Simon was at the hospital again, waiting and watching over his pack's Guides for Jim and Spike's return. Blair wasn't a problem but Xander had tried to get to Spike and when he heard the gunshot it took both Simon and Blair to keep Xander from rushing out the door.
When the Sentinels returned, they were concerned when they saw the blood from the wounded Guide on their guide's clothing.
"Pet, are you okay?" Spike felt compelled to ask even though he could smell that the blood was from a female and if Xander had been wounded he would be in an exam room or surgery, not waiting in the lobby.
"I'm okay," Xander said. "It's not my blood."
Spike began to remove Xander's shirt to check for wounds.
"Please," Xander said. "Not here, we'll go someplace private."
Jim had already removed Blair's shirt, without a word, and was tracing his finger over Blair's chest checking for injuries.
"Jim, this is a crime scene," Blair said. "I'm okay; we can go somewhere else for this."
Simon decided to intervene. "I'm taking the four of you back to the loft," he said. "I don't want to see you in the bullpen until Monday morning."
As soon as they got to the loft, Spike and Jim made the rounds of the small apartment to make sure it was safe and then Jim and Blair showered and went up to the loft.
The smell of Guide blood on Xander so distressed Spike that he stripped Xander naked and examined his body while they waited their turn in the shower. When their turn came to use the shower Spike, once again, carefully checked Xander's body for wounds as he washed away all traces of the female Guide's blood. Afterward they retired to their private bedroom and climbed into bed naked. Spike stroked and purred to Xander as he slowly became more amorous. It was obvious to Spike that Xander was forcing himself to respond.
Spike looked into Xander's eyes. All thoughts of making love to his beautiful Guide were gone and only concern flooded his awareness. "What is it, Pet, what's worrying you?"
Xander refused to make eye contact. "I'm okay. Really."
"No you're not, Xan, you're try'n hard to be, but you're not." Spike said as he stroked Xander's hair. "Let's talk this out."
Xander shook his head, "No, this is something I should just put behind me and move on."
Spike lifted Xander's chin. "Sometimes," he said, continuing to hold Xander's chin in his palm, "the best way to put things behind you is to put them in front first. Tell me...Please. You know you can tell me anything."
"I'm worried that I'm not a good enough sex partner," Xander said, still refusing to look Spike in the eyes.
"So this is about Jim and me?"
"I guess." Xander said, a bit ashamed that he was once again letting his emotions interfere with his Guide duties.
Spike held Xander's chin in one hand and stroked his hair with the other. "Look at me, Love," he said in a tender but firm voice.
Xander managed to look into Spike's eyes.
"What happened had nothing to do with sex. You weren't there, and I know it may seem like Jim taking me for his second was done behind your back, but that wasn't the intent," Spike said with a soft voice. "I had gone a bit bonkers. I don't remember exactly what I said; I was disoriented when Jim pulled me out of it. Blair was exhausted. He had been pouring healing energy into the pack and needed to sleep. He couldn't have helped me. Tara was concentrating on healing you." Spike sighed and then continued. "I would have died before I took her away from you. Jim knew that; all the Sentinels knew that. So Jim offered to bond to help me get stable. I said no, I told him that you were my mate; he said that he was mated to Blair and he promised he wouldn't try to come between us. I was still resistant to the bonding but then...it became more than just a stabilizing bond. I knew that he would call me to be his second someday. I knew it from the time we kissed in the pack ceremony. Maybe it wasn't the best time with me a bit wonky but it was the only way he could get me to accept the bond."
"So he forced you," Xander said as he jerked upright and let his anger creep into his voice.
"No, Pet, he didn't. A Sentinel can't force a bond with another Sentinel; they both have to be willing. I wanted to be his second. He knew I'd accept when it was offered. Jim and I have a link that I've never felt with any other Sentinel. I don't know what it is but it's there and it's not going to go away; in spite of that he is not more important to me then you are."
"So you wanted him to top you?" Xander asked.
"Top?" Spike said. "There wasn't any top. We were equals."
"How did you manage to do that? You're his second."
"In the field we are pretty much equal. He has the final say because someone has to and he is pack leader. But we are equal partners. As far as the bonding goes it was done with mutual, oral, 69. Is that what this is all about, Pet; you thought I let him top me?"
"Partly," Xander said feeling a bit embarrassed about discussing sex.
"Well, Xan, I'm not totally opposed to being topped, but when that happens it will be with you."
"You'd let me top?" Xander asked.
"If it's what you need, yes"
"It's still difficult," Xander said. "Knowing that you've been with him and that you'll be with him again."
"Whoa, Xan, Where did that come from?" Spike said, confusion flooding his emotions. "The only way I would be with him again is if there is another crisis and no guide was available. I’m not interested in another sex partner. Sex was just the path to the bond."
"But the bond, aren't you going to keep the bond?"
"Love, it's not like bonding with a Guide. Sentinels have to renew their bond with their Guide to keep their stability. This is different. It's done and it's permanent; it doesn't have to be renewed."
"He washed your hair."
"We'll feel the need to touch from time to time," Spike said. "We'll continue to sleep in the same bed but that's all."
"So you're saying if there were a crisis and I wasn't available you would be with Blair before you would be with Jim?"
"Yes, Pet, Blair is a Healer Guide. It's his job to stabilize a Sentinel in distress."
"I have one more question," Xander said. "What if it's Jim that's in distress and Blair that's not available, what then?"
"You're a Healer Guide," Spike said as he stroked Xander's face. "I've accepted that. I know that it may be difficult for you, but if you could heal Jim I would be very proud of you. If it weren't something you could do I'd understand, knowing your history; but I would do what I could to help him. Look, Xan, if it's going to bother you this much I'll put in for a transfer as soon as this case is closed."
"But you're Jim's second; you'd do that for me?" Xander asked.
"I can't break the bond but I could put distance between us. I'd quit the force if I have to and go back to teaching. I'll do whatever it takes."
"Wouldn't that hurt you, Jim and the pack?"
"It would be difficult but not impossible," Spike said as he tilted his head and looked into his guide's eyes. "I'd do it if that's the only way for you to feel secure."
"No," Xander said. "It feels good that you offered but I don't want to run away any more. I like the people here. They're good people; they care about us, even though I do have issues. I want to make this work. I want to make this place home."
"Then that's what we'll do," Spike said as he pulled Xander into a kiss.
Xander returned the kiss.
Blair was resting with his head on Jim's chest when he felt the Sentinel's muscles tighten and Jim hold his breath. A moment later he exhaled in relief.
"Are you eavesdropping?" Blair asked.
"Can't help it; I can hear them," Jim said.
"You could dial back your hearing and give them some privacy," Blair suggested in an annoyed voice.
"They were talking about me claiming Spike as my second, that's pack leader business."
"Of course they're discussing it. I don't understand why that would make you hold your breath."
"Spike offered to transfer out of Cascade or quit the force."
"And?" Blair asked as he moved to sit up. "Is he going to leave Cascade?"
"No, Xander said no, he wants to make it work here."
"So he's accepted the bond between you and Spike," Blair said. "You can stop listening in now."
Jim sat up in the bed "Chief?" he asked. "What do you know about Sentinel-to-Sentinel bonding?"
"Just what I've read. Sentinels will bond for stability in the field if a Guide is not available. It helps for a time but eventually they'll need a Guide and I know that some pack leaders will bond with a Sentinel they choose as a second. You combined the two with Spike. The Sentinel-to-Sentinel bond is permanent, but it doesn't have the same drive to renew as a Sentinel-to-Guide bond."
"That's all you know?" Jim asked.
"Why do you ask?"
"Xander had some misconceptions."
"That I topped Spike; and that we would have to renew the bond."
"I know Spike was in distress, but I never thought you would let him top you. You're the pack leader."
"Neither of us topped, it was mutual fellatio," Jim said
"Why are you telling me this, Jim, Do you expect it to change how I feel about you having sex with Spike? I've accepted it but I'm not happy about it. You did what had to be done. I know that."
"It's enough that you've accepted it. We never meant to hurt you."
Blair had to ask the question that was nagging at him and would not let go. "Do you love him, Jim?"
Jim sighed, "I don't feel the same way about him that I feel about you. So I would have to say no."
"Then what is it with you and him?" Blair asked. "Simon was your best friend for years; you never bonded with him. Why Spike?"
"Simon is my Captain. He's the high-ranking sentinel at work. We have a working pack bond, Simon is my boss, I can’t take him for my second and I don’t want to be his second. Spike is my equal, but I can trust him to be my second and not challenge me to be first alpha. I know if something happened to me Spike would take care of you."
"You don't trust Simon to take care of a guide in his pack?"
"Yes, I do, but.... I don't know how to explain it in words other than to say Spike and I have a link, I don't understand it but it's there, and it's deep. He's a strong sentinel. I know he can and will protect you. You’d stay in his bed. Simon wouldn’t bring you into his home and never into his bed."
"So it's about me?"
"Chief," Jim said as he looked into his Guide's eyes. "Don't you know by now that for a bonded Sentinel everything is about his Guide?"
Ethan Rayne was livid with rage. Gunn had failed. 'Well at least he had the good sense to get himself killed in the process,' Rayne thought. 'It saves me the trouble.' He turned off the newscast and considered his options.
Killing the Sentinel now would be all the harder, he no longer had the element of surprise. Also the more attempts made the greater the chance that it could lead back to him.
Shutting down Washington Genetics was out of the question. WG was the lock and Xander was the key. Washington Genetics was going to make him one of the most powerful men in the world and it was his safety net. He could go to any country on the planet in exchange for sentinel gene splicing technology.
There was also the option of kidnapping the whelp. He could take him out of the country and set up a lab. The Sentinels can't track an airplane. There were several possible countries in Western Europe, South America and the Middle East that would allow the kind of human experimentation he needed to do, with no questions asked. The promise of the rewards would justify them looking the other way. Ethan Rayne felt secure in his arrogance as he picked up the phone to make arrangements. He would put the whelp’s hazard detection up for auction on the international black market. He had no idea the Sentinels had already linked him, in name if not in actual fact, to Booker and Gunn.
Xander yawned and poured himself a cup of coffee.
"Still tired, Pet?" Spike asked.
"I'm not sleeping well. The bed is cramped and I feel like I'm going to push you off the edge every time I move."
"It's the best we can do for now," Jim said. "But you're right, we need to look for a bigger place."
"Bigger place?" Blair asked, surprised at Jim's admission.
"Yeah, Chief," Jim said, "a house with a nesting room and at least 2 bedrooms for privacy. With the four of us pulling down a paycheck we should be able to find a place to suit our needs."
"Do they build houses with nesting rooms?" Xander asked.
"No," Spike said, "but there is a company that will convert a bedroom into a nesting room."
"Sounds good," Xander said with another yawn.
"I'll call the realtor right after breakfast," Jim said.
Spike grabbed the coffee out of Xander's hand. "No coffee for you, you need to get some sleep." Spike led Xander into their private bedroom.
"So," Blair said, "you think we also need a private bedroom?"
"I think it will make everyone more at ease," Jim said. "Spike and Xander have to go into their bedroom now to give us privacy and this place is small; it won't be long before we start getting on each other's nerves."
"I agree," Blair said. "This three days off is going to be a trial for all of us."
"That's why we should keep busy and look into new housing."
"What kind of house did you have in mind?"
"I thought a four bedroom ranch would be nice."
"Four bedrooms, are you planning to invite H and Rafe to live with us?
"No, Chief, but we had talked about adopting or asking Tara to be a surrogate mother."
"I thought that went out the window when you bonded with Spike. Besides, they're going to be living with us and we don't know how they feel about having children."
"Spike wants children."
"How do you know that, eavesdropping again?"
"I just know it, from the bond."
"The bond," Blair scoffed in a whisper.
Jim was very concerned about his Guide's emotions, "I thought you were okay with it," Jim said.
"I've accepted it. I just don't like to be constantly reminded of it," Blair said, trying to cut off his emotions, but Jim could hear the annoyance creep into Blair's voice.
"So you're willing to deal with it as long as you don't have to deal with it?" Jim asked.
"Look at it from my point of view," Blair said with a sigh. "What if I had bonded with Spike, how would you feel?"
"I've accepted the fact that you are a Healing Guide and there may come a time that you need to have a healing bond with a Sentinel. Do you want to bond with Spike?" Jim asked, "Would it make you feel better?"
"Listen to you," Blair said, hardly able to believe Jim asked that question. "Would you let me bond with Spike?"
"I'll do whatever it takes to keep this from festering out of control. If it takes a Healing Bond with Spike then so be it."
Blair's panic at the idea shifted into anger, "Jesus, Jim, why don't I bond with Xander too while I'm at it? Hey, do you think Spike will let you bond with Xander? Just think of the time we'll save in the morning all showering together. We can stand in a little circle and wash each other’s hair."
"Is that what pissed you off, that I washed his hair?"
"Yeah, Jim, it pisses me off. You did what you had to do to stabilize him and make him your second. But you didn't have to wash his hair. That's what you do with ME. You wash MY hair, and the way you reach for him at night, you think I don't know that you sleep with your fingers intertwined with his?"
Jim walked over to Blair and fell to his knees. "I can't undo what's done, Chief. Just tell me what you need," he asked in a soft pain filled voice.
Blair knew what he needed. He ached to touch Spike, to know Spike the way Jim did. He needed to be part of Jim's bond with Spike. His own bond with Jim had been complete and whole, but since the bond with Spike there was a part that he couldn't touch. As Jim's Guide he felt a frantic need to go to the place, within his Sentinel, that was closed to him and he knew emphatically that Spike was the door. But want and need are not always the same and Blair did not want to bond with Spike. So he pushed his pain aside looked down into Jim's eyes and lied. "I don't know what I need. All I know is that I used to be your one and only and I'm not anymore."
"You’re still my one, my first, you're my Guide; you give me life. Spike could never take your place. I'm sorry that washing his hair hurt you and I'm sorry that claiming him as my second is causing you pain, but I am not sorry that I have a bond with him."
"Well you're nothing else if not honest," Blair said with a pain filled laugh.
"We've always been honest with each other, Chief," Jim said still on his knees and looking up into Blair's eyes, "so I'll ask you again, tell me what you need, Guide?"
Blair looked away from Jim and was silent.
"You've never blocked me out before, why can't you tell me what you need?" Jim asked.
"I'm not the one that's blocked you out," Blair said.
Xander suddenly sat up in bed. His empathic need to go to Blair was overwhelming.
"Xan," Spike said, "lay down and get some rest. They need to work through this themselves."
"No, they can't," Xander said as he swung his feet over the side of the bed. "They need us." He pulled on his pants and went into the kitchen and knelt down beside Jim.
"Oh, bloody hell," Spike said as he put on his jeans and followed Xander into the kitchen.
"Blair," Xander said as he laid his hand on top of Blair's, "you have to tell him. He's your Sentinel."
One look at Xander and Blair knew, Xander understood everything. He could feel Xander sending him positive energy, giving him comfort, letting him know he understood his need for Spike and it was okay. "It's not what I want, Xan," Blair said, he didn't want to hurt his friend.
"I don't want it either, but it's what we need. We'll never find peace without it."
"What is it, Xan?" Spike asked as he knelt down beside his Guide.
"I didn't know, Spike," Xander said. "I swear I would have told you. I thought it was being stuffed in the bed between you and Blair that made me feel so restless. But it wasn't. I slept fine that way before you and Jim bonded."
"Are you saying that my bond with Jim is interfering with your sleep?" Spike asked as concern for his Guide mixed with confusion of how such a thing could happen.
"Not exactly," Xander said. "It's more like I used to have a clear signal to you, now there is static on the line sometimes. You're my Sentinel, I'm responsible for you and sometimes I don't have a clear sense of you; that makes me nervous. I couldn't put my finger on it until I felt what Blair was going through."
Jim turned Blair's face to him. "Is that what you're feeling?" he asked Blair.
"I feel like there is something new that is a part of you but it's walled off from me," Blair said. "Xander is right, I haven't been able to find peace since you asked to wash Spike back in the hospital yesterday."
"That was before you knew about the bond," Jim said.
"You may not have told me about it," Blair said, "but I sensed the difference in you."
"Then what do we do about it? " Jim asked wanting to get the situation with the Guides resolved.
Blair looked at Spike and then back at Jim. "I don't even know if it is possible."
"If you need it we'll make it possible," Jim said without a shadow of doubt in his voice.
Blair took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I need to share your bond with Spike."
The two Sentinels and their Guides were sitting in the living room discussing how best to deal with their situation.
"What do you mean by 'share the bond?'" Spike asked Blair.
"I'm not sure," Blair said. "All I know is since you bonded with Jim there is a part of him that is walled off from me. It feels like I'm separated from him and I find it difficult to tolerate."
"What about you, Pet?" Spike asked Xander. "Do you need to share my bond with Jim?"
"It scares the hell out of me to say this, but yes," Xander said. "No offense Jim, but I love Spike, the thought of being with anyone else...it's just..."
"Scares me too, Xanman," Jim said in his best 'soothe the Guide' voice. "We'll take it slow and Spike will be there too," Jim said.
"You don't mind being there?" Xander asked Spike.
"You couldn't keep me away, Pet," Spike said as he gave Xander's arm calming strokes. "We'll make it beautiful for all of us."
Xander looked at Blair and Jim cuddled together on the sofa, Jim was quietly stroking Blair's arm. He watched the Sentinel carefully; he obviously loved Blair and wanted what was best for his Guide. "When are we going to do this?" Xander asked.
"Tonight," Jim said. "I want this stress you are feeling ended as soon as possible, I think we should use one of the nesting rooms at the hospital."
"The nesting room is a good idea." Blair said. "But I think we should go after lunch. I need to get used to Spike touching me and I'm pretty sure it will be a lot easier on Xander if he gets used to Jim's touch. The hot tub and the shower will also help. We have more than one night so we won't have to force this, we can let it happen."
Xander shivered at the thought of allowing someone that was not Spike touch him and be intimate with him. Jim and Spike could smell his fear and then they smelled his resolve.
It was one p.m. when they arrived at the Sentinel and Guide Hospital. The nest was ready for them. Everyone was feeling a bit self-conscious, so Spike decided to take matters into his own hands. He encircled Xander in a hug and started whispering. "Everything is okay pet," he said in a soft, soothing voice. "I'm going to take off Blair's shirt, just his shirt for now. When you're ready just nod to Jim and he'll take off your shirt. Okay, Pet?"
Xander managed a breathy yes and then watched as Spike, his Sentinel, began to unbutton another Guide's shirt. Xander forced the thought of 'other' out of his mind. Blair was a member of his pack and his friend. He was a Guide in pain and needed to heal. Xander put aside his fear and awkwardness; he reached out and took Blair's hand.
Blair looked over at Xander, smiled and gave Xander's hand a little squeeze. He looked over at Jim and saw he was watching intently for any sign that his Guide was too stressed to continue. Spike unbuttoned the last button on Blair's shirt and looked up at the Guide.
Blair looked into Spike's impossibly blue and expressive eyes and saw the caring and the questions they held. 'Are you ready? Is it okay to touch you?' Blair nodded his consent and Spike opened Blair's shirt and placed his fingertips on Blair's torso. Blair took a deep breath at the fist sensation of Spike's touch, he closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them; Spike was looking at him, head tilted, his mouth slightly open with a half-smile and Spike's eyes, so willing to take Blair's pain away, and still the question was there, 'should I go on?'
Blair lifted his free hand. "Spike," he whispered as he stroked the Sentinel's face.
Spike's hands began to move upward. They slid gently over the peaks and valleys of Blair's muscles leaving a trail of marvel in their wake. Blair could feel Spike giving of himself. It was healing energy that poured into him and it was a touch that penetrated into Blair's soul. His eyes opened wide, Sentinels weren't supposed to be healers, but Spike was different, a Sentinel, yes, but there was an other-worldliness about him. Blair understood, with that touch, that Spike was 'something more'. As Spike's hands reached his shoulders and began to slowly slide the shirt down his arms, Xander let go of Blair's hand and the shirt fell to the floor.
Spike placed his hands back on Blair's chest. This time the touch was firmer as his hands wandered over Blair's skin.
Blair reached out and unbuttoned Spike's shirt and Spike put his arms down by his side as Blair removed the shirt without touching him. He stood in front of Spike; unsure of himself, he looked up at Jim. This was another Sentinel not his own, to willingly touch him felt like a betrayal.
Jim understood Blair's reaction. He walked behind Blair and encircled him in a hug. "We'll do it together," he whispered into his Guide's ear. He put his hands on Blair's shoulders and slid them down Blair's arms until his palms rested on the back of Blair's hands and their fingers were between one another. Then he lifted Blair's hands and gently placed them on Spike's chest.
The touch was wonderful, Sentinel mixed with Guide; Spike's breathing slowed and deepened, and for the first time since they arrived Spike felt the familiar throbbing in his cock as it grew harder with each heartbeat.
Jim slid his hands back until it was only Blair's fingers caressing Spike's chest. Spike closed his eyes and lost himself in the touch; he let himself float free in the sensation of Blair's fingers ghosting over his skin. Suddenly a vivid picture filled his head. He was helping wounded young women out of a winery and then he heard Xander howl in pain. Spike opened his eyes wide in panic and screamed, "Xander!"
Xander wrapped Spike in a hug. "It's okay, I'm here, I'm here," He repeated as he peppered Spike's face with kisses.
"Oh gods, it was so vivid," Spike said.
"Lay down with me," Xander said as he continued to hug and stroke Spike. "And I thought I was the one that was going to be all quirky about being touched," he said as they reclined in the nest.
"Blair!" Spike said as he suddenly sat up. "Are you alright?"
Blair and Jim knelt down beside Spike. "I'm fine," Blair said, "but I'm worried about you."
"What happened?" Jim asked.
"Just one of my vivid past life visions," Spike said, still shaken from the experience. "I really need to be with Xan, right now." Spike laid back down, nuzzled Xander's neck and began to suckle. Xander closed his eyes and hugged his Sentinel.
Jim and Blair laid down beside their pack mates. Blair reached over to give Spike a comforting stroke and Jim began to purr.
After a few minutes of suckling his Guide, Spike began to calm and the panic he felt that Xander might be hurt dissipated.
Blair suggested they enjoy the whirlpool and all agreed.
Xander was still dressed, although Spike had undone all the buttons on his shirt. When they stood up Jim helped Xander off with his shirt. His touch was kind and gentle but it held none of the sensuality that Spike showed to Blair and Xander began to wonder if he would be able to bond with Jim.
When the foursome got out of the whirlpool, Jim got a towel and began to dry Xander. "You're very serious about this," Xander said, as he watched Jim's face.
Jim looked into Xander's eyes. "Is there any other way to be?" he asked.
"How about serious with a smidge of pleasure on the side?"
"You're a Guide, you need to be taken care of; it's a little early to be distracted with pleasure."
Xander sighed, picked up a towel and began drying Jim off. "I don't think you understand what I'm trying to say. Doesn't it please you to take care of a Guide?"
"It pleases me to have a job well done," Jim said.
"Okay, maybe I'm being a little blunt here," Xander said. "But all serious and no joy makes Xander a stressed out Guide. If you know what I mean."
"You expect me to be happy about this situation?" Jim asked.
Blair opened his mouth to say something but Spike pulled him into a hug. "Shhh," he whispered into Blair's ear, "they have to work this out themselves." Blair remained quiet.
"This isn't about the situation, this is about me?"
"You're not MY Guide."
Xander let the anger show in his eyes and his voice. "You are one POMPOUS ASS!"
Jim growled a warning.
Xander stepped up nose-to-nose with Jim and growled back. "YOU," he said, poking Jim in the chest with his finger, "invited my Sentinel into your pack, THAT makes me your Guide. YOU bonded with my Sentinel as your second, THAT makes me your Guide." Xander turned away from Jim and hung his head. "I thought I could do this," he said, his voice soft and full of pain. "When you called me Xanman at the loft it felt good, for that moment I was sure I could do this. But now you've cut me off. I'm nothing to you, you don't even like me."
"That's not true," Jim said in an equally soft voice. "I do like you. That first day, at the Inn, I remember thinking how lucky Spike was to have found you."
Xander turned around and walked back to Jim. "Tell me that again," he said. "But touch me while you do it."
Jim looked over at Blair, his eyes were full of pain, he finally understood what Xander needed but Xander was right, he had put up a wall. A wall made of fear. Letting himself show feelings to another Guide, especially one that he admired as much as he admired Xander, was scary as hell. Blair gave his consent, "It's okay Jim,"
Jim put his hand on Xander's arm and looked into his eyes. "That first day at the Inn," he said, as he stroked Xander's arm, "I thought about how lucky Spike was to have found you. Since then, learning about your past, I've come to admire you and I'm proud that you're a member of my pack."
Xander put his hand on Jim's chest. "Thank you," he said, with a half-smile.
Jim felt the warmth and caring of Xander's soul though his touch. "Xanman," he whispered and then pulled him into a kiss.