The 8th story in the Sentinel.com Universe
A TS/M7 ATF/SG1 crossover
Wow! Story number 8! I want to thank everyone who has let me know how much they like this series. I can’t promise another one quickly, but I do believe there are a few more hiding in my brain.
This one’s another crossover, but I got REALLY ambitious. Not only Jim and Blair, but the Mag7 ATF boys and SG1… not to mention all my various OCs who have to be involved. It really will help if you’ve read the previous stories, at least so you’ll be more familiar with the xo’s if you don’t know them already, and the OCs that appeared in earlier fic. There are a few new ones <G>. I make references to several events in previous stories.
I’d just like to say, for the record, that I do not know any Latin. I used an English-Latin dictionary online and stuck the words together so they sounded cool <G>. Just chalk it up to language drift, it’s fiction, ya know?
Acknowledgements: Firstly, to my cousin Cheryl, who still betas for me after 4 years of fanfic stories. I don’t know what I’d do without her. I’d also like to thank Pet Fly Productions, UPN, and Paramount for giving us The Sentinel; CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, and The Mirisch Corp for The Magnificent Seven; MOG for the ATF AU of Mag7; and MGM for Stargate SG1. Whew… oh yeah, and finally, Cheryl for doing her usual wonderful job betaing this monster. Some things bear repeating.
Warnings: Yeah, I’m sure, but if I continue this intro, we’ll never get to the story. Call it PG-13 for language and hope the ratings police don’t come after me.
Blair smiled as Jim leaned against the wall at the back of the classroom. The Sentinel watched with a slight smirk as their students settled into their seats. Blair cleared his throat and all eyes focused on him. He propped one hip on the corner of the desk and quickly scanned to make sure all the Sentinels and Guides had their partners present.
“In today's class we will cover various techniques to counter extreme sensory overload. Such as a sudden light change, strong odor or taste, or a loud noise while the concurrent sense is being used.” Blair continued, but lowered his voice to almost a whisper as he spoke. “How many of you have had an experience where you were using one sense and were suddenly overwhelmed by too much input?”
Most of the Sentinels raised their hands. Blair nodded. “And were you able to handle the overload?” A few heads nodded, but most, including all the Guides, shook their heads no.
“Put your hand down, Tommy,” Tami whispered. “Remember the fire alarm?”
Blair grinned and whispered, “That's what we're going to show you how to do today.” Blair unobtrusively switched on his ear protectors.
Suddenly the room was filled with an extremely loud, screeching, cacophony of sound and everyone covered their ears, everyone except Jim and Blair. The noise stopped as quickly as it started. Jim met Blair's eyes with a wry grin. Blair grinned back and pulled the earplugs from his ears. They waited a few moments as the Guides helped their Sentinels regain their senses.
“Now, I want an honest answer from you all,” Blair said with a warning in his tone. “Did anyone zone?”
Two hands hesitantly rose. Blair nodded. “That’s okay. This is about learning to prevent zone outs and spikes. If you already knew how,” he shrugged, “we wouldn’t need to be here.” A tentative chuckle went around the room. “All right, was there anyone who didn’t experience a spike of some kind?”
One hand went up, but after a terse, whispered argument with his Guide, the hand sank back to the desk.
Jim stepped up beside Blair. “That’s good. Listen to your Guide. They will usually know when you’re spiking and how to help. Remember to use your di… mnemonic controls.”
They’d quickly found that using ‘dials’ to help a Sentinel keep their senses level didn’t work for everyone. The younger generation in particular with their automatic push button world found dials an alien concept. So they’d come up with another phrase to describe the controls and simply guided each Sentinel in finding their own form of dials.
“Now we’re going to try this again,” Jim continued. “This time you know it’s coming, be ready.” He paused for just a second to let Blair put his ear plugs back in and then hit the button on his remote control. Sound blasted the area again and most of the Sentinels grabbed their ears and leaned toward their Guides. Jim turned it off.
“Weren’t ready, were you?” Jim said, not unsympathetically. “Let’s try it again.” The sound blared and just as many of the Sentinels were affected.
“Stop!” Guide Rio demanded, his arms wrapped around his partner. “Please, stop.”
Jim and Blair leaned back against the desk and watched as the group pulled itself together again. After a few minutes, Blair stood up.
“So what happened?” he asked. “You were told it was coming, and I hope you anticipated that third blast. So why couldn’t you handle the noise?” He looked around expectantly.
A hand raised in the back. “Yes, Jesse?”
“I,” the Sentinel cleared her throat. “I took too long to get my controls set.” Other heads around the room nodded in agreement.
“Okay,” Blair said. “Is there anything you can think of that would help you set them faster?”
“Besides practice?” Guide Carl asked sarcastically. His Sentinel ducked his head, whether from embarrassment or shame, Blair couldn’t tell.
“I’m assuming,” Jim said, “that your sarcasm is aimed at your partner.” Carl nodded. “Fair enough. I would be lying if I said I enjoyed that part of my training, but… it’s necessary if you want to live and work in the real world. No one out there is going to cater to your sensitivities. Loud noises, bright flashes of light, strong odors… all of these things are going to happen and you have to be able to deal with them. Usually without your Guide there to help out.” He sent his gaze around the room catching everyone’s eyes. “So, now we are going to practice. I’m going to count to three. On three, drop your settings to two. One… Two… Three.”
Twenty minutes later the class let out and Blair grinned as Jim turned back to face him with a frustrated sigh.
“You missed your calling, Jim. Should have been a teacher.”
“Drill sergeant, you mean.”
“Same difference,” Blair said. “They were making real progress there at the end. And I really think it helped that you were the one giving the instructions.”
Jim shrugged as he moved around the room, straightening chairs and picking up any left behind papers, pens and trash. “Maybe, but it shouldn’t matter who’s teaching the class. If they’re here, they should want to learn.”
Blair huffed. “You really think you wouldn’t have an attitude if you suddenly found yourself in need of someone else’s help to control your senses?”
Jim rolled his eyes. “That’s a low blow, Chief.”
“Only the truth, Jim.”
“Okay, okay, but I didn’t know what I was when this all started. These kids have come here knowing…”
Blair cut him off. “That’s just it, Jim. They have no more choice about being a Sentinel than you did at this point. They’re scared. They’ve lost control of themselves. They have to rely on someone else, in many cases a stranger, to help them. It’s not any different for them than it was for you, only they have us,” he added with a small smile.
Jim stared at him thoughtfully for a moment then exhaled and nodded. “You’re right, Chief,” he said, draping an arm over his brother’s shoulders. “I guess I just assumed it would be easier for them.”
Blair patted Jim on the back as they headed towards the door. “It is for some, just like it’s much more difficult for others. Either way, our help makes a difference. I’m just glad so many other bonded pairs showed up to help. It’s still kinda hard to believe they were out there and we never knew.”
“That reminds me,” Jim said as they walked toward the Inner Sanctum, the kids’ name for their offices. “We’re supposed to meet with Percy and go through the applications JD sent us for the computer tech position.”
“Man. I was really hoping we could convince JD to do it.”
Jim grinned. “You really think Chris would let him get away? Not to mention Ezra and the others.”
Blair chuckled. “Yeah. Except for the senses, Chris has all the qualities of a really good Sentinel.”
“Alpha male, bossy, over-protective… Just like you,” Blair scooted away from Jim with a playful grin.
“Bossy? I’ll show you…” Jim said lunging after his Guide as Blair raced down the hall laughing.
Students and teachers alike moved to the side and smiled. Just another day at the SGF.
Team 7 conference room
Buck Wilmington, ATF agent, explosives expert, ladies man extraordinaire and Guide, slammed his fists on the conference room table. “NO!” he shouted. “You’re not listening to me. He’s not ready.”
Chris Larabee glared at his oldest friend, but Buck only glared back.
“Buck,” Ezra Standish said, putting a hand on his Guide’s shoulder.
Buck twisted in his chair to look at Ezra. “You tell him, Ezra. Tell him you’re not ready to go undercover.”
Ezra stared at his partner, but Buck didn’t give an inch and finally Ezra dropped his gaze, but still said nothing.
“Ezra?” Chris demanded. “What’s going on? I thought you two were getting a handle on this Sentinel thing.” The rest of the team watched in silence.
Buck glared back at Chris. “It’s not a thing, Chris, it’s Ez’s life. And how do you expect him to ‘get a handle’ on it when we’ve been working so hard? We’ve barely had a day off since the President’s visit.” Buck stood up and started to pace, running his hand through his hair in frustration.
“Two months… It’s been two damned months since we found out about Ez’s abilities and how often do you think we’ve had a chance to work on things?” Buck stopped and looked at Ezra whose head was still bowed. “Three times. Three lousy times we’ve gotten together with the intent of actually working on training his senses. And one of those times, we were both so tired, we actually fell asleep before we could get started.” Buck swung back to face Chris. “Damn it, Chris, we’re all exhausted. We all need a break before someone gets hurt or worse. And if you send Ezra undercover now, you might as well pull your gun out and shoot him yourself.”
Chris looked into Buck’s tired, frustrated, worried eyes and had to admit that they’d been run ragged the last few months. One thing had led to another to another and he couldn’t remember the last time he hadn’t fallen into bed as soon as he got home, no matter the time. Chris dragged a hand through his hair and nodded.
“I’ll talk to Travis. You’re right. We need a break and you two need time to… do what you need to do.” Chris smiled at the relief he saw on Buck’s face.
“I understand it’s awful pretty up in Cascade this time of year,” Josiah suggested. “We do all have an invitation to visit,” he continued as the others looked at him. “And Ezra and Buck could work with people who know how to help.”
Ezra shook his head. “I don’t th…”
“Ezra,” Buck admonished. “We need the help, buddy. I need to learn how to help you.”
The Sentinel looked up into his Guide’s sad, blue eyes and nodded. How could he possibly say no to that puppy dog gaze?
“Great!” JD exclaimed. “I’ll get us a flight out and let Blair know we’re coming.” The two had kept in contact by e-mail during the last two months.
“We have to get approval from Judge Travis first, JD,” Chris reminded, but the sight of the excitement draining from JD had Chris quickly amending his words. “Though I’m sure he’ll see reason.”
Josiah, Vin and Nathan grinned as JD bounced out of his chair and went immediately to the computer to get online.
“Guess you better go talk to the Judge, Cowboy,” Vin drawled.
Nathan nodded. “Make sure you tell him that I think we all need leave for mental health reasons. Buck’s right, Chris. We’re all exhausted. I haven’t had dinner with my wife in weeks.”
“I hear you, Nathan,” Chris sighed. He glanced over at Ezra and Buck across the table, but they were engrossed in their own conversation. “All right. I’m going,” he said as he stood and headed for the door.
Josiah shared a smile with Nathan and they both went to pester JD.
“Do you think they’d mind if Rain came along?” Nathan asked.
“Don’t see why they would, Nate,” Josiah replied.
Over at the table, Vin doodled on a pad of paper as he covertly watched Buck and Ezra. Hopefully, the judge would give them the time so that the new Sentinel and Guide could work together.
As JD bounced up to go to the computer and buy their tickets, Buck leaned in close to his friend. “Ezra?” he asked softly.
Ezra looked up. He found it more and more difficult to ignore Buck… Hell. If he was truthful, he’d never been able to ignore him, the best he could do was refrain from responding, but now… “We can do this ourselves, Buck,” he almost pleaded. “We don’t need to go to Cascade.”
Buck frowned slightly. “I’m sure we could figure this all out in time, Ez, but why do it the hard way when we have perfectly good cliff notes?” he asked with a crooked grin.
Ezra sighed. “I am uncomfortable with the thought of being around so many… others.”
“You mean, other Sentinels.”
Buck sat back in his chair and looked across the table. He saw Vin pretending not to watch them and sent the sharpshooter a quick grin. “I don’t think it’ll be as much of a problem as you think, Ez. I mean, Ellison did just fine here. How’d he explain it? That it was bad because they were all on your territory?”
The undercover agent closed his eyes briefly and nodded. “It felt like… It was distinctly uncomfortable,” he amended, not wanting to put to words that their mere presence had made his skin crawl. Even after he was used to them being around, he’d still felt them, like a fly on his arm. He shuddered uncontrollably at the thought.
Buck put his hand on Ezra’s shoulder. “We’re going, Ezra. We don’t have the time to muck through it like Jim and Blair did. They’ve got the answers and we’re gonna take advantage of it,” he said, in a no-nonsense tone of voice.
Ezra took a deep breath and released it before tilting his head slightly in acceptance. He’d do it, but he wouldn’t like it.
Jim was sitting in the back of the classroom. He wasn’t teaching this time, just observing. They’d ended up having to provide regular school classes to accommodate younger students who needed to stay at the Foundation. As much as possible, children were left in their homes, in a normal family environment. But in some cases, they didn’t have any choice. Kids who were having serious problems with their gifts, or were in foster homes or orphanages were allowed to come to the Foundation and live full time if they wished. Most did.
They received more love and attention here than in their current situation and got the help they needed to control their abilities. And it wasn’t just the Sentinels who needed the help. As more and more young Sentinels and Guides appeared, they were finding the Guides abilities could be just as difficult to handle. Empathy, visions, and in a few cases telepathy.
It had Blair pulling his hair out in worry and frustration, wondering how to deal with it. Fortunately, Naomi had friends that she called to help, friends with gifts of their own, like Charlie Spring. He’d been a big help preceding the events of 9/11, and had continued to assist at the Foundation where he could.
This particular class was set up like an old fashioned one room school house. The kids ranged in age from nine to sixteen. The teacher, Ann Gables, was not a Sentinel or a Guide, just a friend of Kelso’s, recommended by the ex-CIA agent as someone they could trust. Ann taught English, History and Economics to these students three days a week. The other two days they split between Math, Physical Education, Science and Sentinel/Guide Studies with other teachers.
Jim liked watching Ann’s class on Mondays when they always discussed their reading assignment. He’d taken to reading the assignment himself so he would know what they were talking about and sometimes he even added his own thoughts to the conversation. Today they were talking about Animal Farm. He was always amazed that the younger students kept up with the older ones in the reading assignments and the discussions. He didn’t remember reading anything thicker than a comic book when he was nine. Jim shrugged to himself. Ann evidently knew what she was doing. All of the kids were deeply involved in the discussion and it was obvious that they were enjoying themselves.
Jim startled as his pager vibrated. He pulled it off his belt and checked the number. Blair. He stood and waved at Ann as he left.
“Good-bye, Sentinel Jim,” the class chimed together.
Jim turned and grinned before he went through the door.
He strode quickly down the hall, noting the buzz of conversation coming from each classroom he passed. He stopped at one door and peeked through the window. The padded floor and walls kept most of the noise in and out, but he’d heard a distinct scream. Inside the room, one of the students, wearing a white gi, picked herself up off the floor and blushed bright red as the rest of the class laughed.
The instructor backed away from her a step and chuckled. “That’s good, Tanya. Remember, if you need help, you have to let people know. A real scream is more likely to bring help than a shout. Now everyone pick a partner and practice your throws. When you hit the ground, practice your scream.”
Jim grinned and continued down the hall. Dennis was one of their Physical Education teachers and a Guide, but he also taught self-defense, as was obvious by the screams now emanating from the room.
Jim paused at the reception desk at the front of the building. “Hi, Martin.”
The young man looked up and smiled. “Sentinel Jim. How are you today?”
“Pretty good. I’m working on my assignments while I man the desk.”
Jim nodded. “Just wanted to let you know, Dennis has his class screaming for help down the hall, in case anyone gets worried,” he added with a grin.
“I’m headed home for a bit, but you can page me if I’m needed.”
“Sure, I’ll make a note,” Martin said, putting his words into actions. “I’m only here for another twenty minutes or so myself.”
“See you later,” Jim said as he turned to leave.
Home was a two-story, four bedroom, four bath, house on the west end of the Foundation property. He and Blair shared the place much as they had the loft, only with more room and privacy. The two guestrooms were frequently used by friends and family, though recently they’d been thinking about adding another guest house closer to theirs. The Foundation did have guest quarters, but that building was on the other end of the compound, used mostly by VIPs and family of the students.
“Blair?” Jim called as he closed the door behind him.
“In here, Jim,” Blair answered from the den.
As Jim entered the room, he saw Blair seated at his desk, typing on the computer. The den was a large room that easily held two desks, several bookshelves loaded down with reference books, and a conference table that seated twelve. Even though they had a ‘conference room’ in the main building, sometimes they needed the extra privacy of their home and its state of the art white noise generators.
“What’s up, Chief?”
“JD sent me an e-mail. They want to come up for a visit, ASAP.”
Jim frowned. “Ezra having problems?”
Blair shrugged. “Sounds like they’ve been pretty busy and need a break.” He ran a hand through his long curls. “Have they said anything to you?”
Jim bit the inside of his lip as he considered the Sentinel in question. “No. But I’ve only heard from them a couple of times. Ezra didn’t really seem like the type to ask for help.”
Blair smirked at his brother.
“Yeah, yeah, pot, kettle, I know. But I’m better now,” Jim protested playfully.
“Yeah, you are. Anyway, I told them to come on. No one’s scheduled to stay in the guest house are they?”
“Don’t think so. Wonder if we could talk Larabee and his people into giving some classes?”
“What kind of classes, Jim?”
Jim shrugged. “I’ll have to think about it, but they’ve got skills it doesn’t hurt to pass on. Who knows? It might give the kids an idea of what they’d like to do when they grow up.”
Blair’s eyes widened. “You’d encourage them to become ATF agents?!”
Jim grinned. “Come on, Chief, you know some of them are gonna want to be cops of some sort. Why not ATF?”
Blair snorted. “Whatever.”
Jim’s grin widened.
Blair rolled his eyes. “Fine. As long as I get to bring in guest lecturers of my own, maybe convert a few to the sciences.”
Jim chuckled and then frowned thoughtfully. “Although, it might be a good idea not to have Larabee doing the actual lecture. Might scare the kids off law enforcement all together,” he added with a wry grin.
Blair huffed. “After meeting the man, I’d say his reputation as a hard-case is exaggerated. He plays tough to the outside world, but with people he cares about he’s probably a cream puff… just like you.”
Jim lifted an eyebrow. “You’re just asking for trouble,” he growled playfully.
“Yeah? And who’s gonna give it to me, Cream Puff?” Blair taunted, then looked around. “Oh, shit,” he whispered as he realized he was cornered.
“You were saying?” Jim drawled evilly.
Ezra sat stiffly in the seat next to Buck. The van the SG Foundation had sent to pick them up at the airport slowed and turned off the highway. Rain hadn’t been able to get away from work, so it was just the seven of them.
Ezra’s nerves were on edge after enduring the flight in coach and now he was starting to feel the familiar itch caused by other Sentinels in close proximity. He fought the urge to move, he just couldn’t decide if he wanted to move away from everyone or to plaster himself to Buck’s side. The lure of the comfort he could receive from his Guide’s touch was almost as disconcerting for him as the need to keep a distinct physical distance from everyone else.
The thing was… he knew Buck wouldn’t mind if he did initiate contact. Buck was a very physical person. Sure, the ladies man loved women, but he had no problem hugging his friends, draping an arm over a shoulder or even holding a hand in comfort. Buck just didn’t have any hang-ups that way.
Ezra on the other hand had a very definitive personal boundary. But it didn’t seem to apply to his Guide and that drove him nuts. He didn’t even let his mother get that close to him, yet Buck was in his space all the time and it felt… comfortable. Ezra glanced at his friend as Buck draped his arm along the back of the seat. If Ezra moved over just a few inches, it would put him in reach of Buck’s hand, which would inevitably shift enough to make contact with Ezra’s shoulder or neck.
Ezra sighed. Buck scooted a couple of inches toward him allowing his hand to reach and squeeze the Sentinel’s neck gently. Ezra sighed again when he felt himself involuntarily relax into Buck’s touch.
“What’s wrong, Hoss?” Buck asked softly.
Ezra shook his head and went back to looking out the window. Buck kept his hand on the back of Ezra’s neck. Ten minutes later the van stopped at a gate. The driver talked to the guard for a minute and then the gate opened and they drove through.
Passing through the gate was like stepping out of the relative safety of a building and into a sandstorm. Ezra’s skin crawled, stung, itched, and just plain hurt. He clenched his eyelids and fists closed against the assault. He vaguely felt Buck’s hands on his arm and neck, but the ‘feel’ of all the strange Sentinels in the area was overwhelming.
Concentrate! He opened his eyes when he felt Nathan’s hand on his cheek, but quickly snapped them shut again. He couldn’t deal with the additional sensory input. Ezra exhaled with relief when he felt Buck pull him into a hug. Concentrate on Buck. Listen for his voice, come on, Ezra, you can do it.
Slowly, oh so slowly, the pins and needles receded to a more manageable level. Ezra shivered and opened his eyes to see Nathan kneeling in front of him between the seats of the van. Ezra didn’t move as he worked to control his breathing and bring his senses further under control. Buck held him close, stroking his back and murmuring quietly, his cheek resting on the top of Ezra’s head.
I should move. Instead, he melted further into the comfort offered by his Guide and brother. He could feel the other six surrounding him, providing a wall of familiarity against the strangers outside.
“You doing better now, Ez?” Buck asked, his voice rumbling in Ezra’s ear where it rested against his chest.
Ezra took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“For what?” Buck asked, surprised.
“I should have better control,” Ezra said, turning his face unconsciously into Buck’s chest.
“How do ya figure that?” Vin asked softly.
“Yeah,” JD chimed in. “You haven’t even known you were a Sentinel for that long, and we all know you haven’t had time to practice much. Not to mention the fact that you’ve only ever met two other Sentinels before, I mean, how are you supposed to know what it’ll be like?”
Ezra lifted his head slightly to see his friends nodding in agreement. He blew out a puff of air in frustration, they just didn’t understand… “You don’t know how hard this is for me,” he whispered, afraid to voice his insecurities aloud.
Buck chuckled. “Sure we do, Ez. You’re one of seven of the biggest control freaks I’ve ever met. Although I think we’re about to meet a few others.”
Chris snorted as the others laughed. “Why do you think we wouldn’t understand, Ezra? We’ve known you for almost five years now. We know how you like your coffee… that you only use silk sheets and underwear,” this earned a chuckle from the others.
“And that you keep the temperature in your apartment at exactly seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit year round,” Josiah added.
Ezra straightened as he listened in amazement.
“Yeah,” JD said, “and you never put anything in your pant pockets, even when you’re wearing jeans.”
“It ruins the lines,” Ezra protested mildly.
Buck chuckled. “I can understand that, would hate to disappoint the ladies by ruining the lines,” he finished waggling his eyebrows.
Ezra rolled his eyes as he sat up. “Okay, you’ve made your point. I guess… I’m just not used to having friends who know me so well and that I can depend on, even though I’ve known you and that I can depend on all of you for some time.” He looked down and tugged on his sleeves to straighten them. “And these senses have… well, I don’t have any choice now and it’s… It’s just not…” he trailed off with a sigh. “I don’t know how to do it.”
“Just let us help, Ezra,” Josiah said kindly. “We won’t make you ask,” he added with a grin.
“So,” Nathan interrupted, moving up onto the seat beside Ezra, “don’t be surprised if we offer our help even if you think you don’t want it.”
“We’re a team, Ez,” Vin said. “A family. What affects one of us affects all of us. If you want, you can just think of this as our way to pay you back for all the help you’ve given us through the years.”
“I didn’t ask for payback,” Ezra protested.
Chris shook his head. “No, and we don’t expect any either. That’s just what families do, help out when you need it. No strings.”
Ezra looked down and nodded slowly. “All right. I… will try to remember. I…”
A knock on the side door of the van interrupted. Nathan, by virtue of being closest, opened the door.
“Everything okay, guys?” Blair asked. Jim stood a few feet behind him.
Nathan turned to look at Ezra, his eyebrows raised in question.
Ezra gave him a lop-sided grin and nodded. “I was just getting my bearings.”
Blair quickly scanned each of their faces then nodded. “Well, in that case, come on out and let’s get you settled. We’ve got you set up in the guest house, thought you could use the rest of the day to unpack and adjust. Unless you want to get started…” he offered.
Buck shook his head. “No, I think getting adjusted is a good idea. We might like a tour later, though. Get the lay of the land.”
“Sure,” Blair smiled. He backed away from the door and let the ATF men get out of the van.
Everyone grabbed their bags and followed Jim and Blair across the compound as Blair pointed out the different buildings and their function. Ezra stayed close to Buck and the others formed a loose circle around the pair. Only a few people were out on the grounds at this time and none ventured close to the group.
Jim stopped for a moment, his head tilted as he listened then nodded. “Go ahead, Greg. I’ll check with Percy later,” he said, apparently to a man standing on the stairs of the main building. Jim turned to Blair and the others. “Sorry, Greg just wanted to find out about a project we’re working on.”
Blair nodded. “Percy should have the information by now.”
“We can find our own way, if you need to go,” Chris said.
“Nah. It’s nothing that can’t wait.” Blair waved for them to follow. “The guest house is over here. We’re looking at putting another one up closer to our place, but for now it’s a bit of a walk.”
They reached the house and went inside. The main entrance opened onto a large, sunken living area with a fireplace, several large sofas and plush recliners, as well as a big screen TV and entertainment center.
“Wow,” JD said, moving into the room. “This is pretty fancy.”
Jim chuckled. “We never know who is going to visit. Now that we’re ‘out’ so to speak, we’ve entertained politicians, celebrities and most importantly the families of students.” He walked over to open a set of sliding doors. “This leads into the kitchen, fully equipped and well-stocked, and there’s a dining area off the other side. Across the way, the door to the right of the fireplace leads to the upstairs. There are six rooms and three full baths on each of the other two floors. Oh, and two half baths down here. There’s also a full basement that’s set up with a couple computers and other entertainment, pool table, that sort of thing. And another full bath.”
Blair grinned. “And if we need to, we can set up additional sleeping on the pull out sofas here and in the basement. Fortunately, we haven’t needed to, yet.”
Jim snorted. “That’s why we need another guest house. Each room is set up to offer long term comfort for a couple, or individual, just in case someone needs to stay.”
“What about your students?” Ezra asked, running an admiring hand along the smooth, polished wood on the mantel.
“We have several dorms,” Blair answered. “One thing we try to do is encourage the students, especially the Sentinels, to mingle. They need to get comfortable with each other, to learn to get control over the instinct to act first and think later when it comes to protecting their partner.” He shared a glance with Jim. “Not that acting fast is a bad thing, but if they can learn to temper their instinct with intellect in a safe place like the SGF, it will make things easier for them in the real world.”
Ezra nodded thoughtfully. “Does it work?”
Jim smiled. “Mostly. It depends on the age of the pair, how long they’ve been together,” he shrugged. “That’s why we have two dorms. One is set up with private rooms, the other with semi-private. The private rooms are only large enough for one SG pair. The semi-privates hold two to three pairs. Each semester they have to rotate.”
“Of course, our teachers,” Blair added, “get their own places. The little cottages set up between the dorms are for faculty. They’re two or three bedrooms for those with spouses and families.”
A chill ran up Ezra’s spine. He turned and met Jim’s gaze. “How do you stand it? All these others?” Buck moved over to Ezra and put his hand on his shoulder.
Ellison frowned. “It was hard at first, especially because my first encounter with another Sentinel was… unpleasant.” Blair snorted at the understatement. Jim smiled at his partner. “It’s not so hard once you get to know them, to see them as people and not as a threat to your family.”
Ezra shivered involuntarily.
“What’s wrong, Ezra?” Buck asked.
“I’m not sure. All of a sudden, the feeling got worse,” Ezra said, closing his eyes as he tried to figure out what was going on.”
Vin looked through the curtain. “Looks like class is out,” he said, waving Ezra over when the Sentinel opened his eyes.
Ezra went to the window and looked out. Dozens of people were now moving around the compound, talking and laughing. He blinked and focused in on a few of them. “Why… they’re just children,” he said, surprised.
Blair slapped his partner on the arm as he spoke. “A lot of them are. We do have adult students as well, but not nearly as many as the kids.”
Buck grinned as he noticed the tension disappear from Ezra’s shoulders. He had followed his Sentinel to the window and now lightly grasped him by the shoulders as Ezra continued to stare out. “Feel better now, Hoss?”
Ezra looked over his shoulder, still astonished. “They’re children, Buck. How,” he turned back to face the room and Jim and Blair, “how do they cope?” He put his hand to his forehead. “My God, just kids,” he repeated softly.
Blair looked at Buck. “Is he okay?”
Buck chuckled and nodded. “I think he will be. He’s been concerned about being around so many Sentinels, and when we pulled into the compound, well, I’m not sure what he senses exactly, but he can feel other Sentinels. On his skin, I mean.”
Blair’s eyes widened with surprised interest. “Really?” He looked at Jim questioningly.
Ellison shrugged. “I can’t really describe it either, Chief. I guess part of it is ‘feel,’ but for me it’s more up here,” he tapped his temple.
Blair bounced excitedly. “Ezra, can you tell me what you sense when you feel another Sentinel nearby?”
Ezra blinked at the energy suddenly flowing off the Guide. To him it was palpable, but not uncomfortable. Something like what JD exuded when he was excited about a project. It didn’t dawn on him that other Sentinels might not feel it too.
“I thought we were going to let these guys get settled in, Chief?” Jim reminded.
“Oh, yeah,” Blair sighed.
Ezra made sure not to show his relief. Come to think of it, maybe his mother’s schooling had helped him learn to control some of his abilities. He’d have to think about it, later.
“I guess it can wait,” Blair continued glumly.
Jim laughed and grabbed his partner by the arm. “If you need anything, hit ‘star 92’ on the phone, it’ll page us. Otherwise, help yourselves to the food and anything else you find.”
As Jim opened the door and started to gently push Blair through, Blair turned back bracing his arms against the door frame. “We usually have breakfast in the main building, in the cafeteria around seven,” Jim poked him in the ribs and Blair jerked his arm in to protect them, but lost his grip on the frame. “We’d love for you to join us,” he said, his voice raising as Jim gave him another push and closed the door with a fond shake of his head.
The seven chuckled at the display.
Nathan snorted. “Good luck getting Ezra up that early,” he said, shooting the undercover agent a grin.
Ezra raised an eyebrow. “Indeed.”
Blair shook Jim’s hand off his arm. “Geeze, Jim. Be a bit more subtle, why don’t you?” He took a few steps back and pointed back toward the guest house. “You know, even after all this time… studying your abilities and all the others we’ve met since,” Blair shook his head. “There’s still so much to learn. Ezra has abilities we’ve never seen before, just imagine…”
“Chief,” Jim paused and sighed. “I know you’re chomping at the bit here, but you’ve gotta go slow with him.”
Blair stopped and looked at Jim waiting for an explanation.
“I think, in some ways,” Jim said slowly, trying to find the right words, “I think Standish has more ‘issues’ than I do… did… whatever,” he said when Blair smirked. “Let him adjust to his surroundings, get used to having the others around, maybe meet the kids. I’m sure you can talk to Buck all you want, but give Ezra some space.”
They started walking back toward the main building.
“Okay, Jim. I know I get a bit enthusiastic at times…”
Jim snorted. “A hummingbird on speed is enthusiastic, Chief.”
“Funny. Still… maybe you can talk to Ezra about it. You know, Sentinel to Sentinel. It’s gotta be easier for you to understand what he describes than it is for me.” Blair cast a pleading look at his friend.
“Can the puppy dog eyes, Scooby. I was going to suggest that myself,” he finished with a wry grin.
Blair whooped softly. “I knew you were starting to get the
idea here, Jim. The more we know about a Sentinel’s abilities, the better we can
help others. When…”
Jim held up his hand. “Let’s at least give them until tomorrow, all right?”
Blair grinned. “Sure man. No problem.”
Team Seven decided to get settled in. They took a tour of the house, trailing along together, feeling the need to support Ezra any way they could. They gathered their bags and headed upstairs to figure out the sleeping arrangements.
The first room to the left shared a bath with the next room. Ezra dropped his bag on the bed, staking his claim. With all the other Sentinels around, his guard was up and he felt the need to protect his small family any way he could, even if it just meant being the closest one to the only means of entrance to this floor.
Buck’s eyebrows rose, but he just headed on to the adjoining room and left his bag there. He wanted to stay close to Ezra, in case he had any problems during the night.
The rooms were casually, but attractively decorated. Not too flowery or too masculine, comfortable and functional. Chris took the room across the hall from Ezra’s, the other room closest to the stairs, while Nathan and Josiah chose two others on the second floor.
“We’ll take rooms on the third floor,” JD said.
Vin grinned. “Yeah, save all you old folks from climbing any more stairs than necessary.”
“I’ll show you old,” Josiah growled playfully as Vin and JD both took off running for the stairs followed closely by Josiah.
Ezra chuckled, then winced in sympathy a few moments later as two loud thumps were heard from above.
“What happened?” Buck asked.
“The ‘youngsters’ were outwitted,” Ezra grinned. “Seems they didn’t take into consideration that the layout of the rooms might be similar. They got into the first room and closed the door, but Josiah ambushed them from behind having taken the route through the adjoining bath.”
Nathan, Buck and Chris laughed. They all turned toward the stairs as three sets of feet rumbled down. JD and Vin looked suitably abashed. Josiah was wearing a huge grin.
“See now, JD,” Buck teased. “I told you to respect your elders.”
JD rubbed the back of his head, sending a sheepish grin toward Josiah. Vin rubbed the back of his head, too.
“You two okay?” Nathan asked. “We heard a thump.” He frowned at Josiah.
The profiler raised his hands. “I never touched them, Nate,” he smiled.
“Nah,” Vin said. “He just surprised us. When we turned around he was right there and we both jumped back and hit the door.”
Chris laughed, imagining the sight.
Vin grinned ruefully.
“I wish I’d had a camera,” Josiah added.
They split up to unpack then went back downstairs to see about getting something to eat. JD, Buck and Vin went down to the basement to see what kind of entertainment there was. Nathan and Josiah headed for the kitchen having been voted least likely to burn anything or cook something to death. Chris and Ezra found themselves alone in the living room.
“What are you thinking, Ezra?” Chris asked, taking a seat in a nearby recliner.
Ezra sighed and wandered around the room, touching the back of a chair, the shade on a lamp, a bronze statuette.
“Hmm? Oh, honestly, I’m a bit dismayed. I can’t believe I let myself get so rattled over the presence of a bunch of children,” he replied, trying to sound light-hearted about it all. Ezra picked up a jade carving and ran his fingers over the cool, smooth lines.
“They may be children, but they’re still Sentinels,” Chris said, watching Ezra catalogue the room. Funny, he’d seen Ezra do it before, but he’d never really paid attention to it. Now the ritual sort of made sense. Though Ezra was usually much more subtle about it than he was being at the moment.
“I know, but that doesn’t seem to make it any better.” He turned to look at Chris with an openness he rarely showed. “What if I learn everything they can teach me, and I still can’t control them? What if I can’t do my job anymore?”
Chris met Ezra’s imploring gaze head on. “I don’t believe that will happen, Ezra. You are one of the most intelligent people I know. You soak up new information like a sponge, and then use it accordingly. Hell, you’ve been using these senses of yours since I met you, we just didn’t realize it.”
Ezra frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I think you use them unconsciously every time you try to read someone. Sight, hearing, maybe even smell and touch. Maybe Maude’s ‘training’ was a blessing in disguise.” Chris frowned. “She probably, inadvertently gave you the skills needed at a very young age to use and control your senses.”
“Yes. I was contemplating a similar line of thought earlier.” He looked down at the jade piece still in his hand. “I believe you are correct. Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, my abilities probably have been of some assistance.” Ezra looked back at Chris. “But…” Ezra turned sharply to face the door. A knock followed a moment later. The Sentinel exhaled loudly and glanced at his boss. “It’s Paul and Dennis.”
Chris stood and moved closer to the door as Ezra let in the other SG pair they’d met a few months ago.
“Ezra, Chris,” Paul said as he came in. “Blair said it might be a good idea for you to see a few familiar faces before you attempt the rest of the unruly horde.”
The ATF agents grinned.
Chris stepped up and offered his hand. “It’s good to see you again.”
“You, too,” Dennis agreed, casting a glance at Ezra. “Are you doing okay?”
Ezra nodded. “Yes, better, thank you. I…” He paused for a second and frowned, his head tilted as he contemplated the pair before him. “Would you mind standing a bit further apart?”
Paul’s eyebrows rose at the strange request, but Dennis just shrugged and moved to the other side of the room.
“Huh,” Ezra grunted. “Well, I guess it wasn’t just the Sentinels that were giving me a hard time.”
“What do you mean?” Chris and Dennis asked at the same time.
Ezra wet his lips and looked to Paul for assistance. “Do you detect a… an energy from other Sentinels and their Guides?”
Paul pursed his lips thoughtfully, then shook his head. “I don’t think so, I mean, I can tell when a Sentinel is near, within my range, I get a tangy taste in the back of my mouth. The flavor’s a bit different depending on the Sentinel.” His brows furrowed. “I don’t think I’ve ever recognized a Guide that way.” Paul looked at Dennis. “With Dennis, it’s… in here,” he tapped his chest. “I just ‘feel’ him.”
Ezra nodded slowly. It was as he feared. Each Sentinel seemed to have his own idiosyncratic abilities. How on earth was he supposed to take what someone else did and put it to his own uses?
“What do you feel, Ezra? What’s this energy like?” Dennis asked, knowing Blair would want to follow up on this later.
Ezra sat down on one of the sofas and leaned his head back. “At first, when I didn’t know you or Jim, it was a prickling sensation all over.” He looked at Paul who had taken a seat in the closest recliner. “I recognized you this time, your ‘signature’ is firm, warm, like putting your hand on something that’s been sitting in the sun for a little while.”
“What about me?” Dennis asked.
Ezra smiled slightly. “You caught that?” Dennis grinned. “Earlier, Blair got excited about my abilities and started…”
“Bouncing?” Paul asked with a huge grin.
“Exactly. And that was what his ‘signature’ was doing, sending out waves of bouncy energy. Springy, lively energy. I realize now that what overwhelmed me when we arrived was the sense of both the Sentinels and the Guides in the compound.” Ezra took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Dennis is more of a still, cool feeling, like a deep pond. Not cold, but comfortable.”
“What about Buck?” Chris asked curiously.
Ezra’s eyes opened a bit wider and he opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He sat that way for a moment, then pressed his lips together.
Paul laughed. “That’s what I meant, I can’t really put into words how my Guide ‘feels’ to me. I just know it’s Dennis.”
Chris looked back at Ezra who nodded his agreement. “Paul is correct. I can’t find the right words, or maybe not enough words to explain how Buck’s presence feels to me. It’s more than what I sense with Dennis and Blair.” He shrugged.
The four sat in silence digesting what they’d just learned when suddenly Ezra’s stomach grumbled.
Chris laughed. “I think he’s hungry.”
Ezra glared, but that only made Chris laugh again. Paul and Dennis smiled.
“Look,” Paul said. “I know Blair suggested breakfast in the morning, a group of us usually eat together around seven. Most of the kids don’t make it in until closer to eight, so if you feel up to it…” he left the invitation open as he stood and headed for the door.
Dennis nodded his agreement and followed. “Either way, I’m sure we’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Thanks for dropping by,” Chris said as he closed the door behind them. He turned to face Ezra who still sat on the sofa. Chris frowned and walked briskly over to the sofa, caught Ezra by the arm and hauled him onto his feet. “Enough thinking. Let’s eat.”
Ezra grinned. “Yes, sir.”
Blair was practically vibrating in his chair as Dennis finished recounting the conversation with Ezra. Jim clamped down on his grin. He knew exactly what Ezra had meant about Blair’s ‘signature.’
“Huh?” Jim said suavely, shaken out of his reverie by Blair’s none too subtle jab to the ribs.
Dragging the words out as if speaking to someone very slow Blair asked, “Do you sense what Ezra does?”
Jim snorted. “Chief, I’m surprised the Sentinels in China don’t sense you.”
Dennis and Paul broke down laughing. Jim chuckled as Blair sputtered.
“Come on, Jim, I’m serious.”
“So’m I, Blair,” Jim patted his partner on the shoulder. “Yeah, Chief, I do sense some of what he described. About you anyway, though I also have to agree with Ez and Paul that everything I sense about you is beyond words.” He looked at Dennis. “I get a deep, still feeling from Dennis, too, though I tend to identify people by their sound more so than feel. Dennis is pretty quiet what with all his martial arts training, so I usually recognize him just by how even his breathing is and how little other sound he makes.”
Blair stared at his brother as if he didn’t know him.
Jim smirked and continued. “As for Paul, the feeling is definitely warm, kinda like leather left out in the sun.” He paused. “Ezra has a talent for putting the feel to words. I never tried before because it seemed too ethereal.”
Blair dropped his head to the desk in front of him and lightly banged it on the surface. “All these years… bang… never said a thing… bang… can’t believe…”
Jim put his hand between Blair’s forehead and the desk and gently pushed Blair up right when his head landed on Jim’s palm. “Chief. I’m sorry. There’s so much that I just process without thinking anymore. I guess if I don’t get the right questions, it just seems normal to me.”
Blair stared at Jim, then smiled broadly. “Normal?”
Jim chuckled. “Yeah, Einstein. Thanks to you. Now why don’t we all sit down and try to figure out what kind of tests you want to put us poor Sentinels through tomorrow?”
The next morning at breakfast
“So,” Blair continued, his audience’s responses varied from intense concentration to fond amusement, “here’s how I want to set this up. Two different sets of tests for each sense. For one set, we’ll have five Sentinels, each one with a different primary sense. The other series will be done with all the Sentinels in a group having the same primary sense. Hopefully, this will give us a good range of results to compare.” He picked up his fork and took a bite of his eggs, grimacing when he realized they were cold.
Walks Lightly nodded as he leaned forward resting his elbows on the table. “I have some ideas for the hearing tests. I know where we can get the equipment we’ll need.” His Sentinel, another full-blood Cherokee called Not So Fast smiled at his brother.
“Walks worked in the pediatrics wing at Hermann Memorial,” he said by way of explanation.
Blair nodded. “That would be great. Money is not an issue here though, so make sure we get the state of the art stuff, okay, Walks?”
The Guide nodded.
“Okay,” Blair said, putting a check by one item on his list. “Anybody have any ideas for the other senses?” He looked up and realized that the entire room had gone quiet. Looking around for the cause, he saw the seven ATF agents standing in the double doors to the cafeteria. Ezra was in front, but looked like he’d rather be anywhere else.
“Everybody, these are our guests from Denver,” Blair said, raising his voice slightly, but not standing up. “Please give them a little space for now and just go back to whatever you were doing. Thanks.”
Jim waved a hand at the seven men, beckoning them over to their table. He’d purposely left seven chairs at the end open, closest to the wall and corner so that Ezra could keep an eye on everyone.
Slowly, they made their way through the breakfast buffet. Chris moved in front of Ezra with Buck right behind, followed by the others. They all settled in at the table and ate in silence as Blair continued talking.
Ann tapped the table to get Blair’s attention. “Sight has a lot of variables, distance, detail, color spectrum. You may want to break it up into several sections.”
Blair nodded and scribbled a note. “I’ll leave taste up to you Paul,” he grinned. “Maybe you can rook one of our chefs into helping. But make sure to take allergies into account.”
Paul smiled. “Of course, but how do you want me to explain that I want them to ‘taste’ people?”
The others at the table chuckled and Blair grinned and shook his head. “So that leaves smell and touch.” He looked down the table at Ezra. “Ezra, do you have any ideas on how we could run some tests to differentiate various Sentinels touch sensitivities?”
Ezra blinked, his poker face coming down hard as he realized he was the center of attention now. “I will have to think about that, Blair. I assume you are attempting to discover if others have abilities similar to mine?”
“In part,” Blair replied. “We talked about it last night,” he motioned to include Jim, Paul and Dennis in the ‘we.’ “It made me realize how very different all of you sense things. I’ve been guilty of assuming that a Sentinel is a Sentinel is a Sentinel, even knowing that each of you has a primary sense that is stronger,” he shrugged. “And evidently, I didn’t know the right questions to ask to get past that assumption.”
Ezra nodded solemnly.
“I also want to get readings from each Sentinel on Guide recognition…”
Jim put his hand on Blair’s shoulder. “Chief, it’s almost time for classes to start and you haven’t even finished your breakfast.”
Blair rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. All right. Everyone think about what we need to do and let’s meet at three to hash it out some more.” He looked down the table at the newcomers. “If you’re up to it, Jim and I can take you around to some of the classes.”
Ezra nodded, but didn’t say anything. Buck met Blair’s questioning gaze with a smile.
The teachers in the group finished up and cleared their plates, then left for class. Jim nursed a cup of coffee as he watched Blair make notes and try to eat at the same time.
“One track mind?” Larabee asked softly.
Jim snorted. “Sometimes. This is what he’s waited his whole life for, studied for. A chance to work with real live Sentinels.” Jim paused briefly. “I used to think I was enough,” he added, his tone forlorn although his blue eyes twinkled.
Blair’s head jerked up in denial, but when he saw his partner’s smirk, he huffed. “Now I have more cooperative students.” He grinned. “But I’ll never give up my first one.”
Chris pushed his plate away and leaned his elbows on the table. “Seems to me the teacher’s just a few steps ahead of the students.”
Blair and Jim laughed out loud.
“You’ve got that right,” Blair freely admitted. “We learn together.” He shoveled the last few bites of food into his mouth and drank down his coffee, then pushed his chair back as he stood. “You guys ready?”
They all nodded and cleared the table then followed Jim and Blair out into the hall, where they waited as students hurried past to class.
“We have a number of regular classes for our school-age students. English, math, etc. Those are supplemented by the Sentinel/Guide classes,” Blair explained. “Although we have a few ‘beginner’ classes whose curriculum hasn’t changed much, most of the SG classes are in constant flux. The main thing we are trying to do is help each pair learn to work together, control their gifts and use them in practical, real world settings.”
“Unfortunately,” Jim said, “as I’ve told them over and over again, the ‘real’ world isn’t going to stop or even slow down when one of their senses is overwhelmed. And lately we’ve come to realize that the Guides can have just as many issues as their Sentinels.”
“How’s that?” Nathan asked.
“Well,” Blair took over, “you recall we talked about the metaphysical side of all this?” Nathan and the others nodded. “Some Guides have visions, past, future or present. Most have some level of empathic abilities, even if only with their Sentinel. We’ve run across a few with other extrasensory perceptions, and their gifts get stronger when they bond to their Sentinel.”
“At that point, both partners need the assistance of the other to help prevent sensory spikes and zones,” Jim added.
“The Guides are zoning, too?” Buck asked, concerned.
“Not so much zoning,” Blair said, “as… well, spikes is the word we’ve been using. Flare ups in their gifts, like when one of a Sentinel’s senses kicks in without warning.”
“And the Sentinels can help their partner get these spikes back under control?” Josiah asked.
Jim nodded. “Much the same way the Guides do for the Sentinels.”
Buck cleared his throat. “Have you had any problems, Blair?”
The group started moving, but Buck fell back beside Ezra. Ezra glanced at him, then quickly looked away. Buck sighed.
“If I start having any problems,” Buck said softly, “it isn’t your fault. It’s somethin’ I was born with, the same as you. I do expect you to help me out though, just like I do for you,” he teased.
“Of course, I will, Buck,” Ezra said, his sense of humor nowhere in sight, he was too flustered by everything at the moment and just trying to keep it together.
Buck put his arm across Ezra’s shoulders and gave a gentle squeeze. “I know you will, pard.”
Up ahead, the rest of the group stopped at a set of large doors. Blair opened them and led the men inside. It was a library, complete with book-lined shelves, tables for research and comfy chairs for reading.
“We’ve got quite a collection going,” Blair said proudly. “But the ones we’re working hardest to supplement are over here.” He showed them a bookcase with perhaps two dozen books, well, manuscripts really. Most were only slim folders. “This is everything that’s ever been written about Sentinels. Of course, some of it’s been translated from verbal accounts that have been handed down for centuries…”
“And about half of them are yours,” Jim added, his pride in his friend shining in his eyes.
“Ah… well, as I said,” Blair stammered, “most of the information wasn’t even written down, just passed on in stories and songs.” He sighed. “I’m hoping that a few of the others will get the urge to write up some of our findings. I just don’t have time to do it myself.”
Josiah looked up from the copy of “The Sentinel” by Blair Sandburg that he held in his hand. “Is this what “The Watchmen” was based on?”
Blair smiled wistfully and nodded.
“May I?” Josiah asked, hefting the book.
“Be my guest. You’re free to read whatever you like,” Blair said. “Just please, don’t take them off the grounds. We don’t have that many copies and I don’t want them to fall into the wrong hands.”
“I thought, since you’d published the book,” JD said, “and released the movie, that, well, people already know, don’t they?”
“They know we exist,” Jim said. “They know that Sentinels, or Watchmen, have heightened senses, but if you think about the movie, or the book if you’ve read it, how much detail do they really go into?”
JD frowned then his eyebrows rose in comprehension. “You sugar-coated everything.”
The others chuckled at the description.
“Yeah,” Blair said. “We wanted to introduce the idea, show that Sentinels were people with problems, not perfect little superheroes, but we did not want to give away all our secrets. That’s why the Guide’s position was played down. If John Q public knew that a Sentinel would do anything to protect his Guide…”
“We already know what can happen,” Jim finished cryptically. “We are trying to keep it from happening on a regular basis. The better a pair can cope without having to be joined at the hip, the less likely someone is to figure it out and try and use the situation to their advantage.”
Nathan looked up from the manuscript he had picked up. “You mind if I stay here for a bit?”
“Me, too,” Josiah said eagerly, his fingers caressing the cover of the book.
Blair grinned. “No, like I said, make yourselves at home. Just try not to interfere with an ongoing class, but feel free to ask questions.”
The two nodded and promptly fell into the closest comfy chairs and started to read.
“Vin,” Ezra said seriously, “remember where we left them, so we can retrieve them later.”
Josiah looked up as the rest laughed. He grinned and waved them away. He had reading to do.
“Maybe you can dictate your notes,” Ezra said to Blair, “and allow someone else to type them up.”
“Tried that,” Blair sighed. “It only works so far, I still have to go back through and edit, add things I missed…”
“Still saves you some time, though, doesn’t it?” Buck asked.
“Sure. It just seems we’re always coming up with something new, like Ezra’s sense of touch.” He looked at the ATF Sentinel. “You do realize the trouble you’ve gotten me into with the rest of the staff, don’t you?” Blair asked seriously.
Ezra touched his hand to his chest. “Me?” he almost squeaked. That energy was flowing off Blair again.
Jim laughed. “Yeah, you. They, okay, we,” he corrected at Blair’s teasing glare, “need another project like we need another hole in our heads.” He sighed, much put upon. “Still, it needs to be done. The more we know, the more we can help.” Jim looked Ezra in the eye. “But because it’s all your fault,” he said with a smile, “you get to help.”
Ezra blinked, then chuckled and nodded. “Very well. Perhaps after our tour, Blair would be so kind as to repeat the plans you were going over when we joined you for breakfast.”
Blair grinned. “Oh, you bet I will. Come on. I want to introduce you to one of our classes,” he said catching Ezra’s sleeve in a brief pull and leading them down the hall.
They peeked into several rooms at Blair’s insistence to see students of various ages working at different projects. Ann’s history class was in full swing, and they lost Vin to Dennis’s self defense class. Chris, JD, Buck and Ezra followed Blair into a room and took seats at the back while Blair spoke to the teacher.
There were only six students in the room. They sat on mats on the floor in groups of two, roughly eight feet apart. Each pair faced each other with their eyes closed. One pair, two young teenage girls, held hands, sitting tailor style with their knees touching. The oldest pair in the group, a man and a woman in their late twenties, both had their heads bowed and leaned forward until they almost touched. The third pair, two older teenage boys had looks of dismayed embarrassment on their faces.
“All right,” the teacher said with a pronounced accent. He was an Oriental man in his early thirties that the ATF agents hadn’t seen before. “We’re getting close. Take a deep breath, hold it, exhale, breathe… that’s good.”
“What are they doing?” JD whispered.
“Yang is trying to help these pairs bond for the first time,” Blair replied softly, not taking his eyes off the group. “It’s one of those ever evolving classes we were talking about. For the most part, bonding between a Sentinel and Guide is a very private and personal thing, but getting there that first time, is not always easy.”
Jim was watching the room as well, but met Buck and Ezra’s eyes briefly. “These pairs have all been together for several years and want to take that step, to commit to the partnership more fully, but they’ve been unable to do it on their own. Yang and his Sentinel are from China. According to their records, their village has produced a Sentinel and Guide every generation as far back as they have written history.”
Blair nodded excitedly. Ezra flinched, but grinned as he was hit by Blair’s enthusiastic energy. “Yang and Lin agreed to come and stay for while. They’re sharing what they know and that’s one writing project that I am determined to finish. We’re getting copies of all their Sentinel and Guide related works, and then we just have to find someone to translate them into English for us.”
Out on the floor it was quiet, except for Yang’s calm encouragement. “Look within yourselves and find your other half. Let them in.”
“Sounds like a bunch of…” Buck said, then trailed off realizing how rude his thought had been.
Jim snorted. “I would have been the first to agree with you, Buck.” He looked the new Guide in the eyes. “But not anymore. New age mumbo jumbo or ancient malarkey,” he tilted his head toward Yang, “he’s pretty good at putting into words something that I can hardly discuss with Blair because it’s so indescribable.”
They watched in silence for a few moments. JD squirmed in his seat and Chris smirked.
“Do you think we’re distracting them?” JD asked.
Blair sighed and shrugged. “Yang seemed to think it would be all right. That’s what I asked him when we first came in, but maybe…”
Ezra gasped suddenly. Buck turned to him, but instead of finding his friend spiking or falling into a zone, he saw Ezra staring in wonder at the two young girls. “What is it, Ez?”
Ezra shook his head, his lips parted in amazement. He blinked, but couldn’t take his eyes off the pair. It wasn’t that he was seeing anything more than the others, just the two girls holding hands with their eyes closed. Though now they were smiling happily, no… contentedly. But Ezra could feel the connection, his vision suddenly blurred and his throat constricted with the intense emotional energy blasting him from the newly bonded pair. He stood abruptly and stumbled out of the room.
Buck followed, with Chris, JD, Blair and Jim right behind him. They didn’t have to go far. Ezra sat with his knees up and his back against the wall on the other side of the corridor. His arms folded across his knees and his forehead on his arms. Buck slid down the wall beside him, glancing up to make sure the others stayed back.
“Ez? You okay?” he asked, leaning closer until their shoulders touched.
Ezra nodded without lifting his head. A shiver crawled up his spine causing Buck to throw his arm around the younger man’s back.
“Talk to me, Hoss.”
“I… they…” he shook his head and wrapped his arms tighter around his knees.
Blair turned toward the room and concentrated on Tricia and Amy. He didn’t link with them, he just wanted to see how they were doing. A brilliant smile lit his face as he looked at Jim. “They did it, Jim! Tricia and Amy did it.”
Jim couldn’t help but smile at Blair’s happiness for the girls. He looked down at Ezra. “You felt them bond, didn’t you?” he asked, astonished.
Ezra nodded miserably. How could he possibly ask Buck to share that with him? Buck, whose heart was as big as the great outdoors, stuck with a Sentinel who didn’t trust his own mother. Oh, but to share a bond like that with someone… Ezra stifled a sob.
Buck held Ezra closer, feeling the catch in his friend’s breath that made him wonder if Ezra was actually crying. “Come on, Ez. Let’s go back to the house and take a break, huh? Chris and JD can take the rest of the tour and fill us in later.”
Ezra nodded, still not lifting his head.
Buck looked up. “Ya’ll go ahead. We’ll make our way back to the house in a few.”
“You sure, Buck?” Chris asked, his hazel green eyes dark with worry. “You don’t need any help?”
“Got it covered, old dog,” Buck said with forced cheer.
“Okay,” Chris replied. “Come on, JD. I seem to recall Blair saying something about wanting your help with their ISP security.”
Ezra and Buck sat on the floor for a little while longer. Buck was grateful that no one else came by. He rocked to the side a bit, nudging Ezra. “You ready?”
Ezra wiped his face on his sleeve and lifted reddened eyes to his Guide. Buck’s heart clenched at the sadness in his friend’s eyes. What is going on in that head of yours? They helped each other up, Buck making jokes about them getting too old to be sitting on the floor and then they walked slowly out of the building and back to the house. Ezra moved slightly away when Buck tried to put his arm over his shoulder. The ladies man sighed and stuck his hands in his pockets. Damn. How was he supposed to get through to this stubborn Southerner?
Nathan huffed and looked up from the book he was reading. “Hey, Josiah.”
The older man looked up from his book. “Yes?”
“Have you read Blair’s theory on Guides?”
Josiah smiled. “You mean the one that supposes Guides subconsciously specialize in fields that allow them to encounter large numbers of people so as to facilitate the locating of their Sentinel?”
“Yep,” Josiah answered turning his attention back to his book.
Nathan rolled his eyes. “Well?”
“Well, what, Nate?”
“I was just thinking about Buck. Do you think he’s such a womanizer because he’s a Guide?” Nathan asked seriously.
Josiah looked his friend in the eye. “Are you a Guide because you studied to become a paramedic?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Which comes first? The chicken or the egg?” Josiah posed.
Josiah sighed. “I would hesitate to blame Buck’s ways with the women on his being a Guide, Nathan. Buck’s past experiences have had a lot to do with his empathy toward the fairer sex. It’s possible that some of that empathy is due to being a Guide…” he trailed off thoughtfully.
Nathan nodded as he considered what he knew about Buck’s past, his mother and her violent death. “Do you think he’s going to develop any of these extrasensory perceptions Blair talked about?”
Josiah snorted softly. “Why am I suddenly the expert here?”
Nathan chuckled. “I’m just voicing my questions to the only audience currently available.”
“You’re starting to sound like Ezra, Nate.”
“Heaven forbid,” the medic teased.
Josiah grinned. “I would suspect that our brother Buck already has whatever abilities he may manifest in the future.”
Nathan sighed heavily. “Well, of course, what I mean is, well, what sort of powers do you think he has?”
“You make it sound like they’re superheroes,” Josiah admonished lightly.
“Yeah,” Nathan grunted, “well, sometimes it feels like it, ya know?”
Josiah took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly. He nodded. “I surely do. Though I’m sure some people feel that way about our entire team.”
Nathan rolled his eyes. “Not that Magnificent Seven crap again, Preacher.”
The profiler just grinned.
“We just do our jobs,” Nathan argued. “These Sentinel senses, it’s like something out of a book or a movie.” He rolled his eyes at Josiah’s chuckle and waved a dismissing hand. “Yeah, yeah, but when Ezra helped disarm that bomb, it was like… magic.”
“You know what they say about advanced science,” Josiah started.
“I know, to someone who doesn’t know about electricity, it seems like magic, yada yada,” Nathan replied. “I know that, and I know these are perfectly natural abilities caused by the correct combination of gene sequences, but that doesn’t make it any less…” he trailed off trying to find the right word.
“Like magic?” Josiah offered, smiling slightly.
“Yes! It was disconcerting enough before all this when Ezra would hand me a file I’d been asking for, when I knew he hadn’t been in the room to hear me. That could be blown off as a coincidence or even a prank on occasion. But now…” Nathan closed his mouth abruptly as he realized what he intended to say.
“You think Ezra would purposefully use his gifts against his friends?” Josiah asked, playing the devil’s advocate. “Spy on us for his own gain?”
“No! No, of course not,” Nathan said firmly. “It’s just, I don’t know. He could, if he wanted to, and I guess knowing that makes me uncomfortable.”
Josiah straightened up and leaned forward. “Nate, I could have your house bugged right now and be listening into your and Rain’s life and you’d never even know it.”
Nathan’s eyes went wide at Josiah’s serious tone. He gave a half-hearted laugh. “Yeah, right.”
Josiah simply lifted one eyebrow.
“You’d never do that, Josiah.” He met the older man’s steady gaze, then slumped a bit. “And neither would Ezra. I know. I know it’s the same, it’s still just very new.”
“And weird,” Josiah added, leaning back in his chair.
“And weird,” Nathan agreed.
“Then nothing’s changed.”
Nathan laughed. “You got that right, old man.” They were all just as strange as ever. Thank God.
Jim watched Ezra closely. Something had caused the younger Sentinel to withdraw. Oh, he was participating in the conversation and helping plan the series of new tests, but he’d pulled up his walls, nice and tight. Jim sighed. He caught Blair’s eyes and flicked a quick glance at Ezra. Blair’s forehead crinkled briefly and he closed the current discussion down smoothly.
“Time for a break,” Jim announced with a look at the clock. They’d been working since three and it was almost six. “Everybody grab something to eat and we can meet back here at seven for another couple of hours.” He stood and stretched as the group started to disperse. “Ezra,” he said Sentinel-soft. “Stay a minute, would you?”
Ezra looked at him, then at his friends who were already to the door. He sighed and nodded. “I’ll meet you all back at the house,” he said. “I need to discuss something with Jim.”
Buck frowned, but didn’t get any further explanation. Vin and Chris each grabbed an arm and tugged him out the door, assuring Buck that Jim wouldn’t hurt Ezra.
Jim squelched a grin. No, he wouldn’t hurt Ezra, but Ezra wasn’t going to like what they were about to discuss.
“Have a seat,” Jim ordered.
Ezra’s eyebrows rose and he remained standing.
“Sit down,” Jim said firmly, his tone brooking no other response.
Ezra sat, his entire posture speaking defiance.
“You can’t push Buck away like that, it won’t work,” Jim said, his tone suddenly completely sincere and compassionate. “You don’t get to choose your Guide. The match, as unlikely as they sometimes seem, isn’t under our control.”
Ezra frowned slightly.
Jim pushed on. “I mean, look at me and Blair. A neo-hippie witch doctor and an ex-ranger/cop? Who would have thought? But he is exactly the Guide I needed… and I guess… I’m the Sentinel he needed. Our strengths complement each other and our weaknesses balance each other out.” He tilted his head. “Do you see?”
Ezra stood abruptly, shaking his head. “No, I don’t. Maybe, maybe you and Blair are made for each other, but Buck deserves someone better.”
Jim opened his mouth then closed it. “Okay,” he stalled. “I guess maybe I’m missing something here. Care to tell me where that came from?”
“I felt it,” Ezra said, so softly that only another Sentinel could have heard. “When those girls bonded…” he closed his eyes, the feeling washing over him again. “They…” he turned to Jim, his face openly showing his anguish. “What they became together… it was so beautiful. Their signatures combined, became one… so joyful and…” Ezra wiped the moisture from his eyes. “Buck, he’s already like that,” his voice caught and he swallowed. “If he and I… I would only tarnish him,” Ezra said, dejectedly. He sat heavily in a nearby chair and rested his head in his hands.
Jim took a deep, shuddering breath. He had only ever been able to physically feel emotions and energy like Ezra could from Blair, but he could literally feel the anguish flowing out of the younger Sentinel now. There was so damn much they still didn’t know.
“Ezra, I don’t know you very well, but I’ve heard about your team and I’ve seen how you all work together. I’ve seen how each of your friends has stepped up to help you, especially Buck. I’ve never seen people who don’t care go through so much effort to help someone. And I have a feeling that Buck would be ‘whippin’ your ass’ right now for thinking that you’re not ‘good enough’ to be his Sentinel.”
Ezra snorted at Jim’s passable imitation of Buck. He folded his hands on the table and looked up at Jim. “I guess I have a few issues,” he admitted wryly.
“And you think Buck doesn’t know that?” Jim teased. “Ask Blair about some of my issues. We almost didn’t make it through some of them.” He paused. “It took us four years before we bonded the first time. We didn’t know… anything. It was an accident more than anything else. Thinking back, we might have completed the bond a year earlier, but I… I refused,” he said roughly. Jim met Ezra’s wide green eyes solemnly. “At the time, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I pushed him away, refused the bond. And that was after he had been killed by another Sentinel.”
The agent sat, engrossed in the tale the older Sentinel spun, absorbing the flood of old guilt and anguish. He was surprised by the flash of relief, joy, wonder, that suddenly hit him as Jim continued.
“That first time, we didn’t know what was happening, but we trusted each other,” Jim said, wonderingly. “It was… one of the most intimate experiences in my life, and the scariest.” He let a wry grin touch his lips.
“What happens?” Ezra asked, his voice filled with curiosity and longing.
Jim’s eyes grew hazy as he fell into the memory. “At first, it was strange. It was like we merged and all of Blair’s thoughts were in my head and mine in his. Emotions, too. We finally were able to really see each other.” He took a breath. “The hard part was after we came out of the bond. For days, we had ‘recalls’ of memories that belonged to each other. Some were funny, some sad, some… Well, we talked, a lot and ironed out the problems between us.”
Ezra rubbed a finger over a dark spot on the wood table. “Do you bond often?”
“When we need to,” Jim admitted candidly. “It just depends.” He waited for a few moments, waited for Ezra to say something, but nothing came. “Look. I know you aren’t sure about all this. That’s understandable. But I can also see that you want to bond with Buck, even though you’re afraid he…”
“Won’t want me,” Ezra finished. “Why would he? I’m a conman. I…” he shook his head.
“I was going to say that Buck may have trouble with bonding because he doesn’t really believe in it,” Jim chided gently. “And… that you don’t have to jump right into it. You’ve only been a pair for a few months.” He tilted his head and grinned. “Four years here, remember? There’s no rush, Ezra. Maybe you can both find a way to accept what’s meant to be by the time it’s time.” Jim ran his tongue along the inside of his bottom lip thoughtfully. “We’ve learned that some pairs never bond that deeply, but I think you will.”
Ezra met Jim’s eyes as he considered what they’d talked about. “What if Buck finds another Sentinel?”
Jim grinned and shook his head. “Doesn’t work that way. You two have already formed a light bond, not in the sense we’ve been talking about, but he could no more choose another Sentinel at this point than you could take another Guide.”
“So he’s stuck with me,” Ezra muttered, not realizing he said it aloud.
“And you’re stuck with him.”
Ezra’s head jerked up and he frowned, a retort on his lips that faded fast as he realized Jim was trying to goad him. “Was there anything else?”
Jim smirked. “No. Just remember, don’t push your Guide away. Not only will you hurt his feelings, but you could literally hurt him.”
Ezra nodded and walked to the door. He stopped. “Thank you,” he said softly, then left the room.
Jim scooted down in his chair and crossed his legs under the table. “I’m no good at this,” he muttered, rubbing his nose. “Next time, I’ll make Blair do it.” Yeah, right.
Ezra entered the guest house and closed the door quietly behind him. None of the others were in the living room so he stopped and tried to see if he could tell where they were. The first one he found, surprise, surprise, was Buck. His partner was upstairs in his room, muttering to himself worriedly about Ezra. The Sentinel sighed.
He could hear the others in the kitchen and dining room. Nathan and JD were arguing over whether or not ketchup qualified as part of the fruit group. Ezra smiled. He regretted pulling Nathan away from his wife for so long, but Rain had insisted that she would be working most of the time anyway. Vin and Chris were setting the table while Josiah puttered around the stove, taste testing dinner as he cooked.
Ezra looked at the stairs to the second floor. He had no idea what he was going to tell Buck, but his friend deserved… something. He went up the stairs and paused outside Buck’s door. He stood there for a few minutes, arguing with himself internally.
The door opened suddenly, startling him. Buck’s face was unusually solemn. “You going to come in?”
Ezra stared at him for a moment and then nodded and crossed the threshold.
Buck returned to the chair in the corner where he’d been brooding for the last half hour or so. As far as he could tell, there was nothing he could say to Ezra that would help, so it was all up to his partner.
Ezra followed, then stopped when Buck sat down. He looked at him for a moment and then moved idly around the room, taking in the touches that his Guide had already added. A dirty shirt tossed across the back of the chair. His overnight kit lay open on the dresser. A pair of tennis shoes peeking out from under the bed. Ezra sighed and looked at Buck again, then away. Buck remained silent.
Ezra started to pace, he just didn’t know what to say, or how to say it. How do you tell someone that you want to invade their most private thoughts? Well, at least that’s how he understood what Ellison had told him. A bond with Buck would be more… well, more than even a married couple shared. His pace increased and he started muttering to himself aloud.
“I just don’t see how… can’t expect Buck to… not fair…”
Buck’s eyebrows rose. Ezra hardly ever, even after all these years let them see him this rattled. It had been those two girls that set him off. Something about that bonding thing, then. He frowned.
“…might scare him off…” Ezra continued, not realizing he was voicing his concerns. He’d actually slipped into a sort of zone. “…’d rather stay as it is than do that… God,” he sobbed, his pacing slowing to a stop. Ezra stood facing away from Buck, his shoulders slumped and his head bowed. “Buck… please…”
Buck stood and in three steps reached Ezra. He could feel Ezra’s confusion and pain almost physically. He wrapped his arms around the shorter man and pulled him close. “What is it, Ezra? How can I help you? Please talk to me, pard.”
Ezra’s head shook slightly. “I can’t ask you to do something you don’t want,” he whispered hoarsely.
Buck’s mind whirled. What on earth? Wait… “You’re talking about a… about bonding?”
Ezra stiffened and pulled away. Buck’s entire essence had changed uncomfortably when he asked that question. “It’s not necessary,” Ezra said, pulling himself together and putting on his best poker face. “Jim even said that most pairs don’t…” he trailed off, leaving unsaid the most important part.
Buck swallowed and then frowned. Ezra had closed himself off again. It was so strange, because Buck could actually feel it. Like he was separated by a wall from his… his Sentinel. And his friend. Aw hell. He took a tentative step and Ezra backed off. “Ez…”
Ezra shook his head. “Ah know,” he said, his Southern drawl thick with emotion. “Ah don’t understand it myself. If you’d told me…” he swallowed and forced himself to look Buck in the eye. “It’s all right, Buck. I understand. I’d be honored if you just continued being my Guide as you do now.”
Buck’s heart broke. Tears pricked his eyes. Somehow, he’d failed Ezra. He didn’t understand this whole bonding thing, it scared him, and he didn’t know why. And here was Ezra, probably the last person he’d expect to want it, practically begging him… Buck wiped his eyes. “Ez… I… Give me some time, okay? It’s… I want to be your Guide, I really do, I just, I guess there were more changes for me than I thought and I need time to get used to everything,” he pleaded.
Ezra took a deep breath and seemed to relax a little. It was so strange how well he knew Buck. Now the ladies man ‘felt’ more like himself, if a little sad and confused and… scared. Damn. Did I do that? Ezra raised his hands slightly. “It’s all right, Buck. I didn’t realize…” he snorted softly. “You know me. It’s all about me, me, me. I just didn’t see how hard this was for you, too. I’m sorry. I won’t mention it again.”
Buck’s head snapped up. “Ezra. Damn it. You are about the least selfish person I know, but you are the most hard-headed. Listen to me and listen good,” he said, closing the few steps between them. “I don’t know about this bonding… Frankly, it scares me. But I can see how much you seem to… to want it, and that makes me think…” he paused and licked his lips. “Just give me some time, Hoss. I just need a little time.”
Ezra met Buck’s imploring blue eyes and saw the truth there. Buck was willing to try, he just needed to get used to the idea. Ezra smiled softly and nodded. “Okay, Buck.”
Buck took a breath and exhaled quickly with relief. “Good. All right then.” He smiled, still a bit subdued. “Why don’t we go see what the others have scrounged up to eat? We will talk about this later, Ez. I promise.”
Blair sat in the observation booth as the first test started. They’d set up a room with five partial cubicles aligned so that the subjects could see the tester, but not each other. Blair had asked others to present the tests so that he could watch, and also because he didn’t want to influence the results in any way.
Each test would be run twice without Guides to help and twice with. This would give them an idea of how much a Guide’s assistance improved the Sentinel’s abilities. They’d decided to include all the Sentinels at the Foundation in the study, although they did group them as best as they could by primary sense and strength.
Blair really didn’t want to get into ranking Sentinels by how strong their senses were. That might lead to problems down the road. His goal was to see what the possible ranges were and figure out ways to help all Sentinels reach their personal best.
Several hours later, Jim joined him, bringing lunch. “How’s it going, Chief?”
Blair grinned and shook his head. “It’s amazing, Jim. We’ve only just started with the sight tests. I think this may be the last group, but…” he shook his head in amazement. “Do you know that Jesse can see into the ultraviolet wave lengths?”
Jim’s eyebrows rose. “Wow.”
“Yeah. And several other Sight Primaries could, too. The distance tests didn’t work well,” he sighed, changing topics slightly. “We’ll have to go out into the field to get an honest reading, the video didn’t work. Too ‘one dimensional’,” he quoted.
Jim chuckled. “I can see that.”
Blair groaned at the pun. “Still, what we’ve gotten so far is amazing. I wish we’d done this sooner…”
“When, Blair? Until this year, we’ve been pretty busy just setting up shop. We’ve only just gotten the curriculum going and had enough teachers available to cover it. We haven’t had the luxury of doing this kind of study, not to mention too few subjects for the study to really tell us anything.”
“I know, it just… might have helped some of them, you know?”
“Chief,” Jim said fondly, “we can’t help everybody.”
Blair huffed and picked up the sandwich Jim had brought.
“So how was Ezra’s sight?” Jim asked curiously.
Blair got a strange look on his face. “You know, Jim. We’re going to have to figure out a way to… to not let differences in abilities make so much of a difference.”
Blair grinned, but went on seriously. “It’s very tempting to set up a system to rank your abilities. This Sentinel has two really strong senses so he’s a ‘whatever’ and this one has five strong senses so he’s ‘this.’” Blair met Jim’s curious gaze.
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Ah, come on, Jim. We do that to kids all the time already. Susie’s great at English, but doesn’t do well in math. Little Bobby’s a genius, but he sucks in sports. Pigeon-holing people by their best ability keeps them from developing to their fullest potential in all areas, Jim. What if I told you your hearing was your best sense and all the others were just average when compared to other Sentinels? Would you be willing to work as hard to develop your sight or sense of smell?”
Jim frowned. “So you’re saying I’m average?”
Blair threw his hands up in the air.
Jim laughed and raised his hand in surrender. “All right, Blair, I see what you’re saying. And you’re right, but if we’re doing all this testing, they’re going to want to know the results, and they’re going to fall into that way of thinking automatically. It’s just the way we’ve all been raised.”
Blair sighed. “I know, I know, that’s why we have to figure out a way to stop it.”
They both ate in silence, thinking and watching the tests going on below. Each of the subjects was being videotaped as well, so the results could be viewed by others later. Right now, the group was working with their Guides to see how well they could see in the dark.
Jim scratched the back of his head. “What if we use the tests to determine which senses they need to work on?”
Blair blinked and looked at his partner, astonished.
Blair smiled. “That’s just so simple.”
“Yeah, well,” Jim hedged. “We can come up with something…”
“No, no. It’s brilliant,” Blair grinned. “We measure their abilities, find the best and the worst and everything in between, but instead of focusing on how well they did with the Primary sense, we give them something to improve. You are a genius, my friend.”
Jim grinned. “You are full of it, my friend.”
Two days later
The informal council lounged around the living room at the guest house. Since Ezra had instigated this round of new ideas and questions, he was included and since he was, so were his friends. Besides, they always found it useful to have non-Sentinels and Guides to bounce things off of. The council also consisted of the staff from the ‘breakfast club’ and a few of the students, as well as Percy Brett who was the official, unofficial manager of the SGF. He kept everything running smoothly.
“I thought we’d shift gears a bit here,” Blair said once everyone had gotten something to munch on and found a comfortable spot. “We’ve been focusing on the Sentinel abilities, but I think we should take a look at the Guides in much the same way. All of the student Guides I asked to join us have some of the strongest gifts, so I hoped to get your input.”
“Those are a bit harder to quantify than Sentinel senses,” Percy said.
“True, but we need to start building a record of what we already know,” Blair replied. “I get the feeling it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Look at how much we’ve learned in just two days with this new study.”
They all nodded. The Sentinel tests had progressed quickly once they were set up. Each group of five Sentinels had gone through each series of tests and it hadn’t taken long once they understood exactly what was needed.
“So,” JD chimed in, completely unconscious of any sort of protocol, “what kind of things can Guides do?” He was eager to see what abilities Buck might turn up with.
Buck tapped him on the back of the head.
“What?” JD protested.
Blair and the others chuckled. “That’s a good question and a good place to start, JD.” He looked at his fellow Guides. “Jump in if I miss something. Many have visions, something that is definitely going to be hard to test, though we already have people keeping journals,” he added with a flourish of his hands. “Empathy, some telepathy, though both are mainly with the individual’s own Sentinel. Kara here can actually project her visions to Jesse. At first we thought Jesse was having the visions, but it turned out to be Kara.”
The teenage Guide blushed and shrugged. “They were pretty scary when I first started having them. I guess I subconsciously tried to get rid of them.” She sent and apologetic look at Jesse.
Her Sentinel took her hand and smiled. “That’s okay. She was there to help me through them.”
The ATF team watched as the SGF people all nodded understandingly.
Blair saw their confused looks. “A lot of us had strong visions pertaining to 9/11. Kara’s were some of the clearest and most detailed. Very life-like,” he said gravely. The Seven nodded. “Walks Lightly is a very strong empath. He can read emotions up to several miles away.”
“And Blair is our strongest…” Kara paused trying to find the right words, “he’s the best linker.”
Blair’s eyes widened in surprise. “What?”
“It’s true. You can link more Guides from farther away than anybody,” Kara continued. The other Guides nodded their agreement.
Blair shook his head.
“Speaking of 9/11,” Dennis reminded.
Blair shook his head again. “No, that was Felicia who brought us all together.”
“Maybe,” Walks said, “but she just called us, you sensed our need to stay and kept us linked.”
“It’s true, Chief,” Jim added. “I could feel it. You were like the hub for all the others and they in turn brought their Sentinels into the link. We never talked about it, but thinking back now, it was really amazing what you did.”
“I didn’t…” Blair trailed off at the look on Jim’s face.
“What about Peter and Sheila?” he asked cryptically.
Blair opened his mouth and closed it, catching his lower lip thoughtfully in his teeth.
“Excuse me,” Ezra interrupted. “What is this ‘linking’ you’re discussing?”
Walks Lightly answered. “Some Guides have the ability to ‘link’ to one another, not quite like a bond between an SG pair, but it let’s us talk to each other over long distances. Of course, everyone’s range is different, and some can’t form the link, they can only participate in it. Most of us can talk one on one, but only a few can link two or more Guides at a time. Blair here linked several hundred last year.”
“Who’s Felicia?” Josiah asked.
“She’s a Guide from New York,” Blair said sadly. “Her husband… her Sentinel was killed in one of the towers. She cried out,” his hands fluttered in frustration at the lack of appropriate terminology, “cried out mentally when she felt him die. Felicia touched every Guide she knew and brought us into a link.” He took a breath. “They’re right, though. Once she did that, she didn’t hold the link. I took over. I just hadn’t realized it until now.”
A brief silence fell on the room as everyone digested Blair’s explanation.
“Perhaps,” Ezra began tentatively, “you might invite Master Yang to join this group, Blair. Since his people have such a history with SG pairs, he most probably would have a wealth of suggestions.”
Blair nodded. “I did ask him and he and Lin want to help, but they had some things to take care of in town tonight. They’ll join us tomorrow.”
“What kind of tests do you have in mind for the Guides, Blair?” Jim asked.
“I’d rather hear some ideas from the rest of you first,” Blair said. “See if you can come up with anything new. This is so much harder…”
“Maybe because you’re too close to the situation,” Paul suggested. “Being a Guide yourself, that is.”
Blair smiled ruefully. “You’re probably right. So, come on, ideas.”
“Well,” Jesse said slowly. “Linking is pretty concrete, as far as it goes. You can definitely quantify whether or not a Guide can Link, how far he can reach and how many other Guides he can maintain in the Link.”
The others nodded and Percy made notes.
“It’s kinda hard to pull up emotions on command,” Vin drawled softly. “If we could figure a way to do that, then we could test empathy. At least to see if the Guide can detect emotions in someone other than his own Sentinel.”
“That’s good, Vin,” Blair said. “Any ideas on ‘evoking’ a consistent emotional response?”
Josiah raised his hand hesitantly as he tried to think it through. “If we have the Guide and subject or subjects in the same room… the Guide would have the headsets on so he can’t hear anything and also be facing away from the subject, or separated by a solid barrier…” he frowned. “Maybe by showing photos that evoke a strong emotional response…”
“Like a baby smiling,” JD suggested, “or a dead puppy.”
“JD!” Buck admonished.
Blair waved Buck off. “No, JD’s right. The pictures would have to be fairly… strong.”
JD nodded. “It might be better to do a short video clip. Ten seconds or so, it would give you a better chance to evoke the emotion.”
Jim rubbed the bridge of his nose. “We’d need to quantify the ‘emotion’ for each segment before we started the tests. Make sure our tests are as precise as possible.”
Blair nodded. “Not to mention putting together the video. This is going to take a lot longer to set up,” Blair moaned. The others chuckled. “JD, do you think you could help with the video?”
JD glanced at Chris. “Sure. Buck can help.”
“No, I’d prefer the Guides not be involved so that their perceptions are fresh,” Blair said. “Also, the subjects don’t have to be Sentinels, but anyone who helps build the video shouldn’t be a subject. We have to keep this as objective as possible.”
JD nodded. “No problem.”
“Any body else?” Blair asked. The evening was just getting started.
Colonel Jack O’Neill stood in the gate room watching JAG 2 prepare for their trip to PX3-432. With all the new gate codes they’d uncovered recently, the analysts had decided, in their always logical wisdom, to assign expeditions in a very systematic and logical way. Each team was assigned a prefix, the first three characters of the gate code, and would work their way through all the known codes with that prefix. Jack shook his head to himself. God only knew what would happen if one of the teams actually managed to check all the codes in their assigned prefix.
Theoretically, that would take a while, as there were potentially a thousand combinations for each prefix. Jack smirked. How many worlds had they visited since that first trip through the gate? He’d lost track, certainly hundreds, but a thousand? He didn’t think so. Have to ask Sam, or Daniel. They’ll know, or find out. He grinned thinking about the look on either of their faces if he asked that question seriously.
Sam would get a little crease in her forehead and say, “I don’t know, sir, but it shouldn’t be hard to find out.”
Daniel would frown and ask, “Why do you want to know?” Then he’d go on to try and figure it out in his head, mumbling about the number of off-world teams and how often they sent each one through the gate on average. He’d stop suddenly and ask if Jack meant how many worlds they had visited or how many someone from Stargate Command had visited, then he’d start all over.
By the end of the day, both of them would return with an answer, the correct answer. And in Daniel’s case, he’d have figured out the answer to both questions.
An increase in noise caught Jack’s attention and he looked up to see Peter and Carl laughing at a red-faced Sheila. Mike was smiling and shaking his head. That had been a good mix from the beginning, putting the Sentinel and Guide team with Broughton and Tomas. The two Air Force men were seasoned personnel with off-world experience and open minds. The SG pair were paramedics from Los Angeles. The one big, potential problem in Jack’s mind was that they were married, but after seeing Ellison and Sandburg work, he’d come to realize that a Sentinel and Guide were probably just as close, if not closer than a married couple. Still, it had taken a bit of adjusting to get used to seeing them together off duty, when they ‘acted’ like a married couple.
“Okay,” Walter’s voice sounded over the PA. “I’m dialing the gate,” he added.
Jack frowned and turned to look over his shoulder at the sergeant seated in the booth above. He wasn’t usually that informal. The booth was abnormally empty, only Walter and one other person were present. Jack looked around the gate room and realized that here too there were only a few others besides himself and JAG 2.
He moseyed over to one of the guards on duty. “Where is everybody?” he asked softly.
The guard tipped his head toward the team. “Sawyer asked us to keep personnel to a minimum when they gate out. Says his Sentinel needs the quiet to prepare for the trip through the worm hole.”
“Ah,” Jack replied already turning back toward the gate. The last chevron locked in place and the gate whooshed open. That was another problem with having the couple on the same team… Jack couldn’t figure out how to address them. Sawyer and Sawyer was just too much of a mouthful, so he’d resorted to calling them by their first names when they were together. When it was just one of them, he stuck with military protocol and went by their last name.
JAG 2 turned to Jack, as the senior officer present, for permission to leave.
“Have fun, kids,” he said with a wave.
Sheila and Peter smiled, while Broughton and Tomas gave quick sarcastic salutes. Jack chuckled and watched them disappear through the worm hole. He stuck his hands in his pant pockets and sauntered out into the hall. He’d have to remember to ask Peter and Sheila about the need for quiet in the gate room. That could be a problem. Maybe he should have them talk to Sandburg.
Jack sighed as he entered the commissary. He’d skipped breakfast and now lunch was calling his name. He saw Jackson, Carter and Teal’c sitting in the corner and went to join them.
“Hey, Jack,” Daniel said, waving a hand for him to join them.
“Sir,” Carter greeted with a smile.
Teal’c met his eyes with an amused twinkle. The Jaffa always enjoyed this quiet time with his friends. And he recognized the look in O’Neill’s eyes.
“Hiya, kiddos,” Jack said, plopping into the empty chair. “JAG 2 just gated out. Remind me to talk to them when they get back,” he said, stealing a chip from Daniel’s plate.
“Get your own,” Daniel grumbled lightly as he pulled his plate away.
Jack laughed and stood up again. He took a few steps away, then stopped and turned back. “Hey, I was wondering, how many planets have we visited?”
Sam pursed her lips. “I don’t know off the top of my head, sir.”
“Why do you want to know?” Daniel asked.
A broad grin stretched across Jack’s face. “Just wonderin’,” he said with a shrug as he headed back to the buffet line.
“Shouldn’t be hard to find out,” Sam said, her eyes losing a little focus as she contemplated the problem.
“Yeah,” Daniel said, playing with his fork. “We have, what, a dozen teams that go off-world? Probably average a trip a week… Fifty-two trips a year, nah, better make that about forty-five what with holidays and recovering from injuries, that sort of thing…” He continued to mutter for a few moments then jerked his head up and looked over his shoulder. “Hey, Jack. Do you mean us or everybody?”
Jack raised his eyebrows innocently. “Well, both, I suppose.”
Daniel turned back to the table nodding his head and continued his verbal calculations.
Teal’c lifted his head and met Jack’s eyes. The mischievous grin on the Colonel’s face brought a slow smile to the Jaffa’s lips. He did so enjoy this free time with his friends.
“Jim!” Blair shouted causing the Sentinel to jump up from his chair and race for the den.
Jim focused his senses on the room as he approached, but could detect no trouble. Blair hardly ever shouted for him anymore, he was too used to Jim being able to hear his whisper from across the compound. Jim skidded to a stop in front of the desk. “What’s wrong, Blair?”
Blair bounced out of his chair and thrust a handful of papers at Jim, grinning madly the whole time.
Jim looked at the sheets, but couldn’t really make heads or tails of them with Blair’s excited heart beat thumping in his ears. “What, Chief?” he asked handing the papers back to Blair.
“Jim. These are your test results. Well two different sets, one from before we bonded and one from this week.” Blair emphasized his words by shaking the papers up and down. “Look! It’s amazing, man. I mean, I know you’ve improved since we met, but this is… it’s amazing!”
“Chief,” Jim grinned, “I haven’t seen you at a loss for words in a while.” He took the papers back and tried to decipher them. “What made you look at these old things?”
Blair set his hip on the desk and started talking, his entire body in on the conversation. “After we talked to Lin and Yang yesterday, I got to thinking. Maybe we should have some sort of designation, just to identify Sentinels and Guides who are bonded and unbonded, and maybe more experienced pairs. So I got to thinking about what words we could use and how to define them. Unbonded and bonded are pretty easy to delineate, and a Sentinel and Guide are what they are whether they’re bonded or not, so unbonded pairs would just go by Sentinel and Guide.” Blair took a breath and continued.
“A bonded pair could be a Junior Sentinel and Junior Guide. And I figured a Senior pair would be one that’s maybe settled into their gifts and has reached their potential, but after looking at your scores…” he shook his head and grinned. “Jim, some of your scores are doubled, man. Now I know the tests aren’t exactly the same, and we weren’t bonded during those earlier tests, but… Look at them!”
Jim looked back down at the scores trying to see what had his Guide so excited. He found the hearing tests from so long ago and looked at the decibels and megahertz levels Blair had tested him at. Not bad. Then he looked at the ones from earlier in the week and his eyebrows shot up in surprise. He glanced at Blair, who for all intents and purposes looked like a proud daddy. Jim gave a half grin and went back to studying the paper.
Blair was right. His tests had all improved dramatically, but his hearing and sense of touch had doubled.
“Well, we know there’s a difference after bonding,” Jim said.
“Yeah, but Jim, never doubled! This is…” Blair ran his hand through his hair. “I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s not like you’ve been practicing a lot.” Jim grinned a bit sheepishly, but Blair just waved him off. “You haven’t needed to, man, I mean you had it all figured out, and have been doing great. I just don’t understand…”
Jim pursed his lips. “What does this have to do with your designation idea?”
“Oh, well, I figured that maybe we could say a Senior Sentinel was a bonded Sentinel whose abilities had stayed the same for,” he shrugged, “say five years. That would indicate a level of proficiency that deserved recognition…”
Jim nodded. “So?”
“Well, here we are, five or so years later and you’re tests… I mean, you’ve continued to improve all this time. I don’t believe that you just jumped from where you started to this level simply because we bonded.” Blair stood and started to pace, his hands emphasizing his words. “If you’re senses have gotten this much better after only a couple of years.” He looked at Jim. “We’ve only been bonded for what, almost three years now.”
Jim nodded. It seemed like they’d always been bonded, but in fact it had not been that long. “Well, you could just make it a certain length of time after the bonding. I thought you didn’t want to label abilities anyway.”
“I don’t, but giving them these ‘titles’ for things they’re going to do anyway might make it easier to forgo any type of ranking system.”
“Okay. Well, there’s no rush. Why don’t we wait until we get all the tests finished, Sentinel and Guide. After all, the Guides’ abilities will definitely be harder to classify, then we can see if there is a way to set criteria for the ‘senior’ designation.”
Blair nodded thoughtfully. “I wish there were someone we could ask about how they handle having more than one pair around at time.” He sighed. “We just don’t have any historical records of this large a number of Sentinels and Guides ever being active at the same time. At most, two or three and usually the older pair was retiring or dying as the newest pair appeared.”
“I know,” Jim placated. “We’ll just do the best we can, and adjust things as we find out what works and what doesn’t.” He grinned. “Don’t worry about it too much, Chief. More than likely one of the kids will come up with something that’ll fit.”
Blair snorted, but grinned his agreement. Knowing some of the younger SG pairs, they’d already decided on some way to designate more experienced Sentinels and Guides from the less experienced. He’d have to ask.
“SG1 report to the conference room, STAT! SG1 report to the conference room, STAT!” the announcement blared over the speakers throughout the SGC.
Jack heard it, but braced himself against the blow he knew Teal’c was about to land on his staff. When it didn’t, he looked up in surprise to see Teal’c grinning that smug grin of his.
“Our presence is required,” Teal’c said calmly.
Jack straightened and shook his arms loose. “Right. Right, we should get going. Can finish this later,” he added with a nod.
Teal’c snorted. Jack turned back toward the Jaffa not believing the noise he’d just heard. Teal’c simply raised an eyebrow.
“Come on. No time to change,” Jack grumbled. “Let’s see what earth shattering thing they have for us to fix now.”
Teal’c followed O’Neill into the conference room. Captain Carter and Daniel Jackson were already there, as well as General Hammond and two members of JAG2.
“General?” O’Neill asked, taking a seat beside Jackson.
“We have a situation, Colonel,” Hammond replied, looking at Major Broughton and Sergeant Tomas.
Ezra, JD, Chris, Vin, Nathan and Josiah were working on choosing clips for the Guide empathy video. Poor Buck had been shooed away. He pouted a bit, then headed for the main building with a smile on his face, happy to see that Ezra seemed to be okay with the way things stood between them. Buck planned to track down a few bonded Guides and grill them about bonding.
The other six made a list of the emotional states that they needed to evoke and then started making suggestions. Some were things they could video themselves, but a lot of the scenes they needed could be pulled from movies.
“We have to take into account the age of the subject,” Josiah said, adding another element to the difficult assignment.
Chris sighed. “At this rate we’ll have to have half a dozen different vids. Why don’t we just keep the test subjects within a certain demographic?”
JD shrugged. “Even if we just went with men and women, we’d still need two different tapes, if their ages were close enough. I mean, most women will find something sad about almost any movie,” he said, not quite disparagingly.
Vin grinned. “Casey crying during your action flicks again, JD?”
The others chuckled.
JD rolled his eyes and looked at Nathan. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
Nathan nodded. “Oh, yeah. Don’t you remember our Lethal Weapon marathon? Rain insisted on coming since she was off and said she liked the movies.” He shook his head. “I thought I was going to have to change shirts after the second one.”
Chris chuckled. “Sarah was like that, too.” He smiled sadly, then sighed. “Well then, how many groups do you think Blair will want?” He looked at Ezra.
“Why look at me?”
Chris shrugged. “You started this,” he grinned evilly.
Ezra barely suppressed an eye roll. “Very well. Given the ages of the various students who will doubtless be our subjects, we should have a group for girls and one for boys age… nine to twelve, then for the teenagers… thirteen to say sixteen. And then I think seventeen and up would be sufficient. There is still quite an argument for dividing the older group into smaller sections, but I believe most of the students here that fall into that group would be emotionally more mature for their age.” He looked to Josiah for confirmation.
The profiler pursed his lips then nodded. “Sounds good to me. We can at least start with these six, if Blair feels we need more…” he sighed loudly. “I don’t think we’re going to get this finished before we have to go home, boys.”
JD shook his head emphatically. “No way. This sort of thing takes a lot of time, but we can get started. Why don’t we start with one group and try to get it finished?”
Vin patted him on the back. “Makes sense to me. But which group?”
“The oldest,” Nathan suggested.
“Male or female?” Ezra asked.
Silence fell, then they all spoke at once. “Male.”
Jim looked up in surprise along with most of the other Sentinels in the room. He glanced at Blair and stood. “You all stay put and continue practicing. We’ll check this out.”
Blair followed him. “What is it?”
“Helicopter,” he paused, focusing on the sound, then corrected himself, “military helicopters. Headed this way.”
About the time they exited the main building, Blair could hear them as well. Team Seven met them at the bottom of the stairs.
“What’s going on?” Larabee demanded. “Ezra said there are a
couple of Air Force choppers on the way in.”
Jim nodded. “I don’t know. We do have friends in the military, but they don’t usually drop in unannounced.” He shared a look with Blair. Please don’t let it be O’Neill with bad news about Sheila and Peter.
“They’ll land in the field over there,” Blair said, pointing to an open area near a large hangar. “We’ve got a chopper of our own for emergencies,” he said by way of explanation for the existence of the landing pad.
The choppers came into sight and were landing as they made it to the edge of the field. The side door opened on one of the helicopters and two men hopped out.
“It’s O’Neill and Jackson,” Jim advised. Blair met his gaze apprehensively.
The choppers shut their engines down and by the time the two men joined the others they could talk without shouting.
“Colonel,” O’Neill greeted Jim. “We need to talk privately.
“Sheila and Peter?” Blair asked.
“They’re unharmed,” Jack replied, “but we have a situation.” He eyed the seven rather dangerous looking men standing around Ellison and Sandburg, then looked back to Jim. “In private.”
Jim nodded. “It’s okay,” he assured Larabee, “the Colonel works with one of our SG pairs.”
Jim, Blair, O’Neill, and Jackson walked toward the Ellison/Sandburg house leaving the seven agents standing in the field.
Ezra ran his thumb along his lower lip thoughtfully.
“What do ya think?” Vin asked.
“They were both upset about something,” Ezra said, relying more on his instincts than any particular Sentinel ability. “And anxious.” He turned to Chris. “I could listen…”
Larabee gave a half grin, then shook his head. “No. We need them to trust us as much as we need to trust them. I’m sure they’ll tell us if we need to know.”
Ezra sighed, cast a considering look back at the departing party and nodded. “Very well. I suppose I’ll have to wait until we get home to use my senses for the ‘good of the team.’”
The others chuckled. Buck slapped Ezra lightly on the back and the seven men headed back to what they had been doing before the interruption.
Blair closed the doors to the room and turned to face O’Neill. “What happened? Are they injured? A problem with Sheila’s senses? What?”
Jack blinked, looked at Daniel to make sure he was beside him and not suddenly transported across the room, then back to Blair. “Give me a chance to get a word in edgewise, will ya?”
Jim smirked, but it faded quickly. “Just tell us, O’Neill.”
Jack nodded, took a breath and exhaled slowly. “Yesterday, JAG2 went on a meet and greet to PX3-432. The culture they encountered has active Sentinels. The only problem is they’re somewhat primitive…”
Daniel sighed. “Not primitive, they just haven’t progressed very far technology-wise since they were placed there about 3000 years ago. There are very few mineral deposits on the planet, so metals are rare.”
Blair nodded. Without metals or some equivalent substance, societies didn’t usually advance much farther than horse and buggy. Lack of metals meant no electricity, no combustion engine, etc. They could however progress in other areas, so calling them primitive was biased and unfair.
“Their social structure is based on strength. Strength of the body, the mind, the spirit. Villages and towns take pride in their Sentinels and Guides,” Daniel explained. “As I understand it, if a town has a Sentinel, they are higher ranking than one without. And the more Sentinels they have, the higher their rank in the territory.”
“They have more than one pair in a town?” Jim asked.
Daniel nodded. “The town near the Stargate has two. Evidently, when Sheila showed up unannounced, we broke some taboo. It’s basically seen as a challenge, one that must be met or we forfeit our Sentinel to them.”
“Forfeit?!” Blair gasped.
“Not to death,” Jack said quickly. “They just get to keep her, and Peter, as spoils of war.”
Daniel shrugged, irritated by Jack’s explanation. “Not exactly a war, but essentially, yes, that’s what happens if we don’t follow their rules.”
“And just what are their rules?” Jim asked frowning.
“There’s some sort of challenge,” Jack started.
Daniel interrupted. “First, I think you need to know, they were extremely interested in whether or not we had other Sentinels. I’m not sure why, but when we said we did have another Sentinel at home, they seemed rather disappointed. I think it all goes back to the ranking hierarchy.” He pushed his glasses up and licked his lips. “I think that if we hadn’t had a second Sentinel, then we may have lost without benefit of the challenge, since we were, albeit unknowingly, the aggressors.”
“They wouldn’t give you a break, since you were strangers and not familiar with their customs?” Blair asked.
Daniel shook his head. “That’s part of their culture. They are sticklers for the rules. That may be to our advantage.” He looked at Jack who tilted his head indicating Daniel should continue.
“It’s my belief that if we took two SG pairs back with us, it might somehow tilt the odds in our favor.”
Blair’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he nodded. “Without knowing the culture, it’s hard to say. It might make things worse.”
Daniel sighed. “I thought of that too, but if we say we never let our ‘Prime’ Sentinel and Guide leave home without an honor guard…” he suggested.
Blair looked at Jim to see what he thought. Jim frowned.
Jack cleared his throat. “We were hoping you had another pair that might be trusted, that had some military or police experience.”
“There are a few,” Jim replied slowly. He shared another look with Blair and sighed. “We actually have a pair here right now doing some training. They’re ATF…”
Jack’s eyebrows shot up in relieved surprise. “That’s perfe…”
Jim held his hand up. “You wouldn’t just be dealing with the pair. Their entire team is here, too, and I highly doubt you’d be able to separate them.”
Jack frowned. “How many?”
“Seven in all.”
If anything, Jack’s frown deepened. “That’s a lot of non-disclosure agreements. You trust them?”
“They’re here,” Jim said matter-of-factly. “You may be familiar with them, Team 7, out of Denver?”
Jack’s eyes narrowed. That was Chris Larabee’s unit. He didn’t know the man personally, but he’d heard about his time in the Seals. “Their Sentinel, you said he’s here for training, does he have enough control to be useful, or should we find someone else?”
Jim inhaled through his nose and exhaled slowly as he recalled the last few days. Standish did have pretty good control. And Wilmington seemed to be doing everything right, Guide-wise. Jim tilted his head. “I think he’d do fine, but I don’t think Larabee will take too well to handing his men over to someone else’s care. As I said, you take one, you take them all.”
Daniel grimaced. “I don’t know, Jack. I’m not sure they’ll allow that many people to come.”
Jack sighed. “I guess we should talk to the Magnificent Seven,” he stressed the nickname a bit sarcastically, “first before we start worrying about breaking any more cultural taboos.”
Team Seven stared at Dr. Jackson as he finished his little speech. As one, they turned to look at Jim and Blair who simply nodded. Then chaos broke loose.
“There really is life on other planets?” “Are you serious? That’s too cool!” “How does this Stargate thing work? Is it dangerous?” “Who would be in charge?” “More Sentinels?” “What’s this challenge they’re talkin’ about?” “I don’t think we should go.”
Everyone stopped at Buck’s quiet statement.
“Why not, Buck?” JD asked. “This is the chance of a lifetime! It’s another freakin’ planet, Buck!”
Wilmington just frowned and shook his head.
“Buck?” Ezra asked.
“I just got a feelin’, that’s all,” Buck replied.
They all fell quiet again. They were used to Vin or maybe Chris getting bad feelings about situations, but for Buck to say it…
“Is this a Guide thing?” Jim asked curiously.
Buck jumped up out of his chair, fury written on his face. “No, damn it! It’s not a Guide thing! It’s a ‘I’m not sure traipsin’ off across the universe to some damn unknown planet without knowing what exactly they want is a good idea’ thing! Besides which,” he threw his hands in the air, frustrated, “Ezra had a hell of a time just entering your compound with all these new Sentinels and Guides around. Now you want him to travel to another God Damned planet with MORE freakin’ Sentinels and Guides, and expect him to ‘handle’ things?!” Buck stared at Jim, breathing hard after having said most of that in one breath.
“Buck,” Ezra said softly, one hand going to his Guide’s back. “They wouldn’t ask if they didn’t need our help, or if they thought we couldn’t handle it.” He met Buck’s roiling blue eyes calmly enough, though Buck could see the anxiety in Ezra’s eyes.
He took a deep breath and sat down. “I’m sorry,” Buck ran his hand through his hair, “but this is still new to me, too. Guess I’m feelin’ a bit out of my element.”
“I think we are all a little concerned, big dog,” Chris said kindly. He looked to O’Neill and glared. “You know I’m not letting you take Buck and Ezra without me…”
“Or the rest of us,” Vin added firmly. The others nodded their agreement.
O’Neill smirked. “Ellison said you’d play it that way, that’s why you all got the 101 lecture.” He leaned his elbows on the table. “Look. We’ve done this with Ellison and Sawyer, we’ll use the same protocol for you. Gate to a safe world first, let Standish get his sea legs and then we’ll go on the mission.” He saw grudging acceptance in Larabee’s eyes and continued. “As for not knowing what to expect,” Jack looked at Wilmington, “they wouldn’t give us the details either. Just that we needed to bring our other Sentinel and Guide, though he called them something else…” He glanced at Daniel.
“Custos e Tutor,” Daniel replied.
“Sounds like it might be Latin,” Josiah offered.
Daniel nodded. “It is Latin,” he shrugged. “At least we’re fairly confident it is… There’s the whole pronunciation of a dead language problem, changes that may have occurred in the last three thousand years, but…”
Jack interrupted. “Nothing we haven’t done before. You didn’t speak Ancient Egyptian before either.”
“That’s different, Jack," Daniel disagreed. “I haven’t had the chance to speak Latin with a native speaker, so I’m not as comfortable with it as some of the other languages, but that’s beside the point… Roughly, ‘Custos e Tutor’ translates to guardian and defender.”
“Sentinel and Guide,” Blair said softly. “Did they mention their abilities? Actually say that the Custos had hyper senses?”
Daniel shook his head. “No, but Mike and Carl said that both Sheila and Peter agreed that the two natives were Sentinels.” He leaned forward to rest his arms on the table. “Look. I know how hard this is, hearing all this super fantastic, seemingly scifi stuff and being expected to accept it, and to trust us,” Daniel said, addressing the Seven. “But it’s all true, I think Mr. Standish can tell that we aren’t lying, and that Jim and Blair trust us. We really need your help.”
Ezra studied O’Neill and Jackson for a moment then looked back to Jim and Blair. He kept his emotions from showing on his face as he silently surveyed his friends to see what they thought. Most of them seemed intrigued, though Nathan was a bit concerned and Buck still seemed to be reluctant. Ezra turned back to Colonel O’Neill.
“I can’t speak for my friends, but I would like to be of assistance.” O’Neill started to grin, but Ezra held up his hand. “However, I will not go without Mr. Wilmington. I have only just begun to learn to control my abilities and without his help, I fear I would be more hindrance than help.”
Blair smiled and turned a look on Jim.
“What?” Jim asked, not sure what he’d done to deserve the rebuke in Blair’s eyes.
“You never would have…” Blair trailed off, then snorted softly. “Never mind, Jim,” he said with fond amusement. “It’s not important.” He smiled at his friend who was completely confused, and decided not to ask.
“So Mr. Wilmington?” Daniel asked.
“Ah, Ez,” Buck sighed. He turned to Daniel. “Can you give us a few minutes?”
“Sure,” O’Neill replied. He stood and Daniel followed suit. “We’ll just wait in the other room.”
“Do you want us to stay?” Blair asked.
“Is there anything you can tell us that would help?” Chris replied.
“We’ve worked with O’Neill, off-planet, before,” Jim said.
“And they have a permanent SG pair assigned to Stargate Command. We laid down
some rules and they seem to be sticking to their word.”
“And,” Blair added, “We have the President on our side, too.” He frowned. “Although, I get the feeling the SGC has his ear as well. And a prior claim, so to speak.”
“Only so far as the end of this administration,” Ezra supplied pessimistically.
“Maybe,” Jim said. “But we feel the need to assist. They’ve literally saved the planet a few times.”
Blair grinned slyly. “It hits all those Sentinel ‘protect the tribe’ buttons.” He stood. “You guys talk about it. Jim and I have some things to discuss with O’Neill.”
Jim nodded and followed Blair out of the den.
“Well, Buck?” Chris asked after they had left.
“I can’t explain it, Chris,” Buck said defensively. “Anymore’n you or Vin can explain it when you get a feelin’.” He looked at Ezra.
“There are other factors to consider,” Ezra said, sending a glance at Nathan.
The medic nodded. “I’m not too sure about leaving the planet. What happens if we… don’t come back?”
“No one has to go,” Chris said. “It’s strictly voluntary. I know I’d be having second thoughts if I were married.”
“What about Mary?” Vin asked. “And Billy?”
Chris pressed his lips together, not quite frowning.
JD shook his head. “It’s not the same, he’s not married to Mary.”
“What about Casey?” Buck asked.
“Heck, Buck,” JD said with a grin. “She’d be right here rarin’ to go if she knew. Besides, it doesn’t sound like we’re going to be in any real danger.”
“If we lose this challenge,” Josiah interrupted, “it sounds like we may lose more than we are willing. Not only the SG pair already on the planet, but maybe even Jim, Blair, Ezra and Buck.”
Ezra leaned forward, elbows on the table and rubbed at his temples. “Do you think I can handle this, Buck?” he asked, sounding uncertain.
Buck sighed. “Hell, Ez. You can do anything you put your mind to, I’m just… What if…” He ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “I don’t want to put you at risk. If you have trouble and I can’t help…”
Ezra gave him a half grin. “We’d have a few resources to fall back on, but I have no doubt in you, Buck.” The grin faded. “It’s my own abilities I’m uncertain of.”
“Enough already!” Vin said with a grimace. “You two are the sorriest, whiniest, cry-babies I’ve ever seen.”
Josiah snorted and covered his grin with his hand.
Vin ignored him as he continued his tirade. “Stop yer belly-achin’and worryin’ about what might happen. A man usually can’t get in the room ‘cause of all the space your two egos take up, and here you are wallowing in pity up to your elbows. Man!” He slumped down in his chair, arms crossed in aggravation.
Chris and JD were outright laughing while Nathan and Josiah were restraining themselves to very big grins. Buck and Ezra stared at Vin for a moment then exchanged a glance and grinned.
Ezra cocked an eyebrow. “Mr. Tanner is correct, how could we possibly even contemplate failure with our considerable talents?”
“Not to mention good looks,” Buck added slyly.
Vin snorted, his eyes twinkling with mischief.
Chris surveyed the group and his gaze landed on Buck. “I’ll back your choice, big dog. Either way. Everyone else can make up their own mind.”
Buck looked at Ezra. “Well?”
“I feel somewhat… obligated to go,” Ezra said. “At the same time,” he grinned, “I want to go, but I will not go if you don’t.”
JD, Vin and Josiah nodded their agreement.
Buck dropped his gaze to the floor. “I don’t really appreciate being put in this spot. Who knows what we’re going to be facing, what’ll happen if we do lose?” he looked up. “Are you prepared to never come back home?”
Ezra swallowed hard. “That would not be the preferred outcome.”
“Ah, hell,” Buck sighed. He met Nathan’s eyes questioningly.
Nathan shrugged. “I don’t know what your ‘feeling’ is telling you, but I’m willing to listen to it. I shouldn’t,” he broke off shaking his head. “Rain’ll kill me, but damn… a man doesn’t get the chance to go to another planet every day. I think she’ll be more upset that she wasn’t here with us.” He sighed. “I do want to call her first.”
“You can’t tell her…” Chris started.
Nathan raised his hand. “I know. But… just in case.”
Ezra frowned. “Nathan, you shouldn’t come.”
“You make it sound like we’ve actually made a decision, Ez,” Nathan said with a small smile.
“I will not be responsible for tearing you away from your wife,” Ezra replied. “Rain doesn’t deserve that and if she ever finds out, she’ll kill me!” he added theatrically, earning a chuckle from the others.
“You guys make it sound like we aren’t coming back,” JD chimed in. He shook his head. “Haven’t you ever heard of positive thinking? Besides, we do have a pretty good track record for getting out of tight places. I think we can do this.”
“We don’t know what ‘this’ is, John Dunne,” Josiah reminded. “Never-the-less, I’m in. I never dreamed I’d ever set foot on another planet. I’m not passing this up.”
Vin nodded his agreement and looked to Chris. They went around the table, even Nathan giving his approval and ending back at Buck.
He shook his head. “Just remember, I warned ya. I don’t want to hear any complainin’ if we end up having to live under a purple sky with three headed birds for the rest of our lives.”
“Ah, that’s the adventurous rogue we all know and love,” Josiah quipped, earning a few chuckles.
Blair grabbed Jack’s sleeve. “Is there something you aren’t telling us?”
Jack looked pointedly at his arm until Blair released it. Even though he considered the younger man a… friend, sometimes Blair pushed the boundaries a bit.
“We’ve told you everything we know, Blair,” Daniel supplied. “Carl and Mike are at the SGC waiting to answer your questions, but until we get to 432, you know as much as we do.”
Blair sighed. “I’m sorry. I feel responsible for them.”
“And you think I don’t?” Jack shot back. “They’re under my command.”
Jim raised his hand. “Look, we all feel responsible, but let’s not argue about it, okay.” He looked at Daniel. “Do you think it will be a problem getting them to allow all of us to come?”
Daniel shook his head. “I don’t know, Jim. I only have Mike and Carl’s account to go by. I didn’t get to meet the people myself.”
“So we just have to wait,” Blair said softly.
“I hate waiting,” Jim said.
“I’m going to call Simon and let him know we’ll be… busy for a while,” Blair said. He pulled out his cell phone and headed for the kitchen.
Jim leaned against the back of the couch and met Jack’s gaze.
“Larabee’s a bit of a cowboy from what I’ve heard,” Jack said.
Jim grinned. “We worked with them a few months back. They’re a solid team. I trust them.”
“Sandburg? What’s wrong?”
“Why do you always assume something's wrong when I call?”
“Because you never call when you just want to visit, you have Jim call and then you confiscate the phone. What’s wrong?”
“Jim and I have to go to Colorado for a while.”
“Colorado? Damn. Peter and Sheila?”
“Yeah. They need our help… on an assignment.”
“Shit. Do you need backup?”
Chuckle. “Simon, it’s… you know Jack has his own people. No, the backup they need is Jim’s specialty. Oh, and we may be taking our friends from Denver, too.”
“I miss out on all the fun.”
“We miss you too, Simon.”
“Any idea how long you’ll be there?”
“No. A few days at least, maybe longer. I’ll have George keep you informed.”
“All right. I don’t like it, but I guess there’s not much I can do. You two take care, you hear?”
“We will, Simon. Tell everyone we said hi.”
Vin opened the door to the conference room and waved for the others to rejoin them.
“Well,” Jack asked, not bothering to take a seat.
Chris stood. “We’ll go, but we aren’t committing to the op until we see how Ezra does on this trial run. I won’t endanger any of my men unnecessarily.”
Jack nodded. “I can accept that.”
Jim nodded. “I can put a call in to another pair in Chicago and one in Milwaukee in case things don’t pan out. Gate travel is…” Jim trailed off recalling the sensations as he tried to figure out the best way to describe it.
Blair nudged his partner and grinned. “I think the phrase Jim is looking for is ‘highly sensual.’”
Jim actually blushed. “Let’s just say, I haven’t experienced anything exactly like it before, and leave it at that.”
“All right, then,” Jack said. “Get packed and meet out at the choppers in an hour. We’ve got things to do, kids.” He turned and left the room.
Daniel sighed, grinned fondly and followed his partner. “Jack…”
“What does one wear to visit another planet?” Ezra inquired.
Nathan had his bag packed and ready to go in ten minutes. He left it with Josiah and headed for the Foundation’s infirmary. He knew the military would have medical supplies, but it never hurt to be prepared. After a brief discussion with the nurse on duty, who also happened to be a Guide, Nathan was given free access to the supplies. He opened the spare bag he’d brought and then stopped for a minute to call home.
“Hey, love,” Nathan said.
“Nathan,” Rain replied, “What’s wrong?”
“Why would you think something is wrong?” he asked as he started to move around the room and collect items they might need.
“You always call me after my shift is over unless there’s a problem. Is somebody hurt? Did something happen with Ezra?”
Rain knew about Ezra’s abilities, there had been no argument on the Sentinel’s part about sharing the information with Nathan’s wife. Ezra loved Rain like a sister and ‘wouldn’t conceive of requiring him to keep a secret from his dearly beloved.’ Nathan grinned as he recalled Ezra’s insistence that Rain be allowed in on the secret. At the moment, she was the only other person outside the team, besides Judge Travis to know.
“Rain, love, something’s come up,” Nathan replied. “We’ve been asked to assist the Air Force on a hostage situation. I can’t give you the details, it’s all top secret, but I wanted to let you know I’d be out of touch for a while.”
A moment of silence filled the line and Nathan paused as he dropped another roll of gauze into the bag. “Baby?”
“I’m here, Nathan. Will it be dangerous?”
“I don’t think so, it’s supposed to be an exchange, so far it’s been pretty peaceful, but they needed Jim and Blair’s help and when they found out about Ez, they asked us along as well.” He frowned, hating to keep her in the dark, but he’d told the truth as far as he was able to.
“Any idea how long you’ll be gone?” she asked softly.
“Hopefully just a few days. A week or so… I really don’t know. Not long, I hope. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too, Nathan. I wish I’d been able to go with you.”
Nathan smiled. “I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have allowed you to go on the mission, love. I do have a phone number, General Hammond is the man who’ll know what’s going on. He’ll call if it looks like we’ll be gone more than a week.”
“Be careful, Nathan. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Rain. And you be careful. Don’t go being a heroine while I’m gone. I hate it when I miss you on the news.”
Rain chuckled. “Give me the number, Nathan. I’ll make sure the guys record any of my heroic deeds for you.”
“You do that, baby,” Nathan said. “Got a pen?” She grunted for him to hold on and he could hear her rustling around over the line. Sometimes he wished Rain would give up being a firefighter/paramedic for something a bit less stressful on him, like a bomb diffuser or something. Of course, then she’d have the right to request the same of him. In any event, they both loved their jobs and their team mates too much to give them up. Nathan knew Rain’s crew almost as well as he knew Team 7. He sighed.
Across the compound, Chris, JD and Ezra were making similar calls. Chris talked briefly to Mary Travis and her son Billy and then called their boss, Judge Travis as well and gave him General Hammond’s number so they could square away any paperwork. JD spoke to Casey and Ezra left a message for Maude. Buck called Yosemite, one of Chris’ neighbors who looked after their horses for them and let him know they’d be gone for another week or so. Vin called Chris’ other neighbor, Nettie Wells, Casey’s aunt and asked her to check on Chris’ property and make sure Yosemite didn’t need anything while they were gone. Josiah called the nursing home where his sister, Hannah lived and let them know he wouldn’t be by for his regular visit this month, but would try to make it down as soon as he was able.
Nathan rejoined them with a bag full of medical supplies and the seven men headed for the chopper pad.
Jack checked his watch. They still had fifteen minutes but he could see the nine men heading toward him. He tapped the pilot on the shoulder. “Start ‘em up.”
Jack hopped out of the chopper and sauntered out away from the slowly rotating blades. Daniel fell into step beside him. “Ya’ll about ready?” he asked.
Larabee nodded for his men. Ellison and Sandburg exchanged a quick look and then nodded as well.
“Well, let’s get this show on the road,” Jack said waving an arm for the others to load up.
The choppers’ blades whirred to full power, making it hard to hear anything.
Jim waited for Blair to climb up, then frowned and turned to face the compound. Jesse and Kara ran toward them.
“Sentinel Jim!” he heard over the choppers. Jim jogged back out to talk to them.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Kara had another vision,” Jesse exclaimed. “Tell him!”
Kara nodded and took a breath. “I saw a black jaguar running with a… cougar, I think. They were looking for something.”
Jim frowned. “Is that all?”
Kara nodded. “They seemed upset.”
Jim’s eyes narrowed. “Okay, thanks. If you see anything else, tell Percy and he’ll get in touch with me.”
“Yes, sir,” the girls said in unison.
“Be careful,” Kara said softly.
Jim smiled. “We will. See you soon,” he promised, then ran back to the chopper.
The two teens watched the choppers lift off and fly out of sight.
“What now?” Kara asked.
“We watch over things until they get back,” Jesse replied with more confidence than she felt.
Jim pulled Blair aside as O’Neill introduced Team 7 to General Hammond, SG1 and the rest of JAG2. They hadn’t had a chance to speak alone since boarding the chopper.
Blair glanced back at the others. Buck was laying on his usual charm with Captain Carter. He met Jim’s gaze. “What did Jesse and Kara say?”
“Kara had another vision. A black jag and a cougar running together, looking for something. And upset.” Jim looked away briefly, then back. “Her words.”
Blair frowned. “I wish we knew more about this challenge. I get the feeling they’re going to pull something unexpected on us. We should tell the others.”
Jim nodded. “Looks like the introductions are over.” He and Blair moved back over to the conference table as everyone took a seat.
General Hammond cleared his throat. “First of all, I want to thank you for offering to help. I realize how strange this is. We’ve arranged to send you through to our beta site for a quick orientation. Major Broughton and Sergeant Tomas will go with you and brief you on the mission.”
Captain Carter spoke next. “Our supply officer is standing by to assist you with uniforms and equipment.”
“I beg your pardon,” Ezra interrupted. “What is wrong with what we are wearing? Why do we have to dress like soldiers?”
“Ezra,” Chris warned.
“It’s standard procedure when civilians go off world,” Carter explained, ignoring the smirk on O’Neill’s face. She’d get him back for making her be the heavy.
Ezra shook his head. “I think the fact that we are donating our time and efforts to this rescue mission should allow some leniency in your policies. I don’t wear camo.”
“It’s a damn uniform, Ezra,” Chris snarled.
Buck chuckled and put a hand on Chris and Ezra to stop the argument. “Actually, Ez has a point. He is sensitive to certain chemicals and fabrics,” he turned bottomless blue eyes on Captain Carter. “Is there really a need for Ezra to wear the BDUs?”
Sam found herself staring at the tall, mustached Romeo and gave herself a mental shake. She looked to the General for permission and then nodded. “All right, due to the circumstances, Mr. Standish can use his own clothing.”
“And Buck,” Ezra added.
This time Blair had to interrupt. “I think it would be a good idea if Jim and I don’t change either. I know we’ve been off world and used your uniforms in the past, but this situation…” He shook his head. “One of our strong clairvoyant Guides had a vision. A black jaguar and a cougar running together, worried and looking for something. I think that the more familiarity we can maintain, the better.”
“So,” JD said thoughtfully, “by that logic, shouldn’t we all remain in our street clothes? To help Ezra, that is. We did dress for trouble.”
“Excuse me?” Jack asked. “What do you mean by that?”
Team 7 chuckled and Vin explained. “Whenever we go on vacation it seems we run into trouble. We’ve got into the habit of dressing for trouble. Layered clothes, hiking boots, pocket knives, backup weapons, extra ammo. A few granola bars, water tablets,” Vin shrugged. “In case trouble finds us, we’re ready.”
Jack assessed the ATF agents and realized that they were dressed differently from when he’d landed in Cascade. He looked at Ellison. “What about you two?”
Blair grinned, stood and started emptying his pockets. The pile closely resembled the brief list Vin had given, plus a couple of pocket space blankets, a collapsible canteen and an Epi-pen.
Jim just smiled. “We have that problem with trouble, too.”
Nathan laughed and lifted his medical supplies onto the table. “We even brought our own first aid kit.”
Sam grinned and shook her head. “How about just the jackets?”
They stood in the gate room waiting for the final command to dial the gate. Jim stood next to Ezra and Buck.
“Where do you keep your senses at for normal?” Jim asked.
“Around three,” Ezra answered, “depending on the situation.”
Jim nodded. “I suggest you drop them to two before the gate opens, then to almost zero before you go through. It’s not painful, but I suspect that even at ‘normal’ your sense of touch is going to be affected by the energy of the wormhole.”
Ezra nodded and looked Jim in the eye. He whispered softly, “What’s it like?”
Jim’s lips twitched slightly as he covered a grin and answered just as softly. “It’s one of the most erotic things I’ve ever experienced.”
The younger Sentinel’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Almost zero, you say?”
“Unless you want to arrive at the other end in agony,” Jim finished, this time he let the wolfish smile touch his lips.
Ezra chuckled uneasily, but was saved from answering as the general announced that they were clear to go. Everyone grabbed their packs and faced the gate. Ezra set his levels at two and took a step closer to Buck. His friend put a hand on his shoulder and they waited.
“Chevron seven, locked,” the soldier in the control booth announced.
Ezra gasped as the center of the gate swirled with color and sound and energy. He stumbled back a step and ruthlessly cranked his senses down another notch. Buck was in front of him now, talking to him, but he couldn’t hear him over the ‘noise’ of the gate. He had to focus. Control. He could do this.
Slowly, he wrestled with the flood of noise and energy until he was able to push through it and focus on Buck. He could feel warm hands on his face and hear the worry in Buck’s voice. Ezra blinked and was surprised to find he was still on his feet, though leaning heavily against someone behind him.
“Ez? You with me, pard?” Buck asked.
“I… believe so, Buck,” Ezra answered taking a deep breath. He looked around and saw that everyone was still there and the wormhole was still opened. He regained his balance, moving away from Josiah’s helpful support and stared at the open gate. “It was a bit more than I expected.”
“Did you turn everything down?” Jim asked, frowning.
“Yes, as you suggested,” Ezra replied.
“Hmph,” Jim grunted.
Blair nudged Jim. “You had already felt the gate open once before we went through, if you recall it floored you that first time, too.”
“Hmm,” Jim agreed. “Think you’re ready to go through?”
Ezra took another breath. “Almost zero?”
Jim grinned. “Maybe a bit lower.”
Buck shook his head. “You gotta be able to walk through, Ez.”
“Yes, well,” Ezra stalled, “perhaps you had better be prepared to catch me on the other side.”
The others chuckled, though his team mates’ chuckles were more anxious than the rest.
“Do not fear,” Ezra said. “I’ve been assured that it won’t hurt me, just make me extremely amorous.”
Blair snorted and started to laugh at the chagrin on Jim’s face.
“I should have just let you go through unprepared,” Jim mumbled. “What happened to honor among Sentinels?”
Ezra grinned. “I had to warn my friends, didn’t I?”
“Are we going through?” Jack asked, “Or did you ladies want an engraved invitation?”
“Come on, Chief,” Jim said. “I want to watch while Standish comes through.” He caught Blair’s arm and tugged him up the ramp.
Blair looked back over his shoulder. “Watch him, Buck. Make sure he has his senses tu…” he disappeared through the wormhole behind Jim.
JD was up on the ramp. “Come on, guys.”
Josiah and Vin joined him, grinning hugely. “Right behind ya, JD,” Vin said and the three men stepped through.
Chris grinned and shook his head. He looked at Nathan, Buck and Ezra.
“Go ahead, Chris,” Buck said. “We’ll come through last.”
“Nate?” Chris asked.
The medic adjusted his bags over his shoulder. “Let’s do it.” The two men gave a nod to their friends and strode up the ramp, not even pausing as they went through.
Jack looked at Buck and Ezra. “Want us to wait? Tomas and Broughton went on ahead.”
Buck shook his head. “You go on. We’ll be right behind you.”
Jack nodded. “Come on, Daniel.” Carter and Teal’c had to stay behind to catalog a shipment of Goa’uld artifacts that had just been uncovered. Sam’s ability to use the Goa’uld technology and Teal’c’s familiarity were both required.
Buck watched as the Colonel and Jackson went through the gate then turned to Ezra. “You sure about this?”
Ezra nodded. “It shouldn’t be that bad, Buck. I’ve already been able to adjust and bring my senses up to normal. I’ll take Jim’s advice though and take them down as far as possible this first time through.”
“Okay, let’s do it, then.”
Ezra paused for a second as he took his senses down to minimum. He could see and hear, but only just and he felt as though his whole body was asleep, but with Buck beside him, he managed to make it up the ramp and they stepped through the event horizon.
Jim waited until the gate shut down to bring his senses back to their normal settings. As much as he appreciated the affects of the gate, he didn’t have time for the distraction, he needed to be prepared for whatever the natives of 432 had in store.
Blair came to a stop beside him and Jim stretched his senses out over the surrounding area. They appeared to be alone. He turned to the rest of the group and met O’Neill’s questioning gaze.
Jack nodded and looked at Standish and Wilmington. It seemed gate travel was harder on Standish than Ellison or Sawyer. According to Sandburg, it was probably due to his highly tuned sense of touch. Even so, Standish appeared to be adjusting more quickly than his last two times through the gate, so Jack motioned for Broughton to lead them to the village.
They hadn’t gone very far when Jim called out for them to stop. “I can sense their Sentinels,” he said. “We should wait here.”
Ezra nodded. “There are three of them, not two.”
Jim frowned and closed his eyes for a moment. “Ezra’s right.” He looked at Daniel and smiled ruefully. “Looks like you were right, too. They thought they could catch us with our pants down.”
Ezra laughed. “Won’t they be upset when we trump their hand.”
His team mates chuckled and Buck shook his head disbelievingly. “What? No poker metaphor?”
Ezra shrugged. “It didn’t seem to fit the situation.” He grew serious and looked down the road. “I do believe we have company coming, gentlemen.”
They all went on alert as the group of six natives approached. Jim did another sweep of the area with his senses while Ezra focused on the welcoming party.
“There are others in the forest,” Vin advised. Jim grunted and Ezra nodded ever so slightly.
“There are only two Sentinels in this group,” Ezra added with a smug tone.
The natives stopped about ten feet away. A tall dark haired man took another few steps forward. “Who are you and what are your intentions?”
Jim took a step forward. Ezra joined him staying a few steps behind and to his left. Blair stood at his right shoulder. “I am Custos Ellison,” he motioned to his right, somehow instinctively realizing he should introduce Blair before any of the others. “This is my Shaman, Sandburg.” He wasn’t sure ‘shaman’ would be understood, but it was a more accurate title for his Guide. “We’ve come to retrieve our people.”
The leader nodded. “I am Custos Alanus, this is my Tutor, Marcella,” he said, indicating a petite brunette who came up beside him. “Please relinquish your weapons and we shall adjourn to the village.”
Jack opened his mouth to protest.
“Jack,” Daniel whispered harshly.
Josiah stepped forward. “Are we guests or prisoners?”
Alanus looked at the older man. “Guests, for the moment.”
Josiah lifted a hand in query. “Would you require a guest to surrender all means of protection?”
The Custos narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “You may keep your knives, but hand over the projectile weapons. We will keep them safe for you. On my honor.”
Jack scowled at Daniel, but the archeologist simply nodded and removed his hand gun from its holster.
“Josiah?” Chris asked.
“As guests, we have the right to be able to protect ourselves, they have the right to ensure we are not a threat,” Josiah explained.
Chris nodded and shared a grim look with Jack and Jim, but then removed his guns as well. Fortunately, they had all considered some type of knife a must. Nathan had his set of throwing knives as well as a utility knife. One never knew when a gun might jam or run out of ammo.
After all the guns were laid down, Alanus gestured for them to follow. He and the other five members of the party led the way, secure in the knowledge that their people at the edge of the trees had the visitors covered.
“Why is it that we can understand them?” JD asked softly.
Daniel shrugged. “We don’t know exactly. It’s related to traveling through the gate. Somehow, it allows you to understand most humanoid based languages, but the effect is… transitory. If you really concentrate, you can hear that they aren’t speaking English, just like we aren’t speaking their language.”
“That’s cool,” JD said. “Does that mean when we go home we’d be able to understand another Earth language for a while?”
Daniel chuckled. “No, it doesn’t seem to work that way. We’ve got people trying to figure out how the translation program works, but haven’t had any luck so far.”
“Heads up,” Jack warned. They could see people lined up along the side of the road now and just beyond them, buildings that appeared to be homes.
They were led through the village to a long, one story building which they entered. It seemed to be a meeting place. Chairs and benches lined the walls, but you could see scuff marks on the wood floor where they had been dragged off to make space in the center of the hall. At the opposite end sat a table with three people sitting behind it. Guards stood to either side and at intervals along the walls, all armed with short bows.
Alanus went straight to the table and tipped his head in respect to the three seated there. The man in the middle nodded back and the Custos turned slightly indicating the visitors with a wave of his hand. “The challenge has been answered, Magister. The intruders have three Custos, although one pair is still Seorsum.”
The Magister jerked his attention from Alanus to the men who had come through the Orbis Astrum Viat. How had they known to bring two Custos? He looked to the woman on his left. She smiled acceptingly and stood. The man on his other side stood as well.
“I am Custos Aida,” she said. “My Tutor, Arden and Magister Antony Cornelius, welcome you to Valthoria.”
O’Neill moved forward. “Thank you, Custos Aida, Tutor, Magister,” he said, stumbling over the words slightly. “My name is Colonel Jack O’Neill. We are travelers and explorers from Earth. My team came to your world in hopes of making an alliance.” He indicated Broughton and Tomas. “There was a misunderstanding of some sort and you wouldn’t allow our… Custos and… Tutor to leave. I came as the leader of my people to arrange to get them back.”
Aida listened to Jack and then turned to Alanus and what Jack assumed was the third Sentinel since they seemed to be speaking to each other, even though they were some distance apart and whispering.
He looked at Jim, eyebrows raised.
“They’re discussing whether or not they think you’re telling the truth,” Jim whispered.
Jack sighed. He had tried to stay with the speech they’d planned. The only part that could possibly be misconstrued was that he wasn’t, strictly speaking, the ‘leader’ of all the people of Earth.
The conference ended and Aida spoke. “We acknowledge the fact that your Custos did not enter our village with violence in mind, but we must insist that custom be followed. If we allowed you to simply walk away, we would lose face with the other communities on Valthoria. We cannot let your Custos’ transgression to pass unchallenged.”
Jim stepped forward. “What if we don’t want to play your
Aida glanced at Alanus.
“May I introduce Custos Ellison and Tutor… Shaman Sandburg,” Alanus said.
Aida nodded. “Custos Ellison, if you do not accept challenge, then Custos Sawyer and Tutor Sawyer will be forfeit. They will stay on here and be integrated into our village.”
Jim growled and took a few steps more before Blair was able to stop him. He stood in front of Jim with his hand on the Sentinel’s chest until Jim met his eyes. Blair nodded and turned to face Aida.
“Custos, surely there are exceptions to your customs?” Blair asked, turning on his charm.
Aida straightened and looked surprised to see her Tutor step between her and Sandburg.
Tutor Arden glared at Blair. “You have overstepped your bounds, Tutor,” he almost snarled.
Blair frowned and decided he didn’t know exactly what Arden meant, but maybe he could use the man’s indignation against him. “I am Shaman, Tutor,” he said, stressing Tutor to make it sound like a lesser title.
Arden paused uncertainly.
Buck stepped up beside Blair. “Now, now, let’s not get into a pissing contest here,” he couldn’t quite understand why he was interfering, but also knew that he needed to smooth things over. “Why don’t we all sit down and talk about things like civilized folk?”
Ezra smirked. That was his Guide. Always the peacemaker.
Unfortunately, Buck didn’t have all the information.
Arden pulled his shoulders back and sneered at the mustached man. “You have no right to interfere, Experspectus Iugum!”
Buck’s eyes widened. He’d been insulted, but he didn’t know how.
“Enough!” Magister Cornelius said. “Custos Aida?”
She looked to the village leader and nodded. “Custos Venatio!” she announced loudly.
The Valthorians in the room cheered. When they quieted, Aida continued. “Take them to the others and make sure they are prepared. The challenge begins tomorrow.”
The guards moved forward, surrounding the Earthlings, their bows loaded.
Jack raised his hands and the others followed suit. “At least they’re taking us to Sheila and Peter.”
Thirty minutes later, they still weren’t clear on what exactly was expected of them. Sheila and Peter had greeted them with relief and filled them in on what they knew, but it wasn’t much. The villagers had expected to win the challenge by default since the intruders only had two Custos. Sheila was relieved to see the unknown Sentinel with Jim and the others, but couldn’t tell them what the challenge entailed.
Buck scratched his head. “What did he call me?” The others frowned at the non-sequitur. “You know, that Tutor… Guide. He got all snooty when I spoke up and called me… Expre… something.”
Ezra closed his eyes then said, “Experspectus Iugum.”
“Yeah, that’s it. What does it mean?” Buck asked looking from Ezra to Josiah to Daniel, the three who seemed to have the most knowledge of Latin.
“Iugum,” Josiah said thoughtfully, “might be union… or a pair of oxen,” he added with a wry grin.
The others laughed.
“A union,” Blair repeated, “or maybe bond?” His knowledge of Latin was minimal.
Daniel nodded. “Could be. Expers is imperfect or deficient.”
“Experspectus,” Ezra muttered. “Pectus is of the heart or soul, if I recall.”
Blair stood up and started to pace. He mumbled under his breath as he moved back and forth. “Imperfect… heart… union… deficient… bond…” He stopped suddenly and looked at Buck in surprise. “He was saying that you are unbonded.”
Buck frowned and glanced at Ezra who merely shrugged. “So he felt he had the right to look down on me for that?”
Blair sighed. “Buck, I don’t know. This culture has been around a long time. They’ve probably developed all sorts of… traditions relating to Sentinel/Guide pairs.” He looked at Jim. “This is what I was talking about.”
Jim gave a half smile. “I hear you, Chief. What about those other words I didn’t understand? Custos… Venatio, and Seorsum?”
“Venatio is game or hunt, possible chase,” Josiah provided. “Seorsum means separately or apart. I suspect that was referring to Buck and Ezra’s lack of a bond as well.”
Sheila nodded. “They said that word when they first brought us in, Seorsum, but the one called Arden said no we,” she indicated herself and Peter, “were Pectus Iugum.”
“Soul bound,” Daniel translated. “At least that’s what makes the most sense of all the possible combinations.” He sighed and looked at Jack expectantly.
“What?” Jack asked, aggravated. “I’m not the one who got us into this mess, why do you always expect me to get us out?”
Daniel grinned at Jack’s whining. “Because you’re the leader, Jack. What do we do now?”
The others chuckled at the face Jack made in reply, but the colonel quickly became serious again.
“Can we break out?” he asked, pointing his question toward the three Sentinels.
“There are guards all around the building,” Jim advised.
“I have detected no apertures in the building’s construction to allow us escape,” Ezra added.
Sheila nodded. “They change the guards regularly, so they don’t get lax. They’ve brought us three meals a day, but otherwise no one has come in until you got here.”
Jack sighed. “Guess we’ll just have to wait and see what they have planned for us in the morning, maybe we can make an escape then. Unless anyone else has an idea?”
“What if we just play their game?” Nathan asked. “Could be we would win.”
“We don’t know what the game is,” Jack reminded, “or even what the stakes are. For sure, if we lose, we lose Sheila and Peter.”
Nathan inhaled through his nose and exhaled noisily. “Doesn’t seem right to try and escape when we don’t have all the information. If we do get away, someone will probably get hurt, us or them. And it’ll make for bad relations. We might be able to learn some things from these people.”
Blair nodded. “I would love to talk to them about Sentinels and…” he stopped when Jim put his hand on his arm.
“We know Chief, but our safety and getting everyone home has to come first.”
“I know, Jim. It would be a shame though to miss the opportunity.”
“So we wait,” Chris said, crossing his arms as he leaned back in his chair.
“Yep,” Buck replied. “Looks like.”
Several hours later
Ezra had brought out a deck of cards and interested some of them in a game. The others sat alone or in small groups talking. Buck had commandeered Blair and Peter to talk about being a Guide. Josiah and Daniel were off to one side discussing the differences between the Latin they knew and the few words they’d heard spoken on Valthoria. Mike and Carl were taking their turn watching the door.
The Sentinels turned as one to look at the door.
“Someone’s coming,” Jim said. Everyone stood, waiting for any chance they might get.
“Stand away from the door,” a voice commanded from the other side. “Our Custos knows where you are,” the voice advised.
Ezra sighed and nodded. “It’s the one we don’t have a name for yet.”
They backed up and the door opened. The Custos came in first and gave a slight nod. “I am Custos Darius, my Tutor Tristanus. We have brought food.” He moved out of the way as several people came in bearing trays with food, drink and strangely enough, what appeared to be flowering plants. The table was completely set before Darius spoke again. “Please, enjoy your meal.” He bowed and left with the servers.
“Fascinating,” Daniel said, still staring at the door.
“Get over here and eat, Spock,” Jack said gruffly, “before it’s all gone.”
Everyone dug in.
“It is interesting though,” Blair said as he ate. “They obviously put a lot of emphasis on being good hosts, although they do have an odd choice for table decorations.”
The others agreed. The plants were about a foot tall with long, broad leaves reminiscent of orchids, but the flowers were not attractive, at least by Earth standards. The bell shaped flower had fuzzy, dingy, orange petals. The flower drooped on its stem as if in dire need of watering.
“Maybe it’s got some cultural significance,” Daniel said hesitantly.
They all dismissed the idea and continued their meal which was quite tasty and filling. By the time they finished, the sun was going down.
“Hey,” JD said, “I guess they prefer night time.” He pointed at the flowers. The bells were slowly lifting and opening a bit to reveal a lighter center.
“Perhaps the creature that pollinates them is nocturnal,” Ezra suggested.
Jim frowned. He could see small puffs of pollen coming off the plants now that he hadn’t noticed before. He yawned and blinked, suddenly very tired.
Soon, everyone was sleeping soundly.
Jim rolled over and grunted as a stone dug its way into his side. Why the hell am I sleeping on the ground? Suddenly he was fully awake, though he kept his eyes closed as he took in the situation. The last thing he remembered was all of them talking about those stupid plants the Valthorians used as table decorations. We must have been drugged somehow. Wonder how I missed that?
He automatically ‘searched’ for Blair and just barely kept from leaping to his feet when he realized that the heartbeat he heard beside him did not belong to his partner. The person… man was familiar, a friend, but not his Guide. Jim finally opened his eyes after determining that no one else was around. Chris Larabee lay on his back several feet away, still asleep. Or was he unconscious?
Jim rolled on to his knees and paused for a moment as a wave of dizziness swept over him. He crawled over to Larabee and shook him. “Larabee! Wake up.” He shook the agent again. “Chris!”
Larabee’s eyes shot open and he lunged into a sit, his fist swinging toward his unknown assailant.
Jim ducked and turned, letting his shoulder take the impact. “Knock it off, Larabee. It’s Ellison. Wake up.”
Chris wobbled a bit and then grimaced as his vision cleared. “Ellison? Sorry ‘bout that,” he mumbled, shaking his head to clear away the cobwebs. He looked around. “Where the hell are we?”
Trees surrounded them. Trees that were not from Earth. Sounds of creatures they didn’t know started back up around them, now that the wildlife had assessed the danger.
Jim shook his head. “We’re still on Valthoria, but I don’t know where exactly.” He looked at the ATF leader doubtfully. “You think you can ground me while I do a more thorough search of the area?”
Chris blinked and nodded. He scooted over a bit to where Jim was still sitting and met the Sentinel’s eyes. “What do you need me to do?”
“Just make sure I don’t zone, you remember the exercises Buck and Ezra were working on?”
Chris nodded and watched as Ellison took a deep breath and closed his eyes. His head tilted as he sent his senses out in search of the others.
“Come on, Buck,” JD urged. “Slow down. We don’t even know if we’re going in the right direction.”
Buck stopped and swung around to face JD. “What do you suggest then, JD? We just wait here for someone to find us?”
JD sighed. Buck had begun to act more and more irrational ever since they woke up in the middle of nowhere. “No, of course not, but going around in circles isn’t going to help either. We need a plan.”
“I’ve got a plan,” Buck said, pointing to his chest, his hand shaking with the intensity of his emotions. “I’m gonna find the bastards and beat the shit out of them until they tell me where Ezra is.” He turned on his heel and stalked off.
JD shook his head. Buck didn’t even realize what he was saying anymore. He’d started out with concern over all of their missing friends, now it was just his missing Sentinel. JD jogged to catch up with Buck. Maybe I can gently direct him… He frowned as Buck stopped suddenly. “Buck?”
The ladies man didn’t answer he just crumpled to the ground.
Nathan watched, worried. “Are you sure you can do this?”
Blair gave him a little grin. “I’ve done it before. Even contacted Peter when they were off world once. The only thing I’m worried about is the fact that Buck hasn’t actually bonded with Ezra, so I’m not sure I can link with him.”
“You need me to do anything?” Nathan asked.
“Just watch my back for me. I’d hate to get eaten by the local’s equivalent of a bear,” Blair grinned.
Josiah watched as Mike and Carl paced their enclosure again looking for a way to break out. He’d awakened to find only the three of them lying on the floor beside the table. Their used plates and leftover food still sitting where they’d left it the night before.
He leaned against the door and listened hoping to hear what was going on outside. Josiah sighed. He hated not knowing what was going on. Where were his partners and the others? Was this part of the challenge? No one had better be hurt, or there would be hell to pay.
Jack paced a few feet then looked back to Peter. The young man sat quietly on the ground with his eyes closed ‘communicating’ with Sheila. The colonel shook his head and continued pacing. He hated this. He hated not knowing what was going on and where his people were. And just how long did it take to talk to someone when you mind linked anyhow?!
Sheila put her hand out to stop Daniel.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Peter’s trying to establish our bond,” she said. “It’s harder to do over a distance, I need to concentrate.”
Daniel nodded and leaned against a nearby tree to watch as the Sentinel sat cross legged on the ground and closed her eyes. Maybe now they would be able to figure out where to go.
“Ezra! Ezra! Slow down,” Vin hollered. He caught his friend’s arm and hauled him to a stop. “How do you know which way to go?”
Ezra turned and growled. Vin almost let go, Ezra’s normally bright green eyes were golden colored like a cat’s. A very large, angry, pissed off cat.
“Ezra? Come on, man, talk to me,” Vin cajoled, trying to reach the man inside the Sentinel.
Ezra closed his eyes and shook his head. “Vin?”
Vin exhaled, relieved to see the green creeping back into Ezra’s confused gaze. “Yeah, Ez. Think you can tell me where we’re going?”
Ezra looked away, the same direction he had been heading before. “Buck,” he said, his voice catching in his throat. “That way.”
Vin ran a hand through his hair. “All right, pard, just try not to lose me, okay?”
Ezra gave him a small grin and nodded, then headed off again.
Jim smiled and embraced his brother briefly. “Do you know where you are?” he asked as they pulled apart.
“Not exactly,” Blair replied with a grin. “Nathan’s with me.”
“I’ve got Larabee.”
“You think they split us up into small groups?”
“Could be,” Jim considered. “But why? Can you reach Peter? Wilmington?”
“I’m going to try, I just wanted to get you in first,” Blair grinned ruefully. “Needed my backup.”
Jim smiled. “Ready and willing, Chief. Let’s get this thing figured out.”
Blair nodded and closed his eyes as he searched for the other Guides.
A moment later, Peter walked out of the forest toward him followed closely by Sheila. “Blair! Jim!”
“I see you two were already waiting for me,” Blair smiled.
Peter snorted. “I figured you’d be making contact and it’s easier for me and Sheila to bond first. We’ve got Jack and Daniel with us.”
They quickly compared notes and information about their surroundings.
Jim nodded thoughtfully. He scratched out a rough map. “I think I’m about here and the Stargate is here. I can feel the energy off the thing even when it’s shut down.”
“Yeah?” Blair asked.
“Well, there’s not a lot of other technical distractions,” Jim shrugged. “You ready to try for Wilmington?”
Blair took a deep breath. “Yeah. This may not be easy,” he looked at Peter. “I may need your help.”
“No problem,” Peter nodded.
They both closed their eyes and for several minutes it was quiet. Then a wolf howled and a cat screamed in the distance. Both Guides opened their eyes at once.
“This way, Chief,” Jim said, helping his partner back to his feet and leading them all off into the jungle.
They ran for some way before coming to a clearing. Buck lay sprawled on the ground with a huge gray wolf standing beside him. A cougar paced around them, its tail lashing viciously and its green eyes sparking angrily.
“Buck!” Blair called out. “Buck, it’s okay, you’re safe, wake up. We need your help to find Ezra.”
Finally, the tall, ladies man moaned and rolled onto his side to sit up. He looked up, someone was calling his name, and saw the two animals staring at him in concern. “What the hell?”
“Blair? What’s going on? How did you find us?” Buck looked around the clearing. “JD?” He bolted to his feet. “JD! Where is he?”
“Easy, Wilmington,” Jim said. “I’m sure JD’s right beside you, but you’re in the ‘jungle’,” he tapped his temple. “Only the Sentinels and Guides allowed.”
Buck opened his mouth to argue, but closed it and took a really good look at his surroundings. Everything was blue tinged and he saw his and Ezra’s animal spirit guides sitting beside him. He knelt down and put a tentative hand out toward the big cat. “Is Ezra okay?” he asked.
The cougar purred and pushed his head into the Guide’s hand. Buck lunged forward and hugged the animal hard, the cougar put a paw around Buck’s back and seemed to be hugging him back.
“Buck,” Blair interrupted. “Buck, can you contact Ezra and bring him into the link?”
Buck sat back keeping one hand on the cougar. “I don’t know. We’ve never… I mean… We haven’t…”
“I know, Buck, but it’s important. We need to know who’s with him and where they are so we can make a plan,” Blair said.
Buck nodded. “I don’t know what to do,” he admitted miserably.
Blair sighed. “I know. But we can do this,” he pointed at a faint line of light that seemed to be attached to Buck and led off into the distance. “See that? It’s your link to Ezra. You may not have formally bonded yet, but you do have one. If you concentrate on it and on him, I think you can find him.”
“Don’t think about it, Buck,” Peter said, “Just follow your instincts and do it.”
Blair put his hand on Buck’s shoulder. “Sit down and relax.”
Buck sat on the ground. “Relax? You’ve got to be kidding?”
Blair chuckled. “No, I’m not. Close your eyes and take a deep breath, hold it… good, now let it out slowly… and another breath… Think about Ezra and try to reach him.”
Buck did as he was instructed, his mind not calming at all as he breathed. This is crazy, I can’t talk to Ezra in my head, it’s nuts… Of course, I guess that is what I’m doing now with Blair and these guys… hmmm… Unless I’m hallucinating… Yeah, that’s it. Nah. Admit it, Bucko, you’re mind melding with four other people. So, what do I do? Relax? Yeah, right. I don’t think so. I wonder if they can hear my thoughts? I mean, we are already in each other’s heads, right? Oh Bla-air… Can you hear me? Hmmm. Guess not. Sheila sure is a looker, too bad she’s married. Humph. Guess they can’t hear me. Okay, down to business. Think about Ez and try to contact him. Damn, this would be easier with a phone number or somethin’. Well, hell, why not. Let’s see, what’s his cell number? Damn, got it on speed dial. Okay, um… 303-555-Ezra. Ringing, ringing… better not go to voice mail. Ezra, pick up, pard. I need to talk to you. Oh, Ez-ra. Hello? Ezra? This isn’t working…
Vin needed a break. He was in good shape, ran at least five miles every day and worked out. Still, he needed a breather. He knew Ezra was in good shape too, but the other agent was like a man possessed. He hadn’t slowed a bit over the several miles that they’d covered. It was a little different running five miles over fairly smooth terrain versus the ground eating pace they held over and through the Valthorian underbrush. Vin wondered if the Sentinel would even hear him if he did recommend they take a break.
Suddenly, Ezra slowed and stopped. He tilted his head as if to listen to something. “Do you hear that?” he asked.
Vin looked around and tried to hear over his own breathing. “Hear what, Ez?”
“Sounded like…” Ezra trailed off and stared into the forest.
“Like what?” Vin asked. He followed Ezra’s gaze, but saw nothing. “Ez?” he turned back. “Ah, crap!” he said taking the few steps necessary to close the distance between them. “What are you zoning on, Ezra?” Vin grabbed his friend by the shoulders and shook him.
“No, Vin,” Ezra said softly, “It’s Buck,” he said, his eyes still unfocused.
Ezra shook his head slightly and met Vin’s eyes. “He’s trying to reach me, in my mind.”
Vin’s eyes widened. “You mean like that bonding thing Jim and Blair told us about?”
Ezra shrugged. “I don’t know, but if we can communicate with him…”
“Okay, whatcha need me to do?”
Ezra looked around and found a smooth boulder partially covered in plants. He cleared the foliage away and took a seat. “Just watch my back while I try to reach him. Don’t interfere unless you think I’m in trouble, all right?”
Vin nodded and watched as Ezra closed his eyes and assumed a lotus position.
Ezra took several deep breaths to try and center himself. He knew he’d heard Buck and he’d seen his wolf. Somehow, even without having formally bonded, his Guide was calling to him and he damn well intended to make the connection.
As he relaxed and found that peaceful place in his soul, Ezra felt a tingle and opened his eyes.
A blue jungle surrounded him and he saw his cougar sitting in front of him. “Well, are you here to lead me to Buck?”
The cat blinked and slashed his tail, then stood and bounded off. Ezra leapt to his feet and followed. After a very short time, they entered a clearing. Buck sat on the ground. Jim, Blair, Sheila and Peter stood nearby.
“Buck!” Ezra called, racing over to his partner and grabbing his arm.
“Ezra?” Buck exclaimed, using the smaller man as leverage to haul himself to his feet. “It worked!”
The two men clutched each other’s shoulders and grinning madly. It was hard to tell who initiated the hug or the bond.
My Guide… My Sentinel… my brother…
Several minutes later, someone cleared their throat, loudly. Ezra and Buck reluctantly pulled out of their bond and met four sympathetic grins.
“Look, guys,” Blair said, “I know you need some time, but we just don’t have the luxury right now.”
Ezra nodded, having gotten at least that much from his short commune with his Guide. “Vin is with me. So we are missing Josiah and the other two members of JAG2, correct?”
“Right,” Jim agreed. “They could be together. It would have been nice for the Valthorians to at least tell us the rules of the game.”
“That would be too easy, Jim,” Blair said sarcastically. He sighed. “Take a look at this map and show us where you guys are.”
Buck and Ezra pointed out their positions.
“Can you sense the Stargate from where you are, Ezra?” Jim asked.
Ezra nodded. “Yes, but I’m heading toward Buck’s position. Vin and I were about here when we woke.” He pointed to a spot about two miles west of his current position.
Jim nodded. “My guess is that they want us to make our way back to the settlement, beyond that…”
“They called it Custos Venatio,” Ezra murmured. “Sentinel hunt, or game, or chase.” He met Jim’s eyes. “What are we to hunt or chase?”
“Why did they separate us as they did?” Sheila asked. “Did they know we could talk to each other this way?”
Blair started to pace. “They split up all the SG pairs and put us with…” He looked at the others. “I can’t see a pattern, but maybe they did.”
Peter shrugged. “I don’t know the ATF guys, but I can’t see any disadvantage to being partnered with Jack. Or for Sheila to be with Daniel, I mean, he might actually be able to help her if she did spike or zone. Daniel understands all this stuff as well as any of us. He’s not Guide material, but he has the right touch.”
Blair nodded in agreement. “Maybe they didn’t have any plan other than to separate the pairs. As a test? If so, we may not have a clear shot back to the village.”
“So,” Jim said, “we go to the Stargate, like I said.”
“I doubt the path to the Stargate would be challenge free either, if it is their intention to test our skills,” Ezra said.
“Well then,” Buck said, “maybe we should head in the opposite direction.”
They discussed their options and finally decided to meet at a point to the north of the village, on the opposite side from the Stargate.
“Jack isn’t going to appreciate being left out of the decision,” Peter said with a grin.
“Yeah,” Buck agreed, “well, neither is Chris, but they ain’t here.”
“And that leaves me with seniority,” Jim butted in. “Once we make it to the meet point, we can evaluate the situation again. For now, go back and brief your partners, we’ll see you soon.”
Jim and Blair watched as one by one the others disappeared until only they were left.
Jim and Blair both turned, surprised to find Incacha standing behind them.
“Inchacha? What are you doing here?” Jim asked.
The Chopec shaman smiled. “Here,” he waved his hand to indicate the jungle, “or here on Valthoria?”
“Well, both,” Blair answered.
“Distance cannot dictate the spirit, young shaman, as you well know. Not even the distance to another world.”
“So, why are you here?” Jim asked.
“That is the better question, Enqueri. You have been brought here to help bring balance back to the people of Valthoria. They have fallen from the true way of the Sentinel. You must guide them back to the path.”
“The true path?” Jim repeated. “How can you expect us to help them find it, when we aren’t even sure of the true path?”
Incacha smiled again. “You are on the true path, Enqueri. And you are guiding your people well. The Valthorians have forgotten that the Sentinel and his Guide are meant to be protectors of the people, not political leaders. They are not meant to be ‘counted’ as one would markers in a game to show who has the most. Although the Valthorians recognize the importance of the bond between the Sentinel and his Guide, they have lost their connection to their spirit guides. You must show them.”
“But how?” Blair asked.
“Each of your party has their own special gifts.” Incacha looked at Blair. “You are on the right track, trying to prevent those gifts from being used to designate rank among your students. Remember that when you deal with the Valthorians. You may have to use their own system against them.” He turned to walk away.
“Wait!” Blair called out in unison with Jim’s “Incacha!”
The shaman looked over his shoulder with an indulgent smile. “You will do fine, my children. Just stay true to yourselves.” And with that, he faded from sight.
“Ah, man,” Blair sighed. “Why does he always do that?”
Jim grimaced. “We don’t have time to stay here and talk about it, we need to get moving.”
“Yeah, Nathan and Chris will be getting worried by now.” Blair met Jim’s eyes. “Let’s think about it as we head to the meeting place, maybe by then we’ll come up with something.”
“I hope so, Chief.”
Chris followed Ellison at a good clip through the forest. He’d listened to the Sentinel’s explanation of what had taken place and was trying to wrap his head around the whole thing. It wasn’t that he disbelieved Ellison, but the mystical part of the Sentinel/Guide package was something he still hadn’t seen much of.
They paused at the edge of a clearing while Jim checked for danger.
“It’s clear,” he said, starting to move. Larabee caught his arm.
“So, Buck and Ezra bonded?” he asked. “I thought they had to be in contact…”
Jim shrugged. “I can only go by my own experience and what others have told me. I suppose that given the situation and the fact that they were both new to the whole spirit plane thing… Well, it seems real. You can touch people there, or at least have the illusion of doing so.” Jim shook his head minutely. “I’m not explaining this very well.”
Larabee frowned. “No, I think I got what you’re trying to say. I just didn't think they were ready for that level of… commitment.” He nodded toward the field and followed as Jim started off again.
“I think the circumstances may have brought things to a premature conclusion. Not that I don’t think they would have bonded eventually, but Buck seemed reluctant.”
Chris grinned. “Yeah, Buck’s idea of commitment is to tell a lady where he’s taking her on a date.” His grin faded. “Ezra sure seemed to want it though.”
“Ezra felt what it would be like when Tricia and Amy bonded,” Jim said, pausing to look at Larabee. “You were married…” Chris’ eyes narrowed, but he nodded. “When you see a happy couple, you know what it’s like, and sometimes, even though you know there’s bad along with the good, you want that feeling back,” Jim explained. “It’s something like that. Ezra had a taste of what the bond was like, enough to know he wanted it. Buck just had to be given a good enough reason to accept it.” Jim grinned ferally. “And believe me, when a Sentinel and Guide are separated against their will, there’s not much that will stop them from finding each other again. The stress of being separated in such a strange situation gave them incentive.”
Chris grunted as they continued. “I suppose this is what Captain Banks warned me about.”
“The part where things start to get really weird.”
Ezra stopped and brought his hand up.
Vin moved in close. “What is it, Ez?” he whispered.
“Someone’s out there, just ahead of us.” He frowned. “It’s Aida and Arden.” His eyebrows rose in surprise. “They are waiting for us, they know we’re here.”
“Is it part of the challenge?”
Ezra shrugged and took a deep breath. “I guess we will find out in a moment.” He started forward and soon they entered a small clearing where the Valthorian SG pair waited.
“Are you prepared, Custos?” Aida asked. She stood in the center of the clearing with a wooden staff in each hand.
“Prepared for what, my dear lady?” Ezra asked.
She smiled slightly. “Your challenge, of course.”
Ezra moved to stand in front of her, casting a quick glance at Arden who stood off to one side. “That would depend on what you have in mind.”
“A simple test of strength,” Aida replied, tossing one of the staves to Ezra. He caught it easily.
“If I am unfamiliar with your choice of weapons, you would have an unfair advantage,” Ezra stalled.
Aida’s smile broadened. “I note you say ‘if’ so I will assume you are familiar, and in that case, most would agree that I, as a woman, might be at the disadvantage.”
Ezra grinned at her as he slowly twirled his staff in front of him to get a feel for its weight. “Some would say that, I however would disagree. You appear to be a woman of many talents as well as one of exquisite beauty.”
“Ah, a man with a silver tongue,” Aida teased as she too brought her staff up and swung it around. “Are your hands as skillful as your mouth?”
Ezra tilted his head to cede her the point for that round and settled into position ready for her attack.
“Careful, Ez,” Vin warned. “This one’s gonna be quick as a snake and just as trustworthy.”
Ezra heard his friend, but kept his concentration on Aida as they started to move around, feinting and testing each other’s abilities. Then Aida came at him at full strength and the battle was on. They each landed hard blows that were met staff to staff. A few glancing blows from each opponent landed, but not enough to do more than bruise.
After several minutes, it became clear that Ezra was getting the upper hand. Aida brought her staff up too slowly and Ezra’s staff would have broken her arm except that she managed to turn and took the blow across her back. She jabbed her staff back and caught Ezra in the stomach, but the blow didn’t have a lot of power behind it. Aida spun around, bringing her staff up to a defensive position.
“How long must we continue this, Aida?” Ezra asked, not lowering his guard.
“Until there is a victor,” Aida said. She glanced at Arden then put her attention back on Ezra. “Why? Are you tiring?”
Ezra grinned and they continued.
Ezra blinked and missed blocking Aida’s swing. Her staff hit his leg and he stumbled. He looked up to see where she was. Ezra blinked and wiped at his eyes with one hand, almost losing his staff when Aida took advantage and slammed her staff into his. He couldn’t seem to clear his vision. Something wasn’t right. He felt mentally drained all of a sudden.
He could hear Vin calling to him, but his words didn’t make sense. What is wrong with me? Ezra shook his head and tried to concentrate. His movements felt sluggish as if he were under water. It was only by chance that he caught the look Aida shared with Arden. The Guide was doing something to him. He didn’t know what, but he needed help.
Buck! Ezra cried out across their newly formed bond. Help me!
Several miles away, Buck stumbled at the sound of Ezra’s plea in his mind. “Ezra?”
“What is it, Buck?” JD asked.
“Ezra. I heard him. He’s in trouble, kid,” Buck said, worry tingeing his voice. “I don’t know how to help.”
JD gnawed his lower lip. “How did you reach him earlier?”
Buck grimaced. “I don’t think that will work out here.”
“Why not? You’ve gotta try something.”
Buck nodded quickly. “Right, okay.” He closed his eyes and thought about Ezra and the connection they’d made earlier. He almost opened his eyes in surprise as he ‘saw’ the bright, golden line that led from him to his Sentinel. “Well, I’ll be… It’s working, JD.” Buck sent his thoughts down the link and found Ezra, or rather his spirit guide. I’m here, Ez. What the hell?
Something or someone had the cougar entangled in a net. The cougar’s struggles were getting weaker and more frantic. Hang on, Ez. Buck pulled out his knife and started to cut the net away from the cougar. Easy, boy. Let ol’ Buck help. It didn’t take him long to clear the net away. The cougar leapt away from the destroyed net and roared its defiance. Buck grinned as the proud animal rubbed against his legs and then took off at a run.
Guess I did good. Better get back to JD.
Buck opened his eyes to find JD watching him closely.
“Did it work? Is Ezra all right?” JD asked.
“I think so, kid. I hope so, anyway.”
Several miles away, Ezra shook himself and brought his staff up to block Aida’s attack. Her eyes widened with surprise when he rose from his knees and twisted the staff from her hand. Ezra shoved her shoulder, forcing Aida to face away from him, then he brought his staff over her head and caught it up under her chin, pulling her firmly to his chest.
“Do you yield?” he asked, putting just a bit more pressure on her wind pipe.
Aida sent a pleading look to her Guide. Arden looked just as surprised as he shrugged. Aida sighed. “I yield,” she said regretfully.
Ezra held her for a moment longer then quickly moved away, retaining his staff. “So I win?” he asked uncertainly.
Aida nodded. “You may continue. You are free to leave whenever you wish, you will not be challenged.”
“What about the others?” Vin asked. “Are they being challenged like this?”
“I do not know what the others will face,” Aida replied.
“What happens if we all win our challenges?” Ezra asked.
Aida dropped her gaze to the ground.
“You cheated,” Ezra proclaimed. “You have stacked the deck in your favor, first by not telling us the rules, then by splitting us up and now by using your Tutor’s gifts against a Custos that you thought could not fight against them. You thought to use my unbonded status against me,” he stated firmly.
Aida met his eyes, chagrinned. “Yes, you are correct. It was unexpected that you would solidify your bond in such a short time.” She frowned. “How did your Tutor know to help you?”
Ezra pressed his lips together to keep from smiling. “I suppose that is something you will just have to keep wondering about. We have someplace to be. Vin? Are you ready to continue?”
“Right behind you, Ez.”
The ATF agents gave the two Valthorians a nod and jogged off into the forest.
Arden moved up beside his Custos. “They are powerful, Aida. What happens if they do win?”
Aida swallowed hard. “I do not know, Arden. We need to report back to the Magister.”
Nathan followed Blair, surprised by the quick pace the smaller man kept. Blair had told him about the ‘conference in the jungle,’ and then headed off in the direction of the place they were to meet the others. Nathan wasn’t quite sure what to think, but didn’t really have a better plan.
Blair stopped and spun slowly on his heel, surveying the area.
“This is it,” he said.
“Here?” Nathan asked. “You sure?”
Blair met his eyes and grinned. “Pretty sure. Can’t be too far off, besides, once we’re all close enough Jim, Ezra and Sheila’ll find us and the others.”
Nathan nodded. “So now what?”
“I guess we wait.” Blair shaded his eyes from the sun with one hand. “Maybe we should start a fire. It’d be a good idea to eat something before we finish this challenge.”
“Good idea. I’ll get some wood.”
“I’ll check around and see if there’s any plants that looks edible,” Blair said. “Jim and Sheila can check them when they get here.”
“They can tell if something’s poisonous?” Nathan asked.
Blair shrugged. “Not precisely, not that I know of, but they should be able to tell if we can eat it without getting sick. Wish Paul was here, his sense of taste is much more developed.”
“Ah well,” Nathan chuckled. “We’ll just have to make due. Maybe Ezra can help, he’s pretty picky about what he eats.”
Blair grinned and they moved off in search of wood and food.
A short time later, Nathan had managed to get a fire going in a small fire pit.
Blair brought an armful of a reddish-yellow fruit and set them down beside the pit. “I saw birds pecking at some of these that had fallen from the tree. Don’t know how they taste, but…”
Nathan nodded. “I just hope there’s not something on this planet that we can’t tolerate.”
“Hello, the camp!” Daniel Jackson’s voice called out.
“Come on in,” Blair replied, standing to greet Daniel and Sheila.
“Blair,” Sheila said with a smile, putting her hand out.
He caught it and pulled her into a quick hug. “Are you all right?” Blair asked, backing out of the hug.
“Fine. Had a bit of a headache when I first woke up, but bonding with Peter helped. I can hear Peter, Jack, Jim and Chris. They should be here shortly.”
“What about the others?” Nathan asked. “Ezra, Buck, Vin, JD?”
Sheila shook her head. “Not yet. Maybe Jim can though.” She tilted her head for a second and then nodded. “Yes, Jim says he can hear them, they’re still about half an hour out.”
“Where’s Jim?” Blair asked
“Right here, Chief,” Jim said emerging from the edge of the forest followed by Chris Larabee. He lifted a strange looking animal, about the size of a large cat, by its hind legs. “Did someone mention dinner?”
Jack and Peter joined them a few minutes later and it was another twenty minutes before
Buck and JD burst into the clearing startling the non-Sentinels.
“Where’s Ezra?” Buck asked looking around frantically. “He’s not here yet?”
“Buck?” Chris asked standing and moving toward his old friend. “What’s wrong?”
Buck started pacing, throwing anxious glances toward one section of forest. Only JD’s quick grab of his arm kept the Guide from bolting off.
JD met Chris’ eyes. “Something happened to Ezra. We don’t know what exactly, but he called to Buck for help through their bond. Buck… went and came back, but didn’t really know what was going on. Ezra and Vin may have run into some trouble.”
Jim frowned. “They sounded like they were moving this way pretty fast when I checked earlier. Can’t be hurt too badly from their speed.”
“Would you check again?” Chris asked. “See if you can talk to Ezra?”
Jim nodded and focused on finding their last Sentinel. “Ezra? Ezra!” He frowned and shouted, “Ezra, answer me if you hear me!” He listened for a moment longer and shook his head. “If he hears me, he’s not answering. I have a feeling he’s too focused on getting to Buck.”
“What if Buck calls him?” Blair suggested.
Buck’s head jerked up and he yelled, “Ezra!”
Jim winced, then listened again. He grinned. “Vin’s cursing, and it sounds like they’re moving even faster. Should be here in a few minutes.”
Sure enough, several minutes later, Jim gave a quick warning and Ezra raced into the clearing followed by Vin. The southerner stopped abruptly, staring at Buck as he caught his breath.
Buck strode over to him. “Ezra? You okay?” he asked, fingering a small cut on Ezra’s cheek.
Vin snorted and went over to sit on a log the others had dragged over to the fire. “He’s fine. That he got while racin’ through the trees at top speed.” He leaned forward taking deep breaths. “Man, I ain’t run so hard since we chased that gun runner, Julio whatisname through the city park. Ya remember?”
Nathan, JD and Chris chuckled. That had been quite an obstacle course considering it was the weekend of July fourth and the park was full of picnickers.
Ezra and Buck seemed oblivious to the conversation. Ezra’s hand clutched Buck’s shoulder, their foreheads rested against each other, and the taller ladies man had his hand at the back of Ezra’s neck.
“Leave ‘em alone, guys,” Blair said. “This is their first chance to cement their bond in person. Let’s see if this…” he waved his hand at the creature on the spit, “is ready to eat.”
The others settled in to try the food, finding seats on the log or the ground around the fire.
“What happened, Vin?” Chris asked.
“We ran into Aida and Arden. They were waiting for us. She challenged Ez to a fight with quarterstaffs. I’m not real sure what happened, Ez was starting to get the upper hand and suddenly he couldn’t seem to hold off her attacks. Then, just as quick, Ez recovered and took Aida down.” Vin frowned. “They both looked surprised that Ezra was able to. Ezra accused them of cheating.”
“They were cheating,” Ezra said as he and Buck joined the others by the fire. “Somehow Arden was… confusing me, distorting my senses. I… called to Buck and he helped me get free of Arden’s web.”
Buck nodded. “I went into the jungle and found Ezra’s cougar caught in a net, floundering. I cut him free.” He shrugged. “I didn’t see Ez, didn’t talk to him, so I never knew exactly what happened.”
Sheila leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “You think the other pairs might have been waiting to ambush me and Jim?”
Ezra’s eyebrows rose. “It’s possible. By changing your paths, heading here, instead of straight to your Guide’s locations, you probably threw them off. I was already heading more or less in this direction already trying to reach Buck.”
“What did they hope to accomplish?” Daniel asked.
“Well,” Vin drawled, “whatever it was, they blew it. Ezra won, Aida conceded the fact.”
“Yes,” Ezra agreed. “And I’m fairly certain they saw me and Buck as our weakest link. They didn’t expect our bond,” he said with a shy smile aimed at Buck.
Buck chuckled. “We never have done things the way others expect, why start now?”
“So now what?” Jack asked. “We need a plan and we still aren’t sure what’s really going on.”
“I think we can take a pretty good guess, Jack,” Blair replied. “Incacha told me and Jim that the Valthorians have fallen from the way of the Sentinel. We know Aida challenged Ezra and used less than ethical means to try and win. It seems to me that they’re putting too much emphasis on the number of Sentinels they have and how strong they are. Even the Sentinels themselves seem to be less worried about protecting the tribe than they are with winning.”
“Incacha said we were brought here to show them back to the path,” Jim added. “I’d say we’ll probably meet some other challenge either on the way back or at the village. We need to win and then we will have the influence needed to reeducate the Valthorians.”
“We do have a non-interference policy,” Daniel said unconvincingly as he shot Jack a sheepish look. “We aren’t supposed to mess with the social/political structure of any of the planets we visit.”
“You won’t be,” Jim said.
Jack snorted. “Right.”
“This isn’t a military matter, Jack,” Blair advised.
“Guys,” Buck interrupted. “I think we should focus on a plan to get Josiah, Mike and Carl. We can worry about overthrowing the government later.”
Several of the others laughed and they all spent a few quiet moments eating.
Daniel pushed his glasses up and sighed. “I don’t know that we have any other choice than to beat them at their own game. From what Ezra and Vin told us, they will honor a legitimate win, even if they did try to cheat. If we win this challenge, they should let the others go.”
“So what?” JD asked. “We just head back and meet them on their terms?”
Nobody had a reply.
Ezra dusted something off his sleeve and cleared his throat. “I believe, gentlemen, and lady, that a little subterfuge is in order.”
Vin grinned. “What’ve ya got in mind, Ezra?”
Jim held up his hand, motioning for everyone to stop. They had decided to take the most direct route back to the village. From what he could hear, it sounded as if the entire village was waiting for them. He turned. “Sounds like we have a welcoming committee. You all ready?”
Nods and soft verbal affirmatives were given. As agreed, Jack took the lead to show that he was the one in charge. The Sentinels and their Guides spread out amongst the group. Jim and Blair behind Jack, Sheila and Peter toward the middle and Ezra and Buck at the back as rear guard. There was no mistaking the aura of confidence coming off the entire party.
They exited the forest that surrounded the village and walked toward the Magister who waited with his three SG pairs beside the nearest building.
Jack brought the group to a halt about ten feet from the Magister. He stared at the man until he began to fidget.
Magister Cornelius cleared his throat. “Custos Aida has informed us that one of your Custos has beaten her in fair challenge.”
“Not so fair, Magister,” Jack scowled. “Your Tutor, Arden cheated.”
“Be careful of your accusations, Colonel,” Cornelius warned.
Jack glared. “Arden used his abilities to try and confuse my Custos’ senses when he knew Ezra didn’t have the assistance of his own Tutor. In my book, that’s taking unfair advantage, or in other words, cheating.”
Cornelius glanced at Aida, who bowed her head. “Well, your Custos won never-the-less. We acknowledge that. Now you just have two more challenges to meet.”
Jack shook his head. “No. Not until you tell us exactly what the stakes are and what these ‘challenges’ will entail.”
The Magister’s eyes narrowed. “You are in no position to request anything. You are out numbered.”
Bows and arrows and spears appeared suddenly, all pointed at the group.
Jack crossed his arms and settled into a relaxed posture with a confident sneer on his face. “You fellas seem to have misjudged our abilities once already, you gonna be stupid enough to do so again?”
“Explain,” Aida said taking a step forward. “How did your Tutor help his Custos? How could he possibly have known he was in trouble? They weren’t even Pectus Iugum when we separated you last night. How did they join across such a distance?”
Jack’s sneer widened to a grin. “That’s something you will only find out if we choose to share.” He grew serious again. “I will warn you, our pairs are strong. All of our Custos and Tutors are very powerful. If we do not return, the others will come through the Stargate and your three pairs will do you little good.”
The Magister’s eyes widened in surprise. “You have more? More than three pairs in your village?”
Jack smiled. “Magister, we don’t come from a small village. Our community is our entire world and we have hundreds of Sentinel/Guide pairs. These three,” he waved at the pairs behind him, “are simply the three that were available to come, not even our strongest,” he finished with a dismissive shrug.
Aida whispered something in the Magister’s ear and he swallowed hard.
“Would you give me a moment to confer?” he asked.
Jack shrugged. “Sure.”
The Valthorian turned and gathered his advisors, Jack and the others watched. Jim, Sheila and Ezra listened as well, covering their grins of satisfaction at what they heard.
Jim took a step closer to Jack and whispered, “They’re buying it, but we may still have to fight.”
Jack let one eyebrow rise in response. “All or just you and Sheila?” he asked Sentinel soft.
“All the pairs.”
Jack frowned, but wiped the emotions from his face as the Magister returned.
“We will forgo the individual challenges and only require the final group challenge,” he declared. “All six pairs will engage in combat. The Custos and Tutors may use whatever powers they have to subdue each other.”
“No tricks?” Jack asked. “If we win, you accept it and all of our people are free to leave?”
“And if we win,” Jack pressed, “what does that mean for you?”
The Magister looked down briefly. “It means that our village will submit to the will of your people.”
“And if we lose?” Jack growled.
“Your three pairs will remain here and your people will not retaliate.”
Jack stared at him for a long moment, then gave a terse nod. “Agreed. But we want to see our other men first.”
Cornelius nodded and waved a hand. Josiah, Mike and Carl were brought out.
“You guys okay?” Jack asked.
They all nodded.
“You?” Josiah asked.
“No one’s injured,” Chris answered with a grin.
“Keep it that way,” Josiah replied.
“When does this happen?” Jack asked the Magister.
“Now. Please come this way.” He led the way to a fenced off, grassy area. Chairs and benches lined the outside of the fence.
“Great,” Jack mumbled as the Valthorians sat, “a spectator sport.”
Jim snorted. “Don’t worry, Jack, I’m pretty sure they won’t be expecting this.”
“I hope you’re right.”
The six Sentinel/Guide pairs entered the enclosure and split up, the Valthorians on one side, the Earthlings on the other. They ignored the sounds of the crowd, eyeing each other for weaknesses.
“No weapons?” Jim asked.
“Only those you were born with,” Alanus said with a sneer as he approached Jim. He was the tallest of the Valthorians and equal in size to Ellison.
Aida squared off in front of Sheila while Darius moved to Ezra.
“I’m shocked, my dear,” Ezra said to Aida, “you don’t wish a rematch?”
Aida rolled her eyes.
Behind the Sentinels, the Guides watched. Or at least the Valthorian Guides watched. Blair gathered Peter and Buck and linked with them then went hunting.
The jungle surrounded them and nine spirit animals appeared. Jim’s jaguar, Ezra’s cougar and Sheila’s egret faced three unknown animals. Two that appeared to be canine-like and one avian. The three Guides’ animals were behind their Sentinels’.
Blair motioned for Peter and Buck to move. They all carried nets and were easily able to ensnare the Valthorian Guides who seemed not to even see their opponents. Three more nets were acquired and tossed over the Sentinels.
The jaguar, cougar and egret seemed to smile their approval and the jungle faded.
Blair blinked and saw that all six of the Valthorians were incapacitated, writhing on the ground as if caught in something. Jim, Sheila and Ezra hadn’t moved. The Earth Guides moved to stand next to their Sentinels.
“I believe we win,” Jim said, looking at Cornelius.
The Magister’s mouth opened and closed in disbelief. “What… what have you done to them?”
“We simply used our natural born abilities,” Blair said. “Something they would be able to do as well, if your people hadn’t strayed from the true path of the Sentinel.”
“Do you yield?” Jack asked.
Cornelius gulped and nodded. “We accept our defeat. Please, release them.”
Jack nodded and looked at Blair. The Shaman’s lips quirked as he hid his grin and nodded. A few moments later the Valthorians were climbing to their feet looking quite dismayed.
Cornelius moved to stand in front of Jack. He bowed his head. “We are yours to command, Colonel O’Neill.” All the Valthorians around them bowed their heads.
“Stop!” Jack commanded. “First of all, we don’t ‘conquer’ people, that’s not our way. All we want is to be free to leave through the Stargate and a chance at peaceful relations with your people.”
“But…” Cornelius started, confused. “You won the challenge.”
“Yeah,” Jack said. “And we hope you will see the advantage to being our friends versus our slaves.”
The Magister looked at his advisors, getting various signs of agreement. He turned back to Jack. “Perhaps we can talk?”
Jack leaned back in his chair and watched as multiple conversations went on around him. Once the Valthorians understood that they were still a free people, they’d opened up and been quite hospitable. The table before him still had way too much food on it and he was stuffed to the gills.
Daniel sat beside him but was completely focused on the man across the table, intent on their discussion. Down the way, Blair, Jim, Sheila and Peter were holding court with the Valthorian SG pairs, presumably swapping information.
Larabee and his men had withdrawn to one side and talked amongst themselves.
They would all be heading home tomorrow. Another team would be sent through to continue talks with the Valthorians. There was some discussion about getting Aida and Arden a pass to visit the SGF at some time in the future. Jack huffed to himself. He doubted that would go over very well with the brass.
Jack stood and stretched. He needed to move or he was going to fall asleep. A quick shake of his head at Daniel’s questioning look sent the younger man back into his conversation and Jack walked outside.
He looked up into the night sky and smiled. No matter what planet he was on, the stars still called to him.
“Not quite the same as on Earth,” Ellison said softly, joining Jack in his comfortable lean against the wall.
“Nope, but not all that different either,” Jack replied. Neither spoke for some time. Jack sighed. “Everything getting ironed out?”
“I think so,” Jim said. “They seem to know a few things that
we don’t and vice versa. Blair’s in hog heaven,” he said with a grin. “The
Valthorians were a bit skeptical about the spirit guide thing, but that changed
when Blair described their animal spirits.”
“Yeah, well, they knew he hadn’t had time seen any of the creatures, and one of them is extinct on this continent,” Jim shrugged. “They’re going to call a council and discuss what we’ve shared, then hopefully, if General Hammond can arrange it, we’ll have a sort of student exchange. If nothing else, maybe Sheila and Peter can come back and visit.”
“That would be easier,” Jack agreed. “I’ll talk to Hammond about it.”
Jim glanced at Jack and away again, but not before O’Neill saw his grin. “What?” he asked.
“I was just thinking…”
Jack waited then rolled his eyes. “Does it hurt?”
Jim snorted. “Blair really wants to spend some more time here, I was just wondering if the Valthorians would let me use one of those plants.”
Jack chuckled. “Could come in handy.”
He thought about all those times Daniel wanted just a few more minutes. “Maybe I could request a few to take back with us.”
“You think Larabee and his men would be interested in signing up?” Jack asked.
“I doubt it. You could ask, but they seem pretty happy where they are.”
“Oh? Speaking from experience?”
Jim grinned. “We tried to recruit JD. Kid’s a whiz with computers.”
“Ah. Oh well, it’s worth a shot.”
“I’m sure they’d be willing to help out on occasion.”
Jack nodded. “Denver is a bit closer if we need your particular brand of assistance fast.”
“True, although Standish is an undercover agent. They may not be able to drop things like we can.” Jim looked at Jack. “You ever get tired of it?” Jack frowned. “You know, the constant traveling, the unknown, saving the Earth?” he grinned.
Jack snorted. “That’s what R&R is for. A few days of fishing, beer, kicking back and watching a movie or two and I’m rarin’ to go.” He smiled knowingly at Jim. “You can’t tell me you don’t miss the excitement of being a cop.”
“Yeah, sometimes,” Jim admitted. “But it’s not like we never stretch those muscles, you know. We do help the PD out on occasion and… other agencies,” he added with a wry grin.
Jack laughed. “I’ll have to call you up every few months and ask you to go off world with us.”
Jim grinned. “That ought to keep my need for action and adventure satisfied. Blair’s too.”
“Good, then, it’s a deal. And when I need a break, I’ll head for Cascade. You’ve got some good fishing up around your place, right?”
“The best. And you’re welcome any time, Jack.”
Jim sighed. “Guess I better get back inside and make sure Junior doesn’t promise something we can’t back up.”
Jack chuckled. “Yeah, me too.”
They headed back inside.
“Hey, Jim!” Blair called out. “You’ve got to hear this…”
And at the same time, Daniel called, “Hey, Jack! You won’t believe…”
Jim and Jack shared an amused smile before splitting up and heading for their partner. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.
Feedback is always welcome. JudyL
*If you are interested in playing with Sentinel.com universe, feel free. I’d love to see the story and help you with any questions and link the story to my site as well. You can use any fandom, not just TS or M7. I do have plans for a few M7 only fics as well as a little something for an M7/SG1 fic.