bruise on Mikey’s cheek. The mark seemed to fill Gerard’s entire field of vision and there were other hints which made his blood boil; the way Mikey moved, slowly and carefully like it hurt. The faint smell of blood. The way he shuddered every time the trainer on his left stepped a little too close.

“Get your fucking hands off him,” Gerard snarled, grabbing Mikey’s arm and pulling him out of the trainer’s reach. He put an arm around Mikey’s waist and glared as though he could hold off all of G-TAC’s assembled might; a laughable idea, as they’d amply proven.

Mikey would usually have tolerated Gerard’s protectiveness with open amusement, but now he clutched Gerard’s shirt and kept his head down. It frightened him.

“What did you do to him?” Gerard demanded, his voice rising.

“You were warned about cooperating,” the trainer said. “Please calm down. I’d rather not have to call the police again.”

Mikey shuddered and Gerard’s arm tightened around him, but he loosened his grip when Mikey winced. Gerard worked to remain calm. He needed to stay in control for Mikey’s sake.

Gerard led Mikey out of the building to his car and got him into the passenger seat. When he tried to pry Mikey’s fingers loose from his shirt, Mikey tightened his grip and began to shake.

“Mikey,” said Gerard, putting a hand on Mikey’s chin and trying to get him to look up. “Mikey, look at me. I’m right here.”

Mikey wouldn’t really look at him, but the sound of Gerard’s voice seemed to calm him. “I need to take you home, Mikey,” Gerard said. “Or to the hospital. Do you need to go to the hospital?” Gerard didn’t want to go to the emergency room, where more strangers would look at his Guide and touch him and Gerard might not be able to defend him, but he wasn’t one of those Sentinels who put his own comfort over his Guide’s needs. If Mikey needed to see a doctor, Gerard would make sure he did.

“I want to go home,” Mikey said at last, finally easing his grip on Gerard although not actually letting go. “Take me home, Gee.”

“Right,” Gerard said, making sure that Mikey’s seat belt was buckled. “Right.”

***

It wasn’t a comfortable car ride, not when Mikey hurt all over. Not when Gerard kept sneaking glances at him and then hitting the brakes because he wasn’t paying enough attention to the traffic.

“Are you okay?” Gerard asked for the third time.

“I’m fine,” Mikey answered. His voice had all the weight of a cobweb. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m fine.”

“What did they do?” Gerard asked. Mikey felt his face twitch and turned his head towards the window so that Gerard wouldn’t see. Pointless, of course, Gerard could read him far too well for that to work. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to tell me. I wish you would, though. You know, if it helps. And it won’t make me think any differently of you, you know that, right? I just want to make sure you’re okay. I’m really sorry, this is all my fault.”

Gerard paused for breath about there, which gave Mikey the chance to say, “Why?”

Gerard changed lanes abruptly, and Mikey grunted as quietly as he could when he was pressed up against the door. “Sorry, sorry,” Gerard muttered. “It’s because of Susan Albert and all that stuff I told her.”

Mikey tried to make sense of that, but couldn’t. “What is?”

“All this!” Gerard exclaimed, taking his hands off the steering wheel for a moment to wave them about wildly, then grabbing it again quickly when a car swerved in front of them. “G-TAC coming after you and everything, they’re trying to scare us into telling her that everything’s just fine for Guides.”

That really wasn’t any help. “I thought she wasn’t interested,” Mikey said.

“She called me last night. It was just before I heard what had happened to you, and Adam pretty much told me that was why they did it.”

“Oh,” Mikey said. “So you didn’t know before... I mean...” He trailed off, realising that there was no way to finish asking that question without making Gerard feel horrible.

Luckily, Gerard seemed to be too wound up to really notice what Mikey was asking. “Of course not!” he said. “I’m pretty sure they waited as late as they could before they called so that I wouldn’t be able to do anything before morning. That’s why... well, that’s not important.”

Mikey was pretty sure it was actually very important, but he didn’t have the energy to press for information. Anyway, it probably wasn’t allowed, according to G-TAC rules. Actually, Mikey had probably already broken every rule the trainer had told him to follow. If they were paying any sort of attention to Mikey, he was totally fucked.

Except that G-TAC wasn’t everywhere, Mikey reasoned, no matter how much they liked to think they could be. They probably weren’t watching, right now, in Gerard’s car. And based on what Gerard had said, the whole ordeal hadn’t had much to do with his behaviour at all. Unless Gerard was lying, and even as upset and frightened as he felt, Mikey was pretty sure he wasn’t.

The lights were on when they got home and the house smelled of food. “Do you want something to eat?” Gerard asked. “Or drink? Or do you just want to sleep?”

What Mikey really needed was to piss, but it was as though his body recognised that he was somewhere safe and the adrenaline keeping him functioning just ran out. Finding the words to ask for what he needed seemed too hard. Even thinking it felt tremendously difficult.

“Okay,” Gerard said after a minute, when it became clear that Mikey wasn’t going to move or say anything. “Why don’t you go get into bed and I’ll bring up something for you to eat?” He gave Mikey a nudge in that direction, and that was enough to get him moving. He relieved himself and then went to his bedroom, where he wondered if it was worth the effort of changing.

He should have just done it, because when Gerard arrived he offered to help. “It’s fine, I can sleep in this,” Mikey said, but he didn’t really want to. He knew he couldn’t really smell G-TAC on the clothes – although maybe Gerard could, from the way he screwed up his nose – but he was pretty sure he wasn’t imagining the sweaty smell they’d gained during that car trip to the training centre.

Gerard helped him get the shirt off, and would have clucked and cried over every bruise if Mikey hadn’t cut him short. “It’s my fault,” Gerard said. “They warned me that they’d hurt you if I did anything, but I wasn’t thinking straight and I tried to break into the training centre.”

“You did what?” Mikey wondered. “You’re lucky you weren’t arrested.”

“Yeah, I sort of was,” Gerard admitted. “But they’re not pressing charges.”

Mikey wasn’t sure how someone could ‘sort of’ get arrested, but maybe it was a bit like the time Gerard had been ‘sort of’ suspended in his junior year, for smoking in the bathroom next to the reception desk. “You tried to bust me out?” Mikey said, finally smiling a little. “What were we supposed to do after that?”

“Well, I hadn’t quite decided. Get Ray and Frank to fly us to Guatemala, maybe.”

Mikey snickered, and Gerard put a tray of food in easy reach. “Don’t let it get cold,” he said seriously. “Lindsey made it. She’s worried about you. Also, she offered to bring the food up herself and I might have growled at her.”

Mikey picked up the spoon and stirred the soup – a thick one full of noodles, chicken and vegetables. His favourite type of comfort food. “Gerard,” he chided. “Lindsey wouldn’t do anything to hurt me.”

“I know!” Gerard said. “So you’ve got to eat it all, so I can go tell her you liked it and apologise.”

“She’ll understand,” said Mikey. Lindsey was great with that sort of thing, accepting the Sentinel-Guide bond in a way that most normal people just couldn’t.

“Yeah,” Gerard said fondly. “She will. She’s the best.”

Although Mikey was sure Gerard wanted to go talk to Lindsey, he kept finding excuses to stay in MIkey’s bedroom, and was still sitting by the bed when Mikey finally drifted off to sleep.

***

The next day was Saturday. Mikey was doing his best to pretend that everything was fine, but it only made Gerard worry more. When he should have been resting, Mikey was running around trying to pretend that his injuries didn’t exist.

“You should be in bed!” Gerard said, exasperated, when he came into the living room and found Mikey trying to dust the windowsills without bending over.

Mikey jumped and apologised, which made Gerard feel awful. That was just what Mikey needed, someone coming up behind him and startling him. “I’m sorry,” Gerard said.

“I’m sorry,” Mikey repeated.

“No, I’m sorry,” Gerard insisted. He could see Mikey taking a breath to apologise again, and couldn’t hold in a slightly hysterical giggle at how ridiculous they were both being. Mikey laughed too, but only for a couple of seconds. It wasn’t really very funny.

“If you want, we could make you comfortable on the couch, so you can watch TV,” Gerard suggested. “Or I could even move the TV upstairs if you want. But I think you should relax. I mean, if you want to.” Gerard suddenly worried that he was being overbearing, that Mikey might feel like he had to do whatever he said. That was what G-TAC would have told him. “If you really want to... but I think rest would do you some good. If you want. I’m not saying you have to. But I think it would be better, but only if...”

“It’s fine,” Mikey said, mercifully cutting Gerard short. “I’ll sit on the couch for a while.”

Gerard sat next to him, which was when he remembered why he’d come looking for Mikey in the first place. “Oh, yeah,” he said, lifting up the camera he was holding.

“What are you doing with that?” Mikey asked wearily.

“Well, I was thinking... there might be a time, later on, when we’ll be glad to have a record of what they did, even though it probably wouldn’t help us right now.” Mikey didn’t answer, so Gerard added, “Only if you agree. I won’t... not if you don’t want me to. I just think we should.”

Mikey clenched his jaw. “Fine,” he said, standing up. “You can do it. In the bathroom, not here. And I don’t want to see the photos. Ever.”

***

It was hard to accept that he could protect Mikey better by doing nothing than by tracking down the people who had hurt him and exacting slow, painful revenge, but Gerard did his best.

Frank called that afternoon. First he asked after Mikey, and Gerard told him that he was doing as well as could be expected.

“That’s good,” Frank said, sounding a little distracted. “I sent you an email forward a few minutes ago, did you get it?”

“Are you turning into my mother, Frank?” Gerard teased. “You send an email and then you have to call the person you sent it to to see if they got it?”

“Just shut up and check your fucking email, okay?” Frank snapped, his voice tense.

“Since you’re on the phone, can’t you just tell me what’s happened?”

“It’s... there’s... no, I can’t. You need to read the email, and then call me back once you’ve read it.”

Before Gerard could protest that that was really stupid, Frank had hung up. “Fucking drama queen,” Gerard grumbled as he waited for his computer to slowly boot up and connect to the internet. He couldn’t imagine what might have happened that would make Frank behave so strangely.

The email itself was a fairly short message. It had obviously been written in a hurry and was full of small typos, but Gerard couldn’t blame the writer. If what he was reading was true, they must have been pretty upset.

There was an attachment with the email, but before Gerard could download it the phone rang. He cursed as the internet connection was lost. “Fucking Frank,” he grumbled. “It’s only been ten minutes, for God’s sake!” he snapped as he picked up the phone.

“Uh... I’m sorry? Is that Gerard?”

“Susan! Sorry,” Gerard said. “I thought you were someone else.”

“I hope this isn’t a bad time. It’s just that I got this email, and I wondered if you’d seen it too.”

“It’s fine, I’m not busy – what email?” Gerard asked.

“It was written by a doctor in Cascade. He said that G-TAC...”

“Kidnapped his friend’s Guide, and then broke his door down and probably abducted him too?”

“That’s the one. Did you read the attachment with it?”

“Not yet. What is it?”

“The Guide’s story. He says... you should probably read it yourself. Although I’ll warn you, it’s not a pleasant read.”

Gerard swallowed. “What the fuck is going on?”

“I’m not sure, but as far as I can tell – this email’s been sent out to a lot of people. People are going to be upset about it. If you wanted a chance to shine a spotlight on what G-TAC is doing, this is probably it.”

“Yeah. Well...”

“I know we have a meeting next week, but it might be best to move a bit more quickly than that.”

“Susan, I meant to call you later,” Gerard said. “Things have sort of changed, here.”

“What’s happened?”

“It’s... well, G-TAC. They took Mikey in, just after you called last time...”

“Mikey’s missing too?”

“No, no. Mikey’s fine, he’s, yeah, fine. I don’t think it’s related to this Sandburg guy at all, they’re just trying to force me to stop...”

“Stop what?”

“Everything,” Gerard said with a shrug. “Just, you know, all of it, the letters and petitions and trying to get politicians to listen to me. I’m supposed to convince you I was wrong about everything. I can’t... they’ll hurt Mikey. If you don’t back down, they might hurt him. They already...”

“There might not be another chance like this,” Susan said after a pause. “The whole country is watching G-TAC now, to see what they’ll do. The whole world, if the story keeps spreading. If you keep speaking up, they won’t be able to do anything to you or Mikey without people noticing. It’s too late for them to keep the situation hidden now.”

“I’m not sure,” Gerard said after thinking for a moment. “It’s Mikey who’d be in danger. I’ll have to ask him what he wants to do.”

Susan sighed. “I can’t back down,” she said. “I won’t let them do to my daughter what they did to Sandburg.”

“I know. Of course you can’t.”

“I’ll be watching, in case they do try something.”

“You’re probably right. They’ll probably realise it’s too late for that to work,” Gerard said. “I hope.”

Once he got off the phone with Susan, Gerard downloaded the attachment – a lengthy Word document – and read the whole thing. After taking a few minutes to cry a little bit and feel sick, he called Frank back.

“Is that really what G-TAC training is like?” Gerard asked. “Really?”

“Ray says not. He said even what they did to Mikey is a bit out of the ordinary. But some Guides just don’t fall into line, and G-TAC doesn’t back down. Ever.”

“I’ve spent so much time thinking about how to prevent Guides from being abused by their Sentinels, and I haven’t done as much research about G-TAC. It just seemed too big, too impossible.”

“Yeah,” said Frank, “I know what you mean.”

“They just made this Sandburg guy disappear?”

“And his Sentinel, and the other Sentinel and Guide who helped try to break Sandburg out.”

Gerard shivered. “That could have been Mikey and me.”

“Yeah. Lucky you got arrested outside the building,” Frank said. “Sucking at crime really paid off for you two.”

Gerard couldn’t help laughing a little, but it was a serious topic and the levity didn’t last long. “Do you think they’re dead?”

“I... don’t know,” said Frank. “But I don’t think even G-TAC would go that far. They’re probably just... stashed out of the way somewhere. Recalled to the military, maybe.”

“That would be why they sent out the email,” Gerard said thoughtfully. “So that there’d be too much public attention for them to be disappeared permanently.”

“Maybe Albert would help put some pressure on them,” Frank speculated. “Since she’s on board now.”

“I don’t know,” Gerard said hesitantly. “If I can’t convince her to stay out of it, G-TAC might come after Mikey again.”

“This sucks,” Frank sighed. “But seriously, the cat’s out of the bag now, so what does it matter to them?”

“I don’t know.”

***

The next day Gerard finally agreed that Mikey was probably well enough to go back to work but not so well that he didn’t need someone clucking and fussing all over him for the entire day. They got home at the end of the day to find a familiar looking car parked in the street outside their house.

“Did you know Frank and Ray were coming around?” Mikey asked, mildly annoyed. As much as he loved Frank and Ray, he’d sort of been dreading this moment.

“Frank said they might. I forgot to mention it, sorry,” said Gerard.

They got out of the car and met Frank and Ray by the front door. Ray put his arms up for a hug, like always, but this time he stopped just short and said, “Okay?”

Mikey screwed up his face at the reminder that he was damaged now, that Ray was going to keep thinking of him as someone about to break, but truthfully it was nice to have the choice. He put his arms around Ray and squeezed him tight. Ray gave great hugs.

“We should get Mikey inside,” Gerard said, hands flapping anxiously. “It was his first day back at work today. He’s tired.”

Mikey rolled his eyes at Ray, who smirked back at him. “Come on,” he said, putting a hand on Mikey’s left shoulder while Gerard took his right arm and pulled him towards the house. Gerard tried to convince Mikey that he should lie down and have a nap, but Mikey glared at him until he went away. He and Frank wandered off to the kitchen, talking about what to make for dinner.

“Are you really okay?” Ray asked when they were alone.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Mikey said. It wasn’t really true, but he didn’t know what else to say.

Ray had never told him about whatever it was that had happened to him. Mikey had always sort of wondered if Ray was trying to protect him from something, and vaguely resented him for it, but he understood now. He never wanted to tell anyone about the time he’d spent in a G-TAC training suite, ever.

“You went through G-TAC training,” Mikey said, and Ray nodded although it wasn’t a question. “Was it like...” He couldn’t bring himself to refer, even obliquely, to what had happened to him. “Like in the email?” he asked instead.

“Nah. I’m pretty sure that’s just for the hardcases,” Ray said. “For most people, it’s just... like boot camp, but more so. Not fun at all, but nothing too terrible.”

Mikey had never been to boot camp, but as far as he could tell it was pretty close to his idea of hell on earth. It puzzled him that Ray could call it ‘not too terrible’. “Frank said boot camp was like a two month death march.”

“Yeah, well, you know. Frank,” Ray said, sounding annoyed.

“Are you two having a fight or something?” Mikey asked. He’d noticed when they arrived that Ray and Frank weren’t really looking at each other.

“No, of course not,” said Ray. “It’s fine. It’s just... finding out someone isn’t who you thought they were. You know.”

“No, I don’t,” Mikey said. “You’re talking about Frank? What did he do?”

Ray sighed. “Nothing. It’s stupid, I shouldn’t have... I said I’d like to get a pilot’s licence, maybe. Frank talks about flying all the time; he loves it so much, and I just thought it would be nice... but anyway. He acted like it was just this huge joke.”

“That sucks,” Mikey said, feeling angry on Ray’s behalf. “What a dick. I thought Frank was different. What did he say?”

“Nothing much, it’s just the way he...” Ray shrugged. “He said he thought it was a great idea, and then he said maybe he should train as a mechanic.”

Mikey waited expectantly until it became clear Ray wasn’t going to add anything else. “That’s it?” he asked.

“He was making fun of the whole idea!” Ray insisted. “Ha ha, look at this Guide who thinks he can fly a plane. Next thing you know, Guides will be Sentinels and Sentinels will be Guides.”

“I... are you sure?” Mikey asked. “Maybe he just thought it would be a good idea.”

Ray scowled. “Come on, Mikey. Why would a Sentinel seriously want to be a mechanic?”

“Well... why not? The senses would have to be at least as useful as they are for flying, maybe more. And Frank’s good at fixing things.” Mikey considered that. “Better than me, anyway.”

Ray’s eyebrow twitched but he was too focused on the matter at hand to make the obligatory joke. “Sentinels don’t become mechanics,” he said. “Sentinels have people for shit like that.”

“I don’t think Frank’s like that,” Mikey said. “I know I don’t know him as well as you, but... why don’t you just ask him about it?”

“Just ask him about it?” Ray asked. “Mikey, I’m pretty happy with things the way they are. I don’t want to go messing it up.”

Mikey stared at Ray. “You don’t trust him?” he asked. “You’ve been bonded for six years and you still don’t trust him?”

Ray glared at him. “What do you know, Mikey?” he snapped. “You’ve had Gerard your whole life, of course you think it’s that easy.”

Mikey recoiled a little. He remembered being held in a G-TAC cell and the doubts he’d had. “Sorry,” he said. “But I still think you should talk to him. You’ve had a good thing for six years, right? What do you think, you’ll say one thing he doesn’t like and he’ll transform into a jackass? People don’t work that way.”

Ray nodded, so quickly that Mikey wasn’t sure if he really believed it. “Yeah,” said Ray. “I know.”

***

For the rest of the week, the only thing any of them could talk about was the situation in Cascade. American news stations had picked up the story almost immediately, and it only took another day or two for the story to become notorious internationally. Frank and Ray hung around at Mikey and Gerard’s house nearly every minute they weren’t working or sleeping. The four of them – five when Lindsey was there too, which was more often than not – followed every report and talked about what they could do to be involved.

Susan Albert was right in the thick of things, demanding answers and accountability and for heads to roll. Gerard figured G-TAC couldn’t exactly hold him responsible for that. Susan was being very careful about what she said, implying that she’d sought out information of her own accord when her daughter was identified as a Guide, with no outside prompting at all.

Gerard had been hoping for this moment to come for years, but he’d always imagined himself taking part publicly, centrally. Having to stay in the background, the threat hanging over his and Mikey’s heads, left a bitter taste even as he was elated to see questions being asked.

There was still no news of what had happened to the Cascade Four. G-TAC said that they’d been recalled for urgent military service – an obvious lie if Gerard had ever heard one – and that the details of their assignment were classified.

A few days after the story broke, Gerard caught an interview with some G-TAC bigwig. “Our methods have a wealth of evidence to, to support that they produce the best results for everyone involved,” he said, sounding a little flustered. “Of course it may, it may seem harsh to people who are, are unfamiliar with the purpose of that type of training, but the Sentinel-Guide relationship is a mutually beneficial one, and we only want to ensure that both partners reach their fullest capacity.”

It was a bad angle to take, Gerard thought. The details of Sandburg’s training were far too extreme for anyone to buy what this asshole was saying. The interviewer seemed to agree.

“Are you saying that achieving these results requires breaking all of a Guide’s fingers?” she asked. Gerard could see Ray, where he was sitting at the other end of the couch, clutch his guitar protectively to his chest.

“No, no, no, no,” said the interview subject. “Not at all, that was an irregular – a highly irregular aberration which is being investigated. Guide training under normal, ideal, circumstances, takes place in a highly controlled environment, and trainers use only the minimum force necessary to achieve the needed results.”

“And what are those results?”

“Well, you see, uh...” A bead of sweat formed on the interview subject’s forehead; Gerard watched it in fascination. “Between a Sentinel and a Guide, as within any military hierarchy, there needs to be a clear chain of command, so that orders get carried out without using up a lot of time for debate and discussion. There’s no time for that sort of thing in an emergency, you know. This training saves lives! This is the reason recruit soldiers go to boot camp!”

“I see, so it’s a similar sort of thing, with the same results?”

“Yes, that’s exactly right,” he said, a relieved grin on his face.

“But the military appears to achieve this with soldiers without the use of physical force. What makes Guides different?”

The interview subject’s face revealed that he knew he’d walked into a trap. “Ah. Well, you see...”

While he babbled on about Guides being more emotional and less capable of making serious decisions for themselves, Gerard buried his head in his notebook. He was tired of listening to the man’s nonsense, even as he knew it was important to know what people were saying.

“So does that mean that Guides are identifiable by their personalities, even aside from their passive telepathic abilities?” she asked. Her subject appeared confused, so she clarified, “I mean, adolescents are screened for Guide abilities at around the age of sixteen, but is it possible to tell who is a Guide even before that process, based on the traits you’ve described?”

The interview subject looked nonplussed. “No, no,” he said, “There are plenty of non-Guides with similar personalities...”

“But we don’t strip them of their rights for their own good,” the interviewer said.

Realising that that was a dead end, the interview subject tried, “But Guides and Sentinels are designed by nature to exist in a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. Sentinels are natural leaders, they’re confident, intelligent, responsible and dominant. Guides are predisposed to follow; they don’t have the same strength of conviction or character that their Sentinels do. That allows them to be more adaptable to the needs of their Sentinel once they bond to one. Of course, most teenagers are malleable in the same way, because they’re still developing as people, so no, they’re not identifiable before the standard tests are done.”

“I’d bet a hundred bucks this jackass has never met a single Guide. Or a single teenager.” Frank sneered.

“It would probably scare the shit out of him if he did,” said Gerard. His fingers twitched around his pen, but he didn’t write anything down. One thing at a time.

“Here,” he said, holding out the notebook. “Have a look.” He wasn’t offering it to anyone in particular, but it was Frank who took it. He read the page quietly.

“Are these lyrics?” he asked. Gerard nodded. “About the Cascade Four?”

“Sort of about the whole mess, yeah,” Gerard said. He wasn’t completely satisfied with the lyrics. He could only write from his own point of view, and he wasn’t a Guide. He didn’t really have an insider’s perspective on what was happening, it wasn’t like G-TAC was oppressing him. But he’d needed an outlet for what he was feeling, and he needed to feel like he could communicate to other people just what was so wrong with the world.

“These are good,” Frank said, and handed the notebook on to Ray. Ray huddled over it, eyebrows scrunched in concentration.

“What are they for?” Frank asked. “You want to write a song?”

“Maybe?”

“We could,” said Ray. “We could, like...” He picked up his guitar and played something short and melodic. Then he played it again, faster, and suddenly Gerard could hear the music in his head, the fast, angry vocals and the screaming guitars.

“Play it again,” he said, and Ray played.

***

It was a couple of weeks before Mikey got back to the supermarket in Newark. The first week he didn’t feel up to it, and also, he had to admit, he hadn’t really wanted to leave the house for anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. The second week had just been busy, what with the songs they’d begun writing with Frank and Ray.

Gerard hadn’t been thrilled to have Mikey going out by himself, even now. In fact, he was sitting in the car in the parking lot, ready to jump out and fail to intimidate any G-TAC trainers that happened to be lurking nearby. Mikey had insisted that he not come into the store. Pete wouldn’t want to talk to him while he was accompanied by his Sentinel.

Pete looked tired when Mikey found him, and his right arm was in a sling. Mikey hung back for a minute and watched while Pete bought ham at the deli counter. Pete caught sight of Mikey as he was walking away and stopped dead. A shopper behind him nearly ran him over with her cart and manoeuvred around him with a glare.

“Sorry,” Pete muttered, hunching his shoulders. “Mikey,” he said, walking closer. “I wasn’t sure you’d be back.” He peered at Mikey’s face searchingly. “Are you okay?” He spoke a little bit hesitantly, as though he didn’t trust Mikey to answer truthfully.

“I’m fine,” Mikey said. He was; the trainers had taken care not to leave visible marks but even the worst of his injuries didn’t hurt very much anymore. It wasn’t the whole truth, maybe; Mikey hadn’t been sleeping very well and he found himself watching Gerard a lot more than he used to, scrutinising his motives. But he wasn’t going to unload all of that onto Pete, who had enough problems of his own. “How are you?”

“Fine. What did they want?” Pete asked, speaking softly and looking away so that Mikey could pretend he hadn’t heard the question if he didn’t want to answer it.

“Nothing, really,” Mikey said. “They just... they got pissed off with my Sentinel, and...”

Pete nodded, like that was nothing remarkable. “It can be good when they don’t get along with G-TAC too well,” he said, “but they’ve got to know how to play along, otherwise G-TAC gets all pissy.”

“Yeah.”

***

A few weeks after the Cascade Four became international news, they still hadn’t been found. The media frenzy had died down a little, but there were still occasional stories about the protesters in Cascade who kept up a constant presence outside the G-TAC training centre there. More interesting, though, was the talk Gerard heard about actual, serious changes being made to laws affecting Sentinels and Guides. Some of the rumours came through the media, but the most interesting ones came from Susan, who Gerard continued to keep in touch with.

“A task force?” he asked during one conversation. “For what?”

“Well, to investigate whether changes need to be made to how Sentinels and Guides are managed, I suppose,” Susan said. “And we both know that they do, but if a group of researchers and politicians can look at the evidence and come to the same conclusion, they might have a faint chance of getting something done about it.”

“They’ve done similar things in the past,” Gerard said darkly. “It’s never made a difference. Know why? Because they’ll say, ‘gosh, we need people who know everything there is to know about Sentinels and Guides!’ and G-TAC will say, ‘oooh, that’s us, we know stuff about Sentinels and Guides, we’ll tell you what you need to know,’ and then they’ll say, ‘actually, everything’s just fine, no changes needed’. And that will be that.”

Susan hesitated. “I thought maybe they’d ask some actual Sentinels and Guides what they thought.”

“Not fucking likely,” Gerard grumbled, forgetting himself for a moment. “Uh, sorry,” he said, embarrassed.

Susan didn’t seem to have noticed. “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “How can they possibly find out what they need to know without talking to someone who’s actually been through the training that’s in question?”

“Even if they did talk to some actual Guides, there are plenty out there who’d be willing to back up the G-TAC methods,” Gerard said. “It’s not just about scaring Guides into submission, G-TAC brainwashes them into thinking that it’s right and proper for things to work that way. Plenty of Guides out there will say that things are fine the way they are, and not because they’re scared to say different, either. Because they believe it. Just like any victim of abuse who argues that they deserved it.”

Susan was quiet much longer this time, until Gerard began to wonder if he’d come on too strong. “Then we have to point that out, too,” she said grimly. “And keep holding the facts up before everyone’s eyes until they understand.”

“It’ll keep us busy for years,” Gerard said wearily.

“So be it, then.”

***

The story continued to be of great interest to people. Several documentaries were shown on TV which dealt with Sentinels, Guides, and their training, but they were rather dated and heavily sanitised. They did little to satisfy people’s curiosity about what was actually happening.

Previews began airing for an ‘exciting new investigative report’ which promised ‘up-to-date information’ and ‘unbiased research confirmed by experts’. They didn’t exactly discuss it, but when the night came around, Ray and Frank turned up with a six-pack and a dish of Frank’s mother’s famous lasagne to share.

“It’s now been over three weeks since an account of G-TAC training written by a draft-evading Guide, Blair Sandburg, was made public and became an international sensation,” the presenter said. “And in its wake, the question many are considering is: Are G-TAC training methods too harsh? Stay tuned to learn the truth.”

Mikey sighed. He’d already heard enough to tell how this was going to go. They all settled in to watch it, though, from the first ‘expert,’ an experienced G-TAC trainer, who described the process in some detail and made it sound like little more than ordinary military discipline, to the last, who talked about the evils of draft dodging and implied that Sandburg had had it coming - if they’d even done everything to him that was claimed, he pointed out darkly.

“I wonder how much of this was funded by G-TAC,” Gerard said bitterly, but no one bothered to answer him.

In disgust, Lindsey changed the channel to the Cartoon Network. “No one talks about G-TAC for the next hour,” she ordered, and that seemed like a great plan for a minute or two, until it turned out South Park had used their freakishly fast episode production time to churn out their own commentary. Most of the episode was wildly inaccurate, what with the eight-year old children being tested for Guide traits, removed from their families for training, and, somehow, hired as trainers, not to mention Kenny’s head exploding due to a sensory spike. Other parts, though, struck uncomfortably close to home, especially when a helpful caption flashed on the screen explaining that All these training techniques were used on Blair Sandburg by actual G-TAC personnel.

Mikey exchanged a glance with Ray and knew that they were both sharing the same thought, that no fictional portrayal had ever captured the essence of a G-TAC trainer as much as the sight of a cheaply animated eight-year old child shouting ‘Respect my authoritah!’

***

Gerard and Mikey didn’t have a garage so much as a falling-down shed they used to store things they couldn’t be bothered to throw away. Frank and Ray’s garage was a different story. It had every tool imaginable and a few that Gerard couldn’t.

“Open end wrench,” Frank said, pointing helpfully. “Pliers. Phillips head screwdriver. Flat head screwdriver.”

“Uh-huh,” Gerard said vaguely. “What about that one?”

“Um...” Frank hesitated, then rallied magnificently.”That’s a... displaced refractor.”

“Sure,” Gerard said doubtfully. He caught Ray’s eye where he was standing by the door, and they both grinned.

The walls were soundproofed and there were plenty of electrical outlets. It made an ideal practice space and, with the help of some equipment borrowed from friends, a serviceable recording studio.

A fair chunk of that equipment was borrowed from Bob, a friend of a friend who had agreed to drum for them. They had four songs written and two more close to finished.

“What exactly do you want us to do with this music?” Ray asked the day they gathered to record it. He’d asked Gerard that question before, but Gerard had been deliberately vague in his answer until now.

“I want to share it,” Gerard said. “We can’t get involved in the reforms the way we were planning to,” he added, looking at Frank, “but we can still make a difference. We can influence people, and make them think, even if we have to hide what we’re doing from G-TAC.”

“So you want to get this music out incognito?” Frank asked sceptically. “How do you see that working, exactly?”

“We just have to be careful about who we give it to. No one who’s gonna blab. Then we encourage them to pass on more copies to other people, and those people should pass it on to other people, and by that point hopefully we won’t have to do too much more. Our identities will be safe.”

“Secret identities,” Mikey said. “We’ll be like superheroes.” His voice was a little sarcastic, but he couldn’t fool Gerard; he totally thought it was cool as fuck.

“Okay,” Ray said, taking charge like he usually did when music was involved. “Let’s rehearse this a couple of times before we actually try to record it. Bob?”

“Ready,” Bob said calmly. “Waiting for you fuckers.” Gerard hurried into position behind the microphone. Bob glanced around at them all and nodded. “One, two, three, four!”

***

A few days after recording their ‘album’ – “Demo,” Gerard had said, “it’s called a demo,” – they walked through the front door after working late to hear the phone already ringing.

Mikey picked it up, and on the other end Frank told him, “You’ve got to tune into CNN right now!”

Mikey didn’t have to pass the instruction along to Gerard; he’d obviously heard Frank and grabbed the remote. The TV set came on and a woman appeared on the screen, saying, “For those who are just joining us, the Cascade Four have been located here in the remote Lareto province of Peru. Passing behind me now you can see Blair Sandburg, escorted by what appear to be members of the nearby indigenous tribe...”

“They found them,” Gerard breathed.

“They found them!” Frank yelled down the phone line.

Mikey sat to watch the news report, mesmerised. There actually wasn’t a whole lot of information revealed, aside from the obvious. The reporters clearly had no idea why the Sentinels and Guides missing from Cascade had been sent to a military base in Peru, and the Cascade Four didn’t talk to the reporters or even show their faces very much. Apparently, they’d been found when a local news team had been sent to the base to cover a murder or something and had recognised one of them, but even the details of that were a bit fuzzy.

“I’m so relieved,” Gerard said. Mikey nodded. “I wonder what’s going to happen to them now?”

“I don’t know,” said Mikey. “I guess as long as the film crews are there, they won’t mysteriously disappear again.” The situation didn’t seem quite real to him. Something about the idea that he could very nearly have ended up in the same situation if things had gone just a little differently just made it all seem too remote.

“Do you think they could still be in danger, then?” Gerard asked, sounding worried.

“Not really, I guess. Not considering how tense things are here.”

Gerard suddenly brightened. “Maybe they can claim amnesty in Peru, or even somewhere else. I bet they could get refugee status just about anywhere they wanted to; all those countries who’ve been condemning America’s treatment of Guides will probably jump at the chance. Then they’d be safe.”

“That would be good,” Mikey said, holding back from adding ‘what about all us Guides still here?’

“I wonder if that base gets mail,” Gerard wondered. Mikey shrugged but didn’t bother to say that he didn’t know, and a second later Gerard announced that he needed to write a letter, and wandered off.

***

Gerard whined about taking time away from watching the news reports to drive Mikey to Newark, but when Mikey had suggested that he could just drive his damn self there, Gerard had looked at him like he’d lost his mind. Mikey still made him wait out in the supermarket parking lot.

Pete seemed well enough when Mikey found him – there were no new noticeable injuries, at least – but he looked tired, and not in the way that could be cured with a good night’s sleep.

“Mikey,” he said, giving his usual half-smile that seemed to be all he could manage.

“Hey,” Mikey said. He began to chatter mindlessly about every mildly entertaining anecdote he could remember from the week, but Pete didn’t respond to much of what he said, and eventually Mikey stopped.

“Look,” he said, pulling out the walkman he’d been carrying around in his pocket. “These are some songs my brother and some friends wrote. Want to listen?”

Pete seemed to light up when Mikey offered the earbud, so they each took one side of the shopping cart and walked around, listening. Pete was smiling by the end, his mood seeming lighter.

“That’s awesome,” he said. “Your brother wrote this? He must be pretty great.”

“He is,” Mikey said. A wistful look crossed Pete’s face, and Mikey asked, “Are you okay, Pete?”

Pete was slow to answer, but at last he said, “No. No, I’m... not so good.”

Mikey didn’t know what to say to that, which made him question why he’d asked. Eventually, Pete saved him the trouble of thinking of something.

“Did you hear about how they found those guys?” Pete asked.

“Yeah,” Mikey said, not needing to ask which guys Pete was referring to.

“It’s on TV a lot,” Pete said. “I guess people are really interested.”

“Guess so.”

Pete glanced at Mikey. “I heard on the radio that a lot of people are writing letters to them,” he said.

“Yeah, they are,” said Mikey.

Pete nodded and pulled something out of the pocket of his hoodie. “I wrote this,” he said. “But then I wasn’t sure where to send it. And anyway, if I took a stamp out of Trent’s wallet, he’d notice.”

“Do you want me to send it?” Mikey asked after a moment, when Pete held onto the pages and gave no sign of handing them over.

“Yeah?” Pete said uncertainly. “Yeah. I think so.” He still held onto the letter for a few seconds more before passing it towards Mikey. “You won’t read it, will you?” he asked, pulling the letter back.

“Of course not,” Mikey said. “I promise.”

Pete nodded. “Can we listen to the tape again?”

“You don’t have to go?”

“Nah. Fuck it.” Pete shrugged. “There’s still a little time.”

Mikey hit play.